T&S: Every Scar is a Bridge to Someone’s Broken Heart

788 - Thrice Today was my day for another post at Times and Seasons. This time, I went for a very, very short post about the connection between suffering and empathy, with a little help from neuroscience, my favorite band (Thrice), and quotes from the books of Alma and Matthew. The message: Every Scar is a Bridge to Someone’s Broken Heart.

Give it a read, if that piques your interest.

The Slow Hunch: August – October 2015

It’s that time again. And I’ve gone from a 5 month gap in reporting to 2.5 instead. So, that’s progress.

Here’s what you probably missed the last couple months:

  • Materiality, Technology, and Seer Stones – A couple reactions to the photos of Joseph Smith’s seer stones released by the LDS Church framed by the insights of media scholar John Durham Peters.
  • Grace In All Things – A few thoughts on a recent review of philosopher Adam Miller’s book Speculative Grace.
  • Why I Fail To Write – Drawing on an interview with Peters (mentioned above), I look at his research techniques and compare them to mine.
  • “This Stupid, Wonderful, Boring, Amazing Job” – Uses The Office to stress the importance of the mundane.
  • Semiotic Objections to Business – Looks at arguments made by Georgetown professors Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski’s new book regarding modern objections to markets and applies them to business. Also features Ned Beatty’s speech from the Oscar-nominated Network.
  • “Good For That Which Is Good” – Argues that Wharton professor Adam Grant’s research on “givers” in the workplace further supports the notion of an inherently good business.

Enjoy loyal readers (you two are great)!

Book Review: ‘Evolving Faith’

EvolvingfaithR3Over at Worlds Without End, I’ve reviewed BYU biologist Steven Peck’s forthcoming book Evolving Faith: Wanderings of a Mormon Biologist: the latest in the “Living Faith” series from the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. The book offers both technical works in science and philosophy (largely surrounding evolution and ecology) and personal essays. I conclude,

Beyond merely being a book that speaks positively of evolution that was published through “the Lord’s University” (which may come in handy when discussing it with Mormons skeptical of the theory), it also is an example of what Latter-day Saints should be doing: thinking deeply about science, philosophy, and theology. Peck’s essays could potentially rekindle a sense of connection between Latter-day Saint readers and Creation, binding them to all living beings. The book is a reminder of the strangeness of embodiment and consciousness, an invitation to reflect on the millions of years written into our genetic code, and a call to environmental ethics and proper stewardship. Peck has provided a benchmark in LDS dialogue between science and religion. Not only will this book be helpful for lay readers, but it can serve as a model for future academics seeking to tackle similar subjects. I hope to see insights by Peck and others begin to trickle into class discussions and maybe, just maybe, replace the anti-scientific views found in so much Church curriculum. We will be a better church for it.

Check it out and be sure to pre-order Peck’s book.

Angus Deaton: Nobel Prize in Economics

Princeton economist Angus Deaton was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics earlier this week. “Deaton’s work,” reports Reason, “has focused on how to reconcile economic theory with economic data, specifically looking at various measures of well-being, health, inequality, consumption, and economic growth.” His book The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality is a nice summary of his work. Deaton’s work shows how crucial it is to compare models to reality. Furthermore, it is a nice reminder that the world in many respects is getting better.

Check out his lecture below.

Getting Rid of Borders

New immigrants possess skills different from those of their hosts, and these differences enable workers in both groups to better exploit their special talents and leverage their comparative advantages. The effect is to improve the welfare of newcomers and natives alike. The immigrant who mows the lawn of the nuclear physicist indirectly helps to unlock the secrets of the universe.

So says economist Alex Tabarrok in a short piece in The Atlantic titled “The Case for Getting Rid of Borders–Completely.” Better yet, he addresses what has become a buzzword among politicians: inequality. “Not every place in the world is equally well-suited to mass economic activity,” he writes. “Nature’s bounty is divided unevenly. Variations in wealth and income created by these differences are magnified by governments that suppress entrepreneurship and promote religious intolerance, gender discrimination, or other bigotry. Closed borders compound these injustices, cementing inequality into place and sentencing their victims to a life of penury.” And many want to keep it that way.

