Category Archives: Arts

Morals From Stories?

Scott Sumner suggests utilitarian stories drive our moral intuitions:

One of the most common strategies of the anti-utilitarian position is to assume some societal set-up which shocks our sensibilities, and then assume that it would satisfy the utilitarian criterion of maximizing aggregate happiness.  Thus we might be asked to imagine a scenario where the total pleasures of the slave-owner exceed the suffering of the slaves … Bryan has an even more shocking example where the benefits to Nazi’s from the Holocaust exceeded the suffering to the Jews. …  At the end of these thought experiments we are told that unless we are willing to embrace the society envisioned in the thought experiment, we must, on logical grounds, give up on utilitarianism.

I have several interrelated objections to this style of philosophical inquiry.  I’d like to start with Richard Rorty’s assertion that the narrative arts (novels and film) produce liberal values. … So if Rorty is correct, how do we know that slavery was so awful?  Because we have been exposed to accounts of slavery in the arts which vividly showed how the suffering of slaves was immeasurably greater that the frivolous pleasures of the slave-owner.  Can we then turn around and use an imaginary slave-owning society that passes the utilitarian test as an argument against utilitarianism?  I’m not sure that we can, unless one can show that our initial visceral reaction against slavery is based on non-utilitarian grounds, i.e. based on some abstract philosophical principle.  And that’s much harder than many people might imagine.

This seems to me a powerful argument.  What data could test it?

Added 9pm:  As I understand it, the argument isn't that we can't now imagine compelling stories of, e.g., non-utilitarian-maxing slavery.  The argument, I think, is more that we overgeneralize from the stories where we first picked up our morals.  For example, we first hear stories where slave owners gain less than slaves lose, and then come to see all slavery as bad. 

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Fake Grammar Experts

A favorite question here at OB is: who are the real experts? 

Most people think of grammar as an area where expertise is especially respected and organized; experts coordinate to decide the right answers and then tell the rest of us what to think.  That is certainly the impression most English teachers give us.  But in fact the "expert" grammar they most often teach was determined mainly by popularity among English teachers, not by what is most expert according to actual grammar experts.

Geoffrey Pullum says the classic Elements of Style is grammatically incompetent:

April 16 is the 50th anniversary of the publication of a little book that is loved and admired throughout American academe. …  The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students' grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it. …

Both authors were grammatical incompetents. Strunk had very little analytical understanding of syntax, White even less. Certainly White was a fine writer, but he was not qualified as a grammarian. Despite the post-1957 explosion of theoretical linguistics, Elements settled in as the primary vehicle through which grammar was taught to college students and presented to the general public, and the subject was stuck in the doldrums for the rest of the 20th century.

Continue reading "Fake Grammar Experts" »

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Comedic Actors Slighted?

Imagine that actors (and actresses) have two main features:

  •  Looks – we like to watch pretty/handsome actors,
  •  Acting ability – engaging body/face/voice motions for a role.

Now on average comedic roles tend to be filled with less attractive actors.  Since there are more less attractive actors to choose from, a director can be more selective about acting ability when picking an actor for a comedic role.  If so, holding constant the resources devoted to a role, on average actors filling comedic roles should have higher acting abilities. 

But acting awards famously slight comedic roles, preferring actors who fill "dramatic" roles.  Some possible explanations:

  1. Yes, acting awards don't go to the best actors.  What did you expect?
  2. More resources are devoted to dramatic roles, relative to comedic roles.
  3. This two feature model is too simplistic, and a richer model explains it all.

What say ye?

Added 14Apr: Even if one assumes that comedic acting abilities are different abilities from other acting abilities, the argument goes through if comedic abilities are just as widely available among humans as other acting abilities, relative to the number of comedic roles to fill relative to other roles.

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Seek Superstar Slavery

The latest Review of Economic Studies has a great article (ungated here) by Marko Tervio.  I'll summarize.

CEOs, actors, directors, musicians, authors, and athletes make big bucks because:

  1. Desired abilities are rare and lasting.
  2. It is very expensive to try someone new.
  3. Everyone can see which trials worked or not.
  4. Winners are free to demand more money or walk.

