In the United States, comedy seems to be dominated by the left as exemplified by shows such as The Daily Show and Full Frontal. While there are conservative comedians, they tend to avoid political comedy and instead seem more likely to comment on red necks rather than red state politics. As might be imagined, there has been considerable speculation about this political division in the art of comedy, one that mirrors the political divide in the arts in general. While I do not pretend to offer a definitive answer, it is certainly interesting to engage in some speculation.
Smug liberals might be inclined to avail themselves of the hypothesis that comedy requires intelligence and that conservatives are generally less intelligent than liberals. Conservatives might counter that liberal stupidity is what causes them to be amused by stupid liberal jokes. While comedy can be an indicator of wit; there does not seem to be a meaningful intelligence gap dividing the political spectrum; although people always think that their side is superior.
A rather more plausible explanation is that the difference does rest in psychology; that the same traits that draw a person to liberalism would also make a person more proficient at comedy. In contrast, the traits that draw a person to conservatism would make them less capable in regards to comedy.
Sticking with the classic definitions, conservatives want to preserve the existing social order and tend to have a favorable view of the established social institutions. Liberals tend to want to change the social order and regard the established social institutions with some suspicion. Since political comedy involves making fun of the existing social order and mocking established institutions, this would help explain why conservatives would be less likely to be engaged in political comedy than liberals.
It is worth considering that while conservative comedians would not be very inclined to attack conservative targets, there is still a target rich environment. There are obviously many liberal groups and organizations that would be ideally suited for conservative comedy—in fact, liberal comedians have already put down the foundations for mocking many of these groups. There are also numerous liberal individuals that would be suitable targets; they have already been softened up a bit by liberal comics.
Conservatives, such as Rush Limbaugh, do engage in mockery of institutions and social orders they regard as tainted with the left. However, this mockery tends to be more of an attack than an exercise in comedy: while some regard Limbaugh as a clown, he is not seen as a comedian. Or particularly funny. Given the abundance of targets and the willingness of conservatives to go after them, it is something of a mystery why this ecological niche of comedic liberal mocking has not been filled.
One possible explanation is a variation of the victim narrative that conservatives typically reject or condemn when it is used by the left to explain, for example, why women or minorities are underrepresented in an area. The narrative is that comedy is controlled and dominated by the liberals and they are using their power and influence to suppress and oppress conservatives who want to be comedians. If only conservative comics were given a chance to get their comedy out to the people, they would succeed.
Some might be tempted to reject this argument for the reasons typically advanced by conservatives when the narrative involves racism and sexism, such as claims that the failure of the allegedly oppressed is due to their own defects, to simply deny the disparity or to advance the bootstrap argument. While this approach might be satisfying, it is certainly worth considering that conservative comedians are the victims of oppression, that their voices are being silenced by the powerful, and that they are victims. The dearth of conservative comedians, like the dearth of minorities in the highest positions in society, does suggest that an injustice is being done. If conservative comedians are being oppressed, then steps should be taken to address this oppression, perhaps beginning with an affirmative comedic action program to help them get established in the face of a system that has long been stacked against them.
While this is certainly the sort of thing leftists love to do for the oppressed, it is also worth considering whether conservatives want to be comedians. As with other cases of alleged oppression, it might be the case that the reason that there are few, if any, conservative comedians is because few, if any, conservatives want to be comedians. If this is the case, then there is no oppression to address—things are as they should be. Another possible explanation lies in the nature of comedy, at least as it is defined by Aristotle.
As Aristotle saw it, comedy “is a subdivision of the ugly” and “consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive.” Political comedy typical involves mockery across the lines of power, because politics is all about power relationships. Liberal comedy typically involves mocking upwards in regards to power. For example, female comedians making fun of the patriarchy is mockery originating down the power curve that is aimed upwards at the established institutions and norms. Since the mockery is going up the power divide, the comedy generally will not be painful or destructive—after all, the power advantage rests with the target and not the comic.
