Asian Values

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World Values Survey Cultural Map of the World (2005-2008)

Any real discussion involving the concept has to start with the realization that it’s a profoundly silly term. I mean, what are Asian Values? Other than the “obvious” idea that such a thing exists and is superior to the “moral depravity” of the West, most people find it difficult to enumerate precisely what they are, or how they came to be common across such a range of countries, cultures and religions. Wikipedia suggests that the term came about

“to justify authoritarian regimes in Asia or to defense from the politically designated western concept of ‘human right’, predicated on the belief in the existence within Asian countries of a unique set of institutions and political ideologies which reflected the region’s cultures and histories”.

It then lists a bunch of values which seem rather designed for that purpose.The list is not worth reproducing but largely reduces to the elevation of the collective (family, clan, firm, country) over the individual.

The problem is, calling these “Asian values” obscures the fact that these were almost universal values for thousands of years! Insofar as the West has de-emphasized the collective and emphasized the individual (and this is by no means a universal characteristic of the West, either), this has occurred purely in the last 300-400 years, since the Enlightenment, and particularly coinciding with the sudden growth of their economies during the Industrial Revolution.Perhaps the following is a better description of what most people consider Asian Values:

TYPE *B* folks travel less, and move less often from where they grew up. They are more polite and care more for cleanliness and order. They have more self-sacrifice and self-control, which makes them more stressed and suicidal. They work harder and longer at more tedious and less healthy jobs, and are more faithful to their spouses and their communities. They make better warriors, and expect and prepare more for disasters like war, famine, and disease. They have a stronger sense of honor and shame, and enforce more social rules, which let them depend more on folks they know less. When considering rule violators, they look more at specific rules, and less at the entire person and what feels right. Fewer topics are open for discussion or negotiation.

Type B folks believe more in good and evil, and in powerful gods who enforce social norms. They envy less, and better accept human authorities and hierarchy, including hereditary elites at the top (who act more type A), women and kids lower down, and human and animal slaves at the bottom. They identify more with strangers who share their ethnicity or culture, and more fear others. They are less bothered by violence in war, and toward foreigners, kids, slaves, and animals. They more think people should learn their place and stay there. Nature’s place is to be ruled and changed by humans.

That is simply Robin Hanson’s list of “farmer values”, as opposed to forager values, which (as he notes) maps rather well to the conservative vs liberal divide in most of Western politics. There is nothing uniquely Asian about Asian values. There is nothing inherently wrong about them, either, aside from their tendency to lose out against forager values (do read that post) as people tend to get richer. But any argument -particularly amongst Asians- that attempts to draw its strength from “Asian values” should be well aware of the origin and limitations of the concept.

A Fairy Tale

White-haired and -bearded wizard with robes an...

An otherwise intelligent friend who tends to read about this sort of thing a lot forwarded me this link about “The Law of Attraction” (ala The Secret). After I delivered a somewhat immoderate blast about the nature of reality and how consciousness, while certainly a mystery and all that, is misplaced in this sort of discussion, he asked me to pretend he was my 4-year-old and to tell him a “bedtime story” that represents my idea about “the universe.” This is how I obliged. I’m not sure he got the allegory, but I thought it was rather obvious.

Once upon a time there was a young prince who went out into the woods to find some treasure. He walked around for hours and days and months, but he couldn’t find any. Then, he went to a wizard. The wizard told him: “If you want to find treasure, you must first learn how to search for it properly.

And the prince stayed with the wizard for 7 years and 7 months and 7 days and read a lot of books and thought about a lot of things and the wizard taught the prince how to tell when he was close to treasure. He also taught the prince how sometimes, even if he thinks he’s close to treasure, he isn’t, really. And sometimes even if he’s really sure he’s right, he should still think about all the things the wizard taught him to make sure, and if they didn’t agree, he should be really, really sure before he ignores what the wizard said.

And then the prince went out and searched for years and years. Finally, he did find some treasure, but it was a lot less than he had hoped for, and he was disappointed. But along the way he found a princess and found out a lot of cool things, and had a lot of fun. So he was still happy that he had gone out to find the treasure instead of sitting around in the castle all day.

In the end, he and the princess took the treasure and went back to the palace and lived happily ever after.

