Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

111. Righteous Mind Follow-Up

Note: This post is the one hundred and eleventh in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs which inspired this series.

Previously, I reviewed Jonathan Haidt's 'The Righteous Mind' in a series of posts, noting at one point that, "Like so many others, Haidt never considers the possibility that morality might be context-sensitive, not just in the sense that some morals might be more useful than others in certain cultures (which he does acknowledge) but that even within one culture some actions might be moral or immoral depending on the context."

I was reminded of that when recently  I was reading an interview between Tyler Cowen and Jonathan Haidt and came across this quote from Haidt, which is still stuck in the 'one set of morals per culture' mindset, but comes closer than he did in The Righteous Mind to seeing the commerce driven and context sensitive nature of different morals.
"If you have a warrior culture, if you’re constantly being attacked, boy, is it going to build on the loyalty, the authority, the sanctity ones, to create this tribal consciousness. You can see that in a joke form in fraternities. Fraternities, even on a secular campus, fraternities will build on those tribal foundations.
 Whereas, if you go to, say, Amsterdam, or New York, or places that are port cities with a lot of variety, diversity, commerce, those tend to thin down the moral domain. They don’t tend to do a lot with group loyalty and hierarchy. They tend to focus more on, “I’ll tell you what, you don’t hurt me, I won’t hurt you. You honor your contracts, I’ll honor mine.”
This is a more appropriate morality for diversity and for commerce."

The above passage could almost be a direct quote from 'Systems of Survival'.

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Monday, May 19, 2014

110. Great Expectations: The Implacable Externality

I saw a sign in front of a shop the other day that read, "We will exceed your expectations." So I walked in expecting them to exceed my expectations. By the time I walked out, I owned the place.

I've found that having a baby, and then a toddler around the house gives you a new perspective on things. For example, the likely genesis of the Catholic doctrine of Original Sin. Or the persistent belief in the plausibility of developing a perpetual motion machine.

Additionally, thinking about a full life ahead for a new person, it made me think about what has changed for the better or for the worse since I was born, with respect to the prospects for a child having the sort of life you might hope for them. On this train of thought, it occurred to me that few of the technological advances made since I was born really register in this sort of calculation. Do I expect my child's life to be better or more fulfilling due to the presence of computers and smartphones and high definition television? Not really.

Now, I know, this comes across as a standard 'get-off-my-lawn' rant about how I walked uphill to school both ways in the snow and I liked it, but that's not really what I'm trying to get at. It really is kind of surprising that all the years of inventing and advancing things, all of which was appreciated enough by the people who purchased these advances to make the developers and inventors of new computers and phones and so on the wealthiest people in the world hasn't really moved the needle at all with respect to what level of happiness we might expect in our lives. As a kid, I would take pencil to paper and sketch out visions of fantastic video games well beyond what existed in the market at that time. Sports games where you could manage the whole farm system and run the team like a real GM, adventure games with whole worlds filled with interactive characters and endless open-ended possibilities for development and so on. And pretty much without fail, all those dreams have become reality in the intervening years and it has been pretty cool at times. I still remember the day my Dad brought home the first flat screen monitor we had ever seen and playing Ultima VI on it for the first time. But in the end, did it make my childhood any happier than my Dad's? Maybe, but I'm not sure.

The problem, it seems to me, is that almost all advances in comfort and convenience bring a built in negative externality in the form of increased expectations, by which the new level of comfort becomes the expected norm. To put it another way, it is only the rate of change in the level of comfort and convenience that matters to us, not the level. We can see this dynamic at work in so many classic literary tales, Anne goes from unloved and hard done by orphan to a much better life on a farm in P.E.I., while Harry Potter goes from unloved orphan forced to sleep in a cupboard under the stairs to famous wizard in a world of adventure with his own pile of gold and so on.  What we enjoy is not seeing someone suffer, or seeing someone prosper, but seeing the transition from suffering to prosperity, seeing people new to comfort and convenience who can appreciate them in a way that we, born into prosperity, no longer can.

Even more on point was an episode of The Simpson's in which Homer gets a chance to ride on a private plane and live in luxury for a couple of days, but finds himself depressed upon returning to his normal middle class life and yearning to return to the world of luxury.

Taking matters a step further, many advances in comfort and convenience bring with them an even greater negative externality when the new comfort or convenience allows us to do without some skill we once required. The advent of the personal automobile led to generations of people who couldn't really manage to get around without them. But cars brought new required skills such as learning stick shift, learning to read a map or just learning to drive period. But advances in automatic transmissions have made knowing how to change gears a lost art, GPS makes maps and navigation obsolete and if driverless cars ever become reality, even the basics of pushing a pedal and steering a course will no longer be required. Meanwhile climate control (tailored for each seat), heated seats, rain sensing wipers, DVD players and televisions continually up the ante with respect to comfort and convenience.

