Philosophy – Religion – Science – Pseudoscience

Is Consciousness an Illusion?

Scientists seem to have pinpointed the physical source of consciousness. But the execrable Daniel C. Dennett, for whom science is God, hasn’t read the memo. Dennett argues in his latest book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, that consciousness is an illusion.

Another philosopher, Thomas Nagel, weighs in with a dissenting review of Dennett’s book. (Nagel is better than Dennett, but that’s faint praise.) Nagel’s review, “Is Consciousness an Illusion?,” appears in The New York Review of Books (March 9, 2017). Here are some excerpts:

According to the manifest image, Dennett writes, the world is

full of other people, plants, and animals, furniture and houses and cars…and colors and rainbows and sunsets, and voices and haircuts, and home runs and dollars, and problems and opportunities and mistakes, among many other such things. These are the myriad “things” that are easy for us to recognize, point to, love or hate, and, in many cases, manipulate or even create…. It’s the world according to us.

According to the scientific image, on the other hand, the world

is populated with molecules, atoms, electrons, gravity, quarks, and who knows what else (dark energy, strings? branes?)….

In an illuminating metaphor, Dennett asserts that the manifest image that depicts the world in which we live our everyday lives is composed of a set of user-illusions,

like the ingenious user-illusion of click-and-drag icons, little tan folders into which files may be dropped, and the rest of the ever more familiar items on your computer’s desktop. What is actually going on behind the desktop is mind-numbingly complicated, but users don’t need to know about it, so intelligent interface designers have simplified the affordances, making them particularly salient for human eyes, and adding sound effects to help direct attention. Nothing compact and salient inside the computer corresponds to that little tan file-folder on the desktop screen.

He says that the manifest image of each species is “a user-illusion brilliantly designed by evolution to fit the needs of its users.” In spite of the word “illusion” he doesn’t wish simply to deny the reality of the things that compose the manifest image; the things we see and hear and interact with are “not mere fictions but different versions of what actually exists: real patterns.” The underlying reality, however, what exists in itself and not just for us or for other creatures, is accurately represented only by the scientific image—ultimately in the language of physics, chemistry, molecular biology, and neurophysiology….

You may well ask how consciousness can be an illusion, since every illusion is itself a conscious experience—an appearance that doesn’t correspond to reality. So it cannot appear to me that I am conscious though I am not: as Descartes famously observed, the reality of my own consciousness is the one thing I cannot be deluded about….

According to Dennett, however, the reality is that the representations that underlie human behavior are found in neural structures of which we know very little. And the same is true of the similar conception we have of our own minds. That conception does not capture an inner reality, but has arisen as a consequence of our need to communicate to others in rough and graspable fashion our various competencies and dispositions (and also, sometimes, to conceal them)….

The trouble is that Dennett concludes not only that there is much more behind our behavioral competencies than is revealed to the first-person point of view—which is certainly true—but that nothing whatever is revealed to the first-person point of view but a “version” of the neural machinery….

I am reminded of the Marx Brothers line: “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” Dennett asks us to turn our backs on what is glaringly obvious—that in consciousness we are immediately aware of real subjective experiences of color, flavor, sound, touch, etc. that cannot be fully described in neural terms even though they have a neural cause (or perhaps have neural as well as experiential aspects). And he asks us to do this because the reality of such phenomena is incompatible with the scientific materialism that in his view sets the outer bounds of reality. He is, in Aristotle’s words, “maintaining a thesis at all costs.”

Nagel’s counterargument would have been more compelling if he had relied on a simple metaphor like this one: Most drivers can’t describe in any detail the process by which an automobile converts the potential energy of gasoline to the kinetic energy that’s produced by the engine and then transmitted eventually to the automobile’s drive wheels. Instead, most drivers simply rely on the knowledge that pushing the start button will start the car. That knowledge may be shallow, but it isn’t illusory. If it were, an automobile would be a useless hulk sitting in the driver’s garage.

Some tough questions are in order, too. If consciousness is an illusion, where does it come from? Dennett is an out-and-out physicalist and strident atheist. It therefore follows that Dennett can’t believe in consciousness (the manifest image) as a free-floating spiritual entity that’s disconnected from physical reality (the scientific image). It must, in fact, be a representation of physical reality, even if a weak and flawed one.

Looked at another way, consciousness is the gateway to the scientific image. It is only through the  deliberate, reasoned, fact-based application of consciousness that scientists have been able to roll back the mysteries of the physical world and improve the manifest image so that it more nearly resembles the scientific image. The gap will never be closed, of course. Even the most learned of human beings have only a tenuous grasp of physical reality in all of it myriad aspects. Nor will anyone ever understand what physical reality “really is” — it’s beyond apprehension and description. But that doesn’t negate the symbiosis of physical reality and consciousness.

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Related posts:
Debunking “Scientific Objectivity”
A Non-Believer Defends Religion
Evolution as God?
The Greatest Mystery
What Is Truth?
The Improbability of Us
The Atheism of the Gaps
Demystifying Science
Something from Nothing?
Something or Nothing
My Metaphysical Cosmology
Further Thoughts about Metaphysical Cosmology
Nothingness
The Glory of the Human Mind
Mind, Cosmos, and Consciousness
Is Science Self-Correcting?
“Feelings, Nothing More than Feelings”
Words Fail Us
Hayek’s Anticipatory Account of Consciousness

Natural Law, Natural Rights, and the Real World

Natural law is about morality, that is, right and wrong. Natural rights are about the duties and obligations that human beings owe to each other. Believers in natural law claim to start with the nature of human beings, then derive from that nature the “laws” of morality. Believers in natural rights claim to start with the nature of human beings, then derive from that nature the inalienable “rights” of human beings.

A natural law would be something like this: It is in the nature of human beings to seek life and to avoid death. A natural right would be something like this: Given that it is natural for human beings to seek life and avoid death, every human being has the right to life.

Maybe. But what about this? It is in the nature of human beings to enjoy sex. Given that it is natural for human beings to enjoy sex, every human being has the right to rape at will. Or not. Following the natural law-natural rights formula, it’s easy deny a natural right to rape at will: It is in the nature of human beings to seek pleasure and to avoid pain. Rape is usually painful to the person being raped. It is therefore a natural right not to be raped.

I daresay that many other contradictory and absurd propositions can be concocted from the natural law-natural rights formula; for example: Dying is often (usually?) painful, psychologically if not physically to the dying person. It is therefore a natural right not to be killed deliberately. But if there is a natural right not to be raped, and if a rapist is shot and mortally wounded by the person who is being raped (perhaps it was her only possible defense), how does that square with the supposed natural right not to be killed deliberately. Or what about the case of a terrorist who is killed just before he can detonate a bomb that would have killed dozens of persons? And so on.

In sum, natural law and natural rights are malleable concepts. Here, for example, is Timothy Sandefur, writing in “Judge Gorsuch’s Natural Law” (reason.com, February 12, 2017):

Natural law is among the oldest philosophical traditions. Some of history’s greatest geniuses, from Aristotle to Thomas Jefferson, devoted their most brilliant arguments to it, often differing about details but agreeing on the broad outlines. Natural law was the basis on which America’s founders wrote the Constitution….

… [E]ven those who embrace natural law, including Justice Clarence Thomas, have their differences. For example, while Thomas and his allies see natural law as a basis for attacking legal protections for abortion and euthanasia—because they contradict the sanctity of life—others believe that natural law theory actually supports these rights, because it prioritizes individual autonomy.

It seems that Sandefur is in favor of the right to an abortion, as a matter of individual autonomy. He is clearly critical of what he sees as Judge Gorsuch’s “circumscribed view of individual choice,” and “Gorsuch’s ultimate conclusion that government can bar people from doing things it deems evil—just because—without actually violating their freedom of choice.” So in Sandefur’s parsing of the natural law-natural rights formula, individual autonomy overrules a (qualified) natural right: the right to life.

What puts individual autonomy on a higher plane than life, or — to be precise — the life of a fetus? Sandefur is a clever lawyer, so I’m sure that he has a clever explanation. But I’m unable to access it because of a dead-end link in his blog. Speculation is in order.

If individual autonomy trumps the right to life there must be a natural law-natural right argument that makes it so. Something like this, perhaps:

It is in the nature of human beings that they own themselves and are not the property of others.

Human beings therefore have a natural right to reject man-made (positive) laws that dictate what they can do with their own bodies.

Among many things, this natural right encompasses suicide, drug use, consenting sexual acts of any kind, and abortion.

There are, of course, arguments against suicide, drug use, and unrestricted sexual acts. The arguments are “social”; that is, they appeal to the effects of such acts on other persons, and the ways in which such acts violate the natural rights of other persons. Only an extreme individualist (extreme libertarian) will reject such arguments by proclaiming the superiority of individual autonomy over other considerations. I wonder how those extreme individualists cope with the prospect of euthanasia in the guise of physician-assisted suicide, an epidemic resulting from widespread rejection of vaccinations, or the dire effects of inbreeding.

Is there a natural-rights argument against abortion? The basic one — the right to life — is sidestepped by arguments like these:

A fetus may be a human being but it isn’t yet a person.

A fetus is part of another human being, and not an independent being. The other human being (the mother) may therefore exercise her natural right to rid herself of an encumbrance.

The “personhood” argument is legalistic, at best, because personhood is an abstraction, not a physical fact. A human being is created at the moment of conception. It may be a rudimentary human being, but it is one nevertheless. And it has the potential to become a fully formed human being. In fact, it becomes one before birth. Is it then also a person? Why not, if a new-born baby is a person? But perhaps a baby doesn’t become a person until it vocalizes, or seems to recognize a face, or demands food. Arbitrary, as I say, and therefore unconvincing.

Which is why the “encumbrance” argument is usually deployed, though more euphemistically, in the form of slogans like “reproductive rights” and “a woman’s right to control her own body.” It boils down to the “right to choose,” whence “pro-choice” — meaning pro-abortion.

But this merely sidesteps the basic issue: Is there a natural right to life, or is there not? And if there is, infanticide is surely a violation of that right. So if a human being has a right to life as a new-born infant — which most pro-abortionists will concede — why doesn’t the same human being have the right to life just before he is born; or while he is “viable,” because he could be born prematurely and (probably) survive; or before he is viable but would become so were it not for the intervention of an abortionist?

Now, we’re down to line-drawing and can dispense with the fiction that there’s a natural-rights argument for abortion. In fact, line-drawing is a concession to the natural-rights argument against abortion. If you’re pro-life, you don’t draw a line. It’s those who wish to defend abortion who will argue about where to draw the line. But if there were a real natural-rights argument for abortion, there wouldn’t be a line. There would be a natural right to kill a defenseless, non-aggressive human being, whether it’s called abortion, partial-birth abortion, infanticide, or just plain murder.

As I said, natural law and natural rights are malleable concepts. They can be tortured into yielding almost any interpretation that supports the preferences of the torturer. Or, as Sandefur puts it, “differing about details but agreeing on the broad outlines.” But the devil is in the details.

An extension of natural law is that human beings not only seek to live, but also seek to flourish. (Sandefur likes that extension.) A natural right that fosters flourishing is the right to own property, to use it as a means to the end of flourishing, and to enjoy the use of the property itself, as an aspect of flourishing. Socialism denies or severely limits the right to own property, thus depriving some persons of the ability to flourish as fully as they could in order to underwrite the flourishing of other persons. Socialists — and do-gooders, generally — set themselves up as arbiters of flourishing: Some persons must flourish less so that others may flourish more. As skilled accountants of the soul, they know precisely where to draw the line — just like pro-abortionists (which most of them probably are).

There are those persons — like me — who don’t accept the broad outlines of natural law and natural rights. Jazz Shaw says this in “On the Truth of Man’s Rights Under Natural Law” (Hot Air, March 29, 2015):

Certainly … “natural rights” are things that most rational, decent people could agree upon as things that would be wonderful indeed. But if we are to accept that, then how do you deny someone else claiming a “right” which you don’t support? What of the liberal who claims they have a God given right to health care? Or even the right not to be offended by the speech of others? I can find you a library of examples of both with only a few moments on Google. Some of these same folks regularly point to the General Welfare clause and insist that this means they have a God given right to social security and any other number of safety net items. Are they right? Or are they misinterpreting the words of the founders? Oh, my… now we have another debate on our hands….

If we wish to define the “rights” of man in this world, they are – in only the most general sense – the rights which groups of us agree to and work constantly to enforce as a society. And even that is weak tea in terms of definitions because it is so easy for those “rights” to be thwarted by malefactors. To get to the true definition of rights, I drill down even further. Your rights are precisely what you can seize and hold for yourself by strength of arm or force of wit. Anything beyond that is a desirable goal, but most certainly not a right and it is obviously not permanent.

Amen.

Where does that leave me? Try these on for size:
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
More about Consequentialism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
The Futile Search for “Natural Rights”

Fine-Tuning in a Wacky Wrapper

The Unz Review hosts columnists who hold a wide range of views, including whacko-bizarro-conspiracy-theory-nut-job ones. Case in point: Kevin Barrett, who recently posted a review of David Ray Griffin’s God Exists But Gawd Does Not: From Evil to the New Atheism to Fine Tuning. Some things said by Barrett in the course of his review suggest that Griffin, too, holds whacko-bizarro-conspiracy-theory-nut-job views; for example:

In 2004 he published The New Pearl Harbor — which still stands as the single most important work on 9/11 — and followed it up with more than ten books expanding on his analysis of the false flag obscenity that shaped the 21st century.

Further investigation — a trip to Wikipedia — tells me that Griffin believes there is

a prima facie case for the contention that there must have been complicity from individuals within the United States and joined the 9/11 Truth Movement in calling for an extensive investigation from the United States media, Congress and the 9/11 Commission. At this time, he set about writing his first book on the subject, which he called The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions About the Bush Administration and 9/11 (2004).

Part One of the book looks at the events of 9/11, discussing each flight in turn and also the behaviour of President George W. Bush and his Secret Service protection. Part Two examines 9/11 in a wider context, in the form of four “disturbing questions.” David Ray Griffin discussed this book and the claims within it in an interview with Nick Welsh, reported under the headline Thinking Unthinkable Thoughts: Theologian Charges White House Complicity in 9/11 Attack….

Griffin’s second book on the subject was a direct critique of the 9/11 Commission Report, called The 9/11 Commission Report: Omissions And Distortions (2005). Griffin’s article The 9/11 Commission Report: A 571-page Lie summarizes this book, presenting 115 instances of either omissions or distortions of evidence he claims are in the report, stating that “the entire Report is constructed in support of one big lie: that the official story about 9/11 is true.”

In his next book, Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11: A Call to Reflection and Action (2006), he summarizes some of what he believes is evidence for government complicity and reflects on its implications for Christians. The Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, publishers of the book, noted that Griffin is a distinguished theologian and praised the book’s religious content, but said, “The board believes the conspiracy theory is spurious and based on questionable research.”

And on and on and on. The moral of which is this: If you have already “know” the “truth,” it’s easy to weave together factual tidbits that seem to corroborate it. It’s an old game that any number of persons can play; for example: Mrs. Lincoln hired John Wilkes Booth to kill Abe; Woodrow Wilson was behind the sinking of the Lusitania, which “forced” him to ask for a declaration of war against Germany; FDR knew about Japan’s plans to bomb Pearl Harbor but did nothing so that he could then have a roundly applauded excuse to ask for a declaration of war on Japan; LBJ ordered the assassination of JFK; etc. Some of those bizarre plots have been “proved” by recourse to factual tidbits. I’ve no doubt that all of them could be “proved” in that way.

If that is so, you may well ask why I am writing about Barrett’s review of Griffin’s book? Because in the midst of Barrett’s off-kilter observations (e.g., “the Nazi holocaust, while terrible, wasn’t as incomparably horrible as it has been made out to be”) there’s a tantalizing passage:

Griffin’s Chapter 14, “Teleological Order,” provides the strongest stand-alone rational-empirical argument for God’s existence, one that should convince any open-minded person who is willing to invest some time in thinking about it and investigating the cited sources. This argument rests on the observation that at least 26 of the fundamental constants discovered by physicists appear to have been “fine tuned” to produce a universe in which complex, intelligent life forms could exist. A very slight variation in any one of these 26 numbers (including the strong force, electromagnetism, gravity, the mass difference between protons and neutrons, and many others) would produce a vastly less complex, rich, interesting universe, and destroy any possibility of complex life forms or intelligent observers. In short, the universe is indeed a miracle, in the sense of something indescribably wonderful and almost infinitely improbable. The claim that it could arise by chance (as opposed to intelligent design) is ludicrous.

Even the most dogmatic atheists who are familiar with the scientific facts admit this. Their only recourse is to embrace the multiple-universes interpretation of quantum physics, claim that there are almost infinitely many actual universes (virtually all of them uninteresting and unfit for life), and assert that we just happen to have gotten unbelievably lucky by finding ourselves in the one-universe-out-of-infinity-minus-one with all of the constants perfectly fine-tuned for our existence. But, they argue, we should not be grateful for this almost unbelievable luck — which is far more improbable than winning hundreds of multi-million-dollar lottery jackpots in a row. For our existence in an amazingly, improbably-wonderful-for-us universe is just a tautology, since we couldn’t possibly be in any of the vast, vast, vast majority of universes that we couldn’t possibly be in.

Griffin gently and persuasively points out that the multiple-universes defense of atheism is riddled with absurdities and inconsistencies. Occam’s razor definitively indicates that by far the best explanation of the facts is that the universe was created not just by an intelligent designer, but by one that must be considered almost supremely intelligent as well as almost supremely creative: a creative intelligence as far beyond Einstein-times-Leonardo-to-the-Nth-power as those great minds were beyond that of a common slug.

