Archives for posts with tag: choice

Bootstraps are things that everyone has, but the only people who have ever used them are rich people. If poor people had used them, they wouldn’t be poor. Their bootstraps remain, unlaced, disheveled upon the floor. This is how we justify our system: it is merit-based. Those who attain power within it must have that power legitimately, and legitimacy is seen as being earned through hard work. The powerful, those who noticeably do not generally wear boots, obtained their power through the literally impossible task of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.

bootstraps

He must have been poor

To deny the bootstrap theory is not to proselytize a Calvinist social doctrine where some are preordained with salvation through inherited grace while the rest are condemned to poverty and damnation. Social forces, however unjust, will never be immutable. If things can change, then it must be the people who change them. The capacity to change must then exist, and if not through bootstraps, then how?

Imagine two people in two separate hallways at the end of which lies a mysterious door. The first person opens their door, and a litter of adorable puppies is revealed! Behind the second person’s door is a literal crack den with someone offering them a pipe. Both doors offer a choice, it’s just that that choice depends entirely on which hallway the person happens to be in. The person being offered crack could say no, sure, but the person playing with the puppies didn’t even get the opportunity to smoke that delicious crack.

puppies

I know what I’D choose

There will certainly be things that influence that choice. Did the second person receive an accurate education regarding the nature of drugs? Did they witness drug use during their formative years? Did they suffer a previous trauma that they never learned to cope with? Is the first person allergic to dogs? There are always correlative factors that influence choice which explain statistical trends, but choice does exist to explain anomalies.

The thing is, we don’t choose our doors. A door may open, and behind it may lay overt racism. Behind another door may be an abusive partner. Behind another door may be a downsizing layoff. We can only choose our reactions to these doors, but our reactions will always open more doors towards which we must again react. A woman might open a door to sexual harassment at work, and how she reacts might open another door that reveals a misogynist work environment, and her following reaction might open a door to reveal hostility at having rocked the boat.

Privilege is living in a hallway with mostly benign doorways. Merit doesn’t enter into it at all. Don’t have to react to racism? Congratulations! Don’t have to react to sexism? Congratulations! Don’t have to react to growing up in poverty, undergoing abuse or neglect, being followed home by a cat-caller, learning your times tables in an underfunded educational system, walking down the street with an authoritarian police force, or making a shitty wage under precarious employment? Congratulations! Resilience is a thing, certainly, but if doorway after doorway is consistently negative, a negative anti-social status is far more likely to develop.

shining hallway

I’m sure it’s fine

Like I said earlier, we’re not Calvinists. Choice is an option, and our hallways are not preordained. They are evolved, shaped, and constructed through social history, economic factors, cultural attitudes, and policy decisions. Someone on the LGBT spectrum would not have to react to homophobia if homophobia in all its social, cultural, economic, and political incarnations wasn’t a thing! On an individual level, encouraging resilience is not the worst thing in the world because often in that precise moment there is nothing else really that an individual can do. Even if that is the case, being aware of the context of that person’s situation is going to massively improve your compassion and understanding, vastly improving their likelihood of listening. However, encouraging bootstraps in any other capacity completely ignores that we all live in different hallways, and that we, collectively, can actually improve what’s behind those doors through our evolving culture, our economic system, and our political decisions.

So let’s do that instead.

I recently made the mistake of listening to a podcast that had Sam Harris in it. Whenever I am exposed to Sam Harris, I get a kind of migraine until I am able to express fully how terrible he is, and then relief sets in. Sweet, sweet relief. Now, if you happen to be a fan of Sam Harris, I would recommend instead you read another racist utilitarian, John Stuart Mill. His racism is far more dignified, and he has the honour and privilege of being one of the earliest incarnations of a white feminist!

john stuart mill

“Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.”

Harris’s general philosophy is that pain = bad, pleasure = good. It’s hedonistic utilitarianism, but this time, Harris suggests that we use science because nobody has thought of using science to determine morality before. Morality has always been so wishy washy and soft in the past, and Harris wants to ram hard science down its eager throat. Pain of course is objectively bad, pleasure is objectively good. Claiming objectivity in morality has always tended towards zealous dogmatism in the past, but now with science, that objectivity must be true, and Harris’s dogmatism is justified.

sam harris

“What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? … In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. … it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe.”

