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Interview with Ben, author of Mea Culpa

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Interview with Ben, author of Mea Culpa

Post by Scott » August 22nd, 2011, 8:22 pm

In this thread I will be interviewing Ben Houghton author of Mea Culpa: Our Society, which is available as an ebook from ConsuloMuse.com. The book is described on that website as "a philosophical look at the social problems which blight western society underpinned by basic psychological concepts to enforce the argument’s within. Divided in to six sections, each section focuses on community led personal responsibility hence the title 'Mea Culpa' originating from the Latin meaning 'I am to blame'."

***

Hi Ben! How are you?

Firstly, I want to thank you for agreeing to do this interview.

I recently just finished reading Mea Culpa. Overall I enjoyed reading it. I feel you organized your thoughts and arguments well. I also feel the book has an effective balance of mentioning and explaining relevant scientific or advanced information and ideas while still being accessible to laymen. Too much background data can make a book like a 101 textbook to those in the field while too little can make it inaccessible to those without some specifically relevant formal education. I think you did a good job getting to a balance between those.

Of course, I do have some particular questions about the content and specific arguments made in the book, but first I want to get some background on you.

Can you tell use a little about yourself? Is this the first book you have written? In the book you make use of a lot of psychological theories and research as a basis for own arguments. What is your personal background in psychology? Do you consider yourself more of a psychologist or a philosopher? Or is something else entirely?

You acknowledge throughout the book that many of your arguments and suggestions are controversial. Have you gotten much feedback about the book and the arguments that you make in it yet? If so, what has been the focus of most of this feedback?

I will let you respond to some of those questions, and then if you are willing I will ask you some questions specifically about your arguments and proposals in the book.
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Re: Interview with Ben, author of Mea Culpa

Post by Ben Houghton » September 2nd, 2011, 12:17 pm

I'm glad you enjoyed reading it and I'm particularly pleased with your comments regarding the balance of content as that was an area I was very passionate about. I wanted novices to not be put off my the terms 'psychology' and 'philosophy' and to see it as an intriguing explanation of some of societies failings. Given the recent riots in my country, England, I felt the content and timing was very poignant.

As for me, I've always had too much to say and not enough platform to air it! In my younger days I was a hip hop MC and I attempted to use song to put the ideas across however I felt I could not do the topics justice in three verses and a chorus whilst maintaining the need for them to be engaging and entertaining. I've always thought a little differently about things and when I began to study for a degree in Psychology and philosophy I wanted the philosophy to challenge my thoughts and perhaps give me a rounder view on opposing arguments. I certainly found that ideas I was certain about previously were challenged and changed in ways I had never expected and I found that hugely rewarding. Whilst studying social psychology theories I seemed to instinctively equate what I was learning to real world situations and that was when I decided to write the book.

It's the first book I've written so your comments regarding thought organisation were very pleasing. I was very certain in what I wanted to say but I had to ensure I didn't just chuck every thought I had on paper haphazardly. Some of the ideas I offer were extreme even for me and certainly not necessarily what I believe though the feedback has been pretty good so far. I think perhaps because I've tried (and succeeded?) in not patronising the reader or dismissing too much of modern society. I'm not trying to denounce the western world as the hub of all evil, merely that the western world must assume personal responsibility. The very first piece of feedback came from a woman who told me how angry she felt and had to skip particular parts due to her strong disagreement with the ideas. This made me happy because it had obviously pushed a button and instigated some emotion. The same lady came back to me later and explained whilst she did not agree with it all, she enjoyed the content. For the first thing I've ever written I think that pretty much sums up all I can ask from a reader!

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Re: Interview with Ben, author of Mea Culpa

Post by Scott » November 19th, 2011, 12:06 am

Do you think some people would find it ironic to learn you were a hip hop MC considering the harsh criticisms you have for the popular music industry with particular mention of rap? Still, I assume that you were part of the more alternative style of the hip-hop scene, of which I am actually a fan.

