Saturday, October 29, 2011

Intellectual privilege

One of the most important ideas the New Atheists are fighting is the notion of intellectual privilege. Intellectual privilege is the idea that because a person has done this, that or the other, such as becoming ordained or elected Pope, his ideas are, at least to some degree, immune from criticism. Asserting intellectual privilege is different from defending one's ideas from criticism. The back-and-forth of intellectual criticism goes, well, back and forth; it's not an assertion of intellectual privilege to argue that a criticism of one's ideas is itself mistaken or misguided. This intellectual vice is endemic to religion; "knowledge" about God being notoriously privileged. The New Atheists are often called "arrogant", "militant" or "shrill" simply for making the argument that the idea of God is utter nonsense. Criticism of religion is seen as attacking not just people's ideas but their identity. Although endemic to religion, the intellectual vice of asserting intellectual privilege is also seen in secular and atheistic circles, especially in professional philosophy.

Daniel Fincke, an academic philosopher who publishes the blog Camels with Hammers, epitomizes intellectual privilege in his diatribe against Jerry Coyne's criticism of what Coyne believes is an egregiously stupid Templeton Foundation Grant. We're three levels deep already (and this post is the fourth level), so let me briefly sum up.

The John Templeton Foundation's mission is to seek out "new spiritual information" while maintaining a "commitment to rigorous scientific research and related scholarship." Many scientists and New Atheists, including Coyne and P. Z. Myers, have often criticized the Templeton Foundation for its accommodationist tendency to sacrifice scientific integrity to flatter the religious. The grant in question is to Patrick Todd to research "a core Ockhamist thesis about [God's] foreknowledge... God’s past beliefs depend in an important sense on what we do, and thus... we can sometimes have a choice about God’s past beliefs." Todd intends to address "the philosophy of time, and the metaphysics of dependence." Coyne believes that this project is "a godawful cesspool of theological lucubration." More importantly, Coyne's problem is that the Templeton Foundation, which whom the New Atheists are fighting a running battle, is funding this "theological lucubration", which would seem to undermine their mission of, as Coyne puts it, "funding research only at the nexus of science and theology." I tend to agree with Coyne: this project looks to me like nothing but pure theology, with zero scientific or philosophical relevance. But I (and Coyne) could be wrong.

Daniel Finke, an atheist, appears to believe that we are indeed wrong, that Todd's planned work has real secular philosophical relevance. I would definitely be interested in reading an actual argument that Coyne is mistaken in his evaluation of Todd's work. But Finke fails to actually argue for the value of Todd's work. Instead he does nothing but assert intellectual privilege: Finke is outraged that Coyne would even dare to criticize the work of a privileged academic philosopher.

Finke titles his post, "Jerry Coyne’s Scientistic Dismissiveness Of Philosophy," is telling. I've read Coyne's post a half dozen times now, and he does not at all appear to be dismissive of philosophy. Coyne believes Todd is pursuing "pure theology." When Coyne says, "So much money for so much 'sophisticated' philosophy!" it seems crystal clear that Coyne is speaking ironically: he does not consider Todd's work to really be "sophisticated" philosophy. If Coyne is dismissive of philosophy as a genre and not just Todd's "godawful cesspool of theological lucubration," we simply cannot tell it from this post. Finke is essentially making a "collective security" argument: an attack on one philosophical idea is an attack on philosophy. But this approach is nothing but intellectual privilege: an idea deserves consideration not on its own merits, but on its inclusion in the philosophical field of study, a field (quite properly) controlled by socially privileged academic philosophers.

Finke says that Coyne "arrogantly and unjustifiably treat[s] Ockham like a moron not worth studying." But Coyne does no such thing. Coyne treats a specific idea, that the premise of God's foreknowledge has interesting implications for our conceptions of time, causality and the "metaphysics of dependence" (whatever that is), as nonsensical. It would be surprising indeed if a skeptical, scientific atheist such as Coyne actually believes that William of Ockham, of Ockham's Razor, was himself a moron who offered nothing of intellectual value. But even the greatest genius can say stupid stuff. No one's intellectual reputation, however well-deserved, grants all of his or her ideas automatic importance or profundity. Finke again asserts intellectual privilege: because Ockham did indeed say some important and profound things, everything he said is important and profound; it is essentially an ad hominem — to treat him "like a moron" — to criticize any of his ideas.

Finally, Finke poorly argues the merits of Todd's proposed work. Finke asserts its value, but fails to give any compelling reason why it is indeed important. He quotes The Verbose Stoic's defense of Todd's work, but only so far as the claim that even if no God existed,
Ockham likely argued that if we have an omniscient being — God — then that God would know what we’re doing right now. But that could mean that God knows that and can know that because He determined it, which would violate free will. So, then, if it is not pre-determined then God’s belief about what we will do must be formed as we do it right now. But God has always known it, which would mean that our decisions now have an impact on beliefs formed in the past. If conceptually coherent, this has major implications for the conceptions of time and of dependence — ie [sic] what it means for one fact or truth or action to depend on another — both of which are currently of interest in philosophical circles. [emphasis original]
But this defense raises more questions than it answers. Why would the "conceptual coherence" have "major implications for the conceptions of time and dependence? Conceptual coherence is not a particularly high bar. Most importantly, if these ideas are interesting even if no God exists, then why assume a God to explore them? It is Coyne's explicit criticism that Todd's work is meaningless because it depends on the unsupported theological premises. If the work is valuable without these premises, then why make them? If these premises are truly unnecessary, then it seems that Coyne has found a truly substantive criticism of Todd's work, a criticism that Finke ought to reinforce, not undermine. But no, a non-philosopher has encroached on the intellectual privilege of academic philosophy, which must be resisted regardless of the merits of the work.

Finke asserts that "atheists need to take philosophy seriously." Perhaps so. But Finke has offered no evidence whatsoever, besides an oblique reference to Coyne's commenters (and any idiot can comment on a blog post) that atheists do not in fact take philosophy seriously. Instead, Finke appears to be complaining that we do not give academic philosophers the same intellectual privilege that theologians assert, that we do not treat each and every idea pursued by the academic philosophical community as profound or important. No discipline deserves this sort of privilege. Every argument must stand or fall not the reputation or status of a community or discipline but on its own merits. If Finke wants to talk about why the Ockham's conceptual coherence is important, not just to philosophers but to people in general, I'd be interested in hearing it. But if he just wants to whine that it is arrogant and unjustified for a non-philosopher to comment on the merits of a philosophical idea, he can kiss my hairy white ass.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Keynsians and Austrians

A Keynesian is an Austrian whose campaign contributors are about to lose a lucrative contract.

Paul Krugman

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The definition of atheism

There are two problems with the definition of atheism. The first problem is that there are no "atheist police" who go around making sure that everyone who self-identifies as atheist does so for the "right" reasons. So you have people who have studied a lot of philosophy, apologetics and theology coexisting with people who have simply rejected the religion they've grown up with, and might therefore have a narrow view of what constitutes religion (and a lot of others in between). Second, you do have philosophically educated atheists, who have the related problem of how to succinctly express non-compliance with theism, a family of related beliefs, beliefs we did not create nor organize into a family. Neither atheism nor theism are beliefs: they are families of beliefs.

Thus atheists typically declare the most general definition as lack of belief that any God exists. This sounds like a cop-out — many atheists have very definite beliefs about God — but it's not: we are not characterizing any specific beliefs, but rather what almost all self-identified atheists have in common: we do not subscribe to any of the family of beliefs that do in fact positively declare the existence of God.

Within the family of beliefs about God, we can identify several individual categories or sub-families. While individual atheists have different opinions, and some might dissent from the specific conclusions, there are areas of broad agreement about our attitude towards these categories:
  • God is the sort of being who exists, and whose existence can be proven (e.g. McDowell): We have examined the evidence, and the evidence not only fails to show that such a God exists, but also shows that no such God exists. (Alternatively, "God" denotes some prosaic concept like "love" or "beauty", which does exist but in the typical atheist's opinion does not really deserve the word "God".)
  • God is the sort of being who exists, but whose existence can neither be proven nor disproven (e.g. Catholic theology): First, such believers are often disingenuous; they want to prove God's existence, but when presented with the overwhelming disconfirmatory evidence, they retreat into "God can neither be proven nor disproven." More importantly, it is a category error to even talk about the existence of something whose existence can neither be proven nor disproven: "Whereof one cannot speak," quoth Wittgenstein, "thereof one must be silent."
  • The word "God" does not denote a concept to which one can associate the concept of "existence" (e.g. Spong): First, are you sure you're not already an atheist? Second, are you really saying anything at all?

It's not our fault that theologians and apologists have made a semantic hash out of the word "God". Fundamentally, the atheist position is that all this God talk is simply nonsense, even as we recognize that the nonsense has some variety and cleverness in its construction.

