Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Voting and moral theory

I've said before than in most cases, different moral theories have similar results.  In fact, most of us aren't very conscious about what moral theory we're using to make our decisions -- we just feel our moral choices to be obvious, and will draw from a variety of different arguments if we have to defend them.

The differences in people's moral reasoning are never so obvious as when they vote and when they talk about voting.  Different moral theories result in different frameworks for reasoning about how to vote, and ultimately in different votes. 

Let me describe what I mean by a few examples.

Deontologist voter: There are a few non-negotiables.  Whichever candidate passes a basic threshold of agreement on these gets his vote.  For instance, this was how I voted in 2004.  I didn't research the candidates at all.  I simply knew that one of them said he was pro-life, and the other did not, so I picked the one that did.

Virtue ethics voter: This person says that his vote has little effect on the course of the nation (because it's only one vote) but a huge effect on his own morality.  If he votes for someone who supports torture, for instance, it might make him more prone to excuse torture.  So he will generally vote for a perfectly pure candidate who has no chance at winning.  Mark Shea recommends this approach.  I did it in 2012, voting for Gary Johnson because I found both major candidates morally unacceptable.

Group loyalty voter: This person chooses a person who seems like "one of us" -- someone who signals that they care about the same moral issues and belong to the same tribe as the voter.  Candidates are well aware of this method of voting, so they will gather endorsements from churches, drop dogwhistles to their key constituencies, and signal group membership any way they can.  The reasoning is that it doesn't matter what the candidate's individual positions are, because anyone might be lying -- what they want is a person they can trust to make the right decisions once they get there.  To do that, the candidate should share, as closely as possible, the moral assumptions of the voter.

Nihilist voter: They feel discouraged because their vote doesn't count much, or because they are unimpressed by all available candidates, so they stay home.  I did this in 2008, in part because I had moved and not re-registered in time, but partly just because I felt disillusioned with politics in general and didn't see anyone I could get excited about voting for.

Consequentialist voter: This person does not care about whether the candidate is personally likeable, and doesn't need to agree with the candidate on any one issue.  Instead, they consider, of all the possible consequences of the election, which would be best.  Sometimes they call this the "lesser of two evils" approach, to emphasize that they're not voting for who they are because they actually like them.  But it is possible that consequentialism might lead one to vote for a worse candidate in order to discredit that party or punish the other party.  Or they might vote third party in order to send a message to the two parties that there is a rise in libertarianism or socialism or whatever and the parties should trend that way to win more votes next time.  This was certainly a part of my thinking in 2012 as well.  Consequentialism is the entirety of my rationale this time.

You've probably heard that Cruz is out and therefore it will probably be Trump vs. Clinton (unless Sanders has a massive surge).  So it's a much simpler consideration than it used to be.  I'd have seriously considered voting for Cruz, but I no longer have to weigh potential consequences of that now.

I can't know what all the consequences of either result will be.  But my assessment is that the world will be significantly worse under Trump, while Clinton is more likely to preserve the status quo or make things slightly worse.  Of the two possibilities, a Clinton win is better.

In past years I probably would have voted third party while harboring a secret hope that Trump would lose.  But at this point, being more strongly consequentialist than I used to be, I'll vote for the result I want, regardless of any personal animus or rational disapproval of the candidate.  Because my moral duty is to make things the best I can, rather than to preserve my own sense of moral purity by voting third party.

If your moral theory is different, you'll likely come up with different answers.  Whatever you do, I hope we're all still friends come this December.  This country probably can't be saved, not in the way I might hope, but good friendships can.  And when you realize that those who disagree with you on voting aren't evil, but simply making their moral choices according to a slightly different framework, it may be easier to respect them even when they vote differently from you.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Seven quick takes whateverday

1

If I start this on a Tuesday, I may finish by Friday, right?  Does it really matter, considering I never find the time to link it up to the little linky thing?  And in fact I no longer know who hosts it?

I haven't done much blogging in quite awhile, and part of the reason is that my moods have been bad.  Not that life is bad -- it's actually great -- I just feel bad, a lot of the time.  I feel depressed and anxious and overwhelmed and generally crummy.

Sometimes it's like this: I'm walking along, minding my own business, thinking happy thoughts about how excellently my life is going.  And in the middle of that, very suddenly, I'm hit by a crushing weight of sadness, so intense it hurts, like you feel when you're suffering from a broken heart, like badgers are eating out my innards.

Sometimes it's more like this: I'm running around doing stuff, and in my mind I'm constantly thinking of all the things I have to do, all the bad things that will happen if I don't do all the things I have to do.  My heart starts racing, I feel like my chest is hollow and I have to gasp for air.  If the kids are touching me, I snap at them and run away.  I feel like I have to hide under my bed and do nothing.  Or I wonder if massive amounts of alcohol would help, but I don't want to be a day drinker.

