On Philosophy

January 21, 2009

Ownership And Its Paradoxes

Filed under: Society,The Good Life — Peter @ 1:14 pm

Ownership is a strange thing. Unlike possession, ownership is not easily defined in physical terms. Possession we can define as having physical control over something. Thus if I hold a thing in my hand I possess it. But I also possess it if I keep it locked in my safe, since that keeps it under my control, even in my absence. Ownership is not the same as possession. It is quite possible to possess something that you do not own, and to lack possession over something that you do own; if it were impossible there would be no such thing as theft.

Because ownership, unlike possession, cannot be defined in purely physical terms we are faced with three possible strategies for defining it. First, ownership could be a matter of convention, such that to own something is to have ownership of it according to some rules (the conventions), which lay out in more detail what conditions, physical or otherwise, grant and transfer ownership. This is the legal view – that of the courts, which appeal only to the law to decide matters of ownership. Thus if the law changes so does who owns what. Secondly, ownership could be defined in terms of the popular or prevailing attitude, such that you would only own something if it was the consensus that you owned it. Finally, ownership could be defined as a personal attitude: essentially that you own something if and only if you think that you own it.

Let’s consider the first possibility, that ownership is a matter of convention. Suppose this were so. Then the question arises: which convention? There are so many conventions, both existing and possible, that for any object we could find some convention under which I own it and another under which I don’t. For this to be a meaningful definition of ownership we must pin down which conventions, exactly, determine what I own. And to do that there are two natural possibilities: the prevailing conventions or those that I personally choose accept. If it is the first then this option essentially reduces to the second strategy for defining ownership; I own something only if it is the prevailing opinion that I own it. And if it is the second then this option reduces to the third strategy; I own something only if I think that I own it. And so we are left with only two possibilities to consider.

Now let’s turn to the second possibility, that I own something only if it is the prevailing opinion that I do. Of course the prevailing opinion is subject to change, people change, and conventions change. Thus whether I own something would change as well, independent of any changes in me, the thing, or my relationship to it. Which is to say that one day I may own the items in my safe because it is generally agreed that this is so, but upon waking up the next day it may not be so because the general agreement had changed while I was sleeping. Such is the nature of things that are socially constructed. This means that, under this definition, my ownership of something is itself determined by, controlled if you will, by the majority opinion. And thus the majority would possesses my ownership, as strange as that may sound. They would possess my ownership of a thing because it is within their power to take it away from me. Can I really own a thing if I don’t possess the ownership itself? Or, in other words, can I maintain that I own something when my ownership of it is so vulnerable? It would appear that under this view it is the majority who really own things, and that they simply let me borrow them for a while. Thus, under this definition there really is no such thing as individual ownership.

If we wish to maintain that personal ownership is possible it looks like we are left with the third possibility: that I own something if I think that I own it. So defined, I do possess my ownership of things, because it is fully under my control, modulo scenarios of mind control, whether I do or don’t conceive of myself as owning a thing. Well, at least it is under my control to a certain extent. I am still free to abdicate that control to the majority or to some convention; I could come to believe that I only owned something when that convention dictated that it was so, or when the majority agreed with me. If I abdicated my choice of what to view as owned in this way I would indeed lack control over my beliefs about ownership. The result would be a contradictory situation where I would both own something because of my belief that I owned it, and lack ownership because I lacked control over my beliefs about what I owned. (This contradiction is merely verbal, though.) However, this still leaves the possibility open for other people to seize their freedom (seize control over their beliefs rather than abdicating them to the majority or to convention), and thus individual ownership may still exist.

