CEPA eprint 2922

Society, ethics and constructivism

Gash H. (2011) Society, ethics and constructivism. In: Lasker G. E. & Hassard Frank R. (eds.) Strategic planning for the future. International Institute for Advanced Studies in Systems Research and Cybernetics, Tecumseh Ontario Canada: 1–5. Available at http://cepa.info/2922
Table of Contents
Matristic societies
A case study
What is it that distinguishes humans from primates?
This paper presents a constructivist account of the origins of cooperation in society based on Maturana’s biological theory of cognition. On this account we are invited to take responsibility for our thoughts and accept that differences in world view are opportunities for discussion under conditions of common interest. Such shared intentionality, basic to cooperation is proposed as the signal difference between humans and other primates. In the social domain such shared intentionality is basic to theories of social capital and the importance of human associations to the future of democracy.
Key words: Cooperation, biology of cognition, constructivism, ethics, shared intention.
In previous papers I have discussed ways people learn about stereotypes and prejudices. My concern has been to write about learning these features of experience in a way that is consistent with constructivist theories like those of Ernst von Glasersfeld and Humberto Maturana. I have taken this course as learning theories have had their own integrity and their own philosophical basis and their own connotations. In previous discussions on prejudice I have used Gregory Bateson’s classification of learning to try to see whether this constructivist view might provide insight into why prejudice is so prevalent and why it is so hard for societies to overcome the tensions that prejudice produces between people who are different. Bateson divided learning into different levels, moving from hard wired “level zero” to higher levels of increasing complexity. These higher levels proposed that what is learned becomes resistant to change as it becomes integrated with an individual’s identity (level two) that in turn is part of the individual’s social matrix (level three). This model provides a theoretical basis for the resistance of prejudice to change. Recent developments in comparative anthropology suggest that social competence may be what facilitated the evolution of humankind.
Matristic societies
Maturana’s (1997) comments about society arise in his conjectures about early human groups and how they lived together. Key features of such societies were the mutual interdependence of people with each other and nature. The peoples’ relationship to animals was similar to the relation between animals and plants, they ate what they needed. People only killed the animals they needed for food. They didn’t kill more than they needed. There was a particular type of harmony between people, animals and plants. It seems like the sort of society that may be met today on the Mongolian steppes far from cities and towns. The remaining small social groups there live in gurs, tend flocks, and have a tradition of welcoming people who are travelling into their homes. Visitors can stay until they are ready to leave. However, there must be a commonality of purpose or a shared intentionality that goes unspoken.
Maturana’s discussions on the origins of human societies are associated with his views on human relationships and in particular on relationships of mutual respect and interdependence. He described these early hunter gatherer societies as matristic. The word matristic was used to highlight the importance of love and interdependence and in addition to avoid the hierarchical connotations of the word matriarchial. There is a nostalgia, I think, in the way Maturana described these societies and the way he viewed the ways people related one to another.
One must presume that this account of human social harmony and of human generosity stems from a time when people were not in competition with each other for resources. I say this because we know that later accounts of Mongolian tribes mention feuds with other tribes (http://www.suite101.com/content/mongols-steppe-life-a65745). This invites the conjecture that where identity of purpose failed, then the consequences were lethal. Maturana suggests that it was when societies began to keep herds that this harmony between man and nature was broken. If people had herds they needed to protect “their flocks” from predators. In such a society relationships between people were also altered as some groups had flocks to meet their needs and others didn’t and so were in danger of starvation. So power and war emerged in societies and then hierarchy, leadership and associated values became important.
Acquisition was a key feature of these emerging more hierarchical patristic societies. Maturana (1997) deplores the ways we relate with each other in contemporary society in relations of domination, mistrust, dishonesty, greed, appropriation and manipulation.
