ethics


The answer is no, it isn’t. Please stay home.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that getting sick is that big of a deal. I can handle the discomfort of a flu, and so can you. But if I had a choice between you punching me in the face and you giving me a flu, I would prefer the punch as long as you didn’t break anything.

Why is the relatively mild punch to the face clearly unethical and going to work sick is not? It’s because when it comes to getting sick, we suffer from magical thinking.  When it comes to mysterious misfortunes, we tend to rely on magic potions, magic words, magic thoughts, or magic feathers. If punches to the face were a mysterious misfortune that struck with no clear puncher or intended punchee, we would probably have a whole range of face-punch invulnerability talismans, herbs, and spells. And going to work when you might punch someone would not seem like an ethical question.

Remember how everyone in your office got the flu this winter and it was so bad that it was funny and you sat in a meeting and sympathized with a sick colleague as they described their distress, and then later joked about how you probably got it from them? That was possible only because neither of you could see the mechanism of infection or feel the viral load enter your bloodstream when you rubbed your eye. The vivid experience of a perpetration would limit the possibility of magical thinking, and going to work sick would become an obvious ethical question.

On a challenge from the blog 400 Days ’til 40 I did a quick-and-dirty calculation of our carbon footprint for a year here in California. I just used the top hit on Google for “carbon footprint calculator” and made my best estimates for all the values they asked for:

1. I live in California, USA, in a household of two.

2. I use no natural gas, heating oil, coal, LPG, and no net electricity by virtue of a solar array, thanks to an investment by my father. Reanna and I cook with propane, and a little research is leading me to believe we will go through approximately 50 gallons in a year, maybe less. Our share of the firewood that my parents burn for heat in the evenings is about .4 of a cord. My share of all this contributes .08 metric tons of CO2 per year.

3. I fly to Portland and to Albany every year to work at Not Back to School Camp. That contributes .95 metric tons of CO2. Something like a quarter of a ton for each leg. Pricey!

4. Car travel is the biggest polluter at 5.05 metric tons of CO2. This amount probably varies quite a bit each year and is way up from my Eugene, OR lifestyle. This estimate includes a few trips to town each week, a dozen trips to the LA area, and one long road trip to Canada. That’s a bit less than 2 tons for each of those kinds of commutes.

5. I use a significant amount of bus and train travel on my business (and some other) trips as well, adding about .12 metric tons of CO2.

6. The second biggest polluter is a group of “lifestyle” choices. 1.21 tons for eating animal products, 1 ton for owning one car, .5 tons for eating only “mostly” local produce, .61 tons for buying stuff with packaging, .17 tons for buying “some” new equipment, .41 for throwing some stuff away, 1 ton for sometimes going out to movies and restaurants, and .4 tons for having a bank account. Total = 4.21 metric tons of CO2. (The highest value possible here was 24.53 tons.)

Here is the summary they gave me:

  • Your footprint is 10.41 metric tons per year
  • The average footprint for people in United States is 20.40 metric tons
  • The average for the industrial nations is about 11 metric tons
  • The average worldwide carbon footprint is about 4 metric tons
  • The worldwide target to combat climate change is 2 metric tons

I have plenty of questions about and criticisms of the way this calculator works. They ask my household size first but do not indicate if they are calculating my individual footprint or my household’s. That could change my score quite a bit if I’m taking the blame for Reanna’s share.

I’d like find a calculator which takes into account more specifics, too. I have owned the same car for 20 years, for example, but the way they asked the question gave me the same carbon footprint as someone who has a brand new SUV every year. Miles driven, too, is not as important as number of gallons of gasoline burned (see my mileage/fuel tracking project here). I buy some things with packaging and I throw some stuff in the landfill (see my landfill tracking project here), but “some” is a vague category to hang such a precise 1.02 metric tons of carbon on! What about grass-fed versus industrially produced meat?

On the other hand, two metric tons is a pretty tight carbon budget, and finding a more accurate calculator will not likely shift my score dramatically. And with this calculator, I am at 520% of my two metric tons, this with a relatively low-profile lifestyle for an American. I could come down to 222% if I did not own a car and never drove one. If I also stopped eating animal products and stopped going to movies and restaurants, I would be close, at 112%. If I also stopped flying, I could actually come in under budget, at 64%, leaving some slack for others.

That’s a pretty discouraging proposition! The biggest barrier is the isolation. No travel means never seeing a large part of my family and community. And the idea is that kinds of lifestyle choices would have to become the norm, not just the domain of eccentrics….