The Stupid! It Burns! (Hat trick edition)

the stupid! it burns! What Do Atheists Have Faith In?
Atheists want us to prove, with empirical evidence, our belief in God’s existence, even though they are unable to demonstrate with scientific proof that God does not exist. This slight of hand is a bit disingenuous because we all know that no one can either prove or disprove God’s existence by scientific methods alone. ...

Most scientists would agree that Albert Einstein (1879-1955) was the greatest genius who ever lived. Since he believed in the existence of a Supreme Intelligence behind the universe, it makes one wonder why they feel so confident in denying God’s existence.

Atheists Call Christians Sociopaths
While I have to agree that there are some far out ‘religious’ movements in this country, I have yet to see [fundamentalist Christians] blowing up the atheist headquarters or cutting off the heads of disbelievers, so to compare Christians to terrorists is a bit of a stretch!

What's with all these angry atheists?
Anyway, at some point, these evangelical atheists (quite an oxymoron, isn’t it?) must just be trumping themselves up in an effort to feel superior. These are the same cretins who get upset when a religious group does something public (“Don’t force your religion on me!”) but then put as their email address I haven’t truly believed in God for years and years, but I’ve always felt a grudging respect for those who did. I’ve recently come to see that as a sort of character flaw in myself — that believers have something special that I am missing out on — something to be celebrated, not looked down upon.

As an antidote to the stupidity, Mother Jones interviews Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Stupid! It Burns! (Iliad edition)

the stupid! it burns! Ender's Game
Richard Dawkins is such a twit. Accusations of genocide apologism are the that's gay of adult politics. Here you have some nonentity trying to raise his own lantern a little by harrassing a famous atheist into debating him, and the famous atheist accuses him of supporting genocide . . . because of his theological interpretation of a fictional, ahistoric event mentioned in passing in a book of myths and legends. I mean, does my affection for the Iliad make me an apologist for genocide? Is there anything lazier than digging through the toybox of religious literature to find the textual inconsistencies and then using them, of all things, as a trump in the eternal debate over the gods of the sky? The Midrash got there over a thousand years ago, guys. Jesus Christ, ahem, you can't simultaneously say that the Bible is fake and then castigate a believer for his expalanation of events that didn't actually happen.

Opportunity cost

Reader Xerographica comments about opportunity cost. After a lengthy illustration of opportunity cost — the most valuable thing you have to give up to get something else — he (?) goes on:

We can see that the problem with the current political system is that congress has no idea how much public education I would be willing to forgo for improved medicare. Having attended a public university I certainly value public education but I also valued my grandmother's health. Even though my grandmother and grandfather valued both public goods as well, it's very unlikely that our allocations would be the same.

In the private sector every single consumer is forced to consider the opportunity costs of their spending decisions...and every single donor is forced to consider the opportunity costs of their donations. But in the public sector taxpayers are not forced to consider the opportunity costs of their taxes.

Therefore, we can objectively say that with the current system, the public sector is very inefficient.

To greatly improve the efficiency of the public sector we would simple allow taxpayers to directly allocate their individual taxes among the various government organizations at anytime throughout the year. In other words, donations to government organizations should be 100% tax deductible.

In a few of your blog entries I've noticed that you consider yourself to be pragmatic. That's really interesting because I labeled the above concept "pragmatarianism".

Xero is correct on one point: opportunity cost is central to economics. But after that he goes off the rails.

My original post was about efficiency. His first mistake is to say that "objectively... the public sector is very inefficient." Because there are multiple ways to talk about the efficiency of any system (we might, for example, talk about vehicle miles per gallon, passenger miles per gallon, passenger/vehicle miles per hour, accidents per mile, etc.), even if he's correct, concluding that the public sector is inefficient without qualification ignores all the other measures of efficiency. At best, Xero could have shown that the public sector is less efficient at quantifying opportunity cost.

But Xero actually does not show that the public sector is actually less efficient on this measure. He claims that the government cannot quantify opportunity cost, but of course they can and do quantify them. Congress makes decisions at the margin all the time: they explicitly do reduce this program to increase that program, raise or lower taxes to pay for more or fewer programs. Individual taxpayers can certainly evaluate the opportunity cost of their own taxes, and vote for politicians who will tax at the equilibrium level, where the opportunity cost of one less dollar of private spending equals the actual benefit of one more dollar of taxes. Just because it might be the case that a public body such as Congress does not actually consider the population's view of opportunity cost (because it conforms to the perceptions and preferences of the capitalist ruling class) does not mean it cannot do so.

His preferred method — letting individual taxpayers control the allocation of their own taxes — assumes that the opportunity cost associated with production we typically allocate to the government aggregate additively: the "social" opportunity cost of some public endeavor is the simple sum of all the individual opportunity costs. But anyone who has studied macroeconomics knows that not every variable aggregates additively. For example, the aggregate demand function is not the simple sum of the demand functions for each individual product. The microeconomic demand function for an individual product makes the ceteris paribus assumption that the prices for all other products remains the same. The aggregate demand function obviously cannot include that assumption. Similarly, my individual microeconomic opportunity cost of my taxes for some public good is ceteris paribus, i.e. it assumes that everyone else's behavior remains constant while my own contribution increases or decreases. But however, changes in spending on public goods are not ceteris paribus: if we want to have, for example, more public education, we have more public education for everyone at the same time, and either more taxes or less of something else for everyone.

Opportunity cost, while definitely central to economics, is a particularly bad quantity to use for efficiency. An opportunity cost is necessarily counterfactual: it is the value of what we give up, not what we actually have. Although we can often estimate an opportunity cost, because it is counterfactual, it cannot be measured directly. In the sense that I was using it in the original post, efficiency is a post hoc consideration: it tells you how well your theoretical model works, and you can't create a post hoc consideration on theoretical grounds.

Not only is opportunity cost counterfactual, it's also fundamentally equivocal: the opportunity cost can change based on different ways of setting up the counterfactual. Again, the Prisoner's Dilemma shows this equivocation very simply. If you consider the opportunity cost against the Nash Equilibrium, then the opportunity cost of cooperation is always larger than the opportunity cost of defection, regardless of the other actor's move. On the other hand, the opportunity cost of mutual defection is greater than the opportunity cost of mutual cooperation. Neither construction is "more valid" than the other; it's just the case that the opportunity cost is equivocal in many decisions. Since opportunity costs can be equivocal, any measure of efficiency based on opportunity cost can also be equivocal.

Although opportunity cost is indeed central to economics — everything's a trade-off — precisely because it is central we want to use other, more directly measurable variables to evaluate efficiency. We can measure, for example, value obtained (which might be subjective, but is at least real) and hours worked, to obtain a useful measure of efficiency. These real measures of efficiency can give us a better understanding of our economy than trying to estimate a counterfactual, equivocal quantity.

[Update 10/21/11] There are a lot of other reasons why Xero's idea is really bad, not the least of which is that it turns a (at least nominally) democratic institution into an explicitly plutocratic system. That reason is, however, almost entirely political, and I wanted to make a specifically economic critique of the idea.

I strongly suspect that Xero is not part of the 1%, who would, under his scheme, have near-absolute control over government spending and would use that control for their own benefit, not Xero's (or mine). I'm continually astonished at the propensity of people to come up with schemes to not only justify but also intensify their own slavery.

fbg responds

fbg responds to my TSIB entry highlighting his (?) criticism of atheist politics:
I just now came across this article, rather late unfortunately. I wrote the second quote above, and I realize now that maybe I could have been clearer in my statements. When I wrote that post and others that are similar, I was in the middle of an incredible streak of reading and hearing atheists spend much more time deriding religious beliefs than furthering the cause of science and reason as a basis for changing society and politics. They pitted their non-belief against belief in such as condescending way as to help nothing except the self-confidence of hardcore atheists. Since that time, I've encountered a lot more atheists who concern themselves with educating and bettering society.

No, in my post I didn't expect to include theists under the label of "atheist", but Dan above was right that I feared that the latter exclusion would lead to the former exclusion. I'm not talking about pure ideologies, though; I'm talking about political movements. Atheists as a group are so weak right now that they can use all the help they can get. I'd take an educated liberal Christian any day over the evangelicals that are running for president these days. Let us unite behind reason instead of a non-belief.

I know that some atheists and theists work together already, but there are a ton of atheists out there who do nothing but alienate rational people. I know this because I've been a sort of atheist my entire life, ranging from "passionate agnostic" like Neil DeGrasse Tyson to "apatheist" like Bill Maher, and until I read The God Delusion I'd never felt comfortable calling myself an "atheist" because so many of them had insulted me simply for not railing against religious belief. "Pussy agnostic" is my favorite of the names they've called me.

