Archive for December, 2010

Group status

We are all members of many groups.  How much control we or other members of the group have over our membership in these groups varies.  I list 3 types:

No control. Some groups you are a member of because of your genes:  if you’re a bald, tall, black, male, it is visibly noticeable that you are a member of each of these groups and no one has control over it.

Internal control. You can choose to be a member of some groups and other members cannot easily exclude you.  For example, if you move into a neighborhood you are part of that neighborhood, whether anyone there likes you or not. You can choose to leave, but others cannot directly kick you out.

External control. There are other types of groups where your membership is up to the other members of the group.  Here you could think of a country club or any less formal social circle.

For most of these groups there are at least some expected behaviors.  Rule violators might be punished.  However, I believe the punishment depends on which type of group and, in the cases where there is not external control, whether it was a status lowering rule violation.

Punishment for rule violators

If you are a member of an external control group, the punishment for violating norms could just be getting kicked out of the group.  For example, if you were invited to a high society party and pick your nose, you probably will not be invited back.  You have lowered your own status, but are prevented  from lowering the status of the group by being excluded.

If you are a member of a group with strictly internal control, one way to punish you is by excluding you from groups that have external control.  For example, suppose you live a neighborhood that values lawn care etiquette, and you are the lone person who cuts their lawn on a diagonal*.  Perhaps you cannot be kicked out of the neighborhood, but you can be excluded from social groups composed of members of the neighborhood.  If those social punishments do not cause conformity, additional punishments (such as threats of or actual violence) could occur.

If you a member of a group where there is no control over membership, punishments for violating rules can be quite severe. I would expect the most severe punishments to occur when a member of a group with high power and status behaves like a member of a group with lower power and status (blurring distinctions between the groups).

Example: Gender

My friend commented that**:

Women are allowed to dress like men (pants, sneakers, suit) but men get beat up and killed for dressing like a women (because it lowers the status for all men — it is the worst offense.)

The idea is that, if men have more power, they will be quite aggressive towards a man who looks or sounds like a woman.  That man is not just lowering his own status, but lowering the status of the whole group (because this is a no control group).

I commented that if we compare effeminate boys to masculine girls (tomboys), that, if the theory holds, we would expect: (a) other boys to pick on or beat up the effeminate boy; (b) girls to not be too hostile towards the effeminate boy (he doesn’t lower their status); (c) other girls to not be too upset with the tomboy (she doesn’t lower their status); (d) boys to pick on the tomboy (she is blurring the gender line)

So, is that the case?


*this idea came from a discussion with my cousins

**This conversation was inspired by the below image by Robert Gilgolov, where we see hairy legs (the hair is emphasized) in what would be considered women’s shoes.


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Imagine someone set up a gun in a shopping mall (not noticeable to the public) that was programmed to go off at a particular time.  Suppose that, given typical mall traffic at that time of day, the gun will shoot and kill someone with probability 0.1.

If someone ends up dying, the perpetrator would end up with a more severe punishment than if no one was hit. Why?  Essentially, the severity of the penalty was determined by the result of a 10-sided die.  Is it preferable to punish only that which was in the control of the perpetrator?

Imagine penalties based on an estimated probability of death.  If you repeatedly shot someone at point blank range, you could be charged with killing 0.999 people.  A reckless driver would be charged with killing p people, where p is the excepted number of deaths resulting from someone driving that recklessly. In the shopping mall example, you’d be charged with killing 0.1 people. There is a certain fairness with this approach, if the probabilities were known or could be reliably estimated.

However, in most situations, it will be unclear just how at-risk lives were.  We don’t know, for example, whether the mall gunman had done it before.  If someone is driving drunk, we do not know exactly how impaired they are.  However, the bad outcome is more likely to occur for people who have repeatedly driven drunk and/or were severely impaired each time.  It is more likely to occur if this wasn’t the mall gunman’s first attempt.   Thus, unmeasured variables that partially determine the probabilities that we are interested in in an ideal world are correlated with the outcomes.  In that sense, outcome-dependent punishment makes sense.

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Why are recreational drugs illegal? The ban on these drugs leads to organized crime, difficult and expensive law enforcement, a large burden on our court system and a large prison population.  All of this to prevent people from doing what we think is harmful to them (even though they might not think so)?

