Your Morals

I was commenting elsewhere on morals and was directed to Jonathan Haidt and his work. Notably, the questionnaire at YourMorals.org, where you can get your own assessment and contribute data points to the body of work.

Full disclosure: I am not a fan of this type of survey, as I’ve mentioned previously. Still, I made an attempt. Better still, I’ve copied the questions to critique. There are 36 all tolled. Perhaps, I’ll respond to a dozen at a time. The next dozen responses are here. Generally speaking, they present each question and provide a Likert scale as follows:

  1. Does not describe me at all
  2. Slightly describes me
  3. Moderately describes me
  4. Describes me fairly well
  5. Describes me extremely well

Standard fare. It starts off bad:

1. Caring for people who have suffered is an important virtue.

Why include an abstract concept like virtue? I don’t ascribe to the notion of virtue, so it’s an empty set. Given that, my response would be a 1. If I ignore the offensive nomenclature and assume it translates idiomatically into ‘beneficial for some target society’, then I still have to question what is meant by suffering, and how far does caring extend. Is it enough to feel bad about the homeless person, or does one have to care enough to provide sustenance and shelter? Talk is cheap.

2. The effort a worker puts into a job ought to be reflected in the size of a raise they receive.

This is fraught with all sorts of problems. In fact, it’s a reason why I consider myself to be a Postmodern. The inherent metanarrative is that societies are effectively money-based. I don’t happen to believe that, so I am again faced with responding to an empty set. Even if I attempt to abstract the ‘raise’ aspect to mean that effort represents input and output is a direct and (perhaps) proportional function, I am still left to wrestle with how this effort is measured and what could have been achieved had the others not been present.

Using a sports analogy—always a dangerous domain for me to play in—, what if LeBron James was to play an opposing team by himself? He needs the other team members. Of course, his teammates are compensated, too. But in his case, his salary is not only based on his athletic talent but on his celebrity power—rent in economic parlance. Perhaps LeBron makes a lot of baskets, but without the assists, he’d have fewer. And because he is the go-to guy, some other teammates might be sacrificing baskets as part of their winning strategy.

Finally, how do you measure the effort of an accountant, a janitor, and an executive? The question is fundamentally bollox.

3. I think people who are more hard-working should end up with more money.

On a related note, I can abbreviate my commentary here. Again, what is harder? Are we asking if construction workers should earn more than CEOs? More bollox.

4. Everyone should feel proud when a person in their community wins in an international competition.

Yet, again, an empty set and a sort of mixed metaphor. I don’t agree with the notion of identity and even less at scale—states, countries, and nationalities. Putting that aside, why should I derive pride (that cometh before the fall) because someone succeeds at some event anywhere? It’s facile. If the question was focused on whether I would be happy for that person, the answer might shift up the scale, but where would I have derived pride for that person’s achievements?

5. I think it is important for societies to cherish their traditional values.

First off, why? What values? Not to beat a dead horse, but what if my tradition is slavery? Should I cherish that? This is really asking should I cherish the traditions of my society. Clearly, it’s not asking if other societies should enjoy the privilege of cherishing theirs? From the standard Western vantage, many want to cherish their own, but not Eastern values of eating dogs or Middle Eastern values of burqaed women and turbans. Is this asking should the world subscribe to my society’s values? I’m not sure.

6. I feel that most traditions serve a valuable function in keeping society orderly

Speaking of tradition… We are not only dealing with the vague notion of tradition, we are discussing another vague concept, order, and elevating order over (presumably) disorder. Order connotes a status quo. And why is the superlative most present? Has someone inventoried traditions? I believe I am supposed to translate this as ‘I feel that the traditions I am familiar with and agree with help to create a society that I am content with’. Again, this betrays the privileged perspective of the observers. Perhaps those disenfranchised would prefer traditions like Capitalism and private property to be relics of the past–or traditions of two-party rule, partisan high court judges, or money-influenced politics, or politicians serving themselves and their donors over the people or Christmas.

