Archive for July, 2012

There are plenty of examples of people following orders to commit what are widely considered immoral acts.   Some argue that people do so because they follow the crowd, are afraid to defy authority, or believe they are not responsible (lost agency).  However, I wonder if in many cases people identify with the authority figures (and the group the authority figure presides over) and adopt their beliefs.

Jim Emerson discuss this in his article on good and evil in superhero movies:

It’s so easy to claim that Evil People just decide to Do Evil because they are Evil (totally unlike the rest of us!). But the truth is, many Nazi war criminals and those ordinary people who actively or passively collaborated with them weren’t all, as the cliché has it, “just following orders.” They believed the horrors of genocide served what they saw as a greater purpose: maintaining the purity of their beloved Germany, their race and their empire. So, as difficult and terrible as it might be…, the Final Solution was, they believed, a noble calling in the long run. …They weren’t monsters — they were people like you and me who found themselves capable of doing monstrous things in the name of a Great Cause in which their faith was pure and fervent and unshakeable.

Emerson also pointed to Alex Haslam’s appearance on Radiolab, in which he argued that participants in the Milgram experiment identified with the group (and authority figure) that were carrying out the experiment:

They’re engaged with the task. They’re trying to be good participants. They’re trying to do the right thing. They’re not doing something because they have to; they’re doing it because they think they ought to.

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Good genes

David Brooks:

I’d say today’s meritocratic elites achieve and preserve their status … mainly by being ambitious and disciplined. They raise their kids in organized families. They spend enormous amounts of money and time on enrichment. They work much longer hours than people down the income scale, driving their kids to piano lessons and then taking part in conference calls from the waiting room. [bold emphasis mine]

Oh, those clever elites!  They can multitask!  If only poorer people could learn to sit in a waiting room and take part in conference calls at the same time, then their kids would be successful too!  Unfortunately, poorer people can only perform 1 task at a time (at most).

If I work 2 hours in front of a computer doing stimulating work for high pay, and you do 1 hour of work moving heavy furniture on a hot day for low pay, I worked longer hours than you did!  You lazy f*ck!  And if I come home from work with the energy and money needed to engage my kids in fun, enriching activities, and you come home too tired and poor to take them to  and/or afford piano lessons, then I am the superior parent.   Further, while you’re at home cooking dinner (because you can’t afford a personal chef), I’m watching my kids perform, while networking over my cell phone at the same time, because, you know, my job involves networking. 

No excuses

David Brooks is a strong proponent of ‘no excuses.’  What ‘no excuses’ means is that he does not want to hear about anyone’s circumstances (the Haiti earthquake would not have been as damaging if Haitians were not so “progress-resistant”).   In my view, the phrase ‘no excuses’ is an attempt at censorship.  It’s a way for people with privilege to live a guilt-free existence.

David Brooks believes that it basically comes down to some people working hard and others not.   Essentially, there are good genes and bad genes.  This belief that the elite are that way because of their genetic superiority is pervasive in elite circles (no surprise), including academia.  Unfortunately for the Brooks’ of the world, reality is not that way.

When people talk about a good genes, like genes for altruism say, what they really (should) mean is:  this gene is part of a network that, when the right combinations of them are on (expressed), tend to lead to more acts of altruism in the environments we’ve studied.  Everything is gene-environment interaction.  Even things that people would think of as purely genetic, such as whether a guppy is colorful and has descended testes, are in fact affected by the environment.

I happen to enjoy my job and am well paid.  But I can point to particular events in my life that, had they gone differently, could have put me  in a much different situation.  I could have ended up with a much lower paying, more stressful job.  In that case, I probably would not be as good of a parent.  I wonder why it is so hard for people to acknowledge that the reasons that they succeeded when someone else failed, was at least in part due to things outside of the control of either person. Rather than implicitly boasting that they have good genes, they could instead boast that they had good gene-environment interactions.

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My friend Mengsen discussed how people see amazing things in human society and assume it must have been created in prompt fashion:

For example, the belief that a social contract or something like that suddenly emerged, and only, in human society, is like a theory of “the civilization of atoms” saying “suddenly, a group of special atoms were created. After a short period of chaos or aggressiveness, they finally sit down and discuss how to set things right.  Later they made an agreement called DNA to keep social order. But in local conversations you can still hear something like: ‘you know the ATP girl? She’s completely a whore.  And the clover-looking dude…he talks too much.'”

Oftentimes ‘uniquely human’ is really not something unique to humans.  In a great article, Selin Kesebir notes “slime molds bear a striking resemblance to human beings.”  The context is that “When food is abundant, slime molds are invisibly dispersed on damp forest soils and wander around as single cells. But when the conditions deteriorate, these cells secrete chemicals that make the individual cells coalesce into a multicellular body. This body then crawls as a single superorganism, and once a better spot is found, cells are dispersed again and return to their single-cell life.”  This is similar to how humans behave, when, for example, they “rally around the President” after a perceived threat to the country.

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