I believe you have made some changes to the price or availability of your book? Can you update us on that?

Do you have any plans to write another book? If so, about what?

Before moving on, I do want to apologize for the delay in my response. Now I will ask you about some particular arguments, assumptions and parts of your book.

In part 3 of the book you address some topics to do with selfishness, selflessness and love that have been of great interest to me. I agree about--with what I feel is your point--so-called selfless action generally being indirectly motivated by self-interest. For illustration, consider the following from page 42: (All page numbers refer to the copy of book I have.)
Ben Houghton wrote:The feel good factor involved in selfless acts is also highly reported yet research by William Harbaugh and Ulrich Mayr (2007) used brain imaging to reveal the positive effects on the individual when donating to charities again showing that the personal gain from this euphoric feeling would be the dominant factor in charitable giving.
And on page 43 you sum it up:
Ben Houghton wrote:...for every perceived selfless deed there is an underlying dominant desire for personal gain.
However, from there you lose me. While the statement above may be true, it seems that you then argue from the premise that we are inherently selfish and thus in various forms and ways must accept, embrace or workaround our selfishness. Is that how you feel? But I believe that creates a false dichotomy between selflessness and selfishness. I have explained my thoughts on this before: "Is selfishness compatible with kindness?" In this case, we may see that a kind person commended by others as "unselfish" is kind as a means to a personal end, namely the good feelings the do-gooder feels. However, we can still distinguish between kind and unkind people and between unselfish and selfish people, i.e. between people who have sympathetic reactions conducive to charitablity as opposed to people closer to sociopathy/psychopathy. As such, I think it is incorrect to say people are all selfish let alone inherently so. In other words, I agree that nobody is selfless in a literal sense of the word, but I do not think that means everyone is selfish. What do you think?

Moving on to the topic of love, you seem to take a skeptical or perhaps even cynical view on this--which of course is not a big leap from your comments on selflessness and selfishness. For instance, take this from page 46:
Ben Houghton wrote:Euphoria created by endorphin release for example, when understood loses the mysticism which surrounds the myth of love.
Please excuse me for not bothering to cite many of the specific things you say with which I agree or logic which I find valid, as this would be a boring piece to read if it was just me quoting sentence by sentence writing I agree between each. Anyway with the sentence quoted above I would accuse you of being at risk of making a fallacy of composition. Indeed the basic physics of love from a molecular or even evolutionary level may be understood to some degree, each part of it being not so special to most people. However, put it all together and look at it holistically and it is still no less special to me. Does your favorite food not taste good just because we can explain why and how the feelings occur biochemically? So it is I think with love. We can explain physically why and how it occurs, but that does mean it doesn't exist, we don't feel it or that it isn't just as special; I think.

Philosophically, I think love can be measured best by sacrifice. Put a loving husband in a situation where he must choose between saving his own life or his beloved wife's, for the sake of argument say he knows for sure he can save one and only one, and I believe it is not uncommon for him to choose to save his wife's. Do you not agree? If you do, then how does that fit in with your ideas regarding love and selfishness? For instance you write on page 47, granted in a particular, different context: "I claim that intimate partner relationships are ultimately selfish."

Ultimately, I still think overall I agree with your conclusions as I understand in that part of the book, part 3. For instance, you seem to advocate for a openly self-interested economy--and more broadly speaking society--in which people are not expected to act selflessly or be charitable, which, as many economic conservatives and libertarians have argued for centuries, arguably leads to voluntary and thus peaceful mutually beneficial interactions. Is that a fair representation of your views? If so, I very much agree and think as stated it is a very agreeable statement of political philosophy.