It got bad last month where I was constantly struggling for breath for a few days.  I thought maybe I had a chest infection or a pulmonary embolism (that's me, jumping to the worst possibility!) and kind of freaked myself out.  Then I told John and he freaked out, and in the end he took a half-day from work so I could go to the doctor.  He tested my lungs and blood oxygen and found nothing the matter with me.  Which made me very upset.  I felt like I was being called a liar, like he must think I must be faking the whole thing because I was breathing fine while I was there.

At the end he threw out that stress might be a factor, and then dismissed it saying I didn't look stressed.  Both of which annoyed me.  The first, because suggesting it was caused by stress meant that it was all in my head, I was faking, I wasn't really sick, I was wasting everyone's time and money, bad me.  And the second because hello, you don't diagnose anxiety by looking at them!  Anyway, he told me to keep up with my regular activities and come back in a month if it wasn't better.

I gave it some thought, concluded that it probably was stress after all, and resolved to just stop doing it.  When I feel like I'm out of breath and suffocating and I must gasp for breath -- I just don't.  I remind myself that my lungs work fine, that my blood oxygen is fine.  I force myself to breathe normally, I feel like I'm going to die, but eventually it goes away.  So, win for me I guess.  But I still feel horribly ashamed that I went to the doctor for something I should have been able to stop on my own.

2

Anyway, that's what I'm dealing with.  I want to blame postpartum hormones, but Miriam is 20 months old now, so isn't it late for that to start?  Of course, I haven't felt good since before I got pregnant with her, but for all this time I've mostly been putting down any issues to actual stress -- I mean, a baby who can't be put down ever and boys who are constantly biting each other would make anybody feel bad.  Now, I feel like my life is relatively calm but the problems aren't getting better.  They might actually be getting worse; I'm not sure.  This makes me discouraged; I feel like I've been waiting and waiting to feel better and it's not happening.

Not that it's an every day thing.  Some days I feel great, I accomplish lots of stuff and get myself thinking, "See?  I've been waiting to feel better, and it actually happened?"  But then a day or two later, it all comes slamming back and I realize that nope, it's still around, that was just a break.  And I can't find a correlation that holds; it seems to happen regardless of whether I got sleep last night or whether I eat right or whether the kids are cranky.  Exercise helps some; having as little as possible on my plate helps too.  I quit my homeschool group mostly, though I still do park days with them because that's low-key.  People ask "why don't we see you much anymore?" and I never know what to say.  I'm not busy, I'm just inadequate.

3

Anyway.  That is more than enough about that embarrassing topic.

Both boys had birthdays this month -- now they're four and six.  Can you believe it?  It astounds me.  They are both so delightful.  Michael doesn't seem different to me, but thinking back, I remember a year ago he was really whiny and clingy and he still nursed.  That seems like ages ago -- mostly he likes to play with Marko and come back to me from time to time with a big smile to give me a hug and a kiss.  He gets really excited about his ideas and the games he is playing, and tells me about them in a hugely expressive voice, with a bit of a lisp to make it extra cute.  His ideas are more original and freewheeling than Marko's, which sometimes cause arguments.  A lot of Marko yelling "NO, dogs DON'T ever fly!" while Michael answers, "but in my game they do!"  They rarely get into physical fights anymore, though sometimes they get really upset and push each other.

Michael still does not always sleep through the night, and when he wakes up, he insists a grownup stay with him till he's back asleep -- which might be up to an hour.  I wish we could call his bluff and just leave, let him cry if he wants to, but remind him that he's four and is capable of sleeping alone.  But he's got two siblings with him who would wake up if he shrieked, and he knows it.  So for now we are just dealing with it.

4

Marko is having lots of fun tracing letters and repeating their sounds, but sounding out real words he can still only do with help.  It's hard to tell if he is really struggling or just lacks confidence, but the problem is that it's very hard for me to work with him on this stuff.  His siblings climb all over me and grab the pencil and tear the book, so that we never spend as much time on it as I'd like.  I want to get him some good phonics workbooks that don't require quite so much supervision, so I'm looking into stuff.  I'd also like a teacher's manual of some sort so that I make sure I don't teach him wrong.  My hope that he'd just figure it out on his own, like I did, is not happening, and since he is six now I really want to work with him on it.  I wouldn't push if he weren't interested, but he definitely is, so I have to get serious about this.  He wants to read so he can read Star Wars books, obvs.

Marko likes learning B is for Boba Fett, b is for bantha

His favorite thing in the world to do is make movies.  Sometimes he acts them himself, sometimes he wants to do stop-motion with his toys.  It's adorable, but also a big hassle for me, because it's not like I know anything about video editing or having the right programs to do it.  Still, I'm sure it's educational and he's definitely having a good time, so I do try. 

As another sign of how grown-up he's getting, he's got a loose tooth.  Behind it you can see the new tooth coming in, which seems weird but is apparently not unusual.

