Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Out of Order Again

I don't seem to be getting around to general comments on Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind, getting rabbit-trailed into interesting side topics instead.  Perhaps that is best.  Many of you are somewhat familiar with Haidt anyway. If I leap right into the main topics some important and interesting items might get missed.

He notes in two separate sections that conservatives are much more focused on the issue of free riders. First, he acknowledges, somewhat surprised, that conservatives are more generous to others, but notes that they like to keep control over who benefits from their generosity.  They are very quick to help those who are clearly innocent victims, or those who are perceived as having been on the short end of luck, such as bystanders or those in extreme weather conditions. But as the causes of the misfortune become more ambiguous, conservatives back off.  In the cases of folks who have caused much of their own misery, conservatives are not only uncaring, but often hostile.  Liberals, he finds, tend to make these distinctions far less often.  Suffering in itself calls out for compassion, and more subtly, we seldom can see cause and desert as clearly as we think we do.

Second, he follows the origin-of-religions idea of those who still hold out the possibility that natural selection can operate at a group level. (Note: though attractive, this has pretty much been eliminated in discussing non-humans, and many popular explanations of group selection occurring among humans have been whittled down to individual selection. It is considered risible by many.  Haidt makes a fair case for it occurring in a few limited areas.) It's an Emil Durkheim-descended idea, with Nicholas Wade probably the most widely-read of the current advocates for the position. The connection is that religions, which require sacrifice and increase group bonding with the same actions, offer some selection advantage by reducing the free-rider problem. I have a few objections to this sort of reductionist view, but let that pass for the moment.  Community is certainly a Jewish and then Christian theme in the Bible, and it is central to my own theology of both OT and NT. *

Contemplating that the free rider problem is an enormous issue to conservatives, I realised that it is an enormous issue to me personally as well.  It may explain nearly entirely my siding with conservatives generally despite my objections to them on many fronts. To not be a free rider is as powerful and animating force for me as I can identify. My children were clubbed by it, sometimes in word, always by example.  One does his bit, however distasteful, and there's an end to it.

I make distinctions that many conservatives, or at least the noisier ones, do not, revolving around my fury at their declaring some to be free riders who have had little or no control over their situations.  It might be technically true that people with Down's Syndrome are free riders, but I don't respond to the helpless that way emotionally, and I certainly can't find Christian justification for it.  You may quote "The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat" as much as you please, but Jesus didn't seem to address beggars in that way, nor did Peter and Paul. Yet you can find Christians who draw the circle very widely of who is a free rider and who is not. I find it infuriating.

Yet at some level, I get it.  I apply a very high standard to myself on such matters (or did until a few years ago; there are lacunae in the fabric now). I have little sympathy for those who ride free off others - and I have known some quite well.  One consequence is that I no longer regard their opinion on any moral issue as having the least weight. If hatred for free riders turns out to be heritable, and a common cause of conservatism, I would put down money that I have plenty of genes that could play out that way.

So, allowing for the usual caveats that this is not an either-or situation, but group tendencies, this is a place where conservative riders who are arguing with liberal elephants would do well to remember that they do not feel quite as strongly as you do about free riders; and liberal riders to keep in mind that conservative elephants care about this a great deal.  It will increase understanding.

* I note again.  Jesus seems focused on building a new tribe that includes both Jews and Greeks.  Whether Jews and Greeks in general, outside of His kingdom, get along better does not seem important to Him.

Monday, December 28, 2015


Regarding Jonathan Haidt's characterisation of our moral understanding as 90% intuitive and 10% rational - the Elephant and Rider - his advice to liberal Democrats (who he supports and wishes would use less strident, more winsome arguments) is that the "speak to the elephant, not the rider."

I resist this, because I feel that we should all be persuaded by the rational, not sub-rational arguments.  I should, you should, they should. To do anything else seems to be cheating, however effective it might be.  I would rather offend by driving all my nails to the center of the earth and being aggressive than to stoop to mere emotional manipulation.  In particular, pretending that an emotional manipulation is really a logical argument infuriates me.

Haidt's view is that arguments from reason should be reserved for friends and allies. Opponents cannot understand them, nor can we understand theirs.  He grants some exceptions to this, and is far kinder to conservatives than to liberals on that score.  But generally, we should talk to the elephant.


People who want to track this down will be interested in Antonio Damsio's research on patients who had damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex area of the brain.  Their emotionality was severed from their moral decision making, so that they were something like the entirely rational beings beloved by all the aspie sci-fi authors and their readers:  Spocks or Mentats.  Their moral reasoning was not superior, or good-but-lacking-an-important element, as in I, Robot. It was horribly bad, start to finish. They were unable to make simple moral judgements. It seems the elephant should be the ruler, with the rider always scrambling and compensating.

I will be getting to Haidt's moral structures shortly, especially as he seemed to have listened to me for his revisions. (Or someone like me.)

