Monday, June 19, 2017

Drumming and Normativity

Perhaps the first sound we ever hear is our mother's heartbeat, and the last thing we hear may be our own.  The heartbeat's tempo, regularity, and  its steady repetition is what sets the pace for all of the many things that we do in our lives.  That beat becomes slow and steady when we fall asleep, but in times of stress the heart beats faster to facilitate the incredible bursts of energy that may be required to get us out of danger.

Analogous to  the way that the heart pumps blood to the muscles and makes action possible, we can say that the drum beat drives the music forward.  The softer, the quieter the drums, the more laid back the music.  The louder and more insistent the drums the higher the energy  becomes.   The drums and percussion are the instruments most felt by the entire body.  We instinctively move to the beat of a drum, we can't help it.     

But the heart, together with all the other organs in the body, is a team player.  So too, the drums.  In drumming, control is everything.  As a drummer I have the power to command and overwhelm the entire band, but, if I exercise that power and drown them out I become persona non grata.

If I were a chimpanzee like Jane Goodall’s “Mike”,  who became the alpha dominant by capitalizing on the noise and confusion caused by his clanging and banging empty fifty gallon oil drums together, then I could dominate all the apes around me with my awesome drum set.  But humans usually don’t tolerate that kind of domination.  I would get absolutely nowhere with any band I can think of, unless I exercised restraint, and only quickened the tempo or raised the volume when the composer, conductor, or the other musicians agreed that it was appropriate.

There is something about percussion that mirrors normativity itself.  The huge Silverback Gorilla who beats his chest, the alpha male chimpanzee who slams a tree branch against the ground - these close relatives of ours maintain their absolute dominance by bluffing with loud percussive sounds that signal their power and ambition without the necessity of having to fight it out.

We can reproduce a similar kind of compulsion and power with percussion instruments.  The thunder of Tympanies, the deep and explosive sound of  Gongs, the clarity and sustaining sound of a huge Bell - they all have the power to break us out of our trajectories, to refocus our attention, to summon us.

Humans, unlike the apes and other animals, work together through agreement and cooperation and resist overt domination.  This is reflected in music, especially in the relation between the percussion section and the rest of the band.  The drummer sets the pace, but he’s got to be in sync with the other players.  The drumbeat drives the music forward, but the drummer has to fit-in with everybody else, constraining his volume, keeping the tempo steady, but continually facilitating and reflecting the energy level of the other musicians at the same time.  

Birds have beautiful, but mostly solitary songs, wolves howl together, elephants trumpet, but animals never achieve a cumulative  body of knowledge and culture the way humans do.  I believe that the key to this difference is in normativity,  our collective adherence to  rules.

 Music is a collective human phenomenon. It’s possible to play music by yourself, but it really requires a collectivity to get it off the ground - to compose music, to build up a repertoire of songs, to form styles and traditions,  to produce musical instruments, to train musicians, to build  audiences and to make  musical performance possible.

Music itself, like all other human pursuits, is rule-governed.  It is the rules of music, the scales, harmonies, time signatures, tempos, and controlled dynamics that allow for such creativity and cooperation.  But wait, there’s more!   There is another way that music reflects human life, and is the reason why music is so emotionally appealing.  

Music reflects the ceaseless changing activity that comprises life. Think of what a Beethoven Symphony and ongoing life have in common.   Things happen, events unfold, sometimes slowly, other times quickly;  there are different themes that are introduced by different individuals;  some of these themes drop out, but some get stronger as more people join in.  Things happen, and different things coalesce;  they can change dramatically, they can evolve in expected or unexpected ways;  themes that had dropped out previously can reappear and join in with the chorus. The music can build and build, creating a tension and then release as the musical phrasing reaches a climax and frames an ending.

Not all music is as complex as a Beethoven symphony, but it is easy to see how tempos, patterns,  changes, progressions, transformations, and repetitions in music can evoke our experience of everyday life.  Music may be rule-governed, but it’s largely the way that music moves our bodies and interacts with and mirrors our feelings that forms the basis of its appeal.

Getting back to drumming, there’s a strong connection between certain time signatures such as 2/4 and walking.  Left right, left right, maps onto one two, one two,  which is why drumming is so prominent in marches.  When two people walk together they  often walk in unison.  It’s often done unconsciously, in fact it is a neurological phenomenon called “entrainment”.   This can be seen in a more deliberate fashion, in military marches, and it is definitely facilitated by drumming. Entrainment can have a powerful emotional effect on us, partly because when it is happening we perceive the group acting as a single organism.  

Drumming can also induce trance, sometimes because of the monotony of some repetitive beats and sometimes because, when one hears two complex beats simultaneously, one can either hear the two beats in combination, which is the usual way, or, more interestingly,  one’s focus can be suspended between the two beats, unable to choose one over the other -  at which point one enters a trance. How do I know this?  Because I have inadvertantly put myself into a trance practicing drumming exercises.

Note the paradoxical consequence that drumming can either induce entrainment and a powerful sense of unity or, alternately, the disassociation of trance.  My sense is that both these phenomena have to do with the connection of drumming with normativity.  To begin with, the stark simplicity of drumming is a lot like the binary opposition in normative concepts such as good/bad and right/wrong.  

The simplicity of drumming, it’s sharp definition and repetitiveness, frames the music into a regular series of parts which we call “the beat”, each with a brief rise in tension, then a climax and dissipation.  This framework repeats itself over and over throughout many songs.

