Author Archives: svengerst

Just a Thought Experiment

Thought experiments use our imagination to investigate the nature of things. They are carefully arranged so that our minds only extract a very particular insight or intuition. Often they sound strange and alien to us, some of them are obnoxious. Philosophers love them. Today, this one crossed my mind:

Gretchen
Gretchen is not the most popular girl in school. In fact, the popular girls, the posh girls, hate her. Gretchen does not drive a fancy convertible like them, she prefers Thomas Pynchon to the Kardashians, and she is a vegan. Occasionally, she tweets about and lectures the posh girls about their fur coats, their plastic water bottles, their consumerism, their weekend trips to Cancun, and all their meaningless and superficial relationships. The posh girls are mean to a lot of other girls. Slowly, these other girls start to think that veganism, ecocentrism, and postmodernism are actually plausible. Gretchen feels rising support. So, she decides to run for the student council and wins. The posh girls are angry about this and start a campaign of false allegations, dirt-throwing, ridiculing and worse. They attack Gretchen’s boyfriend, family, grandparents, and intimidate all people supporting her. After several weeks of constant exposure to this harsh campaign, Gretchen is found dead in her room. Next to her a note that the pressure was just too much.

I assume most people condemn the campaign by the posh girls. Some might even say they are somehow responsible for Gretchen’s suicide. That they are blameworthy. In fact, I think that this might actually the most plausible view. However, what would that say about our treatment of the incoming US President Donald Trump? After the US elections, people that I formerly held in high regard revealed that they are no (or at least very little) different from the posh girls. Ever since November the 8th, I have encountered an unparalleled number of gross and dehumanizing cartoons, ridiculous accusations, crazy conspiracy theories, and very much hate. One might imagine that the persona Trump is just a tiny bit different from his public character, a little more human maybe. How much can such a person take? (How much could you take?) Is suicide unthinkable? Does any decent society want to take that risk? Is it worth it? For politics?

Suppose Donald Trump takes a shiny golden colt out of his desktop drawer tonight and decides to end his life. Next to him a note that the pressure was just too much. How would that reflect on the moral character of many of us? Some might say that this is what Trump was doing himself, he was basically asking for it. And that Trump is not like Gretchen. I hope that these people see that this is not a very good argument—if it is an argument at all.

Edouard Manet - Le Suicidé

Edouard Manet – Le Suicidé

Letter to an Outraged Twitter Feed

Dear twitter feed,

I have to admit, that I do not care much about the U.S. elections. In fact, I am vastly ignorant about this subject matter. I know that there is a wall, and E-Mails, and lots of exchange of vulgarities. That’s about it. Admittedly, I think anything related to the Supreme Court is important. But I do not know enough about American politics to have an informed judgment about this either. Unlike you. You know that you have the right theory of the world. I admire this. You know that Trump supporters were racists, fascist, sexist, dumb, and uninformed bigots. This is obvious, you always knew that. Yet, it seems like Trump got more support from minorities than the Republican candidates before, he won by a large margin in the category of white female voter against a white woman, and he won the group of college-educated white voters. Seems like he lost support amongst the rich population and gained grounds with lower income classes.  Apparently, most people cared about the state of the economy; rather than about immigration, foreign policy, progressive values or whatever. And, there, in the realm of economics and science, most people are blatantly ignorant—across all camps. Actually, there is a good chance that you are part of this group. I mean, after all, it is a widespread phenomenon. Thinking otherwise would be either overconfidence bias or wishful thinking, both also widespread phenomena.  The NYT is not the best way to evaluate facts (or even getting their facts straight) and despite its promising name, The Economist is a very bad substitute for an introductory textbook for economics (rather pick up this one).

So, probably a bit more modesty would be helpful. Probably, you will be as wrong about your predictions about the apocalyptic nature of Trump’s presidency as you have been about the actual election results—and as you are about markets, trade, and technological progress. Democratic elections, especially such polarized ones, are a test of moral character, of virtue. And you failed badly.  Yet, it makes it easier to understand the other side—because they are human beings, very different from you indeed, but very similar in their flaws.

Image result for everyone I dont like is hitler

 

Admit it, you don’t really care about Goethe!

