Bureaucratic Mirroring

I was interviewed by someone this week who was desperate to find a conspiracy theory. There isn’t one. But she was frustrated. After the interview I described to her the theory of ‘Bureaucratic Mirroring’.

This is the institutional pathology that, even though rationally, people know it’s madness, they can’t escape the subconscious belief that their adversary has the same organisation and structures as they do.

Allegedly a feature of the Cold War, spoofed by Dr Strangelove, the Americans have also been accused of it post 9/11, gearing up for Al Qaeda as though Osama bin Laden had a situation room and Central Command in a bunker under Tora Bora. Bureaucratic Mirroring means you can’t imagine your enemy as other than yourself.

And this came up in conversation over lunch today. We all carry a world-view, a cultural frame of reference and our own personal form of ‘Bureaucratic Mirroring’, assuming others are as we are.

Cosmopolitanism says it ain’t so, we’re all different. Which means letting go of our prejudices and assumptions – as much of any of us can – is vital to escaping our own bunker.

Bayesian Ethics

As I’ve written before, one of my past wrestles is with Utilitarianism: that the moral act is the one with the best consequences regardless of what rules it breaks. I’m now firmly Aristotelian – aka a ‘virtue ethicist’ – we are what we repeatedly do.

But Anthony Appiah the Princeton Philosopher has some challenging things to say about virtue ethics in a Philosophy Bites podcast – including some experiments. And I’m inclined to listen. I like a bit of scientific method.

I like Appiah’s ‘Cosmopolitanism’ too which has helped me articulate my ‘live and let live’ theory of internationalism at work. Humans value culture. Different cultures value different things. And Cosmopolitanism says, short of harm, we should let them. Which I think is about right.

Appiah challenges virtue with ‘experimental ethics’ – seeing what people actually do, rather than what we theorise, and looking inside people’s heads in brain scanners. He finds, for example, nearly everyone gets more generous to strangers if they find a suitably planted $10 note on the floor.

His conclusion is that the idea of a ‘moral’ person in the Aristotelian sense is not borne out by the experimental reality. For him, we make moral choices based on context, stimulus and ‘in the moment’ not based on ‘character’. I don’t entirely agree, but it’s interesting stuff.

Learning to use the head to override the instinctive ‘yuk’ response or being over-influenced by the situation is one of the things he advocates. But only sparingly. Here’s where rules, norms and culture – plus a moral education – might help. But he’s not for becoming too calculating.

He disagrees with Utilitarianism for example. First, because it doesn’t capture the experimental reality of how we respond to moral situations. Second, because were to implement calculating ‘consequentialism’ wide-scale it would dramatically impoverish human existence. Largely because promoting purely rational calculation would tend to demote difference and different views.

Cultural Cosmopolitanism makes life interesting and liveable. And if you’re going to accept difference in culture you have to accept it in worldview and ethics too. That people care about different things is what makes people interesting – and maddening.

I personally think virtue and ‘outlying’ single instances of behaviour are not incompatible. I don’t doubt that you can get very good and very bad moral choices and behaviours out of me if you significantly change my conditions and stimuli.

I also think that the prospects of me making better or worse choices are determined, yes, by the context and circumstances – but crucially, combined with who I am. And who I am is the product of a life lived, previous choices made, data, concepts and theories within and Bayesian probability mashing all that together in a nano-second every time I act.

I think there is ‘virtue’ and I have a ‘character’. It’s just that the complexity of the probabilistic calculations – all done subconsciously by that marvel of existence, a human brain – mean Utilitarianism is too crude and individual ethical experiments are too simple to anything like capture them. I return to my own dictum – if the human brain were simple enough to understand, we’d be too simple to understand it.

So I like Appiah’s ethical experiments – they deserve a well signposted place in my Bayesian brain’s data set – and I’ve shared then with others too to influence them. But virtue, character and Aristotle’s ‘I am what I repeatedly do’ still work best for me. Thanks to Appiah though, I’m also a Cosmopolitan. So I’m delighted to weigh a well-wrought difference of opinion in the Bayesian ethical balance. It all goes in the mix.


If every person is valuable and every person is different, then trying to understand one another is both important and hard. Important because everyone’s point of view matters, hard because though we’re all wired the same, everyone’s inputs – in terms of experiences – are different. And not just our specific experiences, but also the collective norms or culture we absorb.

