Dueling Mental Constructs

Rights, as I have pointed out, are a (human) mental construct. As are ethics, liberty, freedom, and so many other ideas.

However, those who use this fact as an excuse to violate people forget that they are usually relying on another mental construct: the State (what most people mean when they use the word “government”). You can’t justify allowing your mental construct to crush and enslave people by saying their rights are nothing but a mental construct.

Rights (and ethics and liberty) are positive mental constructs. Acting as though these things have physical reality, even though they don’t, is good for individuals and thus good for society. In fact, civilization isn’t really possible without at least most people respecting each other’s rights most of the time. A functioning society would be otherwise impossible.

Government/the State is a negative mental construct. Acting as though it has physical reality is generally used as justification for harming people through the political means. It’s not good. Even when it is claimed to be used for good, there is someone who has to lose for others to win. And to claim this negative mental construct trumps the positive mental construct of rights is to encourage evil.

All mental constructs are not created equal.

Instead of saying that rights are a mental construct, some people just say there’s no such thing as a right. That they are imaginary. When someone makes the claim that rights are imaginary, I’m OK with that, too. If there’s no such thing as a right, then no one can have the right to govern– to rule– other people in any way. They would be nothing more than a bully, relying on the most dangerous superstition for their power.

There’s also no reasonable way to pretend that the mental construct of rights is created or granted by another mental construct. This is the claim being made when saying that rights come from government. That’s magical thinking.

You can’t have it both ways. Since both concepts exist as mental constructs, I’ll choose to favor the positive one and reject the negative one. You may choose differently, but that would be your choice. I would appreciate you explaining your reasons in that case.

Open This Content

Science “Knows” Nothing

Nobody asked but …

Science (or discovery) is not a knowledge set.  The Online Etymology Dictionary contains at least one reference to the Greek skhizein “to split, rend, cleave.”  A software engineering colleague said that all knowledge pursuit was either splitting or clumping of previously discovered things.  This means doing it now, more splitting and clumping — a process.  The object of the process is to make educated guesses toward future probabilities, and that those educated guesses will still, in an ongoing fashion, be the subject of splitting and clumping.  A knowledge set produced by science is a transitory thing — a mass that is soon to be split and re-clumped.  If science could not do this, we would be without several innovations of today, like the plate tectonics theories which underlie most modern geological thought, and, for further example, we would be without smartphones — 1940s and 1950s scientists might have assumed that vacuum tubes were a constant in digital processing.

Unfortunately, we often stop reading the etymology when we see the Latin scientia “knowledge, a knowing; expertness,” which, also unfortunately, implies a mastery over known information.  As if Latin were a refinement of Greek.  To me, Greek civilization was of discovery, while Roman civilization was derivative — eg the Greeks named the (fictive?) gods and their purviews, whereas the Romans only renamed those same gods.

Today, we need to return to the original meaning of science, an unceasing breaking apart and rebuilding. a continual questioning and re-synthesis of concepts.  Science is a guessing game, one impeded by conclusion, not impeded by inquiry.  Why do we want final answers when only clever new answers which spin off new inquiry will get us further down the evolutionary road?  That other fork is a cul-de-sac, a deadly one.

— Kilgore Forelle


Open This Content

On the Crucial Role of Unobvious Virtues

When it turns out that the greatest enemy of truth is not falsehood, but gibberish, it turns out that the greatest intellectual virtue is not deductive brilliance or factual erudition, but common sense. When it turns out that the greatest enemy of decency is not hatred, but arbitrariness, it turns out that the greatest moral virtue is not kindness or mercy, but perseverance. When it turns out that the greatest enemy of good taste is not vulgarity, but ostentation, it turns out that the greatest aesthetic virtue is not elegance or refinement, but moderation. And when it turns out that the greatest enemy of civilization is not barbarity, but infantilism, it turns out that the greatest cultural virtue is not sophistication, but integrity.

Open This Content

Dominance: Material vs. Rhetorical

Do the rich dominate our society?

In one sense, they obviously do.  Rich people run most of the business world, own most of the wealth, and are vastly more likely to be powerful politicians.

In another sense, however, the rich aren’t dominant at all.  If you get in public and loudly say, “Rich people are great.  We owe them everything.  They deserve every penny they’ve got – and more.  People who criticize the rich are just jealous failures,” almost everyone will recoil in horror.