I want to say that normativity frames all human social activity, in the sense that in any common activity we feel compelled to act in certain ways, independently of our particular desires.  The Contemporary Philosopher John Searle refers to this as the fact that only humans have “desire-independent reasons.”   

We keep our promises, fulfill our obligations, and do our duty, basically because we live in society and we want to keep living in society. There is something compelling when we feel an “ought”, that we feel we ought to do something, or when we see a wrong, and feel strongly that it should be publicized and  punished. Immanuel Kant, the great philosopher of the enlightenment brought out the specifically universal quality of morality in his concept of “the categorical imperative,”  that is, that moral rules apply to everyone,  that we cannot absent ourselves from this kind of rule without being excluded from society.  This also shows that contrary to Utilitarianism, morality is irreducibly  social and cannot consist of simply adding up individual people’s needs and preferences.

   Because Kant wanted to make human reason autonomous and base everything on this autonomy he excluded emotion from his system.  That was an unfortunate mistake, because it reflects a basic misunderstanding of the nature of normativity.

Kant’s autonomy turns out to be a mirage because reason by itself has no compulsion whatsoever.  It needs emotion to supply a sense of direction, an ought.  But, of course, any emotion is caught up in some immediate and particular circumstance.  We are angry or sad about a particular situation.  How can morality make a claim to being universal if it has to involve emotions that are about particular situations?  The answer lies in the way that collective commitment is necessary for morality to get off the ground.

One thing that is absent from both Kant and the Utilitarians is the importance of enforcement.  But, the 17 Century British philosopher Hobbes saw it.  In his great work Leviathan, Hobbes stated:  “Covenants, without the Sword, are but Words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.”

Part of normativity, the part which Kant emphasized,  is its universal inclusion - everybody commits to moral rules and no-one is excluded unless everyone agrees that they should be. That universality is important, but it is only half the story.  Besides our collective commitment to follow the moral rules the moral force also resides in our collective commitment to enforce the rules, with the  possibility of different degrees of exclusion, with the ultimate degree being execution.

The categorical imperative is really a social commitment to hold to and enforce  universal standards of conduct.  By this commitment we have replaced sheer animal dominance with morality and the rule of law.  I am reminded of this every time I play the drums in a band.  Each band member, by committing  to play in this particular band, constrains his or her playing to be in sync with the rest of the band.  This is  how music is kept alive, how it is created and re-created.  If any other group of animals could collectively recreate a piece of music, it would be strong evidence of rule-governance - of normativity in another species.  

Monday, April 24, 2017

Prologue to "The Normative System"

The Universe is the first and oldest system.  All other systems are contained within it and subject to its  universal framework, bound by the forces of gravity and electromagnetic energy.

What are Systems?  Let’s call them: “ways of doing things.”

 At the end of the seventeenth Century Isaac Newton showed, in his derivation of the laws of motion, that gravitational force impacts the motion of all physical objects.

At the beginning of the twentieth Century Albert Einstein, in his theories of Special and General Relativity, showed how the dual forces of electromagnetic energy and gravity determine the very geometry of space and time.

The force of gravity defines the boundary of the Universe.    Outside that boundary there is no matter, there are no lines of force, no geometrical space, no locations, no energy, no movement, and no development.  There is no outside. Everything is inside. Everything is either a system or a part of a system.

All systems do things.  Doing things takes energy, so all systems use energy.  There is a fixed amount of energy in the Universe.  According to the first law of thermodynamics, energy can neither be created nor destroyed.  

All systems use energy to do things and in so doing they make that energy less available to other systems.  This is the second law of thermodynamics.  Once energy has been utilized it cannot be re-utilized to the same degree.  Each time it is used it becomes degraded.  For example, in a living-system plants extract energy from the sun, and animals extract the chemical energy from eating plants, or from eating other animals.  Animals have to work physically harder to get the same amount of energy that plants can get just by staying in one place and soaking up the sun. That is the second law of thermodynamics at work.

All systems develop and change over time.  All systems are born, they do things, and then they die, and stop doing things.  This is obviously true of living organisms, but it is also true of  our solar system and the Universe, but on vastly larger time-scales.  

Systems form a natural hierarchy.  All systems are physical;  living systems are purposive physical systems;  Human systems are normative purposive physical systems.

I have divided systems into three nested categories:  All systems are physical systems, subject to the fundamental forces of the Universe.  Living systems are purposive physical systems.  Human systems are normative, purposive physical systems.

All systems are physical, that is, they exist within the Universe.  There is no outside.  What we refer to as “spiritual” is a human system of perception that relies on our culture and imagination and is therefore based on physical occurrences.

Living systems are purposive physical systems - they maintain and replicate themselves.  A flame resembles a living system because it gives off heat and changes it shape. A flame just goes out when it runs out of fuel. The flame is a partially self-maintaining physical system but it does not act from purpose.  In contrast,  a  living system will go look for more food before it runs out of energy.

What makes human systems different from other living systems?  Humans have rules that they collectively agree to.  These rules create a social reality that only exists because of collective human acceptance.  I call this creation of social reality Normativity.

The fundamental fact about normativity is that it is an artificial creation of a boundary.  One between good and evil, right and wrong, truth and ignorance, beauty and ugliness, and, between meeting or not meeting countless standards of behaviour.   The boundary is not there in reality like the shoreline.  It is one that is created by the agreement of a group of human beings. In order to create this boundary humans must be able to agree on a difference, and actively maintain that difference by including some behaviours and excluding others.

