Monday, May 26, 2014

Denial Of Death: The Metrics

 Creepy picture by Jean Fouquet via Wikimedia Commons
Maybe you have your own pet theory about these things, but here in the mind of the accidental philosopher there's one thing clear about human behavior: a lot of what we do we do to avoid thinking about the fact that we're going to die.

People sometimes act like that's a bad thing. Like, sometimes you encounter people who are all mad about "materialism" or "kids today" and who say things like "all that shopping, it's just people trying desperately to avoid facing their own mortality, it's pathetic" or "all that social networking, it's just people desperately trying to avoid facing their own mortality, it's pathetic."

In my view these people have really got hold of the wrong end of the stick. Because the question isn't whether we do things to avoid thinking about mortality. Of course we do. What the hell is pathetic about that? If you're really thinking clearly about it, how is there any rational response to the fact of mortality other than life-destroying sadness? The only proper response is avoidance and repression.

So the question isn't whether that's what we're doing. The question is how suited our behaviors are to the task at hand. That's what we really need to know.

Since we're here in 2014, let's put it this way: what we need are metrics.

I propose two.

First, of course, you want to know how effective the relevant behavior is: just how distracted are you from death while you're doing the thing? This will vary from person to person, of course, but there may be some generalities.

Second, you want to know how harmless the relevant behavior is: is your death denial someone else's second-hand smoke? If it is, you got a problem.

Despite some obvious problems, shopping measures up better than you think. For people who like to shop, shopping is extremely effective at all kinds of mood improvement. I hate it when people act like the problem with spending money on clothes, shoes, and gear is that it doesn't make you feel better. Duh, of course it makes you feel better. There might be other reasons not to do it, but only the Harmony Myth of Human Nature would trick you into thinking that just because something is problematic it can't also be really great.

On the harmlessness metric, I'm giving shopping a C+ -- not great, but needs improvement. Finer points of the analysis would get into the effects of capitalism on economic growth, the effects of spending rather than giving, and the effect of piles of useless crap on the environment. Before you get ready to fail shopping on the harmlessness metric, consider how it stacks up against violent masculinist sports -- another classic death denial activity.

IMO, the metric analysis of denial of death puts a number of the classic denial activities in a more positive light.

1. Pointless social networking.

Say what you want about pointless social networking. As a distraction from death -- well, it's pretty goddamn distracting. As people are always saying, it distracts us from everything. So high score there. And if you do it right, it's pretty harmless.

Main downsides: uses electricity, entails risks of making yourself annoying or offensive to larger groups of people.

2. Sex.

Sex is the classic denial of death activity, one of the main things that, when you're in the middle of it, is so absorbing it casts out everything else. Highly effective.

In terms of harmlessness, sex gets a bad rap. IMHO the problem isn't sex, but sexism and other stupidities: in the ridiculous world of men "scoring" and women "giving it away," -- yeah, of course, problems. Don't forget -- as we've said before on this blog, if you want sex, work for feminism.

3. General time wasting.

People like to waste time, and there's always a lot of hand-wringing about it, like oh noes, some people are wasting time when they could be Achieving Something. But when you look at the destructive aspects of some kinds of death denial, the peace and quiet of general time wasting starts looking pretty good.

I often think of the Pascal quote: "All of humanity's problems stem from [our] inability to sit quietly in a room alone."

Next time you're thinking of engaging in a little death denial, don't be too hard on yourself. If you not screwing up the world and being horrible to other people, you're probably ahead of the curve. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Everything That's Wrong With The World Today: Driving Edition

À cheval, by Jan Verhas [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Regular readers know: I hate to drive.

Usually I get around by bus, subway, train and the occasional taxi. But once in a while there is an errand or task I have to perform that brings me face to face with the central dilemma of North American life: whether to take once of those drives we've conditioned ourselves to think of as reasonable despite the fact that a moment's inattention could kill you and several strangers, or whether to take an insane multi-stage bus trip ending in a place where people treat "taxis" like a bizarre foreign luxury brand. In these situations, I borrow my friend's car.

And then when I'm driving, I'm always like, WTF? Because really, driving mirrors and perpetuates the very worst qualities of modern life.

