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.

Equality. Equity. Egality.

I can’t count how many times I’ve seen takes on this equality versus equity meme. One appeared on by LinkedIn feed this morning and I wanted to comment. I thought I’d have posted on this before and wanted to link to it. If I did, I couldn’t find it, so here’s a fresh accounting. I searched Google for the original image and cobbled together my own versions, if only for visual continuity.

 L’homme est né libre, et partout il est dans les fers.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Social Equality vs. Equity Meme

The meme renders something like this:

There are two frames being compared—equality and equity. In both, we see three people trying to view an event, but a barrier obstructs their view. The people are of different heights—tall, medium, and short—, metaphorically representing some intitial social status.

In one we see a representation of equality. In the spirit of equality, each person has one crate upon which to stand. This represents equality of condition. Each person is ensured to start the game on equal social footing. At a glance, it’s easy to discern that this intervention allows two of the people to see the event but leaves one of the three at a disadvantage and unable to view.

In the other, we see a representation of equity. In this frame, we see the same three people and a redistribution of the three crates. Equity is more in tune with equality of opportunity if not of outcomes. The taller person who had been standing on a crate had no need for it as he was tall enough to see over the barrier without it. The mid-size person, who could see the event with the crate but not without it, retained the crate. The shortest person was given the crate from the tallest person, now standing on a stack of two. The result is that each of the three people can now view the event unimpeded.

This comparison is such a nice conversation starter. It’s a hot button topic for some—and I’ll get to that presently. For me, it illustrates the concept of framing. There are several things left out of frame—at least one literally. In this meme, we are given a binary frame, but we can pull the shot back and there’s a third option: egality. This term has fallen out of favour in English, but the French retain it—égalité. In this frame, there is no need for crates, and the plank barrier is replaced by a chain-link fence.

Social Equality

Yet there’s the matter of metanarrative device. Why should there be any barrier? Why focus on these three in the foreground? Do the seated people represent the haves and those standing represent the have-nots? Might we interpret this as bourgeois versus proletariat with the focus on the struggle between the prols distracting from the broader issue? —being further distracted by the circus event? Have we lost the forest for the trees?

As it happens, people along the way have inserted their own social commentary through like-memes. I’ve similarly reconstructed these.

Societal Common Ground

In the beginning there are no crates. They are simply a device. At the start, only the tallest person can see over the barrier. At some point three crates appear ex nihilo and each person obtains one as depicted in the equality of condition frame, which leaves one of our participants better off and the other in no different of a social status, though a bit off the ground in the event of flash flooding. Small wins.

Past Burdens and Generational Wealth Transfer

Some shared the opinion that at least we all start on common ground, and yet others—likely Left- or Liberal-leaning—propose that some people start in a hole. Others might have noted that whilst some start out in a hole others start out with inherited boxes—or houses or networks—showcasing the transfer of generational wealth . Another might be able to view if there was a crate available. Given the negative starting place, the third would likely require three boxes to be on par to view, so even a redistribution of the three boxes would be insufficient.

For my first diversion, I’d like to spend a few moments defending a common response for the Right and Libertarians. Firstly, no one who supports this level-setting is suggesting that the advantaged be put into a hole like the disadvantaged. Nor is anyone asking for The Prince and the Pauper treatment where they trade places. This is a silly attempt at a strawman attack. Secondly, in a similar vein, no one is asking for the best off to relinquish everything and now be unable to see whilst the meek inherit the earth. As if that could ever happen.

Some people were overly optimistic—presumably representing the ‘if some is good, more must be better’ contingent. Why don’t we give everyone two boxes? Aside from the fact that only three are necessary for everyone to view the event, there was no mention where the original three crates came from let alone these additional three. I suppose they might have fashioned them from the fence. Who knows? But this leads us into contributions from the advocates of Capitalism.

Capitalism: Libertarian Vantage

Let’s chalk this up to the Right can’t meme syndrome. To this cohort, Capitalism is the solution. In fact, there will be more crates than one could possibly use. A rising tide rises all boats—and crates. None are left behind. In fact, this is what Capitalism is known for. Of course, this suffers from several cognitive biases: survivorship, selection and availability. But who’s really counting?

For this less fond of Capitalism, this illustrates excess and waste. We needed three crates, yet we produce over thirty. Moreover, these less-fond likely also notice a capital distribution challenge with Capitalism.

Capitalism: Democratic Vantage

The prevailing view by one cohort is that some of the excess crates ‘owned’ by the tallest person should be redistributed whilst the polar perspective holds that this person ‘earned’ those crates and is entitles to keep them. And why can’t that woman just hold her child so he can see? Don’t get me started.

Capitalism for Sale

You really do have to love Capitalists. The solution is always ‘you just have to pay for it. Duh’. Without going too far off track, many of these people—likely vastly most of them—can’t afford what they want, yet they stand by this mechanism.

Socialism Kills

Some people who despise Socialism have a rather macabre perspective on how socialism operates. To them, equality can only be acheived via some Harrison Bergeron mechanism—primarily because they choose not to distinguish between social and physical equality. And maybe they are simply sadistic and enjoy watching people suffer.

My personal favourite is the one for liberation.

Liberation is Liberating

We don’t need no fences. No barriers. No boundaries. Sit on the boxes. Fill them with food for the hungry.

But in the end, if all you are fighting for is free access to cricket matches and other circus events, you aren’t really liberated anyway. You are the slave that Rousseau wrote about, ‘Man is born free but everywhere is in chains’.


Disclaimer: For the record, I have been using the term, Capitalism idiomatically equivalent to a market economy because Americans just don’t want to separate them. I think they feel that if they can pretend they are the same, that criticising Capitalism would be tantamount to criticising market economics. This is wrong on so many levels, but, at least in North America, the terms are inextricable. The fact that Capitalism is a means of production, and the other is a distribution mechanism, people—from syndicalists and worker coöperatives to Mercantilists, tradesmen, and craft-workers—could choose to distribute goods and services through a market system without consequence. It’s not even worth expending a breath. Even English dictionaries have given up and conflated the concepts. Economic textbooks are the last bastion of academic sanity.

The Bell Curve

Many racists, closeted and otherwise, cite The Bell Curve as proof that blacks are dumber than white people. Published in 1994, it’s controversial and bollocks. The first problem is with the notion of IQ testing itself, and then there’s the construction of the tests and relevance to aptitude. Anyone who’s read more than a handful of my posts know that I have long labelled the entire discipline of psychology a pseudoscience, so it would come as no surprise that a product of psychology is principally pseudoscience, too.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan: The impact of the Highly Improbable and Anti-Fragile: Things that Gain from Fragility, among other publications, Nassim is working on adding to his Incerto collection. At least a portion of the work focuses on the notion that IQ is largely a pseudoscientific swindle. Reviewing the material, it’s almost effortless to draw parallels to Foucault’s Mental Illness and Psychology, or even more so, sections from Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason.

I’ve already moving on to new topics, so my parting point is that ordinary people find interpreting statistics to be an almost insurmountable challenge. Mark Twain recognised this in his quip, lies, damn lies, and statistics.

lies, damn lies, and statistics

Mark Twain

The problem is many professionals don’t understand statistics—even those whose function requires it. I was a professional statistician decades ago, so I have a certain fondness for it. I was even working on another post on the subject of the Simpson’s Paradox, but not quite yet—though it’s been weeks in the works. I am thinking about a post related to René Girard’s conflict theory as a lens and framework to understand the ‘insurrection’ at the US Capitol. I also want to react to the notion of metamodernism as a reaction to the conflict between modernism and postmodernism.

So little time. Please stand by.