Normativity is a system that frames all human social activity.   The first humans began the human experiment when they agreed to live under a moral system.   Just as the Universe creates the structure of physical reality through its own gravitational and electromagnetic forces, by drawing a line between good and evil our Homo Erectus ancestors created the basis for all succeeding human systems, systems that eventually led to language and the myriad of cultural forms that we participate in today.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Human System

I have an ongoing joke with my wife Candace about my “system”.  It’s the way I like to heat the rooms of our little  house in the winter, and it involves turning in-room heaters on or off and opening or closing certain doors at various strategic times. Candace smiles at the arcaneness of my “system”.  Here, where I am  referring to my “system,”  I mean “a way of doing things” that I repeat each day when the outside environment calls for it.  

We can call the local weather a "system" in another way.  It is certainly a regular way of doing things, but, unlike my opening and closing doors,  it is not a goal-directed process.  It is a natural, self-organized, physical process that begins in the Pacific Ocean and sweeps across parts of North America, eventually dissipating over the Atlantic.  

There are many other regional weather systems around the Earth, and these together make up an evolving Global Climate System that is presently warming, but that  last wrapped most of the Northern Hemisphere in ice sixty thousand years ago and then melted away over tens of thousands of years. The global Climate System has profound effects on Earth’s surface geology, and on the evolution of living ecosystems.

Here’s how I see things:  The Universe is a system, and it’s  a hierarchy of systems all the way down to the finest detail.  Here on Earth we are a part of the Solar System, which is, of course, a ridiculously tiny part of the Universe.  But we are in an orbit around the Sun that has afforded the Earth a temperature range that has kept most of its water in a liquid state for four billion years, and this is what has made the continued existence of life possible.

We humans are part of the Earth’s biosphere, or Life-system.  
Living systems are different from non-living physical systems because living systems purposely maintain themselves and reproduce, spreading until they reach every corner of our planet.  Since life took over it has been the determining factor in furnishing Earth’s global atmosphere of oxygen, carbon-dioxide, and nitrogen, it has, through preserving the oceans, kept the Earth itself alive and volcanically active over billions of years.  How is this possible?

Living things are so coupled to the Earth that ecosystems have changed both the atmosphere and the climate over aeons.  Indeed, the presence of life itself is also part of the reason that life has had almost four billion years to evolve from bacteria to humans.  Our very oceans have existed for this long time because photosynthetic bacteria and green algae have produced enough oxygen that it has, in the form of high-altitude ozone,  shielded the oceans from too much of the Sun’s ultraviolet light.  Without ozone, over billions of years, the excess ultraviolet would have split enough water molecules to empty the Earth’s oceans.

If you find this hard to believe, consider Mars:  Mars does not have a Life System, and so far, we see no evidence of there ever being one.  There is no water there now, not even a puddle, and very little atmosphere, but they say, that there used to be water there...  Life cannot maintain itself without water;  Water cannot maintain itself without life.  

The Universe is systems all the way down.  Life is a planet-wide system.  Humans are biological organisms, which means that each individual human is a single biological system made of skin, bones, muscles, specialized organs and consciousness.  All biological organisms, including humans, are systems entirely made of cells, and each cell is a tiny system of molecules, membranes, and organelles, containing a genetic blueprint that can direct the building of any cell in the body from scratch.    
The very long, from our perspective, timeline of natural systems, such as the Earth’s global climate, demonstrates this rule of thumb:  the bigger the system,  the longer the time frame that’s involved in that system.  Human systems occupy a middle ground, between microscopic systems that grow and die in minutes or days, and planetary, star, and galaxy systems that grow and die in the space of billions of years.

But here's an exception to my rule - hydrogen atoms. In relation to humans they are submicroscopic systems. And as for age they are the oldest of all, the same age as the Universe. Our bodies are made up of molecular systems that contain a significant proportion of hydrogen atoms in relation to other elements. And wait - there's more! Just about every atom in the Universe is either Hydrogen or it was made from Hydrogen by nuclear reactions deep inside of countless stars. They make up the most plentiful thing in the Universe and they just happen to be the oldest systems around.

Each one of those tiny systems is the basic building block for all other systems. Each hydrogen atom is directly connected by origin to the birth of the Universe. This is what it means, in systems theory, to say that everything is connected.

Let's go back to my rule of thumb: The bigger the system the longer the time-frame. I keep saying that humans occupy the middle ground. The reason is because it took the universe seventeen billion years to produce us. We are young, we are infants compared to almost everything else but our own artefacts.  Some say humans evolved one half million years ago.  I mark the dividing line at two million years, with the first evidence of Homo Erectus.  

Homo Erectus is more than just an ape man.  Hominins - that’s our evolutionary precursors - start to look more like modern humans with Homo Erectus.  And in the time space of one and a half million years after Erectus appears in the fossil record, humans evolved bigger brains, longer childhoods - thus greater potential for learning - and at first the ability to shape and fashion specialized stone tools, then to control fire, to cook food, and to migrate over the rest of the Earth.

Should we claim for human systems the possibilities inherent in billions of years when we have only been around for scarce two million? Can we grow as big or bigger than the Earth’s life-system? I believe that these two  questions are really  the same question.

The fact that the human race is only two million years old, and it took  four billion years for the Earth’s Life-system to  reach that point, indicates nothing robust about humans.  We are delicate, precarious beings.  We couldn’t have evolved eight million years ago, let alone four billion years ago.  Imagine a world without flowers, which evolved 160 million years ago, or mammals, who celebrate their 250 millionth birthday today.   We are contained in the Earth’s biosphere and cannot escape it because we utterly depend on it for our survival.  

