Sunday, November 11, 2012

Conservatives and immigration: a glimmer of hope?

Since Obama won the recent presidential election, much of the commentary has been on how much the outcome was influenced by changes in demographics. Such is the opinion, for example, of Jose Antonio Vargas, the one-man crusade for immigration reform in America. For example, there's this from his facebook page:
According to exit polls, and the role of the Latino vote (and other immigrant groups and our allies), it looks like Mitt Romney may be 'self-deporting" himself from this presidential election. 

What will the GOP do?
Apparently there is an answer to this question already in the works:
Two prominent conservatives -- radio host Sean Hannity and columnist Charles Krauthammer -- advocate an immigration bill that would include both tighter border security and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who are already here -- i.e., something close to Obama's position.
Note that ths consitutes a genuine change of thought on the conservative side. As a libertarian, I would say this solution is not enough--open the borders, I say!--but it represents one way in which democracy can force change among politicians. It's a good thing that Americans may after all become more liberal on this issue.

Conservative opposition to freer immigration laws frustrates me on multiple levels. First, there's the economic argument. The myth that illegal immigrants are a net drain on our entitlement system is far too often perpetuated on the right. In reality, many illegal immigrants actually pay taxes each year. The economic reality of immigration is that it happens precisely for the reasons economists expect--people are guided by market forces to seek opportunities where they can find them. Thus when there are jobs that need to be filled, people come to fill them. Limits on immigration are, economically speaking, one of the worst anti-free market measures we can take.

Second, there's the national sovereignty argument. This is very old and perhaps very natural. For some reason we humans like to claim land for ourselves, even when we just arrived on said land quite recently. Such is the history of America. It's worth reminding ourselves that--yes, here it comes, prepare yourself for eyes rolling--we are nation of immigrants. It should be well embedded in our culture by now that new-comers are normal, that being American does not mean looking or thinking or acting a particular way. All we ought to ask is that people be peaceful. The fear that our "culture" will be fundamentally changed is shown to be quite silly when one remembers how easy it is to share the spirit of basic human decency: "don't harm me and I won't harm you." This is a libertarian ideal, yes, but it also happens to conform with the distinctly American traditions of liberty, a pioneering spirit, and the idea that ours is a land of opportunity. I have trouble understanding why more conservatives don't go for this.

Most of all, however, I simply cannot understand why so many conservatives are able to argue passionately against abortion as a violation of basic human rights, all the while using essentially "pro-choice" arguments (applied to a different political entity, of course) against immigration. What are the arguments in favor of tolerating abortion? Well, the fetus is not like other human beings: she doesn't look like us, she doesn't have the same attachments to our world of culture and language, and she is in many cases not wanted. Keeping her alive could cost enormous amounts of resources, not to mention the many other emotional and social reasons why her existence could be a terrible burden. Thus, abortion is sometimes the only logical option.

Now substitute "fetus" with "immigrant" and "abortion" with "deportation" and see what happens. It's pretty amazing, isn't it? I am not impressed by the objection that abortion is killing while deporation is not. Deportation, though it is not the worst form of violence possible, is still violence (except in Mitt Romney's imaginary world in which immigrants will happily pick up and leave because we ask). It can be extremely damaging to families, particularly to children who grow up knowing nothing but this country and then are asked to leave. If you think that is consistent with freedom, I beg you to think it over again.

So, particularly if the Republicans are going to keep the pro-life position on abortion as part of their platform (and yes, I am one of those who think they should), I submit they should also adopt a more liberal immigration policy. This does not mean we stop caring about who crosses our borders. On the contrary, it means we can improve our border security by focusing on the people who are actually criminals, such as those people who, you know, kill people.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A happy libertarian meditation on elections

So America has just re-elected President Obama. Congratulations to him, and to all who supported him. For many Republicans, I'm sure this is a bitter pill to swallow, since they were so convinced the whole time that Obama is one of the main reasons for everything that is wrong with America right now. For us libertarians, it's not really that big a deal: we knew all along we probably weren't going to get a candidate we liked!

However, it's not all bleak. A lot of people today are very happy, because they view Obama as a very good man and an inspiration for the future. And I think they are right: Obama is a good man. So is Romney, for that matter. I think it's overly cynical to view all politicians as bad people. I'm guessing that both candidates for president really want to serve their country well, that they're both good to their families, and that they both can be nice people to be around if you get to know them.

It isn't because I think all politicians are bad people that I am against big government. It's because I think that big government has a way of causing good people to do bad things. Many people seem to have trouble accepting that evil can result from intellectual mistakes and/or systemic problems, but it can. I do not think that it was out of hatred for truth or justice that George W. Bush dragged us into two never-ending wars, or that Barack Obama started a secret "kill list" outside the bounds of the rule of law. On the contrary, these men believe in their country, and they will do "everything it takes" to defend it.

That "everything it takes" part can be really scary. Even, and perhaps especially, in the hands of good people.

Indeed, sometimes libertarianism comes across as a political philosophy which celebrates poor traits in humanity, such as greed and selfishness. On the contrary, I don't celebrate these things at all; I just don't have the same irrational fear of them that others do. In fact our great mistake as a society is to celebrate our own optimism and idealism.

Why fear greed and selfishness? They will forever be unpopular. On the other hand, idealistic politicians with a heart of gold and a vision for the country--they really frighten me. Why? Because people actually put their hopes in them!

A common objection I hear is that libertarians are as utopian as socialists. Socialists believe that we should try to organize society in such a way that all of her efforts are directed toward the common good by means of a democratic state. Clearly utopian--no state worked or ever will work like that. On the other hand, the libertarian view of the state is that it ought simply to enforce the basic rules of justice, not play favorites, and not intervene in the lives of citizens when no injustice has been committed. And that, unfortunately, has never happened either!

But the two kinds of utopianism are not equivalent in spirit. While socialism rests on a belief in a kind of society that has never existed, libertarianism merely rests on the hope for a government that has, unfortunately, never existed. Indeed, all libertarianism demands is that government help, rather than hinder, those natural forces which in fact make society work. Its demands may be too much for any real government, but they are not too much for society. What actually makes society work is not the politicians we elect, but the fact that each of us as individuals respect the life and property of other individuals.

It is an absurd mischaracterization of libertarianism to say that libertarians are against working together for the common good. Au contraire ! The amazing thing about this global civilization we live in is that we already do work together for the common good, whether we appreciate that fact or not. The system of global capitalism that is in place is mostly not our doing. It is rather the unforeseen result of billions of decisions along history's long and complicated path.

And I think that civilization is remarkably resilient. I am hardly a fan of the belief that progress is inevitable. What feels like progress often isn't, and often the path that actually leads to progress is not ideal. But freedom is ultimately difficult to destroy. It arises from the moral traditions we have inherited, and whether we realize it or not we will mostly continue to persist on those traditions: respect for human life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Democracy often blinds us to these simple truths. We place our hopes in the amazing gift of being able to choose our government--and it is an amazing gift--while forgetting that government does not make us free or prosperous. And you know what, that's okay. You may have voted for all the wrong reasons, but the free world will not collapse because of it.

So I remain content, not because I think government as it exists is acceptable or that I think everything is just going to be alright without any effort on anyone's part. Rather, I remain content because I know that no political election, no matter the outcome, can ever take away from humanity that which it really needs to fight for justice, truth, and peace.

Things could get bleak in the short run. I don't know. I fear the results of Obama's executive power grab, and now that he has a second term it could get worse. I fear what the Republicans will do, given that they may be even more angry after this election than before. Yes, there are lots of worries.

But in the long run, freedom is not really in the hands of these elites, elected or not. And that is why I remain a happy libertarian...

...who will cheerfully continue to blast America's current political policies, mostly because it's just so darn fun!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Why I think Obama and Romney are essentially the same

There are many reasons why libertarians disapprove equally of Romney and Obama. One could note policies on the war on terror, drone strikes, the NDAA and related national security policies, Guantanamo Bay, etc. Or one could even point to the fundamental similarities in their economic philosophy, which always requires the government to "steer the ship," and which always focuses on the middle class in an obvious attempt to strike a populist chord with America's voting population.

But I wanted to provide a very pithy evaluation of these two candidates, in anticipation of the upcoming Election Day in the US, in order to explain why a Romney presidency will most likely have a very similar effect on American society as an Obama presidency.

