We Are All Data Analysts Now

Here’s a quote from a recent op-ed about Peter Theil and the US presidential election:
My guess, based on zero data, is that, had I mentioned Peter Thiel one year ago, only a handful of readers would have recognized his name. And, had I told you that he was one of the founders of Paypal and the first investor in Facebook (he’s even portrayed briefly in The Social Network), my guess, again based on zero data, is that your opinion of him would have instantly improved. “Tell us more about this Thiel,” you would say.
Forget about Peter Thiel and Donald Trump for a moment, and just pay attention to the phrasing in that passage. The author uses the phrase “based on zero data” not once, but twice. Of course, substantiating the author’s “guess” with empirical research is a pretty silly concept. It’s not relevant to the thrust of the article. I choose to highlight it here, however, because it reveals something about our modern perspectives. In a bygone era, an author might have chosen to say “I suspect,” or “I’d wager,” or “I’d venture to guess…” but today, this author – along with many people out there – choose to stipulate that they are saying so in spite of not having analyzed the matter empirically.

The implication here is that analyzing the data is the conceptual default. Welcome to the modern age. We are all data analysts now. The question from here is how we can expect this fact to color our perspectives.

Recently, someone on my Facebook feed made a jibe at a certain kind of person for believing a certain kind of thing about the Cold War. The jibe was that sociologists should study why that certain kind of person had reached a certain kind of conclusion, followed by a very ideologically charged epithet for the Soviet Union. Because I happen to know people were alive during the Cold War who grew up in countries that benefitted from Soviet foreign policy, and because I happen to believe that Westerners do not have the total story regarding Soviet foreign policy, I added a comment on Facebook suggesting that the hypothetical sociologist should include the perspectives of residents of the Third World.

This comment resulted in immediate demands for which people, which country, which events, I was thinking of. Naturally, I avoided naming specifics – not because I couldn’t give them, but because I didn’t want a debate about the merits of a particular Cold War policy to distract from my real point, which is that one’s perspective on the Cold War is invariably shaped by which narrative one most identifies with. In the US, we’re accustomed to thinking of the USSR as an “Evil Empire.” In the Third World, the question really comes down to which major world superpower had the biggest impact on one’s country – and was that impact positive or negative? This is why Nelson Mandela famously chose to work with the USSR despite Western objections, because the Soviet Union had helped Mandela’s cause when no one else would. You could argue that Mandela was a communist and the Soviet Union helped him only for that reason, but again this really only distracts from my point. My point is that the USSR wasn’t a villain to everyone. Anyone interested in a complete history of the Cold War ought to do a proper accounting of everything.

But my point fell on deaf ears because all anyone could do was demand which country, which events – empirics, empirics, empirics. Let’s see the data and analyze it. Hand it over. This speaks to the core cognitive problem we face today: we approach everything as though we are data analysts. That makes us very good at solving problems that can be solved by data analysis; it makes us horrible at solving other kinds of problems.

Similarly, I came across a recent Facebook post (a public one, so feel free to hunt it down if you’re so inclined) by Less Wrong religious leader Eliezer Yudkowsky, arguing that everyone should vote for Hillary Clinton because the downside risk of a Donald Trump presidency is World War 3. That’s not an exaggeration – that really and truly is what Yudkowsky said. Of course, the reality is that World War 3 may happen – or not – regardless of which candidate wins the election. The only reason Yudkowsky counts this as a risk of a Trump presidency, and not a Clinton presidency, is because Yudkowsky is biased. This should be perfectly clear because, as I just said, World War 3 can happen under any set of assumptions; Yudkowsky only includes that set of assumptions in his estimation of a Trump presidency.

But, remember, this is how Bayesian reasoning works. Yudkowsky is willing to bet on WW3 + Trump, and unwilling to bet on WW3 + Clinton; ergo, it is more probable until he decides to “update his priors.” He thinks it, therefore it is. Now we can finally see that Bayesian reasoning, when done incorrectly, is basically magical thinking.

Bayesian reasoning done correctly, however, can be a powerful way to solve statistical and machine-learning problems. In other words, it’s good at solving data analysis problems, but bad at solving foreign policy problems. As you can see, the problem runs deep.

It gets worse: A common trope among the libertarian crowd is that voting is ineffectual on the margin, thus it doesn’t matter whether or not you vote. But, if everyone acted on this information simultaneously, then no one would vote and the thesis would invalidate itself. So this notion is actually a paradox: completely meaningless, utter nonsense. Voting is marginally ineffectual because voting itself is effectual. Similarly, profits are maximized when the marginal profit of the next unit is zero. It would be stupid to say that “producing gallons of milk is a waste of time” just because we’ve reached the point of diminishing marginal benefit. But when we’re stuck analyzing problems from a data analysis mindset, we undermine our ability to solve problems through other means.

And that’s just politics. Think about all the other areas of our lives that are surely suffering due to the fact that we’re stuck in a data analysis paradigm.


Defensive Posturing

Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

People have a tendency to adopt whatever posture will present themselves in the best possible light. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is inauthentic, and hence disingenuous. Confident authenticity, by contrast, would involve presenting oneself in an unassuming way, with no particular pre-determined posture, and allowing the situation to dictate how one needs to communicate to make oneself understood.

Usually, defensive posturing is forgivable. Why not make a good first impression? When meeting new people or dealing with strangers, it’s typically a good thing to smile, speak with kind, open language, be polite, and so on, so that other people can feel comfortable interacting with you. It helps build trust and ease social interaction for everyone involved. True, one might not be a ray of sunlight all the time, friendly and polite in every circumstance, and so adopting a friendly posture sometimes might be a little disingenuous in that it doesn’t accurately reflect one’s disposition at all times. But, as I said, this is forgivable since it’s done for a good purpose that everyone can appreciate. Frankly, it would be a little odd to present the full spectrum of your personality to all people in all situations.

Note, however, that these kinds of exceptions tend to involve new people, new situations, and casual interaction. In these instances, people don’t demand much from each other in the way of philosophical consistency or intellectual honesty. There aren’t many dishonest answers to questions like, “How’s this weather treating you?” As the intellectual demands of a situation rise, however, presenting oneself as authentically as possible becomes ever-more important. This is one of the reasons why formal speeches often being with an “ice-breaker,” a funny quip or engaging story that reveals the social personality of the speaker before many social graces must be set aside for an exploration of the speech’s true subject matter.

Here’s where things get interesting.

A conversation about politics, for example, requires a great deal more than social grace; it requires some knowledge of current events, relevant history, political philosophy, civics, economics, and so on. Having some knowledge in any one of these areas – let alone all of them – is enough to push the conversation into less chit-chatty territory. Politics is notoriously difficult to talk about in social circumstances precisely for this reason. One’s friends might find it inconvenient to know, for example, that minimum wage laws cause unemployment. This is a bald, empirical fact that may rub some people the wrong way, depending on their political leanings. It’s tricky to mention this fact in a way that keeps friends receptive to the point you’re making.

I know a few people who like to talk about politics, but whose dedication to social graces is strong that they can’t bring themselves to pronounce an “offending” remark such as the minimum wage statement I just mentioned. Some might goad another friend into making the statement instead, and this is a real problem, in my opinion. Instead of taking the risk of offending someone upon themselves, they out-source the job to a friend whose role in the situation is to be the patsy, the one who must offend others because the first person is too cowardly to speak his mind. It’s fair enough to think better than to speak your mind, but to make a third party bear the risk of offending solely because you yourself don’t have the guts, well, that’s pretty unseemly.

There is another, more abstract, level to this. Sometimes people will construct elaborate intellectual frameworks that look like coherent philosophy on first brush, but which later reveal themselves to be little more than claptrap designed to justify a contentious belief. Suppose, for example, that I was only able to acknowledge that minimum wages cause unemployment if I went the extra step to suggest that keeping those wages high ensures that enough tax revenue can be generated to pay social welfare to the job losers. Of course, economic theory has a response to that, as well, but then the discussion has already become more complicated. The more complicated the discussion, the easier it is to find small points of contention that provide some plausible deniability to the person who needs it.

In this way, people are able to maintain many silly, wrong, or dangerous beliefs by invoking a posture. This posture is “defensive” in that its real function is to defend the psyche against change. But it might not appear to be defensive to others. In fact, it works best when it doesn’t look defensive. People will say it looks smart, or moderate, or balanced, or well-meaning, or curious. All the while, the posturer is really just engaged in a crafty subconscious defense.


How Many Deaths Equals One Rape?

I’m compelled to write this post, even though it doesn’t represent much of a contribution to the existing material out there, including posts previously published on this website.

For me, the story of the election is how much mental gymnastics people are willing to do in order to justify voting for Hillary Clinton.

There is no question in my mind that Donald Trump is a bad man who would make a very bad president. But this fact implies nothing about Hillary Clinton’s comparative standing in that regard. Moreover, we have a mountain of historical records and evidence that suggest that Hillary, too, is a bad woman who would make a very bad president. (Nor does this fact imply anything about the quality of Donald Trump as a potential president.)

