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Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Vegetarians, Dwarfism and Cognitive Neuropsychopolitics

This post might be rambly, might also be split up into multiple sections. I wanted to call it ‘meditations on’ the above, since that would seem to turn this into a positive with little effort on my part, but I’m not sure I can quite get away with that yet. Give it time. General thanks to Ellie (@elliesharman) for giving me the idea and helping out a bit with the arguments.

Disclaimer 1- a lot of the things I’m writing here are speculative, some of it has evidence behind it, some of it doesn’t. I’ll try to make it clear where this is the case. Don’t interpret anything I write as serious medical advice.

Disclaimer 2- I am on board with most progressive orthodoxies on gender. Please don’t hurt me.

I Introduction

I’ve in the past been very wary of applying psychology to politics. Almost every time I’ve seen anyone else do it, it’s been as an attempt to pathologise opponents. “Look, we put an old person in an fMRI machine. Her brain lights up slightly differently to yours and mine, and she’s a racist!”. There must, however, be some lessons to be learned in this area. Our political views are informed by certain base values, and these values aren’t formed in a dualist vacuum. What goes on in the mind goes on in the brain, and there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to study values using these methods, they’re a product of genetics and environment just like everything else1.

The idea that mental health is a spectrum and that ‘disorders’ represent extremes of normal functioning is one that I think has some merit. It seems, therefore, that we should be able to learn about variation in cognitive function by looking at the extremes and extrapolating backwards. My biggest reservation here is the risk of flipping things, to say everyone is mentally ill risks excessive medicalisation, but this has little to do with the truth of how the mind works. I’m going to provide a little background on two big areas, bear with it if you know all this, it’s going somewhere I think.

II Autism and Empathy

Simon Baron Cohen seems now intent on reducing it to a meaningless political buzzword, but empathy is a very useful concept. We use the word to describe two things that are actually rather different, one cognitive and the other affective. The former refers to the ability to model the mental states of other people, a mind reading if you will, and is reduced in autistic people. The latter is the ability to give an appropriate emotional response, and is reduced in psychopaths. An autistic person may not understand why a child is crying, but nevertheless be upset by it. A psychopath knows exactly why the child is crying, they just don’t give a shit.

Both types of empathy, it is pretty safe to say, are present in differing levels in different people. This isn’t random though. The biggest trend is a disparity in gender, with males displaying generally lower levels than females2. There’s probably other good correlations out there, but so many confounds it’s difficult to say. It may be, however, that while autistic traits, like empathy levels, are normally distributed throughout the population, this is not the same thing as autism. Were this the case, to call autism an extreme form of male brain function would be a category error analogous to calling achondroplasia an extreme form of female height. This would call into question the spectrum model, but is not immediately relevant to this discussion.

III Schizophrenia and Agency

Schizophrenia is another area where it’s becoming fashionable to envisage a spectrum. If anything, it’s even more complicated than autism, with even more systems involved, and likely a lot of map-territory confusion due to the nature of our language3. One common thread, however, seem to involve the ideas of agency attribution and control. These relate to our ideas about free will. If our sense of agency over ourselves is disturbed, we may experience delusions whereby we believe our actions are controlled from elsewhere, similar to alien and anarchic hand syndromes. If we are over-attributing agency to others, we may start to become paranoid, assuming hidden motives behind even the smallest and most innocuous glances. It seems to me this might also relate to morality. If we assign agency and control to something, we are in some ways seeing it as a conscious moral agent. Is calling something a conscious agent the same as giving it moral status, and as such believing we should consider its welfare?

The difference I’m drawing here, between agency assignment and empathy, is subtle, and may not exist in reality. There are even slightly out-there attempts to combine the two into one all encompassing theory of mental illness, backed up with evolutionary psychology for fun. The best analogy I can think of to explain it is to imagine a fire hose. If empathy is the water pressure, agency assignment is the spread of the nozzle4. They both relate to the broader idea of theory of mind, the way in which we model the inner lives of others. A functioning theory theory of mind may be the area of a multidimensional spectrum that most people fall into.