Do males dominate our society?

In one sense, they obviously do.  Males run most of the business world, hold most of the top political offices, hold a supermajority of the most prestigious jobs, and make a lot more money on average.

In another sense, however, males aren’t dominant at all.  If you get in public and loudly say, “Males are the superior sex.  We owe them everything.  We need to protect males from women’s emotional abuse and financial exploitation, and show them the great deference they deserve,” almost everyone will recoil in horror.

Do whites dominate our society?

In one sense, they obviously do.  Whites run most of the business world, hold most of the top political offices, hold a clear majority of the most prestigious jobs, and earn above-average incomes.

In another sense, however, whites aren’t dominant at all.  If you get in public and loudly say, “Whites have built Western civilization, the glory of the modern world.  Almost everything good in the modern world builds on white Europeans’ efforts.  The people of the world need to acknowledge how much they owe to the white race, and apologize for their many insults fueled by their own sense of inferiority,” almost everyone will recoil in horror.

My point: There are two very distinct kinds of dominance.*  There is material dominance – control of economic wealth and political power.  And there is rhetorical dominance – control of words and ideas.  Intuitively, you would expect the two to correlate highly.  At least in the modern world, however, they don’t.  Indeed, the correlation is plausibly negative: The groups with high material dominance now tend to have low rhetorical dominance.

Isn’t material dominance clearly more enviable than mere rhetorical dominance?  On balance, I suspect so.  Still, many people who could have won material dominance invest their lives in acquiring rhetorical dominance instead: intellectuals, activists, and religious leaders are all prime examples.  Why do they bother?  Because man does not live by bread alone.  Material dominance gives you luxuries, but rhetorical dominance makes you feel like you’re on top of the world: “I can loudly praise what I like and blame what I dislike – and expect the people who demur to meekly keep their objections to themselves.  Or even feign agreement!”

Conflation of material and rhetorical dominance helps explain why liberals and conservatives so often talk past each.  Liberals feel like conservatives dominate the world, because conservatives run the government half the time, and conservative-leaning groups – the rich, males, whites – have disproportionate influence over the economy.  Conservatives feel like liberals dominate the world, because liberals run the media, schools, and human resources departments.  In a sense, both groups are right.  Conservatives have the lion’s share of material dominance; liberals have more than the lion’s share of rhetorical dominance.  In another sense, though, both groups are wrong.  In the contest for overall dominance, both groups are roughly tied.  Both groups feel like underdogs because both yearn from the kind of dominance they lack.

Due to the endowment effect, moreover, both sides get angry when the other intrudes on “their” territory.  Thus, even though leftists have a near-stranglehold over research universities, the rare academic center that promotes free markets or social conservatism blinds them with rage.  99% rhetorical dominance?  We’re supposed to have 100% rhetorical dominance!  Conservatives have a similar, though less hyperbolic, reaction when business adopts liberal causes.  “Sensitivity training?!  Give me a break.”

The dream of both movements, naturally, is to hold all the dominances.  The conservative dream is a world where they consolidate their lead in the world of business and take over the whole culture.  The liberal dream is a world where they purge the last vestiges of conservative culture and bring business and the rich to their knees.  (The latter rarely means outright expropriation; I think even America’s far left would be satisfied if they could sharply increase regulation and regulation – and hear business and the rich repeatedly shout, “Thank you, may I have another?”)

When you put it this way, of course, both dreams sound like nightmares.  Neither liberals nor conservatives even dimly internalize Spiderman’s principle that “With great power comes great responsibility.” Both are epistemically vicious to the core, so habitually drunk with emotion they don’t even know what sober rationality looks like.  Frankly, I’d like to see both of these secular religions fade away like Norse mythology.  Since that’s unlikely to happen, however, I’m grateful to live in a world with an uneasy balance of power.  Or to be more precise, an uneasy balance of dominance.

* I suspect Robin Hanson will say that I’m conflating dominance and prestige.  Maybe a little, but when I picture “rhetorical dominance,” I’m picturing words and ideas that intimidate more than they inspire.  General point: You can have material prestige and rhetorical prestige as well as material dominance and rhetorical dominance.

Open This Content

Why Culture Matters

What is Culture?

