Situationists

Situationists

“Situational factors are often better predictors of behavior than personal factors,” writes Quassim Cassam to quote John Doris from his 2002 book on character. Cassam argues in his book that the adoption of epistemic vices and the development of epistemic virtues are important factors for humanity and that they can shape how people behave. Cassam’s argument runs against the quote from Doris.
To present his argument, Cassam lays out arguments from situationists writing, “one would think that curiosity, creativity, and flexibility are intellectual virtues, yet studies suggest that people are more likely to reason creatively, flexibly, and curiously when their moods have been elevated by such seemingly trivial and epistemically irrelevant situational influences as candy, success at anagrams, and comedy films.The argument is that our minds are flexible and adaptable depending on the situation. We might be disciplined, open-minded, and patient when we are sitting in front of our computer at 9 a.m. for work, but when we are in a hurry and someone spills something in front of us at the grocery store, those traits no longer matter. If something as simple as a plant in our office, the smell of cleaning solutions, and the number of a building can change our mood, how well we tidy up, and whether judges assess large or small fines on a business, then we are not really in control as much as we think. Situations control us more than we recognize.
Cassam takes the argument to its conclusion by writing, “Situationists conclude that people don’t have robust character traits like compassion and courage, and that how they behave is often better explained by other factors.” But for Cassam, this conclusion is overreaching. People really do behave differently based on individual character traits. Epistemic vices and their study demonstrate that people who are more open-minded make consistently better decisions than people who are closed-minded. Similarly, people who are gullible, arrogant, and prejudiced will systematically behave in ways that are more detrimental to themselves and society than people who do not display those character traits. Situationists, Cassam argues, give to much weight to the environment and not enough weight to individuals, agency, and the power of the human mind to be considerate and self-reflective.
Personally, I find myself to lean more toward the situationists than toward Cassam. I agree that laboratory studies involving confederates and environmental studies demonstrating that trivial factors which influence behavior are limited. They don’t truly capture reality, just a brief and normally unusual snapshot of our lives. However, I think in our general daily thinking we error too far in assuming that individuals truly control their lives. It is a useful fiction, but I think we would do well to recognize the power of our environments and be more considerate in shaping the structures, institutions, and situations which guide our lives. We can learn lessons from the impacts of seemingly trivial factors that influence our behaviors. We can see that we have the capacity to change dramatic traits about ourselves from situation to situation and better structure how we interact with the world around us to produce more virtuous behaviors. Assuming that humans are consistent and that virtues or vices are more a matter of control than a matter of situational context ignores the reality that we live within institutions that shape how our minds work.
A Different Take on Chronic Pain

A Different Take on Chronic Pain

In his book Dreamland Sam Quinones includes a quote by Dr. John Loeser, Professor Emeritus of Neurological Surgery at the University of Washington in Seattle. Quinones spoke with him to better understand chronic pain and how chronic pain can be approached without the use of opioids. Loeser has an approach to treating chronic pain that doesn’t rely purely on drugs and is more centered around the patient, their environment, and their social supports. Loeser describes his approach as a bio-psycho-social approach and Quinones provides the following quote:

 

“Chronic pain is more than something going wrong inside the person’s body. It always has social and psychological factors playing a role.”

 

What I think is interesting with this quote is how far it is from the experience that many of us have with doctors and medicine today. Much of our medical care comes in tiny ten minute packets, where we go back and forth with a doctor for a few minutes before they write us a prescription for something and send us on our way. The providers often don’t end up doing much to help us through our current issue, and we rely on a pill to suddenly make our lives better. The approach completely misses many other factors of health.

 

Where we live matters. Who we have in our lives matters. What our diet is like, what stress factors exist around us, how easily we can get outside or to a gym for physical activity matters. A ten minute conversation and a pill cannot address these issues and certainly cannot change them.

 

I’m not introducing this all to suggest that chronic pain isn’t real, or that it is all in a person’s head. I’m also not introducing it to suggest that people suffering from chronic pain simply are not trying hard enough, need to take more personal responsibility, or just need to move to fix their pain. Often these social determinants of health are beyond the control of any one person. Before criticizing another person, and if we want to help them, we must also consider their environment, and whether we ourselves are a factor that helps or hinders the health of another.  Our world is too connected to say that someone’s health is purely a matter of their own choices and behaviors, even if personal responsibility does have a role to play in managing health. Approaching health from this angle helps us understand that an opioid is never going to be sufficient in truly alleviating chronic pain. There have to be more efforts to understand the bio-psycho-social realities of the person’s life and the chronic pain they experience.

