Philosophy – Religion – Science – Pseudoscience

Altruism, One More Time

I am reading and generally enjoying Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity and Other Fables of Evolution by the late Australian philosopher, David Stove. I say generally enjoying because in Essay 6, which I just finished reading, Stove goes off the rails.

The title of Essay 6 is “Tax and the Selfish Girl, Or Does ‘Altruism’ Need Inverted Commas?”. Stove expends many words in defense of altruism as it is commonly thought of: putting others before oneself. He also expends some words (though not many) in defense of taxation as an altruistic act.

Stove, whose writing is refreshingly informal instead of academically stilted, is fond of calling things “ridiculous” and “absurd”. Well, Essay 6 is both of those things. Stove’s analysis of altruism is circular: He parades examples of what he considers altruistic conduct, and says that because there is such conduct there must be altruism.

His target is a position that I have taken, and still hold despite Essay 6. My first two essays about altruism are here and here. I will quote a third essay, in which I address philosopher Jason Brennan’s defense of altruism:

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 fails 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.

Where Stove goes off the rails is with his claim that the existence of classes of people like soldiers, priests, and doctors is evidence of altruism. (NB: Stove was an atheist, so his inclusion of priests isn’t any kind of defense of religion.)

People become soldiers, priests, and doctors for various reasons, including (among many non-altruistic things) a love of danger (soldiers), a desire to control the lives of others (soldiers, priests, and doctors), an intellectual challenge that has nothing to do with caring for others (doctors), earning a lot of money (doctors), prestige (high-ranking soldiers, priests, and doctors), and job security (priests and doctors). Where’s the altruism in any of that?

Where Stove really goes off the rails is with his claim that redistributive taxation is evidence of altruism. As if human beings live in monolithic societies (like ant colonies), where the will of one is the will of all. And as if government represents the “will of the people”, when all it represents is the will of a small number of people who have been granted the power to govern by garnering a bare minority of votes cast by a minority of the populace, by their non-elected bureaucratic agents, and by (mostly) non-elected judges.

 

The Fragility of Knowledge

A recent addition to the collection of essays at “Einstein’s Errors” relies mainly on Christoph von Mettenheim’s Popper versus Einstein. One of Mettenheim’s key witnesses for the prosecution of Einstein’s special theory of relativity (STR) is Alfred Tarski, a Polish-born logician and mathematician. According to Mettenheim, Tarski showed

that all the axioms of geometry [upon which STR is built] are in fact nominalistic definitions, and therefore have nothing to do with truth, but only with expedience. [p. 86]

Later:

Tarski has demonstrated that logical and mathematical inferences can never yield an increase of empirical information because they are based on nominalistic definitions of the most simple terms of our language. We ourselves give them their meaning and cannot,therefore, get out of them anything but what we ourselves have put into them. They are tautological in the sense that any information contained in the conclusion must also have been contained in the premises. This is why logic and mathematics alone can never lead to scientific discoveries. [p. 100]

Mettenheim refers also to Alfred North Whitehead, a great English mathematician and philosopher who preceded Tarski. I am reading Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World thanks to my son, who recently wrote about it. I had heretofore only encountered the book in bits and snatches. I will have more to say about it in future posts. For now, I am content to quote this relevant passage, which presages Tarski’s theme and goes beyond it:

Thought is abstract; and the the intolerant use of abstractions is the major vice of the intellect. this vice is not wholly corrected by the recurrence to concrete experience. For after all, you need only attend to those aspects of your concrete experience which lie within some limited scheme. There are two methods for the purification of ideas. One of them is dispassionate observation by means of the bodily senses. But observation is selection. [p. 18]

More to come.

The “Public Goods” Myth

The argument for the provision of public goods by the state goes like this:

People will free ride on a public good like a clean atmosphere because they can benefit from it without contributing to it. Mimi will enjoy more breathable air when others switch to a Prius even if she doesn’t drive one herself. So the state is justified as a means of forcing people like Mimi to contribute: for instance, by creating laws that penalize pollution….

Standard models predict that public goods will be underprovided because of free riding. Public goods are non-excludable, meaning that you cannot be excluded from enjoying them even if you didn’t contribute to them. Public goods are also non-rivalrous, meaning that my enjoyment of the good doesn’t subtract from yours. Here’s an example. A storm threatens to flood the river, a flood that would destroy your town. If the townspeople join together to build a levee with sandbags, the town will be spared. However, your individual contribution won’t make or break the effort. The levee is a public good. If it prevents the flood, your house will be saved whether or not you helped stack the sandbags. And the levee will protect the entire town, so protecting your house doesn’t detract from the protection afforded to other houses.

It’s typically assumed that people won’t voluntarily contribute to public goods like the levee. Your individual contribution is inconsequential, and if the levee does somehow get provided, you enjoy its protection whether or not you helped. You get the benefit without paying the costs. So the self-interested choice is to watch Netflix on your couch while your neighbors hurt their backs lugging sandbags around. The problem is, your neighbors have the exact same incentive to stay home— if enough others contribute to the levee, they’ll enjoy the benefits whether or not they contributed themselves. Consequently, no one has an incentive to contribute to the levee. As a result of this free-rider problem, the town will flood even though the flood is bad for everyone. [Christopher Freiman, Unequivocal Justice, 2017]

The idea is that private entities won’t provide certain things because there will be too many free riders. And yet, people do buy Priuses and similar cars, and do volunteer in emergencies, and do commit myriad acts of kindness and generosity without compensation (other than psychic). These contrary and readily observable facts should be enough to discredit public-goods theory. But I shall continue with a critical look at key terms and assumptions.

What is a public good? It’s a good that’s “underprovided”. What does that mean? It means that someone who believes that a certain good should be provided in a certain quantity at a certain price is dissatisfied with the actual quantity and/or price at which the good is provided (or not provided).

