Posts Tagged 'society'

More from After Virtue

For Homeric man there could be no standard external to those embodied in the structures of his own community to which appeal could be made; for the Athenian man, the matter is more complex. His understanding of the virtues does provide him with standards by which he can question the life of his own community and enquire whether this or that practice or policy is just. Nonetheless, he also recognizes that he possesses his understanding of the virtues only because his membership in the community provides him with such an understanding. The city is a guardian, a parent, a teacher, even though what is learnt from the city may lead to a questioning of this or that feature of life. Thus the question of the relationship between being a good citizen and being a good man becomes central and knowledge of the variety of human practices, barbarian as well as Greek, provided the factual background to the asking of that question.          — Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

I like how, later in his discussion of the virtues at Athens, Sophocles (rather than Plato) becomes the hero of Athenian moral discourse, for providing a narrated account of the coherence of virtues in society.


Hubble – You Decide: let your Weltanshauung shape science

As part of an extended program celebrating the 4ooth anniversary of Galileo’s telescope, you can help decide what the Hubble space telescope looks at next by voting on six candidate targets. Click here to vote. If you need some help choosing, here’s some advice on what might be interesting to see:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Dr. Summers advocates deciding by what you find interesting, but I propose that we vote according to our larger conception of existence in this universe. Interested in being hopeful, excited about new things? Vote for image 1 — a region where new stars are being born. More inclined these days to the red in tooth and claw vision of the universe, want to look destruction in the face? Vote for target 2 or 3 — planetary nebulae where stars are silently expelling their last gasps into space. Images 4 and 5 seem utterly boring to me, scientifically and existentially. But if you’re in an apocalyptic frame of mind, perhaps the colliding galaxies in image 6 will appeal to you.

I think I will vote for image 2:

Image 2

Let me know how you decide. And do it soon! Voting ends March 1!

The emotivist self at home

Alasdair MacIntyre characterizes the modern self as emotivist — cut from objective, rational criteria for basing moral judgements, it sees all moral discourse as only expression of preference. This has social correlates:

The bifurcation of the contemporary social world into a realm of the organizational in which the ends are taken to be given and the means are not available for rational scrutiny and a realm of the personal in which judgment and debate about values are central factors, but in which no rational social resolution of issues is available … is itself an important clue to the central characteristics of modern societies which may enable us to avoid being deceived by their internal political debates. These debates are often staged in terms of a supposed opposition between individualism and collectivism, each appearing in a variety of doctrinal forms. … But in fact what is crucial is that on which the contending parties agree, namely that there are only two alternative modes of social life open to us, one in which the free and arbitrary choices of individuals are sovereign, and one in which the bureaucracy is sovereign, precisely so that it may limit the free and arbitrary choices of individuals. Given this deep cultural agreement, it is unsurprising that the politics of modern societies oscillate between a freedom which is nothing but a lack of regulation of individual behavior and forms of collectivist control designed only to limit the anarchy of self-interest. … Thus the society in which we live is one in which bureaucracy and individualism are partners as well as antagonists. And it is in the cultural climate of this bureaucratic individualism that the emotivist self is naturally at home.      

After Virtue

I feel like we can recognize the opposition he describes, and actually see these two forces alternately holding sway over this or that part of our society. (For example, a single person might be an individualist on abortion, and a collectivist on poverty.)

I do not know if MacIntyre is right, but I’m intrigued by his analysis. He’s saying that absent an ability to conduct moral discourse together from some agreed-upon starting points we get two competing (and secretly conjoined) impulses: individualism (moral judgements are my own to make) and collectivism (bureaucracy takes over to organize this mass of individuals and runs itself on inertia, its means not open to moral judgments which are only individuals’ own to make). This should put the question to the church, the university, etc: can you narrate together a framework for moral discourse robust enough to work at the levels of the individual and of the group so that something more coherent than oscillation between individualist and collectivist emerges?

PBS strikes back!

