Sorting Out Right and Wrong With Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell Ticket Stub.jpgHow do we know what is right and wrong? This was the question that Malcolm Gladwell put to his audience at the New York Fest on October 7.

Gladwell set the stage for the question by comparing to pieces of literature: The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson and In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien. He compared the treatment of what combat meant to veterans after World War II and after Vietnam. In The Man in the Grey Flannel suit, there are harrowing depictions of combat, but the effects of the war on the main character come from an affair he had with a woman while overseas and not the violence he faced. On the other hand, the main character of In the Lake of the Woods is greatly affected by the violence that he was caught up in during the Vietnam War.

Gladwell found this quite strange, and I don’t think there were any combat veterans among the New Yorker Fest audience to explain how one veteran might be able to put aside the experience of the war and another could not. But Gladwell used this as a jumping off point to talk about our sense of right and wrong and how it has changed over time.

In the first book, the violence committed was not wrong, but the extra-martial affair was, whereas in the second book, the violence was part of what was wrong.

But Gladwell acknowledged that it was not that simple. He noted that our sense of right and wrong has changed over time to the point that we now measure right and wrong not by a more sense, but rather by how much harm has been done by an action. In the first book, the wrong was an affair that caused no particular harm. In the second book, the harm caused by the violence made it wrong.

Acknowledging that there were difference between the wars and the generations, Gladwell confronted the question a little differently. He raised the question of childhood sexual abuse. He gave as an example a study done by Bruce Rind that found that survivors of childhood sexual abuse were able to overcome the trauma and go on to lead normal lives. The response in the media was that Rind’s study was somehow minimizing sexual abuse, rather than the positive interpretation that people can overcome terrible experiences. Rind essentially said that just because people could overcome the effects of the abuse, that didn’t make it any less wrong. (You can read more about it here.)

Gladwell said that this recent approach — that wrongfulness is strictly related to the amount of harm it causes — is a result of secular thinking displacing religious thinking, and that it has impoverished our moral conversations. He mentioned the controversy over the Woodrow Wilson school at Yale, and noted that the students protesting against the name were claiming they were harmed by it.

“You can’t argue , if you are a student at a great school. you aren’t being harmed by the name on the outside of the school,”Gladwell said.

Gladwell asks why they can’t just argue that it is morally wrong to name the school after him, and instead have to claim harm.

I think Gladwell has missed two currents in American society that have led to the shift in our definition of wrong and right from moral to level of harm.

First, the United States legal system has made the determination of harm a fundamental part of determining right and wrong. You can’t bring a case in the courts unless you can prove harm. This is the ‘case or controversy clause,’ which comes out of Art. III, Section 2, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution, and was part of Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife. You need to show that you have suffered actual harm in order to bring a case. I believe that this kind of thinking carries over, even if unconsciously, into the American psyche.

The second current that I think Gladwell has missed is more controversial, but it is the fact that there is a certain power in being a victim. Rory Miller, a corrections officer and tactical team leader, has written a number of books on violence and its aftermath. On of the things that he has mentioned is that people will sometimes adopt the role of victim/survivor because it gives them the power to manipulate situations and groups of people. Miller cautions that we should be careful about this, because survivors of trauma and attacks have the capability to recover and even become stronger after something terrible happens to them. He notes that the anyone who might have to deal with violence could end up in the position. But there is a notion, almost unspoken, that victims never truly recover and thus must always be catered to. Miller notes that it is not unreasonable that someone might try to turn that weakness into a strength.

The upshot is that claiming harm has been done and that one is a victim lets people feel as though they are in a stronger position than just making a moral claim. The problem is that spurious and manipulative claims of harm make it harder to help people who have really been hurt.

I think Gladwell would benefit from talking to Miller before writing anything because Miller understands the power of victimhood and the processing of trauma. I don’t know that either of them will ever see this, but I think the conversation would add dimensions to both of their works.

I also think that Gladwell has it right: we do need to think about right and wrong both in terms of harm and in terms of a moral calculus.

“I’d like to see is hold both notions. There are times when what is harmful is wrong. I’d like to say that there are times when you don’t have to make a harmful claim if you are going to make a moral claim,”Gladwell said.

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Montaigne, Truth, and the Scientific Method

The next reading on our list is Montaigne’s essay entitled “That It Is Folly to Measure the True and the False by Our Own Capacity.”

Montaigne begins this essay with what I think is some very sound advice and then detours into a very destrctive path. At the same time he shows us the need for the scientific method, and perhaps the need for formal rules of logic and evidence in the humanities.

At the beginning of the essay he begins with a very sonds premise: we should not judge the world only by our own experience and abilities. He warns us that it is too easy to be led astray either by a lack of experience or by a lack of context with which to make a good judgment.