Who is that someone? Whoever happens to believe that a certain good should be provided at a certain price. Or, more likely, that it should be provided “free” by government. There are many advocates of universal health care, for example, who are certain that health care is underprovided, and that it should be made available freely to anyone who “needs” it. They are either ignorant of the track record of socialized medicine in Canada and Britain, or are among the many (usually leftists) who prefer hope to experience.

What is a free rider, and why is it bad to be a free rider? A free rider is someone who benefits from the provision and use of goods for which he (the free rider) doesn’t pay. There are free riders all around us, all the time. Any product, service, or activity that yields positive externalities is a boon to many persons who don’t buy the product or service, or engage in the activity. (Follow the link in the preceding sentence for a discussion and examples of positive externalities.) But people do buy products and services that yield positive externalities, and companies do stay in business by provide such products and services.

In sum, “free rider” is a scare term invoked for the purpose of justifying government-provided public goods. Why government-provided? Because that way the goods will be “free” to many users of them, and “the rich” will be taxed to provide the goods, of course. (“Free” is an illusion. See this.)

Health care — which people long paid for out of their own pockets or which was supported by voluntary charity — is demonstrably not a public good. If anything, the more that government has come to dominate the provision of health care (including its provision through insurance), the more costly it has become. The rising cost has served to justify greater government involvement in health care, which has further driven up the cost, etc., etc., etc. That’s what happens when government provides a so-called public good.

What about defense? As I say here,

given the present arrangement of the tax burden, those who have the most to gain from defense and justice (classic examples of “public goods”) already support a lot of free riders and “cheap riders.” Given the value of defense and justice to the orderly operation of the economy, it is likely that affluent Americans and large corporations — if they weren’t already heavily taxed — would willingly form syndicates to provide defense and justice. Most of them, after all, are willing to buy private security services, despite the taxes they already pay….

… It may nevertheless be desirable to have a state monopoly on police and justice — but only on police and justice, and only because the alternatives are a private monopoly of force, on the one hand, or a clash of warlords, on the other hand.

The environment? See this and this. Global warming? See this, and follow the links therein.

All in all, the price of “free” government goods is extremely high; government taketh away far more than it giveth. With a minimal government restricted to the defense of citizens against force and fraud there would be far fewer people in need of “public goods” and far, far more private charity available to those few who need it.


Related posts:
A Short Course in Economics
Addendum to a Short Course in Economics
Monopoly: Private Is Better than Public
Voluntary Taxation
What Free-Rider Problem?
Regulation as Wishful Thinking
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
More about Merit Goods
Don’t Just Stand There, “Do Something”

Mettenheim on Einstein’s Relativity

I have added “Mettenheim on Einstein’s Relativity – Part I” to “Einstein’s Errors“. The new material draws on the Part I of Christoph von Mettenheim’s Popper versus Einstein: On the Philosophical Foundations of Physics (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1998). Mettenheim strikes many telling blows against STR. These go to the heart of STR and Einstein’s view of science:

[T[o Einstein the axiomatic method of Euclidean geometry was the method of all science; and the task of the scientist was to find those fundamental truths from which all other statement of science could then be derived by purely logical inference. He explicitly said that the step from geometry to physics was to be achieved by simply adding to the axioms of Euclidean geometry one single further axiom, namely the sentence

Regarding the possibilities of their position solid physical bodies will behave like the bodies of Euclidean geometry.

Popper versus Einstein, p. 30

*     *     *

[T]he theory of relativity as Einstein stated it was a mathematical theory. To him the logical necessity of his theory served as an explanation of its results. He believed that nature itself will observe the rules of logic. His words were that

experience of course remains the sole criterion of the serviceability of a mathematical construction for physics, but the truly creative principle resides in mathematics.

Popper versus Einstein, pp. 61-62

*     *     *

There’s much, much more. Go there and see for yourself.

Another Case of Cultural Appropriation

Maverick Philosopher makes an excellent case for cultural appropriation. I am here to make a limited case against it.

There is an eons-old tradition that marriage is a union of man and woman, which was shared  by all religions and ethnicities until yesterday, on the time-scale of human existence. Then along came some homosexual “activists” and their enablers (mainly leftists, always in search of “victims”), to claim that homosexuals can marry.

This claim ignores the biological and deep social basis of marriage, which is the procreative pairing of male and female and the resulting formation of the basic social unit: the biologically bonded family.

Homosexual “marriage” is, by contrast, a wholly artificial conception. It is the ultimate act of cultural appropriation. Its artificiality is underscored by the fact that a homosexual “marriage” seems to consist of two “wives” or two “husbands”, in a rather risible bow to traditional usage. Why not “wusbands” or “hives”?


Related posts:
In Defense of Marriage
The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm
Getting “Equal Protection” Right
Equal Protection in Principle and Practice

Quantum Mechanics and Free Will

Physicist Adam Frank, in “Minding Matter” (Aeon, March 13, 2017), visits subjects that I have approached from several angles in various posts. Frank addresses the manifestation of brain activity — more properly, the activity of the central nervous system (CNS) — which is known as consciousness. But there’s a lot more to CNS activity than that. What it all adds up to is generally called “mind”, which has conscious components (things we are aware of, including being aware of being aware) and subconscious components (things that go on in the background that we might or might not become aware of).

In the traditional (non-mystical) view, each person’s mind is separate from the minds of other persons. Mind (or the concepts, perceptions, feelings, memories, etc. that comprise it) therefore defines self. I am my self (i.e., not you) because my mind is a manifestation of my body’s CNS, which isn’t physically linked to yours.

With those definitional matters in hand, Frank’s essay can be summarized and interpreted as follows:

According to materialists, mind is nothing more than a manifestation of CNS activity.

The underlying physical properties of the CNS are unknown because the nature of matter is unknown.

Matter, whatever it is, doesn’t behave in billiard-ball fashion, where cause and effect are tightly linked.

Instead, according to quantum mechanics, matter has probabilistic properties that supposedly rule out strict cause-and-effect relationships. The act of measuring matter resolves the uncertainty, but in an unpredictable way.

