Monday, January 21. 2008
As wealthy Americans, we have a tendency to cite our wealth as a validation of our values. As Justin writes:
This is a variant of the old saw: "If you're so smart, how come you're not rich?" I suppose it has a certain amount of validity, to the extent that we look to values as useful ordering principles that sustain a successful society.
The problem with that argument is that correlation is not the same as causation. Yes, there are all kinds of liberal values that correlate with wealth. But it's hard to say whether those values are the cause of the wealth, or the result of the wealth. Perhaps those are the values that, as they say, "made this nation great." Then again, maybe those values exist in wealthy nations because only wealthy nations can afford to have them.
Augie Turak often tells a story of an experiential management exercise conducted at the IBM Executive School. A bunch of managers were given a hypothetical business situation, including financial statements detailing the cash flow and balance sheets of a company. They were then given an ethical question: someone in the company has made a series of bad mistakes, and the company is considering whether to fire that person or not. The managers were asked to discuss the matter and determine the best course of action. What the managers were not told is that they did not all have the same financial statements. Some of them had financials that look robust and healthy, while others have statements that were bleeding red ink.Â TheÂ managers engaged in a spirited debate about morality. Some argued about the company's obligation to support the employee, while others argued about the employee's obligation to serve the company. Both sides were full of moral indignation, pounding the table and talking about "what's right." As the discussion grew more heated, someone eventually said, "Look, we can't possibly support this guy, the company's losing money hand over fist." His opponents in the argument, baffled, said, "What do you mean? We're doing great." Then both sides would compare their financials, and realize (usually to their shame) that the arguments they thought were coming solely from moral principle were actually a function of the bottom line.
We are rightly proud as westerners to cite our evolutions in values as progress. We can be proud that we are concerned about equality, about the environment, and about the poor. But I strongly suspect that a lot of those moral sentiments would lose their urgency if our wealth went away. If you're struggling to feed your family, you don't spend much time worrying about the spotted owls.
Values concerning freedom are especially slippery. Some freedoms are definitely the cause of prosperity: the free market, the right to own property, the right to conduct business without undo interference from the government, the right to trade freely with other nations, the freedom to choose your government leaders. Other freedoms like, say, the freedom to cheat on your wife, are not wealth-producing values; they cost the individual and the society dearly, and only exist because the society can (currently) afford to have them.
Getting back to Justin's original premise: actually, I don't see a strong correlation between liberal attitudes towards sexuality and wealth. Singapore has excruciatingly tight regulations concerning sexual conduct, and yet is quite wealthy, largely dueÂ to its often-touted economic freedom.Â Many African nations have very permissive attitudes towards sex and suffer abject poverty (and, not coincidentally, a 20%+ AIDS infection rate).
Sunday, January 20. 2008
Once again, I'm writing a review of a movie looooong after anyone else in the universe would think to write about. This happens so often in my Netflix-powered entertainment that I decided to register the domain "thelatehit.com", to better chronicle my largely irrelevant reviews. Look for cross-posts soon.
When I was in college, I emerged from the back room of someone's apartment where we were having an SKS officers meeting, and found a roommate watching a video of Steven Sondheim's musical, Into the Woods. I saw just one scene: the Wolf, watching Little Red Riding Hood skipping along as he sang, "Helloooooo little girl . . . " For some reason, that made an impression on me, and I made a mental note to watch it some time. Ten years to finally got around to it, and I'm wondering what took me so long.
I have decided that the stage musical is the most challenging literary form of all, the Everest upon which only the greatest of writers my tread and live to tell the tale. The interweaving of dramatic story, poetic lyric, and musical melody is creative triathelon, unthinkable to mere mortals. Joss Whedon ascended to the literary heavens when he debuted "Once More with Feeling," an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that was a complete musical, with catchy tunes and compelling lyrics, and not only didn't interrupt the story arc of the season but actually culminated it. But as dazzled as I was by Whedon, I had to go back to the pioneer of the modern musical to see true mastery. If Whedon is a writer's hero, then Sondheim is a god.
I would have proud enough just to create the plot of Into The Woods, which mashes up five or more Grimm's fairy tales into a single seemingly coherent story, without deviating much from the original text. Fairy tales, as it turns out, are really good raw material for the stage. As Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Marsha Norman pointed out, the most important part of a play is "to know what's at stake in the first five minutes. The main character must want something . . . and by the end of the play, they get it, or they don't." Fairy tale characters have that kind of concise motivation: go to the ball, break the spell, marry the prince(ess), etc. And when you have several of them all colliding with each other in their separate quests, the dramatic possibilities are endless. By the end of the first hour and a half act, all the stories have tangled and untangled themselves as neatly as a Shakespearean comedy, and you're actually surprised to hear that the show's only half-way through.
