Thursday, April 23, 2015

Some Thoughts on Injustice

My daughter likes to say that "It's not fair!" when we tell her to do something and we don't make the same demand on the 5 and 3 year old. Like many people, she equates "fair" with "equal" in the absolute sense. She fails to recognize (being 8, she has an excuse) that different abilities results in different expectations. She can do more than the other two, so we expect more from her. And when each of the boys are 8, we will expect them to do what we expected her to do at 8. Of course, she'll be 11 when Daniel is 8, and 13 when Dylan is 8, so we'll expect yet more from her than we will her 8 year old brothers.

Of course, since it is her mother and I who are the dispensers of duties and, thus, dispensers of justice, there is at least some sense in her seeking justice from us in our distribution of those duties. It makes less sense for me to complain about the injustice of my own situation, since there is not anyone in particular treating me unjustly.

I have little doubt that many would consider it "unjust" that I spent so much time and money getting a Ph.D., and I have been unable to get a full time job with it -- longer than the 1 year lecturer position I had at UNT-Dallas (where there may have been injustices committed against me, given that particular people were doing particular things against me). It is not unjust that I haven't been able to get a full time position. No one is actively preventing me from getting a full time position, so there is no justice nor injustice involved.

The same is true of others who cannot get jobs or who cannot get the jobs they want. There is no "economic injustice" in someone not being able to get a good job. One has neither a right to a particular job nor a right to any job at all. Thus, an injustice cannot be committed against you if a given job is not offered to you.

Why then do I sometimes feel like my situation is "unjust"? I know intellectually that there is no way that it can be considered unjust, but sometimes I just feel like it is. I feel like I have a great deal to offer, and that I'm being underutilized by society. But of course, society cannot utilize, as it cannot act nor make decisions. Those are the actions of individuals. But those individuals make decisions based on knowledge and understanding they gained socially. Generally held attitudes about people with Ph.D.'s, people with degrees in the humanities, people who unconsciously behave as I do, etc. affect my ability to get a job. The fact I didn't graduate from a top 10 university affects whether or not I even get considered for the handful of academic positions out there -- which is one reason why I abandoned even trying to get an academic position. Is it just that people blindly accept the superiority of those who graduated from Harvard and Yale? It is a cognitive bias, no doubt, but I'm not sure I would go so far as to call it "unjust" -- even if it is short-sighted, narrow, prejudiced, and homogenizing to our universities.

We need to reserve the term "injustice" for actions individuals perpetuate against individuals. And those actions should involve the violation of a person's right not to be directly harmed. Let's face it, any job will be given to one person and not to many, many others. That doesn't mean that vast majority have been treated unjustly, since what happened to them was incidental to the fact that only one person can get the job. And there are always criteria for getting a job, so one cannot have been treated unjustly if one doesn't meet those criteria (stated and unstated). You cannot but end up in an absurd situation otherwise.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Should and Ought

Any time someone says, "You should...", you should always ask "if?" Every "should" implies an "if." For example, if it is raining out, and you want to go outside, and I say "You should take an umbrella," there is an implied "if you don't want to get wet from the rain." Naturally, if you do want to get wet from the rain, then you should not take an umbrella.

We too often forget that every "should" implies an "if." You should be nice to people. If what? The federal government should (not) raise the minimum wage. If...? What is your goal? Can you meet that goal by doing the "should"? The shoulds of morality always imply a goal one is trying to reach, and one should always know what that goal is and the best way to reach that goal if you are sincere about reaching the goal and not just about looking good to the right people.

Equally, every "ought" implies that you owe someone something. If you "ought" to do X, that implies that you owe someone something for which doing X will pay the debt. You ought to be nice to grandma. Why? What do you owe her? Life, for one. And probably that sweater she gave you for Christmas. Whether you like that sweater or not, she got it for you, and you owe her at least thanks and being nice and gracious to her for thinking of you and trying to get you something nice.

That is a "simple" ought, but it gets to what underlies all oughts. You ought not lie. To whom do you owe not lying? Many of these are social rules, cultural rules. To what do you owe civil society? To what do you owe your culture? The oughts of our cultures and civil societies are what we owe them for the lives and beliefs we have.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

What Is My Self?