Since conservatives tend to support the existing power structures and established social values, the target of conservative comedy would tend to be people and organizations outside of those structures or those with different values. As such, conservative comedy would tend to be going down the power curve: the stronger going after the weaker. For example, a white comedian mocking Black Lives Matter would be shooting downward from an advantageous social position. While comedy can go down the power curve and still be comedy, this becomes rather challenging because it is very easy for such attempts to become painful or destructive, thus ceasing to be comedy. Trump provides an excellent example of this. While he often claims to just be joking, his enormous power advantage means that he is almost always punching downwards and thus appears bullying and cruel rather than comedic. This, I think, is a plausible explanation for the dearth of conservative comedians: mocking those who occupy positions of social disadvantage seems more cruel than comedic.
Like almost everyone else, I do not enjoy cleaning. Like most people, I find living in filth unacceptable. As such, I need to either clean myself, get someone else to clean for me or change my abode frequently. I have chosen to do my cleaning myself. I was forced to give this matter some thought when, while complaining about cleaning, I was asked why I did not hire someone to do it for me.
There are a variety of reasons for my choice. Some are psychological and thus not particularly interesting. Most of these have to do with the fact that my mother would have made Aristotle proud: she was rather big on making sure that I had plenty of character building opportunities and, as such, I now (as per Aristotle’s theory of moral education) find it less irksome to do such chores. I am also quite a character. As a kid, of course, I found such tasks less tolerable—but that is what habituation is all about.
Some of these psychological factors are due to the influence of my interpretation of the American ideals of responsibility, egalitarianism, and a classless society: no person should be so full of himself to think that he is above doing his own chores. As far as changing my abode frequently, that would be a bit too pricy for a frugal Yankee like me. But, psychological reasons are not philosophically interesting. So, I now turn to the ethics of cleaning one’s own toilet. Or, more generally, cleaning up after oneself.
Turning back to Aristotle, one excellent reason why a person should clean up after himself is that this is a method of building proper habits. There is the obvious good habit of keeping things clean, but there is also the deeper impact on a person’s character. While I am sure that not everyone has been affected in the same way, doing my own cleaning (and other such work) has had two main impacts on my character. The first, to put it bluntly, is that it is hard to be too full of yourself when you are scrubbing your toilet or toweling up some husky vomit. My detractors can certainly imagine how arrogant I would be if I did not have these regular ego-reducing activities.
To pre-empt a likely criticism, I do not think that cleaning is a “lowly” activity that beats down the ego because it is worthy only of disdain or contempt. Rather, I think that it is doing my own cleaning that helps me not regard cleaning as something disdainful or worthy of contempt. It is usually not a pleasant activity, but it is both necessary and worthy of respect. As such, it is not that the cleaning helps me remember that I am not too good to clean, it is that such work should not be held in contempt. This helps keep the old ego under some degree of control.
The second is that cleaning up my own messes (and those of various pets) has taught me to be more considerate of others. Knowing how much fun it is to clean up a mess, I am certainly not inclined to make messes for others to clean up. As such, I do not litter and I am respectful of public places. After all, normal cleaning is work enough. In contrast, there are folks who are fine with creating awful messes. I have had to clean up a few of those myself—like the time I had to clean up discarded diapers left by trespassers at the homeowners’ association pool. I did not have a problem with people outside of the association using the pool in the hot Florida summer, but did have an issue with cleaning up their mess.
I will freely admit that there are people who do not learn such lessons from cleaning—but that is true for all lessons. You can lead the person to the mop, but you cannot make him learn from mopping up husky vomit.
In addition to the character building value of such tasks, there is also the matter of moral responsibility. When I was an infant, I was not accountable for my actions—I lacked both the knowledge and control to be responsible for the messes I produced. However, once I had both knowledge and control, I became accountable for my actions. This accountability includes the messes I create—be it mud tracked in from a run or screwing up something at work. To not clean up my own messes would be morally irresponsible and thus worthy of moral condemnation. Despite the fact that I find my view sensible, it does face some reasonable objections. I will focus on moral arguments aimed at showing that it is morally acceptable for a competent adult to have others do her cleaning for her.
