Sunday, August 31, 2008

Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged, part 1

There's a line from the movie The Mosquito Coast that goes something like, "Your father is the most dangerous sort: an opinionated man who's sometimes right." Ayn Rand fits this bill perfectly.

In this post, I want to talk about what I think is correct about Rand's moral philosophy, why she is "sometimes right."

Rand's fiction and philosophy constantly emphasizes the value of the individual. What is moral, according to Rand, is maximum self-actualization, whether it be artistic or professional. What is immoral, therefore, is sacrificing one's own self-actualization for the "good of society".

Rand is correct here, more correct than she probably cares to be, because it is physically impossible for people to pursue anything but self-actualization. Self-actualization is what brains and minds do: To say that a person should actualize himself is to say that a person should experience gravitational force. Furthermore there is no such actual thing as the "good of society"; there is only the good of individuals. The "good of society" is a statistical abstraction, an epiphenomenon of the good of a lot of interacting individuals.

To avoid vacuity, Rand qualifies self-actualization; not just any sort of self-actualization will do. In keeping with her admiration of Aristotle and the ancient Greeks, Rand's ideal person must have as his or her goal the achievement of arete, a concept that although notoriously hard to define still has tremendous resonance with our intuition. No other word will do; the superficial English translations of "goodness", "excellence" or "virtue" do not do justice to the original concept. Arete must be described by appeal to numerous examples, and Rand devotes a considerable portion of the million or so words in both Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead to providing examples of her notion of arete.

Her examples are appealing to a certain extent. Howard Roarke wants to create good buildings; Dagny Taggart wants to run a good railroad; Hank Rearden wants to produce good steel. We can easily empathize not only with the drive to arete, but with the specific expressions that drive takes in her main characters.

Rand further qualifies self-actualization in that the pursuit of one's self-actualization of arete should not improperly interfere with another's. It is debatable whether this non-interference is normative or analytic (i.e. any self-actualization that improperly interferes with another's is by definition not arete), but this distinction is relatively unimportant.

She makes this general principle more concrete by defining improper interference as the "initiation" of force. This proviso is plausible and uncontroversial under simple circumstances. If someone punches me in the nose — or tries to — he has clearly initiated force, and I'm entirely justified (according to our common moral intuitions) in using force to defend myself, and even exact revenge under the appropriate circumstances.

Rand presents a moral system that is at least superficially plausible and amenable to our ordinary moral intuition. If she did not do so, her work would have had no persuasive force. While somewhat simplistic, it's important to understand that she does not go wrong in her fundamental moral beliefs.

Where she goes wrong is in her analysis of how the world actually is. Thus the simplifications and ambiguities in her fundamentally sound moral beliefs find a perverse expression when coupled with an irrational analysis of reality.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Deutchland uber alles

PZ Myers is scaring the shit out of me.

The Democratic party has no monopoly on fascism.

And the news about Joel's Army is not particularly encouraging.

Carnival of the elitist bastards

Carnival of the Elitist Bastards, Act I, Scene iv

I'm enjoying this carnival more and more.

Carnival of the Godless #99

Carnival of the Godless #99

Pessimistic ramblings on reform

During the period 1929 - 1933, the United States economy — probably the closest economy to pure laissez-faire capitalism possible in ordinary reality — collapsed in the Great Depression, dragging down the economy of the rest of the world. The Great Depression was caused by overproduction, the existence of "too much" wealth and "too much" productive capability. How the economy and government should have responded is a matter of no small controversy, but the root cause of overproduction is not at issue.

Depressions were common in the 19th century: There were major depressions in 1893 and 1873 (sometimes combined into the Long Depression).

It's debatable whether the New Deal, the economic and social reforms implemented by Franklin D. Roosevelt, would have by themselves stabilized the economy. The production of war materials for World War II certainly alleviated overproduction, and the necessity of rebuilding half the Western World (China and the Soviet Union were left to their own devices) made overproduction irrelevant.

Still, the social and economic reforms implemented by Roosevelt were modest and reasonable. Social Security is the keystone of the New Deal, is simply the idea that no one at all, regardless of their wisdom or intelligence, should go hungry in their old age after a lifetime of work.

Other notable achievements of the New Deal that were preserved or extended (notably by Lyndon Johnson's Great Society) in the postwar economy were laws and regulations regarding workplace safety (OSHA), product safety, fairness in employment (EEOC), and environmental protection (EPA).

No person with an ordinary moral sense should oppose these measures in principle. There is room for great disagreement in how these principles should be implemented, but no one should oppose in principle the idea that no one deserves to starve in his old age. No one should oppose in principle the idea that every child should receive sufficient education to participate fully in a democratic society. No one should oppose in principle the idea that everyone should expect a safe workplace as a matter of course. No one should oppose in principle that everyone should expect that the products they buy, the air they breathe and the water they drink have been made safe to the best of our ability.

Likewise, because it is simply true — a fact about the world — Thucydides observation that "right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power," no one should oppose in principle that those who labor in any enterprise should have sufficient power to negotiate at the very least as equals the terms and conditions of their employment with the owners of that enterprise.

That these ideas are "socialist" is contentious. Socialist Norman Thomas wryly noted that, "Roosevelt did not carry out the Socialist platform, unless he carried it out on a stretcher." But it is worth observing that, after more than a century, laissez-faire capitalism did not appear even close to implementing any of Roosevelt's reforms.

I have seen in my lifetime a visceral hostility to even these modest and patently moral reforms, and a concerted effort to destroy them, using the worst kind of lying propaganda attributed to (projected on?) the worst demonization of communism. The goal of removing "government interference" in business has been directly about destroying these reforms. If the most fundamental security of simply not starving in old age does not come about because of laissez-faire capitalism, then it is not worth having and must be destroyed.

We must lay the credit or blame for this multi-generational effort at the feet of Ayn Rand and the 1957 publication of Atlas Shrugged. (I'll write more on Atlas Shrugged later.) Although her direct disciples are few, the themes of this book — absent, of course, the iron moral discipline of Rand's ideal capitalists — run through the conservative movement even to this day. More importantly, the popularity of her work in the general public have laid the groundwork for the conservatives' continued success.

Thomas Frank documents this generational effort in his recent book The Wrecking Crew. It is very important to understand that the Bush administration is not a fluke, it is not an aberration, it is the culmination of a decades-long conservative agenda.

It is also important to understand that the Democratic party is part of this agenda, whether by design or simple stupidity and cowardice. They are the Colmes to the Republican's Hannity: A dummy propped-up to preserve the illusion of an adversarial process; a foil to be "convinced" by the conservatives' "superior" arguments.

Conservatives have been bent for five decades on destroying the most modest reforms of Roosevelt and Johnson. They are winning, and they will continue to win until these reforms have been utterly destroyed. If they are correct, we will see an age of unequaled prosperity; but if they are incorrect, we will see an age of suffering that will rival the Dark Ages in its tyranny and oppression.

And they are indeed incorrect. Were they correct, the conservatives would not take as their source narrative Rand's ludicrously implausible and internally contradictory dystopia. Were they correct, they would not take as the center of their narrative the impossible concept of the truly free market, nor would they redefine "freedom" as "freedom for themselves" and no others. Were they correct, they would not have made a devil's bargain with religious authoritarians. Were they correct, they would not scapegoat the powerless — racial minorities, undocumented immigrants, homosexuals and atheists — and blatantly and explicitly support the enslavement and oppression of women, half the human race. Were they correct, they would permit, nay demand, that their supposedly "free" market had every possible resource available to it, and not exclude 90% of the human race from full participation.

They are not correct. They are opposed not only to the moderate and morally obvious reforms of Roosevelt and Johnson, but also to the notion of the consumer economy itself: Not just Wal-Mart but even high-end retailers are feeling the effects of the decreasing wealth of not just ordinary working Americans but also the managerial-professional class.

And the consumer economy is the last, best effort of capitalism to save itself from "collectivism". Buy off the middle and lower classes with not just trinkets but full grocery stores, and they will not object to the obscene consumption of the ultra-rich. The problem is that a full belly and a big screen TV convinces the working person that he has a right to those things. (Everyone constructs a moral narrative that justifies as his deserts what he has, and, for the ambitious, what he wants.)

