Making Volunteerism a Hobby

“Alleviating poverty would not be a success if achieved. It would be a failure if [not achieved].”
– admin of NetWORK in Progress

Not exactly your sunshine-and-roses kind of activism. But it’s true, and that’s not discouraging. Far from it. It’s entirely possible to bask in the sincere joy, satisfaction, and self-worth of your philanthropy, just as it is in the case of any other achievement that is less of a life-or-death matter, without denying that this philanthropy is imperative.

That last part is a more than a little difficult for any person to internalize. I certainly haven’t internalized it yet. I don’t feel, in the concrete sense, as compelled to do my part to decrease world suck on this massive scale as I do to, say, take a shower in the morning or say “Gesundheit” when someone sneezes.

That’s messed up, isn’t it? And it’s completely normal for all but the most amazing world-changers out there. To be frank, I’m jealous of those people. I would love not to be such a walking contradiction, prioritizing my favorite TV show over charitable activism even as I like to think I would scorn a person who wouldn’t jump in a cold lake to save a drowning child. I’m not even saying we all have to be Mother Teresas or something so simple-minded. That would be a strawman designed to dodge the issue. What bothers me is that, wholly independent of how we each uniquely seek to better the world professionally, the way we choose to spend our free time is so very often embarrassingly self-centered (or suboptimally other-centered; you aren’t exactly a paragon of altruism for buying your Valentine’s date a box of chocolates).

Does that sound like a guilt-ridden shout into the vacuum? I don’t mean it to. From the bottom of my heart, I don’t.

That’s one of the myths about philanthropy I want to dispel, that acknowledging the failures of our society so far to address appalling threats to the common good is somehow cause to think we ought to wallow in un-constructive shame. If you think there’s a problem, as there undoubtedly is, what makes you think sincere, non-judgmental attempts to address and raise awareness of that problem are more harmful than doing nothing about that problem? Because I sure as puppies are awesome am not going to be the one to make you feel bad about yourself for playing hours of Flappy Bird instead of making a difference. That would be not only hypocritical and insensitive, but also psychologically naive.

Let no one misunderstand me: I dream of a world in which shaming the Flappy Bird enthusiast would be completely unnecessary, because people would be so excited, genuinely happy, jumping-out-of-your-seat-like-there’s-a-new-Harry-Potter-book-at-Barnes-and-Noble stoked to help each other in profoundly beautiful ways, that other pursuits would seem boring by comparison.

Indeed, the scientist in me craves to understand whence cometh this apathy of ours. Is there some mental health benefit to indulging in the frivolous as often as we do? If so, could the same be achieved with more productive alternatives, perhaps through some neurological or genetic (gasp!) tweaking? Such thoughts are dirty words to a lot of people, but please don’t light your torches and hoist your pitchforks yet. I don’t intend to go into my ideal neuroscientific professional future with a childish disregard for long-term ethical considerations. If there are ways of improving humanity’s empathic capabilities in ways we can’t even currently imagine (such is my rose-colored vision of the fruits of what I hope will be my labors in, and after, college), I’m confident most of us won’t have to be coerced into accepting such changes.

Ask people in the abstract if they care about children dying of preventable diseases, about the struggles of people trapped in cycles of poverty, about the inequity holding back Ugandan schoolgirls, and they’ll say, “Of course.” We, by and large, would like the world to be more just and life-supporting. We simply feel paralyzed by not only fears that we really can’t make a difference, but also the tug of more immediate dopamine rushes.

TL;DR: I don’t doubt that there are ways people can improve society and relieve suffering in non-traditionally “philanthropic” ways. Teachers, police officers/detectives, medical professionals, engineers, soldiers, and the like do that every day. I don’t even doubt that there’s something to be said for the value of the morale and camaraderie a football team can inspire, for the necessity of the cartoonist (at least the actually funny one), for the good that seemingly stupid trinkets like trading cards can do for kids forging friendships. But I also think there’s something to be said for how backward our priorities are in many ways, and how cool it is that we live in a time when there’s a realistic hope that we could scientifically investigate how to shift these priorities. And this is using the word “scientifically” in a broad sense, not just the brain-poking lab stuff.

So as I continue this journey to see what I can do to change the way we think of social activism (as a chore, currently), I hope you take a little time, even just a few minutes today, to reflect on some time when you sincerely enjoyed doing something that helped others. Why not do that again sometime?