I'll line up against creationism or evangelism in politics as readily as the next atheist, but some of you don't make it easy for me. Both of you, Larry and Dan, seem to have assumed that I'm a theist or apologetic, which has never been the case. I'm just focusing on the big, practical picture. I don't care who believes what as long as they don't take it into the voting booths or the classroom. I understand, also, that ignorance begets ignorance, but atheists would be much more effective as a movement if they focused their attention on irrational behavior instead of irrational beliefs.

Let me explain this again in simple declarative sentences. Atheists are a very diverse group, and even a single atheists will have many different goals. If some particular atheist is not acting, for example to further "the cause of science and reason" in a way that fbg approves of, then fbg must consider the alternative that that is not that particular atheist's goal. And indeed to my reading, many atheists (myself included) are not primarily oriented toward furthering the cause of science and reason (although that would be nice); we are, instead, primarily against religion. We are against religion because it is the epitome of uncritical thinking. Just because you are 90% critical doesn't give you a pass on the other 10%.

It is incredibly condescending and rude for anyone to say that (to paraphrase) I am hurting myself because I am against his preferred goals and his preferred methods. Feel free to use your own methods to work toward your own goals, and I will do the same.

Furthermore, I think religion is just stupid. I'm not going to pretend that some stupid belief is intellectually respectable just because a person holding the stupid belief will inevitably be all butthurt that I'm calling his stupid belief stupid. If you want to defend your belief as intelligent — if you want to argue that I'm mistaken — knock yourself out. Otherwise, I'm entirely unconcerned that you think I'm being condescending or rude because I say out loud that your stupid belief is stupid.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The origins of Occupy Wall Street

The Infamous Brad weaves a lot of threads, from WikiLeaks to Anonymous, to give a narrative of why Occupy Wall Street, and why now.

Nobody Will Ever Believe How We Got Here #OWS

by The Infamous Brad
17 Oct. 2011

I got extraordinarily lucky when one particular person offered me a ride home from St. Louis's Archon science fiction convention, and here's why: she is a very smart person who has just spent the last year under a near-total news blackout. No internet access to speak of, news mostly restricted to sports except during (of all things) the argument over the debt ceiling. And that's how it happened that I got asked to explain, in five minutes or less, how in the hell Occupy Wall Street even happened. Not what it was about, not what it was standing for, not what I thought was going to happen; she was interested in those things, but the one she really wanted to know was "why now and not three years ago, and how did it happen?"

I don't think I flubbed my answer. I've now had a couple of weeks more to think about it, and I'd give the same answer. But the more I think about it? The more I want to write this down and send it to historians in the future. And the more certain I am that they won't believe me.

Here's my understanding of how it came about:

It all started with a possible US war crime in Iraq, and, more importantly, with the cover-up by people who were acting like they thought it was a war crime. A bored sysadmin at a US facility in Afghanistan, with not enough to do, went browsing through his users' files and saw the video showing US air cavalry in Baghdad shooting up a journalist and the Iraqi civilians he was interviewing, then shooting up the family of four who stopped, in their van, to try to take the wounded to a hospital. So he did what you're supposed to do under those circumstances: he took it up his chain of command. Who punished him for asking about it, for not leaving it up to the JAG officers. That annoyed him so much that he took advantage of the cypherpunk whistle-blower support website WikiLeaks, sending them the evidence that the JAG corps and his chain of command declined to investigate.

But WikiLeaks was already under pressure from governments around the world, including ours, so he gave them one more thing to use in their defense. It was a "nuclear option," something so big that even they wouldn't really want to release it, but that they could threaten the US government with: go after us on (what came to be called) the "Collateral Murder" video, and we'll pull the trigger on this: over half a million of classified State Department internal memos, downloaded from SIPRnet. The US government apparently thought that WikiLeaks wouldn't do it, or thought they could stop them, or something: they put pressure on banks all over the world to cut off payments processing for donors to WikiLeaks, over the Collateral Murder video.

This was, frankly, nuts, since "Collateral Murder" was a murky and not terribly interesting story. No matter how much anti-war activists wanted to portray it as My Lai in Baghdad, it was a mistaken identity case made worse by adrenaline rush; all it had in common with My Lai was that the chopper pilots who were eager to gun down the people evacuating the wounded were guys who'd lost friends to insurgents in that area, who were gunning for revenge, but that happens in every war zone. It was a very brief news story, already well on its way to being forgotten, but the government went ahead and ordered the banks to punish Wikileaks for their part in it, just because they could. Which the banks did. And so Wikileaks pulled the trigger on "Cablegate."

Cablegate had a lot of minor effects, most of them predictable, but nobody could have predicted one of them, because it was just that weird.

Despots all over the world have always told their subjects, "Everybody else in the country agrees with us, the despots. You're the only one who has a problem with it. Well, you and (some much-hated minority group). Which just goes to show, there's something wrong with you." In places where the despots have control over the media (which is most places there are despots), they get away with this, because for all most people know, the despot-controlled media is telling the truth about that. Maybe they and their friends really are the only ones who have a problem with it; how could they prove otherwise?

One of the absolutely least interesting, least important State Department cables in the whole "Cablegate" SIPRnet dump was a routine report from the US embassy in Tunisia, that said something that would surprise nobody anywhere in the free world: as the Tunisian dictator freaked out more and more about one thing or another, and got more and more brutal about it, lots of individual Tunisians were seeking out US diplomats and saying, "hey, I'm not okay with this, is it just me?" People from all walks of life. You're shocked, right?

Let me add something else, something that seems to have gone completely over the heads of the people of Tunisia: lots of stuff in the Cablegate dump is pure bullshit. Nothing in the Cablegate dumps should be taken at face value. There are brilliant, well-educated, deeply culturally embedded foreign-country experts in our foreign service. There are also one holy hell of a lot of dim-witted partisan political hacks who can barely read their own language at a 3rd grade level, let alone the language of the country they've been sent to. They both file reports to the Department of State that got dumped onto SIPRnet.

But I guess nobody pointed that out to the Tunisian people. The Cablegate "bombshell" that many Tunisians, not just al Qaeda, were angry at the Army and the dictator of Tunisia arrived right in the middle of an army crackdown, and emboldened by the (ridiculously poorly sourced) reassurance from western journalists that if they rose up against it, others would do so too, the Tunisians tried it. And it shouldn't have worked, because the army had all the guns. But it did work, for a reason not explained in the Cablegate files: right that minute, for their own personal reasons, the Tunisian army wasn't terribly happy with the dictator, either. So they declined to machine-gun the protesters. And the dictator fell.

Understanding little or none of this, people living under western-backed dictatorships all over the Arab world freaked out: "we can DO that?" So they tried it. In Iran, the army backed the regime, tortured and gunned down as many protesters as they needed to (which wasn't all that many) and won. Being a dog-bites-man story, hardly anybody talked about this much. In Syria, the army backed the regime, tortured and gunned down as many protesters as they needed to (which wasn't all that many) and won. Being a dog-bites-man story, hardly anybody talked about this much. In Saudi Arabia, the government handed out a few million dollars' worth of bribes, and sent the religious police and the army out to crack a few heads of people who wouldn't take the bribes, the regime won, and this being a dog-bites-man story, even you probably barely heard of it. But in Egypt? The Egyptians who tried to follow the Tunisians out into the streets lucked into the fact that the Egyptian army was also, for its own personal reasons, ticked off at the dictator; they refused to torture and gun down the protesters, and the protesters won. And now there were two, and even though the success rate was only "two for five" the world giddily declared the "Arab spring."

Which would have meant nothing. If it weren't for the second thing that happened because of "Collateral Murder" and "Cablegate."

People who live and die by the internet, who think that the internet is a Really Big Deal? A lot of those people saw the US government crackdown on Wikileaks as an internet censorship story. And nobody freaks out more, about internet censorship, than Anonymous.

Maybe you'd never heard about Anonymous until recently. I knew a couple of the 2nd or 3rd-wave hangers-on even before Anonymous had even consciously noticed Wikileaks. Anonymous' original issue was, of all things, Scientology. The Scientologists have been really angry, ever since their most-secret scriptures got dumped onto the Internet after they were briefly unsealed in a lawsuit. To contain that damage, Scientology lobbyists have been pressuring governments (and, by some press reports, Scientology black bag squads have been blackmailing government officials) to get governments to censor Scientology materials from the internet. And so a bunch of 4channers and /b/tards and Something Awful Goon Squad members got together on an anonymous chat server, and decided to protect themselves from Scientology black-bag squads by donning Guy Fawkes masks (the recent movie V for Vendetta was on their minds) and protest outside of Scientology centers. Nothing much came of it ... because Scientology is a much harder target than any government, if you ask me. And, if nothing else, it's also one that a lot fewer people care about. But that's who Anonymous were.

