Friday, August 28, 2015

Good advice: extract the greatest experience

Your goal is to extract the greatest experience of flavor from the rum, so don't be in a rush to decide whether you "like" a particular rum or not. Suspend judgment for as long as you can. The minute you decide that you "like" the rum (or not) you stop noticing the rum and start paying attention to your judgment. Your evaluation gets in the way of your perception and tasting is a game of sharpening perception. (from A Short Course in Rum by Lynn Hoffman)
That advice can be applied to a far-wider range of experiences than just tasting rum. I don't think you'd quite want to generalize it for reasons that most adults should be able to figure out for themselves.

But one thing I think we should do is to apply it to a lot of moral judgments about experiences. There is a tendency to make judgments about the moral worth of some activities very early in the game and, when we do that, we stop noticing the activity and pay attention to our moral judgment to our detriment.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Good Advice: peace or chaos?

I got this one from Waller Newell in his book The Code of Man.

It's really a question but it's a very important question to ask yourself: What is the natural state of human life? Is it peace or is it chaos?

If you think it's peace, then you'll be inclined to blame all evil on human action. You'll be inclined to believe that things would be just fine if people didn't keep messing them up. If you think it's chaos, you'll be inclined to think that it is only constant human effort that creates and maintains order.

These two views are not moral outputs. That is to say, they don't come about because of moral reasoning. They are, instead, assumptions that moral arguments are built on.

Many of us start of believing in the former. I'm not entirely sure why. Part of the answer is our mothers. Our mothers want us to behave so they convince us that our peace and happiness depend on our cooperating with them. If we don't upset mummy, we can have a trouble-free life.  Eventually, this gets expanded to include the belief that we can have a trouble-free life only if other people don't upset mummy either.

We also get a lot of it from popular culture. Star Trek's prime directive being a classic example. You'd also see it in the cynicism of M*A*S*H which had us believe that a couple on uncommitted layabouts could do more good by doing less evil. Both shows reveal that it doesn't really work by cheating all over the place. On Star Trek the prime directive is little more than a plot complication hauled forth when useful much like Captain Renault shutting down Rick's place for gambling. On M*A*S*H, the cheat was that the two cynical layabouts just happen to be brilliant surgeons who can rush in and save lives whenever it might otherwise become obvious that the whole show is a fantasy for men who never want to grow up. (If you read the books it was based on, BTW, you'll see that is exactly what it was to begin with.)

By now, you're probably thinking that you can guess how I'd answer the question and you're right. But go ahead and answer it for yourself—I'm sure you're mature enough not to be influenced by my thinking. (Once you have your answer, think about political theories and ask yourself which side they fit on. Some are obvious: Locke, Marx and Rawls are obviously on the peace side. Plato, Aristotle and Machiavelli are obviously on the chaos side. But what of Hobbes? At first he seems obviously to be on the chaos side but his solution to his own problem seems so easy that I suspect he really was a peace man.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Good advice: Blow up your relationship with your mother

The word "idolatry" conjures up images of funny little carvings of misshapen gods from distant, exotic places like Africa, India or the Pacific Islands. In truth, idolatry is something far closer to home. It looks like this:

Okay, Suzanne Somers is a twinkie who believes some utterly crazy shit so who cares that she decided to share this sentimental crap? Well, a lot of people apparently. Someone I know shared that on Facebook on the anniversary of her mother's death. She's in her eighties and she thinks of her mother as some sort of pantheistic presence.

That isn't healthy. It's a refusal to grow up.

I've spent a lot of time on this blog castigating those who give bad moral advice and not enough on the good advice. Today, I'm going to begin what I hope will be an ongoing series highlighting some of the good advice I've found out there. Beginning with this gem: Blow up your relationship with your and get one step closer to being the man you want to be.

