Where the Narrative Stops

Back in February, I talked about the scripts and narratives that guide our life, with a specific focus on the cognitive dissonance that happens when we try and “disobey” them. Today instead I’m going to talk about the way in which I believe those narratives are getting weaker and less meaningful. It’s also probably going to borrow a bunch from my series on Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (1, 2, 3, 4), because shared scripts and narratives are clearly a core component of Haidt’s “moral capital”.

In fact the more I draft this post, the more I realize I should throw in one more previous essay reference: Nostalgia For Ye Olde Days also talks around this issue a little bit. In hindsight though I think that post committed exactly the sin I want to talk about today, of focusing too much on things in common (look at the examples I used, of yoga, and veganism, and video games) instead of narratives in common.

My thesis is this: people today (and particularly younger people) have increasingly uncertain and unclear visions of where and what and how they want their life to be, due largely to the erosion of binding social narratives and the equivalent moral capital. This is leading to an increase in chronic existential unhappiness, and various other issues.

In middle-class post-war America, there was a single, nearly universal narrative that existed in the cultural zeitgeist: you grew up, got a career (as distinct from just a job, and only if you were male), got married, had kids, raised your kids. Rinse, repeat. People who grew up with this narrative could rest assured that if they followed it, they were “living a good life”, or something along those lines. Every life is different, and some people who followed this path were genuinely terrible, but at some sort of existential level the promise was that you would be alright. It was just How Things Are.

Of course this narrative is very restrictive if it’s not quite what you want for yourself. The “free love” and hippie rebellion of the following generation were largely reactions against this narrative, even though in practice most of the rebels eventually settled down and lived just that life. And it’s also true that this narrative still exists in pockets today; the Mormons, for example, seem to have it pretty down pat at this point. It’s just not nearly as pervasive.

But if that narrative is increasingly dying out in the general population, what narrative is replacing it? It’s easy to point to specific examples (social activism comes to mind) but for a lot of people I would argue there isn’t anything replacing it. We grow up, finish high school, (potentially) finish university, and then… the narrative stops. We want to give people the freedom to pursue their life’s passion, to not get stuck in the “rat race”, to love who they love, and build the world they want to see. But in giving too much freedom we also give an overwhelming selection of choices. If you know the “next step” in your life is to get a career, then suddenly you have something to work toward. It doesn’t matter if your career has some ultimate fulfilling purpose; it’s just What You Do.

Today, it’s really easy to spend a lot of your twenties (and soon, your thirties) just kinda wandering around. Working, usually, because you need money to pay the bills, but working jobs, not careers. Looking, waiting, for something that you can do that will give you that purpose, that sense of fulfillment. And even if you see it, even if you know deep down “that thing over there is what I want to do with my life”, it’s too easy to dismiss it as too hard, unachievable, and end up settling for nothing at all. Purpose is what we make of it, and I’ll settle for somebody else’s narrative any day over no purpose at all.

It would be nice if there was some way to create a good “default” cultural narrative for people to fall back on without restricting their personal freedom at all. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to work that way; a key part of Haidt’s definition of moral capital is that it does constrain individualism in favour of cooperation. I’m going to think more on this.

Where the Magic Happens

A quick follow-up Q&A to some comments received (both publicly and directly) on this post. The comments and questions have been heavily paraphrased.

But what actually is moral capital? That doesn’t seem to be what those words mean.

I’m using it per Haidt, and I agree the definition he gives isn’t quite in line with what you’d maybe intuit based on the words “moral” and “capital”. In The Righteous Mind he defines it fairly precisely but also fairly technically. I won’t quote it here, but this link has the relevant pages. Better yet, the New York Times has a decent paraphrase: “norms, prac­tices and institutions, like religion and family values, that facilitate cooperation by constraining individualism”. Between the two of them those links do a pretty decent job sketching out the full idea.

But is it really true that societies with more moral capital are healthier, happier, more efficient etc? What specific claims are you making?