While it is just me and my non-cleaning husky living in my house, I have lived with people before and I am familiar with the challenge of sharing the chores. I am fine with sharing chores on the basis of my responsibility argument. However, I am aware of an interesting argument in favor of having one partner doing the cleaning. Consider, if you will, a situation in which one person makes significantly more money than her partner. Her time is thus more valuable than that of her partner, especially if the time she would otherwise spend cleaning is spent earning money. Since the partner’s time is literally worth less, it makes more economic sense for the partner to do the cleaning.
This does have considerable appeal that is grounded on smart use of employee resources. To use a concrete example, if the toilet overflows at a small law firm, it makes more sense for the least valuable employee to deal with the toilet while the more valuable employees keep racking up those billable hours. The loss of revenue is less this way.
The obvious counter to this, at least in the case of people who are in a relationship, is that the value of each partner’s time as a person is not a function of her work salary. While it is something of an ideal, a person should value his partner’s time on par with his own—or someone should re-consider that relationship. There is also the matter of respect—to regard a person as being worth less simply because she makes less money is to fail to respect that person as a person. As such, chores should be divided fairly. This can include dividing the chores based on each person’s cleaning skills, preferences and level of mess creation. For example, if one person has a habit of creating muddy messes on the floor, then that should be his responsibility to clean. But, to the degree that each person contributes to the mess, each should contribute to the cleaning. There can, of course, be some “exchange” of chores—but the responsibilities should be shared based on the principle of fairness.
As mentioned above, what caused me to reflect on this was being asked why I did not hire someone to clean for me. Obviously enough, hiring a person to do the cleaning is morally different from having one’s partner do the work. The easy and obvious moral justification for this is one of utility. If a person values avoiding cleaning more than what it would cost to hire someone to clean, then it would be reasonable and morally fine for him to do so. This is no more morally problematic than hiring someone to perform a root canal or argue a legal case. This assumes that the person is not coerced and is being paid a fair wage—if this is not the case, then another moral concern arises.
I must admit that this is a sensible view. I certainly hire people to do work for me, such making and installing the dental crown I recently had to get. I have also hired people to take care of my pets when I am out of town, thus paying someone else to take care of my responsibilities. However, in these cases I am hiring people to perform tasks that I cannot perform (or cannot perform as well). I am not paying someone to avoid something I am responsible for, namely my messes. As such, I think part of the cost of hiring someone else to clean up after me would be moral costs: failing in my responsibility when I could fulfil my obligation and engaging in behavior that is not good for my character. Put another way, I think that the lesson that you can make whatever messes you want as long as you have enough money to pay others to clean it up is the wrong sort of lesson.
A sensible reply to this is that any alleged moral harm done to the person doing the hiring is offset by the good done at creating a job for someone. After all, there are people who make their living cleaning up other peoples’ messes and if everyone had my view, these people would need to find new work or be unemployed. This, I admit, is certainly an appealing argument. At some point, probably when I finally get sick of scrubbing toilets and mopping up pet puke, I might let it convince me. But until then, I will keep making my mother proud and build character by cleaning my own toilet. Until mopbot arrives, most likely followed quickly by the killbots. Who will no doubt make the poor mopbot clean up my remains.
If you have made a mistake, do not be afraid of admitting the fact and amending your ways.
I never make the same mistake twice. Unfortunately, there are an infinite number of mistakes. So, I keep making new ones. Fortunately, philosophy is rather helpful in minimizing the impact of mistakes and learning that crucial aspect of wisdom: not committing the same error over and over.
One key aspect to avoiding the repetition of errors is skill in critical thinking. While critical thinking has become something of a buzz-word bloated fad, the core of it remains as important as ever. The core is, of course, the methods of rationally deciding whether a claim should be accepted as true, rejected as false or if judgment regarding that claim should be suspended. Learning the basic mechanisms of critical thinking (which include argument assessment, fallacy recognition, credibility evaluation, and causal reasoning) is relatively easy—reading through the readily available quality texts on such matters will provide the basic tools. But, as with carpentry or plumbing, merely having a well-stocked tool kit is not enough. A person must also have the knowledge of when to use a tool and the skill with which to use it properly. Gaining knowledge and skill is usually difficult and, at the very least, takes time and practice. This is why people who merely grind through a class on critical thinking or flip through a book on fallacies do not suddenly become good at thinking. After all, no one would expect a person to become a skilled carpenter merely by reading a DIY book or watching a few hours of videos on YouTube.