Movies depicting an apocalypse of one sort or another are pretty thick on the ground these days, but the Pixar film Wall-E, was somewhat unusual in presenting two distinct apocalyptic scenarios in the same movie. It opens with a relatively standard apocalyptic scenario depicting the failure of our quest for comfort and convenience - a ruined abandoned planet covered in garbage. But later on, up in space, we are faced with another apocalyptic scenario, this one representing the success of our quest for comfort and convenience. On a space cruise ship staffed and managed by robots, humans live a life of such comfort and convenience that they are weak, fat and basically incapable of doing anything for themselves. Wall-E ends with the humans rejecting this life comfort and convenience for the hard work of restoring the planet to live-ability, but so far any sign of a similar change in our trajectory seems quite absent.

In our earlier discussions in this series, I noted that the commercial syndrome pursued comfort and convenience, rather than power or status, precisely because comfort and convenience were not seen to be zero sum games in that one person's advance didn't automatically translate into another person's loss. But what if pursuit of comfort and convenience is also a zero sum game (in many/most, if not all respects) in that one person's gain is that same person's loss? And if so, does this persistent negative externality call into question the value of the entire syndrome?

Friday, June 28, 2013

109. Wells, Hitler and the World State

Note: This post is the one hundred and ninth in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs which inspired this series.

I'm still generally not posting to the blog, but I came across something this morning (via Paul Krugman) which was too on topic not to mention, an essay by George Orwell about H.G. Wells and Hitler. Orwell contrasts the world of emotions to the world of objective science in terms that will be familiar to anyone who has read Systems of Survival or this series of posts.

"What has Wells to set against [Hitler]? The usual rigmarole about a World State, plus the Sankey Declaration, which is an attempted definition of fundamental human rights, of anti-totalitarian tendency. Except that he is now especially concerned with federal world control of air power, it is the same gospel as he has been preaching almost without interruption for the past forty years, always with an air of angry surprise at the human beings who can fail to grasp anything so obvious.


Hitler is a criminal lunatic, and Hitler has an army of millions of men, aeroplanes in thousands, tanks in tens of thousands. For his sake a great nation has been willing to overwork itself for six years and then to fight for two years more, whereas for the common-sense, essentially hedonistic world-view which Mr. Wells puts forward, hardly a human creature is willing to shed a pint of blood. Before you can even talk of world reconstruction, or even of peace, you have got to eliminate Hitler, which means bringing into being a dynamic not necessarily the same as that of the Nazis, but probably quite as unacceptable to ‘enlightened’ and hedonistic people. What has kept England on its feet during the past year? In part, no doubt, some vague idea about a better future, but chiefly the atavistic emotion of patriotism, the ingrained feeling of the English-speaking peoples that they are superior to foreigners. For the last twenty years the main object of English left-wing intellectuals has been to break this feeling down, and if they had succeeded, we might be watching the S.S. men patrolling the London streets at this moment. Similarly, why are the Russians fighting like tigers against the German invasion? In part, perhaps, for some half-remembered ideal of Utopian Socialism, but chiefly in defence of Holy Russia (the ‘sacred soil of the Fatherland’, etc. etc.), which Stalin has revived in an only slightly altered from. The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions — racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war — which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action."

"Mr. Wells, like Dickens, belongs to the non-military middle class. The thunder of guns, the jingle of spurs, the catch in the throat when the old flag goes by, leave him manifestly cold. He has an invincible hatred of the fighting, hunting, swashbuckling side of life, symbolised in all his early books by a violent propaganda against horses. The principal villain of his Outline of History is the military adventurer, Napoleon. If one looks through nearly any book that he has written in the last forty years one finds the same idea constantly recurring: the supposed antithesis between the man of science who is working towards a planned World State and the reactionary who is trying to restore a disorderly past. In novels, Utopias, essays, films, pamphlets, the antithesis crops up, always more or less the same. On the one side science, order, progress, internationalism, aeroplanes, steel, concrete, hygiene: on the other side war, nationalism, religion, monarchy, peasants, Greek professors, poets, horses."

I don't have much to add, the description of the commercial man of reason and progress vs. the guardian minded military man of god and country doesn't get much clearer. Orwell goes on to note the problems (systemic corruption, Jane Jacobs would have called it) that results when the tools of rationalism and progress (e.g. airplanes) are put into use by guardians for the purpose of warfare.

One thing I found interesting is that even though Orwell discounts Wells' 'optimism' about a rational future run by rational men in the near term, due to the presence of Hitler on the world stage, he seems to readily admit that, sooner or later, Wells' rational one world government will come to pass.  Looking at things now, some 70 years later, I find myself wondering instead if we have passed the highwater mark for rational men running a rational government along the lines envisioned by Wells and are now slowly turning in the opposite direction.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

108. Debt, The First 5,000 Years

Note: This post is the one hundred and eighth in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs which inspired this series.

Well, that was a slightly longer break than I planned, and I can't really promise a return to regular posting, but at any rate, this week's topic is the book, "Debt: The First 5,000 Years' by David Graeber. I was expecting this book to be interesting, but not too relevant to this series of posts, but I was quite wrong about that, as Graeber spends as much or more time talking about ethics as he does talking about money and debt (generally he talks about the two topics together).

