Diversity for the Sake of Diversity

April 29, 2016

Commonly, people advocate for the importance of diversity. One of the usual replies to this sort of reasoning is that companies should be meritocracies, and that a company ought not strive to be diverse just to be diverse. In general, the argument is that diversity, in and of itself, is important, and that companies that are diverse get benefits just from being diverse.

Kristjan Wager at Pro-Science has written an article that aims to defend the latter view. He lists three main reasons why diversity — presumably in and of itself — is important:

  • Fairness
  • Reducing biases
  • Better performance

So, let’s start with the first one. It’s obvious that if people are going to be excluded from a job due to a trait that isn’t related to the job itself that would be unfair. However, that’s not enough to establish that diversity, in and of itself, is actually beneficial. After all, the argument still holds that we should be hiring on the basis of merit, and not consider diversity at all. Wager replies to that, quoting an argument by Eric Ries:

So when a team lacks diversity, that’s a bad sign. What are the odds that the decisions that were made to create that team were really meritocratic?

Wager summarizes it:

A meritocracy would more or less reflect the diversity of the society it operates in.

Well, first, again this doesn’t establish that diversity, in and of itself, is desirable or at all important. If a company could be assured that its hiring practices were really completely based on merit, then the diversity — or lack thereof — that results from that would be something to merely shrug at. So the best this argument can do is say that if you don’t have a diverse workplace, it may be the case that your hiring practices are based on something other than merit (which would lead to the second reason, about biases, and so not apply to this one anymore).

But more importantly, Wager’s reasoning that if you’re hiring on merit that you should reflect the diversity of the society you operate in is false. If you are hiring completely on merit, your workforce should reflect the diversity of the qualified and interested potential employees for your field. If you have a society that is 51% women and 49% men, but 80% of the people who graduate with software design qualifications are men, if you hire software designers completely on merit you’d expect that 80% of your employees will be men, and if 80% of those who go through school for nursing are women, then if you’re hiring nurses you’d expect that 80% of your employees will be women. So, if a company compares their diversity to that of the field of potential candidates and finds that they don’t match, then they might have biased hiring practices. Or they might not, since these are all statistical calculations and that means that some companies, even in the above cases, will have higher or lower percentages while still hiring completely based on merit.

Now, what both of these points mean, taken together, is that companies ought not strive for diversity in and of itself, but instead to hire based entirely on merit, and if they can do that then they’ll get the appropriate amount of diversity. So companies that are trying to be fair ought to work on having fair hiring practices, and not even look at how diverse their company is at the end of it all.

Which leads to the second point, that maybe there are biases in the hiring practices:

While no one is entirely free from biases, and will be affected by general biases in society, there is a strong case to be made for that having a diverse group will reduce biases. Not only biases regarding hiring and promoting people, but also in daily interactions.

Well, maybe. Or maybe it will just introduce competing biases. But this assumes that you can’t make hiring practices that are totally on merit and not free from bias … or, at least, reasonably so. At any rate, again, we need to make sure that we’re hiring on the basis of merit, not on the basis of diversity. The argument that a more diverse workforce might reduce these biases doesn’t justify hiring on the basis of diversity instead of on the basis of merit. And the other benefit given here:

Diversity also helps when it comes to problem solving, as different backgrounds bring different ideas to the table.

Wager goes on to quote a study that says that companies with more diverse leadership tend to have better financial results, but a correlation is not causation, so we’d need to do more work to figure out why that’s the case. After all, it is possible that those companies are able to be more diverse because, due to other factors, they can handle having a more diverse leadership group because their finances are just in better shape. After all, having different backgrounds and different viewpoints doesn’t always work, because you end up with more disagreements and have a harder time ensuring that everyone is on the same page. So differing viewpoints doesn’t always help you. In addition, most of the focus is on gender or racial diversity … but that doesn’t necessarily correlate to significant differences in overall background, or ideas. A black woman and a white man who were both raised in an upper class, academic family have more in common than that white man has with me, from a working class family who was the first on at least one side of the family to go to university. Ironically, then, hiring on the basis of gender and racial diversity, might, in fact, provide more homogeneity, rather than less.

Thus, if having different viewpoints is important and useful to your business, you ought to set that out as a hiring criteria and find ways to test and select for those differing viewpoints. You shouldn’t just aim to get gender or racial diversity, because that’s not necessarily going to get what you want and is actually unfair to boot.

The attempt to argue that it is better for businesses to be diverse is a common one, but tying the argument directly to merit is an interesting approach. Unfortunately, at the end of the day for all of the benefits or potential benefits the right approach is to select for those specific benefits, and not for at least gender and racial diversity. Thus, at best, selecting for that might be a convenient way to get some of the other benefits … but, overdone, doing that will work against those benefits. So, ultimately, diversity for the sake of diversity remains undefended; we really ought to get those benefits “honestly” rather than through the end run of selecting for diversity.

NHL Playoff Predictions: Round 2

April 27, 2016

So, this year the NHL scheduling powers-that-be have decided to screw me up completely and start the second round in the Eastern Conference before the first round in the Western Conference even ends. So what I’m going to do is predict the three series that I can predict, and then go back in on Thursday and predict the Sharks series. Hopefully, this will be so seamless that you won’t even notice … well, except for the text here saying that, of course [grin].

Eastern Conference

Washington vs Pittsburgh: After Pittsburgh’s relatively easy ride through the first round and Washington’s surprisingly tough one, it might be difficult to take the Caps here. But while their young goaltenders played well in the first round, they’re still a big question mark, especially now that the teams have had lots of time to study the video on them and look for tendencies. The teams ought to be close in terms of talent, but Holtby will almost certainly show up to play, while Lundqvist, surprisingly, sometimes didn’t. Give Washington the edge here.

Prediction: Washington

Tampa Bay vs Islanders: Now, the Islanders are one of my favourite teams, as I started cheering for them as a young lad when they went on their Cup run. which created the interesting situation in the Islanders/Florida series where if the Islanders won the team I liked better advanced, but if Florida won my prediction would be right. And in this round … the same thing is going to happen. And, for the most part, it’s for the same reasons as the Washington/Pittsburgh series: Greiss, though playing well, is still a question mark, while Bishop isn’t. Given the loss of their superstar, though, picking Tampa is tougher, but I think I’m still going to go with them.

Prediction: Tampa Bay

Western Conference

Dallas vs St. Louis: St. Louis has potentially, at least, overcome their choker reputation and at least some of their playoff demons. Dallas looked vulnerable against Minnesota, and their goaltending situation is a bit in flux. It might be a mistake, but I’m going with St. Louis on this one.

