June 7, 2015
Leadership by moral legitimacy
by Graham Harris*
*After completing a degree in Botany and PhD in Plant Ecology at Imperial College, London in the late 1960s, Professor Graham Harris worked at McMaster University in Canada for 15 years where he became a Professor of Biology and carried out research on the ecology and management of the Laurentian Great Lakes.
He came to Australia in 1984 and worked for CSIRO for over 20 years where he held many research management and senior executive appointments. Graham has worked in a range of disciplines including plant ecology, freshwater and marine ecology, space science and remote sensing. He was the foundation Chief of Division for CSIRO Land and Water, and until 2003 he was Chairman of the CSIRO Flagship Programs. After completing this task he stepped down as Flagships Chair and was made a CSIRO Fellow. He left CSIRO in early 2005.
Graham is the Director of ESE Systems Pty. Ltd., a consulting company specialising in research into, and the management of, complex environmental, social and economic systems. He is an advisor to a range of universities, research agencies, private companies and government jurisdictions both in Australia and overseas.
Graham is an Affiliate Professor at the Centre for Environment, University of Tasmania and an Honorary Research Professor in the Sustainable Water Management Centre at Lancaster University, UK. He was awarded the CSIRO Chairman’s Gold Medal in 1996 and was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering in 1997. In 2002 he was elected a life member of the International Water Academy, Oslo. He was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal in April 2003 for services to environmental science and technology. Graham has published more than 140 papers, and three books. His latest book Seeking sustainability in an age of complexity was published by Cambridge University Press in June 2007.
We still seem to be fighting Cold War battles over whether neoliberalism and individualism – the “bottom up” strategy – is the best model for modern democracies, or whether more state intervention – the “top down” control model – is preferable. The debate in the West is quite brutal with polarized politics and biased media coverage frequently providing only a partial view.
[The Web does however provide an antidote to the prevailing ethos by providing access to other points of view; blogs by George Monbiot and Harry Shutt for example.]
When confronted by complexity most of the decisions we must make are not just uncertain they are logically un-decidable (see Pascal Perez’s comments on my last post). The fundamental problem is that “facts” and models in such situations are under determined; they are inevitably supported by beliefs about what counts as evidence and what constitutes a proof, and values creep in. Without an appropriate moral stance to aid decision-making these limitations are becoming ever more obvious.-G. Harris
As we find we have to deal more and more with systems of systems – which requires both systems thinking and an appreciation of complexity – we are finding that simple slogans and remedies do not suffice (even though the air waves and the Web are flooded with them). To quote H.L. Mencken “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” The predominant debate is too simplistic and does not provide sufficient nuances or sophistication.
I am reminded of David Berlinski’s concluding words in “On systems analysis: an essay concerning the limitations of some mathematical methods in the social, political and biological sciences” (1976): viz. “Grand efforts brought low by insufficient means”.
When confronted by complexity most of the decisions we must make are not just uncertain they are logically un-decidable (see Pascal Perez’s comments on my last post). The fundamental problem is that “facts” and models in such situations are underdetermined; they are inevitably supported by beliefs about what counts as evidence and what constitutes a proof, and values creep in. Without an appropriate moral stance to aid decision-making these limitations are becoming ever more obvious.
Faced with such a situation we have both a knowledge problem and a collective action problem – and they are inextricably intertwined. The conjunction of constraints, complexity and community provides us with a perfect epistemological, political and moral storm. There is a moral space for communities to fill, but it is presently vacant. We require a new approach.
David Colander and Roland Kupers in “Complexity and the art of public policy: solving society’s problems from the bottom up” (2014) – hereafter C&K – have provided an alternative – middle ground – view on how to organise institutions and economics in a complex world. They favour what they call laissez-faire activism – combining both top down and bottom up innovation and facilitation. In a complex system of systems knowledge will always be partial, and neither the market nor state regulation will be able to provide complete solutions. History shows us the truth of this.
We can do without the brutal debates between the political right and left (they are more and more indistinguishable anyway), between the positivists and the relativists or between, say, the followers of Hayek or of Keynes. Indeed C&K show how the debate has been engineered to deliberately polarise the political and economic landscapes. The original positions of many intellectual luminaries were much more nuanced and sophisticated than is now made out. It is the old story: the messiah got it right – just beware the disciples.
Through the air waves and the Web we are flooded with emotivism. The polarised Western debate is no more than this. Statements of the form “this is good” can be taken to mean “I approve of this: do so as well”. Our moral debate consists mostly of shrill, impersonal assertions; our language of morality is in a state of disorder.–G. Harris
As Kwame Anthony Appiah has argued in “Cosmopolitanism: ethics in a world of strangers” (2006) the prevalent liberalism and positivism favours the belief in value free (scientific) “facts” because we can hold and assert our own individual beliefs. Values, on the other hand, are more about things we share and how we deal with each other in communities. So values require us to discuss and debate their context and efficacy, but because the mantra is “there is no such thing as society” we rarely do this.
C&K take an optimistic view of people as “smart and adaptive” and argue that the role of government is to set norms for behaviour and to provide leadership by moral legitimacy. They agree with Kwame Anthony Appiah who argued in “The honour code: how moral revolutions happen” (2011) that it is morality and values – our shared norms – that best regulate how we deal with each other and our environment.
Alasdair MacIntyre in “After virtue” (2007, 3rd Ed.) has argued that one of the main failures of modernity has been the demise of morality and the instrumental behaviour of bureaucrats and corporate managers in commercial and institutional settings. There is much confusion of means and ends and people and the environment frequently get used and abused. This is also true of politicians and politics and it explains why there is an evident and rapid decline in trust.
Through the air waves and the Web we are flooded with emotivism. The polarised Western debate is no more than this. Statements of the form “this is good” can be taken to mean “I approve of this: do so as well”. Our moral debate consists mostly of shrill, impersonal assertions; our language of morality is in a state of disorder.
At the moment there seem to be few sanctions for unethical or even criminal behaviour in many spheres of public life. Despite clear indications of criminal activities associated with the financial crash of 2008 and of irregularities in global markets since – collusion and market rigging – very few sanctions or criminal prosecutions have been pursued. Worse there is no evidence that anyone feels shame or remorse. The guardians have been inactivated.
Environmental degradation is, likewise, a moral issue. No amount of attempts to monetise environmental values or design market-based instruments will alter this. Easily quantifiable substances like water and carbon dioxide may be traded, but for complex 2nd order cybernetic entities like ecosystems everywhere is different. Concepts like markets for ecosystem services and biodiversity offsets are therefore a fraud. We cannot swap like for like and ill-defined incommensurate values cannot be monetised. Offset payments to a conservation fund are a sop for the conscience.
To arrest the decline in trust and moral behaviour Appiah and MacIntyre argue that we need a return to concepts of virtue, honour, shame and esteem. To grease the wheels of society we need a debate about codes of honour that are compatible with morality and professional ethics. We can have positive regard for people who meet certain standards of behaviour and we can sanction those who do not. Those standards need to be debated, clearly stated and enforced.
C&K see a key role for government in providing the leadership and in setting those norms. Geoffrey Brennan and Philip Pettit have noted in “The economy of esteem: an essay on civil and political society” (2005) that because we all (should) have a stake in making society work the cost of policing an honour world is very low and we do not have to worry about who is guarding the guardians. We all have a role to play.
Now I am sure some will argue that liberalism and modernism have defeated such outdated concepts, but the failings of Western politics since the 1970s are now clear: instrumental reason, rising inequality, environmental degradation, lack of political will and moral corruption. Governance and leadership by moral authority and legitimacy? Now wouldn’t that be something to behold!