Greed Pt. 3: When is wealth immoral?

To finish up my discussion of greed I want to talk about the moral implications.  In the first part I quantified the disparity, but is disparity the most important aspect?  I mean if I could live a life that gave me a good education, lots of opportunities, health care, feed my family…should I care whether or not some billionaire exists on there?  If perhaps the lowest economic status was as I described, maybe not, but it’s hard to imagine this to ever be the case.  Wealth is only acquired because of other people.  And the value of what is made, what is labored for is decided by people.  It’s a zero sum game, and while it’s possible to spread the wealth more equitably, it’s also possible to siphon the wealth away from the bottom and funnel it towards the top.  Please don’t lose track of the fact upwards of $21 trillion sits in off-shore tax havens.  If we have wealth beyond our basic needs, what is such a person’s moral responsibility in a world fraught with people who are without homes, without basic access to education, health care, or even enough food on a daily basis?

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Philosopher Peter Singer argues that our moral responsibility to save lives is not relegated only to situations where we see someone suffering.  For instance if you passed by someone who was drowning you would immediately act to do something about it.  But what about the knowledge that someone is in peril on the other side of the world?  Do we not have an equal moral obligation to help our fellow human?  I psychologically understand why the two situations are different, but from a moral point of view I can find no flaw in Singer’s argument.  We do have a responsibility to help those we can help.  I am not saying that I am absolved of this responsibility due to me making less than 10 million a year or anything.  There are people like philosopher William McCaskill (by the way he’s single ladies…or maybe guys…who am I to make heteronormative assumptions) who has stated that any money he makes over £40,000 a year he will give away.  Few of us have that kind of commitment I imagine, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try.   The fact still remains that there are people in this world who make more money that they could ever use and could do far more to help people than I could ever do in my lifetime.  Would putting all the wealth towards people who need it solve all their problems?  Probably not.  But this shouldn’t be the goal.  For any action we do to help others, we are under no illusion that the problem will go away everywhere, but we help when we can.  I mean if a friend asked me to help them move, do I say “I’m sorry I can’t help you because there are a lot of people who need help moving and since I can’t help them all, helping you doesn’t really make much of a difference”.  This would be a laughable argument at best, but more likely callous.   When I see the level of wealth inequality in the world, I personally find it morally reprehensible that so much wealth exists in the hands of so few while so many suffer.

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Now we can argue that hoarding wealth is a mental illness, or that their years of economic power have eroded empathy, and that such people can essentially do nothing but continue to hoard their wealth. These are likely valid arguments, but if our goal is a more equitable do such people have a right to such excess wealth?  Please keep in mind that I am not saying that we shouldn’t have any income inequality, but rather there becomes a certain threshold of inequality where society becomes unsustainable or at the very least has more suffering than it needs to.  But then what is the solution if people with unimaginable wealth are mentally unable to part with it?  In an argument I had with a conservative about this subject he argued that the only reason so much money exists in tax shelters is because they don’t want corrupt governments to get their hands on it.  And it’s true that money corrupts government officials as much as heads of corporations.  But I think we can agree that this does not excuse those with so much wealth from just using it themselves them to do good as a matter of moral responsibility.  Especially since so much of that wealth ultimately comes from investors, consumers, laborers, etc.

What then should we do?  If the movement of large sums of cash are going to corrupt people along the way, what is the answer?  Some have suggested that instead of a minimum wage we should have a maximum wage, or raise taxes on the ultra-wealthy.  All of these are prone to the corruption argument. Universal Basic Income is another suggestion, but this is something that only helps in already wealthy nations.  The best answer I can come up with is what we shouldn’t do, and that’s nothing.  In the election last night San Francisco passed a proposition which introduces a small tax to companies making more than $50 million a year to combat homelessness.  This is expected to bring in $300 million in income to the city to deal with the homeless problem there both in terms of getting those people shelter but getting them mental and medical help.  Of course there were billionaires against the proposition, but some were for it, and that’s heartening.  The arguments against were again largely of the nature of oversight, and I get that this should be a concern.  But given the spirit of the bill, then shouldn’t you be working to make sure that process works better and smarter, rather than just saying “strike it down…it’s not perfect”.  No bill is going to be perfect when it is trying to help lots of people, but if the goal is worthy, like ending homelessness (in one of the richest cities in the U.S.) then shouldn’t those high tech billionaires be asking “How can I help?” instead?  One wonders if the expertise of themselves and their employees in technology would be useful in helping to implement a policy that would help homeless people.  It is too often the quest for the perfect solution leads to excuses for inaction.  Solving this problem is complicated, perfection is unlikely to occur, but at least some people will be helped if we try.

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Now you may argue that income inequality has gotten a bit better, and that those at the very bottom are doing better than they were 50 years ago.  And this may be true, but just because the ultra-rich are willing to keep more people at a basic level of subsistence, doesn’t necessarily lead to a better situation.  What many people face who are barely getting by is a feeling of hopelessness.  They can live paycheck to paycheck, but they have little opportunities to save, emergencies (like a blown furnace, medical emergencies or car repairs) wipe what little savings they have, and most importantly they work in jobs that have little opportunity for advancement, or chance to save to go back to school to be retrained for a better job.  Perhaps all the greedy are doing is to find a “sweet spot” where people aren’t desperate enough to revolt but still poor enough to be compliant.  In a consumer driven society, if people don’t have enough capital to buy goods well you don’t have consumers and so I am sure that the raising of the bottom of the poverty charts isn’t entirely out of the goodness of the billionaire’s heart.  Not surprisingly people don’t want to toil at a dead end job their entire lives.  People don’t just want to survive, they want to live.

