Monday, October 15, 2007

how to exploit a conspiracy of douche bags.

today in class we learned about non-maximizing dispositions, and their ironic advantages. the idea goes something like this: we have some beliefs and desires that cause us to act against our own best interest-- dispositions that don't stand up under rational reflection-- but that are, in some larger strategic sense, in our interest to have. anger was the example: when we're angry, we are more likely to do harm to others, but we're also far more likely to subvert-- or at least fail to maximally achieve-- our own aims and interests. but even still, there's a serious strategic advantage in being disposed to get angry: it deters others from fucking with you. so anger, when triggered, may cause you to act irrationally (that is, against your own interests), but a well-known disposition to react angrily when fucked with does so much work, even when rarely triggered, to prevent those situations from ever arising, that it is still, over-all, in our interest to be creatures with dispositions to get angry under certain unfavorable circumstances.

the interesting implication is meant to be that having the disposition to keep a cool head and always think of one's own best interest might not actually be in one's own best interest.

but suppose that our inclination to avoid angering others whenever possible is (in well-socialized adults) general, and not just aimed at those who we specifically know can be angered. wouldn't it be to my advantage if i could keep a kind and cool head and stay focussed on best achieving my goals, while still enjoying the advantage of other people's general concern not to anger others, including myself? i'd be a sort of free-rider1, but opposite, in some sense, of the sorts of free-riders that evolutionary theorists like to nag about
-- the dove who games the hawks.3

[1] the problem of the free-rider is an important (and often discussed) one in evolutionary theory, and in ethics. the idea, in simplistic human terms, is that if we were all unfailingly kind and honest, we might all be better off, but that a society in which every member is unfailingly kind and honest is a system destined to be gamed. it's a society vulnerable to free-riders-- those individuals who would gain the advantage of living among the unfailingly kind and honest while also reaping the benefits of being themselves self-serving and dishonest. because (when it comes to surviving and passing on your genes, at least) there's only one thing better for the individual than being good and honest among the good and honest, and that's being bad and dishonest among the good and honest. so while, collectively, we maximize utility by cooperating, our individual utility is maximized by defecting, and so individuals will defect.

[2]dawkins does discuss something like this idea of free-riding peacenik when he talks, in 'the selfish gene' about how we arrive at an evolutionary stable strategy, but it's the concept of a 'conspiracy of doves', not a conspiracy of hawks (see next footnote), that's usually harped on as the niave notion of the uninformed.

[3]hawks and doves, in the rhetoric of evolutionary theorists, are a sort of short-hand for aggressive/defecting/obviously self-serving sorts of creatures and peaceful/cooperative/apparently altruistic sorts of creatures. the impossible society of the unfailingly kind and honest that i mentioned in the first footnote is often referred to as a "conspiracy of doves".

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