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Dreams Gained and Dreams Lost, Dreams Regained

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY:  Paul offers his take on the difference between an enthusiasm for something and a passion for something, and on what the difference means to our dreams, ambitions, and visions of ourselves.

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THE CRITICS EXPLODE! “Paul Sunstone knows all about dreams.  He knows how to mangle and crush the dreams of his readers.  He is the terrifying juggernaut of blogging.” — Arun Ghani, India’s Blogs and Beyond, “The Herald and News”, Hyderabad, India.

Continue reading “Dreams Gained and Dreams Lost, Dreams Regained”

Alienation, Alienation From Self, Authenticity, Bad Ideas, Being True To Yourself, Citizenship, Class War, Consumerism, Cultural Change, Cultural Traits, Culture, Democracy, Economy, Equality of Opportunity, Eudaimonia, Free Spirit, Freedom, Freedom and Liberty, Goals, Happiness, Human Nature, Ideas, Ideologies, Liars Lies and Lying, Living, Meaning, Oppression, Passion, Plutocracy, Political and Social Alienation, Political Ideologies, Politics, Purpose, Quality of Life, Self, Self Identity, Self Image, Self-determination, Self-Flourishing, Self-Realization, Society, Values, Well Being

A Most Curious Journey: The 100 Year Long Transmutation of Americans from Good Citizens into Good Consumers

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Paul offers his view’s of how and why Americans have been socially engineered over the past 100 years to become good consumers rather than good citizens.

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THE CRITICS EXPLODE! “Sunstone needs to get laid.  Politics to him is what sex is to the most naive nun on earth — whoever she may be.  It is no more than a world of sins, venial sins, and deadly sins.  It is a world that his delusional mind fearfully attempts to grasp with all the misconceptions of a pure virgin.  But what fool would lay Paul Sunstone?  Not I!  And not you either!  Sunstone merely needs to get laid, but he absolutely must be guillotined.”  — Aloyse Leblanc, Le Critique Passionné de Blog, “La Tribune Linville”, Linville, France.

Continue reading “A Most Curious Journey: The 100 Year Long Transmutation of Americans from Good Citizens into Good Consumers”

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In Case You Haven’t Already Heard the News

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Paul offers his opinion that a milestone was recently passed in the fight between liberals and progressives for the future of the Democratic Party, and perhaps for the future of America.

THE CRITICS ADORE! “The eternally intolerable Sunstone has no more insight into politics than a six year old brat has into the chemistry of fire.  All Sunstone does in his recent post is play with matches, and quite predictably, he burns the house down.” — Arun Ghani, India’s Blogs and Beyond, “The Herald and News”, Hyderabad, India.

Continue reading “In Case You Haven’t Already Heard the News”

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Divorcing Our Self from Our Self

(About a 7 minute read)

Shortly following university, I discovered I had a remarkably alarming problem: I had prudently made firm, long-term plans to eat during my life, but I was rapidly running out of money with which to buy groceries.  Some quick computer calculations showed beyond doubt that I would be out of eats significantly before my ideal lifespan had been reached.

I laid wise plans to rob old ladies of their Social Security checks.

Continue reading “Divorcing Our Self from Our Self”

Authoritarianism, Belief, Citizenship, Democracy, Human Nature, Logic, Political and Social Alienation, Political Issues, Politics, Reason, Thinking

Can Rational Persuasion be Saved?

(About a 5 minute read)

The European Enlightenment laid the philosophical foundation of today’s representative democracies by coining the notion (or at least by secularizing the Christian notion) that people were basically more or less equally rational — obvious cases of madness, contrariness, and American citizenship notwithstanding.

Of course, the clear implication was that, if people were basically rational, then they were under no obligation to simply swallow whatever they were told to swallow by some authority or powerful elite.  Instead, they had a natural right, by virtue of being rational, to weigh matters for themselves and arrive at a just and fair conclusion that Teresums is insufferable in those matters all on their own.

Obviously, that notion became a basis for justifying republics and representative democracies.  To be sure, you can justify those things without resort to asserting “epistemic equality”, but it’s harder to do.  If some people are naturally much less rational than others — that would amount to saying, they are born to be followers of their “betters”.

Very few of us know all of that today, or at least, very few of us have thought about it.  Even less thought about today is the somewhat more practical role reasoning with folks plays in republics and representative democracies.

To illustrate, consider a biologist and an creationist debating whether or not to include evolution in high school biology courses.  The biologist rationally lays out his or her facts, along with their reasoning, but the creationist immovably responds with pseudo-facts and fallacious logic. Tsk! Tsk! Tsk!  Although that sort of thing never happens in the real world, ’tis not the point here.  The point is: How could the two possibly reach an agreement about what to do?