I’ve tried hard to objectively look at greed as well.  Is there a time when greed is good?  Is there a benefit to it in this world?  Sometimes even bad things have good consequences even if unintended.  The only positive argument I’ve been able to find is that people with large amount of resources are able to invest heavily and develop quickly technologies which might take far longer to develop otherwise.  Technologies that might even save lives. But such things are hard to quantify and must also be measured in against the suffering that greed costs.  It also assumes that technological advancement should be a priority over other things.  I wonder sometimes that even if some discovery save lives, does that mean we are actually learning to value life?  If I’ve made the world better, but only did so for more profit, is the world actually better? Or do the intentions matter for building a better future?

Image result for greed quoteIn this conversation I have not talked about economic systems much.  I don’t consider socialism vs. capitalism a battle of moral systems.  I think if our morals were in place both systems can be very effective.  Greed is the corruptor of both.  My personal feelings are that a dose of each is the best, although I’m still working out the proportions.  Fundamentally, to my understanding of capitalism it’s focus is the acquisition of wealth.  Socialism makes more statements about how society should have a stake in the wealth it produces.  For me, I will personally lean more towards socialism because it is the only system that demands that we think about how we allocate resources in a fair manner.  I realize this is a point of contention upon many, and I am not going to make a strong evidence case for my views here in this post as the focus is on greed. Suffice to say I am acutely aware of the positive things that capitalism has done.  I’m also aware of the many negatives.  Here is just one expressed by a fellow blogger and one of the most well read people I know.

I also want to be clear that  while I have spent a lot of time chastising those who have the upper echelon of wealth, the fact remains that most of not all the people who will read this post are in the top 1% globally (including myself), and thus we could all be probably doing more than we are.  We certainly can’t use a greater degree of greed as an excuse to not try to do what we can.  I am not immune to the comforts that having a decent living wage provides.  Perhaps the best way to prevent greed from destroying our society is for all us to adopt a philosophy that prevents it from taking a deeper hold in our own lives.

End Note

Please check out more about Will MacAskill in the link I provided above.  His projects towards effective altruism are truly wonderful visions and I think it’s a project we can all get on board with.

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Greed Pt 2: Systems, Cheaters, and Dehumanizing the Poor

I’ve had numerous conversations on the issue of greed and income inequality with libertarians and conservatives about how great rich people are and they shouldn’t be punished by having money by having it redistributed.  They create jobs and they allow for people to have livelihood.  This is certainly one narrative, and having a society in which hard work is punished is not a good thing, but if we look at the narrative from the side of the person who isn’t making the big salary, but is working hard at a job with no chance for advancement and is barely making ends meet, the narrative looks different.  In this post I want to investigate the narrative that is used by those with money in order to dehumanize poor people, and make it seem as if poor people are the only ones with moral and ethical failings.

Largely I want to keep this discussion away from specific economic systems, but I think it’s important to discuss systems in general and how systems can be cheated.  As an example let’s look at lying.  When is lying effective?  Lying is most effective when most people are telling the truth.  Imagine a society where everybody lied 70-80% of the time when they spoke.  Would you trust anything anybody ever said even if it was the rare occasion that they were telling the truth?  The reason why people can get us to believe a lie is because most people are being honest, or at least believe they are being sincere in what they are telling us. (See the movie The Invention of Lying for a good laugh and a demonstration of this). Similarly one of the reasons why manipulative people can successfully do so is because they are good at reading the honest expression of emotions from other people and use that against you. In society we live with a variety of systems.  Capitalism is a system, welfare is a system, democracy is a system.   Within any system are cheaters.  Cheaters are successful in systems because most people aren’t cheaters.  That’s not to say there aren’t systems that don’t have a lot of cheaters, but those systems are tend to not be successful.

Image result for war on poorSo with this idea of systems and how cheaters cheat successfully let’s move forward to talk about the rich and the poor.  Both operate within different systems, although the groups are connected insofar as one group accumulates wealth at the expense of the other.  There is no question that there are poor people who work the system to get free money.  But we also know that to be successful the percentage of such people can’t be very high. How do we know this?  Well I think one good indicator would be how horribly drug testing welfare recipients has gone in terms catching all these supposed people using their welfare money for drugs.  Percentages are extremely low there.  Finally we have to remember some of our cognitive biases when looking at this problem.  There are many people who are working at part time or full time while on welfare.  Such people don’t catch our eyes, because they are indistinguishable from anybody else who is working and trying to get by.  Cheaters on the other hand are highly visible.  Media outlets like Fox News likes to report on those cheaters and I’m quite certain, given the number of poor people in the U.S., that they can have a new story every day of the year, each year, for the foreseeable future.  There are currently 52.2 million people using government assistance programs.  Even if the number of cheaters were 1% of that number, this is plenty of fuel for media outlets who want to demonize the poor.

