Swear Words, Belief in God, & Nonvoting (27m) – Editor’s Break 106

Editor’s 106 has Skyler giving his commentary on the following topics: swear words, their playful and hateful uses, and the importance of intent; the possibility of believing in God and a short introduction to ignosticism; several reasons for his abstention from participating in electoral politics; and more.

Listen to Editor’s Break 106 (27m, mp3, 64kbps)

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On Sweatshops

A very simple thought experiment should demonstrate the absurdity in the belief that so-called “sweatshops” are evil. Imagine for a moment the likely outcome of any given sweatshop, anywhere in the world, being closed down. Every worker in that sweatshop would immediately be unemployed and looking for new work. At some point, no doubt, they will find another job, but will it be as good as the one they just had? Not likely. Had the sweatshop not been meeting their needs as well as alternatives, they would have sooner or later left the sweatshop for greener pastures. That greener pastures were not available is compelling evidence to conclude that sweatshops are not evil, but good. Without wealthier countries willing and able to “exploit” poorer workers by offering jobs in sweatshops, those workers would never have the opportunity to “trade up” their lot in life, and cumulatively grow their economies out of poverty over time and toward First World status. Decrying sweatshops is the true evil. And that’s today’s two cents.

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“Sanction”: The Triumph of Ayn Rand’s Worst Idea

Ayn Rand is widely hated.  Indeed, if you made a list of thinkers that people “love to hate,” she’d be near the top of the list.  Liberals hate her.  Conservatives hate her.  Socialists hate her.  Indeed, plenty of libertarians hate her.  It’s hardly surprising, then, that she has not been broadly influential.  While she has millions of fans, they’re only a tiny share of any country’s population.  Even when her fans gain positions of power, they’re hopelessly outnumbered by powerful people who disagree.

There is, however, one notable exception.  One of Ayn Rand’s ideas has spread far and wide.  Indeed, it pervades social media.  The idea: The virtue of moral intolerance.  Here’s how Rand explained it back in 1962:

One must never fail to pronounce a moral judgment.

Nothing can corrupt and disintegrate a culture or a man’s character as thoroughly as does the precept of moral agnosticism, the idea that one must never pass moral judgment on others, that one must be morally tolerant of anything, that the good consists of never distinguishing good from evil.

It is obvious who profits and who loses by such a precept. It is not justice or equal treatment that you grant to men when you abstain equally from praising men’s virtues and from condemning men’s vices. When your impartial attitude declares, in effect, that neither the good nor the evil may expect anything from you—whom do you betray and whom do you encourage? (emphasis original)

In Randian jargon, we must never grant our intellectual enemies our “moral sanction.”  Simply put, “[I]n no case and in no situation may one permit one’s own values to be attacked or denounced, and keep silent.”  Building on this position, Rand’s inner circle ultimately denounced not only “sanctioning,” but “sanctioning the sanctioners.”  Randian Peter Schwartz, who coined the latter phrase, elaborated:

The weapon necessary to defend against evil is justice: the unequivocal identification of the evil as evil. This means the refusal to grant it, by word or by deed, any moral respectability. It is by scrupulously withholding from the irrational even a crumb of a moral sanction — by rejecting any form of accommodation with the irrational — by forcing the irrational to stand naked and unaided — that one keeps evil impotent.

What does this mean in practice?  Don’t talk to your intellectual enemies – and don’t talk to people who talk to your intellectual enemies.  Because they’re your enemies too.  Sure, you can denounce them; but you can’t have a civilized conversation.  Indeed, engaging in such a conversation practically makes you as bad as they are.*

In my late teens, I knew many Randians who took the virtue of moral intolerance seriously.  I partially bought into it myself; I was, after all, a teenage misanthrope.  But the extreme forms always seemed crazy to me, and I gradually broadened my intellectual milieu.  Once I was in my late-20s, I had so little contact with Randians that I gradually forgot about their self-conscious moral intolerance.

Over the last decade, however, the Randian virtue of moral intolerance has spread far and wide – especially on social media.  All major political views now have outspoken exponents who self-consciously and self-righteously refuse to “sanction” unbelievers.  Or “sanction those who sanction” them.

Is Rand really causally responsible for modernity’s moral intolerance?  Probably not; the lines of intellectual communication don’t fit.  Yet the fact remains: One of Rand’s most peculiar positions has spread like wildfire.

Is this really such bad news?  Yes.  I lived in a subculture that embraced Rand’s virtue of moral intolerance, and saw the devastation.  Genuinely smart and nominally rational people were quick to take offense and afraid to ask questions.  Indeed, many were so afraid to talk to the “wrong people” that they stayed in their Randian intellectual ghetto, parroting their guru and her appointed successors.  Vocal free-thinkers were often purged.  As a result, Randians were mired in error.  When they were wrong (as they often were), they lacked the cognitive methods and social lifelines to stop being wrong.

The party line, of course, was that Randians had no need to root out error because they were so clearly and thoroughly right.  Everyone outside of their ambit probably finds this megalomania comical, but the problem goes deeper than one Russian novelist’s eccentricities.  Every group that deems itself clearly and thoroughly right is deeply wrong due to (a) their dogmatic methods and (b) the complexity of the worldIncluding yours.  Including mine.  Talking to people who agree with you while talking at people who disagree with you is a blueprint for building a Tower of Error.

