Saturday, February 25, 2006

Is longevity good for you?

Last Thursday's seminar was from Doug MacLean, on the topic of longevity. The question arises: is it better to live for longer? Doug controversially argued that (1) living longer is not generally better for a person; and (2) even if it is, it isn't better for society at large. The practical conclusion is that we shouldn't waste our resources on life-extension research. I strongly disagree with the first point, and am unsure about the second.

If I understood him correctly, MacLean's main argument for (1) rested on the premise that welfare isn't additive, and instead what matters is the shape of a life. (If you read the comments to the above link, you'll find Mike B. defending a similar position.) I couldn't discern much of an argument for those claims, however. Some thought experiments were mentioned which for me yield the opposite intuition.

For example, MacLean asked us to imagine an elderly couple who both lived very fulfilling lives, up until one of them died, and then the other lived a further six happy years. MacLean suggested that, in assessing the two lives, we wouldn't say the former life was worse. I disagree, and would confidently judge that the extra six years of happiness made the longer life better for the person living it. We might even speak of this comparative judgment, observing that, though both people lived outstanding lives, the one was "blessed with an extra six years" of happiness. (Of course, my theory of welfare has a simple way to determine the fact of the matter: just find out the idealized preference of the person in question. "Would you rather die now or live a further six years of happiness?" Seems to me that any sane person would choose the latter.)

Note also the asymmetry of regret, which I think counts against focusing exclusively on the 'shape of a life'. Suppose 'Bob' dies early and 'Sue' gets the extra six years. We might regret (for his sake) that Bob was not around to enjoy those final years of happiness with Sue. We surely would not regret the fact that Sue was still alive after Bob was gone. But MacLean's position seems to imply that this would be just as appropriate a response.

MacLean also appeals to the analogy of a short holiday. The idea is that if you can do everything appropriate for a good holiday in just two weeks, then there's really nothing to be said for staying a third week, even if you would continue to very much enjoy it. The overall experience would not be a better instance of its kind (i.e. "short holiday"). But again, I just have wildly different intuitions here. Happiness is a good thing (though not the only good thing), and - ceteris paribus - more of a good thing is better! Though welfare value isn't purely additive, since global preferences and the shape of a life do matter, I think addition is part of the story.

Then again, that might just be my personal preference. Subjectivism can account for inter-personal variation here. Perhaps it would be better for me to take the extra week's vacation (or live for longer), but not so for Doug, if he rationally lacks these preferences.

I'll discuss the second issue another day.

P.S. I sadly missed the Q&A session, so some of these concerns may have been answered then. (If anyone reading this was there, feel free to chime in!)

Concepts of Possibility

So, I'm trying to make sense of the notion of 'possibility'. Again. I think it might be worth distinguishing the fundamental modal concept from various quasi-modal pretenders. By the latter, I have in mind the 'relative' and merely formal notion of what is 'allowed' within some limiting framework. We might, for example, define the 'logically possible' as that which entails no contradictions. (There it seems the fundamental notion - "contradiction" - is logical, not modal.) More generally, for any framework of limitations F, something is F-possible iff it is allowed by the rules of F. (I assume [perhaps falsely?] that this notion of what's "allowed" can be spelled out in non-modal terms.) But such relational accounts fail to do justice to our absolute concept. For any claim of "F-possibility", we can ask: "Yes, but is it really possible?"

The fundamental modal concept, then, concerns what really could have been the case. This seems conceptually distinct from logical notions of consistency and such. It's difficult to get a grip on, but I think we can roughly illustrate the concept by imagining time "rewinding", and then replaying with a different outcome. That alternative outcome is seen to be a "real possibility", or a way the world really could have turned out. The notion is clearer with regard to the future: we might think that the future is 'open' in various ways, that any one of various alternatives really could eventuate. Extending this intuitive notion back into the past, we will find various (now closed) branches that really were, at one point, metaphysically open possibilities.

The problem with this picture is that, at best, it only gets us as far as nomological possibility (worse, nomological possibility given initial starting conditions). But our intuitive notion of metaphysical possibility needs to be broader than that. It seems plausible that there really could have been different laws of nature, or different 'starting conditions', right back at [before?] the very beginning of time. (Perhaps there could have been no time at all!) But I'm not sure how to make sense of alternate possibilities atemporally.

