Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The real State of the Union

The Real State of the Union

By Hugh

The state of the Union is crap. 20% of the country is doing OK. 1% is doing fantastically. 0.001% is doing so well it’s criminal, literally. They don’t own everything yet but they do own the politicians, judges, regulators, academics, and reporters. So they’re getting there. The other 80%, the rubes, the muppets, the serfs, are mired in an undeclared, ongoing depression.

Hugh goes on, and it gets more depressing, and more persuasive.

Monday, January 27, 2014

What a ride!

Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a Ride!’

— Hunter S. Thompson

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Long Con: Mail-order conservatism

The Long Con
Mail-order conservatism
by Rick Perlstein

Mitt Romney is a liar. Of course, in some sense, all politicians, even all human beings, are liars. Romney’s lying went so over-the-top extravagant by this summer, though, that the New York Times editorial board did something probably unprecedented in their polite gray precincts: they used the L-word itself. “Mr. Romney’s entire campaign rests on a foundation of short, utterly false sound bites,” they editorialized. He repeats them “so often that millions of Americans believe them to be the truth.” “It is hard to challenge these lies with a well-reasoned-but- overlong speech,” they concluded; and how. Romney’s lying, in fact, was so richly variegated that it can serve as a sort of grammar of mendacity. . . .

Pundits—that is to say, the ones who aren’t stitched into their profession’s lunatic semiology, which holds that it’s unfair to call a Republican a liar unless you call a Democrat one too—have been hard at work analyzing what this all says about Mitt Romney’s character. And more power to them. But that’s not really my bag. . . . In my view, powerful men are but a means to the more profound end of sizing up the shifting allegiances on the demand side of our politics.

All righty, then: both the rank-and-file voters and the governing elites of a major American political party chose as their standardbearer a pathological liar. What does that reveal about them?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Existential angst

Most atheists I know, myself included, just don't feel anything even remotely resembling "existential angst." In The Undergraduate Atheists, Unamuno, and Johnson, Stefany Anne Golberg and Morgan Meis describe the character of Miguel de Unamuno, the author whose story features prominently in Johnson's recent article (which I address in a earlier post). According to Golberg and Meis, for Unamuno, "true doubt is to put yourself at the heart of the contradiction between faith and reason, to be tormented by the questions marks. It is to spend life hovering over the abyss, terrified."

Some atheists, I suppose, feel this existential angst, but most of us atheists are simply not terrified by these contradictions, we are not afraid of the abyss; indeed, we don't really see any abyss. The authors quote Unamuno: "Since we only live in and by contradictions, since life is tragedy and the tragedy is perpetual struggle, without victory or the hope of victory, life is contradiction." We see a lot of tragedy in the world, of course, but we do not see the idea of life as perpetual struggle itself as some grand tragedy. That's just what life is. Whatever it is that intellectuals like Unamuno are feeling, a lot of us just don't feel it. We're born, we live a little while, and then we die. It doesn't scare us at all.

There are two possibilities. First, we are somehow "missing out" on an important part of the human experience. But if so, it doesn't seem to otherwise affect us. Atheists span the range of humanity, from the relatively poor to the ultra-wealthy, from the criminal to the the mundane to the great. We build houses, books, movies, scientific theories, nations, and ideologies. We are workers, thinkers, scientists, writers, doctors, actors, engineers. We are friends, lovers, spouses, and sometimes opponents and enemies. We are happy, sad, angry, frustrated, bored, excited, jealous, envious, satisfied, and dissatisfied. Other than this existential angst, we don't seem to do or feel anything different from those who do feel existential angst.

The alternative to the idea that we are "missing out" is that existential angst is just people driving themselves crazy. They can't stand the idea that there isn't some "higher purpose" to human life. They can't just say, "No higher purpose? Ok. So what?" Sure, we do not look at this question with any kind of "nuance" or "sophistication." There is no there there. Any one human life, indeed all of humanity, has not the slightest bit of cosmic or transcendental importance. So what? I am here now, I am enjoying my life now, what more do I need? We see existential angst as a kind of tragi-comic vanity. Tragic, because it really does cause people to suffer; comic, because the idea that your minuscule bag of carbon, water, and a few trace elements matters to an unimaginably immense universe (which may be only one of many) seems ridiculous to us.

