Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Living as Storytelling

To live is to have a story. To be an agent is to write your own. To be human is to tell it to others. That's what I take away from David Velleman's wonderfully insightful writings on related topics. (And the good life, I would add, is one whose story you can reflectively endorse.)

In the introduction to his book The Possibility of Practical Reason, Velleman suggests that "reasons for acting are the elements of a possible storyline along which to make up what we are going to do." (p.28) We are driven by a need to understand ourselves, to live out a coherent and comprehensible story. Subconscious desires may cause us to behave in certain ways, but this is "mere activity" in contrast to full-blown intentional action. The former still originates within ourselves, from our beliefs and desires. The difference in case of mere activity is that we do not (concurrently) understand our behaviour. We may work it out in retrospect, but then we have discovered something about our life story, rather than creating it ourselves.

Intentional action results from a prior judgment that the action in question makes sense to us, that it would fit our story well. We decide what comes next in the story, and thereupon act to bring our actual life into line with the narrative. (See Velleman's 'The Self as Narrator'.) Other times our behaviour is less transparent to us. We must reconstruct a plausible story which might explain the behaviour. Even if we eventually come to understand our past activity, the fact remains that we were not acting upon our self-understanding. Our narrative faculty merely responded to the action, rather than causing it. Such failures of authorship are at once failures of agency.

Agency is authorship. That's one kind of story. Another concerns our nature as social agents. Humans are self-presenters. We spin a story, a public 'persona', to present to the world. As Velleman writes in 'The Genesis of Shame' [PDF] (p.36):
[O]thers cannot engage you in social interaction unless they find your behavior predictable and intelligible. Insofar as you want to be eligible for social intercourse, you must present a coherent public image.

He goes on to extend the Gricean analysis of intentional communication to other modes of social interaction (pp.36-37):
[O]nly when your movements are recognized as aiming to be recognized as helpful do they count as fully successful contributions to cooperation... Full-blown social intercourse thus requires each party to compose an overt persona for the purpose, not just of being interpretable, but of being interpretable as having been composed partly for that purpose.

Note, then, that self-presentation is not a dishonest activity, since your public image purports to be exactly what it is: the socially visible face of a being who is presenting it as a target for social interaction... you aren't pretending, in other words, that the itches you scratch are the only ones you have.

There are limits to how much we wish to include in our public stories, as Nagel notes in 'Concealment and Exposure':
We don't want to expose ourselves completely to strangers even if we don't fear their disapproval, hostility, or disgust. Naked exposure itself, whether or not it arouses disapproval, is disqualifying. The boundary between what we reveal and what we do not, and some control over that boundary, are among the most important attributes of our humanity.

Velleman argues that it's the loss of control over this boundary which elicits the emotion of shame. An unzipped fly undermines your status as a self-presenter, which gives rise to shame because we are naturally anxious about potential 'disqualification' from the social sphere. Note that this account explains why we can feel shame even when there's nothing we're ashamed of -- "we needn't feel denigrated in order to feel undermined in our self-presentation." (p.43) Velleman further notes that deliberate self-exposure has no such effect (p.38, e.g. Playboy models), unless it also leads to some unintended self-exposure. He also observes that humility pre-empts shame, "by deflating our pretensions and thereby rendering our self-presentation consistent with the criticism that we face." (pp.42-43)

There are interesting questions to be raised about the relation between the two kinds of 'stories' discussed above. Though our public persona only tells part of the full story, I think it still needs to be accurate in what it does present. Otherwise you get people who seem "inauthentic". The story they tell is not really their own. But it is important that we're not always forced to tell the whole story, as Nagel notes:
[A] culture of selective reticence... permits the individual to acknowledge to himself a great deal that is not publicly acceptable, and to know that others have similar skeletons in their mental closets. Without reticence, repression -- concealment even from the self -- is more needed as an element in the civilizing process. If everything has to be avowed, what does not fit the acceptable public persona will tend to be internally denied...

The public gaze is inhibiting because, except for infants and psychopaths, it brings into effect expressive constraints and requirements of self-presentation that are strongly incompatible with the natural expression of strong or intimate feeling. And it presents us with a demand to justify ourselves before others that we cannot meet for those things that we cannot put a good face on. The management of one's inner life and one's private demons is a personal task and should not be made to answer to standards broader than necessary.

The End


"Is philosophy a waist of time?"

Ah, the hilarity of students (HT: PC):
In modern times, Utilitarianism is the doctrine that we should all strive to pleasure our neighbors. John Stuart Mill said that even if what is being said is true, it is still wrong to censor it. Of course, we cannot take it for granite that all of Mill's assumptions are true.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Nagel on Cultural Liberalism

[Political correctness] is the subject of endless fulminations by unsavory characters, but that doesn't make it illegitimate as an object of concern. It shouldn't be just a right-wing issue. The demand for public lip-service to certain pieties and vigilance against tell-tale signs in speech of unacceptable attitudes or beliefs is due to an insistence that deep cultural conflicts should not simply be tolerated, but must be turned into battles for control of the common social space...

The attempt to control public space is importantly an attempt to control the cultural and ideological environment in which young people are formed. Forty years ago the public pieties were patriotic and anticommunist; now they are multicultural and feminist. What concerns me is not the content but the character of this kind of control: Its effect is to make it difficult to breathe, because the atmosphere is so thick with significance and falsity. And the atmosphere of falsity is independent of the truth or falsity of the orthodoxy being imposed. It may be entirely true, but if it is presented as what one is supposed to believe and publicly affirm if one is on the right side, it becomes a form of mental suffocation.

The reason this is part of the same topic as our main theme of reticence and concealment is that it involves one of the most effective forms of invasion of privacy -- the demand that everyone stand up and be counted.... The avoidance of what is offensive is one thing; the requirement to include visible signals of respect and correct opinion is another. It is like pasting an American flag on your rear windshield. We used to have a genuinely neutral way of talking, but the current system forces everyone to decide, one way or the other, whether to conform to the pattern that is contending for orthodoxy -- so everyone is forced to express more, in one direction or another, than should be necessary for the purposes of communication, education, or whatever. One has to either go along with it, or resist, and there is no good reason to force that choice on people just in virtue of their being speakers of the language -- no reason to demand external signs of inner conformity. In the abyss at the far end of the same road one finds anticommunist loyalty oaths for teachers or civil servants, and declarations of solidarity with the workers and peasants in the antifascist and anti-imperialist struggle...

Liberalism should favor the avoidance of forced choices and tests of purity, and the substitution of a certain reticence behind which potentially disruptive disagreements can persist without breaking into the open, and without requiring anyone to lie. The disagreements needn't be a secret -- they can just remain quiescent. In my version, the liberal ideal is not content with the legal protection of free speech for fascists, but also includes a social environment in which fascists can keep their counsel if they choose.

I suspect that this refusal to force the issue unless it becomes necessary is what many people hate about liberalism.

Read the whole thing.


Ends and Evidence

We would usually take ourselves to be going wrong if our beliefs conflict with the available evidence. But I think it would be a mistake to conclude from this that evidence has any intrinsic normative significance. We shouldn't (fundamentally) aim to have justified beliefs. Rather, we should aim to have true beliefs, and evidence is merely our best means of assessment. To think otherwise would amount to a fetishistic confusion of means and ends. Rationality is like wealth: useful, but easily mistaken for something more.

The point generalizes. Consider any worthy goal G. What matters is achieving the goal. To improve our chances of achieving it, we should tend to respond rationally to evidence, and act in a way that is "justified" in this conditional sense. But it would be a mistake to think that this justification is what matters. To say, "You ought, given the evidence, to X" does not necessarily mean that you ought (objectively) to X. The evidence may be misleading. So if we interpret it as a kind of wide-scope requirement [as Clayton suggests], it may be that you ought to reject the evidence rather than do X. (That might be irrational. Does this matter? We're supposing the normative goal here is G, not "being rational".)