Prediction: St. Louis

San Jose vs Nashville: If any series might feature the underdog upsetting the favourite, this might be the one. However, San Jose has managed to overcome at least some of their playoff demons, and Nashville has to be tired from their long series with Anaheim. While it always makes me shudder with fear to think that the Sharks might actually win a series, I’m going to go with them here.
Prediction: San Jose

Summary

Eastern Conference

Washington vs Pittsburgh
Tampa Bay vs Islanders

Western Conference

Dallas vs St. Louis
San Jose vs Nashville

Overall Record: 4 – 4
Home Ice Advantage Team Record: 5 – 3

Thoughts on “The Force Awakens”

April 25, 2016

So, I was out at Walmart looking for various things, and stopped by the Electronics department to look for USB drives, and saw the Blu-Ray/DVD Collectors Edition of “The Force Awakens” at what for me was a reasonable price. Now, I had heard lots about it, but hadn’t seen it, and so felt some trepidation about buying it … but I figured I’d buy it anyway, so decided, hey, why not?

Now, I’m not the ideal person to review it because I already knew pretty much all of the story before going in, so I won’t be surprised at any of the shocking plot points. On the other hand, in a way that makes me a more ideal person to review it because I can focus more on how that was presented rather than just on what’s happening. So, call it a wash, mostly.

So, what’s my overall impression of the movie? I thought it was hollow.

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Elsinore and Power Gaming and Tragedy

April 22, 2016

From Feminist Frequency’s new games reviewer Carolyn Petit comes a discussion of an upcoming game called “Elsinore”. The main premise of the game is that you play as Ophelia from Hamlet, who has to work through a number of time loops of the events of the play, where you can change things by dropping hints and information and getting the other characters to change how they act or respond to them. You don’t get direct control over any other character than Ophelia, and so all you can do is influence people — and, presumably, events — to try to get different — and, also, presumably better — outcomes.

Upon reading the piece, I am convinced that the game is going to be an utter disaster.

Let’s start from the original premise, according to the originating designer, Katie Chironis:

“I was a writing major in undergrad,” she says. “I read Hamlet multiple times in high school and again in college, just breaking it down, and at the same time that I was reading all these tragedies and dissecting them, I was also starting to make games. And so it was kind of like, ‘What if we combined this concept of the power fantasy where all you do is win win win, with a tragedy where all you do is lose lose lose?’”

Well, sure, because we all know that games are all about winning and winning and winning, with no setbacks and no tragedies and no unintended negative consequences … wait, what?!?

Despite the gaming credits Chironis lists, saying this reveals a complete and utter lack of understanding of games in general and how they work. Almost all games have the players lose … a lot. Often, to the chagrin and annoyance of most players, in cutscenes. Things almost never run smoothly for the player in pretty much any game, and so they have to overcome those setbacks in order to complete the game. The main source of tension and conflict in games is always that something has gone wrong and it needs to be fixed. And many, many games drive that tension by having the player fail at their task. While that often isn’t explicitly their fault — the enemy makes a move to block something having the desired effect or the thing doesn’t work the way the player thinks it does — games even make the negative outcomes be the result of what the player was doing. For example, in Persona 3 the actions that you take in the first part of the game don’t, in fact, stop the disaster that you were trying to avert, but instead lead to it. At any rate, setbacks occur in most games to most players most of the time.

Now, Chironis could argue that most games, at the end of the day, let the player overcome these setbacks and eventually get a happy ending, which is not what happens in a straight tragedy like Hamlet. There are two main issues here. The first is that straight tragedies aren’t, in fact, uncommon in games. Many games have “Bad Endings” where things … don’t turn out well for the player. But, okay, maybe you can argue that these aren’t, in fact, the canon endings … except that a number of games, in fact, do make the bad or tragic endings canon. In Persona 3, the canonical ending is that the MC dies — or at least goes into a permanent coma — to seal away the evil that would destroy the world. In Shadow Hearts, the canonical ending — at least to that iteration — is that Alice dies. In Fatal Frame and Fatal Frame 2, the canonical endings are that Mafuyu stays in the mansion, and that Mio kills Mayu. And from what I understand, the latest X-Comm starts assuming that you didn’t stop the alien invasion in the first game. So tragic stories and tragic endings aren’t at all foreign to games in general.

The second — and far more serious — issue with this potential counter is that, well, Elsinore is going to give you the ability to change the ending, and by implication to make it much happier than it was (and maybe to create an actual happy ending). So even if this is what she was going for, she isn’t actually going to do that.

So, despite the implication that this is something new and exciting and a new take on the genre, it really isn’t anything new. Games have been doing this for a long time before Chironis came along. This strikes me as someone who takes the Sarkeesian/feminist interpretation of games as power fantasy far too seriously, so seriously that they’re assuming what games are like instead of looking at them themselves to see what they’re like. The number of games that are just “win, win, win” is, well, rather small. Even a simple shooter like “Good Robot” doesn’t let the player just win, and that barely has a story (or so I am told).

Then, we hear why Ophelia was chosen to be the protagonist here:

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia doesn’t get to do much. This is partially why Chironis felt that she was the right choice for the protagonist of Elsinore. Hamlet, she notes, is “booked every hour of the day,” while Ophelia spends most of her time offstage, freeing her up to do other things while the play goes on.

How is it that Ophelia can get away with skulking around? “Ophelia is kind of the ideal stealth character,” Chironis explains, “because nobody pays attention to her and nobody expects her to do anything. She’s so unimportant to the major events of the play, and so in some way, she’s the perfect person to be whispering in people’s ears.”

Thus, by that logic, Ophelia is better for the person who whispers in people’s ears … than the characters, who, canonically, spent all their time doing that. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, for example, which is why they were used in Stoppard’s take on the play. Or Polonius, who has that, literally, as his job. Or the king, who took over not through force, but through subtle manipulation. Or Queen Gertrude. Or Hamlet himself, despite his being so “overbooked”, since his means were also subtle manipulation rather than force.

The fact is that most of the characters would fit as well if not better than Ophelia. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern always come to mind for this, being very minor characters that nevertheless have direct access to both the inner circle of the king and to Hamlet, although they have been done before. Polonius could be interesting and, again, he has access to all relevant parties. Queen Gertrude would actually be interesting having to start from a point where she is already married to the usurper king and has to figure out how to reveal that and settle things without bringing down the kingdom and creating a disaster. The usurper king himself would be a very interesting take, since you could give the player the choice of his trying to preserve his own life or, taking a queue from the prayer scene, where he tries to repent and set right the things that his sin set wrong. Laertes is in at least as good a position as Ophelia, but has an issue where he has a pivotal action that, obviously, in the next loop he won’t do … or, at least, the player wouldn’t, knowing what the player knows about how it works out. Which, as it turns out, is a problem for Ophelia herself, as her madness and her death scene, presumably, won’t happen if the player has any control over it, and taking control away from the player at that point in the game probably isn’t going to go over well.

My impression is that Chironis should just be honest with herself and with the audience here, and admit that she likes Ophelia as a character and wanted to see her have a larger role in the play apart from the role she had. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I’d rather see people just admit things like that than try to rationalize them as being some kind of objectively right or better choice. If I was going something like this, I’d probably go with the usurper king or with Hamlet himself because of what you can do with those set-ups, but I’m not going to say that if a work didn’t go that route they’re worse, for example, which is what’s kinda implied here.