When Anonymous found out that the government was cracking down on banks that processed credit-card payments for Wikileaks? And when our own government started torturing Bradley Manning, the suspect in the Collateral Murder/Cablegate leaks, to (according to Manning's lawyer) try to coerce him to testify (falsely) that he didn't volunteer to send that data to Wikileaks, that he didn't come up with the idea on his own, that Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, put him up to it, so they could get NATO member countries to extradite Assange to us for espionage? Anonymous went ape-shit, forgot all about harassing the Scientologists, and signed onto an idea from the artsy anti-corporate magazine Adbusters for an American Fall following the model of the Arab Spring, calling on Anonymous's tens of thousands of anti-censorship fans to get the word out to Occupy Wall Street the way that the Egyptian people occupied Tahrir Square.

So, here we are.

Millions of Americans have been told by the corporate media, ever since the 1980s, that nobody but a handful of dirty hippies, and evil Satanic commies, and lazy welfare bums, and illegal immigrants, and of course more recently al Qaeda, but other than those people, nobody else but you has a problem with winner-take-all lasseiz fair oligopoly capitalism. They've been told that if you're not okay with fewer and fewer of us having jobs, or if you're not okay with more and more of us being robbed of our savings by Wall Street fraudsters who don't get punished ("lasseiz fair" means "leave us (businesses) alone," you know), or if you aren't okay with hedge fund managers like Mitt Romney making a thousand times the salary of the factory workers they lay off while liquidating their profitable companies for short-term gain, or if you don't agree with all of the Republican candidates and 90% of the Democratic candidates that those are the best policies for the American people? It's just you. You and al Qaeda and the illegal immigrants and the thieving welfare bums and the dirty hippies and the anti-Christian communists. So what's wrong with you that you agree with those people, and not with the rest of America, the real Americans? And people meekly shut up and took it, thinking that even if they did have a few friends who agreed with them, maybe it was just them. How would they know differently?

Just like the Tunisians. And the Egyptians. And the people of Saudi Arabia. And the Syrians. And the Iranians.

We didn't have Wikileaks to tell us otherwise. It shouldn't have mattered if we had; we should have known not to trust the roughly-half-BS stuff that was in the Cablegate files, but maybe it would have mattered to us if they had told us, like it mattered to the Tunisians and the Egyptians and the rest. But we did have Anonymous to tell us. Which shouldn't have mattered, because none of us knew who Anonymous were, and probably most of us wouldn't have approved if we did know. (You took the word of cypherpunk anti-Scientology freaks from three of the most notoriously awful BBSes on the internet over the word of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times? Really?) But somehow, when they told us, even though it shouldn't have done so, it did matter: by current polls, about 2/3rds of Americans now realize that no, it's not just a couple of us, and a few bad people, it really is at least 2/3rds of us who have a problem with this. And it's a month later, and the protest encampments are still going strong, and getting bigger. Pretty soon, maybe, the Wall Street regime's hand-picked politicians will order the cops and the Army to clear those camps, like the pro-Wall-Street regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and Saudi Arabia did, and the even worse regimes in Syria and Iran. And then we'll find out who the cops and the army like better, here, just like they did.

And in the far future, when they already know whether the police and the Army will have sided with the Wall Street regime or with the 2/3rds of Americans who aren't okay with the Wall Street regime, if they read my account of how it all started? They won't believe me. Because how this all happened? Is just plain nuts.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Atheists in the military

Justin Griffith gives a good summary of what atheists in the military want. Fundamentally, it's all about dealing with the military's regulations and bureaucracy. Religious groups have a lot of procedural privileges within the military; atheists want to have the same privileges for themselves.

The democratic state

When I talk about the state, I mean it Max Weber's sense: an institution or organization with a monopoly on the legitimate exercise of violence. So when I talk about a democratic state, I still mean that we have an well-defined organization, the "government", which has a monopoly on the use of violence. We still have police*, courts, and perhaps even something like prisons; we still apply violence using an institutionalized process. I want to talk here not about whether we should institutionalize the use of violence, but about how to construct institutions that are specifically democratic.

*We also (probably) have an army, but I will arbitrarily define "army" as the organization that uses violence outside the sovereign political unit (the police are inside), and I'm concerned here with the function of the state in a domestic context.

I also want to disambiguate republicanism from democracy. In a republic, the people choose their rulers; in a democracy, the people themselves rule. All modern "democracies" are republics, and almost all political science consists of how to make republics more efficient. There is good evidence in the Federalist papers that the framers of the U. S. Constitution created a republic intentionally to avoid democracy. In this task, they succeeded. I reject the concept of the republic; the republic is an essentially bourgeois institution; I do not believe there can be a stable and humanitarian socialist or communist republic. There is, I think, no channel in the republic between the Scylla of authoritarianism and the Charibdys of plutocracy. The only way out is true democracy.

Fundamental to a true democracy is that everyone has to become accustomed as individuals to the routine, daily exercise of political power as they are to the daily, routine management of money. I used to live in a condo complex with a homeowners' association. With fewer than a hundred households, there was no reason we couldn't have run the association with direct democracy, but the association was instead run with a republican model: we elected officers, who served for a fixed term, and the rest of the residents were occasionally invited to offer "feedback", which was usually ignored. Whoever managed to get elected had free reign to impose their personal hobbyhorses, and use the privilege of their office to maintain their power. Fundamental to a democratic state is that individuals must manage local, neighborhood resources by direct democracy. Without this feature, democracy will collapse to republicanism and ruling class oppression.

It's probably not feasible to have a direct democracy with more than a few hundred or a few thousand individuals. Aside from the purely technical problems of obtaining a reliable vote, the totality of issues facing the governance of a 300 million person country or a seven billion person world are too complex for any individual to grasp. Indeed, besides maintaining bourgeois privilege, this complexity is the principle argument for republicanism. But the republican, trustee model is not the only model possible. There is the delegate model and the franchise model.

In the delegate model, relatively small groups of individuals (no more than about a thousand) choose delegates, whom they can recall at any time. To address larger units of administration, delegates can themselves choose delegates to the next larger level. A delegate cannot act independently of her constituency using her term of office as a shield. It's also important to ensure that a delegate cannot routinely act officially in secret. Everything a delegate does must be transparent. A delegate can condense and summarize the complexity of her tasks to a well-defined constituency, and an independent press can provide alternative sides to the story.

In the franchise model, would-be representatives assemble a "floating" constituency. Each individual would therefore choose someone to represent him at each level of administration: I would have my city council member, my state representative, my federal legislator. Each of these representatives would vote in proportion to her constituency. If I didn't like what my representative was doing, I'd switch my choice to someone else, anytime I liked. A representative who lost too much support would be immediately ejected from the policy-making body.

Both models have advantages and disadvantages, but both models also share the fundamental issue that they are by design less stable than republicanism, and consequently both are potentially more problematic for individual rights. I'll address these issues in future posts.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Stupid! It Burns! (Legal eagle edition)

the stupid! it burns! Atheists and Hypocrisy
Atheists famously get their collective panties in a wad when a religious display is allowed on public property – property we ALL pay for. But now they go bat-crap crazy when a PRIVATE organization that THEY DIDN’T pay for reserves the right to host who they please? Really?
Really. That's how the law works. Public property has one set of restrictions (the Establishment Clause); private property used as a public accommodation has another (anti-discrimination). The first principle is explicitly in the Constitution; the second has been a part of English common law for centuries. If the author wants to argue that something is hypocritical, the hypocrisy lies in the Constitution and American Law, not atheists.

The Stupid! It Burns! (Evangelizing atheists edition)

the stupid! it burns! Evangelizing Atheists: Part 3
Dispel the myth that faith is the enemy of science. ... Pope Pius XII declared that the Church “does not forbid…the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it enquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter.” [Damn white of you, Eugenio] ... [but God] still purposefully and actively guided that process [of evolution]. Human beings, too, though our bodies may have evolved, were still gifted with a specially created soul at one point that did not evolve. ...

The stupid just goes downhill from there.

The state as an institution

Should the use of violence be institutionalized? Should one institution (or a set of institutions with a well-defined mode of cooperation) have a monopoly on violence? Can we have a stateless society in Max Weber's sense of "the state"?