I once heard Kurt Vonnegut give a lecture at NC State University, in which he described his masters thesis in comparative literature. He thought he could characterize a culture's stories by graphing out their plots, looking for highs and lows. His conclusion: fairy tales like "Cinderella" are full of big swings from low to high to low and back to high, while great literature like Hamlet is in a perpetual state of ambiguity and vague dread. "That," he assured us, "is because stories are not the same as life. Fairy tales are nothing but story . . . but the virtue of great literature is that it is true, that is, like real life."
I almost thought Sondheim was cribbing off of Vonnegut's thesis notes for this show. The first act of the show gives you the fairy tale, complete with dramatic lows and joyful highs and satisfactory scripted happy endings. In the second half, SondheimÂ starts to pull the fairy tale apart. He shows life after the "happy endings," when the characters start to realizing that marrying the prince or breaking the spell isn't all it's cracked up to be. Suddenly moral consequences for their actions start to haunt them. Bad things happen, sometimes the result of someone's karma, sometimes for no good reason at all. Such things happen in plays all the time, but the previous act had set up the audience for (literally) Cinderalla stories, so the harshness of life has all the more impact. As death, destruction, or betrayalÂ levels their dreams, the characters muse on much deeper themes and undergo more profound transformations.
Aside from all the cleverness of plotting and depth of the themes, the word-play in the songs is incredible fun.Â It's the stuff of poetry, to pack so much meaning in simple phrases. As Cinderella muses, as she flees from the prince at the midnight hour:
Or as the Witch says to those who won't surrender a boy to appease an angry giant:
Philosophy, drama, wit, song . . . now that's what I'm talkin' about.
Saturday, January 19. 2008
I've had some extensive sidebar discussions over my last post on sexual conduct. Read the comments, and then my responses, here.
Let me start by saying: I love these kinds of discussions. I've written and re-written numerous responses, only to discard them after thinking more, or doing more research.
Saturday, January 12. 2008
Ok, fine . . . let's talk about sex.
I started with the general statement that rapid changes in technology have led to major shifts in moral values in the culture, and not necessarily for the better. I think sex has been affected in this way more than any other aspect of human life.
For most of human history, sex has been regulated by the culture, for some fairly obvious pragmatic reasons. Sex led, nearly inevitably, to babies. Women wanted men to contribute resources to the raising of those babies, but the men wouldn't be willing to commit such resources unless they were sure it was their baby. Marriage evolved as a social contract to manage this resources-for-sexual-exclusivity deal. Pre-marital and extra-marital sex was forbidden, because it undermined the basis of that contract: men wanted to continue to be sure the child was theirs and no one else's, and women wanted to be sure the men didn't lavish any resources on children other than their own. (Of course, marriage can and should be more than just a procreative arrangement . . . but that's the reason the whole convention evolved as it did.) I don't think most people consciously think of marriage in this way anymore, but that is still the basis on which our traditional sexual mores are established.
Advances in technology changed all the rules in regards to sex. Cheap and effective contraception and abortion technologies liberated women from being absolutely ruled by their biological destinies. No longer assumed to be baby factories, women were free to get educated, fill other social roles and generally do whatever the men did. Antibiotics and condoms alleviated much of the risk of disease from sexual promiscuity. Genetic testing for paternity took all the guesswork out of knowing who a man's children were. All the previous rationales for limiting sex appeared to be gone . . . so why not screw around?
And screw around we did. Not only did new technology remove the risks, it enabled greater opportunity for sexual excess. Cell phones and internet hookup sites make affairs remarkably easy to engineer. Viagra has extended our capacity for flings beyond even the limits of biological desire. Internet-based pornography has lead to unprecedented facilities for self-gratification. (For an interesting discussion of just how great an effect internet porn is having, see JasonÂ Byassee's essayÂ "Not Your Father's Pornography.")
So . . . given all of these technological breakthroughs, are traditional moral codes of sexual behavior still valid? I think they are, for a variety of reasons:
For these and many other reasons, I think the traditional moral codes about sexuality are still strongly recommended. Don't be sexually active until you're an adult. Limit your sexuality to within marriage (or whatever word forÂ permanent monogomous relationship you prefer.) Be faithful to your partner. (And, to satisfy any who might assume sexual mores are inherently freighted with double-standards -- I think these rules apply 100% equally to men and women.) Seems like common sense to me . . . and yet I am in the minority these days.
