“ I resist anything better than my own diversity.”

—Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

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Location: Columbus, OH, United States

Saturday, October 20, 2012

"Cui bono", "Follow the money", and "Follow the status"


"Cui bono" is a Latin phrase meaning "Who benefits?"  Its use usually indicates that everything may not be as it seems.  It suggests we dig deeper in two ways:
1) The answer to who benefits may not be immediately obvious.  It may take at least some cogitation, and perhaps some investigation, to uncover this.
2) If a person or entity benefits from some turn of events, they may be playing a role in pushing events to take that turn to their advantage, even though it may not be immediately obvious how.

A related phrase is "Follow the money".  It too suggests we dig deeper in a couple of ways:
1) It can be a special case of "who benefits?"  Specifically, who financially benefits?
2) If a person or entity has spent money, they must have received something in return which they perceive to be of greater value to themselves.  What is that?

Another currency of human motivation is status.  Thus, in some situations it would be equally or more useful to say: "Follow the status" for two reasons:
1) Status is also a universal currency of human motivation and is pertinent in situations where, for whatever reason, money is not in question (or at least doesn't seem to be).
2) Money and resources may flow from status.

On the other hand, money has the useful property that its exchanges are objectively knowable and traceable in principle.  Even an exchange of cash is something a fly on the wall could see if it were there.

One might think that status exists in the eyes of other people and should also be observable.  However, the person or entity may only care about status within a select circle of people.  It would take some effort for an outsider to understand what is the relevant circle and what confers status within it.  In the extreme case, status may only exist in one person's own mind.  Only by keen observation and perhaps by winning the trust of that person can another person find out the role of status here.

Last week I saw Steve Pinker speak at the Long Now Foundation about The Decline in Violence, summarizing his book The Better Angels of Our Nature.  Gathering a lot of data from many sources, he demonstrated that on average, violence has declined over the long term, despite what one might think by watching the news.  He posited that one of the reasons was the greater availability of fiction, history, and journalism, enabling people to empathize with and understand others.  This led Saheli Datta  to muse earlier this week on the role of fiction in developing critical thinking.  Above I tried to express in principle some of the most useful lessons from fiction, history, and journalism.  As in most cases, going through examples is nearly essential to being able to apply the theory; fiction, history, and journalism supply such examples in abundance.

Cross-posted on Facebook

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