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Monday, May 26, 2014

Fear of Principles? A Cautionary Defense of the Precautionary Principle

Draft submitted to Mind&Society, journal. Do not quote without permission. For any comment or question, write to:

Should fear guide our actions and governments’ political decisions? A leitmotiv of common sense is that emotions are tricky, they blur our rational capacity of estimating utilities in order to plan action and thus they should be banned from any account of our rational expectations. Yet, the way in which our judgments are biased by emotional dispositions may sometimes make us end up with better choices than pure rational choices. For example, a huge literature has shown the universality of our risk-aversion and loss-aversion (Tversky and Kahneman, 1974; Kahneman 2011). These universal features don’t harm the evolution of human society. Rather, they explain the emergence of a variety of different complex (and fit!) behaviors[1]. In this paper, I would like to challenge the prejudicial idea that fear of loss should not guide our behavior at all and, especially, our collective behavior when it takes the shape of a principle of general loss-aversion, as in the case of the Precautionary Principle. In particular, I will discuss Cass Sunstein’s rejection of this principle on the basis of its incoherence by arguing that Sunstein’s criticism based on human cognitive biases misses the target of the principle. I will then argue for an ethical defense of the principle on the basis of a new vision of our moral imperatives towards the future and a different, non evidential, concern for potential catastrophic events.

What sort of principle?

The Precautionary Principle (PP in the following) is the more and more referred to in debates relating to environmental and health risks. It appeared for the first time in public debates around ecological issues in Germany in the Sixties and was rapidly adopted by ecologists especially in northern European countries. It began to be alluded to, at least implicitly, in international declarations such as the Stockholm declaration of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in 1972[2]. In 1982, The World Charter of Nature, sponsored by 34 “developing” countries was adopted by the United Nations. An open reference to the PP is made for the first time in this text at a global level. It is interesting to read through the text, because it shows very clearly the new philosophy of nature that underlies the endorsement of the principle. The charter was modeled on the UN declaration of Human Rights and structured in five principles and a series of recommendations. The preamble to the principles states that the General Assembly, aware that: “(a) Mankind is a part of nature and life depends on the uninterrupted functioning of natural systems which ensure the supply of energy and nutrients, and (b) Civilization is rooted in nature, which has shaped human culture and influenced all artistic and scientific achievement, and living in harmony with nature gives man the best opportunities for the development of his creativity, and for rest and recreation” and convinced that: “(a) Every form of life is unique, warranting respect regardless of its worth to man, and, to accord other organisms such recognition, man must be guided by a moral code of action, (b)  Man can alter nature and exhaust natural resources by his action or its consequences and, therefore, must fully recognize the urgency of maintaining the stability and quality of nature and of conserving natural resources”, declares that: 1. Nature shall be respected and its essential processes shall not be impaired.
In 1987, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, made the first explicit reference to a “precautionary approach” to the problem of the ozone layer. The PP took its first globally accepted definition in 1992, at the Rio Earth Summit, on of the major United Nations conferences on environmental issues, whose outcome was a Declaration on Environment and Development structured around 27 principles. The 15th principle is the following:

In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

Further international developments of the PP can be found in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement related to the United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change, which acknowledged responsibilities of developed countries for the high levels of GHG emissions and set an international agenda for monitoring and reducing emissions around the world.
In Europe, the PP has been integrated into the Lisbon Treaty, in the second paragraph of the article 191:

Union policy on the environment shall aim at a high level of protection taking into account the diversity of situations in the various regions of the Union. It shall be based on the precautionary principle and on the principles that preventive action should be taken, that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source and that the polluter should pay.

The precautionary principle enables rapid response in the face of a possible danger to human, animal or plant health, or to protect the environment. In particular, where scientific data do not permit a complete evaluation of the risk, recourse to PP may, for example, be used
to stop distribution or order withdrawal from the market of products likely to be hazardous.

The European philosophical roots of the principle

The idea of the possibility of environmental risks at global scale related to the awesome power of modern science and technology became a mainstream theme in the European ecological thinking, especially in Germany, in the mid Seventies. The vorsogeprinzip[3] became part of the conceptual tool kit of environmentalists in Germany, especially around the issue of acid rain  and clean air. It was also on line with a general trend of modernization of the country that should match new challenges like globalization, environmental management and the protection of global commons such as air, water, etc. In 1970, a first draft of new clean air legislation in Germany made direct reference to the idea of vorsoge. Literally, the verb Vorbeugen is commonly used in medicine and means “to bend beforehand” so that to reduce the risk of being broken. The political atmosphere that encouraged the emergence of the idea of a social responsibility in protecting the future of environmental commons was the German social democratic administration aiming at including environmental policies as part of the project of a fairer society[4]. The concept though bore a certain ambiguity among different interpretation and aims. Many authors point to a number of possible lines along which the appeal to the principle can be interpreted. It contains at least the ideas of: preventative anticipation; safeguarding of ecological space; proportionality of response; duty of care; promoting the cause of intrinsic natural rights; and paying for past ecological damage. All these concepts are evoked and included in various formulations of the principle and leave room for different applications and political uses of the principle. However, in the late Seventies, the work of the German philosopher Hans Jonas contributed to a clearer definition of the ethical reasons that underlie the principle.

