Thursday, February 15, 2007

Jumping Right Into the Project: people first?

Where to start, where to start...? People make societies, and societies make people. Let's start with the very first two people (and then go back to why we shouldn't, but might be okay to do so). Adam and Eve. Imagine their appearance, simultaneous and spontaneous (now I imagine you can guess what's wrong with this presumption: evolutionary theory, even my vague understanding of it, postulates the emergence of humanity as it slowly differentiates itself. Honestly, I'll get there.)

My question is what do they notice about each other. Do they focus on their similarities, which are numerous? Do they focus on their differences, which are similarly vast? There are an infinite number of characteristics upon which they can base their relationship with each other: personality, treatment of animals, hair color, skin tone, height, bodily differences, sound of voice, body odor, leaping ability...

My answer to the first question is that they should notice all of it. That at some level it's both necessary and proper for us to be aware of everything we have in common and everything that differentiates us from each other. Basically, this is because I believe that knowledge is good. In a catalog of assumptions, that would probably be my first. I'm thinking that I should be careful with this, because I don't want to imply that the acquisition of knowledge is necessarily the trumping activity in life and should occupy every waking moment and every dream-filled night. But observing things and storing those observations is, at the very least, not inherently bad.

My next question is how they should use what they know. I think this is closely related to the question of how they should behave, although it has a different emphasis. I'm going to impose some more assumptions, because this is not a discussion in a vacuum, it's a thought exercise on how to get to a 'more ideal' world where I define ideal. I want these two people to be 'good' to each other. I don't want one to subjugate the other. I don't want the two to wander off and live separately. I want productive coexistence. My instinct says the response should be rational: what do we need to live -- food, shelter, babies. What do we want to have: better food, nicer shelter, toys, maybe pets. Well what's the best way to get them: you jump higher, you build better, you have a fabulous aesthetic sense, you have an amazing rapport with the wolves in the hills.

There are probably innumerable flaws in the model, some of which I've assumed away. But it's predicated on a cooperative rational model, where anger and frustration will eventually yield to compromise and progress. Even if the compromised solution is not the best solution if only it were considered, both people recognize that a compromise solution is better than no solution. And there's no forced integration -- if Adam and Eve want their privacy because that's what they like, then maybe the make each other separate houses, or separate rooms. What if one wants privacy and the other doesn't? Well there must be some other area where there interests diverge, and a compromise can be reached.

So I paint a happy picture of two people who don't notice their similarities or differences outside the context of those traits affect the ways in which they can productively cooperate. I like this.

I also think I'm pretty far gone from recreating what actually happened in the past (and that's why I think of this as normative, not descriptive). Humans evolved. And some humans were probably more animal like than others. And there was never a case of just being two people, completely rational and able to make decisions and express complex compromises. And all sorts of other things.

But I'm a dreamer.

Monday, February 12, 2007

morality and economics

I'm still sidelined from the main project of theorizing about my ideal world and how to get there from here, but I thought I'd share another sighting of "morality".

I just started reading Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. I know, I'm a bit behind in my reading. Almost immediately, the book describes economics in contrast to morality, somewhat along the lines of 'morality explains what the world should be like, economics explains what it is like'. I can accept the definition of economics explaining the world as is -- it's a broad definition of economics, and perhaps implies that the explanation will be presented in terms of supply, demand, incentives, and marginal utility, but I can accept it. I'm not sure it's an exclusive perspective, even if it may be comprehensive. For example, sociologists may make similar claims. Or even physicists. Or, of course, mathematicians.

What I'm distilling from this line of thought, and how I make it relevant to my own pet project here, is that we can define the ideal world in terms of morals and ethics (in that we can promulgate maxims and imperatives about how individuals ought to behave), but that there are myriad perspectives from which to evaluate a reality that complies with those maxims. There will be economic, psychological, social, and political consequences. Yes, each of those perspectives may give us a view of the complete world, but it's a view that brings different aspects of it into focus.

Defining irrational bias and eliminating it is tough without any elaboration. Doing so with the knowledge that it must survive scrutiny from all these perspectives (and more?) is daunting.

Maybe I'll start in earnest tomorrow.

Sunday, February 11, 2007


After a bit more research, it seems that the concept of a folkway is about a hundred years old, dating to the 1906 publication of "Folkways" by William Graham Sumner. You can follow this link to buy your own copy or the entire book can be downloaded/printed/searched on Google Books.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Morality and Art

For a course on moral ethics (yes, at NYU School of Law) I'm reading Moral Judgment and the Acceptance of Norms by Allan Gibbard. From this reading and an earlier one (Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives by Philippa Foot), I get the impression that there's a recognition among philosophers and ethicists of the the similarities among art, etiquette, and morality. These three areas of life can be contrasted with more 'scientific' domains where we tend to readily accept notions of absolute right or wrong and, although there may be debate and misdirection as we search for it, where we believe that the 'truth' can be discovered. Things do get a bit more contentious in these fields when we ask why the truth is true, and ultimately much of science does hinge upon some founding assumptions. If we can modify these assumptions and get results that are still consistent with reality then we really have nothing to help us arbitrate between the validity of the different assumptions. I'm most familiar with this in mathematics/geometry, where most of what we learn in grade school is based on an assumption that two parallel lines never intersect. This is patently untrue if you consider the surface of a sphere (something like our planet, for example). It turns out that you get a valid but different geometry depending on whether you accept that the may intersect or can't intersect. One is used every day when you drive or walk or mow your lawn. The other is used everyday by pilots flying around the world.

