Sunday, July 12, 2015

Reciprocity & Progressive Communitarianism

One of the oldest questions in philosophy is: how should we live?

On some reading of the history of philosophy, we are no closer now at finding an answer than when the question was first widely discussed across the ancient world two and a half thousand years ago.

But this is a misleading picture, reinforced in part by the common fascination with pointing to the differences between thinkers rather than paying more attention to their shared ideas.

Let us look again at the challenge before us: How should we live in relation to each other when there are divergent views and preferences? How should we organise social relationships and power structures? What would be the most desirable approach to adopt in governing our institutions?

One of the first things we may notice is that there is in fact a substantial consensus on what should guide us in working out our responses to these related questions. Admittedly this consensus does not cover individuals who are dismissive of ethical concerns for other people – they care only for their personal gratification, and regard any negative consequences the pursuit of their own interests may have for others as purely something to ignore if at all possible, either by having enough power to ride roughshod over others or by deceiving others into thinking they are not doing anything to encroach on their wellbeing.

For the vast majority of people, the guiding principle they should live by cannot be clearer – namely, the Golden Rule of Reciprocity. The selfish fringe may lack empathy for the feelings of other people, but humankind in general recognise that they should do to others as they would have them do unto them. It is true that not everyone lives up to this maxim all of the time, but it is the basis of our conscience in distinguishing what is to praise and endorse, and what is to blame and curtail.

Not only is the Golden Rule of Reciprocity embedded in the moral code of every civilization, it is reflected in the social interactions of human groups for thousands of years – people hunting and gathering food together and sharing them out without a few taking a disproportionate share while leaving others to starve. Developmental psychology has found that children instinctively share with others without discrimination, and expect to be treated on equal terms whenever they carry out tasks with others.

Even after the emergence of exploitative hierarchies, which enabled self-centred oppressors to take unfair advantage over others, the cultural judgement as indicated in literature and history shows disquiet over such oppression, and yearns for a more inclusive path.

Some authoritarian leaders have tried to justify their seizing greater power and wealth on the grounds that it is supposedly better for everyone. But studies comparing reciprocal cooperation with elite control have consistently found the former is incomparably better for everyone. From business productivity, workplace satisfaction, to conflict resolution and game theory analysis of divergent strategies, the findings all point to the superiority of reciprocity.

In practice, what actions and arrangements will lead to greater mutual benefits has to be ascertained through a reciprocal process of critical assessment. Since no one can claim that he/she is uniquely infallible and everyone else must accept whatever he/she declares to be true, an open exchange of evidence and reasons, backed by a shared commitment to consider arguments on an objective basis, is necessary to test proposals and revise them where appropriate. Even where some people may insist they are speaking for God it is obvious that there is no guarantee that the person is not delusional or mistaking evil commands from whatever source as the authentic voice of their deity.

Drawing on the centrality of reciprocity in ordering human interactions and the need for cooperative endeavours in establishing the reliability of claims and proposals, a group of thinkers have over time developed what has been termed the outlook of progressive communitarianism, which encapsulates these ideas in three core principles (see ‘Communitarians: an introduction’):
• The principle of cooperative enquiry
• The principle of mutual responsibility
• The principle of citizen participation

The first two principles deal with how people should work out what beliefs they can count on, and why they accept their responsibility for helping others as they would want others to help them, respectively. The third requires any decision that affects a group of people be subject to the deliberative input of those people.

Progressive communitarianism is the articulation of reciprocity as a guiding philosophy. It is neither authoritarian nor anarchic, but radically democratic in its emphasis on equal respect and opportunity for all concerned to participate in assessing beliefs and making decisions. It is not nostalgically conservative in rejecting new practices, nor is it casually iconoclastic in attacking past customs; but simply concerned with reforming what on the available evidence can become better. It neither romanticises any particular community as the source of all values, nor glorifies unencumbered individuals as bearers of inalienable rights to do whatever they want; but regards human relationships as full of potential for mutual enrichment provided the governance arrangements in place facilitate their development.

For an introduction to the kind of governance proposed on progressive communitarian grounds, see ‘Communitarian Governance: a 9-point guide’.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Communitarian Governance: a 9-point guide

The effective governance of any group or organisation is essential to its success. No matter if we are concerned with how to run a firm (corporate governance), a neighbourhood or city (local governance), a country (national governance), or an international body (global governance), we need to have the most reliable approach for ensuring that all those involved will act in pursuit of their common objective.

Political, management, and psychological theories all point to a spectrum of ideas with an authoritarian system at one end and an anarchic model at the other. Between the authoritarian (which places the power to decide and command in an unquestionable elite) and the anarchic (which relies on decisions and actions backed by the unanimous agreement of individuals at every turn), there are communitarian approaches that combine democratic cooperation for making rules with universal enforcement to tackle irresponsibility and free-riding.

Communitarian governance rejects both handing power irrevocably to a few to dictate to others, and granting everyone a veto to block anything that does not on a given occasion suit them. Instead it relies on three tried and tested principles for enabling people to work together, namely the principles of mutual responsibility, cooperative enquiry, and citizen participation (see ‘Communitarians: an introduction’ for an outline of the three principles; see ‘Communitarianism: a new agenda for politics and citizenship’ for a book-length exposition). And it applies these to the three key domains of group interaction, namely, problem-solving culture, power structure, and accountability system (see ‘Together We Can’ for further resources on how to develop a cooperative problem-solving culture; see ‘Against Power Inequalities’ for a historical review of power structures; and see ‘Responsibility’ for an analysis of the conditions under which people should be held responsible for their behaviour).

