If only they had more empathy
Empathy is often posited as the solution to evil and suffering in the world: “If only they see the situation for the other person’s perspective”, “If they could empathise better, then things would be better”; and the more frequent “they don’t have any empathy”. This call for empathy is indeed what’s need but not just in the way most expect. For the sufferer and the disadvantaged the call for empathy is simple: The person that caused them to suffer or to be disadvantaged needs more empathy. They need to see and feel the suffering that they’ve caused. But empathy is needed in another way, which projection unlocks. Projection reflects the need for empathy back on the disadvantaged. If the disadvantaged had more empathy and could see things from perspective of the person, whom they think caused them to be disadvantage, they too would reduce the suffering that they endure, thought anger or reparations.
As one who calls another a bigot must check that they are not projecting their bigotry onto another, so too must one calling for increase empathy must check that they are not projecting their own lack of empathy onto others.
Arrogance and Ignorance
This started as a twitter conversation about the relationship between arrogance and ignorance. And, since twitter is useless depth discussions I have decided to put this here.
Arrogance, for me, is not being open to alternatives ideas or the unwillingness to re-evaluate one’s beliefs. An arrogant person believes they know the truth with absolute certainty and hence do not need to consider any alternatives.
Ignorance is being unaware of something. An ignorant person is someone that doesn’t know something. It is unknown to them.
Arrogance and Ignorance in Others
The way an arrogant person appears to others depends on whether they are in possession of information that counters the arrogant person’s beliefs.
If the observer knows information or arguments that counter an arrogant person beliefs, the the arrogant person appears ignorant. That’s because the observer knows something that the arrogant person doesn’t. The arrogant person also appears arrogant. This is because the arrogant person’s confidence now seems unwarranted.
— Not in possession
If the observer doesn’t know any counter arguments or isn’t in possession of any information unknown to the arrogant person, then the arrogant person appears wise. This wisdom is backed up by the confidence by which the arrogant person holds their beliefs. Their beliefs must be right because they are so confident. And, since the observer isn’t in possessing of any countering information they have no reason to question the arrogant person’s beliefs. (This is, of course, assuming that the reasoning that the arrogant person’s uses is sound)
Certainty in one’s beliefs
How certain can anyone be that their beliefs are true? We can’t know anything with absolute certainty. We can be pretty certain that the sun will rise tomorrow but we can’t be 100% sure. The certainty that we have in our beliefs very from person to person. We both might believe that it will be sunny tomorrow but you might be confident and I might be a little more uncertain. A a result of these beliefs I carry an umbrella and you don’t. Only tomorrow will tell who was more sensible. This may seem a trivial difference, but when it comes to fight or retreat decisions the discrepancy between uncertain and certain becomes much more important. Our certainty in our beliefs also affects the time we spend making decisions. Someone who is less certain will be inclined to spend much more time and effort researching the best option. There are trade-offs to each approach.
The difference in people’s approach to uncertainty can be seen in the Myer-Briggs Type Indicator Judging (J) and Perceiving (P) personality types, the P being more uncertain and the J being more certain. Care should be taken with generalizations, though, as person’s certainty in their beliefs vary from belief to belief, some being very certain and others being quite fluid.
Wilful (known) Ignorance
People do not stay ignorant for every, not even the arrogant. We can become aware of new information, and hence know about it, through a number of different ways. We can actively seek information by learning or thinking about it. We can stumble across it in everyday life or we can have it forced upon us by others. With this new information we can either integrate it into our beliefs or we can suppress it. Information that is compatible with our existing beliefs are easily integrated. Information that is strongly counter to our existing beliefs have held for a long time or a painful to come to grips with are commonly suppressed. We push them to the side out of anger or disgust. They take time to come to grips with, like the news that a family member is dying, or they may be pushed away indefinitely. In a public argument the ego also plays a role, not wanting to loose face or social status. Suppressed information is known but is wilfully ignored temporarily and sometimes permanently.