1. Driving makes you see other people as just annoying obstacles

The main thing about driving is that other people are simply in your way, doing nothing for you except pissing you off.

In other circumstances the presence of other people is almost always a mix of the bad and good. Sure they might be nattering on and on about how their weight-loss regime is so flexible and easy-going, they actually had a glass of wine a week ago Saturday! (actual thing I heard) but even so, they can be interesting and fun to watch and listen to and really, would you want to sit all by yourself on a completely empty bus? It would be a little creepy.

But in the car, forget it. The existence of other people in other cars is just making your life worse. Who prefers a crowded lane to an empty highway? No one.

2. Driving makes you think you're a rugged individual, taking responsibility for yourself

When you drive, you make literal the whole metaphor of Being In The Driver's Seat. There's something about the combination of the car and the road gives you an almost irresistible feeling that you are In Control. Want to go fast? Push your foot down! Want to slow down? Put your foot down differently! You can DO ANYTHING and you don't need help from anybody -- except, of course, needing them to get out of your way.

I often think of an image I encountered in a book by Jonathan Haidt, where he describes being on the back of a horse or donkey or something, and being in a very dangerous and delicate situation near a cliff -- he is seized with fear that he won't be able to make it safely, then suddenly realizes, he is not DRIVING A CAR, where it does whatever you want, he's ON AN ANIMAL who has the same interest in not falling that he has. It's no problem. The animal steps carefully and they find their way.

3. Driving makes you see other people as utterly expendable

It's shocking that this should be so, but it seems to be. It's bizarre. People who will give up a whole day to run some race or something for cancer research in a tiny contribution to an effort to maybe possibly help someone survive an illness also get merrily in the car without giving a moment's thought to the fact that it is quite easy and even possible that they will kill someone.

I think it's like this: you feel you have to drive, so you do a little one-man's-ponens-is-another-man's-tollens and conclude that the risk must be tolerable -- that is, you adjust your judgments about tolerable risks to fit your judgment that driving is ho-hum-just-another-activity, because not driving is intolerable.

When I mentioned recently to a family member that driving made me anxious because in cases of accidents and inattention it's possible to kill other people, they were like "Dude, you are one weird person."

4. Driving makes you one angry mo-fo

Haven't you noticed this?

5. Driving makes musing feel like thinking

Often on a long drive you feel like you're "thinking about things," because on a long drive many thoughts go through your mind. But it's in the nature of driving that you can't really follow any of those thoughts through. They come by, and you see them, and you feel "Oh, a thought!" and then the car in front of you slows down or there's something strange by the side of the road and you're distracted until two minutes later when another thought comes by and you feel again "Oh, a thought!"

The result is that while you feel like you're thinking because you're having "thoughts," you're not really engaging in anything like the sustained active reflection characteristic of actual thinking -- and, I might add, actually facilitated by a long bus or train trip where all you're doing is staring out the window.

When you drive, you're just musing about things, seeing the thoughts go by. Drive enough, and you find yourself in the condition so characteristic of the modern era: unable to actually put thoughts together and, you know, think about them. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Rationality Of Gangsterism: Morality, Self-Interest, Organized Crime, And Economics

A few years ago I saw that movie Gamorrah about the organized crime syndicate the Camorra based in Naples, and I still remember vividly how it opens, with a visually brilliant scene of the crime guys in a tanning salon getting beautified. They're wearing goggles to protect their eyes, and there's an intense light, and it looks so cool and interesting and just when you're thinking wow, that's awesome, so cool, I'd like to ... BAM-- they're getting shot and there's blood everywhere.

It's a mind-blowing movie along several dimensions, but in many ways the book, which I read later, is even more so. It opens with the scene of a container ship at the port, breaking open by mistake as it is hoisted up, spilling out dead bodies onto the ground. The bodies, it turns out, are those of undocumented Chinese workers who had put aside money all their lives so they could be buried back in China once they were dead.

The author, Roberto Saviano, who studied these matters extensively and now lives in hiding, goes on to describe communities in which virtually everyone is subject to the terrorizing tactics of the mob: cooperate with us, or we will simply kill you, the power of the mob being such that it can terrorize government entities as well as citizens so there's no way out.