We might imagine God choosing what physical laws (etc.) to make, or what possible world to actualize. Then the metaphysically ("really") possible worlds are those that God really might have chosen to make. Intuitively, a world W is metaphysically possible iff were we to 'rewind and replay' the decision enough times, then God would eventually actualize W.

Of course, that's a terribly rough notion. It wouldn't do as an analysis, since it appeals to modal (at least, counterfactual) notions itself. And it isn't clear whether the intuitive idea of "rewinding" God's atemporal decisions is genuinely coherent. (It isn't even clear whether the notion of an "atemporal decision" is coherent.) Also, I don't think God exists, which of course poses problems for any attempt to take this heuristic too literally! But I don't think God is playing any crucial role here (other than making the illustration a little easier to follow); we might just as well consider any other atemporal indeterminacy, or way in which it could somehow be "metaphysically open" which world gets to be made actual. (Atemporal indeterminacy really is a bizarre notion. Has anyone written about such things before? Sounds like the kind of thing theologians should be concerned about, at least. But of course I'd be more interested in analytic metaphysicians.)

So: while I'd previously given up on the concept of 'real possibility', I hope the above illustrations help to indicate that there is a rough concept in this vicinity. I'm not sure whether it can withstand further analysis though. (It does seem a very confused notion. Or, at least, I am very confused by it!) And it might be that the standard quasi-modal notions are all we really need for our philosophical purposes. (Perhaps my characterization of them is unfair, and they are fundamentally modal, but in a slightly difference sense to what I tried to point to above. I guess a lot hinges on the analysis of 'allowance' hinted at above.)

Fun but confusing topic. Comments welcome (as always).

P.S. Though the concept is distinct, absolute possibility will presumably end up coinciding with some limiting framework or other. For example, it may be that the world could really have turned out in any logically possible way. I take this to be a substantive claim, however, so the concepts of 'logically possible' and 'way the world really could have been' should be kept distinct.

Why does the universe exist?

Why is the world the way it is? Presumably there are a whole raft of possible worlds, so why is this one actual? It's a weird question, but it seems a reasonable one to ask. I feel like this is a fact in need of explanation. (Does anyone disagree?) But it's hard to imagine what the explanation might be. Here are a few possibilities which spring to mind:

1) Brute chance. A different world could have been actualized, but it simply happens that this one was instead, for no particular reason. (That's an explanation of sorts, albeit a fairly unsatisfying one.)

2) Design. Someone (call them 'God') had the option of which world to make actual, and chose this one. (Why? You'll have to ask her.) [Regress: why does God exist? I assume most theists will then appeal to the next explanation...]

3) Necessity. There are two variations on this theme:

(a) Our world is the only genuinely possible world [are we to take this as a brute modal fact?]. When we think that there are other ways the world could have been, e.g. with different physical laws, we are simply mistaken.

(b) Modal realism: all possible worlds are equally real, and necessarily existing, and so this world in particular could not have failed to exist as it does. (This leaves open the locative question of why we find ourselves in this world rather than some other. But that's a separate issue, and not uniquely troubling here. For now, I'm more concerned about the ontological question of why our world exists.)

Are there any other options? Which is the best explanation?

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Subjective Morality

Doctor Logic purports to write about morality, but I can't help but think that he's merely changing the subject. What his view really implies is that there is no such thing as (normative) morality. He writes about something called "subjective morality", but this appears to be synonymous with "arbitrary personal preferences", so we might as well just use the latter phrase and avoid any terminological confusion or unclarity. Anyway, I just want to quickly respond to some of his main points:

1) Even without objective morality, human societies will form "social contracts" and behave, well, just as they actually do.

True. Morality is not taken to be a causally efficacious part of the world. (Though it might make a difference if people believe in an objective morality, as it might deter them from defecting on the social contract in instances where it would be personally advantageous. Beliefs certainly are causally efficacious.)

2) "History teaches us that social morality changes. Slavery was once good."

No, slavery was once believed to be good. Compare: "History teaches us that social astronomy changes. The universe was once geocentric." This confuses belief with reality. If by "social morality" you simply mean the codes of conduct widely accepted in a society, then "social morality" has very little to do with normative morality, which is what we're interested in here. (See also my posts on society and morality, and especially moral diversity and skepticism.)

3) Subjective moral progress is possible.

In other words, it is possible for the world to become closer to how I want it to be. That's certainly true, but not very interesting. No genuine progress is possible on such a view. The world isn't made better by ridding it of racism and genocide, but merely "more to my taste". After all, racists might think the civil rights movement was positively bad. (Obviously they are mistaken, but we can only recognize this truth if we are moral objectivists.)

