Monday, October 28, 2013

I Have A Thinking Problem

 A few days ago I sent myself an email that said "Is thinking about things ruining my life?"

You know what they say: "The first step is admitting you have a problem."

So yes: I have a thinking problem.

As the offspring of a chemical engineering professor dad and a letters-to-the-editor type mom, I probably started off with a genetic predisposition for problem thinking, and a lot of my youth was spent pursuing a more non-thinking lifestyle. Mostly that was through the classic methods of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll.

In college I studied math, and I might have been OK if I'd been able to stick with that. Because even though math is thinking, it's not thinking about anything. It's like the mental equivalent of wholesome but pointless exercise: you do it, it's fun, and when you're done, you're pleasantly worn out and ready for rest.

But as we all know that didn't happen. And opting for philosophy -- well, it's like a sugar addict committing to life in a candy store. Thinking thinking thinking, and then when the day is over, you just can't stop. A movie? Food? Music? Ooh, I have some thoughts!!!

The other day I happened to pick up a book by Colette -- the first of the wonderful Claudine books, Claudine at School. You know about Colette? Belle époque writer and music-hall performer, celebrity with a complex and varied romantic life.

When I was in my late teens I was a maniac for Colette's writings and I was especially crazy about the Claudine stories, which begin with the story of teenage small-town Claudine and her crushes and romances with other girls, her flirtations with teachers and adults of both sexes, her intellectually sophisticated jokes, and her ultimate seriousness about life. The Claudine stories get more complicated, but always, they are books that make me feel at home.

When I picked up Claudine at School last week, I began with Colette's Preface, and was reminded of the fact that her famous wit and charlatan first husband Willy (full name Henry Gauthier-Villars, he claimed to be a fancy aristocrat) had told her to write the stories and had told her to "spice them up."

And because my thinking is now out of control, this led me into a spiral of reflection. Were the things I resonated with in Colette partly there because some guy wanted to sell more books? If they were did it matter? How did feminism come into play?

My friend assured me that there was really no cause for concern. The things I loved in Colette were the things she continued to write about for the rest of her very long life, during and after her other two marriages and her many other affairs and her many romantic friendships. Even if Willy  had prompted her thoughts on that occasion, they were her thoughts, and they were of a piece with the way she wrote about life and love and sex for the rest of her life.

Though I'm persuaded by this answer, I feel something in this thought process has not been good, that the thoughts themselves dampened or mediated something that had been bright and unmediated, in a wonderful way, before I started thinking too much about them. I feel I used to be able to access that brighter more immediate relation to the world, before my thinking got out of control.

There is no real answer to this problem. Like eating, thinking isn't the kind of thing you can just give up cold turkey. And it's not like I can reimmerse myself in the sex, drugs and rock'n'roll lifestyle. Because as we all know, the way of the adolescent, though it's not wrong, is just not sustainable.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Why Does Life Suck? A Tripartite Theory, With Reflection On The Entrepreneurial Self Of Modern Times

Contemplative cat is contemplative
A couple of years ago I was browsing my blog stats, and I saw that someone had landed here after googling "Why does life suck"?

This gave me pause. Because I would very much like the suckiness of life to be one of the things people feel they can learn about on my blog. Along with death, it's pretty much the main topic of human existence.

As I see it, the suckiness of life has a tri-partite existence.

First, there's Inherent Suckiness, the suckiness of the human condition. Human life is brief, frequently unsatisfying, and often boring. Though people tend to stop talking about this as they get older, the world's two-year-olds all agree with me: the whole thing is way dumber than it has to be.

There's not much we can do about inherent suckiness.

Second, there's Natural Suckiness, the suckiness induced by nature. Nature must have a really great PR team, because even though its full of disease, death, and deprivation, everyone talks about it like it's goddamn mother's milk.

Natural suckiness can often be alleviated through human effort and invention, and generally speaking I think it's reasonable to say we're working on it. We don't have a cure for cancer, but if our creators came down and accused us of sleeping late and dicking around, I think we'd be justified in telling them to STFU and get off our case already. We're working on it. OK?

But the last category of Self-Inflicted Suckiness is the most important and interesting. This is where we humans are making things worse for ourselves, making the world a hostile place, making a society that makes us crazy.

If you live in the 21st century I'm sure you can think of a zillion ways we humans are making things worse than they should be. This blog has touched on some of them over the years. It's a winner take all society. If you're at the bottom you're screwed. It's not enough to do something well, you have to promote promote promote

A few months ago I read this book, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste, about how neoliberalism survived the financial crisis. It's got a lot of great interesting stuff, but one thing that really grabbed me was the idea of the new "entrepreneurial self" that's required for life in modern times.

