Archive for August, 2012

Humans simplified

Some things feel good.  Some things feel icky.  What feels good or icky varies from person to person.  But regardless of which things they find good or icky, people express delight for the good things and disgust for the icky things.  They tend to become friends with people who express disgust and delight for the same kinds of things.  This is the basis of most social groups, and plays an extremely important role in happiness levels.  Unhappy people often say that they don’t feel understood, etc.

For example, some people might develop feelings of disgust over materialism.  They might end up bonding with like-minded people, or even joining a church that preaches living simply.

Sometimes there are different groups of people who all do what I mentioned in paragraph one, but fail to understand that the other groups are doing the same thing, only they have different values.  Consider two groups like this, I’ll call them A and B.

Group A.  Imagine one group who, whenever they hear a story on the news about a local robbery, rape, or murder, become very upset.  When they hear these kinds of stories, they feel bad, and express their disgust. They don’t spend much time thinking about whether expressing outrage about these particular stories is the best way to make the world a better place, because they don’t get pleasure from that kind of analysis.

Group B.  Imagine a different group who get good feelings from learning new facts, having new insights, hearing very precise language, or from logical reasoning. Picture people who might be described as having aspergers syndrome, for example.  They love figuring things out.  They express pleasure when there is a new insight, or when something is logically consistent.  They express disgust when people state beliefs that are not factually accurate or logical.

Suppose someone from Group A tells someone from group B how upset they are about the girl who was murdered last week. The person from group B might think that’s strange, because the group A person expressed way less sadness or anger over events that seemed to involve more human suffering.  The group B person thinks that the level of expressed outrage should be roughly proportional to the total amount of suffering that occurred.  For example, two people suffering a moderate amount should be viewed similarly to one person suffering an extreme amount.  Sure, one can take into account things like how innocent the victims were (bank robbers vs toddlers, etc), but once you do that, the correlation between the outrage expressed and what comes out of the ‘level of atrocity’ model should be fairly high. Instead, however, the group B person observes that most people’s expressed morals seem to depend on seemingly morally arbitrary things like distance,

The group A person might think the group B person is unfeeling, for not expressing a similar amount of outrage about the murdered girl.  Everyone in group A (the ‘near’ empathy people) would certainly be upset — why isn’t the person in group B?

The group B person cannot understand why the group A person isn’t bothered by their moral inconsistency.  Everyone in group B (the logic lovers) would be upset by their morally arbitrary choice for expression of outrage — why isn’t the person in group A bothered by it?

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 Organ markets, sex markets, recreational drug markets, and child labor (among other topics) tend to illicit strong disapproving feelings from the majority of people. This often leads to paternalism (bans on such markets).  For example, it is often argued that it is unethical to allow people to sell organs, even if doing so might benefit both the donors and recipients.  If we do not ban such markets, it is argued that people will make stupid decisions (e.g., selling a kidney for casino money).  In addition, they argue that these markets would lead to exploitation. 

However, I wonder if there is another motive here.  Perhaps we do not want to acknowledge that we live in a world where some people are currently so bad off that any of the following would improve their lives: (a) selling an organ; (b) selling themselves for sex; (c) ‘escaping’ their lives by getting high; (d) working at a factory at 8 years old.  Paternalism can serve to protect the paternalist from seeing the world as it is.  It can blind one to some of the unpleasant facts about our society.  It might be pretty depressing to find out that thousands of people chose to sell organs for cash.  If we do not allow it, we can pretend people are not in that desperate of a situation. 

A counter-argument is that people still do use recreational drugs or sell themselves for sex, so the paternalist cannot blind himself.  However, by making it illegal, we, to a large extent, avoid the sympathy response.   People who break the law to use drugs or sell themselves for sex are not viewed as worthy of sympathy, because they are criminals. 

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