John had the idea recently that instead of letting them watch cartoons before bed, he should read aloud.  They've started The Hobbit, but Marko is extremely upset about the change.  He does not like change. He wants to watch The Land Before Time 14 every night before bed at the moment, and the biggest change he's willing to tolerate is a switch to yet another watching of Lego Star Wars shorts on YouTube.  Michael is a fan, though -- he likes change, and he also is enthusiastic about the promise of dragons later on in the book.

5

Miriam grows daily cuter.  Every time you think "okay, this is about it, we've reached Peak Cuteness," she goes and does some other adorable thing.  She can put two words together, like "blue car" or "go out" or "hi Gilbert."  She likes to play outside ALL THE TIME, but to my great relief she no longer needs me to hold her hand and walk around the yard with her.  She'll settle for Michael holding her hand and walking around the yard with her.  She needs somebody to be right there with her, but it doesn't have to be me and Michael LOVES escorting her.  (Marko could care less.)  I am so glad there are three of them, considering that Marko is so solitary.  Sometimes Marko just doesn't want to be with other people, but Michael almost always wants someone with him, and Miriam is almost always game for that.  I think of my own childhood -- desperate for someone to play with, and having a brother who preferred to be alone -- and I think, this is much better.  There are options and nobody has to be guilted into playing with a sibling.

See?  PEAK CUTENESS!

Of course, very often Marko and Michael do want to play together, and sometimes they like to make Miriam the bad guy and run away from her.  That makes me sad and I try to either stop them, or play with Miriam myself.  It's no fun to be the odd one out.  (And yet, I am somehow not at all tempted to have a fourth kid to fix things up!)

We have moved Miriam into the boys' room, with a great deal of trepidation.  The first night I barely slept, certain that she would wake up and get into some kind of trouble before I heard her.  And I've been listening to a baby's breathing as I fall asleep for years.  But it's nice for John and I to finally get the joy of talking to each other before falling asleep, without risking waking her up.  Sometimes we even manage to communicate with each other about our plans for the next day instead of having to check our schedules by text on the day of!  It definitely does make a huge difference in how "in tune" we feel, having that time.  Also we go to bed earlier because we can read in bed.

The downside is that Miriam does not last very much of the night in bed.  ONCE, she stayed there pretty much the whole night.  Most other nights, she's up around midnight or one and I just bring her in bed with me because I'm too sleepy to want to put her back to sleep in her own bed.  John tried dealing with her at night instead for awhile, which sounded amazing when he suggested it, but it wound up meaning that he stayed up for an hour walking her around, trying to get her back to sleep, and in the end having to wake me up to help anyway.  Oh well.  Even if the kids never all sleep through the night, someday they will move out.

6

This warm weather is fabulous.  We spent a day down at the river last week and had a wonderful time.  The kids waded and I swam -- in knee-deep water, but it still counts because I got wet all over.  I got a sunburn, despite reapplying the sunblock twice.  The kids did not, because that 1/4 Latino is apparently enough to make a difference.


The garden is getting along well.  I surrendered one bed back to weeds, because it's gravely and has never done well, but all the other beds are either planted or ready to plant.  I have chard, beets, spinach, broccoli, purple cabbage, radishes, peas, and red onions planted.  I tried to plant lettuce a bunch of times, but I suspect it just hasn't been wet enough.  I watered a lot, but you just can't keep a bed really wet if it's 70 degrees and sunny.  I really want to get my tomatoes in, since we have a warm, rainy week predicted, but all the stores just have hybrid varieties and I want heirlooms.  Those can usually be found at the farmers' market, but do I dare wait till Saturday?

7

My TV shows lately are Fringe and Friends.  Fringe, of course, is for evenings when the kids are in bed, whereas Friends I watch while putting Miriam to bed or any time I'm not in the mood for scary.

I loved the first three seasons of Fringe, but season four is baffling me a bit.  I don't like the new timeline.  Walter's not Walter!  Olivia's not Olivia!  Are they ever going to explain how the people in this timeline think the machine worked?  On the other hand, I feel like some mysteries from season one might be explained a little at last.  Apparently JJ Abrams is famous for mysteries that wind up never getting explained.  But even if it does end up that way, I think I'll stick with it to the bitter end, because I love Olivia Dunham so much.  She is a freaking awesome character with a ton of depth.  And I like everyone else too -- Walter, Peter, Astrid, the people in the alternate universe.  Character development really is everything to me in TV -- that and moral quandaries, provided they are dealt with properly.  I need at least some of the characters to be morally admirable, or else forget about it (which is why I gave up on House of Cards and haven't tried Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones).

Watching Friends is part of my project to get caught up on the nineties.  (Buffy was the first step; I guess this is step two.  I want to experience everything popular enough to be a cultural touchstone everyone my age knows: I'm taking suggestions.)  Already I've recognized references to that show in other things I've read and watched.  It kind of puzzles me that I managed to get through the nineties while getting exposed to so little of its culture.  I remember the clothes and the hair though.  MY GOSH.  It's strange seeing people dressed in overall shorts and being portrayed as "cool."  And very strange getting a shot of the World Trade Center without sad music being played. 

