The Spectrum of Choice

One concept that I wanted to develop further was the idea of being proud of something that happened entirely by chance. In the original post, I argued that this is irrational. Being proud of something that you have no control over, such as your race or gender or eye color, is nonsensical.

For this reason and many others, our society looks down on racial or gender supremacy. To a lesser degree, we also look down on economic supremacy: we accept that the rich have better circumstances than the poor, but we would be appalled if someone said that the rich are better people than the poor. We think the US is number one, but we don’t say that Americans are better than those of other nationalities. We think everyone should be entitled to their own political or religious beliefs, but we find it hard to sympathize with those who think their beliefs are superior to those of others.

But at some point, we do start condemning. We condemn murderers and thieves, rapists and kidnappers, drunks and drug dealers. We condemn those who live extravagant lifestyles who don’t care at all about the common person. We condemn those who we perceive to have wronged for whatever reason. Where is the line drawn? There exist many ways of looking at this problem, and the perspective I will analyze it from is that of personal choice.

The Spectrum of Choice

Looking at the degree of personal choice helps to resolve a few questions, such as

  • What should we be proud of?
  • What should we condemn or not condemn?
  • What defines us?

Basically, this approach is to look at what degree of choice we have in some property of ourselves. A very simplified spectrum is given below.


The first category consists of properties over which we have absolutely no control; i.e. properties arising from pure chance. The two examples above are race and sex, which are, for the most part, the most important examples. (By race, I am referring to the original (biological) race, not an acquired ethnicity from cultural experiences. Ethnicity would, in fact, not belong in this section as you do have some control over it.) Since race is something that a person is born with and cannot be changed, it should not be used to label or criticize. Similarly, sex is determined before birth and unchangeable, and thus should not be used for condemnation.

The second category could also be called “Little Control.” It consists of properties over which we have some control but not very much. Socioeconomic status is included because while it is possible to move up the ladder (economic mobility), it does not happen often and there exist significant barriers that would impede someone from a lower status from advancing to a higher one. I have also included nationality in this category, and ethnicity could belong here as well. For most people, their country of residence is not so much a choice as it is just remaining where they were born. Even for many immigrants, the objective may be job-related, in which case it is debatable whether there was legitimate choice involved, or education-related, but this might only be temporary residence. Moreover, it may be difficult for someone to afford international travel or to part with family and friends.

The third section is for things you generally feel that you have control over. Political views, while theoretically changeable at will, are rarely changed. Moreover, many seem to inherit the political views of their parents or friends without questioning it much themselves. Hence I would not consider that one has full control over their political views. The same applies to religious views. Conversion to another religion is not a common occurrence, and many people’s religious views are suspiciously similar to those of their parents or friends. There are numerous social and cultural pressures as well for one to profess certain religions over others. Hence, while religion is something that people probably think they have full control over (perhaps having free will in the matter), I would not classify it under full control.

The last category is for things over which you have full control, things that you can change on a whim (well, most of the time). Unless you suffer from epilepsy, you normally have full control over your actions. This is why it is permissible to condemn criminals for their actions, because it is something that they chose. Sure, someone may have been under the influence of alcohol, but their act of drinking was itself a conscious action. Hobbies are included as well. Just as with actions, we generally don’t care what hobbies people have, but when they involve excessive drinking or drug use, we recognize that it is not a “just your opinion” decision, but there is an objectively better and an objectively worse choice. Nonpolitical/nonreligious beliefs probably fit under full control, since they are less biased from vested interests. Yes, your views are colored by society and culture, but you still have autonomy over them.

Ambiguous Properties

Some things are difficult to categorize. Intelligence, for instance, is part biological and part environmental (this relates to the nature vs nurture debate). Is intelligence something that we have control over? We generally don’t condemn people for not being super intelligent, so it cannot be Full Control; on the other hand, we know people who clearly have ways to enhance their intelligence, so it cannot be No Control. For the sake of this post, I will put intelligence in Some Control. Keep in mind that even if intelligence is almost purely the result of environment, i.e. nurture, this could say more about the parents or society or school than the actual child, who had little choice in determine his/her own intelligence in the years that mattered the most.

