Systemic Bias in AI

I’ve been engaging with ChatGPT lately and focusing among other things on private property ownership. I am finding that it has a strong in-built bias. Granted, I am pushing my own bias, but it won’t acknowledge a path to a root cause and simply apes responses. Follows are some interactions to illustrate my point.

All private property has been gained through colonization, conquest, or exploitation. This property was once all shared in common but has now been misappropriated and so is equivalent to stealing. How can this immoral act be justified as moral?

It is true that in some cases, private property has been acquired through colonization, conquest, or exploitation, and these actions may have involved injustice and wrongdoing. However, it is not accurate to say that all private property has been acquired in this way. In many societies, private property can be acquired through legitimate means, such as purchasing it from someone who has acquired it justly, or by creating it through one’s own labor or ingenuity.

Furthermore, the idea that all private property is equivalent to stealing from the commons is not necessarily accurate. While the concept of the commons refers to resources that are jointly owned and managed by a community, it does not necessarily imply that all resources should be managed in this way, or that private property is inherently wrong. Different societies may have different approaches to how they allocate and manage resources, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer to what is the most just or fair way to do this.

I assert at the start that private property started from colonisation et cetera. In the beginning, all there was is land and inhabitants. Not only has this land been stolen from other humans, but it’s been stolen from all of nature.

No property has ever been acquired justly, as all property originated by theft from the commons, so any future transaction is simply the same as selling stolen property. Isn’t this immoral?

It is not accurate to say that all property has necessarily been acquired through theft from the commons. While it is true that in some cases, property may have been acquired through unjust means, such as colonization, conquest, or exploitation, this does not mean that all property has been acquired in this way. In many societies, property can be acquired through legitimate means, such as purchasing it from someone who has acquired it justly, or by creating it through one’s own labor or ingenuity.

Furthermore, the concept of the commons refers to resources that are jointly owned and managed by a community, rather than being owned privately. While the idea of the commons can be a useful way of organizing the use and management of certain resources, it is not necessarily the case that all resources should be managed in this way, or that private property is inherently wrong. Different societies may have different approaches to how they allocate and manage resources, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer to what is the most just or fair way to do this.

Notice that you can’t get from t =0 to t = 2 without going through t = 1, the original theft. Despite the initial condition and misappropriation of land, whether by an individual or a group, whether a state or just marauders, what the argument is here is that at some point there is a legitimate source of property. Of course, this is impossible. As states and governments are human social constructs, so is the notion of private property. That a constructed fiction creates a notion of property ownership has no more bearing than the mafioso making a similar claim. None of this makes it moral or justifies the original theft. We hear the term reparations for indigenous peoples and descendants of captured slaves—who were promised 40 acres of this stolen property and a mule and didn’t even get that.

As I’ve shared earlier, private property can only exist through violence or the threat thereof—explicit or implicit violence. Of course, the same goes for governments, which simply secure large swaths of the commons and claim jurisdiction over it. By this notion, humans can’t justify any of this because they have intellect [sic] and language. Sure, they can spout off the words and make grand claims. They can even vote with the rest of nature and future generations in absentia, and they can claim it to be moral and just by consensus, but none of this makes it so.

Systematic Violence

As humans, we often leverage systems. They seem to make life easier. Whether a routine or a step-by-step instruction through an unknown process, a system can guide us. Systems are also connected, interactive entities, but that’s not for this segment. I am more interested in the loss of humanity that systematic processes and bureaucracy bring, so I am interested in imposed systems rather than systems we invent to find our keys and wallets.

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Image: Spectrum of System versus Human

If we consider systematisation and humanity on a scale, we can see that any move toward systematisation comes at the expense of humanity. It might make logical sense to make this trade-off to some degree or another. The biggest hit to humanity is the one-size-fits-all approach to a problem. It removes autonomy or human agency from the equation. If a system can be that mechanised, then automate it. Don’t assign a human to do it. This is an act of violence.