And then we get to the most frightening part of the article, and what has most convinced that a) these people don’t understand games and players of games and b) this game is going to be an absolute trainwreck:

This, the designers hope, will work to subvert any attempts to play Elsinore as a kind of power fantasy. Chironis says, “We’ve seen a lot of frustration from players where, I think their mental model when they start playing is, ‘If I gather all this information, I can have this perfect mastery. I can play puppet master.’ But you can’t because the characters are still really ****ed up people with their own aims and ambitions that will get in the way of your best intentions.” So you might present a character with a piece of information that you expect will have a very positive result, only to see them twist it into something horrible because of their mental state, with the results being something you had no intention of bringing about.

Players may not exactly enjoy this, but the team is okay with that. Engineer Kristin Siu says, “It’s very disempowering for the player but for us, it’s pretty satisfying. It also fits in very nicely with this idea of tragedy. Tragedy is all about watching characters that you empathize with do things you don’t want them to do. You can try to present all this information to characters but they may not necessarily behave in the way that you want them to behave. And so part of experiencing the tragedy is seeing them take the information that you gave them and twist it into something terrible.”

So, let me try to summarize the attitude here: “Players are saying that the game really frustrates them. But we’re okay with that, because we think it’s just because they’re used to the power fantasy and so not having complete control frustrates them.”

Okay, let’s start from the fact that games where you don’t have complete control over the actions of those you are trying to guide are actually really common. We can start from games like Lemmings and shift into more formal god games like Populous. Even in “The Sims” you can give the Sim free will and so they won’t always do what you want them to do, which didn’t in any way hurt the popularity of that game. A lot of game players really, really like seeing emergent behaviour and how sometimes things don’t work out the way you’d expect and that little actions can have a lot bigger impact than you’d expect. So, if players are playing this game and getting frustrated by it, it’s probably not just that they are in some kind of none existent power gaming mindset. Either a) they just don’t like those sorts of games, at which point they aren’t your audience and so you need to get different play testers who do, or b) it’s something about your game that frustrates them, and so you might want to fix that before you release.

Usually when people get frustrated about what’s happening in one of these sorts of games, it almost always not because they feel disempowered or don’t feel like they are the puppet master that they expect to be or, even, that the events are unexpected. These are the things they like about those sorts of games, and why they play them in the first place. No, most often it’s one of two reasons that frustrates them:

1) You are at a point in the game where both the player and the character have some information that they could share with someone or take an action based on that would change things … and the game doesn’t let them. For example, one of the most frustrating parts of the Mass Effect 3 ending — even for me, who didn’t absolutely hate it — was that when the AI says that the cycles exists to prevent the inevitable wars between synthetics and organics, you can’t point out — if you’ve managed to do those parts of the game — that you have a) a trusted AI crew member who might even be in a romantic relationship with an organic and b) made peace between synthetics and organics, ending a war of extinction, so that now they live in harmony. The player knows it, the character knows it … but you can’t even mention it to the AI to be dismissed with a “That’s all temporary” dismissal. Given the structure of this game, you and the character are likely to know lots of things that you could see might change opinion, and if the writing doesn’t recognize all of these — and it’s actually impossible for it to — then that is going to frustrate people. If the writing doesn’t catch the more subtle cases, the player will actually feel railroaded down direct and possibly stupid paths, and so will be massively frustrated.

2) The reactions of the characters aren’t, in fact, consistent with that character. In short, they do things that are inconsistent with what the game — and, in this case, the play, since this is built around a familiar play — implies the characters would do in reaction to what you do or say. Sure, the characters have their own mental states and those mental states can be messed up, but there still has to be some consistency, especially in a game where you are aiming at consequences through manipulation. If the game doesn’t make their character traits clear enough or the consequences from your actions don’t align with those traits, the player will be frustrated that the end up with bad consequences from actions that they couldn’t have foreseen would have those consequences.

These only get exacerbated when combined with a time loop and the frustrations inherent in that mechanism. There are two main ways to end a time loop story. You can take the Tragedy Looper board game route and give a set number of loops to get the best ending possible(in that game, you need to get the “right” ending or else you lose, but I don’t expect to see that in Elsinore) or you can take the “Groundhog Day” route and give as many loops as necessary until you get to the “right” ending. In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character gets massively frustrated because he doesn’t know what the “right” ending is, and so has no idea if what’s he’s doing is getting him closer to finishing the loop. If the ending state is vague and the player can’t tell if they’re getting closer to the right ending, then they will be frustrated in the same way. On the other hand, if one wrong action can mess up a loop and the loops are limited, then an unintended consequence can kill one of those limited loops, and with limited loops there are going to have to be things you learn in a previous loop so that you can use it in a later one, which will hamper their ability to get a good or proper ending, which will also be frustrating.

These things have to be carefully balanced. If your play testers are frustrated, that’s a good sign that you aren’t getting that balance. Ignoring that feedback will make the game a disaster.

And, of course, there’s another goal here, too:

hironis says, “I grew up going to Shakespeare productions with my parents and it was always an all-white cast, and back in Shakespeare’s day it would have been an all-white, all-male cast. Now I think it’s interesting to reinterpret Hamlet for a modern audience that, I hope, doesn’t want to see an all-male, all-white cast.”

So Ophelia and her brother Laertes are biracial. Additionally, Chironis explains, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are women of color. And I don’t want to go into too much detail but a lot of the characters have fluid sexuality and gender identification. People think of history as being predominantly white and male but it actually isn’t, these people have been here all along. We’re gonna talk about their stories and their experiences through the lens of Hamlet.”

What about people who don’t care if the cast is all-male and all-white, as long as the game is good?

Okay, so let’s look at this. First, the game is working with a “small actions, big changes” model, which is a very complex narrative model. Then, it adds a time loop model, which adds even more complexity, which makes it even harder to do and stay interesting. And then they want to add in telling these extra stories there as well, which also needs to be done well if you’re going to pull that off. This is certainly … ambitious, to say the least.

And that last part might actually be adding to the frustration. See, in any time loop story you are going to have to take some actions over and over again each loop in order to get things to follow the right path. If those “stories and experiences” are front and centre and not just hidden, and especially if they have an impact on the ending, then players might have to experience those stories over and over and over again as they play through the game. Even someone who is interested in these differing stories might get annoyed if they have to hear the story of a character’s unique transgender name over and over and over again.

Given all of this, this game is really looking like a trainwreck. The ambitious goals of this game would be hard to achieve even if the designers didn’t seem completely ignorant of how games actually work and unwilling to listen to their own play testers about the experience of the game. If this summary was coming from someone critical of the idea, I’d take the comments with a grain of salt … but Petit seems to be supporting this game. Thus it’s likely that the things said here are what the designers actually believe. And those words, to me, sound like a disaster waiting to happen.