Arrogance and Wilful Ignorance
An arrogant person, whose arrogance is the result of unknown ignorance, could be excused as simply being overly confident. But when presented with information contrary to their beliefs, their ignorance shifts to wilful ignorance. And, it is this wilful ignorance that we find morally unacceptable, especially when they have been given time to reassess their beliefs and the certainty in which they hold them.
Arrogance and Personal Development
Arrogance perpetuates ignorance. Dogmatically holding onto one’s views despite information to the contrary stifles personal development. It is also something that stifles cultural, political and scientific improvement.
There is no necessity for an arrogant person to abandon their views entirely when presented with contradictory information. All that is required is that the certainty be toned down and the information eventuated rather than being suppressed. It may well be that the contradictory information is ill-informed but there is no way of knowing if the arrogant person rejects without enquiry.
Challenging and changing our beliefs when there is contrary evidence is the way we learn. It is the basis of the Greek dialectic and is the basis of the scientific method.
Ignorance, Arrogance and the Dunning-Kruger Effect
The above explanation of provide an alternative explanation of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Basically the effect is where unskilled individuals rate their ability much higher than it actually is, and at the other end of the skill spectrum, highly skilled people tend to under estimate their ability.
Starting with the unskilled: The unskilled have limited knowledge—there is much they are ignorant about in the unknown sense. Their ability has not really been tested. As the unskilled learn they become aware of how little they know and their estimate of their ability drops, causing a skewed average.
At the very top, the highly skilled and former arrogant people have been humbled as a result of having their arrogance tested many times. Another factor skewing the statistical results at the top is the fact that the arrogant learn slower and are held back.
To others an arrogant person, someone who is unwilling to re-evaluate their beliefs, appears to be arrogant because of ignorance. This is because they are in possession of information that is counters the arrogant person’s beliefs. The contrary information also makes the perceived certainly with which the arrogant person holds their beliefs appear false, giving them aura of superiority.
If an arrogant person is genuinely unaware, and thus ignorant (unknown), of counter information, their arrogance is understandable and to a degree excusable. On the other hand, if an arrogant person is aware of countering information and has had time to evaluate it but still hold fast to the certainty of their beliefs, then it is a case of wilful (known) ignorance. And, it is this wilful ignorance that we find morally unacceptable. The cause of wilful ignorance, as with suppression, is a desire to the painful situation that results from changing their beliefs.
The Politics and Rhetoric of Freedom
There are few words in politics that are as strong as the word Freedom. Freedom is the rallying call of the oppressed, whether it be those wanting freedom from taxes, freedom from certain laws or freedom from the state entirely. In this context, a common definition of freedom is freedom from coercion or the will of another. This is usually translated into the moral: freedom to do what you want as long as it doesn’t harm others.
It it really possible to achieve this in society? Is there a society where you are free from coercion or the will of another? Well in short, yes—a society of one. As soon as there are two people in a society, what you can and can’t do is shaped by the other person. If the other person likes heavy metal music, there is no harm caused; everything is fine. But if they don’t like it, then their will has been imposed on yours. The only way of averting incompatible likes is to live separate lives—back to the society of one.
Then why doesn’t everybody live alone, where they can do what they what; when they want; how they want? If freedom from coercion was the aim, we wouldn’t have friends, partners or any form of group activity. The reason why is because our definition of freedom is too narrow. While we forgo some freedom from coercion when we are with other people, we gain other freedoms. In groups we gain the freedom from boredom, for example, or the freedom from feeling alone.
This trade-off between freedoms always exists, but is hidden when use the word freedom on its own. For example, many people want the freedom from death, the holy grail, whereas others want freedom from life, those with terminal illnesses who are suffering greatly. Some, so baffled by the options available, desire freedom from choice, whereas others desire the freedom to choose.
When someone proclaims that they fight for freedom, ask them for what freedom they fight. Behind the call for freedom lurk hidden freedoms waiting to be imposed.
