THE CENTER FOR THIRD AGE NEWSLETTER – JANUARY 2013 #1
1. FATHER WILLIAM’S MUSINGS
2. LIFE FORCE: SILENCE
3. THE SMARTEST BOOK ABOUT OUR DIGITAL AGE WAS PUBLISHED IN 1929
4. MATERIALISM: A SYSTEM THAT EATS US FROM THE INSIDE OUT
5. HOW TO CLOSE THE GAP BETWEEN US AND THEM
6. THIS MONTH’S LINKS
QUOTES OF THE MONTH – RACHEL NAOMI REMEN
“…I was only fourteen and curiosity overcame me. Turning to the old woman, I asked, ‘What are you looking at?’ … Slowly she turned to me and I could see her face for the first time. It was radiant. In a voice filled with joy she said, ‘Why child, I am looking at the Light.’”
1. FATHER WILLIAM’S MUSINGS
January greetings, dear friends…
So here I am in mid-January after sending you these Non-Musings at the end of December:
“As 2013 ends, Old Father William is going through some major changes on all levels – physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual – and it’s going to take some time to sort out what this month’s Musings will look like. Hopefully, clarity will emerge by mid-January, and, if it doesn’t, I’ll still send along some provocative thoughts and links by others…”
The emotional, intellectual and spiritual changes have been going on for some time, but they were greatly intensified by the combination of a serious sinus/lung infection and bout of gout that together put me completely out of action for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Now I’m very aware that these physical challenges are extremely minor relative to what a number of friends have been going through in the last year – and that I am very, very fortunate in my physical health and well-being. So thanks to those of you who sent me such loving concern, and please let me assure you I am in very good shape for 2014.
This last month has caused me to reflect seriously upon the limitations and impermanence of this body, and these reflections have created reverberating echoes on the emotional, intellectual and spiritual dimensions as well. These echoes have stirred up my psyche substantially, and, while the waters are still a bit murky, clarity is definitely emerging – and I require more time before I can share my learnings as clearly as I want to.
So please regard this as Part 1 of January’s newsletter with Part 2 promised before month’s end. Meanwhile, enjoy these collected thoughts that follow…
2. LIFE FORCE: SILENCE is one of the stories from RACHEL NAOMI REMEN’s wonderful bestseller, “KITCHEN TABLE WISDOM,” and is an important part of my own re-visioning of my aging process…
3. THE SMARTEST BOOK ABOUT OUR DIGITAL AGE WAS PUBLISHED IN 1929 and JOSE ORTEGA Y GASSET (through TED GIOIA’s review here) has offered me an entirely new way of seeing the cascade of unexplainable absurdities that keep engulfing the ‘civilized’ world…
4. MATERIALISM: A SYSTEM THAT EATS US FROM THE INSIDE OUT highlights perhaps the most destructive result of the absurdities described in #3…
5. HOW TO CLOSE THE GAP BETWEEN US AND THEM is a comprehensive interview with JOSHUA GREEN, author of “MORAL TRIBES” by JILL SUTTIE and actually suggests some viable solutions to mitigating today’s abundance of absurdities…
6. THIS MONTH’S LINKS
Until Part 2, much love, FW
2. LIFE FORCE: SILENCE
BY RACHEL NAOMI REMEN, FROM “KITCHEN TABLE WISDOM”
As an adolescent, I had a summer job working as a volunteer companion in a nursing home for the aged. The job began with a two-week intensive training about communicating with the elderly. There seemed to be a great deal to remember and what had begun as a rather heartfelt way to spend a teenage summer quickly became a regimented set of techniques and skills for which I would be evaluated by the nursing staff. By the first day of actual patient contact, I was very anxious.
My first assignment was to visit with a ninety-six-year-old woman who had not spoken for more than a year. A psychiatrist had diagnosed her as having senile dementia, but she had not responded to medication. The nurses doubted that she would talk to me, but hoped I could engage her in a mutual activity. I was given a large basket filled with glass beads of every imaginable size and color. We would string beads together. I was to report back to the nursing station in an hour.
I did not want to see this patient. Her great age frightened me and the words “senile dementia” suggested that not only was she older than by far anyone I had ever met, she was crazy, too. Filled with foreboding, I knocked on the closed door of her room. There was no answer. Opening the door, I found myself in a small room lit by a single window which faced the morning sun. Two chairs had been placed in front of the window; in one sat a very old lady, looking out. The other was empty. I stood just inside the door for a time, but she didn’t not acknowledge my presence in any way. Uncertain of what to do next, I went to the empty chair and sat down, the basket of beads on my lap. She did not seem to notice that I had come.
