Friday, October 2, 2009

A simple fallacy of reasoning...

Let us kick things off with a little commentary (ok, a lot of commentary) on a post that was over at The Simple Dollar written by Trent Hamm (the story itself can be found here it is the first on the reader's questions answered). This really got the commentators going (myself included) and so I thought this might be something to address as a first post. Let me begin by saying that I cannot reject Trent's position strongly enough. I feel like it is poorly thought out and reasoned for many many reasons (expounded on below). However, I also would like to say that I do not dislike Trent, just this particular idea. I have tried very hard to make sure that I am attacking the ridiculous nature of Trent's assertion, rather than him. However, I am rather new to this and so I am afraid that my arguments will, at times, come off strong. I can only hope that Trent and those others reading this will take my assertion at face value and will ascribe anything that seems like a personal attack to my lack of skill as a writer and debater.

Well, I think that covers all the stuff that needs to go up front. So, lets get on with the meat of the post.

Trent writes...

I’m a big believer in what I call the “Idiocracy” theory, so dubbed because of the very eloquent and humorous explanation of the idea at the start of the film Idiocracy.

To put it simply, if you believe strongly in a cause to the point of taking action to push your cause forward, the best thing you can possibly do is have children, raise them to think and be independent, and get them involved in the cause, too.

Ok, before we even get to whether the reasoning behind this idea is even sound, let us examine this first claim. ie. That the beginning of the film Idiocracy is makes the claim that to support a cause, one should have children.

Clearly Trent and I watched different versions of the film. The point of the beginning seems to be that poor, stupid acting people have poor, stupid acting children. Since the rich and "successful" do not have children, it is difficult to know what their children would have been like. Though the movie does seem to suggest that it is the children of the rich that are keeping the world in check. However, this is perhaps a bit removed from suggesting that children will support your causes. Instead, it seems to hint that successful people care about the state of the world more -- as well they might as it is the environment in which they have "succeeded." But I digress. I wish to comment on Trent's post, so I am forced to accept his position, at least for the duration of this post...

Many people who are driven to success in life or push themselves toward a cause eschew the idea of having children – they don’t have time, or they’ve convinced themselves it’s a moral wrong. Instead, people who are not driven and not committed to a cause tend to have more children – they do have time and they haven’t convinced themselves it’s a moral wrong.

The gross generalization supplied here is just...stunning. I find this so for several reasons...

i) The idea that successful people do not have kids only for the reasons that they don't have time or think it is morally wrong is a terrible assumption. I know many people who did not have kids for the simple reason that they had no strong desire for them. This approach to childbearing is a direct application of the frugal approach to life that Trent would have us believe that he supports. In a nutshell, we can break this down into the following reasoning. If one does not have a strong desire for kids, why would one (a) bring a new life into the world, (b) assume moral responsibility over a human for several years, (c) assume a lifetime of financial responsibility, and (d) commit to at least 18 years of constant attention to one thing. It would be similar to a person that does not care for cars deciding to begin a classic car collection and then go touring the country in order to show off that collection that he did not want in the first place. It just would not make sense. Why should our approach to kids be any different? Are they a magical item about which no bad decision can be made? Is it unequivocally a good idea to have children? Or is it not worth considering whether or not one wants kids? Is it the more "moral" choice to just have them and then to hope after the fact that you actually would like to have them? Or is it perhaps a bit more responsible to actually think about what you are doing before you get pregnant? And if that is the case, how can you view an honest decision not to have children as a poor decision?

ii) Why does Trent assume that driven people have less kids than those who are not driven or committed to a cause. First, historically Catholics, Mormons, fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, etc have been proliferate reproducers. Clearly, these same people are committed to a cause. Indeed, it would seem that their devotion to these causes is what provides the motivation for childbearing. So perhaps devotion is not the inhibitor for reproduction that Trent assumes. But let us grant, for the moment that it actually is. What Trent is saying is that "all the smart, driven people do not want to have kids" followed by "these smart people who have succeeded in life, have no idea what they are doing" (ie. they do not have kids). So which is it? Are the people intelligent or morons? Can they or can they not be trusted to make their own decisions and be aware of what they want? And are these desires legitimate? Or is the only proper decision to have a baby?