Mind is therefore a mysterious manifestation of quantum-mechanical processes. One’s state of mind is affected by how one “samples” those processes, that is, by one’s deliberate, conscious attempt to use one’s CNS in formulating the mind’s output (e.g., thoughts and interpretations of the world around us).

Because of the ability of mind to affect mind (“mind over matter”), it is more than merely a passive manifestation of the physical state of one’s CNS. It is, rather, a meta-state — a physical state that is created by “mental” processes that are themselves physical.

In sum, mind really isn’t immaterial. It’s just a manifestation of poorly understood material processes that can be influenced by the possessor of a mind. It’s the ultimate self-referential system, a system that can monitor and change itself to some degree.

None of this means that human beings lack free will. In fact, the complexity of mind argues for free will. This is from a 12-year-old post of mine:

Suppose I think that I might want to eat some ice cream. I go to the freezer compartment and pull out an unopened half-gallon of vanilla ice cream and an unopened half-gallon of chocolate ice cream. I can’t decide between vanilla, chocolate, some of each, or none. I ask a friend to decide for me by using his random-number generator, according to rules of his creation. He chooses the following rules:

  • If the random number begins in an odd digit and ends in an odd digit, I will eat vanilla.
  • If the random number begins in an even digit and ends in an even digit, I will eat chocolate.
  • If the random number begins in an odd digit and ends in an even digit, I will eat some of each flavor.
  • If the random number begins in an even digit and ends in an odd digit, I will not eat ice cream.

Suppose that the number generated by my friend begins in an even digit and ends in an even digit: the choice is chocolate. I act accordingly.

I didn’t inevitably choose chocolate because of events that led to the present state of my body’s chemistry, which might otherwise have dictated my choice. That is, I broke any link between my past and my choice about a future action.I call that free will.

I suspect that our brains are constructed in such a way as to produce the same kind of result in many situations, though certainly not in all situations. That is, we have within us the equivalent of an impartial friend and an (informed) decision-making routine, which together enable us to exercise something we can call free will.

This rudimentary metaphor is consistent with the quantum nature of the material that underlies mind. But I don’t believe that free will depends on quantum mechanics. I believe that there is a part of mind — a part with a physical location — which makes independent judgments and arrives at decisions based on those judgments.

To extend the ice-cream metaphor, I would say that my brain’s executive function, having become aware of my craving for ice cream, taps my knowledge (memory) of snacks on hand, or directs the part of my brain that controls my movements to look in the cupboard and freezer. My executive function, having determined that my craving isn’t so urgent that I will drive to a grocery store, then compiles the available options and chooses the one that seems best suited to the satisfaction of my craving at that moment. It may be ice cream, or it may be something else. If it is ice cream, it will consult my “taste preferences” and choose between the flavors then available to me.

Given the ways in which people are seen to behave, it seems obvious that the executive function, like consciousness, is on a “different circuit” from other functions (memory, motor control, autonomic responses, etc.), just as the software programs that drive my computer’s operations are functionally separate from the data stored on the hard drive and in memory. The software programs would still be on my computer even if I erased all the data on my hard drive and in memory. So, too, would my executive function (and consciousness) remain even I lost all memory of everything that happened to me before I awoke this morning.

Given this separateness, there should be no question that a person has free will. That is why I can sometimes resist a craving for ice cream. That is why most people are often willing and able to overcome urges, from eating candy to smoking a cigarette to punching a jerk.

Conditioning, which leads to addiction, makes it hard to resist urges — sometimes nigh unto impossible. But the ability of human beings to overcome conditioning, even severe addictions, argues for the separateness of the executive function from other functions. In short, it argues for free will.


Related posts:
Free Will: A Proof by Example?
Free Will, Crime, and Punishment
Mind, Cosmos, and Consciousness
“Feelings, Nothing More than Feelings”
Hayek’s Anticipatory Account of Consciousness
Is Consciousness an Illusion?

Special Relativity

I have removed my four posts about special relativity and incorporated them in a new page, “Einstein’s Errors.” I will update that page occasionally rather than post about special relativity, which is rather “off the subject” for this blog.

Beating Religion with the Wrong End of the Stick

A leftist personage emits a Quotation of the Day, which I receive second-hand from a centrist personage. Here is today’s QOTD:

An interesting coincidence of events, suggesting a certain theme….

Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius.

– Arnaud Amalric (d. 1225) (at the siege of Béziers in 1209 during
the Albigensian Crusade, when asked which of the townspeople to spare)

(Kill them all. For the Lord knoweth them that are His.)

A fanatic is a man that does what he thinks the Lord would do if He knew the facts of the case.

– Finley Peter Dunne (1837-1936) (Mr. Dooley’s Opinions, “Casual Observations”)

The most dangerous madmen are those created by religion, and … people whose aim is to disrupt society always know how to make good use of them on occasion.

– Denis Diderot (1713-1794) (Conversations with a Christian Lady)

Throughout human history, the apostles of purity, those who have claimed to possess a total explanation, have wrought havoc among mere mixed-up human beings.

– Salman Rushdie (b. 1948) (“In Good Faith,”
Independent on Sunday, London, 4 February 1990)

Is uniformity [of religious opinion] attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, and imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch toward uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites.

– Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) (Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 17)

Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons.

– Ibid.

(Yes, today is the 274th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Jefferson, 3rd president of these United States and a fervent believer in liberty of conscience and the separation of church and state – which is why he is often excoriated in right-wing religious circles today. But – mirabile dictu – it is also the 498th anniversary of the birth of Catherine de’ Medici (1519-1589), daughter of Lorenzo (but not “the Great”) de’ Medici, who became the queen of France’s King Henry III and with him planned the St. Bartholomew’s Night Massacre (1572), in which thousands of French Protestants were slaughtered in their beds. The event was timed to coincide with the wedding of the (Huguenot) Henry of Navarre, who (perhaps not surprisingly) converted to Catholicism (“Paris is worth a mass.”) and was crowned Henry IV in 1589. But wait! There’s more! On this date in 1598, Henry promulgated the Toleration Edict of Nantes, which protected freedom of belief in France, ended the Wars of Religion, and gave Protestants some measure of government influence – at least until Louis XIV revoked it in 1685, which forced thousands of Protestants to flee the country. One is reminded irresistibly of the comment of Lucretius (ca. 94-55 B.C.) in De Rerum Natura:

Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum.

