Saturday, June 30, 2012

Concepts of Value: Illness and Injury

In my last post, I presented a general theory of value and claimed that all value-laden terms can be represented by that theory.

In this post, I wish to put that into practice by applying the general concept of value to the specific concepts of illness and injury.

According to the general theory of value, all value exists as a relationship between states of affairs (objects of evaluation) and desires.

A desire is a propositional attitude. A “desire that P” gives a person a motivating reason to bring about states of affairs in which the proposition “P” is true. All value-laden claims are claims about what people have a reason to realize or to avoid. Consequently, all value-laden terms capable of being true describe a relationship between the object of evaluation and some set of desires that answers the following four questions:

• What is this term used to evaluate?

• What desires are relevant in making this evaluation?

• Does the object of evaluation objectively satisfy or dissatisfy the relevant desires?

• Does the object of evaluation objectively satisfy or dissatisfy desires directly or indirectly or both?

Here, I wish to apply this general theory to the concepts of “illness” and “injury”.

Nothing counts as an illness or an injury unless it is bad in some sense. In other words, they are necessarily things that people have reason to avoid. This fact is built into the very meaning of the terms. The general theory of value on which desirism is built handles these concepts as follows:

(1) What are the objects of evaluation for this term?

Ultimately, they are used to evaluate changes in physical and mental functioning – or deviations from the norm with respect to physical and mental functioning - depending on whether we are talking about physical or mental illness or injury.

More specifically, an injury is a change or deviation in physical or mental functioning that is brought about by a macro cause - a cause that can be seen. Whereas an illness is a change or deviation in physical and mental functioning brought about by a micro cause – a cause that is invisible such as a bacteria or a genetic disorder. Consequently, if a person gets trampled by a horse that breaks the person’s leg, the person has been injured. If the person gets bitten by a mosquito and gets malaria, then that person has gotten sick – has acquired an illness.

(2) What desires are relevant in evaluating these objects of evaluation?

There is a tendency to evaluate changes or deviations in physical and mental functioning relative to the desires the people commonly have. Consequently, a person may be considered sick if he acquires some change in mental functioning that people generally have reason to avoid. However, it is generally difficult to maintain a lot of the implications that come from an illness or an injury claim by sticking to this definition. Under this definition, a person can be injured or sick and have actually no reason to get better. This is the case when the person’s own desires differ from those that people generally have. When we say that a person is sick or injured, we generally mean that the person herself has a reason to avoid or to get out of that state (even if that person does not realize it).

Consequently, it makes more sense to say that illness and injury evaluate changes in physical and mental functioning relative to the desires of the agent. They are changes in functioning, whether by a macro cause or a micro cause, that the agent herself has reason to avoid. This is the only way to support the implication that the person in question has a reason to avoid the illness or injury. We could use a term that defines illness or injury according to what most people want. However, if we went this route, we would not be able to tell from the mere fact that a person has gotten sick or being injured that something bad (something that he had reason to avoid) had happened to him.

(3) Are the relevant desires objectively satisfied or dissatisfied by the object of evaluation?

It is built into the very definition of the terms “illness” or “injury” that whatever they are, they tend to thwart the desires of the people who have them. Thus, the people who have them have a reason to get themselves out of that state (whether they are able to or not). It is in this sense that illnesses and injuries are necessarily bad.

(4) Are the relevant desires objectively satisfied or dissatisfied directly or indirectly by the object of evaluation?

In the case of an illness or injury, it does not matter whether the change or deviation in physical or mental functioning objectively dissatisfies desires directly or indirectly. Both types of relationships are relevant.

An illness or injury might be thwart desires directly simply by being uncomfortable. A throbbing pain or a persistent cough can simply be unpleasant, and directly give those who have it a reason to want to be rid of it.

Or, an illness or injury might thwart desires indirectly. Blindness and deafness make it the case that the agent has no access to potentially useful information. An amputated arm will make it difficult to perform any number of tasks – thus thwarting desires that one would have otherwise been able to fulfill. The concepts of “illness” and “injury” do not care about whether the thwarting of desires is direct or indirectly, only that the object of evaluation is responsible for thwarting (or preventing the objective satisfaction of) desires.

Application: Is homosexual desire a mental illness?

Using this model, we can then answer questions such as whether homosexuality is an illness.

Somebody who believes in the existence of intrinsic values or of reasons for action that exist independent of desires might wrongly conclude that homosexuality is an illness. However, these conclusions are grounded on false premises. The only values that exist are desires – they provide the only reasons for action in the universe (that we know of).

Homosexual desire has the same tendency to thwart other desires as heterosexual desire. Perhaps less, given that heterosexual desire creates a risk of unwanted pregnancies that rarely comes from satisfying homosexual desires. However, we clearly cannot say the same thing about incestuous desires or sexual desires involving children – both of which tend to thwart a great many desires.

Since we can know the relationship between homosexual desires and other desires as a matter of fact, we can know whether homosexuality is an illness as a matter of fact. We can also know whether people generally have many and strong reasons to promote or inhibit homosexual desire as a matter of fact – or if they <i>thinki> they do – a fact about which people can be and many are in fact mistaken.

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Four Components of Value

I am continuing my work on my Desirism Wiki. I figure it really does need a place for a general theory of value.

Desirism is built on a theory of value that holds that value exists in the real world as relationships between states of affairs and desires. Different types of value claims describe different types of relationships between different states of affairs and desires.

On this account, value claims are objectively true or false. The relationships exist as described or they do not. Furthermore, whether a value claim is true or false can be substantially independent of the beliefs or sentiments of the person making the claim.

At the same time, there are no objective values in the sense of values independent of desires.

Note: the fact that it is possible for value claims to be objectively true even though there are no objective values is just one example of the terminological quagmire that moral philosophy must navigate. Another example is that moral philosophy allows intrinsic value to depend essentially on extrinsic properties. We will get to this case further below.

Specifically, any true value claim contains four elements:

First, it makes reference to some object of evaluation. It is going to take some state of affairs (e.g., one in which some painting exists, one in which somebody experiencing a sunset, or one in which a prisoner is being tortured) and identify it as "good" or "bad". In all true value claims, something is being evaluated.

To call something "good" or "bad" in the generic sense implies that some reason exists for acting in a way that realizes or avoids realizing that state of affairs respectively. Good things are to be realized. Bad things are to be avoided.

Desirism holds that desires are the only reasons for action that exist. Other types of reasons for action that have been proposed - divine commands, intrinsic values, categorical imperatives - none of them are real. Therefore, any claim that they provide agents with reasons to act so as to realize or prevent the realization of some state of affairs is false.

Thus we get the second component of true value claims - they make reference to a set of desires and describe a relationship between the object of evaluation and that set of desires.

What is the nature of this relationship?

There are two types of relationships between states of affairs and desires - direct and indirect.

In both cases, we begin with the claim that desires are propositional attitudes. That is to say, they can be expressed as a statement that takes the form, "Agent desires that P" for some proposition P.

A desire that P is objectively satisfied by any state of affairs in which P is true.

So, when we evaluate a state of affairs S, relative to some desire that P, we are looking at whether P is true in S. When P is true in S, an agent with a desire that P has a reason to act so as to realize S.

Note that, among the set of possible desires, an agent may have a desire that not-P (or, in other words, an aversion to P). If an agent has a desire that not-P, and P is true in S, then, in this case, the agent has a reason to prevent the realization of S.

This leads to the third component in the concept of value: Does the object of evaluation objectively satisfy those desires?

For the agent with a desire that P, is it the case that P is true in S? If P is true in S, then S objectively satisfies the desire that P and the agent has a reason to act so as to realize S. If, on the other hand, P is not true in S, then the agent has no reason to bring about P. Finally, when the agent has a desire that not-P, and P is true in S, the agent has a reason to act so as to prevent the realization of S.

All of these are accounts of direct relationships between a desire and an object of evaluation.

Many authors refer to this as "intrinsic value". However, this easily leads to confusion. Another common definition of "intrinsic value" is "value independent of all extrinsic properties". Yet, we see that direct value in this sense very much depends on a set of extrinsic properties - it depends on desires.

One way to avoid this confusion is to call the relationship above "direct value", and to leave the term "intrinsic value" for "value independent of extrinsic properties". In this sense, intrinsic value does not exist. However, direct value exists.

Some people want to call value independent of extrinsic properties "objective value." J.L. Mackie had this definition in mind when he argued that there are no objective values. He goes to great pains to make it clear that he is talking about objective, intrinsic prescriptivity.

This gets confusing because we can certainly make objectively true or false claims about the relationships between things - that is to say, about extrinsic properties. "Objective values" in Mackie's sense, do not exist. However, objectively true value claims are still possible - as Mackie himself admits.

Direct value, as described here, is to be contrasted with indirect or instrumental value.

