December 5, 2012

Fairness and the nature of government

An ongoing debate between M.Planck and myself:



I think fairness is a human concern; it does not occur naturally (and thus government is best viewed as a human institution designed to create fairness). One of the problems I have with the libertarian perspective is that it assumes that fairness does occur naturally, that the natural outcome is the definition of fair. I don't believe this position can withstand scrutiny (although it can pass a casual examination, which accounts for why there are so many proto-libertarians about).

At a similar level, I define justice as fairness; to me, the two concepts are largely indistinguishable. A fair act is a just one, and vice versa.

Is there anything here you disagree with?


Indeed there is, but let’s begin with what is not so much a disagreement as a problem. What is fairness? We cannot really debate the applicability, characteristics, or even the coherence of a concept without at least a rough-and-ready definition. It is interesting but not really sufficient to just say that justice and fairness are synonymous.

If one resorts to the relevant Oxford definition, one sees:

Fair 1.
treating people equally without favouritism or discrimination:
     the group has achieved fair and equal representation for all its members
     a fairer distribution of wealth
Just or appropriate in the circumstances:
     to be fair, this subject poses special problems
     it’s not fair to take it out on her

Is this a sufficient definition for our discussion or would you like to propose a different one that better captures your intent?


This definition is close, if one understands that favoritism includes favoring one's self.

I use fairness in the Rawlsian sense. John Rawls describes the Original Position: you have to decide on the outcome of a dispute before you know which party of the dispute you belong to. Imagine being asked to allocate starting resources to team Red and team Blue before you know which team you will be playing on.

This imaginary exercise is how humans determine fairness. While it can be difficult to pretend to be blind to one's own identity, it is not impossible; indeed, the ability to do so is what defines us as social beings. "Theory of Mind" is the ability to imagine being someone else, and everyone but autistics has it (sociopaths have it too; they can imagine acting or thinking like someone else, they just can't feel like someone else).

So all humans are innately equipped to determine whether a given arrangement (of rules, resources, etc.) is fair, in the sense that they would be equally happy accepting any portion of that arrangement. A formal definition is useful, but only while keeping in mind that determining fairness is a semantic process, like language, rather than a syntactical operation, like math. As is sometimes claimed of art, you know it when you see it.

Of course, people have to look out for their own best interests; but that is a statement about actions, not about metaphysical determinations. It just so happens that fairness generally favors our best interests (but of course, this is not a surprise, since we evolved our ability to determine fairness precisely because such an ability favored our best interests!)


Thank you for providing us with a working definition. While I don’t want to get mired down in a debate about the merits of the definition itself, I will observe that the definition on offer is essentially Kant’s categorical imperative with the word “moral” scratched out and the word “fair” penciled in. (It is apparently a valid philosophical project to find new and elaborate ways of restating the golden rule periodically -- but that is definitely a digression.) Let us now return to the original topic.

You stated in your first set of assertions:

“I think fairness is a human concern; it does not occur naturally (and thus government is best viewed as a human institution designed to create fairness).”

Then, in the elaboration of your chosen definition, you stated:

“…So all humans are innately equipped to determine whether a given arrangement (of rules, resources, etc.) is fair…”

This is contradictory on its face. If all humans are innately equipped to determine whether a given arrangement is fair, then fairness occurs in nature. What else could “innately” mean? It may be that fairness is not applied uniformly or necessarily, but you cannot hold the second position without negating the first.

One possible difference between our views is that I believe that the very categories of a natural realm and a human realm cause a great deal of mischief. Humans are a part of nature and thus everything we do is natural. What one achieves by making the distinction is little more than a sort of vestigial Cartesian dualism, where the world is one thing, and our mental activity quite another. My position, to apply this idea to the present topic, is that government itself is just another process that arises spontaneously from a certain kind of organism under certain circumstances. We perceive governmental organization and policies as the products of conscious planning, but it is self evident that much of what happens as the result of such organization and policies is unintended and surprising.

Your view that “government is best viewed as a human institution designed to create fairness” is wholeheartedly normative rather than descriptive. It is what you want government to be, rather than what government actually is. Even the most cursory look at history will show that governments are not fair by necessity. Indeed, by almost any definition of fairness most governments are unfair. From a purely descriptive perspective, government is best viewed as that institution within a society which maintains its internal and external stability through a relative monopoly on the application of force. While governments can do many other things as well, they must all preserve themselves and a substantial fraction of the population over which they are sovereign. Those that fail at this task cease to exist. While fairness may be a very laudable thing, plenty of states have prospered without making it a central theme.



“This is contradictory on its face. If all humans are innately equipped to determine whether a given arrangement is fair, then fairness occurs in nature. What else could “innately” mean? It may be that fairness is not applied uniformly or necessarily, but you cannot hold the second position without negating the first.”

I don't understand this objection. It's like warmth; humans innately understand what warmth means, they require it at some level for survival and at another level for comfortable survival; occasionally the natural world provides the right amount of warmth; but it is not much of an exaggeration to say that human technology exists to provide warmth when nature fails to do so. In exactly the same way, fairness is a state of being that humans generally have to provide for themselves.

The ability to comprehend warmth (i.e. the difference between too much heat and too little) does not guarantee the existence of warmth; imagining ideal states of existence, and then working to create them, is what human beings do. The pursuit of warmth and the pursuit of fairness look very much alike; as we get better at the technology, we succeed at producing it more reliably.

“One possible difference between our views is that I believe that the very categories of a natural realm and a human realm cause a great deal of mischief. Humans are a part of nature and thus everything we do is natural.”

This cannot be a source of difference, as I reject the notion of non-naturalism even more resolutely than most philosophers (even to the point of asserting that ideas do not exist unless they are instantiated by physical matter, such as neuronal arrangements).

“My position, to apply this idea to the present topic, is that government itself is just another process that arises spontaneously from a certain kind of organism under certain circumstances. We perceive governmental organization and policies as the products of conscious planning, but it is self evident that much of what happens as the result of such organization and policies is unintended and surprising.”

Yes; in fact, the same is true of human activity at every level, right down to making dinner. You've just described how the brain works to create personality.

“Your view that ‘government is best viewed as a human institution designed to create fairness’ is wholeheartedly normative rather than descriptive. It is what you want government to be, rather than what government actually is.”

It's like saying "fire-making is best viewed as a human institution designed to create warmth." It's what we want from fire-making; it's why we invented it; the fact that it occasionally fails, falls short, or does something else does not really detract from the essential definition.

When something is an artificial construct - that is, a part of the self-feedback loop between observed reality and the model of reality humans create in their head - I think a normative description is appropriate. Government does not exist "in nature;" that is to say, like fire-making, it is an activity that relies on uniquely human mental constructs. (Even this is a simplification; it could be argued that some animals form limited governments, just as some animals make and use simple tools. But for general discourse the distinction between artificial and natural basically means people vs. everything else). (This also differentiates between government and eusocial arrangements; chimps might have a form of government; ants do not.)

"Even the most cursory look at history will show that governments are not fair by necessity. Indeed, by almost any definition of fairness most governments are unfair."

Now we come to a legitimate difference: you assert that governments are not fair by necessity, and I completely disagree. They are fair by necessity; they exist solely to create that fairness. So, how can I square this assertion with the plainly observable facts of history?To deal with the lesser point first: by an exacting definition of warmth, most people are not. The vast bulk of the planet is either too cold or too hot much of the time. But no one would deny that warmth is necessary and that fire-making serves a crucial function in the production of warmth; nor would anyone deny that we are markedly better at making warmth than we used to be. In the same way, governments have become generally more fair. The fact that none of them are ideally fair is no more significant than the fact that few households are ideally warm.

As for necessity: the entire point of government is to produce fairness between parties. When every agent operates off of pure, immediate strength, you have anarchy, which is an inherently unstable state. Eventually the most powerful agents reach some kind of agreement, which includes allocating resources, adjudicating disputes, and punishing transgressors of the agreement. Viola - government! And a government of fairness, insomuch as the various parties to the agreement have entered into it voluntarily, viewing it as the best possible arrangement for a future in which they are not certain which role they will play. Of course, they fully expect to still possess the powers of an agent; but they may not be of the same strength they are now, or allied with the same factions, etc. So they want an arrangement that preserves their position even in the face of minor changes.

