Monday, July 27, 2009

Driving And The Compulsion Of The Cell Phone

The most arresting image in this recent New York Times story on cell phones and driving comes at the end: a man, whose son was recently killed by a driver on a cell phone, says that although he is committed to not talking on the phone while driving, he finds it impossible to resist.

He has to put the phone in the trunk not to use it on the road. As he says, "With all the motivation in the world I couldn’t do it."

The story focuses on the increasing data showing that talking on the phone -- whether on a hands-free device or on an ordinary phone -- causes people to have more accidents. You'd think this would create a national outcry of some sort. After all, when people drive, they don't just put themselves at risk, they put others at risk, including kids, who never even got to choose for themselves whether to be in the stupid car or not.

It's weird. Most people will say that among the most important things in the world is the health and safety of children. The leading cause of death among children 5-9 years old is auto accidents. Talking on the phone is shown to increase the risk of those accidents. You'd think if people were thinking clearly they'd cool it with the phone already, not to mention, of course texting while driving (!) which is even more dangerous.

Their reluctance cries out for explanations beyond the usual suspects. I mean, I get that people feel they have work to do or something but seriously, if you went around saying, "There's this chemical I want to put in the drinking water that will make my job more convenient but it's going to kill some children every year. Too bad for that but I gotta get my work done," it would sound ridiculous. Nobody would buy this explanation.

In the Times story, the scientists who study this behavior say there are two reasons people find it so very hard to give up their phones while behind the wheel. One is the "intense social pressure" to be constantly connected, and the other is that we are really f***ing bored most of the time and so we find the brain stimulation associated with phoning just completely impossible to resist.

I am skeptical about the "intense social pressure" hypothesis. I mean, doesn't everyone do lots of activities that are incompatible with answering the phone? Bathing, for instance? Working? Having sex? How can it be a big deal if you let someone leave a message and get back to them?

The "boredom" hypothesis, though, I think is spot on. As Britney Spears so eloquently pointed out recently, ordinary life is really monotonous and boring. And driving is especially boring. At least, it is if you're doing it right.

One of the scientists cited says it's a particularly modern problem we have, that "the modern brain is being rewired to crave stimulation." He calls this "acquired attention deficit disorder." Probably there's something to this, though I tend to think it's also just human nature to want more stimulation. I don't have a car, myself, and when I do drive, I find it pretty easy to avoid talking on the phone. On the other hand, I find the internet so distracting that to concentrate, I often physically take my laptop to where I have no internet access. It's like the philosophers' equivalent of putting the cell phone in the trunk; everyone finds it hard to just sit quietly and do their thing.

Speaking of which, this is actually an excellent idea, putting the phone in the trunk. If you miss a call, and the person has to leave a message, you can always tell them you couldn't answer because you were busy saving the nations' children -- by not answering the stupid phone.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Morality and Christianity: The Prodigal Son

I was in a cafe the other day and the song "Prodigal Son," by the Rolling Stones came on. It's an amazing song, and I hadn't heard it in ages, and I got to thinking about the parable. I'm sure you know the story: father has two sons; one takes his inheritance and squanders it, living a dissolute life, while the other stays close to home; when the "prodigal son" returns, begging help and forgiveness from his father, his father is thrilled to have him home and throws a giant celebration. The other son, naturally, is indignant at this unfair treatment.

The father says to him,
"My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found."

I consider myself a morally sensitive person even though I'm not religious, and I got to thinking about how to understand this story from a secular moral point of view. It's not obvious, I think, because we tend to put fairness front and center when we talk about morality, and there's a sense in which the celebration for the prodigal son really isn't fair to his brother. The point of the story in a religious context seems to be partly that approaching human life with excess concern for things like "equal treatment" reflects a narrow and ungenerous nature. Which seems sort of right to me, prompting me to wonder: how might such a thought be explained in a non-religious context?

