Saturday, March 30, 2013

Jon Hamm's enormous penis

Anyway, as Hamm spoke about the indignity of the whole world constantly discussing his body parts like he’s some piece of meat, presumably Christina Hendricks stood behind him, playing the world’s largest violin with Jon Hamm’s enormous penis.

Sean O'Neal

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Klezmer bluegrass

Yes, it's Klezmer bluegrass. Go figure. I had no idea a clarinet could slide like that.

(via Buce, who is a truly unusual person)


Lord Keynes (not to be confused, presumably, with the late John Maynard Keynes) has a good overview of ethical philosophy. Lord Keynes supposes that
a serious ethical theory must pass three tests:

(1) it must not commit the “appeal to nature” fallacy;

(2) it must explain how it overcomes or is consistent with G. E. Moore’s “naturalistic fallacy,” and

(3) it must explain how it overcomes or is consistent with Hume’s “is–ought” problem (sometimes called Hume’s Law and Hume's Guillotine). [Links original]
Lord Keynes has a good starting point, but he* omits some important considerations.

*I'm presuming that "Lord" is meant in a gendered sense.

First of all, a naturalist such as myself must first ask: what facts does the theory try to explain? This question lies, I think, the core of the opposition to G.E. Moore's non-naturalism. Although I haven't made a detailed study of Moore's ethics, he(and ethical non-naturalism in general) seems to assert that ethics by definition cannot simply be an explanation of some facts. Instead, ethics is the study not of how the objective* world actually is; ethics is the study of how the world ought to be and therefore is actually not. By definition, we cannot differentiate naturally between all the different ways the world is not. There is no natural, scientific truth about how the world objectively ought to be, i.e. one preferable way (or a definable subset of ways) the objective world is not, because there are no observable facts about different ways the world is not that a scientific theory could explain.

*I mean "objective" here in the sense of including only the world outside our minds.

Although there's no metaphysical basis for believing that natural science has a monopoly on truth or knowledge, we should not blithely assume that even if we eliminate science a priori that there is a non-scientific truth to be found. Assuming arguendo that science does give us truth*, my first response to someone placing a domain of discourse outside the bounds of scientific truth is to then ask why we should conclude there is any truth at all in that domain. If science is ruled out, why should we then believe there is any such thing as non-scientific ethical truth? Even if we have some intuition that there really are ethical truths, we already know our intuition is a fallible guide; we need a more rigorous demonstration that there really is something out there to be found in some nonscientific, non-naturalistic way.

*Denying this assumption does not immediately help the case for alternative kinds of truth or knowledge.

The case for non-naturalistic ethics seems similar to a particular apologetic strategy of placing God outside the bounds of natural knowledge, and then assuming the existence of a God. The response is similar: to place God, or anything else, outside the bounds of scientific knowledge makes the assertion of its existence, and even meaning, suspect.

If you were paying attention, you saw me sneak in a subtle bias above, when I talked about objective reality, i.e. the world outside our minds. But, of course, the subjective is also real, and we have ample natural, scientific, observational evidence to conclude that minds really do exist, and enough evidence to conclude that our minds are an emergent physical property of physical brains*. And, it seems, there are some interesting facts to explain about minds, facts that seem to bear a striking resemblance to the sorts of things philosophers label as "ethics."

*Like all scientific theories, this conclusion is provisional, and does not exclude the possibility that we might have evidence in the future to radically revise our understanding of minds.

There are some observable facts about our minds: human beings have preferences, we live socially, and our societies are the result of dialectical processes, the most notable of which are the dialectics between selfishness and altruism (both terms broadly construed) and between social norms and individual desires. And indeed, ethical philosophy concerns itself with these dialectics. Some ethical philosophies take a more reductive view and simply declare either selfishness or altruism, or either social norms or individual desires, irrelevant, impossible, or evil; most nuanced philosophies acknowledge these dialectics at least as tensions, and usually try to resolve the tensions analytically.