Both candidates share this fundamental trait on common: they really want to be good politicians. Each promises to bring but one ingredient to the White House: competence. This "competence" is expressed in all sorts of ways: the ability to run a business, pass laws, or finally "put aside politics" and do "what's best for the country." This latter phrase is never actually explained: it is a way of merely summarizing current prejudices among political elites, whose position in society renders them incapable of philosophical self-criticism.

This desire to appear above all competent to "run the country" is, sadly, a manifestation of how most Americans view politics. Modern people seem to view the government, not as a source of justice, but rather as a source of progress. Thus elections have become about which candidate has the best "vision" for the country, rather than about which candidate would be most true to the principles of our Constitution. We want our president to not simply govern, but rather "run the country."

I am hardly optimistic about the potential results of this trend.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Dualisms we live by, part 2: public and private

The dualism between public and private seems to take full force in political discussions. There are those decisions which are completely up to me and those decisions which are up to "all of us," for which one might have various conceptions. I find dualistic thinking in this area extremely damaging, for two reasons. First of all, it forces us to divide people into two kinds: those who want more freedom for the individual in his private sphere, and those who want more unity and collective action in the public sphere. You can nuance this as much as you want--maybe on some issues we need more individual freedom, on others we need more collective action, etc. But I say no matter how much you nuance it, it's still wrong. I'll explain way momentarily.

The second reason why this dualism is extremely damaging is that it gets glued to the left-right dualism. In modern political discussions, it seems that "left" means "fights for the public" while "right" means "fights for the individual." Of course one can immediately point to so many counterexamples that I will refrain from listing them. But if you're thinking in terms of right and left in the first place, that's already a setback to rational discussion.

Reality is far more complex than the public/private dualism can ever explain. What is my "private" sphere? Is it the sphere in which I can behave without obligations? Where exactly is that sphere? I find I have obligations wherever I go. From birth I have had certain obligations to my family, then to my friends, my school, my church, and other institutions which helped shape me. And, of course, I have always had certain obligations to government. A life without obligations is most likely a life lived on a deserted island, and even though, one finds that nature itself has a way of obliging us.

Conversely, what is the "public" sphere? Is it the sphere in which all of us cooperate together? Which sphere is that? Through the market, I am able to cooperate with people I have never met, whose language I cannot even speak, and whose values are probably not my own. In other words, through a series of individual actions not obviously connected with one another the human race has learned to work collectively to create fantastic innovations in both technology and culture. Yet we don't consciously work together to do it. By contrast, when I am forced to pay taxes, am I really working with others? Since I have already listed some of the many institutions to which I have obligations, need I repeat how many different "public" spheres I already indwell?

The devastating affect of this dualism is that we have trouble imagining any more than a few ways in which people actually cooperate. Political unity, in particular, does not always mean effective cooperation, and effective cooperation does not always require political unity. If anything, I suspect an excess of unity and conformity is a hindrance to effective cooperation, and we should always do our best to warn against it.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Dualisms we live by part 1: right and left

Since moving to France, I haven't had very much time for blogging, which is a shame, because it was always a mental exercise I really enjoyed. A friend here asked me why I would spend so much time on it, particularly on political posts which may or may not convince anyone. I think I've said it elsewhere on this blog, but I think it's more of a condition than it is a commitment. I just can't help but write down my thoughts somewhere sometimes. It might as well be in a place where other people can see, right?

I decided to start a series of short posts so that I won't get overworked trying to write them down. Rather than write one long post explaining a problem I see with society, it might help to get straight to those pertinent examples which are particularly fascinating and irritating.

One of the things I do here to try to improve my French is listen to podcasts. Pretty nerdy stuff mostly, like podcasts I find on France Culture. This morning I was listening to a discussion about "la droite" i.e. "the right" in French and more generally Western politics. The whole discussion is spent trying to figure out what "the right" means. Which leads me to the first dualism we live by, or rather try to live by but can't.

Right and left. Droite et gauche. These are very useful for journalists who need to quickly derive a story about who is up against whom. The right/left spectrum is a neat way to divide every controversy in two. The most immediate problem is that no complex issue has just two sides to it. A more fundamental problem is that when people are fixated on the fight between the two perceived "major parties" of political thought, they completely neglect thinking about the more radical changes that need to be made in society. Political discussion becomes more a question of which party is more to blame for the problems of the past decade or so, rather than trying to develop a coherent strategy for moving forward. Tug of war, rather than higher ideals, dictates our political movements.

Thus, when intellectuals get together to discuss the right or the left, they have to spend the whole time nuancing their way out of talking about the right or the left. After all, both sides "evolve" over time, or maybe it's simply "a question of definitions." All of which really means: these two categories are useless, unless you really need an efficient way to win political points. And, after all, I suppose efficiency is the larger part of what makes us act the way we do.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

What do we owe, and to whom?

One of those Obama moments that people have jumped on, in order to score political points, was the "you didn't build that" remark. (A quick google search reveals plenty of links on the subject.) In context, here's what he said:
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business -- you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don't do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.
Conservative pundits have tried to blatantly twist the "you didn't build that" comment beyond its original meaning--they want to imply that Obama meant that your own personal achievements are actually the achievements of society rather than you, the individual. This is a false implication, but there are some true implications which demand some sort of intellectual response. Many libertarians have done a great job of responding already, but I wanted to take some time and think about the core issue underlying this big to-do.

The take-away message from Obama's remark is that we all owe something for the services given to us by the public. So the question we need to deal with is, what do we owe, and to whom? Debt is a moral concept, relating to how we ought to exist with our fellow human beings; it is therefore not an idea that can be deduced from mere facts. The observation that other people helped me in my endeavors does not settle the question of whether I owe them something, nor does the observation that I have put in a lot of effort into my own endeavors. We will need to wrestle with some basic ideas about how we ought to relate to one another, rather than appeal to blind prejudice and desires based on instinct. For example, it is natural that I should want to keep things which I currently perceive to be mine; it is also natural that I should want others who appear to have more than everyone else to share with the rest of us. These instincts come into conflict in any society, and such conflicts can only be mediated by our morals.

Rather than delve too deeply into the broad moral question, my main goal here is to challenge one presupposition commonly held in our culture, which relates mainly to the question, "To whom do I owe?" It is undoubtedly the case that many people help me along my life's journey. Thus, there are potentially many people to whom I owe something. (It is even possible that I owe something to everyone in the world, given that they have refrained from doing any harm to me personally. For such a minimal "contribution," however, I think it natural to suppose that all I owe them in return is not hurting them!)

The question is, what does it mean that I owe something to society, and if this sentiment has any concrete meaning, is that meaning best expressed in the form of taxation by government?

Let me get the first part of this question out of the way by saying yes, I do think there is some meaningful sense in which we "owe society" a great debt for all that we achieve in each of our individual lifetimes. However, I'm afraid this sense is far from concrete. Every time we ponder the many people invovled in creating something as simple as a pencil, every time we walk through the streets of the world's great cities, every time we read the great recorded thoughts of human beings, every time we thank our parents for how much they have done for us and think how many generations of parents came before them, we realize in all of these things that we would not even exist without some seemingly miraculous order which binds human beings together in a system of cooperation. But this order, this miracle of human civilization, is indeed abstract--it is beyond our grasp, both in that it comes down to us through the gradual progression of cultural evolution and in that we can never repay this "civilization" directly (there's no "it" at all).

Politics, however, is often the art of connecting very abstract concepts to particular persons or parties, so that politicians can channel public reverence for those concepts into support for their campaigns. Thus the very abstract concept society becomes tied to the very concrete entity which is government. Paying taxes becomes synonmyous with paying one's debt to society. This is something of a superstition, however, and like many superstitions it is rather destructive.

Civilization exists because each of us individually bases her life on certain moral principles. Government is not the originator of these morals, and if it were required that government should be immediately present in all human interactions in order to regulate our behavior, civilization would utterly collapse. Most problems in ordinary life are solved by parents' natural for for their children, people caring about their neighbors, passers by stopping to give directions or call for help, businesses wanting to make a good impression on their customers, and members of a community wanting to be seen as responsible citizens. The resulting moral order is called spontaneous order because there is no one steering the ship; it is enough that individual acts morally, without knowing what the whole of society looks like as a result. Government is only necessary when certain individuals violate this order.

It is telling that most major world religions have some account of ethics being passed down either from on high or from ancient wisdom. Ironic as it sounds to modern ears, it is this reverence for what is passed down, rather than what is created by humans like us, that makes us free. Indeed, freedom is being liberated from the will of other human beings like ourselves. We can only be free, then, if we are able to appeal to principles which are higher than any human will. If a society has such a set of principles, then each member of that society can be free to do as she likes, if only she generally abides by those principles.

