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Down the Path of Humaneness

Many people view politicizing memorable and tragic experiences as somehow vulgar, but anyone that takes politics seriously shouldn’t partition society’s most significant events away from public policy. Of course, we need to guard against the mirror hazards of trivialization and demagoguery whenever highly emotional matters touch our politics.

In Friday’s Wall Street Journal, Sohrab Ahmari uses the horrific tragedy in Colorado and the anniversary of the Norwegian mass murder to illuminate how America and Norway view justice. Writing mostly for an American audience, his opinion piece seeks to generate exasperation at how lenient Norway will treat its mass murderer.

Norwegian prisons are often described as the world’s nicest. And as the London Telegraph reported in May, prison officials may even hire outside “friends” to keep Breivik company. Norwegian law holds that no prisoner—not even Breivik—should ever find himself in total isolation. That would be too cruel.

All this sounds outrageous—and it is. Norwegian society has advanced so far down the path of “humaneness” that it cannot put someone like Breivik to death, let alone jail him for life.

Interestingly, Ahmari never actually makes an argument for why Norway’s system is bad. That it “sounds outrageous” is enough. He knows Americans are rightly shocked and appalled by the latest Colorado massacre and our innate impulse for vengeance is powerful. I wonder if it’s so potent that most readers don’t notice that Ahmari frames “humaneness” as a descending route.

What is the too-lenient and soft-on-crime critique supposed to criticize anyway? If Norwegian style leniency led to more violent crime it might be clear. But the correlation is closer to antithetical.

The US homicide rate is substantially higher than Norway’s rate.

Sohrab also apparently thinks that letting certain criminals back into civilization is self-evidently wrong. It’s hard to know why since he doesn’t attempt an argument. No one needs to feel overly compassionate for criminals to believe that serving a limited sentence and then becoming productive in society is better than merely draining taxpayers’ resources to suffer. After all, Norway’s “clinical” approach leads to a recidivism rater far lower than the US justice system’s.

If Sohrab doesn’t think reducing crime should be the objective of our justice system, what’s his alternative? He sneers at the reluctance of another reporter to celebrate judicial brutality. “Like many Europeans, [a German reporter] looked down at the U.S. justice system for its supposed violence, including the persistence of the death penalty here.” The “supposed violence” he’s referring to might be the frequency of prison rape – a subject that many Americans feel is a joke rather than a grotesque outrage. Historically, rape and other forms of torture were commonly used as judicial punishments – instruments such as the judas chair and the pear of anguish were specifically crafted to cause humiliation along with agony. That we allow barbarism to continue capriciously in our prisons rather than as a direct penalty is not a point of integrity.

On Ahmari’s Facebook wall post, he agrees with his friend that America has the best justice system in the world. Severe punishment for its own sake is the goal. It doesn’t seem to matter whether James Holmes or any other menace is psychologically sound or not - brain destroying isolation is encouraged.  My last blog post argued that free will is a myth and we shouldn’t get any ultimate personal credit for our successes – the corollary is that we shouldn’t subject humans to unnecessary misery for their offenses. Even if you’re not a determinist, punishment for “just deserts” isn’t moral. There is no cosmic scale to balance – you’re just causing suffering for no benefit. As Steven Pinker in his essential book on the history of violence writes, “institutionalized violence was once seen as indispensable to the functioning of a society, yet once it was abolished, the society managed to get along perfectly well without it.” Mass murderers should be severely sentenced because they are a danger to society. Contrary to what Sohrab might think, I’m happy to call Holmes’ and Breivik’s crimes “evil,” but causing them pain for its own sake is neither just nor “good.”

(photo by Alex Masi - Rehabilitation in a super max Norwegian prison)

Categories: Morality Tags: ,

The Sunset of Morals, ctd

September 5, 2011 Leave a comment

In a new post, Joel Marks responds to the criticisms of his defense of amorality. He prefers that we replace morality-based language by communicating our preferences.

But why do I care so much that people are using a misleading language of morality? Especially since I have also argued that morality is often just window-dressing for our nonmoral desires. My answer is that invoking the god of morality, like invoking the God of religion, serves to add a hefty dose of imprimatur, authority and self-assurance to the pre-existing strength of our desires, thereby bumping up the level of damage that is likely to ensue from trying to get our way in the face of opposition. The most horrific acts of humanity have been done not in spite of morality but because of it.

It’s possible his strategic choice would lead to better ethics generally. If we had some convincing reason to believe that, I’ll be with Marks advocating universalists give up moral-Esperanto in favor of more personalized language. But as a matter of whether morality is objectively real, Marks makes his case by defining it as a “metaphysical conception as a truth or command that comes to us from “on high.”” If morality must come from “on high,” I agree with Marks. Unfortunately, he doesn’t respond to why he’s so restrictive. I guess he just prefers it.