As individuals, people experience consciousness (identity, intelligence, soul, conscience), develop character (will, agency, behavioral patterns, habits), and demonstrate preferences of style (taste). Biological traits and tendencies both enable and limit perceptions and abilities, but all people have the ability (and unavoidable responsibility) to shape their character and develop to their potential.

By natural extension, groups of people also experience a sort of shared consciousness (shared identity, values, perceptions, language, epistemological orientation), develop a shared character (ethics, norms/rules, priorities, organizations, obligations, expectations, group dynamics, reputation), and express shared style preferences (aesthetics, dress and grooming, design, cuisine, music, humor, communication patterns, leisure activities, rhythm of life). Culture is an umbrella term for the shared identity, values, perceptions, perspectives, knowledge, beliefs, organizations, practices, and preferences of a group.

Culture is Fundamental

Culture is about much more than just style. Style is a very visible part of culture, but it is also comparably superficial and inconsequential. Style differences rarely cause significant conflict (except, perhaps between significantly shallow people). On the other hand, differences in things like ethics, rules, and behavioral patterns are at the heart of very serious conflicts, indeed. In fact, many conflicts that on the surface appear to be motivated by ethnic identity, political ideology, or religious affiliation are fundamentally cultural.

But understanding culture is not just about conflict; it’s also about the progress of civilizations and quality of life for people everywhere. Key adjustments in culture can have profound effects on group dynamics and future generations.

Cultural Advancement and Decline

The word “culture” comes from the latin cultura referring to the care, development, and protection required to develop something, as in “cultivation” and “agriculture”. The weeds and rocks have to go and the soil has to be prepared in order for precious seeds to be carefully planted and become a beautiful garden that bears fruit and is worth preserving.

In other words, a culture must be both conservative and progressive in order to develop. That is, its members must conserve positive elements while also abandoning negative ones and adopting additional positive ones. All cultures should embrace the best practices of other cultures while conserving and promoting their own.

Here are some examples of elements of high-performing cultures that have proven their value and are worth adopting: coherent philosophy, individual self-determination, reciprocity ethics and natural law, clear and noble grand narrative, private property norms, freedom of association, monogamy, incest avoidance, courtesy, hygiene, industriousness, low time preference, precise and high-minded language, appreciation of / participation in / contribution to sophisticated pursuits.

Cultural decline is marked by the abandonment of such elements and their replacement with corrupt and perverse ones.

Open This Content

Prefer Consequences to Revenge

If your idea of a good time is to vandalize someone’s home, I have no sympathy for you no matter what consequences result.

Last year a relative’s home near Clovis was burglarized and cleaned out. Through the ruthless determination of his granddaughter, all his belongings were discovered on the property of the burglar (or an accomplice) and recovered.

Now, someone has decided it was a good idea to try to destroy his whole house. The house he built with his own hands more than half a century ago.

If you think this makes me angry, you’d be on the right track.

When a person makes the choice to violate life, liberty, or property they’ve lost their humanity in my eyes. Their reasons or justifications never matter.

I understand spur-of-the-moment bad decisions, but to make a conscious decision to violate someone? That’s where I draw the line.

No, it doesn’t mean I want to see the law used against them. In fact, the law does more to protect bad guys from consequences than it does to protect their victims.

Nor am I calling for punishment, which I oppose as revenge. I prefer social consequences. Real justice. Including — specifically — shunning.

There are people out there who know these and other criminals who make a habit of victimizing residents of the community. I doubt either they or the violators they know are literate enough to read newspapers or anything else, though. Maybe someone can read this to them.

If you know someone who habitually violates others, and you choose to continue associating with them, you are as guilty as they are. Violators should be left to die alone in the elements, naked and starving. There’s no excuse to sell them food, water, fuel, clothing, shelter, or medical care once you are aware of their choice to violate.

If you continue to trade products and services with them you are spitting in the faces of all their victims; past, present, and future.

I’d rather see their pictures, addresses, and crimes posted on social media or on public flyers. Let everyone know who they are and what they do. “Innocent until proven guilty” is only the standard for government courts. If you know the truth, share it.

Consequences of this sort would do more to promote civilization than all the laws you could ever write and enforce. Violators survive only because otherwise good people help them, even if it’s accidental. Stop enabling them to live to violate again.

Open This Content