For a while I tried to find some way to open a conversation. I was painfully shy at this time, which was one of the reasons my parents had suggested I take this job, and I would have had a hard time even in less difficult circumstances. The silence in the room was absolute. Somehow, it almost seemed rude to speak, yet I desperately wanted to succeed at my task. I considered and discarded all the ways of making conversation suggested in the training. None of them seemed possible. The old woman continued to look toward the window, her face half hidden from me, barely breathing. Finally I simply gave up and sat with the basket of beads in my lap for the full hour. It was quite peaceful.
“The silence was broken at last by the little bell which signified the end of the morning activity. Taking hold of the basket again, I prepared to leave. But I was only fourteen and curiosity overcame me. Turning to the old woman, I asked, ‘What are you looking at?’ … Slowly she turned to me and I could see her face for the first time. It was radiant. In a voice filled with joy she said, ‘Why child, I am looking at the Light.’
Many years later as a pediatrician, I would watch newborns look at the light with that same rapt expression, almost as if they were listening for something.
…A ninety-six-year old woman may stop speaking because arteriosclerosis has damaged her brain, or she has become psychotic and she is no longer able to speak. But she may also have withdrawn into a space between the worlds, to contemplate what is next, to spread her sails and patiently wait to catch the light.”
3. THE SMARTEST BOOK ABOUT OUR DIGITAL AGE WAS PUBLISHED IN 1929
BY TED GIOIA, THE DAILY BEAST, BOOKS, JANUARY 5, 2014
HOW JOSE ORTEGA Y GASSET’S “THE REVOLT OF THE MASSES” HELPS US UNDERSTAND EVERYTHING FROM YOUTUBE TO DUCK DYNASTY
I first read José Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses more than thirty years ago. I still remember how disappointed I was by this cantankerous book. I’d read other works by Ortega (1883-1955), and been impressed by the Spanish philosopher’s intelligence and insight. But this 1929 study of the modern world, his most famous book, struck me as hopelessly nostalgic and elitist.
Yet I recently read The Revolt of the Masses again, and with a completely different response. The same ideas I dismissed as old-fashioned and out-of-date back in the 20th century now reveal an uncanny ability to explain the most peculiar happenings of the digital age.
Are you, like me, puzzled to learn that Popular Science magazine recently shut down comments on its website, declaring that they were bad for science? Are you amazed, like me, that Duck Dynasty is the most-watched nonfiction cable show in TV history? Are you dismayed, like me, that crappy Hollywood films about comic book heroes and defunct TV shows have taken over every movie theater? Are you depressed, like me, that symphony orchestras are declaring bankruptcy, but Justin Bieber earned $58 million last year?
If so, you need to read The Revolt of the Masses. You’ve got questions. Ortega’s got answers.
First, let me tell you what you won’t find in this book. Despite a title that promises political analysis, The Revolt of the Masses has almost nothing to say about conventional party ideologies and alignments. Ortega shows little interest in fascism or capitalism or Marxism, and this troubled me when I first read the book. (Although, in retrospect, the philosopher’s passing comments on these matters proved remarkably prescient—for example his smug dismissal of Russian communism as destined to failure in the West, and his prediction of the rise of a European union.) Above all, he hardly acknowledges the existence of ‘left’ and ‘right’ in political debates.
Ortega’s brilliant insight came in understanding that the battle between ‘up’ and ‘down’ could be as important in spurring social and cultural change as the conflict between ‘left’ and ‘right’. This is not an economic distinction in Ortega’s mind. The new conflict, he insists, is not between “hierarchically superior and inferior classes…. upper classes or lower classes.” A millionaire could be a member of the masses, according to Ortega’s surprising schema. And a pauper might represent the elite.
The key driver of change, as Ortega sees it, comes from a shocking attitude characteristic of the modern age—or, at least, Ortega was shocked. Put simply, the masses hate experts. If forced to choose between the advice of the learned and the vague impressions of other people just like themselves, the masses invariably turn to the latter. The upper elite still try to pronounce judgments and lead, but fewer and fewer of those down below pay attention.
He understands that the rise of new technological tools gives a global scope to the unformed opinions of people who, in a previous era, would have only focused on what was nearby and familiar.
