The Ungrateful Host

A story by Carl Anthony (used with permission)

A man with a good job and comfortable life who lives alone feels like his life lacks meaning. So, he decides to do something radical. Every Friday after work he invites some of the homeless people he sees every day to his modest apartment for a warm dinner, and listens to whatever they have to say. This provides food, warmth, and human contact to his guests, and some social connection and purpose for him.

Things go well. The guests become real people to him, with names and incredible stories, and far less scary than they once were. There is even hope that this might, in some way, help one or two get off the street: ideas are sparked in conversation, connections are discovered between people they know, and the more they see each other as human beings, the more they renew their own faith in humanity.

From time to time things go missing from the apartment after these Friday visits, but this was to be expected, and is nothing compared to the man’s original worst fear of people lining up day and night in front of his door asking for handouts.

But then, he starts to see a pattern. People from a certain part of the city, who dress a certain way which he can now discern, appear to be stealing far more than the rest. What should he do? He is torn, because any solution he can think of on his own feels like it will be unfair to someone.

Alone in his apartment, he finds it hard to sleep.

This is where the story ends. The parallels to both everyday situations and current events are obvious, but in philosophy it can be nice to stick with a simplified version of a situation as a laboratory to test ideas.

At first I wondered, what was unfair about just continuing the Friday dinners and simply ignoring the losses, but then I considered the host, and how unfair it can feel when we think that someone is taking advantage of us.

So, my breakdown of his options was as follows:

  1. Do nothing. Things can be replaced. People are more important.
  2. Keep an eye on those you suspect, or everyone, so no one has the chance to steal.
  3. Search suspected guests, or everyone, before they leave.
  4. Stop inviting those who seem to steal more frequently.
  5. Cancel the Friday dinners.

All good laws, rules, and policies find the best possible balance between the prevention of harm, and the limitation of freedom. The extremes of either (trying to prevent all possible harm, or trying to limit all freedom) are positively suffocating to both society and individuals.

But, all of my options fell flat with me. We start with a risky action, done with good intentions, which initially improves the well-being of all involved. Then, after the negative actions of a minority, we end up having to decide which innocent party will suffer most in the future. Why do all the most obvious options result in punishing someone who is innocent?

It is like our choice only revolves around choosing who gets the short end of the stick:

  • the host, who covers the loses;
  • some or all of the “good” guests, who lose their dignity when they are watched or searched; or
  • innocent members of the so-called “bad” group which seems to be taking advantage of the situation.

All choices can lead to bitterness over time, which can then result in drastic action by normal people who are just fed up. For example, if the host takes all loses upon himself, he might eventually see the whole thing as pointless and cancel the Friday dinners, despite all the good that has come from them.

Maybe we could create some sort of chart to measure the economic and emotional cost of all the options, and try to choose the best one based on that, but we often can’t even agree on how to measure such things. Everything is either too “coldly rational” to represent a human being’s actual experience, or too “emotional and subjective” to be useful in more than one specific scenario.

I was at a loss to find a better strategy for handling this situation, and started to feel pessimistic about the similar but more complex versions of this problem we face in everyday life. But then, as I struggled with the title of the story, the Ungrateful Host, (not the Ungrateful Guests), I wondered if I had missed something completely.

This may be just my interpretation, but the man starts off alone, and ends up alone, and there is no good reason he should be. He was ignoring the great resource of the community he had become a part of, and by seeing himself as alone he was throwing away an opportunity.

Here, all parties involved could be active subjects in the conversation, but we often reduce people to objects of the conversation: people to be dealt with, punished, protected, etc. In this story, the homeless people might have had a unique insight into the situation, explained things with a new perspective, and even provided some innovative solutions.

Maybe the best thing would have been to find a way to talk to the guests, to ask them for help, and to fight relentlessly for all voices to be heard in a fair way (also no easy task). This is the opportunity the host missed, and though it seems a bit harsh, maybe that is why it is he who is “ungrateful”.