In Morality, in Art, and in Etiquette, we take a much more skeptical approach. While there may be a broad consensus on how to live (do not kill, honor your family, be kind to strangers), even those broad maxims are violated by 'well-intentioned' people every day. We have capital punishment, war, and murder justified as self-defense. We have different ways of honoring family, and should we really honor them to the extent that we defer to them above all other things? Should I go out of my way to be kind to strangers? To all strangers? To the neediest? To the nearest?

What first intrigued me about the readings was the analogy to etiquette. Polite society has norms that are much like ethical norms. There are things we "should" do and things we "shouldn't". But it's not clear why those rules are the rules, or why we subscribe to them, or why we're subject to opprobrium for breaching them. It seems trite at first to compare the great moral and ethical conundrums to the question of why a table should be set a particular way or what honorific to use during formal introductions of two mutual strangers, but the underlying dynamics at play are, according to the authors cited and to my mind, quite similar.

What next intrigued me, and what sparked this post, is the idea that Art or Beauty or Aesthetics may be similar as well. What we consider beautiful or artistic and what we condemn as ugly or unsightly seems to be controlled by similar forces. I'm not sure if they're individual, or societal, learned or evolved, chemical or psychological, but I like the idea that they're similar.

It strikes me that studying human responses to art (I'm thinking pictures and sound, more than theater and stories) may be incredibly helpful to studying human responses to behavior. In art, we have generally accepted norms. We work to make sense of outliers, and to develop theories that account for just what it is that is beautiful, much less how or why we have the notion to begin with. If we can make progress in our understanding in this realm, which to my mind is free of (or at least less burdened by) the political weight of ethics and lacks the daily import of both ethics and etiquette, then maybe we can also make progress in the moral realm.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

I comment on a comment on the Sullivan & Cromwell story

The story is fascinating, and this NYTimes Blog has links to more information. It's the first poster's comments that I find infuriating. Or maybe I just misunderstand them.

The first comment notes that "His private life should be kept private and not made an issue of in the work place. He is the one who behaved inappropriately and for some reason he thinks it’s his employers job to keep him happy."

As I said in my response, "Does that mean no family photos on the desk? No pictures of loved ones, or even friends? No wedding bands? No mention of leaving work early to pick up your kids, to meet your wife, or to have a hot date? Or is it only non-heterosexuals that need to keep their private life private?"

Thursday, February 1, 2007

The Nature of the Problem

So I'm a law student. And one of the people I sit next to in one class is one of the main bloggers at feministe (Hi Jill). She often says what I'm thinking with an eloquence and vividness that I wish I had. Sometimes, of course, we disagree. But she usually gets me thinking. And one of her recent comments reminded me that "the project" has at least two real problems.

The first is that many of our societal norms are simply sexist. These are obvious things, like the ability of men to walk around topless in situations where women can't. Or the availability of toilet facilities relative to the average amount of time it takes a man or a woman to use said facility. And speaking of toilets and bathrooms: the fact that many more women's rooms have baby-changing facilities than do men's rooms. And then we have things like pay disparities, and society's support for professional athletics, etc etc. This is not meant to be a litany of sexist practices :-)

Then there's the notion, I'll go so far as to call it a fact (but maybe that's open to dispute), that so many of our societal norms are sexist that our society is self-perpetuatingly sexist. Consider a non-sexist meme. By presumption, it's non-sexist, so it's not going to rely on stereotyped differences between men and women. Thus, some would argue, it can't affect the current balance of power between and societal conceits about men and women. On the other hand, the fact that it isn't sexist may reinforce the more general meme that non-sexism is good, and that may lead to change, but on the balance I'm going to say that it's a minor plus in the world.

But this meme is going to have to survive in a hostile environment. Power structures are made by the powerful to protect themselves, and we live in a structure that's gotten pretty sophisticated over thousands of years. Think of spousal abuse, or domestic violence, or whatever you want to call it. In the 1700's, and who knows how much earlier, husbands had the right to discipline their wives. To beat them, basically. Over the course of the next two hundred years, we slowly developed norms against that, and it's generally considered deplorable to beat your wife.


Statistics show that battery laws are enforced more often and more vigorously against immigrants, minorities, and economically less well off people. The people that aren't in power. Police and prosecutors exhibit a lot of hesitation to make public crimes out of 'domestic violence'. Husbands can win the sympathy of judges and juries with stories of how the wife cheated on them, or how they simply didn't trust her, or how it was actually a fit of rage and not a coldly calculating power play. Women receive relatively little support from police, are often unsuccessful in citing a history of abuse or philandering by a husband, and generally have a much tougher row to hoe if they, god forbid, should take action to stop the abuse.

This is just one illustrative example. Yes, the meme that spousal abuse is bad has taken hold. But along with it have come memes that enable us to rationalize that abuse, to blame the victim, and to compartmentalize the problem of abuse as one that is confined to 'others'.

So that's the problem we have to deal with -- the fact that society is filled with sexist memes, and the fact that society seems to have an immune system that defends an overall sexist tendency. Another way of saying this is that there's an inertia behind power, a momentum. There may be some friction slowing down that momentum, but those with power tend to stay in power.

How can we make this different?