Those that supposedly care about inequality and poverty, but continue to hold protectionist and nationalist views, would do well to take Tabarrok’s words to heart.

More to Morality than Niceness?

800 - Morality Niceness

A friend on Facebook shared this comment. The idea behind it seems self-evident: shouldn’t you evaluate your actions with respect to others based on how they themselves perceive those actions? If you like vanilla more than chocolate, then it doesn’t make sense to give everyone vanilla. You should find out which they prefer themselves, and you should behave accordingly. Simple, right?

Well, no. It’s not always that simple. The reason that analogy works is precisely because taste really is subjective. But, unless you’re willing to buy into total moral relativism, then that analogy is not going to translate simply and easily from dishing out ice cream to much more complex issues ranging from helping people kill themselves (assisted suicide) to helping people mutilate themselves (see: Bodily Integrity Disorder).

By the way, I had to look up David G. McAfee (who wrote the original Tweet). If you did not know who he was, then the best way to introduce him is as a sidekick to the Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse. Which is to say, he’s the newest generation of the New Atheist movement. I particularly enjoyed the titles of his books: Disproving Christianity and Other Secular Writings and Mom, Dad, I’m an Atheist: The Guide to Coming out as a Non-Believer. There are few things as endearing as the towering sense of certainty that accompanies precious young adulthood. Whether it’s fundamentalist Christians who know that they can prove God exists or fundamentalist atheists who know they can prove God doesn’t exist, you just kind of want to ruffle their hair and say, “That’s the spirit, Sport. Go get ’em.”

This clash between the directive to just “be nice” (which entails a kind of moral relativism) and the apparent callousness of traditional morality (which stems from moral objectivism or realism) is incredibly important. It constitutes an essential aspect of the clash between social conservatives and social liberals. Pick any one of several issues and you will find at root a conflict over moral relativism masquerading as a conflict over self-determination. One example is the right-to-die movement, which argues that denying legalized, physician-assisted suicide is a gross abridgment of the right of rational human beings to choose the timing, manner, and rationale of their own demise. The same sentiment pervades most of the sexual philosophy of modern liberalism: as long as people are consenting adults, what right have we to abridge their choices with either legal or moral condemnation?

The logic is strong and compelling because it taps into a bedrock principle of the philosophy that our nation was founded on. What is more American or more Enlightened than to staunchly defend the right of citizens to choose their own identities and destinies?

And yet, as even some liberals have started to intuit, this logic takes us in unintended directions. Damon Linker is one who has had the temerity to draw attention to this point. In “Yes, the Libertarian Moment has Arrived” he argued that “America clearly is becoming more libertarian — it’s just that the transformation is happening in morality and culture, not in economic, tax, and regulatory policy.” Linker traces this shift to Anthony Kennedy’s decision on Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in which he wrote that “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, of the mystery of human life.” Scalia, as prescient as he is grumpy, “recognized immediately that such a libertarian principle created serious problems for morals legislation of any kind.”

The problem with Kennedy’s logic is that it has no limiting principle. And the problem with that is that it leads to places that make us uncomfortable. Which is why Linker is one of the few (maybe the only?) social liberal to publicly connect the dots between socially liberal positions that are in and socially liberal positions that are (so far) still very much out. This irritates his fellow liberals to no end, as he wrote about in “No, I’m not the Rick Santorum of punditry“:

Why, these readers wonder, do I continually highlight such trends as the acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex marriagepolyandry, the mainstreaming of porn, consensual brother-sister incest, and bestiality, while also insinuating that they’re all somehow connected? In doing so, aren’t I invoking the same kind of alarmist and fallacious slippery-slope arguments favored by social conservatives — and in particular by the wannabe savior and champion of the religious right Rick Santorum, who seemed to imply back in 2003 that legalizing same-sex marriage might lead to the acceptance of “man on dog” relationships?