When I say “mental gymnastics,” what I’m talking about is this: We know that Hillary Clinton’s policies have led to war, destruction, and death across the globe. Her husband’s policies, too, were once derided at “globo-cop” policies that did more harm than good. The Clintons have a lot of international blood on their hands; they’ve dropped a lot of bombs. A lot of bombs.

Let’s take it for granted that Donald Trump is a racist, sexist pig who is possibly guilty of sexual assault. Here’s an ethical question I pose to my readers: How many bombs do I have to drop on innocent people before my behavior is deemed not only morally reprehensible, but as morally reprehensible as the behavior of a rapist? Think about it, I beg of you. How many people are you allowed to kill with flying robots before the nation decides that the death on your hands is on par with a hideous racist ideology or a single alleged sexual assault? Do I get to kill ten people before I’m as bad as a racist? Twenty people? Five hundred? How many thousands of deaths equal one sexual assault, from a moral standpoint?

As I just mentioned two paragraphs ago, making a case against the death-mongering policies of Hillary Clinton should not be misconstrued as an argument in favor of a Donald Trump presidency. My question is only how many atrocities politicians like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, et al have to commit before you as a human being start seeing them as the monsters that they are. A man who loudly proclaims his bigotry and brags about sexual misconduct is certainly a villain. Why do so many suppose that the others are not villains? Why do so many more suppose that dropping bombs on thousands is less morally reprehensible than a public declaration of bigotry?

Odd, isn’t it?

It is particularly odd in light of the many, many allegations of sexual misconduct – and even a few credible accusations of rape – against Bill Clinton and the fact that Hillary Clinton must naturally know how credible those accusations against her husband are; accusations despite which she chose to stay with her husband for reasons most Americans have assumed for decades purely reflect a professional ambition to rule over us.

Of course – of course – it’s difficult to know who to vote for in an election of monsters. Do you risk one monster, or the other? Do you risk voting for a third party candidate? Do you risk not voting at all? I don’t fault anyone in this election cycle for making any particular choice of candidates.

But I do fault people for handing in their principles to justify their choice. Hillary Clinton is a warmonger, a liar, and a panderer. You can certainly conclude that she is still preferable to other candidates, but you’re not (ethically) allowed to pretend that she is no longer any of those things, just because you view the other candidates less favorably. You are not (ethically) allowed to say one candidate is unequivocally worse than the other on moral grounds unless you are prepared to do the utility calculus and state in no uncertain terms that boasting of rape and racism is morally worse than killing thousands and covering up a rape.

At least, not according to my ethics.


Don't Listen To The Haters - Marriage Is An Accomplishment

Yesterday a friend of mine came across an article in The Huffington Post entitled “Getting Married Is Not An Accomplishment.” The article is not too terribly long and does not break new ground the pop-feminism world, so if you haven’t eaten recently, you might want to go ahead and read the whole thing. But if you don’t want to – and who could blame you? – I’ll provide the most relevant excerpt:
My frustration is this: It is 2016 and being popped the question is still more celebrated than academic and professional pursuits of women. Yes, college graduations and landing a great career and receiving wonderful promotions are all received with happiness from friends and family, but not even close to the same level of elation received when you announce that you are getting hitched. This is my experience, at least.
I am so grateful for the excitement surrounding my upcoming marriage, however, I often wonder why the event of getting married is put on a higher pedestal than the true successes that come along with an education and career. 
Truthfully, this kind of article is easy to obliterate because it is both predictable and poorly reasoned.  I don’t believe in punching down, but there are a few points that I think I’d like to make about this article, points that may slip through the cracks for most readers.

The Obvious

The first couple of points I’d like to make are obvious, but important enough that they deserve being articulated.

The number one thing is this: The author is simply wrong.  Marriage is a much greater accomplishment than having some success at work. Marriage is a lifelong project that requires a level of patience, growth, and commitment to personal growth that many people simply do not possess. I won’t say it’s hard to be married, but I will say that when you’re having a bad day at work, you can still go home at the end of the day, and if things really start to suck, you can get an even better job if you leverage your past successes. In marriage, there is nowhere to go other than back to the marriage to try to make it better; and if you, sadly, find yourself having to leave a marriage, you always end up worse-off than you were before, definitely in the short run and quite possibly in the long run. Compared to work or school, the stakes are much higher in marriage, the time horizon is much, much longer, the effort is greater, and the rewards are much more deeply satisfying – not just according to me, but according to happiness research. To suggest that getting a promotion at work – even a really big promotion and a nice raise – is a greater accomplishment than marriage is, well… insane.

The other obvious point that goes along with this one is that many, many people in the world aren’t lucky enough to get married, ever. A great many more people are lucky to have been married, but sadly haven’t ended up in a successful marriage. Still more people had wonderful marriages that were destroyed through acts of god or circumstance. In short, the author is quite fortunate – or, to use the language du jour, privileged – to be getting married. Her article and her perspective is warped by her good fortune; she is oblivious to the plight of the many people who aren’t so lucky as to be getting married. This makes her article seem cavalier.

The Less Obvious

By the time I had finished the article, I had recalled an old blog post that dispenses with most of the arguments made in this one. You can find it here, and do read the whole thing, because it’s excellent.

The knee-jerk reaction to an article like this, the one that The Huffington Post is counting on, is that we all sit around and pat each other on the back for knowing that a woman’s worth is more than her ability to attach herself to a man. And while we were all patting ourselves on the back for thinking this, the author sprung this little doozy on us:
I can’t blame anyone for being more curious about my relationship status than my career, as I too have been guilty of doing the same with other woman. After all, we are all taught through expertly crafted commercials and advertisements that it is of utmost importance for a woman to get a ring put on her finger.
Perhaps it’s time for society as a whole to re-evaluate what aspect of women’s lives we put the most value on.
There are two very important things to point out about this passage. The first is that the author has the audacity to suggest that advertisers are partially responsible for our having been brainwashed into thinking that marriage is an accomplishment when her own article is a piece of advertising for the Chevrolet automobile company:

That’s bad enough, but there’s something else going on here that strikes me as being incredibly odd. Let’s suppose that the author is correct, that having a successful career is a greater accomplishment than marriage. If the author has a successful career – and she sure seems to, because they aren’t printing my articles in The Huffington Post, then why does it matter to her what society thinks about that?

Stay with me here. This woman has a marriage, and a successful career, so she’s got it both ways. She’s not satisfied by those things, however, because people don’t ask her about the biggest accomplishments she’s had. In other words, her successes aren’t satisfying to her because nobody is asking her the right questions. She’s seeking external validation for her accomplishments. Without it, she doesn’t feel that they are accomplishments.

Let’s say that, instead of having a great career, the author’s biggest accomplishment was learning how to play “Leyenda” for classical guitar. Would she then be arguing that society needs to change so that “we” value classical guitar performances more than marriage? No, of course not – but the point isn’t that not all accomplishments are created equal, the point is that what society chooses to ask you about in casual conversation has nothing to do with how satisfied you feel by having achieved something. It doesn’t really matter that nobody ever talks to me about my accomplishments because, to the extent that I have achieved anything at all, those achievements stand on their own merits. I know I did them, whatever they are. I’m not waiting for people to pat me on the back for having achieved something, and if I did need that, how insecure must I be about those accomplishments?



Some Links

1) At what price, a new Appalchian Trail record? Take a look at Karl Meltzer's winning diet (don't try this at home):
This time, he capped each night with one or two beers and left from rest stops with rainbow-colored Spree candy, Three Musketeers chocolate bars and bacon in his pockets. To save time and keep his energy up, he typically slept less than seven hours a night and instead had an energy drink every 10 miles, downing about five a day. When on another day his support crew found him napping, they gave him a pint of ice cream for a boost.
2) Thpin! Thpin!

3) Tyler Cowen accidentally writes a post so bad that he has to passive-aggressively rebuke his own readers for not letting him get away with it. (I lol'd.)

4) Conservatives are more willing to allow business owners the right to refuse service than libertarians are. Bryan Caplan has the story. There could be many explanations for this, but I'd lean toward anti-conservative bias as a possible explanation.


Run Bike Explore


In honor of my new Garmin device, I'd like to cordially invite all my readers to join my Garmin Connect group, "Run Bike Explore," dedicated to all things adventurous, fun, and fitness-related.

As you may already know, you can connect with me on Strava via the Strava widget on the right-hand sidebar.

And let's not forget my new favorite, SmashRun! Join up with me here.


Back To Garmin

Image courtesy Garmin.com

Today will almost certainly be my last day wearing a Microsoft Band 2. After the clasp broke two months into wearing it and the product had to be replaced under warranty; after the subsequent replacement wore through at the bracelet and had to be patched; after the bracelet continued to crack from underneath the patch; after the other side of the bracelet also cracked and wore through; it was finally – finally – time to throw in the towel and get rid of this terrible piece of barely wearable technology.

