The arrogance of the here and now

And now for something completely different.  I’m bored with the Fed, so I’d like to discuss a few ideas triggered by something I recently ran across in a novel by Javier Marias:

The present era is so proud that it has produce a phenomenon which I imagine to be unprecedented: the present’s resentment of the past, resentment because the past had the audacity to happen without us being there, without our cautious opinion and hesitant consent, and even worse without our gaining any advantage from it.  Most extraordinary of all is that this resentment has nothing to do, apparently, with feelings of envy for past splendours that vanished without including us, or feelings of distaste for an excellence of which we were aware, but to which we did not contribute, one that we missed and failed to experience, that scorned us and which we did not ourselves witness, because the arrogance of our times has reached such proportions that it cannot admit the idea, not even the shadow or mist or breath of an idea, that things were better before.  No, it’s just pure resentment for anything that presumed to happen beyond our boundaries and owed no debt to us, for anything that is over and has, therefore, escaped us.  It has escaped our control and our manoeuvrings and our decisions, despite all these leaders going around apologising for the outrages committed by their ancestors, even seeking to make amends by offering offensive gifts of money to the descendants of the aggrieved, regardless of how gladly those descendants may pocket those gifts and even demand them, for they, too, are opportunists, an eye on the main chance.  Have you ever seen anything more stupid or farcical: cynicism on the part of those who give, cynicism on the part of those who receive.  It’s just another act of pride: how can a pope, a king or a prime minister assume the right to attribute to his Church, to his Crown or to his country, to those who are alive now, the crimes of their predecessors, crimes which those same predecessors did not see or recognize as such all those centuries ago?  Who do our representatives and our governments think they are, asking forgiveness in the name of those who were free to do what they did and who are now dead?  What right have they to make amends for them, to contradict the dead?  If it was purely symbolic, it would be mere oafish affectation or propaganda.  However, symbolism is out of the question as long as there are offers of “compensation”, grotesquely retrospective monetary ones to boot.  A person is a person and does not continue to exist through his remote descendants, not even his immediate ones, who often prove unfaithful; and these transactions and gestures do nothing for those who suffered, for those who really were persecuted and tortured, enslaved and murdered in their one, real life: they are lost forever in the night of time and in the night of infamy, which is doubtless no less long.  To offer or accept apologies  now, vicariously, to demand them or pro-offer them for the evil done to victims who are now formless and abstract, is an outright mockery of their scorched flesh and their severed heads, of their pierced breasts, of their broken bones and slit throats.  Of the real and unknown names of which they were stripped or which they renounced.  A mockery of the past. No, the past is simply not to be borne; we cannot bear not being able to do anything about it, not being able to influence it, to direct it; to avoid it. And so, if possible, it is twisted or tampered with or altered, or falsified, or else made into a liturgy, a ceremony, an emblem and, finally, a spectacle, and simply shuffled around and changed so that, despite everything, it at least looks as if we were intervening, even though the past is utterly fixed, a fact we choose to ignore.  And if it isn’t, if that proves impossible, then it’s erased, suppressed, exiled or expelled, or else buried.  And it happens, Jacobo, one or the other of these things happens all too often because the past doesn’t defend itself, it can’t.

I love this passage, especially the final sentence.  It also touched off a train of thought, or perhaps I should say resentments, that go back to my childhood.

As a schoolboy I always resented the unspoken assumption that we were right and that every other time and place was wrong.  Even if we romanticized some aspect of the past, or some exotic culture in a faraway country, we were always implicitly flattering some aspect of  ourselves.  At first I was drawn to science fiction, as a way of escaping the here and now.  As I got older I became more interested in history, and in travel literature.  The more exotic the better.

As an adult I have mostly come to terms with our culture, but still am very annoyed by the way we think about other times and places.  History is increasingly seen as nothing more than victims and villains, especially by liberals.  Conservatives see the future as a sort of dystopian nightmare, at least if the residents of future worlds have the temerity to discard our value system.  We have obviously achieved perfection, even though every previous generation before us was morally flawed.  I don’t know whether future citizens will embrace designer babies, or cryonics, but that’s there decision, isn’t it?  Our ancestors would be shocked by gay marriage, or the fact that we routinely wager on the death of our spouse, where a “win” occurs if the spouse dies.

[For those who don’t know, our ancesters understood that life insurance was morally revolting.]

If I ever became well-known then future people would look back at me and be disgusted by some aspect of my life.  “Sumner was a decent economist; pity about the meat-eating.”

And then there are foreign cultures.  We like to pride ourselves with our love of “diversity,” but how many people enjoy living in a world where others don’t share their moral intuitions?  When we read this in the NYT:

We asked to see Jovali’s parents. The dad, Georges Obamza, who weaves straw stools that he sells for $1 each, is unmistakably very poor. He said that the family is eight months behind on its $6-a-month rent and is in danger of being evicted, with nowhere to go.

The Obamzas have no mosquito net, even though they have already lost two of their eight children to malaria. They say they just can’t afford the $6 cost of a net. Nor can they afford the $2.50-a-month tuition for each of their three school-age kids.

“It’s hard to get the money to send the kids to school,” Mr. Obamza explained, a bit embarrassed.

But Mr. Obamza and his wife, Valerie, do have cellphones and say they spend a combined $10 a month on call time.

In addition, Mr. Obamza goes drinking several times a week at a village bar, spending about $1 an evening on moonshine. By his calculation, that adds up to about $12 a month “” almost as much as the family rent and school fees combined.

I asked Mr. Obamza why he prioritizes alcohol over educating his kids. He looked pained.

Don’t we say to ourselves:  “Oh dear, I’d never behave that way.”  As if we know how we’d behave if we were a poor villager in some God-forsaken part of the Congo.

I suppose people will think I am advocating moral relativism.  Actually I am not making any sort of moral argument, my argument is aesthetic.  I am celebrating the existence of times and places that are rich and strange worlds unto themselves, whether it be 17th century Venice, 18th century Tahiti, 19th century London, or 21st century Tokyo.

I hate how our discussions of “the far” always implicitly assume that we are right and they are wrong.  If East Asian culture is more puritanical than us in some respects, we are to believe that they are Objectively Wrong.  And if in other respects the very same society is less puritanical, well they are also Objectively Wrong in those practices.  Thus I find it refreshing to read travel literature like this from Lawrence Osborne:

I got a lift with John Purdoe back to Sukhumvit, and in the car he told me why he, too, was exiled in Bangkok, though he had never expected to be.  A Jewish boy from Brooklyn working closely with a Catholic priest in a Buddhist slum in Southeast Asia.

“I just wish sometimes I could talk to someone about Isaac Bashevis Singer.  I wish I could talk to someone who’s actually heard of Isaac Bashevis Singer.  But who can I do this with?  There’s no literary culture here.  It’s embryonic.  It’s the one thing that bothers me.  One has to do without that.”

At this very moment, a bike shot by with two Thai girls perched behind the driver.  It was lightly raining and they held two banana colored umbrellas above their identical haircuts.  As they glided past his window they shot John a declarative, sultry, all-the-sex-you-want smile.  For the scholarly-looking boy from Brooklyn, it was enough,

“And then that happens.  You get that come-hither look.  Spontaneous, for no reason, just like that.  Woman to man.  No, no come-hither looks in Brooklyn.  That’s what keeps me here, apart from the work with father Joe.  The come-hither look.  It makes your day.  Perhaps you find that foolish.”

‘Not at all.  It’s like being surrounded by open doors.  You aren’t going to walk through them, but they’re open all the same.”

“Exactly.  It makes you feel alive.  Here, you are alive.  This is the most alive place on earth.  Even if it doesn’t have Isaac Bashevis Singer.  And even if our women wouldn’t understand in a million years.”

Wouldn’t they, though?  I have met plenty of farang women who love Bangkok precisely because it’s the only city in which they aren’t constantly harassed.  No one even looks at them.  They can wander the three-a.m. bars with total anonymity, impunity, for once in their lives reduced to the status of sexual ghosts.  As for the Gloria Steinem brigade—well, what was the point of even trying.  There was no pleasing them about anything.  They were not inclined to consider the question of sex as anything but a problem of crime.  And I thought of all those “hard-hitting exposes” you see in the Bangkok Airport about the sex business, consisting of interviews, economic analyses, and political laments, and I wondered why I never found this type of enquiry particularly enlightening.  Perhaps because it contains so few surprises.  Perhaps because we are invited so crudely to disapprove and wring our hands.

There is social science and there is literature.  Two totally different and incommensurable ways of apprehending the world.  I am a social scientist, and a utilitarian to boot.  The ultimate do-gooder.  I suppose some will be outraged by what seems like moral relativism.  “Why shouldn’t all societies follow our utilitarian values?”  Umm, since when are we utilitarians?  Which Western nation has followed Iran’s policy of saving thousands of lives by allowing the sale of organs?

I’m all for making the world a better place; but please, let’s not mix moral and aesthetic judgments.  And I wish we could be a bit less arrogant in our belief that our values are obviously better than those of the past, those of the future, and those of other cultures.

We all live in our own worlds and we all do the best we can; even when we are failing to do the best we can.

PS.  Readers:  Thanks for letting me get that off my chest.  I feel ready to return to economics.  BTW, don’t be fooled by the cover of the Osborne book, it’s G-rated.

PPS.  The Congo article reminded me of this Robin Hanson post.

PPPS.  And I forgot to mention bias against other generations.  Being the father of a little girl, I am frequently asked how I’ll deal with my daughter’s adolescence, as if it is some sort of horrible affliction.  “Aren’t you worried . . . ”   There’s an interesting question here.  I suppose young people may underestimate the risks of certain types of behavior, and nervous middle-aged parents overestimate those risks.  But who is further from the truth?

Am I really claiming that young people might be more mature than we are?  Of course not.   Seven-year olds rarely hold grudges for more than a few hours.  I know adults who react to a real or imagined slight by holding a grudge for decades.  Young people simply don’t have the discipline or maturity to persevere in that way.


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68 Responses to “The arrogance of the here and now”

  1. Gravatar of Luis H Arroyo Luis H Arroyo
    27. July 2010 at 10:33

    PMarcel Proust said that reading literature was often the only way to talk with the past and the dead.

  2. Gravatar of scott sumner scott sumner
    27. July 2010 at 10:42

    Luis, I feel that I know my favorite dead authors better than anyone else in the world, including close friends and family.

  3. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    27. July 2010 at 11:32

    Scott, that’s because they are dead and can’t contradict your opinions of them.

  4. Gravatar of Doc Merlin Doc Merlin
    27. July 2010 at 12:45

    @Morgan:
    haha

  5. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    27. July 2010 at 12:50

    Well! A most interesting post. My wife is Thai, and we have three children, and I love Isaac Bashevis Singer. I live in Thailand part-time. And no, Western literature is not read in Thailand.

    Still, a quibble about the Congo. I contend that cultures and groups that emphasize work and responsibility do flourish, and that result is objectively better than not working and being irresponsible. If I hold any objective values, it is that work and responsibility are good. I just can’t abide by drinking away the malaria net money, and having your kids die as a result. No, I wouldn’t do that, and my ancestros didn’t either, though they faced hardship.

