The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Tag: Kindness

Is Cruelty Required?

Is it possible to have a society without cruelty?

That’s really the fundamental political question. (Economics, as you know, is a subset of politics, not different from it. So it’s also the fundamental economic question.)

It’s fair to say that there has never been a major society without cruelty baked into it, at least not since the rise of agricultural kingdoms about three thousand years after the invention of agriculture. Previous societies often had a lot of violence, but it’s not clear they all did, and some hunter gatherer band level societies seem to have had little cruelty.

But every major agricultural civilization has been cruel, and so has every major industrial society, though some are less cruel than others (insert reference to Scandinavia). Even those, however, are enmeshed in a system of industrial production that is, at best, exploitative, as in the case of conflict minerals, low paid workers, killed union organizers, and so on. Because it is not possible to run a decent society in the modern work in autarchy, even relatively kind societies are enmeshed in economic arrangements that cause great suffering hundreds to thousands of miles from them.

Cruelty is endemic even in good societies in the sense that our fundamental economic relationships are based on coercion; if you don’t work for someone else, probably doing something you wouldn’t do without the whip of poverty at your heels, and under supervision, well, you will have a bad life. School is based on coercion; do what you’re told when you’re told, or else, and so is work for most people.

That’s just the way our societies work, and while details vary, it’s more or less how they’ve worked since agriculture. Oh, the peasant may not have had close supervision, but they gave up their crops, labor, and lives under threat of violence, and they knew it well.

Even positive incentives are coercive. Get good grades and you’ll get a good job, etc… Please the mast… er, I mean, boss, yes, boss, and you may get a raise.

But a great deal of real cruelty lies behind the positive coercion in our major societies. American jails are startlingly cruel, filled with violence, rape, and fear. Chinese prisons aren’t so nice either. Police exist to throw you out of your house if you fail to pay the rent, which some double digit percentage of Americans are about to experience, because their society has mishandled an epidemic.

Sell cigarettes without the sanction of the state and your last words may be, “I can’t breathe.”

Our societies are based on positive and negative incentives. The amount of each varies with time and place. Finland right now has a lot more positive, and a lot less negative and a lot less consequences for disobeying. 50 years ago, the US put a lot less people in jail and gave those it allowed good jobs (white males) much better, nicer lives.

But there’s still always that threat in the background. And it’s always based on cruelty: “Bad things will happen to you, either actively or passively if you don’t go along.”

Now there are things we need to get done, collectively, in society. Build and maintain housing, grow and distribute food, keep the internet running (these days), but how much cruelty and coercion is required to do those necessary things? How much do you have to threaten people to get them to do those things? How cruel do you have to be to them if they don’t do them?

But another problem is that most of the coercion and cruelty in our societies has nothing to do with creating necessities like food and shelter and medicine and internet.

It has to do with making sure that some people have far more than they need, and others have far less. That some people have good lives with little coercion, while others live in constant fear. One problem with the boss, you lose your job, and you wind up homeless or in prison, and then even more terrible things happen.

Terrible things that are meant to happen, of course. We could lock up a lot fewer people and treat those few far better. We have more empty homes than homeless people and throw out at least a third of our food. No one need go hungry or homeless, and as for the internet, well, ISPs make close to 100 percent profit, so yeah, I’m pretty sure there’s no reason anyone should go without basic internet access.

So the cruelty in our societies is a choice. We can feed and house everyone, give everyone health care and have plenty left over, but we want billionaires and huge militaries or something, so we’re cruel. We’re cruel in the small details of everyday life (those maste…, er bosses) and we’re cruel in how we structure life, and it’s all a choice we’ve made.

Is it necessary? Must we be cruel? If we must be cruel, how cruel? What cruelty is actually needed, how much is just a preference or only required because we want very unequal societies?

Are we cruel of necessity?

Or desire?