Given these conditions, a few proven winners make big bucks, and few new folks get tried.  After all, a new trial who wins will soon demand as much as other winners.  Here winners avoid retirement to keep milking their gravy train, and small biases in weak signals on new guys to try can magnify into great social injustice. 

Condition 4 is crucial.  When long term deals are allowed, more folks are tried, because a few successes can pay for lots of failures.  Folks being tried get paid more, and there are more better winners who retire earlier and are paid less even when free to walk.  Distorted signals about who to try matter less.  Such long term deal gains were realized, for example, in the US movie studio system of the 1920-40s, the old US American baseball club system, and even now via exclusive long-term music album deals.

Over the last century, however, legislatures and courts have consistently moved to limit and prohibit such long term contracts, thereby increasing inequality and decreasing productivity.  France even forbids artists from selling the full value of their paintings.  The key tipping factor here seems to me to be a public displeased by seeing gains by admired musicians, actors, athletes, artists etc. going to less admired others.  The word "slavery" is often invoked. For example, music fans can be outraged to see their favorite musicians shackled to ungenerous album deals. 

So our vast wage inequality of superstar CEOs, artists, athletes, etc. is caused not by a lack of sensible regulation to limit random cruelties of unfettered markets, but by a public preferring its heroes unshackled, even if those heros had preferred otherwise. Now maybe insuring heroes against financial variations imposes a negative externality on wider admiring publics, one large enough to justify preventing long term deals.  But for now count me as skeptical; I'd rather allow CEO and other superhero "slavery," for their good and ours. 

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Wishful Dreaming

The NYT just reported on the JPSP article on dreams I reported on in January.  I wrote:

I'll bet we process dream experiences much like we process fictional experiences.  Our tendency to treat fictional and dream experience as real evidence helps us to credibly believe things that it is in our interest for others to think we believe.  

The NYT notes dreams interpretation is self-serving:

Even the nonbelievers showed a weakness for certain heavenly dreams, like one in which God commanded them to take a year off to travel the world. Agnostics rated that dream as significantly more meaningful than the dream of God commanding them to spend a year working in a leper colony. …

Dreamers’ self-serving bias … Once you see how flexible dream interpretation can be, you can appreciate why it has always been such a popular tool for decision-making. Relying on your dreams for guidance is like the political ritual of appointing an “independent blue-ribbon panel” to resolve an issue. You can duck any personal responsibility for action while pretending to rely on an impartial process, even though you’ve stacked the panel with your own friends and will ignore any advice that conflicts with your desires. Charity work, no; margaritas, sí. …

And dreams serve many social functions:

"It may also be a good idea not to tell people about their undesirable behavior in your dreams, as they may infer that your dreams reveal your true feelings about them.”  … You should still probably pay attention when, say, your romantic partner tells you about a dream in which you were caught in bed with your partner’s friend.
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Who Likes Band Music?

Smiling politely through yet another performance by my son's school band tonight, I wondered: why do school bands play music so different from what the kids, or even their parents, choose in their free time?  Music at parties, movies, etc. is pretty different.  The novels kids read in English class differ from the novels they or their parents read in their free time, but most people accept that school novels are deeper, subtler, etc., so that kids learn more by studying them.  But do most people really accept a similar claim about band music?  What gives?

Added: There are lots of high quality thoughtful comments here.  So is there a disagreement here, or do you guys pretty much agree?

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As ye judge those who fund thee, ye shall be judged

"If it were not for the intellectual snobs who pay — in solid cash — the tribute which philistinism owes to culture, the arts would perish with their starving practitioners. Let us thank heaven for hypocrisy."
Huxley, Aldous

Robin is always keen to remind us how status-seeking humans are, and the above quote is a gem in that regard. Laced through it are the claims that art is valuable, that patrons are vital to art, and yet that these patrons should be disdained – especially compared with the poor-but-high-status artist.