Some minor notes:

– Guildenstern, in the screenshot I saw, looks like an Asian woman to me. I didn’t realize that “of colour” applied to Asians; I thought it was just a purportedly politer euphemism for “black”, not for “non-white”. If all that was meant was “non-white”, she could have just said so.

– I read a developer comment while looking for the actual looping mechanism that said that there will be same-sex relationships in the game. I’d bet that in one ending you can have Laertes and Hamlet run off together while Gertrude and Ophelia stay and run the kingdom.

– I also don’t understand why so many of the people who want to tell the stories of minorities always want to take an existing work and alter the characters instead of creating something new. Tragedy Looper, as a board game, is successful enough — and Groundhog Day was successful enough — that they ought to have figured out that they didn’t need to piggyback on Hamlet if they made a good time loop game, and there was even a recent indie and Social Justice-oriented one whose name escapes me that did well, so why bring Hamlet into it? It has to be to play off of the familiarity … but then changing the characters to tell other stories works against that. I just don’t get it.

Thoughts on “Joe Steele”

April 20, 2016

So, what I was looking for when I was reminded of “The Man in the High Castle” was general alternate history books, and I had spotted one that at least billed itself as being a continuation of “The Man in the High Castle”. “Joe Steele” by Harry Turtledove … is not that book. However, I have read and liked a lot of Turtledove’s alternate histories, and when I saw it there in the pocketbook paperback form — which is really hard to get for a lot of newer works — I decided that I’ve give it a try.

The premise of the book is that Joseph Stalin’s family left Russia before he was born and emigrated to the United States. Just before World War II, Stalin — after having changed his name to Joe Steele — runs for President against Roosevelt … and ends up the President of the United States.

So, what did I think of the book?

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Thoughts on “The Man in the High Castle”

April 18, 2016

So, after finishing reading “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” for the second time, I found myself looking for WWII books, and especially alternate histories. I was reminded about “The Man in the High Castle” by Philip K. Dick while browsing, and decided to pick it up and give it a try. Upon finishing it, my reaction to it is … meh.

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Tropes vs Women: Body Language & the Male Gaze

April 15, 2016

So, when I first read Anita Sarkeesian’s latest video (and yes, I read them, and don’t generally watch them), my first thought, no fooling, was that it made her previous video look really, really bad. After all, it covers pretty much the same issues, but instead of being just a cheap, joking shot at a phenomena that, as it turns out, doesn’t actually exist, it actually goes over them in some depth and says some interesting things. But on later examination, I became much less impressed. As usual, when Sarkeesian is right, she isn’t saying anything new, and when she’s saying new things, she’s generally wrong.

She starts by praising Destiny for its gender-neutrality, which as it turns out is, I think, a major issue with her underlying thesis. At any rate, she moves on from that to talking about differences in how male and female characters sit in the game:

However, there is one way in which the male and female characters are differentiated by gender, and it has to do with their movement. Watch how a male guardian sits down, taking a load off after a long, hard day fighting the forces of pure evil. It’s simple. It suggests confidence. When a female character sits down, however, it’s a completely different story. She sits like a delicate flower. This is supposed to be a hardened space warrior and yet she is sitting around like she’s Ariel from The Little Mermaid.

Now, I had to actually go and watch the video far enough to see the difference, and noted something right away. Let me start by talking about another game that had the motion capture be mostly gender neutral, which is Mass Effect 2. If you play through the DLC that gets you Kasumi, you get evening wear, which for a female character is an evening dress. As with most of the outfits in the game, you can use this as your default clothing when you aren’t in your armour or environment suit. Note that they don’t change the game animations, so if you put your Shepard in the evening dress — as I did — and run around in it, you get a fairly masculine looking run in an evening dress. This isn’t actually an issue in any way, understand, but just something to note (and remember for later).

Now, if you are replaying the game, you can start with all unlocked outfits, which includes the evening dress. In Chuck Sonnenberg’s review of the game, his female Shepard starts in that outfit, which leads to him making a joke about what the scientists were doing with the character while she was out (his joke is about it being a tea party). But, as we get to the cutscene, we notice something: the camera angle and the way Shepard gets off the table aren’t changed if you are wearing the dress, which is unfortunate, because you pretty much get a full upskirt shot in the video.

Now, this is almost certainly unintentional, as the dress came out only in a DLC later, and you could only see this if you left Shepard in the dress and then replayed. And even if it was noticed, it was likely going to be too much work and too expensive to fix. So what we have is, inadvertently, something that we know Sarkeesian hates: an upskirt shot.

Now, look at how the male character in Destiny sits. Note that you can view that from the front. So … how in the world would the Destiny designers arrange it so that you can’t get an upskirt shot from that, if the female character was wearing a skirt? Sure right now, as Sarkeesian says, the outfits are the same. But what if they wanted to offer a more feminine option?

And that’s where we start running into issues. I don’t find the way the male avatar sits in Destiny to suggest confidence, as Sarkeesian asserts. And I find the female avatar’s sitting posture — and getting into it — to be far more awkward than anything approaching sexy. So I disagree that it’s the case that the male avatar gets to sit confidently and the female avatar gets to sit in any way that would demonstrate “sexiness”, which is Sarkeesian’s big push on this, as usual. What I will say is that the pose is, in line with Sarkeesian’s description, feminine. But then we have to ask: should female characters and their body language be feminine?

One of the issues with women entering into male dominated fields and adopting traditionally masculine behaviour is that it faces resistance from women who, while they want to be confident and capable and all of that good stuff, still want to remain feminine while doing it. So, contra Sarkeesian, they don’t want to act and look just like men, because they don’t want to sacrifice their femininity to get that. Thus, things from feminism to commercials have tried to push the idea that women can, in fact, be as strong and capable and confident as men are while still retaining their femininity. And body language is, in fact, an important part of that, as even Sarkeesian admits that it can have a big impact on how a character is perceived.

Now, the ideal way to handle this is to, well, give choices. Instead of just sitting or having a default walk, let the players decide if they want their female character to sit femininely or masculinely, and the same for male characters. The problem with this is that motion capture for simple, repetitive motions is expensive, and so you only want to do this if you really need to. And you can’t just do the motion capture with a man and then reuse it for female avatars, because that will often look really, really artificial and stupid. And, other than people like Sarkeesian, most people won’t complain too much if their female avatar’s body language is merely feminine. So there’s really no reason to not just make male avatars have masculine body language, and female avatars have feminine body language. It’s likely what most of the players who create those avatars want anyway.

But what about sexualized body language?

By contrast, the way that women move in games isn’t just used to suggest their confidence or their skill or some other facet of their personality. It’s very often used, in conjunction with other aspects of their design, to make them exude sexuality for the entertainment of the presumed straight male player.