As my regular readers know, I was initially quite impressed by the Band 2. I said when I first got it that it offered many important improvements over its predecessors in the history of wearable running gadgets. Those observations remain true today. Unfortunately, none of that matters if the darn thing breaks and falls apart after a couple of months of normal use. Ultimately, the Band 2 suffers from the same design flaw that proved to be the Nike+ GPS watch’s undoing: by placing core hardware inside the bracelet, the manufacturers ensured that the device would fail as soon as anything bad happened to the bracelet. Note that Nike discontinued its running watch and never produced a replacement, opting instead to concentrate on a smartphone app. I don’t know what Microsoft’s plans are as far as future Band products go, but considering what an utter failure the Band 2 ended up being – based solely on hardware design shortcomings, it must be emphasized – it seems unlikely that Microsoft would be keep to jump back into the smart watch game. But then again, no one else is making a Windows-platform smart watch, and Microsoft apparently aims to compete with the likes of Google and Apple.

Unfortunately for Microsoft, however, the failure of their Band 2 – the complete and utter avoidable failure of it all – has soured me not only on future Band products, but also on Microsoft products as a whole. The Band 2 was relatively pricey at $250. While the software that it runs is undeniably good, I feel the sting of loss here. Perhaps if I were made of money, then I wouldn’t think twice about burning through $250 on an experimental smart watch. But this hurts.

Before my second Band 2 fell apart, I was seriously considering replacing my laptop with a Surface Pro. They look so cool. They seem so good. It’s tempting. But when I think about my experience with the Band 2, I suddenly become reticent. Why would I spend $900-$1500 on Microsoft’s flagship hardware when their $250 wearable couldn’t last me two measly months? I simply can’t justify it. Microsoft made the mistake of losing me as a customer for life. I’ve gone from being a promoter to a detractor.

Well, enough sour grapes. I still love tracking my activity, but now what do I do?

My back-up plan was always to revert back to my trusty Garmin Forerunner 620. This highly reliable device sucked me into the wearable tech game in the first place, by providing me with an endless sea of graphs and charts to gaze at every time I ran. I even got into heart rate zone training for a while because of it. Something that worked so well for so long, without any signs of device failure whatsoever, could surely last me a little longer.

As I considered dusting off the old 620, I realized that without my daily step count, continuous heart rate monitoring, sleep monitoring, etc., I’d really be missing out on a lot of good fun. Meanwhile, I had good evidence to suggest that there is at least one company out there that knows how to make a fitness watch that doesn’t immediately fall apart: Garmin. So, I thought, why not replace my miserable broken Microsoft thing with Garmin’s equivalent offering?

Here I had essentially two choices: I could opt for the modern-day equivalent of my Forerunner 620, which was Garmin’s flagship model at the time I got it, or I could opt for the model more closely resembling my Band 2. Each product has its own advantages, and of particular interest to me and my readers was the Forerunner 735XT’s advanced running features, such as VO2 max estimator, recovery advisor, and race predictor. But at a price of $450, I realized that I’d be spending about $200 more to receive statistics that were simply not worth $200 to me. Instead, I opted for the vivoactive HR device. I may lose out on some of these deeper running stats, but the device will still deliver all of the benefits of my Microsoft Band 2, plus a few Garmin exclusives like the GLONASS location tracking system. And, to my delight, it seems that Garmin has greatly improved on its mobile app since the days of my Forerunner 620, so I should have something that is superior to the Band 2 in every way that matters.

And I’m speculating here, but I think I can actually gain access to at least some of the Forerunner line’s running stats if I connect the vivoactive HR to the chest strap HR monitor that came with my 620, i.e. that I already own. More on that if it pans out.

For now, it’s time to charge up my new device and prepare to move back over to a superior fitness tracker. The journey continues.


Some Links

  1. Jakob Thusgaard is getting progressively closer to a proverbial GPS fitness app "Rosetta stone." Check out his handy guide for app-syncing right here. For background on this problem, you can see my previous posts here and here.
  2. Much to my chagrin, my local area is in for unseasonably cool temperatures within the next week or so. We're talking highs in the mid-50s, and keep in mind that the weather is in the mid-90s today. So this is a 40-degree (Fahrenheit) plummet in temperatures over the course of about 2-3 days, at least according to forecasts. Time to get my cool-weather running gear in order.
  3. Alex Tabarrok links to an excellent blog post from Mike Rowe, on why he elected to work jointly with the allegedly nefarious Koch Industries.
  4. Adam Gurri continues his struggle with understanding the nature of morality, this time as a response to Paul Crider. My response to Adam is the same as my response was to Paul: I believe I have already solved these problems (here, here, here, and here). In order to accept my solution, however, one has to bid farewell to many of one's treasured philosophical hobby horses.
  5. Labor Day was yesterday, but it's never too late to link to a great article by my favorite economist and libertarian, David R. Henderson.
  6. I haven't seen others blogging it yet, but the fact that ITT Technical Institutes has shuttered its doors - all of them - strikes me as pretty huge news. The company blames overregulation, and while I am sympathetic to their argument, the specific amount asked for by the DOE seems low for a company that size. Perhaps ITT Tech was already over-leveraged.
  7. I have before never heard of doctors' prescribing oral antidiabetes medicine for the treatment of type 1 diabetics. According to this article, patients receiving a combination of insulin and two different oral medicines can expect a 0.66% reduction in their a1c levels, along with a 6-8% increase in blood cholesterol levels and a significant increase in DKA. Sounds like a lousy deal to me, but make your own decisions here. The article is interesting nonetheless.


The National Anthem: America's Hijab

I haven’t been following the Colin Kaepernick controversy because it involves things about which I don’t particularly care: football and nationalism.

However, recently a friend of mine posted on social media that people should be free to protest, but that they ought not protest at work. I happen to agree with that statement (ethically speaking, of course, not legally), but it made me realize something profoundly odd about the Kaepernick controversy, which is that people have taken the singing of the national anthem as the default. That is, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, if you hear the national anthem, you’re supposed to stop everything, put your hand on your heart, and sing.

This is weird. Catholics don’t even feel this way about the Nicene Creed. This default-to-respect-the-national-anthem mentality is more a profoundly religious behavior than some of the most significant religious convictions out there. The only thing that I can compare it to in my mind is the almost obsessive way some Muslims insist on saying “peace be upon him” any time anyone makes mention of their prophet. Like, you can’t just mention him if you’re a Muslim, you have to immediately also say, “Peace be upon him” or “Alhamdulillah” or something.

I’m not criticizing it, it’s just a fact. The convention is that the prophet is so holy that the mere mention of him requires that we pay a small verbal piece of respect to him. I cite this as a comparison because there is no real equivalent in the West for such behavior. We can mention Jesus, Abraham, Buddha, or anyone else without immediately verbally genuflecting, because that’s our convention, that’s our social norm. We can even say “god” without having to immediately praise him. We in the West have never had anything quite like “PBUH” and similar statements that exist in Islam.

…At least, we haven’t had any such equivalent until now. Now, the US national anthem serves a similar purpose. As soon as you hear it, stop everything and pay your respects! Anything less is either blatant disrespect, or a protest of some kind.

It should go without saying that mindlessly reacting to a patriotic song is not the same thing as being patriotic. That is, a person’s hand over their heart is intended to be an action that merely represents or demonstrates patriotism. It is not patriotism itself. To use a silly example, George Washington was an American patriot long before the national anthem even existed. A person could do many patriot things and dedicate herself to civic duty and patriotic service, and still opt out of standing for the national anthem. Such a person would still be patriotic. It’s not standing for the national anthem that makes one patriotic, it’s expressing patriotism some way or another.

Likewise, many people do absolutely nothing for the country they live in, and yet stand for the national anthem nonetheless. Are they patriots? Not unless the one thing that determines a person’s patriotism is standing for the national anthem.

Ironically, this will probably be very easy for my Muslim readers to understand. They know full well that, for example, putting on a hijab doesn’t make a person modest or dedicated to god. The hijab is just a way to outwardly express what is presumably true within their hearts and minds, as far as dedication to god is concerned. So many people have written criticisms of women who live quite wildly in their youth, and then suddenly decide to put on a hijab when they’re ready to settle down and find a good husband. Are such people “truly modest,” or “truly dedicated” to god? Of course not. They might even be hypocrites. But the point is clear: it’s not the act of wearing a hat that makes you a dedicated Muslim. The hijab is just a hat, really. It’s not the hat that makes the Muslim, it’s the religious conviction. The hat just represents all that.

This implies that the national anthem is just a song. That’s all it is, it’s a song. To be sure, it’s a patriotic song. It’s a song sung on occasions on which we wish to express a devotion to our country. But that’s all it is. Standing and singing a song doesn’t make you a patriot. Nor does sitting during the national anthem make you disrespectful to your country. There is way more to it than that.