In fact, Graeber argues that our current society is so dominated by the morality and logic of exchange that we don't can't even talk about morality without using the language of exchange.

One drawback of the book is that it is not particularly orderly, with Graeber wandering from topic to topic without offering much in the way of summaries or argument structure - so this post will likely suffer from the same deficiencies.

Early on (page 29), Graeber makes the point that barter is a form of economic transaction that is used between strangers and/or enemies, not amongst people who know each other well who would typically either share or use gifts instead of bargaining and negotiating to decide who gets what.  Later (page 68), Graeber notes that a commercial transaction (exchange) imply both separation and equality. On page 81, Graeber characterizes the 20th century as a situation where,

"on one side is the logic of the market, where we like to imagine we all start out as individuals who don't owe each other anything. On the other side is the logic of the state, where we all being with a debt we can never truly pay. We are constantly told that they are opposites, and that between them they contain the only real human possibilities. But it's a false dichotomy. States created markets. Markets require states. Neither could continue without the other, at least, in anything like the forms we would recognize today."

In the fifth chapter of the book, 'The Moral Grounds of Economic Relations, Graeber talks about the different moral systems we have for regulating economic activity,

"Anthropology has shown just how different and numerous are the ways in which humans have been known to organize themselves. But it also reveals some remarkable commonalities - fundamental moral principles that appear to exist everywhere, and that will always tend to be invoked, wherever people transfer objects back and forth or argue about what other people owe them.

One of the reasons that human life is so complicated, in turn, is because many of these principles contradict one another. ... The moral logic of exchange, and hence of debt, is only one; in any given situation, there are likely to be completely different principles that could be brought to bear. ...moral thought is founded on this very tension."

Graeber continues on to argue that we have 3 different ways of relating to each other, and that exchange is just one of these three ways.  The other two ways described by Graeber are Communism and Hierarchy.

Graeber describes communism as the 'default' mode of interaction, in which, for example, if two people are working on a car and one asks the other to hand him a wrench, the other person won't ask what they are getting in return. Graeber notes that even in clearly commercial contexts, such as a local store, there is a tendency towards a communistic approach in which what people are expected to pay depends on their means. He notes that this is why shopkeepers in poor neighbourhoods are almost always from a non-local ethnic group. Someone local would face too much pressure to cut prices for their poor customers who are also their neighbours.

After communism, Graeber discuss exchange, noting that , "what marks commercial exchange is that it's 'impersonal.'" Graeber notes that commercial relations are impermanent and can be broken off at any time, and whether in a bargaining session where both parties are trying to pay each other as little as possible or in a gift-exchange where both parties are trying to outdo one another in generosity, people feel a need to maintain equality. 

Next, Graeber describes hierarchy as a system where adherence to custom and tradition is the primary virtue and this appeal to custom is used to justify the use of force in maintaining a hierarchical social structure. The pattern of custom also takes precedence over any notion of reciprocity, "If you give some coins to a panhandler,  and that panhandler recognizes you later, it is unlikely that he will give you any money - but he well consider you more likely to give him money again."

"This is what I mean when I say that hierarchy operates by a principle that is the very opposite of reciprocity. Whenever the lines of superiority and inferiority are clearly drawn and accepted by all parties as the framework of a relationship, and relations are sufficiently ongoing that we are no longer simply dealing with arbitrary force, then relations will be seen as being regulated by a web of habit or customer."

After describing the three different modes, Graeber notes that these modes always co-exist, "We are all communists with our closest friends and feudal lords when dealing with small children."


Later, Graeber devotes a chapter to the slippery concept of 'Honour'.  Jane Jacobs classified 'Treasure Honour' as a guardian virtue in 'Systems of Survival' but Graeber sees two sides to honour, "to this day, 'honour' has two contradictory meanings. On the one hand we can speak of honour as simple integrity. Decent people honour their commitments ... to be an honourable man meant to be one who speaks the truth, obeys the law, keeps his promises, is fair and conscientious in commercial dealings ... [but] honour simultaneously meant something else, which had everything to do with ...violence"

Although Graeber sees honour as existing in both a commercial and a guardian sense, he repeatedly notes how violent (guardian-minded)  men are particularly obsessed with honour.

Graeber describes an Irish system of honour in which "one's honour was the esteem one had in the eyes of others, one's honesty integrity and character, but also one's power, in the sense of the ability to protect oneseld, and one's family and followers, from any sort of degradation or insult." This system was strictly hierarchical with greater honour assigned to people of higher rank.

In a key passage, Graeber notes the Irish system seems strange because they precisely quantified the 'price' of honour (it took 21 cows to pay for insulting the king's honour, fewer if you insulted someone of lower rank).

"What makes Medieval Irish laws seem so peculiar from our perspective is that their exponents had not the slightest discomfort with putting an exact monetary price on human dignity. For us, the notion that the sanctity of a priest or the majesty of a king could be held equivalent to a million fried eggs or a hundred thousand haircuts is simply bizarre. These are precisely the things that ought to be considered beyond all possibility of quantification. If Medieval Irish juries felt otherwise, it was because people at that time did not use money to buy eggs or haircuts. It was the fact that it was still a human economy, in which money was used for social purposes, that it was possible to create such an intricate system whereby it was possible not just to mesaure but to add and subtract specific quantities of human dignity - and in doing so, provide us with a unique window into the true nature of honour itself.

