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.

What John Stuart Mill Got Wrong About Freedom

Graham Tomlin wrote a piece for Prospect, upon which I comment and whence comes the title of this post. Always the deconstructivist curmudgeon, it seems, I agree with Tomlin’s assertion that Mill was wrong, but so is Tomlin.

In a nutshell, Tomlin makes the argument that the Ancients had it right, and the Enlightenment derailed it. Tomlin wants to return to the days of yore when the artifice of character and virtue ruled the day, a time when men were men and women were women. A return to the good ole days.

Tomlin waxes poetic, nostalgiac to a time that never was, a time that the prescription was to chase windmills of virtue and amass the currency of character. But character as currency is more unstable than Bitcoin.

Don Quixote Tilting Windmills

Is there anything more capricious than the held perception of character? Is there anything more futile than chasing the vicious cycle of virtue, always searching for that deserving true Scotsman?

Character is a term especially bandied about by political Conservatives, although Progressives tend to play the #MeToo game because it’s a game of appearances. It doesn’t matter what you do; it only matters what it looks like you do.

And even this is a game. Time and again politicians ‘slip’ (read: get caught), they apologise for the temporary lapse, and ask for forgiveness. Whether or not they keep their position, they are still forgiven and may return to their position learning their lesson (read: don’t get caught again). Let’s just dispense with the formalities.

Perception is reality

In Plato’s day, he holds out four moral virtues to pursue: courage, temperance, justice, and prudence.

Courage: the resolve to act virtuously, especially when it is most difficult

Temperance: moderation in all things; the middle path

Justice: to render every man what’s due

Prudence: application of practical wisdom

Courage seems to be caught in an infinite loop, as it essentially says to exercise temperance, justice, and prudence in the face of danger. Typically, courage is associated with heroic acts, though I fail to see the connection to rescuing a baby from a burning building with any of these other virtues. Perhaps the definition has morphed over the years. Everyone needs a hero. Only Zeus needs a Hera.

Temperance is to find the middle ground: eat but not too much; drink but not too much; rape but not too much; kill but not too much. Is there really a middle ground for all things? In traversing a canyon, shouldn’t one stay close to the edge—or what about sidewalks? Is it temperance that led US President Donald Trump to declare that Nazis and white supremacists. are ‘some very fine people‘, or does he just lack prudence?

Justice is the constant and perpetual will to render to every man his due.

Justinian — Institutes 1.1

Justice I’ve written about at some length so I won’t spend any additional time here.

Common sense is not so common.

Voltaire

Prudence, which advises one to use common sense, relies on a rare jewel. As Voltaire wrote, « le sens commun est fort rare ».

Perhaps I’m just too hard on people, but I find that most people are pretty dimwitted outside of some small area of focus, and I have to agree with Voltaire’s position on common sense. This is why as an economist, I find it so difficult to accept the homo economicus assertion so key for modern microeconomic theory and why behavioural economics has become a bigger deal in the past 30 years as more and more social scientists realise that people are predictably irrational.

Thanks but no thanks. There’s got to be a better way.