Solipsism exists in various strength of formulation. The word itself comes from the Latin “Solus” meaning alone, and “ipse” meaning “self“, the position of this philosophy is that one’s own mind is the only thing one can be certain of exists. As an epistemological position, it posits that everything outside of ones own mind is unsure, in terms of metaphysics it can go so far as to say that the outside world and other minds does not exist. The best known formulation from a solipsist philosopher is perhaps Descartes “I think, therefore I am”. From this perspective, it is perhaps the rejection of empiricism, and to some extent the embrace of reason as the guiding force. However, where it becomes interesting is in the acceptance of logic as a guidance for thought. Continue reading
The whole model of human cognition is interesting from the perspective of modelling something. The whole concept behind a model, be it financial, technical, structural or other forms is to represent something that exists in reality in a different way. A financial model may represent different outcomes mixing macro and micro economics to form scenarios of “what if” allowing your to play with various premises and conclusions and see the results.
The funny thing about the model of human cognition is that there are about 160 biases that behavioral economists talk about when trying to fit the model of “homo economicus” with observed behavior. Economics was always big on making conditions that would make it seem more science and less art, I suppose that has to do with the positivist and quantitative bias within the field. However, if you need a 163 exceptions in order to make your model fit, you do not have a model, you have data points that you need to find a fitting model for. Its a classic example of starting with a conclusion and finding a set of premises that work. Continue reading
The idea for this post was one that just dropped into my head as I was putting away groceries and I’m not really sure why. For those who are not familiar with the FOG concept, it is an acronym for “Fear, Obligation and Guilt” which are three primary mechanisms of manipulation. To give some examples, when you see a group of boys playing, and when one of them refuses to do something the group wants, the calls of “are you chicken?” combined with various physical gestures and clucking quickly follows. In this case, they are using the target’s fear of losing social status as a mechanism to get him to do something he really does not want to do.
When you see parents trying to get their children to visit their annoying uncle, and the “he’s family” statements start to come out, they are playing on the children’s feeling of obligation to the family construct, or to wider social values.
Finally, if the parents start to tell the children “remember how your uncle gave you that great present for [insert time]“, they are playing on the children’s feeling of guilt. The funny thing about all three of these is that humans have irrational fears, we feel obligated when we have not accepted an obligation, and some even feel guilty for putting themselves first. Continue reading
As you go through life, you will find yourself meeting and working with many different people. Some of them will be brilliant, some of them will be so intellectually challenged that you ask yourself how they managed to tie their shoes without killing themselves, and most will be absolutely mediocre. With experience comes the ability to learn which category someone fits into rather quickly, but unfortunately, it is often camouflaged by credentials and other forms of social proof.
If someone told you “My friend would be perfect for you, she has a great personality, she’s intelligent and she is so caring!” would you take them on their word, or would your internal voice be saying “So, she’s ugly then?” This is what you will encounter if you elect to go through life avoiding long-term relationships, a series of people presenting the “Eligibility CV” of their various questionable friends, accomplices and malcontents. “She is a great and caring girl, (you can tell from the 11 cats/dogs she adopted)”, “She is so generous (you can tell from the hundreds of thousands of credit card debt)”, “She will be such a great mother and housewife (she cannot really handle working)”. “She is such a free spirit (you just cannot count on this bitch)” or my personal favorite “She has a really rambunctious personality, and is a strong woman (she will nag you to death, and start fights over nothing)”
Social proof comes in many forms, personal recommendations, the reputations of former employers or the degree awarding institution that signed off on this person having a certain level of competence. However, one must take into account the incentives each of these parties have to be less than truthful.
The case for third-party trust
When you start reading red pill literature “Social proof” is probably one of the first concepts you hear about, frequently in the context of “If you are with an attractive woman, other women are more interested in you, because of social proof/pre-selection“. From a business perspective it could be argued as the equivalent of credit rating agencies, or other organizations that offer analysis, due diligence and other services that aim to reduce risk. In this example, a case of trust in a third-party, leading to you suspending your own critical analysis. It is a form of “Milgram experiment light”  Rather than engaging our brain in the energy intensive work of research and analysis, we elect to take the easy way out by assuming that someone else has already done such critical analysis and research.