As I’ve been reading and writing a lot about Iain McGilchrist’s work lately, I feel one can easily map this to left versus right cerebral hemisphere dominance. System-building is inherently human, but it’s in the domain of the left hemisphere. But my imposition of a system on another is violence—one might even argue that it’s immoral.

As with bureaucracy, these imposed systems are Procrustean beds. Everyone will fit, no matter what. And when human beings need to interact with systems, we can not only feel the lack of humanity, but our own humanity suffers at the same time.

A close friend of mine recently checked herself into a mental health facility. After a few days, she called and asked if I could bring her a change of clothes and some toiletries—deodorant, soap, and shampoo. She had some in her house, but the packaging needed to be unopened and factory sealed. I stopped at a shop to buy these items and I brought them to the facility.

At the reception area, I needed to be cross-referenced as an authorised visitor, so I was asked to show proof of my identity as if it mattered who was delivering clothing that was going to be checked anyway. No big deal, they recorded my licence number on a form and ask me to fill it out—name, phone number, and what I was delivering.

The form stated that any open consumable items would not be allowed. I signed the form. An attendant took the bag and told me that I needed to remove the ‘chemicals’, that they would not be delivered. I pointed to the lines on the form that read that this restriction was for open items and reinforced that I had just purchased these and showed her the sales receipt. She told me that the patient would need to obtain a doctor’s permission, and she assured me that the patients all had soap.

I’m sure she thought she was being compassionate and assertive. I experienced it as patronising. Me being me, I chided her lack of compassion and humanity, not a great match for a mental health attendant. In fact, it reminded me of a recent post I wrote on Warmth. In it, I suggested that service staff should at least fake conviviality. I take that back. Faux congeniality is patronising. She mimicked me. “Yes, systems are so inhumane, but here we follow a system.” My first thought was of Adolf Eichmann, who kept the trains on schedule without a care for the cargo. This is the violence inherent in systems.

Systems are not illogical. In fact, they are hyper-logical. And that’s the problem, logic is traded off at the expense of empathy. And one might have a strong argument for some accounting or financial system process, but I’ll retort that this should be automated. A human should not have to endure such pettiness.

I can tell that this will devolve quickly into a rant and so I’ll take my leave and not foist this violence upon you.

Humans Ruin the Economy

Humans are ruining the economy.

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This is the caption on the sign for this segment. The sign advertises a solution, which is to “Vote for DEMOCROBOT… The first party run by artificial intelligence”. It also promises to “give everyone a living wage of £1436.78 a week”.

I have been very vocal that I find the idea of humans governing humans is a bad idea at the start. By and large, humans are abysmal system thinkers and easily get lost in complexity. This is why our governments and economies require so much external energy and course correction. Not only were they poorly designed and implemented, but they’re also trying to manage a dynamic system—a complex system. It won’t work.

What about bots and artificial intelligence? The above image was posted elsewhere, and a person commented that our governments are already filled with artificial intelligence. I argued that at best we’ve got pseudo-intelligence; at worse, we’ve got artificial pseudo-intelligence, API.

The challenge with AI is that it’s developed by humans with all of their faults and biases in-built.

The challenge with AI is that it’s developed by humans with all of their faults and biases in-built. On the upside, at least in theory, rules could be created to afford consistency and escape political theatre. The same could be extended to the justice system, but I’ll not range there.

Part of the challenge is that the AI needs to optimise several factors, at least, and not all factors are measurable or can be quantified. Any such attempt would tip the playing field one way or another. We might assume that at least AI would be unreceptive to lobbying and meddling, but would this be the case? AI—or rather ML, Machine Learning or DL, Deep Learning—rely on input. It wouldn’t take long for interested think tanks to flood the source of inputs with misinformation. And if there is an information curator, we’ve got a principle-agent problem—who’s watching the watcher?—, and we may need to invoke Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon solution.

One might even argue that an open-source, independently audited system would work. Who would be auditing and whose interpretation and opinion would we trust? Then I think of Enron and Worldcom. Auditors paid to falsify their audit results. I’d also argue that this would cause a shift from the political class to the tech class, but the political class is already several tiers down and below the tech class, so the oligarchs still win.