The continuity of my personality is an illusion created by the interpretations of my memories, which are re-membered in the context of who I am now, by who I am now. The present self is thus always informed by that past self, which is transformed by the present self. This complex feedback loop creates the conditions for the emergence of an integrated personality from the fragments of my past and current selves. All of this is of course built upon genetic tendencies, the relative strength or weakness of memory, the relative and periodic recall of those memories, and one's social context. Different environments can call forth different selves -- as husband, father to each of three children, teacher, friend, employee, etc., I am a different person. A different person, but not unrelated to the others -- what differs is emphasis and the memory resources on which one draws, recalled in the appropriate contexts.

Given that we are the stories we tell ourselves to ourselves, meaning we are always in a position of interpreting and editing our stories about ourselves, it may be appropriate to view our selves as hermeneutic selves. The remembrance of things past is always fragmented and interpreted. How we interpret ourselves to ourselves (and thus present ourselves to others) can either be habitual (they way we have typically done it, which is familiar and comfortable, even if it may not be the best interpretation possible) or consciously chosen. If I tell a story to myself of myself as a loser, I'll act in ways that will fulfill that interpretation. But if I tell a story to myself of myself as someone on the pathway to success, I'll act in ways that will fulfill that interpretation. Confidence matters.

It is unlikely that successful people think or thought of themselves in negative terms. Without a supreme sense of self-confidence, you cannot be successful. Self-confidence is a story you tell yourself about yourself. So, too, is arrogance, self-loathing, depression, courageousness, etc. Each of these are interpretive stances one takes regarding one's self, tying all of the fragments, past and present, together into a whole. We inform our inform selves into a coherent form that flows from moment to moment, context to context, with occasional discontinuities if we have to jump into an atypical situation. Feelings of confusion emerge at such times, when you don't know what situation you are in, or if you are getting contradictory information about how to act or react.

So in a sense the sense that we are a unified self is an illusion, but in another sense, we are a unified sense, because we interpret ourselves into a coherent self. Our interacting fragments give rise to a coherent self in the same way interacting biomolecules give rise to a coherent, living cell. Both are maintained through constant change and through constant interactions with the environments in which they find themselves. We are and are not coherent selves; we are interpreted selves, which brings coherence to the incoherent. Just because something is an illusion -- or, better, virtual -- that hardly means it isn't real.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Punctuated Equilibrium in Language

Language is a spontaneous order.

Punctuated equilibrium is a feature of spontaneous orders. They are characterized by s-curve growth, in which there is a period of equilibrium, then exponential growth, then another period of equilibrium. Different systems of different complexity will have different time periods of equilibrium. At very high complexity, it is possible to witness what appears to be pure exponential growth, when in fact, if we were to look more closely at the data, we would see something more like a stairstep progression. A market economy in a high population density country with the right kinds of institutions is a good example of the latter.

The way our brains learn is a similar process. There are those who learn slowly, with long periods of equilibrium and short periods of exponential growth; there are those who learn quickly, with short periods of equilibrium and long periods of exponential growth; and there are many variations in between. The causes are many, and of course include genetic factors affecting neural development, connection, plasticity, etc. and environmental factors, including social complexity, stress and anxiety, and hope.

We should thus expect to see the same dynamics at work in language. And, indeed, this is exactly what we see. Miagawa hypothesizes that human language emerged rapidly. He developed the Integration Hypothesis after noting that there are words which have syntax. Of course, this dynamic remained once language itself emerged, finding itself repeated in the evolution of and within different languages themselves. In particular, "punctuational bursts of change at the time of language splitting are an important and general process in language evolution and account for 10 to 33% of the total divergence among these languages in their fundamental vocabularies" (Atkinson, et al. 588).

I think it would benefit us a great deal to pay more attention to these kinds of transitions. Not just in biology, the brain, and language, but in our social systems as well.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

On Decentralized Approaches to Learning

If you are a libertarian and you are interested in issues of education, you may have noticed that there is very strong support throughout the movement for the Montessori Method. Ayn Rand quite famously came out in favor of the Montessori Method as the best way to educate students.