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What the Tao Teaches Us About the Good Society’s Devolution to the Bad

In the Tao Te Ching there is a famous passage, as follows:

When a truly kind man does something, he leaves nothing undone.
When a just man does something, he leaves a great deal to be done.
When a disciplinarian does something and no one responds,
He rolls up his sleeves in an attempt to enforce order

Therefore when Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is kindness.
When kindness is lost, there is justice.
When justice is lost, there is ritual.
Now ritual is the husk of faith and loyalty, the beginning of confusion.

The idea that when one is in the Tao nothing is done causes a lot of confusion. This is a psychological / physical state, where there is no feeling of effort. One takes the actions appropriate to the circumstance without any sense of doing anything, even though things are still done. Because this is a very clear mental state, what is appropriate tends to be obvious.

The key word, for social ethics, however is “appropriate.” What is appropriate isn’t always what is good, but what is good makes up the vast majority of what is appropriate.

When one no longer knows what is appropriate, one devolves to the good and is still doing most of what should be done.

Kindness makes up most of what is good, so when one loses what is good, one devolves to kindness and retains most of what is good.

Losing kindness, one retreats to justice. The loss here is steep. Justice is maybe half of what is kind, because justice without kindness is about balance and tends to not restore people, but punish them: “an eye for an eye” and all that.

And then there is ritual, and ritual, in this context, is without any of the higher virtues, and thus leads to injustice, cruelty and evil, because it has lost almost all of appropriateness: it simply accepts that action A should lead to action B, and that will often be the wrong action, unguided by appropriateness, goodness, kindness or even justice.

I would add that when even ritual is lost; when people no longer obey the rules and are guided by no sense of ethics, that all chances of a good society and good results are lost.

Regular readers will know that I tend to emphasize kindness as a golden rule. I think it’s the highest guiding star the vast majority of people in our society can use: most people still know how to act kind, they just don’t do it and they have many justifications for not doing so. But they do know what it is, with exceptions like warped market disciples, libertarians, and so on, who are so identified with ritual ideologies (market outcomes are just) that they cannot see when they are not even that.

The reform of society comes through the proper use of ritual, ironically. You work your way back up. Ritual done right attaches appropriate emotions to appropriate circumstances to appropriate objects of attention, and once that is the case, one can climb back up the ladder. Indeed, done right, one can jump past justice back to kindness.

But only when done right. Ritual is an obsidian knife: It cuts everything and it’s dangerous, and it’s only a useful tool when both made and used just right. Only someone operating at a level higher than ritual can design rituals which will do more good than harm.

In the meantime, unless you’ve been deformed by the wrong ideology, you probably still understand kindness. I suggest living there. It’s also a rather nice place to live.

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My Friend Peter

Peter was the kindest man I ever met. I moved into his old house one winter in the early nineties. Rent was $235/month, there was a shared kitchen and showers and seven tenants. On the ground floor lived the landlord — Peter, and his Japanese wife.

I lived there three years. They were thin, cold years for me. Sometimes I was employed—as a bike courier, a dispatcher, a mover, a baker, a painter, or anything else I could find. Other times I scrabbled from day job to day job, helping anyone who needed it for cash on the barrelhead. There were some grim months on welfare, some trips to the food bank, even a few meals at the soup kitchen. I was rousted a couple times by rent-a-cops as “undesirable” (read: looking like a bum).

My clothes were threadbare, and I would look in the mirror and I could already see myself at fifty, living the same hand to mouth, job-to-job life.

Through it all, two people helped me, two people stuck by me and never made me feel worthless. One of them was Peter. Peter let me work a lot of my rent off with jobs around the house. I painted this or that, under careful supervision I did plumbing work, I shoveled snow, and I laid bricks. Peter taught me how to learn — he’d show me how to do something, tell me to, “Do it right, and take your time, because if you do it fast first, you’ll never ever do it right.” And those months when I was late on rent, those months when I was mortified to be on welfare – he cut me slack and he never made me feel small.

Peter was old. He had been born in Germany. And he had fought for Hitler.