Some traditional interpretations of the story seem to take the lesson to concern the importance of forgiveness. But forgiveness is very puzzling from a moral point of view. The famous "paradox of forgiveness" points out that if the person deserves condemnation, then forgiveness is unjust, whereas if the person does not deserve condemnation, there is nothing to forgive. And furthermore, we tend to think that morality is fair when it applies to everyone in the same way. But a lesson of forgiveness can't be a lesson to treat everyone the same way: if you forgave everyone all the time there would be no meaning to forgiveness at all. In a way, forgiveness isn't even something you can plan for. If the father planned to forgive the son from the beginning the story wouldn't really be about forgiveness at all - it would be more about a father who doesn't mind that his son squanders his money and lives a bad life. But uncaring is different from forgiveness.

Other traditional interpratations seem to focus on compassion and love instead of forgiveness per se. The father is so patient and loving with his son that he cannot but rejoice to see the son returned to him. This seems to be a little different from the forgiveness idea: it's not that there was a transgression that must be forgiven but more that any considerations of justice, punishment, and equality are just insignificant in the face of the power of the basic fact that this person, who was gone astray, has now returned.

They're not mutually exclusive, of course, but I resonate more to the compassion and love idea than to the forgiveness one, perhaps because forgiveness seems so puzzling. Interestingly, love and compassion, while certainly having moral aspects, don't fit tidily into the category of "secular morality" the way "fairness" and "equality" seem to. But they're not unsecular emotions at all. This seems a pretty universal experience: the joy at the return and safety of someone you love suddenly overwhelming any indignation you might have felt, or even would have been justified in feeling. This universality transcends the religious/secular distinction.

So maybe the "moral" point of view is too narrow for living a good life, and we need some richer concepts for talking about how to live in the secular way -- concepts that go beyond just "morality," concepts that would include the importance of things like love, compassion, and even forgiveness.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Invisible Hand Meets The Five Foot Antler

Listen, I got a question about economics that's been bugging me for a really long time. Maybe someone can help me out.

Let me take as a starting point here the excellent short piece in yesterday's New York Times by the economist, Robert H. Frank on the successes and limitations of free market competition. The successes, he points out, were seen and understood by Adam Smith. As Frank puts it, "when greedy people trade for their own advantage in unfettered private markets, they will often be led, as if by an invisible hand, to produce the greatest good for all."

The invisible hand: a powerful idea. But Frank says that though most economists probably think of it as the most basic and fundamental idea of their discipline, he predicts they won't do so for long. Because alongside the invisible hand, he says, we have the powerful example of evolution putting self-interest against the interests of the group. Sometimes individual and collective interests coincide; sometimes they don't.

Consider the example of the elk, he says. Though a mutation for huge antlers tends to help any individual elk, the resulting evolutionary pressure for larger and larger antlers is a disaster for elk as a whole, who now have antlers that are a hazard in general -- getting in the way, for instance, when the elk are pursued into forests by predators.

It's like an antlers arms race. If male elk could vote to scale back their antlers, with a kind of antler-regulation, Frank says, they would have excellent reason to do so. Likewise, he says, in those cases in which unfettered competition puts individual interests against group interests, humans have excellent reason to enact regulation to, in effect, scale back our antlers.

Frank cites examples of neighborhood schools and steroid use. If everyone works extra to earn money to try to get the house with the best schools for their kids, housing prices just go up, while schools stay the same. If everyone uses steroids in sports, then you must use them to be competitive, and everyone suffers. What is good for the individual is bad for us collectively.

Frank uses these points as an argument for regulation in certain cases. Sounds good to me. In fact, it sounds so obvious to me that I'm prompted to wonder again, as I have before, about why it gets so little attention.

The idea that what is good for individuals is sometimes good for groups, but not always, seems pretty obvious just from looking around, but it was confirmed in precise terms by game theory. In games like the prisoner's dilemma, pursuing what is best for you alone doesn't always lead to the optimal outcome for all. Indeed, a classic example is the arms race: if any country disobeys a disrmament treaty while its neighbors obey it, they do best as individuals. But if all countries obey, the outcome is best overall.

