Tag Archives: Hypocrisy

Effective Altruism Complaints

The Boston Review asked eleven people to respond to an essay by Peter Singer on effective altruism, i.e., on using careful analysis to pick acts that do the most good, even when less emotionally satisfying. For example, one might work at a less satisfying job that earns more, so that one can donate more. Response quotes are at the end of this post.

The most common criticisms were these: five people complained that in effective altruism the people helped don’t directly participate in the decision making process, and three people complained that charity efforts targeted directly at people in need distract from efforts to change political outcomes. Taken at face value, these seem odd criticisms, as they seem to apply equally to all charity efforts, and not just to this approach to charity. Yet I doubt these people have published essays complaining about charity in general. So I’m tempted to try to read between the lines, and ask: what is their real issue?

Charity plausibly has a signaling function, at least in part. Charity can let us show others our wealth, our conformity to standard social norms, and our loyalty to particular groups. Charity can also display our reassuring emotional reactions to hearing or seeing others in need or pain. Charity can also let us assert our dominance over and higher status than the people we help, especially if we control their lives a lot in the process. (There are birds who gain status by forcing food down the throats of others who lose status as a result.)

The main complaint above, on including the helped in decisions, seems closely related to showing dominance via charity that controls. But again, how is this problem worse for effective altruism charity, relative to all other charity?

I think the key is the empathy signaling function. People who give because of emotional feelings induced by seeing or hearing those in need are seen as having friendlier and less suspect motives, and people who participate in a political process that includes those they help are also seen as treating them more as equals. In contrast, people with an abstract distant less emotional relation to those in need, whom they help directly as opposed to indirectly via politics, are seen as less having a personal-like relation to those they help, and so are more plausibly trying to dominate them, or to achieve some other less relational purpose.

This interpretation, that the main dislike about effective altruists is their less displaying empathy emotions, is also supported by two other criticisms made of Singer’s essay: two people complained that effective altruism relies too much on numbers and other abstractions, and two people complained that it can be very hard to estimate many numbers.

Imagine someone who said they were in love with you, cared about you, and wanted to live with you to help you, but who didn’t seem very emotionally engaged in this. They instead talked a lot about calculations they’d done on how you two could live your lives together well. You might suspect them of having ulterior motives, such as wanting to gain sex, money, or status from you. Maybe the same sort of thing is going on in charity. We want and expect a certain sort of emotional relation to people who help us, and to people who help the same people we help, and people who say they are trying to help but who won’t join in the usual emotions in the usual way may seem suspect. We’d be more likely to find fault with their approach, and to suspect them of bad ulterior motives.

Those quotes from responses to Singer: Continue reading "Effective Altruism Complaints" »

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Doing Good ≠ Being Good

Most of us like to be associated with “idealistic” groups that claim that they are doing good, i.e., making the world better. However, this is usually not our strongest motive in choosing to associate with such groups. Instead, we more strongly want to make ourselves look good, and gain good-looking associations. Most idealistic groups quickly learn to cater to this demand by:

  • Making meetings where people can visibly show off their affiliation with the group, form ties with like-minded others, and affiliate with impressive speakers/leaders.
  • Making ladders of extra recognition, such as awards, and offices.
  • Offering training to develop and credential related skills.
  • Advocating for the world to put more value on the features that this group’s members have, and less value on other features.
  • Advocating to others to join this and related groups, via arguing the virtues of it and its members.

Of course such groups try to frame these activities in terms of making the world better. And yes, groups that really were trying to make the world better might in fact do some of these. The tipoff, however, is their relative neglect of everything else required to actually make the world better. Groups tend to be far clearer on how to tell who is good than on how exactly good individuals make the world better, on what else exactly is required, and on how they are going to manage that.

