Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

The Argument From “I’ll Hold My Breath Until I Turn Blue”

November 18, 2014

I’ve been talking a lot about free will over the past little while, but for reasons that you’ll see in the next post, I wanted to get this little rumination in today. The key reason that people are so determined to preserve free will is the idea that our conscious deliberations matter, and that what we decide consciously really does impact our behaviour. The challenge from hard determinists has always been that that is itself determined by environment and brain state, which always implies that it doesn’t really have an impact, except possibly as a feedback loop where the experience causes a reaction just as any stimulus would. This is why Libet’s experiments are always cited as evidence that free will doesn’t really exist; they purport to demonstrate that our conscious deliberation can’t impact the decision because the decision is made unconsciously before we consciously make it. On the other hand, our instincts and hard-wired desires are also often cited as reasons to think that we don’t have any meaningful kind of free will, because they are actions — often very complex and direct actions — that we take automatically in response to a stimulus, and they can indeed be conditioned to be automatic and unconscious reactions. So, again, conscious deliberation doesn’t seem to be necessary.

But you get an interesting result when you combine some of our strongest instinctive and automatic responses and conscious deliberation. Take, for example, breathing. We all do this automatically, pretty much from birth. We don’t generally have to think about it. We can, however, consciously override this instinctive behaviour, and hold our breath. But we can’t do it until we die. However, we can hold it until we lose consciousness. Thus, as long as we are conscious, we are capable of overriding this very basic instinctive behaviour, and doing so completely. All our body can do is make it very uncomfortable to do so, but it can’t actually force us to breath … as long as we are conscious. As soon as we lose consciousness, then this behaviour kicks in again and we breath. But as long as we are conscious, we can override this basic and vitally important bodily function.

This suggests that our conscious deliberations and actions can influence our behaviour, as we can consciously override this instinctive behaviour as long as and only as long as we are conscious. In addition, this suggests that our conscious deliberation can override pretty much any instinctive behaviour that isn’t just completely automatic — like the heart beating — because this one is just so fundamental and yet we can override it as long as we can maintain conscious control. Both of these things suggest that conscious deliberation matters and isn’t just an instinctive and automatic response with good special effects. And this seems to strike hard at the hard determinist position … or, at least, a hard determinist position that attempts to strike at conscious deliberation and deny that it is the determining factor in much of our behaviour.

Stoicism in the Stars

November 15, 2014

The second essay in “Star Wars and Philosophy” is “Stoicism in the Stars: Yoda, the Emperor and the Force” by William O. Stephens, and attempts to relate the Jedi philosophy to Stoicism. Obviously, that’s a position that interests me a great deal, and I will say that Stephens does a credible job of it, although I’m not entirely convinced. But that depends a great deal on which set of Stoics you prefer, as the Roman Stoics — especially Seneca — placed a lot less value on asceticism than the Greek Stoics did. For the Stoics, the worldly desires were always indifferents, but views varied on whether one should avoid them or if one could indeed pursue them, as long as one did so virtuously and not viciously. Seneca definitely advocated that one could pursue them, and his view is the view that I’m most drawn to.

Which leads into my take on this essay. Stephens notes, correctly, that the Emperor and Yoda are a lot alike. They are both patient, disciplined, and seemingly quite ascetic; we don’t see the Emperor engaging in any kind of hedonistic pleasures. He and Yoda seem, in the original trilogy at least, to be mirror images of each other: disciplined, devoted monkish types aiming at mastery of their respective versions of the Force. So how do they differ so that one of them is evil and the other good, and how does Vader fit into all of this?

I think the key is what each serve. Stephens seems to see the Emperor and Vader as people whose souls are inflicted by vice, and that the Emperor lacks the understanding of what is virtuous and what is vicious. I see the Emperor, rather, as someone who doesn’t understand what are virtues and what are vices, but instead as someone who does know the difference, and yet chooses the vices. The key, for me, to the Emperor, is that he treats vices the way you are supposed to treat virtues; he sees the virtues as valueless and values the vices. Now, you can’t really value vices if you understand what they are, so the Emperor values them the only way they can be valued: instrumentally, as a means to his own pleasure and enjoyment. The Emperor enjoys acting in vicious ways. He enjoys hurting people. He enjoys manipulating them. He enjoys dominating people. He gets no pleasure and sees no utility in the virtues, like compassion, or in loyalty to or faith in one’s friends. For the Emperor, the vices are what have value, not the virtues … and not the indifferents. Truthfully, it’s not clear that my analysis here is that much different than Stephens’, because in a sense someone who values the vices and not the virtues doesn’t understand what truly has value and what doesn’t, and that’s pretty much the definition of what a virtue or a vice is according to the Stoics. But even to the Stoics there is a difference between the person who doesn’t know what are virtues and the person who knows what virtues are and rejects them outright. I argue that the Emperor rejects the virtues and choose to pursue the vices.

Vader is another matter. Starting from the prequel trilogy, we see someone who is manipulated by his emotions because of his deep concern for indifferents into becoming “evil”, but not as someone who, in and of himself, chooses vices over virtues. He joins with the Emperor initially to save his wife from death, and love is a Stoic indifferent. He convinces himself to commit more and deeper depravities in service of this goal. He attacks his wife in a rage over a perceived betrayal of him by her, and in a real sense a feeling of loss of the indifferent that he was trying to preserve. Even his attack on the Tuscan Raiders was done in service of an indifferent: the life of his mother and the desire for revenge when that indifferent was taken away from him.

Even his normal rage follows from this, this time in service to the indifferent of his own life. In one of the EU books — I think it was “Shadows of the Empire” — Vader is seen trying to use his rage to allow him to survive outside of his armoured suit. He manages it for a short time, but simply can’t sustain the rage long enough to keep it going full time, which frustrates him. It is reasonable to think that Anakin’s rage and anger is what gave him the power to survive the wounds he received in his battle with Obi-Wan, and even after he loses Padme his rage essentially keeps him going, and guides most of his actions. He only starts his “redemption” when faced with another indifferent: the life of his son, and the dream of ruling with him.

