Horror is Good (Sometimes)

Mar 212002

Jonah Goldberg has a good article entitled Bring Back the Horror on NRO which argues that the media shouldn’t be avoiding the terrible images of September 11th. “Oh dear, people might be disturbed!” they say. Hogwash. We ought to be disturbed! It is an excellent statement of many of the unformed thoughts that have been rolling around in my head over the past few weeks.

Cultural Relativism and Deafness

Mar 202002

Cathy Young has an article entitled Sound Judgment on the opposition to cochlear implants and other cures for deafness by advocates for deafness. As wonderful as deaf culture may be, surely being unable to hear and unwilling to learn to speak seriously limits a person’s opportunities. For parents to force such a life on their children is barbaric.

I wonder whether the refusal of such defect-fixing medical treatment (presuming affordability) constitutes a violation of a child’s rights at any point. If a fifteen year old wants the cochlear implants and a rich aunt is willing to pay for them, are the parents violating the child’s right by refusing? I’m inclined to grant children a fair amount of authority in their own medical decisions because such decisions may greatly impact the child later in life as an adult. (Yes, I know there is lots of complexity here that I am ignoring. Another time…)

Politics of Beauty

Mar 202002

The patriarchy seems to be oppressing itself by focusing on beauty in politicians. Fancy that.

Evasion and Self-Deception

Mar 192002

The phenomenon of self-deception has received a great deal of attention in recent years from philosophers and psychologists. The general account of self-deception that has emerged is, as one might expect, strikingly similar to the Objectivist understanding of evasion.

In The Varnished Truth, David Nyberg describes self-deception as “voluntary blindness, numbness, dull-mindedness, and ignorance” (81). According to Nyberg self-deception is an active purposeful process, for “remaining ignorant on purpose requires effort” (82). The centrality of purposefulness to self-deception appears earlier in Herbert Fingarette’s book Self-Deception (16). Fingarette notes that “this element of internal purposefulness is reflected in such phrases as ‘persuades himself to believe’, ‘makes it appear to himself’, ‘lies to himself’” (28). Mike Martin’s Self-Deception and Morality describes self-deception as “the purposeful or intentional evasion of fully acknowledging something to oneself” (7).

Such characterizations of self-deception do sound fairly similar to the Objectivist account of evasion as the refusal to think. (However, it cannot be emphasized strongly enough that self-deception is commonly regarded as unavoidable and morally acceptable by philosophers and psychologists.) In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand presents the basics of evasion in Galt’s Speech:

[Man's] basic vice, the source of all his evils, is that nameless act which all of you practice, but struggle never to admit: the act of blanking out, the willful suspension of one’s consciousness, the refusal to think–not blindness, but the refusal to see; not ignorance, but the refusal to know. It is the act of unfocusing your mind and inducing an inner fog to escape the responsibility of judgment–on the unstated premise that a thing will not exist if only you refuse to identify it, that A will not be A so long as you do not pronounce the verdict ‘It is.’ (944)

Despite the similarities between evasion and self-deception, I do not think the concepts of self-deception and evasion are quite identical. Rather each concept emphasizes a slightly different aspect of a single mental phenomena.

Both evasion and self-deception involve attempting to fake the facts to ourselves. Evasion specifically refers to the process of avoiding and suppressing knowledge or reasonable suspicions. This emphasis fits well with the other meanings of evasion as avoidance of something. Thus, a criminal might evade capture by a policeman by running away physically, just he evades awareness by running away mentally. Self-deception, in contrast, focuses on what that person is running towards, on the false (or suspected to be false) belief that he convinces himself of instead. Self-deception is like the friend’s apartment in which the criminal hides while the police are looking for him.

So, let’s separate out self-deception from evasion using the example of the father of the drug addict from Sabini and Silver’s Emotion, Character, and Responsibility:

A loving father notices that his normally ebullient daughter is becoming more and more withdrawn, listless, and grouchy. She loses her appetite. She gets calls at odd hours and then leaves abruptly, yet her old friends don’t stop by anymore. She starts wearing long-sleeved blouses even though it’s summer and refuses to go to beach, once her favorite spot. She begins to lock her room, something she rarely used to do. He occasionally asks if she’s feeling all right, but she dismisses him with a laconic “yeah.” One day she is discovered dead with a needle in her arm. When the police tell him the news, he says that he can’t believe that his daughter was a junkie, that he is dumbfounded, that it’s all impossible (106).

The father’s evasion consists of refusing to consider the implications of his daughter’s changed behavior. Any thought that she might have a drug problem is immediately pushed out of his mind. He refuses to follow up on any suspicions to confirm or deny them. He won’t connect the dots, no matter how numerous they become. He is avoiding truth.

The father’s self-deception consists of the alternative theories and explanations that he concocts for himself to explain his daughter’s behavior. Her long sleeves are just the latest fashion. Her emotional withdrawal is just the usual teenage angst. She locks her door because she doesn’t want anyone to walk in on her while she’s undressed. He is pursuing fiction.