That's good advice even if your mother is dead.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

TOMS shoes, virtue and virtue signalling

I want to be very clear here: A desire to help people in need is a good thing. Paying a little more for a pair of shoes or a messenger bag because you want your purchase to help people is commendable. If that’s you, well done! 
But TOMS and the many other companies like it are the charitable equivalents of yes men. They’re telling you what they think you want to hear in order to get what they want (for you to purchase trendy, pricey accessories), not what you need to hear in order to do what you want (to have your purchase to do as much good in the world as it can) 
TOMS tells you that you that making the world a better place is all about you: that you know best how to help poor people, and that you are so powerful that it will take barely any effort on your part to make a huge difference in the world. 
This is hardly a message that’s limited to TOMS.
Why don't you donate both your kidneys? Sure, you'd die, but you'd help two other people live; perhaps you'd even save two other lives. You'd be dying for a good cause!

As I've said before, we tend to evaluate moral arguments entirely in terms of outputs. That's what, Amanda Taub, the writer of the Vox piece above is doing. She asks, quite reasonably, how much does buying a pair of TOMS shoes really do to help poor people, especially when compared to other things you might do, and figures out that the answer is "not much". That's a good thing I suppose, although I'd be more inclined to wonder why Vox readers get university educations if they still need to have this explained to them after graduating. No one should need more than thirty seconds to figure out that these campaigns are all relatively ineffective. That includes, by the way, the food banks you give to at the checkout of your local grocery store.

But what if we're asking the wrong questions. We start with a simplistic assumption that being good is selfless (that's the input end of a type of moral argument). We move from that to an assessment that says a morally good action is the one that has nothing in it for me while helping others in the most effective way possible. Therefore, don't buy any shoes at all and donate the money you'd spend to a real charity.

It seems to me that TOMS are playing on two things.

  1. TOMS shoes aren't exactly practical. The number of pairs of shoes you really need is probably one. The number of TOMS shoes you really need is zero. If you could only afford one pair of shoes, you'd never buy TOMS. There's a guy who is always outside the local liquor store whose figured this out. You feel guilty about the self indulgence when you by booze instead of simply staying home and drinking water so you're an easy mark.
  2. They are selling you a way of virtue signalling—buying the shoes is a way of telling everyone that you stand for what is good, never mind that what is "good" here shows a kindergarten-level understanding of morality. Adult: What did you learn at school today little boy? Little boy: Sharing is good! The little boy isn't stupid. He knows what answer is going to get him approval. But the little boy also knows that it's all a con. Do you? 
Let's be honest with ourselves and ask what would happen if TOMS shoes weren't doing this charity giveaway? Then we'd just be buying a pair of shoes for ourselves. Be honest, not only do you not consider not buying shoes and giving the money to charity, you don't even go looking for bargains so you'll have more left over for charity when shoe shopping. Sure, there are better ways to help but what if the most likely alternative is doing nothing at all?

The real problem here is not on the doing good end. Sure, there are lots of things you might do to help the poor but you're not going to quit your job, get medical training and go to work in an African hospital—you've already determined to keep leading your life pretty much as it is.

Here's an alternative: be honest about the inputs and your moral decision making will improve. You have no intention of being selfless. Every good and meaningful moral decision you have ever made was driven by your desire to improve yourself. Yes, you care about others but you do so because you want to make something beautiful and good of yourself. Be honest enough to admit that and you should be able to see that buying TOMS shoes is a pretty poor investment not only for the people who need help but they are also a poor investment for your project of making yourself into something beautiful and good when compared to simply living a good life and being a good friend, a good spouse, a good man or woman and a good citizen.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Some thoughts about narcissism

1. Is narcissism too useful for explaining moral failure?

Any time we find something that is really good at explaining human behaviour (or physics or biology for that matter) we should get suspicious. If it seems like a really good explainer, it just might be too good to be true.

2. To analyze is to take apart

Human behaviour is individual and varied and we diminish other people by slotting them into a category like narcissism. A human being is a rich and varied creature who should not be reduced to a bundle of motives and tendencies. 

