Sunday, March 2, 2014
An Interesting Contrast
NOTE: I am reproducing several articles from my old blog. The first, "The Best Argument Against the FairTax", should have been included among the other essays I reposted recently, but was not. The second, "The Problem of Pornography", is one I found while searching for the FairTax article, and as it seemed interesting, I decided to reproduce it here. "I Knew I Was On To Something" is cited in the second essay, and is one of my favorite essays about a topic which troubles me greatly. In fact, I am surprised I did not reproduce it earlier. (The same quote it discusses is the subject of my "Stupid Quote of the Day" series on December 30, 2012. Since I plan to reproduce that whole series sometime this week, I am not copying that essay tonight.) "The Politics of Psychiatry" mentions the Potter Stewart quote examined in "The Problem of Psychiatry" (and is amusingly controversial to boot), and "Finding What You Are Looking For" is cited in that essay. "False Precision" provides a good analogy, showing the futility of "scientific management" of economics, a topic examined again in "The Perfect Model". "Be Careful When 'Sticking It' to 'Big Business'", though burdened with a horrifying number of needless scare quotes (thankfully, something I have given up in recent years), is an interesting predecessor to the argument I made best in "In Praise of Contracts". "Kelo, Home Schooling and Drug Laws - Inconsistent Theories of "Social Costs"" is an interesting examination of the harm done by pragmatic solutions, often proposed by moderates and even conservatives. "Trial by Parenthood" consists of my reflections on how having children divides us into two groups. "An Interesting Contrast" meanders here and there, covering everything from the definition of hypocrisy to the benefits of search engines, yet, somehow, it manages to amuse me. "Why Term limits Will Fail (And Should)" is one of my earlier examinations of the subject of term limits, a topic examined again in "Critique of a Congressional Reform", "Some Thoughts on Term Limits", "Damn the Torpedoes!", "Making the President Irrelevant", "Racketeering Through Legislation", "Power and Disorder", "Our Aristocracy" and "The Problem of Professional Politicians, or, The Impossibility of a True 'Ousider' Candidate". "The Cost of Big Government" takes an all too brief look at precisely that, the cost of big government. "Transparency, Corruption and Reform" is a frequently cited essay looking at the relationship between the size of government and the amount of corruption. Finally, "A Perfect Quote" provides a very brief statement I found on IMDB, which perfectly summarizes the greatest problem with the political left.
Ever since Google became a multi-billion dollar venture, it has become mandatory among tech writers to sing the praises of search engines and extol the benefits of all the changes they have brought about. Just as the success of Oracle once made obligatory the heaping of praise on relational databases. Unfortunately for these writer, most people, quite rightly, find search engines helpful, but nowhere near as impressive as the writers would have us believe. And with good reason. After all, search engines may make it much easier to sift through data which would otherwise be quite difficult, or impossible, to digest, but in reality, for every user who applies search engines to a profound bit of research, there are tens of thousands of casual users who use them to look up nude photos of the latest heart throb, or recipes for ceviche.
What is interesting is that one truly unique benefit of search engines and related technologies is rarely, if ever, given its due. Oh, once in a while you might hear about the ways it made possible the tracking of some terrorist, or caught a drug smuggling ring, but for the most part we never hear about the most powerful aspect of the search engine. And that is the ability to make absolutely bizarre connections between seemingly unrelated concepts.
It sounds like that would be of little benefit, and it probably is in 99% of cases. Such as when you go to search an old college friend and find he shares a name with a pro golfer, or a high school friend whose namesake now races the NASCAR circuit. Such garbage results are usually worthless, and are viewed as an annoyance, not a benefit. And you cannot blame people for thinking of this aspect in those terms. A search engine is a very fast idiot. It can grasp immense quantities of data, categorize it, and then make matches between common terms, patterns or other aspects of the data very quickly. The problem is, unlike a human, it does not apply any filter that was not explicitly specified. And so when you are clearly searching for, say, renaissance painters, it will not recognize that blues guitarists are not in the same category and will still return the biographies of those guitarists, no matter how absurd that would seem to even the least clever human.
But I would argue that it is precisely that lack of common sense filtering which sometimes produces the best, if most unexpected, results. Just think of the many "data sieve" programs that are mentioned from time to time in our fight on terrorism. Those programs, say ones that compare ticket purchases, travel times, known associates and other credit card purchases, do nothing that your average competent investigator could not do, the computer just does it much faster. At least that is the story we hear from the programmers and police. I would argue there is one other aspect that gives the edge to computers. They never think a lead is not worth following, unless it has been explicitly excluded. While a cop might find a one way ticket purchase from a 95 year old woman in Minnesota and disregard it, the computer will see a purchase fitting the pattern and continue to dig, possibly discovering the card was stolen, used by a relative or in some other way tied to terrorism despite the superficial improbability. By not filtering, the computer may make discoveries our common sense would keep us from pursuing.
