Monday, January 28, 2013

Morals is hard! Confusions About Morality And Commerce

Remember when Barbie said, "Morals is hard!"  Oh, wait -- that was math.  Maybe next time Ken can model some of the difficulties we seem to be having about morality.  Wouldn't that be fun, to dress up Ken in a Wall Street banker suit, pull the string, and have him say "Morals is hard!" 

Confusions about morality and commerce:  we have them.  Some seem to me like genuine confusions; others are more like fake-outs.  Here are a few.  

1.  There's confusion in the false idea there's some magic harmony between the individual pursuit of self-interest and the collective good. 

The idea of magic harmony seems to me an elementary confusion that tries to dissolve one of the deepest problems in morality by just assuming that two completely different things are actually the same -- that doing what's best for you is also, in some sense, doing what's best for everyone. 

It's not true, but I think it gets a foothold because people take the metaphor of the "invisible hand" and run with it -- all the way to the end of rationality.   Yes, in commerce there is an idea that if people, under certain particular circumstances, following particular rules, make exchanges with one another to get what they want, some good things can happen. 

But A) that is commerce, not life in general; B) it's only in particular circumstances when people follow particular rules and C) in real life there are sometimes things like arms races where the pursuit of self-interest leads everyone down a rabbit-hole.

2.  There's confusion about the role of morality in explaining the obligations of agreements in commerce. 

Sometimes people talk as if individual people ought to keep their agreements in commerce for the same moral reasons that individuals ought to keep their personal agreements -- so that when they fail they are morally blameworthy.

One troubling manifestation that you see all the time is a real fake-out:  when a company is considered "crafty" when they declare bankruptcy to avoid paying debts while a homeowner is an immoral "deadbeat" if they do the same with their mortgage.  That's bizarre.  I mean, it's supposed to be the lender's job to decide if the loan is a good business proposition.  Banks aren't charities, as I'm sure they'd be the first to remind us.

I will say, however, that once you get into the fabric of life, the relationship of duty to playing by the rules of commerce seems to be genuinely confusing.  In 2008 the Freakonomics blog observed that if you send mail in the US without a stamp, it will often get mailed, because the automated sorters don't catch it.  The author notes that this is efficient, since most mail has stamps, and catching outliers would be costly.

Having noted this, would it be OK to start sending all your mail without stamps?  It seems to me the answer is no:  if only you do it, you're free-riding, and if everyone does it, the Post Office has to pay a fortune to start catching people.

The blog post asks readers to test out the system by mailing lots of mail without stamps and monitoring the results.  One commentator said, "Are you using your blog to call for theft of service? I’m not against it, I was just curious."  The matter seems to me genuinely confusing.

3.  There's confusion about the limits of behavioral constraints in commerce. 

I think there's a feeling out there that the appropriate pursuit of self-interest in commerce means doing what's needed to get ahead, where if that means lying, manipulating, and concealing uncomfortable facts, that's part of making a "good deal." 

And since the appropriate pursuit of self-interest in commerce can, in certain particular situations and contexts, lead to the collective good, this leads to a feeling that the more the better, so constraining your actions to tell the truth and so on are "morals" -- or silly and unfair brakes on the process. 

But any connection between the pursuit of self-interest and the collective good exists only in the presence of certain assumptions that people refrain from coercion, fraud, and -- duh -- theft. 

So either you need some worked out set of rules in commerce that people actually follow, or your "commerce" quickly becomes the mafia. 

Maybe some people are genuinely confused.  But probably this is often a fake-out on the part of the perpetrators.

I'm sure there are also massive fake-outs when companies decide to "work together" or "cooperate" -- which every kindergardener knows are morally praiseworthy activities! -- when really what they're doing is "colluding."  But I assume that's just a fake-out, and doesn't rise to the level of confusion.

By the way, it turns out Barbie said "Math class is tough."  As Wikipedia explains, it's often misquoted as "Math is hard."  God Bless the Internet. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Authenticity: Don't Worry About It

One of the more annoying things an older generation can do to a younger generation is pretend that the hardships of the past were somehow integral to a greater authenticity and richness of life.

This morning I listened to Marc Maron interview Dave Grohl, lately of the Foo Fighters and formerly of Nirvana.  I love Marc's WTF podcast, and I'm a fan of Nirvana.  It was interesting to hear some of the history behind music recording and how it's changed and all that.

Occasionally, though, this talk wandered dangerously close to You Kids With Your Computers And Your ProTools You Can't Really Make Music With Integrity. 

Dave Grohl recently helped make a documentary about a recording studio.  Featuring prominently in that movie is a handmade analogue mixing console that was used to create the album Nevermind. 

I'm perfectly willing to believe that this was an amazing machine, unlike its counterparts, that helped make the album sound as it did.  But there's also a vague suggestion burbling in there that to have authenticity and integrity in music you need to avoid technology, and that authenticity and integrity in general require staying close to the original versions of things.

