Thursday, June 30, 2005

Blog stats for June

That was my most productive month yet... 70 posts, 403 comments, and approximately 7000 visits. Thanks for dropping by :)

Respectful Disagreement Meme

Peter Thurley has passed me a meme whereby I have to name three people I disagree with a lot, and say something nice about them. It's a neat idea.

(For the record, I'm not sure that I always manage to live up to the ideal of civility that Peter attributes to me. I can be a bit prickly at times. But I do appreciate his kind compliments.)

First up would have to be Brandon of Siris, with whom I disagree on just about everything. But I do value his intelligent and challenging comments, which often highlight different perspectives that I have overlooked. And it must be said that Brandon's is one of the most consistently civil voices in blogdom.

Second is David Farrar, New Zealand's premiere blogger for the Opposition. Even if I don't much like his right-wing (economic) politics, at least he is a consistent social liberal. Also, his monthly presentations of "New Zealand blog stats" help to create order and unity out of the chaos of the NZ blogging community (which is, of course, something I value too).

Third, Jeremy Pierce is a conservative Christian, so again I disagree with him on mostly everything. But his posts are always fair, balanced, and well-reasoned. He is the most rational and compelling conservative blogger I've come across.

I'm supposed to pass it along to five people, so in addition to the above three, I'll add No Right Turn and Dr. Pretorius. I tend to agree with both quite a lot, so I'll be interested to see who they choose. (I also share Peter's hopes of seeing Brian Leiter's picks -- that could be very interesting indeed.)

P.S. The "three people" don't have to be other bloggers. Mine just happened to be.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005


You may have noticed that I've added a temporary notice to the top of this blog, inviting readers to participate in the meme worth spreading. Once enough people do so, I'll take the notice down again. In the meantime, if you find it annoying, you know what you can do to help make it disappear... ;-)

Speaking of annoyances, I should reiterate that the GoogleAds are aimed at those random first-time visitors who happen across my site from search engine queries and such. Regular readers are most welcome to block them out, as I do.

New Zealand bloggers should be sure to send something in for the kiwi carnival by tomorrow!

P.S. Exams are finally over - had my last one (political philosophy) yesterday. As a last-ditch effort to retain my sanity, I should probably take a break from philosophy for a day or two. Might still blog about other stuff though.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Entitlement and Desert

I just read about this subtle but interesting distinction in John Kleinig's 'The Concept of Desert'. Basically, entitlement derives from our relation to some set of institutional rules, whereas genuine desert is pre-institutional, and instead reflects our intrinsic merit. So, for example, a hard worker may deserve more pay, but he is only entitled to the wage specified in his employment contract. Or a shifty businessman might deserve to be jailed for fraud, but he is entitled to go free due to a legal loophole.

Now, to say that "X deserves A" is not necessarily to say that "X ought to get A", for although desert provides a reason in favour of it, this need not be a conclusive reason. To take Kleinig's example, if punishing a convicted spy would likely trigger a nuclear war, then we presumably ought not to punish him, even though he deserves it.

Also, desert is always grounded on some basis, i.e. it takes the general form "X deserves A in virtue of B". It seems plausible that this basis is always backwards-looking, e.g. some past action that X performed. David Miller argues that "The range of possible desert bases coincides with the range of possible bases for appraising attitudes", i.e. those attitudes which must be directed at some particular object of evaluation (e.g. gratitude, resentment, etc., in contrast to joy or anxiety). So he argues that need is not a proper desert-basis, for it makes no sense to admire, resent, or otherwise "appraise" a person on the basis of their needs. That's not to say that need is irrelevant to justice. Rather, it is an element of justice that is distinct from desert (properly understood).

This is further supported by noting the redundancy of ascribing need as a desert basis. Usually when we say that X deserves A, this provides a new reason to give A to X. But need seems a reason all on its own - it is enough to say "X needs A" - to add that "X deserves A on the basis of this need" doesn't seem to add anything of substance. The word 'deserves' is here being used in a thin/formal sense (meaning something generic like 'X should get A') rather than substantive sense we're interested in.

Despite the backward-looking nature of desert, we might try to derive it from an indirect utilitarian foundation. That is, we recognize that certain forms of action will generally tend to promote utility, and so seek to encourage them by means of the notion of 'desert'. On this account, an action type deserves to be responded to in that manner which would tend to promote utility (if actions of that type are uniformly responded to in this way). So crimes deserve to be punished, and productive effort deserves reward.

Our institutions thus ideally ought to track desert, since we want those institutions or rules that will tend to promote utility when consistently applied. But this is easier said than done, and the practical difficulties will often mean that people's entitlements fail to match their deserts (as with the fraudster's legal loophole in the introductory example).

An interesting consequence of this view is that desert is sort of "stuck in the middle" between the foundational value of utility, and its practical realization in institutional entitlements. This makes it difficult to justify giving desert much weight when it conflicts with the other two values. Imagine a situation where all three conflict: that is, our institutional rules entitle X to A, his past actions mean that he really deserves B instead, but in utilitarian terms giving him C would have the best consequences. Should X be given A, B, or C? It seems difficult to answer B.

After all, in indirect utilitarian terms, we ought to apply our institutional rules consistently. They're the best rules we've got, and if we break them whenever we believe it beneficial to do so, there will be bad consequences. If you argue that in this particular case the entitlements are misguided, so it's better to disregard them anyway, then we also ought to disregard the equally misguided desert judgment and go straight to maximizing utility with C. On the other hand, if you recognize the danger of naive utilitarian decision-making, so reject C in favour of our more generally reliable desert-judgments, you should presumably go all the way and accept the institutional requirements of entitlement, thus going with A rather than B. Either way, stopping at the "intermediate stage" of desert seems somewhat arbitrary and inconsistent. I just thought that was a quite interesting result.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Against Egalitarianism

I want to build on my earlier post about equality and priority. I suggested there that the "Levelling-Down Objection" is a decisive refutation of telic egalitarianism. There is nothing good about bringing the welfare of the best-off down to the same low level as the worst-off. But some egalitarians bite the bullet here. They say that there is something intrinsically better about the more equal situation (even if this is far outweighed by the massive harm done in terms of utility). So I now want to explore a second argument against such egalitarians, based on the importance of one's absolute level of welfare, and the irrelevance of relative/comparative welfare.

Note that both theories claim that it is more important to help the worst off. But they hold this for different reasons. The egalitarian is concerned with people's relative welfare: it is important to help Ben because of his comparative disadvantage to Alan. If Alan did not exist, we would no longer have this reason to help Ben. This view is not plausible. As the prioritist argues, what really matters is Ben's absolute level of welfare: we should help him because he is in need. His level of need is unaffected by Alan, the importance of helping him is unaffected by whether or not Alan exists.

Here's a thought-experiment to make the difference clear. Suppose that a charity works (successfully) to help the homeless and disadvantaged people within a society. We would think this was a valuable endeavour: it made the world a better place. Now suppose that another continent has just been discovered, and it contains many suffering people who are even worse-off than the homeless in our society. Here's the question: does the existence of these people make the charitable work done any less valuable? Would it have been more valuable had those others never existed after all?

Surely the answer is "no". The value of helping those in need is not affected by how they compare to others. Perhaps helping the others would be even more valuable, and hence more important, but that does not diminish the value of the former help. There is a difference between outweighing another value and diminishing it. Egalitarianism, by claiming that relative welfare is what matters, entails that the value of charity can be diminished (and not merely outweighed) by the existence of even worse-off people. This is absurd. What matters is our non-relative level of welfare. Whether others are better off or worse makes no difference to how well-off I am, nor to how valuable a benefit to my wellbeing would be. We should reject telic egalitarianism.

Morality, Divinity, and Humanity

Mark Kleiman writes:
The blue team shouldn't back off on its insistence that children be taught accurate biology in biology class, but we should acknowledge that the larger argument isn't really about biology, and cut the folks on the other side some slack rather than dismissing them as ignorant rustics.

This "larger argument", he suggests, is instead about morality, and whether evolution undermines it. I'm not sure why he thinks that this makes creationists any less ignorant. Well-meaning, perhaps, but rational and well-informed? I think not.

Majikthise already has an excellent response up (P.Z.'s is interesting too), so I'd just like to add a couple of quick points.