Taboo or not: subtle, verifiable differences in ability or intelligence among genders and races

I have been reading about this recently, partially because of the protests against Charles Murray. I was curious. Gender and race differences are socially acceptable when speaking about sports, but not when speaking about intelligence – as if to say we can be different visually and physically, but not in any other way. Why?

I understand that statistics can be abused by ignorant people with an agenda to promote sexist and racist views, but the reality is that test results show such a large overlap in all categories, that it impossible to generalise about any one individual. This means that in athletics, leadership positions, and specific technical fields there can be a higher representation of any given gender or race, but if you compare any two individuals and you cannot say anything for certain.

An extreme misunderstanding and exaggeration of these differences can lead to sexism and racism, but the extreme of trivialising and ignoring all these differences can lead to unfairness: not treating people as equals on an individual basis, but giving them an advantage or disadvantage based on whatever group we say they belong to. It fascinates me that some are so afraid of the first extreme, but not the second.

The second extreme is a genuine solution if you assume that we are actually unwilling or incapable of treating people as equals, and must be forced to do so. Interestingly, there is a chance that if you hold this view long enough and have enough influence, the “Pygmalion effect” can prove you right. Tested in the classroom, this effect showed that a strong expectation by the teacher regarding the good or bad potential performance of young students, when maintained over a sufficient period time, usually led to the expected results. It is scary to think that if this applies equally to social interactions, it means that if we forcefully “see” sexism and racism everywhere, and with enough conviction, we could actually create it.

But, if you think that people are generally good and give them the benefit of the doubt with regard to their intentions, here is another view: some differences can be accounted for by “nurture” (upbringing, social conditions and pressures, and education), and some by “nature” (inherited potential from genes, and/or extraordinary inherent potential, i.e. the “genius factor”). The specific ratio between the two is unknown, so intelligence or ability testing measures an unknown portion of both.

What I learned about testing:

  • results of testing depend on how you define “intelligence”, and what kind(s) of intelligence you are measuring
  • testing can be biased, and results can depend on who created the test
  • if you keep the test exactly the same, the results for any group can change every generation (usually going up about every 20-25 years)
  • the divides between gender and race in any field of expertise, from intellectual to manual labour, are partly determined by “nurture” (see above) and “nature” (see above), but also by personal preference (from a complex combination of life experiences).
  • entering any field or area of expertise, from athletic to intellectual to manual labour intensive, may require some minimum level of ability (mental and/or physical), but the most successful in a field do not necessarily have the highest ability scores; overall success is strongly connected to other factors like ambition, discipline, and determination.
  • because of the complicated nature of most professions, intelligence in one area can only indicate the probability of high performance in another (e.g. high mathematical intelligence and being a good architect); no one factor can predict overall success

Perhaps we should be fighting for a healthy form of capitalism, in which employers are looking to hire the best people to create the most successful teams, and must therefore look at people individually, case-by-case, because a good candidate is a complicated combination of ability, desire, will, resilience, etc. These qualities can be cultivated over time, so personal history matters, and they must be taken into account.

Testing can show small differences when we sample large enough numbers of people. Acknowledging this statistical fact is not sexist or racist, and does not determine individual outcomes – personal character is a much greater predictor. Making sweeping generalisations based on this information is ignorant.

There are still cases where sexism and racism create barriers, and even cases where intimidation is a factor (e.g. reluctance to enter an environment where you are the only representative of your “group”). I believed the percentage of all such cases were going down because of healthy market competition and growing social awareness, but recent media stories have me wondering whether we are taking a step backwards. I don’t know. In any case, we need to stay vigilant, especially in raising children to understand that the opportunities are there, but require hard work; that there will be personal challenges; and that all people must be treated fairly and with dignity.

There will always be differences in the way various groups (however you determine them) are represented in any area, and sometimes this shows how healthy a society is, not how sick.

A Tale of Two Giants – Harris meets Peterson

On January 2 and March 13 Jordan Peterson was a guest on Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast. The particular styles of these two are very unique and charismatic, so the talk was burdened by great anticipation and expectations for something extraordinary to happen.