I am unfortunately running off of intuition and some half-remembered bits of Haidt’s book (now returned to the library), but I can at least gesture in the right direction. There’s lots of work showing that belonging to a tightly-knit social community is good for happiness and mental health. Think religious communities, or very small towns; the most stereotypical examples in my mind (combining both religion and small town) are an Israeli kibbutz, or an Amish village. If I remember correctly, Lost Connections by Johann Hari has a good summary of a bunch of this research and related arguments.

Similarly, there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence in the business world (it’s a more recent phenomenon there so I don’t know if it’s been formally studied yet) that the most competitive and efficient businesses are the ones that can foster this kind of belonging in their employees. It’s certainly working for Netflix and Shopify.

Being highly aligned and high in moral capital doesn’t prevent conflict or “bad politics” though?

It definitely doesn’t prevent conflict. It definitely does help prevent bad politics. In a high-moral-capital political environment, the conflicts that arise will be about means, not ends. It might be instructive to look at, for example, progressive and conservative opinions on safe injection sites. Progressives tend to believe in reducing harm. As such, two progressives debating safe injection sites will be able to have a well-reasoned and fairly trust-based debate about whether safe injection sites, or harsher penalties for possession, or this, or that, will have the best effect of reducing harm. They have different means, but the same end, so they ultimately feel like they’re on the same side.

Conservatives, on the other hand, are worried not just about the individual harm of drug use, but also its effect on moral capital. To a conservative, safe injection sites are likely a non-starter because while they do reduce harm, they have the net effect of enabling drug use and the concomitant erosion of moral capital. A conservative and a progressive debating safe injection sites are looking for fundamentally different things, a gap which is much harder to bridge with social trust.

Isn’t there a middle ground between a perfectly aligned but un-free society, and one that devolves into anarchy?

Of course there is, and I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. We are, quite literally, living it. But since I was writing for a primarily progressive audience who wants to move towards more personal freedom, I tried to emphasize the conservative side of the argument more. There are dangers in too much personal freedom, and advantages in requiring some conformity from a group.

How exactly is this a utilitarian argument for conservative politics? Your argument missed a step somewhere.

Yup, sorry, I over-summarized. To be a bit more explicit:

  • Societies with more moral capital tend to be happier, healthier, more efficient, etc. than their counterparts with less. This is what utilitarians want.
  • Conservative policies tend to focus on creating moral capital, at the expense of personal freedoms and preventing harm.
  • Progressive policies tend to focus on personal freedoms and preventing harm, at the cost of destroying moral capital.

(Obviously utilitarians tend to want to boost personal freedom and prevent harm too. As I mentioned in the previous post, it’s a matter more of priorities than of absolute preference.)

Progressives want as few people to suffer as possible even if it inconveniences the majority, while Conservatives want to promote sameness and fairness as much as possible even if some people slip through the cracks.

Not actually a question, but a really good paraphrase of part of the argument I’m presenting here, and part of the argument Haidt makes in his book. It misses some dimensions (e.g. weighing personal freedom of choice into the mix for progressives, not just the avoidance of suffering), but very broadly Haidt is pointing out this distinction and then saying roughly “either side is terrible when taken to its ultimate extreme; we must find a balance”.

The Needs of the Many

This post is the third of what will likely be a series growing out of my thoughts on Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”. Here are the first and the second.

Spock: The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Kirk: Or the one.

–  Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Ah, Star Trek. Remember when Star Trek used to be considered progressive? I do, or at least the tail end of that era. Nowadays quotes like this feel oddly conservative in certain contexts. Today’s progressive viewpoint is all about the tyranny of the majority, breaking down power structures, and ensuring that everybody is free and valued equally in all of their diversity.

Most days, without thinking too hard, I manage to believe in both of these viewpoints. I believe in fighting for a world where people are treated equally without regard for their race, their gender, their religion, their culture. And I believe that when given no other choice, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. If one must suffer to save the village, then so be it.

But there is a conflict here.

