Learning by Perturbation

Learning by Perturbation June 18, 2013

Last week, I wrote two blog posts about the danger of breaking promises and the downside of comforting yourself for doing necessary evils.  Both posts were written from a pretty Lawful (in the DnD sense) point of view, so I wanted to make sure I mixed in some other perspectives.  After the news broke about the NSA wiretapping, Moxie Marlinspike wrote an essay explaining why “We Should All Have Something to Hide” and thus are all threatened by increased surveillance.

His essay ended up arguing that occasional defections from the current understanding of the moral law are a valuable source of data.  It’s an exploration versus exploitation problem.  Because some people are willing to go out and do the thing we’ve been told is impossible or immoral, we get to overcome our positive bias and notice if we’ve been making a big mistake.

What’s often overlooked, however, is that these legal victories would probably not have been possible without the ability to break the law.

The state of Minnesota, for instance, legalized same-sex marriage this year, but sodomy laws had effectively made homosexuality itself completely illegal in that state until 2001. Likewise, before the recent changes making marijuana legal for personal use in WA and CO, it was obviously not legal for personal use.

Imagine if there were an alternate dystopian reality where law enforcement was 100% effective, such that any potential law offenders knew they would be immediately identified, apprehended, and jailed. If perfect law enforcement had been a reality in MN, CO, and WA since their founding in the 1850s, it seems quite unlikely that these recent changes would have ever come to pass. How could people have decided that marijuana should be legal, if nobody had ever used it? How could states decide that same sex marriage should be permitted, if nobody had ever seen or participated in a same sex relationship?…

The more fundamental problem, however, is that living in an existing social structure creates a specific set of desires and motivations in a way that merely talking about other social structures never can. The world we live in influences not just what we think, but how we think, in a way that a discourse about other ideas isn’t able to. Any teenager can tell you that life’s most meaningful experiences aren’t the ones you necessarily desired, but the ones that actually transformed your very sense of what you desire.

We can only desire based on what we know. It is our present experience of what we are and are not able to do that largely determines our sense for what is possible. This is why same sex relationships, in violation of sodomy laws, were a necessary precondition for the legalization of same sex marriage. This is also why those maintaining positions of power will always encourage the freedom to talk about ideas, but never to act.

You may have recognized the diagram at top from your high school chemistry classes.  When matter is in its solid phase, it’s pretty static.  Molecules still are in motion (otherwise, they’d be at absolute zero), but they’re pretty much vibrating in place.  Turn up the heat, and a solid will melt, lose its rigid structure, and its constituent molecules will slip by each other more easily.  Heat it up more, and the molecules will go careening off each other in the gaseous form of the substance.

In order to get a substance to change form, you need to take it out of its solid state from time to time.  In metallurgy, this process is called annealing — applying heat gives metal the chance to shift into a stronger form.  Previously on Patheos, Scott Herbert contributed a guest article comparing personal suffering to a process of annealing, where we emerge on the other side having “suffered a sea change/into something rich and strange.”  Marlinspike has taken this metaphor society-wide, where the transgressions of some help up have the flexibility to settle into a new shape.

It’s quite a tempting argument, which is why I don’t quite trust it.  I agree that it would be a pity for our decidedly unperfect society calcify, but I expect it’s relatively rare that I have a useful impulse to break a promise, betray a confidence, or otherwise transgress a norm.  I don’t think this is a good enough reason for the doctor who started this discussion to reveal the patient’s confession.  Better to have more of the exploration done by people who find themselves in the position described by William Lloyd Garrison in the first issue of The Liberator:

I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; – but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest – I will not equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch – AND I WILL BE HEARD. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.

This conservative search strategy does, admittedly limit our chances to revise norms related to more casual spheres, like recreational drug use.  Instead of weakening our respect for ethical injunctions, I would hope to patch those errors by being more willing to ask and give answers about what a law is trying to protect.

Additionally, in our cosmopolitan world, we are not limited to our own experience. We can observe the norms of other cultures and countries and, when we notice they’ve broken the rules without any ill-effects, we have reason to question whether the taboo is necessary in our own homes (though we should remember to check if our neighbors have found a different way to contain the negative consequences, and make sure not to import the practice without the safeguard).  At a last resort, fiction — especially speculative fiction — can help us get specific when we imagine exactly how the world would suffer (or prosper) if we relaxed an old discipline.

So, let me end this post, with a fictional character exhorting a bit of chaos for the sake of good:


Browse Our Archives