We put our trust in that a second party has the knowledge base and necessary critical thinking ability to make an educated judgment about a given situation, thus saving ourselves the need to engage in calorie intensive system 2 thinking. I can see where this made sense in terms of evolution, the basic idea of teaching is that each human being does not have to expend the necessary energy to learn a range of information that could be made available to them in a more efficient way. However, the human preference for “cheap and easy” over “expensive and difficult” tends to have unintended consequences. Nowhere is this more clear than in the “diet and weight-loss” industry, which is overflowing with quick-fixes and magic pills for a problem that is both complex and challenging. The answer is simple, but the execution is difficult.
When we accept an analysis from a third-party, we are in fact not only saving energy by accepting our analysis, we are saving energy in our critical evaluation of their knowledge and experience base for making such an analysis. Human interpersonal relationships is a lot like art history, in that there are certain facts and some technical knowledge that could be used to make sounder and more accurate judgments, however they tend not to be used because “it’s about emotions“.
So the judgments you do not accurately make when accepting a third party analysis is:
A) That they made this analysis using the relevant facts.
B) That they made the analysis using sound and valid logic
C) That they are not hampered by bias
D) That they do not have a vested interest.
For instance, when your mother sets you up with that “nice girl from next door” by saying “She is such a nice responsible, go-getter” did she take into account:
A) That the “nice girl next door” is still living next door at 32, because she has had 5 different “careers“, and has 3 baby daddies?
B) Did they use logic to construct a syllogism such as:
Premise 1: She has 3 kids by 3 different men.
Premise 2: She has had 5 different careers in 10 years.
Premise 3: People who are stable, responsible adults have stable career paths.
Premise 4: People who are responsible adults do not have 3 baby daddies.
Conclusion: Therefore she is not stable, responsible or an adult.
C) Did your mother consider that perhaps she is influenced by a bias that you should be married at your age, or perhaps that since she never goes out and only interacts with “nice responsible girl next door” that she may have a massive case of availability bias.
D) Does your mother’s desire for grandchildren, and her failing health influence her urgency for you to knock someone up?
These will obviously differ from person to person, D could just as easily be that your best friend just got married, his wife only lets him hang out with “couples friends” thus he wants to couple you up so you can double-date and he can get some freedom from the utter boredom. However, a third party will always have their own interests and therefore, one runs into a case of agent-principal.
This type of proof is also sometimes called “borrowed authority” in that a speaker borrows or transfers authority from one field or area into another, or from one person to another. One example is the “Dr. So and So said solar roadways makes sense” without mentioning that “Dr So and So” has a doctorate in education. Even children understand this concept intuitively when they argue with their siblings or friends using such arguments from authority as “My mom says” or “Teacher said that“. They are borrowing the authority of a third party to add more weight to their argument, but in doing so they are fairly free to play around with the information. The concept of information asymmetry touches on this in that it deals with two parties having access to differing information with usually one party having more or better information than the other.
You will face the referential proof issue less in your dating life as a man because men tend not to be convinced by arguments such as “You know, she fucked the lead singer of Whitesnake in the back of their tour bus” or “She dated rich wealthy men“, but they are crack to women. If you can offer a woman third-party referential proof that you are a high status man you win. However, men are very prone to assume that because someone is something, they can tell you how to become what they are. However, this is not always the case. Those who have interacted with men who are “naturally good with women“, have without a doubt experienced the natural’s “You just talk to them man” or “Just act like you normally do“, which is true for them, but offer you little in terms of actionable advice.
Referential proof is faced frequently in the job market, where it is a very high contributor to why certain types of people get hired. This is a function of brand image in many cases where people have a certain perception of a company or an institution that lead them to associate the qualities and reputation of the institution or company, with the person. In some cases, the reputation of the institution and the reputation of the company, are intertwined in a manner which creates synergy for both of them. A great example is Harvard University, that through connections to top ranked firms in both consulting and finance are able to place graduates at these firms, not necessarily graduate merit, which leads to a perception of Harvard as the way to the big leagues, and lead to the perception of the firm as prestigious and selective. This becomes known as a self-reinforcing feedback loop, that benefits both brands by increasing their status through synergy.
This plays into a variant of the halo effect  where the quality of the work done by a person, and that person are viewed more favorably as a result of marketing rather than concrete results.
