essay philosophy

Empathy and Equality

The concept of social justice, coupled with widening awareness of the egregious injustice that often exists in the world, occupies our public discourse more and more; the proposition that all of us deserve equity in treatment, opportunity, and rights simply by virtue of being human, and that a fair and just society is laudable and desirable, seems intuitive and natural – after all, you’d find very few people, particularly in democratic societies, who would openly disagree with these sentiments. But far from being “natural”, fairness is radical, and distinctly human.

We are fundamentally creatures of biology, which is to say, our genes are generally a major determinant of the life we end up living. Evolution drives the natural world, which is mercilessly efficient in preserving only the best-adapted genes: survival of the fittest directs life, not morality or justice. In spite of this, one could argue that a trend we see in our millennia-long history is an escape from genetic destiny – humans have flourished because of many non-hereditary factors, including technology and culture, and we have gradually minimized the importance of our genes to survival.

essay film social

Violence Culture

Like much of the connected world, this month became an extended media binge for me. The packaging of violence as entertainment is something, once drawn to my attention years ago, I’ve tried to be more conscious of, especially the last few weeks. Fictional violence is escapist and thrilling, inevitable and commonplace, and something I increasingly have mixed feelings about.

Violence is in our DNA, central to our myth: this country was forged in the crucible of conflict, and the Second Amendment enshrines the right to bear arms in a way that few other nations do. It bathes our history with wars won, numerous and major, just and improper, that place us in world preeminence and shape a sense of destiny, but also smaller wars, individual and domestic, chronicled and private, that fracture cohesion and make us more fragile. We fetishize violence by worshiping its tools and trivializing it in culture, depicting it indiscriminately across our screens for entertainment, where nonsensical body counts minimize death and render it inconsequential and irrelevant, demeaning actual tragedy and suffering. While violence in nature is wielded in primal, small scale struggle for survival, whether hunting for prey, defending the group, or competing for a mate, today’s firearms embrace an unnatural, rapacious capacity for destruction and effortless carnage that the founding fathers could never have foreseen. 

And yet, violence between humans has been decreasing; deaths due to armed conflict have been replaced by deaths in civilian hospital beds, with the military death rate falling tenfold in the last fifty years. We’ve decided we want less of its destabilizing and traumatic effects, and more education, economic growth, and higher living standards instead; the intentional homicide rate in the US almost halved in the last twenty years alone, while around the world, literacy rates quadrupled last century. We might feel differently about our virtual reality, but we desire less violence IRL, not more. Yes, humans are designed to survive in the natural world, and aggression is part of our physical and mental make-up, but putative proxies such as sports do exist in modern times (with even the idea of sportsmanship to accommodate civility in competition). Much has been written about these trends and why we should be optimistic about the future, and it seems safe to say much of the world is on a general trajectory towards greater peace, with a bias to broadening justice by lessening inequity and unnecessary suffering: witness the recognition of gender, racial, and LGBTQ equality over the last century, and the growing awareness of animal rights – the untold collateral suffering that our tidy supermarket packaging obscures – within the rise of the plant-based food movement. We’ll see if this continues, but the direction of recent history is difficult to dispute: less is more when it comes to violence.

books essay philosophy

Self as Story

I recently read Conscious (2019) by Annaka Harris, a delightfully short, fascinating overview of the current state of consciousness research, philosophy and science, a field of inquiry relatively new to me. The following (and in all likelihood, quite unoriginal) random ideas came up.

The exact nature of consciousness is a topic for endless discussion; from my simple vantage point, I’ll just equate it to an awareness of being, which some might call the self. My initial, rather straightforward thought leans towards consciousness as an attribute of our brain, a hack or construct used to build a cohesive narrative (possibly including post-fact rationalization) around events – at their most basic level, sensory stimuli – for the evolutionary purpose of helping us remember and learn. “I” is the first building block of memory, letting us bring literal order to randomness through narrative capture. Stories harness space and time (the mnemonic method of loci comes to mind), and subsequent analysis and rumination, whether real-time or deliberate, facilitates “learning” – the generation of ideas and new behavior in the service of actual self-preservation. At a fundamental level, consciousness lets us process information, translate this into action, and create change. 

Over time, the advent of language helped humans shape this vague abstraction, conceptualize a self to construct narratives both individual and collective around, and create culture: inherited behavior. One could argue that language is critical for the very idea of our selves, indeed, for the voice inside our heads to be able to say anything at all. We are predisposed to narratives, convenient templates that wrangle meaning from chaos, a predilection that sometimes gets us in trouble – Tyler Cowen, in fact, cautions us about the unreliability of story – perhaps our propensity to create stories developed as evolutionary advantage and was the original purpose of self. Stories become history and memory, and it’s easy to speculate that beyond learning, memory also grants the self a persistent existence in a reinforcing virtuous cycle of sorts.

All this would imply that physical death is the termination of consciousness, as a property of the physical body. Consciousness as illusion and the role of emotions and our thoughts appear to be orthogonal issues – what matters here is that the presence of consciousness conveys a significant survivability benefit by allowing us to learn from past events.

books essay notes social

The Meritocracy Trap (2019), Daniel Markovits

I read Anand Giridharadas’ Winners Take All over the holidays, which I enjoyed immensely. This led me to Daniel Markovits’ The Meritocracy Trap in the new year, which delves in the same broad pasture, but adopts a more academic bent and broader brush, surveying history, social science and economics. I’ve tried to summarize what I think the main ideas are, mingling a paraphrasing of the book with a few of my own thoughts, along with some ideas from the first book. Both are well worth your time, imho.

I was recently thinking about why I do what I do, and inevitably, the idea of money crossed my mind. Money incentivizes activity, all kinds of activity – it motivates us collectively and as individuals, to move and then stay in motion. Perhaps much of this activity is not broadly meaningful, but a small percentage probably is, and that is enough to move civilization forward, step by step or large leaps at a time – inventions, ideas, scientific discoveries, processes, systems. As a catalyst for progress at scale, it’s hard to beat. Money is the reason that capitalism, an economic system where production exists to generate profit for the owners of capital, and the basis for the most powerful economy on earth, can exist – it establishes a direct conduit between incentives, action, and reward.

Capitalism in turn, drives the culture of meritocracy that is the foundation for so much of our economy today. My reading of meritocracy: a culture where individuals are explicitly compensated according to actual “value”, or impact on a firm’s bottom line. In a capitalist system based on production, it is contribution to profit and productivity that ultimately accrues the highest rewards, and this explains the extravagant pay of CEOs compared to other employees, made possible by how much technology has amplified the leverage of management within a company. Technology enables scale in many facets of production, and when used with capitalist intent, becomes a key component of today’s meritocracy and an enabler for wealth concentration. In my view, capitalism (money as incentive), technology (and education), and the meritocratic culture amplify and feed each other, a “virtuous” cycle of sorts.