Indeed, we see existential angst as a craziness inculcated to no small extent by religious institutions. Some people (Nietzsche) will feel it "naturally," but I think most people would never give Unamuno's "abyss" a second thought had they not been indoctrinated as children into the idea that human beings do have cosmic importance, an importance that cannot be reconciled with a clear-eyed look at the actual universe. Our understanding that the loss of religion will not only remove a way to satisfy our desire for cosmic importance, but also take away the desire to look for a solution.

We atheists don't have contempt for the ordinary religious believer. We're a little sad; we wish that religious believers didn't have the problems that religion seems to solve (or at least palliate), but hey, everyone has to get through the day.

We do, however, have a degree of contempt for those who say that we're broken and wrong because we don't share their terror, for those who insist that we shut up and play along with a delusion just so their vanity isn't further wounded.

If you feel existential angst, if you are terrified by the meaninglessness of the universe, if you feel like religion has to play some part in dealing with that angst and terror, then do what you have to do. But don't look down on me for not sharing your terror, and don't demand that I pretend to support your delusions.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Utilitarianism in one easy lesson

Several readers, many considerably smarter than I am, have complained that many of my recent posts are too boringly technical. I like being boringly technical, a legacy of (or perhaps cause of) my career as a computer programmer. This blog is for myself, to think out loud, but it's also to communicate. So I want to try to explain Utilitarianism in a somewhat less technical way. If anyone has any technical questions, feel free to dig into them in the comments. I hope (probably vainly) that this disclaimer will reduce the sort of you-didn't-address-this-technical-issue-you-moron responses I get when I talk about philosophy.

Utilitarianism is an ethical system that says an individual should choose what will maximize the well-being (utility) of everyone (including herself) in the world, over time, keeping in mind that we have a scary level of uncertainty about how to do so. The rest is commentary.

Like any other ethical system, there is no absolutely compelling reason why one should or must adopt Utilitarianism: people choose to adopt Utilitarianism. (They can also choose to lie about adopting Utilitiarianism; that some non-Utilitarians lie and say they are Utilitarians is one argument that Utilitarianism seems like a good idea.)

Utilitarianism starts from the scientific psychological theory that individuals try to maximize their own individual subjective utility. They choose what they evaluate will maximize their own "happiness" and minimize their own "suffering." This theory is distinct from "sphexishness," the theory that people just act out algorithmic scripts and make no evaluations about the outcome. Psychological utility is a theory; we cannot directly measure utility, so psychological utility uses a "hidden variable" to explain observed human behavior.

Utilitarianism then builds on the scientific psychological theory that human beings have evolved the faculties of sympathy and empathy. We can, to no small extent, understand the happiness and suffering of other people (and animals), and we ourselves feel happy at others' happiness and suffering at others' suffering (or, sometimes, the other way around). We don't consciously choose to be empathic; our empathy is more-or-less directly connected to our emotions. We do, however, scientifically observe that this connection is, for many, fragile: a person can be persuaded or socialized to break the connection between others' happiness and suffering and his own.

Utilitarianism is very much a real-world system. Hence, Utilitarians don't worry much about philosophical pseudo-problems such as Omelas, the Trolley Problem, or the Lifeboat scenario. Would Klingons be Utilitarians? Vulcans? Groachi? All of these scenarios wave away important real-world constraints, especially uncertainty, that have shaped human moral intuition. I can't, for example, even imagine a world where the suffering of a child could have any beneficial effect whatsoever, much less be necessary for a utopian society; I really don't care that Utilitarianism in an imaginary world with inconceivably different physics conflicts with my moral intuitions shaped by this world. And how often do people find themselves trapped on an overcrowded lifeboat? Is the most important task for our ethical philosophy to give the right answer in such a situation? Don't get me wrong: a lot of people (myself included) find all of these philosophical investigations interesting (and digging down and getting technical, I think Utilitarianism can either give a good account for itself or at least a good account of why these scenarios assume away critical foundations of utilitarianism) and thought provoking; they just not very good for helping us shape our choices in this world, in this society.