Here is the pro-creationist side of Kleiman's argument:
The Book of Genesis says that human beings, male and female, were created by God in God's own image. That's not just a proposition in paleontology; it encompasses two important moral claims.

First, it implies that each human being is a Divine project, and therefore has obligations to act in certain ways that flow merely from being a human being. Behaving foolishly or cruelly isn't, on this view, merely self-destructive or destructive, it's blasphemous, because those bad actions are being performed by an Image of God.

Second, Genesis implies that each human being I confront is sacred, again merely as a human being and without any reference to his behavior, status, or appearance. He (or she) is sacred as the Image of God. (C.S. Lewis says in one of his essays that, aside from the consecrated wine and wafer, any individual human being that you meet is the most sacred object you will encounter that day, more sacred than any relic or image.)

Firstly, I don't see how evolution poses any threat to the religio-ethical claim that humans reflect "the image of God". Kleiman later emphasises that the claim should be understood metaphorically. As I've argued before, the similar claim that "all men are created equal" is in no respect an empirical/descriptive claim at all. Rather, it is a normative claim to the effect that we ought to consider the interests of everybody - "all count in the moral calculus". Similarly, the claim that all humans are made in "the image of God" is not an empirical claim. So it is not threatened by the scientific account of our evolutionary origins. Presumably the claim instead reflects the nature of our rational agency, that humans - like God, and unlike the other animals - are capable of rational reflection, love, and so forth. Again, evolution says nothing about any of this, and creationists are foolish to believe otherwise.

Second, as I've previously argued, the purpose of a free agent's life cannot be externally imposed by any outside authority - not even God. The fact that we're part of a "Divine project", or have a purpose to God, does not entail that we have an objective purpose we're obliged to fulfill. Follow the link for the full argument.

Third, I think it is ethically dubious to promote concern for blasphemy over human welfare. If I hurt another person, this is wrong precisely because I hurt another person, not merely because the action constitutes blasphemy against God. Humans are not merely "sacred relics". We are people, not objects, and I think it an ethically repugnant consequence of the view Kleiman expounds that it fails to uphold this distinction. The more morally upright position is that persons have moral value in themselves, and not merely because it was bestowed upon them by some external source (i.e. God).

Any suggestion to the contrary, as I have argued before, is morally bankrupt:
I'd be fairly surprised if anyone was genuinely willing to embrace the consequences of this view. For suppose God were to tomorrow trumpet from the skies: "Behold, ye little mortals, the Jews have fulfilled the purposes I had for them. I value them no longer." Would that suddenly make it true that Jewish people are worthless? Would that make it morally permissible to hurt or kill them? Absurd!

The worth of a human being is not conditional upon their reflecting God's "image", or having his blessing. If God decided he didn't like Jews or gays, that would make them no less morally important. It's simply a mistake to tie God and morality together in such a way. The worth of a person derives from their humanity, not the blessing of divinity.

Next, consider the anti-evolution side to Kleiman's argument:
Insofar as middle-school Darwinism asserts that each of us is merely an animal of a particular species, fundamentally like animals of other species, it undercuts both halves of that double-barreled moral proposition. If I'm merely an animal, why shouldn't I act like one if I feel like it? And, if you're merely an animal, why shouldn't I beat you up, if I'm so inclined and bigger than you are?

Much here depends on what it means to say that we are "fundamentally like animals of other species". We are made of the same sort of physical materials, and developed via similar evolutionary processes from a shared common ancestor. But I don't see how any of that has moral relevance. Clearly the end result is something quite different. As I said above, we have evolved something that no other animal has: rational agency. This is something of the utmost moral importance. We, unlike other animals, can recognize and act on reasons.

So, why shouldn't you act like an animal? Presumably there are reasons against it. Perhaps in doing so you would harm yourself or others, or suffer the opportunity cost of failing to instead engage in other - more worthwhile - activities. Why shouldn't you beat me up? Because I'm a person and have intrinsic moral worth in virtue of my humanity, which you can recognize in virtue of your humanity, and thus we have the capability to co-exist harmoniously in a manner that serves all of our interests. (I grant that's a somewhat rushed and superficial response. See my essay "Why Be Moral?" for a more rigorous argument.)

At the end of the day, there simply isn't any good reason to support creationism. If you think it's good biology, then you're scientifically ignorant. If you think it's good ethics, then you're philosophically ignorant. Like Lindsay says, "Real respect requires us to call each other out on wishful thinking and bad reasoning. The members of the red team who cling to the literal story of Genesis are embracing a terrible theory for indefensible reasons." We do them no favours by pretending otherwise.

Freedom and Markets

Markets are, in many respects, the ultimate manifestations of negative freedom. Individuals are free to make voluntary exchanges with others, and nobody is explicitly forced to do anything. It's great -- as far as it goes. In this post, I will argue that markets are necessary but insufficient for freedom.

There are two broad autonomy-based arguments for the market: the first invokes market neutrality, the second: perfectionism and the development of autonomous character. Hayek argues compellingly for the first approach:
The recognition that each person has his own scale of values which we ought to respect, even if we do not approve of it, is part of the conception of the value of the individual personality. How we value another person will necessarily depend upon what his values are. But believing in freedom means that we do not regard ourselves as the ultimate judges of another person's values, that we do not feel entitled to prevent him from pursuing ends which we disapprove so long as he does not infringe the equally protected sphere of others.

However, when push comes to shove I don't think many of us would stand by this view. It implies that we should allow individuals to sell themselves into slavery, sell their body organs, engage in suicide pacts, and so forth. (You can just hear the neutralist arguing, "Hey, if that's what they want for themselves, who are we to judge?") If you hold that autonomy is good in itself, however, then you are not a neutralist. I think this pro-autonomy position is the more plausible one. It would justify preventing people from selling themselves into slavery, for in doing so they would undermine their own autonomy, and - unlike the neutralist - we hold that autonomy has objective value and so ought not to be undermined in such a fashion.

Still, even if we must impose some limits on the market, in general it seems quite supportive of autonomy. Certainly it is preferable to any alternative where individuals get their jobs and roles in life decided for them by some external authority (whether a totalitarian government, or an heriditary caste system). The market removes these barriers to self-determination.

Nevertheless, the market alone is insufficient. As John O'Neill argues, "Hayek elides self-determination with the negative conditions for its exercise". Hayek identifies autonomy with "independence of the arbitrary will of another", but also with the condition of being "moved by reasons, by conscious purposes, which are my own". What he seemingly fails to recognize is that these two concepts are not identical. The former, purely 'negative', condition, does not guarantee that the latter, 'positive', condition also obtains. This reflects my more general complaint that mere non-interference is insufficient to establish genuine opportunities, and only the latter has genuine value.

These considerations move us towards the pro-autonomy 'perfectionist' position hinted at before. On this view, the value of the market derives from its tendency to develop the virtues of autonomous character. Thus Gray argues:
the virtues elicited in market economies are those of the autonomous agent - the person... who is self-possessed, who has a distinct self-identity or individuality, who is authentic and self-directed, and whose life is to some significant degree a matter of self-creation.

There are three problems with this argument. Firstly, it is far from clear whether the market really does develop virtuous character. Adam Smith recognized that tedious labour would dull the capacities of workers, and markets would pamper the vanity of the rich. (He simply thought that these costs were outweighed by the utility of capitalist production.) It also seems plausible that the market encourages meanness of spirit, miserliness, uncharity, selfishness, and a general lack of community-mindedness and concern for others. Further, O'Neill argues that it doesn't even encourage a balanced autonomy:
To use the Aristotelian terminology, the virtues of the autonomous agent must be contrasted not only with vices of deficiency, but also those of excess. Self-identity requires not just the absence of definition by others alone, but also settled dispositions that go to make up the existence of character.

He suggests that "recent accounts of the 'post-modern condition'" indicate the failure of our market society in this regard.

The other two counter-arguments are a bit more straightforward. They concern the value and conditions of autonomy. Basically, freedom only has value insofar as we have worthwhile options to choose between. This is a positive condition that the mere 'negative freedom' provided by the market cannot guarantee. But as it stands this point is merely academic. In practice, market forces will tend to supply valuable goods to meet demand. To have any real bite, the present argument must be supplemented, perhaps by the suggestion that commodification of "educational, cultural, familial and associational spheres" would tend to undermine their intrinsic value. I will not pursue that line of argument here.

