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Friday, 13 January 2017

Responsibility, Beliefs and Discussion

To what extent does one have a responsibility to one’s ideas/beliefs and how does this, if does indeed exist, manifest? How should it?

Personally, I think that we do have a responsibility to our ideas. This is different to being responsible for our ideas as it is not really about ownership. Rather what we’re talking about here is how we present what we believe to the world and whether or not our interest is that of protector or promulgator.

As far as I can tell as an existing and thinking person, the reasons why people hold that we’re responsible for our beliefs are the same reason why we’re responsible for to them. As a means of ensuring that people have honest discourse (which does not preclude devil’s advocacy), responsibility to helps. However, it may be the case that being an irritating prick when masquerading as a member of some conflicting (or even contrasting) position benefits your own beliefs, so responsibility to does need responsibility for if we're to have free, open and honest discussion. The reverse is also true.

Imagine that John believes that Martians make better soccer players than Venusians and that Paul believes the opposite. When John brings this up to Paul, John's belief is challenged by Paul. What does John do? Well, if John is simply responsible for his ideas, we don't know anything about John's next action. Owning your beliefs simply means that you don't deny that you hold them, and that you accept that you can be blamed for their implications. This can result inefficiencies. After all, what is to prevent "fly-by" posting where some party like John rocks up to a forum or whatever, submits his two cents and then walks off? If we assume that the Venusian inter-planetary team has a higher ELO and more trophies than their Martian equivalents, we can conclude that Paul will dedicate effort to something that doesn't have a place in the discourse. In other words, in a free, open and honest (efficient) discussion we assume that the amount of time spent on an idea is proportional to the size of its substance. With fly-by posting, this is not true. Thus, to prevent fly-by posting, some sense of responsibility to ideas is necessary.

This is the point where we run into more trouble. We've vaguely been dancing around a model here of a kind similar to the market for loanable funds (a hyper-model, borrowing from hyper-parameter,* if you will). The way I have set things up, there is some socially optimum level of responsibility to and responsibility for. But what is the cost here? Well, time (e.g. the opportunity cost of writing this blog might be doing an assignment) but also social leeway. Basically, because people are social animals (and no matter how much people protest about not caring if they offend people), there is some point on the continuum of social indifference/opposition to you that is too much. As anyone who has ever participated in a forum will tell you, not owning ideas and not holding them to a sufficient standard is tantamount to seeking the dislike of forum-goers. Hmm... there are some big problems here. I want you to think about a market in order to introduce the idea of barriers to entry, but to do this I have made some assumptions that we might not think are reasonable. We have, for instance, assumed that trolls don't exist (social acceptance is problematic) and that people are motivated to produce discourse. I don't think either of those are particularly reasonable. But maybe I have achieved the main thing and even though maybe you can conceive of a better version of this market, you see that it makes sense for there to be barriers. Too great a responsibility to (and for) and one will not produce (i.e. convey one's ideas) for too much time is required and perhaps one turns into "that guy who answers every question." We can extend that latter notion to speculate that the demand is concave. Either way we beg the question, what is the socially optimum combination of the respective levels of responsibility to and responsibility for?

To answer this question one ought to turn to the model. After all, even if the model isn't "good enough" to actually describe reality it does, in principle, convey the sense of what ought to be... if you believe that free, open and honest discussion is the Social Ideal. Anyway, the point is that with my model's clear weaknesses in definition (and perhaps in validity) we can't use the model to look at a general procedure that would find the social optimum. And, maybe, it's something like a general equilibrium Edgeworth box model, which my lecturer kept telling me doesn't tell us which of a "shortlist" of Pareto points (along the contract curve within a lens) is the social optimum anyway ("beyond economics" is the exact phrasing). I think, though, we can make inferences based on my (anecdotal/unrepresentative/right by chance) experience of reality as well as theorise some more ideas. First, the "empirics" (again, anecdotal).

The primary motivation behind this particular post was the torrid time I had writing the School Choice post. The problems with that are fairly extensive. One, it started off as the end of the Tyranny of Choice. Two, it constantly snowballed. Three, I wrote it over several days. Thus, I think, there is a loss of coherency. So, which won out? The desire to promulgate or defend my point of view? The level of research is greater than many of my posts for a reason but this is countered by a self-perceived lack of coherency and precision (and I don't think I am naturally the most coherent or coherent blogger out there, in general). In other words, it is difficult to say what responsibility was driving that particular post. What you can do is look at that post and see that there is a tension between "getting stuff out there" and "securing one's views" even among people like me. That is to say, bloggers who are quite happy to write thousands of words about niche things and who take no active measures to increase their audience. In other words, we're clearly not overly convinced by promulgation of what we think.