Ethics takes its normative character from the fact that human beings are not merely passive, sphexish objects moved around by social reality, but rather actors, beings that act on both the physical and social world to satisfy their preferences and achieve their goals. Furthermore, society presents tensions and dialectics: we cannot satisfy many of our preferences without a society, but society actively frustrates our preferences (see e.g. Freud's The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents.) Fundamentally, then, the study of ethics in the purely descriptive sense consists of psychology, sociology, anthropology, and, to some extent, political science and economics. How have people historically worked out the dialectic between selfishness and altruism, and between social norms and individual desires? But as noted before, people are not just passive objects, they are actors, operating in the present. So we can talk — still scientifically, still naturally, because people and their minds actually exist — about all the different things people want now, and how we can negotiate to decide some reasonably coherent set of goals for the future, and set about achieving them.

Looked at in this way, most of the confusion about ethics seems to disappear. The relevant facts are precisely those subjective facts about how human beings want to change both the physical and social world. The constraints are first how the physical world actually is, and how our actions effect it, and second, how our physical and cultural evolutionary history interacts with our preferences.

I tend to call this view pragmatism: the nontrivial study of how human beings can most effectively change the physical and social world so as to satisfy our preferences and goals. Pragmatism is a fundamentally consequentialist, i.e. concerned primarily with outcomes. Pragmatism is also, in a loose* sense utilitarian, concerned with the promotion of human "happiness" and the reduction of "suffering." (Note that pragmatism should not be confused with expediency or populism, both of which select out some features of normative standards, either immediate effect or majority opinion, as definitive and exclusively authoritative. Pragmatism holds that all the consequence, for all people, are relevant, even though sometimes the immediately useful or the majority opinion might be the pragmatically best option.)

*i.e. without the Benthamite commitment to a strictly linear notion of suffering/happiness and a strictly additive notion of aggregate happiness, which seems like a technical flaw in Benthamite utilitarianism, not a fundamental flaw.

There are, of course, objections to pragmatism. First pragmatism is well, not something other than pragmatism. If one is committed a priori to non-naturalism, then pragmatism is, by virtue of its naturalism, unacceptable. If one is committed to deonticism, pragmatism is, by virtue of its consequentialism, unacceptable. If one is committed to objectivism, then pragmatism is, by virtue of its inherent subjectivism, unacceptable. Pragmatism is what it is, however, and to simply say that it's wrong because it's not an alternative theory is to beg the question at some level or another.

Sometimes these objections are subtly disguised. For example, one might argue, for example, that if the vast majority of people wanted slavery, and very few people objected to it, then pragmatism would condone slavery. The pragmatic response is that the vast majority of people don't want slavery and most do object to it. The opponent believes here that slavery is objectively wrong. But what is the basis for this conclusion? If it is the present unpopularity of slavery, then the evidentiary basis for both our theories would be contradicted by nature. If the opponent believes slavery is objectively wrong for some other reasons than present unpopularity, then she has the burden of explicating those reasons in a non-question-begging way.

Another objective to pragmatism is that it does not provide any guide as to what we should prefer; pragmatism takes our existing preferences, as well as the mutability of those preferences, as facts about the world. But this objection again begs the question: why should an ethical theory tell us what we should prefer, instead of giving us guidance on how we can negotiate and achieve our preferences in a social context? Simply that one prefers than an ethical theory guide our preferences is committing the same "sin" of taking his preferences for granted that he ascribes to pragmatism.

Fundamentally, pragmatism at least satisfies Lord Keynes requirements. It does not commit the "appeal to nature" fallacy, nor does it commit the "is-ought" fallacy, because it does not take the natural world, the world as it is, as the ethical ideal: it recognizes that people want to change the world. It makes an end-run around Moore's naturalistic fallacy, by simply declaring Moore's meta-ethics as incoherent; pragmatism is naturalistic, but takes as its primary domain the subjective, not the objective world.