Linker disavowed the slippery-slope argument, and this is reasonable. To the extent that the slippery slope argument functions as a rhetorical device to transfer disgust from bestiality to homosexuality it is morally and logically deficient. The two are in no way equivalent, the one does not lead to the other, and given those two facts sloppy conflation of the two leads to justifiable outrage that drowns out a more legitimate—and more subtle—argument. It’s not that gay marriage itself implies anything else on Linker’s list. It’s that they are all implied by a common cause.

To explain this common cause, Linker cites social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory (MFT). According to this theory, there are six universal moral value-opposite pairs: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Haidt has discovered that while conservatives in America incorporate all six pairs into their moral paradigms, liberals in America acknowledge exclusively the first three.

Linker focuses on just the first pair (care/harm), writing that in the West “within the past few decades… the concern for care/harm — with both care and harm defined exclusively in terms of individual preferences and desires — begun to drive out other moral principles.” As a result:

Outside of the relatively narrow sphere of the law, this shift isn’t taking the form of a slide down a slippery slope, as if the acceptance of homosexuality were causing or leading to the acceptance of other sexual behaviors that were once considered deviant. Rather, the public condemnation of all such behaviors is slowly fading away because of an underlying ethical shift that has transformed care/harm into the ultimate moral trump card.

The liberal paradigm, rooted in myopic attention to care/harm, is the common cause that leads to, for instance, acceptance of gay marriage and of group marriage. To the extent that gay marriage is accepted (legally and morally) on these grounds, it validates the care/harm paradigm and that validation (not gay marriage itself) will inevitably lead to group marriage. It is also vital to note that it is not just the emphasis on care/harm but also, as Linker pointed out, care/harm “defined exclusively in terms of individual preferences and desires.” In other words: while everyone is off debating about self-determination and individual human dignity, the actual payload of these arguments is to sneak moral relativism in while no one is paying attention.

So this is why McAfee’s quote matters so much. At first it seems like just a pedantic reformulation of the Golden Rule. But the point of Christ’s injunction was to broaden the scope of morality. Instead of behaving morally within our clan or tribe, our moral obligations became universal. That was the primary point he was making, as the following parable illustrates quite clearly. McAfee has not only missed the point, but he is using an apparently trivial twist to do something entirely different; he is redefining morality. The new formulation substitutes subjectivism and sentimentalism in place of moral realism.

The problem, for Linker at least, arises when that same paradigm leads not only to validating polyamory in group marriages (for example), but also extends to behaviors that still trigger to disgust in most people. Linker writers:

That’s why the recent 6,200-word New York magazine interview with a committed “zoophile” is so important — because it’s such a perfect example of this transformation and its practical implications. The piece expressed no concern about the subject’s moral degradation and in fact contained no moral judgments at all — except to denounce those who would make such judgments. And why is it wrong to judge a man harshly for having sex with a horse? Simply because, the interview clearly implied, it would be mean (and so harmful) to those who have such desires.

Which leads Linker to his most important question:

Don’t get me wrong: being nice is definitely a good thing. But is it the best thing? The highest thing? The thing that should override every other possible moral judgment? I’m not so sure.

Linker is in search of some kind of limiting principle. He understands (and so do most social liberals, which is why they get so testy about it) that within the new moral paradigm there isn’t one. The only thing that separates acceptance of homosexuality on the one hand and consensual sibling incest on the other hand is popularity. Which is to say, fashion. That’s it. There’s no substantive argument possible within the exclusive care/harm paradigm to admit the one but deny the other. And so social liberals are confronted with a stark question. Do they fully embrace the logic of their paradigm and concede that their own disgust at zoophilia, incest, and so forth are nothing more than newly exposed forms of bigotry? Or do they reject the logic of their moral paradigm and look elsewhere to arrest the unfolding progress of moral progressivism?

The Emotions Behind Procrastination

I used to teach a (poorly attended) finance class the second hour of church while I was what is called a Ward Employment Specialist. One of my main focuses was not just mere budgeting tips, but the underlying emotions of finance. Most finance experts recognize that the reasons people spend too much and save too little is because of the emotional states we are in when we (don’t) spend or (don’t) budget. I was reminded of this while I was reading a recent article in The Wall Street Journal on procrastination:

Putting off a work or school assignment in order to play videogames or water the plants might seem like nothing more serious than poor time-management.

