Saturday, January 31, 2015

Political correctness

I wouldn't really call it "bravery," but I am not generally a fearful person. I'm an outspoken atheist in a Christian world. I'm a communist. I'm a revolutionary. I believe it's possible that the United States government, perhaps indirectly, will literally torture and kill me; and the only reason they wouldn't is that I'm too small potatoes to be worth the plane trip to wherever it is they torture people today.

As not fearful as I am, there are still things I think are true that I don't talk about, because I think saying those things would provoke a massive and hostile (but nonviolent) reaction. Basically, I think a lot of people would say mean things to me if I voiced some of my opinions. Again, I'm not worried about being doxxed or getting death threats; if I could be Anita Sarkeesian or Zoe Quinn, I'd do it in a heartbeat. But sometimes, I don't want a lot of people saying a lot of mean things about me, and so there are certain things I don't say because of that possible reaction.

I do not, however, feel that I'm being silenced or that my freedom of speech is at all being compromised. Unpopular opinions are unpopular. If you're going to express an unpopular opinion, a lot of people may say mean things about you. If you think they're worth saying, then you have to weather the reaction. Critics have just as much right to criticize, by whatever means available, as anyone has to speak in the first place.

In just the same sense, if you question the legitimacy of the United States government or the capitalist ruling, you have to weather the reaction, and governments and ruling classes hate having their legitimacy questioned, and they have lots of guns and people happy to torture whomever the government or ruling class gives them. That's the reality.

I don't shut up because of fear. It would be ridiculous if I feared torture and death less than people saying mean things about me. I shut up because the value of saying what I think is true is less than the harm it might cause.

For example, several of my Muslim women friends wear the hijab. I think it's true that the hijab is a symbol of oppression, and, of course, I think it's true that Islam is terrible because it is a religion. I don't talk about these opinions with them. I remain silent, but not because I am unsure of my position. I remain silent because, basically, at the level and in the context of our relationship, it's none of my damn business. The offense and unhappiness I would cause, the rupture of our friendship, far exceeds the value any remarks I might make. So I shut up. If they want to know my feelings on the hijab or Islam, they could ask me, or they could read my blog. They are not stupid women, and if they want to research the debate, they can do it.

I don't agree 100% with anyone. (The only people I don't actively disagree with at all are those talking about things I know little about (physics, biology, etc.); if I had any real expertise in those fields, I'm sure I could find things to disagree with.) But our world is not one where everyone dispassionately considers every idea by abstract analysis. Our world is full of fights, and I think fighting for justice is a Good Thing. The first rule of fights is that those on the front lines get to decide how to fight. If I don't think I have the legitimacy and will to be on the front lines, then I have nothing to volunteer about how to fight. If someone directly asks me for my opinion, I will offer it, but otherwise, whether I'm right or wrong, it's none of my damn business.

For example, straight, white, European-colonial, cis-gendered, middle-class men need no defense whatsoever against minor errors in the LBTQA-etc. feminist, anti-racist, anti-colonial, anti-capitalist fights. Are people fighting these fights always right? Of course not; no one is always right. But even if I think I'm right about some minor error, even if I actually were right, actually criticizing a minor error is almost impossible to separate from defending my privilege, and I absolutely do not want to defend any unjust privilege that I have.

If shipping straight, white, European-colonial, cis-gendered, middle-class men to concentration camps ever became a real thing, I would speak out, but of course, that's not a real thing, nor is it likely ever to become a real thing. Short of that, I shut up about criticism, and just offer my support and cooperation.

I shut up about things I think might be true not because I'm afraid of criticism, but because I don't want to be hard to distinguish from a real asshole without a very good reason.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Institutions and cooperatives

Right after I completed my earlier post, A theory of institutions, I started thinking about cooperatives. Cooperatives don't really fit at all into the theory. I can try to shoehorn them in: they do deliberate and vote, but that isn't their primary motive: members of a cooperative aren't institutionally rewarded or punished for their voting in the same way that politicians are (or should be). They do creative work, i.e. they solve problems big and small, but, again, they aren't rewarded or punished for their creative work in the same sense that a team of engineers would be. (I was, for example, a creative worker in the Kerista commune, but the organization as a whole wasn't primarly involved with problem-solving.) And cooperatives are certainly not self-interested organizations such as capitalism: people are not vying with each other within the organization to maximize their short-term material self-interest.

There are two ways that seem to make sense to define "institution." One is simply any well-defined collection of individuals that reproduces itself, i.e. persists in time and space. The other, of course, is my definition in the earlier post, an organization that uses short-term, local incentives to achieve long-term global goals.

Cooperatives (ideally) just don't do the latter. Everyone in the cooperative acts (or should act) directly on the long-term, global goals. And they not only act directly on those goals, they act to set those goals, and even in setting those goals, they don't (or shouldn't) act just to push their own small goals on the big goals of the cooperative, but try to develop a mutual, cooperative sense of what the organization "should" be. In short, in a cooperative, people (should) actually cooperate, on every level. There's no dialectic between short-term and long-term, local and global. (There are always dialectical processes, of course, just not those particular dialectical processes.) Thus, in the sense of the previous post, cooperatives are just not institutions.

I think this conclusion helps us understand the interaction between capitalism, communism, and "socialism" (in the sense of the transition between capitalism and communism).

Utilitarianism and physics

trivialknot has an excellent post, Utilitarianism to deontology. In it, he succinctly describes how the appearance of deontology might emerge from utilitarianism.

