Bounded Mirroring. Joint action and group membership in political theory and cognitive neuroscience

In Frank Vandervalk (ed.), Thinking about the Body Politic: Essays on Neuroscience and Political Theory. Routledge. pp. 222--249 (2012)
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A crucial socio-political challenge for our age is how to rede!ne or extend group membership in such a way that it adequately responds to phenomena related to globalization like the prevalence of migration, the transformation of family and social networks, and changes in the position of the nation state. Two centuries ago Immanuel Kant assumed that international connectedness between humans would inevitably lead to the realization of world citizen rights. Nonetheless, globalization does not just foster cosmopolitanism but simultaneously yields the development of new group boundaries. Group membership is indeed a fundamental issue in political processes, for: “the primary good that we distribute to one another is membership in some human community” – it is within the political community that power is being shared and, if possible, held back from non-members. In sum, it is appropriate to consider group membership a fundamental ingredient of politics and political theory. How group boundaries are drawn is then of only secondary importance. Indeed, Schmitt famously declared that “[e]very religious, moral, economic, ethical, or other antithesis transforms into a political one if it is suffciently strong to group human beings e#ectively according to friend and enemy”. Even though Schmitt’s idea of politics as being constituted by such antithetical groupings is debatable, it is plausible to consider politics among other things as a way of handling intergroup di#erences. Obviously, some of the group-constituting factors are more easily discernable from one’s appearance than others, like race, ethnicity, or gender. As a result, factors like skin color or sexual orientation sometimes carry much political weight even though individuals would rather con!ne these to their private lives and individual identity. Given the potential tension between the political reality of particular groupmembership defnitions and the – individual and political – struggles against those definitions and corresponding attitudes, citizenship and civic behavior becomes a complex issue. As Kymlicka points out, it implies for citizens an additional obligation to non-discrimination regarding those groups: “[t]his extension of non-discrimination from government to civil society is not just a shift in the scale of liberal norms, it also involves a radical extension in the obligations of liberal citizenship”. Unfortunately, empirical research suggests that political intolerance towards other groups “may be the more natural and ‘easy’ position to hold”. Indeed, since development of a virtue of civility or decency regarding other groups is not easy, as it often runs against deeply engrained stereotypes and prejudices, political care for matters like education is justified. Separate schools, for example, may erode children’s motivation to act as citizens, erode their capacity for it and!nally diminish their opportunities to experience transcending their particular group membership and behave as decent citizens. This chapter outlines a possible explanation for such consequences. That explanation will be found to be interdisciplinary in nature, combining insights from political theory and cognitive neuroscience. In doing so, it does not focus on collective action, even though that is a usual focus for political studies. For example, results pertaining to collective political action have demonstrated that the relation between attitudes and overt voting behavior or political participation is not as direct and strong as was hoped for. Several conditions, including the individual’s experiences, self-interest, and relevant social norms, turned out to interfere in the link between his or her attitude and behavior. Important as collective action is, this chapter is concerned with direct interaction between agents and the in$uence of group membership on such interaction – in particular joint action. Although politics does include many forms of action that require no such physical interaction, such physical interaction between individuals remains fundamental to politics – this is the reason why separate schooling may eventually undermine the citizenship of its isolated pupils. This chapter will focus on joint action, de!ned as: “any form of social interaction whereby two or more individuals coordinate their actions in space and time to bring about a change in the environment”. Cognitive neuroscienti!c evidence demonstrates that for such joint action to succeed, the agents have to integrate the actions and expected actions of the other person in their own action plans at several levels of speci!city. Although neuroscienti!c research is necessarily limited to simple forms of action, this concurs with a philosophical analysis of joint action, which I will discuss below



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