Picking the Right Kind of Leader

Part 1 of “The Next Enlightenment”

When a new social vision inspires people, society changes rapidly. This has happened many times. Neither power structures nor economic circumstances can usually stand in the way.¹

But we haven’t had an inspiring new vision in a long time. In this series, I will outline what one might look like. I’ll start with an important part of that: knowing who’s vision to trust. Here are five questions to ask before you drink someone’s kool-aid.

#1. Do they have a lonely idea of freedom?

Most of us do! Here’s a story to illustrate: imagine a young bitcoin millionaire named Edward bought land and food to live alone in the mountains. He wanted to be free. But here’s what he found:

  • Being on his own limited him (naturally) to one-person projects;
  • Without exchanges and external inputs, his thoughts and explorations had a limited range;
  • Any dreams which would require forming a new community (as most dreams do) were off the table;
  • And most importantly, Edward found himself avoiding paths that would lead him through difficult times. Such paths are hard to manage alone.

So Edward wasn’t that free after all. All of us are a bit like Edward in his solitude. We may have friends and community, but if our friends are overworked, otherwise preoccupied, or just fixed in their routines, they’ll have limited capacity to join us. It is only as we become available to one another, and capable of taking on things together, that we truly become free. Nevertheless, many of the building blocks of modern Western civilization — cars, single family homes, gym routines, smartphones, television, full time work, even psychotherapy — serve to isolate us. They have hugely negative impacts on our availability, and thus our freedom.

#2. From where do they think justice comes: from “disinterested” systems, or from individuals developing a moral sense?

A century ago, moral decisions were more often made by individuals. Decisions like who to hire and fire, to whom to give a loan, or which customers to serve, were made based on some human person’s sense of right and wrong.

In the 21st century, such decisions are more often made by a committee, a rulebook, an off-site consultant, or an algorithm. This procedural approach was adopted in the name of fairness, justice, efficiency, and scale. But it has also created a gap between individuals and the moral consequences of their actions.

That gap must collapse. Bankers must walk with families through their foreclosed homes; technologists must spend time amongst the users whose lives they structure. A just society requires everyone to develop themselves morally. This means everyone must be given power, allowed to make mistakes, and then be exposed to the human consequences of their actions.

#3. Do they help people pursue their own meanings, or do they just develop incentives-driven or image-driven environments?

Picture two people, Larry and Sarah:

  • Larry lives in luxury and has every imaginable comfort, with a bank account he will never exhaust. But Larry’s affluence has become an insulator, an isolator. He doesn’t see his true friends often, and he doesn’t have projects that are meaningful to him.
  • Sarah, on the other hand, may not be materially wealthy. But she has a freedom many wealthy people seek: She fills her days with the most meaningful work that she can dream up. Her workplace, while simple, gives her space to focus and colleagues to brainstorm with. She confronts life, accompanied by close friends and lovers.

It is Larry’s life that is held up as the American (and European) dream. And modern socioeconomic policies aim for more lives like Larry’s. These policies have focused on the wrong kind of living. We have relatively little understanding of how to spread Sarah’s kind of wealth.

#4. Which kind of knowledge do they put first?

We’ve built engines to collect, distribute, and certify scientific knowledge — e.g., textbooks, laboratories, and universities. We have also developed methods to verify this knowledge: scholarly debates, laboratory replications, the proofs of mathematics, and so on.

But knowledge of how to live well remains disorganized hearsay, presided over by nonsense authorities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Deepak Chopra. We have no good methods for checking or organizing it (no wikipedias, scientific archives, citation indexes, etc). It’s time to start thinking about what organized wisdom looks like. It’s time to build engines of wisdom.

#5. Do they create systems that emphasize integrity or just systems that create responsibility?

First as children, then as adults, one lesson gets drilled into us by every system we encounter: “Fulfill your contracts and obligations!”

But integrity is rarely encouraged in us: we aren’t taught to take on just the obligations we believe in, or to break contracts when it’s the right thing to do. We aren’t taught how to discover our values and to live by them.

This elevation of responsibility above integrity carries huge costs. Love becomes a matter of setting and meeting expectations. Work becomes about punching the clock. Ethics, beauty, and courage get pushed out of our lives when they don’t fit into our contractual obligations.

By putting integrity back in its rightful place, we can bring back ethics, beauty, courage, love, and autonomous work. So, ask yourself: what systems would encourage integrity?

Have We Been Doing It Wrong?

A certain idea of human beings excited the philosophers and political theorists of the Enlightenment (like Locke and Rousseau). The idea was that people had individual and social goals, and could form agreements (contracts) to work towards their goals together.

This goal/contract-focus infected the guiding principles they gave us. They believed that people should have the freedom to pursue individual goals, the wealth to fund them, and the knowledge to execute them. They believed responsibility meant fulfilling contracts, and justice meant intervening when goals conflict.

But these principles ignore our non-goal drives (values), our non-contractual relationships (explorations), and our non-technical knowledge (wisdom).

Modern societies are based on a misunderstanding of human beings. Because of this, our principles aren’t serving us: We have inherited a miserable freedom, the wrong kind of wealth, a drab sort of knowledge. And our notions of responsibility and justice cause more problems than they solve.

But there’s good news: each of us can discover, within ourselves, what Locke and Rousseau missed.

As will become clear in the following posts, emphasizing these neglected parts of ourselves (our non-goal drives, our non-contractual relationships, and our non-technical knowledge) leads to a new political vision and new social principles.

This post is first in a series.

Read the next post, on Non-Goal Drives

This short series, titled “The Next Enlightenment”, presents new social principles, developed within a small community of technologists, game designers, sociologists, and spacemakers. Thanks to Sam Hammond, Albert Kong, Nathan Vanderpool, David Chapman, Kevin Simler, Andy Matuschak, Kathryn Hume, and Boris Smus for reviewing drafts.

1. Indeed, economic and social power are mere reflections of the reigning popular vision.