Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Public Goods

Yesterday's blog entry may have left the impression that I am a free-market purist (somebody who believes that Adam Smith's 'invisible hand' can do no wrong). Anybody who puts me in that particular pigeon hole will not be able to understand much that I write.

I believe that one should use the best tool for the job. In some instances, free-market institutions are the best tool. Compared to political processes, they convey information and provide incentives for a shift in policy based on that information far more rapidly and accurately than political institutions. Furthermore, they are far less corruptible, since it inherently rewards those who do the best job selecting the best policy.

On the basis of these principles, I fear that Democrats who are pursuing a policy of keeping the price of oil artificially low, I fear their effect will be to set future generations up for a massive economic calamity. (See the blog entry, “Energy Prices and the folly of Price controls”). The power of a free market also suggests that emissions trading would be the best tool for limiting CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

However, there are areas where the free-market tool does not work very well. One family of issues where this is a problem is in the realm of public goods.

A public good is a good that is freely available. If it is made available to one person, everybody else (or a large group of others) can obtain the same benefit without paying for it. Because people can obtain the benefit without paying, people tend not to pay, and an important good gets under funded in the free market.

National defense is a paradigm example of a public good. A private military company cannot go through a city and say, "Well, this guy is paid up, so we'll defend his condo, but we won't protect the condo next door because they are behind on their military protection dues. Meanwhile, the people on the fifth floor are buying their military protection from our competitor so let the competitor protect that floor."

Because national defense benefits are a “public good”, if we were to depend on voluntary benefits, we would have little national defense. There would be too many people who will seek to harvest the benefits without covering the cost. In fact, those who do not pay will ultimately be better off than those who do. Corporations who do not contribute to the national defense will have a better bottom line, and individuals who do not pay will enjoy a higher standard of living. So, where contributing to national defense has all of the markings of a penalty, many people would not pay.

We solve this problem by putting the government in charge of the military, and forcing people to contribute through taxes. This way, there are no free riders.

Even though military protection is a public good, the government can use the benefits of free market mechanisms in some aspects of providing for a national defense. There is economic value in requiring the military to pay a competitive wage so that labor forces are more efficiently allocated. Similarly, having the government buy materials on the open market allows the free enterprise system to more efficiently allocate the resources that go into producing those goods.

These policies reflect the principle that the tool of capitalism should still be used where it is the best tool for the job. It also illustrates how capitalism is not always the best tool for the job.

The military is only one area where the existence of a public good makes it a poor candidate for a free-market solution. Others include:

Law Enforcement: The police and the court system increases everybody's security. If the police capture and lock up a rapist, then everybody has obtained a measure of protection from having that person removed from society. The benefits cannot be limited only to those who pay a private fee to a law-enforcement agency, so we have a free-rider problem. To solve the free-rider problem, people are required to contribute to the police and court systems through taxation.

Education: People who acquire an education can generally make more money. However, the social benefits of having a well-educated population goes far beyond what each citizen can get in terms of a higher wage. One of these benefits is illustrated in the fact that a community benefits from having a doctor even if the doctor never gets used. The doctor is still available. Well-educated people are also better able to make better decisions regarding policies that affect others. For example, they can better understand the issues they vote on and cast more informed votes. These are just some ways in which education is a public good that calls for some measure of public funding and support.

Because people can harvest some personal benefits of an education, it is reasonable to have individual students cover some of the costs. However, to the degree that a well-educated population is a public good, there is reason for government funding to be used to make sure that society can benefit from this public good.

Flood control: If you build a dam on a river to control downstream flooding, then everybody living next to the river downstream benefits whether they pay for the dam or not. Therefore, the dam becomes a public works project, paid for by tax dollars, so that we can reduce the problem of free riders.

Clean Air (Global Warming and the Environment) . If one person has clean air, then everybody has clean air. Other than walking around with bottles of air for one's personal use, we typically breathe whatever air is available. Therefore, no person who pays for clean air can arrange that he is the only person receiving it. As a result, clean air would be under funded on the open market. This argues for making clean air a government concern.

On the issue of clean air, as with the issue on greenhouse gas emissions discussed in the previous blog, this does not imply that there is no room for free-enterprise solutions. A system for buying and selling emissions rights mixes government elements along with free-enterprise elements. The governments set the overall objectives (by saying, for example, how much of a particular emission would be allowed). However, by allowing rights to be bought and sold, it allows the market to decide which sources of emission are worth keeping and which sources we can best afford to get rid of.

Ecological Preservation. If a wilderness area is preserved, then it is preserved for all people who value ecological protection. If Person A wants a particular species or ecological system preserved, and Person B goes to the effort of preserving it, then he provides Person A with a benefit regardless of the fact that Person A contributed nothing to the effort. None of those who value ecological and species protection needs to pay for it. Therefore, species and ecological protection is rife with free riders. Government action is needed to make sure that these goods are provided at a level that the free market would provide them if not for those who are getting a free ride.

Here, more so than in the other categories discussed, the issue comes up that some people do not value the protection of any species or ecology, and they should not be forced to contribute to maintaining this good. Two points can be raised against this. The first is that genetic diversity, for example, provides a potential benefit to everybody because it allows us to get more information about how living things work. The second is that we would not allow a person to argue, “I want no police protection; I will defend my own property,” as a way of getting out of his taxes. The lack of an individual benefit does not justify immunity from a share of the tax burden.

Space Development: I have argued that to the degree that all of our human eggs are on this one planetary basket, to that degree the survival of the human species is at risk. (see “NASA’s Space Budget”) If we do prevent our extinction by spreading out across the solar system, everybody who values this outcome will obtain a benefit of having that interest better secured regardless of how much or how little they contribute. Therefore, this is an area where the government should step in to make sure that the task of spreading out across the solar system is properly funded.

This is another area where I believe we can do more by efficiently blending free market with government solutions. Instead of spending $100 billion to place a base on the moon, or $500 million to land a probe on Mars, the government can instead offer a substantially smaller prize to the first private entity to accomplish the government's objectives. So, it can offer a $10 billion prize to the first 10 organizations that can put four people on the moon, leave them there for a week, and bring them safely home. It can offer $50 million to the first private entity that succeeds in bringing it the data that it wants from Mars.


Contemporary political debate seems to be dominated by two extremes. There are those who say that Adam Smith's "Invisible Hand" can do no good, and others who say that it can do no evil. In fact, capitalism, like all tools, is useful in some situations and not useful in others. The situations above are all cases where a good cannot be made available only to those who pay for it. In this type of situation, capitalism tends to ensure that these goods are under produced. These are cases where Adam Smith's "Invisible Hand" does not do good. This does not change the fact that there are other situations (e.g., scarce oil) where interfering with the free market will do far more harm than good.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Global Climate Commons

With a new Climate Change conference starting in Canada, the United States government is announcing that it will resist any international agreements on CO2 emissions.

I find it interesting that, on the issue of climate change as well as other environmental matters, the people who describe themselves as "friends of capitalism" support the purest application of communist philosophy that exists in the United States today.

In 1968, Garrett Harden wrote an essay, "The Tragedy of the Commons" that has been a basic pillar of conservative (capitalist) thought since that time (though I see it as a very poor fit). The essay clearly describes why holding a finite resource in a commons (or according to communal or communist principles) results in the destruction of that resource, and why assigning property rights to (the use of) that resource solves the problem.

Harden described a hypothetical village that held all of its pasture land in common. Anybody who wanted to use it (for grazing) could do so without cost. All an individual has to do is buy a calf, set it loose on the commons, harvest it at the end of the year, and pocket the income.

Now, we look at the decision-making process for any given villager. We assume that he has enough money to buy a calf. The use of the commons is free, and he pockets the profits. He has little reason not to put another calf in the commons.

The alarm then gets raised that all of the cattle are overgrazing the commons. Yet, from the point of view of any individual villager, there is still little reason to keep cattle off of the commons. "If I hold back and not put cattle on the commons, somebody else will simply add a cow and he will take what profits there are to be had. Even if those profits are decreasing because we are destroying the land, the small profits I would get by adding a calf to the pasture is better than the nothing I will get if I restrain. The pasture that I save will get used by somebody else for his profits, leaving me nothing".

Even after the warning goes out, nobody has a reason to withdraw his calves from the commons. It will cost him money that will simply go into his neighbor's pocket.

A striking example of the tragedy of the commons in real life can be found in the fate of the American Bison. No individual hunter had much of a reason to leave any bison alive. The animal that he left alive today, some other hunter will harvest tomorrow. It would be better for him if he harvested the buffalo today. For this reason, buffalo hunters had a habit of wiping out entire herds, taking the most valuable parts, and leaving the rest to rot. This is what happens when a finite resource is held in commons.

Other areas today where we are facing the same tragedy of the commons include deep-sea fishing and groundwater. In both of these cases, a finite resource is held in commons and nobody has an incentive to leave anything behind -- because somebody else will come along and harvest what is left.

Our climate -- or, more precisely, the capacity to dump CO2 and other greenhouse gasses -- is another commons, and it is facing the same tragic fate. No person has much of an incentive to restrain from dumping CO2 into the atmosphere. Anybody who suffers the cost of reducing greenhouse gas emissions must compete on the open market with a company that treats the ability to dump as a "free resource." As with any free resource, no company has much of a reason to pay attention to how much of that resource they use up.

