Sunday, March 27, 2011

Follow-up on collective responsibilty

I think an advantage of the way of thinking about the concepts I discussed in this post is that it might allow us to find ways to improve societies without implying that the members of the society are to blame, or should feel ashamed for, their society's problems. At the same time, they may see it as their responsibility to act to change things.

This is a little idealistic. There clearly is a deep tribalist impulse, which often prevents people from looking at their own group clearly. But maybe one way of addressing this is to get use a conceptual framework that separates social failure from collective guilt. In my perfect world, people wouldn't feel pride based on group status, but that's really a long way off.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

People don't know what their own traditions are

One phenomenon I've noticed recently in China is that people have many inaccurate beliefs about what Chinese tradition actually is. For example, most Chinese people see it as the most Chinese thing ever to eat rice with every meal. But it this could not have been possible for the mass of Chinese people until perhaps 50 years ago, as white rice, without industrial husking and polishing techniques, was extremely labor-intensive, and would have been too expensive for most people to consume every day. People are slightly more aware that industrial seed oil is not a traditional Chinese thing, as its introduction is far more recent. Yet most people use it every day, partially because the false notion that these oils are healthy, and that animal fat is bad, has trickled in from the United States. (Melissa McEwen has noticed similar things among immigrant populations in Queens.)

In other cases, there seems to be blind adherence to traditions that seem to make very little sense, while embracing potentially harmful aspects of modernity. For example, women in China, after giving birth, typically spend a month at home, during which time they are not supposed to go outside, wash their hair, or brush their teeth. Meanwhile, the majority of births in China occur by C section, and there is increasing evidence that this can be harmful to both mother and child.

All of this leads me to suspect that there is a big problem with traditionalism as commonly practiced. Common practices seem to change without people even noticing. Even the most vehement followers of tradition always adopt some new things, and these small changes can make a big difference.

In the case of food, to be a traditionalist now requires one to actively avoid all kinds of foods, and seeking out the tiny quantities of foods that are produced in the traditional way. In some cases, you have to go back to find out what the traditions actually were. Basically, you have to be a scholar and researcher. It has to be a passion. I think, as innovation continues to accelerate, and the costs of new technologies accumulates*, we're going to see more and more people specializing in the re-remembering of lost traditions. The paleo movement is, perhaps, an example of this.

*I think the benefits of new technologies mostly outway the costs. But the costs they impose are new, and one way we make progress is by learning to deal with the problems that new technologies create. I owe this insight to Kevin Kelly.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Some initial thoughts on collective failure, responsibility, and guilt

I'm sure the ideas I've been juggling in my head for a while are not new. It seems like an issue some philosopher must have grappled with. But at any rate it's something that itches at me often when I encounter arguments about the issues I list in the title of this post. I want to make this fairly quick, and build on it in the future, so I'm gonna keep it short and punchy.

Some definitions:

Collective failure
I understand collective failure as an outcome within a given group where all/most members of the group are made worse off (could we call that a Pareto decline?),  and the outcome cannot be fully attributed to some exogenous forces, and each member of the group did something that was a necessary (but not, in itself, sufficient) to allow the outcome to happen. (That's too wordy!)

Collective failure may effect people outside the group. For example, if we imagine that the policies of communist China under Mao where responsible for suffering among all Chinese people, we may say this was the result of a collective failure- but not among ALL Chinese, but among, say, the political class, or the educated class, or whatever.

Collective responsibility
Most ethical theories, along with most folk's ethical intuitions, hold that a person is morally responsible for an action iff she could have done otherwise. While I see the usefulness of this way of thinking, I think it comes loaded with some metaphysical baggage; I don't think we ever really know if someone could have done otherwise from what he/she actually did do. OK, but let's say we can imagine, in some cases, that someone could have done otherwise. The role of this way of thinking may be to change future incentives in order to shift behavior at the margin in order to decrease socially costly behavior.

But in the case of collective responsibility, we seem to run into a problem: this way of thinking doesn't apply easily to groups. If you say a group could have done otherwise, it seems like you need a way to translate that into individual action. And here we have the real problem: it's obvious that many individual actions are only possible if others act a certain way. That is, someone could only have also differently if others had also acted differently. Now, there are cases where an individual could plausibly have been able to induce others to behave in this way, but there are also many cases where this isn't the case. In such cases, how can we attribute responsibility in a way that can be sensibly applied to all individuals in a group?

I think a plausible answer to this question goes something like this:
When we attribute responsibility for some outcome to some group, one thing we want to do is to induce that group to develop social practices that will make this outcome less likely in the future. Such practices may only be possible with widespread changes in behavior among all, or a sufficient number of members of the group. I think social norms that guide a lot of behavior are like this: they require most  members to opt in. And I think perception of  collective responsibility within a group may induce a change of behavior that can change social norms and, thus, social outcomes.