(In another version of this story he finds a lot of treasure. In another version a bandit kills him before he meets the wizard at all. In another version the prince is gay.)

I should add that I find the basic argument of the article (positive thoughts seem to help, so regardless of whether the mumbo-jumbo is true or not, why not try heeding the advice?) more or less sound. The immoderation was provoked by the other parts of the article and how the author makes a feeble attempt at “science”, and the discussion was more a continuation of similar discussions we have had before. Also, the many-worlds hypothesis, which apparently this guy has never heard of.

PS: This quote from T.H. White’s The Once and Future King is one of my absolute favourites.

Able Abel and Post-Scarcity

Bryan Caplan has an extremely thought-provoking post over on his blog:

Suppose there are ten people on a desert island.  One, named Able Abel, is extremely able.  With a hard day’s work, Able can produce enough to feed all ten people on the island.  Eight islanders are marginally able.  With a hard day’s work, each can produce enough to feed one person.  The last person, Hapless Harry, is extremely unable.  Harry can’t produce any food at all.


1. Do the bottom nine have a right to tax Abel’s surplus to support Harry?

2. Suppose Abel only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day.  Do the bottom nine have a right to force Abel to work more to support Harry?

3. Do the bottom nine have a right to tax Abel’s surplus to raise everyone‘s standard of living above subsistence?

4. Suppose Abel only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day.  Do the bottom nine have a right to force Abel to work more to raise everyone‘s standard of living above subsistence?

Do click the link, there’s more to the post, not to mention some rather interesting comments.Leave aside all the very important questions (which other people have already brought up) over how much of the fruits of Abel’s labour are, in fact, solely the fruits of his labour, the value Abel derives from the very existence of the social fabric, and so on. The question I was wondering about was this: what level or ratio of ability would overturn our intuitions (I say our under the assumption that most of you feel the same way, but I don’t know how justified that is) on forcing Abel into “slavery”?

What if the total level of the economy is far above subsistence level in the aggregate, as I think we can agree most Western countries are? Assume the others’ abilities remain roughly constant: at what level of Abel’s ability to create wealth/resources could we claim to have hit “post-scarcity”? A hundred times subsistence? A thousand? A million? Does it not matter? If the other 8 demand that Abel work an extra second so that Harry doesn’t starve, or even so they can enjoy some chunk of the incredible wealth that this “economy” has accumulated, would we still consider it slavery?An extra minute? An extra hour?

Most people would consider “how big a chunk” and “how much more work” the more important questions here, I think, and insofar as most discussions of taxation seem to revolve around it I think the “status quo” sees things more clearly than Caplan. My intuitions suggest that the size of the chunk should vary with the level of the aggregate economy over subsistence more than the actual distribution of wealth within the economy. Presumably this is where we could use some actual economics to guide us.

A Guide to the Legitimacy of State Authority for Minarchists

The point of a legitimate monopoly on the use of force is, at a fundamental level, to limit the level of violence. Insofar as it accomplishes this aim the state is superior to anarchism; insofar as this monopoly unleashes unchecked or insufficiently checked violence, it is not. In a situation where multiple agents try to extract rents through the use of force a state modeled simply as a stable protection racket- forget theories of justice or any larger scope of political philosophy- still pays for itself; in a society that largely understands the virtues of cooperation where apathy and where badly calibrated moral outrage over, say, drug laws leads to the disproportionate incarceration of millions of lower-class citizens of minority backgrounds, it does not.

Inspired by: , although I didn’t read the whole thing, because it says far too little in far too many words.

Political Economy is Depressing

I don’t want to turn the overall tone of this blog more conservative, especially as I’m detecting a slow but certain leftward trend in my political views, but I’m afraid this is going to be another conservative post. This is not, however, an anti-Occupy-Wall-Street post, just an anti-Marxism one.

Partly due to Occupy Wall Street, I was reading some Marxist theory-distilled, condensed, simplified, etc, but in book form, and it seems to cover the basics- and it’s really startling to see how so many of the arguments have remained essentially unchanged. Post-scarcity economics has always been a contradiction in terms but at least it is something that can be considered in a science-fictional setting; however, a similar optimism about the abundance of the industrial age and the bounty of the coming era seems to me to be woven into much of Marxist theory.