An instrument is a tool that can be used to bring about or preserve something else that has value. An agent has a desire that P. P is true in S. In order to realize S, the agent needs to use tool T. In this situation, T has instrumental or indirect value. The agent has a reason to act so as to acquire T.

Objects are not the only things that have instrumental value. Institutions, laws, relationships, and just about anything can be useful in bringing about a state S where P is true in S.

Desires themselves are useful in this sense - they have value as tools. There are some desires which, if common in others, make it easier for an agent to realize S. Insofar as an agent has a desire that P, and P is true in S, and desire D1 helps to bring about S, the agent has a reason to promote desire D1.

Similarly, there are some desires, if common in others, that make it more difficult to realize S. Insofar as an agent has a desire that P, and P is true in S, and desire D2 commonly gets in the way of bringing about S, the agent has a reason to inhibit desire D2.

This, then, is the fourth component of value. Does the object of evaluation objectively satisfy a desire directly (have direct or "intrinsic value")? Or is it something that can be used to realize a state of affairs that objectively satisfies a desire (has instrumental value)?

In summary, then, four questions get answered in any true value claim.

(1) What are the relevant objects of evaluation?

(2) What are the relevant desires?

(3) Do the objects of evaluation objectively satisfy or objectively dissatisfy those desires?

(4) Do they objectively satisfy or dissatisfy those desires directly or indirectly?

All value-laden terms can be evaluated according to this set of criteria. Moral terms (e.g., right, wrong, good, evil, obligatory, permissible, prohibited) are one set of value-laden terms among many. Moral terms have their own set of answers to these questions. Other value-laden terms (e.g., useful, beautiful, healthy, illness/injury, dangerous) have a different set of answers to these questions. We can distinguish different value-laden terms by identifying the differences in how they answer these four questions.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Desirism and Emotivism

I am continuing to use this blog to construct the first draft of text that will go in to a wiki on Desirism

Here is a look at what desirism says about emotivism.

Emotivism says that a moral claim such as "abortion is murder" or "you have an obligation to repay your debts" is not a sentence with a truth value. It is, instead, an expressive utterance - such as saying, "Abortion, yuck!" or "Three cheers for repaying one's debts!"

Another component of emotivism is that the emotive outburst is meant to cause others to share the same reaction. In doing so, it does not use reasoned argument from true premises. Instead, it uses some form of coaxing or emotional persuasion to get others to have the prescribed attitude towards that which is being evaluated.

Desirism begins by questioning the claim that emotive statements lack a truth value. For every emotive statement, there is a corresponding truth-bearing proposition that says the same thing.

For example, Jose is offered a lunch consisting, in part, of refried beans. He turns up his nose at the refried beans and says, "Yuck." The claim is that emotive utterance has no truth value. Yet, it corresponds to the proposition, "Jose hates refried beans." This latter statement does have a truth value.

Furthermore, it is just as objectively true or false as a statement of the form, "Jose has a scar on his wrist from when he fell off of his bike."

Desirism denies that moral statements are merely expressions of personal likes or dislikes - arguing that they are instead expressions that concern malleable desires that people generally have reason to promote or inhibit. However, even if they were merely expressions of the likes and dislikes of individuals, they would have a truth value.

The issue of whether moral claims express personal preferences will be handled separately under the subject of "subjectivism".

On the question of whether moral claims are utterances that attempt to cause in others to acquire a particular emotional reaction to a state of affairs, and to bring about this attitude through something other than reasoning from true premises, desirism holds that this is true.

Moral utterance are not only truth-bearing propositions, they are - at the same time - an attempt to use the social tools of praise and condemnation to effect a change in the emotions (desires) of others as they relate to the object of evaluation.

The purpose of moral praise is to act on the reward mechanism in the brains of others to strengthen the desires that lead to the praised act and a desire for the praised act itself. The purpose of moral condemnation is to act on the same system to promote aversions that would motivate agents to avoid the type of act being condemned.

Thus, we have the use of tools other than reasoning from true premises (praise and condemnation acting on the reward system) in order to cause others to adopt a particular attitudes (desires). This is a primary function of moral praise and condemnation.

At this point it is important to note that praise and condemnation not only serve to alter the attitudes of the person being praised or condemned. They have an effect on others. Mirror neurons cause people to experience events as if they are happening to themselves rather than others. They are a key component of empathy. If a person cuts his finger, another who merely witnesses the cut will have a mental reaction that is similar to having his own finger cut.

Consequently, praise not only reinforces the desires of the person praised. It also reinforces similar desires in those who witness the praise. This explains why moral praise is often delivered in front of an audience - through award ceremonies and public testimonials - so that the praise can have an effect on society as a whole.

The story of praise or condemnation does not even have to be real. One can make up a story in with a character who is praised or condemned for some action and use that to mold the character, at least to some extent, of those who engage with the story. Thus, parables become a useful tool for teaching moral lessons.

However, none of this calls into the question the possibility that the moral utterance - the act of praise or condemnation - can, at the same time, be a truth-bearing proposition.

The factual component of moral claims, combined with their ability to imoact desires even as stories, makes it possible for people to sensibly use moral claims even in situations that traditioal emotivism found hard to defend. For example, making miral ckaims about past events (e.g., Churchill had no right to promise eastern Poland to the Soviet Union) still reports a fact (a person with good desires would not have done such a thing), and can still have an impact molding current desires to make it less likely that a current or future leader will perform a similar act.

Consider the case of an emotional utterance, "That is a lie!". This is a truth-bearing proposition. It states that the accused agent asserted to be true something that the agent at the time actively believed to be false. This statement itself is either true or false. It is possible to refute the claim, "That is a lie," by showing that the agent sincerely believed what he said.

Yet, the proposition, "That is a lie!" can, at the same time can be delivered with a certain emotive force. One can be clear, from tone and context, that the person who says, "That is a lie," is, at the same time, condemning the person who is uttering the lie, and urging others to have the same attitude towards that type of behavior.

This condemnation does not change the truth-bearing nature of the proposition being uttered. The statement is still either objectively true or objectively false. Furthermore, it can well be the case that, if the accusation was false, the condemnation would not be justified. It is not the case that an utterance must be cognitivist (truth-bearing) or non-cognivist (incapable of being true or false).

It can be both.

Moral claims are both.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Beliefs, Desires, Actions, and Ought

How are "ought" statements handled according to desirism?

I am in the first week of a project of rebuilding a Desirism wiki. Any assistance anybody might want to provide would be appreciated - particularly given that a lot of people have a lot of relevant knowledge that I do not have.

So far, I have presented skeleton account of desirism on which to build, and an equally sketchy account of desires.

Today, my topic is the relationship between ought statements and mental states.

When you say that an agent “ought to have done something differently,” this has to imply that the agent ought to have had different beliefs, or ought to have had different desires, or both. An intentional action springs from an agent's beliefs and desires such that, given the specifics of the situation, if the beliefs are held constant and the desires are held constant, then the action would not change.

Prescribing Beliefs

A woman, on a long run in the hot sun, takes a drink of what looks like clean water. Another person who knows that the glass did not contain water but a colorless, transparent, tasteless liquid that causes nausea and cramps tells the runner, “You should not have done that.”

This is not a moral judgment. He is not condemning the runner for drinking out of the glass - not in this case, anyways. Instead, he is telling the runner, “Given your actual desires, an agent with true and complete beliefs would not have drank from that glass. Your desires, all things considered, are not going to be objectively satisfied by that action.”

When a statement that an agent ought to have done something else is reduced to a statement that the agent ought to have believed something else (or an agent with true and complete beliefs but the same desires would have done something else) the prescription is not moral - it is practical.

The hallmark of beliefs is truth. An agent chooses the action that would fulfill the most and strongest of her desires in a world where her beliefs and true and complete. The runner decided to drink from the glass because, in a world where her beliefs were true and complete, drinking from the glass would have quenched her thirst and produced no ill effects. Whether an action is actually successful depends substantially on whether the beliefs are accurate. If they are, then the action will produce the intended results. If not, the agent risks an unsuccessful action.

Prescribing Desires

A woman on a long run in the hot sun, sees a wallet sitting on a table. She picks up the wallet, takes out some of the cash, and puts it in her pocket, returning the wallet to the table. Another person, who had been watching the wallet from a hidden location, and tells the runner, “You should not have taken the money.”

In this case, we may assume that a person with the same desires, but true and complete beliefs, would have still taken the money. Those true and complete beliefs would include the belief that the watcher is simply doing research and has no intention of thwarting the agent's desires in any way. She has no aversion to taking the money. Her only deterrence, let us assume, would be an interest in avoiding punishment. So, let us imagine a situation in which she will not be punished.

Still, it makes sense to make the moral claim, "She should not take the money." She is guilty of theft, and theft is a moral crime.