(So much wrong could religion induce.)

True then; true today. Aren’t historical connections fascinating?)

The author of QOTD grasps the wrong end of the stick, as he often does. Religion doesn’t make fanatics, it attracts them (but far from exclusively). Just as the “religions” of communism, socialism (including Hitler’s version), and progressivism do (and with much greater frequency).

I doubt that the number of murders committed in the name of religion amounts to one-tenth of the number of murders committed by three notable anti-religionists: Hitler (yes, Hitler), Stalin, and Mao.

Natural Law and Natural Rights Revisited

An esteemed correspondent took exception to my statement in “Natural Law, Natural Rights, and the Real World” that I “don’t accept the broad outlines of natural law and natural rights,” which I had summarized thus:

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.

The correspondent later sent me a copy of Hadley Arkes’s essay “A Natural Law Manifesto” (Claremont Review of Books, Fall 2011, pp. 43-49). There’s an online version of the essay (with a slightly different opening sentence) at the website of The James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights and the American Founding, which I’ll quote from in the course of this post.

I don’t lightly dismiss natural law and natural rights. Many proponents of those concepts are on the side of liberty and against statism, which makes me their natural ally. As I say in “Natural Law, Natural Rights, and the Real World,” my problem with the concepts is their malleability. It is too easy to claim to know specifically what is and isn’t in accordance with natural law and natural rights, and it is too easy to issue vague generalizations about rights — generalizations that collapse easily under the weight of specification.

Consider the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which rights are declared to be inalienable (i.e., natural). (The Declaration’s 30 articles comprise 48 such rights.) Quotations from the Declaration are followed by my comments in italics:

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. What is arbitrary? One person’s “arbitrary” will be another person’s “lawful,” and there will be endless quibbles about where to draw lines.

1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country. Everyone, even including criminals and terrorists? And if “everyone” is qualified by criteria of criminality, there will be endless quibbles about those criteria.

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance. But what if the practice of a religion includes the commission of terrorist acts?

Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality. The qualification about the “organization and resources of each State” speak volumes about the relative nature of entitlements. But left unsaid is the nature of the “right” by which some are taxed to provide “social security” for others. Is there no natural right to the full enjoyment of the fruits of one’s own labors? I would think that there would be such a natural right, if there were any natural rights.

Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection. See the preceding comment.

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. Ditto.

It goes on an on like that. And the UN’s litany of “rights” is surely one that millions or even billions of people would claim to be “natural rights” which inhere in them as human beings. Certainly in the United States almost every Democrat, most independents, and a large fraction of Republicans would agree that such rights are “natural” or God-given or just plain obvious. And many of them would put up a good argument for their position.

If the Declaration of Human Rights seems too easy a target, consider abortion. Arkes and I are in agreement about the wrongness of abortion. He says this in his essay:

[T]he differences in jural perspective that I’m marking off here may have their most profound effect as they reach the most central question that the law may ever reach: who counts as a human person—who counts as the kind of being whose injuries matter? It was the question raised as President Bill Clinton vetoed the bill on partial birth abortion and expressed the deepest concern for the health of the woman denied that procedure. Of that other being present in the surgery, the one whose head was being punctured and the contents sucked out—the assault on the health of that being made no impression on Clinton. The harms didn’t register because the sufferer of the harms did not count in this picture.

But in raising questions of this kind, a jurisprudence with our [natural law] perspective would pose the question insistently: what is the ground of principle on which the law may remove a whole class of human beings from the circle of rights-bearing beings who may be subject to the protections of the law?

The “ground of reason,” though I hesitate to call it that, is the libertarian doctrine of self-ownership (which is tautologous). The child in the womb is dependent on the mother for its life. It is therefore up to the mother to decide whether the “demands” of the child in the womb should take precedence over other aspects of her life, including the remote possibility that bearing a child will kill her.

My objection to abortion is both empathic and prudential. Empathically, I can’t countenance what amounts to the brutal murder of an innocent human being for what is, in almost every case, a matter of convenience. Prudentially, abortion is a step down a slippery slope that leads to involuntary euthanasia. It puts the state on the wrong side of its only legitimate function, which is to protect the lives, liberty, and property of the citizenry.

In any event, Arkes’s essay is as much an attack on jurisprudence that scorns natural law as it is an explanation and defense of natural law. In that vein, Arkes says this:

I come then today, perhaps in the style of Edmund Burke, to make An Appeal from the Old Jurisprudence to the New: from the old jurisprudence, which relied on natural law as a matter of course, to a new conservative jurisprudence that has not only been resistant to natural law, but scorns it. At one level, some of the conservative jurists insist that their concern is merely prudential: Justice Antonin Scalia will say that he esteems the notion of natural law but the problem is there is no agreement on the content of natural law. Far better, he argues, that we simply concentrate on the text of the Constitution, or where the text is silent, on the way in which the text was “originally understood” by the men who framed and ratified it.

Justice Scalia’s key point — there is no agreement on the content of natural law — is underscored by two letters to the editor of the Claremont Review of Books, and Arkes’s reply to those letters (all found here). The writers take issue with Arkes’s pronouncements about the certainty of natural law. The crux of Arkes’s long and argumentative reply is that there are truths that may not be known to all people, but the truths nevertheless exist.