Well, there are other methods besides rational persuasion.  The public relations and advertising industries have amply demonstrated that you can take all the rational reasoning — all of it – out of persuasion and still persuade.

But when you do, you are in serious risk of soon ending up in bonkersville — or, as we call it in America, the Presidency.  That is simply not the optimal foundation on which to base laws and public policies — for any of a dozen reasons.  The further you depart from reality based persuasion, and the more you indulge in merely emotional persuasion, the faster you create some of the conditions for rule by an oligarchy or dictator.

“Vote for Stanislov! Forget the fake news he wants to crush your skull under his fat butt!  Stanislov will put weed in every pot!”

Beyond that, if even merely emotional persuasion breaks down, then one is left with only heinous means of forcing people to agree upon what to do, or to comply with what is done.  Sooner or later, they’ll be tanks in the streets.  So I think it can be seen, there are advantages to rational persuasion.

Unfortunately, rational persuasion alone seldom if ever works.  Both nearly universal personal experience and the sciences confirm that.  However, most people blame the fact on the fundamental irrationality of human nature.  In truth, I think it would be a bit more accurate to notice that “pure rational persuasion” is missing something.  Namely, any motivators.

Depending on how you slice and dice them, you could write a book on motivators, but here we can boil them down to just two categories: Fears and desires. Not just “pleasure and pain” — some folks seek pain and avoid pleasure. Those categories won’t do here.  But fears and desires pretty much cover all the bases.

Motivators can be so effective, you scarcely need anything else.  “Your house is on fire!  Quick!  Chug these beers so you can pee on it!”  But we’ve already gone over a good reason why they ought to be combined with rational persuasion in a republic or representational democracy.

I do not suspect any of the above — except maybe a minor point or two — is unknown to anyone, but I’ve laid it all out here in the hope it might be useful to further discussion, and because I like to write.  As a bonus, if you wish to finesse your persuasive talents and abilities to rationally persuade people to hop in bed with you, then see my four volume work, The Epistemology of Carnal Knowledge I would recommend you study Ben Franklin’s techniques.

Franklin was a master at the art of rational persuasion, but he was a bit under-appreciated for it even in his day, because he was such an habitually self-effacing man, that he routinely gave credit for his own ideas to whomever he was persuading to adopt them.  That self-effacement was, of course, one of his techniques.

You can’t go wrong studying Franklin.

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The Terrible Terrys and Racism

(About a 5 minute read)

I was five years old when my maternal grandmother passed away.  She’d been born in 1875, and my best memories of her are of her in a rocking chair, her hands sewing, while she sits in a sunbeam streaming through the big southern window in my bedroom.  I play at her feet.  And sometimes she reads to me.

She would have been in her mid-to-late eighties then, and my mom tells me she was frail in old age.   She taught me to sew, and I — with my sharper sight — threaded needles for her.

That’s about as much of my grandmother as I remember, but mom quite recently told me a bit more.   It seems grandmother had, for her time and place, slightly peculiar ideas about race.

For instance, in the community grandmother lived in most of her adult life, it was commonplace for Whites to use racial slurs when referring to Blacks.  Even some of the community leaders did so.  Grandmother was among a minority of  White people in her neighborhood who seemed disturbed by those slurs and who refused to call Blacks anything other than “Negroes” (The word, “Black”, having not yet come into general usage).

From what I gather, there might have been a couple sources of encouragement for grandmother’s somewhat peculiar ideas about race.   In the first place, grandmother’s side of the family was from New England and had included among it’s members some staunch abolitionists.  Not that abolitionists were always respectful of Black folks, but I’m guessing that her’s might have been.

In the second place, grandmother was one of those women — rare in her time — who had a college education.   Not that one can be sure, but grandmother might have picked up some of her strange ideas about race while attending college.

So whether by family tradition or by education, or by some other source, my grandmother somehow came to the notion that Black folk were to be respected as equals — and she did so in a time and place when, according to my mother, she would not likely have gotten that notion from the community in which she lived.

Her husband, my grandfather, had a farm and he hired men to work it.   When mom was growing up, one of the hands was a Black man mom called “Uncle Albert”.   Uncle Albert’s wife, whom mom recalls was a rather beautiful woman, she called “Aunt Martha.”

My mother was taught to call adult friends “uncle” and “aunt” because it was thought disrespectful for a child to call an adult friend by their first name.