When mobsters get together to settle a turf war, they talk about strength; but they also talk about fairness. Merely being the strongest mobster is not enough to convince the others to allow you open license; after all, if they combined, they would form a stronger force. However, they prefer not to combine as it would diminish each of them. So the discussion is not purely about numbers of gunmen; it is about an arrangement that allows for some flexibility but not too much. And if you watch these discussions as a fly on the wall, you will see fairness repeatedly introduced as a deciding principal in disputes between equals.

The reason you perceive government as so wildly unfair is because you are measuring government as a tool for creating fairness for people. This is not what it does; it creates fairness for agents, i.e. the active participants of the government.

However, the story of democracy has been the story of the ever-expanding franchise, including more and
more groups as agents in the political process. And this form of government has repeatedly won in real-world struggles against smaller franchises (though not necessarily smaller societies).

So, given the history of broad-based franchises defeating narrow-based ones (Lincoln freeing the slaves to raise manpower for defeating the South, for example), it is not unreasonable to conclude that governments have all the fairness necessary to their survival; and that this creates a feedback loop that leads to expanding quantities of fairness. Plenty of states prospered with limited fairness, but only until they were faced with competition from more fair states.

And biologically speaking, humans are basically equal. Thus the broadest possible franchise is political equality for everyone. This is why we are not doomed to a future of tyranny; all forms of government are not equal, high levels of fairness make stronger societies which defeat weaker societies, thus raising the average level of fairness. It's like a technological arms race, because it is.


Fairness is not like warmth. Warmth is ultimately reducible to neat, reasonably precise, physical terms. We can say a human being will be comfortable within a certain range of temperatures and can survive within a somewhat greater range, making allowances for individual differences on the margins. Fairness is a moral rather than a physical entity. It is physical in the important sense that it requires the existence of a relationship between at least two physical beings to exist, but it is non-physical in the sense that you cannot build a fairness meter out of hardware or build a machine to fission fairness into smaller parts. (I believe that this is also the difference between ideas and technologies, but I don’t want to digress into a side debate over that issue.)

By your definition, fairness quite subjective. Having helped yourself to the “you know it when you see it” caveat, you can hardly deny this. I will not disagree. Consider the example of affirmative action. If one believes that affirmative action is fair, then one believes that one’s membership in a certain historically disadvantaged group merits a countervailing dispensation on, for example, civil service exams. If one believes that affirmative action is unfair, then one believes that civil service exams should be blind to the matter of group affiliation. Both of these positions are fair in the Rawlsian sense you outlined earlier – a hypothetical individual might hold either as an acceptable universal law – but the two positions are quite incompatible. If we argue about whether 72 or 68°F is the ideal temperature, we are at least arguing about the same ontological stuff, whereas in the affirmative action example we are not.

Even putting this objection aside, following your analogy back to your original statements would imply you meant the following:

Although human beings are innately capable of assessing whether or not a situation is fair, they are incapable of acting fairly as individuals.
If they could act fairly as individuals, then, again, fairness would exist in nature. The only way I can see out of this trap is to make the definitional claim that fairness can only exist at some social level above the individual. You might want to go there, but it was not a part of your proposed definition. But let’s move on.

Your position that government is fair by necessity rests on an assumption that the resolution of a conflict by any means other than the direct application of force is an instance of fairness. This is a false assumption. Among human beings, as among most animals, the actual application of force among near equals is relatively rare. An even fight is a dangerous thing for both players. Rather, barring desperate conditions or psychotic participants, conflicts are usually settled with accommodations taking relative power onto consideration, but not relying on overt force. The stronger prevail, generally, but not at an intolerable cost to the weaker. Nothing in this process requires fairness.

Consider your negotiating mobsters. If their accommodations were based on fairness as you originally defined it, any subsequent fluctuations in one’s ability to apply force would be irrelevant. Motivated by fairness, a newly dominant mobster would not exploit a temporarily weaker one. They would behave as good Kantian moral agents, at least toward one another. If, on the other hand, their accommodations were based merely on immediate relative capacities, they would renegotiate in response to changing conditions, or possibly even resort to force if they could do so without risk. In the real word, the latter is the norm rather than the exception. Treaties are broken, small states abused, weaker parties exploited, etc. – not always and necessarily, but with unsurprising regularity. That which looks like fairness is, as often as not, nothing more than a temporary balance of opposing strengths. It is not only possible, but common, to construct elaborate institutions, including governments, on exactly such a basis.

You go on:

“The reason you perceive government as so wildly unfair is because you are measuring government as a tool for creating fairness for people. This is not what it does; it creates fairness for agents, i.e. the active participants of the government.”

This makes hash of your already weak definition. If you can be fair -- just not to politically inconsequential people – then the Nazis were fair and slavery was fair. I understand the distinction you are making sociologically (and have pointed it out myself in other contexts) but linking this sense of fairness with your earlier definition is incoherent. What sense does it make to say: “…you have to decide on the outcome of a dispute before you know which party of the dispute you belong to” – except that you know you won’t be among the weakest parties? Stripped of the concept of a universal law, the categorical imperative is not worth uttering.

Finally, we have your hypotheses of the self-expanding franchise and the primacy of democratic states. For the latter proposition I could offer numerous counter examples, as well as arguments showing why the picture is not that simple, but suffice to say for now that I interpret history differently. We can return to this latter if you wish. On the matter of the self-expanding franchise I also disagree in several ways, but will limit myself, for now, to the most obvious.

Meaningful democratic participation is not simple matter of having the right to vote. It is not a matter of flipping a switch, like the democracy technology in a game of Sid Meier’s Civilization. Rather, meaningful democratic participation requires a polity which is both educated enough to understand what they are voting for and engaged enough to take the process seriously. Voting for candidate X because he is the coolest or because you feel in your heart that he loves you more than candidate Y is not meaningful participation in government -- it’s a testimony to the power of advertising. Read a few pages of the Lincoln-Douglas debate or de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America then watch a few minutes of campaign commercials or a modern presidential “debate” and you will see just how stark the contrast is. While we (speaking here specifically of the US) have expanded the franchise considerably in the last 150 years, the political consciousness of the electorate has degenerated along with the rest of the culture. Whether one approves of democracy as a system of government or not, one must surely concede that it is only meaningful if the electorate is politically conscious, not only of their own interests but also of the basic requirements of the system itself. When people begin to feel that their own interests are best served by signing their liberties away to smarter people they neither know nor influence, the breadth of the franchise becomes a rather pathetic joke.


Hmm. I did not expect so much difficulty in establishing such a basic premise; that is, that fairness exists, is obtainable, desirable, and the basis for good government.

Perhaps language is a better metaphor than warmth: Fairness exists in nature in exactly the same sense that language does; that is, it is a biologically driven behavior that assists human survival. Like language, it is innate, universal, and something we've gotten better at over time. Language is experienced subjectively, but it also has an objective component: not any collection of sounds constitutes a language.

Of course the mobsters are unfair to the rubes and marks; their Rawlsian decisions are made by deciding disputes between mobsters; i.e. essentially equal parties. Farmers can construct fair agreements without concerning themselves about the rights of the cows. Fairness was a huge concern for slave owners - as evidenced by the lawsuits they brought against each other. They just didn't extend political franchise (and hence fairness) to the slaves. They did not consider them worthy of political franchise.

The freedom we enjoy today is a direct result of extending the political franchise to wider circles. Our democracy is better educated and more responsive than any that has gone before it; the Athenian farmers were no wiser than our country bumpkins, and the Athenian polity was as addicted to cheap theater as ours. But literacy, mathematics, basic science, are all more widely disseminated today than ever before. And most important, the idea that all humans are essentially equal - that women are as deserving of fairness as men, for instance - is more widespread than ever in history. This leads to governments that consider all of their subjects to be citizens, not just some of them. (Hence my claim that freedom is impossible without equality.)

It is true that there is no perfect fairness, and that the amount of fairness in the world ebbs and flows. Nonetheless, it is a simple matter to determine that more people are treated more fairly now than the century before (the mere matter of women's emancipation settles the issue instantly, as it concerns 50% of the human population), and that this statement is true almost no matter what century of recorded history you live in.