Summary and conclusions
Everyone has people in their life who they trust and who gives valued advice. However, if one discounts the incentives behind the advice, or hold the wrong person in high regard, this can be a perilous journey. Referential authority often holds a lot of weight, and that if you can figure out what authority figures a person you are trying to manipulate view through the halo-effect, you can add force to your manipulations. Social programming relies heavily on referential authority, and repetition in order to slowly alter our perceptions and opinions in the desired direction.
Beware of authority in general, and be aware that in order to be a thinking man, you have to do the work. You cannot get by allowing other people to influence the most important decisions you will make in your life. Getting advice is one thing, we all need and want that at differing times, however once you stop relying on your own knowledge base and logical faculties, you have given up control of your own mind and life. Beware of people who use their academic credentials or employers as shields.
Thinking fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
Influence by Dr. Robert Caldini
The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli
Since I first heard that “gender is a social construct” I’ve done some light reading on the topic to see what the actual science is, but no definitive answer has been given. Biological sex is a fact and well defined in literature on biology. Gender is defined as “the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex”  as biology defines sex as being binary and follows purely physical traits. Gender on the other hand, is not strictly defined as being purely about the physical, as it includes behavioral and psychological traits that have social influences, and culture which is an entirely social phenomenon.
In our societies we have legislation that does deign some behaviors unlawful. We punish unlawful behavior with legal sanctions such as prison or fines. Whether or not a behavior is in truth unlawful depends both on the behavior and the subject context. For instance, someone can be declared not competent to stand trial, as a result of among other things mental illness. In this case, we are saying that the behavior was unlawful, yet the personal biological/medical circumstances of the person who committed the crime, are such that it cannot be punished.
We could say that our justice system is based on people being actors, that are able to tell lawful behavior from unlawful. Thus, we create axiom 1: Able to tell lawful behavior from unlawful behavior.
Secondly, we have to consider which behaviors could be deemed unlawful. Can something that is biological be illegal? This goes towards the human construct of government and by extension law, versus the reality of biology. Of course, we have cases of genetics such as the warrior genes, that may make someone more likely to be violent, however as long as they can tell lawful from unlawful behavior, this is not a recognized legal defense.
So from this we can create 2 principles for making something illegal:
A) People have to be able to tell what is legal and what is not legal. (Competency)
B) One cannot legislate against biology.
The basic argument presented to make homosexuality no longer unlawful behavior was as follows:
Premise 1: You cannot make something biological illegal.
Premise 2: Homosexuality is biological
Conclusion:Therefore, you cannot make homosexuality illegal.
This is a logically valid argument. Premise 1 is widely accepted in legal circles, both in terms of principles but also in terms of practice. Premise 2 is contested, but the science is starting to come in on the topic. What homosexuality is, is the attraction to someone sharing your biological sex. If homosexuality is genetic/biological then it follows that who you are attracted to is hardwired in your brain. In terms of economics we could argue that what sex you are attracted to is the “need” and your preferences in a partner is the “want”. In the same way that need is “thirst” but your preference for a drink is Miller Lite.
Feminism has long claimed that there is no such thing as male or female brains. That despite the differing hormonal cocktails we receive throughout pregnancy and life, in addition to differing chromosomes this does not influence the functionality of the brain.    Which brings an interesting contradiction. If there is no such thing as male or female brains, then how can someone be born as “the wrong gender”? After all, trans is rapidly becoming the new gay, and the basic premise of trans is “being born as male and identifying as female” or “being born as female and identifying as male“.
If I put this in the form of a syllogism:
Premise 1: Gender is a social construct
Premise 2: People can be born as the wrong gender
Conclusion: Therefore, people can be born as the wrong social construct.
This is a logically valid argument, but the conclusion does not make sense. If you are born as something, then it is biological, this follows from the fact that social construct cannot come into play until you exist within a social group. Secondly, if gender is a social construct, then you are not born as a gender, you develop into it as a result of social interaction. If I restructure the syllogism:
Premise 1: Sex is biological.
Premise 2: People can be born with the wrong sex.
Conclusion: Therefore, trans is biological.
This argument works in terms of validity. Premise 1 is uncontroversial, however, there is little proof for premise 2.