Since there were not many Blacks in the neighborhood at the time, Aunt Martha’s circle of friends was small and comprised mostly of White women.  And the prevailing custom was for a White woman to receive her White friends in her parlor or living room, but to receive her Black friends, if she had any, in her kitchen.  No doubt never being invited beyond the kitchen was originally conceived of as a way to send a message of some sort.

As mom recalls, grandmother ignored the prevailing custom and always received Aunt Martha in her living room, the same as she received everyone else.

Of course, nothing in the ways grandmother treated Aunt Martha — or even treated Blacks in general — was momentous, earthshaking or even sufficient grounds for erecting a statue of her, but her ways seem to me to have possessed a simple decency.

What makes grandmother’s behavior puzzling to me is that, from everything mom has told me about her, grandmother was one of those people who — quite far from ever wanting to risk stirring up trouble — habitually avoided any kind of social or personal conflict.  That is, she wasn’t exactly someone to routinely go against customs and conventions.  Yet, it appears that on a handful of issues — issues she felt strongly about — she would quietly stand her ground without making a show of it.

People are a strange maze of contradictions and complexities.

Thinking about all this, I would bet half the women who kept Aunt Martha in their kitchens did so simply because it was custom, because it was what their mothers taught them to do, and they never meant any cruelty by it.  They just thought it was her place.  People can be barbaric in their thoughtlessness.  They can be ugly in their carelessness and unquestioning obedience to custom.

My grandmother’s married name was “Terry”.  In part because of her somewhat strange ideas about race, which she communicated to her daughters, and in part for a small handful of other reasons, the women in her family eventually came to be nicknamed by some in their neighborhood, “The Terrible Terrys”.   I think that must surely have displeased her, given how little she liked controversy.


Originally posted January 9, 2010 and last revised April 27, 2017 for clarity.

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Wealth Inequality vs. Freedom and Liberty

(About a 10 minute read)

One of the more interesting notions that most of us seem to accept at one or another point in our lives is the notion that freedom and equality are incompatible.

I have heard that notion advanced in this manner: Jones has many marketable talents, while Smith has few marketable talents.  Thus, if Jones is free to make as much money as he can, he will make more money than Smith.  So, for Jones and Smith to be financially equal, something must done to limit Jones’ earnings.  But anything you do to limit Jones’ earnings deprives Jones of his freedom. Consequently, you cannot have both freedom and equality at the same time.

There is great truth in that.

Yet, the notion becomes extraordinarily problematic when we think that’s all there is to it.   For if we were to attempt to secure our freedoms and liberties by such a simple-minded principle as the notion that they can best be secured via allowing the unrestricted accumulation of wealth, we would soon enough find ourselves enslaved.

The problem is — in a nutshell — that Jones, if he gets too much wealth relative to Smith, will inevitably possess the means to subjugate Smith.

Of course, that’s not a real problem, according to some folks, because Jones is a decent old boy and would never think for a moment to use his wealth to destroy Smith’s freedoms and liberties — not even when crushing Smith and his foolish freedoms and liberties would benefit Jones.

Yes, some good folks actually believe that! And in my experience, there’s not much you can say to such folks that will convince them to change their minds once the idea has got hold of them that the only real issue here is the sacred right of Jones to earn as much money as he can, and retain nearly every last dime of it.  “Taxation is theft”, you know.

Rationality is not, on the whole, one of the distinguishing characteristics of our noble species of  poo-flinging super-sized chimpanzees.  That seems to be the case because we happily neglected to evolve our big brains in order to better discern truths.  Instead, we apparently evolved them for other reasons, which I have written about here and here, among other places.  So, I am not writing this post for those folks who are firmly convinced that the bumper-sticker insight, “taxation is theft”, is the very last and wisest word on the matter of wealth inequality.  I am writing this post for those comparatively open-minded individuals who might be looking for some thoughts about wealth inequality to mull over before arriving at any (hopefully, tentative) conclusions about it.

I believe that, to really understand wealth inequality, one needs to remember that we spent roughly 97% of our time as a species on this planet evolving to live in relatively egalitarian communities.  Communities in which there was typically (with a few exceptions) comparatively little political, social, or economic difference between folks.  Everyone was more or less equally engaged in the struggle for food to survive, whether they were hunters (mostly men) or gatherers (mostly women).

Then, about 5,500 years ago some jerk got it into their head that it would be a very good idea if most everyone else would work to support their lazy butt while they spent their hours leisurely whiling away the time ruling over them.  And thus was born the complex society.

“Complex” because there was now a relatively complex division of labor in which, instead of two basic occupations (hunter or gatherer), there were now many occupations (king, priest, lord, judge, craftsman, merchant, farmer, etc).   Moreover, the wealth, and with it, the power in those societies was now concentrated at the top.