The welfare class supports the working class. The working class supports the managerial-professional class, who supports the "petite bourgeoisie", the small-business owners. Destroy the bottom and you destroy the foundation of economic society, and everything collapses to the bottom, leaving only the ultra-wealthy (and only a fraction of them) as the sole arbiters of value. We will, inevitably, be reduced to a third-world economy: A handful of ultra-wealthy, those who serve them directly, and slaves worked to death to feed this handful and their minions.

This outcome is (barring only some worse disaster) inevitable. Five decades of concerted effort, with only token opposition, have gained an inexorable momentum. Worse yet, technology has given us (unlike Hitler) the means to implement a final solution. When all save a few hundred million have no value whatsoever to the handful of ultra-wealthy — who will become the sole arbiters of value — it will be only a failure of will that will prevent the extermination of the billions of the superfluous.

Barack Obama — even if he were elected — will not save us. Obama will simply clean up the most egregious inefficiencies of the Bush Administration, putting the wars in the Middle East on a more efficient footing. Obama will not implement any of the progressive reforms he mentions in his acceptance speech; he will make at best some token effort which will be quickly sacrificed to Republican opposition, in the interests again of cleaning up the more egregious problems he's inherited from Bush. And just as only Nixon could go to China and only Clinton could abolish welfare, only Obama can abolish legal abortion (he will do so, so he will say, in order to "save" contraception).

Mostly, though, Obama will act as the usual Democratic foil to the conservative agenda, to be "convinced" of the necessity for demolishing what is left of the New Deal and Great Society reforms. "If a liberal, progressive guy like Obama is convinced," so the narrative will go, "these reforms really must be fundamentally unsound."

What happens after our economy collapses, our environment is destroyed, and billions of people have died is anybody's guess. But that such a global catastrophe is inevitable seems almost certain.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Quotation of the day

What did "intellect" ever do for us? For Denyse [O'Leary], it seems, not so much.

Being and nothingness

Philosophy in ordinary life.

Jean Paul Sarte walks into a coffee shop.

"I'd like a regular coffee, no cream."

"I'm sorry, sir," replies the clerk, "We're out of cream. Would you like that without milk?"

Even more reasons

One more reason to not vote for Obama: Joe Biden's pro-RIAA, pro-FBI tech voting record:
By choosing Joe Biden as their vice presidential candidate, the Democrats have selected a politician with a mixed record on technology who has spent most of his Senate career allied with the FBI and copyright holders, who ranks toward the bottom of CNET's Technology Voters' Guide, and whose anti-privacy legislation was actually responsible for the creation of PGP.

And, of course, with all he vaunted experience, Biden voted for the war in Iraq. Uh yeah, and nobody would notice if James Randi fell for a 419 scam.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

I'm so surprised

Obama chooses conservative middle-aged white guy as for Vice President.

Wow. I didn't see that coming.

Communism and free markets

I have previously asserted that a truly free market produces an outcome that resembles communism. This conclusion follows from an investigation into how free markets behave, but the connection between free markets and communism can be made more explicit.

A truly free market is a market free of all human coercion, active and passive. Active coercion refers to "gun to the head" coercion: the threat to actually cause suffering or physical harm to another. Passive coercion refers to the "let them starve" coercion, the threat to allow suffering physical harm to come to another.

Passive coercion is still coercion. Every ordinary human being will naturally act to avoid or ameliorate her own suffering or physical harm. To make passive coercion effective, the natural tendency to for a person to ameliorate her own suffering must be actively thwarted by the threat of active coercion. For the passive threat "work [for me] or starve" to be effective, I must also employ active coercion: "try to feed yourself, and I will shoot you."

While it is in some sense physically possible to have a truly free market in reality, such an arrangement is at best only meta-stable and requires continuous teleological adjustment. In 21st century terrestrial society, we must view a truly free market as a purely theoretical construct. Still, even as a theoretical construct, the notion has some value, precisely because of the independent value ordinary people place on freedom in general.

A truly free market is efficient, but efficiency is an equivocal term. Efficiency is some output value divided by some input value, but we must specify less ambiguously what output and input values apply to construct a coherent notion of the efficiency of any process. A bus, for example, is less efficient than an automobile in terms of vehicle miles per gallon of fuel, but it is more efficient in terms of passenger miles per gallon. On the other hand, a bus is less efficient in terms of passenger time per miles traveled.

Efficiency can also have a positive or negative sense, i.e. the "best" system might either be the maximal or minimal value of some ratio. For example, we can talk about about the efficiency of an engine in terms of heat produced divided by fuel consumed: An engine is more efficient to the extent that it minimizes this ratio. Any positive or negative construction of efficiency can, in theory, be transformed into an equation of the opposite sense; in practice, however, it is often the case that one sense is much easier to measure than another. A more heat-efficient engine (negative efficiency) will translate into a more mileage-efficient engine (positive efficiency), but an engineer can easily directly measure the heat-efficiency of an engine without having it travel any miles at all.

It is often supposed that a truly free market is efficient in terms of value produced per cost of production. But this sense of efficiency is not supported, precisely because it is too difficult to measure the actual value (the use value in Marxist terms) of what is produced.

A free market is efficient at setting the exchange value (price) of a commodity to its opportunity-adjusted cost. A free market does not reward the production of commodities of higher use value, regardless of how well we are able to define use value. A free market rewards the identification and exploitation of bottlenecks, i.e. imbalances in supply and demand. But the very nature of the truly free market embodies a negative feedback process: the narrower the bottleneck (the greater the discrepancy between supply and demand), the more that bottleneck attracts additional labor, thus raising the opportunity-adjusted cost of the commodity, until the price and the cost are again in equilibrium.

In a truly free market, then, any excess value (the difference between the use value and the exchange value) accrues to the consumer of a commodity; the consumer is responsible only for replacing the opportunity-adjusted cost of the commodity.

We can correlate this outcome precisely to the canonical (if poorly stated) slogan of communism.

From each according to his ability. Each person is responsible for replacing by productive activities the opportunity-adjusted cost of the commodities she consumes. To each according to his need. Each person receives the full (subjectively-defined) excess value of the commodities she consumes.

Therefore a truly free market is inherently communist.

Friday, August 22, 2008

I'm not praying

I'm not praying:
Unlike Julie Burchill, after centuries of female oppression in the name of religion, I know God won't deliver women's rights

[h/t to Butterflies and Wheels]

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Religion and the Democratic party

Here's yet another reason I do not expect to vote for any Democratic candidate in November:
The Democratic National Convention will open next week with an interfaith gathering. Representatives from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other faiths will be there.

No atheists, though.

We weren’t invited.
It's not just that atheists were excluded from this function. That the Democratic party is having an official religious gathering of any kind is itself objectionable. Democrats hold and seek public office in the government; religion simply shouldn’t enter into their official activities.

I'll say it yet again: When you have to invoke God in setting your social and political agenda, you have surrendered your claim to a rational justification for that agenda: if you already have a rational, reasonable, sensible justification, why invoke God?

Alternatively, you're saying that people cannot be persuaded by a rational justification... or at least you lack confidence that people can be so persuaded. But if you support irrational persuasion for a rational idea, what are you going to do tomorrow when someone invokes this same irrational justification for an irrational, nonsensical idea?

We already have a party — the Republican party — of insanity, irrationality, oppression, and imperialism. When the shit finally hits the fan (and any sensible observer can see that economic and political catastrophe is rushing upon us) the Democratic party will have nothing to say. They didn't even sacrifice sensibility in the service of expediency. Trying to be more like the Republican party is a moronic strategy, because Republicans will vote for the Republican party, not the kind-of-like-the-Republican party.

Were it not for Hanlon's razor, I would suspect a conspiracy: the Democratic party is in league with the Republican party to give the appearance of democratic opposition while taking every available step to fail to actually function as such.

But the upshot is the same: I'll no more vote for egregious stupidity than I will for malice.

[cross-posted to We Op-Ed. If you're so moved, please comment there; I'm trying to drive some traffic their way.]

My shared items

I highlight the most interesting articles that I read each day and share them via my Google reader. You can see my shared items here and (I think) subscribe to them in a reader.