This, I think, can colour the scene at the end of “Return of the Jedi”. We focus in on the Emperor’s face and see his glee at hurting Luke. It’s clear that the Emperor could kill Luke a lot faster and less painfully than he does, but the Emperor is enjoying it, and so tries to extend one of the few things that still gives him pleasure. Vader watches his son being essentially tortured to death, and hears his cries for help … and looks to the Emperor. Who is enjoying it, treating it not as a necessary task, but as something enjoyable. Vader himself at that point doesn’t understand virtue in and of itself, but he still has the prod of the indifferent and can see quite clearly the viciousness — in both senses — of the Emperor. He sees, in that instant, that the path of the Dark Side is vice, not virtue … and decides to oppose vice. But he does so primarily still in service of an indifferent, his love for his son. Vader is still not a virtuous man.

In the hangar bay, Vader takes a massive step when he asks Luke to take his mask off. While he says that nothing can stop his death, it is indeed quite possible that he could be saved, if he channeled his anger long enough to get his suit repaired and new life support installed. But at this point, Vader lets go of one of his major indifferents; he lets go of life and accepts death. It was still done in service of an indifferent — he wanted to experience the love of his son — but he still understands at that point that life is not valuable in and of itself, and so releases his own dark will and lets himself die. So at the end, Vader was not redeemed as a Stoic sage, but he started down the right path. At the end, he started to understand.

The Argument From Theology …

November 13, 2014

Jerry Coyne is talking about free will again. In this post, he summarizes a number of discussions, many if not all of which are from the Templeton dialogue, but at the end he says this:

I’ll end by saying four things. First, I believe that much compatibilist philosophy, whether it’s stated explicitly or not, rests on the Little People Argument: believing in some kind of free will—even if it’s cooked-up and also bestows free will on computers and amoebas—makes our society more moral and harmonious.

Second, there are many ways to define “compatibilist” free will. Are they all right? Shouldn’t we decide what we mean by free will in advance and then see if we have it? If there are many ways to achieve compatibilism, shouldn’t only one be the right answer?

That leads us to my third conclusion: compatibilists don’t define free will at the outset and then see if we have it. Rather, they start with an assumption: we do have some sort of free will, and then they make an argument to support their view. This exercise involves justifying an a priori conclusion, and is more akin to theology than to science—or even to good, rational philosophy.

I left out the fourth because it talked about the Templeton Foundation specifically, which I have no real interest in discussing.

The interesting thing is in what he says third, which seems to follow from the first two: he compares compatibilism, as a philosophy, to theology. Which is something that he does in a lot of cases: take an argument, try to argue that it works like theology, and then dismiss the field in its entirety because it looks like theology. Even in a lot of his posts on free will, he doesn’t particularly engage the arguments, but simply says that having free will means dualism — and even resorting to quoting what the common person believes literally as if that should define the philosophical position — which is a religious concept (it actually isn’t) and that we have to get rid of that stuff as much as we can, and that compatibilists have some psychological reasons for preferring it as opposed to having real philosophical or factual reasons for it, and so they can be dismissed. But he’s completely wrong about this.

What compatibilist philosophy rests on is the fact that hard determinism and libertarianism present two incredibly unpalatable positions when examined philosophically. Libertarianism, if correct, implies either some new form of causation or a non-physical entity that’s involved in this, and forces us to accept that all of the evidence that all physical things are deterministic at least fails when it comes to human decision making. But if we accept hard determinism, then we have to accept that all of our talk about decisions, and justice and pretty much everything we’ve come to understand and learned about human behaviour at best has a completely different meaning than what we thought it did, and at worst is completely meaningless. So, we can’t see how a libertarian free will can work in our current scientific framework … but the hard deterministic scientific framework seems to force us to give up all of those useful psychological and moral terms that have been working for and seem to provide a good understanding of human behaviour. So either toss out science or toss out psychology; take your pick.

So compatibilists have reasonably asked if we really do indeed have to choose. Can we keep the important aspects of free will — all of those psychological and moral terms that do seem to work in describing our behaviour — while accepting that the world is indeed deterministic? So despite Coyne’s assertion here, they don’t just say “We have some kind of free will, so now let’s argue for that”, but instead say “The evidence for and usefulness of the decision-making aspect of ‘free will’ seems too strong to be denied, and the evidence and usefulness of the deterministic view seems too strong to be denied … so maybe we don’t have to deny either“. In short, maybe it really does act like both a wave and a particle; maybe we really do make decisions in a meaningful way even though the world is determined.

So, while it may indeed be the case that a number of compatibilists find the idea compelling because they see that a world where people deny that their decisions matter has nasty consequences, philosophically there’s much more to it than that. If you are going to place compatibilism into an analogy with religion, I think most of them would fall much more into the “New Atheist” camp: you are telling them something that isn’t true/you don’t know and them believing that would cause massive societal issues and harm. Stop telling them these harmful things that you don’t know are true. That’s almost certainly Dennett’s view here, as his view of consciousness probably isn’t compatible with hard determinism — he wants to think that mental processes still do stuff — but he’s as naturalistic as they come.

And this is coming from someone who is an unabashed libertarian. I think their position wrong, but I can see the philosophical underpinnings that motivate it. Coyne, despite having many opportunities to see it, doesn’t see it yet. But that does not mean that it isn’t there.

Right Makes Might …

November 12, 2014

I’m not sure if this is a new attitude, but I’ve been seeing something across the blogs I read and even actions in the world and in the world of politics: people protesting the use of certain tactics against them or their policies and goals, while doing the same thing to others in pursuit of their own policies and goals and justifying the latter on a long set of rationalizations that all eventually boil down to, in the end, “We can do this because we’re right”. So you can discriminate against people because, hey, gender or racial equality is something that it is right to promote. You can riot and cause property damage because, hey, your cause is just. You can hound, insult and harass people, and deliberately try to harm them mentally and emotionally, at least, because your cause is just. You can try to get someone fired from their job because, hey, they said something wrong and that shouldn’t be allowed to stand unopposed. You can impede and inconvenience all sorts of people by taking up public property that everyone should be allowed to use unrestricted because, hey, your cause is just and they’re just whining if they complain that you are stopping them from using what they have a right to use because, hey, your cause is just … even if they don’t agree.