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In Which ThatGuyWithHippyHair Finally Finds Out What Drones Are

Today is a day I’ll let my source speak for itself, since quite frankly my commentary on an area this far out of my expertise would be a disservice. I share this, a report by Amnesty International about likely abuses of Pakistani civilians’ rights by the U.S. government’s use of lethal drones, simply because awareness is half the battle. (Sue me, GI Joe.) If my readers are as admittedly behind on modern global politics as I am, then here you go; we can conquer our mutual ignorance together. I currently have too many unfinished projects on my list to tackle a substantive analysis of this, but hopefully by reading the linked page you might find inspiration into action.

Common Mistakes — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 5c)

(Part XII of this series)

Recall that in Chapter 5, Locke has so far been attempting a defense of the right to property. Now, he is describing how it is both in the nature of humans to, in his terms, “cultivate” land and property from the common, and in our best interests to do so. Evidently, Locke distinguishes between two kinds of a “common.” In one sense, there is land that has not been marked as a part of any particular society’s dominion, which, therefore, there seems no apparent harm in letting people utilize at their leisure. The other sense is of property already designated the community’s common land, which an individual requires the direct consent of the society to claim for private purposes (which ideally don’t pose any threat to that society).

One major question arises at this consideration. Although the separation makes sense initially, we would do well to ask how much we actually apply such a philosophy in our manner of dealing with the land — obviously Native American tribes throughout two whole continents had their territories treated as if they were examples of the first, rather than the second, but there’s another, more modern-applicable case. Taking a “my right to extend my fist ends where your nose begins” approach is fair enough, but particularly in the realm of using natural resources wisely, it’s important not to let this principle become a caricature of itself. We mustn’t ignore the ways our fists reach to extents we can’t see merely with the naked eye.

Consider, for instance, the far-reaching effects of the Industrial Revolution. Sure, Locke didn’t live even to see this age start up, but supposing a hypothetical society abiding by his principles contemplated the beginning of the revolution ethically, how would they have dealt with this? Perhaps the most important and disturbing query is this: Would anyone have known — much less had no excuse not to know — that industrialization could have potentially hazardous implications for the lower class, child labor, and our ecological stability? Was this anything resembling a moral question for some observers of the time, or was it an error that could only manifest its ugly head in hindsight, like our past failure to save countless lives through rudimentary hygienic practices in infant delivery?

I wish these could be more than rhetorical questions at the moment. Please share your thoughts, if you’re so inclined.

As a side note, readers who are following along doubtlessly notice Locke’s affinity for justifying his claims as reflections of the will of God. While those who say they speak for God have the unfortunate habit of projecting their own desires on a being they hardly comprehend, Locke’s contentions are generally (certainly not always, as we’ve seen) difficult to reject so far, provided we translate this tactic into “a perfectly rational being with our society’s collective well-being at heart would prescribe X.”

Looking at them this way, we may engage his arguments on their own merits. Though it’s the prerogative of any given believer in infallible scripture to consult it for ethical information, he or she can only hope to shape public policy around ideas that the majority can support independent of private beliefs; in practice, most religious social activists acknowledge this.

How the Sorting Hat Made Me Think About Justice

Admit it. Some time in your life, you’ve probably taken a Harry Potter sorting quiz, typically from the Internet, as I just did yesterday. Supposedly, I’m a Hufflepuff, but one of the hypotheticals this quiz used to make that determination stood out to me:

“You have saved up for months to buy a new bike. As you’re getting ready to buy it, a child runs by and steals your money. You chase him down and find that his mother is deathly ill and the child stole the money to buy her medicine.”
The Almighty Guru

Granted, this dilemma is not particularly deep, and it’s at least as old as Les Miserables, but even my cynical self can acknowledge the value of asking the simple questions. This scenario frames the matter in a different light than that book, as the thief is a child, whose mother’s sickness is directly emphasized.

None of which makes the problem any easier. The compassionate thing to do obviously seems to be to let the kid keep the money, considering America’s health care system does not — as far as I know — guarantee a safety net of basic life-saving care for someone who cannot pay for it. How, after all, does the value of a bicycle compare to that of a person’s life, especially when that person is loved dearly by a child?

