Berggruen Philosophy and Culture Center Workshops at Stanford University

Berggruen Workshops - Credit: Jerry Wang from Pro Event Photography

From March 11th to March 15th, 2016, the Berggruen Institute Philosophy and Culture Center assembled a diverse group of thinkers, practitioners, scientists, and technologists to address three of Berggruen Institute’s themes: “Hierarchy and Equality”, “Freedom and Harmony”, and “Human and Technology”.  

On March 11th – 12th, the workshop focused on Hierarchy and Equality and endeavoured to address: Which forms of hierarchy are morally justified, and how can they be made compatible with egalitarian goals?  On March 13th – 14th, the workshop focused on Freedom and Harmony to address: What are the areas of overlap and difference between the ideals of harmony and freedom? On March 15th, the Human and Technology workshop explored the following three questions: Do developments in neurobiology alter the traditional boundaries of the definition of humanity? Should such a redefinition be considered a welcome opportunity or a perilous challenge? As developments in artificial intelligence extend or surpass human intelligence, do they too challenge the traditional boundaries of the definition of human?


Above Hierarchy and Equality Workshop Participants - Credit: Jerry Wang from Pro Event Photography

The summary of the workshops on Hierarchy/ Equality and Freedom/ Harmony, written by Dr. Julian Baggini, is attached below:

For many in the West, and increasingly beyond, freedom and equality are the ultimate political values, good beyond dispute. However, scratch the surface of the official consensus and it quickly becomes clear that both are in tension with other powerful values.

Equality in some shape or form is commended almost everywhere. But nowhere is it even close to being absolutely upheld, in part because there is always a need for hierarchies of some sort, be they of age, expertise, military rank or knowledge. Freedom is also never absolute, in part because we value social harmony.

These tensions have led some to question whether freedom and equality really are universal values rather than distinctively Western ones. Given that people have gone to war in recent decades in the name of freedom and equality, it’s, therefore, of vital geopolitical importance that we understand better how these values relate to each other and if they may carry different weight at different times and in different places.

It was with issues like this in mind that the Berggruen Institute for Philosophy and Culture convened a pair of two-day workshops in March at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University. Two dozen experts from around the world questioned received opinion about the relationship between freedom and harmony, equality and hierarchy.

Above: Workshop proceedings - Credit: Jerry Wang from Pro Event Photography


One strong theme in the hierarchy sessions was how, as Robin Wang put it, good hierarchy is not primarily about some exerting power over others but having power with them. Good parents, teachers, managers and rulers use their high status to empower those “below” them. Even some forms of paternalism can, when used wisely, engender more autonomy, claimed Carlos Fraenkel.

Both Mark Bevir and Stephen Macedo argued that hierarchy need not be in opposition to democratic equality but can actually increase it. For instance, bureaucratic hierarchies that help better governance can protect minority rights and uphold the rule of law in a way which majority rule by itself cannot.

Another theme was that where bad hierarchies ossify power in the hands of an unchanging elite, good hierarchies are dynamic, with people willing to relinquish power to others ready to take their turn holding responsibility. 

Similarly, it was often argued that harmony and freedom do not necessarily pull in opposite directions. For instance, David Wong argued that harmony is a precondition for full freedom. Traditional Chinese thought is not about “subordinating” the individual to the collective, but providing the right social environment in which individuals can flourish as individuals. 

Rajeev Bhargav also made the case that in order for people of different faiths to live harmoniously in society, there should be a voluntarily limitation of freedom in the form of self-restraint, (samyama) and especially restraint on speech (vacaguti).

The institute is still mining the rich discussion of the workshop and will be publishing fuller outputs soon, including a series of Podcasts. 



The summary of the Human and Technology workshop, summarized from Dr. Damasio’s draft report, is attached below:

Given the current spectacular developments in artificial intelligence, general biology, and neurobiology, it is important to consider how these advances can benefit humanity and debate their potential risks. To this end, the Berggruen Institute convened experts in the development and application of artificial intelligence and molecular biology as well as leaders in disciplines ranging from neuroscience, neurobiology and sociology to Western and Eastern philosophy, to address the Berggruen theme: Human and Technology. To be specific, the workshop explored two questions:

  1. Do developments in neurobiology alter the traditional boundaries of the definition of humanity? Should such a redefinition be considered a welcome opportunity or a perilous challenge?

