July 2011 archive

Norway, Mental Illness, Ideology and Computer Games

Tragedy piled upon tragedy. Needless to say, I was shocked and sickened by the news emanating from Norway of the atrocities enacted by Anders Behring Breivik. But I wasn’t only outraged by his actions, but also some of the sadly predictable responses to them. So, first up:

Reality Check

Despite the impression one might get from watching the evening news over the weekend, the world most of us live in today is safer, more tolerant, more pluralist, more just and less violent than at any other period in history.

It’s easy to become despondent at the news coming from Norway (or the double whammy if you’re a fan of Amy Winehouse). But remember that if we had today’s mass media presence 500 years ago, such appalling massacres, and worse, would be documented on an almost daily basis. Today their impact is all the more poignant because of their rarity.

Yet it is in response to such tragedies that the world struggles to improve. It’s in our collective outrage at the inhumanity of individuals like Behring Breivik that we work to make the world more tolerant, more peaceful, more just. We must not let ourselves become despondent. Nor should we let ourselves become filled with retributionist rage. Instead we must use this outrage to drive us towards positive ends.

Extremism Starts with Psychology

It’s natural for us to strive to make sense of such a senseless act. One of the obvious targets is ideology. Behring Breivik was clearly charged with a radical ideology that incorporated elements of nationalism, Christianity and social conservatism. But nationalism, Christianity and social conservatism aren’t the sole cause of his actions.

It’s not extremist views that make people like Behring Breivik. It’s the other way around. It’s unstable psychology that draws people like Behring Breivik to extremist ideologies. These ideologies then reinforce whatever twisted worldview people like this have and act to facilitate and condone their actions.

Ideologies are like catalysts rather than causes. Likewise with terrorism conducted under the banner of Islam.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work tirelessly to combat extremist attitudes and ideologies. But we can’t pretend that by banning all neo-Nazi groups we will rid the world of neo-Nazi views, nor the psychological proclivities that draw some people to those views.

What we also need to target with just as high a priority is understanding the psychological proclivities and how they lead to extremist attitudes, and how to work on preventing people disposed to violence from acting on their dispositions.

What this tragedy really compels us to do is place greater focus on mental health, education, anti-extremism and, of course, tighter gun control.

Games Don’t Make Killers

S0me opportunistic reporters have latched on to a handful of comments made by Behring Breivik is his rambling manifesto to the effect that computer games were a “part of my training-simulation” to suggest that violent video games played a causal role in his horrendous acts.

This, like the above idea that ‘ideology made him do it,’ is a spurious notion that only muddies our understanding of people like Behring Breivik and makes it harder for us get to the real root of his behaviour.

The evidence suggests that games don’t turn normal people into psychopathic killers, but that individuals with a disposition towards violence are drawn to violent video games.

Games, like ideology, may also act as a catalyst, but ridding the world of violent games (or movies, or television shows, or books etc) will likely have a negligible impact on the frequency of such actions.

And comments by some startlingly ignorant commentators only steer the conversation into unfruitful territory. Consider these ruminations from the article linked to above:

The Australian Christian Lobby managing director Jim Wallace criticised O’Connor over his remarks and said that if even a few deranged minds could be “taken over the edge by an obsession with violent games” then the game should be banned.

“How can we allow the profits of the games industry and selfishness of games libertarians to place our increasingly dysfunctional society at further risk? Even if this prohibition were to save only one tragedy like this each twenty years it would be worth it.”

Mr Wallace might rethink his position if he applied the same argument to Behring Breivik’s Christian views, which might go something like this:

The Australian Christian Lobby managing director Jim Wallace criticised O’Connor over his remarks and said that if even a few deranged minds could be “taken over the edge by an obsession with violent games religion” then the game religion should be banned.

“How can we allow the profits evangelism of the games industry religion and selfishness dogma of games libertarians the faithful to place our increasingly dysfunctional society at further risk? Even if this prohibition of religion were to save only one tragedy like this each twenty years it would be worth it.”

That last sentence is particularly stinging for the likes of Mr Wallace.

