Michael Gerson Discovers Second Life (and Furries)

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Channeling Michelle Malkin's groundbreaking discovery of emo, Michael Gerson discovers Second Life. And–surprise!–it turns out that this "Second Life" confirms Gersons moral and political philosophies:

But Second Life is more consequential than its moral failures. It is, in fact, a large-scale experiment in libertarianism. Its residents can do and be anything they wish. There are no binding forms of community, no responsibilities that aren't freely chosen and no lasting consequences of human actions. In Second Life, there is no human nature at all, just human choices.

And what do people choose? Well, there is some good live music, philanthropic fundraising, even a few virtual churches and synagogues. But the main result is the breakdown of inhibition. Second Life, as you'd expect, is highly sexualized in ways that have little to do with respect or romance. There are frequent outbreaks of terrorism, committed by online anarchists who interrupt events, assassinate speakers (who quickly reboot from the dead) and vandalize buildings. There are strip malls everywhere, pushing a relentless consumerism. And there seems to be an inordinate number of vampires, generally not a sign of community health.

Libertarians hold to a theory of "spontaneous order"—that society should be the product of uncoordinated human choices instead of human design. Well, Second Life has plenty of spontaneity, and not much genuine order. This experiment suggests that a world that is only a market is not a utopia. It more closely resembles a seedy, derelict carnival—the triumph of amusement and distraction over meaning and purpose.

So we're to see Second Life as a perfect proxy for behavior in the real word, absent government action and the particular brand of social sanction Gerson favors. Um, why? Obviously, the costs of playing some kind of sex crazy, drug addled furry in a virtual world are going to be significantly lower than actually being a promiscuous murderous heroin user, even in a world where government ignores vice and Michael Gerson is not around to tell you exactly how meaningless your life has become. The amount of harm you do to other people by, say, vandalizing their property or shooting them in cold blood, is inordinately less in a virtual world, which just might figure into players' moral calculus.

Does Gerson actually think that only social opprobrium and government coercion stand between us and the actualization of our escapist fantasies? Are kids playing cowboys and indians actually expressing a desire to kill one another? To paraphrase our fearless leader: In a world without housing inspectors, would houses have roofs?

Via Will Wilkinson.

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  1. Gosh, this is stupid.

    Any first-year philosophy student should be able to tell you that in any natural-law based ethics, the ethics change if you fundamentally alter the nature of Man.

    In other words, “life, liberty, and property” and a rights-based ethics is a function of the nature of Man as he exists in our real, actual life. If you create an alternate reality where the rules of existence are all different, of course you’re going to get different ethical outcomes.

  2. And there seems to be an inordinate number of vampires, generally not a sign of community health.

    This is true. And I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said “Libertarians will never get more than .000001 percent of the popular vote until they pull the ‘soft on vampires’ plank out of their platform.” But y’all wouldn’t listen.

    I fucking well told you so.

  3. It more closely resembles a seedy, derelict carnival — the triumph of amusement and distraction over meaning and purpose.

    Yes, well, without someone telling you your meaning and purpose, how would you have them anyway?

    And the best line is the one in which Gerson (accidentally) lampoons himself and the fundamental problem with his analysis (viz. that this is NOT the real world and so not a real libertarian world), as pointed out by Howley and Fluffy.

    And there seems to be an inordinate number of vampires, generally not a sign of community health.

    Yes, well, I do worry that if we ever have a libertarian state, people will start becoming undead and not reflecting in mirrors.

  4. You heard it here folks! Government is the root of all “meaning and purpose!”

  5. And there seems to be an inordinate number of vampires, generally not a sign of community health.

    Yes, but they’re all Sabat*. So you know they vote Republican.

    (*I LARPed “Vampire the Masquerade” for a brief spell in the 1990’s. A very brief spell.)

  6. LARP. Thoreau, you lose the thread.

  7. I’ve moved past that phase of my life.
    Anyway, I thought this thread was for the purpose of mocking Michael Gerson.

  8. True, this guy is way lamer than LARPers.

  9. I LARPed “Vampire the Masquerade” for a brief spell in the 1990’s.

    During a brief spell in the 1990’s, I would go to gaming conventions and ridicule the LARPers.