What is the human system, that we believe that it could surpass the Earth’s Life-system?  Is it our technological systems that would make this possible?  The evidence of the last three hundred years decisively contradicts this hope.  We are now in the midst of an Extinction -Event, something that happens about once every hundred million years.  Scientists call this latest event The Anthropocene age, for the unmistakable fact that humans are causing this latest collapse in biodiversity.  And we are causing it because our advanced technologies give us access to fossil fuels.

When it comes to systems, size matters.  Large systems can  utilize more energy and have more powerful effects.  The Pacific Ocean has a greater effect on the Earth’s weather patterns than the Atlantic Ocean.  The Earth’s plate tectonic system has an even  greater effect through its access to the tremendous heat in Earth’s Core and Mantle, changing the shape of the continents and the seas over a time frame of hundreds of millions of years.

The human system cannot grow beyond the bounds of Earth’s Life-system.  We cannot grow bigger than a system that we totally depend on  without fatally undermining ourselves in the process. In point of  fact, one could ask, how is it even possible to do this?  How can humans, who must derive their nourishment from the biosphere, surpass the biosphere?

The human system has tapped into The Earth’s tectonic system to extract energy from fossilised carbon.  We have grown in numbers and power as a result.  We are using up the energy that was stored in the Earth for hundreds of millions of years in the space of only three hundred years.

It is because we have tapped into an ancient form of accumulated energy from the Earth that we humans have been able to build  global systems in the past three hundred years: systems of transportation, economic systems, communication systems,  legal systems, administrative systems.    When we start decreasing our use of fossil fuels our systems will have to get smaller too.  With less access to energy what the system can do will be less.

The best scenario I see is to gradually stop the extraction of fossil carbon and replace it with a more decentralized system of renewables.  Society will then have to run on a smaller scale because we will lack the concentrated energy of fossil fuels.

Or we can opt out of a future for humanity altogether.   We can continue to burn more and more fossil fuels and allow our systems to grow bigger and bigger, until the entire  human system, in all its power and glory, smashes into the wall and breaks apart into countless shards.
  Global Warming is a sign that we have already grown too big and gone too far, but why not push the envelope that much further, and risk our very future for the sake of greater financial rewards and bigger and faster cars?  

Size matters.  The Earth cannot sustain a population size of six billion humans or larger.  We have reached this size by using fossil fuels.  This increased usage of energy  is changing the Earth’s Climate System.  Remember, this system usually works on a time scale of tens of thousands of years or more.  Human civilization is less than ten thousand years old.  The use and extraction of fossil fuels only started in earnest about three hundred years ago.  The Climate is warming in the space of one hundred years. Each new year brings  more and bigger  Floods, Forest Fires, Droughts, Hurricanes;  it is like something out of the Bible.

With energy comes power, and power allows us to do more things. Having more power means having a bigger effect on other systems.  Eventually the effect of this power will alter the behaviour of the larger system in a way that undermines our survival as a species, because we cannot escape being dependent on the larger system.  When the Global Climate System works against us our human systems can quickly become overwhelmed.  When we have grown big enough to effect this system, we cannot escape the effects of altering it.  These effects will not be benign.  

Humans have been living in ignorance of these larger systems for  two million  years, with differing consequences.  When the Climate cooled, as it did a hundred thousand years ago, human systems shrunk dramatically.  When the Climate has been favorable, as it has been for the last ten thousand years, humans have prospered and human systems have grown exponentially.

Each system has an optimum size.  Too small and it loses too much access to energy.  Too large, and it undermines its own existence.  A star that grows too large destroys itself in a massive supernova.  A Galaxy that is too large becomes full of black holes.   A living population of organisms that grows too large, runs out of food and drowns in its own waste.

Our Solar system is four and a half billion years old, roughly a quarter of the age of the Universe.  The Earth’s Life-system is somewhat younger, at roughly four billion years old.   

At approximately two million years old humans are a young species.  Many species have been around longer than us - most species of birds and insects, for instance. The human system is young.  But it has the distinction of being  the first system that can identify and understand  all  or almost all other systems.

 Some human systems are very young. The internet is less than half a century old.  Writing, as a communication system is about three thousand years old.  Printing, in the West, is about five hundred years old.   Language as a general system of communication could be anywhere from one hundred thousand years to five hundred thousand years old.

On a smaller scale,  human systems, such as particular languages, nations,  and cities, have lasted for hundreds to close to thousands of years, families last from several to thousands of generations.  Economic systems grow and die over the space of hundreds of years.  Some  institutions  like marriage, have lasted thousands of years.   All these human systems grow and die, change and evolve, competing and sharing with other human systems.
Most non-human systems that we can observe are far older than any human system.  The geographic features that we live in can be anywhere from tens of thousands to tens of millions of years old or more.  

In the area that I live in, Northwestern BC, the geography was mostly the result of an ice-cap that covered the northern half of North America for most of the last hundred thousand years.  And for the first eighty-five thousand of those years, there were no human footprints here.  

The scale of many natural systems dwarfs the scale of human systems.  The only place that this is not true is in our imaginative systems.  We imagine that we are important because that’s how imagination works.  It always starts with our own experiences and generalizes from that.  

Our imaginations are self-contained.  They have their own rules, they run by their own logic.  But most natural and human systems are open to the influence of the environment.

One knows a system by observing its behaviour and its boundaries. In order to better understand the Human System, we ought to know as much as possible about when it began and how it began.  Then we can better distinguish it from other  kinds of living systems.  