The obvious question is: What happens to such an economy when people do begin to use the same money used to measure measure dignity to buy eggs and haircuts? As the history of Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean world reveals, the result was a profound - and enduring - moral crisis."

Further on (page 260), Graeber notes the historical success of China resulting from maintaining a clear line of separation between the hierarchical and commercial spheres,

"In Confucian terms, merchants were like soldiers. Those drawn to a career in the military were assumed to be largely driven by a love of violence. As individuals, they were not good people; but they were also necessary to defend the frontiers. Similarly, merchants were driven by greed and basically immoral; yet if kept under careful administrative supervision, they could be made to serve the public good. Whatever one might think of the principles, the results are hard to deny. For most of its history, China maintained the highest standard of living in the world - even England only really overtook it in perhaps the 1820's"
For the thesis of Jane Jacob's 'Systems of Survival', the most challenging aspect of "Debt: The First 5,000 Years" is that Graeber sees medieval/enlightenment Europe as a place where there was a lot of mixing of Commercial and Guardian roles (on page 346 he refers to the 'familiar but particularly European entanglement of war and commerce"), which according to Jane Jacobs, should lead only to corruption and suffering, but instead, as Graeber notes, the countries of medieval Europe eventually attained the world's highest standards of living. Graeber dwells on the negatives caused by this mixture, the slave trade and all the ills of colonialism, but the fact remains that it was Europe that developed the means to impose their will on the rest of the world through the development of new technology and social forms of organization.

Leaving this challenge aside for now, the main thrust of Graeber's work seems to be the harm caused by the notion of debt when it crosses the boundaries of moral systems. If a commercial debt is just a commercial debt, then if a business venture fails, you declare bankruptcy and move on. If a debt is non-commercial in nature, then it is governed by human relations that take into account the relative status and ability to pay of the people involved. When commercial debts become treated as debts of honour, then people are forced to do anything to pay, no matter how horrific or unpleasant. For example, Graeber describes the depredations of Spanish soldiers in Central America as driven by their own need to pay debts back home.

This distinction between commercial debts and non-commercial ones is perhaps most noticeable in the sheer number of times that Graeber refers to some historical debt forgiveness scheme that was implemented for all debts except commercial debts.To take just a few examples:
Page 256, "where earlier codes had established a 15-percemt annual rate of interest, with exceptions for commercial loans..."

Page 290, "the revival of Roman law ... put new weapons in the hands of those who wished to argue that, at least in the case of commercial loans, usury laws should be relaxed"

Page 390, "It seems to me that we are long overdue for some kind of Biblical-style Jubilee: one that would affect both international debt and consumer debt"

Digging around on the internet, it seems I'm not the only person who noticed this. Here's a quote from a post by Daniel Davies at Crooked Timber:

"The argument I found myself having again and again related to this particular point – on more than one occasion during the history of debt, it was noted almost parenthetically that a particular debt reform was carried out on the basis “except commercial debts”, and I found myself saying “No! Hang on! Tell me more about these exceptions!”.

And I think this because commercial debts between merchants are a really important part of the story here.


In general in the commercial world, the ability to put yourself in debt is a privilege, not an obligation – one of the most important aspects of corporate legal personhood, as an introductory legal textbook will tell you, is not the right to sue other people, but the right to be sued. If you can be sued, then you can enter into agreements with other people that they have confidence that the courts will enforce.


Although the parallel track of debt as obligation, religion and morality has certainly been there, and is described expertly in the book, from day one it has been recognised among merchants and men of commerce that the point of the debt relation is to serve the organisation and arrangement of commercial need."


Debt as per Graeber’s book is an example of this – the debt contract is basically a tool of industrial organisation that escaped from the laboratory and ran wild.


Having said that, there are some situations where Graeber’s analysis seems completely accurate. Countries don’t have bankruptcy codes governing them, and so in the sphere of international debt negotiations, one can see all the pernicious aspects of the “folk-economics” version of the debt contract that Graeber describes. Looking at the relationship between the European Union and Greece, or even Ireland, one can see that the debt relation is being specifically shaped into a tool for exercising power in a way which would not have been possible through democratic means.

...’s a very salutary reminder of what happens when people forget that debt is really only (or really only ought to be) the legal system’s best guess at what kind of arrangements would best serve the general purposes of commerce. It is, as Graeber intimates, when the debt relation takes on an independent life of its own that the problems all start."

As Davies notes, aside from providing a supporting voice to the notion of economic relations being governed by Guardian or Commercial (or Communistic) values, and aside from enumerating the many ways in which societies throughout history have separated commerce from governance and violence, Graeber ultimately makes the argument that debt in particular is a human relation that needs to be carefully regulated so that we do not mistake commercial debts for moral debts.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

107. The Righteous Mind, Part 4

Note: This post is the one hundred and seventh in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs which inspired this series.