The other factor that influences whether I believe that I own something is my ability to exercise my ownership over it. Exercising your ownership over something is to bring it into your possession. For example, suppose that I have loaned one of my books to a friend. I do not possess that book – it is out of my control – but I still think that I own it. Eventually I may want the book back, thus I will attempt to exercise my ownership; I will attempt to make my friend return it to me. If my friend agrees to certain conventions of ownership, or is simply a nice guy, then he will return it to me. And if he doesn’t I may attempt to have society at large recover that book for me (e.g. via the police), which is another way to exercise ownership. But if all those methods fail, and I am unable to regain possession of the book when I want to, i.e. if the exercise of my ownership fails, then I will come to believe that the book is lost to me. In other words, that I no longer own it. Thus what we can own is also limited by a conjunction of external circumstances and situations in which we want to exercise our ownership. We are free to believe that we own whatever we want, but as soon as we try to exercise that ownership we are reduced to being able to own only what the situation, other people, and society in general, will grant possession of to us. Any attempt to exercise our ownership limits our ownership, in cases where we don’t currently possess a thing, to the limits set by convention and the majority opinion.

Two unusual conclusions follow from this analysis of ownership. First, that the more we attempt to exercise our ownership over things the less we will actually own. Many such exercises (where we don’t already possess the thing) grant control over our ownership to society at large, since if they chose they could prevent that exercise from being successful. These exercises of ownership amount to giving up the thing in the hope that it will be given back, which is far from certain. Thus the less we try to exercise our ownership the more we will keep. From this the second unusual conclusion follows: that the man who desires nothing owns everything. Because, desiring nothing, such a man would never be inclined to exercise his ownership. And thus he would be free to own whatever he wanted, since his ownership would be constrained only by his choices about what to believed that he owned, which themselves are completely unconstrained.

November 19, 2007

Giving People What They Think They Want

Filed under: Society — Peter @ 12:00 am

To simply exist a society has to be able to sustain itself, but to be successful a society has to give people what they want, because a society only exists as long as the individuals composing it allow it to. And thus if society doesn’t give them what they want, or if it doesn’t satisfy their desires as effectively as some other society, it will eventually find itself without any members, no matter what barriers are erected to prevent such changes. Without any outside influences what people desire will vary widely, and so one successful strategy for society might be to present members of society as many different ways of living, as many opportunities, as possible, so that everyone has a chance to find satisfaction no matter what they desire. However, success might also be achieved if a society provided only a few such opportunities, but arranged things so that almost every individual that is part of it desires basically the same kinds of things. Which is not necessarily as hard as it might seem at first, because people are easily manipulated. Given that I have previously discussed what a society that provides the maximal amount of opportunities might be like I will today turn my attention to the possibility of manipulating on a large scale what people want.

Although it is tempting to think of people as purely rational agents who pull their desires solely from some inner well probably no one actually conforms to that model. Obviously everyone is born with the disposition to desire the things that have made them happy in the past, and I guess it is possible that someone might proceed only on the basis of such experiences to structure their lives, constructing from these simple desires more complicated ones. But most people “cheat”, instead of finding what makes them happy for themselves people have the tendency to assume that what makes other people happy will make them happy as well. And so people are disposed to pick up the desires of the people around them. Naturally once a desire has been developed then satisfying that desire will bring happiness in most cases, and so I wouldn’t argue that adopting the desires of other people is necessarily a bad strategy. However, it does open the door for the systematic manipulation of what people want by arranging things so that everyone picks up certain desires and so that they end up reinforced, allowing them to come to dominate over the person’s other desires.

Even the most cursory observation of human behavior will reveal that some people are more popular than others, leaving what that means exactly aside for the moment, and that the vast number of people who admire these popular people (which is what makes them popular) tend to mimic them. Thus we might suppose that the behavior of the most popular people controls the desires of a certain majority, and that by controlling who is popular the desires of the population at large could be affected. But when considering how to actually do something like this we run into what might be called the paradox of popularity. The paradox of popularity is that the natural explanation for why people are popular is that they display certain ideal characteristics and are thus esteemed for them. But if they are popular because of these ideal characteristics then where did people’s expectations about what is ideal come from? Of course it is possible that they exist in a kind of feedback loop, such that the popular people affect what is considered ideal and that in turn determines who is popular, under the assumption that in the distant past this whole cycle began by some essentially arbitrary mechanism that is no longer in play today. But, while not impossible, it does not appear that such a feedback loop exists, because if such a loop existed, ungoverned by external factors, we would expect to see what is considered ideal wander in essentially a random fashion. Although it is true that what people hold up as ideal does change over time, and that there may not be any immediately obvious patterns in these changes, it seems too stable (substantial changes take too long) for the feedback loop alone to explain things. Thus I suggest that we look for some additional sources of these ideals or of popularity itself.