Jonas and the Prinzip Verantwortung

In 1979, Hans Jonas published a book Das Prinzip Veratnwortung, later translated into English under the title: The Imperative of Responsibility. His main idea is that the new alliance between global capitalism and technology creates possibilities of action for human beings that require a wholly new ethical reflection. Many of the worries that the previous formulations of the vorsogeprinzip raised in the political discussions and the many possible interpretations of the principle were due to a lack of precise understanding of the requirements of a new ethics for the future of mankind. Jonas’ contribution may be considered the philosophical foundation of the PP. Without taking into account the “ethical turn” that Jonas puts forward, many aspects of the PP as well as its apparent incoherence - that Cass Sunstein stresses in his book[5] -  are very difficult to explain. Jonas gave voice to a diffused idea that we have entered a new era in which the intervention of humanity on nature can bring about not only irreversible harm, like global catastrophes, but irreversible transformations of the metaphysics of nature and humanity. What is at stake today is not only the destiny of humanity, but the very conception of what “being human” is and means. We can do things that make us being no longer humans, we can act in such a way as to radically change the nature of nature. That is the novelty that sustain the PP and the new responsibilities we have as actors that can modify in an unprecedented way the deep ontological intuitions we have about being human. Ethics has always dealt with human action and responsibility in a fixed natural context. Today, technologically-mediated human action can modify the environment in such a way that we cannot consider nature anymore as a neutral environment that is the theater of our actions. Nature is the target and the object of our actions whose causal consequences are incomparable to what we have seen up to now. A new form of responsibility that takes into account these potential irreversible consequences has to be at the center ethics today. Traditionally, ethics, has dealt with questions that concerned the immediate environment of action: “Treat others as you would want them to treat you”, or “Subordinate your own good to the common good”, whereas the causal consequences of human actions today make them having a potential impact on the whole universe. Jonas then presents a new categorical imperative, echoing Kant’s anti-utilitarian ethics, in the following forms: “Act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life”, or: “Act so that the effects of your actions won’t destroy the future possibility of such a genuine human life” or else: “Include in you own choice today the future integrity of the humankind”. As for Kant’s categorical imperative, the form of knowledge required in order to be able to recognize the truthfulness of these principles is not of the same order of scientific knowledge. Ethical competence, according to Kant[6] doesn’t require any empirical knowledge and any special expertise. Anyone can acquire a moral competence: “Because in moral concerns human reason can easily be brought to a high degree of correctness and completeness, even in the commonest understanding, while on the contrary in its theoretic but pure use it is wholly dialectical”. In this sense, the new ethics put forward by Jonas doesn’t depend on the acknowledgment of new scientific facts, but on a new order of responsibilities that humans must endorse towards themselves and the survival of the natural world.
An aspect of this new ethics, according to Jonas, is that of taking into consideration the future as and not only the present as a moral dimension. When we consider future forecasting in order to take decisions today, we must adopt the principles above and, for example, prefer a less optimal outcome today if this means a better outcome for the survival of future generations.
Many commitments are implied by this imperative. First of all that we want to preserve human life in its known form, and thus exclude any futurological idea of post-humanity. Second, that we have duties toward the future generations that can be more compelling than the duties we have towards our own present. Third, that we acknowledge duties also towards non-human entities, such as water, air, etc. All these implications of the new ethics of responsibility that underlies the PP can be discussed and challenged. But, surprisingly, the angle of attack of the PP doesn’t privilege at all the ethical discussion. Rather, it focuses on the “rationality” or the “compatibility with science” of the principle, as it was obvious that an ethical principle should be justified by empirical evidence.
In the following, I will discuss Cass Sunstein’s attack to PP, together with other criticisms, and will try to argue that the target to the criticism is inappropriate and it is based on a deep misunderstanding of two main dimensions:

1. The ethical novelty of the principle
2. The statistical interpretation of the so-called “ruin-problems” or catastrophes.

Sustein’s argument fails to take into account both dimensions, by avoiding the discussion of the Kantian dimension of the PP (that is in deep opposition with any utilitarian approach to ethics) and by confusing the forecasting problem posed by the principle with classical statistical problems (hence the reference to probability biases) instead of a very special class of problems that have been defined in the recent literature as “ruin-problems”[7].

Five so-called “biases” of the PP

Cass Sunstein criticizes and rejects the PP, at least it its strongest form of requiring regulation of activities even if it cannot be shown that those activities are likely to produce significant harms on the basis of different arguments, one of which raises the question of its rationality. According to Sunstein, the PP is influenced by at least five well-known psychological biases that are very well studies in social psychology and behavioral economics:

1.     Loss aversion: according to Prospect Theory[8] people tend to be loss averse, that is, they consider more undesirable a loss from the status quo than a potential gain. In the case of PP, it means that people focus on the possible losses of a certain risky situation instead of appreciate the potential advantages that are inevitably lost by the introduction of the regulations.
2.     The myth of a Benevolent Nature: in the perception of risks, people impute more responsibility to human beings than to nature in potential harm. Nature is perceived as passive, benevolent and harmonious, while human intervention is seen as a cause of imbalance and loss of equilibrium. According to Sunstein, defenders of PP endorse this vision of nature that is not evidence-based. He brings about examples and case - like the one of man-made vs. natural made chemicals[9] - that show that human-made products may be far less toxic that nature-made ones.
3.     The availability heuristics: as largely shown in the psychological literature on heuristics and biases, people tend to be influenced by the cognitive availability of a certain risk to judge its probability. More familiar, salient or easily retrievable risks will be considered more probable than less available ones.
4.     Probability neglect: another well confirmed bias of the human mind is the tendency to miscalculate or underconsider probability. In emotionally charged situations, people tend to overestimate the probability of harm or of success. In the case of PP, it is clearly the probability of harm that, according to Sunstein, is overestimated.
5.     System neglect: Sunstein reports a rich psychological literature about the failure of most people to understand the systemic effects of a certain policy, while focusing only on one or few variables and being unable to see the causal cascade among the many parts involved in a system. PP is victim also of this neglect, because it focuses on risks in a part of the system without considering the overall trade-off of the intervention within the whole system.

