Home Stretch | Being the ‘Bad guy’ in a group isn’t always wrong

We think that it’s very normal for everyone to ‘behave well,’ and the difference between good and bad behavior is something we instill in our children from a young age. But things aren’t always that black and white, TU/e philosopher Mandi Astola says. According to her, bad people can actually make a positive impact on group behavior. She wants to use her new Mandevillian morality theory to show that bad-guy behavior in groups isn’t necessarily something to be dismissive of. She will defend her research at the department of IE&IS on Tuesday April 26th.

by
photo Lieke Vermeulen

She still all too often meets people who don’t even know that TU/e has a Philosophy group, and she has had to justify her existence numerous times. But that doesn’t mean that PhD student Mandi Astola feels like the odd one out. In fact, she’s glad to explain time after time what it is that she contributes to society and what a philosopher like her is doing at TU/e. She does so with love, because “philosophy is my passion.” Over de past four years, Finnish-born Astola delved into the theme of morality and developed a new vision on how to judge good and evil.

Synthesizer

Astola likes to make a comparison with music when she talks about morality. That’s not entirely without reason. She’s crazy about electronic dance, likes to spend her free time blowing off steam behind her synthesizer – she reluctantly admits to having recorded some of her own songs on occasion – and organizes “cool parties” with Utrecht-based music group The Funky Cat. “In ancient Greece, music education was considered part of children’s moral education. Through imitation and practice, they learned how to reach a state of harmony.  Like music, virtue is something you also learn through imitation and practice.”

However, Astola continues: “The Ancient Greeks didn’t have synthesizers. What’s so great about this instrument it that it teaches us to appreciate the beauty of distortion. Musicians use the perfect sine wave as the basis and then distort it to give it character. Imperfection can make music interesting. It’s not true that distortion isn’t harmonious. On the contrary, it adds character and richness to the sound. Even dissonance, a combination of notes that sounds jarring, isn’t necessarily considered non-harmonious. In fact, it even plays an important role in jazz and contemporary music. Music evolves when we learn to appreciate new forms of harmony. And in order to do that, we need to listen to the bigger picture – the composition as a whole – and not just to the distorted or dissonant sound.”

For her work within a large international project, Astola attended various group meetings to collect observations and data. She noticed that every group has at least one selfish, unpleasant person. But that’s exactly why the group arrived at some kind of breakthrough in the end, or started to ask critical questions. And this also holds true in a wider context, Astola says. “Think of a demanding CEO who bosses people around and turns his company into a success, or an uncle who says unpleasant things but who gets a family to ultimately resolve some of its issues. Can individual misconduct have a positive effect on a group? Why should we strive for perfect behavior? Isn’t imperfection what allows us to take the next step as a group?”

Mandeville

In the same way that we can learn to appreciate new forms of music by listening to the bigger picture, we can also look at a group’s virtue and learn to appreciate it, Astola believes. Since the current theories of ethics and morality predominantly pass judgement on individuals and their actions, she first had to develop a new theory that does include group behavior: the Mandevillian morality theory, named after seventeenth-century economist, philosopher and satirist Bernard Mandeville. Mandeville’s key position was that vice is the real source of general wellbeing. “Mandeville once wrote a fable about the life of a bee. It’s the bee’s desire for personal gain that allows the community to thrive, Mandeville says. Many of the things we do, we do as a group. The value of this adjusted theory is that we can now also pass judgement on morality at group level. A person might misbehave, but at the same time be of value to the group as a whole.”

Unfortunately, groups seldomly receive the recognition they deserve, Astola says in conclusion. “Take creative people, for example. A great deal of creativity surfaces in groups, and individuals take the group as a whole to a higher level. Let’s stop looking for that one, individual genius, as we usually do, but let’s give the group a big compliment.”

Sauna

That is why Astola calls for a broader appreciation of the collective, and why she has started to think of herself as a collectivist. Quite a difference compared to the early days of her studies, she says openly. “I decided to study philosophy because I thought it was the only program you could follow all on your own. That was the ideal I strived for: individualism. But I gradually started to realize that philosophy is something you should practice with others, and that it feels good to be part of something bigger than yourself. Perhaps my Finnish background – I came to the Netherlands when I was nine – made the search for my ‘group’ a bit more complicated. I often felt like a Finnish person among the Dutch and a Dutch person among Finns. However, I eventually found my group mates and now consider it a compliment when someone thinks of me as a true Brabander, albeit one with a predilection for the sauna.”

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