As mentioned earlier people will tend to pick up the desires that seem to them to make other people happy. And this suggests an easy source for these ideals, namely those that naturally make a large number of people happy. The fact that a few ideals seem to dominate and that they remain relatively stable might be explained by appealing to the fact that society makes pursuing certain things easier than others, and thus that happiness is more easily achieved under some than others. But this explanation suffers from the fact that it doesn’t quite seem to line up with reality. Although people want to be like the most popular people because they think it will make them happy those held up in this way don’t always seem exceptionally happy themselves. In fact I suspect that they are happy is something that people tend to conclude from their popularity and not from any obvious clues. Which means this can’t explain the original source of ideals, only how they are reinforced.

Another possibility is that people naturally arrange themselves into social hierarchies and that in general people want to be on the top of the hierarchy (or think being on top of the hierarchy will make them happy) and, failing that, want to at least be like the people on the top of the hierarchy. But this clearly can’t be correct as stated, because the social hierarchy would seem to put the people in power, those making the laws, at the top. But few seem to want to be like politicians; if they did homosexuality would be more widely accepted. So, if this proposal is to be made credible, it must be that, in addition to the real social hierarchy, there is also an apparent social hierarchy that only occasionally overlaps with the real social hierarchy. This fixes the immediate problem, because we can suppose that the popular people are on top of the apparent social hierarchy. But now it isn’t clear how people get to be on the top of the apparent social hierarchy. The most natural answer is to say that the most popular people appear to be on the top of the social hierarchy regardless of their real power, but this mean that the proposal under consideration can’t solve the paradox of popularity, because it relies on popularity as part of its explanation.

Because of these problems I lean towards the idea that popularity is an emergent phenomena, which by itself is rather a cop-out as an explanation, so allow me to provide more detail. First consider how we know that people are popular. At least in my experience there are no immediate visual clues, assuming that we bracket any expectations about the current trends that popular people are part of. Who is popular is something that other people tell us, we are told that someone is popular and so come to treat them as popular. Obviously in some kind of initial condition no one is popular. However, some people will be liked by more people than others are, although the differences may not be immediately significant. And this will result in more people telling us that they like that person. And this in turn will create the impression in us that the person is widely liked, which is essentially what popularity is, and we will convey that fact to others. Additionally, because of our natural tendency to copy the attitudes of other people, once someone starts to become known as widely liked more and more people actually will like them, which reinforces that impression and makes them more and more popular. Because of this snowball effect we will tend up to end up with a few people who are extremely popular and who thus outshine everyone else. Notice also that who becomes widely liked is somewhat dependant on something they do which makes them liked by some people to begin with. In previous times this was often the heroes, the defenders of the city, who people were obviously indebted to. But in the more modern age such people tend to be entertainers, who provide something that people enjoy and are thus liked for providing it. (This also explains the popularity of disruptive students when education is mandatory.)

If this is how popularity actually works, and thus the people from whom many others will pick up desires and attitudes about what is important, whether it can be controlled is not entirely clear. Obviously the media serves as a source of additional peers, beyond those we are immediately acquainted with. And obviously the media could be used to make certain people appear more popular than they really are, and thus possibly catapult them to real popularity. But it is also hard to stop people from becoming popular through normal means. On the other hand, at least in our society, the popular people are almost universally wealthy, or quickly end up so because of those who want to exploit their popularity. So if society could only effectively satisfy desires centered around material goods then it would be doing a good job in directing people towards those desires.

I’ll leave it as an open question whether a society that is successful partly because of how it influences the desires of the individuals composing is a good one.