iii) Let us address the hidden meaning in the above quote as well. Why does Trent assume that people with lots of children are undriven? Does he pretend to know their inner motivations? Just because they do not strive for glory, riches, or prestige (what the world at large values) does this mean that they are unmotivated or not driven? Isn't rejecting the empty pursuit of such 'worldly' values what Trent would have us do, in order to pursue a meaningful (and frugal) life? What if people are "driven" to live their lives to the fullest and what if this, for them includes having children? Trent seems to be generalizing that the poor and child-ridden are lazy, unintelligent, and unmotivated. To offer up such a gross characterization of the poor (as borrowed from Idiocracy) as a serious position is indefensible. It shows an embarrassing lack of awareness of the world around us and the inability to recognize the complex factors that determine one's path through life.

But Trent continues...
Thus, the next generation has a higher proportion of people who aren’t driven towards causes, towards self-improvement, or towards improving the world.

If smart and driven people want to make the world a better place, they should consider having children, who will often also be smart and driven. The more smart and driven people there are in the world, the better off the world will be.

Ah, it is nice to see eugenics making a comeback in the minds of the elite (this was sarcasm). Why does Trent assume that either intelligence or drive is genetically controlled? Don't we see, quite often, examples of the ultra-rich's children squandering their parent's fortune and making choices that show a lack of drive or a commitment to a cause? Is is not the epitome of the American success story to go from rags to riches? And where do the rags come from? To be born poor and to become rich is a highly prized story in our country (for better or worse) and is one that is repeated daily. Are we to ignore this as well? To assume that non-driven people will give rise to the same is such an egregious break of logically sound thinking that it is almost jaw-dropping.

I would love to see a that supports Trent's position. In fact, most of the data that I see indicates that it is not a lack of drive that keeps people from "success" as the world defines it, but rather a lack of opportunity. For more on this, check out a book called Live well on less than you think from your local public library.

If you’re smart and driven and have chosen to not have children, you’re much like a candle in the wind that’s not lighting any other ones.

Wow. I could almost forgive Trent's post. Until this line. This exhibits such a myopic view of life that it is just almost unbelievable...except for the fact that it actually exists and is espoused by at least one person (that person being Trent). What about school teachers? University professors (of whom Trent has spoken often and favorably)? Authors (don't you like books, Trent? Do they not influence you? Or do you just read all those books, mind disengaged, words passing through you mind as so much water through a pipe?) Camp counselors? Psychiatrists? Does Trent really believe that these people are "not lighting" other peoples lives? This seems to be exactly the case and it is absolutely incredible. My mind quite literally boggles at the breach in logic that must be possible in order to even put the above words down on paper.

But enough of the point-by-point. Let me pick apart this position as best I can in a more general approach...

i) Idiocracy is a satire. This simple fact informs the entire film. I cannot believe that someone that claims to read as much as Trent does missed this fact. It is not uncommon in this genre for the hero of the story to have a position that is itself refuted in the end. Likewise, it is not uncommon for the initial premise of a satire to be rejected by the end of the store -- which is exactly what occurs in Idiocracy. The movie begins with the opening sequence that Trent so identifies with, but by the end, we find that it humanity is not in its dire situation do to "breeding problems" but rather do to cultural problems. This is re-enforced many times in the show by the use of cultural norms from today that have been morphed in to something ridiculous (Starbucks as a brothel), showing us that it is the culture of today that is really responsible, since it is the culture of today (even of the elite -- Starbucks) that survives even into the dim future as presented. Moreover, the final solution for the movie is NOT to enforce a breeding policy (which would be the logical conclusion should the premise proposed at the beginning of the movie be correct), but rather to think for oneself, to ignore commercialization, and to educate oneself. I agree that the movie supports the fact that we need independent thinking driven individuals, but the film in no way supports that this should come from genetic causes (or else the people of Idiocracy would necessarily be doomed).