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Meaning of Hobbes's Sword - Part I

What makes human systems different from other living systems?  Humans alone have rules that are collectively agreed to.  These rules create a social reality that  can only be maintained by collective  human acceptance.  I call this social reality - Normativity.  

My passion is to seek to understand the nature and origin of normativity.  My intuition is that all forms of normativity, including language, originate from its most basic form - morality.

 The fundamental fact about normativity is that it is a drawing  of a boundary.  A line between good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsity, or beauty and ugliness.  This boundary is not already there in reality like the boundary between water and land;  It is one that is created by the agreement of a group of human beings. In order to sustain this boundary humans must be able to agree on a difference, and actively maintain that difference by including some behaviours and excluding others.

We accept certain behaviours, so  we include them. We reject other behaviours and so we exclude them.  We can look at every incidence of normativity in this way.  All uses of rules follow this pattern.  Some behaviours are included and other behaviours are excluded.  And those who keep doing excluded things become excluded themselves.

You can’t be a Scientist unless you follow the rules and methods of Science. You can’t do math if you don’t learn the rules.   You can’t play a game if you keep breaking the rules.  You can’t speak a language if you don’t use its rules.  You can’t be a member of society if you persist in wrongdoing.  

When we observe  wrongdoing we normally want to tell  others. And when we do, it helps us to maintain the distinction and continue to follow the rules ourselves.

On the other hand, if we see many people breaking the rules, we are much more likely to break the rules ourselves.  We lose the motivation to maintain the distinction because it is not being maintained by the rest of the group.

I anticipate that some who read this will disagree with me. Some may argue that morality is objective and does not depend on how many people in a group follow the rules.  Others may ask what do I mean, everyone commits to morality, and everyone participates in monitoring and sanctioning others?  Morality is imposed by tradition, or absolute authority, or - it’s just a pure fabrication, etc.  My argument, that it is a social contract, may not seem self-evident.  

But consider this example:  language is like morality because it is also a kind of normativity.  When we learn a language as infants, we commit to speaking the language.  When we make mistakes we are corrected by others.  When others make errors in grammar or pronunciation we correct them.  If I misspell “conscuusness” you will be irritated by my error and want to correct me.  I myself am having a hard time right now not going back and correcting that error.

I’m not about to go back and correct that error because I’m trying to make a point here.  Normativity is about commitment.  The reason that this is not self-evident is because we’ve already made the commitment a long time ago when we were growing up. Each one of us committed to speaking a language.  Each one of us committed to living in a moral system.  And if we didn’t do the latter, we are probably in jail now or headed for jail.  

Here’s the thing: language is a self-organized human system.  There is no one in charge of language.   There is no authority out there dictating grammatical rules and rules of pronunciation.

 There are seven billion speakers, who all follow rules of grammar and pronunciation, and our world is divided into many  groups of speakers  speaking variations on these rules,  due to variations in geography, cultures, and unique histories.   The rules of language change over time and location.  This change happens slowly, but it is inexorable, it cannot be stopped by any human authority.  

Now consider morality as a human system.  If morality  is a system like language, then it is a self-organized system also.  There is no one  in charge.  There is no guy with a sword outside making sure that we don’t do anything wrong.

We all  must commit to living in a moral system - we have a name for this commitment process:  it’s called,  “growing up.”  We think of ourselves and most others we know, as “good”.  We think of wrongdoers as “bad”.   We are all motivated to look for and correct wrongdoing and if it’s really serious wrongdoing,  to call in the cavalry.

This motivation is a kind of “force,”  the force that’s captured in the concept of “ought”, that is, what we ought or ought not to do.  We look out for wrongdoing because that’s what everyone ought to do.  It’s a more basic and powerful form of  the way that we look out for mistakes in grammar and pronunciation and insist on pointing them out to the people who commit them.

We can communicate because we all commit to following grammatical rules;  we can live together peacefully because we all commit to following moral rules;  but if enough people refused to commit to moral rules society would break down;  it’s as simple as that.

In the Seventeenth Century, in his great work, Leviathan,  The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes  concerns himself with the question: how come humans follow the rules?  People can make agreements, but how can these agreements hold together?  Hobbes reasoned, correctly, that rules are ultimately  backed by force.    “Covenants without a sword are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all.”  he writes in Leviathan,  demonstrating that he recognized that rule following cannot simply exist by reason alone.  

Hobbes also brought up an idea that had been thought of and then discarded by the ancient Greeks:  To be without rules would be as if humans were in a “state of nature”;  so humans, if they were able to,  would naturally come to some agreement about the rules in order to get themselves out of the “state of nature.”

But, and here’s the thing, the very key to the problem of origins - how would  people who don’t have any rules agree to having rules?  Hobbes's theory was that such a “covenant,” an agreement we call  a “social contract,”  was only possible with a “sword,”  i.e. someone with a monopoly of power to back the agreement.  In other words, Hobbes tries to solve the problem of how morality originated  by imagining that a  social contract would have to impose a political solution;  and because of the times of civil war that Hobbes lived in, he thought that the political solution should be an absolute monarchy.

Here’s where Hobbes got it right.   He realized that no social contract could  arise out of a state of nature without a realistic  threat of force.  You cannot depend on people’s good will unless you have morality in place already. In order to get around this dilemma  Hobbes argued, in effect,  that there needed to be a political solution to a moral problem.  

 But following the rules is a moral problem and it needs a moral solution.  Politics is a way of establishing authority, but morality is about establishing commitment. Morality comes from collective commitment.  Collective moral commitment, or, in other words - normativity - is ultimately  what makes human beings possible.

