August 27, 2005

Permanence and Honesty

I think one of the single greatest obstacles to ethical and honest behavior
is aninability to be properly critical of oneself. Learning to judge one's ideas, beliefs, actions and statements objectively is a wonderful way to expect fairer standards of others and higher standards of yourself. This can be applied to groups, clubs, businesses, countries, religions, or any other method of clustering together individuals.

One of the biggest reasons why self-criticality is unattractive is permanence. This isespecially prevalent with regard to groups and institutions that are effectively permanent. I wish to focus on two types: national and ethnic groups, and longstanding institutions.

A national or ethnic group has little incentive aside from honesty and intellectual consistency to admit its mistakes. The exception is when a mistake is extremely obvious or when another group (like the US military) forces you to admit wrongdoing (like the Japanese in WWII). Most of the lies or disagreements are about history, who was right, who started it, who did what, who deserved it, and so forth. The Japanese don't like to mention the Rape on Nanjing (which is also a function of the Japanese tradition of ancestor-worship, and of effectively absolving all dead of sins), andother groups don't like to remember their mistakes and crimes. The operative fallacy is collectivism and identity. If you draw your worth from an ethnic grouping, then a tainted ethnic grouping is a negative worth; if the group is bad, it reflects negatively upon you.

The problem is permanence. Very few ethnic or national groupings (except American and some others) allow as regular practice converts and recruits. Marriage and adoption aside, if you're born X then the Y group doesn't think you can be Y. The permanence generally works the opposite way: if you're born X then you die X. This creates a strong incentive to make X ethnicity more valuable and not to admit too many negatives. You can't just drop X and become a Y or Z if X becomes associatedwith some past injustice.

Permanence - tradition - is a major factor in denying the truth and in avoiding objectivity about the actions of one's group.

The second group is institutions, by which I mean major ones. Essentially, I'm referring to governments and to orthodox religious institutions like the Catholic Church, and to branches of each like the military. The US military is notorious for being obsessed with its image and hiding scandals (though not with any particular skill or speed) and in basically trying to make itself look good. The biggest sign of this is that career officers that become anything approaching whistle-blowers are WIDELY presumed to have completely ruined their careers. The US military is in some ways crippled by this obsession with not disrespecting its image. Governments, too, have this impulse, but since disparate factions run governments there's a stronger opposite interest to expose mistakes and blame it on the other party.

The Catholic Church's problem with this issue is in, of course, the pedophilia scandals. The problem is of course confounded by the signature virtues of Christianityand Catholicism, namely forgiveness and confession, but it seems to me that this is more than just forgiveness. The pedophilia scandals of the Catholic Church are really about cover-up, otherwise why would all of these incidents be secret? It's an image thing, and it goes to the root of the institution as a permanent covenant between God and man (if I have any grasp of the theology).

Thepermanence of the Catholic Church contrasts with the less central role played by the Protestant churches. Those denominations change, sort and shuffle with times, and the internal factions and individual churches can move about. Although the lack of criticality is a problem general to people, it's less prevalent in institutions when they can be redefined or regrouped more easily.

Governments, ethnicities and major institutions like militaries or longstanding churches are all nearly permanent by design or in effect. They cannot be replaced easily, nor can deep-seated changes be cultivated quickly.

If a business, for example, commits some error in judgment or in its business model, it disappears. Enron was bankrupt by the end of November, 2001 and otherbusinesses caught in scandal and corruption fall as quickly. The guilty people hid from blame, but the people who did nothing wrong felt no real compulsion to protect Enron's reputation - why should they hide the truth when they did nothing wrong and when they could easily (job market cooperating) replace the impermanent Enron with another employer? Investors pull out, employees quit or are fired, and the capital and labor is moved into other businesses as soon as it's available. The military, the government, and ethnicities normally don't go out of business in the same way. We wouldn't just decide that this military is flawed and fired the entire Pentagon and all the soldiers.

It might be the case that an ethnicity incapable of dealing with the past or with a tainted history would fall out of favor with its members, who might leave outright or simply pay little or less attention to ethnic pride. But since ethnicity is often used (wrongly) as a proxy for describing its members, it would go right to character of the members if an ethnicity were widely known to have engaged in bad acts.

It might also be the case that a soldier or a Catholic, driven by a sense of duty or ethics, would forgo the potential backlash or bad press and openly acknowledge any wrongdoing colleagues have committed. The hypothesis, as it were, is not meant to be ironclad, nor is it meant to apply forever, everywhere in perpetuity. In general, however, the behavior of groups of people toward relatively permanent institutions will tend towards uncritical boosterism; more replaceable, less permanent institutions will be more prone to honest (and dishonest) criticism.

The permanence, in effect or in design, encourages a lack of self-critical behavior. The degree to which an institution is permanent or difficult to replace is the degree to which, ceteris paribus, its members will be influenced to dishonestly defend its reputation.

The assumption I could draw from this is that flexibility, individuality and decentralization of society (not just of government) encourage a more rigorous honesty. None of this is ironclad, of course, since there will always be other motivations for people to lie or to tell the truth. However, I submit that societal centralization and tradition in general are often formidable enemies of honesty.

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