Before I continue, I want to briefly describe utilitarianism. Utilitarianism first rests on four more-or-less scientific principles:

  1. People directly experience "happiness" and "suffering"; they're hard to define precisely, but we know them when we feel them. Happiness is intrinsically good, and suffering is intrinsically bad.
  2. People are goal-seeking, which differs from other possible high-level cognitive strategies such as rule-following; (what Daniel Dennett calls sphexishness).
  3. People generally create and act on the goal of maximizing their own happiness and minimizing their own suffering.
  4. People have evolved to be social, and we have evolved the tendency to feel our own happiness when (some) others are happy, and feel our own suffering when (some) others suffer.

None of these scientific principles entail any particular ethical system. Utilitarianism thus must add an ethical ideology to these principles. There are two fundamental principles:

  1. Ideally, we should act so as to maximize happiness and minimize suffering, aggregated over every person, to the end of time.
  2. No individual's happiness and suffering is a priori more or less important than anyone else's; there is no privilege or oppression

Thus, utilitarianism is by definition consequential (we always look at the consequences of an action on happiness and suffering), and universal.

The second principle is important: it rebuts the objection that utilitarianism requires that each person sacrifices his life so that his organs could save the lives of more than one other. However, if everyone did so, we would obviously not maximize happiness; if only some did so, those some would be oppressed. If we drew lots, we would have to evaluate the total effect: does drawing lots to sacrifice healthy individuals for organ transplants increase or decrease happiness and suffering vs. letting individuals take their chances. When the answer in certain circumstances is that drawing lots does increase overall happiness and/or decrease overall happiness, such as a draft lottery in wartime, then we actually do it.

Ideally, we want to maximize happiness and suffering for everyone to the end of time. Obviously, we cannot actually determine the effect on any action for the 7 billion people presently existing, and however many will exist until the end of time. Thus, we operate under both risk and uncertainty, i.e. known and unknown probabilistic distribution of possible outcomes, respectively. TK has an excellent and succinct explanation in his post on the effects of risk and uncertainty on utilitarianism, so I will simply quote:
One appealing resolution is to say that these two problems solve each other. It is true that a naive utilitarianism does not account for uncertainty. But when we do account for uncertainty, then we will reproduce most of our moral intuitions. Although perhaps we will not reproduce every moral intuition, and so this provides a useful way to distinguish between intuitions which are correct and intuitions which are incorrect.

For example, whenever we make decisions, we are more certain of the consequences to ourselves than we are of consequences to people far away. In the face of uncertainty, consequences tend to be a wash, so it is good to prioritize ourselves.

Another example. Whenever we drop a brick off the roof of a building, we cannot distinguish beforehand the cases where the brick will hit someone and the cases where it won't do anything. Therefore, we must judge all brick-dropping the same way. We must make a rule against the action of dropping bricks in random places. This reproduces deontological ethics, which makes rules about particular actions based on the qualities of those actions.

This also neatly solves one of the problems with deontological ethics, which is that there isn't a clear way to generate new rules about actions. This framework suggests that the correct way to generate new rules is to consider the probabilistic consequences of a class of actions.

TK's main point is to note some differences between physics and ethics.

First, he asserts that both physics and utilitarianism are reductionist, i.e. you can (in theory) calculate higher-order phenomena from the behavior lower-order phenomena. However, physics purports to describe how the universe actually is, whereas TK is unclear on whether utilitarianism even purports (much less actually does) describe how the world is.

This is an easy one. Utilitarianism does not describe how the world actually is. It is a framework that people chooses or does not choose to evaluate their actions. The "reductionism" just happens to be part of the theory; as a proponent of utilitarianism, I would not say that utilitarianism is true because it is reductionist. (Indeed, I would not say that utilitarianism is true. Full stop.) Reductionism just serves to make the theory easier to use.

The idea, however, that we know physics is true, that it really describes the world, because it is reductionist is very philosophically problematic. There's no denying that reductionism is a really useful tool in physics, but the connection between reductionism and truth seems very hard to justify. So I don't known that physics and utilitarianism are really very different on this criterion.

Second, TK notes that increasing the precision of our moral calculations do not just allow us to know the moral status of actions with more precision, it can actually radically change the moral status. TK's example is particularly trenchant:
If we discover with certainty that dropping a brick at a particular time won't hurt anyone, and will instead kill a butterfly and stop a hurricane in a hundred years, then that action literally goes from unacceptable to acceptable.
Indeed: and not just acceptable, but compulsory.

But again, is this sensitivity to precision all that different from physics? Do we not have Chaos theory and Three-body problem? I don't actually see much difference here between physics and utilitarianism.

Finally, TK makes a legitimate argument from ignorance: he doesn't know how utilitarianism reproduces such basic, intuitive things as rights, so he cannot effectively use it. I have two responses. First, TK could in fact become an expert in utilitarianism: he's a smart guy, and I think I've made at least the prima facie case that utilitarianism is worthy of study. However, I suspect that the world is better off if TK puts more of his time and effort into the study of physics and as an advocate for social justice. So my second response is that most people's naive intuition about how to act is already utilitarian: you don't have to be an expert in utilitarianism to act as a good utilitarian. Most "nice" people usually act on the following rules/guidelines:

  1. If I can clearly benefit myself without hurting anyone else, then I should.
  2. If I can clearly benefit someone else without hurting myself (much), then I should.
  3. If I can clearly prevent great suffering, even if it harms me, or risks harming me substantially, I should.
  4. Most social rules handle the general cases where the outcome is not immediately clear: I should act according to social rules in uncertain situations.
  5. If a social rule seems like it causes more harm than benefit, I should subject that social rule to heightened scrutiny, and consider changing it.

Really, that's 99.999% of utilitarianism. The 0.001% comes in how we should examine apparently problematic social rules. Even then, the "experts", who have the training to look deeply into that 0.001%, have the task of justifying their analysis to the rest of the "lay" population.