Thus, I am a pragmatist.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Incentives and political philosophy

In Incentives: Defining and classifying incentives, I tried to define and classify incentives. Briefly, "An incentive is a social institution that encourages some or all citizens to do what they would not do without the incentive." I classified incentives into five broad categories:
  1. Psychological incentives - ways that individuals reconcile conflicts within their own minds
  2. Natural incentives - hunger, thirst, etc.; ways that "nature" impels us to do certain things
  3. Coercive incentives - ways that social institutions make people do things they just don't want to do
  4. Negotiated incentives - trade, reciprocity, quid pro quo
  5. Game-theoretic incentives - social institutions to change Prisoner's Dilemma or Snowdrift/Chicken games to win-win games

Interestingly, we can broadly classify political philosophies using this classification of incentives.

Moralist political philosophies say that there are things people ought to do, but that they just don't want to do, at any level; a sound society, therefore, requires coercive incentives to make them do it. For example, a moralistic political philosophy might say that people really do want to kill each other, and must be actively coerced (or tricked) into not doing so. Plato's Republic, for example, is moralistic through and through: the masses simply do not even perceive reality; therefore, their desires cannot possibly reflect reality. Only the philosopher-kings and -queens can perceive reality, only they can know the good, and therefore they must rule the masses for the masses' own good. Plato relies almost exclusively on fraud, but fraud is just as coercive as force. Moralistic political philosophies are necessarily elitist, because the common, majoritarian prevalence of natural incentives is insufficient for creating a good society, a society where the masses do what they ought to do.

Liberal political philosophies take the opposite view: natural incentives are, at a sufficiently abstract level, a basis for a sound society. In the liberal view, the chief impediment to the good is not that the masses fundamentally do not want the good and thus have to be forced or tricked into the good. Instead, the chief impediments are game-theoretic problems: everyone naturally wants a degree of mutual cooperation in some things, but without a state (or state-like social institutions), individuals cannot create game-theoretic incentives on their own. A sound society with a state exists not to coerce people into going the good they do not naturally want to do, but to allow them to have the good they want but cannot achieve on their own.

Anarchist political philosophies do not believe that game-theoretic incentives justify the creation of states. The actual members of state-like institutions always come to believe their own narrow interests constitute the higher good. While they might have a noble purpose, states inevitably slip from providing liberal game-theoretic incentives to moralistic coercive incentives. If repeated interaction, the free adoption of belief systems, or other non-state mechanisms fail to solve Prisoner's Dilemmas/Chicken games, the cure of the state is worse than the disease.

One liberal critique of anarchism is that the use of violence is ineluctable; the best we can do is centralize the use of violence so that we can socially control it. Violence dispersed to individuals is, in the liberal view, much more difficult to socially manage. Furthermore, because violence is more effective when it is concentrated and disciplined, when violence is initially dispersed, it will tend to concentrate, and states, which are really nothing other that institutions that concentrate and discipline the use of violence, will form more-or-less automatically, regardless of any underlying theoretical justification. Even if state-like institutions really do have a tendency to elitism and moralism, we are stuck with them, at least in the short-term. The best we can do is make them better in the short term, and look at long-term solutions for eliminating the state.

One communist critique of capitalism is that capitalism is a fundamentally moralistic political system masquerading as a liberal political system. In the communist view, capitalism is based on the moralistic view that people ought to work, they ought to continually increase the productive capabilities of a society, but they have no natural incentive at any level of abstraction to do so. The problem, in the capitalist view, is not a game-theoretic problem — it is not that people naturally want to work and want to increase the productive capabilities, but are concerned about free-riders. The capitalist view really is that the masses just don't want to work, and have to be forced to do so. Capitalism's chief innovation is that the compulsion to work stops being direct — work for the feudal lord or be killed — and becomes abstractly economic — work or you don't have enough money to feed yourself. But a peek under capitalism's liberal rhetoric shows its fundamental moralism. As von Mises said, Ayn Rand "had the courage to tell the masses[:] ... you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you." Capitalism is a fundamentally moralistic, elitist system which uses liberal rhetoric to create a "noble lie" to dupe the masses into believing the capitalist state does nothing but give the masses what they want and prevent free-riders from gaming the system. It is, however, the capitalist ruling class itself that is free-riding the system