He liked to talk about his life — and quite a life it had been. He’d been a spy for the CIA after the fall, until the day his handler cut him loose when he was fleeing from what would become East Germany, pursued by Soviet troops. “Not willing to risk an incident,” said his handler. “Not willing to keep spying for you,” said Peter. He had been a stage manager, had been Volkswagen’s chief North American tester, had been a translator and had broken codes, among many, many other things.

Peter said, and I believed, that his family had been opposed to the Nazis. His father had been a VP at Siemens and when Peter was caught, at a youth camp, listening to Allied broadcasts, he was able to save his son and have him assigned to a prison camp (no, not that type of prison camp) commandant as an aide. While there, Peter got himself in more trouble and wound up in the camp jail for a couple of days. The cells in that camp faced each other, with a row of bars in between. The prisoner across from him was a gypsy man and they spent two days playing cards and talking. At the end of it, the prisoner said, “Today I will be hung as a partisan. You seem like a good man, so I want to ask you if after the war you will go tell my people.”

Peter agreed, and the gypsy continued. “They think I am a partisan leader – someone other than I am. I haven’t told them they’re wrong. What I want you to do, after the war, is go tell my people that I died for this man.”

As the war ground on, the Germans began to run into severe manpower shortages. Other young teenagers Peter’s age were drafted and sent into occupation duties, where they served alongside older veterans. Peter was drafted and sent to France.

He said there was very little real resistance in his district; or, as far as he could tell, most of France – just one sniper they chased in desultory fashion and never caught – the chasing mostly involving staying absolutely silent and still at night while waiting for a muzzle flash at which to aim.

One day, he went through a French hospital town. Because it was used to care for injured soldiers, it had never been bombed. While there, he and a comrade saw Allied bombers overhead. The French pointed up and said, “Look, our planes!” Peter screamed at them to get into the bomb shelters, but most of them didn’t. After all, they were their planes. Peter and his friend got in a shelter, then the bombs started falling. A lot of the French who had wondered at those planes didn’t survive that day.

He also went through Dresden the day after the bombing. But he never described what he saw there to me.

I asked Peter why he left Germany and emigrated to Canada. His reply was, “Everyone pretended they didn’t know what had been going on. We all knew. I couldn’t live there anymore.”

I lived with Peter for three years and when I left he told me two things. One was a piece of advice on living life: “Never do the same job for more than five years, Ian, you won’t be happy if you do.” (He was right, as I found out the hard way. Wisdom, they say, is learning from other people’s mistakes. I’ve never been wise.)

The second thing he said was, “My family has a custom where every year we pick out someone to help and do so for the entire year, and sometimes longer. We know we do harm all the time. It’s not balance. But we hope it makes up.”

But it wasn’t just one person. I never saw Peter act meanly or unkindly. I never saw him treat anyone but with dignity. I never saw anyone who needed a kindness Peter could give who didn’t get it.

That man, who fought for Hitler, might have been the best man I’ve ever met.

(Back to the top, as I was thinking of Peter today – Ian.)

(Originally posted April 18, 2010.)

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Clio, the Muse of History

Heaven on Earth: The Kindness Maxim

In the past, I have noted that kindness is generally the best policy and always the best policy default. If you don’t have an ironclad reason not to be kind, be kind.

Let’s run through this.

People who are treated badly, become bad. The abused grow up to abuse. The sick make others sick and cannot contribute to society. Happy people are better to be around. Prosperous people can afford your products and services.

Happy, healthy, loving, and prosperous people are the people we want in our societies.

We evolved in bands. Forty to fifty people running around the Savannah. We would have been friendly to some other bands (those with whom we shared ancestors) and we were hostile to most other humans, who were our competitors. The level of hostility varied with carrying capacity; if resources were short because of too many humans, quite hostile, otherwise not very.

We did not evolve to take into consideration the needs of large groups of people. In order to do so, we evolved cultural methods: fictive kinship, culture, story, myth, and religion. These things created fictional identities which went beyond people we knew of or saw every day.

Theses are all hacks for a fundamental evolutionary problem: We’ve evolved to be pretty good to those we see all the time, and not to care much about people we don’t.

