Thursday, 09 May 2013
At the Socrates Cafe, the questions were asked: How do you view History? What do you think is the most important historical impact of our time?
My focus will be on the second question, though to understand my answer it might help to have recourse to some brief thoughts on the first question. I view history in a very holistic fashion, as a vast set of networks of varying sizes and shapes interacting with each other in varying ways according to their properties rather than as a linear temporal progression marked by changes in the state of the universe. I take an oddly non-temporal view of history, which is not to say that I think it is not useful to view it from a temporal perspective. It is often quite useful, and one of ways of viewing history which I find most useful and will provide the answer to the second question happens to be one which is framed by a temporal perspective.
I tend to think that the most important historical impact of our time is also the most important historical impact of any other time in the history of our species: the causes and effects of human nature. It is vital to consider how various forces have shaped human nature throughout our existence and how our nature has in turn shaped our behavior in the world. One of the forces which continues to have a most profound impact on our nature is the cumulative effect of interacting networks experienced by our species as survival pressure.
While human nature has not changed to any significant degree in the past few hundred years, the average level of survival pressure we experience has changed dramatically. It's difficult to explain precisely how profoundly survival pressure has shaped our behaviors, particularly to people who live comfortably in industrialized nations with decent medical care for large portions of the populace and ample food supplies and numerous conveniences. These folks have little experience with the kinds of survival pressure faced by their ancestors even a few hundred years ago, let alone thousands of years ago or more. People who live under harsh survival pressure are much more likely to understand it if we are able to give them respite from it for long enough that they can reflect and take stock of their lives.
Our failure to understand survival pressure and its impact on us has the effect of making it easier for us to judge other human beings much more stringently than is fair, especially given our own weakness and moral failings when subjected to even less pressure than our ancestors faced. It's much easier to not have to kill anyone when violence is at magnificently low rates compared to other societies because you happen to live in a society with abundant resources and people don't face the decision to steal or die nearly so often and the folks being stolen from aren't going to die from starvation if their meal is taken. It's easier to spend more time working on being compassionate and loving while avoiding violence when you are not staying awake all night to defend your family or your animals from wolves or bandits.
If we can manage to understand how harsh survival pressures shape our behavior, it's likely that it will help us to understand human nature much more fully. We can gain a better understanding of our violent urges which lead to war, our mating instincts which create problems when left unchecked, our tastes for food and drink that cause obesity, our need for stability and structure to keep us from going insane, and our general willingness to so easily buy into the messages sent to us through mass marketing. Understanding our own behaviors in light of our nature can help us to change those behaviors more effectively where they can be changed and to perhaps redirect them where they cannot. Ancient ascetic traditions have already learned how to do this, and we desperately need to re-learn it if we are to survive as a species through the economic and ecological difficulties facing us in the near future.
Sunday, 05 May 2013
Quite a while ago, @Lovegrove asked a question of me during a discussion on one of his entries. The question was essentially whether or not I thought the definition or nature of good (in the sense of moral good or virtue) was a philosophical question. I decided to give it a full response, but I've taken my sweet time getting around to it. It turns out that an absolutely insane life leaves little time for fun things like this. My apologies for the long delay. My answer in brief is that it is a philosophical question and also that it is not.
The question, "What is good?" has certainly been explored by many philosophers. There are many philosophical treatments of morality and ethics, and well as some of meta-morality and meta-ethics. In the sense that philosophers have addressed the question many times and in many ways, it is indeed a question we have sought to answer by philosophical means and thus could perhaps be described as a philosophical question.
In practice, it is a question we answer prior to doing any philosophical investigation. We already have values either inherited from a cultural/familial tradition or developed in reaction to the inherited values, and these values are what we use to determine what sorts of intentions and actions and consequences are good. Our values are how we provide a solution to that most basic philosophical issue of the Problem of the Criterion. We need some way of deciding whether a particular moral proposition has merit long before we get to the point of exploring moral philosophy as an adult. Evidence from developmental psychology shows that moral development generally takes place long before we start reading Aristotle or Kant or Mill.
