The Leaning Tower of Morality

Don’t hate the player, hate the game. — Ice-T

Game theory is asleep, cooperate for no reason. — Deity of Religion

There’s an image that’s taken root in my mind recently that I can’t seem to shake. I picture humanity living in a large, rickety tower, tilting at a precarious angle to the ground — like so:

The tower represents our capacity for moral behavior. Lower levels are more base; higher levels, more virtuous. We don’t need an exact floorplan, but here’s the kind of thing I’m imagining:

  • Ground floor: Perfect zero-sum selfishness. Aggression and exploitation. The war of all against all.
  • Middle floors: Various flavors of mutualism. “I’ll help you if you help me.” Reciprocity. Tit for tat.
  • Higher floors: Empathy and compassion. Turning the other cheek. True virtue (not just signaling). A tendency to cooperate in one-shot prisoner’s dilemmas.
  • Penthouse: Perfect self-sacrificing altruism. A willingness to give time, energy, money, or even one’s life to help a stranger for nothing in return.

Now, some people inhabit higher floors than others, but with the exception of bona fide psychopaths, all of us live somewhere in the tower, happily above ground.

Here’s the question I want to explore today: How does this structure remain standing? On what ultimate explanatory principles do our moral instincts rest?

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The Blockchain Man

The term Organization Man is a rich one. From it, we can conjure up an image and a life.

It’s a man, not a woman. He’s white, standing somewhere between 6’0 and 6’2. He has a strong chin and medium length light brown hair parted on the left.

He walks from one meeting to the next wearing a dark suit with a pressed white dressed shirt and dark Oxford dress shoes. His wrist holds a watch – nice, but not extravagant, with a brown leather strap and a gold-rimmed face.

More than just an image, you can conjure up a life for The Organization Man, a term coined by William Whyte in his 1956 book of the same name. Even though the novel predates Whyte’s book by 30 years, Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt (1922) established the archetype perfectly.

Today, the successor of the Organization Man — the Blockchain Man — is starting to emerge. To understand how he might evolve, let us first look back.

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“It’s Only Cannibalism if We’re Equals”

This is a guest post by Graham Warnken.

Almost all accounts of cannibalism throughout the years agree on one thing: it’s a communal affair. Native funeral parties consume the flesh of the departed in a ritual of respect and grief. Foreign warriors devour foes in cruel rites of victory. A group of desperate survivors stranded on the sea or in a mountain pass draw straws to see which poor soul will offer himself up.

No matter the situation, the many consume the one—the deceased is partitioned out amongst his friends and relations, the defeated champion doled out to boost morale, the weakest link sacrificed that his companions might live. The latter in particular, while it doesn’t remove the central horror of the act, does possess a certain sense of justice. It allows us to see cannibals as more than monstrous. When we think of the Donner party, we don’t recoil in terror. We feel revulsion, but we understand. The doomed pioneers’ act, born of desperation, was all that allowed the community to scrape through its frigid circumstances, minus a few members.

In the Enlightenment era, this communal cannibalism was an excellent example of the bounds of natural law. Cătălin Avramescu’s An Intellectual History of Cannibalism describes the general philosophical view of anthropophagy by way of necessity:

When danger threatens us and another equally, we are obliged to think first of ourselves [. . .] we must set precedence on our own interests, when they enter into conflict with those of another. [. . .] If we accept that necessity—evident and unproblematic in the case of killing [an] aggressor—can excuse an action that is illicit in itself, then on the basis of this reasoning we must also tackle the aberration of forced cannibalism, since it is directed by the same natural and legal resorts.

As with any philosophical topic, there was a mind-numbing degree of back-and-forth about the anthropophagus over the course of the Enlightenment, chiefly because he functioned as a pawn in the larger game of whether or not natural law is valid. But the general philosophical consensus was clear. In cases where cannibalism is necessary for the survival of the community, it is abhorrent but permissible.