Collective guilt
In some usages, 'guilt' and 'responsibility' may be used interchangeably, but I want to argue that, in cases dealing with social outcomes, it is more useful to make a distinction. I think 'guilt' ought to be used only to apply to those we actually punish. Part of the reason for this is rhetorical and pragmatic. People seem to recoil at most suggestions of collective guilt, and probably rightly so. For one thing, guilt also has a connotation of exclusion; once we ascribe guilt, the common understanding is that those who aren't guilty are off the hook. It also has a connotation of finality; once we've found out who is guilty, we punish them, or make them give compensation, and then we're finished. With many social problems, however, thing are more complicated than this kind of thinking allows for.

Application and conclusion
Let me try to apply this thinking to a concrete case to make it clearer. Suppose we attribute the atrocities committed by the Japanese military and occupying authorities from 1932-1946 to a collective failure among the Japanese people at the time to curb the highly nationalistic and militaristic tendencies in Japanese society at that time.

We may say that those people who committed the atrocities, and those who ordered them, or even knowingly allowed them to occur, are clearly guilty in some sense. We may even hold guilty all Japanese who were of a certain age at that time- though in a different sense; we're not going to throw all of them in prison, but we may, say, want them to feel guilty in order to change their behavior in the future.

But it seems pretty absurd to hold most Japanese people alive today to be guilty for those crimes. After all, they weren't even alive at the time, or they were children.And assigning guilt in this way may fuel resentment among Japanese people, or bigotry against Japanese people.

 But we may want to attribute some kind of collective responsibility- not for what happened then, but to do better in the future- to develop better social norms, institutions, and practices so that the Japanese military will never again act in such a way. After all, norms and institutions are sticky- they don't change overnight, and they depend on many bottom-up social phenomena- not only on policy or actions by leaders, but also on the actions of all people within the group.

Of course, we do a lot more than this. We also encourage policies, act in international diplomacy, etc. But this kind of assigning of responsibility is one of the things we may do.

I hope these ideas are useful in helping us understand some important problems we face in our society, and in addressing these problems. In the future, I plan to elaborate on these ideas.

Monday, March 21, 2011


Once again, a long time since I bothered to do a post here. My wireless router at home broke, and since then my VPN at home doesn't work. I got up early this morning, and I'm now at Starbucks sipping a cup of tea, so here I am.

My reading lately has been pointing my thinking increasingly toward a convergence of various ideas- Nassim Taleb, Richard Rorty, Seth Roberts and the various writers of paleo diet related blogs. It's all been getting me to think about the relationship between dynamism, coping with limited knowledge, the open society, and living well.

It's exciting to see the emergence of a strain of thought that seems to me so necessary for "our times". Let me try to lay out what I see going on here:

A distrust of theorizing, and an embracing of epistemological openness and tinkering
Both Rorty and Taleb offer convincing arguments against any theory as the final arbiter of Truth. Taleb suggests tinkering as a better paradigm. The smartest paleo writers seem to get this idea. Scientific evidence matters, but individuals need to be able to tinker around, see what works, and make new discoveries.

Embracing social dynamism
This follows to some extent from the latter. The smartest paleo writers understand that society flourishes when it allows a bottom-up discovery process to be the driver of social progress. It's refreshing to see more and more libertarians also fully embrace the implications of Hayek- there is never perfect knowledge, competition- indeed, perfect ANYTHING. The reason to embrace markets is because they allow for discovery, and keep the many failures that will occur along the way small. Government tends to push for one-size-fits-all solutions, and failures are massively damaging. But the smart libertarians understand that big business is often completely dependent on big government; social orders are dependent on each other.

Imperfect knowledge
The Chicago version of libertarianism is misleading. You don't need to believe in perfect competition, or perfect rationality, to support a greater role for markets. Indeed, the concept of the market, broadly understood, is just another way of saying something like 'a decentralized, bottom-up process of discovery'. We should also include in this what one might call 'the marketplace of ideas', and indeed most human interaction. We lack a good word for all of this. Ideas are just as important as production, even in 'the market' more narrowly construed.
The human body, like society, is a complex system, and we understand it very poorly. Overarching theories are very likely to miss something. We should proceed cautiously. Avoid the most clearly damaging things, and go with what works- don't worry too much about why. The convergence of evolutionary logic and scientific evidence can point us in the right direction, but don't wed yourself to any conclusion.

Never completely trust large institutions
The American government and it's corporate clients are not in the business of guarding the common good. I don't think there is deliberate intention to harm, but the net effect often is to harm the mass of people.
In the case of health, they continue to forward a hypothesis that appears weaker than ever. They have helped to destroy the knowledge embedded in traditional foodways- how many Americans know how to render lard?- and pushed deeply damaging alternatives.
The internet is empowering people to create social networks to help rebuild this knowledge. It's going to take some time, but many have already rebuilt their health.

This is all very scattered. If I ever get around to it, I'll try to better organize it and elaborate on some of these ideas.