excerpted from caro's journal: topic: folk psychology examined

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2001_05_21:18: Pah

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folk psychology examined

What Have I Got To Live For?

There's seems to be something wrong with this question. When people contemplate suicide, other people entreat them to consider all they have to live for, hoping to remind them of all the benefits of staying alive. People contemplating suicide sometimes ask themselves, or other people, "What have I got to live for?" This method seems to rely upon an implicit comparison with the state of being dead, wherein the benefits will be lost. I don't think people are normally making this comparison in their perpetual choice to live, so it doesn't seem likely to impress someone who is contemplating suicide either. Yes, the benefits of being alive will be lost--but lost by whom? If one is dead, one won't feel the loss.

The real question should be "Is the cost of living worth the benefit?" Or, to put it in terms I like better, "Would it be fun to continue living, or will I on net suffer more than I enjoy?" People don't normally ask themselves this question either, because they are just busy living. But it seems to me it is the salient question for someone who is suicidal.
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2001_09_19:21: American Flag

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folk psychology examined
Notes on an explanation of the American flag for kids.

Adults, especially adults with children, are invited to send comments to carolyn@supersaturated.com to help make it more effective before I prepare the final copy for the Enlightenment web site. Thanks much.

What's Up With The Flag?

What The Flag Means

Why are adults so nuts about the American Flag? What's the big deal? Why are they suddenly everywhere? And why are all the adults crying every time they see one?

The flag itself isn't anything. It's just a pattern of bright pretty colors. It's what the flag stands for, that makes it so important in people's minds. What it stands for is not in the flag, but in our minds.

I was riding my bike through the neighborhood a couple of days ago, and what I saw made me cry. All the flags are sold out, but the local newspaper printed paper flags for their customers the day after the attack. All those paper flags were taped in people's windows. Someone had painted a picture of a flag, and put that in her window. And the local supermarket, owned by a middle eastern family, was waving several cloth flags and had the paper flag taped in the window too.

A display of the flag makes an important statement to other people. It means that we support our country, our military, our government, and each other. It is a show of rebellion and defiance to anyone who threatens us. Times of war can be extremely discouraging to adults. Seeing the flags waving from every window cheers people up. They know that, whatever their small disagreements, they have something very big and very basic in common with everyone else here: We all treasure the American way of life, our freedoms, our principles. We know that we may have difficult challenges to face, but we're all in it together. The American flag stands for all of these things.

How The Flag Helps Us

Human beings also tend to put overwhelming things out of their minds. Everyone needs a break now and then. We don't want to watch the news or talk about war all day every day. But we do need to keep the events in mind, because there are certain things we need to do. We're giving blood, donating money, changing laws, and all sorts of other things to help. The flag helps us keep our focus on what we need to do.

In a funny way, you can think of the flag as being like a shopping list. People frequently shop just for fun, or as part of a weekly routine. But they often go shopping because they need particular things right now. Even though they go out to the store because they need something, they might forget all the things they need. They might also need to do several things when they go out on one trip: shop, pick up the kids from school, get the dog from the vet and buy a flea collar while they're there. It's a lot to keep on their minds. It's easy to miss something. But they have the list. Every time they look at the list, they are reminded of what they need to do. The American flag is sort of like this. We go about our normal lives, but when we look up and see the flag, we're reminded of what we need to do and why we need to do it.

How Should You Feel?

Kids might not be feeling any of this yet. That's because you haven't had the time to build up enough connections in your mind. Adults have had seen a lot more things happen. Whenever our country goes through a difficult time, they see the flag in a slightly new way. Many of us have already seen our country at war, some of us several times.

You don't have to feel bad if you don't feel it yet; no one demands that of you. And you don't have to make any patriotic displays of your own. Do what you feel comfortable with. If it is meaningful to you to wear red white and blue, then do it. If not, that's ok too.

Does Saluting the Flag Mean We Think That the United States is Always Right?

No. I don't think I know anyone who agrees with everything that our country does. Saluting the flag, saying The Pledge of Allegiance, singing The Star-Spangled Banner--these things are being done right now to show that we agree that there are some problems we have to deal with all together. We are encouraging ourselves and each other, by repeating that we agree. Instead of using words, we use the flag. It's like nodding your head. You could either say, "Yes, I agree with what you just said," or you could nod. The flag says a lot in a little bit of space, in a little bit of time. But it doesn't say EVERYTHING that there is to say. If you're having trouble understanding this, don't worry. Lots of adults don't understand it either!