IV Vegetarianism

So, let’s take a bit of a case study5. Veg*ism may not necessarily be a political position, but it seems an interesting one to consider. If consciousness itself is a spectrum, which seems likely to me, rising from the lowest possible life form up through humans to superintelligent utility monsters and above, we really have to put a limit on what we care about. This may be a hard limit (only humans and really cool looking chimps count), or a gradual tail off (mammals are very important, insects aren’t, fish are somewhere in between).
Many people put their veg*ism down to empathy with animals, and this certainly plays a large part. If men are on the whole less empathetic, this would explain the difference. While Peta’s claims that eating meat causes autism is totally bunk, it’s possible that it works in reverse, people with more autistic traits are less likely to care about animal welfare. The more empathetic you are, the more likely it is to spill over beyond the realm of humans and down through ever less intelligent life forms. This may go some way to explaining the substantial gender disparity among vegetarians6.

Empathy alone doesn’t seem to be the whole story though, we can empathise with fictional character experiencing extreme suffering, but since we don’t assign them moral status in the same way, we don’t see that any wrong has occurred in the real world. To go even further, a sympathetic video game character can elicit empathy from players, but few people would think a moral wrong has occurred were they to ‘die’7

An alternative explanation, which as far as I’m aware is my own, is that of agency assignment. While someone may well display a large amount of empathy towards humans, they may simply not care about animals if they don’t assign them any moral agency. This would seem to line up with the above on paranoia in schizophrenia. This isn’t to say veg*an diets somehow cause the problems, or that veg*ism is a symptom of mental illness, but that people who more readily assign agency and motives could be more likely to embrace veg*ism and more susceptible to these issues.

V Libertarianism

This doesn’t completely follow from the rest, but it has some of the same themes, and doesn’t warrant its own post, so think of it as an epilogue or a coda or some other fancy word.

I’m not a liberal/tarian8, but I orbit some of the same celestial bodies. While it doesn't immediately seem a natural bedfellow with veg*ism, there are people out there who think it fits, and want to create some sort of synthesis. The above would suggest it’s unlikely, on the face of it libertarians don’t fit the profile of excessively empathetic, in my experience a good proportion are total dicks, and though they may be susceptible to arguments about free will and moral status, there’s no real reason to expect them to assign it more readily than the average person. If anything, libertarians skew completely the other way, red meat, self reliance, and interest in paleo diets all follow the philosophy around.

I think a pretty good proportion of libertarians are libertarians because they're instinctive contrarians, they enjoy status games and esoteric arguments. You therefore need to present things as out there, and give them arguments they've never heard before, even if they're not yours. You also need to distance both yourself and them from stereotypical veg*ans, go in for a bit of hippy punching over their crazy environmentalism or something. Essentially, if eating meat is the norm, and standard vegetarianism is the first contrarian position, most libertarians will think of themselves one level above that, that vegetarians are naive little girls. You need to take it even past that level, to assure them that they can be above their peers without being mistaken for one of ‘those’ vegetarians.

The nearest I’ve found to is is broadly the arguments laid out in essays here, especially the parts on wild animal suffering and environmentalism9. It ticks all the boxes, hippy punching, esoteric and a refreshing lack of design. The focus on data is also worthwhile, since I imagine a good proportion of libertarians are pretty high systemisers.



1 One of my top 10 favourite facts is that homophobia is probably more heritable than homosexuality. Born this way indeed.
2 Don’t worry guys, all must have prizes, you apparently perform better at systemising in the same theory.
3 My favourite general explanation is in this paper.
4 Nozzle is a beautiful word.
5 Though this may look like I reasoned things through this way, I started here and wrote backwards, post hoc rationalising my instinctive beliefs. Behind the curtain.
6 Though not vegans, interestingly. Are there different mechanisms at play?
7 Well, almost nobody.
8 Answers on a postcard.
9 Thanks to Ben (@bswud) for linking me to this.

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