There are, of course, alternative conceptions of "the state". Lenin offers an important conception: the state is the instrument of oppression and exploitation of one class against the rest of society. I suspect that Lenin's conception is definitional: an organization that has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence that one class does not use to oppress and exploit the rest of society would not be a state in Lenin's sense. Lenin's point in The State and Revolution is, I think, more subtle: the capitalist ruling class has constructed the specific nature of the institutions of governance (i.e. Weber's state) to oppress and exploit the working class; therefore, if well-meaning communists simply occupy those institutions, they cannot create fundamental change. The very nature of the roles and institutional structure ineluctably force office-holders into a capitalist mode of the exercise of violence. Hence Lenin draws the distinctions between socialists and communists: Socialists believe — mistakenly, in Lenin's opinion — that the institutions of governance are, by and large, socially neutral, and we can achieve a socialist society simply by installing socialist individuals in these institutions. Communists, on the other hand, believe we must radically transform the fundamental institutions of governance to have a socialist (in the transitional sense) society.

Similarly, we can also talk about the trustee state vs the delegate state. In the trustee state, individuals who are members of the institutional state have personal power by virtue of their membership; this power is procedurally independent of the will and desire of the rest of the population. It is coherent, for example, for the trustee state to pass an unpopular law. In a delegate state, however, the members of the institutional state merely apply violence in accordance with the wishes of the population; it would be incoherent for a delegate state to pass an unpopular law. A delegate state would still fit Weber's definition, because only the institutional state would actually apply violence.

It seems easy to conflate "state" with "trustee state" because all states in the modern world are trustee states. It's also arguable that even if only the application of violence were delegated to a specific institution, the institution would quickly adopt a sense of privilege to determine when violence ought to be applied; they would consider themselves not delegates but trustees.

If we equate "state" with "trustee state", and call the delegate model something else, then yes, I'm all for abolishing "the state" immediately, and replacing it with a delegate model. If we mean abolishing the institutionalizing the application of violence, I'm much more skeptical. Such abolition might seem desirable, but I suspect it's not presently feasible.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Questions about libertarian socialism

Reader Sunflame asks my opinion about the Wikipedia article on Libertarian Socialism. It's a long article, and will probably require following a few levels of links, so I'll have to give the article a close reading and careful analysis before I can respond in depth. A superficial reading, however, reveals a few questions.

I'm all for socialism, so the issue turns specifically on the libertarian component of the definition. It seems (again, at first glance) that libertarianism here means fundamentally that there should be no state. Now, when I hear "state", I interpret it to mean, "the sovereign organization which holds a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within a well-defined territory." A broader sense of state would remove the "within a well-defined territory" condition. It is important to understand that this definition of "state" does not talk about how the organization is constituted.

Is this the sense of "state" that anarchists mean, and if so, in which sense, the narrower the broader? Are we talking about whether there should be a state in this sense, or about how to constitute a state?

The "democracies" of today's world are all republics: In a "true" democracy, the people rule; in a republic, the people choose their rulers. Does libertarianism advocate for a truly democratic state: an organization with a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence which operates in some truly democratic manner?

I hesitate to call myself an "anarchist" for the same reasons I prefer not to call myself a "socialist" (even "communist" suffers from the same flaws; I choose "communism" as the least bad option.) Regardless, I am all in favor of true democracy, and I want to figure out how to implement truly democratic political systems in the real world. Is all that stands between me and the anarchists merely a label of self-identification?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Stupid! It Burns! (Trolling edition)

the stupid! it burns! On the term “troll”
So what’s the reason atheists view any criticism of atheists as trolling? It’s specifically because 100% of atheists are staunch anti-science fanatics and strongly oppose the idea of free and open criticism.

Politics and economics

The Infamous Brad has an excellent analysis of the politics of Occupy Wall Street. (You should, of course, be following Brad carefully.) Brad is entirely correct as to the politics, but we always, I think, have to look at what underlies politics economics.

The 19th century was, in economic terms, the struggle of the bourgeois capitalist middle class against monarchical mercantile imperialist ruling class. All the apparently purely political struggles were about that underlying economic conflict. The only possible outcomes were that the bourgeoisie or the monarchists would win in the end; as we know, the bourgeoisie won. Marx would, I think, argue that because capitalism as was substantially more economically productive than monarchical mercantilism, the victory of the bourgeoisie was inevitable*.

*I don't want to get into a discussion of whether or not Marx was right, and about precisely what he meant by "inevitable".

Similarly, the struggle of the twentieth century was between the professional-managerial middle class and the capitalist ruling class. Even as far back as the middle of the nineteenth century (as Michal Perelman argues in Railroading Economics) the large-scale industries of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries required not only dedicated professional management (business is too serious a matter to entrust to capitalists*) but also authoritative macroeconomic coordination, coordination that could be performed only by the state. The professional-managerial middle class revolution was ultimately successful after the Second Imperialist War, leading to the Great Moderation. Again, because the large-scale professional management and macroeconomic coordination were more productive than laissez faire capitalism (especially with the framework of Keynes General Theory), the victory of the professional-managerial middle class was, in a Marxian sense, inevitable.

*With apologies to Clemenceau

Until perhaps the beginning of the twenty-first century, there really hasn't been a substantive change in economic conditions that would underlie a political struggle. Therefore, there hasn't really been a truly transformative political struggle after the Second Imperialist War. Even the 1960s didn't create any fundamental transformation; at best it shook up the complacency of the professional-managerial now-ruling class, but its effects were social and largely superficial. (Which is not to say the effects were unimportant; the professional-managerial class really did need to lose the straight-laced, rigid conformist baggage it carried from its time as the middle class.)

A problem with the professional-managerial class is that it is not sufficiently ruthless. On its victory it did not destroy (or thoroughly marginalize) the capitalist class as the capitalists destroyed and marginalized the monarchists. After the bourgeois revolutions, the monarchs were either butchered or stripped of all their power; there is not a single king or queen in the West with even a shred of effective legal or political power. (Price Charles, for example, has been reduced to becoming an advocate for snicker homeopathy.) In contrast, the professional-managerial middle class left a crucial legal and political tool in the hands of the capitalists: the social construction of the means of production as private property which can be owned. (The communist revolutions, which were also professional-managerial class revolutions, made the opposite mistake: they failed to adopt the bourgeoisie's only truly valuable concept: transforming personal power into the power of offices.) The professional-managerial class does not by nature crave power. They are taught to be judicious, rational, to find the best solution, not the solution that preserves and enhances one's own power regardless of the consequences. They really do mean well.

(Which is not, of course, to say that the rule of the professional-managerial class is all rainbows and unicorns, as demonstrated by twentieth century neoliberal imperialism. The best that can be said of the professional-managerial class is that its slightly less murderous than its monarchist predecessors, preferring economic slavery to actual chattel slavery.)

But the capitalists were not willing to be contained, however gilded their cage. Owners of capital are conditioned to absolute self-interest. A capitalist grows his business not because of the social benefits of doing so, but to crush his rivals. A capitalist plays to win, and anything he can get away with, however he can get away with it, is fair game. Atlas Shrugged really sums up the thinking of the capitalist class: without the capitalists, the world will descend into anarchy and chaos. The irony is that Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged immediately after the greatest purely economic collapse in human history, which happened during the unquestioned rule of the capitalist class, and during the greatest economic expansion in human history, an expansion that occurred during the unquestioned rule of the professional-managerial class. The protagonists (I cannot call them heroes) are not laboring under the yoke of oppression; their complaint is rather that the power of the "exceptional" is not absolute. The antagonists are ridiculous caricatures not of the proletariat but of the professional-managerial class with their concepts of bureaucratic management and state macroeconomic coordination.

The Marxian puzzle is this: because they are clearly more economically productive than the capitalist class, the victory of the professional-managerial class ought to be inevitable, and yet never has there been a class so quickly defeated and demoralized by its own success. Without another economic model that can out-produce even laissez faire capitalism, the best that the Occupy Wall Street protests can do is restore power to the professional-managerial class. But the professional-managerial class has ceased to exist, leaving only isolated hold-outs such as Krugman and DeLong. The economically superior class has already been defeated by the economically inferior class. Marx may ultimately be wrong: economics does not "determine" (i.e. exert ineluctable selection pressure) politics. If so, what can we hope for?

The capitalist class has defeated and destroyed the professional-managerial class. There are obviously a lot of professionals, managers, bureaucrats, etc., and the capitalist class will continue to use them, but their very identity as a class has been just as thoroughly destroyed as has been the identity of the industrial proletariat as a class. Since the class does not exist — and the capitalist class is not so stupid as to easily allow them to restore their class consciousness — no political movement can restore them to power. Lacking any way to actually be successful, the protests will peter out. Even if the the state botches the job and pulls a Kent State, people will just get scared and go home. Political change happens not when things are the darkest, but when they have started to improve. It is only when they realistically hope for improvement that the people stand up with sufficient force and demand more. Things are going down, not up.