These ideas relate closely to Putnam’s (2009) emphasis of the importance of human groups in the maintenance of the social fabric of a society. Putnam’s more recent work began with an important study of Italian politics called Making Democracy Work (1993). This showed that there was a strong relationship between confidence in the political process and the quality of civic life. That is, where civic life functioned well, the citizens had confidence in their political institutions, and conversely where civic life lacked so did commitment to the political process. The quality of civic life could be described in terms of civic engagement, political equality, the trust and tolerance of citizens towards each other, and the extent to which people associated with each other and entertained friends at home. One of Putnam’s original studies examined changes in Italian society, and he discovered that the variables he examined were particularly apt to describe changes in contemporary North American society. Putnam’s work shows an association between the decline in belief in US citizens in the American political system and the decline in human social activities, both in the community and in the home. Putnam’s work has shown that this decline in human associations, part of the way we live today, can be accounted for by changes in family structure, suburban sprawl and electronic entertainment. A key issue in Putnam’s work is the documentation of the importance of human groups to the maintenance of civic behaviour in society (http://www.infed.org/thinkers/putnam.htm).
A case study
Putman’s account as described above seems viable also within institutions. I worked for over 30 years in an institution primarily engaged in elementary teacher education. In 1975 when I joined the staff of about 75 mostly tenured faculty, there were no desk top computers, memos were paper ones and faculty meetings were frequent and participation in meetings was practically universal. Faculty met regularly for morning coffee and afternoon tea in the faculty room. Our discussions were varied and cross-disciplinary. Relations with the State Department of Education were reasonably good, for example, a recent pay deal had been negotiated (1973) for all tenured faculty at a union Annual General Meeting (Association of Professional Staff in Colleges of Education). Morale was high and faculty met regularly in social contexts to celebrate retirements and other important events in the academic calendar. A number of events led to a serious change in the social networks and the common sense of purpose in the institution over the following generation.
First, economic challenges in the 1980s worsened the relation with the State Department of Education. A new pay scale for faculty was sought in consequence of a major change in the academic programme from a two year certification course to a three year degree course. This was introduced via the Labour Court at the end of the 1970s and apparently considered too generous by the State Department of Education. The effect was that all further negotiations on salary were systematically referred to arbitration at the Labour Court by the State Department of Education. This tactic was not entirely successful as the College’s Union had the services of a General Secretary who excelled in such negotiations. However, the trust and common sense of purpose between the State and its Colleges was altered and became adversarial at the faculty level.
Second, an economic accountability model was applied to the functioning of universities and stage colleges. In this particular college although this model was not introduced immediately, the thinking behind it led to an increasing loss of faculty participation in decision making. Increasingly decisions were made by small groups of individuals with responsibility for various functions rather than by the faculty as a whole. Correspondingly other faculty found ways to avoid tasks which they had previously agreed to undertake when they discovered those tasks had been changed without their advice being sought. Of course other activities were substituted for the activities that were being avoided, but the common sense of purpose had evaporated and divisions emerged between different groups of faculty.
Finally, a promotional structure long sought by faculty through the union was introduced. This inevitably introduced competition between colleagues and created a new way to divide faculty from each other and from the administration. It may be difficult for faculty in long established hierarchical institutions to imagine life in an institution without promotion! There were difficulties, and of course very small numbers were in fact promoted to certain positions such as Head of Department or to positions of responsibility for areas of academic activity. However, without promotion it was possible to achieve in all sorts of ways in the cultural life of the country, or as researchers and authors, or as advisors to outside bodies. Such achievement was recognised as valuable in the social capital of the institution rather than in the salary. Promotion however when it arrived left others unpromoted, and introduced a sense of loss as well as of achievement and while it had been sought - left disappointment and bad feeling as it generated satisfaction in a few.
As I retired from the institution as a full time faculty member in 2010, the tradition of morning coffee and afternoon tea for academic faculty had ceased to function as a reliable meeting point. Meetings are arranged by email, the social events are poorly attended, many decisions are taken behind closed doors and faculty are informed of them at academic council. Attendance at council meetings meets the quota but is not as high as I believe it would be if the faculty owned the meeting. This is not due solely to faculty apathy, but also to a change in the cultural context of the work of institutions of this type which are affected by economic and other developments internationally. The struggle is to retain the sense that faculty are working together with a common aim of educating students and imparting a sense of purpose in the future of educational life of the country. It is hard to avoid the view that each departmental grouping is fighting for more time to do a better job for its own specific aims - with the consequence that other groupings will have less time. Indeed the struggle is to find a new harmony between faculty and a common sense of purpose when there is raw competition between individuals for pay related promotion. In such a competitive environment how does one facilitate a collaborative sense that faculty are working together with limited resources – a context where cooperation might work wonders and where competition creates victims?