To view every human interaction as merely a contest of strength is to fundamentally misread human nature. Humans voluntarily limit the exercise of their power out of a consideration for unknown futures, the value of reputation, and an innate sense of moral duty. This is what makes us social animals, and not solitary predators. Nietzsche wrote morality for tigers, not humans; he was a fantasist more than a philosopher. The mere act of making the kind of calculations of strength you describe is itself sub-optimal, insomuch as it is a vast expenditure of energy for the chance to make a fatal miscalculation. People don't do that; instead, they operate off of heuristic principles that make broad assumptions and cover a wide variety of general cases. I.e., fairness.


I can see that some clarifications are in order. To begin with, I am not disputing the existence of a Rawlsian sense of fairness, nor am I disputing that real human beings can, and sometimes do, act in conscious accordance with that principle. What I am disputing is the assertion that government is Rawlsian by necessity – or, frankly, that it is even Rawlsian typically. I am also disputing that fairness itself is a sufficiently stable and robust concept to survive serious scrutiny.

Let me address the latter first. My position is that there really is no workable objective standard of fairness, and that the Rawlsian formulation, like the golden rule and categorical imperative before it, ultimately yields little more than a projection of the cultural values of the individual implementing the rule.

Consider a 17th century witch burning. If we accept that the beliefs and intentions of the officials who conducted such executions were as they themselves stated, they were being entirely fair by Rawlsian standards. They believed that the witch’s soul might saved in the course of this horrible process, and would not have granted themselves any special exemption from it. There were, in fact, several cases in which judges who had condemned witches to the flames were themselves burned for witchcraft. Are we prepared to say that deliberately burning a person alive might be fair under certain circumstances? More, it would be incorrect to assume witch burning is merely an odd exception to our rule – a special case of ignorant religious fanaticism. The Soviets of the late 20th century and, I believe, the Chinese of today have both been prepared to treat political dissent as a form of mental illness in some instances, treatable with heavy medication and behavioral therapy. It was not that long ago that homosexuality was also treated with drugs and behavioral therapy – not in a totalitarian state, but in the U.S. I have no reason to believe that the majority of the people who were carried out such treatments were not being Rawlsian fair – which is to say, that they believed that they were subjecting others to treatments that they themselves would have been reasonably liable to under the same circumstances. One always assumes one’s own values are correct, thus, in a Rawlsian sense, it is always fair to compel another to adhere to them for his or her own good.

My other claim – that governments are not fair by necessity – would hardly seem to need proof. Still, since you have specified that by fair in the context of government you only mean fair within the sphere of government’s own agents, not fairness toward the governed, perhaps we do need a few additional comments to cover this very attenuated sense of fairness.

I believe it self-evident to any American, whichever side of the political divide he or she happens to be on, that the present Congress is not driven chiefly by considerations of mutual fairness. Fairness may be expressed in the actions of individual members in individuals instances, but the dominant theme in Congress is now, and historically usually has been, one of struggle between opposing forces. A power struggle, mediated by law and custom but not by moral sentiment. To call this ongoing wrangling over power an instance of fairness is like calling a hurricane an expression of God’s love. If you actually see it that way, we do indeed have a difference.

It is also evident that we draw very different lessons from history, and that dispute would probably be endless. I am not disagreeing that universal suffrage is a fine achievement, but I am disputing that it trumps all other considerations. The Soviets had as broad a suffrage as we do. Virtually every adult in the Soviet Union had the right to vote -- for or against the party’s proposed head of state. Perhaps for regional leaders to, though I am less sure of this. However, I would not call what actually happened in the Soviet Union meaningful participation in government. There is a difference between involvement in government in a real sense and in a ritual sense, and there is a continuum of possibilities between the two extremes.

You said:

“…the Athenian farmers were no wiser than our country bumpkins…”

Having lived and worked in a rural area for many years I find this particular offhand prejudice noxious and unjustified. You could hardly have invented a better instance of the cultural subjectivity of fairness. Fairness, in practice, rarely extends much further than the edges of one’s own culture – in this case, an urban culture that takes its own superiority as a given.


Ironically, your position seems to be the classic Leftist position - that human nature is merely a product of culture, infinitely malleable, a tabula rasa. This has been scientifically demonstrated to be false. There is a sense of fairness - and many other facets of human nature - that transcend culture, arising as they do from a biological substrate.

Your examples do not detract from Rawlsian fairness. They simply point out that superior understanding of the real world allows a better approximation of fairness; thus, the knowledge that there are no witches improves Salem society. But this is the heart of my thesis - that increased knowledge leads to more fairness!

I also take issue with your Marxist (again, the irony!) reading of Congress. It has not been merely a dialectical power struggle for most of history. Both of us are actually old enough to remember when the major complaint about American politics was that there was only one party; that the Ds and Rs were essentially identical in their policies. Both of us have lived through the increasing polarization of politics, and a realistic assessment shows that the partisanship is much more on one side than the other. There was a time when Ds & Rs routinely came together for the perceived good of the nation; an event as recent as the Iraq war was a largely bi-partisan affair. The gentleman's agreements that held vis-à-vis cabinet appointments (up until the Reagan era), the fact that the now dysfunctional Senate was once functional with the same rules, and so on, all point to a time when the idea of a united struggle - dare I call it patriotism - was the norm.

And I don't understand your final comment. I was merely pointing out that the hoi polloi of humanity has not biologically changed (nor, it should be taken as given, the aristocracy). Interpreting some kind of prejudice in my statement strikes me as not only unnecessary, but wholly bizarre.

I do not understand how you square your position with the biological facts of human nature or my assertion that government is designed to produce fairness - as understood by its members - between its members. Nor do I understand why you keep returning to fairness as an ideal for all parties when I keep specifically limiting it to an arrangement between powers. If the Salem judges would have submitted to the same treatment, then yes, they were being fair. The only sin they committed was being wrong about the state of the world. Our liberty is a product of both innate fairness and earned wisdom.


Again, I am not asserting that fairness, in some Rawlsian sense, does not exist – nor that human beings are infinitely malleable. I completely agree that human beings have certain genetic underpinnings that hold their malleability within certain limits. Neither am I asserting that fairness, as we have defined it, does not play a significant role in human behavior. I am asserting, quite specifically, that your claim that government is essentially and necessarily fair is false. My point about Congress was that, if you believe it is necessarily fair – then you must believe it is operating fairly now. Clearly, you don’t. I grant that Congress has fluctuations of cooperation and opposition (though I disagree that the Iraq war resolution is an exemplar of fairness) – but that is not the point. If it is substantially unfair now, it cannot be fair by necessity.

I agree, with equal amusement, that my support of what are generally conservative principles proceeds from a species of Marxist analysis. It is perhaps just as amusing, though, that your leftist position is grounded on Kantian idealism! Ironic though this all might be, philosophical jokes do not get many laughs. Such distinctions leave most people cold.

More telling than my witch trial example are, I think, the Soviet and Chinese dissident examples. There we have Rawlsian cases which we would clearly see as abusive, but which we cannot explain away by any straightforward lack of simple concrete facts. Rather, in the Soviet-Chinese cases, we are dealing with actions based on ideological presumptions. While I don’t think it’s possible to save a witch’s soul (since I don’t believe that souls exist) I do think it is possible to change person’s ideology with drugs and behavioral therapy. In some cases, I’m sure the Communists “cured” their “patients.” The point here is that it is possible to force others to conform to one’s own particular cultural standards – whatever they might be – by law and other coercive means, and be completely Rawlsian fair. The problem is, at that point, practically anything short of direct exploitation is admitted into the realm of fairness. So long as you consider a person as a person this definition gives you license to remake him, or her, in your own image.

“…Interpreting some kind of prejudice in my statement strikes me as not only unnecessary, but wholly bizarre.”

I am reasonably sure that you would not use the terms “fag,” “nigger,” or “kike” to describe human beings. That you are comfortable using the term “bumpkin” is an indicator that you are confident that “bumpkins” are not part of your culture, and that you can assume without reflection that no one in your culture will be offended by the slur. It is by no means a unique or an interesting prejudice, but it is an apt example of the kind of prejudice that devolves from cultural allegiance. Since I believe the problem with Rawlsian fairness is that it merely echoes one’s own cultural values, an instance of cultural prejudice is entirely relevant in demonstrating that weakness.

November 11, 2012

The Inevitability of Progress

There are many ways the human mind can stray from objectivity. One of the most pervasive, and all the more dangerous for being so common as to go unrecognized, is a habitual belief in the inevitability of progress.

