More About the “Undeserving” Poor

In the debate about what should be done about, for example, the problem of homelessness, one invariably soon hears reference to the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. The former, of course, are generally seen as worthy of our help, but the latter are another story. They are thought to be in their condition because of their own avoidable actions, which justifies our reluctance to help them.

It goes further. Not only are we unwilling to help them, we actively impede them when they try to fend for themselves. We lock up our waste, and restaurants render food inedible before throwing it away lest some poor person eat it without paying. We walk past them, looking the other way. We pretend that they do not exist.

What are we saying when we take this attitude? We are saying that these people behaved so badly that they deserve to be cast out of society, and denied even a roof over their heads. What exactly is this behavior that deserves such a punishment? For punishment it certainly is. I went to an English public school, which Americans would call a private school. Certain kinds of social infractions among the boys, such as for instance informing on another boy to a teacher, would be punished by one’s schoolmates by being sent to Coventry, which meant effective banishment from the group. The boy being punished would be completely ignored by his classmates, who would not even acknowledge his existence for the period of the punishment. This was a serious and much feared stricture. Similarly several religious groups practice shunning, where even family members are forbidden to have any dealings with the shunned member. Again it is a very serious form of punishment.

This is exactly the way we treat the poor and most especially the indigent, the homeless. Wherever possible we ignore them completely, and when we do acknowledge their existence it is usually in a disapproving or at best condescending way. We deny them access to the resources they need for their survival even though those resources are readily available. We prefer to destroy things rather than let someone to have them without paying. So they are certainly being actively punished.

What are they being punished for? One common response is that they made bad choices. They are certainly not alone in that. Everybody makes bad choices, and we do not put them out on the street on that account. Maybe they took drugs. Again, everybody takes drugs of one kind or another. We have not found any civilization that did not know about and use mind-altering substances. Whatever behavior you can point to that is common among homeless people can be found among the entire population, often in much worse forms. Yet we do not punish these people by throwing them out on the streets.

The incidence of criminality among the homeless is not unusually high, and often  involves what are termed “quality of life” crimes such as littering and disturbing the peace, or at the most petty theft or minor violence among themselves. We do not find gangs of homeless people attacking regular citizens or robbing convenience stores. Successful criminals might be expected to be able to afford a place to live. It is unlikely that it was a life of crime that resulted in homelessness. Most crime at that level is caused by, not the cause of homelessness.

The exception to this is released prisoners, who make up a significant segment of the homeless, including a particularly unfortunate group, sex offenders. Here we cannot say that their plight is directly caused by their crime, which they have already paid society’s price to expiate. It is caused by the fact that we continue ot punish offenders even when they have served their time, making it difficult for them to obtain employment and be accepted back into regular society. Sex offenders experience these difficulties in even more acute form. They are forbidden to live or even go within a certain distance of schools and playgrounds, which often makes entire towns off limits to them. They are forced to reveal their status to prospective landlords and neighbors, with fairly predictable results.

All of this is the result, not of the actual risks that they represent to society, but of our unreasonable response to the issue. This is not the place to examine in depth the question of whether the offenses that landed them on the lists should even be classified as crimes, but there is little question that there are a great many people on the Sex Offenders Registry that pose no danger to society at all.

Even if you can show that someone did make bad choices that landed them on the street, does that make them undeserving of help? Can you really blame someone for their choices? They make their life choices based on what they have been taught, both the messages that society has drummed into them since birth, and the lessons of their own experience and observations. They cannot be held responsible for their upbringing, they did not choose the circumstances of their lives. You can point to those who started from the same circumstances at made a sustainable life for themselves, but the only difference between them and the homeless is sheer dumb luck. Maybe they had a good role model, or a kind teacher or something that pushed them towards the right path, and the homeless person did not. The French have a saying that to understand all is to forgive all. If we truly understood all of the circumstances that made someone act the way they do, we would find ourselves unable to blame them for it.

But we are not considering bad choices in general, only bad choices that might lead to homelessness, and it is very hard to find such causes in reality. The kinds of circumstances that most often lead to homelessness are loss of employment (which, it is true, might itself have been occasioned by bad behavior of some kind), divorce, sickness, and simply the failure to see to one’s own interests. There are countless stories of people who gave up their own lives to nurse someone through their final illness, perhaps with the promise of an inheritance, only to find that all the money was spent on the medical care.

The truth is that if we are going to draw moral conclusions from peoples’ circumstances we might consider that poverty is the sign of someone who has not ordered his affairs with a view to his own gain; in other words someone who has acted unselfishly. A wealthy person, on the other hand, has clearly made sure that his interests were well served, which must be classified as selfish behavior. The fact that such behavior is encouraged in our culture does not make it any less selfish. At the same time the moral values we profess to believe in would favor unselfish behavior over selfish behavior, so we should, if we were true to our professed values, admire the destitute person and despise the wealthy one.

