The Open Lifespan answer to Jonathan Floyd’s political philosophy organising question: how should we live? Preparations


This is my second, and far more relevant mini-study, that takes inspiration from Jonathan Floyd’s book ‘Is political philosophy impossible?’. In the first one, called Open Lifespan and Green political philosophy as single-trend approaches; reading Jonathan Floyd I tried to carve out some space within political philosophy to single trend approaches, like the philosophy of longevity and green political philosophy. 

With the current study, I’m going to put Floyd’s study to a much better and more detailed use. My final aim is to demonstrate through a series of arguments that Open Lifespan as a political philosophy picks out and relies on social-liberal-democracy as a compelling (convincing) and politically determinate (meaningful) answer to the foundational question of political philosophy, Floyd poses: how should we live?

Briefly put, the Open Lifespan answer to the question of ‘How should we live?’: indefinitely longer and healthier and an Open Life Society would ‘exponentially’ enhance all the core elements of social-liberal-democracy (SLD): it makes it more democratic, more liberal, and more social (egalitarian). 

Bear with me as this is going to be quite a thorough and lengthy investigation. The structure is as follows: First am introducing briefly the relevant components in Floyd’s work, the way he structures the investigation of political philosophy through 3 questions. Then introduce his strong methodological cure, normative behaviourism, to the ailments of current academic political philosophy, that consists of, according to Floyd’s analysis, so called mentalist approaches. Third, I suggest how the limits of normative behaviourism can be possibly stretched further to include topics like longevity and environmentalism. Fourth, am taking Floyd’s empirical/motivational/behaviourist agenda seriously and argue that Floyd has left out a foundational motivation that has so far not been recognised as a standalone political goal within academic philosophy, namely health and healthy longevity, in a clearer form. Fifth, I reiterate the basic ideas and arguments behind the Open Lifespan scenario. Sixth, talk about how Floyd constructs the argumentation for making the case that SLD is the winner out of the existing political systems according to 2 crucial behaviourist measures (minimising insurgence and crime) and other explanations. Seventh, I use, cite Floyd’s thorough argumentation (~10 different arguments) to show how Open Lifespan picks out SLD as well by showing parallel arguments. This way I turn Floyd’s explicitly apologetic SLD arguments upside down to introduce a new, standalone and not particularly apologetic political philosophy, Open Lifespan. Eighth, I discuss some objections. Ninth, I make some open and counterfactual remarks about whether Open Healthspan technologies do require SLD to be developed fully, so changing dependency between OL society and SLD.

I’ll publish the study in consecutive posts, part 1 is this, preparations.

The main task of political philosophy: Providing convincing and meaningful answers to the organising question: how we should live?

After showing that the current metapolitico-philosophical attempts in the form of single-concept, single-institution and multi-problem approaches are either too narrow or too broad to pick out a unified and properly demarcated territory for political philosophy, Floyd’s suggestion to organise this discipline is to ask the organising question:

The organising question (OQ): How should we live?

The job to provide a successful answer to OQ falls back on the foundational question:

The foundational question (FQ): Why should we live that way and not another?

FQ is where political philosophers should do the meat of their job, according to Floyd, coming up with explanatory theories and normative behavourist reasons (see later) to embed and motivate answer to OQ.

And the back of all this enquiry (wanted to say back of the mind of all political philosophers, but since Floyd makes a huge bet against mentalism, I thought I withheld mentalist, magical phrases concerning the mind) should be the guiding question:

The guiding question (GQ): Is it possible to provide a convincing and meaningful answer to OQ?

If I guess it right, GQ is the necessary (since Kant I guess) reflective modal methodology asking about the conditions of possibility of basically anything. For Floyd it means to formulate his impossibility thesis as the current diagnosis of political philosophy showing why this discipline is impossible to do (interminable due to inconsistency and political indeterminity of mentalism) and impossible to avoid (one must ‘live out’ particular answers to OQ).

Convincing answer means providing compelling explanations and reasons to be convinced by the answer provided to OQ. Meaningful answer means providing a determinate enough, not too thin answer to OQ that picks out at least one existing political system.

Let me be a bit cryptic here and say that from the POV of Open Lifespan philosophy, giving the dimension of temporality a very focused attention, I’d dare to phrase a temporalised version of these 3 questions, but please not take this too seriously:

OQ: What’s next? (What should we do, what should we politically support?)

FQ: Why that’s’ next? (Why should we do it and how should we convince others to join us?)

GQ: Can something else be next? (Are we missing something important, something orthogonal to what we are committed doing politically?)

