Principles as Bets

I envy the confidence of people who sincerely believe that they would have gotten the better end of the bargain if they died fighting for their principles. There’s something unknowable in death that scares me, but I’m also extremely embarrassed when friends even teasingly suggest moral impropriety. I wonder if I might trade my life for my principles, but only to avoid shame. While that seems like an odd-bet, many men have taken their lives after finding out they were ‘4-F’ in times of crisis. A rational person, placing country-over-self, would find some other way to help their nation even if it would result in their denigration. Others, perceiving cowardice, seem to think that their nation would benefit by harassing the coward until they were so shamed that they moved their cowardice onto the battlefield—next to their fellow countrymen who rely on the bravery of those beside them. We humans are an odd-lot, and we don’t understand ourselves as much as one might expect.

I think that modern parents are an excellent example of true genius, amazing luck, and the human condition. Far more children make it to adulthood than they used to. We no longer avoid naming our children until they reach a certain age (oddly enough, names are now immediately required) or plan for retirement like generals plan a beach-landing, where strength is measured by the number of men. Some of this is due to true genius, but it is mostly the dumb luck of having kids while in a human golden age. Despite our newfound societal ability to keep nearly all the unlucky and hardheaded children alive, we still struggle to get through to them despite our significant personal experience being children. Luckily, we’re better at teaching kids to read than we are at getting teenage boys to take showers. I think that last problem speaks to the intractability of our circumstances where despite sophisticated technology, volumes of academic literature, and thousands of years of collective wisdom, teenage boys are still smelly more often than not.

As a species, we clearly deserve a B+ for strong understanding of the basic material, but a lack of control over finer points worsened by chaotic organization, logical inconsistency, and some obvious areas for improvement not worth commenting on. Maybe I have the deeply optimistic mindset of someone in the era of grade inflation, but I believe any B+ species can be moved up to an A- with a bit of time spent reapplying the basics to unwind more complex problems. Sometimes that means painfully reviewing the material we’ve already purged and replaced with trivia. I believe that translates to looking at and reflecting on the basic principles we readily espouse, fight, and sacrifice for.

Ultimately, our principles are bets. Peer pressure is so effective because we’re social creatures hard-wired to value access to our group. Implicitly, we try and avoid judgement from those we associate with. We avoid shame just like we avoid touching a hot-stove. We tend to think our group right is probably right. Like herd animals, though, we can run ourselves off cliffs through group behavior and our other principles make us aware of this, such as when we see the cliff and suggest to our friends that we stop stampeding. Unfortunately, our social and mental lives are much harder to comprehend than immediate physical danger and our groups are far greater in size than we can understand without abstraction. Dealing successfully with these new problems, often compounded by technology and the difficulty of dealing with extreme abstraction, is a difficult task. We need to make the abstract real again—to snap ourselves not back to reality, which has changed, but towards principles that make for winning bets.

Let’s not pretend that betting is a figure of speech. When we make any decision, we are taking on varying levels and types of risk. We are hoping for good outcomes like poker players hope for the right cards, but we deal with a lot more statistical uncertainty than they do. We are behaving in ways that avoid shame and place shame on others to secure certain standards—like clean streets, reasonably free of litter. We trust what others tell us without truly knowing because things seem to make sense—like our trust, in varying degrees, of journalists. Without their work, we could not effectively understand even our immediate political environments, never mind national politics. When lawyers master the law as opposed to the elements, they’re making a bet on society continuing to function. When we pass a beggar without providing for them, we’re betting in society’s response absolving us of direct moral responsibility for the people immediately before us even though society might be better off if each of us was willing to take that on.

Life is uncertain, and our principles are uncertain, too. I think that good bets—good moral decisions—acknowledge that. Even values we view as sacrosanct may be detrimental, and emerging values may have ill-considered consequences.  That is not to say that these issues are a wash. Instead, these complexities require consistent consideration. To consider our decision making, both what we think and how we think should be laid bare. Otherwise, our bets are based on vague feelings.