  10. i know very little about second life, but what gerson describes sounds more to me like anarchy rather than libertarianism. i don’t know how many times i have had to explain to co-workers, family members, friends, and so on the vast differences between the two. question to ponder: does the libertarian community fail in distinguishing exactly what they are for to the general public? does anybody else often get stuck having to frequently explain that libertarians are not anarchists?

  11. LARPing stains the soul, thoreau.

    Anyways, Michael Gerson must be one of the world’s biggest assholes. Unless he can’t distinguish fantasy from reality, he seems to believe that everyone is basically a sociopath who is only constrained by punishment.
    Like this sentence:

    “Columnists, like frontier trackers, are expected to determine cultural directions from faint scents in the wind.”

    No, mostly they are expected to entertain.

    “So maybe there is a reason that The Lord of the Rings is ultimately more interesting than Second Life. Only in a created world, filled with moral rules, social obligations and heroic quests, do our free choices seem to matter. And even fictional honor fills a need deeper than consumption.”

    Thanks, Michael. I am so happy to know that I really am doing something good when I help the Master Chief defend earth from the Covenant. I thought it was just a game.

  12. In related news, e-libertopia has been overpopulated for 30 years with dots. Fortunately, many of the community’s roundest and yellowest members have been eating them while dodging the ghost monsters. Until they eat the larger, glowing disks, at which point the shosts become edible as well.

    Don’t you see: Libertopia allows people an opportunity to overeat and consume performance-enhancing substances! q.e.d. it is evil and the end of society as we know it.

  13. The one thing about livin’ in 2nd L Santa Carla I never could stomach…

    All the damn vampires.

    Someone had to say it.

    would houses have roofs?
    HA HA HA That was a great line. Thanks for the link. Great panel discussion, great thread. Good times and noodle salad.

  14. swede:

    People conflate libertarians with anarchists for two primary reasons: either they are too stupid/ignorant to know the difference or they intentionally use anarchists as strawman to beat on.

    Similar to libertarians accusing all statist-leaning politicians of being socialists.

  15. AAACK stupid open tag

  16. THE Michael Gerson? Of “Axis Of Evil” and “Smoking Gun/Mushroom Cloud” Fame? Well, I’ll be sure to take this all very seriously.

  17. Second life is a schematic representation/model of a real society and therefore should not be expected to be completely useful in predicting real world outcomes. The degree to which it models the important aspects of any particular situation will determine its relevance to discussion of similar situations in the real world.

    In that sense, it is much like libertarian political philosophy – a schematic model of the way things might be under a certain set of parameters. Second life, at least, provides a mechanism to test assumptions.

  18. What was the look on my face as I wrote the above?

    😐

  19. Yet another example of how anybody who doesn’t agree with us 100% is stupid. Man, there are a lot of stupid people in the world. However, if we just let all these stupid people do what they want without a bunch of rules and regulations, everything will turn out well. Why does it seem that only we understand this?

  20. Yikes! Geek though I am, I wouldn’t touch LARPing with a 10 foot pole.

  21. Neu –

    Actually, from the description Gerson provides it sounds like Second Life is pretty much perfectly modelling what an ethical system would look like if we were all immortal and there was no way for any of us to feel physical pain.

    Assassinating someone who instantly respawns isn’t much of a moral crime. Destroying property that instantly is repaired isn’t much of a moral crime. There’s little call for “honor” when there is nothing that needs defending because everything instantly comes back the way you want it if some “evildoer” messes it up. I would EXPECT such an environment to be full of people seeking amusement by using their own creativity with no higher purpose. I’d also expect to encouter large numbers of merry pranksters. Gerson seems to want people to behave with Churchillian gravity when there’s no need to do so – which I guess isn’t very surprising, given the entire Straussian project of “let’s pretend the old forms we loved still have meaning, even though they don’t” neocons usually get caught up in.

  22. barris, I didn’t know libertarianism had suddenly become utilitarian. Also, it’s a freaking video game.

  23. …the triumph of amusement and distraction over meaning and purpose.

