Tuesday, April 15, 2008

They missed the obvious solution

My boys and I were watching a show on National Geographic Channel called Naked Science (not sure why it is called that). This episode covered the entire lifespan of the sun. After tracking the past 5+ billion years since it was formed, the show goes on to discuss what happens in the next billion as the sun continues to warm and expand.

The show observes that conditions on the earth will change dramatically as the temperature rises some 60 degrees in this time. The voice concludes that only a handful of humans, possibly living underground, will survive this long. My oldest boy looks over at me and asks the question that had just popped into my mind: "Don't you think, if they really believed in evolution, that they would just assume that life would evolve? One billion years is a long time."

He's right, you know.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


This is my 100th post.

The Masters

Golf fascinates me, because I cannot play the game consistently. However, I also cannot watch it on television for very long. Except for the Masters. I look forward to the tournament every year, and watch every minute of it that I can. I think it is because there is, on this course, the potential for so much drama. The layout is stunningly beautiful, the holes so unforgiving of mistakes, and the greens so treacherous, that you never know what is going to happen. Yet, if you play well, you can conquer the cource. I remember watching Greg Norman futilely attempting to keep his ball in the green on 15 (I think), watching two straight pitches spin back off the green, along with his chances of winning this tournament. I remember watching Tiger Woods so dominate the course that they had to redesign it before the next year.

This year, it was a pleasure watching Trevor Immelman hold up under the pressure of knowing that Tiger Woods, while not playing very well, was still managing not to give up strokes like everyone else. Now I love watching Tiger win, don't get me wrong; but watching Immelman make the shot, even after dropping one in the water on 16, not caving when you could see the tension in his shoulders; that was great drama. And it proved that Augusta National is not impossible - he won, not because he got lucky, but because he played solidly. He lead the field in driving accuracy and putting. If you don't make mistakes, Augusta doesn't punish you. That's a better deal than you get in life.

Even if you never watch golf, you should watch the Masters. If you don't know the game, watch with someone who does. Then, after watching Saturday, go to a driving range and hit a few balls, then putt on the practice surface so that you understand just how difficult the game really is. Then sit back on Sunday and watch as everyone struggle not to make a mistake under the pressure of knowing that every mistake will be magnified as you strive for the dream of everyone who has ever picked up a golf club - the green jacket of a Master's winner.

Not that he'll ever see it, but congratulation Trevor. You deserve it, and you were a pleasure to watch.

From whence cometh it?

After two days, I remain satisfied that my moral framework provides adequate coverage; that is, it outlines the broad strokes of what I believe to be a moral standard that men and women can live their lives by. I hope to track down some of the finer details as I go along, but today I just want to investigate the possible origin of this code.

Obviously, at one level it comes from Porter Stansberry. But Stansberry's original point is that he sees his version of the moral code as self-evident. I even think, given the caveats in my second post, that he would believe this of my extended version as well. But is it self-evident? Is it, in his words, truly "objective?"

There is at least one way in which this standard is undeniably objective, and I believe it is probably the reason Porter felt confident in his original assertion. It is clear to me that every human being on the planet would want this standard of behavior to apply to those with whom they have a business relationship. They might not expect it to actually happen, but if they did expect" fair play," they would expect this very behavior. Things get more complicated in other relationships; but in business dealings, we all certainly desire, even if we don't anticipate, this sort of fair dealing.

Now, why would business relationships have this interesting characteristic of serving to clarify moral dealings between humans? I contend that it is because there is the expectation that a business deal is supposed to be entered into by two parties that want to maximize the benefit each receives from the transaction. That is, when I enter into a business deal, my goal should be to maximize my benefit; and I expect the same from my partner. Business works best when both parties believe that they have received maximum value from the transaction. If it turns out that each party feels this way, then there is an incentive to repeat the deal again in the future. Thus, a fair business deal maximizes long-term benefit by reducing the work of finding a good deal in the future. Once you have found a good partner, you no longer need to search for one.

Thus, it is the case that business relationships have the clearest incentive for mutual benefit.

Please note that I am not saying that every business deal redounds to the shared mutual benefit of both parties. Nor am I saying that no one tries to take advantage of the other party in business. What I am saying is that there is a powerful incentive in business dealings to find a place of mutual benefit and fair play consistent with the morality I outlined. And so it is in this arena that we can most clearly believe that such a moral code is in some real way "objective."

But that's not really true, is it? Let's be honest, what we really want in a business relationship is one in which the benefit clearly accrues to our side, with a partner that simply doesn't recognize that they are at a disadvantage. Then, we get our share, and part of theirs as well. If you don't believe me, think of some area where you have great passion. Then imagine having to enter into a partnership with someone who stands in opposition to you passionately-held belief. If you must be in this partnership, you are going to want to have the maximum benefit to your side, and you do not care whether the other side gains anything at all, as long as they believe they are gaining benefit, so that you can continue to take advantage of them for as long as possible. See?

So even here, where the advantages of a mutually beneficial pact are clear, most, if not all people will choose an unequal relationship if one presents itself. Nonetheless, we all know that we desire such behavior be exhibited towards us. Where does such an expectation and desire come from? Does it arise from an evolutionary advantage, or does it come from somewhere else?