The Climate as a Commons

Capitalist economic principles predict that where a finite resource is held in commons, that the resource will be overused. If the use of the atmosphere as a dumping ground for greenhouse gasses is held in commons, it will be overused. That is to say, people will dump more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere regardless of the costs imposed on others, because the costs to those doing the dumping are virtually non-existent.

The surprising thing is that people who claim that they are "friends of capitalism" argue loudly for protecting this status quo. There own capitalist principles predict that this policy will have tragic results. Yet, in this case, they abandon the policy and instead select the path that leads to the tragedy of the commons.

Why do they do this?

A reasonable first theory is that those who benefit most from the commons want to keep it that way. We may be heading for a tragedy down the road a ways. However, in the mean time, these people are using the commons free of charge and pocketing the profits this provides. This provides a powerful incentive to preserve the commons -- as long as it is profitable to do so. It remains profitable exactly as long as the person using the commons is able to force the costs onto others.

I have said before that I believe people are very good at recognizing useful courses of action and following them without fully recognizing what they are doing. While I do not believe in a “conspiracy” among corporations, I think that corporate leaders are naturally drawn to a course of action that has some morally questionable elements to it.

They recognize that the term "capitalism" has a great deal of market power among some voting blocks. Therefore, they seek to market the communal system that exists with regard to climate and other environmental concerns as “capitalism,” to get their capitalist friends to endorse it. This can also involve a fair amount of self-deception; they want to think that their policies are right so they convince even themselves that they are following capitalist principles.

The marketing gimmick that allows them to categorize the climate commons as a form of capitalism comes from categorizing capitalism as a type of regulation. Of course, on their doctrine, all “environmental regulation” is bad – it is un-American and anti-Capitalist. However, capitalism itself is a form of regulation. It seeks to regulate the allocation of scarce resources by assigning different blocks of it to individual owners, who then have the liberty to buy and sell ownership within the confines of a set of rules called “property rights”. A huge national bureaucracy is then set up for the purpose of defining and enforcing these “property rights.”

In this way, the corporate executives “package” capitalism as a form of environmental regulation to be opposed. The next step in this shell game is to “package” the system in which corporations may profit at the expense of others under the brand name “capitalism”. Then, the sales job is complete. We have capitalists going to great lengths to defend what is, in effect, corporate feudalism. At the same time, capitalism itself stands in as the decoy to draw the fire of those who stand opposed to the corporation.

At this point, I want to remark that I am not a capitalist “purist”. I am not one of those who claim that pure capitalism is without flaws and will solve all of our social ills. It would be nice if the world were that simple, but it is not. In this case, however, it would be useful to see what capitalism has to offer as a means of regulating corporate degradation of the environment and its effects on the climate.

Capitalist-Style Environmental Regulation

Free-market thinkers have been looking for ways to apply free-market efficiencies to environmental issues for years. Though we cannot divided the climate up into chunks and sell it to the highest bidder, we can find other ways of charging people for climate use.

Just as hunting licenses restrict the number of deer or other animals that one can harvest, emissions credits restrict the amount of pollution that one can put into the atmosphere. If somebody wants to put more of a particular contaminant into the air, he must purchase the emissions credits from somebody else. If the demand for a particular type of emission grows, the price goes up.

On this method, if somebody finds a way to produce the same product without producing any of these harmful emissions, the company no longer needs to hold onto these emissions credits. It can sell the ones it has, improving its bottom line.

If a company finds a way to take an equal amount of this contaminant out of the air, then it need not buy emissions credits. It will only need to pay for its net contribution to the overall problem.

In fact, a company can go into the business of pulling a particular contaminant out of the air (in this case, creating carbon-dioxide sinks that pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere) and use that to "manufacture" emissions credits that it can send elsewhere. Brazil and Indonesia, for example, can use a system like this to get paid for preserving and even enlarging their rain forests, because of the carbon-dioxide this would pull out of the atmosphere.

I do not have an opportunity to go into the details of such a system here. My actual aim for this blog entry is more modest. I merely wanted to point out how easily many of the “friends of capitalism” abandon capitalism when it is profitable for them to do so. While they portray themselves as people of principle and virtue, they show themselves to have no regard for principle when it gets in the way of profit.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Do Not Force Your Morality Upon Others, Or Else

Yesterday's discussion on tolerance is naturally linked to another slogan that appears too often in moral discussion, the principle that we should not force our ideas of right and wrong on others.

However popular this slogan may be, the proposal is completely incoherent. What the person making this statement is actually saying is, "Thou shalt not force thy morality upon others, or else." This, of course, is a moral statement. Typically, the person making it is quite content to bring social and political sanctions against those who would violate this principle. That is to say, they are willing to force this moral principle on others.

Some recognize the inconsistency in forcing this moral principle upon others. They may refuse to do so. But, if they sit back and do nothing, then they are acting in all ways as if those who force their morality on others are entitled to do so. This drains the principle that it is wrong to force one's morality on others of all significance.

There is no way out of this trap because it is built on a contradiction. A moral principle is nothing more than a rule about what may be legitimately forced upon others. Debates over what morality requires and prohibits are debates over what it is permissible or impermissible to universally force on people. There is no sense to a moral principle that says that one not to have any moral principles.

Custom vs. Morality

To shed more light on the problem, let me note that I am not talking here about social customs. Some cultures hold that it is rude to belch at the table; others hold that it is a great compliment to the cook. There is no "right" or "wrong" on matters of custom. With respect to these types of concerns, it is perfectly legitimate to argue that it is morally wrong to impose one's own custom on others.

However, morality deals with a different set of concerns. At its core, morality deals with such things as theft, fraud, rape, torture, slavery, and murder. The person being told not to force his morality on others is being told to tolerate things like theft, fraud, rape, torture, slavery, and murder. If we do anything to protest this type of behavior, it is hard to describe this as anything other than forcing one’s morality upon others.

Moral issues are those issues where it is specifically legitimate to force one's morality upon others. There is no wrong in forcing one's morality upon the thief, con man, rapist, torturer (and those who he serves), slave trader, and murderer, among others. The very thing we are trying most to do, with respect to these moral wrongs, is force a morality on those who engage in this type of behavior.

Practical Tolerance

There are circumstances within which a morally concerned individual may be forced to do nothing because he lacks the power the correct for certain abuses. He may enter a society where slaves are bought and sold and recognize that there is nothing he can do, at least not yet. This is not a matter of being tolerant of other systems. It is a matter of weighing practical concerns in considering how to handle such matters. Sometimes, those who do evil are simply too powerful to stop.


In law, we recognize that force is prima facie worse than peace. Therefore, we adopt a rule that a person is to be presumed innocent unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Our default position is that we are going to leave other people alone. We are going to leave this default position only when the evidence is compelling enough that we see no reasonable option. If we are uncertain, if we have reasonable doubt, we will give those who we would impose burdens upon the benefit of the doubt.

In other words, it is up to those who would deny people their life, health, liberty, and happiness to prove that it is necessary. It is never up to those whose life, health, liberty, or property would be taken to prove that the loss is unjustified.

This is one of several moral principles that have been written into the law in order to create a system of justice. We find it in the law. However, it is a principle that we put into the law because morality demands it.

This same moral principle tells us that it is not only in law, but in all things, that we are to leave people alone unless we have compelling evidence of the need to impose some burden on them. This suggests a presumption in favor of tolerance and against imposing one's morality on others. However, this is merely a presumption. Like the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, it can be overridden if we have enough evidence.

Clearly, in cases like slavery, murder, rape, theft, perjury, fraud, and the like, there is evidence beyond reasonable doubt that we should not be allowing these types of actions to pass unnoticed. In these cases, we can make a convincing case that prohibitions on this type of behavior may be forced on those who would do these kinds of things.

Faith is Not Proof

In trying to arrive at proof beyond a reasonable doubt, faith is not proof. Again, we can see the moral principles for how we ought to treat others in the principles we use in courts of law. An accuser who stood up before the court and said that he did not need evidence against the accused, but knows that the accused is guilty based on faith alone, would be tossed out of court.

The same principle applies to those who want to use faith alone to prove that some citizen should shoulder some burden – that his life, health, liberty, or property is to be taken from him. Those who do the taking need something more substantial than faith for the taking to be justified.

No objection can be raised against the person who uses faith to direct his own life. Objections can be raised against the person who, on the basis of faith alone, does harm to his neighbor. We must remember that the 9-11 attacks, suicide bombers, witch hunts, jihads, crusades, inquisitions, and religious wars without count were all conducted by people who had faith that they were doing the right thing.


"Thou shalt not force thy morality upon others" is an entirely incoherent moral position. It contradicts itself. It asserts that everybody should be made to follow the follow principle that nobody should be made to follow any given moral principle. This is incoherent.

Morality is intrinsically concerned with what may be imposed on others, and there are clearly some things that may be imposed upon others. Restrictions on behavior that tends to be harmful to others provides the clearest example of a set of restrictions that may be imposed upon others. There is no function more central to the institution of morality than imposing on others a set of restrictions that they not engage in such things as rape, murder, theft, and slavery.

Yet, a case can be made in favor of a presumption that others are to be left alone. The burden of proof rests on those who call for interfering with the lives of others - forcing them to live by certain rules. In some cases, such as rape and murder, the argument is easy to make. Where the argument is less obvious, we should begin with a presumption that peaceful citizens be left free to live their lives as they wish.