A Better Way

We may never rid the world of individuals like Behring Breivik, or Timothy McVeigh, or Osama bin Laden, no matter how many of them we imprison or execute. Human psychology is fickle, ignorance and insecurity is the norm, and we now have more power to impact the around us in destructive ways than ever before.

But we also have more power to impact the world in positive ways than ever before too. And the very fact that the entire world has spoken out in horror and condemnation of Behring Breivik’s actions reminds us that, on the whole, we do believe in peace, tolerance and justice.

With continued and determined focus on: comprehensive education; encouraging mental health and treating mental illness; taking deadly weapons out of the hands of citizens; challenging extremist views; understanding extremist psychology; developing stable and sustainable economies; and encouraging healthy rational public discourse, we can and do make the world a better place.

Ultimately the likes of Behring Breivik can never turn the tide of history towards peace, tolerance and justice.

Ends and Means

I call it “pulling a Cameron,” in reference not to the present British Prime Minister, but to the broadcaster Deborah Cameron who handles the morning slot on Sydney’s ABC Radio 702.

A common refrain a few minutes in to her maddeningly predictable morning routine of following the happenings of the first several pages of the Sydney Morning Herald is to enquire of some expert or other: “what are we doing to prevent X from ever happening again?”

And by “X” I mean whatever undesirable event has appeared on the front pages, whether that’s a case of callous bullying in our schools, a death by accident or some other unsavoury turn of events.

One recent example was the tragic death of a young university student at a rural college after being thrown from an ex-racing horse that was being used to train horse riding skills. The horse was deemed safe for students yet it possessed a fierce distemper that flared on that day, throwing the student

The question posed by Cameron, seemingly predictable and justifiable in the circumstances, was along the lines of: “what are we doing to prevent more deaths of students during riding training?”

The presumption is that the outcome is unacceptable so, clearly, our current process that led to this outcome must be deficient.

Yet that’s a presumption that is unfortunately as fallacious as it is common.

For we chase outcomes on an ad hoc basis at the risk of employing processes that undermine our very intentions to produce better outcomes. In short: we focus myopically on each good or bad outcome at the danger of forgetting that it’s good processes that are of primary importance.

And even a good process – nay, the optimal process – can result in bad outcomes from time to time.

(more…)

The Limits of the Law

Alcohol can be fun stuff. But it can turn on you. Living in Sydney’s inner west, only a block from one of the highest concentration of pubs and bars in the city, I see it’s unsavoury side all-too often.

In fact, the normally convivial family-friendly disposition of Newtown’s King St turns decidedly ugly after midnight, especially on weekends. Clusters of drunken revellers, typically 20-somethings but often older, stumble around shouting, swearing, groping, imbibing kebabs of dubious repute and leaving little puddles of said kebab strategically placed on street corners.

What is truly striking is that just about everyone you encounter after midnight in the city or the inner west is in some state of drunkenness, often nearly paralytic, or as it’s commonly known around these parts: “rat-arsed.”

After midnight, our city turns into a menagerie of hominins in fancy shoes regressed to their primal roots, urged on by thoughts of sex, food and chest thumping competitiveness.

It’s undignified at best, descending into violence and public mayhem at worst.

And it exacts a cost not only in terms of throbbing heads and deep regrets the next morning. The cost is spread out on the whole of society.

(more…)

Moral Dynamics

One of the privileges of being a philosopher is you can create new terms, define them how you please, and damn be to any conventions that would have the term used otherwise. So, I’ve created a few new terms – well, at lease one is new.

Here they are, in conceptual order:

Moral Diversity: the phenomenon I’m interested in understanding and explaining, namely the existence of persistent and intractable differences of opinion over what is considered good and bad, and the norms that promote good behaviour.

A key element of Moral Diversity is moral disagreement which, if it truly is intractable, poses a problem for any realist, objectivist or generally monist approach to ethics. I would suggest that Moral Diversity is a very real phenomenon, although I acknowledge that I could be proven wrong.

Moral Ecology: the notion that moral norms are not hard-and-fast rules but strategies employed to foster in-group cooperation and out-group competition, and these norms emerge in response to the environmental conditions around them, which includes the strategies employed by other individuals and communities.