Finally, on the conditions for autonomous character, we return to the familiar point about how mere non-interference is insufficient. Indeed, the market presupposes autonomy: it consists in voluntary exchanges between (supposedly) informed and rational agents. Agents are disadvantaged insofar as they lack the fundamental capacities required for market success. It is patently unjust for an individual's capacities, and thus opportunities, to be determined by (parental) wealth.

What justice and autonomy require is that we first establish the conditions required to exercise freedom. That is, the provision of basic needs, top quality education, and so forth. Only then can we hand matters over to the market. As I have recently argued, I think the best way to achieve this would be to institute a universal basic income to complement the free market. The taxes required to fund it could be incorporated into the cost of market transactions. This, I believe, would be the best way to promote real freedom in our society.

Universal Translator

Jon Rowe has my gratitude: this "universal translator" is even better than the "gangsta" one I played with a few months ago. For example, check out the redneck and skinhead versions of this blog. Wicked fun ;)

Sunday, June 26, 2005

A Meme Worth Spreading

I figure it's time I tried out another crazy idea. I wrote last year about how the IPIP-NEO is the best (serious) personality test freely available online, and posted my results, inviting other bloggers to do likewise. I'm very curious to see if there are any observable trends among us. But only a few others responded. (I recommend Parableman's post for some further analysis of the test itself.) So, I figure I will try to entice more widespread participation by embedding this in a Go-meme.

The idea of a Go-meme (which I owe to Nova Spivack) is that it involves a "track list" at the end of the post, rather like an extended hat-tip, with links to those who passed on the meme "upstream" of you. This allows us to track the meme's propagation through blog-space: just search google for your GUID (global unique identifier - it should be a short string that currently yields no results in a google search) to find all those who subsequently picked up the meme "downstream" from you. It also provides an incentive to join the meme, so as to receive all those bonus links.

To enhance the information value of the data that this meme produces, I've added a few demographic questions, plus the two dimensions assessed by the Political Compass quiz. I think it would be especially interesting to learn if there are any correlations between particular personality traits and political or religious positions.

Note that if you do not wish to take the Political Compass test, you may instead respond by indicating your general economic and social positions (i.e. "left" vs "right", and "libertarian" vs "authoritarian"). But the data would be more accurate and useful if you do the actual test and record the exact numerical results.

Finally, I should say something about the 'open source' nature of the data that this will produce. It is, I think, one of the most appealing aspects of the whole experiment. The resulting data will be publically accessible to anyone who does a google search for the GUID ("pixnaps97a2"). They can analyze the data however they like, and put it to any non-profit use. (Creative Commons license.) So I hope that, if the meme takes off, some keen statisticians out there will take advantage of it, and see if there are any significant correlations to be found. If anybody ends up doing such an analysis, please do contact me so that I can update this post with the details and results.

Anyway, here it is:


Overview: This post is a community experiment with two broad purposes. The first is to create publicly accessible data about bloggers' personalities, which may have sociological value in addition to being just plain fun. The second is to track the propagation of this meme through blogspace. Full details and explanation can be found on the original posting:

Instructions (to join in the experiment):

1) Take the IPIP-NEO personality test and the Political Compass quiz, if you have not done so already.

2) Copy to the clipboard that section of this post that is between the double lines, and paste it into your blog editor. (Blogger users may wish to use 'compose' mode to preserve formatting and hyperlinks. Otherwise, be sure to add hyperlinks as necessary.)

3) Replace the answers in the "survey" section below with your own.

4) Add your blog information to the "track list", in the form: "Linked title - URL - optional GUID".

5) Any additional comments should go outside of the double lines, including the (optional) nomination of bloggers you wish to pass this experimental meme on to.

6) Post it to your blog!


Age: 20
Gender: Male
Location: Christchurch, New Zealand
Religion: None
Occupation: Student
Began blogging (dd/mm/yy): 19/03/04

Political Compass results
Left/Right: -5.38
Libertarian/Authoritarian: -5.74

IPIP-NEO results

Friendliness 3
Gregariousness 3
Assertiveness 64
Activity Level 27
Excitement-Seeking 0
Cheerfulness 6

Trust 82
Morality 85
Altruism 58
Co-operation 48
Modesty 39
Sympathy 94

Self-Efficacy 83
Orderliness 52
Dutifulness 87
Achievement-Striving 83
Self-Discipline 88
Cautiousness 99

Anxiety 80
Anger 42
Depression 17
Self-Consciousness 43
Immoderation 1
Vulnerability 27

Imagination 81
Artistic Interests 81
Emotionality 59
Adventurousness 24
Intellect 93
Liberalism 99

Track List:
1. Philosophy, et cetera - - pixnaps97a2
2. (add your entry here)


Okay, that's all. Do consider joining in -- these memes are always fun, but this one might actually serve an independently useful purpose in addition.

To get the ball rolling, I'm going to nominate: Clark, Jason, David Farrar, P.Z. Myers, and You. Yes, that's right, You. Hop to it! :)

Update: More (including some preliminary results) here. A new meme, also worth spreading, is here.

Update II: Results are HERE.

UBI, Freedom, and Reciprocity

There are many good reasons available for supporting the implementation of a universal basic income in our society, but I think most of them can understood in terms of promoting real freedom. A guaranteed income would boost people's opportunities in life, in a variety of ways.

Firstly, it would help relieve poverty. (As my first post on the UBI argued, it would likely be more successful than our existing methods of conditional/targeted welfare benefits.) Allowing people to meet their basic needs is an essential prerequisite to any form of freedom worth having. It would expand the quantity and quality of opportunities open to people, enabling them to live the sorts of lives they want to live. It would, in short, benefit humanity and promote one of the most fundamentally important values that there is.

Second, as discussed in my economy post, the UBI would increase the bargaining power of the worst off. Less desperation would leave people less vulnerable to exploitation. This in turn would relieve the need for many labour regulations. As I wrote before: We could realize the ideal of a genuinely free market, in which all participants - and not only the rich ones - can voluntarily participate.

Relatedly, the UBI would increase the market options open to individuals. It would, for example, enable people to work for less than a subsistence wage. This would make it easier for poorer people to find a job (as opponents of minimum wage laws are quick to point out). It would allow more people to accept more satisfying, if less well-paid, employment. It would also prevent people from being forced into accepting work that they greatly dislike. The most unpleasant jobs would thus have to offer greater compensation in order to entice people to accept them. This is only fair: people should be adequately compensated for performing distasteful jobs, they should not be forced into them from desperation. The guaranteed income would allow people to live for periods without employment, e.g. while they study or otherwise upgrade their skills. It would enable people to work more or less as they prefer. As Van Parijs notes, "access to an income, access to a job and access to leisure are all dimensions that must be taken into account when discussing justice." The UBI, unlike traditional welfare methods, and very unlike laissez faire capitalism, would offer greater access to all three.

It also has broader implications for social justice. Feminists argue that it would enable women to become less dependent on their husbands. Civil (little-'r') republicans point out that it would benefit democracy, by enabling more people to participate in public life. (If you're struggling just to survive, that doesn't leave you much time to get involved in politics or civil society.)

The most controversial aspect of the UBI, if high enough to meet people's basic needs, is that it provides individuals with the option not to work at all. This would seem to violate the reciprocity principle: if an individual takes from society, they have an obligation to give something back if they are able. But we should distinguish a moral obligation from its enforcement. I would agree that we do indeed have such an obligation, but its political enforcement might do more harm than good.

I discussed this more in my original UBI post. There are two main points to make. Firstly, valuable social contributions need not be economic in nature. Our present system woefully undervalues caring work (done predominantly by women) - especially the vital importance of childrearing - and other volunteer work done in service to civil society. Secondly, I think very few people would live lives that contribute nothing to society in this broader sense. Humans are social animals, and most of us want to do make something of our lives, whether through a successful career, or fulfilling some vital role in our communities. So I don't believe reciprocity would pose much of a problem in practice. What do you think?

More Carnivals

The latest Carnival of the Godless is up at Positive Liberty, and includes my musings on the meaning of life.

In other news, the second Kiwi Carnival is coming up in a week, to be hosted at Spanblather. If there are any New Zealanders reading this, be sure to send in your submissions by Friday!

Update: See also the 13th Carnival of the Un-Capitalists, which includes my "Reasonable Resolution" argument from libertarianism to welfare rights.