That's a funny argument to make if you're involved in a rock band.  Because obviously, you're already a million miles away from the original versions of things.  I mean, according to that logic, all music should be unplugged and unrecorded. 

It's weird to say, the technology my youth:  good!  The technology of today:  bad!

There's a funny moment exemplifying this point when Dave Grohl is talking about how these days kids just do a take or two, and then they move on, figuring anything can be cleaned up with the software.  He describes how, back in the day, he once worked with a producer who made him do forty takes of the same part of something before getting one that he thought was right. 

Fine -- but it also doesn't really make sense.  I mean, the whole idea of forty takes of the same part of something -- if you were coming at this from the point of view before recording devices, and you had the idea that authenticity and integrity required keeping it close to the source, well clearly the forty takes would be exactly the sort of thing you'd find abominable.  Forty takes!

I've never bought into this particular form of authenticity or integrity at all.  I mean, yes, there's something cool about doing things absent technological intervention.  But then there's something cool about technology that allows you do to anything.  They're just cool in different ways.  If you program your computer to move some hammers inside a piano to play Beethoven just exactly how you want it to sound, that's not "playing the piano," exactly, but it is representing something honest and real about your musical judgments:  it's representing what's in your head, without dependence on your particular hands and your particular nervous system.  The second one isn't any less human than the first -- in some ways it's more human, because everything comes from someone's mind and not from the contingencies of certain hands or certain machines. 

In my opinion, what makes for certain kinds of greatness isn't authenticity, but constraints.  It doesn't matter what the constraints are:  they can come from anywhere.  But there's something about having to work within some set of boundaries, some ways things are made difficult, that makes end results more interesting.

This, I believe, is why painting is so endlessly and timelessly interesting.  Even though a sculpture is three-dimensional and even though a photograph can depict things, painting has its own thing going on.  Not because painting somehow has authenticity and integrity where sculpture and photography don't, but just because the constraints of paint on a surface happen to be the kind of constraints that drive people to do really interesting things, things they wouldn't consider doing if they had a different set of tools and a different set of possibilities.

So I would say:  constraints, yes; authenticity, not so much.

The nicest part of the Dave Grohl interview is when he describes learning to play the drums by arranging pillows and furniture around his bed in a certain way, stealing some sticks meant for drumming in a marching band, and practicing endlessly to the records of Black Flag and The Ramones.  It was a few years before his family could afford to buy him a real drum set.  The end result was a very particular style of drumming:  he hits really hard and moves really fast. 

The story exemplifies a second theme of the interview:  if you want to do something, just start doing it.  Don't get obsessed with trying to become some kind of expert, with trying to hit it out of the park on the first try.  I would add:  and don't worry about being authentic, either. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

Mental Health And Violence Prevention: The Creepiness Factor

There's been a lot of talk these days about improving or paying attention to mental health.  Some of that talk has been happening in the context of preventing violence.  Some of that talk seems to suggest that if perpetrators of violence had had their mental health issues treated properly, the violence could have been prevented.

Some of these things are in the "yes, obviously" category.  Yes, obviously, people should have access to treatment for mental health.  Obviously mental health issues are just as real and serious as other health issues.  Obviously mental health and unhappiness should not be stigmatized.

But I think the way the talk goes in the violence prevention debate goes way beyond the "yes, obviously" category, and goes well into the "creepy" category. 

First of all, if you're talking about relying primarily on mental health treatment to prevent violence, you're talking about going way beyond improved "access" to mental health resources.  You're going to need screenings; you're going to need to be getting in people's faces with tests they do not want; you're going to need surveillance and punishments and all kinds of crazy Panopticon shit.

Sometimes you hear people say that those in certain roles, like teachers, should be attentive to finding people with mental health issues and should taking action.  Have these people been in a classroom?

I mean, first of all, we must be talking about something more than just saying "hey, how are things, if you want to talk, come by my office hours," because what about the people who don't feel like talking because they already have a plan, and the plan is violent?  No, what we're talking about must be a form of "turning someone in," as in alerting some official person, "hey, that person has a problem and needs help, whether they want it or not."

That's bad enough in itself.  In our modern world where your every move is tracked, are you really going to risk being wrong about something like that and screwing up some poor young person's life?

But what's even worse is when you consider what the "signs" are supposed to be.  What are those signs, exactly?  Seeming stressed out, or lonely, or sad?  Being anti-social?  Acting weird?

I got news for you:  all young people are stressed out, lonely, sad, anti-social, and weird some of the time.  Yes, some young people are more stressed out, lonely, sad, anti-social, and weird than others.  And you know what?  That is not a crime.  Last I heard, part of living in a free society is the right to be sad and weird and anti-social.  And to do it without a bunch of people getting in your face about it and demanding you must be "mentally ill" and that you have to get help.