I will try to write a more detailed analysis of how rights come from utilitarianism.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A theory of institutions

While individual human beings can conceive of "big" long-term, global goals, it's difficult to act directly on those big goals. Part of the problem is psychological: "small" short-term local goals have a lot more psychological motivating force. Hence, when people conceive of big personal goals, they usually break those goals down into a set of small goals. (Hence, for example, most task tracking software will actually show the stricken-out description of task when it is completed, rather than simply delete it; we get a small internal reward from seeing that task completed.) Big goals are harder to act directly on because we usually can't just tell what activity at the moment will efficiently achieve the goal. So, for example, if a group of people want to build a spacecraft to travel to the moon, they have to coordinate among themselves to figure out what each person should do; now, each person has a small goal, and the aggregate of those small goals will (hopefully) result in a person standing on the Moon.

Thus, human beings create institutions to achieve long-term, global goals by implementing short-term local incentives for individual people to do specific things.

An institution can be something concrete, such as a named, physically aggregated organization, such as Apple Computer, NASA, the Catholic Church; something semi-concrete, a part of an organization, such as the enlisted men and women of an army, or something abstract, such as capitalism or the (more-or-less) free press.

What makes something, concrete or abstract, an institution, then is that there are small, short-term, local incentives that map to big, long-term, global goals.

One way to characterize institutions by looking broadly at the small incentives and how they map to big goals. Some institutions will use more than one of these patterns (and almost all use some bureaucracy). Briefly, these patterns are:

Type Short Term Incentive Long Term Goal
bureaucratic precisely follow rules and procedures complicated but well-defined and well-understood, eliminating personal bias
creative solve small problems big, poorly-understood or poorly-defined
military give and follow orders dangerous and/or morally problematic
deliberative voting politically contentious
self-interested personal gain undefined evolutionary

For example:
Type Examples
bureaucratic DMV, IRS, an individual McDonald's restaurant
creative scientific research, engineering, education, advertising, the general staff of an army, senior corporate management, team athletes
military enlisted and field officers of the US Army, rank-and-file police and firefighters
deliberative legislatures, direct democracy
self-interested capitalism, markets, individual athletes, fine arts, literature

Most institutions use a combination of short-term incentives. For example, almost every institution has some rules that have to be followed precisely; thus, they have some bureaucratic incentives. Institutions often interact with each other, and this interaction can be institutional, and follow one or more of the patterns noted above. Some institutions, such as the relation of a military general staff (a collection of generals) to the field officers (colonels to captains) is often 50-50 creative and military (with a lot of bureaucracy). Sometimes, creative institutions are also deliberative.

Basically, individuals in an institution are rewarded or punished based on the small incentives. A functional institution is one in which the aggregate of small incentives achieves the big goal. A dysfunctional institution is one where the small incentives do not achieve the big goal.

So, for example, the Allied military 1939-1945 as an institution (consisting of a collection of collection of institutions) was healthy, because they won the Second Imperialist War. The US Military in Iraq was/is dysfunctional.

One feature of institutions is that they reproduce themselves. They are not simply the aggregate of the character of the individuals comprising them; the institution exerts considerable force changing the character of the individuals who participate in the institution. Thus, it is not just that the police recruit only people in whom the police mindset is already fully formed; individual police officers become socialized into the institutional police mindset.

Many social problems, therefore, come from three sources. First, the pattern of organization of an institution may no longer be well-adapted to the long-term goal. For example, capitalism is organized by self-interest, but this self-interest (IMnsHO) is no longer well-adapted to the long-term goal of economic growth.

Second, a poorly-adapted pattern of organization may be imposed on an institution. The most egregious examples are trying to turn creative pattern institutions, such as education and engineering, into bureaucracies. Bureaucracies are well-adapted to well-defined and well-understood goals, but education is poorly-defined, and both try to achieve poorly-understood objectives. For example, we do not yet have a good grasp on what it even means to be educated, much less how to educate people. For another example, even though landing a person on the Moon was a well-defined objective, we did not understand very well precisely how to do so. We cannot break down either of these objectives into precise instructions; at best, we can break the big problem into little problems. How do I educate this particular class of students in this particular subject? How do I keep a human being alive standing on the Moon? One reason I left software development was that the profession was becoming increasingly bureaucratized; I don't have a problem with bureaucracy per se, but software development is not well-adapted to bureaucracy.

Finally, the big goals of an organization may be something we don't like and don't want. The welfare and disability institutions, for example, usually fail to achieve efficiently providing benefits to as many people as possible, but their covert big goal is to actually deny benefits to as many people as possible, which they do in fact achieve. The big goal of capitalism (again, IMnsHO) has changed from providing economic growth to maintaining the power and privileged of the capitalist ruling class. And bureaucracies without external control on their goals simply become sinecures, with policies and procedures growing without rationale, because, why not? The goal becomes just to grow the bureaucracy.

Because we act intentionally to organize society, this theoretical framework helps, I think, to understand the nature and structure of institutions and their role in society.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

A category error in subjectivism

Reviewing some old posts, I stumbled across a comment from a professional philosopher (whose pseudonymous identity is no longer active, so he will remain anonymous) asked a question, which I will paraphrase from memory. Suppose some society did (some horrible thing) that everyone in that society subjectively approved of. Would I be all right with that?

The question though, makes a category error. The whole point of subjectivism is that the subjective is prior to a moral evaluation. And that goes as much for my own subjective opinion as for the subjective opinions of the members of that society. So, no, I would not be all right: the "(some horrible thing)" refers to something I would have a very negative opinion about, and my opinion is prior to and independent of the opinions of the members of that society. The fact that subjective opinions differ is of no more moment than that the acceleration due to gravity is different on different planets and moons.