The other argument that is put forward is that they refuse to take advantage of help that is available, and choose to live the lives they do in spite of available better opportunities. If they were really doing this, it would truly be irrational behavior or perhaps a sign of mental illness, so this would surely qualify them for help since they are clearly incapable of helping themselves. Really, of course, they are not passing up a better opportunity in favor of a worse one. We offer the kinds of help we think they should want, or, worse, the kind we think would be good for them, and give no thought to their actual needs and the circumstances of their lives. The so-called help that is available that the homeless are accused of not wanting to use consists mainly of shelters. Shelters, however, at best solve only part of the problem, which is a place to sleep. They do nothing to solve the issue of where they spend the daytime hours. Almost all shelters require their clients to leave quite early in the morning, with all of their belongings, and they can only return at a certain hour in the evening. In addition they are usually located at some distance from populated areas, owing to the reluctance of the population to have them in their neighborhoods. However the homeless person has to find a place to be during the day, and that place is inevitably going to be a populated area.

It is not generally considered that a home is much more than a place to sleep. It is also the place you can go when there is no other place for you to be. Without such a place you have the constant necessity of being somewhere at all times, and if there is no place at all that you are welcome to be this becomes a serious problem. Your choices are to find places where you can be invisible or to be somewhere you can blend in with others. Invisibility is relatively impractical in the daytime, so most homeless gather in busy commercial areas during the day.

The result is that the places the homeless spend their days are distant from where the shelters are generally located. This may not seem much of an issue to most people, who are used to traveling considerable distances between home and work and recreational activities, but without a car the picture is quite different. Public transportation outside the larger cities (and even within many of them) is virtually unusable, so already using a shelter will involve spending much of the day getting back and forth, with all of your belongings. Add to all of this the fact that shelters are generally first come first served, so you may well spend the time and effort to get there only to be turned away, and be faced with having to get back to your resource base, and it is easy to see why a shelter might not be a practical choice for many homeless people.

So we cannot say that these people are unreasonably refusing available help, and none of the other arguments we have considered seem to offer good reasons why we should refuse these people help. We do not apply the same standards to other kinds of help; if someone is drowning, we do not ask whether they did something foolish to put them in this plight before helping them. When someone’s house burns down we do not refuse help on the grounds that their carelessness caused the fire.

There is only one attribute that distinguishes the homeless from the rest of the population, and that is poverty. This social punishment is being inflicted upon them with no due process because they are poor. 

Class Warfare is Real

Attempts even to define, let alone ameliorate, the degree of social injustice suffered by the poor at the hands of the rich are met with indignant cries of “class warfare.” This is reminiscent of the child’s explanation that “it all started when Johnny hit me back!” The plain and simple fact is that class warfare has been a clear and present reality throughout history, and it has been waged by the rich against the poor.  The primary weapon in that war has been and remains the control of the money system.

In any society more complex than a tribe there must be some mechanism for deciding how resources are to be allocated among its members. In our society that mechanism is money. All resources, both necessities and luxuries, are virtually unobtainable except in exchange for money. Therefore the struggle to survive and prosper, rather than involving the direct obtaining of resources as it was for hunter/gatherers, becomes instead the obtaining of money with which to purchase the resources. This is not in and of itself necessarily a wrong or harmful system, but it does mean that whoever has the power to make the rules concerning money and how it is distributed possesses the means of absolute control if they choose to use that power to that end. History has shown that most do. Clearly this is a socially undesirable situation, since it obviously advantages a very small segment of society over the vast majority. 

This does not necessarily imply that it is harmful to be governed by a small number of people. I am not necessarily advocating the position that the entire population should be involved with all decision making, which some conceive of as being made possible by the Internet and mass two way communications. A strong case can be made that, as with all pursuits, a relatively few are good at making decisions for the public benefit, and most are not, and we should put the right people in charge and let them lead. It is quite feasible to devise a system aimed at producing that end, and avoiding the obvious pitfalls involved in the very necessary process of giving people power. The system we have now for electing our leaders is one that is guaranteed to bring about the worst possible results for the population as a whole. This is because it is controlled by the money interests.

Money and the way we use money is perhaps the most important consideration in the field of social philosophy. It is also, not coincidentally, perhaps the most difficult consideration. Coming to a true understanding of the true nature of money, and how its use has been perverted to serve the interests of the hereditary power structure, presents enormous challenges. We must overcome habits of thought and assumptions that are so ingrained within us that we are barely even aware of their existence. We must come to terms with the seeming paradox of something that is a symbol for value, and which can be exchanged for things if actual value, yet which itself has no value. We must recognize that it is precisely the false idea that money is itself a commodity to be bought and sold that enables what should be a useful, indeed essential, tool has instead been turned into a weapon of social control.

