Friday, March 16, 2018

Identity, Truth, and Stoicism in the Face of Crumbling Norms of Civil Discourse

Yo. Check it. You can't have a functioning democracy without at least two things: a concern for truth and civil discourse. Although perhaps too obvious to state, democracy requires citizens have a concern for truth. Without it, policy will be ineffective at best. Y'see, in (many conceptions) of democracy, policy represents, to some degree, the will of the people. If "the people" are more concerned with short-term political one-up-manship rather than quality of evidence and argument, a country will be governed by policy disconnected from the best evidence and arguments.

A political community often contains an assortment of views on the same issues. While some differing views might each partake in some aspect of the truth, there's no reason to suppose all will. I know this will come as a shock to some of you, but some beliefs just are false. 

Let's assume it's better to get everyone to buy into a policy or view than it is to force it onto a segment of the population. If each is equally convinced of their own 'rightness', how do we not only reach agreement but also lead those holding objectively false views into the light of reason--without outright coercion? That is, how do we get people with false beliefs to change their minds and endorse the policy based on the best evidence?

Think about how it is you discarded previously held views that turned out to be false. Did your change of mind occur by someone shouting at you and calling you an idiot? Did it arise after being ignored? After being mocked? My guess is probably not. 

While not the only means of effecting doxastic change, engaging in respectful discourse probably increases the odds. It also helps when people present compelling arguments, counter-arguments, and evidence. In other words, tone, attitude, and content all matter for changing people's minds. I'll call this loose cluster of methods and attitudes, the norms of civil discourse. [Note: There's a fair amount of philosophical literature on the exact content of the norms of civil discourse. For my purposes, a broad intuitive account is sufficient].

In this post, I want to explore the ethical dimensions of belief, and how the various things we cling to sabotage our path to truth and civil discourse. By drawing on Stoic ideas, I’m going to suggest we all have within us the resources to reconcile the competing passions that have lead to the current breakdown in civil discourse and its corrosive effects on good policy-making. 

Setting the Stage
In perhaps one of the best known psychological studies of the 20th century, subjects are asked to distinguish between real and fake suicide notes. As they do so, they receive feedback on how well they are able to make the distinction. He's the twist (one of them, anyway): The feedback they receive has nothing to do with their performance. It's all a sham. Before they even began the task, experimenters had randomly pre-sorted the subjects into three groups: Those that will be told they are excellent, average, or below average. To summarize, experimenter feedback is predetermined regardless of how subjects perform and has no relation to subject performance

In the next phase of experiment, the fact of the predetermined feedback is revealed to the subjects. That is, the subject are told that the feedback was totally unrelated to their task performance. Subjects are then asked to self-assess their ability to distinguish between real and fake suicide notes. 

Of the 20 assigned to the ‘good-guesser’ group, how many do you think changed their self-assessment after the predetermined nature of the experiment was revealed to them? E.g., how many people who were told they were good-guessers evaluated themselves as average or below average? Keep that number in your head. Now, of the 20 who were told they were bad guessers, how many do you think changed their self-assessment after the reveal?

Now that you have those two numbers in your head, I’m going to give you a choice. I can tell you the real numbers from the study, or I can invent some fake numbers to tell you.

Which do you prefer that I do?

I’ll reveal the real numbers in a moment but I want to make my first claim which is central to Stoic philosophy (it actually comes from Plato but the Stoics adopted it...): Every soul is deprived of the truth against its will. By this, the Stoics mean that it is human nature to want truth and knowledge. We have an intrinsic affinity for truth and knowledge. If we have false beliefs, it is only because we have been mislead or we have not yet been taught.

When I asked you whether you wanted me to tell you the true numbers or fake numbers for the study, you very likely wanted the true ones. I’m even willing to go so far as to say that you felt pulled to know the truth. And if I’d given you the fake ones, you’d have probably been upset with me. Human beings have an intrinsic affinity for truth and knowledge. You just experienced it yourself.

Not so fast though. What is the content of the study that you want to know the truth about? After debriefing, only three of the 20 subjects who had been told they were good guessers didn’t continue to believe that they were above average! Of the 20 who had been told they were below average, only three of them revised their beliefs about their abilities too! (For anyone familiar with all the p-hacking issues in psychology, this effect size isn’t one that can be waived away.)

I just finished telling you that a drive for truth and knowledge is intrinsic to human nature. But here we have a well-designed and multiply replicated study in which subjects were given the truth yet refused to take it into account in revising their self-conception. Their self-assessments were completely impervious to countervailing evidence. Only 15% of subjects in each group responded to evidence that undermined a prior belief.

What gives? Well, an affinity for truth isn’t the only component of human nature. As Aristotle observed, we are by nature social and political animals. In other words, we have an intrinsic affinity for being part of a group. Being part of a group requires two things: First, that we share the cluster of beliefs, behaviors, and values particular to the group of which we are a member. Second, that others see us as sharing those beliefs, behaviors, and values.

Let’s return to the study. Why didn’t the subjects merely accept the truth of what the experimenters were telling them and revise their self-assessments accordingly? To quote the study:
It is proposed that personal impressions and social perceptions become relatively autonomous from the evidence that created them. As a result, subsequent challenges to that evidence, and hence to the impression it fostered, will have surprisingly little impact— far less impact than would be demanded by any logical or rational impression-formation model. (Ross, Lepper, and Hubbard, 1975)
In other words, subjects began to self-identify and see others as identifying them as members of particular groups—‘good guessers’ or ‘bad guessers’. To generalize, when you challenge someone’s beliefs, you are not only challenging beliefs but their identity. In order for people to relinquish beliefs tied to their identity they must also change their identity. 

But that’s not even the most difficult part: They have to surrender their membership in a group. Groups are defined, in part, by their beliefs. If you no longer share the same core beliefs as that group, not only can you not self-identify as a member but the other members can no longer identify you as a member. When a group identity is central to someone’s life—like a political or religious group—you best believe they’re going to reject evidence before they compromise the relationships that imbue their lives with meaning.

Stoicism, Truth, and Civil Discourse
I began by telling you that we have an intrinsic affinity for truth and knowledge but even if you hadn’t read about the above study, that claim is on the face of it worthy of ridicule. Everything we’ve witnessed in the the current political climate undermines it. Now we have an explanation: Another intrinsic human drive—belonging to and preserving identity and group membership—completely sabotages our natural affinity for truth.

I’m going to argue for two solutions that come out of ancient Stoic thought. Stoic thought can be boiled down to two practices: 
  1. Discover what is necessarily true of the world and 
  2. Determine what is and is not in your power to do about it. 
Below I'll suggest what I take to be three facts about the world and then I’ll  suggest what you can do about them. The first applies to how we self-identify and the second applies to how we conceive of others. The third, to how we handle our political environment.
Fact 1 About the World: If you self-identify primarily in terms of a group that is defined by particular beliefs you will sabotage your path to truth.
On it’s own, merely being a social animal doesn’t undermine our affinity for truth. It’s the nature of the particular groups with which we identify that do. People ARE interested in truth but only so long as personal identity and group membership aren't threatened. From the individual point of view, this means that individually we can be part of the solution to civil discord if we reconceptualize or, at least, re-order our identity. Instead of primarily self-conceiving as a member of a particular political group, I can self-identify as a member of the group "rational animal." 