Our self-perception must come from the brain, as it is the only organ in our body that has the capability to process information in the manner required to construct your self-image.
The trouble really arrives when you try to keep all these 3 positions in your mind at once.
The conclusion to the homosexuality-principle “What sex you are attracted to” is biological.
The conclusion to the transgender-principle “What sex you identify as” is biological.
The conclusion to the feminist-principle “There are no biological sex differences in the brain”.
I outlined the reason why there is an incentive to make both homosexuality and transgender biological from the perspective of advocates for both groups. If something is biologically contingent, then discrimination against it, would be violating basic human rights as it puts it in the same category as race.
Feminism on the other hand has a very strong incentive to make everything related to gender a social construct, because if it is not, then the convergent evolution of similar gender-roles within a disparate group of cultures indicates the superiority from an evolutionary perspective of the current status quo. Furthermore, rather than the oppressive thumb of the patriarchy oppressing the feminine sex for all of history, the current status is a result of individual choice on an aggregate level over a long period of time.
After all, if gender roles are the result of biology which drives choices made by men and women, then it follows that working to “make things equal” is undermining the very choices made by both women and men in the first place. This is where concepts such as “internalized patriarchy” become very insulting to women, by implying that a woman who has made choices that do not fit within the permitted choices outlined by feminism, is not doing so because she is in fact a strong, independent woman, but because she is brainwashed. To construct yet another syllogism:
Premise 1: You are attracted to a sex.
Premise 2: You identify as a sex.
Premise 3: There is no such thing as biological sex.
Premise 4: Sex is a social construct
Conclusion A: Therefore, the sex you are attracted to is a social construct. (From 1, 3, 4)
Conclusion B: Therefore, the sex you identify as is a social construct (from 2, 3, 4)
The questionable premises here are 3 and 4 in terms of soundness, but the argument is valid. If I restructure as:
Premise 1: You are attracted to a sex
Premise 2: You identify as a sex
Premise 3: Sex is biological
Conclusion: Therefore, the sex you are attracted to, and the sex you identify as are biological
I don’t think a single one of those premises are hotly contested in science, and the argument is valid.
The takeaway from this diatribe is that feminism in it’s rush to stay relevant through intersectionality, has become a religion where the basic premises end up in a form of Kettle Logic where the whole system of thought falls apart because it is built on contradictory premises. I’ll demonstrate why:
If sex is biological, then it follows that certain behaviors are biological as well. Such as women being more inclined by nature to take care of children. If women are more inclined by nature to take care of children, it follows that behaviors that would result in more successful child-rearing would be selected for by evolution.
From a perspective of mathematics:
If you have 2 women, one has an 80% chance of successfully raising a child to reproductive age, the other 50%.
Both women are identical in every other way.
They become capable of pregnancy at 16, and become unable to have children by age 45. (29 reproductive years) At 1 child pr year, this is a total of 29 children, out of which the 50% mom will raise 14 – 15, and the 80% mom will raise 23 – 24. In one generation, mom-80% had 12 daughters who inherit her gene for successful child-rearing, and mom-50% had 7. In generation 2, the 12 go on to have a total of 278 children, 139 of which inherit her successful gene. In the second generation mom-50% has 7 daughters who have 101 daughters inhering her gene. Over a few hundred this compounds to the point where the 80% gene is in most of the female population.
Some would be inclined to dismiss this argument as “biological determinism” but that isn’t really the case. The core premise of evolution by natural selection is that organisms that adapt the best to their circumstances survive and reproduce, whereas organisms that do not adapt, die out. For something to be deterministic, it would indicate having no choice in how your life played out. In essence, by knowing someone’s genetics, we would be able to tell exactly how their life will play out. The argument is that over the span of hundreds of generations, certain behaviors and the genes that influence them have been much more successful in the survive and reproduce game than other genes. Therefore, these genes are now present in a very high proportion of the population, and therefore lead to successful behaviors being widespread within a population.
The “biological determinism” accusation is frequently a false dichotomy where arguments from biology is pitted against the debunked “Blank slate” hypothesis.