Let me give some examples:

  • Christianity presents itself as good for the world, but its main activity is meetings centered on impressive people, and at meetings most people are mostly thinking about how good or bad they are or have been. They talk a lot about what is good vs bad behavior, but are pretty thin on how more good behavior will help the world.
  • I recently talked at a conference of ecological spiritual consciousness raising folks. They had impressive speakers who celebrated features of attendees. Some presented an explicit ladder of higher consciousness, ranked famous people on it, and talked in detail about how to move to higher levels. They want a more egalitarian and ecologically sustainable world, but are fuzzy on how exactly spiritual consciousness helps there.
  • The recent movie Tomorrowland seemed on the surface to be about having hope for and working for a better tomorrow. But in fact a secret society was obsessed with finding the few best people in the world, even though it already had enough secret tech to save the world. Most superhero stories are on the surface about heros struggling to help the world against an opposing villain, but actually more about how cool and impressive it would be to have certain abilities.
  • Political disputes seem to easily get distracted by issues of who is better. Immigration becomes all about what immigrants are worthy. School becomes all about how it can makes you better and who deserves a chance to get better. Charity debates become ways to show who has enough empathy, or enough toughness. How to promote innovation quickly becomes celebrating particular innovators.
  • When discussing how to get better predictions, there is far more interest in finding correlates of who personally is a super-forecaster, than in finding better institutions like prediction markets to promote good predictions. Similarly for rationality, there is far more interest in how to spot rational folks, and in rationality training, than in institutions to promote rationality.

Look, yes the world is full of people, and yes the qualities of those people make some different to world outcomes. But a great many other things also matter for outcomes. So if you were really focused on doing good, you’d pay lots of attention to things other than being good. Doing good isn’t just being good, not by a long shot.

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‘About’ Isn’t About You

Imagine you told people:

  1. What looks like the sky above is actually the roof of a cave, and trees hold it up.
  2. The food we eat doesn’t give us nutrition; we get nutrition by rubbing rocks.
  3. The reason we wear clothes isn’t for modesty or protection from weather, but instead to keep cave frogs from jumping on our skin.

Imagine that you offered plausible evidence for these claims. But imagine further that people mostly took your claims as personal accusations, and responded defensively:

“Don’t look at me. I’ve always been a big supporter of trees, I’ve always warned against the dangers of frogs, and I make sure to rub rocks regularly.”

Other than being defensive, however, people showed little interest in these revelations. How would that make you feel?

That is how I feel about typical responses to my saying politics isn’t about policy, medicine isn’t about health, charity isn’t about helping, etc. People usually focus on proving that even if I’m right about others, they are the rare exceptions. They offer specific evidence on their personal behavior to prove that for them politics is about policy, medicine is about health, charity is about helping, etc. But aside from that, they show little interest in what such hypotheses might imply about the world in which they live. (They are, however, often eager to point out that I may have illicit motivations for pointing all this out.)

To which I respond: really, “X is not about Y” is not about you. Yes, your forager ancestors were hyper-sensitive to being singled out by public accusations of norm violations, and in fact much of our reasoning and story abilities may have evolved to help us defend against such accusations, and to make such accusations against others. So yes your instincts naturally push you to react this way.

But I’m talking about ways that we all violate the norms to which we all give lip service. I’m not trying to shame some of us, or even all of us, into trying harder to live up to our professed ideals. I’m focused first and foremost on making sense of our world. If I really believed that the sky might really be the roof of a cave held up by trees, or that we wear clothes to protect against frogs, I wouldn’t focus first on making sure that I was very publicly pro-tree and anti-frog; I’d instead ask what else I must rethink, given such revelations.

Once we better understand the basics of what we are doing in areas like policy, medicine, charity, etc. then we might start to ask if we should be doing more or less of those things, and if invoking norms, and shaming norm violators, will help or hurt on net. But first someone needs to figure out the basics of what we are doing in these areas of life. I implore some of you to join me in this noble quest.

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Yawning At Utopia

The prospect of better physical devices, such as logic gates or solar cells, often generates huge interest and investment. Of course there are many more physical devices where improvements generate much less interest, because we haven’t yet found nearly as much use for those devices. But even so, for devices we often use, small improvements can be very big news.

