The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'values'
The New York Times has an excellent piece by Steven Pinker on the human instinct for moral reasoning:
At the same time, many behaviors have been amoralized, switched from moral failings to lifestyle choices. They include divorce, illegitimacy, being a working mother, marijuana use and homosexuality. Many afflictions have been reassigned from payback for bad choices to unlucky misfortunes. There used to be people called “bums” and “tramps”; today they are “homeless.” Drug addiction is a “disease”; syphilis was rebranded from the price of wanton behavior to a “sexually transmitted disease” and more recently a “sexually transmitted infection.”
This wave of amoralization has led the cultural right to lament that morality itself is under assault, as we see in the group that anointed itself the Moral Majority. In fact there seems to be a Law of Conservation of Moralization, so that as old behaviors are taken out of the moralized column, new ones are added to it. Dozens of things that past generations treated as practical matters are now ethical battlegrounds, including disposable diapers, I.Q. tests, poultry farms, Barbie dolls and research on breast cancer. Food alone has become a minefield, with critics sermonizing about the size of sodas, the chemistry of fat, the freedom of chickens, the price of coffee beans, the species of fish and now the distance the food has traveled from farm to plate.While what is considered a moral issue differs between cultures and societies (and, to an extent, periods of time), there appear to be five categories for moral judgment hardwired into the human psychology: harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity.
The five spheres are good candidates for a periodic table of the moral sense not only because they are ubiquitous but also because they appear to have deep evolutionary roots. The impulse to avoid harm, which gives trolley ponderers the willies when they consider throwing a man off a bridge, can also be found in rhesus monkeys, who go hungry rather than pull a chain that delivers food to them and a shock to another monkey. Respect for authority is clearly related to the pecking orders of dominance and appeasement that are widespread in the animal kingdom. The purity-defilement contrast taps the emotion of disgust that is triggered by potential disease vectors like bodily effluvia, decaying flesh and unconventional forms of meat, and by risky sexual practices like incest.
The ranking and placement of moral spheres also divides the cultures of liberals and conservatives in the United States. Many bones of contention, like homosexuality, atheism and one-parent families from the right, or racial imbalances, sweatshops and executive pay from the left, reflect different weightings of the spheres. In a large Web survey, Haidt found that liberals put a lopsided moral weight on harm and fairness while playing down group loyalty, authority and purity. Conservatives instead place a moderately high weight on all five. It’s not surprising that each side thinks it is driven by lofty ethical values and that the other side is base and unprincipled.And, further down:
Though wise people have long reflected on how we can be blinded by our own sanctimony, our public discourse still fails to discount it appropriately. In the worst cases, the thoughtlessness of our brute intuitions can be celebrated as a virtue. In his influential essay “The Wisdom of Repugnance,” Leon Kass, former chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics, argued that we should disregard reason when it comes to cloning and other biomedical technologies and go with our gut: “We are repelled by the prospect of cloning human beings . . . because we intuit and feel, immediately and without argument, the violation of things that we rightfully hold dear. . . . In this age in which everything is held to be permissible so long as it is freely done . . . repugnance may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity. Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.”
There are, of course, good reasons to regulate human cloning, but the shudder test is not one of them. People have shuddered at all kinds of morally irrelevant violations of purity in their culture: touching an untouchable, drinking from the same water fountain as a Negro, allowing Jewish blood to mix with Aryan blood, tolerating sodomy between consenting men. And if our ancestors’ repugnance had carried the day, we never would have had autopsies, vaccinations, blood transfusions, artificial insemination, organ transplants and in vitro fertilization, all of which were denounced as immoral when they were new.
A UK university study has found correlations between musical taste and various aspects of lifestyle. According to the study, there is a positive correlation between fondness for hip-hop and dance music and sexual promiscuity, drug use, having committed (or claiming to have committed) crimes, and not giving a fuck about the environment or social justice (see also: "Get Rich Or Die Tryin'"). Which sounds like they have just discovered the Chav phenomenon.
In other surprises: fans of opera and classical music are most likely to have PhDs, have high incomes and not accumulate excessive credit card debt, and (along with jazz fans, who are a shade beneath them) are most likely to drink wine.
As Britain's higher education minister puts forward a plan to teach "core British values" in schools, hopefully reducing the number of kids who turn into happy-slapping hoodied thugs and/or radicalised Islamist jihadists, Grauniad blogger Stuart Jeffries looks at just what these values could be:
We must try to help Mr Rammell and find out which values are characteristic of modern Britain. Here are three that occurred to me:
None of these values, I submit, should be taught to secondary school pupils. In any case, kids will learn them just by living here for five minutes.
