3.4.05

RESPECT THE BOX. Another expression that aggravates me no end is "think outside the box." Perhaps that box is there for a reason. I've turned up yet more reflections on the Terri Schiavo litigation that have economic content, both of which address the evolutionary stability of social institutions.

Start with Ira Chernus taking issue with the "culture of life" argument.
For the right-wingers, though, the idea that “anything is possible” is terrifying. Their “culture of life” is really a culture of fear. They believe that human nature is basically selfish, competitive, and aggressive, If anything is possible, who can predict what crime or evil will happen next? How can anyone feel safe? The world would be spinning out of control. We need fixed rules that come from unquestionable authority. That’s the only way to keep us all from running amok.
Talk about setting up a straw man. Why not start with some more sensible observations Professor Chernus makes later in his column?

We believe that a nation built on freedom has to free the mind to discover moral values for itself. That means moral values will indeed be different at different times and in different places. People will disagree. There will be conflicts. That is unavoidable.

So why not make a virtue out of necessity? Why not embrace the conflict as a sign of a healthy, creative diversity in society? We trust that people who have their basic human needs met can learn to get along reasonably. The problem is not human nature. It’s a society with skewed priorities that denies so many people their basic needs.

Let's put it slightly differently. There is no such thing as human nature. Thus, people do in fact do things differently. But let us also consider this. An analysis of human behavior will not go far wrong starting from the premise that people act in what they perceive to be their best interests. Conflict, then, is a conflict between those perceptions, often heightened by the scarcity of resources, or of rewards. And rules that emerge in such a way as to channel that self interest constructively are more likely to be evolutionarily stable. Put another way, perhaps in 4,000 years of wrestling with some of these cultural problems, we're here because we've gotten more things right than wrong, and although values may be different, there might be some values that have greater survival value. Thus, it cannot be the case that "anything is possible." Sorry. In the middle of a lengthy Asymmetrical Information post comes this caution:
But as a matter of principle, it is probably a bad idea to let someone go mucking around with social arrangements, such as the way we treat unwed parenthood, if their idea about that institution is that "it just growed". You don't have to be a rock-ribbed conservative to recognise that there is something of an evolutionary process in society: institutional features are not necessarily the best possible arrangement, but they have been selected for a certain amount of fitness.
And there's a reference to Chesterton, with a gate serving as a metaphor for an established rule:
The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.
Respect the box.

After that, Thom Hartmann's constructivist argument about the incidence of eating disorders is anti-climactic.
Terry Schiavo gives us, at the end of her life, a gift - a chance to use her case to share with other young girls and women the outcome of anorexia and bulimia. In a larger and more important context, it provides us with an opportunity to open a culture-wide discussion of the psychological and - ultimately - physical dangers of exposure to personal-image-based advertising and marketing, as well as the dangers of simply "treating" this largely advertising-driven problem with SSRI drugs, which can also devastate young people's lives.
Mr Hartmann is retired from the advertising business; certainly he has to understand that there are limits to what advertising can do. I doubt that the most persuasive advertising, with the most appealing of pitch men and pitch women, would induce kids to beg their parents for more broccoli. Look for the evolutionary stability in attractiveness, or in the so-called junk foods.

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