The way in which the minority retained their positions over the majority was back then mainly three-fold, just as it still is today.  First, through ideologies justifying the power, wealth, and status of the minority.  “After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridug. In Eridug, Alulim became king…”,  begins the ancient Sumerian king’s list.  Thus, from the very first, the masters were using ideologies to control the masses:  e.g. “kingship descends from  heaven”, and thus you should accept it as what the gods intend for you.

Second, through rallying the people to face a dire (usually external) threat.  It is mere human nature that we are most likely to surrender our freedoms and liberties in preference for slavishly following a leader when we feel threatened by a common enemy.  Indeed, an oppressive state — and not always just an oppressive one — needs a common enemy to unify the people under its boot.

When ideologies fail, then it is time to call upon the soldiers, of course.  Propaganda, a common enemy, and ultimately, force.  The three main pillars of government from the Sumerians to the current day.

In a way, the one major change has been that the government today is largely a front for the real masters — the wealthy corporations and individuals that so many politicians are beholden to, the economic mega-elites.

It should be noted that by “wealthy individuals”, I am not referring to the folks with a few million dollars, but to the folks with hundreds or (especially) billions of dollars.  The average millionaire, in my experience, is not much of a threat to the rights, freedoms, and liberties of others and, in fact, is often enough a defender of those rights.  Call him or her a “local elite” because they are so often focused economically, socially, and politically on the communities they live and work in.  And it seems their ties to those communities generally result in their being net benefactors to them.  But perhaps most importantly, they simply do not have the resources to compete politically with the billionaire class in order to buy the government.  That, at least, is my impression.

No, by “wealthy individuals” I mean the folks who have the resources to be genuine contenders to hold the reins of  power in this — or any — country.  In the most recent national election, the Koch brothers dumped nearly a billion dollars into buying politicians from the level of “mere” state legislators all the way up to the national Congress and Senate.  And they weren’t the only economic mega-elites in the game.

We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.  — Justice Louis D. Brandeis of the U.S. Supreme Court

The problem, of course, isn’t wealth itself, but the concentration of wealth in the hands of a relatively few people.  Over time, the concentration has a natural tendency to worsen.  That is, the wealth ends up in fewer and fewer hands.  Since power follows upon riches closer than a hungry dog follows a butcher, political power, as well, tends over time to end up in fewer and fewer hands.  There seems to be a natural tendency to progress from democracy to oligarchy, and then to dictatorship.

During the same recent forty year or so period in American history when huge tax cuts  for the wealthiest individuals and corporations allowed the billionaire class to explode in size, incomes for the middle class all but became stagnant, while the poor actually lost ground.  There’s no polite way of saying this: “Trickle down economics” is an ideology of oppression used to fool people into believing that cutting taxes on the wealthy will increase job growth.

The average American today arguably works harder, struggles more financially, and has fewer back up resources for a rainy day than his or her parents and grandparents had.  As it turns out, you can’t concentrate almost all the wealth in the hands of a relatively few economic mega-elites without hurting someone.  But who would have thought that?  After all, didn’t the ideologists inform us we’d all be better off cutting taxes on the wealthy?

A comprehensive study has found that the average American now has little or no influence on their legislators, and which bills get passed into law.  Those who determine both the content and success of legislation are the economic mega-elites of America, the billionaires and the large corporations.

Strong, responsible unions are essential to industrial fair play. Without them the labor bargain is wholly one-sided. The parties to the labor contract must be nearly equal in strength if justice is to be worked out, and this means that the workers must be organized and that their organizations must be recognized by employers as a condition precedent to industrial peace.  Louis D. Brandeis

But, of course, we do not wish to believe Brandeis today because the trusty ideologists have also told us unions are a net evil.  Got to trust those boys and girls!  It’s just not true that so very many of them are employed by billionaire funded think tanks and institutions.

Now, the rarest complex societies in history have been those in which most people were more or less free.  But those rare, relatively free societies have also tended at the same time to be more egalitarian.

Tocqueville, for instance, noticed that white males living in the America of the 1830s were both freer and more equal than white males living in either the England or France of the same period.  They were also, according to him, better off economically.  Again, both male and female citizens of the Roman Republic seem to have been both freer and more equal than their counterparts living under the dictatorships of  the Roman Empire.

So the notion that freedom and equality are incompatible, while perhaps seeming to have some inexorable reason and logic on its side, does not always pan out in practice.  Apparently, sometimes quite the opposite has been the case.