The core of this essay, is that you cannot on one end argue that gender is a social construct, while holding the position that both what gender you are attracted to, and what gender you perceive yourself as are biological. This becomes a contradiction. Gender is by definition the manifestation of behaviors, cultural or psychological traits associated with one sex.
If we go back a few hundred years prior to the industrial revolution, most countries in the world had what is referred to as an agrarian economy. The central principles of this is that the majority of capital is allocated towards activities linked to agricultural production. The result of this is a largely decentralized population, because people tend to live where it was possible to grow food, while supply-chains were not efficient enough and we lacked the technology to preserve food during transport.
This is the situation that much of the world is still in, people live on small, rural and family owned farms. Mixed crop production is still common, as people try to have production of their own staples, and the production is largely done by traditional methods.
Sure, goods that are not food are still produced, but at a smaller and much more local scale in such an economy. There are factories, but they tend to be small, and work largely off collectives or guilds of artisans.
The industrial revolution provided manufacturing jobs on a scale not seen before, and the capital made its transition away from agriculture and country estates to real estate in cities and manufacturing plants. This enabled us to produce both a higher quality and quantity of goods through specialization. This brings something referred to as “economies of scale” into the mix, which is basically that the cost of production drops with additional units as fixed costs are distributed across an increasing number of units.
Combined with higher levels of specialization, meaning that people get really good at one thing, rather than having to be passable at 4 or 5 things, means that production efficiency goes up, which means a higher production at less inputs. This continued to happen throughout the 19th and 20th century where manufacturing slowly became the giant industry that was the engine of the economies of the United States and most of Western Europe. You make stuff in your country and sell it both in your own country and to trading partners internationally. As long as you had a largely domestic production, you got jobs and good standards of living for your citizens. You get a nice import-export balance, and a nice boost to GDP every year. As communications improved and you could export more and more goods, someone had a bright idea that if wages are lower outside of your country, and most of your market is inside your country, you could in theory produce in lets say Asia, then ship and import the goods into your own country to sell them there.
This would bring down cost, while maintaining margins, resulting in a higher return on capital invested. This efficiency bug bit into most of manufacturing starting with Taylorism and still going strong today with consulting companies ready to “Pimp your Profits” with the latest and greatest in buzzwords and PowerPoint presentations.
All the while this was going on and we were slowly making the transition from a mostly local, then regional, then national and then finally international economy, someone theorized that if you reduced tax burden on the wealthiest citizens, it followed that their tax savings would go towards investing in more business to make even more money. This follows fairly logically from the 3 things you can do with money, save, spend or invest. The wealthy tend to spend less of their income as a percentage than the less wealthy, they tend to know that savings accounts are the worst place to put your money and as they are wealthy they have a proven track-record of earning good returns on capital.
This logic is sound, but as we had also made the transition from a mostly national economy, where fair enough regional variances played into where you would build your factory, but it benefited the country giving the tax cut. We were now living in a global economy, where national circumstances still played a part, but where the options for where to invest were much greater. For instance, a U.S tycoon who would have picked starting a factory in Mississippi in 1960, could now establish his factory in Guandong province in China, or in Malaysia or Vietnam, and actually save money when the books were done.
Now, most people when the think about it logically, understand that if it is cheaper to make something in China, then ship it to America by long-haul and container ship, something has to be a little wrong. People understand that if they go into their kitchen and make a sandwich, that sandwich will be cheaper than if they drive to a cafe down the street and buy it.
The reason was a mixture of scale economies in shipping, production, government incentives in the US and China, scale of production, low wages, and a host of other things. However, this wouldn’t have been a problem if the Western world had understood the basics of Adam Smith, that some countries develop competitive advantages and that these change over time.
When this happens, you can either try to impose tariffs or other forms of barriers to secure domestic jobs, or you can adapt to the changes and get ahead of them. This was unfortunately what the West failed to do.
The knowledge economy and the service economy are both the suggested replacements for the manufacturing sector that is being lost to countries where higher ROI is earned in manufacturing. We can discuss why the ROI is better in those countries, which are things ranging from failing to deal with externalities, asymmetric subsidies/programs/incentives, bad trade deals, lower wages, and a range of other things. Or we can do the rational thing in my mind, which is to look at the road forward.