- Drinking to excess in order to obliterate feelings of social awkwardness, existential angst and the fact that there's nothing worth watching on television.
- Invading other countries and imposing our values, even though we aren't really sure what they are, on them. Then feeling terribly guilty about the mess we have made and doing a lot of (1) to make the guilt go away .
- Having a marvellous tolerance for other people's rudeness, vulgarity and impoliteness - mainly because we're too worried that the rude, vulgar and impolite people we encounter might hurt or kill us if we complain about their anti-social behaviour. Hence the national sport of moaning about anti-social people who aren't there, which helpfully reduces the risk of hospitalisation, while never really confronting the core problem that bedevils British society.
In her book Watching the English, social anthropologist Kate Fox concludes that there are three English values. They might not be quite the same as British values, but let's assume that they are for a moment. She suggests that the values are fair play, courtesy, and modesty. When you've quite finished laughing, let's review them as contenders. First, fair play. Has Fox ever seen an English premiership football match, where fair play has been substituted for feigning injury to deceive officials and mobbing the referee until he concedes that they were right and he was wrong? True, there are many English idioms that invoke fair play such as That's not cricket, Live and let live, but not Did you spill my pint" and Did you look at my bird, you slag? Fair play is about an aspiration to be better than the base behaviour we see around us.
How about modesty? Is Britain really a country where everybody (man and woman) wears burkas to conceal their naughty bits? Sartorial modesty isn't really what Fox means. Rather, she means that the British detest boasting and self-importance. True, the countervailing bling culture may represent a counterexample to this, as may, for example, Jordan's autobiography and the fact that every cough and spit of her worthless life is seen as fit material for weekly magazines. Fox contends that this modesty is a form of self-deprecation which is usually found by us saying the opposite of what we intend people to understand, or by using deliberate understatement. Hence what she calls the English sport of one-downmanship, whereby we deny wealth/class/ status differences for the sake of some polite egalitarianism. As Fox suggests this ironic self-deprecation often acts as a counterbalance to our natural arrogance, and so is rather hypocritical. Our values may in fact continually be at risk of being destroyed by from our uglier impulses. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't stand up for them.Jeffries concludes that actually teaching values in a classroom would be futile. The idea strikes me a bit like the endless pontificating about "the Australian national character" that happened in Australia, and the compulsory subject of "Australian Studies" which the state government of Victoria introduced into schools in the early 1990s. This was generally a load of hot air seasoned with left-wing identity politics (at least before the conservatives took office, and presumably reduced it to its core component of hot air), and ended up involving assignments like "watch an episode of Neighbours and write about how work roles are represented in it". Perhaps they could adopt this, replacing "Neighbours" with "Eastenders" and "work roles" with "extra-marital sex" or something.
The Sydney Morning Herald on what the recent lionisation of Kerry Packer as a "Great Australian" says about Australia today:
A decade ago we had a significant succession of truly inspirational governors-general; we looked to the ABC for excellence in broadcasting, to the universities to foster critical minds and to the CSIRO for scientific research of high integrity. If John Howard were a true conservative, he would have sustained those traditions. Instead, he has debauched them. Today we have an invisible governor-general, universities corrupted by their scrabbling for money, an underfunded ABC and a CSIRO where those who are genuinely concerned about global warming are expected to bite their tongues.
According to the latest polling, a majority of Australians accept that they are being governed by a divisive and mean-spirited leader, but apparently they no longer care. It's a "Whatever it takes" world we live in now. If it takes lies to stay in power or bribes to sell our wheat, no matter.
Packer in his lifetime was an icon for those who espoused the philosophy of whatever it takes. There was much to admire in his force of personality and in his exploits, but under no account should he be mistaken for a model citizen. He had utter contempt for politicians, for the arts, for idealism of any kind, for the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake and for those who did not share his world view. His ethics were defined simply as whatever the law allows.
It is truly appalling that our residual sense of sadness for his family should be channelled by the Packer interests and its claqueurs to raise him to the kind of heroic stature that his life doesn't justify. In some ways he unfortunately represents all that is wrong with contemporary Australia.