Put that way, it looks simple. Any other course of action would be callous by comparison. Yet how can we say this consistently when our priorities, in so many ways we like to pretend don’t exist, claim otherwise?

Our society allows grotesque numbers of preventable deaths — in this country alone — because people don’t have the money that we spend on extravagant dinners and extra TVs. We consider it theft for a government (as for one person) to use taxation to combat this solipsism.

We unquestioningly make automobile transportation the social norm, and many of us criticize capital punishment for being a cruel institution of denial of life’s value. This is despite, as the speaker in the video below notes (skip to about 4:35), the damage several orders of magnitude greater inflicted by car accidents compared to the death penalty.

The uploader’s numbers vary somewhat from the source above (even considering the video was made in 2011), but his point stands independent of the particular ethical question he addresses here — which I may return to in future posts, particularly referencing the central argument of this video. I encourage the reader to watch it in full regardless, since if nothing else it’s a case study in the subtle complexities of moral arguments that appear straightforward, one way or the other.

DISCLAIMER: None of this is to say that the above attitudes are necessarily unacceptable (or, if they are, they may be brute facts of apathetic human nature we have to accept), as I am of course oversimplifying things. (Or am I? Is this what every generation that permits appalling social evils tells itself, just as we said centuries ago that slavery was too integral to the South’s economy to abolish?) It could be that the true error lies in our moral hypocrisy, or that the value outweighing the proverbial mother’s life is a fundamental liberty, although I like to think the obvious answer to this dilemma really is the right one. It wouldn’t be easy to live up to, but it would leave us less demoralized and more confident in our consciences.

I’m not trying to be wishy-washy. I just think some perspective on issues like this couldn’t hurt, and if the idea I imply here does turn out faulty upon further inspection, so much the stronger does the truth stand after this test. Undoubtedly, this consideration will help us as we continue looking at John Locke’s work.

Quantity and Quality — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 4)

(Part IX of this series)

Continuing where we left off, Locke’s points in Chapter 4 are rather brief. Beyond reiterating in summary the idea that one’s liberty is maximized by a limited yet right-securing government, which derives its power from the consent of the people, he doesn’t add anything terribly revolutionary here. Today, let’s consider one particular quote:

“[Nobody] can give more power than he has himself; and he that cannot take away his own life, cannot give another power over it. … [N]o man can, by agreement, pass over to another that which he hath not in himself, a power over his own life.”
— John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter 4

This chapter being named “On Slavery,” we can see that Locke is stating that, in short, self-enslavement is impossible. The logic he uses to arrive at this conclusion is, once again, rather bizarre. He notes that, since freedom from slavery is so fundamental to life, to give the power to enslave oneself to another person is tantamount to terminating one’s own life. Since he starts from the premise that one cannot do the latter, he deduces that no one can self-enslave. Taking this generously — as I cannot believe Locke did not know what suicide is — he is apparently saying that no rational person would end one’s own life, so too would no rational person give oneself to slavery.

Both of which seem sensible at first impression, but as this blog has probably shown you by now if this isn’t my first post you’ve read, nothing is ever totally uncontroversial upon greater scrutiny. The irrationality of self-enslavement is as close as anything can get to the exception to that. However, what do we make of the former proposition?

Far be it for me to open up the Jack Kevorkian can of worms in this article (that’s a discussion worth addressing in its time; this is not yet such a time), but this matter raises some fairly open questions to chew on: Is the very state of conscious existence valuable in its own right? If so, how valuable? Valuable enough to outweigh considerations of quality of life? Part of the reason the debate over the “right to die” and related matters is so touchy, presumably, is that there are good arguments to be made on either side as to the expectation of future quality of life (or lack thereof). I hope the importance of this easily missed detail of Chapter 4 is clear. Social justice, after all, concerns the joy and suffering of conscious persons, and perhaps if we set aside our biases, we may agree on this much — that sentience provides the potential for an individual to experience a variety of pleasures and pains on a wide spectrum, which can be narrowed or shifted depending on circumstances that it would behoove us to consider, as a responsible society.

