Philosophers: the Original “Dishabituation Entrepreneurs”

“We have come to believe that it is not possible to understand the current period—and the shifts in what counts as normal—without appreciating why and how people do not notice so much of what we live with.”

That’s Tali Sharot (UCL) and Cass Sunstein (Harvard) writing recently in The New York Times. They continue:

The underlying reason is a pivotal biological feature of our brain: habituation, or our tendency to respond less and less to things that are constant or that change slowly.

We get used to once-novel features of our environment and cease to notice them. We get used to our own behavior, becoming comfortable with behavior (like lying) the more we do it.

Sharot and Sunstein cite the Milgram experiments and Nazi Germany as examples in which people were habituated to evil.

But not everyone accepts the things they’re used to. There are, they write, “dishabituation entrepreneurs”:

Those are people who have not habituated to the evils of their society; they both see the wrongdoing for what it is and call it out to cause dishabituation in others.

The “dishabituation entrepreneurs” they mention are people engaged in activism and are able to mobilize people towards social change by getting them to see what they’ve gotten used to.

Among their examples is Peter Singer, who is responsible for knocking many people out of their complacency with cruelty towards animals and neglect of the poor.

It’s good that they include a philosopher, but it seems to me that philosophers are all “dishabituation entrepreneurs” by trade—and not just for moral and political matters, but for a wide range of human activities, for our understanding of the world and our selves, for science, and for knowledge and thought in general.

As Bertrand Russell reportedly put it: “In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” That’s basically the unofficial motto of most Philosophy 101 courses.

The “markets” philosophers peddle their dishabituation to first-time buyers is typically the classroom. There are other markets: book and journal readers, conference attendees, occasionally broader swathes of the public. But a philosophy professor need not be the dishabituating analog of a multinational corporation in order to be a dishabituation entrepreneur; they’re just local.

Sharot and Sunstein think “dishabituation entrepreneurs” are important and ask “can dishabituation entrepreneurs be produced?”

Perhaps this is a new way to frame the value of studying philosophy.

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Patrick Lin
1 month ago

I prefer “chaos agent.”