If this article is to be believed, the young people who grew up in John Howard's Australia have taken the Tory government's values wholly to heart:
The language of the Howard Government on religious minorities and refugees has resulted in a generation desensitised to the very human realities and manifestations of global inequity and ethnic difference. When Howard talks of "queue jumpers" and "illegals" to describe refugees, there is a knee-jerk tendency among young people to apportion blame rather than feel empathy. This is a state of affairs that Howard has personally overseen, a significant paradigm shift that entrenches a deep and pernicious ethos of social hierarchy and privilege.
Simultaneously, there is a tendency of young people to flock to evangelical religious movements in the past five years, particularly in the outer suburbs of our capital cities. Without wishing to speak disparagingly about young people seeking spiritual depth, we can say that within these new popular religious movements disengagement with mainstream political reality is fostered. To many of these groups, "family values" becomes a code for being anti-gay, anti-euthanasia and anti-abortion. It is alarming to hear how frequently young people today embrace this kind of neo-conservatism, almost like a race to see who can be more right-wing.
Moreover, with Howard's constant talk of a very white-bread brand of traditional family values being paramount to a good society, we have seen a sudden rush of young people to get married early, get a home loan and shift to the suburbs at the first opportunity. This obsession has even extended into the gay community, which after fighting for 30 years to keep the government out of the bedroom, now appears to be fighting for the approval of Howard for their relationships.
Coupled with this, we have witnessed in Australia a new kind of hyper-consumerism. The social centre of town on any given evening is now the local shopping centre. Young people are all too eager to get the biggest credit limits possible, and max their Visa cards out with the casualness of a walk in the park. Indeed, the Howard era has brought us closer to US style ultra-materialism, where "retail therapy" is the new buzz word. Feeling bored or depressed? Better get to Chadstone shopping centre. The so-called metrosexual male has become little more than a crass marketing ploy.The lack of empathy, hyperconsumerism and devil-take-the-hindmost mentality could be the same Hobbesian muscular nihilism witnessed in the United States. Though the rise of US-style right-wing evangelical churches and acceptance of conformistic ideas of "family values" is more alarming, especially coupled with the thread of intolerance for difference hinted at. Australia may be changing, on a deep level, into one large Red State, one in which nonconformity is something to be punished and straightened rather than embraced.
An interesting link from Momus: Market research firm Environics has conducted a survey of changing values in America, and come up with some disturbing conclusions. Over the past 12 years, their results show, the meta-values underlying American society have shifted away from engagement within society towards a paranoid, Hobbesian, every-man-for-himself world-view; this has fostered both libertinism and authoritarianism:
Looking at the data from 1992 to 2004, Shellenberger and Nordhaus found a country whose citizens are increasingly authoritarian while at the same time feeling evermore adrift, isolated, and nihilistic. They found a society at once more libertine and more puritanical than in the past, a society where solidarity among citizens was deteriorating, and, most worrisomely to them, a progressive clock that seemed to be unwinding backward on broad questions of social equity. Between 1992 and 2004, for example, the percentage of people who said they agree that the father of the family must be the master in his own house increased ten points, from 42 to 52 percent, in the 2,500-person Environics survey. The percentage agreeing that men are naturally superior to women increased from 30 percent to 40 percent. Meanwhile, the fraction that said they discussed local problems with people they knew plummeted from 66 percent to 39 percent. Survey respondents were also increasingly accepting of the value that violence is a normal part of life -- and that figure had doubled even before the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks.The research was done by plotting survey responses on a rectangular "values matrix", with two axes: authority-individuality and fulfilment-survival:
The quadrants represent different worldviews. On the top lies authority, an orientation that values traditional family, religiosity, emotional control, and obedience. On the bottom, the individuality orientation encompasses risk-taking, anomie-aimlessness, and the acceptance of flexible families and personal choice. On the right side of the scale are values that celebrate fulfillment, such as civic engagement, ecological concern, and empathy. On the left, theres a cluster of values representing the sense that life is a struggle for survival: acceptance of violence, a conviction that people get what they deserve in life, and civic apathy. These quadrants are not random: Shellenberger and Nordaus developed them based on an assessment of how likely it was that holders of certain values also held other values, or self-clustered.
Over the past dozen years, the arrows have started to point away from the fulfillment side of the scale, home to such values as gender parity and personal expression, to the survival quadrant, home to illiberal values such as sexism, fatalism, and a focus on every man for himself. Despite the increasing political power of the religious right, Environics found social values moving away from the authority end of the scale, with its emphasis on responsibility, duty, and tradition, to a more atomized, rage-filled outlook that values consumption, sexual permissiveness, and xenophobia. The trend was toward values in the individuality quadrant.(If I recall correctly, fulfilment and survival are at the two opposite extremes of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, with individuals whose survival needs are met progressing to focus on fulfilment needs. Could the reversion of the focus to survival be the result of respondents perceiving that their survival needs are threatened?)
