Saturday, May 23, 2015

Response to a bunch of nonsense

This was originally going to be a Facebook comment in response to this article, but ended up being much, much longer.

Wow, that is a hot pile of nonsense, but in a way that is illuminating. It's interesting in how it approaches some standard topics, and I was actually surprised that it didn't bemoan the higher population and life expectancy of humans as a great sin. I typically expect anti-induatrialism with modern collectivism.

Let's first start at the beginning. It is revealing that, in order to assign Original Sin (guilt by birth), one has to destroy the concept of individuals. This article was refreshingly honest and straightforward in its attempt to deny the existence of people. Most things I read talk around it and wouldn't be so bold as to say "you're not a person" flat out.

This raises the obvious question that if I'm not a person, and given that my being a person is something of which I have the most direct evidence, then how can anyone be a person? If I'm not a person, and you're not a person, then there is no basis on which to conclude that anyone is a person, so people don't exist and neither do societies. At this point, at the beginning of the article, the author firmly establishes that he's no longer talking about reality, so pretty much anything goes. As an aside, think about what his implied criteria are for declaring some entity "a person." You would have to have a virgin birth to some non-human mother on some distant planet without any contact with any other people. If us normal "non-persons" don't count as persons, what, if anything, does?

We then get into near-total determinism, with a collectivist bent. The determinism is important because it means that you can't take any credit for the things you have achieved. The collectivism is important because it means that you have a personal (whoops, can't use that word for us non-persons!) responsibility for things which your collective has done.

The problem with going the determinism route (aside from the trivial fact of it being self-evidently false), is that it also destroys one's ability to make decisions based on new information. This is obviously true and inescapable if you've bought into determinism: if all of your opinions and actions are determined, then you have no ability to change your mind based on arguments. If determinism is true, then whatever the article is pointless, because everything I'm going to do is already determined. If determinism is false, then the central argument of the article vanishes.

The collective-deterministic angle also undermines the later point in the article about the value of geniuses. If Einstein (who, let's remember, is not a person) discovered something great, he didn't actually do anything. It was just his genes and environment and everybody else that discovered relativity. And hey, since we all are responsible for the things other non-people did, it was actually me who discovered relativity, and wrote all of Mozart's music, and built the Saturn-V rockets, and painted the Mona Lisa! I should put all of that on my résumé!

It was at this point that I expected him to start getting into how nothing really exists, and was pleasantly surprised that he didn't go full Kantian.

The bit about individualism being the root of bigotry and discrimination based on nonessentials is just bizarre. By framing equality as something detrimental to individuals ("The big flaw in humanity is that we always cling to short-term comfort over long-term prosperity (because we see ourselves as individuals, instead of part of a whole), and certain classes of people were benefiting from doing things the old way, even if humanity as a whole was not."), he is making his job unnecessarily difficult. He is, in effect, saying "hey, all you white, straight, rich men! Diversity and equality will only come at your expense and only has misery to offer you, but you should do it anyway because you're not a person and don't matter." When presented with an argument like this, it's not hard to see why some people are less than enthusiastic about diversity. Rather than admonishing rich, straight, white men for not being willing to hobble themselves for no personal benefit, try something like "do you like eBay? Then you want more women in business (Meg Whitman). Do you like Chinese food? Then you want more immigration. Do you like iPhones? Then you want more gay CEOs. Think of all the amazing stuff you could have if more people could get into the awesome-stuff-making business, be it tech, music, food, or anything else." By presenting (say) racial integration as something one does despite its negative impact on oneself, the author is agreeing with the racist assertion that integration hurts white people, but is taking the other side and saying "do it anyway."

To tie it together, the author falls back on the collective guilt concept and uses it to set up a Kafkatrap. A Kafkatrap is an incredibly useful concept invented by ESR and is worth a read on its own. In short, a Kafkatrap is a logical fallacy of the form "Your refusal to acknowledge that you are guilty of {sin,racism,sexism, homophobia,oppression…} confirms that you are guilty of {sin,racism,sexism, homophobia,oppression…}." There are many variants of the Kafkatrap, and the relevant one in this article is what ESR calls the "Model C Kafkatrap," in which the fact that you benefit from other people doing something bad makes you guilty by association.

Finally, the article relies on the idea that we are responsible for fixing things we did not cause, contribute to, or support. The money quote is "Telling those kids that, as white people, they are responsible for fixing inequality is just a statement of fact." In what way is this a fact? How do we come to know this fact (even putting aside all the epistemological problems with determinism)? About 250 years ago, Hume recognized that facts aren't going to get you to a system of morality which requires me to give up my values for the sake of someone else. You always need something supernatural or mystical, be it the Christian god, Marx's false consciousness, Rawls' original position, Plato's forms, Kant's noumenal world, and so on. So even if all of the rest of the piece weren't so problematic, it would still rest on the groundless idea that if someone, somewhere is suffering, then that is a moral strike against me.

All is not lost, however, and there are factual, non-ridiculous, self-interested arguments in favor of equal rights. As I mentioned above, if you judge people based on nonessential characteristics in a particular context such as race, religion, gender, and so on, you are ultimately hurting yourself. I don't care about the sexual orientation of the CEO of the companies from which I buy my electronics, and if I did, I would be greatly limiting my options. Also, I want people to judge me for the essential characteristics of mine, and so will hold myself to that same standard.

What a self-interested justification for equal rights does not get you is a duty to pay reparations, either in money or in spirit, for things you had no part in, control over, or support for.

P.S. The caveat of "nonessential" characteristics in regards to judgments is important. What is essential is context-dependent, but is still objective. There is no reason to care about someone's blood type or gender when buying a pack of gum from a clerk or working for a boss, but these characteristics are essential when getting a blood transfusion or choosing a spouse.