Fine-tuning is not a good argument for God’s existence. Here is a good argument for God’s existence:

  1. In the material universe, cause precedes effect.
  2. Accordingly, the material universe cannot be self-made. It must have a “starting point,” but the “starting point” cannot be in or of the material universe.
  3. The existence of the universe therefore implies a separate, uncaused cause.

Barrett (Griffin?) goes on:

Occam’s razor definitively indicates that by far the best explanation of the facts is that the universe was created not just by an intelligent designer, but by one that must be considered almost supremely intelligent as well as almost supremely creative: a creative intelligence as far beyond Einstein-times-Leonardo-to-the-Nth-power as those great minds were beyond that of a common slug.

Whoa! Occam’s razor indicates nothing of the kind:

Occam’s razor is used as a heuristic technique (discovery tool) to guide scientists in the development of theoretical models, rather than as an arbiter between published models. In the scientific method, Occam’s razor is not considered an irrefutable principle of logic or a scientific result; the preference for simplicity in the scientific method is based on the falsifiability criterion. For each accepted explanation of a phenomenon, there may be an extremely large, perhaps even incomprehensible, number of possible and more complex alternatives, because one can always burden failing explanations with ad hoc hypotheses to prevent them from being falsified; therefore, simpler theories are preferable to more complex ones because they are more testable.

Barrett’s (Griffin’s?) hypothesis about the nature of the supremely intelligent being is unduly complicated. Not that the existence of God is a testable (falsifiable) hypothesis. It’s just a logical necessity, and should be left at that.

Words Fail Us

Regular readers of this blog know that I seldom use “us” and “we.” Those words are too often appropriated by writers who say such things as “we the people,” and who characterize as “society” the geopolitical entity known as the United States. There is no such thing as “we the people,” and the United States is about as far from being a “society” as Hillary Clinton is from being president (I hope).

There are nevertheless some things that are so close to being universal that it’s fair to refer to them as characteristics of “us” and “we.” The inadequacy of language is one of those things.

Why is that the case? Try to describe in words a person who is beautiful or handsome to you, and why. It’s hard to do, if not impossible. There’s something about the combination of that person’s features, coloring, expression, etc., that defies anything like a complete description. You may have an image of that person in your mind, and you may know that — to you — the person is beautiful or handsome. But you just can’t capture in words all of those attributes. Why? Because the person’s beauty or handsomeness is a whole thing. It’s everything taken together, including subtle things that nestle in your subconscious mind but don’t readily swim to the surface. One such thing could be the relative size of the person’s upper and lower lips in the context of that particular person’s face; whereas, the same lips on another face might convey plainness or ugliness.

Words are inadequate because they describe one thing at a time — the shape of a nose, the slant of a brow, the prominence of a cheekbone. And the sum of those words isn’t the same thing as your image of the beautiful or handsome person. In fact, the sum of those words may be meaningless to a third party, who can’t begin to translate your words into an image of the person you think of as beautiful or handsome.

Yes, there are (supposedly) general rules about beauty and handsomeness. One of them is the symmetry of a person’s features. But that leaves a lot of ground uncovered. And it focuses on one aspect of a person’s face, rather than all of its aspects, which are what you take into account when you judge a person beautiful or handsome.

And, of course, there are many disagreements about who is beautiful or handsome. It’s a matter of taste. Where does the taste come from? Who knows? I have a theory about why I prefer dark-haired women to women whose hair is blonde, red, or medium-to-light brown: My mother was dark-haired, and photographs of her show that she was beautiful (in my opinion) as a young woman. (Despite that, I never thought of her as beautiful because she was just Mom to me.) You can come up with your own theories — and I expect that no two of them will be the same.

What about facts? Isn’t it possible to put facts into words? Not really, and for much the same reason that it’s impossible to describe beauty, handsomeness, love, hate, or anything “subjective” or “emotional.” Facts, at bottom, are subjective, and sometimes even emotional.

Let’s take a “fact” at random: the color red. We can all agree as to whether something looks red, can’t we? Even putting aside people who are color-blind, the answer is: not necessarily. For one thing red is defined as having a “predominant light wavelength of roughly 620–740 nanometers.” “Predominant” and “roughly” are weasel-words. Clearly, there’s no definite point on the visible spectrum where light changes from orange to red. If you think there is, just look at this chart and tell me where it happens. So red comes in shades, which various people describe variously: orange-red and reddish-orange, for example.

Not only that, but the visible spectrum

does not … contain all the colors that the human eyes and brain can distinguish. Unsaturated colors such as pink, or purple variations such as magenta, are absent, for example, because they can be made only by a mix of multiple wavelengths.

Thus we have magenta, fuchsia, blood-red, scarlet, crimson, vermillion, maroon, ruby, and even the many shades of pink — some are blends, some are represented by narrow segments of the light spectrum. Do all of those kinds of red have a clear definition, or are they defined by the beholder? Well, some may be easy to distinguish from others, but the distinctions between them remain arbitrary. Where does scarlet or magenta become vermillion?

In any event, how do you describe a color (whatever you call it) in words? Referring to its wavelength or composition in terms of other colors or its relation to other colors is no help. Wavelength really is meaningless unless you can show an image of the visible spectrum to someone who perceives colors exactly as you do, and point to red — or what you call red. In doing so, you will have pointed to a range of colors, not to red, because there is no red red and no definite boundary between orange and red (or yellow and orange, or green and yellow, etc.).

Further, you won’t have described red in words. And you can’t — without descending into tautologies — because red (as you visualize it) is what’s in your mind. It’s not an objective fact.

My point is that description isn’t the same as definition. You can define red (however vaguely) as a color which has a predominant light wavelength of roughly 620–740 nanometers. But you can’t describe it. Why? Because red is just a concept.

A concept isn’t a real thing that you can see, hear, taste, touch, smell, eat, drink from, drive, etc. How do you describe a concept? You define it in terms of other concepts.

Moving on from color, I’ll take gross domestic product (GDP) as another example. GDP is an estimate of the dollar value of the output of finished goods and services produced in the United States during a particular period of time. Wow, what a string of concepts. And every one of them must be defined, in turn. Some of them can be illustrated by referring to real things; a haircut is a kind of service, for example. But it’s impossible to describe GDP and its underlying concepts because they’re all abstractions, or representations of indescribable conglomerations of real things.

All right, you say, it’s impossible to describe concepts, but surely it’s possible to describe things. People do it all the time. See that ugly, dark-haired, tall guy standing over there? I’ve already dealt with ugly, indirectly, in my discussion of beauty or handsomeness. Ugliness, like beauty, is just a concept, the idea of which differs from person to person. What about tall? It’s a relative term, isn’t it? You can measure a person’s height, but whether or not you consider him tall depends on where and when you live and the range of heights you’re used to encountering. A person who seems tall to you may not seem tall to your taller brother. Dark-haired will evoke different pictures in different minds — ranging from jet-black to dark brown and even auburn.

But if you point to the guy you call ugly, dark-haired, tall guy, I may agree with you that he’s ugly, dark-haired, and tall. Or I may disagree with you, but gain some understanding of what you mean by ugly, dark-haired, and tall.

And therein lies the tale of how people are able to communicate with each other, despite their inability to describe concepts or to define them without going in endless circles and chains of definitions. First, human beings possess central nervous systems and sensory organs that are much alike, though within a wide range of variations (e.g., many people must wear glasses with an almost-infinite variety of corrections, hearing aids are programmed to an almost-infinite variety of settings, sensitivity to touch varies widely, reaction times vary widely). Nevertheless, most people seem to perceive the same color when light with a wavelength of, say, 700 nanometers strikes the retina. The same goes for sounds, tastes, smells, etc., as various external stimuli are detected by various receptors. Those perceptions then acquire agreed definitions through acculturation. For example, an object that reflects light with a wavelength of 700 nanometers becomes known as red; a sound with a certain frequency becomes known as middle C; a certain taste is characterized as bitter, sweet, or sour.

Objects acquire names in the same way: for example: a square piece of cloth that’s wrapped around a person’s head or neck becomes a bandana, and a longish, curved, yellow-skinned fruit with a soft interior becomes a banana. And so I can visualize a woman wearing a red bandana and eating a banana.

There is less agreement about “soft” concepts (e.g., beauty) because they’re based not just on “hard” facts (e.g., the wavelength of light), but on judgments that vary from person to person. A face that’s cute to one person may be beautiful to another person, but there’s no rigorous division between cute and beautiful. Both convey a sense of physical attractiveness that many persons will agree upon, but which won’t yield a consistent image. A very large percentage of Caucasian males (of a certain age) would agree that Ingrid Bergman and Hedy Lamarr were beautiful, but there’s nothing like a consensus about Katharine Hepburn (perhaps striking but not beautiful) or Jean Arthur (perhaps cute but not beautiful).

Other concepts, like GDP, acquire seemingly rigorous definitions, but they’re based on strings of seemingly rigorous definitions, the underpinnings of which may be as squishy as the flesh of a banana (e.g., the omission of housework and the effects of pollution from GDP). So if you’re familiar with the definitions of the definitions, you have a good grasp of the concepts. If you aren’t, you don’t. But if you have a good grasp of the numbers underlying the definitions of definitions, you know that the top-level concept is actually vague and hard to pin down. The numbers not only omit important things but are only estimates, and often are estimates of disparate things that are grouped because they’re judged to “alike enough.”

Acculturation in the form of education is a way of getting people to grasp concepts that have widely agreed definitions. Mathematics, for example, is nothing but concepts, all the way down. And to venture beyond arithmetic is to venture into a world of ideas that’s held together by definitions that rest upon definitions and end in nothing real. Unless you’re one of those people who insists that mathematics is the “real” stuff of which the universe is made, which is nothing more than a leap of faith. (Math, by the way, is nothing but words in shorthand.)

And so, human beings are able to communicate and (usually) understand each other because of their physical and cultural similarities, which include education in various and sundry subjects. Those similarities also enable people of different cultures and languages to translate their concepts (and the words that define them) from one language to another.

Those similarities also enable people to “feel” what another person is feeling when he says that he’s happy, sad, drunk, or whatever. There’s the physical similarity — the physiological changes that usually occur when a person becomes what he thinks of as happy, etc. And there’s acculturation — the acquired knowledge that people feel happy (or whatever) for certain reasons (e.g., a marriage, the birth of a child) and display their happiness in certain ways (e.g., a broad smile, a “jump for joy”).

A good novelist, in my view, is one who knows how to use words that evoke vivid mental images of the thoughts, feelings, and actions of characters, and the settings in which the characters act out the plot of a novel. A novelist who can do that and also tell a good story — one with an engaging or suspenseful plot — is thereby a great novelist. I submit that a good or great novelist (an admittedly vague concept) is worth almost any number of psychologists and psychiatrists, whose vision of the human mind is too rigid to grasp the subtleties that give it life.

But good and great novelists are thin on the ground. That is to say, there are relatively few persons among us who are able to grasp and communicate effectively a broad range of the kinds of thoughts and feelings that lurk in the minds of human beings. And even those few have their blind spots. Most of them, it seems to me, are persons of the left, and are therefore unable to empathize with the thoughts and feelings of the working-class people who seethe with resentment about fawning over and favoritism toward blacks, illegal immigrants, gender-confused persons, and other so-called victims. In fact, those few otherwise perceptive and articulate writers make it a point to write off the working-class people as racists, bigots, and ignoramuses.

There are exceptions, of course. A contemporary exception is Tom Wolfe. But his approach to class issues is top-down rather than bottom-up.

Which just underscores my point that we human beings find it hard to formulate and organize our own thoughts and feelings about the world around us and the other people in it. And we’re practically tongue-tied when it comes to expressing those thoughts and feelings to others. We just don’t know ourselves well enough to explain ourselves to others. And our feelings — such as our political preferences, which probably are based more on temperament than on facts — get in the way.

Love, to take a leading example, is a feeling that just is. The why and wherefore of it is beyond our ability to understand and explain. Some of the feelings attached to it can be expressed in prose, poetry, and song, but those are superficial expressions that don’t capture the depth of love and why it exists.

The world of science is of no real help. Even if feelings of love could be expressed in scientific terms — the action of hormone A on brain region X — that would be worse than useless. It would reduce love to chemistry, when we know that there’s more to it than that. Why, for example, is hormone A activated by the presence or thought of person M but not person N, even when they’re identical twins?

The world of science is of no real help about “getting to the bottom of things.” Science is an infinite regress. S is explained in terms of T, which is explained in terms of U, which is explained in terms of V, and on and on. For example, there was the “indivisible” atom, which turned out to consist of electrons, protons, and neutrons. But electrons have turned out to be more complicated than originally believed, and protons and neutrons have been found to be made of smaller particles with distinctive characteristics. So it’s reasonable to ask if all of the particles now considered elementary are really indivisible. Perhaps there other more-elementary particles yet to be hypothesized and discovered. And even if all of the truly elementary particles are discovered, scientists will still be unable to explain what those particles really “are.”

Words fail us.

*      *      *

Related reading:
Modeling Is Not Science
Physics Envy
What Is Truth?
The Improbability of Us
A Digression about Probability and Existence
More about Probability and Existence
Existence and Creation
We, the Children of the Enlightenment
Probability, Existence, and Creation
The Atheism of the Gaps
Demystifying Science
Scientism, Evolution, and the Meaning of Life
Mysteries: Sacred and Profane
Pinker Commits Scientism
Spooky Numbers, Evolution, and Intelligent Design
Mind, Cosmos, and Consciousness
The Limits of Science (II)
The Pretence of Knowledge
“The Science Is Settled”
“Settled Science” and the Monty Hall Problem
The Limits of Science, Illustrated by Scientists
Some Thoughts about Probability
Rationalism, Empiricism, and Scientific Knowledge
The “Marketplace” of Ideas
My War on the Misuse of Probability
Ty Cobb and the State of Science
Understanding Probability: Pascal’s Wager and Catastrophic Global Warming
Revisiting the “Marketplace” of Ideas
The Technocratic Illusion
The Precautionary Principle and Pascal’s Wager
Is Science Self-Correcting?
“Feelings, Nothing More than Feelings”
Taleb’s Ruinous Rhetoric

Economically Liberal, Socially Conservative

A provocative piece by Samuel Gregg, “Markets, Catholicism, and Libertarianism” (Public Discourse, October 24, 2016) reminds me of an idea for a post that flitted through my aging brain a while back. Gregg writes:

In a recent American Prospect article, John Gehring maintains that Catholics like myself who regard markets as the most optimal set of economic conditions are effectively promoting libertarian philosophy. Gehring’s concerns about libertarianism and what he calls “free market orthodoxy” have been echoed in other places.

The generic argument seems to be the following. Promoting market approaches to economic life involves buying into libertarian ideology. . . .

What [Gregg and other] critics seem to miss is that a favorable assessment of markets and market economics need not be premised on acceptance of libertarianism in any of its many forms. . . .

Libertarianism’s great strength lies in economics. Prominent twentieth-century libertarian economists, such as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek, made major contributions to the critique of socialist economics.. . . .

Philosophically speaking, Mises associated himself, especially in Human Action (1949), with Epicureanism and utilitarianism. Hayek’s views were more complicated. While his Law, Legislation and Liberty (1973/1976/1979) rejected Benthamite utilitarianism, Hayek embraced a type of indirect-rule utilitarianism in works such as The Constitution of Liberty (1960). He also articulated progress-for-the-sake-of-progress arguments and social evolutionist positions heavily shaped by David Hume’s writings.

Such philosophical views are characteristic of many self-described libertarians. . . .

None of the above-noted contributions to economics by Mises and Hayek are, however, dependent upon any of their libertarian philosophical commitments.

That’s exactly right. The great insight of libertarian economics is that people acting freely and cooperatively through markets will do the best job of producing goods and services that match consumers’ wants. Yes, there’s lack of information, asymmetrical information, buyer’s remorse, and (supposed) externalities (which do find their way into prices). But the modern “solution” to such problems is one-size-fits-all regulation, which simply locks in the preferences of regulators and market incumbents, and freezes out (or makes very expensive) the real solutions that are found through innovation, entrepreneurship, and competition.

Social conservatism is like the market liberalism of libertarian economics. Behavior is channeled in cooperative, mutually beneficial, and voluntary ways by the institutions of civil society: family, church, club, community, and — yes — commerce. It is channeled by social norms that have evolved from eons of voluntary social intercourse. Those norms are the bedrock and “glue” of civilization. Government is needed only as the arbiter of last resort, acting on behalf of civil society as the neutral enforcer of social norms of the highest order: prohibitions of murder, rape, theft, fraud, and not much else. Civil society, if left alone, would deal adequately with lesser transgressions through inculcation and disapprobation (up to and including ostracism). When government imposes norms that haven’t arisen from eons of trial-and-error it undermines civil society and vitiates the civilizing influence of social norms.

The common denominator of market liberalism and social conservatism is that both are based on real-world behavior. Trial and error yields information that free actors are able to exploit for their betterment and (intended or not) the betterment of others.

Related posts:
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
More about Conservative Governance
Burkean Libertarianism
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Why Conservatism Works
Liberty and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)
Modern Liberalism as Wishful Thinking
Romanticizing the State
Governmental Perversity
Libertarianism and the State
“Liberalism” and Personal Responsibility
My View of Libertarianism
More About Social Norms and Liberty
The Authoritarianism of Modern Liberalism, and the Conservative Antidote
Another Look at Political Labels
Individualism, Society, and Liberty
Social Justice vs. Liberty

“Feelings, nothing more than feelings”

Physicalism is the thesis that everything is physical, or as contemporary philosophers sometimes put it, that everything supervenes on the physical. The thesis is usually intended as a metaphysical thesis, parallel to the thesis attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Thales, that everything is water, or the idealism of the 18th Century philosopher Berkeley, that everything is mental. The general idea is that the nature of the actual world (i.e. the universe and everything in it) conforms to a certain condition, the condition of being physical. Of course, physicalists don’t deny that the world might contain many items that at first glance don’t seem physical — items of a biological, or psychological, or moral, or social nature. But they insist nevertheless that at the end of the day such items are either physical or supervene on the physical.