Catwoman from the Arkham series has a deeply exaggerated hip sway when she walks. In combination with her clothing and the game’s camera angles, all of this is meant to drive the player’s focus to her highly sexualized butt. In Resident Evil: Revelations, Jill Valentine somehow manages to wiggle her whole body while she runs. In Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, Evie Frye is a character who avoids falling into many of the sexualizing traps that some playable female characters do. But she still walks with an exaggerated hip sway.

Catwoman is a bad example here, because it is a main point of the character that she plays on her sexuality, being a trope of the femme fatale/cat burglar. I’m not familiar enough with the others to say, although simply talking about a bit of hip sway might fall more into “feminine” than into “sexualized”, especially since as women wear high heels and high heels cause hip sway — as Sarkeesian says later — this might be just trying to make women walk, well, the way they often walk.

An example of actual sexualized male gaze and the impact on body language can be seen in Mass Effect 2, with Miranda Lawson, as has been pointed out by many people. I seem to recall reading somewhere that they did that to try to play on the same sort of “femme fatale” trope mentioned above, but it fails badly. And it fails badly because unlike other examples of male gaze, it isn’t the character or, in fact, any character that’s doing it, but instead the game doing it. We don’t shift into a first-person type of view — as seen in some of Sarkeesian’s other examples — or have a comment that reflects that this is the or a character doing this, and so is the game trying to present this to the player, as opposed to trying to present this to the character. And while it’s obviously the case that Miranda would try to use her looks to gain an advantage if she could, in many of the scenes, again, it’s not the character that gets to see it, but the player. So if they wanted to go for that trope, they missed by a mile through terrible execution.

But this raises the question of what counts as male gaze? Sarkeesian, as usual, is so broad as to be utterly unhelpful:

The male gaze manifests when the camera takes on the perspective of a stereotypical heterosexual man. An indisputable example of this is when the camera lingers, caresses, or pans across a woman’s body– although it’s not always that obvious. In games, it can be as simple as the in-game camera resting so that a character’s butt or breasts or both are centerline, it can be cutscenes that rest on a woman’s butt, it can be clothing that they are wearing or the way they talk, or it can be as basic as the way a female character moves around the game world.

So, essentially, anything Sarkeesian doesn’t like, in other words.

As a theoretical and overarching concept, male gaze can’t apply when the character is a stereotypical heterosexual male who, well, would be looking there. Male gaze, to be problematic, has to apply in cases where in terms of story and character where that wouldn’t be the case. Thus, it has to be the case, as pointed out the Mass Effect 2 example, where the game is doing this, not the player (ie it’s not under their control) and not the character. Also, in order to be problematic, it has to be the case that, as Sarkeesian puts it:

The male gaze reinforces the notion that the man looks, and the woman is looked at. Or as art critic John Berger explains it in the 1972 book Ways of Seeing, “men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves.”

So, instances where a particular man does this won’t count, especially if there are women who are not simply looked at in that way. Mass Effect 2 might well fit this for a number of reasons; the camera angles are often odd and show off the attributes of the female characters. But you’d need far more than the examples given in the first part of the video to get to anything like male gaze in those games, at least. So I need more arguments and evidence here, which is a common trend with Sarkeesian’s videos.

And, again, Sarkeesian’s blinkered perspective impacts her comments on sexualizing men:

When male characters are depicted as shirtless or wearing little clothing–like the character sometimes dubbed “Hot Ryu” from Street Fighter V– their lack of clothing demonstrates their power and strength, rather than depicting them as erotic playthings or reducing them to sexualized body parts.

Except … those are masculine traits that women find sexually attractive, and they are physically attracted to appropriate and reasonably musculature. So it’s not really any different, then, than presenting a woman as feminine with feminine traits and then highlighting her sexually appealing physical attributes. Sure, it’s different if the woman is, in fact, reduced to only those parts, but that is pretty rare outside of — and even inside of — pornographic games. Miranda and Catwoman are given personalities along with their attributes and walk, as are pretty much all of the other examples Sarkeesian lists. So, at the end of the say, she hasn’t made a case that they’re that much different. Ultimately, for the most part the main characters in games are designed so that people who would be attracted to them are attracted to them, and that those who aren’t want to be them, or both. That applies to both men and women.

NHL Playoff Predictions: Round 1

April 13, 2016

And, yet again, I put on my prognosticator’s cap and try to predict who will win what series. I heard a quote from some coach that this year there are no favourites, which ought to make these predictions … interesting, to say the least. So, without further ado, here are my predictions for the first round.

Eastern Conference

Washington vs Philadelphia: The team that finishes first overall almost never wins the Stanley Cup. Philadelphia had to go on a bit of a run to just make the playoffs, but they did stumble a bit at the end. Washington, however, has disappointed before in the playoffs. That being said, it’s hard to bet against a team that has been that dominant the entire season and has one of the best players in the game.

Prediction: Washington

Pittsburgh vs Rangers: Pittsburgh started slow but has surged over the last few months of the season, overtaking teams to not only make the playoffs, but to finish second in the Metropolitan division, ahead of the two New York teams. But they’ve had some injury troubles of late, most importantly to Fleury, their number one goaltender. The Rangers’ biggest injury woe is Eric Staal, who was brought in as a supplemental player, and so isn’t as big a loss. So there are doubts around Pittsburgh. If Fleury comes back and doesn’t struggle, Pittsburgh has a good chance. But if he doesn’t, Lundqvist will carry the day. Going with the odds, I’m going with the Rangers.

Prediction: Rangers

Tampa Bay vs Detroit: They’re baaaaack. Tampa Bay and Detroit face each other again in the first round. Detroit, though, was lucky to just continue their streak of playoff appearances (it’s now at 25); they aren’t likely to make it through the first round.

Prediction: Tampa Bay

Florida vs Islanders: The Islanders kinda backed into the playoffs, and Florida had a great season, and Jagr has been there before. With that veteran leadership, the Islanders will be in very tough in this series.

Prediction: Florida

Western Conference

Dallas vs Minnesota: I don’t think that Dallas has any big injuries, and they had a great season. Minnesota is a good team and can force the upset, but I don’t think they’re playing any better than Dallas is right now. So I’ll give this one to Dallas.

(Yes, this is, in fact, my prediction for the St. Louis/Minnesota series last year, with Dallas subbed in for St. Louis [grin]).

Prediction: St. Louis Dallas

St. Louis vs Chicago: St Louis has been disappointing people in the playoffs for years now. Is this the year that they finally stop doing that? Chicago kinda backed into the playoffs as well, and St. Louis is on a roll. However, it’s hard to bet against the Stanley Cup Champions. On the other hand, they won it last year, so this is their year off, so they might as well just lose now and get it over with.

Prediction: St. Louis

Anaheim vs Nashville: Anaheim, after a slow start, has really come on over the past few months, finishing much higher than anyone expected. They just beat Washington in the last game of the season, and don’t seem to have any serious injuries. Nashville probably doesn’t have a chance.