It’s one thing to believe in the needs of the many from a personal perspective, and to freely make that personal sacrifice for the greater good. It is quite another to believe in it absolutely, and to therefore bless the tyranny of the majority as a net utilitarian positive. It’s actually kinda funny, since I tend to think of progressives as the more utilitarian, while conservatives are more deontological, but in this case it’s the progressive camp that clings to the right of personal freedom and the conservatives arguing for utilitarianism. Further proof, I suppose, of Haidt’s claim that neither moral theory is particularly well-aligned with human moral instincts.

In contrast with the quote from Star Trek, here’s a quote from a modern progressive TV show:

Tan: What’s wrong with wanting something that you just want, not that you need?

Joey: The way I grew up, I got it in the back of my head that that was selfish, you know, and so maybe that’s something I need to unlearn.

– Queer Eye: Season 3 Episode 2 (2019)

Thirty-seven years later, the progressive viewpoint is no longer “for the greater good”. Instead it’s become “for the personal good”. I want to be clear here that regardless of politics, basically nobody regards “the greater good” or “the personal good” as fundamentally bad. It’s just a matter of priorities: where before the greater good was seen as more important than the personal (when they even conflicted), now it is the reverse.

This raises another more interesting point though: when do the greater good and the personal good conflict in real life? Opponents of utilitarianism have lots of thought experiments they like to trot out at this point (for example, killing one healthy person against their will in order to harvest their organs and save five others). But these scenarios are oddly empty of the practical, day-to-day moral decisions that people tend to make in real life.

One of Haidt’s principle goals in The Righteous Mind is to clearly articulate the value systems of both progressives and conservatives in a way that is, if not precisely “objective”, at least fair and understandable to both sides of that debate. It is this articulation which brings him to the idea of a society’s “moral capital”, which is itself the linchpin of this conflict between the greater and the personal good. Interestingly I accidentally hit upon a very rough definition of “moral capital” myself in an off-hand comment a few years ago, so here’s me quoting myself:

[S]ocio-cultural conformance is a powerful force multiplier because it builds trust and lets people work towards implicit common goals. Society can afford and absorb some people who break the mold, but eventually the system decoheres.

Another way this sometimes gets talked about is through the phrase “Highly Aligned and Loosely Coupled”, which (I believe?) started out in Netflix’s culture document and has now made its way into a bunch of other corporate cultures. A group of people, whether a tribe or a company or a country, who are closely aligned on their long-term goals as a group, can afford much less internal communication and “bad politics”, and end up both more efficient and happier. Now, “alignment” and “conformance” have fairly different connotations in terms of amount of freedom, but practically they end up meaning the same thing: everybody believes the same thing and has the same shared vision of the future.


I admit to wandering around between a couple of different concepts so far, but here’s where we tie it all together. Haidt’s “moral capital” is in a very real sense “the greater good”. A highly aligned, highly conformant society is generally happier, healthier, and more efficient than one in which every social interaction has to start from first principles and deal with the risk of the unknown. The cost of this greater good is, of course, the personal good: a highly conformant society sucks for people who don’t want to conform, either because they have a specific different set of values or just because they’re generally non-conformist. Conversely though, a totally free society where personal good is king becomes anarchy, which ends up being bad for everybody. It’s a very weird kind of prisoner’s dilemma game we’re playing with each other.

At its heart this whole essay has been a strong utilitarian argument for conservative politics. Since I have a lot of friends who are both utilitarian and fairly progressive, I’m curious to see the hot water this gets me in 🙂

P.S. I realize this never really tied back into culturism like I promised in that post. It’ll bubble to the top of my brain again, I think.

This post sparked a bunch of confusion and good questions; a follow-up post addressing some of that is here.

On Culturism

This post is the second of what will likely be a series growing out of my thoughts on Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”. The first is here.

Also, this post was extracted from a longer essay that’s still in the works. It’s meant to be foundational more than earth-shattering.

I want to promote a word that I just don’t hear a lot these days: culturism. Analogous to racism, sexism, etc., “culturism” can be roughly defined a couple of different (not necessarily exclusive or exhaustive) ways:

  • discrimination against someone on the basis of their different culture
  • the belief that one culture is superior to others
  • cultural prejudice + power

I want to promote this word, because I want to make a much stronger claim. I believe that all of the different *-isms (racism, sexism, etc) are just second-order mental shortcuts for culturism. And just like everyone’s a little bit racist, everyone’s a little bit culturist.