The reason I wrote such a lengthy discourse on this topic is that a similar bit of computer synchronicity led me to this essay. I was searching the phrase "live up to" to find a link to an old essay I wrote on misunderstanding of the term "hypocrisy." I could not recall much about the specific wording, and I knew the word itself appeared in my blog many times. All I could recall was saying something along the lines of "failure to live up to [his/her/your/one's] ideals is not hypocrisy". As I could not recall the middle word, I just searched on "live up to", and, as I read through the results, I was struck by a strange pattern. The essays I found fell into two broad groups, one following the theme established in my hypocrisy essay, the other group questioning how so many can still have faith in political theories which have failed in practice to provide what they promised in theory. What is more, when I began to glance through those essays, it struck me that there were more similarities than the use of common words. They seemed almost two sides of the same coin, a pair of parallel situations where certain groups reacted in opposite ways depending almost entirely on political considerations.
And so, as the differences in behavior struck me as both fascinating and revealing, I decided to write an essay on the topic.
The essays I was seeking --"Poor Grasp of the Meaning of Hypocrisy", "Second Thoughts" and "Ad Hominem" -- were discussing a topic I find interesting, the tendency of many to dismiss ethical arguments from those who fail to live up to those standards. For example, recall how much Richard Bennett was mocked for writing about ethics after it was revealed he was a regular gambler. Even ignoring the fact that legal gambling, especially when it is not a financial burden on the individual, is arguably not immoral, I must ask, why does his gambling make his arguments invalid? As I asked elsewhere, if the doctor who tells you being overweight can exacerbate diabetes and cause heart attacks, is himself overweight, do we then ignore that advice? Do we dismiss the advice to stop drinking when we find out our doctor has consumed alcohol himself?1
If that were the case, I doubt we could ever take any moral advice, as one would have to be absolutely perfect to offer any wisdom, and such beings are in notoriously short supply. However, thanks to our horribly confused understanding of "hypocrisy", we tend to laugh at those who suggest ethical rules and then fail to live up to them at all times.2
Of course, this position is often put forth as part of a barely concealed political agenda. In most cases, the proponents of ethics are on the political right, and, given the number of those on the left caught in ethical lapses3, the left greets lapses on the right with quite a bit of glee. And what could better enhance that glee than pointing out, not only is the politician in question immoral, but he is also a hypocrite, espousing morals while obeying none of his own rules4. Nor are they the only people trying to score political points. Besides the simple political opportunists, those who truly do oppose traditional ethics, to whatever degree, and in whatever aspect, tend to relish such revelations for the same reason. They find in the failings of proponents of ethics a validation of their own lack of morals.
Which actually points out the idiocy of this whole position. If we posit that anyone who makes an ethical statement, and then fails to abide by it at all times, is a hypocrite worthy of scorn, we have basically said that no one should ever espouse ethical positions, lest they risk their own reputation. Far better to espouse absolute amorality, and then be given credit for even imperfect behavior, so long as your acts rise above your absurdly low standards. But if you ever ask others to live up to even the most modest rules, you run the risk of sometime breaking one of those rules and being held in contempt. In short, this bizarre redefinition of hypocrisy alters the system to favor the immoral at the expense of the rest.
But what makes this point interesting is the second set of articles that I noticed when looking for posts containing the phrase "live up to". Those essays -- "Adaptability and Government ", "Government Quackery ", "Of Wheat and Doctors ", "Bureaucratic Management and Self-Policing ", "Arguing In Hindsight ", "Some Additional Thoughts on Technocrats ", "History Repeats Itself (And We Learn Nothing From It) ", "Grow or Die, The Inevitable Expansion of Everything " and "Recipe For Disaster" -- largely concerned the tendency of politicians to greet the failure of a political theory, not by changing theories, but by excusing the theory on the grounds of too little commitment, too few resources, or some other excuse, and simply press on with the same failed concept.
Which, if you think about it, is the opposite of the first set of essays.
In morality, we can accept that a man may fail to meet his own standards. He can say "A is good" and yet fail to do A at all times. His own failing doe snot invalidate his statement, it simply shows he is not as good as others. On the other hand, if a theory says "Do A to accomplish B", and then doing A does not result in B, that theory is wrong. A theory must describe reality, or else it is invalid. And yet many accept such failed theories, and find excuses, or just ignore the failures, and continue on with the same plan.
What interested me was how much of an inversion of common sense and logic this was. A man who postulates something as desirable can be right or wrong, but his own behavior has nothing to do with the truth of his statement. On the other hand, the results a theory produces have everything to do with the validity of that theory. And yet, so often, politicians on the left, and sadly many on the right, view things in the opposite light. They denounce the theories a man proposes based entirely on the man himself, and yet they continue to hold fast to a theory regardless of the outcomes.