Prediction: Anaheim

L.A. vs San Jose: This one should be very close, but L.A. just has the experience and talent to lean on here, and San Jose, again, tends to disappoint in the playoffs.

Prediction: L.A.

Summary

Eastern Conference

Washington vs Philadelphia Correct
Pittsburgh vs Rangers Incorrect
Tampa Bay vs Detroit Correct
Florida vs Islanders Incorrect

Western Conference

Dallas vs Minnesota Correct
St. Louis vs Chicago Correct
Anaheim vs Nashville Incorrect
L.A. vs San Jose Incorrect

Overall Record: 4 – 4

Poly Rationalization

April 11, 2016

So, Richard Carrier as we’ve seen advocates for polyamory as the default relationship style — if polyamory can actually be called that — in society. As we’ve also seen, he tends to advocate for it very badly and illogically. This pattern continues in a recent post, where he attempts to show that polyamory solves more problems than it causes and, anyway, the problems people say it causes it doesn’t cause anyway, as he’ll show using logic and empirical evidence so that no one dare challenge his view lest they be considered illogical and fighting against actual empirical evidence!

Let me challenge that …

He starts with an argument that some feminists have made, arguing that it’s fine to not get married and all, but that sometimes economic considerations get in the way of that. Thus, it’s easy for well-off women to advocate that women don’t need to get married — and even that they ought not — but poor women don’t have that choice; they need at least the economic if not the actual support of another person — especially if they want to have children — that a spouse provides. Since this would be advocating for formal marriage and Carrier is advocating against that — even as he insists that for people for whom it works it should be an option — this can be seen as an attack on his view of polyamory, and so he wants to argue against that.

And he starts by dealing with the simple economic problems — outside of having children — by talking about a wonderful new thing that can solve this:

Even the presumption that two incomes are needed merely to support two adults, because wages are so low that the poor are forced to resort to economies of scale, is brought down by the simple fact of a thing we have in society now called a roommate.

Wow, so even outside of children, Carrier thinks that the whole solution to economic and financial concerns is, in fact, to get a roommate to share rent. Because, presumably, there are no other financial benefits at all to marriage, unless you have kids. The only thing you have to worry about is rent and utilities, because things like food, transportation, incidental expenses, life and health insurance, and a host of other things aren’t part of the standard roommate contract. Also, they don’t have to — and likely won’t — share their savings with you. And if they decide to leave — and if they can generate enough economic clout or get married themselves, they’re going to want to at some point — they don’t have to leave you anything. All they have to do is wait until the lease expires, or sublet it, or whatever, and move out, leaving you with nothing more than that they paid rent for X amount of time, so you didn’t have to pay for it all yourself.

Contrast that to a marriage, or any committed monoamorous relationship. While in the marriage, all expenses are shared, from rent to food to transportation. If it’s a formal marriage, you can lump yourselves together to, for example, get loans based on the earning power of both of you, which doesn’t carry over to a roommate. Thus, even getting loans will be easier. And even if the marriage does not end up as a lifetime committment, if you separate you get half of the communal property, which includes savings, and thus you are both encouraged to save, and can work together to save for things you need or want, which a roommate won’t do. Sure, you also don’t have to be responsible for the debts of your roommate — beyond rent if they can’t pay it because they’re too heavily in debt — but that seems like cold comfort since the only reason you have a roommate is to have them pay that rent that they might not be willing or able to pay, and you get nothing more out of it than that (maybe they can be friends, too).

So, no, it doesn’t seem like you can simply substitute “roommate” in for a spouse. Carrier also adds the option of living with family, which ignores the fact that they have their own lives to lead and things to do, and supporting children, grandchildren, or nieces and nephews might not fit into that … and might not be something that they ought be asked to do to support the life choices of those people.

He kinda almost sorta excludes the case of if the person wants to have children, but then denigrates what it means to get married:

Until you have kids. The cost of helping then becomes enormous. And how are you going to pay those helping you for that labor? Green, essentially, recommends you pay them with sex. In legal fashion, of course. But still. That’s all marriage then becomes.

Well, no. The idea is that if a woman wants to have children, they have to realize that, practically, a lot of resources have to go in to raising children, in terms of money and time and labour. Thus, if you want to have children, you have to think about how that’s going to be provided. If you can do it yourself, or have the money to pay people to provide it for you, then you don’t need to worry about having a spouse or anyone else to help you with that. But if you can’t, then who ought you call upon to provide that? Well, as stated above, it might be unfair to ask your friends and extended family to sign up and commit to providing that for the life of your children, but reasonably there is one person that you can call on: the other biological parent. After all, if we assume that they want children, too, then they also have to be thinking about how to provide for it, and want to be involved in that child’s life. From this, the ideal relationship is, indeed, a monogamous partnership with someone that you at least respect enough to life with day-in and day-out, if not completely love, as this partnership provides the financial benefits outlined above, and builds in the sharing of child raising, for two people who really ought to have an interest in doing it. So, no, not paying them with sex (and it’s a bit sexist to assume that women want children and pay men with sex so that they’ll help them raise them).

Carrier, though, thinks that polyamory can do this as well if not better:

I know of several poor poly women and men who share resources to raise children. Whether those resources are money, property, time, or other things (like emotional labor).

We’ll talk a bit more about this later — as Carrier takes on issues with children and polyamorous relationships — but the issue here is that this is great if it works … but there is no reason, even with Carrier’s “ethical polyamory” for someone entering into one to sign up to this. If I was polyamorous, and liked someone who had children, the idea that I didn’t have to deal with her children might well be a benefit, and thus part-and-parcel of my entering into that relationship. And if I agreed to help with her children because I liked her and so was willing to give her what she needed there that I could provide, if it became too onerous or problematic I could easily — and have to be able to easily, under Carrier’s view — leave and seek out a better relationship, leaving her in the lurch. Yes, this can and does happen in monoamorous relationships as well, but Carrier’s whole principle of polyamory lends itself to the idea of ditching a relationship when it doesn’t work out as nicely as you’d hoped, while monoamory discourages that sort of thinking.

Of course, Carrier’s next move is to make these things more formal:

And even insofar as marriages are secured within polycules today for their legal empowerments, society could be providing much easier access to those rights and privileges without requiring a whole-shebang marriage contract. The concept is obsolete anyway. Hence the state has been trying to “privilege” marriage by stacking heaps of legal advantages onto it. But we could have rethought that, and still can. Those advantages could be distributed by different instruments than marriage. Legal and tax advantages to parents should be awarded simply to parents, and through parenting contracts. As for example. Likewise hospital “visiting rights” should be something we can award to anyone we want. And so on.

Many of them you can, but the question is going to be this: why should a non-parent of a child commit in any way to them when they enter into a polyamorous relationship? Why accept that obligation? In monoamorous relationships, the other person enters expecting this relationship to last for the long term. No such assumption can be made about polyamorous relationships, and many of them will be entered into with the explicit assumption that they won’t be. Heck, that “freedom” is one of the main benefits of polyamory according to Carrier. And he can’t appeal to “ethical polyamory” here because ethical polyamory, for him, has to include the ability for someone to leave a polyamorous relationship when they want, for whatever reasons they want, or else the other person is being too controlling, and thus unethical.