What are the values and behaviors of members of the group "rational animal"? Good reasoning and a concern for truth. In other words, self-conceiving in this way pulls us away from a conclusion-based identity and towards a process-based identity. A reasoner examines the strength of reasons (evidence and claims) and the logical relationships between reasons and conclusions. 'Rational animals' are primarily concerned with quality and method of justification for beliefs rather than dogmatically clinging to and defending particular beliefs.

Importantly, when we identify primarily as rational animals, it shifts our disposition towards others: First, we more likely come to view those with whom we disagree as partners rather than adversaries in the shared enterprise of pursuing truth. We become more calm and charitable because we want to learn rather than impose or defend a view. 

Our concern for the process of justification--i.e., why someone believes something--helps us become better listeners since we can only evaluate justifications if we listen carefully. Not only are we better off for being better listeners, but we likely diffuse much of our interlocutors' animosity when we present ourselves as genuinely interested in why they hold certain beliefs. In short, we begin to turn down the dial on the reactive emotions and attitudes that have rendered political discourse so intractable. 

Epistemic Humility: We ought to always take seriously the possibility that our current view is mistaken. Self-conceiving primarily as a rational animal makes it easier to change our views in the face of new or better evidence and arguments.  Consider for a moment how many beliefs about the world you hold. There are probably an almost infinite number. Now consider all the other people in your country. How likely is it that there are more than a handful that share each one of your millions of beliefs? The odds are staggeringly small. Now consider the millions of people with whom you don't overlap on at least some beliefs. What are the odds that YOU, in the face of widespread disagreement, are the only one in the country that holds all the true beliefs about the world? 

As someone who primarily identifies as a reasoning being, you are not wedded to any particular conclusion but to standards of evidence and a process. So, your views can more easy be responsive to new or better evidence and arguments.

Fact 2 About the World: Conceiving of our Political Others as Evil or Idiots or Both is a Poor Strategy for Changing Minds
Stoic thought offers us insight in how we ought to conceive of others if we hope to mitigate the culture war and our own emotional outbursts that obstruct the pathway to truth. I argue we ought to adopt the Stoic teaching to act as though "every soul is deprived of the truth against its will." 

There are two ideas contained here. First, humans have an affinity for truth (despite the fact that other variables interfere with its attainment); and second, as members of the human species, we are 'rational animals'--which implies we are all sensitive to reasons and arguments (although, perhaps to varying degrees).

Here is Epictetus counseling his student on how to handle someone with an obviously false and harmful view:
Student: Yes, but she is in error.
Epictetus: Well, act on her idea. As long as you don't lay it out for her, though, she has nothing besides her own idea of right and wrong to guide her. So don't get angry at [her] for being confused about what's most important, and accordingly mutating from human to snake. (Discourse I. 26)
Marcus Aurelius had similar thoughts in this somewhat amusing example:
Are you angry with him whose armpits stink? Are you angry with him whose mouth smells foul? What good will this anger do you? He has such a mouth. He has such armpits: It is necessary that such an emanation come from such things--but the man has reason, it will be said, and he is able if he takes pains, to discover wherein he offends. Well then, and you, too, have reason: by your rational faculty stir him up his rational faculty; show him his error [...]. (Meditations Bk V. 28)
And here is more of the same from Epictetus again:
Well, when a guide meets up with someone who is lost, ordinarily his reaction is to direct him on the right path, not mock or malign him, then turn on heel and walk away. As for you, lead someone to the truth and you will find that he can follow. But as long as you don't point it out to him, don't make fun of him; be aware of what you need to work on instead. (Discourse II. 11. 3-4)
Think of it this way. When a student reasons incorrectly on a math problem, we don't get angry with them. We assume they genuinely wanted to get the question right: They aimed for truth not falsity. No one would think it reasonable to yell and get emotionally upset because of the student's error.  

Instead, as a teacher or peer, we adopt a compassionate disposition and work through that student's reasoning process to help discover where they erred. I submit that reconceiving of our cultural and political *others* as truth-seekers--inadvertently making errors in judgment in good faith--will dispose us to be more kind and dial down our own animus both of which opens the door for civil discourse. [All the while we should adopt a stance of epistemic humility; i.e., we should continue to take seriously the possibility that our own view is mistaken unless it aligns with a consensus of relevant experts. Then more confidence is warranted.]

I can hear some of you, including my past-self, mocking this idea:
"This is lunacy. Have you ever read the comments section of an article on vaccines, climate science, GMOs, Trump, Obama, etc...? There is no way these people are even remotely deprived of the truth against their will. Their ignorance is entirely willful."
This may be true for what I call the 'true believers' but I don't think it's true of the vast majority of people.  There's selection bias in the comments sections of the internet. Those with the most extreme views and loudest voices are going to be disproportionately represented. Let's not make the mistake in believing those holding extreme views and attitudes are representative of all with whom we disagree. 

I think the vast majority of people are responsive to argument and evidence when its presented in a way that doesn't immediately threaten their identity or make them out to insufferable morons. Treating people as though they are genuinely concerned with truth raises the odds that they will be open to evidence and argument. And even if agreement isn't reached, we can all count as a win the gain in civility.

Final Fact: You Can't Outrun Disagreement
In closing, I want to dispense (draw on?) some wisdom from an American philosopher. In Fed #10, James Madison is trying to solve what is called The Republican Dilemma: How do we give power to the people but at the same time avoid the tyranny of the majority; i.e., avoid a large faction from ganging up and trampling the rights of a minority group. Part of his answer involves arguing against Rousseau. Rousseau's solution revolves around ensuring that political communities have relatively homogenous values, interests, levels of wealth, and ways of living. If everyone is in the same 'faction', the worry of some factions suppressing others is mitigated. Madison rejects Rousseau's view on the grounds that it is human nature for factions to form. He says
The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. (My italics for emphasis)
Here is the insight: We can’t outrun disagreement. So long as people have different talents, values, and interests as well as the liberty to pursue them, we will disagree with each other. Even in our own families we must live with and get along with people with whom we deeply disagree. 

Again, we can appeal to the Stoics' useful advice: Figure out what is necessarily true of the world then determine what is and is not in your power to do about it. Knowing that you will never outrun disagreement with people with whom you must live, you must determine how to respond to it. They ain't going nowherez and neither are you. 

Are you going to demand that everyone believe what you believe? Are you going to get whipped up into an emotional frenzy with every dissenting view? Are you going to treat each person with whom you disagree as though they are idiots? This path is exhausting and yields no fruit. Trust me. I've tried it. I've tried it a lot.