In coming up with evidence for interfering with the lives of others, faith is not evidence. Hard, physical evidence is required. History and the news both carry too many examples of people using faith to justify the harms that they inflict on others.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Moral Facts, Arrogance, and Tolerance

I believe that there are moral facts.

When I say this, I sometimes run up against the counter-claim that those who believe in moral facts are necessarily arrogant and intolerant. The position some of these people take states something like, "If you believe that something is wrong, then it is wrong, and you cannot tolerate any other view."

I want to offer some criticism of this response to those who accept moral facts while, at the same time, argue for the morality of respect for different opinions. Note: I have posted a more thorough defense of moral facts on my web site in the article, “Defending Moral Realism from ‘Error Theory’

Moral Facts

I would like to explain a little about what I mean by 'moral facts'. Some people who deny the existence of an 'objective morality' do so on the basis that it must refer to some strange sort of entity that cannot be measured by scientific means.

Just as I do not believe in God, I have no tendency to believe in strange moral entities. My statement that there are moral facts comes from recognizing that statements like "Jimmy likes chocolate ice-cream" can represent a fact in the world. It is not a moral statement. However, it still is either a fact, or it is fiction.

Moral statements are statements like this, except they look at what all people like or dislike. A moral statement, like "Harming children is wrong" is a way of saying, "Hey, everybody, we would tend to be a lot better off if nobody liked to harm children." Even a person who likes to harm children can find value in a society where nobody likes to harm children.

I cannot hope to offer a complete defense of the idea of moral facts in a few short paragraphs. I have presented only a rough idea of what I mean by ‘moral facts’ for reference in the argument that follows.


Statements that condemn those who believe in moral facts of intolerance and arrogance are actually incoherent. The person making such a claim is asserting a moral fact. Specifically, such a person asserts that intolerance is bad (immoral) and, since those people who believe in moral facts are intolerant, they are immoral.

However, the claim that intolerance is bad is a moral statement. As such, the person making the statement is asking others to accept his claim that those who accept moral facts are intolerance, and that this is morally bad, as a moral fact. Ultimately, what such a person is saying, “It is a moral fact that those who assert that there is something morally wrong with those who assert the existence of moral facts.”


In fact, it is very easy for a person who believes in moral facts to say that, "We ought to be tolerant of different views" is one of those moral facts.

Saying that there are moral facts -- that there is a right or wrong answer to moral questions -- does not imply that the person making the statement knows what those moral facts are in all circumstances.

There are chemistry facts. Yet, if somebody were to ask me for the chemical formula for polyethylene, I would have to say, "I do not know." I say that there are chemistry facts, but I do not know what all of them are. In some cases -- many, in fact -- I have to consult somebody who is a specialist in that area.

There are some questions that even the specialists in a particular area do not know the answer to, just yet. "How were the first living cells created?" Here, the experts do not know. There may be some theories as to what is involved, and some theories may be more likely true than others, but nobody yet has a clear right answer to question.

Here we have a situation where a group of people admit that there is a fact of the matter. Each may have their own theory. Yet, none of them asserts, "I am right and anybody who disagrees with me should be put to death." Well, some of them might. But, it is quite possible to hold that there is a right answer, while at the same time advocating tolerance for different theories as to what that right answer may be.

In previous blog entries, I have spoken about a moral issue in just this way.

In the post on "Capital Punishment", I said that the evidence seems to suggest that we would have fewer murders if we, as a society, did not cheer or celebrate any killings, including the killing of murderers. However, I said that I could not prove this and suggested that more research be done.

In the post on "Physician Assisted Suicide" I said that allowing this created two dangers. First, it might weaken the psychological barriers against killing and result in more murders. Second, health-insurance companies might find it in their financial best interest to vigorously market death when medical treatment becomes expensive. I do not know if a society can organize its institutions in such a way that those who are suffering can obtain the benefit of physician assisted suicide, while avoiding these dangers. Therefore, I suggested that a "states rights" approach be used so that different options can be tested.

In both of these cases, I spoke in a way that was consistent with the view that there was a moral fact of the matter – better and worse ways for organizing a society. At the same time, I admitted that I did not know what the moral facts were.

Tolerance for different views comes from recognizing that may not yet have all of the information I need to be certain about any particular conclusion. An individual can say, “The evidence seems to suggest that we would be better off if we, as a society, did not celebrate any killings; however, since we do not know this, let different societies try out different systems.”

Moral Fact: Intolerance is Bad

The person who believes in moral facts does not face these difficulties when he claims that tolerance is good and intolerance is bad.

First, only the person who believes in moral facts can coherently assert that it is a moral fact that intolerance is bad. Those who assert that morality is merely a matter of personal opinion has nothing to say against the person who adopts the personal opinion that he will not be tolerant of other views.

Second, the idea that morality concerns facts to be discovered immediately raises the possibility that, “What I think is wrong, might not be wrong in fact.” Those who base morality on personal feelings or opinion support a system that does not even allow for the possibility of error. The person who has a dislike for interracial relationships and sees them as ‘wrong’, cannot be mistaken about the fact that he sees them as ‘wrong’. We cannot say that he is mistaken unless we can say that there is a fact of the matter that he can be mistaken about.


I agree that belief in moral facts combined with a certain amount of arrogance is a dangerous combination. People like this are more willing to force their morality on others and, to the degree that they are mistaken about what is in fact wrong, to that degree they will do real harm.

In fact, arrogant people have a tendency to not listen to others. This makes it harder to correct any mistakes they may have made.

It is their tendency to act in ways that are harmful to others that makes it the case that society would be better off if people tended to be less arrogant. This, in turn, gives society a reason to meet arrogance with condemnation and contempt. This gives society a reason to insist that its members be mindful of the fact of their own infallibility. They exhibit this appreciation of their own fallibility by being tolerant of others.


There is nothing about the belief in moral facts that gives rise to an arrogant intolerance of other positions. In fact, a belief in moral facts provides a foundation for an argument in favor of tolerance. Intolerance requires not only a belief in moral facts but an arrogant assumption as to one’s own infallibility. The moral failing of intolerance rests with this arrogant assumption of infallibility, not with the belief in moral facts.

However, tolerance, like all other moral principles, is not absolute. The more certain it is that an action is wrong (the more certain it is that an aversion to a particular act-type will help people to lead fulfilling lives), the less reason there is to be tolerant. This essay does not suggest tolerance for rapists, murderers, malicious liars, thieves, and others whose actions are clearly wrong.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Why Be Moral?

In comments to an earlier post, Dee Jay challenged me to provide an answer to the question, “Why be moral?”

I believe that an answer can be found in the twin posts “Ethics without God”, Part I and Part II. However, it may not hurt to answer the question more directly.

Why Do Anything?

If we are going to look at what it takes to get somebody to do the right thing, we first have to look at what is involved in doing anything.

I use the theory that all intentional action aims to fulfill the more and the stronger of the agent’s desires. Intentional actions follow the formula:

(Belief + Desire) -> Intention -> Intentional Action

Where ‘desire’ identifies our goals, and ‘belief’ tells us how to reach them.

This does not mean that everybody is selfish. People can desire a lot of different types of things – including the well-being of others. On this model, it is quite possible, for example, for a parent to be willing to sacrifice a great deal to keep her child healthy and happy. She does so because she values (desire) the well-being of her child, perhaps even more than she desires her own well-being. It is still her values (desires) that guide her actions, but those desires (values) can be for the well-being of others.

Of these two entities, beliefs and desires, beliefs are mapped to truth, and desires are mapped to value. This is where the “fact/value” distinction comes from. It is also where we get the “descriptive/prescriptive” distinction.

Beliefs aim to describe the world accurately. A true belief exists when a person believes something, and the thing believes happens to be true. If there are no gods, than the belief that there are no gods is a true belief. It is a false belief if there is at least one god.

Desires prescribe possible worlds. A desire that one’s child is healthy and happy is a mental state that says, “Make the world one in which your child is healthy and happy.” A desire for chocolate ice cream is a mental state that says, “Make the world one in which you are eating chocolate ice-cream.” Desires do not describe the world; the motivate agents to change the world in ways that fulfill those desires.

Doing the Right Thing

So, how do you get somebody to do the right thing? If we want to change a person’s behavior, and beliefs are mapped to truth, then the only thing we have left to change are desires. We get people to do the right thing by causing them to have desires that they can best fulfill by doing the right thing. A person with such desires will do the right thing because he wants to.

The tool that we use to get a person’s beliefs to better map to truth is reason. Reason allows an individual to see when his beliefs are incoherent, when they do not match observation, and when they are and are not supported by the evidence. Philosophies that tell people to abandon reason also tell them to abandon the most useful tool to getting beliefs matched to truth.

However, reason has no effect on desires. If a person likes chocolate ice-cream, then there are no reasons that we can give him – no arguments – that can change this fact. We can tell him that too much ice cream with threaten his health, but our arguments will have no effect unless his health is useful to him in some way.

This fact identifies a problem with in one interpretation of the original question, “Why Be Moral?” The person asking the question might want to know, “What reason can you a give a person whereby, no matter what he desires, he will want to do the right thing?” The answer is “None can be provided; reason does not affect desires.”