(My first post on Marks’s argument)

Categories: Morality Tags:

The Sunset of Morals

August 23, 2011 Leave a comment

Joel Marks in an Opinionator post at the New York Times explains what convinced him that objective morals don’t exist after once believing in them:

In other words, could I believe that, say, the wrongness of a lie was any more intrinsic to an intentionally deceptive utterance than beauty was to a sunset or wonderfulness to the universe? Does it not make far more sense to suppose that all of these phenomena arise in my breast, that they are the responses of a particular sensibility to otherwise valueless events and entities?

So someone else might respond completely differently from me, such that for him or her, the lie was permissible, the sunset banal, the universe nothing but atoms and the void. Yet that prospect was so alien to my conception of morality that it was tantamount to there being no morality at all.

He calls secular ethics “the clarion call of the ‘new atheists,’” but somehow manages to completely ignore the original new atheist’s entire book on this topic. Allow me to fill in some of the missing argument.

Marks supposes that for objective morality to exist moral actions must be inherently good or bad. A sunset’s beauty or banality does not transcend the experience of the conscious observer  - the beauty or banality are the descriptions of that subjective experience. Yet descriptions can be true or false. The viewing of sunsets has objective effects on observers. If a sunset excites the pleasure centers in your brain and you sense “beauty” that is an objective truth about a subjective experience.

Similarly, Joel Marks may just “dislike” animal cruelty and “death camps,” but animal cruelty and death camps cause objective harm to animals and people. Marks is correct that tossing conscious chickens into meat grinders isn’t intrinsically immoral. All that means is the objective pain experienced by birds doesn’t transcend the experience conscious animals. But, so what? How could it? What would that even mean?

When the pleasure centers of your brain are lit by the image of sunset we call that sensation, “beauty.” If you started calling it “banal” or “ugly” you’d be talking nonsense. When particular actions increase the misery to conscious creatures we call that, “immoral” or “wrong.” It is objectively true or false if more misery resulted.  If you started calling harm to animals and people, “moral” or “good” you’d be talking nonsense. Thus, we can judge the objective morality of an action based on the amount of good or harm that results.

Categories: Morality Tags:

Scott Adams’ Narrow Pen, ctd.

July 1, 2011 4 comments

Scott Adams was generous enough to reply to my critique. He believes I misrepresented his position. That’s certainly not how I’d like to conduct an argument so I’ve decided to highlight his criticism.

I notice you have to change my opinions from what I wrote to something a little bit crazy before you can debate them.

You cleverly change my prediction about chemical castration into a “should” that wasn’t in my writing.

You turn my common sense observation that nature has a role in our actions into a crazy absolute: “if every fleeting impulse can’t be acted upon…”

And so on. I just picked two.

You should try arguing with stuff I actually said. You’ll find it more challenging.

Scott Adams

I hope to honestly engage in what he’s actually arguing. It’s is never my intention to misinform my readers.

On forced castration, Adams wrote,

That might sound to you like a horrible world. But the oxytocin would make us a society of huggers, and no one would be treated as a sex object. You’d have no rape, fewer divorces, stronger friendships, and a lot of other advantages. I think that’s where we’re headed in a few generations.

Additionally, Adams argues that men wouldn’t even “miss” their “urge for sex.” With all those advantages, Mr Adams, it seemed like you implied that it’d be good – considering you didn’t mention a single disadvantage, it appeared on balance that you favored it. I apologize for being incorrect; although, when writers don’t say exactly what they mean understanding becomes “more challenging” than it would be otherwise.

On the second point, I don’t disagree that “nature has a role in our actions.” I believe genetics play an enormous role in shaping our behavior – more so than most people willingly acknowledge. But, the point seems to be more than just “nature has a role.” If it was, I’m not sure why you bothered to write anything. Does any thinking person actually disagree with that? Once again, your writing acts “like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details” (to quote Orwell). Scott, if I’m not perfect in conveying your meaning, I’m sorry; the snowblower I needed to clear a path through your dense pack isn’t a precision instrument.

Feel free to also elaborate on the difference between our characterizations of what you wrote. I distilled one of your major points as “Adams believes that society is a “virtual prison” if every fleeting impulse can’t be acted upon.” You wrote, “society has evolved to keep males in a state of continuous unfulfilled urges, more commonly known as unhappiness.” And, “in general, society is organized as a virtual prison for men’s natural desires.” [my emphasis]

Furthermore, it seems like you’re arguing that if some of men’s natural urges can’t be acted upon (e.g. sexual, violent) without being judged as shameful or criminal that means that society is a “virtual prison” that only locks up males. Yet, society doesn’t actually punish all of men’s desires. Predominately, it only punishes acting on those desires that society perceives as harmful to others. Interestingly, “others” can be male.