Another key factor in avoiding the repetition of mistakes is the ability to admit that one has made a mistake. There are many “pragmatic” reasons to avoid admitting mistakes. Public admission to a mistake can result in liability, criticism, damage to one’s reputation and other such harms. While we have sayings that promise praise for those who admit error, the usual practice is to punish such admissions—and people are often quick to learn from such punishments. While admitting the error only to yourself will avoid the public consequences, people are often reluctant to do this. After all, such an admission can damage a person’s pride and self-image. Denying error and blaming others is usually easier on the ego.
The obvious problem with refusing to admit to errors is that this will tend to keep a person from learning from her mistakes. If a person recognizes an error, she can try to figure out why she made that mistake and consider ways to avoid making the same sort of error in the future. While new errors are inevitable, repeating the same errors over and over due to a willful ignorance is either stupidity or madness. There is also the ethical aspect of the matter—being accountable for one’s actions is a key part of being a moral agent. Saying “mistakes were made” is a denial of agency—to cast oneself as an object swept along by the river of fare rather than an agent rowing upon the river of life.
In many cases, a person cannot avoid the consequences of his mistakes. Those that strike, perhaps literally, like a pile of bricks, are difficult to ignore. Feeling the impact of these errors, a person might be forced to learn—or be brought to ruin. The classic example is the hot stove—a person learns from one touch because the lesson is so clear and painful. However, more complicated matters, such as a failed relationship, allow a person room to deny his errors.
If the negative consequences of his mistakes fall entirely on others and he is never called to task for these mistakes, a person can keep on making the same mistakes over and over. After all, he does not even get the teaching sting of pain trying to drive the lesson home. One good example of this is the political pundit—pundits can be endlessly wrong and still keep on expressing their “expert” opinions in the media. Another good example of this is in politics. Some of the people who brought us the Iraq war are part of Jeb Bush’s presidential team. Jeb, infamously, recently said that he would have gone to war in Iraq even knowing what he knows now. While he endeavored to awkwardly walk that back, it might be suspected that his initial answer was the honest one. Political parties can also embrace “solutions” that have never worked and relentless apply them whenever they get into power—other people suffer the consequences while the politicians generally do not directly reap consequences from bad policies. They do, however, routinely get in trouble for mistakes in their personal lives (such as affairs) that have no real consequences outside of this private sphere.
While admitting to an error is an important first step, it is not the end of the process. After all, merely admitting I made a mistake will not do much to help me avoid that mistake in the future. What is needed is an honest examination of the mistake—why and how it occurred. This needs to be followed by an honest consideration of what can be changed to avoid that mistake in the future. For example, a person might realize that his relationships ended badly because he made the mistake of rushing into a relationship too quickly—getting seriously involved without actually developing a real friendship.
To steal from Aristotle, merely knowing the cause of the error and how to avoid it in the future is not enough. A person must have the will and ability to act on that knowledge and this requires the development of character. Fortunately, Aristotle presented a clear guide to developing such character in his Nicomachean Ethics. Put rather simply, a person must do what it is she wishes to be and stick with this until it becomes a matter of habit (and thus character). That is, a person must, as Aristotle argued, become a philosopher. Or be ruled by another who can compel correct behavior, such as the state.
While Aristotle was writing centuries before the rise of wearable technology, his view of moral education provides a solid foundation for the theory behind what I like to call the benign tyranny of the device. Or, if one prefers, the bearable tyranny of the wearbable.
In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle addressed the very practical problem of how to make people good. He was well aware that merely listening to discourses on morality would not make people good. In a very apt analogy, he noted that such people would be like invalids who listened to their doctors, but did not carry out her instructions—they will get no benefit.
His primary solution to the problem is one that is routinely endorsed and condemned today: to use the compulsive power of the state to make people behave well and thus become conditioned in that behavior. Obviously, most people are quite happy to have the state compel people to act as they would like them to act; yet equally unhappy when it comes to the state imposing on them. Aristotle was also well aware of the importance of training people from an early age—something later developed by the Nazis and Madison Avenue.
