Friday, October 24, 2014

The Verdict on Human Nature: A Lament



The jury is in.

Centuries of debate about human nature have come to an end.
Are we, at our core, kind and altruistic, or self serving and basically shit? 

That used to be a debate.  A legitimate question for discourse.  A rhetorical arc from Locke vs. Hobbes to Annie vs Jeff[1].

But we have adjudicated it. 

The conclusion, it turns out, wasn’t philosophical, it was empirical.  A grand social experiment tested these dialectical hypotheses, revealing which obtained.

We call that experiment the internet.

People are who they are when the social enforcement mechanisms are suspended...or as we like to call it, under the cover of anonymity.

The internet is a place where people are who they are.  YouTube comments do not represent a few crazies.  They are a good empirical sample of the human condition.

And what do we find there: racism, sexism, anti-religious vitriol, anti-irreligious vitriol, ad hominem, bullying, intimidation, and every other way that a human can degrade not only another human's attempt to make something in and out of the world...but to degrade the human doing the making.

And then there’s Twitter.

How do we negotiate power imbalance without external enforcement?  How do we handle power imbalance when we can handle it any way we want?

Felicia Day doxxed for expressing fear that she might be doxxed for speaking out?

Christ have mercy.  Grant us wisdom and courage to be who we aren't.


[1] Ref.  Community

5 comments:

Noam Ross said...

Rebuttal, with graphs: http://simplystatistics.org/2014/10/20/thinking-like-a-statistician-dont-judge-a-society-by-its-internet-comments/

stanford said...

Hi Noam,

Thanks for the fantastic link. Great balancing perspective. I love it. I think I’ve read it before but probably because you’ve posted it.

I have 2 thoughts, 1) a slight push back and 2) a genre clarification.

1. It think the set up to the ‘rebuttal’ is great. I’ve argued before that ‘bimodal’ moral thinking is pragmatically unhelpful and empirically untenable. I really like the second axis, that there is not only graded moral diversity between us, but within each of us. I actually think the latter is often the more sensitive parameter (but, of course, I only have reliable access to a single observation of that distribution - so I may be projecting).

But the post makes a curious assumption. It seems to assert (rather than argue) that anonymity introduces a sample bias. I could see that. But I think it underestimates the extent to which social enforcement mechanisms are a latent sample bias. The flip argument would be that non-anonymous interactions are the biased sample because they are managed by social enforcement, and that the rise in anonymous interaction removes an enforcement bias rather than introducing a sample bias. In reality, it probably does both, confounding the actual nature of the sample.

2. I probably should have been more clear about the intent and genre of the post. It actually is an experiment in the Lament genre. It is more of a felt poem than an argument – honest words I am feeling rather than those I know to be true. What I believe about human nature is much more nuanced and balanced.

Feeling isn’t exactly my wheelhouse. But I have had this building anger and helplessness about the bullying of women in tech that boiled over with the doxxing of Felicia Day. I was studying the Lament Psalms and decided it might help to write one.

So I really appreciate the balancing insight. Thanks for enriching the discussion. It’s fun to have friends that think carefully about life and apply the rigorous tools of our trades to broader realities.

Thanks, s

Liz Mallory said...

I really like this. Especially because I agree, and have wrestled with dark times as a result. An interesting counter-argument--which I realize you weren't going for, but has helped me in dealing with the crushing feelings of hopelessness at the state of humanity--has to do with the idea that anonymity shows us the truth of humanity. You say it eradicates the bias associated with social order. But I think this is an unnatural state for humans. We are social beings, and our natural (or at least, designed) state is in community watching over one another. When we're known and surrounded by others, we don't just have "rules" to live up to, we have a REASON to be better in the people we love. Being alone hurts us, giving us a reason to be hurtful in return. So, while it doesn't answer the question of human nature, it at least poses a reason not to take the Internet's darker corners as the final say. :)
Thanks for the great post.

Noam Ross said...

I had missed that you had replied! Thanks. I've been thinking about this again, in the face of weird harassment of women who objected to the ESA shirt thing.

It's interesting to think about whether the case of anonymity or social enforcement are the "intercept" or "effect". Obviously the human condition encompasses both. You lament that our true selves are revealed in anonymity. Irizarry assumes that anonymity is an anomaly.

I lean towards Irizarry, because I think there's fairly strong empirical evidence that humans are basically social creatures, whose "normal" condition is to be embedded in the constraints and interdependencies of personal relationships and societal norms. Our "selves" have an independent component, but they're really incomplete on their own. Our minds and bodies break down, or fail to develop, in the absence of these relationships.

And I just realized that Liz pretty much said the exact same thing first. :)

stanford said...

I love it!

Hobbes and Locke define the terms of the ‘human nature’ debate on the pre-interpretive template of enlightenment individualism. But it’s arbitrary to leave the influences of human’s communal situatedness out of the discussion like it is an ‘external forcing’ rather than an intrinsic part of the human moral experience. It artificially draws the ‘control volume’ of moral action around the individual.

A theologian I like has argued essentially that, that the human experience is irreducibly communal, that “You are not yourself by yourself.” And as Noam suggests, I think there is good empirical grounds for this ecologically, that conspecific interactions are fundamental to the human experience.