Instead, Utilitarianism focuses on answering the ethical problems that face real people in real societies. Who should I vote for? What laws and public policies should I support? What rules should the police operate under? When and how much should I conserve water, gasoline, CO2 emissions? When should I obey the law and when should I break it? Should I shop at Wal-Mart, Target, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, or at the bodega?

Utilitarianism has, in my opinion, one good answer to these questions: do the best you can to maximize the utility of everyone, including yourself, assuming that (most) everyone does the same. If you cannot be assured that most everyone really will do the same, you have a bigger problem than the immediate choice.

I want to address some typical objections to Utilitarianism that are not just pseudo-problems.

The first objection is that Utilitarianism requires perfect knowlege (which is different from the pseudo-problematic objection that Utilitarianism would fail if we had perfect knowledge). This objection fails because it assumes that without perfect knowledge, we can say nothing at all about the consequences of our actions on the well-being of other people. This assumption contradicts our everyday experience. I don't know all the consequences of going on a killing spree — who knows, I might kill someone who would otherwise become the next Hitler — but I can be pretty confident that I will be harming a lot of people, and their suffering will far exceed the pleasure I might get from such unbridled violence. (I suppose I really need to say it: this is a thought experiment. I would not actually get any pleasure whatsoever from killing anyone.)

Utilitarianism deals with uncertainty in three ways. First, if it isn't broken, don't fix it: If you don't have good reason to believe that changing the status quo will lead to more well-being, then don't change it. Second, talk about it: have a social conversation about what other people really want and how best to get it. It's not always true, but it often is true that all of us are smarter than any one of us. Finally, learn from history: we have spent millennia (and even the earliest written records show that people had been talking about morality, law, and politics in sophisticated ways) discussing what the greater good consists of and how to establish and maintain a society that provides it. We are not, as Burke suggests, bound by history, but we ignore it at our peril.

The second objection is that Utilitarianism entails that no one individual, not even one's self, is special or privileged. It seems to follow then that I should kill myself, because my organs could save at least seven people (two kidneys, two lungs, a heart, a liver, and a pancreas, not to mention my skin, corneas, veins and arteries, and bones). Seven lives are better than one, n'est pas. However, the "no one is special" principle cuts both ways: it entails the principle of universiality: I should sacrifice my own utility only if I believe that well-being would be maximized if everyone sacrificed the same utility. Otherwise, I am singling myself out to be special.

The third objection, related to the second, is that Utilitarianism requires that we put the well-being of slackers, racists, assholes, and criminals on an equal basis to the well-being of hard-working, egalitarian, nice, law-abiding civilized citizens. This objection is sort of accurate: we are obligated to treat everyone's utility "equally," but only in an abstract sense. Most of our intutions deprecating others' utility turn out, on abstract philosophical investigation, to be Utilitarian. Even if, as a thought exercise, we don't make a prior commitment that the happiness of the rapist just doesn't count, we find that the rapist's happiness is far outweighed by the victim's suffering. In the rest of the cases, we really should change our intuitions: when, as a thought experiment, we don't make a prior commitment that the happiness of a homosexual doesn't count, we find that others' disgust of his sexuality is far outweighed by his happiness at having a same-sex relationship.

The fourth objection is that Utilitarianism is not rights-respecting. Rights-respecting ethical systems state that there are things we should not do, rights we should not violate, even if we have good reason to believe that violating a right would improve overall well-being. In one sense, this objection is just the trivial statement that different ethical systems are different. However, the argument for extra-Utilitarian rights usually relies on wildly unrealistic hypotheticals: Omelas, for example, is wrong in a rights-respecting system because regardless of utility, they are violating the rights of the tortured child. But as I discussed above, it's not really worthwhile talking about the morality of situations that we have good reason to believe cannot ever happen in the future.