So I was surprised to read in the New Scientist that people like me are the oddballs internationally, not the norm. The acronym WEIRD, stands for Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic, and being WEIRD certainly makes you odd by world standards.

Whilst I’m persuaded that the Ancient Greeks still have plenty to tell us on how to live our lives, you have to admit they are a bit off beam on facts and evidence sometimes. Aristotle is unmatched on ethics and a painstaking collector of evidence on nature to match Darwin. But some of his conclusions which blend observation and assumption on, for example, physiognomy don’t pass muster in this era of evidence based psychology. For example:

“He that hath but a little beard, is for the most part proud, pining, peevish and unsociable… Great and thick ears are a certain sign of a foolish person, or a bad memory and worse understanding. But small and thin ears show a person to be of a good wit, grave, sweet, thrifty, modest, resolute, of a good memory, and one willing to serve his friend.”

Having examined my ears thoroughly I’m going to forgive myself for developing some theories which experiment and evidence may subsequently prove wrong.

What interested me the most in the studies on WEIRDness was the finding that an ‘egocentric’, highly individualistic, analytic and reductionist worldview is unusual. Talking to a friend today, we concluded it probably started with the Greeks, via Ptolemy and the Enlightenment.

Much of the world is on the contrary holistic, collectivist and allocentric – i.e. orientates by reference to objects in the world instead of describing the world by reference to our place in it. 

Much of this I’m sure is due to the removal of nature from our industrialised lives. But as I said to someone at work today, with India and China rising to global leadership, more of what makes the world turn in future won’t have WEIRDness driving it. Or will it?


last week, in the middle of an all-day management board full of metrics, deficits, claw backs and targets I popped out to talk to 59 fiercely bright teenagers from 59 different countries on a Global Citizenship programme.

As the bright faces from many places surged into the room, I was coming to terms with the fact that the projector was bust and my well crafted presentation on geopolitics and culture was in tatters. Ho hum. So I went for Plan B which was speak from the heart. I opened with the founding articles of UNESCO’s constitution from 1945:

“Since wars begin in the minds of men it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed. Ignorance of each others ways and lives has been a common cause throughout the history of mankind of suspicion and mistrust [which] have all to often broken into war… And that the wide diffusion of culture and the education of humanity… are indispensable to the dignity of man and constitute a sacred duty which all nations must fulfil in a spirit of mutual assistance and concern.”

As said to them, I am a firm believer in ‘founding moments’. It takes great people, but also special circumstances to commit to a different and better way.

I fielded questions about my organisation’s work in education and culture in India, Burma, Aghanistan, Kyrgistan, China and Iran. I talked about what other countries want from the UK and are prepared to work with us on, which varies widely according to the regime, religious beliefs and customs of different countries.

The last question though was a tricky one. “What values do you espouse when you work in other countries and how do you guard against cultural imperialism?” A year ago I’d have struggled with that.

I used to be torn between recognising that if you carry too much ideological baggage or confront cultural differences you get ignored or thrown out, but by the same token you have to stand for something otherwise you feel compromised and weak. I felt that Human Rights were probably where you draw the line, but beyond that I wasn’t sure.

Then I heard Antony Appiah on a Philosophy Bites podcast talking about Cosmopolitanism and it gave me the missing piece in my jigsaw. To paraphrase Wikipedia:

Appiah says Cosmopolitanism is “universality plus difference”, accepting that all of us are fundamentally the same, but we are also all different. He says universality takes precedence over difference and therefore that different cultures are respected “not because cultures matter in themselves, but because people matter, and culture matters to people.” Therefore cultural differences are to be respected in so far as they are not harmful to people and do not conflict with our universal concern for every human’s life and well-being.

When I heard that podcast, some key things slotted into place for me.

So as I said to the 59 young future Global Citizens, I now believe our people should travel light when it comes to values and be interested and curious about difference – even difference we don’t find attractive or acceptable. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights should be stitched into the lining of our jackets, not printed on our tee shirts.

If one of our people finds themselves in a situation where they feel their human rights, or those of another, are being compromised they should feel able to leave. They should be confident the organisation would support them in that. But we are here to engage with difference not shy away from it, we should feel able to say what we each believe and how things are where we come from, but we are not there to singlehandedly confront and change the beliefs of others to be more like ours.

My daughter and I regularly read “We are all born free”, Amnesty International’s super children’s version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She chooses it these days not me.