In an odd cultural moment (for me at least, as a watcher of both shows) PBS’s NewsHour fired back at Comedy Central’s Daily Show yesterday. Jon Stewart mocked Paul Solman’s (deliberately) low-budget explanation of credit default swaps a few months ago. I imagine Solman, in stereotypical PBS fashion, patiently and thoughtfully considering the situation for a few months and then, in the context of actually supplying information, poking back:

Vodpod videos no longer available.


more about “The Business Desk with Paul Solman | …“, posted with vodpod


We can only hope the Daily Show will respond. Nothing like watching the hippest of the hip and the smartest of the smart go at it. Seriously, The Daily Show’s stylish, quick irony vs. The News Hour’s calm, self-assured and totally uncool competence — this is a fascinating little cultural interchange.

Sit still and think

A new ranking of the best jobs puts mathematician at number 1, followed at 2 by actuary and at 3 by statistician. Here’s why:

According to the study, mathematicians fared best in part because they typically work in favorable conditions — indoors and in places free of toxic fumes or noise — unlike those toward the bottom of the list like sewage-plant operator, painter and bricklayer. They also aren’t expected to do any heavy lifting, crawling or crouching — attributes associated with occupations such as firefighter, auto mechanic and plumber.

Good for us, I guess.

Also, breaking news from the Joint Math Meetings in DC: The figure-eight knot beat out the Euclidean algorithm for president of the United States of Mathematics after their lively debate here last night. Figure-eight promises an increased supply of sub-prime numbers to alleviate the ongoing crisis. That the Euclidean algorithm’s running mate can see the Chinese Remainder Theorem from her porch did not carry the day.

Maybe ability to pun was also a consideration in ranking careers?

Stay tuned for a report from tomorrow night’s Mathematics and Love: a poetry reading.

Frenemy isomorphisms

I was recently introduced by some friends to the concept of the frenemy, a term which has recently even entered public political discourse. I was excited to learn about this new class of social relationship and feel this may revolutionize how I classify my relationships.

However, I wondered whether this concept has yet been fully described. Are its relationships to other categories well-defined, and is it robust enough to undergo the same usages and manipulations as its constituents, ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’? For example, it immediately occurred to me to ask, “Is the frenemy of my frenemy my frenemy?” The answer is not immediately clear.  What about the friend of my frenemy, or the frenemy of my enemy?

It struck me that more work on this term was needed. And it struck me that the proper arena for rigorously standardizing such manipulations of interpersonal relationship terminology was mathematical. Specifically, the field of group theory suits such a task perfectly. 

In pursuance of this line of thought, I have written a research article on the subject, to which I link here:

My paper, "Frenemy Isomorphisms and Related Results"

My paper, "Frenemy Isomorphisms and Related Results"


In it you can find the details of this work, but I would like to summarize some of the main results here for the lay reader, and lay open the exciting conclusions my preliminary work suggests to a broader, non-technical audience.

Let us begin with an example we know and understand well; let us restrict ourselves to the world of friends and enemies.  Consider a map, or assignment, that associates to ‘friend’ the number 1 and to ‘enemy’ the number -1.  This assignment relates the friend-enemy dynamic to the algebraic structure of multiplication.  For example, who is the friend of my enemy?  ‘Friend’ is assigned to 1 and ‘enemy’ to -1, 1 x -1=-1, hence the friend of my enemy is my enemy.  This reflects our previous understanding of friend-enemy dynamics.  The equation -1 x -1 = 1 reflects the famous maxim “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”  The algebraic structure perfectly describes the interpersonal dynamics.

In my paper I consider extensions of this framework to the friend-enemy-frenemy situation.  I conclude that there are two ‘frenemy structures’ that could work.  One (the Z4-structure) corresponds to assigning ‘friend’ to 1, ‘enemy’ to -1 and ‘frenemy’ to the imaginary number i.  In this case the frenemy of my frenemy can be calculated: i x i = -1.  The frenemy of my frenemy is my enemy.