In this case, the claim that she should have done differently is not a claim that a person with true and complete beliefs would have done something else. It is a claim that a person with the right desires would have done something else.

What counts as a "right desire?"

Desires, unlike beliefs, do not have anything like a truth correspondence. There is nothing like a correct or incorrect desire. Instead, our evolutionary past has disposed us to desire that which pursuing or avoiding had allowed our ancestors to be biologically successful.

Our tastes for food, for example, is not tuned to any type of intrinsic goodness. We have a taste for food that kept our ancestors alive long enough to have children and raise them to the point that they can have children. Broccoli is good for us, but it was not as good for our ancestors as lots of calories when one could get them. Alcohol - unlike stagnate water - is substantially germ free.

The fact that we are disposed to desire that which kept our ancestors alive does not imply that these desires are in any way correct or right. Indeed, as we are seeing, the desires that kept our ancestors alive in their environment might not be too healthy for us in our current environment. What this points out is the fact that there is no correct or incorrect thing to desire. We like what we like. Some of us will have offspring who will grow up to have offspring, and some of us will not. There is no "intrinsic value" to one option or another.

So, in the absence of intrinsic value or an inherent correctness to desire, how can we make sense of talking about the "right desire"?

There is still the fact that there are some desires that people generally have reason to promote, and some desires that people generally have reason to inhibit. Furthermore, desires are malleable, and can be strengthened or weakend through praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. So, there are desires that people generally have reason to respond to with praise and rewards, and desires that people generally have reason to respond to with condemnation and punishment.

To say, "You ought not to have taken the money" is to say, "You ought not to have the desire set that would have caused you to take the money." This does not mean that the desires are incorrect in the same way that beliefs can be incorrect. Instead, it means that the desire set is one that people generally have reason to respond to with condemnation and punishment. In fact, the claim, "you should not have taken the money" is not only a statement that the agent has a desire set the people have reason to respond to with condemnation. It is - at the same time - an act of condemnation.

In saying that the agent ought not to have had the desire set that would have motived her to take the money, it is important to keep in mind the fact that desires are persistent entities. You cannot simply turn them on and off like a switch. Even if you could, the next question to ask is: what character traits would be sitting in the background to motivate turning a particular desire on or off - and can that desire be turned on and off?

Consequently, when we evaluate a desire, we must evaluate its effects on the wide range of regular every-day circumstances a person may find themselves in. It may well be the case that a desire set that objectively satisfy other desires in certain rare circumstances would thwart other desires in a wide range of every-day circumstances in which people routinely find themselves. It this case, people generally have little reason to praise the act that objectively satisfies other desires. Instead, they have reason to condemn it - to avoid the desire-thwarting effects that would arise in the every-day circumstances that people often find themselves.


To say that a person ought to have done something different implies either that a person with true and accurate beliefs would have done something different, or that a person with good desires would have done something different, or both.

The first option relates to practical ought - it prescribes a course of action that will better allow the agent to realize that agent's desires. It aims to direct the agent to potentially more successful actions.

The second option relates to moral ought. It aims to use social tools such as praise and condemnation to promote desires that people generally have reason to promote, and inhibit desires that people generally have reason to inhibit. One of the aspects of doing this is that it embeds the praise or the condemnation in the moral statement itself. Consequently, a moral claim not only prescribes a particular desire set, it employs the tools of praise and condemnation that aim to bring about the prescribed desire set.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

What Is a Desire?

I am rebuilding my desirism wiki. I am doing so by submitting here (for your review and comment) the text that I will be adding over there.

Today's topic: What is a desire?

This topic will take a lot of work. I am hoping that there are people out there who would not mind sharing some of their special knowledge - providing me with references that supports, refutes, or refines the points made below.

Beliefs and desires are the proximate causes of intentional action. When you ask why somebody did something, you expect an answer that provides you with the relevant beliefs and desires that explain that action. Not only must it explain that specific action, but it must make that action consistent with other actions that the agent has performed and be able to predict potential future actions.

"Why did you choose to invest in that articular mutual fund."

The answer may involve wanting a high rate of return and believing that the mutual fund will provide it. The answer might include some interest in social responsibility. Perhaps a family member works for the company and the investor wanted to support her, or the investor values investing in developing economies and believes that the mutual fund focuses on those types of investments.

It is important to note that beliefs and desires explain and predict observable events in the real world. While there is some dispute about the merits of this form of explanation. However, in our every-day world, we currently have nothing better.

So, what are these entities that explain intentional action?

Beliefs and desires are mental states. They are properties of the mind-brain - physical properties of physical objects in the physical universe.

Beliefs and desires are functional properties - properties that describe what is going on (or can go on) within an object. In this, the mind-brain is much like a computer, storing data (beliefs) that might or might not be true, assigning value to certain states, and using that data and those values to determine output (behavior).

Beliefs and desires are known as "propositional attitudes". This means that they describe attitudes towards propositions.

A proposition, in turn, is the meaning component of a sentence. It is a statement capable of being true or false. “Jenny is visiting her mother in Iowa” is a proposition. It is a statement. It might be true. It might be false. "Jenny is in Iowa visiting her mother" is a different sentence, but it is the same proposition. It says the same thing.

A belief is the attitude that a proposition is true.

I will often express a belief in the form, "A believes that P", where "P" is some proposition. A person who believes that P will plan his actions for a universe in which "P" is true. If "P" happens to be false, this will usually have an adverse effect on the agent's success.

So, if I believe that Jenny is in Iowa visiting her mother, and I desire to talk to Jenny, and I know her mother's phone number, then I should conclude that I can reach Jenny by calling that number and I have a motivating reason to call that number. If that belief is false, I am wasting my time calling that number.

A desire is a motivational drive to make a proposition true or to keep the proposition true.

If I want Jenny to visit her mother in Iowa, this gives me a motivating reason to act to make the proposition, "Jenny is visiting her mother in Iowa" true. I may try to persuade Jenny to visit her mother. I may purchase her airplane ticket. What I am looking for is an action - given my beliefs - that is likely to make it true that Jenny is visiting her mother.

It is important to stress here that what matters is the objective satisfaction of a desire - creating a state where the proposition that is desired is objectively true in the real world. (Note: This is a state that I have called in my previous writing "desire fulfillment" - yet it seems that the professional academic literature on desires has settled on the more cumbersome phrase, "objective desire satisfaction").

This is to be understood in contrast with "subjective desire satisfaction" - which is the (potentially false) belief that a desired proposition is true.

A parent may believe that his child is safe at a friend's house. At that moment, unknown to the parent, she may be the victim of a violent attack. The parent's desire that their child is safe is subjectively satisfied (he believes it is true) but not objectively satisfied (true in fact). Of the two, intentional action aims for objective satisfaction (making a proposition true in fact), not subjective satisfaction (making oneself believe that it is true).

Each person is motivated only by his or her own desires (and beliefs).

This is a truth that egoists note, but that they do not understand. Egoists note that agents always act solely on their own desires. They then confuse this with the claim that everybody acts for their own benefit. When challenged by a case in which a person acts to benefit others, they will answer, "She is still doing what she wants." This is true. However, if what she wants is the well-being of another person, this is not egoistic selfishness. It is the very definition of altruism.

Even if it were possible for my desires to motivate your actions – for my desires to cause your limbs to move and to realize states of affairs that I am motivated to bring about – those actions would not be your actions. An action can not, at the same time, be your action and come from my mental states. If those actions come from my mental states (or the degree to which they come from my mental states), they are my actions, not yours.

A mind control device that would allow me to take over your body and commit a crime would not make you guilty of that crime. Because the crime did not spring from your beliefs and desires, it is not you action. It is my action. I am the person to be held responsible, not you.

When we morally evaluate an action, we are actually evaluating the mental states behind that action. If I am controlling your body, the causal states are mine, not yours. It is my mental states that are being evaluated, not your physical action.

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Desirism Wiki

I need to get started on a project that I have been putting off for far too long - a site that summarizes desirism and the conclusions that can be drawn from it.

I have started this project before - but it is difficult to do both that project and this blog at the same time. I always end up putting my time into the latter and neglecting the former.

Therefore, my new strategy will be to not have these two projects compete. I will write and post here what I will add to the wiki site the next few days.

Your comments here will be useful. If you know of some useful information - some research to consider or some objection to be weighed, or some question to be answered, please include it.

Of course, the best start to (re)building that desirism wiki is with an overall summary of desirism - what would be its opening page.

Desirism - The Basics

Desirism is a moral theory that holds that desires are the fundamental object of moral evaluation.

Actions are evaluated according to whether or not they are the actions that a person with good desires would perform. Note that the moral value of an action does not depend on the desires that actually motivated it - but on whether a person with good desires would have done the same thing.