Affecting Desires

Yet, we do have tools for affecting desires. We can affect them through the use of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

We condemn and punish the child who hits his sister. Hopefully the child will acquire an aversion to hitting his sister. If he does, then we do not need to worry even about instances where he is alone with his sister. With such an aversion, he is as likely to hit his sister if left alone with her, as he is to eat raw liver if left alone in a room with raw liver (assuming that he does not like raw liver).

We praise and reward the child who does his chores in a responsible manner and, as a result, the child learns to like doing his chores in a responsible manner. He becomes averse to careless and shoddy work, and acquires a sense of pride that will continue to drive him to do his work well. Even if he finds himself in a situation where he can get away with being lazy, he will not do so, just as he will not eat the raw liver.

Laws and Other Social Sanctions

Failing this, we have a “backup system” for getting people (those who have not been raised well) to act as a morally good person would act. This is through social praise and sanction, backed up where useful by legal rewards and punishments. Through these systems we say, “You may not have been raised well enough to want to do the right thing, but you certainly do not want what we will do to you if we find out that you did the wrong thing.”

Instead of aiming to change the target’s desires, this tool accepts those desires as they are and tries to motivate the agent to do the right thing anyway. I wrote about this relationship in the blog entry on “Legislating Morality”. A vital function of law is to get people to do the right thing or to not do the wrong thing by using promises of reward and threats of punishment. For the good person, these laws are not necessary. However, not everybody is a good person.

The Noble Lie

Our “backup system” only works when we discover that a person has not acted properly. This means that we are at risk of suffering the harms that an evil person will inflict when he thinks that he can get away with it. How do we get a person to do the right thing under these types of circumstances?

Ultimately, I believe that this is the real question that a theist is asking when he asks for an answer to the question, “Why be moral?” The real question is, “How do we get a person who does not have good desires to do the right thing when he can get away with doing a wrong thing?”

One option is to tell each person that some omnipotent entity with a perfect sense of justice is always watching him and, though he may get away with his evil in this life, he will not escape his just punishment in the next life.

On the surface, this looks a reasonable answer. However, it has serious drawbacks.

First, it is not true. As a matter of fact, there is no such entity. This is an option that Plato called, “The Noble Lie”. Plato was in favor of the “Philosopher-Kings” (the people who were raised well and who could handle the truth) coming up with useful lies to tell the common citizens in order to get them to behave. However, the “Noble Lie” is still a lie, and the “Philosopher-Kings” are not always noble.

Second, since it is a lie (or, at least, it is not true), what happens when the people who invented this lie use it to tell people to do bad things? We are told that we are not permitted to question the rules. We are not allowed to use any other standard to evaluate what we are being told, but to simply obey without question. What happens when the person who made the rules – a human, subject to error, pride, and ambition – makes bad rules?

What if he says that the “divine entity” wants us to attack his rivals by telling us to condemn all who do not accept his “truth,” denying to them any position of authority or trust in society, in order to reserve those offices for his entities and allies?

What if he has grown up in a society that accepts slavery, and thus tells us that his “divine entity” has no problem with slavery as long as we do not treat our slaves too harshly and enslave only foreigners?

What if he has a personal dislike for homosexuals and tells us that this “divine entity” wants us to attack their interests when we should really be living with them in peace?

What if he simply makes a mistake and claims that it is wrong to charge interest when, in fact, doing so is an essential part of a viable economy?

The “Noble Lie” has some merit, but it is ultimately a trap. It is as useful for promoting evil as it is for promoting good. This evil may be intentional (to advance the ambitions of those who created a particular version of the Noble Lie), or unintentional (because, what the inventors of the Noble Lie thought was a good idea, was not such a good idea).


The Noble Lie is not a good way to get bad people to do the right thing when they are alone. We need to use real-world tools. The process starts with focusing our attention on making sure that children learn good values so that, even when we leave them alone, they will do the right thing, because they want to. It continues with having fair and just laws that reinforce good moral values, and the tools to enforce those laws.

Most importantly, we need the freedom to question those values, and to change them when we discover that what we once thought were good values were not so good after all. These rules were not made by a “divine entity”, but by humans. We do not need the errors and potential corruption of people living thousands of years ago who were substantially ignorant of the world in which they lived, carved into stone and put outside the realm of rational inquiry. We will pay a heavy price if we do.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Using the Founding Fathers in Moral Arguments

In many debates about what the law ought to be, we will find people who throw in quotes from the "founding fathers" in favor of their view as if this actually offers some measure of support for their position. When they do so, they often commit one of three mistakes.

(1) They lie; or, at best, they "bear false witness" against the founding fathers by attributing to them something they did not say or, by taking the quote out of context, claim that the individual meant something he did not mean.

(2) They forget that the founding fathers were human and, as such, were as prone to mistakes as any human. Simply because the founding fathers said that things should be a particular way does not prove that they should be that particular way. After all, the majority of the founding fathers endorsed slavery, and many owned slaves. The social status of women and children were better than slaves but only men were “created equal”. They advocated taking land from the Native Americans at will and slaughtering those who resisted. If we are concerned that our actions are more right than wrong, then we have to look at the founding fathers and ask, “Was this one of the times that they were right, or one of the times that they were wrong?”

(3) Everybody suffers some lapse between their ideals and their actions. We need to recognize this fact, and accept the possibility that a person’s actions are sometimes poor evidence of their ideals. Similarly, when we look to the founding fathers for moral guidance, we have to ask whether their actions embodied their principles or violated those principles. If we assume that all of their actions embodied their principles, we set ourselves up to commit the same moral lapses that they did and to trick ourselves into believing that they were justified.

Lying and "Bearing False Witness"

Many of the quotes used in the campaign to destroy the wall of separation between church and state have proved out to be false (at worst) and unproven (at best).

David Barton provided many of these false or questionable quotes. This list includes the following:

We have staked the whole future of American civilization, nor upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves ... according to the Ten Commandments of God. -- James Madison (false)

Whosoever shall introduce into the public affairs the principles of primitive Christianity will change the face of the world. -- Benjamin Franklin (questionable)

The only assurance of our nation's safety is to lay our foundation in morality and religion. -- Abe Lincoln (questionable)

Yet, these quotes, and others like them, continue to show up.

Whoever uses them demonstrates a lack of concern over whether the claims they make in support of their position are true or false. They prove that they have little or no interest in meeting their moral obligations to speak the truth. They are more than eager to use a fiction if it proves useful. If they do not know whether a statement is true or false, they judge it on its usefulness. If it is useful, it is true; if it is not useful, it is not true.

Somebody of strong moral character, who truly cares about right and wrong, could not accept such deception.

Moral Error

The founding fathers were not perfect. Clearly, they made mistakes, and they built their moral errors into this country’s foundation. Slavery and the subjugation of women provide two widely known examples.

One of the sources of friction between England and the colonies in America arose as a result of the Proclamation of 1763. In this proclamation, England prohibited the settlers from advancing west of the Appalachian Mountains. They said, "All of that land belongs to the Native Americans. All English subjects are to stay out." They then started building forts to help enforce this rule.

However, the American colonists looked at the land beyond the Appellation Mountains and could not contain their greed. They wanted to take this property for themselves, and chaffed against the constraints that England put on them.

Morality in this case sided with England, not with the American colonies.

If we use America’s behavior to interpret their principles, we would have to say that their morality included an obligation to take the land from the Native Americans.

If we judge the principles of the Founding Fathers by their actions, then we would have to include that a moral permission to take the land from the Native Americans and offer it to themselves was an important part of their morality.

This does not give us a moral permission to accept the slaughter of Native Americans ourselves – or of slavery – or of the subjugation of women.

Moral Lapses

Another important error to avoid is that of using the lapses that we find in the words and deeds of the founding fathers as an excuse to commit the same lapses ourselves.

“Originalist” judges disagree with this principle. They assert a philosophy that ultimately implies that we are free to repeat any moral lapses that we can discover in the words and deeds of the founding fathers.

For example, the founding fathers banned cruel and unusual punishment. If we learned that they favored slowly roasting certain prisoners over a bed of hot coals, these originalists tell us that we must interpret the rule as saying that this is not cruel and unusual punishment. Instead, we must be willing to accept the possibility that the founding fathers were too weak to follow their principles without error, and sometimes did things that violated their own moral code as embodied in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

My parents smoked cigarettes. While I was growing up, they constantly told me not to smoke cigarettes, even though they smoked themselves. They would have been sadly disappointed if I had decided that since they smoked, their warning that I should not smoke could not possibly be interpreted as a request that I not smoke. I must interpret their words “Do not smoke” in ways that allow to conclude that I may smoke (because my parents did), and may even have an obligation to smoke.


The beliefs of the founding fathers might have some relevance to what the words written into the Constitution actually mean. As such, they may be useful in telling us something about what the law is.

However, these quotes have this power legitimately only if we know that the quote is correct. False quotes are attempts at manipulation; tricking people with a falsehood into giving up something that they would not give up if they knew the truth.

These quotes are not at all useful in telling us what the law ought to be. Even if we were to discover accurately what the founding fathers believed, they could have been wrong. We know they were wrong in a number of cases – slavery, subjugation of women, taking land from Native Americans. Each new case invites us to ask, "Is this a case where the founding fathers were right, or one in which they were wrong?" Ultimately, this question has to be answered before we use this quote to advance any specific view of what the law ought to be.