The basic idea that wealth becomes ever more concentrated and that this is the inevitable product of the system and so on is something that I have a certain amount of sympathy with, but on the other hand, the clear failure of Marx‘s theory that wages will always be pushed down to subsistence levels and that productivity gains will always be captured by capital and not labour do not seem to be sufficiently impressed in the minds of those who continue to call themselves Marxists. Even more, the simple fact that Marx’s theory of human nature- human nature having always been the largest and most obvious impediment to the success of practically every alternative to plain old capitalism that has ever been suggested or implemented- was wrong doesn’t seem to be fazing anyone in the slightest. Clearly, though, the less-than-necessarily-pliant selfishness of man is a fact that most people grow up to accept (I have always thought this rather than a decreasing sympathy for unfortunates was at the core of that old joke: “if you’re not a socialist before 20, you have no heart; if you are a socialist after 20, you have no head.”)

This, then, is why the “why don’t these people have any actual demands?” question is worth asking, all rhetoric about pushing “the idea” and “maintaining unity” and “not allowing ourselves to be boxed in” aside. (I feel fairly comfortable calling it rhetoric because after all the focus on rhetoric is precisely what “momentum” and “the idea” are all about.) I can accept their premises in the narrowest sense: inequality is widening, and this is bad. I can’t accept their details because the details vary with every telling*, and I can’t accept their solutions because there aren’t any**. Capitalism-as-she-is-practised may well be a system nobody wants, but neither an alternative workable system nor a feasible transition to it (the bigger hurdle, in my opinion) seem to be on offer.

PS: This isn’t to say there’s nowhere to go from here, of course. The system could use more than a few tweaks, and a fair bit of re-shaping. It’s not going to change it’s essential incentive-based structure, that’s all.

PS2: And, of course, burning books is bad.

* I mean, of course crony capitalism is bad, of course banks shouldn’t be given bailouts and then turn around and hand their executives huge bonuses, of course we should avoid moral hazards and try for a more stable, better balanced financial system- but yet again, these aren’t details, those are practically tautologies!

**Some solutions that have been proposed by some people, like a well-targeted debt jubilee, I actually think make sense. (I will, however, wager a small sum of money that no broad-based debt jubilee will happen in the United States for the next 5 years.) The same goes for a reasonable tax increase, although I have a better sense for the numbers than to suggest that it can be restricted to the top 1% and still be sufficient to reduce the deficit.

Ooh, and here’s an inkling of the sort of crap I’m talking about.




Image via Wikipedia



Logicomix is a simply brilliant book written by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou and coloured/designed by Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna. It is about Bertrand Russell‘s quest for the Foundations of Mathematics and the (tenuous and rather loosely interpreted) connections between the study of logic and madness. It also spends a lot of time on Russell’s life. It is not only self-referential, it has layered self-reference: we see the authors talking about the story, in their book, which features Russell giving a lecture where he recounts most of the major scenes in the book. The narrative structure even includes some rather edifying “time-outs” in between where the authors write pages of themselves arguing over the story and how they are presenting it, and also time-outs on the “middle level” where Russell pauses his story to explain some necessary background information or is interrupted by a question. (1) The authors do take a few liberties with the text, as they explain at the end, making up fictional encounters where the characters only corresponded or dramatizing certain elements of their personal lives.

The book is beautifully drawn -more should be said here, but I’m just not the right person to say it- and it’s very impressive how well they give a general idea of all the mathematical discussions going on at that time without actually using any maths, although for my part I would have gladly dealt with a few more symbols and numbers in exchange for some more detail on the substance of their debate. This is, however, a perfectly reasonable level of detail for a popular book and the fact that it deals with logic rather than another aspect of mathematics does mean that it manages to make the central arguments sufficiently clear.  When the package first arrived from flipkart I was pleasantly surprised at the heft of it, because I’m not used to graphic novels this size, but it certainly doesn’t go on any longer than it has to, and they manage to end a story that has such an inconclusive-at-best ending in a very pleasantly self-aware way, by picturing and commenting on the ancient Greek tragedy of Oresteia. (It makes sense in context.) Overall, definitely recommended.