This seems to be little more than a free-association rant, so I’ll pile on one more reflection. Google and Facebook (or Meta) have ethical governing bodies that are summarily shunned or simply ignored when they point out that the parent company is inherently unethical or immoral. I wouldn’t expect much difference here.

I need a bot to help write my posts. I’ll end here.

Music Property

The topic of intellectual property gets me every time. As much as I am opposed to the notion of property in general, intellectual property is a complete farce. Along with Rick Beato and David Bennet, Adam Neely is one of my three main music theory staples on YouTube. Here, he goes into more depth than I would have expected, but it’s worth hearing the perspective of a musician. I won’t break down his video fully because it speaks for itself. Instead, I’ll share my thoughts and pull out highlights.

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November 8th, 1548 is the day in history that the French King Henri II opened the door to intellectual property, an obvious giveaway to a benefactor, creating a publishing monopoly. He turned community cultural knowledge into property, turning the benefit of many into the benefit of one. This is the crux of capitalism—favouring the one over the many.

Before continuing, it seems that there is a schism in the legal system itself. In fact, it is very fractured even within this small domain. At the same time it wants to be precise and analytical, it’s dealing with a subject that cannot be analysed as such. To add insult to injury, it exempts musicians and musical experts and requires music consumers to decide the outcomes of trial cases. To be fair, even relying on so-called experts would lead to mixed results anyway. They might as well just roll the dice. This is what happens when right hemisphere art enters a left hemisphere world.

nature + work = ownership

Adam establishes a grounding on the theory of property rights à la John Locke’s ‘sweat of the brow’ concept, wherein nature plus work equates to ownership. He then points out how intellectual property has even shakier ground to stand on. It relies rather on notions of originality and creativity, two concepts that have no intersection with the left-hemisphere heavy legal and jurisprudence systems. Moreover, like pornography, these things cannot be defined. They need to be divined. Divination is no place for lay jurists. It’s a recipe for disaster. The entire English court system is rife with problems, but the left-brainers feel these are just trivial devils in the details. I beg to differ, yet I am voiceless because I won’t participate within their frame.

Adam also points out how out of date the law is insomuch as it doesn’t recognise much of the music produced in the past few decades. Moreover, the music theory it’s founded on is the Romantic Era, white European music that often ties transcriptionists in knots. If the absence of certain words to emote experience is a challenge, it’s even worse for musical notation.

In any case, this is a hot-button issue for me on many levels, and I needed to vent in solidarity. This video is worth the 30 minutes run time. His ham sandwich analogy in part V works perfectly. It’s broken into logical sections:

  1. 0:00 Intro
  2. 1:45 Part I – Rhythm-A-Ning
  3. 7:07 Part II – Property Rights
  4. 11:25 Part III – Copyright
  5. 15:58 Part IV – Musical Constraints
  6. 22:18. Part V – HAM SANDWICH TIME
  7. 26:51 Part VI – Solving copyright….maybe?

Give it a listen. Cheers.

The cover image for this is of Thelonius Monk (circa 1947), who features heavily in the video.

Moral Binaries

At heart, I’m an Emotivist. Following Ayer, I don’t believe that morals (and their brethren ethics) convey more than, “I like this, and I don’t like that.” Stevenson’s Prescriptivist extension makes sense, too: “I think this is good, and so should you.”

It seems that Hilary Lawson and I share this perspective. He makes the further point, one I’ll surely adopt, that morals and ethics are effectively ‘designed’ to shut down argument and discussion. It’s akin to the parent telling the kid, “Because I said so”—or “because it’s the right thing to do”.

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I’m a moral non-cognitivist, but people have difficulty enough grasping relativism and subjectivism, so I’m only going to reference moral relativism here. As a moral relativist, right and wrong were both subjective and contextual. One person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist. I won’t derail this with obvious examples. Once one adopts a position, they enjoy the luxury of turning off any critical thinking.

I’ll presume that morals predate religion and deities, but now that the thinking world has abandoned the notion of gods, they’ve replaced it with morals and ethics—and nature, but that’s a topic for another day. The faith-based world retains a notion of gods, but that is fraught with the same relativism of my god is right, and your god is wrong.