To summarize, I instead suggest the following: (a) avoid identifying primarily as a member of a group defined by particular beliefs; (b) Identify primarily as a member of the group of people concerned with the process and standards of justification for beliefs rather than with conclusions; (c) take seriously the possibility that you could be wrong, particularly if you aren't an expert and your view conflicts with a consensus of experts; (d) engage with others as though they are deprived of the truth against their will; (d) avoid the temptation of identifying the loudest and most obnoxious as representative of a group (availability bias, sampling bias--for those keeping track!).

Drawing on Kant and Rawls and every major wisdom tradition, there's perhaps an even simpler way to think about the problem of disagreement and the norms of civil discourse: Employ the principle of reciprocity. How would I like to be treated by those with whom I disagree? You may be tempted to reply, "Ya, but...they aren't very nice to me!"  Ok. But barring some special cases, do you increase or decrease the likelihood of persuading them to your view when you adopt acerbic strategies? I mean, what are you even trying to achieve in engaging? 

And what about the state of civil discourse? We are all all responsible for the tone of discourse within our purview--regardless of what others do. That is in our respective control. Nothing I can do will guarantee someone's civility towards me, but this doesn't mean I can't affect the probabilities one way or the other.

Jefferson and Adams: A Beautiful Bromance 
A Case Study In Civil Disagreement
If there ever was a model for the kind of civil dialogue I'm talking about, it can be found in the friendship and correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. These two life-time friends and political adversaries wrote letters almost daily to each other despite fundamental political disagreement. They weren't perfect though: After Jefferson won the presidency (against Adams, the incumbent!) they didn't write to each other for 13 years. However, once the ice thawed, they resumed their regular correspondence in which they regularly disagreed, until both their deaths in 1826. (Crazy history note that boggles my mind: The two friends died only 5 hours apart. Adams' last words were 'Jefferson still lives'. But that's not all. They died on July 4th) 

There is lengthy exchange of letters between the two in 1813--the year they had renewed their friendship. The topic concerned equality and how to ensure that the 'pseudo-aristocracy' (i.e., those whose status and power are a consequence of wealth and birth--not virtue, talent, and wisdom) don't hijack government to their ends. Before addressing Adams' view, Jefferson writes:
On the question of which is the best provision, you and I differ, but we differ as rational friends, using the free exercise of our own reason, and mutually indulging in its errors. [my italics]
Notice a few things: The appeal to the values of friendship; that is, they can disagree on fundamental matters while maintaining mutual respect and while avoiding animosity. The value of the relationship and civility supersede any outcome. Also important is the acknowledgment and mutual conception of both as appealing to reason while also admitting their mutual fallibility--even under optimal conditions. 

Later, after presenting his arguments against Adams' view, Jefferson writes,
It is probable that our disagreement of opinion may, in some measure, be produced by a difference in character in those among whom we live.
Here, Jefferson importantly acknowledges the more general point that different life experiences shape our respective assumptions about the world. We cannot expect those who haven't lived our lives, met the people we've met, or shared the various circumstances that we have to hold the same views as us. Each of us experiences only a very minute subset of the human experience. And if our experiences shape our beliefs about the world, of course we will have different beliefs about the world, human nature, institutions, and so on... (Caveat: Relativism and infallibility don't follow--people can still be wrong).

Disagreement produced by differing life experiences has implications for our basic assumptions about the world. From the point of view of the norms of civil discourse, Jefferson's comments underscore the importance of mutually recognizing and acknowledging in one another the possible effects of our different experiences. I would venture that it is the failure of acknowledgement and consideration of differing experiences which draws out the reactive emotions.

Finally, in closing the letter Jefferson writes:
I have thus stated my opinion on a point on which we differ, not with a view to controversy, for we are both too old to change opinions which are the result of a long life of inquiry and reflection: but on the suggestions of a former letter of yours, that we ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other.
The take-away here is that we needn't always agree. Sometimes agreement isn't forthcoming. However, given that we cannot outrun disagreement, what matters at least as much as reaching resolutions is how we engage with each other. Also, on matters where we do disagree deeply, there is an obligation to explain to others our reasons for the views we hold. That is, we must be willing to submit our own justificatory reasons to rational scrutiny. We can't simply demand that others agree with us.

Closing Thoughts
I study ethics and political philosophy. I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in my research over the last couple of years. Every time I come up with what I think is a good idea, a voice in my head goes, “Hey, wait a minute. Didn’t my parents tell me this when I was, like, five?”  And I don’t think much of what I’ve said here is any different. Nevertheless, that fact that so many, including myself, forget to employ these common sense ideas testifies to the value of their reminder. 

Additional note regarding self and group identity in terms of beliefs: I think there's an important distinction to be made between how we treat identity made up of empirical beliefs (observable facts about the world) vs identity made up of normative (i.e., value) beliefs. Without going into a lot of detail, I think there are good reasons for people to hold on more tightly to the value-based beliefs that form their identity. But I think we ought not hold on so tightly to an identity constituted by empirical beliefs. Doing so forces us into a position where we might have to deny a scientific consensus (think vaccine-safety denier, flat-earther, creationist, global warming deniers, etc...). This not only forces us to adopt dishonest strategies to maintain our beliefs and to dismiss legitimate argument and evidence but it undermines the important political role of empirical experts in forming policy. In clinging to empirical beliefs, as non-experts we apportion an inappropriate amount of credence to our own beliefs relative to those of a consensus of experts.

What I have said applies to the vast majority of disagreement. However, there are special cases where I'm not convinced such a conciliatory attitude is appropriate. Most obviously, this applies to how we deal with overt neo-Nazis deliberately intimidating the well-being of others. 

Finally, before I'm inundated with tu quoques, let me make the following brief comment. We can acknowledge all I have said above and also agree that there is a time and place in discourse for humor, rhetoric, satire, and sarcasm. In fact, they are what can make political discourse fun--especially when done tastefully and between friends. Furthermore, in some contexts, humor and satire have shown to be effective means of persuasion (google it yourself--there's a lot of literature!). 

Finally, with respect to my failings, the Stoics present their virtues as aspirational; i.e., they recognize the human propensity to screw up sometimes despite knowing better. Nevertheless, they give us a target at which to aim as we bumble through life. I have screwed up and continue to screw up a lot in terms of acting on these norms of civil discourse but I'm working daily on hitting the target more than missing it.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Why Do Something Rather than Nothing? A Stoic Puzzle

The first question of philosophy is, How should I live my life? For the Ancient Greeks, the answer was to live a good life. A trivial answer to be sure until we ask further, What is a good life? Or to rephrase it, what makes a good life good? Answers varied from school to school but for just about all of them a good life consists primarily in developing the virtues—both moral and intellectual.

From our modern perspective it’s perhaps odd to conceive of a good life primarily in terms of moral and intellectual development. For many people ‘living well’ and moral development aren’t necessarily connected. For the Greeks, however, they were intimately connected: You simply cannot have a good life without developing the virtues.

One prominent school, the Stoics, place the virtues at the absolute center of their philosophy of the good life. They believed that a life dedicated to developing the virtues was not only necessary for a good life but also sufficient. That is, a good life isn't possible with out the virtues and a good life requires no other thing. In this post I’m going to discuss their philosophy of living well along with an apparent puzzle that arises out of their view. 