Now, I could go and find examples of all of these, but that’s not really my point. My point is indeed that this attitude seems prevalent, and that people, in general, seem to support certain actions and people who act in certain ways when they agree with them … and then classify the behaviour and actions as wrong when others do it. They seem to think that anything they do in service of the right or the truth is justifiable, and anything that anyone does in the service of what they think is the wrong or the false is unjustifiable. Heck, I even have an example where a criticism is seen as an attack on someone, even though it was polite and reasoned. There seems to be nothing that anyone in the wrong can do that isn’t seen as being an egregious offense and, more worryingly, nothing that anyone in the right can do that is an egregious offence. This attitude is not “the ends justify the means” — which I think is one of the most dangerous principles anyone can hold — because in that case people do still try to only take the most extreme means when they absolutely have to. This attitude really is more like you don’t have to think at all about what means you are using if you are in the right.

This attitude, it seems to me, carries across pretty much all political, social and even opinionated views. Our society seems to not only accept that sometimes you have to do extreme things to do the right thing, but that extreme things are always justified in service of the right. So you always have people decrying rudeness or insults used against them and their ideas while in almost the same breath firing them right back at their opponents. You have people complaining about being forced to think a certain way while in almost the same breath trying to force others to think their way, using the same methods. You have people decrying as terrible the use of public shame against positions they think are reasonable while in almost the same breath advocating publicly shaming the people who disagree with them. And I’ve seen this from even the most reasonable of commentators.

This attitude scares me like no other. “The ends justifies the means” is bad, but at least, again, most people won’t run to the nastiest means unless they think they have to. For “Right makes might”, the only protection we have is the personal values of them … and a lot of people are really, really complete and utter jerks. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Compatibilism and Incompatibilism …

November 10, 2014

Continuing commenting on free will, Jerry Coyne is talking about it again. This time, he’s calling out compatibilists to demonstrate what intellectual and social advantages compatibilism has over incompatibilism. The first thing to note — which I’ve touched on briefly before — is that in outlining the benefits of “incompatibilism” he completely mischaracterizes what that position actually states. Incompatibilism is the position that free will and determinism are incompatible, and that if you have one then you can’t have the other. This would include both hard determinists — which Coyne is at least trying to be — and libertarians. Both agree that you can’t have a world that is both determined and yet has free will in it. Libertarians — and I am one — argue that it is obvious that we have free will, and so if incompatibilism is correct then determinism cannot be true. Hard determinists argue that it is obvious that determinism is true, and so if incompatibilism is correct then we can’t have free will. Compatibilists stake out a different position, arguing against both the libertarians and the hard determinists that determinism and free will are not, in fact, incompatible. We can have both … at least in the forms that are importantly free will and determinism.

I’ve said before that I think a large part of the confusions here is ignoring what the libertarian position actually is. Coyne ascribes that entirely to the idea that we have some kind of immaterial mind/soul, and so it is inherently dualistic. But that’s not what the position is, but one way of implementing free will so that we don’t fall to a deterministic viewpoint. Again, given QM, the idea that physical processes have to be deterministic is now in question, and so a libertarian can be completely consistent in arguing that some physical process — critically, mental ones — can have intentionalistic characteristics, in that like macro objects are deterministic and QM effect are probabilistic, they work on intentions, and reflect that. This would be a completely materialist view of free will, and yet would still be libertarian. Given that, it becomes easier to see where the clash is between hard determinists and libertarians, and given that it becomes far easier to see how compatibilists actually differ from both of them. They are like hard determinists in insisting that these processes are deterministic, but are like libertarians in saying that we still really do make choices anyway.

I’ll fill that in a bit more when I talk about the benefits of the compatibilist position. For now, I’d like to show how Coyne’s purported benefits of hard determinism aren’t really benefits of that position:

… the explicit dispelling of dualism (something that some compatibilists do, but not often enough), which kicks the props from beneath religion.

Except that neither actually does — nor can — “dispell dualism”. Dualism is a position in Philosophy of Mind, that generally is linked directly to consciousness. If dualism works, then we clearly have room for free will because non-physical objects don’t have to do causation in the same way as physical objects, and so we could definitely have physical states be determined but mental states not be. But dualism, even back to Descartes, was not invented or posited in order to preserve free will; again, it was posited to explain consciousness. So to dispell dualism, you need to dispell it in consciousness, not in free will.

In this vein, both hard determinism and compatibilism can be seen as ways to react to the evidence that all physical processes are deterministic, and mental processes are physical ones. To that end, neither dispell dualism but are instead reactions to that dispelling. And as I’ll outline later, compatibilism is actually the more credible reaction to that condition than hard determinism.

More important, incompatibilism, by arguing that our decisions are the products of the laws of physics, and are “decisions” over which we have no control, has explicit lessons for how we deal with reward and, especially, punishment. By emphasizing determinism over semantics, I think, incompatibilism leads us naturally to a reconsideration of how we treat social offenders.

The problem here is that, traditionally, the hard determinist position’s “reconsiderations” entailed the idea that no one was responsible for their actions at all — since they didn’t choose them — and so we had to toss out notions like justice, which depend on us being able to hold people responsible for their actions. If there is no difference between a kleptomaniac and someone shoplifting on a dare from their friends — and I think that both Harris and Coyne have flat-out stated that — then someone shoplifting on a dare from their friends is no more responsible for that than the kleptomaniac is. Thus, either we should punish neither or punish both … and, traditionally, we could only punish people for what they can be said to be responsible for, and neither are responsible for their behaviour. The only way around this is the behaviourist approach: we want to stop the behaviour, so we want to change the environment so that they don’t, which may include behaviouristic punishment — ie a negative stimulus — or reward — ie a positive stimulus. And this can work if doing this doesn’t just reintroduce the same distinctions under different names.

