Wednesday, November 14, 2018

What You Don't Know

There has been an interesting debate going on at work over the merits of the Non-Aggression and Voluntarism Principles. Our resident Anarchist has been arguing that they're enough to base a workable and complete system of morality on, because everyone of sound mind and good will basically agrees on things like "what constitutes aggression" and whatnot.

He and I have been slipping into the same debate off and on for something about a year now, mainly because he is of the understanding that people have an innate moral sense, and that when taken together, this moral sense closely approximates an objective morality, and the disagreement is simply in the details and margins. I, on the other hand, being a moral anti-realist, believe that when left to their own devices, people come up with moral standards that are all over the map, and can easily be at cross purposes with one another.

When the Anarchist asked me for an example of how two people could have diametrically opposed understandings of what is permissible under the Non-Aggression Principle, I offered the following Alice and Bob scenario:

Alice: Abortion is a form of aggression against human beings who happen to not have been born yet.

Bob: Restrictions on abortion are a form of aggression against women who do not wish to be mothers, simply because they have become pregnant.
In this case, "aggression" is basically defined as violence, when employed for a reason other than preventing the violation of another's rights, which was accepted by the assembly. When he asked how I though that this conflict would play out in practice, I laid out scenarios under which Alice and Bob would come into conflict with other people, and each other, while each sincerely believing that they were acting in accordance with the Non-Aggression Principle, which allows violence for the protection of rights, either one's own, or someone else's. So Alice could use violence to prevent abortions, which she sees as aggression against the unborn, and Bob could use violence to prevent women being forced to carry to term, which he sees as aggression against the woman, and each would be within their sincere understanding of the principle.

And this is where the discussion took an unexpected, and illuminating, turn. The Anarchist replied:
Like I said, this is a grey area. Grey areas are dangerous, I admit that. But I do not believe anyone would be killing doctors who are about to perform an abortion.
He was, of course, immediately deluged with examples of just that happening. But that's beside the point. For me, the interesting piece of this is how the abortion debate in the United States, and the violence that has gone along with it, had somehow managed to get by a resident of the United States. Had he been living in a nation where the matter had been settled, because one side or the other simply dominated the public discourse, I could have understood it. I don't follow politics in, say, Italy. There could be the same sort of long-running social conflict there that I would have no idea about.

But his general premise of "everyone effectively has the same moral understanding" suddenly made a lot more sense. If he was literally unaware of a case like the abortion debate, in which, due to a fundamental difference in when a new "person" comes into existence, the opposing sides can come to blows which each honestly believing it is defending others against unwarranted aggression, it made sense that he had difficulty understanding something that's been clear to me for years: that people can see themselves as morally upright and virtuous regardless of their individual behavior, and how that maps to others.

It is, of course, a given that people can only incorporate information that they are aware of into their worldviews. But what I guess I hadn't realized before today was how variable that information awareness can be. It would never have occurred to me that a person could be unaware of the abortion debate in the United States if they had regular contact with other Americans. There is a case to be made that it was all an act, I suppose. I choose to be more charitable than that (especially in the face of his evident horror that this was actually a thing), but I accept that people may decide that he "must" have known.

In any event, it's a testament to the power of what one doesn't know. If information shapes worldview, then worldviews depend just as much on what someone is unaware of as it does on what they are intimately familiar with. And there's no way of knowing, in advance, what that might be.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Rules of the Game

One of the more common statements one hears about President Trump is that he violates norms. This is considered praise by some and criticism by others, which may explain why its such a common refrain.

A very important lesson in President Trump's apparent War on Norms, however, is this: The Rules are not the Game.

And this is true of all of the games that come immediately to mind for me. The rules define the proper, and often the expected, way to play the game, but they are not the game itself. The score is determined by how well the players meet the game's goals, not how assiduously they observe the rules. And this is even more true in games where many of the rules are informal, and/or there isn't a referee to assess penalties.

The flap over then-candidate Trump refusing to release his tax returns is a primary example of this. While such releases had become expected, Mr. Trump had no desire to do so, and as he racked up more and more primacy wins, he felt less and less pressure to. After all, whatever votes he lost for not doing so weren't enough to derail his march to the nomination. He scored enough delegates to win, and that was all that mattered. The fact that he's flouted a norm didn't change the final score.

While there has been a lot of hand-wringing over this disregard for the rules, the understanding that the rules are not the game is perhaps overdue, even if there are better ways of demonstrating it.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Awful Things

In the wake of the recent shooting in Thousand Oaks, California, a co-worker observed that: "Mental health is an awful thing, and worse when you have a gun."

I offered instead that a culture that views violence as a viable response to problems (personal, sociopolitical or public order) is an awful thing and worse when mental health issues are added to the mix. (I've seen enough of what people can do with machetes to understand that guns are not needed.)

When violence against "the enemy" is seen as strong and heroic while refraining from violence is often seen as weakness, people are going to turn to violence and be motivated to see their targets (even their neighbors) as deserving of what happens to them. And when people are only motivated to see the perpetrators of violence as people a) whose politics they disagree with or b) can be written off as "crazy," it undermines the collective will to advance the social mores that would reduce violence, because everyone can tell themselves that since they're neither evil, stupid or crazy, they're not part of the problem.

And perhaps this is the root of the problem; it's too easy for any given individual to believe that they don't have a direct one-on-one role to play. Advocating for new legislation or regulations is easy. Opposing them is perhaps even easier. But being a part of a deliberate social change is hard, especially when the stakes are high.

Thursday, November 8, 2018


Came across a protest I wasn't expecting on my way home this evening.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Story Time

It occurs to me that I have never met a person who was mislead by a secondhand account of events or people of which they had firsthand knowledge. And so while it is easy to blame the media for misleading people as to the ideas and motivations of others, the fact of the matter is that if people did a better job of telling their own stories to others, there would be less room for misinformation to spread.

The reasons why people don't communicate with one another are many and varied. Some are understandable, and others seem less so. But the fact remains that the best way to ensure that someone has a particular piece of information is to take the responsibility of sharing it with them, and finding a way to make it worth remembering. Not to say that it isn't difficult. Sharing the one's truth of oneself with another person while not threatening that person's truth of themselves is often difficult, especially when questions of worldview are involved. Clearing up someone's misconceptions often pushes them to feel like dupes or idiots, and that ego-dystonia can quickly shut down lines of communications.

But one thing that I've learned is that other people have little reason or incentive to accurately tell my story for me, and so, if I want it done right, I have to do it myself.