A buddhist might observe that the attempt to ceaselessly satisfy desires is itself the source of unhappiness. But I’ll stick to just wondering why anyone should feel caged in unhappiness if they can’t be “tweeting, raping, cheating, and being offensive.” Moreover, men decide for themselves to act on competing internal impulses – would you also describe that inner judgement as jail? By balancing the shaming of some males’ urge to rape with depriving men so fully of their personal freedoms that they’re trapped in perpetual misery, you’ve improperly calibrated the scales.

Society isn’t like a zookeeper that put “lions with the zebras in the same habitat,” as if men “tweeting, raping, cheating, and being offensive” is just as natural and necessary as a carnivore fulling its nutritional needs to survive. Society forms rules and customs to facilitate voluntary and beneficial interactions between a cooperative and social species. Not all moral guidelines are perfect (far from it), but they’re not set up “zero-sum” against men.

Scott Adams’ Narrow Pen

June 24, 2011 12 comments

I thought I confronted the only purveyor of the view that males should be castrated because of their “natural” inclination toward violence. Well, to my surprise, Dilbert cartoonist, Scott Adams believes “that’s where we’re headed in a few generations.”

In his “men’s rights” style blog post, Adams argues “that society is organized in such a way that the natural instincts of men are shameful and criminal while the natural instincts of women are mostly legal and acceptable.” I wouldn’t normally pile on with the rest of the internet, but as the resident mass-castration opponent here I had to respond. Feel free to read Adams go at it with Salon writer Mary Elizabeth Williams and Jezebel writer Irin Carmon.

Adams begins his piece by misleading his readers through a pointless and faulty analogy.

If a lion and a zebra show up at the same watering hole, and the lion kills the zebra, whose fault is that? Maybe you say the lion is at fault for doing the killing. Maybe you say the zebra should have chosen a safer watering hole. But in the end, you probably conclude that both animals acted according to their natures, so no one is to blame. However, if this is your local zoo, you might have some questions about who put the lions with the zebras in the same habitat.

This is his analogy to how human males get blamed for “tweeting, raping, cheating, and being offensive.” Adams does write that it “seems right” that the males themselves, not the victims, are to blame. In other words, they’re unlike animals that don’t possess moral responsibility. But in the next paragraph he seems to reopen the case of blame. His analogy now appears to suggest that we need to fault humanity’s equivalent to a zookeeper.

The part that interests me is that society is organized in such a way that the natural instincts of men are shameful and criminal while the natural instincts of women are mostly legal and acceptable. In other words, men are born as round pegs in a society full of square holes. Whose fault is that? Do you blame the baby who didn’t ask to be born male? Or do you blame the society that brought him into the world, all round-pegged and turgid, and said, “Here’s your square hole”?

Adams decides he can’t blame anyone in particular for setting up society as it is, so he suggests that it’s society’s fault. I don’t see how that isn’t absolving moral responsibility from individual rapists despite his earlier claim that it “seems right” to blame men for their own actions. In his defenses he accuses his critics of poor reading comprehension, but I’d ask him to clear up his own exposition and say whether blaming rapists “seems right” or is right.

His cartoon evolutionary psychology and moral philosophy fails profoundly. Certainly males, generally speaking, instinctively desire more sexual partners than women generally do. But it doesn’t follow that males instinctively want to rape women. Adams goes on to argue that,

 All I’m saying is that society has evolved to keep males in a state of continuous unfulfilled urges, more commonly known as unhappiness.

Aside from his absurd implication that men naturally desire to rape random women, he neglects men’s own internal competing desires. Men want stable homes and families. Men have urges to protect their female kin and friends. I’m not sure what culture Adams lives in, but men can also have plenty of consensual sex with women to fulfill their more explicitly sexual desires. I thought it’d be obvious, but I guess I should mention that most men think consensual sex is more desirable.

He doesn’t seem to appreciate that many of women’s desires are unfulfilled by social norms. Generally it seems women would rather they be treated with more respect and less like desirable objects. Additionally, I’m sure women have urges to mate with certain men but they can’t because he’s taken or uninterested. As long as we’re using sketchy psychology, women generally want to marry celebrities and high-status men but “society is [also] organized as a virtual prison for [women's] natural desires.”