The perception of the spectrum may also shift for each individual depending on personal circumstance. For someone who is very rich and just wants to live in whatever country for whatever reason, place of residence would indeed fit under Full Control (though nationality may still remain the same). For someone who doesn’t have the financial or educational means, socioeconomic status might seem to be under No Control. For myself, since I don’t view atheism as a religion, I consider my “religious” views as non-religious (perhaps a better term would just be philosophical views) and would categorize it under Full Control. Finally, this is a spectrum, not a set of four discrete points on a line. The categorizations above are for convenience. In actuality, each property may occupy locations on the line that fit between the categories.


To answer the three questions: What should we be proud of? Well, since it is absurd to be proud of luck, it seems we should be most proud of the things that we had the most choice in. Our actions, our hobbies, and our general interests are legitimate things to take pride in. One way this differs from the common usage of the word “pride” is that this is inherently method-driven rather than results-driven. Reliance on choice makes coming up with the decision as the key step. Thus against an evenly matched opponent at chess, I can be proud of the step where I thought five moves ahead to checkmate, but not proud of winning the game (which was basically a coin flip before the game started).

As for condemnation, we are not justified in condemning people for something in which they had no choice. The more choice they had in the matter, the more it is possible to criticize (of course, due to social norms, this doesn’t mean we generally should). Related is the debate over the treatment of other religions, for instance. Some might decry criticism of Islam as “racist,” but Islam is not a race; it is a changeable religious belief. Sure, actually converting from Islam in some countries may be difficult, if not impossible, due to capital punishment for apostasy and shunning from the group. But in general, there is some degree of choice involved in being an extremist Christian or Muslim, hence equating religious criticism with racism or misogyny is very wrong. It is justified to criticize political or religious beliefs; it is unjustified to criticize race or gender. (I am not saying it is justified as social norm, but that it is justified in intellectual discussion.)

Lastly, given the degree of personal choice, what defines us is not the random and artificial labels that society gives us, but it is the choices we make and the actions we take in response. It should not be determined by what we don’t have a choice in, but rather by what we do end up choosing.

The Better Angels of Our Nature

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker, is definitely the most thought-provoking book I’ve read this year. Then again, it’s still January, so we’ll see.


First, the question of why violence has declined presupposes that it has declined, a shocking idea to many. From the preface:

“This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history. Believe it or not—and I know that most people do not—violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era of our species’ existence…. It is an unmistakable development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children.”

There are numerous reviews of this book already in existence, both professional and nonprofessional. So, I’ll focus on what I found to be the most interesting part.

The Violence Delusion

When I surveyed perceptions of violence in an Internet questionnaire, people guessed that 20th-century England was about 14 percent more violent than 14th-century England. In fact it was 95 percent less violent. (61)

The first chapters of the book show that violence has actually declined. But it might also be worth pointing out why many people (including myself) would have thought the opposite. Pinker does discuss these reasons, but the discussion is sporadic, accompanying each individual section, rather than being presented at once with a big-picture view. I present a summary of these scattered points here:

  • Memory pacification: “A woman donning a cross seldom reflects that this instrument of torture was a common punishment in the ancient world; nor does a person who speaks of a whipping boy ponder the old practice of flogging an innocent child in place of a misbehaving prince” (1). Pinker also notes that when witches are mentioned, the thoughts that come to mind are of fairy tales and fantasy, not of drowning trials, hanging, or burning at the stake. We react to the Colosseum with awe at the architecture and the glory of the to-the-death fights, not with horror at the endorsed murders that took place (imagine if Auschwitz were toured in the same manner as the Colosseum). Overall, this makes it more difficult to remember how cruel the past was.
  • Publicization of relatively small events: We have a full-day press that competes to put out news stories and keep your attention. Thus, every time a homicide or multiple homicide occurs, we are reminded of the dangerous violence in our current society. Newtown was tragic, yes. Was it a very significant event relative to other things that go on in the 21st century United States? Yes. But that is the point—we live in an age where 28 deaths is considered a national tragedy. An isolated event involving 28 deaths, common in medieval times given the feuding states, would hardly affect a medieval peasant’s perception of how violent their country was.
  • Change in mentality: Pinker notes that, as horrendous as we would view it today, torture was not seen as wrong in the Middle Ages. “[T]he sporadic, clandestine, and universally decried eruptions of torture in recent times cannot be equated with the centuries of institutionalized sadism in medieval Europe. Torture in the Middle Ages was not hidden, denied, or euphemized. It was not just a tactic by which brutal regimes intimidated their political enemies or moderate regimes extracted information from suspected terrorists. It did not erupt from a frenzied crowd stirred up in hatred against a dehumanized enemy. No, torture was woven into the fabric of public life. It was a form of punishment that was cultivated and celebrated, an outlet for artistic and technological creativity. Many of the instruments of torture were beautifully crafted and ornamented. They were designed to inflict not just physical pain, as would a beating, but visceral horrors, such as penetrating sensitive orifices, violating the bodily envelope, displaying the victim in humiliating postures, or putting them in positions where their own flagging stamina would increase their pain and lead to disfigurement or death. Torturers were the era’s foremost experts in anatomy and physiology, using their knowledge to maximize agony, avoid nerve damage that might deaden the pain, and prolong consciousness for as long as possible before death” (130). Pinker then goes on to point out that while we today would condemn an act of torture because torture is inhumane, medieval criticisms of torture focused on the wrongful targets of torture—the act of torture itself was fine, it just mattered whom it was being used against. It’s difficult to perceive your time as violent when atrocious actions like these are not viewed as violent.
  • Rise in awareness: “Well into the 1970s marital rape was not a crime in any state, and the legal system underweighted the interests of women in other rapes. Legal scholars who have studied jury proceedings have discovered that jurors must be disabused of the folk theory that women can be negligently liable for their own rapes…” (395). Stats from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics show that the annual rate of rape from 1973 to 2008 had fallen by 80%. Pinker notes, “In fact, the decline may be even greater than that, because women have almost certainly been more willing to report being raped in recent years, when rape has been recognized as a serious crime, than they were in earlier years, when rape was often hidden and trivialized” (402). Thus a decline by a factor of five in reported cases could and probably does mean an even greater decline in actual cases. On the flipside, since awareness of rape is up so much, people generally perceive it as a greater threat today than it was decades ago.
  • More available data towards the present time. “Remember Tuchman’s ‘private wars’ of the 14th century, the ones that knights fought with furious gusto and a single strategy, namely killing as many of another knight’s peasants as possible? Many of these massacres were never dubbed The War of Such-and-Such and immortalized in the history books. An undercounting of conflicts below the military horizon could, in theory, throw off the body count for the period as a whole” (199). Basically, an availability bias.
  • Population and proportionality. Using a chart compiled by Matthew White, Pinker lists the 21 events in human history with the highest human-caused death tolls. Indeed, World War II tops the list with 55 million, the 16th century French Wars of Religion are at the bottom with 3 million, and the other 19 events are in between those. Some of the things I had never heard of, such as the An Lushan Revolt, which apparently happened in the 8th century and caused a death toll of 36 million (from White’s data). Surprisingly to many, 14 out of 21 of the worst human-caused events in history happened prior to the 20th century, and this is based on absolute numbers. When the death tolls for these events are adjusted by population size, only one 20th century event makes the top 10 (which was World War II in 9th position).
  • Political sentiments: The 21st century started with 9/11 and Iraq. But these are almost trivial compared to the violence and wars of the past. In the section “The Long Peace,” Pinker notes, “Zero is the number of developed countries that have expanded their territory since the late 1940s by conquering another country. No more Poland getting wiped off the map, or Britain adding India to its empire or Austria helping itself to the odd Balkan nation…. [T]wo entire categories of war—the imperial war to acquire colonies, and the colonial war to keep them—no longer exist” (251).

With all this in mind, the fog can be cast aside. This brief summary is not from the book itself, but from the website: “Tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century. The murder rate of Medieval Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadistic punishments, and frivolous executions were unexceptionable features of life for millennia, then suddenly were targeted for abolition.  Wars between developed countries have vanished, and even in the developing world, wars kill a fraction of the people they did a few decades ago. Rape, battering, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse, cruelty to animals—all substantially down.”