The idea is that, especially in the contemporary US, everyone is expected to be their own generator of prosperity. This means that to survive each person must be not only sophisticated and knowledgable and self-promoting, but also completely unresistant to change and willing to accept blame for every setback.

That is to say, if you fail, you fucked up. It's your fault, and you better do something about it. Get yourself to a motivational seminar. Get a life coach. Look up one of the many websites using the term "entrepreneurial self" in the positive way.

When I encountered these ideas I found connections among things I hadn't seen before. The relentless positivity requirements of our modern era, the omnipresent narrative in which in which YOU deal with life's problems by curing YOUR inner demons thus ramping up YOUR personal best, the constant need to package each setback in life as a triumph over obstacles ... all of these are connected by the same metaphor for humanity, a metaphor that flatly denies the obvious: that we are all interdependent on one another.

So if you're thinking about why life sucks, and you want to move beyond the obvious Inherent Suckiness and Natural Suckiness of life and into the Self-Induced Suckiness, the entrepreneurial self might be a good starting point -- though I'm sure you can generate many rich examples of your own.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Moralish In America

Is moral bankruptcy on the rise?  I know people have been asking the same question for thousands of years. That doesn't mean the answer is "no."

I'm thinking here especially about self-serving lying and cheating, and especially about my Home Country, the US of A. Maybe it's just that we're paying more attention. Maybe the instances are more outrageous. I don't know. But doesn't it seem there's astonishing amount of really brazen misbehavior in the US these days?

Surely part of the explanation has to do with knowingly evil intent. But I think there's more to it, and I have a theory. OK, let me say right up front that I don't know if this theory is true and I wouldn't know how to test it, and when all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail, so maybe my theory says more about my own obsessions than anything else.

But anyway. My theory is that just as truth is being replaced by  "truthiness," the norm of being "moral" is being replaced by a norm of being "moralish." The idea being that morality is a "grey area," where you have to sort of make a lot of fine tuned judgments -- and where if you err on the side of "being too good," you'll be a chump.

Let's look at a little background. For years and years, economists have been telling everyone that the pursuit of self-interest, far from being at odds with virtue, is actually aligned with virtue: when you pursue your own good, in certain particular ways, good things happen. This idea floats around in variants, but I'm guessing a lot of people think that living in a capitalist society means doing what you can for yourself, as long as you're playing by the rules, is not only essential to your own well-being but also good all around.

The problem with this idea isn't that it's false. The problem with this idea is that it sounds simple and universal even though it's actually complicated and limited. So instead of taking it as license to go buy an extra cup of coffee, which would be a correct interpretation, people take it as a license to put fake out Harvard degrees on their resumés, lie about mortgage agreements, and engage in insider trading.

The principle itself is complicated and limited for lots of reasons, but let's just talk about one: what does it mean to play by the rules?

In fact, the production of good consequences from capitalist activity happens only when people tell the truth, refrain from fraud, keep their agreements -- even when doing so isn't directly in their self-interest. So lying and cheating are central forms of NOT playing by the rules, and are not sanctioned by any version of the self-interest principle.

But it's easy and fun, especially when it benefits you, to just sort of forget about that part. Especially when there's no watchdog, or no one's paying attention, and you think you're not going to get caught.

Then you think to yourself that somehow telling the truth, like giving to charity or calling your mother, is somehow Morally Optional. "Oh, yes, I know really GOOD people do those things. But I'm just a regular Joe!"

So then people come to think of the lying and cheating areas of life as sort of grey areas -- even though they're clearly against the rules in some sense, they're part of "morality," and surely anything to do with morality is somehow optional and hazy, right?

And here's the kicker: if you live under conditions of extreme capitalism, you get the feeling that you've got to fine-tune your moralishm just right, because if you're acting "too good," you're losing out. You're a chump. In a society of great inequality and intense suckiness for the socio-economic losers, you cannot let that happen. So there's huge motivation to adjust your moralish grey area commitments -- probably, in a lot of cases, hoping to match those around you.

I picture a lot of people figuring, Hey, if I can talk about it over lunch and the guys think it's cool, then it can't be wrong, can it? 

End result: whole industries full of people completely screwing society and sleeping like babies at night, saying to themselves, "Hey, I'm a moralish kind of guy. You can't blame me!"