November 13, 2007

Rights And Obligations

Filed under: Society — Peter @ 12:00 am

There is an intrinsic tension between what is good for individuals and what is good for a group of individuals. Now this is not to say that the two are necessarily opposed, in many cases giving individuals what they want is good for the group; it isn’t the case that when the group is benefited some individual must suffer, as some seem to think. But there are cases in which what is good for the group demands sacrifices from individuals. Thus when thinking about ethics, about how to structure society, striking the proper balance between these two demands is always a matter of concern. One way of managing this problem is to give each individual certain rights which guarantee their ability to engage in certain activities without restriction so long as they don’t interfere with the rights of others. Obviously the existence of such rights tends to favor the individual over the group, in fact I would argue that as they are usually thought about they are overly in favor of individuals. But, fortunately for us, no society implements rights in this pure form, although some may pay lip service to doing so, which is more evidence, I think, that rights are not the correct solution to the tension between individual desires and the welfare of the group.

The idea of rights emerged, it would seem, as a kind of reaction to social structures that overly favored the group, and those who exercised more power in the group. Naturally those social structures were themselves appropriate at one time, because how much individuals must sacrifice for the group depends on how close the group as a whole is to being wiped out. When the labor of every individual is needed to keep society afloat naturally there isn’t much room for individual freedom. But, as things progress, societies have more leeway, and when they do the best way of structuring society is to pass that leeway, or at least most of it, on to individuals. As we would expect such reorganizations are not equally beneficial to everyone in society, and thus some individuals may try to keep society structured restrictively, to the detriment of the group, but to their own benefit. Despite this society will eventually self-correct, whether they like it or not, and I think rights emerged during one of these self-corrections, where power was being taken away from the few and being distributed to a larger number.

But the idea itself is an over-correction, it would give too much to individuals and too little to the group. A society really composed of individuals with inalienable rights would simply fly apart. Consider freedom of speech. Free speech seems like one of the rights that it would be no problem to grant to people in a basically unrestricted sense. However, free speech is not without the potential to be harmful to society. Deceptive speech is still speech, and not only does that allow one person to effectively harm another without consequences, so long as they do it without touching them, but it allows deception en-masse through deceptive marketing, and so on. If people are allowed to lie to each other whenever it suits them this puts a serious strain on the fabric of society, even if in only an economic sense, where accurate information is key to markets working properly. Naturally in all existing societies free speech is restricted to prevent these sorts of abuses, so it isn’t really an inalienable right in them, and they are probably better off for it. However, the patchwork nature of such corrections is somewhat problematic in its own right. For example, if you start out with the assumption that people are free to say whatever they want and then start enumerating specific cases where they can’t you are liable to miss a few. It would seem that government officials, for instance, are free to deceive the public, so long as they don’t do so under oath, which is clearly detrimental to a democratic society. And the same can be said about every other right, although how they might be abused differs from case to case.

Now some might suggest that we could alleviate these problems not by limiting rights but by adding more of them. This might sound preposterous, but remember that the exercise of rights is usually considered restricted where it might interfere with the rights of others. Thus adding rights is to restrict the rights of other people, although without ever having to admit that you are engaged in the business of restricting rights. Unfortunately, it is hard to see what rights might be added so as to correct for these problems. We might, for example, consider giving people a right not to be harmed, but such a right is highly impractical. Certainly people shouldn’t be harmed in most cases, but there are situations in which some harm is necessary. For example, firing someone from their job is harmful to them, but the ability to fire people is also necessary if we expect companies to exist. Now we might argue that not firing them would be harmful to the company, but the company is not a person, nor does it have a right to make as much money as it possibly can. And this is just one example of a situation where harming people may be necessary. The problem with rights then is that by being unqualified, and necessarily so, they always force us to an undesirable extreme.

If we must have something like rights I would suggest that we modify them, so that each right come along with a social obligation, such that we are only guaranteed our ability to exercise that right where we are fulfilling our associated social obligation as well. For example, the right to free speech could be coupled with the obligation to speak without deception. In this way the socially harmful potential of that right could be curtailed while still allowing people the freedom to basically do whatever they want with it. I think that the other rights could be similarly qualified, so that they can’t be turned to socially harmful ends. The right to property, for example, could be qualified so that we have a right to properly so long as we pay for the burdens that wealth places on the community and for the cost of maintaining society. Which means, essentially, that we have to pay taxes. I could go on, but doing so would require a list of rights, and that is something which there is no general agreement about.