On a related note: here is a PDF file of a presentation analysing British political opinions along similar lines, and finding that, while the old labels of "left" and "right" are less meaningful, opinions are divided along two axes: the Socialist-Free Market axis of economics and, more significantly, the "Axis of UKIP", which sorts respondents on their opinions on crime and international relations. At one end are the Daily Mail readers, who believe in isolationism and capital punishment, and on the other end are "chianti-swilling bleeding hearts" and cosmopolitanists. The centre of gravity is a little towards the UKIP end, which is why xenophobic, fear-mongering tabloids sell so well. The presentation also has diagrams of the distributions of positions by political affiliation and newspaper choice, with some interesting results.
An Australian study has found that drivers of four-wheel-drives (SUVs) are often obese, reactionary, intolerant and aggressive
, and have crew-cuts and rottweilers named Winner:
A new study has found that city owners of large four-wheel-drive vehicles are less community minded than other drivers, less charitable, more likely to be homophobic and have a low opinion of indigenous culture.
The Australia Institute study has also found they are more likely to use force to get their way.
Two thirds of their drivers in the city are overweight or obese. They also had a lower regard for the welfare system than the general population.In other words, 4WD drivers are model members of John Howard's Relaxed and Comfortable Australia. One could almost say that not owning a 4WD is un-Australian.
Dispatches from the Culture War: Intoxicated with their triumph, the Tories are blaming the legacy of the "permissive 1960s" for Australia's social ills, and implying that, had this decade of godless liberalism never happened, Australia would be a much better place. But what would Deputy PM John Anderson's ideal Australia look like?
We may have been serene but we were not widely read - more than 1000 books had been placed on the banned list. In the Western world, only Ireland, still straining under the power of the Catholic clergy, could boast a more rigorous record of prohibition.
The great American satirist Tom Lehrer also felt the lash of our moral arbiters. A ditty that exhorted a Boy Scout to "be prepared" upon meeting a Girl Guide was deemed too risque for our sensitive ears and thus found itself on the taboo list.
Well, the Howard government has already moved in that direction, with tightening of film censorship. Notwithstanding high-profile cases like Baise-Moi, many films shown in Australia are a few minutes shorter than their overseas releases because of cuts made by the OFLC. And book censorship is still around; the 18th-century bawdy novel Fanny Hill is among the books still banned in Australia.
That year the White Australia Policy was still the go, though the ALP federal conference insisted that in no way did it "represent racial prejudice". A further example of our enlightenment on such matters came from South Africa's Prime Minister Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, who claimed that Australia was "the best friend South Africa had". And this not a year after the Sharpeville massacre.
And we were four years away from the death of a young Lutheran, Errol Noack, who lost a bizarre lottery and became the first National Serviceman to die in Vietnam. He didn't want to go but he perceived a duty. He died months before we were to go "all the way with LBJ".
Again, we could very well see the return of national service before the next election. If the US brings in conscription (not unlikely, especially if the alternative is surrendering Iraq to become al-Zarqawi's personal jihad-state; after all, unmanned drones, satellite intelligence and high-tech communications can only make up so much for lack of troops on the ground) and requests more troops from Australia, it is inconceivable that the Howard administration would knock them back. And they'd have an argument for it, even if it does hinge on the circularity of Howard having made this "our fight" in the first place.
Fortunately a considerable part of the '60s generation understood that traditional values were worthless without coherence and that authority needed a core of integrity. The racism, censorship and aggression of the '60s was rightfully challenged and, to a considerable degree, overcome.
The brave took bus rides to the outback and organised lonely vigils on street corners, paving the way to mass protest.
Perhaps that's the real concern of social conservatives like John Anderson. It's not so much the sex, drugs and Pink Floyd that they fear, though these types certainly aren't much into fun. It's the challenge to orthodoxy and conformity. They are frightened of an outbreak of contrary thought, of debate beyond the set margins. Be they within government or without, they wish to determine what we think, say, write and do.