That attitude has two possible bases. The first is that Arkes is setting himself up as a member of the cognoscenti who knows what natural law is and is therefore qualified to reveal it to the ignorant. The second possibility, and the one that Arkes seems to prefer, is that reasonable people will ferret out the natural law. For example, here is a comment and reply about the 14th Amendment:

Max Hocutt: Arkes’s discussion of the 14th Amendment raises a very difficult question: its contemporaries believed mix-raced marriage to be contrary to nature. On the basis of what definition of nature is Arkes confident they were mistaken?

Arkes: It is quite arguable in this vein that the framers of the 14th Amendment did not understand the implications of their own principles when they insisted that nothing in that amendment would be at odds with the laws that barred marriage across racial lines. On the other hand, Mr. Hocutt may want to argue that there was no inconsistency, that there may be some kind of argument in prudence, or perhaps even a racial principle, that could make it justified to bar marriage across racial lines. Well, it is quite possible to have that argument. And the only way of having the “argument”— the only thing that makes it an argument—is that there are standards of reason to which we can appeal to judge the soundness, the truth of falsity, of these reasons.

Clearly, Arkes believes that the “standards of reason” will result in a declaration that the 14th Amendment allows interracial marriage, even if the amendment’s framers didn’t intend that outcome. But Arkes concedes that there is an argument to be had. And that is why Justice Scalia (and I, and many others) say that there is no agreement on the content of natural law, and therefore no agreement as to the rights that ought to be considered “natural” because they flow from natural law.

For example, there is eloquent disagreement with Arkes’s views in Timothy Sandefur’s review of Arkes’s Constitutional Illusions and Anchoring Truths. Notably, Sandefur is also a proponent of natural rights, and I have sparred with him on the subject.

Endless arguments about natural law and natural rights will lead nowhere because even reasonable people will disagree about human nature and the rights that inhere in human beings, if any. In “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights’,” I explain at length why human beings do not have inherent (i.e., inalienable or “natural”) rights, at least not in the way that Arkes would have it. In the end, I take my stand on negative rights and the Golden Rule:

The following observations set the stage for my explanation:

1. “Natural rights” inhere in a particular way; that is, according to Randy Barnett, they “do not proscribe how rights-holders ought to act towards others. Rather they describe how others ought to act towards rights-holders.” In other words, the thing (for want of a better word) that arises from my nature is not a set of negative rights that I own; rather, it is an inclination or imperative to treat others as if they have negative rights. To put it crudely, I am wired to leave others alone as long as they leave me alone; others are wired to leave me alone as long as I leave them alone.

2. The idea of being inclined or compelled to “act toward” is more plausible than idea that “natural rights” inhere in their holders. It is so because “act toward” suggests that we learn that it is a good thing (for us) to leave others alone, and not that we (each of us) has a soul or psyche on which is indelibly inscribed a right to be left alone.

3. That leads to the question of how one learns to leave others alone as he is left alone by them. Is it by virtue of evolution or by virtue of socialization? And if the learning is evolutionary, why does it seem not to be universal; that is, why it is so routinely ignored?

4. The painful truth that vast numbers of human beings — past and present — have not acted and do not act as if there are “natural rights” suggests that the notion of “natural rights” is of little practical consequence. It may sometimes serve as a rallying point for political action, but with mixed results. Consider, for example, the contrast between the American Revolution, with its Declaration of Independence, and the French Revolution, with its Déclaration des droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen.

5. Even if humans are wired to leave others alone as they are left alone, it is evident that they are not wired exclusively in that way.

And now, for my natural (but not biologically deterministic) explanation. It comes from my post, “The Golden Rule and the State“:

I call the Golden Rule a natural law because it’s neither a logical construct … nor a state-imposed one. Its long history and widespread observance (if only vestigial) suggest that it embodies an understanding that arises from the similar experiences of human beings across time and place. The resulting behavioral convention, the ethic of reciprocity, arises from observations about the effects of one’s behavior on that of others and mutual agreement (tacit or otherwise) to reciprocate preferred behavior, in the service of self-interest and empathy. That is to say, the convention is a consequence of the observed and anticipated benefits of adhering to it.

The Golden Rule implies the acceptance of negative rights as a way of ensuring peaceful (and presumably fruitful) human coexistence. But, as I point out, there is a “positive” side to the Golden rule:

[It] can be expanded into two, complementary sub-rules:

  • Do no harm to others, lest they do harm to you.
  • Be kind and charitable to others, and they will be kind and charitable to you.

The first sub-rule — the negative one — is compatible with the idea of negative rights, but it doesn’t demand them. The second sub-rule — the positive one — doesn’t yield positive rights because it’s a counsel to kindness and charity, not a command….

An ardent individualist — particularly an anarcho-capitalist — might insist that social comity can be based on the negative sub-rule… I doubt it. There’s but a short psychological distance from mean-spiritedness — failing to be kind and charitable — to sociopathy, a preference for harmful acts…. [K]indness and charity are indispensable to the development of mutual trust among people who live in close proximity, without the protective cover of an external agency (e.g., the state). Without mutual trust, mutual restraint becomes problematic and co-existence becomes a matter of “getting the other guy before he gets you” — a convention that I hereby dub the Radioactive Rule.

The Golden Rule is beneficial even where the state affords “protective cover,” because the state cannot be everywhere all the time. The institutions of civil society are essential to harmonious and productive coexistence. Where those institutions are strong, the state’s role (at least with respect to internal order) becomes less important. Conversely, where the state is especially intrusive, it usurps and displaces the institutions of civil society, leading to the breakdown of the Golden Rule, that is, to a kind of vestigial observance that, in the main, extends only to persons joined by social connections.

In sum, the Golden Rule represents a social compromise that reconciles the various natural imperatives of human behavior (envy, combativeness, meddlesomeness, etc.). Even though human beings have truly natural proclivities, those proclivities do not dictate the existence of “natural rights.” They certainly do not dictate “natural rights” that are solely the negative rights of libertarian doctrine. To the extent that negative rights prevail, it is as part and parcel of the “bargain” that is embedded in the Golden Rule; that is, they are honored not because of their innateness in humans but because of their beneficial consequences.

