Kilroy Was Here
May 31, 2004
Sometimes We Need a Nanny
In Reason, Ted Balakker argues against seatbelt laws. Ted feels that the enforcement of seat-belt laws not only sacrifice our liberty to a paternalistic state, but distract law enforcement officers from doing the real work.
Unfortuantely for Ted's argument, there's one critical aspect to seat belt laws that undermine his whole theory: they work.
Ted mistakenly states
The good news is that most of us do buckle up. About 80 percent of Americans use seatbelts, a decision probably based less on government nagging than on a simple understanding of the safety benefits. After all, the word is out...
But if you follow Malcolm Gladwell's articles in the New Yorker (as I do), you may remember this article on this very subject. Gladwell finds
In the early nineteen-seventies, just at the moment when Haddon and Claybrook were pushing hardest for air bags, the Australian state of Victoria passed the world's first mandatory seat-belt legislation, and the law was an immediate success. With an aggressive public-education campaign, rates of seat-belt use jumped from twenty to eighty per cent. During the next several years, Canada, New Zealand, Germany, France, and others followed suit.
Even as late as 1984, Claybrook was still insisting that trying to encourage seat-belt use was a fool's errand. "It is not likely that mandatory seat belt usage laws will be either enacted or found acceptable to the public in large numbers," Claybrook wrote. "There is massive public resistance to adult safety belt usage." In the very year her words were published, however, a coalition of medical groups finally managed to pass the country's first mandatory seat-belt law, in New York, and the results were dramatic. One state after another soon did likewise, and public opinion about belts underwent what the pollster Gary Lawrence has called "one of the most phenomenal shifts in attitudes ever measured." Americans, it turned out, did not have a cultural aversion to seat belts. They just needed some encouragement. "It's not a big Freudian thing whether you buckle up or not," says B. J. Campbell, a former safety researcher at the University of North Carolina, who was one of the veterans of the seat-belt movement. "It's just a habit, and either you're in the habit of doing it or you're not."
Today, belt-wearing rates in the United States are just over seventy per cent, and every year they inch up a little more.
It's not invasion of our freedom, it's just a habit. And sometimes we need a little encourgaement.
Deontology vs. Utilitarianism
Kenny and Bob at The Cardinal Collective are having an interesting discussion on Deontology vs. Utilitarianism. (See the following posts
Here's some thoughts I had about the problems inherent in deontology that I originally posted in a comment there.
The deontological quest is to identify some essential absolutist moral princple or principles and to build up from there. Personally, I'm very skeptical of any sort of absolutist moral principle, for three important reasons.
- Incompleteness -- Much like Goedel in mathematics, I think that any moral system complicated enough to handle most moral situations will be incomplete. There will be at least one, if not more, important moral issues that the system cannot address adequately.
- Interpretation -- Since any moral system grounded in Reason sophisticated enough to handle most moral situations will be complex, it's hard to imagine individuals being able to interpret this system the same. Looking at Kant's project, you can understand why this is so. I mean, most people (me, included) have a difficult time understand the basics of Kant (Synthetic a priori judgements anyone?) let alone the details.
Since people will interpret this system differently, in result, you will have multiple systems where the project is trying to find only one. Since moral systems do not have a self-correcting mechanism (a la Science), you end up with multiple incompatible viewpoints.
- Human Nature and absolutism -- Human beings have a very bad record of using absolute moral systems to oppress and destroy fellow human beings. Whether the authority behind the system is God, or the State, or Reason, before you know it, some yahoo will use it to create a Them that must be Destroyed.
Utilitarianism, while certainly more fuzzy, does have the benefit of being a lot more flexible and a lot less subject to the Genocide Mental Virus.
Personally, I am coming to the conlusion that the ethical project as a whole suffers from the Grand Illusion of High Expectations. I am beginning to focus my life on a more humble enterprise.
Humans are, at our heart, social animals. Many of our social instincts are genetically bred from tens of thousands of years on the Savannah.
Societies are beneficial in that together human beings can forge against nature where separately we would fail. Agriculture, medicine, and engineering allow us to live much better than those who do not have them.
Social instincts that contribute to more efficient societies (call these Virtures) such as reciprocation, honesty, friendship, etc are to be encouraged. Those social instincts that undermine more efficient societies (call these Vices) such as rape, blood feud, selfishness, should be discouraged.
The goal of the criminal system is merely to encourge Virtue while discouraging Vice. Unfortunately, (or fortunately), this criminal system has to work inside of a complex, many times irrational, psychology of the human mind. What this means is that the most direct method (such as centrally ordered dicates) may often times be much more inefficient than less direct methods.