The reasons why Objectivists and libertarians support the Montessori Method is because of the freedom it provides students to learn by pursuing their own interests. That means education is student-guided, with the teacher providing instruction as the students request and require it. This means education is a bottom-up, emergent process that best reflects how the brain itself works. Brains learn best in environments structurally most like themselves (something suggested by Hayek, and argued by Stuart Kauffman). Among the things this would do would be to prepare us, psychologically, for life in civil society, which is made up of a variety of bottom-up, complex, self-organizing, scale-free network processes -- spontaneous orders. An education that emulated free markets, democracy, the scientific order, philosophical networks, the artistic orders, technological innovation networks, etc. would prepare students for living in them, and in creating such familiarity, help them learn to appreciate living in such orders and thus support them.

The top-down educational system we have now prepares us for working in organizations. We learn how to act and interact in firms, bureaucracies, and other organizations, all of which are top-down hierarchies. The problem primarily arises when people mistakenly believe that society itself ought to resemble an organization, which pretty much every leftist really believes in, no matter their rhetoric to the contrary. Religious conservatives tend to more openly support religious-type hierarchies (like we found in the Medieval world), and they tend to more consistently support maintaining the current structures of education. Ironically, these current structures are a result of progressive reforms to make people better able to live and work in organizational hierarchies.

Libertarians of all stripes favor radical decentralization at the social level. This is true of anarchists, who take it there with governance, and this is true of Objectivists, who are far more wary of bringing it to government. But both believe in applying it to educational methods. For the youngest students, that would be via the Montessori Method; for older students, it would take on more Socratic methods approaches. But both of these are decentralized, self-discovery methods. Such methods not only foster comfort in the spontaneous orders, but create more entrepreneurial students, since students are rewarded for their acts of discovery and learning what they need to learn to master their interests. And such methods also foster minds that ask "why?" and which question authority.

It is perhaps no wonder, then, that libertarians favor such approaches to education. Decentralized educational methods help to create more libertarian souls. It is perhaps no wonder that progressives and conservatives continue to favor our current system, since that system is designed to create people who will live in the bureaucratic society they wish to create.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Gaining New Words: Learning vs. Acquiring

When we come to understand the difference between learning and acquiring, we can come to understand the apparent and relative ease of learning some things over others.

For example, almost everyone believes physics and chemistry are more difficult than literature and philosophy. But that would depend on what we mean by "difficult." If we are talking about the complexity of a subject, literature and philosophy are by far the more difficult. But if we are talking about gaining the vocabulary needed to understand the subject, it is physics and chemistry which are the more difficult subjects. The reason is that much of the vocabulary of literature and philosophy are acquired, whereas the vocabulary of chemistry and physics are learned.

A word is acquired when you hear it in context and understand what it means. You acquire most of your vocabulary before you hit puberty -- which is the prime time to learn languages. Some of these words we acquire in the context of school -- the word "plot," for example -- and some of these we acquire at home, etc. When do we acquire the word "mind," for example? How often do we hear phrases like "change your mind" or "mind your manners"? When we get around to learning the word's psychological or philosophical meanings, we already have an understanding of what the word means. We adjust that meaning to the new context, which is easier than learning a new word and its meaning/referent.

You learn a word when you are simultaneously given the context for it. It is unlikely you heard of the word methionine (if you have heard of it) prior to learning its chemical structure and the fact that it is an amino acid with the following chemical formula: HO₂CCHCH₂CH₂SCH₃

It is difficult to remember all of the amino acids and their chemical structures. More difficult, at least, than is adapting your understanding of the word "mind" to psychology and philosophy. When we are taught new vocabulary words in elementary school, not only did we have to learn the dictionary definition, but we also had to use the word in a sentence. We did the latter to ensure we created a context for the word. It's even better if we read the word in the context of a story or short essay. Learning occurs best if you can manage to create a context in which acquiring takes place.  

Since in physics and chemistry most of the vocabulary must be learned -- and it must be learned at the same time as the referents are learned -- we experience learning physics and chemistry as difficult. But since we have already acquired much of the vocabulary of literature and philosophy, we experience learning literature and philosophy as easy, even though they are far more complex forms of knowledge than are chemistry and physics. 