What Triggers Our Habits

Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit is all about changing the ways we relate to others by changing how we give advice, listen, question, and generally speak with those around us. Most of the time, as Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler explain in their book, The Elephant in the Brain, we are in a hurry to share what we know, give advice, and speak up. Bungay Stanier suggests that what we should be doing, if we truly want to change our coaching habit to be more effective and helpful for those around us, is spend more time listening and more time asking questions rather than giving advice and speaking. Hanson and Simler suggest that our urge to be helpful by speaking and giving advice is our brain’s way to show how wise, connected, and valuable we are, but the problem as Bungay Stanier would argue, is that this gets in the way of actually developing another person and helping someone else grow.

 

To make a change in our speaking habit, first we must understand what we want to change and we must focus on the why behind our change. Once we have built the self-awareness to recognize that we need to change, we need to understand what is driving the habit that we are working to get away from. This is why I introduced Hanson and Simler’s book above. If the habit we want to change is speaking too much and not asking enough questions, we need to understand that when we are coaching or helping another, we are driving to give advice in part to demonstrate how smart we are and how vast our experiences are. We are driven in other words, to not help the other but to boast about ourselves. Understanding this small part helps us know what we actually want to change and what is driving the original habit.

 

Bungay Stanier references another book, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, and writes, “if you don’t know what triggers the old behavior, you’ll never change it because you’ll already be doing it before you know it.” The self-awareness necessary in changing habits requires us to first see what needs to change, second to identify the why behind our desired change, and third to become aware of the small things that trigger our habit. If we know that having our phone near our bed leads to us being more likely to check Facebook first thing in the morning, then we can remove that trigger by placing the phone in another room and finding a new alarm alternative. Ultimately, in this example, we are more likely to succeed in changing our habit of checking Facebook as soon as we wake up by changing our environment. Similarly, Bungay Stanier would agree, knowing that we provide advice to make ourselves look valuable to society helps us see the mental triggers that encourage us to share bad advice rather than to listen and ask helpful questions. Ultimately, to change our habit we need to further expand self-awareness to recognize not just the change we want to make and the reason we want to make a change, but to also recognize the large or small things that drive us into our old habits. Addressing these triggers and structuring our life in a way to avoid them can help us be more successful in changing habits for the better.

Taking More Than Our Share

The desire to use the environment to maximize our personal benefit at the expense of other people’s use of the environment is known as the tragedy of the commons. Senator Cory Booker focuses on the idea behind the tragedy of the commons in his book United and examines what has taken place in his home state New Jersey. Summing up the idea, Booker wrote, “The impulse to take more than you share seems rational, but in reality the consequences can be catastrophic. The unchecked cumulative effect of selfish actions is the loss of the commons—which is, in turn, an immeasurable opportunity lost for generations to come.”

Two big challenges when thinking about our environment have to do with the time scale of the environment and the size of the environment. Our individual actions seem so insignificant in such large and open landscapes as mountain ranges and oceans, but when our actions are combined with the behaviors of millions and billions of people, the human impact is immense. Our environment also experiences changes on time scales in the thousands and millions of years, a time span so large it is difficult for humans to understand. Geological processes take a long time and occur at steady rates of small change. When we combine the vastness of nature with the time scale of geological change, our human minds end up failing to accurately understand, estimate, and predict the dangers of our actions, and that in part leads to the tragedy of the commons.

Our actions now, because the environment operates on such slow time scales, will have lasting impacts on the planet. This means that when we think of our decisions and our use of natural resources today, we must have in mind not just our own benefit, or the benefits of our children, but true impact of our decisions for generations to come. Humans can understand cycles, changes, and impacts that take place on a two to three generation scales, thinking about how our grandparents impact our lives, but it is hard to think more than 100 years down the road and to think about generations that could be impacted by our decisions 500 to 1,000 years from now. The land we use today and the things we put in our oceans today, could shape the lives and futures for people far out from where we are today.

Ultimately, when I think of Booker’s quote I don’t think of a blind conservation of all resources or thwarting capitalism to avoid damaging our planet. Instead, I try to think about my relation to nature. Do I try to take as much as I can in any given situation, even if it is not going to help me? There have been plenty of times that I have eaten more than I needed, only to regret my decisions as I waddled back to my car with a stomach ache. I have had an opportunity to have something for free, and I have taken far more than I needed or could even use, only to have the rest of what I took clutter my house and take up space.

From what I have seen, I don’t have to be a hippie or focus so much on conservationism that I lose all faith in capitalism to protect the planet. I can host a community clean-up and offer prizes for those who participate. I can drive in a more economic way, using less gas, saving my brakes and tires, and prolonging the life of my vehicle, saving money but still doing something that participates in the economy and uses resources. I can focus on recycling, and try to make purchases that limit my plastic use, and none of these decisions take away from my participating in capitalism or make me a stand-offish hippie. They are just small actions, but I know that when combined with the small actions of millions of others, make a large difference.