But it does make sense if we think in terms not of ideas, but of people. If we view the world of ideas not as an arena where one logically seeks the truth, but as a vague, fuzzy world where one networks and connects and where the opinions of others matter more than anything else, then it is completely sane. After all, one's political views are not a matter of what will work best, but are simply an expression of one's persona, a declaration of who one sees as allies and friends5. On the other hand, when someone puts forward a statement about morality, we should not judge the idea on its own merits, but on the basis of who proposes the idea.
And, unfortunately, especially for the voters, those who go into politics often are the sort who love to "network" who see society in terms of hierarchies of personalities, who love the struggle to be above others, and they tend to, at least to a degree, adopt the fuzzy world view I described above. So, until we decide to take most of the power out of their hands, we will be stuck with such people making our decisions for us.
1. Strangely, this is the one place we don't consider failure hypocrisy. Alcoholics Anonymous, and similar programs, are filled with those who have said quitting is essential, and then failed. And yet those people are held up as paragons of virtue. In fact, most such meetings venerate those who had the most difficulty quitting. In some ways it makes sense, as those who had difficulty would more easily understand the troubles of others, but given the way we treat all other ethical lapses from those speaking on ethics, it seems odd we would uphold such a relatively sensible view. (I am not advocating AA here, simply saying that the reasoning behind some of their practices makes sense. I have several objections to the 12 step model, but that is a subject for another essay.)
2. Hypocrisy is easy to understand, but most people seem to have trouble grasping one essential detail. It is not hypocritical to propose ethical rules and then fail to live up to them, that is simply failure. It is hypocritical to propose ethical rules and then fail to live up to them because you never intended to do so. But somehow we have come to assume any ethical failure was premeditated and intentional, and so decree any ethical lapse from one who speaks of morality is a sign of hypocrisy.
3. I am not alleging either political party is more prone to ethical lapses. However, as the left tends to forgive the ethical lapses of their leaders, while the right -- if only because the media is more critical of them -- tends to expel their tainted members, the left tends to keep their immoral members in office longer, leading to many more being present at once. I suppose we could also argue that the left wing's acceptance of many silly remnants of 60's philosophy, such as "doing your own thing" may create a slightly greater number of those engaged in questionable activities. And, of course, as the Democrats traditionally controlled the corrupt machine politics of most cities, the various vices common to such circumstances tended to center on that party. So, it may not be too unfair to say, while members of either party can sin, the political agenda and party policies of the left tend to allow them to accumulate more questionable active members than the right.
4. There is a second concept at work here. Many of those delighting in this supposed "hypocrisy" grew up in the 60's, or are the disciples of those who did, and have been exposed to the left wing cliche so prevalent in the 60's that the "ordinary" moral family was a thin veneer pasted over highly disturbed individuals, that those who talked about morality the most were those with the most problems. (Eg. The "J Edgar Hoover was a drag queen" myth, or the "Hemingway was gay" one. If you doubt the apocryphal nature of either, please find me something more than gossip or speculation and I will retract my description.) And so the idea that a paragon of virtue is really tainted fits very well with their world view, the idea that trying to "repress" leads to neuroses, while "letting it all hang out" is the route to health. (That is clearly a lunacy I will need to address in the future, but I fear that I will have so much to say it may be quite a while before I can finish it.)
5. I have annoyed liberals in the past ("Liberal Tolerance") by suggesting one of the reasons they get so offended when their political theories are questioned is that they draw so much of their identity from their politics. (Sadly, with the rise of the "angry right" many on the right now fit this description as well -- "The Right Identity", "Cigarettes, Sudan and Abortion", "Katrina and BP", "The Angry Right and Conservatives") Though the reasons I suggested it is true for liberals are a bit different, it does sound very similar to the description I just gave of politicians.
Though I decry the power we give to irrational politicians, that does not mean I would want to replace them with logical types. Many a cold hearted, hard headed rationalist, because of incorrect assumptions, or bad reasoning, has come to horrible conclusions. Let us not forget that Hegel, despite his bizarre semi-mystical ideas, adopted an elaborate logical approach, with outcomes that proved disastrous for many decades afterward. No, the solution is not to replace glad handing politicians with technocrats ("A Thought on Technology and Technocrats ", "Some Additional Thoughts on Technocrats ", "The Limits of "Scientific" Management"), the solution is to stop giving anyone that much control, to take the power back and keep it for ourselves, giving the state only what it absolutely needs to maintain order and settle disputes. Then it really won't matter who wields that power, as it will be so minimal no one will care. ("With Good Intentions ", "Grow or Die, The Inevitable Expansion of Everything ", "Critique of a Congressional Reform", "Transparency, Corruption and Reform", "Why Term Limits Will Fail (And Should)")
Originally posted in Random Notes on 2011/02/06.