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Nicholas Agar
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This week, Project Syndicate catches up with Nicholas Agar, a professor of ethics at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

Project Syndicate: If, as you recently noted, human ingenuity is tied to our desire to understand and control nature, has hubris contributed to the current pandemic? How might this reminder of humanity’s enduring vulnerability affect the path of innovation?

Nicholas Agar: Wouldn’t it be great if we viewed our vulnerability not as a problem in need of a technological solution, but as an opportunity to see past our differences and make the most of our evolved sociality? It’s clear that some suffer more than others from COVID-19. But I hope we can still view it mainly as a shared challenge for our species. If we come through this together, we’ll be better prepared for the next shock, which may well have nothing to do with infectious disease.

Technological solutions can be excellent when they arise. (Thanks, penicillin!) But when we imagine future fixes, we often omit the messy human element. It’s jarring to read now about how the digital gig economy was initially marketed: as an innovation that would turn disempowered employees into flourishing micro-entrepreneurs. Attempting to refocus innovation, in order to control for some specific future scenario, is a recipe for disappointment.

Of course, I hope that we will get a cheap and effective COVID-19 vaccine soon. But while we wait, let’s celebrate working together to protect the lives of others. This would beat the type of cooperation and sacrifice we traditionally celebrate: teaming up in war to kill a designated set of foreigners.

Early in New Zealand’s lockdown, we celebrated Anzac Day, which commemorates the sacrifices of young people who headed off to the Dardanelles in 1915 to invade Turkey. If you’re interested in New Zealand, please join me in a call for a day commemorating sacrifices that don’t involve killing.

PS: Last October, you expressed concern that, as more and more tasks are automated, the “involuntary social mixing” that is essential to the functioning of diverse, multiethnic societies will decline. The COVID-19 crisis now seems to be accelerating this decline, by encouraging automation, remote work, and other social-distancing practices. Paradoxically, now that excessive human interaction seems riskier than ever, the “new social economy” you have advocated seems more relevant than ever. What would it take to make it work in the post-pandemic world?

NA: For reasons rooted in evolutionary history, it’s tragically easy to manipulate people into believing that foreigners, immigrants, and refugees are rapists, drug dealers, and so on. But the more we interact with those who look, act, and think differently from us, the harder it becomes to believe rubbish about them.

I remember my most recent handshake well. In preparing for lockdown, I got a haircut. As the barber, who was originally from Iraq, took care of (what remains of) my hair, we had a great chat. Before I left, he proffered his hand. I felt awkward, because I knew that handshakes were against the rules. But I shook his hand anyway, hoping that it wouldn’t send either of us to the intensive care unit.

I hope that’s not my last-ever handshake. But even if handshakes are off the table (at least for a while), as we design the post-pandemic world, we must not underestimate the importance of mingling with people visibly different from us.

I don’t have any Iraqis in my closest circle of friends, and I dread the prospect of learning about them from my Facebook News Feed. After all, then I would be at the mercy of an algorithm that may serve me content implying that I should assume my barber is a terrorist, simply because he is an Iraqi immigrant. Whatever our economic and social systems look like after the pandemic, unchosen social interactions – with co-workers, baristas, and barbers – must remain central to them.

PS: Many people’s isolation did not begin with the pandemic. Last year, you noted that 40% of Americans say they’re lonely, up from 20% in the 1980s, and argued that today’s social-media platforms, can’t mitigate this, “because they are designed to serve up a biased sample of social experience.” But could technology, in principle, be adapted to compensate for missing human interactions?

NA: It seems unlikely. Even as the world has embraced tech-enabled social networking, loneliness has seemed to be on the rise. The craving for connection can spur the adoption of “social” technologies. Part of me has lately been wondering which videoconferencing-company founder will be the world’s next billionaire. But physical hunger can spur us to purchase sugary snacks or fizzy drinks, which do little to nourish us. In the end, social media probably fulfill our social needs about as effectively as those snacks and drinks fulfill our nutritional needs.

This is borne out by the lockdown experience. Despite virtually unlimited access to social media, many are facing significant psychosocial consequences. My wife, who works at New Zealand’s Health Promotion Agency, Te Hiringa Hauora, has seen this firsthand. Isolated people may be able to leave a comment on a Facebook post. But will that be enough to keep them – unable to browse bookstores or sit in cafes, interacting with staff or other customers – from being tipped into despair?

PS: Another likely long-term effect of the COVID-19 crisis will be a shift away from the humanities toward curricula driven by labor-market demand, much like what happened after the 2008 global financial crisis. True, the pandemic is raising questions about the desirability of the systems we have long taken for granted – precisely the kinds of questions you suggest the humanities can help us to answer. But how can frequently debt-burdened students and revenue-seeking university administrators be convinced that, say, Plato’s Republic or Conrad’s Lord Jim still matter?