The 30 Articles, simply put, unarguable, complete and evocatively illustrated. A six year old can largely understand them. And a 42 year old can feel pride in humanity’s occasional capacity to transcend its divisions and write and commit itself to something of lasting value.

I think Cosmopolitanism, with the protection of Human Rights as a floor, is the right answer to a world of cultural difference.

The Fridge Door

I read a top neuroscientist’s suggestion last night that our capacity to understand how the human brain works may ultimately be limited by the capacity of our nervous system. This reminds me of a thought I had when studying philosophy of mind at Oxford: if our brain was simple enough to understand we’d probably be too simple to understand it.

One thing I do believe is that the brain is probabilistic and Bayesian. So I was interested to read what Dorothy Rowe, an Australian psychologist had to say about it in a recent article in the New Scientist:

Over the last 20 years or so, neuroscientists have shown that our brain functions in such a way that we cannot see “reality” directly. All we can ever know are the guesses or interpretations our mind creates about what is going on. To create these guesses, we can only draw on basic human neuroanatomy and on our past experience. Since no two people ever have exactly the same neuroanatomy or experience, no two people ever interpret anything in exactly the same way.

I’m increasingly sure this is right and is part of our everyday experience. But as the world becomes more cosmopolitan, we are more and more likely to encounter people with very similar neuroanatomy, but incredibly different experiences. I’ve read before that humans are very poor judges both of probability and coincidence. When we bump into someone we work with on holiday or a friend we’ve not seen in years in an airport we assume fate, a guiding hand or incredible coincidence.

On holidays this year I bumped into a person from work at a village festival in France, the former Chairman of my organisation on a cliff in Devon and crossed within 6 feet of UK’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, each of us barefoot in shorts on a beach in Cornwall. Incredible. But in fact not. Our brains are tuned for the humdrum of a hamlet, village, smallholding or savanna plain not the incredibly interconnected world of 21st century media, Facebook friends, social networks and ubiquitous travel.

Even if we are from the same physical place, we live on tremendously varied diets of interests, TV and work. The massing moments of the 19th and 20th century: factory gates, church, football, movies and network TV, which gave many people common experiences and outlooks, are no more. What chance then you’ll spontaneously see things the same way as the next man or women at work – almost none.

As Dorothy Rowe writes: This is frightening. It means that each of us lives alone, in our own world of meaning. Moreover, if everything we know is a guess, an approximation, events can, and often will, invalidate our ideas.

I have seen a number of very experienced senior people apply for fewer jobs than there are of them this week. I have spoken at length to several of them. Although trying to hide it, each was frightened, alone and in their own world of meaning. They knew to some degree that future events can and probably will invalidate their ideas of themselves, but each of them was to some extent caught in a solipsistic, self-referencing nightmare of wanting to be in control of their destiny and feeling utterly powerless in the face of their perceptions of the views others held of them – the deciders, their peers, their loved ones, the court of organisational opinion.

As new age writer Don Miguel Ruiz writes: “All the sadness and drama you have lived in your life was rooted in making assumptions and taking things personally. The whole world of control between humans is based on that”. Or as the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus said “it is not things in themselves that trouble us, but our opinions of things”.

So: we cannot see reality directly, we are poor judges of probability and coincidence and we are always guessing at what is happening based on snatched perceptions and an experience set which is always different – and sometimes very different – from those we find ourselves working with. As a result we are perpetually making self-limiting assumptions and taking things personally. Thus we are often alone, fearful and perturbed.

Stoicism is one answer. Endure, expect little and shrug off life’s indignities. Being a hermit is another. But if I seek the fulfilment of a public life of Aristotelian virtue – lit by bright flashes of ‘doing the right thing’ with the courage of Achilles – neither of those is enough.

Given the wrapper of how people ‘interpret’ things is all important, this week I’ve tried several times to remember the advice of a friend I spoke to a couple of weeks ago. He has an autistic, teenage stepson. Tricky. He sometimes tries to correct his behaviour and gets a lively reaction. His wife though has a way which works. Instead of saying “you left the fridge door open” she simply says “the fridge door is open”. Nine times out of ten it gets closed without any drama.

Simply saying how things are or how I see them has worked better for me in a very emotionally charged week than assuming, cajoling, second-guessing or taking things too personally.

Simply saying “the fridge door is open” gets it closed more often than not.