Even if there's something to be said for being rational (perhaps it is an intrinsically valuable character trait, for example), it at least seems to be "counter-deliberative", as Clayton explains:
Let us say that the rational choice is the choice that sides with what the agent not unreasonably takes the balance of reasons to require. Whenever the agent is in a choice situation, she will not be able to distinguish in thought the choice that is on balance best supported by the reasons from the one that is best supported by the reasons as she takes them to be. But which one is the BASIS of her choice from her perspective? The reasons and not the reasons as she takes them to be.

This ties in with Kolodny's transparency account: the rational choice is that which it seems we ought to do. From the first-personal perspective, we cannot distinguish appearance from reality. (To believe that P is to consider P true.) In deliberation, we hope to identify the best choice. We do this by settling on what seems best. But we wouldn't treat the appearances as having any independent force, over and above the objective facts. I can treat the fact of P as a reason, but not (typically) the fact of my believing P. Note the strangeness of the following reasoning: "I can't decide whether it would be best to X or to Y. I suppose X-ing would be more rational. Oh, so that's another thing in its favour! I shall do X!" Also, Clayton points out that we would advise people to believe what's true, not what they have evidence for.

That's all to suggest that we shouldn't confuse the normativity of ends and their rational means. I'm sure there was some further reason why I wanted to write about this topic, but I can't for the life of me remember what it was. So I'll finish with a quote from Hare:
The winner of a game of backgammon is the player who first bears off all his pieces in accordance with the rules of the game, not the one who follows the best strategies. Similarly in morals, the principles which we have to follow if we are to give ourselves the best chance of acting rightly are not definitive of 'the right act'; but if we wish to act rightly we shall do well, all the same, to follow them.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Costs and Regulation

Let's distinguish two forms of regulation, reflecting the statist vs. Hayekian distinction. One option is to make the undesirable activity illegal. The alternative is to make it costly. More generally, we can regulate activities either by using the blunt instrument of the law, or else by the more subtle manipulation of market forces. I think the latter will often be preferable.

A major advantage of the market is the sheer efficiency brought about by the informational sensitivity of price signals. Greenies want to help the environment, but often don't know how best to achieve this. Some proposals seem to have mainly symbolic value, as their slight good consequences may be outweighed by the time and effort put into them, especially when opportunity costs are taken into account. PC claims that recycling is such an example:
[W]hen used items have real value -- Ferraris for example -- they don't need to be 'recycled,' they get sold. 'Recycled' is what happens to stuff with no value, or with so little value only a government regulation can make enough people care.

This is deceptive, however, because our current pseudo-market externalizes environmental costs. Price and cost thus come apart in a way that's far from ideal. However, if only we were to stop subsidizing polluters, then perhaps prices really would signal value.

(N.B. In response to these externalities, we must take care to tax the right thing. The Greens want to "link car registration charges with fuel efficiency", so as to "reward people who bought “environmentally sensible” cars." But this seems to fetishize a 'means' over the 'end'. What really matters here is the fuel use itself, not the efficiency with which it's used. So, as Kiwi Pundit points out, we would do better to increase fuel taxes instead. This direct approach will indirectly incentivize such derivative goods as fuel-efficiency anyway. But it avoids various inefficiencies that would arise from confusing the means and ends in this case.)

Brad Templeton explains how buying energy efficient cars or home solar panels could actually be "bad for the environment, compared to the choice of buying carbon credits, which is to say bribing existing polluters to cut back their output":
The answer, right now, is that it’s far easier and cheaper to reduce pollution by cutting output at the big polluting factories and power plants. A dollar spent there does an order of magnitude more to cut pollution than a dollar spent on personal PV panels or a personal hybrid car.

Markets are thus important because prices signal information about ease and efficiency, and so can help us to identify how we can do the most good. Or, as Brad puts it:
A working credit system (and I’m not ready to make the final claim that we have one) creates a market that focuses the money on the places where you can get the most bang for your buck in pollution reduction. A working credit system means you don’t work on your own house because you can spend the money getting somebody else’s far less efficient house in order first. Sometimes people justify their own solar panels or Prius by saying that they want to do something, and they can’t do anything about the big power plant. But with a credit system that’s exactly what they can, and should do — until the markets change and it makes sense to spend money on your own car.

Internalizing costs through the market is also superior to heavy-handed regulation in terms of human freedom. Consider my old post on urban sprawl: outward development imposes significant public costs, and statists in local government respond to this with zoning regulations to prevent or restrict the harmful activity of expanding development. A better solution might be to internalize the costs, say by requiring developers to pay for the requisite public infrastructure (presumably passing this along in the form of higher housing prices), and charging higher rates to peripheral real estate in order to meet the ongoing costs of sprawl.

This would give more people the freedom to live in suburbs if they so wish, without subsidizing their choice as our current pseudo-market does. If people want the suburban lifestyle enough to be willing to pay for the indirect costs, then why stand in their way? A market system, with true costs appropriately internalized, strikes me as an institution with great potential for enabling humanity.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Problem of Normativity

One of the most fundamental questions of philosophy -- and perhaps the fundamental question in meta-ethics -- is that of how normativity ("ought"-ness) fits into the natural order.

It's clear that any normative facts must supervene on the descriptive facts. And I've previously argued that this connection must be conceptual rather than synthetic, a priori rather than a posteriori. But then we seem to end up with mere "descriptivism", according to which normative claims are just shorthand for certain descriptive claims. Their evaluative aspect seems to have been eliminated in the reduction process.

I think Kit Fine states the problem especially well in his excellent article (which I keep returning to!), 'The Varieties of Necessity' (Modality and Tense, p.251):

If there is a correct analysis of good, say, as what promotes pleasure over pain, then something's being good must consist in nothing more than its promoting pleasure over pain. But we have a strong intuition that it does consist in something more. Here we are not relying on the purported epistemic status of a correct analysis, as Moore does, but on its metaphysical consequences. This argument, moreover, can be strengthened. For suppose one merely takes it to be a conceptual necessity that something is good if it promotes pleasure over pain. Now, if this is true, then presumably it must also be true that something is good in virtue of promoting pleasure over pain. Indeed, it is only because something is good in virtue of promoting pleasure over pain that there is the conceptual connection between the one and the other. But now what is this in-virtue-of relationship that accounts for the conceptual connection? The only possible answer, it seems, is that it is the relationship of one thing consisting in no more than some other; for this would appear to be the only in-virtue-of relationship capable of sustaining a conceptual connection. But if this is right, then the argument can also be taken to apply to statements of conceptual implication, and not merely to analyses.

Tricky! I'd replace the hedonism with a welfarist account of the good. But even then, aren't we saying two different things when we call something either "good" or "conducive to general welfare"? The former seems to come with an evaluative force that the latter, merely "descriptive" phrase lacks.

If there is a conceptual connection between ethics and ideal rationality -- as seems plausible -- then perhaps this could provide the requisite normative force. Supervenience would then arise because rationality requires treating like cases alike (and identical cases identically). Nevertheless, it is a substantive ('synthetic'?) fact just which values would survive ideal rational reflection. It is still a priori in the sense that an ideally rational agent wouldn't need to know which world he's in in order to come to the right conclusions. But this doesn't seem to be a merely analytic fact about the meaning of the word "rational". So perhaps there can be synthetic a priori truths along these lines. (If so, I should retract my earlier opposition to synthetic ethical naturalism. All my arguments show is that it's not a posteriori. If a priori synthetic statements are possible, then that's fine.)

If we accept this kind of "constructivist non-cognitivism", then it seems we are able to find room for supervening ethics within a naturalistic framework. An act's "rightness" holds in virtue of its promoting welfare, but it does not merely consist in this descriptive fact. Rather, it consists in its being the ideally rational action. 