Finally:

Among those of us who agree about the proper scope of rights, should the provenance of those rights matter? I think not. The assertion that there are “natural rights” (“inalienable rights”) makes for resounding rhetoric, but (a) it is often misused in the service of positive rights and (b) it makes no practical difference in a world where power routinely accrues to those who make the something-for-nothing promises of positive rights.

The real challenge for the proponents of negative rights — of liberty, in other words — is to overthrow the regulatory-welfare state’s “soft despotism” and nullify its vast array of positive rights. Libertarians, classical liberals, and libertarian-minded conservatives ought to unite around that effort, rather than divide on the provenance of negative rights.

Given the broad range of disagreement about the meaning of the Constitution and the content of natural law, neither will necessarily lead to judicial outcomes of which both Arkes and I approve. What really matters is whether or not judges are conservative in the sense that they are committed to the peaceful, voluntary evolution and exercise of social and economic relationships. Conservative judges of that stripe will more reliably use the words of the Constitution to protect and preserve the voluntary institutions of civil society and the salutary traditions that emerge from them. It is, after all, the Constitution that judges are sworn to support and defend, not amorphous conceptions of natural law and natural rights. As I say in “How Libertarians Ought to Think about the Constitution,” the document “may be a legal fiction, but … it’s a useful fiction when its promises of liberty can be redeemed.”

Arkes’s complaints about Justice Scalia and other strict constitutionalists exemplifies the adage that “perfect is the enemy of good.” The real alternative to Scalia and others similarly inclined isn’t a lineup of judges committed to Arkes’s particular view of natural law and natural rights. The real alternative to Scalia and others similarly inclined is a Court packed with the likes of Douglas, Warren, Brennan, Blackmun, Stevens, Kennedy, Souter, Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan — to name (in chrononlogical order) only the worst in a long list of egregious appointments to the Supreme Court since the New Deal.

I prefer the good — reliably conservative justices like Scalia, Thomas, and Alito — to the impossible perfection sought by Hadley Arkes.


Related posts:
The Real Constitution: I
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
The Real Constitution and Civil Disobedience
“Natural Rights” and 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
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Libertarianism and Morality
Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
More about Merit Goods
Liberty, Negative Rights, and Bleeding Hearts
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
The Futile Search for “Natural Rights”
How Libertarians Ought to Think about the Constitution
More About Social Norms and Liberty
Liberty and Social Norms Re-examined
Natural Law, Natural Rights, and the Real World

The Intransitivity of Political Philosphy

Rachel Lu, in an excellent post at The Public Discourse (“How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Libertarian Atheists,” April 5, 2017), writes:

Undergraduates like communism and libertarianism for the same reasons they like utilitarianism and the categorical imperative. These theories are expansive in their reach, claiming to explain every aspect of the universe from the Milky Way to marriage….

Economy notwithstanding, I see low buy-in theories as a poor value. Like cheap appliances, they look neat in the packaging. Once you start trying to use them, it becomes clear that they’re riddled with bugs. When a political or moral view is grounded in just a few conceptually simple premises, the fleshed-out picture never turns out to be either satisfying or plausible….

My few abortive efforts to read Ayn Rand never got very far. Compared to the ancients and medievals, she seemed utterly plebeian, stomping all over subtle realities in clunky too-large boots. That just sealed my conviction that libertarians were simplistic dunderheads who couldn’t handle the complexity of real life….

… When I first ventured into the political sphere, it quickly became evident that libertarians were far more numerous there. They were a genuinely diverse lot, not fitting all my stereotypes. Some offered astute and fairly subtle social critiques. Some combined Hayekian political ideas with more robust moral views, making for a more interesting blend of influences than I had seen in the academy. I lightened up a little on libertarians….

Have I now repented of my grim assessment of libertarianism? Not entirely. I do still think that most libertarians (serious devotees of Rand, for instance) are metaphysically impoverished to some extent….

In the introduction to God and Man at Yale, William F. Buckley expresses gratitude for the help of Albert J. Nock, whom he describes as “a fine essayist whose thought turned on a single spit: all the reasons why one should be distrustful of state activity, round, and round, and round again.”

This is a wonderful description of a type I know well. Libertarians do indeed obsess over the negative ramifications of government interference. It can become exasperating, and at one time it seemed to me like a serious limitation. If your life’s overwhelming obsession is getting Uncle Sam off your back, you may find yourself thin on ideas for what to do with that cherished liberty.

Still, when a mind relentlessly works on a particular set of questions, it may unearth some useful things. Many libertarians (Milton Friedman, for instance) are genuinely brilliant at working through the potential negative ramifications of government involvement in human life….

There is certainly more to human life than repelling the advances of aggressive government. Still, in modern times, the growth of Leviathan does in fact pose a very significant threat to human thriving.

So far, so good. Lu has nailed the kind of simplistic libertarianism of which I long ago became intolerant, to the point that I have rejected the libertarian label.

Lu turns to Trump:

[T]he “Trumpian skeptic” room just kept getting emptier, and emptier, and still emptier. In the end, there was only one group of fellow travelers who reliably proved impervious to the Trumpian allure. They were my old friends, the libertarian atheists….

Obviously, I am generalizing; I still know a great many anti-Trump religious conservatives. I also do not wish to imply that all people who supported Trump, even in a limited way, should be seen as sellouts or opportunists. I understand why some reluctantly voted for Trump, despite grave concerns about his character. Nonetheless, it did really seem that a great many people whom I once viewed as “like-minded” (religious conservatives and intellectuals of a broadly Aristotelian bent) were, in a sense, seduced by Trump. It was excruciating to watch. Most people started tentatively with a “lesser evils” argument, but soon their justifications and even mannerisms made clear that they had given him, not just their votes, but also an alarming measure of loyalty, trust, and even love. Of course, many people had very legitimate concerns about the judiciary, the left’s cultural aggression, and so forth. None of that can fully explain the enthusiasm, which drew people into a complicity that went far beyond what pragmatic concerns alone could justify. The traditionalists felt the tug of Trump’s cultural nostalgia. Also, of course, they hated the political left.