This can be expanded into a general test for detecting self-serving status-seeking. It isn’t enough to show that people are attracted to high status professions (people’s opinions of status varies, and they may have decided that certain professions are worthwhile to the world, and thus accorded them higher status). It isn’t even enough to note that people’s everyday behavior is status seeking – unless we can estimate the marginal difficulties in making a “worthwhile” profession more worthy, versus the marginal difficulties in increasing status.

However Huxley’s quote gives us a way of controlling these variables. If a profession is deemed worthwhile to the world, then those who enable it, or fund it, are equally worthwhile. If someone would accord their own work a high status but disdains patrons/funding bodies/stockholders, then their own status seeking is plain to see.

The converse is also true; one artist, at least, gets it:

"If a patron buys from an artist who needs money (needs money to buy tools, time, food), the patron then makes himself equal to the artist; he is building art into the world; he creates."
Pound, Ezra

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Thoughtful Music

I adore Max Richter's haunting album Blue Notebooks, especially this track.  One reviewer says:

Most striking of all is "Shadow Journal." … The piece sounds so much like thinking, like turning inward, that the cawing birds at the end of the track bring a jarring end to its reverie. 

It often seems that certain music puts me into a more "thoughtful" frame of mind.  But I worry; does it actually make me more thoughtful, or does it just give me the impression that I've been thoughtful?  Does music spur me to deep thoughts, or just make me feel that whatever thoughts I have are deep?   And if it helps, does it do any more than just make me feel relaxed or motivated? 

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Dreams as Evidence

We treat dreams as evidence on a par with real events.  From the latest Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:

This research investigated laypeople's interpretation of their dreams. Participants from both Eastern and Western cultures believed that dreams contain hidden truths (Study 1) and considered dreams to provide more meaningful information about the world than similar waking thoughts (Studies 2 and 3). The meaningfulness attributed to specific dreams, however, was moderated by the extent to which the content of those dreams accorded with participants' preexisting beliefs–from the theories they endorsed to attitudes toward acquaintances, relationships with friends, and faith in God (Studies 3-6). Finally, dream content influenced judgment: Participants reported greater affection for a friend after considering a dream in which a friend protected rather than betrayed them (Study 5) and were equally reluctant to fly after dreaming or learning of a plane crash (Studies 2 and 3). Together, these results suggest that people engage in motivated interpretation of their dreams and that these interpretations impact their everyday lives.

I'll bet we process dream experiences much like we process fictional experiences.  Our tendency to treat fictional and dream experience as real evidence helps us to credibly believe things that it is in our interest for others to think we believe.  

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31 Laws of Fun

So this is Utopia, is it?  Well
I beg your pardon, I thought it was Hell.
        — Sir Max Beerholm, verse entitled
        In a Copy of More's (or Shaw's or Wells's or Plato's or Anybody's) Utopia

This is a shorter summary of the Fun Theory Sequence with all the background theory left out – just the compressed advice to the would-be author or futurist who wishes to imagine a world where people might actually want to live:

  1. Think of a typical day in the life of someone who's been adapting to Utopia for a while.  Don't anchor on the first moment of "hearing the good news".  Heaven's "You'll never have to work again, and the streets are paved with gold!" sounds like good news to a tired and poverty-stricken peasant, but two months later it might not be so much fun.  (Prolegomena to a Theory of Fun.)
  2. Beware of packing your Utopia with things you think people should do that aren't actually fun.  Again, consider Christian Heaven: singing hymns doesn't sound like loads of endless fun, but you're supposed to enjoy praying, so no one can point this out.  (Prolegomena to a Theory of Fun.)
  3. Making a video game easier doesn't always improve it.  The same holds true of a life.  Think in terms of clearing out low-quality drudgery to make way for high-quality challenge, rather than eliminating work.  (High Challenge.)
  4. Life should contain novelty – experiences you haven't encountered before, preferably teaching you something you didn't already know.  If there isn't a sufficient supply of novelty (relative to the speed at which you generalize), you'll get bored.  (Complex Novelty.)

Continue reading "31 Laws of Fun" »

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