Any attempt to upend such a deeply ingrained pattern of thought inevitably meets certain kinds of objection. “It has always been that way, and will never change.” “Power always corrupts the powerful, and nothing can be done about that.” “The system of control is just too powerful and all-pervasive, and will never give up its power.” We must examine each of these contentions (and other like them) and answer them convincingly. We must show how things came to be the way they are, which happened neither by chance nor by some inevitable process nor by wise and intelligent design, but rather was instituted to benefit those who established themselves as leaders at the very start, and who wised to retain that position and pass it on to their descendants. We must examine in detail the ever increasingly sophisticated ways this basic strategy has been implemented through history, and recognize the resulting social harm.

Only by fully understanding this history can we even define the true nature of the problem we face, let alone set about devising remedies. Much social analysis is devoted to attempts to fix the glaring inequities in our society by tinkering with the rules; indeed one common strategy of the power structure is to give way on issues that do not really address the fundamental problems in order to foster an illusion of improvement that satisfies the easily persuaded that something is really being done and progress being made, thus blunting the force of opposition. 

The philosophy of gradualism can be a very tempting one, but we must recognize that there must come a time when true fundamental change is needed. In order to reach this recognition it is not enough to define the problems or even to suggest possible solutions, however well conceived those solutions might be. In order to achieve real change we need to go beyond everyday politics. We need to be willing to tackle questions of right and wrong. We need to establish a strong ethical case for change. 

We must show, without appealing to religious beliefs or notions about an afterlife, that it is possible to define a moral basis for deciding what are our responsibilities towards our fellow humans and the other occupants of the reality we inhabit, and towards those who will have to deal with what we leave them. This seems to me to be one of the man shortcomings of the Democratic party. They have ceded the ground of the debate to those whose main concern is the interests of the powerful; election campaigns are all about policies and practicalities and plans. We get mired in thickets of detail and lose sight of the principles that should guide our actions. 

It is fashionable to regard the political spectrum as a range of possible views on how society should be governed, and to think that if we can all sit down and talk it out we can reach a reasonable compromise. This is not the case. There are two very distinct and quite incompatible points of view being represented. They are not morally and ethically equal, and we need to recognize this. Class warfare is real and has been waged by the rich in increasingly subtle ways upon everyone else for all of history. The only way the situation can ever be righted is for the overwhelming majority to recognize that their interests are in fact aligned and they have been deliberately set against each other. This begins with establishing a firm ethical case for their point of view. It is very difficult to move people by appealing to their reason, but their innate sense of fairness, once activated, will carry the day.

The True Nature of Wealth

The word wealth is derived from the old English word weal, which means wellbeing. It denoted something that increased the wellbeing of one or more people. Unfortunately over the centuries the word has come to have a quite different meaning in the general public perception, namely valuable possessions or property. The term has shifted in meaning from the actual wellbeing derived from something to the thing itself, which is (in theory at least) the agent of that wellbeing. In the process the whole idea of wellbeing has been lost. Something is perceived as wealth if it can be exchanged for other items of value or for money. Even money itself in sufficient quantities, is perceived as wealth.

The reason that this shift is unfortunate is that there is no longer a common term for what wealth used to mean, whereas the new meaning already had several words that covered it quite adequately such as treasure or riches. Wellbeing itself does not quite cover it, as it refers to the result of the creation of wealth, so it does not serve to signify the wealth (in its original meaning) itself. It has been observed that a culture can only express (and therefore encompass) ideas that it has words for. The very fact that I have to use whole sentences to explain the original meaning of wealth indicates that it is not a concept we think about much. Yet if we are to have any hope of understanding where we went wrong in the building of our social structures, and certainly if we are to hope to devise new and better ones, it is a concept that we must give a central place to in our thinking. 

For these reasons I would like to define here exactly what I mean whenever I use the word wealth. Wealth is created when someone performs an action that results in the increase in wellbeing of one or more people in such a way that the total increase in wellbeing is greater than the total decrease in wellbeing caused to other people (or indeed to the same people). In understanding this definition, it may be useful to think of wealth as if it were spelled wellth, and imagine an opposite concept called illth.  Every human action of any significance produces some wellth and some illth. As my Nanny would have said, it is an ill wind that blows nobody any good. Obviously wellth and illth are very hard to quantify, especially given the inevitability of unintended (and unforeseeable) consequences, but nothing in life is certain; all we can do is guide our actions by estimating probabilities. 