What the dogmatism of Sam “Nuke The Muslims” Harris, and even John “Brutally Subjugate The Indians” Mill to a lesser extent, fails to take into account is that the objectivity of pain as a moral compass doesn’t hold up in the slightest. The gym rat maxim of “No Pain, No Gain” literally requires pain. Getting hella swole isn’t often thought of as morally bankrupt, if perhaps a bit douche-y, yet objectively it must be. Boxers fighting for a prize belt must also be engaged in Holocaust-levels of immorality, given their premeditated intent to inflict pain on one another. And don’t even get me started on those sexy BDSM freaks in the sheets; mixing pleasure WITH pain is just an ethical nightmare!

bdsm

Just go with it

Yet Harris never mentions those because they’re not predominantly engaged in by Musli… I mean because they’re obviously not unethical behaviours. The thing that distinguishes them is consent. The boxers have agreed upon certain rules and regulations before entering their fight; the magic and wonder of BDSM is underscored vehemently by an emphasis on consent; and if some bro wants to tear his quads by going for that one extra rep, more power to him. Without consent, these activities turn into assault, rape, and non-consensual lifting. I don’t know what that last one would be like, but I certainly don’t want to find out.

do you even lift

Please don’t make me lift

What Sam Harris seems to miss is that human beings are quite capable of making their own decisions. I guess science hasn’t gotten to that part just yet. If a woman chooses to wear a Burqa, fine. People are agreeing to be punched in the face, and if that’s okay, certainly a choice in attire is okay. If she is coerced into wearing a Burqa, that becomes less fine. Issues of age and capability certainly impact consent, but ultimately it is not up to Sam Harris to decide who gets to agree to what, and what their available choices can be. It is very easy to paint a culture we don’t belong to as being intrinsically coercive (the hypocrisy being how ignorant we are of the coercive factors insidiously lurking within our own), but it is the inhabitants of that culture that ought to have the right to choose which direction they wish to go.

burberry-ad-sexy-model

Let’s let Saudi Arabia determine which direction our culture goes with regard to our media’s portrayal of women

People in general seem to have a hard time letting others live out their lives, because we know what’s best and if they’re doing something different, they must be barbaric savages, unfit to make their own decisions. This isn’t a call for relativism; my autonomy is worth just as much as yours. This is a call for the respect of autonomy, and to engage only in consensual interactions. Rather than, you know, nuking a religion, like only a genius ethicist could conceive.

Freedom is so important that America paradoxically conflates liberty with wage slavery and obsessive consumerism, and nobody seems to mind because FREEDOM.

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I can’t tonight. I’m actually too busy selling my labour to buy products I don’t need.

Freedom by itself, however, is merely chaos. Viktor Frankl wonders at the necessity of a Statue of Responsibility on the Pacific side of the United States to complement the well-established Statue of Liberty on the East Coast. Responsibility, and by extension morality, is not only predicated on freedom, but ought to exist in partnership. We cannot be moral unless we are free to choose, and we cannot be free to choose without understanding the moral weight of those choices. Jean-Paul Sartre based his entire ethical philosophy on the primacy of freedom, claiming that not only was morality linked to freedom, but was inextricably bound to it: recognizing the freedom of others pushes us to respect our shared humanity within it.

Today, this dyad of freedom and morality is under considerable threat. Not from radical Islamic terrorists who lurk in the shadows of political dissidence, or even from their Communist predecessors. This insidious saboteur is determinism. If the universe is primarily based on causal relationships, then all our decisions have already been preordained by the inviolable laws of the universe. We are not human beings, but an ecology. Growing like plants, we are fixed in our rigid binds, incapable of even struggling against them. Morality becomes impossible for the same reason that we don’t consider earthquakes to be capable of moral judgement.