Other Kids

There are lots of kids who don't understand any of this. But they act like they know everything! You know the type. You might see kids deliberately abusing the flag. If you carry a flag, someone might make fun of you. Some kids will even say bad things about America, Americans, the government, the police. What should you do about that?

It's a difficult question for adults, and they don't always do the right thing to help kids. Our laws protect freedom of speech and freedom of property. That's just part of what the flag stands for. In America, whether someone is right or wrong, she is entitled to state her opinion. You are free to listen to it or not, agree with it or not, argue with it or not. But you're not allowed to use force to impose your opinions on other people. People are allowed to destroy flags that they own. But of course they can't destroy someone else's. That's theft and vandalism, and you should report that to teachers at school or police outside of school. The important thing to remember is that you have the right to your own property and to speak your mind, and they do too.


The war is our responsibility, not yours. You don't need to solve the problems, fix the bullies, or protect the flag. The flag is a symbol for the people who understand what it means. We can't force other people to see what it means. If you're not in physical danger from kids who are criticizing the U.S. or destroying their own flags, and you think you can talk to them, you can try to explain it. But don't worry about it, if they don't get it. Maybe someday they'll grow up.
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Some rough, rough thoughts on the idea that people criticize in others what they most hate in themselves, possibly to become an essay.

There is a proposition of "folk psychology" that says something like this:

The things you dislike about other people are the things you most dislike in yourself.

Plausible on its face, like all propositions of folk psychology. Except there seems to be something wrong wi th this one. I've been thinking about it for a long time, because it seemed for many years to me to make sense. I always thought that it meant that people feel the cognitive dissonance that results from hypocrisy: they want to be a certain way, they aren' t, and so they pick on that deficit in other people before they ever consciously notice it in themselves. This seemed to fit with lots of instances of my experience. For example I've known people who simply don't seem to be able to go a day without lying about something--as is probably evident from how excessively my existing writings have focused on the virtue of honesty and the consequences of not practicing it. The very same people tended to make bold assertions about the evils of dishonesty, as though blind to their own problems, yet not blind.

It is sometimes joked (or perhaps asserted seriously) that people enter the field of psychology because they are subconsciously attempting to cure their own psychosis. When I first heard this in high s chool, it seemed to make sense. Since everyone has some psychological problem, it was easy to find "the problem" that had made any particular psychology major go into psychology. But this was just a case of finding data to fit the theory, and ignor ing data that contradicts it, and so I began to resist the temptation to agree with other people when they made this assertion.
Besides, the theory explains "too much" in that it also explains why anyone goes into any field. If it is true of psycholo gists, then it is true of everyone else too, and we get a proposition that looks like this:

The things you know the least about are the things you are most likely to study and turn into a career.

Lawy ers go into law because they don't understand law and can't abide by it; Engish students go into English because they can't read and understand literature, or can't write; and philosophers go into philosophy because they don't understand anything. Choose a profession, and it will be explained by a deficit in that area.

The idea that people enter certain fields of study because they are particularly lacking in the area of knowledge studied in that field, is a pretty bad one, when you think about it. It says that the people who are the worst at any given thing are in fact the people we depend upon to do that very thing. In other words, the following must be true:

Human beings are a race of incompetents. No one doe s what he or she is good at,
and everyone is a poser.

So this bit of folk psychology sounds as though it has taken a Kantian ethics of duty, turned it on its head, and taken the result to its logical extreme: it's not just that people can only tell that their action has moral worth if it diverges from their perceived self-interest; it's that people are only allowed , by their very psychological nature, to take up as a career or interest that which diverges from the ir strengths. Not only does this view contradict the notion that people should try to do what they are good at; it also would seem to imply that if everyone alive today were in a profession other than the one he or she has chosen, everything would be bett er.

This idea seems similar to the idea that people dislike each other for the things they hate about themselves, though I still need to fill this out. Basically, it seems to me that this latter idea depends upon the theory of psychological proje ction--the reality of whose object I do not dispute, but the referents of which concept I think are unclear. At any rate, I'll turn to this latter idea now.

When I really stopped to think about it, prompted by some other people's use of it in con texts where at first I thought it didn't fit, the sense of the proposition began to disintegrate. The contexts in which it didn't seem to fit were those in which a moral judgment was being made. I want to examine several rephrasings of this propo sition to see if any of them are coherent, and of those that are coherent, judge of their universality or restrictedness to certain contexts. In what senses could it be the case that people criticize others for their own faults? Does this really seem to b e generally true?