    The virtues of the work/responsibility cut across cultures, ethnic groups and time periods.

    BTW, responsibility can entail many values or actions sometimes thought of as “liberal,” such as not polluting your neighbor’s air and water, or inciting racial/ethic/religious hatreds that could lead to sectarian violence or worse.

    But I agree with much of the sentiments expressed.

    Today, we abhor polygamy–yet it was the norm only a while ago. Wrong or right?

    Indeed, the norm in our founding fathers day was for men to marry into dowries, as did our George Washington, who owned slaves as a result. A slaveowner who married for money–a great man?

  6. Gravatar of rob rob
    27. July 2010 at 12:52

    “the present’s resentment of the past”. I like it.

    It reminds me of the opening to Nabokov’s Speak, Memory:

    “I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged–the same house, the same people–and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence.”

    We seem to be a chronophobiac culture. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

  7. Gravatar of Bernard Guerrero Bernard Guerrero
    27. July 2010 at 12:52

    Allow me to continue to wallow in my own arrogant moral relativism. All moral systems are, to some extent, arbitrary, but that merely means that the only one that is particularly special to me is mine. I do not care if, say, female circumcision is appropriate to local conditions or aesthetically pleasing to the locals. I do not like it and I judge it wrong.

    This is not to say that I imagine my own moral system to occupy the objective center of the universe, some special frame of moral relativity; my own beliefs are as arbitrary and path-dependent as any other. No doubt the advocate of female circumcision would find something or other morally offensive in my own behavior as well. Regardless, the only point of differentiation is that one moral system is my own and all the others are not. It must perforce carry some special weight as I observe the universe around me.

  8. Gravatar of marnues marnues
    27. July 2010 at 13:03

    Can these ideas be turned into an economic force somehow? I suppose my real question is how do we increase the number of people who are open to the cultures of past, present, and future?

  9. Gravatar of Mal Mal
    27. July 2010 at 13:08

    This reminds me of the Paul Graham article What You Can’t Say:

    Have you ever seen an old photo of yourself and been embarrassed at the way you looked? Did we actually dress like that? We did. And we had no idea how silly we looked. It’s the nature of fashion to be invisible, in the same way the movement of the earth is invisible to all of us riding on it.

    What scares me is that there are moral fashions too. They’re just as arbitrary, and just as invisible to most people. But they’re much more dangerous.

    Read the whole thing; you won’t regret it.

  10. Gravatar of azmyth azmyth
    27. July 2010 at 13:38

    “…let’s not mix moral and aesthetic judgments.”

    I don’t think they can be separated. Moral judgements need to be informed by theoretical analysis and empirics, but I’d say that what is morally right is aestheticly pleasing and vice versa. Can you give an example of a moral judgement that is not an aesthetic one?

  11. Gravatar of David Myers David Myers
    27. July 2010 at 13:44

    Characteristically thoughtful post Scott, but I’m curious about a comment you made, seemingly as a sort of “throwaway”.

    “[For those who don’t know, our ancesters understood that life insurance was morally revolting.]”

    I can understand the idea here as it relates to relatively well off people who would have no financial difficulty weathering the loss of a spouse. However, I think many life insurance policies are taken out on the breadwinner of a family, when the surviving spouse and kids would really struggle if the primary earner were just to keel over and die.

    Would you mind laying out a little more your thoughts on this? I’m interested to hear what you think…

  12. Gravatar of rob rob
    27. July 2010 at 14:27

    “Can you give an example of a moral judgement that is not an aesthetic one?”

    History probably wouldn’t be aesthetically pleasing if it weren’t for all the evil in it.

    I read once that: understanding is the antonym of judgment. You can’t read and understand literature if you try to judge the characters instead of understand them.

    Moral judgments have to exist within one’s own society for practical reasons, but when moral judgments cease to serve a practical purpose what purpose do they serve — other than to make us feel morally superior (A feeling that usually results in less moral behavior by ourselves, since we already feel we are behaving well.)?

    Why do we study history or anthropology? To learn from it and apply practical lessons and insights? That is a small part of it. The big part of it is that it is fascinating and makes our lives more fulfilling to learn about.

    It is one thing if your plan is to go to the Congo and give the beer drinker an intervention which you think might improve his family’s lot. It is another to relay a story about the beer drinker actually making the point that his situation is NOT UNDERSTANDABLE. And most readers shake their heads exactly as they are supposed to and think: “I just don’t understand this guy.” (Of course, nobody understands anybody, we just go around pretending we do.)

  13. Gravatar of scott sumner scott sumner
    27. July 2010 at 14:45

    Morgan, Nor could they if they were alive. Who’s to say their view of themselves is more accurate than the persona that appears in their writings.

    Benjamin, You said;

    “Still, a quibble about the Congo. I contend that cultures and groups that emphasize work and responsibility do flourish, and that result is objectively better than not working and being irresponsible.”

    I also think that cultures that emphasize work and responsibility are more likely to flourish (although I think other values like civic-mindedness are far more important. People work hard almost everywhere.) But I don’t believe anything is objectively true, even in science. Instead, things are regarded as true, both in morality and in science.

    rob, Thanks, I like that a lot. I can’t believe I’ve still never read that book. I’ve been meaning to for years.

    Bernard. I agree. That’s the point I was trying to make about meat-eating. I am pretty sure that it will eventually be judged reprehensible. But I don’t think future generations necessarily have a better take on it than I do, so I stick to my guns (not literally.) BTW, I also don’t care for female circumcision.

    Regarding moral relativism; I am neither a moral relativist, nor am I a moral realist.

    marnues. I think that the narrative arts are the best way. But it isn’t easy, as I almost never find portrayals of the the past to be convincing. They are always about the present, and don’t present the past in its own terms. You must read the ancient classics to see what life looked like through the eyes of the ancients.

    As I said, my argument was aesthetic, not moral. By today’s standards Odysseus was a cruel murderer. But by the standards of his time he was a praise-worthy hero. I can enjoy the story at an aesthetic level without changing my personal views on the morality of murder.

    Someone mentioned female circumcision. I am sure there are moms and grandmas in Africa that are the sweetest people imaginable, and that also force that practice on their daughters for what they regard as good reasons. A story about their lives probably won’t change how we view the practice, nor should it. But it might cause us to view them with more respect, and not as simplistic stereotypes.

    Mal, Thanks, I’ll read it.

    azmyth, Read my reply (above) to marnues about Odysseus. At a moral level he was evil, but aesthetically he is an appealing character. We see his actions through Homer’s eyes, not our own. Having said that, you may be right. There may be some aesthetics in all moral judgments. I’m obviously not qualified to even discuss this issue, I was just reacting at a gut level.

    David Myers. I have no problem with life insurance, or selling kidneys for that matter. I was trying to be provocative, to get people to see things through our ancestors eyes. Most Americans today are pretty sure that selling kidneys is wrong and life insurance is OK. I think we are overconfident in our beliefs. I actually don’t believe any of these beliefs are objectively true, but let’s just say I think we are overconfident that our current views will hold up overtime, and also be seen the same way by future generations.

    But I don’t want to be dogmatic about this, I think it extremely likely that our descendants will still view murder and slavery as being wrong. So there are degrees of uncertainty.

  14. Gravatar of Left Outside Left Outside
    27. July 2010 at 14:48

    That was fascinating. Thanks.

    On a pedantic note when you say “our ancestors would be shocked by gay marriage” you should say “some” of our ancestors.

    There’s a long history of gay kinship relationships if your ancestors are African (i.e. everyone).

    I assume that was just sloppy copy editing. However, if you are not aware of the wondrous history of sexuality might I suggest you start with Psychopathis Sexualis, a weird window on C19th sexual practises and attitudes to those practises.

  15. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    27. July 2010 at 15:22

    Scott-

    I did mention examples of responsibility which might be taken as civic-mindedness, such as not polluting your neighbor’s air and water, or not inciting hatreds.

    Anyway, I much enjoyed the main thrust of your blog, which is a useful reminder that our current way is not the only way or best way.

  16. Gravatar of CJ CJ
    27. July 2010 at 17:50

    Prof Sumner–Two clarification questions.

    I’m not entirely sure of the purpose of this statement:

    “History is increasingly seen as nothing more than victims and villains, especially by liberals. Conservatives see the future as a sort of dystopian nightmare, at least if the residents of future worlds have the temerity to discard our value system.”

    Are you trying to say that you think basically everyone is guilty of judging other times by our current, modern contexts? And then are just drawing a distinction, based on political ideology, of how we do that? Or are you somehow saying some particular strand of political ideology is worse than another overall?

    (And, please, don’t just say “liberals blah, and conservatives blah blah.” You sound like Arnold Kling in one of his unflattering posts about what progressives vs. libertarians vs. conservatives believe. Using those terms distracts me from the rest of the post, and in any case is only an approximation since a closer wording to what you mean is “a representative liberal agent” or “a representative conservative agent”. Nevermind that such a creature probably doesn’t exist, and that deviations from the norm can be quite large. Or you might be thinking of specific people. In that case, use some names. But please, please, please don’t just through out broad generalizations based on political ideology. It’s as annoying, demeaning, and distracting as if you said “blacks believe blah, jews believe blah blah, and aryans believe blah blah blah.” Find some premises a bit more concrete to hang your conclusions on.)

    My second question is about 19th century China. Or, for that matter, modern countries that didn’t participate in the neoliberal revolution of the 1970s and 1980s. In both cases there were countries whose leadership made choices that went counter to what would help achieve long-term growth. Probably do to a mixture of their beliefs and a lack of curiosity about other possibilities. How should we judge such choices? Should we judge them at all? Most of your post discusses, I think, how we shouldn’t judge the lifestyles of people, or their consumption choices, if they’re in a different time and place from ourselves. What about their policy choices?

    Other than that, I immensely enjoyed this post. It’s one of the reasons I love learning history. Gives me a much better context to think about the here and now when I know it’s not the always has been, always will be.

  17. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    27. July 2010 at 17:58

    “Morgan, Nor could they if they were alive. Who’s to say their view of themselves is more accurate than the persona that appears in their writings.”

    Which is is exactly why I know the thing you really care about is driving down the cost of houses another 25%.

    It is your destiny Scott Sumner, before we can morally consider targeting NGDP, we must bring down the value of housing, so we have 40% equity.

    Until such time, your plan is evil.

  18. Gravatar of Abelard Lindsey Abelard Lindsey
    27. July 2010 at 18:52

    Don’t we say to ourselves: “Oh dear, I’d never behave that way.” As if we know how we’d behave if we were a poor villager in some God-forsaken part of the Congo.

    If you accept the premise that we ought not judge those different from us, then you should be willing to accept the corollary premise that we are not responsible for the well-being of those who are different from us.

    I have a problem with those who say its wrong to apply one’s values (e.g. work/productivity) towards other cultures, then turn around an say that we are somehow responsible for some kind of global “redistributionism” or that we should not be allowed to develop some technology (healthy life extension) for ourselves because these other cultures “can’t handle” it.