This week the topic is the book, "The Righteous Mind" by Jonathan Haidt. Having read the book, I highly recommend the NY Times review of it as an excellent summary.

Note that we have encountered the work of Jonathan Haidt before, albeit indirectly, in this earlier post which discussed an essay by Steven Pinker, which was written as a reaction to Haidt's work.

Today's post covers the third of Haidt's three main arguments, that people are 90% chimp and 10% bee, meaning that people are a mix of self-interested and group-interested.

In this section of the book, Haidt eventually defines 'moral systems' as,
"interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible."

This definition follows a lengthy argument by Haidt trying to justify the notion that people could have evolved to be cooperative in nature (10% bee), which he no doubt felt was necessary because this is a controversial position to take in the current academic environment. But I didn't need any convincing on that score, so I'm not going to dwell on that aspect of this section of the book.

Instead, let's look more closely at the definition of moral systems spelled out by Haidt.

The first point to make is that it seems a bit narrow, in denyng the possible existence of morality outside of a social context. I tend to agree more with Francis Fukuyama, who, if we recall from an earlier post in the series, stated that,
"The capacity for hard work, frugality, rationality, innovativeness, and openness to risk are all entrepreneurial virtues that apply to individuals and could be exercised by Robinson Crusoe on his proverbial desert island. But there is also a set of social virtues, like honesty, reliability, cooperativeness and a sense of duty to others, that are essentially social in nature."
More recently, we saw that Ayn Rand spokesman John Galt made the point even more clearly,
"You who prattle that morality is social and that man would need no morality on a desert island - it is on a desert island that he would need it most. Let him try to claim ... that he will collect a harvest tomorrow by devouring his stock seed today - and reality will wipe him out, as he deserves."
Ayn Rand, in a point echoed more recently by Joseph Heath, emphasized further that there are situations (e.g. corporations that might mutually benefit from cooperative price-fixing) where the pursuit of self-interest at the expense of cooperative behaviour is the best course of action. True, Haidt might argue that this falls under the 'regulation' of self-interest, but it doesn't seem like this sort of thing is what he had in mind.

More generally, Haidt suggests the existence of moral systems, denies that he is a moral relativist who believes that all moral systems are equally valid, and identifies two distinct moral casts of mind present in the population ("WEIRD" and "Normal") but he never makes any sort of attempt to categorize what sort of moral systems might exist or what might make one moral system superior to another.

This is not really criticism, Haidt has already covered a lot of ground, it's just that he went quite far, but mostly stopped short of addressing the questions I've been pursuing in this series. Why do some moral systems apply in some contexts and not others, what makes one moral system superior to another, etc.

Haidt spends a chapter explaining his viewpoint (which I mostly share) that religion may be wrong (supernaturally speaking) but is nevertheless useful (here on earth) because it helps bind communities together and support cooperative efforts (such as feeding the poor or inquisiting heretics). Throughout the third section of the book he emphasizes that our groupish behaviour typically applies only to whichever group we identify with, not with the human race as a whole, but that experimental results have shown as people become more groupish in a situation, the increased love for the in-group outweighs any increased hate for  out-groups.

Haidt briefly (page 266) seems to suggest that religion is beneficial to trade, "In the medieval world, Jews and Muslims excelled in long-distance trade in part because their religions helped them create trustworthy relationships and enforceable contracts." However, he doesn't go on to note that Christians were certainly quite religious during the medieval period as well, or that in modern times, the nations with the highest standard of living tend to be the least religious. Similarly, he doesn't spend any time on the relationship between religion and scientific inquiry. Coming from an Irish background, I can see that religion supports social cohesion, but I might take some convincing that greater religiosity coincides with greater commercial trade.


Putting the three different sections of the book together, Haidt has presented three reasons why we struggle to agree on what is right: 1) We have instinctive moral reactions to situations that we rationalize, rather than coming to a rational conclusion based on disinterested reasoning, 2) different people have different sets of moral instincts, and 3) by our nature we are tribal, in the sense that we define ourselves and choose our actions based on the groups that we belong to, not just on our individual situation.

Earlier on in the book, Haidt suggested that rather than aiming for some grand rational argument that would teach us how to all act morally (as he thought Plato was engaged in in The Republic) we should instead try to design society in such a manner that we would naturally behave in a moral manner (which is what Plato actually was engaged in in The Republic). But where Plato set out an elaborate scheme for disentangling two sets of people to follow two distinct moral systems, according to their nature, Haidt has little to offer beyond suggesting that U.S. congressman should bring their families with them to Washington rather than leaving them at home, so that there is more socializing across party lines. But despite the lack of solutions offerred it's an interesting book that just might change the way you think about how you think so it's worth a read.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

106. The Righteous Mind - Part 3

Note: This post is the one hundred and sixth in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs which inspired this series.

This week the topic is the book, "The Righteous Mind" by Jonathan Haidt. Having read the book, I highly recommend the NY Times review of it as an excellent summary.

Note that we have encountered the work of Jonathan Haidt before, albeit indirectly, in this earlier post which discussed an essay by Steven Pinker, which was written as a reaction to Haidt's work.