Killing Over a Coat? — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 3b)

(Part VIII of this series)

If the reader found Locke’s unabashed eye-for-an-eye ethic regarding murderers excessive, what comes next in this chapter is even more bizarre a logical leap:

“This makes it lawful for a man to kill a thief, who has not in the least hurt him, nor declared any design upon his life, any farther than, by the use of force, so to get him in his power, as to take away his money, or what he pleases, from him; because using force, where he has no right, to get me into his power, let his pretence be what it will, I have no reason to suppose, that he, who would take away my liberty, would not, when he had me in his power, take away every thing else.”
— John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter 3

He at least gives a reason for this view, but it’s one we would unequivocally condemn for its rashness of judgment. Even if Locke refers not to petty theft here, but to serious embezzlements or bank robberies — being generous, since he in fact cites theft of a horse or coat as worth killing over — it seems hardly sensible to infer total hostility and non-negotiability from a willingness to steal property of a non-essential sort (not integral to a person’s well-being, that is). That’s a heavy burden of proof to shoulder when making claims about human nature upon which lives depend. Here we see a simple but important example of a way ethical and legal determinations concern probabilistic facts, given an agreed-upon premise of value.

As backward as Locke has gotten the details, his broader point stands fairly well: Without government, people are in a state of nature in which we may get along cooperatively to some respectable degree, delivering informal justice, and it is when one person threatens the crucial property of another that “war” is declared. Such is a circumstance in which one may suspend the general rules of non-harm for a greater good, although of course it would be wise not to use more force than is necessary for that good.

As the chapter concludes, Locke brings his points together, expressing the necessity of war as a proper response to an aggressor’s attempt to dodge justice. The bottom line in this theorizing about the state of war is that society emerges when people seek to minimize the frequency with which they must resort to war. Ideally, we implement a justice system by which harmful actions are discouraged or prevented by the deterrence, isolation, and/or rehabilitation of would-be dangerous individuals, without using the extreme force of war.

Now we have seen some reason to consider Locke as moderately fallible a thinker and moralist as we should expect any human to be, but delving into more of his treatise should prove fruitful in uncovering the essentials of how rights, laws, and justice work.

War and Slavery — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 3a)

(Part VII of this series)

Locke introduces Chapter 3 with a new concept to consider, that of the “state of war.” This is less likely to refer to an actual “state” in a political sense, but in any case the idea is that one person (or group) enters the state of war against another when he/she acts to attempt destruction of the second party. Fair enough; in some sense even a singular murderer wages a microcosm of war, because despite the lack of a genuine war’s complexity and size, there is the same transgression against a social contract (Hobbes’s concept, but Locke would actually seem to agree with him on this) that makes force necessary — so the conventional wisdom goes — to reduce further damage.

Here Locke reiterates the justice of killing a murderer just as one would kill a hazardous beast. This is where we must recall the utility of psychological knowledge to aid us in optimal legal policy, because whether Locke’s analogy stands depends on the extent to which violent criminals are, as he puts it, “not under the ties of the commonlaw of reason, [and] have no other rule, but that of force and violence.” Less tied to science in this area is the degree of our value, as a society, of the well-being of people who harm others. After all, given two options with equal use for the protection of citizens from crime, we ought choose the one less cruel to the transgressor, but of course matters multiply in uncertainty when the more humane option is empirically less efficient. I don’t have the definitive answers, naturally, but half the battle is knowing what the right questions to ask are, and that of striking the balance between mercy and preventing further suffering to innocents seems like one of those questions to me. Inconsistent and flippant though Locke’s reasoning may be in this region, he does raise a point at least worth considering.

Interestingly, his next contention is that one of the most sinister and indirect ways one enters the state of war is by claiming absolute power. Noting that absolute power by definition precludes withholding consent from one who would use a person for his/her own ends, Locke states that such authority is tantamount to enslaving all one’s subjects. He adds that since freedom is the foundation of a person’s self-preservation, the denial of freedom (slavery) is therefore declaration of “war” against the person whose freedom is being denied.

If Locke evidently considers this form of war a violation of that which he believes people ought to have, we should suppose he was a critic of institutionalized slavery. That would depend on who exactly Locke regards as a person in this thesis, and although we’ll discover Locke’s views on slavery in the next chapter, we can consider at the moment how, in this context, the definition of a person is so important. I’ll probably give it a few more updates to get to the bottom of Locke’s perspective, but expect an interlude post exploring that question very thoroughly someday.