Daniel Stoljar, “Physicialism” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
first published February 13, 2001, substantively revised March 9, 2015)

Robin Hanson, an economics professor and former physicist, takes the physicalist position in “All Is Simple Parts Interacting Simply“:

There is nothing that we know of that isn’t described well by physics, and everything that physicists know of is well described as many simple parts interacting simply. Parts are localized in space, have interactions localized in time, and interactions effects don’t move in space faster than the speed of light. Simple parts have internal states that can be specified with just a few bits (or qubits), and each part only interacts directly with a few other parts close in space and time. Since each interaction is only between a few bits on a few sides, it must also be simple. Furthermore, all known interactions are mutual in the sense that the state on all sides is influenced by states of the other sides….

Not only do we know that in general everything is made of simple parts interacting simply, for pretty much everything that happens here on Earth we know those parts and interactions in great precise detail. Yes there are still some areas of physics we don’t fully understand, but we also know that those uncertainties have almost nothing to say about ordinary events here on Earth….

Now it is true that when many simple parts are combined into complex arrangements, it can be very hard to calculate the detailed outcomes they produce. This isn’t because such outcomes aren’t implied by the math, but because it can be hard to calculate what math implies.

However,

what I’ve said so far is usually accepted as uncontroversial, at least when applied to the usual parts of our world, such as rivers, cars, mountains laptops, or ants. But as soon as one claims that all this applies to human minds, suddenly it gets more controversial. People often state things like this:

I am sure that I’m not just a collection of physical parts interacting, because I’m aware that I feel. I know that physical parts interacting just aren’t the kinds of things that can feel by themselves. So even though I have a physical body made of parts, and there are close correlations between my feelings and the states of my body parts, there must be something more than that to me (and others like me). So there’s a deep mystery: what is this extra stuff, where does it arise, how does it change, and so on. We humans care mainly about feelings, not physical parts interacting; we want to know what out there feels so we can know what to care about.

But consider a key question: Does this other feeling stuff interact with the familiar parts of our world strongly and reliably enough to usually be the actual cause of humans making statements of feeling like this?

If yes, this is a remarkably strong interaction, making it quite surprising that physicists have missed it so far. So surprising in fact as to be frankly unbelievable.

But if no, if this interaction isn’t strong enough to explain human claims of feeling, then we have a remarkable coincidence to explain. Somehow this extra feeling stuff exists, and humans also have a tendency to say that it exists, but these happen for entirely independent reasons. The fact that feeling stuff exists isn’t causing people to claim it exists, nor vice versa. Instead humans have some sort of weird psychological quirk that causes them to make such statements, and they would make such claims even if feeling stuff didn’t exist. But if we have a good alternate explanation for why people tend to make such statements, what need do we have of the hypothesis that feeling stuff actually exists? Such a coincidence seems too remarkable to be believed.

Thus it seems hard to square a belief in this extra feeling stuff with standard physics in either cases, where feeling stuff does or does not have strong interactions with ordinary stuff. The obvious conclusion: extra feeling stuff just doesn’t exist.

Of course the “feeling stuff” interacts strongly and reliably with the familiar parts of the world — unless you’re a Robin Hanson, who seems to have no “feeling stuff.” Has he never been insulted, cut off by a rude lane-changer, been in love, held a baby in his arms, and so on unto infinity?

Hanson continues:

If this type of [strong] interaction were remotely as simple as all the interactions we know, then it should be quite measurable with existing equipment. Any interaction not so measurable would have be vastly more complex and context dependent than any we’ve ever seen or considered. Thus I’d bet heavily and confidently that no one will measure such an interaction.

Which is just a stupid thing to say. Physicists haven’t measured the interactions — and probably never will — because they’re not the kinds of phenomena that physicists study. Psychologists, yes; physicists, no.

Not being satisfied with obtuseness and stupidity, Hanson concedes the existence of “feelings,” but jumps to a conclusion in order to dismiss them:

But if no, if this interaction isn’t strong enough to explain human claims of feeling, then we have a remarkable coincidence to explain. Somehow this extra feeling stuff exists, and humans also have a tendency to say that it exists, but these happen for entirely independent reasons. The fact that feeling stuff exists isn’t causing people to claim it exists, nor vice versa. Instead humans have some sort of weird psychological quirk that causes them to make such statements, and they would make such claims even if feeling stuff didn’t exist….

Thus it seems hard to square a belief in this extra feeling stuff with standard physics in either cases, where feeling stuff does or does not have strong interactions with ordinary stuff. The obvious conclusion: extra feeling stuff just doesn’t exist.

How does Hanson — the erstwhile physicist — know any of this? I submit that he doesn’t know. He’s just arguing circularly, as an already-committed physicalist.

First, Hanson assumes that feelings aren’t “real” because physicists haven’t measured their effects. But that failure has been for lack of trying.

Then Hanson assumes that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Specifically, because there’s no evidence (as he defines it) for the existence of “feelings,” their existence (if real) is merely coincidental with claims of their existence.

And then Hanson the Obtuse ignores strong interactions of “feeling stuff” with “ordinary stuff.” Which suggests that he has never experienced love, desire, or hate (for starters).

It would be reasonable for Hanson to suggest that feelings are real, in a physical sense, in that they represent chemical states of the central nervous system. He could then claim that feelings don’t exist apart from such states; that is, “feeling stuff” is nothing more than a physical phenomenon. Hanson makes that claim, but in a roundabout way:

If everything around us is explained by ordinary physics, then a detailed examination of the ordinary physics of familiar systems will eventually tells us everything there is to know about the causes and consequences of our feelings. It will say how many different feelings we are capable of, what outside factors influence them, and how our words and actions depend on them.

However, he gets there by assuming an answer to the question whether “feelings” are something real and apart from physical existence. He hasn’t proven anything, one way or the other.

Hanson’s blog is called Overcoming Bias. It’s an apt title: Hanson has a lot of bias to overcome.

Related posts:
Why I Am Not an Extreme Libertarian
Blackmail, Anyone?
NEVER FORGIVE, NEVER FORGET, NEVER RELENT!
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty (II)

Social Justice vs. Liberty

The original position is a central feature of John Rawls’s social contract account of justice, “justice as fairness,” set forth in A Theory of Justice (TJ). It is designed to be a fair and impartial point of view that is to be adopted in our reasoning about fundamental principles of justice. In taking up this point of view, we are to imagine ourselves in the position of free and equal persons who jointly agree upon and commit themselves to principles of social and political justice. The main distinguishing feature of the original position is “the veil of ignorance”: to insure impartiality of judgment, the parties are deprived of all knowledge of their personal characteristics and social and historical circumstances. They do know of certain fundamental interests they all have, plus general facts about psychology, economics, biology, and other social and natural sciences. The parties in the original position are presented with a list of the main conceptions of justice drawn from the tradition of social and political philosophy, and are assigned the task of choosing from among these alternatives the conception of justice that best advances their interests in establishing conditions that enable them to effectively pursue their final ends and fundamental interests. Rawls contends that the most rational choice for the parties in the original position are two principles of justice: The first guarantees the equal basic rights and liberties needed to secure the fundamental interests of free and equal citizens and to pursue a wide range of conceptions of the good. The second principle provides fair equality of educational and employment opportunities enabling all to fairly compete for powers and positions of office; and it secures for all a guaranteed minimum of all-purpose means (including income and wealth) individuals need to pursue their interests and to maintain their self-respect as free and equal persons.

Samuel Freeman, “Original Position,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
February 27, 1999, with a substantive revision on September 9, 2014

Rawls, like many moral philosophers, presumes to judge all and sundry with his God-like mind. He uses it to fabricate abstract, ideal principles of distributive justice. Thus the real and possible world is found wanting because it fails to conform the the kind of world that’s implicit in Rawls’s principles. And thus the real and possible world must be brought into line with Rawls’s false ideal. The alignment must be performed by the state, whether or not Rawls admits it, because his principles are inconsistent with human nature and the facts of human existence.

There can’t be an original position. Human beings are already in myriad “positions,” of which they have extensive knowledge. And a large fraction of human beings wouldn’t willingly act as if they were “deprived of all knowledge of their personal characteristics and social and historical circumstances.” Why? because they wouldn’t deem it in their interest. The original position and the veil of ignorance are therefore nothing but contrivances aimed at justifying Rawls’s preferred social, political, and economic arrangements.

Further, there isn’t — and never will be — agreement as to “general facts about psychology, economics, biology, and other social and natural sciences.” For example, many of the related entries in this blog are representative of deep divisions between respectable schools of thought about such subjects as psychology, economics, evolution (as it applies to race and “natural rights”), criminology, etc. Rawls writes blithely of “general facts” because he assumes that they point to the kind of world that he envisions.

Similarly, there’s Rawls’s “list of the main conceptions of justice drawn from the tradition of social and political philosophy.” I doubt that Rawls is thinking of the conception that there is, or ought to be, an absolute rejection of any kind of social-welfare function wherein A’s gain is “acceptable” if it (somehow and by some impracticable measure) offsets B’s loss. But that position is implicit in the idea that there ought to be “a guaranteed minimum of all-purpose means (including income and wealth) individuals need to pursue their interests and to maintain their self-respect as free and equal persons.” This is nothing but cover for redistribution. Who decides how much of it is enough? Rawls? The social engineers who buy into Rawls’s conception of justice? Well, of course. But what justifies their stance? Their only real recourse is to impose their views by force, which reveals Rawls’s philosophical rationalization for what is, necessarily, a state-enforced redistributive scheme.

And who says that a person who accepts state-enforced handouts (the fruit of theft) will thereby maintain his self-respect and is a free and equal person. In fact, many recipients of state-imposed handouts are lacking in self-respect; they are not free because as wards of the state they subject themselves to its dictates; and they are equal only in an irrelevant, rhetorical sense, not in the sense that they are the equal of other persons in ability, effort, or moral character.

Rawlsian equality is an empty concept, as is the veil of ignorance. The latter is a variant of Kant’s categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” The categorical imperative is a vacuous bit of philosophical rhetoric that doesn’t get around reality: Human beings often act as if there were a “law” for everyone else, but not for themselves.

The “veil of ignorance,” according to Wikipedia (as of July 2010) requires you to

imagine that societal roles were completely re-fashioned and redistributed, and that from behind your veil of ignorance you do not know what role you will be reassigned. Only then can you truly consider the morality of an issue.

This is just another way of pretending to omniscience. Try as you might to imagine your “self” away, you can’t do it. Your position about a moral issue is your position, not that of someone else. Rawls’s position is Rawls’s position, and that of persons who like the redistributive implications of his position. But who are Rawls and his ilk to set themselves up as neutral, omniscient judges of humanity’s moral, social, and economic arrangements? Who died and made them Gods?

In the end, justice comes down to the norms by which a people abide:  They can be voluntarily evolved and enforced socially, or in part by the state (e.g., imprisonment and execution). They can devised by clever theorists (e.g., Rawls) and others with an agenda (e.g., redistribution of income and wealth, abolition of alcohol, defense of slavery), and then imposed by the state.

There is a neglected alternative, which Michael Oakeshott describes in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays:

Government…as the conservative…understands it, does not begin with a vision of another, different and better world, but with the observation of the self-government practised even by men of passion in the conduct of their enterprises; it begins in the informal adjustments of interests to one another which are designed to release those who are apt to collide from the mutual frustration of a collision. Sometimes these adjustments are no more than agreements between two parties to keep out of each other’s way; sometimes they are of wider application and more durable character, such as the International Rules for for the prevention of collisions at sea. In short, the intimations of government are to be found in ritual, not in religion or philosophy; in the enjoyment of orderly and peaceable behaviour, not in the search for truth or perfection….

To govern, then, as the conservative understands it, is to provide a vinculum juris for those manners of conduct which, in the circumstances, are least likely to result in a frustrating collision of interests; to provide redress and means of compensation for those who suffer from others behaving in a contrary manners; sometimes to provide punishment for those who pursue their own interests regardless of the rules; and, of course, to provide a sufficient force to maintain the authority of an arbiter of this kind. Thus, governing is recognized as a specific and limited activity; not the management of an enterprise, but the rule of those engaged in a great diversity of self-chosen enterprises. It is not concerned with concrete persons, but with activities; and with activities only in respect of their propensity to collide with one another. It is not concerned with moral right and wrong, it is not designed to make men good or even better; it is not indispensable on account of ‘the natural depravity of mankind’ but merely because of their current disposition to be extravagant; its business is to keep its subjects at peace with one another in the activities in which they have chosen to seek their happiness. And if there is any general idea entailed in this view, it is, perhaps, that a government which does not sustain the loyalty of its subjects is worthless; and that while one which (in the old puritan phrase) ‘commands the truth’ is incapable of doing so (because some of its subjects will believe its ‘truth’ to be in error), one which is indifferent to ‘truth’ and ‘error’ alike, and merely pursues peace, presents no obstacle to the necessary loyalty.

…[A]s the conservative understands it, modification of the rules should always reflect, and never impose, a change in the activities and beliefs of those who are subject to them, and should never on any occasion be so great as to destroy the ensemble. Consequently, the conservative will have nothing to do with innovations designed to meet merely hypothetical situations; he will prefer to enforce a rule he has got rather than invent a new one; he will think it appropriate to delay a modification of the rules until it is clear that the change of circumstances it is designed  to reflect has come to stay for a while; he will be suspicious of proposals for change in excess of what the situation calls for, of rulers who demand extra-ordinary powers in order to make great changes and whose utterances re tied to generalities like ‘the public good’ or social justice’, and of Saviours of Society who buckle on armour and seek dragons to slay; he will think it proper to consider the occasion of the innovation with care; in short, he will be disposed to regard politics as an activity in which a valuable set of tools is renovated from time to time and kept in trim rather than as an opportunity for perpetual re-equipment.

Such was the wisdom of the much-violated and mutilated Constitution of the United States. Its promise of liberty in the real world has been dashed by the Saviours of Society — idealists like Rawls, opportunists like FDR and LBJ, and criminals like the Clintons.

*      *      *

Related posts:
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
What Is Conservatism?
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Accountants of the Soul
Rawls Meets Bentham
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
On Self-Ownership and Desert
Burkean Libertarianism
Nature Is Unfair
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
More about Merit Goods
Liberty, Negative Rights, and Bleeding Hearts
Why Conservatism Works
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Defining Liberty
Conservatism as Right-Minarchism
Getting Liberty Wrong
Romanticizing the State
More About Social Norms and Liberty
God-Like Minds
The Authoritarianism of Modern Liberalism, and the Conservative Antidote
Individualism, Society, and Liberty
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty (II)

True Confession, New Resolution

I spent 30 years at a defense think-tank. There were many things that I liked about it, and a few things that I didn’t like about it. The thing that I disliked most was the way in which some senior managers and many analysts offered criticism. They practiced a perverted version of the Socratic method. Instead of working with the author of an analysis to improve it, they would keep probing the weak points of he work — or more correctly, the analyst’s ability to explain and defend it — and leave the analyst melting in a puddle of mortification.

I resented that kind of criticism when it was aimed at me, and when I saw it being aimed at others. (I was involved in the creation of a mock “seal” for the  hazing sessions that were led by a former president of the think-tank. The seal displayed the motto “Nibbled to death by ducks.”) But I often resorted to the method when I was the critic. Human nature is like that.

I am here to confess (as I just did), to repent (as I hope I am doing), and to enter onto the path of righteousness (as I hope I will).

The most constructive way to offer criticism, in my experience, is to put yourself in the place of the person you are criticizing. Try to understand the issue at hand, as he sees it, and try to understand the way he comes at the issue. If you get “inside” that person’s mind, you can then talk to him about the problem in a way that he understands. From there, you can work with him to improve whatever it is he is seeking to improve — be it the Navy’s choice of a new weapon system or the opportunities available to low-income persons.

I know that a person’s political views are largely a matter of temperament, and for that reason not always susceptible to change by appealing to facts or logic. But political views are nevertheless changeable, in the way that a person who is addicted to drugs or alcohol will overcome his addiction — if he understands that he can do it, and will live a miserable life and die miserably if he doesn’t.

I am also aware that leftists — who are the usual targets of my criticism — do not often (or perhaps ever) respond constructively to conciliatory statements. As I say here,

leftists can be ruthless, unto vicious. They pull no punches; they call people names; they skirt the law — and violate it — to get what they want (e.g., Obama’s various “executive actions”); they use the law and the media to go after their ideological opponents; and on and on.

Nevertheless, this blog is but a pinprick on the vast hide of leftism. Perhaps it will be more effective if I make a greater effort to understand what leftists want, and try to appeal to them on that basis, instead of preaching to the choir of libertarian-conservatives as I often do.

*     *     *

Related reading and viewing:

Jonathan Haidt, “Why the Centre Cannot Hold in America, Europe, and Psychology” (Heterodox Academy, August 9, 2016). This is an introduction to Haidt’s recent speech at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention in Denver, where he addressed the causes and consequences of political polarization.

