I may suck, but not as much as you

Mark D. White

Please excuse the flippant title, and get ready for a bit of a rant. (Listen--it's almost Friday, and it's been a rough couple of weeks.)

I'll start with a old joke: Two campers are in the woods when they spot a bear heading toward them. One camper starts running while the other bends down to carefully tie his shoes. The first camper yells back to his friend, "do you really think that will help you outrun the bear?" The second camper yells back, "I don't need to outrun the bear--I just need to outrun you."

I was reminded of that joke when reading a Real Time Economics blog post at The Wall Street Journal's site a couple weeks ago about a recent study on "last-place aversion." In the paper (available here), the authors report on experiments in which the participants were found more likely to take gambles that might boost their social ranking (rather than certain payoffs of equivalent expected value), and to forego costless action to help those worse off than themselves, the lower in the ranking they were to begin with. The authors use these results to support individuals' aversion to being at the bottom of the social ranking, preferring to have at least one person or group to look down upon.

I don't doubt the findings or the interpretation, but they sadden me. In fact, the entire concept of relative preferences and well-being disturbs me and always has. The idea that many (perhaps most) people base their feelings of satisfaction and happiness on what the folks next door have rather than on their own needs and desires--assuming they even have their own needs and desires--is ironically and tragically counterproductive in the aggregate. (On this I agree with Robert Frank, though not on his policy recommendations based on it.)

Maybe this unconscious desire to one-up our peers has an evolutionary basis--it would certainly seem to inspire a striving for material (and thereby reproductive) success--but it also seems to vary widely on cultural grounds (being much more pronounced in the U.S. than in Europe, for instance). (I thank Dr. Maryanne Fisher for her insights on this point.) But just because it's natural doesn't make it good or right--thank you, G.E. Moore--and just as we strive to counter other hardwired inclinations toward prejudice and oppression toward others, I would hope we would reject those which represent an attitude of disrepect toward ourselves.

It strikes me as horribly inauthentic to subsume your own standards of well-being, happiness, and satisfaction for other people's, especially if it leads to a counterproductive "race to the top" in which no one's intrinsic preferences are satisfied. I said as much here about two years ago (focusing on status goods like Starbucks coffee, which I now drink regularly, thanks to the same Dr. Fisher), so I won't rehash those arguments. Nonetheless... argh.

Don't get me wrong, researchers in psychology and economics do us a great service in highlighting these unconscious dispositions. But where are the voices crying out to restrain them, to orient our decision-making more towards activities that will satisfy our desires rather than simply make us feel good compared to our neighbors? Dr. Frank decries what Thorstein Veblen termed conspicuous consumption, certainly, but he focuses policy changes such as steeply progressive tax rates to "solve" the problem. This is to treat the symptoms rather than the disease (as behavioral economists are wont to do). Once we recognize our flaws we don't have to take them as given--but we have to make the effort.

And we shouldn't want for the people next door to do it first.

Christmas, Religion, and a New God

Jonathan B. Wight

It’s Christmas Day, and snow is falling gently in Richmond, Virginia.  Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus—if shopping malls are any indication.

Santa rules, but is there a God?  This is the subject of John Shelby Spong’s latest book, Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell (2010).  Spong is the controversial Episcopal bishop and prolific author who argued in previous books that Christianity had to modernize or die. Religion’s dogmas are deadening because they conflict with science and current common sense.  “One cannot restore life by doing a facelift on a corpse,” he wrote, in one of the memorable lines (p. 142). 

This isn’t particularly new; what is new is that an Episcopal bishop (now retired) is writing this.  Spong is speaking tomorrow in Richmond at my church—and the church he previously led—historic St. Paul’s Episcopal.  This is the church where, according to local legend, Robert E. Lee set the tone for the post-Civil War society by kneeling alongside a black man at the altar to receive communion. 

Spong is also willing to break with the past to forge a new direction for understanding religion and ethics.  Spong’s conclusion is that there is no God, at least not one of heaven and hell.  Rather, we must understand God (or love) as an internal link with the evolving consciousness of humanity.  This conclusion ends up being startlingly similar to Teilhard de Chardin’s thesis in his remarkable work, The Phenomenon of Man (1955). 

One is reminded of Adam Smith’s doctrine that belief in an afterlife is required if people are to develop self control needed for justice.  Is that an outdated notion?  Will humanity outgrow needing the threat of an afterlife (whether in Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism), by adopting a new universal consciousness?

Merry Christmas and happy dreams for the future…

Modesty: A Kantian Perspective

Mark D. White

"Modesty: Keeping Your Extrinsic and Intrinsic Worth in Perspective," my fourth and final Psychology Today post inspired by Irene McMullin's recent article "A Modest Proposal: Accounting for the Virtuousness of Modesty," is now up. In it, I propose a Kantian synthesis of McMullin's own existentialist treatment of modesty and the egalitarian conceptions she criticizes. I argue that the modest person balances her extrinsic worth, as measured by her achievements and talents (and their value to others) with her intrinsic worth, the incalculable and incomparable dignity we all share as rational persons.

Many thanks to Professor McMullin for providing such food for thought!

For the record, the four posts in order are:

  1. "The Paradox of Modesty" (12-14-2010)
  2. "Modesty as Respect: You Think You're Better Than Me?" (12-16-2010)
  3. "Modesty and... Existentialist Freedom?" (12-17-2010)
  4. "Modesty: Keeping Your Extrinsic and Intrinsic Worth in Perspective" (12-18-2010)

Modesty and Existentialist Freedom

Mark D. White

My third of (now) four posts at Psychology Today on Irene McMullin's article "A Modest Proposal: Accounting for the Virtuousness of Modesty" can be found here. In this one, I discuss McMullin's own conception of modesty inspired by Jean-Paul Sartre's ideas about facticity and transcendance. My final post will present my synthesis of McMullin's Sartrean view, translated into Kantian terms, and merged with the egalitarian views discussed in the previous post.