Tag Archives: Axiology

Gender and Brainwashing

One of the most common and confusing exchanges I hear when discussing issues of gender and feminism goes something like this:

A: Women and men have different aggregate preferences around topic X.

B: Those preferences are socially conditioned. Women grow up in an environment where they are constantly exposed to strict feminine gender roles and the associated preferences.

You’ll note that the above isn’t really an argument but more of an argument-fragment, as it depends pretty heavily on the context of what point A is trying to defend. I note this in particular because the two claims are not mutually exclusive. It is possible and reasonable to believe that both are true, for many values of X.

The problems happen because the context of the argument usually indicates some subtextual moral claims going on which can get rather confused. For example, my previous post on The Dilemma of the Modern Romantic got several responses from people who objected along these lines to my claim that many people prefer traditional, gendered relationships. In order to respond properly, I’m going to unpack some of this subtext.

The underlying ethical argument is usually around the question of whether or not it’s right for preferences to be the result of social conditioning. Can a preference be considered legitimate, if the only reason it’s present is because societal context has hammered it home at every opportunity? This is the point I think B is raising; if the preferences are somehow illegitimate, then the fact they exist at all (which is usually harder to dispute) is less relevant.

It’s a fairly intuitive and defensible argument. The wording calls to mind Pavlovian experiments and the destruction of our free will, both with negative associations. It’s also well-supported in the way people talk about other issues: Stockholm Syndrome is a prime example of a case where people’s real, expressed preferences are widely considered illegitimate due to the nature of the situation. Nobody wants to be brain-washed.

This discussion lets us rephrase B’s objection in significantly stronger, clearer terms, hopefully without changing the nature of the argument:

A: Women and men have different aggregate preferences around topic X.

B: Women are brainwashed by cultural gender roles which include those preferences. Therefore those preferences are illegitimate. Also, we should probably stop brainwashing women.

I consider this re-phrasing helpful, because it offers up a bullet I intend to bite: I agree that women (and everyone else too) are brainwashed by cultural gender roles. What I disagree with are the subsequent claims that those preferences are therefore illegitimate, and that we should necessarily stop.

One way to see this is to substitute any other culturally-shared value in place of “gender roles”. Women are brainwashed by our shared values against murder, therefore that preference is illegitimate? Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. Perhaps more tellingly, consider how we raise our children.

Children learn from their parents, both explicitly by using language to convey facts and opinions, and implicitly via observation and mimicry. This process of growth and learning indelibly shapes who the child will become and what preferences they will have. It is a natural part of childhood that your parents and your society impart their values and preferences to you, teaching you right from wrong and good from bad. Without this process, you don’t end up with some sort of tabula rasa child capable of pure and perfect free expression of their own preferences. You end up with the kids from Lord of the Flies.

There has been a recent trend of parents eschewing traditional gender roles for their kids. I have nothing against this practice. What I disagree with are the claims that it is imperative to give children “the freedom to develop their full potential without preconceptions about what girls or boys should do or how they should behave”. Children need to be taught, and whether you impart the values of traditional gender roles or the values of social-constructionist feminism, you are still teaching. You can argue that we should be teaching different preferences and values, but it is absurd to claim that we shouldn’t be teaching any at all.

In the end, I suppose what I’m arguing against is the idea that gender roles and gendered preferences are prima facie to be avoided just because they permeate our culture. I am open to arguments that we should replace them with a different set of values, and I grant that this is the argument a number of academic feminists are actually making. But as is usual, something has gotten lost in translation between academia and the Daily Mail.

Other Opinions #50 – Everyone Says I Am Running Away

Everyone Says I Am Running Away

Disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with or endorse everything that I link to. I link to things that are interesting and/or thought-provoking. Caveat lector.

On the one hand, the fiftieth of these feels like it should be more substantial or important or something. On the other hand, fifty isn’t that significant a number, and I’m feeling lazy.

The author of this one is trying to explain himself to people who say he’s running away from “real life”. On the one hand, axiological relativism, and life is what you make of it, etc. On the other hand, socio-cultural conformance is a powerful force multiplier because it builds trust and lets people work towards implicit common goals. Society can afford and absorb some people who break the mold, but eventually the system decoheres. Be careful what you wish for.

The Ninth Axiom

At the very beginning of this blog, I laid out a set of eight axioms with which I was to derive my philosophy. Since they were spread out across several posts, I will collect them here for convenience:

Axiom 1: Axioms are valid starting points.

Axiom 2: The fewer axioms you need, the better.

Axiom 3: There is some underlying consistent reality that is made up of things.

Axiom 4: I (or the thing that I think of as “me”) exist in some form in that reality.

Axiom 5: Things in reality interact, forming temporal and causal relationships.

Axiom 6: My senses provide me with information that is functionally determined by the underlying reality.

Axiom 7: My memory is usually a reliable and valid guide to my past experiences.

Axiom 8: Logic is a valid form of reasoning.

Although I would probably word them differently now, and there are certainly quibbles to be had, I still think the general intent of these eight form a solid foundation for truth-seeking and philosophy.

