With an hour this evening, I’d like to touch on a few outstanding topics (outstanding here meaning simply that they have been left standing in line… I use the phrase “outstanding items” quite regularly in my project work and I do wonder whether the people I work with are understanding that in the construction management sense, or as pretentiousness…).
The Expanding Circle
I have begun reading Peter Singer’s The Expanding Circle and it’s been an epiphany, in the sense that I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where I could reliably anticipate every new idea as something that I’ve been forming in my own mind. I suspect most of this was seeded by conversations I’ve heard on Sam Harris’s podcast, but I also believe that my last few blog posts are evidence of a number of authentically derived concepts around ethical systems and universal morality that are nearly aligned with Singer’s book. If anything this is making me feel more confident in my competence for moral reasoning and may encourage me to write more forcefully on these topics.
Essentially, Singer does a great job making the link between sociobiology (the territory of Dawkins) and philosophy, with a focus on the crucial role of reasoning. One concept he has articulated especially well, which I will certainly want to expand upon in future essays, is that the capacity for advanced reasoning in the human brain, at whatever point our genetic variations brought this capacity fully into dominance, was fundamentally the harbinger of ethics, which only exists in societies that need to defend their actions to one another. “Reason”, in its simplest definition, is the capacity to ask “why”. Moral reasoning is an internal questioning of why you value the things you do, while ethical reasoning deals with socially agreed-upon rules. Singer then emphasizes that “rationality” is a specific line of reasoning that deals with “calculation”. As soon as we need to defend our values and actions to others, we need to be able to justify those actions in some general manner, meaning we need to consider the interests of others somewhat equally. As soon as you are measuring and comparing the interests and values of different people in different scenarios, you fundamentally need to be pursuing some method of rationality. And so Singer’s framework squares perfectly with the flowchat I proposed a few posts ago, his book’s focus ultimately being a step I glossed over, the essential “expanding of the circle” of valuation from empathy to compassion.
There is so much rich territory to dive into here which I think would do good for anyone. Fundamentally our current political climate is just a microcosm of an overall lack of ethical reasoning in our societies. I still believe that the essence of our ethical dilemma is “intellectual honesty”, and Singer’s writing is making this clearer in my mind. I am now confident that there is essentially one “ethic”, which is universal well-being, and there are only two real reasons why we aren’t approaching it: lack of intellectual reasoning, and lack of intellectual honesty. I think the solution to the intellectual reasoning problem is progress in education, science, and technology. The solution to the intellectual honesty problem is less clear, more like a question of personal moral strength.
Apologies for the lack of direction of the passages above; I promise that once I finish this book I will formally update my ethical system with serious effort in clarity.
The Blank Slate
In my last post I mentioned one of the great insights out of Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which was that we have hardwired intuitive reasoning in our brains thanks to natural selection. I want to offer a concise analogy here: our brains are essentially like smartphones with really terrible software programs pre-installed, like Internet Explorer, that are terrible at doing what they’re meant to do, but came as part of the package. So what education should do, first and foremost, is uninstall that bad software and install the equivalent of Google Chrome, which not only corrects for serious design flaws in the incumbent software but expands our potential to gain knowledge and solve problems.
This Saturday I got in line for $25 rush tickets for RENT at the Golden Gate Theater in SF about an hour before sale (which was itself two hours before the musical began). There were only 32 tickets at this price and it seemed like I barely got to buy 4 of them, so for those interested in this strategy, I offer the heuristic: arrive at least one hour early for rush tickets (Note that RENT is unique in offering $25 rush tickets; otherwise you have a larger supply of $40 tickets). I had listened to select songs out of the soundtrack in high school, and sort of understood the plot, but was fully satisfied by the whole production on Saturday. Golden Gate Theater doesn’t have an orchestra pit so it appears that all the productions have to come up with a novel way of featuring the instruments on stage (I’ve only seen Hedwig and the Angry Inch otherwise), and I thought the set was quite well designed in its versatility of movement. My overall takeaway was that RENT is as relevant as ever in a place like San Francisco, including the obvious timeliness of questions of protest and livability, and the more universal complexity of intimacy.
This evening I attended an event at SPUR Oakland which featured some native Oakland residents who are in the social enterprise sector, working on topics ranging from local employment to sex trafficking to art incubation. I was hoping to get a more diverse and normal representation of Oakland residents to calibrate my understanding of what matters to the community; the socially progressive elite just doesn’t seem to be representative of the norm. But they raised important questions around minimum wage, gentrification, and inclusivity which, to me, are fundamentally unknowns about mechanisms in urban systems. How exactly does increasing minimum wage affect the community? I’m not interested in dogmatic opinions that align with an unquestioned concern for victims; I want real evidence and reasoning here. A questioner astutely questioned whether a purely dogmatic activism for minimum wage may not have led to adverse effects on employment due to big retailers like Walmart moving out. I would explore that terrain further, asking whether an increase of minimum wage is more addressing a root problem or a symptom, and whether, as a supposedly progressive measure, it is fundamentally flawed without a series of other key measures, like regulation of monopolistic business so that they can’t simply exercise the power of exit, or subsidization of smaller local businesses so they are bearing the cost of minimum wage hikes inadvertently, or simply taking on the perfectly sound conservative goals of reducing “cost disease” in many sectors of our society, so that we don’t need to hike the minimum wage in the first place. Any conversation that does not acknowledge the many facets of urban issues as I have just illustrated may only contribute to the polarization of issues that need to be evidence-based.
While this sci-fi by Neal Stephenson is the genesis of many fundamental tropes of our modern tech culture, as a novel it was mostly trash.
This weekend I watched John Wick Chapter 2 and The Red Turtle. I thoroughly enjoyed John Wick, fully understanding the banality of shoot-em-up films and the seeming hypocrisy of supporting such films in a rampantly violent culture. All I can say is that, if we were to have a substantive ethical education, I think we would be able to consume such films as purely cathartic and escapist thrill rides behind the screen of fiction, without any danger of blurring the lines. I also think the film actually is just brilliant in its creativity and memedom (best scene: surreptitious gunfight with silencers in a crowded One World Trade Center terminal). The Red Turtle, in contrast, was 80 minutes without dialogue and a fantasy story told in minimalist imagery that often felt like a zen rock garden in its stoicism. While beautiful, it simply did not work for me, especially compared to Studio Ghibli films that can be profound without literally having to be a Buddhist-scale test of patience.
A friend of mine in Thailand is writing about creativity, and I will be sharing my thoughts on this fascinating topic shortly!