Even if the quote represents a moral truth, we have to ask if any given action represents the agent’s moral views. We have to accept the possibility that the founding fathers, being human, may be rationalizing the defense that actually violates the principles they fought over.

If the person using the quote fails to do these things, we may doubt that he or she really cares about truth and justice. A good person would not hide the truth, or look for excuses that would allow him to shirk his moral duties.

People who use quotes from the founding fathers incorrectly are not good persons.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Legislating Morality

Last night, the Infidel Guy had Greg Van Wagoner on his radio show to discuss the issue of legislating morality.

Wagoner started off by objecting to the idiom, "You can't legislate morality." In past blog entries, I have mentioned that I do not intend to write about what the law is, but about what the law ought to be. Furthermore, what the law ought to be is a moral question. We cannot sensibly talk about the difference between a just and an unjust law, between a fair and an unfair system, or about laws that violate or protect rights without using moral terms.

Ultimately, it is a paradigm example of a self-contradiction for a person to say, "You ought not to legislate morality." This happens to be a moral principle, and it is a principle that the speaker wants embodied in the law. So, while he is telling us not to legislate morality, he is giving us a moral principle which he claims should be used to determine what the law ought and ought not to be.

The fundamental problem with many of the core positions of the religious right is not that they are trying to legislate morality. It is that supporting many of those positions is, itself, immoral.

When these people look into the bible, they not only find more science fiction than science fact, they also find more moral fiction than moral fact. The morality that they are trying to legislate is moral fiction.

Ultimately, these people are using material that was written nearly two thousand years ago. Perhaps that material represents the best understanding of right and wrong at the time. However, we have learned a great deal since then. Going back to these ancient rules ignores everything that we have learned in the past two thousand years.

What they propose for our society makes as little sense as insisting that we throw out all of the medical knowledge we have gained in the past two thousand years and revert to the methods prescribed by Hippocrates. Hippocrates was a genius in the field of medicine for his time. Yet, we are fools if we insist that his ideas embodied a perfect understanding of the field of medicine and refused to accept anything since that time.

The 10 Commandments vs. The 10 Amendments

The most common response to the fiction that our laws are based on Christian principles is to ask, "Where, in the law, do you find the 10 Commandments?"

A complimentary question to be asking is, "Where, in your literally-true religious text, do you find the 10 Amendments?"

The 10 Amendments represent a huge advancement in moral knowledge over the previous 1790 years. As with science, most of that moral advance came in years after 1500, after Europe had shrugged off the mind-numbing idea that biblical truth could not be questioned. They began to look at morality independent of the Bible, and came up with truths that at most merely hinted at using biblical references and, in some cases, contradicted biblical text.

Fortunately, they did this at a time here heretics were no longer burned at the stake.

The clearest example can be found in comparing the First Commandment to the First Amendment. The First Commandment states, "You shall have no other gods before Me." The First Amendment states, in effect, "You shall have whatever god or gods you please, as long as the god(s) you want can handle having you live in peace with others in your community who do not worship that god or worship it as you do.”

The first amendment also states, "You shall not abridge the freedom of speech, or the freedom of the press, or the right of the people to assemble or to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

It would have been great if Moses had brought down a tablet from Mount Sinai with this written on it in clear and uncertain terms. This would have made a great deal of difference in how the next two thousand years would have turned out.

However, the bible does not carry any of these moral principles. People were not able to discover them until they had freed their mind from the need to take biblical text literally and look for moral principles grounded on reason rather than faith.

This change in the way that people looked at moral issues allowed them to discover that there was no divine right of kings. That is to say, political leaders did not get their power from God which they then used to command the people as subjects. Political leaders got their power from the people, and were to use it serving the public interest.

They learned that our moral and scientific progress is hindered by restrictions on a free speech and free press, and that governments exist to serve the people, rather than people existing to serve political leaders.

When the founding fathers passed the Bill of Rights, and even when they wrote the Constitution itself, they were indeed attempting to create a government that embodied a set of moral principles. They were using a set of advanced and enlightened moral principles that more primitive man did not know about. These principles were derived by reason, not quoted out of centuries-old religious text.

I do not know of any biblical passage that says, “In all criminal prosecutions, you shall give the accused a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury.”

To the best of my knowledge, Jesus did not say, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Only by removing obscure text from its context can one find biblical commandments that look anything like the Ten Amendments.

The Religious Right versus the Bill of Rights

If we take the claims of the Religious Right at face value, we are to return to the moral principles accepted two thousand years ago. This was before the Bill of Rights. If we set the clock back that far, then the Bill of Rights itself ceases to exist. They do not represent any set of Biblical commandments.

This may not be their conscious intent, but it is the logical implications of their actions, that where biblical commandment contradicts the Bill of Rights amendments, the Bible wins, and the amendment has no force. The advances we have made in our understanding of right and wrong that provided the foundation to the Bill of Rights are discarded.

We can see this in the policies of the Bush Administration. Clearly, they do not see the principles that lie at the heart of the Bill of Rights as binding moral law. We see this in their eagerness to find ways to circumvent these restrictions. One of the first decisions they made was that Constitutional rights do not apply to foreign nationals.

If these are moral rights, they apply to all people, regardless of nationality. If these are mere legal contrivances, then they can be swept aside for Americans as easily as they were swept aside for foreign nationals. We can see the degree to which a political leader sees these Amendments as springing from a foundation of moral law by the degree to which they feel compelled to apply them to others regardless of nationality.

On this standard, the Bush Administration, and the Religious Right whose values they embody, sees the Bill of Rights as political contrivances to be ignored when convenient, rather than moral principles that create duties and obligations that cannot be ignored.

The Law and Moral Principles

The Constitution of the United States embodies a set of moral principles. They embody significant advances in moral knowledge, most of which had been discovered in the two hundred years before the Constitution was written. Anybody who can read can see that these are not quotes out of any religious text.

The founding fathers were not perfect. There were still some important moral discoveries to be made. They were only starting to appreciate the wrongness of slavery. Many did not yet suspect the wrongness of denying the vote to women, or accept the fact that was wrong to force the Native Americans from their land.

The founders were wise enough to know that, though they had learned a great deal from the moral philosophers of the previous two hundred years, there was a great deal more to be learned. I suspect that they fully expected future generations to “legislate morality,” and to write any new moral discoveries that may come along into the law.

We will make mistakes. No sensible person can say that every change made since 1787 has represented moral progress. However, the trend has been good. Slavery is gone. Women can vote. Children spend their childhood in schools rather than factories. Racism is recognized as a wrong to be fought, even though the victory has not yet been won.

As our understanding of what morality requires of us improves, we will hopefully base our laws on that improved understanding. Hopefully, we will have the wisdom not to throw out two thousand years of moral progress. Hopefully we will not throw out the moral principles written into the Bill of Rights, because these were not taken out of some biblical text, but instead were discovered by men.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Giving Thanks where Thanks are Due

Giving Thanks

There are some who seem to think that there is something incoherent in an atheist giving thanks. Yet, as an atheist, I know that it is very important to give thanks to those who deserve it, those for whom one is grateful.

It's the same principle as that which is involved in thanking a "god" that does not exist. Why thank God? It is because one is grateful for something that one (wrongly, in this case) believes that somebody else (God) has provided. There is no "somebody else." There are only the “somebodies” that one shares this life with in the real world. So, those are the "somebodies" to be thanked.

Thanking the Wrong Person

Have you ever done something for somebody, only to have them thank somebody else who had nothing at all to do with the benefit that you provided? Imagine coming across a car wreck, where you risk the possibility of injury or death while you pull the occupant out of a burning car with a leaking gas tank. After reviving the victim, she turns to a stranger who had done nothing but stand there the whole time and say, "Thank you. I am so grateful!"

Imagine giving a medal to a soldier who sat in his foxhole and did nothing, instead of to the soldier who ran up to the enemy bunker and tossed the grenades inside.

Imagine the boss giving a raise to the employee in the next cubical for a project that you worked on without any help from him. Even if, instead of a raise, your co-worker receives an honorable mention at the corporate meeting and a plaque for good service, there is still something wrong with the company giving him these awards and not recognizing your contribution.

These actions are not only foolish on the part of the military or the employer or the person who has just been rescued; they are unjust.

In the area of punishment, we recognize that only the guilty are to be punished or even condemned – that condemnation does not belong to the innocent. In the area of reward, even if that reward only takes the form of praise, the same principle applies. The reward goes to those who are responsible for the praiseworthy action and not to those who stood by and did nothing.

These are fundamental principles of justice.

The way that some the followers of some religions pursue the task of assigning blame and praise violates this fundamental principle. The people who obtain the benefit rush off to thank the wrong person -- the person who had nothing to do with their rescue or benefit (because that person does not exist). They do not recognize the full measure of the gratitude that they owe to the real flesh-and-blood person who provided them with that benefit.

In the US there have been no known infectious or "wild" cases of polio since 1979.” Humans are the ones who invented the vaccine against polio. In 1952, 58,000 people caught polio. One-third of these people became paralyzed. 3,000 people died. 1979 was the last time anybody caught infections polio in the United States.

Humans did this.