In Section 4 of my paper the two possible frenemy structures are described via the following tables.  These tables are read as follows: to find what the frenemy of my friend is, find the entry in the row beginning with ‘frenemy’ and the collumn beginning with ‘friend’.  For either structure we see that the frenemy of my friend is my frenemy.

Model 1, the Z4 model
  friend frenemy enemy ?
friend friend frenemy enemy ?
frenemy frenemy enemy ? friend
enemy enemy ? friend frenemy
? ? friend frenemy enemy

Model 2, the Z2xZ2 model

  friend frenemy enemy ?
friend friend frenemy enemy ?
frenemy frenemy friend ? enemy
enemy enemy ? friend frenemy
? ? enemy frenemy friend

There are several striking implications of this work, and it indicates some problems that should be addressed.  First, the tables show that the frenemy of my frenemy is never my frenemy (Theorem 4.1 in my paper).  He or she is either my friend (in Model 1) or my enemy (in Model 2).  Thus, to determine which model actually reflects the friend-enemy-frenemy relationships, we need to determine who the frenemy of my frenemy is.  Model 2 seems more likely to me, but such relational analysis is a bit beyond my expertise as a mathematician, so I solicit your help.  Is the frenemy of my frenemy my friend, or my enemy?

Second, my work shows that there is no algebraic structure for the friend-enemy-frenemy dynamics that has only three objects (Lemma 3.2).  In either structure there is a fourth element, suggesting that the friend-enemy-frenemy categorization is incomplete!  There must be fourth, as yet undiscovered, relationship category.  I have denoted this category by ? in the tables above.  (Lest you be incredulous of this claim, I note that my procedure here is analogous to that which allowed Murray Gell-Mann, after noting the algebraic structure underlying known elementary particles, to predict the existence of new types of quarks.)  The behavior of this new category will be described by the proper table above.   For example, if the first table represents the correct model for the friend-enemy-frenemy relationships, we must look for a relationship category so that the enemy of my ? is my frenemy and so that the ? of my frenemy is my friend.  Again, I solicit your help. Perhaps this relationship is the enemend?  How can we understand this new category?

Speaking of accomodation

This interview on revenge and forgiveness, from NPR’s Speaking of Faith, is a disaster throughout.  To summarize: Michael McCullough argues that revenge and forgiveness are best understood via their social/evolutionary roots and implications.  Revenge is natural and understandable via this framework, as is forgiveness.  Forgiveness is in our self-interest as it makes us more likely to be successful in the end, more able to cooperate in the face of others’ failings, better able to build society and make progress.  As we grow in understanding it will become increasingly clear that forgiveness is in our species’ self-interest, and the way forward to creating a more peaceful society is to tap into our evolutionarily-trained capacity for forgiving.

Particularly disturbing is the discussion of Bud Welch, whose daughter was killed in the Oklahoma City bombings, who came to forgive McVeigh, spoke against his execution and continues to be an outspoken opponent of the death penalty.  McCullough seems to argue that Welch’s forgiveness is explainable in terms of his recognition of shared self-interest with McVeigh’s father in caring for their children.  No mention or explanation of the obvious counter-cultural nature of Welch’s stance is made.  (Welch can speak for himself; find some links here, including his statement on the McVeigh execution.)

Perhaps worse is the discussion of forgiveness in the conflicts in northern Uganda, which is discussed mainly as arising out of fatigue and attrition.

Some selections from the interview.  First from Tippet’s introduction:

Krista: This hour, we bring the lofty moral concepts of revenge and forgiveness down to earth…  Western religious and therapeutic mindsets have come to imagine revenge as a disease that can be cured by civilization. It hasn’t been seen as a natural, biologically driven impulse to which we all remain prone under certain circumstances. And at the same time, the seemingly colder eye of evolutionary biology has analyzed ruthlessness as an advantage in the relentless arc of the survival of the fittest. Forgiveness in both of these scenarios is a rare transcendent quality, a cure for revenge albeit one that would never help human beings really triumph.