I’m going to have to do some more thinking about this.

I came across this article on sex-selective abortion on The Rational Optimist (via Jad Abumrad‘s tweet), about the skewing of sex-ratios as access to wealth, abortions, and ultrasound technology increases. This, for example, is a map of China showing sex ratios by region. White areas have naturally-occurring ratios. The darker the red, the higher the skew towards males (and the richer the region). This kind of thing is happening in about half of the world’s countries, not just China, and it’s likely to increase as we get better at sperm-sorting and genetic manipulation.

This is a map of “son preference” by country:

I was caught off guard by one of the comments on the article. I realized that I had breezed past this section:

“Policy seems largely powerless to fight this problem. Sex-selective abortion is illegal in virtually all countries. China’s authoritarian “one-child policy” is in marked contrast with India’s more laissez-faire attitude to family planning, yet both have produced widespread killing of female fetuses.”

I read this focused on their point that different policies on family size were producing similar results in terms of sex-selective abortion. The part about sex-selective abortion being illegal did not catch my attention at all. And if it had really  caught my attention, I probably would have thought something like, “Oh, good for them. I wouldn’t have expected that in highly sexist cultures.” Then I read the comment:

“If a society permits abortion on demand (which many do), then it permits abortion on demand. Permitting abortion on demand *except* when this is used to achieve sex selection seems peculiarly inconsistent.”

Whenever I think seriously about abortion I am impressed by how difficult the ethics are to untangle. The simple, clearcut answers that my inner idealist wants are offered only by heavy duty idealogs, and those answers don’t make sense to me. And opinions tend to be so impassioned that it can be difficult–scary, even–to carry on a sustained conversation about it. I notice, even as I’m writing and editing this little piece, that I am tending to say less and less as time goes on…

I vote pro-choice, but that does not get to the complexities of the issue for me. My votes are acts of passing the buck to the individual women making those decisions, letting myself off the hook as best I can. At the same time, I  believe that fetal life has moral import, and feel myself getting more squeamish about abortion the more aesthetic the reasons for it. When I think about its use by people who have value-structures very different from my own to further their own cause, it is troubling. Sex-selective abortion is one clear example. Another is the rumors that the conservative support of Planned Parenthood has been a kind of race-selective abortion, because women of color are having more abortions than white women. Shudder.

Maybe I just want to avoid this discomfort, but I wish only women could vote on this issue, and let me the rest of the way off the hook about it.

In a part of the new Seminar About Long Term Thinking, “Deep Optimism,” Matt Ridley talks about the ethics of buying local. Apparently, the amount of fuel used to ship an object to a store in the US from a factory in China is on average ten times smaller than the fuel you use to drive to the store to buy it. There are other factors in the ethics of buying local, of course, but it may be that how you get to the store is a more important decision than how far away the object you want was made or grown. It makes me wonder where buying mail-order falls in terms of fuel efficiency. Will we see Amazon asking us to buy from them to protect the planet?

Ed Moses begins the new Long Now Seminar talking about the BP oil spill, saying, basically, that there’s a 30″ hole, one mile down, that’s leaking about a million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico every week. Keep in mind, though, he says, that the US burns a million barrels of oil an hour.

Oh… right.

It reminded me of an “Oh… right” experience I had the morning of September 11, 2001, when my friend Biko told me there had been terrorist attacks. It turned out that the early death-toll estimates were way higher than they turned out to be–we had heard that it was tens of thousands–but even then, Biko said, “Well, to keep this in perspective, a lot more people than that die of starvation every day.”

It’s amazing to me how relatively small-scale catastrophes grab my attention and get my emotions going, as long as they are dramatic in some way, while global-scale catastrophes can be easy to ignore.

This also reminds me of a lecture I attended last year by Paul Slovic about how our moral intuition fails when it comes to large-scale problems like genocide. He presented an experiment in which (among other things) one group of participants were shown a profile of a starving child and were given the opportunity to give some of the money they’d earned by participating to help the child. Another group of participants had the same experience except they were shown two children. The people who saw two profiles gave way less money than those who saw only one. It’s worse than diminishing returns. It’s not just that more people in trouble get less money per person, they get less money in total. It seems that bigger problems become more abstract, and so become less emotionally pressing.

The question is, how can we motivate ourselves and others to do what is right in situations where moral intuition routinely misleads us? The person who answers that question could really change things. Imagine a world in which the recent earthquake in Haiti was not that big of a deal because we had helped them out before it hit. After all, we all knew they had been desperately poor and vulnerable for our entire lifetimes. We just didn’t care that much.