The alternative to protest for improvement is the absolute and total collapse of the ruling class. In Russia, the people revolted because the Tsarist state caused the utter destruction of the Russian nation in the First Imperialist War. In China, the people revolted because of the Imperial state caused the utter destruction of the Chinese nation by the Japanese invasion. So we can confidently predict that without the professional-managerial class, we will have a revolution in the United States only after the capitalist class causes the utter destruction of the American nation.

The most plausible cause of the destruction of the American nation is from the Christian Right. The capitalist class has built much of its pseudo-democratic political power on this base. The capitalist class simply cannot manage a 350 million person economy on its own; when they plunge the nation into a real depression, only the Christian Right will be able to operate without the capitalist class simply crushing them. The capitalist class can potentially fall to a Christian theocracy. But a theocracy will not only prove even more economically inept than the capitalists, they will also be more politically inept, and we will return to personal, rather than official state power, with all the banal corruption and self-serving of monarchism. What happens after that... I don't know.

Sigh... another rambling essay with no real thesis.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Weber's definition of the state

One advantage of going to college is that I'm learning the "official" definitions of words, words that in my amateur reading have been at best fuzzily defined and at worst shamelessly equivocated. I don't mean to say that the official definitions are correct or even the best, but they often have the advantage of being precise. Better, I think, to use the "wrong" precise definition than a fuzzy one; a fuzzy definition is not even wrong.

I find the official definition of the state to be very useful. The state is the sovereign organization which holds a legitimate monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within a well-defined territory.

To be a state, the organization (or collection of organizations and institutions) must be well-defined: even if part of that organization is secret, all individuals must know whether or not they are part of that organization. The organization might be in some sense beholden to or dependent on particular individuals or other organizations; what is important is that the legitimate use of violence must always "pass through" the organization that is the state.

The state must have sovereignty: there must be no higher legal authority than the organization to use violence. (States can and do go to war against each other, but that's not legal authority.) A state can delegate legal authority (usually by treaty), but as long as the state can in theory rescind that authority, it remains sovereign.

The state must be legitimate: the people against whom the state does or potentially could exercise its violence must recognize the organization as privileged to use violence. No organization — not even the Roman Empire — can rule by brute force; the population must at least passively acquiesce to the rule of the state.

The state must hold a monopoly: if more than one organization actually exercises violence, then those other organizations must have their privilege delegated by the one organization that is the state. In a federalist (e.g. Germany) or pseudo-federalist (e.g. the United States) system, the organizations that use violence (central and provincial governments) must cooperate closely enough to never fight amongst themselves; the collection of organizations forms a state. When Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock to enforce desegregation, for example, governor Orval Faubus did not command the Arkansas National Guard to actually fight them.

The state must use violence: it can arrest, imprison, harm or kill individuals, without its members and agents facing social sanction (assuming their exercise of violence is validly exercised). It can also use the threat of violence to indirectly coerce individuals.

The state must exercise violence within a well-defined territory. This criterion separates the modern state from its feudal and imperial predecessors.

Given this definition, we can be very specific about alternatives to the modern state: relax or eliminate one or more elements of the definition, and you have an alternative to the state. Feudalism relaxes the monopoly and territoriality conditions; Pre-feudal imperialism lacks well-defined borders: the authority of the state is not uniform within its territory of influence, and regional governors, especially those far away could oppose the imperial government without fear of violent reprisal.

One interesting example of relaxing the territorial definition is in Neal Stephenson's book, Snow Crash, where the authority of franchises, the organizations that use force, extends to individuals, without geographic boundaries. The protagonist (cleverly named "Hiro Protagonist"), for example, is a "citizen" of Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong: Hiro can appeal to Mr. Lee for dispute resolution or physical protection from citizens of other franchises. Another interesting example is Eric Frank Russell's short story, "And Then There Were None," where no organization has a monopoly on violence: each individual is responsible for the exercise of violence; the only explicitly social sanction is noncooperation.

Since the state is at least capable of precise definition, I'm becoming even less impressed by anarchists who rail against the state, without being specific about what of the many conditions they would change. The official definition, like all good scientific definitions, is fragile. Because it is intentionally easy to break, that it's not actually broken shows its conformance to reality.

[Update 10/14] I was entirely remiss in mentioning that this definition of the state should be attributed to Max Weber in his work Politics as a Vocation.

Ethics, politics and economics

Politics and ethics (and law) are two sides of the same coin: politics and the state are (at least ideally in the context of a highly-interacting and interdependent collection of individuals) about promoting good and inhibit the bad*. To a meta-ethical subjective relativist such as myself, ethics is about what we want. And in a finite world, getting what we want means giving up something else: we have to make trade-offs, and understanding trade-offs is the meat and bread of economics. So politics, ethics and economics are interrelated. They're interrelated not just at the level that one job of the political system is to manage the economics of work and trade, but that our political system is itself an economic system of virtue and vice.

*If the state doesn't promote the good and inhibit the bad, it is faulty; if there is no sense of good and bad (moral nihilism, distinct from subjectivism), then the state is nothing more than the coercive arm of the ruling class, but so what?

Consider murder, defined here as one individual killing another "on his own nickel, i.e. without an explicit social process. There is the value of not getting killed*, and the value of killing people one individually chooses. There is the labor necessary to support police, courts and prisons, and the individual labor necessary to protect oneself against people who would kill him. An economist is going to look at where all the marginal values and costs intersect, at both the personal and social level: Our spending on police and prisons should be where the marginal utility of having one more person murdered is exactly equal to the marginal cost of preventing one more person killed.

*High, but not infinite, as demonstrated by the many people who have consciously placed themselves in circumstances where they had a significant probability of getting killed. Besides, come what may, we're all going to die someday.

It's also the case that coercive force, whether exercised by individuals, the state, or some other institutional arrangement, exerts selection pressure on the the "meme pool", the ideas, beliefs and habits of thought in the population. The selection pressure can be direct: killing or imprisoning a person can eliminate or reduce the propensity for his ideas to spread*. The pressure can also be indirect, because people can anticipate consequences: some will simply believe that crime doesn't pay.

*One argument against the modern prison system, however, is that "criminal" ideas are more heritable in prison.

At first glance, therefore, it would seem that we want to make our law enforcement costs about equal to the average cost of crime. However, this effort has differential selection. There is a range of intelligence, cunning, and will among individuals, and law enforcement will differentially select those nearer the bottom of that scale: cops catch stupid crooks. Thus law enforcement and criminality starts off an evolutionary "arms race", a phenomenon seen both in biological evolution as well as business. Indeed the business "arms race", where individual firms compete (in the ideal case) to provide greater value at lower cost, is one of the strongest arguments for capitalism*.

*Not strong enough, of course, to justify capitalism.

The ideas of ethics, politics and economics are so deeply interconnected that they really are the same thing, viewed from different angles.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Pragmatism and the Omelas paradox

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas is a powerful challenge to pragmatism. In Omelas, they achieve a better world by intentionally subjecting a single "scapegoat" child to torture and horrific suffering. Is Omelas a moral or immoral society? To a pragmatist, the outcome is everything — Omelas is a moral society — but that conclusion radically contradicts our moral intuition.

There are two ways for the pragmatist to respond. The first is to bite the bullet. If we accept all the premises of the story, then ex hypothesi if we "rescued" the child, other people and other children would, on the whole, suffer even more. Since we know (again by the premises of the story) they would suffer, we would be just as responsible for their suffering as we are for the scapegoat's. The ones who walk away (i.e. those who reject Omelas' solution to the pragmatic dilemma) are responsible for more suffering, not less, and know they're responsible. If knowledge entails responsibility, then the only escape from Omelas is into ignorance. If knowledge doesn't entail responsibility, then no one is responsible for the scapegoat's suffering.

The second response is for the pragmatist to question the premises of the story. Pragmatists have beliefs that are pseudo-moralistic: They are judgments about the intrinsic value of things, but they are shortcuts to deal with uncertainty and ignorance; if we knew the outcome better, we would change the belief. We might be radically uncertain as to why torturing children leads to an overall bad outcome, but we are convinced that it does. All of our beliefs, including our pseudo-moral beliefs, are shaped by social and biological evolution, i.e. by reality exerting selection pressure. If Omelas were physically possible, it would seem to require some physics very different from our own. Indeed, LeGuin gives us no mechanism at all by which the suffering of the scapegoat child actually causes the benefits to Omelas. LeGuin only assumes but does not prove that our modern pseudo-moralistic beliefs fail to conform to reality.

Pragmatism cannot be a purely "rationalistic" project, i.e. that we must predict the outcomes of all possible actions using rigorous, scientific logic, and choose the action that will produce the best outcome. Instead, pragmatism entails adding a conscious, intentional selection pressure to our moral beliefs. We can at times determine that a pseudo-moralistic belief leads to a bad outcome or prevents a good outcome. When we can make that determination, we change the pseudo-moralistic belief. The burden of proof is still on the pragmatist ("if it works, don't fix it" conservatism is obviously correct).