The real question is, given that the members of some society approve of some horrible thing, and I disapprove of it (perhaps strongly), what should I do about that fact. Obviously, I have a motive to change the horrible thing; this motive is an identity, not an entailment: disapproval is a motive. But precisely what I actually do is dependent on a lot of other contingent factors, and can range from shutting up and minding my own damn business to making war on the people doing the horrible thing to force them to stop.

Subjectivism does not mean that if I subjectively disapprove of something, then that something is objectively wrong. That position is, I think, more accurately labeled as intuitionism, and is an epistemic theory. It's also so obviously contradictory, because people do have different subjective feelings about things, but an objective property of a thing must necessarily be singular, that only a philosopher could hold that position. Subjectivism, is an ontological theory: things simply do not have objective moral properties to be singular: moral properties are relational, not intrinsic. In much the same sense, the property of "to the left of" is relational, both of the object's relation to another object, and the speaker's relation to the objects.

Another way of looking at it is to consider people who disapprove of things that I (and hopefully you, gentle right-minded reader) approve of. For example, suppose Alice feels profound moral disgust at homosexuality, the exact same moral disgust that you and I might have for exploiting the proletariat or subordinating women and Black people. And, of course, you and I do not feel any moral disgust for others' homosexuality.

As a subjectivist, I cannot say that it is morally wrong that Alice finds homosexuality morally disgusting. Alice's subjective feelings are prior to moral evaluation, not derived from it. The question is not to morally evaluate Alice's feelings, but to figure out what we should do given a difference in our feelings. Given different underlying moral feelings, the question, I assert, moves from ethical philosophy to the realm of politics, in the sense that politics is what people do when they disagree about justice. We negotiate. We persuade. We can move the discussion to the meta-level: perhaps Alice would agree that her own unique sexuality should not be regulated by society, even if a majority of her fellow citizens were to find it disgusting, and then we would have subjective agreement at the meta-level. But these are political questions, not philosophical questions: we are not trying to get at the truth, because there's no truth to get at.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The utilitarianism of ridicule

I think it's good to ridicule religion.

Ridicule is complicated from a utilitarian perspective. By design, ridicule is immediately harmful: it makes its target feel bad. So, in a consequentialist utilitarian framework, we can justify ridicule only by concluding first that we can know, directly or indirectly, that the overall effects of ridicule promote more happiness and less suffering in the long run to offset the immediate suffering. Second, we have to know that there is no alternative means that is less immediately harmful.

The idea of doing something bad in the short run for a good in the long run is incredibly problematic. We have a lot more knowledge about the short run than we do about the long run. That's the whole point of ethical principles: ethical principles encapsulate our social knowledge (as well as social prejudice, confusion, ignorance, and delusion) about the expected long run effects of short run actions. I strongly suspect that, for instance, people don't like flipping the switch in the Trolley Problem* precisely because we are socially conditioned that uncertainty** about the indirect and long term effects prohibit actively killing a person. We also must consider the meta-problem: when we justify doing a short-run harm for a long-run good, we have to also ask: who will be making those decisions, under what constraints, and to fulfill which ends? But saying that causing immediate, local harm now for a long-run, global good is problematic is not to say that it cannot possibly be justified.

*See also Can Bad Men Make Good Brains do Bad Things?

**The assumption of certainty made in the presentation of the problem just doesn't help: our intuition about the world is both unconscious and deeply conditioned (usually) about how the world actually is; it's difficult or impossible for us to consciously adjust our intuition to conform to alternative physics. It's hard enough to adjust our intuition to true but non-obvious physics.

The justification for ridicule, then, must address what the long-run effects of ridicule will be, how we know what those effects are, whether they outweigh the short-run harm, whether less harmful methods exist, and how we socially decide whom to ridicule and when. I think we can justify ridiculing religion on these grounds.

The expected long-term effects of ridicule are change of behavior. When we ridicule some people, or actions, or ideas, we are saying that these people, or people who do or think these things should change. Hence, ridiculing people for unchangeable characteristics — race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, height, and, to some extent weight — cannot effect any long-term change in behavior; therefore, the immediate harm cannot be outweighed by the impossible to achieve long-term effects. If you ridicule someone for being Black, you're just being mean.

Second, since individuals are the best judge of what is harmful, it doesn't make sense to ridicule people only for harming themselves. Even if fat people could change their weight (and there's a lot of science that shows that losing weight is incredibly difficult, and often impossible), they harm no one but themselves. Presumably, they are rational people, and have decided that even if losing weight were possible for them, the short-term pain outweighs the long-term benefits, and they, not I, are the experts on their own utility functions.

However, we can reasonably expect long-term positive effects of ridiculing religion. We want people to stop using religion to hurt other people. We know how religion harms people: people use religion to justify and perpetuate sexism, misogyny, racism, homophobia, national chauvinism, and a host of other obvious ills. We know that people use religion to perpetuate subordination, exploitation, and in some cases outright victimization. And we know that the underlying justification — some people know what God wants, and what God wants overrides anything that mere human beings might want — is utterly without merit.

(I want to take a brief sidebar and address the argument: I'm (this or that religion), and I don't think that God wants us to be sexist, racist, exploitative, etc. The fundamental problem with religion is not content but methodology. You don't know any better than the sexists, racists, etc. about what God does or does not want. You have to appeal either to personal revelation or to scripture. If you appeal to revelation, then the charisma and rhetorical skill of those who claim revelation becomes more ethically persuasive than the content of the revelation. If you appeal to scripture, then, well, scripture is equivocal enough that it's certainly possible to read most anything into it, but you're still relying on the charisma and rhetoric of the interpreter, rather than the content of the interpretation, for ethical persuasion. If you want to argue on the basis of content, then you don't need God in the first place: we can just look at the content directly.)