Blog Review: Pharyngula

I haven't been keeping up with these too well, but I'd like to point both my readers in the direction of Pharyngula, on the off chance that they don't read P.Z. Myers already. His intelligent but unapologetic criticisms of religion are amongst the best in the blogosphere. A few highlights...

His parable of the hats is rather brilliant:
My people are obsessed with hats. Almost everyone wears them, and a lot of their identity is wrapped up in their particular style... Individuals only rarely changed hat styles, and when they did, it was considered grounds for sorrow by those who wore the abandoned style, and cause for rejoicing by those wearing the newly adopted style. Sometimes people would invent new kinds of hats, which were typically regarded as bizarre when one person was wearing it, but once a sufficient number switched to the new style, they were respected automatically. It meant that streets of our more cosmopolitan cities were filled with strange and comical hats bobbing along, but no one laughed. Laughing at a hat was considered a heinous crime.

Sound familiar? Do read the whole thing. But my all time favourite Pharyngula post would have to be The proper reverence due those who have gone before, a deeply profound and insightful post which I cannot do justice to here -- though I will offer a brief excerpt nonetheless:
I can feel something of the same reverence for the Bible that I do for a piece of bone. It's a record, spotty and incomplete and flawed, of human lives, that leaves out far more than it includes. It's not as pretty as a bone, but then it is representative of some of the ugliness of human history, as well as of some of the poetry. I can appreciate it as a slice of a few thousand years of the events and beliefs of one fairly influential tribe of people. There are a lot of lives and time, mostly unmentioned, bound up in that book.

P.Z. was also responsible for that gem about the "PYGMIES + DWARFS" I mentioned the other day. But although I most enjoy his godless posts, P.Z. is probably more famous for his science posts. He's been known to write about all sorts of bizarre life forms, including insects, denizens of the ocean's depths, and even Republicans (though he doesn't seem to like them so much as the other creepy crawlies). You can learn all sorts of neat things, such as how octopus suckers work. A bunch of his best science posts from last year have been highlighted by Darksyde, here. Enjoy!

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Why Taxation Is Not Theft

Right-wingers are rather fond of claiming that taxation is a form of theft (for some recent examples, see here and here). This objection presupposes that individuals are entitled to their holdings, and that the state has no right to some portion of those holdings. In this post, I want to explore (and challenge) those assumptions.

The main problem is that the objection rests on the inadequate foundation of libertarian entitlement theory. This political philosophy is badly misguided, for the many reasons outlined here and here. In particular, I argue here that there is no way that one could justly acquire an absolute property right over any natural resource. This then provides a libertarian justification for redistributive taxation towards a universal basic income:

it is the 'ground rent' or compensation that is owed to each human being for the land and natural resources that have been deprived them by others' illicit appropriations. All property derives from these ill-gotten gains, and compensation must be paid accordingly.

The second justification for taxation is to remedy market failures with regard to "externalities". To adapt an argument made in a recent post (though in a somewhat different context):

It highlights two major trends of the modern economy: (1) the "spread of significant environmental externalities"; and (2) the development of wealth "held in the form of information rather than material goods". What these trends have in common is that "they greatly enhance the importance of property rights which are extremely difficult to define and enforce." Van Parijs continues: "[I]t seems safe to predict that these trends will persist, and hence that it will become increasingly difficult to make sure that whoever is responsible for wealth destruction/creation actually pays/is paid for the damage/benefit caused."

Redistributive taxation is a fairly blunt instrument in this case, though its egalitarian nature might help to smooth out some of the arbitrary disparities caused by the malfunctioning market. But a better argument would highlight the need for specific taxes which target externalities. This justifies extra taxes on petrol, carbon emissions, garbage, and all other pollutants. Such taxation is manifestly just, for it ensures that people are responsible for the damage they inflict, rather than offloading the costly consequences of their actions on to others (including future generations).

A third justification for taxation is communitarian in nature. Wealth is not created in isolation, it is as much a product of society as it is the individual. After all, society provides the enabling conditions for the individual to flourish -- your success would not be possible were it not for the opportune conditions of the society one works within, and the actions of your fellow citizens. Thus the community might rightfully claim "dues" on wealth that is created within the safety of its confines. Wealth is a social product -- a fact which the atomistic view (common to liberalism and libertarianism) leads us to overlook.

(I think there are actually two arguments here which I am in danger of conflating. First, society is a precondition for individual flourishing -- so even if you create wealth yourself, you couldn't have done it without the prior benefits bestowed upon you by society. Secondly, wealth is a social product: you don't just create wealth yourself, it is a product of your interactions with other social agents, etc.)

These latter arguments take us beyond the theoretical apparatus of libertarianism, but, given the inadequacy of the theory, that's not a bad thing. Indeed, I think the libertarian has framed the debate in a very misleading fashion. They treat property as if it were a natural (pre-political) right, emerging from the 'state of nature', with which government may not interfere. But natural rights are a political fiction -- "nonsense on stilts", as Bentham put it. We have no reason to think that such bizarre entities exist. (We can ground morality just fine without them -- see my recent post on constructivist non-cognitivism.)

We should instead understand rights - including (conditional) property rights - as emerging out of a social/political context (and justified on indirect utilitarian grounds). On this more holistic view, you cannot see pre-tax income as your "natural" or "deserved" earnings. 'Pre-tax' is a misnomer: tax is not an imposition on some prior economic system, it is a fundamental part of the system. A sales tax is simply part of the price of what you buy. Income tax is just a factor that determines your earnings. "Ownership" is not a natural relation between you and an object, but a social relation between fellow citizens: it is an agreement to refrain from interfering with the socially-recognized (i.e. "post-tax") holdings of each other.

Some libertarians even go so far as to claim that taxation is equivalent to "forced labour". This absurd claim is a result of their atomistic (mis-)conception of the issue. They see labour as natural and prior, and taxation as a subsequent imposition on this natural order. But in reality, work is embedded within (and not prior to) the social context. We know in advance what the tax-rate is. When we agree to work, we agree to a taxed wage -- like I said above, the tax is simply part of the cost, it's something one consents to as part of the social transaction. There is no "force" involved, and no "theft". Of course, if you later refuse to pay the agreed cost, then the tax collectors will come knocking at your door. But try reneging on your debts to anyone else and see how they react!


Libertarianism could be understood, in the most basic interpretation, as the view that property rights are of fundamental value. Thus understood, libertarians hold that individuals own themselves, and so may not be used or damaged without their consent. But we can distinguish between Right and Left-wing libertarians. Most libertarians are right-libertarians: they hold the unprincipled view that natural resources may be appropriated by some so as to leave none left over for others. This is not a viable position, for reasons explained in the linked post. Left-libertarians, by contrast, hold that all individuals have an equal right to natural resources. Ideally, they would begin (emerging from the 'state of nature') by giving everyone an equal share of natural resources, and then letting voluntary exchanges in the free market continue things from there.

But even this improved version of libertarianism fails, for reasons I have explained before. Any allocation of absolute property rights would allow the owner to destroy the resource in question, thereby depriving future generations of their fair share. Unless, that is, those shares were reserved in advance, but there would not be enough resources to split into indefinitely many positive shares. That's a problem regarding the origin of property rights. But even if resources could (somehow) be initially allocated in a fair manner, just transfer may be impeded by ignorance or accident, so there's no guarantee that market transfers will "preserve" the justice of the distribution. They might also cause some people to acquire an unacceptable amount of power over others. These objections point to internal problems: the libertarian principles of initial acquisition and just transfer offer an imperfect treatment of property rights.

There are also external objections which can be made, by pointing out that libertarianism is just fundamentally wrong-headed. Property rights are not of fundamental value. It's ludicruous that anyone should hold them to be more fundamentally important than human flourishing. We should instead take human welfare as our ultimate value - as utilitarians do - supporting whatever social/political institutions would be most conducive to this end. (This would no doubt lead to some form of conditional property rights, and probably redistributive taxation, rather than the property-rights absolutism of libertarianism.)

I have so far assumed that libertarians take rights as fundamental. They might instead claim that freedom (understood in the 'negative' sense of freedom from interference) is their fundamental value. But that also fails. Firstly, it fails on its own terms: enforcement of property rights is a form of coercive interference, and a reasonable resolution of the resulting "conflict of liberties" will lead to significant welfare rights for the poor. Secondly, it also suffers from the external objection that it is fundamentally misguided: what really matters is not merely freedom from interference, but rather, substantive freedom.