Let me know how this feature works out.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


Airline captain, lawyer, child on terror 'watch list'.

At the risk of helping the terrorists, I can't help but imagine that if they chose as aliases the names of prominent Republicans (especially mid-level staffers who fly often), they would never be stopped at the airport.

I've never seen a Republican sacrifice his or her personal convenience for the sake of security.

[h/t to Kilgore Trout]


db0 asks: Why aren't you self-hosting your blog?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Quotation of the day

Why continue? Because we must. Because we have the call. Because it is nobler to fight for rationality without winning than to give up in the face of continued defeats. Because whatever true progress humanity makes is through the rationality of the occasional individual and because any one individual we may win for the cause may do more for humanity than a hundred thousand who hug their superstitions to their breast.
- Isaac Asimov

[h/t to Ricky]

Quotation of the day

The very fact that we agree that there are moral limits that trump any claim of religious freedom—we wouldn't accept a religion that engaged in human sacrifice or slavery, for instance—shows that we do not cede to religion, to any religion, the final authority on moral injunctions.

-- Daniel Dennett

[h/t to Larry Moran]

Monday, August 18, 2008

Quotation of the day

[family planning ] is a generally good thing unless you you've been infected with a fanatical hatred of contraception and abortion by a nominally celibate man in a dress.

-- PZ Myers, August 2008

The Atheist Blogroll

Fuck you, Technorati. Here's the atheist blogroll:

[Update: I'm persuaded by the arguments against posting the atheist blogroll. I really don't give a shit what Google and Technorati have to say about my blog or any other blog. Posting the blogroll is a reaction to their policies, and I don't want to react to their policies.

I have a sufficient number of readers that I consider my Google page rank and Technorati rating to be entirely irrelevant. I like to see who's linking to me, so I can link back, but I can discover the most relevant of that information by looking at my referrals from StatCounter.

I'm not on the Atheist Blogroll to improve my Technorati ranking or Google page rank. I'm on it because I'm an atheist, and the size of the blogroll shows our numbers. Likewise, I'm on the Out of Iraq Bloggers Caucus because I oppose the war in Iraq.

If Google and Technorati want to ignore these facts, then that's their problem, not mine.]

Pragmatism and principle

Time and again in ethics and politics, (and even epistemology and metaphysics) we ask whether statements should be justified by pragmatism or by principle. While people do in fact have principled ethical beliefs, we can see that ethical and political principles rest on a pragmatic foundation as a result of imperfect knowledge, the function of ethics in terms of social cooperation and the requirements of consistency.

Pragmatism, also known as instrumentalism or consequentialism, is the idea that some statement or system should be judged in some manner according to its results or consequences. Pragmatism stands in contrast to principle, (a.k.a. essentialism or idealism) the idea that a statement or system should be judged in some manner according to its intrinsic or inherent properties, without regard to its results or consequences.

Care should be taken not to confuse this sense of pragmatism with the narrower notion of expediency, the idea that some statement or system should be judged on its immediate or superficial effects.  Although pragmatism is used in informal speech in the sense of "expediency", the latter term is restricted to the more narrow sense, and pragmatism is best reserved for the broader sense.

In ethics especially we see the tension between pragmatism and principle: Is some action inherently bad? Or is it bad because it produces bad effects? The question becomes complicated because it is manifestly true that people do have ethical principles: they condemn some actions without regard to their consequences.

Empirical investigation into the trolley problem adequately demonstrates the human adherence to principle. There are two cases of the trolley problem:

A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are 5 people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you can flip a switch which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch?

As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you - your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

Studies have shown that, although the consequences are identical, people who would "flip the switch" would not "push the fat man" in front of the trolley. The obvious interpretation is that people have a principled objection to the latter case that they do not have to the former case. On the other hand, the former case clearly shows a pragmatic evaluation: people typically flip the switch not because flipping a switch is inherently good but because flipping the switch leads to better consequences.

What are we to make of this apparent contradiction? Some philosophers argue* that the trolley problem shows that people are inherently irrational about ethics. I think this view is misguided. After talking about religion for the better part of a decade, I'm well aware that people do have irrational beliefs. But one must make some effort to find the underlying rationality for a position before declaring that position irrational.

*"Some people say..." should be a red flag. See this comment.

One problem with pragmatism in the broadest sense is that all actions and states of affairs are related; it is impossible to discover all the effects and consequences of any action, however well- or ill-intentioned. We have imperfect knowledge of the consequences of individual actions. But just because we have imperfect knowledge doesn't mean we have no knowledge at all. Even if our best isn't perfect, we can still do our best, indeed we all feel that we ought to do our best to predict the consequences of our actions.

One artificial condition of both trolley problem cases is that the subject is assumed to to have perfect knowledge of the consequences of his action. He knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that flipping the switch or pushing the fat man onto the tracks will definitely save five at the cost of one.

In reality, we don't know with absolute certainty that flipping the switch will indeed change the course of the trolley. But if flipping the switch doesn't work, there is no harm done: the effects would be the same as not doing anything. Likewise, we don't know that pushing the fat man onto the tracks will really stop the trolley. However, if it is ineffective, then six will die instead of five.  There's no risk to just flipping a switch, but there is a risk to pushing the fat man onto the tracks.

The trolley problem by its structure  ignores the justification of principle by imperfect knowledge. It is misleading to probe our ethical beliefs that are formed in response to imperfect knowledge with thought experiments that assume perfect knowledge. Our ethical beliefs are typically not explicitly reasoned out step by step by each individual. They are the immediate result of childhood indoctrination and socialization and the result in a larger sense of tens of thousands of years of social evolution and hundreds of millions of years of biological evolution.

Another flaw in the trolley problem is that it considers only the expedient results of the various actions, the consequences isolated from larger social considerations.

But our ethical beliefs are formed in the context of a cooperative society, they are strategies for getting along with each other. A critical feature of ethical strategies is that people must know what actions will earn the approval or disapproval of their neighbors. But however well we define the "best" result, we cannot judge any action on just its result; because of imperfect knowledge, we cannot always know the effects of our actions.

Another important component of ethics in terms of social cooperation is consistency. We want to approve or disapprove of actions with a high degree of consistency, regardless of the expedient consequences of an individual action. We consistently disapprove of driving drunk even if the driver manages to avoid any accidents, because we know in a larger pragmatic sense that driving drunk creates an unacceptable risk of accident.

Combining the notion of imperfect knowledge, consistency, and ethics as a strategy for social interaction gives us a good rational account of not only the existence of ethical principles (i.e. ethical beliefs applied directly to actions rather than their consequences), but their not-perfectly-consistent application.

An ethical principle in this account is a generalization of the larger pragmatic consequences of specific kinds of action. If some action will typically or usually produce bad results, we disapprove of the action even if in some unusual specific circumstances it might have a good result.

In the trolley problem we know (or at least think we know) that in general it is bad to place someone at risk who is not already at risk. In the first instance, all six people tied to the tracks by the mad philosopher are at risk, so the principle of not putting people at risk in not operative. In the second case, only five people are at risk; pushing the fat man onto the tracks places someone at risk who is not already at risk. Even though it is (or appears to be) expediently justified in the specific case, it is not generally justified. (Keep in mind too that the action is expediently justified only by unrealistically assuming perfect knowledge about the effects of fat men on trains.) We really don't want other people putting us at risk just because they believe, however sincerely, that harming us would save many others. That's a decision I demand I reserve for myself.

An important argument for this view of ethical principle is the observation that one can come up with scenarios that undermine the absolute universality of any principle.

I consider lying to be wrong on principle, but there are cases (e.g. the canonical lying to the Nazis about hiding Jews) where I would lie with a perfectly clean conscience. If telling the truth were an absolute ethical principle then, as Kant notes, it ought to be wrong to lie in any circumstances, regardless of the outcome.

(An alternative would be to show that some principle always had a good outcome, regardless of the particular circumstances. However, because the principle is still being justified by the outcome, i.e. it is still be justified pragmatically, the operative distinction between principle and pragmatism is erased.)