    Its either one way or the other, but you can’t have both.

  19. Gravatar of TGGP TGGP
    27. July 2010 at 19:50

    I third Morgan’s first comment.

  20. Gravatar of ChacoKevy ChacoKevy
    27. July 2010 at 20:55

    Don’t think I can convey in a short paragraph how much I enjoyed this post and its comments. I think another element to consider in addition to moral relativism is a deeply held sense of fatalism in cultures such as that of Jovali’s parents. It’s not even always the theological predestination in a lot of cases, but simply a feeling of helplessness. The “if I’m meant to be rich, I will be rich. If I’m meant to be poor, I will be poor”. Que será, será.
    I do want to ask: when doing cultural assessments for moral relativism, we seem to be speaking about the advanced nation weighing in on the developing one. I get the point of the Robin Hanson post (although I don’t think it is a good example) and think it is very poignant. I simply would say that the California welfare recipients (http://www.latimes.com/news/la-stripclubs30-m,0,1589904.story) prove that Jovali’s parents could just as easily be from a developed country.

  21. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    27. July 2010 at 21:01

    Oh, I forgot another eternal objective truth: The golden rule.
    Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. All else is just commentary.

  22. Gravatar of D. Watson D. Watson
    27. July 2010 at 21:44

    For me, the distressing part is that the virtues of other ages or countries are thrown aside in our denigration of their faults. Each generation sees the hypocrisy of the one before it and then swings the pendulum too far the other way, forgetting the lessons from the generation before. Thankfully, the grandchildren or great-grandchildren usually rediscover some of the older values and enjoy feeling retro, but whether it’s literature and art or ethics, the pendulum just swings too far. It’s one of the reasons I cultivate a mild sense of contrarianism: I studied experimental economics and looked forward to getting engaged in them (someday), but now that they are becoming a cult I’d rather point out their limitations and see what we can’t learn from the denigrated large-N studies (not every day, not every paper, mind you, but there are valuable things in them you just can’t get anywhere else once you take the criticism of the method seriously).

  23. Gravatar of Bonnie Bonnie
    28. July 2010 at 00:22

    There a difference between culture and human nature. The example of the guy in the Congo is not necessarily unique, and not necessarily a reflection of culture as chemical addiction destroys many lives and families throughout the world every day, regardless of whether society views addiction issues as “wrong” or how advanced a society has become. Only the expectations regarding the consequences of it differ from culture to culture.
    I am not near as judgmental as society at large is painted here, and with an extremely wide brush. I am more of a classical liberal, and don’t really fit either conservative or socialist molds, so maybe that is why I don’t understand what was to be accomplished by it.
    If I want a beer or two, or three, or a whole six-pack I’ll have them. But I generally don’t drink often or to excess because I don’t like hangovers and I have too many people who count on me to try to take care of them when I’m smashed, feeling rather terrible, or if I should have only $5 to my name to spend it on beer instead of feed them. It’s a matter of personal choice, not because I care what the neighbors might think. The guy in the Congo didn’t give a hoot about hangovers or taking care of his family, and many Americans don’t either. Do you think a culture that, by and large, disregards the survival of the family can survive? I certainly have my doubts about that guy’s problems being just a difference of opinion about mores. There is evidence that even Neanderthals took care of their young with what they had.

  24. Gravatar of Tracy W Tracy W
    28. July 2010 at 00:50

    The present era is so proud that it has produce a phenomenon which I imagine to be unprecedented:

    In other words, “I’m making this up out of thin air”. Fine, but why should any one else care about Javier Maria’s flight of fancy? I prefer my SF to have a decent plot and interesting characters.

    because the arrogance of our times has reached such proportions that it cannot admit the idea, not even the shadow or mist or breath of an idea, that things were better before.

    I don’t believe this. I have read so many essays, articles, letters to the newspaper, etc by people lamenting how much more selfish we are now, how nastier, how terrible the most recent generation is, that I think this is another figment of Javier Maria’s imagination.

    It’s just another act of pride: how can a pope, a king or a prime minister assume the right to attribute to his Church, to his Crown or to his country

    I have some sympathy for this, unlike Javier Maria’s earlier fact-free imaginations, but on the other hand, let’s say you are an employee of the current Government, who is mistreated by some way, perhaps you enter into a contract with them and they don’t fulfill their end. You take it to the courts, but while the legal process is occurring, there is an election and another party takes power. The courts rule in your favour, typically then the new Government has an oligation to meet the liabilities of the old one. Dealing with the government would become very difficult if there wasn’t this basic continuity. Or let’s take the case of a person who dies with unpaid income, shouldn’t it be paid to their estate? And from this, where does the responsibility stop?

    History is increasingly seen as nothing more than victims and villains

    Where did this word “increasingly” come from? How about the medieval Christain view of the world, who regarded the Romans through the lens of Christainity? What was the medieval Christain view of Jews, or Moors, like? Or, after the Reformation, the Catholic view of Protestants and the Protestant view of Catholics?

    We have obviously achieved perfection,

    If so then why are so many conservatives mourning the decline in moral values, and liberals complaining about hidden racism, sexism, etc, and environmentalists (who may also be liberals and conservatives) talking about our selfishness and how we are destroying the planet?

    I just don’t recognise the world you and Javier Maria are describing. People may be arrogant about their beliefs, but as far as I know we might as well be as equally arrogant or less arrogant than previous generations, and there are also a lot of people who think that we’ve gotten things wrong.

    And I wish we could be a bit less arrogant in our belief that our values are obviously better than those of the past, those of the future, and those of other cultures.

    And if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. We have to make decisions about our lives, if we are to live, food doesn’t magically fall from the sky. Whatever decision we do make, based on values, someone will find a reason to disagree with, so we have to make a decision about what is most important, changing our minds whenever someone disagrees with us, or actually getting on and doing something, like getting food to eat. Consequently a certain arrogance is absolutely necessary for proper functioning, at some point we have to think that our values are the best ones (some people do this by adopting the values of another person wholesale). We can change our minds about our values, but then we do need a minimum level of arrogance about those new values. It’s an interesting balance act, keeping some open-mindedness, but not being so open-minded that your brain falls out.

    And on the topic of arrogance, I believe that Javier Maria’s value of making stuff up out of his imagination and then writing a whole article about it is arrogant, and stupid, and he shouldn’t have done it. Or, alternatively, he should have gone on to make a decent story out of it.

  25. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    28. July 2010 at 03:37

    Left outside: great links. The notion that queerdom is alien became, alas, quite something of a theme in anti-colonial rhetoric, and not only in Africa. It is particularly ludicrous for Americans to claim that marriage has always been a male-female affair given that many Amerindian cultures recognised same-sex relationships reasonably classed as marriages.

    Scott: particularly like the Javier Marias quote, thanks for bringing it your this reader’s attention :)

  26. Gravatar of MikeMcK MikeMcK
    28. July 2010 at 04:41

    I’ve noticed a counter-current where anything non-American, non-Western or from a previous time is coded as “good”. The indigenous ways of managing fishery rights in pre-colonial Cambodia? Pinnacle of humanity! (only a slight exaggeration)

    Could be my fault for reading too many greens and neo-marxist education theorists.

  27. Gravatar of Doc Merlin Doc Merlin
    28. July 2010 at 05:18

    @MikeMcK

    It is not just you; I’ve seen it too. Scott’s views of the arrogance of the here and now, only seems to apply to our own mainstream history and historical values.

  28. Gravatar of Mike Sandifer Mike Sandifer
    28. July 2010 at 06:23

    I wouldn’t concern myself with any of this.

    The real problem, at first glance, is how few Americans know about even American history and their general lack of curiosity, not only regarding other countries and cultures, but anything outside of everyday sensory experience.

  29. Gravatar of scott sumner scott sumner
    28. July 2010 at 07:04

    rob, You make some good points. Let me throw out another thought. You discussed history from an aesthetic point of view, which is also what I was thinking. Perhaps one reason we have a more favorable view of someone like Alexander the Great, as compared to a modern military aggressor, is that war was generally accepted in those days. If country A conquered country B, it was generally understood that if B had been stronger, they would have conquered A. That’s not really true in the modern world, hence the Hitler’s and Saddam’s of the world seem like outlaws, which of course they are, in the precise meaning of ‘outlaw’.

    Left Outside, That’s good point. Moral views alternate back and forth on issues of sexuality. The Victorian era was more prudish that we are, but the 1700s were in many ways less prudish. (I suppose all my generalizations are slightly inaccurate, but you get the point.)

    Benjamin, Sorry, I read that too quickly. You did mention those.

    CJ, You said;

    “(And, please, don’t just say “liberals blah, and conservatives blah blah.” You sound like Arnold Kling in one of his unflattering posts about what progressives vs. libertarians vs. conservatives believe.”

    Here’s a perfect example of what I was talking about. Kling recently did a post praising the decentralized school systems of the 1940s. He even put in a disclaimer that of course there were bad things like segregation. But that wasn’t good enough for Matt Yglesias, who basically accused him of being insensitive to the problem of racism. Yglesias argued that racism was such a great evil that any positive generalizations about past school systems were out of bounds. And I regard Yglesias as the smartest liberal blogger. Others are often worse. Conservatives tend to do the same thing, but about other issues. Think about the conservative view of Islam, for instance. Of course there are many exceptions to these sorts of generalizations—that goes without saying. But it is primarily those on the left who have developed revisionist histories showing just how evil white men have been down through the ages.

    You said:

    “It’s as annoying, demeaning, and distracting as if you said “blacks believe blah, jews believe blah blah, and aryans believe blah blah blah.” Find some premises a bit more concrete to hang your conclusions on.)”

    Slow down! Liberals and conservatives are terms used precisely in reference to what people believe. They are defined that way. To say you can’t generalize about what liberals believe is a logical contradiction. If you can’t generalize, then liberalism literally does not exist. But I won’t stop there, I’ll “generalize” that most blacks in the US support civil rights legislation. Do you disagree?

    I’m not sure what you mean by “judging”. I have all sorts of opinions on policy choices, as I am a utilitarian. I wasn’t arguing that we shouldn’t have opinions, but rather that we shouldn’t be so arrogant. Having grown up in the US, I naturally share many of the cultural views of other Americans. On the other hand I see many people here uncritically accepting things as a given, which I believe are highly debatable. I am trying to distinguish between having a cultural view, and being arrogant about that view. Of seeing other cultures and other times in history as inferior. Obviously cavemen lacked our technological and cultural achievements, but they were pretty smart people doing the best they could with the environment into which they were born.

    I’m not saying that we should never judge anyone from the past. I judge Hitler pretty much the same way most Europeans judged Hitler in 1945. Nor am I a reactionary who thinks we should go back and adopt practices from the past. In a few cases we might want to, but generally we should just move on.

    On the other hand if someone says the ancient Greeks should have been less patriarchal, I would respond in two ways;

    1. I don’t think we should adopt the ancient Greek patriarchy.
    2. I don’t know enough about the world the ancient Greeks lived in to want to tell them how they should have constructed their society. (BTW, I am referring to Athenians, I believe Sparta was different.)