My favorite character by far is Ross.  Who could help loving him?  He also reminds me of a friend of mine (if you read this, Ibid, it's you, and it's a compliment).

How have you all been?

Sunday, April 24, 2016

I can finally define "cult"

In all my writings about cults and the terrible things they do, I've struggled to define a cult.  After all, much of what they do is also done by religions, political movements, and internet communities that people enjoy participating in and don't think of as manipulative.  In fact, most "cult tactics" are simply group cohesion tactics, in that a group that practices them will be closer-knit than a group that does not.  So I've often felt that you only get two choices -- a group that isn't very groupish but respects people's freedom, or a group that has all the benefits of groupishness but also is close to being a cult.

However, this last post gave me an insight into the difference.  It's this: a healthy group is in a symbiotic relationship with the people in it.  They keep it alive, and in turn, it benefits them.  The amount the members give the group is the amount they get back.

But an unhealthy group, a cult, is a parasite.  It takes from the members and does not give back accordingly.  So people are manipulated into making large sacrifices for the group, but when they need something from the group, it's never available -- they might be told they are selfish for expecting anything, or that the goal of the group is some faraway utopia and no one can expect anything yet.

There's also a difference between the leadership of a healthy group and the leadership of a cult.  In a healthy group, the leadership tends to give more than they get, while the members get more than they give.  So you have a president and secretary and so on who make this a major life project and invest a lot of their energy in it, while some more fringe members just show up to meetings, have a good time, and leave.  It's frustrating, but it's how groups work -- the more-committed members pick up the slack for the less-committed members; or if they don't, the group eventually dissolves.  In a cult, however, it's the people at the top who get more out of the group than they invest.  This parasitical structure, if it exists to serve anyone, exists to serve the leaders.  (This is not universally the case; some cults don't have a sneaky leader who started the whole thing as a scam, everyone believes -- so no one benefits.)

So the next time you ask yourself if a group you're in is getting too culty, ask yourself this: how much of your time and effort do you put in?  And what benefits do you get back?  Do you get spiritual peace, a sense of closeness, support in times of trouble, or opportunities to give back to the larger community?  Or are these things half-promised but never delivered?  Do you hear "success stories" where other people get a lot of benefits, but you never get those?  It's one thing if the whole purpose of the group is to benefit, say, orphans, and you're not an orphan so your only benefit is "I get to be part of helping orphans, which makes me happy."  But if the group is supposed to benefit you and doesn't, or if it claims to benefit the community but all it seems to do is recruit and fundraise, it might be a cult.

Meanwhile, it's possible that a group may seem too tight-knit and demanding while not being a cult, just being wrong for you.  Some groups are high-demand and high-yield -- you put a lot of effort into the group but it really pays off.  I know Mormons who describe their religion in this way.  They spend a lot of time and money on it, but if they fall on hard times, the church pitches in and takes care of things.  It's like a platinum insurance plan.  Not everyone wants that.  I don't; I like things to be low-key and I don't want to commit.  But that doesn't mean it's a bad thing.

Groups also have a tendency to be wrong -- there's a reason "groupthink" has a negative connotation.  As my dad used to say, "None of us is as stupid as all of us."  But wrongness is orthogonal to cultiness.  For years I assumed Regnum Christi wasn't a cult because it had none of its own beliefs at all, simply borrowed Catholic ones.  But I was wrong, because your group can have all the right beliefs and still be a parasitical group.  Or it could be super wrong but a low-key, fun group which gives back to the community.  Obviously wrongness isn't good, and it's possible that the more culty a group is, the more it short-circuits your reasoning process so you're more likely to be wrong.  It's a good rule of thumb to do your thinking and decisionmaking on your own and come back to the community to share your ideas and come up with a plan of action.  Just remember, right ideas on their own don't guarantee that a group is healthy.

What do you think, is this a useful distinction?  It sure seems an improvement over my tendency to assume everything is a cult.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The unit of mattering

Most of us think of ourselves as individuals.  After all, only individual humans have consciousness, per se -- groups of humans and parts of humans don't.  But as I've written before, we are organized in levels of complexity, and so groups of humans also exist.  In many ways they behave like sentient creatures, even though strictly speaking they are not.

The thing is, even though consciousness is always at the level of the individual, there's no requirement for this to be the level that matters most to us.  As an example, take ants.  Ants are individual animals, but their individual existence is not important to them.  The colony is what matters, and individual ants will suicide for the good of the nest without hesitation if they are injured.  So for ants, you could say that the "unit of mattering" -- the level of organization which the ant considers important -- is the colony.

But humans are not ants.  We are creatures of conflicting impulses.  We have selfish desires, where we value ourselves as individuals more highly than others; and we also have altruistic desires, where we wish to sacrifice for other individuals.  But it seems that this is still a very individualistic way of thinking of it -- natural in a modern American like myself, but perhaps not universal among humans.  It seems that plenty of people, whether consciously or not, put their main "unit of mattering" on a group level.  That is, they care more about their nation, tribe, religion, or family than they do about any individual within that group.

