Monday, October 12, 2015

Admiration and Reward (with Stu)

Trev:
Many of our inbuilt ideas of rights and wrongs clash when put next to each other. One of the ones I find most interesting is Meritocracy and the idea of feeling special, and how it clashes with our idea of equality. How should we be rewarded? What should we admire? If someone is born with an inbuilt skill, it feels like not developing it is a weakness. If someone overcomes the lack of an inbuilt skill, this feels admirable. But surely that ability to overcome is an inbuilt skill? Willpower is rare. Should we really admire someone who finds it easy to work hard?

Stu:
I try to squirm out of the problem by saying that we should care about some types of equality but not others, like equality of opportunity not outcome. I think the drive for equality of outcome is one of the worst and most persistent ideals we have. People might be admirable in proportion to how they use what they've got, but strangers shouldn't feel obliged to care. Admire the product, doesn't matter how it arrived. How about this though. Should we admire people who struggle to refrain from violence more than people who don't have the urge in the first place?

Trev:
I have heard that last comment about some of the dodgier aspects of society. The person who admits to having some of the darker urges (e.g. paedophilia), but seeks out support, and doesn't act on them. Part of a society that celebrates and creates heroes is we aren't very good at dealing with violent or anti-social tendencies. We don't paint children as evil when they are nasty little critters. At some point, we start deciding if someone is intrinsically bad, and writing them off. I am glad my Mom never wrote me off. Our heroes have a habit of falling when we discover darker sides of their humanity.

Stu:
I think we should admire people for resisting their bad impulses, but we can still recognise that they're bad people (even if their badness isn't their fault). Also, I almost certainly wouldn't have done better under Nazism than the average person there, but they still deserve blame while I don't. I guess we let kids off the hook because they don't have they capacity yet to make an effort in another direction. In terms of culture and sport, I think we should be less interested in whether people try really hard or are good people. I am bad at following my own advice though.

Trev:
Separately from us starting this thread, Alex shared a Vox article providing 'The Case Against Equality'. It is compelling. We felt a hierarchy where the people at the top got there by birth was wrong. We have been searching for a way to make the different classes of people fair. I think the problem lies in us looking at things in relative terms. If we focus on simple issues that are bad, there is more agreement. Murder bad. Rape bad. Illiteracy bad. Hunger bad. Danger bad. Deciding what we should and shouldn't admire, and what that should and shouldn't justify seems like the wrong approach.

Stu:
I don't think equality of opportunity should be an ultimate goal. I'm not sure it is completely the wrong approach though. If rape and murder are bad, then people who do a good job of reducing them should be admired because it raises their status and they'll be encouraged. Tyler Cowen thinks we should admire scientists more. It's harder to agree on "good" things. Do we need more poetry or classical music? Is it bad that an excellent pianist doesn't make a good living? I don't think so, even though it's cool that they like doing that.

Trev:
Pay is a really bad measure of value in the subtle, all-inclusive sense. It horribly conveys a message that pay = worth = place in hierarchy. What pricing/pay is good at is conveying a summary figure of short term supply and demand. It does carry a lot of information, but not about warm, fuzzy things. I get worried that the equality we care about is of the warm, fuzzy kind and thinking of monetary equality is a red herring. Admiration and pay are separate.

Smelly Red Herring, used to send hunting dogs on the wrong trail

Stu:
They are separate, but maybe I don't think they are as separate as you. In general, I don't admire the struggling poets etc. I would if I was convinced they were geniuses, but most aren't. I think it's cool that some people go down that route, but that's because it might be good for them, not that it's intrinsically admirable. And I don't think that society has a duty to support. If something pays well, there are good reasons to do that. Invisible hand reasons, either helping or at least avoiding being a burden on others and charity. I think we should admire this more and lots of traditionally admired stuff less, doctors for example.

Trev:
I have been thinking a lot about how to prioritise when you take money, and accounting, out of the equation. Money is seductive as an 'easier answer' to the question of worth. In a world of scarcity and quantifiable needs, I think it is incredibly powerful. Moving to a Sharing Economy, or Creativity Economy, or Gift Economy things start to get fuzzy. Incentivisation gets more nuanced. If you are my friend, and you love writing poetry, and I can support you (not necessarily financially), that makes us both better off. I have more questions than answers when it comes to this stuff, but I think meritocracy is more overrated than I used to. There are some exciting ways of thinking differently.

Stu:
We might be better off and that would be cool, but that doesn't mean we should be admired. There's a difference between living the good life and living an admirable one. Following my (non-existent) poetry dreams in a supportive, creative economy sounds pretty great, even if my poetry sucks, but I think the status accorded me by society should be low relative to others (not like, sub-human though). Purely meritocratic status is probably also not a good idea. I see movements like Effective Altruism as an effort to redistribute admiration that I support, mostly in theory for now, because I'm not very admirable.
 
Peter Singer on 'Effective Altruism'
For the record, I don't regard my admiration of Stu as altruism

Guest Post by Stuart Torr
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