12 November 2009

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Why does society very often reward perversity?

Dear friends,

This Sunday we are discussing a rather unusual but certainly interesting
topic: Why does society very often reward perversity?

In fact when I started thinking about the subject I was not sure I could
come up with something interesting. But as it so happened I finally
managed to get a few idea together. Hope it makes sense. But thank you
for reading.

See you Sunday, cheers!



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Why does society very often reward perversity?

Last Sunday I gave as an example of society rewarding perversity the
case of when we order an alcoholic drink in a bar we are very often
given a tapa. But if we order something non alcoholic, such as tea or a
soft drink, most bar tenders do not offer anything.

Whatever the historic explanation for offering tapas we can assume that
there is link between alcohol and tapas. According to the Wikipedia
(Tapas), some associate tapas with Alfonso X and legend has it that
after recovering from an illness, when he basically ate small snacks
with wine, the King ordered that taverns give a "tapa" with wine from
then on. This might well be the case since it is a brilliant idea which
can easily come to mind after a good snack and some fine Spanish wine.
On the other hand, even in 13th century Spain there were no soft drinks
or elaborated coffee drinks; at the time beer and wine were practically
what was available and hence the association with alcohol. Maybe tapas
have even been associated with alcohol by default.

The point of this digression is that tapas are very well associated with
alcohol drinks today and the idea of eating something when having
alcohol made good sense in the 13 century and makes good sense today:
alcohol should be imbibed in moderation because it can easily lead to
serious consequences.

Of course, none of this has any relevance to those of us who do not
normally order alcohol drinks and therefore deprived of a tapa or two. I
personally won't be bothered if bars didn't serve any alcohol but I am
seriously bothered when I'm not offered a tapa with what I'm drinking.
At face value this seems, unfair, unjust and a perverse to say the least.

But if we looked at this example in the cold and unemotional setting of
logical thinking, or the logic of unintended consequences, we might
think again about our revulsion of not being given a tapa with our non
alcoholic drink.

Those who abused alcohol or maybe were rather too partial to brandy and
port in younger days, would know that any unintended consequences would
catch up with one, either the following morning or during middle age.
And if we are not careful alcohol abuse can easily lead to an unexpected
and early demise. If, however, we drink more when given a tapa, wouldn't
this mean that what is regarded as society rewarding perversity (given a
tapa), it is just a case of hastening our misfortune in the long run (by
drinking more)?

Of course, this is a far fetched example and maybe a silly one; and I'm
certainly not arguing against tapas, on the contrary, I'm all for tapas.
However, I think that the reasoning is quite solid. What in the short
term might be seen as a reward, in the long term determinism will have
its day.

But we still have to start with what do we mean by perversity? Indeed is
my example about tapas perverse?

On a mild or soft interpretation of perversity (perverse) we might
define this as going against some social norm: giving morbid examples in
an essay, wearing a bright orange tie when the king is visiting,
cheating a restaurant out of five cents from the bill and so on. Extreme
or hard perversity would be pure evil such as flogging a girl for being
raped, genocide, slavery and so on.

However, I would argue that for something to be perverse it must also
evoke a sense of disgust or bad taste. Slavery is perverse not because
some people exploit others for their labour, but that they exploit their
labour by taking away any of their human and natural rights. Paying
cheap wages is equally evil but there is nothing perverse about it since
there is nothing unusual about it such as taking away one's rights.

The Chambers Dictionary (2000) includes, amongst many, the following
definitions for perversity: deliberately wicked; obstinately determined
when in the wrong; capricious or unreasonable in opposition.
Thefreedictionary.com includes as one of the definition: obstinately
persisting in an error or fault; wrongly self-willed or stubborn. Maybe
it is perverse not to give a tapa with a non alcoholic drink because it
is capricious in the face of unfairness.

But is there a philosophical difference between a perverse wrong and a
simple wrong? I am inclined to think not or rather that we do not need
to change our moral reasoning for each version of wrong. Of course, this
is not to deny that a perverse wrong evokes a more acute sense of
emotion and revulsion. It is that the perversity bit appeals to our
emotional disposition and the wrong bit to our ethics.