4) "How would you determine whether an action was universally moral?"

Well, there's this field called "moral philosophy", where people reason about such things. Some questions are harder than others. Consider the following:
You have the option of whether or not to press a button. If you press the button, then a roomful of innocent children will be subject to torturous agony. If you don't, then nothing happens. There are no other significant differences between the two outcomes. What is the morally best option?

That is not a difficult question. More generally, the moral facts are determined by facts about human welfare, which themselves supervene upon natural facts. (We don't always have access to all these facts, of course, but that doesn't mean they aren't there.)

5) "Suppose there were some way to know that a moral code was universal. Such a recipe would still rely upon subjective moral appeal!"

Yes, we've already granted that human behaviour is a result of psychological facts, not abstract metaphysical ones. See #1 above. Append "So what?"

6) "We have no reason to expect that universal moral laws would be appealing to humans"

On the contrary, I think there is a conceptual connection between morality and human welfare. DL asks us to imagine that moral experts discover that it's immoral to eat tasty food. But unless there is some reason behind the moral claim (e.g. that eating tasty food would somehow cause great harm to others), his scenario is conceptually impossible. You might as well ask us to imagine that baldness has nothing to do with hair.

7) "a universal moral law is nothing without a universal regime for compliance."

So practically-minded! We have social norms and criminal laws to cover such matters; it's not the job of the moral facts themselves to do the policing. Rather, they're there to make true statements (such as "slavery is wrong", and "genuine moral progress is possible") true. That is, we need to posit moral facts for theoretical, not practical, reasons.

8) "Advocates of universal moral law like to argue that we must accept the existence of universal moral truths, or else the things we regard as subjectively immoral would be acceptable. This claim is contradictory because the claim acknowledges the value of subjective morality..."

That's a terrible argument. (To illustrate, one could run an analogous argument with "physical" in place of "moral".) The point is not that whatever I believe must be true, therefore we should posit objective facts to match my arbitrary beliefs. What an absurd suggestion! The claim is instead that some particular beliefs themselves (e.g. "slavery is wrong", etc.) are true, and thus need a matching fact as their truthmaker. Note that it is the content of the belief that makes it true (if indeed it is), not the arbitrary fact of my believing it.

9) "Ironically, it is authoritarianism that poses the greatest threat to our subjective moral good"

I agree. But we shouldn't conflate dogmatism with objectivism. Relativism is not the way to avoid dogmatism. (Quite the opposite, in fact.) I've explained all this before.

10) There's a theistic moral objectivist commenting on DL's post. For the record, I disagree with much of what he says. My post on 'God given value' explains why.

Okay, that's all for now.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Philosophers' Carnival #26

The 26th Philosophers' Carnival is now up at Hesperus/Phosphorus.

The Meaningful Life

Interesting seminar today from Susan Wolf, on "Meaning in Life and Why it Matters". She began by noting that many of our important everyday activities -- particularly those relating to helping loved ones or advancing personal projects -- aren't obviously justified against the usual egoistic or impartial utilitarian standards. But they are obviously justified. So we need another model of practical justification to account for this. Wolf proposed that meaningful activities provide reasons for so acting, analysing 'meaning' as something that "arises from active engagement in projects of worth". (Similar analyses were made over at PEA Soup last year.)

Now, it sounds like 'meaning', so understood, is simply a component of welfare (or "the good life"), and so related activity justified on egoistic grounds. (In particular, the notion seems closely related to our global preferences, and issues discussed under point #4 here.) Wolf responded that the two might come apart (since meaningfulness does not exhaust considerations of welfare) and we might consider meaningful actions to be justified even in such cases. While they typically have some egoistic value, they seem to have a further value that is independent of this.

I think we can make better sense of this by appeal to the sort of 'indirect' reasons found in, say, indirect utilitarianism. There are familiar indirect utilitarian reasons for people to show special concern for loved ones, even if this general rule might fail to maximize utility in particular cases. Likewise, the paradox of hedonism provides us with egoistic reasons to pursue personal projects outside of ourselves, rather than attempting to directly advance our own interests. So I think we can accommodate the required justifications within existing frameworks.

