The Rabbit and The Mammoth
As the ongoing Picture of the day series seems to be fulfilling the personal diary function, I think I might go for a few philosophical posts on the blog. As usual, my intention is not to preach, and I don't aim to convert other people to adopt my views. I'm just expressing the way I think, and everyone is free to disagree, and if you think you spot an error in my logic feel free to tell me =)
To me it seems that even when we believe that we are thinking rationally, our thought is actually heavily guided and affected by myths or myth-like basic beliefs. Those basic beliefs are often handed down by the tradition, and even if we try to question them, we often end up concluding that our own basic beliefs are the correct and true views. Or, in case we fail to find rational argumentation to back our basic beliefs, we can always glorify intuition, saying that this just feels right to me. OK, this is a mere observation on how human mind works, and there's nothing wrong with it. But in this post I'm not going to dig deeper in this theme, I just thought to mention this as a background, for what follows next is a fictional story. (Don't worry, this time it will also be plain and clear philosophy after the story.)
A tale of Rabbit Catchers and Mammoth Hunters
A long long time ago, in the pre-industrial times that is, there was a river. To the north of the river there were woods, and in the woods there lived a tribe of Rabbit Catchers. Their main livelihood was catching rabbits. They used the meat for food, the furs and leather for clothes, the bones and tendons for tools and weapons. In the tribe of Rabbit Catchers typically the males of each family went hunting, bringing home rabbits for the women to process. Their hunting methods involved trapping and stalking - and they had found out that the most effective way was for each hunter to go alone, to reduce noise and scent. Although a family could share their catch to keep everyone nourished, a family seldom donated part of their catch for a neighbouring family. In their tribe they believed that justice is based on acquisition. If you are lazy or a clumsy hunter, you get what you deserve - which is scarcity and hunger. If you want to prosper, you got to work for it, you got to hone your skills, you got to try your best, and then you'll be rewarded by your successful hunting. That was their idea of social justice, and it served them well, for the tribe was prosperous. If it happened to be a year of low rabbit population, they all suffered a little, but the most industrious families suffered less because they had been drying their excess rabbit meat and storing it for future need. If a less fortunate family asked 'hey, why can't you share some of your stored meat with us, as you have excess and we have nothing', the answer was plainly 'but you know, this is justice. If, as a tribe, we start to seize private property and to distribute it to the lazy and the clumsy, then the whole tribe will collapse as everyone would just stay at home expecting the others to do the hunting and then sharing their catch with everyone. That just doesn't go! We need to honour the basic beliefs of our tribe, as they were originally handed down by The Rabbit, the Totem Animal of our tribe. A good tribesman should not revolt against the Tribal Tradition!'.
And what was to the south of the river? There were grassy plains, and on the plains lived a semi-nomadic tribe of Mammoth Hunters. Mammoth was their Totem Animal, and the mammoth they hunted down they used for food, clothes, tools and weapons. But mammoth it is a big animal, no single hunter could take down a mammoth all alone. So the tribe had developed well organized in-group co-operation, where each member of the hunting party had their assigned role, contributing towards a collective success. There were trackers and scouts, there was a chain of chasers, and a spear-head group of skirmishers, and finally the death-blow crew of most strongest hunters capable of killing a mammoth once the animal was found, exhausted and weakened and distracted by the rest of the hunting party. They cut and carried the catch back to their base camp, where they distributed the profit almost evenly among each family of the tribe. They had a tribal council deciding on distribution of the catch, often awarding special bonuses to those members of the hunting party who had showed wise tactics or had taken brave moves greatly contributing towards the success of the hunt. In their tribe, it was often women and children also participating in the hunting party, as there were suitable roles for all. And the heck, sometimes they had a female member in the death-blow crew, as some females proved to be especially brave and skilled hunters. In their tribe they believed that justice is even distribution of the wealth, as it was collectively acquired so it should be collectively enjoyed. And that idea served them well, for the tribe was prosperous. None of the families was spectacularly wealthy, but none of the families was hungry, ever. Even if it happened to be a longer period of unsuccessful hunting, they had a tribal reserve which they used to nourish each family to help them survive until next mammoth killed. Now, in their tribe, if a member of a death-blow crew said 'I deserve a way more bigger portion of the catch, as after all it was me who delivered the actual killing blow', the answer was strictly: 'That doesn't go. If you show bravery you get your special perk but no more, as everyone did their role in the hunt, it was not you alone. Also, this is Justice, an age-old holy tradition enshrined in the Wisdom of The Mammoth, our totem animal. If you want to abandon the basic beliefs of The Wisdom, then you also have to abandon the tribe and go starving alone in the plains.'
