When to intervene?

I am reading a book so exciting that I can’t refrain from sharing some of what I’m getting from it even before I’ve finished reading it: that book is Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I am finding insights that relate to the Middle Way on almost every page. Taleb is a kind of 21st Century Nietzsche – he writes with more than a touch of arrogance, a skill of polymathic synthesis, and a talent for the incisive, resounding and insightful. He doesn’t always get it completely right: but I’d much rather read a book that offers gripping insights 80% of the time and overstates itself or makes misjudgements 20% of the time, than a more cautious one that doesn’t get anything ‘wrong’ but conveys nothing of great interest.

AntifragileThe theme of the book is the way in which the best systems can be actually strengthened by adversity – what he calls antifragility. For example, the body is strengthened by exposure to manageable stress, and theories are improved by being challenged. Taleb does not explicitly discuss the Middle Way, but I keep finding it implicitly in the balance of stressors that are needed to create this strength in a system. The opposing position is one of false certainty that is fragile – an attribute I have often used to describe metaphysical beliefs even long before I read Taleb. This fragility is a vulnerability to the unexpected that has not been considered in the all-encompassing plan that we thought we had. Taleb has spent time as a stock trader, and the state of the market in 2008 is an obvious example of such false certainty, based on a metaphysical belief that the market had been managed in the right way this time and that the vulnerabilities of the past were over. Fragility leads to sudden and catastrophic harm, whereas antifragility is a strength that goes beyond robustness into actual benefit from these “unexpected” events. Antifragility seems to be largely cultivable by avoiding the metaphysical beliefs that create fragility.

No doubt I shall return to write more about this book when I have finished it, but for now here is a particular example that I found rather striking. One area that Taleb discusses is the question of when and how much to intervene so as to prevent possible harm – a dilemma well-known both to governments and parents. A balance has to be struck here which seems to be that of the Middle Way. This is a balance based not on finding some sort of literal middle point, but on an assessment of conditions which includes sufficient awareness of our fallibility. Taleb gives two interesting examples based on government intervention on the roads.

On the one hand is a case for intervention in the matter of speed. Our cars can increasingly manage excessive speed with ease, but we are very poor at judging the dangers that accompany speed. I also struggle myself to recognise the compounded inefficiency that comes from speed beyond a certain point. It is so tempting to drive along an uncrowded motorway in the UK at 70mph (the legal limit and usual speed of most cars) rather than 60mph, which is only marginally slower but far more efficient. There’s a strong case here for speed limits and their enforcement, perhaps at a slightly lower level than they are now. There seems to be a good case for intervention here because of our lack of awareness of our fallibility.

However, for a contrasting case, Taleb cites the experiment that took place in Drachten, Netherlands, in which traffic lights and many road signs were removed (see newspaper article). The effect of removing a lot of the kind of intervention that we are accustomed to here from ‘the nanny state’ actually seems to have been healthy. In Taleb’s language, it reduced antifragility. Minor accidents increased slightly, but people drove more carefully and took more responsibility for their actions, leading to a decrease in serious accidents. The key difference between this and the speed example seems to be that people could be made more aware of fallibility by being given more responsibility in this case (at least in the Netherlands – I wonder if it would work in other cultural settings). On the other hand, if you removed speed limits on motorways people would become less aware of their fallibility rather than more.

These examples obviously offer pointers for the political application of the Middle Way. Those on the left who tend to be more in favour of state intervention are correct in some cases, and those on the right who are in favour of ‘small government’ are also correct in some cases.  What we need to beware of is attachment to a rigid metaphysical belief in a particular political ideology, but rather look more closely at the conditions at work in each case. In addition, our understanding of those conditions needs to make allowances at every stage for what we don’t know, as well as what we do know.

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

22 thoughts on “When to intervene?

  1. The book does sound an interesting read, regarding the Middle Way approach to living our lives. Thinking about speed limits, I know that here in Brighton, some drivers have protested about a 20mph speed limit, imposed on some roads, in order to try to save lives. Their anger may be reflected in future voting patterns. The council has used many ways to slow traffic , which may not be appreciated by some, but to me an ex -driver, it makes good sense.