Once we begin exploring moral philosophy, it does often happen that our definition of the good changes in some way beyond our previous moral development, but by this time our worldview already has some basic elements which we are unlikely to relinquish, and it's very doubtful that we are genuinely open to true investigation. My observation has been that most of the moral philosophy we manage to accomplish has the effects of helping us check our moral beliefs for consistency and helping us build more elegant rationalizations for our existing beliefs about morality. We may have to add or remove important elements from our belief system to reach that consistency and elegance of rationalization, of course, which might give us the impression that we have completely overturned our previous views, but it is truly rare for a person to completely overturn their core values even if they alter their ontological, metaphysical, and epistemological views dramatically.
Let's consider another way of looking at the issue. If the question, "What is good?" is a meaningful one in the sense that it refers to a standard which exists independently of our whimsical opinions rather than being a mere elegant rationalization of our existing values, then it was never a philosophical question from the start. It would then be an empirical question which we would need to answer by finding evidence of the objective standard. And if we did find such a standard, it is very likely that we would evaluate the standard using our existing values and accept or reject it on the basis of our evaluation rather than adhering to the standard which we had discovered simply because it was an objective standard. We would probably need an extraordinary motive to do something other than cleave to our existing values.
In the end, the good is a question which has indeed been addressed philosophically, but on a functional level precedes our philosophical maundering and often overrides it in our daily lives.
Friday, 22 March 2013
This is not an ode to me. Quite the opposite, actually. These are just observations from my life.
While I am aware that human social hierarchies are often too complex to really describe accurately in terms of a dichotomy, the Alpha v. Beta dichotomy is a useful way of looking at human mating behaviors for two very simple reasons. First, a lot of people are familiar with it. Second, a lot of people believe it and base their behaviors on it, reinforcing what reflection it has in our social reality.
Alpha males are typically viewed in terms of their traits of aggression, dominance, athleticism, risk acceptance, high resource acquisition, etc. Beta males are typically viewed in terms of their traits of submission, deference, sedentism, risk aversion, mediocre or low resource acquisition, etc. Most men have both traits which could properly be considered Alpha traits and those which could be properly considered Beta traits. It is likely that they have a good bit more of one set of traits than the other, primarily because the traits of each are so disparate. This is why other people can often understandably and even usefully regard a male as an Alpha or a Beta. It might lead them to misunderstand his behavior occasionally, but not so often that it is a massive detriment.
I present what is perhaps an uncommon problem for women who try to understand me in terms of an Alpha/Beta dichotomy. I am prone to display an unusually high amount of both alpha and beta qualities. My resource acquisition has varied quite a bit, but my work history shows stability in that I tend to stay employed with the same company for long periods of time. I am strongly averse to risks which are viewed by my peers as entirely acceptable (i.e. excessive consumption of alcohol or illegal drugs) and strongly accepting of risks of bodily injury (i.e. my martial arts training or my labor such as roofing) which my peers are less likely to accept. I keep myself in good shape and I also prefer a night at home with a good book to a crazy party. What really makes it difficult to decide whether or not I am an Alpha or a Beta male is how I present myself in the social hierarchy. I generally respect the chain of command in terms of procedural matters, but I have been known to pick up that chain and beat someone with it quite aggressively when I think it's called for and I take leadership roles at work where at all possible. I genuinely regard everyone as my equal and do not try to dominate anyone simply to prove my dominance, but I am very willing to aggressively argue the point when something needs to be done. I switch effortlessly between the deference of a Beta and the dominance of an Alpha based on my level of expertise in any particular matter or task. If I don't have the expertise, I defer to those who do. If I do have the expertise, I am very willing to grab the reins. Because most people unconsciously behave based on a pack mentality and do not intuitively see how I am making my decisions, the shifts can be quite jarring.
The result is that I attract women and then drive them away, quite unintentionally in most cases. Some are attracted to my alpha male qualities and find my beta male qualities annoying. Others are attracted to my beta male qualities and find my alpha male qualities annoying. A rare few find my unusually heady mix of the two incredibly intoxicating and throw themselves at me.
I'm an Alpha and a Beta, which really means that I'm a complicated man, and no one understands me...not even and perhaps especially a woman who has learned to see men in terms of the alphabet.
Saturday, 19 January 2013
History is a facet of reality for which I feel particular sympathy. The sheer amount of use, abuse, and misrepresentation undergone by human history is staggering. It seems as though anyone with any ideology seeks to impose their value judgments on history before examining it, thereby distorting our view of it.