The danger in every democracy is the temptation to abandon our reverence for received wisdom in favor of what is called the will of the people. This concept often acts as an excuse for us to abandon the morals which allow civilization to function, contrary as they are to our instincts. By embracing this concept we endeavor to create a government which is not the product of our moral principles, but rather a brute assertion of will. Thus government becomes not so much an arbiter of justice as a channel through which every person's "voice" may be "heard." I vote, therefore I am.

The "tyranny of the majority" is a very real danger. A majority of people might decide democratically to strip an outclassed minority of basic rights which those in the majority enjoy freely. But the dangers are much deeper than this. Once the public has accepted the concept of government as an expression of collective will rather than an arbiter of justice, there is no limit to how much we owe government. All of our reverence for those abstract concepts, such as equality, justice, mercy, peace, and prosperity, becomes directed toward the government. In religious terms, we become idolaters.

The will of the people is a concept which has no concrete manifestation. Yes, we can vote democratically on yes or no questions, such as, "Should abortion be legal?" or, "Should Barack Obama be our president from 2013 to 2016?" But collective desires such as giving everyone affordable health care or giving every child a good education are not satiable through collective decision-making. The only way civilization was ever able to achieve such things in the first place was through a system of moral order which grants each individual certain rights and responsibilities, but can never predict particular outcomes.

Once this much is truly understood and admitted, then I think we can start to debate more concretely how much we owe government. I find it generally disturbing that there seems to be no theoretical limit on how much of our income we might owe our government. If one turns to the law of the Old Testament, one of the oldest "constitutions" we have (to put it anachronistically), we find a clear proportion established for all time: ten percent of everything. Surely there is some wisdom in a society embracing certain moral constraints on how much the government is allowed to take from any given citizen.

Nothing I have said should be taken to mean that government should never provide welfare money to its citizens, or that there is something morally desirable about certain individuals being rich to incomprehensible excess. What it does mean, however, is that when we call for the rich pay to their "fair share," we ought to consider whether we are thinking according to morals or simply according to instincts, according to a higher law or in the hopes of satisfying the will of the people.

The most desirable outcome of our democratic political process is that all individuals would be held equally accountable to a higher standard of moral principles, one which stands over and against our base desires. This requires a considerable amount of give and take. While it is just for a rich person to give to a poor person, it is also unjust for a person to steal from the rich to give to the poor. Taxation is a proper function of government, but unlimited taxation means unlimited tyranny.

Politicians and CEOs must all be held accountable to the same rules as anyone else. The main problem with which we should all be concerned as that these parties--the government and the wealthy private interests--are more often than not on the same side. While the average voter may be concerned with some preferred ideology or sense of American identity, the particular party in power seems to make no difference when it comes to handing out favors to big corporations. When all Americans can see and lament this state of affairs, then I hope we will see a much needed political revival.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The impossibility of economic growth?

Really great blog post by Tom Murphy, who argues that the economics profession is probably mostly deluded when it comes to the assumption that economic growth can continue indefinitely. Reads well, too, because it comes in the form of a dialogue between him (a physicist) and an economist. Main point: there are certainly physical constraints on the possibilities for economic growth, so long as human beings remain here on earth. Energy is limited, and the more energy we consume the more heat we generate. Efficiency also has theoretical limits. What's the end result? The best we can possibly do, in the long run, is converge to a steady state economy--one in which energy consumption and GDP are fixed, and the only chance for "growth" is simply in improving the quality of life that remains for those of us still on this planet.

In my opinion, the convergence to such a steady state may not be pretty. It will be a huge test of our morality when the world's population exceeds a readily sustainable level. I'm thinking wars and eugenics haven't seen their last days. But maybe I'm too cynical.

I agree with Tom's major point, and I think economists are wrong to be unaware of the physics. But I do have two ideas I want to throw out there. One is a question: what means do we have of calculating the natural equilibrium between population size and consumption, scarcity, and overall well-being? I claim that the only real "computer" we have for this is the "catallaxy," as Hayek liked to call it. In other words, the global free market--regulated by property rights and negotiated through individual transactions. The main point is that this global system of organization has a mechanism of adapting to new or undiscovered information, and I think it's probably the only way we have of making the overwhelming set of calculations necessary to ensure humans can still live peacefully on this planet.

Second, I just want to say that, as silly as it can sound, I'm optimistic about space travel. Seriously. And I imagine that one day in the future when we start to truly feel the squeeze on our ability to consume, some scientists might just feel desperate enough to make space travel a more feasible idea. But I admit, optimism can't buy bread.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Edward Rothstein on musical expression

Here's a provocative passage from Rothstein's Emblems of Mind, Chapter III, challenging certain contemporary presuppositions about the purpose of music:
But does music really represent feelings in this way, either by reflecting our own or by expressing the composer's? Is it emotion we feel when we listen--anger or sadness or envy or desire? When music brings tears to our eyes, is it because it makes us sad? Some music unquestionably does stir or inspire us; that is the purpose, after all, of national anthems and masses and even some folk songs. Some music also prompts unexpected emotion and thought. But this view of music's purpose is far too limited. The Indian raga serves the function of neither pleasure nor expression, nor does most of the great music of our Western tradition--even the Romantic music that claims to be fundamentally self-expressive. Only products of the pop culture industry unambiguously aim to inspire identification with musical "expression," and seek the avid consumption of such expression through purchase or use.
What Rothstein is trying to do for music here mirrors what he has attempted to do (in Chapter 2) for mathematics. He has previously used examples from modern mathematics to problematize the notion that mathematicians mechanically search for objective, universal, "external" truths. Here he is going the other direction: he is trying to dispel the notion that music is merely a subjective experience tied solely to one's personal feelings.

The strength of Rothstein's writing is the way in which he veils the "big ideas" he's getting at, hinting that they are too mysterious to be fully encapsulated in concrete definitions of terms. What does a mathematician really explore when he does mathematics? What does our mind experience when we listen to music? Somehow the two are linked, but it takes patience to really see what the link is, or what the answer to either question might be.

I haven't made it all the way to the end, but one gets the feeling that there's a big payoff waiting.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

They exist!

Today Secular Pro-Life is highlighting a recent Gallup poll showing that 1 out of every 5 non-religious persons (i.e. atheists, agnostics, or "no religion") self-identifies as "pro-life." The standard interpretation of this statistic is that the vast majority of secularists are pro-choice, hence the pro-life position is one primarily driven by religion. But SPL rightly points out that around 15% of American adults, around 34 million, self-identify as non-religious. One out of five means at least six million people, a substantial minority, even if you wouldn't necessarily meet one every day.

SPL's blog regularly receives comments from people trying to "uncover" their secret religious affiliation. Their presence at the Reason Rally was not exactly well-received by all. Why is this?

Part of it, I suspect, is that the secular movement, like any other movement, has to try to foster some degree of solidarity among its supporters; otherwise it may simply die out. Call it the Darwinian theory of social movements. As long as the secular movement remains relatively small in America--15% is still a pretty small minority--they will tend to make less of an impact if they cannot agree on a political agenda. After all, the secular religious agenda is almost exclusively negative. Without a positive political agenda, there is simply no point for the movement to exist.

Another part of it, which is perhaps related to the first part, is what I call the "secularism as religion" phenomenon. Many secularists abandon religion for what I perceive to be basically a good reason: they find that religious people defend their assertions on the basis of religious traditions rather than open themselves up to correction by reason. This is because the faithful often follow the line of reasoning which goes, "I want to believe whatever is true, and my religion is true, therefore I believe whatever I have learned from my religion." A common objection to this line of reasoning is that the second premise cannot be justified other than by a painfully circular argument: my religion is true because it says it is true. All secularists wish to avoid such nonsense, and so they abandon religion in favor of reason.

The problem is, secularists are not immune to making their own movement into a "religion" in the sense I have just stated above. They begin to reason the same way as the religious faithful: "I want my beliefs to be based on reason, secularism is based on reason, therefore I will believe whatever is consistent with the secular movement." When it comes to controversial issues like abortion, just fill in the blanks: pro-choice is secular belief, pro-life is a religious belief, hence if I want to be reasonable I must be pro-choice. This is nonsense, but you will find that solidarity breeds much nonsense.