A belief in progress is a form of optimism, although not all forms of optimism require a belief in progress. For example, people who believe that the universe is the product of a benevolent deity are optimists – they believe that everything that happens is according to plan and ultimately for the best, but they do not necessarily believe in progress – the idea that conditions naturally improve over time. Since a belief in progress is a form of optimism we may, however, critique it on that more general basis.

Believing that things will generally turn out well, or, conversely, believing that things will generally turn out badly, is nothing more than an excise in magical thinking. Both optimism and pessimism ascribe directions to nature that nature is not obligated to adhere to. We may, for reasons of culture or individual psychology, view the world through one or the other magical lens, but we do not change nature by doing so. Rather, we create a kind of prejudice regarding what sort of empirical facts we tend to emphasize and take an interest in.

If I think it’s a rotten world I will carefully catalog rotten events as they occur. I may even actively seek them out. If, on the other hand, something good happens I will tend to view it as an aberration, a momentary up-tick on a graph that is predestined to go down. If I am an optimist, on the other hand, I will wait expectantly for the next rosy sunrise to bloom, expecting the graph to go up sooner or later simply because I am predisposed to believe it must. Either view not only ascribes a direction to nature, but strongly implies that nature is a kind or narrative in which either our individual fates or the fate of humanity as a whole is a central theme. To be either an optimist or a pessimist in a universe that is acknowledged to be indifferent to our desires would be incoherent.

Naturally, we would like the universe to care about us. We would like to think that the universe has purpose and that our well being or salvation, all modesty aside, is precisely what that purpose is. This is obviously so of the religious. Even when we hypothesize deities of infinite power and capacity, we never fail to imagine their attentions fixed steadily on us. Although they may be greater than us in every respect, our worship is, inexplicably, of pivotal value to them. Only H.P. Lovecraft invented gods that didn’t give us any more thought than we would give an insect – and though his writing has a certain literary following, it is hard to imagine anyone who would bother to pray to a deity like Cthulhu. Even the most capricious of Greek deities could be placated, offering advantages to the worshipper, but prayers to indifferent deities – or indifferent nature – must of necessity go unanswered.

Modern secular thought may have given up religious thinking in detail, but the core belief that we have a central role and purpose in nature, and that we have special dispensations with regard to natural law, remain pervasive. You can be an atheist and still believe in magic, if, perhaps, subconsciously.

To understand this mystical belief in progress better, one need look no further than a common misunderstanding about the nature of Darwinian evolution. I think it is fair to say that most secular-minded people believe that biological evolution represents a general movement upward.1 They believe that evolution makes species better over time. Better both in the sense that animals become more adaptable through an increase in their physical complexity, and better in some vague and general sense. This is progress in biology in the popular conception. In fact, natural selection does not make organisms better or even necessarily more complex. Rather, it eliminates from the gene pool those organisms that are the least well adapted to current conditions. There is no reason to believe, for example, that a contemporary apex predator like a grizzly bear would have prospered in the late Cretaceous period, out-competing the dinosaurs of that time. To begin with, bears are not well adapted to hot climates. Physically, a modern grizzly would not have been more than a nuisance to a Tyrannosaur. Bears are not better than Tyrannosaurs in some general or absolute sense – they are merely better adapted to current conditions. For sheer adaptability to a variety of harsh conditions, few organisms have ever done much better than some very primitive bacteria.

What is true of biology is also true of many other things. The concept of natural selection is applicable to any field in which the concepts of survival and competition are applicable. It is applicable to human cultures and political states, notwithstanding the errors of (and the revulsion to) the 19th century social Darwinists who first put forward the connection. One is justified in a neutral belief that social and political charges occur because certain ideas and groups achieve a temporary condition of dominance. One is not justified in the belief that history is an inevitable march from the worse to the better, or better to worse.

Many people, at various times and for various reasons, have made arguments for the inevitability of progress. These take a predictable form. To make a case for the inevitably of progress, one simply points out unpleasant and unhappy conditions in the past that the march of history has overcome. No reasonable person can argue that such changes have never occurred. The elimination of slavery as a legal and acceptable public institution is an obvious example of social progress. We will set aside the problem that slavery may still exist, and even be on the rise, in other forms – it is still the case that the legally recognized, public institution has been largely, if not completely, eradicated. We could continue with a litany of all sorts of other wonderful and positive things that have happened, and, as it’s a big world in which many things do happen, we could fill many pages or even volumes with this sort of evidence for the inevitable march of progress. This, of course, would prove very little. It is cherry-picking the data. If I were a bigot and wanted to persuade people that a particular minority was evil and dangerous, I would proceed in essentially the same way. I would list the crimes and atrocities committed by members of that group, and, over the course of several hundred pages of such evidence, I would probably persuade most readers to accept my case. This is simply an exploitation of the human tendency to generalize. It isn’t difficult to persuade people of anything by this means, and it is all the easier if the case being made is a happy and comforting one like the inevitability of progress.

To understand history in the sense required, however, could only mean to understand it in its totality. Cherry-picking the data for examples that support our case is obviously not a good route to the truth. Unfortunately, creating any sort of comprehensive balance sheet for all of history is an impossibility. Even setting aside the fact that historians are human beings with their own peculiar biases, we are faced with an insurmountable problem of quantifying the unquantifiable. Assuming the worst case scenario of global warming, for example, how much is that offset by the elimination of slavery? Were people worse off treating illnesses with prayers and herbs than they are being bankrupted to pay for the treatment of cancers that rarely occurred in pre-industrial times? Are people, on average, happier now than they were in 12th century? How would we know? Even an historian arrogant enough to bluff the case forward on the sheer weight of academic authority would be hard pressed to justify the dark ages or the hundred years war as minor aberrations in an inexorable trend. If viewed on normal evolutionary timescales, all of human civilization has been a single, almost instantaneous population event. It is far from obvious that it is going to produce any sort of truly permanent improvement. Can we say with any confidence that human beings will be better off a million years from now? A thousand? Even ten? One momentous decision on the part of any of the world’s major nuclear nations might end the whole enterprise in an afternoon, or at least render the idea of inevitable progress tragically laughable.

In the absence of a method of quantifying the problem, and the suffering from the lack of an unbiased perspective, we can only turn to a causal explanation to save the idea of inevitable progress. This is to say, if we cannot prove that progress is the statistical norm, we have to prove the existence of a mechanism that makes it inevitable. Of course, if we knew of such a mechanism adherents of the belief wouldn’t be leaning on statistical proof in the first place – but let’s entertain the notion nevertheless. What we would need to prove the inevitably of progress mechanically would be something like the process of evolution through natural selection. Again, I am not saying that biological evolution is an instance of progress, but that evolution through natural selection is the kind of process we would need. Evolution is mechanical. You can test it in a laboratory with microbes. It really happens, and it is fully understandable. To the best of my knowledge, no such mechanism has even been proposed regarding progress.

There is nothing innate in either human beings or the environment that makes progress inevitable, not if by “progress” we mean a general advancement of the public good.2 It is plainly not true that we are all wise, compassionate, forward-looking or even alert enough to always replace flawed behaviors, policies, and institutions with more agreeable ones. It happens, of course, but it does not happen mechanically or inevitably. Rather, like any other animal, we respond the environment with such capacities as our genetic legacies and personal experiences have given us. Genetics and experience both tend to bend our behaviors to our own immediate advantage, not toward some nebulous long term benefit for the species. While our actions may include an element of social accommodation, even that accommodation itself is predicated on some perceived individual gain, no matter how subtle. Even the philanthropist who gives anonymously is buying something – either an imaginary reward in heaven or an equally imaginary advance in self esteem. People never act in any way that doesn’t maximize their perceived self interest, though their perceptions of what constitutes self interest may vary to some degree.3 While some expressions of self interest do benefit others, it is obviously not the case that all of them do, or even that most of them do. We produce behaviors, policies, and institutions according to our own predispositions – but the mechanisms of evolution will determine what persists, and what persists is in no way guaranteed to please us.

Setting all of my arguments above aside for the moment, it is understandable how a casual survey of the last two hundred years would leave one with the impression that humanity is moving forward. There has been a great advance in material comfort for most people in industrialized nations. Attributing this to an invisible hand that guides human destiny, be it God or something else, is simply incorrect however. Our present level of material comfort is directly attributable to our consumption of a finite supply of fossil fuels and other resources. Our social advances are also largely the result of our temporary frenzy of material consumption and abundance. In a society awash in powered machinery, the labor benefits of human slavery would be inconsequential. The total amount of wealth in a society sets an upper limit on its capacity to be generous. Let’s see how this sort of progress holds up as we become more numerous and the pool of resources we must compete over continues to shrink.