If rights really are natural, in the sense that we somehow are intrinsically entitled to them, then these obligations can be seen as the price of joining society, over and above restricting the exercise of our rights so that they don’t interfere with the rights of other people. However, I would dispute the idea that right are natural. Certainly those things that are rights usually have some reflection in our natural capacities, meaning that I have the capacity to say whatever I like and so I have the natural capacity for free speech. But just because we have a certain capacity doesn’t entitle us to the exercise of that capacity. Or, at the very least, the entitlement would require some other, non obvious, facts to warrant it. As I see it both rights and obligations are a product of society, a conclusion I draw from the fact that it simply doesn’t make any sense to speak of them outside that context. A right is something that society shouldn’t restrict you from doing, and an obligation is something that society should force you to follow. For both it is hard to make any sense of the terms without society to define them in terms of. Certainly you can do whatever you want when no one else is around, but to call that a right seems a gross misuse of the word. In any case, no matter who is in the right about rights, it is useful to understand them as a tool for social organization. And thus what rights we have and to what extent they are inalienable must be judged by how well that helps them serve their function. And here I have assumed that the function of rights is to strike a balance between individuals and society, giving individuals the freedom to do whatever they want, so long as it isn’t detrimental. Now it is certainly possible to understand rights as only serving the interests of the individual, but then we would need some other factor, X, which serves to balance the interests of individuals and that of the group, and thus this X would have to supercede individual rights in order to be effective. And that seems contrary to the idea of rights, because what purpose does the idea serve if we simply turn around and make them secondary to something else? We might as well simply have started with just X then, and left rights out of the picture. Thus I see rights as properly understood as agents of that balance, if we are to have them at all, and thus in need of modification if they don’t serve it.

November 5, 2007

Thinking Alike

Filed under: Society — Peter @ 12:00 am

Some claim that there is a certain wisdom in crowds, that a group of people can make better decisions than individuals. In an ideal situation this is true, if we take each person in isolation from the rest and average their judgments then we will, in many cases, arrive at better answers than any particular member of the group would provide (assuming the topic isn’t too technical). But such ideal situations are a rare occurrence, usually the people involved interact and share their opinions on the matter under consideration. And from there things are all downhill. Because most people are not perfectly rational judges, and derive their opinions not from the evidence but from the opinions of other people. This means that the opinions of a group of people will tend to drift towards a common point of view, or, alternatively, the group will end up divided into two polar opposites, each doing their best to keep their intellectual distance from the other. And, unfortunately, the mechanisms driving this convergence of opinion do not drive it towards the average or best opinion, but can arrive at virtually any opinion within the range, driven by factors that are essentially random. Of course this tendency to think alike isn’t always a bad thing, we depend on it for the existence of society, because new members of the society end up thinking like the existing members, and so the social order is preserved throughout generations. Even our ability to communicate, to use words in essentially the same way, can be attributed to our tendency to think alike. But, while it may be practically useful, our natural indication to mimic each other’s opinions is a great impediment to rational thought and discussion (almost as much as cognitive dissonance and our unconscious disposition to adjust our beliefs to as to preserve those we would most like to be true in the face of contradictions or evidence against them).

Obviously thinking alike could be a problem when searching for the truth. But we don’t pursue the truth, in general, by depending on the consensus. Although the consensus is often right every improvement necessarily contradicts that consensus. And so someone who is trying to construct better theories proceeds at least initially by ignoring the opinions of everyone else. The actual problems stemming from thinking alike are thus practical ones (given that we don’t allow our professional judgment to be distorted by it). What is the point of thinking out loud, for example, if everyone is thinking the same way? Are we to simply voice our opinions and have everyone nod in response? What is the point of discussing an issue if everyone agrees? What is there even to discuss? Obviously then any public forum for debate and discussion can be undermined by thinking alike, because the tendency to think alike undermines the very point of these public discussions. If we are all in agreement, or shout down anyone who disagrees, then we might as well not even get together. And yet it is in these very settings that groupthink (thinking alike) is most likely to emerge.