Specifically, there are three moral categories for intentional action:
  1. Obligatory: That which a person must do.
  2. Prohibited: That which a person must not do.
  3. Non-obligatory permission: That which a person may or may not do as suits their interest.
Desirism accounts for these three moral categories as follows:
  1. Obligatory: That act which a person with good desires would perform under those circumstances. A person has a moral obligation to repay debts or tell the truth under conditions where a person with good desires would repay debts or tell the truth.
  2. Prohibited: That act which a person with good desires would not perform under those circumstances. Taking the property of another without consent is prohibited where a person with good desires would not take the property.
  3. Non-obligatory permission: An act that a person with good desires may or may not perform. There is a variety of shows that a person with good desires may decide to watch, and a variety of foods one may decide to eat. With some exceptions, having good desires does not dictate a specific show to watch or specific food to eat.
A good desire, in this sense, is a desire that people generally have reason to promote.

Desires themselves are the only reasons for intentional action that exist. That is to say, they are the only entities in the world that identify an objective or goal and direct intentional action towards that goal.

Some desires are malleable. They are not hard-wired into the brain. They are acquired - learned - through experience. That is to say, it is possible for one person to alter the desires of others by using the mechamisms through which desires are learned, strengthened, or weakened.

To "have reason to promote" a desire is to have a desire that the desire being promoted would objectively satisfy.

Some desires are desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote. That is to say, there are many and strong desires out there that the desire in question can objectively satisfy. These are the "good desires" referred to above.

That people generally have many and strong reasons to promote a particular desire is a knowable fact - one that is substantially independent of the feelings, wishes, beliefs, or attitudes of any one person.

The relevant mechanism for learning desires - acquiring new desires or strengthening or weakening existing desires - is through the reward system. When an action creates a reward, the malleable desires that motivate that action are strengthened. Punishment, on the other hand, modifies desires to motivate agents to avoid that which brought the punishment. Actions that may, at one time, be taken as a means for acquiring a reward or avoiding a punishment may come to be valued for their own sake, independent of the original reward or punishment.

So, when people generally have many and strong reasons to promote a malleable desire, they have many and strong reasons to use the tools of social conditioning - praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment - to strengthen that desire.

Desirism, then, concerns identifying malleable desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote, and directing the social tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promoting those desires. Those who perform the actions of a person with good desires draw praise and are reward, while those who do not perform the actions of a person with good desires draw condemnation and punishment.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Ethical Atheist Candidate: I Follow Polls

As your (pseudo) elected representative, I promise that I will read the polls and I will use them as an important guide to how I vote.

In our political system, we demand that our elected officials pay no attention to polls. We insist that they tell us what they really believe. Yet, at the same time, we only elect people who tell us what we want to hear, and the way they know what we want to hear is through polling.

In other words, we have set up a system where lying is a job requirement, then we complain about politicians being dishonest. It's like setting up a system where we hire only those people under 5' tall, then complain about the fact that all of them are short.

Techically, the ways by which a politician learns what the people want to hear - and how they want to hear it - involves more than just polls. It involves surveys, focus groups, letters from constituents, political editorials and cartoons, and generally reading the mood if the people. Both political parties have massive machines in place whose very purpose is to tell you whatever it us that will get you - or, at least, a majority of you who vote, what you want to hear.

If you do not vote, these political machines do not care squat what you think. You are dead to them.

We know that these robo-calls, political advertisements, and speeches are constructed with a massive amount of information behind them aiming at manipulating your vote. Yet, a part of that manipulation involves lying to you and telling you that the candidate sincerely believes what the polls tell him to say.

Personally, I do not think that there is anything wrong with a legislator in a democracy trying to figure out what the voters want in figuring out what they are going to support or oppose.

In fact, I think it is a legislator's duty.

As your (pseudo) elected legislator, I represent you. You hire me to be your voice in the legislature. In order for me to speak with your voice, I need to know what your voice is saying. In order to determine what you want, I will consult polls, surveys, and whatever other information is available to me.

Unlike politicians today, I am not going to lie and pretend that I enthusiastically support all of those things. I simply have no interest in playing that game. If I disagree with you, I will tell you. On some issues where we disagree, and I think the issue is important, I will try to convince you to change your mind. However, when it comes to casting a vote, I will remember that I am not there to represent myself. I am there to represent the people who sent me there, and I will vote accordingly.

This means that you should not be surprised to hear me speak in favor of some forms of legislation, yet voting against it. Or opposing legislation that I end up voting for.

For example, I may support a program to fight malaria underdeveloped countries. Yet, surveys show that a great many voters are opposed to foreign aid, and insist that it be one of the first things cut from the budget. In this case, I will try to convince you that we are all a part of this world, and that we are far better off with ah healthy and prosperous Africa than with a violent, sick, and impoverished Africa. I will remind you that these are human beings - sick and dying human beings - most of them children. We have an obligation to help them, if we can - and we can help them.

However, when the vote comes and surveys show that 57% of the people who I represent in the legislature oppose this legislation, that is how I will vote. Maybe, the reason that so many people disagree with me is because I have overlooked an important consideration. Perhaps I have not fully appreciated how a better way to help is through individual contributions to private charities who can spend the money more efficiently, and the ways in which a government pot of money ends up going to special interests groups rather than the people who need help. Or maybe I am right. It does not matter. After presenting my boss with my opinion about what should be done, the survey shows that my boss wants me to vote "no". I will vote "no".

There are limits to what I will do as your employee, however. As an employee in a private business, it would be my duty to carry out my employer's wishes to the best of my ability. However, if that employer should tell me to lead an armed assault on a competitor's warehouse, kill the guards, and haul away everything inside, I would refuse. I my employer should demand that I lie under oath, I would refuse.

Similarly, if, per chance, surveys were to show that you support an armed invasion of an oil-rich country for the purpose of taking control of their oil, I will refuse. If the polls tell me that you favor rounding up Japanese Americans and locking them up in concentration camps, I will vote against it, and leave it to you to fire me. There are some things that are simply wrong, and, even as your (pseudo) elected representative and your employee, I will not do them.

If you want a list of the things I will not do, you can find an excellent summary in the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution of the United States - known as the Bill of Rights. It is a most remarkable document - well ahead of its time.

Other than that, I assure you that I WILL listen to what the pollsters tell me. I will pay attention to surveys. I WILL try to find out what my boss wants me to do and, within limits, I WILL try to follow my employers' instructions to the best of my ability. That's would be my job - or a part of my job - as I see it.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Ethical Atheist Candidate: Militant Moderation

Conservative, Liberal, Libertarian, Progressive, Democrat, Republican

The instant you start a political campaign, people will try to put you in a pigeon hole, and then interpret every sound bite that follows in the context of that hole.

In truth, with these political tribes, people tend to seek membership and identity. To become a member, you need to substantially agree with the dogma of that particular tribe. There may be room for some disagreement around the edges, but by and large you purchase membership in a tribe by conformity.

In this pseudo-campaign, I wish to start a new tribe. This tribe will be known as the Militant Moderates.

Militant moderates hold that no person is so intellectually gifted that they can count on their own infallibility in political matters. Militant moderats reject the common practice of saying, "I cannot possibly be wrong, nobody who disagrees with me can possibly be right. In virtue of my own perfection, I must never listen to or compromise with anybody else. Compromise can only bring something less than perfection."

Militant moderates reject the idea that "Everybody whose beliefs are different from my own is a traitor to humanity. Perhaps we are obligated to tolerate their opinions, but only to the extent that we will not round them all up and kill them - though certainly it would be to the benefit of humanity to do so. While we struggle to resist this tempatation, we will not deny that they are traitors to humanity."

The "militant" part of these militant moderates is that they find the arrogant presumption totally contemptible. They will soundly condemn, in no uncertain terms, anybody whose attitudes follow those described in the two paragraphs above.

Let us not close our eyes to exactly how common those attitudes are. Browse any major news site on the web, or turn on any cable news network, and you will be bombarded with examples of uncompromising arrogance.

This does not mean that militant moderates believe that all points of view are equally valid, or that there is no truth to the matter other than the truths each person invents for themselves. She believes that there are facts. A person can believe all they want in the virtues of a zero-calorie miracle diet, but he'll be dead in a month if he tries it.

However, each one of us is cursed with biases and interests, presumptions and assumptions embedded into our brains since childhood, and only a small fragment of the total amount of information relevant to any major political opinion. While truth exists, these limitations hide truth behind a fog through which none of us - not one of us - can see with absolute clarity.

As I see it, in any negotiation, I can bring to the table my small subset of total human information, along with my assumptions, interests, and biases. It is not as if I can leave them behind.

Others can do the same thing.

We can - and should - recognize that each of us has a far better ability to see the flaws in others' thinking than we do in our own. instead of presuming infallibility, I intend to take advantage of their greater insight into my mistakes by listening to them and learning where I might have gone wrong in my thinking.