Sound plausible?

Scopal ambiguity in action

My Weetbix packet informs me that "40% of Australian kids go to school each day without breakfast." That's a lot of kids who never eat breakfast!

The Layman's Challenge

A Gardener (of sorts) asks:
If you were trying to explain what you study to someone who didn't know anything about philosophy, what would you say? (It should be short and clear, but you can't cheat by just saying "I study ethics".)

I have a hard enough time explaining my thesis to other philosophers! If asked by non-philosophers, I've always offered the 'cheat' answer: "I'm studying the concept of possibility." If made to explain further, I usually just end up confusing them. But perhaps the following would work:
The world is a certain way, but intuitively, things could have turned out in a completely different way, right? For example, Germany could have won WWII, and then things would be very different. I'm looking into the abstract question of how these various 'ways a world might be' are related to the world itself. I'm especially interested in which possibilities really could have come about (say, if you were to "rewind and replay" history enough times, it would eventually turn out that way). I'm also curious about how we learn what's possible, given that merely possible things don't actually exist.

Does that make sense?

Thursday, May 25, 2006


Yeah, okay, I've changed my mind. Harshness doesn't seem likely to achieve anything productive, except perhaps as a kind of tasteless entertainment. And even if some views don't merit respect, that's not a good enough reason to be mean to the person who holds them. Insulting others will merely make them more defensive (as I suppose I've been myself), and perhaps even make the pernicious view more sympathetic to fence-sitters. There's really not much to be said for it. It should be possible to make the flaws of a view clear without resorting to polemical rhetoric, and if so, that's surely a more appropriate ideal to aim for.

I agree with this much from my other post: reasoned polemic is permissible in the public sphere. It's not like intellectual dishonesty or other starkly unreasonable behaviours, which I think we have a strict obligation to avoid. But it would be a very minimalist conception of ethics which only asked what we mustn't do. I don't usually accept mere adequacy in myself, and this should be no exception. If we can make an intuitive distinction between being 'reasonable' and 'considerate', I think some of my blogging behaviour has focussed too exclusively on the former. It's acceptable, but, well... not great.

I don't think it's spilled over into real life yet (at least I hope not!), but arrogance is a bad habit and one I really shouldn't be cultivating, even online. Thinking back to comments I've recently left on other blogs, some are needlessly abrasive. Again, the points I made were perfectly reasonable ones, and I wasn't horrible or anything. But certainly less considerate than I could -- and should -- have been.

Richard Dawkins has defended his notoriously polemical style thusly:
I care about what's true, I care about evidence, I care about evidence as the reason for knowing what is true. It is true that I come across rather passionate sometimes - and that's because I am passionate about the truth.

That does sound admirable in itself. But there are other things we should also care about, our interlocuters surely among them. You know, the plutonium rule and all that. If I say something breathtakingly stupid, I'd prefer others to point it out in a nice way. Rigour and tact needn't be mutually exclusive.

So, apologies for being an ass. It's something I'll try to work on.

Philosophy Journal Updates

Ben Miller writes:
If you want to keep up with philosophy journals you can either do it yourself and spend lots of your own time, or you can just read my updates.

I recommend the second disjunct. Click here.

On Civility and Polemic

I gather from recent comments that some people disapprove of the polemical tone of some of my posts. I'd like to say a bit more about that general topic, as it relates to blogging ethics and ideals of public discourse.

Now, there's a lot to be said for calm and friendly exchanges -- especially on abstract philosophical topics, but it's also an appropriate ideal for political issues of reasonable dispute, where each party can hope to learn from the other in a climate of mutual respect.

But not all topics are like that, and there is a legitimate place in public discourse for passionate polemic and harsh criticisms. Some false views are sufficiently misguided and pernicious as to warrant our scorn, and not merely our calm deductive refutations.* It is not necessarily appropriate to politely engage with homophobes or creationists as if their position merited serious consideration.** That could give them a false air of respectability, which they do not deserve. Some scientists avoid this problem by simply ignoring creationism, allowing the blight to fester unimpeded. Some partisans merely hurl insults, which doesn't achieve much either. One appropriate response to pernicious views, in my opinion, is reasoned polemic. You engage seriously with the view whilst making it clear that you don't take it seriously. You mock it mercilessly, but in the context of a substantive argument which establishes fairly and reasonably why it deserves to be so mocked. The aim: to prove the other view not just false, but ridiculous.***
* = Or, as Chris Clarke puts it, "it is not civil to discuss things quietly and collegially while people are dying because they can't afford medicine."

** = See my post on open-mindedness. We should of course be open to the possibility of revising our views. But absent any actual reasons to do so, we may be confident in rejecting those views for the time being.

*** = As Amanda Marcotte writes: "Mockery is an excellent way for people to convey their values systems and progressives shouldn’t cripple ourselves by abandoning this tool. Just as mocking someone’s race encourages racist values, mocking someone for being racist encourages anti-racist values."

Different people may disagree on what views deserve such polemical treatment. I expect many would include homophobia, racism, sexism, holocaust denial, torture-apologetics, creationism, religious fundamentalism, etc. Some might add climate change denial, strict egalitarianism, ethical relativism, absolutist deontology, or propertarianism.

This is a legitimate part of civil discourse. If people don't want to risk public criticism then they shouldn't advance pernicious ideologies. I'm not going to treat respectfully the views of a homophobe or a torture apologist, nor those who value property more highly than people. I will engage with them seriously and sincerely, and do my best to rationally show why their views are ridiculous. In so doing, you can expect me to express both my arguments and my ridicule.

Such polemic is still bound by important intellectual/ethical standards, to help prevent misguided polemical abuse of undeserving targets. In particular, it is crucial that harsh criticisms still be reasonable criticisms. So if my criticisms are shown to be unreasonable then I will retract them and apologize. Intellectual honesty demands no less. That's simply the risk one takes in playing the polemic game: if you go wrong, you've got to take responsibility for that. It does take some discernment, and won't always be appropriate. But strong criticism per se need not be denounced as "uncivil". So long as it's backed with adequate substantive argument, such reasonable criticism can be an entirely appropriate contribution to public discourse. Some views ought to be publicly recognized as ridiculous. But as with anything else, the way to establish this is through critical reasoning.

So, to clarify my views on "blogging ethics", let me reiterate my firm commitment to reasoned argument and intellectual honesty. And let me also emphasize that this is perfectly consistent with justified polemic that may occasionally offend the thin-skinned. I don't think it's necessarily wrong to cause offense. Sometimes the truth hurts. (As Steve Gimbel writes, "There is no right not to be offended. Reality is an offensive place. Deal with it.")

See also my old post on "attacks and arguments".

Update: scrap that. The above describes a legitimate blogging-ethical policy. But it isn't mine. "related tags" bug?

Since my sidebar 'freshtags' category hack seems broken at the moment, anyone wanting to peruse my archives by category will need to do so manually, by clicking here and then clicking the '+' next to the desired category in the "related tags" list.

One thing I recently noticed is that this doesn't work if you try using this url instead. Apparently doesn't offer any "related tags" if you put any capital letters in the url. That seems really weird -- I'd always assumed that URLs were caps-insensitive. Anyway, I just thought I'd mention it...

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Considering as Actual

Jessica Owensby-Sandifer (not to be confused with the other Sandefur!) offers an interesting argument against Chalmers' two-dimensionalism. It's a thoughtful piece which nicely (though unintentionally) illustrates the confusion which can arise from the standard picture of modal space.

The core problem, which Jessica recognizes, is that the standard picture leaves no room for the possibility of any other world being actual, "because for each universe there can be only one actual world." (I assume 'universe' here denotes modal space, or what I sometimes call the 'modalverse'.) She accepts this result and in response proposes a meta-modal space, i.e. a space of modalverses, so that each possible world can be actualized in a different modalverse. I guess this would mean that even though no other world can (in fact) possibly be actual, perhaps it's possible that this could have been possible. It's not true in any possible world of our modalverse. But it is true of another possible world in another possible modalverse. (I find such meta-modal claims deeply fascinating, but of dubious coherence.)