Quite apart from the question of whether or not a belief in the march of progress is valid or not is the question of whether or not the belief is harmful. Optimism, no doubt, makes the optimist feel better about the world. The irony is that a belief in the inevitability of progress is an impediment to making rational efforts toward progress.

When a person believes that good things are predestined, he or she will either sit idly by and wait for time and more industrious people to produce nirvana, or seize uncritically on whatever movement seems to be headed in the right direction. A classic example of how this mentality can lead to disaster is the rise of Stalin. Communist theory held that communism was not a deliberate undertaking – an experimental new form of social and economic organization worth trying – but rather it was an inevitable consequence of history. The belief of the communist intelligentsia was that their movement was just bound by nature to succeed. There was, therefore, no need to take measures to avoid the rise of a dictator who might subvert the process. Unjust authority would disappear and that was that. The theory said so. Other forms of optimism produce similar adaptive failures. A belief in God’s love may well be very comforting, but it you are starving it is usually more productive to hunt or forage than to pray and trust.

Optimism is an epistemic flaw. It is leads one to conclusions for which one has either no evidence, or has only insufficient evidence. It suppresses healthy skepticism for the sake of emotional comfort.

1   Most religious people, in my experience, have a completely different misunderstanding of Darwinian evolution. They believe than Darwin’s theory is that evolutionary changes occur by random chance.

2   I use the term “public good” tentatively, merely because I don’t want to get bogged down in a precise definition of what kind of developments would even constitute “progress”. The average person who believes in the idea bends it toward his or her particular values, but most still leave the concept fairly nebulous – an “I know it when I see it” sort of notion. I am content to argue with the muddy naïve concept of “things just getting better and better.” While such a belief is, in some ways, harder to refute than a more specific assertion like “people get happier” or “people’s lives become more materially secure,” the nebulous assertion really shows the essential character of the belief – that it is a faith rather than an empirical conclusion.

3   Even an act of compassion may be seen as a form of self interest. It simply requires that one collapses the distinction between one’s own identity and that of the object of one’s compassion. This is not merely a trick of redefining terms, but a serious point about the nature of compassion.

September 21, 2012


This is merely a note to say that I have not been run over by a truck, suffered a case of acute amnesia, or run out of ideas.  Neither am I in prison or a monastery.  I am in the process of reformating a novel I wrote years ago for electronic publication.  If I don't focus on it, I will never get it done.  I will be back.


July 24, 2012

Distant Memory with Bricks

Automation, Service Economy, and the Welfare State

In the middle decades of the 20th century people were concerned about a question we have entirely forgotten. The question was: How will our society cope with automation? The problem was that human beings living in western industrialized societies lived, as most of them still do, by earning wages. In a market economy, the value of a person lies in his or her ability to perform useful work. Automation, at that time generally defined as the production of goods by machinery, with a minimum of human effort, threatened to break the fundamental reciprocal relationship between capital and labor. If profits could be increased by the elimination of the workforce, what industrialist would not want to automate? But, if all of industry became heavily automated, who would be left who could afford to buy the manufactured goods?

While this debate over this question is forgotten, the issues raised were not irrelevant. Indeed, many of the problems we currently face are the direct result of our failure to resolve the social consequences of the hyperproductivity characteristic of our technologically driven, energy intensive age.

It is not my intention to moralize here, or to either advocate or decry particular forms of social organization. My goal, to the best of my ability, is simply to understand and explain what has actually occurred. However, no coherent analysis of historical events can exclude some consideration of the forms of social organization that shape those events.1

The automation dilemma poses the greatest problem for the advocate of completely unfettered free markets. This is because the free market presumes a sort of game in which the goal of the players is to maximize their ownership of the available capital, and while de-emphasizing any notions of collective responsibility. Again, I am talking about the rules by which the game itself operates, not about the ethics of individual players. Free market capitalism is essentially Darwinian in nature: the competitive environment favors the individual who acts according to the principle of self-interest. Automation, by minimizing labor costs, maximizes profits for those who remain – the management and shareholders. That the progress of automation continually renders more and more members of the workforce superfluous is not a problem for the purely self-interested individualist. However, as the process can only serve to concentrate economic activity into fewer and fewer hands, it continuously shrinks the number of viable customers for products until the game itself is wrecked. In the classical liberal model, one becomes wealthy by providing goods for people who have at least some measure of wealth to exchange for those goods. Most people, in all societies, can only sustain themselves by selling their own individual effort or the immediate products of that effort. The game ends when that effort is not needed. One can rove the world for untapped markets, but as automation spreads all markets must eventually become depleted of any customers worth having.

Planned economies are different, at least in theory. In principal, automation should only spell utopia for the socialist. Socialism is something of an anti-Darwinian game, in which the goal is not the advancement of the individual but of the homogenized collective. Since wealth is to be distributed more-or-less equally, the fruits of automation are more material comfort for everyone with a smaller investment in individual effort and time. A shorter work week, and more hours to pursue those finer points of human advancement very few people ever actually pursue.

The statements above, of course, are idealized abstractions. Reality is more complex. Free market capitalist societies are rife with all sorts of non-self-interested motives and processes. Planned economies, on the other hand, are seldom very good at finding planners that are beyond the reach of petty self-interest.

What has actually occurred, at least in the United States and Western Europe, has been a kind of synthesis of market economies with socialistic government policies. As automation has displaced people from obviously meaningful and necessary work, programs of relief and assistance have provided support for them to varying degrees. Thus, we have created a hybrid system in which wealth is redistributed from hyperproductive free market enterprises to sustain a growing number of fundamentally non-productive persons.

By non-productive I do not mean merely the unemployed, but all of the people not involved in producing food or other relative essentials. In this extended sense, most of us are non-productive workers of one kind or another. No society can get along without food. No society of any great size or complexity can get along without material industry. However, the sudden disappearance of financial advisers, lawyers, musicians, web designers, insurance agents or baristas would not bring any society to an immediate crisis. All of these occupations are the product of having excess wealth and labor to throw around. They are a feature of an economy which has reached a hyperproductive state in its material essentials. The greater the productivity of a society in producing necessities, the greater the employment for the populous in producing non-necessities.

While I don’t mean to moralize too much about non-productive effort, I do want to make clear its real character. One should understand that non-productive effort is essentially fungible. So long as a society is employing enough people to feed itself and maintain its essential infrastructure, it may employ the rest of the population in any activity whatsoever. It may employ them as palace guards, monks, or folk musicians. As long as the society considers what these people do either important enough to finance with private funds or public taxation, any activity, no matter how fundamentally unproductive, may become a form of employment. America, from at least the 1950’s on, dedicated itself to putting most people in cars and suburban houses, not that any society on the planet had ever found a need to commute thirty miles to work in two-ton steel boxes before. We did so because we could – and because someone sold us on the idea. Fifty years earlier, when we were already a very prosperous society, no one would have imagined that automobile manufacturing would become the backbone of American industry.

When serious foreign competition and further automation eroded employment in the American auto industry sometime in the late 1970’s, the “service economy” was born. In short, this was the shift from making lots of unnecessary stuff to providing lots of unnecessary services. It was touted as progress, the beginning of a new age, but in fact it was a further departure of the economy from its fundamentals. If we could buy our cars from Japan, then why not buy almost all of our other manufactured goods from China? Thus, we began to live under the illusion that we could have a healthy economy that produced almost nothing, in which foreigners would do the dirty, polluting work of making things and Americans would simply own the world and sell each other insurance, cable services, and expensive cups of coffee. The unexpected consequence of automation was to make agriculture and manufacturing, once the vital organs of the nation’s economic corpus, seem economically unattractive and unimportant. The new way to make money, in a world in which making things was discouraged by social stigma and regulation, was to find various clever ways of moving paper around. It was only a short step from there to the dreamland of electronic, interconnected, virtual reality we live in now. Who builds our computers and cell phones? Some unfortunate quasi-slaves in China. Who grows the food? Who cares!