Adams inaccurately draws society for his audience, but even if his representation were correct, his placement of blame remains unbalanced. Society didn’t just “drift” in the direction of eroding violent and offensive urges in an amoral tide.  Society built up its moral foundations because the consequences of allowing rape and many other “criminal” activities harm society’s citizens including men. If bigger men with the urge to commit violence on whoever they desired became culturally acceptable that would be the real “zero sum game.” Men and women agreeing to consensual behavior is the definition of positive sum – Adams should refresh his understanding of game theory. The beauty of good behavior is that it appears to be generally conducive to more happiness not less.

It shouldn’t surprise you by now that Adams’ lack of imagination means he supposes that no compromise exists when men’s and women’s urges conflict. If society is restrictive of adultery, a compromise would be for consensual couples to become more permissive of open-relationships. They certainly don’t suit everyone, but in reality people have a greater range of desires and for many couples this arrangement works. For others, monogamy works. Only single life will do for the rest.

If Adams believes that society is a “virtual prison” if every fleeting impulse can’t be acted upon, he’ll continue to suffer in the solitary confinement of his own mind’s boundaries. Human consciousness competes our internal desires against one another in a constant struggle. Self-control isn’t a straight-jacket, it’s the acknowledgment of moral responsibility.

Childhood is Part of Life

Bryan Caplan and “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua debate parenting styles in The Guardian:

BC: I have three sons – eight-year-old identical twins and a baby. I’m not permissive, we do have discipline, but the point is to make sure they treat people decently. Once my kids were born, I realised that all these things that people say about parenting are wrong according to the best science. Parents seem to think their kids are like clay, that you mould them into the right shape when they’re wet. A better metaphor is that kids are like flexible plastic – they respond to pressure, but when you release the pressure they tend to pop back to their original shape. I don’t know Amy and her kids, but from my reading of the book the mother-daughter relationship seemed strained for many years, and that’s sad.

AC: I instilled a sense of respect and discipline that will last them a lifetime. I don’t think just by doing fun things and praising kids all the time that they develop that inner strength. When my kids wanted to give up on things, I wouldn’t let them, and those are lifelong lessons. The reason my daughters say they would be strict parents themselves is because that represents a mother who loved her children more than anything.

Twin studies aren’t perfect, but they provide the best scientific insight on the effects of parenting. Those studies suggest that parents have far less influence on how their kids turn out than most people think. Chua emphasizes that her style of parenting is truly caring because it sets children up for successful lives. In the book she writes, “everything I do is unequivocally 100% for my daughters.  My main evidence is that so much of what I do with Sophia and Lulu is miserable, exhausting, and not remotely fun for me.” The Tiger Mom prevented her kids from going to sleepovers, having play-dates, being in school plays, or doing anything else they wanted to do that didn’t fit Chua’s strict model.

As a child I had lots of fun playing at other kids’ houses and would never trade in my time in school plays, although neither will likely determine my level of success in life. Chua’s kids, as she freely admits, missed out a loads of fun and spent countless hours in distress (for their own good). Behavioral genetics shows that all that suffering was largely for nothing. Even absent that evidence, I still don’t understand why some parents believe that success in adulthood somehow outweighs misery in childhood. She can’t possibly believe that if she allowed her kid cut back a few hours on the piano or act in a couple plays they’d turn into homeless drug addicts. Chua ensures unhappiness for her children and, evidently, herself in the hope that they’ll be somewhat more successful as adults. Amy Chua and, more extremely, Kirk Murphy’s mother fail to recognize that misery is misery whether it happens at 7, 15, or 38.

Loving Education

June 2, 2011 2 comments

One of the problems with designing coherent education policy is the lack of clear goals. Should schools concentrate on basics? Should they focus on preparing students for college or for work? Does public education have a responsibility to shape responsible citizens? Does establishing a base of important facts take priority or is teaching pupils how to learn more crucial? Maybe schools should do everything. I tend to think that educators are already overextended to teach values such as empathy, but after watching these amazing videos I’m rethinking my general inclination to narrow education’s aims.

Empathy might be the quintessential attitude for moral behavior. I’m just as suspicious of opening the classroom door to values-education as anyone else. It’s already hard enough to keep out religion and gratuitous nationalism. Yet, for every instinct I have that families are better suited to teach moral values, schools provide a useful environment to foster empathy between people. Humans instinctively create in-and-out groups, but schools – especially American ones – allow kids a unique context to experience others different from themselves.

Studies have shown that reading fiction can expand empathy, but practicing empathy in person has no parallel. If school’s ultimate goal isn’t to improve people’s lives I don’t know what it’s for.

Categories: Educational Policy, Morality Tags:
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