However, that’s where compatibilism becomes more credible … because you have to. Even in terms of altering behaviour, we’re going to treat the kleptomaniac differently from the person who steals to feed their family from the person who shoplifts because they are dared to by their friends and want to fit in from the person who steals because they just don’t feel like paying for it. And the differences cut across all hard determinist positions in ways that compatibilism just handles but hard determinism needs massive contortions to address in a sensible manner. For the first case, we can see that their decision-making processes are impaired, and so what we have to do is fix their decision-making process; it simply can’t make anything like a proper decision there. In the second case, their decision-making processes are working, and their values are correct, so they are held, by compatibilism, responsible for their decisions in a way that the kleptomaniac isn’t, but we don’t hold them morally responsible because we think they made the proper moral choice there (which refutes Coyne’s contentions about how moral responsibility is meaningless). In the last two cases, the decision-making processes seem unimpaired, but their priorities, goals and values are what’s wrong. In the shoplifter case, they are valuing the right things — friendship and social cohesion is important — but their determination of what you can do to achieve that is out of whack. In the straight thief case, their values are far too selfish. We can say that the last two cases are cases where they have moral responsibility because they a) were responsible and b) did what was morally wrong. We might need to punish the thief in order to get them to act properly, or lock them up because they are incapable of doing so. It probably won’t be to anyone’s benefit to lock up the shoplifter; we ought to be able to get them to see why they shouldn’t do that to make friends without doing that. So, completely different approaches are needed here, and that holds even if they all stole the same thing.

This is a natural sort of analysis for us, and thus is a natural sort of analysis for compatibilists, whose main goal is to preserve these sorts of analyses in light of determinism. And the reason they want to preserve them is because they just really, really work most of the time, allowing us to easily see the differences in these cases and derive how to treat these disparate cases in order to produce the outcomes that we want. Hard determinism starts from a position that these disparate cases aren’t meaningfully different, and then has to build that back in in order to produce the state outcomes. In a way that’s often very convoluted, very kludgey, and ends up looking like a really complicated way to say exactly what compatibilists are saying (ie they introduce long, convoluted terms that reproduce all of the functionality that, say, “morally responsible” does, neither add nor subtract anything from it).

So, what are the benefits of compatibilism? The ability to preserve all of these interesting distinctions while not denying that mental processes are physical and deterministic. Socially, compatibilism preserves these choice-based concepts that do seem to describe our behaviour and thus avoids any notion that we are somehow not really responsible for our actions and are really just puppets, which has been a common conclusion of hard deterministic positions. And doing that in such a way that it doesn’t have to contort either determinism or our views on human behaviour into a model that doesn’t have room for either. If the hard determinist is consistent, then the positions are radically different, and if the hard determinist tries to stuff these distinctions into their view then they end up being the ones arguing over semantics, as they include everything that we wanted free will for but chafe at daring to call that free will.

What does “moral” add?

November 9, 2014

It’s been a while since I talked about Jerry Coyne’s views on free will, and I wouldn’t do it this time, except that in his latest discussion of Dennett he includes one paragraph that shows just how deeply confused he is about the issues with free will and moral responsibility:

Certainly we must be held responsible for our choices: to protect society if we make bad ones (showing our brains have “faulty” wiring), to deter others from thinking they can get away with antisocial behavior, and to help rehabilitate those who engage in such behavior. But I deny that this responsibility for is a “moral” responsibility. What does the word “moral” add to that? And if we don’t have a choice in how to act, what is “moral” except the label that predetermined actions comport with social norms? Imputing “moral” responsibility is no different from saying “this person did that thing for reasons we can’t completely understand.”

Here’s the issue: “moral responsibility” does not in any way describe some kind of strange and spooky type of responsibility that is totally and completely different from all other types of responsibility and is the type of responsibility that maps to free will. All types of responsibility for our decisions were supposed to map to or be impacted by the free will debate. So, then, what does the “moral” refer to? Well, to a subset of our decisions, decisions that have a moral character. Not all of our decisions are moral ones, but all of those decisions are, in fact, ones that we have to be considered morally responsible for.

We can see that not all of our decisions are, at least, moral ones. When I decide to buy the full series of “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” because it is on sale at Best Buy, that’s not normally a moral decision; it’s just a pragmatic one. When I am trying to decide whether to shovel my driveway first thing in the morning or to wait until the afternoon, that again is not usually a moral decision. They can become moral decisions due to other factors. For example, Peter Singer might try to make the decision to buy a frill for my enjoyment a moral decision, when there are others who could better use those resources. And if people are coming over and my driveway would be dangerous, then whether I shovel it before they arrive or not might be a moral issue. But in general, they aren’t, because they don’t have that moral character. We might not know what precisely it means for a decision to have a moral character, but we know that some decisions clearly do and some decisions clearly don’t.

(I talk more about this here.)

Additionally, it is possible to be able to be held responsible for your decisions, but not your moral ones. I would argue that psychopaths, for example, cannot be held responsible for moral actions, not because they lack the same decision-making abilities — or lack of them — that we have, not because their will is more constrained, but because they are incapable of understanding what gives a decision moral character. Unlike others, they consistently fail the moral/conventional distinction. They cannot understand what it would mean for something to be moral, and so at that point they are incapable of making any moral decision, just like I’m incapable of making a medical decision about the best course of treatment for a patient: it’s not that I can’t make those decisions, it’s just that I don’t know enough to make that decision. Or, perhaps a better example is that psychopaths are incapable of making a moral decision for the same reason that a blind person is incapable of deciding if a painting provides a good visual representation of something; neither of them have the capacity to make that decision, even though their decision-making abilities are unimpaired.

The key is that a non-moral decision may be just as confusing as a decision as moral ones. In fact, non-moral decisions are more likely to be ones that we can’t completely understand because they are more tightly tied to the personal preferences of the person than moral ones are, which generally appeal to some kind of universal or societal code for their reasoning. So that last sentence is horribly confused, and can only be explained by thinking that moral decisions are supposed to be specially “free willish”. They aren’t. Moral decisions are just the really, really important ones, the ones that we want to make sure we make correctly, and the ones that we want to punish or reward people for making, and we can’t do that if even moral agents lack responsibility for their decisions. If hard determinism is true, the argument is that we aren’t responsible for any of our decisions, and that problem strikes hardest for moral decisions, because it means that we are also incapable of acting morally, not because we are incapable of understanding morality, but because we are not responsible for any of our decisions, even the moral ones. In short, it’s a problem because ought — especially moral ought — implies can, and so if I can’t help but decide to take the immoral action then it cannot be said that I ought to have taken the moral one instead. At which point, we lose all justification for punishment or reward of any actions, particularly ones with moral character.