The percentage of the total population employed in American agriculture in colonial times was about 90%. Through most of the 19th century, it was at least 70%. In 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this had fallen to an astonishing 0.115%! A scant 358,000 people out of a population of 312 million. To put this into perspective, there are nearly three times as my many software developers as food-producers. There are almost twice as many lawyers.

The decline in manufacturing is also striking. In 1943, 12.1% the U.S. population made things. By 2011, this fraction had fallen to 3.8%. There are now more people employed in sales than in manufacturing, and nearly twice as many people employed in what the BLS subsumes under the heading “Office and Administrative Support Occupations”.

Automation, whether it is applied to industry or agriculture, can also correctly be seen as a process of replacing human and animal muscle power with energy derived from fossil fuels. We have financial advisers, lawyers, musicians, web designers, insurance agents and baristas in abundance only because we need a mere one person in a thousand to grow food and one in twenty-six to make goods. It is not machines that make this possible, but the coal, oil and gas that drive them. Without energy there could be no automation at all. Without abundant and cheap energy, we will be forced to de-automate, at least to some degree, and the age of hyperproductivity will end.

Even ancient civilizations produced whole classes of people who did ultimately non-essential things. Arguably, a preoccupation with non-essentials is the defining characteristic of civilization. As long as there have been cities, there have been priests, sculptors, and professional musicians. The achievement of recent decades has not been one of creating more and more esoteric occupations, but of running out of occupations altogether – of being content to employ really large numbers of people in doing not merely trivial things, but in doing nothing at all.

The laziness (and criminality) of the poor is a commonplace on the right side of the political spectrum. It is a commonplace which, unfortunately, is not without some basis in fact. While some large fraction of poor people are neither lazy nor criminal, it must be admitted that a propensity for either sloth or criminality will tend to make a person settle near the bottom of the socio-economic heap.  However, if we take an honest look at how the economy actually functions, we must also admit that there are simply more people than jobs to employ them. The means of individual survival and the need to personally grow food began to detach in ancient times. The hyperproductivity of the present era has detached the means of survival from any inherently productive effort whatsoever, even effort of questionable or fleeting social value. A ruthless application of market forces might have kept the population more-or-less equal to the available work. A ruthless application of socialist principles might have distributed the work more evenly at the expense of individual liberty. The peculiar synthesis of the two that we actually pursued simply heaps the support of more and more people on a continually eroding middle class. People who produce necessities rarely mind, or even notice, when other people are employed in senseless tasks – provided those people are working. But most members of the productive classes resent, with good reason, the idly dependent – whether those dependents are generational welfare recipients or hereditary royalty. No one likes to carry those who sneer at them for working. If energy depletion were not about to change things, social upheaval would eventually do so anyway.

1 For the record, I believe that market economies, though not without their weaknesses and pitfalls, do a significantly better job of preserving individual freedom and collective material wealth than do centrally planned economies. Central planning does a slightly better job of preserving equality – even if only by making everyone equally poor. Neither system has a particularly good record of maintaining stability. I have my doubts that nations on the contemporary scale of hundreds of millions can be made stable under any social system.

July 9, 2012

July 6, 2012

The Efficacy of Torture

Not long ago I wrote a post arguing, among other things, against the use of torture as an instrument of public policy. I stand by this conviction for three reasons. First, though I recognize that while torture will probably always occur here and there as an inevitable consequence of war, I believe that it is fundamentally an immoral form of behavior. For torture to be moral one must give up the notion that people ought to have certain rights simply because they are people. Having given up such a core concept, the only realm in which one can discuss morality is within the confines of some particular group. Being moral only on an ad hoc basis (that is, only toward “good” people) leaves the whole concept rather superfluous. A promise not to beat one’s friends is not particularly constraining. My second objection to torture comes from a belief that the value of any information gained by exercising the practice as an instrument of public policy is probably far outweighed by the level of hatred it inspires in an enemy, aiding in his recruiting efforts, hardening his resolve, and justifying his own resort to the use of similar forms of atrocity. I know that such an assertion, like most others that involve the psychology of groups, is all but impossible to prove. That does not render it untrue, but I admit it weakens it as an argument. Third, I believe that a public policy which condones torture is fundamentally incompatible with the stability of a Republic. If the government can exercise such a policy as a legal option, no citizen can long feel free to dissent. A nation that condones the torture of foreigners will, soon enough, employ torture against its own citizens. As an instrument of repression, torture has few peers.

These things said, there is one argument against torture that is not only ludicrous, but dangerous and tragic in its own right. That is the argument that torture simply doesn’t yield any useful information. You can read a synopsis of this position in the article at the link below:

In essence, the argument is that neurobiological research shows that the extreme stress of torture has a negative effect on memory, producing statements that are uncertain or susceptible to the interrogator’s suggestion. Further, while torture increases one’s willingness to talk, it does not guarantee that one will speak the truth. I don’t have any particular doubts about the science itself, but the conclusions drawn, at least by Harper's, The Daily Beast, et al, are oversimplifications and erroneous.

The presumption is that stress not only impairs memory, but that it impairs it to such a degree as to render it wholly dysfunctional. Further, the Harpers article, at least, fails to make any distinctions between different methods of questioning, corroboration between different subjects, corroboration with outside evidence, etc. The implicit scenario is one in which the subject of torture is simply abused until he discerns from sloppy interrogation technique more-or-less what it is that his torturers expect to hear, whereupon he delivers up that narrative and his torturers go away with a presumption they have uncovered a fact. As much as we may hate the practice of torture, we are not justified in presuming that its practitioners are uniformly that credulous and amateurish. The CIA, for example, has been torturing people since its origins as the OSS in Second World War. While they are far from infallible, there is no reason to believe that they are any less methodical about torture than they are about any other intelligence gathering activity.

Deriving information from any sort of interrogation is a signal-to-noise ratio problem – a matter of sorting what is true from the noise of both impaired memory and deception on the part of the subject, and from poor questioning technique on the part of the interrogator. Methods and circumstances matter.

Imagine six people have been physically separated since capture and are asked, under torture, to give up the name of their immediate superior. One successfully resists, three give unique names, and two give the same name. While not utterly conclusive, the result of getting the same name from two separated individuals certainly increases the probability that the two are telling the truth. If the neurobiological objection implied by Harper’s were correct, all six subjects would be so impaired that their answers would be essentially random, thus any consensus that occurred between them would also be either random or the product of leading questions, and, therefore, irrelevant. This, frankly, is absurd. If our cognitive abilities failed utterly under severe stress, no one could be tortured effectively for the purpose of extracting information – but we probably could not have survived the rigors of our evolutionary history either.

The kind of scenario described above has not been unusual in wartime. During the Second World War, for example, the Soviets, the Germans, the Japanese and others all conducted, with some regularity, battlefield interrogation under torture along these general lines. Military interrogations are an entirely different matter from, say, the interrogations of the Spanish Inquisition. The Inquisition’s goal was, in some sense, to get at the truth – but since whether one was a heretic or not was entirely dependent on the Inquisition’s verdict, torture served largely to make the words of the accused conform to the Inquisitor’s prior conclusions. Having been broken by torture one confessed to one’s sins in open court. In a case like this, accurate memory of past events was not particularly important. Military interrogations are, on the other hand, wholly disinterested with the guilt, innocence, or immortal souls of the interrogation subjects. Their goal is simply to extract specific, factual information about the status of enemy forces. The military interrogator does not record his (or her) findings in a history book, but disseminates them to military commanders who in turn use them as the basis for their battle plans. If the information deviates very greatly from actual facts, plans will fail and soldiers will die in greater numbers. As a rule, battlefield commanders tend to notice such things. If we accept the Harper’s headline that “Torture Doesn’t Work,” we have to conclude that thousands of military leaders just never caught on. Somehow, they never noticed that the reports of their intelligence officers, derived from tortured prisoners’ statements, were never any more reliable than random guesses. Military leaders have often been dogmatic and thick headed – but they are not completely blind. They do eventually discard methods that don’t produce results.

Again, I am not advocating torture. The mere fact that something may be effective does not make it justifiable. However, it must be admitted that the empirical record trumps neurobiological theory and educational credentials. The mere fact that an expert does a study, and a group of people append that study to their cultural narrative, does not put the matter beyond the realm of further inquiry and rational doubt. To believe that torture never yields useful information is to believe that those who employ it are either too stupid to notice or too sadistic to care. While I am no admirer of the KGB, the Gestapo, the Kempeitai, or the CIA, one must have a decidedly peculiar view of history to imagine the depredations on their unfortunate victims never yielded at least enough correct information to justify the trouble of asking questions. If one’s goal is simply to produce terror or to vent sadistic impulses, asking questions serves no purpose.