I would readily die for my family or possibly for my nation; but if I did so, it would be entirely because I cared about the individuals within these groups.  The existence of the group itself is not all that important to me.  I think I would prefer that my country cease to exist, for it to be taken over by Canada and its culture erased, than for a citizen of my country to die.  I care about individuals.  I don't care about groups very much.

But I'm unusually un-groupish, probably due to my history.  Even plenty of Americans, individualists though we tend to be, have stronger group loyalty than this.  They think it's okay for individuals in their groups to suffer at least a little bit, provided the group itself remain.  The more strongly they feel tied to their groups, the more they're going to do this.  For instance, the Deaf community is very tight-knit, and within it there's a lot of objection to curing deafness.  Sure, the lives of all the individuals within the group would be improved by being able to hear, but the group itself would die.  They don't want that, because they love their community.

And this isn't against the good of individuals, necessarily.  People like having groups, so when you have a good group where you feel at home, you would go through a lot of inconvenience to stay connected to it.  The group enriches your life.

But I think a big part of it is more instinctive.  The unit of evolutionary survival in humans isn't generally the individual, it's the group.  That's why so many things have been passed on that aren't individually beneficial -- from self-sacrifice to asexuality.  So, while our consciousness is individual, the life-form that's fought its way through the ages to survive against all competitors is not the individual human, but the human group.  You could call it a parasite in the minds of humans that forces us to serve its needs instead of our own.  (The cult survivor in me would like you to consider that possibility.)  Or you could say that it's a higher level of organization, like a body of which we are the cells, and since it's more advanced than us, it deserves our service.  But I think the best way to describe it is symbiosis.  We serve the group, and in return, it's there for us when we need it.

This ties in to the Two Boxes post -- I feel that Box Two, the liberal box, is full of things which promote happiness for individuals, while Box One, the conservative box, is full of things which are more geared toward groups.  I'm still thinking that possibility over and am curious what you think about this.  Certainly a liberal view of self-sacrifice is about helping individuals, including all humanity rather than people similar to oneself; while a conservative view is that one should sacrifice oneself for one's group.  I mean, take that famous poem, "Horatius at the Bridge":

"And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods?"

Notice he doesn't say "for my friends and family," or "in order that humans everywhere should be better off."  What he dies for is Rome.  Rome, to Horatius, isn't a collection of people, it's an entity of itself, which he loves.  He loves it for a lot of reasons, I suppose -- love of a culture is a complicated thing -- but one of those reasons is because Rome has kept him safe up to this point.  It's a mutual relationship; he defends it and it defends him.  It is hard for a human being to actively care for thousands of people at once, so we care for a group which we think of as a single living thing -- symbolized by concrete things like temples.

And there's another advantage in putting one's "unit of mattering" in groups: it helps us cope with the inevitability of our own death.  When we worry that we'll die someday, and then what's the point of anything we've done, we can remind ourselves that we are part of something larger -- that after we die, our religion or nation or culture will continue.  So if we put our efforts toward the group rather than ourselves, we have the consolation that none of that effort will be wasted.

What do you think?  Do you care more for individuals or groups?  Is there a specific group you are in (nation, religion, class, club) which you feel identifies you most completely, which you would sacrifice for?

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Death before sin?

I've written before about deontological and consequentialist morality, pointing out that in most cases the actual conclusions are the same.  The former might say "taking my friend's car is bad because it's stealing," while the latter says "taking the car is bad because it will harm my friend," but both agree that you shouldn't steal the car.

But there are edge cases in which there is a big difference, most notably, the question of whether it can ever be right to do something bad for a sufficiently good reason.  These cases don't come up all that often -- usually the conflict is between morality and some more selfish desire, rather than one morally-significant goal and another.  But they do arise from time to time, and it's important to have some idea what you would choose.

People's opinions on these dilemmas are not consistent.  Most of us, going based on intuition rather than systematic morality, would tell a lie to save a life or steal if we were starving, but we wouldn't be able to shoot a child to save five lives.

Different systematic moralities come up with different answers.  Catholic morality comes down very heavily on the side of doing no evil, regardless of the greater evil that may come to pass.  I was taught in moral theology that there is always a moral option, but sometimes the moral option is that you die, or that other innocent people will die.  The end goal is following the moral law and hopefully going to heaven -- not any earthly end.

Even in Catholic morality, though, there are some carefully-crafted exceptions.  First, some things that seem against the moral law aren't truly wrong.  Stealing to feed yourself when you are starving is not actually stealing at all.  Lying to save a life might not really be lying.  Second is the principle of double effect, which is difficult to explain, but which relies on distinguishing between an act that is wrong in itself and one that simply has evil effects which you didn't desire.  So to directly kill a person would be wrong, but to do something which indirectly results in their death might be all right for a sufficiently grave reason.