I just wish enough people read my blog to generate comments. Oh, well.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Micro and Macro

Dennis Prager, one of my heroes, speaks of the distinction between micro and macro in issues of ethics and morality. What this means is that there must be a difference in our behavior with regard to individuals versus larger groups. To quote the greatest movie of all time: "You use different moves against groups than you do against just one person." Similarly, the correct, or moral behavior of an organization is necessarily different in many cases than the expected, appropriate behavior of an individual.

The example Prager gives is pacifism. It is popular for people to quote Jesus' call for his followers to turn the other cheek in support of the notion that war is anti-Christian - that Jesus would have been against whatever war the speaker is also against. But this confuses two very different types of ethics - what Dennis refers to as the micro and the macro. In the micro level, that is, in interpersonal relationships, Jesus' demand provides a model for a more civil society. It is inaccurate, however, to try and apply this statement to nation-states. While we may differ on whether any particular violent action by a nation is moral, very few believe that all violence is inappropriate at all times.

As I have thought more about the 3-part morality that I developed in my last article, I am beginning to see that some of this very confusion crept into my own thinking. In the macro level, when dealing with organizations, Stansberry's original 2-part morality is probably adequate. It is only in interpersonal relationships that we should require positive action, or kind behavior. There are, I believe, several reasons for this.
  1. Organizations exist for a specific purpose. If they are businesses, they exist to provide a product or service and make a profit. If they are governments, they exist for the purposes outlined in their founding documents.
  2. Organizations which do not focus on fulfilling their purpose are inefficient. Inefficient organizations eventually fail. Admittedly, this is a very capitalist interpretation, but I'm a capitalist. In the last several years, there have been countless books devoted to the notion of focusing an organization on fulfilling their "Primary Purpose." Likely, this is because of the constant pull within our culture for organizations to be more "socially aware." The only reason for an organization to be socially-aware is if not doing so would affect their bottom line.
  3. There is a class of exceptions, if you will, to this rule: charitable and public-service organizations. Except that they aren't really an exception, as their purpose is to provide positive service to society. So they are doing the right thing when they are "kind," that is why they exist.
Two conclusions fall naturally from these observations. First, the great distinction between the morality of a person and that of an organization is that individuals should be pro actively kind. More on that on later (as in another post). Second, organizations that attempt to be "kind" run the risk of failing at both their organizational purpose and at being kind, leaving nothing behind.

One great place to see that this is true is in the pages of Reader's Digest. They have a frequent section on "Everyday Heroes" in which they laud the kindness of some individual or another. They also run stories on organizations which have a positive reputation. If you look closely at the stories of the organizations, you will find that there is always a single person, or at most a very small group of people, who's individual actions are the source of the positive organizational action. And you never find that the everyday heroism of the individuals is ever motivated, and rarely even facilitated, by an organization. For it is people who are kind, not companies.

I stand corrected.

Final note: The quote in the first paragraph is, of course, from The Princess Bride.

Liberty and Morality

I subscribe to an investment research service from a group called Stansberry and Associates. I have received many of their newsletters for the last year, a small investment to see if their advice is worth following. I think it is, and beginning very soon I will be investing my money in part based on their recommendations. But that is not my point today.

The founder of the company, Porter Stansberry, is a die-hard practical libertarian (I don't know how he votes, I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't vote at all). Today, in his Digest, he makes the following statement:
[T]here is an objective standard of morality in the world: First, do not aggress against another person or their property; and secondly, do all that you have contracted to do.
Is it really that simple? It may be. To look at a couple of other examples. the Ten Commandments outline the rules of human relationships in commandments 6-10 on the same 2 principles. Jesus summarized personal morality in the famous Golden Rule: Do to others exactly what you would want them to do to you. Stansberry is simply applying this principle to the realm of personal property and liberty. For his purposes in his newsletter, this is a very effective summary.

But when I read it, I find it feels somewhat lacking. I think the problem is this: Stansberry's formulation is entirely negative - it only defines what we cannot do, but makes no statement about what we ought to do. If there is an objective standard of morality, does it only limit my behavior? Does it not also compel me to actions of a positive sort? Is this not at least implied in Jesus' formulation of the Golden Rule, one which seems to require some sort of positive action on our part towards those with whom we come in contact?

This is a reasonable question, and reasonable people may disagree with my answer. I believe that a moral life is one that not only limits its actions where they would impose upon another, but is also one that causes us to treat others in a positive and uplifting manner. That is, it is not simply that we do not hurt people, we also actively look to help them. I believe then that this three-fold pattern defines a moral life:
  1. Do not aggress against another;
  2. Do all that you are contracted to; and
  3. Practice kindness and courtesy.
Like all moralities, this is more simply stated than lived. But until I read Stansberry today, I don't think I had ever bothered to even try and state what I meant by a moral life. Here's to my first effort.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Unintended consequences

Check out this story: Smoking Laws Threaten Drivers.

There is this principle known as the Law of Unintended Consequences, which states that any action taken in a complex system will inevitably have consequences which no one foresaw, and which are frequently more serious than the problem which the original changes were designed to fix.

It is this reason, more than almost any other, that I am a small government conservative. There is no way a group of about 500 people (the size of our Federal government), no matter how capable they are (and that is a subject open for much debate), can possibly anticipate the effects of their actions. It only follows then that they should be restricted from acting in as many areas as possible.

That's what the Constitution says. It's just not how we are governed.