At the same time, as a militant moderate, I will reminding others, "You are not an omniscient deity blessed with perfect knowledge and virtue. Do not dare sit there and presume that it cannot possibly be you who are wrong."

I believe in compromise.

I believe that, when a group of people, each with their own assumptions, interests, biased, and small fraction of human knowledge get together, it is to be hoped that they can come up with a conclusion grounded on a larger set of interests, assumptions, and knowledge than that which any one of them could have come up with as an individual.

I believe that anybody who does not believe in compromise is arrogant - and arrogance is no minor character flaw. One quality that every bloody dictator and terrorist has in common is arrogance. One quality that every war is built on is arrogance. The one quality that deadlocks our government and makes us incapable of solving even simple problems is arrogance. Listen the next time congress is deadlocked on an issue and you can see it - you can feel it - in nearly every utterance.

Arrogance poisons everything.

I promise you, as your elected representative, that I WILL compromise. I WILL listen to people who do not agree with me. I WILL respect the fact that they can find holes in my thinking that I am otherwise incapable of seeing due to the blindness of interest and presumption. I WILL remind myself every time somebody else speaks, "You may be right."

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Ethical Atheist Politician: Responsibility and the Faux Conservative

Don't stand before me calling yourself a "conservative" or a "capitalist" if you think somebody may destroy the life, health, or property of another with impunity.

Conservatism includes a number of principles governing individual responsibility.

As I drive my car down the street, I have an obligation to look out for others. According to these conservative principles of responsibility, if I should aim my car at a pedestrian and run him over, I am a criminal, and I deserve to go to jail. I have intentionally caused harm.

What if I don't actually aim for a pedestrian, but I drive up into a crowded sidewalk knowing full well that I will run people over, I am guilty of knowingly/i> (though not intentionally) causing harm. After all, I was not trying to hurt anybody. If the sidewalk had been clear, I would have been just as happy. However, it was not clear, I knew it, and I did not care. Conservative principles of responsibility condemn this as well.

I can also be guilty of recklessness or negligence. Recklessness driving means acting in ways that create a risk that others will get hurt and the driver knows it. Negligence means acting in ways that create a risk for others that a person should have known - that a careful and responsible driver would have looked into.

Conservative principles of responsibility condemn all of these - intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, and negligently causing harm or creating risks.

Capitalism also condemns these types of behavior. They create economic inefficiencies.

Free market economics - which real conservatives respect and faux conservatives pay lip service to - calls these harms "negative externalities". They are "negative" in that they constitute harms - damage to the life, health, and property of others. They are "externalities" because these costs are not built into the price of performing the harmful actions. The costs are borne, not by the agents who perform the action, but by those harmed by the agent's action.

Negative externalities create economic inefficiencies because, when people are permitted to engage in economic behavior without covering the overall costs (by passing those costs on to others), they tend to engage in behavior where the overall costs exceed the overall benefits.

It's a lot like taking somebody else's credit card that will take the money out of some random bank account - and will always seek a bank account that has money. The agent can easily spend $100 on something worth only $10 to him because, when he can spend somebody else's money, it is subjectively "free" to him. Getting something subjectively worth $10 for a price that is subjectively free is a bargain - even though the overall social cost us $100.

Think of what our economy would be like if all of us had credit cards that took the money out of a random account.

Free market economics says that we can inhibit these types of behaviors by internalizing those external costs. That is to say, make the agent pay all costs, and the agent will refrain from that behavior where the costs exceed the value (to him) of the product.

In the agent above had to send $100 out if his own pocket for the item only worth $10 to him, he would not do it. If the polluter has to compensate the victims of pollution for harms done to their life, health, and property, he would find ways to avoid polluting. Morality and economic efficiency are both served.

This is an area where conservative principles of responsibility and capitalist principles of internalizing external costs fit together very well. This also happens to be an area where desirism (the moral theory I use in these blogs) support the same conclusion. Promoting an aversion to irresponsible behavior - understood as behavior that produces these types of costs to others or puts them at risk - is something people generally have many and strong reason to do.

However, many faux-conservatives are adamantly opposed to this - and find it intolerable - in certain circumstances.

Faux conservatives assert that wealthy people who indirectly harm the life, health, or property of others - whether intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or negligently, shall be immune from any sort of moral responsibility or economic cost.

The most that we can do, according to faux-conservativism, is politely request that the wealthy refrain from certain behaviors that kill or maim others or destroy their property. Compelling them to do so, and holding them morally responsible for their actions, is out of the question. This cannot be permitted.

One area where we see this faux conservativesm being defended is in the arena of global climate change.

Nowhere among faux conservatives do we hear about the principle of holding those who cause harm (people who engage in activities that release greenhouse gasses) responsible for the harms that they cause. Instead, all we are allowed is to politely ask those who engage in these harmful behaviors to refrain, to whatever degree they are willing to do so. The faux conservatives tell us that limiting behavior of this sort that causes harm to others is anti-freedom. People who argue for restricting this type of behavior - true conservatives and capitalists - are pro-government and pro-regulation.

Their argument, in this case, is no different than that of the graffiti artist saying, "If you do not allow me to spray-paint any surface I wish - house, window, store, car, street sign - you are anti-freedom. Whereas if you want to restrict the surfaces that I may spray paint to those that I own or those where I have the permission of the owner, you must be some sort of pro-regulation, pro-government liberal."

It's a nonsense argument. However, a nonsense argument backed by marketing knowhow and a great deal of money (from those who get their money from actions that cause harm to others) can seem to make sense. It is, indeed, "anti-freedom" in a sense to tell people that they may not cause harm to others. It is, in a sense, "pro-government" to tell people that the government will seek to limit this type of behavior.

We are also told that applying free-market principles and trying to internalize costs is bad for the economy. It increases the costs to the businesses that must now pay for the harms they do to others. That decreases their profitability and may even threaten their economic survival.

However, this is no different than a hypothetical case of a baker claiming, "If you force me to pay for my wheat, rather than allow me to take what I want without paying, then you must be an anti-business socialist. Forcing me to actually PAY for wheat will increase my costs. That will decrease my profitability and may even threaten my economic survival."

In the case of the wheat, as in the case of the negative externalities, these costs are being borne by somebody. It is not as if these costs simply disappear if we allow those who inflict the costs to ignore them. This would be like arguing that the murder victim is not dead if we allow the murder to walk away from the crime scene.

The question is, will these costs be borne by the person who is causing the harm, or by those harmed. Will the wheat be paid for by the baker, or the grower he takes it from? Will the harm to life, health, and property be paid for by the polluter, or by those harmed by the pollution? They WILL be paid. But by whom? The claim that allowing the victim to suffer for harms done to him without compensation, or the farmer to suffer the loss of wheat without compensation, is in no way "good for the economy"?

I have said at the start of this campaign that the political bargain is, "If you give me power, I will make good things happen."

One of the ways to make good things happen is to actually apply the conservative moral principle of responsibility and the capitalist principle of internalizing costs. This gives agents an incentive to avoid those types of behavior that do more harm than good. That is to say, it gives people themselves more of an incentive to make good things happen.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Ethical Atheist Politician: Republican Communists

It is surprising how many communists you find in the Republican Party.

Clearly, they are not ideological communists. They claim to detest communism as an obviously flawed way to organize society. It would be more accurate to say that their beliefs are inconsistent such that, in some policy areas, they end up being fierce defenders of communism - though they are largely ignorant of the fact.

Pure communism holds that the best way to manage the use of a resource is to put it in a "commons" or the closest approximation to a communal warehouse. The communal warehouse is not subject to any form of control or regulation. Instead, people are free to enter and leave as they wish, contributing to the warehouse according to their ability, and taking what they wish according to their perceived need.

At least, that is how it works in theory.

In practice there tends to be very little adding and a great deal of taking. Consequently, that resource is squandered and destroyed. The warehouse stands empty and, though the resource is vital to the community, the community ends up with little or nothing. The results can be catastrophic.

For example, in cases where the warehouse holds the community food stores, communities have faced massive starvation.

In some cases where a society faces the problem of an empty communal warehouse, a strong leader will come along to force people to make contributions. This helps a little. Unfortunately, those who work just so that the product of their labor can be taken from them by others tend not to work very hard. Nor do they come up with many new inventions or new techniques to increase efficiency. They put in the least effort they can get away with, and the warehouse continues to be poorly stocked.

Markets, on the other hand, provide a system that corrects these problems.

In a market system, those who contribute are paid. As a result, they contribute more, and they discover ways to work more efficiently.

In a market system, takers must pay for what they take. This gives them an incentive to take only what they really need and leave the rest behind for others. It gives them an incentive to look for substitutes that are less costly.

In the vast majority of cases, there seems to be a price at which the volume being contributed is equal to the volume being taken by the takers. This is known as the market clearing price – and I have just described in basic terms the principles behind the law of supply (contributors) and demand (takers).

