Saturday, February 7, 2015

Collective Agreement Part II - How we agree

I’m fascinated with the image of the wizard from JRR Tolkien's  Lord of the Rings.  The wizards Gandalf and Saruman both have the power to create a new reality by casting a spell.   We like to imagine this power in individuals, but in fact, words do have the power to create reality, but only if they are uttered  within a background of human agreement. That’s what is missing from the wonderful image of the wizard - the background.  And that is as it should be in a mythical or poetic account, because what forms the background is not usually noticed.

Everything humans do is done against  a cultural background.  This background was created by successive agreements among and between many many groups of people.  That does not mean that when I decide to do something new, that I have to consult everybody including my ancient ancestors, but if I make a mistake, someone will tell me about it, or it will get back to me in some way.   

If I’m singing a song in the key of C and I go flat, it doesn’t sound right to anyone else but maybe I can’t tell, because I am unaware of lowering my tone.  People might frown, or show in their body language that something is wrong.  I could pick up on that, and resolve to stay in key the next time, or feel sorry for myself and never sing that song again.

The point is that my reaction to making mistakes is to better conform to what the group expects. I don’t do anything really without it being part of a web of agreements.  If this were not true then there would be no such thing as mistakes.  I sing in C and you sing in C# and nobody cares.  I pay for bread with a washer instead of a tooney, and the cashier is fine with that.

Biology matters.  In order to understand what makes us special, we need to know what we share with animals.  Understanding how animals act collectively can help us  better understand what makes us human.

Several  times I have had the pleasure of watching small flocks of sandpipers flying and landing in formation.  Sandpipers are small shorebirds with very skinny twig like legs.  They like to hunt for beach fleas on sandy beaches, and they do so as a group, on mid to low tides.  Watching them flying and landing, I swear the precision in their flying formation puts the top fighter pilots to shame.

  If you watch any kind of birds fly in formation you will notice how the formation moves as if it has one “collective mind”.  The thing is, that’s an illusion.  Each bird is acting from its own intentions, but it also acts collectively when it takes in the relative position of, and synchronizes its motions with its immediate neighbours.  

Humans do a similar kind of thing every time we use language or play music. But the difference is that we can create a lasting reality by collectively recognizing and acknowledging a situation, whereas no other animal can do this.   

  I would go further than the French scholar Roger Callois who said:   “Rules themselves create fictions - by the very fact that we follow these rules - we separate ourselves from real life.” In contrast I maintain that rules create a specifically human reality.  By the very fact that we follow these rules and expect others to, we distinguish  ourselves from all non-human life.  

What is different about human collective action?  We follow rules, because we expect others to do so as well. To be human is to continuously participate in following rules.  In contrast, the more we make exceptions and the more we act as if rules don’t matter, the less human we become.  

According to John Searle,
        “The individual contribution is only made on the assumption that others are making their contribution - that is what is meant by saying that one is acting as part of a collective.  It is only given the contributions of the other members of the collective that the agent can achieve what he does, but nonetheless his intention is to try to achieve the common goal.”

Voting is an example of a collective action.  When I cast a vote, I do so trusting that a sufficient number of fellow citizens will also do the same.  If I don’t have this sense of trust in others,  I won’t vote.  

Apes are promiscuous and don’t recognize paternity  but humans impose a system of predominant monogamy in almost every culture.  By agreeing to pair up we can expand the social network that we live in by recognizing in laws, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and so on.  Men can recognize paternity and potentially share more of parenting, and be less prone to violence.

I have written elsewhere (The Birth of the Commons) that monogamy was the first human commons.  The first time that men had equal access to women.  By the act of cleaving together in a pair-bond each couple creates a relationship, that as long as everyone else respects their boundaries, they can continue to be a couple.    Thus the libertarian idea that what I do in my private life should be completely independent of everyone else is false.  The reality of monogamy cannot exist unless it is recognized and maintained collectively.  

Expecting that others will recognize the status of being married is part of what it means to be married.  This is what makes monogamy a collective act that involves all of society, not just the families of the respective spouses.

But there is more to it than that.  Maintaining monogamy requires collective effort.  At first it meant that the alpha male was killed, then it meant that signs of alpha-like tendencies, such as uncontrolled anger, bullying, and “extramarital” affairs were actively discouraged.  Otherwise another alpha male was bound to rise up and take over.  In modern society we have much more privacy than in hunter-gatherer societies,  so all that maintenance work is less visible, but it is still there, and much more all-encompassing and pervasive.

Humans generally prefer to make love in privacy. People still disapprove and gossip about affairs.  People hide their illicit relationships and feel shame about what they are doing.  These are not just individual compartmentalized feelings, but part of the collective action and intention that goes into maintaining a monogamous society.  

Obviously people disagree all the time too.  The possibility of disagreement is part of what it means to have choice.  But disagreement is parasitical on agreements.  We can only disagree about someone’s status or their right to possess a thing if we have already established, ie., agreed, that there are different statuses and there are such a thing as property rights.  

 When we behave as human beings, we are constantly adjusting our behaviour to fit our expectations of how others will behave.  That’s not that much different from the way individual birds, flying in formation, appear to simulate a collective mind, by subtly adjusting their flight in response to any changes made by their immediate neighbours.  

But humans create lasting reality through agreements, we can create, stories, poems, songs, languages,  religions, and countries, the latter three of these involving the agreement between larger and larger groups of people.

And why is it that we are able to make these agreements when our close primate relatives are not?  The difference is that we have more developed prefrontal areas of the brain.  We can limit our behaviour, comparing ourselves to others, and expecting them to follow rules because we are able to self-evaluate and compare our own and other’s behaviour to previously agreed upon standards.  

In the first of these two articles on agreement, I said that the heart of human nature was something simple, so simple that it is usually ignored and taken for granted.  I tell a story and someone listens.  A group of us sing a song together;  I attend church services on Sundays along with the rest of the congregation;  Many people in my country speak the same language; most of us pay taxes and many of us vote in  municipal, provincial and federal elections.     

Nothing too complicated with these agreements.  Each and every one involves an expectation that I do my part while everyone else is also fulfilling their part.  This is the reason for their ability to last over time.  When, in times of strife, these institutions break down, it is because we see too many others not fulfilling their part, or violating the rules, so we cease to honour them ourselves.

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