First of all, it is unclear in Sunstein’s argument to understand who is the target of his criticisms, that is, who is affected by all these psychological biases. The policy makers who endorse the PP? Citizens who support it? Or the PP itself? The rhetoric varies between these different interpretations. Examples of these shifts of meaning can be found in the following statements: “Sometimes the precautionary principle operates by incorporating the belief that nature is essentially benign”[10], and: “People will be closely attuned to the losses produced by any newly introduced risk, or any aggravation of existing risks, but far less concerned with the benefits that are foregone as a result of regulation”[11] or elsewhere: “In fact many of those who endorse the principle seem to be especially concerned about new technologies”[12]. Who is then the target of Sunstein’s criticism? Policy makers? The general public opinion? The “operations” of the PP itself, as the PP was an acting agent? I think that these ambiguities show a deep misunderstanding of the level at which the results of social psychology behavioral economics should be applied. Sunstein mentions a rich experimental literature, but no evidence at all that the policy makers in Europe or around the world have been victims of these biases and neglects. Decisions in policy-making settings are not taken in the same form than decisions in everyday settings. People are asked to give reasons for a political decision or a regulatory intervention, and usually evidence-based decisions are highly appreciated. So, one could reasonably think that decisions are taken by taking into consideration these biases. If it is not the case, then, the burden of the proof rests on Professor Sunstein.
The second option is that the target of his criticism is the people in general and the public opinion. If it is so, then, another, different argument is needed in order to claim that what people think and fear, if it is biased by rational standards, should not be considered as a legitimate source of insight for policy making. We are not talking here of cases of massive irrationality or paranoid contagion, whose spreading should be avoided. We are talking here of universal psychological biases that no evidence can correct and that - given that they belong to human natural cognitive asset - have not prevented humanity to develop and survive. Prospect Theory, that is mentioned by Sunstein, is not a “bias”: it is, according to its inventors, a normative theory about human behavior; more precisely, an alternative to the homo oeconomicus, that even economists should consider in order to come out with better predictions and more accurate descriptions of human action.
More broadly, the question of the minimum standards of rationality that should be imposed to the citizens in order to participate in public life is an ancient debate that divides those who think that democracy should be based of political egalitarianism and opponents to this idea[13]. There is a tension in liberal democracies between political equality (one person, one vote) and political quality (not all points of view have the same weight to take wise decisions). One of the major problems of mature democracies is that of bridging the gap between competence and political participation. To what extent citizens must be competent? To what extent their judgments and opinions should be considered all equal? Sunstein’s invocation of cognitive biases goes with the standard complaints about democracy today that people are too ignorant, too uninformed to express a wise opinion, therefore their judgment can be manipulated and the overall objective value of the expression of their opinions be harmed. But is it so? Is this a justified complaint? Should the judgment of the many imply a certain level of rationality or probabilistic expertise in order to be taken into consideration? Should we get rid of “emotionally charged” expressions of preferences, affections, fears and commitment to deep values (like for example that of “respecting the environment” or “not eating animals”) when we assess the “rationality” of the public opinion? What sort of democracy is that envisaged by Sunstein, where our everyday understanding of our relationship with our environment and our future should be mediated by the readings of the fanciest results in behavioral economics? A true liberal democratic regulatory policy should be able to take into account values and different points of views, even about probability, without being so self assured about its epistemic superiority. Does it make any sense to ask whether Gandhi was right or wrong about his philosophy of nature given the import of his political action and the consequent democratic improvement for the whole world of India’s liberation? Could the alleged superiority of Cambridge-based techno-science in the last century over Gandhi pre-modern philosophy of nature[14] have been invoked to justify a change in policy making in India? If Sunstein’s five biases apply to citizens’ beliefs, then the burden of the proof that a better democratic action needs unbiased psychological subjects rests again on Professor Sunstein.
As for the third option, that is, that the PP is in itself biased, it is hard to figure out what exactly means that an ethical principle is biased and how psychological biases apply to international declarations.

Risk management vs. dealing with Black Swans

Precaution is different from prevention because it deals with potential risks instead of known risks. Yet, the notion of “potential risk” is quite obscure. Does it mean that the probability of the occurrence of these risks is unknown? Or does it mean that the impact of these risks is difficult, or even impossible, to anticipate? Here lies all the ambiguity of the PP, and, indeed, its difficult application as a risk management tool. Clearly, when risks are known, probabilistic risk management is sufficient to deal with potential harmful technological innovations. Take the case of the use of nuclear energy and the installation of new nuclear power plants. It raises strong emotional reactions among many people. But, as Bar-Yam, Read and Taleb (2014) say: “because of the known statistical structure of most of its problems and the absence of systemic consequences at small enough scales, at such scales the problem is better left to risk management than to PP”[15]. For a coherent application of the PP, it is essential thus, to distinguish it from a tool for risk prevention. The PP doesn’t deal with rare or unlikely events, it doesn’t rest on our cognitive failures in assessing probability distributions, nor it is a declaration of public paranoia. The PP deals with a very specific classes of events that are just not predictable, but thinkable, that is ruin-problems, or catastrophes. Catastrophes are notoriously black swans, to use the expression introduced to the large audience by the statistician and trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb[16]. A black swan is a highly improbable, hard to predict, rare event that has an enormous, disruptive impact on a system. Such extreme events are outliers, that is, they don’t lie on a Gaussian curve: their distribution is not normal. We can’t calculate the odds of a black swan, we cannot just predict it. Its probabilities, according to Taleb, are invariant to scale hence do not drop fast enough for the consequences to have a weak expected impact. Complex systems such as the techno-capitalist systems that drive our societies have scalable distributions of events. In these complex systems, rare, extreme “winner-take-all the effects” event are likely to be found. The probability distribution that contains a black swan has a fat tail, that is, the sum of the probabilities of all events will be dominated by a single one whose impact is incomparable with all the other ones. The penetration of technology within natural systems makes nature and biosphere part of these modern complex systems.
The PP deals with these kinds of events that, in such complex systems are likely to occur: ruin-events that, if they occur, are no-return events. I can survive ten times to attempts to poison me, but this doesn’t say anything about the probability that I will survive to the eleventh attempt to poison me. Rather, I may have become more fragile because of the exposure of the previous attempts. The risk of an environmental catastrophe is neither sustainable nor predictable. We have to live with and try to become more responsible and more robust to its possible occurrence. For example, diversity and redundancy are strategies that made of the evolved natural world a very robust system. Exercising the PP against the reduction of diversity and redundancy, for example of agricultural crops, may be a wise way of making us more robust to a possible radical systemic change induced by the continuous introduction of GMO in agriculture.
The PP thus cannot be neither criticized nor interpreted through the lens of a consequentialist ethics based on an estimate of the trade-offs of different probability distributions. And I agree with Sunstein about the ambiguity of some formulations of the PP that introduce this trade-off dimension. For example, the formulation in the Maastricht Treaty was the following: “The absence of certainties, given the current state of scientific and technological knowledge, must not delay the adoption of effective and proportionate preventive measures aimed at forestalling a risk of grave and irreversible damage to the environment at an economic acceptable cost”. But of course, this formulation in incoherent, because, if the risk is a major catastrophe, there is no trade-off with the “acceptable costs” to avoid it. Effectiveness, commensurability and “reasonable costs” are not the vocabulary of the unknown.