The amount of wealth resulting from any action is the total aggregated wellth produced (adding up all the people who benefit from it and the degree to which they benefit)  minus the total aggregated illth produced by that action. Now we are faced with the issue of a scale of measurement. If we were dealing with physical size we would be measuring in inches and feet, or meters or some such. Weight is measured in pounds and kilos. The unit of measurement we use for wealth (in my restricted meaning) is the dollar, or the euro, or the yen. The measuring system for wealth is money. In an ideal system the monetary value of something would reflect the total potential wellth it represents.

Clearly in our present system this is not the case. Many actions covered by my definition of wealth are not monetarily rewarded. To take one glaring omission, childcare by stay-at-home mothers yields enormous increases in wellbeing both for the children involved and for society at large in obvious ways that I need not elaborate here. Yet this activity is not monetarily rewarded. Therefore this contribution is not considered wealth generation.

On the other hand the current understanding of what constitutes wealth creation includes many activities that I would put on the other side of the scale. An example of this is the arms business. It would be very hard to argue that a bomb or a tank represents wellth. Indeed such weapons are the very embodiment of illth. Their sole purpose is the destruction of people and property. No doubt some would argue that the possession of powerful weapons serves a deterrent purpose against the potential violence of others. This argument would perhaps have more power if it were not made by a country that in many cases sold to those others the weapons we now wish to deter them from using. Even if we grant some force to this point of view, it is dwarfed by the immense harm that is caused to the world, especially to the poor of the world, by the global arms trade. Perhaps the greates social challenge facing us on a global scale is to cotinue the immense decrease in the amount of violence in the world (exhaustively documented by Steven Pinker in his book “The Better Angels of our Nature”) to the point where war is considered to be on a similar moral level as slavery is today. We may never completely eliminate it but we can reach a general agreement that it is evil and should be eliminated.

It is clear from these examples, which although among the largest of their kind are far from being unique, that there is something very wrong with the metrics we use to judge our degree of success and failure as a society. The GNP is often touted as a barometer of our economic health, but this only describes the total monetary value of all production that is monetarily rewarded. It both leaves out a great deal of value that is added but not paid for, and also includes paid for activities that cause far more harm than good.

The (Lack of) Legitimacy in the Ownership of Property

The natural state of things is that nothing is owned. It is for those who would assert ownership over resources to justify their claim, not for those who would challenge the claim to justify their challenge. This is not to say that such claims are incapable of being justified; it may well possible for an owner to present a compelling case to justify his ownership; however the burden is on him to prove his case. The assumption in all cases is that resources are not owned.

Claims of ownership rest on one of five circumstances, or some combination of them: inheritance, purchase, gift, a grant of ownership from a legal government authority, or appropriation by force. In the first three cases the person or persons bequeathing, selling or giving the property must themselves be legal owners of the property similarly legally obtained by one of these five actions, and so on back to the very first owner.

There must have been a first owner, since there was unquestionably a time in the past when nothing in the world was owned, because ownership itself had not been thought of. This does not mean that the lands were not occupied and used, it just means that nobody had thought of asserting the exclusive right to a piece of land or the right to charge others for the use of it. No doubt pre-agricultural humans, like other animals, would establish territories, but they only occupied them to the extent that they could physically assert their right to do so. They did not think the land belonged to them exclusively.

What, then, was the first owner’s legitimate claim to the property, which started this whole chain? This person could not have received it by any of the first four methods, or he (I am betting the very first owner of anything was a he) would not be the first owner. That only leaves appropriation by force, or what we would call today armed robbery. We can rule out number four, a grant from an established government, as this must have taken place before the first established authority structure; in fact the first assertion of ownership must have created the need for the means of enforcement of property claims. The only point of asserting ownership of something is to prevent others from using it unless they pay you. Naturally people who had always traditionally used the land would angrily resist such an assertion, and so the putative owner needed muscle, and so the whole control system begins.

The inevitable conclusion we must reach is that all property rights are illegitimate from the very start. Now I realize that this argument would probably not get very far in court, but this does not mean it is not correct. It just means that some things that are correct bring with them so much uncertainty and fear of deep rooted change the even those who stand to gain the most by it cannot be brought to support them, let alone those who actually make the decisions, who have much to lose from large scale change.

This may not always be the case. Ideas and attitudes die with each generation, and a time will come when it becomes quite obvious that allowing a minuscule class to continue to rule over everyone by simply asserting their right to do so is quite ridiculous. Therefore it seems important to lay the ethical groundwork for this realization.