Capitalists like this system and hate the community warehouse (communist) system.

Yet, there are policy areas where Republicans are demanding that we use the communist system.

They do not call it that. But this is what it is.

One set of policy areas concern the use of the oceans and the atmosphere as a dumping ground for pollution - including the dumping of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses. They insist on no rules of any kind - that people be permitted to "take" these resources (dump their pollutants) as they please, paying no price for doing so. And they strongly oppose any plan to offer a price as payment to those who contribute to this resource - e.g., by finding other ways to store the pollutant or to clean up the mess.

Free-market economics tells us that, if we let this situation continue, we will end up utterly destroying these resources. Recall the communities that faced widespread starvation when their food was kept in a communal warehouse. We are aiming for the same type of results when it comes to "emptying" the ocean and the atmosphere of its capacity to hold pollutants.

When we do, the whole of humanity (except very few with vast sums of money that will allow them to escape these consequences) will be made to suffer.

How do we avoid this outcome?

We introduce capitalism.

We introduce a price for dumping these pollutants.

The problem is, the Republican Party is dominated by people who absolutely refuse to consider this option. They demand on holding on to the community warehouse (communist) system of managing these resources - allowing people to take as they please and contribute as they please without regard to any sort of price.

How is it the case that, in this area, the so many Republicans became communists?

In the case of the communal warehouse for the dumping of pollution, some people are in a better position to take from the communal warehouse than others. That is, they are in a position to dump huge amounts of pollutants. These people became wealthy - in part because of what they took out of the communal warehouse for dumping pollutants.

These wealthy pollution-dumpers could then use their wealth to hire masters of rhetoric - and give them a very loud microphone. Today, they use corporate sponsorship to give these masters of rhetoric spots on talk radio and certain faux news cable channels.

These masters of rhetoric earn their pay by telling the rest of us that this unregulated warehouse where people are allowed to contribute as they please and take what they please is "freedom". In fact, they call this unregulated warehouse "capitalism" - when nothing, literally, can be further from the truth.

Communism, in its purist form, allows for perfect freedom. There is absolutely no regulation on what people may contribute to or take from the communal warehouse. They contribute what they wish to contribute, and take what they wish to take. The only regulation is that they cannot keep anybody else out of the warehouse, and must contribute all they have to it.

Capitalism, on the other hand, uses price to draw contributions into the warehouse and limit what is taken out of the warehouse.

The masters of rhetoric mix the message that the unregulated warehouse is "freedom" with the message that the price-regulation of the free market is "regulation". From this, they claim to be champions of freedom over regulation when, in fact, they are champions of the communal warehouse over economic activities regulated by price.

It turns out to be true that the free market is a set of regulations. It comes with all sorts of rules - rules that govern the ownership of property and rules that govern the transfer of property. It contains rules against acquiring property through fraud and deception, rules against acquiring property through violence, rules about what counts as violence and what does not. It prohibits destroying the property of others without compensation as a way of promoting individual responsibility.

So, what we have is a set of wealthy people - those who were in the best position to enrich themselves in part by taking from the communal warehouse - spending their money on demagogues whose job it is to tell the public that a person who wants to replace the communal warehouse with a system of private property and free markets are anti-freedom and pro-regulation.

Communism does not work. Communism does not make good things happen.

The ultimate consequences of keeping this communist system will be the destruction of our atmosphere and our oceans as a dumping ground for these pollutions. To solve this problem and to avoid these consequences we need to replace the communal system we have now - the love of many in the Republican party - with a system of private property and market pricing.

I am not ignoring the problems with this option. However, those problems will still be better than the problems we are heading for if we continue to support the communist system embraced by a substantial portion of the Republican Party.

Friday, June 08, 2012

The Ethical Atheist Politician: The Power of Markets

In my pseudo-campaign for public office, I have described the political bargain as, "If you give me the power of elected office, I will use it to make good things happen."

What do I mean by "good things"?

Imagine a large group of people crash-landed on an island with no hope of rescue. What do they need?

They need medical care for the sick and injured, clean water, nutritious food, shelter, and security from external and internal threats.

That's the basics.

To get any of these things efficiently, they need accurate information. They need to know how best to treat injuries and disease, where to find or how to manufacture fresh water, which foods are nutritious and which are poisonous, what threats exist, and how best to protect against those threats.

Because each person is the best governor of his or her own life, they also need individual freedom. However, freedom does not entail a liberty to act in ways harmful to others - either through direct acts of violence or deception, or indirect acts such as those that poison the land, air, and water. Furthermore, wise men recognize that a few vitally important goods - a defense system from external threats, a system of police and courts, and a system of education, can best be provided through community action.

People need a market system.

Markets, properly structured, are essential for the well-being of a community.

Markets have several remarkable powers that centralized control can never replace. The most important of these is that they get people focused on getting the things that are most needed - or, at least, those things that the people think they need - and they reward those who are successful.

Our crash-landed community needs fresh water. What is the best way to get it?

Answer: offer a reward to whomever finds the most and cleanest water.

There are lots of different options for getting clean water. A scouting party may leave looking for a water source. Where should they go? People might have different opinions on the matter. Let each go their own direction and discover what is there. The reward will go to whomever is right.

Perhaps our community of crash survivors should dig a well. Where should they dig? One crash survivor may start criss-crossing the land with a divining rod. Another takes her knowledge of geology, looks at the ground features, and locates a place where her knowledge tells her that the water table is closest to the surface and in a relatively porous rock/gravel mixture that is quickly replenished.

I would bet on the geologist myself. I would go up to the geologist and say, "I will invest my time and labor and skills in your project - in exchange for a share of the water."

Markets get people acting in ways that, to the best of their knowledge, will fulfill a perceived need. Furthermore, they reward those who are right. Consequently, markets give people an incentive to acquire accurate information so that they can obtain the benefits of being right.

Markets also respond quickly to new information.

In a free market, the instant that people start to believe that a particular source of water is drying up, the price of water goes up. This tells people to start conserving water NOW! It also tells people to start looking for alternative sources of water NOW! Both of these consequences will work to help the community out of the dry spell to come - without the need to wait for some centralized policy decision. It could very easily save lives - while government interference in this process could cost lives.

Political process will either require convincing somebody that the threat is real and to take corrective action (in the case of a dictatorship), or trigger an extensive period of debate. In both cases, there will be a period of time where nothing is getting done (while markets would already be responding). The sole dictator might never get around to doing anything. The same is true of the democracy as those who simply do not want to believe that there is a coming shortage or those who profit from a lower price today muddy the waters of the public debate in order to preserve the current status quo - at a huge future cost (that they will not have to pay).

Do you want to guarantee shortages of essential resources and violent conflict over what remains? Then have the government keep the price of that resource artificially low. You will get your shortages and your violent conflict soon enough.

We need markets. We need to use prices to allocate the use of resources - not government bureaucrats.

I want to remind you that markets do not give those with money a right to poison, maim, or kill others just because it will improve the corporate bottom line. Markets do not give those with money a natural right to destroy your home or your property through global warming or any other type of company-created harms. It does not give the head of the corporation the right to treat the workers in the corporation as serfs - as something just a half-step short of mere property.

A free market contains none of these things.

Yet, you would hardly know it if you listened to some of the people who claim to be defending free-enterprise. What they call free-enterprise is a freedom to poison, sicken, maim, or kill others with impunity so long as it is profitable. What they call free-enterprise is a right to treat workers like property. What they call free-enterprise is actually a form of corporate feudalism where moral constraints only apply to those who are poor, and where those with money cannot be bothered by such mundane concerns.

When it comes right down to it, a lot of people who call themselves economic conservatives and capitalists, really are not. In fact, on many issues, they advocate the most basic form of communism, and claim that this is the best way to manage resources.

I will talk more about that next.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

The Ethical Atheist Candidate: Freedom and Collective Action

I have a plan for balancing the budget.

That plan is to abolish the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice - including the FBI and CIA.

After all, we all know - or, at least, a certain segment of the population has been telling us for decades - that government bureaucracies are the worst possible ways to deal with social needs. They should all be handled through individual action and initiative. So, instead of a national defense, and instead of a system of police and courts, we are going to abolish these things. We are going to close down these agencies, open up all of the prisons, and let free enterprise handle the problem.


You don't think that is a good idea?

Do you think there might be cases in which a government agency might actually serves a useful purpose? To you think that, sometimes, collective action can accomplish positive ends better than individual action?

Obviously - again, we we have been told for decades - that make you a freedom-hating anti-American socialist who should pack up and leave this country as quickly as possible. Get out. You are not wanted around here. Not if you believe that there are social concerns best handled through government agencies.

Or . . . Not.

Let's put aside this nonsense.