If we are to believe the stories that many religions tell us, God created polio. (Of course, I do not think it was God, but the blind forces of nature which have no conscience or concern about who lives and dies.)

It makes no sense – it shows no sense of justice – to be thanking God. This makes as little sense as thinking the terrorist who plants a biological weapon in the middle of a big city. The injustice is compounded when, after a bomb disposal agent disarms the weapon, and he gets limited praise. Some even condemn this agent because he has obviously interfered with the terrorist’s carefully set plans.

These are the elements of theistic thinking as it is practiced in some circles.

Briefly Visiting the Problem of Evil

This also brings to the surface another problem. The instant that humans acquired the ability to eliminate polio, we sought to use that power to eliminate polio.

If we believe the stories, God had this power all along and refused to use it.

What would we think of the moral character of a human who, after finding a vaccine and treating himself so that he did not need to worry about the disease, he simply refused to share it with others? We clearly would not put him on a pedestal and claim that he is the model of morality and virtue. We would not build shrines to him and worship him. We would hold him in moral contempt, because moral contempt is what such a person deserves.

As an atheist, I insist on applying the moral principle of giving credit where credit is due – of holding entities (whether divine or mortal) responsible for their own behavior, and not praising the guilty while punishing the heroic.

On this day, I give thanks to those who have actually made my life better than it would have otherwise been.

My List of Thanks

Quite obviously, at the top of the list, I would have to put my parents, who gave me the gift of this life and who watched over me until I was able to watch over myself. Where would I be now if not for them?

I must thank my wife, with whom I have now shared over 20 years of my life. She is still here. She still puts up with me. She is somebody to laugh and cry with, to help me share the pains and sorrows of life, as well as the joys.

I am grateful for the Philosophy department of the University of Maryland -- College Park, in 1987, for accepting me into their PhD program, and giving me an opportunity to study the subject that has been so important to me. There is no way that I can understate the value of the education that I received while I was there.

I thank my readers for thinking that something that I have done is worth their time. If there were nobody reading this stuff, I would be lost.

Of those readers, I particularly thank those who are kind enough to offer me advice and suggestions, and to point out when I am wrong. My goal in writing this blog is to try to provide people with something that they can thank me for. This is my gift. I hope it has value. However, it can have value only if the things that I write are correct. I defeat my own purpose if I spread falsehood and error. So, I am particularly grateful to those who seek to warn me when I am in danger of spreading falsehood and error.

Over at the Internet Infidels, I want to thank the many people who have taken the time to point out when they thought I was in error. In a recent long-term discussion on “The Ontology of [Desire Utilitarianism].” If anybody wants to see what happens when truly intelligent and thoughtful people discuss an issue – rather than the flame wars that mark most discussions – this is an example of debate at its finest. I appreciate the participation of Hiro5ant, PoodleLovinPessimist, bd_from_kg, Bomb#20, Jinksy, among others, who have participated in this discussion.

They fear, perhaps, that I have ignored their warnings that I am in error. I pay attention, and I worry about such things, because my own life would have little value if I spent it conducting a train of thought down a very wrong track.

I would like to thank every scientist in a research laboratory, or in a classroom teaching the next generation of scientists, for the benefits they have brought. From the medicines that keep me and those I care about alive, to the weather predictions that allow me to plan my week, to the telephone and computer that allow me to effortlessly communicate with people around the world, to the botanists who help to make sure that I have enough food, to the chemists who figure out how to keep the air and the water clean and which chemicals we should avoid, to the astronomers who are just starting to reveal what is available to us "out there".

I thank every engineer and others who has turned this knowledge into things that we can actually use, and who actually produce the medicine, weather reports, telephones, computers, food, and information that enriches all of our lives.

I thank every soldier who has fought and is fighting to keep me, my friends, and my family free. I thank every firefighter and police officer who works to keep us safe.

To all of you, I would like to say, "Thank you, and I hope for you a happy holiday season."

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Global Warming: Who Pays?

Next week, the leaders of several countries will meet in Canada to discuss ways of approaching the issue of climate change (a.k.a. global warming). This is expected to be the start of a long series of negotiations that will last several years to work out an accord.

On this issue I have a moral question, which I seldom hear being asked.

Who pays?

Let me illustrate my concern with a hypothetical situation. Let us say that I own some land with a stream running through it. In order to collect water that I will use for farming on my land, I build a dam. However, I am not much of an engineer. One spring, after a winter of heavy snow, the runoff is particularly high and my dam breaks. Water rushes down the valley, destroying the homes of people who live downstream.

Who pays?

A reasonable moral principle states that where one person performs an action that harms others, that the person who does the harm should pay the costs. In this case, I owe my downstream neighbors compensation for their losses as long as those losses can be traced to my actions.

Free-market economics defends the same principle. In order to increase market efficiency, we need to internalize, as much as possible, the costs and benefits of each action. If those costs are internalized (if the person who does the harm pays the costs), then people will reduce the amount of harmful actions they perform.

On the other hand, if people (companies) are able to force those costs onto the people harmed (costs that economists call 'externalities'), then the free-market incentive not to engage in harmful action is removed. We end up with a society in which those who benefit by harmful actions continue to perform those actions, and those who bear the costs continue to bear those costs.

In effect, if the government refuses to support institutions that internalize these costs, then the government is supporting a wealth-transfer scheme. This system transfers wealth from the victims being harmed and being forced to endure those costs, to the companies and individuals that benefit from the harmful activity.

With respect to global warming, this system "taxes" those effected by global warming the value of the property that is damaged, the health that is sacrificed, and even the life of those who die from heat stress, the spread of disease into regions where they once could not survive, and the power of increased storms. These "taxes" are used to bring increased wealth that the corporations and their stock holders who still get to sell their products, but who do not have to pay all of the costs of producing those products.

It is like giving credit cards to corporations that they can use to cover their costs, that are paid for with the lives, health, and property of those who suffer the effects of global warming.

This is not the way that a fair and just society would operate. The corporations should be paying these costs.

Or, more precisely, those who engage in activities that contribute to increased greenhouse gas emissions should be paying those costs. This includes the person driving the SUV and heating the 40-room house in the mountains, piloting his private plane, and sailing his private yacht. It also includes the person who takes public transportation to work, though his activities will almost certainly produce fewer greenhouse gasses.

The extra money that people pay to engage in greenhouse-gas-creating activities can go into a pool, which can then go to cover the costs of those whose suffering or loss can be attributed to greenhouse gas emissions.

Too Expensive

One argument that the Bush Administration uses against American participation in programs to combat global warming is that it would be harmful to the American economy.

If we go back to our hypothetical dam builder for a moment, this would be like the dam builder arguing that he should not be required to pay for the damaged buildings and lost lives downstream because doing so would lower his net worth.

When we talk about just compensation for harms done, the net worth of the person who did the harm is not a morally relevant concern. The dam builder earns no moral points for preserving his net worth against his responsibility for covering the losses of his downstream victims. America earns no moral points for preserving "jobs" at the expense of the disease and destruction that people in other countries may suffer as a result of global warming.

They Benefit

America could try to avoid blame by saying that we use this energy to produce goods and services that benefit others. However, imagine the dam builder claiming, "I use the water to produce wheat that I then use to make bread that I sell to the people downstream. They get cheep bread, so I should not be required to cover the costs if the dam should break."

However, this would be morally equivalent to the dam builder saying to the people downstream, "I will sell you this loaf of bread for $1.00." Then, after the downstream farmer buys the bread, the farmer gives him a second bill for $1.00 and tells him that he has no option but to pay that bill. Even if the downstream resident should refuse to buy any more bread, they must pay the cost -- though there is nowhere else to get bread.

In economic terms, this system counts as a subsidy to the dam builder that allows him to undercut the price of other competitors and, thus, prevent competition.

The dam builder should be building the cost of flood insurance into his price. If it is worth it to the people downstream to pay the higher price, they may do so. If not -- if they would rather go without or buy the bread from somebody who can do so without the risk of flooding their land -- they may do so. They would have the option in a truly free market. They do not have that option if the system forces them, and not the wheat grower, to bear the costs of the flood damage.

Thus, the people downstream have no option to purchase from "somebody else who can produce this product in a way that does not damage our land", because these alternative producers cannot compete with the "subsidized" price of those who do threaten the land.


So, here we have a group of people who claim to be “capitalists”. These are people who claim that they serve a noble cause. They assert that great evil follows those who use the government to interfere with the free market. Such actions not only produce inefficiencies that produce poverty, want, and suffering; it commits a grave injustice against those from whom wealth is taken so that it can be redistributed.

Yet, in the global warming debate, these same "capitalists" forget these principles. They forget that free markets require that those who are responsible for harm and loss must internalize those costs for the market to run efficiently.

They are more than eager to argue for policies that redistribute wealth from those who suffer the effects of global warming to the corporations and their stock holders who benefit from these activities. They are more than happy to have wealth redistributed from the poor and powerless to the rich and powerful.

Which suggests that all of this talk about the virtue of free markets, to them, is just talk -- words that they use to sell ideas to others, but which they are more than happy to abandon when it is profitable for them to do so.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Capital Punishment

Today, I want to take on another one of the big-ticket moral issues; capital punishment.

My overall position is that the issue of capital punishment is complex and depends on whether certain facts are true or false. Then again, I hold that all moral claims are to be determined to be true or false and are not to be settled by means of an appeal to feelings, intuitions, a mysterious "moral sense," or similar forms of magic.