Living, as he did, in seventeenth century England,  Hobbes had only the sketchiest knowledge about the kinds of groups that the first humans lived in.    From what we observe of  nomadic hunting and gathering groups they are small, making up from thirty to one hundred people, they are usually made up of both related and unrelated nuclear families, they have very little in the way of political or social institutions other than the family and ethnicity.

We are told by anthropologists that nomadic hunting and gathering groups all share in common a collective intolerance of excessive egotism, boasting,  authoritarianism, and bullying.  And it would seem that  everyone within the group shares the same moral system.

 Why do we have feelings of guilt, shame, and embarrassment?   For one thing, all of these feelings help to temper our egotism.    These feelings also indicate our recognition and discomfort at our own faux pas.  Some people don’t have enough of these “social” feelings. They are  called psychopaths.  These people act without any  internal checks to wrongdoing, except fear of getting caught.

A good example of a psychopath is the present leader of the Philippines,  Dutarte.  You can watch him speak on   youtube videos.  Notice the sheer absence of guilt, shame, and embarrassment in this man’s speaking style, especially when he is talking about absolutely horrifying actions.  What some people mistakenly take to be rock solid confidence is actually pure psychopathy.  This man does not have a conscience.  

 Morality is necessarily  collective both in how  it involves shared perception and  shared obligations.   In the beginning morality must have been enforced by the group as a whole.  Does not morality give the group the power to punish and exclude any individual in the group?

From a “management design” perspective moral systems are designed to get rid of psychopaths, and discourage people from crossing the line into unconstrained egotism.  The theory that psychopaths have been mostly selected out the human gene pool, was first argued by Anthropologist, Christopher Boehm, in his book, Moral Origins.  

Morality is something that we share with everyone in our group, and it is something that we each internalize.  The perception of right and wrong is shared.  We commit ourselves to perceiving actions as either right or wrong just as  everyone else does, and we expect everyone else to feel the same way,  and that they too will avoid doing wrong. The group is collectively committed to detecting and punishing wrongdoing, and the worse the crime, the more people in the group are involved together in its detection and punishment.
By involving the commitment of the entire group, morality formed a system that, in part,  protected the group from outsiders, but more importantly, from wrongdoers within the group.   “Peace and Order” were the collective goals;  actions to detect and sanction wrongdoing were part of everyone’s responsibility.  The moral system worked to further these goals because everyone committed to following the rules and enforcing sanctions.  The collective commitment of the whole group to detect and punish any wrongdoing was, in effect, Hobbes’s sword.  It was the threat of physical violence, exclusion or assassination made good by the collective membership of the group.   In a group of thirty to one hundred people that was realizable and effective.  

We may not recognize this, or we may take this for granted today because we now live in huge and complex societies, where membership in groups is often porous and overlapping.  In the more complex industrial societies there is an intricate division of labour:  there are professional lawmakers, judges, policemen, gaolers, teachers, lawyers, religious leaders, opinion leaders, philosophers, and countless more specialized professions.

We no longer collectively  throw stones at wrongdoers.  But that doesn’t seem to stop any, or all of us, from continuing to perceive, judge, and share our judgements about right and wrong behaviour with those around us. These impulses to get involved in perceiving, judging, and sanctioning actions morally, hark back to our very origins.  

The Meaning of Hobbes's Sword - Part II


If morality requires clear boundaries, fair and equitable rules, and active participation of group members in monitoring and enforcement, it resembles in some ways the conditions that make for successful long-term management of a Common Pool Resource.  Is a moral system, in fact, equivalent to a CPR?

A common pool resource, sometimes called a CPR, is a resource such as a body of water,  irrigation channel,  fishery, alpine meadow, etc., which is held in common. Common Pool Resources are akin to Public Goods such as public roads, in that, if they are available, they are available to everyone.  The thing about CPRs that is different from public goods is that when one takes away from the pool, there is less in the pool.  With public goods this is not the case. Up to a certain point of mass congestion, if I drive on a road, I don’t make the road less available to others.  

But what about morality?  Having it benefits everyone,  but is morality a CPR?  Is there less of it, if more people benefit from it? At first glance It doesn’t seem to work that way at all.  But morality isn’t a resource that gets consumed, it is an institutional system that completely enframes society;  It can be seen as a kind of Social  Capital;  something that’s necessary for human society to get off the ground;  something that affords trust and cooperation and social stability.  But, morality, unlike physical capital, is a living system that can die if it isn’t maintained and nurtured.     

What morality has in common with CPRs is that people who break moral rules undermine the viability of morality, and the larger the proportion of rule-breakers, the more catastrophic it is for a moral system.  Just as with CPRs in order for it to work, it needs everybody to share in rule following, monitoring, and sanctioning any rule-breaking.  

Morality is a common pool resource.  Here’s why:  no human group exists without morality;  morality cannot get off the ground without  universal support within the group;  and once morality does get off the ground, it benefits everybody. All other normative systems are,  by the same argument,CPRs too, because rule following  exists in all human societies and rule following also requires universal support.  

I call morality a Common Pool Resource.   This is not the way Hobbes, the true originator of the concept of “Homo Economicus,” saw it, nor the Utilitarian Moral theorists who were influenced by his theories, nor the modern “game theorists”  who claim to derive morality from some form of  Darwinian natural selection. In fact, philosophers, evolutionary psychologists and behavioral economists have been looking for the origins of morality in all the wrong places - in individual actions, in individual reasons, or in simple aggregates of individuals.