But researchers say chronic procrastination is an emotional strategy for dealing with stress, and it can lead to significant issues in relationships, jobs, finances and health.

…Many chronic procrastinators believe they can’t get started on a task because they want to do it perfectly. Yet studies show chronic procrastination isn’t actually linked to perfectionism, but rather to impulsiveness, which is a tendency to act immediately on urges…Highly impulsive people…shut down when they feel anxiety. Impulsive people are believed to have a harder time dealing with strong emotion and want to do something else to get rid of the bad feeling…

Focusing on time management alone will help procrastinators, but only so much, the scientists say. The emotional regulation component must be addressed as well.

If you struggle with procrastination like I do, you might find the article helpful. Give it a read.


How Not to Reduce Inequality

Double the taxes! Triple the taxes!

AEI’s James Pethokoukis has a blog post covering a recent Brookings study on the effects of “taxing the rich” on inequality. The study found that large increases to the top individual tax rate did little to reduce inequality, even when assuming explicit redistribution to the bottom 20 percent. Pethokoukis then draws attention to suggestions that have been made to reduce inequality:

Inequality researcher and best-selling author Thomas Piketty says “the main policy to reduce inequality is not progressive taxation, is not the minimum wage. It’s really education. It’s really investing in skills, investing in schools.” That would seem to reflect the idea, put forward by Steven Kaplan and Joshua Rauh, that technology and globalization have enabled the highly talented and educated individuals to manage or perform on a larger scale, “thus becoming more productive and higher paid.”

He continues to offer various, evidence-based reasons for rising inequality, including real-estate prices and better-paying firms.

Worth the read.

Missing Fathers and Mass Killers

788 - Lonely Son

Damon Linker has a good piece about the violence of mass shootings: Men and mass murder: What gender tells us about America’s epidemic of gun violence. Most perpetrators of violence in all societies (this is one of those social universals) are men, and mass shooters are no exception: “Murder is an overwhelmingly male act, with the offender proving to be a man 90 percent of the time the person’s gender is known. When it comes to mass shootings, the gender disparity is even greater, with something like 98 percent of them perpetrated by men.”

So, first there’s a connection between men and mass shootings. Then Linker goes one step farther and links a particular male response to perceived grievance:

Men and women both experience righteous indignation, of course. But there may be something specific about masculinity — perhaps its deep ties to irrational pride — that leads some men to experience a perceived injustice (and especially a string of them) as an excruciating personal humiliation that cries out not just for redress but for revenge. In this way, wounded pride provokes some men to lash out in a violent fury at their fellow human beings as a way of striking back at the intolerable injustice of the world.

And then he stops. Which is a shame. He should have kept going.

Because there’s another trait that mass shooters have in common: fatherlessness. Peter Hasson covered this for The Federalist: Guess Which Mass Murderers Came From A Fatherless Home. He cites a Brad Wilcox National Review article from 2013 (Sons of Divorce, School Shooters) in which Wilcox says:

From shootings at MIT (i.e., the Tsarnaev brothers) to the University of Central Florida to the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Ga., nearly every shooting over the last year in Wikipedia’s ‘list of U.S. school attacks’ involved a young man whose parents divorced or never married in the first place.

Let me pull in just one more article and then make some final observations. This one is from Sue Shellenbarger in the WSJ: Roughhousing Lessons From Dad. Shellenbarger starts out with an incredibly important observation:

There is no question among researchers that fathers who spend time with their children instill self-control and social skills in their offspring.

If you could name just two traits to lessen the likelihood that a young man ever considers school shootings as the solutions to his life’s problems, these would be the two traits. Social skills to avoid a lot of the alienation and failure that engenders the grievances in the first place, and to help these young men find constructive ways to deal with those grievances that do arise. And self-control to ensure that any grievances which cannot be ameliorated do not become a basis for action.

