Tag Archives: consistency

You might be population too

I recently attended a dinner forum on what size the population should be. All of the speakers held the same position: small. The only upsides of population mentioned were to horrid profit seeking people like property developers. Yet the downsides to population are horrendous – all our resource use problems multiplied! As one speaker quoted “The population can’t increase forever, and as a no brainer it should stop sooner rather than later”. As there are no respectable positives in the equation, no need for complicated maths. Smaller is better.

I suggested to my table what I saw as an obvious omission in this model: I at least am enjoying the population being big enough to have me in it, so I would at least consider putting a big positive value on human lives. My table seemed to think this an outlandish philosophical position. I suggested that if resource use is the problem, we fix externalities there, but they thought this just as roundabout a way of getting ‘sustainability’, whereas cutting the population seems straightforward and there’s nothing to lose by it. I suggested to the organizer that the positive of human existence deserved a mention (in a multiple hour forum), and he explained that if we didn’t exist we wouldn’t notice, as though that settles it.

But the plot thickened further. Why do you suppose we should keep the population low? “We should leave the world in as good or a better condition as we got it in” one speaker explained. So out of concern for future generations apparently. Future people don’t benefit from being alive, but it’s imperative that we ensure they have cheap water bills long before they have any such preferences. Continue reading

Perfect principles are for bargaining

When people commit to principles, they often consider one transgression ruinous to the whole agenda. Eating a sausage by drunken accident can end years of vegetarianism.

As a child I thought this crazy. Couldn’t vegetarians just eat meat when it was cheap under their rationale? Scrumptious leftovers at our restaurant, otherwise to be thrown away, couldn’t tempt vegetarian kids I knew. It would break their vegetarianism. Break it? Why did the integrity of the whole string of meals matter?  Any given sausage was such a tiny effect.

I eventually found two explanations. First, it’s easier to thwart temptation if you stake the whole deal on every choice. This is similar to betting a thousand dollars that you won’t eat chocolate this month. Second, commitment without gaps makes you seem a nicer, more reliable person to deal with. Viewers can’t necessarily judge the worthiness of each transgression, so they suspect the selectively committed of hypocrisy. Plus everyone can better rely on and trust a person who honors his commitments with less regard to consequence.

There’s another good reason though, which is related to the first. For almost any commitment there are constantly other people saying things like ‘What?! You want me to cook a separate meal because you have some fuzzy notion that there will be slightly less carbon emitted somewhere if you don’t eat this steak?’ Maintaining an ideal requires constantly negotiating with other parties who must suffer for it. Placing a lot of value on unmarred principles gives you a big advantage in these negotiations.

In negotiating generally, it is often useful to arrange visible costs to yourself for relinquishing too much ground. This is to persuade the other party that if they insist on the agreement being in that region, you will truly not be able to make a deal. So they are forced to agree to a position more favorable to you. This is the idea behind arranging for your parents to viciously punish you for smoking with your friends if you don’t want to smoke much. Similarly, attaching a visible large cost – the symbolic sacrifice of your principles – to relieving a friend of cooking tofu persuades your friend that you just can’t eat with them unless they concede. So that whole conversation is avoided, determined in your favor from the outset.

I used to be a vegetarian, and it was much less embarrassing to ask for vegetarian food then than was afterward when  I merely wanted to eat vegetarian most of the time. Not only does absolute commitment get you a better deal, but it allows you to commit to such a position without disrespectfully insisting on sacrificing the other’s interests for a small benefit.

Prompted by The Strategy of Conflict by Thomas Schelling.

Romantic idealism: true love conquers almost all

More romantic people tend to be vocally in favor of more romantic fidelity in my experience. If you think about it though, faith in romance is not a very romantic ideal. True love should overcome all things! The highest mountains, the furthest distances, social classes, families, inconveniences, ugliness, but NOT previous love apparently. There shouldn’t be any competition there. The love that got there first is automatically the better one, winning the support and protection of the sentimental against all other love on offer. Other impediments are allowed to test love, sweetened with ‘yes, you must move a thousand miles apart, but if it’s really true love, he’ll wait for you’. You can’t say, ‘yes, he has another girlfriend, but if you really are better for him he’ll come back – may the truest love win!’.

Perhaps more commitment in general allows better and more romance? There are costs as well as benefits to being tied to anything though. Just as it’s not clear that more commitment in society to stay with your current job would be pro-productivity, it’s hard to see that more commitment to stay with your current partner would be especially pro-romance. Of course this is all silly – being romantic and vocally supporting faithfulness are about signaling that you will stick around, not about having consistent values or any real preference about the rest of the world. Is there some other explanation?


Are abortion views sexist?

Indian girls are born on 500,000 fewer occasions per year than Indian boys (2006).(Photo: Steve Evans)

Indian girls are born on 500,000 fewer occasions per year than Indian boys (2006).(Photo: Steve Evans)

Abortion isn’t too bad according to half of Americans, and most of liberals and the irreligious and that bunch. The fetus never really got as far as being a child, and virtually nobody thinks failing to have children is as bad as murder.

Selective abortion of female fetuses, on the other hand, is horrific according to both ends of the ideological spectrum. And the reasons given are almost always to do with it being  bad for the females who aren’t born. It’s “discrimination“, a “gross violation of women’s rights“, “an extreme manifestation of violence against women” . As my pro-choice friend (among others) complains, ‘There are all these females who should exist and are missing!’

So confirmed females have a right to exist if they are conceived, and have suffered a grave loss if they cease to be, but fetuses who might be male may as well not exist? This is either hypocritical or extremely sexist. Why are the same people adamant about both views often?

They both appear to be applications of general pro-female sympathy. When supporting the pro-choice side, the concern is for a woman’s rights over her own body. When condemning gender-specific abortion, the concern is for the females who won’t be born. Siding with the females becomes complicated when females are conspicuous as aborters one day and abortees the next. So it looks like this isn’t hypocrisy via accidental oversight, but policy choice biased by sympathies to a specific gender. If ‘whether an aborted fetus has been done a terrible wrong’ were the important point, we should expect to see more consistency on that.

When I asked about this previously my friend suggested that the motivations were importantly different in the two cases. Aborting someone because they are female is wrong. Aborting someone because you don’t want to look after them is compassionate. This doesn’t apply here, even if it were true. Gender specific abortions are common for economic and other pragmatic reasons too, not because people hate females especially. Moreover one could argue consistently that gender specific abortions are bad because they harm to others who do exist, such as the males who will go lonely. This is rarely the claimed source of outrage however.

The most feasible explanation for this inconsistency then is sexism in favor of females being a big motivating force. You probably don’t approve of sexism in picking job applicants or political candidates. Do you approve of it in picking policies which determine countless lives or deaths?

Markets marketed better

What do you call a system where costs and benefits return to those who cause them? Working markets or karma, depending on whether the accounting uses money or magic.

In popular culture karma generally has good connotations, and markets generally have bad. Reasons for unease about markets should mostly apply just as well to karma, but nobody complains for instance that inherent tendencies to be nice are an unfair basis for wellbeing distribution. Nor that people who have had a lot of good fortune recently might have cheated the system somehow. Nor that the divine internalizing of externalities encourages selfishness. Nor that people who are good out of desperation for fair fortune are being exploited. So why the difference?

Perhaps mysterious forces are just more trustworthy than social institutions? Or perhaps karma seems nice because its promotion is read as ‘everyone will get what they deserve’, while markets seem nasty because their promotion is read as ‘everyone deserves what they’ve got’. Better ideas?