Monthly Archives: February 2015

It’s true, in general

On Friday night, I enjoyed a stunning performance of Wagner’s opera ’The Flying Dutchman’. One advantage of it being his shortest opera (only two and a half hours) is that we were out in time to get to the pub for some wonderfully thought provoking conversation. I’m lucky to have friends that enjoy, or at least tolerate deep conversations, and Friday night’s conversation felt especially helpful for me working out what I believe on a few different issues. It is sort of like what I feel when I write a blog post, but obviously so much better when I can have the conversation with friends who inevitably have perspectives and ideas that I haven’t thought about.

One topic that came up was the nature of knowledge, and why there is so much disagreement in the world, even on things that they should be able to agree upon. There are obviously lots of reasons, but I have believe that many of the disagreements I witness could be avoided with better use of the phrase, ‘in general’.

The problem is that the phrase mean multiple different things:

  • in every case (and couldn’t ever not be the case)
  • in every case to date
  • in enough cases that all other cases can be ignored.
  • in most cases, but there are obviously exceptions
  • in most cases recently, but there are obviously exceptions, and there is no reason to be sure that it will be true in most cases in future.

So often one person says “in general, X is a good idea” intending a weaker form, and someone else hears it with a stronger form and disagrees. If people using the phrase could be made to think and be explicit about which sense the mean the term in, I believe we’d get a lot more agreement and more satisfying conversation.

You might think that these are subtle distinctions, and we shouldn’t be too worried about them. Surely it doesn’t make sense to throw away wisdom just because it doesn’t apply to certain cases, or might not hold with the same strength in future?

I strongly disagree. If you’re the exception, being ignored or being forced to conform, causes harm and hurt. And if we act as if something that has in most cases occurred is certain to occur, we’re going to be hurt, or at least miss a positive opportunity.

We don’t have to ignore something that is often true just because there are exceptions, we just need to be careful not to take it more strongly than it deserves to be taken. I recognise that political correctness sometimes goes too far in asserting that something must be ignored if any exceptions exist. But I do think we have a responsibility to make sure that we make very clear the limits of our generalisations. If we know that something isn’t true in every case, we may want to reconsider whether to say it, unless we know how to make clear that we recognise these limitations (it is harder than you think).

Obviously it takes two to have a disagreement. If we hear a generalisation, we can try and avoid being offended (easier said than done, I know) and recognise that the speaker probably meant it in a less extensive form that we’ve interpreted it. If we agree at that level, we can acknowledge the truth at that level, but point out the harm in not recognising the limits of the truth. Or we might still not agree, but then we can at least have a real conversation, both engaging the same statement, rather than both arguing different topics.

Overcoming the market’s failure to reward value

I’ve talked in this blog about the innate human desire to be useful, to be valuable (in a broad sense). That said, most people, myself included, struggle to find the best way to do it.

Most of us recognise that the market system doesn’t do a perfect job of pointing us to the most valuable job. We recognise that the market can easily encourage you to do things that are socially and environmentally destructive. And we recognise that there is a lot of valuable work that is undervalued by the market system.

Unfortunately the other systems for allocating people to jobs tend to be too vague to apply, or too subjective to appeal widely. I don’t like the idea of a government panel that tells people what to do. Being forced to do what your parents did seems unfair. And, to be honest, I’m sceptical about just praying and doing what I feel God is telling me – even if there is a God, I don’t trust myself to listen.

So, I’m not surprised that our market system still dominates out view on what is valuable. We moderate it slightly by scorning those that earn a lot of money at the expense of others, and trying to pay additional respect to those who do valuable but underpaid work. But largely, we send a message that only what the market rewards is valuable, and anything else should sit in a non-work bucket: volunteer work, family duties and leisure time.

I’m not happy with this message, but not sure of the best approach: do we look to improve the market’s ability to respect true value, or do we look to weaken the market’s dominance, and encourage greater respect and priority for work done in non-market settings? Can we do both simultaneously, or do we need to pick one to avoid undermining both?

And on an individual level, until society reaches a healthier situation, how should we ensure we spend our time doing our most valuable work?

Any ideas or suggested reading would be especially welcome.