Today's post covers the second of Haidt's three main arguments, that:

a) There are (at least) 6 dimensions to human morality: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Freedom/Oppression, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion and Sanctity/Degradation.


b) "liberals" (in an American sense, think the Democratic party) are only concerned with Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating and Freedom/Oppression whereas conservatives (think Republicans) are concerned with all 6 moral dimensions.

Let's start by giving a little more detail on each of the 6 dimensions that Haidt identifies. Note that in each case, Haidt offers an explanation of how this moral value might have provided an evolutionary advantage, and notes that although the original evolutionary value may no longer be valid, the moral value can still be triggered in modern circumstances and may have value in modern society.


"If blood will flow when flesh and steel are one
Drying in the color of the evening sun
Tomorrow's rain will wash the stains away
But something in our minds will always stay

Perhaps this final act was meant
To clinch a lifetime's argument
That nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could"

- Sting, "Fragile"

"Nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could" is a pretty fair statement of the Harm principle that Haidt describes. In Haidt's view, the evolutionary requirement to take care of our vulnerable children gives a desire to protect people from harm, and that our assessment that something is 'cute' is linked to this assessment of how much protection from harm someone (or some animal) needs.

"And now you're back from outer space
I just walked in to find you here with that sad look upon your face
I should have changed that stupid lock
I should have made you leave your key
If I'd've known for just one second you'd back to bother me
Go on now, go walk out the door
Just turn around now
('Cause) you're not welcome anymore
Weren't you the one who tried to hurt me with goodbye?
And so you felt like droppin' in
And just expect me to be free,
Now I'm savin' all my lovin' for someone who's lovin' me
Go on now..."

- Gloria Gaynor, "I Will Survive"

Haidt sees our desire for things to be fair as being necessary to secure cooperation without falling prey to cheaters. He relates the results of an experiment in which people could work together to increase their total payout by contributing to a public pool of funds, but where people could free-ride by not contributing to the public pool but still receiving their share of the public money.

In the experiment, people's willingness to contribute declines over time as they see free-riders taking advantage of their contributions. But when the experiment was modified to allow people to spend their own money to punish people who free-ride, people were more than willing to do so, and high levels of contributions to the public pool were sustained over time.

The willingness to take vengeance on people who try to take advantage of us, even when it costs us to take that vengeance, is necessary to sustain cooperation in the face of those who would try to take advantage of cooperative efforts.

In the song above, even if the singer might still be in love with her former lover, she knows that she needs to punish him for his past transgressions and that the long term goal of not being taken advantage of supersedes a short term desire for reconciliation.

In Haidt's view, conservatives focus more on ensuring that cheaters are punished, whereas liberals focus more on ensuring that people don't get cheated.

"Here comes the helicopter, second time today
Everybody scatters and hopes it goes away
How many kids they've murdered only God can say
If I had a rocket launcher...I'd make somebody pay"

- Bruce Cockburn, "If I Had A Rocket Launcher"

Like Sting in the quote above, Bruce Cockburn was writing in response to Central American violence during the 1980's, but Bruce Cockburn drew a different conclusion. Cockburn decided that fighting back was a better approach than turning the other cheek (interestingly, they both followed the same template in writing about Pinochet's dictatorship in Chile, with Sting's 'They Dance Alone' suggesting the regime will fall when it runs out of money, while Bruce Cokburn's 'Santiago Dawn' invokes an armed rebellion with military thugs under attack, doors broken down, rocks flying and barricades in flames).

Arguably, I could have filed this lyric under 'Fairness/Cheating' as well, since Cockburn is suggesting that the government should 'pay' for what it has done, but the reaction here is not to being cheated, but rather to being bullied and oppressed, and it is that opposition to bullying and oppression (in Haidt's view, the force that makes human hunter/gatherer societies egalitarian in nature) which is what Haidt is getting at with the Freedom/Oppression moral value.


"Police arrive -- muddy up the floor
Dig out half the plaster -- it's a .38 for sure
Kick the neighbour's door in
Saying better tell it all
Who put that bullet hole in Peggy's kitchen wall?

Blaster on the back porch, shaking up the lane
They're drinking gin and joking -- laughter falling down like rain
Everybody wears a halo
Never saw nothing at all
So who put that bullet hole in Peggy's kitchen wall?"

- Bruce Cockburn, "Peggy's Kitchen Wall"

As we've seen in our extensive discussions of the Prisoner's Dilemma in this series, people who are willing to work together, even in a case where they would individually be better off betraying each other, can reap a collective benefit from this show of loyalty.

Haidt focusses more on 'big' loyalty, to a country, to a sporting team, than on 'small' loyalty (e.g. a group of people who agree not to tell the police who put a bullet hole in someone's wall) but the principle is the same. Haidt takes it as self-evident that a group with loyalty will have an evolutionary advantage over one that doesn't but, although I certainly agree, it would have been interesting if he had made the case (for example, a tribe of people who gather berries wouldn't seem to get much benefit from cooperation as compared to a tribe of hunters, a tribe with warlike neighbours might get benefits from loyalty that a tribe with no neighbours would not, etc.)

"Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man

Born in the U.S.A., I was born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A., born in the U.S.A.

Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man said, "Son if it was up to me"
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said, "Son, don't you understand"

- Bruce Springsteen, "Born in the U.S.A."

At first, I couldn't think of any songs that invoked Haidt's notion of respect for authority (other than maybe 'Church of the Holy Spook', by Shane MacGowan)

But then I realized I should be looking for songs protesting the violation of this precept, not songs praising it directly. Why is Bruce Springsteen's protagonist so insistent that he was, 'Born in the U.S.A.'? - because he believes that he has fulfilled his part of the bargain, going off to fight for his country, but his superiors have neglected their side, leaving him unemployed and without prospects upon his return home. The moral value of Authority/Subversion that Haidt refers to is a two-way street, in Haidt's words, 'people who relate to each other in this way have mutual expectations that are more like those of a parent and child than those of a dictator and fearful underlings.' We see this in the song, which is a cry for a mutual expectation that has been betrayed.

Again, Haidt seems to take it as self-evident that support for a hierarchical structure will convey some sort of evolutionary advantage to groups that adopt it although he does not really specify what the benefit is (economies of scale? ability to cooperate across groups too large to bond with just loyalty? ability to distribute proceeds of cooperation without conflict?).


"In this cold commodity culture
Where you lay your money down
It's hard to even notice
That all this earth is hallowed ground"

- Bruce Cockburn, "The Gift"

The final moral value that Haidt identifies, 'Sanctity' seems the least useful at first glance. Haidt figures that this moral value was useful for helping us avoid poisons (like vegetables :) and activities that might carry disease or other harmful qualities.

He argues that, in a modern context, when we have science to tell us what is dangerous to eat or touch, this moral value is used to bind people together by allowing them to rally around some sacred item. To be honest, I didn't find this explanation particularly convincing, although I do think that this moral value can still be useful.

As the song lyrics above suggests, I think this moral value may lie behind what Jane Jacobs characterized as an almost inexplicable disdain for commercial activity that has existed throughout much of our history. In a modern context where the moral disdain for commercial activity has lessened, this value might still help us to see where certain things should not be for sale (body parts, votes, endangered species etc.) Of course, by the same token, it's likely this same value that propels the war on drugs and prevents legalization of, for example, marijuana.

So that covers the 6 moral values that Haidt has identified to date. Let's talk about Haidt's second main argument in this section of the book, that there is a distinct difference between liberals / 'WEIRD' - W(estern) E(ducated) I(ndustrialized) R(ich) D(emocratic) people, who only place value on 3 moral dimensions (Care/Harm, Fairness, and Freedom/Oppression) and who mostly follow a 'no harm, no foul' morality, and conservatives who place value on all 6 moral dimensions.

There was a story on the CBC website the other day about a Dutch man who, after his cat had died in an accident, decided to turn his cat into a flying helicopter (see the video at the link). There were a number of comments on the story that were popular and uncontroversial (meaning few people clicked 'dislike' on the comment) and these comments were all some sort of humourous commentary on the story. But there were also a number of comments that were both popular and controversial (many dislikes) and these comments were along the lines of:


"Gross!!!! How disgusting...."

"I find this disturbing and disrespectful. Whenever one of my pets has passed away, I've grieved. I believe that's a normal, sane response to losing a furry family member. Never would it occur to me to turn my pet into flying 'art'. *shudder*

"Being a former cat owner, having lost our guy who was 16 years of age, I find this completely disgusting and very disrespectful to the cat."

Invariably, comments on the disgusting, gross, disrespectful or profane nature of the dead flying cat were met with a rebuttal indicating that it was no big deal because the cat was already dead, and thus no harm was done. The last comment I quoted above provoked responses that flesh out the details of the argument in full.

The first response is,
"Then don't do this with your dead cat, and let this person be."
To which the response comes back,
"No Tyler, sugarpei is right, what this guy has done is sick. Had it been a human, he would had been arrested for causing an indignity to a corpse. This is no different."

In reply,
"... Its not up to us to judge this guy. The cat isn't getting hurt or suffering from this.

To repeat; cats are not equal to humans, and what someone does with the remains of their pet is up to them."

In general, there seemed to be widespread agreement that more than the principle of harm was at stake because there was general agreement that it would be wrong to do this with a human corpse, even though there would be no 'harm' done since the person was already dead. In addition, there was general agreement that it would be wrong to kill a cat just for this purpose because that would harm the cat. But where there was less agreement was on the point of whether the same moral value that prevents us from desecrating a human corpse should also apply to a cat. It wasn't clear to me reading the comments that anyone made the argument why cats should be protected from harm, like humans are, but not protected from degradation like humans are.