When the west transitioned from the agrarian economy to the industrial economy, there were robberbarons, and horrible working conditions, people thought all humans would be replaced by machines, and a range of other things. The core problem with losing the manufacturing sector, is that there was nothing to replace the myriad of low-skilled jobs available to what is the major part of the population.
I could argue this in multiple ways, but the easiest way to put it, is that the industrial revolution, followed by the green revolution and advances in medicine lead to a drastic population increase, which meant more jobs were needed, and those jobs were found in manufacturing. There are simply too many people competing for the same manufacturing and service jobs, on a global scale. To borrow one part of Michael Porter’s 5 forces, the barriers to entry are very low for manufacturing jobs.
Service jobs are also have somewhat low entry barriers, however the trouble with service jobs is that they do require something that most factory jobs do not, namely people skills. Few people really care who produces the things they want to buy, hence the high amount of people tweeting to raise the minimum wage and that everyone deserves good working conditions on an Iphone. However, people do not tend to like their waiter to be impolite, brash, or a host of other things that do not cause problems if you work an assembly line.
Then comes the knowledge economy, the next leap forward where human knowledge, lead by the STEM fields are set to become the focal point for the next 100 years or so. Yet, we lack STEM graduates, we lack people with basic scientific knowledge, despite having the World’s best universities in the west, we have a population that are not equipped to take the next step into knowledge production. We also have states that are living in the manufacturing bubble, with tax systems, regulations and laws that are not adapted to things like the software industry, biotechnology or many of the new frontiers. Only, unlike the transition from the agrarian period to the industrial period, where regulations, laws, enforcements, incentives and international trade did not exist. We now have regulations, laws, enforcements, incentives and international trade that is not adapted to the future. Where the industrial revolution had plentiful labor as it required no-skilled labor, that even children could do. The knowledge economy requires a highly skilled population with a level of education that may be unattainable for the vast majority of people. Knowledge economy jobs have much higher barriers to entry than manufacturing or service jobs.
This indicates that the transition from manufacturing/service economy, to knowledge and technology economy may be a brutal transition for the West. The late bloomers to the party such as the BRIC countries still have a lot of manufacturing demand from their own countries, whereas western countries largely import their goods from other countries in the name of cheap and efficient. This could play out a couple of ways once robots become more advanced and can take over more manufacturing jobs. The most likely one; the air pops out of the manufacturing balloon for good, and the up and coming countries collapse as their source of cheap labor is no longer a competitive advantage and production is moved back to the west.
The transition to the knowledge economy should have started a long time ago, with the boomers being the last manufacturing generation, and Gen X being the first knowledge economy generation. Unfortunately, this requires fundamental changes in our governments, our economy and our school systems. The school system is designed to create great manufacturing workers, and is built around the needs of someone running a factory. The government is built on the back of “brick and mortar” and manufacturing and the economy is largely built around geographic requirements.
Where a company used to have huge amounts of capital sunk into their physical locations and equipment, now moving your business can be as easy as copying data from one warehouse to another. In some cases, its a matter of putting some data on a flash-drive and getting on a plane. Where industries changed over decades, and products hit the down cycle after 50 years, we are now seeing software companies going from nothing, to billions to nothing in 2 – 3 years in some cases. This speed with which innovation and creative destruction happens has increased massively, while most of our governments are still acting as if this is 1960.
What has happened is an increase in instability. When most production and consumption was local, then local factors largely influenced people lives in a controlled manner. There were external factors such as plagues, or wars, but many small towns around Europe didn’t experience much change during the second world war, life went on as it always had.
Where companies spent decades building their brick and mortar models, going from local, to regional to national and finally international, then planned strategy made a lot of sense. So did heavy investments in efficiency and scale economies.
If we go back 15 years, there were no smart phones, laptops were expensive and fairly rare. Very few people had broadband and were using dial up and ISDN lines to connect to the internet. There was no facebook, no twitter, no wordpress, Apple was suffering from a long-term decline, Samsung was virtually unheard of, and google were the guys powering Yahoo.
Change simply happens faster, and gets more press, this is why you see a growth in “change management consulting“, or “How to become a flexible organization“. This in and of itself creates the “innovation wars” where “big leaps” become more and more rare, due to the need for “incremental innovation” to stay relevant for the next quarterly presentation. The trouble is though, that change makes it very hard to make big, long-term investments due to the uncertainty you have to deal with.