This doesn't necessarily have to be a utilitarian argument where all we need to do is decide which action has a greater benefit for the greater number. Rather, this has to do with which system of individual virtures can potentially create a society of human individuals where the greater number has the greater benefit.
We then can judge the system by its effects over time. And, to my mind, most importantly, have a self-correcting feature. If a system of vitures does not provide the desired benefit, we should hypothesize a new system.
So what's the point here?
Well, I would argue that deontology appeals to us in criminal justice because of an absolutist desire we have instinctually. Unfortunately, this absolutist desire does not provide the best criminal justice system, in the sense, that it leads to unfair application and does not decrease bad social instincts as much as it could.
One, it tends to play to other bad absolutist tendencies. For example, it's been well documented that minority races commiting similar crimes get harsher punishments. I could argue that this was a result of Absolutism coupled with Otherness. (THEY just don't have the moral sense that we good folk have.)
Two, it tends to be ineffective. Many studies have shown that incarceration INCREASES the likelihood of a person committing crimes in the future.
Unfortunately, this absolutist desire is with us to stay. It's in the DNA. So are challenge is to come up with a criminal justice system that can in some sense appease the absolutist desire while still being more effective in fostering a better society. A very tough nut to crack.
May 09, 2004
May 08, 2004
Kenny in the Cardinal Collective wrote a post on the philosophy of punishment that inspired the following thoughts.
I've recently read a book called "The Science of Good and Evil" which tries to ground morals and ethics in evolutionary psychology.
One of the theses of this book is that feelings such as righteousness and guilt are a 'moral sense' that is developed by the evolution of social species. In much the same way as feeling hungry or horny is the product of evolutionary pressures.
Under this framework, the desire for 'retribrution' and 'revenge' would also be developed through evolutionary pressues. That is, those pre-historic humans who had a well-developed sense of 'retribrution' formed more orderly and effective groups (and probably were more effective at wiping out human groups with less developed feelings of 'retribution').
If 'retribrution desire' is an inherent part of our biology, then we will never be able to convince people to abandon it. So the question is, how can we harness it or thwart it to create a better society?
For example, religion, 'magic', and blood money have been used to sublimate 'retribrution desire.' "No need to kill off all those McCoys. There all going to hell anyway." or "Heck, Granny Hatfield is going to put a curse on all those McCoys." or "The McCoys owe our clan 14 cows for the death of Jethro."
Criminal laws and prisons are another attempt to avoid vigilantism and blood feuds.
Since the biggest obstacle to using prisons as 'rehabilitation centers' is 'retribrution desire', and since that desire won't go away, how can we sublimate it and still achieve rehabilitation?
Blood money might be a good way. Send the offenders to a rehabilitation center for job training, etc. After 1-5 years in the rehabilitation center, 30% of all their pay goes to the families for a period of X years of employment.
Just some thoughts off the top of my head.
May 01, 2004
Cognititve Dissonance and Polls
Dave in The Cardinal Collective quotes a NY Times/CBS News poll statistic:
While 55 percent of Bush's supporters said they strongly favor the president, only 32 percent of Kerry's supporters strongly favor their candidate.
Now Dave posits that the difference in support between Bush and Kerry's numbers is caused by the difference in Bush and Kerry's ability to rally their base. Let me give you a different possibility.
In the 1950's Leon Festinger, a social psychologist, developed the theory of cognitive dissonance. Contrary to what common sense might have us believe, human beings don't abandon or weaken strongly held beliefs in the face of contrary objective evidence. Rather, when the beliefs are central to their identity, contrary objective evidence tends to strengthen those beliefs.
For example, when a central cult prophecy fails, rather than weakening the belief of the cult members, this failure results in a strengthening of belief and the rightness of their action.
Here's a quote from Festinger's famous article:
"A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.
We have all experienced the futility of trying to change a strong conviction, especially if the convinced person has some investment in his belief. We are familiar with the variety of ingenious defenses with which people protect their convictions, managing to keep them unscathed through the most devastating attacks.
But man's resourcefulness goes beyond simply protecting a belief. Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting other people to his view. "
I would argue that this statistic show a similar event is happening right now with many conservatives and their attitudes toward Bush. When diehard conservatives are faced with so much evidence that the leader of his party is first, abandoning is small government views, and second, incompetently handling his leadership role, what are their options? To vote Democratic is so antithetical to thier sense of identity, that their only recourse is to redouble thier belief and provide ad-hoc hypothesis for this dissonance.