I recently read Thomas Sowell’s classic work A Conflict of Visions. In it, he attempts to describe two different foundational worldviews, or visions, which are implicit in the thinking of those who think and write about society. While any attempt to categorize such complex matters into just two camps (or even two poles of a one-dimensional continuum) is bound to oversimplify matters (see, for example, this critique by Bryan Caplan), Sowell has done about as good a job of it as I can imagine.

The two visions that Sowell proposes are two different worldviews that are baked into how people think. Without our realizing it, these bedrock assumptions shape the kinds of arguments and political positions which appeal to us. So, what are the two visions? One is the unconstrained vision and the other is constrained.

In the unconstrained vision, humanity is thought to be perfectible. The flaws in our societies are not due to the tragic nature of existence, but are instead largely the fault of our sub-optimal cultural norms and institutions. If we improve those through deliberate design, everyone will benefit dramatically (hence the term unconstrained, as there are few limits to human potential). One question this raises is who should decide how we ought to modify society. Some individuals possess superior rational intellect, moral virtue, and judgment than others, representing a target towards which we should evolve. Since they have achieved this, they are probably the people most fit to decide how to modify things.

The unconstrained vision is often associated with an optimistic view of articulated reason. Of course, intelligent people dedicating their efforts towards explicit understanding of phenomena can definitely create advances that improve our lives. Indeed, as an academic in a STEM field, this is my day job (though it is not unfettered reason, as empirical testing provides feedback). Education is also seen in idealistic terms in this view as the solution to many of society’s ills. If we educate everybody well, they will understand how to act in a way that benefits everybody. For example, in order to deal with the fact that some people mistreat their pets, we might call for public education or advertising campaigns to instruct people about the proper treatment of animals.

On the other hand, the constrained vision represents a much more pessimistic view of human nature, sometimes called a “Hobbesian” one after Thomas Hobbes, who characterized the natural state of human life as “nasty, brutish, and short.” In this view, human life and society is tragically flawed, and this fact is central to the vision, hence the name constrained. The fact some societies have achieved some level of lasting peace and prosperity is seen as a (figurative or literal) miracle for which we should be grateful. Culture is so complicated that we ought to be cautious and humble about attempts to modify it, hence Jordan Peterson’s advice to “clean your room” as the best approach to improving the world, as culture protects us from forces we do not understand. In other words, in functional societies, we “know” how to act around one another to avoid the worst kinds of conflict. We don’t know it in a purely rational sense (where we could lay out the explicit logic of it all, perhaps by writing down a big set of rules). Instead, the rules which are implicit in our behavior were developed over a very long time through processes resembling those of evolution. Sometimes, for example in many kinds of economic transactions, we are promoting the welfare of others without even knowing that we are.

In the constrained vision, political decisions often represent painful trade-offs, rather than problems to which a clear solution is available. Returning to the example of the poor treatment of pets, the constrained vision might lead us to question whether the advertising campaign will have much effect, and also to notice that running such a campaign has clear costs — the resources (financial and otherwise) dedicated to a campaign could have been used for something else.

The view of reason is much less optimistic in the constrained vision, more along the lines of David Hume’s famous remark that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” While we can explicitly reason our way to valid conclusions, this is harder than it seems, and we are much worse at it than we tend to think. Jonathan Haidt, a supporter of Hume’s view of reason, has said that the unconstrained vision (presumably an extreme version of it) has the worst track record in the history of ideas.

As you may have noticed, the two visions roughly map on to two ends of the political spectrum. Progressive politics is related to the unconstrained vision, at least insofar as it respects Enlightenment values and places an emphasis on reason and progress, rather than postmodernism. For example, increased funding of public schools makes a lot of sense if the education provided is (or could be) very powerful in shaping the capabilities of the students. In addition, the best and brightest of a society can apply their reasoning capabilities to questioning old dogmas and creating new and better structures within which to live. On the other hand, conservatism, especially as represented by thinkers such as Edmund Burke, emphasizes caution and non-radical change, in order to preserve as much of what is working as we can. This caution may be warranted even if it’s difficult to come up with explicit reasons to justify an existing practice, as our limitations may mean we are unable to come up with a rational explanation for some practice that we, in fact, benefit from.

The concept of the two visions also provides a useful lens through which to view many intense debates in current culture. For example, the divide between the views of Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson is essentially an instance of this very same conflict. Harris is optimistic about the use of explicitly articulated logic (and science, which combines rationality with empirical testing) as a means to determine truth and improve society. Peterson, on the other hand, is suspicious of such a claim, as many previous attempts to boldly re-make society (including along supposedly rational lines) have been disastrous. In other words, Peterson’s vision is more constrained than Harris’s. In my opinion, one reason for the success of the discussion between Peterson and biologist Bret Weinstein on the Joe Rogan Experience is that Bret Weinstein understands both visions, whereas the constrained vision does not appear to play much of a role in Harris’s worldview.

Deliberately adopting one of the visions as a temporary measure can also be very helpful in trying to come to grips with people’s points of view, even if you ultimately decide they are misguided. Take, for example, the recent furore over Quillette founder and commentator Claire Lehmann’s tweet, in response to a Sydney Morning Herald article about being groped on public transport:

Taken literally, it is obviously false that such things don’t happen. They do. In my opinion, the clear implication behind Lehmann’s tweet was that such things are uncommon, and for most people, it is not worth paying a great deal of attention to the possibility — at least, not beyond taking a few basic steps to avoid potentially creepy individuals or to get away from them at an early stage if you do encounter one. By the way, on the topic of Sydney trains, as a teenage boy I caught them on a daily basis. I saw a man masturbating once and saw other strange and scary behavior from time to time. I am an anxious person by nature and these incidents, while minor in the scheme of things, did cause me some distress.