This was fine when were just a particularly clever animal. Even when we got to the point of making wholesale changes to the environment (usually through agriculture), the worst we could do is ruin a local ecosystem–we couldn’t mess up the world.

But, today, for good or ill, we live in that “interconnected world” and the “global society” everyone talks about. What happens to someone in Nigeria, Brazil, or China matters to me. Their happiness, their health, their prosperity affects mine.

And how they affect the environment affects me, too. How I, a first-worlder with a huge carbon footprint, affect the environment, affects them.

Their well-being affects mine. It is in my interest for them to be better off.

This isn’t what you’ve been told. Economics treats the world as a zero-sum game, a matter of managing scarcity.

The world has scarcities: resources, dumps for pollution like carbon, etc. But civilization isn’t, usually, a zero sum game. Instead, it’s usually negative sum or positive sum, or both. For some time for Westerners, and a few other developed nations, it has been positive sum, and there have been many other periods of positive-sum games.

My win is everyone else’s win.

Creating a good society requires both managing actual scarcities and understanding that actual scarcities are scarce, and that most things people want to do are positive sum. It requires turning most of what we do into positive-sum games. A good society is one in which “your win is my win” is made true far more often than not.

“We win together” is a prescriptive statement which must be made into a descriptive statement. (It is also a descriptive statement in general, because if my win isn’t your win more often than not, we don’t live in a good world.)

So humans must see beyond their identities, their tribes, and their nations, to treat all humans as people whom we want to be healthy, happy, prosperous, and loving. For their sakes and for our sakes.

But there is an additional step required to create a good society, a good world, a good civilization.

We must care for non-human life.

The mass-death of trees and plankton affects you, it affects me. The mass death of fish affects you, it affects me. The destruction of marshlands causes floods and reduces water quality; it affects you, and it affects me. Ecosystem collapse—well, you get it.

The problem here is that I’ve given you the rational argument.

Rationality is marginal. It’s not that humans can’t be rational, it’s that rationality is the lesser part of why we do things or how we make decisions. We make decisions based on emotions, and those emotions are based on our ideologies and identities.

Rationality, or “reason,” allows us to weasel out of doing the right thing too often. It is a tool for our emotions; emotions which right now scream: “My interests, my ideology, my identity, my people matter MOST!”

For a good world to exist, we must feel that other humans should be treated kindly simply because it is the right thing to do. We should be revolted by anyone going hungry, anyone being tortured, anyone being raped. The moment we think “They had it coming,” we’re on the wrong track. (Punishment is not the point, removing the ability of bad actors to continue to act badly is.)

And this principle needs to be extended to non-human life. We need to feel bad when animals are dying in large numbers and going extinct–bad enough to do something about it. We need to instinctively, by default, move to protect them. We should be as revolted by images of dolphins being slaughtered as we are by humans being slaughtered. If we kill for meat (and I eat meat), we should insist it be done humanely.

This must be based on values, principles, and identity, of feeling that humans and animals and even plants are all alive–and because they are alive, they must be treated with respect.

There are sound, pragmatic reasons for doing so; there are also sound moral reasons for doing so (read the Hidden Life of Trees). Anyone who doesn’t think most animals don’t feel pain, or don’t suffer, is on a profoundly unethical, immoral track.

This is the right thing to do, morally and pragmatically, and if we don’t figure out how to do it, we’re little better than bacteria that grow until they destroy their own environment and experience a great die-off.

Be kind. It creates the world you want to live in, and it may well save your life and the lives of those you claim to care about. By granting life the love you reserve only for a few, you give those few (and yourself, as it happens) their best chance at long life and prosperity–and grant it to your descendants as well.

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The Culture of Meanness

One of the most striking things about much of American culture is the simple meanness of it. The cruelty.