Furthermore,most contemporary philosophers have no idea that an American Economist by the name of Elinor Ostrom received a Nobel Prize  for working out the conditions for the origin of morality.  (Nor for that matter, did the Swedish Nobel Prize Committee, because they awarded it to her for Economics, not Moral Philosophy.  Elinor Ostrom was an Institutional Economist who studied the management of Common Pool Resources.  She died in 2012.

I was reminded of this, while reading Does Altruism Exist by David Sloan Wilson. According to Wilson,   “Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 for showing that groups of people are capable of managing their own resources, but only if they possess certain design features.”

Up to the time of Ostrom’s research the dominant view of Common Pool Resources were that they could not be managed without  central government control, which, no surprise, is Hobbes’s solution,  or  through a Lockean system of private property rights, backed by government.  In contrast, collective property rights were thought to be inevitably subject to the “Tragedy of the Commons”  - meaning that there was too much individual incentive to overgraze, overfish, or overuse the common resource, inevitably leading to its tragic demise.
According to the dominant thinking of the day, only private ownership of the resource, if it were possible, gave individual owners the right incentives to conserve resources.  (This was, of course, contingent on the owner not deciding that the resource was worth more in cash value if it were sold off and then consumed, rather than conserved for future growth.)  

As Ostrom pointed out in her research, there are a number of  examples of pre-industrial cultures from around the world, maintaining and sustaining common pool resources for hundreds, or sometimes as much as a thousand years without relying on a central authority or the institution of private property.

    What is significant in Ostrom’s findings is that she found that all successfully managed common pool resources followed a certain pattern of collective agreement. These she has summarized into “eight design principles” in her book summarizing her career:  GoverningThe Commons.

For the purposes of this article, we need only list the first five of these.  
The other three have to do with the dynamics and difficulties of larger groups and with competing groups of stakeholders.  These seem less relevant to the situation that may have been present at the origin of moral systems, when technology was, literally, stone age, groups were smaller than one hundred people, and a surplus stock of resources was nonexistent, or at best, highly intermittent.  

I have taken my account from Ostrom’s book, Governing the Commons.  Here I have paraphrased Ostrom’s first five design principles for successfully managed common pool resources:

                         Successful Design Principles for CPRs

  1. Clear boundaries and a strong sense of group identity around utilizing the resource.  
  2. Good fitting rules that are fair and equitable and easy to enforce
  3. There is a workable collective choice mechanism for changing the rules.
  4. Group members all participate in monitoring  
  5. Sanctions for rule-breaking are consistently  applied but they are graduated.

According to Ostrom:  “The central question in this study is how a group of principles who are in an independent situation can organize and govern themselves to obtain continuing joint benefits when all face temptations to free-ride, shirk, or otherwise act opportunistically.”

In this paragraph Ostrom outlines the central question for collective choice problems;  but, more importantly for the purposes of this article, it is also the very foundation of any  moral system. In short, how could the first human group “obtain continuing joint benefits when all face temptations to free-ride, shirk, or otherwise act opportunistically.”

The traditional approach to this “central question” follows Hobbes’s analysis and posits an external enforcer to get the job done.  But Ostrom, having seen CPR’s in action successfully deal with this problem without centralized control, points out that:    “External coercion is at times a sleight-of-hand solution, because the theorist does not address what motivates the external enforcer to monitor behavior and impose sanctions.

 The difference in successful CPRs is that:  “....commitment and monitoring are strategically linked.”  If everyone agrees to follow the same rules, this reduces the costs of monitoring.  When the common resource owners participate in monitoring the behaviour of other owners, they strengthen their own commitment to follow the rules and they raise the costs of breaking the rules for others.

I began Part II by outlining a plausible list of the requirements for morality to get off the ground.  My purpose was not to justify these requirements as the basic and only requirements, but to demonstrate that a plausible   description of what a moral system does can be closely matched up to the first five of Elinor Ostrom’s eight design principles for successful CPRs.  

Let’s take a closer look at those design principles.  First, a group needs to draw a clear boundary between itself and other groups.  In other words, the people in the group need to have a strong group identity.  In North American Hockey, Vancouver Canucks fans will tell you that the Canucks are not anything like the Anaheim Ducks. - two totally different teams.  Sports teams and their fans have very strong identities. No doubt this strong sense of identity helps the teams perform better, and the fans support their teams better.  

Note also that there is a darker, negative side to strong group identity - it can lead to genocide, witch-burnings and lynchings - because part of what it means to have a strong group identity, is that, whenever you and your group feels threatened  you will have powerful reasons to differentiate from people who come from another place and look and act differently; and then it’s not much of a leap to channel your anxiety into scapegoating and persecuting those “outsiders.”  

Second, there must be good fitting rules that are fair and equitable.  Just for a minute, let’s bracket out Hobbes.  Replacing him now is the German Philosopher of the Enlightenment:  Immanuel Kant.   Remember his famous “Categorical Imperative?”  If not, it is only a keyboard click away nowadays:  
"Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law."

     or his “humanity formulation” of the Imperative:
   "Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end."

In these maxims, Kant was attempting to summarize the human moral system in  a single sentence that could conceivably guide all of our actions.  This is a heroic attempt but far too ambitious.   To put it in modern terms, from a “design perspective,” fair and equitable rules are rules that don’t privilege or prejudice  individuals or groups. We want rules to not impose unnecessary costs or burdens and we want rules not to selectively or disproportionately reward certain people.  