    In any case, I wasn’t trying to make moral arguments, rather aesthetic arguments.

    Morgan, Each person has their own crusade; you have yours and I have mine.

    Abelard, You said;

    “I have a problem with those who say its wrong to apply one’s values (e.g. work/productivity) towards other cultures, then turn around an say that we are somehow responsible for some kind of global “redistributionism” or that we should not be allowed to develop some technology (healthy life extension) for ourselves because these other cultures “can’t handle” it.”

    I wasn’t implying that the Congo shouldn’t change. Indeed I actually agree with your thoughts here. I realize that it seemed I didn’t, but I am not a cultural relativist. I am not saying that whatever other cultures do is fine. I was making a specific point. We shouldn’t assume that we’d behave differently facing the same set of external incentives. But outside foreign aid groups can put pressure on countries to change the incentive structure. As an aside, I am pretty sure the behavior being described in not the key problem, but rather is the symptom of some deeper problem. Maybe people drink because they have no economic opportunities. Elsewhere I’ve argued that wealth and poverty around the world are partly related to culture, so I have no problem with trying to change culture if it can help solve problems.

    TGGP, What about my response?

    ChacoKevy, Thanks. The cultural relativism issue is tricky, and I suppose most people (wrongly) thought I was being a cultural relativist. I don’t think I am, at least if it means “whatever other cultures do is fine with me.” My post was intended to be about arrogance. How often do we think about a friend or family member as follows:

    “They are living their life the wrong way. They should live it the way I think they should live it.”

    Sure, there are times we are right. But what an incredibly arrogant thought. (And I am guilty sometimes as well.)

    Benjamin, I see the Golden Rule as being close to utilitarianism. We utilitarians want to maximize aggregate happiness. So you should act in the way that you would if the others person’s happiness is just as important as your own. Of course that usually won’t happen in the real world, but rather is a sort of ideal. I think it is most useful in the public policy realm.

    D. Watson. Very good point. We increasing view history as a nouveau rich Indian or Chinese person would view their old village life—something to be ashamed of.

    Bonnie, It is partly what you say, but also partly that their economic system offers few opportunities, hence the “cost” of drinking is lower.

    BTW, a rich American family might bring one kid into the world. They might bring in 7, of which 4 survive. That’s not my way (I have one kid) but I can’t honestly say that I don’t see any logic in their actions. It is a different way of living in the world.

    Tracy. The quotation was from a novel. It wasn’t Marias speaking directly, but an 85 year old character in the novel. So some hyperbole is assumed.

    That’s a good point about estates, but the concept of an “apology” is still kind of weird, in my view.

    You said in response to my comment:

    “”History is increasingly seen as nothing more than victims and villains”

    Where did this word “increasingly” come from? How about the medieval Christain view of the world, who regarded the Romans through the lens of Christainity? What was the medieval Christain view of Jews, or Moors, like? Or, after the Reformation, the Catholic view of Protestants and the Protestant view of Catholics?”

    I thought this was obvious. During my lifetime our view of history is increasing negative. Indeed the term ‘revisionist’ is almost synonymous with ‘more negative.’

    I was under the impression that in the Middle Ages many people thought that the ancients were superior. (except for their lack of Christianity.)

    You said in response to me;

    “”We have obviously achieved perfection,”

    If so then why are so many conservatives mourning the decline in moral values, and liberals complaining about hidden racism, sexism, etc, and environmentalists (who may also be liberals and conservatives) talking about our selfishness and how we are destroying the planet?”

    I was referring to our shared values. Things that we can almost all agree on, but which in the future will be rejected.

    You said;

    “Consequently a certain arrogance is absolutely necessary for proper functioning, at some point we have to think that our values are the best ones (some people do this by adopting the values of another person wholesale).”

    But how much arrogance is required? I see far too much.

    Thanks Lorenzo.

    MikeMcK and Doc Merlin, Yes, and I was referring to that when I said:

    “Even if we romanticized some aspect of the past, or some exotic culture in a faraway country, we were always implicitly flattering some aspect of ourselves.”

    History becomes a weapon, to advance some contemporary policy objective.

  30. Gravatar of scott sumner scott sumner
    28. July 2010 at 07:10

    Mike, Good point.

  31. Gravatar of mbk mbk
    28. July 2010 at 09:00

    Great post, great quotes. And in the comments section one gets a clear feeling of who has lived long enough in other cultures from their original one to understand, and who hasn’t.

  32. Gravatar of Philo Philo
    28. July 2010 at 10:23

    “As a schoolboy I always resented the unspoken assumption that we were right and that every other time and place was wrong.” Yes, our time displays a lot of ahistorical self-satisfaction; present people do not understand the conditions under which past people lived, and many of their judgments about the past are vitiated by this ignorance. But still . . . .

    More than at any earlier time, people now believe–correctly!–in “human rights,” in *respect* for the individual person. The tyrannies of class, caste, race, and gender are now much weakened, and insofar as they still exist are deplored by all right-thinking people. Everyone should start off on an equal footing, at least in many respects, and be allowed to pursue his ends as a free agent. Is this not an *advance* over previous thinking, a proof of our superiority over our benighted predecessors?

    You might answer in the negative because you believe that a liberal order was *impossible* under former social conditions, that monarchy, aristocracy, slavery, serfdom, the subjugation of women, etc., were justified as being the best arrangements available to past people. You would then believe that the widespread present judgment to the contrary is just another manifestation of that ignorance of past conditions to which I alluded above. If this is your view, I would like to see you make the argument in some detail.

    But I get the impression that you are not seriously interested in the moral evaluation of social practices–thus, not interested in defending past practices against present-day criticism: that you simply *dislike* the idea of such evaluation. If that is how things stand then, while you’re entitled to your tastes, this one seems rather silly and uninteresting.

  33. Gravatar of CJ CJ
    28. July 2010 at 11:19

    Prof Sumner–Thanks for the comments.

    I think my main point is there are some classes and generalizations about them that only make sense if I’m grok-ing your jive. For example, you ended your comment to me with “In any case, I wasn’t trying to make moral arguments, rather aesthetic arguments.” I really don’t have a very firm idea what that statement means because I don’t know what the word aesthetic means in this context. (In general I avoid using words that are the title of entire philosophy courses because who knows what the word means to a reader/listener.)

    Similarly, when you use the words liberal and conservative in the context of this post, I don’t know what you mean by them. You probably don’t mean all liberals and conservatives (certainly not everyone that’s ever called themselves a liberal or conservative), because the words are just too broad for that. You probably have some more specific, restricted context in mind. But when you just throw a statement out there, without even any links for examples for me to try and determine what you mean, I can’t follow what you’re saying. But with the example you gave of Kling vs. Yglesias, it suddenly becomes more clear what you’re getting at. But that’s not what I initially understood in my reading. Instead I understood that you just made some disparaging statement about an extremely broad group that I self-identify with, and I can’t understand where your reasoning came from.

    In that sense, I thought you needed firmer, more concrete premises for the conclusions/generalizations you were reaching.

    And, this is overkill, but I’ll give an example responding to your question, “I’ll “generalize” that most blacks in the US support civil rights legislation. Do you disagree?”, to give a practical example of what I’m thinking.

    I agree that most blacks who understand what civil rights are and have faith in our legal/police system would support civil rights legislation in principle. But…I added those two clauses for a reason. Growing up in my 50/50 white-black school system, there were many blacks that didn’t understand what civil rights legislation entailed. (The many blacks that didn’t vote because their family moved north in the 1940s and 1950s and the family matriarchs insisted that voting wasn’t important because white people don’t count black votes springs to mind. The few times I heard kids explain that MLK Jr. freed the slaves does, too.) There were also a lot of blacks that didn’t really care about what the laws said their rights were because they didn’t believe the police, the courts, and anyone else in power would respect their rights. Without those two clauses, the meaning of support in supporting civil rights becomes pretty murky.

    So, yeah, I can vaguely agree that “most blacks in the US support civil rights legislation”. But there are caveats, and a lot depends on the context of the discussion and how much I grok that context. Without at least a little bit of explanation, or some links, that context might not be nearly so obvious as it appears to you.

  34. Gravatar of Wonks Anonymous Wonks Anonymous
    28. July 2010 at 14:46

    An even more relevant Robin Hanson post for the Congo:
    http://www.overcomingbias.com/2009/08/pick-one-sick-kids-or-look-poor.html

  35. Gravatar of JL JL
    28. July 2010 at 15:17

    You speak of “our ancestors” as if they were all the same, e.g.

    > [For those who don’t know, our ancesters understood that life insurance was morally revolting.]

    I’m pretty sure my grandparents don’t consider life insurance revolting. And I probably have some homosexual ancestors in ancient Greece.

    Same with our descendants. Perhaps the next generation will embrace cryogenics, and the fourth will ban it.
    Perhaps one of those generations will even thaw and bury their frozen ancestors (silly ancestors…)

  36. Gravatar of JL JL
    28. July 2010 at 15:31

    @Philo

    I’m pretty sure all humans have pledged respect for human rights. Only difference is, of course, (a) whom they consider humans, and (b) whom they consider their responsibility.

    We don’t consider the unborn humans. We willfully close our eyes for the plight of trafficked women in our western countries. And we don’t consider ourselves responsible for the well-being of the indentured Bangladeshis in Dubai, or those in North Korean gulags.
    I can assure you that those people have it worse than the Jews in Auschwitz.

    Funny how it works, eh? The American GI’s in 1945 had not yet heard of human rights, they had segregation back home and they sure as hell did not know anything about Auschwitz.
    But they laid down their life and saved what was left of those Jews.

    Meanwhile, we know everything about Auschwitz, we know a hell of a lot about what’s happening in North Korea. And stopping NK is surely a hell of a lot easier than invading Nazi Germany.

    We are no better, and no worse, than our ancestors. It’s the human condition.

  37. Gravatar of Rama Rama
    28. July 2010 at 22:06

    This is very evident in History of Science ; as children we lalaugh at Phlogiston and alchemy and only a formal study of History of science ( Thomas Kuhn’s ” The structure of Scientific revolutions” is a great introduction) shows how often the current “right” way of thinking or understanding is soon overthrown.

    Shakespeare who does not seem to have missed out on anything that deals with the human condition has in “the Tempest”:

    “What’s past is prologue.”

    “What’s past is prologue,” then, translates roughly as “What’s already happened merely sets the scene for the really important stuff, which is the stuff our greatness will be made on.”
    http://www.enotes.com/shakespeare-quotes/whats-past-prologue

  38. Gravatar of johnleemk johnleemk
    28. July 2010 at 23:44

    Mike Sandifer,

    I would actually say that about most human beings, not merely most Americans. I find it difficult to generalise about America, even though it is tempting since I am not an American.

    JL,

    It’s a terribly minor point but I would think the Jews in Auschwitz had it worse than indentured workers in Dubai. But since utility is difficult to compare across people, it is hard to say for sure which situation is worse/better. What we can say is that both are pretty bad.