Germans seem to know only two modes: naïve ignorance and wild outrage. The current inflow of North African and Arab refugees has therefore been an almost textbook example of these opposed drivers of public discourse. But this is less worrisome than it sounds as when both of them are at work at the same time, they seem to create some sort of equilibrium—and everything remains just fine. However, since the assaults of Cologne on New Year’s Eve, this balance seems to have tipped: violent outrage dominates, especially in the realm of social media. For me, some of the questions that are arising out of this scenario demand further attention; some of them, however, do not. For example, criminal rates among migrant populations. This is a field that has been studied intensively over a rather long time horizon—with the conclusion that migrants might actually be less likely to rob, rape, and commit other criminal acts. There is not much action going on besides blunt populism. (By the way, how about that: if you are desperately poor, as most migrants or refugees are, and therefore do not have the money to live in a fancy neighborhood, you might ultimately end up in the ones with the highest criminality—because they are cheap. The number of immigrants might not affect the criminality of a neighborhood but the criminality of the neighborhood the number of migrants. Just another narrative.)

It seems more interesting to me to tackle the question whether our (ze German but also Western) culture is threatened in the context of migration; and whether we have a right to cultural preservation. Since I am not a social scientist, I will solely comment on the latter one, a claim which I think appropriately captures the predominant belief within our population quite well—and which seems very relevant in the light of current Islamophobia. Actually, some of our fellow countrymen might even hold the opinion that they are entitled to their culture. This, however, is an outrageous and implausible version of this view. Therefore, I will engage with a more moderate claim, namely that we have some sort of right to cultural self-determination—at least within our current institutional setting. I am confident that this is a widely shared belief that many of our fellow citizen would wholeheartedly embrace. Nevertheless, I think it is wrong; I would even argue that most people act against this principle and therefore gives no basis to arguments for excluding immigrants. Let me explain.

First, I think it is best to think about culture as a non-rival and non-excludable good. Like most public goods it therefore depends on some sort of (quasi) coercion in order to be provided. Since our culture (if I grasp it correctly) seems to also be committed to broadly liberal principles such as respect and toleration, most coercive interventions are, however, prohibited: people are allowed to create building to worship their very own gods, employers can hire people who might teach their children that women’s emancipation is not a desirable goal (some of them may even sit in our parliaments), and supermarkets can actually sell their items to people who do not speak our language (e.g. tourists). So, state coercion does not seem to be a tool that reasonable proponents of cultural conservatism would endorse—unless they want to end up with authoritarian tendencies and thus contradictory beliefs.

Second, even if most (if not all) coercive measures are ruled out, it seems to me that most people would still claim that they find culture valuable. To me, this seems to entail that we can expect from people that they undertake (at least) certain efforts to preserve their desired social environment. Do they? Religious membership is declining for decades, democratic involvement hit rock bottom, sports clubs are notoriously understaffed, volunteers have become rare, our modern use of language has not much in common with the writings of Goethe or Rilke, we divorce constantly and have intercourse with an increasing number of people, table manners are regarded as an ancient relic, our taste of music would be a disgrace to Beethoven and Bach, and our way of dressing does not necessarily live up to the ideal of a respectful appearance to other society members. Please get me right, I do not want to lament or making normative judgments, all I am saying is: you are free riding, guys. Just admit it. You do not care about the values you claim to care about—and there is no problem with it (besides hypocrisy maybe). For a vast majority, this cultural artifacts might be convenient since they provide us with security and guide us through everyday life. But convenience is not enough to prevent others from moving here. And even if we could expect a massive shift in our values overnight (which seems actually quite unreasonable to assume), not many of you would actually care—if you are honest. Excluding people—who are much less well off than you—on these grounds therefore does not only seem not right, it seems utterly false and morally wrong.

On a final note, it does not really matter what you understand as culture. Most people would name something like tradition, history, customs, language, practices, norms, religion, and so forth—you get the idea.  Even if you take a very broad sense and include political institutions, my argument still holds. People do not seem to be only ignorant about language, religion or norms, but also about politics, local elections, town hall meetings, et cetera. My very own take on this deserves a different post, but—in a nutshell—I am convinced that cultural evolution reflects moral progress and therefore strives towards liberal values. Liberals should therefore embrace cultural change and not oppose it on dubious conservative grounds.