    Errr… Mr. Gearson, I know being a great Professor of Think-ology you’ve got better things to do than answer a question from a simpleton, non-academic, like me, but since when are “purpose and meaning” absolutes to be dictated to the rest of us by snobs like yourself?

  24. “However, if we just let all these stupid people do what they want without a bunch of rules and regulations, everything will turn out well.”

    Who ever said that?

    Without a bunch of rules and regulations, stupid people will blunder their way into misfortune all the time, I imagine. They just won’t be able to make it my moral responsibility to compensate them for those misfortunes.

  25. Libertarians concept — the majority of people are trustworthy because they will conform to social pressure — the state is required only to deal with the minority.

    Populist concept — the majority of people cannot be trusted to exhibit the intelligence of a wooden post — the state is required to protect us all from us all.

  26. Libertarianism is a socio-political philosophy that seeks to define the rights of individuals in human societies as well as the reponsibilities and constraints of government.

    “Second Life” is an escapist fantasy video game in which you can pee on someone’s virtual feet while eating a real-world sandwich.
    That Gerson can’t disstinguish between the two reveals his fucktardery.

  27. Swede,

    The most hard-core principled libertarians are anarchists. After all, a government is essentially an organization that claims a monopoly on violent action over a territory and uses force to subdue anyone who threatens that monopoly. If you are an extremist like me who is 100% opposed to initiation of force, you cannot countenance any monopoly backed by such violence.

    There is a good collection of essays on the subject at praxeology.net

  28. Nobody has pointed out the obvious conflict of interest Gerson has regarding encouraging people to take seriously things that are clearly not worth taking seriously.

    But they also represent a conservative longing for medieval ideals of chivalry — for a recovery of honor and adventure in an age dominated by choice and consumption.

    I’ll remember that the next time somebody is camping my corpse in WoW.

  29. And there seems to be an inordinate number of vampires[sic], generally not a sign of community health.

    Excuse me! As a member of the Carpathian-American community, I am deeply offended by this blatantly racist statement. How dare you, sir!

    Frankly, I am surprised that a magazine called “Reason” would even provide a platform for the airing of such bigoted views.

    Harry Martin
    Carpathian-American Anti-Defamation League
    (CAADL)

  30. Everybody drink … BLOOD!

    Bleh! Bleh!

  31. So, is this Gerson guy someone who’s so smart he’s twisted himself into saying something exceptionally stupid, or is he just a rather mundane pseudo-intellectual with delusions of mediocrity?

  32. But they also represent a conservative longing for medieval ideals of chivalry — for a recovery of honor and adventure in an age dominated by choice and consumption.

    Why does anti-consumerism have perennial romantic appeal for so many people across the political spectrum? I ask in earnest, because I really don’t know and I think I need to know as a militant anti-anti-consumerist.

    It’s certainly not a new philosophical idea that mere acquisition of material goods isn’t enough to make most people happy. But even though we are many times wealthier-and therefore consume more-than our ancestors, I don’t see how our generation faces a unique problem at all. How does commercial activity per se stop anyone from putting value on more important things?

    I worry about the anti-consumerist movement. Adbusters-type rhetoric may make it easy for someone to sound intellectually sophisticated, but it’s really a new puritanism. Beware!

  33. And there seems to be an inordinate number of vampires, generally not a sign of community health.

    And he knows this because none of the real life communities overrun by vampires are healthy?

    In this entirely new form of social interaction, people create computer-generated bodies called avatars and mingle with other players in 3-D fantasy worlds.

    The only “new” elements are the computer and the elimination of travel time. Otherwise it’s the equivalent of a masked ball or Halloween costume party.

    Of course the new elements have resulted in one beneficial development. People online are making more friendly contacts with folks from other cultures and countries than the U.S. Department of State.

    The site has gotten some recent attention for its moral lapses. A few of its residents have a disturbing preference for “age play” — fantasy sex with underage avatars — which has attracted the attention of prosecutors in several countries.

    Because pretending to have kinky sex is so much worse than killing orcs? Where’s the “controlled release of aggression” argument when you need it?

    Libertarians hold to a theory of “spontaneous order” — that society should be the product of uncoordinated human choices instead of human design.