Still, Randian moral intolerance did have one saving grace: It was a tiny subculture.  Anyone who had enough could easily walk away.  If the perceived virtue of moral intolerance continues to mainstream, where will curiosity find a new home?

This doesn’t mean we should listen respectfully to everyone.  Personally, I draw the line at avowed Communists and Nazis.  They really are unworthy of a response; therefore, I don’t respond to them.  Nevertheless, we should still listen respectfully to a wide range of views.  Perhaps your opponents are intellectually dishonest, but if you don’t listen respectfully, it’s very hard to tell.  Indeed, even if you do listen respectfully, it’s hard to tell.  I can’t read minds; can you?  In any case, if you want to understand the world, you should focus on the truth of the message, not the morals of the messenger.  Tolerantly engaging a wide range of viewpoints is a vital reality check.  Ayn Rand badly needed this check.  So do you.

* I’m well-aware that Rand enjoined her readers to judge others judiciously:

The opposite of moral neutrality is not a blind, arbitrary, self-righteous condemnation of any idea, action or person that does not fit one’s mood, one’s memorized slogans or one’s snap judgment of the moment. Indiscriminate tolerance and indiscriminate condemnation are not two opposites: they are two variants of the same evasion.

But in practice, Rand almost never criticized anyone for indiscriminate condemnation – and her movement largely followed suit.

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Usability II

Nobody asked but …

We tend to see any scenario in one of two ways.  The average, or normalized, case versus the most recent exceptional case.  We tend to think of these as mutually exclusive but of more or less equal importance.  When we encounter a new exception, we might replace the old exception.  We will either discard the old exception, or normalize it into the average case.  We still are left with two views.

The problem with this is that we don’t properly evaluate the probability of any of the cases.  Instead, we sublimate the relative importance of cases we have experienced.  Probability analysis and risk management are not primary intellectual tools.  Furthermore, we are dealing with moving targets.  Each time we try to deal with cases, we re-adjust what we see as normal and what we see as exceptional.  The younger, or more dismissive, we are, we have a smaller field of cases from which to make our conjectures.

If one of us has driven a thousand different vehicles, most new encounters will be some version of the average encounter, and thereby, usability is pretty straightforward.  On the other hand, if one has driven only one vehicle, then a new encounter, with even a same model, must be addressed as an exceptional case.  Differences outweigh similarities.  We handle differences with a different part of the cognitive process.  We amplify differences.  In effect, we are always misestimating similarities and differences.  The misestimation factor should decline with the gathering of experience, but bias can also make the misestimation widen as time goes by.

Modern information channels see to it that we receive maximum clarity on the few shark attacks, but we receive no meaningful information on the vast numbers of swimmers who frolic in the surf unscathed.  We are likely to see shark attacks as a norm — obviously a distortion.  In addition we are prone to build our lives so as to avoid shark attacks when we should be far more concerned with slippage in the bathtub.

— Kilgore Forelle

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Government Obstructions on Importation and Immigration Are Parallel Forms of Plunder

When the government imposes tariffs or import quotas, it harms a few foreigners — exporting producers and their workers mainly — but it harms far more people in the country with these trade obstructions, who suffer an absence of superior options or face higher prices for the imported types of goods on the domestic market owing to lessened competition.

Likewise, when the government imposes restrictions or quotas on immigration, it harms a few foreigners — the foreigners who wish to enter the country mainly — but it harms far more people in the country with these obstructions, who suffer an absence of superior options in labor and other markets or face higher prices for the immigrants’ types of services, besides being deprived of their freedom to deal with their most preferred or rewarding trading partners as customers, tenants, neighbors, and friends. Not to mention that enforcement of immigration restrictions fosters the maintenance of a domestic police state that menaces everyone living in the country to which immigrants wish to come.

These two cases of government obstructions at the border thus have many parallels. The important point is that they give rise to harms imposed on the multitude for the sake of creating unearned income for a minority in the country whose government imposes the obstructions.

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Ethics 101: Reciprocity

People have been arguing about how to deal with ideas of right and wrong for a very long time. Even now, reasonable people sometimes disagree about where exactly to draw the ethical line on some complex issues. After all, the world is a complicated place.

That being said, one idea has emerged over and over again in the quest to understand right and wrong from essentially every cultural, religious, and philosophical tradition: the ethic of reciprocity.

You may know it as the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do to you.” This basic mutual respect is the cornerstone of civilized behavior and the basis for cooperation and justice. It is natural law in practice.

When people who disagree choose argumentation over aggression, they are demonstrating a preference for mutual respect. Therefore, arguing against mutual respect is a performative contradiction. There is no civilized argument against the ethic of reciprocity.

Uncivilized people use aggression to get what they want. If you find yourself at odds with someone who refuses to abide by the golden rule, you cannot resort to argumentation to resolve the situation. It is in this circumstance that threat management becomes necessary and defensive force becomes justifiable.

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