As time goes on, though, people are becoming less and less capable of differentiating between symbols and the objects they symbolize. In many Muslim communities, all anyone cares about is the outward demonstration of piety – but real piety doesn’t really matter. As long as a woman is wearing a hijab, the community deems her pious; the rest is ignored. And similarly, as long as Kaepernick was standing for the national anthem, nobody cared. The minute he chose to actually think about the state of his country and make a conscious decision to affect change for the better was the moment everyone deemed him insufficiently patriotic.

It’s just a song!


Theory And Practice, Episode Four

Originally published at SweetTalkConversation.com.

If you spend any time at all thinking about moral philosophy, eventually you face a set of difficult questions. Some of these are:
  • If making ethical decisions comes down to learning and applying the correct moral framework, why do people disagree about morality at all?
  • Couldn’t we just sit down together, discuss The Virtues, or whatever, determine what the most virtuous action is, and proceed accordingly?
  • Why, even after acting in accordance with our moral philosophy, do we still face doubts and even regrets about what we’ve done?
  • And so on.
There are a few possible explanations for all of this. One might be that, while the Virtues (or our preferred moral philosophy) are perfect, human reasoning is not. Another might be that truth is untruth in the moral realm as much as elsewhere. Still another might be that morality is subjective. Or, more radically, perhaps morality is a psychological illusion or a sense of self-justification we instigate ex post facto.

But I gravitate to another explanation: Moral reasoning is a skill that must be practiced and perfected.

Stages Of Moral Reasoning

In mathematics, we must learn arithmetic long before attempting to solve a differential equation. We learn things in stages, starting with elementary concepts, which can gradually built into far more elegant thinking. Some people cannot visualize four-dimensional space, some can. The difference is only the level of refinement in their thinking. Have you internalized your basic mathematical concepts, learned trigonometry, and understood the geometric implications of calculus? Then you can probably envision 4-space easily. Is your background in mathematics a little weaker? Then you probably cannot – but you could, if you developed the capacity for mathematical reasoning.

But does an analogous concept apply to moral reasoning? Lawrence Kohlberg says yes. In his research, he proposed six – and hypothetically seven – stages of moral development ranging from the elementary (punishment avoidance) to the refined (principled conscience).

Kohlberg’s research built on the cognitive development theories of Jean Piaget. In a recent article entitled “Fostering Goodness & Caring: Promoting Moral Development of Young Children,” Ruth A. Wilson writes,
According to Piaget (1965), children construct and reconstruct their knowledge of the world through interactions with the environment. Such knowledge includes children’s understandings about what is right and what is wrong (Piaget, 1965). Moral development and cognitive development are thus closely intertwined. Moral reasoning is, in fact, considered to be one of the central aspects (or “building blocks”) of moral functioning (Berkowitz & Grych, 1998). Being a “good” person, however, involves more than having the cognitive understanding of what is right and what is wrong. Other central aspects of moral functioning include empathy, conscience, and altruism (Berkowitz & Grych, 1998).
That’s where Kohlberg’s theory of the stages of moral reasoning kicks in:
Developmentalists, such as Kohlberg, propose that the process of attaining moral maturity occurs over time if conditions are favorable for such growth. They also believe that a child’s moral maturity is directly related to the way she thinks about concepts such as justice, rights, equality, and human welfare. Over time and through a variety of social interactions, children come to develop their own understandings of these concepts. Thus, their sense of “goodness” is constructed through their own thinking about their experiences and through dialogue with others about what these experiences mean (Nucci, 2001). Children’s sense of goodness is also fostered through encouragement offered by significant adults in their lives. One principal of an elementary school in Florida offers such encouragement at the end of his daily announcements by saying something like, “Remember, children, be kind to one another” (Comora, 2004).
Dr. Wilson argues that simply handing children a “bag of virtues” is insufficient for the development of effective – and hopefully highly superior – moral reasoning. Citing Robert Coles, she writes, “We may be able to get children to do certain things or ‘to behave themselves’ as we want them to, but that doesn’t mean they’ve developed a sense of goodness or morality.”

In short, it’s not enough to teach moral philosophy – not to children, not to anyone. Knowing what is the right and wrong thing isn’t sufficient. We rather need to develop our capacity for moral reasoning. It’s not philosophy in a vacuum, it’s applied cognitive development as it pertains to the ethical realm.

Theory isn’t just useless in absence of practice, it cannot even be fully understood without our having reinforced Theory’s concepts in real-world interactions!

Wilson’s Recommendations For Moral Development

As a brief aside – partly because I am a parent, and partly because I think it is a good showcase of what developing moral reasoning looks like in practice – I’d like to briefly outline Ruth Wilson’s recommendations for how to help children develop good moral reasoning. She elaborates in the article linked above.
  1. Help children understand the reasons behind the rules – including the ethical rules. Children shouldn’t ever be told “because I said so.” (Never! By the way, this is a good way to develop narcissistic tendencies in a child.) Instead, ethical rules should be discussed with children in the form of a true dialogue – with the child offering his or her own thoughts on the subject, and the parent highlighting some important ethical considerations.
  2. Match ethical instruction to the level of the child’s cognitive development. A toddler certainly can’t understand Pareto optimality, for example, so explanations and lessons must come in a form the child can understand at that moment in time. If a child is only capable of Stage Two moral reasoning (the “what’s in it for me?” stage), then the moral instruction should arrive in that form, and hopefully hint at Stage Three.
  3. Attend to the victim first. That is, when one child hurts another, first ensure that the injured party has been given the right attention. This helps both the injured and the injurer understand that the important thing is to consider other people. If, by contrast, we started by punishing the guilty child, the only lesson that child would learn is the Stage Two level of reasoning: “I did XYZ, and it didn’t work out for me.” Me, me, me.
  4. Reinforce ethical lessons with children’s literature. Aesop, Plato, Jesus, and Rand taught with the use of parables because doing so is a highly effective way to teach moral reasoning.
  5. Expose the child to animals and pets. Doing so helps them develop empathy, kindness, and gentleness.
  6. Model, encourage, and reward good moral behavior. This is, in fact, vitally important. Not only does “do as I say, not as I do” encourage narcissism by presenting rules as arbitrary, but children simply imitate adults. It’s what they do.

Results And Moral Development

You need not buy into Kohlberg’s theory of stages wholesale to internalize the more important piece of information: Morality is a skill and, like any skill, it can be learned and refined. But refining a skill requires practice, not just theory. As per my usual hobby horse, the result of the skill of moral reasoning should be moral outcomes, not moral reasoning. In other words, moral philosophy should never be an end in itself. Our focus should always be on producing better outcomes.

What do I mean by “better outcomes,” and who gets to decide? As I have written previously, what this means to me in practice is that better outcomes are those that produce more happiness and more mental health, and the person who gets to decide what that means is you.

Many of the previous objections I have received to this idea pertain to the notion that morality cannot be objective, and that psychologists are no better at arriving at good moral reasoning than moral philosophers. If Kohlberg is correct – even in theory – then one explanation for this is that there is no guarantee that a person who is very knowledgeable of moral theory has a well-developed sense of moral reasoning. This also explains why we often hear that ethicists are no more moral than anyone else.

These thinkers are akin to music teachers who know extensive music theory and pedagogical techniques, but who cannot play their instruments with any level of expertise. (I know a music teacher who gives lessons for instruments he himself does not even play.)

We can learn moral theories from philosophers, but that does not imply that moral philosophers act morally. We can acquire extensive knowledge of philosophical and moral theory without ever having developed a real-world sense of moral reasoning.

For all of these reasons, I have come to believe that what matters for morality is not theory and philosophy, but practice and results.

Is The Problem With PC Its Political Agenda?

At EconLog, Scott Sumner writes a blog post on what he feels is wrong with political correctness. It's not that he opposes student safety and comfort, but that the PC movement aims to prevent discomfort "for the wrong reason." What is that reason, according to Sumner?
The primary agenda is to advance a partisan political cause, not to make people feel comfy.
He continues (emphases added):
People on the left don't see the political aspect of PCism, for roughly the same reason that liberals don't see that NPR is liberal, and fish don't notice that they are wet all the time. (Disclaimer, NPR is my favorite radio station--but I do see its liberalism.)
In other words, Sumner believes the point of the PC movement is to advance left-liberalist politics. Against this narrative, I have an anecdote to offer.

When I was a young boy in elementary school, we all hit puberty at about the same age and were invited to a "maturation program" provided (officially) by the school faculty. Some students from very conservative families were excused from the program if their parents provided a formal written request that they be excluded. Instead, they stayed in their primary classroom and worked quietly on their homework.

We didn't have the language of "safe spaces" back then, but the comparison is a perfect one. Very conservative students were given a safe space to avoid being triggered by frank talk about human biology.