Via tyrsalvia, a fascinating article on why people vote as they do. As many have undoubtedly suspected, very few people vote rationally, i.e., considering and understanding the issues or policy platforms in question, with the vast majority of votes being cast for reasons unconnected to ideology, political belief or the candidates' visions:
Converse claimed that only around ten per cent of the public has what can be called, even generously, a political belief system. He named these people 'ideologues,' by which he meant not that they are fanatics but that they have a reasonable grasp of "what goes with what" of how a set of opinions adds up to a coherent political philosophy. Non-ideologues may use terms like "liberal" and "conservative," but Converse thought that they basically don't know what they're talking about, and that their beliefs are characterized by what he termed a lack of "constraint": they can't see how one opinion (that taxes should be lower, for example) logically ought to rule out other opinions (such as the belief that there should be more government programs). About forty-two per cent of voters, according to Converse's interpretation of surveys of the 1956 electorate, vote on the basis not of ideology but of perceived self-interest. The rest form political preferences either from their sense of whether times are good or bad (about twenty-five per cent) or from factors that have no discernible "issue content" whatever. Converse put twenty-two per cent of the electorate in this last category. In other words, about twice as many people have no political views as have a coherent political belief system.
Philip Converse's study, published in 1964, reignited doubts into the meaningfulness of democracy, and three theories have emerged over how a democracy really works. Theory 1 says that electoral outcomes are essentially arbitrary, i.e., the amount of signal (i.e., decisions made rationally by informed voters) is overwhelmed by noise (reaction to slogans, misinformation, sensational news, random personal associations (by some accounts, the colours of politicians' neckties are more important than their policy positions in deciding their fates), and even satisfaction or otherwise with things out of politicians' control, such as the weather). Theory 2 states that democratic decisions are made by elites who control the media, and have the power to send the messages which the apolitical bulk of the public respond to; i.e., the electoral process is essentially a low-pass filter on the opinions of Rupert Murdoch and his fellow oligarchs. Theory 3 states that the cues people respond to are heuristics which, to most intents, are as good as doing one's own research; these include consulting peers' opinions and intuitive judgments, i.e., "low-information rationality".
An analogy (though one that Popkin is careful to dissociate himself from) would be to buying an expensive item like a house or a stereo system. A tiny fraction of consumers has the knowledge to discriminate among the entire range of available stereo components, and to make an informed choice based on assessments of cost and performance. Most of us rely on the advice of two or three friends who have recently made serious stereo-system purchases, possibly some online screen shopping, and the pitch of the salesman at J&R Music World. We eyeball the product, associate idiosyncratically with the brand name, and choose from the gut. When we ask "experts" for their wisdom, mostly we are hoping for an "objective" ratification of our instinctive desire to buy the coolest-looking stuff. Usually, we're O.K. Our tacit calculation is that the marginal utility of more research is smaller than the benefit of immediate ownership.
The use of these heuristics leaves plenty of blind spots in the electoral process.
Bartels has also found that when people do focus on specific policies they are often unable to distinguish their own interests. ... When people are asked whether they favor Bush's policy of repealing the estate tax, two-thirds say yes--even though the estate tax affects only the wealthiest one or two per cent of the population. Ninety-eight per cent of Americans do not leave estates large enough for the tax to kick in. But people have some notion--Bartels refers to it as "unenlightened self-interest"--that they will be better off if the tax is repealed. What is most remarkable about this opinion is that it is unconstrained by other beliefs. Repeal is supported by sixty-six per cent of people who believe that the income gap between the richest and the poorest Americans has increased in recent decades, and that this is a bad thing. And it's supported by sixty-eight per cent of people who say that the rich pay too little in taxes. Most Americans simply do not make a connection between tax policy and the over-all economic condition of the country.
Jordan's parliament overwhelmingly rejects ban on "honour killings", claiming that the ban would "encourage vice and destroy social values". Which is almost exactly the same words as used by Christian conservatives in America opposing anti-bullying laws for schools. Funny how religious reactionaries of all stripes will rally in the defense of thuggishness, because, in their world view, the alternative is far worse.
Whenever talk of fighting bullying at schools comes up, the religious right and their ilk get up to vigorously oppose it, as it would protect leftists, homosexuals, freaks, nerds, hippies, atheists, questioners and other undesirables from being set right by the crew-cut defenders of our values. Bullies, their argument suggests, are the unsung guardians of moral probity, the kids who draw the line and make sure everybody else toes it, without whom the values that make Our Great Nation great would be lost, and who grow into staunch patriots, the backbone of society. Well, perhaps this is the sort of righteously patriotic act they have in mind. (via one.point.zero)