So, even left-libertarianism is, I think, quite misguided. Nevertheless it's interesting to consider what it involves in practice. Some left-libertarians argue for quite substantial taxation, to bring us closer to the ideal of 'equal initial resources' (e.g. for the next generation) that they believe is required by justice. Hillel Steiner offers three forms of "just tax" that can be rightfully imposed on property owners to achieve this end. The first and main one has already been mentioned: rectification for illicit appropriations of natural resources. The second is from bequests: dead people cannot own things, so nor can they transfer (bequeath) ownership rights to their descendents -- that's a legal fiction that ought to be got rid of. The property of the dead thus reverts to its natural status of common ownership, and can be distributed accordingly. (Realistically, I don't see that this would help much in practice: people would just make sure to transfer more of their property before they died.) Third, Steiner argues that genetic information is a natural resource that people (illictly) appropriate for procreative purposes, and so they must pay recompense for this too. That's rather silly though. Even if genetic info is in some sense a "natural resource", its use does not infringe upon the liberty of anyone else - it does not prevent them from using it too - so there are no grounds for recompense, unlike the first case.

Original Appropriation

(The post title just refers to the problem of initial acquisition by another name.) I've been having a rather unproductive discussion over at Not PC on this issue, and thought I would try to clarify matters in this new post. To recap: the question is how one can rightfully appropriate (i.e. acquire absolute ownership rights over previously unowned) land or other natural resources. (An excellent real-life example is provided by PC's own discussion of claiming ownership over whales.)

The problem for the libertarian here is that any such appropriation necessarily violates the liberty of others, for it prevents them from making use of what they previously had free access to. (As previously noted, the enforcement of property rights involves physical coercion, and thus conflicts with others' freedom from interference.) For example, if I appropriate the only local food source, and refuse anyone else access to it, then my actions have clearly harmed them -- indeed, a consistent libertarian ought to say that I have violated their rights.

So it seems that the only way you could acquire an absolute right over a natural resource would be if everyone else consented to the appropriation, i.e. if they voluntarily sacrificed their liberty for your sake. (Perhaps you could offer them some incentive, e.g. a share of the profits, in exchange for this sacrifice.) But since the "everyone" in question includes future generations, this is a condition that can never be met.

Put another way: we have a moral obligation, when taking from the world's natural resources, to leave "enough and as good" for others. This 'Lockean proviso' would prevent any absolute property rights from ever being granted, once we took future generations into account. At best, one might acquire a conditional property right that limited the ways one could dispose of the resource -- it might require responsible and sustainable consumption, or the subsequent transference of the right to others in greater need, and so forth. One could appeal to utilitarianism to establish such a (prima facie and conditional) right. After all, we'd all soon die if we were never allowed to use natural resources such as food sources. But such a foundation will also justify redistribution of surplus wealth to the needy, so that won't help the libertarian.

PC instead employs the standard libertarian argument that individuals own their labour and thus rightfully own the products of their labour. But their work products are not created ex nihilo, so this begs the question of how they could come to own the natural materials that went into the finished product.

Absent any other explanation, we must conclude that they don't have the prerequisite natural right over the natural materials used. As such, the acquisition violates others' rights. This provides a libertarian justification for a universal basic income: it is the 'ground rent' or compensation that is owed to each human being for the land and natural resources that have been deprived them by others' illicit appropriations. All property derives from these ill-gotten gains, and compensation must be paid accordingly.

Basic Income for the Economy's Sake

In my introductory post on the universal basic income, I suggested some reasons to think that it is a better idea than conditional welfare benefits, in that it would be more successful at relieving poverty. In this post I want to explore another utilitarian justification from the UBI, which is the counterintuitive claim that it would actually help the economy.

There are two obvious reasons for thinking that the UBI would harm the economy. Firstly, funding it would require significant taxation, and, all else being equal, higher taxation stunts economic growth. Secondly, a guaranteed basic income would mean that people are no longer forced to work - it would offer them the option to work less, and some people would choose to take up this option, thus decreasing productivity. Frankly, I think this latter argument has little moral force, as it is a stock argument against emancipation (compare: "the slaves might not work so hard if given the choice, so we shouldn't free them"), and treats people as a means only, which is repugnant. Another way of putting the argument is that having a guaranteed income boosts the bargaining power of those that previously were in desperate positions and so (previously) could be exploited by capitalists to great profit. Relieving this desperation might thus harm productivity - but again, only a moral monster, or a slave-driver, could object to the UBI on these grounds.

In any case, there are two countervailing reasons which may outweigh the above, and suggest that the UBI could actually help economic growth.

Firstly, it would serve to foster a more flexible economy. As Van Parijs writes:

With a basic income, individuals could go through repeated and protracted periods in which their activities earned them less than a subsistence wage - for example, as they retrained between two jobs... [or] as they launched new businesses, and so on. As a result and without the (often opaque and costly) aid of special schemes, adjustments of all sorts would be easier and an entrepreneurial spirit would be encouraged throughout society.

The UBI would also indirectly contribute to the economy's flexibility by relieving the need for various labour regulations, as we have already noted that the guaranteed income would increase workers' bargaining power, protecting them from exploitation. So we could abolish minimum wage laws, restrictions on patterns of working time, and so forth. We could realize the ideal of a genuinely free market, in which all participants - and not only the rich ones - can voluntarily participate.

This added flexibility is the main reason to think the economy would benefit from the institution of a universal basic income. But there is also a second, more speculative, argument. It highlights two major trends of the modern economy: (1) the "spread of significant environmental externalities"; and (2) the development of wealth "held in the form of information rather than material goods". What these trends have in common is that "they greatly enhance the importance of property rights which are extremely difficult to define and enforce." Van Parijs continues:

[I]t seems safe to predict that these trends will persist, and hence that it will become increasingly difficult to make sure that whoever is responsible for wealth destruction/creation actually pays/is paid for the damage/benefit caused.

This is important because markets cannot function adequately in situations of high uncertainty - that's why pro-market economists are always appealing to models in which people are fully informed. Or, from Van Parijs again:

Using Ouchi's (1980) typology, one can distinguish three types of social co-ordination. Bureaucracies are optimal when there are neither sharp conflicts of interest nor significant uncertainties about who is entitled to what. Clans are optimal when there are no conflicts but high uncertainties. Markets are optimal when there are conflicts but no uncertainties. When there are both sharp conflicts and high uncertainties, co-ordination breaks down and chaos sets in. This is what is increasingly threatening to happen in a market economy pervaded by the two trends mentioned above... Assuming that conflicts of interest are with us for ever, the only option open to forestall economically damaging chaos consists in reducing what is at stake in the market game - that is, in making an increasing part of people's material welfare depend on society's overall productivity, rather than on their individual contribution. A basic income is the most natural way of institutionalizing this solution.
I'm not entirely convinced by this second argument, I must admit. Market breakdown just doesn't strike me as a very likely scenario, especially compared to its opposite - the free-rider problem - which would be exacerbated by this collectivising solution.

Anyway, I'm no economist, obviously, so I'm in no position to be making any conclusive judgments about the arguments outlined here. But it does seem to me that the advantages of flexibility could potentially offset the costs of higher taxes. Even if the UBI wouldn't explicitly benefit the economy, it might do a lot less harm than its knee-jerk detractors assume. And this slight cost would be well worth the benefits to human freedom and welfare that it would bring about.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Philosophers' Carnival #15

After a slight delay, the 15th Philosophers' Carnival is now up at The Buckingham Inquirer. I think some of the entries on science and ethics are especially interesting.

I'd also like to highlight a couple of interesting posts that didn't make it into the final carnival: one being a discussion of free will & capital punishment at the Garden of Forking Paths, and the other, David Velleman's "redefining adoption", on why it's morally problematic to "adopt" an embryo. (By the way, I tend to bookmark all such "passing links of interest" to my account, which is publically accessible here, in case anyone's interested.)

P.S. My own entry, A Reasonable Resolution, presents an argument deriving welfare rights from the libertarian right to non-interference. Comments and responses are, as always, most welcome.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

A Riddle

From my cognitive psychology textbook...

What is greater than God
More evil than the devil
The poor have it
The rich want it
And if you eat it you die?

(You can find the answer here.)

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

McNaughton vs. Non-Cognitivism

Which is the better theory, David McNaughton's internalist moral realism or some form of non-cognitivism?