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The Internet of Electron Microscopes

This is a guest post by Chenoe Hart

After you have stared at your computer screen for a while, it’s recommended that you give your eyes a break to refocus on a more distant outside view. In past years when our monitors looked more like boxes than tablets, you might have already been looking into such a space. The perception of digital content on the screens of CRT displays was inextricably accompanied by the additional perspective lines of the monitor enclosure extending behind it. Expanses of beige plastic stretching past the foreground of your observation might make the eyes operate in a slightly different manner compared to our modern condition of viewing flat panels whose minimal depth renders them closer to two-dimensional apparitions. We always knew that the internet was an ephemeral entity presented in translation from abstract code into pixels on our screen, but our immediate sensory feedback perceived it to be the front of a three-dimensional box possessing further physical extension.

Construction photograph of the interior of the Statue of Liberty, from the U.S. Library of Congress.

Many of the words we commonly used to describe the early emerging internet reference an implicit dimensionality: “cyberspace” was non-ironically used as a descriptive term, we explored it those spaces through “web portals,” and the act of “surfing” the web implied negotiating the surface of a physical mass which contained further inaccessible fathoms underneath. The “-tron” suffix marketing the electron gun technology used in those CRTs became the name of a film in which our computers contained an alternate universe of extending light grids. Before “the cloud” gained popularity as an ephemeral metaphor abstracting away the details of how we store our data in other people’s computers, The Matrix rendered the physicality of the internet as a dark enclosed underworld of forbidden knowledge.

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Common Sense Eats Common Talk

In November 2008, with the financial crisis in full swing, Queen Elizabeth attended a ceremony at the London School of Economics. Facing an audience of high ranked academics, she posed a simple question: “Why did nobody notice it?”

How could it be that no one among the smartest economists, commentators, and policymakers in all her kingdom – and beyond – had been able to see the formation of a bubble of such dimensions?

Illustration of The Emperor’s New Clothes by Vilhelm Pedersen, Andersen’s first illustrator

And yet critical facts were readily available – facts that could have warned about the craziness of the housing market, on which an even bigger financial house of cards had been erected. A short trip to a “regular” American neighbourhood – like the one undertaken by Mark Baum in The Big Short – would have presented an endless list of properties under foreclosure, real estate agents openly bragging about the laxity of credit requirements, and exotic dancers with multiple mortgage-financed properties.1

Such evidence would have been sufficient to convince most people of the existence of a bubble. However, in London, New York and the other financial centres of the world, an entire class of experts kept blatantly ignoring the facts, anecdotal evidence, and common sense that could have anticipated what was about to happen.

This is a high profile example of a more general situation in which a narrative establishes itself and resists being disproven, even when it is clearly contradicted by information right under our noses. Like the crowd in Hans Christian Andersen’s famous parable, we watch our sovereign parading naked in the street, but are unable to see through his invisible clothes. Until a young boy steps forward and with a little common sense lifts the veil on our “common talk”.

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How to Make History

In the past year, I’ve found myself repeatedly invoking, in all sorts of conversations, a hierarchy of agency with three levels: labor, making, and action. Here’s a visualization. The annotations on the left characterize the kind of agency. The annotations on the right characterize the locus where it is exercised, and the associated human condition.

The hierarchy is based on Hannah Arendt’s Human Condition, so I’ve named the visualization the Arendt hierarchy.

A mnemonic to remember the distinctions is mark time or make history. In everything you do, from posting a tweet or buying a coffee to running for President or tackling the Riemann hypothesis, you must choose between two extreme contexts: to either mark time with labor, or make history with action. In between there is a third context, where you can choose to slow time, which includes any sort of making, including art and trade (which is making in the sense of market-making). Naturally, Arendt thought (as do I) that you must choose action and history-making as much as possible. That is what it means to be fully human.

The scheme is non-intuitive, but once you’ve internalized the concepts, they turn out to be weirdly useful for thinking about what you’re doing and why, whether it is futile or meaningful, nihilistic or generative.

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Winning Is for Losers

This is a guest post by Jacob Falkovich.

Our world is filled with competition, frenzied ambition in every domain. In Western nations, and above all in the United States, it animates not only economic and financial life, but scientific research and intellectual life as well. Despite the tension and the unrest it brings, these nations are inclined on the whole to congratulate themselves for having embraced the spirit of competition, for its positive effects are considerable.