Haidt surveyed 12 groups of people from around the world and found that one group, comprised of people attending the University of Pennsylvania, was different from the rest, in that the participants resembled the folks in the comment thread on the dead cat who saw nothing morally wrong as long as no harm was done. The other groups were more willing to morally condemn actions even where no harm was caused. Haidt has found that the distinction between the two ways of seeing the world mostly came down to culture and class, with upper middle class people from Western countries ('WEIRD' people) showing the strongest tendency toward a 'Harm-based' morality system, and Americans being the strongest outlier in that direction even within the Western world.

Haidt argues that this flows from a upper/middle class Western world view premised around the notion of autonomous individuals vs. the rest of the worldview which is centred around relationships.

Unfortunately, Haidt seems mostly uninterested in why this might be the case. He does make a passing reference (page 122) that 'The virtues taught to children in a warrior culture are different from those taught in a farming culture or a modern industrialized culture' but he doesn't seem too interested in what those differences might be or why they might vary.

Over and over again, Haidt makes passing reference to ways that people's moral values have changed over time, almost always suggesting that they have become more 'liberal' or harm-focussed.

For example, on page 120, "As Western societies became more educated, industrialized, rich and democratic, the minds of its intellectuals changed. They became more analytic and less holistic." or page 124, "in the past fifty years people in many Western societies have come to feel compassion in response to many more kinds of animal suffering, and they've come to feel disgust in response to many fewer kinds of sexual activity" or page 142, "Until recently, Americans addressed strangers and superiors using title plus last name"

In all of these cases, the trend described by Haidt is towards a more liberal, harm-centred viewpoint. And at every instance I felt the urge to write in the margin of my copy of the book, 'Why?' but Haidt never goes into why.

It's a bit funny because in the latter part of this section of the book, Haidt argues that American liberals are at a disadvantage because conservative politicians make arguments that invoke all 6 moral values, while liberal politicians invoke only 2 or 3. But it doesn't seem to add up that the most liberal place is getting more liberal over time and that somehow this has started to become a problem for liberal politicians in the last few decades. Clearly there is more going on here than is covered by Haidt.

Of course, the whole point of this series of posts is to discuss Jane Jacobs' 'Systems of Survival' so I must point out that the 'WEIRD' morality that Haidt refers to sounds a lot like the commercial syndrome. Hierarchy, loyalty and prowess are all discounted, while shunning fraud and force (which would cause harm) and being honest (fairness, no cheating) take precedence. Haidt never references the 'solo' virtues that can be practiced without the presence of other people (thrift, innovation, hard-work, etc.) but as we'll see in the next post, Haidt eventually defines morality in the context of social cooperation, so this oversight in understandable.

Meanwhile on the conservative side (the non-Weird part of the world in Haidt's view), we have respect for hierarchy, obedience, loyalty, respect for tradition and taking vengeance, all good guardian virtues, per Jacobs.

Furthermore, Haidt identifies the commercial syndrome morality as being most prevalent among the wealthier parts of societies descended from what Weber described as 'The Spirit of Capitalism.'

Like so many others, Haidt never considers the possibility that morality might be context-sensitive, not just in the sense that some morals might be more useful than others in certain cultures (which he does acknowledge) but that even within one culture some actions might be moral or immoral depending on the context.

However, given that Haidt's main focus seems to be to get people who have a 'WEIRD' morality system to appreciate the value of recognizing all 6 virtues (i.e. to get people with a commercial cast of mind to appreciate the guardian cast of mind), and that the focus of his book ends up being two of the main guardian aspects of our society (The subtitle of the book is, "Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion") it seems that he may realize this unconsciously, even though it hasn't made its way into his writing yet.

Afterthought 1: In Haidt's view, U.S. politics involves a harm-focussed, commercially minded left (the Democratic party) matched by a guardian minded conservative right (the Republican party), and from this he concludes that the harm-focussed morality is a left-wing morality. But I think his findings rather speak to the absence of a Guardian minded left party in U.S. politics, akin to the NDP in Canada or the Labour party in Britain. On reflection, it does seem that the Canadian system is more like a liberal centre with two guardian minded wings, whereas the U.S. system lacks political representation for guardian minded people with left wing politics.

Perhaps I am just generalizing from my own example, where Haidt's survey showed my moral compass aligning with a Conservative worldview in which almost all the moral dimensions identified by Haidt are valued, but yet you won't find me voting for the Conservative party in Canada any time soon. With that in mind, I took many of the song lyrics describing a conservative/non-WEIRD/guardian view of the world from Bruce Cockburn, a left-wing Canadian musician.

Afterthought #2, here's another CBC article, that one outlying Haidt's views, the article itself isn't particularly useful, but the comments are mostly spot-on, in my opinion, and worth reading.

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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Rare Gem

The Globe and Mail is pretty pathetic these days (and not in a sympathetic way), but this is pretty awesome.

Yon don't often see this:

"Paris Hilton wears a slitty gown at amfAR's Cinema Against AIDS event during the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France, last week."

...preceded by this:

"Thousands of Quebec students march through Montreal to protest university tuition fee hikes. Oh wait. Sorry about that, English Canada. You didn't come here to look at a bunch of self-centred, entitled people who don't know the value of a dollar and obviously crave attention. I don't know what I was thinking. You have no time for those kind of people."

More at the link.

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