How the Few Control the Many

There is a tiny class of people in the world today

who have incomes far in excess of what it takes to meet their necessities, who did nothing to earn this position except for having emerged from between a particular pair of legs. This is not to say by any means that they are all useless people. In many cases they work hard and use their money in socially beneficial ways. However the fact remains that they enjoy a priceless privilege denied to those not born to money, which is that any work they do is voluntary rather than compulsory. There is no condition more onerous to most of the population than the need to meet the monthly nut. It is said that money does not buy happiness but this is not altogether true. A person who is free of that burden, who has enough to live on and more without having to work for it is relieved of a constant and grinding worry. Even those who earn “good” money these days can seldom reach place where they can relax and nor have to worry about the possibility of sudden financial reversals: loss of employment or a major illness or the like. Certainly, being relieved of this burden does not ensure happiness, but it does remove a very large impediment to it. Unfortunately those with inherited money have never known what it is to have to struggle, and so have even less idea of what a privilege it is not to have do so. As Alexandr Solzenitsyn remarks: it is hard for someone who has always been warm to appreciate the position of one who is freezing.

This lack of sympathy for the poor is compounded by the fact that most of the people whose voices are heard loudest, the opinion makers and movers and shakers of the world, are themselves most often among the ranks of the comfortably off. Even if they do not start out wealthy, if they have articulate and persuasive voices they are often co-opted into the system they fight against. They land well-paid positions as commentators or columnists or perhaps as union officials or even elected representatives. In these positions they rub shoulders with the wealthy, eat at their tables, and gradually succumb to the Stockholm Syndrome. It is true that not all follow this path, and there are certainly prominent and articulate voices that continue to fight the good fight in spite of having themselves attained some degree of security, and there are wealthy people who also have sympathy for and work on behalf of the poor. However both groups are fighting an almost all-encompassing system that opposes their efforts. 

The truth is that the wealthy, the ownership classes, are able to make their voices heard effectively where it really counts, in the places where the important decisions are made. They can afford the best lobbyists and the best lawyers and the best political consultants. They can fund think-tanks that can crank out a constant barrage of well-crafted arguments for their points of view.

Meanwhile interests of the poor are vastly under-represented in these same places. In criminal court they have to rely on public defenders who are far too few and underfunded, while the wealthy can afford the highest priced lawyers. In civil cases the poor cannot afford lawyers to represent them, and so are not only vulnerable to being sued but also cannot themselves afford to sue when their rights are violated. Above all they do not have time or energy left over after what it takes to earn a living and have some kind of family life to fight a seemingly impregnable system.

One might think that the overwhelming advantage of the poor would be their sheer numbers. Yet history has shown clearly that a very small number can effectively enslave an entire population. This is achieved by several interlinked methods. Foremost among them is the manipulation of public opinion by means of what was once called propaganda, and now goes by the less threatening term public relations. This is used in a program of divide and conquer. Realizing the danger of being overwhelmed by being in a numerical minority, every effort is expended to keep the rest of the population from combining against them by encouraging them to fight among themselves.

This is helped by the fact that the political right tends to march in lockstep, since they are always seeking to promote the interests of those who pay their bills, and therefore can present a united front, whereas the left seek to promote social justice, which is a much harder concept to agree on. Our society suffers from so many different kinds of social injustice that it is very hard to get agreement on the left as to exactly what actions to take to improve the situation. Different interest groups fight for attention, and the effort is weakened by being scattered in so many directions.

In addition to these disadvantages, the wealthy are able to pursue very long term goals. When they are defeated in a particular sphere they can afford to wait a few years before trying again. The left must each time raise public awareness to once again oppose them. Their supporters become weary of constantly fighting different versions of the same battles, and must often rely on unpaid volunteers, whereas the right is always well funded.

Constitutional Originalism

A persistent error in our thinking about the enterprise of society and government and all those concerns about how we should live, and under what laws, and who should be in charge has to do with the idea that there is some golden age in the past when everything was right and leaders were wise. All we have to do is return to the values of that time and all will be well. There are those, for instance, who say that the United States Constitution should be should be read entirely according to the intentions of the original authors, as if they were endowed with some level of wisdom superior to ours. 

This is saying that the United States population reached peak wisdom in the mid-1700’s, which seems like an unlikely situation. It would mean that we have learned nothing since then, and that more than 200 years of thinking about it has not yielded any better ideas than those of a group of people who lived at the very beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, which utterly transformed our lives and gave rise to power structures that were completely new. Don’t get me wrong, I have immense respect for the Founding Fathers, and given the constraints under which they were working they did a monumental job to an extremely high standard. But they were not omniscient, and were far from omnipotent, and they knew it. If they thought that what they were writing should stand for all time, why did they build in the ability to amend it, and give that ability to both Congress and the states?

All written documents share one serious drawback: words and language change their meaning over time. We do not speak the language even of our grandparents, still less of the eighteenth century. There are concepts today that there were not even words for then, and there are words they used that now have opposite meanings.