Long story short, I don't think it's reasonable to say that all PC demands align with the same political agenda, thus I don't think Sumner's criticism here is fair. There are some instances in which political correctness has served non-leftist political agendas, too.

So if political correctness isn't about one political agenda in particular, what is it really about?

I will speculate that people - and therefore also students - are growing increasingly hyper-sensitive to narratives that don't support their own beliefs, whatever they are. The postmodern insistence that perception is reality has unwittingly encouraged us to manage our perceptions in an effort to control our reality. If the only difference between my reality and yours is my perception that, say, minimum wage can increase the poor's quality of life without reducing their employment rate, then I can claim that this is true for me. After all, I perceive it to be so.

In such a world, facts start to become irrelevant to perceived reality. If I only allow myself to see blue light, then the whole world is blue. Your efforts to shine red light on my reality could be perceived as a threat - how dare you attempt to forcibly alter my perception?

This is only a story, of course, but it's one intended to cast light on the thinking of the politically correct. I don't believe these folks are actively trying to promote a political agenda so much as they are afraid to consider any reality beyond the one that they have carefully curated for themselves. Accusations that these folks are too sensitive are more accurate, in my opinion, than accusations that they are too politically motivated.

Long before the university years, we should have taught our children that perceptions and beliefs can be highly inaccurate, and that the proper way to live one's life is by dismantling one's own illusions and relentlessly pursuing truth, wherever that leads. But our modern-day philosophers relish opportunities to cast doubt on the existence of both truth and reality, and therefore a lot of us are simply ill-equipped to teach our children how to exist in a world in which some ideas are hotly contested, and no one group has a monopoly on reality (perceived or otherwise).

I'm relentlessly criticized for referencing Ayn Rand, but she accurately predicted and described all of this in her essay "The Comprachicos," from The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution. There is much to criticize in that book and that essay, but the thrust of her ideas still rings true despite whatever discussions we might have about her tone or the details of her philosophy.


Authenticity Versus The Package-Deal

For this post, I am indebted to my sister for helping me clarify my thoughts.

One of the reasons I’ve kept up my blog over the years is because it enables me to build upon thoughts that have occurred to me before. It’s difficult to keep track of all the things you may have thought in the past, and work toward some kind of philosophical end product. Some people try, and it leads them only into endless philosophical explorations of the inherent contradictory nature of things. This isn’t an intellectual failure, it’s a byproduct of the way we choose to think of things. Look at things differently, and you can potentially solve your problem. (Assuming that that’s what you’re really interested in.)

To wit, an important piece advice for those who keep repeating the same mistake over and over again is to “write your story toward an ending.” An analogous recommendation for people and thinkers who keep getting hung up on the twists and turns of logic, and nuance, and language, and context is to start writing toward a specific theory of something. Your theory will certainly be imperfect, but you will succeed in actually improving the quality of your thoughts, and that’s worth something – if not to the world, at least to yourself. You can (and hopefully will) always make incremental improvements as you go.

Or, by analogy: You’ll never finish a drive from St. Louis to Nashville if you spend all your time muddling through the irreconcilability of the quantum and Newtonian physics required to get there. Get a car and a map and plan your journey; you might not find a unified field theory, but you’ll certainly get to Nashville.

What you are about to read builds on much of what I’ve written before. I’ve mentioned that the way a question is asked can influence a person’s reaction to that question. I’ve also written the following:

In today's world, we are inundated with gurus, marketing campaigns, media lies, and government propaganda. We regurgitate the spin we hear in our private conversations. We buy into the quick-fixes and the grading-on-a-curve and the false demonization of innocent scapegoats. All the while, we leave ourselves hungry for authenticity.

To understand what I will say below, one has to keep these things in mind: First, that framing can influence our thinking, positively or negatively, but always negatively to the extent that framing takes us further away from objective reality; Second, the ubiquitous marketing, political messaging, branding, and packaging we encounter everywhere we go has a tendency to wrap our lives in this kind of framing unless we actively resolve to ignore those messages.

Are you with me so far? Then, let’s begin.

The Urge To Compartmentalize

One of the reasons I ran afoul of the Sweet Talkers is that their rather extensive knowledge of academic philosophical theory – and my lack thereof – often made it impossible for me to present an idea to them without their having to re-frame that idea in the context of existing academic philosophy. It’s a reasonable inclination, and in fact invaluable when placing my ideas in that context improves the accuracy of my intended meaning. Sometimes, though, they just got it wrong. I’d try to say something, they’d compare it to a rather different idea, then start arguing against that different idea. When I’d object that this was not the idea I was actually talking about, they would throw up their hands in exasperation, saying, “Then I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

They were right, they didn’t know what I was talking about. It would have helped if I could have re-framed my idea in the context of academic philosophical theory, but I simply don’t have that knowledge. I’d like to have it, and so I keep reading and learning new stuff, but that doesn’t mean I should just stop trying to express my own ideas in the meantime, nor should it mean that I shouldn’t try to talk to anyone else about those ideas. Thus, another way around our impasse could have come from them: Rather than actively working to re-frame my ideas and get them wrong, they could have just listened, asked questions, and come to an understanding of those ideas outside the context of academic philosophy. I’m not clever enough to come up with totally new ideas, but if it’s going to take years of work to find out who else might have expressed the same idea, it may be quicker and easier for everyone to just pretend that it’s a new idea, and try to think through it that way, instead.

This is contrary to human nature. It’s only natural to compare new things to things we’ve seen before and draw comparisons and assumptions based on their similarity. That makes thinking more effective in a lot of cases, but it involves shutting out a lot of the data and honing in on only that which has proven to matter in the past. As Kevin Ashton writes:
Like quarterbacks, radiologists are experts in seeing things quickly. What is invisible to us is obvious to them. They can diagnose a disease after looking at a chest X-ray for a fifth of a second, the time it takes to make a single voluntary eye movement. As they become more trained, they move their eyes less until all they have to do is glance at a few locations for a few moments to find the information they need.
 This is called “selective attention.” It is a hallmark of expertise.
The bottom line is that expert-level human thinking is hard-wired to shut out certain data on grounds that this data has proven to be extraneous in the past. We bald apes have evolved to do this, it’s simply innate. Not only that, it works really well for us. The only problem is that whenever the stuff we’re ignoring turns out to be legitimately relevant, we make mistakes.

You might be a Sweet Talker, an expert in philosophical thought who has experienced good results from re-framing arguments in terms of what has been written previously. But the day you meet a Ryan who doesn’t tend to express thoughts that map well to existing patterns, you’ll misinterpret what’s being said.

This is an example, but it’s not the whole story. The point here is that humans like to detect patterns in the data we survey; we’re not usually very good at looking at a blob of data and quickly identifying relevant missing factors.

Framing: The Magic Of Marketing

Considering the fact that people detect seen patterns and ignore any data that is either missing or historically uninteresting, it comes as no surprise that the marketeers have learned to exploit this for their own gain.

A good example of this is the classic Miller Lite ad campaign that revolved around the phrase “Tastes great! Less Filling!” At a certain point in the nearly 20-year-long campaign, the television commercials ended up being a “debate” of sorts, with one set of characters arguing that Miller Lite was the best beer because it “tastes great,” and a second set of characters arguing that, on the contrary, Miller Lite was the best beer because it was “less filling.” The viewer is in on the gag: this is heads-I-win, tails-you-lose. No matter which side we take, we reach the same conclusion that Miller Lite is the best beer.

There’s nothing subtle about this, and that was by design. But marketing departments have done this sort of thing countless times. Batman vs. Superman is a debate that centers around the two most popular DC Comics characters; no matter which one you prefer, DC Comics sells more units. The cynic would even argue that modern political commentary revolves around a debate against Democrats and Republicans, whose actually implemented policies are more or less the same; i.e. the system doesn’t want to give you a real choice, they want to make sure that you think your choice is  meaningful.

This is what The Last Psychiatrist means when he says that the media doesn’t teach you what to think, it teaches you how to think. Teaching you what to think would involve an old-fashioned ad campaign like the one for Miller Lite, where the message is clear: We want you to buy Miller Lite. Teaching you how to think involves creating an arousal within you that can logically only be filled by implied product. TLP’s go-to example was the Dove beauty sketch ad campaign, but once you have a handle on the basic concept, you see it everywhere. They don’t sell you a product anymore, they sell you a lifestyle. The product just happens to be prominently displayed in the same frame as the people living the lifestyle, so the viewer concludes that the one goes with the other.

That’s why the frame is so important. If the product isn’t in the frame, then we don’t associate it to the lifestyle.

But make no mistake, this is a grift, and not always an obvious one. A far more subtle example of how marketeers use framing to manipulate you is the “compare models” link on a car manufacturer’s website. The appeal to you of such a thing is that you get to see all the specifications of a few products lined up side-by-side so that you can make a comparison across products. The con involved here is that it is the manufacturer that determines which specifications you get to compare. So you start with something like, say, engine horsepower. More power is better, right? Car A has more horsepower than Car B, so Car A must be better than Car B. Notice that this determination is made in your mind automatically, absent any context of how you will use horsepower in your day-to-day driving. The grift is complete when, while comparing two cars, you notice that they are roughly the same, but Car B gives you twice the horsepower for only $5000 more in additional cost. That’s a tiny incremental increase in your monthly car payment, and yet it’s holy crap – twice the horsepower!

