Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The illusion of control, and the illusion of non-control

Something I've been thinking about a lot lately is how control is an illusion.  We like to believe that we've got a handle on life, that if we work hard we'll succeed, and if we are careful nothing bad will happen.  People do a lot of dumb things to preserve that illusion, like obsessing over details or blaming other people for bad things that happen.

Of course we're not really that much in control.  Crap happens and sometimes it isn't anybody's fault.  Or it's someone's fault, but not yours, so that no matter how good or hardworking or careful you are, you wind up in trouble.  Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people.  Life isn't fair.

Simcha Fisher wrote a good article about this today.  So let's set it aside: control is an illusion.  Much of what happens in life, happens despite your plans and carefulness.

But I have been thinking as well that non-control is also an illusion, and one that's much more tempting to me.  I like to walk through life assuming things will just work out, or if they don't, I probably couldn't have made them work out anyway so it's not my fault.  I prefer to believe that the hour of my death is already somehow decided and doesn't rely on small decisions I make; that getting and keeping a good job is mostly a matter of luck and the economy and doesn't rely a whole lot on me being superlative.

Of course one ought to be responsible, in a general sense, but there's a certain basic level of responsibility that is all anybody could expect.  If you do your due diligence, if you watch your kids as well as most parents do and you work hard at your job and you look both ways before you cross the street .... you're responsible enough and anything bad that happens isn't your fault.

However, this too is an illusion.  Sometimes it's the germaphobe that avoids catching the plague.  Sometimes staying home instead of going out might save your life. Sometimes you forward-face your toddler at two because that is what everyone does and they break their neck in a crash.  Sure, you might not be blamed because everyone knows you did your basic diligence, but it will still be a reality that if you had been more careful, results would have been different.

And I know the illusion of non-control can be dangerous.  There was a time when I felt no sense of responsibility at all for how many kids I brought into the world because it was out of my hands.  It was wonderfully freeing, but was it responsible?  Maybe not.  Certainly there are cases where it would be terribly irresponsible to take this attitude -- if I had a serious illness and could die, if my children were all disabled and needed extra care.  I don't have a job, but if I did have one and was willing to work more-or-less hard and blame any layoffs on the economy -- well, sooner or later I might be jobless when I really needed to have a job!

However, giving up the illusion of non-control might be even more terrifying than giving up the illusion of control.  The latter means accepting that you could be perfect and crap could still happen to you.  The former means accepting that despite that, you still have to try to be perfect because if you don't, even more crap will happen to you and it will be all your fault.  Then you have to take both of these tough realities and work out a balance that you can live with, that will have you working hard at your job but still sleeping at night, looking both ways before you cross the street but not afraid to leave the house.  And you have to accept that the balance you worked out might not be the "right" balance, and in fact there's no way to know, but you still have to live with it.

Life is hard without these two comforting illusions.  But as they are illusions, and as you can't navigate the world in a moral way without reference to the truth, it's good to remember (at least once in awhile) that illusion is exactly what they are.

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.
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