It makes no more sense to follow the literal meaning of the constitution according to the understanding of the authors than it would to limit yourself to only wearing your grandparents’ clothes. 

Online Discussions

From an online discussion on

saysni wrote:

There seems to be a core of folks on this board (that, if you read here much, you will very quickly recognize) who enjoy ‘debate’, and will publicly pick apart almost anything anyone has to say if they can find an ‘in’, or any perceived ‘chink in the armor’. This is not to rap those whom i reference, it is merely to point out the pitfalls of any indirect communication-via-internet.

I think perhaps this is something of an over-simplification. It seems to me that there are several different kinds of posters involved in these debates, and shades between. One could say that there is a fundamental split on what is often called Western or reductionist science. At one end of the scale are those (and I should hasten to say that the furthest extremes of these points of view are not necessarily often expressed in this particular forum; most opinions fall somewhere along the scale between the extremities) who believe completely in science and consider anything that has not been or cannot be proven by the scientific method to be beneath their consideration. Then at the other extreme are those who, while often (even proudly) ignorant of the scientific viewpoint on any given subject, automatically and categorically reject anything that any scientist or scientific body has to say, and rely entirely on their own intuition (call ir what you will) for their truths.

Then there is the scale that one might call “debating styles”. At one end of this scale are those who know and have studied logic and critical thinking, and rigidly apply the rules of those bodies of thought, and reject any statement that can be shown to contravene them (while sometimes neglecting to address the actual content.) At the other end of this scale we find those who simply regard a debate as an opportunity to score points, and also fail to address the content while picking on any opportunity to contradict what someone has said.

Fortunately we have a substantial number of participants who fall somewhere in the middle of both of these scales, who believe that science can and does serve us in many vital ways that we would certainly not want to give up (dentistry without anesthetic, anyone?), but is nonetheless run by people with their own agendas, and it is wise to both listen to what science has to say, and examine the motives and assumptions behind its statements. 

Similarly intuition has enormous value in alerting us to possibilities worth investigating (and most great scientific discoveries started off as brilliant intuitions) but unless it is verified by actual study and experimentation (where such a thing is possible) we cannot rely on the veracity of our intuitions. We may believe them completely ourselves, but to try to convince others or base public policy upon them is very unwise.

Then finally there is the scale between those who believe that every debate should be vigorously pursued down every (often blind) alley and hunted down and done to death, and those who find such pursuits a complete waste of time (and can often be quite verbose in saying so!).

Maybe if we all try to find a balance somewhere around the middle of each of these scales, it would improve the quality of our discourse.


We do not choose our challenges, we either face them or we ignore them. The measure by which those alive today will be judged in the future will be the degree to which we face our challenges. When we look back in history for inspiration who do we look to? The Founding Fathers, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, MLK and so many others who faced down the challenges of their times. Not perfect, any of them, but they did the very best they could according to their lights with what they were given. They did not have to do that; they could have stayed home and left the heavy lifting to others, but they stepped up to the plate. No doubt there was always ego involved, but then it takes some kind of ego to believe that you have something valuable to offer.

We live in a cynical age, and we see public figures as power seekers with little thought for the public good. Certainly the halls of power have always been well seeded with such types, but there are many who genuinely see themselves as a force for good. Sadly today we have such a corrupt system that even the well meaning almost always get sucked into the muck, seeing it as the only way to get anything done. 

The industrial system has saddled us with a power system that seems all-powerful, that seems to control every aspect of our lives, and that seems almost impossible to successfully overcome. It owns our means of communications, it has bought our system of government. Armed insurrection in the face of the US army is unthinkable. The only answer seems to be to surrender to the system, find a comfortable berth within it and look after number one. 

I do not think the situation is so dark, and I think we have every reason, in fact an absolute duty, to get involved. The system is not impregnable; the history of empires and civilizations tells us that the empire seems strongest when it is already undermined. Empires are the victims of the sweep of history. New ways supplant old ways and make them irrelevant. Mankind has gone through two gigantic shifts in the past which completely changed society. The first was the invention of agriculture which enabled us to settle into cities and build the societal system that lasted some ten thousand years pretty much unchanged except in the details. The movement that swept all of this away so that only the barest traces remain was the Industrial Revolution. It is hard for us to even conceive of how different life was in 1850 from that of, say, 1650. And all of this happened, in historical terms, in the blink of an eye. 