Normative Behaviourism as of now: n=1

Floyd’s own recipe is called normative behaviourism, and it is indeed what it says it is: in order to choose, explain, ground, justify a political principle you look for pattern of population behaviour. In short, you look for data presented by empirical research of the social sciences. This is opposed to classical/default/mainstream political philosophy which commits mentalism throughout, where one is looking for patterns of normative thoughts, preferences to derive political principles and answers. The problem with mentalism is that it is politically indeterminate, provides no meaningful, actionable answer to the political system to select, and these thoughts are too dissonant and diverse, briefly every political philosopher has their own favourite, unique, pet political systems, not bounded by actual and practical testing of those systems. The terms I would use (as am using it all the time in my default biologist/scientist professional life) would be that the political principles, and moral judgements favoured by political philosophers are showing such a high inter- and intra-individual variation as to not allow statistically meaningful patterns to be derived from them.

Instead of mentalist magic hat tricks, Floyd establishes normative behaviourism by introducing 2 behaviourist measures to judge, justify success of existing (or past) political systems: plainly put, the more disincentives to political insurgence and crime a system enables the more successful it’s going to be. We’re going to see this in action later.

I’ve found Floyd’s mentalist diagnosis pretty convincing, his detailed summary of contemporary political philosophy comprehensive, his argumentation tight, his reflective approach deep. Especially liked the educational approach he takes, rephrasing the main points abundantly to get the message across to appeal to a much wider audience, even if it makes gastronomy metaphors or Eastenders references.[Note #1]

Turning Normative Behaviourism into a collective enterprise, stretching the current limits

Floyd notes that normative behaviourism, ‘as a collective enterprise, has yet to be born’ p275 as it is ‘no older than this book’.

Let’s say that I’m sold on this method, so consider this post also trying to give my 2 pennies to turn NB into a collective enterprise.[Note #2]

The main point concerning the limits of this approach I’d like to make is that there are other issues and political goals, rooted in scientific/technological advances and consequences, that should be covered by normative behaviourism as well. Candidates are environmentalism, longevity and AI.

While missing longevity and the emergence of a much more powerful AI paradigm can be explained with the recent rise and still embryonic state of these fields, the lack of focus on the political questions, reactions raised by climate change within political philosophy cannot be explained with lack of data to reflect to. 

The lack of focus on green political issues might be explained by the focus on single concepts or single institutions of Floyd’s investigation that lead to missing this trend, the topic of my first post.

Another explanation can be the ‘global presence’ of these 3 topics not genuinely emerged within the context of states, the foundational political institutions of Western political philosophy.

And there’s the potential factor of education, I mean most political philosophers are not at the same times trained climatologists, biomedical scientists or engineers.

Related tot his, here is, how I suggest to stretch further the scope of normative behaviourism, and I hope this won’t trigger claims of scientism.

Floyd himself suggests that his NB approach makes political philosophy more ‘social-scientific’ (sorry, could not recover page reference yet).

This basically means that some of the uppermost premises, main assumptions are coming from the empirical research and insights of social science.

But there’s another way for political philosophy to go more science-y and that is to talk, thematise questions raised by the environment, longevity or the emergence of AI. This assumes the presence of a different skillset, that of ‘natural’ sciences, engineering and technology, a skillset that is largely missing from within political philosophy, as I noted above [Note #3]. The very reason I’m so confident to talk about longevity and Open Lifespan as a philosopher comes from my double training both as a biologist (focusing on aging research) and as a philosopher (writing a thesis about the philosophical problems of longevity). So at least I am able to cover that, having thought about it for a quite a while now.

For in order to be argue about these topics on a philosophical level, one needs to have a scientific/technological understanding too. In case of climate change, about which to be alarmist about is now mainstream in almost all kinds of political and social circles, the scientific lingo is so obvious. This is how talking about the weather as smalltalk (so popular in the country where I happen to live) turns into scientific show-off lingo, a professional aria. Think about the worldwide political reaction to the current IPCC report, even the title has a number in it (Global Warming of 1.5ºC). Let me just cite 2 sentences from it:

Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air.

IPCC report, 2018

I’m constantly surprised by how climatology became the default natural science for many politically interested.

But it is the focus on health as a political preference that I’d like to talk about next.

to be continued ….


#1. But I’ve also found it pretty depressing, at times. If normative behaviorism is the approach to follow in political philosophy and if this book is the first and foundational study of this branch of thought, then studying everybody else, all the mentalists might seem like a waste of time. This is a radical suggestion. The way Floyd tries to hide his methodological radicalism is to suggest a well-confined place for mentalist approaches, the ability of ‘providing new ideas open testing in future political practice’.  p274 and pays homage to the creativity of mentalists. Nicola Tesla admiring Houdini. Wizards vs magicians, one of my favourite topic in an artistic sense since The Prestige.  Also anybody recalls here the distinction between the context of discovery and the context of justification from the classic ear of philosophy of science.

#2. I got back a personally encouraging email from Jonathan Floyd that gave me a big impetus to contribute to this nascent school.

#3. Check the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence of a positive multi-disciolinary example