Principle

A Quaker objector in the Civil War:

I was ordered out and required to fall in line with the company and drill, but I refused. They tried to make me and I sat down on the ground. They reminded me of the orders to shoot me, but I told them my God said to fear them not that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather to fear him that is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. The company was then ordered to fall back eight paces, leaving me in front of them. They were then ordered by Colonel Kirkland to ‘Load; Present arms; Aim,’ and their guns were pointed directly at my breast. I raised my arms and prayed: ‘Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.’ Not a gun was fired. They lowered them without orders, and some of them were heard to say that they ‘could not shoot such a man.’ The order was then given, ‘Ground arms.’

After weeks of such punishment, William Hockett was captured at Gettysburg and released to live in Philadelphia. He remained there until the end of the war.

Present Company

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Why do we give gifts during courtship, and what makes a good gift? In 2005, University College London mathematicians Peter D. Sozou and Robert M. Seymour modeled the question with a game. The male begins by offering one of three gifts — valuable, extravagant, or cheap — depending on how attractive he finds the female. After he offers the gift, she decides whether to accept it and mate with him. Afterward, he decides whether to stay with her or seek another partner.

Each is trying to judge the intentions of the other. She must decide whether he wants a serious relationship or only a brief encounter, and he must decide whether she’s really attracted to him or only wants the gift.

According to the courtship game, the most successful strategy for the male is to offer an “extravagant” gift that’s costly to him but intrinsically worthless to the female. This tells the female that he has resources and values her highly, but it protects him from coy fortune-hunters.

“By being costly to the male, the gift acts as a credible signal of his intentions or quality,” write Sozou and Seymour. “At the same time, its lack of intrinsic value to the female serves to deter a ‘gold-digger’, who has no intention of mating with the male, from accepting the gift. In this way, an economically inefficient gift enables mutually suitable partners to be matched.”

(Peter D. Sozou and Robert M. Seymour, “Costly But Worthless Gifts Facilitate Courtship,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B 272, 1877–1884, July 26, 2005.)

The Discursive Dilemma

The employees of a company are trying to decide whether to give up a pay raise so they can afford to install a workplace safety measure. Each employee will vote for the sacrifice if she thinks the danger is sufficiently serious, if the safety measure is sufficiently effective, and if the pay sacrifice is sufficiently bearable. Otherwise she’ll vote against it. The three employees come to this result:

discursive dilemma

This is troubling: A majority of employees supports each of the criteria, and yet each of the three resolves to reject the proposal. If the employees reach their decision by comparing their views about the measure as a whole, then they’ll reject the pay sacrifice. But if they compare their views about each criterion, they’ll accept it.

Princeton philosopher Philip Pettit worries that this phenomenon makes it impossible for us to make confident statements about the beliefs of a group. “Going the conclusion-driven way means adopting a course that is inconsistent with the premises endorsed by the group, and going the premise-driven way means adopting a course that a majority individually reject.”

Both outcomes are undesirable. “Going the first way means sacrificing collective rationality for the sake of responsiveness to individuals, going the second means sacrificing responsiveness to individuals for the sake of collective rationality.”

(Philip Pettit, “Deliberative Democracy and the Discursive Dilemma,” Philosophical Issues 11:1 [2001], 268-299.)

The Public Figure

In 1956 Macedonian poet Venko Markovski was imprisoned under a fictitious name for circulating a poem critical of Marshal Tito.

Among the guards were individuals who were taking correspondence courses in an attempt to earn a degree. One of these guards, knowing I was a writer, came up to me one day and said: ‘I was told you are a writer. You have knowledge of literature. I have a request …’

‘Please, what do you want to know about literature?’

‘Tell me about Macedonian literature.’

‘Whom are you interested in?’

‘Venko Markovski.’

‘Is it possible you don’t recognize Venko Markovski?’

‘I don’t know him.’

There was an unpleasant pause. I felt sorry for this man who was ordered to guard someone without knowing whom he was guarding. I spoke to him as follows:

‘The best way for you to learn about Venko Markovski is to read his poetry written in Croatian. In this way you will understand Markovski the poet, the Partisan, the public figure, and you will pass your exam easily. But if you rely on me to tell you about Venko Markovski, you will find yourself — after you fail your exam — in the very place where Markovski now finds himself.’