That much of the American left believes the neurobiological argument without question should not be surprising. It fits their view that military and intelligence people are by nature simply stupid and sadistic. The neurobiological argument is dangerous, however, because it abandons the difficult but worthwhile moral and political arguments for a rhetorically powerful but empirically vapid claim. And even if that claim were true, as a basis for judgment, it would still have very dangerous implications. If efficacy were the real problem, would torture become acceptable if a drug could be administered which improved the victim’s memory? Is the problem with “enhanced interrogation” that it is an affront to basic decency – or merely that it isn’t enhanced scientifically by someone with the proper credentials?

It seems that plain empirical truth does not have many friends these days. Fortunately, it needs none.

June 28, 2012

The Culture of Upheaval

The values of a society change over time, in response of forces internal and external. America is in the throes of many changes, but at the moment one particular change seems to be seizing more than its share of attention. The general issue of gay marriage doesn’t seem to be going away. Like the unresolved abortion issue before it, gay marriage divides the nation all too sharply into two cultures – the progressive, largely urban left, and the traditional, largely rural right. The major political parties have made the most of this issue to fire up their respective bases, and we await some eventual pronouncement by the fatally divided government. If the congress decides this issue either way, either by declaring marriage to be between a man and woman, or simply between two adults of either gender, it is committing a deliberate act of social engineering – more precisely defining an official culture of the state. This is not a trivial matter.

I have already offered a perspective on the specific issue of gay marriage in a previous post. I will summarize by saying that, in my view, all marriages and civil unions should be synonymous from the government’s perspective, and should solely entail the recording and oversight of a legal contract. It should not be the government’s role to adjudicate what either is or isn’t a valid sacrament, anymore than it should rule on whether or not the pope is divine, witches should be burned, or the tooth fairy’s gifts should be taxed. If there is a God, he, she or it certainly does not need the government’s help defining what is or isn’t sacred. If there isn’t a God, the government should not enforce the dictates of anyone’s mythology. The US constitution made this a secular country. We are free to entertain, or not to entertain, any religious belief, but not to impose our particular beliefs on our neighbors using the authority of the state as a cudgel. Our head of state is not the head of a state church. If you like that sort of thing, move to England – or better yet, to Iran.

I do not believe there is a god, but I find the exercise of going out of my way to bash the religious right both unproductive and uncivilized. I know full well that nothing I can say is going to change their minds, and that any effort to convert them to my perspective tends to make them feel besieged and erode any common ground that might exist between us. That, frankly, benefits no one. I find that it is perfectly possible for someone to harbor the most flimsy and naïve sort of beliefs and still be a very decent human being. The world, in fact, is full of people like that. I have no doubt that the ill-informed comprise the world’s majority. I have no doubt that under the right circumstance flimsy, naïve ideas can become dangerous ones – but I see all too clearly, too, that to make war on ideas, even incorrect ones, is more than a little dangerous in itself. Anyone who is sure enough of the truth to be willing to impose it on someone else is a fanatic – even if that person actually knows the truth. Soon, the idealist will metamorphose, spontaneously and invisibly, from being an advocate of the truth to being the author of the truth. Human beings, even well-educated ones, are seldom as wise as they think. History is piled thick with the victims of the noblest ideas. Ideas cannot be hurt, perhaps – but flesh and blood invariably can. Doubt is a precious commodity, probably worth more than certainty.

I have nothing against gay or lesbian persons, either as a group or as individuals – at least not on the basis of their sexual orientation alone. I will not say that I have plenty of gay and lesbian friends, because, at least to my knowledge, I don’t. I have had a few acquaintances who were gay, and they were good, bad, or unremarkable in about the same proportion that any random collection of non-gay people are good, bad, or unremarkable. I find gays and lesbians irritating in proportion to their tendency to be true to stereotype, but I also find evangelicals, business people, Appalachians, blacks, New Yorkers, and Californians irritating in proportion to their tendency to be true to stereotype. If one must have an identity, it is usually more ingratiating to at least invent one’s own rather than pulling a one-size-fits all identity off the rack. This, of course, is simply my view and is not intended to be proscriptive. Mildly annoying other people is a privilege no one should be entirely denied.

In discussing the values of a society, though, annoyance is no offhand joke. It is often the crux of the matter. The gay marriage debate is essentially a conflict between those who want the state’s seal of official approval on their relationships and those who want to see, at least at the symbolic level, a measure of official censure imposed on homosexual relationships. This is wholly a cultural conflict, a matter of whose particular set of preferences is going to be favored and whose isn’t.

There is a perception by the left, a part of their cultural narrative, that more tolerance and more equality are always better. They have a marked tendency to keep the concepts of tolerance and equality rather vague, but this is in the nature of any cultural belief. Freedom is a popular buzz word for many cultures around the world, but there are dozens of different definitions of freedom, all substantially different. So it is with tolerance and equality as they are bandied about by the liberals of America. In practice, it means advancing the cause of people would who have the minimum number of certain offending traits. Those offending traits are, typically: being white, being male, being Christian, being affluent, and (now) being heterosexual. You can have two or even three of these traits and still be numbered among enlightened – provided you are prepared to do a public penance of repudiation of your personal and hereditary sins. If you have few or none of these reprehensible traits, you are welcomed into the liberal tribe pretty much without regard to your behavior – even if, ideologically, you’re a conservative.1 Catholic Latinos and misogynist Muslims are Ok. The uneducated will not be invited to the wine and cheese parties of the leadership, of course. As George Orwell astutely observed – “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” – but don’t worry, uneducated tribe members are always on the beneficiaries list. Yes, I know – I should not be so intolerantly mischievous toward the left. I simply cannot help myself. It isn’t that the average conservative is fundamentally smarter or better – it’s just that they’re a little more likely to at least be honest about their basic tribalism, swathing themselves in the usual tribal accoutrements of flags and scriptures, rather than in tired narrative dressed up as scientific truth. Denying the truth is one thing, but inventing it while pretending to be fair and neutral is something else. But I digress.

Supporting gay marriage is not straightforwardly a rational decision. It is simply a cultural one. The arguments for allowing gay marriage are the same as those for gay rights generally. These can be succinctly summarized as a combination of naturalism and the harm principle.

Much has been made of the idea that being homosexual is an innate characteristic of some individuals – like being tall, or having red hair. Since I take the position that we have no free will in any absolute sense, I won’t even argue this point. Whether people are gay because of their genes or because of factors in their life experience, I believe they are gay for fundamentally causal reasons. A thorough acceptance of naturalism must entail that everything is what it is for causal reasons. In this view, the whole idea of moralities based on choice becomes senseless. If it is unfair to deride the homosexual for being homosexual – then it is equally unfair to deride the bigot for being bigoted. Where there is no choice, in an absolute sense, there is no responsibility, in an absolute sense. People simply have the behavioral and moral predispositions they do until external circumstances cause them to acquire different ones. We become unhappy when we discover that the universe has not molded others to be in harmony with our beliefs. This rule applies to both the homosexual and the homophobe. Morality, viewed objectively, is just some congeries of beliefs held in common with a big enough group to constitute a culture.

To cast this in a rather different light (one that does not require that you accept my position on free will) the fact that a characteristic is innate should not, even under some principle of fairness, absolutely preclude a society from condemning it. Consider the case of the serial murderer, Jeffrey Dahmer. The consensus of opinion, even expert opinion, is that Dahmer’s psychopathic tendencies were in some way organic – that nothing in his experience or upbringing could have brought them about. That said, no group of semi-rational jurors, with the facts of seventeen murders laid before them, could have concluded that, since it was not his fault that he liked to murder people, he should have been set free to do it again. Any society that hopes to survive must be prepared to protect itself against established threats – whether the threatening individuals are acting by choice or not. This is not to say that gay marriage in particular, or homosexuality in general, are proven threats. It is to say that the matter of whether or not gays have any choice about their orientation should not be the final desiderata of their status. In fact, the matter of whether or not homosexuality really does pose any sort of threat to the survival of society would be difficult to determine, and in practice no one tries. The culture of the left just knows it doesn’t and the culture of the right just knows it does. Tribal knowledge prevails in either case.