7. We all need to learn from our elders

Learn what exactly from our elders? Which elders? The bloke down the block? That elderly Christian woman at the grocery mart? The cat who fought in some illegal and immoral war? The dude who hordes houses, cars, and cash at the expense of the rest of society? Or the guy who tried to blow up Parliament. I believe this is asking should we learn how to remain in place as taught by the privileged wishing to maintain their places.

8. Everyone should try to comfort people who are going through something hard

Define hard, and define comfort? This harkens back to the first question. Enough said. As far as lying is concerned, we should by now all be familiar with the adage trying is lying. Or as Yoda would restate it, do or do not, there is no try.

9. I think the human body should be treated like a temple, housing something sacred within

Obviously, this one is total rubbish. Here, I don’t have a structure that makes it difficult to answer. I may have sprained my eye rolling it, though. This said, what is a temple treated like?

10. I get upset when some people have a lot more money than others in my country

This one is interesting. Whilst I don’t believe that countries or money should exist. In practice, they do. So on its face, I can say that I get upset when we are thrown into a bordered region and told we need to exchange paper, metal, plastic, and bits for goods and services–that some people have more and others have less primarily through chance.

11. I feel good when I see cheaters get caught and punished

Which cheaters? Cheating requires perspective and a cultural code. It can privilege the individualist over the communalist. This reminds me of the cultures that are more interested in ensuring that all of their members finish a contest than having any one win.

Academically, it is considered to be cheating to work together on an exam because the individual is being tested. Of course, the exam is on certain content rather than on the contribution of the human being.

Again, the question feels targeted at cheaters getting caught circumventing something we value. If someone cheats becoming assimilated into some military-industrial society, I will encourage and support them. If they get caught and punished, my ire would more likely be directed toward the power structure that created the need to cheat.

12. When people work together toward a common goal, they should share the rewards equally, even if some worked harder on it

I’ll end this segment here on another question of meritocracy. I think it’s fair to judge the authors as defenders of meritocracy, though I could be wrong. This feels very similar to some other questions already addressed. The extension here is about sharing the rewards, whatever that means. Are we baking a cake? Did we build a house for a new couple? Did we plant trees in a public park? Did we clean up litter on a parkway? Did we volunteer to feed the homeless? And what was the work? Again, how are we measuring disparate work? Did the chicken farmer work harder than the cow farmer? Did the carpenter work harder than the organiser?

If the remainder of these questions is different enough, I’ll comment on them as well. Meantime, at least know you know more why I have little faith in the field of morals. This does nothing to change my opinion that morals are nothing more than emotional reactions and subsequent prescriptions. I don’t mean to diminish emotions, and perhaps that might be a good central pillar to a vibrant society. I’ll need more convincing.

Vantage

A runner helps a competing runner to complete and win a race. The competitor had been confused, as signage was in a language foreign to him, so the other helped him out.

Iván Fernández Anaya and Adel Mutai Race

Although the debate in the comments thread on LinkedIn of whether the rules of the event supersede the overarching human condition leans heavily toward cooperation over competition, some are vehemently opposed to the thought of ‘breaking the rules’ of the contest.

I suggest that this is an issue of framing. Sporting events are a wholly contained subset of the human condition. If you visualise this as a Venn diagramme envisaged as camera lenses, you’ll see that the event is a deliberate tight shot. One with the broader human experience cropped out. But the viewer has the ability to pull back and capture a wider shot. This shot recognises factors other than winning a petty sporting event. It emphasises cooperation over competition.

There is no moral imperative here. One may adopt either lens without shame. As for me—and apparently most—, the wider shot is preferred. But a wider lens is not always the default view for humans.

Humanism

When it comes to how, as people, we fit into the larger universe, we tend to adopt a human-centric view. And one doesn’t need to be a Humanist to take this position. Most religions do this by proxy, where the gods have appointed humans as the Ones.

How can one not be a racist?