For example, the murder rate is highest in the South, where capital punishment is widely used, and lower in Northern states which have ceased to support capital punishment. (pdf) Murder rates are higher in the United States than they are in Europe, which has also given up capital punishment. They are higher, even, than in Canada, which has also quit using capital punishment.

In this case, I suspect that the evidence suggests that capital punishment is wrong. By this I mean that society is best served by promoting an overall aversion to killing that is so strong that we are adverse even killing a convicted of murder.

General Argument

Empirical research suggests that societies that do not have capital punishment have fewer murders. Capital punishment is supposed to act as a deterrence, which means that it should be reducing the number of murders. If it is not effective, then we should be asking, "Why not?"

I am going to suggest a possible explanation that I think would make for some fruitful research. That proposal is this:

A child who grows up in a society that says, "Do not kill -- killing is so wrong that we are not even going to kill convicted murderers," is a child that is disposed to grow up with an overall inhibition against killing. Regardless of what life may throw at that person, he will approach it with an attitude that includes, "No matter what, killing is always wrong." Whatever frustrations he may experience, he would not consider killing to be a viable response.

On the other hand, the child that grows up in a society that says that it is sometimes permissible to kill will grow up to be an adult with a weaker psychological barrier against killing. Because of that weaker psychological barrier, it is going to be easier for him to consider killing as an option to life's frustrations.

The child in the first type of society virtually always sees killing in a negative light. He internalizes this attitude towards killing, and becomes somebody who will not kill. However, the child in the second type of society seeks killing as something to be cheered and celebrated in certain circumstances. He learns to cheer and celebrate some killings. A few of them learn to cheer and celebrate the wrong kinds of killings.

This effect may not be all that common, but it need not be common to have a significant effect on the murder rate. In a nation with a population of 300 million people, a nation where 1 out of every 1000 people learn to cheer and celebrate the wrong kinds of killings will raise 300,000 murders inside that population.

These numbers are purely hypothetical. Nobody should leave this essay thinking, "If we do not ban capital punishment, then we will have 300,000 murderers." That is not what I am saying. My claim is that to the degree that some killings are cheered and celebrated, some people will learn to cheer and celebrate the wrong types of killings. That situation creates a risk. How big of a risk it creates depends on the number of people who learn to cheer and celebrate the wrong types of killings.

We may ultimately be better off -- we may ultimately be safer -- if we design our society in such a way that we cheer and celebrate no killings. This will mean fewer people growing up to cheer and celebrate any type of killing, which means fewer murders.

This matches certain empirical observations - the higher murder rates that tend to be found in capital-punishment societies -- to a degree that suggests that it could be worth looking into.


Most of the research on capital punishment deals with the change in the homicide rate once it is instituted or abolished. That type of research would not be useful here. Before a nation or state abolishes capital punishment, it would generally have already created a culture that makes capital punishment undesirable.

This, in turn, if this thesis is correct, would have lowered the murder rate before capital punishment is repealed. In fact, the repeal may be aided by the fact that society has already experienced less of an interest and a cause to use it.

This, then, suggests a different focus for research into capital punishment. Instead of looking for a statistical correlation between capital punishment and homicide rates, perhaps we should be looking for how a general opposition to killing -- a refusal to cheer and celebrate any killing -- effects both murder rates and execution rates.

Argument from Feeling

Many proponents of capital punishment would respond by telling a story of a particularly heinous crime and a despicable individual and asking, "Would you not want to see this person killed?" If I were to answer 'yes', this is then said to prove that the killing would be morally justified.

Yet, it is a strange argument to make to say that we can determine if killing is justified just by looking to see if we want to have a person killed. If this is our method for measuring right from wrong, the moral ground that the murderer stands on is just as solid as ours. After all, he wanted the victim killed, and from this he drew the conclusion that he was morally justified in killing the victim.

Using the type of moral reasoning being defended here, we are being asked to do the same thing -- drawing our conclusion that this murderer may be executed from our desire to see him killed.

This ties in with the problem that I described in the previous section concerning capital punishment. To the degree that we teach children to grow up celebrating certain these types of killings, and to the degree that we teach them that killing is justified if we search our feelings and decide that we really want that person dead, to that degree we can expect to be living in a society where more of the people can more easily become killers.

Feelings are not a measure of what is right and wrong. Feelings are a measure of what we like and do not like. The habit of using feelings to measure moral value is the habit of drawing a false (but very tempting inference), "I want this to happen; therefore, it is right and good that it happens."

The person who asks us to check our feelings is leaving out an important part of the argument. What he does not explain to us is that, to the degree that we feed and nurture these desires to kill, to that degree we may be raising children who find it that much easier to kill others. To that degree, the people we care about (including ourselves) may discover that we face a higher risk of being killed -- because we have taught our children to celebrate killing in some instances.

The Culture of Life

Many conservatives talk about a culture of life, and of how this would be a better and safer society for us to live in. Surprisingly, they associate this "culture of life" with things where there seems to be little or no evidence that the value of life is affected.

At the same time, they avoid attaching this value to the one case where there is empirical evidence suggesting this effect. They do not apply it to the act of teaching children that killings in some instance are to be celebrated and cheered, and the effect that this may have in those children growing up to kill.

What I am offering here is speculation. I am not saying that this relationship exists and has been proved. I will await the testimony of trained experts in the field to answer this question. I am not going to pretend that I know the answer to this question. I merely offer it as a question worth asking.

Sunday, November 20, 2005


The contemporary campaign against homosexuals falls in the same moral category as the Crusades, the various inquisitions, the burning of witches, the religious wars of Europe, and the burning of scientists who dared say that the Earth was not the center of the universe.

It is an evil imposed upon otherwise peaceful humans allegedly in the name of some God.

In this respect, this evil even shares certain characteristics with the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Instead of hijacking airplanes and crashing them into buildings filled with innocent people, these theocrats seek to hijack a set of political institutions and use them to crash laws and political obstructions into the lives of tens of millions of people in this country.

If they had their way, they would crash these rules into the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world. This would be the result if they succeeded in their wish to export their beliefs around the world.

All of the evils, including actions taken against the interests of homosexuals, are defended by people who claim that the harm they do is done for the pleasure of God. This is what makes them no different from those who launched the crusades, jihads, inquisitions, witch burning, terrorist attacks, and similar events of the past.

Okay, this is a rather harsh charge. Is it truly deserved?

Core Concern: Aversion to Homosexual Relationships

The core concern here is that there is no reason for an aversion to others entering into homosexual relationships. I have, in past blog entries, discussed the value of an aversion to killing innocent people, enslavement, lying, hypocrisy, taking things that belong to others, and even incest (though I have met some resistance on the latter). However, there is not even a hint of an argument for promoting an aversion to others entering into homosexual relationships. Such an aversion produces no benefit.

I expect that many people do have a natural aversion to entering into homosexual relationships themselves. Nature and created in us a species whose members are disposed to have sex with members of the opposite gender in ways that result in the creation of children. However, the fact that an individual has no interest in, and may even be adverse to, entering into a homosexual relationship provides no justification for denying others the liberty to enter into such a relationship.

I have an aversion to eating liver. I do not like the smell, or the taste, of eating liver. However, in spite of my personal aversion, it would be wrong for me to use this to justify prohibiting others from eating liver. Because I do not like it, I do not eat it. I could say that I do not like to eat liver because it is intrinsically bad, and because it is intrinsically bad anybody who likes the taste of liver must be defective. I could try to make that argument, but there would be no merit to it. I would be wrong. In my error, I would be interfering with the liberty of others for no good reason.

The aversion to others entering into homosexual relationships does no good -- it produces no benefit. However, it does a great deal of harm. It produces far more harm than a prohibition on eating liver would produce. If the latter cannot be justly imposed on others merely because I do not like it, then the former is certainly prohibited.

Harms and Benefits

Those who favor this particular prejudice deny that there is harm. In the case of homosexuals, the claim is that the relationships they seek are "unnatural", intrinsically bad, and something that no healthy person would want to be in. Homosexuals are provided with the "benefit" of being forced out of a perverse and unwholesome situation that any healthy person would avoid.

However, history tells us that people who do harm have a notorious ability to deny the harm that they do, hiding this behind pretend benefits. Forced conversions in the Middle Ages and during the conquest of America bestowed on its victims the benefit of being able to enter heaven, an option that would otherwise not be available to them. Burning a witch at the stake purified the person's soul. Slavery was defended as the best way to care for the Negroes, who were thought too simple and childlike to take care of themselves. Peoples' habit of pretending that their acts of prejudice produce some type of benefit is legendary.

Natural Purpose

If we think of pain, we do not ask whether the cause of a pain is natural or serves some natural purpose or function. In general, pain directs us away from things that are harmful. Yet, not all pain is useful in driving us towards these ends. We sometimes experience pain as a result of things that are not harmful. Yet, in evaluating the badness of pain, we do not ask about the cause or if it serves some natural purpose. Pain is to be avoided for its own sake. Even pain that serves no natural purpose is to be avoided.

The person who experiences pain is harmed, regardless of whether that pain serves any natural purpose. The pain itself is that which is bad. Actions that cause others pain – even if that pain serves no purpose – is evil.