  39. Gravatar of JL JL
    29. July 2010 at 01:21

    @johnleemk

    Sorry, my sentence was ambiguous. The North Koreans in the gulags certainly have it worse than the Auschwitz Jews.

    The Dubai workers probably don’t.

    Utility is difficult to compare, but I always ask myself: If I had to choose where to send myself, or my loved ones, which would I choose?

  40. Gravatar of Tracy W Tracy W
    29. July 2010 at 03:01

    Scott Sumner, okay, I will improve my opinion of Javier Maria, but then this raises the question of why you care about some fictional character’s flight of fancy? What the character said may be hyperbole, but even if the character had used more moderate language, there would still remain the basic problem that the starting point was imagination, not any empirical evidence. If the character had said “I imagine this generation to be 10% more arrogant than the historical average”, that still would be a case of making things up out of thin air, and why should anyone else care about a non-hyperbolic flight of fancy either? At least hyperbolic flights of fancy tend to be more fun.

    During my lifetime our view of history is increasing negative.

    I doubt this, for example I’ve read a number of recent arguments that the lives of hunter-gatherers were much better off. Also there’s a cycle to these things, when I was studying the British Civil War history in WWII, there was a recently released book by a revisionist historian arguing that Charles I did a good job as king (this was in response to a previous revision of history arguing that James I was a better king and Charles I a worse king than the first take on the Civil War).

    I was under the impression that in the Middle Ages many people thought that the ancients were superior. (except for their lack of Christianity)

    And many people nowadays argue that hunter-gatherers are/were superior. See the movie Avatar.

    I was referring to our shared values. Things that we can almost all agree on,

    Ah, okay, I misread you. But there still remains this word “perfection”. May I ask then, in terms of our shared values, whether anyone thinks we have obviously achieved perfection? There are still a lot of murders for money, even though one of our shared values is that that’s bad. There are still people held in sex slavery, despite our shared values that slavery is wrong. Anyone who thinks that we have achieved moral perfection in terms of our shared values, is, I venture, a crackpot about as oblivious to reality as the breatharians (who think we don’t need to eat to live), and about as relevant to understanding our existing culture.

    But how much arrogance is required? I see far too much.

    Actually, given how quick you are to arrogantly presume that our generation is more arrogant than previous ones, you are starting to persuade me on this one. :) (I still see no reason to move away from the null hypothesis that there is no difference between our average arrogance levels and previous generations.)

  41. Gravatar of Luis H Arroyo Luis H Arroyo
    29. July 2010 at 05:04

    What I would mean in my post is why Proust, an excellent reader, liked read for.
    He discover me that I had always prefer dead writers, unconsciously.
    But more importantly: for Proust, literature was a discovery way of oneself, a land where the reader can encounter sentiments & emotions no tested before in life.
    I believe sentiments are more important that reason, a mere instrument of life (instrument which enables me to articulate what I´m saying, of course).
    There is no happiness whitout certain sentiments that armonize each one with one self and others.
    Adam Smith said that the ultimate source of Moral are the moral Sentiments into ours hart. All that take me to think that is very difficult to distinguish well the origine of moral, but it is not the reason, sure.

  42. Gravatar of scott sumner scott sumner
    29. July 2010 at 07:24

    mbk, Thanks. I think that reading a lot about foreign cultures can also change one’s perspective.

    Philo, Your comment mixes up several issues; causal, moral and aesthetic.

    Don’t you think that we would think about the Holocaust in a completely different way if it were the case that if the European Jews had had the upper hand they would have done the same to the Germans? I do, indeed I think one of the reasons that we find the Holocaust especially horrifying is precisely because it was in some sense “out of time.” Jews would not have killed millions of Germans, even if they had been more powerful. So yes, you may call that reasoning trivial, but I do think about Alexander the Great differently (when he conquered Persia) knowing that the Persians would have conquered Greece if only they had had the chance.

    I think most people would agree with me, if they thought about these issues more. I just don’t think they do.

    As far as what was in the best interest of the ancient people, and what were they capable of doing, I have no idea. I very much doubt they had the intellectual, cultural, physical and technological capital to have set up an EU in Europe in 800 AD. Rather, I think people mostly did the best they could in a world where it was a struggle to survive, the risk of death was ever-present, and strangers were to be feared. There was no magic wand they could wave to become just like us–EVEN IN A MORAL SENSE.

    Obviously I prefer living in our society, indeed we pretty much know that they would also have preferred to live in our society (as people tend to migrate from primitive agricultural societies to rich countries, but not many Americans want to become Indian or Chinese villagers.) So I have no doubt that we are superior in that limited sense. But I don’t think it gives us the right to look down on the past, anymore than I would look down on an Indian or Chinese villager today. History is not chock full of villains and victims, except in our minds. The people in the past were pretty much like us, but facing different incentive systems.

    In a Malthusian world (i.e pre-1800) people were going to die from either war or starvation. If you read accounts of war, and accounts of mass famine, you quickly discover that war is a much less painful way to die. For the period of human history up until 1800, war might have been a perfectly rational adaptation to the environment. War is counterproductive in today’s non-Malthusian world, and the wealthy countries of the world rarely fight each other any longer.

    To me, criticizing cave men for fighting with each other is about as sensible as criticizing chimps for constantly warring with other tribes of chimps. It’s not our world, it’s theirs. I have no idea how I would have acted had I lived in their world. But I do know that I don’t want their practices brought into our world.

    That’s where morality comes in; deciding what to do today. How we think about the past is (or should be?) aesthetics, we can’t do anything about it. (Well that’s not quite true, there are still a few Nazi war criminals who haven’t been caught and punished, but let’s say there is little that can be done today.)

    To those who say we can easily judge the morality of past events, I would also point to other cultures today. When I visit China and travel around the country, it seems vastly different from the country portrayed in the press, even at a moral level. So if journalists can’t get the present right, why should we expected historians to be able to judge past events at a moral level? BTW, I’m not accusing journalists of making factual errors, but rather completely failing to convey what it feels like to live there.

    CJ, You said;

    “Instead I understood that you just made some disparaging statement about an extremely broad group that I self-identify with, and I can’t understand where your reasoning came from.”

    I don’t think you should take that personally. I am also a liberal, and a libertarian. And I often criticize tendencies in both groups. Libertarians tend to be too reflexively anti-government, for instance. It seems obvious to me that liberals have been in the vanguard of re-writing American history in a less flattering light. Some conservatives are also involved in this project, but it definitely has a liberal flavor. And I’m not even completely opposed to this revisionism, just certain aspects of it. My problem is when we judge people in the past as we would judge the same behavior today. Alexander the Great and Caesar were not “just like Hitler and Saddam; dictators who invaded other countries.”

    People should never take it personally when their ideology is criticized.

    Regarding civil rights, I am predicting the outcome of a Gallup poll where people are asked “Do you support the 1964 Civil Rights act.” I am not assuming any knowledge, just predicting a poll outcome.

    Wonks Anonymous. Thanks, that’s a good example.

    JL, Enough people thought life insurance was revolting that it was illegal for long periods. You misunderstood me on gay marriage; I was discussing marriage, not homosexuality more broadly. There are many Americans that accept one but not the other.

    JL#2, I think you might want to reconsider your comparison of indentured workers in Dubai and Auschwitz victims.

    JL#3, I see you beat me to it.

    Tracy, You said;

    “Scott Sumner, okay, I will improve my opinion of Javier Maria, but then this raises the question of why you care about some fictional character’s flight of fancy? What the character said may be hyperbole, but even if the character had used more moderate language, there would still remain the basic problem that the starting point was imagination, not any empirical evidence.”

    Sometimes one has a lot of separate thoughts swirling around in one’s mind, a vague sense that something is wrong, but no clear way of expressing it. Perhaps many of the ideas seem unrelated. Sometimes a work of literature can bring things into focus. This is perhaps most true of poetry. Poetry may lack rigorous empirical evidence, but it can express some deeper truth about life.

    That answer may be too vague, but is the best I can do.

    You said;

    “Ah, okay, I misread you. But there still remains this word “perfection”. May I ask then, in terms of our shared values, whether anyone thinks we have obviously achieved perfection? There are still a lot of murders for money, even though one of our shared values is that that’s bad. There are still people held in sex slavery, despite our shared values that slavery is wrong. Anyone who thinks that we have achieved moral perfection in terms of our shared values, is, I venture, a crackpot about as oblivious to reality as the breatharians (who think we don’t need to eat to live), and about as relevant to understanding our existing culture.”

    You are still missing my point. I’m not saying those things don’t happen, I am saying we are arrogantly confident that our (consensus) moral view of those situations will not be overturned by future generations. In those particular cases the views probably won’t be overturned, but there are other cases where they will. When I was a kid almost everyone would have viewed the idea of gay marriage as being nuts.

    I don’t think people actually idolize hunter-gatherers, they simply idolize the way they lived in tune with their environment. Or supposedly did, in fact hunter-gatherers had a devastating impact on the environment, quickly wiping out almost all large species of animals in any of the “new worlds” they entered. But other aspects of their culture (war, patriachy, etc, are not idolized.)

    That’s a nice thought Luis.

  43. Gravatar of scott sumner scott sumner
    29. July 2010 at 07:29

    Rama, Yes, the more you learn about the past, the more you respect it.

  44. Gravatar of mbk mbk
    29. July 2010 at 10:11

    Scott,

    You said that reading can make one understand w/o travel. True, and the converse is also true: many people do travel – and even live somewhere for years as expats – and still fail to understand the general feeling.

    You said it well: “I’m not accusing journalists of making factual errors, but rather completely failing to convey what it feels like to live there.”

    Exactly – I get that feeling very often when I read about Singapore.

    I am amazed at how many commenters misunderstood your original post as some kind of well thought-out philosophical stance with a point to prove, when what I saw read like an exploration of inconsistent thoughts that can not really be brought together in some cogwheel type algorithmic system of coherent equations.

    Take the criticism of your quoted passage about failing to understand past people in their own right. The irony is that a Montaigne, or a Hume, came out of societies that were, yes, unjust to our eyes and in the absolute less desirable than ours for the vast majority. But to think for one moment that the feelings, intellect, and ideas of these people were as real and heartfelt as ours, is actually devastating on an emotional level – because their societies were so brutal, so disease ridden, while they did as much their best as we do. At the same time the intellectual and artistic output of these people was arguably as good as ours even though they had it much harder. To point the finger at societal misgivings is to totally miss the point about the basic _humanity_ of people who lived long ago. It is failing to respect that these people also did the best with what they had – like us – and that for their travails they were incredibly resourceful.

    I first came across this issue of respect for the other when I realized how disrespectfully people describe countries where they went on vacations. Say, Americans describing Italy. Usually it goes by the pluses, like scenery, food, arts, to the minuses, like petty crime, messiness of life, lack of space etc. But these travelers don’t consider their vacation destination as more than a movie script. In reality, it is not a movie of course. These people don’t exist for the purpose of making your holidays interesting. They live there. Theirs is not a script but a valid alternate way of life. Not a short time diversion. Not a movie set. A place where people do live, can live, and like to live.

