Food stamps and moral separation

Discourse, futuretalk.co11 Comments

People’s views on social programs are directly affected by moral separation.

Because we live in a society with a high degree of moral separation, there are many people who believe that food stamps, for example, are a bad thing.

There are two arguments I’ve heard repeated, “food stamp recipients should go out and work hard so they don’t have to rely on the charity of others” and, “food stamps are a waste of tax dollars.” Libertarians might even go so far as to say that people should rely on individual compassion and charity rather than a government program. That last one is really a nice sentiment if you’ve never had to rely on individual compassion or charity.

If you read this blog, I probably don’t need to even tell you that the reason these arguments don’t work is because they don’t recognize systemic barriers. They end up reinforcing the status quo by privileging the historically privileged and showing no compassion toward those who struggle.

But they are also aloof to moral separation. When the kinds of people who have time to sit around and talk about whether or not to cut federal assistance programs present their arguments, they are presenting abstractions. They talk about the role of the federal government. They talk about hard work and the American Dream. They talk about taxes.

They do not talk about people.

So not only does moral separation allow the persistence of such a ridiculous notion as there might be a reason why we shouldn’t help each other out when it’s fairly easy to do so, but it also anchors the entire argument in the realm of abstraction. And so long as we deal in abstractions, our discussions about right and wrong will not be informed by the tangible impact we can have on people’s lives, but, rather, they will be informed by ideology.

SorenFood stamps and moral separation

Moral separation

Discourse, futuretalk.co9 Comments

I want to take a moment to clarify a concept that informs a lot of what I have written here so far, and that is the notion that degrees of separation between action and consequence affect our decision making.

Let’s call this phenomenon moral separation.

I believe human beings are endowed with a limited capacity for conceiving the consequences of their actions. Certainly this foresight is what gives us moral agency. For instance, because I can anticipate that, say, gossiping about a friend can cause them distress in the future, whether or not I choose to gossip reveals something about my character.

This foresight diminishes as moral separation increases, as does a general sense of accountability. If I hit somebody and then claim I did not know this would cause them pain, nobody will believe me and I will be judged uncivilized. If I leave all the lights on in the house, people might think I’m wasteful but it’s not the same level of judgment. And nobody thinks twice when I order off instead of going to the mom and pop around the corner.

All of these things have a very real impact on someone somewhere, but as moral separation increases the consequences of my actions turn into mere abstractions. Human beings, by default, are not programmed to respond as acutely to abstraction as we are to tangible realities.

If we can figure out how to decrease moral separation, we can nourish humanity’s better nature by allowing our inherent goodness to be expressed more easily. Being “good” is more or less intuitive when consequences are concrete.

SorenMoral separation

Problems with “Shit Guys Don’t Say”, Videos7 Comments

One of the newest iterations of the “shit people say” meme is here, and it’s called “Shit Guys Don’t Say.” This video is trash, so I don’t even want to give them views by posting it here, but to set up my response you should probably check out the original.

And here’s me on the subject:

SorenProblems with “Shit Guys Don’t Say”

Selling change

Discourse, futuretalk.co11 Comments

We are all sellouts.

It is a rare and virtuous person who in the moment of conflict between integrity and massive personal gain will resist the latter. The salvation of society cannot rest upon the idle hope that other people discover virtue.

Altruism is obsolete.

The road toward the good society must be paved with gold. We no longer need good people, we need incentives for goodness. Society is what it is precisely because our social structures reward greed and betrayal. The solution to this is not to convince people to be better than they are, but to create community structures informed by the way people are.

Structure trumps content.

The good society is achieved when an average person performs good deeds as a simple byproduct of responding intuitively to his or her environment.

We must sell the change we want to see in the world.

SorenSelling change

Changing society without changing people, Part 2

Discourse, futuretalk.co11 Comments

I was confused for a long time by the notion that the character of society did not reflect the characters of the people I had met in my life. I assumed that I was lucky to be surrounded by mostly virtuous folk and that, as I journeyed beyond my hometown, I would come to find these bad seeds who were staining the fabric of society with their spilled over greed and corruption.