Finding an exception, however unusual, to a principle shows that the principle is a generalization, not a universal. There's nothing wrong with generalizations when properly used, but just the fact that there are exceptions to every ethical principle shows that there must be some other foundation for justifying ethical principles than the inherent or intrinsic nature of the action.

Thus we can conclude that ethical principles are justified by generalizations of their larger pragmatic consequences, and that the employment of principles is itself a pragmatic response to our imperfect knowledge and need for consistency in their employment for social cooperation.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Quotation of the day

How long before married people answer the dictators thus: Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down, so it can be replaced with a government that will respect and support marriage, and help me raise my children in a society where they will expect to marry in their turn.

Orson Scott Card, July 24, 2008

[h/t to (I kid you not) and LAist]

Carnival of the Godless #98

Although I'm no longer submitting posts, I'm still promoting it: the 98th Carnival of the Godless is up at Letters from a broad...

Friday, August 15, 2008

Quotation of the day

Generations have been indoctrinated by the secular education system and media to build their thinking on human reason, not the Word of God. And at the base of this is the creation/evolution issue. [emphasis original]

Evolutionary indoctrination has produced generations (even in the church) who doubt the Bible.
-- Ken Ham (Answers in Genesis, January 16, 2007)

I'm not sure, but I think Ken is coming out against reason here.

(h/t to irReligion)

Government interference

In his (her?) comment on Market forces, lakercat9 says
You seem to be equivocating the definition of "free market". While I'm sure a few people, incorrectly, use the term to mean a market free of coercion the most accepted definition is a market free of governmental interference.
This statement is fallacious in three ways. First, since I explicitly define "free market" as a market free of (all) coercion, and since I'm using the term exclusively in that sense, whatever else I'm doing, I'm not equivocating.

Second, "free" is an ordinary English word with a well-defined meaning — without coercion — in this context, and I'm using the word in its ordinary meaning. By suggesting the ordinary meaning of the word while actually employing a restricted meaning, it is apologists for capitalism, not me, who must be scrutinized for equivocation.

Third, the idea that a capitalist "free" market is actually free of government intervention is a blatant lie. Even in the capitalist context, markets are not free of government interference. If I fail to pay my rent, I will very quickly see the pointy end of government interference when the sheriff — armed with a pistol and the permission to use it — comes to evict me. It doesn't matter whether or not this interference is warranted, I merely point out that it exists. Saying that something is absent when it is manifestly present is simply a lie.

Demonstrate too hard against the government, and again we will see some government interference. If some country or democratically elected leader does not toe the US line, they will see some government interference. All heartily cheered on by our capitalist rulers. I could go on for pages listing how governments interfere coercively in economic and political activity to maintain capitalism. Some of this interference might even be rationally warranted, but let me say again: Saying that something is absent when it is manifestly present is simply a lie.

The ideas that markets should be actually free is an anarchist notion (and probably unrealistic). Capitalism is the idea that the government should interfere with free markets on behalf of the owners of capital.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Market forces

Abell Smith gives us a good laugh about the capitalist commitment to market forces.

This is one of my huge pet peeves. Even liberals, progressives, socialists and communists criticize capitalism for its reliance on market forces. But capitalism is not about free markets. By definition, capitalism is about privileging the owners of capital to restrict markets, to make markets not free.

The fundamental concept of capitalism is not "whatever happens in a free market is good by definition." It can't be, because a free market is a market where large-scale socially constructed coercion doesn't exist. But coercion does exist, and it can't be arbitrarily hand-waved away except as a purely theoretical concept.

The fundamental idea of capitalism is rather clever (and an improvement, I think, on previous political systems, especially feudalism): power, i.e. the privilege of restricting markets, should itself be allocated using market forces. However, it suffers from the flaw that those allotted power have the power to restrict the markets that allocate power. They will inevitably allocate power to those of their own social class, i.e. people like them, in typically superficial ways.

All political systems relevant to present-day reality will be coercive in some sense. Coercion itself is not bad: the only way to believably bind myself to a promise is to make that promise in a social context that will coerce me to keep it. Otherwise, I have the temptation to betray that promise later for my own individual benefit.

It may be possible to create conditions where it would be psychologically impossible to break a promise, even without coercion, but that day is far in the future. The next step is not to abolish coercion, but to ensure that coercion is employed to humanistically to enforce a higher-level rationality in our social constructions, i.e. that coercion is employed for the benefit of human beings, not to reify and privilege some abstract ideal.

[lakercat9 notes correctly in comments that the following is an overstatement in the original. I've amended it to be more precise.]

Capitalism The free-market argument for capitalism — the argument that capitalism is good because it employs free markets — is essentially idealist, in the philosophical sense. Capitalism calls an idea — the idea of the "free" market — the highest good, independently of the benefit of human beings. If someone suffers because of the "free" market, well, their suffering is all part of the greater good, because the "free" market is the greatest good, by definition.

Not only is capitalism the free-market argument idealist instead of humanist, it's also bullshit, because there is no such thing as a free market. Even if it were the case that the free market was the highest good, we cannot relate that ideal directly to human institutions.

Capitalism The free-market argument is not just bullshit, it's doubly bullshit. The best we could do is relate the outcome of human institutions and social constructions to what we would expect if a truly free market were operative. But if you do the math, you quickly see that a truly free market — a market where coercion is completely absent — resembles communism much more closely than it resembles capitalism.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Liability and fault

DagoodS has more to say about the civil justice system, in response to More on peppers.
Our civil justice system is not always about determining fault.
To clarify (and be persnickety), the entire American Justice system incorporates different forums; some are extremely concerned with fault, others may only slightly touch on fault. For example, the criminal justice system is firstly and primarily focused on fault: Did the accused commit the crime? After fault is determined, however, the system then focuses on punishment on the crime, regardless of the extent of fault.

In a divorce, however—fault may never come up. The systems concentrates on allocation of assets & liabilities, as well as assigning custody, parenting time, support, pension rights, etc. In a Worker's compensation action, the concept of "fault" by the employer doesn't exist—the question being whether the person was injured at work, and the extent of their injuries. In a Social security claim, the question is whether the person is disabled. Again, no fault.

In a civil suit for damages, however, determining fault is always an issue. It is the liability leg of the three-legged stool. In the perfect model of what was intended, if the defendant is determined not at fault, then the defendant must never have to pay. Whether it is you, Wal-Mart, whoever.

Obviously we do not have a perfect model—it is in tension with economics. Take the situation of a person falling at your house. Insurance companies are well-aware there is a certain likelihood that person will initiate a suit. (People range along a spectrum from suing at the drop of a hat to people who would never sue.) They are also aware the vast majority of injuries from a slip-and-fall are minor: a cut requiring stitches or a sprained ankle. Therefore, many insurance polices include a provision that the first $1,000 of medical bills will by paid by the insurance.

Certainly the motivating factor is litigation, but this is primarily an economic decision on the part of the insurance company. They understand by the time we weed out those who won't sue, and those who receive $1000 worth of medical treatment, the cost of such payment is far less than refusing to pay anything. Simply an economic decision motivated by our system of litigation.

People are unaware the pervasive and prevailing effect insurance has on litigation. Let me give you two examples, both from Michigan. (And I should note, I am only licensed in Michigan. Each state is different regarding their laws, and you should NEVER assume my advice is applicable to your state. Unless you are in Michigan. *grin*)

The insurance companies lobbied for a law that says your own automobile insurance MUST pay for all medical bills arising out of an automobile accident regardless of fault. Even if you are stupid enough to smash yourself into a tree, and receive a significant head injury requiring years of rehabilitation—the insurance company would have to pay for it.

Why would they agree to such a thing? Because the law also states the insurance company does not have to pay for pain-and-suffering unless your injuries reach a certain level. Simply put, the cost/benefit of agreeing to pay for medical bills instead of pain-and-suffering was so high, the insurance company desired it.

In Michigan, if you are in a car accident—not your fault—and receive a broken arm; you will get your medical bills paid and lost wages and that is it. No "pain and suffering." No million dollar verdict.

Now that the insurance companies have that in place, they are attempting to convince John Q. Public that the costs of paying medical bills for life is driving up automobile insurance, and they are lobbying to reduce that! Clever, really.