The PP introduces an ethical, normative principle for dealing with an uncertain future, where, given the complexity and interconnectedness of the natural and social systems in which we live, catastrophic black swans are more likely to occur. It introduces a future-oriented ethics by stating that the future of humankind should be part of our concerns in each choice. It introduces a bias towards the negative outcomes, that is, given the non-sustainability of a catastrophic outcome, being aware that it may happen, makes a lot of sense. It doesn’t help us in forecasting catastrophic events, but, by teaching us to fear them and to incorporate their possibility in our everyday thinking about our actions, it guides us to become more robust to them.
Indeed, we should not fear fear too much. Sometimes fear can make us stronger and wiser.

[1] Cf. Brennan, T. and Lo, A., 2011, “The Origin of Behavior”, Quarterly Journal of Finance 1: 55–108.
[2] Cf.
[3] Cf. S. Bohemer-Christiansen: “The Precautionary Principle in Germany” T. O’Riordan and J. Cameron (1994) Interpreting the Precautionary Principle, EarthScan Publishing.
[4] Cf. ibidem, p. 35.
[5] Cf. C Sunstein (2005) Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle, Cambridge University Press.
[6] Cf. I. Kant, 1785 Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, translated into English by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott.
[7] Cf. Y. Bar-Yam, R. Read, N. N. Taleb (2014): “The Precautionary Principle”; J. P. Dupuy “The Precautionary Principle and Enlightened Doomsaying: Rational Choice before
the Apocalypse.” Occasion: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities 1, no. 1 (October 15, 2009),
[8] Cf. D. Kahneman, A. Tversky (1979) “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk” Econometrica, 2, vol. 47, pp. 263-292; D. Kahneman (2011) Thinking, fast and slow, Allen Lane, New York.
[9] Actually, he mentions cases discussed in Paul Slovic’s work on risk perception. Cf. P. Slovic (1987) “Perception of Risk”, Science, 236, 4799, pp. 280-285.
[10] Cf. Sunstein (2003) on line at: , p.29.
[11] Cf. ibidem, p. 27.
[12] Cf. ibidem, p. 29.
[13] Cf. J. Stuart Mill (1861) On Representative Government; J. Dewey (1916) Democracy and Education, MacMillan, New York. For a recent discussion of the tension in liberal democracies between political quality and political equality, see D. Estlund (2009) Democratic Authority, Princeton University Press.
[14] For a recent account of Gandhi’s philosophy of nature, see A. Bilgrami (2014) Secularism, Identity and Enchantment, Harvard University Press.
[15] Cf.
[16] Cf. N.N. Taleb (2007) The Black Swan, Random House.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

How I see myself seen

Draft. Do not quote. Published online as an Italian Academy of Advanced Studies at Columbia working paper

Chapter 1

How I See Myself Seen

Peur de perdre les siens, mais aussi de se perdre lui-même, de découvrir que derrière la façade sociale il n’était rien.

E. Carrère, L’Adversaire

He smiled understandingly, much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced--or seemed to face--the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

On January 9th, 1993, in his house in the region of Gex, between Switzerland and Jura, Jean-Claude Romand kills his wife, his five and seven-year-old children, his parents and their dog. He then attempts to kill his mistress in the forest of Fontainebleau, where he had brought her to have dinner at Bernard Kouchner’s house, whom he does not know and who does not have a house in Fontainebleau. Lastly, he sets his house on fire, takes a sleeping pill and falls asleep, hoping to never awaken. He nonetheless wakes up from the coma provoked by the barbiturates and burns. He is charged with having committed the most atrocious crimes and is immediately convicted. According to the public prosecutor of the republic that followed the case, “The motive of his crime was of the fear of the counterfeit doctor of being exposed.”
How is it ever possible that confessing a lie, even an outrageous lie, becomes more difficult than exterminating one’s own entire family? How could his reputation have counted more to him than the life of his children? This book tries to answer this question.