Why I don’t enjoy politics

With a UK election coming up this March, I’ve been dreading the next few months of media (and social media too).

I decided to write a post on the question of why, despite being very interested in political issues, I find politics so painful. I find listening to most (but not all) people arguing about political opinions a struggle, and have no desire whatsoever to get involved in any party.

I read Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind” last year, and got a lot out of his discussion of tribalism and group loyalty, on their very real evolutionary advantages, and why they are so prevalent. I can see how society has benefited from those who are loyal to our tribe, and I can see how comforting it is to belong to a group.

In contrast, I feel I have a particularly weak instinct for tribal loyalty. I struggle to support any sports team (though I can enjoy watching good playing, whichever side of the field it comes from). I have a pretty limited sense of national identity, let alone national pride. I work for my employer because I enjoy it and they pay me, not because I think they are the only company in the world worthy of my time. And I would even support the disbanding of my religious denomination if I thought it was for the best.

That’s not to say I see the full picture on any issue – I know I suffer from biases. I don’t notice the things I don’t see. I have a tendency not to look for evidence of things that would make me uncomfortable. But I do think I have a greater than normal tendency to see the flaws in the arguments of ‘my side’.

When it comes to politics, there is a lot of complexity, so oversimplification is inevitable. As I discussed in a previous post, I’ve done my best to embrace the complexity, and I accept that people are going to form simplified views of reality.

What I don’t like is that so many people form groups based on whichever simplification they’ve adopted, and show limited willingness to recognise that their views are simplifications. Perhaps if I was more tribally oriented, I’d also behave like this, but I can’t.  I feel like each of the political parties is a simplification, and not one that I can subscribe to and refuse to see the wisdom in the the other simplifications.   I have quite a few politically active friends, so I know it would be wrong to say they don’t want to listen or learn – but that is often how it often comes across when they talk politics.

I’d like to think that politics doesn’t have to be this way. Certainly, political discussions don’t have to be. I enjoy the occasions, when discussing politics, when I get to spend our time listening and learning – exploring the gap between the different oversimplified views, and trying to grapple with what a better view might be, or at least when one view deals with the current situation better. I’m lucky enough to have good friends that are happy to discussing politics in this way – without getting argumentative or antagonistic – I certainly learn more from them than I do from people who just repeat the same soundbites.

I am not optimistic that we’ll ever get to a world where this kind of richer political discourse makes up most of the media coverage. Until it does, I’ll do my best to keep informed and will definitely vote as I feel best, but don’t have to enjoy what I read and hear.

Do we want to eliminate work?

I came across a quote recently, by author Arthur C. Clarke: “The goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play”. It challenges the essential premise of this blog, the idea that work is something to be celebrated. When someone smart says something at odds with what I believe, it generally pays to think through it – there’s usually a synthesis that is more sensible than either opposing view. So here goes…

In my initial reading, I took the quote to be arguing two things: that work and play are mutually exclusive, and that a good world would be one in which we solely played (and never worked).

It’s hard to say whether work excludes play without a view on what constitutes work, and what constitutes play.

One fairly common view defines work as:

  • things which you are paid to do
  • things which you wouldn’t do if you weren’t paid to
  • things which someone else tells you to do
  • things which bring you no pleasure

On the other hand, I prefer to think of work as anything we do with an expectation of adding value (say to ourselves, to someone else, to a company or to the community).

That first view does seem pretty inconsistent with most definitions of play I can think of.

The second, on the other hand, seems like it could allow play, for example to entertain or to be creative.

I can agree that the first view is negative, but I believe the second kind of work is good. So rather than choosing between getting rid of work, or celebrating it, a better approach would be to find strategies that favour the good kinds of work over the bad kinds. For example:

  • helping people find work that brings them pleasure
  • helping people have autonomy in their work
  • empowering people to add value
  • embracing the part of play and creativity within work
  • breaking the link between income and work

I should point out that in the Arthur C. Clarke quote, he actually refers to ‘employment’ rather than ‘work’. I suppose this could well suggest that he was focussing on the first view of work: being paid by someone to do something not of your choosing. I’d be far more comfortable with a world without this kind of work, as long we replaced it with mechanisms to allow more positive manners of work, and not just play.