We won't stop all sexism, misogyny, racism, etc. ad nauseam by convincing people to stop being religious (or just stop being such assholes about their religion), but I think we could put a real dent in these social ills. And whatever positive effects religion might have, if we can tell that that effects are positive without appeal to religion, then we can find non-religious ways of gaining the effects.

We also have to look at the potential negative effects. First, ridicule might be ineffective. Ridicule often enough is effective, but it's not always effective. But the immediate short-run effects are relatively small: some people have their feelings hurt. Just having a small negative effect is not a justification by itself — a small harm is still a harm — but it does say that the risk of ineffectuality is relatively low.

More importantly, when individuals of a particular religion are generally subjugated in some context, ridicule can perpetuate and justify that subjugation. For example, one argument against Charlie Hebdo is that because Muslims are generally subjugated in France, ridiculing Islam perpetuates and justifies that subjugation. This argument has some merit but I think there are some good counter-arguments.

First, Muslims in France are not subjugated because they are Muslims (much less because Charlie Hebdo ridiculed them). I'm no expert in French sociology, but as a communist, I tend to see the underlying cause of subjugation and exploitation as capitalism, not religion. If Muslims really are subjugated in France, it's because capitalism requires that somebody be subjugated, and the Muslims (perhaps among others) just got the shitty end of the stick: if it weren't the Muslims, then it would be someone else. I obviously don't think that people should be subjugated because of their religion (or race, or gender, or any other ineluctable characteristic), but I also don't think that we should distribute subjugation "fairly": we shouldn't subjugate anyone.

But not everyone believes that capitalism is the underlying problem, or that capitalism requires subjugation, or that subjugation is necessarily bad. I would disagree with the position overall, but I do think the argument has at least some merit that the subjugation of Muslims in French society is at least in part due to their resistance to assimilation. Just being religious, just going to the Mosque on Friday instead of Church on Sunday (or no Church at all), is no barrier to assimilation, but insisting on private standards of justice, such as the permission of the subjugation of women, or restrictions on others' free speech, can be barriers to assimilation.

The position of Muslim immigrants to France is very different from the position of Black people in the United States: Black Americans were forcibly brought to the United States and forced into literal chattel slavery (along with genocide and wars of aggression, one of the Unforgivable Curses). Their presence in the United States is 100% the result of and the responsibility of White Americans. Black Americans have zero duty to "assimilate" to a culture that forced their inclusion; White Americans have at the very least (and we have a lot more duties) a duty to simply take Black Americans as they are, and change ourselves to include them fully in American society. In contrast, Muslim immigrants to France came there, presumably, because they thought French society was better than their original society. And French colonialism was not slavery; decolonization is obviously justified, but non-assimilative immigration seems more difficult to justify.

Assimilation and acculturation are obviously complicated issues: immigrants, by virtue of acceptance into a culture, are entitled to participate in the social construction and evolution of that culture. But, frankly, ridicule (on both sides) is a part of the process of social construction. Even native-born members of a culture have a duty of enculturation; as a native-born White American, I cannot simply say that I am who I am, and everyone else has to unconditionally adjust around me. And if were I try to say that, I would subject myself to ridicule.

The point is: Unlike Black Americans, French Muslims did not start out as completely powerless. They chose to came (and the French chose to accept them), so they are part of the process. Immigrants have the right to argue, by any appropriate and effective means, for whatever cultural change they want; unlike White Americans, the French also have the right to argue back. They should avoid perpetuating subjugation, but unless Muslims were almost completely powerless, just because they are exploited to some extent in France does not mean they are immune to criticism. And if ridicule is legitimately part of that argument back, that criticism, then so be it.

(In contrast, the only "argument" White Americans have is, "I'm sorry. What happened to you and what is happening now is completely inexcusable. I can't change the past, but I will do today whatever you think is reasonable or moderate to fix the problem.")

We next have to ask: is there a better alternative to ridicule? Obviously, rational persuasion is always better. But rational persuasion is singularly ineffective when it comes to changing most people's religious beliefs. (Rational persuasion does work on some individuals, and in general having a rational basis for any position is valuable.) When rational persuasion fails to correct harmful behavior, we must resort to stronger measures. I am not a lets-hold-hands-and-sing-Kumbaya mushy liberal; I will not give up just because a harm requires stronger methods to correct. I think ridicule is a stronger method than rational persuasion, but it is milder than outright coercion. The most puerile, immature, scatalogical, and even misguided ridicule might sting, but I'll take it any day over the policeman's baton or the soldier's bayonet. Furthermore, a lot of religious people are just as offended, have their feelings just as hurt, just by people saying they disagree with them, much less offering rational criticism. So I think that the harm done by ridicule is often no worse than rational criticism, and substantially less worse than outright violent coercion. And ridicule is very different from, and less bad than, threats, harassment, or near-incitement.

Finally, we socialize ridicule by letting anyone do it. Ridiculing other people is a right, not a privilege. It's not even a privilege of the rich; it doesn't take that much wealth to print a magazine, and almost no wealth to ridicule people on the internet. No one, I think, can legitimately argue that unlike, for example, the Koch brothers, Charlie Hebdo used their immense wealth to magnify the impact of their speech; before the attacks, the magazine had been flying six inches from the ground for years, with a circulation in the tens of thousands (compared to the ~64 million just in Metropolitan France). I'm not saying that White (or non-Muslim) privilege is non-existent, but it's hard to tie any kind of privilege to Charlie Hebdo. (If France had actually tried to shut down any satirical publications because they were Islamic, that might be different, but I've seen no evidence of that. Even then, the response would not be to condemn Charlie Hebdo for using its privilege, but to condemn the French for creating the privilege.)