  2. Re: the “big vs. small government” framing: Do you suppose that there is an objective (or value-neutral) way to determine the “correct size of government” – one that transcends the mutually inhibitory cognitive models that (on Lakoff’s account) drive so many of our moral-political controversies? Because I do not.

    What’s more, I tend to agree with how Lakoff characterized that framing, at least in a US context (from his collaboration with Elisabeth Wehling, here, which is clearly biased towards a progressive worldview):

    Extreme conservatives view democracy as providing the liberty to pursue one’s self-interest without commitment to the interests of others. When they speak of “small government” and “spending”, they are really talking about their deep antagonism toward the Public, toward the use of government to protect and empower all citizens equally by providing public resources. This includes all aspects of the Public: infrastructure, education, health, the economy, and the environment.

    That’s not to suggest that “extreme” (as in: stereotypical) liberals/progressives never complain about the government’s over-stepping its boundaries. But when they do so, it’s based on a different understanding of the government’s moral mission (i.e. one that’s based on what Lakoff calls the “Nurturing Parent”, as opposed to the “Strict Father”, model of parenting). The result is a series of judgments about public policy that are often contrary to those of “extreme” conservatives and are, in any case, dependent on one’s particular values and/or priorities.

    1. Hi Jason,
      I don’t think that there is a ‘value-neutral’ anything, as I reject the fact-value distinction (see the page on that on this site). So it is not value-neutrality, but objectivity (again in the sense defined on the relevant page) that I would be looking for in judgements about which of these models it is best to use. Judgements do not occur in the abstract, but are made by people in specific circumstances, who always have values that shape those judgements.

      I do think that there are ways of justifying a judgement based on one model rather than another, yes. That is that the judgement (including the implicit choice of model) would be both coherent (with other judgements and evidence), and aware of its fallibility: see ‘justification’ in the glossary for more on this. The awareness of fallibility here involves avoiding metaphysics and following the Middle Way, and the coherence involves making best use of our experience. Judgements that do these things more will address conditions better than ones that do it less.

      Hence I do not agree with the implicit relativism of Lakoff’s moral approach. It’s not just a matter of choosing one model, or feeling that one model is better than another. The ‘nurturing parent’ model may often be better in the current US, but probably for contextual reasons that would not be so appropriate in other circumstances, and even there not for every judgement. The example of Drachten above seems to be quite a good example where the nurturing parent model has not been the best basis of judgement. Obviously if one nurtures too unreservedly, the child’s independence and sense of responsibility can be impaired.

      1. Thanks for that explanation, Robert.

        I feel obliged to add that the Nurturing Parent model, as I understand Lakoff, boils down to two overarching goals (whether they be in regards to the children in one’s personal care or to a whole society – the metaphor works on both levels): protection and empowerment.

        That said, one could very well interpret the Drachten example as an argument in support of the Nurturing Parent, so long as we tailor our definition of “nurturing” to allow that there are situations where the model’s goals are best served by stepping back a bit, whereas a Strict Father model can in some situations be quite “interventionist” (e.g. on the abortion issue or in any situation where the “strict father” interprets a situation as characterized by disobedience to authority, which thereby deserves some form of active punishment).

        Also, given what a passionate advocate of the Nurturing Parent model and of progressive politics Lakoff demonstrably is (some might even say that he’s too biased to be deemed a trustworthy scientist on the matter), whatever “implicit relativism” that one may detect in his work (e.g. on the influence of framing in political decision-making) would seem to be a rather weak influence on his moral-political life.

  3. A model can be made more complex, incorporating other models so as to become more adequate, which is a good way of working with that model. If there are two overarching goals in the nurturing parent model, we might then need to ask how judgements can be made between those goals when they clash. If Lakoff doesn’t have a moral model for how such judgements can be made, then his approach seems implicitly relativist to me. It’s quite possible to be a relativist and yet a passionate advocate of one approach that you think there is no objective justification for.