3. Narcissism is a syndrome

That is to say, it is a group of characteristics that go together. For example, according to the Mayo Clinic narcissism is:
I think that list could use some editing as it seems repetitive to me. 

In any case, any honest person, never mind narcissists, should reasonably worry that some of those apply to them.

I go with the Last Psychiatrist school that links narcissism with an inability to experience guilt, a lack of respect for others boundaries and a tendency to see yourself as the star with everyone else a bit player. I think you need all three but the most important is the inability to experience guilt.

4. Moral emotions

While many emotions are linked to morality, the two most important are shame and guilt. Shame is the primary moral emotion, the one that we learn first. As children we feel shame when our mother is unhappy with us and this is the beginning of our moral development. 

To develop guilt we must first develop an internal moral compass, more commonly known as a conscience. Guilt, while often maligned, is our friend. This chart, which I've used before, gives a good idea why.

Where guilt and shame are at odds are the corners where we need guilt. Consider the top right corner where I believe I did a morally bad thing but others don't. Imagine how much worse you would be if you didn't have guilt. Guilt, like any emotion, can be misplaced but you'd never question your actions except when there was a chance of getting caught if you were incapable of feeling guilt.

The lower left corner is even worse. To live there is to live in a personal hell. That said, it happens to everyone at some point in their life. And think how much worse it would be if you were incapable of experiencing guilt because you had a poorly developed conscience. Then you'd only feel shame and you'd be forever at the mercy of what others thought or at what you feared others might be thinking.

5. Anticipatory shame

It took me a long time to develop a proper moral compass. One of the reasons I was attracted to, and later married, the Lemon Girl is that she does have a strong moral compass. Watching her when we first worked together, I could see that, contrary to what I'd believed all my life, her well-developed conscience gave her greater moral freedom than I had.

I thought a conscience was a burden, a thing that would constantly hem you in. I thought that because, not having much of one, I was using anticipatory shame to do the work that guilt would do. I never really examined my conscience but instead scared myself straight by imagining how awful it would be if others knew the worst about me. That way of thinking really was imprisoning.

6. Was I a narcissist then?

I considered the possibility very seriously. For a narcissist, shame is something to be deflected, thrown back at others, and few things could be as shameful as confronting your own narcissism. I forced myself to consider that I might be. In the end, I think I'm what Dr. Robert Glover called a nice guy. 

Why? Because of the nature of my problem with boundaries. Narcissists have a problem in that they fail to respect other people's boundaries. Instead, I failed to defend my own. I didn't stand up for myself. Far from lacking respect for other people's boundaries, I was letting them build them halfway up what was, metaphorically speaking, my own front lawn.

And that is why I propose to stop talking about narcissism. Looking forward at my own moral development, it has no use. 

7. Conscience is mostly an anterior phenomenon

We think of conscience as something that comes after the fact; we think of it as that niggling sense of guilt or, just as likely, anticipatory shame that comes after we've done something. And that is certainly one thing conscience does. The problem is that we think of it as the main thing.

The rest of the time, we think of conscience as the right to hold or express our most cherished beliefs.

The primary job of conscience is to keep you from doing wrong in the first place. That's why "moral compass" is such an apt expression—it directs towards what is right and away from what is wrong. In fact, even the part of conscience we imagine to be after the fact is really a before. Guilt, the stuff of conscience, of a real moral compass, is a call to do something. If you are guilty, you need to seek redemption by apologizing, doing what you can to right the situation and seeking reconciliation with God. Shame, on the other hand, is entirely out of your hands.

The way to start developing our conscience, I believe, is to ask ourselves the following question: Why be a moral being in the first place? That's next week's topic.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The missing part of the Ashley Madison scandal

Update: The recent revelations that a) women weren't being charged to use the service by AM and b) very few women were using it tends, I think, to reinforce my suspicion that, to the extent that there was anything going on here at all, this was essentially a sugar daddy operation, which is to say a low-level form of prostitution. Not prostitution in the strictly legal sense but definitely in the moral sense. Furthermore, the fact that AM seems to have cared very little about whether their clients got any value out of the product is in line with the ethics of someone who would aid and abet prostitution.