Above all, the favorite source of wisdom for the masses, in Ortega’s schema, is their own strident opinions. “Why should he listen, when he has all the answers, everything he needs to know?” Ortega writes. “It is no longer the season to listen, but on the contrary, a time to pass judgment, to pronounce sentence, to issue proclamations.”
Ortega couldn’t have foreseen digital age culture, but he is describing it with precision. He would recognize the angry, assertive tone of comments on web articles as the exact same tendency he identified in 1929. He would understand why Yelp reviews have more influence than the considered judgments of restaurant reviewers. He would know why Amazon customer comments have more clout than critics in The New Yorker. He would attend an angry town hall meeting or listen to talk radio, and recognize the same tendencies he described in his book.
Recently I had dinner with a friend who is affluent, educated, and a noted wine connoisseur. We were talking about wine critic Robert Parker and other experts, and my friend asserted that he now relies more on wine advice from websites where anyone can post their evaluations of different vintages. And if the mass mentality has taken over wine-tasting, what can we expect from film reviews or rock criticism?
Of course, this rise of mass opinion comes at a cost. For example, music criticism is turning into lifestyle reporting. Even specialist magazines avoid dealing with any technical descriptions of what a performer is doing, and I have a hunch that the less critics know about the structure of music, the more likely they are to succeed today. This same tendency, outlined with precision by Ortega back in 1929, can be seen in numerous other fields where experts once reigned, but have now been replaced by the opinions of the masses.
Strange to say, not all kinds of expertise are ignored nowadays. The same people who denounce expert opinion about movies or music will praise a skilled plumber or car mechanic. The value of blue-collar expertise is accepted without question. The same people who get angry when I make judgments about the skill level of a pianist, would never question my decision to pay more to hire a superior piano tuner. This is a peculiar state of affairs, but very much aligned with the “revolt of the masses.”
Ortega also predicted the close connection between advancing technologies and these new rude attitudes. He devotes an entire chapter to the co-existence of “primitivism and technology.” He understands that the rise of new technological tools gives a global scope to the unformed opinions of people who, in a previous era, would have only focused on what was nearby and familiar. Above all, he marvels at the fact that the “disdain for science as such is displayed with greatest impunity by the technicians themselves.” Or put differently, skill in manipulating a technology (say, Instagram or the iPhone, in our day) has nothing in common with a zeal for facts and empirical evidence. That shocked Ortega, but we encounter it daily on in the web.
I wish Ortega were around nowadays to comment on digital age culture. At one point in The Revolt of the Masses, he complains about a woman who told him “I can’t stand a dance to which less than 800 people have been invited.” So how would the Spanish philosopher respond to the crowd mentality that seeks out viral videos with a hundred million views? How would he evaluate TV reality shows in which the best singers or dancers are determined by the verdict of the masses? What would he think of political judgments shared by the millions in the form of 140-or-fewer-characters tweets?
I can’t do justice to all of this book’s riches in a short article. On almost every page, Ortega addresses some issue that still resonates today—for example, the rise of consumerism; or the possibility for barbarism to flourish in tandem with technology; or the unbalanced specialization which favors science over the humanities; or (in his words) “the loss of prestige of legislative assemblies.” You recognize all of those hot topics, don’t you?
Okay, we encounter these dysfunctional tendencies every day, but Ortega forces us to see them with a different perspective—from the standpoint of ‘up’ versus ‘down’. Indeed, his book is more valuable for the speculations it will spur in a current-day reader than in the specific situations Ortega addresses. But isn’t that always the measure of a timeless thinker?
4. MATERIALISM: A SYSTEM THAT EATS US FROM THE INSIDE OUT
BY GEORGE MONBIOT, THE GUARDIAN, MONDAY 9 DECEMBER 2013
Buying more stuff is associated with depression, anxiety and broken relationships. It is socially destructive and self-destructive
Owning more doesn’t bring happiness: ‘the material pursuit of self-esteem reduces self-esteem.’
That they are crass, brash and trashy goes without saying. But there is something in the pictures posted on Rich Kids of Instagram (and highlighted by the Guardian last week) that inspires more than the usual revulsion towards crude displays of opulence. There is a shadow in these photos – photos of a young man wearing all four of his Rolex watches, a youth posing in front of his helicopter, endless pictures of cars, yachts, shoes, mansions, swimming pools and spoilt white boys throwing gangster poses in private jets – of something worse: something that, after you have seen a few dozen, becomes disorienting, even distressing.