    However, Mark Johnson, in ‘Moral Imagination’ does seem to be further along in addressing that problem, by talking about ‘transperspectivity’ as the basis of moral objectivity. Transperspectivity in his account is the ability to imagine and engage with alternative models – which perhaps also suggests a recognition of the limitations of the one being used. There is at least a movement there beyond the mere assertion of one model. Johnson also repudiates the fact-value distinction. I do think that Johnson needs to explore the implications of these insights further (and he’s got a book due out soon that may do so), and I’m also not clear how far these ideas about ethics are shared by Lakoff.

    1. Dunno, but I first learned of these models from Lakoff & Johnson’s collaboration, Philosophy in the Flesh. Perhaps Lakoff was the dominant voice in that section, since I’ve not detected any disagreement between that account and the accounts given in his solo work on politics (e.g. The Political Mind). But it seems to me like at least a good bet that, given a choice between Nurturing Parent and Strict Father, Johnson would share the opinion of his collaborator and friend.

      That said, I can imagine some situations or sectors where a Strict Father model seems more appropriate – say, in the military or police force, whose missions and goals are arguably better served by an authoritarian style (e.g. a strict chain of command and unquestioning obedience to superior officers). But as an overall guide to public policy or (more literally) to raising one’s children, I fail to see its merits – not because I claim objectivity on the matter, but because the Nurturing Parent model resonates strongly with my sensibilities.

      One non-arbitrary reason that I give for that resonance is provided by Lakoff, who cites child psychology research that links “authoritarian childrearing with children who withdraw, lack spontaneity, and have lesser evidence of conscience.” But it seems rather more fragile to rest my case entirely on that assessment, as opposed to simply admitting that I already happen to hold a particular set of values that predisposes me to favor one model over another.

      1. Hi Jason, I think you should have the confidence to claim *incremental* objectivity in putting forward your model in a way subject to further enquiry, rather than resting with the implicit relativism of saying that you “happen to hold a particular set of values”. There are no grounds for assuming a determinism of values, as determinism is a naturalistic metaphysical dogma that goes far beyond scientific observation.

        There do seem to be some major ways in which the strict father model does not address conditions, and I am not advocating it in any specific ways. Rather my concern is that any use of the nurturing father model should be accompanied by awareness of its limitations – perhaps in conditions that we do not yet envisage. Part of such awareness, I think, would also be a sense of responsibility for choosing that model – based not on metaphysical freewill but on our experience of making choices in relation to our values.

      2. Robert: I claim passion, not objectivity. The latter sounds overly intellectual and reminds me of the “objectivism” (or “view from nowhere”) that Johnson and other proponents of embodied philosophy criticize, drawing heavily upon what they call “second-generation” cognitive science – a critique that we both endorse (or so I thought).

        But, if you mean to suggest that it’s possible to reach better solutions to political problems by reflecting more widely on stakeholder interests (say, in a Rawlsian sense), then I would agree, but with the caveat that what I deem “better” might not be so deemed by someone who operates according to a different moral model than I do.

      3. Hi Jason,
        Please look at the ‘objectivity’ page on this site for a fuller account of what I mean by objectivity. It is not a merely intellectual quality. It is only scientists and analytic philosophers who insist on using objectivity to mean ‘a view from nowhere’. In most everyday speech ‘objectivity’ is an incremental quality of persons and their judgements. I thoroughly agree with Johnson’s (and Nagel’s) criticisms of the ‘view from nowhere’.

        I also don’t think that agreement is relevant to objectivity. People may agree or disagree regardless of how well justified one’s view is. The fact that others disagree does not prevent one judgement from being better justified than another. There are limitations to how far one should assert that judgement, given that part of its justification is an awareness of the possibility of it being wrong – but that is a separate issue from how well justified the judgement is to start with.

  4. Robert: I have read the Objectivity page (along with most other pages on this site). I still think it’s a problematic word choice, but of course you’re free to define words however you like (which reminds me of your charge against Johnson’s use of “naturalistic”, which seemed conventional enough to me – say, given the methodological sense of “naturalism” that I was already familiar with).