I think that's the wrong response, though. We should instead take the above 'narrow fatalism' to be a reductio of the standard picture. Jessica writes, "Central to the intuitive notions underlying a theory of actuality is the idea that something distinguishes the actual world from being a merely possible world." Indeed. I say that this concrete lump of ours isn't any kind of possible world at all ("merely" or otherwise!). If we think of possible worlds as being maximal properties, then our lump instantiates just one of those properties, which we might call the "actualized world-state". But the lump should not be identified with the property. It could have instantiated a different property, after all (whereas the first property has its identity essentially, and so could not have been the second property). In that case, a different possible world-state would have been actualized. And, intuitively, that's exactly what it means to say that another possible world could have been actual. It means that our concrete lump (*thumps table*) could have turned out a different way. It happens to instantiate world-property w1, but it could have had w2 instead. (Note that these are primitive extra-modal facts which cannot be spelled out using the standard "possible worlds" semantics.)

Now, Jessica wants to suggest a special problem for the two-dimensionalist's notion of "considering a world as actual". She writes:
It my contention that, no matter which theory of actuality one assumes, to consider another world as actual is to make a metamodal claim about the possibility that some other world is actual in another universe or cosmos.

But that can't be right. To consider a world as actual is to invoke the epistemic rather than subjunctive mode of possibility. To consider w2 as actual is to entertain the hypothesis that our lump (not some other one) actually instantiates w2. After all, this might really be the case for all we know a priori.

The lump/property distinction is crucial for making sense of this. For suppose all we could refer to as the 'actual world' is our world-property w1. Then to consider the distinct world w2 "as actual" would be to consider w2 as w1. But that's incoherent. Of course, that's not what anyone takes themselves to be doing when they consider worlds as actual. We're not considering one "world" or property to be another world/property. Rather, we're considering that world to be actual (*bangs table*), i.e. for the property to be actualized by the extra-modal lump.

A simple example might help clarify matters. Let w2 be the Twin Earth world, where XYZ fills the lakes and rivers. We can consider this world as actual, and come to the conclusion that 'water is XYZ' is 1-possible. This is because we're told that XYZ plays the water role in w2, and it's a priori that water actually plays the water role, and hence the indicative conditional "if w2 is actual then XYZ is water" is a priori. No problems.

Even if water is actually H2O, that doesn't mean we were entertaining the hypothesis that H2O is XYZ. That's not how epistemic possibility works: 'H2O' and 'water' are distinct concepts, even if they are actually the same substance. It certainly isn't a priori that "if w2 is actual then XYZ is H2O" -- indeed, that's a priori false! So we need to take care to distinguish the general notion of 'actuality' from the specific world-property which happens to be actualized.

(Another way to respond here would be to invoke the de dicto/de re distinction as it applies to the indexical analysis of 'actual'. For more on this, see my post: P iff actually P.)


Shame on Sandefur

I am disgusted by Timothy Sandefur's intellectual dishonesty. He propped up a ridiculous "straw man", bizarrely attributing to me views which I explicitly rejected, and then viciously mocked and insulted me on that basis. Further, despite learning that I held his interpretation to be radically mistaken, he went on to write another post continuing to mock the original view. At no point has he engaged with my actual arguments, or even acknowledged the misrepresentation. I wrote to him, politely explaining his error and asking for a retraction and apology, but never so much as received a reply.

The facts of the matter speak for themselves. I encourage readers to read first my original post, and then Sandefur's reply. His misconduct is so apparent that further commentary on my part is quite unnecessary. Still, for your convenience, I will offer some highlights below.

Here's my argument:
Property is a “social construction” [rather than a “fixed and immutable” natural category], and recognition of this fact can open our eyes to the possibility of various different systems of property rights. We can then make an informed moral choice between the various options. We shouldn’t just assume the absolutist propertarian conception from the start.

Note also the open-ended nature of my conclusion, that we should "dispute the merits of alternative institutional systems". Clearly, my purpose is to open the debate, not conclude it.

Now, compare this to Sandefur's straw man:
Since property is created by social mores and by government’s laws, therefore there can be no real objection when the government changes the rules and says that what you own is not really yours.

The mind boggles. This is quite obviously not an accurate representation of my argument. It's not even close. It misses the entire thrust of my introduction and conclusion (i.e. the need for moral assessment of our social/legal institutions). Worse, it contradicts my explicit repudiation of this view. I wrote:
That's not to say that "anything goes", or that any system of legal rights instituted by a society would be equally legitimate. Any system which allowed the rulers to arbitrarily seize all a worker's holdings and leave them to starve would be plainly immoral. The system must be set up in a fair and equitable manner.

There is no possible way that one could reasonably interpret me as suggesting the exact opposite, i.e. that governments may do as they please and "there can be no real objection". Yet that is how Sandefur presents my argument. It beggars belief. A first-year philosophy student would flunk out (and probably be sent to remedial reading comprehension classes) if they offered such an unsupported and uncharitable interpretation of an argument.

[The only way to support this dishonest reading would be to ignore my actual argument (introduction, conclusion, and bits in between) and instead take a couple of select quotes out of context. Sadly, that's exactly what Jason Kuznicki did in his misguided attempts to excuse his co-blogger. Needless to say, that's not a responsible way to form an interpretation of another's argument.]

The matter is simple, really. My post makes it perfectly clear that I think there are limits on what governments may rightly do.* I was very explicit on this point. Yet Sandefur presented me as saying the very opposite, and then he viciously attacked me on that transparently mistaken basis. A plainer case of intellectual dishonesty would be hard to come by. No-one of any intelligence who made a minimal effort to read and comprehend my post could possibly interpret it as Sandefur proposed. And if you're going to employ such scathing invective, you are surely obliged to first ensure that you've understood the other person's position.** His failure here is breathtaking.
* = (My follow-up post explains what I think underwrites those moral limits. But that's a separate question.)

** = (If the ethical reasons don't move one, you'd think self-interest would. Mocking an argument you don't understand is a sure way to make a fool of yourself -- as we've had occasion to note before.)

As if that weren't shameful enough, Sandefur then went and wrote another post mocking those phrases of mine that he'd taken out of context (i.e. the idea of "constructing" institutions, and the distinction between "creating" and "violating" laws). By this time he knew that I considered it a misrepresentation. But instead of revising his interpretation like any minimally honest person would, he instead continued to mock the straw man.

I don't know what else to say. Sandefur's misconduct is plain as plain can be. He made a stunning mistake, and now he refuses to accept responsibility for it. If words fail me, perhaps it's best to let Sandefur's writing speak for itself... "idiotic" and "deserving of the bitterest ridicule", indeed!

I've reluctantly removed Positive Liberty from my blogroll, until such a time as they restore their integrity with the requisite retraction and apology. (It's a pity, because I otherwise like the blog, and the other contributors often write intelligent and interesting posts. But some behaviours are simply unacceptable, and I hold such blatant intellectual dishonesty to be among them.)


Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Political Axes

Last month I mentioned a fun and original system of political classification. Now I'd like to try my own hand at inventing one.

1) The first distinction concerns one's conception of political dispute: Rationalists believe that politics is (ideally) a rational endeavour, and that reason can resolve political disputes, eventually leading to convergence (at least among ideally rational agents). Subjectivists think it's all just a matter of personal preference, or a 'battle of wills'.

2) Another meta-political distinction (which I consider hugely important) is between procedural liberals vs. radicals. Radicals are most fundamentally committed to the advancement of their substantive political ends, by whatever means necessary. Liberals, by contrast, are primarily committed to the integrity of the political system as a whole. Recognizing their own fallibility, they see upholding just procedures -- e.g. democratic institutions, and the rule of law -- as more important than obtaining their preferred outcome on substantive (first-order) political issues. 