What does this have to do with today? I believe that we are right now undergoing a third great shift as profound as the industrial revolution. The Industrial Age reached its peak around 1955, and since then we have been seeing the birth of the next age. Like any great movement in its early stages it is still very indistinct, but it is well underway. This is why we need to participate. We are privileged to live at one of the hinge points of history. Or to put it another way, one can imagine history as a railroad. For most of the time (ten thousand years in the case of the agrarian age) the train is thundering across the prairie, and to significantly change its direction requires putting it off its tracks. Very rarely the train of history enters a switching yard, and during this time very small application of power can have very far reaching results. This was the case in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, for instance. Today we are in another switching yard. Everything is up for grabs. We have both the tools and the knowledge needed to make the world a better place; The question is, do we have the wisdom to learn from the past and take the tools out of the hands of those who would use them to control us, and instead use them for the good of all?

Scientific Studies

From an online debate on

ThePhiant wrote:

as you probably know, any study or data can be used to prove anybody’s point. bunching a number of study’s together and coming to a conclusion is always subjective. having said that my main point is that generalizations however subject-ive they may be, don’t mean a thing in the real world. Your partner in life or at work is more than likely the opposite of what those studies are telling you. Just because your studies say you are just as good at math as boys, that doesn’t imply that YOU are good at math. In the real world we are dealing with individuals, not statistics. Talk about YOUR experience,

Now wait a minute here. You may have your own views about the value of scientific study, but what you say is simply not true. Studies cannot legitimately be used to support any point of view, and they are certainly not subjective. In fact studies are very carefully designed to be objective, and where this is not possible, this fact is pointed out. A properly presented study includes an estimate of confidence; the authors’ estimate of likelihood that their conclusions are correct. Science includes in its procedures mechanisms for the discovery of error, and acknowledges that some error will always be present. 

And what exactly do you mean by the “real world?” Is your world any more real than that of thousands of dedicated and hard-working scientists (plus, of course, the normal admixture of charlatans, thieves and cheats; a minority in this as in most pursuits)? To say that generalizations mean nothing is wrong; they are valuable evidence, and to simply dismiss them as valueless is a waste of a precious resource, knowledge. Certainly a study incompletely reported can be used to support a point of view contrary to its true meaning, but this is true of any piece of infomation. It is up to the consumer to decide what is good information and what is bad. Go and read the underlying data and make up you own mind.

As for the contention that “your partner in life or at work is more than likely the opposite of what those studies are telling you”: since the precise purpose of studies is estimating likelihoods, by definition you cannot be more likely to contravene the generalization than follow it.

ThePhiant wrote:

Since when is a study’ objective? Do you mean to say that studies are chosen at random. Studies are chosen to prove or disprove something, and the way to go about is to test certain variables that are CHOSEN not objectively but subjectively. Just like the 11 blind men studying an elephant. They can and want to see only what is in front of them, subjectively. Antioxidants were supposed to be a lifesaver, turns out they actually can shorten someone’s life. Which scientist do you believe?

I will respond, not because I hope to persuade you of anything, but because I think it is important to supply the contrary point of view for others who might be reading this.

Scientific studies, in order to claim that designation, must conform to certain criteria. Among them are the requirements that both the initial assumptions and the methodology used are incorporated as part of the report. These results are studied by others, who are free to critique them. 

Yes, many studies are commissioned by interested parties hoping to prove something, but this does not always succeed; many studies go the other way. Yes, this often results in the suppression of those particular studies, and that is unfortunate, but is part and parcel of the capitalist system. I do not believe that there is a significant number of studies that are falsified for financial gain. Scientific hoaxes have certainly happened, but generally in important cases a lot of scrutiny is brought to bear, and it is hard to sustain a lie. There is a great deal of rivalry in science, and there are a great many scientists who are genuinely motivated by a search for verifiable and useful truths. They are constantly checking each others’ work in hopes of finding errors.

So it would seem extreme to simply reject all scientific studies categorically as unreliable. In a previous post you commented that “bunching a number of study’s together and coming to a conclusion is always subjective”, but i would submit that the more studies agree on a subject the more likely they can be relied on. One study might be a good indicator, especially if its methodology passes scrutiny; five studies that show similar results show a strong likelihood of truth.

Let’s face it; studies are like hamburgers and television sets and cars; some are very good and some are very bad. Most are in the acceptable range. Unlike hamburgers and television sets and cars, however, the way they are constructed can be examined by the user because the map is part of the product.

This, as I see it, is the case for the defense of science; no doubt there are other points that would be helpful, but someone else will have to supply them.

ThePhiant wrote:

Unfortunately you are not supplying the contrary point but actually, you are extrapolating my point that science is not as reliable as it pertains to be. Good science, bad science?  Science is only as good as the next study who proves otherwise. Case in point; antioxidants! btw; I have neither hamburgers, nor tv’s nor cars in my life to examine

Well, as I said, I had no ambition to persuade you from your views; I can see that you twist whatever input you receive to feed your preconceptions. If I am correctly understanding your somewhat idiosyncratic way of using words (extrapolating, pertains?) then once again you state the exact opposite of the case. Since scientific studies include estimates of the likelihood of error, scientific studies are in fact pretty much as reliable as they claim to be!