Let’s now move on the mushy old harm principle:

According to J.S. Mill:

“…the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others… …Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign."

The argument for gay marriage, then, would be that it harms no one and should therefore be allowed. I have already stated that a pluralistic secular government cannot justifiably limit any individual’s right to define his or her own relationships in whatever mystical terms one happens to chose, nor should such a government curtail an individual’s worship of imaginary beings – provided, I suppose, that such imaginary beings do not require frequent sacrifices in non-imaginary human blood. To codify a relationship in any extralegal sense – to say that it either is or isn’t a sacrament – is to create an official state culture. This certainly interferes with exactly the individual liberty that Mill was concerned about.

A thorough application of the harm principle would, however, produce consequences much more far reaching than a tolerance of gay marriage. I think we have to assume that Mill did not consider merely offending someone as causing them harm. If offense is harm, then authority is justified in banning any activity with causes anyone offense. Since the act of banning the activity will probably cause offence to the person whose pet behavior is banned, we reach an impasse very quickly. Such impasses, of course, have really occurred. To insult a recognized minority is hate speech, but to stage a gay pride parade in front of a Catholic church on Easter Sunday cannot be any less an exercise of hate. Offensive as both activities might be, invoking the harm principle to censure only one or the other is hypocritical. Censuring every conceivable offence, on the other hand, would be unbelievably oppressive and, thankfully, impossible.

If harm only means physical harm, we are on at least a little better ground. Though one can find impasses and definitional problems here too, at least they don’t crop up in practically every case. All right then, if Carla and Susan want to get married, that doesn’t cause me or anyone else any obvious physical harm – and anyone who wants to say it does is going to have quite a difficult case to make. I think one should always be free to argue such a case, but “my deity will smite us if we allow it” doesn’t constitute much of a start for me. Of course, if we are drawing the line there, I am free to follow Carla and Susan around and shriek insults at them all day for any reason or no reason, and authority has no right to stop me as I am causing them no physical harm. I’d feel like a pig and my throat would get sore, but neither of those eventualities have any bearing on the harm principle.

Drawing the line at physical harm has plenty of other ramifications too. Take the case of the avid nudist. Many have expressed the feeling that they find clothing both dishonest and constrictive. If the harm principle is to guide us, public nudity should never be officially constrained. Seeing a person nude does not cause anyone physical harm. What argument could one make in favor of requiring people to wear clothing in public? Public nudity violates tradition or community standards? Please – that’s merely a bigoted, intolerant view. You don’t want your kids to be exposed to nude adults, perhaps leering at them from the edge of the playground? Well, if they feel shocked or threatened it is only because you raised them to be narrow-minded; that is not the fault of the nudist. And you can obviously forget the argument that nudism is unnatural. Neither can you argue that, while unrestrained nudism might be fine in principle, society is just not ready for it at this time. The harm principle abhors such flimsy rationalization. Public nudity now, public nudity tomorrow, public nudity forever. Prudes and bigots can all move to somewhere cold.

Public nudity is really only the mildest of examples one might use. Forgive me if the following strikes you as tasteless, but we cannot be squeamish over matters of high principle. Bestiality, indeed public bestiality, would also prove unassailable under a rigorous application of the harm principle. I argued this point to a friend once. He was trying to make a philosophical justification for the normalization of homosexuality that would not equally justify a broad range of other behaviors, many of which he personally found offensive. His initial argument against bestiality was that it constituted a physical imposition on the animal. This is insufficient. Some animals, so I hear, are willing to interact with humans in that fashion. Then he insisted that animals lack the intellectual capacity to consent. This is certainly a debatable claim, but even if I were to accept it without argument it must also be true that cats do not consent to be declawed, horses do not consent to be ridden, and pigs certainly don’t consent to being eaten. Am I to accept, from a free-thinking, sexually-tolerant liberal that there is something special about sex that needs to be constrained, but the life or death of an animal is a matter to be shrugged? People who invoke the harm principle invariably use it to justify whatever particular behavior they would like to promote or engage in, but not to justify the full range of behaviors that it must ultimately allow.

My position is not that homosexuals are no different than bestiaphiles, but that determining what behaviors are acceptable or unacceptable is a cultural matter, and not an impartial evaluation. Societies have existed that have tolerated or encouraged practically the full gamut of possible human behaviors. Genes may change slowly, but societies are much more plastic. My objection to the current thrust of change in western society is not that all the changes are “bad” in any absolute sense, but that all of the changes are cloaked in a protective halo of kindness, fairness, and inevitability are not rationally justified. To begin with, unlimited tolerance and anti-traditionalism are mutually exclusive. Saying everybody in the global village is just fine, except for western conservatives, simply cannot be an objectively rational position.

Considered from a very general and rather abstract perspective, contemporary western liberalism is neither a movement toward fairness nor equality, but simply a movement to reject traditional norms. It is a social movement whose end product in continual upheaval. If western liberalism were truly rooted in the principles of fairness and equality, it would not have spawned affirmative action, which is discriminatory on its face. It would not have created the new category of hate crimes, which in effect make the lives, or even emotional sensitivities, of certain designated minorities more important under the law than the lives and sensitivities of those who are not so designated. Contemporary western liberalism does not protect the individual, for it is the consistent advocate of the sacrifice of individual rights for the sake of redressing historical wrongs inflicted on particular collective groups. While it is true that blacks continue to suffer from the disadvantages of poverty and poor education, it is hard to imagine white Appalachians suffer any less from those conditions – yet they are part of the enemy camp, so there are no affirmative action programs or protective hate crimes laws for them. How can this be fair or equal?

It would be easy to convince oneself that my earlier examples of public nudity and bestiality were merely offensive rhetoric, and that such outlandish things would never be advocated by anyone other than the occasional crank. Given the nature of contemporary liberalism’s anti-traditional thrust, however, these things are serious possibilities. Imagine you could go back in time, and tell the serious, dignified, well-dressed and well-mannered civil rights marchers in Memphis that the lineal descendents of their movement would be protesting for the rights of homosexuals to marry one another. They would have been both incredulous and deeply offended. As the culture changes, for whatever reason, we get used to things that our parents or grandparents would have found unthinkable. Perhaps our descendents will not give a second thought to seeing neighbor humping fido in front of his house. Historically, people have become indifferent to far more harmful and even more peculiar behavior. And, as time progresses, it will certainly require a higher threshold of deviation to offend the increasingly numbed and fatigued fraction of the population that would have to fill the role of the conservative enemy.

It is fair to say that, already, much of what is seen by the left as positive change in our culture is more the product of moral fatigue than humane impulse. Consider the products of our entertainment industry in the last few decades. More than a generation has grown up watching the likes of Silence of the Lambs and Kill Bill. The first was a loving homage to the pleasures of psychotic cannibalism; the second included the rape of a nearly paralyzed woman, who killed her assailant by pulling his tongue out with her teeth. Can people who consider such depravity “entertainment” possibly object to anything on moral grounds? I suppose one can be persuaded into different views by humanists like Martin Luther King or intellectuals like Richard Dawkins, but the plain fact is that Howard Stern and Quentin Tarantino create a cruder but more far-reaching form of tolerance by making hash of morality altogether. And religious conservatives are not to be left out in the general brutalization of society. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was nothing more than a sadistic blood orgy for the faithful. Our culture has lost the grounds on which to even think coherently about morality. Atrocity is cool. Little wonder we object so little to having a public policy of torture. The only wonder is that people don’t demand that it be televised.

In the end, I believe the continual creation of upheaval is a very questionable guiding principle on which to found a culture. A culture is, in fact, nothing but a set of constraints that allow people to have stable expectations of one another’s behavior. If these social constraints are too many and too excessive, they may indeed make life a misery – but the utter annihilation of social constraints is the annihilation of society itself. Without rules, even arbitrary ones, we have no culture to defend or even discuss. If you do not care if you offend me, you cannot reasonably expect me to cooperate with you. Societies live in a continual uneasy balance between individual freedom on the one hand, and collective identity and shared standards on the other. Those which overemphasize the latter are oppressive. Those which overemphasize the former are unsustainable.

My wife points out, quite correctly, that black conservatives are the exception to this rule.

May 22, 2012

The Eye of the State