Awry humanitarian principle

Posted by Tandarin Nike Tuesday, March 29, 2011 11:49 AM 0 comments
Suppose you're driving across a long stretch of desert and notice that your gas tank is nearly empty.

A sign says, "Last gas for 100 Kms."

Unfortunately, the brand of gas advertised is associated with an oil company that you consider to be unethical weasels. You have vowed to boycott their products. On principle, you drive past the gas station, run out of gas, and eventually die in the desert.

Question: Were you principled or stupid?

I ask this question because I worry that stupidity and principle are the same thing with different labels.

That's a big problem because labels are the high-level symbolic programming language for humans.

In effect, we have this logic:

If smart then go

If stupid then stop

Our environment is complicated, so in order to navigate it quickly, we evaluate familiar options once and then label them smart or stupid.

Thereafter, we can automatically do the smart thing without having to rethink the situation.

For example, sometime in your past you evaluated the idea of eating dirt and decided the option was stupid. Once labeled, you no longer need to think about it. You're correctly programmed.

When you encounter dirt at the same time you're hungry, your brain's computing power can be directed toward finding food instead of reevaluating the dirt-eating option.

Unfortunately, smart and stupid aren't the only labels our brain processes.

We often encounter a third label called principle. A principle is, by definition, a rule of conduct that is independent of reason. A principle doesn't consider the advantages of its alternatives. It doesn't consider new information, or differences in context.

If you ignore the moral and superstitious elements of principle, as any machine would, then principle is, in effect, the same thing as stupid.

In programming terms:

Principle = stupid

If principle then go

In your daily life, your programming generally ignores principle. No one would choose dying in the desert over buying gas from an unloved oil company.

But in the world of politics, principle is the dominant label. When President Obama framed the no-fly zone in Libya as a humanitarian principle, it instantly programmed many of his fellow citizens to support it.

I don't believe the president ever offered a cost estimate or described other options for those military and financial resources.

Principle = go

The military action in Libya might turn out well. For a reasonable investment, NATO and friends might hasten the end of an unpredictable dictator and embolden other democratic revolutions in the region.

If so, America's strategic interests could be served.

On the other hand, democracy might be the step that happens before the countries in that region vote to form a Muslim caliphate. This sort of thing is unpredictable.

All I know for sure is that I wouldn't accept a car ride across the desert with anyone who thinks we should bomb Libya based on a humanitarian principle.

Is rationality an illusion..?

Posted by Tandarin Nike Saturday, March 19, 2011 5:36 AM 2 comments
Every normal person is rational when relaxed. And everyone has the potential to become irrational when emotions kick in.

That's obvious enough. The thing that fascinates me is that irrationality is something you're generally not equipped to recognize in yourself while it's happening. In a perfect world, we'd have an objective way to measure irrationality, the same way breathalyzer measures drunkenness.

In this context, being rational doesn't mean you're brilliant or entirely logical. It just means you're willing to evaluate information and attempt to draw reasonable conclusions.

I wonder if scientists can determine when you are using the rational part of your brain and when your irrational part is getting a bit too involved.

That seems doable. I believe we know enough about the architecture of the brain and we have the technology to see which parts are most active at any given moment. The problem is that it's not practical to do a brain scan outside a lab setting.

But will that always be the case?

Technology will probably reach a point where you can put on a cap with sensors that see which parts of your brain are being most active. An LED screen on the cap will indicate whether you're using the rational part of your brain or the crazy part.

Using the rational part of your brain doesn't mean your opinion is right, of course. But it's a start. We can also measure IQ, and we can measure a person's knowledge on a particular topic.

That would give you a good idea who to believe on any particular issue.

That leaves self-interest as the wild card. I assume a politician or business leader would be capable of using the rational part of his brain to mislead others for personal gain. But here again I'll bet the brain-cap of the future will be able to detect deception based on the totality of which parts of the brain are being active.

Politics would never be the same. Voters would insist that politicians wear brain-caps for all speeches, press conferences, and debates. No one would then pay attention to any pundit who wasn't wearing the brain-cap.

The interesting question is whether some topics, by their very nature, make every participant irrational. I don't think anyone could pass the brain-cap test when considering topics such as gender equality, war, religion, evolution, race, corruption, Israel, evolution, sexuality, and the like.

I hope I'm dead before technology reaches a point where we can know for sure that people aren't rational about anything that matters.

Because at that point we'll see there is no reason for debate. Force is all that will matter.

Arguably, force is all that matters now, for anything important, but at least the illusion that rationality is an option for persuasion slows down our impulse to bulldoze the opposition.

That's probably a good thing.

Controlling envy is essential part of earning your freedom..

Posted by Tandarin Nike Wednesday, March 9, 2011 8:07 AM 0 comments
I wonder if freedom can really be quantified.

Everyone wants more freedom. But sometimes we want a bit less for other people.

I want the freedom to watch a movie in peace and someone else wants the freedom to talk at the same time. There’s a general agreement in that case that the movie watcher wins. But wouldn’t it be nice if freedom could be somehow scored?

That way we’d know how to distribute freedom for the greater good.

Freedom comes in lots of forms. Good health gives you more freedom than poor health. Money gives you more freedom than poverty. Education gives you more freedom than ignorance.

You might say I’m talking about options, or opportunities, not freedom in some legal or moral sense. But it all feels the same. Happiness is the ability to do what you want when you want to do it. Everyone wants more of it for himself. Am I right?

The tricky part is that we’re all interconnected. If I pay for your education, I have less money, and less freedom, because I can now afford fewer things for myself. On the other hand, if I’m a billionaire, paying for your education is a huge increase in your freedom but probably doesn’t have any real impact on my own.

What would happen if we designed tax policy based on the concept of freedom?

If we did, I assume it would look like socialism, where the rich are taxed until their freedom reaches some sort of average with everyone else. Personally, I don’t favor that because I’m too selfish. And it would destroy individual incentives because our system depends on selfishness, doesn’t it?

Or perhaps you could design policies based on the idea that no one can have his freedom reduced for the benefit of another. That doesn’t work because all criminals would be set free, there would be no traffic rules, and police would do whatever they felt like doing.

There’s no practical and honest way to organize society around the notion of freedom. The majority has to use other sorts of language to bring the outliers toward the average.

Criminals are “punished” or “incarcerated.” The rich are taxed at higher rates under the absurd notion of “giving back” something they didn’t actually “take” in the first place, assuming their activities stimulated the economy and created wealth where there had been none.

It seems to me that envy, not freedom, or even selfishness, is the organizing principle of society.

And maybe that’s the only way it can work. That’s why we love best the leaders who seem to be suffering or sacrificing the most. Zuckerberg, Gates, and Buffett are all geniuses at appearing to not enjoy all the freedom their wealth could deliver.

They know that controlling envy is essential to their very survival.