A video of the speech: https://youtu.be/vAE-gxKs6gM

PowerPoint slides: http://heterodoxacademy.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/haidt.APA-2016-lecture-on-polarization.for-posting.compressed.pptx

PDF version of the slides: http://heterodoxacademy.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/haidt.APA-2016-lecture-on-polarization.slides-for-printing.pdf

Winners and Losers

Steven Landsburg has a provocative post. His point seems to be that those who focus on the “losers” from free trade “want us to conclude either that free trade is not a good thing, or that at the very least, the winners should compensate the losers.”

Landsburg continues:

This strikes me as an extraordinarily dishonest way of arguing, because pretty much nobody ever argues this way about anything else, even though every policy change in history has created both winners and losers. In fact, every human action has both winners and losers. When Archie takes Betty instead of Veronica to the ice cream shoppe instead of the movies, both Veronica and the theater owner lose out. It does not follow that all human actions are wrong, or immoral, or should be discouraged by law, and it does not follow that all human actions should be followed by compensation to the losers.

What I object to — aside from Landsburg’s habitual use of “us,” which suggests some kind of collective consciousness at work — is his unfortunate, if inadvertent, endorsement of the idea that every human action has both winners and losers. “Winner” and “loser” are terms that properly apply to persons who are engaged in some kind of contest or bet. The rest — which includes just about everything — is just life. Stuff happens: Veronica doesn’t go the movies with Archie; American steelworkers lose jobs; dinosaurs become extinct.

Except when government is involved. Government action changes the natural course of human events, the course that they would take in a society that is bound by shared beliefs, language, and customs (or norms). A government of a relatively small or close-knit geopolitcal entity may act in accordance with and reinforce societal norms, but the governance of the United States has long since become something else: a set of interlocking dictatorial regimes (federal, State, and local) bent on enforcing rules designed on high, sometimes with the intention of favoring specific groups. Those specific groups have something that the ruling caste wants: money, influence, and votes.

Government acts legitimately only when it does things that would be done by a cohesive social group. Self-defense is one of those things. When government wages war in defense of its citizens, it has a claim to legitimacy — though the soundness of the claim depends on the necessity of the war and the skill and efficiency with which it is waged. When government executes murderers it legitimately exacts justice and deters more murders — though the soundness of the claim depends on the swiftness and fairness with which executions occur. A foreign enemy isn’t a loser, he’s an enemy. An executed murderer isn’t a loser, he’s a recipient of justice.

But beyond defense, justice, and the even-handed representation of Americans’ interests in foreign capitals, there is nothing that government can claim as a legitimate function. Government’s forays into welfare, for example, are destructive of private charity and go far beyond what a well-functioning social group would allow, in that they discourage work and saving. Social Security and Medicare, for example, don’t just mimic private charity toward the poorest and sickest of the elderly population, they benefit even the the wealthiest and healthiest of Americans. Social Security benefits and the market value of Medicare (as insurance) can easily raise a retired couple’s effective income from, say, $250,000 to $300,000 or $325,000. That’s not charity, it’s middle-class and upper-middle-class welfare. (I don’t mean to suggest that the wealthiest should be forced to subsidize everyone else; that’s a socially and economically destructive idea that I’ll not bother to discuss here.)

There’s much more to government than spending, of course, There’s also the vast web of regulations that has been spun by government at all levels. Regulations alter the course of social and economic intercourse, as they are meant to do. The justification is usually either “for your own good” or “for the good of group X.” In any event, social norms and incentives to work and save are subverted by those who believe, wrongly, that they can subvert those norms and incentives without inviting unintended consequences. The Great Recession, for example, was caused by regulation, not deregulation.

It has come to pass that many of government’s fiscal and regulatory interventions are rationalized as efforts to “level the playing” field and compensate “losers” for the “unfair” advantages enjoyed by “winners.” But such language masks a presumption that there are better social and economic arrangements and better outcomes — which, of course, are known to those who use such language. This is called the nirvana fallacy, the invalid comparison of imperfect reality to imagined perfection.

It therefore surprises me that Steven Landsburg, who is super-rational and a stickler for accuracy, would invoke “winners” and “losers.” To do so lends aid and comfort to the proponents of social and economic engineering.

It might be said, with some justice, that government interventions create winners and losers. But what those interventions really create are dependents and victims. The dependents are the tens of millions of Americans who rely on government welfare and government grants of privilege (e.g., affirmative action, regulatory protection from competition, subsidized loans). The victims are the tens of millions of Americans who pay directly for such privileges (e.g., high marginal tax rates, regulatory infringements on liberty, suppression of free speech and association, theft of property rights), and the 300-million-plus whose income is far less than it would be in the absence of fiscal and regulatory interventions, which are damaging to economic growth.

A person who earns an honest living as an investment banker, baseball player, or movie star and makes millions of dollars a year isn’t a winner, in the proper sense of the word, he’s just being rewarded according to the value placed on his efforts by those who pay for them. A person who earns a pittance because he’s an illegal immigrant who can’t speak English and has no particular skills isn’t a loser, he’s just being rewarded according to the value placed on his efforts by those who pay for them. Veronica isn’t a loser because Archie prefers Betty, she’s just another beautiful girl who can probably land someone better looking and richer than Archie. The theater owner isn’t a loser because Archie doesn’t take Veronica to the movies, he’s just another businessman who’s in the wrong business if the loss of two customers for one night is a big deal.

Let’s get real and quit calling people winners and losers when they’re not playing games or making bets. Let’s get real and start talking about those who are dependent on government and those who are its victims, which is just about everyone but the politicians and bureaucrats who feast at the public trough.

And, yes, I do mean to say that most of the dependents and enablers of big government are its victims. Such are the wages of social dissolution and economic ignorance.

Logical Fallacy of the Day

Cincinnati mourns gorilla killed to save boy.” That’s the headline of a USA Today story, which says (in part):

The Cincinnati Zoo was open Sunday for Memorial Day weekend tourists, but the gorilla exhibit was closed indefinitely after authorities killed a gorilla that attacked a 4-year-old boy who fell into the enclosure’s moat.

Zoo President Thane Maynard said the boy crawled through a barrier Saturday, fell 10 to 12 feet and was grabbed by the zoo’s 17-year-old male western lowland gorilla, Harambe.

The Cincinnati Fire Department said in a statement that first responders “witnessed a gorilla who was violently dragging and throwing the child.” The boy was with the 400-pound animal for about 10 minutes before the zoo’s Dangerous Animal Response Team deemed the situation “life-threatening,” Maynard said.

Police confirmed the child was taken to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center near the zoo and was treated for non-life threatening injuries.

“The choice was made to put down, or shoot, Harambe, so he’s gone,” Maynard said. “We’ve never had a situation like this at the Cincinnati Zoo where a dangerous animal needed to be dispatched in an emergency situation.”

Maynard said the Dangerous Animal Response Team followed procedures, which they practice in drills. He said no one had ever gotten into the enclosure in the 38-year history of the zoo’s gorilla exhibit.

“It’s a sad day all the way around,” Maynard said. “They made a tough choice. They made the right choice, because they saved that little boy’s life. It could have been very bad.”

After the gorilla was shot, zoo employees unlocked the gate and two firefighters quickly retrieved the child, according to the fire department.

Two female gorillas were also in the enclosure.

“We are all devastated that this tragic accident resulted in the death of a critically endangered gorilla,” he said in a news release. “This is a huge loss for the zoo family and the gorilla population worldwide.”…

The decision to shoot Harambe instead of tranquilizing the animal was made in the interest of the boy’s safety, Maynard said.

“In an agitated situation, it may take quite a while for the tranquilizer to take effect,” he explained….

Maynard also explained that while Harambe didn’t attack the child, the animal’s size and strength posed a great danger.

Before I get to the logical fallacy, I must comment on some aspects of the story. The first is the apologetic tone of Maynard’s statement. Why apologize for doing the right thing?

Then there’s the contradiction. Maynard is reported to have said that the gorilla didn’t attack the child. But the fire department’s statement says that the gorilla was violently dragging and throwing the child, which seems more plausible.

And why was the situation deemed life-threatening only after the child had been in the gorilla enclosure for 10 minutes? It was life-threatening the instant that he climbed into the enclosure. Perhaps it took the response team that long to arrive at the scene and decide to execute the gorilla — an unconscionable delay.

Anyway, the logical fallacy is that “Cincinnati mourns.” That’s typical headline guff, and a logical fallacy. To ascribe an emotion or trait to a geopolitical area (and thus to all of its inhabitants) is a form of reification, which is the treatment of an abstraction as if it had material existence.

There is no “Cincinnati” to mourn, grieve, or otherwise experience emotion. There are many, many Cincinnatians (and New Yorkers, Americans, etc.) who have many different emotional reactions to notorious events: the killing of a gorilla, the death of Princess Diana, and so on. One of those reactions is indifference, which is often the proper one.

The headline writer could have written “Cincinnati rejoices in rescue of child from gorilla’s clutches.” But that would have been just as fallacious. There are Cincinnatians (and others) whose  main (and sometimes only) reaction to the killing of the gorilla was to mourn it, and even to claim that it had been deprived of due process of law. But such views — I suspect and hope — are in the vast minority.

Were I given to reification, I would say that the events in Cincinnati reveal the callousness of America. The headline writer focused on “mourning” for the gorilla, while giving second place to the child’s well-being. And there were several bystanders who recorded the event with their cameras instead of turning away in horror.

I report, you reify.

*     *     *

Related posts:

More Thoughts about Evolutionary Teleology

Creative Destruction, Reification, and Social Welfare

“We the People” and Big Government

Society

A Summing Up

I started blogging in the late 1990s with a home page that I dubbed Liberty Corner (reconstructed here). I maintained the home page until 2000. When the urge to resume blogging became irresistible in 2004, I created the Blogspot version of Liberty Corner, where I blogged until May 2008.

My weariness with “serious” blogging led to the creation of Americana, Etc., “A blog about baseball, history, humor, language, literature, movies, music, nature, nostalgia, philosophy, psychology, and other (mostly) apolitical subjects.” I began that blog in July 2008 and posted there sporadically until September 2013.

But I couldn’t resist commenting on political, economic, and social issues, so I established Politics & Prosperity in February 2009. My substantive outpourings ebbed and flowed, until August 2015, when I hit a wall.

Now, almost two decades and more than 3,000 posts since my blogging debut, I am taking another rest from blogging — perhaps a permanent rest.

Instead of writing a valedictory essay, I chose what I consider to be the best of my blogging, and assigned each of my choices to one of fifteen broad topics. (Many of the selections belong under more than one heading, but I avoided repetition for the sake of brevity.) You may jump directly to any of the fifteen topics by clicking on one of these links:

Posts are listed in chronological order under each heading. If you are looking for a post on a particular subject, begin with the more recent posts and work your way backward in time, by moving up the list or using the “related posts” links that are included in most of my posts.

Your explorations may lead you to posts that no longer represent my views. This is especially the case with respect to John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle,” which figures prominently in my early dissertations on libertarianism, but which I have come to see as shallow and lacking in prescriptive power. Thus my belief that true libertarianism is traditional conservatism. (For more, see “On Liberty and Libertarianism” in the sidebar and many of the posts under “X. Libertarianism and Other Political Philosophies.”)

The following list of “bests” comprises about 700 entries, which is less than a fourth of my blogging output. I also commend to you my “Not-So-Random Thoughts” series — I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV, and XVI — and “The Tenor of the Times.”

I. The Academy, Intellectuals, and the Left
Like a Fish in Water
Why So Few Free-Market Economists?
Academic Bias
Intellectuals and Capitalism
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
The Left’s Agenda
We, the Children of the Enlightenment
The Left and Its Delusions
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty
The Culture War
Ruminations on the Left in America
The Euphemism Conquers All
Defending the Offensive

*****

II. Affirmative Action, Race, and Immigration
Affirmative Action: A Modest Proposal
After the Bell Curve
A Footnote . . .
Schelling and Segregation
Illogic from the Pro-Immigration Camp
Affirmative Action: Two Views from the Academy, Revisited
Race and Reason: The Victims of Affirmative Action
Race and Reason: The Achievement Gap — Causes and Implications
Evolution and Race
“Wading” into Race, Culture, and IQ
Evolution, Culture, and “Diversity”
The Harmful Myth of Inherent Equality
Nature, Nurture, and Inequality

*****

III. Americana, Etc.: Movies, Music, Nature, Nostalgia, Sports, and Trivia
Speaking of Modern Art
Making Sense about Classical Music
An Addendum about Classical Music
Reveries
My Views on Classical Music, Vindicated
But It’s Not Music
Mister Hockey
Testing for Steroids
Explaining a Team’s W-L Record
The American League’s Greatest Hitters
The American League’s Greatest Hitters: Part II
Conducting, Baseball, and Longevity
Who Shot JFK, and Why?
The Passing of Red Brick Schoolhouses and a Way of Life
Baseball: The King of Team Sports
May the Best Team Lose
All-Time Hitter-Friendly Ballparks (With Particular Attention to Tiger Stadium)
A Trip to the Movies
Another Trip to the Movies
The Hall of Fame Reconsidered
Facts about Presidents (a reference page)

*****

IV. The Constitution and the Rule of Law
Unintended Irony from a Few Framers
Social Security Is Unconstitutional
What Is the Living Constitution?
The Legality of Teaching Intelligent Design
The Legality of Teaching Intelligent Design: Part II
Law, Liberty, and Abortion
An Answer to Judicial Supremacy?
Final (?) Words about Preemption and the Constitution
More Final (?) Words about Preemption and the Constitution
Who Are the Parties to the Constitutional Contract?
The Slippery Slope of Constitutional Revisionism
The Ruinous Despotism of Democracy
How to Think about Secession
Secession
A New, New Constitution
Secession Redux
A Declaration of Independence
First Principles
The Constitution: Original Meaning, Corruption, and Restoration
The Unconstitutionality of the Individual Mandate
Does the Power to Tax Give Congress Unlimited Power?
Does Congress Have the Power to Regulate Inactivity?
Substantive Due Process and the Limits of Privacy
The Southern Secession Reconsidered
Abortion and the Fourteenth Amendment
Obamacare: Neither Necessary nor Proper
Privacy Is Not Sacred
Our Perfect, Perfect Constitution
Reclaiming Liberty throughout the Land
Obamacare, Slopes, Ratchets, and the Death-Spiral of Liberty
Another Thought or Two about the Obamacare Decision
Secession for All Seasons
Restoring Constitutional Government: The Way Ahead
“We the People” and Big Government
How Libertarians Ought to Think about the Constitution
Abortion Rights and Gun Rights
The States and the Constitution
Getting “Equal Protection” Right
How to Protect Property Rights and Freedom of Association and Expression
The Principles of Actionable Harm
Judicial Supremacy: Judicial Tyranny
Does the Power to Tax Give Congress Unlimited Power? (II)
The Beginning of the End of Liberty in America
Substantive Due Process, Liberty of Contract, and States’ “Police Power”
U.S. Supreme Court: Lines of Succession (a reference page)

*****

V. Economics: Principles and Issues
Economics: A Survey (a reference page that gives an organized tour of relevant posts, many of which are also listed below)
Fear of the Free Market — Part I
Fear of the Free Market — Part II
Fear of the Free Market — Part III
Trade Deficit Hysteria
Why We Deserve What We Earn
Who Decides Who’s Deserving?
The Main Causes of Prosperity
That Mythical, Magical Social Security Trust Fund
Social Security, Myth and Reality
Nonsense and Sense about Social Security
More about Social Security
Social Security Privatization and the Stock Market
Oh, That Mythical Trust Fund!
The Real Meaning of the National Debt
Socialist Calculation and the Turing Test
Social Security: The Permanent Solution
The Social Welfare Function
Libertarian Paternalism
A Libertarian Paternalist’s Dream World
Talk Is Cheap
Giving Back to the Community
The Short Answer to Libertarian Paternalism
Second-Guessing, Paternalism, Parentalism, and Choice
Another Thought about Libertarian Paternalism
Why Government Spending Is Inherently Inflationary
Ten Commandments of Economics
More Commandments of Economics
Capitalism, Liberty, and Christianity
Risk and Regulation
Back-Door Paternalism
Liberty, General Welfare, and the State
Another Voice Against the New Paternalism
Monopoly and the General Welfare
The Causes of Economic Growth
Slippery Paternalists
The Importance of Deficits
It’s the Spending, Stupid!
There’s More to Income than Money
Science, Axioms, and Economics
Mathematical Economics
The Last(?) Word about Income Inequality
Why “Net Neutrality” Is a Bad Idea
The Feds and “Libertarian Paternalism”
The Anti-Phillips Curve
Status, Spite, Envy, and Income Redistribution
Economics: The Dismal (Non) Science
A Further Note about “Libertarian” Paternalism
Apropos Paternalism
Where’s My Nobel?
Toward a Capital Theory of Value
The Laffer Curve, “Fiscal Responsibility,” and Economic Growth
Stability Isn’t Everything
Income and Diminishing Marginal Utility
What Happened to Personal Responsibility?
The Causes of Economic Growth
Economic Growth since WWII
A Short Course in Economics
Addendum to a Short Course in Economics
Monopoly: Private Is Better than Public
The “Big Five” and Economic Performance
Does the Minimum Wage Increase Unemployment?
Rationing and Health Care
The Perils of Nannyism: The Case of Obamacare
More about the Perils of Obamacare
Health-Care Reform: The Short of It
Trade
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
Enough of “Social Welfare”
A True Flat Tax
The Case of the Purblind Economist
How the Great Depression Ended
Why Outsourcing Is Good: A Simple Lesson for “Liberal” Yuppies
Microeconomics and Macroeconomics
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
The Deficit Commission’s Deficit of Understanding
“Buy Local”
“Net Neutrality”
The Bowles-Simpson Report
The Bowles-Simpson Band-Aid
Competition Shouldn’t Be a Dirty Word
Subjective Value: A Proof by Example
The Stagnation Thesis
Taxing the Rich
More about Taxing the Rich
Money, Credit, and Economic Fluctuations
A Keynesian Fantasy Land
“Tax Expenditures” Are Not Expenditures
The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty
Does “Pent Up” Demand Explain the Post-War Recovery?
Creative Destruction, Reification, and Social Welfare
What Free-Rider Problem?
Why the “Stimulus” Failed to Stimulate
The Arrogance of (Some) Economists
The “Jobs Speech” That Obama Should Have Given
Say’s Law, Government, and Unemployment
Regime Uncertainty and the Great Recession
Regulation as Wishful Thinking
Extreme Economism
We Owe It to Ourselves
In Defense of the 1%
Lay My (Regulatory) Burden Down
Irrational Rationality
The Burden of Government
Economic Growth Since World War II
The Rationing Fallacy
Government in Macroeconomic Perspective
Keynesianism: Upside-Down Economics in the Collectivist Cause
How High Should Taxes Be?
The 80-20 Rule, Illustrated
Economic Horror Stories: The Great “Demancipation” and Economic Stagnation
Baseball Statistics and the Consumer Price Index
Why Are Interest Rates So Low?
Vulgar Keynesianism and Capitalism
America’s Financial Crisis Is Now
“Ensuring America’s Freedom of Movement”: A Review
“Social Insurance” Isn’t Insurance — Nor Is Obamacare
The Keynesian Multiplier: Phony Math
The True Multiplier
Discounting in the Public Sector
Some Inconvenient Facts about Income Inequality
Mass (Economic) Hysteria: Income Inequality and Related Themes
Social Accounting: A Tool of Social Engineering
Alienation
Playing the Social Security Trust Fund Shell Game
Income Inequality and Economic Growth
A Case for Redistribution, Not Made
McCloskey on Piketty
The Rahn Curve Revisited
The Slow-Motion Collapse of the Economy
Nature, Nurture, and Inequality
Understanding Investment Bubbles
The Real Burden of Government
Diminishing Marginal Utility and the Redistributive Urge
Capitalism, Competition, Prosperity, and Happiness
Further Thoughts about the Keynesian Multiplier