As there is no one set of norms that best promotes in-group cooperation and out-group competition in all environments, and there is no one set that forms a stable equilibrium within one environment, and because new norms will inevitably emerge and compete with existing norms, there will always be a pluralism of norms that interact in a dynamic way.

I argue that Moral Ecology is the best way to understand morality as a natural phenomenon and to explain the existence of Moral Diversity.

Moral Dynamics: the study of the moral norms within a particular environment, ostensibly with the intention of finding the optimal set of norms that will form the most stable equilibrium and which yields the aggregate outcome closes to the Pareto optimal level, while resisting invasion by new norms and behaviours, particularly ones that are inclined towards defection.

If Moral Ecology is the correct way to understand morality as a natural phenomenon, the Moral Dynamics is a new approach to studying morality, not to find the single best hard-and-fast set of rules that works in every situation, but to find the different and dynamic sets of norms that work in different environments.

OK, rip in to them.

Why Cooperate?

There’s every possibility that I’ve missed something utterly obvious, but I’ve been reading up on the fickle nature of cooperation for my thesis, and I’ve found what appears to be a gaping hole in the literature.

There are countless studies that explore the challenges of encouraging cooperation – primarily via the use of the Prisoner’s Dilemma as a tool. There are also plenty of studies that look at cooperation from a social perspective, at the motivations that individual agents employ and the psychological benefits they receive from group activity.

But I’m yet to find a paper that clearly defines what cooperation really is and, more importantly, it’s benefits.

It seems the existing studies skip the question: why cooperate?, and barrel forth into questions about the difficulty of encouraging cooperation, apparently assuming that cooperation is a universally desirable outcome. Maybe it is, but I want to know precisely what are the benefits of cooperation that makes it so attractive.

So far I’ve come up with six reasons why cooperation is deemed desirable:

1) Force multiplication

Cooperation allows two or more individuals to combine forces to perform a task that would be impossible by one individual alone. A simple example would be lifting a heavy weight (we’ve all asked friends and family to pop around to shift that couch).

In fact, the task could be defined as anything that is beyond the capacities of an individual, whether that capacity is physical (strength), intellectual or spatiotemporal (manipulating two distant objects simultaneously). This doesn’t necessarily imply an improvement to efficiency, just that a previously impossible task is rendered possible.

2) Division of labour

Cooperation enables a large task to be broken up into smaller sub-tasks which are easier to perform than the whole task taken as one. This not only makes one large complex task into smaller simple tasks, but it allows a large serial task to be parallelised, thus improving efficiency.

3) Sepcialisation

Cooperation allows individuals to devote a greater proportion of their finite resources towards improving performance at a particular task. Combined with division of labour this not only improves efficiency but can also enable tasks that were previously impossible without specialisation.

Specialisation also allows individuals to capitalise on their intrinsic strengths and mitigate their intrinsic weaknesses by cooperating with a sympathetic individual.

4) Coordination

Division of labour and specialisation in turn allow greater coordination through devoting finite resources specifically towards directing effort in a way that is more efficient than if it is undertaken on an ad hoc basis. The benefit of coordination would only emerge if the energy expended coordinating is more than made up for by increased efficiency or productivity in the task at hand (a problem for corporations riddled with middle managers today…).

Coordination can also prevent conflicts of interest and potentially costly clashes (see the donkeys in the pic).

5) Trade

Cooperation also allows one individual to ‘trade’ a surplus for a surplus produced by another individual. This trade can be literal, such as trading goods, or it can be figurative, such as trading labour.

6) Risk mitigation

Cooperation enables a task to be unshackled from being dependent on any one individual, such that if that individual is in some way prevented from performing that task, the entire endeavour doesn’t collapse around their ears.

I’m sure there must be more benefits to cooperation. I reckon economics must have studied cooperation extensively, but I’m not as familiar with economic texts, so don’t really know where to dig to find the answers. Most of my research has been in evolutionary biology, behavioural ecology, game theory and ethics, and it seems the benefits of cooperation are largely taken for granted in these fields.

If you think I’ve missed anything, or you have some tips on where I can read up on research on cooperation, please do let me know.