We can always argue that some instance of ridicule is misguided, mistaken, unwarranted, or otherwise defective. But we can always argue that any position, expressed in any form, from a scientific paper to a casual remark, is somehow defective. It is never wrong to criticize any speech for its content. But if we disapprove of ridicule itself just because it hurts people's feelings, then to be consistent, I think we have to disapprove of a lot of things, like criticism and simple disagreement, that also hurt people's feelings. If we want to disapprove of specific kinds of ridicule, then we have to justify why those specific kinds of ridicule are wrong, but not others.

I have not yet seen a compelling argument that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists did anything more wrong than does anyone else who expresses strong opinions about socially important issues. They made some mistakes — as does everyone — and may have missed their intended targets — as does everyone — but I think they both intended to and actually were making the world a better place. Their deaths are not just an offense against the general prohibition against killing, but a real loss for the world.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Two principles and Charlie Hebdo

When we protect or permit an activity, we are usually talking about two distinct principles. The first principle is that the activity we're protecting itself has positive value.* Second, even if, in specific instances, the activity itself has negative value, the cost of prohibiting or restricting the activity is worse than the activity itself. For example, it might be difficult to actually agree on what instances of the activity are good or bad: if we restrict instances that I think are bad, I might have to permit others to restrict instances I think are good. Or, if we allow specific people to restrict an activity, they might restrict only instances that harm themselves, regardless of the common evaluation of various instances.

*e.g. in the consequentialist, utilitarian sense, the activity generally has a positive effect on aggregate well-being; this analysis, however, works regardless of how one individually constructs positive and negative value.

There are two freedoms that are at issue in the Charlie Hebdo killings. The first is freedom of speech. The second is freedom to live. As far as I tell, no one (serious) says that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists should not have have freedom of speech and life. The question is, under which principle do we uphold their freedom of speech and life: did their speech and their lives have intrinsic positive value? Or did their speech and lives have intrinsic negative value, and did we let them speak and live (and condemn their killing) only because the cost of suppression exceeds the cost of permission?

I think most speech, even speech I disagree with, has positive value. For example, I think the socialist magazine, Monthly Review, has positive value. I also think the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal has positive value, even though I strongly disagree with what they say, and even though I think they are often... misleading. Given that these opinions published in the WSJ actually exist in the world, I think it's intrinsically positive that their advocates openly publish them without fear of coercive repression. This positive good does not mean they are immune from criticism; the whole point of allowing them to publish is to make their opinions freely available for criticism. So these publications have freedom of speech on the first principle: protect the positive.

On the other hand, I think a publication like Stormfront is just reprehensible. I think even given that the opinions there actually exist, publishing them has a hugely negative value. However, I believe that the cost of trying to repress Stormfront would be higher than the cost of allowing them to publish. This publication, and others like it, have freedom of speech on the second principle: we permit the negative because of the cost of suppression.

I'm not particularly sentimental about human life. I think almost all human life has intrinsic positive value, but there are some people whose lives I think have intrinsic negative value. I think Jerry "if we gave him an enema, we could bury him in a matchbox" Falwell's life, for example, had intrinsic negative value. We don't kill the first kind of person under the first principle; we don't kill the second kind of person under the second principle: it's more costly to kill them than to let them live.

Although the effect is the same, at least at the level of legal coercion, I think the decision to categorize and protect some publications and some people under the second principle is momentous. And I think the two freedoms are presently strongly coupled for the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and staff, given that a dozen of them were just killed because of what they said.* To say right now that their freedom of speech was protected on only the second principle is also to say that their lives were protected only on the second principle, that even though we condemn their killers (on the second principle), their lives themselves had negative value and the world is better off with them dead.

*There are a lot of causes of the killings; it is perhaps more precise to say that they specifically were chosen as targets because of what they said. The killers were not trying to kill only random civilians.

And when people say, "It's wrong that they were killed, but..." I think that's exactly what they were saying: the cost of killing them was higher than the cost of letting them live, but their lives were a cost to society, not a benefit. I think that's a coherent position, but I think it's pretty momentous. We are saying something important about their work and their lives.

(As a side note, when a lot of people justify the murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Gardner, etc. ad nauseam, that's the language they use: "It's wrong that Martin/Brown/Gardner was killed, but...")

I think affording protection of speech under the second principle is momentous because although the legal consequences are the same, the social consequences are very different. When I disagree with someone, I need say only that while I think their opinions are wrong, but I'm happy they offered them so we can talk about it. Their speech, while wrong, is still valuable. However, when I protect someone only under the second principle, I'm saying not only that their opinions are wrong, but that this is something we should not even be talking about in the first place. I will not tell the first person to shut up, but I will tell the second, "I won't make you shut up, but seriously, just shut the fuck up and crawl back under your rock; your opinions are not fit for civilized* society." There are a lot of sub-legal ways of coercing people, and the farther you are from the line between protection under the first and second principles, the more sub-legal coercion becomes socially permissible. For example, I would never fire someone (except as a scientist, politician, or relevant civil servant) for denying evolution or global warming. I would not refuse service to someone of most any religion. But I would, for example, fire someone for posting racist or sexist comments or "empty" threats on their Facebook page. I would in fact refuse service to anyone who says "n—" in my store.

*As "civilized" as we are, which isn't very.