*****

VI. Humor, Satire, and Wry Commentary
Political Parlance
Some Management Tips
Ten-Plus Commandments of Liberalism, er, Progressivism
To Pay or Not to Pay
The Ghost of Impeachments Past Presents “The Trials of William Jefferson Whatsit”
Getting It Perfect
His Life As a Victim
Bah, Humbug!
PC Madness
The Seven Faces of Blogging
DWI
Wordplay
Trans-Gendered Names
More Names
Stuff White (Liberal Yuppie) People Like
Driving and Politics
“Men’s Health”
I’ve Got a LIttle List
Driving and Politics (2)
A Sideways Glance at Military Strategy
A Sideways Glance at the Cabinet
A Sideways Glance at Politicians’ Memoirs
The Madness Continues

*****

VII. Infamous Thinkers and Political Correctness
Sunstein at the Volokh Conspiracy
More from Sunstein
Cass Sunstein’s Truly Dangerous Mind
An (Imaginary) Interview with Cass Sunstein
Professor Krugman Flunks Economics
Peter Singer’s Fallacy
Slippery Sunstein
Sunstein and Executive Power
Nock Reconsidered
In Defense of Ann Coulter
Goodbye, Mr. Pitts
Our Miss Brooks
How to Combat Beauty-ism
The Politically Correct Cancer: Another Weapon in the War on Straight White Males
Asymmetrical (Ideological) Warfare
Social Justice
Peter Presumes to Preach
More Social Justice
Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
Empathy Is Overrated
In Defense of Wal-Mart
An Economist’s Special Pleading: Affirmative Action for the Ugly
Another Entry in the Sunstein Saga
Obesity and Statism (Richard Posner)
Obama’s Big Lie
The Sunstein Effect Is Alive and Well in the White House
Political Correctness vs. Civility
IQ, Political Correctness, and America’s Present Condition
Sorkin’s Left-Wing Propaganda Machine
Baseball or Soccer? David Brooks Misunderstands Life
Sunstein the Fatuous
Tolerance
Good Riddance
The Gaystapo at Work
The Gaystapo and Islam
The Perpetual Nudger

*****

VIII. Intelligence and Psychology
Conservatism, Libertarianism, and “The Authoritarian Personality”
The F Scale, Revisited
The Psychologist Who Played God
Intelligence, Personality, Politics, and Happiness
Intelligence as a Dirty Word
Intelligence and Intuition
Nonsense about Presidents, IQ, and War
IQ, Political Correctness, and America’s Present Condition
Alienation
Greed, Conscience, and Big Government
Tolerance
Privilege, Power, and Hypocrisy

*****

IX. Justice
I’ll Never Understand the Insanity Defense
Does Capital Punishment Deter Homicide?
Libertarian Twaddle about the Death Penalty
A Crime Is a Crime
Crime and Punishment
Abortion and Crime
Saving the Innocent?
Saving the Innocent?: Part II
A Useful Precedent
More on Abortion and Crime
More Punishment Means Less Crime
More About Crime and Punishment
More Punishment Means Less Crime: A Footnote
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty
Let the Punishment Fit the Crime
Cell Phones and Driving: Liberty vs. Life
Another Argument for the Death Penalty
Less Punishment Means More Crime
Crime, Explained
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty
What Is Justice?
Myopic Moaning about the War on Drugs
Saving the Innocent
Why Stop at the Death Penalty?
A Case for Perpetual Copyrights and Patents
The Least Evil Option
Legislating Morality
Legislating Morality (II)
Round Up the Usual Suspects
Left-Libertarians, Obama, and the Zimmerman Case
Free Will, Crime, and Punishment
Stop, Frisk, and Save Lives
Poverty, Crime, and Big Government
Crime Revisited
A Cop-Free World?

*****

X. Libertarianism and Other Political Philosophies
The Roots of Statism in the United States
Libertarian-Conservatives Are from the Earth, Liberals Are from the Moon
Modern Utilitarianism
The State of Nature
Libertarianism and Conservatism
Judeo-Christian Values and Liberty
Redefining Altruism
Fundamentalist Libertarians, Anarcho-Capitalists, and Self-Defense
Where Do You Draw the Line?
Moral Issues
A Paradox for Libertarians
A Non-Paradox for Libertarians
Religion and Liberty
Science, Evolution, Religion, and Liberty
Whose Incompetence Do You Trust?
Enough of Altruism
Thoughts That Liberals Should Be Thinking
More Thoughts That Liberals Should Be Thinking
The Corporation and the State
Libertarianism and Preemptive War: Part II
Anarchy: An Empty Concept
The Paradox of Libertarianism
Privacy: Variations on the Theme of Liberty
The Fatal Naïveté of Anarcho-Libertarianism
Liberty as a Social Construct
This Is Objectivism?
Social Norms and Liberty (a reference page)
Social Norms and Liberty (a followup post)A Footnote about Liberty and the Social Compact
The Adolescent Rebellion Syndrome
Liberty and Federalism
Finding Liberty
Nock Reconsidered
The Harm Principle
Footnotes to “The Harm Principle”
The Harm Principle, Again
Rights and Cosmic Justice
Liberty, Human Nature, and the State
Idiotarian Libertarians and the Non-Aggression Principle
Slopes, Ratchets, and the Death Spiral of Liberty
Postive Rights and Cosmic Justice: Part I
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice: Part II
The Case against Genetic Engineering
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice: Part III
A Critique of Extreme Libertarianism
Libertarian Whining about Cell Phones and Driving
The Golden Rule, for Libertarians
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice: Part IV
Anarchistic Balderdash
Compare and Contrast
Irrationality, Suboptimality, and Voting
Wrong, Wrong, Wrong
The Political Case for Traditional Morality
Compare and Contrast, Again
Pascal’s Wager, Morality, and the State
The Fear of Consequentialism
Optimality, Liberty, and the Golden Rule
The People’s Romance
Objectivism: Tautologies in Search of Reality
Morality and Consequentialism
On Liberty
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Fascism with a “Friendly” Face
Democracy and Liberty
The Interest-Group Paradox
Inventing “Liberalism”
Civil Society and Homosexual “Marriage”
What Is Conservatism?
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Fascism and the Future of America
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
Law and Liberty
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Accountants of the Soul
Invoking Hitler
The Unreality of Objectivism
“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
Rawls Meets Bentham
The Left
Our Enemy, the State
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
On Self-Ownership and Desert
Understanding Hayek
Corporations, Unions, and the State
Facets of Liberty
Burkean Libertarianism
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
What Is Libertarianism?
Nature Is Unfair
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
A Declaration and Defense of My Prejudices about Governance
Libertarianism and Morality
Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote
What Is Bleeding-Heart Libertarianism?
Liberty, Negative Rights, and Bleeding Hearts
Cato, the Kochs, and a Fluke
Why Conservatism Works
A Man for No Seasons
Bleeding-Heart Libertarians = Left-Statists
Not Guilty of Libertarian Purism
Liberty and Society
Tolerance on the Left
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
The Fallacy of the Reverse-Mussolini Fallacy
Defining Liberty
Getting It Almost Right
The Social Animal and the “Social Contract”
The Futile Search for “Natural Rights”
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)
Modern Liberalism as Wishful Thinking
Getting Liberty Wrong
Romanticizing the State
Libertarianism and the State
Egoism and Altruism
My View of Libertarianism
Sober Reflections on “Charlie Hebdo”
“The Great Debate”: Not So Great
No Wonder Liberty Is Disappearing
The Principles of Actionable Harm
More About Social Norms and Liberty

*****

XI. Politics, Politicians, and the Consequences of Government
Starving the Beast
Torture and Morality
Starving the Beast, Updated
Starving the Beast: Readings
Presidential Legacies
The Rational Voter?
FDR and Fascism
The “Southern Strategy”
An FDR Reader
The “Southern Strategy”: A Postscript
The Modern Presidency: A Tour of American History
Politicizing Economic Growth
The End of Slavery in the United States
I Want My Country Back
What Happened to the Permanent Democrat Majority?
More about the Permanent Democrat Majority
Undermining the Free Society
Government Failure: An Example
The Public-School Swindle
PolitiFact Whiffs on Social Security
The Destruction of Society in the Name of “Society”
About Democracy
Externalities and Statism
Taxes: Theft or Duty?
Society and the State
Don’t Use the “S” Word When the “F” Word Will Do
The Capitalist Paradox Meets the Interest-Group Paradox
Is Taxation Slavery?
A Contrarian View of Universal Suffrage
The Hidden Tragedy of the Assassination of Lincoln
America: Past, Present, and Future
IQ, Political Correctness, and America’s Present Condition
Progressive Taxation Is Alive and Well in the U.S. of A.
“Social Insurance” Isn’t Insurance — Nor Is Obamacare
“We the People” and Big Government
The Culture War
The Fall and Rise of American Empire
O Tempora O Mores!
Presidential Treason
A Home of One’s Own
The Criminality and Psychopathy of Statism
Surrender? Hell No!
Social Accounting: A Tool of Social Engineering
Playing the Social Security Trust Fund Shell Game
Two-Percent Tyranny
A Sideways Glance at Public “Education”
Greed, Conscience, and Big Government
The Many-Sided Curse of Very Old Age
The Slow-Motion Collapse of the Economy
How to Eradicate the Welfare State, and How Not to Do It
“Blue Wall” Hype
Does Obama Love America?
Obamanomics in Action
Democracy, Human Nature, and the Future of America
1963: The Year Zero

*****

XII. Science, Religion, and Philosophy
Same Old Story, Same Old Song and Dance
Atheism, Religion, and Science
The Limits of Science
Beware of Irrational Atheism
The Creation Model
Free Will: A Proof by Example?
Science in Politics, Politics in Science
Evolution and Religion
Science, Evolution, Religion, and Liberty
What’s Wrong with Game Theory
Is “Nothing” Possible?
Pseudo-Science in the Service of Political Correctness
Science’s Anti-Scientific Bent
Flow
Science, Axioms, and Economics
The Purpose-Driven Life
The Tenth Dimension
The Universe . . . Four Possibilities
Atheism, Religion, and Science Redux
“Warmism”: The Myth of Anthropogenic Global Warming
More Evidence against Anthropogenic Global Warming
Yet More Evidence against Anthropogenic Global Warming
Pascal’s Wager, Morality, and the State
Achilles and the Tortoise: A False Paradox
The Greatest Mystery
Modeling Is Not Science
Freedom of Will and Political Action
Fooled by Non-Randomness
Randomness Is Over-Rated
Anthropogenic Global Warming Is Dead, Just Not Buried Yet
Beware the Rare Event
Landsburg Is Half-Right
What Is Truth?
The Improbability of Us
Wrong Again
More Thoughts about Evolutionary Teleology
A Digression about Probability and Existence
Evolution and the Golden Rule
A Digression about Special Relativity
More about Probability and Existence
Existence and Creation
Probability, Existence, and Creation
Temporal and Spatial Agreement
In Defense of Subjectivism
The Atheism of the Gaps
The Ideal as a False and Dangerous Standard
Demystifying Science
Religion on the Left
Analysis for Government Decision-Making: Hemi-Science, Hemi-Demi-Science, and Sophistry
Scientism, Evolution, and the Meaning of Life
Luck and Baseball, One More Time
Are the Natural Numbers Supernatural?
The Candle Problem: Balderdash Masquerading as Science
Mysteries: Sacred and Profane
More about Luck and Baseball
Combinatorial Play
Something from Nothing?
Pseudoscience, “Moneyball,” and Luck
Something or Nothing
Understanding the Monty Hall Problem
My Metaphysical Cosmology
Further Thoughts about Metaphysical Cosmology
The Fallacy of Human Progress
Nothingness
The Glory of the Human Mind
Pinker Commits Scientism
Spooky Numbers, Evolution, and Intelligent Design
AGW: The Death Knell
Mind, Cosmos, and Consciousness
The Limits of Science (II)
Not Over the Hill
The Pretence of Knowledge
“The Science Is Settled”
The Compleat Monty Hall Problem
“Settled Science” and the Monty Hall Problem
Evolution, Culture, and “Diversity”
Some Thoughts about Probability
Rationalism, Empiricism, and Scientific Knowledge
AGW in Austin?

*****

XIII. Self-Ownership (abortion, euthanasia, marriage, and other aspects of the human condition)
Feminist Balderdash
Libertarianism, Marriage, and the True Meaning of Family Values
Law, Liberty, and Abortion
Privacy, Autonomy, and Responsibility
Parenting, Religion, Culture, and Liberty
The Case against Genetic Engineering
A “Person” or a “Life”?
A Wrong-Headed Take on Abortion
In Defense of Marriage
Crimes against Humanity
Abortion and Logic
The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm
Abortion, Doublethink, and Left-Wing Blather
Abortion, “Gay Rights,” and Liberty
Dan Quayle Was (Almost) Right
The Most Disgusting Thing I’ve Read Today
Posner the Fatuous
Marriage: Privatize It and Revitalize It

*****

XIV. War and Peace
Getting It Wrong: Civil Libertarians and the War on Terror (A Case Study)
Libertarian Nay-Saying on Foreign and Defense Policy, Revisited
Right On! For Libertarian Hawks Only
Understanding Libertarian Hawks
Defense, Anarcho-Capitalist Style
The Illogic of Knee-Jerk Civil Liberties Advocates
Getting It All Wrong about the Risk of Terrorism
Conservative Revisionism, Conservative Backlash, or Conservative Righteousness?
But Wouldn’t Warlords Take Over?
Sorting Out the Libertarian Hawks and Doves
Shall We All Hang Separately?
September 11: A Remembrance
September 11: A Postscript for “Peace Lovers”
Give Me Liberty or Give Me Non-Aggression?
NSA “Eavesdropping”: The Last Word (from Me)
Riots, Culture, and the Final Showdown
Thomas Woods and War
In Which I Reply to the Executive Editor of The New York Times
“Peace for Our Time”
Taking on Torture
Conspiracy Theorists’ Cousins
September 11: Five Years On
How to View Defense Spending
The Best Defense . . .
A Skewed Perspective on Terrorism
Not Enough Boots: The Why of It
Here We Go Again
“The War”: Final Grade
Torture, Revisited
Waterboarding, Torture, and Defense
Liberalism and Sovereignty
The Media, the Left, and War
Torture
Getting It Wrong and Right about Iran
The McNamara Legacy: A Personal Perspective
The “Predator War” and Self-Defense
The National Psyche and Foreign Wars
Inside-Outside
A Moralist’s Moral Blindness
A Grand Strategy for the United States
The Folly of Pacifism
Rating America’s Wars
Transnationalism and National Defense
The Next 9/11?
The Folly of Pacifism, Again
September 20, 2001: Hillary Clinton Signals the End of “Unity”
Patience as a Tool of Strategy
The War on Terror, As It Should Have Been Fought
The Cuban Missile Crisis, Revisited
Preemptive War
Preemptive War and Iran
Some Thoughts and Questions about Preemptive War
Defense as an Investment in Liberty and Prosperity
Riots, Culture, and the Final Showdown (revisited)
The Barbarians Within and the State of the Union
The World Turned Upside Down
Utilitarianism and Torture
Defense Spending: One More Time
Walking the Tightrope Reluctantly
The President’s Power to Kill Enemy Combatants

*****

XV. Writing and Language
Punctuation
“Hopefully” Arrives
Hopefully, This Post Will Be Widely Read
Why Prescriptivism?
A Guide to the Pronunciation of General American English
On Writing (a comprehensive essay about writing, which covers some of the material presented in other posts in this section)

–30–

The Tenor of the Times

Below are some links that I’ve collected about the culture war, political correctness, political hypocrisy, and other disturbing features of the contemporary scene. I don’t agree with everything said by the writers, but I believe that they are broadly right about the madness into which America seems to be rapidly descending.

