#40 On integrity

Dear Jamie,

Thank you for your answers, but I think I disagree with almost everything you said. Let’s begin.

I haven’t heard skin in the game used the way you use it. My understanding is its primarily used as a tool to correctly align incentives. People tend to cut corners or cheat when they don’t need to face the consequences. It’s not the exact same as saying that people who have it good have an incentive to keep it good. That seems more like straight ownership or risk aversion. Actually it’s a conflict of interest.

Thinking about it more, I’ve come to the conclusion that skin in the game really only suits zero or negative sum games. It’s used to make someone feel the losses in case they can¬†achieve a win at the expense of others. Trading, or cooperation in civilization is not zero sum, and it doesn’t really make sense to insist that someone take a loss in case they might win, or because they won before. Skin in the game may dampen win-wins and could even make zero sum games negative sum.

Independent of whether I’m right on the above it’s still worth asking if we have an obligation to share in privilege (moral luck) at all. I don’t think there is. While I’m sure you’ll want to know why I don’t think it is at the heart of what separates our opinion.*

I have to say I’ve never heard civilization described as something that “didn’t work”.** No. Civilization worked and works. Humans have a method that, provided they follow certain roles, means people don’t get eaten by bears or die of exposure. If civilisation is lacking, then it’s lacking compared to a theoretical ideal not to what we know about how hard it is to get billions of individuals to work together.

And the continued success of civilisation is why Peterson focuses on pathology. Pathology isn’t something that delineates a class of “dysfunctional people” from a class of “rational, peaceloving libertines”. It’s a delineation that runs through the heart of every human, as we explored in earlier letters.¬† Even the most put-together of us are one threat or trick away from dysfunction. You said so yourself when you admitted you too could have kowtowed in the thirties, and you’re literally the most well put-together person I know.

The ideas of Peterson you’re talking about are his genuine attempts to explore the breaking point of civilisation. And if you buy that a civilisation has an integrity related to the integrity of its people, then pathologies are probably the right place to look. They tend to emerge when personal responsibility is removed, or when people find an end with infinite value (e. g. ideology, religion, compassion).*** Please take his focus on pathology as a study of integrity at all scales.

You described motherhood roles (and things that libertarians like) as the “status quo”. Do you think the effectiveness of civilisation is a matter of opinion? I was sure you didn’t but then you said that it “doesn’t work from the point of view of [outsiders]”. I was thoroughly disoriented by that. I don’t believe someone’s point of view can evaluate whether a society works. A functioning civilization has more in common with the mileage of a working car than the value of an artwork. Indeed utilitarian assumptions require this to be the case.

I think it’s more likely that that there is a real hierarchy of approaches that is overwhelmingly a function of practical realities and so unlikely to align with one political side. This would mean it is also unlikely that good approaches fit one’s desired role, and impossible to fit everyone’s desired roles. Take motherhood for example. There are certainly unconventional roles that would make someone a bad parent. I don’t think this stems from “the old way is tried and true” as much as it does “parenting is a fundamentally cooperative act, and cooperative acts take sacrifice, and sacrifice means losing bits of you, i.e. your identity”. Hopefully I’ve come full circle to the individual vs the group dynamic that is at the heart of everything. The integrity of one comes at the sacrifice of the other, but not too much.


* Oh OK. Luck is randomly (uniformly) assigned at birth but it is predictable from then on. It follows the Matthew effect (literally the least uniform distribution in existence). And it has its two interpretations: One is that the Matthew effect is caused by the top stealing from the bottom, the other is that it’s the natural consequence of efficiently producing systems. The latter camp is true in economics, so thinking of luck like money (which it’s at least convertable to in today’s day and age), everyone is luckier even though it is highly unequal.

** Apart from the way you framed civilisation in your last letter. As well as being called “always broken”, you awarded civilisation with solving problems somewhat satisfactorily. If that’s what you call solving it more than anywhere else on Earth, and more than at any time in history, and in the universe for all we know. I’ve heard the power of minorities in our civilisation described as “cosmically improbable”, “painfully rare”, I’ve even heard it called a “miracle”, but never “somewhat satisfactory”.

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