The pictures are, of course, intended to incite envy. They reek instead of desperation. The young men and women seem lost in their designer clothes, dwarfed and dehumanised by their possessions, as if ownership has gone into reverse. A girl’s head barely emerges from the haul of Chanel, Dior and Hermes shopping bags she has piled on her vast bed. It’s captioned “shoppy shoppy” and “#goldrush”, but a photograph whose purpose is to illustrate plenty seems instead to depict a void. She’s alone with her bags and her image in the mirror, in a scene that seems saturated with despair.
Perhaps I’m projecting my prejudices. But an impressive body of psychological research seems to support these feelings. It suggests that materialism, a trait that can afflict both rich and poor, and which the researchers define as “a value system that is preoccupied with possessions and the social image they project“, is both socially destructive and self-destructive. It smashes the happiness and peace of mind of those who succumb to it. It’s associated with anxiety, depression and broken relationships.
There has long been a correlation observed between materialism, a lack of empathy and engagement with others, and unhappiness. But research conducted over the past few years seems to show causation. For example, a series of studies published in the journal Motivation and Emotion in July showed that as people become more materialistic, their wellbeing (good relationships, autonomy, sense of purpose and the rest) diminishes. As they become less materialistic, it rises.
In one study, the researchers tested a group of 18-year-olds, then re-tested them 12 years later. They were asked to rank the importance of different goals – jobs, money and status on one side, and self-acceptance, fellow feeling and belonging on the other. They were then given a standard diagnostic test to identify mental health problems. At the ages of both 18 and 30, materialistic people were more susceptible to disorders. But if in that period they became less materialistic, they became happier.
In another study, the psychologists followed Icelanders weathering their country’s economic collapse. Some people became more focused on materialism, in the hope of regaining lost ground. Others responded by becoming less interested in money and turning their attention to family and community life. The first group reported lower levels of wellbeing, the second group higher levels.
These studies, while suggestive, demonstrate only correlation. But the researchers then put a group of adolescents through a church programme designed to steer children away from spending and towards sharing and saving. The self-esteem of materialistic children on the programme rose significantly, while that of materialistic children in the control group fell. Those who had little interest in materialism before the programme experienced no change in self-esteem.
Another paper, published in Psychological Science, found that people in a controlled experiment who were repeatedly exposed to images of luxury goods, to messages that cast them as consumers rather than citizens and to words associated with materialism (such as buy, status, asset and expensive), experienced immediate but temporary increases in material aspirations, anxiety and depression. They also became more competitive and more selfish, had a reduced sense of social responsibility and were less inclined to join in demanding social activities. The researchers point out that, as we are repeatedly bombarded with such images through advertisements, and constantly described by the media as consumers, these temporary effects could be triggered more or less continuously.
A third paper, published (paradoxically) in the Journal of Consumer Research, studied 2,500 people for six years. It found a two-way relationship between materialism and loneliness: materialism fosters social isolation; isolation fosters materialism. People who are cut off from others attach themselves to possessions. This attachment in turn crowds out social relationships.
The two varieties of materialism that have this effect – using possessions as a yardstick of success and seeking happiness through acquisition – are the varieties that seem to be on display on Rich Kids of Instagram. It was only after reading this paper that I understood why those photos distressed me: they look like a kind of social self-mutilation.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons an economic model based on perpetual growth continues on its own terms to succeed, though it may leave a trail of unpayable debts, mental illness and smashed relationships. Social atomisation may be the best sales strategy ever devised, and continuous marketing looks like an unbeatable programme for atomisation.
Materialism forces us into comparison with the possessions of others, a race both cruelly illustrated and crudely propelled by that toxic website. There is no end to it. If you have four Rolexes while another has five, you are a Rolex short of contentment. The material pursuit of self-esteem reduces your self-esteem.
I should emphasise that this is not about differences between rich and poor: the poor can be as susceptible to materialism as the rich. It is a general social affliction, visited upon us by government policy, corporate strategy, the collapse of communities and civic life, and our acquiescence in a system that is eating us from the inside out.
This is the dreadful mistake we are making: allowing ourselves to believe that having more money and more stuff enhances our wellbeing, a belief possessed not only by those poor deluded people in the pictures, but by almost every member of almost every government. Worldly ambition, material aspiration, perpetual growth: these are a formula for mass unhappiness.
