October 30, 2013

A simple argument against liberalism

This is the epiphany which transformed me from a leftist into a dedicated, if somewhat nuanced, conservative. It is really an argument against not only liberalism, but against leftism in most of its forms.

One has to understand that, for the liberal, the government has two chief functions. One is to constrain the greed of private enterprise, and the other it to steadily improve society. Phrased that simply, those sound like admirable things to do – and it isn’t difficult to understand why many people find liberalism appealing. Every liberal I have ever spoken with believes, whether they think about it or not, that the twin virtues a society should strive for are fairness and progress. If our leaders were angels, this might be an acceptable basis for government. We do not live in a world run by angels, however, but in a world run by less than perfect human beings.

To understand the heart of the liberal worldview, let’s imagine that every businessperson on Earth is ambitious to the exclusion of the slightest sense of compassion. In know this isn’t true – I personally know a CEO of a midsize corporation who spends a good portion of her time dispensing charity – but, for the sake of argument, let’s give liberals their cherished meme. Let’s imagine private industry is a den of heartless sociopaths. Isn’t it obvious, then, that it’s in everyone else’s interest if these evil people are regulated, punished, and suppressed?

No, it isn’t. The first thing one must recognize, when we are talking about the real world, is that the ruthlessly ambitious, who do exist, are not attracted to business per se. They are attracted to positions of power. Money is power, but so is political authority. Marginalize business with too many taxes and regulations, make business people society’s hated pariahs, exalt the status and authority of government, and you will only put the determined and ruthless few on a new career path. When government is small and business is booming – the ambitious gravitate toward business. When business is precarious and government is expanding – the ambitious gravitate toward government. History and common sense both bear this out.

At the height of that corporation’s power, the CEO of General Motors didn’t have the authority to arrest me, imprison me, seize my property, fly a surveillance drone over my house, draft me into his company’s security department, take my money without selling me something, or force me to buy health insurance. While the power of a major corporation is considerable, its power over individual rights is limited. Government’s power over the individual is fundamentally unlimited. They enact the laws. They direct the people who have the guns. In those instances in which corporations have trampled the basic rights of ordinary people, they have almost always done so by manipulating governments. While such corruption is genuinely appalling, it must be pointed out that corporations are only buying the coercive power that governments possess by their very nature. When a corporation buys influence, it can only do so because influence is for sale.

When a person advocates for an ever larger government with ever fewer Constitutional limits on its authority, he or she implicitly imagines a government that will be run by angels – which is to say, by some breed of people who are above the petty and self-serving motives that the rest of us are prone to, and certainly a far better breed than the wicked, predatory monsters that run business. More, the liberal imagines that these angels are not merely selfless but nearly all-knowing – having the capacity to know more about what is good for us than we ever could ourselves. The liberal trades freedom in a competitive, difficult world for the illusion of an eternal happy childhood in the household of the governmental parent. Even if it worked out that way, eternal childhood is a sad condition for a grown-up human being to be reduced to. In reality, since our leaders are neither angels nor all-knowing, expanding government is unlikely to produce much happiness, and very likely to produce exactly what Friedrich Hayek said it would – serfdom, suffering, and passivity.

October 25, 2013

The negligent slaughter of the US economy

After World War II the United States was, without question, the dominant economic power on the globe. Our industrial base, already huge before the war, had survived the conflict intact while the rest of the industrialized world had been significantly battered. At the end of 1945, America was ready and able to be the manufacturing center of the world. While there were some rough times transitioning from a war economy to a peacetime economy, and a period during which Europe had to be propped up enough to at least be viable as a market, the American economy grew steadily through the 1950’s and 1960’s. We had plenty of smart people and plenty of cheap Texas oil. A generation grew up believing that a gradual improvement in the American standard of living was the inevitable – a god-given birthright or a law of nature, depending on one’s religious views.

There was pollution, of course, in this otherwise rosy world. The air and water were less than ideal. Industrial economy – that is, making goods instead of moving data around – is an inherently dirty process. Steel mills and chemical plants will never be things you want to live near. Inevitably then, the people who had already brought us the New Deal, with its central notion that if there is a problem anywhere of any kind it is the government’s responsibility to fix it, decided to fix the rivers and the sky.

Now, don’t misunderstand me here. There is no question that clean water and clean air are good, wholesome, and laudable things. No one wants dirty air and dirty water, regardless of what the current president may tell you. Even industrialists really don’t like pollution. But there’s a problem. You cannot have your cake and eat it too. If you want to have cheap goods made of plastic then somewhere there has to be a plastics plant full of all sorts of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals. If you want copper to make wiring for electronics and nice saucepans for your local snobby restaurant, you are going to have to put up with huge, unsightly holes in Arizona and gigantic stinking leach piles of copper ore. Most things cannot be made by good-hearted hippies using garden waste and love. There is a whole science of thermodynamics that explains exactly why manufacturing makes some part of the world a great deal grungier, but I think that if you’re smart enough to read this you have probably already grasped the point without the mathematical fuss.

So, here were all these do-gooders out punishing American industry for its sins. Those sins amounted to: making the air and water dirty (by making goods that everybody wanted) -- and making lots of money doing it (and never mind that they provided the jobs that built the middle class). To be fair to the liberal planners, they did alot of good initially. The Cuyahoga River that runs through Cleveland stopped its novel habit of catching fire. Smokestacks began making pretty white smoke instead of dingy black smoke. I am talking about smoke, not people – so spare me any racist accusations. There certainly is a level of cleanliness that leaves industry with a manageable burden, and everyone, for awhile, is happier when that level is reached. Unfortunately, the problem with regulators is that having fixed a problem they will inevitably look for others to fix. If they can’t find any significant problems, they’ll magnify the importance of progressively smaller and smaller ones. They do not call themselves progressives by accident. To give one small example, there are now a number of regulations that deal with the danger posed by chemicals found in upholstery foams – not dangers to workers, but dangers to consumers. My memory may not be what it used to be, but I cannot recall a single instance in my lifetime of seeing a family expired in front of their TV, cut down by the lethal outgassings of their couch. My instinct is that if you lie on a couch long enough for the chemicals in the upholstery to kill you, obesity and heart disease will probably kill you first. It really will be too much Xbox and too many of mayor Bloomberg’s famous 24oz. sodas, and not the polybrominated biphenyls which snuff out junior’s one and only non-virtual life.