Thursday, January 10. 2008
Some excellent points were raised by several people, both online and off, about my recent comments on technology's impact on our societal ability to trust and be trustworthy. So, some clarification:
And since the comments were dominated by the topic, tomorrow I'll talk about sex.
Wednesday, January 9. 2008
I stumbled upon the Overcoming Bias blog, a production of the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford. It's a very smart but broadly accessible blog about scholarly studies of cognitive bias -- that is, scientific studies about how people's thinking goes wrong. There's wonderful fodder in here for the Self Knowledge Symposium or anyone who is interested in, as Richard Rose would say, "being less stupid."
I was immediately drawn to an essay on The Planning Fallacy, which asks, "Why are people so consistently bad at estimating time and budget requirements for projects?" This has been the plague of my personal and professional life: repeatedly, consistently underestimating how long certain projects will take, resulting in overcommittment, stress, broken promises, and loss of credibility. It's my personal koan.
The answer was one that Malcolm Gladwell would appreciate: optimism results from too much detailed information about a particular project. The more factors we try to foresee in our plans, the less we allow for the unforeseen factors that inevitably throw us off track. The cure to project-planning optimism is to look at roughly similar projects, and consider exactly how much time they actually took in the past. "You'll get back an answer that sounds hideously long, and clearly reflects no understanding of the special reasons why this particular task will take less time," says author Eliezer Yudkowsky.Â "This answer is true.Â Deal with it."
The biggest problem with cognitive bias, and the reason we get into trouble, is that we think that learning and experience will somehow compensate for it. That is, we think that after we've been burned a few times, we'll know better. But cognitive bias is an illusion that is hard-wired into our brains; no matter how many times our estimates are wrong, we will always find this estimate on this project to be clearly, obviously realistic and correct. We are so used to evaluating conclusions based on whether they seem right to us, when in fact we may have to accept that what is true will never seem right to us, because of the biases built into our brains. So much of self-knowledge is knowing when to distrust ourselves.
Tuesday, January 8. 2008
Kenny raised a good question about my assertion yesterday that the proliferation of lawyers was due to a general lack of trust in our culture:
What caused our culture to degrade? Well, even that's a loaded question, because it contains the implicit assumption that our culture is getting worse rather than getting better. Many people point to greater gender and racial equality in the last fifty years and think, on the whole, that we're getting better. (And some people will argue whether even that has happened. But hey: a woman and a black are frontrunners in the presidential election. Something has definitely changed.)
But looking at the loss of trust, as evidenced by the proliferation of lawsuits and divorces, let's just say something degraded. What happened? I think the answer may surprise you, coming from a geek: technology happened. Specifically, information technology happened: telephones, television, computers, and the Internet. That, and automobiles.
The beginning of the end of trust came with mobility.Â For the vast majority of human history,Â everyone lived in pretty much the same place, and with the same people, forÂ their entire lives. Everyone in the village or town knew everyone else, and were highly dependent on each other. In such a context, trustworthiness was exceedingly important; if you screwed over your neighbor, that neighbor and everyone else would soon know about it, and that would have both an immediate and a long-lasting implication for your quality of life. If village excluded you because they didn't trust you, you would not only have a miserable time, but your very survival might be threatened. Everyone had strong incentives to both trust and be trusted; you couldn't just write off the blacksmith who cheated you, and go down the road to some other blacksmith -- there might only be one blacksmith for miles around. SoÂ the community would bring strong pressure to bear on people to conform to basic standards of trustworthiness.
AsÂ humans' potential for mobility increased, soÂ did their dependence on others decrease. If you ruined your reputation in one town, you could always move on to the next one and start over. For the last several hundred years mobility was possible but extremely difficult -- if you wanted to move on to another place, you pretty much had to be a literal pioneer and go into the wilderness. Even as late the 1800's, you effective sphere of socialÂ and economic life was tightly circumscribed. The automobile changed that range extremely quickly; suddenly vast mobility became commonplace. Moving from town to town became the norm, and one's effective range for daily interactions was magnified by several orders of magnitude. In a world with automobiles every individual has vastly more potential economic and social partners, and so one's dependence on any particular relationship diminishes significantly. People become strangers to their own neighbors.
The limits of the geography, already pushed far back by the automobile, were utterly banished by electronic communication media: telephone, television, and the internet. It was within my lifetime that these technologies went from merely existing to being utterly ubiquitous. The most profound effects of the communication media were:
For a while I think the culture was able to coast on some of its momentum from previous generations. Very rapidly, though, the culture is losing its collective moral memory. People no longer have a clear conception of why we ever had restrictions on sexual behavior, or why cheating or breaking the law is bad.