This is one of those topics I normally keep my hands (and mind) off because it tends to be a heavily value laden area of philosophy. While there are pragmatic arguments to be made for most things, they largely tend to be post-hoc rationalizations rather then true reason. The cornerstone of ethics and morality is trying to answer the question “what is good” and “what is bad”. From a realistic perspective, it is highly likely that as humans are social animals, morality and in-group behavioral characteristics that strengthen the group. Will have lead to those that have them out-breeding those who did not, and thus resulting in an in-born sense of morality, tempered by socialization.
Thus, if morality is merely the expression of instinct in regards to maintaining group cohesion, it follows that it can be ignored. However high number of group members doing so would result in lowered in-group cohesion, it follows that we would have to develop systems to enforce the mean of the behavior. These are our social methods for enforcing behavior criteria in a group, that are expressed in a multitude of social situations. From shunning, shaming, obligations, and fear of sanctions, these are all methods to enforce behavior and thought, just as some behaviors are used to both reward and incentivize pro-social behavior.
Some people are born with a strong internal locus of control, and are less influenced by the social methods of control. These are often themed contrarians, or iconoclasts. Some people are born with crossed wires in terms of genetics meaning they do not innately possess the pro-social behavior genes. Some, are even born without gene control and are immune to social control, these are sociopaths.
As humans love finding patterns and seem to love codifying those patterns even more, we developed systems in the field called “ethics” out of which there are two main forms.
This is a fancy word for “rule based ethics” the primary example of this area is the categorical imperative by Immanuel Kant, which states (paraphrase) “Act always as if your action will become natural law.” Which is to say that you should always handle yourself as if everyone else who gets in the same situation will act exactly as you did. This is a useful perspective, but it also underlines the limitations of this field of ethics.
The primary sources for deontological ethics are often religious texts such as the Bible (The 10 commandments, Golden Rule). One could argue that the legal system as well is a form of rule based ethics in inception, but not necessarily in practice.
The principle of deontological ethics is that whether or not an act is good, depends on whether it is according to the rule. The consequences of the act do not matter. For instance, if you have a rule that states “You shall always save someone’s life if you can” then saving Hitler’s life would have been a good act. Intent matters, consequences do not.
This style of ethics is a different beast overall, here only consequences matter, not intent. So, if you save someone’s life, and they grow up to be Hitler, then that act was a bad act. This ethical/moral position can be summarized in reductio ad absurdum as “The end justifies the means”. Based on my exploration of the subject-matter, I haven’t really found many philosophers espousing the virtues of this style of ethics. This may be due to its association with more “barbarian” and “Machiavellian” tribes in the past, that were perceived by the more civilized states at the time as not having rule of law.
Perhaps it has to do with the simple fact that most of us would undoubtedly be deeply immoral if the full consequences of some of our past engagements were explored. Even simpler, as consequences often cannot be predicted prior to an action, it has no prescriptive value. Or, the easiest of them all, it offers no control over a population and no way to punish that population for stepping out of line.
Which style of ethics should a modern man adopt? Deontological ethics will offer an easy to follow set of rules, but it would depend on how generalized the system is, and how expansive it is. A simple rule like the categorical imperative (in the formulation above) is highly general requiring a large amount of rational thought and consideration. However it will be adequate and adaptable to most situations. On the other hand, if the man selects a system such as Islam, or hardline Christianity, both of those characteristics will go down.
By selecting a consequentialist approach to ethics, he has the greatest flexibility, but no way to determine if his life is moral before viewing it in retrospect. One could even inquire whether a flexible moral system is even a moral system at all if the same act can be both immoral and moral depending on context. This is one of the more difficult aspects of Kant’s imperative in practice.
If a man who has had a string of bad luck, he is desolate, destitute, and depressed, isolated, irritated and inconsolable. If this man kills himself, then according to the categorical imperative, we need to imagine what the consequences would be if every man in his situation did so. I’m certain that many men have felt this way at some point and have gone on to live great lives once recovered. Therefore, it follows that this is an immoral act, due to the wasted potential. On the other hand, I’m sure many men have never recovered, and spend the rest of their lives living lives of quiet desperation. Therefore it follows that his act would be a moral one.