However, they are incomplete in terms of actually determining how to live your life. I sort of already came to this conclusion in my previous post based on the Charles Taylor essay, but I want to draw some more explicit conclusions from that:

  • My core eight axioms provide sufficient grounding for determining reality and truth, but not for values or decisions.
  • I currently live my life by a so-far-unexpressed set of values which includes truth, consistency, and something akin to secular-humanist values (though that needs much more elaboration).
  • Arguing one set of value axioms over another is impossible as long as they are all reasonably simple and compatible with the core eight.
  • Adhering rigidly to any single declarable value seems to be a recipe for disaster.

With all that said, I present my ninth axiom:

Axiom 9: I value truth and beauty, not necessarily in that order.

The wonderful thing about “beauty” is that it is deliberately vague. Music can be beautiful and I value that. Human life is beautiful, and I do value that. There is beauty in some efficiencies, and I value that. Truth, though sometimes harsh, is always beautiful. The right lie may also be considered beautiful.

The beauty of beauty is its pragmatism. Plus, who can resist the implicit quark-naming joke?

On Spandrels, and Intrinsic Value

just finished writing a post and now I’m writing another one, what madness is this? I’m writing this as kind of a very-very-extended footnote to that post, since I couldn’t figure out how to write actual footnotes in the WordPress editor.

Specifically, I want to explain briefly the way I used the word spandrel in that post, since it is not a common usage, and may in fact be a usage I simply made up. I like it.

Originally, a spandrel was an architectural term for the space between an arch and its enclosing frame. In more recent times it has been borrowed by biologists to mean a biological characteristic which evolved as the byproduct of some other adaptive characteristic, and so may not necessarily be adaptive itself.

In my previous post I borrowed it yet again, by referring to the idea of intrinsic value as “a spandrel of human cognitive architecture”. The spirit of the definition should hopefully now be obvious and follows the biological one fairly closely except in that I am referring to thoughts and cognitive architectures instead of genetics and evolution. You may even take my usage to be memetic spandrels (as opposed to the genetic spandrels of the biological definition) though that honestly feels a bit stretched.

The most confusing part of this whole thing is that there are fairly obvious ways in which intrinsic values can be adaptive in an evolutionary psychology sense. Let’s try this again.

Go read How An Algorithm Feels From Inside. That central node in the second neural network diagram, the “dangling unit”, is a spandrel of human cognitive architecture. Just as it feels like there’s a leftover question even when you know a falling tree made acoustic vibrations but not auditory experience, it feels like there’s a leftover thing-in-need-of-value even when all your instrumental values have been accounted for.

Charles Taylor, Iris Murdoch, and Me

For Christmas this year I received a collection of essays by Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor (specifically the Harvard University Press edition of Dilemmas and Connections, 2011). Thus far I have only managed to read the first essay, Iris Murdoch and Moral Philosophy, though I’ve now been through it a handful of times. Taylor’s writing can be dense. Still, the essay raises an interesting problem.

Much of the essay deals with the possibility of axiomatic value (in the moral sense) beyond simple human life, in a form that may not be explicitly religious but is at least deeply spiritual. It is a meandering, fascinating path being explored that clearly is intended to end in religion in some later essay (Taylor is a practicing Roman-Catholic) but none-the-less drew me along a lot farther than I was expecting. I have to acknowledge the pull of some kind of value beyond the secular-humanist: the feeling that may lead a man to religion, or rebellion. It seems undeniable that within many (most? all?) people is this half-felt, unexpressed need for some sort of higher cause.

My instinctive philosophical response, as might be expected by those who’ve read my previous posts, is (over-simplified) an extension of Hume’s Guillotine. A feeling is not a true gap in our metaphysics, and in this case is like any other claim (or question) of intrinsic value: the byproduct of a spandrel of human cognitive architecture rather than anything real in the world.

Here is where my hypothetical interlocutor pounces (this was originally a conversation I had with myself; I’m not crazy, I swear). The guillotine cuts away all intrinsic values, and yet my life is lived by a certain set of these values, the ones more-or-less described by the term secular-humanist. Given my commitment to the truth, there is a conflict, a cognitive dissonance, at play here:

Is it inconsistent to live by a set of values while denying instrinsic value so brutally at a philosophical level?

If it is inconsistent, then by what means shall I make decisions? The resulting life guided by no intrinsic values at all seems incoherent and unlivable. Even the thesis of this direction is incomprehensible, for am I not intrinsically valuing truth and logical consistency in order to reject my secular-humanist values as inconsistent in the first place? I can make no further progress in this branch.

If it is not inconsistent, then by what right do I reject religion? It has no more grounding in empirical truth than my secular-humanist values. Even Occam’s Razor glances off, since I have already admitted to the pull of some kind of transcendental belief. And if I am to add a ninth axiom to the set of eight with which I opened this blog, then on what basis do I choose between secular-humanism, Christianity, Buddhism, or some other far weirder set of ethical values?

I have no answers yet.