The second example is medical malpractice. The insurance companies said they have to charge doctors so much, because of these huge verdicts. Doctors stopped practicing because of insurance costs. What to do? Again, convince John Q. Public that what we need, to protect our doctors, was a "cap" or "limit" on these huge verdicts. Makes sense, right? Insurance rates could go down, doctors can afford to practice, and life returns back to normal. The law passed.

(You could almost HEAR the citizens say, "Take that, you McDonald's-coffee-spillers wanna be. No high verdict in Michigan for ya!")

But think about it. Now, if some doctor or hospital does something terribly wrong, and you are horribly injured for life—you are the person who suffers from this law! Not too long ago there was a mutli-million dollar verdict in favor of the plaintiff. Reduced to $350,000 because of the cap. The ONE person we would want to protect (those hurt the worse) is the ONE person who can no longer recover!

What the insurance company failed to tell the public was that it was the $100,000 cases, the $75,000 cases, all adding up, which continue on. But instead of ever being hit for a big number, the company can hold up the cap as a shield, and not have to pay. Amazing.

Finally, you accurately state that if the cost of defending a case exceeds the amount of damages, it is economically sound to pay the damages. On a single case basis, this is correct, but due to the number of cases defended by an insurance company, or large companies—this does not always work out.

Imagine I was going to sue you, The Barefoot Bum, for making slanderous statements about me on your blog. I wanted $100 for my crushed feelings. You figure out it will cost you $1,000 to defend the matter. Removing principle from the equation—on a solely economic basis you would be wiser to pay me off. Stupid to pay $1,000 to save $100.

Yet there is also the concern (again ignoring principle) that if you pay me $100, all those other bloggers you have written viciously about, will come forward and sue as well. Now you may have 10, or 20 or 100 people all clamoring to come to court. At this point, even on an economic scale, you might consider defending my case and spending the $1000 as a deterrent and precedent to those other possible 10, 20 or 100 potential cases.

If people hear, "DagoodS lost his slander suit against The Barefoot Bum" they will be less inclined to initiate their own.

Using our Wal-Mart situation, regardless of how much Mr. Grubb is requesting, the store may choose to defend it more out of concerns of all the other potential Mr. Grubb's out there. Again, economics has a large impact within our legal system. Ideally, it should be case-by-case basis. Realistically, it is not.

The best example are the cigarette cases. Why the cigarette companies defended them so vigorously. Not because of the one case of one person with lung cancer, in which a settlement may have been feasible. Rather because of all those potential smokers out there, who if one person hit, then there would be another and another and another…

To be honest, it should shock my conscience that Wal-Mart should have to pay for something it did not do wrong. It is not how our system is supposed to work. However, I am equally aware that the Wal-Marts and General Motors and Insurance companies have no conscience. They are lobbying and litigating as hard as they can—not for concern over the consumer—but for their bottom line. They have no intention of "doing the right thing." Wal-Mart is not stepping forward and saying "You know what? In Mr. Grubb's case we didn't do anything wrong. However in Mr. Smith's case we did, and we paid appropriately. In Mrs. Jones' case we are wrong and will pay appropriately."

Nope, they fight them all. McDonald's (as you know) had claim after claim after claim in which a person was burned with hot coffee. When Ms. Liebeck wanted to settle for $20,000 did McDonalds develop a conscience and pay up? Nope—it fought it.

After seeing too many cases to count in such a nature, my conscience has become pretty numb to the Wal-Mart's of the world paying for something they didn't do wrong. They haven't paid on so many in which they DID do something wrong, it is hard to generate up sympathy any more.

DagoodS is a practicing lawyer and the proprietor of the most excellent blog, Thoughts from a Sandwich, and in grave danger of becoming a regular contributor to The Barefoot Bum.

Fuck this, I'll publish it

According to Barry Duke, Random House has refused to publish Sherry Jones’ novel, The Jewel of Medina, "a racy piece of historic fiction centred on the love life of Prophet Mohammed."

Stupid stupid stupid. If the book itself is any good, whoever publishes it will not only strike a blow for freedom but also make a shitload of money.

So I'll publish it. I might need some help, though. Contact me if you're interested in helping.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

More on peppers

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Brian Grubbs did indeed suffer no injury worse than a case of diarrhea, and that Wal-Mart had no legal liability regardless of Mr. Grubb's injuries; they did everything they could and were legally obligated to do to to ensure the safety of their food. As Dagood might say, two of the legs of the stool are made of the thinnest straw.

We will further assume that although weak, the lawsuit is not frivolous, that is having no basis at all in fact and/or law, a case that would be impossible to win.

(I have no idea whether this is actually the case, and I don't wish to libel Mr. Grubbs; I'm discussing a pure hypothetical. It is definitely the case that some people do sue with a case that almost certainly would lose in trial, and that companies do settle such cases.)

It is entirely possible that even assuming the above, Wal-Mart might settle. They have to balance the cost of bringing the suit to trial and successfully defending their position against the cost of just paying Grubbs to go away. Should we be worried?

There are two ways of looking at such a hypothetical case: the pragmatic and the principled.

From a pragmatic standpoint, we cannot draw any conclusions from such a hypothetical case except that the civil justice system is not perfectly efficient, which is hardly a surprising conclusion. At best, such a hypothetical case would constitute only anecdotal evidence. Anecdotal evidence is not entirely worthless (it proves, at least, that some state of affairs is possible), but it has limited value.

We would have to ask larger, statistical questions: How much money in total is spent settling weak, probably-unwinnable lawsuits? How does that amount of money compare to the total economy? How does it compare to the total spent settling strong lawsuits? If a company has an incentive to settle lawsuits they'll probably win, they have even more incentive to settle lawsuits they'll probably lose.

And we know there's an upper limit on settlements for weak lawsuits: The cost of defending the case. No company is going to settle a weak lawsuit for more than it would cost to defend. They will usually settle for considerably less; if it's six of one, half dozen of the other, you might as well defend. And lawyers are expensive, but they're not that expensive.

Without such numbers, I simply have no way of deciding whether or not settling weak lawsuits is a problem in a practical sense. Given the size of our economy, even the size of the civil lawsuit portion of the economy, I can read anecdotal cases for a month without getting a sense of the overall numbers.

I rarely see any numbers at all from advocates of tort reform, and when I do see numbers, they're usually context-free: "$100,000,000 in settlements!" [I made the number up] How much of that $100,000,000 can be provably linked to settlements of weak cases? Furthermore, we have a $13 trillion economy; you have to get into the hundreds of billions of dollars to go over 1%. The Waltons have tens of billions of dollars: They could find a measly $100,000,000 from the change in their couch.

As a matter of principle, we can know with great confidence that the outcomes of some cases do indeed conflict with our ordinary, intuitive notions of justice in a way that we can say meaningfully, "Such-and-such a case was indeed in some sense unjust." But so what? Frankly, my conscience is not particularly shocked if Wal-Mart were to cough up $100,000 they wouldn't otherwise have to pay.

Furthermore, let us assume that Grubbs did indeed suffer serious injury (food poisoning is potentially fatal, and often requires a multi-day hospital stay), but Wal-Mart is not in fact at fault, they did nothing wrong, and we know somehow they are not at fault.

There are 40,000,000 people in this country, most of them working, who do not have health insurance. (Actually, if you're not working, it's pretty easy to get health insurance. Furthermore, if Grubbs does have health insurance, his insurance company is likely to demand that he sue Wal-Mart as a condition of payment.)

Which shocks your conscience more: that Wal-Mart should pay for Grubbs' hospitalization even though they are not at fault or that Grubbs should be bankrupted for no fault of his own?

Our civil justice system is not always about determining fault. If someone slips and falls in my house and breaks her leg, I am legally obligated to pay for her treatment, even if I am not in any way at fault... and I don't even own my house. We tend to infer fault from financial responsibility, but that inference is not warranted by the laws we actually have. Someone has to pay, and I carry insurance for just that eventuality.

The way our system actually works is that if you get sick from something you ate at Wal-Mart, it is legitimate to hold Wal-Mart financially responsible even if we know they are not at fault.