About 2000 years ago, Plutarch observed, “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”  It will be interesting to see whether America has the political will to save its republic.

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The Social Brain

(A 9 minute read)

“The trouble with practical jokes is that very often they get elected.”  ― Will Rogers

Politicians are not the only practical jokes that get elected.  A lot of bad ideas also “get elected”.  Get elected in the sense that they become as popular as cheap hamburgers, and more popular than much better ideas.

Social Darwinism is surely one of the worse ideas that humans have ever invented.   Humans are quite talented at inventing bad ideas, but talent alone lacks the necessary brilliance to have invented Social Darwinism.  No, Social Darwinism took genius.

There were actually several geniuses involved in the invention of Social Darwinism, a whole intellectual clusterfuck of them.  But perhaps William Graham Sumner was the most brilliant clusterfucker of that whole group.

In 1883, Sumner published a highly influential pamphlet entitled “What Social Classes Owe to Each Other”, in which he insisted that the social classes owe each other nothing, synthesizing Darwin’s findings with free enterprise Capitalism for his justification.  According to Sumner, those who feel an obligation to provide assistance to those unequipped or under-equipped to compete for resources, will lead to a country in which the weak and inferior are encouraged to breed more like them, eventually dragging the country down. Sumner also believed that the best equipped to win the struggle for existence was the American businessman, and concluded that taxes and regulations serve as dangers to his survival.  [Source]

To be able to take an idea as brilliant as Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and turn it into an idea as hard-packed with stupidity as Social Darwin is absolute genius.  Sumner might have been one of the people George Orwell had in mind when he said, “There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them”.

Anti-intellectualism is just as American as apple pie or selling diabetic horse urine as beer.  That does not mean, however, that Americans skeptically refuse to  embrace the ideas of intellectuals.  No, in practice, it has meant only that Americans are so unfamiliar with intellectuals and their ideas that they can’t tell the good from the bad.  They are like those poor, sad folks who are so anti-sex they never develop whatever raw talent they might have for sex into becoming moderately decent lovers, let alone dynamos between the bed sheets.  There is no other way to explain the continuing popularity in America of Sumner’s ideas.

Social Darwinism is many things but so often at the core of it is the notion that human evolution has been predominantly driven by intraspecies competition.  As it turns out, however, to say that intraspecies competition predominantly drove human evolution is just as absurd as saying that a dozen minutes of start-to-finish jackhammering is mainly all there is to sex.  There is so much more!

For a long time, scientists have known that the human brain is exceptionally large relative to body size.

Early attempts to explain the fact tended to focus on environmental factors and  activities.  Thus, humans were thought to have evolved large brains to facilitate banging rocks together in order to make tools, hunt animals, avoid predators,  think abstractly, and outsmart competitors for vital resources like food, territory, mates, and rocks.  This was known as the “ecological brain theory”.

Then, in 1992, the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar published an article showing that, in primates, the ratio of the size of the neo-cortex to that of the rest of the brain consistently increases with increasing social group size.

This strongly suggested that primate brains — very much including human brains — grew big in order to allow them to cope with living in social groups.  As a consequence of that and other research, the new “social brain theory” started replacing the old “ecological brain theory” in the hearts and minds of scientists.

We don’t have the biggest teeth, the sharpest claws, the fleetest feet, the strongest muscles in nature.  But, as it happens, we are in most ways the single most cooperative species of all mammals, and in unity there is strength.  One human is usually no match for a lion even if he’s the most competitive human within a hundred miles. But through cooperation we are able to achieve more together than we can achieve through competition.

I once saw a film in which a band of two dozen or so men and women chased a huge male lion into a thicket and killed it in just a few seconds with nothing more than pointed sticks.   That is the bare minimal kind of cooperation that no doubt helped us to become the extraordinarily successful species we are today.

Even the fact we are able to (to some extent) reason abstractly might have much to do with our evolving as a social species.

Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have come up with the fascinating theory that reasoning evolved — not to nobly discern truths — but to persuade our fellow apes to cooperate with us, and to help us figure out when someone is telling us the truth.

Thus Mercier and Sperber begin with an argument against the notion that reasoning evolved to deliver rational beliefs and rational decisions:

The evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions. This explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, among other things.

In other words, those of us who wish in at least some cases to arrive at rational beliefs and rational decisions are somewhat in the position of a person who must drive screws with a hammer — the tool we have available to us (reason) did not evolve for the purpose to which we wish to employ it, and only by taking the greatest care can we arrive safely at our goal.  But I digress.

Mercier and Sperber go on to ask, “Why does reasoning exist at all, given that it is a relatively high-cost mental activity with a relatively high failure rate?”