The gradual expansion of environmental regulation has had several consequences, probably unintentional. At some point, people who thought that manufacturing things could be a fun and lucrative way to make a living stopped thinking that. People are not naturally inclined to spend their lives in legal battles with Federal regulators, so the ambitious and creative ones ventured into finance, government, and the law – in other words, into occupations not involving smelly chemicals. Being in finance allows you to engage in business without getting your hands dirty in a literal sense. You can just make money buying and selling other peoples’ companies, mortgages, grandmothers, etc. Enron was never an energy company in any physical sense of the word – they were more-or-less an investment bank with a narrowly targeted set of assets. Going into government or the law, on the other hand, is following the adage – If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em! Lawyers, bureaucrats and politicians aren’t really in the business of making wealth – which is to say, real, tangible goods – any more than their banker counterparts are. All of these occupations are, for the most part, engaged in a zero-sum game of moving money around – taking from the haves and giving to the have-nots with one hand, and taking from the powerless to line the pockets of the powerful with the other. I sometimes think the processes of taxation, spending, and civil law might be easily replaced with a few traveling roulette wheels. Everyone puts their money in and everybody gets a chance. It would be only slightly less fair than the system we have now, but would be a good deal more honest and cheaper to operate. Like a state lottery only bigger. Any of our recent presidents or presidential candidates, with the possible exceptions of the wooden Al Gore and the grumpy John McCain, could easily serve as charming game show hosts…

Sorry. I digress.

Anyway, when industry became a sort of hated, punishable offense the financial people figured out that the perfect thing to do was move production overseas. Americans still wanted the same cheap plastic stuff and it wasn’t too hard to find countries without environmental laws where it could all be made. The boom manufacturing markets have traveled like a stinky circus around the far east for decades, finally settling, improbably, in China. The Chinese “Communists” belatedly concluded that authoritarian central government works pretty well – but central economic planning doesn’t. Here in the enlightened west, we are still trying desperately to accomplish both.

There’s another rub here of course – which none of our best and brightest planners managed to see, or if they did they didn’t take it seriously. As I said earlier, people who grow up getting richer every year tend to be outrageous optimists. They didn’t fully realize that stinking up the air and water isn’t just a way to make Winnebagos and Barbie dolls – it’s a basis for real international power. He (or she) who makes the goods holds power over those who want or need them. We imagined, somehow, that we could let the Chinese make the goods and pollute their countryside, but still walk off with not only a clean environmental conscience but a nice tidy profit. America, in other words, would stop making things and just own everything. China, with its strong central government, has clearly gotten tired of that game. They passed a law declaring that the controlling interest in all Chinese companies will henceforth be Chinese. American business may be infuriated by this – but what else could they expect?

The less material wealth America produces the more it’s international economic standing becomes a conjuring trick. We have gone a long way on the momentum of our own legendary power, but the engine is smoking suspiciously and the fuel is running very low.

Speaking of which, the fuel is running low. All that cheap Texas oil, and most of the Alaskan oil, is gone. Most of the Mexican oil boom is gone. The North Sea oil is merely a trickle. Even Saudi Arabia has sucked out their spare capacity. The price of oil is permanently over $80 a barrel for a reason. That reason is supply and demand.

There is an oil boom in the United States and Canada – of a sort. It is not because there are new major discoveries. The much-talked-about Bakken shale in North Dakota was discovered in the early 1950’s. The Canadian tar sands were discovered by the Hudson Bay Company in 1719. Nor is the boom the product of any breakthrough in technology. Horizontal drilling is 1970’s technology. Commercial hydraulic fracturing started in 1949. What has actually created the boom has been a price of oil reliably above $80 a barrel. When oil was $25 a barrel, recovering it by expensive hydraulic fracturing was a losing proposition. At $80 a barrel, it’s a bonanza. If one levied a tax of $50 or $100 on a $25 barrel of oil, anyone with a non-fantasy understanding of economics could see immediately what a brutal economic burden it would impose. Somehow when the law of supply and demand itself imposes the burden many conservatives imagine it’s a sign of hope!

The environmentalists, of course, are living on a mental planet all their own. My favorite example of this is the part of the green lobby that opposes wind power. Wind turbines have many problems as a power source, but they don’t pollute (apart from the pollution created in manufacturing them) and they are at least in the same ballpark with coal-fired power plants in terms of cost. The ultra-greenies complain, however, that the whirling blades kill birds and make an eerie moaning sound – no doubt the howling of the morally outraged mother Earth. It takes the wind right out of me to think about it. I live near a liberal college town whose lawns and shop windows proudly sport signs proclaiming “No Fracking Way.” No hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, in other words. These people all heat with natural gas of course. I have a feeling a couple of January days without gas in their furnaces might make them reconsider. “Frack It! I want heat!” On the other hand, changing your mind requires at least some rational understanding of the world – so I would probably be disappointed. It is really just as likely that these people would blame the gas company for engaging in a rightwing conspiracy – rich, bigoted, homophobes that the gas company obviously represents.

I believe the economic future of the country would be better guided by conservatives than by liberals. While it is true that conservatives are prone to a certain kind of naïve optimism, they are generally practical people who will get up off the floor on their own when reality knocks them down. Liberals will cry that the government needs to do more – and they will beat-up the only people whom a crisis has left standing.

October 16, 2013

Writing, tweeting, and barking

I used to pursue a public forum the old-fashioned way, writing books and laying them before the cold, businesslike eyes of editors. The writing part was always enjoyable, but the self-promotion exercise was boring in the extreme. I never found rejection slips humiliating – only tiresome. Little anticlimaxes at the end of modest expectations. Editors, for the most part, are looking for marketable material and have trained their noses to detect good sales prospects. They are not fine arbiters of artistic merit, much less the judges of the ultimate value of one’s soul. Marketability and self-worth really should be two different things. If you want to feel better about a publishing failure, go to a bookstore and have a look at all the worthless dreck that actually succeeds. It may be better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven – but it is also better to go unrecognized than to be a famous writer of dreck. Unless you are too shallow to know the difference – in which case you had better move on to another article because what follows will probably only insult you, if that’s possible.