Most of this seems to come down to three feelings:

  • My life sucks. I have to work a terrible job I hate in order to survive. I have to bow and scrape and do shit I don’t want to do. You should have to as well.
  • Anyone who doesn’t make it must not be willing to suffer as I do, therefore anyone who doesn’t make it deserves to be homeless, go without food, and so on.
  • Anybody who is against us needs to be hurt and humiliated, because that’s how I see my superiors deal with people who go against them.

“Life is shit, therefore your life should be shit.”

“What you’ve got is what you deserve.”

There is also a culture of punching down, as commenter Lisa has observed. America has a high-violence, high-bullying society. As Lisa noted you can have a high-violence society in which it is considered unacceptable to attack the weak (doing so is viewed as cowardice), but that’s not the case in America.

In American culture, the weak are the preferred target. Failure is punishable by homelessness, suffering, and death.  Sick people sure don’t deserve proper pain medication. Poor people are poor because they “don’t add value.” If you’re poor, you definitely shouldn’t have good healthcare, because if you don’t have money, you don’t deserve money, and that’s because you’re a waste of space.

This appears to be a result of something simple: At every stage of American life, it’s a zero or negative sum game, and who gets ahead is decided by authority figures. Need to get into a good university? You need good grades from adults, you need to have done the right extra-curricular activities, you need references from adults.

On the job, only a few people will be promoted, and the competition is fierce. But worse, in many fields, people are often let go, and the competition to avoid getting fired or laid off is severe.

Who decides? Your boss. You’d better get down on your knees and do whatever your boss wants, because if you’re fired or let go you may never work again, and if you do hang on at a bottom-wage job, well, your life will suck.

When dealing with police, the constant American attitude is OBEY. If you don’t obey, then whatever the police do to you is justified. The police are like bosses in a way. One cop can ruin your life, even if you aren’t killed, beaten, or raped by them. A criminal record means you will never have a good job again.


On your knees, citizen.

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And as my friend Stirling once noted, the next demand after, “Kneel!” is, “On your belly, worm.”

Failure to comply means your advancement is over, and maybe your job.

Americans are desperate for the approval of those in power, because without it, they are destroyed. This is true to a lesser extent in many other Western societies, certainly in Britain.

Having learned that the right way to treat anyone who is weaker than them is with demands for acquiescence and dominance displays, to many Americans, to interpret any sign of weakness as requiring them, as a moral duty, to dominate and hurt the weak person.

People become what is required of them. They learn from authority figures how to behave.

The desperate need of certain demographics to keep, say, women or certain minorities down is part of this. These people need to know that there are some people who, no matter how degraded their own situation, are always lower than them, can always be beaten down.

Contrary what many right-wingers think, dominance structures aren’t innate to humanity. Evidence supports that, for most of human existence, we were hopelessly egalitarian. But surplus combined with scarcity changes that, as do large populations.

Still, while high-density agricultural and industrial societies are innately more inequal than paleolithic hunter-gathers, there is plenty of variation, and within that variation plenty more variation as regards to the level of meanness and cruelty–how much a culture can be defined as “bullying.” In the modern, Western world, America ranks high as a mean, bullying culture.

The effects of this cascade, and can be seen as high up as America’s constant wars, drone assassinations, and the routine torture in prisons, and as low down as cities passing by-laws that the homeless can’t be fed or the desperate competition amongst parents and school-children for those few elite university slots which virtually ensure one’s future.

The entire process makes America a far more unpleasant place to live or visit than is necessary. The structure of dominance, meanness and cruelty is palpable to the visitor, and distressing; even as it warps the best inhabitant.

I find myself without a real conclusion. Obviously (I hope), this is BAD. Obviously it should change. But it’s hard to change something that people have taken and turned into a moral imperative: Be mean to the weak and poor, who deserve their fates. Kick down, kiss up, because a failure to pucker up can have you thrown out of the charmed circle, and obviously higher-ups want to see you acting like them, imitation being the most sincere form of flattery.

It’s all very depressing, all very unnecessary, and all very much in the interests of the people who run your society.  Meanness in the chattel means they can rarely get together to challenge the masters, because they hate each other more than they hate the masters.

Kindness is a revolutionary act.

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