Saturday, August 17, 2013

31 reasons why institutions exist to do what they do

Just why institutions exist to do what they do isn't so easy to discern. 

I had an undergraduate Philosophy professor who, earlier in his career, had pastored a large church in the northwestern U.S. in the midst of some of the most turbulent times of the 1960s.  (I believe it was in Oregon.) It grew from virtually nothing to around 500 members, and he confessed he never quite knew just why.  To the consternation of many, he regularly turned-down speaking engagements and book offers from people wanting him to come and reveal his "secret" for church growth.  He was as understated a man as he was insightful.  He also studied some under a well-known philosopher with the enviable career name of John Wisdom. As is often the case with undergraduate studies, one remembers the style and methods of instruction almost to the complete exclusion of content. But from those studies, I do remember a remark he made about institutions, and it has been rattling around in my mind for many years. Lately, I went casting [1] about trying to interpret what his quote meant, which I note at the end of this list.

01. Institutions exist to serve man.
02. Institutions exist to classify us.
03. Institutions exist to impart stability.
04. Institutions exist to tell us how we can help.
05. Institutions exist to reduce transaction costs.
06. Social institutions exist to satisfy social needs.
07. Institutions exist to further the ends of individuals.
08. Institutions exist to reduce uncertainty in the world.
09. Institutions exist to solve the problems peoples face.
10. Institutions exist to check dangerous human appetites.
11. Institutions exist to organize people toward a purpose.
12. Institutions exist to actually provide responsive services.
13. Institutions exist to support and condone the "status quo".
14. Institutions exist to help solve collective action problems.
15. Institutions exist to reduce uncertainty in human interaction.
16. Institutions exist to constrain state power vis-`a-vis their citizens.
17. Institutions exist to govern the inter-dependencies among smaller units.
18. Institutions exist to reduce uncertainties involved in human interaction.
19. Institutions exist to provide order, which makes self-determination possible.
20. Institutions exist to serve and strengthen the society of which they are part.
21. Institutions exist to make binding decisions when competing interests are at odds.
22. Institutions exist to mediate tensions and maintain equilibrium between competing interests.
23. Institutions exist to keep themselves alive, make some people rich, and control the rest of us.
24. Institutions exist to pass on current knowledge and to add to the knowledge we humans already have.
25. Institutions exist to perpetuate themselves just as they are. The goal is that they will never change.
26. Institutions exist to serve the delivery of programs and services that move the people toward the vision.
27. Institutions emerge and persist because they resolve some problem of survival and adaptation faced by a population.
28. Institutions exist to help us out of situations that are too painful for people and entire communities to contemplate.
29. Social, political and economic institutions exist to serve a small class of elite much to the detriment of human progress.
30. Institutions exist to ensure a Pareto optimal outcome-—that is, outcomes where no one can be made better off without making someone worse off.
31. Institutions exist to perpetuate their existence and promote their agenda, to funnel power in specific directions, with the assumption that their existence is valuable and necessary.

And, of course, to the credit of my old Philosophy teacher, the best one:

00. The only real rule is that "institutions exist to perpetuate themselves."

Okay, maybe it's 32 reasons, but 00 seems awfully close to "bachelors exist to marry no one."  I wonder if he was pulling my leg?



[1] I don't claim to have come-up with any of these, but merely did a Google search and spent way too much time plucking and pasting them into a text file, much like a boy might put a beetle in a box, only to forget what it looks like once it's in there.

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Saturday, August 10, 2013

Can Philosophers job strike?

Philosophers can hold signs and chant but, ironically, it's not clear they can actually stop working.

This picture makes me wonder about Philosophy as a job as compared to philosophy as a mode or style of thinking. If one has a job they can go on strike, but how can one go on strike from thinking? Suppose you were a philosopher. Maybe you'd think about different things, or maybe you would chose as often as possible to think differently, or even irrationally, about various subjects. But you can't exactly stop thinking, akin to how one might stop baking, or butchering, or candlestick making.

Generally, people strike because they feel their labor does not net them some appropriate level of material good or consumer services.  But philosophers do philosophy like vocal musicians do music.  Even when they're not getting paid, they tend to operate in the mode -- as vocal musicians tend to constantly hum or even outright sing to themselves, sometimes not even knowing it.  Philosophers likewise find it unnatural to "turn off the beam" as it were, constantly mulling over chains of evidence or counterarguments to various positions of interest. (This can often make sleeping a challenge.)

For some disciplines, people say those disciplines define who they are in some psychologically essential sense.  "I'm a writer.  That's what I am, and nothing else.  To write is to live!" and other such writing quotes abound. Many philosophers and musicians make equally strong claims about themselves in relation to their discipline.  They are not "working" the are "being". [1]  But imagine a sewer cleaner or dishwasher making the same level of claim on what they do.  It would seem very odd that a person would define the core of their being by such trivial activities.  Society seems to affirm my intuition here, since we don't have statues, schools, or bridges named after people in occupations.  However, we must be careful here, as works like this show we might indeed have statues which honor the role an occupation plays in society, but not the singular person him- or her-self whose essence is defined by that role, since such a role is not one that can adequately define a person's character.  More generally, being a hard worker, say, is a laudable fact about a person's character; but being a sewer worker is a trivial fact about their character (if it's a character fact at all).  Imagine being a hard worker, but being a state-sponsored torturer. Should that person get a statue?  I think not! [2]

Perhaps a strike would actually be about the contract for conditions of the activity, where the conditions were no longer being met by the employer.  The musician contracts to be at a certain place, time, etc and to make greater efforts to maximize their talent than s/he otherwise would if s/he hadn't contracted for a payment, yet the payment side of the contract isn't met or has suddenly become unfair on other grounds. [3] The parallel would then be true for the philosopher.  On their side of the contract, for both the musician and the philosopher the payment is for attentiveness and focus, not just for the simple activity itself.  But that addresses the level of the work, not the simply the doing (or not) of the work itself.   Overall, then, I still argue the philosopher (and similar character-essence disciplines) cannot really stop working; though, they can certainly stop working well.


[1] This reminds me of the paradoxical capitalist proverb, "If you find a job you love, you'll never work again" as uttered by Winston Churchill. The saying also might have the utility of explaining why some philosophers often appear not to be working: it's an unfortunate side-effect of loving their job so much.

[2] My analysis on the torturer here is drawn from a point that the philosopher Immanuel Kant made about virtues -- namely, that in the wrong context of willing something, virtues function as vices.  For example, consider Pat, a cool-headed, intelligent person.  At first glance, it seems Pat has at least two virtues, but now also note that Pat is a robber.  Suddenly those virtues take on a new place in the morally despicable character of the person.

[3] Imagine that owner Carol contracts with banjoist Jeb to play bluegrass music at a local Okie honkytonk in 1933 for the minimum wage of 50 cents an hour, six hours a nite.  But in 2013 the same (now geezer) owner waves the original signed document and says "a deal's a deal,  Jeb!"  Here the extenuating grounds for unfairness are easy to identify, and should have consequences.