I’m choosing Stoicism because over the last 8 months, as an experiment, I’ve been trying to live according to Stoic principles. For a variety of reasons, I’ve decided to follow Stoic teachings to see how the quality of my life changes. Since at least my early twenties I’ve “tried on” various philosophies in search of a life well-lived. I doubt I’m the only one conducting these sorts of experiment. 

Despite the personal angle, I hope to avoid navel-gazing and stick to the philosophy. However, I do want to briefly mention that by living according to Stoic teachings, the quality of my life has changed dramatically—in the “good” direction. I’m still puzzling through parts of it and I’m not on board with many of their metaphysical beliefs but if you’re looking for a time-tested way to improve the quality of your life, I strongly recommend giving Stoicism a try. 

I’m not grounding this recommendation in a single data point but in a history of great names who studied and incorporated Stoic principles into their lives: Marcus Aurelius, Nelson Mandela, Seneca, James Bond Stockdale, Cicero, Thomas Aquinas, Rene Descartes, Bill Clinton, Theodore Roosevelt, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Sam Sullivan (Mayor of Vancouver!), Arnold Swartzenegger, Beatrice Webb, Bill Belichick, T-Pain, Brie Larson, John Steinbeck, JK Rowling, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Tim Ferriss to name only a few.

Introducing Stoicism
If we want to live a good life we need to figure out exactly makes a life good in the first place. For the Stoics, a good life is one that is virtuous, mentally tranquil, and lived according to reason. An interesting feature of the Stoic system is that it is logically closed. By this I mean I can begin with any premise within the system and get to any other. This leads to a kind of logical equivalence between the various Stoic constituents for a good life: living according to reason, mental tranquility, and virtuous living all amount to the same thing. If I live according to reason, I will practice the virtues, and if I practice and develop the virtues I gain mental tranquility. I can start with virtue and make the same connections: If I am virtuous, my actions will conform with reason, and when my actions conform with reason, my mind is tranquil. 

From the point of view of teaching Stoicism, this internal logical structure makes introducing it a bit of a puzzle because it isn’t clear where best to begin. In this post, I’ve decided to begin with the aspirational goal of Stoic living as described by Epictetus: The aim of Stoic practice is to joyfully accept the world as it is. 

When I first read this, I thought this was some D-pak Chopra-level bullshit. I’m supposed to joyfully accept when shit goes wrong? What kind of pollyannaish new-age nonsense is this? 

Aside: You may have noticed that the idea of joyfully accepting the world as it is doesn’t conform with the popular understanding of the Spock-like Stoic. I’ll talk more about the Stoics and emotion in another post but a constant theme throughout Stoic writing is that one should cultivate a cheerful disposition. 

Alright, back to philosophy. The obvious question that falls out of the above aspiration is, How the heck are we supposed to maintain a cheerful disposition when so often our desires and goals are obstructed and frustrated? (Not to mention the general shit-show that the world can be). 

The answer requires we understand clearly what has value and what doesn’t (through exercise of reason!) and to pursue only that which has objective value; i.e., that which is valuable no matter who you are or what you believe. 

For most modern people, the idea that there are things with objective value is foreign: What do you mean there are things everyone should pursue? We are all special individual snowflakes, each with our unique set of things we should pursue to make life go well. Everything’s—like—subjective, maaaaaaaan! Amiright? 

Stoics argue that people get frustrated and anxious—and hence have their tranquility disrupted—because they pursue the wrong sorts of things. They pursue things they mistakenly think have objective value with respect to making their lives go well.

The Stoics divide objects of pursuit into two main categories: Internals and Externals. Externals, such as money, fame, material objects, relationships, career, sex, reputation, power, and even health have no objective value in so far as being able to make your life good or not. The only things that can objectively make your life meaningfully better are internals; i.e., the virtues. 

Note: There is more nuance to the Stoic view regarding the value of externals but I’m going to set that aside for now. It is enough to say here that, for the Stoics, externals have no ultimate value when it comes to determining the goodness of your life.

We can track the distinction between internals and externals as a division between things over which our will does or does not have ultimate control. For example, there are lots of things I can do to try to get recognition or affection but ultimately, receiving either depends on whether others want to give it (and continue to give it) to me. Because achieving these aims depends on something outside my own will (i.e., the wills of others) I set myself up for frustration and resentment when I don’t get what I want. And even if I do momentarily gain reputation or affection, I am anxious because its maintenance depends ultimately on elements outside my will. 

The same goes for something like money. I can work really hard, get the right education, and so on but ultimately the amount of money I get is outside my will: I can get robbed, my company can go bankrupt, my bank can go bankrupt, my business partner can make a bad deal, the stock market can crash, the job market can change rendering me obsolete, etc… 

It’s not that I have no control over acquiring externals, it’s that ultimately, at the end of the day, whether I obtain them and maintain them depends on forces outside my will. This explains why pursuing externals can never lead to a sustained good life. When attaining them is difficult or obstructed—which it inevitably will be—we feel frustrated and resentful. And even if we do attain some external, its maintenance is precarious. It depends not on our will but on the will of others and on the world conforming to our desires, all of which contribute to a perpetual state of background anxiety.

Marcus Aurelius put it this way: 

If you insist on pursuing externals "of necessity you must be envious, jealous, and suspicious of those who can take away those things and plot against those who have that which is valued by you. Of necessity a man must be altogether in a state of perturbation who wants any of these; and besides, he must find fault with the gods" (Meditations, Bk VI, 16).

I’ll make one more remark on Stoic attitudes toward externals. The Stoics were not naive. They recognized that a human life does go better when, for example, a person has some wealth rather than none. But the good that comes from externals is conditional. That is, it is conditional on the circumstances the individual finds himself in. For example, if someone with a bad opioid addiction came into a bunch of money, this would not be a good thing. The goodness of money, unlike the virtues, is conditional--not objective--with respect to making our lives go well. Similar cases can be constructed for any external: the world is full of unhappy people with good careers, fame, reputation, money, material wealth, and so on. 

When we observe that our life circumstances and desires will inevitably change over time, there is no guarantee that the externals we pursue and possess will preserve their goodness in those new circumstances. In short, externals on their own don’t reliably cause us to have a good life; in fact, sometimes they can make it go worse. The virtues, on the other hand, reliably cause us to have a good life: There is no situation or identity where courage, wisdom, self-control, and justice don’t cause one’s life go better.

Also, acquiring internals, unlike externals, depends entirely on my own will. The quality of the judgments and decisions I make (i.e., intellectual virtue), the character of the actions I choose and the way I react to situations (i.e., the moral virtues) are all ultimately under the control of my will. 

No one can force me to assent to a false proposition or make a bad decision, and no one can force me to act foolishly or viciously. Whether I develop wisdom, courage, self-control, patience, compassion, persistence, humility, generosity, and so on, depend entirely on my will. And the same goes for their maintenance. Since I can never be prevented by some outside force from developing and maintaining the virtues, I avoid frustration, resentment, and anxiety towards myself and others. 