One of the common lenses through which we view history is that of gender. For a person who favors traditional patriarchal societies, history is the story of men being powerful and dominant achievers and women being submissive cultivators of family life. For them, history shows how men being in charge leads to more effective survival strategies, great achievement, and technological innovation. For those who take an even stronger view, history shows the inherent superiority of men, an attitude just as present in ancient Greece as it was in the East and West during the past couple of centuries. After all, the fact that men held the vast majority of the positions of political authority is clear evidence of male superiority, right? We can probably just ignore the rates of violence and death among human populations (much of which was probably not even economically beneficial or necessary for survival) and instead focus on resting on our laurels. We can safely say that men are the ones doing all the good work and women the ones who are the dumb sex objects we only need around for reproduction and a bit of labor here and there.
But along comes feminism, a body of theories generally opposed to patriarchy, and we get a different view of history. Rather than history being the story of male achievement in the face of overwhelming odds and many exciting difficulties being overcome, history is viewed as the story of women being oppressed by men, of men holding almost all the power and engaging in violence and intimidation to keep women from gaining access to it. For them, history is the story of how women were denied equal access to education, treated as baby factories, and regarded as second-class citizens all the while ignoring or downplaying the very real talents and value which women bring to human society. After all, the fact that men held the vast majority of the positions of political authority is clear evidence of male oppression, right? We can probably just ignore how often women made the smart choice to enjoy the relative safety of their roles in patriarchal societies so often earned by the men who were willing to suffer and die to secure the comfort of their wives and children. We can safely say that it is women who exemplify moral behavior and that it is men who exemplify immoral behavior and are really only necessary for reproduction and maybe a bit of labor here and there.
The interesting thing about the traditional patriarchal view of history and the feminist view of history is that both tell the same story of male power and influence alongside female powerlessness and lack of influence. The primary difference seems to be that the former perspective renders that history in a very positive light which sees patriarchy as morally correct and beneficial to human society, whereas the latter perspective renders that history in a very negative light and sees patriarchy as a penultimate moral ill and utterly maleficent to human society.
I find both of these views to be rather unbalanced and unfair to both women and men throughout history. Very few of the men I have ever met from any of the many cultural and religious backgrounds I had access to growing up in a very multicultural environment thought that they truly had the power in their household, even when they came from a very traditional patriarchal environment. Very few of the women I have ever talked to or observed from traditional patriarchal environments gave evidence of being powerless. In fact, they quite often seemed to have far greater influence over the running of the household and the rearing of children than the men did. Often the man would jokingly point out that it was his wife who was truly in charge and he just "brought home the bacon," and the woman would joke that it was she who was truly in charge and her husband just "brought home the bacon." None of this is to deny that women and men have suffered and died under cruel circumstances at the hands of or for the sake of the other. None of this is to deny that men and women exhibit certain behavioral differences. But what was I to make of this experience which contradicted patriarchal and feminist versions of history?
I understandably went looking for a less biased (I say less because an absence of bias is unrealistic) and more complex account of human history and behavior. In anthropology and archaeology and evolutionary psychology and sociology I found less bias and more complexity. I found a story of human history in which both men and women played key roles, a story which accounted for the differing biological realities faced by men and women and the resulting uniqueness of the survival pressures on men and women as well as their differing responses to those survival pressures under various conditions. I found a story which presented human social structures in a way that did not necessarily defame men and women inaccurately and cast them as inherently flawed in contrast to the inherent goodness of the other sex. Rather, the story made sense of why role differentiation occurred in patriarchal and matriarchal social groups. In short, these disciplines provided me with a framework for understanding human history and behavior without imposing a sexist narrative on it. It was not just the same old story.
I suppose that not everyone would want to abandon the same old story. It is after all a compelling narrative either way and can certainly help us to see our sex in a positive light so long as we are willing to cast our fellow human beings into a mold which often does not fit them and frequently judge them guilty for the bad behavior of others. I sincerely hope that as we mature as a species we can begin to abandon the same old story in light of its harmfulness and inaccuracy. I sincerely hope that we can view each other more charitably and engage in less scapegoating. Unfortunately, the story of human history suggests that we will not give up our boys versus girls blame game any time soon. I suggest that we could at least give it a try and hope that future generations will be less likely to buy into the same old story and more likely to treat each other with mutual love and respect for men, women, and folks who don't fit neatly into either category.
Saturday, 12 January 2013
I've been enjoying some of the really interesting expositions of cognitive errors which @pnrj has been writing, and along with a discussion of a common cognitive error in business provided in my textbook for a project management class I took in the fall, I've been inspired to write about how we often make mistakes when it comes to assigning blame or diagnosing a problem.