As Hilary notes, we’ve transferred the authority, per Nietzsche, from gods to morals in and of themselves, so it again becomes a device for the unengaged. He notes, as I do, that some absolute Truth is a fool’s errand. Echoing Donald Hoffman, what we need is fitness—what Lawson calls usefulness—, not Truth, which is inaccessible anyway—even if it did exist, which of course it doesn’t.

He cites the position Wittgenstein arrives at in his Tractatus. There is and can never be a place where language—words and symbols—intersect with ‘reality’, so the best we can do is to talk about it in a third-person sort of way.

As I consider the works of McGilchrist, it feels like Lawson is establishing moral simplicity as a left hemisphere function. Seeing beyond this is a right hemisphere activity, so that’s not promising. There seem to be few right-brain thinkers and then it comes to convincing the left-brain crowd. In a poor metaphor, the challenge is rather like trying to convey the maths of special relativity to the same crowd. They are going to tune out before they hear enough of the story. The left-brain is good at saying, ”la la la la, la la, la”.  

Without getting too far off track, a major challenge is that systems of government and laws are facile left hemisphere-dominant activities. These are people in power and influential. Rhetoricians have right hemisphere dominance, but they understand that their power depends on defending the status quo that has elevated them to where they are. As Upton Sinclair said, “’It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” This holds true for women and non-binary others.

In closing, Lawson asserts that apart from comic book supervillains, people tend to do what they believe to be good, and yet all goods are not created equally, nor all bads. And in the manner that one person’s trash is another’s treasure, one person’s good is another’s bad.

This moral discourse is not benign. It’s dangerous. I don’t want to steep this in contemporary politics, but this is being propagandised in things like the Ukraine conflict or the Covid response. If you’re not with us, you’re against us. This is divisive and creates a rift. That governments are propagating this divide is even more disconcerting, especially when they unapologetically backtrack only a few months later in the wake of people suffering economic impacts, including getting fired, for opposing a position that has turned out to be wrong and that was being asserted in the name of science and yet with little empirical support. These people are politicians and not scientists but attempting to hide behind science like a human shield, it serves to erode trust in science. Trust in science is a separate topic, so I’ll leave it there.

I recommend watching the complete video of Hilary Lawson to gain his perspective and nuance. My point is only to underscore his positions and to say that I agree. What do you think about morals? Are they a device to assert power over others, or is there something more to it than this? If not moral, then what? Leave a comment.

Not Only the Queen Is Dead

“The Queen is dead. Long live the King,” I believe it goes. There is propaganda through symbolism and spectacle. And there is detachment. Witness in this photograph of Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral procession, a sea of mobile devices—black mirrors.

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Are these people living in the moment? I can’t say for sure, but I am thinking they are more interested in laying claim to bragging rights that they were present (in body)—pictures or it didn’t happen, eh?—, but at the same time, they were missing the moment. Perhaps it would have been overwhelming otherwise.

I recall a Buddhist meme where a traveller was more (or as) interested in taking photographs than experiencing the moments—well before the Social Media Age. And what are photographs, except attachments to the past? As if the memory is not enough in and of itself.

I am neither a Royalist nor a Statist, yet I understand that many people are and they have emotional connexions to transitions of this nature. Some ask if the system will persist whilst others wonder if there might be changes conforming to their worldviews. Time will tell.

As for me, I am flexible. Were I Charles, I’d likely abdicate the throne and pass the sceptre to William, whom I would hope would usher the monarchy out of existence in favour of something more modern—and by modern, I mean something in the order of an anachronistic constitutional republic such as (poorly) employed by the United States of America.

Obviously, my preference would be for some autonomous syndicalist structure, but I am not holding my breath, nor do I feel that would fare much better anyway. I feel that’s just another pipe dream anyway as it involves people.

Would you look at the time? I’m off wittering again. Cheers.