    But now I have to ask: Does your sense of “objectivity” allow for the possibility that two individuals can arrive at contrary views, both of which are nonetheless equally justified – say, “relative to [their] values and interests” (to borrow a phrase from Johnson’s argument re: the nature of truth claims, which he also characterizes as “finite, fallible, and human”)? If not, then how is that sense of “objectivity” any less absolute than the absolute sense that I used above (which seems as common on the street, as well as in the ivory tower)?

    I admit that Lakoff and Johnson’s work does feature some degree of relativism – again, given how they relate our “moral politics” to a particular cognitive model or some blend thereof, and our truth claims to a particular set of “values and interests”, which can vary not only across cultures, but also across individuals situated within those cultures. But I still don’t see how your philosophy is any less relativistic, unless perhaps it reintroduces a certain degree of absolutism, which at least based on Lakoff and Johnson’s account seems unwarranted.

  5. ‘Does your sense of “objectivity” allow for the possibility that two individuals can arrive at contrary views, both of which are nonetheless equally justified – say, “relative to [their] values and interests”?’

    That would depend in what sense the views are contrary. You have to bear in mind here that the meaning of the views would be grounded in the differing physical experiences of the two people. That means that the views of the two individuals could not be “contrary” in the sense of having opposed truth conditions, as this is not the basis of the meaning of their views. They could be contrary in the sense of being practically opposed to one another and having desires with incompatible goals – but if so, their views would be even better if integrated.

    Strictly speaking, too, it is not views but judgements that are the locus of objectivity. A judgement can only be compared with alternative possible judgements at a particular time. I am not a relativist because I believe that some judgements are better than others, for each individual in each specific situation. However, attempts to compare judgements only in terms of the stated beliefs they result in involve the loss of huge amounts of contextual meaning from both of the beliefs being compared. It’s difficult to see how two views of different individuals could be “equally justified” in the terms of such a comparison. If one did make such a comparison, it would have to be very cautiously and provisionally.

    All that is required to avoid relativism is a ground for believing that one judgement is better than another – in the specific embodied situation. Putting everything into that specific embodied situation is what overcomes the absolute vs. relative dichotomy that only arose by abstracting out of that embodied situation. This is not going to result in any answers that enable one to say that one principle is always better than another, or even that one individual’s judgement at one time is definitively better than another’s at another time. But such answers are not required – they would be misleading given how much they abstract.

  6. Thanks for that explanation, Robert.

    Your reference to views that are “practically opposed to one another and having desires with incompatible goals” seems like an apt description of the kinds of conflicts of interests that Lakoff endeavors to explain in his work on politics.

    You both seem to acknowledge that moral judgments occur in relation to a “specific embodied situation.” Lakoff simply provides some stereotypical models of those situations, which are grounded in empirical research. These models pick out certain cognitive-behavioral patterns – some of which are probably familiar to many lay folks, while others (or their correlations) are probably familiar only to the researchers who specialize in this work (or to lay folks like me, who show an interest in this work). The models are, as one might expect from Lakoff, richly metaphorical, but they are no less descriptive of human experience by that fact.

    And I suspect that Lakoff would agree with you that some judgments are better than others. After all, his judgment that it’s better to rear children according to a Nurturing Parent model, which he negatively correlates with the behavioral effects that I cited above, as well as to govern society according to a similar ethos, demonstrates just how value-laden his position is.

    Where you and he might part ways is in his implicit admission that a strong advocate of a Strict Father model, like James Dobson, might very well assess those same behavioral effects more positively (or at least less negatively), given their different “specific embodied situation(s)”, their “desires with incompatible goals”, or their conflict of interests.

    If so, then as much as I’d like to call Lakoff’s view “more objective” than Dobson’s, I’m not likely to accomplish much by that call, unless perhaps my goal is merely to console myself and other like-minded souls.

    1. The main thing one can achieve by a new theory of objectivity based on the Middle Way is awareness that confidence in a judgement can be justified – provided it is adequately balanced by awareness of fallibility. “Consolation” is an unnecessarily negative way of putting it, and it seems to suggest running away from conditions. To address conditions effectively, people need an understanding of an adequate justification for doing so. Relativism continually undermines justified confidence by reducing all moral judgements to the same level.