What is it that distinguishes humans from primates?
In the previous sections I have described similarities in Humberto Maturana’s accounts of early human societies and in Robert Putnam’s account of contemporary social and political culture in the US. While I do not have data on changes in Irish or other European societies during the same time frame that Putman has provided for the US, my belief is that there have been similar changes in many countries. My case study provided an example of this type of thinking applied to one institution. An essential element in each of these accounts is the importance of conserving good relationships between people. Positive interpersonal relationships are grounded in Maturana’s theory in his biology of cognition. That is, if one takes the biology of cognition as a starting point, then ethical relations of mutual respect between people follow (Gash, 2011). Putnam’s work shows that interpersonal networking, depending to an extent on mutual respect, has significant effects on the political integrity of society.
To finish this short paper I want to introduce an idea - new to me, that this type of social association may be even more important in that it is what distinguishes humans from other primates. When I was a child I was told humans had a soul and that this was what distinguished us from animals. Over a generation ago when I was a student I recall thinking it was language that distinguished humans from other animals. However, the primate language studies showed this to be incorrect. Others argued it was tool use and then tool use was demonstrated in primates and other animals.
Michael Tomasello’s work points to the evolutionary significance of the human interpersonal social dimension. Tomasello’s work is on the interconnected domains of language communication and culture, and takes account of both human and primate achievements in these areas. Key elements in his work are an emphasis on the specifically human capacity to perceive shared intentions, and the emergence of collaborative interaction in human societies. Tomasello sees human social groupings as dependent on cooperation altruism and sharing, whereas non-human primate social organisation depends on competition (Reboul, 2010).
Tomasello (2009) puts it this way:
“Shared intentionality involves, most basically, the ability to create with others joint intentions and joint commitments in cooperative endeavours. These joint intentions and commitments are structured by processes of joint attention and mutual knowledge, all underlain by the cooperative motives to help and share with others (xiii–xiv)”.
Helping is common in both chimps and humans, whereas sharing goods and information is more human http://www.eva.mpg.de/psycho/primate-cognition.php . A detailed account of the importance of cooperative interpersonal interaction during development as the motor of human cognitive representation is presented by Moll and Tomasello (2006). This is an area that deserves fuller exploration, but one that is central to developing a fuller account of the importance of cooperation that is presented here.
Maturana’s biological account of human cognition offers an ethical basis to human relationships. That is if we accept responsibility for our biological fallibility and the dependence of our thinking on our biology we allow others similar fallibility. Such an interpersonal sharing of our cognitive limits provides a basis to explore differences in our experience, under the condition that we share an interest in communicating. Tomasello’s work suggests that such sharing of intention is possibly what has allowed humans to develop sophisticated models of our experience. This work suggests that this may be what separates us from our closest primate relatives and facilitated human numerical success in evolutionary terms. While shared intention begins with pointing and communicating about what is shared in the pointing, also key to such a development is the capacity to balance cooperation and competition. Putnam has shown the importance of human association and sharing as a basis for participation in society. So a vital task for education and for society is to find ways to facilitate the emergence of cooperation which seems to be the fragile flower of civilization.
Gash, H. (2011) Maturana’s theory and interpersonal ethics. Constructivist Foundations, 6 (3), 363-369. Available at http://constructivist.info/6/3/363
Maturana H. R. (1997) Metadesign. Instituto de Terapia Cognitiva. http://www.inteco.cl/articulos/metadesign.htm
Moll, H., & Tomasello, M. (2006) Cooperation and human cognition: the Vygotskian
intelligence hypothesis. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. http://email.eva.mpg.de/~tomas/pdf/MollPhilosTransact07.pdf
Putnam, R. (2009) Social capital and civic engagement. http://www.infed.org/thinkers/putnam.htm
Reboul, A. (2010) Cooperation and competition in apes and humans: A comparative and pragmatic approach to human uniqueness. Pragmatics & Cognition 18:2, 423–441. http://l2c2.isc.cnrs.fr/publications/files/08reb.pdf
Tomasello, Michael (2009): Why We Cooperate. Cambridge, MA/London, England: Boston Review.
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