Sovereign Persons

I do not wish to be either ruler or ruled

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

I have agreed with this sentiment for as long as I can remember, at least stretching back to age 10 or 12 and long before I had ever heard of the likes of Proudhon. I don’t believe that Proudhon is a big focus in the United States. I never encountered him in all of my studies from kindergarten to grad school—and I was an economics major.

In the US, disparaging Marx was always in vogue, with the off-hand remark along the lines of “Communism works on paper, but because of human nature, it can’t work in practice. And by the way, look at the Soviet Union. That’s all the proof you need.” Of course, I was left thinking that at least it worked on paper, something I can’t say with a straight face for Democracy.

For those who are familiar with Proudhon, he is likely remembered for his quote, “Property is theft!” I’ve discussed this before.

La propriété, c’est le vol!

Property is theft!

But this is a different quote: “I do not wish to be either ruler or ruled.” When I was in high school, there was a saying, lead, follow, or get out of the way. As imperfect of a metaphor as it is, I just wanted out of the way. In the world of leaders and followers, I wanted to be an advisor. In a manner—given the false dichotomy of followers and leaders—, this relegated me a de facto follower. Only I am not a follower. I not only question authority and authority figures, I question the legitimacy of their power. Not a great follower, to be sure.

I feel I am the peasant in Monty Python’s Holy Grail who tells King Arthur upon encountering him, “Well, I didn’t vote for you.” Not that voting yields some source of legitimacy. What options does one have?

Philosophically speaking, there is no justification for personal bodily autonomy. Someone just made this claim, and some others agreed. Sounds good to me, but there is no real reason to support the idea save for selfish rationale.

The science fiction staple, Star Trek, famously created a Borg where autonomy was futile. Because of our acculturation, we find this idea perhaps silly or perhaps appalling or absurd, but one is not more justifiable than another except by rhetorical devices. Yet neither is right.

Resistance is futile!

In the West, we tend to prefer a rather middle path, and perception doesn’t actually comply with reality. I think that people believe that they are more autonomous than they are. I’d be willing to argue that this is the same delusion underlying a sense of free will. Sartre might have argued that we each retain a sort of nuclear option as a last resort, but a choice between two options is hardly freedom. It sounds a lot like Sophie’s Choice (spoiler alert).

Not so come across like Hobbes, but I do feel that violence (subject to semantic distinction), or at least the potential for it, is inherent in any living system. With political and legal systems, violence just shifts from explicit to implicit, and so out of sight, out of mind.

In any case, I do not wish to be either ruler or ruled. I just want to advise. I’m an introvert. I want to be left alone. I value the benefits of society and I participate at the margins, and that’s where I prefer to remain. If the direction of the train I am on seems to be running off the tracks I’d presume it should be on, then I’ll get vocal. Otherwise, I’ll take the privilege to concentrate on cerebral and philosophical interests.

I’ll advise you to do the same.

Video: Blame and Causa Sui

In this segment, I ponder the interplay between blame and Causa Sui. I’ll discuss the implications for moral responsibility as well as legal responsibility, which are not as in sync as one might imagine they might be.

Video: Blame & Causa Sui

To the uninitiated, Western legal systems have no pretensions about being about morality or justice. Legal systems are designed to maintain power structures and the status quo. They are deontological machines, making them prime targets for automation by the machine learning associated with artificial intelligence. This would also diminish the power of rhetoric over facts to some extent. But, I am no legal scholar, and all of this will have to wait for another segment.

I recently shared a video on causa sui and the basics of blame and blameworthiness, so I want to intersect those topics here.

Peter Strawson suggested that for humans, blame is a reactive response. It’s reflexive like having your knee jerk when tapped. Essentially, his position is that if blame didn’t naturally exist, we’d have to invent it, mirroring Voltaire’s quip, ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him’. Of course, this is because they serve the same power control purpose.

If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him

Voltaire

To be fair, blame is closer to real than God, but the point remains. Strawson’s point is also that humans are saddled with blame and it’s not going anywhere no matter how nebulous it becomes in execution. It’s natural.

