Friday, July 20, 2018

Honoring the Social Contract

I would describe myself as "libertarian-ish." I'm sympathetic to a lot of libertarianism's goals, but maybe not 100-percent on board with some of the reasoning. The most hard-core libertarians I know are trying to out-Ayn-Rand each other with their total commitment to rationality, and as such are atheists. I, though, am a Mormon Christian, so I believe there is a Source of truth outside logic. So the libertarian in me supports marijuana legalization, but the Mormon in me is aware that the church has opposed marijuana legalization, so I'm not advocating for legalization. That's the "ish" part.

Beginning with George W. Bush's growth of the federal government on the grounds of national security, I've been less aligned with the Republican Party, where small-government conservatism had previously found its home. And as the Republican Party gets remade in the statist image of Donald Trump, I'm farther away from it. I voted for Bob Barr instead of John McCain, and for Gary Johnson instead of Donald Trump. But there's still that niggling bit of gonzo rationality in the libertarian party that I think is a little too far.

For instance, many libertarians I've met like to show how logical they are by flaunting their disregard for the social contract. "Given that others [do X], I don't [do X]," or, "I [do Y]." The big one is voting. "Given that others vote, I don't vote because the marginal effect of my vote is zero." Which is true, but is premised on the idea that the only purpose in voting is determining an election's winner. I had a professor who would not walk on the sidewalk when it was crowded, but would traipse through the landscaping to save himself some time. Given that everyone else was on the sidewalk, he wasn't.

As I was driving around a few days ago, I was thinking about this. Maybe it was because of someone not merging until the lane ends, thus bringing all traffic to a halt in both lanes. Given that other lane occupants merged seamlessly long before the lane's closure, the rational thing for someone to do if out to maximize his own benefit is to speed along in the now-empty lane until no longer possible, then merge.

Anyway, I was thinking about "the social contract," a nebulous set of expected behaviors, and how following the social contract imposes costs, which can be thought of as a tax. And I thought, "To determine whether I should incur such a tax, what are the benefits I get from a continuation of the social contract?"

"Ah," you say, "but you're assuming my failure to follow the social contract will kill it. Given that I'm one person, my behavior does not change the general disposition to follow social norms." I have two responses: 1) you're wrong, and 2) even if you're right, you're a sociopath.

First, my disposition to follow social norms is influenced by the rate at which people around me follow those norms. I'll wait in line until it becomes obvious that the line is useless. As each individual pursues his maximum benefit at the cost of the social contract, each remaining observer of the contract is facing greater incentive to also renege. No one is perfectly committed to following rules, especially rules that no longer bring a benefit, but instead only mark one as a sucker for following them.

My professor who wouldn't walk on the sidewalk said he was once confronted by someone who thought his behavior shameful. She asked, "What if everyone thought like you did?" He smugly replied, "Then I'd walk on the sidewalk because it would be empty!" But notice that that argument doesn't work here. "What if no one followed traffic laws?" "Then I'd start following them!" No, you can't unilaterally switch back to an ordered system from chaos. The tax we pay in following the social contract is the cost of living in civilization.

"Hey, marginal effect." The social contract doesn't exist for your benefit alone. You can come across an ordered system and use it recklessly such that you incur the minimal private cost, but you then fray the system, imposing higher costs on others and those following you. Ayn Rand would probably say, "That's their problem," but the biological imperative to reproduce and then care for descendants shows that there is purpose in self-denial that benefits others. You didn't inherit 40,000 years of humanity to use it up in one generation. Given that it's taken us millennia to claw our way out of a Hobbesian state of nature, you're a bit of a dick if you undo it all because you think things will go slightly better for you in the short run.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Swamp City Drivers

Last week my wife was shocked to read an article that said Jacksonville, Florida, was one of the best cities to drive in. Shocked because we've spent two years driving in Jacksonville, and we both can safely declare that Jacksonville drivers are the worst we have ever encountered--and we've lived in Los Angeles, Washington DC, and Beijing.

This morning I was on my way to work and I came across a traffic signal that was completely out. The law in Florida is to treat such an intersection as a stop sign. You must come to a complete stop before passing through the intersection. I would expect Jacksonville Sheriff's Office to know this, since they publicized this fact during the last hurricane. However, there were two sheriff's officers sitting in cars at the intersection, neither controlling traffic, and neither concerned that every driver (besides me) was blowing through a stop-sign-equivalent at 50 miles per hour.

