The Pandemic And The Is-Ought Problem
The philosopher David Hume wrote of the ‘Is-ought problem’.
He found that writers tie positive statements (what is) to normative statements (what ought to be).
In Hume’s opinion, these are potentially two separate worlds.
We can only change our reality if we create a gap between them.
Otherwise, we accept that what is, ought to be, and nothing ever changes.
If we choose, we are right now in a prime moment to address our own is-ought problems.
We are experiencing a number of crises in:
- Civil rights
With quite a bit of pain to share around yet, no doubt.
In an interview with Le Monde last week, Emmanuel Macron identified another significant crisis: the crise de confiance (confidence crisis) that underpins all of the other quandaries we are in.
In the past few months, we have ‘realised’ a few things we already knew:
- The truly important jobs are underpaid.
- Most jobs are a bit of a nonsense.
- Labour, wages, and capital are too loosely related.
- Computers can’t take over our work. We need people.
- The economy doesn’t work if we aren’t buying bad sandwiches and watered-down pints.
- Governments have no idea how to track citizens. Big tech knows a lot more about our movements than governments do.
- Ordinary people can affect change.
That’s the easy bit.
These truths have been laid bare and we know that how it is, is not how it ought to be.
But how could it be different?
How can business, technology, and nature fit together?
In this series of hi, tech. editions, we want to share and discuss the new ideas that have emerged recently, and some older ideas that have been dusted down again.
This week, we’ll look at the impact of the pandemic on the social contract.
In future editions, we’ll look at:
- How we communicate online
- Many others!
Now is the time to re-think the world, to imagine other solutions, and seize this rare opportunity for creative destruction.
If not, we’ll be ushered back to an impoverished version of the old normal.
I don’t know about you, but I think it ought to be rather different.
Politics and the social contract
Political issues are normally abstract; they happen to people over there, not here.
People vote based on concepts that have negligible material impact on their lives.
At least, that’s what they have done recently in the UK. Immigration and national sovereignty are more persuasive and emotive than even social justice or economic issues.
This pandemic is different. It has affected us all.
It has forced us to see the interconnectedness of things.
“The first thing you are thinking about is: everything I touch, what has somebody else touched? The food I am eating, the package that was just delivered, the food on the shelves. These are connections that capitalism teaches us not to think about.”
- Naomi Klein
The invisible hand has been revealed. We have seen behind the curtain.
Whichever metaphor you prefer, we can all now see how important our minor inputs are.
Governments are desperate to get us back to our old hard-drinking, tax-paying, five-day-working selves.
The social contract between people and authorities is fraying, however.
This chart, which pushes the limit for the number of data types you can fit in one graphic, shows the likelihood of civil unrest around the world:
DR Congo, Nigeria, and Ethiopia are all among the list of ‘most at risk’ countries, and they currently have a relatively low number of cases. That number is, unfortunately, projected to grow very rapidly.
The economic pain will be felt worldwide, but the severity will be greater in developing nations.
China has returned to GDP growth already and will likely be an outlier.
An editorial in Le Figaro described the economic outlook in France as apocalyptique.
Le Monde went for, “On a les plus durs devant nous” (Our hardest days are ahead of us). Ah, my four year languages degree is finally paying off.
We live in an age of extreme subjectivity.
The Enlightenment strove for an objective sense of Truth. Today, we believe the truth is a construct of our own conceptual apparatus.
We believe in individual liberty, an ideal set in stone in the 18th century. However, the plan for the post-independence USA was based on education for the masses.
The first industrial revolution was stimulated by the high wages in England, providing clear incentive to introduce new technologies to increase output. (The availability of coal was handy here too, admittedly.)
Today, education standards are declining and wages are stagnant.
And so, there are protests in London about wearing masks to stop the spread of infection.
Sure, the scientists say we should wear them, but there’s a conspiracy theory on WhatsApp that they kill more people than they save.
I just don’t know which to believe — do you?
You are free to believe what you want, no matter how mad or damaging it is.
We need to equip people to make these decisions.
We saw this with seatbelts, too. It took decades to get people to wear them. Even during the Enlightenment, the majority still believed in superstition over science.
Rather than addressing these inequalities, our government sows social discord to create a smokescreen for their shady dealings.
Whether through design or rank incompetence (I suspect the latter), the UK government is all over the place with its decision-making.