The somber story of Jean-Claude Romand became famous due to Emanuel Carrère’s book, L’Adversaire[1]. The author narrates the trajectory of a man who built himself a reputation as a successful doctor, working at the World Health Organization in Geneva, and friend of political men and internationally renowned researchers. All this based on a lie. In fact, he never finished his medical studies, and during ten years, instead of working, he had been spending his days in his car in the parking lot of the WHO in Geneva or loitering in the woods or in cafes until it was time to go home. He had thoroughly taken care of his false identity down to the smallest detail, bringing home fliers and brochures from the WHO every chance he could go to the library that was open to the public on the ground floor of the organization’s headquarters. If he left on “business trips,” trips he took to the pitiful hotel close to his house where he would watch TV and read the guidebooks of whatever country he was supposed to be visiting, he never forgot to call his family every day to tell them what time it was in Tokyo or Brazil and he always returned from these trips with credible gifts. He took care of his false existence, his fictitious reputation, as if it were real: the endeavor led him to the point of destroying his entire family because the façade began to collapse due to money problems. Which was his real life? The one that his family thought he lived, full of success, trips and international recognition, or the one that only he could know, spent reading in his car, or in the crummy cafes of Bourg-en-Bresse, or walking in the mountains of Jura? Basically, his second life only existed for him: nobody else knew about it, it was only a way to maintain his dream life. When his friends from the village realized that Jean-Claude’s entire life was a lie, he ceased to exist for them, he was no longer Jean-Claude: “When they talked about him, late at night, they could no longer call him Jean-Claude. They didn’t call him Romand either. It was something outside of life, outside of death, he no longer had a name”[2].
We have two egos, two identities that make up who we are and how we behave: our subjectivity, made out of our proprioceptive experiences, our physical sensations, embodied in our body, and our reputation, the powerful reflective/retroactive system that constitutes our social identity and that integrates into our self-awareness of how we see ourselves seen. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the American sociologist Charles Horton Cooley[3] called this second ego, the looking glass self. The perception of our identity is woven into the thread of time, incorporating what we think others think of us. In fact, this understanding of ourselves is not created simply by reflection, but by the refraction of our image divided and multiplied in the eyes of others. The social self, who controls our lives and leads us to extreme acts, does not belong to us: it is the part of us that lives inside others. However, the feelings that it provokes – shame, embarrassment, self-esteem, guilt, pride - are very real and well anchored in our deepest emotions[4]. Biology demonstrates that our body “treats” shame as a physical wound, releasing a quantity of chemical substances that provoke inflammation and increase the level of cortisol[5]. A slap does more harm to our self-esteem than to our red burning cheek.
In his work on the culture of honor, the psychologist Richard Nisbett and his collaborators measured the level of cortisol of participants before and after an experience where they felt their honor had been “hurt.” The study went as follows. A group of 83 students from the South and North of the United States were invited to participate in a psychological study. Before the experiment, the subjects were asked to fill out a form with their personal information and to return it to an experimenter who was not in the room of the study, but at the end of a hallway. It was only when they left the room to hand in their forms that the “true” experiment began: an experimenter pretended to be an employee of the university organizing files in a rolling file cabinet that was placed in the middle of the hallway. To allow the student to pass, the fake employee had to move the cabinet. Once the student reached the end of the hallway, after turning in his form, the fake employee had to once again move the cabinet to allow the student to pass by him. He did this while sighing, aggravated, and murmuring, “asshole.” At the end of the experience, the levels of cortisol in the Southern students, who felt that their reputation (and their virility) had been damaged, were much higher[6] than at the beginning of the experiment. Feeling that their reputation was hurt provoked a real chemical transformation within them, a well-known hormonal reaction that normally corresponds to a preparation to respond with physical violence.

