‘The highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding, because to understand is to be free.’
– Baruch Spinoza, Ethics
Freedom is precious. Not only is it essential for the full expression and development of our individual creative potential, it is essential for the full expression and development of our potential as a team, a community, a nation, and a species. Reinforcing freedom as a principle or norm that shapes our behaviour in relation to others, and ourselves, is fundamental. As argued by Philip Pettit, exercising freedom as non-domination allows us to adopt a truly democratic stance in relation to others and is essential in our efforts to redesign our environment and our relationship with the environment (Pettit, 2014). The requirement to collectively and continuously redesign our environment and our relationship with the environment is ever-present and shapes our best efforts in the areas of education, science, technology, and governance. However, much of our social activity in education, science, technology, and governance is not conducive to freedom as non-domination. We are rarely free from domination. Our approach to education often constrains the freedom of expression, creativity, critical thinking, and collaborative capacity of the developing person; the practice of science often reinforces dominance hierarchies, a separation of academic disciplines, and language barriers that inhibit our capacity for synthesis and collective approaches to problem solving; technologists often develop technologies that disempower creativity, critical thinking, damage well-being, and distance people from deep forms of social and emotional engagement; democratic governments largely reinforce a model of representative democracy that fails to empower deep and meaningful co-creation, collaboration, and engagement of citizens in the policy and planning activities that shape their world. Freedom as non-domination needs to be won, and this, I believe, is a major task of cultural evolution.
If Spinoza was right, we need to understand in order to be free. But what do we need to understand? The answer is many things – and we have indeed come to understand many things over the course of our cultural evolution. Cultural evolution implies a social exchange process, the sharing of knowledge and, often, it implies working as part of a team to understand problems as they arise. This understanding helps us to survive, adapt, and flourish. If working together as a team is critical to our success as a species, then we need to study teams directly. Indeed, if Spinoza was right, we may need to understand teams in order to be free.
As time goes on, I focus more on teams when thinking about societal problems and resolving societal problems. This implies a particular stance in relation to social science and applied social science – a collective stance. It also implies a particular moral philosophy. Although we may not be able to derive our moral philosophy from the facts of social science (Hogan, 2011), we are free to ground our applied social science, and our approach to societal problem solving, in principles derived from our moral philosophy. In the approach to applied social science I am advocating, we begin by highlighting a simple principle that implies a democratic and collective approach to societal activities designed to resolve societal problems. The societal activity referred to here is the collective intelligence and collective action of groups working together to resolve what they perceive as societal problems. I believe it is valuable to ground this societal activity in a common, shared standard of freedom, more specifically, the principle of freedom as non-domination.
Phillip Pettit, in his book, Just Freedom, champions a simple standard for our most complex political judgements (Pettit, 2014). While many scholars define freedom as the absence of interference – we are left alone to do as we please – Pettit proposes that in their basic life choices free persons should not even be subject to a power of interference on the part of others. This principle of freedom as non-domination provides a simple, unifying standard for evaluating social and democratic progress. It also provides a basis for progressively redesigning our approach to political decision-making, and for analysing the political decisions we make.
Applied social science is a group activity: it seeks to draw upon the knowledge and intelligence of a group of people to facilitate resolution of a problematic situation. Thus, the focus is on a group of people working together. As an approach to problem solving and decision-making it resonates with participatory democracy, where a group of people work together using a democratic process to develop policies and plans, and then follow through with collective activities that help to realise those plans. Participatory democracy is different from representative democracy. It’s more direct: it emphasises participation and co-creation amongst citizens and public administrators. It moves beyond a model of democracy where citizens simply vote to select political representatives and then pass over control for policy and planning to the politicians. Applied social science, like participatory democracy, is an approach to group problem solving where all group members are free from domination. This allows them to maximize their potential to contribute as equals to the problem solving activity of the group. If individual group members are not free from domination, if they cannot communicate their knowledge, exercise their intelligence, and exercise openness – squarely, non-reactively, and non-submissively looking one another in the eye – and contribute to the collective intelligence of the group, then they cannot co-lead the collective intelligence and collective action of the group. The principle of freedom as non-domination implies collective empowerment, equality, and a shared, normative social justice that upholds the status of every member of the group as a leader amongst co-leaders.
Although research suggests that interaction in diverse groups can increase the range of perspectives discussed and improve the performance of problem-solving groups, in the absence of a wide societal embrace of the principle of freedom as non-domination, diverse group members may be averse to coming together as a team, and group facilitators may find it difficult to persuade them to work together and share their intelligence. When they do come together, they may unwittingly allow aspects of social diversity (race, gender, age) that are historically linked to dominance hierarchies, result in interpersonal conflict, communication problems, and lowered cohesion, which in turn reduce their overall group performance. In so doing, the group may neglect the value of task-relevant diversity (knowledge, skills, social-network resources), that promotes information gathering, information evaluation, and other creative and reflective thinking processes which ultimately enhance group performance (Mannix and Neale, 2005).
One of the things I love about Spinoza is that he reminds us, quite plainly, that freedom comes at a cost – there is some effort involved, both individually and collectively. Freedom is contingent upon learning and understanding, which require effort and the application of our intelligence. Understanding anything implies that we exercise our intelligence – and solve problems that impede the development of our understanding, as they arise. Whether we work alone or as part of a team, exercising our intelligence involves various psychological and cognitive processes including identifying and clarifying problems, generating hypotheses and ideas, identifying, clarifying, and evaluating evidence and opinions from a variety our sources, judging the strength of relationships and the probability of events, aggregating information, and making decisions.
As noted by Strass et al. (2009), it can be useful to draw a distinction between a decision, which implies a commitment to a course of action intended to yield a specific outcome, and a judgment, which involves an opinion in relation to an issue. Naturally, judgments can be made fast or slow, they can also vary in quality by reference to the evidence used to support an opinion, and a judgment may act as an intermediate step in advance of arriving at a decision. We make decisions all the time, and governments make decisions for us too, based on their best intelligence. In a policymaking context, judgments are often seen as the product of intelligence analysis work, which may involve drawing upon available scientific research and other sources of information; whereas decisions are often seen as the product of policymakers. For example, as scientists, we may offer an opinion in relation to policy, but we don’t make the policy decisions. Furthermore, in common practice, policymakers rarely engage in intelligence analysis work, and thus they may superimpose their own judgment on the judgement derived from intelligence work, or indeed reject or ignore the intelligence presented to them. This poses a significant problem for societal problem-solving, one of many problems in this broad problem field. In a more ideal world, policymakers would be included in the team that engages in intelligence analysis of societal problems, much like citizens would be involved more directly in policymaking. In practice, this involves restructuring our overall societal approach to policymaking, specifically, by involving more of the population in the process. Currently, very small governance teams make very important decisions on our behalf. Multiple interacting teams, coordinating the collective intelligence of the population, would be more consistent with the principle of freedom as non-domination (Pettit, 2014).
Hogan, M. J. (2011). The Empty Landscape: A critical analysis of Sam Harris’ book, The Moral Landscape, in light of the requirements of systems science The Irish Psychologist, 37(9-10), 235-242.
Mannix, E., & Neale, M. A. (2005). What Differences Make a Difference?: The Promise and Reality of Diverse Teams in Organizations. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 6(2), 31-55.
Pettit, P. (2014). Just freedom: A moral compass for a complex world (1st Edition. ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Straus, S. G., Andrew M. P., James B. B. and Jacob W. D. (2009). The Group Matters: A Review of the Effects of Group Interaction on Processes and Outcomes in Analytic Teams. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.