Either way, it does have a beneficial side-effect.
If you U-turn often enough, no-one will know how to attack you.
Since you occupy every position along the spectrum at some stage, which one do you really believe?
It is much harder to hit a moving target.
To muddy the waters further still, our part-time prime minister has only one attack line against his opposition. He accuses them of flip-flopping and flim-flamming. Yes, he really uses these phrases — along with “cluster-buster”, “piffle”, and “contract tasting”.
Four months into the pandemic, the government has mandated that we should wear masks in stores.
A vocal minority, almost all of whom voted for this government, sees this as an assault on their rights.
Others, many of whom cannot abide this shower of charlatans we have in charge, feel we should have been wearing masks all along. They sort of agree with the government on this new measure, but not on the timing or stringency of the order.
In the process, the government has us all arguing with each other while they line their pockets. They have rushed in emergency powers and awarded billions of pounds to their cronies in uncontested contracts.
It’s hard to keep up. We exhaust our outrage on Twitter and, God help us all, in blog posts.
In the UK today, we are not far off the levels of government corruption in Taiwan, which led to mass brawls in their parliament this week. Disgraceful scenes. And yet, we can’t help looking.
See, it is much easier to rule a divided public.
This is ripped straight from the Russian government’s playbook and it is no coincidence that the prime minister’s senior adviser spent years in Russia.
Putin is known to fund both protests and anti-protests on issues such as gay rights, just to keep things nice and confusing.
The idea itself is taken from modern art, of all places.
Take a look at this conceptual artwork:
What do you see?
A profound exploration of the human experience?
A reflection on the plight of modern farmers?
An overpriced piece of junk?
There is no right answer. We are all entitled to interpret it how we want.
Vladislav Surkov brought this idea onto Putin’s administration in his time as aide to the Russian president.
What if a political regime was like a piece of conceptual art? Both everything, and nothing.
It is a nihilistic, opportunistic, and damaging way to govern.
That’s my opinion, anyway. You’re entitled to yours. While we discuss, they’ll carry on with their business. It’s all a distraction.
The Russian economy is hardly a model to follow, although some people do estimate that Putin is the world’s richest man. Ok, it’s all making a little more sense now.
Our government denies and deflects from cast-iron, stone-cold evidence. All a matter of opinion, they say.
Except, there are facts.
People die, the economy crashes, we are all worse off.
Political issues are raw right now, not abstract or distant.
And we are no longer listening to politicians, at a rare time when we do need guidance.
In fact, the confidence crisis runs deeper with each passing week.
Below, some takes on how we can re-imagine this broken social contract.
Of particular interest are the FT’s coverage of the topic and the new report from the World Economic Forum on nature and business.
- Pay attention to that man behind the curtain: An essay on bias in AI. “The truth drips with human subjectivity.”
- Teaching an AI to be less biased doesn’t have to make it less accurate — New Scientist
- The new social contract — FT
- ⚔ The duel: Should we aim to get the economy back to “business as usual”? Prospect
A great little debate, this one.
- Yes — It has brought increasing prosperity for a long time and, if we are to tackle climate change, we need a thriving economy. Now is the worst time to turn inwards; we should instead rebuild through global trade and rethink the economy from a position of strength, not the current position of weakness.
- No — The current system will continue to do damage. Growth is limited, inequality keeps rising, and we have already exploited resources too far. Now is the best possible moment to create sustainable domestic trading markets, with transparent supply chains, and low carbon emissions. If we fail to seize it, the moment will pass us by — perhaps with catastrophic consequences.
- The new nature and business report — WE Forum
- Contains lots of great analysis and visuals like these:
- Official of National Statistics: Impact of coronavirus on attitudes (Updated weekly)
- Amsterdam is trialling “doughnut economics” — Kate Raworth
📚 Bonus Resources
How to market in a downturn — HBR (It’s old, but good.)
- Target’s Gig Workers Will Strike to Protest Switch to Algorithmic Pay Model — Vice
- The sustainable city of the future — National Geographic
- The future of urban mobility — McKinsey
- Why do we go to restaurants? — Economist 1843
- Google’s wacky new inventions — CNET
- Kids are dressing up as masked old people to buy booze — Vice
- TikTok and the Sino-American tech split — Economist
- Robot dolphins may replace the real thing in aquariums — Guardian
Next time: Cities.