It seems to me that to make his point stick here, Coyne has to deny that morality exists at all. But if he does, then a lot of his own arguments across various fields have no argumentative basis; he can’t condemn the Catholic Church for the immoral things it does if there is no such thing as morality. So if there is such a thing as morality, then we have moral responsibility: people being held responsible for their decisions that have a moral character. Again, Coyne misses that determinism impacts the “responsibility” side of the ledger, not the “moral” side, and so his arguments completely miss the relevant issues.

Note: In a later comment, Coyne agrees that moral responsibility can be seen as responsibility in a social context — I disagree with that definition of moral — but then adds “…but the problem as I see it is that the idea of “moral” responsibility is weightier than just “normal” responsibility, demanding some special actions or special opprobrium.” Yes, because moral interactions are weightier than other interactions, even if just seen as actions in a social context. Actions that impact others are weightier than actions that only impact yourself. This is kinda obvious, no?

Why Good Help is Hard to Find

November 8, 2014

In the second essay in “Supervillains and Philosophy”, Ron Novy examines the relationships and possible relationships between a villain and their henchmen, following it through Prisoner’s Dilemma-type analyses and an examination of whether even romantic relationships between them can work. He talks a bit about the Aristotlean framing of friendship, and various other ideas. And I’m going to ignore all that, and focus on one oversimplified summary of what may be his main point: the idea that because villains and evil people are always focused on their own self-interest, that there can never be true trust between them, and so they can never really be friends. In truth, he uses the idea that villains are always self-interested to demonstrate that they can never put the self-interest of their friend ahead of their own, and so can’t never really be friends the way Aristotle conceives of it, but he also uses this to argue that the henchman will always give the police information about the villain if captured unless there was a direct threat to their life (from the villain) because it is always in their self-interest to do so. And this is what I’m not convinced of.

To understand why, we need to start from Hobbes, my go-to guy every time anyone tries to talk about self-interest. Hobbes believes that we, as humans, are psychologically constrained to always consider our own self-interest, or to be “selfish” in his words. Even supposedly altruistic acts, Hobbes argues, are always taken considering our own self-interest: they make us feel good, they give us standing in the community, and so on and so forth. Hobbes is a Psychological Egoist, in that he thinks that we are just made this way, but not necessarily that that’s a good thing. Someone like Ayn Rand, on the other hand, is in my opinion an Ethical Egoism because she thinks that it is morally right to care about your own self-interest ahead of anything else. Hobbes says we do that; Rand says we ought to do that, even if we don’t. Ironically, Hobbes’ claim is the empirically stronger — it says we can do nothing but — but is the philosophically weaker, as it doesn’t claim this as a normative standard.

Anyway, Hobbes notices something about unvarnished self-interest: it doesn’t lead to a very good life. It leads to what he called the State of Nature, and described as brutish and short. The idea is this: in the State of Nature, everyone has to always look out for their own self-interest, and they can get the things they need or want through their own mechanisms. But no one, on their own, has enough power to actually do that. Someone who is physically stronger than most people can use that physical strength to bully others off of their own resources and take what they need, but even that person can always be outsmarted or, at least, swarmed with numbers. So what you have is everyone, on their own, trying desperately to grab and hold onto what they want and need, in constant competition and constant fear of competition with everyone else. Brutish and short. This is the sort of situation that I think Novy thinks that the villains are in: by rejecting the law, they reduce everything to simple individual self-interest, and so it is literally every person for themselves, and so no trusting relationships can ever form.

Hobbes, however, saw a way out, and it relies on those in the State of Nature realizing that they are indeed in the State of Nature and what causes that. At that point — even on a local level — they can see that they’d all be better off if they didn’t have to do this. So they form what Hobbes calls a Social Contract, where they accept limits on their pursuit of their own self-interest to allow for things like co-operation and for societies. They accept these limits because they know that it is far better for them to live in a Social Contract than live outside of it, and so according to Hobbes they can even accept a sovereign over them with the power to kill them if they break the Social Contract, because even then they’re still better off inside than outside.

There is no reason to think that our villains can’t form a Social Contract among villains. They won’t have a legal sovereign, but they could even have one of those if they needed to. David Eddings in “The Elenium” and “The Tamuli” posits a massive underground government regulating all illegal activities, and it’s done that way locally to ensure that people don’t step on each others’ toes or do things that will bring down too much government action, and across kingdoms to divide up areas so that they don’t have to keep fighting over them. They enforce these dictates exactly as a sovereign would; they kill violators. At any rate, even an informal Social Contract based on ensuring that they can have trustworthy henchmen and don’t fight amongst themselves letting the heroes have easy pickings is something that most intelligent villains ought to be able to see the benefits of immediately (which explains why so many pop culture villains don’t see the benefits of it).

So the henchman who rats out his former boss wouldn’t have to risk death to decide it’s a bad idea; all he’d need to note is that no villain will hire him as anything except dumb muscle if he does, which in some continuities really is a death sentence (think being a henchman for a Wolverine or Punisher villain, for example). Assuming that he thinks he can be more and wants to be more, it’s in his own self-interest to learn how to keep his mouth shut. The same thing, really, applies to any villain who wants anything from any other villain but wants to backstab them; they’d better either be indispensable, not care about dealing with any villains after that, or else just go and join the good guys, because there’s no reason for any villain to trust them ever again after they do that.

Ultimately, villainy may be as close to a State of Nature as we can get, but it can still use the Social Contract angle to get to a state where villains can at least trust villains to not betray because it is in their own self-interest not to do so. All smart villains who are not insane would do this. If there’s any flaw in this, it’s that there are a lot of insane and really stupid villains.

The Armed Gamer on Anita Sarkeesian

November 4, 2014

So, I came across this commentary on Anita Sarkeesian, which is more of a general comment than a comment on her views on video games specifically. To quickly summarize the article — and you’ll see why I do that in a moment — essentially his comment is that Sarkeesian is attempting to oppose stereotypical depictions of women in the media, and yet when non-stereotypical depictions are attempted, Sarkeesian essentially complains that that turns the women into nothing more than a man in a dress, as the positive traits given to them are masculine while the physical image is of a woman. The Armed Gamer comments that doing this isn’t fighting stereotypes, but is instead essentially accepting them, by dividing traits into inherently male and female and then saying that if a woman is demonstrating any traditionally male traits then she’s being presented as a man, instead of as a woman with a positive trait. Since Sarkeesian seems to say that more positive traits — or, at least ones that are seen as such — are traditionally male than female, this leads to an issue that presenting women with almost any positive trait will be seen as giving them a traditionally male trait, which isn’t a good way to solve the problem.