The other arguments for rights usually consist of defining utility too narrowly. It might seem that randomly killing people for their organs passes the Utilitarian "no one is special" test (since, hypothetically, each person has an equal probability of being harvested), but this hypothetical construes utility too narrowly. We don't implement such a system because most people would prefer (find greater utility) to take their chances with voluntary organ donation than risk being harvested. Similarly, sacrificing an innocent individual to appease an angry mob seems to have short-term utility, but we have good reason to believe that in the long term, such an action would substantially diminish the well-being of people in a society, who couldn't trust fair and impartial (or as fair and impartial as we can manage) justice.

(There are other, more technical, objections to rights-respecting ethics, which I can address in the comments. See Robert Nozick's Anarchism, State, and Utopia, for a catalog of errors a sincere rights-respecting ethical philosopher can make.)

The final objection I want to discuss is that Utilitarianism is hard. Yep, 'tis indeed. We don't know what other people really want. We don't know who is or is not a sincere Utilitarian. We don't know all the consequences of our actions. The best I can say about Utilitarianism is that it gives us a framework for each of us, individually and collectively, to do the best we can with what we have, and it rests on a foundation that is scientifically sound. If you want easy answers, join a religion (or become a Libertarian). All I can say about Libertarianism is, "Are you fucking kidding me?" And all I can say about religion is that either god is a shitty Utilitarian (and if so, fuck him/her/it/them), or he/she/it/they want us to work this stuff out for ourselves, which is what I'm trying to do.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Epistemology of ethics

The chief question of any moral philosophy is its epistemic basis. How do we know moral statements? This question resolves to asking, what is the foundation of moral philosophy, and what kind of foundation is it?

Briefly, there are two kinds of foundations: axiomatic and hypothetical. An axiomatc foundation is one with premises (or a rule for constructing premises) accepted as axioms, i.e. true by definition, and all theorems, i.e. statements that deductively follow from those axioms according to inference rules, are true. Most (but not all) mathematics uses axiomatic foundations. The axioms of set theory, for example, are true by definition, and all theorems, however surprising or counterintuitive, are true. The "game" of mathematics is to try to derive a lot of "interesting" theorems, especially theorems that explain our experience, with as few axioms as possible. Set theory, on that basis, is wildly successful.

A hypothetical foundation, on the other hand, takes a collection of theorems (and nontheorems), i.e. complex statements, as true (or false) by definition. The project under an empirical foundation is to construct the smallest set of hypotheses and inference rules from which we can derive the truth of the foundational theorems (and the falsity of the foundational nontheorems). Natural science is the paradigm of hypothetical foundationalism: statements about experience are taken as true by definition, and our scientific theories are collections of hypotheses from which we can derive those statements of experience.

In an axiomatic foundation, the truth of the theorems is the same "kind" of truth as the axioms: we cannot consistently call a theorem false without rejecting one or more axioms (or inference rules). In a hypothetical foundation, however, hypotheses are never true in the same sense as the foundational theorems: we can reject a hypothesis, regardless of its explanatory power, without rejecting the foundational theorems, especially if we discover a new foundational theorem or nontheorem that the hypothesis contradicts. It is, in a sense, impossible to be mistaken if we apply the inference rules accurately about the truth of theorems in an axiomatic system. In contrast, even if we apply the rules accurately, we can be mistaken about the truth of a hypothesis.