For the Good of America

There has been a lot of commentary over the last few years - decades, really - about the problem with Muslims who are not violent or criminal in themselves, but still provide cover for and excuses for those who are dangerous extremists. I suspect there is a continuum, or more properly, a mix of motives.  Some are secret sympathisers only too happy to do their bit.  Others may be afraid of retribution against themselves or their families.  Most likely of all would be those who know that the extremists' level of violence and hatred are wrong, but excuse it as tit-for-tat of things done against the Muslim community.  Or, given the way that rhetoric runs, what they believe would happen to their community if they let their guard down for a moment.

I offer these guesses because we have seen this before in America.  Many times. How is this different from Italians covering for the Mafia, which was true within living memory and still has some residue?  In Boston and Chicago, organised crime was often Irish - Whitey Bulger was a veteran of the Killeen-Mullen war and ran free for many years, even though plenty of people knew where he was; in New York there was a strong Jewish and later Puerto Rican element to organised crime. The recent book Ghettoside by an LAPD detective describes how difficult it is to get witnesses to come forward in Hispanic and especially black communities because they are so fearful.

Colonists and Indians likely covered for their own.  It is the natural way of all tribes.

I see one difference, but I am not sure it is large in the long run. The other groups I mentioned were covering for criminals - guys trying to make an illegal buck - rather than people who wanted to change the government and social order. This would be similar to Basques or IRA, perhaps. Is it different?

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Wyman Christmas Letter 2015 - Part VI (and last)


Alert readers will remember that Chris lives above the Arctic Circle. He headed even farther north this year, giving nighttime tours showing the Northern Lights. Then beyond that. Seeking a hospital with a waiting list of less than a year for his minor surgery, he found that Hammerfest could get him in 7 months, so he drove up to the very top of Norway, twelve hours of secondary roads. The only things farther north are Svalbard and oil platforms. He will be back for Christmas for the first time in years, murmuring about moving back to the US soon.  Stay tuned.

The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt

I'm not going to do a review, but a series of shorter posts about topics covered. I was familiar with over half of this information, but it is nicely connected here, and my biggest takeaways were extensions of his earlier writings. First, it is not only that we often construct elaborate rationalisations for our moral beliefs, but that we don't mind too much if they aren't first class.  We are happy to settle for good-enough reasons, and don't seek better ones.  Even if we encounter better arguments, we tend not to pay much attention to them, so long as we can retain our good-enough ones. This is much of the reason why minds do not change. To take my recent gun control example, there are lots of folks in favor of added gun legislation who say "well, there is a lower homicide rate in European countries, where gun laws are stricter."  Attempts to show that this is so only in specialised cases, or that the low rate actually predates the legislation will be shrugged off.  The good-enough reason remains intact, they need look no further.

This not only those unreasonable other people, this is all of us.  Which is why we find each other infuriating.  A superior argument has a hard time even winning a hearing.  Not that we do not reason at all nor listen to each other.  In fact, once we have made up our minds about something it is usually almost impermeable to change from our own interior reasoning.  It is only significant disillusionment because of circumstances, or social persuasion by others.

It is not that reasoning does not affect us, but that it is limited to feedback from others, and tends to be gradual.  Haidt use the image of an elephant and rider.  The intuitive part of our moral reasoning, the elephant, is 90% of the picture.  The rational part, the rider, is but 10%. (He has some demonstration that this is a good thing and not to be despised.) The rider can steer events, and can ultimately direct where the elephant will go, but it is difficult and involves constant recalculation as the elephant does a whole lot of just-as-he-pleases.

I recognised one of my own major decisions in Haidt's context.  I retained doubts about whether believing Christianity was intellectually defensible when I first converted (or returned to the faith, depending on perspective). But I trusted that CS Lewis had encountered many more of the philosophical arguments than I had - having taken a First and become a philosophy professor in the early part of his career - and was far smarter and more familiar with the big issues in Western thought.  I took this as assurance that theism, and especially Christianity was at least not entirely in tatters and could be provisionally accepted.  You will note that this was merely a good-enough reason, not any airtight case. That sufficed for a long time.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Wyman Christmas Letter 2015 PartV

The Short Cut (Known to But a Few)

I (David) still tramp about in the local woods, and hope to do 5x more of it when I retire.  I have given up mapping the little-used trails (yes, I know there's an app for that) hoping that they embed in my brain instead.  So far, so good.  I nervously wonder about carrying a spray against bears and coydogs. Sometimes a son hikes with me, or granddaughters to pick wild berries.  Ben came out into the wild both times he was home.  Bowhunting season ends this week, so Chris can safely join me when I go back to "my" woods after three months. There is a joy in familiar trails, and a different joy in getting yourself safely out when you're not quite sure. Whenever I go seriously uphill I am still aware of the old damage from smoking, even years later.  If any of you come to visit, I have an extra walking stick.

Thursday, December 24, 2015


A coworker introduced me to this Norwegian singer in 1980.  She had been her roommate at girls' school. 

About That Cultural Appropriation

Reading the Oberlin College complaints about the food, I note that what they are actually complaining about is that the ethnic food is not prepared in an authentic fashion.  The rice is steamed instead of fried, or whatever.