Each tribe followed their own traditions, and things were mostly fine and smooth. Although their concept of social justice might seem complete opposites, in their daily lives they actually had quite similar discussion. One autumn there was a quarrel among several families of The Rabbit Catchers. Two families accused the third family of leeching on their work. Members of the third family had allegedly seen snatching rabbits from the traps set by the trappers of the first family. And other member of the third family were seen following the skilled hunter of the second family, waiting for the skilled hunter to accidentally fail, and then quickly catching the escaped rabbit. To settle the row, all the families gathered together to have a talk. Right in the beginning the members of the third family complained that it is unfair for a group of people to decide over distribution of wealth, as each family has a right to keep what they've acquired. But the rest of the families said that it doesn't go for stealing nor for unfair hunting methods. That to strictly follow the principle of 'Justice by Acquisition' is not to leech on others, and to go do all the work by oneself. All the counter-arguments of the third family were in vain, as the tribe collectively took away a portion of their wealth and re-distributed it back to the first and second family.
The next autumn there were some trouble in the tribe of Mammoth Hunters. It all started with Ugh-Mulleb suffering from a fit of sickness, so that she couldn't participate in the hunting party. When the hunting party returned back to the base-camp after a successful kill, the tribe council decided to give Ugh-Mulleb her ordinary share of the catch, only a little reduced amount, but surely enough to keep her alive so that she could recover from the sickness. And, sure, by the time of the next hunting party Ugh-Mulleb was strong and hale again, and did her part in the hunt. But that time it was Eego-Lemorah who didn't go hunting, saying that he is sick. Again, after a successful kill the council decided to give Eego-Lemorah a portion of the catch. Shortly after that Eego-Lemorah attended the tribal festival, dancing wildly. But by the time of the next hunt, he again said he had suddenly fell sick the previous night. There were some talk in the council, but they believed Eego-Lemorah's word and gave him a portion of the catch. The same happened again, which then sparked more talk among the tribe members. They started to suspect that Eego-Lemorah is only pretending to be sick, so that he doesn't need to go hunting, yet he relies on the tribe giving him his portion of the catch. To find out the truth, the tribal bush doctor didn't attend the next hunt, but stayed at the camp, secretly observing Eego-Lemorah, witnessing him behaving completely normally and only rushing to bed when he heard the hunting party returning. In the council discussion the testimonial of the doctor was heard, and the council decided that Eego-Lemorah has either to participate the hunts or to leave the tribe, for they are not going to feed free-loaders leeching on the work of others. Eego-Lemorah tried to protest saying 'This is only because you don't like my face, the decision was biased and guided by your dislike of my personal existence. Moreover, the doctor was spying at me - spying other people is not nice and should not be allowed in any circumstances!'. But the tribe insisted that everyone doing their share in the collective hunt is more important than personal rights, and in a case like this the tribe has a right to decide based on evidence. Eego-Lemorah didn't want to go starving alone in the plains, so he participated in the next hunt.
Each tribe stayed on their own side of the river, they had very little interaction. So, they didn't know that much about the other tribe, but sure they had opinions and attitudes. Their attitudes were mostly based on rumours and prejudices. Among the Rabbit Catchers they spoke like this: "Never cross the river, as in the souther plains there are living some horrible Collectivist. The moment you arrive there they are going to strip you of all your personal belongings, distributing them evenly among the tribe members. After that you'll be enslaved, forced to hunt but never allowed to keep all of your catch. They'll suck you dry, taking the vast majority of your catch by force and giving it to others! They live in sin for they don't honour the traditions of The Rabbit!". And, similarly, among the Mammoth Hunters you could hear talking like this: "You heard of those evil Individualists living in the woods north of the river? They seem to be driven by endless greed, each member fighting the other members, trying to snatch as big portion of the catch as possible. They are like a flock of ravens fighting around a carcass. And that is what they are, savages and brutes who don't care about the Wisdom of The Mammoth!".