Similarly, there are many widely used computer algorithms where small improvements also generate big interest and financial investments. Of course most gains aren’t like this. For example, there is less interest in techniques tied to very narrow contexts, such as ways to reorganize particular programs. But when wide use is plausible, algorithm gains can be big news.

We can do engineering and design not only with physical and software systems, but also with social systems. There should of course be less interest in designs tied to very particular contexts, such as reorganizing the management of a particular firm. But we often repeatedly use some simple social mechanisms, like voting. So we should be a lot more interest in improving the designs of these.

I started out in engineering, moved to physics, then to software, and then finally to economics. That last move was very much inspired by big apparent gains from better social institutions. I knew that in physical and software engineering we put in huge efforts to scour the vast space of possible designs to find even small gains on devices of moderate generality. Yet in economics it seemed that big gains could be found from very simple easy to find innovations on general mechanisms of wide applicability.

Over two decades later, I must admit that the world shows far less interest in better designs for institutions and social mechanisms, relative to better designs for physical and software systems. Few talk about them, and even fewer business ventures pursue them. Some say that physics and software designs are far more valuable because we know far less about economics; these proposed social designs just don’t work. But this claim seems just wrong to me.

Yes of course any particular argument for any particular social design will make convenient but questionable assumptions. But this is also true for our main arguments for physical or software designs. They also almost always neglect relevant considerations. Tractable analysis simplifies.

I recently posted on a new voting mechanism. Voting is a very general process whose main purposes are also pretty general. I’ve also posted for years about the very general advantages of prediction markets for the problem of info aggregation, which is a very general problem. (Scott Sumner sees their gains as so obvious he calls anything else “Stone Age Economics”.) I just heard a nice talk on better political institutions to promote urban density. And economic journals are full of articles describing new institution designs, and testing the effects of institutions that are not widely adopted.

Yes, proposed new social mechanisms often fail along the path from simple theory models to complex models to lab experiments to small field experiments to large field trials. But physical and software designs also often fail along this path. I don’t see social designs as failing much more often, except for the key failing of not generating much enthusiasm or interest. That is, most people just don’t seem to care how well social designs do in theory or lab or field tests. Even most social scientists don’t care much about design innovations outside their specialty areas.

Yes in the last decade or so there has been more enthusiasm for social innovations embodied in physical and software innovations, like smart phones or block chains. But this enthusiasm seems to be mainly an accidental side effect of tech enthusiasm. For example, while many are excited by Uber achieving new value in cheaper-if-nominally-illegal cab services, most of those gains could have come decades ago from just deregulating cabs, an option in which there was little interest. As another example, there is far more interest today in prediction markets build on block chains than in ordinary prediction markets, even though far more value could be achieved by the later.

I should admit that this all confirms Bryan Caplan’s claim that few people can generate much emotional enthusiasm for efficiency. Bryan says people are far more engaged by moral arguments. I’d say people are also far more engaged by following fashion and by us vs. them coalition politics. Most apparent interest in innovation in social designs can be attributed to these three sources; we explain little more by positing an additional direct interest in helping us all get more of what we want.

This seems mostly also true at the level of smaller organizations like firms. While people give lip service to increasing the efficiency or effectiveness of the organization as a whole, that in fact generates little passion. The passion we do see in the name of efficiency mostly advances particular factions and individual careers. Homo hypocritus is quite skilled at saying that he serves the great good, while actually serving far more personal ends.

Added 9a: Many of you seem to be stuck on the ideas that social innovations can’t be tested unless the entire world agrees to adopt them. Or an entire nation, or city. Yes, some innovations are like that. (There are also physical and software innovations like that.) But a great many social innovations can be tried out on very small scales, where regulations do not block them. And there is very little interest in pursuing these innovations.

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Fashion Excuses

Imagine a woman who bought expensive new dresses every few months, new dresses that matched the latest dress fashions. But she denied that she personally cared about fashion. Instead, she said:

  • “New dresses are just better. For example, new materials are better.”
  • “My body changes fast, so my dresses must change fast to match.”
  • “Clothes should match culture. It’s not right to wear pre-Ferguson dresses after Ferguson.”
  • “I really like variety; anything even a bit different than before is great.”
  • “As a professional dress-maker, I must keep close track of fashion.”
  • “To bond better with others who track fashion, I do so also.”