The fact that the theoretical justifications are less obvious than we take them to be in everyday life is, I think, irrelevant. Such objections would apply to any appeal to 'indirect' reasons. Much of the attraction of these theoretical strategies, as I see it, is that they provide illuminating (and thus non-obvious) theoretical groundings for our everyday practical normative beliefs.

The 'generalized' nature of indirect reasons means that they apply even in particular odd cases where they lack direct justification (as noted above). But imagine a case where 'meaningfulness' and other values are radically and transparently disconnected. Perhaps God warns that every time you help a loved one or pursue a personal project, this will cause another innocent person to be tortured to death and you will be beset by agonizing pain. If this particular example isn't clear or convincing, let us simply say that you know that such activities will never promote your own interests, nor those of everyone generally. Upon reflection, can we really continue to hold that such actions could be justified? If not, we are committed to the indirect theory of justification. This is my preferred response. If you think they could still be justified, we might either agree with Wolf that the activities are independently justified (and given such rampant pluralism, we might as well go on and endorse super-human values too), or we might broaden the 'indirect' theory so that generally successful rules still apply even to individuals for whom the rules are transparently counterproductive.

That's the main point I wanted to discuss. But I'll also briefly mention Wolf's claim that the 'objectivity' requirement for meaningfulness (recall: you must be actively engaged in worthy projects) shows subjectivist - including preferentist - theories of well-being to be inadequate. I've previously argued that idealization through consideration of counterfactual preferences provides the subjectivist with the resources to be elitists (or pseudo-objectivists) in this way. Wolf suggested that such idealizations get the right result for the wrong reasons. (She presumably holds that our idealized selves would favour an object because they are in a position to recognize their objective worth -- and it's the latter fact, rather than our idealized preference for it, that really matters here.) I'm not convinced, mainly because I don't understand how the metaphysics of 'objective worth' is supposed to work. Idealized preferences clearly exist, quite unproblematically (albeit abstractly), so we can safely build our ethical theories around them. This other notion though, doesn't seem to correspond to anything real. So I think we'd do better to avoid it. But that's a whole 'nother debate.

Tricky Tokens

Typically, when I think that P, I can express this thought by uttering "P". We expect the thought and its expression to have the same truth value. For example, if I believe that grass is green, and I say to you "Grass is green," then presumably my belief and the corresponding utterance are both true. But let's try something a bit tricky. Suppose I start thinking about the very thought I am having right now. I might think to myself, this is a thought token. Can I express this thought?

Suppose I follow the usual formula, and proclaim aloud: "This is a thought token." That statement would be false. It is a speech token, not a thought token! But the aforementioned thought was certainly true. My thought was a thought token, but my utterance was not. So we must either say that the utterance failed to express the thought, or else it is a case where a thought and its expression can differ in truth values. Perhaps this is a merely terminological difference, but I think the former sounds more sensible.

It is plausible, after all, that the indexical nature of the statements leads them to differ in semantic content. (Compare: if you and I were both to utter "I am Richard Chappell", we would be saying different things, with different truth values.) So let us label the original thought 'T'. Perhaps the way to express T is not merely to verbalize it (by saying "This is a thought token") as before, but instead to substitute out the indexical and say: "T is a thought token".

That seems inadequate. We have lost the indexical information, and are thus saying something that is importantly different in some sense. Let T2 refer to my thought that this token is token T2. Now, there is something far more trivial about the statement "Token T2 is token T2" -- it lacks the cognitive significance of the former thought. They differ in primary intension, with only the latter statement being 1-necessary (or a priori).

Let us call a token "tricky" if it refers to its own tokenage in the sort of tricky way exemplified in the above examples. I think we should then conclude that tricky thoughts are strictly inexpressible. The best we can do is express a closely related thought that has been stripped of the self-referential indexical information.

I don't know whether there's any great point to noticing this, but I found it kind of fun. Well, I guess it is a significant result to note that the "typical" formula described in the first sentence of this post does not work universally.

A final (mostly unrelated) question about expressing mental states: suppose I assert "I believe that P". As I understand it, this does not express my belief that P, but instead expresses my second-order belief that I believe that P. (You can see this by following the typical formula.) But then how do we directly express desires? I can't say "I desire that P", because that merely expresses my belief that I desire that P. It seems that expressions of desire must be non-cognitive, rather than statements (i.e. what you say must not be truth-evaluable). Perhaps it should instead be an imperative, e.g. "Make P true!". Or even an action, such as doing what you believe will bring about P. Anyway, I'm sure someone who's given the issue more thought must've written something about this at some stage. If you know more, leave a comment!