— Rene Girard, The One by Whom Scandal Comes

I. Eating Dogs

Human life is all about competition, from the micro level to the macro.

We are built by genes that outcompeted their rivals over aeons of natural selection.

Children cooperate less and compete more as they grow older, even when competition is irrational. By the time boys and girls hit puberty they start mercilessly fighting for status, in addition to competing for resources and attention. As people enter the world of dating and finding mates, the competition for status only intensifies. With dating having moved online, everyone competes for the attention of their beloved against thousands of other Tinder matches. And sometimes also with the 5 other people they set up a date with in the same bar. The winner takes it all, and nice guys finish last.

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The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millennial

A few months ago, while dining at Veggie Grill (one of the new breed of Chipotle-class fast-casual restaurants), a phrase popped unbidden into my head: premium mediocre. The food, I opined to my wife, was premium mediocre. She instantly got what I meant, though she didn’t quite agree that Veggie Grill qualified. In the weeks that followed, premium mediocre turned into a term of art for us, and we gleefully went around labeling various things with the term, sometimes disagreeing, but mostly agreeing. And it wasn’t just us. When I tried the term on my Facebook wall, and on Twitter, again everybody instantly got the idea, and into the spirit of the labeling game.

As a connoisseur and occasional purveyor of fine premium-mediocre memes, I was intrigued. It’s rare for an ambiguous neologism like this to generate such strong consensus about what it denotes without careful priming and curation by a skilled shitlord. Sure, there were arguments at the margins, and sophisticated (well, premium mediocre) discussions about distinctions between premium mediocrity and related concepts such as middle-class fancy, aristocratic shabby, and that old classic, petit bourgeois, but overall, people got it. Without elaborate explanations.

But since the sine qua non of premium mediocrity is superfluous premium features (like unnecessary over-intellectualized blog posts that use phrases like sine qua non), let me offer an elaborate explanation anyway. It’s a good way to celebrate August, which I officially declare the premium mediocre month, when all the premium mediocre people go on premium mediocre vacations featuring premium mediocre mai tais at premium mediocre resorts paid for in part by various premium-mediocre reward programs.

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Questions Are Not Just For Asking

This is a guest post by Malcolm Ocean

Are questions just for asking? It kind of seems like it. I mean, if you consider the phrase “ask me a ______”, then the blank is obviously “question”. Just like how the blank in “that boggled my _____” is obviously “mind”.

But hang on a sec—boggling is indeed a thing that is only done to minds, but minds are capable of much more than just being boggled! Similarly, asking might be a special feature of questions, but questions are actually a versatile tool that can be used in many other ways.

In order to access those uses though, first you need to know how to comfortably hold a question without immediately asking it. Questions are a kind of creature that is easily startled.

(a panel from an excellent comic by Kostas Kiriakakis on collecting questions)

Effective asking of questions is an important skill. Being able to hold questions without asking them (when that makes sense) is a further skill, much as meta-systematicity builds on systematicity. In particular, operating in the fluid mode, seems to involve a certain kind of spaciousness that’s different than the space that a question holds for an answer. It’s a spaciousness into which you can start noticing your background assumptions and perceptual blindspots.

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The Crisis of the Lonely Atoms

This is a guest post by Alex Hagen

No civilized state will execute
Someone who is ill
Till it makes the someone well
Enough to kill
in a civilized state,
As a poem does.

“Poem does.” Going Fast, Frederick Seidel

The future is a foreign country to be avoided at all costs.

Ask a child to imagine their future.

Firefighter, dancer, doctor, pilot, professional athlete, cop, movie star.

No child says “a forever child.”

Nor do adults often suggest permanent adolescence as a life goal for children.

We are facing a generation of unskilled 20-something men, largely unemployed, largely unconnected, largely irresponsible for a want of anything to be responsible for. They are living no one’s fantasy, but they fantasize constantly inside alternative worlds that provide pleasure and escape from a reality largely ignored. Call them the Lonely Atoms.

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