To a consequentialist, this all seems very nitpicky.  Can the moral quality of an action really be changed by whether you set the bomb or just allowed the bomb to go off?  If the same number of people died, to the consequentialist, there really is no difference.

Now I want to make a distinction here between consequentialism and utilitarianism.  Utilitarianism is a subcategory of consequentialism, but many conflate them.  A person whose end goal is "the greatest happiness for the greatest number" may wind up justifying some things that look bad to the rest of us -- eugenics, for instance.  But a consequentialist could have different, non-utilitarian end goals, like "the preservation of all human life possible."

At this point I am leaning more toward consequentialism, because it frustrates me to see human life put second to inflexible rules.  Today, in a discussion of the Vatican's new document, I invented a scenario which I imagine is probably not uncommon, at least in some parts of the world: A couple is in a second, invalid marriage.  They have kids and neither is religious.  But one spouse converts to Catholicism and is told that it is mortally sinful to continue sleeping with her invalidly-married husband.  She tells her husband, and he says, "Forget it.  Celibacy is your commitment, not mine; I didn't sign up for a sexless marriage.  If you're really set on this, I'm going to leave you."

Like I said, there are kids, and they live in a country where there isn't much available to help a single mother.  Her children's livelihood depends on her keeping her husband around.  So from a consequentialist perspective, the answer is obvious -- she should continue to sleep with her second husband.  If this choice is accepted by others, it may weaken society's belief in the indissolubility of marriage -- the Church's argument for condemning her -- but considering the situation it's probably an acceptable risk to take.  Yet from a deontologist perspective, she should stand her ground and not sleep with him, regardless of the consequences.  He might leave her and their children.  They might become homeless or starve.  That's not morally relevant to a deontologist because the moral quality of her action is decided by the action itself, not the effects.

And that's why some Catholics are upset at the Pope's suggestion that this might be "the most generous choice" or what God might call someone to.  It undermines the whole of Catholic morality, which is that moral laws are inviolable and it is never acceptable to break them, even if it can be predicted to result in disastrous consequences.  If there is no moral way to save a pregnant mother without an abortion, then she and her baby must both die, because one cannot do evil for any reason.  If one must deny Christ to save one's children, the children must die.  That's the way Catholic morality works, and for the Pope to imply there could be the smallest exception seems to undermine the whole thing.

I've started to be a little horrified by this.  Sure, I don't think I would kill an innocent person to save others, but I'd definitely tell a lie to save some else.  I'd cooperate with a rapist to save my life or someone else's.  I'd deny just about anything to save my kids.  I just think human life is more important than anything else.  Rules are great -- I have plenty of personal rules which I follow -- but rules exist to serve human life and dignity, not to be prioritized above them.

What do you think?  Are there any circumstances in which the ends justify the means, and what do you think those circumstances would be?

Friday, April 8, 2016

Two boxes of values

I know I haven't blogged much lately, but that doesn't mean I haven't been thinking.  I've been doing a lot of reading about morality, about politics, about tribes and how they work.  Here are three of the best things I've read on the topic, which may be good background for this post:

The Rise of American Authoritarianism - Trump supporters are more likely than others to say that it's more important to be obedient than curious.  Are they a different sort of people than the rest of us, or are they just more frightened?
Some people punch down when they get scared - Why does fear make people authoritarian anyway?
And my favorite, A Thrive/Survive Theory of the Political Spectrum - It's possible that the values of the left and right are each well-adapted for different circumstances -- conservative values for times of danger and liberal values when things are more secure.

And this has gotten me thinking about how I tend to subdivide people, politically, into two groups.  I've done it before with Catholics, but pretty much everyone can be subdivided in this way.  Of course as a division it's as arbitrary as any -- you can't fit everyone exactly into a box.  Rather, these are two general groups of values which people tend to prefer.  Some people select some values from each box, but there's a lot of commonality in the kinds of people who prefer one box or the other.

Here is one box: Life is dangerous.  Your personal life satisfaction is not important.  Your survival is not guaranteed.  It's important to be tough; nobody cares about your feelings.  People who are not like us are probably enemies.  There isn't enough to go around -- if someone wins, someone else has to lose, so I want my side to win.  Bad guys exist, and we have to be ready to defend ourselves against them.  Those who do wrong should be punished.  Trying to be nice to bad guys is a mistake; they won't be nice to us so it's best to attack first.  The strength and cohesion of my group is crucial.  We take care of our own.  If you don't like the decisions the leaders make, suck it up because they only way to succeed is by following orders. Have faith in the things you believe and don't ask too many questions.

Here is the other box: Life is good right now, and it's going to keep getting better.  It's important to be happy.  Sacrificing for others is great, but it's important to take care of yourself too.  Be kind to people who are different.  There's no such thing as a bad guy -- there are only people just like us who we need to figure out how to get through to.  There's enough of everything to go around, we just have to share it and not be selfish.  If we work together, we all win; there are no losers.  When someone makes a mistake, we shouldn't punish them, we should help them get better.  Pursue your own individuality -- if a group is demanding a lot of you, it's probably a cult.  Question everything.  Everyone is equal.