But game theory, and prisoners' dilemma cases, have been known to economists for decades. These are concepts familiar to most of my undergraduates. So if the conflict between individual and collective success is underappreciated by economists in general and free market proponents in particular, as Frank suggests and as seems plausible, what is going on?

That's my question: why do economists still talk so often in terms of the rationality of doing what is in one's individual self-interest, when game theory shows clearly that optimal outcomes in certain cases are only reached by not doing so, are reached only through treaties, regulation, and antler-decreasing voting?

Is it a normative committment to the idea that that it is better to allow people maximal individual autonomy even if the outcome isn't best overall?

Or is it a factual committment to the belief that the vast range of cases we tend to see in terms of conflict between individual and collective good -- like the housing prices-schools case Frank cites -- aren't really examples of conflict after all, appearances to the contrary?

Either way, I'm skeptical.

Monday, July 6, 2009

"Full And Vivid Information"

Image from the website

I have crappy teeth. I've got a gazillion fillings; I've got several crowns; I've got other problems you don't want to hear more about. When I was in Paris recently I broke a piece off of a tooth by biting into a biscotte. A biscotte! It's like a little piece of toasted bread! OK, this one was multigrain. But still.

One reason I have crappy teeth is that for a long time I didn't really take care of my teeth properly. Years went by with no dentist visits, minimal flossing, general lackadaisicalness. While there were a lot of reasons for all this carelessness, probably the number one reason is that I just hate thinking about teeth and and the fact that they decay. And you kind of have to think about it to be motivated to do anything to prevent it.

I hate thinking about tooth decay because as soon as I think about tooth decay, my next thought is almost always, Oh Yeah, I Am Going To Die. Teeth are a profound reminder of mortality. I think it's because unlike the rest of your body, teeth don't heal. They just stay bad or get worse until it's all over and you are dead. It's extraordinary, but there have been times when I've been reduced almost to tears by just sitting in the dentist's chair for a cleaning. I know the hygenist must think I'm nuts, because I'm always so unhappy even when I don't have any cavities and I'm just there for a check-up.

When philosphers talk about what it is rational to do, or what is the right thing to do, or about deciding among alternatives, they sometimes talk about "full and vivid information." So, you know, you might say the sensible thing to do is what you would do if you had full and vivid information about all the alternatives and you were reflecting in a calm state of mind.

I wrote about my doubts about the calm state of mind business before. But I'm nervous about this full and vivid information stuff too. Because when I have full and vivid information about the dental facts -- when I really have in my mind, front and center, that unless I take steps they are going to decay, fall apart, fall out of my head, break on a biscotte -- I feel so discouraged I feel motivated not to brush and floss but rather to stretch out in despair on the living room floor and feel sad about the human condition.

I guess you could say this is a defect about me, that a fully rational person wouldn't be motivated in such perverse ways, but would simply note the dental facts and act accordingly, without going through the whole "discouraged" and "depressed" phases. Like Spock, you could just do the calculations and choose the right outcome.

But that doesn't seem quite right to me. I don't think I would be a better person if I were less inclined to despair over the human condition, and I don't think I would be a better person if I were more like Spock. Even Spock isn't a better person when he is more like Spock: it's when we see glimpses of Spock caring about things that we start to care about him.

As a practical solution to these problems, I try to channel my motivations in more short-term directions. I work out because of how it will make me feel tomorrow, not because I want to live longer. I refrain from smoking so I can breathe today, not so I can avoid a horrible death from lung cancer. I floss so my teeth will feel healthy and look good, this month, rather than worrying about the big picture.

This little bait-and-switch works pretty well when things are going fine. But it's not a real solution to the problem, and interestingly, it requires keeping in one's mind a set of less full, and less vivid, information, than what is really the truth.