Now I’ve used “culturism” and “culture” in that claim, but really “behaviourism” might have been a better choice of word if it wasn’t already taken to mean something entirely different. Culture and behaviour is all tied together though, so I’m just going to stick with culturism and note a few places where my usage might not match the intuitive definition.

The easiest way to see how racism is just a shortcut for culturism is to ask an old-school racist what they hate about black people. The answers they give you don’t vary much: lazy, dirty, and rude are all words that pop up. But note that none of those things are actually about skin colour! For the most part, old-school racists don’t actually hate people with black skin per se; they hate people with undesirable behaviours. Does anybody actually want people to be lazy, dirty, and rude? The racist has just incorrectly associated those behaviours with skin colour (“dirty” isn’t technically a behaviour, but hygiene and grooming are both cultural-behavioural).

President Obama is a great example of how this plays out. He was black, but he conformed to the cultural and behavioural stereotype of an upper-class white man. He was not culturally black in any negative way, either in the old-school-racism meaning or in the more modern sense (inner-city gangs, etc). While he still received some negative attention from true racists, in this case the exception proves the rule: people reify their mental shortcuts all the time. It shouldn’t be surprising that if people grow up associating black skin with all these negative qualities, then some of them will forget the original association and just react negatively to black skin. Likewise it shouldn’t be surprising that if a scientist grows up in an environment where that prejudice is normalized, they’ll go looking for explanations and come up with weird ideas like craniometry.

Sexism is a similar story, with the only catch being that it feels weird to talk about men and women having “different cultures”. However, gender roles mean that at least historically, there were different expectations around how men and women would behave. This is all we need to connect the dots. What were the arguments for why women shouldn’t work? Because they were seen as emotional and weak, and those were undesirable qualities for someone who worked. It wasn’t about womanhood per se, it was about a false association between womanhood and undesirable behaviours and properties (women are still, on average, physically weaker than men, but we’ve learned to look at the individual for properties now, which is a whole other essay).

Now if I’ve done my job you’re likely nodding along, or at least willing to accept my premise for the sake of argument. But you may not really see why this would be important. Racism is still racism is still wrong, whatever the exact mechanism.

Here’s a hint at the kicker: even though we’re mostly not racist anymore, we’re still really really culturist. We are still prejudiced against people who are lazy, dirty, and rude. We’re not biased against emotional people only because being emotionally attuned has now become a desirable quality; instead we bias ourselves against people who close off their emotions and act coldly.

This will all tie back into Haidt and his concept of “moral capital” as soon as I finish that essay, I promise!

Spontaneity, Stress, and Emotional Legitimacy

Spontaneity plays an oddly crucial role in our ability to feel legitimate positive emotions.

Consider children. Forcing them to play and telling them that they have to have fun is one of the surest ways of ensuring that they have no fun at all, even if the activity they’re doing is one they’d normally enjoy. Teenagers are the champions of this. Thanks to their drive for a unique personal identity, they absolutely refuse to enjoy anything that seems to be forced upon them. Even in adults it’s much the same, though usually self-inflicted. Trying a new activity while putting pressure on yourself to enjoy it is an easy path to a miserable time.

Insomnia is a bit outside the realm of what we normally consider our emotional life, but falling asleep is another example of a similar pattern in a different form. The more desperately you want to fall asleep, the farther away it seems to be. It’s become practically common wisdom that the least effective way to calm somebody down is to tell them to “just relax”.

The explanation for all this is fairly mundane. Stress in moderation is something which increases our physical and mental responses, and generally improves our performance at most tasks; it’s an evolutionary response which tends to help. But of course it becomes rapidly counter-productive when the “task” we’re stressing ourselves to accomplish is “not being stressed”. Falling asleep and being happy are both fairly dependent on a state of at least moderate relaxation, so when we worry too much about achieving them, nobody wins.

