26 May 2009

Unnatural selection and the avoidance of harm

Natural selection works as a sort of statistical sieve; things that best avoid the sorts of harm that affect reproductive success become more common. There's no overall direction to this; if the environment, and thus the supply of harm changes, so do the various populations of organism.

This is not how anyone wants to live, in the natural form; people are capable of forethought and planning, and can avoid many kinds of harm through the exercise of those skills. They're also good at ganging up on problems, and one of the kinds of problem is "bad things we didn't expect". One of the important ways forms of social organization compete with each other is how well they deal with that "bad thing we didn't expect" case, because that issue at various scales directly effects how people live their lives. Since, from individual illness through pandemic, from local crop failure through widespread drought, and from personal job loss through global economic meltdown, live a normal span of years and these things will happen to you, and pretty much everyone knows that, a concern for how well the society you're in can cope will be common and will have political consequences.

One of the political consequences is that this kind of concern scales badly.

If you're trying for a good outcome, you necessarily construct it based on your experience, and the extended pool of experience found in family, friends, and colleagues. This more or less guarantees that there will be a bunch of competing desired good outcomes in whatever scale of political process applies. This doesn't precisely clog the political process but it does limit it; if the general question is "is this good for me?", any political process is forced into the role of constructing a hierarchy of importance in deciding whose goods come first and whose goods have to wait.

This hierarchy of importance, implicit or explicit, is of great advantage to factions (such as those deriving wealth-concentration opportunities from large process industries) who can use reflexive social hierarchy assumptions to avoid quantitative analysis (the "business is important, people complaining about pollution are just a bunch of whiny ecofreaks" dodge) and those factions who wish to arrange society in their preferred hierarchy, because there is already agreement that some fixed hierarchy in unavoidable.

Fortunately, a fixed hierarchy can be avoided. (Changing fixed hierarchies is expensive, slow, and often bloody. Avoiding this every time the march of progress produces a fundamental change in social organization is highly desirable, especially since the first culture that figures out how to do that will have a very large relative advantage compared to the others.)

The trade-off involves a moderate loss in the belief that the future is predictable and the general loss of the idea that a fixed social hierarchy is necessary or desirable, but these are mostly intangible things; it should (though I recognize that this is not always the case) be easy to give these up for a political process that handles large numbers of competing goals better and the resulting greater material benefit.

The trick is a very simple one; stop trying to achieve good, and start trying to avoid harm. Do this in a quantified, careful, statistical way; that avoids both legitimizing the use of political processes for the benefit of specific individuals (because statistical approaches don't give you answers about individuals) and making 'avoid harm' become "avoiding harm is me getting good things". All the different values of "me" in there mean there's no net gain, and we're back to a mechanism to establish and maintain a fixed hierarchy of worth.

So you get, basically, unnatural selection; we're going to apply effort and rigour to identifying and reducing sources of harm to people in a quantified worst-first order. We do this as a gang-up-on-problems thing, rather than as a "oh, well, you didn't get copies of your genes or ideas into the future, did you?" slow filter thing. (That filter, whatever the ethical arguments for or against, and I do hope mostly against, is much too slow to cope with the complexity of a global industrial culture with billions of members. Since that global industrial culture is what we've got, being able to deal with it is a requirement in any advocated mechanism.)

This would be politically difficult; it would certainly require removing the people insisting on maintaining both the current fixed hierarchy and some, any, fixed hierarchy from access to political power. It would never work perfectly.

But it would work; it would work better than what we have now, as a basis for political discourse; and, most importantly, it would scale to a large and culturally diverse population's need to agree on what is important.

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