The Puzzle
Early into my experiment with Stoicism, the following sorts of thoughts started to creep into my head:
If no thing external to my will has value, what the heck do I do with my life? Get a job? Meh, what’s the point? Money and a career can't make me happy. Besides, they could be taken away at any point. 
Deadline for my dissertation coming up? Meh. Dissertations ultimately have no value, so no real point in doing that.  
I should probably start preparing the lecture for tomorrow. Meh. The lecture has no objective value with respect to how my life goes.  
Well, since I'm not going to work on my dissertation or tomorrow's lecture, I might as well go to the gym to stay healthy. Meh. No point. I could just get sick and lose my gainz despite all my hard work. Worse yet, my time of death is out of my control which means I could die in an hour. Why workout if I might die soon?

Here's the funny thing. At this point, I'd been following Stoicism for about 5-6 months. Despite not caring about anything, I was actually noticeably happier than I had been in quite a while. Things that previously would have made me angry or upset rolled off me like water. Nothing bothered me cuz nothing really mattered. In a way, I’d internalized the most difficult lesson of Stoicism, to joyfully accept the world exactly as it is.

But this way of living, this grinning apathy, can't be right. And it isn't what the Stoics intended either. 

What had I gotten wrong?

Solving the Puzzle
Solving the puzzle requires we hold in our heads what appear to be two inconsistent beliefs: That externals don’t matter but that how we use them does matter. Somehow, Stoicism requires that I act as though externals matter while also believing that they don’t. Epictetus recognizes the apparent paradox: 
It isn’t easy to combine and reconcile the two—the carefulness of a person devoted to externals and the dignity of one who’s detached—but it’s not impossible (Discourse II, vi, 9). 
We can reconcile the positions by way of analogy. Think of a great sportball player. A great sportball player pursues the ball with courage, persistence, and skill—that is what makes her a great sport ballplayer. But does the great sportball player believe the ball itself has objective value? No. The ball, within the context of the game, is a means of developing and demonstrating the virtues of a great sport ballplayer. But no sportball player, no matter how good, thinks that the ball itself has objective value. What has value—what is objectively good or bad—is how sportball players pursue the ball.

As Epictetus puts it, we need
the star athlete’s concentration, together with his coolness, as if it were just another ball we were playing with too. To be sure, external things of whatever kind require skill in their use, but we must not grow attached to them; whatever they are, they should only serve for us to show how skilled we are in our handling of them (Discourse II, v, 21).

Or as he puts it another way: 
Life is indifferent, but the use we make of it is not indifferent. So when you hear that even life and the like are indifferent, don’t become apathetic; and by the same token, when you’re advised to care about them, don’t become superficial and conceive a passion for externals (Discourse II, vi, 1-2).

To summarize, Stoicism done right requires we inhabit a delicate doxastic state: We must believe that externals have no value yet we must act as though they do in order that we may develop the virtues. In a way, externals are a tool to develop the things that actually matter: the virtues. 

My mistake was was to focus solely on the idea that externals have no value. As a result I became apathetic. I failed to realize that apathy cannot breed virtue—the genuine aim of Stoicism and source of a good life. So, while it’s (sadly) true that my dissertation has no objective value with respect to the goodness of my life, how I go about writing it does. My lecture has no objective value but how I go about preparing it and delivering it does. My health has no objective value but how I go about sustaining it does. My career has no objective bearing on the goodness of my life, but how I go about pursuing it does.

How To (Genuinely) Joyfully Accept the World as It Is
In retrospect, I wasn’t genuinely joyfully accepting the world as it was. Because of my new-found non-attachment I think I was merely joyful to be free of the sorts of situations that previously would have sent me into a fit of rage, frustrated, or saddened me. Indifference was just a step up from all the negative emotions that come from attachment to and pursuit of externals. 

But when we adopt the complete Stoic view, that developing the virtues is what makes your life go well, then—through consistent practice—we can approach a joyful state of acceptance. How? Because at every turn, you will find an opportunity to develop at least one of the virtues. 

Stuck in traffic? Here’s a chance to develop patience. Working on a dissertation? Here’s an opportunity to develop persistence. Facing a difficult choice? Here’s an opportunity to develop courage. And just about every judgment, decision, and action affords us a chance to develop our wisdom. 

If it’s the virtues that matter for living a good life then we should be grateful every time we are presented with an opportunity to develop them. These situations should be received joyfully because they are opportunities to acquire something of genuine objective value to the goodness of your life—unlike the externals which have no objective value. Although, in order to develop the virtues we have to act as though externals have value, all the while understanding their objective indifference to the goodness of our life.

And so, as with so much so Stoic thought, we come full circle. If we internalize the idea that it’s the virtues that are the end goal and that have objective value, not externals, we see how we can joyfully accept the world as it is.

Monday, October 30, 2017

How to Get an A on any Exam

For most of my pre-college education I was a very average student--and that's being charitable. In my first year of college, I vowed I would learn how to get A's. I bought (and read!) a bunch of books on the subject as well as attended any study skills workshops available on campus. With the right techniques and the willingness to apply them, my outcomes improved drastically. The skill I became best at was test-taking to the point were I even looked forward to them.

Very early in my teaching career, I discovered that many students (like former me) have never been taught how to prepare for a test. Consequentially, they typically do poorly, provoking high levels of anxiety leading up to and during tests. This inevitably leads to a negative feedback loop wherein their negative expectations manifest a self-fulfilling prophesy of poor performance.

This blogpost is for all you people out there that get test anxiety or have children that do. Hopefully, with the tips I'm going to share, they (or you!) can learn to do well and to not fear tests.

Preparing for Exams
The most common mistake students make in preparing for exams is to study 'passively' rather than 'actively'. Let me explain the difference. Passive studying is when you simply reread the material and/or the notes. This will not help you very much and is basically a waste of time. To figure out how to do well on an exam let's think about what an exam is. 

Tip 1: Focus on Understanding Rather Than Memorization
An exam is a demonstration of your comprehension of a topic. So, to do well on an exam you have to be able to do two things: (a) recall the information being asked of you and (b) show that you understand it--usually by applying it. 

If you focus on (b), (a) will follow without any effort. Going from (a) to (b) takes more work. Understanding something requires putting it into a larger context: Figure out where an argument or explanation fits in relation to the main issue. Figure out and how each step in an argument connects to previous premises and supports the conclusion. Once you've done this, you will also have recreated the argument! Pure memorization without understanding is much harder to do. Avoid it where you can.

Some tests do require brute memorization of terms and so you can't escape all memorization. However, most technical terms are merely tools for understanding more complex concepts or theories. Figuring out where a term fits in the larger scheme of things will help you remember it. In short, connect new terms and concepts to other ideas to help understand, and in turn, remember them.

Tip 2: Recreate Exam Conditions
The other vital part of studying is to RECREATE EXAM CONDITIONS. This can be divided into two core ideas: (a) recreate the activity you will have to do and (b) recreate the environment you will be in. 