I am certainly not suggesting there are no intelligent arguments for the pro-choice side of the abortion debate. I just think that the visceral hatred of SPL and its mission stems from irrational impulses. Accusing SPL of being "secretly religious" is the most ironic of accusations, since it seeks to discredit someone's view solely on the grounds that it breaks with secular orthodoxy. The irony would be amusing if not for the high stakes in this debate.

Perhaps part of the claim that SPL is "secretly religious" stems from SPL's own need for solidarity, which happens to come largely from religious organizations. It is true that they link to blogs like Jill Stanek's, whose views are hard-line conservative and religious, and that they work with sites like, which has a specifically religious and conservative affiliation. But keep in mind that SPL maintains a pro-contraception stance and remains willing to openly debate the rape exception, two positions which are out of sync with standard pro-life religious orthodoxy. Many of their members also openly support gay marriage, although the purpose of their organization is not to address such issues.

The point of SPL, as I see it, is not to advance secularism, but rather to advance the pro-life movement from a secular perspective. As they do so, it's natural for them to make friends among religious pro-lifers. In my opinion, the religious pro-lifers stand to gain quite a bit more from SPL than the other way around in terms of intellectual credibility; in terms of resources, however, quite the opposite is true. I don't think anyone needs to apologize for this.

(As an illustration of one of my points above, I've been impressed with SPL's ability to clearly and openly discuss the issue of bodily integrity with regards to the abortion debate, something which many religious conservatives seem unable to do. It is SPL's willingness to delve seriously into all the philosophical dimensions of the abortion debate that makes me believe they will grow to have a huge influence on the pro-life movement.)

I consider myself a religious man, but I very much believe in a secular society, by which I mean a society based on a few basic principles on which most great religious and intellectual traditions can agree, principles encapsulated in such great words as our own Declaration of Independence: "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." My own reason for believing in a secular society is religious: I believe "Blessed are the peacemakers" is a rule which we ought to follow in both our personal and political lives, and I would rather that important questions remain unresolved among us than that we fight each other over the answers. A society which uses violence to settle questions of doctrine is a society that believes in no higher authority than itself--not even reason.

Abortion is violence against human beings. If one accepts this proposition, then one must accept that even in a secular society, abortion cannot be tolerated.

It is the mission of the pro-life movement to offer convincing proofs of the two propositions just stated. Thus, contrary to popular belief, there is nothing in the world more natural than for pro-life arguments to be secular.  Whether or not Christianity or some other religion is true is extremely important to all of us as human beings, but it is irrelevant to the abortion debate. For that reason, I applaud the efforts of SPL, and I hope that more and more secularists will be swayed by our arguments.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Einstein on the quest for harmony in nature

Quoting from Subtle is the Lord, Chapter 2a, here's Einstein addressing Planck on the latter's sixtieth birthday (emphasis mine):
The longing to behold ... preestablished harmony is the source of the inexhaustible persistence and patience with which we see Planck devoting himself to the most general problems of our science without letting himself be deflected by goals which are more profitable and easier to achieve. I have often heard that colleagues would like to attribute this attitude to exceptional will-power and discipline; I believe entirely wrongly so. The emotional state which enables such achievements is similar to that of the religious person or the person in love; the daily pursuit does not originate from a design or program but from a direct need.
 You can't teach that in schools. (Or can you?)

Saturday, June 9, 2012

A market in fetal organs?

Here's a story that escaped me until just today:
Professor Richard Gardner of Oxford University, a renowned expert on human reproduction and an advisor to Britain's Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, recently raised the prospect of using organs from aborted fetuses for transplantation into adults. This possibility offers the potential to save or improve the lives of the hundreds of thousands of patients in desperate need of such organs throughout the world, especially the more than 70,000 in the United States waiting for kidneys.
The date of this story is 2009. I suspect this idea has been floating around for much longer than that.

(I was going to borrow Tyler Cowen's "markets in everything" for the title of this post, but I didn't want to infringe on his intellectual property rights. Of course, given a few of MR's patent-related posts recently, I take it he wouldn't mind!)

Pregnancy is, essentially, a way to produce an endless supply of organs to be given to those in need:
The first striking of fetal organs is that their supply, for all practical purposes, is unlimited. Unlike living kidney donors, who must then advance through life with only one functioning kidney, pregnant women who provide fetal kidneys could do so repeatedly without incurring the medical consequences of adult organ loss. When overseen by properly-trained physicians, abortion is an extremely safe procedure -- even safer than delivering an infant at term. Since far more women have legal abortions each year in the United States than would be required to clear organ wait-lists, if only a small percentage of those women could be persuaded to carry their fetuses to the necessary point of development for transplantation, society might realize significant public health benefits. The government could even step into the marketplace itself to purchase fetal organs for patients on Medicare and Medicaid, ensuring that low-income individuals had equal access to such organs while keeping the "asking price" elevated. [emphasis added]
It's for the greater good, after all. And really, if we didn't have to deal with those clumsy, traditional wombs, we could just have little human farms all of over the place, giving us literally infinite access to replacement body parts:
Someday, if we are fortunate, scientific research may make possible farms of artificial "wombs" breeding fetuses for their organs...
All of this technology promises us the gift of long life, of reduced pain and discomfort, of increased health and "well-being." The more we come to measure the value of life in terms of these things, the more we cheapen the inherent value of life. That is, we view human beings as means to an end, presumably our ends, but more likely ends which have been suggested to us by the amazing force of cultural cohesion and advertising.

Don't you want to live longer? Well do we have an offer for you!

Just make sure you understand what these guys are selling.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Why I will not be voting for "the" pro-life candidate

On occasion, it becomes painfully obvious that large segments of the pro-life movement have been completely co-opted by the Republican party.

Consider a the recent article from, entitled "You Can't be Pro-Life and Not Vote for Mitt Romney." It's exactly what it sounds like.

This extraordinarily poorly thought out diatribe against those of us who would rather not vote for a man has flip-flopped on just about every question imaginable, including abortion, actually makes no positive arguments for Mitt Romney. The presumptive Republican nominee is simply the negation of Barack Obama:
How can someone who believes in the sanctity of life belittle, deride and not support the only chance we have of removing him from office? It’s sheer life-endangering folly.
I admit, there can be little doubt that Barack Obama is the most pro-abortion president we've ever had. But does that make Mitt Romney pro-life? And does it really mean electing him will make any difference for the plight of the unborn?

Let's consider the following argument:
The next president of the United States will also fill between two and four seats on the Supreme Court. As a people who believe abortion is wrong, who do we think will fill those seats with strict-constructionist jurors who will interpret the Constitution and not reinvent and rewrite it?
A curious argument, completely devoid of any basis in historical fact. Consider Ronald Reagan, one of the cherished heroes of pro-life conservatives. His Supreme Court nominees were

Two out of the three justices added to the Supreme Court by Reagan sided with Planned Parenthood in the 1992 decision Planned Parenthood v Casey. How's that for a pro-life record!

And take a look at George H. W. Bush's nominees:
I'll give you a hint: one of these justices is not a "strict constitutionalist."

One could argue, I suppose, that George W. Bush had more success in that area. One could object that Ronald Reagan got "Borked." One could say a lot of things. None of these objections change the fact that voting a conservative into the White House won't ultimately change the fate of unborn children.

Besides, who says being pro-life somehow goes hand in hand with being a "strict constitutionalist"? In most states, abortion was legal up to the moment of quickening, up until the late 1800s. I guess the Founding Fathers weren't strict constitutionalists. (Then again, they didn't outlaw slavery, either.)

"Strict constitutionalism" is nothing more than conservative-speak. This means, in particular, that it has very little meaning beyond, "Whatever the left is doing is probably wrong." There's nothing wrong with being skeptical of the left. But let's not borrow meaningless terminology in order to express our reasons why.

Bottom line: if pro-lifers really believe that faithful adherence to the Republican party has any long-term benefits for our cause, just look at the facts: it hasn't worked so far.

There is a deeper why it hasn't worked, and why I won't be voting for Mitt Romney. The more our pro-life position on abortion is coupled with other positions that people find deeply troubling, the less likely it is that we will gain more support from the general public. When people look at Mitt Romney, it should not surprise us if they see a friend of corporate greed, a man distanced from the plight of ordinary Americans.

And for us pro-lifers, why should we not be deeply troubled by the Republican party's platform on foreign policy? If our core issue is protecting innocent human life from unjustified killing, should we not oppose the idea of preemptive war? Should we not oppose the use of drone strikes over countries with whom we are not even at war? Especially when they kill innocent people, including children!