Such public forums for discussion are all over the internet (Slashdot, reddit, digg, and so on), and they all suffer from groupthink to some extent. Naturally then we will want to know how to overcome this problem, and ensure that such sites don’t dissolve into self-congratulatory back patting. But first allow me to say a bit about the psychology behind this phenomenon. One of the reasons that groupthink even exists is because we care, to some extent, about the opinions of other people and how they compare to our own. But why should we, why should I care if you think that numbers are objects or if the mind is non-physical? Being wrong isn’t hurting you, because such opinions have few immediately practical consequences. The reason we care, I suspect, is because we tend to identify with the group, we consider the group to be a reflection of ourselves, or part of ourselves, on some unconscious level. And thus when your expressed opinions and those of the group contradict each other it creates a kind of tension, the same kind of tension that exists when we find that our own opinions are in contradiction. Because we dislike this tension we attempt to remove the contradiction, either by attempting to change the opinions of the group, modifying our own opinion so that it better agrees with the group’s, or separating ourselves from the group. Obviously all three alternatives lead to thinking alike, changing your own opinion or the group’s opinion leads them to converge, and distancing yourself also leads to the group having more homogeneous opinions since you, the dissenter, are no longer among them.

With that digression behind us we can proceed to the real task, considering how to overcome this problem so that we are able to have genuinely interesting discussions in a public forum, in this case specifically the internet. As I see it there are two ways in which internet sites tend to encourage groupthink. One is simply by the nature of the way contributing to the debate works: people post comments which all end up presented to the viewer in some way (such as in a tree, where comments are displayed by putting comments in response to some comment in a visual grouping with that comment). The problem is that each comment is like a person speaking. And if everyone can post comments this creates the effect of everyone shouting at once, specifically in that it allows a few dissenting voices to essentially be drowned out by mass agreement. The other problem is voting systems, in which comments deemed “good” are pushed to the top in some way, while those deemed bad are obscured. Such systems are well-intentioned, and meant to bury simply the comments that don’t contribute to the discussion, but they have a tendency to simply end up reflecting the will of the group, with disagreement voted into oblivion.

Let me first turn my attention to the problematic nature of allowing everyone to post comments. As I have already mentioned a flood of agreeing voices can simply drown out dissenting ones. More importantly, a flood of people telling the dissenters why they are wrong can simply discourage them from contributing. If the only benefit of voicing an unpopular opinion is simply to have a number of other people, more than you can possibly respond to, jump up and tell you how you are completely wrong, what is the point of speaking up? Such situations result in only those who simply want to aggravate other people (trolls) speaking up, and those who would rather have their opinions receive an open-minded treatment, or who don’t want to engage in constant verbal battles, simply fall silent. This is, in fact, one of the reasons I don’t allow comments on this blog anymore, a torrent of disagreement, which is what you will get if you make any assertion that isn’t completely bland, simply wasn’t useful. Fixing this problem is a difficult task, because we clearly can’t prevent people from voicing their minds, because that would defeat the point of having a public discussion in the first place. One way to improve things might be to limit the number of responses to any particular comment, in order to ensure that there are only so many contradictory points of view voiced. Or, if we are uncomfortable with such limits, we might instead reward posters of comments that receive numerous responses, so even though such comments might end up effectively “shouted down” the author of them is at least rewarded in some way for their effort, which possibly will motivate them to continue offering controversial opinions. In fact such rewards might go hand in hand with a properly designed voting system, discussed below, such that responses automatically end up giving the comment they are responding to a number of positive votes (since obviously if it is worth responding to it is worth something).