“The more a mind is empty and without counterpoise, the more easily it gives beneath the weight of the first persuasive argument. That is why children, common people, women, and sick people are more subject to being led by the earrs. But then, on the other hand, it is foolish presumption to go around disdaining and condemning as false whatever does not seem likely to us; which is an ordinary vice in thos who think they have more than common ability.”

This is certainly true int he today’s world. In talking about public policy and politics, and even in some business cases, I have seen many people glom onto the first argument that makes sense and is easily digested. Then they refuse to let go in the face of conflicting evidence. They are like the people Montaigne describes when he says that “He who had never seen a river thought that the first one he came across was the ocean. And the things that are the greatest within our knowledge we judge to be the utmost that nature can do in that category.”

People tend to interpret things based on their own experience and often cannot see that their lives are not the same as everyone else’s life. It is a hard task to put yourself in someone else’s position, but it is a worthwhile exercise.

So, I am with Montaigne through this point. We should not take our personal experience to be the sum of the whole world. But, it is how he endeavors to solve this problem that causes me to break ranks with him.

Montaigne says that rather than relying on our own capacity, we ought to rely on outside authroities to guide us to the truth. In addressing this issue, Montaigne skips over lesser subjects and heads right to the discussion of miracles and the authority of the church.

“The great Saint Augustine testifies that he saw a blind child recover his sight upon the relics of Saint Gervase and Saint Protasius at Milan; a woman at Carthage cured of a cancer by the sign of the cross that a newly baptized woman made over her; Hesperius, a close friend of his, cast out the spirits that infested his house with a little earth from the sepulcher of Our Lord, and a paralytic promptly cured by this earth…and he reports other miracles at which he says he himself was present. Of what shall we accuse both him and two holy bishops, Aurelius and Maximinus, whom he call upon as his witnesses?…Is there any man in our time so impudent that he thinks himself comparable to them, either in virtue and piety or in learning, judgment, and ability?”

This is where Montaigne and I part ways. I am not for just letting things stand on authority and especially ancient authority. He writes, “We must either submirt completely to the authority of our ecclesiastical government, or do without it completely. It is not for us to decide what portion of obedience we owe it.”

As I said in my essay on Augustine, what bothers me about this kind of talk is that it abdicates personal responsibility. We need to have the test of conscience and faith to make sure we really believe what we say we believe and to make sure that it is right.

To that end, we need to have methods for testing ideas and finding truth. We need to be able to make judgments based on rules we understand and evidence we can gather. At that point, if there is something that we cannot figue out, then, perhaps, as Kierkegaard might suggest, we can make a movement of faith similar to what Abraham did when he took Isaac on a little walk.

But long before we start sacrificing our children, we had better make sure we have exhausted every other option. What Montaigne fails to do is find a way to make himself and the rest of us responsible for a least trying to judge the truth or falsehood of a statement or situation we face.

This is why I think a scientific method is so important. It gives us a repeatable way to test things and isolate variables. This way we can truly figure out what is the appropriate value to assign to a truth question and its possible answers. We define a problem or question as completely and specifically as we can. We research what else has been done to find an answer or solution. We create a hypothesis that we think answers the question. We devise an experiment with measurable results and controllable variables to test that hypothesis. We run the test, examine the data and come to a conclusion.

Even if we run across a situation outside of our realm of experience, we can use this method to start to understand it.

In the humanities, this method is more difficult to aply, but formal rules of logic and rules on evidence should help us test ideas and develop a greater understanding of the question we are faced with. For example, in the case of the miracles, can we find any other evidence or writings about these miracles? Can we find any detractors or counter-reports? Can we find any evidence to say that the authority offering us the ‘truth’ has a stake in what truth we believe.

My belief is that a simple apeal to authority is not enough. We need to examine, test, and understand for ourselves, or we will never truly experience anything.

“All this is a dream. Still examine it by a few experiments.” — Michael Faraday

Montaigne, Custom, and the Tricky Meaning of ‘Should’

So, despite a long absence and some modern detours, I have not given up my goal of actually reading through this set in some manner. I have advanced to the essays of Montaigne, aFrench philosopher from the 1500s. The first essay is entitled, in this translation, “Of Custom, and That We Should Not Easily Change a Law Received.’

I got hung up on the word ‘should’ in my first reading of this essay. That hang up was a mistake, because I read a moral element into it that I ought not to have. Montaigne’s translator in this case is using the word ‘should’ in its subjunctive sense. In other words, even though we might try to change customs and laws, we will not find it easy to do so. In contemporary English, we write this variation of ‘should’ as ‘would’, though in terribly proper and somewhat outdated English, we ought to use ‘shall’ than ‘will’ when we speak in the first person, and ‘should’ rather than ‘would.’ The word ‘shall’ has also taken on a moral imperative sense. So the title might be better rendered “Of Custom, and That We Would Not Easily Change a Law Received.”