Monday, October 7, 2013

Mommy, Where Do Preferences Come From?

If you're trying to think about what is the thing to do or what you owe to others or how society can be organized and you want to avoid making grand pronouncements about Good v. Bad and Right v. Wrong and Wholesome v. Debased, your fancy may lightly turn to thoughts of "preferences."

People all along the ethical and political spectrum have treated preferences as a kind of neutral building block for impartial decision-making.

The utilitarian Peter Singer, who argues that middle class Americans to give up most of their money, does so on grounds that we ought maximize universal preference satisfaction. As long as your ten dollars will bring about more satisfaction to a poor person far away then it will to you today, Singer says, you have to give it away.

The contractarian David Gauthier, taking our interactions to be negotiations, argues rational people won't give up too much of what they otherwise could have had; the powerful may use their power in making deals to get more of what they want. What forms the basis for judging outcomes? Preferences. 

When Leavitt and Dubner -- surely representing some extreme version of something -- infer, in Freakonomics, that fighting climate change is pointless because "[i]t's not that we don't know how to stop polluting the atmosphere. We don't want to stop, or aren't willing to pay the price" -- they're appealing to -- yes, preferences.

All this to say: they are everywhere. And you can see how something like this might have gotten going. For a long time there was talk of what was in people's "interest" -- but how can we say a thing is in someone's "interest" if that person does not, themselves, prefer it? Isn't that patronizing? Then the utilitarians back the day (like Mill, 1863) talked about increasing pleasure and decreasing pain. Not a bad idea -- but as is often pointed out, pleasure and pain aren't the only thing we care about. We have other things we want - other, "preferences," if you will.

A move to preferences and -- voilà! problems solved. Appeals to preferences answered various puzzles in one fell swoop: what's in someone's interest is just whatever they think is in their interest, i. e. whatever they prefer (assuming their preferences are transitive and obey other complex conditions that you could write a whole post about but we won't bother going into here).

But with preferences -- can we just say, "I have issues"? And you should too.

As is often noted -- indeed, as is said so often it's become like background noise -- preferences don't come from nowhere. They are shaped by our socio-cultural surroundings; they are shaped by the options available to us, and they are shaped by our own choices.

As we've known for -- oh, only a few hundred years -- things like "habit" or "custom" are profound shapers of preferences. As Jon Elster clarified in the 20th century, preferences are sometimes "adaptive" -- as in the fable of the "sour grapes" we often come not to want, or even think about, those things that seem unavailable to us.

It never ceases to weird me out that in our world we've set things up so that powerful forces -- a. k. a. advertising, are set up to induce in us preferences, whose satisfaction is then regarded as a "good thing" -- on grounds that a preference was satisfied.

There's something shell-game-ish about that -- and I think the reason is that in some sense, the neutrality and impartiality of "preferences" is a fake-out.

Because you can't say you're setting aside Good v. Bad and then say the satisfaction of preferences is Good. As soon as you deem the satisfaction of preferences a good thing, you're already on that train, you've opened that can of worms, there's that whole ball of wax, insert your favorite complexity metaphor here.

And as the advertising example shows, deeming equally strong preferences as equally worth of satisfaction will always give an advantage to anyone who can shape other people's preferences. We all know who that will be: the rich, the connected, and the politically powerful.

Finally, the fact that we know preferences can be shaped means we're constantly confronting the question of which preferences are good and which ones aren't. We're evaluating our preferences. Some, like a preference for kindness, are worth fostering. Others, like a preference for cruelty, are worth eliminating. To evaluate your preferences you need some other standard of judgement.

It seems to me that standard cannot simply be one's own further preferences -- because if nothing else, that doesn't explain parenting. In parenting you confront, for real in the most serious way, the question of which preferences to encourage and which to discourage in another person. A parent who did this by consulting what would be most convenient and satisfying for them personally would be universally acknowledged to be committing a parenting FAIL.

The upshot of all this, it seems to me, is that while preferences are certainly significant, it is crucial to remember that preferences are not just things we have, they are things that come from somewhere, and some of those sources are better than others, and they are things we take a certain standpoint toward. Even with respect to ourselves, we endorse some; we decry others.

It's from the standpoint of this kind of evaluation of preferences that we know what matters to us. And once you're talking about what matters, you're pretty much back at Good v. Bad and Right v. Wrong and the whole nine yards.

So yes, appeal to preferences, but don't kid yourself you've somehow slid out from under the Big Problems of Life.