This gives us 9 essential communitarian elements for achieving the most effective governance:

Embedding mutual responsibility in the problem-solving culture, power structure, and accountability system of the group/organisation in question

1. Shared Mission
All members of the group need to have a shared understanding of their collective mission or purpose. They should see that the group is organised to enable them to join forces for their respective wellbeing.
* Measures of success: How widely is the core mission owned and appreciated by all members? How convinced are members that they have an organisation which has the rules and capacity to achieve their mission?
* Signs of weakness: Disorder – individuals sense chaos, insecurity, indifference, constant conflict, and the sum being notably less than its parts.

2. You-&-I Mutuality
The benefits/resources generated by the group are shared on terms of genuine mutuality, and no individual or section is at liberty to amass what comes from the group’s collective endeavours to enrich themselves at the expense of others.
* Measures of success: Are there arrangements in place to prioritise, adjudicate & enforce the fair distribution of benefits? Are all members confident the arrangements will operate reliably and impartially?
* Signs of weakness: Exploitation – some members feeling that others have privileged access to what is produced by the group, and they are constantly marginalised and deprived of their share.

3. Nimble Membership
There is a responsive and transparent membership system that underpins who is brought into the group and who may be excluded from it, and makes clear to all those who are on board what their rights & duties are in relation to the group.
* Measures of success: Is there a sustainable and non-discriminatory process to recruiting, inducting, rejecting & expelling members? Do members know what is expected of them individually and that they will be held to account through appropriate reviews if they act irresponsibly? How clear is there a decision path for assessing membership issues such as merger/federation with other groups?
* Signs of weakness: Unsustainability – with too few/too many members to function effectively; having unsuitable members to utilise the resources; or members distrustful of the process of determining their membership, and/or that for accepting/excluding new ones.

Embedding cooperative enquiry in the problem-solving culture, power structure, and accountability system of the group/organisation in question

4. Educative Collaboration
All member of the group are able to learn together what they should do and what changes would be suitable to make.
* Measures of success: Is there a culture of lifelong learning? Are members supported to engage in deliberative exchanges to inform their beliefs, policies, and practices?
* Signs of weakness: Thoughtlessness – members detached from thinking through why things are done in their group; they casually accept or reject ideas & instructions. There is a lack of interest in learning from each other or from other sources.

5. Testing of Claims and Assumptions
The group does not privilege any doctrine or assertion as unquestionable, nor does it grant anyone the authority to make claims that others must accept without due evidence or reason.
* Measures of success: How confident are members in questioning claims put forward by those in more highly ranked positions? Is everyone aware that nothing (in the name of ‘tradition’ or anything else) can be ring-fenced from empirical analysis? Is open and critical discussion of current and new ideas encouraged and facilitated?
* Signs of weakness: Dogmatism – irrational beliefs taking hold & undermining intelligent considerations. Widespread feeling there is no point or scope in subjecting any activity to critical questioning.

6. Open Access to Information
There is a vibrant information system so nothing untoward is hidden and useful information is widely shared.
* Measures of success: How reliable are the communication channels in place to facilitate inspection, audit, whistleblowing, peer review to keep wrongdoing at bay? How easy is it for members to discover and access relevant and accurate information about the group’s past performance and future options?
* Signs of weakness: Concealment – the systematic or regular shielding of irresponsible actions; the deliberate refusal or obstruction to members seeking to find out more about what has been done in the group and why.

Embedding citizen participation in the problem-solving culture, power structure, and accountability system of the group/organisation in question

7. Participatory Decision-Making
The group respects every member equally in being entitled to participate in the making of decisions that affect them, and enables all members to contribute to those decisions on an informed and deliberative basis.
* Measures of success: Are the procedures for decision-making clear to all members? How extensive are training and participation opportunities made available? And how effective are they in ensuring that no one will be ignored or disrespected? How well are joint decision-making facilitated so it is carried out rationally and inclusively? Does the joint decision-making apply to how to divide and distribute the surplus generated by the group?
* Signs of weakness: Disengagement – a significant number of members either lack the information or skills to make sensible decisions, or decline to become involved in decision making altogether. Insufficiently thought-through or biased decisions systemically harm the organisation & its members.

8. Impartial Distribution of Power
The group abides by the democratic ethos so that no one is permitted to possess so much power that they can intimidate or dictate terms to others.
* Measures of success: Are there safeguards in place to stop individuals or sections in the group accumulating power? Is there a regular and effective redistribution of power so that even concentrated powers for emergencies are only granted on temporary basis? Are there checks and balances so that no one can hold others to ransom by threats?
* Signs of weakness: Oppression – the suppression of dissent and pervasive enforcement of reluctant compliance. Fear, resentment, distrust of the leaders.

9. Accountability for Action
The group is protected by a robust accountability system so those entrusted with higher authority to act on behalf of all members are unlikely to take actions that are against the wider interest of the group or are to benefit themselves solely without due consent from the group.
* Measures of success: Are there transparent electoral or selection process to replace those with positions of authority? How easy is it to detect unjustifiable actions? Are there reliable mechanisms for all to trigger to summon potential wrongdoers to account for their actions? Are members supported in being vigilant in challenging decisions that appear to be illegitimate?
* Signs of weakness: Corruption – some stay in positions of power regardless of concerns raised; some are suspected of placing their own personal interests and/or those who bribe them above the collective interests of members in general, and subvert the group for the gains of a few.


Anyone interested in the theoretical foundations for the nine elements we have set out can refer to the supplementary resources cited above. For those who want to focus on their practical applications, they can cross-check each of the nine elements against their own organisation’s governance, and mark each one out of ten. This will provide them with a snapshot of their relative strengths and weaknesses, and also how robust their governance is overall. Each element can be further specified with more detailed criteria. But for the purpose of offering a framework for assessing governance in general, this guide is a good place to start.