So let us turn then to voting systems. Ideally voting systems are supposed to push the most interesting comments to the top and bury spam and other time-wasters. The problem with voting is, first, that people will tend to use it to expresses whether they agree or disagree with the expressed opinion, and that simply encourages groupthink. And, secondly, exposing such scores aggravates groupthink by giving an additional indicator, in addition to comments, about what the group approves and disapproves of, and how strongly the group as a whole has that opinion. That is exactly the kind of information we don’t want influencing people. One solution to this problem, implemented on the Slashdot website, is to give a positive or a negative vote an explicit meaning and, most importantly, make it clear that negative votes do not indicate disagreement to those voting. Obviously this doesn’t prevent people from abusing the voting system, but it discourages them somewhat. And Slashdot further improves upon this by handing out votes only occasionally and in small numbers, so that those who do have the ability to vote see it as a kind of responsibility, not to be misused. But still, the system isn’t perfect. Comments rated well tend to receive more votes simply because of their higher rating, while some good comments can languish unnoticed with a low score. Perhaps a better solution is simply to hide the vote scores, and use that information to simply determine how the comments are displayed, thus achieving the purported benefit of votes, to filter out spam and nonsense, without distorting peoples’ opinions. But, on the other hand, this prevents us from using votes as a reward for posts that encourage replies (well, we would still want to take it into account so that they don’t end up hidden, but it doesn’t reward the author), although we might be able to find some other way to give them kudos (such as karma).

Perhaps the very best way to avoid groupthink is, however, to change our own attitudes. When it comes to a discussion perhaps the best way to disagree is simply to be silent, and, if we feel we must, to offer opposed points of view not in response, but on their own. Obviously this is not the way to proceed in matters where people’s beliefs really matter, such as when deciding on public policy. But in a discussion what does it matter if other people don’t share the same opinion as you? And even if you feel that it does matter telling them that they are wrong is highly unlikely to change their minds, so you might as well stop trying (people tend to change their own minds, it is rare that they are changed by others).

October 25, 2007

Relationships Between Societies

Filed under: Society — Peter @ 12:00 am

Just as the relationships between people can follow certain patterns, and be structured in certain characteristic ways, so too can the relationships between groups of people, or societies. In fact the two are in many ways analogous, as each society can be thought of as an individual with certain interests and abilities, and thus their interactions can be characterized in exactly the same way that we would characterize the interactions between two people. For example, if they display a willingness to make sacrifices for the overall wellbeing of the both of them then we would describe these societies as acting ethically with respect for each other. But if they are in a state of constant struggle, each trying to get the better of the other either militarily or economically, then we would describe them as acting selfishly, and hence unethically. I would maintain that, despite the logical possibility of two societies interacting in a way that seems ethical, such interactions are discouraged by the nature of societies, and so that for the most part societies will interact in a selfish manner.

But, before we turn to societies, let us first take a brief look at the factors that both motivate individuals to act ethically with respect to other people in the same society and the capabilities that allow them to actually act in this way. There are three such factors. The first is that there must be a real possibility of mutually beneficial relationships between the two individuals. If it is only possible for one to benefit and the other to suffer obviously it would be irrational to try to strive for an impossible compromise. Secondly, the individuals must be able to communicate in some way. Without the ability to communicate the individuals involved cannot determine whether the other is open to the possibility of this mutually advantageous relationship, and without the ability to communicate it is impossible to decide on the specifics and so make the relationship actually work. And, finally, the individuals must both have the ability to exercise rational restraint over their desires. To have this ability is to be able to sacrifice short-term gains for long-term advantages. For example, it is usually possible for one individual to “cheat” in such relationships and achieve a substantial advantage over the other by exploiting the other’s expectation that they will abide by the terms of the relationship. However, to give into this desire is to sacrifice all the long-term benefits, which is irrational. In practice this capacity often boils down to the ability to decide to act in a certain way and to stick by that decision even in situations where going against that decision seems advantageous.

Societies, I claim, have the first two capabilities, but almost every society (every society that I am aware of) lacks the third. And thus, without it, such societies will generally be unable to engage in truly ethical behavior simply because they lack the ability to stick by any agreements that they make, and will almost always seek the short-term advantage over the long-term gain. The reason that this is the case stems from how societies work internally. Every society is composed of a number of people, and each of those people wants things. It is society’s job to try to satisfy those desires to the extent that it is able (societies will be created to act in this way, with societal structures that don’t perform as desired being abandoned for those that do in the long run). This gives society, as a whole, analogues to individual desires, as it acts to satisfy the aggregate desires of its constituents. But, while societies have desires, they lack any faculty of reason, any way to control these desires, almost by necessity. Because any society that commonly frustrated the desires of its members would soon find itself without many members.

