Pepinsky's syllabus

[From Bill Powers (930813.1330)]

Gary Cziko (930811.2010 UTC) --

I'm sort of taking a vacation from the net while I dabble with
other things, but Hal Pepinsky's syllabus has been floating
around in the back of my head. It's a fascinating document, by a
person who is obviously trying to tackle a lot of moral dilemmas,
among them how any person can presume to teach another one
anything, especially about morals. Lots of people like to thunder
at the congregation from the pulpit, but not many try to do it
from a pew.

I think this whole exercise would go better if there were a
theory of human nature behind it. There probably is a theory, but
it never surfaces explicitly. The syllabus has given me to think
about the subject, which is probably the main thing that Pepinsky

The problem in dealing with wicked people from the standpoint of
PCT is that PCT tries to find explanations for wicked behavior
without calling on either built-in tendencies or a Big Daddy to
whom we can turn with our complaints about each other. Pepinsky
is really complaining to some unseen arbiter: why can't people
just be nice to each other? The problem is that nobody answers
but other people just like us, and they don't always agree with
us about our premises.

If anything is to be done about morals we have to do it
ourselves, bare-handed and without any authority to back us up
but what we can give ourselves and get others to agree to. If
somebody thinks the Golden Rule is wimpy, we have to try to
persuade this person otherwise (if that's what we're after)
through one-on-one discussion. The problem is, there are people
who aren't interested in that discussion, and who will cut it
short by proving that their way works, too, for them. Most of the
people in the world aren't in university faculties where
disagreement is polite and exclusively verbal. With a lot of
people, the only way you have have such a rational discussion is
in an interview room with a cop standing outside the door.

The Golden Rule, from the PCT standpoint, doesn't really work. If
you do unto others as you would have them do unto you, you're
assuming that their goals and perceptions are exactly like yours.
What pleases you doesn't necessarily please others. Often, in
trying to please others, you have to do things you would rather
not do, like listen to a bore for hours. By the Golden Rule, this
implies that the others have to listen to you, too, while you're
boring them for hours. Sometimes it's hard to tell the Golden
Rule from Tit for Tat. A lot depends on whether you are the doer
or the done-to.

This is even more a problem in dealings between men and women.
The only way to carry out the Golden Rule in sexual matters is to
be homosexual. Men and women are in an assymetrical relationship,
physically and probably in other ways, too, difficult to pin down
because of the problem of separating nature from nurture. I don't
think there's any simple rule that will solve that problem.

Sex aside, people are simply different. What makes me feel safe
enough to suit me leaves another feeling vulnerable and
terrified. Concepts of human interaction that I would be happy to
live with leave others feeling frustrated. My highest aspirations
are a big yawn for many people. Some people think of heaven as
being in a big cozy group of others all talking away like mad and
laughing and stroking each other. I can stand that for about four
days and then I have to seek some blessed solitude. How on earth
am I supposed to do unto others as I would have them do unto me,
at times when I just want to be alone and others are tenderly
trying to include me in the groupiness they assume everyone

The real problem here is in finding principles and system
concepts that will satisfy everyone. Slogans aren't going to
solve this problem. Maybe there isn't any solution except to
understand that people are different. Or maybe Hugh Gibbons told
us the only practical solution: respect for the will of others.
Respecting the will of others doesn't mean you will always get
along with them. You have your own will to consider, too. It just
means doing the best you can, knowing that you're always dealing
with autonomous beings, and preferring to remain one yourself.

A lot of the examples to which Pepinsky alludes are examples of
conflicts between autonomous systems, systems trying to control
each other to get what they want. Without some social system that
can simply say NO, there really isn't any way to prevent such
conflicts except to teach potential losers how to stay out of
situations where they are likely to occur. Here the difficulty is
that the losers don't entirely want to stay out of them; there's
fascination in danger, and ego trips to be had in managing the
situation. The losers, unfortunately, think they're dealing with
the people just like them, and they aren't. Sooner or later they
go too far, and can't manage the situation any more. Then the
delicious sense of competence in the face of danger turns into
pain, terror, and humiliation.

Maybe one secret of living is to arrive at an understanding that
into each life a little pain, terror, and humiliation is going to
fall. It isn't absolutely necessary that you get through life
unscathed. Human beings keep discovering, to their immense
surprise, that they are lots stronger than they had thought. They
find that experience, even bad experience, teaches them something
so they don't have to keep repeating things. It's only when you
start wishing for absolute safety that you start thinking in
terms of extreme social measures to preserve safety. And it's
only then that you start losing confidence in being able to come
out of a bad time intact.

I think that many people feel they have to prepare for every
eventuality, and believe that if they don't prepare only
irreparable disaster can ensue. A control theorist, on the other
hand, ought to understand how seldom this is really necessary. If
we maintain our competence, we can handle disturbances as they
come up. This isn't true of all things, but it's true more often
than a lot of people dare to admit. We need some social rules and
some means of enforcing them. For most situations, however, we
don't have to ward off the future. We can handle most of what
comes along when it happens, if we don't expect perfection. What
we can't entirely handle, we can recover from.

When it seems appropriate to apply the Golden Rule, apply it by
all means. Otherwise, think of something else equally reasonable,
in terms of your system concepts. And don't go around trying to
convice people that if they aren't treated as they want to be
treated, their worlds will end.


Bill P.