NA: Recent history is littered with the wrecks of overconfident forecasts about the future. This dangerous arrogance emerges naturally from academic specialization. Economists insist emphatically on their proprietary truths; technologists respond in kind. The expansive thinking of the humanities, however, can combat this tunnel vision.

Of course, some students must specialize, in order to meet immediate labor-market needs. But the broad thinking that the humanities encourage remains just as vital to functioning and prosperous societies. Emphasizing this reality – and taking steps to stop saddling young people with debt – is essential to revive interest in these crucial fields of study.


PS: You recently tweeted, “I think we have to make the most of any possibilities for ethical resets brought by this horror.” To your mind, which “resets” are the most important or feasible?

NA: It’s a fair bet that the post-coronavirus world will bring both positive and negative changes. I hope for an ethical reset that strengthens the positive.

I understand that this is a hope, not a forecast. But we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of a world free of racial injustice, even though we know that, nearly 60 years after he expressed it, his vision remains far from being realized. In fact, we have recently seen some backward steps. Perhaps King’s dream was too ambitious. But I’d rather approach the future with King’s unrealistic dreams than with Elon Musk’s overconfident, self-promoting tech forecasts and Martian reveries.

PS: You teach a course that “aims to make the most of one of our most precious resources to better prepare for the future.” For those of us who won’t be able to join, what key lessons or principles could help guide our thinking about the future?

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NA: I hope that the variously attributed line, “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart; if you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain,” isn’t true. But even if it is, that’s ten years to move the world in a positive direction, before jadedness sets in.

I’m done with giving lectures that emphasize to young people how much they don’t know. So I designed a course to make the most of a distinct advantage enjoyed by young minds: the fascination with new ideas. I don’t believe that a universal basic income is the solution to our problems. But many of my students love the idea, and this makes me want to learn more.

I suggest that we view imagination – and the sometimes-crazy ideas it produces – as a form of insurance for a future that no one can predict, no matter how strongly they claim that they can. (My skepticism about forecasting comes partly from Philip Tetlock’s work on our excessive trust in the predictions of supposed experts.) So, in addition to properly referenced philosophy essays, I assign students to write opinion pieces in the format of those Project Syndicate publishes. They know that they have 800 words to sell me on their boldest ideas about the future. I probably won’t believe them, but I may take them into account in my acquisition of “imagination insurance.”

PS: New Zealand, your home country, has been widely hailed for its response to the COVID-19 crisis. But, last month, you warned that the country should not end its lockdown prematurely. How do you rate the country’s response today? While obviously it has done much better than many others, have there been weaknesses or missteps that need to be acknowledged or corrected?

NA: Fingers crossed that New Zealand can eradicate this virus. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s leadership has been pretty inspirational. More broadly, it seems that female leaders have generally done better during the pandemic than their male counterparts. So, rather than critiquing our COVID-19 response, I will offer some unsolicited advice to Americans: perhaps it is time to reconsider an electoral system that commences with primaries and seems to disadvantage women. I highly doubt that Ardern’s very successful Labour Party predecessor, Helen Clark (who was prime minister from 1999 to 2008), could have taken power had New Zealand subjected her to primaries. And without Clark, there probably would be no Ardern.

Of course, New Zealand also had enduring problems that I hope Ardern can address, such as widening inequality. We think of ourselves as very egalitarian, but the statistics say otherwise.

PS: How have you maintained social engagement during the lockdown period?

NA: It’s been difficult, but we as a family have done well. And we are lucky that both my wife’s job and mine are safe, for now. But I am really enjoying answering your questions in one of Wellington’s recently reopened cafes.

Agar recommends

We ask all our Say More contributors to tell our readers about a few books that have impressed them recently. Here are Agar's picks:

  • Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection

    Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection

    This book describes social neuroscientist Cacciopo’s pioneering research on the deleterious effects of social isolation on an obligatorily gregarious animal, memorably comparing the health effects of loneliness with those of smoking. Cacciopo’s ideas had such a big impact on my thinking as I was writing my own book, How to Be Human in the Digital Economy, that I formulated an appreciative email to send him, only to discover that he had just died.

  • The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality

    The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality

    This book adduces impressive data charting rises in inequality that seem to abate only with tragedies like pandemics and mass warfare. The bubonic plague was a big enough shock, over successive generations, to make things better for working people. It seems sociopathic to lament that COVID-19 may make things worse for poor people by not being enough of a shock.

From the PS Archive

From 2019

Agar shows why toxic ideals are often more effective in galvanizing humans than “utopian” ideals that could improve the world. Read more.

From 2020

Agar warns against allowing technological advances to inflate our expectations of forthcoming breakthroughs. Read more.

Around the web

In his latest book, How to Be Human in the Digital Economy, Agar explores how to make a place for humans (and humanness) in the future digital economy. Find it here.

Agar argues that, instead of meekly surrendering the right to work to machines, we could aim for a social digital economy. Read the article.