    Not quite. We hold that left alone people have the ability and responsibility to coordinate their own choices instead of having an “author” set rules.

    To Gerson, of course, this is anathema. Named by Time as the ninth most influential Evangelical in America, he would prefer a world where the Author rules with an iron hand.

    If you create an alternate reality where the rules of existence are all different, of course you’re going to get different ethical outcomes.

    Not if, like Gearson, you believe in the infallibility of the literal Bible. Then there’s only one correct moral standard.

    Why does anti-consumerism have perennial romantic appeal for so many people across the political spectrum?

    They’ve never been really hungry. It’s easy to say, “even fictional honor fills a need deeper than consumption” if you’ve never felt your bellybutton rubbing your backbone. Hierarchy of Needs, folks. Until “consumerism” raises your standard of living to the point where you nave the leisure to contemplate morality and honor life is indeed “nasty, brutish, and short.”

  34. They’ve never been really hungry. It’s easy to say, “even fictional honor fills a need deeper than consumption” if you’ve never felt your bellybutton rubbing your backbone. Hierarchy of Needs, folks. Until “consumerism” raises your standard of living to the point where you nave the leisure to contemplate morality and honor life is indeed “nasty, brutish, and short.”

    That is a thoughtful and thought-provoking answer to my question, Larry. But it reminds me of a contrary answer from Virginia Postrel’s book The Substance of Style. She refutes Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

    “Human beings do not wait for aesthetics until they have full stomachs and a roof that doesn’t leak. They do not pursue aesthetic needs ‘only when basic needs have been satisfied.’ Given a modicum of stability and sustenance, people enrich the look and feel of their lives through ritual, personal adornment, and decorated objects. Poor people create the body decoration that illustrates National Geographic. Poor people built the cathedrals of Europe and developed the sand paintings of Tibet. Poor people turned baskets and pottery into decorative art. Poor people invented paints and dyes, jewelry and cosmetics. Five thousand years ago, unimaginably poor Stone Age weavers living in Swiss swamps worked intricate, multicolored patterns into their textiles, using fruit pits as beads, work that archaeologists have found preserved in the alkaline mud. These artifacts do not reflect societies focused only on ‘lower-order’ needs. Aesthetics is not a luxury, but a universal human desire. Those anticapitalists who criticize markets for luring consumers into wanting more than their basic needs, and those capitalists who scoff at aesthetics for detracting from serious work, are missing a fundamental fact of human nature.” (2003 ed., p. 44-45)

    Since that paragraph ends with the expression human nature, I wonder already if some people here will deny the existence or knowability of human nature. Chairman Mao would certainly agree with those who consider human character infinitely malleable (or at least trivial in political discourse). Think about it.

  35. Columnists, like frontier trackers, are expected to determine cultural directions from faint scents in the wind.

    Readers, on the other hand, are expected to determine clueless bullshit by the overpowering stench emanating from the Post‘s op-ed pages.

  36. You know, Mr. Gerson, I spent hours as a teenager playing Risk and yet, in real life, I’ve never once had the urge to conquer Kamchatka.

  37. thoreau | July 6, 2007, 4:19pm | #

    I thought this thread was for the purpose of mocking Michael Gerson.

    Henceforth, all Hit and Run comment threads are for the purpose of mocking Michael Gerson.

  38. If you are an extremist like me who is 100% opposed to initiation of force, you cannot countenance any monopoly backed by such violence.

    Two problems with this statement. First, the word “monopoly” is strange. Are you claiming that the initiation of force is a market good? Are criminals a free market alternative? If the monopoly is successful, wouldn’t that encourage others to enter that market?

    Second, if you are opposed to initiating force, then there isn’t anything you can do to prevent others from initiating force. All you can do is react. This is why anarchy is inherently unstable. The trick is to get a government so small that it feels like anarchy, but one large enough to actually prevent it.

  39. Well, Second Life has plenty of spontaneity, and not much genuine order. This experiment suggests that a world that is only a market is not a utopia.

    It’s important to call bullshit on this- One of the things that has always attracted me to libertarianism is that *it makes no claim to be utopian*. At least as far as I understand it.