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Odds and Ends

We need more entries for the Philosophers' Carnival (which may end up being delayed a day or so in any case). Send in an entry today!

Lewis Powell is creating a website to track "who thinks what" (i.e. which philosophers endorse what theories). Neat idea.

Will Wilkinson points out that commuting makes us miserable, and many of us should be willing to pay more than we currently do in order to avoid or minimize it. Makes me glad I live on campus!

Hugo muses about "noble lies" and beneficial self-deception, and asks why we should care so much about truth. In particular, he challenges the value of truth by asking whether it necessarily makes us happier. But that's the wrong question. (It presupposes that happiness, rather than truth, is what fundamentally matters.) Instead we should ask: is the life of truth better than that of deception? As I prefer subjectivist theories of wellbeing, I think the answer may vary from person to person. For me, I value the pursuit of truth and would be willing to sacrifice some (perhaps not too much) happiness to that end. That's just the sort of life I want to live. But to each their own.

Actually, there is a further connection to be made here. (Besides the obvious instrumental value that true beliefs can have for helping us achieve our other goals.) For on my preferred theory, we are well-off insofar as our idealized (fully informed and rational) selves would endorse our life. That is, (roughly) our lives have value insofar as we would consider them as such were we to know the truth. This leaves open the odd possibility that our idealized selves might judge that we'd be better off living the deceived life. But it remains of core importance that they would judge this while in full possession of the truth.

Word Cloud

Create a word cloud of your blog here (via Siris). I clearly need to post more on topics other than ethics!

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Upcoming Carnival

I'm a bit late on this one, but the next Philosophers' Carnival is scheduled for Monday, so best get your entries in soon! (Just fill out the submission form on the page linked above.)

Friday, February 10, 2006

Goodbye, New Zealand

I leave for Australia early tomorrow morning. Blogging may be limited over the next couple of weeks while I settle in. We'll see. Wish me luck! :-)


Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Thisaway Blue template broken

I can't find anyone else who's noticed this yet, so I'd just like to point out that the popular "Thisaway Blue" blogger template is broken. In particular, its bullet point image is down, and has been for a couple of days. (I had incorporated this into my custom template, which is why some of the lists on my sidebar are now missing their bullet points.) The green version is fine; you can see the bullet image looks like this: What we want is a blue version of that.


Monday, February 06, 2006

Free speech and death threats

No Right Turn suggests that calls to exterminate those who insult Islam "are little different to those expressed by pro-death penalty protestors, or those who think that all homosexuals should be killed." But - to paraphrase Sesame Street - one of these calls is not like the other ones. Can you guess which one?

Pro-death penalty protesters are advocating for institutional change. That makes it fundamentally different in kind from the other examples. Islamists have the political right to advocate that we institute capital blasphemy laws, and homophobes are allowed to ask that we institute similar penalties for being gay. (They rest of us may then respond by telling them where they can shove it.) But free-speech moderates can consistently grant all this whilst holding that "vigilante" threats or calls for extra-legal violence (whether against cartoonists, gays, or criminals) should not be permitted.

NRT says that "you cannot (consistently) insist that people have the right to insult and offend Muslims, but that the latter are not allowed to be insulting and offensive in return."

This is deceptive rhetoric. It elides the significant differences between the kind of 'offenses' found on either side. No sane secularist would deny the Muslim's right to draw and print rude cartoons about blasphemers and infidels. What some deny is that they have the right to threaten to kill us. (Spot the difference?) This is a perfectly consistent position (so long as they likewise hold that westerners may not threaten to kill Muslims, of course).

In fact, I tentatively support this moderate free-speech position. I think that death threats should probably be illegal, even generalized ones such as those discussed here. Don't get me wrong: people have the right to advocate any institutional change, no matter how wrongheaded we believe it to be. Our commitment to procedural liberalism requires this much. But when advocacy goes beyond the legal framework, inciting violence without respect for the liberal political process, then their speech has gone beyond its liberally protected grounds. There's nothing there worth protecting. If you call for murder, you're a criminal yourself, and should be treated accordingly.