I think about Gamorrah all the time, and I especially think about it when I read about economic rationality, self-interest, and morality. Economics models people as self-interested, and rational insofar as they choose the best ways of maximizing their personal, self-interested preferences. So right away you could be forgiven for wondering: so what about morality? Is being moral irrational? Are the killers of the mob just rational economic agents? If not, why not? From the point of view of self-interested rationality, what are they doing wrong?

Generally, there are several ways to navigate around this problem of morality and self-interest. One is to say that morality is, itself, just a matter of preferences: the person who keeps their promise at great personal cost *seems* to be acting contrary to their self-interest, their actually acting *in* their self-interest, getting a psychic benefit from a ping of satisfaction or something from refraining from killing or whatever.

One puzzle about that view is that it seems to say morality never requires acting contrary to what you want to do, never requires constraining your behavior -- while it sure seems like morality sometime requires you to constrain your behavior and do what you don't want to do. And really -- if it's only your scruples or your conscience getting in the way of your carrying out that series of murders whose completion would benefit you in other ways, then wouldn't it make the most sense to just try to eliminate the scruples, get over your conscience, learn to stop worrying and love the bomb? The gangster with conscience pangs could just take Klonopin.

Another very different way to navigate around the problem is to say that constraining your behavior is somehow actually in your interest even when it's not what you feel you want to do, because in an implicit social contract you benefit more from certain rules being followed than you do from violating the rules yourself. For example, if you gain more from everyone else refraining from killing you than you do from getting to kill others, then it's rational to accept a constraint against murder, and to refrain from doing it even when you want to or it's in your interest.

This contractarian answer says that the moral rules are the ones that would benefit each person, if everyone followed the rules. Since the idea is to say that acting morally is acting rationally, in order to explain the wrongness of murder, theft, blackmail, etc, it would have to be the case that no matter who you are, you are better off in a system in which no one does those things and you don't do them either than you would be in a system in which people do do those things and you do too.

What happens if we apply this reasoning to the mob example? One of the most vivid aspects of the Gamorrah book talks about the way people choose organized crime because in some town the main alternative for making an honest living is working in factories that make handbags and stuff and how the hours are long and punishing, the pay is low, and your hands are perpetually dirty with black stuff. Compared to that, life in the mob makes people much better off.

Now think about the young recruits. They face the choice: work in the factory, OR -- go kill that guy and earn big bucks, respect, and protection of various kinds. On the face of it, I'd have to say that in the situation they find themselves, it could be in their self-interest to kill.

The contractarian response to this is to say sure, it might be in their self-interest to kill in their situation, but if everyone were following the rules it would not be. That is, as long as everyone obeyed the contract not to kill, it would be rationally self-interested for this guy not to kill, and that's the reason he'd have for constraining his action.

Though the matter is complex, doesn't this seem like saying that when a lowly member of a crime gang carries out a series of killings, his actions are wrong because and insofar as the prosperity engendered by a lack of organized crime would make him better off than he is now?

And when you think about the possible rewards of organized crime, the fact that killings can be so richly rewarded, with material goods and non-material ones, doesn't this seem striking, and interesting, and maybe false?

Picture a obedient but slow-witted guy. Maybe if he kills for his boss he gets a fancy car, money, etc. Is it really true that if everyone followed the rules and he followed them as well, he'd be better off? Fancier car? More money?  Wouldn't it depend on the economic distribution of his society, how much inequality there is? If he's at the bottom, mightn't he be better off with his crime job?

If this is right, it would seem that people are economically rational to play by the rules and not lie, cheat, steal, and kill, only in the presence of certain distributional facts -- and only when there's limited inequality.

Otherwise, as long as you can get away with it, why play by the rules at all? From the point of view of the economically rational self-interested agent, it would seem hard to find a reason.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Unbounded Obligation to Shop, The Deadly Virtue of Uncalled-For-Thrift, and My Price-Comparison Doppelganger

I was making dinner last Saturday and I went to cut up a red pepper and I couldn't get the price sticker off. I scraped and scraped as I ran the thing under hot water, and bits of red pepper and bits of paper got under my fingernail, and I got really irritated, and I got to thinking of all the other times I've been driven crazy by not being able to get sticker residue off a thing or not being able to open a package or whatever. Patricia struggles with modern packaging.