Meanwhile what about cheaters at the top?  Do we not believe that those with vast sums of wealth aren’t cheating?  What’s interesting is the way such cheating is justified.   If a rich person is taking advantage of a loophole it’s okay…he or she is just doing what is humanly normal to do in an imperfect system.  We can’t blame rich people for taking advantage, but poor people apparently are the scum of the Earth for doing the same thing.  And of course the truth is that the rich don’t have to cheat the system, with their wealth they can game the system so it doesn’t look like they are cheating at all.  And if they do get caught they have the best lawyers to get them out.

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                                                   An artist depiction of Bacon’s Rebellion

The way poor people are portrayed today is a very real problem that has been going on for long time.  Consider Bacon’s Rebellion in colonial Virginia.  Poor blacks and whites united together against the rich landowners.  Although the rebellion was eventually quelled the rich became worried about races uniting against the rich and instead promoted the poor whites giving them selected benefits and privileges, and some were even given status to police black slaves.  This event in American history has been cited as one that hardened racial lines in U.S., but it’s also a good example how the rich are more concerned about keeping their wealth than even matters of race.  Using race was simply a convenient tool to make sure that their riches were protected.  This tactic of division continues today.  Virtue is so strongly tied to wealth that so many of the poorest of Americans put a billionaire in power, believing that this person’s talent for acquiring wealth would somehow spill over to them.  People have gotten wealthier under Trump but this is largely been the people who had wealth to begin with.

Image result for war on poorAs a current example of how the discussion always turns towards poor people being the problem, read this analysis of why so many people voted for Trump.  It argues that those who work hard for little money are unhappy with those who work less and make about as much due to welfare.  The analysis is done by a former U.S. Congressmen and now banker, and an Auburn university professor who is a policy advisor for the Heartland institute.  Two wealthy white older males.  Now even if their analysis is correct, which it very well could be, it represents a big problem.  Wealthy people are always pitting poor people against each other.  And poor people buy into it.  “The other poor person isn’t working as hard as me, and so they are the problem”.  But why can’t the problem be the rich person who is making people work for so little pay?  Why should I begrudge someone else is barely scraping by even if they live entirely off welfare? Not to mention that I am in no position to judge any person’s particular situation. The fact that so many poor people point across the aisle, while a handful of people continue to accumulate more wealth than they can possibly use is the real travesty here.  And this isn’t only a tactic of conservatives.  Many on the left happily treated poor people like a monolith and faulting them for the election of Trump based on solely on their racist, xenophobic and misogynistic attitudes.  And while there is no question this describes some voters (and not just poor ones) making an enemy of the poor shouldn’t be what a liberal party that claims progressive and humanist values is about.  Sometimes I feel like the attitude on the left is similar to the right “We could really make some progress in this country if it wasn’t for all those poor people”.  Was Mitt Romney’s comment about poor people voting democratic for free handouts any more offensive?  As David Brooks recently pointed out in a New York Times Op-Ed piece, rich and white lead both ends of the political spectrum.

The evidence is all around us about how the poor are regarded compared to the rich.  I mean we still have homelessness in this country.  And while oft used as a favorite excuse for not helping other people in need (we can’t help Syrian refugees because of all the homeless people…who we are incidentally not helping also), how many of us, on both sides of the political spectrum are simply numb to this reality.  I’ve had people tell me that homeless people are just faking it and trying to scam money.  This of course patently untrue, but again the only reason why some people might be successful faking homelessness is because there are so many to begin with.  Think how successful the campaign of the very wealthy must be in order to convince people to not only erode sympathy for homeless people but to actually think that it’s not even a real problem?  What about the differences in the way rich people and poor people are sentenced?  Not to mention the difference in legal advice such people can afford.  The famous example is “affluenza” teen Ethan Couch would easily end up in jail for life if he was in a lower tax bracket.  The thing is I am willing to accept the psychological impacts of growing up very rich and having your brain develop in a home in which there are literally no consequences for your actions.  When there are no mistakes that can be made which would impact Image result for psychology povertyyour standard of living in any noticeable way.  So I do think there is something real about affluenza.  What I strongly object to is that there is never the same consideration in sentencing when it comes to the real and also well documented evidence to the psychological impacts of poverty.  Growing up impoverished with little social mobility, lower quality schools, lower nutrition, your ability to plan long term, your likelihood of addiction, your reduced exposure to affluent people who can inspire you to more in your future.  It many places in the world the philosophy is “rich people are worthy of restorative justice, poor people are only worthy of punitive justice.”

Where do such ideas come from?  How do such divides enter into society?  How has the common person been baked into believing that wealth is what matters most to the point that we become willing participants in a game tilted against all but the most fortunate of people?  As I go back to think about the hunter-gatherers we were for such a long time it’s hard to imagine such vicious divides in those societies.

