Monday, May 28, 2018

Making and Taking - Part 3 - Norms and Consequences

The "payoff plane" I introduced in Part 1 and Part 2 can be used as a framework to illustrate some unintended consequences of norms.  Below is a very small subset of example norms that operate in the current social context where I find myself.

- Using additive value as a proxy for material well being (a value norm)
- Using ownership to regulate access (a behavior norm)
- Using trade value as a proxy for intrinsic value (a value norm)
- Using monetary value as a proxy for trade value (a value norm)
- Using self-interest as a proxy for the common good (a value norm)

I tried to list these in chronological order.  The items toward the top of the list are ancient and firmly entrenched in our way of understanding material well being.  The items toward the bottom are more recent adoptions and slightly less firmly entrenched.  You might say our relation to the lower items is like a fond embrace, in contrast to the desperate death grip of the upper items.  And our attachment isn't purposeless.  These norms facilitate good choices and beneficial behavior.  That is, they allow us easily (you might say mindlessly) to make choices and take actions that are (sometimes) beneficial.  Many of our norms (such as the ones with the word "proxy" in the descriptions above) involve a projection from one space to another - to borrow terminology from William Bruce Cameron, from a space that counts to a space that can be counted.  ("Not everything that counts can be counted.")  All such projections involve distortion and error.  The projections that survive to become entrenched are the ones for which the cost of the distortion error is outweighed by the benefit of the facilitation (at least for a time).  Some of the projections are easy to see on the payoff plane.  Let's start by examining those.

Below is a picture of our instinctual, tribal value in the payoff plane.  The parallel lines are contour lines of equal value.  Movement in the direction of the blue arrow (let's call it a "value gradient") is valued as beneficial in this social context.  In terms of normative philosophy, this picture could be called utilitarian.

What is the effect of the norm "using self interest as a proxy for common good?"  The graph below shows a purely egoistical value in the payoff plane.  The normative philosophy linked to modern western-style capitalism could be accurately categorized as ethical egoism - the idea that, given the right governmental, economic, and social context, individuals should pursue their own self interests, and by doing so, they benefit everyone.  The value gradient for this norm isn't exactly contrary to the utilitarian value gradient, but it does point a different direction.

The norms "using trade value as a proxy for intrinsic value" and "using monetary value as a proxy for trade value" can be combined to "using monetary value as a proxy for intrinsic value."  What is the effect of this norm?  Money only has trade value and no intrinsic value, and its trade value is dependent on scarcity, or others' lack.  In other words, when I measure my material well being in money, the better off others are, the less my assets are worth.  The graph below shows how this norm further rotates the value gradient.

"Using ownership to regulate access" is just one of many behavior norms, which encourage some behaviors and discourage (sometimes even outlaw) others.  The payoff plane may not provide the best view to see the consequences of these norms (and behavior norms are so diverse, maybe each one deserves its own view to examine its consequences clearly), but if you don't mind a simplification for the purpose of illustration, we can represent their effects in the payoff plane by using a stippled sort of "Swiss cheese" effect, like the graph below.  The white circles represent collections of related behaviors that are encouraged, and the gray background represents the remaining discouraged behaviors.  The encouraged behaviors are most intensified in the direction of the value gradient.

Some of the encouraged behaviors are sustainable, and others are not.  Inversely, some of the discouraged behaviors are necessary for sustainability, but they are discouraged and therefore neglected under the given system of behavior norms.  Over time, the price of unheeded lessons grows.  In other words the effects of encouraged, unsustainable behaviors become increasingly damaging - that is, they migrate against the direction of the utilitarian value gradient.  At the same time, the discouraged, neglected behaviors become more beneficial - that is, they migrate in the positive direction of the utilitarian value gradient.  Over time, the negative consequences of the system of behavior norms build up until the cost of the status quo overtakes the discomfort of reexamining norms.  As Thomas Jefferson et al conceded in the American Declaration of Independence (written at a time when the cost of the status quo was overtaking the cost of reexamining norms), "... mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."

Even without value norms to redirect the value gradient, this buildup of negative consequences to behavior norms would occur.  The effect of the value norms is in determining not whether, but where on the payoff plane the buildup occurs.  In our case, shown below, this buildup occurs near the "bottom" of the plane, where behaviors have strong negative effects on the well being of others, whatever their effect on the subject.

Hmm.  I sat down intending to write about something much more uplifting: tending over owning and gardens as a metaphor, and instead out comes all this shade on norms.  I hope this entry doesn't come across as a moral judgment against norms, which would be as pointless as a judgment against being human, because norms are an indispensable part of the way we approach and understand our world.  I hope instead it looks like an invitation to find opportunities to unlearn norms - an invitation develop and adopt alternatives - an invitation to be your wonderfully peculiar self.  Because we could use a whole lot more of your wonderfully peculiar self right now.