This suggests that radicals will be more open to violent revolution and imposing their views on others, whereas liberals will tend to prefer piecemeal reform through legitimate channels. (Though I suppose liberals could support revolution against tyrants or unjust institutions.)

[Aside: I think there are good utilitarian reasons to be a procedural liberal. See my post: 'investing in rational capital'. Come to think of it, I should add that one to my list of 'favourite posts'.]

3) Concerning the locus of political power, we have the distinction between managerialists vs. democrats. Managerialists think that politics is the business of politicians, and that ordinary folk should keep their distance. Democrats think that civilians should be politically empowered, through deliberative democracy and the like.

4) Concerning the extent or exercise of political power, we may contrast individualists vs. communitarians. The essential difference is whether one favours the autonomy of individuals or of groups. Individualists believe that the proper aim of politics is limited to enabling each individual to rule over themselves. Communitarians hold that the majority should rule over the minority. (Or, more charitably, that communities should be self-determining.)

5) Statists vs. Hayekians: Note that this distinction concerns one's empirical beliefs rather than ideals. Statists believe that good results come about through centralized planning. Hayekians are more inclined to trust 'the wisdom of crowds', and hence favour decentralized solutions (including the free market and commons-based peer production [think wikipedia]). 

6) Attitudes towards change: Progressives vs. Burkeans. Progressives are more optimistic and open to political experimentation, whereas Burkeans are cautious of change and prefer the 'tried and true'. 

7) Distribution of political power: universalists think that political decisions and laws should apply everywhere, whereas federalists think that different geographic communities should have a degree of political independence. 

8) Sense of justice: Egoists vs. Altruists. Egoists don't think we have any politically enforcable obligations to help others (say through redistributive taxation). Altruists do. 

9) Scope of justice: Cosmopolitans are concerned about global justice. Nationalists think we only have duties to those in our own communities or nation states.

I think the first eight axes are all conceptually distinct from each other, even if some more naturally go together than others. Are they adequately exhaustive, or can you think of other important distinctions I've missed? (The traditional economic "left/right" would seem captured by #5 and #8. And social lib/authoritarianism by #4.)

So... I'm a rationalist liberal democratic individualist Hayekian progressive federalist altruistic cosmopolitan (*gasps for breath*). How about you?


Spinoza on Open Democracy

A nice quote in the Washington Post:
Better that right counsels be known to enemies than that the evil secrets of tyrants should be concealed from the citizens. They who can treat secretly of the affairs of a nation have it absolutely under their authority; and as they plot against the enemy in time of war, so do they against the citizens in time of peace.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Philosophers' Carnival #30

... is here. Lots of interesting entries as usual, and clearly presented by Anniemiz. Go, read!

Also, it's the last round of the Online Philosophy Conference, with several interesting papers. I'll hopefully find time to respond to some of them soon.

Self-Deprecating Testimony

Suppose someone tells you that they're an unreliable source. Should you believe them?

This isn't so bad as the liar paradox. The statement might be true, after all. Or it might just as well be false.

If they are a reliable source (but simply misleading you in this particular case) then the statement is false, so you shouldn't believe it. On the other hand, if they're an unreliable source (but having a rare moment of honesty) then the statement is true, so you should believe it. Oddly enough, the statement itself doesn't seem to provide you with any information at all about which of these cases is more likely.* All it tells you is that the person is certainly not perfectly reliable, nor perfectly unreliable (in the sense of reliably telling only falsehoods).

* = You might think we should have a default disposition towards believing others. But that might just as well be described as a default assumption that their testimony is reliable -- which should lead us to disbelieve them in the present case. Actually, that sounds right. If someone said to me "most things I say are false", I would think it more likely that that particular thing they just said was false. So perhaps we should simply disregard such self-deprecating testimony?


Essential Byproducts

Recall that there are some desirable ends that are "essential byproducts" in the sense that they can only be achieved by aiming at something else. This is importantly different from the case of utility discussed more recently, whereby one could employ the indirect strategies for the sake of the ultimate goal. Here I instead mean to discuss the situation where one must act for reasons independent of the desirable byproduct. For example, the good life plausibly involves genuine friendships, wherein one values the other person intrinsically, for their sake, and not merely for the sake of one's own happiness. Let us suppose that this is so, i.e. true happiness can only be attained if it is not the ultimate reason for which one acts. Then the rational egoist cannot overcome the problem merely by becoming an 'indirect egoist'. They must cease to (consciously) be an egoist altogether.

There are different theories about what we have reason to do. For example, Instrumentalism says that we have reason to fulfill our own present desires, whatever they may be. Rational Egoism says that we have reason to promote our self-interest, and nothing else (no matter how we might feel about this!). And Rational Altruism says that we have reason to advance everyone's interests. I discuss these further here. For sake of the present discussion, I will pretend -- contrary to fact -- that Rational Egoism is a tenable position.

Now, for any such account of reasons, we can pair it with a corresponding account of local rationality, based on the following general schema:

(G) Rationality is a matter of responding appropriately to p-reasons. (I define an agent as having "partial" or p-reasons when they hold the belief that P, and -- regardless of whether the agent recognizes P as a reason -- the truth of P would, in fact, constitute a reason. This is close to, but subtly different from, my more recent account of 'apparent reasons'.)

The different accounts posit different reasons, hence different p-reasons, and hence different specifications of local rationality in this sense. For example, according to Rational Egoism, agents are locally rational insofar as they seek to advance their own interests. But what if (as we earlier supposed) acting in such a way would in fact tend to undermine one's best interests? It would follow that we ought not to be locally rational. Instead, we have most reason to make ourselves insensitive to these reasons (or newly sensitive to "false" reasons, say by coming to believe some other theory, like Rational Altruism).

Suppose the enlightened egoist successfully brainwashes himself into becoming an altruist, and ends up living a happier life in consequence. If rational egoism is true, then he has done what he had most reason to do, namely, what was best for him. But, post-brainwashing, he was not responding to those reasons. He did not act that way for those reasons, or with the conscious aim of advancing his self-interest. So he was no longer being locally rational, according to that theory.

This allows us to uphold Parfit's account of "rational irrationality". The egoist has reason to become an irrational altruist, and recognizing those reasons makes it rational for him to become so. Moreover, it would be irrational for him to cause himself to lose this disposition towards irrationality. If, during a moment of rare lucidity, he became temporarily resensitized to egoistic reasons, he would see that he has no reason to cause himself to remain so rational, and so it would be irrational for him to take such steps. Instead, it is rational for him to stay irrational. But that doesn't make his general insensitivity to egoistic reasons any less irrational in itself. He is still failing to consciously respond to p-reasons, and thus (by my definition) irrational. He is doing what he has most reason to do, but he does so non-rationally, i.e. he is not acting for those reasons.

(Similar things can be said of other 'essential byproducts'. There's no rational way to fall asleep, or to not think of an elephant. Local rationality involves means-ends reasoning, and you can't achieve these ends by having them "in mind" in such a way!)

Parfit's account of Rational Egoism risks incoherence when he speaks of a "supremely rational aim", however. Consider:

(S1) "For each person, there is one supremely rational aim: that his life go, for him, as well as possible." (Reasons and Persons, p.4)

We have supposed that having such an aim would in fact cause one's life to go worse. Knowing this, rational egoism tells us that it would be irrational to have this aim. That then seems to contradict the claim that this aim is "supremely rational".

But perhaps we simply need to distinguish two senses in which one might assess the rational status of an aim. An aim might embody rationality, in that it constitutes supreme sensitivity to one's p-reasons. Or an aim might be recommended by rationality, in the sense that one's p-reasons tell one to have this aim. Armed with this distinction, we can (alas) defend S1 from claims of incoherence. S1 should be interpreted as saying that the egoistic aim supremely embodies rationality, even though it might not be rationally recommended to embody rationality in such a way.