Or, at least, that’s my general take on it, but as usual since there’s a link you can go and read it yourself and tell me that I’m right, or wrong, or a moron, or whatever. The reason I spelled it out, though, is that it was referenced from this comment:

Further to a comment on the word ‘trope’, above, one of the more insidious attacks on Anita Sarkeesian I’ve seen is from a toad who styles himself the ‘Armed Gamer’. His trick is to attempt to prove that Sarkeesian is a sexist by asserting that the word ‘stereotype’ means the exact opposite to what people understand it to be, so that when Anita says something is a male or female stereotype, she means that she believes it is a true image of males or females, ergo she’s a sexist.

What’s shocking is the number of commenters nodding at this and say ‘oh, that’s food for thought, that is’.

I prefer to use the words ‘weasel’ and ‘douchebag’ in their non-literal sense.

First, looking at that comment and reading the article … that person seems to be interpreting it horribly wrong, so wrong that I don’t even recognize the article from the description in the comment. After all, the main reason that he claims that Sarkeesian thinks these really reflect reality despite her calling them stereotypes is because she actually seems to buy that these traits are inherently male or female. Don’t believe me? Here’s where he says that:

Anita Sarkeesian seems to believe very strongly in a dichotomy between inherently masculine and inherently feminine traits. These don’t seem to be her views on how masculinity and femininity are expressed. Rather, these seem to be her views on how each actually is. She hides her views on the false dichotomy by saying that the traits she mentions are “stereotypical traits,” but she also makes no effort to dissect that or explain why they are wrong. In a way, this makes Anita Sarkeesian sexist.

That, by the way, is the third paragraph, and the first one that has content beyond the traditional disclaimers. It’s later that he demonstrates Sarkeesian treating these traits as inherently male or female, in the one case by decrying a character that has traditionally male traits but is female as being anti-feminist, and in another by dividing up positive and negative traits by gender as well. Now, you can object here that she really still is talking about the depictions, and not the reality, but the Armed Gamer’s main point would still be valid:

Sarkeesian seems dedicated to wishing to modify yet retain the dichotomy instead of doing away with it altogether.

In truth, her list of negative and positive traits (I would argue with her classifying competitive as a negative trait) could easily do without gendered rows. Passiveness, indecisiveness, and being hysterical are generally considered negative qualities no matter the gender.

Which is: stop thinking about these as male and/or female and instead think of these as positive or negative no matter what gender the person is, because they generally are. So, even if wrong, there’s are more of a point there than the comment expressed.

Second, the comment suggests that one of the more insidious attacks on her — in light of her getting death threats, rape threats, harassment, bomb threats, threats of a massacre at her speaking engagement, general vitriol, and so on — is … someone who makes a reasoned criticism, looking at what she actually says, and then drawing conclusions from it. About the only thing that might be a reasonable point here is that this is an attempt to define her as sexist even as she’s fighting it … but again if the argument works then it’s something to consider, and if it doesn’t then he’s wrong, so point that out. It almost sounds like the most insidious possible attack you could make on Sarkeesian is to reasonably criticize her, the sort of thing which in general is a) not an attack and b) not insidious. Again, he might be wrong, but that doesn’t make what he’s doing an attack, insidious, or even wrong.

No, it seems like the last statement is the really indicative one here: that person is afraid that people might, in fact, think criticism of Sarkeesian might actually be reasonable at times, that there might be things to criticize in her work, and that she might not be completely and totally right about everything she says. Sure, that’s probably an exaggeration, but you know what? I’m sick of people calling valid criticism an attack for various half-baked reasons, and so if it looks like you’re just badmouthing it because it dares to criticize something you approve of, I’m gonna call it that.

Now, there are concerns about his criticism, and the various criticisms that have come out about the point. The main issue is that, as I’ve talked about before, the easiest way to add diversity to something is to essentially take the same character that you’ve always run and give it a female skin (for example). So what you have is a male character with a female character model. And that’s not really providing diversity, but is instead providing the appearance of diversity to avoiding actually having to provide diversity. So it’s a valid concern. But I think the Armed Gamer is right to point out — or at least strongly imply — that it’s counter-productive to take any female character that has any traditionally male traits and insist that that’s what’s happening. If you want to break the stereotype that there are traditionally male traits and traditionally female traits, it won’t do you any good to scream every time a character expresses traits that don’t fit those stereotypes.

I think the example of Zoe Washburn is a good example, and Firefly is a good example of how a work can do this effectively. Zoe had a lot of traditionally male traits, but was also feminine in some ways. But that might be easy to miss … with that character. But the other female characters in Firefly also had that mix. Inara was the most overall feminine of the group, but was also pretty much a feminist icon in most ways: in control of her sexuality, her own boss, strong and capable, etc. Kaylee could have been the traditional grease monkey tomboy, but had a very romantic view of a lot of the world that highlighted her femininity even while performing traditionally male tasks. Because of this, the entire work highlights that these people have a mix of traits, and that talking about traditionally male and female roles and stereotypes is not going to work when talking about this show. If you have one female character that seems traditionally male, that might be an indication of “reskinning”, but a diverse group with some traditionally male and some traditionally female traits avoids that sort of issue.

So when the Armed Gamer asks if Sarkeesian is sexist, or if her arguments are sexist, I don’t think he means it in the “she’s discriminating against men!” type of way. I think he means that she seems to have internalized these traditional distinctions, and so still sees the world through them even as she opposes them. So perhaps a little consciousness-raising of her own is required, to see just how much her arguments here depend on people accepting the stereotypes as being accurate or reasonable or representative, when really they aren’t. A female character with some or even mostly traditionally male traits is not a man in a female skin, but is a person … a person that you might well meet out in the street. Let’s work to make sure that people get that.

Civilization, Culture … the Finer Things in Life.

November 2, 2014

So, there’s been a lot of talk on various places about street harassment. I don’t want to get into a debate over what it is and what counts or what doesn’t, because that’s an entirely different kettle of fish entirely. But there’s a new video out that followed a woman around New York for 10 hours and documented some of the cases, showed the most egregious ones, and listed that she had experienced over 100 in those ten hours, wearing a standard T-shirt and jeans. I first saw it here at Pharyngula, and so that’s my reference to it.