Moving on, you make an interesting point in part 4 of the book, more specifically on page 56. You argue that atheists generally want to have funerals, that they do so in a way that implies it isn't just for their family and friend's emotional sake, and that this is evidence atheists generally do believe in some spiritually supernatural thing, afterlife or a certain, in your words, "something else." Why do you believe atheists usually want to have funerals? What percentage of atheists do you estimate could care less what happens to their body after death save for their family and friend's emotional state. Your essay does not depend on these points, but they stuck out to me a little because I am an atheist, I have no desire for a funeral, ceremony or service about my death and my only concern about what's done with my body are that I am an organ donor and I want my family to occur as little expense as possible, hopefully none. Still, I know of no evidence that I am a fair representation of most, many or even just a few atheists. Maybe almost all do want funeral. But I am curious as to what made you believe that they do.

Later in this part of the book you address the problem of divorce. I do think there is some advantage to making it harder for people to get divorce, and thus making marriage/civil-union a more significant commitment. You also wisely point out some of the negative outcomes more prone to children of divorce. However, in addition to the general common risk of mistaking correlation for causality superficially, this error occur more fundamentally. For instance, you may be able to show that children of divorce tend to be worse off because they are children of divorce than children of parents who choose to stay together because there parents stay together. But the causality may stop there. It could still be the case that the children of divorce are worse off because they have been born to parents who will if they can choose to get divorced, but that does not mean they would be any better off if there parents were forced to stay together. In other words, it is not because in itself that their parents get divorced that they are worse off or because there parents are together that they are better off. Rather, it is because there parents have a relationship that is healthy enough that they would choose if given the choice to stay together. In fact, with the lack of evidence to the contrary, I think if anything the causal relationship is the opposite. Sure the children of parents who would choose to get divorced may do worse off than children of parents who would choose to stay together, but I suspect they would be even worse off if there parents are forced to stay together when they would choose to separate if they could than if there parents were allowed to separate. I imagine a lot of the causal, negative influences--like being exposed to their parents destructive fighting--on children of divorced parents are actually exacerbated by making them stay together. Of course, that is only a speculation or rough guess; I could be very wrong. But do you know of any evidence to the contrary, that shows a causal relationship between parents getting divorced and negative outcomes for children--beyond even the possibility that the causal factor is that the parents want to get divorced with the actual divorce being correlated to that desire?

In most of your essays you intentionally refuse to address arguments pertaining to freedom. So I agree with many of your points and arguments in your essays insofar as we are not addressing the issue of freedom. But most of your suggestions I would not support because they would infringe on freedom. (This may be a testament to the accuracy of my compliments in regards to your organization.)

One of your biggest objections to modern democracy is that you believe it is more or less a disguised dictatorship, with power being given to one elected individual. Is that a correct paraphrasing of your beliefs? I'm not as familiar with the UK political structure as I am with the US, but I know this is not the case with the US. The United States uses a constitution and power is divided into 3 branches of government. If anything, I think the legislative branch has more power than the executive branch. For instance, George Bush campaigned on being opposed to gay marriage yet was unable to get it federally banned. Surely any kind of dictator could do something as simple as that.

Yet I question if even you are proposing a dictator despite saying that you are. For instance, consider this:
Ben Houghton wrote:There is a threat that each leader would only last the minimum term of governance as the next dictator would promise simply what the people want in exchange for the power of governance. This contradicts the definition that a leader is in power to provide the greatest good for the people and this threat can be countered by granting unlimited terms of governance based on continually falling rates in key areas of crime, unemployment and so forth.
Couldn't the dictator simply fudge the numbers? If the dictator couldn't, then isn't the dictator not a dictator?

In regards to government-enforced standardization of clothing and baby naming:
Ben Houghton wrote:To summarize the reduction of choice regarding identity and expression of personal identity is weighted against the potential for negative incorrect stereotyping which results in harmful social activity.
On this issue of freedom, I think this is borderline circular reasoning. Freedom advocates--such as myself--argue for freedom because it enables people to decide whether--in their view--the benefits of A outweigh B or vice versa. If the parents believe that choosing a certain name will cause more trouble for the children than help, then they presumably wouldn't give that name to their child. The issue of freedom deals greatly with the point that the government doesn't know best and what is best for one is not necessarily best for all.
Ben Houghton wrote:I do not believe that there are valid objections to the reduction of choice which provide a similar solution for the removal of these stereotypes. I am not arguing for removal of personal identity in its entirety but instead I am arguing that a restriction of the public expression of personal identity is of paramount importance to social reunification.
Why do we need to remove these stereotypes so much as to sacrifice the benefits of freedom? Aren't these sterotypes already on the way out? What exactly is social reunification and why is it more important than the benefits of freedom and the pleasure of personal choice and personal expression?