This is perhaps not the best way to run an economy, but until we have universal health insurance, we have to balance what appears to be a tolerable financial impact on corporations and insurance companies (they seem to be posting quite good profits, thank you very much) against the suffering of real human beings.

If you think the profit margins of corporations and insurance companies is more important than medical care for real people, well, you're no friend of mine.

On tainted peppers

DagoodS emails me regarding tainted peppers. In his own words:

The analogy I most often use, when explaining a personal injury lawsuit to a potential new client, is that of a three-legged stool. The stool is only as strong as the weakest leg. If one leg is made of a one-inch steel rod, another made of 3-inch wood, and the third is made of a hollow plastic straw—the stool is only as good as that straw. It will collapse if weight in excess of the strength of the straw is placed upon it. No matter how strong the steel or wood is.

The three legs are: liability (what the defendant did wrong), damages (how the plaintiff was hurt) and collectability (can we obtain money?) Without all three, there is no lawsuit. Or, our suit is only as strong as the weakest element in these three. Since all three were touched upon in this blog and the comments, I thought I would expound upon it:

Liability The first question presented would be this: What did Wal-Mart do wrong? As The Barefoot Bum correctly states – how do we know whether Wal-Mart is or is not "cavalier" about food-products? What is the policy (if any) regarding removal of possibly tainted food?

This usually hinges on timing. How soon after the possible harm is discovered is a remedy implemented? For example, if the USDA discovered the possible salmonella on peppers at 5:06 a.m., and Mr. Grubbs bought the peppers at 5:08 a.m.—most jurors would agree this was far too short a period of time for Wal-Mart to have done anything. But what about later that afternoon? Or the next day? Or two weeks later? At some point jurors say, "What a minute; by this point in time you should have done something."

Note that the timing depends on too many different factors to cover it all. A gaping hole in the middle of the lobby would be less time than a dripping pipe in a hidden closet.

Does Wal-Mart let each store make individual determinations, or is there a corporate mandate? And if you think finding this out, absent a lawsuit, is easy—think again. Even within a lawsuit it is common to be denied, by large corporation, such information if not explicitly requested. We may ask for their "policy" and they fail to give us their "action plan" since we asked for "policy" not "action plan." (Yes, such wordsmithing is common amongst lawyers.)

I don't know if Wal-Mart did anything wrong. I don't know enough about the case. It is very possible Mr. Grubbs' attorney may not know. Yet. But what I do know is that Wal-Mart is not going to volunteer what procedures it has in place absent the force of the judiciary by possible contempt of court by failing to respond to a subpoena.

Damages Jim Freeman, you are quite correct. If all Mr. Grubbs received as a "case of the trots" for one hour, then damages would likely be minimal. I doubt many lawyers would even take the case, since jurors (while sympathetic) will not very likely award much money for one hour of diarrhea.

Sometimes people miss this. All our system can award is money. We can't order Wal-Mart to give Mr. Grubbs access to its time machine to go back and not get the peppers. We can't order Wal-Mart to give a pill to make the diarrhea go away. We can only compensate dollars and cents. Cash.

What is a broken arm worth? $10,000? What if it is an 8-year-old? 85-year-old? A MLB pitcher? There is "no set amount"—no book we can turn to and plug in all the factors of the plaintiff and out pops a number. Sure, it would be great to hear a verdict, "We give the plaintiff his/her arm back as if it was never broken." But we can't. We can only hear, "You get $____."

What is food poisoning worth? Having suffered a week's worth, I might be inclined to award some money. Others, who have never even had the flu, may not. Catch as catch can with the jury.

Collectability Is the defendant collectable? The largest controlling fact in this is insurance. We will just as gladly sue Wal-Mart as we would a Mom-and-Pop convenience store if they have insurance. In fact, mom-and-pop stores are sued day after day, in court after court in state after state. And no media outlet ever makes mention of it. I would not be surprised if there are other food poisoning cases already pending.

The ONLY reason we may think poor Wal-Mart is being singled out as it is a large corporation [that was said tongue-in-cheek] is that the media finds it newsworthy and reports the Wal-Marts (and McDonald's and General Motors) as being sued. What news is it "Local Piggly-Wiggly sued for Leaving Wet Spot On Floor!"?

Yet such suits are being filed all the time. With the public never knowing about it. Sadly, the only cases in the news are the fellows suing Publishing Companies for the word "homosexual" in the Bible and therefore this is all most Americans think are happening in our court systems. Sigh.

Consumer Reports is a strong advocate for product liability cases. They recognize the greatest protection for the consumer is the possibility of a corporation losing profit. Money. The Bottom line. Many safety devices are implemented, NOT out of a corporation's concern for the purchaser of their products—but rather to prevent losing money in the judicial system.

Finally, as to the contingency agreement. I cannot speak for all states, but in Michigan the option to pay us hourly is ALWAYS available. We CANNOT force a client to take it on a contingency. But if we do it hourly, the person will have to pay, up front, the hourly rate as we work on the file. Many people simply cannot afford us.

Think about it. If the client thought we could settle the case with one hour's worth of work, they would pay us $300 and reap the millions of dollars these insurance companies are begging to give out. Ha. Ha. Ha. More likely we would charge and charge and charge, and eventually they would be forced to quit the case due to lack of funds.

Don't forget the media only reports the big verdicts. We hear, "Plaintiff won $30 Million dollars" and everyone can figure out what 1/3 of that is. But what about the 100's of 1000's of cases that settle for $1500? Or $3000? Or nothing at all? The lawyers being hired and winning millions of dollars of attorney fees on contingency cases have served their time. (Otherwise they wouldn't be hired on such cases.) They have had dozens of cases of hearing "-0-" on the same third. Can you figure out what 1/3 of zero is? They can.

Don't get me wrong—personal injury lawyers can make good money. But they do it on a $20,000 case. A $25,000 case. A couple of $50,000 cases. They aren't sitting around, doing nothing, and millions of dollars float down because of exuberant jurors.

Would I take Mr. Grubb's case? Most likely not. The damages portion would concern me. While jurors may be inclined to provide some money, the time and dollars spent fighting Wal-Mart (who I have fought before) would not warrant the effort.

You may not realize it, but the hope (and that is ALL it is—a hope) Wal-mart will be less cavalier regarding food products in the future is that Mr. Grubbs' lawyer is more risky than I.

DagoodS is a practicing lawyer and the proprietor of the most excellent blog, Thoughts from a Sandwich.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

A defense of capitalism

Commenter Jimmy_D writes in with a spirited defense of capitalism in reply to First principles [of political discourse] redux.

Well, "spirited defense" can mean a collection of straw men, non sequiturs, dogmatic assertions and an almost charming (almost!) ignorance of even the most basic terms of politics and economics. It's nostalgic: I haven't discussed philosophy with anyone this incompetent since I left IIDB.

The workers must work for the owners or starve: They are coerced into cooperating
Except for the fact they can choose to become self-sufficient through personal production. Or they can join a commune and live off of the work of others. Or they can use coercion to be given what they have not earned (i.e. unions, politics, welfare, etc.).
Jimmy actually stumbles upon an actual point here, probably by accident. If it were true that an ordinary person can actually become self-sufficient through personal production, my point would collapse.

However, it is not realistically possible to for an ordinary person to do so. Self-sufficiency is very difficult: I make a good living, but I am hardly self-sufficient: I do not grow my own food, I do not make my own clothes, I did not build my own house, I do not provide my own medical or dental treatment.

Is it coercion that if I simply do nothing all day I will starve to death? If not then your example is equally absurd.
Actually it is coercion, except in this case reality is doing the coercing. I can tolerate being coerced by reality (but all human civilization has been dedicated to loosening the bonds that uncaring reality holds on us). I'm speaking, however, about coercion between other human beings.

My point is not to establish people's freedom to do nothing, it is to establish their right to keep the surplus value of their own labor.

No one is forcing you to work at a specific job.
If I'm given a choice about who comes into my house and takes all my stuff, is my property secure? I think not.