I have argued that we should have a strong presumption for freedom. The presumptive vote for any limitation on freedom should be a strong "no" vote. The burden is on those who would limit freedom to overcome this presumption - and we shouldn't make it easy for them to do so.

They can overcome this presumption by showing proof beyond a reasonable doubt that a form of behavior is harmful to others. We may legitimately deny people the freedom to rape, or to abuse children, or to poison others either by slipping arsenic into their drink at an office party or be filling the air and water with pollutants.

Another area that I want to focus on now where the presumption of freedom can be overcome is in areas like national defense and police protection where cooperative action produces better results than individual action.

Imagine a system of voluntary contributions to national defense. Instead of a bloated government agency living off of taxpayer taken from people by force through acts of the legislature, the military will have to live off of voluntary contributions and on the basis of services sold to individual subscribers. "For $39.95 per month we will defend your home, but not the home of your neighbor - not unless your neighbor also pays $39.95per month."

Similarly, the police and court system, rather than being taxpayer funded, will be bought and paid for by those who the money, and who exist to serve those who have the most money to spend. If somebody burns down your house, the police look on their records and determines whether you are up to date on your payments. If you are, then the police investigate. If not, then they do not.

Furthermore, of course, the private military and the private police and court systems will make sure that the people with the most money are happy with their services. It does not matter that those who pay little or nothing are unhappy. It matters a great deal that those with a lot of money are happy. Consequently, defense and court systems will be geared to producing these results.

Unfortunately, letting an arsonist run around loose creates a risk for the company's paying customers. While, on the other hand, finding and arresting the arsonist would make it possible for people to benefit even if they did not pay.

So why pay?

The major reason why we take collective action on matters of national defense or the police and courts is because these areas create "free rider" problems. People can harvest benefits without paying. Consequently, if pay is voluntary, why pay?

In order to eliminate this free rider problem, we say, "No. You must pay. Here is your tax bill."

We see this most easily with respect to national defense and a system of police and courts. However, this is not the only area where collective action produces wide-spread benefits. Environmental protection - which I wrote about yesterday - is another.

Yet another area where collective action matters is education.

We are, each of us, better off to the degree that we are surrounded by people who know what they are doing.

Here are some obvious examples.

If, six hours from now, you were to have a heart attack, you have reason to be grateful if somebody nearby could recognize a heart attack and take quick life-saving action. You have reason to expect that the chef who prepares your food knows that rhubarb leaves make a poor salad and cyanide is not to be used as a food flavoring.

We need to be surrounded by people who know and understand the real-world consequences of their real-world actions when they act. We need an educated population.

We need everybody to know how to read - because knowing how to read means knowing how to find the information one needs when one needs it. We need them to know how to do math.

They need an understanding of history, geography, and culture. They need to know about nutrition, the importance of exercise, and the ways in which different chemicals affect the body. They need to know this, not only to take care of their own health, but to help take care of others such as their own children or elderly parents - or neighbors and friends who are in need.

They need a basic understanding of physics, chemistry, and - in particular - biology, because biology is the science of living things. They need to know the law and how their government works, or doesn't work. They need to know how to use basic tools.

They need these things, not only because of the benefits that they acquire from having this knowledge, but because of the benefits that we acquire from being surrounded by people who understand the real world that we share.

Another part of education that we currently neglect is teaching how to recognize the difference between sense and nonsense. Children need to be taught the principles of logic. And they need to be taught how to recognize and why they should dismiss fallacious reasoning. They need to know how to recognize claims meant to divert attention, support false premises, and muddy political waters, and those that actually go some distance towards supporting the conclusions that a person is investigating.

Another thing that people need to know - they need to know about people who are not like them. Isolation - locking somebody up in a particular community and putting up blinders against everything outside - against everything that is 'other' - is a shortcut to bigotry, intolerance, hatred, and - in extreme cases - violence. It is much easier to assault, and even to kill, people one has been taught to hate and fear - people one has taught to view as less than human and have never had an opportunity to talk to and interact with as a genuine human beings with human likes, dislikes, wants, needs, and fears.

These are all a part of education.

Like national defense and a system of police and courts, they provide benefits for the whole population regardless of who pays. Consequently, like national defense and police protection, they are things we have reason to make sure that people pay for, whether they want to or not.

There are some areas where collective action provides important benefits. Where this is true - and can be demonstrated on a reasonable doubt - there are areas where there is reason to demand collective action.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The Ethical Atheist Politician: Limits to Freedom - Harm to Others

Freedom is a very important value.

As your representative in the legislative process, my default vote will favor freedom unless strong arguments can be presented to the contrary.

What types of arguments can overrule the presumption of freedom?

The first is obvious.

Freedom does not entail a right to do harm to others.

When we prohibit rape, for existence, or the abuse of children, somebody might accuse us of being anti-freedom. After all, we are taking a set of behaviors that some people value and saying, "That is prohibited. If you do rape, or if you abuse a child, you will be punished."

In a perverse, oversimplified kind of way, it makes sense for them to accuse us of being anti-freedom. We are limiting their freedom to engage in these types of behavior.

Indeed, we are.

In principle, I doubt anybody in this room actually believes that being pro-freedom means legalizing that type of behavior, or that a person who wishes it banned is some sort of anti-freedom tyrant. There is no legitimate sense in which a love of freedom requires a hatred for laws banning rape and child abuse.

However, there are some who do not think through the implications of this principle. Or, if they do, they seek to bury those implications under a mountain of campaign contributions and political advertisements.

May I casually slip a poison into your drink that causes you kidney failure or cancer? Or that kills you outright?

If somebody were to stand here and tell you that you may not slip poisons into their neighbor's drink, would you accuse him of being anti-freedom? Would you accuse him of being somebody who hates America and all that America stands for?

I doubt it.

Then, what about the person who slips poison into a community's water supplies or into the air that they breathe? I stand here as somebody who says that this is no more legitimate than slipping a poison into your drink when you are not looking.

Many people who profit from poisoning your air and your water spend a lot of money and put a lot of effort into trying to convince you that anybody, such as me, who denies their their alleged right to poison you for profit is anti-freedom. They protest these government regulations as obtrusive and socialist - the way, I assume, a child abuser might find government regulations against child abuse to be intrusive.

At this point, many will likely be ready to protest that my analogies here are hyperbole. They are "over the top." But, think about it. Those who poison our air and our water are also poisoning the children in our communities. Is that not the moral equivalent of child abuse?

One of the things they tell us is that these environmental regulations - these prohibitions on poisoning others - cut into their profits. They say that it is bad for business. It costs jobs. They cannot compete against companies elsewhere that poison the air and water around their factories with impunity. Because of this, we must grant them permission to profit from poisoning others free of any type of cost or penalty.

However, if we accept that argument, and we want jobs so badly, we can probably create a lot if jobs by legalizing child abuse.

I understand that some forms of child abuse can be quite lucrative. When we prohibit those things, we are driving the people who would profit from these activities to other communities that are more tolerant of such things - or less able to enforce their prohibitions. These entrepreneurs are taking their money and their jobs elsewhere.

Should we be legalizing child abuse so that we can keep those jobs here? Should we be legalizing acts of poisoning others so that we can keep those jobs here?

Somebody with a lot of money can afford to buy a lot of advertising, influence a lot of columnists, and groom a lot of politicians into accepting their position. "Allow us to poison others with impunity, and we will bring jobs to the community." This argument is going to work on some people - when it is repeated often enough and from enough different directions, by those who can afford to pay for that kind of advertising. When they get the liberty to poison others with impunity, they become wealthier - while the rest of us become poorer as we have to struggle to cover rising costs for health insurance. This means that the poisoners can pay for more advertising and grooming more politicians - which will make them wealthier still.

Now, there are two sides to this coin.

There is a legitimate complaint to be made against much of our regulation. A lot of these regulations are not, in fact, prohibiting actions that threaten others. They impose costs on businesses that produce no real benefit. They exist because some over-anxious regulator was convinced that some action might possibly perhaps contribute to harms suffered by others and must be prohibited. Or, more often than not, they have been convinced that some regulation will funnel money into the pockets of a friend or valuable campaign supporter, and act to funnel that money into those pockets.

We are told that it is better to be safe than sorry. However, if that is our attitude towards freedom - that it may be discarded at the slightest chance that good might come of it - why not throw people in jail if they might, perhaps, possibly be guilty of a crime? It is better to be safe than sorry, right? This is an attitude that puts very little value on freedom - and putting so little value on freedom will have some very significant costs.

Limiting freedom requires a lot more than, "It might, perhaps, possibly do some good." It requires, "We have proof beyond a reasonable doubt that it is necessary to prevent serious harms."

A huge number of our regulations to not meet this criterion, and those who are burdened by this excess in caution are right to complain about them.

However, they are not right to demand the freedom to put money in their pockets by engaging in activities that we know, beyond a reasonable doubt, poison, maim, and kill others. Freedom, however valuable, does not extend so far as to allow the person who would harm others to claim that those who would stop him are anti-freedom.

