Sunday, June 12, 2005

Of Two Minds

It never ceases to amaze me the ability of humans to hold two completely contradictory thoughts in their head at the same time, with no impulse at all to attempt to reconcile them.

It shouldn't. Amaze me, I mean. There's not a person I've met who's hasn't at some point demonstrated point positions of illogical inconsistency.

And I must include myself in that category as well. Although when such inconsistencies are pointed out to me by my very dear and blunt friends, I do make some attempt to modify them or rationalize them.

So you'd think even with my intimate familiarity with such a state of ignorant bliss, I would be not only unsurprised, but understanding of such a condition when I see it in someone else.

But I'm not. Why is that?

"We hate in others what we hate most in ourselves" (author unknown). I think I see, and despise ignorance of self in others because I have spent a fair amount of my life attempting to understand my own self, and have clearly made little success. This, coupled with my disgust with self-failure, combines to result in an ultimate spite for others who don't even try.

Or perhaps it's just disgust at the even shallower nature of hypocrisy. Someone who represents incompatible world views but is unaware of the fact is probably not a hypocrite. A hypocrite is aware that he says one thing publicly, but does another privately. Ignorance is at most sad. Hypocrisy is at most putridly disgusting, a scourge of the earth.

Some examples of grossly contradictory positions that I commonly see:

  • "Right-to-lifers" that are for the death penalty. Or even more perversely, anti-abortionists who actively promote the deaths of doctors who perform the procedure.

  • Lawmakers who make laws that are applicable to anyone other than themselves. This needn't be overt, like passing a pay cut for everyone but their own group. It could be passing a mandatory extension of military enlistment terms when they have no familiy member would could be affected. Or passing tax "cuts" that only apply to their economic group due to the nature of the item taxed, like cutting luxury taxes. Or "fiscal conservatives" who ask for appropriations "out-of-budget" that create some of the highest national debt in the history of man.

  • Church goers who follow few of the tenets of their professed religion (and even those that are followed are done in the absence of any real challenge to the belief). For example, of the Ten Commandments, at least four of them can be followed faithfully in a normal life without having to do much at all, as the occasion to break with them rarely occurs.

  • I shouldn't leave out "Liberal" hypocrites, although most extreme leftists I know are just impractical or foolish rather than hypocritical. But I regularly see those who press for more "societal good" laws like helmets and seat belts as often being the worst about letting their kids bounce around the back seat of the car without seat belts, or ride their bike without helmets.

I've come to believe that my internal disgust at hypocrisy and illogical thinking has its basis in evolutionary biology, rather than some carefully developed rational world view that values honest and rational decision making.

I believe I have a strong genetic disposition to being an "altruistic punisher." Altruistic Punishment is basically the punishment of a "cheater" even when there is no direct gain for the individual doing the punishing. (more here, and here)

A recent article in New Scientist discussed a series of experiments and models that explain how cooperation in large groups evolves. Cooperation in groups is a feature that allows a given group to outperform a group that doesn't cooperate as well (see some of my prior posts). The interesting thing highlighted in this article was the role of "altruistic punishment" in the development of cooperation.

...strong reciprocity is not simply a matter of cooperation; it also requires punishment of those who fail to toe the line. When the team added punishment to their models, they found it made a huge difference. In a second round of simulations, they included a new kind of individual: the "punishers". These punishers were not only willing to cooperate with others but also to punish cheats. By making cheats pay for their antisocial actions, they tipped the balance towards cooperation...cooperation can become the default behaviour in large groups provided punishers are willing to punish not only those who cheat, but also those who fail to punish cheats (see Graph). "In this case," Fehr says, "even groups of several hundred individuals can establish cooperation rates of between 70 and 80 per cent."

My disgust is hardwired - my genes predispose me to watch and scold. I was born to be a Punisher.

But "quis custodiet ipsos custodes?"

Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum videtur

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