We are all authors now. Anyone with fingers and an intact chunk of cerebral cortex can fling an electronic message-in-a-bottle into the abyss of cyberspace. One may blog and tweet and Facebook and Reddit and comment and venture into more venues than I can count. In one sense, it is nothing new – an electronic medium is just another medium, another kind of paper, but in another sense it is uncharted territory that humanity is stumbling enthusiastically into. Even grandma can have her Facebook page. In theory, Tamil villagers in Sri Lanka can be enthralled with gripping tails of the grandkids and their puppy, or whatever else the industrious grandma might choose to inflict upon a fascinated world. Everyone can strive to be famous, without the tedious, unsympathetic bulwark of the editor. Free at last! Free at last! Except, of course, that no one really cares about you now that didn’t care before. The Tamil villagers have no reason to care about Grandma, her progeny, or little Toto either. The only nearly sure-fire method of acquiring a willing audience is to make an utter fool of yourself in some novel and usually disgusting way. YouTube overfloweth with such fools. Video yourself jumping off a diving board into an empty swimming pool, or taking a dump in the aisle of your local grocery store, and you will get your 15 minutes of fame. A certain fraction of murders and would-be murders have always understood this possibility. John Hinckley not only got Jodie Foster’s attention by shooting Ronald Reagan – he got everybody else’s too. A sad, sick nobody became a sad, sick somebody. We all know Dzhokar Tsarnaev’s name and what he looks like. He didn’t even need an agent.

People throw themselves at the internet in all sorts of ways and for all sorts of reasons. I want my ideas to be heard, and I thereby hope to alter the world, however slightly, into something a little more to my liking. I want to be immortal, if only in a footnote somewhere. It is a ridiculous quest, of course, but most of the people out there trying to save the world, or some portion of it, are not actually doing anything better than that. We want our lives to have some meaning, and, paradoxically, the more of us there are and the more noise we make the less meaning we all have. Meaning is a luxury we indulge in when we aren’t starving or freezing. The pursuit of it is a bit better that self-mutilation or shooting holes in politicians du jour, but it isn’t a special or sacred avocation. It is just a quirk of the brain – a sort of Nietzschean will to power with a sugary glaze of altruism to make it more palatable to modern sensibilities. I should like to expand the realm of “me” by making you think like “me.” Who cares? So what? But I have held onto you this far – and that’s something. At least we can be ridiculous together.

Social media is a different species of animal from what I consider “real” writing, but it serves some of the same functions nevertheless. If it’s not an outreach of ideas it’s at least an extension of small talk. It is the communication mode of choice for those that find security not in meaning, but in simple attachment. It is now possible to engage strangers in the same sort of mutually reassuring babble we used to share with family members, friends, and neighbors. It is also possible to reinvent yourself in the convenient absence of a commonly known personal history – or even a body. I am a bit too misanthropic to spend my life in one long session of social network maintenance, so I admit I don’t have much to say about this sort of activity. I’m a deaf music critic when it comes to Facebook. Twitter, however, I despise on principle. Any form of communication that constricts an interlocutor to 140 characters is a direct assault not only on linguistic subtlety, but on the complexity of any underlying thought. It is reminiscent of Orwell’s newspeak from the novel 1984. The intention of newspeak was to constrain language to such a limited set of words that seditious or otherwise dangerous ideas could no longer even be entertained. This is language as a sort of straightjacket for the mind. Twitter, not surprisingly, has become a primary means for politicians and other celebrities to commune, in a sort of grunting troglodytic way, with their fans. I know I’m not insulting anybody here, because if you’re a dedicated tweeter, I’ve long since exceeded your attention span. LOL! ROFLMAO!

Last, and least, among the varied breeds of cybernoisemakers is the habitual snarky commenter. To be fair, I have read a few very insightful comments, and more than a few amusing ones. These are worthy products of the mind, and not the idle barking of the sort of beast I’m talking about. The kind of loathsome creature I’m referring to is the one whose favorite word is “idiot” or “asshole” and who takes a clear delight in name-calling from the anonymous safety of his smart phone – or whatever connective device they have these days in hell. Decades ago, public bathroom stalls were lavishly decorated with random (and not-so-random) insults, crude sketches of genitalia, and the general outpourings of small and primitively antisocial minds. Public bathrooms are much cleaner places now – but I’m pretty sure I know where all their unpaid decorators have gone. “FUCK YOU IDIOT!!!” Hmm. The similarity is uncanny. Some people don’t have the courage to pitch themselves headfirst into empty swimming pools to get attention. Still, in the spirit of tolerance and generosity, I wish them all the best in finding that much courage.

October 14, 2013

A simple argument for conservatism

I have a number of liberal friends and acquaintances, and have been considering how to make the best and simplest argument for the conservative cause – which I take to be the cause of limited government. This is that argument.

If you are a US citizen, your Congressional Representative in the US House now represents more than half a million people. If you live in one of the least populous states, your Senators represent about the same number. In the most populous states, the Senators each represent tens of millions of people. The odds are very good that you have never seen your Congressional Representative or either of your Senators. The odds are even better that you have never spoken to them. If you write any of these federal legislators, you will be virtually guaranteed a form letter rubber stamped by (and probably also written by) some minor member of the legislator’s staff. If you write on a matter of general concern, you can expect that the rough content of your letter will be compiled with thousands of others into a statistic. If your concerns are unique, you can expect they will be more-or-less politely ignored.

When your Congressman or Congresswoman and your two Senators climb the stairs to do the peoples’ business, it is a rare thing anymore for them to write or haggle over the detailed content of new laws. Rather, they vote on bundles of paper they have neither written nor even read. Documents thousands of pages long, written by staffers, lobbyists and federal bureaucrats – documents your representatives could not possibly read regardless of their level of public spiritedness and good intentions. They vote on their ideas about what the bundles might contain – typically along ideological or party lines.

