Sunday, 1 April 2018

Not Having a Horse in the Race - the Value of Abstraction

Afternoon - hopefully the referee will refrain from jumping in and breaking this post up if it threatens to get interesting.

I'm not sure whether or not I'm in a minority but it's absolutely true that while some of us enjoy the exploration a hypothetical situation or philosophical area, there are many (perhaps more) others who regard this as 'not real world', some sort of obsessing with minutae/dancing on the head of a pin type of activity or whatever. We are of course living in times where senses of grievance, grudge and disenfranchisement drive the reaction of otherwise sane and reasonable people to whatever we are all supposed to be talking about, be it Brexit, 'group rights' or any other emotive subject. It's perhaps unsurprising that abstraction from filling the car/paying the bills is seen as 'weird' in such a climate.

As a vegetarian (and no I'm not trying to convert anybody, make up your own minds on that score) I'm as familiar as anyone with the old dilemma around "eat this chicken or two more will die". Now at the centre of this question (as well as all good hypotheticals) is a philosophical argument between the merits of a rule-based/principled way of thinking and a more practical or consequentialist one. By refusing to eat the chicken I am of course sticking to my non-meat-eater code of conduct and taking a consistent ethical stance, but then you've just told me that one way or another, two sentient beings will die immediately upon my refusal...the right thing to do?

It essentially boils down to...what matters more, standing up for 'the right thing' and 'what you believe in' or the material consequences of your actions, both for yourself and others?

In this famous 'chicken paradox' I ultimately wouldn't eat the animal and I'll briefly explain why. My refusal to eat the chicken is no guarantee that somebody else will not consume it at a later date, but even if you could provide me with something in writing to the effect of "the two 'saved' chickens will live a happy life and be allowed to die naturally", we just know that the natural demand for meat will continue to exist. This isn't a zero-sum game and farmers will continue to breed all types of animals to meet the ongoing requirements of consumers for meat, dairy and eggs. However, that wasn't a straightforward or easy call to make and I respect any vegetarian or vegan who chooses differently.

Here's one that even the carnivores amongst us can engage with - suppose you have an island comprising of a thousand people who live in  poverty (relative in western terms as opposed to abject poverty, for the benefit of the question). Now an immensely wealthy individual wants to move to the island and bring his or her billions with them (again we'll clarify this is lawfully earned money as opposed to the proceeds of crime or anything like that). Someone on the island's Parliament proposes that we either a) take a percentage of that individual's wealth upon arrival, to be shared amongst the native population or b) do not allow them to enter the island at all. What's the 'right' answer here? 

Now the case for such a measure is that someone with such concentrated and disproportionate relative resources has it within his or her capacity to basically enslave the population of the island. The potential for the democratic process to be subverted and 'bought off' in exchange for special treatment and favours is very real, as is the risk of all that hard cash flooding into the local economy and potentially devaluing the currency (as well as the material assets of others). A one-off tax as a condition for entry would alleviate envy or resentment amongst the natives, while enabling badly-needed investment in the island's education system, defence and infrastructure.

Conversely, whether you agree with income tax as a principle or not, there's a sound argument that what is basically the theft of somebody's legally acquired wealth, assets or possessions to placate a baying mob is ethically and morally indefensible. You could reasonably point out that this money would end up with the island's politicians as opposed to its people, and might be used for the purposes of electoral bribery, which is itself a form of corruption (see the squandering of oil wealth in Venezuela for further details). It's also fair enough to suggest that 'the wealthy one' could be better encouraged into philanthropy or long-term sustainable economic investment than a simple 'cash grab'.

I'm naturally more inclined towards the second argument than the first, but if you come down on the other side or some sort of compromise between the two then that's fair enough as long as you know precisely why and can rationalise it. Hopefully I can catch up with a few of you in person at some point and go through the scenario at length, but the value of such discussions is twofold. Firstly, this battle between principles/rule-based systems and utilitarian/greatest good ones should get sensible and intelligent people thinking, at least for a while. Anybody giving a knee-jerk and/or absolutist answer to such a question has either not thought it through probably or has a dangerous mind.

I wouldn't steal half of a person's money in the scenario outlined, or refuse to let them in, but then it's equally unlikely I would do precisely nothing towards keeping the peace either. The moral of such tales is that while a mentality of "I believe what I believe and fuck the consequences for others" can be incredibly dangerous and counter-productive, the 'pragmatism on steroids' which serves as the reverse polarity of this is little more than believing in everything while simultaneously believing in nothing. If some contrived 'greater good' always, always wins out against the rules protecting the one against the tyranny of the 99, then no such rules exist in reality. A 'blend' of the two is needed.

Most importantly it's the surreal and vaguely ridiculous nature of the scenario that makes you come at the subject in a dispassionate and unemotional way. This is a fundamental aspect in which 'group thinkers' differ wildly from individualists, namely that one has a horse in the race while the other does not. This is why collectivists of both Toddler Left and Toddler Right persuasions struggle desparately with abstraction and the application of philosophical rigour. You are basically asking him or her to approach the question from a starting place they are not used to occupying, and the dismissal of such intellectual archaeology as 'not real world' or lacking 'common sense' is predictable enough.

Someone I respect recently suggested that philosophy should be a subject available for teenagers at school and I'm inclined to agree that is should at least be an option (if you're proposing that philosophy replaces sex education or 'citizenship' then I'll put my signature to whatever you want). While I'm not interested in directing the thought process of any individual in a particular direction, the arrival at whatever conclusion one might reach by a rational process rather than an emotive one is likely to lead to a more intelligible discourse and stem the flow of the willfully blind into 'groups' engaged in perpetual grievance with each other. I am of course aware that it may already be too late.

Anyway, that was surprisingly good fun to write - if you want to throw down your own hypothetical/philosophical scenarios or comment on those illuminated above then feel free.

In the meantime I'll leave you with some Lloyd Cole and see you next time - thanks for dropping by.

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