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pending
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Why there are oligarchs







The Source of Bad Behavior

Can't we just get along?

I was in a store the other day talking to a woman about a new phone. At the other end of the counter a man was yelling at another clerk. He left in a rage and knocked over a display as he left, spilling it at my feet. I was like wow! I couldn't do that. Most people couldn't I think. It's certainly not the sort of action that does any good in the immediate sense and in the long term has a bad effect for the perpetrator. For instance, they get barred from stores. So I'd call that bad behavior. It's a pretty mild example. But I wonder; where does that come from? Why doesn't everyone just spontaneously do what's needed so we all get along in peace?

One part of the answer is that we are biological things: a level of abstraction distinct from things like crystals. Crystals deal with pretty simple atomic structures where atoms get pushed into place by fields. With atoms in a field, every atom is in it's place - no thought involved.

I've been fooling around with a simulation of a magnetic field lately. I can draw lines of force between 'poles'. Each line is unique, but all the lines depend on the same underlying field.

Biology isn't like that. In biology everything is detached from everything else. There is a web of mutual interactions for sure but it's a web where everything is looking out for itself, not a web with an underlying field that determines the fate of everything.

It's an interesting side note that the internal structure of biological things very much depends on a certain sort of field, though not one like a magnetic field. But within organisms, the form of everything is determined by its 'position' within the organism.. But a fox hunting a rabbit isn't following any sort of field gradient. Both the fox and rabbit are continually making choices.

People take this business of making choices to another level. We are social animals with language. This enables an understanding of reality that is far beyond what other creatures can attain. We do things for our own (often very subtle) reasons. I call this autonomy. Others call it free will. No need to quibble about the terms here. And there is no reason why the things we do should be agreeable to everyone. In fact, that may be impossible since people aren't all responding to some underlying field that organizes everything.

A society depends on people acting in a harmonious way. Since we don't have a field to refer to we instead generally act according to the norms of society. But a few among us who can prosper by cheating. Thieves and liars for example.

People are very variable. We are each unique in many ways. We all share capabilities but we get them in variable amounts. Some of us are eloquent. Others good at making pictures. Some find that being cooperative is very influential. Others less so.

I'm thinking of the guy who caused the disturbance in the store. His anger control mechanism wasn't being very effective but his behavior is well within human norms. When the capacity for empathy is impaired, then the person doesn't care for the welfare of others. That starts to become what I call evil. The guy in the store did no harm - it was just a bit upsetting.

Thinking about the fox and rabbit, being caught is certainly bad for the rabbit. But the fox isn't really being evil. Or thinking of natural disasters that kill hundreds of thousands of people. That is bad, but it's not evil.

For me there is a bit of a paradox here. I've been interested in theodicy - the problem of evil in Christian theology. The issue is, given an all loving and omnipotent and omniscient being that created reality, why is there any evil at all? And the response has been that to be able to endow people with freedom then necessarily some of them would choose to do bad. This is very similar to my own conclusion. We are autonomous (or free) creatures. That is actually true. That means it's in evitable that some of us will be bad.

What do you think?

Star I present regular philosophy discussions in a virtual reality called Second Life. I set a topic and people come as avatars and sit around a virtual table to discuss it. Each week I write a short essay to set the topic. I show a selection of them here.

I've been thinking and reading about philosophy for a long time but I'm mostly self taught. That is I've had the good fortune to read what interests me rather than follow a course of study. That has it's limits of course but advantages. It doesn't cost as much and is fun too.

My interests are things like evolution and cognition and social issues and economics and science in general.