Let's take something that really bothers me about some people: dishonesty. Let's not even make it a very difficult case, but rather consider someone who tells outright lies (where 'lie' is defined as 'deliberate misrepresentatio n of reality in order to deceive'). I hate this. I hate it more personally, when it personally affects me; but I generally hate it. I go around criticizing dishonesty in essays, on email lists, in my journal. I complain to friends of instances of dishon est behavior from which I have suffered. Unlike many people, when I detect that someone has lied to me, or that someone is attempting to mislead me, I call the person on it--'call' isn't strong enough a word: I complain, and criticize. It is wrong to lie to me. It isn't rational, and I don't deserve it. The more a particular person lies to me and in front of me, the more often he or she will hear the complaint. In some cases, it does start to change the behavior, but of course in others people just get mad at me for calling them on something that other people would let slide. Dishonesty is one of my favorite philosophical topics, because I am convinced that when I made the conscious and deliberate decision, sometime in my high school or college yea rs, to never lie again unless the situation was pretty desperate (where 'desperate' is defined as 'my well-being is endangered, as in a threat of physical harm or theft, etc', which condition is very rarely fulfilled in most people's lives), my life sudde nly got better in a way I'd never imagined, and continued to get better as I practiced--and I had never been much of a liar to begin with. I am convinced that this is a universal human trait, and that our psychological faculties are best suited to represe nting reality accurately to ourselves, and that includes not deliberately saying anything false.

Now let's look at the folk psychological proposition: we hate in others that which we most hate in ourselves. Is there any way that we might be able to interpret this constant theorizing and complaining and criticizing and attempting to teach, as evidencing something that I don't like about myself?

Since I don't lie, or mislead deliberately, the interpretation can't be a simplistic, straightf orward one. In other words, the fact that dishonesty makes me so livid can't be taken as evidence that I lie myself and hate myself for it, and transfer that hatred to other beings whom I then chastise in my stead. But people do make this sort of simplist ic interpretation. I believe that they are relying on the folk-psychological version of the theory of projection, to do the work for them. A simplistic interpretation would suffer from the following problem: No one could ever make a negative moral judgmen t, without being hypocritical.

Can the theory be saved? I've worked on this for a few weeks now, and I think we can do this with it. In the above case, we can say that the proposition holds, because, were I to lie, I would really, really hate it. I would hate myself for doing it. And the worse reason I had for doing it, the more I would hate myself.

Now, the best route for me to take in this situation is admit that this lie was a bad thing that I did. But I might not know that, o r it might be too difficult for me to do. And so I would try to pretend to myself that it was good, making up rationalizations that I also know aren't true (i.e., lying to myself), which would make me hate myself even more. This self-hatred migh t be bad enough, or of a kind, to cause me to start taking it out on other people, by becoming even more self-righteous than I already am. Knowing myself for the lying dog that I have become, I might still attempt to keep up the public pretense, assis ting the effort by making a show of accusing other people.

But notice that we're no longer talking about the same kind of person. I've changed; I used to never lie, whereas now I've started on a long chain of lies that has begun to branch into o ther chains, and I'm becoming good at it. This isn't the person we started with. In other words, we've had to go through a perfectly common but rather elaborate transformation, before this proposition of folk psychology could start to seem plausible. And the transformation started with a hypothetical: "IF I were to lie, THEN I would hate myself."

So in a sense we've saved the proposition. I hate dishonesty in other people, perhaps because, were I to be dishonest, I would hate it very much.

But the problem is that I have independent reasons for hating dishonesty in other people. There is the abstract reason that dishonesty is just a wildly unhealthy means of coping with the world. And there is the very particular, personal reason that it hurts to be the victim of deceit.

Where are we then? We were trying to discover if we could interpret the proposition "You criticize people for the faults that you have" as a test for the fault in the person who is critical. It se ems a fairly shakey interpretation, and it doesn't seem to have been intended this way. This is a erronenous interpretation.

There's another interpretation, though. We can say that hatred and criticism of a vice in someone is not a test o f the presence of that vice in the criticizer, but that it is one of the things that people with the vice do: they criticize other people. In other words, having the vice may be a sufficient condition for being highly critical of that vice in others, but having the vice is not a necessary condition for being highly critical of that vice in others.

This latter interpretation isn't nearly so sexy as the former. It's more the sort of thing a real psychologist would say, and isn't of very much use to the average folk-psychologizer. You can't accuse anybody of anything on this interpretation. It doesn't facilitate the commission of ad hominem tu quoque, or fallacy of "the pot calling the kettle black."
It might be appreciated by the average person for its irony and "toldja so" value, but otherwise it merely seems to lead to empathy.

I might have more to say on this later, but my brain seems to have emptied itself with this last thought.