Of course this is not to say that societies don’t have analogues to human reasoning, structures that provide some central direction for society as a whole (political structures), it’s just that these structures are never of the sort that can provide the necessary rational restraint. Allow me to illustrate this point by discussing how a few of the typical ways of providing this direction fail to bring with them the necessary rational restraint. At one end of the spectrum we have tyranny, where an individual or individuals have the power to direct society as they see fit. Obviously the tyrant has the ability to rationally restrain themselves, and so we might assume that the tyrants of different societies would get together and decide to act ethically. But, unfortunately for society, tyrants lack the first factor that leads to ethical behavior, the ability to enter into mutually advantageous relationships. The tyrant is moved by their own desires, and does not care directly about what is best for the society they rule, in most cases. And if a tyrant can’t get what they want from their own society it is unlikely that leading their society to act ethically towards another society will. Of course we may encounter societies with tyrants that are genuinely kind people, and who do rule with the best interests of their societies in mind, and thus lead their societies to interact ethically. But such tyrants are few and far between, and so rarely is there a situation where they can actually enter into such agreements with each other. And, on the opposite side of the spectrum we have direct democracies, either those that vote on issues, or those who elect representatives in such a way that they are bound to do the bidding of the people without any deviation from those demands. The problem with such societies is simply that they have no way to actually bind themselves to following a certain course of action. Even if the society as a whole is led to believe that some agreement will be beneficial for them in the long run there is nothing stopping them from revising that agreement (effectively breaking it) at the next vote, and probably will if some immediate advantage results from doing so. Many real governments are, naturally, a mixture of the two with elected representatives who are free to act as tyrants in some ways. But such mixes do not bring society any closer to being able to exercise rational restraint; as you give people the ability to go against the wishes of the majority, which is nearly always for short-term gains, that ability is used according to their individual desires, not what is best for society as a whole.

But of course I don’t want to indicate that societies never act ethically, there are times when societies can overcome these dispositions. (Although foreign aid is not an example of overcoming such dispositions, since it is almost always to the advantage of the country providing it or groups within that country.) For example, if the members of the two societies know each other then the members of these societies will often have ethical obligations towards each other as a result of these interactions, and because of these obligations at the foundations of both they will be led to act ethically as wholes toward each other. Unfortunately this occurs regularly only on the smallest scales, with societies consisting of groupings of people within some larger society (such as two teams made from people who know each other). And it is not impossible that the majority of a people in a society will simply have such a strong sense of ethical obligation that they will be willing to give up the occasional advantage for the benefit of complete strangers, although I have never come across an example of this.

And, naturally, there may be circumstances that essentially force societies to act ethically, whether they like it or not. For example, modern technology has made it almost impossible for two prosperous nations to come into military conflict with each other. The costs usually far outweigh any possible gains, such that only a fit of national irrationality will motivate such a conflict. And given the existence of nuclear weapons and mutually assured destruction that would have to be quite a fit of irrationality. So although societies with nuclear weapons might like to come to blows with each other they simply can’t, there is no way to fight and win. Unfortunately, while this effectively is the end of military conflicts, it doesn’t rule out the possibility of economic conflicts, with one society using differences in the availability and cost of resources to diminish the economic infrastructure of the other, thus depleting the wealth of one society to some extent for the benefit of the other. I don’t know exactly how such conflicts can be ended, because there doesn’t seem to be an analogue of mutually assured destruction in economics. It is possible, however, that multinational corporations will resist such economic struggles and thus diminish them, or possibly eliminate them completely. If a multinational corporation is extended over societal boundaries the policies that nations use to compete on an economic level are usually harmful to it. And if multinational corporations become a large enough part of society, or simply are able to whisper in the right ears, this could lead to the end of such policies.

But of course inter-societal conflict isn’t the only negative consequence of the lack of rational restraint in societies. For example, most societies seem unwilling or unable to effectively respond to the limited nature of some resources or the possibility of long-term damage to the environment because of human activity. It is rational restraint that allows us as individuals to take the future into account and put aside some of today’s desires because of it, and societies, lacking this faculty, are thus unable to do so.

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