Curiously, this could make it impossible for some agents not to be irrational, if rationality recommends that they cease to embody rationality. Either they irrationally ignore this recommendation, or else they heed the recommendation and so make themselves come to be irrational in future. Either way, they're irrational at some point. There's no possible way for such an agent to successfully act from their p-reasons at all times, if one's earlier p-reasons precisely recommend desensitizing oneself to the later ones! You've gotta love the self-referential logic of it all.


NZ Electoral Fraud?

This is shocking:
* Labour were told 17 days before the election that the [Chief Electoral Officer] considered the pledge cards electoral advertisements.

* Labour offered, prior to the election, to include the pledge cards in their election return.

* That offer, was withdrawn after the election. The large cost of the pledge cards makes it difficult to reach any conclusion other than the offer was made with bad faith to stop the CEO referring them pre-election to the Police. In other words they lied to the CEO. ...

The unfortunate effect of all this, is that the authority of the Chief Electoral Officer and the Electoral Commission have been massively undermined, perhaps fatally. If a party can ignore warnings from the CEO 19 days before the election, lie to the CEO, make offers and retract them and all without any sanction at all - then you have the wild west. ...

It may not be a stolen election, but it does make it a very dodgy "win". If the Police had done their job then there would be the benefit of a Court Judgement to resolve the matter.

All else being equal, I would rather have Labour in power than National. But cheating to win an election is absolutely unacceptable. I only hope that voters care enough about the integrity of our electoral system to punish Labour at the polls next time around, and in the meantime, pressure politicians to take steps to ensure this doesn't happen again.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Contingent Right to Life

Last night's post argued that rights cannot be morally fundamental because it's a contingent matter what rights will promote human welfare. I want to establish this point as strongly as possible by showing that even the right to life itself is contingent. I will describe a (highly fantastical) hypothetical situation in which a society would be morally required to limit the right to life, and sometimes actively kill innocent people. [Non-philosophers are reminded that this in no way implies support for government killings in our (very different!) situation. Please take care to understand the argument before hurling insults.]


Badland: The people of Badland are haunted by an evil deity named 'God', who shows every indication of being omniscient, omnipotent, and truthful, though he has a taste for human sacrifice. God installed a magical lottery machine in the town centre, and explained to the townsfolk that, once a month, the device will pick one of their names at random. They are expected to sacrifice this person to God, and if they do so then God will leave them alone till next month. However, if the chosen person remains alive after 24 hours, then the furious and spiteful God will wreak havoc and cause thirty random townsfolk to spontaneously combust.

Naturally enough, the folk of Badland weren't too happy about this deal, and initially ignored God's threats. So thirty of them died. Another time they tried to trick God by holding a mock sacrifice. Being omniscient, God saw right through this, and another thirty died. Eventually the villagers learnt their lesson, and reluctantly amended their laws so that the unlucky lottery winner must be killed within the day. (They still held out hopes that the situation might one day change, but alas, they had no chance.)

All the reasonable folk agreed to this new law, because they could see that it was in everyone's best interests. Granting an inviolable "right to life" would make each of them far more likely to die. Better to grant a more limited right, which protects against everyday violence, of course, but nevertheless allows that the unfortunate lottery winners may - nay, must - be killed.

There were some unreasonable folk who thought that their imagined natural rights were more important than real consequences. Thus sixty deontologists left to create their own society, though God made another lottery machine and informed them that they were bound by the same rules. Half of them died in the first month, and the others -- finally comprehending their impending doom -- crawled back to the indirect utilitarian society.

Others agreed to the new institution so long as it didn't cost them anything. But when their name came up on the lottery machine, they became newly concerned about their "right to life", and would try to bribe officials so that they were not bound by the same laws as everyone else. One time a very rich man managed to buy his way out of the system. In consequence, thirty other innocent people died in his place. The folk were outraged, and vowed never to let their institutions be so corrupted again. Justice requires that the randomly chosen innocent be killed, and it would be gravely immoral for them to not follow through on this.

As time passed, the institution become more embedded in the society, and the folk resigned themselves to it. To be chosen by God's lottery was seen as just another natural cause of death, like cancer or poverty (*cough*). Most went willingly, recognizing that it was just their bad luck to be chosen now, and that this same institution might well have saved their life in other circumstances. They blamed the evil God, of course, for creating this lamentable situation in the first place. But given the situation, they could all see that their society's response to it was entirely appropriate, and indeed morally mandatory.


That's the story. You might be intuitively tempted to apply the practical guidelines appropriate for our context on to that very different one, and hence conclude that the society was wrong to pacify God by instituting human sacrifice. You might think it indiscernible from "murder". But then, I think, you would be failing to take into account some very morally relevant differences. When you consider the scenario in its own terms, rather than ours, I think critical assessment of the situation inevitably leads to the conclusion that the society was correct to limit the right to life as they did. That's exactly what morality and justice required in response to their lamentable situation.

If any right is absolute, then it is surely the right to life. But we have seen that the right to life is not absolute, but rather situation-dependent. (Needless to say, it's a very important right that ought not to be compromised in our situation.) So rights are not absolute. And for less vital rights, like the right to property, we should consider various institutional options, since it may well be that a limited version of the right (allowing for some taxation and redistribution) would save lives and promote human flourishing in our situation. That's an empirical question. My moral/theoretical argument establishes that this is an empirical question we need to look into. You can't settle the debate merely by saying that "taxation is theft". Such conceptual confusion betrays the superficiality and inadequacy of the propertarian's politico-moral theory. It is superficial for its failure to distinguish internal violations from external assessments of a legal/institutional framework. And it is inadequate due to its bull-headed insensitivity to morally relevant empirical facts.

Save Nazanin

Details here:
This website was created to spread information about the 18-year old Iranian girl Nazanin Mahabad Fatehi, who has been sentenced to death by hanging. Nazanin`s "crime" was killing a man who ambushed and tried to rape her. Please take a few moments to read about her case and what you can do to stop the execution and save Nazanin`s life.

You can sign the online petition here.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Institutional Rights

According to my indirect utilitarianism, we should institute whatever legal rights would best promote human flourishing. Legal rights derive whatever normativity they have from this consequentialist foundation. We have no reason to believe in such entities as "natural rights" -- they are at once metaphysically mysterious and ethically inadequate. Moreover, it would be fetishistic to care about such entities fundamentally and for their own sakes. What really matters are people, and rights are only important insofar as they benefit real people.

Moreover, it is a contingent matter what rights would most help people. (To prove this point as strongly as possible, my next post describes a hypothetical situation wherein a society would be morally required to limit even the right to life itself.) So you cannot just start off with some set of rights as "given", a priori. What rights are worth having will depend on empirical facts about their likely consequences. So the rights themselves cannot be fundamental. They're instead derived from a utilitarian foundation, in conjunction with contingent empirical facts.

This means that rights may legitimately vary from society to society, in much the same way that the moral status of an act-type like "lying" might vary across situations. The difference is not due to different opinions, "beliefs", or other such relativistic nonsense. Rather, it's because the objective facts about consequent harms and benefits may differ between the situations, and the moral facts must be responsive to these non-moral facts. (That's why moral absolutism is so misguided -- it entails a gross insensitivity to morally relevant considerations. Just think of the standard "enquiring murderer" cases, where lying is entirely appropriate.)

Now, we must distinguish between two levels of moral criticism. At the 'practical' level, we assess particular actions "internally" against the standards of our everyday morality and legal/institutional processes. This is appropriate insofar as those standards are themselves justified. But to "externally" assess the standards themselves, we must ascend to the 'critical level' of utilitarian assessment. As previously explained, we should settle on whatever practical standards would do the most good.