As if Obama's support of fetal abortion were not enough, it also appears he has no problem aborting his enemies overseas. All the more reason why I oppose Obama. But is Romney any better on this issue? In all of the Republican debates, Romney has constantly tried to make Obama out to be weak on foreign policy. It sounds to me that Romney, if he changes anything about Obama's tactics of drone strikes and military occupation, will only make it more aggressive, more reminiscent of the George W. Bush era, and ultimately more dangerous for innocent human life and for our moral reputation abroad.

Let me be clear: I do not want Obama to be president, and therefore I will not vote for Obama. That is all anyone has any right to ask of me, since I do profess to be pro-life and against any politician who will not defend those most vulnerable in society. Insisting that I vote for "the other guy" solely in order to oust Obama from power is incredibly short-sighted, and for that reason I find it morally repugnant.

One has to think for a moment to understand why it is so short-sighted. Elections are winner-take-all. This means our government will tend to merely oscillate back and forth between two more or less arbitrary but evolving political poles. If both sides have become odious to me because of my conscience on crucial matters involving the dignity of human life, then what gain is there in me participating in this tug of war? Should I not rather vote my conscience? In a free society, liberty of conscience is all we have to stem the rising tide of tyranny.

The author of the aforementioned article would like to play (somewhat hypocritically) the moral superiority card. He seems to suggest that because he has been the recipient of persecution in the name of the pro-life cause, he is entitled to proclaim that "it is a requirement for any pro-life American" that we vote for Mitt Romney. Let's call this the moralist's fatal conceit. Dedication to a cause by no means makes one rational. Sometimes one's dedication can cause a person to do things which are, in the long run, quite counter-productive to the cause.

Ultimately, it is not the presidential election of this year or any year which decides the issue of abortion in the long run. What decides the issue is our ability to persuade thoughtful people to come to our side. How will we ever be successful in persuading thoughtful people if we ourselves throw our blind adherence to a political party with countless other agendas than our own? The world is watching, and it will not judge kindly.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Why you are not your brain

That's part of the subtitle of a book by Alva Noë, who argues against the conventional belief that our consciousness can be located inside of us. Here's the short version:
For further information, here is his web site.

Here's my takeaway from what Noë is saying:

First, if consciousness is not located in our brain, then it is not intrinsic, but learned. From watching this video, I gathered that the basic gist of Noë's argument is that consciousness is a matter of learning to engage our surroundings, of "knowing what to look for," and of knowing how to respond appropriately. That is a strikingly counter-intuitive idea, but there are a number of possible explanations for this. Developing a consciousness presumably begins with being told that you have one, as when parents repeatedly refer to their children by their given names, using pronouns like "I" and "you" to signal boundaries of identity and shaping their children into individuals capable of distinguishing their own experiences from those of others. It's striking to me the way in which children often get the pronouns "I" and "you" wrong. When they're first learning to talk, they will sometimes say things like "you want to go to the park" when they mean they want to go to the park. Of course they would--they've always been called "you." To me this suggests that individual identity is not so clear at first. We didn't always understand what "I" means.

Second, what the brain actually does "at the ground level" is extraordinarily complex and vastly different from the sort of order that emerges from it. As Noë says, probably the only way to understand this is in an evolutionary way. Molecular biology, for instance, can tell us the micro-processes by which organisms develop, but in order to perceive that any sort of order has been developed in the process of evolution one simply must look at the whole. In the same way, the brain consists of a lot of different neurons accomplishing different things, but in order to perceive that anything like "consciousness" has actually been produced requires looking at the way in which that brain interacts with the world. If a person were completely shut off in some dark room for his entire life, his brain left to hum right along doing what it naturally does, there would (presumably) be no consciousness, in spite of the fact that the neural circuitry would be just as it is in any normal brain.

Following up on this second point, one might even be willing to eliminate the concept of "consciousness" if one were to stick to a strictly "scientistic" point of view. Because consciousness is not the direct result of any mechanical processes in the brain, consciousness may turn out to be not such a fundamental part of the human organism as an organism. It is only when the human is made to be aware of himself that he becomes "conscious," in the sense of having introspective thoughts, the ability to assess his own beliefs, and a sense of his own desires and purposes.

Rather than suggesting that we actually ignore consciousness as a reality, however, I would suggest that we learn to ignore scientism. If we viewed the world solely in terms of concrete mechanical processes that we could fully understand and predict, we would hardly be able to move.

Thinking rightly about ourselves seems to me a self-evidently important task, but I think there are also important "application" questions we could ask. For instance, what does one do about a loved one who has fallen into an "unconscious" coma? What about Terri Schiavo? What about the mentally disabled? How do we tell whether any of these have genuine consciousness, and what do we do about it? One could also ask about animal rights, based on the observation that many animals appear to be quite conscious of the world around them.

For my part, I want to suggest that if consciousness is indeed not intrinsic to human beings as organisms, then it is also not a line by which to divide those who have rights from those who don't. Of course, that just makes the problem more difficult in cases where a person is in a coma and unable to take care of herself. We will have to think carefully about spheres of responsibility in those cases, but one thing we can't do is assume that anyone who lacks a certain kind of brain activity is therefore dead. Similar considerations apply to the mentally disabled who, though they may be unable to say so much as a few words, are still human beings. In general, I am unwilling to relieve the human race from its responsibility to protect the lives of those who lack the abilities of the rest of us. Being human is more like being born into a family rather than being admitted into a program: we are not to be judged on our abilities, but rather on our shared ancestry.

I will mostly skip over animal rights, except to say that while I do not feel the same kind of responsibility to other animals as to humans, surely that doesn't relieve us of all responsibility. We may kill to eat, but that doesn't mean that there are not humane ways of doing so. This has been well-understood throughout human history.

There are some slightly more obscure application questions to be asked, such as the question about artificial intelligence: could a computer be conscious? Perhaps this question is becoming less obscure all the time, as we progress further toward genuine computer intelligence. One insight that Noë can give us is that artificial intelligence would require an artificial life, i.e. an environment in which to freely engage the world. Perhaps such an idea will one day lead to breakthroughs we have not foreseen except in science fiction. Or perhaps the way forward is far more difficult than we now realize.

Lots of interesting questions, so little time. Suffice it to say, I think this is an incredibly important topic for all of us.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Hayek on reason and tradition

Today's quote from F. A. Hayek is from The Fatal Conceit, chapter 1, page 21:
Learning how to behave is more the source than the result of insight, reason, and understanding. Man is not born wise, rational and good, but has to be taught to become so. It is not our intellect that created our morals; rather, human interactions governed by our morals make possible the growth of reason and those capabilities associated with it. Man became intelligent because there was tradition--that which lies between instinct and reason--for him to learn. This tradition, in turn, originated not from a capacity rationally to interpret observed facts but from habits of responding. It told man primarily what he ought or ought not to do under certain conditions rather than what he must expect to happen.
(Note: the emphasis is all Hayek's.)

This view is the result of Hayek's own studies and reflections on history and anthropology, and it provides a foundation for his anti-rationalist epistemology. I find myself lately rather hooked on this principle, as I see that it has far-reaching consequences. In education, for instance, I think we often see two schools of thought: one assumes that children are naturally gifted with the ability to think for themselves, and the other assumes that all knowledge must be handed down in the form of tradition. Hayek's principle is a little more favorable to the latter view, but even this will not suit: it is not merely knowledge which gets passed down through tradition, but a habit of thought enabling the mind to process things in an orderly fashion, for instance by the rules of deductive or inductive reasoning.

In terms of moral philosophy, I think this principle also leads us away from being (too) consequentialist in our reasoning. While it is often the case that our morals can be justified based on the general sort of consequence which we wish to avoid, there is in fact no way we can ever predict all the particular consequences of the various choices we make and the innumerable ways we make them. At bottom, we just have to accept that there are certain things you can't do, because, well, you just can't--even if you have some reason to suspect that it would be better in the long run if you did.

What goes mostly unstated in Hayek's moral philosophy is the underlying humanism implicit in his argument. Our morals have evolved to allow human beings to flourish to the greatest possible extent, given a world with ever-changing and unpredictable circumstances. This, for Hayek, is enough to place the benefit of the doubt on the morals we have inherited from tradition. On the other hand, it also justifies for him a great deal of skepticism about moral knowledge: "reluctant as we may be to accept this, no universally valid system of ethics can ever be known to us." One might call this the Incompleteness Principle of ethics, mirroring the Incompleteness Theorems of mathematical logic.