So what you're calling coerced cooperation is simply choosing to work as a means of supporting oneself. Is it coercion that I have to breathe? Is it coercion when a lion has to hunt instead of someone providing for them? There is no coercion involved in someone having to produce to support themselves, that occurs in nature regardless of the presence of any other human being. Aren't you simply arguing that you shouldn't have to support yourself?
No, I'm not arguing that people shouldn't have to support themselves. Those with a firm grasp of the English language can read and understand my actual argument.

The owners simply accumulate the workers' surplus value and share nothing; they are permitted to betray.
Except that's simply not true because they share the value by paying wages and by paying taxes.
Pay attention: I'm talking about surplus value. Paying what is necessary for the workers to continue to produce more value is not sharing surplus value. You know, if you're going to defend capitalism, it might be worthwhile to actually read Marx. Know your enemy, eh?

Absent coercion, capitalism would be impossible; we would have anarcho-syndicalism, where people could "own" only what they themselves actually used to produce wealth.
Without a government a person could still own a machine and still rent out the use of that machine to those skilled in production with it.
Do you mean absent coercion or merely without a government? These are two different things. Absent coercion, this kind of arrangement would be impossible. As soon as someone else had possession of the machine, he would own it.

You also forgot to mention that absent coercion (of any type) anarcho-syndicalism wouldn't function because there would be no one to enforce contracts so any worker could defect from contributing to the pot.
I know Wikipedia is very expensive to use, but perhaps you might invest some time and money in actual research.

The essence of anarcho-syndicalism is that workers own the means of production. There is no "pot" to contribute to.

It is only by violent coercion that capitalist owners can prevent workers from employing the means of production to create surplus value for themselves, rather than for the owners.
Bullshit! Only through violent means could workers take from their employers to create surplus value. Here the worker is defecting from a willingly entered into contract. How is using someone else's property without their permission not stealing? I'll tell you what next time I'm in town I'll take your car for a joy ride and return it whenever I feel like it, obviously you won't mind.

Only by invoking the violent coercion of dissolving property rights could this idea possibly work, and once you do that either have to invoke an uber-state to dispense all material things (and power corrupts) or live in a nation of thieves. Private property is essential to a functioning society not to mention to the preferences of the human psyche.
Private property is complicated, is of many different varieties, and is socially constructed. It is nothing more than a particular set of agreements, out of the infinite number of agreements that might be made. To treat property rights as laws of physics is as retarded as any theological bullshit. To conflate all kinds of property rights as only one phenomenon is to lump rape with consensual intercourse.

One really sad thing is that Jimmy is obviously far too stupid to be a member of the ruling class. He is vociferously and vehemently defending nothing but his own enslavement.

Comment moderation

Please be informed: For some reason, Intense Debates is moving what seem to be perfectly ordinary comments to moderation, and is not always emailing me to let me know. If your comment does not appear promptly, post it again; if it still doesn't appear, give me a half a day to look at the moderation queue. If you double-post, I'll just delete the redundant comment.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Right for the wrong reasons

Consider this attempt at a syllogism:

P1: All men have feathers
P2: Socrates has feathers
C: Socrates is a man

We have two false premises and a logical fallacy (affirmation of the consequent) leading to a true conclusion. What should we do about a person who reasons like this? After all, their conclusion is indeed true; any attempt to argue with them might seem to argue for the falsity of their conclusion.

I see something similar arguing against a lot of religious people. Some of the bitterest arguments and outright conflicts I've had are with religious people whose ethics I almost completely agree with. I found the reasoning they used to support their their ethics to be profoundly deficient, and I criticized that reasoning. Inevitably, they drew the conclusion that I was either disagreeing with their ethical beliefs, or that I was being humorless and over-pedantic: why criticize the basis if I agree with the conclusion?

There are some decent arguments for being... ecumenical... about the process so long as the conclusion is correct.

We're all on the same team, are we not? Shouldn't we focus our attention on those who get the conclusion wrong? Why should we give liberal Christians, liberal Muslims, Buddhists, Wiccans, etc. a hard time when they oppose anti-atheist bigotry, when they lobby just as hard (or harder) for what any atheist humanist would call simple human justice and fairness? Shouldn't we work to achieve a good society by whatever means are pragmatic or even expedient? And put our esoteric, abstruse philosophical quibbles away for a more propitious time?

Also: If legal secularism is a virtue (and I do approve of legal secularism), and if law derives from ethics (which I think it does, or should) then should we not embrace secularism as an ethical principle independent of law? After all, I think freedom of speech is a virtue, and while I may be sharply critical of others' beliefs, I have never called for someone to be actually silenced. Shouldn't I then personally embrace secularism as an ethical principle? (The refutation of this argument is outside of the main point of this article; I'll discuss it more in comments.)

As good as these arguments are, I think there are stronger arguments for the contrary position.

Even if you sometimes come to the correct conclusion from a flawed process, there's no guarantee you'll always do so. Indeed, it's highly probable that you'll come to some incorrect conclusions. That's how we distinguish a bad process from a good process. The affirmation of the consequent is not a fallacy because it contradicts some abstract law of logic, it's a fallacy because we know you can use this process to come to a false conclusion. We know the laws of logic are correct precisely because we know from experience that they have never yet led us astray: We have privileged as the "laws of logic" just those particular symbol manipulation rules that we have never seen draw a false conclusion from true premises.

Silence implies consent. If we are silent when someone uses faulty reasoning, then we consent to not only the conclusion, but also to the method used to arrive at that conclusion. What are we to say, then, when the same method is used to arrive at a false conclusion, or an intolerable ethical position? We open ourselves to the legitimate charges of tendentiousness and hypocrisy: that we're challenging the logic only because we disagree with the conclusion. "My reasoning was fine," they might object, "when you agreed with the conclusion; why is it now such a big deal?"

Dealing as we do in imperfect, incomplete knowledge, it is frequently pragmatically justifiable to come to a conclusion that is wrong in some sense for the right reasons, so long as that conclusion is also right in some other sense.

Should O. J. Simpson have been acquitted? From the publicly available evidence (and I have examined the facts presented at the trial) I'm persuaded that Simpson did indeed commit murder. In one sense, the trial came to the "wrong" conclusion. But there's another, larger, sense in which the trial came to the exactly right conclusion: for a person to be punished under the law, the prosecution must make a persuasive case at a trial and convince a jury of the defendant's guilt. The government is not a disinterested party, and one function of the criminal judiciary is to act as a check on the government's power. If we were to permit a compromise of the process to ensure what appears to be a better conclusion in one case, we have abandoned the protection the process gives us in other matters, which may not be so independently persuasive. If we tolerate a kangaroo* court when we agree with its verdict, by what virtue do we condemn a court as kangaroo just because we disagree with its verdict?

In just the same sense, if we tolerate and remain silent when religious people compromise logic and rationality to come to ethical conclusions we agree with, we abandon the protection that logic gives us when they come to conclusions we disagree with. If we tolerate faulty logic when we agree, by what virtue do we condemn logic for being faulty just because we disagree with the conclusion?

There is no doubt that Christianity among black people has had an enormous positive impact on not just the abolition of slavery but for black people's civil rights. And, of course, I completely support total not just complete equality for black people but also active reparations and correction for past injustice and oppression.

But... if we allow "God condemns racism" as a legitimate argument against racism, how are we then to object to "God condemns homosexuality" or "God condemns abortion" as illegitimate arguments? God was good enough for us when we agreed with the ethical conclusion; it looks like we argue against a theological justification only because we disagree with the conclusion, i.e. we're not really against a theological justification per se, just a theological justification we disagree with.

There are some expedient reasons to tolerate faulty logic and unwarranted justifications. If you stop and help me change my tire, I'll be grateful for your assistance, regardless of its source. When some issue comes to a vote, I'll settle for you voting the right way for the wrong reasons. If you want to contribute money to Equality California to defeat Proposition 8 or Planned Parenthood to defeat Proposition 4, I won't ask you why you're writing the check.

But that's as far as I'm willing to to tolerate faulty reasoning for expedience. I will not shy away on the basis of expediency from criticizing religion, even to the extent of criticizing religious people for coming to an agreeable ethical conclusion for the wrong reasons. If some religious people support the teaching of evolution in the school, good for them. I won't stop pointing out that the theory of evolution does indeed dethrone human beings from the center of creation, and if that makes those selfsame religious people uncomfortable, too bad for them.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Carnival of the Godless #97

The 97th Carnival of the Godless is up at Kieran’s Commentary.