      Do you have the same worries about talk of objectivity in science? If not, I’d suggest that there is no difference here. The kind of justificatory process we can turn to in order to justify one judgement rather than another in science is no different from the ethical process I’m suggesting. Indeed, the way I first arrived at it was by studying Lakatos and Kuhn and applying their ideas to ethics. Or do you think that the idea of objectivity in science is “consolatory” too?

      The world badly needs confidence in balanced judgements. It’s rent apart politically, morally, epistemologically and religiously by the dichotomous belief that either you have “a view from nowhere” or your judgements can’t be justified at all. Analytic philosophy has done almost nothing to help people in this situation, but just nit-picked its way into irrelevance. This is not a matter of head-in-the-sand “consolation”: much more about realistic, balanced hope.

  7. Robert: Sorry if you took offense at my reference to consolation, but please bear in mind that I’m still struggling to understand why you believe that it’s fair game to impute an “implicit relativism” to Lakoff, when that description strikes me as no less apt when applied to your view, given the apparent commonalities to which I alluded.

    Yes, I do actually have concerns about scientists (and their “scientistic” fan base) claiming objectivity, given that their claims are also “finite, fallible, and human” (even if they generally are more reliable than the claims of, say, prophets, psychics, and horoscope readers). I suppose that I’m more comfortable with “inter-subjectivity”, as that term seems less likely to be mistaken for the usual absolute sense of “objectivity.”

    Since Lakoff and Johnson largely ground their arguments in scientific research, I guess that I reveal a certain degree of trust in the sciences simply by citing them, which is presumably why you aim to draw an analogy between the sciences and moral philosophy. If so, then fair play.

    So, springing from that analogy, if I liken moral philosophy to a science (thereby bracketing off any tempting dis-analogies re: methodology), then I can’t help but to notice that it comes off as a particularly controversial field (even more so than, say, economics), as it appears to me to be nowhere near to achieving a consensus within its community of experts.

    1. Hi Jason, I didn’t take offence at the reference to consolation, I just disagreed!

      I impute implicit relativism to Lakoff only provisionally on the basis of evidence available to me. As I did say, I think that Johnson seems to be moving clearly beyond this position. If I find that Lakoff is working towards an incremental account of moral objectivity too, then I’d welcome that.

      Obviously you’re entitled to use whatever language you like. “Inter-subjectivity” seems too weak to me, and to be pandering to the dichotomy I want to get away from.

      Though there is a basic similarity in structure between science and ethics in the way that judgements are justified (whether individually or socially), I’d suggest that the big difference in practice is that the integration of judgement that justifies science is predominantly social, whilst that which justifies ethics is predominantly individual. The process of justifying a moral view is more like the process by which an individual comes to accept a scientific view (in dependence on the judgements made by science) than it is like scientific progress itself – the moral equivalent to that would be the development of moral traditions. If our moral traditions received as much investment of energy as science (and were similarly distanced from metaphysics), then the gap might close. As it is, you are correct that moral traditions lack consensus. However, consensus is not the only element that justifies either scientific or moral theories.

  8. Robert: I wouldn’t hold my breath for Lakoff’s “working towards an incremental account of moral objectivity.” That just doesn’t sound like part of his job description. If Johnson is already doing so, I have yet to see the evidence. Perhaps I’ll find it in his forthcoming book, as you suggested.

    For now, I’d still say that Lakoff has provided us with some useful descriptive models of behavioral patterns that we can observe in everyday politics. For example, they help to explain why certain policy positions often appear in the same speech or platform, despite seeming otherwise incongruous with one another. (Simply put: They are entailments of the same embodied metaphors for well-being that dominate in certain sectors of the population, which also tend to align under the same party umbrella.)

    I’d also say that he’s provided some useful tips to politicians and activists in terms of how to frame debates in ways that work to their advantage (particularly on the progressive side, as he’s argued that conservatives are already quite adept in this department).