On McNaughton's view, values are an objective and observable component of the external world. They are, moreover, intrinsically motivating: if one forms a clear and accurate conception of how the world is, then this fact alone will necessarily motivate one to act in accordance with the objective values. Insofar as one fails to do so, this must be due to their inaccurate conception of the situation.

The non-cognitivist, by contrast, sees value as something we project onto the world. It is not some pre-existing thread in the fabric of the cosmos. Values are invented rather than discovered. Non-cognitivists have traditionally understood our moral attitudes to be closer to desires than beliefs: the point of morality is not to describe the world, but to change it.

A serious problem for simple non-cognitivism is that our language clearly treats moral claims as truth-apt, whereas non-cognitive attitudes cannot be true or false. For some moral claim M, we might say, "It is true that M," or "I believe that M," or "If M, then X". These sentences become nonsensical if M lacks cognitive content, and is merely an emotive expression such as "hurrah for *!". It makes no sense to say that 'Hurrah for *!' is true. The non-cognitivist may respond by adopting a minimalist theory of truth, whereby "'M' is true" is just a long-winded way of affirming "M". But this strategy seems insufficient to account for the more substantial symptoms of propositional content, such as aptness for belief or embedment within conditional (if-then) statements.

It is an obvious fact of moral life that we can be mistaken in our moral beliefs. But for the simple non-cognitivist, there is nothing for us to be mistaken about (and he doesn't grant that moral attitudes are beliefs in any case). He effectively grants us moral infallibility, though at the cost of justificatory nihilism. There is no reason to prefer one moral position over another -- they are all equally non-justified. Moral progress becomes impossible. The moral convert has merely updated their preferences; they weren't mistaken before, and their new set of moral attitudes is no better justified now. This is an implausible and unattractive conception of morality.

However, the non-cognitivist can avoid these problems by moving towards 'quasi-realism'. By imposing certain constraints on what can count as an appropriate moral attitude, the quasi-realist leaves room for moral progress. On this view, there are even moral truths, though they are constructed out of dispositional facts, rather than discovered out there in the world as McNaughton would have it. A sophisticated non-cognitivist could define moral truth in terms of, for example: (1) the hypothetical desires of an "ideal spectator" who is fully informed and impartially sympathetic towards humanity; or (2) the universal prescriptions of a consistent self-interested agent; or else (3) the maximally coherent and unified set of desires (or evaluative beliefs) that would result from a reflective equilibrium process. These options could also lead to reductive ethical naturalism, which externalists (myself included) would prefer. But to retain a non-cognitive aspect to the theory, we must add that moral language (properly understood) also expresses a particular attitude or commitment to the value of human well-being.

This sophisticated version of non-cognitivism co-opts much of the intuitive appeal of moral realism, but without the implausible metaphysics. McNaughton's theory, by contrast, is problematic on both ontological and epistemic grounds.

McNaughton would have us believe that we interact with irreducible moral entities that exist out there in the world. But given the more parsimonious account provided by the non-cognitivist, McNaughton's theory violates Ockham's Razor by multiplying entities beyond necessity. We have no need for such a bloated ontology. Worse, he claims that the objective values are such that their mere apprehension is enough to motivate us; but the thought of entities with such powers strikes us as unacceptably "queer", as Mackie famously objected. McNaughton's theory posits entities of a bizarre kind quite unlike the rest of our ontology. Moreover, it is far from clear how we could come to apprehend or "observe" these values in the first place. Non-natural values do not seem to be the sorts of things that we could causally interact with. The basis of our moral knowledge remains entirely mysterious on McNaughton's account.

Does internalist moral realism offer any advantage over sophisticated non-cognitivism that can make up for these flaws? McNaughton claims that only internalist moral realism can adequately account for "the authority of moral demands". But this is not so. If we adopt the third variety of sophisticated non-cognitivism described above, the immoralist (by definition) fails to possess or act on the maximally unified and coherent desire-set. This leaves them open to rational criticism. This form of constructivist non-cognitivism can understand moral demands to be demands of reason - and you don't get more authoritative than that.

Thus we find McNaughton's internalist moral realism to be quite unmotivated. The intuitive aspects of it can be just as well provided by a sufficiently sophisticated non-cognitivism, and without the metaphysical baggage. Constructivist non-cognitivism is the better theory.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Musings on The Meaning of Life

I'd like to continue the Open Conversation on The Meaning of Life that Melbourne Philosopher began last month. I agree with him that "The meaning of life is only the meaning that people give to it."

Each person creates their own meaning or purpose in life. It is a necessary truth that we have no externally assigned purpose or function. Free agents are not the sorts of things that can be bound by external purposes. Some people believe that God gives our lives objective meaning. They're wrong. Any meaning their life has comes from themselves, not from God. They have chosen to make fulfilling God's will the purpose of their life. God did not, could not, decide that for them -- not if they were free agents.

But then, what makes doing God's bidding any more meaningful than doing your own, or someone else's? Suppose that God created you for a purpose. Why should you care about that? It does not give your life any objective purpose. It merely has a purpose to God. God's purpose need not be your purpose.

Imagine that I created an army of intelligent, self-aware robots, for the purpose of taking over the world. Now consider one of those metallic free agents. Is it this individual's purpose in life to help me take over the world? Not necessarily. It may be my purpose for him, but thinking agents can rebuke the 'purposes' of their creators. They must, in the end, decide their own purpose in life for themselves.

Even if God existed, he could not do the impossible by assigning objective values to things. If he made us for a purpose, that would merely be our purpose to him. (It remains an agent-relative purpose, even if that agent is God.) A valued object matters to someone, it cannot just matter, simpliciter. That's as incoherent as an object being "lower", simpliciter. (Lower than what? Matters to whom?)

So really the Big Question is not "What is the meaning of life?", nor even the more individualized "What is the meaning of my life?", but rather:
  What meaning does my life have to me?

And that is a question that no one else can answer for you. Not even God.

Moral Diversity and Skepticism

Does the existence of moral diversity (i.e. widespread disagreement about moral issues, both between and within cultures) lend reason to think that there is no correct answer, or at least none that we are in a position to know?

We should begin by noting that superficial moral diversity is consistent with universal consensus regarding the fundamental moral principles. This is because the same base principles could yield very different results if applied in different circumstances or by people with different factual (non-moral) beliefs. This superficial form of moral "diversity" poses no skeptical threat. Such disagreements could be resolved by correcting factual mistakes and pointing out the situational differences. Only foundational disagreements have skeptical import, so the rest of this essay will concern this deeper form of moral diversity.

The mere existence of disagreement, even widespread and deep-rooted disagreement, is by itself insufficient to motivate skepticism. For note that the same phenomenon is found in the empirical sphere: regarding the origin of the human species, there is much disagreement both between and within cultures. But this doesn't lead us to suppose that there is "no truth of the matter", nor does it provide any reason to doubt the account provided by the theory of evolution. If others' disagreement is explicable through (say) ignorance or dogmatism, and poses no rational challenge to the evidential basis of our own beliefs, then mere diversity of opinion provides no skeptical impetus whatsoever. We should simply conclude that the others are mistaken.

Rational consideration of the empirical evidence will tend towards a scientific consensus. On those issues where even the experts are disagreed (e.g. how to reconcile general relativity with quantum mechanics), we at least think that progress is being made, and future discoveries will shed further light on the matter. It is less clear whether the same can be said of ethics. While we think that scientific disagreements cannot long survive the informed reflection of rational parties, it seems that moral disagreements more easily can. For example, significant and deep-rooted disagreements are found between consequentialists and deontologists, which cannot obviously be ascribed to ignorance or irrationality from either party.

If moral diversity could persist despite empirical omniscience and perfect rationality, then moral skepticism would be vindicated. Persisting diversity in such ideal circumstances would suggest that neither position was better justified than the other, or at least that the required justification is not accessible even to informed rational agents. We would have no reason to think that one position was more likely than the other to be true. We could not have moral knowledge -- our moral beliefs would be shown to be arbitrary and unjustified.

The reason behind this disparity between empirical and moral beliefs is presumably that only the former are responsive to reality. Empirical facts causally impact upon us, so our beliefs may respond accordingly. By contrast, whatever values are, they don't seem the sort of entity that could causally interact with our desires or moral beliefs. Positing some abstract Platonic realm of 'objective values' seems entirely superfluous to explaining the actual desires that we have. I think that this, and not moral diversity per se, is the real force behind moral skepticism.