They answer that reasoning evolved to assess the reliability and quality of what someone is telling you (“Is Joe telling me the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about his beer cellar?”), and also to enable you to persuade someone to do (or not do) something (“How do I talk Joe into giving me all his beer?”).   That is, reasoning involved in a group context.  The implication is that we reason best and most reliably when we argue or debate with each other.

I have long thought that one of the reasons the sciences have demonstrated themselves to be all but the most reliable means of inquiry that we have ever invented — second only to getting baked on Colorado’s finest weed in order to ponder the “Big Questions” of life — is because the sciences rest on the principle of intersubjective verifiability.  Basically, you check my work, I’ll check yours, and together we might be able to get closer to the truth than either of us could get working alone.

When Thomas Hobbes was writing out his political philosophy in the 1600s, he embraced the sensible notion that any political system should be based on human nature, as opposed, say, to based on what we might think some god or king wants us to have.   Hobbes, who often cooked up brilliant ideas, now proceeded to burn his meal, for he envisioned that human nature is essentially solitary.  He thought if you go back far enough in human history you will come to a time when people did not live in social groups, but alone.  There was no cooperation between people and it was instead “a war of all against all”.

Hobbes was not only wrong about that, he was very wrong about that.  What evidence we have suggests our species always lived in groups, our ancestors always lived in groups, and their ancestors always lived in groups.  In fact you must go back at least 20 million years in evolutionary history before you find a likely ancestor of ours that might have been a loner.  Our brains have been evolving as specialized organs for dealing with we each other for at least 20 million years, which is almost long enough to listen to every last complaint my two ex wives have about me.  And hell, we’re only talking about their legitimate complaints!

Of course, the fact we are social animals does not mean we are hive animals.  We are very much individuals, so far as I can see.  But that means, among much else, that there is and always will be a tension or conflict between our social and our individual natures.

Before we started living in the first city-states about 6,500 years ago, we lived in relatively small hunting/gathering bands of 200 or so people at the most.  So far as we know today, the bands were mostly egalitarian.  Just about anyway you can measure it, there wasn’t much social, political, or economic difference between people.  And the individual and society were probably in a fairly well balanced relationship with each other. Then some killjoy invented the complex, hierarchical society of the city-states.   And the people of the time, instead of doing the rational thing, and hanging him on the spot, let him get away with it.

From that infamous day forward, there’s been very few times in history when the balance between the individual and society has favored the individual.  Most societies have been oppressive.  That needs to end.   Yet end in a way that restores a sane balance, not in a way that destroys societies through extreme individualism.

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The Limits of Being True to Yourself

Like most Americans, I devote far too much time to thinking I’m a grizzly.

Grizzlies are a solitary species who can survive by themselves without the aide of any other grizzlies, and — as the world knows — most Americans believe themselves to be rugged individualists who can survive alone without the aide of any other Americans, excepting only the 90% of their lives when they can’t.

Despite any appearances to the contrary, I was born resenting authority, social pressures to conform, the powers of both the government and the uber-wealthy, and leash laws for dogs.  I have only grudgingly come to an understanding in middle age of the legitimacy of many of the claims society makes on us.  But I still rebelliously ask, “Why must it be this way?”

Of course, the short answer to that question is: Human nature.  Some pretty conclusive science shows that our brains are to an extent hardwired to deal with living in groups, and there is even a theory now that the very size of our brains is an evolutionary result of social living.  Annoying as it might be to us wannabe grizzlies, the evidence is substantial that we are a social species.

Yet, the recognition that we are a social animal can be taken too far, for we are not even close to being as social as some species.  Mole rats and honeybees are both far more social than us.  No, humans are more like an improbable mix of social and solitary animal.  That mix is the root of much conflict.

History shows a perennial tension between the rights or claims of society and the rights or claims of the individual.  Homo sapiens have been around for about 200,000 years.  During most of that time we lived in relatively small, more or less egalitarian groups of hunter/gathers.  Those groups left no historical records, but from what might be known of them by studying the last very few hunting/gathering groups left on earth, they not only tended to be egalitarian, but they also leaned towards individualism.  There wasn’t much difference in power or authority between people.  Everyone had a voice in group decisions.  And even leaders could not typically compel people to follow them, but usually had to persuade them  to do so.

All of that began to change about 5,500 years ago when the first complex, hierarchical societies were invented in what is today Southeastern Iraq.  Now you have distinct, hereditary ranks in society: Royalty, nobles, commoners.  And you also have the invention of alarming, new ideologies justifying the ranks.  These ideologies almost always take the form of “The social order was created by the gods, and the gods want us to stick with it”.  In general, these complex, hierarchical societies have tended throughout history to lean unpleasantly towards the social conformity side of human nature.   Which is a mild way of putting the fact that, for the most part, they have trod very heavily on individual human rights.