    Take the passage about Thailand in your original post. I could have written it if I was a better writer. Weird foreign habits that would at first seem unusual, or even reprehensible to a Western observer, in a different society might feel normal, ok, and even desirable. Each society has its own logic. Seeming irrational behavior in a different country, or in a different time, usually turns out to be well-adapted to the situation. But this is something you’ll only understand if you either live in “their” shoes for a while, or if you are sensitive enough to observe so you can put yourself in their shoes. Of course then it becomes hard to judge.

    And the points about logic, consistency, coherence, etc, you said it well here: “Sometimes one has a lot of separate thoughts swirling around in one’s mind, a vague sense that something is wrong, but no clear way of expressing it. Perhaps many of the ideas seem unrelated. Sometimes a work of literature can bring things into focus. This is perhaps most true of poetry. Poetry may lack rigorous empirical evidence, but it can express some deeper truth about life.”

    I long thought of poetry, and art, as a kind of synoptic (as opposed to, sequential, algorithmic) way of getting at understanding of complex situations where there are many levels of meaning that are interwoven, inseparable, and yet not related, not really coherent, not causing each other directly. In some fields of science algorithmic models work well (laboratory physics). In some fields they work poorly but can be somehow saved by numerical modeling (real life physics). In some fields, understanding of complex and multi-level meaning is better expressed by art than by some mock science that wouldn’t hold it together anyway.

  45. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    29. July 2010 at 16:09

    On the Marais quote, thus are the horrors of modernist art and (particularly) architecture explained.

  46. Gravatar of Philo Philo
    29. July 2010 at 19:22

    @JL

    “We don’t consider the unborn humans.” Touché! Even born children aren’t normally accorded the full set of rights, even though they are undeniably human. So the term ‘human rights’ is too inclusive; I need to find a narrower substitute. But, then, your statement: “all humans have pledged respect for human rights,” is obviously incorrect (and was already obviously so from the well known examples of people who have denied rights to blacks, Jews, women, etc.–all of whom are undeniably human).

    As for “responsibility,” I said nothing about that. I’ll offer just this comment: I certainly don’t think political prisoners in North Korea are *my* responsibility, simply because there is nothing I can do for them.

  47. Gravatar of JL JL
    30. July 2010 at 02:40

    @Scott, thanks for your insights. Certainly worth a separate post of its own.

    @Philo

    You are hung up on words. What we call “respecting human rights” today, was called “being civilized” and “being humane”, “being moral”, the golden rule, god fearing, etc. in yesteryears and other cultures.

    So nowadays people talk about activists talk about animal rights and the right to life (=pro-life). Whereas in the 19th century, it was about “treating animals humanely” and a mothers right (feminists in those days were pro-life: most of the legislation invalidated by roe v. wade was in fact introduced by that first wave of feminism).

    I don’t know what you consider to be human rights, but article 1 of the universal declaration of human rights states “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”.

    Even before the civil war, all humans in the US were considered equal. Blacks just weren’t fully human. Voting, schooling and such weren’t considered inalienable rights, but privileges.
    Nowadays in the US the unborn aren’t considered fully human and accessible medical care, housing, transportation, college education, aren’t considered human rights.
    Free speech and gun ownership are considered inalienable rights, though not in the sense that everybody gets a free gun or weblog from the government.
    And in other countries and eras, the unborn are fully human, or gun ownership is not a human right, or free speech is less inalienable than in the US, or accessible medical care, housing and college education are considered human rights.

    I am not arguing which is better or ‘right’. Merely that it’s not as black and white as you portray it to be.

    As far as NK goes: that’s my point. The Korea and Vietnam wars (and the cold war in general) were fought because the US, NATO and UN considered it their responsibility to uphold those human rights declared in 1948.
    The British empire also fought some battles, because it considered herself responsible for eradicating slavery.
    And then there is still the whole white mans burden thing.

    A hundred years from know, two people will argue on a blog that they are better than their great grandparents. Perhaps because their great grandparents stood idly by as North Koreans were starved and tortured to death (“now, anno 2100, we at least care about our fellow human beings!”), or perhaps because the US invaded Iraq (“now, anno 2100, we don’t invade backwards countries to ‘democratize’ them!”). Had we left Iraq alone and invaded NK…

    They might make fun of our Malthusian overpopulation fears, or criticize us for letting the population grow too large.
    They might ban abortion, or allow infanticide.
    But whatever they do, they will certainly consider themselves progressive and better than us.

    So although I certainly do believe that morality is black and white (aesthetics aren’t morality), humans have imperfect morality, knowledge and wisdom. We find it really hard to distinguish between morality and aesthetics.
    And what is moral in one situation, isn’t in another.

    So don’t be quick to proclaim your own moral superiority compared to your ancestors, especially if you have an imperfect understanding of the world they lived in.

    E.g. we have no need for torture, since we can easily uphold law and order without it. So it’s easy to consider ourselves superior for not using torture.

    But for the Romans, crucifixion, genocide, scorched earth policies, regressive head taxes, conscription, etc. were necessary to maintain Pax Romana and Roman civilization.
    (Compared with roman domination, the dark ages were in fact an improvement for the average european peasant, just not for the scholars, clerics and romans.)

  48. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    30. July 2010 at 05:52

    mbk, You said;

    “Take the criticism of your quoted passage about failing to understand past people in their own right. The irony is that a Montaigne, or a Hume, came out of societies that were, yes, unjust to our eyes and in the absolute less desirable than ours for the vast majority. But to think for one moment that the feelings, intellect, and ideas of these people were as real and heartfelt as ours, is actually devastating on an emotional level – because their societies were so brutal, so disease ridden, while they did as much their best as we do. At the same time the intellectual and artistic output of these people was arguably as good as ours even though they had it much harder. To point the finger at societal misgivings is to totally miss the point about the basic _humanity_ of people who lived long ago. It is failing to respect that these people also did the best with what they had – like us – and that for their travails they were incredibly resourceful.”

    Seriously, I should have had you write the post, as you’ve expressed these ideas much more effectively than I have.

    Your last point about art and science is also quite interesting, and raises all sorts of questions like the use of metaphor as a way of understanding abstract scientific concepts. I agree with people like McCloskey, who argues that metaphors (invisible hand, etc) play a much bigger role in the way we think about economic models than is usually acknowledged.

    Lorenzo, I like that. Just yesterday I read this quotation from Roberto Calasso.

    “Which culminated in the middle of modernism—a glamorous and often shallow category of which only one trait can be affirmed with certainty; that, under its sway, the acme of praise was to be defined as modern.” (the last word was in italics)

    JL, I understand your last point. Every society must make it’s criminal punishments far worse than average life. So what were societies to do, if the average person was already living on the edge of starvation? Is it any surprise that criminal justice practices were barbaric in the old days? Societies that didn’t do that, probably quickly fell apart. Of course that doesn’t mean I would have approved of everything being done back then, just as I’d like to see many 100,000s of US prisoners set free today (drug violations). But I would have supported harsher punishments if I had lived back then, then I would support today.

    Another way of making the point is that some people in ancient times would have considered it an upgrade in living standards to move into one of our better prisons (say “Club Fed”)

    I guess I’ve just lost my chance for a seat on the Supreme Court!

  49. Gravatar of Tracy W Tracy W
    30. July 2010 at 08:03

    Poetry may lack rigorous empirical evidence, but it can express some deeper truth about life.

    And poetry can be a collection of cliches that pander to our prejudices but have no basis in reality. Particularly if we are talking about our generation compared to previous ones. I have experienced feelings that I call love, joy, grief, and good poems sometimes call that out to me, I have never experienced what previous generations felt, and nor has any poet, so I think my, or your, or a poet’s feelings about previous generations’ emotions relative to our own, will only conincide with any sort of truth, shallow or deep, by pure accident. Particularly given the number of works I’ve read from throughout history where people moan and complain about how bad the current generation is – I find it implausible that humanity has been monotonically declining since the invention of writing. (And note that Javier Maria’s character openly says that it’s imagination, so we’re not talking about a lack of rigorous empirical evidence, we’re talking about no emprical evidence whatsoever.)

    I am saying we are arrogantly confident that our (consensus) moral view of those situations will not be overturned by future generations.

    An interesting assertion. What things have you read that makes you think that people are arrogantly confident about this? After all, in your earlier comment you were talking about how “conservatives see the future as a sort of dystopian nightmare, at least if the residents of future worlds have the temerity to discard our value system”, which implies to me that conservatives are deeply worried that their moral view will be overturned by future generations, a description that does accord with my general expectations.

    I guess your argument is that the conservatives project future people as being worse off if they abandon current conservative values, and thus are that way arrogant. But, well, isn’t it a bit arrogant to assume that other people are being arrogant? Aren’t, perhaps, conservatives doing the best they can, in a world where we must make decisions about the future which in turn are dependent on moral judgments and values?

    This is my basic problem with the whole argument “we should be less arrogant about our values”. If I follow it through logically, I can’t be arrogant about how everyone else is being too arrogant. So I find it simpler just to stop with my own values and be straightforwardly arrogant about them. This is what I was talking about when I defended some necessary arrogance.

    But other aspects of their culture (war, patriachy, etc, are not idolized.)

    And the same could be said about medieval Christain’s view of war, or religion, in Ancient Rome.

  50. Gravatar of JL JL
    30. July 2010 at 09:41

    > But I would have supported harsher punishments if I had lived back then, then I would support today.

    For any thinking person its a no-brainer that US drug policy is long overdue for a reform.
    (When these laws were introduced in the 1980s a reasonable case could be made, but experience has shown them to be a historical mistake.)

    But, at the risk of further minimizing your chances of becoming a Supreme Court justice, what would you have chosen had you lived back then?

    It seems to me that the Romans were already as peaceful as possible. Contrary to popular belief, they didn’t just randomly sack cities for fun: they always tried to avoid wars and fights and keep the peace.
    But fact is, they needed the tribute money to maintain the empire, and they needed to quickly, and harshly, deal with insurgences, lest the empire fall apart.

    So the only alternatives were, I think, (a) Pax Romana, taxation and war, or (b) being free barbarians.

    Personally, I would have gone for the barbarian route, but then again, I’m a utilitarian, not a progressive.

  51. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    31. July 2010 at 07:44

    Tracy, I don’t see how either I or Marias think each generation is getting worse. I certainly don’t feel that way.

    You said;

    “An interesting assertion. What things have you read that makes you think that people are arrogantly confident about this? After all, in your earlier comment you were talking about how “conservatives see the future as a sort of dystopian nightmare, at least if the residents of future worlds have the temerity to discard our value system”, which implies to me that conservatives are deeply worried that their moral view will be overturned by future generations, a description that does accord with my general expectations.”

    This is a good question. I think most people are in some sense moral realists. They believe things are right and wrong for reason independent of how humans think about the issues. I suppose they might assume that we now have the objective truth about morality, and fear that we will later lose that truth. To be honest, I’m not sure people really think these things through. They may hold more than one view that conflicts with their other views. So I can’t really provide a satisfactory answer to your question.