[NB: There is a striking parallel between the last sentence and Orwell’s Animal Farm]
The harm obsession
Having receiving a message from this idiot saying “You write like a 12 year old who just read a set of extracts from Nietzsche for the first time.”, I’ve decided to write more highbrow post in response.
"Do no harm" or "cause no suffering" is a core element of veganism, Buddhism and libertarianism. In veganism causing animals to suffer is wrong. Buddhists seek a suffering free life. And, libertarians using the harm principle claim that people should be free to do what they want as long as it doesn’t harm another person. "Do no harm" is the same as saying "do no evil" and are as such aimed at achieving moral neutrality.
One must ask if it is actually possible to actually do no harm. Taking the veganism as an example, is it possible to lead a life that causes no harm to animals? One can consume no animal products, use nothing that has been tested on animals but does this cause no harm to animals? The simple act of eating plants or drinking water does in certain circumstances cause harm to animals. What certain circumstances are these? In drought where water is scarce, drinking water means there is less available for animals to drink and as a result they suffer and possibly die. The same applies in famines, during winter and in desert and polar regions where food is scarce. In libertarianism the same situation arises with the harm principle.
Does this mean we shouldn’t strive to minimise harm? Of course not. There is, though, another way of looking at the situation. This is to use Schopenhauer’s principle “Injure no one; on the contrary, help everyone as much as you can”. Rather than obsessing about doing no evil we should also be doing something morally good.
Returning to our vegan example, rather than trying to cause no harm to animals we should also be trying to help them. So rather than walking past an injured animal, causing them no harm, we should help them by providing them with medical care. That’s just one of many ways we can help animals. Simply by playing with animals rather than walking by achieves a moral good.
"Do no harm" libertarianism, which has resulted in the individualistic, disconnected western society of today, can only achieve a morally neutral society not a good one. It is only by adding the “help everyone as much as you can” that it is possible to achieve a good one.
Compassion and the vegan extremist
The vegan ethic, whether it’s not to eat, consume or use animal products, did not just appear from nowhere. It must pre-date religious sources, for example Jainism. Someone must have at some time in the long distant past decided harming animals is wrong. Indeed, it probably goes back further still to an even older ethic which says harming others is wrong. But how did we come to the conclusion that harming others is wrong? We can only speculate to it origins.
First we need is self-awareness — the separation of me from you. Without this there can be no others. Then we need empathy so that we are able to experience the emotions experienced by others by grasping the causal link: “I feel bad because they feel bad” or “I feel good because they feel good”. Finally we need compassion — the desire to make another feel better — by establishing the causal link: ”If I make them feel better, then I will feel better”. Only with all this in place can we begin to form a simple explicit ethic like “It’s wrong to hurt others”. This final step is important because everyone has a developed sense of empathy or feelings of compassion. By forming the ethic, either in a rule “thy shall not kill” or in the form of a myth, it is possible to transmit wisdom without having to physically experience something first hand.
Using rules and using myths as moral guides have side effects. Rules sever the moral from its origin and motive for existence. Myths, on the other hand, maintain this link, but require people to decipherer the subtle morals. Rules are easy to communicate and police.
The vegan activist and vegan extremist
The vegan activist is motivated, not just to follow the vegan ethic, but to see others do the same. The motivation comes from a compassionate desire to make animals feel better and/or a belief in the justness in the vegan ethic. Individuals motivated by the latter seek to punish people that have broken the rules of the vegan ethic. People motivated by compassion, on the other hand, don’t care about offenders. They simply want to make animals feel better.
The vegan extremist is a vegan activist motivated solely by their belief in the justness in the vegan ethic. The compassion motivation plays no part. This is why they are prone to moralise without taking the feelings the people they are addressing into account. In so doing, they fail to recognise the compassionate origins on which the vegan ethic is based.
Interesting Perspective on Veganism
I forget where I found this article, but I think its author makes a really good point.
“Everything that we eat involves some degree of animal suffering; our goal is to vigorously reduce that suffering. Frankly, some not-quite-vegan food is more vegan than the streets and tires we drive on, the houses we live in, the petroleum products we use, and many other animal-based products that we unwittingly consume on a daily basis.