PS: This was originally supposed to be part of a much longer post in which I also mixed in where Wittgenstein picked up from Russell, reviewed A.C. Grayling‘s “A Very Short Introduction to Wittgenstein” and explained very, very briefly all the little things I jotted down while reading that book, most of which Grayling also uses at the end when he criticises Wittgenstein’s theories. Then I realized that a) the dude wrote a lot of stuff and a lot of it is, quite frankly, meaningless, b) Logicomix is actually not very related to the sort of thing Wittgenstein was primarily concerned with, even though it’s about the Foundations of Mathematics and Wittgenstein ostensibly started off concerned about the Foundations of Mathematics(2) and c) at the end of the book even Grayling says that “the dude wrote a lot of stuff and most of it is, quite frankly, meaningless”.

OK, actually he points out a few fairly fundamental contradictions in Wittgenstein’s work, which for all his assertions and vagueness does contain some sort of positive theses, and says Wittgenstein is important in the sense that a small minority of dedicated “Wittgensteinians” wrote copious amounts of material where they praised Wittgenstein in very enthusiastic terms, but not important in the “perhaps more accurate” sense that his work meaningfully changed the future direction of philosophy, even though it’s too early to predict that at this point. Wittgenstein’s work (both early and late) is certainly quite exciting, in many ways, and it’s easy to see why his later work might be very appealing to some people, especially for rationally inclined people who feel the need to be at ease with their religious impulses. It certainly seemed appealing to me while I was reading it the first time around. I’m also very happy that I didn’t attempt to read Wittgenstein in the original, judging by the quotes in this book, although of course if Grayling had any insidious motives it could easily have been cherry-picking. And now that I’ve said all this, I don’t believe I’ll be doing a separate post either, if only because d) it would be real hubris to try to critique a philosopher’s ideas in just one blog post when the very notion of reading his unabridged work fills you with dread.


Footnotes: (Which wordpress should really provide a better way of using)

  1. Christos argues with Apostolos on 2 major points, namely the tenuousness of that connection and the extent to which the main quest was a failure and, therefore, the extent to which this book is a tragedy:
    Apostolos: “Russell himself called it a failure, and they never really got to the Foundations of Mathematics.”
    Christos: “But it provided a framework, and it led to the development of computers!”
    And it certainly seems likely that computer science would not have developed in the way that it did without all this as background, so yay! I guess?
  2. In fact, in the book Wittgenstein really only figures as yet another Giant of Logic who was “eccentric”/maybe the teeniest bit off his rocker, but as I already mentioned they do stretch this link between logic and madness quite a bit.

Sins of Omission and Amoral Virtues

Some time back, I wrote a post on sexism and objectification where I made the following rather confused/confusing statement:

Curiously enough, the more I read feminist blogs, the less I am coming to think of “sexist” as a particularly strong insult… if only because there seems to be no way out of it, if one accepts their definition. You can of course disapprove of me or my actions because of perceived sexism, and if your approval is important to me I will take that into account, but I am becoming far less inclined to view this as a moral issue with the accompanying assumption of normativity.

I don’t think I expressed it very well, but this article says what I had really intended to say about the difference between “badness” in the moral sense of the term, which I didn’t think sexism was, and “badness” in a more aesthetic sense. I don’t think I would still be using that argument in this context, though. This argument, for that matter, is going to be a little difficult for a lot of people to swallow.

Rather long excerpt:

Let me hasten to say that I agree that the bystander who watches the child die is a sonofabitch.  I am happy to say  he is “a bad man”.  But the sense of “bad” in which this is true is not, I think, a moral one.

Moral right and wrong have to do with actions, with what people do.  But we do not think the bystander is a bad guy because he does something morally wrong.  Suppose the bystander had stayed at home to polish his shoes.  Then he would never have encountered the drowning child and would never had the opportunity to save or refrain from saving it.  If you count failing-to-save as “doing a bad thing” then you should agree that, had he stayed home, the bystander would have done one less bad thing that day.  If you think the bystander wrongs this child by not saving it when he can, then you should agree that the bystander would not have wronged the child had he just not been standing by.