To put it more empirically, Box One contains values like:
  • strong ingroup loyalty and outgroup suspicion
  • hierarchy
  • higher aggression
  • faith and certainty
  • black-and-white thinking
  • abstract justice/punishment
  • concern with purity
Box Two contains values like:
  • weak ingroup loyalty and more openness to strangers
  • equality
  • low aggression
  • curiosity 
  • shades-of-gray thinking
  • mercy, rehabilitative justice
  • openness to experimentation

Most of us like some of the values in one box, and some in the other.  Or we lean toward one, but not stated in such an extreme way.  Because hopefully we all realize that none  of these statements are 100% true 100% of the time.  For instance, I think people are basically good at heart and we should work together with them, but I don't actually think there's any chance of bringing ISIS to peace talks any time soon.

I realized, as I've mulled this over, that the first box is a set of values that are useful in zero-sum situations.  That is, in some contests there really are winners and losers, and so an adversarial outlook makes you more likely to succeed.  For instance, in an agrarian society, land is zero-sum -- if you have this farm, no one else has it.  You will have to defend it against anyone else who wants it, or you will starve.  No wonder these values were all pretty solidly appreciated in the agrarian Middle Ages.

The second box is full of values useful in positive-sum situations.  For instance, capitalism is positive-sum -- a successful trade results in two people who both feel they have "won," because they have improved their situation compared to before trading.  When your survival is based on positive-sum contests, you learn that friendliness toward strangers and generosity toward all are the values that will get you ahead.  You learn to find positive-sum solutions to problems, because these will promote peace and allow you to do more trading.  If you sell bread and your neighbor sells milk, you're not enemies -- you can afford to be friendly and you don't have to be on your guard all the time.  In fact, fear can destroy capitalism -- take bank runs, for example, or stock market crashes.

I can also just borrow the explanation from the blog post I cited above -- the first box is for situations perceived as dangerous, the second for situations perceived as secure.  Being loyal with your friends and suspicious of outsiders is a good plan when things are very dangerous.  There's no time to examine and test what you know; instead, you should rely on time-tested beliefs.  It's no surprise that people who pick a lot from the first box will describe our national situation as very perilous, at risk of collapse, or in a state of decline, while those who prefer the second will say that things have never been better.

Here's the trouble: morals and values are things you don't consciously decide to have.  You learn them from a young age and they're embedded in your gut.  When someone asks me, "Should we execute criminals?" I don't really think that much about it first.  I feel empathy for the criminal and then I try to find a way that it can be wise not to kill them.  And you could tell me till you're blue in the face, "Have faith, obey authority," and I would not be able to do those things.  I am not able to think those are good things, because it seems obvious to me that they are not.  I imagine people whose values come mostly out of the other box feel the same way about their own values.

Now, it's possible that this entire difference is genetic, some of us have "survive" genes and some have "thrive" genes, and the environment simply rewards those who are well-adjusted to the current climate, making one or the other more dominant in the thought of a certain time period.  However, despite a recent emphasis in scientific fields about genetic factors, I do believe that our early upbringing affects our brains.  In particular, we know that stress early in life can give us a more sensitive stress response for life.  Hormones in the brain -- cortisol especially -- change the actual structure of the brain of an infant or young child.  This makes great sense.  The genes that direct the growth of the brain don't have any way of knowing what sort of brain a person will need, whether they ought to be constantly on their guard or relaxed and creative.  But as soon as a child is born -- or even in the womb -- he gets exposed to his environment.  His brain sizes it up and decides how it's going to develop at this point -- for risk, or for safety.  It's similar to the way the metabolism can be set for scarcity early in life when a child goes through a famine.  It's as if the body said, "Well, we see how it's going to be, let's prepare for the worst."

We already know that extreme stress in childhood -- abuse, abandonment, neglect -- has devastating consequences.  But what about more mild stress like a strict upbringing?  Does that simply prepare a person to see the world more cautiously?  That isn't always a bad thing.

Then there's the effect of our parents' explicit teaching.  The stories we are told, the things we are and are not punished for doing.  A child who is expected to obey immediately grows into an adult who is more likely to accept the authority even of a bad government.  (This was a study done on the Nazis, showing that people who had grown up in homes where instant obedience was expected were more likely to collaborate with the Nazis than people who had grown up in homes where they were allowed to talk back.)  A child who is punished for exploring his environment becomes less curious.  One child is told stories about big battles in which good and evil are clearly delineated and the problems can be solved by courage; another is told stories about interpersonal conflict in which the solutions come from collaboration.  Relatively small parenting differences may help influence a child toward one box of values over another -- though I should mention that we aren't entirely sure how much of a person's development relies on genetics and how much on environment. 