We have the same choice in moral reasoning: what do we take as our foundation? If we want to use an axiomatic foundation, then as we see in mathematics, we have a lot of choice in our axioms. In mathematics, this choice is unproblematic, we can just say that each choice of axioms is a different branch of mathematics. We really don't care, for example, if the parallel postulate is "really" true or "really" false; we just call the axiom set where it's true by definition, "Euclidian (plane) geometry," and call the axiom sets where it's not true by definition, different kinds of "non-Euclidian geometry." In moral philosophy, however, this choice is more problematic: a moral philosophy is, by definition, normative, it should tell us what to actually do, and we can do only one thing at a time. So if I can derive from one set of moral axioms that I should pay my taxes, and I can derive from another set that I should not pay them, I am no better off deciding whether I should or should not pay my taxes than I was before I studied moral philosophy; and I cannot both pay and not pay my taxes. It's pretty clear (at least to me) that trying to base moral philosophy on an axiomatic foundation is a dead end.

Most philosophers (including Nozick) implicitly or explicitly use moral intuition as a hypothetical foundation. They try to set up moral hypotheses that "capture" our moral intuitions; especially, they try to show that some alternative moral theory contradicts our moral intuition, and is therefore false. The problem with this foundation is that moral philosophy is still non-normative: our intuitions themselves are normative; our moral philosophy merely describes, in a more-or-less compact way, our foundational moral intutions. Moral philosophy, on an intuitive level, is descriptive. Indeed it is a rather blatant contradiction to say that moral philosophy X explains and describes some subset of moral intuitions, and therefore should be accepted, and then say that X contradicts certain other moral intuitions, and we should therefore reject those other intuitions. (This fundamental contradiction is so pervasive, and perhaps unavoidable, in academic moral philosophy that I simply abandoned the idea of pursuing philosophy as a career.)

(There is another mostly unrelated problem in using moral intuition as a hypothetical foundation: how robust should our moral theories be to counterfactuals? Should we reject a moral theory because it contradicts our intuition about states of affairs that appear physically impossible? Such is one rebuttal to the Omelas problem: It seems not only physically impossible in this world that the torture and deprivation of a single child was necessary to produce a society where everyone else was happy, but also that the laws of physics could be such that it was necessary but everything else was the same as this world. The inapplicability of my intutions to such a wild counterfactual seems completely irrelevant; Omelas is problematic only to the inhabitants of that world; it says nothing at all about this actual world. Similarly is the rebuttal to a lot of hypotheticals so beloved by many moral philosophers such as the Trolley Problem (parodied masterfully in Can Bad Men Make Good Brains do Bad Things?) that assume perfect knowledge or absolute certainty that is physically impossible.)

The only answer, it seems, is to bite the bullet: moral philosophy is not normative. A person either chooses the moral axioms she likes and acts according to the theorems derivable from those axioms, or examines her moral intuition and tries to construct a philosophy that explains those intuitions. In the second case, moral philosophy can at least provide guidance when one's immediate moral intuition is unclear, or one feels some sort of contradiction or incompatibility between one's moral intuitions or between intuition and desire.

Furthermore, moral intuition is labile in a sense that (perceptual) experience, the foundation of natural science, is stabile, or at least fundamentally and qualitatively less labile. It is very easy to change one's moral intuition in a way that it is very difficult to change one's perceptions. Perceptions do change, for a number of reasons, but it's still hard to see a tree in my front yard and not see the trees in my back yard. In contrast, people can go from treating Jewish prisoners in concentration camps as human beings to treating them as worse than animals in as little as a few days, and usually a month or two (see Becoming Evil by James Waller).

Moral philosophy is a fundamentally dialectical process, a process that can be divorced neither from this real physical world nor from the society that the moral philosopher thinks and lives in. Moral philosophy emerges from the contradictions between the individual and society and reality.

Engaging in that dialectic is my project as a moral philosopher. I don't claim any transcendent or universal truth for utilitarianism. Because of who I am, my biological evolution, the society in which I was raised, how I was brought up as a child, and my experiences as an adult, I have certain intuitions and feelings about good and bad, preferences about how I want to live my own life, and preferences about the society and culture I both happen to live in now and that I would like to live in tomorrow. Utilitarianism captures a lot of those intuitions, helps me examine those intuitions critically, gives me guidance about what I want to do when my intuitions seem ambiguous and equivocal. I can ask no more from philosophy.