I take it no one is feeling a lot of empathy for Ashley Madison or its subscribers? It's not a business model I want to defend. And yet, there is something rather troubling about the recent threats against the company. To be precise, there are two troubling things about it. Those two things are related.

Here is an interesting line from the statement the hackers released:
Too bad for those men, they’re cheating dirtbags and deserve no such discretion.
That's an astonishingly puritanical statement. It's a long, long way from "hate the sin but pity the sinner". And who appointed these hackers as the moral referees? What if they came after you? 

It's not okay to destroy somebody's life because they did something bad or because they have hateful opinions. The increasingly common belief that it is is a very troubling sign about the state of our culture.

The second issue you may have already guessed: "those men?" The inescapable fact about any heterosexual affair is that you need one man and one woman to manage it. Do a little on-line research and you'll quickly discover blogs by women who discovered their husband was cheating. For example, A Year After the Affair. The woman who runs that blog shared an e-card 

Alasdair MacIntyre reminds us that any morality has an implied sociology. The hackers above have an implied sociology that says that certain kinds of men are evil (I'll get to which kind below). There is also an entire line of feminist thought, starting with Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride, that argues that the other woman should never be blamed because, again, men are evil. And some people perhaps even believe that. I doubt that most of the people who claim to actually do.

The people who run Ashley Madison have another site called Established Men. It's a sugar daddy connector. Men pay for that service. Women get on for free. I suspect that, while pretending to be something else, most of the Ashley Madison business is the same. The women attracted to both are probably single.

And they're probably younger and more attractive than you'd like to think. "Ashley Madison" conjures up an image. That's not for the men. The men already know what they want and wouldn't be put off by having to sift through a "selection" to get what they want. If anything, that's a plus as it would make finding the woman whose picture gets our guy excited feel all the more special if he had to go through a certain number of "duds" to find her. No, the image "Ashley Madison" conjures up is meant for the women (and girls) who go to the site. It tells them what they are supposed to be like. 

There is a female character in a Len Deighton novel who says that infidelity is ninety-five percent opportunity and five percent motivation. For a cheating woman, that's usually true. There is always someone pursuing her—what she needs to make it happen is a situation that makes it easy and safe enough to follow through. She's alone at the cottage mid-week and there is no one else on the lake except her old friend from college whom she's always been curious about and bang, it happens. Quick, easy, no involvement, no elaborate ruse or cover up needed. Most men can only dream of such a thing. What Ashley Madison sells them is the fantasy that they could cheat like a woman.

But for Ashley Madison to work at all you need a whole lot of mercenary women willing to sell sex in order to get money and clothing and good times but who don't want to think of themselves as prostitutes. If I had to guess, I bet there are whole lot more men who fantasize about a ninety-five-percent-opportunity-and-five-percent-motivation affair than there are women willing to be stigma-free sex workers. That said, there must be enough women in that category for sites like Ashley Madison to work at all. 

I'd further bet that you could probably put together an image of the kind of guys the site worked best for. They're fairly wealthy and fairly good-looking with weak social skills. Why weak social skills? Because if a guy with money, looks and strong social skills is stuck in a sexless marriage and wants to cheat he wouldn't need any help finding a partner. On Ashley Madison, a guy wouldn't need to actually be wealthy so much as clearly willing to spend a lot of money. Why does he have to be good looking? So the woman won't have to feel like a prostitute. If she's with an unattractive guy she'll be painfully aware of the status hit she is taking be being seen with him. She feels shame, not guilt, at the thought of being a hooker. What she dreads is someone else in the bar seeing ugly guy spending a lot of money to be with hot woman. 