There may be some adaptation possible in adulthood as well.  A generally non-authoritarian person may become more authoritarian when they feel threatened by an outside danger, while an authoritarian person might relax when they find out the world is not as risky as they previously thought.

But it seems to me that these adulthood changes aren't that common.  It seems much more likely that a person with a predisposition to a cautious, authoritarian approach will find danger to be afraid of.  Though I have been fed stories about the decline of civilization for much of my life, I never felt it was that close to home.  When I began to research history and found that life is actually pretty good right now compared to the rest of human history, it felt more satisfying than the opposite conclusion had been.  I can state the same facts that convinced me to an authoritarian, and they will either deny that the measures important to me (health, long lifespan, lack of violence) are important, or admit that things are okay at the moment but insist they are doomed to collapse very soon.

And so in adulthood you see people sort into the viewpoints that fit best with the way they see the world.  My husband was a traditionalist and monarchist when I met him, and by the end of college he was an outspoken advocate of democracy and even wrote an article praising the goals of the French Revolution.  But he never changed.  He simply found ideas that fit better with how he really was.  When people raised with very conservative religion abandon it or join a more liberal branch, you're watching the same process.  Likewise, there are liberal authoritarians who either become conservative or take a very authoritarian approach to their liberalism -- believing democracy is in grave danger, seeing conservatives as the enemy, and approaching conflict from a win-lose point of view rather than a collaborative one.

I enjoyed reading about the study on authoritarianism, but what I would really like is to take a peek at voters' brains.  Is there a difference visible on a brain scan between a liberal and a conservative?  Are their cortisol and testosterone levels different?  Can we follow people through time, from infancy to adulthood, and see if their authoritarian tendencies remain stable?  Can we see if twins have similar levels of authoritarianism?  This is so exciting.

But what's the takeaway?  If our viewpoints are so thoroughly informed by our genes and upbringing, how can we say they are rational?  Surely there is one right answer.  Either the world is safe, or it is dangerous.  Either we're engaged in zero-sum conflicts, or we're facing positive-sum problems.  So whoever feels drawn to the other answer is wrong and we need to figure out how to fix them.

Well, no.  Life is a heck of a lot more complex than that.  The world is safe in part because some people are constantly monitoring the dangers.  It can be just as bad to approach a zero-sum conflict with collaboration as to approach a positive-sum one with aggression.  And we're bound to experience both in a lifetime.  Yet how can we react appropriately given that we are in some way predisposed to one or the other?

Naturally my Box Two answer is to be less black-and-white about it.  I think it's good not to get too comfortable in your box and to consider the possible merits of some qualities of the other box, at least some of the time.  Even if you're very solidly in one box, you might find that people who like the other box are actually doing a lot of good in fields other than yours.  You might be the toughest, most aggressive cop in the precinct, and still respect that your soft-hearted, agreeable wife is doing important work when she encourages the kids to share their toys.  I think it would be great if every person looked for a positive-sum solution to problems first rather than jumping straight to conflict, but even after you've done so, it's possible there's no positive-sum solution to be found and you're going to have to fight.  You shouldn't be so attached to your own most comfortable set of tactics that you're unwilling to try others.

And most importantly, I think we should all attempt to be guided by the facts.  If you value nonviolence, as I do, you'll certainly feel more drawn to nonviolent solutions .... but you should also, as rigorously as possible, attempt to predict whether nonviolence will work in a given situation.  I think equality is important, but that's not a sufficient reason to jump into socialism -- I should first consider whether socialism actually produces equality, and whether it sacrifices other values to do so.  In short, though our values determine what our goals are, we have to use fact and reason to help us reach those goals.

Further reading:

Moral foundations of liberals and conservatives
A long scholarly article I just discovered but haven't finished reading. So far it seems to confirm what I've said.

Conservatives vs. liberals - Ethics Defined
A short post which seems to summarize the previous link.

Link-up of studies on liberal and conservative brains
The scientist in me is geeking out right now.

Monday, April 4, 2016

The passage of time

The passage of time often makes me sad.  I've been aware of it as long as I can remember, but since I've had kids, it's become bittersweet.  I've never been more conscious of how fast it's flying by, and how impossible it is that a single second of it can ever come back.

One of the things that makes me feel better is taking pictures.  Taking pictures can be like freezing those perfect moments in time, so that you never forget them even though you can't relive them. That's why so many of my favorite photos are of clocks, unfolding flags, flowers at peak bloom -- moments that don't last.  But photography also can make the passage of time more apparent -- by allowing us to focus on one thing as the moments pass by.  

I'm not an expert at time-lapse photography and I don't have a tripod, so I can't do this perfectly, but I've been trying lately all the same.  Enjoy these photos of changing things!

First, the moon.  I wanted to take more different phases, but we've had too many cloudy nights!  I got some good ones, at least.







The other series is of my plum tree blooming.  Every year it seems to happen so suddenly -- just overnight, we have blossoms!  But in reality, it's a slow process that's subtle at first, so you don't see it coming.












Happy Spring!
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