Recreating the Activity
On an exam you are being asked to RECALL and WRITE information. Simply rereading doesn't train you to recall and write. To practice recalling information, you have to--well--recall and write information. This principle is the same for any skill. 

Suppose I'm on the sportball team and there's a big match coming up against State. Should I just sit in my room thinking about all the sport moves I'm going to make under various conditions? Obviously not. I need to actually play sportball and make real sport moves to perform well in the match. It's true, thinking about it will help a bit, but if my practice consists solely in flipping through a playbook and imagining how I'm going to make awesome sport moves, we won't win the sportball game against State.

Similarly, suppose I'm a musician and I have a concert coming up. Suppose I prepare purely by skimming through the sheet music thinking to myself, "Ok, I got that part. Umhuh. Ok, that's just triplets, I can do that." No one would ever think to prepare for a concert this way. Yet this is how people prepare for academic tests!!111!!!11! Why???/????//!!??

So, to recap, on a test you are being asked to RECALL and WRITE. You should practice recalling and writing the information the same way you'd practice for a sportball game by playing sportball and a musical performance by actually playing the music.

In practical terms this means that after reviewing a potential exam question, you should WRITE, in point form, your answers to the question while your text and notes are closed. This is what it is to recreate the activity of exam-taking. On the exam you don't have access to your notes. If you can't recall and write out your answer in point form without looking at your notes in the relaxed environment of your room, there is no way in heck you'll be able to do it on the actual exam. That kind of crap only happens in the self-deluded dreams of tired students.

Details: I am rarely able to recall and write an answer on the first attempt. Just like learning to play a section of music for a concert, you're not going to nail it your first time through. This is normal. Learning is repetition and incremental improvement. Expect do to just that. 

If I get stuck trying to recall an argument, I peek at my notes, complete the answer then I DO IT AGAIN, this time without peeking. I keep repeating this process as many times as I have to until I can write out the answer without peeking at my notes (i.e., until I perfectly recreate the exam conditions). When I can do it perfectly, I KNOW I will ace the test because I've already aced it several times before even stepping into the exam room.

After I'm able to recall and write an answer perfectly without peeking at my notes I move to the next question--but not before! I like to work in sets of three. So, when I'm able to do 3 successive questions perfectly, I circle back to the top of the exam and repeat all of them once. For example, if I'm at question 6, then I'll redo all 6 questions once just to make sure I've really got them. Remember, repetition is the name of the game. It ain't fun but it's more fun than the feeling you get from a crappy grade.

Get yourself to where, with your notebook closed, you can recall and write the answer for every potential test question. When you can, you will ace the test (so long as you took good notes). Also, you'll have a lot less stress because you've already successfully taken the test several times at home. 

Recreating the Environment
Most of this should be obvious but I'll spell it out: 

  • Cellphone off and in another room. 
  • Unplug your modem.
  • Don't use your computer. Print your notes if you took them on your laptop.
  • Cellphone off and in another room.
  • No talking.
  • No chewing gum.
  • No fart noises.
  • No friends.
  • No life.
  • Never give up, never surrender.
I'm going to discuss time from two points of view: Total time and duration of study periods.

Total Prep Time (for Undergrad Exams):
If you want an A, expect to study at least 6-8 hours.
If you want a B, expect to study at least 4-6 hours.
Notice I didn't write anything for the other letter grades. If your goal is a C, save your money, quit school now and find something you enjoy instead.

These prep times will differ from person to person. They will also differ depending on how experienced you are at proper exam preparation. When you use the tips I've given for the first time, you probably won't get an A. This makes sense since you're just beginning to acquire the skills for exam preparation. Similarly, if it's your first time ever practicing for a sportball game you shouldn't expect to beat State. And no right-thinking musician would believe they're going to play a perfect concert after only their first time learning to practice.

Importantly, the above times are total undistracted study time and does not include breaks or meals. Plan your study schedule accordingly.

Finally, the total number of hours can be split up over 2 or (max) 3 days. It can also be done in one day/night.

Study Periods:
Conventional wisdom is that you shouldn't study for longer than about 45min intervals with 10-15min breaks. I think this is right for people who are just leaning proper exam prep but wrong for people who are experienced. No one would say that everyone, regardless of experience, should only run for 45min. No, it depends on how much prior training you've had. The more training you've had, the longer you can run or study effectively, or whatever. 

In the beginning start with conventional wisdom but as you build your recall muscles, extend your study periods. The fewer breaks you can take, the less total time you need to prepare and do well.

Study Groups
Study groups are useful for coming up with the answers for potential test questions, but this shouldn't be counted as studying. 

Exam preparation means recreating exam conditions. Your study group isn't going to be there to offer you answers during the exam so you shouldn't prepare as though they will. And neither will your mom...

Advanced Techniques: Experts Only!!!111!!1
Like I said, I wasn't always good at taking exams but through training and alignment of my chakras, I developed the skills. As I developed the skills and aligned my qi with the universe, I also developed confidence. 

So, here's how I studied for exams at the end of my test-taking career:
I come home from class and sleep until it's 9 hours (or however long I think I'll need to learn everything perfectly) before my exam the next day. I get up. Make a pot of tea and study for 4 hours straight. I take a 30min break to eat and drink a pot of coffee, eat chocolate then I study for another 4 hours. By now I'm starting to get a bit tired so I grab a light breakfast and 2 energy drinks on the way to the exam. I drink one drink on the way and have one on my desk if I feel I need it. 

Write the exam. Walk aimlessly around campus waiting for my heart rate to come down from all the caffein. Sleep.

Note: This way of studying for exams requires absolute confidence in your test-taking skills. When it's 1am and are just now opening your notes 9 hours out from a final, it's very easy to be overwhelmed and panic. 


  • Decide what letter grade you want on the exam. 
  • Set aside the corresponding number of hours required for that letter grade.
    • A=6 to 8
    • B=4 to 6
  • Mentally commit yourself to studying that number of hours--come hell or high water.
  • Set yourself up in an envirnoment as close to the exam conditions as possible.
  • Turn your phone off AND put it in another room.
  • Cover, Recall, and Write until you can do it perfectly for each answer. NEVER skim your notes. This is a waste of precious time.
  • Do not move to the next question until you're perfect on the one you're working on.
  • Focus on understanding (i.e., how different ideas relate and apply to each other) not memorization.
  • Every 3 questions, go back to the top and see if you can do them all again.
  • Walk into the exam with confidence because you've already taken it several times perfectly.
  • Write clearly!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Value and Gun Rights

The American Dream

I've mentioned before that philosophers distinguish between lumpers and splitters. Splitters take a category of things, actions, concepts and show that there are important distinctions to be made within that category such that we should really see it as two (or more) distinct categories. For example, someone might argue that 'motor vehicle' should be treated as two categories because cars and motorcycles are importantly different in the skills required to drive them. 

Lumpers do the opposite. They take what appear to be a collection of distinct things, concepts, or actions and argue that in some important respect they are all the same such that we can treat them as all belonging to the same category. For example, someone might argue that apples and oranges should both be considered 'fruit' from the point of view of import taxes.