Affording protection of life under the second principle is also momentous. If society thinks someone's life has positive value, we actively try not to kill them. But if we think their life has negative value, we'll kill them as soon as we have a legal excuse. Again, the whole point of the recent killing of Black men is just that: their lives have negative value, and the second we have an excuse, we will rid our society of these harmful lives. It's not terribly difficult to create a legal excuse to kill someone: that's exactly what Zimmer did, and that's almost certainly what Darren Wilson did. Just provoke someone until fear and anger causes them to do something suspicious, and then kill them in "self defense." If the victim's life had intrinsic positive value, we would look more deeply into the circumstances. If, for example, Trayvon Martin had killed George Zimmer in "self-defense," we would have looked very deeply into the circumstance; indeed, we would probably have found some sort of fault with Martin's excuse, and convicted him of manslaughter. When the victim's life has intrinsic negative value, why bother to look deeply? They needed killing, you had a enough excuse that we're not worried about people just randomly shooting others: you're cool, go home.

So... looking at Charlie Hebdo...

Again, I think it's hard to talk about Charlie Hebdo without linking freedom of speech and freedom to live. We have to ask, did what they say make their lives themselves of negative value? Do we condemn their killing only because killing even bad people is worse than letting them live? I think if say, "The killings were wrong but...", you are taking the second position, and I think it's important to justify that position, because it really is momentous. So what's the justification?

The first justification is that they published at least two cartoons that I think were gratuitously offensive. The first is the depiction of "French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, a black woman, drawn as a monkey." The second is this cartoon, which uses the word "negres" to refer to Black people. Even with context (the first cartoon is satirizing others' racism; the second really isn't directed towards Black people or people of color), and even given my low taste in humor, I think these cartoons are unacceptably racist and should not have been published, for a lot of reasons that should be obvious. But does that mean the publication as a whole has negative value? Does that mean the lives of the cartoonists have negative value? That they are protected only because it's more costly to shut them down and kill them than let them live and publish? If you say answer in the affirmative, how generally are you willing to apply the methodology? Only to people who disagree with you? Only to middle-class white male French cartoonists? If your uncle said something anti-Semitic, how hard would you sanction him? If he were in trouble, would you stand with him nonetheless? Or would you say, "Fuck that anti-semitic bastard. If he's in trouble, he's on his own."

The second justification is that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were "Islamophobic." Islamophobia is defined variously as
  • "Intense dislike or fear of Islam, esp. as a political force; hostility or prejudice towards Muslims" (Oxford English Dictionary)
  • "[S]ocially reproduced prejudices and aversion to Islam and Muslims, as well as actions and practices that attack, exclude or discriminate against persons on the basis that they are or perceived to be Muslim and be associated with Islam" (Gardell)
  • "[A]n outlook or world-view involving an unfounded dread and dislike of Muslims, which results in practices of exclusion and discrimination" (Runnymede Trust)

I want to compare and contrast Islamophobia with sexism, anti-Black racism and anti-Semitism. We know that women, Black people and Jewish people are entirely ordinary; as a class, there is nothing at all* special about them. Thus, attributing any special quality, positive or negative, to women, Black and Jewish people as a class is known to be false. Because it's known to be false, any such attribution is by definition unfounded, and we can actually remove the qualifier from the (third) definition were it employed to define sexism, racism, and anti-Semitism.

*except the obvious and usually irrelevant reproductive differences between men and women.

I do not, however, believe that we know that Islam is entirely ordinary; thus, we need the "unfounded" in the definition of Islamophobia. I have not yet been convinced that there is no foundation for any finding that Islam is special or substantively different in any socially relevant way. Of course, there are some findings of specialness that lack foundation, such as that "Islam has no values in common with other cultures, [or] that it is inferior to Western cultures" (Runnymede Trust). Similarly, the idea that all Muslims have exactly the same views, is provably false; that all Muslims are collectively blameworthy for the actions of extremists is trivially stupid. But Islam is not a race; it is, as are all religions, a political and social ideology, i.e. a collection of socially relevant values (well, many collections with substantive similarities). To the extent that people choose, Unlike race, Islam, like every religion, is a choice, both in its adoption and its content.

I have often seen it asserted that Charlie Hebdo is in fact Islamophobic.* There are two bases for making this charge. First, have they promulgated unfounded assertions about Islam or Muslims? If so, I have not seen the analysis. Second, criticism of Islam and Muslims is unfounded a priori: It is wrong per se to mock certain values. If so, I have not seen a convincing argument for consistently deciding which values are excluded from mockery. I think pretentiousness, pomposity, and arrogance, not to mention outright racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism, all of which are values, may certainly be mocked, as savagely as one wishes, and as humorously as one is able. So what values are exempt? What values may not be mocked, regardless of their content?


As far as I can tell,

And even if someone mocks a value I hold, well, I still think their mockery is valuable, even if wrong, for exactly the same reason that I think speech I disagree with is still valuable. Good: it's out in the open that you think this or that value I hold is ridiculous. Let's talk about it. I want to see it. I won't tell you to STFU and GBTW just because I disagree with you about what is or is not ridiculous. The only mockery that I think is impermissible is mockery that is based on falsehoods so well established as false and socially harmful that their expression can be nothing but perversity. It is only the latter that I would say has truly negative value, and is protected only under the second principle.

I have not done a thorough analysis of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons. So I don't know with any degree of confidence that they are not Islamophobic. But if you want to put them in the same category as the KKK and the American Nazi Party, I think it is incumbent on you to make that case.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Physiology of the Employee

balzac’s physiology of the employee:
In the war against the specific sufferings induced by office life, Herman Melville’s Bartleby is revered as saint and martyr. In the sacred literature of the office genre, his death is the office worker’s call to arms. But it’s a mistake to think that before his sacrifice, the literary universe wasn’t waging such a war against office ennui. Bartleby’s sacrifice is still honored and “I would prefer not to” remains our great rallying cry, but the more his followers understand the history of their war, even if it means recognizing how little ground has been gained, the more allies they find, the better suited they are to continue the fight. HonorĂ© de Balzac’s The Physiology of the Employee (1841) is a guidebook, and it is not outdated. In its relevancy yet seeming strangeness, it fits with the rest of Wakefield Press’s catalog. His description of the climate in which he wrote sounds little different from the economic recession of recent years, and the lack of change since: “Personal expenses were examined with a fine-tooth comb. Benefits were chipped away at.” In its careful organization and laying out of office principles, The Physiology of the Employee serves as a work that grounds the spirit of Bartleby.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Charlie Hebdo

A couple of interesting responses to the Charlie Hebdo shooting. I don't agree with all of what they say, but they're worth reading, if only as an anodyne to the sanctimonious hand-wringing.