Some of these explanations might be true for some people. But overall they are not very believable explanations for why most people track dress fashion. More believable are:

  • “I want people to see I have the time and money to track fashion.”
  • “I want people to stare at my body, and new fashions catch eyes.”
  • “I want people to see that I can guess beforehand what will be big new fashions. This shows my good judgement and social connections.”

While these reasons are more believable, they are not the sort of reasons that people like to admit.

Now consider people who focus more on more recently discussed “fashionable” topics in tech, academia, social trends, policy debates, media, blogs, etc. Such people can have many possible reasons for their focus. But as with the dresses example above, some of these reasons are ugly, being ones we don’t tend to like to admit. Which tends to bias us toward offering other prettier sorts of reasons, to the extent that we can make them seem to fit.

Thus if we notice that we are tending to focus on more recently fashionable topics, we should suspect that we have not fully admitted to ourselves that we actually do so in part because of ugly reasons. Which should lower our estimates of the contribution of prettier reasons. So, compared to what we thought:

  • things aren’t improving as fast,
  • we less need to adapt topics to changes in us or in society,
  • we don’t actually like topic variety as much,
  • we are less producers, and more consumers, and
  • we care less about bonding with others.

Instead you should suspect that you follow topic fashions more because:

  • You want people to see you have the time, education, and smarts needed to track topic fashions.
  • You want people to notice your wit and intelligence, which you display as you track topic fashions.
  • You want people to see that you can guess beforehand what will be big new fashions, to show your good judgement and social connections.

If we are built to hide ugly motives, and substitute pretty ones, we should suspect that our actual motives are uglier than we think.

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On Exposing Hypocrisy

Imagine that you are a kid, and that you recently acquired a new friend who likes to come over to your house to play. You’ve started to notice that he pays a lot of attention to your sister when he visits, that he likes to visit when she is home, that he likes to play in the house near where she is at the time. You suspect that he has a crush on your sister, and that is why he recently became your friend.

This is a case of hypocrisy, where X is less about the Y that it seems about, but is instead more about Z. Here X is your new friendship, Y is his liking to spent time with you, and Z is his wanting to get closer to your sister. Of course Y is probably true to some extent, though not as much as he’d led you to believe.

Now consider some possible responses to this situation:

  1. Nothing: Do and say nothing; pretend you don’t notice.
  2. Private support: tell him privately about your suspicions, but make sure he understands that you will fully support his efforts, and that you don’t hold any grudge.
  3. Private confrontation: tell him privately about your suspicions. Act mildly offended.
  4. Public exposure: speak loud and clearly, in front of all his friends, as well as your sister, giving evidence of his hypocrisy. Act deeply offended.
  5. Indirect private confrontation: have a mutual friend tell him that his behavior seems suspicious. This mutual friend isn’t offended, and promises not to keep it quiet. But they were wondering, that’s all.

What if you like this person, and so want him to act more like a real friend. Which of the above responses are most likely to turn his hypocrisy, in pretending to do Y while really doing Z, into sincerity, i.e., really doing mainly Y?

In this case #4 is probably the absolute worst approach, and #3 probably isn’t that much better. #2 may usually have good outcomes, but even that risks him feeling embarrassed and avoiding you. #5 is a little safer, but even that could spook him. I’d say #1 is probably the safest: just do nothing.

Consider this as a metaphor for exposing hypocrisy more generally. Sometimes exposing hypocrisy, or confronting the hypocrites, can shame them into actually doing what they say they are doing. But at other times it scares them away, so that they do even less of what they said they were doing.

For example, people pretend to learn at school, but more plausibly they meet mates and signal their features. If this hypocrisy were made clear, would people actually learn more, or would they switch to other ways to meet mates and signal features? People also pretend to give to charity because they want to help, but more plausibly they want to bond with associates and to signal their gentle natures. If their hypocrisy were made more visible, would they try to be more effective at helping with their charity, or would they switch to other ways to associate and signal gentleness?