  9. PS: It later occurred to me to search my (admittedly small) library for what, if anything, Lakoff and/or Johnson specifically have said about moral relativism. I came up with the following excerpt from Philosophy in the Flesh (pp. 324-5):

    However different their models of the family may be, all of the previous moralities and ethical theories except existentialism share the grounding assumption that there exist universal moral standards. Moral relativism rejects this foundational assumption. It claims that there exist no universal essences upon which universal, absolute morel values rest. All moral standards are seen to be relative to the specific communities in which they arise.

    Within the framework of the family morality models that we have been examining, moral relativism presents a challenge to the assumptions underlying the Family of Man metaphor. Moral relativism stems from the denial of this metaphor. It says that there is no universal family of all humankind. Instead, there are only scores of different moral “families”, each one having its own family values (i.e., each having its own distinct morality). In other words, each family (i.e., each moral community) gives its own family morality, and there is no universal standpoint above all of these particular families for judging their particular values and ideals.

    This much would seem to beg the question: Who’s right? Those who accept or those who reject the Family of Man metaphor? At least in this location, I do not see an attempt to explicitly answer that question.

    However, I do see a general statement earlier in the book (pp. 96-7), which recognizes a “a central insight of relativist thought”,* while also explaining why their own thesis of embodied realism is at most a moderate form of relativism, since it features “an account of how real, stable knowledge, both in science and the everyday world, is possible.”

    For whatever it’s worth, I myself am quite fond of the Family of Man metaphor (although I prefer a more gender-neutral term than “Man”, such as “Humanity”), and I’m not shy about arguing on its behalf, even if I do still harbor reservations about claiming objectivity on the matter.

    * viz. that “in many important cases, concepts do change over time, vary across cultures, have multiple inconsistent structures, and reflect social conditions.”

    1. I think it’s this failure to really engage with the nature of ethics that made me disappointed with ‘Philosophy in the Flesh’. I much prefer ‘Moral Imagination’ where Johnson is a bit bolder in addressing this issue. It’s one thing to recognise that moral theories are metaphorical and non-absolute, but another to explain how a justifiable moral metaphor can also be self-limiting and address the psychological conditions of ethical practice. To do this I think one needs to use resources from Buddhism and/or psychoanalysis that Lakoff and Johnson don’t seem to be interested in. Although I’m pleased that they have made the huge contribution to philosophy that they have, for me they are only one of a number of sources of insightful theory. I prefer to bring Lakoff and Johnson into fruitful contact with the Buddha, Pyrrho, Jung, McGilchrist, and recently Taleb, amongst others, rather than rely only on them.

      1. Robert: Partly on the basis of your recommendation, I’m now in the middle of Adrian Kuzminski’s Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism. (Personal anecdote: Adrian and I were active in the NY Green Party at roughly the same time, over ten years ago. I now have a better understanding of what his day job was.) It’s too early for a review, but I wonder if a typical Pyrrhonist/Madhyamaka-Buddhist response to the moral question that I posed above (re: the Family of Man metaphor) might be to suspend judgment, and thereby to anticipate a state of tranquility or inner peace to follow (?)

      2. Yes, that’s the limitation of Pyrrhonism. There’s room for debate about exactly what was meant by ‘ataraxia’ (usually translated as tranquillity), but it does seem to be too much of an end in itself. What’s valuable about it for me is that it involves a recognition of the value of provisionality, and that it relates that provisionality to the balance between metaphysical extremes. Pyrrho could hardly have avoided making judgements in his daily life, but it seems that he tried to do so lightly.

  10. I sensed that limitation, as well, but now I wonder: If more of our actions were based in direct experience (or, at most, on reasonable and defeasible inferences from those experiences to other experiences), rather than in (dogmatic) beliefs, then would we generally act with more empathy and compassion towards others?

    I don’t readily know the answer to that (empirical) question, but the effect would strike me as salutary, if not ethically significant.

  11. I understand compassion as an aspect of objectivity, where we start to make more open judgements about people (ourselves or others) based on experience (and allowances for what we don’t know) rather than relying on narrow metaphysical assumptions about them. Compassion can also arise through the integration of desire and meaning created by those more open beliefs, as our energies cannot flow freely towards someone when they are divided by conflicting metaphysical views about them. Thus I would argue that compassion consists in avoiding particular sorts of dogmatic beliefs.

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