Saturday, October 31, 2009

Snubbed by a computer

I'm reading an article from CNN about rejection online (e.g., un-friending on Facebook), and found the following section incredibly amusing:

These data include Williams' "cyberball" studies, which ask a participant to play a virtual ball-tossing game with two other icons. In one study group, the participant plays the game for the entire six minutes, but in the second group, he or she is included for only a fraction of that time and then ignored. The second group reports feelings of anger and lower levels of self-esteem.

Whether participants believe they're playing with humans doesn't appear to affect their feelings of rejection.

"Even when people get rejected by the computer, they feel bad," Twenge said.

Amusing, although I'm sure I feel exactly the same way.

Kenneth Loflin, a student who participated in Williams' study, got so frustrated by his fellow players that he gave the computer screen an offensive gesture.

"I'm a people person, and I like people to like me," he said.

So that's how to be a "people person!" Screw that Dale Carnegie nonsense.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Hitler was a vegetarian!

I'm going to interrupt my mini-series on responsibility for an idea that just popped into my mind. You may have come across the argument that Hitler was a vegetarian. Notice I didn't mention what it is an argument for, because it doesn't really seem to be an argument at all. If it's an argument against vegetarianism, then Hitler loved his mother is an equally good argument against loving one's mother.

Luckily, most (but not all) of the times I've heard it were in jest. Today, randomly, I decided to see if there was any truth to the claim, and the answer is interesting. As it turns out, the details are still debated amongst scholars, who generally agree that he was kinda-sorta against meat eating... sometimes. But historical accuracy is irrelevant to the story, so I'll go ahead and present the side that's interesting.
"Do you know that your Führer is a vegetarian, and that he does not eat meat because of his general attitude toward life and his love for the world of animals? Do you know that your Führer is an exemplary friend of animals, and even as a chancellor, he is not separated from the animals he has kept for years?...The Führer is an ardent opponent of any torture of animals, in particular vivisection, and has declared to terminate those conditions...thus fulfilling his role as the savior of animals, from continuous and nameless torments and pain." —Neugeist/Die Weisse Fahne (German magazine of the New Thought movement)
(Emphasis mine). Here's an (nth-hand) description from Wikipedia regarding the BBC series "The Nazis: a Warning from History":
In this series an eyewitness account tells of Hitler watching movies (which he did very often). If ever a scene showed (even fictional) cruelty to or death of an animal, Hitler would cover his eyes and look away until someone alerted him the scene was over.
Why is this interesting? Well, these and other anecdotes actually do suggest that, regardless of his dietary habits, Hitler was actually able to empathize with animals. In fact, upon further reading, it seems unequivocally established that he was quite fond of dogs -- as were at least some of his compatriots.

So the warning that Hitler was a vegetarian seems to be saying something after all. It's a solemn reminder that the ability to empathize is not enough. That "being good" in some particular regard is no guarantee that our moral compass is set straight. But maybe it's also a source for hope: that even in the most seemingly lost causes, that twinkle of humanity deep down is never fully extinguished.

Lest I lose more of my audience to boredom, rest assured I'll have more science and less pontificating in the near future :)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

What I am and am not responsible for

Everything I say in this (long, rambling) post has been covered by countless wiser and more eloquent people than I, but it's nonetheless relevant to this blog, and important to me (and it's my blog, so nyah!).

One popular description of becoming an adult is that it entails both the development and recognition of one's responsibilities in the world. What is less often discussed -- perhaps because the first hurdle is already a pretty high bar -- is the recognition of what one's responsibilities are not.

To paraphrase Dr. Larry Brilliant (talk about an ambitious name), the question is how "to live ambitiously but without ambition." If this sounds paradoxical, it's not only the fault of the English language's imprecision. Consider the common maxim "live every moment as though it were your last." I don't know about you, but the images of mayhem that evokes for me are not really what I want the world to be like. And yet there's something to the idea.