I never did. Sure, I’ve met a few sociopaths who don’t understand how selfish they are. But I have never met anyone intent on simply destroying the splendor of human community. So how is it that society is so treacherous yet individuals are generally good?

There is a disconnect. There is a point at which the average person does not concretely conceive the consequences of his or her actions, and therefore his or her basic goodness is not expressed. I do not know precisely where this point is, but it lies somewhere between lending your neighbor a stick of butter and the BP oil disaster.

If we can find that point and organize our activities around it, then we should see our communities beginning to more directly reflect the basic goodness of the average person. And that is our task: not to change individuals, but to rearrange society so that their basic goodness can be more easily expressed.

SorenChanging society without changing people, Part 2

“Shit White Girls Say…to Black Girls” is not racist, Videos21 Comments

If you’ve been sleeping under a rock you may have missed one of the best adaptations of of the “shit girls say” meme:

This video has sparked a lot of discussion, most of it very positive and productive. Still, there are some upset white people who think this video is racist or presents a double standard. To them I offer this:

Soren“Shit White Girls Say…to Black Girls” is not racist

Changing society without changing people, Part 1

Discourse, futuretalk.co5 Comments

One of the biggest problems I encountered before giving up on existent answers to the question of how to improve society was that every platform for social change seemed to require convincing a bunch of other people that it was the one true method before anything actually got accomplished.

Social change does not require consensus. Pursuing consensus as a starting point for change presents two considerable problems: 1) convincing a bunch of people that their worldview is wrong is impractical, and 2) it is disrespectful.

You’ve met zealots before–maybe a vegetarian, or a libertarian, or a Dave Matthews fan or whatever–you’ve met someone who felt like they had some bizarre duty to convince you of their worldview. And they tried. And you brushed them off.

We don’t like being told what to do or believe. I’d go so far as to offer this as a principle of human motivation: we are far more motivated to conduct ourselves in a manner freely chosen than we are in finding the absolute best way to act (I think I stole that from Dostoyevsky). Trying to convince someone to abandon their ideology because it’s founded on false premises is like telling someone to stop smoking cigarettes because it’s bad for their health. Even if what you’ve said is true, you’re aren’t going to convince them of anything, and you just might reinforce their belief or behavior as they respond to perceived coercion by further entrenching themselves in the comfortable fortress of individual choice. The rightness or wrongness of the choice doesn’t matter.

On top of that, we’re not all capable of agreeing on the fundamental truths of the universe, if there are any to begin with. The diversity of the human experience is far too vast. You may offer religion as a counterpoint, but have you ever sat down with two Catholics or two Jews or two Muslims and asked them to explain how their ontology translates into action? If you have, you heard two personal explanations that were far from identical. More than two or three people can scarcely decide where to go for lunch (and I stole that from Heinlein), much less unify around a single plan of action for how to fix society.

And that’s okay. We don’t need to change people in order to start changing society. Nor should we want to, because we’re never going to be certain that our method is any better than the existent ones. We just know that those didn’t mesh with our beliefs and we need to try something else. So that’s what will do, and people can participate if they want.

In Part 2, we will examine the implications of this post and the conclusion of the previous post–that people generally follow the path of least resistance–to offer a rough outline of a plan for social change that circumvents many of the problems with existent methods.

SorenChanging society without changing people, Part 1

Why do good people do bad things?

Discourse, futuretalk.co6 Comments

What do Coca-Cola and city council meetings have in common? I don’t give a crap about either of them, but I should.

See, Coca-Cola has been repeatedly accused of using paramilitary forces to intimidate, torture and even murder union organizers at its bottling plants in South America. You can go research that and make up your own mind about whether or not it’s true, but I believe it. And I still occasionally buy Coke products. It’s possible that I am an awful person.