Frequently, these legislators you have never seen or spoken to don’t even get to vote on the bundles of paper they have neither written nor read. Two people, the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader set the agenda for Congress, deciding what is brought up for a vote and what gets dropped into the legislative abyss. When your legislators do get to help vote a bundle of paper into law, and the President decides neither to veto the bundle nor to direct the bureaucracy not to enforce it, dozens or hundreds of faceless people you will never have the privilege of voting for implement and flesh-out the bundle of paper in ways that could profoundly change your life.

These are simply the facts. You may think that your party is good and the other party is evil, but in the best of circumstances the form of government you have is almost wholly untroubled by your wishes. You don’t have even weak representation – you have only a ghost of representation – a pathetic parody of the common will. You might, through some incredible act of blind optimism, believe that the people running things are the best, brightest, and most well-intentioned in society – but you cannot possibly believe they express your will. If you believe such a thing, it is only because you have chosen to align your will with theirs.

Send a letter to your state representative, and you have some chance of getting an actual response. Send a letter to your local city councilperson and you will very likely get one. The odds are better, too, that they will understand the issue you’re addressing. Putting more and more power into the hands of the central government is, straightforwardly, to surrender both freedom and representation. It cannot be otherwise. To advocate for such a course is, ultimately, to argue for your own political irrelevance.

October 6, 2013

wave with echo

wave with echo - e.m. cadwaladr
wave with echo, image by e.m. cadwaladr on Flickr.

Protesting in the street

Last Friday I stood on a street corner with a small group of strangers, protesting the so-called "Affordable Care Act," a.k.a. Obamacare.  Back in the 80's I protested nuclear arms and the U.S. intervention in central America. Once I was an enthusiastic leftist, now I am a somewhat reluctant, rather nuanced conservative.  Experientially, however, a protest is a protest.  It is all the same. In my youth, blind, angry people called me a communist.  Now blind, angry people call me a racist.  To oppose the enthusiastically anti-communist Ronald Reagan labelled me a communist.  To oppose the historically black Barack Obama labels me a racist.  Logically speaking, this sort of reasoning is a fallacy known as affirming the consequent.1  If you protest on the street corner, you must abandon any notion that you will be perceived as an individual, expressing your views to other individuals.  You will inherit every prejudice, good or bad, of every passerby.  As you throw yourself into this most direct of political expressions, the polity itself will strip you of any personal identity. You will be merely the embodiment of everyone's narrow slogan and everyone's haphazardly scrawled sign.

There is, of course, no other way.  One must stand upright, bravely, and take it as it comes. You must endure the hatred of those who hate you out of prejudice, and those who hate you simply because you have disturbed their illusion of order and peace.  If you can not endure this, then quietly except the world other people make for you -- or find a wiser, better, more just species than humanity.

1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affirming_the_consequent

October 4, 2013

Notes on Morality

Although many have come to consider the very concept of morality something of an antique superstition, I would like to wrest the idea from the ashes of postmodernist neglect to see if any part of it is still serviceable. I will do this from a largely philosophical perspective rather than a religious or strictly scientific one. For the sake of the uninitiated reader, I will begin by laying out a (painfully) brief summary of the more well known moral systems.

I. A moral review

The first moral system I will sketch is utilitarianism. This doctrine was explicitly formulated by Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century and later elaborated by John Stuart Mill in the 19th, but utilitarianist tendencies can certainly be found in earlier thinkers. Utilitarianism is popularly summarized as “the greatest good for the greatest number.” That which promotes happiness (or avoids suffering) is good, and a moral action is that action which promotes good for the greatest number of people. Because utilitarianism defines good as ultimately synonymous with some increase in pleasure, the system is fundamentally a hedonistic one.

Utilitarianism is very straightforward conceptually, but it has a number of uncomfortable implications. Because it demands the maximum collective benefit, it negates any notion of immutable individual rights. In principle, if someone is dying of kidney failure and would benefit by one of yours, utilitarianism would demand the confiscation of your one of your kidneys as a net good. Likewise, utilitarianism does not oppose theft in principle, so long as the distribution of stolen goods produces a greater collective happiness than their retention by the original holder. The doctrine also suffers from the deep problem of comparing various kinds of moral outcomes. How does one weigh a mild increase in the comfort of many people against the deep suffering of a few? What is the value of a life in units of the general collective good?

An entirely different family of difficulties arises for utilitarianism because human beings are rarely wise enough to predict the long term outcomes of their decisions. To expand the earlier example, imagine your kidney is confiscated to save the life a person who subsequently murders several other people. Was the action good because the initial result was good – or, even more tenuously, because the intention was good? Far from being an abstract philosopher’s objection, the predictive problem is a serious flaw. One need look no further than the government policies of any nation to find countless examples of unintended negative consequences.

Collective happiness isn’t the only basis for a moral system. Deontological systems – doctrines which either begin with or produce fixed, specific, moral rules – are not built on the foundation of maximizing pleasure. Deontology, literally, means the study of that which is binding. It is morality as duty. I would like to divide deontological systems into two categories: those based on religious canon of one sort or another, and those based on the autonomous individual’s moral evaluations. The first category has many and varied members. The second category is most prominently represented by the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant.

Although religiously based moralities take different forms, they share some common characteristics. All religious moralities are defined externally to the moral agent, typically in a body of ancient scripture. Christianity, Judaism and Islam define moral action as that which pleases God. Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism (if I may pretend for the moment to understand the Tao) define moral action as that which is in accordance with a universal law or dharma. Religion either tells us specifically what good or evil actions are, or at least tells us that actions have an absolute moral status, even if our knowledge of that status may be incomplete. Thus, it is not the role of the moral agent to maximize the collective good (as it is in utilitarianism) but rather to seek alignment with a universal law which is either supreme in itself or an expression of God’s will. Where utilitarianism defines the good ultimately as pleasure, religion defines the good ultimately as obedience. These are deeply incompatible values.