One might wonder why the officers were there at all. Perhaps they were in position to quickly respond the the accident that was bound to happen. As Chief Wiggum would say, "That's some good work, Lou."

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Two Thoughts on Human Origins

I'm moving offices today (down a floor and across an outdoor walkway), but I saw this article and I wanted to say something about it.

You know how, at the end of Life of Pi, Pi gets the insurance company guys to admit that the lie is better than the truth? That's how I feel about this development in science. First, reflect on how brutal and dehumanizing some people can be to people they don't like. What's the countering influence? The "brotherhood of man" story. Now, what happens when we remove the "brotherhood of man," when we say, "Some people are different proportions of mixtures of non-Homo sapiens humanoids"? The brakes--modest as they are--come off the racism and genocide. Is this not a situation where the lie is better than the truth?

Secondly, how many more "earth-shattering" discoveries are we going to have before we can stop arguing from the standpoint of "settled science"? The world's educated elite say they know something and discount everything else, until--whoops--it turns out we didn't know what we thought we knew.

Here's something I try to convince my students of: think back to a day in junior high school when you thought you were at the top of your fashion game. Hair, clothes, attitude, music, everything was as cool as could be. Imagine someone filmed a five-minute interview with you that day. Now, how embarrassed would you be to have that video screened today for all your friends, family, and colleagues? How much money would you pay to have this video destroyed?

Now realize that, 20 or so years from now, you will be just as embarrassed of your current self as you are embarrassed today of yourself 20 years ago. So why wait 20 years for something we know to be true? Why not be embarrassed of your current self right now?

This holds for science, too. If we know now that 20-year-old theories are laughable, then modern theories will be laughable in 20 years, so they would be laughable now if we only knew 20 years' more truth today. So let's dial back some of the "I believe in science" malarkey and realize that it's all best guesses.

Monday, July 09, 2018

Vacationing Beyond My Socioeconomic Class

Last week I was in North Carolina. Yet the world continued to function with nary a blog post from me. Strange.

I have several amusing anecdotes I will share over the coming days. You will cherish the mirth they will bring into your life. I guarantee it.

Monday, June 25, 2018

A Week of Boy Scout Camp

Where was I last week? (Now you're all, like, 'Crap, he was gone for a week and I didn't even notice; this is awkward!") I was in southern Georgia at Boy Scout camp. Now I'm back (for now).

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Prevaricate to Reactivate

We have a less-active ward member who works at our local Walmart, and my wife and I are worried because we see him every time we're there and it points out to us how frequently we go to Walmart. Sometimes my wife will say, "We can't see [ward member] because I already saw him twice today!"

Yesterday afternoon, I went to Walmart and ran into him. He helped me find some stuff. Then while we were chatting, he threw this out: "If I could go back in time, I don't know if I'd go to before I met my wife or before I joined the Marines."

What am I supposed to say to THAT?! "Totally before you met your wife, dude. That slag has been harshing your buzz for YEARS!"?

Instead, I said, "So, you still live in our ward?"

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Doorstops Have Become Sentient

I've got so many science-of-everyday-household-phenomena questions. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Uncomfortable Questions About Mental Illness After Death

Here's something I thought about this past weekend, in light of the suicides of celebrities Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. Assuming a continuation of consciousness after death, what will be the quality of that consciousness for those who had mental illness in life?

If mental illness is as much an illness as cancer or diabetes, then it goes into the grave with the mortal body, and the conscious spirit is freed from its affects. But if mental illness is a learned behavior, even if it was learned subconsciously or so long ago that it's now ingrained, then wouldn't that attitude remain with the spirit?

On the one hand, we don't want to blame the victims of illness. But on the other hand, assuming the objective truth is that they should not kill themselves, the promise that mental illness will go away upon death is not helpful in deterring suicide. We'd save more lives if we convinced them "it's just as bad over there," but we make them more miserable if we convince them "because your immortal consciousness has decided to think how you do."

Friday, June 01, 2018

Redistribution Problems

On p. 8 of his book 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson writes, "the richest eighty-five people have as much as the bottom three and a half billion." This point is often made in support of radical redistribution plans. However, on p. 16, Peterson notes of low-status individuals,

Even money itself may prove of little use. You won't know how to use it, because it is difficult to use money properly, particularly if you are unfamiliar with it. Money will make you liable to the dangerous temptations of drugs and alcohol, which are much more rewarding if you have been deprived of pleasure for a long period. Money will also make you a target for predators and psychopaths, who thrive on exploiting those who exist on the lower rungs of society.
So rich people have what poor people need, but giving it to poor people is bad for them.