One winter night, when the tribe of the Mammoth Hunters sat gathered around a big fire, one of them said: "You know, maybe the Northern Tribe is not evil, but they just have traditions of their own? Maybe they have a different concept of justice, which somehow works for them? Maybe we shouldn't hate them but go meet them as equal fellows?" But he was met with an instant reaction: "WHAT! Are you a cultural relativist or something? You say there could be different concepts of justice and no telling which concept is better? You idiot, don't you know that the relativist line of thinking is going to lead to chaos and the collapse of the tribe. If everyone is allowed to follow which ever concept of justice they happen to feel like, we can't co-ordinate our collective hunting any more, everything collapses into individualism and we all go starving alone in the plains!". The philosopher didn't know how to reply to that, so he just kept his mouth shut and stared into the fire for the rest of the night.
And one summer in the northern woods, it had been a year of low rabbit population, and Shyge was hungry. He sat down thinking what to do - he had no wife, no family, so he had to process the rabbits by himself, which consumed a lot of his time and he didn't have that much time for hunting. He had been trying to find a wife, but no-one wanted to marry such a poor hunter who had absolutely no stockpile of dried meat. 'But how do I start storing dried meat if I don't have enough time to hunt, and now it is even worse when the rabbit population is low', he though to himself. Then, a desperate idea crept into his mind. 'The rumour says that south of the river the tribe shares the catch with everyone. Maybe if I go there they'll give me a little meat. I know my own tribe members won't give me anything for in their eyes I'm lazy and only getting what I deserve. So I have nothing to lose! I will make a trip cross the river!'
Shyge was weakened by the lack of food, but somehow he managed to reach the camp of The Mammoth Hunters. At first the Mammoth Hunters were hostile, thinking that he was a spy - if they let him go, he will reveal the location of the camp, and soon the whole evil posse of individualist will come to seize their tribal store like a flock or ravens. But Shyge told his story, and somehow his poor face got the tribe to think. They decided to allow him to stay, but just to be sure they put guards watching after him, ordered to kill him if he tries to sneak away. Poor Shyge was distressed, thinking that now he will be enslaved for the rest of his life - is it better to be free and dying of hunger, or enslaved with a full stomach? He did not know, and he kept thinking. Until the next meal, that is. He quickly adopted his new position in the tribe, and took part in the chasing chain of the next hunting party. He spent there full year, learning a lot of the ways of the Mammoth Hunters. One starry night Shyge stayed awake, alone and thinking. Some fresh ideas started to form in his mind, and he decided to try his luck one more time. He noticed that the guards were no more following him, so he quickly packed as much of meat as he could carry, and sneaked away into the night.
With his load of meat Shyge arrived back at the grounds of The Rabbit Catchers. All the families were busy minding their businesses, so they only glanced him and went on. Well, Shyge took a look around and realized that family Ottoro and family Hinto weren't doing fine - or, actually, they were starving, wives and kids included. Shyge went to talk to both of the families, offering them a steady flow of meat if they sign a contract to work for him. The head of the Ottoro family declined, thinking that it sounds like slavery. But the Hinto family agreed. Their job was to apply group-hunting tactics to take down bigger animals like boars. After each successful kill Shyge collected all of the catch, and gave Hinto family enough to keep them nourished, and a little bit more than an average Rabbit Catcher family typically earned by catching rabbits alone. After a couple of months the Ottoro family saw that Hinto family was prosperous and never hungry, so they changed their mind and wanted to work for Shyge. With a bigger hunting party Shyge could go hunting bigger animals like moose. He arranged the hunting party so that he was the only member of the Death-Blow Crew, so that he could rightfully claim the kill all for himself, keeping 90% of the catch, and distributing the 10% to keep Hintos and Ottoros fed. Hintos and Ottoros were happy with this - after all, working for Shyge they earned more than they ever did in their times of hunting alone.
Soon Shyge had so much dried meat in his storehouse, that many families were offering their daughters for him to marry. Shyge picked the most beautiful of the girls. After sixteen years Shyge's own son was strong and skilled enough to serve as the Death-Blow Crew, alone. Finally, Shyge could stay at home, enjoying the company of his wife, and the only work he did was to plan the hunting parties and to decide on the distribution of the catch. He accumulated more and more food, easily feeding the league of his kids.