Let's consider a different example. Suppose I educate myself on the ways in which I feel the meat industry is wreaking havoc on animal welfare, the environment, human hunger, or whatever my concerns are. I may rightly feel I have a moral obligation to stop eating meat. I may also feel that I have a duty to educate others on the industry's perils. But what if I start feeling responsible for actually changing other people's minds? That sounds like a slippery slope toward enforcing my will on others, which is how otherwise well-intentioned activists end up becoming terrorists.

Things quickly become murky: suppose I witness somebody kicking a dog, and I feel strongly that it's wrong. Is it my responsibility to stop him? What if there's a crazed gunman about to kill everyone in the building, and I am in a unique position to shoot him and save many lives? If the answer to either of these is that I am justified in taking action, then where is it that the "eco-terrorists" and their ilk are going wrong?

One answer that springs to mind is that killing the gunman and saving the dog will get you labeled a hero, whereas blowing up a Hummer dealership or abortion clinic will get you labeled a wacko (not to mention a felon). The latter is clearly not beneficial to your cause, so such rash actions fail to meet the criterion of practicality. That is, with a modicum of cleverness, you should be able to see that blowing shit up is not effective in helping people see things your way.

But that can't be all there is to it -- it's not that all people who are passionate about a cause can be partitioned into "people who blow shit up" and "people who want to." Well, a third obvious category is "those who seek more reasonable ways to effect change." But what if none of their efforts there seem to have any impact?

I'll stop here with a "to be continued..."

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A subtle fallacy

Earlier, I was watching a lecture on YouTube from the series "Justice: What's The Right Thing To Do?", by a man who I assume is a professor of political or ethical philosophy at Harvard. He begins the lecture by presenting a well-known moral dilemma:

You're the driver of a runaway trolley that is about to kill 5 workers on the track. If you pull a lever, the trolley will redirect to a second track, where only one worker is standing and would just as surely be killed. Do you pull the lever?

In a second scenario, you're on a bridge overlooking an empty runaway trolley that is about to kill 5 people standing on the track. There's a man next to you leaning over the railing, and he's just large enough to derail the train (and be killed in the process). Are you willing to push him over to save the 5?

The vast majority of people answer "yes" to the first and "no" to the second. It also generally takes a lot of reflection to give a cogent answer as to how the different answers can be reconciled. In the video, the audience struggles to reason through the arguments.

The lecturer uses this and other examples to illustrate how complicated moral reasoning can be, and describes why it's so important to not take the "skeptical stance," i.e. throw your hands up and declare the whole set of questions unanswerable. But in stressing the importance of carefully examining the various moral arguments that can be applied, I think he's doing a disservice to his audience: he's artificially magnifying the variance in people's tendencies.

What do I mean? Well, in his trolley car questions, there's an implicit assumption: "what do you choose" is assumed by the audience to be roughly equivalent to "what is the right choice?" He knows that the vast majority of his audience is likely not sociopathic, so that even if two people disagree on their actions, the difference is very unlikely to be caused by one person arguing that more death (or more generally, more harm) is the desired outcome.

So what? Well, if the goal is to debate philosophy from an ivory tower, this is a fine way to do it. If one is simply seeking to improve the condition of the world, however, there are much easier ways to go about it. Namely, notice that the vast majority of problems we face are not caused by differing assumptions on right and wrong; far more often, they stem from our inability to live in accordance with those beliefs.

When examining the causes of the Holocaust, it seems much more relevant to ask about the circumstances under which normal people (e.g., the vast majority of the Nazi army) can be induced to commit atrocities against their natural better judgement than to debate the subtleties of the argument for eugenics.

There are of course legitimate moral disagreements (e.g. abortion) that are relevant to us today, but we can be easily tricked into spending a disproportionate amount of time debating them and forgetting about the fact that we're doing oh-so-badly acting on millions of things we already agree on. The day humanity's greatest challenges stem from the difficulty of choosing between two arguably correct choices will be glorious, indeed.