Re: poly: Egan's Diaspora

From: Hal Finney <>
Date: Sun Mar 22 1998 - 17:54:25 PST

Peter C. McCluskey, <>, writes:
> Matt Ridley, in the chapter "Ecology as Religion" in _The Origins of
> Virtue_, does a good job of describing the persistent discrepency
> between the standards people claim to follow towards the commons and
> their actual behavior. People benefit from persuading others to leave
> the commons unravaged, and gain in reputation from appearing to act
> altruistically, but continue to act selfishly.

I haven't read this book, so I can't comment directly on the author's
claims. From what you write, it sounds like he is saying that when
people try to persuade others to leave the commons unravaged, they are
not doing so for their stated reasons (presumably in order to improve
conditions for everyone). Rather, they are either hoping to improve
their reputations by appearing to act altruistically (while not having
any true interest in acting that way), or they are hoping to persuade
others to leave the commons alone so that they can take greater advantage
of the common resource themselves.

It is an often-heard but cynical view that when people appear to look
beyond what is to their short-term, selfish advantage, they are actually
posturing and scheming. Environmentalists are really seeking power
over society, vegetarians have secret stores of beef in the freezer,
anti-business initiatives are supported by lawyers who will receive a
windfall in newly authorized litigation.

Although there are certainly cases where these criticisms are accurate,
particularly among the leaders of the various movements, I have generally
found these accusations are misguided when directed against the rank
and file. Most people who are trying to do more to help the environment
are doing so not out of a desire to run society, but rather because they
truly believe they are helping to make the world a better place.

We have in our town the Urban Creeks Coalition, which wants to keep the
local waterways in a semi-natural state. They go out and pick up cans
on the weekends, and they oppose dredging for flood control. I don't
personally support their views because flooding has been a problem here
the last few years, but I have spoken to their members and they are
sincere and honest in their concerns.

Likewise, most animal-rights activists have the purest of motives.
They empathize with the suffering imposed on animals in the name of
science or food-raising. They aren't trying to bring about a new
socialist revolution with themselves on top. They simply want to ease
the suffering which they see.

It's easy to demonize those whose political views differ from our own,
to accuse them of hypocrisy and of having a secret agenda. But I don't
find it to be consistent with my own experience of the world.

>From what I can see, there has been over the past 30 years a tremendous
awakening to problems of the commons, particularly of the environment.
People realized that the path they were on was leading to increasing
pollution, and they took steps to change things. I claim that most
people who supported these changes did so neither in order to improve
their reputations by appearing to act altruistically, or to make the
commons more available for them to exploit and ruin. Rather, they were
worried about whether there would be clean air and water for themselves
and their children. These were their stated reasons, and they were
honest and sincere in their beliefs.

> We have, of course, become more sensitive towards human cultures
> previously considered inferior, who have now attained enough power to
> defend their claims to equality. It isn't obvious whether that change
> was due to a general increase in sensitivity or to technological
> changes which increased the costs of subjugating them.

No doubt technological changes have played a role, but disentangling
these effects from the ubiquitous changes in society due to technology
is going to be very difficult.

What I see is more a cultural and ethical change than a technological one.
The civil rights movement, feminism, environmentalism, have largely
restructured our sense of social ethics. Who predicted the advent of
multiculturalism in the schools, for example, on technological grounds?

Even in times of war, atrocities and horrors which were once routine are
no longer tolerated. Recently several Vietnam veterans were decorated
for their role in halting the My Lai massacre, where American soldiers
killed the civilian population of a Vietnamese village. Officials in the
Bosnian war are hunted as war criminals. We all know that such atrocities
have occured throughout history. But over the past few decades there
is a sense that even during war, such things are unacceptable.

Where technology has played a part, it has not necessarily been in the
simple sense that the costs of subjugation have become too high. Yes,
that happens, but even more powerful is the communications revolution.
Once people see that their policies and lifestyles have harmful effects
on others, they are motivated to change. It is well known that the
unpopularity of the Vietnam war was largely due to television coverage.
The Gulf War saw media access carefully controlled in a successful
propaganda effort, but afterwards the truth came out. Next time, the
military will not have such an easy time controlling information.

Another change which technology is just beginning to allow is the
gathering of common interest groups throughout the world. When your
neighbors are no longer the people who live next door, but include people
from all over the world, it will be harder to adopt shortsighted policies
which move problems elsewhere. We will see greater global consciousness
and concern for problems which exist in remote regions.

All these can fall into the general category of "costs". Technology
changes costs. But that covers such a wide range of effects that it
makes predictions on the basis of costs almost impossible. Who predicted
that television coverage of war would increase the cost of waging that
war by inducing guilt in the minds of supporters? What other costs are
going to change simply through increased awareness of what is going on
in the world?

The bottom line is, what method will most accurately predict the changes
we will see in the years ahead. Economics has a lot to tell us in terms
of the simple, day to day costs that people face. But we can't afford
to neglect the costs which are not so easy to quantify, the changes due
to increased awareness and new ethical systems. These changes have yet
to run their course, and I believe that they will play a major part in
human society over the next few decades.

Received on Mon Mar 23 01:55:37 1998

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Tue Mar 07 2006 - 14:45:30 PST