For example, it is true that maybe some women do behave in such a way to
give the wrong impression to a male, maybe to the extent that this
behaviour might lead to a rape. However, whatever the circumstances, a
rape is always a rape and nothing can possibly justify that rape. In
fact the meaning (not legal meaning) of rape includes the idea of a
wrong done to the victim. Hence punishing a woman for being raped is
perverse, because it is against our rational sense of justice to punish
a victim of a crime for being a victim: this is perverse and wrong

Moreover, any emotional element attached to a wrong does not add more
"wrongness" to the wrong, in fact it should not be allowed to attach
anything to the wrong. And this is for the following reason. If we
allowed something as subjective as emotion to evaluate a wrong or an
evil it means we are assessing something subjectively and not
objectively. And my subjective reasoning is as good as your subjective
reasoning. And this is serious because when we judge something to be
wrong we usually want to act in retribution or make right a wrong.

If I feel emotional about certain governments who allow their labour
workforce to be shamelessly exploited, I probably also feel that such
governments ought to be obliterated from the face of the Earth. Whilst
exploiting workers is wrong, obliterating governments might not always
be a good idea.

To return to the theme of our question, why should society reward

My tapas example is a case where a perceived reward (in the short term)
might theoretically turn out to be a determined negative cause in the
long term. However, the philosophical point is not that in the long term
determinism will prevail, but rather, what we think is a reward is in
effect a recipe for disaster. Having unsafe sex with many partners is a
similar example. I am really saying two things. The first is that we
don't necessarily have all the information and facts to say really that
something that started as a reward will stay a reward. And secondly,
what might seem to be a reward at face value, might in reality be
something else.

Let's take a more complex example. Today's economic crises was
practically caused by irresponsible lending in the housing and property
markets in the previous four or six years.

The sub-prime mortgages were really a serious deviation from prudent
lending by banks. The banks themselves were nudged by governments to
lend to those who had low incomes. But it is also true that they did
this because they believed they could pass on the high risk of sub prime
mortgages to other investors.

In this example, the reward was hefty big bonuses for a selected few in
the banking sector. However, the perversity is that a few got away with
big profits, but many innocent people lost their house, their income and
in some cases the consequences to the individual went beyond the
financial factor.

But as in the tapa example, there is also a twist to this example of
bonuses to bankers. It is true that bankers should not have lent those
sub prime mortgages, but it is also true that many people ought to have
known better than ask for a huge loan. If bankers were lending
irresponsibly, many borrows were creating a situation where there would
be a lot of defaults at the slightest change of fortune thus causing,
amongst other things, unemployment and devaluation of property.

This brings me to the final aspect of this question: society. Who or
what is society? The Chambers Dictionary includes in the definition of
society, the community. So when we see banks paying irresponsible
bonuses we are inclined to think that somehow we are independent of
banks and therefore there is no causal connection between banks and

Are we inclined to think of society in the same way? Us and the other
people living within a radius of a few miles from us? Or to use the
English expression: us and them mentality.

The reality is that there is no society other than a group of
individuals. However, this observation does not necessarily lead to the
idea, as has been the case since the late eighties, that since there is
no society then it is a free for all rampage. My point is that if
society rewards perversity, whether we think it is the case or not, it
is also us who are rewarding perversity.

As members of a community we also have responsibilities. We have
responsibilities whether we take the tapa or chase the extra half a
percent interest rate. In practice, in the heat of the moment we might
not be able to rationally assess the consequences of what we are doing.
There is of course no law that says we have to be rational, although
there is a law (causal law) that there will always be consequences, good
or bad, for things we do. But does this lack of individual foresight
apply equally to institutions and banks. A borrower might not have known
about the property bubble of the late 1980s, but are banks and
governments in an equal epistemic position?

Maybe it is not so much that society rewards perversity that actually
matters or really bothers us, but rather the amount of reward that
matters. Let me clarify this statement. There are actions, as I have
argued, that are inherently wrong and evil (e.g. rape) and in many cases
there are systems, such as legal systems, to deal with these situations.
There are also some actions that might not be wrong in law (e.g.
alcohol), but biological determinism will tease out the effects if
abused or misused. But there are other actions that in themselves are
desirable (e.g. bonuses) but if used irrationally can easily lead to
biological (green house effects), legal (pyramid schemes), or economic
disasters (bankruptcy).

