Thermomixed Up, Part 1
Recently, for example, I had an exchange with several friends on Twitter (which comes up a lot) over whether or not Harvard graduates who take lucrative jobs in the financial services industry should be the objects of moral condemnation. To me, the idea seems absurd, as it is premised on the notion that our lives aren’t our own, or that the relevant constellation of social and moral obligations isn’t family-centric but rather state-centric or polity-centric or, more ambitiously still, humanity-centric. My own view is that evaluating my choices as an individual in terms of what is best for “humanity” soon collapses into absurdity, as the range of human societies and value systems is irreducibly diverse and complex, e.g., urban individuals living in the metropolitan West will presumably value different practices and ways of life than hunter-gatherers. State-centric utilitarian moral architectures strike me as flawed because they overgeneralize from an American or French experience of stateness, in which the writ of the state is relatively complete. In other societies, as we’ve discussed, the writ of the state is incomplete; rather, the state is a vehicle for one or several ethnic or tribal mafias that compete with others in a constant series of negotiated settlements. This, and not paradigmatic Weberian stateness, is actually the historical norm, and it’s not obvious that it will be inevitably swept away through technological progress or the march to modernity. Indeed, we see certain kinds of “amoral familism” reassert themselves in even the most advanced societies, in part because kin-based social networks have adapted relatively well to a world of dense cross-border flows.
All of the above happens to be my framework for thinking about these issues — a reflection of my tastes and preferences, which in turn flow from my idiosyncratic experience. Statism doesn’t just strike me as wrong on principle. It strikes me as analytically naive, which is why I may well have an implicit distaste for it. It is so pervasive, particularly among elite-educated people from relatively “disembedded” backgrounds, that I’ve come to find it drearily familiar, narrow, and even depressing, though I wouldn’t say I find it disgusting as such. But I suppose I would say that.
From Megan McArdle’s WSJ review of Jonathan Livingston’s Against Thrift:
I first ran into an argument I hadn’t seen before somewhere around page 200—that the perfect surfaces of modern products hasten the replacement cycle because they show wear so badly—and well before then Mr. Roberts had fallen into some of the terrible habits of the genre. Though less openly contemptuous of the spendthrift masses than many of his fellow scolds, he still exudes that particular sanctimonious anti-materialism so often found among modestly remunerated professors and journalists.
Here are some of the things that upset him and that “document our preoccupation with status consumption”: Lucky Jeans, bling, Hummers, iPhones, 52-inch plasma televisions, purebred lapdogs, McMansions, expensive rims for your tires, couture, Gulfstream jets and Abercrombie & Fitch. This is a fairly accurate list of the aspirational consumption patterns of a class of folks that my Upper West Side neighbors used to refer to as “these people,” usually while discussing their voting habits or taste in talk radio. As with most such books, considerably less space is devoted to the extravagant excesses of European travel, arts-enrichment programs or collecting first editions.
One of the running themes of the economist Robin Hanson’s excellent blog is that arguments like the ones found in these books are actually an elite-status proxy war. They denigrate the one measure of high-visibility achievement—income—that public intellectuals don’t do very well on. Reading “Shiny Objects,” you get the feeling that he is onto something.
Tony Comstock, after the detection of HIV in the AIM testing pool:
In the last ten years I’ve tried to do everything in my power to advocate for a safer, saner approach to depicting sex, adopting the age-old maxim “lead by example.” Aside from promoting our own films as a model of how a financially successful enterprise can be built without resorting to “meat grinder” business tactics, I’ve never shied away from speaking my mind about the regard for performer safety, from making judgments in a judgment-phobic community, knowing full well that doing so may cost me friends, allies, and my livelihood. Once or twice I’ve heard the accusation that my standards are too high; unreasonable and unworkable for others
Of course that too is a judgement call, and hearing it brings me no joy.
Judgments, mine and those of others, are informed by factual knowledge, experience, and values. When assessing risk I tend to be less concerned with frequency, and more concerned with severity. This is why, for example, I buckle up when I drive, even though it has been seven years since in was in an accident, and more than 20 years since the one before.
This is also why I would never play Russian Roulette, regardless of how high the pay off. Unlike financial risks, physical risks do not amortize. You can never be half-pregnant, half HIV+, or half-dead.
Similarly, when considering the balance of risk and reward, I look towards who is being asked to bear the risks, and who is in a position to reap the rewards. In my mind there is a world of difference between the risks that I am willing to take for my own amusement and the risks I will ask others to take for my financial benefit.
But I readily acknowledge that my judgments are my own, and that people generally have the right to perform in films or make films under whatever conditions they wish, in accordance with their accessment of risk and reward, and using their own faculties as informed by their knowledge, experience, and values. Freedom must include the freedom to do things of which others may not approve, up to and including being reckless with one’s own life. The desire to regulate, to make a world in which we are safe from all harm must be balanced against the benefits of liberty, an abstraction sometimes difficult to set against the reality of broken bodies.
From my He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother post here at the league:
[W]hat I found compelling about the editorial stance of Culture11 was the assertion that culture matters; that our society is not merely the sum total of marginal economic effects; that we are not merely amebas responding to stimulus; that we are human beings.
The conclusion I’ve come to (and laying aside my presumption of cynicism on the part of its leaders) is that the Conservative Cultural Project, their part in our nations benighted and benighting “culture war” fails, not because it goes to far, but because it doesn’t go far enough; that vast swathes of our heritage, our flintier virtues are conspicuous in their absence from the litany of Conservative Cultural Complaints.
From a comment I left at Megan’s post In Defense of Kitchen Gadgets:
You may have heard I’m building a boat, a rather big boat in fact. One of the key components is epoxy resin, which consists of resin and hardener that must be mixed in the proper amount. I’ve managed to do this by hand for more than 15 years without making a mistake of consequence, but last Friday I decided to buy a $300 purpose-built machine to do the depensing for me.When I met my wife she had a bread machine. I thought it was silly. I don’t anymore. We bought a rice-cooker a few weeks ago, our first. I regret we waited so long. It’s very excellent.
I wish there was a machine that would blend this all together, heat it to the proper temperature, whilst stirring all the while, until the thought I (think I) have in my head congealed, ready to eat.
Absent that, I’ve found repetitive work — mowing the lawn, sanding, painting — has a fermentative quality. Maybe I’ll go to the boat-shop today after all.