But pragmatists can meet that burden. We know, for example, that homosexuality causes no real harm: to oppress and marginalize homosexuals causes them considerable suffering to no real benefit. Our pseudo-moralistic beliefs about the evils of homosexuality must fall to our knowledge. We know that childhood sex education (real education, not abstinence-only ignorance fetishism) prevents pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases; our pseudo-moralistic beliefs about protecting children's sexual ignorance "innocence" must fall to our knowledge. I do not, however, believe that we would ever know that torturing a child would lead to the otherwise wonderful society of Omelas; if the laws of physics were such that it could, then it's also plausible that I would have received a different evolutionary legacy in my own moral beliefs, and would find nothing wrong with it.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Religion and metaphor

In any work of literature, when the writer uses metaphor and indirect symbolism, she loses control of the meaning of the story: the reader must supply his own interpretation. Not only must the reader supply part of the meaning, but metaphor often entails that the writer has put something of herself in the story that she did not intend. The reader can ask not only what the metaphor means, but can also ask: why did she choose this particular metaphor, instead of another? And, in his exegesis, the reader can also unwittingly reveal something of himself.

So Andrew Sullivan has a metaphorical interpretation of Genesis. I think it's a stupid interpretation, but whatever: the whole point of metaphorical interpretation is that the reader himself is the authority on the interpretation (and Sullivan's exegesis does tell us something about himself). But even admitting metaphor, that the text is not literally true, is just the first step. What strikes me about Sullivan's piece and religion in general is that the religious seem to hold that there is always one authoritative metaphorical interpretation. Sullivan argues his interpretation; he does not read it that way. (In Sullivan's defense, I suspect many outside religion, including in academic literary criticism, share the quest for the One True Interpretation. But that makes them just as mistaken).

Putting aside how a mystery can make sense of anything, Sullivan reads Genesis as a real "fall", and the Resurrection "finally fulfilled by humankind's ultimate, universal embrace of a loving God through the aeons of time." All right, that's his reading. My reading is of humanity's first awareness that we are responsible for our own destiny. We are perhaps resentful, just as children can be resentful when they are pushed out of the nest to fend for themselves as adults. Our "redemption" is not regaining the innocence of the Garden of Eden but rather fully accepting our self-responsibility. My interpretation is just as good as any other, because it is just as much about me as it is about Adam and Eve and the ancient poet who first imagined the story.

No religion could accept my interpretation. A metaphorical view of religion just moves the problem around and trades the authority of the literal meaning of the words for the authority of the One True Interpretation (or perhaps for the most shockingly liberal, a range of acceptable interpretations). The New Atheist project, however, is not really against the Bible (or the scripture du jour) itself, but against the authority to interpret scripture in a particular way. Our project is not to invalidate scripture, but move the "holy" books from the realm of scripture to the realm of the Humanities, to place the Bible, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, etc. (ad nauseam) with the Iliad — not the worst company.

Friday, October 07, 2011

The Bible as literature

Ancient literature is not really my thing. No one can study everything, and I'm happy to pick up bits and pieces of ancient literature from secondary and tertiary sources.

I personally don't find the Bible particularly profound, but to hold that the Bible is a profound work of literature from cover to cover — that it contains nothing but valuable insights into human nature and the human experience — works not at all against the New Atheist or anti-religious project. The metaphorical, literary insights in any work of literature has nothing to do with the literal truth of those metaphors. The Iliad can be (and is) a profound work of literature (more profound than the Bible in my not-at-all-humble opinion), can (and does) offer valuable insights into human nature and human existence, without Zeus, Hera, etc. being literally true. One does not need a shred of faith to find value in literary metaphor; one must only relate the work to one's own experience: an endeavor as scientific in spirit as the most rigorous experiment in particle physics. We require either proof or faith only when we cannot directly and rationally relate the metaphor to our personal experience.

I simply cannot relate, for example, the experience of Nazi Germany to my own experience. If you told me the story of Nazi Germany and the Second Imperialist war as a work of fiction, I would dismiss it as incomprehensible nonsense: it cannot be that actual human beings would do such a thing. The only way I can believe it is that we can prove that it really did happen.

Thus with the Bible: If its metaphors are accessible, then I need no faith to use them. I don't have to "believe in" God or Jesus any more than I have to believe in Zeus and the Fates to appreciate the Iliad. On the other hand, I would have to have either faith or proof to believe in Nazi Germany. Since I renounce faith, without proof I would find its metaphors useless.

If so-called religious people want to put the Bible (and the Koran, etc.) on the same intellectual footing as the Iliad, then the Atheists have won. Our project is not to destroy the literary value of the Bible; our project is to destroy the notion that it has value because, like the story of Nazi Germany, is is true.

The Stupid! It Burns! (Original sin edition)

the stupid! it burns! Andrew Sullivan usually avoids burning stupidity, but today...
I would argue that original sin is a mystery that makes sense of our species’ predicament – not a literal account of a temporal moment when we were all angels and a single act that made us all beasts. We are beasts with the moral imagination of angels. But if we are beasts, then where did that moral imagination come from? If it is coterminous with intelligence and self-awareness, as understood by evolution, then it presents human life as a paradox, and makes sense of the parable. For are we not tempted to believe we can master the universe with our minds – only to find that we cannot, and that the attempt can be counter-productive or even fatal? Isn’t that delusion what Genesis warns against?

Religion turns even the most intelligent (and Sullivan is smarter than you and me put together) into blithering idiots.

(via Jerry Coyne)

[fixed link]

Communitarianism and sacrifice

One definition of communitarianism is that the individual should in some sense sacrifice her individual good for the good of society. Thus, in opposition, individualism entails that the individual should not sacrifice her individual good for the good of society. If, for example, society needs more shoes, the communitarian would say that an individual should not pursue the occupation she prefers, but should make shoes; the individualist says that the individual should do what she prefers, and if society is left without enough shoes, too bad for society. It's more complicated than that, of course: if society wants more shoes, it can somehow raise the level of compensation so that the individual, because of that compensation, wants to make shoes. The difference is who must "give way" to the other: communitarianism says that the individual must "give way" to society; individualism says that society must "give way" to the individual.

There are two problems with this definition. First, there is no such actual, concrete thing as "society". Society is just a label we give to some abstract sense of the preferences, desires and opinions of a group of individuals. It's a useful abstraction, but both communitarianism and individualism according to the definitions above really can't avoid the fallacy of reification. More importantly, the word "sacrifice" is both ill-defined and its negative connotation subtly biases the discussion.

In one sense, sacrifice just means giving something up. In this sense, all mutually exclusive choices entail sacrifice. If I choose vanilla ice cream, I must sacrifice the chocolate; if I choose chocolate, I must sacrifice vanilla. Sacrifice in this sense is trivially unavoidable: until we can live forever and have everything we want, everyone must constantly make sacrifices.

Ayn Rand offers a better definition of sacrifice: A Randian sacrifice is giving up a greater value for a lesser value*. If I choose vanilla over chocolate because I prefer vanilla, I am giving up a lesser value for a greater, and thus not making a Randian sacrifice. Rand has an objective definition of value, so in her account someone can be fooled into making a Randian sacrifice; in a subjectivist account of value, a Randian sacrifice must be physically coerced**. But Rand's definition introduces a subtle paradox.

*I could cite this, but I'm lazy, and I don't think that Rand defines sacrifice this way is controversial.
**The proof of this statement (and the enthymeme necessary to make a Randian sacrifice logically possible) is left as an exercise for the reader.

Rather than look at the tension between the individual and "society", I think it's more illuminating to look at tensions between individuals; in this sense "society" becomes the collection of agreements (which become institutionalized in real societies) that individuals make. The Prisoner's Dilemma* illuminates the paradox.

*Chicken games are, I suspect, more common in practice, but the Prisoner's Dilemma illustrates the paradox more clearly, and I suspect that Chicken games can be reduced to win-win games.

Ex hypothesi, each individual values the choice to defect more than the choice to cooperate. Regardless of what the other agent chooses, each agent finds it better to defect than to cooperate. In a strict, "local" sense, the choice to cooperate entails a Randian sacrifice: mutual cooperation requires that both agents choose to abandon the greater value of defection for the lesser value of cooperation. And yet mutual cooperation is preferable to mutual defection: By mutually defecting, both agents are making a Randian sacrifice of the greater value of mutual cooperation for the lesser value of mutual defection. Where there is an apparent paradox, we are not thinking clearly.

We don't necessarily want to resolve all Prisoner's Dilemma games in favor of mutual cooperation*, but sometimes we do want to resolve them. The essence, then, of political philosophy is whether to resolve Prisoner's Dilemma games in favor of mutual cooperation, and if so, which ones to resolve and how to resolve them.

