Friday, 4 November 2011

Community in Hard Times

I attended the Edith Kahn Memorial Lecture on Monday given by Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive of NESTA. It was described, rightly, by the chair for the evening as something of a tour de force so it is with some trepidation that one ventures to comment. In fact what follows is less about the lecture itself and rather more about the balance between some of the very positive opportunities it suggested and the effects of the wider socio-economic climate. 

The full text can be read on the following link:

The gist is that, despite the pressures of the current economic and social situation, new social networks can be developed which will increase giving - whether in cash or in kind - to the community and that choice architectures can be developed which will facilitate and reinforce the operation of our innate instinct for reciprocity ('do as you would be done by').

There is a lot to agree with in this and I was particularly struck by the point that simply being asked and being recognised are powerful incentives to do good things. It makes us feel good about ourselves.

Yet there are several things that seemed less certain.

The notion of choice architectures is one that plays out in a good deal of current debate about behaviour (I for one very much welcomed the view in the lecture that in practice we know very little indeed for sure about what actually drives behaviour). The RSA Social Brain project suggested 'steer' as an alternative to the 'nudge' (much beloved by some in the current Government) since context is so important in influencing what might otherwise be seen as automatic behaviour. So the notion behind a steer is that it is possible to provide citizens with insights that allow the individual to be better able to shape their own actions (as opposed to a nudge which purports to press buttons which light up hard wired short cuts). Choice architecture would push that rather further by maintaining pressure over time to respond.

The lecture posited the choice that we each make between the acquisitive and the compassionate aspects of our nature. This is similar to the way that Stephen Pinker has suggested that our 'better angels' have to a considerable extent had success in combating our demons with a significant and ongoing reduction in violence. The Pinker argument reflects a welcome emphasis on the Enlightenment idea that rational agents value their own well being and do not want to be harmed and that logically it is impossible on that basis to see it as acceptable to cause harm to others. This universality is then further supported through laws and institutions. In short, the wider socio-cultural circumstances have both led to and reinforced the change. Pinker identifies a fundamental shift to a less violent world but he accepts, in theory at least, that a socio-cultural crisis could reverse or significantly affect it.

Back to Monday's lecture .... the importance of solidarity came up towards the end of the discussion following several points about altruism (in this context I think it is better to think of universal benevolence which incorporates respect for the self determination of everyone including oneself and the wish to defend the right of others accordingly - a classic Enlightenment idea building on both autonomy and respect for individual dignity). Solidarity is an expression of reciprocity at its best and works in a well functioning society by virtue of a sense of respect for each other's place in the world. The possessive individualism which has been dominant in recent decades is deeply antagonistic to such notions.

This is important because the evidence - cited in the lecture and highly plausible to my mind - is that people who feel useful are more likely to volunteer and otherwise contribute than those who do not. In an economic climate in which many more people are feeling far from useful and indeed unwanted and unrecognised it is less clear that choice architecture rather than more fundamental change in a very unequal society is going to be sufficient to unleash reciprocal behaviour on their part. 

Even so, that does, of course, still leave large numbers of people who feel more valued and more likely to be open to being stimulated to give. One aspect of the lecture which was given more prominence in the delivery than in the written text was about the initiatives launched recently by some of the most wealthy to give away a significant proportion of their wealth. So far, so laudable. But that also rather presupposes that gross inequality now is worth some jam tomorrow. It also points up the fundamental problem with philanthropy: the philanthropist (generally and of course understandably) decides how their money is to be used which may bear little relation to where the real need lies

A very sour interpretation of some of the possibilities here are that we end up with increasingly invasive attempts to secure giving and a greater dependence on it both at the level of large scale philanthropy and small scale activity rather than democratically mediated choice and solidarity with others that comes from a feeling of mutual respect in a society which itself embodies greater reciprocity at a systemic level.

But, as I say, that's a very sour interpretation.

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