Old Business: Leaks
Old Business: Leaks
The news this week contained reports that Bush himself authorized that information be leaked from classified pre-war assessment of Iraq. His staff are insisting that these leaks were in the national interest. However, in light of this argument, I would like to resurrect a posting that I made on March 5 called "Subverting Democracy." It explained the moral implications of selective leaks. It forces news sources to try to somehow distinguish between leaks that the President wants to get out and those the President does not want to get out, with criminal penalties applied to those who get wrong.
Old Business: Wiretaps
My argument against wiretaps has never been that the government should not engage in wiretaps. It is that, without oversight, this power can easily be abused. The President can too easily claim that anybody who challenges his policies is a "suspected terrorist" and start an investigation.
Two news items this week relate to this issue.
First, in hearings before the Senate, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said that the President can wiretap any American's communication without a warrant.
Based on my understanding of the connections and equipment at issue, it appears the NSA is capable of conducting what amounts to vacuum-cleaner surveillance of all the data crossing the internet -- whether that be peoples' e-mail, web surfing or any other data.
So, the question comes up again, given that this group believes the President can do no wrong, and has already authorized torture until death, extraordinary rendition, imprisonment without trial, and deceived the country into a preplanned war, how much trust should we have that they are not abusing this power?
How ironic that an administration elected on a platform of returning morality to government does not know how to tell the difference between right and wrong.
New Business: Desires and the Definition of 'Good'"
I had a very nice discussion this week with the people over at at stupidevilbastard.com on desire utilitarianism. In the face of some very good questions I encountered there, I came up with ways of presenting the main points of desire utilitarianism that I had never used before. I thought it may be useful to bring them over here to give readers an idea of how I think.
A reader there reported interpreting desire utilitarianism as saying that desire fulfillment must be consonant with the desires of others or at least not be at odds with the desires of others.
That is not the case. A desire can be at odds with the desires of others and still count as a good desire. The desire to punish wrongdoers, for example, certainly thwarts the desires of the wrongdoers who would be punished. Yet, if we were unwilling to punish wrongdoers, we would end up with more wrongdoers. Where "wrongdoing" itself is defined in terms of actions that fulfill bad (desire-thwarting) desires, we end up with more desire-thwarting, not less.
To understand what this means, imagine that you are sitting in front of a control panel with dials for all of society’s desires on it. On this control panel, there is a dial for the desire to torture children.
Clearly, if you take this dial and turn it up, you will be increasing desire-thwarting. Either the person with a desire to torture children will have his desire thwarted, or the child being tortured will have his desire thwarted. Either way, desires will be thwarted.
If, instead, you turn the desire to torture children down, there will be fewer desires thwarted. There will be fewer instances in which either a child is being tortured or a desire to torture children is being thwarted. The best setting we can have for "the desire to torture children" is zero.
The same applies to other necessary wrongs. If you turn the desire to have slaves up, then either the desires of the slave owner are being thwarted, or the desires of the slaves. If you turn this dial down, then fewer such incidents arise. The best setting for the "desire for slaves" to have is zero. This is also the best setting for the desire to execute Jews, the desire to rape, the desire to execute converts from Islam, and the aversion to homosexual marriage.
Now, on this control panel, there is a second dial for a desire that those who torture children be condemned/punished. This dial is linked to the dial for the desire to torture children. Turning up the desire to condemn/punish those who torture children has the effect of generating condemnation and punishment, which turns the desire to torture children down. Would-be child torturers acquire these social or cultural norms and end up acquiring more of an aversion to torturing children than they would otherwise have had. The net effect of increasing the desire that child torturers be condemned/punished is positive.
Again, the same applies to would-be slave owners, Nazis, rapists, and the like.
The fact is, each of us does have a control panel sitting in front of us. We have the capacity, each time we talk to others, to turn the dials of society’s desires up and down by how we affect others. In what we say, and in what we do, we have the ability to turn up the dial for "aversion to torture", "aversion to rendition", "aversion to unlimited executive power without judicial oversight", "aversion to executing converts from one's religion," "aversion to school rituals that teach children to view those not 'under God' as bad Americans," and the like.
In this blog, I try to do a little bit more. I also try to explain to my readers why it is that a particular dial ought to be turned up or down. If I am right, I hope that readers will walk away with an interest in helping turn that dial a little further.
However, in each case, I could be wrong. Turning a particular dial may have affects that I have not realized, or its effect may not be as strong as I have suggested. In these cases, I thank those readers who bring those instances to the surface through their comments.
The Unimportance of a Definition of Good
Commenters at stupidevilbastard.com also immediately raised the idea that problems in ethics were difficult/impossible to answer because so much depended on the definition of 'good'.
In fact, absolutely nothing depends on the definition of 'good'. Anybody who thinks so has already gotten off to a bad start, at which point it is no wonder that they find that going any further.
To see how unimportant the definition of 'good' is, consider this:
The International Astronomical Union is currently debating the meaning of the word 'planet'. It used to be the case that Pluto was considered a planet -- mostly because of its size. Now, we have discovered another body, larger than Pluto, further out. The problem is, this new body has more in common with the Kuiper Belt Objects than it does with planets. In fact, Pluto has more in common with KBOs than it does with planets. So, do we call this new body a 'planet' and say that we have ten planets? Or do we classify it (and Pluto) as KBOs and knock the number of planets down to eight?
However the IAU decides this issue, one thing is certain. There is no scientific test that one can perform to determine whether Pluto is a planet or not -- at least, not until after we have decided on what the term 'planet' means. The definition of a planet, whatever it turns out to be, will be the arbitrary and subjective choice of a group of people sitting around expressing their own subjective preferences, and the arbitrary and subjective decision by a bunch of scientists to go along with whatever the IAU says.
Yet, this has absolutely no effect on the fact that Astronomy is now and will remain a hard, objective science.
This is because, regardless of whether you call Pluto a planet or a KBO, it will not affect Pluto's size or its chemical composition. It will not cause Pluto to shift its orbit or to acquire more or fewer moons. Pluto will remain the same, no matter what it is called.
It is well within the realm of possibility that we might have two astronomers with different definitions of "planet" -- one with a definition that includes Pluto and one with a definition that excludes it. Yet, this will still have absolutely no effect on the objectivity of astronomy as a science. It will affect the way that each astronomer presents his results, but it will not affect the results.
As soon as somebody can understand why astronomers do not sweat the definition of the word 'planet', one can understand why an ethicist need not sweat the definition of the word 'good'. If somebody says, 'good' = 'happiness', or 'desire fulfillment', or 'species survival', or 'in accordance with God's will', it has no effect on what is objectively true of happiness, desire fulfillment, species survival, or God's will. The definition of 'good' does not matter. What is objectively true of happiness, desire fulfillment, species survival, God's will, and the like are what matter. These things do not change, no matter what we call them.
If somebody approaches a discussion of ethics with the mindset that the definition of 'good' is in any way significant – that ‘happiness’, for example, can somehow be made to change by giving it a different name, he starts off with a mistake. From this mistake, no further progress is possible. Such a person needs first to look at the definition of ‘good’ in the same light that astronomers look at the definition of ‘planet.’ Once he can do that, he can see that any talk about the definition of ‘good’ is really irrelevant. Those discussions are a waste of time.