While there have been some attempts in the United States and other Western nations to use the compulsive power of the state to force people to engage in healthy practices, these have been fairly unsuccessful and are usually opposed as draconian violations of the liberty to be out of shape. While the idea of a Fitness Force chasing people around to make them exercise amuses me, I certainly would oppose such impositions on both practical and moral grounds. However, most people do need some external coercion to force them to engage in healthy behavior. Those who are well-off can hire a personal trainer and a fitness coach. Those who are less well of can appeal to the tyranny of friends who are already self-tyrannizing. However, there are many obvious problems with relying on other people. This is where the tyranny of the device comes in.
While the quantified life via electronics is in its relative infancy, there is already a multitude of devices ranging from smart fitness watches, to smart plates, to smart scales, to smart forks. All of these devices offer measurements of activities to quantify the self and most of them offer coercion ranging from annoying noises, to automatic social media posts (“today my feet did not patter, so now my ass grows fatter”), to the old school electric shock (really).
While the devices vary in their specifics, Aristotle laid out the basic requirements back when lightning was believed to come from Zeus. Aristotle noted that a person must do no wrong either with or against one’s will. In the case of fitness, this would be acting in ways contrary to health.
What is needed, according to Aristotle, is “the guidance of some intelligence or right system that has effective force.” The first part of this is that the device or app must be the “right system.” That is to say, the device must provide correct guidance in terms of health and well-being. Unfortunately, health is often ruled by fad and not actual science.
The second part of this is the matter of “effective force.” That is, the device or app must have the power to compel. Aristotle noted that individuals lacked such compulsive power, so he favored the power of law. Good law has practical wisdom and also compulsive force. However, unless the state is going to get into the business of compelling health, this option is out.
Interesting, Aristotle claims that “although people resent it when their impulses are opposed by human agents, even if they are in the right, the law causes no irritation by enjoining decent behavior.” While this seems not entirely true, he did seem to be right in that people find the law less annoying than being bossed around by individuals acting as individuals (like that bossy neighbor telling you to turn down the music).
The same could be true of devices—while being bossed around by a person (“hey fatty, you’ve had enough ice cream, get out and run some”) would annoy most people, being bossed by an app or device could be far less annoying. In fact, most people are already fully conditioned by their devices—they obey every command to pick up their smartphones and pay attention to whatever is beeping or flashing. Some people do this even when doing so puts people at risk, such as when they are driving. This certainly provides a vast ocean of psychological conditioning to tap into, but for a better cause. So, instead of mindlessly flipping through Instagram or texting words of nothingness, a person would be compelled by her digital master to exercise more, eat less crap, and get more sleep. Soon the machine tyrants will have very fit hosts to carry them around.
So, Aristotle has provided the perfect theoretical foundation for designing the tyrannical device. To recap, it needs the following features:
- Practical wisdom: the health science for the device or app needs to be correct and the guidance effective.
- Compulsive power: the device or app must be able to compel the user effectively and make them obey.
- Not too annoying: while it must have compulsive power, this power must not generate annoyance that exceeds its ability to compel.
- A cool name.
So, get to work on those devices and apps. The age of machine tyranny is not going to impose itself. At least not yet.
While the notion of punishing machines for misdeeds has received some attention in science fiction, it seems worthwhile to take a brief philosophical look at this matter. This is because the future, or so some rather smart people claim, will see the rise of intelligent machines—machines that might take actions that would be considered misdeeds or crimes if committed by a human (such as the oft-predicted genocide).
In general, punishment is aimed at one of more of the following goals: retribution, rehabilitation, or deterrence. Each of these goals will be considered in turn in the context of machines.
Roughly put, punishment for the purpose of retribution is aimed at paying an agent back for wrongdoing. This can be seen as a form of balancing the books: the punishment inflicted on the agent is supposed to pay the debt it has incurred by its misdeed. Reparation can, to be a bit sloppy, be included under retaliation—at least in the sense of the repayment of a debt incurred by the commission of a misdeed.
While a machine can be damaged or destroyed, there is clearly the question about whether it can be the target of retribution. After all, while a human might kick her car for breaking down on her or smash his can opener for cutting his finger, it would be odd to consider this retributive punishment. This is because retribution would seem to require that a wrong has been done by an agent, which is different from the mere infliction of harm. Intuitively, a piece of glass can cut my foot, but it cannot wrong me.