Further Reading

I found this site interesting.  There is very little research on how many cheaters there are of welfare, but what federal agencies are able to determine is the amount of “Improper Payment”, which includes fraud, but is only due to fraud is at 10.6%.  We can assume that the number of cheaters in the system is somewhat less.  Note that the greatest losses are associated with medicaid and negative income tax.  Not the many programs that actually help people who need the money for things like food and housing.  This loss from improper payment in those programs is at $21.2 billion, which in a country with 100 million tax payers averages to $212 a year or just under $18 a month.  And keep in mind some of the money that is labeled improper could just be due to government error.  Furthermore an improper payment is also deemed such if proper documentation is not available to support the payment.  This doesn’t mean that the person didn’t have legitimate documentation but lost it, or just didn’t know what documentation they had to send in.  In my experience many people who are poor are either poorly educated, incredibly busy, or both and rules and paperwork are complex and laborious, and honest mistakes happen all the time.  If you’ve lost a document the time you might have to take off work to replace it, is something you just can’t afford.  In the legal definition this might be fraud, but is certainly not people trying to fraud the government.

Discussion: Re-framing Rape

In observance of Sexual Assault Awareness month, I wanted to shareA friend of mine sent me a link to a very interesting talk by Susan Brison.  She is a Philosophy Professor for the Study of Ethics and Human Values at Dartmouth College.  I encourage to watch the talk for the full breadth of her argument (and also to hear her excellent singing voice) but if you are short on time I will summarize her main points.

Her principle argument is that rape, while important in a legal sense, is perhaps an unhelpful way of addressing the problem in general.  Dr. Brison suggests that rape be re-framed as gender-based violence.  She argues that outside of the prison system, rape is a crime that is almost entirely committed by men.  She makes an excellent analogy to racism at one point.  Which is a word that we talk about bigotry against people of certain races at a societal level.  She argues that we have no similar word for sexual violence perpetrated by men, even though it is just as prevalent (if not more prevalent) than racism.

In relation to this she also talks about how we define rape, which is “sex without consent” and that this is a harmful definition. While again she admits the value of consent especially from a legal point of view, she also argues that this might not be the best way of addressing rape as a gender-based societal problem.  She makes a number of compelling arguments, but there were 3 that really caught me:

1.  We don’t view consent as relevant when it comes to murder.
2. Having sex in the definition of rape individualizes the act and implies a connection.  And the act of rape isn’t just an individual harm, but instills fears among women or males that might be victims of rape.
3. In surveys of middle school and high school women, they sometimes report that they will consent to sex because they are afraid of being raped.

For me, the last point really muddied the waters of consent for me.

I can’t do her entire argument justice here, but I will transcribe a bit of what she said which I think is really important:

“If we lived in a world without pervasive sexism, where women and men were genuinely held to be of equal worth a victim would be able to perceive a gender-based crime against her as an anomaly…something truly random.  But in the actual world, in which because of pervasive sexism, victims of gender-based violence are often viewed as lacking credibility and perpetrators are rarely brought to justice, a sex crime, for a victim can be a brutal confirmation of an already unjust status quo.” 
-Susan Brison

Thoughts?

How Can Science Inform About Whether it’s Okay to Murder?

If you’re an atheist, you are no stranger to the notion that you probably don’t have morals.  Or at least good ones.  The idea shared my many theists, and why electing a Muslim as president (at least historically) has seemed more palatable than electing an atheist, is that without a belief in divine guidance there is no proper moral path for you to take.  In a related argument many theists believe that science has nothing to say about morals or ethics.  And my life of thinking science can lead me to a moral life is a waste of time.  If I’m moral it had to have come from somewhere other than science.  I’ve argued often that morality can be explained by science and it can be derived by science.  The idea is rejected so immediately by theists that I am sure they are as shocked by the suggestion as I am shocked that they don’t understand.

The real answer is in evolution, but I thought it would be fun to look at it from a research perspective and imagine we were in a situation where we really didn’t have any moral guidance and we didn’t know why something like murder was morally wrong.  Imagine a godless world.  One where we know about evolution, and we know all the things that we currently know about humans and behavior, but all of a sudden everybody is unaware about what morally right actions are.  Scientists still exists and some study human behavior and society and they are watching us.  Let’s start with the most universally agreed upon moral: murder.  Thou shalt not commit it.  Ending another person’s life. In this world without any moral touchstone you might just kill anybody.  Randomly.  Without provocation.  Because there is no God thus no divine punishment after you die, there is seemingly no earthly reason to prevent you from murdering anybody.

Our scientists are out looking at what life is like in the suburbs, and they see Jim out in his yard trimming the evergreen bushes in his front yard.  Cathy, the neighbor, walks out of her house and sees Jim there.  They’ve chatted a few times.  Jim has seemed a reasonable person, but Cathy all of a sudden says to herself, “You know what let’s just kill Jim.  There is nothing wrong with it, and there is no punishment in this life or the next one for it.”  She walks back into her house and gets her pistol she keeps in her purse and walks out shooting Jim, quite unaware, and kills him.

The scientists watch in amazement.  Suddenly Jim’s front door opens.  His two young boys are there and immediately start screaming in grief and terror at the sight of their father on the ground bleeding.  Cathy in a moment realizes what she has done.  Deprived his two boys of their father.  She is deeply affected by their grief, and begins sobbing herself.  Suddenly Jim’s wife Susan comes the door.  She sees Jim dead, and sees Cathy, her gun now dropped to the ground as Cathy’s empathy has kicked in and she’s buckled over in horror at what she’s done.  Susan’s anger though is understandable.  Her husband whom she loves his dead, her kids are traumatized, in pain and will grow up without a father.  She walks into her house and gets a big knife and walks over to Cathy and stabs her in anger.  The scientists scribble away at their notes at all this.  A week later, Cathy’s father completely distraught by Susan killing her daughter, decides to go after Susan.  One of the boys who saw what Cathy did has grown up now, and felt like Cathy deserved what she got, and that Cathy’s father had no right to kill their mother, Susan.  He now decides to go after Cathy’s father. The scientists see a cycle of vengeance possibly without end.   They note that the kids, who had been good at school, now have an education that suffers greatly.  Both of them end up having addiction problems.

