Culture matters

I have no idea if the trolls chronicled in the New York Times Magazine's article this weekend are objectivists, but they certainly sound that way:

Fortuny spent most of the weekend in his bedroom juggling several windows on his monitor. One displayed a chat room run by Encyclopedia Dramatica, an online compendium of troll humor and troll lore. It was buzzing with news of an attack against the Epilepsy Foundation's Web site. Trolls had flooded the site's forums with flashing images and links to animated color fields, leading at least one photosensitive user to claim that she had a seizure.

. . .

As we discussed the epilepsy hack, I asked Fortuny whether a person is obliged to give food to a starving stranger. No, Fortuny argued; no one is entitled to our sympathy or empathy. We can choose to give or withhold them as we see fit. "I can't push you into the fire," he explained, "but I can look at you while you're burning in the fire and not be required to help."

The epilepsy hack, of course, is closer to pushing someone into the fire than to watching them burn, but either way, the philosophy is repulsive.  Ayn Rand got away with saying things like this because there was an underlying cultural, and perhaps evolutionary, imperative that ensured that they would never actually be acted upon.  Normal human beings recognize that if you can pull someone out of a fire at little cost to yourself, watching them burn is the act of a pusillanimous craven.  That understanding is exactly what allows us to declare that one has no legal obligation act.

But that imperative is built locally.  People find it easy to tolerate pain that occurs out of eyeshot, and very hard to tolerate the pain of people they can see and hear, especially if those people are right there in front of them.  And the punishment for deviation from those norms is shunning--effective if you are in a small community where the violators are few.  On the internet, however, nobody knows that you're the weedy guy in the condo next door.

The internet has allowed the deviants to find each other, to construct a community with shared norms that tolerate, even celebrate, the pain of others.  And it cloaks them in sufficient anonymity to get by in the outside world.  If people knew what they had done, I doubt they'd survive two weeks--no one would sell them food, rent them shelter, or for that matter, permit them to merge into the exit lane.  But no one knows.

I doubt that the solution is, as the author suggests, just to learn to live with it.  Rather, I'd expect that countertrolls will emerge--hackers who put as much energy into harassing these people as they put into harassing us.  Evolutionary biologists call people like that "altruistic punishers", and they serve an invaluable purpose in any society.  It will certainly be interesting to see how deep the philosophical commitment to pure selfishness really runs--will Fortuny feel the same way if people exercise their right not to have anything to do with him, even sell him the food he needs to survive?  I rather doubt it.