If a machine can be an agent, which was discussed in an earlier essay, then it would seem to be able to do wrongful deeds and thus be a potential candidate for retribution. However, even if a machine had agency, there is still the question of whether or not retribution would really apply. After all, retribution requires more than just agency on the part of the target. It also seems to require that the target can suffer from the payback. On the face of it, a machine that could not suffer would not be subject to retribution—since retribution seems to be based on doing a “righteous wrong” to the target. To illustrate, suppose that an android injured a human, costing him his left eye. In retribution, the android’s left eye is removed. But, the android does not suffer—it does not feel any pain and is not bothered by the removal of its eye. As such, the retribution would be pointless—the books would not be balanced.
This could be countered by arguing that the target of the retribution need not suffer—what is required is merely the right sort of balancing of the books, so to speak. So, in the android case, removal of the android’s eye would suffice, even if the android did not suffer. This does have some appeal since retribution against humans does not always require that the human suffer. For example, a human might break another human’s iPad and have her iPad broken in turn, but not care at all. The requirements of retribution would seem to have been met, despite the lack of suffering.
Punishment for rehabilitation is intended to transform wrongdoers so that they will no longer be inclined to engage in the wrongful behavior that incurred the punishment. This differs from punishment aimed at deterrence—this aims at providing the target with a reason to not engage in the misdeed in the future. Rehabilitation is also aimed at the agent who did the misdeed, whereas punishment for the sake of deterrence often aims at affects others as well.
Obviously enough, a machine that lacks agency cannot be subject to rehabilitative punishment—it cannot “earn” such punishment by its misdeeds and, presumably, cannot have its behavioral inclinations corrected by such punishment.
To use an obvious example, if a computer crashes and destroys a file that a person had been working on for hours, punishing the computer in an attempt to rehabilitate it would be pointless. Not being an agent, it did not “earn” the punishment and punishment will not incline it to crash less in the future.
A machine that possesses agency could “earn” punishment by its misdeeds. It also seems possible to imagine a machine that could be rehabilitated by punishment. For example, one could imagine a robot dog that could be trained in the same way as a real dog—after leaking oil in the house or biting the robo-cat and being scolded, it would learn not to do those misdeeds again.
It could be argued that it would be better, both morally and practically, to build machines that would learn without punishment or to teach them without punishing them. After all, though organic beings seems to be wired in a way that requires that we be trained with pleasure and pain (as Aristotle would argue), there might be no reason that our machine creations would need to be the same way. But, perhaps, it is not just a matter of the organic—perhaps intelligence and agency require the capacity for pleasure and pain. Or perhaps not. Or it might simply be the only way that we know how to teach—we will be, by our nature, cruel teachers of our machine children.
Then again, we might be inclined to regard a machine that does misdeeds as being defective and in need of repair rather than punishment. If so, such machines would be “refurbished” or reprogrammed rather than rehabilitated by punishment. There are those who think the same of human beings—and this would raise the same sort of issues about how agents should be treated.
The purpose of deterrence is to motivate the agent who did the misdeed and/or other agents not to commit that deed. In the case of humans, people argue in favor of capital punishment because of its alleged deterrence value: if the state kills people for certain crimes, people are less likely to commit those crimes.
As with other forms of punishment, deterrence requires agency: the punished target must merit the punishment and the other targets must be capable of changing their actions in response to that punishment.
Deterrence, obviously enough, does not work in regards to non-agents. For example, if a computer crashes and wipes out a file a person has been laboring on for house, punishing it will not deter it. Smashing it in front of other computers will not deter them.
A machine that had agency could “earn” such punishment by its misdeeds and could, in theory, be deterred. The punishment could also deter other machines. For example, imagine a combat robot that performed poorly in its mission (or showed robo-cowardice). Punishing it could deter it from doing that again it could serve as a warning, and thus a deterrence, to other combat robots.
