A Meta-Morality Tale

As a child, you hear a lot of fables and morality tales. Most stories aimed at children have a moral of some sort, and even stories that aren’t explicitly aimed at kids typically have some sort of morality baked in. It’s hard to avoid when writing.

As a child, I noticed this and thought I was being very clever by trying to pattern-match my way from the collection of these morality tales to “general rules for life”. I didn’t frame it in quite this way at the time, but it seemed obvious that adults were trying to teach kids certain things about the world using repetition and variation on a theme, and I didn’t understand why they couldn’t just formulate the rules into English and tell me them already. But I liked puzzles and so if they wouldn’t tell me I’d just figure it out myself. As I formulated my rules, I promised myself that I would follow them unconditionally. After all, I was being clever and unlocking the secrets to life “early” somehow, so if I just always did the right thing that should clearly be an advantage. Spoiler: it wasn’t.

Considerably rephrased for clarity, this is what I remember coming up with:

  • Always put the tribe first (I was later delighted when I found out that Star Trek did in fact state this explicitly as “the good of the many outweighs the good of the few”).
  • Always default to trust. Many more problems are caused by good people not trusting each other than are caused by bad actors.
  • Never try to cheat any system, you will be found out and punished.
  • Never lie, you will be found out and punished.
  • Never double down on a sin. Fess up and accept the smaller punishment instead of having to deal with the bigger punishment that inevitable comes when your house of cards collapses.
  • Never learn things the hard way (In other words always trust other peoples’ tales of their own experiences and lessons learned. If they say it was a bad idea, it really was a bad idea).
  • Weigh the long-term more than the short-term. [edited to add, then just moved to a whole new post]

Seeing them written out like this I’m still kinda impressed with young me. Some of these are actually pretty solid and most of them I still follow to some degree (I was and still am more of a deontologist than a utilitarian). But I’ve run into enough problems with them that of course I was not nearly as clever as I thought I was. In particular the issues I’ve run into most are:

  • “Put the tribe first” has led me down a fairly guilt-ridden self-sacrificing route a few too many times. If I had to pick a better alternative I’d hazard a guess that “Always cooperate” would address the same kinds of morality tales and prisoner’s dilemmas without casting as wide a net.
  • “Never lie” hasn’t caused me so many direct problems, but mostly because I did figure out pretty early that in fact there are higher ethical concerns. I’d still wager that I lie a lot less than the average person, but I am capable.
  • “Never learn things the hard way” has been a big problem in practice, though fairly subtly. The problems are that a) Not everyone has the same set of values, so what may be a bad idea for you might be a good idea for me, and b) Second-hand knowledge may substitute well for first-hand knowledge in abstract decision making, but it really doesn’t substitute at all in terms of life skills or self-actualization.

In summary: ethics is hard. If my parents had known this was going through my head at the time they probably could have saved a lot of trouble by just giving me Kant and Hume to read.

P.S. Now that I’ve given this a title I wish I had the energy to go back and rewrite it in the actual structure of a morality tale. Alas it is late and I am lazy.

2017 on Grand Unified Crazy

Since I’ve been blogging pretty consistently again for about a year now, a “year in review” post seems like the thing to do. 2017 has been by far the most active year for my blog in terms of traffic: over 1100 page views on over 700 visitors. This is substantially more than even 2014 when I was posting full-steam-ahead on my core philosophical roadmap.

Unsurprisingly, the largest single chunk of that readership comes from Facebook links (hi friends) but that still accounts for less than a third of total page views. Search engines are next (~150 views) and then we’re down into the weeds.

Perhaps also unsurprisingly, far and away my most popular post this year was that one on Donald Trump. It got more than three times the views as anything else I wrote, and it certainly has had the longest shelf life; it’s regularly getting 5-10 random hits a month nearly a year after I posted it.

From a geographical perspective most of my readers are from Canada (surprise) but still barely half. The U.S. counts for another third or so, and the remainder come from a smattering of places. Germany, U.K., and India all show up semi-regularly; at the bottom of the pack are places like Romania (3 views), Columbia (2 views), and South Africa (1 view) among others.

In terms of what I’ve actually written about this year, it was rather scattershot. The first third or so of the year was anchored by my series on atheism but included a bunch of random stuff too (notably that Trump post). The second third (starting with Pessimism and Emotional Hedging and running through Charging the Self-Trust Battery) was an collection of essays which I am rather proud of. In hindsight they collect around two distinct themes: feminism, and our search for fulfillment.

The final two months of posts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) have been an exploration of anxiety and love, somewhat more poorly structured and poorly written than my earlier essays, but also a little more personal.

As for my favourite post from the year? Our Need for Need. Something about it still rings true.

I have no specific plans for 2018 right now, so we’ll see what starts showing up in my brain in January. Onwards.