A fully referenced version of this article can be found at Monbiot.com
5. HOW TO CLOSE THE GAP BETWEEN US AND THEM
BY JILL SUTTIE, THE GREATER GOOD, NOVEMBER 7, 2013
A Q&A WITH ‘MORAL TRIBES’ AUTHOR JOSHUA GREENE ABOUT EMOTION, REASON AND CONFLICT
How can one group of people be convinced that abortion is morally wrong, while another sees abortion as a woman’s right to choose? Why do Republicans tend to favor the death penalty as morally just, while many Democrats find it morally repugnant? And why do we keep fighting about these and other “moral” issues?
To help answer that, I spoke with Joshua Greene, the John and Ruth Hazel Associate Professor of the Social Sciences and director of the Moral Cognitions Lab at Harvard University. He and his colleagues study the psychological processes and neural systems that are involved in making moral choices.
Greene’s new book, “Moral Tribes,” describes this research, along with other insights into how psychology shapes our moral thinking. The book not only helps explain why we humans sometimes find ourselves at odds over moral issues but also suggests how we can use that knowledge to transcend moral conflicts and find solutions to problems that plague our nation and the world.
Greene was recently in Berkeley to discuss his findings at the Society of Experimental Social Psychology conference, where I caught up with him.
Jill Suttie: In your book, you talked about moral decisions that are made within “tribes” as being different than those that are made between tribes. How so?
Joshua Greene: The fundamental moral problem is one of cooperation, which is getting a pair or a group of people to do what’s best for the group as opposed to what it best for the individual.
An illustration of this, made famous by the ecologist Garrett Hardin, is a tribe of herders who raise sheep on a common pasture. The herders ask themselves, Should I add another animal to my herd?
Well, it makes sense from a selfish perspective for everyone to grow their herd. But if everybody does that, suddenly there are more animals than the pasture can support, and all of them die. That’s the “tragedy of the commons”—individually rational behavior leading to collective ruin.
What’s the solution? Morality. We agree that we’re going to limit our individual herds for the greater good.
This is the type of problem—a Me versus Us problem—that I think humans evolved to solve. We have a suite of emotional capacities that enable us to do that: We have positive emotions that make us want to be cooperative, to care about others’ wellbeing. We have negative feelings that make us want to be cooperative, too—I would feel ashamed or guilty if I were to take too much of the commons for myself. Then we have positive feelings, such as gratitude or admiration, that motivate us to reward others for being cooperative, and negative feelings, such as anger and contempt, that do the same thing. Those social emotions enable us to get along with other people.
But modern moral controversies aren’t about being selfish versus doing good for people in this straightforward way. They’re more complicated.
JS: So how are modern moral controversies different than the “tragedy of the commons?”
JG: To start, imagine a group of herders who are pure communists—they share their pasture and they share their herd, and that’s how they solve the problem: They have everything in common. Now imagine another group of herders who are pure individualists. They say, ‘We’re not going to have a shared pasture. We’re going to divide it up—privatize the pasture—so that we each get our own land and our own herd. And we’re going to respect each other’s property rights.’
These are two different ways of being cooperative—cooperation on different terms. A lot of our political disputes are about individualism versus collectivism: To what extent are we each responsible for ourselves, and to what extent are we all in this together? We see this, for example, in issues such as the health care debate and climate change. The modern moral tragedy is not a simple problem of selfishness versus morality—Me versus Us. It’s different tribes with different moral ideals occupying the same space. It’s Us versus Them—their values versus our values, or their interests versus our interests.
The problem is even more complicated because groups not only have different ideas about how to cooperate; they have different histories, religions, leaders, heroes, and holy books that tell them what’s right. This exacerbates the problem of Us versus Them. Different groups rally around different moral authorities, different “proper nouns” such as the Christian Bible versus the Koran.
So one of the main ideas of the book is that when it comes to everyday morality—being selfish versus being good to other people—your moral intuitions are likely to serve you well. Our moral emotions evolved to solve the Me versus Us problem, the tragedy of the commons. But when it comes to Us versus Them, what I call the “tragedy of the commonsense morality,” then our gut reactions are the problem. And that’s when we need to stop and think and be more reflective.
JS: How can we disengage and reflect when faced with moral dilemmas like the ones that exist between groups?
JG: An important tool is just awareness—understanding that it’s your gut reaction if you judge this way instead of that way, and that the people on the other side have different gut reactions, too.