Each link is followed by an excerpt of the piece that is linked. The excerpt — usually but not always the lede — is meant to entice you to follow the link. I urge you to do so.

*     *     *

Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, “Author Retracts Study of Changing Minds on Same-Sex Marriage after Colleague Admits Data Were Faked,” Retraction Watch, May 20, 2015 (et seq.):

In what can only be described as a remarkable and swift series of events, one of the authors of a much-ballyhooed Science paper claiming that short conversations could change people’s minds on same-sex marriage is retracting it following revelations that the data were faked by his co-author. [Leftists love to fake data to make political points (e.g., economics and climate studies). — TEA]

Jason Morgan, “Dissolving America,” American Thinker, June 29, 2015

The instant media consensus is in: the Confederate flag atop the South Carolina statehouse has got to go.  The battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, we are told, just doesn’t represent who we are as a nation anymore.

But if we are going to take the Confederate flag down because it no longer represents us, then there is no reason why we shouldn’t take the American flag down, too.  Not just from the government buildings in South Carolina, but from every home, ship, office, and church throughout the entire American territory.  Because neither flag has anything to do with who we are anymore.  Old Glory is now just as much a meaningless relic as the republic that created it — as obsolete as the Stars and Bars became in April of 1865.

Bill Vallicella, “SCOTUS and Benedict,” Maverick Philosopher, June 30, 2015:

[Quoting Rod Dreher]:

It is time for what I call the Benedict Option. In his 1982 book After Virtue, the eminent philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre likened the current age to the fall of ancient Rome. He pointed to Benedict of Nursia, a pious young Christian who left the chaos of Rome to go to the woods to pray, as an example for us. We who want to live by the traditional virtues, MacIntyre said, have to pioneer new ways of doing so in community. We await, he said “a new — and doubtless very different — St. Benedict.”

So now you are out in the desert or the forest or in some isolated place free of the toxic influences of a society in collapse.  The problem is that you are now a very easy target for the fascists.  You and yours are all in one place, far away from the rest of society and its infrastructure.  All the fascists have to do is trump up some charges, of child-abuse, of gun violations, whatever.  The rest of society considers you kooks and benighted bigots and won’t be bothered if you are wiped off the face of the earth.  You might go the way of the Branch Davidians.

Heather Mac Donald, “The Shameful Liberal Exploitation of the Charleston Massacre,” National Review, July 1, 2015:

In fact, white violence against blacks is dwarfed by black on white violence. In 2012, blacks committed 560,600 acts of violence against whites (excluding homicide), and whites committed 99,403 acts of violence (excluding homicide) against blacks, according to data from the National Crime Victimization Survey provided to the author. Blacks, in other words, committed 85 percent of the non-homicide interracial crimes of violence between blacks and whites, even though they are less than 13 percent of the population. Both the absolute number of incidents and the rate of black-on-white violence are therefore magnitudes higher than white-on-black violence. There is no white race war going on.

Steve McCann, “America’s Destiny in the Balance,” American Thinker, July 1, 2015:

Beginning in the 1930’s, under the aegis of Franklin Roosevelt, the nation began a drift to the left as a reaction to the Great Depression.  However, those truly committed to socialist/Marxist philosophy and tactics remained in the shadows until the 1960’s.  The Viet Nam war protests unleashed far more than just a demand for an end to the war.  Those that blamed America for all manner of alleged sins in the past and determined to transform the United States into a socialist/Marxist nirvana were able to step out from behind the shadows and enter the mainstream of national legitimacy.  This swarm of locusts soon enveloped the higher levels of academia spawning countless clones to further infiltrate all strata of society — most notably the mainstream media, the entertainment complex and the ultimate target: the Democratic Party.  These vital segments of the culture are now instruments of indoctrination, propaganda and political power.

Victoria Razzi, “Asian American Studies Professors Stay Silent on Asian vs. Black Integration,” The College Fix, July 1, 2015:

An 80-year-old Duke University professor recently argued that Asian Americans have integrated into America better than African Americans, a controversial and contentious assertion that caused uproar and prompted the scholar to be labeled a racist.

Eugene Slavin, “The White Privilege Lie,” American Thinker, July 1, 2015:

Of all the invectives launched against the United States by the resurgent American Left, the charge that in America, White Privilege reigns supreme is the most insidious and culturally ruinous.

Its intent is unambiguous: leftists perpetuate the White Privilege lie to smear America and its institutions as inherently racist, and therefore unworthy of adulation and in need of fundamental socioeconomic transformation.

David Limbaugh, “I Told You Things Are Getting Crazier,” CNSNews.com, July 7, 2015:

The world is upside down, inside out, sideways, crazy, nutso. Bad is good; up is down. Left is right; right is wrong. Evil is good; insanity is sanity. Abnormal is normal. Circles are squares. Hot is cold. Luke warm is red hot — among Republicans, anyway. Common sense is uncommon. The world is otherworldly. Dissent is “hate.” Diversity means conformity. The good guys are the bad guys; virtue is vice; sophistry is intellectualism; jerks are celebrated; debauchery is glorified; the holy is debauched. Let me share some of these headlines, which speak for themselves — loudly and depressingly.

Robert Joyner, “The Hypocrisy of #Black Lives Matter, July 4th EditionTheden, July 9, 2015:

As Theden has argued before, the Black Lives Matter movement is one that very clearly does not care about its own stated goals. The name implies that the movement exists to protect and enrich the lives of blacks, but it spends its time protesting often spurious cases of police brutality and, more recently, the flying of “offensive” flags. It is conspicuously silent on the number one threat to black lives in America, which is other blacks. The movement routinely hectors whites, but frankly the preponderance of evidence shows that whites already value black lives more than blacks do themselves.

Fred Reed, “‘Payback’s a Bitch’: Rural Wisdom and the Gathering Storm,” Fred on Everything, July 9, 2015:

The furor over the Confederate flag, think I, has little to do with the Confederate flag, which is a pretext, an uninvolved bystander. Rather it is about a seething anger in the United States that we must not mention. It is the anger of people who see everything they are and believe under attack by people they aren’t and do not want to be—their heritage, their religion, their values and way of life all mocked and even made criminal.

Bill Vallicella, “Is Reason a White Male Euro-Christian Construct?,” Maverick Philosopher, July 10, 2015:

[Quoting John D. Caputo]:

White is not “neutral.” “Pure” reason is lily white, as if white is not a color or is closest to the purity of the sun, and everything else is “colored.” Purification is a name for terror and deportation, and “white” is a thick, dense, potent cultural signifier that is closely linked to rationalism and colonialism. What is not white is not rational. So white is philosophically relevant and needs to be philosophically critiqued — it affects what we mean by “reason” — and “we” white philosophers cannot ignore it.

This is truly depressing stuff.  It illustrates the rarefied, pseudo-intellectual stupidity to which leftist intellectuals routinely succumb, and the level to which humanities departments in our universities have sunk.

It’s all depressing. Have a nice day.

Signature

Not-So-Random Thoughts (XV)

Links to the other posts in this occasional series may be found at “Favorite Posts,” just below the list of topics.

*     *     *

Victor Davis Hanson writes:

This descent into the Dark Ages will not end well. It never has in the past. [“Building the New Dark-Age Mind,” Works and Days, June 8, 2015]

Hamson’s chronicle of political correctness and doublespeak echoes one theme of my post, “1963: The Year Zero.”

*     *     *

Timothy Taylor does the two-handed economist act:

It may be that the question of “does inequality slow down economic growth” is too broad and diffuse to be useful. Instead, those of us who care about both the rise in inequality and the slowdown in economic growth should be looking for policies to address both goals, without presuming that substantial overlap will always occur between them. [“Does Inequality Reduce Economic Growth: A Skeptical View,” The Conversible Economist, May 29, 2015]

The short answer to the question “Does inequality reduce growth?” is no. See my post “Income Inequality and Economic Growth.” Further, even if inequality does reduce growth, the idea of reducing inequality (through income redistribution, say) to foster growth is utilitarian and therefore morally egregious. (See “Utilitarianism vs. Liberty.”)

*     *     *

In “Diminishing Marginal Utility and the Redistributive Urge” I write:

[L]eftists who deign to offer an economic justification for redistribution usually fall back on the assumption of the diminishing marginal utility (DMU) of income and wealth. In doing so, they commit (at least) four errors.

The first error is the fallacy of misplaced concreteness which is found in the notion of utility. Have you ever been able to measure your own state of happiness? I mean measure it, not just say that you’re feeling happier today than you were when your pet dog died. It’s an impossible task, isn’t it? If you can’t measure your own happiness, how can you (or anyone) presume to measure and aggregate the happiness of millions or billions of individual human beings? It can’t be done.

Which brings me to the second error, which is an error of arrogance. Given the impossibility of measuring one person’s happiness, and the consequent impossibility of measuring and comparing the happiness of many persons, it is pure arrogance to insist that “society” would be better off if X amount of income or wealth were transferred from Group A to Group B….

The third error lies in the implicit assumption embedded in the idea of DMU. The assumption is that as one’s income or wealth rises one continues to consume the same goods and services, but more of them….

All of that notwithstanding, the committed believer in DMU will shrug and say that at some point DMU must set in. Which leads me to the fourth error, which is an error of introspection….  [If over the years] your real income has risen by a factor of two or three or more — and if you haven’t messed up your personal life (which is another matter) — you’re probably incalculably happier than when you were just able to pay your bills. And you’re especially happy if you put aside a good chunk of money for your retirement, the anticipation and enjoyment of which adds a degree of utility (such a prosaic word) that was probably beyond imagining when you were in your twenties, thirties, and forties.

Robert Murphy agrees:

[T]he problem comes in when people sometimes try to use the concept of DMU to justify government income redistribution. Specifically, the argument is that (say) the billionth dollar to Bill Gates has hardly any marginal utility, while the 10th dollar to a homeless man carries enormous marginal utility. So clearly–the argument goes–taking a dollar from Bill Gates and giving it to a homeless man raises “total social utility.”

There are several serious problems with this type of claim. Most obvious, even if we thought it made sense to attribute units of utility to individuals, there is no reason to suppose we could compare them across individuals. For example, even if we thought a rich man had units of utility–akin to the units of his body temperature–and that the units declined with more money, and likewise for a poor person, nonetheless we have no way of placing the two types of units on the same scale….

In any event, this is all a moot point regarding the original question of interpersonal utility comparisons. Even if we thought individuals had cardinal utilities, it wouldn’t follow that redistribution would raise total social utility.

Even if we retreat to the everyday usage of terms, it still doesn’t follow as a general rule that rich people get less happiness from a marginal dollar than a poor person. There are many people, especially in the financial sector, whose self-esteem is directly tied to their earnings. And as the photo indicates, Scrooge McDuck really seems to enjoy money. Taking gold coins from Scrooge and giving them to a poor monk would not necessarily increase happiness, even in the everyday psychological sense. [“Can We Compare People’s Utilities?,” Mises Canada, May 22, 2015]

See also David Henderson’s “Murphy on Interpersonal Utility Comparisons” (EconLog, May 22, 2015) and Henderson’s earlier posts on the subject, to which he links. Finally, see my comment on an earlier post by Henderson, in which he touches on the related issue of cost-benefit analysis.

*     *     *

Here’s a slice of what Robert Tracinski has to say about “reform conservatism”:

The key premise of this non-reforming “reform conservatism” is the idea that it’s impossible to really touch the welfare state. We might be able to alter its incentives and improve its clanking machinery, but only if we loudly assure everyone that we love it and want to keep it forever.

And there’s the problem. Not only is this defeatist at its core, abandoning the cause of small government at the outset, but it fails to address the most important problem facing the country.

“Reform conservatism” is an answer to the question: how can we promote the goal of freedom and small government—without posing any outright challenge to the welfare state? The answer: you can’t. All you can do is tinker around the edges of Leviathan. And ultimately, it won’t make much difference, because it will all be overwelmed in the coming disaster. [“Reform Conservatism Is an Answer to the Wrong Question,” The Federalist, May 22, 2015]

Further, as I observe in “How to Eradicate the Welfare State, and How Not to Do It,” the offerings of “reform conservatives”

may seem like reasonable compromises with the left’s radical positions. But they are reasonable compromises only if you believe that the left wouldn’t strive vigorously to undo them and continue the nation’s march toward full-blown state socialism. That’s the way leftists work. They take what they’re given and then come back for more, lying and worse all the way.

See also Arnold Kling’s “Reason Roundtable on Reform Conservatism” (askblog, May 22, 2015) and follow the links therein.

*     *     *

I’ll end this installment with a look at science and the anti-scientific belief in catastrophic anthropogenic global warming.

Here’s Philip Ball in “The Trouble With Scientists“:

It’s likely that some researchers are consciously cherry-picking data to get their work published. And some of the problems surely lie with journal publication policies. But the problems of false findings often begin with researchers unwittingly fooling themselves: they fall prey to cognitive biases, common modes of thinking that lure us toward wrong but convenient or attractive conclusions. “Seeing the reproducibility rates in psychology and other empirical science, we can safely say that something is not working out the way it should,” says Susann Fiedler, a behavioral economist at the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods in Bonn, Germany. “Cognitive biases might be one reason for that.”

Psychologist Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia says that the most common and problematic bias in science is “motivated reasoning”: We interpret observations to fit a particular idea. Psychologists have shown that “most of our reasoning is in fact rationalization,” he says. In other words, we have already made the decision about what to do or to think, and our “explanation” of our reasoning is really a justification for doing what we wanted to do—or to believe—anyway. Science is of course meant to be more objective and skeptical than everyday thought—but how much is it, really?

Whereas the falsification model of the scientific method championed by philosopher Karl Popper posits that the scientist looks for ways to test and falsify her theories—to ask “How am I wrong?”—Nosek says that scientists usually ask instead “How am I right?” (or equally, to ask “How are you wrong?”). When facts come up that suggest we might, in fact, not be right after all, we are inclined to dismiss them as irrelevant, if not indeed mistaken….

Given that science has uncovered a dizzying variety of cognitive biases, the relative neglect of their consequences within science itself is peculiar. “I was aware of biases in humans at large,” says [Chris] Hartgerink [of Tilburg University in the Netherlands], “but when I first ‘learned’ that they also apply to scientists, I was somewhat amazed, even though it is so obvious.”…

One of the reasons the science literature gets skewed is that journals are much more likely to publish positive than negative results: It’s easier to say something is true than to say it’s wrong. Journal referees might be inclined to reject negative results as too boring, and researchers currently get little credit or status, from funders or departments, from such findings. “If you do 20 experiments, one of them is likely to have a publishable result,” [Ivan] Oransky and [Adam] Marcus [who run the service Retraction Watch] write. “But only publishing that result doesn’t make your findings valid. In fact it’s quite the opposite.”9 [Nautilus, May 14, 2015]

Zoom to AGW. Robert Tracinski assesses the most recent bit of confirmation bias:

A lot of us having been pointing out one of the big problems with the global warming theory: a long plateau in global temperatures since about 1998. Most significantly, this leveling off was not predicted by the theory, and observed temperatures have been below the lowest end of the range predicted by all of the computerized climate models….

Why, change the data, of course!

Hence a blockbuster new report: a new analysis of temperature data since 1998 “adjusts” the numbers and magically finds that there was no plateau after all. The warming just continued….

How convenient.

It’s so convenient that they’re signaling for everyone else to get on board….

This is going to be the new party line. “Hiatus”? What hiatus? Who are you going to believe, our adjustments or your lying thermometers?…

The new adjustments are suspiciously convenient, of course. Anyone who is touting a theory that isn’t being borne out by the evidence and suddenly tells you he’s analyzed the data and by golly, what do you know, suddenly it does support his theory—well, he should be met with more than a little skepticism.

If we look, we find some big problems. The most important data adjustments by far are in ocean temperature measurements. But anyone who has been following this debate will notice something about the time period for which the adjustments were made. This is a time in which the measurement of ocean temperatures has vastly improved in coverage and accuracy as a whole new set of scientific buoys has come online. So why would this data need such drastic “correcting”?

As climatologist Judith Curry puts it:

The greatest changes in the new NOAA surface temperature analysis is to the ocean temperatures since 1998. This seems rather ironic, since this is the period where there is the greatest coverage of data with the highest quality of measurements–ARGO buoys and satellites don’t show a warming trend. Nevertheless, the NOAA team finds a substantial increase in the ocean surface temperature anomaly trend since 1998.

….

I realize the warmists are desperate, but they might not have thought through the overall effect of this new “adjustment” push. We’ve been told to take very, very seriously the objective data showing global warming is real and is happening—and then they announce that the data has been totally changed post hoc. This is meant to shore up the theory, but it actually calls the data into question….

All of this fits into a wider pattern: the global warming theory has been awful at making predictions about the data ahead of time. But it has been great at going backward, retroactively reinterpreting the data and retrofitting the theory to mesh with it. A line I saw from one commenter, I can’t remember where, has been rattling around in my head: “once again, the theory that predicts nothing explains everything.” [“Global Warming: The Theory That Predicts Nothing and Explains Everything,” The Federalist, June 8, 2015]

Howard Hyde also weighs in with “Climate Change: Where Is the Science?” (American Thinker, June 11, 2015).