There is another way to consider things, however. Take a look at the word counts for some of my posts. School Choice (from a ctrl-v method into Word) comes in at 4186 (but to read it's longer because of the picture-excerpts of that report), American Democracy 5696, A Plea For Sophistication 3577, High School 4491 (but if we discount the quotes, I wrote 3596 words), Defending the Boot Theory: Inequality Explored hits 2885 words, A Contest That Doesn't Exist 4676, Blind Faith 3459 (2476 sans quotes), Gallipoli 4207 (although this was broadly written for an internal), Choice 3137, On the Differences of College and University 3236, and Thoughts on History: the man, the mouse and the marzipan manages a cool 2932 words (most of which are in the title). Am I really not a promulgator? It seems more plausible to believe that I put down as much as I can think about within a span of effort. In fact, it is surely telling that the longest essay I have been set thus far in university was a mere 3000 words (about half the length of American Democracy)... we routinely wrote several thousand words at school.

What do we get when we add all this up? We could assume, for instance, that the reason why this blog doesn't appear to have a readership is because I expect my readers to do a lot of work... to read long, generally entirely textual posts (even if, and I say so myself, the tone is quite colloquial). And the cause of that is because I am a promulgator. What drives me is to have what I think out there. And, more specifically, I actually want to preserve the very process itself. This is a kind of responsibility to and a kind of responsibility for. The protector of their ideas, however, is coherent, concise and controlled. Their responsibility is less to establishing the "themness"** of what they're saying (preservation of process, see, especially Power at a Point) and more to securing the future of what they think. That is, they write things which make sense, aren't too long (while the methodology is suspect, 1600 words seems ideal) and stick to the point (i.e. persuasion). In some sense, they are vastly more responsible to their ideas than they are responsible for. But does this let us "know" the social optimum?

Recently I have been re-reading 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction. A lot of reviews of this book seem middling but I like it. I am not necessarily convinced that I follow all of it, but once it hits its stride... well, I basically missed my train this morning because of the book (which also caused me to leave the book at home). Anyway, the point is that on page 320 of the paperback version I have been reading it has this to say through the mouthpiece of a character defending God's existence "No 'is' statement can entail an 'ought' statement." Now, I have tried to do exactly this and I think I disagree with the idea. At first glance it makes enough sense and it is probably broadly true. Where I think it falters in our case is that even if our desire is free, open and honest discussion (rather than the is type discussions people have), we have to recognise that the ideal has to come from the reality, right? If not it ceases to be an ideal and instead is a fiction, a myth. Here there are two parts to the reality. One, what people will write. Two, what people will read... And based on this blog, we determined that what is written should depend on what is read. And we recognised that this imposes constraints on the writing. But should people read more? That is, we don't have to accept the 'is' and hence the 'ought' moves from it... but, not really, because the level of the 'is' just changes.

Which brings us here... what does free, open and honest discussion look like? Well, the single most important thing is vibrancy. Freedom allows people to express their points of view in a variety of ways. For instance, it used to be very common to represent ideas via dialogue. You don't really see that these days but it is one alternative means of expression. Open-ness allows a host of people to participate and Honest specifies that the discussion is transparent... it's about what it seemingly appears to be. For instance, if it turned out this was just some elaborate set up for a critique of echo chambers, we'd have to describe this blog-post as being problematic. Vibrancy requires the first two and with the third it also has the potential to be long-running as "hidden" problems like trolling and "brick walling" don't exist. But vibrancy also requires a degree of manageability. A vibrant discussion will lead to evolution of points but it will also mean that people are reading a lot in general. In other words, people do read more... but they want to read many manageable chunks rather than few large complete sections. Or, make paragraphs aesthetically to be maximally grammatical.

It's difficult for me to say where the essays of undergraduate students belong in the scholarship. Are they part of it? Or is that my inflated sense of self? What I can say is that we once again see the value of guidelines (their inherent opposition to arbitrariness). History essays are so frustrating to write because they make us have to think about what exactly is particularly important to say (I think the aforementioned sketchy methodology raises this point with TED talks). Here I have complete freedom and time and say what I want to say. Yet, this is not so useful to my point of view because no-one actually reads the damn things (no-offence dear reader but you may as well be a certain Teapot). Put simply, my posts here reserve a particular combination of for and to, which, when combined with knowledge about what people read and those guidelines for explicitly persuasive, owned arguments, we can gain insight into the socially optimum bundle. And that, dear reader, is the bundle where one owns an argument enough to state one's own views but where one is so dedicated to being responsible to the argument that one is coherent, concise and controlled. 


*As these were explained to us... hyper-parameters are parameters that allow you define some other parameter you're interested in (e.g. "if I knew [thing] then I could determine what I want to know"). A hyper-parameter thus lacks any need to have a real-world interpretation (it may or may not have one). This strikes me as being similar to the likes of the Loanable Funds Market (markets that don't really exist).

**A question of immortality raises itself. After all, if people seriously consider, as Cass Seltzer (the main character in the book mentioned in this post) puts it"if you could reverse engineer the neural programme that constitutes a person's mind" (pg. 92) as a route to immortality then representing the thought process in print is merely the more primitive equivalent. It could, possibly, even allow for resurrection after death... if the technology comes into existence. Point is, themness is related to one is one's works, i.e. the Achilles Question.

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