So, at first blush, it looks like Carrier’s advice for women who want to get married and need someone else to help them with that is to ask people to support their life choices, and potentially to pay off polyamorous suitors with sex — or other favours — in return for giving them what they want. Huh.

Next, he compares monoamory and polyamory in a few categories to argue for how polyamory isn’t any worse and is often better in these specific arguments against polyamory. He starts with STDs:

Guess what? Research shows you are just as likely to catch an STI when “monogamous” than when ethically non-monogamous. In fact, if you are “monogamous,” you are actually substantially more likely to catch an STI if your partner is cheating. Because ethically non-monogamous people are extremely conscientious about safe sex practices, testing, and communication. Monogamous couples are not. In reality, if you are in a monogamous relationship, odds are good you are actually just “monogamous.” Because it’s all too common for one of you to in fact be unethically non-monogamous.

Note the subtle slight-of-hand here, which is usually the sign that someone is rationalizing their choices. What does Carrier compare here? He compares ethical polyamory to unethical monoamory to claim that since ethical polyamorists will all practice safe sex but that cheaters in monoamory won’t, you’re more likely to get an STI from monoamory than from polyamory. Thus, he contrasts the best case in polyamory and the worst case in monoamory and declares polyamory, therefore, superior.

Things look a lot different, though, when we compare ethical monoamory to ethical polyamory. Since ethical monoamorists don’t cheat on their partners, for any monoamorous relationship all you need to do is take a test before you commit and you can be guaranteed to not catch an STI. On the other hand, with polyamorous relationships, you have to make sure that everyone in the relationship is safe and is always using safe methods … even while trying to get pregnant, one assumes. With ethical monoamory, you only have to practice “safe sex” to avoid having children; beyond that, there is no risk. That doesn’t hold true for even ethical polyamory.

Okay, but we can’t rely on everyone being ethical all of the time, so what happens if we don’t assume that everyone is acting ethically? Well, if that’s the case, your partner might be cheating, and so might not be practicing safe sex, and so might pick up and give you an STI. So you might want to practice safe sex with your partner just in case. On the other hand, if we don’t assume that all polyamorous partners are acting ethically, you … still have to insist on that for the same reasons. In monoamory, the only reason you have to worry is because your partner might be having unsafe sex with other people who might be infected, but polyamory pretty much guarantees it if we don’t assume that everyone is acting ethically. And in monoamory, at least, you have to decide if you can trust your partner, whom you also ought to know really well; in polyamory, you have to know if you can trust all the partners of your partners, and their partners, and their partners … some of whom you don’t even know.

This, then, carries forward if we expect that there will be unethical people, but that the majority will be ethical. In monoamory, there’s one person you need to trust; if they aren’t trustworthy, you’re in trouble. In polyamory, every partner of every partner has to be ethical. If one of them is unethical and spreads the STI, unless you’re engaging in safe sex all of the time with all partners, well, it won’t take long for that to spread.

Carrier can only make his argument by doing two things: comparing ethical polyamory to non-ethical monoamory, and ignoring the fact that the behaviour that puts you at risk in monoamory — if we don’t assume that polyamorists are all ethical — is the encouraged behaviour in polyamory. The worry in monoamory is that your partner might have sex with other people; in polyamory, they will have sex with other people.

He also tries to argue, as if he realizes this at some level, that STIs aren’t all that bad anyway:

Of course, we also over-stigmatize STIs. Just as we used to over-stigmatize unwed mothers. In reality, getting an STI is no worse than getting food poisoning from eating takeout or a friend-cooked meal, or a staff infection from using a public restroom or visiting a hospital. Our reaction should be the same.

Sue?

This is ridiculous; we all take strong measures to avoid getting those things, and STIs can be more problematic and can be spread before we realize that we’re sick. We’re seeing pushes in business for people staying home while sick to avoid spreading illness, and he somehow thinks that we think these things are no big deal? The only reason they get brought up specifically wrt polyamory is that sex is the whole point of polyamory for most people, Carrier especially included. I assume that he’d like to avoid getting an STI, surely.

He then turns to jealousy:

The research so far shows no advantage to monogamy in avoiding frequency of feeling jealousy or avoiding its negative effects in a relationship. In fact, polyamory performs better: most people will experience jealousy less often, and less noxiously, and its effects will be less damaging. This is because polyamory forces you to continually confront the reasons for your jealousy, and to communicate and work through those reasons, which ends up reducing how often you get jealous, and how jealous you get, and substantially reducing its effect on the relationship.

The issue here is self-selection: the people in polyamorous relationships are, of course, going to be people with less issues with jealousy than people who are in monoamorous relationships, because polyamorous relationships require that. So anyone who cannot get over the jealousy issues will move back to monoamorous relationships, thus leaving only those who, for whatever reason, aren’t that jealous. Thus, trying to use that self-selected sample to prove that somehow people in polyamorous relationships just would be less jealous isn’t valid. We don’t know what would happen if people who normally did have problems with jealousy were strongly encouraged to try polyamory anyway, and work through it by confronting the reasons for it.

Especially since Carrier’s model actually provides reasons to be jealous. As I said in my other comments, Carrier’s model favours the person who needs or cares for the other person less, because if they feel that they need something or need to be excluded from something in the relationship, they have more power to get what they want by taking the totally acceptable step — in Carrier’s view — of saying that without that the relationship isn’t working and that they then want to end it. This means that it is always the case that the person you’re with could end the relationship at any time, for any reason. If you’re okay with that, then that’s not a problem, but if you like them enough and want to maintain that, then there are going to be issues where you try to make sure that they don’t leave. So that’s the one side of what we commonly call “jealousy” in a relationship. The other side is that in polyamory for anything except primary relationships — again, by Carrier — there’s only one or two things that you provide to a potential partner that causes the relationship to be formed. In short, you are in a relationship with that person because you fulfill specific needs of theirs. If they manage to find someone who satisfies those needs better than you do — even if that’s just that they find them more attractive — the reasonable and rational thing to do in Carrier’s model is for them to leave you and take up with that person, if that person will have them. Thus, if you care about what they give you at all, you have to be nervous about them being friendly with anyone who gives them what you give them, in case they might be better at it and have you be out in the cold. Again, it’s only you don’t care about the relationship that this won’t bother you.