I am aware that we are entitled to our own interpretations of art, but the reading of Idiocracy that Trent presents is the most shallow one possible and it misses much of the truth and meaning of the film. I would even go as far as to state that the interpretation given by Trent completely misses the most major point of the entire film.

ii) Trent's end-game seems to be the recruitment of "smart" and "driven" people for ones cause. He just views the most efficient manner of doing this having children. Now, I suspect that even Trent would not suggest that genetics completely determines ones personality and abilities. One's environment also influences people. As such, until one is grown, we cannot know how "smart" or (perhaps more importantly) "driven" they are. If Trent's goal is to win influential people over to his cause, then he would (necessarily) be better served by seeking out adults that are proven to be driven and intelligent. One would hope that his cause is attractive enough to gather such people, or does he suppose that he should just ram his cause down everyone's throat, just because he has numbers on his side?

iii) Which brings us to my next point. By the policy of "breeding" supporters for a cause, isn't Trent marginalizing those that do not agree with him? If Trent really does believe that his position is the best, wouldn't it be the moral thing to try to convince other people of that? The ones that are missing out on the "correct" thing? If he really does think that other people are wrong, is it not better to try to help them, rather than to overwhelm them with numbers? To try to help them better themselves? Rather than to ignore them and just create a race of people ab initio that will agree with you? Are we to assume that might makes right? Or should we take a compassionate viewpoint and try to have a dialogue with those we disagree with?

v) Trent seems to be a guy who likes mathematics. So let us do a bit of thinking. How may children do you think that a normal family could hope to have? Well, if you really get onto the breeding program, then you can start the woman out when she is 16 or so, and then have a child perhaps every year until about 40 or so (no sense risking having children with birth defects that will be unable to further your cause!). So, that gives us about 25 kids. We can assume that our couple really does want to change the world so that they are on fertility drugs and have twins all the time (they just DOUBLED their influence!) That gives them 50 kids that they can raise in order to change the world.

Let us compare this to an elementary school teacher, who may have 25 kids in a class per year. So in about 2 years, such a teacher will have doubled the influenced more than the parents have in all their years of reproducing. Of course, the parents do get the kids for their whole life, and the teachers only get them for a year or so, but I think the point here is easy to understand.

And this disregards people like professors and role models that are not formally teachers or parents -- for instance, Mother Theresa. Perhaps Trent thinks that if she had really wanted to positively impact the world, then she would have cast aside her vow of chastity? Really, could she have been more selfish?

iv) We have not even touched on the possibility (likely-hood) that children will not give their parent unerring loyalty. There is no reason to assume (and every reason not to) that your children will grow up to hold identical points as yours. If what you want is a loyal partner to further a cause, you are much better served to find one that volunteers for it, rather than to try to mold, from scratch, a free human to support you in everything.

vi) Speaking of which, the idea of raising a child with the idea that they will support your causes seems morally repulsive. Am I the only one that thinks that having children with the express intent of raising them for your own "causes" is a bad idea. Let us ignore the questions of the freedoms that you are trying to deny your children -- who are independent beings -- and focus on what that child will think once they are grown. How does Trent think his children will receive the fact that he is "on the record" along the lines that his children are around to further his causes. Thus, in their minds his "I love you" may no longer seem unconditional, but rather carry the additional stipulation "as long as you do the things that I had in mind for you to do when I brought you into this world." No longer will they hear "You are perfect the way you are" but this may become "You had better support the things that I support. I did not have you to think on your own, but to do my bidding." These are terrible terrible thoughts. And if you think this is, perhaps a bit of a stretch, then just think back to how insecure you were as a child/teenager/young adult and reflect on how the statements that Trent has made would have made you feel.

vii) Lastly, (I have to stop typing sometime) I cannot help but wonder what Trent thinks we are to make of barren women? Or men with low sperm count (or none)? Or homosexuals? Are these people just living pointless lives? Should they give up all hope of influencing people? It is just a shame that gay and lesbian couples cannot reproduce, because (according to Trent) their cause is a hopeless one -- bound to be outgunned by those heterosexuals that abound in our world? Perhaps it is morally wrong for driven people to be gay? Perhaps we should reserve same-sex marriage for those people that fail a "how driven are you?" test and then force all "driven" people into heterosexual relationships. That way we can finally live in the world that Trent envisions.

Well, that is all I have to say for now. Trent's post certainly got me going. I would like to emphasize that I have nothing against having children or those that choose to have them. I think that people should have children -- if they would like to just like I think that people should not have children, if that is their desire. In the end, having children would seem to be a personal choice. In the end, it would seem that that there are multiple factors that should be involved -- that may vary from person to person. I do not pretend to know others reasons for their decisions regarding having children (or not), though trying to justify having children the way that Trent has seems stupendously mis-guided. What I do know is that if having children implies having the kinds of thoughts that Trent has expressed, then I do not want them.