So you spend an extra $5000 and double your horsepower without any real understanding of how much horsepower you actually need. Even though this feels like “making decisions on the margin,” this is actually the opposite of what classically trained economists do. What you ought to be doing is minimizing cost subject to a list of constraints. The best car for you is the one that costs the least amount of money, but still meets all your own personal requirements. You don’t really have a requirement for “double the horsepower.” You have a requirement for only a certain amount of engine power. Buying more power than you want is a waste of your money.

That thought never occurred to you when you started comparing car specifications, which is exactly the point of giving you the comparison in the first place.

The Frames Are Everywhere

Whether it’s beer, philosophy, or high-horsepower engines (sounds like a pretty great Friday night, actually…), our perspectives are constantly being shaped and altered by framing. To a great extent, this is unavoidable, but the reason I’m writing about it today is because, absent any strong effort our part, true authenticity is undermined by the framing through which we live our lives.

Think, for example, about your personal sense of clothing style. You might gravitate toward a particular “look” that you feel is “you,” but go anywhere in public and you will soon see that there are far fewer fashion “styles” than there are individuals. How individual is your sense of style, really? More to the point, how authentic is it? If all your fashion sense says about you is that you are one of a large mass of people your age and in your same geographic reason who gravitate to similar kinds of shirts, then we’re not really talking about an authentic expression of your personal style. It’s not authentic self-expression, it’s branding.

Broadly speaking, the food you tend to eat is probably similar, which explains why restaurants are categorized by “type of food.” You always know roughly what you’re going to get. Not all hamburgers are created equal, but if you go to a hamburger joint, it’s safe to say you’ll encounter few surprises on the menu. Some restaurants specialize in offering a few surprises, but even those restaurants adhere to some kind of predictable format. Only rarely do we discover a restaurant that offers an authentically unique menu.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with wanting to follow a particular fashion trend, and always looking for authenticity in food would be totally exhausting. Not every action we ever take in life is a call to authenticity.  I list these examples only to highlight how ubiquitous the frames are. If you’re not aware of them, then you might spend a lot of time trying every Mexican restaurant you can find, looking for one that offers something unique. You might find one, eventually, but it’s much more efficient to simply ask yourself whether you just want a burrito tonight, or whether what would really make you happy this evening is to find something new in the burrito game.

That’s what we’re after when we pursue authenticity. We’re not looking to avoid all branding, we’re simply pausing to be mindful of our desires. The first step is to just identify what makes you happy. If you’re a Hamburger Guy, then going to a Michelin-rated hotspot won’t satisfy your needs.

But the second step is where things get really interesting. That’s when you stop seeing yourself as a Hamburger Guy, or as someone who follows Michelin ratings, and you just close your eyes in a quiet room and think about what you feel like eating. Forget about the advertisements, forget about food “styles,” forget about the imagery, and just follow your taste buds. What are they telling you?

It’s Not Easy, But It’s Worth It

This level of mindfulness – pausing to shut out prior narratives and make a deeper inquisition about your needs – is actually very easy. It’s something we all do when we research things we know very little about.

If you’ve never been interested in gardening before, and you decide to look into what it takes to make a nice garden in your back yard, you’ll likely be less swayed by branded gardening products and formal schools of thought than you will be twenty years later, when you’ve become fully invested in gardening as a hobby. Initially, you’ll be searching for information on the stuff you need for gardening. You guess you might need a shovel, and some seeds, and some fertilizer, and some water… the guy at the hardware store might successfully talk you into a particular shovel, but your mind won’t automatically go there. You’ll probably ask the guy, “Okay, but what makes this shovel better than that cheaper one over there?” Maybe the galvanized metal on the more expensive shovel is important to you in your gardening hobby. Or maybe the cheaper shovel is all you need. When you first start out, you’re not interested in the aspiratioinal shovel, you’re only interested in the one that will do what you need done. That’s authenticity.

But we’re not beginners forever (or at least, hopefully not). Over time, we gain expertise, and that means we start to engage in precisely the kind of “selective attention” Kevin Ashton was telling us about. Supposing we actually do end up liking the galvanized metal shovel better, then the next time we see shovels for sale, we might think, “P’shah, who’d buy that one? It’s not even galvanized…” You might even get caught up in replacing all your garden implements with properly galvanized ones. To be sure, your gardening accessories will all have a consistent look and feel, but will this actually make your garden grow better? What end are you serving when you buy this stuff? If the end is to have the best gardening products, then have at it, but if your end is to have the tastiest tomatoes you’ve ever eaten or to enjoy the satisfaction of working the soil of your own land then my advice is to focus on that and forget about the shovel per se.

As it is with gardening, so it is with life. Being properly mindful of our activities helps us come to an understanding of what really makes us happy. Serving our own personal happiness the best we can is the real goal here. The things we buy, the things we wear, the books we read, are only in the service of that happiness.

I think Sweet Talkers would have been happier interacting with me if they had put their purpose in philosophical inquiry in mind when they talked things out with me, rather than just fitting the discussion to a particular form and pulling the trigger. The conversation certainly would have been more authentic.

I think you will be happier in your own life if you make your own personal desires and objectives the focal point of your actions. If you’re not getting the results you want, that might mean that you need to change your actions, not just the stuff you take action against. Change your verbs, not your direct objects. If you want to drive a screw, you have to stop hammering and start screwing.

That, to me, is what authenticity is all about.

Theory And Practice, Episode Three

Originally published on SweetTalkConversation.com.

Maybe it was a bad idea to cite an acerbic guy like Lubos Motl. When a guy says that a lot of questions are just stupid, that’s not exactly “sweet talk.” Motl has an important point, but I won’t defend his tone.

He did take the time to outline exactly what he means when he says “stupid questions,” and not only does that definition not apply to Adam, it is also fully consistent with the Gadamer quote Adam gave us. In fact, I am as surprised that Adam would quote an argument in favor of authentic dialogue as a response to a criticism of inauthentic questions as I was when Samuel quoted a Situationist to critique my endorsement of Situationism.

Clearly there is a gap between what I think I’m saying and the message I actually manage to convey. And clearly this gap is caused by me because it keeps happening, and I am the common denominator. Motl might be wrong for his aggressive tone, but at least he gets his point across. No such luck for me. Even when my fellow Sweet Talkers agree with me, they think they disagree.

Still, it was a little disheartening to see Adam call-out Motl on free will. Adam notes that Motl does not appear to have bothered to consult the SEP‘s entry on free will. But I did – and guess what I noticed: the entry does not include any discussion of the Free Will Theorem discussed by Motl in his post, despite the fact that the Theorem is directly relevant to the philosophy of free will. This oversight is a major validation of Motl’s point. Did Adam read about the Theorem before he wrote his last post?

I also find it to be somewhat of a weak argument against my claims to stick me with an -ism or two and then argue against those -isms rather than any of my claims.

Maybe we can all improve the authenticity of our dialogue.

Well, I’ll answer Adam’s questions as clearly and authentically as I can, and I hope I won’t disappoint the reader too much by not giving you this:

The Rapid-Fire Questions

Is mine a philosophy of “scientism?” No. I never meant to suggest that science is the only valid form of inquiry. I feel bad about having given that impression. However, I don’t think Adam is taking Motl’s criticism seriously enough. Some “problems” are only problems because the language by which they have been formulated is ambiguous. I have mentioned this before. The Free Will Theorem I cited above, along with its philosophical implications, is a good example of what I believe to be a better way forward. Does Adam disagree?

Is “scientism” the reason I think morality ought to be grounded in psychology? No. The reason I think so is because I think morality and philosophy ought to make human beings measurably happier and more mentally healthy than they otherwise would be. Those things just so happen to fall under the umbrella of psychology.

Is mine a philosophy of pragmatism? No, at least not in the formal sense. As I mentioned in my comment to Adam (and in Episode One), all I’m really saying is that she who gives a beggar a dollar for utilitarian reasons is no less moral than she who does so for eudaimonic reasons. If Adam feels otherwise, I would love to know his reasons.

What do I suppose I’m doing?, What do I believe the scientific method is?, Has anyone ever done this other kind of inquiry? I hope my answers to the previous questions clear these questions up, too. I will only point out that these are not authentic questions in the sense that Gadamer would mean.

The Real Meat

Adam’s final three questions should have been his first three, because they are the most important questions he asks. I’d like to spend a little more time on these.