Rules that are perceived as fair and equitable are more likely to be followed than if they are perceived as unfair.  The collective owners of a CPR are more likely to commit to rules that they think will not unfairly burden them or unfairly reward others.  

Thirdly, there needs to be a workable collective choice mechanism in place if the rules need to be changed.  We now leave Kant and come right back to Hobbes.  Hobbes lived through the English Civil War.  For significant periods he was exiled  from England, and had to live on the Continent.
If the Protestants won they imposed their system on the Catholics.  But a Catholic on the throne was a counter-threat to reimpose Catholicism.  One does not have to be Hobbes to see that this could be a recurring legitimacy problem.  At the time, in seventeenth century Europe, outside of the Netherlands, the only solution appeared to be one state, one religion.  No one thought to look at the Ottoman Empire, which tolerated multiple Religions, (but only if they kept to their own enclaves.)   Because Europeans couldn’t see past Europe, the only way to legitimize a religion appeared to be either by Civil War or Coup D’Etat.  

This is to say that constructing a feasible procedure to allow everyone to agree to a change of rules helps immeasurably to preserve order and stability.  They could have avoided the bloodshed of the Thirty Years War if they had realized that.  

Fourthly, monitoring must be shared amongst all users of the CPR. If costs of monitoring are too high people won’t do it.  Then infractions increase and the pool gets emptied. In contrast,  If the rules make it easy to monitor, more people will do it and infractions are decreased.

Fifthly, sanctions must be administered for infractions, but on a sliding scale. A CPR or a moral system cannot be rigid, because environmental conditions and unforseen circumstances frequently come into play.  People may be breaking the rules out of desperation to keep themselves or their families from starving.  Punishments in this case, should be less severe.

We’re talking management design features here.   If the system is too soft, it gives no support, and allows rule-breaking to escalate.   If the system is too rigid it will not be flexible enough to deal with changes in circumstances. There has to be a backbone but there also has to be some “give.”

“.....commitment and monitoring are strategically linked.”  This is the key to why Hobbes is wrong and Elinor Olstrom is right.  CPRs require constant monitoring, the collective owners are able to commit to monitoring if the rules are fair and equitable; the whole system works well if there are procedures in place, such as consensus, or majority rule, for facilitating agreements about making or changing the rules when changing circumstances warrant. The commitment of the owners is also to a strong sense of identity with clear boundaries around the CPR.   The owners commit to following and monitoring rules, to sanctioning rule- breaking, and to a strong sense of group identity.  It is the continuing commitment of all the members that supports the whole system:  its boundaries, its rules and procedures, and its separation  of behaviours into included and excluded.  

In a small group of thirty to ninety people, everyone knew everyone else on sight; there was no anonymity as there is in our society. Monitoring is a very different ballgame in modern society because the number of people involved is so much greater and the complexity of the system is greater.  That’s why our moral systems appear to us to be far more complex, nuanced, and less visible.  Morality is internalized, but also spread out amongst different interlocking groups and professions within society.  A lot of work is done by the police and legal system, local and mass media, educational system, government legislators, mental health professions, clergy, etc.  There is nothing tidy about it.

Here is one famous critic of Social Contract Theory.  Notice how he hangs his whole argument on the supposed fact that rule following and following authority are both based on the same foundations.

What necessity, therefore, is there to found the duty of allegiance or obedience to magistrates on that of fidelity or a regard to promises, and to suppose, that it is the consent of each individual, which subjects him to government; when it appears, that both allegiance and fidelity stand precisely on the same foundation, and are both submitted to by mankind, on account of the apparent interests and necessities of human society?
David Hume   “Of The Original Contract”

Morality is not the same as Politics.  Unfortunately, most critics and adherents  of Social Contract Theory, simply repeat Hobbes’s mistake of imposing a political solution on a moral problem.  Allegiance, if it is not just the allegiance of subordinates to their dominant, is based on fidelity - the fidelity that each human has to the moral system itself.  Without a moral system to begin with, allegiance to a rule-governed political system would be impossible and we would find ourselves in the equivalent of De Waal’s Chimpanzee Politics, which is to say, where the only allegiance is to the Ape dominance hierarchy.

Of all forms of normativity, morality packs the most “punch.”  A lot of our most primitive and powerful emotions are driven by our moral concerns.  Compared to them, other forms of normativity can seem much weaker.  That is one of the reasons that I think that all forms of normativity come from an original moral system. Here is another reason:   commitment to a moral system is developmental and  occurs mostly in  childhood. When we reach a certain level of maturity we are considered to be true moral agents, and no longer wards.

The length of time it takes to be considered an adult, with all the responsibilities this entails, is much longer than the time it takes children to successfully speak a language.  Children master their first language by the time they are six years old, but it takes three times that age to be considered a legal adult in many societies.  

One of the major differences between humans and our closest primate relatives is our larger brains and longer childhoods.  We are far more behaviourally flexible than other animals and we have a significantly longer post-natal period of neuroplasticity.  The longer childhood gives us a tremendous capacity to learn and utilize our larger brains.  Developing a moral system early on in our evolution, could have made longer childhoods and bigger brains possible, and these in turn would have encouraged the continued use of the morality in a self-reinforcing positive feedback system.

Morality afforded social stability, and group cooperation.  This led to longer, safer, childhoods and more children growing up to be adults.  Higher ranking chimpanzees can kill the infants of lower ranking chimpanzees - in most human societies, this is not tolerated.  More children survive in human societies because of our greater ability to cooperate.  This ability to cooperate relies on morality to get off the ground.