Consider this a partial answer to Ryan Carey’s request for criticism of effective altruism. A community associated with that label says it wants to promote charity as helping, and it points out how common charity patterns often fall far short of that goal. And if main cause of falling short were ignorance or laziness, this should induce a lot more helping. But if the main cause is instead hypocrisy, then what they are mainly doing is exposing hypocrisy.

And yes, for some people exposing their hypocrisy will shame them into more effectively doing what they had been pretending to do. But for others it may embarrass them into doing less. Maybe they will be more forthright about bonding and showing gentleness in other ways. I don’t actually know which it will be on net. But I do know that we should study hypocrisy more carefully, in order to better position ourselves to answer such questions.

Added 8a: People vary in their gentleness both via immediate system one reactions, and via more considered system two reactions. If people are more interested in signaling their system one gentleness, and if effective charity choices are those that look better to system two, then effective choices can be in conflict with their signaling desires.

For example, in the standard trolley problem people say they would divert the trolley to kill one person on the tracks to save five on other tracks, but would not push one person off a footbridge to achieve the same savings. Pressuring people to admit that pushing in the trolley problem is effective altruism is getting them to resist their system one inclinations, and if they succeed at that they may look less good to associates in terms of system one gentleness.

Added 10a: Sebastian Nickel reminds me of this study showing:

Large prior donors increase the likelihood of giving in response to information on aid effectiveness, whereas small prior donors decrease their giving.

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Show Outside Critics

Worried that you might be wrong? That you might be wrong because you are biased? You might think that your best response is to study different kinds of biases, so that you can try to correct your own biases. And yes, that can help sometimes. But overall, I don’t think it helps much. The vast depths of your mind are quite capable of tricking you into thinking you are overcoming biases, when you are doing no such thing.

A more robust solution is to seek motivated and capable critics. Real humans who have incentives to find and explain flaws in your analysis. They can more reliably find your biases, and force you to hear about them. This is of course an ancient idea. The Vatican has long had “devil’s advocates”, and many other organizations regularly assign critics to evaluate presented arguments. For example, academic conferences often assign “discussants” tasked with finding flaws in talks, and journals assign referees to criticize submitted papers.

Since this idea is so ancient, you might think that the people who talk the most about trying to overcoming bias would apply this principle far more often than do others. But from what I’ve seen, you’d be wrong.

Oh, almost everyone circulates drafts among close associates for friendly criticism. But that criticism is mostly directed toward avoiding looking bad when they present to a wider audience. Which isn’t at all the same as making sure they are right. That is, friendly local criticism isn’t usually directed at trying to show a wider audience flaws in your arguments. If your audience won’t notice a flaw, your friendly local critics have little incentive to point it out.

If your audience cared about flaws in your arguments, they’d prefer to hear you in a context where they can expect to hear motivated capable outside critics point out flaws. Not your close associates or friends, or people from shared institutions via which you could punish them for overly effective criticism. Then when the flaws your audience hears about are weak, they can have more confidence that your arguments are strong.

And if even if your audience only cared about the appearance of caring about flaws in your argument, they’d still want to hear you matched with apparently motivated capable critics. Or at least have their associates hear that such matching happens. Critics would likely be less motivated and capable in this case, but at least there’d be a fig leaf that looked like good outside critics matched with your presented arguments.

So when you see people presenting arguments without even a fig leaf of the appearance of outside critics being matched with presented arguments, you can reasonably conclude that this audience doesn’t really care much about appearing to care about hidden flaws in your argument. And if you are the one presenting arguments, and if you didn’t try to ensure available critics, then others can reasonably conclude that you don’t care much about persuading your audience that your argument lacks hidden flaws.

Now often this criticism approach is often muddled by the question of which kinds of critics are in fact motivated and capable. So often “critics” are used who don’t have in fact have much relevant expertise, or who have incentives that are opaque to the audience. And prediction markets can be seen as a robust solution to this problem. Every bet is an interaction between two sides who each implicitly criticize the other. Both are clearly motivated to be accurate, and have clear incentives to only participate if they are capable. Of course prediction market critics typically don’t give as much detail to explain the flaws they see. But they do make clear that they see a flaw.