Now, my previous post sought to illustrate the oft-neglected fact that property is a contingent "social construction", and hence we should "open our eyes to the possibility of various different systems of property rights" in order to "make an informed moral choice" between them. Along the way, I pointed out that the propertarian claim that "taxation is theft" involves a category error. Theft is an 'internal' violation of instituted property rights, whereas taxation is part of the institution and hence must be critically assessed against the appropriate 'external' standard (which I take to be utility).

It is important to recognize this external standard as part of my view. That's why I emphasized in my previous post that not all possible institutions would be equally legitimate. This is not some wishy-washy "anything goes" relativism. (Again, I took care to make this very explicit.) Governments are very much open to criticism if their institutions are detrimental to human wellbeing. They are morally required to establish the basic legal rights that would do the most good -- and hence morally culpable to the extent that they fail to do this. 

(It's also worth noting that government actors might violate their own institutional requirements. Just look at the Bush Administration's disregard for the U.S. Constitution and limits on executive power. It would still be wrong to amend the Constitution to achieve the same effects. But it would clearly be wrong in a different way. It is a virtue of my theory that it can account for this.)

If one is particularly enamoured of "rights"-talk (and I'm not), one could go beyond legal rights by adopting a conception on which "Human rights are... moral claims on the organization of one's society." In this sense, talk of a "right" to X is really just shorthand for saying that we ought to establish institutions which grant us a legal right to X. That may be true enough, but we should recall that the ultimate basis for the "ought" claim is a utilitarian one, as argued above. On my view, moral significance fundamentally derives from real harms and benefits, not abstract quasi-magical "natural rights".

Friday, May 19, 2006

Upcoming Carnival

[Updated from 17/5: Hurry now!] There's another Philosophers' Carnival coming up Monday. Get your submissions in by the weekend!

Also, I'm a little concerned about the apparent lack of interest in the whole 'carnival of citizens' idea. Is there really no interest out there? (How could philosophically-inclined bloggers not be interested in reasoned public debate!?) Or would more of you get involved and help publicize it once it's actually up and running?

In other news, I think it's rather neat how the friendly version of my challenge to right-wingers was an "editor's choice" in the latest Carnival of the Capitalists!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Property is Unnatural!

Property rights are not a natural feature of the world. That's not to say they're bad, of course. But nor are they so fixed and immutable as we might otherwise assume. Property is a "social construction", and recognition of this fact can open our eyes to the possibility of various different systems of property rights. We can then make an informed moral choice between the various options. We shouldn't just assume the absolutist propertarian conception from the start.

Property is so ubiquitous in society that it can be difficult to recognize its artificial status. Thus poverty is commonly viewed as a kind of natural and (merely) “unfortunate” lack, like lacking the strength or intelligence that could boost one’s opportunities. We thus (mis)conceive of the poor as lacking the ability to achieve their ends, as if their misfortune were a purely natural rather than social imposition. An illustrative thought-experiment may help us to see things in a new light.

G.A. Cohen asks us to imagine a society where people are issued with legal “tickets” specifying their liberties, i.e. what actions they may perform. Armed officials intervene to thwart attempts to do something not licensed by one’s tickets. Cohen continues:
But a sum of money is nothing but a highly generalized form of such a ticket. A sum of money is a licence to perform a disjunction of conjunctions of actions – actions like, for example, visiting one’s sister in Bristol, or taking home, and wearing, the sweater on the counter at Selfridge’s.

A poor person has the capacity to approach and board the train to Bristol. But security guards would intervene to physically prevent this, were she to attempt it. Thus, “as far as her freedom is concerned, this is equivalent to ‘trip to Bristol’ not being written on someone’s ticket in the imagined non-monetary economy.” This illustrates how poverty is a socially imposed unfreedom, and property a socially constructed "right". The poor do not suffer any natural lack or inability. Rather, our institutions are such that poor people will be physically prevented from performing actions that would otherwise be open to them. There's nothing in the object's nature which confers ownership to some other individual. Its status as "property" is conferred on it by us.

That's not to say that "anything goes", or that any system of legal rights instituted by a society would be equally legitimate. Any system which allowed the rulers to arbitrarily seize all a worker's holdings and leave them to starve would be plainly immoral. The system must be set up in a fair and equitable manner. But we needn't assume that this means absolute property rights over all of one's holdings. Indeed, I previously argued that taking mild redistributive measures, say via a basic income guarantee, are the only way to ensure that one's post-tax holdings will be rightly inviolable.

Extremist propertarians like Timothy Sandefur are led to the absurd conclusion that "taxation is theft" because they fail to recognize the social character of property rights. As I explain in the linked post:
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.

Any limitations built into the institution of property rights are confused by propertarians with subsequent (post-institutional) violations of those rights. Sandefur writes, "there is no moral distinction between a robbery committed by one robber, and one committed by a large group of robbers" -- as if the state were breaking laws rather than creating them! It is theft to take that to which another is entitled. But entitlement derives from institutional rules, and our institutions are so set up that individuals are entitled to (only) their post-tax holdings. We may dispute the merits of alternative institutional systems. But that will take some argument, rather than closing down debate by presupposing a groundless pre-institutional conception of "natural" property rights.

A few other quick points in response to Sandefur's post:

1) He claims that to tax someone is "exactly like forcing him to labor for you". That's transparently foolish, of course, the guy knew about the tax rate when he signed his employment contract. He could have chosen to stay at home and abstain from any labour at all if he so wanted. Perhaps he would have starved. This could lead one to the more reasonable claim that the proletariat are forced to work for a taxed wage, in the sense that they have no reasonable alternatives. But note here that the 'work' is every bit as forced as the 'tax'. And I assume Sandefur would deny that the proletariat are forced to labour for capitalists, even though they would otherwise starve. So I challenge him to meet the charge of inconsistency I once levelled against one of his co-bloggers. The full argument can be found here.

2) Sandefur writes: "The citizen is being forcibly deprived of the earnings he got in exchange for his work — that is, an important part of himself."

Is what an employer gives you in exchange for your work really an important part of yourself? More plausibly it is the labour which is central to the self here. So what should really concern us is not taxed wages, but the fact that workers are effectively forced to prostitute their labour to begin with. (This clearly ties in with the above point.)

3) Sandefur claims that a citizen's "wealth... represents his liberty." I certainly agree, as should be clear from my above use of Cohen's 'ticket' thought experiment. But then I'm puzzled by why Sandefur is so unconcerned by the huge disparities in liberty afforded to different citizens. And given the diminishing marginal utility of money, we could expect some moderate redistribution to yield a net increase in vital human liberties. It would seem perverse to hold that one's liberty to obtain caviar is more important than another's liberty to obtain basic sustenance, for example. (Note that a basic income guarantee would likely have especially beneficial consequences for substantive human freedom.)

4) Sandefur asks how we can justify state involvement in economic but not religious matters. The answer is simple enough on indirect utilitarian grounds: freedom of thought and religion is crucial for human flourishing. Freedom from taxation isn't. Quite the opposite, in fact: we need some degree of redistribution in order to ensure that every person can meet their basic needs. (The freedom to eat takes priority!) So the analogy is entirely superficial.

Update: Timothy Sandefur pretends to respond, though it isn't clear that he read any further than the term "social construction" before reeling out his stock anti-positivist rant. Since I'm not a positivist, I'm not too sure of the relevance to my post. I quite plainly wrote that "That's not to say that "anything goes", or that any system of legal rights instituted by a society would be equally legitimate." But it would seem too much to ask of some people that they actually read (and, ideally, comprehend) what one writes before insulting it -- as "idiotic and deserving of the bitterest ridicule", no less! How embarrassing this must be for his (far more reasonable) co-bloggers...