One of the common errors that folks make in business has at its root a desire to blame something other than our own behavior for a failure to succeed in achieving a particular business objective. I've seen it a lot, mostly in the form of blaming either the ill will of one of their employees or one of their managers for something on which that employee or their manager didn't have any direct influence and where that individual had by far the most influence on the outcome. I routinely saw employees blame their managers (almost none of whom were given the effective training needed to do their jobs) for their personal failures to even try to make sales to people who had the money and seemed interested. I routinely saw managers blame a lack of good sales numbers on their employees (who were hired without the requisite skill set or ability to do the job to the level required of them because the company had decided to save money by paying low wages and low wages were understandably not attracting highly qualified applicants). Those managers were routinely blamed for the bad sales numbers by the executives who made the decision to pay low wages and provide their managers with employees who were unlikely to reach good sales numbers and had also made the decision to not pay for the managers to be adequately trained. In each case, the blame was cast upon some agent known to the party doing the blame-casting, and I have this tendency myself, of course. I'm much better about it than I was ten years ago because I generally seek to uncover my own faults, but it's still there.
The textbook describes this tendency as an attribution error in which we ascribe fault to a person or group of persons with proximity to us rather than correctly identifying underlying systemic problems. And we have a strong tendency to blame people or groups we already don't like when we exercise this tendency. Thus some folks like the Westboro Baptist Church blame the increasing acceptance of persons who have homosexual inclinations for wars and natural disasters and so on. This of course is an obvious and extreme example of the error, and it's often not so easy to sort out in every day life. After all, it is quite possible to reach a correct conclusion using unreliable means. Just ask anyone who deals with math students. I've seen them occasionally get the right answer despite not using the reliable method of getting it.
So for example a person could believe that their spouse cheated on them with their best friend because that friend had made a concerted effort to win the affections of their spouse and that it had nothing to do with any of their own bad behavior driving the spouse away. And they might be correct about their friend's intentions even though their belief was rooted in a desire to cast blame on someone else and avoid the possibility of their own culpability. So while we certainly should not assume that every instance of blame-casting correctly identifies where the fault lies (since in most cases it will at least be partially incorrect), neither should we assume that it never does so.
Another common attribution error that I've seen a great deal of in the modern era is a tendency which is also rooted in our desire to avoid dealing with our own culpability and cast it onto something else. But in this error we incorrectly assign blame to a system where we should correctly attribute it to a person or group of persons. I routinely saw this issue in the workplace as well. An employee would blame their mistakes on old software that they weren't comfortable with using but worked very well. A manager would blame their company's policy for their lack of compassion and tact in dealing with their employees. An executive would blame the economy for driving wages down even though the company's profits were at an all-time high mostly because they had reduced wages and laid off workers.
We don't just do this in the workplace, of course. This error also carries over strongly into our views about society and politics and religion. Thus some folks blame socialism or atheism for the atrocities in the Soviet Union or blame communism for the brutality of the government in China. Some folks blame Christian groups opposed to contraception for the spread of AIDS in Africa or blame Islam for the World Trade Center attacks. Some folks blame capitalism for creating a culture of greed, or social welfare for creating a culture of dependency. Of course, the system we choose to blame usually has a lot to do with whichever system we already have disagreements with or for which we already have antipathy, just as with the previous error. This being an error does not imply that ideas and ideologies do not influence outcomes, because they certainly do.
In most cases there are both situational factors (such as ideas and ideologies and cultural imperatives and economic systems and political systems) and personal factors (such as moral failures and careless accidents and malicious acts and impulsive hatred) that contribute to human evil. The reality we live in and the realities which we choose to actualize are generally very complex and integrated with other parts of reality. In part, our attribution errors come from our tendency to oversimplify those realities and assign a single cause to that which has many facets and factors.
These errors aren't just mistakes that we make here and there which have little impact. These errors destroy relationships, lead us to incorrectly diagnose problems, keep us from becoming better people, and frequently lead us to behave like utter douche bags in political and religious discussions on the internet as we blame all the ideas we already don't like for our social and economic problems with little grounds for doing so.
Not that any of us on Xanga would ever do such a thing. Or if we do, it's probably just the anonymity of the internet or a reaction to everyone else around us being meanie poo-poo heads and has nothing to with our personal failings.