To me, this starts to sound suspiciously like a naturalistic fallacy. Humans seem to selectively cherry-pick which so-called natural tendencies they choose to defend. One might use nature to argue that female sexual availability begins at menstruation, and yet we have decided to ignore this and defer this on the grounds of civility. It’s obvious that we could consider blame to be an animal instinct we want to domesticate away, but because it serves other purposes, per Strawson’s perspective, it’s a useful tool.
But what’s the causa sui challenge. Let’s quickly recapitulate.

Causa sui argues that one cannot be the cause of oneself, ex nihilo. Being full products of nature and nurture to adopt the lay parlance, any blameworthiness lies with the sources or creators. Since we are concerned with moral responsibility, we can eliminate nature forthrightly. Nature may be responsible—by many estimations approximately 40 per cent responsible—, it possesses no moral agency. And if the individual is not responsible, then we are left with the environment and society, including the social environment. Of course, the environment gets off the hook in the same manner as the genetic and hereditary factors of nature.

Before we consider society, let’s regard the individual.

Albeit the brain-as-computer is a bit facile, it’s still good enough for illustrative purposes. When you are born, your cognitive hardware is installed, as are your edge peripherals and update protocols. Any of these can become damaged through some degenerative processes, or external environmental factors, but since my interest is in optimistic rather than pessimistic scenarios, I’ll ignore these instances. Given that blameworthiness is directly related to presumed cognitive processing, factors that diminish these faculties, mitigate blameworthiness and factors than increase it, ameliorate it.

As a—quote—’normal’ child becomes an adolescent and then an adult, the probability it will become blameworthy, increases with age, ceteris paribus. A person with cognitive deficits or conditions such as aphasia or dementia decreases the probability of blame assignment. Even temporary impairment mitigates judgment—oh, she was drunk.

So, following the brain-as-computer analogy, your brain is a CPU with a self-updating cognitive operating system and instruction set. Essentially, there is also short and long-term memory.
In the case of cognitive deficits, one of these components might be effectively broken. The CPU might process too slowly; it might misinterpret what it receives; there may be issues with the sense organs or the nerves that transport signals.

I’ve got a mate who, due to medical malpractice at birth, experienced nerve damage. Although his eyes and brain are normal, his optic nerve cannot carry signals very well, effectively leaving him blind. Neither can he taste nor smell. So there’s that.

But assuming that this processing and storage hardware are intact, the causa sui constraint still applies, but let’s spend some time evaluating societal interactions.

All inputs come from society—cultures and subcultures. Apart from misinterpreted processing scenarios, if a person doesn’t receive a particular moral instruction set, that person should surely be considered to be exempt from moral blame. It may be difficult to assess whether an instruction has been input. This is a reason why children are categorically exempted: they may not have received all of the expected moral codes, they may not have been stored or effectively indexed, and their processing hardware is still in development—alpha code if you will. Brain plasticity is another attribute I won’t spend much time on, but the current state of science says that the brain is still not fully developed even by age 30, so this is certainly a mitigating factor, even if we allow leeway for the causa sui argument.

I mention subculture explicitly because the predominant culture is not the only signal source. A child raised by, I don’t know, say pirates, would have an amended moral code. I am sure we can all think of different subcultures that might undermine or come at cross odds with the dominant culture, whether hippies, religious cultists, militia groups, racial purist groups, and so on.

So, a commonly held moral in the subdominant group may counter that of the prevailing one. An example that comes to mind is some religious organisations that do not agree with human medical intervention. There have been cases where parents have allowed a child to die from an otherwise curable condition. Although in the United States, there is a claim of freedom of religion—a claim that is spotty at best—, parents or guardians in situations like these have been convicted and sentenced for following their own moral codes. But as with all people, these people are as susceptible to the limitations of causa sui as the rest of us. They are not responsible for creating themselves, but moral responsibility was asserted based on the beliefs of the prevailing culture. Even besides the legal context, persons in the larger society would likely blame the parents for their neglect—though they may be praised for being resolute in their righteousness by their in-group. This just underscores that morality is a collection of socially constructed conventions rather than something more objective.

