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July 2010 posts

Podcast on procrastination, agency, and willpower

Mark D. White

This morning I had a great time recording an iProcrastination podcast with my friend and prominent procastination researcher Timothy Pychyl regarding my chapter "Resisting Procrastination: Kantian Autonomy and the Role of the Will" in The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination. In our talk, we covered the problems with economic models of procrastination, the Kantian conception of willpower and strength/virtue, and the benefits of combatting procrastination using willpower rather than coping mechanisms. Tim was a fantastic host, and it turned out wonderfully.

And be sure to check out Tim's new book, The Procrastinator's Digest!

Quick introduction to Richard Moss, The Mandala of Being (New World Library 2007).

In constructing an ethical theory, one consideration is: who has ethical standing?  That is, whose interests “count” when considering “right” behavior?  Utilitarians like Bentham (and today, philosopher Peter Singer) feel that all sentient animals—all creatures capable of feeling pain—are due equal respect and consideration.  No preference should be shown to humans or to Americans or to people of my particular family line. 

Adam Smith would not go along with that.  He argued that we owe greater duty and respect towards those closest to us:  our duty to our own mother, for example, is greater than our duty to an unknown elderly women on another continent.  Moral preference is necessary in some situations. 

The issue of boundaries of ethical obligation is quite important, particularly when we consider global warming, whose greatest impacts will be in 100 years when few currently alive will be around.  Issues of intergenerational justice are a huge problem.  Should we consider those who live in two generations receive equal moral consideration to those living now?  To economists, discounting future generations’ interests makes logical sense, but may put us on difficult ethical footing.

This brings us to a fascinating book by Richard Moss.  The Mandala of Being is about how humans construct identities that create walls between people and different groups of people.  But it is more than an analysis, it also has a prescription for gently disengaging one’s feelings, beliefs, and thoughts from the notion of identity, and by doing so, getting us closer to the experience of who we are in essence. This essence, he claims, allows us to be on an equal footing with others on the planet.

In Moss’ view, we form “identities” as a survival mechanism.  Thoughts, feelings, and actions arise in particular contexts in which a child encounters stress.  Our identities grow out of how we react to perceived threats.  Identity is essential for survival and motivation, and cultural ideology and mythology are key parts of that identity. 

But identity is also what keeps us apart from others who are different.  Hence, tolerance only comes when we are able to step outside identity and the thoughts, feelings and actions associated with it. 

Moss explores a psychological mechanism that will be familiar to practitioners of Eastern philosophy—the practice of living in the “now” of awareness. Awareness happens when we are able to gently let go of thoughts of past and future, of ego and of others, and simply “be.”  Moss notes that he believes this is the essence of a human being.  There are a multitude of techniques for getting in this state of original awareness, such as by focused breathing, meditation, repetitive physical activity (“runner’s high”) or playing games. 

From this state of awareness one has a very different conception, Moss claims, of our relationships with others.  From this place of blissful awareness we are far more likely to be tolerant of those who are different—because we can see that differences arise out of identity creation and not inherent or intrinsic disparities. 

By contrast, Moss argues that moral absolutist are trapped in an identity that limits their experience of the now awareness.  That explanation may be insulting to moral absolutists, but Moss has a much gentler way of getting to this point than I have. 

At a future point I will describe the Mandala—essentially a psychological visual chart that relates past to present and subject (ourselves) to objects (others).  Whether you agree or disagree with Moss, his work is interesting to economists because he is directly addressing the meaning of happiness that has been the object of much attention recently. 

Social Norms in Bicycle Racing

Jonathan B. Wight

The Tour de France is on now and crashes and injuries are common.  As noted in a previous post, soccer teams have developed social norms for dealing with such matters.  It turns out that bike racers have a similar approach.

The following is paraphrased from my bike-savvy colleague, KimMarie McGoldrick:

In the Tour de France a couple of years ago Lance Armstrong crashed and the rest of the lead riders slowed up to wait.  Stage 15, 2003.... watch it on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sRxGNttpaZA

More recently, on stage 2 of this year’s tour there was a nasty decent with a bit of rain and it turned out to be an ice-skating rink.  The main peloton neutralized the race by 'going slow' and allowing the opportunity for all the fallen riders catch back up.  The holder of the yellow jersey actually went and talked to the race director to get an agreement that no points for the sprinting jersey would be handed out at the finish line to ensure that teams didn’t start riding hard and not allow the fallen riders to return to the group.  If you are curious... here are a few descriptions...



Not everyone was happy about the “fairness before selfishness” decision. When are the rules sacrosanct, to protect against favoristim?  See below:




The Soccer (er... football) Fiasco -- Rules, norms and contracts

In the semi-final game between Uruguay and Ghana, a Uruguayan defender deliberately used his hand to block a goal.  Was that “cheating”? 

A furious debate is going on about this, particularly as analogies can be made to markets and development, and particularly as it relates to financial instruments like mortgages.  Mark White makes some excellent comments and provides some useful links that can be found here. 

My colleague Jim Monks, a devoted soccer player, has an example of the workings of norms in soccer.  When a player from Team A is injured and Team B controls the ball, the social norm is for Team B to knock the ball out of bounds. After the injured player is treated and play resumes Team A will throw the ball in to Team B.  This is not written in any rule book and yet it is widely accepted and practiced as professional courtesy.  One could say this is a Kantian approach—to recognize and uphold the dignity of other players before all else. 

Monks also notes that in basketball, particularly at the end of close games, deliberately fouling someone is accepted as a normal strategy, and not considered cheating (providing it does not endanger the other player). 

Can the same be true of financial contracts?  Is it okay to walk away from a disadvantageous contract?  Does it matter whether doing so would seriously injure the other party?   


The morals of the rich?

Adam Smith had a strong presumption that poor and middle class had higher moral standards than the rich and powerful.  The reason for this is that the poor have more to lose from moral lapses.  

Smith's thesis seems to be borne out in the housing crisis, in which rich people are walking away from mortgages at a faster rate than the poor.  See NYTimes today,

"Biggest Defaulters on Mortgages Are the Rich."

Does this finding contradict the presumption of Benjamin Friedman and others that prosperity leads to a more moral society overall?  Or, does morality have nothing to do anymore with honoring your word--your contracts?  Is an economic contract simply a financial deal that can be broken when it suits your situation? 

QUERY: Rights and cultural imperialism

I believe it was Jesse Printz who said, in a 2010 address at the University of Richmond, that the concept of "rights" has never developed independently in non-Western societies. 

My query:  If "rights" is a valid concept -- beyond simply its utilitarian benefits -- why has that valid concept never been discovered by deep philosophers in China and India?  Or, if it has, has it been expressed in a different way?

If "rights" is indeed only a Western construct, can it be exported like a technological innovation?