But, as Michael Smith notes, our a priori beliefs are similarly disconnected from empirical reality. This leads many to think that the truth-maker for our a priori beliefs is merely constructive, i.e. that set of a priori beliefs that "we would all converge on if we were to subject our initial beliefs about what is a priori true to a reflective equilibrium process and so came up with a maximally informed and coherent and unified set of beliefs about what is a priori true."

Given the close analogy between evaluative and a priori beliefs, it seems plausible that their truthmakers rest upon a similar metaphysical foundation. That is, moral truths are merely constructive facts about what fully informed and rational agents would converge on, were they to subject their evaluative beliefs to a reflective equilibrium process.

On this view, the threat of moral diversity is not merely epistemological/skeptical, but metaphysical/nihilistic. If moral diversity would persist in ideal conditions, then not only would our moral beliefs lack justification, but there would be no moral truth at all!

Faced by this challenge, I think we have grounds for optimism. On a practical level, there is more moral consensus than is often realized. There are a vast number of simple ethical questions on which all reasonable people agree, from the general impermissibility of unprovoked violence, to the general desirability of compassion and promotion of human flourishing. This is often overlooked, as we tend to focus on the few most contentious moral issues (e.g. abortion), where judgments are often clouded by emotion or ideology -- or else just plain difficult. We tend not to notice the vast majority of moral life, which we navigate with relative ease.

Further, on a theoretical level, recent work has begun to bridge the gap between consequentialists and deontologists. The indirect utilitarians (e.g. Hare) have shown that there are good consequentialist reasons for adopting a deontological practical morality to guide our everyday moral thinking. And Derek Parfit has shown that the agent-relativity of strict deontological theories renders them collectively self-defeating. They must be revised at least part way towards the greater impartiality shown by consequentialism.

Ultimately, I think that moral diversity poses no greater skeptical challenge than the disagreements found in every other area of human discourse. As ethics is a field of great personal importance to our lives, it may be especially easy to be waylaid by emotion or wishful thinking. But if we are responsible in our epistemic practices, then the mere fact that others disagree with us need not mean that our moral beliefs are unjustified. Granted, it is possible that some moral disagreements really will prove to be ultimately irresoluble. But the often-overlooked commonplace moral consensus, and recent developments towards theoretical convergence, together provide some grounds for optimism.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Greatest Games

There's something strangely fun about ranking things, so here's an idea for some new lists: What are your favourite games of all time?

Video Games:
1. Civilization - The ultimate classic. The battles were a bit simplistic, but this was improved slightly in the sequels. Civ III is one of the few games I would still bother playing if I had time.

2. Heroes of Might & Magic II - An excellent balance between empire-building and battles. (The only other in the series I've played is #III, which is also excellent but doesn't have quite the same charm.)

3. Warcraft III - The best real-time war game ever. (I much prefer the fantasy atmosphere to the more common sci-fi styles.) The original was great too, but the introduction of 'heroes' in WC3 really raised it to a new level. WC2 was less good - too much naval crap. I don't like boats.

4. Final Fantasy VIII - (Playstation) - Such complexity! Neat storyline too. My favourite RPG -- and RPGs were one of my favourite genres.

5. Tetris - The classic puzzle game; so simple, and yet so addictive. I later preferred 'Bejewelled' and 'Snood', however.

Honorable mentions also go out to...

6. Master of Magic - A really neat old fantasy war game, with 5-element system of magic based on Magic: The Gathering.

7. Wolfenstein - no, not wolf 3d. I mean the barely-related 1980s original for Apple IIe. It was just stick-figure graphics with a third-person ("birds eye") view. But damn, was it cool. Most of the time you had to hide from guards, or the SS would come and kill you. But you occassionally found bulletproof vests or gestapo-uniform disguises which could offer some degree of safety.

8. Achtung Die Kurve! - Wicked multiplayer fun, in this simplest game ever. Steer your 'snake' around the screen without crashing into yourself or others.

9. Liero - Real-time Worms! Another multiplayer classic.

10. Rampart - It's like Tetris with cannons! How cool is that? Best arcade game ever.

(Most of those are freely available these days - just do a google search for the name and you should find it. But it's not quite the same now that we're used to flashy graphics and all...)

Card Games:

1. Magic: The Gathering - (non-standard cards) - The video game list probably already gave away that I'm a total fantasy geek.

2. Five Hundred - my favourite standard card game. I should probably learn Bridge, I'm told that's similar. And no, I am not an old lady. Shut up.

3. Mao - I first learnt this game on the math olympiad camp back in sixth form. As part of it involves making up your own new rule, you might be able to imagine the fun we math geeks had with this. Unfortunately, the first rule of Mao is that you're not allowed to tell anyone else the rules. So I can't say much more than that. It's great fun to learn though -- really tests your inductive abilities ;)

Board Games:

1. Go - it's like Chess, only simpler to learn and harder to master. And more ancient. And Asian. And way more fun.

2. Monopoly.

3. That 3-dimensional (4x4x4) cross between "connect 4" and "tic tac toe" that I played at Reuben's once. Man, that game is wicked fun.

4. Chess (honorable mention)

Consistency and Utilitarianism

Consistency requires that we make the same moral judgments in situations that are relevantly similar. The Golden Rule reflects this requirement of moral rationality. If I hold that it is morally permissible for me to break a promise to a friend when it is to my advantage to do so, I must likewise affirm that it would be permissible for my friend to act likewise were our respective positions reversed. Consistency thus requires that we put ourselves in the positions of everyone affected by our actions, and draw conclusions that can be endorsed from this "collective" point of view.

From this viewpoint, it becomes difficult to deny the moral importance of any other person or group of persons, for this is not a denial that one could endorse from the targetted position itself. For example, the consistent White Supremist must hold that, if (contrary to fact) he were black, then he ought to be discriminated against. But it seems unlikely that a rational person could truly endorse this conclusion. They would not want to be harmed by others if they were black. This casts doubt on whether they can consistently endorse racist behaviour in the form of a universal moral prescription.

It will often happen that no single conclusion is deemed acceptable from every possible viewpoint. We thus require some way to adjudicate between conflicts of interest, from the moral point of view, in a manner that meets the requirements of consistency. Hare suggests that we treat the conflicts between people as we would a conflict within a person, allowing trade-offs between costs and benefits so as to reach the optimum result for the collective. In other words, consistency leads to utilitarianism.

But is it really true that consistency alone forces us to accept utilitarianism? There are three major arguments against this conclusion. We might deny that consistency requires us to adopt a universal or collective viewpoint. But even if we accept Hare's argument that consistency requires us to imagine ourselves in the position of others, it isn't clear that his "maximizing" method is the appropriate way to resolve conflicting preferences. We might think that such a method overlooks the distinction between persons. Or we might deny that "all preferences are created equal" -- that is, we might hold that there are moral facts that exist independently of human desires, such that not all preferences contribute equally towards the moral verdict. This final objection rests on assumptions that a non-cognitivist would not be willing to grant. McNaughton (pp.169-170) tries to bolster the intuitive appeal of this objection by examining Socrates' decision to take the hemlock against his friends' wishes:

It looks as though his action will not maximize the satisfaction of preferences. He is satisfied that, having been sentenced to death by a properly constituted court, he is required to accept the verdict. Moreover, he believes that death is not fearful, and that his friends' distress at the thought of his death is due to their failure, exacerbated by their grief, to see the situation aright. He admits that, if he were in their position, he would not endorse the decision to take the hemlock. But why should this realization affect his present moral judgement when he believes that their opposition is due to an inadequate appreciation of the situation? He is quite consistent in sticking to his original decision... If, after putting myself in the other people's position, I remain convinced by the reasoning that led me to believe that the action was right in the first place, then I need not withdraw it.
There are two responses the utilitarian can make here. Firstly, he can grant that misinformed preferences need not contribute towards utility. If the friends' preferences are due to an intrinsic desire that Socrates not be harmed, and the mistaken belief that death harms him, then the utilitarian can grant that utility is in fact best served by allowing Socrates to take the hemlock. If Socrates is truly not harmed by it, then the friends' intrinsic desires are not thwarted by this course of action after all. So the utilitarian can take someone's "inadequate appreciation" of the non-moral facts, at least, into account.