Whatever conceptual distinctions we might make between self-deception and evasion, the fact is that usually these processes are usually tightly intertwined like a Gordian Knot. The self-deception supports the evasion and the evasion supports the self-deception. So, for example, to make the self-deception that long sleeves are just the latest fashion, the father has to evade the fact that other fashionable teens don’t seem to be wearing long sleeves. To avoid the obvious implications of her strange behavior, the father needs to self-deceive with alternate explanations. It does seem, however, that evasion might be possible without self-deception. A person might push something out of her mind, but not latch on to some other false or dubious idea in its stead.

So evasion is faking reality by refusing to accept what you know or suspect to be true. And self-deception is faking reality by persuading yourself of what you know or suspect to be false. They are, as Ayn Rand might say, two sides of the same coin.

So the question to my readers, particularly those familiar with the Objectivist theory of evasion, is: Does this sound plausible? Would you describe the differences and similarities between self-deception and evasion differently?

Choosing Life

Mar 192002

I recently re-listened to one of my favorite lectures, David Kelley’s Choosing Life, which delves into both the theoretical and practical implications of the choice to live within the Objectivist ethics. Perhaps the most memorable aspect of the lecture is DK’s connection between serious depression, meaning in life, and the choice between life and death. But more suggestive philosophically is his distinction between achievement and experience. (Both, he argues, are necessary for a meaningful life.) The distinction paves the way for an excellent response to simple hedonism, but I wonder where else it might be of use. Unfortunately, my love of this lecture does not extend to the Q&A section, which I found to be confusing. But that is a minor flaw in an otherwise excellent lecture.

Soviets, Muslims, and Children

Mar 192002

I can’t adequately describe Jonah Goldberg’s article Biology and Ideology. It’s chilling.

Honesty and Tenure

Mar 192002

Steve Simpson pointed me to this op-ed by Robert Bartley on the myriad of recent scandals in the “supposedly high-minded quarters” of society, from academia to the Catholic Church. Dishonesty seems to be on a rampage. But there may be reason for hope, as Bartley suggests towards the end of his piece:

On whether we have experienced a general erosion of standards, I think I can rest my case. Human nature, of course, remains a constant over time and across fields of endeavor. What matters is accountability, that is, whether we as a society are willing to sit in judgment on each other. And perhaps the anecdotes above in fact suggest that in this post-Clinton era we’re making some progress; at least the issues are coming to light and creating some agony in church, government and universities.

But it only gets more interesting. Barley goes on to suggest businessmen do not share the “immunity from accountability” that tenured academics and civil servants have. They are not protected from their own immorality by the cushion of a more-or-less guaranteed job.

In my opinion, the tenure system doesn’t really protect professors against political ax-grinding. Those with unpopular opinions are simply weeded out before tenure is awarded. The downsides to the tenure system, in terms of ensconcing terrible professors and permitting little effort, are considerable. A system requiring competence and diligence while protecting professors against unjust politics would surely not be impossible to construct.

The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Mar 182002

As Paul has been away at a conference for the past few days, I have spent a few hours in those days in rather dubious pursuits. Perhaps the worst was a few night ago. After watching my beloved Batman Beyond, I stuck around the Cartoon Network to watch some bizarre Japanese cartoon. As it turns out, the cartoon contained an interesting moral lesson, although not the one intended.

In the cartoon, a young boy has died. But there is a possibility of his returning to life if he properly cares for a magic egg. If he behaves badly, the egg will hatch a terrible monster which will bite his head off. If he behaves well, the egg will hatch a powerful creature necessary to return his spirit to his body. But his house catches fire and threatens to destroy his body, without which he will not be able to return to life. A girl he cares for runs into the blazing house to rescue his body, but she gets trapped by the fire. The boy is thus faced with a stark moral choice. He can throw the egg into the fire to save the girl, but thereby ruin his chances of returning to life. Or he can save the egg for himself and allow his friend to die. (Of course, if the boy allows the girl to die, his body will also be destroyed, along with any hope of rebirth. But the cartoon doesn’t consider this fact.) The boy overcomes his “selfish” desire for life and throws down the egg. The gods are so impressed with this noble act that they return him to his body despite the destruction of the egg. In fact, the gods inform the boy that had the egg hatched, the creature would have surely eaten him for his bad behavior. (Sorry for the long summary, but the story line was too bizarre for a short synopsis.)

The moral of the story, of course, is that selfless behavior is rewarded. By acting to save the life of his friend, he ends up saving both of their lives. If he had acted to save his own life, both he and the girl would have died. Only by acting against his own apparent interests can the boy has all of his wishes realized.

This moral message is fairly common, particularly in children’s literature. Adults sell the ideal of altruism to children by giving it an egoistic veneer. They claim that rewards will be heaped upon those who act selflessly. Those rewards may come from God after death, from other people, or even from psychological satisfaction. Those rewards may be delayed, but they will come. In essence, this dressed-up altruism asserts that the best way to obtain happiness is to not pursue it. Or even more strongly: the best way to obtain happiness is to pursue the happiness of others at the expense of one’s own happiness.