On page 97 in regard to freedom of entertainment, you acknowledge one of the negative impacts of restrictions on freedom: the black market. Why would we believe that such negative results of restricting freedom are worth it? Even if we agree with your arguments in the previous part of the book, for instance that consuming certain entertainment is psychologically unhealthy, how does that make it worth outlawing? Those who support freedom often do so because they believe that outlawing an allegedly unhealthy activity--from consuming violent, sex-ridden media to consuming drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, prostitution, and fast food. Proponents of freedom often hold one, two or all three of these ideas: (1) the government is worse than the individuals engaging in an activity at determining whether the cost/unhealthiness is greater or less than the gains/positive-effects of the activity for the individuals engaging in the activity, (2) one man's trash is another man's treasure meaning the pros may outweigh the cons for one person but not another depending on their subjective desires, and (3) letting people engage voluntarily engage in unhealthy activities is better then initiating violence by forcing our will on them. In other words, one could accept your arguments with such momentum that they believe giving a child a non-standard/non-traditional name or producing or watching violent, sex-ridden TV is as unhealthy or anti-social or dangerous as selling dope, gambling and sexually prostituting oneself. This still doesn't say anything towards why it warrants limiting freedom. For instance, I would maintain freedom is preferable regardless. Indeed, I have argued for the legalization of all those things (see: prostitution, homosexual civil unions, marijuana, alcohol, all drugs, paying employees poorly or choosing to work for low pay, and gambling), so even if you convince me that violent music is as bad as cocaine, I won't want it generally outlawed by the government. Many others likely feel differently, and their support of your final conclusions would rest more on the degree to which they are convinced that the activity to be heavily regulated or outlawed is harmful, antisocial, dangerous or correlated to negative outcomes in society. But I am interested to here more on your ideas regarding freedom generally.

To paraphrase the man who first called himself an anarchist almost two centuries ago, I believe liberty is the mother not the daughter of order and prosperity. Indeed, when free from the constraints of governance, dictatorship, the initiation of violence and offensive coercion, I believe people are prone to voluntarily engage in sophisticated systems of those mutually beneficial interactions as referenced previously. It is this kind of freedom-supporting political philosophy on which I would love to have your comments in the context of your book.

I hope you don't mind me getting so much into some of the issues your book has raised.

Thanks very much!
Scott
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Re: Interview with Ben, author of Mea Culpa

Post by Ben Houghton » November 19th, 2011, 7:58 am

Hi Scott, no worries about the delay! As I said, life will always distract us and if it doesn't we will wonder why not :)

I think my previous interests as a hip hop MC would only be seen as ironic by those with less understanding of hip hop as a culture. It has always been rooted in social commentary and this is where I based my own style. The mainstream hip hop music which I am against is the music which sells a lifestyle of criminality and get rich quick. The number of rappers 'keeping it real' by rapping about their own experiences in criminality is very low. The message which sells - which is consumed - is fake and leads to a false identification by the consumers however it remains an identification which then has negative effects on how they choose to live their life with negative ideals etc.

As for the price and availability of the book, it remains available from [url]www.consulomuse.com[/url] for £5.99 in epub, pdf and .mobi formats for the forseeable future. I have begun work on a version two but I have no time frame for when that will be finished. I would like to make it free and invite donations because my inner conflict is between saying what I want to say and the undeniable fact that we all have to put food on the table. If I followed my own argument people won't donate either so I'm undecided currently but that's the situation as it stands right now. Version 1 still available from the site, version 2 being worked on with no set price or release.