Richard Dawkins in his book the Selfish Gene discusses a mental
experiment which is based on what he calls: cheats, suckers, and grudgers.

In a society made up of only suckers (members who cooperate) it makes
sense to try and cheat since one would get something for nothing. On the
other hand a society made up of cheats would not attract suckers and,
indirectly, grudgers. Such a society Dawkins explains are based on an
Evolutionary Stable Strategy; suckers do not employ an ESS because they
attract cheats. This, however, does not mean that a cheat's society is
not determined to fail.

Grudgers are members of a society who basically cooperate with everyone
and will continue to do so as long as the other member does not cheat
them. In effect grudgers seem to operate in the middle ground which
suggests that it is also a good strategy to keep away from excessive
rewards (cheats) or losses (suckers).

The reasoning behind this mental experiment is basically sound but it
also depends on such factors as meeting again those who cheated you and
remembering that they cheated. The discussion is quite complex but this
is enough for us.

I would say that Jeff Gore, Alexander van Oudenaarden and the rest of
the team at MIT have come a step closer to showing that Dawkins'
experiment also applies to biological systems (There might be other
studies that can show the same conclusion but this was the first example
I found.). (Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2009, April 7).
Cooperative Behavior Meshes With Evolutionary Theory. ScienceDaily.
Retrieved November 12, 2009, from

Basically Gore et al studied yeast to try and solve the question of
cooperation in biology which, according to evolutionary theory, would be
the equivalent of give something for free to a competitor.

The experiment by the MIT team was to see how far yeast are prepared
(remember yeast do not have emotions) to break down sucrose, which they
don't really like, into more suitable sugars which they can absorb. The
catch is that not all yeast have the necessary enzyme to break down
sucrose. In effect are these enzyme-capable yeast prepared to share with
the others the benefit of their labour? According to the team the enzyme
yeast are prepared to share with others but their sum total benefit to
themselves is more or less 1%. For that more or less 1% they are
prepared to cooperate because it is also enough to take advantage of
their environment and be ahead of the competition.

Now consider these figures which, of course, in themselves do not mean
much: 14.79% of the world population ( US, Canada, Europe) have a "%
world net worth (PPP)" of 53.52%. Asia has 52.18% of the world
population and a "% world net worth" of 29.4%. (data for year 2000:
World distribution of wealth. (2009, June 21). In Wikipedia, The Free
Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12:48, November 12, 2009, from

Or maybe consider this headline from the Unided Nations University
UNU-WIDER in 2006: "The richest 2% of adults in the world own more than
half of global household wealth according to a path-breaking study
released today by the Helsinki-based World Institute for Development
Economics Research of the United Nations University (UNU-WIDER)."

Could it be that the practice of offering a tapa a reasonable
Evolutionary Stable Strategy? Have a look at the Wikipedia article and
table on beer consumption (for 2004). (List of countries by beer
consumption per capita. (2009, November 4). In Wikipedia, The Free
Encyclopedia. Retrieved 13:10, November 12, 2009, from
Actually I have done the looking for you: from the table of the top 35
beer consuming countries per capita, I got Spain in the 11 position from
the 19 European countries included in the table (and 12 position in the
whole list). For all intents and purposes this is just above the mid
point: don't forget this article is about beer consumption only. A case
of prospering in the middle ground.

It seems to me that whichever way we look at it, the issue about society
rewarding perversity is serious and bothers us only when legitimate
human activities are concerned. Immoral acts are usually punished in
some way (rape) and rewards for doing good (Nobel prizes) are
celebrated. Could we move from here to conclusion that given a normal
activity, this activity becomes a perverse activity when the reward is
in excess of what we think is or has been established to be reasonable
and rational. Assuming of course that a reward is merited in the first

In the meantime, what I'd like to know, from an empirical point of view,
in this: have bar tenders in Spain inherited the fair-advantage gene
which yeast seem to have? Or are tapas really an Evolutionary Stable
Strategy that has survived the test of time; nine centuries perhaps? Cheers!


from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Why does society
very often reward perversity?

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