As they tour other cities they see similar events unfold.  They notice a growing distrust in their fellow humans.  They notice people being more cautious, less interactive, unable to even form coalitions given that someone they thought they knew might murder them because murder is simply not something that occurs as an immoral act.

They fly to a city in another country, let’s say Paris.  In Paris they’ve newly figured out the harm of stealing people’s stuff, but they still don’t recognize the morality or immorality of murder.  Now they find murder is happening more often.  Some of those who want to steal or feel like they have to steal from others realize they are going to be punished if they are caught and decide that if they murder any witnesses they can get away with their crime.  This creates even more tension in the society and people are even more fearful.

The scientists wonder whether or not these “civilized humans” are just weird so they go observe a hunter-gatherer tribe in New Guinea.  There while one member is gathering berries with their child, they are killed by another tribesmen, Poku, who saw no harm in just murdering somebody.  The tribe feel that cannot punish Poku as they no law that murder was wrong.  Poku is one of the strongest and fiercest of the group and while he had previously been one of the stronger members of the tribe, he is no longer trusted and people in the tribe sleep further away from him.  Some of the tribe say they should keep watch and lose some sleep keeping guard.  The tribe had loved him and are in grief that he has betrayed them.  They are also in grief at the loss of the victims.  The one who was picking berries was also one of the best storytellers in the tribe and weaved baskets well.  The loss will be felt.  They note that despite Poku’s strength he is still finding it difficult to get enough food on his own.  To hunt animals is a group activity and he struggles to find enough other food all the time.  The scientists note that none of the women in the tribe wish to mate with him.  Being one of their best hunters and being of impressive stature his genes, and abilities would have been helpful to the tribe.

As a couple more years go by observation they see the breakdown of communities and people notice the change too.  Many feel the pain of seeing loved ones being killed, they remember times when they used to get along with their neighbors and that they use to work together and collaborate to do more than they could on their own.  The scientists conclude:

  • there must be laws against murder to discourage those who commit smaller crimes from committing greater ones
  • people can work together more and solve problems that impact their lives
  • PTSD and other mental illnesses are lessened when there is less murder in the society which impacts each person’s individual ability to prosper
  • murder eliminates people with important skills that might be needed.  The chance of knowledge being lost before being passed on increases when murders occur unabated
  • a free pass to murder increases the chance that genetic material might be lost before reproduction can occur.  In extreme cases, this loss of genetic diversity can be detrimental

The consciousness of the people to accept such findings would be increased as they too see what has become of their society without an initial idea that murder is good or bad.  Society embraces the laws, and their own desire to not live in a society with endless cycles of violence to increase their own chances of survival, leads to a change in culture.

Thus concludes my little thought experiment.  I would welcome those who wish to pick it apart.  Of course it all might seem quite horrific to you, and that’s good.  There is a reason why we don’t conduct experiments in this way.  The point is that A) It wouldn’t take very much observation by an objective outsider to see how harmful murder would be to a society and B) For those of us living in the experiment our emotions, our intuitions would also be able to pick up the harm quite easily.

The good news of course is that we don’t need such an experiment.  We’ve been living in the experiment for millions and millions of years.  The slow march of evolution inching us in the direction of social cooperation, the development of more and more complex emotions, and the development of empathy and love to help us bond with fellow members of our species to increase the chance of survival of ourselves and our offspring has required only a dim awareness of the direction we were headed.  Science explains this all quite well, and we could do a similar thought experiment for many other ethical and moral practices.  And if you can’t find a scientific explanation for, let’s say, why eating pork is an immoral as compared to other meats.  Then you probably have found something that probably shouldn’t be considered immoral.

Finally it’s important to note that the reason we have the morality that we do is because of the particular evolved species that we are.  Mammal – primate – human.  We might expect a very different set of moral principles were we intelligent being who evolved from spiders or frogs.  And while I’d like to believe that any species who had reached our level of intelligence and realized the effectiveness of cooperation and reducing suffering in other life would converge into a similar morality in the end, the path to get there is certainly not going to be the same for every species that could evolve our level of intelligence.

Free Will and Changing Your Mind

There was a very good question posed to Sam Harris on his podcast which was:

“If free will is an illusion, why are intentions morally relevant?”

Sam Harris’ answer was very good, but I wanted to throw in my own answer as well.  This also brought to the fore questions I have been asking for years and has led me on a path to learn about the brain and cognitive science: “How effectively can we change our own minds about things?  And what is the manner in which we can change our mind?”  Now perhaps to some, the question posed to Sam Harris doesn’t seem related, but I think there is a very important connection here.

Whether or not you agree that free will is an illusion or not, isn’t something I want to debate with right now.  I haven’t heard a compelling reason in favor of the idea of free will in some time.  I think what the more interest question is to understand why people are against the idea of free will being an illusion.  Sure you could argue that religion is part of that reason, but even secular people are uncomfortable with the idea.  The question posed to Sam Harris says it all.  If there is no free will, how is anybody responsible for their actions?