As a result, it is always possible to correct previous moral assumptions, either by showing some of our morals to be mutually incompatible or by showing empirically that some of our morals tend to do more harm than good. Such corrections can be continued ad infinitum, since no step in the process can ever produce the complete system of ethics we might strive for. What we absolutely cannot do is throw out traditional morality altogether and replace it with a plan by which we seek to deliberately conquer all obstacles to human flourishing. The dream of accomplishing this is exactly what Hayek names the fatal conceit. Not only will it not work, but it will backfire in devastating ways.

Hayek's moral philosophy is the right place to start if you want to understand the principles of a liberal social order of the "Hayekian" tradition, which, he would argue, goes at least back to the Scottish philosophers of the Enlightenment. But I think it's significant that, for a man known mostly for his thoughts on economics and politics, he had pretty brilliant insight into the complex and subtle relationship between reason, instinct, morals, and tradition.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What makes us tell the truth?

Fascinating article over at the WSJ entitled, "Why We Lie." The premise is interesting:
We tend to think that people are either honest or dishonest. In the age of Bernie Madoff and Mark McGwire, James Frey and John Edwards, we like to believe that most people are virtuous, but a few bad apples spoil the bunch. If this were true, society might easily remedy its problems with cheating and dishonesty. Human-resources departments could screen for cheaters when hiring. Dishonest financial advisers or building contractors could be flagged quickly and shunned. Cheaters in sports and other arenas would be easy to spot before they rose to the tops of their professions.

But that is not how dishonesty works. Over the past decade or so, my colleagues and I have taken a close look at why people cheat, using a variety of experiments and looking at a panoply of unique data sets—from insurance claims to employment histories to the treatment records of doctors and dentists. What we have found, in a nutshell: Everybody has the capacity to be dishonest, and almost everybody cheats—just by a little. Except for a few outliers at the top and bottom, the behavior of almost everyone is driven by two opposing motivations. On the one hand, we want to benefit from cheating and get as much money and glory as possible; on the other hand, we want to view ourselves as honest, honorable people. Sadly, it is this kind of small-scale mass cheating, not the high-profile cases, that is most corrosive to society. [emphasis added]
The article goes on to talk about studies that may indicate how it is we can curb this subtle yet corrosive force in society. The author uses the example of a study in which a group of UCLA students were asked to complete a mental exercise, essentially consisting of a series of simple calculations, and then report on how well they did (after their papers were shredded). The group was divided into two sets: one set was asked to recall the Ten Commandments before completing the assignment, while the other was asked to recall something rather trivial, like ten books they read in high school. Turns out the second set of students had slightly inflated scores relative to the first. Apparently just recalling certain rules caused people to act more scrupulously. The experiment even worked on self-avowed atheists. In fact, it even worked with the Ten Commandments replaced by the school's honor code.

To the author, this suggests a convenient and effective way to curb lying in a society. For instance, in one experiment with insurance claims, the signature line, with the words, "I promise that the information I am providing is true," was moved from the bottom of the form to the top. This significantly decreased the values of the claims, suggesting that people were less inclined to cheat when reminded from the beginning that they were under oath.

But aside from methods of manipulation, what insight into the nature of morality might we derive from this? It's interesting to speculate on the role that words play in shaping morality. Statements such as the Ten Commandments or a school honor code do more than merely convey information; they also act as a link between people and some abstract authority watching over them. It's one thing for a person to know that lying is wrong. It is another for that person to hear (or read) that lying is wrong. Even when the words appear on a form, they have an impact on us.

Put in another way, words are more than just a medium through which two parties are able to communicate their own desires, goals, and beliefs. They also seem to have some mysterious power over us to help us conform to a collective wisdom tradition. It is important that the words themselves have power to do this. Otherwise we would have to depend on some other source of authority, presumably not nearly so easily widespread as words. This should give us a clue as to how we ever became capable of functioning in a society which is so widely extended, in terms of both physical space and numbers of people.

All of this suggests that perhaps all societies ought to learn to imitate some version of the words of Moses:
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. [Deut. 6:6-9]
It would appear our very survival depends on it.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

This is exactly what the church should be doing

A New York Times article tells a story of the Reformed Church of Highland Park, NJ that has been truly doing the work of the gospel:
The Reformed Church in this prosperous suburb has for years packed a lot inside its walls, including addiction counseling, a housing program, dance groups, gatherings for developmentally disabled people, a restaurant, a thrift shop and space to worship for hundreds of people from half a dozen religious congregations.

Now, the church is taking on another role: sanctuary for five Indonesian Christians facing deportation and fearful of religious persecution in their homeland.
Not only does the church have a long history of actively spreading the love of Christ to their community, but now they are standing in opposition to unjust laws and acting as a shield against the state (which is also spreading the love of Christ). And it is working:
“As a matter of policy,” Mr. Feinstein[, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement,] said, the agency “does not conduct enforcement actions at sensitive locations, including places of worship, unless the action involves a national security matter, imminent risk of violence or physical harm, pursuit of a dangerous felon or the imminent destruction of evidence in an ongoing criminal case.”
It gives me hope to know that the church still acts as a safe haven for the oppressed.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Follow-up on Michael Sandel

Trevor Burrus weighs in on Michael Sandel's new book. He revealingly calls his review "The Moral Majority of the New Left." Excerpt:
Rick Santorum and Michael Sandel should go fishing some time. If they put preconceptions aside, they will quickly realize they have a lot in common. They both feel the “national character” is eroding and that “we” need to have a serious conversation about where our culture is going. They can even trade knowing nods over their shared conviction that, while there’s nothing wrong with certain voluntary relationships (same-sex couples and corporations), why do they have to do it in public?
Aside from being provocative, I think the review is helpful in pointing out what I think is the ultimate flaw in these moralizing arguments about markets and/or culture: who is this "we"?
Conservative and communitarian arguments are thus equivalent in form. For both philosophies, “we” are supposed to be engaging in a collective conversation about what values will run “our” lives.
I think most of us are inclined to instinctively respond to this pronoun "we." It is a word which invites people to feel like they are part of something. But once definite propositions are put on the table, so to speak, one immediately realizes how polarizing the debate can be, and how infinite in scope questions of detail can become. We should not treat our bodies as commodities. OK, but what about wearing a t-shirt with a brand on it? We should not pay students to study. OK, but what about taking them out to eat when they get straight A's? We shouldn't make a commodity out of free public theater. OK, but what if we don't really like the public theater that we're being forced to pay for?

Burrus points out that communitarians try to argue that the interconnectedness of all people and all behaviors demands that we be able to make public determinations concerning individual behavior, but actually our interconnectedness implies just the opposite. We are so interconnected that if the community has the right to make determinations on some personal choices, then it's very hard to see what limits there will be. As I just explained above, there are too many details to fight over.

Come to think of it, that's exactly what happens: the left and right are locked in a never-ending fight over which areas of our lives to invade. Some want to take away our freedom to watch pornography. OK, sounds reasonable, but what else can't we watch? Some want to take away our freedom to smoke marijuana or perhaps tobacco. OK, but what else can't we consume? (Some are already proposing limits on our sugar intake.) Some believe the government should place certain mandates on health insurance purchases. OK, so what else do we have to buy? There are infinitely many details to be worked out, and the fact is, having a "national debate" about these things is impossible. It invariably becomes a polarizing political death match in which people's opinions are constantly being shaped by the two-sided establishment. We come to accept a list of moral imperatives which have no relation to one another and no coherence with any over-arching moral philosophy. This is an inevitable result of a system which seeks to decide all moral questions democratically.

What is the alternative to this endless tug-of-war between competing cultural factions? Instead of pretending that "we" can solve these moral questions collectively, we ought instead embrace a very simple moral concept: leave individuals with the right and responsibility to their own bodies and their own property. Moral questions concerning the proper use of person and property will have to be left up to the individual. It's not as if they have to figure it all out on their own. I promise, people occasionally listen to their parents, their teachers, their pastors, or whoever they might look up to and respect. The constant sense of urgency that there needs to be some "national debate" is honestly a bit mystifying to me sometimes. It seems we are instinctively trapped in a paranoid fear of the collapse of morality and social order. The facts just don't support that paranoia.