The Plutonium Rule

We're all familiar with the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It famously suffers from the problem that others might have wildly different preferences from you. This has lead some to propose the Platinum Rule: "Treat others the way they want to be treated." That seems an improvement, though of course you can't give everyone what they want, and doing so wouldn't always even be good for them (say when people have ignorant or self-destructive desires). Still, I think the underlying idea here could be captured even better by what I will call - for want of a more sensible name - the Plutonium Rule: "Treat others as you would in the knowledge that you will one day be* them." Complement this with my theology of choice and you won't even need the hypothetical.

* = (I guess it's kind of like a really big mutation.)

Seriously, it seems like the sort of principle you could live your life by. And it really would be nice to be able to believe the theological underpinnings. (It's so much cooler than all the other religions I've come across.) One's sense of shared humanity could be significantly augmented by a sense of shared divinity. You would "belong to something greater" than your (mortal) self in a very literal sense! This satisfies some very basic human yearnings. But even if you don't take it literally, the heuristic value of the hypothetical strikes me as pretty significant. It really helps you (or, at least, me) appreciate the striking reality of other people, empathize with their concerns and aspirations, etc., in a way that can be difficult on the usual way of thinking which sets oneself apart from others.

The heuristic naturally leads to the sort of moral theory defended in my 'Consistency and Utilitarianism', which I find pretty plausible. It's not brute preference utilitarianism, because I really don't want my future fundamentalist other-self (say) to have his theocratic preferences satisfied. Far better if he/we could be given the opportunity to become more enlightened. (I expect he would want the same on ideal rational reflection, so an idealized preference utilitarianism might yield the same results.) Similarly for rehabilitating criminals and such. In general, the plutonium rule should remind us of how important it is to enable others to improve themselves and realize their full potential.

The rule may also help us to resolve puzzling questions about the total value of humanity as a whole. Consider the population paradox. We should not be pure aggregators, since we wouldn't think that living a zillion lives of barely-above-baseline welfare is all that wonderful. But nor should we accept a purely 'averaging' approach to value theory. If you could live another life, still very worthwhile but just below the average utility of your other lives, then that sounds like an opportunity worth accepting. (Doesn't it? If you disagree about this then you could be an averager, I suppose.) So, trade-offs and discretion are required. In general, we might evaluate a possible world by asking how you'd like to be the immanent 'God' of that world, living each of the lives contained therein. The best worlds are those that we'd most like to divinely experience (on ideal rational reflection). Sound plausible?


Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Extended Mind-Control

I went to a fascinating talk yesterday from Neil Levy, on the ethical implications of the extended mind thesis.

A large part of the talk was concerned with motivating the thesis itself, drawing on fascinating research in cognitive psychology (e.g. change-blindness) suggesting that our internal representations are far less complete than we typically realize. (It vaguely reminds me of the Dennettian ideas discussed here.) Instead of wasting mental effort creating detailed internal representations, we typically just let the world represent itself. If we need more detail, we can focus attention on the appropriate part of the world, accessing the external information much as we might access our internal memories or information stores. Levy also mentioned typical examples like using pen and paper to do arithmetic calculations, etc. This all adds up to an understanding of the brain as no mere thinking organ, but rather a tool or interface which enables us to think with the external world. (Levy didn't put it quite like that. But I rather like the idea.)

I suppose one might embrace the same insight in more conservative terms by speaking of "cognitive scaffolding", or the idea that our environment can amplify or augment our cognitive capacities. One might insist that, strictly speaking, all the real thinking goes on in the head, with the external parts merely "assisting" or "enabling" this process. But this may be a mere terminological quibble. In any case, I think the insight is more vividly captured by the idea that we actually offload cognitive work on to the external world, so that not all cognition occurs in the head.

Neil went on to point out how silly it is for people to get so much more upset about "internal" manipulations than "external" ones. He cited the example of moral panic over students using Ritalin to get a slight boost in grades, when the indirect effects from disparities in nutrition, socio-economic status, cultural capital, etc., are so much greater. Or people get worried about brain scans "reading their mind", when all the scans do is identify neural correlates of already observable behaviour (that would come out in, say, cognitive psychological tests). Or they worry about neuroscientists coming up with mind-control devices, and ignore the far more advanced research into manipulation conducted by marketers and social psychologists.

Now, as Dave Chalmers noted in discussion, the ethical parity claims don't really depend on the extended mind thesis. One might simply recognize that the brain/mind is subject to external causal influences, and then say we should be just as concerned about those as we are of direct neural manipulation, since they're simply two means to the same end. But again, so long as one agrees on the relative unimportance of the internal/external distinction, it isn't clear that much hinges on the question of how liberal one wants to be with the word "mind".

(I should add that since any kind of manipulation will eventually affect the brain, it isn't clear how the internal/external distinction is meant to apply here. It really seems to be a matter of direct vs. indirect meddling with the brain. I suppose one who accepts the extended mind thesis will hold that some of these apparently "indirect" manipulations are actually direct manipulations of one's extra-cranial mind. But again, this seems a merely semantic difference, and doesn't have any obvious ethical implications, besides reinforcing what we should have already accepted, i.e. the relative unimportance of the direct/indirect distinction.)

Much of the discussion focussed on the question of why people typically think the distinction has ethical significance. I suspect that many people simply fail to realise that the environment has a causal impact on the brain. (Recall the recent AP release claiming that brain studies "add weight to the idea that homosexuality has a physical basis and is not learned behavior" -- as if learned behaviour had a non-physical basis!) We don't normally think of conversation as a way to alter another person's brain, for instance.

Jeanette proposed that concerns about 'authenticity' might play an intuitively role here too. Taking drugs, whether for your muscles or your neurons, strikes many as "cheating". One should earn self-improvement through hard work and effort. How that makes drugs relevantly different from good nutrition, I'm not sure. Perhaps such judgments draw on preconceptions of what's "natural".

I wouldn't be surprised if concerns about "unnaturalness" played a large role in people's special fear of neuroscience. Perhaps we can even develop a coherent argument out of it. Here's one I proposed in question time: it seems like direct neural manipulation has more radical potential. People have long been manipulating each other indirectly (i.e. via behavioural or psychological means), and we've evolved various natural defences accordingly. But neurotechnology promises an entirely new form of manipulation, against which we have no defence. Because we are specially vulnerable to internal manipulations, then, we should be specially concerned about them. Even though the internal/external distinction has no intrinsic import, it may have instrumental significance.

In response, Neil pointed out that social psychology wasn't around back in the EEA either, so we might be just as vulnerable to the new manipulative strategies that it uncovers. (Apparently research shows that we really are quite vulnerable to "ego depletion" and other effects.) Still, it seems plausible that there is more potential for radical manipulation by direct than indirect means. Still, I think Neil could take this on board easily enough by simply pointing out the instrumental nature of our concern. In the end, it doesn't much matter whether a manipulation is directly 'internal' or 'external' to the brain. At best, this distinction might correlate with other differences that really matter. But then we might as well just focus directly on those.

One proposal here that came up in discussion was the idea of manipulations "bypassing our rational faculties". That could be one reason for direct neural manipulation being worse than, say, polemic arguments. But if we found some 'external' means of bypassing the rational faculties (perhaps used by advertisers), then we should consider such psychological manipulation on a par with the neural sort.

A final idea Levy proposed is that we should consider attacks on external cognitive facilities (e.g. closing libraries, or cuts to education funding) to be equivalent to imposing mental retardation. Restricting access to information is effectively - or on Levy's view, literally - to shrink their minds. Though again, we can capture the idea more conservatively by denying the significance of the negative/positive freedom distinction. (Doing/allowing might also need to go, e.g. if we want to say that neglecting to provide adequate education is equivalent to giving kids lobotomies.)

Lots of interesting issues raised there, anyway. I'm looking forward to Levy's forthcoming book on Neuroethics...