City council meetings, on the other hand, are the site of a lot of discussions and decision making both as boring as they are productive. A lot of things I complain about absentmindedly were decided in city council meetings, or by other legislative bodies, and if I truly cared I could attend and speak or at the very least send letters to my representatives. But I don’t. So am I a bad person?

Let me guess: you don’t think I’m a bad person. And the reason you don’t think I’m a bad person is that these things are familiar to you. You saw Food, Inc. but still eat Tyson chicken. You remember when they were first talking about the Patriot Act and you didn’t do anything about it. You’ve looked at Fair Trade products in a store and put them back on the shelf after seeing the price.

Well, I don’t think you’re a bad person either, but it actually doesn’t matter. Determining our moral character won’t get us any closer to finding a bridge between discontent and constructive action. Here’s what will help us: knowing that normal people like us generally do as they please until it becomes inconvenient. We aren’t interested in doing hours of research before each shopping trip and we have no patience for windy politicians.

Now, to figure out a way to make bad things inconvenient.

SorenWhy do good people do bad things?

Ideology v. Values

Discourse, futuretalk.co2 Comments

We are trying to deal with what we have unleashed by employing the same means we used to unleash it in the first place. We are looking for new scientific recipes, new ideologies, new control systems, new institutions, new instruments to eliminate the dreadful consequences of our previous recipes, ideologies, control systems, institutions and instruments. We treat the fatal consequences of technology as though they were a technical defect that could be remedied by technology alone. We are looking for an objective way out of the crisis of objectivism.

(Václav Havel speaking at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, February 4, 1992)

The goal of Future Talk is to develop a bridge between feeling discontented with the state of society and concrete action toward improving society. This will not be achieved by creating a comprehensive belief system, but rather by exploring a loose set of values that can provide a basis for action.

The trouble with ideologies is that they give us a way to come up with automatic answers to new situations. That’s also the draw, since most of us don’t have time to analyze every single situation, but they don’t work.

See, ideologies start with a set of values, which then inform conclusions that are frequently repeated and those become codified. As we move from value to ideology, we move from contextual to self-contained. The ideology both frames the state of the world, and offers answers to the imperfections of that world. And since it does both, it is self-legitimizing. Ideology says “we need to do Y, because X is happening” without offering proof of X or exploring options beyond Y. This is overly simplistic. Ideology cannot contain the multitudes of human existence, so it reduces them to a few absolute principles.

But situations change, people are different, and every moral choice is contextual. No ideology can contain the complexity of the human experience. On a long enough timeline, ideologies lose relevance to the world around us and become disconnected from the values that once informed them.

So ideology will not provide the bridge from discontent to action. It can’t. In fact, rigid ideologies are in large part responsible for the problems that are creating our discontent in the first place.

As we move forward, we will look more specifically at existent ideologies and why they fail to address the problems in society. Through that process we will begin to highlight the values that we can use to form the bridge to action.

SorenIdeology v. Values

Let’s talk about the future

Discourse, futuretalk.co11 Comments

This blog is for anyone who thinks society is messed up but doesn’t know how to fix it.

We all know there are problems. We read about them and see them every day. We feel them in our guts. I don’t need to make some declaration of decadence, enumerating every part of society that is oppressive or painful, for you to understand what I’m saying. You know it already. You have years of experience that validate this simple notion: we can do better.

But how do we move from discontent to constructive action?

There are many answers to this question, many ideologies that offer a basis for action. If you’re satisfied with those, I don’t know why you’re reading this. Go do something. But if you’re like me, you haven’t found a belief system that actually shows us how to fix things. You don’t know what to do, because you don’t know where to start.

So let’s discuss what we want our communities to look like and examine why prevailing ideologies won’t take us there. Let’s explore new ways of organizing that can circumvent the failings of our current social structures. Let’s move beyond petty factionalism; let’s look at why people do the things they do, and figure out how we can all work together. Let’s come up with a solution that is as pragmatic as it is virtuous. Let’s find out where to start.

Let’s talk about the future.

SorenLet’s talk about the future