Question #3:

I’ll start with this third question, but I am going to rephrase it in light of my answers above. Adam writes, “What is the difference between the reasoning done to arrive at the scientism-pragmatism position, and the reasoning that is being rejected as unscientific?” My rephrasing is as follows: What is the difference between the reasoning done to arrive at my position and the reasoning done to arrive at, e.g. Adam’s position?

My answer: Nothing. In my framework, the reasoning is irrelevant, only the outcome matters. You are what you do, that is all you can ever be.

I’m trying to decide how best to describe this. Let me try it this way: If I am a knave, I hope that Adam will not give me a free pass just for having well-thought-out philosophical justifications for my behavior. In the end, knaves are knaves.

That much is intuitive enough, but there’s a flip-side: If Adam is a moral person (and he is), he doesn’t get “extra credit” for having an airtight intellectual moral framework. To the people in his life, it matters only that he is a good person. His family won’t disown him if they find out that he is a good-but-philosophically-inconsistent person. I can’t speak for them, but I can tell you that my family has a good laugh at all the time I invest in philosophy. In the end, it doesn’t really matter to them how I think, it only matters what I think. Even then, what I think isn’t nearly as important as what I do. This was one of the points made in that other post I linked to, from The Last Psychiatrist, who also happens to write in many of his posts that “you are what you do.”

(The other important point made there is relevant to something Samuel pointed out in his post. A lot of our thoughts are really just defense mechanisms against mental change. When that’s true, it’s often better to just bypass the thoughts entirely and focus on the actions, the results. Sound familiar?)

So, in a funny way, if Adam finds my ideas totally unpersuasive and unappealing, and goes about living his life as a great eudaimonist, and this makes him happy and sane and prosperous and healthy, not only can he claim a victory, but so can I

Question #1

Adam’s first good question was “How do we determine what counts as ‘getting results’?” I like the way I addressed this in my comment: When doctors want to treat pain, they show their patients a picture and ask them to point:

A similar approach can be used for moral and psychological well-being: the closer you are to “0,” the more we can say you’re getting good results; the closer you are to “10,” the worse your philosophy is. And because moral behavior affects other people, we consider their moral and psychological well-being, too. So, really, the closer you and everyone you affect is to 0, the better your philosophy; the closer you all are to 10, the worse your philosophy.

Any more specific determination of “getting results” would do a worse job of getting those results. I reiterate: the rationale does not matter, only the actions, only the results. So it doesn’t matter that we don’t define it any more specifically. The way you feel about things, actions, deeds, etc. might be subjective, but the fact that you feel that way is not. While this seems like a radically subjective point of view, it’s actually as close as we can get to an objective standard of morality. I don’t need to know the ins-and-outs of your preferences in order to know what kind of moral behavior will help you achieve them. We can measure your success by the extent to which you do achieve them and the extent to which doing so moves you closer to 0 than 10.

Question #2

Now we get to Adam’s second question, which to me is the last question. “What is it about psychology that makes its conclusions more trustworthy than moral philosophy?”

Adam is used to thinking philosophically, and moral philosophy is prescriptive in nature – especially Adam’s eudaimonism. Eudaimonism prescribes virtues by which to live, rules which produce virtue, i.e. moral behavior, if followed correctly, and immorality if followed incorrectly or ignored. Because of this, I can understand why he would be suspicious of a system that uses psychological findings to prescribe actions to us which must be followed. What puts a psychologist in a better position than a philosopher to call behavior moral or immoral?

If I’m correct about Adam’s thinking, then his suspicion is a little off-base. Psychology doesn’t provide us with a prescriptive list of acceptable vs. unacceptable behaviors, so we need not worry that its prescriptions aren’t valid. Psychology only provides descriptions of human behaviors and establishes cause-and-effect relationships between those behaviors and our feelings. (Psychology also provides insight into physical abnormalities of the brain and therapeutic options available to those experiencing them, but that is of course less useful for informing our moral conduct.)

Nor am I suggesting that we match up all our behaviors with “happiness research.” To be sure, if research finds certain things produce happiness reliably, we ought to pay attention, but it would be an odd way to approach happiness to go searching for it in the clinical literature!

To wit, psychology can’t tell you that heading straight for your bottle of Glenlivet every day after work is an immoral thing to do, but it can tell you that doing so is associated with disruptions in family life. It can’t tell you that having a drink now is a sin, but it can tell you that if you happen to notice that your drinking is bothering the other people around you, you might consider a cup of coffee instead. All I’m saying is, look at the chart, point out how your behavior is making you and other people feel, and then decide whether it’s scotch or iced tea tonight.

Take note of how this differs from moral philosophy. There is no discussion of the virtue of whiskey, or the concept of moderation, or the value of principles in theory. There are no principles to abide by. There are merely choices and outcomes. What outcome do you want? Okay, then make the choice that corresponds to that outcome. Maybe having a drink is exactly what you want to do right now, and maybe it has no adverse impact on your mental health or anyone else’s. Then have that drink. But maybe while you’re having that drink your wife is in the other room reading Fifty Shades of Grey and wondering when was the last time you two slept on satin sheets. If so, then you have to choose not to have that drink if you want to experience the outcome associated with that choice.

This sounds like common sense becuase it is common sense. You could reach the same conclusion by maxing your U subject to vector C, but why do all that when you can just point to the right smiley face and act accordingly?

In theory, complex moral philosophy unlocks a higher truth; in practice, Occam’s Razor trims the fat. And here’s the crux of it: So long as I’m getting the same results you are, who’s to say I’m wrong? If you find this approach more problematic than eudaimonism, for example, then there must be some reasoning that establishes why. I’d love to hear it.

The goal in a morality governed by psychology is not to balance a list of virtues or adhere to a deontology or to maximize global utility. Instead, the goal is to make personal choices that reward you with more happiness. (That’s long-term happiness, champ. You don’t get to spend all your time on hookers and blow “because it makes you happy.” Twenty years from now, your arteries are going to shatter, and that’s also part of the calculus here.) More zeroes and fewer tens, more smileys and fewer frownies.

Does this make me an adherent of “pragmatism,” or “scientism,” or does it mean I am condemning all philosophy as worthless? These suggestions are strange and surprising to me. I’m suggesting that we arrive at moral conclusions based on what actually works and makes us happy – anyone who offers an approach based on any other criteria is, in my view, missing the point of moral philosophy. We’re not here to develop clever reasoning, we’re here to be happy.


Theory And Practice, Episode Two

Originally published at SweetTalkConversation.com.

“No Epistemic Value”

The social value of philosophy was hiding in its role of a subject that used to attract – and, to a lesser extent, still attracts – high-IQ people and makes them think about important questions. Historically, philosophy was therefore the ultimate “protoscience” and became the seed of science as we know it today, too. And that was good for the mankind. 
However, its modus operandi is a flawed approach to learning the truth. The old philosophy was studied before the scientific method was understood; and the modern philosophers – by the very definition of philosophers – are still failing to use the scientific method. They don’t understand that Nature is smarter than us which is why they still hope to “guess the important truths” without any accurate empirical input; and, more importantly, they fail to formulate their musings sharply enough and eliminate the falsified ones. 
Therefore, we may say that philosophy as a human enterprise has a “social value” but philosophy as a body of knowledge, methods, and results has no “epistemic value”.
That is from a 2013 blog post written by a physicist named Lubos Motl. Even now, years later, this post continues to leave a lasting impact on me. Always outspoken, Motl doesn’t mince words in this post, either:
In general, there aren’t any big questions posed by philosophers that were solved within science simply because philosophy’smodus operandi is not only a flawed method to find the right answer; it is a flawed method to choose the right questions, too. For this reason, virtually all important enough questions first posed by philosophers were scientifically shown to be meaningless or building on invalid assumptions (and all “specific enough” theories invented by philosophers – whether they have called them “questions” or, which was more typical, “teaching” – were shown scientifically false). The philosophy’s unscientific method not only fails to eliminate the blunders and misconceptions from the answers; it fails to eliminate them from the questions, too.
It’s tempting to summarily dismiss anyone who themselves writes so dismissively about important ideas, but I ask the reader to resist that temptation. Motl doesn’t hate philosophy, he just doesn’t see the point of investing time and intellect into poorly specified questions. (He even wrote a separate post about stupid questions.)

No, his real point isn’t that philosophy is useless, but rather that it has failed to get results:
The main problem with the philosophical method is not that it produces no results for other fields; the main problem is that it doesn’t produce the true answers in its own field.
Ask yourself what philosophy has done for you, personally. What are its benefits? And by “benefits” I mean “positive impacts on your life over and above the mere ability to use philosophy’s internal jargon to describe things that can just as easily and accurately be described without that jargon?”

I won’t say that philosophy can’t produce those benefits. What I will say is that one’s lack of clear benefits indicates that one has the wrong philosophy. If you don’t have them or can’t list them out- or, even worse, if your life is observably worse as a result of philosophy – then you need to change course. And this is true according to your standards, not just mine.