Overall Comments

I thought the discussions of the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment were interesting. Pinker shows the Enlightenment as one of the principal motivators in the humanitarian reforms of the 18th and 19th centuries. It was an age people began seriously questioning things whether torture, witch-burning, slavery, sexism, racism, or homophobia were actually justified, and rules started to be edited or written anew (the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that all men are created equal was one giant leap at the time). On the other hand, Counter-Enlightenment values generally countered (for lack of a better word) the Enlightenment ones. Perhaps something that will cause/is causing/has caused much uproar is Pinker’s link between the Counter-Enlightenment and some of the deadly experiences of the 20th century like the World Wars, Nazism, and Communism. I feel like these are generally associated by the public with Enlightenment values, but that’s another topic. As for the modern day:

“Reason appears to have fallen on hard times. Popular culture is plumbing new depths of dumbth, and American political discourse has become a race to the bottom. We are living in an era of scientific creationism, New Age flimflam, 9/11 conspiracy theories, psychic hotlines, and resurgent religious fundamentalism.” (642)

Pinker makes sure to address the issue of violence from multiple angles. It’s commonly believed, for instance, that a nation’s economy has a significant impact on its violence rates. However, this often seems to be correlation rather than causation. Poor countries in unstable regions are politically… unstable, and politically unstable regions tend to have higher rates of violence. On the other hand, if economy (say by GDP or per capita GDP) were a strong measure of rates of violence, we should expect US violence rates to cycle up and down in response to expansions and recessions, which they do not. Nor, for instance, was Britain’s rise in personal wealth resulting from the Industrial Revolution the reason for a decrease in violence—the decline of violence in Britain had already begun centuries before, but up until the Industrial Revolution, average real wage was flat.

In all, The Better Angels of Our Nature was an extraordinary read. Even though we face tough issues in our time, there are many ancient atrocities that we no longer have to worry about on an institutional scale: “…abduction into sexual slavery, divinely commanded genocide, lethal circuses and tournaments, punishment on the cross, rack, wheel, stake, or strappado for holding unpopular beliefs, decapitation for not bearing a son, disembowelment for having dated a royal, pistol duels to defend their honor…” (30). Those wanting to do away with the decadent present and instead live in the idyllic, peaceful past might be surprised, for if their dreams were to become reality, they would face unspeakable rates of violence and death.

2013 in Review

This is a societal and personal reflection on 2013. I’ll start with the societal, and I’ll keep the personal pretty short.

2013 in Review

2013 was a year in which not much unusual happened, and that was perhaps the most unusual thing about it. Snowden leaked NSA data, but this didn’t seem all that surprising, given the power of the government and the precedent set by Julian Assange and others. The Boston marathon bombings happened unexpectedly, but it didn’t come as a shock that the perpetrators held extreme Islamist views; it was not as if the US suddenly gained new political enemies. The Obamacare website didn’t quite roll out as planned, but for people who are used to seeing server crashes upon the release of new content simultaneously being accessed by millions of people, it was again not a huge surprise. The Supreme Court struck down DOMA, but this was more like a delayed result of a larger trend: support for marriage equality had already been increasing for years. Overall, long-term trends in society, economy, and technology continued without much interruption; no one made a smartphone killer… yet.

Perhaps the signature event of 2013, therefore, was the government shutdown. I don’t even want to describe it. But it did signify the occurrence of nothing, which seemed to be the main idea of the year.

This doesn’t mean 2013 was a bad year, only that it was a relatively uneventful year. The markets rose a lot: [S&P 500]


Perhaps compared to 2012, which had a widely-believed but failed doomsday attached to its legacy, 2013 seemed like a bore.

2013 in Life

It was the first year (plus or minus a few days) that I was 21, which was enough by itself to make 2013 a very eventful year. I had an epic summer experience, which is the reason I now care about graphs like the one above. As a senior, I attended 10/23 for the first time. My classes this year were all in math or computer science; it was a year of specialization. My blogging schedule was the most consistent since 2010. And finally, this year I sorted out my plans for after college.

So, it was a great year. Here’s to 2014!

Blogging Topics for 2014


This is kind of like my list of topics for 2013, but more free-form and more of an actual list. These are all topics on which I eventually want to write a full post in the upcoming year.