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The Next Status Game

Urban North Americans live in what is probably the most status-conscious culture on earth. The reason we don’t recognize it as such is because most of us are stuck in a model derived from the old aristo/bourgeois/prole hierarchy, where status is linear and vertical, a ladder on which one may (or may not) be able to move either up or down.

That model of status is pretty much obsolete. Over the course of the 20th century, the dominant North American leisure class underwent three distinct changes, each marked by shifts in the relevant status symbols, rules for display, and advancement strategies. The first change was from the quasi-aristocratic conspicuous leisure of the late 19th-century time to the bourgeois conspicuous consumption that marked the growing affluence of the first half of the 20th century, a pattern of status competition that is commonly referred to as “keeping up with the Joneses.”

The next change was from bourgeois consumerism to a stance of cultivated non-conformity that is variously known as “cool,” “hip,” or “alternative.” This form of status-seeking emerged out of the critique of mass society as it was picked up by the ’60s counterculture, and as it became the dominant status system of urban life we saw the emergence of what we can call “rebel” or “hip” consumerism. The rebel consumer goes to great lengths to show that he is not a dupe of advertising, that he does not follow the crowd, expressing his politics and his individuality through the consumption of products that have a rebellious or out-of-the-mainstream image—underground bands, hip-hop fashions, skateboarding shoes, and so on.

But by the turn of the millennium cool had ceased to be credible as a political stance, and we have since seen yet another shift, from conspicuous non-conformity to what we can call “conspicuous authenticity.” The trick now is to subtly demonstrate that while you may have a job, a family, and a house full of stuff, you are not spiritually connected to any of it. What matters now is not just buying things, it is taking time for you, to create a life focused on your unique needs and that reflects your particular taste and sensibility. (more)

Let’s see, conspicuous leisure, then conspicuous consumption, then conspicuous non-conformity, then conspicuous authenticity. What’s next?

Maybe no one you know will read the above, and you can safely ignore it. But if you start to learn that many people you know are starting to see conspicuous authenticity as just another way that posers vie for status, then of course your community will come to not accept that as giving real status. No, you’ll start to see some new kinds of behavior as the sort of thing that people do who don’t care about status, but are just being “real”.

Then you’ll start to become aware that other people that you know agree with this new attitude of yours. You’ll get more comfortable with saying that you approve of these sorts of behavior in others, with hearing others say the same thing, and you’ll notice that you feel good when other people credit you with such behavior. You and your associates will all feel good about themselves, knowing they are all good people who deserve respect because they do these things, things that they all know are not about status seeking.

At which point these new behaviors will have become your new status game. You see, status-seeking behavior must be a respected behavior that isn’t seen as overtly status seeking. Because we all agree that we don’t respect behavior that is done mainly to gain status. Even though we do, we do, we very much do.

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Relishing Inequality

As we’ve become richer, we have moved from farmer toward forager values. This has made us more egalitarian – we are more averse to inequality and domination, and more uncomfortable when people brag, give orders, or act overtly as if some people are much better than others.

On the surface, our stories tend to affirm our social norms. Villains are often greedy disagreeable unstable illicit dominators, while the heroes who oppose them are often modest, agreeable, and capable, but not assertive or aggressive.

However, not all is as it seems on the surface. For example, we are far more interested in seeing drama or action shows centering on theses kinds of jobs: police, soldiers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, chefs, actors, athletes, and musicians. These are jobs where extreme outcomes are more possible, either because big harms can be avoided, or because great status or honor might be gained.

In jobs with more extreme possible outcomes, we are more comfortable with overt inequality and domination. We are more ok with the capable doc getting explicit deference, and berating the incompetent doc. Or with junior chefs saluting “yes chef” like soldiers. Or with the super musicians not giving much consideration to the grips and groupies who serve them.