Now, what always strikes me about these sorts of discussions is that there are always lots of comments on how bad and ubiquitous this is … and yet, I’ve never seen it. I mean, women complain about not walking a short walk to the grocery store because of the constant comments they receive, and yet as someone who tends to walk everywhere I just haven’t noticed it. The standard response is that as a man it’s never directed at me and so I just don’t notice it … but the obvious counter to that is that it is directed at them and bothers them more, and so they are overestimating or overstating the issue. So it’s probably not a good idea to start debating over whose impressions are right or wrong, and instead start looking at this as if we can establish to some degree of objectivity what’s going on.

Let’s take this video as an objective argument for there being prevalent street harassment. So, from my end — and this might not work to convince anyone else, and accept that — for me to feel confident in my assessment of what I’ve seen I’ll have to look at the examples I’m using and see if in those cases I would have noticed it if it was present. Let’s start with grocery store runs. Regularly I walk downtown, and walk past at least two grocery stores. I have seen women walk on those streets. I have heard no comments, either very early in the morning or later in the afternoon as I come back. Now, it can be objected that I wouldn’t catch them if they weren’t directed at me … but I’m actually very sensitive to noise, and to yelling. In fact, I recently did this walk when there was a marathon-type run happening nearby, and when they cheered for someone I started and noticed. So if people were yelling things, I’d notice. What I wouldn’t notice would be comments directed at them in a normal speaking voice, from up close. So what about those cases?

Well, as it turns out, a while ago when I was taking courses I ended up “following” a reasonably attractive woman for a while. The reason was that her normal walking speed was slightly slower than my normal walking speed, but to get around her and, importantly, to stay ahead of her would have required me to walk a bit faster than my normal walking speed. So I stayed a little bit behind her: far enough away that it would have been clear that we weren’t together, but close enough that I would have heard anything that was said. And I heard not a thing. The person closest to doing anything harassing to her would have been … well, me.

And then there are always comments about what happens on public transportation. I don’t use it a lot, but do take it on occasion, and used to take it a fair bit. For the most part, no one talks to anyone, let alone harasses them. In fact, my most memorable interruption was when I and a suitemate from university were riding somewhere, and he was attacking the monarchy and I was half-heartedly defending it — since I don’t really care either way — an older woman and a young woman both jumped in to defend it. It was actually an interesting discussion, for the mot part.

Anyway, I’m not going to use this to deny the experiences of women who say that they get this constantly. Let’s assume that they are accurately describing their experiences. But let’s also accept that I’m accurately describing mine and my objective assessment that my experiences really are those experiences (just like I concede for them). If both our experiences are accurate … then how can they both be true? Is street harassment prevalent, or almost non-existent? It can’t be both … can it?

Well, perhaps it can. We’re, generally, in different cultures. Different cultures have different standards for a lot of things: personal space, politeness, when you talk to strangers, who you talk to, how you talk to people, and a host of other things. Canadians have a reputation for politeness, so the rude sorts of comments that you see in the video would be culturally frowned on. In fact, usually what strikes me most about the examples of street harassment is not mainly their sexual/sexist content, but how flat-out rude they are. I heard one case — on a blog that I can’t find anymore — where two men near a woman audibly rated whether they’d have sex with her or not. To me, what was clearly not done was doing that in a way where she’d hear that, even if I have no real problem with either men or women rating the attractiveness of a MotAS that way (although I, personally, find it a bit crude). That’s just not done. Why in the world were those people acting so rudely?

So while the standard narrative is that this is about ownership of women or putting them down or whatever, I wonder if this isn’t more reflecting a ruder, more aggressive culture … or, at least, a less polite one. Since men are indeed expected to make more approaches, and are indeed encouraged to “make the first move”, men are indeed going to “hit on” women more than the alternative. The ways in which these are done is going to depend on culture. For example, when I took a Russian class in my first year of university, the professor pointed out that Russia was a lot different from here in terms of these sorts of things. Here, in general, people didn’t talk to each other on the bus, but in Russia if a man sat near a woman on the bus striking up a conversation was just expected. However, in Russia, women didn’t smile or say anything to a man on the street, at least unsolicited, or else it was assumed that she was interested in sex. Which is not the case here. So when he came to Canada for the first time, it was around Christmas, and he constantly had women saying “Merry Christmas!” to him. To which one of the young women in the class exclaimed “You must have thought we were all sluts!”. The point of this tale — that at least I and the class found funny — is that how this intricate dance works, and how people interact with each other, is culturally set. And I think at least part of the complaints of “Well, you’re saying that we can’t approach at all” is that the methods do fit in with what the culture at least accepts, and seem to be how this all functions. What are we supposed to do if you just take that away?

So it seems to me that instead of arguing that this stuff reflects inherent sexism — although in some cases it might — or any of that sort of analysis, or arguing that it promotes a culture of misogyny, that things might be further ahead to look at the culture itself, see what kind of culture is there, and either work on a) promoting a more polite culture overall or b) working out alternatives that fit the culture and yet don’t have the nasty consequences. If it is true, as it seems to me, that an overall culture can promote or inhibit this, then perhaps it is best to address the overall culture and not this small part of it. After all, how well do you think “You’re being rude!” will work in a culture where being rude is considered a virtue? And so if you point out that this is effectively rude in that culture … well, do the math.

Empathy for the 1% …

November 1, 2014

So, on Emily Yoffe’s advice column, she recently had a letter from one of the 1% (self-admitted) about trick-or-treaters from other neighbourhoods coming to hers to trick-or-treat:

I live in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country, but on one of the more “modest” streets—mostly doctors and lawyers and family business owners. (A few blocks away are billionaires, families with famous last names, media moguls, etc.) I have noticed that on Halloween, what seems like 75 percent of the trick-or-treaters are clearly not from this neighborhood. Kids arrive in overflowing cars from less fortunate areas. I feel this is inappropriate. Halloween isn’t a social service or a charity in which I have to buy candy for less fortunate children. Obviously this makes me feel like a terrible person, because what’s the big deal about making less fortunate kids happy on a holiday? But it just bugs me, because we already pay more than enough taxes toward actual social services. Should Halloween be a neighborhood activity, or is it legitimately a free-for-all in which people hunt down the best candy grounds for their kids?