And there you have it: Traditional conservatives oppose simplistic libertarianism; simplistic libertarians oppose Trump (to put it mildly); therefore, traditional conservatives should oppose Trump. But not all of them do. Why not? Because real life isn’t reducible to logic. Logic, in this case, is trumped (pun intended) by hatred for the political left, which seems (with a great deal of justification) to pose a far greater threat to liberty and prosperity than Trumpism (whatever that is).

Not-So-Random Thoughts (XX)

An occasional survey of web material that’s related to subjects about which I’ve posted. Links to the other posts in this series may be found at “Favorite Posts,” just below the list of topics.

In “The Capitalist Paradox Meets the Interest-Group Paradox,” I quote from Frédéric Bastiat’s “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen“:

[A] law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.

This might also be called the law of unintended consequences. It explains why so much “liberal” legislation is passed: the benefits are focused a particular group and obvious (if overestimated); the costs are borne by taxpayers in general, many of whom fail to see that the sum of “liberal” legislation is a huge tax bill.

Ross Douthat understands:

[A] new paper, just released through the National Bureau of Economic Research, that tries to look at the Affordable Care Act in full. Its authors find, as you would expect, a substantial increase in insurance coverage across the country. What they don’t find is a clear relationship between that expansion and, again, public health. The paper shows no change in unhealthy behaviors (in terms of obesity, drinking and smoking) under
Obamacare, and no statistically significant improvement in self-reported health since the law went into effect….

[T]he health and mortality data [are] still important information for policy makers, because [they] indicate[] that subsidies for health insurance are not a uniquely death-defying and therefore sacrosanct form of social spending. Instead, they’re more like other forms of redistribution, with costs and benefits that have to be weighed against one another, and against other ways to design a safety net. Subsidies for employer-provided coverage crowd out wages, Medicaid coverage creates benefit cliffs and work disincentives…. [“Is Obamacare a Lifesaver?The New York Times, March 29, 2017]

So does Roy Spencer:

In a theoretical sense, we can always work to make the environment “cleaner”, that is, reduce human pollution. So, any attempts to reduce the EPA’s efforts will be viewed by some as just cozying up to big, polluting corporate interests. As I heard one EPA official state at a conference years ago, “We can’t stop making the environment ever cleaner”.

The question no one is asking, though, is “But at what cost?

It was relatively inexpensive to design and install scrubbers on smokestacks at coal-fired power plants to greatly reduce sulfur emissions. The cost was easily absorbed, and electricty rates were not increased that much.

The same is not true of carbon dioxide emissions. Efforts to remove CO2 from combustion byproducts have been extremely difficult, expensive, and with little hope of large-scale success.

There is a saying: don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough.

In the case of reducing CO2 emissions to fight global warming, I could discuss the science which says it’s not the huge problem it’s portrayed to be — how warming is only progressing at half the rate forecast by those computerized climate models which are guiding our energy policy; how there have been no obvious long-term changes in severe weather; and how nature actually enjoys the extra CO2, with satellites now showing a “global greening” phenomenon with its contribution to increases in agricultural yields.

But it’s the economics which should kill the Clean Power Plan and the alleged Social “Cost” of Carbon. Not the science.

There is no reasonable pathway by which we can meet more than about 20% of global energy demand with renewable energy…the rest must come mostly from fossil fuels. Yes, renewable energy sources are increasing each year, usually because rate payers or taxpayers are forced to subsidize them by the government or by public service commissions. But global energy demand is rising much faster than renewable energy sources can supply. So, for decades to come, we are stuck with fossil fuels as our main energy source.

The fact is, the more we impose high-priced energy on the masses, the more it will hurt the poor. And poverty is arguably the biggest threat to human health and welfare on the planet. [“Trump’s Rollback of EPA Overreach: What No One Is Talking About,” Roy Spencer, Ph.D.[blog], March 29, 2017]

*     *     *

I mentioned the Benedict Option in “Independence Day 2016: The Way Ahead,” quoting Bruce Frohnen in tacit agreement:

[Rod] Dreher has been writing a good deal, of late, about what he calls the Benedict Option, by which he means a tactical withdrawal by people of faith from the mainstream culture into religious communities where they will seek to nurture and strengthen the faithful for reemergence and reengagement at a later date….

The problem with this view is that it underestimates the hostility of the new, non-Christian society [e.g., this and this]….

Leaders of this [new, non-Christian] society will not leave Christians alone if we simply surrender the public square to them. And they will deny they are persecuting anyone for simply applying the law to revoke tax exemptions, force the hiring of nonbelievers, and even jail those who fail to abide by laws they consider eminently reasonable, fair, and just.

Exactly. John Horvat II makes the same point:

For [Dreher], the only response that still remains is to form intentional communities amid the neo-barbarians to “provide an unintentional political witness to secular culture,” which will overwhelm the barbarian by the “sheer humanity of Christian compassion, and the image of human dignity it honors.” He believes that setting up parallel structures inside society will serve to protect and preserve Christian communities under the new neo-barbarian dispensation. We are told we should work with the political establishment to “secure and expand the space within which we can be ourselves and our own institutions” inside an umbrella of religious liberty.

However, barbarians don’t like parallel structures; they don’t like structures at all. They don’t co-exist well with anyone. They don’t keep their agreements or respect religious liberty. They are not impressed by the holy lives of the monks whose monastery they are plundering. You can trust barbarians to always be barbarians. [“Is the Benedict Option the Answer to Neo-Barbarianism?Crisis Magazine, March 29, 2017]

As I say in “The Authoritarianism of Modern Liberalism, and the Conservative Antidote,”

Modern liberalism attracts persons who wish to exert control over others. The stated reasons for exerting control amount to “because I know better” or “because it’s good for you (the person being controlled)” or “because ‘social justice’ demands it.”