We are not only more ok with such overt inequality and domination for these jobs in real life, we are also more ok with it in fiction. In fact, you might well say we relish it. Just as little girls fantasize about being a princess, or little boys fantasize about being action heroes, we all like to imagine we are the more able workers shown in these stories. We like to imagine getting the status and deference that these fictional characters are shown to be justified in getting.

Of course we prefer to paper this over with a villain who is far worse, making our heroes look great by contrast. So we can pretend that what we really want is to bring down the arrogant. This is somewhat like how we like stories that titillate with sexual or other indulgence, but then pretend to endorse a morality tale where such behavior is punished in the end. In both cases we can enjoy a fantasy of vicariously experiencing pleasures, while officially pretending to disapprove of them.

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Fundamentalists Are Not Traditionalists

In my last two years of college I rebelled against the system. I stopped doing homework and instead studied physics by playing with equations (and acing exams). In this I was a “school fundamentalist.” I wanted to cut out what I saw as irrelevant and insincere ritual, so that school could better serve what I saw as its fundamental purpose, which was to help curious people learn. I contrasted myself with “traditionalists” who just unthinkingly continued with previous habits and customs.

One of the big social trends over the last few centuries has been a move toward reforming previous rituals and institutions to become more “sincere,” i.e., to more closely align with stated purposes, especially purposes related to internal feelings. For example, the protestant revolution tried to reform religious rituals and institutions toward a stated purpose of improving personal relations with God. (Christian and Islamic “fundamentalists” continue in this vein today.) The romantic revolution in marriage was to move marriage toward a stated purpose of promoting loving romantic relations. And various revolutions in government have been justified as moving government toward stated purposes of legitimacy, representation, and accountability.

In all of these cases advocates for reform have complained about insincerity and hypocrisy in prior practices and institutions. Similar sincerity concerns can be raised about birthday presents, or dinner table manners. Kids sometimes ask why, if gifts are to show feelings, people shouldn’t wait to give gifts until they most feel the mood. Or wait for when the receiver would most like the gift. Kids also sometimes ask why they must lie and say “thank you” when that is not how they feel. Here kids are being fundamentalists, while parents are traditionalists who mostly just want the kids to do the usual thing, without too much reflection on exactly why.

We economists are deep into this sincerity trend, in that we often analyze institutions according to stated purposes, and propose institutional reforms that seem to better achieve stated purposes. For example, in law & economics, the class I’m teaching this semester, we analyze which legal rules best achieve the stated purpose of creating incentives to increase economic welfare.

I’ve been made aware of this basic sincerity vs. tradition conflict by the sociology book Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity. While its sociology theory can make for hard reading at times, I was persuaded by its basic claim that modern intellectuals are too quick to favor the sincerity side of this conflict. For example, even if dinner manners and birthday presents rituals don’t most directly express the sincerest feeling of those involved, they can create an “as if” appearance of good feelings, and this appearance can make people nicer and feel better about each other. We’d get a lot fewer presents if people only gave them when in the mood.

Similarly, while for some kids it seems enough to just support their curiosity, most kids are probably better off in a school system that forces them to act as if they are curious, even when they are not. Also, my wife, who works in hospice, tells me that people today often reject traditional bereavement rituals which don’t seem to reflect their momentary sincere feelings. But such people often then feel adrift, not knowing what to do, and their bereavement process goes worse.

Of course I’m not saying we should always unthinkingly follow tradition. But I do think our efforts to reform often go badly because we focus on the most noble and flattering functions and situations, and neglect many other important ones.

From Ritual and Its Consequences I also got some useful distinctions. In addition to sincerity vs. tradition, there is also play vs. ritual. This is the distinction among less-practical “as-if” behaviors between those (play) that spin out into higher variance and those (ritual) that spin in to high predictability. Ritual in this sense can help one to feel safe when threatened, while play can bring joy when one doesn’t feel threatened. One can also distinguish between kinds of play and ritual where people’s usual roles are preserved vs. reversed, and distinguish between kinds where people are in control vs. out of control of events.

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