The word responsible is the word that doesn’t belong here, and this is what most people seem to miss.  This has important consequences for our justice system.  So then why do intentions matter?  The reason why intentions matter is because of what it says about your brain.  Let’s say I’m driving and I accidentally hit a cyclist, what does this say about me as a person?  I may be careless on the road.  Maybe I need to take some more driver training classes.  Maybe I need glasses.  Maybe if I’ve gotten into numerous accidents it means I probably shouldn’t drive any more.   What if I feel genuine remorse for what I’ve done?  Doesn’t that say something about how my brain works as well?  Do I belong in jail?  I don’t think so.  But if on the other hand I see that cyclist and get a sinister grin on my face and speed up and mow that cyclist down, what does this say about me?  It says that I am a person who takes joy about causing harm to others.  I might not feel remorse…maybe I do…but there would be something troubling about my mind that speaks to what future actions I am likely to take.  What if I know the cyclist and hate the person and that’s why I mow them down?  This also says something troubling about future actions I might make.  Because who might be the next person I hate, and what might I do to them?

I have talked about the idea of “personal responsibility” before and as I write this post it becomes even clearer why that phrase confuses me.  Having a party centered around personal responsibility seems to be an even bigger mistake.  We are a social species and it’s easy to say we are responsible for ourselves, but I don’t think that’s really the case.  It is the environment which shapes the individual and we have laws in large part not to control individual behaviors but to protect society.  It seems to me that it is we as a society, as other people in a person’s life that intervene to impact someone’s behavior.  And when a person does change their behavior it is a response to what society values, or through some personal experience in interacting with society or their environment that changes one’s mind.  If I am going around running people down with my car, whether accidentally, or on purpose, it is society that in some way says hey you can’t be doing that and finds an appropriate way to make me less of a danger.  If I take it upon myself to make changes, it is because of some emotional reaction to what I’ve done that is the impetus for change.  Rather than a decision to change, my body, my mind doesn’t want to feel a certain way and thus pushes me in a direction to not feel that way again.  My consciousness of that motivation is what gives me the illusion of free will.

Change in an individual seems to be a result not of an individual’s decisions, but rather the environmental context in which we live.  If society hasn’t shaped us to be more receptive to changing our mind, it is actively intervening to try and convince us to reform our views.  Sometimes successfully, sometimes not.  It seems that there is no real reason for me to want to change my mind about anything when I think about it.  I mean if what I believe has kept me alive so far, to be of an age to reproduce and raise children to a sufficient age so they can reproduce then what I believe must be pretty reasonable.  Now for a social species it could be that what I believe is very counter to surviving well with the people around me.  But as long as I generally believe what the “group” believes I’ll probably be alright.  Whether those beliefs are true or not makes no difference.  It really doesn’t even make a difference if they are harmful, providing that harm doesn’t lead to any consequences that would significantly reduce my chances to reproduce.

As we realize the global society that we live in, and that more and more of us are infringing on each other cultural and intellectual space, as we become more acutely aware of the harm of certain beliefs and values, not just in our community but over the entirety of the planet, I feel it’s important we start asking how can we all get along?  What values should this global community have?  What differences can we afford to maintain and still get diversity?  Does diversity’s value diminish over time if we hope for unity among humankind?  And given how difficult it seems to be to change one’s mind, what are some beliefs we could have that would provide a backdrop to growth for a better future where less humans suffer, and well being is increased?  It is this last question I want to explore a bit more in future posts.  I think tied to this is the area of human emotion which I have become more intrigued with of late.  I think that our emotional and reasoning side are more tied together than we think and that without emotions, at least for humans, growth isn’t possible.

Tolerance

One of the common words that we hippie-type people like to use is the word tolerance.  We need to be more tolerant.  I said it myself in my last post, but based on a discussion on that post I decided that it was worth investigating this concept of tolerance.  While I think many people derived a theme of being more tolerant towards Muslims, what I really meant to look at is what are better and worse ways of dealing with a difficult situation.  I’ve come to realize that often when I use the word tolerance, the meaning I hold to it is different than others.  And so maybe what I am suggesting is not tolerance at all, but something else.

Ahirhsa refers to non-violence

What I think we can agree on, is that tolerance is definitely not something we should always be doing.  We live in a very PC culture where we are being told constantly to be tolerant, but tolerance can lead to passiveness, and there are some things we should not tolerate or be passive about.  One could say that being intolerant has led to many important social changes.  When laws are unjust being tolerant of them isn’t getting you very far.  Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr are good examples of historical figures who were not very tolerant and accomplished great things for their people in the march towards equality and self-determination.  But then I also thought about the importance of context.  If laws are unjust, if there is oppression, then it is these practices that are intolerant.  And shouldn’t we be intolerant to practices that are intolerant.  For instance, if black people are not allowed to sit in certain restaurants this would be an example of a system which is not tolerant towards different races.  White people would not tolerate a black person sitting next to them while eating.  Did black people owe it to white people to be tolerant of their practices so as to not make them feel uncomfortable?  Of course not.  On the other side we could point to Kim Davis.  She doesn’t agree with a law that allows gay people marry.  The law is just because it gives equal rights to people of different sexual orientation, and doesn’t infringe on anybody’s ability to practice their own religion.  Thus we would ask Kim Davis to be tolerant.  Of course, whether it is people not wanting blacks in their restaurant, or gay people to marry, what we are really saying to those people is “you’re wrong, get used to it”.  We’re saying, your “intolerance, will no longer be tolerated”.  And I believe this is fair and this is right, but there is a little bit of a subtext there that says “You really should change your mind and agree with us, because other ways life is going to be pretty annoying for you”.  And again, I’m not saying this isn’t fair, but to the other person they would easily say that we are the intolerant ones of their views and why do they have to show tolerance and we don’t?  The word “tolerance”, at least to me, is sort of a confusing word when you think about it.