Finally, we must acknowledge that there is no bright line between these two types of examples. There will be cases in which some will be convinced that the harms are clear and the actions are permissibly prohibited. At the same time, others will insist that the case has not been proven and that the presumption of freedom still wins. Of course, the accused will seldom believe he is guilty. Even when we show the video of him holding a gun on the store clerk and demanding money, he will insist on his innocence, or on special circumstances that justify his actions. However, in spite of this, there will be legitimate cases of disagreement.

In the same way that we are fools to pretend that freedom implies a right to harm others with impunity, or that actions may be prohibited whenever we suspect that they might perhaps possibly do some good, we are fools to believe that all of the questions that come before us can be easily decided. There must be some room in the middle for civil disagreement - cases where it is hard to know on which side of the line the truth falls. That is just a fact of the world we must all live in - together.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The Ethical Atheist Politician: Freedom

This week I am presenting the opening remarks for myself as a hypothetical ethical atheist candidate.

I started with the political bargain, "If you give me the power of elected office, then and I will use that power to make good things happen."

I then identified these "good things" by imagining a large group of people crash-landed on an island with no hope of rescue. The priorities are medical care for the sick and injured, clean water, nutritious food, shelter (depending on the climate), and security. I also mentioned the need for information - to know and understand the real world in ways that help us to acquire these other goods.

I did not mention freedom.

I wanted to give freedom some extra attention.

Many politicians use "freedom" as a feel-good word. They rob the word of any meaning, allowing the voter to fill in the blanks anyway he or she likes. They define freedom alternatively as letting a taxpayer keep his money, and taking it from him to give another person an education, or handicapped access, or medical treatment for an illness that limits the things she can do with her life.

For some people, "freedom" means a legal permission to act even in ways that maim and kill others without facing legal consequences. For others, it means protection from these harms.

"Freedom" is a word that everybody can cheer, even though different people are actually cheering for different and contradictory things.

I will do what no serious politician should ever do, which is tell you exactly what I mean by "Freedom". The serious politician gains no benefit from such a strategy. She will only lose votes from people who discover that the politician's definition of freedom is not her definition of freedom. She gains nothing. However, in this hypothetical campaign, I have freedoms that the serious politician does not have.

If you assign somebody to do a job, you want to assign the most knowledgable and least corruptible agent to do that job.

Now, the question is, who is the most knowledgable and least corruptible person we can assign to the job of running your life?

Is it the person standing next to you? Is that the person who is in the best position to know how to direct your life?

Think about something simple. Think about ordering a meal at a restaurant. Who, in this room, has the best chance of reliably ordering what you want to eat? Somebody else might get lucky and order something for you that you like. But luck, by definition, is not reliable.

Is it me? Do you think I am better at running your life than your are?

I certainly do not.

Is it some faceless bureaucrat that I would either appoint or confirm that does not even know your name?

If you give somebody else control over your life, that person will use it to advance his or her interests, not yours.

Some of those interests might be good and noble concerns. He might have an interest in world peace or curing cancer - along with his other likes and dislikes. He may have a genuine interest in your well-being. However, this will still be one interest among many - and all of his interests will be screaming for attention. I guarantee that there will be times in which he will sacrifice your interests - at least a little - in service to his other concerns.

Furthermore, for anybody else, understanding your life is, at best, a part-time job. And if she makes a mistake, she might not even know it. The fact of the matter is, that shooting pain in your arm will never be as important to somebody else as it is to you.

If we are going to assign the job of running each life to the most knowledgable and least corruptible person, then the person to whom we need to assign to the job of running your life is you.

There are some people for whom this is not true. Young children, for example, are not the most knowledgable as to their well-being. We must assign to each child a caretaker - the person or group that has the child's best interest at heart, and for whom learning about the child's future interests and how to protect them are important. Usually, this is the child's parents. Sometimes, it is not. We need to discover the cases in which it is not and get new caretakers for those children.

There are also people with brain injuries and illnesses that make them incapable of being the most knowledgable as to their own welfare. These people also must be assigned to caretakers.

However, among adults, this is a very rare and tragic exception.

The default has to be a presumption in favor of freedom. The default vote on any newly proposed regulation or control must be, "No."

This is true in the same way that the default verdict in a criminal trial before any evidence is presented should be, "Not guilty." It is the prosecutor who must prove his case, not the defendant. It is the person who would take freedom who has the burden of proof, not the person whose freedom is being taken.

And it is not enough to show, "We kinda think that maybe this might be a good idea," any more than it is sufficient to prove, "We kinda think that maybe the accused in this case might be guilty." The standard of proof must be proof beyond a reasonable doubt. With anything less, we should go with the presumption of freedom.

That is how I am going to vote as your elected official. You are the person best put in charge of running your own life. Not me. Not some faceless bureaucrat. You need the freedom to do just that.

Yet, freedom is not absolute. The clearest example is that your freedom does not include the right to rape any woman you might be interested in raping. Politicians who argue in favor of those types of laws are not properly called anti-freedom.

Next, I will look at some of the proper limits to freedom.

Monday, June 04, 2012

The Ethical Atheist Politician: The Hypothetical Campaign - Opening Remarks

I spent the past two weeks putting a hypothetical ethical atheist politician's campaign into its social context.

Today I would like to start that hypothetical political campaign.

It will start with a press conference - one in which members of the press will be given an opportunity to ask questions. The text of my opening

Let the pseudo-campaign begin.

My name is Alonzo Fyfe, and I am running for the office of .

You are going to find that my campaign is unusually blunt and direct. I am not particularly good at stage shows. I want to discuss the issues. We may live in a society that gives political office to those who speak in vague generalities surrounded by flags, bands, and lots of eye candy. I will have to take my chances. I do not fit comfortably into that style of politics.

Being blunt and direct, a political campaign boils down to this: If you give me power, I will use it to make good things happen. That, at its heart, is the political bargain.

What good things?

Good . . . for whom?

Good for the candidate? Good for the people who have wads of free cash to use to put the candidate in office, who can contribute to the candidate's worthy causes, or who can offer the candidate lucrative contracts after that candidate leaves office?

Every candidate speaks about making good things happen. What makes my candidacy any different?

Let me tell you how I think of these things.

Let us assume that we - all of us here, and our families - crashes on an island. The flight was lost. Nobody knows where we are. There is no hope of rescue.

What matters?

Clean water. Food. Shelter - depending on the climate. Medical care for the sick and injured. Security from threats outside the camp such as wild animals and natural disasters - hurricanes, volcanoes, wildfires and the like. And security within. Is the person next to you going to be allowed to use you - to harm you or the quality of your life - for his or her own pleasure?

These are the things that matter first.

We also need information.

Where can we find clean water? What plants are edible? What plants have the nutrition we need? How can we make the things that will help the sick and injured? What threats are out there? What threats are coming that we do not know about yet? Who, among us, is a threat? How can we reduce that threat?

In addition to all of the things I mentioned above, another thing we need is information. We need to learn the facts about this site that we crashed at. Some facts are more important than others. Those facts relevant to that which threatens all of us have the highest priority.

These are the things that matter first.

These are the good things that I am talking about when I talk about making good things happen.

There are seven billion of us crash-landed on this remote island - this pale blue dot of inhabitable real-estate in the Milky Way galaxy called Earth. There is no hope of rescue. Nobody knows we are here - or, if they do, they're not offering any help. We are on our own.

A lot of people do not have clean water.

A lot of people do not have enough food. Many who have enough food do not have the foods they need for good health.

Some people have too much food.

We have a boatload of sick and injured people to care for.

I did say, "seven billion people" have crash-landed on this planet.

All of us count. No subset of us is the mere property of another, to be used up and discarded like some tool one finds in the garage. We are all here together.

Give me power, and I will make good things happen. That is the political bargain.

One possible way to make good things happen is to make bad things happen to other people. If that is the kind of leader that you want then, I will admit, I am not going to be the leader that you want. We share this community with others, and the last thing we need is a bunch of warring factions fighting each other trying to get away with enriching themselves at the expense of others.

At the same time, an not so naïve that I think that everybody else has the same virtue. There are people out there supporting leaders who promise them power and wealth regardless of who they must hurt in the process. There are people here, in fact, who would prefer a leader like that. Those leaders promise their supporters the spoils of war - the plunder that they can harvest from other people, or at least permission to disregard their safety and well-being. Those people exist. In fact, they are far too common. I will oppose them where I can. However, I will not be one of them.

All of this sounds fine in principle. The devil, as they say, is in the details. Over the course of this campaign, we are going to look at some of the details and at the principles that inform those details. We have quite some time between now and the day of the election - more than enough time to discuss details.

The first of those details that I will look at next is the principle of freedom.