‘What do you mean by that?’ the guard asked. ‘Where is he in fact?’

‘Right in front of you, here on Goli Otok.’

‘Can it be that you are really he?’

‘Yes, I am here under another name.’

The guard walked away silent and confused.

“The warden obviously thought that since he had physical possession of his prisoners he disposed of their minds and souls as well,” Markovski wrote after gaining his freedom in 1961. “But he was mistaken; the body is one thing and the soul is another. There is no way to bribe the human conscience once it has committed itself to the struggle for the rights of its people.”

(From Geoffrey Bould, ed., Conscience Be My Guide: An Anthology of Prison Writings, 2005.)

Bedtime Stories

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In his 1948 book The Lost Art of Profanity, Burges Johnson quotes from an opinion by a Judge Hammond of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts:

The Watch and Ward Society of Boston years ago brought charges against a certain magazine for printing obscene matter, and my old friend the late Kendall Banning was forced to defend the publication. He felt sure that he could make a case, and during the train ride to Boston he had a sudden idea, and began jotting down such nursery rhymes as he could recall. Then he crossed out significant words and substituted asterisks. In court he asked permission to read these rhymes. They later appeared in a privately printed brochure which aroused delight or horror, according to the state of the reader’s mind. A mere sampling will serve here:

A dillar, a dollar
A ten-o’clock scholar,
What makes you *** so soon?
You used to *** at ten o’clock,
But now you *** at noon.

Jack and Jill went up the hill
To *******
Jack fell down and broke his ***
And Jill came tumbling after.

Johnson says that the courtroom broke out in laughter and that Banning had made his point.

04/15/2016 UPDATE: Related (thanks, Mate):

Parrot Talk

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At his death in 1880, Gustave Flaubert left behind notes for a Dictionary of Received Ideas, a list of the trite utterances that people repeat inevitably in conversation:

  • accident: Always “regrettable” or “unlucky” — as if a mishap might sometimes be a cause for rejoicing.
  • Archimedes: On hearing his name, shout “Eureka!” Or else: “Give me a fulcrum and I will move the world.” There is also Archimedes’ screw, but you are not expected to know what that is.
  • bachelors: All self-centered, all rakes. Should be taxed. Headed for a lonely old age.
  • book: Always too long, regardless of subject.
  • classics: You are supposed to know all about them.
  • forehead: Wide and bald, a sign of genius, or of self-confidence.
  • funny: Should be used on all occasions: “How funny!”
  • gibberish: Foreigners’ way of talking. Always make fun of the foreigner who murders French.
  • handwriting: A neat hand leads to the top. Undecipherable: a sign of deep science, e.g. doctors’ prescriptions.
  • jury: Do everything you can to get off it.
  • metaphors: Always too many in poems. Always too many in anybody’s writing.
  • original: Make fun of everything that is original, hate it, beat it down, annihilate it if you can.
  • pillow: Never use a pillow: it will make you into a hunchback.
  • restaurant: You should order the dishes not usually served at home. When uncertain, look at what others around you are eating.
  • taste: “What is simple is always in good taste.” Always say this to a woman who apologizes for the inadequacy of her dress.
  • war: Thunder against.
  • young gentleman: Always sowing wild oats; he is expected to do so. Astonishment when he doesn’t.

“All our trouble,” he wrote to George Sand, “comes from our gigantic ignorance. … When shall we get over empty speculation and accepted ideas? What should be studied is believed without discussion. Instead of examining, people pontificate.”

(Thanks, Macari.)

A Closed Road

In the 1950s a passenger rail line served Ithaca, N.Y. It was the only reliable way to get to Ithaca, working in all seasons and weather conditions, but it was slow and uncomfortable, so when possible many people traveled instead by car, air, or bus. The railway didn’t make enough revenue to continue the service, and in May 1959 it shut down the line.

The commuters expressed real dismay. Their daily choices to travel by other means had been too “small” to reflect their desire for continued rail service; the railway, by contrast, had had to make one big, long-term decision whether to maintain the line. Both sides were acting rationally, but they’d reached an outcome that no one preferred.