So going back to the issue of “banning the burka”, if I say tolerance is prudent, what does that mean?  First I think it’s important to note that tolerance of an action and condoning that action are different.  But if you are really against something, being tolerant and thus passive can be seen as equal as condoning it.  I think there is some truth to that, but it’s important to remember that not all people would fight a battle in the same way. Some methods of fighting are more effective and/or cause less overall harm. Kim Davis’ beliefs may make her decide that she should not tolerate what she’s sees as an unjust law and she is welcome to fight it.  However there are better and worse ways to do such a thing, and the choice she has made is ultimately ineffective, and denies legal rights to fellow citizens.  The burka or niqab is a troubling practice.  Women have become so oppressed in some countries that many of them are even complicit with that oppression and would feel real spiritual pain by not following what they believe to be true regarding their value compared to men.  Should we tolerate such gender equality?  The answer once again is, of course not.  However should we be tolerant towards women wearing the burka?  Then I would say yes, but I would say that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything about it.  So maybe when we ask for tolerance, what we really mean is patience and careful thought.  Let’s not have knee-jerk reactions that are governed by our fears, but let’s take actions that are based on our love and compassion.  The fight for gender equality is really one about love and compassion.  Telling women that they have equal freedom and value as men in society is just that.  Freedom of religion is also one of love and compassion because it says to people that you are allowed to keep your beliefs and that the law will not dictate what you must believe.   No one else wants their beliefs infringed on so why should we pass laws that infringe on others? Of course that doesn’t mean that you can come into a country and expect that a belief structure that by design causes harm to another group will be easily tolerated, especially when that country has fought long and hard to try and erode the traditions you still hold on to.   At the same time, you may also expect that new laws shouldn’t be passed that specifically target you for doing what you were raised culturally to accept as normal.   I think it’s also important that when we oppose certain cultural practices that we consider immoral, that we don’t reject an entire a culture.  Cultural practices are not homogeneous and thus are not all bad or all good.  At the very least some practices may cause no harm at all and thus we should be tolerant of those.

What we are really after, therefore, is a way in which we can present a group of people who have morally unsound practices with a better way of living.  In the case of the severe oppression of women in some Islamic countries, a proactive way of doing this is to empower women.  Self-determination goes a much longer way in affecting change than oppressive laws.  And while it would be nice to have men on the same side, many will resist due to the fact that they will be losing a position of privilege in their society, but ultimately just as the fight for equality here in the U.S. has required the support of men, so will it need to be the case in Islam.  One possible way in which we can appeal to the rational in both men and women would be to offer education into the development of children.  This article was shared with me by Victoria over at VictoriaNeuronotes and discusses the important of babies being able to see facial expression in their mother.  From the article:

Teacher Maryam Khan, says: “Working with young children, so much is read just from facial expressions, you don’t have to speak to a child.

“If they can’t see your face, they don’t know what you’re thinking – a glare, a smile.”

Psychologists agree. “It’s particularly true for children under five because their communication is non-verbal, they’re much better at reading it than adults,” says Dr. Lewis. “If they’re denied these signals they become quite confused.”

If, when in public, the mother’s face is always covered, this has an adverse impact on a baby’s mood and reactions to situations.  The YouTube video below demonstrates this impact clearly.  And there may be other things that we can discuss with them such as the importance of sunlight to pregnant mothers and babies for Vitamin D.  Given that a love of children is cross-cultural and people generally want the best for children, this seems like a proactive way to change minds by connecting with men and women emotionally through the love they have their children, while presenting also a rational argument for the value of not covering your face.  What’s best is that is also reveals the best about us.  We aren’t trying to persecute anyone, we are showing another culture, our value of education, our shared love of children and wanting the best for them, and that what we want is a conversation and an exchange of ideas, not forcing a behavior through a punitive law.  It also shows another culture that we have humility.  That we too had practices that were not always beneficial and through the act of investigation and learning we have grown to become more loving and compassionate.

As I ponder more about the word tolerance, the more it seems like a word that isn’t overly descriptive.  Because within the idea of tolerance is an implication that one isn’t happy or supportive of a particular behavior and that in some cases, when a particular behavior is harmful we would rather do something about that behavior.  What it does not imply is a hasty reaction.  We can be patient and thoughtful, and act in away that is inclusive and not exclusive.  We can act in a way that is proactive and not adversarial.  In the end, I believe, such tactics are more successful.