I opened this essay with a claim about legitimacy, so let’s circle back in that direction. In a post a couple of years ago I discussed the concept of preference legitimacy, and the question of what role social conditioning can or should play. We can see a version of this question also arise from the spontaneity/stress issue. If somebody desperately wants to feel a particular emotion for a particular reason, then obviously the stress could impair their ability to reach that emotional state. But even if they do manage it, is that emotion legitimate? Or has the person effectively given themselves Stockholm Syndrome, forcing themselves into an emotional state that is somehow unearned?

The answer seems to depend on one other factor. Just because you want an emotional association, that doesn’t make it impossible to achieve legitimately. Equally however, it is distinctly possible to use various psychological tricks (for example, misattribution of arousal) to trick yourself into “false” emotional states. Now, these emotions aren’t false in and of themselves. But by attributing them incorrectly we are committing the sin of intellectual dishonesty; the goal is not just the emotional response itself but the association with a particular stimulus. Our brain’s notion of causality is flexible enough that we can trick it, but deep down we still know the truth. (In my mind, this is oddly analogous to the Gettier problem in epistemology. Even when all the relevant factors are present, if there is some causal disconnect the criteria fail).

The weirdest and most concerning application of this line of argument is dating. By this logic, going on a date with any desire to further develop feelings for the person you’re dating (which is a pretty normal desire) is in itself sufficient to make that task difficult, and the result potentially illegitimate. In fact the fairly standard dating advice (to do something you’d find new and exciting regardless of the person you’re dating) operates by exploiting exactly this flaw via misattribution of arousal.

It’s relatively easy to rescue dating in itself; treat it as an opportunity to explore and develop your feelings, rather than as a completable task with the end goal of falling in love. Or, as a rather wiser friend of mine called it recently: “emotional horticulture”. This is something I need to remember more often. But even with dating rescued, it does seem to be the case that as a society we’re just… going about it the wrong way. Perhaps we should be giving the opposite dating advice: don’t do anything but sit, and talk. If there’s still an emotional connection, then maybe you’re in business?

This Means War – Is Trudeau Ready?

(Betteridge’s law says “no”.)

Last week, American president Donald Trump announced two major tariffs on Canadian aluminum and steel. This was a watershed moment in the relationship between the two countries, who have long shared a highly cooperative diplomacy and a tightly integrated economy. We are now in the midst of a trade war, and that requires a major shift in perspective. In the upper echelons of business, much is made of the difference between a peacetime CEO and a wartime CEO. The analogy is drawn from politics of course, and now we have an opportunity to see the original essence of that analogy in practice, as Canada shifts diplomatically from peace to war. The question of the moment then, is whether Justin Trudeau is ready for it?

Trudeau’s first two years as Prime Minister have been characterized by positivity, just like his campaign. He continues to talk about opportunity, growth, and inclusion every chance he gets. He is, in other words, the very picture of a peacetime leader. But peacetime leaders tend to get crushed in times of war; just ask Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister leading up to World War Two. Like Trudeau he talked a good early game, pushing back against Germany when possible but also accommodating them in the name of a broader peace. Like Trudeau, Chamberlain combined calculated displays of strength and resolve with a general flavour of good will. His policies were widely popular among the electorate. And like Trudeau, Chamberlain was not ready for war.

Barely nine months in to the second world war, after a string of disasters culminating in a wholesale retreat from Norway, Chamberlain resigned. His replacement was none other than Sir Winston Churchill, a war-time leader if there ever was one. Churchill was everything that Chamberlain was not: one of the world’s greatest orators, direct, focused, and completely unwilling to back down. Where Chamberlain was diplomatic, refined, and heavily invested in keeping the peace, Churchill was a leader with only one goal: to win the war. He stuck to his guns even when his choices were massively unpopular, which in fact they were at the time. He was appointed Prime Minister on Chamberlain’s resignation, not elected, and lost the post at the very next public election.

