Friday, October 27, 2017

Social Engineering

Our readings in Environmental Philosophy this week were largely examples in which the author proposes a plan for how to save the planet. All of the plans under consideration seem to follow the same two-step approach.

Step 1: Identify a model set of beliefs and sentiments.

Step 2: Make them universal

These views are common enough. More precisely, the author thinks we all need to value something (e.g., nature) a particular way way and, once we all adopt this particular attitude or point of view.

Another way of describing these sets of proposals is as social engineering projects. The author proposes re-engineering society, creating a type of person in a type of culture that the author suggests will produce or realize some sort of ideal (or at least significantly better) state. The suggestions that we are considering here are particularly concerned with engineering a new relationship between humans and nature. This seems to require also engineering new relationships between and among humans.

Social engineering has certain similarities with geoengineering. The geoengineer wishes to deal with environmental problems such as climate change by rebuilding the physical world. An example of a geoengineering project is to deal with climate change by creating some type of solar shade that blocks or reflects back some of the solar radiation reaching the surface of the earth, rather than converting that energy into heat. Social engineering seeks to produce less global warming by re-engineering humans (and, with them, human society) so that we produce less climate change.

By means of illustration, note that the following two policies also aim to change behavior. However, they do not seek to re-engineer humans.

A "carbon tax" would seek to cause humans to behave in ways that produce fewer greenhouse gasses. However, it does so by recognizing the fact that humans have they are tend to look at the personal costs of performing an activity in determining whether to engage in that activity. By increasing the cost of engaging in activities that produce greenhouse gasses, a carbon tax seeks to provide people with an incentive to consider other non-greenhouse-gas producing alternatives.

Also, investing in new technology such as more efficient solar power systems is not a social engineering project. Neither is it a geoengineering project. It is simply the opposite of a carbon tax. Where a carbon tax makes greenhouse-gas-generating activities more expensive, subsidies and investments in solar power aim to make non-greenhouse-gas-generating activities less expensive (and, thereby, more attractive).

Social engineering, in contrast, aims to change people - to change their values and dispositions of behavior.

Unfortunately, social engineering projects face a dilemma. They seem to be limited to two possible futures.

Possible Future 1: Only a very small fraction of the people adopt them. There are countless social engineering suggestions in the market of ideas, and different systems appeal to different people. While the proponents of any particular social engineering ideal speak of the global benefits we would harvest if everybody adopted this ideal of beliefs and sentiments, it is not realistic to expect that people will actually adopt any one of the countless competing ideals of beliefs and sentiments.

Possible Future 2: Hope for a Constantine. The only times in human history in which large populations have made a unified cultural shift of this magnitude has been when a powerful leader has commanded the shift. The paradigm example is when the Roman emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the official religion on the Roman Empire. In more general terms, an individual embraces one of these social engineering projects, makes himself a virtual dictator over a large population, and then tries to impose this social engineering project on that population. Examples of this kind of change include Lenin's attempt to form a communist Soviet Union and Mao Tso Tung's "Great Leap Forward" in China. The results have been less than ideal. One of the significant problems is that people, on their own, tend to adopt a number of different and competing projects, and the Constantine figure needs to force them to adopt his favorite.

Those who oppose geoengineering on the basis of the possibility that they could produce a large disaster should, given human history, be just as suspicious of attempts at social engineering.

This is not to say that it is impossible to argue for some type of global standard.

To illustrate the possibility, I would like to suggest imagining a community made up of people who have only one concern - an aversion to their own individual pain. Let us also imagine that these creatures can also adopt new concerns if they are praised for actions consistent with that concern and condemned for actions inconsistent with that concern. Consequently, if these people are praised for actions that tend to avoid causing pain to others, and condemned for actions that tend to cause pain to others, this will cause them to create an aversion to causing pain to others. This aversion becomes an end in itself. That is to say, people come to avoid causing pain to others "because I do not want to" and not because it serves some other end.

In this society we can see that people generally have a reason to use praise and condemnation to promote a universal aversion to causing pain to others. The motivation behind this project rests with each individual's aversion to personal pain, giving them a reason to cause in others an aversion to causing pain. This, given the facts of the case, give them reason to praise and condemn behavior accordingly.

By means of this method, we can argue that we have reason to promote such things as aversions to lying, breaking promises, failing to repay debts, assaults, taking property without consent, rape, and murder. The case needs to be made whether these authors can defend their own projects using the same type of argument. They do not seem to make many steps in that direction.

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