O poder prejudica o cérebro

Jerry Useem, “Power Causes Brain Damage”:

Lord David Owen—a British neurologist turned parliamentarian who served as the foreign secretary before becoming a baron—recounts both Howe’s story and Clementine Churchill’s in his 2008 book, In Sickness and in Power, an inquiry into the various maladies that had affected the performance of British prime ministers and American presidents since 1900. While some suffered from strokes (Woodrow Wilson), substance abuse (Anthony Eden), or possibly bipolar disorder (Lyndon B. Johnson, Theodore Roosevelt), at least four others acquired a disorder that the medical literature doesn’t recognize but, Owen argues, should.

“Hubris syndrome,” as he and a co-author, Jonathan Davidson, defined it in a 2009 article published in Brain, “is a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader.” Its 14 clinical features include: manifest contempt for others, loss of contact with reality, restless or reckless actions, and displays of incompetence. In May, the Royal Society of Medicine co-hosted a conference of the Daedalus Trust—an organization that Owen founded for the study and prevention of hubris.

I asked Owen, who admits to a healthy predisposition to hubris himself, whether anything helps keep him tethered to reality, something that other truly powerful figures might emulate. He shared a few strategies: thinking back on hubris-dispelling episodes from his past; watching documentaries about ordinary people; making a habit of reading constituents’ letters.

But I surmised that the greatest check on Owen’s hubris today might stem from his recent research endeavors. Businesses, he complained to me, had shown next to no appetite for research on hubris. Business schools were not much better. The undercurrent of frustration in his voice attested to a certain powerlessness. Whatever the salutary effect on Owen, it suggests that a malady seen too commonly in boardrooms and executive suites is unlikely to soon find a cure.

Em defesa da hierarquia

Vários autores, “In defence of hierarchy”:

On the other hand, the idea of a purely egalitarian world in which there are no hierarchies at all would appear to be both unrealistic and unattractive. Nobody, on reflection, would want to eliminate all hierarchies, for we all benefit from the recognition that some people are more qualified than others to perform certain roles in society. We prefer to be treated by senior surgeons not medical students, get financial advice from professionals not interns. Good and permissible hierarchies are everywhere around us.

Yet hierarchy is an unfashionable thing to defend or to praise. British government ministers denounce experts as out of tune with popular feeling; both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders built platforms on attacking Washington elites; economists are blamed for not predicting the 2008 crash; and even the best established practice of medical experts, such as childhood vaccinations, are treated with resistance and disbelief. We live in a time when no distinction is drawn between justified and useful hierarchies on the one hand, and self-interested, exploitative elites on the other.


All of this takes on a new urgency given the turn in world politics towards a populism that often attacks establishment hierarchies while paradoxically giving authoritarian power to individuals claiming to speak for ‘the people’.


Apart from their civic importance, hierarchies can be surprisingly benign in life more broadly. Hierarchy is oppressive when it is reduced to a simple power over others. But there are also forms of hierarchy that involve power with, not over. Daoism characterises this kind of power effectively in the image of riding a horse, when sometimes you have to pull, and sometimes let go. This is not domination but negotiation. In Daoism, power is a matter of energy and competence rather than domination and authority. In this sense, a hierarchy can be empowering, not disabling.

Take the examples of good relationships between parents and children, teachers and students, or employers and employees. These work best when the person higher in the hierarchy does not use that position to dominate those lower down but to enable them to grow in their own powers.


As well as being empowering, hierarchies should be dynamic over time. Hierarchies are often pernicious not because they distinguish between people, but because they perpetuate these distinctions even when they are no longer merited or serve a good purpose. In short, hierarchies become ossified. There might be reasons, for example, to appoint people on merit to positions of power, such as to Britain’s House of Lords. Historically, however, this has often led to people not only retaining that power when they have ceased to deserve it personally, but also passing it on to their children. All legitimate hierarchies must allow for changes over time in order for them not to lead to the unjust accumulation of power. This is built into the age-based hierarchies endorsed by Confucians, since the young will eventually rise to take on the elevated status and authority of the old.


Paternalistic hierarchy might then benefit individual autonomy. And hierarchy has one final benefit. Although it would seem to be divisive, hierarchy can promote social harmony. Many cultures justifiably place a high value on communal harmony. This involves a shared way of life, and also sympathetic care for the quality of life of others. Excessive hierarchy works against this, creating divisions within societies. Indeed, in a sense, hierarchy always brings with it the threat of tension, since it is a condition in which one adult commands, threatens or forces another to do something, where the latter is innocent of any wrongdoing, competent to make decisions, and not impaired at the time by alcohol, temporary insanity, or the like. But the goal of preserving communal life means that hierarchy might be justifiable if – and only if – it is the least hierarchical amount required, and likely either to rebut serious discord or to foster a much greater communion. This is a minimalist justification that only ever sanctions the least amount of hierarchy necessary.


Some of these ideas about hierarchy will no doubt be received more favourably than others. There will also be disagreement – as there is among ourselves – about whether we simply need to be clearer about the value of some hierarchies, or whether we need more of them in certain domains. Hierarchy has been historically much-abused and it is the understandable fear of being too enthusiastic about hierarchy that makes some queasy about talking about its merits. Nonetheless, we think it important to put these ideas forward as an invitation to begin a much-needed conversation about the role of hierarchy in a world that is in many ways now fundamentally egalitarian, in that it gives equal rights and dignity to all. However, it clearly does not and cannot give equal power and authority to all. If we are to square the necessary inequality that the unequal distribution of power entails with the equally necessary equality of value we place on human life, it’s time to take the merits of hierarchy seriously.

Sobre o futuro da ideia de inteligência

Stephen Cave, “Intelligence: a history”:

So when we reflect upon how the idea of intelligence has been used to justify privilege and domination throughout more than 2,000 years of history, is it any wonder that the imminent prospect of super-smart robots fills us with dread?

From 2001: A Space Odyssey to the Terminator films, writers have fantasised about machines rising up against us. Now we can see why. If we’re used to believing that the top spots in society should go to the brainiest, then of course we should expect to be made redundant by bigger-brained robots and sent to the bottom of the heap. If we’ve absorbed the idea that the more intelligent can colonise the less intelligent as of right, then it’s natural that we’d fear enslavement by our super-smart creations. If we justify our own positions of power and prosperity by virtue of our intellect, it’s understandable that we see superior AI as an existential threat.


We would do better to worry about what humans might do with AI, rather than what it might do by itself. We humans are far more likely to deploy intelligent systems against each other, or to become over-reliant on them. As in the fable of the sorcerer’s apprentice, if AIs do cause harm, it’s more likely to be because we give them well-meaning but ill-thought-through goals – not because they wish to conquer us. Natural stupidity, rather than artificial intelligence, remains the greatest risk.

It’s interesting to speculate about how we’d view the rise of AI if we had a different view of intelligence. Plato believed that philosophers would need to be cajoled into becoming kings, since they naturally prefer contemplation to mastery over men. Other traditions, especially those from the East, see the intelligent person as one who scorns the trappings of power as mere vanity, and who removes him or herself from the trivialities and tribulations of quotidian affairs.

Imagine if such views were widespread: if we all thought that the most intelligent people were not those who claimed the right to rule, but those who went to meditate in remote places, to free themselves of worldly desires; or if the cleverest of all were those who returned to spread peace and enlightenment. Would we still fear robots smarter than ourselves?