Banning religious practices – a bad idea

In the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis the anti-Muslim propaganda has been coming out strong. And my home country of Canada has been no exception. It is personally sad for me to see this, because one of the things I most value about growing up in Canada is its tolerance towards other cultures and its celebration of diversity. As a result of this tradition I think it is no surprise that Islam in Canada is more progressive than any other countries. This declaration made by the Canadian Council of Imams speaks volumes to what Islam means to Muslims living in Canada. And I am sure you can make arguments about passages in the Koran supporting violence towards non-believers, and I can answer back with as many in the Bible so let’s put that aside and simply say that in the march towards a more humane society religion must evolve even if it doesn’t dissolve.

Of course there is much that is troubling in terms of the practice of Islam worldwide. You can find countries where people are killed for simply expressing dissent against the Islamic government, committing blasphemy, committing adultery, being gay, etc. There are of course the acts of terrorism which seem at times unending and of course have impact European countries and the U.S. and a big way. And of course there is the oppression of women, which is horrible and profoundly sad that we still must contend with such disregard for the rights of 50% of the population in this day and age. Some Islamic apologists will argue that this is not the way of Islam, but that being said it is certainly part of the cultural practice in many Islamic countries and I don’t hear a lot of Muslim clerics or imams in those countries saying “Hey let the women go to school and drive, this isn’t what Islam is about!” There are perhaps a lot of reasons to be worried about extreme Islamic practices, and keep in mind that many of the things that we think are extreme such as the oppression of woman, is common place in some countries.

So the question becomes, what do we do about it? Even though most Muslims are not violent and never will be, they have some very unsettling practices that they think are justified according to their religion. Many of them are just as indoctrinated as any of the evangelical community here in the U.S. when it comes to their views on women, foreigners, homosexuals, blacks, etc. So there are some people everywhere who could use some enlightening and so how do we go about doing that? And can in happen sooner than later?

Let’s start by identifying what doesn’t work and that is the banning of religious practices. Though France has banned the burka or niqab, and Switzerland has banned minarets, these practices have not been shown to impact cultural shifts in Islam and have only served to alienate and discriminate portions of the Muslim population, not only in those countries, but have angered Muslims in other countries as well. Isolating and alienating religious communities only builds resentment and will only increase the danger from Islamic groups that the laws seek to avoid. This blog post does a very good job of laying out the argument and I don’t want to repeat too much of what is said here, but any laws restricting religious practices at best do nothing and at worst, make the conflate the problem with archaic religious practices.

If history has taught us anything it is that oppression of a religion is a bad idea if we want to actually stop it. Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world and Europe. At least some of that may be due to the attempts at suppression of religious practices. Anti-Christian laws during Roman rule shortly after the time of Jesus actually led to an even faster spread of Christianity throughout Europe and Asia. It’s human nature that once you start persecuting somebody or some people for what they believe it causes a lot of people to start to ask questions, especially those who don’t trust the government. What is so dangerous about these ideas?  Why should we fear them? In general we are compassionate people, and when we see people suffer by not having the freedom to practice their beliefs (regardless of whether such beliefs are just) we tend to side with them. The last thing we want is a lot of people being on the same side of some unjust ideas.

I know for many of my readers, you have gotten into some arguments with people who have strong beliefs. How did those discussions go? We often think the more brilliant and final are arguments are the more impactful we’ll be.  As I wrote before this tends to not work so well because of the “backfire effect” and so if it doesn’t work very well on an individual level, such things tend to not work so well at a group level either. If our western society is to have any superior morality it comes from practicing the values that we think our important. If freedom is one of them than freedom of religion must be part of what we embrace. Giving people the freedom to practice their religious beliefs is something we want, because if the state starts making laws to ban religious practices, there is nothing to stop them from banning yours if they see fit. By valuing freedom we set an example that as a society that we respect other people and want them to enjoy the same freedoms that we enjoy. And of course there are other important values we must practice to which is tolerance, equality, compassion, justice, etc, so that if religious practices don’t value you those things we can show them how well it can work. If we want such people to convinced of a better worldview and a better way to live, we need to show that our values leads to a greater empathy, less suffering, and an overall increase in happiness. No words or laws are going to convince people unless they are shown. Part of why they may believe what they believe is that they’ve been indoctrinated against other cultural practices and have never seen any other way of life work.

Racist, and not a particularly helpful solution to terrorism.

I believe if anything is going to erode fundamentalism from any religion it is by showing those people the effectiveness of the values that we hold most dear. It is about embracing those people while at the same time showing them diversity of thought and ideas. It is about offering them a high level of education for their children, to help them think critically about the ideas that have been indoctrinated into their culture. It is about being humble enough to recognize that even if there many values that we do not share, they may even have something to teach us. We say we want these people to respect the laws of our country and yet this seems like much to ask if we exclude and not include. So instead of memes that enhance Islamophobia, why not spread memes that empower those that are oppressed to take advantage of the freedoms they would have in our country? Why not merrily shout out what rights they game by coming here? Why not greet them as friends instead of treating them like the enemy?  It is likely that to truly raise the consciousness of many of those indoctrinated it will take the course of a couple generations as children are born into a freer and more equitable society.  So let’s those children also growing up seeing the compassion and tolerance their parents did not have the freedom to enjoy.

Maybe a more positive meme as a way to empower Muslim women