McCullough on the evolutionary underpinnings of forgiveness:

Mr. McCullough: You can’t get organisms that are willing to hang in there with each other through thick and thin and make good things happen despite the roadblocks and the bumps along the way if they aren’t willing to tolerate each other’s mistakes. Sometimes if we’re cooperatively hunting ― let’s say we’re some sort of animal, that we’re some sort of animal that works together to hunt ― sometimes I’m going to let you down. And maybe it’s not even intentional, but I’m going to get distracted and I’m going to make a mistake. And if you take each of those mistakes as the last word about my cooperative disposition, you might just give up and so no cooperation gets done. So, really, our ability, and across the animal kingdom many animals’ ability to cooperate with each other and make things happen that they can’t do on their own is undergirded by an ability to forgive each other for occasional defections and mistakes.

And both in the only passage that touches with any concreteness on forgiveness as linked to any particular faith tradition.

Ms. Tippett: Something that I’ve been aware of also is that this word “forgiveness” I think has a really Christian ring in many ears. But, um, I’ve been very intrigued at, uh, you know, I remember speaking with a Holocaust survivor who said that, you know, for him the word “forgiveness” just didn’t do it and it has this cultural connotation of forgive and forget, but the Jewish phrase “repair the world” compels him in the same way he feels the word “forgiveness” compels Christians.

Mr. McCullough: I like that. I like that. I wish we could come up with a completely new word for what this human trait is.

I am extremely doubtful that McCullough’s arguments explain the forgiveness pictured in the Judeo-Christian tradition, or (though I am not knowledgeable enough to judge) most other faith traditions.  Rather I think he at best can explain a fairly weak and limited forgiveness.  I’m unqualified to comment on the merits of his social/evolutionary arguments (and I haven’t read his book); they may be useful in some ways.  I’d like, instead, to note what’s happening in this interview.

Tippett states their program from the outset: to bring lofty moral concepts down to earth.  And this is what they do, though likely not in the sense Tippett means.  Forgiveness leaves the realm of moral imperative and is justified in terms of its usefulness and effectiveness for our security and self-interest.  In the second quote above (and elsewhere in the interview), McCullough re-motivates forgiveness along lines of social self-interest and progress.  These are lines not based in any religious tradition’s approach to forgiveness, and, I suspect, not strictly in evolutionary biology either.  Rather these are lines founded in something that looks a lot more like the American democratic project, like democracy, capitalism and nationalism tempered by a slight nod towards the fact that solely pursuing immediate self-interest is not always the best way to secure self-interest and security in the long run.  Whence Tippett’s “help[ing] human beings really triumph.”  Resources for forgiveness are no longer to be found in any outside moral authority, but instead are already within us, waiting to be tapped in to.  In their momentary foray into Judeo-Christian speech regarding forgiveness we see explicitly the desire to unmoor this universal human potential from grounding in the particularities of any faith tradition. 

The overall project here is accommodation.  It is the pacification of forgiveness.  It is to take what was hard and foreign (not lofty, or expected only of the great, Krista, at least not in the Judeo-Christian tradition!) and make it acceptable and natural within the world of the listeners.  It is to confirm the listener in what he or she in already doing while sending out warm, fuzzy encouragement to do a little bit more because, deep down inside, you want to and it will be better for you in the end.  The end product is a vision of forgiveness that looks, on the one hand, weak and toothless and, on the other, (despite Tippett’s obliging attempt to help McCullough dance around this near the end of the interview) utopian.  For those of us who are people of faith this vision is obviously wholly untrue to our traditions.  For those of you who aren’t, I have a hard time seeing why such a vision is ultimately appealing or convincing.

It seems like Tippett, after spending so much time speaking of faith, should be able to do better.  But maybe a critical attitude is never a part of Speaking of Faith.  One wonders if this habit of accommodation, on the other hand, is.