The dangers of morality and ethics
Morality and ethics are dangerous, they are by nature subjective and thus by adopting too stringent of a requirement for yourself, will put you at a disadvantage, on the other hand, not being stringent enough would most likely put you into the company of persons you perhaps do not want to be associated with. Illimitableman touched on this in an article on Machiavellianism and morality  where he writes:
Only intelligent men can really discuss the nuance of ethics and thus, whatever their disposition, cognisantly find a balance between altruism and sadism, principle and incentive. Of course if one is innately sadistic, only the discipline of volition can suppress such a thing.
This is the key to finding a moral system for yourself that strikes the desired balance of realism and pragmatism vs altruism and nativity. I use the term nativity here to mean “belief that human beings are inherently good“. A general belief that humans are inherently good will expose you to very high risks in situations where humans are not good, and makes you vulnerable to predators. A generally altruistic perspective, leads you open to be taken advantage of, from misguided faith in reciprocity. A high degree of realism, will make you prone to view the world through the law of the jungle, and when combined with a high degree of pragmatism, to the end justifies the means and “whatever works”.
The irony of this discussion is that we are left with the two things I started this discussion with, the combination of your genetics and your experiences that have shaped your life. Morality not being a fixed concept, it is merely a habit. If you are used to putting the needs of everyone else before your own, if you feel guilty when you say no or have been screwed over time and time again, you just need to train new habits. It will not feel good when you change a habit, it rarely does at first, but over time your life will improve.
Noam Chomsky once defined Universality in terms of morality as “If it’s right for me, it’s right for you, if it’s wrong for you, it is wrong for me” in a 2007 interview. This is a fairly short and to the point definition for moral universality. The opposite of this is moral relativism in its many forms, which always makes morals a conditional case. Our laws are in theory based on universality, an act is illegal regardless of who performed it. One could argue that in practice it may work out differently, but the theory and system is designed to be as close to universal as possible. Moral relativism on the other hand, is the position that moral statements are right or wrong only based on a specific standpoint, for instance culture or historical period.
For instance, most of the western world today would consider slavery morally abhorrent, while most of the western world would have considered it perfectly permissible, and even benevolent in some cases if we travel back 300 years. If you view this as “slavery is always wrong” you are a universalist, if you view it as “slavery was ok back then, because of the times” you are a relativist.
Now, both cases tend to end up in the wrong to varying degrees. For instance, universalism may argue that killing someone is always wrong, whereas relativists would argue that each individual case of killing would have to be evaluated. For the most part, our justice system works around the inherent universalism by adding things like “tiers of killing badness” such as first degree, second degree, third degree, manslaughter, self-defense and so on. However, this does not mean that the justice system is relativistic, it just means that it takes into account the circumstances of an action. You will be charged, and in a court of law a jury of your peers will determine your guilt. Continue reading
I’ve mentioned this model a few times on Twitter and after getting a few questions on how it works I figured I’d write a short post explaining this philosophy. In the book outliers Malcolm Gladwell outlines the principle of the 10.000 hours of practice that someone has to put in to become an expert on something. When learning a language we often focus on cramming in as much as we can about how the grammar works and as many words as humanly possible. You may need 10000 words to be fluent, but only about 2000 to be conversational.
The second principle is based on that once you have built a solid foundation, you can cut back the work and maintain that foundation indefinitely with a lot less effort than you had to put in while building it.
When we see examples of renaissanse men in modern culture, we usually get to see the finished product, a man in his late 30s to early 50s, who is a polyglot, a subject matter expert in his field, has multiple other areas of expertise, and a range of other skills that it surprises you to find out when he shows them off. However, we do not see how he builds his impressive arsenal of skills for the 20 – 40 years prior to demonstrating them to you.
Now, I’m going to tell you how to be a Renaissance man. Continue reading
When the idea for this article struck me, I thought about 3 rough paths to leadership roles. There is the guy who started in the mailroom, and over a span of 20 or so years, works his way up and attends night school to expand his skills. Then there is the student that goes to college, gets a degree, perhaps works a couple of years at an entry level job, then gets an MBA and moves into management. Finally, there is the entrepreneur who starts his own company, and works to make it a success. Continue reading