I’m taking a couples assessment class this summer, and right now I’m reading about a tension between family therapy models that Sciarra and Simon (in Handbook of Multicultural Assessment) call either idiographic or nomothetic.

Nomothetic models say that families have problems because they get out of whack in ways that families do. That is, each nomothetic model has its own list of ways that families can get out of whack and a therapist using that model is to keep a sharp lookout for those things. Structural therapists look for dysfunctional boundaries, for example. Strategic therapists look for incongruous hierarchies. Bowenians look for emotional reactivity. Emotionally-focused therapists look for maladaptive attachment styles. Each nomothetic model says that the therapist needs to assess for these underlying problems, treat them, and therapy should be successful.

Idiographic models call nomothetic models “cultural imperialism.” That means nomothetic therapists are just teaching (or tricking) their clients into thinking, feeling, and acting like them. Nomothetic therapists are forcing their culture on their clients. Calling someone a cultural imperialist is about as close to an accusation of pure evil as a post-modernist will make. Further, idiographic models say that culture (any culture) is oppressive of individuals, and that this oppression is the only reason families seek therapy. The ideographic therapist’s job (Sciarra & Simon list language-systems, solution-focused, and narrative therapies as idiographic) is to have a conversation with families about the ways they are being oppressed by their culture.

There are a couple of funny things going on here, but to understand it, first you need to know that nomothetic models are mostly “old-school” models that emerged in the 1950s and 60s, while ideographic models are newer, postmodern, all the rage, and emerged as a consequence of this nomothetic/ideographic conversation. In the 1980s, postmodern family therapists started saying that family therapy was arrogant and hierarchical and created the idiographic schools.

The first funny thing is that the old-school, nomothetic family therapy models emerged in much the same way, as a reaction to the arrogant and hierarchical field of psychiatry. The founders of family therapy said to psychiatry, “Human problems exist in the context of families. Your pathologizing medical model is not appropriate here.” Now the ideographic models are saying to the nomothetic founders, “Human problems exist in the context of cultures. Your pathologizing medical model is not appropriate here.”

Who is right? Well, that depends on your epistemology. So far, the nomothetic models have more experimental evidence to support them, and they are undeniably effective. To be fair, they have had more time to collect evidence, so in time things may go either way. And to be extra-fair, real post-modern idiographs can reject experimental evidence on philosophical grounds; experiments are so modern, so medical-model. What value system produced your research questions, anyway? That’s funny thing number two.

Funny thing number three is that, as Ken Wilber says, everyone may be right. Perhaps problems happen at every level of complexity, from our bodies to our minds to our families to our larger social systems, and nomothetic models just specialize in the family level, while idiographic models specialize in cultures. It’s a neat idea, possibly too neat, and difficult to tease out. I’ve written a little about it here.

The fourth funny thing is that the idiographic models, while broadening the scope of consideration in some ways, put the focus back on the individual in therapy. They say that culture is intrinsically dehumanizing, and that dehumanization is what an idiographic therapist talks about, but the other parties in the process are not part of the conversation. If I’m a narrative therapist and you send your depressed son to me, we will talk a lot about that depression. We will externalize it, maybe give it a name like “Mr. Funky,” talk about how Mr. Funky speaks with the voice of oppressive culture, talk about times when your son was able to overcome Mr. Funky’s influence and work on ways of increasing that ability. In the end, if I’m a good therapist, we have probably helped your son, but we’ve also focused on how your son thinks, feels, and behaves, where a nomothetic therapist would have been focusing on the whole family–how do they interact? Do the parents get along? How might this symptom of depression make sense in your son’s immediate system of relationships? Who all has a stake in this behavior and can we get them in the room too? And so on. There is a way that by ostensibly moving the location of pathology out of the family to the larger culture, ideographic models have brought the clinical focus back to individuals, which may seem like regression to the founders of family therapy.

In May, this blog got 1,082 “views,” which means that many of its pages showed up on other people’s computer screens for some amount of time in 31 days. That’s my new record, and my first 4-digit month. I got quite excited as the number approached. I was checking my stats page several times a day. It was exciting and uncomfortable. I almost decided that I would not let myself check my stats for all of June. It’s not that I was wasting a lot of time on it, it’s just that I started feeling embarrassed about it.