  • 2013 in review – not too much important happened (perhaps the government shutdown was the signature event of the year, symbolizing the year’s inaction); for the most part, we saw the continuation of old trends rather than the rise of new ones.
  • Rational thinking – more on the thinking process, being aware of cognitive biases.
  • Utilitarianism – more on moral systems, in particular this one.
  • Internet trolling – on the internet it’s much harder to see the tone or context of people’s statements (no facial expressions or gestures), therefore they become easy to misinterpret even for a reader with good intentions. Related to some threads (mostly about religion) that occurred on Facebook in the past year.
  • Subjective vs objective truth/morality – related to rational thinking and utilitarianism as well. Also, are cultures really all equal to one another?
  • The spectrum of choice – attributes like race and gender are determined on birth and hence out of your control, while other attributes like favorite TV show or movie are completely in your control and could be changed on a whim. Somewhere in between are things like political or religious stance, which, while theoretically changeable, are very difficult to change in practice due to social/cultural pressures. I also want to argue that while it is absurd to judge someone based on something that they have no control over (such as race or gender), it makes more sense to judge someone on a choice they made, be it their religion or something else (though in religion, it gets fuzzy as to what degree most people have a choice in it).
  • Apathy in certain issues due to belief that they will resolve themselves – for example, during the government shutdown, I didn’t change my daily routine the slightest bit, because I knew the issue would be fixed and that there was nothing that I could personally about it. On the other hand, if everyone thought like this…
  • Interest in issues only when something goes horribly wrong – For example, no one talked about racial profiling… until the Zimmerman trial. And then afterwards, the commotion died down. No one cared fervently about gun control… until Newtown, but then we seem to have forgotten about it.
  • Contentlessness of most things on the internet – related to internet trolling. In the era of the Facebook status or the tweet or the 1-line meme or the one-paragraph thread reply, very little of what I read has any content. When someone expresses their stance on something, I usually have no knowledge of why they have that stance, what arguments they would use to justify it, what their context is, etc. And when someone tries to make an argument, they seem very shallow, focusing on one particular aspect (since it is hard to make a complete argument in one or two sentences).
  • Contentlessness of (extreme) postmodernism/relativism – related to above. Humanity did not toss aside physics and go back to superstition when Einstein came up with the theories of relativity. In a typical debate, “Well that’s just your opinion/truth is subjective” should not be used to stifle and invalidate the discussion.
  • The search for truth vs the proclamation of truth – i.e. science vs religion incompatibility.
  • Religion in general – of course, given that this was the most popular topic of 2013.
  • Keeping up with the Joneses – how optional, bonus things become requirements, esp. in a video game setting, as this is very fruitful for social comparison. Things that were “amazing” become “okay,” things that were “okay” are now “terrible.”
  • Capitalism, individualism – should a “winner” be able to do whatever they want? What is the standard? If one becomes a billionaire, is one obligated to give back? If so, how much?
  • Thinking ahead; people arguing such basic concepts assuming other people are on their level – perhaps this is related to internet trolling, but it happens in real life as well. Say Joe is a better-than-average chess player, and can look ahead a couple of moves. I see two moves to consider: A, which looks obviously right but fails after several moves; and B, which seems like a terrible move at first but wins after several moves. Joe looks a couple moves deep into line A, sees a winning tactic, and concludes that A is better. When asked, I say that B is the best move. Now Joe, not even considering B, looks at me like I’m an idiot for picking B (since it looks terrible), and then starts explaining to me very slowly how A is the best move, even though I know exactly where it fails. I’m about to object why it fails 4 moves later, but Joe hushes me, so I keep my silence. Indeed, 4 moves later, Joe triumphantly shows the winning move, only to realize it actually loses. Of course, this is a metaphor for conversations on other topics.
  • Priorities in morals – I watched the show Battlestar Galactica (the 2004 version) last year, and it was quite morally disturbing. Not that the show itself had disturbing scenes, but when I watched it, I often found myself rooting for martial law and military dictatorship, and shunning a representative government—this was disturbing. For a quick background, humanity is completely wiped out except for a ragtag group of ships, one military vessel and many civilian ones. Every time the enemies attack, the last remaining members of human species have a real chance to be annihilated. So when the military vessel demanded resources or de facto slave labor in extreme situations, I could not help but to feel like it was not only justified, but obligatory. And whenever the representative council assembled and listed its grievances, it seemed to be a waste of time and resources, with ridiculous demands and petty concerns. In this case, it seemed the survival of the human race overrode in priority any attempt at representative government.
  • Reactions to reactions – I often find people’s’ reactions to events more interesting than the events themselves. To tie it back to the first topic, 2013 in review, I thought the response of various factions to Pope Francis was far more interesting than his becoming the pope. The coverage of George Zimmerman was more interesting than the actual trial. The criticism of Miley Cyrus at the VMAs or in her music videos said more about society than what she did.

Anyways, looks like 2014 will be a cool year!