When their starting points seemed so incompatible, many wanted to know which of them was “right”. But, sometimes people can say differing things and both be “right”, like two people on opposite points of a map who are asked which direction leads to the mountain in the centre. I don’t mean this to be the kind of relativism that says, “Everyone is right in their own way, because everything is subjective,” because I think the mountain in the centre of their conversation is objectively there, and worth climbing. When one points east and the other points west, a look at the intended destination can at least yield some fruit.

I admit that sometimes this effort is a waste of time and energy, but you can only find out after the fact. Bridging the gap and creating some kind of unifying and complete context between views involves facts (pure information), empathy (an emotional understanding of someone’s motivation), and creativity (which occasionally “stretches” the truth too much). Finally, we must combat bias and information overload. This is a lot to ask.

In Peterson and Harris’ first conversation they struggled with “truth”. Harris insisted on an empirical, objective definition of truth before taking any further steps in a conversation on reality. Peterson insisted on measuring “how true something is” by its ultimate effect on our survival. Harris provided abstract, thought-experiment type examples to clarify (a typical philosophical tool). Peterson countered that these were “micro examples” (too far removed from reality to ascertain whether or not they truly contributed to our net survival). It was like watching two athletes trying to play two different sports at the same time.

Perhaps Peterson’s insistence on measuring a given “truth” by its impact on us and our survival was a “move” (in the game) which would have allowed him to argue in favour of preserving some mythological and religious narratives, because of their potential positive psychological benefits to us and our survival. This kind of initial position allows these narratives to be “true” for us regardless of how true they are in an empirical or factual sense – so the way we “live” these stories matters more than our scientific understanding of them.

Heidegger argues similarly, saying that a botanical analysis of a beautiful field is “less true” than what a person experiences when walking through it in real-time; we “truly” understand things by “living” them, and we are fooling ourselves if we think we can stand outside of reality and time as impartial observers. This is the basis of the conflict between an objective, scientific perspective (the Enlightenment’s ultimate authority) and a “lived” perspective (which Heidegger’s phenomenology values somewhat more, and has now been co-opted by some of postmodernism as the “only” perspective).

Another way of looking at it is through the lens of chess. Losing a queen for a pawn is objectively bad, but making this sacrifice to achieve check-mate is objectively good. On one level it is “true” that this is a bad move (empirically, if we take the move out of time, and out of the context of a “lived” game being played), while on another level this is a good move (because it led to the victory, or “survival”, of our pieces). Though this might hover too closely to utilitarianism, which would kill a few to save many, it partially illustrates the idea.

Or, take the rehabilitation of a drug addict. What is the most effective method? Give facts about the biochemical damage to the body, sociological statistics on quality of life, and psychological information about drug abuse in society and its effects on others, OR provide a compelling narrative the addict must live out by surrendering a part of himself to become an archetypal hero of his own story? It depends on the addict. Harris gives the facts, outside of emotion. Peterson gives the narrative, full of emotion. Successful recovery stories vary, like the directions of travellers, but there seems to be a common mountain they are heading towards.

For me, the “mountain” or common goal of these two men is to empower people against the darkness of that specific ignorance which comes from false ideas backed by dangerous ideologies; for us to reclaim the life that is our birthright. But, while Harris wants to suck the power out of potentially damaging narratives and destroy them before they do any more harm, Peterson wants to focus the latent potential energy in some of them to propel us to new (and sometimes forgotten) heights.

They both have followers who genuinely benefit from their respective approaches, and also followers who just want to be on the right “team”, so they can lash out at and bash others. Many who did just that obviously did not notice the civility expressed by both Sam and Jordan in their sometimes frustrating conversation; in their sincere desire to converge, and their willingness to do a potentially painful round two. Peterson was at a disadvantage, though, because he seemed to see the exchange as important, and probably hoped to have an impact on an influential intellectual. Harris, on the other hand, was able to just sit back and try to learn why people wanted so much for them to speak in the first place.