Shortly following the news of the mass shooting in Las Vegas Reason magazine, a Libertarian publication, published an article predictably calling for restraint (i.e., do nothing) with respect to gun control legislation. All the standard arguments were there for why gun control legislation is bad. What stood out to me, however, was the euphemistic lumping of guns as mere tools. Here are a few prominent examples :
The unwillingness to leap to a legal solution to mass gun murders requires recognizing that guns are tools, with genuine uses for personal safety, personal fulfillment, and convenience, just as are cars, as well as noticing that a tiny number of people who own or have access to these specific tools ever use them to harm another human.
For the vast majority of their owners, guns are no more worthy of banning than any other element of their peacefully enjoyed liberty, one tool among many to shape their chosen life and leisure. Banning something that tens of millions of people innocently value and imposing onerous costs on American citizens, generally downward in socioeconomic terms, is a recipe for disaster.

Notice the effect on our emotional response to 'guns' when we lump them in with 'tools' (and refer to them as such). Much of the emotional charge runs out of the word. I have no doubt that this is what the writers at Reason magazine intended. I assume their thought is something like this: [Read in your learned teacher voice lecturing to students] "If we are to understand the issue of gun violence we must take a cold reasoned approach to the issue. There is no room for irrational emotion." This is Reason magazine, after all.

Setting aside that most philosophers (since Aristotle) reject the view that all emotions are purely irrational, I want to sporatically adopt this lumping convention for this blogpost: Listen, you hysterical liberals, guns are just tools. There are no relevant distinctions between a philips head screw driver and a gun. They belong in the same category. Settle down.

Before moving forward, I need to quickly introduce a technical term. 'Preference,' as it is used in every day speech, is sometimes used differently from its more narrow meaning in economics and political theory. Preference, as it is used technically, is always an expression of relative choice or value; it's an expression of ranking something relative to some other choice. So, I can never just say I prefer a. I must say that I prefer a to something else. 

P = some person;
a = apples
b = bananas

P {a>b} means that some person prefers apples to bananas.

The main idea here is that whatever we choose, we make that choice in the context of available alternatives. How we rank our preferences is an expression of what we value relative to other things.

Now that we've got the fancy talk out of the way, let's move forward and discuss gun legislation.

Preamble: Gun Violence Statistics and Scope of Argument
I don't want to turn this post into a cut-and-paste of gun facts. I'll just pick a few so I have something to work with.
In 2013, there were 73,505 nonfatal firearm injuries (23.2 injuries per 100,000 U.S. citizens),[2][3] and 33,636 deaths due to "injury by firearms" (10.6 deaths per 100,000 U.S. citizens).[4] These deaths consisted of 11,208 homicides,[5] 21,175 suicides,[4] 505 deaths due to accidental or negligent discharge of a firearm, and 281 deaths due to firearms use with "undetermined intent".[4]
In 2010, 67% of all homicides in the U.S. were committed using a firearm.[7] In 2012, there were 8,855 total firearm-related homicides in the US, with 6,371 of those attributed to handguns.[8] In 2012, 64% of all gun-related deaths in the U.S. were suicides.[9] In 2010, there were 19,392 firearm-related suicides, and 11,078 firearm-related homicides in the U.S.[10] In 2010, 358 murders were reported involving a rifle while 6,009 were reported involving a handgun; another 1,939 were reported with an unspecified type of firearm.[11] (Wikipedia) 
I will add without argument, because you're all capable of googling, that the per capita numbers of all kinds of gun deaths, gun crime, and gun injury are much higher in the US when compared to other Western democracies even when crime rates are controlled for.

Finally, let me point out that when I vaguely gesture at 'gun control legislation' below, I'm referring to some empirically supported combination waiting periods, background checks, licensing, and training--whatever it turns out to be--to reduce some subset of recognized gun violence. By 'gun-control legislation' I do not mean confiscating guns or prohibiting their sale (generally). For some reason any mention of gun control legislation is automatically interpreted, by pro-gun advocates, as confiscation or prohibition. This is not what I (or most gun control advocates) mean.

Reread above as many times as you need to.

Let's Get Philosophical
With the empirical and technical out of the way, let's get into the philosophy. The pro-gun lobby argues that we should do nothing in the face of gun violence because they want to own and purchase guns in a way that is unrestricted. Let's express that in the cool unemotional language of economics. Given a choice between 

a = easy access to tools.
b = even attempting to reduce loss of human life.
The anti-legislation person's (P) preference ranking looks like this: 
P: {a>b}
Easy access to tools is more important than any attempt to reduce the loss of human life.

Let me reframe that. The average annual death toll from guns is 30 000. Now suppose some piece of legislation could reduce the average gun-related death toll by a paltry 10%. That's 3000 human lives saved every year. Now, imagine we put 3000 people into a theatre and we say to someone who loves tools: 
You have a choice: we can make everyone wait [insert some trivial number of days] to receive a tool or we can let these 3000 human beings die unnecessarily, and repeat the same thing every year.
The choice the anti any legislation tool-lover makes expresses their preference ranking. More specifically, they are expressing the ranking of their values. The anti any legislation position says, in the language of economics: There is more value in everyone getting tools promptly and without hinderance than there is in 3000 people/year dying preventable deaths.

This, simply put, is the 'preference ranking' of the anti-any legislation position.

But It Won't Work
Now, I know what you're thinking. But gun control legislation won't work!!! 

Really? How do you know? Most (but not all) of the evidence points in the other direction for some but not all kinds of gun violence. The exceptions to this trend in the literature are outliers which the pro-tool lobby cites ad nauseam, ignoring the general trend. Why not introduce targeted legislation to address the kinds of violence that seem to respond to legislation in other countries? 

Let's see what this denial of even attempting targeted legislation expresses in terms of value rankings. In doing so, let's grant that no one really knows for sure (in the Cartesian sense) whether a particular kind of tool regulation (that somehow works in just about every other Western democracy) will work in the US. Refusing to even try some targeted legislation expresses the following value ranking:
a = easy access to tools  
b = even bothering to try to prevent the loss of 3 000 lives/year
P: {a>b}
In everyday English, this preference ranking expresses the following: 
It's more important for me have easy access to tools than it is for me to even try saving 3 000 human lives per year from preventable death. That is, me owning a tool and being able to buy tools with minimal restrictions has more value than even trying to prevent the (preventable) loss of 3 000 human lives. 
What the gun-control advocate fails to see is that life's meaning, purpose, and value comes from owning tools. Tools, not human relationships, not cultivation of ones virtue nor talents, not contribution to one's community, not preventable human death, are what matter for the good life. A purposeful and meaningful life depend on, above all else, easy, unrestricted, and unfettered tool ownership.  
In support of this view, Aristotle, in The Nichomachean Ethics famously argues that certain external goods are required in order to live the good life. He writes
But nevertheless happiness plainly requires external goods too, as we said; for it is impossible, or at least not easy, to act nobly without some furniture of fortune  GUNZ. There are many things that can only be done through instruments, so to speak, such as friends and wealth and political influence AND GUNZ: and there are some things whose absence takes the bloom off our happiness, as good birth, the blessing of children, GUNZ, and personal beauty; for a man is not very likely to be happy if he is very ugly in person, or of low birth, or alone in the world, or childless, and perhaps still less if he has worthless children or friends, or has lost good ones that he had, OR CAN'T BUY A GUN IMMEDIATELY WITHOUT A BACKGROUND CHECK.