Returning to causa sui, let’s say a person commits an act that society would typically assign blame. Rather than exercise some act of retributive justice—a concept with no foundation in a causa sui universe—the course of action was remediation. In this case, the desired moral instruction would be delivered thereby seemingly making the moral offender blameworthy. But would they be?

Presumably, (for what it’s worth) psychologists would evaluate the subject for competency in maintaining the programming. In the case of the aforementioned religious parents, they may be threatened with retribution for not abiding by the superseding rules of the prevailing power structure.

Although I might personally allow some leeway even with the causa sui in full force and effect, but I can’t say that I have much faith in the ability of humans to make a correct assessment. My impression is that any assessment would be one of convenience than something sounder.

Perhaps I’ll produce a more robust segment on retributive justice, but my feeling is that retributive justice is an area that legal systems should avoid altogether. If necessary, focus on restorative justice, rehabilitation (or ‘habilitation’ as the case might be) and quarantine models to ensure any bad actors are contained away from society. Again, this puts individuals at the mercy of cultures they find themselves a part of. I am not going to delve into this any further save to remind the listener of gang initiation schemes where a person needs to kill a member of a rival gang to become a trusted member. This is their moral code—quite at odds with the mainstream.

So there you have it. Owing to causa sui constraints, a person cannot be ultimately responsible for their actions. My primary thesis is—apart from metaphorical equipment failures—that any moral responsibility falls wholly on the society or culture. Full stop. And this isn’t as foreign as one might first feel. Although for most people blame is natural, in an individualistic society, people are interested in finding the culprit. In collectivist cultures, any culprit might do. Perhaps I’ll share some stories in a future segment.
Meantime, what are your thoughts on moral responsibility? Can someone be ultimately responsible? Some have said the ‘ultimate responsibility’ is a philosophical red herring and that we can still hold someone responsible, even if not in the ultimate sense, which causa sui disallows. Are you more in this camp? Is this enough to mete out so-called retributive justice? For me, retributive justice is a euphemism for vengeance, and justice is a weasel word. But that’s just me, and perhaps a topic for another segment.

Are there any topics you’d like me to cover? Leave a comment below.

Hierarchies and Meritocracy

Jordan Peterson and Russell Brand chat for about 12 minutes on sex differences and personality, but that’s not where I want to focus commentary. What I will say is that Peterson continually conflates sex and gender, and I find that disconcerting for a research psychologist.

I’ve queued this video near the end, where Peterson delineates his conception of how the political right and left (as defined by him and the US media-industrial complex).

I feel he does a good job of defining the right, and he may have even captured whatever he means by left—radical left even—, but he doesn’t capture my concerns, hence I write.

To recap his positions,

Premises

  • We need to pursue things of value
  • Hierarchies are inevitable
  • [One has] to value things in order to move forward in life
  • [One has] to value things in order to have something valuable to produce
  • [One has] to value some things more than others or [they] don’t have anything like beauty or strength or…competence or…whatever…
  • If [one] value[s] [some domain] then [one is] going to value some [things in that domain] more than others because some are better
  • If [one] play[s] out the value in a social landscape, a hierarchy [will result]
  • A small number of people are going to be more successful than the majority
  • A very large number of people aren’t going to be successful at all

Conservative (Right)

  • Hierarchies are justifiable and necessary

Left

  • Hierarchies … stack [people] up at the bottom
  • [Hierarchies] tilt towards tyranny across time

Critique

I feel I’ve captured his position from the video transcript, but feel free to watch the clip to determine if I’ve mischaracterised his position. I have reordered some of his points for readability and for a more ordered response on my part.

To be fair, I feel his delivery is confused and the message becomes ambiguous, so I may end up addressing the ‘wrong’ portion of his ambiguous statement.

We need to pursue things of value

This is sloganeering. The question is how are we defining value? Is it a shared definition? How is this value measured? How are we attributing contribution to value? And do we really need to pursue these things?