More "undergraduate atheism"

tl;dr: Fundamentalists are bad, therefore atheists are stupid.

I will first repeat my complaint that the term "undergraduate atheism" is essentially bigotry against undergraduates. I not only am an undergraduate myself, but I know many other undergraduates who are as smart, sophisticated and nuanced as any Ph.D. (And, frankly, I know some Ph.D.s who are as stupid and unsophisticated as the worst sort of undergrad, and who wouldn't recognize nuance if it nibbled gently on their ear.) The term is, frankly, as offensive and demeaning as "retard atheists" would be.

But I can set aside my offense at the term, and look at the merits, or lack thereof, of particilar arguments against so-called "undergraduate atheists." Sadly, Michael Robbins' latest missive in the discussion, More on the "Undergraduate Atheists", (mentioned apparently favorably on the usually good 3quarksdaily) fails even to offer an argument.

Robbins begins his article (a review of Molly Worthen's Apostles of Reason, which apparently traces the conflict between Christian fundamentalism and modernity) with what amounts to the oft-heard complaint that 99% of theists give the other 1% a bad name. One reason Robbins, like most apologists for "sophisticated" theology ignores the fundamental atheist critique of religion: yes, we know that "sophisticated" theology does not have the same objectionable features that a lot of fundamentalists have; the point is that the sophisticated critique of the fundies is secular, not theological. The fundies say God hates fags; the sophisticated crowd says God loves all people, including LGBTQ folk, but how does anyone know what God likes or hates? Why should what God likes or hates have anything to do with anything. Furthermore, if we look at the Bible (Old and New Testaments) and the Koran, it sure looks like the fundies have the simpler, more natural, less convoluted interpretation. On the other hand, if the sophisticated theologians argue that we have to interpret the Bible (or Koran) in light of modern, secular morality, why bother? Just endorse secular morality directly. In what sense is the Bible "sacred" if it has to change to accommodate us?

Robbins declares that "One of the worst aspects of conservative evangelicalism is that too often, especially on its fundamentalist fringes, its literalism encourages know-nothing atheism of the Dawkins variety." Above the article is a more explicit sentiment: "The worst thing about conservative evangelicals is that they encourage clowns like Richard Dawkins." I don't know, however, if this is the author's or the editor's statement.)

Really. Really!? Dawkins is worse than letting children die of treatable illnesses, worse than the oppression of women, worse than acid thrown in women's faces, worse than the erosion of abortion and contraception rights, worse the murder of abortion doctors, worse than the oppression of LGBTQ people, worst than the murder and assault of gay people, worse than the horrific bullying of gay children, worse than the erosion of science teaching in our schools, worse than those who, as Robbins quotes Marilynne Robinson, "have made religion seem foolish while rendering it mute in the face of a prolonged and highly effective assault on the poor." No, the real failure of fundamentalism is that it has created "know-nothing" atheists. Worse than sectarian violence. Gotcha, Mike.

Robbins does not actually argue that atheists actually have anything wrong. He indulges in some name-calling ("know-nothing," "undergraduate," "ignorant," "inept," and perhaps "clowns"), drops a few names, "The 'undergraduate atheists,' as the philosopher Mark Johnston dubbed them in Saving God, have been definitively refuted by [David Bentley] Hart, Terry Eagleton, Marilynne Robinson, Johnston himself, and others." Have we now? I guess we'll have to take Robbins' word for it, and ignore all the atheists who have challenged Hart, Eagleton, Robinson, and Johnston's works.