The briefest possible synopsis of Kant’s system can be found in his categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” In other words, a moral action is one that you would consider acceptable for anyone to undertake – even if it is contrary to your interests. The Golden Rule (“One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself”) is a corollary of this. Although the categorical imperative does not necessarily conflict with religious morality, it has a different basis. It makes the moral agent responsible for his or her own moral evaluations. It differs from utilitarianism in making morality an individual rather than a collective exercise, and in defining the good in yet another way. Where utilitarians define the good as the maximizing of collective pleasure or happiness, and the religious define the good as conformity to the supreme law, Kantians define the good as the maximization of a specific interpretation of equality. It is not necessarily an equality of means or capacity, but is rather an equality of moral agency. Equality before the law is a concept that accords with Kant, rather than the more material equality that utilitarianism implies.

All deontological moralities possess a common strength by their very nature. Compared with the never-ending evaluative problems of utilitarianism, both religious and Kantian moral systems offer the benefit of clarity and stability. A religious canon does not change rapidly according to circumstances. Likewise, Kantian universals, once established, are fixed principles for the particular moral agent that formulates them. To overthrow any moral evaluation as circumstances change would violate the categorical imperative in principle. By contrast, the utilitarian notion that morality is to be found in the ends rather than in the means is not only practically problematic but counter-intuitive. At a visceral level, it is incongruous to believe that no actions can be wrong in themselves, but are always subject to contextual factors.

The dark side of deontological systems lies, primarily, in the specific moral rules that compose them. It can be said, by way of an example, that Islamic suicide bombers are moral according to their particular interpretation of the Koran. They are supported by specific teachings of their scripture. They are, incidentally, good Kantians as well. They would be perfectly willing to live in a world in which their moral views were universal. They would not mind if everyone were prepared to persecute and destroy the world’s infidels. This universality of their beliefs, in fact, is precisely their goal. While the categorical imperative implies a certain equality of moral agents, it doesn’t dilate about the characteristics that would qualify one for membership in that group. Disqualifying other people as persons is the time-honored way of eliminating one’s own moral duties toward them, and deontological moralities often show a sad history of doing precisely that.

Finally, we come to moral theories based on sympathy. A good example of this kind of thinking is to be found in the moral writings of the 18th century political economist, Adam Smith. Smith’s theory was that we only care about the joys or sufferings of others insofar as we can imagine ourselves in their circumstances. We can never experience another person’s feeling directly. Morality, then, is rooted in our capacity to empathize. This is a position with more substance than is immediately obvious.

Even without developing Smith’s formulation any further, we can see that his approach to morality does different work than the systems we have discussed thus far. The salient commonality between utilitarianism and deontological moralities is that they are normative. They are planned strategies for achieving particular social and/or personal ends. Smith’s approach, on the other hand, is essentially empirical. He does not ask what sort of rules we should have, but rather asks what constitutes a moral sentiment in the first place. Smith approached the subject of morality in more-or-less the same methodical way he approached economics. While such a perspective is less helpful in providing simple moral heuristics than the other systems we’ve considered, it is also less prone to their obvious weaknesses.

In addition to the characteristics of utilitarianism I have already mentioned, an empirical examination of it would uncover the following. The claim that happiness is the ultimate good is not derived from experience, but is an axiom of the system. Likewise, the idea that the interests of the group should trump the interests of the individual is also axiomatic. If we ask “why” the interests of the majority should predominate we are left with nothing more enlightening than some restatement of the utilitarian program itself. Considered in the same way, Kant’s system yields nothing better. The categorical imperative essentially states that it is immoral to do things we would not want everyone else to do, but the warrant for this claim can only be some version of the categorical imperative itself. The religious moral systems of the west are also based on the same kind of axiomatic assertions, but at least they don’t claim to be intellectually enlightening arguments, being doctrines that by their own admission are based on revealed knowledge whose only warrant is faith. The religious moral systems of the east are typically as self-referential as western philosophical doctrines, but do, in certain cases, invite the practitioner to reflect on personal experience for a kind of verification. Smith’s analysis is not vulnerable to any such self-referentiality. The proposition that we cannot experience another person’s feelings directly is not a postulate, but a brute fact. The proposition that we feel for others only through an act of imagining ourselves in their circumstances is, if not quite a brute fact, at least as clear a product of introspection as we can hope to attain.1

Having sketched out the gross outlines of moral theory, we find nothing resembling logical certainty about what actions should correctly be considered either moral or immoral. In utilitarianism, we have a scheme that arbitrarily favors the interests of the collective, and which leaves the merits of particular actions to the vagaries of circumstance. In the categorical imperative, we have a principle which is only specific about its own scope of application, and is ultimately no more informative about the morality of specific actions than utilitarianism is. Religions innumerate sins in considerable number and detail, leaving as moral those actions which are not proscribed as sins. Unfortunately, since such systems vary somewhat, not only from religion to religion but from sect to sect, one is faced with the problem not only of faith in an invisible deity but of faith in the infallibility of one’s particular church. Further, it is innately unsatisfying, at least for me, to believe that goodness is reducible to obedience. In such a universe, if the deity were inclined to switch the lists of what is good and what is evil, obedience would compel us to steal and kill, and to abhor compassion, charity and mercy.2 The idea of a universal or dharmic law as the basis for moral strictures is a little more satisfying in that it gives morality a stable and unique character, but, here too, we fail to find a satisfactory agreement about the nature of such a law. The dharma is vague, and the Tao is utterly incoherent.

II. A morality without free will

Being unsatisfied with anything but Smith and company’s limited empirical observations, I must fall back on my own resources. To begin, I will have to return to my conclusion about the illusory nature of free will, which I have covered in detail elsewhere.3 Traditional views of morality make free will a prerequisite to moral agency. Traditionalists inevitably ask: “If one is not responsible for one’s own actions, how can one be held accountable for them?” The question shows the extent to which moral choices tend to get bound up in an adjudicative perspective. The assumption is that we are to be judged, either by God or some deputation of our peers, and that an action one performs as the result of non-volitional causes does not constitute something worthy of judgment. What we do because we are forced to either by others or by the some peculiarity of our brains is somehow not really “us”. On this view, a world bereft of free will, in which everything is the product of physical causes, is a world bereft of moral content. Morality, on this account, implies responsibility. But let’s consider Smith’s analysis again. If moral sentiment just is a sympathetic reaction to the suffering of another, whether or not we engage in that sentiment volitionally does not really matter. To have a moral sentiment is to experience a feeling of sympathy, and to act morally is to be motivated by sympathy. Thus, to be a moral agent one must possess sufficient awareness to imagine others as entities like oneself, but one need not possess the extraordinary first-cause power necessary for the full sense of free will. In other words, that sympathy contributes to our decisions does not prove we are free, but does prove that we are aware enough to be sympathetic – and that our sympathies are strong enough to be relevant (though still determinist) heuristics.