When it's proposed that mental health screening would allow for a world in which a lot of people are armed but few people get shot, I'm always amazed at what the implications are for the idea of being "mentally healthy."  I mean, that seems to me a high bar.  Do these people think it's a sign of illness that in certain situations, under particular stresses, people snap and make bad decisions, decisions they'll regret?  Geez, people -- that's not a sign of being ill; it's a sign of being human.

You put it all together, you get something like this:  anyone who even seems like they might ever, momentarily, not behave in a completely rational way, should be picked out by some responsible figure like a teacher and forced to undergo treatment until their peculiarities are completed beaten out of them.

How creepy is that?  And we haven't even touched on the various difficulties of what our mental health establishment thinks is "healthy," or its poor track record at pathologizing completely normal kinds of behavior, like homosexuality.

Sorry.  Super creepy.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Way Of The Adolescent: Not Wrong, Just Not Sustainable

Catherine Deneuve, in The Hunger

What passes for common wisdom at the New York Times:

"When we remember our past selves, they seem quite different."

Translation:  When middle-aged, upper middle class guys, of a certain temperament, remember their teen years, they're surprised by how the zany, silly, risky things they did for fun and sex.

Is this your experience?  It isn't mine.  I'm usually astonished by how little I've changed since I was a Young Person.

Youth was on my mind recently, as I had an encounter with some of the love objects of my earlier self.

When I was about 15 years old I happened to see the movie The Hunger and I fell madly in love.  The Hunger is a vampire movie, starring two of the coolest people ever to live on planet earth: Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie.  They live in an incredibly beautiful mansion, where they teach classical music to children, kill other humans for food, and live forever.

Eventually the David Bowie character learns that he's been tricked:  he is not a real vampire, but just a jiade vampire.  Though he will live forever, he will not stay young.  As the movie develops, he finds himself, after a few centuries of life, suddenly becoming his age.

I was obsessed with this movie.  I wanted the people in the movie to adopt me so I could go live with them and always wear the most beautiful clothes and listen to the most beautiful music and listen to Catherine Deneuve's most beautiful way of speaking English and develop for myself that look of quiet, gentle, amusement that obviously takes the place of boredom in an eternal life.

In the New York Times Theory of Life, clearly an obsession with a vampire movie counts as a youthful taste, the obsession of a Young Person.

But the other day I happened to watch the opening sequence of The Hunger on YouTube.  You can watch it here if you want.  In it, David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve go out to a club to pick up an attractive young man and woman.  Nobody says much.  They look about as attractive and cool as any two people could look, and even though they are at a loud dance club, they have that same look of quiet, gentle, amusement they always have.

I guess the New York Times Worldview has really seeped into my bones, because before I watched it I thought "Oh, probably I will think to myself, 'how silly, what a silly thing to be interested in, to be obsessed with, to love.'

But that was not what happened at all.  If anything I was more in love than ever.  I had pretty much the same feelings I'd had as a teenager:  that desperate desire to make human life into something more than what it really is.

Watching just this brief excerpt had a destabilizing effect on me.  I stayed up late, and drank a few extra glasses of wine, and felt strange and unhappy.

And I thought to myself as I often do:  the Way Of The Adolescent, it isn't wrong, it's just not sustainable.

The desire to live in a different and more intense way, to make human life into more than what it really is -- it's easier to satisfy when you're young.  You can drink too much and take drugs and spend your evenings out on the town and listen to music too loud and stay up late -- and you can still feel that inside you're a special and interesting person who is going to accomplish great things eventually

If you try to do those things in middle-age:  you're just another idiot in poor health.

People always make fun of teenagers for their willingness to take risks and do dramatic things for fun, and they always take up this very condescending attitude:  "oh, adolescence, you know!" [eye-roll].  Secretly, I've often wondered if they protest too much.  They actually worry that the dumb boringness adolescents associate with adulthood is actually dumb boringness, and that the adolescent worldview is the accurate one.

So.  I conclude that if people change their habits, it's not necessarily because they've changed their tastes or preferences in any deep way.

The Times story goes on to say there's new evidence that people underestimate how much they are going to change.  But honestly, the examples in the story are pretty underwhelming.  Here's a quote from the Times:

"When asked about their favorite band from a decade ago, respondents were typically willing to shell out $80 to attend a concert of the band today. But when they were asked about their current favorite band and how much they would be willing to spend to see the band’s concert in 10 years, the price went up to $129."

Sorry:  80 dollars to watch the band of your youth, compared to 129 for the future, and the conclusion is that people underestimate change?  This seems to me like evidence that people stay astonishingly the same. 

And, as one Times commentator put it:  "They had to do a study to determine that we're better at remembering the past than predicting the future?"