The suffering of homosexuals denied the comfort of a relationship that suits them is like this pain. That suffering is real. It does not matter whether that suffering serves some natural purpose or not. What matters is that it is suffering. What matters is that the relationship brings contentment into these peoples’ lives. The person who ignores the suffering, or obstructs this contentment, even where the suffering or the contentment serves no natural purpose, is doing harm. The person who acts in ways that is harmful to others is evil.

If he inflicts that suffering in the name of God, then this suffering is no different from the suffering that aimed in the past to induce forced conversions, burning witches alive, or enslaving individuals and treating them like property – all done in the name of God.


Nature does not care if a person does not reproduce. Nature does not care what a person is doing while they are busy not reproducing. While I am writing a philosophy essay, I am fulfilling some personal desires and, at the same time, I am not engaged in an act of reproduction. The fact that I am fulfilling a desire, and the fact that I am not reproducing, says nothing about the morality or immorality of what I am doing.

If I should spend my life researching and writing essays concerned with moral issues, working, sleeping, and never seek to reproduce, have I done evil? Is it wrong for me to decide not to have any children but, instead, to pursue other interests? I believe that I could live such a life, and scarcely anybody would think me evil to do so.

As a matter of fact, that has been the life I have lived. My wife and I have been married for nearly 20 years, but I have no children. Not one moment of my life has been dedicated to reproduction. Yet, I have heard no complaints that the life that I have chosen is immoral.

Learned Prejudice

There have been, in human history, whole societies that have not cared that some of their members enter into homosexual relationships. This suggests that the aversion to other people entering these relationships is learned. It is not innate. It is learned.

Why learn this prejudice? Why teach it to our children? It does no good, and it turns those children into people who are driven to act in ways that is harmful to others. Raising children to be people who harm others is . . . well . . . it is not the way that a morally and socially responsible person would raise their kid.

There is no moral merit to the harms inflicted on homosexuals. There is only yet one more instance of innocent people being forced to endure an evil forced upon them by those who claim that they inflict these harms in the name of a God.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Morality By the Numbers

This post has more to do with moral theory than applied ethics.

An anonymous writer called me on an issue yesterday that I feel needs to be addressed more thoroughly. His point is valid, and it has weight. It concerns the importance of numbers in moral decisions.

This essay will use incest as an example, because it is in the context of a discussion of incest that the subject came up. However, the purpose of this essay is to example some general ideas on how morality works, why it works, and why it is important.

In the context of a few paragraphs on incest, this anonymous argued that two adult siblings with no natural aversion to incest (because they were raised in separate households) who engaged in incest would harm nobody. These people would be innocent victims of such a regulation. "Even if there are only two 'victims' of such a law, that doesn't make the law right."

I suspect that this anonymous author is alluding to arguments I made that the number of a people that fit into a particular classification is irrelevant in certain arguments. For example, there is a piece of spam-mail going around saying that, since atheists are in the morality, they should "sit down and shut up." It concerns arguments like those that use the premise that homosexuals make up 10% of the population, or the non-religious make up 14% of the population, as if this has weight in a moral argument.

Against these types of arguments, I make the claim that numbers do not matter. If X is wrong, then it is wrong to do X to even one person.

So, for example, we would not argue that the wrongness of slavery is due to the fact that African Americans make up 11% of the population -- as if slavery would be permissible if they only made up 5% of the population, or 1% of the population, or even if there were only one African American. Slavery would still be wrong, and numbers are not relevant in that debate.

Yet, at the same time, I deny that if there are two individuals -- siblings raised apart with no natural aversion to sex with each other, who meet as adults -- that this would count against a universal prohibition on incest.

So, not even one African Americans can be legitimately slaved, but two individuals who find themselves in the above situation may be forced to abstain from sex.

Can I square these two claims?

This is a good question.

The Function of Morality

I am going to start with a couple of the foundational features of the desire-utilitarian system that I use as the foundation for all of my writing. Namely:

[Belief + Desire] -> Intention -> Intentional Action

A desire (or an aversion, where an “aversion to X” is identical to “a desire that not-X”) is a persistent entity. We cannot flip it on and off at a whim. So, if we set up an aversion to X, we can expect (demand) that the aversion to last for a while. Demanding that a person have an aversion to X at T1 and not at T2 may be asking the impossible.

If we wish to reduce the incidents of a particular intentional action, we do so by promoting an aversion to some state associated with that action. In this regard, we can think of what it would be like trying to teach somebody to hate oranges, but not to hate one orange, or to hate chocolate but to like one piece of chocolate.

The vast majority of incestuous relationships are harmful. In order to reduce the number of incestuous actions, we promote an aversion to incest, and we do so by applying condemnation and punishment against those responsible for those actions.

We decrease the number of lies by promoting an aversion to lying. We do this by condemning and punishing -- imposing some sort of sanctions -- on those who lie. Whenever people coddle and praise liars they are doing harm to all of society, because, instead of promoting an aversion to lying, they are creating a culture in which people can more easily lie without a twinge of conscience or regret.

We decrease hypocrisy in society by promoting an aversion to hypocrisy. We do this by condemning and punishing -- imposing some sort of sanctions -- on those who apply one set of standards to themselves and a different set to others. Whenever people coddle and praise hypocrites, they are doing harm to all of society, because, instead of promoting an aversion to hypocrisy, they are creating a culture in which hypocrites can feel free to use whatever principles best serves their own interests at the moment, without a twinge of conscience or guilt.

This is why those who coddle and praise liars and hypocrites are as guilty as those they refuse to condemn. The liars and hypocrites are doing damage to society by their lying and hypocrisies. The person who coddles and praises them are promoting deceit and hypocrisy through society at large.

The same thought process goes into justifying the prohibitions against killing innocent people, rape, and theft. However, I make a special mention of deceit and dishonesty because I believe this culture is accustomed to giving a pass on these wrongs (as well as intellectual recklessness), much to our detriment as a society.

Morality By the Numbers

Once it is determined that a it would be useful to promote a particular aversion, it makes little sense to argue that the aversion applies only to a certain number of objects.

If it is wrong to kill an innocent person (if an aversion to killing an innocent person is something for us to encourage and promote), then it makes no sense to argue for an aversion to killing two innocent people, but not for killing one innocent person. The person who has no aversion to killing just one person is a threat to everybody, and is quite capable of killing them, one at a time.

If we are advised to promote an aversion to slavery, then we should promote an aversion to enslaving even one individual. The idea that we can promote an aversion to enslaving two people, but not to enslaving just one, is nonsense. If there is no aversion to enslaving an individual, then all of our liberty is in danger.

If we are promoting an aversion to lying under oath to a grand jury, it makes no sense to promote an aversion to lying to two grand juries, but making it permissible (in the sense of giving people no aversion) to lying to just one person.

However, in deciding about whether to promote a moral duty or prohibition, we are going to look at the overall effect of having such a duty or prohibition. When we arrange to punish criminals in prison, we are going to admit the fact that some innocent people will be arrested and convicted of crimes.

Yet, the fact that there are innocent victims of the system is not an argument for throwing it out. It is an argument for putting in safeguards to keep the number of innocent people as low as practical, but we are not going to refuse to arrest and imprison anybody, because we will almost certainly put at least one innocent person in prison.

If we are going to create a prohibition against lying to a grand jury, we are going to admit that, in some instances, a lie could produce good consequences. There will be instances where it is reasonable to expect that the truth will send an innocent person to prison while a lie will allow him to keep his freedom – because people sometimes take the truth the wrong way. Yet, we are not going to allow for exceptions to the prohibition against lying to a grand jury.


In some cases, we are capable of mentally distinguishing exceptions to certain moral rules. Killing is not permitted, except in self-defense. Lying is wrong, but it is not wrong to lie to the Nazi asking if you know the location of any Jews, or the slave chaser in pre-civil-war Pennsylvania asking if you have seen any Negroes in the area.

However, these exceptions are not even decided on a case-by-case basis. These exceptions have to do with whether it is possible to generate an aversion “except in case X” as a general attitude, and if this “aversion except in case X” works better than the simple aversion without exceptions.

With so little potential for benefit from an “except in the case where siblings grew up in several households and met as adults,” and when these benefits are weighed against the huge costs associated with a weaker overall aversion to incest, we are justified in saying, “no exceptions to incest” just as we are allowed to say, “no exceptions to lying to a grand jury.” This is the prohibition – the general social attitude – that makes the most sense, all things considered.


Anonymous Author: This, then, is what I mean when I say that, if something is wrong, it does not depend on how many people are wronged. If it is wrong to kill, enslave, rape, or lie to somebody, it is wrong to kill, enslave, rape, or lie to even one person.

This does not mean that a prohibition against killing innocent people, enslavement, rape, or lies will not create “victims” – will not produce the best over all consequences in every instance. Every one of these prohibitions provides poor consequences from time to time. Yet, whether a prohibition produces bad consequences in a particular instance is not relevant to whether the prohibition is a good idea. Whether the prohibition is a good idea depends on whether, all things considered, we are better off with that prohibition than without it.

We are better off with a strong prohibition on incest than without it. The possibility of a few rare and exceptional instances where the prohibition does not produce good consequences does not argue against this fact.

My web site contains a Summary Account of the position I apply in these posts, and a Book lenth manuscript explaining how I got to this position.