But the next generation started talking. Sons of Ottoro family asked their father why they aren't freely hunting alone like the other families do. And the Ottoro father explained that before they were starving but working for Shyge they are prosperous. The sons asked if it is right that Shyge is a hundred times wealthier than they are - after all, it is the Ottoro family and the Hinto family doing all of the hard work, while Shyge sits at his home and collects 90% of the catch. The Ottoro father patiently explained that Justice is that everyone gets to keep what they acquire. It would be wrong and unfair to seize Shyge's wealth, it would be horrible sin to redistribute private wealth to other families. But the sons insisted that why they can't keep the catch, why it is Shyge who keeps the catch and decides on how to distribute it. The father went on explaining that it was the deal and it still is the deal, it would be wrong to violate a deal one has voluntarily accepted. The sons said that what is a voluntary decision when you have to choose either starvation or working for a boss. The father told them how it is enshrined in the tradition of The Rabbit - each individual is free, prided with The Free Will. So, no matter what the circumstances, the decisions you make are your and yours only - you also have to carry the responsibility of the decisions you made. If you have, out of your Free Will, chosen to work for a boss, then be it so and there is no rebelling against the natural consequences of ones own free will. The sons cried "But 90 / 10 - is that really Justice! We still think that the catch should be shared more evenly!". Now, the Ottoro father ran out of patience. He gave his sons a good beating to teach them to respect the tradition - and not to mess with their father. "Remember, my sons, you have a Free Will, and you always face the basic decision - either you stay with the tribe and follow the tradition of the tribe, or then you go cross the river and be robbed and enslaved by the evil collectivists living there!". The sons didn't say anything, but they just thought silently "what actually is the difference - being enslaved at home, or being enslaved by a foreign tribe?". But that was just their teenage rebellion. As years passed on and they got their own wives, they also learned to better respect the traditions, for a home is always a home and nobody wants to live as a slave of the foreign tribe.
Was someone wrong, or is it cultural relativism all the way down?
"Puzzled? Yes, no, I can't say, other ________________ ?"
So what should we do? Should we decide that Shyge got it wrong? Can we say that the traditional concept of Justice of The Rabbit Catchers is flawed and biased? But, going back to the original form of the tradition, where is the flaw, then? The Rabbit Catcher philosophy sounds all clear and right - sure, it would feel wrong to take away a portion of the private catch of a hard-working family and to collectively redistribute it for families who show less effort. So does that mean that The Mammoth Hunters got it wrong, and that they should go individualistic also? Would it be right that the one who delivers the final killing blow also gets to decide how to share the catch without any kind of collectivist Tribal Council interfering with the decision? In that case, can we safely assume that every individual will be benevolent, deciding to share the kill about evenly for everyone participated in the hunt? What would happen if one tribe member would always decide to keep 90% for himself and only leaving 10% for the others to share? Probably the rest would protest - would it be right for them to forcefully seize the catch and to redistribute the wealth?
Now, guess what? I am kind of a cultural relativist. But isn't that a horrible idea eroding the morals? Won't that mean that we can't say anything about this whole case - that each tribe and each individual can keep the moral concepts they happen to have? I don't think quite so. And that is exactly because I'm a cultural relativist. So, wait, what does that mean?
The way I think, the individualistic concept of Justice is all fine and good for The Rabbit Catchers, for their traditional way of life is all based on private effort. Of course, if you are friends with other families, you can sometimes give them some meat if they happened to be unlucky with their hunt, but you won't do it forever, you expect the other family to get past their trouble so that they will eventually sustain themselves. The Rabbit Catchers aren't evil, they just live the life their way.
And exactly the same goes for The Mammoth Hunters. Their life depends of collective effort, so they need a collective way of co-ordinating the collaboration. About even distribution of wealth keeps everyone happy and committed to the common cause. Small extra perks are rewards for special effort, serving as a incentive for everyone to always do their best. And, as we saw in their discussions, in the bottom of it The Mammoth Hunter concept of Justice isn't exactly the opposite of The Rabbit Catcher concept. They both have their ways of keeping the free-loaders in check, they both think that unfair acquisition is unfair. To me it seems that they have a lot of common ground, but they are set apart by their different Totem Animals, kept apart by their prejudices and fears. They both fail to understand that the others are not evil, but that they have developed a different kind of culture to manage a different kind of hunting strategies. One hunting strategy is based on individual effort, the other strategy is based on collective effort. And each culture has their traditions according to the needs of their hunting strategies, each keeping the tribe overall prosperous and fine.