Of course, when the issue is put so starkly it seems rather ridiculous. Imagine a person who has $50 in his wallet. He wants to buy a $75 gift for his beloved wife. Would the best way to acquire the extra $25 be to give away the $50 dollars he has? Should he then expect to magically receive $75 back? Or should he just directly pursue the needed $25 by going to the ATM and removing the funds from his account? Obviously, we get the stuff we want by pursuing it, not renouncing it. That’s how life works.

Two objections could be made to this simple observation when applied to happiness. First, we do occasionally receive good stuff unexpectedly, like an inheritance from an aunt we never knew existed. Such gains cannot be relied upon, precisely because they are unexpected and unusual. Most of the time, we must work to achieve what we want. Second, some people pursue their happiness in all the wrong ways, thereby making themselves miserable. But the irrationality of some people’s means of acquiring something says nothing about the actual value of that thing. Just because some people attempt to obtain a job by threatening lawsuits doesn’t mean that pursuing a job is bad.

Altruism, if presented honestly, would advocate the sacrifice of oneself to others as an end-in-itself. To motivate altruism with hope or expectation of reward, as the cartoon did, is to appeal to egoism. But egoism and altruism are not compatible, no matter how often people accept the silly contradiction. Kant understood this problem, which is why his moral theory seems so harsh and extreme. He, at least, was consistent on this issue. (Although not well-grounded, as Will Wilkinson argues in this essay.)

I’m not advocating any form of psychological egoism. People clearly can and do act against their interests, both in full knowledge and in ignorance. My point is rather that to make altruism a palatable moral theory for a wide audience, its advocates must sugar-coat it with a veneer of self-interest. They must promise people rewards for their sacrifices. They falsely promise a positive cost-benefit analysis in the long run. Why? Because naked altruism would be abhorrent to most even moderately self-respecting people.

But by dressing up the wolf in sheep’s clothing during childhood, the indignity of altruism remains hidden from the sight of most people.

Encouraging Honesty

Mar 172002

In Why Kids Lie, Eckman talks about reducing the temptation to lie. Speaking of his son, who he caught in a big lie two years earlier, Eckman writes:

Whenever something has come up that [my son] might be tempted to lie about, I have been very careful about questioning him in a way that would encourage him to be truthful. Not “Who broke the vase?” or “Did you break the vase?” But “We shouldn’t have kept that vase in such a vulnerable spot; it would be too easy to knock over. Was it you or your sister?”

In other words, Eckman is recommending asking leading questions that put the wrongdoing in the most favorable light so that truthfulness isn’t so scary for the child. The child feels safer in telling the truth, with fewer worries about harsh punishment to come.

However, the most charitable explanation for behavior isn’t always the most accurate. The son might have broken the vase playing baseball inside or smashed the vase in a fit of anger. In such cases, the leading question encourages the child to confess to the wrongdoing — but only superficially. The child might honestly admit to causing the damage, but then lie (either by omission or commission) about the reasons for that damage. In essence, the leading question provides a ready-made false excuse.

So using this method of leading, charitable questions in an attempt to promote honesty and responsibility may instead promote habits of dishonesty and irresponsibility.

In contrast, Linda and Richard Eyre’s book Teaching Your Children Values contains some excellent suggestions for teaching honesty to children of all ages. Perhaps the most interesting is implicit in the opening story of the chapter on honesty.

Pulling into the driveway one way, I noticed a broken milk bottle on the pavement. I asked nine-year-old Josh and his friend, Chip, if they knew how it happened. Chip quickly said no. Josh looked over at him, somewhat startled, then walked over and put his hand on Chip’s shoulder and said, “It’s okay, he’ll understand.” Then to me, “The basketball hit it, Dad. Sorry. We were going to clean it up, but we forgot. Come on, Chip, I’ll get the dustpan.”

Despite his father’s direct question, Josh isn’t afraid to answer honestly. But most importantly, he knows what to do to fix the situation: clean up the mess he made. Not all wrongdoings can be so easily fixed, but most can be fixed with a bit of thought and effort. By focusing the child’s attention on the constructive task of making amends rather than awaiting punishment, the admitting the truth becomes less scary.

In other words, children ought to be explicitly taught the skills of redemption as part of learning about the necessity of honesty. The former will make the latter easier.

Changes Galore!

Mar 172002

I haven’t blogged much these past few days because I was working on upgrades to the web site. They are, I hope, finally done! If you have problems or suggestions, please e-mail me at diana(at)dianahsieh.com.

Here’s a brief summary of what’s new:

I have added some recent work, including new book reviews and lecture notes from my presentation to FROG entitled The Virtue of Honesty. I’ve also added a rather massive amount of older work, including mailing list posts and more undergraduate papers.

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