But America Is Different (We're Special)
It is a common trope of the gun control advocate to bring up how, among comparable Western democracies, tighter gun control legislation correlates positively with lower gun death. What these tool-haters fail to appreciate is that our magical American culture is different! Americans have nothing in common psychologically or sociologically or culturally with other human beings. None of the widely studied tendencies of human behavior apply here. Ipso facto, of all the possible gun control legislations that whose number are limited only by the human imagination, we can with absolute confidence and certainty say that none of them will work here. There is no conceivable way that legislation that works on just about every other human culture on the planet--especially those most resembling our own-- could work here. Simply ridiculous to even try.

First of all, this line of thinking is right on both counts. The culture here is different. People here would rather own tools, unfettered and unrestricted, than attempt to reduce the total 30 000 human lives lost per year to tool violence. That, however, is a cultural problem, not something to puff your chest up about. 

Now, here's the really cool part. "Scientists have determined/studies show" that humans have the capacity to reflect on their practices as revise them in light of those reflections. We are not stuck in the culture we find ourselves in! This is shocking, I know. You might need to pause to catch your breath. 

And so, while it is true that current American tool-loving culture makes it difficult to save potentially tens of thousands of lives/year, with some reflection on its values, it could! All it takes is having the thought that the more or less unrestricted access to tools isn't as valuable as tens of thousands of human lives/year.

As it stands, the but-American-culture-is-different-therefore-we-shouldn't-even-try value ranking looks like this: 
a = Maintaining tool-loving at the epicenter of American culture 
b = attempt something to reduce the 30 000 lives/year that are lost. 
P: {a>b}
In plain English, there is more value is continuing to place some kinds of tools at the center of cultural identity than there is value in the lives of the very people who inhabit this community.

To be American means easy access to tools. This matters much more than 10s of thousands of preventable American deaths. Easy access to tools make us who we are. Without our tools and easy access to them we float adrift in a sea of despair with no other possibility of meaning and purpose in sight. Our culture, nay! our very way of life and identity would disintegrate before our eyes without easy access to tools. If 30 000 of us must be sacrificed/year for this end, so be it! We have deliberated and decided what truly matters.

Self-Defense/Protect My Family
Recall the passage from Reason magazine:
For the vast majority of their owners, guns are no more worthy of banning than any other element of their peacefully enjoyed liberty, one tool among many to shape their chosen life and leisure. Banning something that tens of millions of people innocently value and imposing onerous costs on American citizens, generally downward in socioeconomic terms, is a recipe for disaster.
People need to chill. All the anti-legislation people are saying is, "hey man, I just want to be able to own tools." Of course, not everyone just wants to own tools merely to love them and hold them and squeeze them. Some people make the argument that owning guns is an extension of their inalienable natural right to self-defense. 

For the moment I'm going to ignore that (a) from the right to self-defense it doesn't follow necessarily that you have a right to every means of self-defense and (b) gun control legislation is not the same as gun prohibition. I want to continue to focus on preferences and their ordering.

It's not that people merely want the right to own tools it's that they want the right to ensure the physical safety of their person and family. Guns are merely...uh...tools in this pursuit. Amiright? 

Let's grant that people have this right. It's not unreasonable after all. We can then ask the question: Are you and your family safer with a gun-tool in the house than without a gun-tool in the house? If you and your family are safer without a gun-tool, then if your concern truly is safety, you will get rid of your gun-tools. This is something to which there is an empirical answer. It's a verifiable and falsifiable matter. More on that later...

For now, take my word that as it turns out that you and your family are less safe with gun-tools in the house. So, if you insist on keeping gun-tools in your house then your concern really isn't safety or self-defense. You value having gun tools more than you value you and your family's safety. We can express the preference ranking like this:
Hypothetical: You and your family are less safe with a gun-tool in the house. 
a=have gun tool in the house.
b=you and your family's safety. 
P: {a>b}
If they hypothetical turns out to be true then the preference ranking says this: There is more value in having a gun tool in my house than there is value in the safety of myself and my family.

This being a hypothetical, for fun let's see what the literature says regarding safety and gun ownership...
For every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9715182 
Domestic violence assaults involving a firearm are 12 times more likely to result in death than those involving other weapons or bodily forceLinda E. Saltzman, et al., Weapon Involvement and Injury Outcomes in Family and Intimate Assaults, 267 JAMA, 3043-3047 (1992) 
Abused women are five times more likely to be killed by their abuser if the abuser owns a firearm
More than half of youth who committed suicide with a gun obtained the gun from their home, usually a parent’s gun. U.S. children and teens made up 43 percent of all children and teens in top 26 high income countries but were 93 percent of all children and teens killed by guns. 
In 2010, children and teen gun death rates in the U.S. were over four times higher than in Canada, the country with the next highest rate, nearly seven times higher than in Israel, and nearly 65 times higher than in the United Kingdom. 
U.S. children and teens were 32 times more likely to die from a gun homicide and 10 times more likely to die from a gun suicide or a gun accident than all their peers in the other high-income countries combined. A child or teen dies or is injured from guns every 30 minutes. 

Huh. It looks like having gun-tools in the house actually makes you and your family less safe than not having gun tools in the house. Obviously, this isn't all the literature there is on the matter but the trend is fairly clear.

I could carry on like this all day but the structure of the argument is the same with each iteration. Every objection to even trying out a piece of gun control legislation that targets a subset of gun violence can be expressed as a preference ranking--an ranking of values.
The anti-even-bother-to-try any legislation position always prefers owning a tool to saving human lives. That is, easy access to a tool is always more valuable than human lives.

No irrational emotions needed. This is the cold-hard language of reason.

Loose Ends
"But legislation can't prevent mass shootings." My reply is simply to copypasta the intro from a post I made a few years ago:
Mass shootings represent only a very small fraction of gun-related homicides (about 1% depending on the study you read). Even if we increase this number by a factor of 10 we're still only looking at 10% of gun-related homicides. From the point of view of policy then it makes sense to argue that preventing mass shootings shouldn't be the primary focus or starting point of gun policy. (Not to say it shouldn't at all be the focus of policy, only that there are perhaps better starting points, and lower hanging fruit).
Consider: Suppose policy aims to reduce mass shootings but not other forms of gun violence (primarily from hand guns). Even if that policy reduces mass shootings by 50%, of total gun homicides it's a hollow victory. If however policy reduces other homicides by just 10%, as an absolute number of lives saved, that policy is much more successful. (Assumption: gun violence policy ought to reduce total homicides and injury from guns).