Thinking about packaging and its discontents got me thinking about what the purported solutions to such problems are supposed to be. There's a certain kind of thinking that would tell you that these are the kinds of problems that have market solutions. Markets self-correct: if you don't like some aspect of some product you can find a similar product with a different product and voilà! Like a magic show or a montage in a movie, next week I'd be standing in front of the same sink in the same kitchen with the same glass of cabernet and the same expression on my face but I'd be washing a red pepper with an improved sticker.

Thinking about this movie-land capitalist solution got me thinking about what would be required for this to happen in real life, and I started picturing a world in which each little grocery store like the one on my corner carried otherwise identical red peppers but they each had different stickers -- a situation that would allow me to express my consumer preferences for sticker types. I pictured what I would have go to through to find out the red peppers were all the same except for sticker types, and to find out that the stickers themselves varied, and how I would have to go to every store and sample all the red peppers to see which sticker I liked best. This is a task anyone could certainly carry out -- assuming they didn't have a job to go to, a family to take care of, or healthy meals to prepare, and assuming they didn't want to do anything else with their lives beyond exercising consumer choice, like read books, play the piano, hang out with friends, or think about things.

Thinking about my doppelganger in this other world running around shopping and comparing options reminded me of this post on Naked Capitalism, originally by Corey Robin, talking about how "how much time and energy our capitalist world requires us to waste" reading up on things, keeping track of multiple accounts, looking for opportunities and comparing options -- a burden that, because they don't have accountants and personal assistants to do it for them, falls way more heavily on poorer people.

Thinking about the burdens of participating in extreme capitalism reminded me of the time we were renewing our mortgage (it's a Canada thing; don't worry about it) and we had a mortgage broker, who is someone paid to help you find the best deal for your needs, but who makes money from the bank, so the customer doesn't have to pay. You can imagine someone's glee at this concept: they have to help you find a good rate, so competition will be enforced! In fact the broker was fixated on the irrationality of preferring a fixed rate mortgage to a variable rate mortgage -- a preference I formed knowing it might cost me more dollars overall but preferring to have the peace of mind and predictability of a fixed rate so I could pay attention to other things, like reading books and talking to people and not thinking about my bank account.

Thinking about this choice I'd made to possibly not pay as little as possible reminded me of this paper I encountered last year on "Reclaiming Virtue Ethics for Economics" and how it included an argument about the importance -- the moral value, even -- of competitive shopping. The paper cites Mill associating the willingness to pay more with "indolence," and in its own formulation, say that "the the inclination to shop around, to compare prices, and to experiment with new products and new suppliers must be a virtue for consumers."

Thinking about the idea of virtue ethics for economics reminded me of another part of that paper, where they talk about the importance of having respect for the taste's of one's trading partners, and how that means partly "don't do this really dumb thing this guy did once where he referred to his own product as crap" but which also seems to mean that trying to give to people things they themselves want -- the authors say it's important to respect the preferences of the customer. And I thought again of the question I'd had at the time I first read the paper, which had to do with advertising, because in the version of capitalism we actually live in you'd be forgiven for thinking the businessperson's main goal is inducing in the customer a desire for something they didn't think they wanted, so that you could sell it to them. Were the authors committing themselves to the idea that advertising was immoral?

Thinking about the virtuous shopper whose boundless energy would propel her from store to store to find the most value for the best price reminded me of this Roz Chast cartoon I have on  my office door of the "Seven Deadly Virtues" with the one panel about "Uncalled-for-thrift" where the woman is saying "Dented Cans of Peas, only thirty-nine cents!" and I thought about how passionate I am about avoiding uncalled-for-thrift, how it's been such a big part of my life, about how even when I was a waitress and made no money, I preferred to wear the same clothes all the time and take the bus and be a little wasteful to scrimping and saving and comparison shopping and buying dented peas so I could afford some bourgeois thing like a bed frame or whatever.

As I finished chopping the red pepper I looked up over the kitchen counter, thinking about the deadly virtue of uncalled-for-thrift, and my friend said, "What's wrong? You have such a serious expression on your face," and I said, "Oh, I was just thinking about some things."