Of course, the rights of the individual are crucially important to anyone concerned with being true to his or herself.  The tragedy has been not merely that complex, hierarchical societies have trod heavily on human rights, but that they have for the most part done so unnecessarily.   For instance, in many times and places, cheerfully suggesting that the ruler was an imbecile could easily get you murdered by the government.  And it still can in some places.  But today we have many examples of societies that somehow manage to endure and even thrive despite the fact nearly everyone in them is absolutely convinced their rulers are imbeciles.  Criminalizing such things, and murdering the people who indulge in them, is not only immoral, but unnecessary to protecting the social order as well.  Yet overall, doing so has been largely the norm for complex, hierarchical societies.

So are there any limits to being true to yourself that your society can legitimately impose on you?

Well, I think there are two general areas in which your society has a right to impose limits on your being true to yourself.  First I think it has a right to require you to be socially responsible even if that means you can’t always be true to yourself.

By “socially responsible” I mean that your society has a right to obligate you to (1) respect the rights of others, and (2) to cooperate in promoting the general welfare.  Basically, that means (1) that you cannot abridge someone’s rights merely because you would be true to yourself to do so, and (2) you cannot dodge your obligation to help in promoting the general welfare merely in order to be true to yourself.

To give examples: Your society can demand that you do not steal from someone, and thus deprive them of their property rights, even though stealing from them would be a case of your being true to yourself.  Furthermore, your society can demand that you pay taxes to support public schools, since public education promotes the general welfare, even though paying taxes might in some cases deprive you of money you could otherwise use to more fully express yourself.

Second, I think your society also has a right to require you in some circumstances to be environmentally responsible even though that might mean you cannot always be true to yourself.

By “environmentally responsible”, I mean your society has a limited right to obligate you to help create or preserve a livable environment not just for yourself and other humans, but for other species as well.  I say “in some circumstances” because I can imagine how giving your society an unlimited right to compel you to help create or preserve a livable environment could easily result in tyrannous acts.  “By the way, your government has decided to demolish your house and return your land to its natural state.  Please vacate by Saturday.”

So, to my thinking, those are the two general ways that society can legitimately limit our right to be true to ourselves.  Of course, it is endlessly debatable how they should be applied in practice.  But then, what isn’t endlessly debatable these days?

Every society has an image (and most often more than just one image) of what is an ideal human.   In all too many complex, hierarchical societies the ideal for the elites has been notably different from the ideal for the commoners.  The elites are encouraged to be true to themselves; the commoners are encouraged to suppress themselves in the interests of maintaining the social order.

At times in ancient Greece, the ideal for an adult male elite was to become a socially responsible individual.  That is, he was expected to fulfill certain obligations to his polis, or city-state, and also to develop himself as an individual in order to live a full and happy life.  Today it seems possible to build on that ideal by expanding it to include everyone — man or woman, elite or not elite — and adding to it an obligation to not only be socially responsible, but also environmentally responsible.  The tragedy is, as always, that governors, the uber-rich (who often own the governors), and other elites too often oppose the realization of such ideals for selfish reasons.  Hence, a perennial theme of human history has been — and perhaps always will be — the tension between the individual and society.

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Are We About to Get Screwed Again?

Naomi Klein’s book on disaster capitalism, The Shock Doctrine, contains a number of — and this is being polite — difficult to defend claims.  Yet, I haven’t seen anyone discredit her core claim — and people have been trying.

Her core claim, as I understand it, is that Free Market Capitalists have learned to take advantage of emergencies, disasters,  and calamities in order to impose the social, economic, and political changes they desire:

At the most chaotic juncture in Iraq’s civil war, a new law is unveiled that would allow Shell and BP to claim the country’s vast oil reserves…. Immediately following September 11, the Bush Administration quietly out-sources the running of the “War on Terror” to Halliburton and Blackwater…. After a tsunami wipes out the coasts of Southeast Asia, the pristine beaches are auctioned off to tourist resorts…. New Orleans’s residents, scattered from Hurricane Katrina, discover that their public housing, hospitals and schools will never be reopened…. These events are examples of “the shock doctrine”: using the public’s disorientation following massive collective shocks – wars, terrorist attacks, or natural disasters — to achieve control by imposing economic shock therapy.