    Many conservatives oppose gay marriage. Yet it is obvious to anyone with half a brain that our society will soon embrace gay marriage. How do conservatives feel about that fact? I don’t know.

    Here’s what I mean by arrogance. Go to a cocktail party and start advocating the moral views of some other culture. People won’t just disagree with you, they’ll view you as a moral degenerate.

    JL, I am also a utilitarian. I’m afraid I don’t know enough about Roman history to comment. Indeed I don’t even have strong views on American foreign policy, and I know much more about that.

  52. Gravatar of mbk mbk
    31. July 2010 at 09:33

    Scott,

    thanks for the flowers, not sure if I deserve them.I found your post right to the point.

    Some more words on on the idea that art can somehow better convey complex levels of meaning than science. The key is that science works with formalisms – many words, or other symbols (think mathematical equations), which are themselves developed from models (theories about how stuff works). The models are already incomplete and partial, and the formalisms are even more limited in what “truths” they can express (not to mention cases where the models aren’t much good to begin with). To express a complex reality, chances are science needs more than one model / formalism (think particle and wave). This is not so because the models are necessarily bad, it is because different models fit different purposes. Quantum theory and macrosopic gravity are both not “wrong” but they apply to different features of
    objects, at different scales. So their formalisms are different, and address different, partial aspects of reality.

    Art can have these aspects of reality overlap shamelessly in a single spot because it does not aspire to be coherent, consistent, and complete. Art doesn’t use formalisms, but means such as natural language which are only partly formal. Natural languages are flexible and allow ambiguity and different levels of meaning. This “imprecision” is precisely what makes them good at accommodating complex truths. Ironically, rigorous scientific formalisms have more trouble with this. Of course you could use several rigorous formalisms to make a description more complete, but chances are your science will become less coherent and the various formalisms will definitely not be consistent with each other.

    A work of art (if it is any good) evokes various meanings in the observer. The mechanism is subtly different from science: instead of a long, algorithmic chain of arguments that result in “truth” being formally expressed, the work of art with the use of a few symbols / metaphors / analogies, evokes a host of overlapping partial truths that take their power not from their individual completeness, but from the completeness arising from being present together. Writing, poetry, for instance, can express its intended message (meaning, “truth”), by few words into which we project many overlapping meanings. There is of course the issue of not understanding, or of misunderstanding, but with some luck, the artist’s intent will resonate in the audience, and the art “works”.

    There is a related issue in “modern” (Western) thought, which is the belief that meaning and truth (and information indeed) only exist if expressed within a strict formalism (mathematics, logic, clear language…). That would of course leave say, a man’s hand on a woman’s shoulder as an entirely meaningless act as long as no words are spoken (nothing has been formally expressed). In real life of course we don’t really think that’s true, but in the sciences people seemingly do.

    Tracy,

    I hope you don’t really mean to say that writings don’t speak to you at all, as you say “a… poet’s feelings about previous generations’ emotions relative to our own, will only coincide with any sort of truth, shallow or deep, by pure accident”. If you couldn’t understand previous generations’ feelings through their words, if those words really evoked nothing in you, then how could you understand a contemporary person’s feelings through what their words evoke in you? I don’t see how it’s different because of the distance in space, time, and culture. You communicate with a human being.

    Scott again:

    Go to a cocktail party and start advocating the moral views of some other culture. People won’t just disagree with you, they’ll view you as a moral degenerate..

    Reminds me of a friend’s comment on a third person: “She has strong moral opinions and she seems to believe she’d have the same opinions if she had been born and raised in Saudi Arabia”.

  53. Gravatar of Indy Indy
    31. July 2010 at 13:28

    Boy, I’m sorry I missed this post while I was in the Bar Exam Bubble. Well done, you should do more. Please do.

  54. Gravatar of scott sumner scott sumner
    1. August 2010 at 06:42

    mbk, You should write a paper on these ideas. I like the way you approach this topic. Even in economics, a poetic-like metaphor can be powerful. Many people who can’t grasp the math of the Arrow-Debreu model, can grasp the metaphor “the invisible hand.”

    Indy, Thanks, I hope the test went well.

  55. Gravatar of mbk mbk
    1. August 2010 at 09:53

    Scott,

    thanks again. But really I am not well read enough to give a complete account of all this. I wrote a convoluted post on my blog on it once, though it was more centered on how a natural process would lead to overlapping “encodings” of “information” in DNA, and how naturally growing cities and architecture would also have these overlapping functions. The last two paragraphs are on levels of meaning in art.

    Whole books have been written around these subjects, I am not sure if I have anything novel to say. Some of what I said about formalisms and natural language is very close to the writings of the late Robert Rosen, a theoretical biologist who concerned himself mostly with systems theory and epistemology. I highly recommend his books, maybe starting with Essays on life itself, full of interesting treatments on the issues of models, the limitations of various formalisms etc.

    But much of this is in the classics as well. Say Wittgenstein: in the Tractatus he imagines that logic will save the day and concludes that some things can not be said with logic and therefore should not be said at all. And at the end of his life in the Investigations he concludes the opposite on language, i.e., that meanings depend on context and are therefore multilayered, simply because contexts are such as well. Now, the target of a communication, the observer, has to pick and choose in which context to put a “message” (data) in order to turn it into “information” with “meaning”. Only then can he “understand” it. The conclusion is that the observer makes part of the meaning(s) of the message. He can only understand anything if he infers the necessary context, or several contexts – multilayered meanings – around the message. So meaning, and information itself, is part in the message, part delivered by the observer, and who knows, maybe by the medium too as McLuhan would have it. And all this now turns into a central element of yet another school of thought, autopoietic theory… And not to forget, Hayek with a few frontal attacks on “The pretense of knowledge”, his insistence that social and economic structures can grow and have functions that their many unwitting authors may be completely unaware of etc.

  56. Gravatar of Tracy W Tracy W
    1. August 2010 at 11:58

    Scott – I’m not saying that you or Marias think that each generation is getting worse (incidentally, I thought it was only Marias’ character who thought that this generation was unprecedented…etc?) I’m saying that I’ve read things written by people from a variety of past generations, that made derogatory comments about the writers’ current generation as being worse than any other behind it. I’ve read so many of these things from such a swathe of history, that if they were all true then humanity must have been getting worse and worse and worse quite consistently. I don’t believe that, so I am biased against any claim that our generation is particularly bad about anything. In other words my Bayesian probability is distinctly less than 50% on any such statement. I’m aware that any one claim about how the current generation is worse than previous ones could be right, but I think the odds are against it.

    I think most people are in some sense moral realists. They believe things are right and wrong for reason independent of how humans think about the issues.

    I think this is because this accords with reality, to some extent. We do see moral debates, and changes in people’s views as a result of those debates. And, well, if things are right and wrong only because of how people think about the issues, how can people be too arrogant? Shouldn’t you just adjust your reasoning about the arrogance?

    Go to a cocktail party and start advocating the moral views of some other culture. People won’t just disagree with you, they’ll view you as a moral degenerate.

    Unsurprisingly. What better defintion of moral degenerate is there, than someone who doesn’t share your morals on important issues? Admittedly, the nice things about moral relativists is that they don’t tend to do this, when you start picking away at their intuitions about morality being relative.

    To be honest, I’m not sure people really think these things through.

    I appreciate your uncertainty about your own views here.

    MBK – sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that previous generations’ writings about their feelings evoked nothing in me. What I wrote was that “feelings about previous generations relative to our own, will only coincide with …truth…by pure accident” – I should have emphasised the word “relative” more in my first comment, my apologies for my poor writing (and spelling). So for example, John Masefield’s poem “I must down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky” evokes some emotion in me, a combination of sea-yearning and travel lust. However if a poet says something like “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”, that evokes some feelings in me, I can guess what William Wordworth felt like (or remembered he felt like) on learning of the French Revolution, but also I’m rather skeptical about whether everyone in William Wordsworth’s generation reacted that way to the French Revolution because I’ve read statements about what it is like to be a NZ woman by other NZ women that don’t accord with my feelings on the matter at all. And when it comes to an author writing about how the author thinks past generations felt relative to the author’s own generation, my skepticism goes up even further.

    Look at it this way, you misunderstood what I was trying to say, and I misunderstood several times in this thread what Scott Sumner was trying to say. We are of the same generation, communicating directly, and we still got it wrong. When it comes to writing about past generations, there are numerous past generations where all the people in them are now dead, so it’s impossible to check with them if we’re right about what they think. How could we calibrate our intuition about our generation’s feelings compared with all past ones? And without a feedback system, why should we place any reliance in our intuition?

  57. Gravatar of scott sumner scott sumner
    2. August 2010 at 05:30

    mbk, Yes, I strongly agree with Wittgenstein’s views on language and meaning (although have not read the original works, just gotten his views second hand.)

    Tracy, I’m old enough to have become a bit of a reactionary, seeing change that seems worse, but also change that seems better. I agree that all generations make invidious comparisons, and we are not worse in any overall sense. But I think it would be arrogant to assert that we aren’t worse in any respect.

    I think you wrongly assume that I don’t believe people should have strongly held moral views. In fact, I think they should have strongly held views. Just not so many, and not so strongly held on every one of them.

    I am neither a moral realist not a moral relativist.

    You said;

    “Unsurprisingly. What better definition of moral degenerate is there, than someone who doesn’t share your morals on important issues?”

    I take it then that you believe other societies are filled with moral degenerates.

  58. Gravatar of mbk mbk
    2. August 2010 at 08:19

    Tracy, of course you can turn the argument around and say, see, we misunderstand each other by making the wrong inferences. My point was the other side of the medal, that without such inferences no one can communicate at all. All else equal our chances to communicate with those “far” from us are somewhat lesser, but still fair. And since you mention Bayesian estimates of likelihood, it seems more likely than not, to me, to assume that other people, separated from us by time, space, or culture, do share the fundamental human traits with us, an internal landscape of thoughts, feelings, and inferences, that allows us to communicate with them by invoking the same in ourselves. What differs from us is just the context they live in. By placing ourselves mentally in their context we can evoke in us the experiences they would have had there. Yes, I assume their capacity of experiencing it is just the same as our capacity to imagine it, if we try a little. I’ve had the experience over and over again in my life, like a broken record, that once you better understand the context other people are in, their lives, then their seemingly illogical, “irrational” behavior suddenly starts to make perfect sense.

    Scott, full disclosure, I also did not read through the entirety of Wittgenstein, or many others for that matter. I do try to pay attention to those passages and elements from people’s writings that make most sense to me and allow me to make my own narrative more coherent…

  59. Gravatar of Tracy W Tracy W
    3. August 2010 at 01:06

    But I think it would be arrogant to assert that we aren’t worse in any respect.

    Actually, while I am generally okay with being arrogant, I think I have avoided asserting that we aren’t worse in any respect in this debate than previous generations. I also have avoided asserting that we aren’t better in any respect.