Let me illustrate the concept above with an example. Imagine you see a car about to run over a small child. You are standing nearby, and have the capacity to intervene by running into the roadway and pulling the child out of the way. Assuming you are a typical human being, I think the following factors will bear on your decision of what to do. Having been a child yourself, you will have a kind of reflexive empathy on seeing a child in danger. You will value the child’s continued existence in a way that you would probably not value the continued existence of a snake or an inanimate object in the road. You may also relate to the potential suffering of the child’s family, especially if you have children. You might even imagine the lifetime of guilt that the driver might suffer if the accident is allowed to occur. Against this, you would probably fear the potential injury or risk to your own life in the event that you could not get away quickly enough. Sadly, in our society, you might also be paralyzed by the fear of a potential lawsuit should something unexpected happen. In far less time than it has taken to describe it, you would either decide to act or not decide to act, and you would do so in accordance with the strength and immediacy of the impulses I have outlined. Either way, it would certainly be a decision with moral dimensions – whether to risk your life for the life of a child or to avoid risk by letting the accident occur. Nevertheless, moral though it might be, there is nothing in the decision that resembles free will in any pure, first-cause sense. You neither decided how much to value the child’s life nor how much to value your own. You came to the accident as a collection of predispositions that were rooted in your unique causal history, including all of your prior experiences and every rung on the ladder of your DNA. Morality is the evaluation of what the collection of resources you identify as yourself actually does in real circumstances. In general:

A moral action is the sacrifice, on the basis of sympathy, of one’s perceived self-interests for the perceived benefit of another.

The idea that morality resides in what one perceives – in intent and in consciously performed actions – is important here. The rescue of the child in the example above does not become an immoral act if the child turns out to be Hitler. Although physicalism requires that the mind is best understood as a property of the brain, it is nonsense to believe that a determinist set of brain processes can act on information it either does not or cannot take into account. Consider the case of the Green Revolution, the globalization of modern agricultural methods that was carried out from the 1940s through the 1970s. In general, the various programs of the Green Revolution were initiated by intelligent people with the laudable purpose of alleviating hunger in the less developed nations of the world. In the short term, the effort was fairly successful. In the long term, it was a key factor in nearly tripling the world’s population – from 2.5 billion in 1950 to over 7 billion now. Roughly speaking, every hungry human being in 1950 has now been replaced with three. It is difficult to call this progress. Nevertheless, although one might call the founders of the effort naïve, shortsighted, or simply under-educated (Malthus accurately outlined the mechanisms of population growth in 1798!) you could not say their decisions were immoral. They were quite moral, being based, at least to some degree, on sympathy. The negative consequences of the Green Revolution, however bad, were almost certainly unintended.

Returning from public policy to a more individual perspective, one might object that a moral definition based on individual evaluation would suffer the same problem suffered by Kant’s individually evaluated morality. In fact, there is a crucial difference between the two evaluations. Kant’s morality permits anything the moral agent would be prepared to accept as universal. My interpretation of morality, based on Smith’s, defines as moral those sympathetically motivated actions that the moral agent perceives as benefitting another. The suicide bomber passes Kant’s test, but does not pass the test I’ve proposed. More generally, Kant’s morality permits whatever degree of selfishness the moral agent is prepared to accept from everyone else, but by my definition morality is lost whenever the moral agent willfully causes more suffering by an act than he or she expects to alleviate by the same act.

In thinking of moral behavior as a manifestation of sympathy, one should be aware of the variability in individual human beings’ capacity for feeling sympathy. Some people are simply more compassionate than others. The totally unfeeling sociopath is, by my working definition, incapable of moral action. Though such a person’s condition may be wholly organic, his or her actions do not escape moral evaluation on those grounds. The only causal antecedent that is relevant to an action’s moral status is the intent, sympathetic or otherwise, of the moral agent. It is not morally exculpatory, on my elaboration of Smith’s account, to claim your actions are merely the product of an unbalanced brain. Snakes do not make the choice to be snakes, but they are snakes nonetheless. A helpful act carried out for non-sympathetic reasons is not moral, but a willfully hurtful act is immoral, regardless of its ultimate consequences.

Behavioral traits that are the product of experience cannot be exempted from moral evaluation either. A person who has been conditioned to behave immorally – which is to say, to knowingly bring about suffering without any countervailing benefit – is immoral nonetheless. Again, morality is a characteristic of the individual, expressed through patterns of sentiment and behavior. To deny that environment is exculpatory, however, does not imply that it’s irrelevant causally. Within the behavioral limitations that are the product of our genetic makeup we are changeable, even if, in an absolute sense, we are not free. We are moral or immoral – sympathetic or selfish – largely to the extent that those traits have been encouraged or discouraged in us by events in the world. Again, these are attempts to describe morality in a coherent and consistent way, not attempts to formulate idealized normative standards.

The average moral agent is neither a saint (who feels sympathy for everyone) nor a sociopath (who feels sympathy for no one). Rather, the ordinary person sorts the world into in-groups and out-groups and mediates sympathy accordingly. Perhaps this is not a philosophically impressive way to parcel out moral sentiments – it does not sound as lofty as the categorical imperative – but it is the way that most moral sentiments get parceled out in actual practice. It is a rare human being that doesn’t attach more sympathy to some groups of people than to others, usually preferring the familiar to the alien. There is a straightforward evolutionary reason for this: Any organism that is trusting of strangers by default makes itself defenseless against them.4 To have compassion for the injured rattlesnake does not give you the slightest immunity to its venom. A snake will not act morally toward you because you choose to act morally toward it. Thus, while empathy is obviously an evolutionary advantage in that it makes social cohesion possible, to include everyone and everything under the umbrella of sympathy is, in the real world, suicidal.