NME Stats at May 31, 2010

I started this blog as a way of letting my friends and family know what I’m doing and thinking about, as a way of attracting Reanna’s attention (or someone else just like her), as a way of staying connected with friends and family and recording my history as I made it, they way I used to do with a yearly zine of the same name. I knew that writing my ideas publicly made me think more critically about them, and I liked the idea of living out loud, being the same person to everyone.

I’ve accomplished all these things, and this blog has been my most consistent source of inspiration for the last coming-up-on two years. It’s been great. My excitement over breaking 1,000, though, has got me thinking. Am I also trying to be famous?

To be clear, I don’t think I’m getting famous by writing this blog. It’s just making me think and feel about it. Even if I keep this pace up, 1,082 views is only about 34 per day, and I posted almost every day this month. I get a few people I don’t know finding the blog with search engine terms that I’ve written about, like “schizophrenia diagnostic criteria” or “are anti-inflammatories bad for you,” but most of my traffic comes directly here, on purpose. I imagine that means that there are maybe 40 folks who read this fairly regularly, and that’s easily accounted for by family and friends from school and Not Back to School Camp.

Still, 1,000 views means a lot more people are reading my writing  than they were two years ago, and that number could keep going up. My friend Jeannie recently beat 6,000 views and I thought, “Wow, that would be cool!” But there’s no way 6,000 views are all friends and family. A blog with 6,000 views is beginning to hit the public sphere–almost 200 a day. That’s not fame either, of course, but I bet those numbers keep going up, and maybe I could get there too, and I’m feeling a little tension about it.

Part of the tension is aesthetic. My aesthetic ideal of fame is from my music and record production career: I’d like to become just famous enough that fans of my kind of music are waiting for my next project, but not famous enough to get recognized on the street.

I’ve always felt comfortable with that picture, but now I’m becoming a therapist, and it appears that the therapist-fame aesthetic is different. My supervisors tell me that I should be unfindable–no public phone numbers, websites, etc. Clients should not be able to contact me except through the clinic, and they definitely shouldn’t be able to find out about my personal life. I can see the wisdom in that, but I don’t want to do it. I can make my phone, myspace, and facebook private, but I’ve got this blog and my band’s website, plus I show up on other websites that I prefer to be publicly affiliated with, like Not Back To School Camp, my swing dance group ELLA, and my family‘s music sites.

Another part of the aesthetic tension is about transparency. I have to be one person to everyone on this blog. Being the same person to everyone is an ideal for me but makes me uncomfortable. I have psychology-research friends, therapy friends, and co-counseling friends, all of whom would be distressed to some degree to learn how deeply involved I am in each field. My atheist friends can see that when I say I am agnostic, I really mean it. I’m not a hedging-my-bet atheist. I think about God a lot and take the idea seriously. My religious friends will see that I mock fundamentalism pretty regularly. And so on. The more well-known I get, the less I get to show people the parts of me I think they will like and hide the parts I think they won’t like.

And then there is the ethical aspect of fame. In a way, the better known I am, the better off my friends and family are–the more traffic I can drive to our businesses by mentioning them, the bigger audience I’ll have built for books I write or records I make. I can also bring more attention to worthy causes, potential problems, things like my Headlines From Psychology, that people would be better off knowing. The more fame, the more impact. A famous Nathen would be a stronger force for good. If I do say so.

On the other hand, the extent of my fame also forces transparency onto my friends and family, and they don’t all share my aesthetic preference for transparency. I didn’t really get this as an ethical issue until Reanna asked me not to use her last name on the internet. She wants to control what people can find out about her, and who doesn’t? I regularly tell people who video me dancing, “No YouTube!” But it didn’t even occur to me to ask the friends and family I’ve written about whether I could use their full names, or even post their photos. I’ve been considering starting that project soon. I like using full names, talking about real, specific people. So and so said such and such. This, however, a big reason Kerouac died friendless. I guess ethics trumps aesthetics.

[Oh! Here’s my opportunity to make that project easier for myself. If I’ve used your name (or if it seems likely that I will) in NME, please email me your preference: last name or no last name.]

I wrote most of this in early June, not knowing if I my views would continue spiking. It turns out they did not. At the end of June I’m almost exactly where I was at the end of May. I suppose it’s possible that staying level is an achievement, though, since I posted almost every day in May but only every other day in June. I’ve also lost a good deal of my both excitement and tension about my stats, though I still check them every day. Maybe it’s having watched them level off again. I’m tempted to start posting every day again to see if I can get another spike, but I think I’d rather post even less frequently and give myself time for more thoughtful essays. I’ll keep you updated.

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