Preservation of Our Environment

Taking care of our shared spaces and maintaining our environment is not something we do a great job of. Fields, rivers, lakes, and outdoor areas are everyone’s shared responsibility, and because of that, they are no one’s individual responsibility. We will maintain our own lawns or pay people to do our home landscaping, but when it comes to our public outdoor spaces, we often fail to maintain and preserve the land we share. These spaces are expensive to maintain, the threats of invasive species are hard to understand, and it is not clear who should be the person that spends the time and energy taking care of our public places. In political science this dilemma is known as the Tragedy of the Commons, and Cory Booker addresses it in his book United.

 

Booker writes, “We are all dependent on nature, so we all have a stake in the preservation of our environment.” Taking care of our planet is important because it is the only one we have, and it is what sustains our individual lives, our societies, and the only life we know of in the universe. At the same time, taking care of the planet is unclear with ecosystems connected and dependent on each other in complex ways, with connections we are not always able to understand. Scientific research is expanding, but still not at a point where perfect models of natural processes such as rainfall, erosion, or phosphorous cycling are possible. But we depend on what we know about nature, and must continue to push forward and be cautious with how we use nature so that we can maintain what we have for not just our generation’s use, but for the use of future generations.

 

The truth is that we must use nature. We need to extract minerals, metals, and plant based materials from the earth. The physical structures that protect us and allow us to thrive come from what we pull out of the earth. Our medicines are dependent on plants and compounds that plants create, and our smartphones rely on rare elements mined form across the planet. Our dependence and demand for what the earth has to provide is very real and feels much larger than any one individual, making our personal responsibility feel tiny in comparison. Nevertheless, it is important that we use what the earth has to provide in a rational and reasonable manner, recycling what we can, eliminating waste when possible, and constantly striving to take things from the planet in the least disruptive manner. This responsibility is difficult and expensive, which is why the commons are ignored leading to the tragedy they face. We must understand that pollution, imbalanced extraction, and continued consumption do have costs that are greater than their immediate benefits, even if we only see the benefits now and can’t understand the costs of the future.

The Scope of Human Rights

Frank Hutchins, a housing and tenant leader in New Jersey, greatly shaped Cory Booker as he entered politics. Booker recalls several stories of Mr. Hutchins in his book United and offers several quotes from Frank that shaped the way that Booker’s came to understand and approach the world. Regarding human rights, Booker shares the following thoughts, shaped by Hutchins, in United,

 

“Frank asserted that civil rights — indeed, human rights— were not just about equal access to public accommodations and equal employment opportunity. Human dignity, security, freedom from fear, environmental toxins, and physical deprivation were also rights that should be defended and fought for. It was then that he said to me, looking at me with his kind eyes, ‘Cory, housing is a human right.'”

 

We often think of civil rights in the context of the Civil Rights Movement which frames our thoughts through black and white television footage of marches to end segregation. The black and white tv and fuzzy audio recordings make the Civil Rights movement seem so far behind us, but the reality that Frank expressed to Booker is that civil rights issues continue to this day and continue beyond racial categories. Civil rights was never just about segregation as we mistakenly think about it today, but rather it was about everything Frank expressed to Booker, about sharing with everyone on the planet a life that we would find acceptable.

 

When we think about human dignity, security, freedom from fear, toxins, and physical deprivation we are thinking about the things that make us human. We have our differences and we are not born equal in terms of our biological abilities and economic opportunities. We will have different material advantages, different social advantages, and different genetic advantages, but despite our inequities we deserve to all be treated as human and not somehow be treated as less than human because of our differences and starting points. We all understand this, yet it is hard to recognize our inequities, see our advantages, and understand that the reality we experience is not shaped wholly by our own doing, but often by acts and circumstances over which we have no control.

 

The reason we have trouble viewing the expanded idea of human rights that Frank shared is the same reason that road cycling is hard. Even when we are biking with a tailwind, we still feel air against our face, and still feel resistance from the air ahead of us, even though we receive a push from behind. Recognizing our own advantages, accepting that others lack those advantages, and seeing that though we still struggle we are greatly helped by our circumstances is challenging and humbling. But it is necessary if we are to update our views of human rights and share our humanity with those across the world.

 

Tackling human rights issues require that we expand our visions of equality. We must also recognize how much we are impacted by the social world around us and how much our society influences the opportunities we have. It is easier, and often encouraged in the United States, to turn away from the true human rights shortcomings in our country and assume that everyone can overcome any obstacle on their path. It is much harder, but incredibly necessary, to recognize the ways in which environmental hazards or the lack of adequate housing impact the lives of millions of people living in our society and how that reflects back on those of us who have adequate housing and advantages within our system.