There are those who not only accept this causal prison, but revel in it. Sam “Sam Handwich” Harris sought to illustrate how morality could still exist within a deterministic framework, and I honestly wish I had a better source for my readers here, because he failed so abysmally that I feel bad that this is my only reference. He claims that human choices can still be made, even without free will, because we feel that we are making a choice. The ontology of the universe be damned; our feelings supersede reality. This guy is supposed to be a scientist, keep in mind. Sam Handwich later goes on to say that the illusion of free will is itself an illusion, and if we really think rationally about it, we’ll realize that we don’t actually possess free will at all. This means that those feelings of choice that separate us from from the amoral grizzly bear, who kills only from biological instinct, are themselves the illusion, and Sam Handwich manages to contradict his own point a few idiotic paragraphs later. The moral solution in his determined universe is an abortion of utilitarianism which I won’t get into for the sake of avoiding a long rant. Personally I’d recommend reading John Stuart Mill or Peter Singer if you’re curious about utilitarian ethics. They at least have functioning brains.

Outside of this moron, however, people still desperately fight for freedom. Not only for the moral implications of avoiding determinism, but because freedom is simply worth having. Consider this quotation from Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

But when I see the others sacrifice pleasures, repose, wealth, power, and life itself for the preservation of this sole good which is so disdained by those who have lost it; when I see animals born free and despising captivity break their heads against the bars of their prison; when I see multitudes of entirely naked savages scorn European voluptuousness and endure hunger, fire, the sword, and death to preserve only their independence, I feel that it does not behoove slaves to reason about freedom.

I believe that is a suitable rejoinder to Sam Handwich‘s drivel.

However, I can’t say that freedom exists just because it’s nice and has a lot of cool quotations associated with it. I can say that freedom exists because causality as we understand it doesn’t. The first argument against causality is David Hume’s theory of necessary connections. A necessary connection is something we perceive as a cause. For example, there is a necessary connection between fire, gunpowder, and an explosion. Hume argues that this perceived necessity is actually a human construct, and postulates the problem of induction. Just because something has happened before, even repeatedly, does not necessarily mean it will happen again. You ever flick a light switch that doesn’t turn on right away? Maybe it’s something weird with the electricity; maybe it’s because the causal link suffered a bit of a hiccup.

This might sound like philosophical malarkey, but some theories of quantum physics prove Hume right. The quantum leap of an electron from one atomic orbit to the next is entirely unpredictable, and the minuteness of Planck’s constant is the only barrier against the chaos of the quantum universe overflowing into our experiential realm. Functions of the brain also exist outside of causality, with the opening and closing of ion channels and the release of synaptic vesicles operating randomly. Randomness is no determinate of free will, however, as every decision would become arbitrary and equally outside of our choices. On the other hand, it does exclude causality from being the defining characteristic of our universe.

I believe that if we are looking for a quantum solution to the problem of free will, then we should not be focusing on randomness but on probability. Given the indeterminate nature of electrons, as the position of an electron cannot be measured without abandoning the knowledge of its momentum, scientists are only able to make educated guesses based on probability. Adaptive mutation fortifies this argument by showing that bacteria and yeast can evolve useful mutations rather than completely random ones (as traditional Darwinian evolution theorized). Not all bacteria develop the adaptive gene in these studies, however, which shows that reacting to stimuli is neither random nor deterministic, but based on probability.

Probability when applied to human society makes sense. Statistics show a strong correlation between someone’s environment and their behaviour, but at the individual level, one cannot look at trends and predict a definite outcome. A street urchin raised by addicts will likely become an addict, but there is no way to tell with 100% certainty. It is that uncertainty that allows for choice. We can coast with the social conditioning, environmental pressures, and biological impulses that will push us along a predetermined path, allowing us the dubious honour of simply being another statistic, or we can make choices and break the mould. There is always a choice. Some scenarios will offer fewer choices than others, and fewer choices means a lesser degree of moral responsibility. A lesser degree of morality means those of us with more choice are responsible for elevating these ignoble souls to an equitable level where we can all claim access to a full spectrum of opportunities. That is the link between morality and freedom.