Maybe you are confusing the studies themselves with the way they are used by people who do not necessarily even understand them, and are all too often willing to omit whatever parts do not suit their arguments.

I know it can be confusing when studies show that something that has been previously thought to be useful also has dangers under some circumstances (antioxidants, for instance). That is where clear thought and judgment come in; my own observation is that pretty much everything in life has a medicinal dose and a toxic dose, and it is up to the consumer to determine from the information provided what those doses are.

Making sense of these kinds of complex issues, where conflicting evidence needs to be properly weighed and evaluated, is greatly facilitated by the use of critical thinking skills. Critical thinking was developed for exactly this purpose; to provide a tool for examining controversial questions and coming to the conclusions that are best supported by the available evidence. Critical thinking does not tell you the answer, any more than a good sharp knife makes you a good cook. If the evidence in fact supports your point of view, then you can use critical thinking to establish that fact. As it is, even though you may in fact be correct about some of your conclusions, your ways of arguing them, and your insistence on making statements that are at the very least highly misleading, do more to conceal that possibility than to reveal it.

I think at this point that I have said pretty much everything I have to say on the subject, and for me at least this discussion is reaching its toxic dose!

Taming Technology

As the power of technology grows we face the same ethical dilemma again and again. Each new power that we harness is capable of enormously benefiting mankind. At the same time we are creating the means of our own potential destruction. Which side of the argument you favor depends on whether you believe that basic human nature is selfish or altruistic. It is said that all weapons that have ever been invented have eventually been used, and that there will always be people who will use whatever technologies we invent to harm others. Many are persuaded by these arguments into opposing the creation and use of new technologies. 

I do not agree with this point of view. I agree that there will always be bullies and greedy people in the world, and no doubt crime will continue to be a problem, and different groups will continue to have grudges against each other; these will continue to be challenges no matter how enlightened we become in our social structures. I do not agree that we need necessarily continue to be dominated by our most violent and greedy elements, but rather that by changing our social attitudes towards them we can reduce them to the nuisance they should be rather than the disaster they are. 

In any case the toothpaste is already out of the tube. We have these capabilities, and we are not realistically going to give them up, so we need to figure out how to use them to our advantage and consciously act to minimize their harm. We can examine our technologies and recognize the dangers in their misuse, and actively work to reduce the likelihood of such misuse. For example, with smart phones it is trivial to keep track of a person’s location at all times (and much more besides, but let us consider a simple case.) For the person in question this can be very useful information, and for society in general large aggregations of such information are of great benefit. As a small example traffic systems can be optimized using such location information on a large scale. The problem is that in the wrong hands this information can be used for all kinds of nefarious purposes. I am sure I do not need to cite examples, and in fact it is this perception that makes people ask the question at the top of this piece. 

How, then, given what we know about human nature, can we benefit from this kind of technology without giving up our privacy? I do not believe that this is an insoluble problem, but solving it will require some of that growth we talked about. It is not the technical part that is difficult. Systems can certainly be designed to be very secure, but systems are designed and implemented by people, and these days we find it very hard to trust people. 

The developments in both computer hardware and software over recent years present social challenges that it is vital that we examine, identify and contain. The power we have achieved in these areas have created a two edged sword. On the one hand they are being used increasingly as a method of social control, while on the other hand they have the potential to be of enormous benefit to all of us. I sometimes think the NSA could be of tremendous public benefit if they would only make the information they have about us available to us. They probably have a copy of that email that went missing, and they could sell it back to you. 

There is nothing inherently evil about collecting and storing comprehensive information about people; in fact it is extremely useful. All social systems can be improved by the collection of information. Similarly some kind of electronic voting would be far simpler and more reliable and accurate than the old paper based method. The problem is to devise a workable system. There are a number of technological challenges we face of this nature, and the attribute they share is that they are social systems. We do not question the nature of the air traffic control system, yet one could see it as “the government controlling where and when you fly your plane.” We must accept that the nature of belonging to a group is that in return for the benefits of belonging to the group we agree to give up some of our personal freedom of action. We agree to conform to the rules of the group. A group with no rules has no meaning. Even anarchists do not favor a society without rules. Anarchy means without rulers, not without rules. We have certainly seen graphic demonstrations in recent years of the results of the contrary view. Starting with Reagan in the 1980s we have gone on a rampage of deregulation in banking, savings and loans, airlines and other areas, always with disastrous results. We have seen countries reduced to lawlessness with even more terrible consequences. Can we agree by now that this philosophy has been given a fair trial and has failed miserably?

The question is not should we have rules, it is who should make the rules and who should enforce them.