Grammars

Noam Chomsky has argued that humans have a deep grammar from which our languages emerge. Steven Pinker’s work tends to confirm this insight.

In Moral Minds, Marc Hauser has argued that there is likely a deep grammar of morality. I would tend to agree. There is a deep sense of “unfairness” in a lot of species, including humans. Humans also have a set of moral universals–prohibitions on murder, incest, theft, etc.–with cultural variations and individual subjective interpretations within those cultural expressions of those universals.

Music is also considered to have a grammar out of which the various musical expressions emerge.

Stories also have a grammar, and one could argue that each sentence is in fact a miniature story. Meaning, stories follow the grammar of language at scales of greater complexity.

Let’s go deeper. As it turns out, proteins also have a grammar. And if peptides do, certainly genes and the DNA itself do.

Do cultures have a grammar? Economies? Technological innovation? It would be odd if they didn’t.

Ridiculous

When someone is laughing at us, it seems cruel –- if we take ourselves seriously. But people who laugh at themselves cannot hate others. Hatred of others come more from taking ourselves seriously as children take themselves seriously than from anything else. There is no one more serious than a child –- and no one is more easily hurt by others.

Mature people know not to take much seriously, and that not all things should be taken equally seriously at all times. Adults know that not every action done by others involves them or that, if an action turns out to be harmful or hurtful to them, that the person doing it did not necessarily always mean it that way. Adults are aware that not everything is meaningful, and that not everything is as it may at first appear. In other words, adults are aware of irony. Only children do not understand irony. And those who find meaning in everything are of a totalitarian spirit.

People who laugh with each other about each other do not want to kill each other. They do not even want to hate each other. Laughter dissolves meaning in a meaningful way, so we do not take each other so seriously we see each other as a threat. And when people do not take us seriously this way, we should not be offended –- they are learning to love us through laughter. But only if we laugh along with them. If we choose to get offended when people laugh at us we in turn show them that we are contemptible, that we do not or can not have a sense of humor. If we are perceived not to have a sense of humor, we will be taken seriously –- and if we are taken seriously, we are in danger of being hated.

However, we want people to laugh with us, not at us. All laughter is aimed at folly –- when we are acting good, we cannot be laughed at. Self-deprecating humor fits here too: people laugh with us as we laugh at our own shortcomings. Good people see the world as serious, but funny (as Aristotle says, serious people don’t take much seriously –- and know when to take something seriously). Good people laugh the most. Beware of the humorless -– even they know they are not good people.

Let me make a serious suggestion. How do we recognize a bad law? Can it be laughed at? Can we make a joke about it? If so, it is a bad law. Who jokes about the laws against murder, theft, or rape? You cannot vilify the good. You can only ridicule the ridiculous.

Culture of Revenge

Coercion –- all force –- is unethical. Sometimes force is needed to prevent greater injustices, but even if we need a small injustice to prevent a greater injustice, this does not prevent the small injustice from being ultimately unjust. This is why corruption always occurs in governments, police forces, or active military. Practicing injustice by punishing injustice leads people to practice injustice.

This is clear when we realize what the practical actions of a just police or military force really is. While the presence of police or military force as a threat of force may prevent some injustices, only rarely are they around to actually prevent injustices from occuring. Usually, they react to injustices already performed. Punishing injustices already performed is revenge, and revenge is the returning of evil for evil. This creates a corrupt culture, especially among those with weak characters, as a culture of revenge is a culture of injustice. We create police and military forces to exact revenge for us so the culture at large can be free of the corrupting influence of revenge. This also allows us to act indignant whenever members of the police or military act unjustly –- as we should, even though by putting them in cultures of revenge, we make them prone to acting unjust. Thus, we sacrifice our police and military personnel to reduce corruption in the culture at large.

If we cannot eliminate corruption in a revenge culture, can we at least reduce corruption? The worst kind of good is one that is good because it is better than some other evil. A bad kind of vengeance is one where a greater evil is given for a lesser evil. A better kind is one where an equal evil is given for an evil. But we do not want a police or military with members as evil as those they fight. If we want better, less corrupt protectors, we need laws where, if revenge is needed, the revenge is a lesser evil than the crime. To do this, of course, requires we identify “evil,” including levels of “evil,” so we do not make the mistake of using a greater evil against a lesser one.

A historical example is Prohibition, when buying and selling alcohol could get one put in prison. This was a greater evil (putting someone in prison) for a lesser evil (buying and selling alcohol), and most would now say we used an evil against something that was and is at least morally neutral, since drunkenness and alcoholism are bad (these being actions), though the social benefits of drinking and the health benefits of at least red wine are good. Prohibition gave us dramatic increases in all crimes, especially murder, organized crime, and police corruption. When we repealed prohibition, all the crime rates dramatically decreased. This is why it is important to identify what is good and what is bad, and what is evil, so we can avoid corrupting our protectors.

For more on this idea, I encourage you to read my old essay The Tragic Institutions.

Good, Bad, and Evil…and Education

An engineer who is good at building bridges is a good engineer. The steel he uses must be of high enough quality to do the job – it must be good steel. When building begins on the bridge, it can only be done in good weather. A good engineer is good at being an engineer. Good steel is steel that can be depended on to do the job at hand (being dependable to do the job at hand is also a feature of being a good engineer). Good weather is weather that provides favorable conditions for what work the person wants to do – in this definition, rain is good weather for a farmer, but bad for our engineer. A good person is thus a person who is good at being a person. We must work at being good – ethics is work. But ethics is not necessarily what works. One has to keep in mind the end at which one aims. We need an idea of proper ends, a proper target at which to aim. The proper end of our engineer is obvious: to build a bridge that will span the gulf at hand and remain intact. He must design and build a bridge that does the work of a bridge.

From the example above, we can now distinguish between bad and evil. A bad engineer is one who is not able to design a bridge that will do the proper work of a bridge. An evil engineer is one who is able to design a bridge that will do the proper work of a bridge but who chooses instead to design a bridge that will not do the proper work of a bridge. For the bad engineer, the destruction caused by his bad bridge is incidental to his inability to design a good bridge. The bad engineer is bad because he is ignorant. He would build a good bridge if he could. For the evil engineer, the destruction caused by his bad bridge comes about because he chose to make a bad bridge so that it would cause destruction. The evil engineer is evil because he knows the right way to build a bridge, but chooses not to do so. He can build a good bridge, but chooses not to.

When education experts choose to use teaching methods like the look-say method of teaching reading, when it is well-established that it does not and never has worked, over using phonics, which we know is the best way to learn how to read, then which one of these categories do you think America’s educators fall into? And what about our choice not to teach children foreign languages when we know they can learn them –- before they reach puberty? Or using the “tally” method to teach “comprehension” (it does the opposite, and we know it does)? Isn’t it time that we started providing our students a good education, rather than the one we have been providing them which has failed both them and this country?