If Michael Sandel wants to guide people toward what he thinks is a better moral life, more power to him. I guess in that way he is functioning as a pastor of sorts. But if he wants to talk about politics, I'd like to know where he is going with this.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

How Markets Crowd Out Morals

That's the name of the lead essay by Michael Sandel in the latest Boston Review. Excerpt:
This economistic view of virtue fuels the faith in markets and propels their reach into places they don’t belong. But the metaphor is misleading. Altruism, generosity, solidarity, and civic spirit are not like commodities that are depleted with use. They are more like muscles that grow stronger with exercise. One of the defects of a market-driven society is that it lets these virtues languish. To renew our public life we need to exercise them more strenuously.
I agree with Sandel, even I'm not completely sure about all of his applications. For instance, economists are in remarkable agreement, contrary to many people (like Sandel, apparently), that the selling of organs such as kidneys should be allowed. I'm not convinced that the economists are wrong on that particular issue. I am convinced, however, that the utilitarian view, in which the social good is determined by the sum total of individual subjective desires, is wrong. What's downright bizarre to me is the economist's conception of altruism and love as scarce goods.

The more libertarian I get, the more anti-market I become. That's because the market has come to be a "mere mechanism," as Sandel puts it in his criticism of the economist's view. As a mere mechanism, it then becomes a tool for technocrats to place themselves at the helm of society under the presumption that they can steer us toward economic salvation. Money is not the ultimate tool for determining behavior. Banks are not the salvation of the world. You would have thought 2008 had taught us that already.

What makes the market work, in the classical liberal conception to which I subscribe, is the fact that our morals guide us. This is the whole point of Hayek's The Fatal Conceit. If we were guided solely by instinct, we would be stuck in small hunter-gatherer societies with no grounds on which to cooperate with people outside our tribe. If we are guided solely by reason, however, we often presumptuously move to destroy the conventions and institutions which have made us successful as a species. Our morals act as a buffer between instinct and reason, guiding us through complex decisions for which our instincts are either inadequate or misleading, and for which our reason is incapable of finding a satisfactory justification even when we are making the right decision.

The market, in this view, emerged over time as a set of conventions and institutions which tend to enhance the thriving of human beings. But once we assume that the market is a product of our reason and can be given some a priori justification based on a utilitarian conception of ethics, then we tend to treat it as a system through which to organize all of society, thus "crowding out" our morals.

The way forward, in my opinion, is through what I would like to call (somewhat paradoxically) a critical respect for tradition. Our moral traditions, in particular, have made human flourishing possible. Unfortunately, we inherit these moral traditions as one big package, so to speak. When we unpack these traditions, we have to critically assess how they can fit together. Sometimes they can't, and we must abandon certain traditions altogether. Sometimes we will spend our entire lives trying to resolve our morals in ways that can't fit in any logically coherent way, but this doesn't always mean that we must choose one or the other. It is the critical struggle with our moral traditions that produces moral advances. The outright rejection of moral tradition, on the other hand, is pure folly. You can't start from nothing.

For example, there are certainly competing moral traditions which have a say in the question of selling organs as commodities. On the one hand, we have a traditional belief in the sanctity of human life, and sacred things can't simply be bought and sold. To offer up your own kidney to someone who needs it is indeed a noble sacrifice, and everyone should recognize it as such. On the other hand, there is a certain dignity to the reciprocity of a market transaction. One man needs a kidney (much) more than he needs $10,000, another man needs $10,000 more than he needs both kidneys; the trade benefits both parties. It seems to me that making such a transaction legal would not have an utterly corrosive effect on our morals. What if it saved lives? Can we really be so terribly upset by that?

On other particular examples, I mostly agree with Sandel. Should we really give each other cash presents as gifts? That seems crass, and probably for a good reason. We are not being "irrational" by attempting to put a little more thought into gift-giving than just writing a check. On the other hand, it is also quite superficial to search high and low for a "good gift" without ever truly getting to know your relatives. I'm sure Sandel understands that there are many other good reasons to be concerned with the excessive gift-giving every year at Christmas time. We have to weigh our various moral traditions, from the value of gift-giving to the dignity of simple living, from the beauty of grandiose celebrations to the virtue of thrift.

Sandel's major contribution to the discussion is not in the particulars, but rather in the general principle which he states so well: "our capacity for love and benevolence is enlarged with practice." I couldn't agree more. Aside from strange utilitarian assumptions made by economists, the real problem of modern society is the ease with which we are able to think only of ourselves. With as much affluence as we have, it is difficult to find in ourselves the desire and the discipline to make lasting commitments which are not reducible to mere transactions. Yet without such commitments, the human race would never have flourished as it has. Moreover, I'm not sure it's even possible to understand individual happiness as an idea completely independent of committed relationships. Relationships to one another give us identity, which in turn gives us meaning, which in turn gives us happiness, provided those relationships are healthy.

Of course, this makes us ask which commitments are good. Considering this is an article about the corrupting influence of money, I would have to say that governments stand out as particularly poor candidates for our allegiance. Is there any doubt that the coercive power of government is a magnet for political crony capitalists and special interests? Sandel cites an instance in which a small Swiss town was asked to host a nuclear waste site. I, for one, do not yearn for a world in which men's hearts swell with patriotic pride at the thought of storing nuclear waste for the sake of the greater good. In fact, I'm not sure I really sympathize with the Swiss townspeople for being more willing to cooperate under the condition of not receiving compensation. But perhaps the Swiss feel a greater sense of solidarity, given that they live in such a small country which has allowed itself to be relatively isolated from conflict. The United States is not such a country.

In my opinion, the commitments we ought to foster the most are those which we can see and know personally: our families, our friends, our neighbors in our communities, our colleagues, our churches, etc. I am very skeptical of people calling for commitments to large institutions such as our national government, except insofar as it is required to provide a basic social cohesion in which a variety of communities and institutions can flourish. It is pointless to love people in general and no one in particular. I think it is therefore misguided to put the interests of country before the interests of people you actually know. If your nation begins to trample the rights of your community, then loyalty to country is no longer a virtue.

Sandel doesn't really delve into politics per se, but I think he means to go there, and I'd be curious to hear what his political philosophy is. In any case, he has given us some important things to think about, and I look forward to seeing what kind of influence he has on the intellectual community. The economists, in particular, should have some interesting things to say.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Libertarianism and collective destiny

The fundamental dichotomy that reverberates throughout popular political discourse could be summarized no better than by this line from a recent Washington Post article:
Romney is promoting the God of "I": individual accomplishment and personal success. Obama is promoting the God of "we," in which the fates of all are intertwined.
Replace "Obama" more broadly with "the left" and "Romney" with "the right" and you get a pretty typical understanding of American politics. I'll hand it to the author of the article: she has a very balanced approach to this dichotomy and frames it provocatively in the context of Christianity's theological history. The whole thing is worth a read.

But that's not exactly what I'm going to talk about. What I want to talk about, instead, is what eventually one me over to "libertarianism," or perhaps more correctly "classical liberalism," in the first place. The most abiding critique of libertarianism is that the individualism on which it is based is immoral or impractical or both. Clearly we all need each other. The human race cannot survive without cooperation among different members of the species. We all owe our success to others. These observations have both moral and practical implications for our political philosophy such that the radical individualism underlying libertarian philosophy must be false.

Until fairly recently, I more or less accepted this critique of libertarianism. What changed everything for me was ultimately an essay called, "Individualism: True and False," by none other than F. A. Hayek (it always comes back to Hayek). In it, he gives the following definition of "true" individualism:
What, then, are the essential characteristics of true individualism? The first thing that should be said is that it is primarily a theory of society, an attempt to understand the forces which determine the social life of man, and only in the second instance a set of political maxims derived from this view of society. This fact should by itself be sufficient to refute the silliest of the common misunderstandings: the belief that individualism postulates (or bases its arguments on the assumption of) the existence of isolated or self-contained individuals, instead of starting from men whose whole nature and character is determined by their existence in society. If that were true, it would indeed have nothing to contribute to our understanding of society. But its basic contention is quite a different one; it is that there is no other way toward an understanding of social phenomena but through our understanding of individual actions directed toward other people and guided by their expected behavior. This argument is directed primarily against the properly collectivist theories of society which pretend to be able directly to comprehend social wholes like society, etc., as entities sui generis which exist independently of the individuals which compose them. The next step in the individualistic analysis of society, however, is directed against the rationalistic pseudo-individualism which also leads to practical collectivism. It is the contention that, by tracing the combined effects of individual actions, we discover that many of the institutions on which human achievements rest have arisen and are functioning without a designing and directing mind; that, as Adam Ferguson expressed it, "nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action but not the result of human design"; and that the spontaneous collaboration of free men often creates things which are greater than their individual minds can ever fully comprehend. This is the great theme of Josiah Tucker and Adam Smith, of Adam Ferguson and Edmund Burke, the great discovery of classical political economy which has become the basis of our understanding not only of economic life but of most truly social phenomena.
The above quote is dense, but I have decided to post it in its entirety so as not to deprive the reader of Hayek's sophisticated explanation of the core issues. Having said that, I will now try to explain what effect this passage had on me and what I think should be the real selling point of libertarianism.