    I take it then that you believe other societies are filled with moral degenerates.

    Well many other cultures. The typical treatment of women is appalling and many cultures are horribly racist as well. Of course, I don’t notice any sharp dividing line between my culture and other cultures. I also think that anyone who believes in a deity from which they take their morality is a moral degenerate. Consequently I live in a world with a lot of moral degenerates. However I am aware that I could be wrong about any of these points.

    MBK: My point was the other side of the medal, that without such inferences no one can communicate at all.

    Entirely agree with you on that point.

    All else equal our chances to communicate with those “far” from us are somewhat lesser, but still fair.

    What do you mean by fair in this context?

    And since you mention Bayesian estimates of likelihood, it seems more likely than not, to me, to assume that other people, separated from us by time, space, or culture, do share the fundamental human traits with us, an internal landscape of thoughts, feelings, and inferences, that allows us to communicate with them by invoking the same in ourselves.

    I agree with you, on the whole, as long as you don’t push the word “same” too far. That’s why I doubt any claim that our generation is different in terms of morality to previous generations.

    By placing ourselves mentally in their context we can evoke in us the experiences they would have had there.

    How do you know this? How can you know this?

    Yes, I assume their capacity of experiencing it is just the same as our capacity to imagine it, if we try a little.

    I don’t assume that, because I know that my capacity of imagining what I have been through in the past is distinctly worse than my capacity to experience it. My memory of pain is not the same as the experience of pain, even when I have tried a lot to create it. Given the problems I have in imagining what I know I have felt, I think I am justified in being even more doubtful about my capacity to imagine just what other people experienced.

    Of course I am quite capable of assuming things I know to be false (“assuming no friction…”), but why should I assume a falsity in this case?

    I’ve had the experience over and over again in my life, like a broken record, that once you better understand the context other people are in, their lives, then their seemingly illogical, “irrational” behavior suddenly starts to make perfect sense.

    But how do you know that you are right in your understanding? Don’t you risk just picking up on the first hypothesis that seems to explain their behaviour, and forgetting all the other potential explanations?

    I’m sorry, but you just strike me as ridiculously overconfident. I think it is good to try to understand what past generations felt, but I think we should retain some hearty skepticism about our own abilities. My first degree was in engineering, very very often I built something and turned it on and it didn’t work, or worked differently to what I expected. Indeed, the one time I breadboarded a circuit and it worked right first time I nearly fainted from the shock. And yet what I was working with was far less complex than people’s lives. And yet you think that I should assume that I can experience what past generations have felt? To quote Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken”.

  60. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    3. August 2010 at 05:52

    Tracy, I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree on whether other societies are full of moral degenerates. BTW, I am not just talking about places like Saudi Arabia; I would include places like France or Japan as countries with very different values from the US.

  61. Gravatar of mbk mbk
    3. August 2010 at 08:45

    Tracy, you sound at least as confident in your opinion than I do in mine. In any case our little disagreement might have another meaning, that the within-culture/epoch variance in understanding another person may be as large as the between-culture/epoch variance. Assuming we both broadly came out of the same “Western” culture stew.

    But how do you know that you are right in your understanding? Don’t you risk just picking up on the first hypothesis that seems to explain their behaviour, and forgetting all the other potential explanations?

    You never know anything for sure. The same question applies to contemporary conversation partners. But what I did experience is this. When I lived in France after some years I became French, in thought and deed. When I lived in LA I became Angeleno. Now I am slowly becoming Singaporean. Once you’ve been through this kind of thing a couple of times you realize that it’s the same humanity, in different contexts. When I consider other people in their time and culture, I am never entirely sure of the effects of the context, but I am very sure of their humanity. If you don’t feel this I am at a loss to explain it, but I do.

  62. Gravatar of Tracy W Tracy W
    4. August 2010 at 00:52

    ssumner: As a Kiwi, I have noticed that Americans often have different cultural values to me. I’ve also noticed that other Kiwis often have different cultural values to me. I certainly wasn’t limiting my view of other cultures to those like Saudi Arabia.

    mbk:
    Tracy, you sound at least as confident in your opinion than I do in mine.

    Yes, I am very confident that I make mistakes. The difference is that I have distinct memories of making a lot of mistakes. But I don’t see how you can know so confidently what is going on in someone else’s head. And I notice that you didn’t answer that question.

    When I consider other people in their time and culture, I am never entirely sure of the effects of the context, but I am very sure of their humanity. If you don’t feel this I am at a loss to explain it, but I do.

    I agree with you about this, and indeed did so even before you and I even started debating. Where I disagreed with you was when you said things like “By placing ourselves mentally in their context we can evoke in us the experiences they would have had there.” and “Yes, I assume their capacity of experiencing it is just the same as our capacity to imagine it, if we try a little.”

    I notice that you didn’t supply any answers to my questions as to how you knew these earlier statements. Have I now convinced you to be more doubtful about your ability to understand what other people are thinking?

  63. Gravatar of mbk mbk
    4. August 2010 at 01:52

    Tracy, no, you haven’t convinced me, I just let it go because it went the way of one of these endless arguments about rather minor points. I am plenty aware of mistakes I am making. I misunderstand people etc. But without such inference any communication is impossible. And, I learned electronics straight off the internet and managed to build a lot of circuits just by trying and assuming. And they work. You can go a long way just putting one foot in front of the other.

    Scott’s grand original point was along the lines of, modern man assumes that HE finally gets it, unlike those nitwits of other cultures or times, and that this is wrong. Paraphrasing heavily. Now you can find all sorts of ifs and buts to this and the West, and modernity, have no monopoly on bigotry, but it did resonate with me.

    You mention the treatment of women. Another can of worms full of ifs and buts. Countries where received wisdom would have it that woman have it harder than in the glorious West, say Pakistan, or Indonesia, had female presidents. We still don’t know when the US will get one. But the West keeps on pontificating about values. While I broadly do prefer Western values, yes I do, I am much much more careful in criticising other cultures and times than from what transpires from your tone.

    Just one last example. In a documentary I saw on the plight of aboriginal Patagonians the story first was told how early Christian missionaries had disrupted these communities by imposing religion, value system, clothing and education, in the misguided attempt to save their souls and improve their lives. As we now know this lead to cultural assimilation and annihilation of the aborigines, the descendants of which now live in poor and wretched communities. The documentary then continued to explain how modern, more enlightened officialdom now forces the breakup of these enclaves riddled with with intolerable social aberrations (alcoholism, teen pregnancy, illiteracy etc.)… to improve their lives… who knows, maybe to save their souls too? Those pious filmmakers – not the slightest sense of irony. I rest my case.

  64. Gravatar of Tracy W Tracy W
    5. August 2010 at 00:07

    … no, you haven’t convinced me, I just let it go because it went the way of one of these endless arguments about rather minor points.

    So you still think that “By placing ourselves mentally in their context we can evoke in us the experiences they would have had there”?

    I don’t think that this is a rather minor point. The ability to accurately reflect other people’s experiences is an amazing one, if it actually exists. If you can really do this, I would love to learn it from you. And it would have all sorts of practical uses. But I am not at all convinced that you can do this, which is why I asked you how you know this.

    I think it’s rather cruel of you to have this amazing ability, and to totally ignore all my questions about it, in favour of repeating claims that I have already told you I agree with you about.

    But without such inference any communication is impossible.

    And I keep telling you that I agree with that. Why do you still doubt me on this issue?

    Scott’s grand original point was along the lines of, modern man assumes that HE finally gets it …. Now you can find all sorts of ifs and buts to this and the West, and modernity, have no monopoly on bigotry, but it did resonate with me.

    Well, it also was that our generation was more proud than any other.

    And it doesn’t resonate with me. Which is why I disputed that claim. I find the whole idea that our generation is more of anything than any previous generation to be remarkably unlikely, and I think that “resonating” is totally inadequate base to view the truth, when it comes to things we can’t have directly experienced.

    We still don’t know when the US will get one.

    NZ has had two. And a female Minister of Finance. And a female leader of our largest company. Although we haven’t had a black head of State.

    While I broadly do prefer Western values, yes I do, I am much much more careful in criticising other cultures and times than from what transpires from your tone.

    Um, I have read an awful lot from the debates pro and anti-racism, and pro and anti-women’s rights, and considered it. I’ve also seen racism play out in a variety of cultures and cause much heart-break, and the same with anti-feminism. My rejection of racism and anti-women acts is probably biased by my cultural upbringing, but it isn’t careless. And if you look at Western culture, it shifted from being very racist and anti-feminist to its current stance because of long debate and self-examination.

    Meanwhile, you, from a different culture to me, come along and tell me that you’re much more careful. Even though you have spent no time examining my reasoning behind my criticisms. I guess you just imagined yourself into my mental context, evoked what you thought were my experiences, and then, by whatever mysterious process, came to the conclusion that I was careless, and dashed this off. To quote Oliver Cromwell again: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken”.

    As for the case of the documentary, the missionaries were arrogant, the enlightened officialdom is arrogant, no difference I can see between generations there.

  65. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    6. August 2010 at 06:50

    Tracy, You said;

    “And it doesn’t resonate with me. Which is why I disputed that claim. I find the whole idea that our generation is more of anything than any previous generation to be remarkably unlikely”

    It seems to me that this generation is more in favor of gay rights than the previous generation. Indeed I think this generation has many attitudes that differ from previous generations. Culture changes all the time. The only thing that is even semi-stable is genetics (in the short run)

    But I wouldn’t dispute your broader claim that to some extent every generation may be a bit arrogant about the here and now.

  66. Gravatar of mbk mbk
    6. August 2010 at 09:06

    Tracy,

    (A) So you still think that “By placing ourselves mentally in their context we can evoke in us the experiences they would have had there”?
    Yes, of course. Not with any guarantee of perfect understanding, just like we don’t have that guarantee with a contemporary interlocutor. Your choice of tone apart – this is trivial, it is a form of visualizing, of empathizing, everyone does it daily for minor and major interactions with other people. The result, hopefully, is to “understand” somebody. You do it in the most extreme form when you read a book, because there you have the least collateral information about the author’s intent in creating a feeling in you. But you’re still doing just that, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes in an attempt to recreate the feeling you believe they must have had. It’s not engineering – it’s empathy based on intuition. Fluffy? Yes. But profoundly human? Yes. Kids do it too!

    (B) “But without such inference any communication is impossible.”
    And I keep telling you that I agree with that. Why do you still doubt me on this issue?

    If you agree with (B) how can you disagree with (A)? (B) justifies the use of (A).

    My point about the Patagonians was this: they are not out of the doldrums, by far. The missionaries thought they had to save them by bringing them their eternal truth of religion. Modernity tries to save them by periodically updated visions of “progress”. There are similarities between the two in the constant and systematic disrespect for the aboriginals’ own wishes, and differences in one act being justified by “truths” considered eternal, and the other by pride in constantly changing “progress”. Though I’d agree that in the end this is just nitpicking.

  67. Gravatar of TheMoneyIllusion » What’s wrong with white people? TheMoneyIllusion » What’s wrong with white people?
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