What I think you think about me

More than a third of homicides in the United States are attributable to trivial motives such as a particularly aggressive verbal exchange, an insult, or a question of precedence in a parking lot. Among the most convincing sociological explanations for crimes without serious motives are honor, pride and reputation[7]. Many of these crimes are committed by people who do not have a psychopathic psychological profile. Nevertheless, they are driven to the point of killing by the stupid question of precedence. Everyone can have furious reactions during futile arguments: with the offensive waiter, who abuses his little “power” over us, or with the woman in the car who refuses to move five centimeters forward to let us turn left… These violent reactions are very often caused by injuries that we imagine are inflicted by what others “owe us”. They are true emotional injuries that we feel and that are provoked by the feeling that we did not get the appropriate consideration, that that was not the way that others should have treated us. How could this imaginary, inexistent thought, that is nothing but a trace, a shadow[8] of us in others, have such precisely determinable psychophysical effects? The paradox of reputation resides in the apparent disproportionality between the psychological and social value that we give it and its purely symbolic existence: to have honor, reputation, to be honorable, is all only being thus recognized by someone else. Why do give such value to this reflection of our image, which resides within others, since we are the only ones obsessively interested in our reputation- except for celebrities, whose reputation everyone is interested in?
Mark Leary, a social psychologist at Duke University, advanced the hypothesis that humans have a genuine sociometer, a psychological mechanism, a motivational structure that works as an indicator of the “social temperature” around us, a kind of internal thermometer that registers social acceptance or rejection, using the degree of self esteem as a unit of measurement[9]. Our social emotions would thus be a way of tracing this part of us that passes through others. Therefore, even if our reputation is only a reflection, the emotions accompanying it have a physical and psychological reality that serves to oversee this reflection.
The main problem of psychological explanations of this kind is that they presuppose that the sociometer is probably adjusted, that the emotions that it provokes within us and the external social temperature co-vary in a coordinated fashion. But, unfortunately, as George Elliot says, “the last thing we learn in life is our effect on others.” We proceed by trials and errors, trying different selves, building façades that are nothing but drafts. Then we see the effects that they have on others, we adjust them until we are able to, and sometimes we surrender and leave the image of ourselves that we have solicited in the eyes of others since we can’t control it anymore.
The anguish that accompanies the loss of reputation, the Proustian anxiety on the perennial uncertainty of our status and the profound ambivalence that these feelings provoke are due to the lack of control that we have on our image.
Our second ego is not the opinion of others, but what we think those opinions are, or sometimes, what we would like others to think of us. In the quote from Fitzergald that opens the chapter, Gatsby’s smile reassures the young Nick Carraway since he is finally seen as he would like to be seen, no less, no more. It is a feeling of emotional comfort that allows us to let us go since we have finally been seen by someone as we would like to be seen. The mysterious Gatsby with his sulfurous reputation is the only one able to give Carraway the correct assessment of himself, to provide him the profound satisfaction of being seen at last as he truly is. And he gives him the rarest and most beautiful present: to feel for an instant his two egos reunited. To feel at last the suspension of the eternal ambivalence between the being and the seeming. Carraway is an accomplice of Gatsby’s since he understands his profound need to build a dream self, a second self that is not only a social façade, but that represents what he would like others to think of him: “He invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen year old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.” Nick Carraway also harbors his own other self when he says: “Each of us imagines having at least one of the cardinal virtues, and her is mine: I am one of those rare honest people I know.” And it is this cardinal virtue that Gatsby recognizes by his smile.
Our social image is both familiar and a stranger: it provokes in us reactions that we cannot control- like, for example, blushing before an intimidating crowd- it makes us lose our means and constitutes at the same time the part of us that is the most precious, that which we take care of the most carefully. Failure to distinguish between these two aspects of ourselves can make us lose a sense of our actions, to the point of provoking in us states of extreme distress, in which we no longer understand the reasons that moved us.
This books tries to understand the logic of this double ego. Reputation is a mystery: its way of increasing or decreasing under the gaze of others, of spreading or changing “valence” suddenly, seems random. A good concept, in short, for the proverbs and literature that contain so much knowledge and life experience, but that seem destined to speak of that which cannot be explained by other means. One such example is in Rochefoucauld’s maxim: “Self-esteem is more clever than the cleverest man in the world”[10]. The reference to a double intentionality that guides actions is evident, but only vaguely resonates in the ambiguity of the maxim… However, much of the mystery that surrounds reputation comes from the fact that it is a notion neglected by social sciences, for several reasons. Firstly, reputation is a concept that has a bad reputation: it is considered a vestige of a pre-modern and anti-individualistic society. The fama, the prestige, and the fierce battle to defend a position in the social hierarchy are part of a world of aristocratic values that modernity does not cease to demolish and whose study may have just a historico-cultural interest since there is no real object of study in these phenomenon. They are symbols of an ancient world, not of a phenomenon that has a psychic or social reality. It is as if someone undertook a systematic study of the aura, of a certain luminosity that surrounds people, in particular supernatural beings - the nimbus of saints, which is part of Christian and Muslim iconography, being a sign of the presence of this aura. This phenomenon can be studied from a historic-cultural point of view, looking for example at its evolution in the history of art, or in poetry- the aura is often described in verses of poems of the Middle Ages and in religious literature - but to choose the aura as a genuine phenomenon to scientifically investigate, describes more paranormal than natural and social sciences. Reputation seems to have the same status: it is something that can be studied from a historical perspective but, since it does not exist as a social or psychological phenomenon, cannot be studied systematically. To reify reputation, by giving it the status of an object of study in the social sciences would mean to substantiate fantasies from the world of castles of the olden times and of aristocratic balls…
In addition, reputation is a psychological illusion: we react to it as if it existed, as if it counted for us, but in reality we are wrong and this mistake can be fatal (as in the tragic destiny of Jean-Claude Romand). If it were studied psychologically, it should be classed among the cognitive biases that cloud our judgment. However this erroneous representation that can have extreme consequences, even if it is no more than an illusion, is anchored enough in our spirit to motivate a parallel action in our lives whose objective is not explainable without it. Take the notorious case of Orlando Figes, a rich and famous British historian who used to spend his nights on harshly criticizing his colleagues’ books and writing long eulogies about his own works…  to end up incarcerated and completely drained of the precious elixir he attempted to distill online: his reputation… [11]
The management of our image is not just a matter of make up: it is a deep strategic matter of social cognition. We try to manipulate other people’s representations of ourselves from the perspective of the idea we have of their representations. It’s an arm-race, an escalation game of believing and make-believing, of manipulating other people’s ideas and being manipulated by them. Everyone knows the triumph one feels when he thinks he’s been appreciated at his right value. All previous humiliations are canceled, the world recognizes us at last for what we knew we deserved. And everyone knows, alas, the opposite feeling of surrender when we adopt the others’ perspective and feel evaluated by them, accepting their own measure. The shame that Vinteuil cannot hide about his homosexual daughter in Proust’s Remembrance is of this kind: “But when M. Vinteuil regarded his daughter and himself from the point of view of the world, and of their reputation, when he attempted to place himself by her side in the rank which they occupied in the general estimation of their neighbours, then he was bound to give judgment, to utter his own and her social condemnation in precisely the terms which the inhabitant of Combray most hostile to him and his daughter would have employed; he saw himself and her in ‘low,’ in the very ‘lowest water”.[12]
The results of the management of our self-representation are highly uncertain, yet sometimes spectacular: it is the uncertainty of the result that make the interest of the reputation game. The words and the images we use for manage our reputation are “like shells, nor less integral parts of nature than are the substance they cover, but better addressed to the eye and more open to observation”, in the words of George Santayana[13]. This second nature whose substance seems to be made for the sake of the appearances, owes its reality to the social environment. It is the social and distributed nature of our reputation, its refraction through the thoughts and the words of others that I want to detail in the following pages.

