Monthly Archives: October 2010

Five Scary Thoughts for Halloween

Waiting for my first trick or treater gets me to thinking about some of the ideas floating around our society that I think are really, really scary. Here are my Top Five:

5. Why do you want to make your ideas public? Said just last night by a kind man who admitted he never had visited a blog (which is pretty easy for him to not do as he does not own a computer.) Now this individual is also quite educated and reasonable, but I could tell as I described blogging and tweeting to him that he could not comprehend why people would see any benefit in sharing ideas as broadly and as often as possible. Given the difficulty and complexity of the problems facing our species right now, I see no alternative but to be part of the Great Insight Stream, from each according to his abilities, to each according to her needs. (said tongue in cheek.)

4. A great leader makes decisions quickly and never compromises. Oy!! Who came up with such a ridiculous notion? Maybe somewhere there is still an organization that can afford leadership by gut instinct and ideology (more on that later), but I’m not hearing too many success stories these days along those lines. Even an NFL quarterback needs to read the defense, work through his progressions, and make the right decision, which is often a compromise from his first choice.

3. I have the right to be invisible . OK, I admit you probably haven’t heard anyone say this directly, but if you listen carefully this is exactly the argument some people are making when they claim the right to privacy. If you think about it, most if not all of our actions have always been visible, but only to that limited number of people who could “see” what we were doing at any given time or place. If any of us did something criminal, the authorities would then go look for those witnesses who could testify to what they had seen. For the most part, today’s technologies don’t make activities more visible but they do reliably make a record of ALL visible activities; the digital record acts as the new witness. I myself am not sure where to draw the line here; some type of consensus will emerge. But I think we need to be clear that the right to privacy does not mean the right to be invisible.

2. If you’re a progressive, you believe in big government. Aaargh!! I consider myself a progressive because I believe humans have a lot of upside potential and as we collaborate and share more knowledge we will find better ways of doing just about everything. This does not mean, however, that I believe government has to do most of the heavy lifting. In fact, I fully expect Government to be one of the things we will find a better way of doing.

1. The US will become stronger if it returns to the past. It pains me that this even needs to be argued, but there you have it. Its funny how organizations in trouble and societies that become less confident revert to the same argument: we need to return to the principles of our glory days and just execute them better. Please, someone, show me one example where this strategy has actually worked. Deterioration in our competitive postures doesn’t occur because we’ve abandoned our principles; it happens mostly because the environment around us is changing. Ideologically-based attachment to old ideas is the greatest sin of politics.

What the Tea Party and Evolutionary Theory have in Common

The other day I read two interesting articles in the 14 October NY Review of Books. One was a review by H. Allen Orr of The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness; the other was a review of Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice by Samuel Freeman. (Unfortunately both pieces are behind the pay wall but the links get you  to the first few paragraphs of each.) The Price of Altruism explores the fascinating but tragic life of George Price who at one point set out to explain how creatures could exhibit altruism even when such behavior defied that predicted by the theory of evolution, specifically natural selection. As the reviewer notes, Darwin himself understood that altruistic behavior was not well-explained by the dynamic of natural selection. “How could natural selection promote or even allow behavior that is costly to the individual that performs it but that benefits someone else?”  George Price developed mathematical equations in the last century that essentially could be said to prove that natural selection WITHIN a group favors selfishness but that natural selection AMONG groups would favor altruistic behavior. “Groups including many cooperative individuals will do better, as a group, than those including many uncooperative individuals.”

So, you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with the Tea Party. For that we have to turn to the book The Idea of Justice. (unlike the first book, I’ve actually been reading The Idea of Justice and am about halfway through.) In the book Amartya Sen explains how a just society and a fair society are not really the same thing. As he uses the word, a just society would be one that maximizes the overall potential of the people in that society, even though this maximization might result in certain individuals not being able to make the best use of their personal capabilities. (Think here of governments that impose progressive tax policies.) A society that was fair to individuals, i.e. allowed each individual unfettered ability to reap the gains of his or her capabilities, would, on the other hand, almost certainly not be just. (I’m paraphrasing Sen’s much more complicated argument.) It is also interesting to contemplate which of the two societies would be optimal based on some impartial standard, if such existed. Would the fair or just society come closer to approaching the ideal?

So this got me to thinking about the Tea Party. The Tea Party Movement’s emphasis on minimal government interference with individual lives and choices (except of course for homosexuals and women) is in essence an expression of pure Natural Selection as a Governance Philosophy. The philosophy of the Tea Party Movement supports a fair society above a just one. Which strikes me as somewhat odd, given that the majority of Tea Party supporters, judging by their candidates, oppose the unchallenged teaching of evolution. My guess is that the average member of the Tea Party movement would either assert that the “natural selection” society would be the best possible or just not be interested at all in the concept of a best society–just some nutty, socialist thinking that.

It’s an interesting question to ponder, or at least I find it interesting. What should we strive for? Our maximum individual fulfillment or the maximum betterment of our group, by which I mean humanity. One would hope the two are not often in conflict, but I know that is not the case. Isn’t this in fact the fundamental question in political life?

So why is it that it’s never discussed?