Everyone wants to find the one solution that’s going to solve school shootings. There isn’t one solution. No complex social problem has a simple, easy solution. In particular, gun control debates basically do nothing but make people angry and waste our time. That’s not to say that we should not change our gun laws. There are actually very good arguments–philosophical and practical–for changing gun laws. School shootings, however, are not among those arguments. The basic reason for this is straightforward: most school shootings are premeditated. This means the killer has lots of time to acquire a gun. Most do so legally, passing background checks (which can’t screen for crimes you haven’t committed yet) and following all applicable laws. Those that do not, have the time and the means to acquire them illegally. So the only gun control laws that would do anything are gun control laws that would significantly decrease the availability of guns in the long term. Considering that there are more firearms than human beings in this country, nothing short of a massive, nation-wide confiscation program is going to put a dent in the practical availability of firearms, and therefore nothing that falls short of that is going to have a meaningful impact on the specific type of crime we’re talking about here.Such a sweeping change is not on the table.

Now, I understand a lot of folks will want to push back and insist that there are common sense changes we can make that will help at least a little bit. There really aren’t. Not when it comes to school shootings. When it comes to other gun-related problems–from suicide to gang violence–there is certainly a lot to talk about. I’m not trying to shut down the debate by claiming that laws don’t matter. Obviously, in general, they do. But in the specific case of school shootings–due to the nature of the attacks and the attackers–most incremental changes will have no effect. Add a waiting period? These guys are planning their attacks months or years in advance anyway. Close the gunshow loophole? Most of the shooters acquired their guns by going through the background check process. They didn’t need the loophole. Ban assault weapons? Almost all attacks use handguns anyway, including the deadliest. Reduce the magazine capacity? There is no practical difference in lethality–when attacking unarmed civilians–between a standard 15-round magazine and a low-capacity 10-round magazine. The deadliest school shooter used a mixture of 19 pre-loaded 10- and 15-round magazines. If they’d all been 10-round magazines, he would have maybe carried a few more and maybe reloaded a little more often. (It takes less than a second or two.)

So if you want to debate gun policy: that’s fine. There is lots to talk about. But insisting that incremental policies will have an effect in this particular case is just wishful thinking. I’m sorry, but that’s the reality.

But that doesn’t mean we are helpless to do anything. It just means that laws are not the solution to all social problems. I don’t think that that should really be a revelation, but in some sense it is. We love politics because it’s a spectator sport. It has a score. It has winners and losers. It has teams, and traditions, and tribes, and flags, and symbols, and so naturally it occupies a huge amount of our attention. Too much, I think.

The older I get, the more I think that it’s the quiet, informal, decentralized aspects of our society that are the most important. The traditions, the habits, the expectations, and the attitudes of a people matter a lot more than their laws. And there is room for us to make changes there. The only problem is that, because they happen at the individual level, they are not connected to an exciting sports spectacle. And, in addition, there is really no guarantee that our efforts will have any impact. But I think it’s the only thing that can really help maintain the aspects of our society we cherish and restore or fix the aspects that are broken.

I already posted about the danger of glorifying the mass killers. That’s not a legal change. That’s not a policy change. That’s a social change. It’s enough people–one at a time–deciding to turn off 24-hour cable news coverage, steer clear of clickbait and rumors and conspiracy theories, and opt out of lurid headlines full of details about the killers: their names, their pictures, their backgrounds, their manifestos, all of it.

Even bigger than that is the crisis of fatherlessness in our society. Kids need parents. They need mom. They need dad. We as a society have to figure out how to stem the tide of kids growing up without the irreplaceable guidance and influence of their fathers. We’re paying an incredibly high price for a lax attitudes about sex and parental responsibility that have time and time again placed the interests of adults above the interests of children. As time goes on, that price tag is only going to get higher. School shootings are just one particular symptom.


T&S: Reading the Book of Mormon for the First Time Again

789 - Angry Pterodactyl 2

What do giant, angry pterodactyls, vegeta, Harry Potter, and the Book of Mormon all have in common? Read my latest post at Times and Seasons to find out: Reading the Book of Mormon for the First Time Again. (Sort of. In reality, the only thing they have in common is that they’re all in that post.)