III. Some sociological outcomes to normative moral systems

Although you can never get a normative standard out of an empirical observation (in Hume’s formulation – you cannot get an “ought” from an “is”) you can at least make reasonable predictions about what sort of outcomes a particular consciously planned “moral” system (e.g. utilitarianism) would be most likely to produce. It is important to emphasize, however, that when we talk about what ought to be according to any consciously planned moral framework, we have ceased to discuss morality in the robust sense we can get at empirically. All consciously planned “moral” systems violate my definition of what morality is. Again – A moral action is the sacrifice, on the basis of sympathy, of one’s perceived self-interests for the perceived benefit of another. When “moral” actions are the product of normative rules, they are no longer the product of sympathy by necessity. While it is possible to have an artificial moral code so deeply ingrained in one’s makeup that one feels its strictures sympathetically, it is also possible follow the rules of such a system out of unfeeling habit or even simple fear. The products of habit and fear are not, by my account, moral. What we are talking about instead of morality are different schemes for organizing societies. While these ideological constructs do have moral ramifications, adding their share of input to an individual’s criteria of decision, all of them, even Kant’s, seek to mold the individual’s behavior to someone else’s ideal. Faced with the dark history of humanity’s utopian “moral” programs, let us do our best to retain our bearings as we forge ahead.

While different plans for organizing societies pursue different outcomes, the desired outcome of default is always bare survival. Where does this leave sympathy? Obviously, it is not conducive to an individual’s prospects of survival to either include everyone under the umbrella of compassion or to include no one under the umbrella of compassion. Nor are these extremes conducive to the survival of a society as a whole. Rather, to optimize the survival advantages of social interaction, human beings must nurture relationships which are beneficial while avoiding those that are undertaken at a loss. Further, mutually beneficial relationships are to be preferred over predatory ones because they are inherently more stable. While it is possible to have a society that tolerates theft in certain contexts, any society that encourages theft as a universal principle will annihilate itself. The same can be said of a general acceptance of murder. It is not by accident that all traditional “moral” systems eschew or severely limit theft and murder, at least within the sphere of their adherents. Any society which failed to do so wouldn’t be a society in any intelligible sense.

Stability is by no means a sufficient condition for most definitions of societal success, but neither is it an accomplishment to be denigrated. All of the developed “moral” ideologies of which I am aware have stability as an implicit goal, even those systems that seem preoccupied with change. For example, I can think of no egalitarians who would be satisfied with achieving universal equality for a year or two, and then having society degenerate into some other state of social relations. Likewise, libertarians do not strive for a single generation of perfect freedom, after which the game is won and the social order becomes irrelevant. The religious may view the society as having an apocalyptic endpoint, but only a handful want that end to come sooner rather than later. People can conceive of apocalypses both religious and scientific, but we are genetically predisposed to care about the fate of our children and grandchildren, and to want something better for them than a desperate life in a declining world. The desire for stability is innate.

Given that the attainment of stability is an implicit requirement for any non-absurd “moral” code, it is clear that the arbitrariness of a behavioral rule is of less concern than its caprice. An arbitrary but long-standing rule, like one prohibiting the sale of alcohol on Sundays, or even one prohibiting certain arguably harmless sexual practices, may induce a degree of suffering in some but strengthen the social cohesion of many. Stable rules, whatever they might be, give a culture a certain shape and character. On the other hand, a capricious new rule, no matter how immediately useful, leaves the rules that govern behavior suspect, formless and ephemeral. That which the dictator or the social engineer finds expedient today might as easily be ruled punishable tomorrow. While tradition may dull the imagination, caprice forces the citizen to deny his or her own memory – and become little more than a robot awaiting the next command. North Korea, for example, has neither a culture nor a moral system – it is simply a terrible living expression of the whims of the Kim family.

As I alluded earlier, there is reason to believe that some degree of reciprocity is also a bare requirement for any consciously planned moral system. Both utilitarian and deontological systems entail some degree of reciprocity. By “reciprocity” I mean:

Those social relationships that are perceived as beneficial to all of the participating parties.

The concept of a perceived benefit is important here. Arguably, a shaman whose social function is to serve as a liaison with a non-existent spirit world contributes nothing real, but so long as he and his devotees believe the function is meaningful it is nonetheless a trade item in the market of social exchange. Magicians who practice slight-of-hand engage in reciprocal relationships with those who pay to watch their tricks. The pick-pocket who quietly robs the crowd without their knowledge or consent does not.

Reciprocity does not imply equality or fairness. Imagine a boxing promoter who pays his fighters one percent of the receipts and pockets the rest for himself. This relationship is neither equal nor fair, but it is still reciprocal. A relationship is reciprocal so long as all the involved parties derive sufficient benefit from it to engage in it willingly. Working for the minimum wage is engaging in a reciprocal relationship, whereas working in a North Korean labor camp is not.

Reciprocity supports stability by helping to assure most people get enough out of the general social exchange to meet their own minimum needs. People who cannot get their minimum needs met in the social marketplace have no stake in society, and can hardly be blamed for anti-social behavior. Likewise, those who engage in wholly predatory relationships, at any socio-economic level, weaken the bonds that hold society together. While equality and fairness may be little more than idealistic abstractions, it is obvious that any functional set of “moral” standards must be able to maintain a critical mass of interpersonal cohesion sufficient to make the game at least tolerable of most of its participants.

In practice, utopian systems of social organization tend to fall into one or the other of two categories, depending on whether they emphasize equality or freedom, collectivism or individualism. In the end, both appear predestined to fall prey to quite non-utopian tyranny or its modern expression – totalitarianism.

