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.


The Weak Combine Forces to Actively Dominate the Strong

A couple of posts ago, Morality & Empathy: A Chain of Associations, I shared a long series of thoughts prompted by Paul Bloom's book Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil.  Now I want to share a few more ideas from it related, in my mind, to the realm of politics.  First:
Most everyone agrees that a just society promotes equality among its citizens, but blood is spilled over what sort of equality is morally preferable: equality of opportunity or equality of outcome.
I think that's part of what makes political debates (formal and informal) so difficult, because each side is generally championing a worthy ideal of equality.  Both are, obviously, very easy to critique in their applications, but at their core is equality.  And yet they are very different things; sometimes contradictory and in conflict with each other.  I find this a very helpful frame in trying to understand those whose ideas seem off base to me, knowing the ideal driving the surface they are promoting.

An example to make it less abstract: minority scholarships and hiring initiatives.  Equality of outcome says minorities don't have a level playing field so we need to lift them up to an equal starting point.  Equality of opportunity says that's giving help to some but not others which is unfair.  That's not the full story, and there are more nuanced arguments to make, but at the heart of both positions is a concept of fairness.

I'm writing this post as a reference and starting point, not a conclusion, so I won't try to spin out all of the ramifications of this idea, I just want to keep it in mind when pondering future issues.

On a similar note, the idea that society should be egalitarian.  Hunter-gatherer societies most often are.
The egalitarian lifestyle of the hunter-gatherers, then, emerges from people jockeying for position, caring for themselves and those they love, and being willing to work together to protect themselves from being dominated.  As Boehm puts it, "Individuals who otherwise would be subordinated are clever enough to form a large and united political coalition. . . . Because the united subordinates are constantly putting down the more assertive alpha types in their midst, egalitarianism is in effect a bizarre type of political hierarchy: the weak combine forces to actively dominate the strong."

Sadly, the sort of egalitarianism that Boehm describes has come to an end for most of us.  Populations grew, agriculture emerged, animals were domesticated, and new technologies were invented.  Because of this, the available sanctions by the weak became less effective and the countermeasures by the powerful become deadlier.  If we live in a small hunter-gatherer society, and an alpha male is asserting control, then we can laugh at him or ignore him.  We can hold meetings, and if enough of us are unhappy, we can beat him up or kill him.  But none of this works in societies where interactions are no longer face to face and where individuals or small groups of elites can accumulate grossly disproportionate resources, both material and social.  An ambitious hunter-gatherer might have a gang of friends with rocks and spears; Stalin had an army and a secret police, gulags and rifles and thumbscrews.  In the modern world, an ambitious and cruel leader driven by status hunger can form a group that dominates a population a thousand times larger.  It is no longer so easy for the weak to gang up to dominate the strong (although some have argued that the Internet--being decentralized and somewhat anonymous--is helping to even the score).
I think most people would agree with the idea that our society today has an imbalance of power.  Wealth inequality is near an all-time high, and with that comes power inequality.  But we're polarized about who has too much power.  Everyone tends to agree the majority of us are weak, but we can't agree about who is the strong that we need to combine forces to dominate.  For most people it boils down to either Big Business or Big Government.  (For a previous thought about that, see: Which Do You Fear More: Lazy-Selfishness or Greedy-Selfishness.)

Some say there is too much government interference in the way people run their businesses and live their lives; some say business interests take advantage of people and leave us far poorer than we need to be, and that minority groups are subordinated to majority groups, and more government regulation is needed to help the weak.  Some say taxes are the powerful taking from the weak; some say taxes are a way of combining forces to help the weak.  Some say unions are a way for the weak to combine forces to combat the strong.  Some say gun ownership is a way to be less weak and less dominated.

There are many other examples and ways of framing the issues, but at the heart of almost everyone's position is a sense that alpha types shouldn't get strong enough to dominate the weak--and most feel that political coalitions of the subordinated should unite to keep things egalitarian.  We're just not united about who needs to unite against whom.

Another big realm of conflict is when to compromise and when to be absolute.  Everyone has different "slippery slopes" that they fear.  Everyone has ends they feel justify some means they would prefer to avoid but will accept.
A particular strand of moral philosophy . . . focuses primarily on the question of which actions are morally obligatory, which are optional, and which are forbidden.  Philosophers in this area are split into two main camps: consequentialists (who judge actions on the basis of their outcomes, such as whether they increase the sum of human happiness) and deontologists (who propose that certain broader principles should be respected, even if they lead to worse consequences).

Consequentialists might argue that torturing a person, even an innocent person, would be the right thing to do if it led to overall better consequences--if it cause more overall pleasure than pain, or saved more lives than it ended, or led to a greater proportion of individuals achieving their goals than not.  (I'm being vague here, because consequentialists don't always agree about which sorts of consequences matter.)  In contrast, some deontologists will insist that torture is always wrong because it violates certain absolute principles, such as a restriction against violating a person's intrinsic dignity.  For such a deontologist, torturing someone would be wrong even if it saved a million innocent people. . . .

Is it right to choose to sacrifice an individual named Tyrone Payton to save a hundred members of the New York Philharmonic?  Is it right to choose to sacrifice Chip Ellsworth III to save a hundred members of the Harlem Orchestra?  Conservatives were even-handed, but liberals were not; they were more likely to kill a white person to save a hundred black people than vice versa--even though, when asked, they explicitly claimed that race shouldn't be a factor.
What kinds of political concessions are acceptable to see your aims achieved?  I would guess everyone is a consequentialist about some things and a deontologist about others.  This is another frame I want to keep in mind when arguing issues in the future: Am I focusing on the outcome or the principle--and is that they best way to approach this?

One more quote that is basically just for fun--no real political ideas in this one (even if it does consider issues of weakness, strength, egalitarianism, and outcomes vs. principles):
Young children are highly aggressive; indeed, if you measure the rate of physical violence through the life span, it peaks at about age two.  Families survive the Terrible Twos because toddlers aren't strong enough to kill with their hands and aren't capable of using lethal weapons.  A two-year-old with the physical capacities of an adult would be terrifying.


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