Friday, June 7, 2019

A Man named Stan and Another Mann

Stanley Milgram ran an experiment that showed people obeying instructions from non-coercive authority figures that were harmful to others. His experiment has been conducted multiple times. The conclusion most people take from this is aligned with the doctrine of original sin: humans are just not really good unless some external process makes them so. I'm here to defend my claim that this conclusion is bullshit. Humans are pretty awesome, even if they aren't baptized or schooled.

Did you read about my seagulls?  They respect no authority, but maybe they will poop on U-boat periscopes after being trained. To me, they represent freedom, and offer a clue about my theory that humans are awesome. When we train seagulls or any animal, their behavior results from a history of experiences, good or bad. They don't have language and are therefore unable to obey*. They recognize certain situations in which they might get a reward by behaving some way, and so they often do. Situations in which certain behaviors can bring punishment are not quite as effective at getting them to do what we want.

In fact, both positive and negative reinforcement in psychology refer to providing the subject with a benefit, either the addition of a positive, or the removal of a negative.  Punishment is the opposite of reinforcement, and it can be positive or negative too.  If you take away something the subject likes, that's negative punishment, but if you add something they don't like, that's positive punishment.

I don't have the stomach to punish people, either negatively or positively.  For me, the relationship is more important.  We evolved to be social.  We survive better when we cooperate.  The creation of suffering seems like a bad strategy, especially when the common goal is to reduce it.  This is the problem I have with man-made law.  The word law is important to me, and I'll cover that some time in the future, because man-made law seems opposite in nature to the other kind.  Man-made law is bad.  Ask me why if you want me to hurry up and explain :-).

My review of replications of the Stanley Milgram experiment didn't find any that were done with people who had not been subjected to compulsory schooling.  In fact, the Prussian model for education was motivated by Johann Fichte who said (in German, or Prussian if you want) that in order to keep the soldiers on the battlefield (to prevent another loss like the one Prussia suffered in the Battle of Jena against Napoleon), their imaginations must be destroyed.  The model Prussia created to do that is likely related to what Germany (which Prussia became) did under Hitler.  That model was imported to the United States because of lobbying by Horace Mann after he returned from his 1843 trip to Prussia to study their system.

If you know anyone attached to a psychology department or working on replicating Milgram's experiment (difficult nowadays because ethical standards have improved), they may be interested in testing a theory.  My theory is that in countries where children are not forced into public schools, the rate at which the adults they become will obey an authority figure who instructs them to administer a seemingly deadly shock to an innocent person will be lower than in countries where the adults have been forced into public schools.  Schooling, as far as I can tell, buries the conscience in a haze of externally applied rules.  Ask anyone if obeying "the rules" is the "right thing to do," and once they say yes, ask, "What if it seems to go against your conscience, should you still obey them?" It's a recipe for cognitive dissonance and I'm pretty sure that's because school did the job it was designed to do.

Don't follow rules.  Consider that they may have value and pay attention to the fact that many people will want to see you suffer for doing the right thing if that thing happens to be "against the rules."  Be careful, but be good.  Eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  That means: Develop your conscience and apply it, and defend it, and be humble because we all make mistakes.  We all make logical errors and sometimes that means we think something is the best way and it isn't.  When that happens to you, you'll cause some suffering.  It's okay.  Do your best to make up for it, and make the internal correction that is needed.

I have to thank Derek Sivers who was recently interviewed by Tim Ferriss for suggesting that better writing sometimes just tells us what do to without arguing for it.  I'll do both from now on.  I used to only argue for what I think is the right way and expect people to find value in my arguments and then do what they think is best.  Now, I'll pepper in more of what I think is best.  I make mistakes too, and giving you my conclusions is a good way to get you to tell me about any mistakes you see.

*Really, obedience must be blind because if it isn't blind, it isn't really obedience. Furthermore, obedience is bad.  You have your own life experience, will, powers of reasoning, and conscience, and I implore you to use them.

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