To ask whether we should focus on the individual or focus on the collective is simply the wrong question. The right question is, what is a good society and how does it work? That's the question to which I believe Hayek and others have given the best answers.

A good society is one in which people cooperate. We can do far more if we specialize into different tasks and share the fruits of our labor than if we each keep to ourselves. We are also far healthier and happier if we have right relationships with one another: friends, families, and so on. In a good society, each individual has a role to play in benefiting every other individual, whether directly or indirectly.

A good society also consists solely of people who do not and cannot have access to the kind of knowledge which would be necessary to delegate to all individuals the tasks, relationships, and roles which individuals ought to play in society. It is not possible to "construct" or "plan" a good society.

Here we have a conundrum: a good society must consist of individuals working together toward the common good, but those individuals can't have any idea what precisely they are working toward.

Classical liberalism succeeds where other political philosophies fail because it (a) sees the conundrum as it is and (b) provides a solution. Which means, yes, classical liberalism is indeed concerned with our collective destiny. You must keep this in mind as you read about individual liberty, private property, constitutional constraints on government, and so on: all of these ideas are meant to provide a framework under which individuals may work together toward the common good without actually having a plan for doing so. I say this merely by way of invitation (not even introduction) to the classical liberal way of thinking; if I were to attempt to provide the complete answer, I would be stuck writing all night.

As I see it, modern American liberalism fails at point (a), since they insist that we can answer questions which are simply unanswerable, while American conservatives usually fail at point (b) by clinging to traditions which don't necessarily address this conundrum effectively.

I agree with conservatives that our moral traditions play a key role in the constitution of a good society. However, I do not agree that these moral traditions are beyond question or revision, and I also do not agree with the proposed application of said moral traditions. There many things which may be immoral to do, and yet it may also be immoral to prevent a person from doing those things.

With liberals I have a tougher time because it is generally quite difficult to get them to understand the knowledge problem. Many of my peers are attracted to liberalism because they are smart and believe that smart people ought to work together toward the common good. In this sense I, too, am a liberal. The difference is that I believe we must work toward the common good beginning with the humble acknowledgement that we don't know precisely what that is, and the broader our impact on the world the less of an idea we will have whether we have done good or bad. In my opinion this difference explains the modern liberal's obsession with statistics: the gap between rich and poor, under-representation from minorities, median incomes in third world countries, average scores on standardized tests--the list goes on and on, because there's always another aggregate quantity to try and fix. If the liberal could only understand how little we really know about where these numbers come from, he might be able to understand why I oppose his policy proposals.

I hope this is a helpful contrast. It certainly helps clarify in my own mind why I believe as I do, and why I believe America needs a different direction politically.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Now I understand Richard Dawkins

Recently I was enjoying this really cool story about how slime mold can be used to construct efficient networks, which used the example of the interstate highway system as a model. If you haven't seen this, check it out:

I read the NY Times op-ed written by Andrew Adamatzky and Andrew Ilachinski, the scientists who pioneered the use of slime mold (Physarum polycephalum) for various sorts of computing tasks. Read this excerpt:
But it’s worth remembering that the highway system was created by mere humans, using only human intelligence. To find out if it’s optimally designed, we need to consult a higher authority. Namely, slime mold.
What follows is a fascinating explanation of how such a bizarre creature can be used to solve complex problems like path optimization. Super-cool, right?

Well, later I saw a link someone posted to a blog article written by a conservative Christian entitled, "Who Needs Engineers?" The blog post makes the following complaint against Adamatzky and Ilachinski:
In short they argue that we really did not need all those engineers and planners who gave us the Interstate Highway system because we could have just let some slime do the work instead. I am not kidding, and I hope you will read this story to your children and help them see why the Bible says that those who hate God are fools.
Upon reading that, I realized why people like Richard Dawkins have such a missionary zeal about trying to promote science in the public realm. At some point Christians ought to realize that this kind of anti-scientific statement doesn't just make them look stupid. It's also, dare I say it, sinful. For one thing, it's false. Adamatzky and Ilachinski are clearly not saying that designing interstate highway systems is as simple as watching a slime mold. At the very least, have enough respect to understand what these men are actually saying.

For another thing, think about how hateful this is. "I hope you will read this story to your children and help them see why the Bible says that those who hate God are fools." So two creative, passionate scientists who have given the world a fascinating perspective on an interesting problem are being blasted, not for anything they said against God, but simply for sharing their research. I'm not going to look it up, but for all I know reading their article, these two scientists could be Christians. Whatever the case may be, it is wrong to judge people like that.

What provoked such an insult from this Christian blogger? Apparently, it was the mere mention of "evolution," as in this statement from the Times article: "the slime mold was designed by evolution to solve just one problem: how to build an optimal transport network (for its nutrients)." Thus, if you continue reading the aforementioned blog post, you will read yet another explanation why it is absurd to believe in evolution. I am almost 100% sure that Adamatzky and Ilachinski never even thought about the controversy over evolution when they were writing their op-ed for the NYT. If a single word can provoke such ire, perhaps I shouldn't tell my fellow church-goers that I study evolutionary differential equations.

I see these attacks on science as symptomatic of a couple of serious moral issues in the church, which Christians have yet to deal with. First, let's be clear: anti-intellectualism is a moral problem. Christians need to be reminded that intellectual pedigree does and should demand a certain amount of respect in this world. To treat scientists as if the very foundations of their research can be refuted in a short blog post is not only stupid, it is incredibly disrespectful. This is what I mean by anti-intellectualism.

But by far the more important moral problem in the church is a simple lack of respect for truth. For all this talk about standing firm against the cultural tides of relativism and skepticism and boldly proclaiming the truth, Christians are often profoundly lazy about trying to discover the truth. Thus they refuse to cope with the reality that some things we discover about the world are going to conflict with what the church has traditionally believed. Life is hard that way. Sometimes our beliefs don't withstand rigorous scrutiny. Failing to accept this is both an intellectual problem and a moral one.

There is another thing I find sad about this, and that's the apparent lack of imagination displayed by Christians who refuse to accept that the theory of evolution might really be true. All of their arguments come down to the same thing: I can't imagine how such complex systems came into being without any sort of design involved. Essentially, this is a bias born of conceit. Think about the title of that blog post: "Who Needs Engineers?" We humans seem to be of the biased opinion that any sort of order in the universe comes from the work of human hands, so when we discover that in fact there is a beautiful and complex order in nature, it makes sense that we tend to attribute that order to God the engineer. Not God the artist, not God the gardener, not God the lover of things spontaneous and free. No, it must have been God the designer, because we all know that really cool things can't just come into being on their own.

Yet probably the opposite is true: the more complex a system is, the more essential it is that it be allowed to freely evolve. Our complex economic and political systems came into being through a process of cultural evolution, and not thanks to "social engineers" (notice how many of these same Christians hate socialism--to me this boggles the mind). In the same way, this rich world of complex organisms and ecosystems could not have come about any way other than a process of evolution building spontaneous order.

When we say "designed by evolution," we of course mean "selected," but perhaps in a higher sense there is a sort of design to it all. Evolution is not "random" just because it is free. On the contrary, it has the remarkable tendency to produce improvements in living things, which we never could have produced using our feeble mental capabilities. And this is exactly what Adamatzky and Ilachinski were saying from the beginning: "To find out if it’s optimally designed, we need to consult a higher authority. Namely, slime mold." We have much to thank God for and much to learn from this beautiful world he has given us, but we will never understand it if we insist that God is an engineer.

More importantly, we will never understand it if we demonize those whose life's work it is to bring us creative insight into the wonderful and mysterious world around us. I hope the church can feel some sense of shame about this, before it forces out all of us who take scientific truth seriously.

In related news, the General Assembly of the PCA will soon vote on whether or not to reject all evolutionary views on the origin of man.