Mea Culpa came about as a book because I felt I had enough to say on the subject, I don't think I want to force myself to write something I don't have a strong belief about. Certainly I find myself wondering why our most vivid night time dreams are dismissed as dreams when we can wake up feeling 'real' emotions but I'm not convinced I have enough substance to my thought to make a book out of that! In terms of psychology I'd like to conduct some studies on online RPGs-I play World of Warcraft myself-and the identities people take up in those. I find that fascinating as someone who's had good and bad experiences. Philosophically however I feel I need to read more on the subjects which interest me before understanding my own arguments.

Ah selfishness! That has put quite a few peoples backs up! My belief is that everybody is selfish at a base, genetic level. There is no escaping this and we should not seek to escape this. However we need to reprogram our understanding of selfishness as being negative. So the 'workaround' of selfishness isn't to combat the fact we all want what's best for us, it is to understand it as a fundamental, key part of our everyday reasoning. The selfless person is no different. To be rather general here, the do-gooders of the world may claim they do not do good for their own benefit but if these acts had zero positive effect on them then I argue they would not do them and that is what makes the act selfish-because the value is placed dominantly in how it makes them feel. They may be doing good for millions of other people by building water wells in Africa for example but if they did not feel the sense of 'doing good' they would not do it. That tiny spark of them feeling better about themselves as human beings is what drives them and that spark is pure selfishness. I appreciate it is a difficult concept to grasp and accept because we've been conditioned throughout humanity to believe selfishness is wrong but my argument is for the opposite. Selfishness is the same principle argument as geneticists who argue for mothers protecting their young in order to ensure the continuation of those genes. Selfishness is inherent because it ensures the genes 'gain'.

And love is interestingly the next most contested argument initially...although more amongst women I've found. Maybe I'll make a side note and ask why that is for version 2 :) I think we're agreeing here to be honest. I am also not saying that love should not be considered as light and fluffy and disneyesque. Believe me for all my sceptism (which you have picked up on!) I have no interest in living in a society where I don't get breathless at seeing the sight of the woman I love, my argument is simply that love is an all encompassing term for a feeling based on a multitude of variables which synch with our own perfectly. Love as an individual, seperate feeling doesn't exist, love as a description for these variables very much does so.

I'm not sure I agree that the husband would choose to save his wife in your theoretical situation. I'm sure, if he were asked the question, he would SAY he would save his wife but saying and doing are two different things. Perhaps if they had children he would choose to save his wife-but only because he knew it would ensure a greater chance of his children i.e. his genetics to survive and flourish in the next generation. I'd be interested in researching any theories on this. *mental note made once more*. Overall though I think we're on the same wavelength with 'love'.

My views on the atheism and funerals topic are based basically on my knowledge of 'what happens when we die'. I know of very few people, including the atheists I know, who have no thoughts on a funeral. In fact, now I think about it you may be the very first person I've met with your view. My own father is an atheist, at least he was until his parents died and he started to get older. Now he is questioning what happens next. Maybe that's fear? Maybe that's a human survival device to halt panic in the brain? Maybe that's centuries of myth,legend and religion ingrained in to us. I'm not sure and to be honest it's a bloody good point you raised. I've based it on my own interactions with atheists and perhaps I should explore that more....certainly if there is an 'atheist burial service' involving essential no religious passover ritual, no coming-together of family and friends I'd be interested in seeing what statistics are for that. Indeed, whilst I think as I type it may well lead me in to pondering whether an atheists choice for that service over a traditional funeral is selfish and vice versa. Food for thought there Scott, thanks!

You have been thorough...I'l just make a cuppa (very English I know!) and come back for divorce!

There is very strong psychology evidence cross culturally which shows parental stability is absolutely fundamental in raising healthy children. There is also evidence which shows anti-social fathers hinder their children and that the children are better off without these role models and ultimately that's what it comes down to - children will imitate what they see around them. If they are raised in strong family units they will take those experiences and replicate them in their own lives.