What does this have to do with the conflict of visions? Well, it is clearly possible for men to respect women highly, to treat them with decency, and not to grope them on public transport. The majority of men in Australia have indeed achieved this (though I note my frequent failure to adhere to the admittedly high standard of Matthew 5:28), and a small minority is all it takes to make people worry about the issue. From the point of view of the activists, it is obvious that if most men are capable of behaving decently most of the time, then all are capable of it all of the time. Therefore, we need to deploy our resources to ensuring this happens. The activism is an attempt to reduce the level of an unpleasant and undesirable behavior from low to zero.

It would be good if there was less groping, so (according to the unconstrained vision) we should tell everyone that (loudly), and that’s that. My above suggestion about learning how to avoid and/or deal with instances of creepy behavior could be considered as “blaming the victim,” because in an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to modify our behavior in order to avoid harm directly caused by others. This is not to deny that pernicious victim-blaming exists (one example being cultures where a woman who is raped is heavily punished). If the ideal world, or at least a vastly improved one, really is achievable, then mild “victim-blaming” advice is an unnecessary restriction on individual behavior. If the ideal world is impossible and direct striving for it potentially dangerous (as in the constrained vision), then some suggestion of behavior modification on the part of potential victims is merely prudence, a small price to pay for the corresponding reduction in risk.

In the constrained vision, trade-offs are paramount, so the following questions might come to mind. Will the activism even have the desired effect? Any attempt to reduce a bad thing from a low level to zero surely faces diminishing returns at some point, and beyond that will have net negative returns. How do we know when we’re near or beyond that point? In other words, what unintended consequences might activism have? Perhaps it will incentivize victimhood status, which will reduce psychological resilience and lead to greater suffering overall? Perhaps it will annoy enough men to the point where they become reactionary hyper-traditionalists about gender roles? Perhaps it will make the public discourse even more fraught and tense than it already is? Or perhaps there will be some effects, positive and negative, that we are simply incapable of conceiving now, or connecting to their cause in hindsight.

Improvement in culture is clearly possible and can be produced both by dutiful individual action as well as by activism. Conversely, the careless destruction of culture also occurs, most clearly in events such as the Chinese Cultural Revolution, but probably in much less dramatic ways all the time. When we act to create or restrain change, it behooves us to consider the possibility that we do not understand what effects we might ultimately have, and what assumptions we might be acting upon. It’s easier to create the sensation of having improved something than to actually do so. This is the message of the constrained vision, one which I think is underappreciated in today’s culture, especially in academia, where I work. Ultimately, I hope that understanding how the visions affect our understanding of the issues will help us distinguish the true paths towards improvement from the illusory ones. But let’s not get too cocky about that.

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4 comments

  1. The pure unconstrained vision is a myth, and will inevitably lead to destruction of culture. I prefer mostly constrained, but not rigidly so, and therefore can change to a limited extent. That’s why I believe in the rational pursuit of social justice guided by free speech. I also believe that people like Peterson are too constrained.




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  2. The unconstrained vision leads to multiple problems:
    1) pushing for zero of something (like zero pollution, or zero prejudice) as the only valid goal, even when impossible
    2) failure to admit flawed human nature. We can’t even keep our own new year’s resolutions, and evidently are unable as individuals to control our weight
    3)too eager to destroy in the name of it being not perfect: examples: tearing down statues of all our founding fathers, attacking the family as not perfect
    4) too ready to cozy up to brutal dictators because their “stated intentions” per Harris are noble.




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  3. Everything on the surface of the Earth is out-of-equilibrium. Constant change is an inseparable feature of life and humans, individually and collectively, have to change in order to keep living. Adapt might be a better word than change. However, identifying WHAT to adapt to and then figuring out HOW to adapt are not trivial questions, as highlighted in this well-written piece. there might not be fewer answers to the questions of WHAT than the number of humans (maybe + other mammals and other valued animals) on this planet. And for each What there might be even more HOWs. This gives one an idea of vastness of the phase space of problem. I personally think there is a far but achievable dream behind using big data analysis on value-searching-and-implementation-algorithm that is coupled with some feedback from some data center and maybe, this is a big maybe, there will be some clues about what to do and how to do it. I guess that was pretty unconstrained of me. Oh well…
    Great work!




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  4. really well done. I found “A Conflict of Visions” to be a profound book. I also like your application of it to the Harris/Peterson divide.

    Harris’ overreliance on stated intentions and written beliefs is another major factor in the divide. Peterson is in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s camp in which beliefs/intentions are best judged by actions- not by words or written religious statements.

    Harris exhibited this view in his back and forth with Noam Chomsky, where Harris argued for the importance of stated intentions.

    On that view, we need to judge US strikes that may cause “collateral damage” (such as the repeated bombing of a doctors without borders hospital) as of a different kind than when other forces kill innocents, because US officials say they have good intentions.

    Of course, besides the fact that humans dissemble, the key problem with this view is that intentions are often *opaque* to even the actors themselves. For the Interventionists who continually advocate regime change in the middle east, are they pushing these positions because they truly believe that the next such intervention will magically “work” and improve democracy and people’s lives in the region, despite the utter catastrophes we have witnessed in Iraq and Libya? Or are they influenced (subtly or not) by the powerful defense industry lobby among other powerful lobbies, where catastrophic policy failures still lead to record profits?




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