But awareness isn’t enough. You’ve got your gut reactions and I’ve got mine—but what should we do? What we need is what I call a “meta-morality.” A morality is what allows the individuals within a group to get along, to turn a bunch of separate “Me”s into an Us. A meta-morality, then, performs the same function at a higher level, allowing groups to get along. A meta-morality adjudicates among competing moral systems, just as a first-order moral system adjudicates among competing individuals.
The meta-morality that I favor has historically been known as “utilitarianism,” but that’s a very bad name for it. I prefer to call it “deep pragmatism,” a name that gives a clearer sense of what it’s really about. Deep pragmatism boils down to this: Maximize happiness impartially. Try to make life as happy as possible overall, giving equal weight to everyone’s happiness.
It’s a meta-morality, because it’s a system. Unlike simple rules such as “don’t kill people,” deep pragmatism tells you how to make trade-offs, which is what a meta-morality needs to do. For example, suppose there is a conflict between the individual right to free speech and the rights of other people not to be harmed or offended. A deep pragmatist asks: What are the long-term consequences of allowing this kind of speech? What happens if we restrict it? Which option is most likely to lead to the best results?
JS: Has pure pragmatism ever been applied in the world?
JG: In a sense, this is the dominant framework among policy wonks—trying to estimate costs and benefits. But adding up costs and benefits is, ironically, not necessarily the decision procedure that is likely to produce the best results in all cases.
For one thing, we’re likely to be biased. Imagine standing in a store trying to estimate the costs and benefits of shoplifting. You’re better off just following the commonsense moral rule. But that higher level judgment—the judgment about how to decide—is itself a kind of pragmatic decision.
So part of it is paying attention to costs and benefits, and part of it is knowing when to just go with the simple rule. I think that the people who do this well are the people whom we describe as “principled, but practical.”
JS: It seems that in our society, leaders who are ambiguous about moral deciding—who take in more information before making a decision—are seen as weak rather than morally strong. How can things change if this is the dominant view?
JG: Change has to come from the bottom up. It won’t work to have a bunch of utilitarian policy wonks running things while people’s gut reactions are out of line with what the wonks are doing.
The key, then, is to change the way ordinary people think, and that requires a deeper, scientific understanding of our own minds—“Where are my judgments coming from?” It begins with the science of psychology. We’ve learned that our judgments can be very fickle, sensitive to things that, upon reflection, seem irrelevant—such as the physical distance between ourselves and people we can help—and insensitive to things that are very important, such as the number of people we can help.
JS: So is it always better to use more thoughtful reflection instead of gut reactions when making moral decisions?
JG: My metaphor for thinking about gut reactions and cognitive processes is the two modes we have for taking digital photos. If you’re doing something pretty standard, like taking a picture of a mountain from a mile away in broad daylight, then you can use one of the automatic settings—“landscape mode”—and it will likely turn out well.
But if you want to do something that the designers of your camera did not envision, you need flexibility. You put the camera in manual mode, and you can adjust everything yourself and do exactly what you want.
We can ask, ‘Which is better—the manual mode or the automatic settings?’ And the answer is that neither is better in any absolute sense. Automatic settings are better for most purposes—they are very efficient. But when you’re facing a more challenging problem, then manual mode is better. That’s when you need flexibility, rather than efficiency.
In the same way, the human brain has automatic settings and a manual mode. The automatic settings are our gut reactions, and our manual mode is our ability to stop and think and reason—especially about costs and benefits.
When you’re facing the moral problems of everyday life—“Should I do the thing I agreed to do, even though it’s now no longer convenient?”—there your gut reactions are more likely to be a good guide than rational calculation. But when you’re trying to decide what our policy should be about the death penalty, abortion, international conflicts, global warming—those are not the kinds of problems that our tribal gut reactions were designed to solve. Here we need to step back from our feelings and look at the evidence to figure out what is likely to produce the best results.
JS: We seem so clearly divided on these important questions, so much so that the sides can hardly to talk to each other. What do you suggest?
JG: My book gets into a lot of abstract philosophy and a lot of technical neuroscience, so I deliberately ended the book with commonsense guidelines for dealing with real-world problems
The first rule is that, when it comes to controversial moral issues, you should consult your gut feelings, but you shouldn’t trust them too much. When we have strong emotional disagreements, someone’s gut reactions have to be wrong, and maybe everyone’s are wrong.