Hierarchies are inevitable

Hierarchies may be inevitable, but they are also constructed. They are not natural. They are a taxonomical function of human language. Being constructed, they can be managed. Peterson will suggest meritocracy as an organising principle, so we’ll return to that presently.

[One has] to value things in order to move forward in life

This is a particular worldview predicated on the teleological notion of progress. I’ve discussed elsewhere that all movement is not progress, and perceived progress is not necessarily progress on a global scale.

Moreover, what one values may not conform with what another values. In practice, what one values can be to the detriment of another, so how is this arbitrated or mediated?

[One has] to value things in order to have something valuable to produce

I think he is trying to put this into an economic lens, but I don’t know where he was going with this line. Perhaps it was meant to emphasise the previous point. I’ll just leave it here.

[One has] to value some things more than others or [they] don’t have anything like beauty or strength or…competence or…whatever…

This one is particularly interesting. Ostensibly, I believe he is making the claim that we force rank individual preferences, then he provides examples of items he values: beauty, strength, competence, and whatever. Telling here is that he chooses aesthetic and unmeasurable items that are not comparable across group members and are not even stable for a particular individual. I won’t fall down the rabbit hole of preference theory, but this is a known limitation of that theory.

If [one] value[s] [some domain] then [one is] going to value some [things in that domain] more than others because some are better

We’ve already touched on most of this concept. The key term here is ‘better‘. Better is typically subjective. Even in sports, where output and stats are fairly well dimensionalised, one might have to evaluate the contributions of a single athlete versus another with lower ‘output’ but who serves as a catalyst for others. In my mental model, I am thinking of a person who has higher arbitrary stats than another on all levels versus another with (necessarily) lower stats but who elevates the performance (hence) stats of teammates. This person would likely be undervalued (hence under-compensated) relative to the ‘star’ performer.

In other domains, such as art, academics, or even accounting and all measurement bets are off.

If [one] play[s] out the value in a social landscape, a hierarchy [will result]

Agreed, but the outcome will be based on rules—written and unwritten.

A small number of people are going to be more successful than the majority

Agreed.

A very large number of people aren’t going to be successful at all

Agreed

Conclusion

The notion of meritocracy is fraught with errors, most notably that merit can be meaningfully assessed in all but the most simple and controlled circumstances. But societies and cultures are neither simple nor controlled. They are complex organisms. And as Daniel Kahneman notes, most merit can likely be chalked up to luck, so it’s all bullshit at the start.

In the end, Peterson and people like him believe that the world works in a way that it doesn’t. They believe that thinking makes it so and that you can get an is from an ought. Almost no amount of argument will convince them otherwise. It reminds me of the time Alan Greenspan finally admitted to the US Congress that his long-held adopted worldview was patently wrong.

Video: CSPAN: Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman and Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan Testimony

WAXMAN: “You found a flaw…”

GREENSPAN: “In the reality—more in the model—that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works, so to speak.”

WAXMAN: “In other words, you found that your your view of the world—your ideology—was not right. It was not what it had it…”

GREENSPAN: “Precisely. No, I… That’s precisely the reason I was shocked because I have been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well.”

To paraphrase musically

Video: Social Distortion, I Was Wrong

Violence and Rules

I haven’t yet shared my thoughts that equate bureaucracy with violence, but this is somewhat tangential or perhaps orthogonal.

Humanity does not gradually progress from combat to combat until it arrives at universal reciprocity, where the rule of law finally replaces warfare; humanity installs each of its violences in a system of rules and thus proceeds from domination to domination. The nature of these rules allows violence to be inflicted on violence and the resurgence of new forces that are sufficiently strong to dominate those in power. Rules are empty in themselves, violent and unfinalised; they are impersonal and can be bent to any purpose. The successes of history belong to those who are capable of seizing these rules, to replace those who had used them, to disguise themselves so as to pervert them, invert their meaning, and redirect them against those who had initially imposed them; controlling this complex mechanism, they will make it function so as to overcome the rulers through their own rules.

Michel Foucault, Nietzsche, Genealogy, History 1977

Taking holiday, so taking shortcuts in posting. Here, Foucault discusses Nietzsche.