Cornell economist Alfred E. Kahn called this the “tyranny of small decisions”:

The short- and long-run determinations by business men are governed by decisions of customers involving a corresponding range in size and time-perspective — to buy a single candy bar, a camping trip, an automobile, a house, or to enter a rental contract of short or long duration. Still, the ‘size’ or importance of the individual choices by customers is typically less than of those made by the business man, so that each of the latter’s decisions reflects a prospective adding up of the consequences of a large number of customer actions taking place over a period of time.

And the “sum” of these small decisions may not reflect what people really want. “[I]f one hundred consumers choose option x, and this causes the market to make decision X (where X equals 100x), it is not necessarily true that those same consumers would have voted for that outcome if that large decision had ever been presented for their explicit consideration. If this is true, the consumer can be victimized by the narrowness of the contexts in which he exercises his sovereignty.”

(Alfred E. Kahn, “The Tyranny of Small Decisions: Market Failures, Imperfections, and the Limits of Economics,” Kvklos 19:1 [1966], 23-47.)

Podcast Episode 96: The Abduction of Edgardo Mortara

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On June 23, 1858, the Catholic Church removed 6-year-old Edgardo Mortara from his family in Bologna. The reason they gave was surprising: The Mortaras were Jewish, and Edgardo had been secretly baptized. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of little Edgardo and learn how his family’s plight shaped the course of Italian history.

We’ll also hear Ben Franklin’s musings on cultural bigotry and puzzle over an unexpected soccer riot.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.

Sources for our feature on Edgardo Mortara:

David I. Kertzer, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, 1997.

Bruce A. Boyer and Steven Lubet, “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara: Contemporary Lessons in the Child Welfare Wars,” Villanova Law Review 45 (2000), 245.

Steven Lubet, “Judicial Kidnapping, Then and Now: The Case of Edgardo Mortara,” Northwestern University Law Review 93:3 (Spring 1999), 961.

Donald L. Kinzer, “Review: The American Reaction to the Mortara Case, 1858-1859,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 44:4 (March 1958), 740-741.

Alexander Stille, “How a Jewish Boy’s Baptism Changed the Shape of Italy: The Notorious Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara,” Forward, Aug. 1, 1997.

“Pope John Paul Faces Politics of Sainthood,” Associated Press, Sept. 2, 2000.

Ellen Knickmeyer, “Pope Moves Two Toward Sainthood,” Spartanburg [S.C.] Herald-Journal, Sept. 4, 2000.

Garry Wills, “The Vatican Monarchy,” New York Review of Books, Feb. 19, 1998.

Garry Wills, “Popes Making Popes Saints,” New York Review of Books, July 9, 2013.

Justin Kroll, “Steven Spielberg Boards Religious Drama ‘Edgardo Mortara’,” Variety, April 17, 2014.

Ben Franklin’s “Remarks Concerning the Savages of North-America” was published in 1784 by Franklin’s Passy Press in France.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Tommy Honton, who sent these corroborating links (warning: these spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Ballot Measures

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If you and I are both well-informed, rational, morally reasonable people, then we should both have the right to vote for our leaders. But what if I’m incompetent, misinformed, or irrational? My vote exerts political power over you — it appoints people to powerful offices and influences the coercive power of the state.

Georgetown University philosopher Jason Brennan argues that, as an innocent person, you should not have to tolerate this. Citizens have the right that any political power held over them should be exercised competently, and giving the vote to everyone violates this right. He advocates replacing democracy with a moderate “epistocracy,” a system in which suffrage is limited to politically competent, well-informed citizens, perhaps through a voter qualification exam. There are objections against this view, but Brennan argues that it’s less intrinsically unjust than our present system and probably produces more just outcomes.

“Just as it would be wrong to force me to go under the knife of an incompetent surgeon, or to sail with an incompetent ship’s captain,” he writes, “it is wrong to force me to submit to the decisions of incompetent voters. People who exercise power over me, including other voters, should have to do so in a competent and morally reasonable way. Otherwise, as a matter of justice, they ought to be excluded from holding political power, including the power to vote.”

(Jason Brennan, “The Right to a Competent Electorate,” Philosophical Quarterly 61:245 [October 2011], 700-724.)