  40. Not if, like Gearson, you believe in the infallibility of the literal a literal interpretation of a translation of a translation of the Bible. Then there’s only one correct moral standard.

    Fixed that for you.

  41. This makes sense; there have to be any furries in the Second Life.

    1. Hell is the Second Death.
    2. The Second Life is the opposite of the Second Death.
    3. Remember that saying, Hell hath no furry…
    4. The Second Death, being Hell, hath no furry.
    5. The Second Life must hath furry, since it’s the opposite of the Second Death.

  42. Fluffy,


    Actually, from the description Gerson provides it sounds like Second Life…

    I don’t know if you realize this, but my comment wasn’t about the accuracy/completeness of the 2ndlife model.

  43. You know, Mr. Gerson, I spent hours as a teenager playing Risk and yet, in real life, I’ve never once had the urge to conquer Kamchatka.

    Well of course. Everyone knows you never start with Asia, it’s not worth the effort. Now conquer Australia and you’re on your way to winning.

  44. I play World of Warcraft. Forget about morality, look at economics. WoW has stuff in limited supplies that real people want, and a universal means of exchange. In theory, it would behave somewhat like a real economy, but it doesn’t. Except for the 2% of the market comprising the most desireable things, prices are all over the map, with no ryhme or reason. People work hard to acquire a saleable skill and then perform the service free for no discernable reason. People regularly attempt to sell stuff at outrageous prices that it is inconceivable that anyone would pay, despite there being a fee associated with even an attempted sale. I’ll bore you with just one specific example of the lunacy of the WoW economy. There is a very rare “prestige” item called Assassin’s Blade. It has been historically worth 100-200 gold. We have just had an expansion that raised the level cap and dramatically increased the incomes of level-capped players (the only ones who would want the Blade). Someone was trying to sell one for 350 gold, and was being flamed all to Hell and back for the outrageous price, even though it takes a lot less time to make 350 gold now than 200 gold then. So again, if a virtual economy is a worthless predictor of a real economy, I put little trust in the moral landscape of a virtual Libertarian society as a predictor of a real one.

  45. “I don’t know if you realize this, but my comment wasn’t about the accuracy/completeness of the 2ndlife model.”

    I knew that very well, Neu. Your post says that Second Life is a schematic of the way a society would work under certain conditions. It further attempts to argue that libertarian philosophy is essentially the same type of schematic. I was just pointing out that the schematic used in Second Life contains some pretty dramatic departures from our own reality – departures that are dramatic enough that it makes it a truly poor tool for applying to the real world [and you seem to agree with that]. I don’t think it’s helpful to compare a schematic that actually attempts to model the real world [libertarian philosophy] with a schematic that deliberately does not do so, to make it for fun for the participant.

  46. Fluffy,

    It is a fair comparison at certain levels of analysis. Both models attempt to establish veridical approximations of reality and hold those constant while allowing other variables to differ from the current reality. Some of the variables that are allowed to differ are shared by the two models. 2ndlife is not a perfect model of a libertarian society because if also varies along other parameters. However, the degree to which it models the important aspects of any particular situation will determine its relevance to discussion of similar situations in the libertarain model.

  47. Those anticapitalists who criticize markets for luring consumers into wanting more than their basic needs, and those capitalists who scoff at aesthetics for detracting from serious work, are missing a fundamental fact of human nature.”

    Brian, I sort of agree. I don’t believe that the hierarchy of needs is a step one complete, and only then step two thing. I also believe that aesthetics are just as essential as markets. (Otherwise I wouldn’t be a writer and amateur musician.) My quarrel is with those who say either markets or aesthetics is more important. Those folks just don’t understand the concept of “essential.”

    Chairman Mao would certainly agree with those who consider human character infinitely malleable (or at least trivial in political discourse). Think about it.

    Don’t have to. Mao’s answer came from the person standing in front of the column of tanks in the square.

    Not if, like Gearson, you believe in the infallibility of the literal a literal interpretation of a translation of a translation of the Bible. Then there’s only one correct moral standard.

    Fixed that for you.

    Not quite, Thoreau. You fixed it to reflect how you and I see the Bible. It no longer reflects Gearson’s belief, which was my aim.