Bill Nye, the so-called Science Guy, seems to epitomize the influence of ideology on “scientific knowledge.”  I defer to John Derbyshire:

Bill Nye the Science Guy gave a commencement speech at Rutgers on Sunday. Reading the speech left me thinking that if this is America’s designated Science Guy, I can be the nation’s designated swimsuit model….

What did the Science Guy have to say to the Rutgers graduates? Well, he warned them of the horrors of climate change, which he linked to global inequality.

We’re going to find a means to enable poor people to advance in their societies in countries around the world. Otherwise, the imbalance of wealth will lead to conflict and inefficiency in energy production, which will lead to more carbon pollution and a no-way-out overheated globe.

Uh, given that advanced countries use far more energy per capita than backward ones—the U.S.A. figure is thirty-four times Bangladesh’s—wouldn’t a better strategy be to keep poor countries poor? We could, for example, encourage all their smartest and most entrepreneurial people to emigrate to the First World … Oh, wait: we already do that.

The whole climate change business is now a zone of hysteria, generating far more noise—mostly of a shrieking kind—than its importance justifies. Opinions about climate change are, as Greg Cochran said, “a mark of tribal membership.” It is also the case, as Greg also said, that “the world is never going to do much about in any event, regardless of the facts.”…

When Ma Nature means business, stuff happens on a stupendously colossal scale.  And Bill Nye the Science Guy wants Rutgers graduates to worry about a 0.4ºC warming over thirty years? Feugh.

The Science Guy then passed on from the dubiously alarmist to the batshit barmy.

There really is no such thing as race. We are one species … We all come from Africa.

Where does one start with that? Perhaps by asserting that: “There is no such thing as states. We are one country.”

The climatological equivalent of saying there is no such thing as race would be saying that there is no such thing as weather. Of course there is such a thing as race. We can perceive race with at least three of our five senses, and read it off from the genome. We tick boxes for it on government forms: I ticked such a box for the ATF just this morning when buying a gun.

This is the Science Guy? The foundational text of modern biology bears the title On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. Is biology not a science?

Darwin said that populations of a species long separated from each other will diverge in their biological characteristics, forming races. If the separation goes on long enough, any surviving races will diverge all the way to separate species. Was Ol’ Chuck wrong about that, Mr. Science Guy?

“We are one species”? Rottweilers and toy poodles are races within one species, a species much newer than ours; yet they differ mightily, not only in appearance but also—gasp!—in behavior, intelligence, and personality. [“Nye Lied, I Sighed,” Taki’s Magazine, May 21, 2015]

This has gone on long enough. Instead of quoting myself, I merely refer you to several related posts:

Demystifying Science
AGW: The Death Knell
Evolution and Race
The Limits of Science (II)
The Pretence of Knowledge
“The Science Is Settled”
The Limits of Science, Illustrated by Scientists
Rationalism, Empiricism, and Scientific Knowledge
AGW in Austin?

Signature

1963: The Year Zero

[A] long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT…. Time makes more converts than reason.

Thomas Paine in Common Sense

If ignorance and passion are the foes of popular morality, it must be confessed that moral indifference is the malady of the cultivated classes. The modern separation of enlightenment and virtue, of thought and conscience, of the intellectual aristocracy from the honest and common crowd is the greatest danger that can threaten liberty.

Henri Frédéric Amiel, Journal

*     *     *

If, like me, you were an adult when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, you may think of his death as a watershed moment in American history. I say this not because I’m an admirer of Kennedy the man (I am not), but because American history seemed to turn a corner when Kennedy was murdered. To take the metaphor further, the corner marked the juncture of a sunny, tree-lined street (America from the end of World War II to November 22, 1963) and a dingy, littered street (America since November 22, 1963).

Changing the metaphor, I acknowledge that the first 18 years after V-J Day were by no means halcyon, but they were the spring that followed the long, harsh winter of the Great Depression and World War II. Yes, there was the Korean War, but that failure of political resolve was only a rehearsal for later debacles. McCarthyism, a political war waged (however clumsily) on America’s actual enemies, was benign compared with the war on civil society that began in the 1960s and continues to this day. The threat of nuclear annihilation, which those of you who were schoolchildren of the 1950s will remember well, had begun to subside with the advent of JFK’s military policy of flexible response, and seemed to evaporate with JFK’s resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis (however poorly he managed it). And for all of his personal faults, JFK was a paragon of grace, wit, and charm — a movie-star president — compared with his many successors, with the possible exception of Ronald Reagan, who had been a real movie star.

What follows is an impression of America since November 22, 1963, when spring became a long, hot summer, followed by a dismal autumn and another long, harsh winter — not of deprivation, and perhaps not of war, but of rancor and repression.

This petite histoire begins with the Vietnam War and its disastrous mishandling by LBJ, its betrayal by the media, and its spawning of the politics of noise. “Protests” in public spaces and on campuses are a main feature of the politics of noise. In the new age of instant and sympathetic media attention to “protests,” civil and university authorities often refuse to enforce order. The media portray obstructive and destructive disorder as “free speech.” Thus do “protestors” learn that they can, with impunity, inconvenience and cow the masses who simply want to get on with their lives and work.

Whether “protestors” learned from rioters, or vice versa, they learned the same lesson. Authorities, in the age of Dr. Spock, lack the guts to use force, as necessary, to restore civil order. (LBJ’s decision to escalate gradually in Vietnam — “signaling” to Hanoi — instead of waging all-out war was of a piece with the “understanding” treatment of demonstrators and rioters.) Rioters learned another lesson — if a riot follows the arrest, beating, or death of a black person, it’s a “protest” against something (usually white-racist oppression, regardless of the facts), not wanton mayhem. After a lull of 21 years, urban riots resumed in 1964, and continue to this day.

LBJ’s “Great Society” marked the resurgence of FDR’s New Deal — with a vengeance — and the beginning of a long decline of America’s economic vitality. The combination of the Great Society (and its later extensions, such as Medicare Part D and Obamacare) with the rampant growth of regulatory activity has cut the rate of economic growth from 5 percent to 2 percent.  The entrepreneurial spirit has been crushed; dependency has been encouraged and rewarded; pension giveaways have bankrupted public treasuries across the land. America since 1963 has been visited by a perfect storm of economic destruction that seems to have been designed by America’s enemies.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 unnecessarily crushed property rights, along with freedom of association, to what end? So that a violent, dependent, Democrat-voting underclass could arise from the Great Society? So that future generations of privilege-seekers could cry “discrimination” if anyone dares to denigrate their “lifestyles”? There was a time when immigrants and other persons who seemed “different” had the good sense to strive for success and acceptance as good neighbors, employees, and merchants. But the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its various offspring — State and local as well as federal — are meant to short-circuit that striving and to force acceptance, whether or not a person has earned it. The vast, silent majority is caught between empowered privilege-seekers and powerful privilege-granters. The privilege-seekers and privilege-granters are abetted by dupes who have, as usual, succumbed to the people’s romance — the belief that government represents society.

Presidents, above all, like to think that they represent society. What they represent, of course, are their own biases and the interests to which they are beholden. Truman, Ike, and JFK were imperfect presidential specimens, but they are shining idols by contrast with most of their successors. The downhill slide from the Vietnam and the Great Society to Obamacare and lawlessness on immigration has been punctuated by many shameful episodes; for example:

  • LBJ — the botched war in Vietnam, repudiation of property rights and freedom of association (the Civil Rights Act)
  • Nixon — price controls, Watergate
  • Carter — dispiriting leadership and fecklessness in the Iran hostage crisis
  • Reagan — bugout from Lebanon, rescue of Social Security
  • Bush I — failure to oust Saddam when it could have been done easily, the broken promise about taxes
  • Clinton — bugout from Somalia, push for an early version of Obamacare, budget-balancing at the cost of defense, and perjury
  • Bush II — No Child Left Behind Act, Medicare Part D, the initial mishandling of Iraq, and Wall Street bailouts
  • Obama — stimulus spending, Obamacare, reversal of Bush II’s eventual success in Iraq, naive backing for the “Arab spring,”  acquiescence to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, unwillingness to acknowledge or do anything about the expansionist aims of Russia and China, neglect or repudiation of traditional allies (especially Israel), and refusal to take care that the immigration laws are executed faithfully.

Only Reagan’s defense buildup and its result — victory in the Cold War — stands out as a great accomplishment. But the victory was squandered: The “peace dividend” should have been peace through continued strength, not unpreparedness for the post 9/11 wars and the resurgence of Russia and China.

The war on defense has been accompanied by a war on science. The party that proclaims itself the party of science is anything but that. It is the party of superstitious, Luddite anti-science. Witness the embrace of extreme environmentalism, the arrogance of proclamations that AGW is “settled science,” unjustified fear of genetically modified foodstuffs, the implausible doctrine that race is nothing but a social construct, and on and on.

With respect to the nation’s moral well-being, the most destructive war of all has been the culture war, which assuredly began in the 1960s. Almost overnight, it seems, the nation was catapulted from the land of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, and Leave It to Beaver to the land of the free- filthy-speech movement, Altamont, Woodstock, Hair, and the unspeakably loud, vulgar, and violent offerings that are now plastered all over the air waves, the internet, theater screens, and “entertainment” venues.

Adherents of the ascendant culture esteem protest for its own sake, and have stock explanations for all perceived wrongs (whether or not they are wrongs): racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, hate, white privilege, inequality (of any kind), Wall  Street, climate change, Zionism, and so on.

Then there is the campaign to curtail freedom of speech. This purported beneficiaries of the campaign are the gender-confused and the easily offended (thus “microagressions” and “trigger warnings”). The true beneficiaries are leftists. Free speech is all right if it’s acceptable to the left. Otherwise, it’s “hate speech,” and must be stamped out. This is McCarthyism on steroids. McCarthy, at least, was pursuing actual enemies of liberty; today’s leftists are the enemies of liberty.

There’s a lot more, unfortunately. The organs of the state have been enlisted in an unrelenting campaign against civilizing social norms. As I say here,

we now have not just easy divorce, subsidized illegitimacy, and legions of non-mothering mothers, but also abortion, concerted (and deluded) efforts to defeminize females and to neuter or feminize males, forced association (with accompanying destruction of property and employment rights), suppression of religion, absolution of pornography, and the encouragement of “alternative lifestyles” that feature disease, promiscuity, and familial instability. The state, of course, doesn’t act of its own volition. It acts at the behest of special interests — interests with a “cultural” agenda….  They are bent on the eradication of civil society — nothing less — in favor of a state-directed Rousseauvian dystopia from which morality and liberty will have vanished, except in Orwellian doublespeak.

If there are unifying themes in this petite histoire, they are the death of common sense and the rising tide of moral vacuity — thus the epigrams at the top of the post. The history of the United States since 1963 supports the proposition that the nation is indeed going to hell in a handbasket.

Read on.

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Related reading:

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Related posts:

Refuting Rousseau and His Progeny
Killing Free Speech in Order to Save It
The Adolescent Rebellion Syndrome
The Ruinous Despotism of Democracy
Academic Bias
The F-Scale Revisited
The Modern Presidency: A Tour of American History
The People’s Romance
Intellectuals and Capitalism
On Liberty
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Liberalism and Sovereignty
The Interest-Group Paradox
Getting It Wrong and Right about Iran
The Real Constitution and Civil Disobedience
The State of the Union 2010
The Shape of Things to Come
Sexist Nonsense
The Constitution: Original Meaning, Corruption, and Restoration
Delusions of Preparedness
Inside-Outside
Asymmetrical (Ideological) Warfare
A Grand Strategy for the United States
The Folly of Pacifism
The Unconstitutionality of the Individual Mandate
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
Does the Power to Tax Give Congress Unlimited Power?
Does Congress Have the Power to Regulate Inactivity?
Is the Anger Gone?
Government vs. Community
Social Justice
The Left’s Agenda
More Social Justice
Why We Should (and Should Not) Fight
Rating America’s Wars
The Public-School Swindle
The Evil That Is Done with Good Intentions
Transnationalism and National Defense
Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
The Left and Its Delusions
In Defense of Wal-Mart
The Destruction of Society in the Name of “Society”
The Folly of Pacifism, Again
An Economist’s Special Pleading: Affirmative Action for the Ugly
September 20, 2001: Hillary Clinton Signals the End of “Unity”
The War on Terror, As It Should Have Been Fought
Obamacare: Neither Necessary nor Proper
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty
Defense as an Investment in Liberty and Prosperity
Our Perfect, Perfect Constitution
Free Will, Crime, and Punishment
Constitutional Confusion
Obamacare, Slopes, Ratchets, and the Death-Spiral of Liberty
Obamacare and Zones of Liberty
Race and Reason: The Achievement Gap — Causes and Implications
Obama’s Big Lie
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
The Capitalist Paradox Meets the Interest-Group Paradox
Genetic Kinship and Society
America: Past, Present, and Future
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Left-Libertarians, Obama, and the Zimmerman Case
“Conversing” about Race
The Fallacy of Human Progress
Fighting Modernity
Political Correctness vs. Civility
IQ, Political Correctness, and America’s Present Condition
AGW: The Death Knell
The Barbarians Within and the State of the Union
Defining Liberty
The World Turned Upside Down
“We the People” and Big Government
Evolution and Race
The Culture War
Defense Spending: One More Time
The Fall and Rise of American Empire
Some Inconvenient Facts about Income Inequality
Modern Liberalism as Wishful Thinking
Mass (Economic) Hysteria: Income Inequality and Related Themes
Presidential Treason
Getting Liberty Wrong
Romanticizing the State
The Limits of Science (II)
The Pretence of Knowledge
“The Science Is Settled”
“Wading” into Race, Culture, and IQ
“Liberalism” and Personal Responsibility
Income Inequality and Economic Growth
Round Up the Usual Suspects
Walking the Tightrope Reluctantly
Poverty, Crime, and Big Government
Evolution, Culture, and “Diversity”
A Case for Redistribution, Not Made
Greed, Conscience, and Big Government
Ruminations on the Left in America
The Harmful Myth of Inherent Equality
My View of Libertarianism
Crime Revisited
Getting “Equal Protection” Right
McCloskey on Piketty
The Rahn Curve Revisited
The Slow-Motion Collapse of the Economy
A Cop-Free World?
Nature, Nurture, and Inequality
Tolerance
How to Eradicate the Welfare State, and How Not to Do It
Does Obama Love America?
The Real Burden of Government
No Wonder Liberty Is Disappearing
Diminishing Marginal Utility and the Redistributive Urge
How to Protect Property Rights and Freedom of Association and Expression
Obamanomics in Action
Democracy, Human Nature, and the Future of America
Rationalism, Empiricism, and Scientific Knowledge
The Gaystapo at Work
The Gaystapo and Islam
AGW in Austin?

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Not-So-Random Thoughts (XII)

Links to the other posts in this occasional series may be found at “Favorite Posts,” just below the list of topics.

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Intolerance as Illiberalism” by Kim R. Holmes (The Public Discourse, June 18, 2014) is yet another reminder, of innumerable reminders, that modern “liberalism” is a most intolerant creed. See my ironically titled “Tolerance on the Left” and its many links.

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Speaking of intolerance, it’s hard to top a strident atheist like Richard Dawkins. See John Gray’s “The Closed Mind of Richard Dawkins” (The New Republic, October 2, 2014). Among the several posts in which I challenge the facile atheism of Dawkins and his ilk are “Further Thoughts about Metaphysical Cosmology” and “Scientism, Evolution, and the Meaning of Life.”

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Some atheists — Dawkins among them — find a justification for their non-belief in evolution. On that topic, Gertrude Himmelfarb writes:

The fallacy in the ethics of evolution is the equation of the “struggle for existence” with the “survival of the fittest,” and the assumption that “the fittest” is identical with “the best.” But that struggle may favor the worst rather than the best. [“Evolution and Ethics, Revisited,” The New Atlantis, Spring 2014]

As I say in “Some Thoughts about Evolution,”

Survival and reproduction depend on many traits. A particular trait, considered in isolation, may seem to be helpful to the survival and reproduction of a group. But that trait may not be among the particular collection of traits that is most conducive to the group’s survival and reproduction. If that is the case, the trait will become less prevalent. Alternatively, if the trait is an essential member of the collection that is conducive to survival and reproduction, it will survive. But its survival depends on the other traits. The fact that X is a “good trait” does not, in itself, ensure the proliferation of X. And X will become less prevalent if other traits become more important to survival and reproduction.

The same goes for “bad” traits. Evolution is no guarantor of ethical goodness.

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It shouldn’t be necessary to remind anyone that men and women are different. But it is. Lewis Wolpert gives it another try in “Yes, It’s Official, Men Are from Mars and Women from Venus, and Here’s the Science to Prove It” (The Telegraph, September 14, 2014). One of my posts on the subject is “The Harmful Myth of Inherent Equality.” I’m talking about general tendencies, of course, not iron-clad rules about “men’s roles” and “women’s roles.” Aside from procreation, I can’t readily name “roles” that fall exclusively to men or women out of biological necessity. There’s no biological reason, for example, that an especially strong and agile woman can’t be a combat soldier. But it is folly to lower the bar just so that more women can qualify as combat soldiers. The same goes for intellectual occupations. Women shouldn’t be discouraged from pursuing graduate degrees and professional careers in math, engineering, and the hard sciences, but the qualifications for entry and advancement in those fields shouldn’t be watered down just for the sake of increasing the representation of women.

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Edward Feser, writing in “Nudge Nudge, Wink Wink” at his eponymous blog (October 24, 2014), notes

[Michael] Levin’s claim … that liberal policies cannot, given our cultural circumstances, be neutral concerning homosexuality.  They will inevitably “send a message” of approval rather than mere neutrality or indifference.