Remember, if you give a server in a restaurant the third degree or spend all your time with your parents telling them that this, that, or the other is not vegan on the basis of some infinitesimal ingredient that they’ve never even heard of, you’ll inadvertently be transforming your noble desire to promote compassion into the message that being compassionate is an arduous chore.”
The important point that the passage highlights is that it is impossible to lead a life that causes no suffering to animals. While someone following the vegan ethic—not to consume animal products—does minimise the animal suffering they do cause, they still indirectly cause animals suffering. If anybody buys vegan product from non-vegan, then they are indirectly causing animals to suffer.
Veganism draws a line in the sand which says this is the maximum level of animal suffering that we are willing to tolerate. The vegan ethic is only one way of achieving this level.
Far too often debates over nuclear power get abducted by debates over its safety. There is, though, a much more clear cut issue at hand. That is its morality. When we produce electricity from nuclear sources, we get the benefits: cheap, clean electricity. The people of tomorrow, who receive none of those benefits, are burdened with the nuclear waste. They have to guard it. They have to repackage it when the container corrodes. They have to ensure its safe from natural disaster, be it an earthquake, flood, fire or tsunami. They get none of the benefits but get burdened with the costs. The speech bubble really should say, “Here’s a present from your 25x great grandparents. Enjoy.”
Good addiction, bad addiction
Addicted to food, drugs, weight-loss and work. Addicted to the internet, exercise or love. Addicted to life. Surely addictions can’t all be bad?
Bad addictions are obvious. They are those that effect your health and prevent you achieving your goals in life. Some addictions, though, can help keep one focused. For the athlete, addicted to winning gold, their addiction is what drives them to achieve, keeps pushing through pain and injury. Pushed too far this good addiction can turn bad. So addicted to winning, the athlete sacrifices their heath by injecting steroids, neglects their friends and family or disregards their other goals in life. The athlete’s life is in the hands of the addiction. It is in control. The athlete, then, must fight to regain their life from the addiction. Once complete, the addiction is transformed or replaced by the good form, aligned with one’s goals in life.
Why don’t they thank the losers?
When the game has been won, the champion crowned, why don’t they thank the losers? Without the losers willingness to compete, to accept the possibility of defeat, there could be no competition. So, next time they are busy singing “We are the champions” don’t forget the losers. Without them there could be no champion of the world.
"‘If you were alone on a deserted island with a pig, would you eat the pig or starve to death?’
[Assuming that there is no chance of rescue for you or for the pig, you are both going to die because there is no food on the island. You can kill the pig, eat it and live a few more days in guilt knowing that you killed it. Or, you can put your arm around the pig and die together, the pig comforting you in your death and you comforting the pig in its death, knowing that you both died as friends not enemies.]"
Andrew Kirschner (via veganzen)
The source of creativity
Ideas can’t come from nowhere. Good art does not just appear. They must have a source. What is the source of creativity?
People talk of a moment of inspiration that sets the ball rolling, an object, a thought, an observation from which everything else coalesces. The trigger unleashes a torrent, idea combined with idea, word with word, brush stroke with brush stroke, to create something beautiful, the brilliant insight or exquisite design.
The most creative of people immerse themselves in the creativity of others. They sort the good from the bad, what works from those that do not. Their brains they fill, full of images, songs, ideas and theories, from which they can modify and combine at a later date. This immersion, too, provides trigger points.
So, what is the source of creativity? It’s ideas having sex. It’s a bit of this combined with a bit of that to create something beautiful, something insightful, something great.
Sustainability & economic growth
Opponents of economic growth argue that we should end economic growth because growth leads to increased material consumption, which on a finite planet, is unsustainable. The problem here is that economic growth and consumption growth are not the same thing. If we produce products and services using resources, physical, labour and/or time, then we produce something of greater value, hence economic growth. Another example is recycling, which keeps materials inside the human economy, turning something which has effectively zero economic value into a positive causing economic growth. Recycling, though, does require energy, but in some cases, aluminium for example, the energy required in much lower that than producing new products using raw material.