But supposed you had someone who acquired much of the vocabulary of the hard sciences when he or she were young. One would expect areas like chemistry and physics to be easier to learn for them than it would be for others. That would mean they would have to be raised in a social context in which the concepts of chemistry and physics were relatively commonly discussed. While it's unlikely most households are prepared to do that, it's not impossible to have children's shows which discuss the concepts of physics and chemistry. Good stories with good visuals would be able to contextualize ideas from the hard sciences such that they are acquired rather than learned. If we really want students to learn math and science, a cartoon about Captain Einstein would go a long way to actually accomplishing that.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Politics of Master, Slave, and Higher Spirits

Everyone familiar with Nietzsche knows he considered there to be, broadly, two kinds of moral system -- master morality and slave morality. In this division, master morality sees the world as being divided into good and bad. It is an aristocratic morality that sees weakness, inferiority, cowardice, and dependence as bad, as things which need to be overcome. Strength, courage, opposition, strife, and danger are all considered good. Slave morality, on the other hand, sees the world as being divided into good and evil. It is the moral system of the oppressed and sees weakness, a need to be protected, getting along, peace, and safety as good, and strength, opposition, strife, and danger as evil. While bad can coexist with good, evil must always everywhere be destroyed.

As Lawrence Hatab observes, "Slave morality seeks the simultaneous exaltation of the weak and the incapacitation of the strong; but in doing so, slave types find enhancement not through their own agency but through the debilitation of others" (A Nietzschean Defense of Democracy, 26). The slave mentality is found in "the oppressed, the mediocre, and the discontented" (27).

People mistakenly believe that this means Nietzsche favors the master spirit over the slave spirit. However, this does not hold up, given that Nietzsche argued that the master spirit resulted in externalization and made people stupid (GM I, 6-7), while the slave spirit resulted in internalization, depth, and creative culture (GM II, 16). It was the higher types, which paradoxically combined both spirit (creating internal conflict), which Nietzsche in fact favored (BGE 260). Higher types were not just the most creative, they were the great innovators.

But, as Hatab observes, "Innovators are the new object of hatred and resentment (Z III, 12, 26), they are the new "criminals" (TI 9, 45), the new "cruel ones" (BGE 230), the new perpetrators of "war" (GS 283)" (48). Because innovators are disruptive, destructive, etc., they are "evil" to those with slave spirits. This is the true source of leftist's opposition to the creative destruction of capitalism. They embrace the resentment and envy of slave morality, which gets expressed in opposition to capitalism and embracing political correctness. Resentment, envy, and conformism all suppress creativity and growth and ought to be opposed.

Given that Nietzsche describes the master spirit as stupid, brutish, and superficial, one should not make the mistake of thinking we ought to just replace the slave spirit with the master spirit. Consider the following political divisions.

Are American conservatives representative of master or slave morality?

Traditional conservatives, which embrace "traditional values," for the most part represent the slave spirit. They see good and evil everywhere, and seek to create homogenization through elimination of difference (since all difference is evidence of evil). That difference can be in morals, nationality, sex, gender, race, etc., or some combination of these. They tend to embrace the protective functions of government for the sake of safety, and at the same time the support gun rights for self-protection and protection against government.

On the other hand, neoconservatives tend to embrace master morality. They tend to be aristocrats and elitists who believe they know what is best for everyone and that political power is the way to do that. They do not view their opponents as evil, only wrong. When they think them wrong. Neoconservatives have proven themselves to generally support the welfare state, making them in many ways a variety of progressive. Those who oppose their power are simply bad, then, since the ideologies are so similar. They tend to cynically express support for traditional conservatives' social views, but create conditions where passing legislation to actually support those views is difficult or impossible.

Are American progressives representative of master or slave morality?

Since progressives want change, one would think that they primarily represent the master spirit. Their aristocratic attitudes and general arrogance would seem to further support this. They see change as good and tradition as bad (not evil, just bad -- something to be overcome). There is little question that the earliest progressives embraced master morality. They tended to promote eugenics programs, including using the minimum wage for that purpose, in order to eliminate the weak, in order to strengthen society.

However, contemporary progressives have more of a tendency to embrace slave morality. They still see change as good, and they continue to support the same policies as earlier progressives, but they do so with the argument that those programs will in fact help the weak and oppressed. The politically correct left are exemplars of the slave spirit, seeking to tear down and destroy anything resembling strength, courage, etc.

In other words, there is a more complex combination of these two kinds of people within the political left and right.

But what about libertarians?

Classical liberals want to conserve the processes that create change, meaning they see both change and tradition as good. Does this mean classical liberals are those with the higher spirit? For some, no doubt that is the case. But for others, such a claim may be questionable at best.