An open letter to 99.99% of American editorial cartoonists:
What is not justified, or rather, what is not earned, is how many of you are comparing yourselves to the slain cartoonists based, it seems, on nothing more than the fact that you are in the same line of work as them.

On Charlie Hebdo:
[T]here is already an enormous pressure, in this context, to defend Charlie Hebdo as a forceful exponent of “Western values,” or in some cases even as a brilliantly radical bastion of left-wing anti-clericalism. . . .

[But] irrespective of whatever else it does, and whatever valid comment it makes — the way in which that publication represents Islam is racist. . . .

No, the offices of Charlie Hebdo should not be raided by gun-wielding murderers. No, journalists are not legitimate targets for killing. But no, we also shouldn’t line up with the inevitable statist backlash against Muslims, or the ideological charge to defend a fetishized, racialized “secularism,” or concede to the blackmail which forces us into solidarity with a racist institution.

In the forward (?) to his book Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut compares writing an anti-war book to writing an anti-glacier book. The comparison is apt: people have been slaughtering each other in retail, wholesale, and industrial quantities since the beginning of recorded history. And it's always at best just "regrettable" or "unfortunate" when people are dishing out the hurt, but everyone gets seriously bent out of shape when they're on the receiving end. We've been dishing out the hurt in the Middle East and South Asia; now we're all shocked that we're getting some back. I suppose that's just how people are. C'est la vie.

I think it's almost always a mistake to assign blame. Whom do we blame, the provocation or the disproportionate response? My training in business and engineering was, "Fix the problem, not the blame." When, for example, someone shoots his or her spouse, I think it's a mistake to blame the shooter; I ask why we have a society where people let resentment build up to murderous intensity rather than just separate. And with Charlie Hebdo, I ask, why do we have a society and international relations such that people think killing cartoonists is a Good Idea?

Almost all social problems are structural. Either they're just people acting economically efficiently, e.g. a social structure where thousands of drug murders really is economically efficient, or they're a structural failure to provide humane medical treatment for people with mental illness. I mean seriously: we can fly thousands of enormous, complicated aircraft five miles up in the sky for a trillion passenger miles for years without killing a single person. Our political problems are not technical.

This is the society that we want, that we ourselves have built. We built it the way we did because we want power more than peace. If we don't like it, only we can fix it.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Origins of the police

Origins of the police:
In England and the United States, the police were invented within the space of just a few decades—roughly from 1825 to 1855.

The new institution was not a response to an increase in crime, and it really didn’t lead to new methods for dealing with crime. . . . The authorities created the police in response to large, defiant crowds. That’s [strikes, riots, and slave insurrections]. So the police are a response to crowds, not to crime.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Thursday, January 01, 2015


John Quiggen has an interesting article up at Crooked Timber: Consequentialist arguments for deontological claims. The comment thread is way too long to read, but a couple of interesting comments caught my attention. (I have to paraphrase from memory, because for some weird technical reason, I can't access CT from my primary computer, where I'm writing this.)

One commenter (J Thomas, I think) argues that the idea that "only consequences [morally] matter" is a deontological belief. (Similarly, he argues that atheism is a religious belief.) I don't think he's a troll (as others there believe he is), but I think he's arguing by definition, which is not the most productive way for people to argue about philosophers. As I've said many times before, philosophers are not lexicographers: lexicographers catalog definitions; philosophers criticize, adjust, and create definitions.

JT further argues that moral rules are inherently deontological; "only consequences matter" is a rule, therefore, "only consequences matter" is deontological. But that is not the same definition that Quiggen appears to be using in the post, and not how I typically use the definition. In our (mine and presumably Quiggen's) definition, deontologicalism is the rule, "The intrinsic properties of an action morally matter." (Add "only" for strong deontologicalism.) Consequentialism is the rule, "The consequences of an action morally matter." (Again, add "only" for the strong version.)

There's certainly nothing intrinsically wrong with JT's definition. We could, if we wanted to, distinguish between rule-based and non-rule-based moral systems of belief, and we could, if we wanted to, use deontolgical and consequential to label the distinction. But to argue that consequentialism contains a rule, therefore consequentialism is deontological, therefore consequentialism holds that the intrinsic properties of actions are morally relevant, would be to commit a fallacy of equivocation. (I don't know if JT makes that argument.)

In a similar sense what "atheism is a religious belief" means just depends on what you specifically mean by "religious belief." If you mean "any belief about god(s), the divine, or the supernatural," and if you hold it is coherent to have beliefs about what does not exist* (which complicates logic considerably), then atheism is, in that sense, "religious belief." If so, so what? Atheism can be "religious belief" in that sense, but it is still not "religious belief" in the sense of "belief that god(s), the divine, or the supernatural actually exists," which is the sense that most atheists mean. Again, I suspect proponents of "atheism is a religious belief" have a (perhaps subconscious) motive to create a fallacy of equivocation.

*Hence atheism is often defined as the lack of belief about god, assuming that one can coherently have beliefs only about what actually exists: the statement, "I believe that God does not exist," does not make sense under these assumptions, in pretty much the same way that "I believe no four-sided triangles exist" does not make sense because "four-sided triangle" is meaningless.