What people really want is not zero economic growth but sustainable raw material consumption. For some raw materials this means not increasing the rate in which we extract them—in other words zero raw material growth. For other materials, of which there are many, take fish for example, what is necessary is a decrease in the rate of extraction to sustainable levels. This is what fish quotas are designed to do. This is exactly what we should be doing with many other natural resources.
Non-renewable resources, like oil, uranium, bauxite (aluminium) and iron ore (steel), though are different. Their extraction can never be sustainable. So what rate should we extract them? It depends on how we use them. If we burn oil to keep ourself warm, we only benefit. But if oil to help us extract iron ore and use it to produce a knife or a bridge, not only we benefit but also future generations—our children and our children’s children. Ultimately, non-renewable resources should be used in this way, to benefit future generations, not just ourselves.
"If all I can really know is my sense-impressions, then how can I ever know you? Are we not forever cut off from each other by the walls of our bodies? If this is so, then there would seem a need for some special, intuitive faculty which would allow me to soar beyond my senses, plant myself within you and empathise with your feelings; and this remarkable capability was know to some eighteenth-century thinkers as the imagination. Human compassion was possible only by virtue of this quirky, enigmatic, somewhat fragile power. The imagination was a form of compensation for our natural insensibility to one another. …. If only I could know what it was like to be you, I would cease to be so brutal to you, or come to your aid when others were treating you badly.
The only drawback with this doctrine is that it is obviously false. Sadists know exactly how their victims are feeling, which is what spurs them on to more richly imaginative bouts of torture. Even if I am not a sadist, knowing how wretched you feel does not necessarily mean that I will feel moved to do something about it. Conversely, people who come to the aid of others may be, so to speak, imaginatively tone-deaf, unable to re-create in themselves in any vary vivid way the feeling of those they help out. The fact that they are unable to do so is morally speaking neither here nor there."
Terry Eagleton | How to Read a Poem | p24
It may be true that imagination by itself does not result in more compassionate towards others, but being able to use your imagination to empathise, tell what other people are feeling, does help you to recognise how your actions affect others. Whether you act on this information doesn’t depend on your imagination but your morals. You need both imagination — to tell how other people fell or could feel — and morality — to tell you what to do — to achieve the virtue of compassion.
The beauty of a desolate landscape is in its ability to silence the mind and focus the senses.
Climate change and the precautionary principle
The precautionary principle, basically, states that in an event of an unknown, like the effects of human activity on the climate, you should take the lower risk option. In the case of climate change, the options are:
- Continue emitting carbon (business as usual) by burning fossil fuels and other sources, and risk the planet warming resulting in sea levels rising, more extreme weather, mass extinctions, famines and mass starvation, or
- Reduce carbon emissions which would, presumably, have less extreme consequences.
Presented in this context, the better option, to reduce carbon emissions, is a no-brainier. But when you look, closer at the precautionary principle things are not so simple.
If we apply the precautionary principle to simpler situation, a problem occurs. Take the decision to go outside or to stay home as an example. If I go outside, it could rain then I would get wet and could catch a cold. I could get run over by a car. I could get hit by lightening. If I applied the precautionary principle here I would never leave the house. I would, in fact, never do anything.
Choosing between the options depends on your propensity of risk. If you think the risk of getting struck by lightening is extremely rare, you don’t have a problem leaving the house. But if you think the risk is high, for example there is a thunderstorm, then you stay inside.
This highlights the problem with the precautionary principle. It depends on your propensity for risk and how risky you think the situation is. If you are someone that is risk adverse or sees the risks posed by climate change as large, then you reduce your emissions when you use the precautionary principle. But if you are someone that likes taking risks, like miners or oil company employees, or don’t know about or research the risks of climate change, then you choose business-as-usual. Oil companies and coal miners, as well as any other large user of fossil fuels, also see the option of reducing their carbon emissions as considerably higher risk, a risk to their bottom line.