In my view, communism is the only political philosophy that takes liberalism and utilitarianism seriously. In the communist view, people want to work. Capitalists believe that people have to be forced to work, but communists believe that people have to be forced to work for the benefit capitalist ruling class. Indeed, it is this compulsion to labor for the capitalist ruling class, not work itself, that causes the alienation between individuals and their labor.

At present, our productive forces are insufficiently developed, and nature forces us to work. Communists such as myself believe that capitalism can never build an economy that ameliorates natural compulsion (why should they?). In the transition from capitalism to communism, therefore, communists will inherit insufficiently developed productive forces. Therefore, there will be a phase, transitional communism or democratic socialism, where the state must ensure that some do not free-ride on others' response to nature's compulsion. However, because communism does not view work as inherently alienating and contrary to natural impulses, a transitional communist state can focus only on the game-theoretic incentives and abandon coercive incentives.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

HH on Pragmatism

In a comment on the running debate on Pragmatism, HH asks:
What would your opinion be to the idea that deontological ethics may simply be the result of a long forgotten pragmatism. Where the pragmatic was the initial impetus but over time the pragmatic justifications fall away, perhaps once understood by everyone, and become the ethical rules or moral duties that people inherit. Even our moral/ethical instincts, it could be argued, are the result of the pragmatism required for survival.

Remember, a justification can be different from a causal history.

I suspect the causal history of our moral beliefs is more evolutionary than intentional. There is some sort of heritable variation, and some sort of selection process (which could be group selection, because ideas don't have the "filling the pool" barrier that genes do), and what we see in our actual cultural ideas is the result of that selection. I don't know how one would go about scientifically proving that's what actually happened, or precisely how we are where we are today, but conceptually, the idea of cultural and moral evolution seems straightforward.

Morality is, of course, a phenomenon of learning beings, and human intelligence is just soup-up learning, so it's likely that some of our moral beliefs are intentionally constructed, and we might have, for some of those, subsequently lost intentionality. But others may never have been intentional ever: they arose by chance, were inherited, and not yet selected against.

But the question is not how did we get the moral beliefs we have today. Instead, s what beliefs do we want preserve into tomorrow?

HH quotes the post:
That pragmatism says that sometimes people have preferences for outcomes that most other people would consider bad, it's doing the job that any meta-ethical system must do.
and asks:
I think I understand what you are saying but unless you are suggesting that popularity be the metric of how ethical a pragmatic solution is, you still have the problem of why any proposed outcome is more ethical than alternatives. Could deonto-ethics just be the initial position that violation of X core moral principles is a worse pragmatic outcome than other outcomes. Does pragmatism need to fiat assume what outcomes are better or worse before actions can be evaluated?

I avoid saying things like "popularity be the metric of how ethical a pragmatic solution is." It assumes there is some quality "ethicalness", which is ontologically distinct from but is hypothesized to be causally linked to another quality, "popularity." Because we can measure popularity, if the causal linkage were true, then popularity would serve as a proxy for ethicalness.

However, I start by saying I have no idea what "ethicalness" might mean, as an inherent property of actions or conditions, independent of our beliefs about those actions and conditions. Thus, the best I can say about popularity is that when making a social decision, c.p. the society will make the more popular decision.

What would you say is ,at least for you, the ultimate objective of ethics? Why be ethical?

I don't really worry about ultimate objectives. I'm just trying to make the world a better place, i.e. one that I would approve of more than I approve of the world we have. I'll let God worry about ultimate objectives.