But the world would not have been a better place— no one would have been better or better off— had the bystander stayed home.  The child would still be dead and the bystander would still be every bit as much of a sonofabitch as he is in the world where he can save the child but doesn’t.  He would still be the kind of sonofabitch who would stand by and watch a child drown when he could save it.  His actual behavior with respect to the child is relevant only because it reveals what a sonofabitch he is.

The  bystander is a sonofabitch because his behavior demonstrates that he has a bad character . I suppose a practitioner of “Virtue Ethics” would say that his behavior demonstrates that he lacks the virtue of “charity” or perhaps “empathy”. I don’t entirely disagree:  I think charitableness, in its place,  is a virtue.  But I don’t agree that it is a moral or “ethical” virtue….

Virtue Ethics goes wrong precisely when it aims to be a kind of ethics: as if we could assess the ethics of actions by examining the character of admirable agents…

…So if I don’t think the badness of the sonofabitch is moral badness, what sort of disvalue is it?

A.J. Ayer is reported to have once said, of a certain colleague, that he had  “…gone bad.”  Ayer explained, ” I don’t mean morally bad.  I don’t use moral language.  I mean he’s gone bad like an orange goes bad!”  I think that’s about right. The relevant sort of goodness and badness has more in common with aesthetic value than it does with moral right and wrong.  We think the bystander is an ugly customer.  He is, among people, as an ugly picture is among pictures.

In calling our evaluation of the bystander’s badness “aesthetic” I am not in the least trying to trivialize it.  I do not say (would never say)  “merely” aesthetic.  The measures by which we judge one person better than another are at the center of human life.  They are values by which we choose who to love, who to hate, who to befriend, and who to shun…

Moralists are in the business of dividing in twain: deontologists  between good and bad acts; consequentialists among outcomes.  But just as it is an aesthetic mistake to think that the job of the critic is to divide all art into two piles, it is absurd to think that  people monotonically range from saints to sons of bitches.  There are good people and bad, just as there are good and bad pictures, but there is more to it than that.   Lot’s more.  Though one will get little help from philosophical moralists in trying to sort it out…

And the rest of the article is quite fascinating; I’ve cut a lot of things in between and before and after because I didn’t want to just copy the whole thing, but do read if this is even remotely your thing.

Basically, The Matrix Question

Alonzo Fyfe on Desire Utilitarianism

Here is a little thought experiment that should completely refute any residual notion that people are basically selfish, while it illustrates the case that desire fulfillment is what human action aims towards.

You, and somebody you care a great deal about (e.g., your child) have been captured by an evil extra-terrestrial mad scientist who is interested in conducting all sorts of experiments on humans. It offers you the following two options:

Option 1: “I will take this other person to another ship and perform all sorts of medical experiments on him. We have become well versed in the art of vivisection, I assure you, and the process will be painful and unending. However, you will be made to believe that your child has been set free and allowed to live a safe and happy life.”

Option 2: “I will let your child free with enough gold to live a healthy and happy life. However, you will be made to believe that I have taken your child to another ship and that I am performing all sorts of medical experiments on him. You will be made to believe that we have become well versed in the art of vivisection, and that the process will be painful and unending.”

Of course, I will also cause you to forget about this choice.

Which option do you choose?

The view that says that everyone is only after their own happiness would have to argue that everybody would select option 1. This is, after all, the option that provides the agent with the most happiness. However, this is contrary to fact. Most people go with option 2 — they sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of the child.

We have no actual experiments to point to that involve locking people in a cell and asking them to make this choice. So, maybe, they would all choose Option 1. But, most people at least report that they would not, and no reason can be provided to doubt them. The selfishness theory needs to at least explain why so few people think (incorrectly) that they would choose Option 2.

The widespread choice of Option 2 is easily explained if we hold that desires are dispositions to make or keep the proposition that is the object of the desire true. The parent with a desire that their child is healthy and happy is disposed to make or keep the proposition “my child is healthy and happy” true. Option 2 is the option in this case that makes or keeps the proposition true. It is desire fulfillment that we are after in life, not pleasure, nor happiness.

Interesting, right? I have no commentary to offer, except to say that if the experiment is to prove that “humans are basically unselfish”, as he claims, then it is most definitely incomplete.