This is the same choice as whether to adopt a tight or a wide shot. And some people take an even tighter shot, where the focus is on nationality or race or colour or sex or gender or affluence or whatever. But the wide shot captures all species on the same plane. Peter Singer is the leading Western philosopher in this space. In his world, Humanism, this human-centred view, is Speciesism.

The most common responses to this charge are to dismiss it on the grounds that ‘humans are superior for reasons’ or that ‘as long as we consider the biosphere as a system, we can still take an elevated position’. I don’t truly accept either of these positions. The first is, frankly, narcissistic, as is the second, but humans have an abysmal track record when systems thinking and complexity are involved.

How can one not be a Speciesist?

The obvious question, then, akin to, ‘How can one not be a racist?’ in these #BlackLivesMatter times, is ‘How can one not be a Speciesist?’ But there are still wider lenses as we pull back to capture the entire taxonomy. We can elevate species to genus to family, order, class, phylum, kingdom, domain, or life. And why stop there except for moral convenience?

Ask yourself: What lens are you using? What is your frame? Where is your focus? What is your depth of field?

Competition and Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson was interviewed by Joe Rogan, where he discussed gender and competition. I am not going to address his gender issues, but I’ll say something about competition. I’ll also ignore his stance that the world is ‘functioning unbelievably well, even though it has its problems’. He gets to competition through some comments on equality.


[Focus] on winning the largest number of games across the span of a lifetime.

Jordan Peterson

Firstly, Peterson differentiates equal playing fields from equal outcomes, a favoured Conservative talking point slash whipping boy. He then sets up a strawman argument relating to people favouring the ‘best of the best’ (which is to say, their personal favourites, I suppose) in lieu of exploring the vast universe of music available on the myriad streaming services, the result being that in the aggregate, the preferred acts make more money through this competition. Of course, this is the result of preference theory, which produces different outcomes based on inputs such a time and place, fads and trends, and the ‘winner’ is the one who attains the most listens.

There’s no accounting for taste.

Having had worked in Entertainment for years, I realised early on that the correlation between talent and financial success was fairly weak. In fact, I had several conversations with artists who felt ‘guilty’ for their commercial success over people they deemed more talented. This is a fundamental problem with market systems, the value calculus is influenced by what Keynes termed ‘animal spirits‘. As the saying goes, there’s no accounting for taste.

Peterson and Rogan both agree that competition is healthy and necessary, but they don’t define the scale and scope, so they sacrifice a participation trophy red herring on the altar.

Peterson does come back to discuss scope within a timeline of a lifespan, that a single game is less important than a championship—and, apparently, there is more than one championship. What never happens is a definition of what the rules of the game are or how you know you’ve won. I suppose, that’s a relative concern. They also don’t provide any guidance on where to set the dial between competition and cooperation.

If you are trying to get a job versus even some anonymous pool of applicants, then you’ve won this match. I see this as an evolutionary game. I remember a story by Clarissa Pinkola Estes where she tells about a guy who had been climbing the corporate ladder for decades, and when he got near the top, he came to the realisation that he had it up against the wrong building. Perhaps what he thought was a worthy goal (say acquisition of money) was in conflict with some higher ethical goals or deeper friendships.


It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.

From what I can tell, Peterson is guided by a sense the virtue ethics are the way to go, and, judging from this interview, he’s more than just a bit of a Consequentialist. But it’s clear he is no Deontologist. Case in point, he claims that the adage, ‘it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game’ is a ‘sentiment confuses children’.

Play well with others.

He ends by saying that if you learn the kindergarten lesson to play well with others, you’ll temper your winning or redefine winning within the context, and somehow your goal should be ‘focusing on winning the largest number of games across the span of a lifetime’.

At the end of all of this—given Peterson’s pathological worldview—, it’s no wonder he’s so defensive, combative, and irascible: he is driven to win, and he thinks it matters. And it’s abundantly clear that he hasn’t learnt his own kindergarten lesson: Play well with others.

And now for something completely different…

I chose the cover image of this post on the merits of the upcoming competition between Peterson and Žižek on 19 April.