Leftists will not countenance a political arrangement that allows anyone to escape the state’s grasp — unless, of course, the state is controlled by the “wrong” party, In which case, leftists (or many of them) would like to exercise their own version of the Benedict Option. See “Polarization and De Facto Partition.”

*     *     *

Theodore Dalrymple understands the difference between terrorism and accidents:

Statistically speaking, I am much more at risk of being killed when I get into my car than when I walk in the streets of the capital cities that I visit. Yet this fact, no matter how often I repeat it, does not reassure me much; the truth is that one terrorist attack affects a society more deeply than a thousand road accidents….

Statistics tell me that I am still safe from it, as are all my fellow citizens, individually considered. But it is precisely the object of terrorism to create fear, dismay, and reaction out of all proportion to its volume and frequency, to change everyone’s way of thinking and behavior. Little by little, it is succeeding. [“How Serious Is the Terrorist Threat?City Journal, March 26, 2017]

Which reminds me of several things I’ve written, beginning with this entry from “Not-So-Random Thoughts (VI)“:

Cato’s loony libertarians (on matters of defense) once again trot out Herr Doktor Professor John Mueller. He writes:

We have calculated that, for the 12-year period from 1999 through 2010 (which includes 9/11, of course), there was one chance in 22 million that an airplane flight would be hijacked or otherwise attacked by terrorists. (“Serial Innumeracy on Homeland Security,” Cato@Liberty, July 24, 2012)

Mueller’s “calculation” consists of an recitation of known terrorist attacks pre-Benghazi and speculation about the status of Al-Qaeda. Note to Mueller: It is the unknown unknowns that kill you. I refer Herr Doktor Professor to “Riots, Culture, and the Final Showdown” and “Mission Not Accomplished.”

See also my posts “Getting It All Wrong about the Risk of Terrorism” and “A Skewed Perspective on Terrorism.”

*     *     *

This is from my post, “A Reflection on the Greatest Generation“:

The Greatest tried to compensate for their own privations by giving their children what they, the parents, had never had in the way of material possessions and “fun”. And that is where the Greatest Generation failed its children — especially the Baby Boomers — in large degree. A large proportion of Boomers grew up believing that they should have whatever they want, when they want it, with no strings attached. Thus many of them divorced, drank, and used drugs almost wantonly….

The Greatest Generation — having grown up believing that FDR was a secular messiah, and having learned comradeship in World War II — also bequeathed us governmental self-indulgence in the form of the welfare-regulatory state. Meddling in others’ affairs seems to be a predilection of the Greatest Generation, a predilection that the Millenials may be shrugging off.

We owe the Greatest Generation a great debt for its service during World War II. We also owe the Greatest Generation a reprimand for the way it raised its children and kowtowed to government. Respect forbids me from delivering the reprimand, but I record it here, for the benefit of anyone who has unduly romanticized the Greatest Generation.

There’s more in “The Spoiled Children of Capitalism“:

This is from Tim [of Angle’s] “The Spoiled Children of Capitalism“:

The rot set after World War II. The Taylorist techniques of industrial production put in place to win the war generated, after it was won, an explosion of prosperity that provided every literate American the opportunity for a good-paying job and entry into the middle class. Young couples who had grown up during the Depression, suddenly flush (compared to their parents), were determined that their kids would never know the similar hardships.

As a result, the Baby Boomers turned into a bunch of spoiled slackers, no longer turned out to earn a living at 16, no longer satisfied with just a high school education, and ready to sell their votes to a political class who had access to a cornucopia of tax dollars and no doubt at all about how they wanted to spend it….

I have long shared Tim’s assessment of the Boomer generation. Among the corroborating data are my sister and my wife’s sister and brother — Boomers all….

Low conscientiousness was the bane of those Boomers who, in the 1960s and 1970s, chose to “drop out” and “do drugs.”…

Now comes this:

According to writer and venture capitalist Bruce Gibney, baby boomers are a “generation of sociopaths.”

In his new book, he argues that their “reckless self-indulgence” is in fact what set the example for millennials.

Gibney describes boomers as “acting without empathy, prudence, or respect for facts – acting, in other words, as sociopaths.”

And he’s not the first person to suggest this.

Back in 1976, journalist Tom Wolfe dubbed the young adults then coming of age the “Me Generation” in the New York Times, which is a term now widely used to describe millennials.

But the baby boomers grew up in a very different climate to today’s young adults.

When the generation born after World War Two were starting to make their way in the world, it was a time of economic prosperity.

“For the first half of the boomers particularly, they came of age in a time of fairly effortless prosperity, and they were conditioned to think that everything gets better each year without any real effort,” Gibney explained to The Huffington Post.

“So they really just assume that things are going to work out, no matter what. That’s unhelpful conditioning.

“You have 25 years where everything just seems to be getting better, so you tend not to try as hard, and you have much greater expectations about what society can do for you, and what it owes you.”…

Gibney puts forward the argument that boomers – specifically white, middle-class ones – tend to have genuine sociopathic traits.

He backs up his argument with mental health data which appears to show that this generation have more anti-social characteristics than others – lack of empathy, disregard for others, egotism and impulsivity, for example. [Rachel Hosie, “Baby Boomers Are a Generation of Sociopaths,” Independent, March 23, 2017]

That’s what I said.

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.

*     *     *

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”
Natural Law and Natural Rights Revisited


See also: Jazz Shaw, “On the Truth of Man’s Rights Under Natural Law“, Hot Air, March 29, 2015

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.

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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

RETRACTED AS HOPELESSLY NAIVE. SEE, FOR EXAMPLE, MANY SUBSEQUENT POSTS, INCLUDING BUT FAR FROM LIMITED TO Leftism As Crypto-Fascism: The Google Paradigm AND What’s Going On? A Stealth Revolution

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.