But angry puritanical hackers and the rest of us being self righteous on social media aren't interested in shaming her? No we aren't but you probably wouldn't want to think about what it is about you that makes you like that for too long. The implied sociology of your moral beliefs would be too depressing and so might the conclusions you'd reach about yourself.

Friday, July 17, 2015


ADDED: I wrote this post a little too quickly because I was tired and see all sorts of typos and missing logical steps by the light of day (even more than usual) that I will have to fix as best I can now.

1. Problem? I'd say more like the saving grace

This is a problem even with some official statements of Catholic social teaching. You don’t know what to do with them. I know something about theology and something about politics and I haven’t a clue.
Catholic social teaching is a mess and it's an outdated mess at that. The only reason most Catholics aren't clamouring for church leaders to do something about this is their, probably well-founded, fear that it could only get worse.

Monday morning afterthought: It strikes me that David Mills, the writer I quote above, real concern is that Catholic social teaching does not and cannot be made to endorse a specific set of policies that he endorses. I can understand his frustration but it is a good thing that Catholic social teaching cannot be made to fit social policy. It is a moral teaching. Its primary concern is with the morality of political and economic choices and not with systems.

I believe democratic republics with free-market capitalism are the best way to protect the freedom and dignity of human beings. Socialism, on the other hand, has a long record of mass oppression and debasement of human beings and sometimes I wish that the church would recognize this. But that's not the church's job.

2. Dialogue?

“I heard that there were some criticisms from the United States. I must begin studying these criticisms, no?” he said. “Then we shall dialogue about them.”
The "he" in question is Pope Francis. He's either sincere about this or he isn't. We'll know soon enough. I'd say the entire future of his papacy depends on his being sincere and open-minded.

I'd add, that I don't think a meaningful dialogue would be possible during his fall visit. The most he can do is to promise to begin such a dialogue. If the Pope is hoping to come here and settle the issue and then go home, he'll fail.

3. Demythologize the papacy?

At Lourdes, Mary is reported to have said, "I am the Immaculate Conception". The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was still being debated at the time and that statement pretty much settled that. Well, okay ...

... okay, but this has created an unfortunate tendency within the church to settle matters by appeal to authority. Far too many people are keen to create doctrine and to be able to order their opponents shut up.

Francis's efforts to demythologize the papacy are healthy corrective for this. Many will object that there are far too many abuses and that we need a strong hand in the Vatican to stop them. That's a nice idea in theory but it calls for a perfect being in the chair and we don't have that. 

4. Male pride

Humorists have produced a lot of scathing parodies of male pride over the years. When I was a university student, this guy was a favourite.

Reportedly based on a guy that Bloom County creator Berkeley Breathed hated in real life. Steve Dallas was officially mocked but secretly loved on my campus. More than a few young men found that women gravitated to them when they stopped trying to be what women claimed they wanted in a man and just did what Steve would do. 

While officially mocked right, left and centre, male pride is a highly attractive quality even in an otherwise morally dubious package.

5. As long as the ref doesn't see me

Alice Goffman has gotten plenty criticism, and deserves every bit of it, for her academic work. You can read about it here. But even beyond that, she provides tons evidence of her own moral emptiness.
“Later, the detectives came in: three white guys in plain clothes. Hearing that I hadn’t been at the scene when Chuck was shot, they rolled right past me,” Goffman writes. “By this time I didn’t know exactly who’d killed Chuck, but I had a pretty good idea. We’d spent much of every day together in the months before he’d been shot, and I’d also been around for the previous war. I was thinking I certainly could’ve helped narrow it down for the police, if they’d bothered to ask me. But they didn’t.”
You see this attitude in young hockey players all the time: the fact that he slashed another player across the face is only a moral issue if the ref saw it. What Goffman should have done, what any moral person would do, is to have approached the police and told them that she had information that could help.

Notice also, that Goffman is terribly race conscious. Why doe we need to be told that the police officers are white?

Caveat: It's entirely possible she didn't really have any information that would be useful to the police but likes to believe that she did and so has convinced herself that she did.