  2. As developments in artificial intelligence extend or surpass human intelligence, do they too challenge the traditional boundaries of the definition of human?
Above: Human and Technology Workshop Participants - Credit: Jerry Wang from Pro Event Photography

Led by Professor Antonio Damasio, the workshop began with presentations by three Berggruen Fellows, the East-Asian scholars Chenyang Li, Jin Li, and Anna Sun. Their presentations focused specifically on Antonio Damasio’s research and theoretical proposals and drew unexpectedly strong connections to Chinese philosophy. Using the writings of Mencius and Confucius and providing powerful examples drawn from morality tales and fables, those three scholars illustrated a feelings-oriented conception of morality, social development and selfhood. The presentations were followed with group discussions and the participants rapidly reached a consensus over the fact that humans and technology will continue to develop in a hybrid fashion and that neither party should dispense with or outstrip the other.


Above: Workshop proceedings - Credit: Jerry Wang from Pro Event Photography

Throughout the day the existing tensions between the extreme positions were resolved by appealing to human concepts such as human augmentation, human extension, and human co-evolution with technology. The participants rapidly reached a consensus over the fact that humans and technology will continue to develop in a hybrid fashion and that neither party should dispense with or outstrip the other. Setting up the correct incentive structures for artificial agents is a major problem as is the question of who gets to set the incentives and values and to whose benefit. The issues facing us are real. There will be distinct eras in the man-machine hybridizing process and they will call for different structures. Advances in the manipulation of living matter were considered as worrisome, if not more, than developments in the manipulation of information. Tinkering with the material world, especially with biological/genetic materials, present a far greater risk to humanity. Precisely because biological systems have purposes of their own (to survive and prevail), our manipulation of them will often result in unintended consequences. It was proposed to explore the risks of gene drive in further detail. The topic can be focused further on the collision of information processing technologies and genetic engineering technologies. 



Appendix: 

Participants of the March 11-14 Hierarchy/Equality and Freedom/Harmony workshops are (in alphabetic order): 

Stephen Angle (Professor at Wesleyan University), Kwame Anthony Appiah (Professor at NYU), Julian Baggini (founding editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine), Daniel Bell (Professor at Tsinghua University and director of the Berggruen Institute Philosophy and Culture Center), Nicolas Berggruen (Chairman of the Berggruen Institute), Mark Bevir (Professor at UC Berkeley), Rajeev Bhargava (Professor at Institute of Indian Thought at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and a Berggruen fellow), Jenny Bourne (Program Manager at the Berggruen Institute), Joseph Chan (Professor at University of Hong Kong), Carlos Fraenkel (Professor at McGill University), Jonardon Ganeri (Professor at NYU), Alexander Görlach (Professor at Harvard University), Anton Koch (Professor at University of Heidelberg), Haiyan Lee (Professor at Stanford University), Chenyang Li (Professor at Nanyang Technological University and a Berggruen fellow), Stephen Macedo (Professor at Princeton University), Thaddeus Metz (Professor at University of Johannesburg), Pankaj Mishra (author & columnist), Philip Pettit (Professor at Princeton University), Jiang Qian (from Harvard University), Mathias Risse (Professor at Harvard University), Carlin Romano (Professor at Ursinus College), Richard Sorabji (Professor at Oxford University), Anna Sun (Professor at Kenyon College and a Berggruen fellow), Justin Tiwald (Professor at San Francesco State University), Sigridur Thorgeirsdottir (Professor at University of Iceland), Robin Wang (Professor at Loyola Marymount University), David Wong (Professor at Duke University and a Berggruen fellow), and Taisu Zhang (from Yale University). 

Participants of the March 15 Human and Technology workshop include the Berggruen staff (Nicolas Berggruen, Daniel Bell, Jenny Bourne, Chenyang Li, Jin Li, and Anna Sun) and a group of leading scientists and technologists (in alphabetic order):

Andrew Chignell (fellow at CASBS Stanford), John Churchill (Director of Philosophy and Theology programs, John Templeton Foundation), Antonio Damasio (David Dornsife Chair in Neuroscience and Professor of Psychology and Neurology at USC), Hanna Damasio (Dana Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience and Director, Dana and David Dornsife Cognitive Neuroscience Imaging Center), Edward Felten (Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer), Elad Gil (Co-Founder, Color Genomics), Reid Hoffman (Executive Chairman & Co-Founder, LinkedIn), Bill Joy (Co Author: The Java Language Specification and Grace Murray Hopper Award recipient), Othman Laraki (Co-founder, Color Genomics), Margaret Levi (Director, CASBS Stanford), Kingson Man (Research Associate at the Brain and Creativity Institute), Michael Murray (Executive Vice President, Programs, John Templeton Foundation), Scott Phoenix (Co-founder of Vicarious), Tim O'Reilly (CEO, O'Reilly Media), Tenzin Priyadarshi (Director of The Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values, MIT ), David Sanford (Chief of Staff to Reid Hoffman), Bo Shao (Founding Managing Partner, Matrix Partners China).