*as Yoram Bauman points out in The Cartoon Introduction to Economics, mutual defection in price competition, for example, can have positive social benefits.

Which brings us back around to pragmatism vs. moralism. The pragmatist looks at a Prisoner's Dilemma game, and after resolving all the games-within-games, decides that as best he can tell, mutual cooperation is better than mutual defection because the outcome is better. The problem then becomes to determine what social structures and institutions are necessary to achieve mutual cooperation.

There are two kinds of "moralists". The "individualist" moralist says that the local sacrifice is inherently immoral, regardless of the benefits of mutual cooperation. Better mutual defection than the sacrifice necessary for mutual cooperation. The "collectivist" moralist says that because mutual cooperation is better than mutual defection, cooperation is better than defection, regardless of what the other agent does. This philosophy just leads to victimization. (And it is, I think, this sort of asymmetric cooperation that dominates Rand's thinking and lends real weight to her critique.) Amazingly enough, those who most heavily promote the intrinsic moral value of cooperation seem to end up "forced" into defecting themselves.

Because of the fallacy of reification, naive definitions of individualism and collectivism lose coherence. Because there is no such real thing as "society", the question of whether the individual should or should not sacrifice his interests to those of society doesn't make sense. What makes sense is when individuals should sacrifice their interests to those of other individuals, and the fundamental distinction is between pragmatism and moralism. Pragmatism says that individuals should give up their local interests to others when their global, mutual interests outweigh the local losses, i.e. make a Randian sacrifice in the local sense to avoid a Randian sacrifice in a global sense. Moralism says that regardless of the mutual benefit, the structures necessary to ensure that outcome are never justified.

Musings on individualism and communitarianism

theObserver wonders, "if you need a Y axis with ‘Individualistic’ and ‘Communitarian’, and an X axis with moralistic and pragmatic?"

My initial suspicion is that individualism and communitarianism are not really fundamental distinctions. When I think hard about these words, their meanings and distinctions get more slippery, rather than less.

For the last three millennia (perhaps hundreds) we have lived in societies. To some extent, individuals have had to forego their personal desires for the "good of society". Few, I think, would take individualism so far as to say that an individual's desire to kill or rape should take precedence over "society's" desire to be free of murder and rape. (Ayn Rand might be an exception.) On the other hand, the "good of society" is an abstraction: there is no concrete thing as "society" which has goods or desires independently of the individuals comprising that society. Thus, there can be no real tension between the good of the individual and the good of society; there can be only tension between the good of individuals.

The first thing I want to know when I hear about some theory of political philosophy is: why that theory and not some other? What makes your theory better? Which is just a transformation of the atheists' creed: How do you know? I'm not going to say (at first) that your theory is insufficiently or excessively individualistic or communitarian.

One thing I see is that the political philosophies that I tend to find... well... icky... the theories that intuitively go thud instead of ding are strongly moralistic, whether they are traditionally labeled "individualistic" (e.g. Rand) or "communitarian" (fascism or Stalinist* communism). There is a right way for people to be — there is a right way to organize a society — that can be discerned without reference to how that society works out in practice. If 90% of the world has to freeze and starve when the lights go out in New York, well, that's the price we have to pay to get to the right way to live. (It cannot make us all happier, n'est pas?). If a million Jews have to go to the gas chambers, or a million to the gulags, again, that's just the price we have to pay. Hence I see Ayn Rand and Hitler as being politically similar, even though their philosophies seem superficially very different: they are both moralists to the core.

*At least how Stalinism is traditionally conceived. It's plausible that the worst abuses of Stalinism are the consequences of the only possible response available to early 20th century Russia in to Hitler's intent of annihilating the Slavic people.

I don't really see any tension between individualism and collectivism. The only "liberties" I have to give up under pragmatic collectivism are just those I don't want in the first place. I don't care that I have to give up the liberty to cause others to suffer; I don't want to buy happiness at that price. I don't care that I have to give up the liberty to exploit others; if I contribute an hour of hard work to the welfare of others, then I expect in return only an hour of another's hard work. If the product of my hour's work is somehow "more valuable", I am happy to take as my bonus only the public's good opinion. We have to determine what constitutes happiness and suffering and what constitutes "work" (and what constitutes hard work) to a large extent by a social process, but as long as I myself have a real say in that process, I'm willing (under most circumstances) to be satisfied with the judgment of my neighbors. I don't feel like my individuality is at all compromised by these limitations.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

The philosophy of moralism and pragmatism

In part 1, I speculated that moralism vs. pragmatism is a useful axis to arrange political thought and ideology. It's useful in part because, rather than being explicit and intentional, the moralist vs. pragmatist is usually obscured and subconscious. Moralism vs. pragmatism is also a point of intersection between political and ethical philosophy. It's helpful to understand these concepts at a philosophical level to apply them to political thought.

While it's easy to simply define these terms — moralism is about the intrinsic value of actions, regardless of their consequences; pragmatism is about evaluating actions according to their outcomes — it's more difficult to identify these principles in actual thought. A moralist can justly point out that intrinsically bad actions often have bad results, and because it always (or almost always) has a bad result, a pragmatist might say determine that some action was itself bad. In the trivial case, moralism and pragmatism become identical: saying an action is intrinsically bad to some degree is to say that it has bad results to that degree. We need to apply more subtlety to discern these approaches in practice.

It's often helpful to look at edge cases. In an edge case, a moralist will condemn or praise an action even if he acknowledges it has, as best he can tell, the opposite effects. Similarly, a pragmatist will condemn or praise an action even if our moral intuition, applied directly to the action, is the opposite of our evaluation of its effects.

A case in point is Rabbi Moshe Averick's recent article, Pedophilia Is Next On the Slippery Slope. Averick (interpreted with perhaps an excess of charity) makes the argument that even if we were to find that pedophilia had positive consequences, it would still be wrong. His article is full of straw men and lousy arguments, but we can see a thread of moralism in his underlying position. In contrast, if a pragmatist were to find that sexual contact between minors and adults had an overall benefit, he would be forced to admit that his moral intuition was mistaken. I do not believe that pedophilia is actually beneficial, but it's possible that I could change my mind; for the moralist, it's impossible by definition to change his mind, because the outcome is at best only of secondary importance.

Another case in point is Andrew Mellon's position during the Great Depression (as reported by Herbert Hoover):
Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate... [Panic and depression] will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people.
Mellon clearly had a moralistic view: there was at least an incorrect way of living, "high living", which had to be corrected even at the cost of "liquidating" the economic livelihood of millions of people.

Today's post by Paul Krugman has a telling paragraph about moralism in economics:
I don’t fully understand [the resistance among Very Serious People to lowering unemployment]. But a large part of it, it seems obvious, is the intense desire to see economics as a morality play of sin and punishment, where the sinners are, of course, workers and governments, not the bankers. Pain is not an unfortunate consequence of policies, it’s what is supposed to happen.
An evolutionary view of social development helps explain why people adopt moralistic views. In an evolutionary view, our social development is the product of heritable random* variation of social ideas or mores and natural selection. Natural selection works against, it eliminates variations from the pool that can be inherited. Thus, we can say that people randomly develop moral attitudes towards actions themselves; some of these moral attitudes are selected against and eliminated; whatever remains forms the basis of the society's morality (and politics). Since the ideas were not generated intentionally and rationally, we tend to treat them with mystical reverence. In many societies, these ideas come directly from the gods. Moreover, we hold onto these ideas because of meta-evolution: a society cannot exist without some degree of inherent stability in the transmission (heritability) of social ideas. A society will not long survive if each new generation must reconstruct its social and moral ideas from scratch.

*i.e. their generation is uncorrelated with outcomes

Even a die-hard pragmatist such as myself must admit that moralism has some value. We cannot come anywhere close to predicting the consequences of every action; sometimes the best we can say about an action is that it seems to have worked in the past. To the moralist, moralism is an expression of knowledge: they know that some action is right or wrong independently of its outcome. In contrast, the pragmatic use of moralism is an expression of ignorance: some action seems intrinsically right or wrong because we don't know the consequences of acting differently. But we often do know the consequences, and to the pragmatist, knowledge of the consequences outweighs even the most established tradition.

It's important to understand this dimension of ethical thought to differentiate between trivial and substantive conservatism. Trivial conservatism is just the idea that "if it works, don't fix it." In contrast, a substantive conservative holds that those moral intuitions sanctioned by tradition (and, if we are cynical, justify his privilege) are inherently correct. I myself, not only a die-hard pragmatist but also a thoroughgoing radical, adhere to trivial conservatism. But I know what I mean by working and not working: if it doesn't work, we must fix it.