With the moral sense of should in mind, I initially thought that Montaigne was suggesting that even the worst customs ought to be left in place, but that is the opposite of what he is arguing. It is important to read carefully, and reading these books has forced me to stretch back into better reading habits. I have slipped recently, but I plan to pick back up where I left off. Having had a big slip at the start, I think I am better prepared to make my way through the readings to come.

Moving onto the heart of the matter, Montaigne talks about customs and human habits starting with the biological, describing how one’s own smell is unnoticed by that person, but noticeable to others, to how people get used to things like loud sounds in their environment to the things people learn as children from their culture.

“I find that our greatest vices derive from their first propensity from our most tender infancy, and that our principal education depends upon the nurse. Mothers are mightily pleased to see a child writhe off the neck of a chicken, or to please itself with hurting a dog or a cat; and such wise father there are in the world who look upon it as a notable mark of a martial spirit, when they hear a son miscall, or see him domineer over a poor peasant, or a lackey, that dares not reply, nor turn again; and a great sign of wit, when they see him cheat and overreach his playfellow by some malicious treachery and deceit. Yet these are the true seeds and roots of cruelty, tyranny, and treason; they bud and put out there, and afterwards shoot up vigorously, and grow to prodigious bulk, cultivated by custom. “

This is an interesting passage because it seems to presage the modern research that shows that serial killers usually abuse animals in their childhood. Of course we know that what children are taught by their parents greatly affects the kind of people that they grow up to be. Here, Montaigne is writing in a highly stratified society, but we also see this happen in all sorts of ways. For example people with specific kinds of training or who excel in one area of life often have this problem. Athletes, soldiers, and cops all over the world often have this sense of entitlement that is trained into them as part of what is seen as necessary for them to succeed in their particular arenas. Sometimes, though, it is a question of things simply being over-looked because someone does something well. Look at the chess champion Bobby Fischer. His behavior was overlooked by a number of people and his behavior has been characterized as cruel, tyrannical, and even treasonous.

Montaigne goes on to describe how customs vary among people and that things that seem quite strange, ridiculous, or even harmful are looked upon as normal in other groups. Montaigne cautions that even standards that we think are quite moral come from the influence of custom.

“The laws of conscience, which we pretend to be derived from nature, proceed from custom; every one, having an inward veneration for the opinions and manners approved and received amongst his own people, cannot, without very great reluctance, depart from them, nor apply himself to them without applause.”

I feel that we are in this state now in the United States. Our system has ended up captive to a destructive custom of infighting between various factions that have not balanced themselves out because they refuse to recognize the common good. In the world as a whole we are facing global problems that I think custom prevents us from facing. We continue to live in a manner that is destructive to our collective future, but because we have always done things in a particular way and we accept the new technology that makes life easier, we give no thought to changing our ways. But I am worried that we are going to end up in a situation where large numbers of people suffer and we put ourselves in a dark ages because we are unwilling to part with custom. Montaigne cautions us that as powerful as custom is, fortune is yet stronger and can force our hands.

“So it is, nevertheless, that Fortune, still reserving her authority in defiance of whatever we are able to do or say, sometimes presents us with a necessity so urgent, that ‘tis requisite the laws should a little yield and give way; and when one opposes the increase of an innovation that thus intrudes itself by violence, to keep a man’s self in so doing, in all place and in all things within bounds and rule against those who have power, and to whom all things are lawful that may an way serve to advance their design, who have no other law nor rule but what serves best to their own purpose, ‘tis a dangerous obligation and an intolerable inequality – Aditum nocendi perfido praestat fides [Putting faith in a treacherous person, opens the door to harm. – Seneca, Oedip., iii. 686] – foreasmuch as the ordinary discipline of a healthy state does not provide against these extraordinary accidents; it presupposes a body that supports itself in its principal members and offices, and a common consent to its obediance and observation.”

I think Montaigne is having similar thoughts as a lot of the Occupy Wall Street protesters, but the hard part is that the necessities that are so urgent are not always wars, plagues, and storms. Sometimes they are mortgage crises that don’t affect everyone in the state equally. And we end up with the ‘dangerous obligation and intolerable inequality.’

The other problem that Montaigne notes is that ability to break free of custom is hard to come by, especially for those who need it most.

“If, as we who study ourselves, have learned to do, every one who hears a good sentence would immediately consider how it does any way touch his own private concern, ever one would find that it was not so much a good saying, as a severe lash to the ordinary stupidity of his own judgment: but men receive the precepts and admonitions of truth, as directed to the common sort, and never to themselves; and instead of applying them to their own manners, do only very ignorantly and unprofitably commit them to memory.”

Ouch. That is a caution we should keep in mind (in the moral sense) as we move through the rest of the readings and our own search for truth.