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Astronaut vs. Cowboy Ethics
Comparing “astronaut” to “cowboy” ethics can show that Locke's limits on liberty need to be revised. We once could see that pitting self-interest against collective self-preservation wasn’t rational. Me-opic and logically unworkable ideas that economics sometimes encourage have made that harder to see.
“Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.” So says Garrett Hardin reassessing his misnamed “tragedy of the commons” parable. He’s right, and since certain kinds of “commons” are unavoidable, his logic means we are too free. Revised logical limits of liberty are needed.
1. Hardin’s scenario described incentives for herders to overgraze a commons (public pasture). Pursuing their narrow self-only-interest, they ruin the shared resource. Hardin later said his “weightiest mistake” was not noting that the fault lies in the “unmanaged” freedom.
2. Humans are the freest, least genetically constrained species (see praxotype). But rule-free freedom produces unproductive chaos. Our linguistic and ethical rule-processors evolved to coordinate and constrain our freedoms, productively.
3. The Golden Rule — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” — easily cures Hardin’s “tragedy.” But somehow its symmetric logic is losing sway.
4. Locke defined commonly accepted limits on liberty in 1690: “Reason ... teaches all Mankind ... no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions.” But by 1968, Hardin believed self-maximization was “rational,” even when collectively ruinous.
5. We know we are not free to harm any other person’s interests. So why would harming the interests of all others (the commons) be OK? “The commons” are commoner than many believe (e.g., our unfence-able microbial commons; markets are commons-like resources).
6. Unlike the Golden Rule or Locke’s limits, Hardin’s herder logic is too me-opic and asymmetric. It “works” only if others don’t do it. It might make twisted short-term sense, but it can’t last. Contagious behaviors bind our common fate to what we allow ourselves, and others to do.
7. Tragedy once was more than a bad ending. It meant being at the mercy of a situation where it was impossible to avoid disaster. Hardin’s hard-of-thinking herders hardly fit the bill. Just don’t overgraze — and organize to ensure no one else does. A trivially solvable “tragedy” isn’t worthy of the name.
8. Avoiding foreseeable doom is rational. Pitting self-interest against collective self-preservation isn’t. We once could see this. Economic cowboy ethics risks ignoring it.
9. Hardin called economics “a minor specialty” within ecology, and compared “cowboy” to “spaceship” ethics. Ecology uses spaceship-ethics: Everything is limited and valuable. Economics often encourages cowboy ethics; huge, free herds suggest it’s OK to shoot buffalo just to eat the tongue = near-extinction. Economics and ethics must now work better.
10. Locke’s liberty limits must be redrawn. Rule systems that permit — or promote — damaging what their followers depend on, don’t survive. Greed easily becomes systemically tragic (e.g., Prisoners Dilemmas).
11. We need to better grasp our own needs. And that others, and their needs, are inescapable.
“Reason teaches ... all ... who will but consult it.”
12. Know your needs. Don’t damage what supplies them. Don’t let others either. Or you’re doomed.
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.
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A scientist in Sweden makes a controversial presentation at a future of food conference.
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- He made the controversial presentation to Swedish TV during a "Future of Food" conference in Stockholm.
- The scientist acknowledges the many taboos this idea would have to overcome.
Depiction of cannibalism in the Medieval ages.
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A report from the New York Times raises questions over how the teletherapy startup Talkspace handles user data.
- In the report, several former employees said that "individual users' anonymized conversations were routinely reviewed and mined for insights."
- Talkspace denied using user data for marketing purposes, though it acknowledged that it looks at client transcripts to improve its services.
- It's still unclear whether teletherapy is as effective as traditional therapy.
Talkspace.com<p>Former employees also questioned the legitimacy of certain interventions by the company into client-therapist interactions. For example, after one therapist sent a client a link to an online anxiety worksheet, a company representative instructed her to try to keep clients inside the app.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I was like, 'How do you know I did that?'" Karissa Brennan, a therapist who worked with Talkspace from 2015 to 2017, told the Times. "They said it was private, but it wasn't."</p><p>Other former employees said the company would pay special attention to its "enterprise partner" clients, who worked at companies like Google. One therapist said Talkspace contacted her for taking too long to respond to Google clients.</p><p>Talkspace responded to the Times with a Medium <a href="https://medium.com/@founders_22883/talkspace-founders-respond-to-a-new-york-times-article-78d6f5c45c59" target="_blank">post</a>, which claimed the Times report contained false and "uninformed assertions."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Talkspace is a HIPAA/HITECH and SOC2 approved platform, audited annually by external vendors, and has deployed additional technologies to keep its data safe, exceeding all existing regulatory requirements," the post states.</p>