For example, libertarians in the Randian tradition have a tendency to view things as good and evil. Rand sees businessmen as an oppressed class, and she sees government interference in the economy as an evil that must be eliminated. Resentment is reserved for government actions.

Certainly the conspiracy theory libertarians fully embrace slave morality. Government is seen as an evil entity which must be destroyed, while everyone else belongs to the oppressed groups. They behave in ways identical to the politically correct left. Both are paranoid in their belief in shadowy evil powers ruling everyone behind closed doors. Resentment and envy are directed at those with power, who seem to control everything.

On the other hand, we have libertarians like Hans Herman Hoppe who thoroughly embrace master morality. Hoppe's aristocratic world view drives him to reject democracy and to embrace ideas that many consider "brutish and stupid." In my experience, his supporters do tend to have those traits.

I would argue that Mises seems to represent the higher spirit. We see in his published work strong opposition to socialism -- though his arguments range from socialism being merely a bad idea to socialism being one of the great evils. Equally, his support for capitalism is that it is the best way for the weak and oppressed to become greater and stronger.

Hayek, however, seems to embrace a different kind of moral system entirely. Hayek has a tendency to see good and good -- he viewed his opponents as good people who were simply factually wrong and wrong in their understanding. He thought them to have good intentions, but as being ignorant of how to get there. Now, this sounds like aristocratic good-bad, but Hayek saw the tension as being productive and creative. Good-good is tragic ethics, and Hayek himself argued in favor of a tragic world view.

The bleeding heart libertarians seem to embrace slave morality in their concern with the weak and oppressed, but they also seem to think in more good-bad terms, if not often good-good terms. Or is theirs an aristocratic concern for the poor, seeking to create the conditions for raising the weak up and making them strong? It does seem they argue that we need to help people create agency and that we ought to reject resentment and envy. More higher spirits? A combination of all three moral systems?

The master spirit/morality and the slave spirit/morality are stable, equilibrium conditions (we see their dominance in stable eras and individuals). But higher spirits and tragic spirits are far-from-equilibrium or disequilibrium conditions (renaissance eras and renaissance men and women).

It is possible that the higher spirits could have a variety of moral systems. There could be good-bad-evil, good-good, or even bad-evil. In the latter case, one might view being weak as bad, but being strong as evil, resulting in a hatred of the powerful and contempt for the weak. Are there any bad-evil thinkers? Rousseau? Sade? Zizek? Nihilists? Misanthropes?

I raise these questions to mostly try to get people to think about their moral systems and to think about who they are and why they think what they think and believe what they believe. Are you a master spirit? a slave spirit? a higher spirit?


On Criticism, an observation

My last day teaching at SMU, I spoke to all three of my classes about why they were there. I pointed out that over half of all high school graduates now go to college and that most people were attending college to get credentials to get a job. What, I asked them, was going to happen to those credentials as more and more people got them?

I pointed out that it was true that the credentials they were getting at SMU were probably of more value than those acquired at most other colleges and universities. But why? Was it because they were getting something else at SMU one couldn't get elsewhere? I pointed out that they were taking a class with me, and that I had taught at UT-Dallas, UNT-Dallas, and two community colleges. Were the community colleges getting a SMU education, or were the students at SMU getting a community college education?

This gets into the problems of adjuncting, but I wasn't really talking to them about that, other than to point out that their elite university was teaching them with people who were not researchers or scholars (I was, but not because I had any institutional support for it). No, what I was really pointing out to them was that they were being sold a bill of goods that likely didn't have the value they were told it had. More, the value they were going to get was entirely up to them, and depended on the amount of time they took upon themselves to create the education they really ought to have -- the kind of education universities are supposed to provide, but have ceased to provide as people have begun to treat universities are places to get credentials rather than to build minds and souls.

I talked to them too about the state of the country, about the state of our culture, about the state of our society. I was anything but optimistic. At least, over the short term. I wanted to inspire them to think about what they could do to change things.

So naturally, on one of my student evaluations, I had a student complain that I had been critical of universities and of the country, that I apparently hated America.

In other words, this student interpreted criticism as hatred. I want you to think about what that means. Criticism means hatred. One doesn't criticize because one wants what one loves to be better. No, to criticize means you hate what you are criticizing.

How do you think this student is going to take criticism of his work?