Contrast that with monoamory. The other person has committed to you, which ought to both give you a reason to stay with them — since they were willing to do that — and gives you a reason to think that, at least, they don’t think they’ll get anyone better. And monoamory encourages people to choose the best aggregate partners, which means that even if someone else is better in one area they’d have to be better across the board to replace you, at least in theory. Given all of the factors that are supposed to control jealousy in monoamory, one should be skeptical that polyamory can solve them for most people that easily. Sure, as Carrier says you pretty much have to be able to deal with it in a polyamorous relationship, but that doesn’t mean that everyone or even most people will, just because those who are in them now are the ones who can. And, on top of that, the best way to deal with it is to take Carrier’s advice to heart and follow its implications to treating the relationship as merely something that satisfies your needs, but that you can easily replace. That’s not all that deep and meaningful a relationship, in my opinion.

Finally, Carrier talks about children:

There is actually no evidence any harm results. And in practical fact, the benefits are obvious. If two people are an asset in dividing expenses and labor, three people are even more so. Likewise four. Five. Six.

But how can he assume that that will be divided that way, and that any new partner won’t be demanding the time and money of the other partner? Why should other partners want to support children that are not theirs, and put aside their desires and needs at times to provide for the children? Sure, this can indeed happen in cases, but surely this can’t be expected.

Think also of the effects of moving for work, or changing schools, and all sorts of life decisions that affect children by making their life less stable, forcing them to deal with the loss of even their own friends and having to find new ones, and so on. This happened to a lot of us. In actual fact, we do just fine. We even learned from it all. And with good parenting, we adjusted readily

Um, many of these things are considered to be very problematic for children, and most people agree that these things should happen only when necessary. For polyamory, these things will happen regularly. That might cause issues in the long run, and especially if polyamory becomes common place.

Carrier, thus, is rationalizing away concerns, assuming things that he can’t assume should polyamory become the default, and makes invalid comparisons to try to prove that polyamory is a really good thing. His logic, then, simply doesn’t work. He might be right about polyamory, but the more he tries to defend it the more it seems to me that it depends on people not caring about each other and having shallow relationships, or else simply devolving to an open marriage. I see no “Polyamory Solution” to anything here.

Objectivism: Enlightened Egoism

April 8, 2016

So, Adam Lee is reading and review “Atlas Shrugged”. He seems to be trying to do it as both a literary reviewing and as a philosophical review, but I find that the series doesn’t do a very good job of either. I’ve been reading along with the series, but haven’t read the book itself. Instead, I dug through her actual philosophy, and so can confirm that, yes, Lee gets a number of things wrong in his zeal to mock Ayn Rand, which is one of the reasons why I hate the “Let me mock my opponents!” style of posting/argumentation; too often, it ends up being a way for people to ignore reasonable arguments in favour of cheap “Gotchas!” that are easy to patch up. And philosophy is full of cases where an original philosophy gets patched up in response to criticism.

Anyway, the biggest thing that I’ve taken from that series is that if you want to understand Rand, you have to start from Hobbes. Once you’ve grasped Hobbes, then you can understand one of the main — if not the main — pillars of her philosophy, which is Enlightened Egoism. Now, I’m not saying that she knew about or was inspired by Hobbes in her philosophy, but if you start from Egoism a la Hobbes, then you can understand the difference between that and Rand.

So, what did Hobbes say? Hobbes is what I’ll call a Psychological Egoist. He argued that we, as humans, are inherently self-interested, and so never act altruistically. No matter what action we take, it’s always because it benefits us, and so, in his words, we are inherently selfish, and never selfless. Now, you can take this stronger or weaker, with the weakest claim being that an action has to benefit us in at least some way or else we won’t take it, without having to insist that it be the action that most benefits us. So if we take an action that helps others because it makes us feel good, then by Hobbes we are not acting altruistically, but instead selfishly. The response to this is that Hobbes equivocates on selfishness here, but I don’t really think that charge sticks to Hobbes, mostly because it’s only those who insist that acting selfishly is really, really bad that are equivocating, as Hobbes doesn’t have to think that acting selfishly in that manner is inherently bad, and in fact his system kinda relies on us doing that.

So what does his system say? Well, since we are always self-interested, you can’t rely on us not acting that way. But no one can guarantee their own self-interest — and the most important thing for Hobbes, our lives — completely on our own. Even the strongest person can be tricked out of their resources, or even overpowered if enough people band together, even if only temporarily. And smart people can be overpowered. The state of nature is where everyone thinks only of their own direct and immediate self-interest, protecting themselves from others and taking from others if they can get away with it. This is Hobbes State of Nature, and according to Hobbes it is characterized by being nasty, brutish and short.

But as thinking beings, we can come to see that this is the result of unrestrained self-interest, and so the Social Contract is born. We get together and agree to restrain our self-interest in some ways in order to have an overall better life. In short, we restrain our short-term self-interest in order to form a society where we might have to sacrifice our interests now, but are far better off in the future. Hobbes thinks, it seems to me, that we always need to have a reason to give up seeking our own self-interest, and that if we are at all rational the only thing that can constantly motivate us to give up our own self-interest is a threat to our life, which is what pushes us to accept the contract in the first place. Thus, Hobbes places a sovereign over everyone with the ability to kill anyone who breaks the Social Contract, ensuring that everyone always has the most reason to follow the contract even if it would, in the short-term, benefit them to break it.

This is where Rand parts ways with Hobbes. She is not, in fact, a Psychological Egoist; she thinks that we are, in fact, psychologically capable of acting not only not in our self-interest, but in fact in ways completely opposed to our self-interest. We can, indeed, act altruistically. But she thinks that we ought not act altruistically. It is immoral according to Rand to act altruistically. We are morally bound to act in our own self-interest all of the time. Thus, Rand is an Ethical Egoist.

So, how, then, does she propose to escape a Hobbesian State of Nature? Well, she is an Enlightened Egoist, taking the starting point of Hobbes — that we form these contracts because we rationally understand that this is in our best interest. If we understand this, then what do we need the sovereign for? Ought we not act in our own proper self-interest and work to preserve this Social Contract that so obviously benefits us? The only reason for us not to do so is that we are in a situation where we can indeed act in our own specific and immediate self-interest and can maintain the Social Contract benefits. In short, the only issue is when we can legitimately cheat and end up benefiting in the short-term without costing us anything in the long-term. But as Rand is an Ethical Egoist, this means that the sovereign — or the government — only have benefit or value in cases where they need to force us to act against what is, in fact, in our own rational self-interest, and for Rand that is absolutely immoral. Thus, for her, we don’t need a sovereign.

Thus, the constant arguments in those posts and comments that Rand is wrong about what is in our self-interest and that there are a number of things that it is better for us for the government to run aren’t arguments against Rand. If those arguments are successful, Rand will merely expand the role of government in her society … or, at least, she’d do that if she’s any kind of reasonable and rational philosopher. To attack Rand, then, you have to undercut the pillar of Egoism out from under her. If you get into arguments about what’s really better for us, you’ve pretty much accept her Ethical Egoism, and now are just trying to shake out what exactly that entails. And people like Lee, certainly, don’t want to accept that we are ethically bound to act only in our own self-interest, and that altruism, in and of itself, is immoral.


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