This points out the need for my web of social connections solution; I have altruism-enabling sympathy for those I know, so I'm willing to share with them, but not with strangers, for whom my sympathy is insufficient to bring about equality. However, when I share with you, I raise your wealth relative to a third party who is in your circle of affinity but outside mine. Then, your sympathy for that person leads you to share with him. I wouldn't have shared with him because I don't know him, but my resources end up in his hands. And thus voluntary equality.

Previously, I had been aware of this shortcoming: the socially disconnected are outside the sharing web. This could be seen as a feature (stop being antisocial, jerk) or a bug (some people are outsiders through no fault of their own--today as I drove to work, I saw a man practicing martial arts kicks at a bus stop and I thought, "That guy is outside the social mainstream"). But now I see another problem: sociopaths. Imagine a three-class society where the first class have the most and they are friendly with the second class, who are friendly with the third class, who have the least. The sympathy the first class has for the second class would cause them to share, creating equality between the first two classes. Then the sympathy the second class has for the third class would cause further sharing, creating equality between the second two classes and reintroducing inequality between the first two classes. This process repeats until all three classes are in equality (assuming perfect sympathy). This equality is an equilibrium because, if it should run too long, the symmetrical sympathy between friends would cause the now-richer second-class people to share back with the now-poorer first-class people.

But there are those in the second class who are not interested in helping anyone in the third class, they are only interested in reaching the top. These social climbers fake social graces so the first-class people can't tell who is a true friend and who is just a bloodsucker. Sympathetic members of the second class pass the sharing down, but sociopathic members of the second class just accumulate and move into the first class, where they turn off the sharing. Voluntary redistribution then ends with a first class of sociopaths (say, eighty-five of them) and a third class of meek doormats (say, three and a half billion of them).

How could voluntary redistribution work in light of varying capacities for sympathy?

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Point of Life

I'm currently reading Jordan Peterson's 12 Rules for Life. First impression: the most-controversial stuff was conventional wisdom 30 years ago, but now that it's improper to say, successful people just do it silently now.

Anyway, in the introduction, titled "Overture," he writes:

A few months earlier, in March of 2012, I had received an email from a literary agent. She had heard me speak on CBC radio during a show entitled Just Say No to Happiness, where I had criticized the idea that happiness was the proper goal for life. [...] In a crisis, the inevitable suffering that life entails can rapidly make a mockery of the idea that happiness is the proper pursuit of the individual. On the radio show, I suggested, instead, that a deeper meaning was required. [pp. xxvi-xxvii]
This stood out to me because I have the words of Lehi which state, "men are, that they might have joy." Is Peterson in conflict or harmony with the teachings of Lehi?

I don't think Peterson is opposed to happiness--he seems like he wants to be happy, just like everybody else. But he holds that the pursuit of happiness does not bring happiness the way the pursuit of meaning does.

Would Lehi agree? Well, firstly, is Lehi even talking about mortality? Maybe he is seeing things from a medieval perspective, the whole "life sucks but if you grin and bear it, things will be better once you're dead" view. As a depressed teenager, that's how I made sense of 2 Ne. 2:25. Men are (exist now) that they might have (a future conditional state) joy. But in my early twenties I read Henry B. Eyring's book To Draw Closer to God, where he tells a story about (20-year-old memory here, because I'm at work and the book is at home) being gruff with his young son and having the thought that his son could be thinking something like, "Can I see in you the promise of joy in this life?" That "in this life" threw me off, because it was in conflict with my dysthymia and the gospel understanding it had lead me to.

So Lehi, per Eyring, says our purpose is to experience joy in this life. Does this conflict with Peterson? Well, how would Lehi suggest we pursue joy? Well, Jesus promises a "fulness of joy" to three of Lehi's descendants "because of the thing which ye have desired of me," which is that they "might bring the souls of men" to Jesus. They wanted their work to be the same as God's work--to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man."

We receive joy through meaning, and the more significant the meaning, the deeper the joy. Thus things of eternal significance can bring eternal joy. But the pursuit of happiness qua happiness is misguided; it's like the floaters that my middle-aged eyes now experience: "they move as your eyes move and seem to dart away when you try to look at them directly." We have a happy life by having a meaningful life, and things with the most meaning are the things that bring the most happiness.