Dogmatically egalitarian systems of social organization, that throw their arms around people without regard to their capacity or inclination to contribute useful effort, violate the requirement of reciprocity. Socialist systems of social organization begin in popular enthusiasm but have a predictable trajectory. Eventually, their outlay of benefits becomes unsustainable. They must meet the reciprocity standard or dissolve, and have no better recourse than to coerce work out of the unwilling by either force or the threat of force. At that point their egalitarian program becomes a joke. It is no use claiming that all are equal when all are subservient to the authority of the State, because the State itself is always run by planners who are not subject to their own rules. Decision makers are inherently not equal to non-decision-makers. Equality under socialism is never more than a linguistic trick. Socialism fails the survival test by ceasing to be distinguishable from other forms of authoritarianism. What begins as utilitarian justice ends in the despotic cynicism of the central committee.

Dogmatically free ideologies, such as libertarianism, objectivism and free market capitalism (at least in its present form) fail the stability test. While such systems do not preclude the possibility of human cooperation, they consider cooperation a subordinate virtue at best. Even a cursory look at the history of the modern period, dominated by the rise of capitalism, reveals a world whose salient feature is instability. My point here is not that freedom is bad, or even that a high degree of material inequality is bad, but that any system whose core principle is freedom is probably doomed to innovate its way out of existence. In an atmosphere of perfect freedom, the strong will rise to dominate the weak. In the particular case of free market capitalism, where once the capitalist elites were predominantly industrialists who made money by making and selling things to large numbers of people, they are now predominantly bankers who make money by moving the electronic tokens of ownership around. Love him or hate him, you must admit Steve Jobs directed Apple Computer to produce real useful things – and thereby created real wealth. It is in no way obvious that an entity like Goldman Sachs creates wealth at all. A major bank redistributes and effectively creates money, but that is not the same as creating wealth. Money is a medium of exchange for the transfer of wealth, but is not wealth itself. The U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing has the capacity to make everyone on the planet a millionaire, but has no capacity to add so much as a bushel of millet to the world’s collective wealth. When the easiest path to personal power is to move paper around, the actual creation of tangible wealth declines. The present stage of capitalism also violates the principle of reciprocity, in that it concentrates power in the hands of people who contribute little, if anything, to the common weal. Like its socialist counterpart too, capitalism lacks a mechanism to resist the relentless centralization of power.5 Thus, the endgame of capitalism appears to be graft, corruption, and the destruction of the very markets that made it flourish in the first place. A different shade of authoritarianism – but authoritarianism still.

In opposition to my argument that the world seems bent on the centralization of power by one path or another, it is certainly worth asking why the last half century or so has been characterized by the adoption of democracy by so many countries. A satisfactory explanation would require an essay in itself, but I will try to at least sketch an explanation here. In the main, democracy both follows and promotes a certain level of material achievement. Nations that become wealthy – that is, engage in a high degree of resource consumption – can afford to distribute some amount of wealth without impoverishing their elites. When a society gets rich, everyone can become at least a little richer than they were. This lowers the need for political repression to keep the population under control. The elites who control nations do not cease to exist, but they can tolerate more individual freedom and more public participation in policy making without risking upheaval. Unfortunately, this is not a moral achievement but simply a feature of economic growth. When growth declines, freedom and real democratic participation also decline. The force of wealth creation becomes insufficient to resist the natural centralization of political power, although the old democratic slogans and the ghosts of democratic institutions may remain in place. In aging democracies like those of Europe and the United States, people have become demonstrably less free, which is to say more and more at the mercy of intrusive bureaucratic authorities in which they have little or no voice.

This outlook is admittedly grim, but it is supported by history. While I can only speculate, it may be that the centralization of power is inevitable given certain conditions (i.e. huge populations and resource scarcity). If that is true, all the utopian forms of social organization one can devise are no more that palliatives to sooth the consciences of the leaders and the outlook of the subject classes. To take the obvious case, the authority of Stalin was no less absolute or brutal than the authority of the Czar, although nominally Stalin ruled in the name of the people. On the other hand, if we consider late stage capitalism, that purports to be the opposite of Stalinist communism, it is equally obvious that when politicians pursue money and money pursues politicians a kind of aristocratic authoritarianism arises that is no more democratic than any other. I see no rational reason to be hopeful that the future will be kinder, fairer, or more pleasant than the past. We may not fully understand the underlying forces that shape our world, but we know from experience that no law of nature guarantees our success.

Morality, I believe, is only a useful concept at the rudimentary, individual level where Smith found it. We can see another person suffer and have sympathy for them in some direct, immediate sense. When we engage in making “moral” public policy decisions we show sympathy not toward any real persons, but toward our own ideas about them. The reformer Francis Perkins said of Robert Moses, the great urban planner of New York City, that he loved the public but hated people. It was an insight worthy of much wider application.


1 Strictly speaking, I can only introspect such issues for myself – but I can imagine you have the same capacity. While I admit that this also constitutes a kind of circularity, it is still a stronger position than inventing moral axioms out of whole cloth, no matter how eloquent they might be or ingenious they might seem.

2 I’m not a big proponent of Kolberg’s stages of moral development, but I am still suspicious of any system that stops its program at stage 1! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_Kohlberg's_stages_of_moral_development
     I am always struck by the story of Isaac and Abraham, in which God asks Abraham to make a blood offering of his son, and only relents when Abraham is about to show obedience. I believe that the great majority of Christians reading this story heave a sigh of relief when God relents and, after all, does the right thing by sparing Isaac. Yet if goodness is defined as that which pleases God, then God himself is not even subject to moral assessment. In other words, God does the right thing – by definition.

3 http://cadwaladr.blogspot.com/2010/03/case-against-existence-of-free-will.html  If I refer to this essay often, it is because I find it is foundational to so many other conclusions.

4 The dodo leaps (or perhaps waddles) to mind. http://bagheera.com/inthewild/ext_dodobird.htm

5 This is the fatal flaw in F.A. Hayek’s argument for capitalism. While he acknowledged that markets required some external oversight to keep them functioning freely, he did not explain why a body of people with the authority to perform that function would be any less cynical than socialist planners. Twenty-three hundred years of intellectual effort haven’t managed to come up with anything much better than Plato’s guardians. The framers of the U.S. Constitution, of course, made a noble attempt.