Spinning Wheels

It’s a bad idea to promote the ideas of Ayn Rand, Eliezer Yudkowsky, and Dr. Phil on this blog… much less in the same blog post… much less in the same sentence… but consider this the exception that proves the rule. The one idea they all seem to have in common is that they all seem to be dedicated to the notion that philosophy, done right, ought to be of practical use to ordinary people. Yudkowsky calls it “making beliefs pay rent,” but I prefer Dr. Phil’s folksy way of saying it: “How’s that workin’ for ya?

Philosophy is only as good as its ability to make us happy and help us solve problems. At its worst, philosophy is infuriating nonsense that misses the point, causing endless debates about whether an X is a “true” X. Fun though it may be in the moment, it’s practically useless. We don’t need a correct definition of “happiness” in order to be happy – we already know what happiness feels like, because we’ve all felt it. The rest is navel-gazing. I like to brood with a snifter of cognac as much as the next guy (okay, more than the next guy), but on my best days I remember that cognac is nice to drink even when I’m not brooding. That’s when the real fun begins. Or should I say the true fun?

I’m arming myself with a bandwagon of sundry other thinkers out there to lend a little extra credence to my claim that moral foundations ought to be psychological, i.e. not philosophical. As I put it in a separate conversation recently, “What good is a philosophy that puts you in therapy?” We debate the philosophy or the moral framework, but nobody debates the results; we all want to be sane, happy, healthy people. Touting this as the central goal of any moral or philosophical system puts the focus where it belongs: the proof of the pudding.

This is why, when we raise philosophical objections to someone’s stated belief, we don’t very often convince them to change her mind. What difference does it make if “capitalism, carried to its natural conclusion” produces anarchy? No debate about economic systems should rest on taking the real, physical world in which we live, and moving it to a hypothetical “natural [philosophical] conclusion.” I’m for economic growth and widespread prosperity. You too? Okay, what policy can be shown to produce those results? If my idea makes us all rich but philosophically inconsistent, I promise to buy you a hamburger. (NB: a hamburger is more satiating than philosophical consistency.)

The problem, as I see it, is that the deeper one gets into philosophy, the further one gets from the solution to one’s problem. I firmly believe that Plato’s Republic could be convincingly re-translated as comedy. One simple question about the definition of the word justice produces an entire treatise on government. You couldn’t make up better satire if you tried. If someone who knew nothing about philosophy (…or a thousand monkeys sitting at a thousand typewriters…) were asked to write a pilot for a sit-com the express purpose of which was to make fun of philosophers, it would look a lot like the Republic.

Suppose that in real life you actually had to solve a trolley problem, and that you could choose to either go with your gut instinct or pause time long enough to perform an exhaustive philosophical analysis of the problem. My thesis, restated: (1) If your analysis produced exactly the same conclusion as your gut instinct, then it was a wasted effort; (2) If your analysis made you less certain of what to do, it made your life worse and it was a wasted effort; (3) If your analysis produced a perverse conclusion, it made your life worse; (4) But, if your analysis produced a better outcome than your gut instinct would have, it was worthwhile.

Getting Results

I suppose at this point I should establish that I’m not straw-manning anything. Does philosophy actually produce bad outcomes for people? Yes. Here are two examples.

The first one is the curious case of Mitchell Heisman, who no one remembers anymore. By most accounts, Heisman was a highly intelligent and motivated man who showed no warning signs, and who ultimately harmed no one but himself. Despite his admirable intellect, he shot himself on a Harvard University landmark… as an act of philosophy. He left a “suicide note” in the form of a 1,900 page treatise on nihilism posted to a now-defunct website. The few who profess to have read it said it was “creepy,” but no one says that its claims are untrue. (Not to damn with faint praise, but Lubos Motl read it and enjoyed it.) Heisman was an intelligent man whose core philosophical beliefs were nihilistic. Unlike most nihilists, Heisman actually put his beliefs into practice: if there is no point, then why live? It’s important to note that Heisman didn’t misunderstand nihilism or get it wrong. He understood it perfectly, and ended his life accordingly.

In learning about Heisman, we all sense that something is wrong, but academic philosophy is powerless to tell us what. At best we can disagree with his conclusions, but when it comes to getting results, i.e. suicide prevention, what good is that? We know that suicide is a tragedy; we don’t need to prove it. The suggestion is almost silly. But philosophy can’t do the work needed to save Heisman’s life or anyone else’s. Instead, it can spur a debate about whether Heisman’s suicide is “truly” a tragedy or whether he is “truly” worse-off now compared to when he was alive.

The result of philosophy for Mitchell Heisman, then, is death. That’s a bad outcome.

The second example is that of Katherine Ripley, a young journalist who found herself traumatically victimized, left in a sad situation in which the academic philosophies she had learned in school gave her exactly the wrong advice. What those philosophies did give her, on the other hand, was a powerful set of rationalizations for self-destructive behavior that she only learned to overcome after what she describes as “intensive therapy sessions.”

Ms. Ripley isn’t a crazy person or an idiot. In fact, her career would suggest very much the opposite. She is an intelligent and articulate defender of her ideas. The philosophies that did her wrong for her own life (the real world, live and in the flesh) are defended on the highest terms and in the halls of the most prestigious philosophy departments in the country. The question isn’t “who could believe such a thing?” because the answer to that is “pretty much anyone smart enough to follow a valid chain of logic.” No, the question is what results did she get out of those ideas? The proof of the pudding.

I have no good arguments against either nihilism or feminism. They are both valid, consistent moral belief systems. They’re both well-reasoned and provide cogent explanations for a person’s actions. But how’s that workin’ for ya?

There is a fair criticism to be made at this point: Some great argument, Ryan. You take two tragedies that happen to have a connection to a couple of mainstream philosophies, and from that you indict the philosophies themselves, rather than the people. What about all the millions of other practitioners of these philosophies who don’t suffer an ill fate?

My response: Those philosophies appear to be working for all the happy people, don’t they? See? Multiple coherent, consistent, valid philosophies are available to us and anyone else. You might choose one and I might choose another. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is how the pudding tastes.

Practice, Not Theory

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and more than one reason to give an old man some spare change. Ceteris paribus, the philosophy that consistently results in a skinned cat (uh, assuming you’re into that…) or a donation to the needy is a good philosophy. It shouldn’t matter if that philosophy happens to be nihilism or feminism or utilitarianism or the Word of God. (Ceteris paribus.)

By contrast, the philosophy that only seems to work in special cases is not a good philosophy. Nor the philosophy that works 95% of the time, and 5% of the time you blow your brains out in front of the library; nor the philosophy that makes millions of women feel empowered at the expense of thousands of women who end up really hurting on the inside; nor the philosophy that teaches peace and harmony on Sundays and insular biases and discrimination the rest of the week; nor the philosophy that justifies a particular economic policy at the expense of all human altruism. And so on, and so forth.

The results matter. The theories are only as valuable as their ability to deliver those results. Did you like your pudding? Good, then you got the recipe right. Or not? Then change your recipe. It’s just words on paper. You can’t eat words on paper unless you’re desperate, and even then you’re getting mostly fiber. In one end and out the other.

And just in case I haven’t fully tapped-out the recipe analogy, here are some old-timey instructions for ammonia cookies, which are exactly what they sound like.

Why would someone want to put ammonia in their cookies? Because it tastes like mint. No, really, I’ve eaten them before. They are delicious. You can scratch your head about putting ammonia in food, but the fact is, it’s been done – successfully. That philosophy has been tested to tasty effect, so at this point there is no use questioning the thinking behind eating ammonia. It got results. (It’s not as if the drinking of cow milk is any more rational – or, for you vegans out there, the consumption of the barely-edible plant stalks attached to fatally poisonous leaves.) It doesn’t have to make sense if the cookies are both tasty and edible, and they are.

The underlying philosophy – the why – doesn’t matter anymore.
But you want “why”, you’re drawn to “why” like you’re drawn to a pretty girl in the rain. Let me guess: she has black hair, big eyes, and is dressed like an ingenue. “Why?” is the most seductive of questions because it is innocent, childlike, infinite in possibilities, and utterly devoted to you. 
“Why am I this way? Why do I do what I do?” But what will you do with that information? What good is it? If you were an android, would it change you to know why you were programmed the way you were? “Why” is masturbation, “why” is the enemy, the only question that matters is, now what?
And anyway, the answer to “why” isn’t very interesting. (Spoiler alert: “It is inevitable.”)

We don’t really want a perfect philosophical theory, anyway. That’s just an intermediary step to more interesting goals, like “happiness” and “sanity,” just like you don’t write C# code in order for it to be syntactically correct, but rather as a step toward a more interesting goal, like buying food at the grocery store and subsequently eating it. A job that pays well and keeps you dipping your ammonia cookies in milk instead of anti-freeze is a good job; a philosophy that keeps you happy, well-adjusted, and sane is a good philosophy.

It’s the proof of the pudding, see, that’s what we want. Results.