The presentation of self

Like snails, who leave behind a trail of slime while moving along, our social interactions leave an informational trail that cannot be deleted anymore. This trail is indelible yet fragile: we do not control it entirely, even if we cannot help leaving it behind. How does it compose and recompose? How does it become stable and public, which mediations and supports do make it diffuse and circulate?
The social contexts that record this informational trail vary from face to face interactions to gossips and rumors in the absence of the target person, and to the media and the Internet. These various means of transfer of social information shape specific biases and magnifying effects that have been studied from different disciplinary perspectives.
Erwin Goffman is certainly the most notable expert of the face to face dimension of our interactions. His impressive and detailed work on the micro-sociology of everyday interaction laid the foundations of the contemporary impression management techniques, so dear to consulting firms and marketing divisions. In his fine-grained analyses of how people care about their presentation in social interactions, Goffman developed a sort of strategic theory of everyday life.  The face to face interaction is the arena in which we negotiate our social image, the place in which our double ego plays the role of the protagonist. The staging of our self can be more or less cynical. We may wish others to think highly of ourselves, no matter how real are the hidden qualities we advertize on stage. We may more or less adhere to the character we are playing, become the mask we wear, or keep a certain distance from the role we are playing. Yet, in Goffman’s perspective, a part of identification with our own mask is inevitable. It is not a case that, in Latin, the word persona means mask. The shadow line that separates being and seeming is very difficult to draw. Goffman takes this idea from Robert Ezra Park, one of the pioneers of American sociology, who writes: “In a sense, and insofar as this mask represents the conception we have formed of ourselves—the role we are striving to live up to—this mask is our truer self , the self we would like to be. In the end, our conception of our role becomes second nature and an integral part of our personality. We come into the world as individuals, achieve character, and become persons”[14]
We can find an ideally suited example of the moral transformation suggested by Park in a 1959 Italian movie directed by Roberto Rossellini, Il generale della Rovere. It tells the story of a petty thief, Emanuele Bardone, who is hired by the Nazis to impersonate an Italian resistance leader, General della Rovere, and infiltrate a group of resistance prisoners in a Milan prison. Once in prison, he gets acquainted with the other resistance heroes, and appreciates the more and more the recognition and esteem that everybody have for Della Rovere, the character he is impersonating. He becomes so attached to his mask that, when the fascists decide to execute some of the resistance leaders in prison in response to the killing of one of theirs, Bardone/Della Rovere assumes his role until the end, and dies with his “comrades” on the cry “Viva l’Italia, viva la libertà”. Bardone becomes his reputation and his end is somehow heroic, even if he is not truly Della Rovere. This passage from a natural identity, to be taken at its face value, to a constructed, artificial social identity is well taken in the Italian expression: “Ci sei o ci fai?” which can be translated as:  “But are you so or do you act so ?”
There is a moral principle in the sociology of everyday life that organizes the social interaction and that explains why, in the end, even Bardone/Della Rovere can be considered as a moral character. According to Goffman: “society is organized on the principle that any individual who possesses certain social characteristics has a moral right to expect that others will value and treat him in a correspondingly appropriate way »[15]
His 1956 book on the presentation of self in everyday life details the strategies that “actors” put at work to monitor their social image and influence other people’s perceptions in social settings. Goffman conceives social life as a stage in which players strut and fret their hour in order to project a convincing image of themselves. The first appearance of each actor determines immediately a context in the eyes of the audience and solicits a series of expectations about the subsequent moves. From then on, our behavior and appearance assume a social significance: the way in which we dress, our accent, our physical aspect, our age, the fact of finding ourselves on that situation at that very moment, all speaks about ourselves and constraints the way in which we can construct our image. This projection is governed by an implicit deal between the actor and the audience, that is, the audience will accept and respect the image projected by the actor and won’t try to make him lose his face. It is this implicit deal that sustains our social interactions. We dose our presentation by taking into account what others can and cannot accept. That is why first impressions are so important and so difficult to revise. Because they project the social script to which we will conform in the rest of the interaction. Of course, there are moments in which this projection is weakened, even contradicted. In these cases, the actor feels the embarrassment of the situation, but, given the implicit deal, he can count on the fact that his audience won’t let him down. Still, the situation may break down at some point: I ask for a loan to my bank, I present myself in an elegant dress, with a frivolous and detached attitude that should convey an image of myself as a wealthy lady who is always late in payments not because of lack of funds but just because of distraction. Then, the banker starts to ask me more precise questions about how I am thinking to reimburse the loan, and I reply incoherently, start to sweat, my façade starts to break down and he doesn’t feel committed anymore to my initial projection. He lets me down.
Many theater plays and movies construct their dramatic narratives around a breakdown of a social situation that turns sometimes into tragedy and sometimes into comedy. The gaffe, the blunder, are exactly the disruption of a social interaction whose projections were previously accepted by all participants. The situation slowly deteriorates, the actors can no longer play the roles they had negotiated at the beginning and someone “loses his face”. The moral dimension of reputation and the feelings it may cause of humiliation and shame depend on this kind of disruption in the interaction management: we feel betrayed because the others don’t respect anymore the initial deal of accepting the image we decided to project. They let down our double, the best part of ourselves. The breaking of the deal creates a feeling of resentment and humiliation, the indignation of not having been treated as we expected to be, even if we knew that we were staging an ego and that part of what we were projecting was a fake, it was just an invented reputation.
Of course, we cannot project whatever we want. Each social context forces us to project an appropriate image, that is, the one that embodies the shared values of the society to which the interaction belongs. As Cooley says, this is an essential part of our social learning: we project an ameliorated image of ourselves that embodies what we think the others expect from us: “By awaking social-self feelings, other persons give life and power to certain sentiments of approval and disapproval regarding our own actions. […] The self of a sensitive person tends to become his interpretation of what the others think of him and is a prime factor in determining the moral judgments of all of us”[16] A way of becoming what the others think of us is to deceive them and project the self that they would expect from us. It is a virtuous circle that makes us act socially in a more appropriate way to fulfill expectations about the social values we would like to exemplify. Yet, a virtuous circle may become a vicious one insofar as it reinforces social conformism. If our social self becomes too important for us, we risk of becoming slaves of it and conform to other people’s imagined or actual expectations.
The way in which we represent and sometimes embody others’ expectations can be definitely awkward. In Moliere’s The Bourgeois Gentleman, Monsieur Jourdain is a comic character because of his perpetual gap between what he thinks about the “people of quality” and what they actually are, and his clumsy attempts to conform to their imagined manners. Madame Verdurin, an ambitious Proustian character who is envious of the Parisian aristocratic grands salons which she is not admitted to, convinces her friend, the Baron de Charlus, to organize a soirée at her house inviting all the important aristocratic people she would love to meet. The Baron accepts, invites everyone, but once at Madame Verdurin’s place, nobody even think of getting acquainted to her: they treat her as she were transparent and her hope of integrating at last the high society vanishes in the most bitter disappointment. Also, our social codes may change as well as our thoughts about other people’s expectations on us. In Balzac’s Lost illusions, the outfits of Madame De Bargeton, which appeared to him the ultimate elegance once in Angoûleme, seem plain and unfashionable in the new context of a Parisian theatrical performance.
It is clear that the back and forth between our self and our social image, the progressive adjustment between what we think others see of us and what we wish others recognize of us is the essence of our social learning. And in this back and forth we sometimes go beyond the imaginary demand of the social world and try more hazardous presentations of our selves, thus creating spaces for social innovation. Simone de Beauvoir says something very deep about the innovative potential of the social self in her description of the way in which women deal with fashion. Beyond social codes, each woman who dresses and makes up “doesn’t present herself to the observation. As a painting or a statue, or as an actor on the stage, she is an agent through which someone who is not there is alluded to – the character she represents but she is not”[17].