And I have to harrumph a bit. It's the first time I've submitted a post and had it rejected. Apparently CotG is developing actual standards, which is not good news for me.

On rationality

One frequent trope employed to criticize atheist and scientists is to declare that because we support and promote rationality, and denounce and condemn irrationality, that we are implicitly condemning human emotion, will, passion and preference, mocking literature, fiction, culture and art. It is to say that only an emotionless Mr. Spock would gain our approval.

(Never mind that the tension between pure dispassionate logic and human emotion was central to Spock's character, with human emotion usually endorsed. And never mind that even a pure-blooded Vulcan prefers dispassion, and his preference is a emotional phenomenon.)

This sort of criticism fundamentally trades on the fallacy of equivocation.

I'm not going to spend any time arguing the "correct" definitions of "rational" and "irrational". At the end of the day, usage dictates meaning: if enough people use a word for a specific meaning, that meaning is ipso facto legitimate. If the listener can use the context to determine which meaning the speaker intends, then the equivocal, ambiguous definitions do not pose a semantic problem.

So of course "rational" can mean unemotional and dispassionate. (And "rational" and "irrational" have other meanings, especially a technical meaning in game theory). But it does not necessarily mean unemotional.

If one actually reads atheist literature, and does not merely employ an obviously tendentious interpretation, the meaning of "rational" in atheist literature refers to a very specific sense of the word: it is rational to adopt only true and justifiable beliefs about objective reality. Likewise it is irrational in this specific sense to adopt false or unjustifiable beliefs about objective reality.

Emotions exist. Preferences exist. Literature, culture, art, ritual, group identity, all exist, and the human emotional and "spiritual" responses to these activities exist. An atheist and scientist would be irrational in this sense to reject these phenomena, since they do in fact exist, and their existence is trivially justifiable using scientific methodology.

Religion does not go wrong employing ritual and other arbitrary cultural practices. Religion does not go wrong in simply making ethical claims — everyone has standing to make ethical claims — nor does religion go wrong in expressing and promoting ethical claims using literature and metaphor. Every human being (with only the rarest exception) is a member of some culture. Every culture uses arbitrary ritual and practice to establish and reinforce cultural identity. Every culture makes some ethical claims, and the vast majority of cultures express those claims to some extent using literature and literary metaphor. The vast majority of atheist writers, amateur and professional, famous and obscure, recognize these obvious truths about human society.

Where the religious (and not only the religious) go wrong, however, is in treating these arbitrary practices and preferential ethical claims as truths about objective reality. Worse yet, the religious — and only the religious — justify holding these claims as actual truths on the flimsiest and most ridiculous of justifications: That these truths are justified on the say-so of some magical sky fairy, or some schizophrenic prophet, or some ancient barbaric culture, or some incomprehensible metaphysical bullshit.

When someone tells you that atheists reject preference, that atheists reject culture, that atheists reject emotion, that atheists reject acting on the world to influence it to their preference, when someone tells you that atheists reject the ordinary, natural characteristics that make us human beings, they are either lying or they are monumentally stupid. Either they have not actually looked at how atheists themselves actually describe themselves (and they're implying that they have done so) or they have looked and misrepresented what we say. They are either too stupid to know what to read, too stupid to read and understand, or simply lying; we must decide which is the most charitable interpretation on a case-by-case basis.

Atheists are human beings, and we say and believe that we are human beings, nothing more and nothing less. If you prick us, do we not bleed?

Bollywood goes terribly, terribly wrong

(h/t to Pharyngula; PZ has his own reasons for admiring the film.)

Tainted peppers and spilled hot coffee

I usually enjoy The Political Crank. Jim Freeman's work is always well-written, and his analysis is usually incisive.

He consistently turns out A work, but I have to give his most recent article a solid F. Unless I'm missing massive irony (he usually speaks plainly and directly), his criticism of Brian Grubbs' lawsuit against Wal-Mart is tendentious and hypocritical.

(If Jim is indeed speaking ironically, I apologize for missing the irony; the remainder of this essay refers to those who actually do literally hold the opinions stated in Jim's post.)

Jim's opinion that Wal-Mart is not typically cavalier with food safety is completely irrelevant. Whether Wal-Mart is or is not actually cavalier with food safety is not a matter of opinion, it is a matter of truth or falsity based on facts.

The explicitly stated primary purpose of the civil judiciary is precisely to establish matters of truth based in fact, and evaluate those truths according to law and precedent. It is the system that we have, and to criticize Mr. Grubb — employing puerile insults — for employing this system for its stated purpose is prima facie unwarranted.

Jim offers no evidence whatsoever that he examined the actual facts of the case or the relevant law. All he has done is assumed that because he personally does not find the claim plausible without examining the actual facts of the case then Mr. Grubbs must be attempting extortion. This is the very essence of tendentious propaganda masquerading as an analysis of truth.

His characterization of "spilled-hot-coffee suits" is a big clue that he has not examined the concept of civil litigation in detail, and evidence that he has absorbed Stella award bullshit propaganda. (See also this legal analysis of The McDonalds Coffee Case.)

Furthermore, his deprecation of settlement and contingent fees per se likewise illustrates at best a profound ignorance of how the civil judiciary works (and at worst a hostility to the concept that an individual can have the effective ability to employ the civil judiciary).

Jim complains often (and justly) about how large corporations and powerful political interests exploit and oppress individual people. The only mechanism we presently have for resisting this exploitation is to the civil judiciary. The civil judiciary has at least a passing interest in and ability to evaluate these conflicts according to the facts and scientific truth, rather than pure political power and economic influence.

Any system that purports to resolve conflicts when common sense and good will has broken down will be subject to abuse. We can — and have — taken many steps in our civil judicial system to prevent abuse. These steps cannot be perfect, since we have no way of consistently objectively determining independently of the process whether some outcome is abusive or legitimate. Both parties come to the process believing the interests of justice lie with their position; only one will be upheld.

Because the whole point of the civil judiciary is to resolve conflicts when common sense and good will have failed, and because we must take great procedural pains to avoid abuse, the process will necessarily be expensive. Furthermore just because fault implies responsibility does not entail that the absence of fault implies the absence of responsibility (the fallacy of denial of the antecedent). Therefore, the idea of settlement is not intrinsically bad; it is at worst the idea that compromise — even compromise of idealistic notions of justice — can be pragmatically superior to conflict. It is no virtue to fight every battle, no matter how small; it is no virtue to defend even the most trivial violation of some idealistic principle. And in a system that grants standing on only on personal interest, it is no vice to use the system for one's own personal interest.

Likewise, the contingent fee structure is the particular mechanism we have worked out to give individuals the ability to bring civil suits without already possessing enormous resources. Perhaps it is not the ideal mechanism, but it is the one we have. Unless we change the entire system, it is simply not possible for an ordinary person to come up with the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to even ask for justice. I'm all for changing the entire system, but using Grubbs' case as a justification argues for changing the entire system to prevent (or more efficiently prevent) individuals from using the system.

The notion that large corporations and powerful political interests need to be further protected from individual "abuses" of the system is not only ludicrous, it is completely at odds with the majority of Jim's writing.

Roberts on feminism

Sara Roberts on feminism:
My feminism, in case anyone still cares, is based in a larger humanism. It's predicated in the idea that I have a fundamental right to live my life in a way of my own choosing, without having to submit myself to any man simply because he is a man. To the extent that men have conspired to create a society that demands that women do this in almost every interaction we have with men, women and their thoughtful male allies must conspire to break that system.

Friday, August 01, 2008

On bigotry

vjack nails it:
In a nutshell, bigotry involves two ingredients: falsehood and unwarranted generalization. A false statement is applied to the victim of bigotry, often involving condemnation, by the bigot solely for belonging to a particular group. The bigot generalizes from an individual case (e.g., one lazy African American) to an entire group (e.g., African Americans).
The key is that to conclude bigotry you have to find falsehood and fallacy, not merely lack of ethical justification, as Ryder asserts in his labeling of speciesism as bigotry.