Monday, August 11, 2008

Broken By Design

Looking back at an old comment of mine on Dissoi Blogi, I noticed I'd touched off a flood of philosophical argument. Fun, fun. The original post was on the free rider problem, and I see:
Once we see that the purely causal story [why individuals sacrifice to uphold society's norms] is different from rational justification [why individuals claim this behavior is correct or incorrect], we can more easily notice how little the evolutionary story has helped us with the original problem. For we still have a free-rider problem: it is still open to any individual agent to consider quite seriously whether he has good reason to adhere to the 'formal system of justice' and answer in the negative. The evolutionary story also threatens to leave us feeling as though we've done more than we have: in fact, we've not only failed to make any progress on the free rider problem, but we've failed to ask any of the important questions about what we have reason to do and why.
by Anonymous, in Anonymous Post III
I don't think it avoids important questions at all to posit that sometimes the justifications made after the fact, explaining to curious onlookers why we did some seemingly noble thing, might really be a smokescreen for something as philosophically unsatisfactory as the suggestion that reason and free will are not always the drivers of human conduct, and that members of a society might accept personal sacrifice to promote social due to things like genetic causes. Morever, the fact that some individuals will cheat doesn't mean that other individuals do not. The fact that individuals will cheat gives rise to coping mechanisms like altruistic retribution, which in turn can lead to irrational problems like groupthink. None of these -- the problem, the offered solution, and the solution's side effect -- is either caused by, solved by, or explained usefully by justifications offered by proponents of group norms.

I don't argue that altruistic retribution is a good, but neither do I argue that "free riders" are good. I merely note that they exist. The post I made was about something else: the state of discourse in society about norms, the value of norms, and the individuals who are willing to sacrifice to uphold norms. In the case of norms like tolerance of different opinions -- the norm that enables realization of a value like free speech -- I think a strong case can be made that the norm is unlikely to have much evolutionary support but that it has high utility in combatting problems like groupthink even if its moral value were neglected. Willingness to sacrifice to protect a value like free speech may be a useful norm to cultivate; if so, a public discourse that promotes ridicule of individuals willing to sacrifice to uphold group norms would be counterproductive.

Yet, we have the post that explicitly contrasts the free rider (the opportunistic norm violator) to "the Dumb Ass" (who is depicted as an imbecile for upholding a norm at personal cost). I suggested that, and not free riders, is the puzzle:
Maybe the real mystery is why social cooperation can have come to such a position of disrepute in some respectable segment of society that ... it can be ... accepted to label such cooperators dumb asses.
post Anonymous I to The Free Rider and the Dumb Ass

I think that the author of Anonymous III makes an error when suggesting that "we've not only failed to make any progress on the free rider problem, but we've failed to ask any of the important questions about what we have reason to do and why." I think that positing an unreasoned cause -- that is, an inheritable biological impulse that has been ascertained by real-world study to exist -- is no reason to demand we start fabricating justifications. Some folks are color blind. Other folks are tone-deaf. There may be some people who just don't see why they should care about others and therefore steal and cheat and lie about it, all without compunction. If there is a cause in human brain structure or chemistry that promotes this kind of activity, you can be sure the folks acting in accordance with this cause don't first stop to examine their souls to ascertain whether they have justification to steal or cheat.

They just do it.

This may be deeply troubling for a philosopher interested in commenting on the application of the Republic to the world in which we live. However, I offer a consolation prize.

The work of a philosopher is not to explain the behavior of strangers whose minds he does not know. For he knows not his subjects' axioms, nor their values by which they arrange the ordered lists of "goods" they hope to achieve in life. (Indeed, the observer knows not whether such a list exists, or whether his subject knows his own values, or whether instead his subject merely repeats, unthinkingly and uncritically, the justifications he is fed by still others, whose purposes and priorities may yet be different.) Discerning from their behavior some rule of reason is for psychic diviners, perhaps, but not the philosopher.

The work of a philosopher is to known himself. When one learns why he himself does what he does, and can align his values with his reason and his conduct with his values, then one has done the great work of a philosopher. This work, taken seriously, isn't quickly over.

Samuel Clements, writing as Mark Twain, once wrote that nothing so required reforming as other people's bad habits. I am inclined to think that pretending to philosophy while arguing the justifications for the strange acts of strangers, are merely procrastinating in avoidance of the harder work of discarding one's own externally-crafted justifications, and conducting the careful introspection required to learn one's own self.

The possibility that strangers may behave strangely, and may react without having an articulable reason, is of no consequence to the problem of deciding the values one believes should maintain and how one should live one's life.

Identifying vacuous justifications in the mouths of others might, of course, have value in determining whether you are looking at a person with whom reasoned cooperation is feasible, or whether the speaker is a mad dog who knows not what he does or why but happens to have a mouthful of rhetoric at his disposal -- in which case one should take care not to mistake justification for reason. But that's another topic.

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