Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

7.28.2012

Of Assholes, Short-Term Thinking, and the Social Contract

Or, I Need to Read This Book

The other day on Facebook someone asked if I was a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty kind of fella.  I responded: "I'm a carefully and deliberately consider an issue from all perspectives I can imagine (and research) kind of fella, so I often end up playing devil's advocate to whatever is proposed, seem like a pessimist to the optimists, seem like an optimist to the pessimists, and frustrate most everyone with how slowly I decide and take action."

One of the frequent complaints I make about politics (and economics and education and parenting and management and many other things), is that people only focus on the immediate, short-term gains of their decisions and are blind to the long-term ramifications of their decisions.  They choose something that is good right now and don't consider how it will impact them over the long haul, just rashly rush into a decision without really thinking it through.  Later, often enough, they end up changing their minds and reverse their previous decision, flip-flopping back and forth willy-nilly with no consistent philosophy or values giving them direction.

Impatient visitors get their own special parking.  But is it better or worse?

That introduction could be the springboard for many different thoughts.  One, related at least in part to where I'm heading today, could be my recurring theme on this blog of individualism vs. collectivism, how I rant that we need to put more effort into sharing with each other and looking after each other and how competitive, dog-eat-dog capitalism can undermine that need.  Last month's You Can't Have Winners without Losers, for instance: "So, if we ever hope to really have a "we" that succeeds together as a group--where we are all winners and don't have any losers on our team--there has to be more to our measures of success, to how we define ourselves, to the core of our philosophical models than pure competition."

I bring that up because it sounds more than vaguely similar to something said in what follows, a review of a book I want to read: Assholes: A Theory by Aaron James.  According to Amazon, it won't be published until October 30, so all I have to go on for now is this review from the Unshelved Book Club:

Aaron James is an Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of California, Irvine. He is troubled by the profusion of assholes in our society and believes there is a tipping point where people trying to do the right thing will see the self-entitled disregarding societal rules and choose not to play themselves. He claims Italy is already over the line and the United States’ chances are not looking good. There are ways for polite society to put assholes back in their places, but they have been largely negated by what James calls Entitlement Capitalism, where asshole-like traits are rewarded.

James puts together a step-by-step, logical argument for defining, recognizing and managing the assholes in one’s life. He lays out the balance between fighting for recognition of one’s moral superiority and giving up that fight.

Why I picked it up: The cover blurb. It says, “Don't take this personally…” The footnote points to this statement. “Unless you happen to be Donald Trump or Kanye West or Dick Cheney, in which case you may take it personally.” I knew I was going to like this book.

Why I finished it: The book seriously discusses assholes, but never devolves into cheap humor or pointing out more than a few specific examples. At one point it even sounds like a twelve-step plan and discusses why trying to change assholes is not a good idea (they have to recognize themselves first). The author quotes Hegel, Kant, St. Augustine, and other philosophers. Eclectic topics are used to illustrate his points, like when James, an avid surfer, discusses the assholish tendencies of Brazilian surfers, who, as a group, do not consider themselves bound by normal rhythms of claiming a wave.

I'd give it to: My cubicle-dwelling friend, Jayce, who rants about the assholes in his office  He could use the discussion towards the end of the book about how to keep one’s sense of dignity while not beating one’s head against an immovable wall (the asshole’s sense of entitlement and uniqueness).

It will probably be a while before I get to it, but I expect to read and blog about this eventually.

The bit about societal rules--and whether to follow them--also brings to mind a section from The Well-Dressed Ape by Hannah Holmes that I quoted in From the "That Makes So Much Sense" Files:

What if altruism isn't selfless at all, but rather a sly, long-term investment strategy? . . .

For one thing, it appears that we are hardwired to behave benevolently
when we're being watched. . . .

Reputation is now strongly suspected as the engine that drives altruism: Because I am such a social animal, it's important to me that other humans trust and respect me. . . . What goes around comes around, in human groups. . . .


Punishing is crucial to the survival of cooperation, because punishment erodes the cheater's precious social support. However, punishing also looks like a purely altruistic act: I confront the cheater, and all I get out of it is a racing heart and a peeved wolverine. No dopamine rush, even. Why, then, should I make such a sacrifice for the common good? Once again, the behavior looks biologically bankrupt at first glance. And once again on closer inspection, it appears punishing the cheaters is part of a long-term strategy wherein I trade today's stress for tomorrow's social support. When I volunteer to punish a cheater, I advertise my own high standards for trustworthiness and decency. I attract a better class of allies. My stock rises. . . .

Anyway, the sad truth about cooperative behavior seems to be that we're all wolverines inside, wolverines in bonobo clothing. If we consider only the short term, it undeniably serves me best to blow through stop signs, lie to the IRS, and ignore the little girl in the well. But in the long term, I rely on my fellow humans in so many ways that such cheating (in front of them, at least) just doesn't pay.

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