Goffman’s impression management is a fine-grained analysis of face to face interactions that are structured in a front, - the frontal stage in which the interaction takes place, articulated in appearance (what is presented as inherent to the physical person) and manner, and a back-stage, that is, all that is to be set up in order to play the scene. The impression management implies to hide some motivations and put forward others and keep a certain coherence with different expressions of our self. Goffman’s analysis reduces thus the face to a property of the interaction and not of the individual. And the “live” aspect of the face to face interaction excludes the cumulative effects of reputation, that is often constructed and transmitted “off line”, that is, in absence of the actor. Yet, the social emotions of shame, pride, glory, resentment, etc., are not generated only within face to face interactions. Even if they are essentially relational and comparative emotions, the social conditions that solicit them can be minimal. Social psychology shows that the mere presence of an eye-icon on the screen of a computer during the performance of a cognitive task changes the results of a performance[18] that involves, at least indirectly, social approbation or disapproval. And, as we have seen in the sad history of Jean-Claude Rolland, the interactions that put our social ego under unsustainable pressure, are sometimes just imagined, inexistent: children can break down under the imaginary pressures of their parents about their achievements. Fear of deception is very often a fantasy. Actually, most of the times, nobody cares whether we triumph or fail.
Thus, if these emotions are the product of the interaction, they do not depend on actual interactions, but can be elicited also by simple mental vestiges of these interactions, perhaps provoked by the thousands of past social interactions that left a trail on our minds and bodies and shaped our cognition.

How reputation comes to the mind

According to the psychologist Philippe Rochat, reputation is what makes us human. What distinguishes us most from other species is the interiorized gaze of others. Instead of seeing the anxiety for reputation as a sociological trait of present times, Rochat reconstructs its possible ontogenetic roots in the infant’s minds. The anxiety of how I see myself seen emerges very early in childhood. Hence, the hyper-attention to our image is not the “mark of modernity” as some authors have argued[19], but a perennial trait of our psychology. According to Rochat’s experimental research, the two years old child has already a “co-consciousness” of himself, which is related to the famous, or infamous, mirror stage, studied by many psycologists and psychoanalysts[20]. In the standard psychoanalytic interpretation of the mirror stage, the child has a jubilatory reaction to the recognition of his image reflected in the mirror, a positive experience that depends on the feeling of reunification of his bodily perception. Converesely, Rochat’s experiments show that children associate this experience to a feeling of embarrassment, of being “caught” in an attitude they were not aware of. The experience of the social self is at the same time precocious and painful. By passing the mirror stage test[21], children not only become self-conscious, but also co-conscious, that is, aware of the fact that there exists a social gaze on them. The precocity of this feeling could depend on the existence from the very early childhood of a capacity of joint attention. The child’s survival depends on his capacity to solicit the attention of his caregivers. Monitoring other people’s attention is thus one of the most precocious abilities children develop. Children do nonsensical things to attract mothers’ attention while they are talking on the phone or are distracted by a conversation in the street.
The social aspect of our cognition could thus be very precocious. The infant comes to the world “equipped” with cognitive mechanisms - like joint attention -  that allow him to control the social environment and predispose him to take care of the mirror image of himself, as if the cocktail of consciousness and social cognition makes of us a species that is particularly sensitive to social judgment. Thinking through others and thinking with others predispose ourselves to think of what others think of us.
The internalization of the social world is well shown by the difference between the emotion of shame and guilt. Shame depends on the social gaze, true or interiorized, whereas guilt can be developed in absence of any social interaction: in the second case, the measure of other people’s judgment is so interiorized that we can end up exposing ourselves to public contempt in order to save the morality of our social self.
Even Cyrano de Bergerac, the hero who fights against hypocrisy, against the appearances, the romantic hero of “the being” against “the seeming”, goes to the heaven without the laurel and the rose, but with something that is “free of hurt or stain”: his panache[22].

[1]             Emmanuel Carrère, L’Adversaire, Paris, P.O.L., 2000.
[2]             Carrère (2000) p.
[3]             Cooley (1864-1929) is seen as one of the founders of social psychology. His idea was to anchor the study of society in the mental processes of individuals. According to him, the concept of the individual was an abstraction, empty without that of society, but the concept of society was equally empty if the mental states of the individuals that made it up were not taken into account. The idea of the looking-glass self was developed by Cooley (1902).
[4]             These are the emotions that psychologists call “self-awarness,” reflexive emotions that depend on social intereaction. See Elster (1999).
[5]             See Lewis (2002); Gruenewald (2004)
[6]             See Nisbett & Cohen (1996)
[7]             See Gould (2013).
[8]             I will return to the chapter on the idea of reputation as a shadow: shadow of the past in classical game theory, and the shadow of the future in the evolutionist explanations of cooperation. See Miller (2012); Axelrod (1984).
[9]             That self esteem is directly linked to social approval is a controversial theory. See Elster (2013), for example, who affirms that the concern of having a good reputation is independent of social acceptance.
[10]             See Rouchefoucauld (1678), maxim 4
[12] Cf. M. Proust, Remembrance of Things Past. Swann’s Way. Translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, 1922.
[13] Cf. G. Santayana, Soliloquies in England and later soliloquies, New York, Scribner’s 1922, p. 131.
[14] Cf. R.E. Park (1950) Race and Culture, p. 250.
[15] Cf. Goffman (1956), p. 6.
[16] Cf. Cooley (1902), p. 355.
[17] Cf. Simone de Beauvoir (1949).
[18] Cf. Haley & Fessler (2006).
[19] Cf. for example Charles Taylor, The Making of the Self. Sources of Modern Identity, Cambridge University Press, 1989.
[20] First studied by Henri Wallon (1934), the mirror stage has been discussed by René Zazzo, Jacques Lacan, D.W. Winnicott, Françoise Dolto and others.
[21] Cf. Amsterdam (1972); Gallup (1970).
[22] Cf. The last lines of Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac.