The last couple of weeks I found myself entangled in a kind of Gordian Knot. I suddenly became aware of a tendency that had grown bigger and bigger on me over the last months to judge all kinds of developments either being right or wrong, good or bad, based on my assessment if they would contribute (good) to our human potential to collaborate or whether it would reduce collaborability (bad).
For those who have taken the time to read some off my stuff on collaborability it is obvious that almost everything can be seen from this perspective as much of what we do has to do with human collaboration in one way or an other…
Not only did I do so in my quest to unravel the mechanisms of collaborability but increasingly in my professional life. Especially the last one was hindering me as I found myself in discussions I did not want to have while behaving like a moralist. Which is annoying enough, but if the morals used as well as the mechanisms I was talking about are totally unfamiliar – not predictable – to the other(s) it becomes a real nuisance and hindrance. It felt as if I had totally lost my bearing.
Two (implicit) presumptions are bugging me:
- The greater the collaborative capital – in potential and accrued – the better; for this will create the most happiness / prosperity for the biggest amount of sensing creatures. (NB For the initiated this resembles almost literally John Stuart Mill’s core notion on utilitarianism.)
- It is a “law of nature” – a system of law that is determined by nature and so is universal – due to the inevitable tendency of the mechanisms at work and interacting to create ever increasing collaborability: “we will move from simple to complex, from simple collaboration to complex collaboration”.
Together these two presumptions formed a poisonous moralist mixture.
What had gone wrong?
I merely have been investigating the mechanisms at work that enable us to collaborate – and allowing us to cater for increased complexity and efficiency in our collaborations – and now suddenly I found myself taking a moral utilitarian position! What the hack!
Two things added to my almost physically inhibiting resentment and anxiety: (1) I truly think utilitarianism is a wrecked and unworkable principle of moral guidance, (2) on the outset of investigating collaborability I swore to myself to only look for the mechanisms and dynamics of collaborability and abstain from any moralism.
Obviously I had passed the self imposed red line!
Thinking it all over I came to the conclusion that I was victim of a “naturalistic fallacy”. Something many people endure as they get involved with their subject of study and mentally develop the notion that what “ought te be” is what “is”. This so called “is-ought problem” – as first articulated by David Hume – is about writers who make claims about what ought to be on the basis of statements about what is.
Why was it so important to solve this Gordian Knot I was confronted with?
I found myself stuck on my progress in investigating collaborability. I was not able to move forward anymore, I even had the impression i was regressing, for I started to get stuck in understanding the interaction of the mechanisms while they were technically/theoretically consistent but did not always align along the lines of being good or bad for collaborability based on the above presumptions.
The way a mechanism has its role in the (historic) development of our abilities and potential to collaborate is not equal to how it adds to some vague notion of happiness based on “increased collaborability”.
By moving my perspective from a technical bystander just looking at mechanisms at work I had become an active and propagating “collaborability believer”. As with all believes based on arbitrary rules on “good or bad” you have to start bending reality (either your perception or the other’s perception) as to make it fit to your grand and unifying theory.
Something many people do not always realize, let alone appreciate in this populist day and age, is that mankind with many of its smartest individuals has been pondering on a vast amount of subjects for many millennia already. We have been creating so much knowledge that a single individual will never be able to take notice of all that has already been though over (and over and over) and what we have been able to conclude. We have come so far that much of the knowledge now available is not apprehendable any more based on “intuition” or casual knowledge alone.
My Gordian knot was unravelled almost by accident.
Some will see causality but it was just coincidence: I was listening to a series of recorded lectures on “Ethics and Evolution” by prof Herman Philipse. He was handing the solution on a silver platter to me just by going over various philosophers and how they dealt with ethics in relation to evolution. By listening to his introduction on various philosophers and other scientists on the development of ethics and evolution and the comments they made on each others work I suddenly realized, by seeing the analogy, that I made the same mistake others did. Prof Philipse explained the “is-ought problem” and BINGO!
Prof Philipse must have spend many hours studying ethics. He has the gift of creating transparent abstracts of all this knowledge and took the time to set up a very eloquent lecture in which he elaborated on various philosophers and their take at ethics in relation to evolution. Just for €8 and the time spend commuting to listen to them (8 * 60 minutes, in my case times 2 to get the message…) you, if you speak Dutch, can absorb a part of the wealth of knowledge he has accumulated. Incredible value… but this is just one of zillions of subjects out there and only scratching the surface. (NB Our means to share knowledge is one of our controllability mechanisms, the resource of available knowledge is part of collaborability.)
To be honest, I could have known earlier, and even cheaper.
Today when I told my wife my realizations based on the analogy with the issues discussed in the lectures by prof Philipse she (as a trained philosopher) reminded me about her suggestion I had fallen victim to the “is – ought problem” already weeks ago. Yes my dear, you were right but I did not understand the meaning of it at the time!
„How many couples will discuss “is – ought problems” over the family dishes in the kitchen?” She asked me.