Feser then quotes Levin:

[L]egislation “legalizing homosexuality” cannot be neutral because passing it would have an inexpungeable speech-act dimension.  Society cannot grant unaccustomed rights and privileges to homosexuals while remaining neutral about the value of homosexuality.

Levin, who wrote that 30 years ago, gets a 10 out 10 for prescience. Just read “Abortion, ‘Gay Rights’, and Liberty” for a taste of the illiberalism that accompanies “liberal” causes like same-sex “marriage.”

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“Liberalism” has evolved into hard-leftism. It’s main adherents are now an elite upper crust and their clients among the hoi polloi. Steve Sailer writes incisively about the socioeconomic divide in “A New Caste Society” (Taki’s Magazine, October 8, 2014). “‘Wading’ into Race, Culture, and IQ” offers a collection of links to related posts and articles.

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One of the upper crust’s recent initiatives is so-called libertarian paternalism. Steven Teles skewers it thoroughly in “Nudge or Shove?” (The American Interest, December 10, 2014), a review of Cass Sunstein’s Why Nudge? The Politics of Libertarian Paternalism. I have written numerous times about Sunstein and (faux) libertarian paternalism. The most recent entry, “The Sunstein Effect Is Alive and  Well in the White House,” ends with links to two dozen related posts. (See also Don Boudreaux, “Where Nudging Leads,” Cafe Hayek, January 24, 2015.)

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Maria Konnikova gives some space to Jonathan Haidt in “Is Social Psychology Biased against Republicans?” (The New Yorker, October 30, 2014). It’s no secret that most academic disciplines other than math and the hard sciences are biased against Republicans, conservatives, libertarians, free markets, and liberty. I have something to say about it in “The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament,” and in several of the posts listed here.

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Keith E. Stanovich makes some good points about the limitations of intelligence in “Rational and Irrational Thought: The Thinking that IQ Tests Miss” (Scientific American, January 1, 2015). Stanovich writes:

The idea that IQ tests do not measure all the key human faculties is not new; critics of intelligence tests have been making that point for years. Robert J. Sternberg of Cornell University and Howard Gardner of Harvard talk about practical intelligence, creative intelligence, interpersonal intelligence, bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, and the like. Yet appending the word “intelligence” to all these other mental, physical and social entities promotes the very assumption the critics want to attack. If you inflate the concept of intelligence, you will inflate its close associates as well. And after 100 years of testing, it is a simple historical fact that the closest associate of the term “intelligence” is “the IQ test part of intelligence.”

I make a similar point in “Intelligence as a Dirty Word,” though I don’t denigrate IQ, which is a rather reliable predictor of performance in a broad range of endeavors.

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Brian Caplan, whose pseudo-libertarianism rankles, tries to defend the concept of altruism in “The Evidence of Altruism” (EconLog, December 30, 2014). Caplan aids his case by using the loaded “selfishness” where he means “self-interest.” He also ignores empathy, which is a key ingredient of the Golden Rule. As for my view of altruism (as a concept), see “Egoism and Altruism.”

Some Thoughts about Evolution

I came across this in a post about a psychological trait known as affective empathy*:

[I]f affective empathy helps people to survive and reproduce, there will be more and more of it in succeeding generations. If not, there will be less and less.

I’ve run across similar assertions about other traits in my occasional reading about evolution. But is it true that if X helps people to survive and reproduce, X will proliferate?

Survival and reproduction depend on many traits. A particular trait, considered in isolation, may seem to be helpful to the survival and reproduction of a group. But that trait may not be among the particular collection of traits that is most conducive to the group’s survival and reproduction. If that is the case, the trait will become less prevalent.

Alternatively, if the trait is an essential member of the collection that is conducive to survival and reproduction, it will survive. But its survival depends on the other traits. The fact that X is a “good trait” does not, in itself, ensure the proliferation of X. And X will become less prevalent if other traits become more important to survival and reproduction.

In any event, it is my view that genetic fitness for survival has become almost irrelevant in places like the United States. The rise of technology and the “social safety net” (state-enforced pseudo-empathy) have enabled the survival and reproduction of traits that would have dwindled in times past.

I’m only making an observation. Eugenics is the province of the left.

__________
* Affective empathy is defined by the same writer as the

capacity not only to understand how another person feels but also to experience those feelings involuntarily and to respond appropriately.

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Related Posts:
Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
Empathy Is Overrated
IQ, Political Correctness, and America’s Present Condition
Evolution and Race
Alienation
Income Inequality and Economic Growth
Egoism and Altruism
Evolution, Culture, and “Diversity”
A Case for Redistribution, Not Made
Greed, Conscience, and Big Government
Ruminations on the Left in America
The Harmful Myth of Inherent Equality
Not-So-Random Thoughts (XI) (first entry)

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Greed, Conscience, and Big Government

The financial crisis of 2007-2008, which led to the Great Recession, has been blamed on several things. Financial institutions are leading scapegoats. In particular, there were the retail institutions that lent money at low interest rates (made so by the Fed) to high-risk borrowers (in keeping with government policy), and there were the Wall Street institutions that “poisoned” financial markets by securitizing bundles of high-risk mortgage loans.

In both cases, the institutions are said to have been “greedy” in pursuit of greater profits. That “crime” (which is only a “crime” when someone else commits it) was in fact “committed” in ways that were perfectly legal and passed muster with government regulators. In sum, the financial crisis and subsequent recession were deeply rooted in government failure — not “greed.” For chapter and verse, see Arnold Kling’s monograph, Not What They Had in Mind.

Nevertheless, greed is often blamed for the financial crisis and its aftermath. Why? Because it’s a simple, mindless generalization that plays into the left’s perpetual campaign against “the rich” — a.k.a. biting the hand that feeds them.  And it’s certainly a lot easier for ignoramuses (leftist or otherwise) to parrot “greed” than to seek the truth.

With that out of the way, let’s take a closer look at greed and its antecedent, avarice.

Here is the primary definition of greed, as given by The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language (from The Free Dictionary):

An excessive desire to acquire or possess more than what one needs or deserves, especially with respect to material wealth.

What about “avarice”? Here is the primary definition from the same source:

Immoderate desire for wealth; cupidity [another word for the same thing].

To call a person (or institutional collective of persons) “greedy” or “avaricious,” one must make normative judgments; that is, the person’s (or collective’s) desire for (material) wealth must be deemed “excessive” or “immoderate” or more than he “deserves.” When I consider the affluent leftists in the academy, the media, and government who make such judgements when they proclaim the “greediness” of bankers (but not film stars or professional athletes), my thoughts turn to John 8:7 — “Whichever of you is free from sin shall cast the first stone….” (It is telling that Paul Krugman, an undeniably affluent leftist, seeks — and fails — to avoid seeming hypocritical by focusing his attacks on persons in the top 0.1 percent of the income distribution.)

For a more thoughtful treatment of greed (properly avarice), I turn to the entry in the The Catholic Encyclopedia:

Avarice (from Latin avarus, “greedy”; “to crave”) is the inordinate love for riches. Its special malice, broadly speaking, lies in that it makes the getting and keeping of money, possessions, and the like, a purpose in itself to live for. It does not see that these things are valuable only as instruments for the conduct of a rational and harmonious life, due regard being paid of course to the special social condition in which one is placed. It is called a capital vice because it has as its object that for the gaining or holding of which many other sins are committed. It is more to be dreaded in that it often cloaks itself as a virtue, or insinuates itself under the pretext of making a decent provision for the future. In so far as avarice is an incentive to injustice in acquiring and retaining of wealth, it is frequently a grievous sin. In itself, however, and in so far as it implies simply an excessive desire of, or pleasure in, riches, it is commonly not a mortal sin.

I take two key points from this definition:

  • Acquisitiveness is bad when it becomes an end in itself, so that one becomes neglectful of family, friends, associates — and God.
  • Acquisitiveness is bad when it is abetted by deeds  that do harm to others (e.g., thieving, cheating, and lying).

In sum: Acquisitiveness isn’t bad per se, and it may be good if it has good effects (e.g., the dispensation of charity, investments in job-producing capital). The potentially bad effects of acquisitiveness are what may make it bad. But the vice of avarice arises only when the bad effects arise.

But the judgment as to whether a person is guilty of avarice is the person’s. No human being can peer into the person’s conscience and say that he acts avariciously. This is not to excuse the person who simply forges ahead in life without examining his conscience. Such a person fears and refuses self-examination because he knows that he is doing wrong. The refusal to confront error is an admission of error.

Consider statist politicians, rule-writing bureaucrats, and the masses of voters who applaud and support them. The latter are avaracious for material goods that they haven’t and won’t earn by their own efforts. (They are spurred by more than a little envy, as well.) Their material avaraciousness is served by the lust for power (and material goods) that is endemic among politicians and bureaucrats, and their cheerleaders in the academy and the media.

Do these avaracious classes ever have more than a passing qualm about how they wield their vast power over the populace as a whole? I doubt it. Instead, they rationalize what they do by pointing to the good results that they expect to flow from various government programs, regulations, and transfer payments. They are ignorant or heedless of the mountains of evidence about the bad results that actually obtain — welfare dependency, fatherless homes, the huge economic costs of regulation, and diminished economic growth, for example. Their avaraciousness blinds them to facts, of which a small sample can be found here. (For much more, see the posts at this link and every issue of Regulation back to its inception in 1977.)

What might they find if they were to the face those facts and examine their consciences? This, if they are diligent:

  • I don’t like others to lie to me, cheat me, or steal from me. Nor do I like being told how I should live my life, especially if I’m not acting in harmful ways.
  • In those respects, I am like most of my fellow citizens.
  • I have no idea which of them, individually, is a liar, cheater, thief, or petty tyrant. Most of them are not all of those things, and few of them are any of those things on a significant scale.
  • Except when it comes to tyranny. Yes, there are many people in business and government who act like petty tyrants toward their subordinates. But those subordinates have the option of finding other jobs if their supervisors continue to tyrannize them.
  • As a citizen, however, I have no practical choice but to pay the taxes demanded of me by government and to obey its rules, even when those taxes support programs of which I disapprove and those rules are unjust and economically damaging.
  • When I use the power of government to get what I want, or to make others act as I wish them to act, I am nothing but a petty tyrant who abets the infliction of harm on others.
  • And a thief. Because government takes money from people who do me no harm.
  • And if government acts like a petty tyrant and thief toward others, it must be doing the same thing to me, on behalf of many of those others.
  • The Golden Rule says “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I haven’t been living by that rule, nor have a lot of my fellow citizens. If I begin to live by that rule — begin to demand from government only what it owes me, which is protection from predators — perhaps others will follow my example.
  • And even if they don’t, I will have a clear conscience.
  • P.S. I didn’t mention envy, but I should have. It’s an unattractive trait, and when acted on it can cause harm. For example, I don’t envy highly-paid athletes and movie stars, despite the huge incomes they earn. But I seem to envy highly-paid managers and bankers. Perhaps that’s because I’ve been told so often that the rules of the economic “game” are rigged in favor of highly-paid managers and bankers.
  • That may be true, though it’s hard to tell given the long history and complexity of various laws and regulations. But most of the people who benefit from the “rigging” had nothing to do with it. It was done by politicians and bureaucrats. So the real solution is to undo the complex laws and regulations that support “rigging,” it isn’t to punish hard-working people by taxing them exorbitantly.
  • And while I’m thinking of politicians and bureaucrats, I must mention that they’ve done a very good job of rigging the system in their favor, with salaries, benefits, and pensions that most of them couldn’t command in the private sector. (The affluence of the Washington DC area is an insult to hard-working taxpayers.) The solution is obvious: Cut the bureaucracy that generates the rules that distort and discourage economic activity, and find ways to compensate politicians and bureaucrats according to the value of the private-sector jobs for which they actually qualify.
  • I wonder how avaracious politicians and bureaucrats sleep at night. That sounds judgmental, and I’m aware of the admonition “Do not judge others, or you yourselves will be judged” (Matthew 7:1). But in view of their demonstrated greed, I have no qualms about judging them.

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Egoism and Altruism

From Wikipedia:

Psychological egoism is the view that humans are always motivated by self-interest, even in what seem to be acts of altruism. It claims that, when people choose to help others, they do so ultimately because of the personal benefits that they themselves expect to obtain, directly or indirectly, from doing so. This is a descriptive rather than normative view, since it only makes claims about how things are, not how they ought to be. It is, however, related to several other normative forms of egoism, such as ethical egoism and rational egoism.

I addressed psychological egoism and altruism several years ago in “Redefining Altruism” and “Enough of Altruism.” In the extended version of the second post, I wrote:

There is no “egoism” or “altruism,” there’s simply behavior that reflects an individual’s values, and which seeks to serve those values….

What we call “altruism” and “egoism” are simply manifestations of an integrated, internal decision process that thinks not in terms of “altruism” or “egoism” but in terms of serving one’s values.

My purpose was to deny the existence of egoism and altruism as “forces” that exist independently of human thought. I was especially set on showing that the motivation for an act which is considered altruistic can only be understood in terms of its effect on the the actor. That is, the actor necessarily advances his own values, even if he seems to make a sacrifice of some kind.

I admit that my position can be taken as a defense of psychological egoism. So, although “psychological egoism” stands for a simplistic explanation of complex behavior, it’s a better explanation than altruism.

Here is Jason Brennan, writing at Bleeding Heart Libertarians:

Peter Singer made famous a thought experiment like this:

You are walking down the street when you see a small toddler drowning in a shallow pool. You can save the toddler easily, but only if you jump in right now. Doing so will destroy your hard-earned smart phone, costing you $500.

Most people judge that we must save the child here; it would be wrong not to do so.

Now, what does ethical egoism say about this case? …

Ethical egoism isn’t quite the same thing as psychological egoism. Returning to Wikipedia:

Ethical egoism is the normative ethical position that moral agents ought to do what is in their own [sic] self-interest. It differs from psychological egoism, which claims that people can only act in their self-interest.

Nevertheless, what follows from Brennan can be read as an attack on the idea of psychological egoism and a defense of the idea of altruism:

Many people … are deeply confused about what counts as egoistic action….

Consider the following argument: Saving the kid is egoistic, because I care about kids….  Therefore, if I voluntarily save the kid, I save him out of self-interest.

But,

If I care about the drowning toddler and thus save him, I am acting to promote his welfare, not my own. It’s true that I am interested in his interests, or that his interests are an interest of mine, but that’s just a funky way of saying that I am altruistic. To be altruistic is to hold other people’s welfare as an end in itself….

If my sons died, I’d be sad. But the reason I feel joy when things go well for them and sad when things go badly is that I love them for their own sake–I view them as ends in themselves apart from my own welfare. Consider: Suppose my younger son is hurt. A genie appears and gives me two options. 1. He fixes my son’s injury. 2. He casts a spell instantly killing my son, erasing him from everyone’s memory, erasing all traces of him, and thus allowing us to go on as if he never existed at all. If I were just trying to avoid the bad feelings, I’d be indifferent between these two options. But I’m not–I’d pick option 1 over option 2, hands down. This means that I’m concerned not merely to avoid bad feelings, but to help for his sake. Again, it means I’m genuinely altruistic.

This reminds me of Rawls’s “veil of ignorance,” wherein the reader is invited to imagine an impossible counterfactual. In Brennan’s case, the impossible counterfactual is the non-existence of his son. The fact of his son’s existence colors Brennan’s evaluation of the the options posed by the genie. Brennan has feelings about his son, feelings that he (laudably) values over the alternative of having no such feelings.

What about Brennan’s assertion that he is genuinely altruistic because he doesn’t merely want to avoid bad feelings, but wants to help his son for his son’s sake. That’s called empathy. But empathy is egoistic. Even strong empathy — the ability to “feel” another person’s pain or anguish — is “felt” by the empathizer. It is the empathizer’s response to the other person’s pain or anguish.

Brennan inadvertently makes that point when he invokes sociopathy:

Sociopaths don’t care about other people for their own sake–they view them merely as instruments. Sociopaths don’t feel guilt for failing to help others.

The difference between a sociopath and a “normal” person is found in caring (feeling). But caring (feeling) is something that the I does — or fail to do, if the I is a sociopath. I = ego:

the “I” or self of any person; a thinking, feeling, and conscious being, able to distinguish itself from other selves.

I am not deprecating the kind of laudable act that is called altruistic. I am simply trying to point out what should be an obvious fact: Human beings necessarily act in their own interests, though their own interests often coincide  with the interests of others for emotional reasons (e.g., love, empathy), as well as practical ones (e.g., loss of income or status because of the death of a patron).

It should go without saying that the world would be a better place if it had fewer sociopaths in it. Voluntary, mutually beneficial relationships are more than merely transactional; they thrive on the mutual trust and respect that arise from social bonds, including the bonds of love and affection.

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Related posts:
Sophomoric Libertarianism
On Liberty
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Society and the State
Our Enemy, the State
The Golden Rule and the State
Government vs. Community
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
The Meaning of Liberty
Evolution and the Golden Rule
Empathy Is Overrated
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Facets of Liberty
Why I Am Not an Extreme Libertarian
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
The Criminality and Psychopathy of Statism

A Logical Fallacy

The sub-hed of an article at City Journal asks “If human beings are naturally risk-averse, then what the heck happened on Wall Street?” The question can be expressed in the following syllogism:

Major premise: All humans are risk-averse.

Minor premise: Humans work on Wall Street (i.e., financial markets).

Conclusion: The humans who work on Wall Street are risk-averse.

It should be obvious to the casual observer that both the major premise and conclusion are false.

The article, by the way, is spot-on. Don’t be deceived by its flawed sub-hed.