An extension of this idea—and a more controversial one—is that we’re unlikely to settle our disagreements by arguing about rights. We talk about rights to make our gut reactions sound more rational. Whatever we feel, we can posit the existence of a right that corresponds to our feelings. So if I feel that it’s wrong to kill a fetus, I say it has a right to live. If I feel that it’s wrong to tell a woman that she can’t terminate her pregnancy, I say she has a right to choose. We have no procedure for figuring out who has which rights or which rights count more. The alternative approach is to focus instead on costs and benefits, and to focus on evidence concerning costs and benefits.
A second rule: Watch out for what I call “biased fairness.” Fairness comes in different forms. For example, paying everyone the same could be fair, but so could giving bonuses for better performance. “Biased fairness” means favoring the version of fairness that suits your selfish interests. It’s not a coincidence that most wealthy people tend to think taxes should be lower, or that people with lower incomes think it’s OK to have higher taxes to pay for more social services. Very rarely do people just come out and say, “I don’t care about other people; I’m just out for me.” Instead we choose the version of fairness that suits us best.
Another key idea is using common currency. If we’re not going to be talking about rights, because rights are really just dressing up our gut reactions, what’s our common currency? We need a common currency of facts, and we need a common currency of values. The currency of facts is science, broadly construed—the search for observable replicable evidence. It’s true that people tend to reject science if it conflicts with their worldview. But everybody appeals to science when it suits them, and no other source of knowledge has that distinction. Creationists would be delighted if, tomorrow, credible scientists were to declare that we’d got it all wrong and that the world is in fact just a few thousand years old. But biologists and geologists don’t appeal to the Pope when he happens to agree with their views. Science is our common ground.
When it comes to values, that’s really where deep pragmatism comes in. Believe what you want, value what you want, but the only way we can systematically make trade-offs, I think, is to appeal to consequences, giving equal weight to everyone’s interests. Some philosophers think there are other ways, but I don’t think they work.
JS: How might you apply this to a real-world dilemma?
JG: Relying on our gut reactions can be very counter-productive. Look at the state of our prisons—horrible, miserable places. You commit a crime, you end up there, you spend all of your time with other criminals. You’re not treated well by the authorities, you’re basically living in a “might makes right” kind of jungle, where justice is often quite arbitrary, sexual violence is rampant, and prisoners feel like they have no control. We send people to prison for 20 years for doing something bad; then when they come out, they’re completely unprepared to do anything productive. For years, all they’ve known is a world of criminals and unsympathetic abuse from authorities above them. This kind of prison system satisfies our taste for retribution—our desire to really stick it to people who break the rules. But in terms of actual results its counter-productive..
Our criminal justice system is very different from most others in the developed world. It’s gut reactions run rampant as opposed to thinking about what is actually going to produce the best results. Obviously, it’s a very complicated policy question, and I wouldn’t say that we should necessarily be “nice” to people who commit serious crimes. But I think that if we focused on achieving good outcomes, rather than satisfying our punitive impulses—what we exalt as “Justice”—we’d all be better off.
JS: What else do you find exciting about your research?
JG: I believe that we’re building something unprecedented in the natural world. Biological evolution is a competitive process. Our basic moral instincts toward other people evolved—not because they are “nice” but because being good to those in your group allows your group to out-compete other groups. And so our goodness evolved as a competitive weapon.
But the amazing thing is that we also have an ability to understand our own thinking. This general ability to understand things didn’t evolve as part of morality. It evolved just to help us solve problems in general. So, combining some basic moral impulses that evolved as a competitive weapon with this capacity to think and reason and understand creates something totally new. We can step outside of our tribal instincts and say, “It’s not just the people in my tribe that matter, everybody matters. And everybody matters equally.” It’s a thought that evolution never wanted us to have.
And it’s not just another biological oddity, like, “Oh, here’s an animal that’s got green spots—gee I’ve never seen that before.” Our evolving global tribe is unlike anything that’s ever evolved before, because it’s not evolving for a competitive purpose. It’s evolving simply because we think it’s good. The idea that our species is breaking free of nature’s ruthless rule—that’s pretty exciting to me.
6. THIS MONTH’S LINKS:
TRY AND GUESS WHAT THIS AD IS SELLING BEFORE IT ENDS…
NEED MORE ‘MATERIALISM’ ABSURDITIES?
‘MINDBLOWING PLANT SCULPTURES’ IN MONTREAL…
EIGHT INSPIRING IMAGES FROM 2013…
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