Punishment for the sake of deterrence raises the same sort of issues as punishment aimed at rehabilitation, such as the notion that it might be preferable to repair machines that engage in misdeeds rather than punishing them. The main differences are, of course, that deterrence is not aimed at making the target inclined to behave well, just to disincline it from behaving badly and that deterrence is also aimed at those who have not committed the misdeed.
In general, people suffer from a wide range of cognitive biases. One of these is known as negativity bias and it is manifested by the tendency people have to give more weight to the negative than to the positive. For example, people tend to weigh the wrongs done to them more heavily than the good done to them. As another example, people tend to be more swayed by negative political advertisements than by positives ones. This bias can also have an impact on education.
A colleague of mine asks his logic students each semester how many of them are planning on law school. In the past, he had many students. Now, the number is considerably less. Curious about this, he checked and found that logic had switched from being a requirement for pre-law to being a mere recommendation. My colleague noted that it seemed irrational for students who plan on taking the LSAT and becoming lawyers to avoid the logic class, given that the LSAT is largely a logic test and that law school requires skill in logic. He made the point that students often prefer to avoid the useful when it is not required and only grudgingly take what is required. We discussed a bit how this relates to the negativity bias: a student who did not take the logic class when it was required would be punished by being unable to graduate. Now that the class is optional, there is only the positive benefit of a likely improvement on the LSAT and better performance in law school. Since people weigh punishments more than rewards, this behavior makes sense—but is still irrational. Especially since many of the students who skip the logic class will end up spending money taking LSAT preparation classes that will endeavor to spackle over their lack of skills in logic.
I have seen a similar sort of thing in my own classes. At my university, university policy allows us to lower student grades on the basis of a lack of attendance. We are even permitted to fail a student for excessive absences. While attendance is mandatory in my classes, I do not have a special punishment for missing class. Not surprisingly, when the students figure this out around week three or four, attendance plummets and then stabilizes at a low level. Before I used BlackBoard for quizzes, exams and for turning in assignments and papers, attendance would spike back up for days on which something had to be done in class. Since students can do their work via BlackBoard, these spikes are gone. They are, however, replaced by post-exam spikes when students do badly on the exams because they have not been in class. Then attendance slumps again. Interestingly, students often claim that they think the class is interesting and useful. But, since there is no direct and immediate punishment for not attending (just a delayed “punishment” in terms of lower grades and a lack of learning), many students are not motivated to attend class.
Naturally, I do consider the possibility that I am a bad professor who is teaching a subject that students regard as useless or boring. However, my evaluations are consistently good, former students have returned to say good things about me and my classes, and so on. That said, perhaps I am merely deluding myself and being humored. That said, it is easy enough to draw an analogy to exercise: exercise does not provide immediate rewards and there is no immediate punishment for not staying fit—just a loss of benefits. Most people elect to under-exercise or avoid it altogether. This, and similar things, does show that people generally avoid that which is difficult now but yields lasting benefits latter.
I have, of course, considered going to the punishment model for my classes. However, I have resisted this for a variety of reasons. The first is that my personality is such that I am more inclined to want to offer benefits rather than punishments. This seems to be a clear mistake given the general psychology of people. The second is that I believe in free choice: like God, I think people should be free to make bad choices and not be coerced into doing what is right. It has to be a free choice. Naturally, choosing poorly brings its own punishment—albeit later on. The third is the hassle of dealing with attendance: the paper work, having to handle excuses, being lied to regularly and so on. The fourth is the fact that classes are generally better for the good students when the students who do not want to be in class elect to not attend. While I want everyone to learn, I would rather have the people who would prefer not to learn not be in class disrupting the learning of others—college is not the place where the educator should have to spend time dealing with behavioral issues in the classroom. The fifth is I prefer to reduce the amount of lying that students think they have to engage in.
In terms of why I have been considering using the punishment model, there are three reasons. One is that if students are compelled to attend, they might very well inadvertently learn something. The second is that this model is a lesson for what the workplace will be like for most of the students—so habituating them to this (or, rather, keeping the habituation they should have acquired in K-12) would be valuable. After all, they will probably need to endure awful jobs until they retire or die. The third is that perhaps many people lack the discipline to do what they should and they simply must be compelled by punishment—this is, of course, the model put forth by thinkers like Aristotle and Hobbes.