Moreover, the non-cognitivist will simply deny that there are any desire-independent moral facts for us to be mistaken about. Socrates' moral conviction is simply one preference among many, and he cannot presuppose it to be well-grounded, for that is precisely what is at issue here. As Hare writes, "To insist on the prior authority of the moral intuitions that one starts with is simply to refuse to think critically." In questioning the validity of our moral intuitions, we must be prepared to go beyond them.

The second anti-utilitarian argument mentioned above is the "separateness of persons" objection, which I have discussed before.

The first argument suggests that the egoist need not be inconsistent. This poses a greater challenge to the non-cognitivist utilitarian, for they recognize no independent moral facts which may be pointed to in order to rebut the egoist, and it is not obvious that egoist exhibits any internal inconsistency.

But let us distinguish two forms of egoism. The 'ethical egoist' holds that each individual ought to pursue their own self-interest. But it would seem inconsistent for the egoist to universally endorse other people's selfishness, as their selfishness would be to his own detriment. Alternatively, the 'personal egoist' holds that everybody ought to promote his interests, no matter their own. Of course, this judgment could never survive universalization -- he would not be willing to accept it were he anybody else -- but the egoist might simply hold this as a personal preference, and refuse to make any universal claims at all. That is, he could become an 'amoralist'. I have previously argued that even the amoralist may be criticized for inconsistency, but that need not concern us here. We may merely conclude that, if he adopts any moral viewpoint at all, consistency will lead the non-cognitivist to utilitarianism.

Or will it? We have so far been applying the test of consistency only at the 'formal' level, of mediating between conflicting desires. But it might also be used to yield substantive judgments about which intrinsic desires are more rationally supported than others. Suppose we live in a society full of racists. We have seen that consistency would prevent us from being racist ourselves - we would give the preferences of black people equal weight to those of whites. But what if all the white racists prefer to see the black man suffer? The collective weight of their preferences might outweigh his lone opposition. If we merely consider ourselves in the position of each, the most preferences will be satisfied by endorsing racist behaviour. But suppose that we instead consider what it would be consistent to prefer from the position of each. We would (seemingly) then have to disregard the racists' preferences, for they are supposedly inconsistent.

But this argument goes too fast. We have in fact only established that racist moral judgments are inconsistent, as they cannot be universalized. But personal preferences need not be universalizable: I can prefer butter to margarine without thereby committing myself to the universal judgment that everyone ought to do likewise. Similarly, the racist might prefer to see black people worse off, despite recognizing that he could not universalize this into a moral judgment.

What the anti-utilitarian requires is some grounds for criticizing the consistency of personal intrinsic preferences. The non-cognitivist will refuse any move to appeal to desire-independent moral facts, for he denies the existence of such metaphysically "queer" entities (as Mackie would put it). But the non-cognitivist might follow Michael Smith in adopting a richer conception of rationality that goes beyond mere means-ends reasoning, instead allowing a desire-set to be rationally assessed on grounds of unity and internal coherence. It may be that a set of specific desires (e.g. for the good of certain people) could be better explained and justified through the addition of a more general desire (e.g. for the good of all persons). This conception of rationality enables us to rationally criticize the arbitrary distinctions drawn by racists and other bigots. We might then conclude that their preferences ought to carry less moral weight, to the degree that their desire sets are not maximally coherent.

The utilitarian might grant all this, but simply redefine his notion of utility such that it comprises the satisfaction of rational desires. This would yield a theory quite different from how utilitarianism has traditionally been conceived, but it might better capture the fundamental utilitarian ideal of treating everyone with equal concern, as it could prevent selfish or bigoted preferences from justifying the worse treatment of unpopular individuals or groups. We thus find that the requirement of consistency can have a great impact on our moral reasoning, forcing non-cognitivists towards some form of utilitarianism.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Kiwi Carnival #1

Welcome to the inaugural edition of the Kiwi Carnival. Many thanks to all those who submitted posts. There were disappointingly few submissions, however, so I added some extra nominations myself -- I hope the affected bloggers don't mind their posts making a surprise appearance here. To get right into it...

No Right Turn presents an open letter to Helen Clark, Phil Goff, and Marian Hobbs regarding the upcoming visit of President Pervez Musharraf, and pushing for them to raise the issue of human rights and torture with him.

A Kiwi Geek reacts to news of a possible link between milk and childhood obesity: "We worry too much!" (The most hilarious line has got to be when a quoted expert solemnly informs us that "milk drunk in moderation should not cause any problems.")

Not PC laments the injustice of a farm being forced to shut down: "What sort of person moves next door to a chicken farm and then complains about the smell?"

Spanblather looks at the links between the Labour party and the labour movement, suggesting that "Labour is far from being the union-controlled robot that bloggers on the right so often portray it as."

Just Left discusses the decline in public spending as a proportion of GDP which has occurred since 1999, arguing that Labour's record in fiscal policy is more conservative than that of many governments which call themselves centre-right. He also discusses the myth of high tax rates in New Zealand, specifically in comparison with those applying in Australia.

Frogblog discusses New Zealand's participation in the Kyoto Protocol, responding to the three major arguments offered by conservatives:
1. It’ll cost too much.
2. We’re a small country, so what we do will make no difference anyway.
3. Important countries - like Australia, the US, China, and India - aren’t part of Kyoto, so why the Hell should we be? Signing up, when they haven’t, puts us at a comparative disadvantage.

(For those who are interested, I explore the second style of argument in greater detail here, noting an interesting cross-partisan parallel with the issue of defence spending.)

Kea Blog also offers a post on Kyoto, challenging the conventional wisdom "that New Zealand is a clean, green utopia and that every New Zealander has an inherent understanding of all things environmental."

Others have recently challenged whether kiwis have an adequate understanding of "reasonable force". But Big News opposes moves to remove the "reasonable force" exception from our assault laws. He writes: "The bill actually turns what is reasonable into what is illegal. Meaning anyone who uses reasonable force on their child can be charged with assault." (Proponents of the change insist that the police will "turn a blind eye" and not charge parents merely for smacking. But surely an unenforced law is a bad law.) It seems to me that the real issue here is who ought to decide what counts as 'reasonable' force? The proposed change shifts discretionary powers from jurors to the police. Is that really a good idea?

Another bad legal proposal is rejected by David Farrar, who offers a post on the stupidity of raising the drinking age to 20. He illustrates the problem quite effectively by offering a mundane example of dining behaviour that the proposed changes would render illegal. This post doesn't delve too much in to the broader issues involved, however. For that, one might do better to check out Fighting Talk, who argues that raising the drinking age is "a quick fix that won't change shit."

Kiwi Pundit defends National's infamous 'Iwis/Kiwis' billboard:
As far as I can tell, there are three separate complaints. The first is that the billboard suggests that Maori are not New Zealanders, the second is that the claim about ownership is factually incorrect, and the third is about what the correct plurals are.
His responses are all worth reading.

Race-related issues are also raised over at NZ Pundit, where Gordon King defends Graham Kelly against accusations of racism for his recent comments. Gordon argues that Kelly has been misrepresented, and offers extended quotes to allow readers to view the remarks in their proper context and draw their own conclusions. It's an interesting issue. Most of the uproar has been about Kelly's somewhat flippant comment that tribal Maori fought and ate each other. But if that is indeed what happened, why is it inappropriate or "racist" to say so? (This case appears to fit my analysis of political correctness as "excessive sensitivity to offense".)

In one of the more substantial posts showcased here today, Metcalph reviews Dr. Cullen's recent speech "about Judges and how he thinks they should behave." It's an interesting post, and sufficiently clear for laymen to follow.

Finally, I would like to highlight my own recent post: The Wellbeing Manifesto, which discusses nine social policy issues I consider quite important, and serves to introduce new readers to some of my past posts on the relevant topics.

That's it for this week -- I hope you found the entries to be of interest. The next Kiwi Carnival will be held in a fortnight's time over at Spanblather. Hopefully next time around we will receive more submissions. It's a great opportunity for smaller blogs to show off their best work and get noticed. I'd like to finish by reinforcing a point made on the Kiwi Carnival homepage, that this 'carnival' is a collaborative project, and depends for its success upon the participation of those in the NZ blogging community. So if you like the carnival: promote it on your website, add it to your blogroll, be sure to send in a submission for next time, and consider volunteering as a host!