So what does this mean for Canada today? I suppose it is possible that Trudeau will be able to pivot, transitioning from a peacetime role to a wartime one. If he can pull that off then he will likely go down in history as one of Canada’s greatest leaders. However, it seems unlikely. The required shift in perspective would be very much out of character, and his initial response to the tariffs has been… tepid. Retaliatory tariffs, yes, but dollar-for-dollar; literally a call, not a raise, and one that (per Coyne) will harm Canada far more than it has any persuasive power over the United States.

If Trudeau cannot pivot, then we are in for a rough couple of years. Barring a true catastrophe, Trudeau is unlikely to resign before next year’s election, but there is no-one currently on the ballot with the necessary capabilities. The NDP have always been a peacetime party, and Jagmeet Singh is no exception. Andrew Scheer was elected leader of the conservatives as a direct response to Trudeau, in an effort to win back some of the voters turned off by Harper’s determination and negativity. Ironically for them, (and for me, as somebody who voted against him in the 2015 election) Stephen Harper is now the Prime Minister we need.

Up until this moment, I have been generally happy with Trudeau as Prime Minister; he was a welcome breath of fresh air after so many years of Harper, and is generally closer to my positions on policy. Today, I wish we’d given Mr. Harper one more term.

Capital is the New American Aristocracy

Do you know that feeling, when some person or article says something with which you’ve agreed for years but hadn’t ever been able to properly articulate?

It’s one of the delusions of our meritocratic class, however, to assume that if our actions are individually blameless, then the sum of our actions will be good for society.

The Atlantic think-piece that this is from (The 9.9 Percent is the New American Aristocracy) is of course excessively long, but worth reading if you’re interested in that kind of thing, especially if you enjoyed my essay on Brexit, Trump, and Capital in the Twenty-First Century. While the Atlantic piece takes a rather different tack to get there, it ends up at roughly the same set of possible recommendations, and I think the underlying thesis is the same: there are a lot of not-directly-monetary ways in which the future prospects of the working class have suffered over the last few decades.

Money may be the measure of wealth, but it is far from the only form of it. Family, friends, social networks, personal health, culture, education, and even location are all ways of being rich, too. These nonfinancial forms of wealth, as it turns out, aren’t simply perks of membership in our aristocracy. They define us.

This was basically one of the theses of my essay, so maybe the Atlantic article doesn’t tack that far from it after all.

Originally, I focused on the value of unskilled labour as the primary change in recent generations. I still think this is generally true, but the Atlantic piece focuses elsewhere: on the walls that the upper classes are building around the other forms of capital. Education is a form of capital, but with the increasing class-segregation of top university admission processes it becomes less accessible to those at the bottom of the heap. Location is also a form of capital, but as the cost of living skyrockets in prime locations (most notable Silicon Valley) that too becomes inaccessible. It seems inconceivable today that a poor person from the slums of Detroit could fight their way into a good university, then afford to move to San Francisco in order to be able to work a decent job. But if we really want social mobility to be a feature of our economy then that’s the story we have to enable.

Finding A Solution

In 2016, I mentioned a basic income as one possible partial solution, with the caveat that it didn’t seem politically or economically feasible. Things have changed a lot in the last two years. From Finland, to California, to Ontario, a number of organizations and governments have started pilot projects of the idea. Perhaps more interestingly, in the current Ontario election, all three major parties have pledged to continue the experiment, effectively guaranteeing a path forward regardless the winner.

In addition to the political will that has sprung up recently, the economics suddenly seem more favourable as well. The cost of expanding Ontario’s experiment to the entirety of Canada has been pegged at only $43 billion, which is eminently affordable in the context of the many hundreds of billions of dollars that Canada already spends on various programs. And proponents are quick to point out that that number doesn’t even include the expected savings in health care, incarceration, and other government services which typically result from lifting people out of poverty.

The purpose of this essay wasn’t originally to sell people on the idea of a basic income, so I’ll leave it at that, but it does seem to me like an extremely promising approach. I’m looking forward to the results of some of the pilot projects, and in the mean time I’m going to do a bit more research and try to raise the profile of this idea.

I hope you’ll join me.