Re: poly: Egan's Diaspora

From: Hal Finney <>
Date: Tue Mar 24 1998 - 18:50:20 PST

Peter C. McCluskey, <>, writes:
> Again, I think both the cynical and the professed motives are at work
> in most of these cases whenever the selfish motive is nontrivial (the
> incentive for vegetarians to eat meat is too small to produce much cheating).
> Few of the people involved hold clearly contradictory beliefs. A more
> typical case would be people who are eager to persuade others to carpool or
> use mass transit, but whose environmentalism becomes half-hearted (but
> still present) when attempting to follow that advice themselves.

Such cases exist, but in my experience they are more the exception than
the rule. The people at my old office who encouraged bike riding to
work were the frequent bike riders themselves. Occasionally you run
into someone who pushes people to carpool while having some excuse why
they can't do it, but while such transparent hypocrisy is annoying and
memorable, it is really not that common.

The voting booth is one of the most anonymous places there is. People may
pay lip service to popular issues, but once in the booth there is no
reason to lie. Yet people consistently vote to prevent spoiling common
resources like clean air and water.

David Brin pointed out that some surfers and hikers support restrictions
on use of the commons so as to preserve the uncrowded conditions which
benefit only themselves. But almost by definition this can motivate only
a small minority of people. Environmentalism has broad popular support,
so this can't be the reason most people support it.

Part of what happens with these issues is that you have a pyramid of
support, a broad popular base and a narrow focused group at the top.
It is among the leaders that you are more likely to see the effects you
described, manipulation and dishonesty in a quest for power. I have
a friend who is active in Libertarian Party politics and he says it's
the same there. The people at the top are power hungry, even within a
party which claims to oppose government power.

I tend to be skeptical about explanations based on evolution. They do
have explanatory power, but we can't conclude that these are the primary
motivating factors in human beings. That ends up being like the crudest
caricature of sociobiology, where people are prisoners of their genes.
Altruism may have originated in animals due to kin selection and
reciprocal effects, but in people there are other factors involved.

A simplistic evolutionary analysis would say that no young man would ever
join a religious order which required him to be celibate, yet obviously
this happens. People are able to make decisions based on more than just
their genetic programming. Maybe their basic drives come from genetics,
but they can apply their minds to choosing the strategies which best
satisfy those drives.

> (Robin Hanson) writes:
> >Such atrocities have never been acceptable when done by the other side,
> >and are embarrasing when done by one's own side.
> >
> >Is there any evidence that U.S. troops are really any less shy about killing
> >ememy civilians now than in Vietnam? I don't think they got near enough to
> >enemy civilians in the gulf war for us to know. The sure weren't shy about
> >killing defeated soldiers.
> I think there is a fair amount of evidence that killing defeated civilians
> was often considered acceptable 2 to 3 thousand years ago, and that there
> has been a genuine change since then. I wouldn't expect enough evidence to
> verify that such a trend continues over the past decade or two.

The reason I mentioned that example was due to news stories I read a
few days ago discussing the 30th anniversary of the My Lai massacre.
The question was asked, could it happen again? Apparently after this
event and other problems in Vietnam, the military curriculum was revised
to increase the emphasis on ethics. Soldiers are supposedly now being
trained in such a way that they are aware of these kinds of excesses,
in the hopes that this will better prepare them for appropriate behavior
on the battlefield. Unfortunately I have not been able to locate the
articles. I got a few books at the library on military ethics but I have
not found one which focuses on what exactly recruits are being taught.

Received on Wed Mar 25 02:51:06 1998

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