However my insistence on making divorce harder does not necessarily follow that married couples should remain living together in unhealthy relationships. By all means, seperate if the relationship is damaging but that does not mean you should be allowed to divorce. If divorce is made harder then the decision to marry becomes much more careful (I know of a person who proposed to his wife by saying they could 'go on holiday, move house or get married. If we get married we can have a holiday as well,what do you think?') and when that marriage takes place if they know they cannot simply walk away the people will fight harder to make the marriage work. Logically if the marriage is thought about beforehand greater then the number of '90 day marriages' which become en vogue with celebrities falls dramatically.

Your argument regarding passing laws in the US, I believe, is not quite the same as the UK. Parliament still needs to pass the laws (in the UK) but if the Conservative party are currently leading the country then even if the Labour party object, the change is made. I wasn't aware of how the US runs but I am now and may look at that for version 2, thank you. I agree with your argument that a dictator could fudge the numbers but this is an issue which would have occurred throughout time. I'm sure there is a structure and process available to minimise this but I was trying to steer clear from presenting a comprehensive political mandate. Mostly due to a lack of overall understanding of various political workings.

Your next point regarding the naming of children returns to selfishness. The parent will not name their child something that benefits society. There is a great deal of evidence (perhaps I could cite this in version 2?) which shows a human need, particularly in adolesence (though not limited to) to stand out from the crowd. I agree you say the parent won't choose a name which will hinder the child but similarly Gwyneth Paltrow naming her child 'Apple' does nothing for the rest of society who have no idea whether her child is male or female. My argument at this point is explaining how a name such as 'Mary' instantly tells you more about the child than 'Apple' could without any prior knowledge. Naming a child differently forces cognitive processing and creation of unique mental structures which just is not necessary. Society is not about the individual, it is about the mass and an individual who wishes to live in a society needs to understand and accept that forcing cognitive processing in order to fulfill the (selfish) need for individuality is unnecessary work. Albeit, as I argue, in this case not the cause for social meltdown.

Restriction of freedom was always, I feel, going to be my most difficult argument and I would hold my hands up to say I would find it very difficult but society is not about me. It's not about you either. It's about what's best for the mass and if that means restricting freedoms then so be it. As I have argued in the book, a lot of my view can be argued through a historical compare and contrast. When we didn't have A how was society? And that doesn't mean I am anti progression but we need to understand and accept the effects of A on society before we allow it throughout. My restrictions on freedom are not all encompassing either as I have argued for the points system. If someone wishes to undertake activities which are harmful to society as a whole they would be deducted points and-crucially-activities which benefit society will see those points regained. The freedom is not as restricted as it appears because the opportunities exist to experience life as we currently know it...provided you are willing to pay the price. I don't want to go in to too much detail on that due to the weight I afford it within the book itself :)

The dictatorship I argue for is a benevolent one. I've used examples mapped through history to show how from far harsher dictatorships some of the great advances in cultural humanity have risen unopposed and are studied by scholars today. If we allow individual freedom we will only get increased fragmentation of the western society we see today and, personally, I don't like the current world. I believe in personal responsibility and accountability to our tribe i.e. society. We are just animals and we should not be so arrogant to believe we can prosper uniquely in the animal kingdom without order and structure to be followed. My dictatorship does not restrict current freedoms, it merely adds personal responsibility to it. Why should anyone be allowed to contribute to activities which harm our society without repercussion and why should the man who lives a life contributing to society not be justly rewarded? I can't speak for the US but certainly in the UK we have a 'compensation culture' where people play the benefits system for as much as they can whilst contributing the least and this brings down our country to the point that people who struggle but pay taxes are worse off in standard of living. That isn't right.

Whew! I'd love to answer any more specific questions you may have, particularly revolving around total liberty vs my dictatorship model.

Thanks for the interest!

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