So it's not about appropriation, it's about snobbery. There have always been people who like showing off that they know oh-so-much-more than you about a culture and its customs. Screwtape notes that men in particular are prone to demonstrating that they know the only place in town where they prepare steaks properly, and this seems related. Students are trying desperately to tie this in to some prejudice that you just don't care about Vietnamese/Mexican/Caribbean people as much as they do, and are hence some sort of bigot, but it's all just old-fashioned snobbery.  They know which fork to use and you don't.

Thinking back on the other recent controversies about prejudice on college campuses, I find that this framing does indeed fit.  We don't really wear sombreros, you ignorant bastards. Well, lots of you used to, some of you still do, and it's actually a pretty good hat design for intense heat with no AC. It's not me rejecting your culture, it's you. Now that your family is upper middle class - I'm sorry, you did notice that it's not those other Mexicans who are getting the benefit of affirmative action, didn't you? - and doesn't work in the sun, you want us to recognise that by removing all sombreros from our consciousness.  Frankly, it sounds a bit like my social-climbing grandmother, a 2nd generation Swede who looked down on French Canadians, Greeks, and certainly anyone dark.

And you white people who want to show that you really "get it" about the food of other cultures?  Yeah, we used to see that when Junior Year Abroad was the main vector for learning about other countries.

Let me state it again: liberalism at this intensity is not in the least about any intellectual arguments.  Which is a pity, because liberals actually do have some pretty good arguments, they just don't use them. It is a social acceptability phenomenon. It is fair to say that a certain type of conservative does the same thing about being a really true American/Republican/Conservative.  They have their filters, and you pass through them or you don't.

Hey, here's a fun one on the conservative side:  the best-sounding defense of support for Donald Trump is that he really gets it about immigration, while the GOP elites just don't.  Except...Mitt Romney was the person who actually got it right, vetoing illegal immigrants getting Medicaid, free college tuition, and housing subsidies.  No one cared, no one noticed. Did you guys care then?  No, you called him a RINO.  My charge is that you decided he didn't "feel" like one of you because he's a rich hedge fund guy from the Northeast. No more, no less.

Wyman Family Christmas Letter 2015 Part IV

“Which lake/mountain was it, Kyle?” 

Kyle has friends who like to climb or with lake cottages, so he gets up past Exit 20 a bit. We ask where he has been/is going, but he never quite knows.  Squam?  Winnisquam? A mountain off the Kancamagus.  We can sometimes figure it out by playing Twenty Questions. Insert GPS rant here. Kyle has finished his first year of college, but will be off next semester because of a deployment to Stuttgart with the Reserves. He will decide what's next when he gets back. All good choices.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Come Thou Long Expected Jesus

Continuing in my tradition of regular people singing carols.


Wyman Christmas Letter 2015 - Part III

 “Oh! And oh yes, I had surgery twice this year.”

Tracy was trying to summarize for a friend why the year was hectic, even though there is only Kyle still at home, who largely takes care of himself.  She listed still working full time...filling a couple of major slots at church... clearing up the last of her father’s estate (almost done)...and all the usual life-upkeep tasks...Her brow furrowed, wondering why it felt so hectic when she was “only” doing that regular amount.  Then she remembered the surgeries: emergency appendectomy, and a planned foot surgery that she is still getting past months later.  Those ate into her schedule a bit.

Strange Jesus

I went on another rant about the ubiquity of "Jesus Meek and Mild," including clergy who should know better.  I may still post it, but that is undecided.

In the meantime I wondered what the best treatment for this is.  I decided that opening the Gospels at random, and seeing what puzzling, utterly opaque thing Jesus was doing at that spot, would be useful for us all.  Here's mine, from John 10.
34 Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are “gods”’[Psalm 82]? 35 If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be set aside— 36 what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? 37 Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father. 38 But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.” 39 Again they tried to seize him, but he escaped their grasp.
I have been in enough Bible studies to attempt to unpack what is being said here, what it means, and how it is instructive. I said, "begin." But that does not in the least get us around the fact that this is all odd, very odd, not easily penetrated, and fitting neither the Jesus Defender of Freedom and Jesus Meek and Mild models which are so popular now.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Wyman Christmas Letter 2015 - Part II

Lord, Please Bring This Little Girl To Us.

When John-Adrian came from Nome for Thanksgiving, he came with his girlfriend Jocie, but there was difficulty in getting permission for her daughter to come as well. Having a potential granddaughter who could not come to us had too much echo for me of fifteen years ago, and the months of waiting for Chris and JA’s adoption from Romania to be approved.  Our hearts were anxious all November.  But all was approved and all went marvelously well. There were ten days of celebratory eating and noisy talk. Ben (Uncle Duck) was immensely popular, carrying, photographing, feeding, and entertaining nieces.  We had half of Christmas early.  It also resulted in a first-ever three girl/six doll sleepover at Nana and Pop's house, as Aurora(4) clambered onto the king-size sleeper between Emily(8) and Sarah(4).  Jonathan and Heidi, JA and Jocie all got a night off. Pops sat in the dim light in his recliner and intoned “Stop talking and go to sleep, darlings” at regular intervals. Nana got up at 2:30 and 4:30am to redirect the wakeful from bringing out toys for the morning. Excellent memories for all.