Sunday, February 05, 2006

Exercising the Freedom to Offend

The Muhammad caricature controversy raises some interesting issues. We can begin with the obvious: newspapers have the legal right to print "offensive" or "blasphemous" materials, and ought not to be censored. But the moral question of whether they exercised this discretion laudably, remains open to debate. For those who oppose the publication, peaceful protests are quite legitimate. Threats of violence most certainly are not. The most immoral behaviour on display here is clearly from those extremist Muslims who have responded aggressively. They deserve universal condemnation. The more interesting moral questions concern western newspapers:
  1. What to say of the Danish press: was the original publication of the cartoons morally questionable?

  2. How the rest of us should respond: should other newspapers reprint the cartoons?

General principles: There is little question that the cartoons would foreseeably upset a lot of people. That provides an immediate (but weak) reason against publication. For publication to be warranted thus requires sufficient countervailing reasons to be presented. (As the NZ Herald note, "Muslims are a small minority of the population and we are free to offend their religious sensitivities if we want to. The only question to consider is, why would we want to?") However, a free press cannot let fear of "causing offense" deter it from speaking the truth, challenging ideas, and so forth. Thus, so as long as there are some genuine reasons to favour the publication, I think these might fairly easily make such action morally permissible.

Further, if the freedom of the press is seriously at risk, then I think it could be morally admirable to assert this right through its exercise, in hopes of undermining tyranny.

Finally, we must distinguish two senses of "offensiveness". First, there is the purely subjective property of causing someone to feel offended. This property has little moral significance; the problem lies in the observer, and not the object. Anyone can claim to be "offended" by anything at all, and if we gave significant weight to such arbitrary sensitivities then the effect would be to shut down debate and the free exchange of ideas. However, in the second sense, it may be that the object itself is offensive, in that it is an appropriate and reasonable emotional response for others to be offended by it. This objective property seems a more legitimate moral consideration.

(Interestingly, Stumbling and Mumbling appears to deny that such ego-emotional responses are ever warranted. Rather, he suggests that rude actions may offend against standards of decency, and so forth, but not against people per se. In any case, it makes no difference to my subsequent arguments.)

Some relevant facts regarding the Danish question:
The drawings, which include a depiction of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, were meant as satirical illustrations accompanying an article on self-censorship and freedom of speech. [Danish paper] Jyllands-Posten commissioned and published the cartoons in response to the difficulty of Danish writer Kåre Bluitgen to find artists to illustrate his children's book about Muhammad, for fear of violent attacks by extremist Muslims. Islamic teachings forbid the depiction of Muhammad as a measure against idolatry; however, in the past there have been non-satirical depictions of Muhammad by Muslims.

Self-censorship due to fear of violence is a serious and legitimate issue to discuss. It could (potentially) be a genuine threat to the substantive freedom of the press (without which the formal freedom granted by law is worthless). So I think it was reasonable for Jyllands-Posten to highlight this. However, they could have done it more appropriately. The bomb cartoon just seems gratuitously offensive stereotyping, and I don't see any good reason for its inclusion. Others were more justifiable for their biting social commentary:
An abstract drawing of crescent moons and Stars of David, and a poem on oppression of women... In English the poem could be read as: "Prophet you crazy bloke! Keeping women under yoke."

One shows a nervous caricaturist, shakingly drawing Muhammad while looking over his shoulder.

There is nothing objectionable about those ones, at least. When Muslims complain that all depictions of Muhammad are "offensive" in the morally relevant sense, they are simply mistaken. Perhaps they feel offended by it, but they ought not to. They are being unreasonable; the fault lies in them, and not the depictions.

To answer the first question then, I think the Danish paper deserves some criticism on the basis that they ought to have been more selective in their choice of which cartoons to publish. Their article could easily have been morally blameless, if only they'd done it slightly differently.

Now, what of the rest of us? We may inherit whatever reasons the original publishers would have had, so (ceteris paribus) we can swiftly conclude that a more selective (re)publication, along the lines recommended above, would be fine. But a more interesting possibility arises: might we have more reason to republish them? Even supposing that the original publication was in moral error, might it in fact be right to repeat this "mistake" in full, in defence of free speech? [Update: Nigel Kearney explicitly endorses this idea.]

Possibly. I must say I greatly respect the Jordanian paper that republished the cartoons, urging fellow Muslims to "be reasonable", and asking: "Who offends Islam more? A foreigner who endeavors to draw the prophet as described by his followers in the world, or a Muslim with an explosive belt who commits suicide in a wedding party in Amman or elsewhere." The editor was subsequently fired, alas. But his bravery is surely laudable, as was his message. [Update: turns out the poor guy is being charged with blasphemy. How utterly contemptible Muslim society is! Though, as No Right Turn notes, similarly archaic laws are still on the books here in NZ. Shame on us too.] Though the message does put the publications in quite a different light, so it isn't clear that this example confirms the principle that affirming free speech provides new reasons. Perhaps the reasons in this case arose from other features of the situation.