What about Shyge, then? As he has returned back to the territory of The Rabbit Catchers, it is okay for him to follow the traditions of The Rabbit Catchers? After all, he showed a lot of effort, he took a risk by embarking on a risky travel, he learned new ideas and developed new ways of acquiring wealth. It is all the fruits of his own private effort, so sure he can keep the catch? This is where I think cultural relativism starts to bite back. For, the idea was that philosophical concepts often are relative to the traditions, especially the central ways of acquiring food and wealth. The traditions have evolved to answer the needs to each 'hunting strategy'. Which means, I think, if you adopt another hunting strategy, sooner or later you also have to adopt another set of cultural beliefs. If you want to have new ways of acquiring wealth, be prepared to face a new kind of culture with new kinds of ideas of Social Justice. If you want to stick with your good old collectivist cultural values, then also stick with the collectivist hunting strategy - and vice versa. Attempting to adopt new hunting strategies while keeping old cultural values is a lot like attempting to drive a car using "low / high" gears only merely because that "low / high" happened to work with old cars which only had those two gears. (Seriously speaking, I have absolutely no idea how was the transmission and gears in the first T-Fords and the like. For the sake of the story I just assumed that once there were cars with "low / high" speeds only. So, this is either a fact or an alternate fact. Correct me if I'm wrong =) )
Am I contradicting myself here? First I said that I'm kind of a cultural relativist, and then I said that one tradition is 'wrong' and one 'right' when it comes to the underlying 'hunting strategy'. How can a cultural relativist use concepts like 'right' and 'wrong'? Well, I can't and I won't. That was the main point of that story about car gears. Sure, if your tradition says that one should only use 'low or high never touching those funny silly gears which are an unnatural mix of low and high' then I'm not here to judge the values of your tradition. But what I say is that if you attempt to drive a modern car with that kind of beliefs and values, you are bound to encounter problems - problems which you probably also recognize as problems and would prefer not to have those problems. In which case, I'd suggest the solution is to review ones traditional values and beliefs, trying to see if they actually are up to date given the current circumstances. I'm not assuming any kind of moral superiority here, I'm not even judging. I only think that in a very pragmatic way, the natural consequences of living according to ones beliefs are this or that - and sometimes the consequences are not what one expects them to be. If one is not happy with the consequences, then it only logically follows that one is better off reviewing ones own beliefs - or then going back to the exact circumstances ones beliefs were originally adapted to deal with.
Yes yes, I know. Suddenly my lousy 'cultural relativism' starts to sound like I'm an indoctrinated communist. As, a lot of the work in the modern world is actually based on mammoth hunting strategies. A factory requires a lot of people working, each filling their own role. So I think it is somewhat off to apply Rabbit Catcher values to things like industrial work which essentially depends on a group collaborating smoothly. But, then, what are the ill consequences of doing so? What happens if the company shareholders accumulate a hundred of a thousand times the wealth of the ordinary workers who keep the factory running? I think that sooner or later the workers won't be calmed down by stories of Rabbit Catcher values. They'll start to question the traditional story, demanding their fair share of the profit of the factory. Which, ultimately, means things like armed resistance or workers revolution. If we don't want to see that kind of consequences, let me suggest a voluntary move to more equal distribution of the profit? And, again, let me stress that I am a cultural relativist. I'm not saying that 'seize all the private wealth and redistribute it to the collective folk' is any kind of universal moral truth. All I am saying that in the long term it is probably more sustainable to share a collective catch about evenly to each who contributed towards the collective success - while allowing the private or family-scale hunters to keep their catch, freely deciding how to share or to use their catch.
Hehe, again, no picture for this post. Actually, I'd like to draw one, somehow illustrating the central concepts of this story, but I'm already too sleepy to do that. But maybe in some of the future posts, as I feel that in my head there are couple of more philosophical posts waiting to be written.