John Gray argues that it’s because Western humanists believe everyone can be happy:

Drug use is a tacit admission of a forbidden truth.  For most people happiness is beyond reach.  Fulfillment is found not in daily life but escaping from it.  Since happiness is unavailable, the mass of mankind seeks pleasure.

Religious cultures could admit that earthly life was hard, for they promised another in which all tears would be wiped away.  Their humanist successors affirm something still more incredible — that in future, even the near future, everyone can be happy.  Socieities founded on a faith in progress cannot admit the normal unhappiness of human life.  As a result, they are bound to wage war on those who seek an artificial happiness in drugs.

If people choose to get high from drugs, it is a challenge to the humanist ideal that we all can be happy.  We do not like to see things that make us question our view of the world. We thrive on self-deception, and resent people who show us we are deceived.  For example, we like poor people concentrated into small areas so that we can drive around them without seeing them.  We also convince ourselves that it’s their fault that they are not successful (“if only they had worked hard and cared about their education, they could have been successful.”).  We do not want to admit that success is mostly determined by the birth lottery (both the gene and environment lottery), because then we might have to feel bad about the living conditions of others.

However, this explanation does not seem sufficient.  Why is there such a huge sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine? In August, President Obama signed a new drug law that reduces the disparity from 100:1 to 18:1.  As Robin Hanson points out, bans are often a way to show our disdain for certain groups:

It is common, for example, to require that candidates be locally-resident citizens above a certain age and without felony convictions….This paternalism seems plausibly explained as a status move: we disrespect certain groups by declaring them ineligible to run for office, and we elevate eligible groups in contrast. For this purpose, it doesn’t really matter that there wouldn’t be much chance of us electing the ineligible, even if they were allowed.

This paternalism-as-status-marker story fits with free speech being a status marker, and with many regulatory asymmetries, such as being more concerned about teen pregnancy than 35+ pregnancy, teen drivers more than elderly drivers, and drug/alcohol use of the poor more than the rich.

Since crack use is more prevalent in poorer neighborhoods than in richer neighborhoods, relative to powder cocaine use, the tougher sentences is a way of showing our disdain for poor people.

In addition, upper class drug users are more likely to have the means to hide their drug use from the public (picture rich people doing lines of cocaine at a party).  If people are using drugs to escape from daily life, we’d rather not know about it.  So we have stronger penalties for people who do it in front of us (picture the poor drug addict passed out on the steps of a building).

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A friend of mine argued that, once implantation has occurred, the pregnant woman is an incubator for this life — a life that will likely become  independent of her – and therefore should not destroy it.  I think advocates of that position must also value potential people generally.

Consider 4 scenarios:

1.  we destroy the fertilized egg right after it attaches to the wall of the uterus

2.  we destroy the fertilized egg in the fallopian tube before it reaches the uterus

3.  we destroy the fertilized egg immediately after conception

4.  we destroy the egg (or sperm) just before conception would have occurred

I don’t see these scenarios as much different.  In my opinion, it makes sense for people to find all 4 scenarios either morally objectionable or acceptable.

If one objects to all 4 scenarios, that suggests they value potential life (as in scenario 4).  I would guess, then, that anti-abortion folks should be in favor of a world with a large population. They should favor bringing into the world as many people that could exist that our resources can support (or as many that can exist without causing life to have negative value).

However, I do not think it is obvious that potential people will benefit from existing.  The antinatalist position is at least worth considering.  One could argue that, since most living people would say they are glad they’re alive, that that is sufficient evidence for existence having positive value. However, species that do not want to live would become extinct pretty quickly.  Even most very depressed people would fight for their lives if they were attacked.   So, I wonder if we are good judges about the value of our existence.  Even if we were miserable, the desire to live might be so great that we would deceive ourselves into thinking we are glad we exist.

Even if life does have positive value for most existing people (which I think is probably the case), the value of life for potential people who do not yet exist, and especially ones that would not exist without a policy change (e.g., banning abortion), should not be thought of as following the same distribution of value as people who already exist.  There is selection bias at work here. In addition, the existence of new people potentially affects the quality of life of existing people (people who want an abortion think this new life will have a negative impact on their own life).

One other thing to note:  even if you object to all 4 of the above scenarios, you still might prefer that they are all legal options. I’m not discussing that aspect of it here.

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