Indeed, I agree with those critics of Klein who state that, despite its flaws, The Shock Doctrine is one of the few books that really help us to understand the present, and that Klein may have revealed a master narrative of our time.   One can disagree with some of the things Klein offers as specific examples of disaster capitalism, but it seems no one has been able to refute her thesis that disaster capitalism is being practiced — and practiced routinely — these days.  There are about a half dozen “big ideas” that go very far to explain the political world we live in.  The notion that Free Market Capitalists have been taking advantage of calamities to first destroy the order of things, and then to replace that order with Free Market Capitalism, is almost certainly one of those six big ideas.

When disaster capitalism was in its infancy about thirty or forty years ago, the Free Market Capitalists would wait for a calamity to naturally occur.  Apparently, they don’t always wait for calamities nowadays — instead, they sometimes manufacture them.  And it seems the current budget crisis might be just such an example of a manufactured crisis.

As Yves Smith points out this morning on her blog, Naked Capitalism, this budget crisis stinks all the way to satellite orbit:

Let’s review how we got here. Obama made it clear before he took office (hat tip reader Hugh) that he intended to go after Social Security and Medicare. As we discussed, shortly after he took office, Obama was privately reassuring conservatives that he’d curtail entitlements once the economy was on a better footing. Clearly, he’s been willing to settle for “better” being tantamount to “not in imminent danger of falling off a cliff.” And if you had any doubts, Obama made his intentions abundantly clear (to use that Nixonianism) by creating a Deficit Reduction Commission and staffing it with enemies of Social Security, former Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles and Senator Alan Simpson.

The second thing to keep in mind is that his deficit ceiling crisis is contrived. The Bush Administration bumped up against it multiple times and never used it as a basis for budgetary theatrics, even though it was also keen to cut Social Security. Obama could have taken action long ago, before the midterm elections, which were seen as putting the Democratic majority in the House at risk, to gain more headroom.

So it seems possible to me that what we have here is another instance of a conscious effort to panic the American people into supporting something that it is against their best interests to support — namely cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

And I think it will probably work.  Just as the Gulf War worked.  Even thirty, forty, or fifty years from now a lot of folks will still be swearing that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and that we invaded Iraq because that country helped Osama Bin Laden conduct the attacks of 9/11.  I seriously doubt many people are going to question — genuinely question — what has been so carefully fed to them about the existence of a budget crisis.

To easily form an opinion is human nature; to easily change one’s mind is not — which is precisely why the Free Market Capitalists rely on calamities, real or manufactured, to create the fear and panic that are necessary to get most of us to change our minds.

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Recommended Further Reading:  “The Audacity of Dopes“, posted on Slobber and Spittle, by Cujo.

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What Matters to Most of Us, Doesn’t Matter to Washington

If you listen to Americans, most want their politicians to focus on improving the economy and creating jobs.  But if you listen to their politicians, the economy and creating jobs are less important than dealing with the Federal budget deficit/debt.

More than 25 million people are either unemployed, can only find part-time work, or have given up looking for work altogether.   In a March CBS News poll, nine out of ten Americans called the budget deficit a serious problem, but more than half of all Americans thought jobs were more important than the budget deficit.

The importance Americans give to the economy and jobs seems to hold up over time.  In a Gallup poll released two days ago, about six in ten Americans named the economy and jobs as the most important problems facing the country today.  Less than two in ten Americans named the Federal budget deficit/debt as the most important problem.

If the U.S. had a representative government at the Federal level, at least one of the parties would most likely be bent on fixing the economy.  Both of them though are bent on fixing the deficit/debt — which appears to be more a priority of Wall Street than of Main Street.

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Chris Hedges on Lies and Truths in a Democracy

A democracy survives when its citizens have access to trustworthy and impartial sources of information, when it can discern lies from truth, when civic discourse is grounded in verifiable fact. And with the decimation of reporting these sources of information are disappearing. The increasing fusion of news and entertainment, the rise of a class of celebrity journalists on television who define reporting by their access to the famous and the powerful, the retreat by many readers into the ideological ghettos of the Internet and the ruthless drive by corporations to destroy the traditional news business are leaving us deaf, dumb and blind. The relentless assault on the “liberal press” by right-wing propaganda outlets such as Fox News or by the Christian right is in fact an assault on a system of information grounded in verifiable fact. And once this bedrock of civil discourse is eradicated, people will be free, as many already are, to believe whatever they want to believe, to pick and choose what facts or opinions suit their world and what do not. In this new world lies will become true.

– Chris Hedges, “Lies Become Truths

(H/T: The Daily Doubter)

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FURTHER READING: Fourteen Propaganda Techniques Fox “News” Uses to Brainwash Americans

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