The sum result: we don't treat our relationships with the same care as before, because in a modern world we don't need them as much. Or, at least, we don't think that we do. Our technologies have created vast wealth and opportunity, so much so that we are threatened with being smothered by it, lost in decadence.
Monday, January 7. 2008
I finished my whole audio series on contract law and moved on to another course on torts. I agree with Kenny that is a sad thing that an average citizen has to familiarize themselves with all the ways they can be sued. I believe in tort reform . . . not because lawsuits and lawyers are bad per se, but because our culture appears to have lost all other means of peacefully resolving disputes. People sue first and ask questions later.
For instance, recently we got a visit from the county's Animal Country officer. We were told that someone had made a complaint about our dogs barking early in the morning. We called all our neighbors, and said, in effect, "Hey, we want to be sure our dogs aren't causing a problem, are they causing you a problem? What can we do?" All our neighbors except one told us, immediately and categorically, "No, you're dogs aren't a problem, and I didn't call Animal Control." Only one neighbor never returned our phone call. Eventually we got another visit from Animal Control, again a complaint about the dogs barking. This timeÂ we found out that we could get the name of complaintant if we went to Hillsborough and enquired in person at their office. One of our immediate neighbors (who also gotten visits from Animal Control) made the trip and got the name. Yup, you guessed it: the neighbor who never calledÂ returned our calls, who wouldn't talk to us directly.
This baffles me. We've been friendly to this neighbor; we bring them cookies and bread, talked to them over the fence, say hi to them on the road.Â When they asked us not to cut across a stretch of grass when they reseeded, we did it. Is it really so hard to call someone and say, "Hey, sorry to have to bring this up, but your dogs are waking me up in the morning, could you do something about it?" But for some reason, these people decided to skip all conversation and go straight to legal actions. Why?
One theory: they just didn't have the guts to face interpersonal conflict themselves, so they farm it out to someone else. Another, more likely one: they have no faith that conversation will result in change. Our current litigious culture is fundamentally rooted in an assumptive distrust of other people. We just don't trust people to operate in good faith any more. Everybody is afraid to make promises or extend goodwill, for fear they will get screwed by the other guy. Once everyone operates with distrust as their starting point, there can be no peace.
The solution lies within us. As Augie Turak is fond of saying: "Someone's gotta go first. You have to take the chance to trust before trust can be returned." Or, as Lao Tsu put it: "He who does not trust enough will not be trusted." So we bring the dogs in the moment they start barking before 8 am. I'll probably put up a visual barrier along the fenceline so the dogs don't bark at the neighbor's cat. We will do everything we can to be trustworthy. This is the sort of "love thy neighbor" stuff that challenges us every day. Someday, it may result in a more peaceful world . . . if we don't get crucified first.
Sunday, January 6. 2008
Blogging is often a reactive form, the venue of the commentary. I've usually found that I only run out of things to say if I'm not reading enough. Let's give Plato credit:Â a dynamic intellectual and spiritual life ireally is a dialectic, and on-going conversation. You don't really know what you think until you hear or read what someelse thinks, and then realize: "he's right," or, more commonly, "That's not right at all." And then you have to deconstruct where your opinions are coming from. It's the same with the law lectures I've been listening to -- law doesn't really get interesting until you see the law react to specific cases.
So, just for the record, here's what I've been reading/listening toÂ lately:
Saturday, January 5. 2008
I just listened to a university lecture series on contract law, and I had a blast. For some reason I find the law fascinating. I'm one of those geeks who actually reads contracts and wills and legal documents . . . Â which is pretty weird when you consider that legalese almost defines boring reading material.
For me, law is a meeting of heaven and earth. It's where all our lofty notions of Truth, Justice, and Fairness come down to meet the practical world. Law is philosophy with its work-clothes on. The process of law -- applying universal principles to specific real-life cases -- is how I think people really ought to think about their lives.
So why are lawyers so universally reviled? While Law is concerned with what is right and fair, Lawyering is another art altogether -- the art of subverting the law, of making the law bend to one's personal benefit. While all that high-falutin' principle is well and good, lawyering is inherently adversarial and ugly. When a lawyer calls you, it's hardly ever good news.
I can also see how a study of the law would inevitably creep into the way you see the world. After listening about contracts for six hours, I start to see them everywhere. Our society is a network of promise and fulfillment, people making agreements and giving up one thing for another. It might make it hard to deal with someone if their brain was constantly spinning out scenarios for how obligations could be breached or enforced . . . since law is hardly ever invoked until something goes wrong. Maybe that's why people don't like lawyers: their very presence acknowledges that the world is out of joint.
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