Although Robbins does not actually give us a clue as to why we're wrong, he does tell us (a little) what we're wrong about:
Such unbelievers seem to me to have missed something quite fundamental about the nature of being, as it appears to the human animal, something that the major theistic traditions attempt to address with rather more nuance and generosity than contemporary updates to logical positivism can muster. You don’t, obviously, have to believe in God to feel humbled and bewildered before what Heidegger called “the question of the meaning of Being.” (Indeed, I often think the notion of “belief” is more trouble than it’s worth.) But you do have to acknowledge that there is a question, “the major question that revolves around you,” as John Ashbery puts it: “your being here.” And you have to recognize that it concerns something outside the scope of the natural sciences.
Seriously? The question of the meaning of Being? Forget murder, rape, oppression, violence, terrorism, imperialism, because of course religion has nothing whatsoever to do with any of that (except, of course, for the majority of religious believers who do think religion has a lot to do with that: they are wrong wrong wrong! about what religion really is, and atheists are just as wrong wrong wrong about believing that just because the majority of religious believers think it does), we have the fundamental question of the meaning of Being!

The "meaning of Being" is philosophical twaddle. It is "fundamental" only to over-educated middle-class white people. Perhaps "undergraduate" atheism is a correct title: you have to have years of graduate school indoctrination to get your head sufficiently far up your ass to take such twaddle seriously.

To a certain extent, Robbins is correct: we atheists, "seem not only to have never met an intelligent, educated believer, but to doubt that such a creature could exist." 'Tis true: intelligent, educated believers are few and far between, and many of those hide or minimize their faith. We know they exist: what we have trouble believing is that intelligent, educated people could take such vacuous twaddle as "the meaning of Being" to be an interesting question, much less the most important question there is, a question where getting it wrong is the worst possible thing. Yes, I've met intelligent, educated believers (many of whom are my friends); I don't discuss religion with them because the minute they say anything other than, "that's just what I believe because I want it to be true," they start sounding like idiots.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Diagrams and dollars

How money really works

DIAGRAMS & DOLLARS: modern money illustrated (Part 1)
DIAGRAMS & DOLLARS: modern money illustrated (Part 2)

The government creates money; it does not need to collect taxes or borrow money from the private sector (or other countries) to pay for what it wants. The only way for people in the private sector to get money is for the government to give it to them; the government can create money and either and buy stuff with it or give it to people. Taxes are used to give value to money and to drain excess money from the private sector to control inflation. Government "debt" is just a mechanism to move large amounts of money out of circulation to control inflation, and government "debt" is just net private financial wealth.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Local and global utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is often held to be the doctrine that when faced with any decision, an individual should choose the alternative that ceteris paribus maximizes immediate social utility. There are many problems with this formulation, but I want to look at one specific problem.

This would be easier with a diagram, but I'm on my pad without a good drawing program, so I'll just have to describe it. Consider a very simple, 2-dimensional model of utility, with states of affairs on the x-axis, and total utility on the y-axis. The utility function is continuous and has many peaks and valleys. We will assume that an individual knows the utility function, and can choose to "move left," "move right," or "stay put," i.e. to choose between two nearby states of affairs with different levels of total utility.

The current state of affairs is near a local maximum/peak, but there is another maximum, which an individual knows, that is substantially higher than the local maximum, with an intervening trough of lower utility. The question is: is an individual justified in moving towards that higher peak even though the immediate effect is to lower total immediate utility?

I will simply define two forms of utilitarianism.

Local Utilitarianism says absolutely, unconditionally not. If random, unchosen social perturbations happen to move us across the trough so that maximizing local utility moves us to the higher maximum, well and good, but it is immoral to intentionally lower total social utility even though we know we are moving towards a higher maximum.

In contrast, Global Utilitarianism says that it is possible to justify moving towards the higher peak even though we are reducing total immediate social utility. It is not necessarily justifiable, however, because there are other constraints. For example, the intervening trough might be so deep, with such negative utility, so as to make movement towards the new peak unjustifiable. One way to capture this constraint is that global utilitarianism seeks to maximize not an immediate utility function, but an integral of that function over time, to maximize not immediate total utility, but total utility over time. Hence we must look at utility in three dimensions: with states of affairs on the x-axis, time on the y-axis, and immediate utility on the z-axis, and we are maximizing a line integral of utility over states of affairs and time. There are other constraints, but this view of Global Utilitarianism directly answers some notable objections to utilitarianism.