Yoffe’s response — and the response of most of the people I’ve seen talk about it online — has been typically negative:

In the urban neighborhood where I used to live, families who were not from the immediate area would come in fairly large groups to trick-or-treat on our streets, which were safe, well-lit, and full of people overstocked with candy. It was delightful to see the little mermaids, spider-men, ghosts, and the occasional axe murderer excitedly run up and down our front steps, having the time of their lives. So we’d spend an extra $20 to make sure we had enough candy for kids who weren’t as fortunate as ours. There you are, 99, on the impoverished side of Greenwich or Beverly Hills, with the other struggling lawyers, doctors, and business owners. Your whine makes me kind of wish that people from the actual poor side of town come this year not with scary costumes but with real pitchforks. Stop being callous and miserly and go to Costco, you cheapskate, and get enough candy to fill the bags of the kids who come one day a year to marvel at how the 1 percent live.

What has often struck me while reading these sorts of responses, and indeed the overall arguments over the 1% and income equality and the rich, is that while many of these people argue that we should live our lives according to empathy — which most readers of this blog will know is an argument that I not only do not make, but argue against — they tend to lack empathy for people they don’t understand very well. By which I mean not that they feel sorry for people in that situation and “feel their pain”, but they have a very hard time seeing things from their perspective.

So, let me us this analogy to show what I mean. Imagine that you are a recent graduate, with a good, full-time job, who still hangs around with your friends from university. When you go out to lunch with one of them, in general you pay for it because you have a job and the spare income for it, and they don’t, and, hey, you’re happy to help out. Now imagine that this effectively becomes expected; none of them ever offer to even pay for themselves, let alone you. Now imagine that they also decide when these things happen, and so at times it seems like the reason they set up one of these lunch dates is because they don’t want to pay for lunch … and they get more and more frequent. Now also imagine that where you go is determined by them, and thus you end up often going to places that are more expensive than you feel necessary. Also imagine that they don’t tend to order reasonable dishes, but tend to go from the more expensive dishes at every lunch. At that point, don’t you think that you’d start to feel like their were taking advantage of you? I mean, it does make sense for you to pay because you can afford it and they can’t, and you do somewhat enjoy the lunches, but it really does start to seem like they’re using you as a lunch-providing machine; even if you believe that they enjoy your company, you have to start to feel like they are taking advantage of your good nature and financial situation. Now, imagine that you protest this, and get told that you’re just being selfish, and that you should just suck it up and keep paying for whatever they want because you have more money than they do, and that that gives you privilege, and that having graduated a year earlier just reflects you being a year older, and isn’t something you earned. Do you think you’d take that well?

I think that the letter above reflects a lot of that kind of feeling, which I think is a feeling that a lot of the purported 1% feel when they protest things like this, or higher taxes, or less tax exemptions, etc, etc. In the above letter, what she has is the vast majority of the kids coming to her door being kids who do not live in the neighbourhood. And many of these kids are kids who are not just in a neighbouring neighbourhood wandering here because it’s closer, or because they’re making a long trick-or-treating run. Many of them are being driven in from what may be long distances away, from neighbourhoods that could indeed provide decent trick-or-treating, simply because they think they’ll get a better haul by doing so: either they’ll get better candy because the people in that neighbourhood can afford the good stuff and don’t have to get the cheap stuff, or they’ll get more of it for the same reasons. But the primary reason they put on a show for Halloween is to celebrate that with their neighbourhood, and kids who skip their own neighbourhood in order to run to theirs just because they’ll get more candy seem to be taking advantage of the fact that they can afford more. And the problem then is that either they have to anticipate those kids and buy cheaper or less candy and get called cheap by those kids and their neighbours, or outlay a lot more money in order to provide the same quality of candy to all of these kids. So, no, it’s not just a matter of running out to Costco and getting more candy, since that wasn’t what they were buying the first place. Either way, the expectation that kids can go to the wealthier neighbourhoods to get better candy hurts their fun and, in fact, makes them feel taken advantage of.

The same thing, I think, can be said about taxes and social programs and a lot of those things. I think that a lot of the 1%ers are indeed happy to help others, a lot of the time. But what they tire of is the expectation that they’ll do that, and the constant arguments that if the government has a shortfall that they should just raise taxes on them to get it, regardless of how they feel about the necessity of the program. Any protest is met with accusations that they’re just being selfish and trying to provide for themselves and not for others. And this is caused by a big tension in the reasonable positions on the topic: the 1%ers feel that they earned their money and that it’s taking advantage of them to presume that if those who have less want something, the 1%ers should provide, while those who do not have do see that the 1%ers could provide that without really hurting themselves and so it’s only reasonable for them to at least bear the burden of it. And this probably could be worked out, except for the extremists on both sides. On the 1% side, there really are people who feel that what they have is what they have and anyone who doesn’t have that should just work harder and they’ll get it, and on the Occupy(?) side you have people who really think that the problem is that the 1%ers have more than anyone else, and so that must be adjusted (think people who call for income redistribution).

It’s too easy, in this sort of environment, to think of the 1%ers who protest the presumption that they’ll fund what the 99% want just because they have more money and could do it as simply people who don’t want to share the wealth, and it’s too easy to think of the 99%ers who want to ensure certain basic needs and wants are met as being people who simply feel entitled to what the 1%ers have without working for it. This is where empathy is required … and where it fails miserably. What we need is a reasoned discussion about what things are for, why they are necessary, and what everyone’s obligations are. After all, all of those lovely things that Yoffe loves about Halloween? They don’t happen if all or most of the kids from a poor or middle-class neighbourhood run off to the rich ones for the people in those neighbourhoods. I don’t get trick-or-treaters if all of them run off to the rich part of town, and so I lose out. Is that a problem? Should this be an event for neighbourhoods, in general, to get to have all of the neighbourhood kids running around showing off their costumes and getting treats for it? Or is it nothing more than a candy grab? These are the sorts of questions we should be able to talk about, without generating comments of “Suck it up and take it”. And the current environment draws everyone to the extreme sides, and at the extremes you don’t have discussion.


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