    People work hard to acquire a saleable skill and then perform the service free for no discernable reason.

    Actually, this example is not all that unrealistic. Lots of people volunteer lots of skills. I myself have spent some time and effort building skills as an actor and musician, yet I choose to remain amateur because I gain more enjoyment volunteering than I would earning money.

    People regularly attempt to sell stuff at outrageous prices that it is inconceivable that anyone would pay, despite there being a fee associated with even an attempted sale.

    Anecdotally I would say that WoW participants are on the young side of the age bell curve. It could be that many of the players are economically inexperienced. OTOH my rather mature former employer is still, after three years on the market, trying to sell his store for approximately double what realtors tell him it’s worth.

  48. Brandybuck,

    Of course there is a market for the initiation of force – in fact there are many markets. In any large town or city, one can hire thieves or hit-men. The government, of course, tends to be the best provider of these services. Many people who wouldn’t think of hiring someone to hurt their neighbor if he won’t mow his lawn will quite happily demand a law that compels him to do so, and go to sleep with a clear conscience.

    Of course, these are not morally legitimate services, but a market for them exists nonetheless.

    To be protected from such violence, people naturally wish to arrange for their own security. Most people think the state provides this security. The state itself usually claims a monopoly on security provision. Here in Massachusetts, if someone breaks into my home and I whack him on the head, the State Police will conduct an investigation to decide whether or not I should be jailed for assault or not. Strip this down to its bare essentials, if they decide that they don’t like the way I acted, they will happily kidnap me and keep me prisoner for a number of years. In fact, they want me not to protect myself effectively without my help, so they make fire-arm ownership difficult to the point of near impossibility.

    It is this monopoly I so strongly disagree with.

    As to your second point, the only historical anarchy that collapsed on its own, Iceland, lasted about 300 years. Most states have violent upheavals every 100-200 years.

    Anarchy may be unstable, but governments are even more unstable. Governments, when you look at how they actually act, are protection rackets like the Mafia. And you will find few people who think that the Mafia serve a useful purpose to those whom they “protect”.

  49. Did Bill Safire die or something? These replacement writers in the NYT are utterly terrible.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/08/magazine/08wwln-guest-t.html

  50. Actually, this example is not all that unrealistic. Lots of people volunteer lots of skills. I myself have spent some time and effort building skills as an actor and musician, yet I choose to remain amateur because I gain more enjoyment volunteering than I would earning money.

    But there’s no fun (or anything substantive) in acquiring these virtual skills. It’s all deliberately drudgery- “grinding,” we call it. That’s what makes the accomplishments noteworthy. There’s also nothing substantive in putting the skills to use. You just meet someone’s avatar and click a mouse twice- that’s literally all. Imagine there was a piece of virtual property you wanted, and you qualified for your virtual job by playing tic-tac-toe for 20 hours. Would you work for free? People do (shrug)…

    Anecdotally I would say that WoW participants are on the young side of the age bell curve. It could be that many of the players are economically inexperienced. OTOH my rather mature former employer is still, after three years on the market, trying to sell his store for approximately double what realtors tell him it’s worth.

    If it cost your former employer 2% of the fair market value of the store every day, I predict he’d give it up. Anyway, when I say “inconceivable,” I mean it. All tin does is combine with copper to make bronze and there are massive amounts bronze for sale at between 1 and 2 gold, but nevertheless there’s always an idiot selling tin for 5 gold… or rather, not selling it but paying a fee anyway.

    There are 8 million WoW players worldwide, including many professionals. Economics is fundamentally simpler than morality. I just really mistrust virtual reality as a predictor of reality.

  51. >>>And there seems to be an inordinate number
    >>>of vampires, generally not a sign of community health.

    I have to admit I liked that line. 🙂

    As for second life, I tried it out for a day when I had a cold. I dunno… seemed boring. Downloaded ther scripting guide with thoughts of constructing a virtial Imperial Battle cruiser or some sort of gigantic weapon, but it seemed like too much work just to manifest a cube or sphere. And even on my 15 Mbps fiber it was laggy.

    Don’t get the virtual sex, either. I can just log into eros.com and pay for the real thing.

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