What about places like New Zealand, where press freedoms face no real threat? The Herald, linked above, concluded that they lacked reason to republish the cartoons. The Dominion Post thought otherwise, claiming: "not to publish because of fear of disturbing the sensibilities of Muslims would be to give way in the face of bullying threats. That is what Muslims are seeking to have the Western democracies do with their threats of bombs and trade boycotts."

I wholeheartedly agree that the press must not be deterred by "fear". However, respect and decency count against causing gratuitous offence, as already noted. The DP seems to be suggesting that the threats of Muslim extremists provide us with new and additional reasons to spite them, even if we had no prior/independent reasons to so act. (Question for the DP editor: if a Muslim told you not to leap off a cliff, would you therefore jump?) No, I retract that, my parenthetical joke is unfair. The point is not to generally spite the bullies. It is rather to symbolically affirm that our commitment to free speech will not be deterred by their threats. And even if the New Zealand press faces no real threat itself, still a show of solidarity with the Europeans might be appropriate.

I think there is something to be said for this. It may be a pretty weak reason, in our case, and I'm not sure whether it's enough to outweigh the offense (though at least a careful editorial might make clear why it is no longer gratuitous). Certainly we ought to defend the right to print offensive materials, and strongly condemn those who threaten violence or advocate censorship. But we can do all that without exercising our right to reprint the Muhammad-bomb cartoon. Indeed, we can do that even as we criticise its original publication for poor taste.

One way to reinforce this message would be to publish different cartoons satirising Muhammad (and this whole "controversy"), without tarring all Muslims as terrorists. For example, Plantu's cartoon in a French newspaper cleverly represented Muhammad using copies of the sentence "I may not draw Muhammad". Now that's just plain cool.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Group Choices

My old post 'Choosing to oppose suburban sprawl' (and subsequent comments) explained how a group might choose to regulate the options open to its members, e.g. to overcome collective action problems. Besides such considerations of optimality, there is also an important sense in which these group choices realize important freedoms, even as they restrict individual freedoms. This might at first seem odd, in light of my thorough individualism and rejection of "group welfare" notions. But note that a diversity of regulated groups, which individuals may opt in or out of, could indirectly enable individual freedoms.

This is best seen on small scales, e.g. "gated communities" wherein residents sign away their freedoms to own dogs or play loud music, in exchange for the benefits of having neighbours that have done likewise. Other communities have no such restrictions. This diversity of choices allows people to find and live in a community setting that best suits them. If everyone, everywhere, had the right to own dogs and play loud music, then there would be nowhere dog-averse (or loud music averse) people could comfortably live. Better to let them set up their own little regulated enclaves, which individuals may freely opt in or out of.

Does this principle still hold on a larger scale? If 95% of Christchurch residents oppose urban sprawl and want stricter regulations (for the sorts of reasons explicated in the post linked above), does that give them the right to restrict the freedom of the other 5% who want to develop on the outskirts of town? It isn't obvious either way. I think, insofar as the consequences are felt by everybody, it does seem reasonable enough that others have some say in how their locality develops.

This answer might be more clearly acceptable if there was greater diversity between cities, thus providing 'opt-out' alternatives more acceptable to most. (You can never satisfy everyone about absolutely everything, of course. But still, we should do what we can.)

But it's certainly more difficult on a large scale, simply because there are fewer alternatives. It's much easier to create your own little community than your own city, let alone countries, etc. And of course it's much easier to move neighbourhoods than to emigrate to a wholly new country. Those sorts of difficulties must be taken into account. So, as a general (and rather obvious) rule, we should be wary of large-scale moves to restrict individual freedoms. On a small scale, even arbitrary restrictions are relatively unobjectionable, so long as everyone affected has an easy opt-out option. They won't really "restrict" anyone who cares to avoid them. But of course large scale restrictions are harder to avoid, so greater care must be taken to ensure that they are genuinely justified. This suggests that "group choices" are more legitimate in small communities than large (e.g. national-level) ones.

(I wonder if those differences could be more neatly subsumed under a Millian regard for "experiments of living"? I guess it comes down to the same ideals in the end, though.)