For example, I'm about 20% of the way through Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia. He brings up as an argument against utilitarianism the case where one could choose to punish an innocent individual to satisfy the rage of a rampaging mob. Clearly, the harm caused by punishing one innocent individual will make happier both the rampaging mob and the numerous equally innocent victims of their rage. Local utilitarianism would definitively mandate punishing the innocent individual. However, under Global Utilitarianism, the mandate is not so clear. Global Utilitarianism demands that we evaluate, as best we can, the effect on total utility over time. I'm not considering risk and uncertainty here, so I won't add a probability function; I'll just assume that the innocence of the scapegoat will eventually be discovered. (If there were no possibility that the violation would be discovered, then in what sense could one say that the "scapegoat" really was innocent?) Thus I have to consider the effect of my action over time, given that innocent people would no longer have confidence that their innocence would protect them against punishment. I might well decide that over time, diminishing this social confidence would have an overall negative effect on the utility integral, and choose to protect the innocent person.

Nozick's example "works" precisely because we have strong intuitions, validated by millennia of experience, that protecting the innocent from state retribution has enormous long-term utility. If we weaken the violation of right, we get far more intuitively ambiguous situations. For example, during the fires after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, firefighters intentionally dynamited many buildings, intentionally and purposefully violating the property rights of the owners, to prevent the spread of the fire. This action is precisely equivalent to the strong Trolley Problem (where one chooses between pushing one person onto the tracks to stop a train that would, if not stopped, kill five people). The only difference is that our intuitions that violations of property rights have a much smaller long-term impact on the utility integral.

This construction of Global Utilitarianism is, of course, far less rigorous than Local Utilitarianism. We add two extra abstractions: the prediction of utility over time and some conceptual integral of utility. But who says ethical system has to be perfectly rigorous? It doesn't seem so in real life; I think our ethical system should capture the real-world difficulties.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

theObserver on Chris Arnade

Frequent commenter theObserver has an interesting and perspicacious take on Chris Arnade's recent article, Atheism is an intellectual luxury for the wealthy. theObserver's comment has been edited slightly for punctuation and formatting.

I think [Arnade's] argument is slightly different [than Larry's interpretation] but silly.

The article is written in a confessional tone from a former Wall Street trader. He informs us that he received his Ph.D., worked Wall Street for 20 years and a lived a life "devoted to rational thought, a life devoted to numbers and clever arguments." After becoming disillusioned, he began spending time with the poor "brutalized by a system driven by a predatory economic rationalism," a system he supported during his years at Wall Street. His eyes were opened: successful people have a "sense of entitlement and emotional distance [which] has numbed their understanding of our fallibility." He was "reminded that life is not rational and that everyone makes mistakes".

Rationality then forms a large part of his criticism. Dawkins' scientific rationality marks him as a man "removed from humanity," incapable of understanding the importance of faith among the suffering and “preaching from a selfish vantage point”.

The argument then is this:
  • All atheists are rationalists. Rationalism is false because life is not rational; only the wealthy can afford the pretense of rationality; therefore atheism is a luxury for the wealthy.
  • Wealthy atheists cannot truly understand the faith of the suffering poor. Therefore atheism is a luxury for the wealthy, and wealthy atheists like Dawkins are selfish to criticize the faith of the poor.

Arnade projects his own failings onto the entire atheist community. He sneered at religious faith from his privileged, educated vantage point; therefore, all atheists must be privileged and sneering at religious faith from privilege. He was ignorant of the suffering and the importance of faith to the poor; therefore, all atheists must be equally ignorant.

Arnade ignores the wealth and power of religions organizations, enough wealth and power to change this situation next week. They choose not to. Instead they choose to toss scraps from their dinner tables to the poor sinners removed from God's grace. They choose to teach hope in an better afterlife, not hope in our "fallen world."