I have been told by a worthy commenter that I should join a political party and thereby learn how politics really works. And this by a person who brags about sitting beside a politician he helped to get elected.
Notwithstanding the fact that I have, in my life, worked in three political parties (Libertarian, Republican, and Democrat), this commenter brings to mind what has been a long struggle - a struggle between truth, justice, and the betterment of humanity on the one hand, and power without regard to truth, justice, and the betterment of humanity.
I am called childish and moronic because of my interest is in the former and not in the latter. It is better to have power without regard for truth, justice, and the betterment of humanity, then to pursue truth, justice, and the betterment of humanity without power. The latter, in fact, is an utter waste of time.
It is a mistake at the start to consider these mutually exclusive ends.
Each person has an interest in both to different degrees. And, in fact, the ideal world is not one in which one of these conquers the other, but one that unites truth, justice, and the betterment of humanity with power.
In fact, that was the very point of the post in which this commenter was responding. It was a post in which I expressed my worry over the fact that a massive gap has appeared between truth, justice, and the betterment of humanity on the one hand, and power on the other. People have voted to give power to the person who has the least understanding of truth, justice, and the betterment of humanity. In that post, I wondered how to close that gap - I wondered how to empower truth, justice, and the betterment of humanity. For that, I was called naïve, childish, moronic, and in need of an education in politics.
One could advance the plan, "First, you get power - without regard for truth or justice, or as to whether one's promises will, if enacted, bring about a benefit to humanity - without a regard for anything but getting power. Then, once in power, do that which is just and benefits humanity."
This plan, of course, requires that the winner know what is true, what justice requires, and what benefits humanity. This, in turn, seems to require that there be somebody interested in studying those issues and answering those questions.
However, my commenter seems to think that only a childish moron will interest himself in truth, justice, and the benefit of humanity - because it is the mere fact that one shows an interest in these topics, it seems, that makes one is worthy of the label.
So, it is only power for its own sake, and not for the sake of what is true, just, or a benefit to humanity that matters.
In fact, it is this complete disregard for truth, justice, and the betterment of humanity that seems to be, "the lesson of Trump." The one thing we must all learn from his success is that any interest any of us may have or have had in truth, justice, and the betterment of humanity must be discarded as the interests of a naïve moron. The lesson of Trump is to set those childish things aside and seek nothing but power for its own sake.
Well, I am afraid that I am a slow learner. If what we are to learn from the fact that Trump has been elected is that only the naïve and childish morons are interested in truth, justice, and the betterment of humanity, I fear that I will continue to be a naïve and childish moron.
I have opted to disregard The Lesson of Trump and return to my original question: How do we empower truth, justice, and the betterment of humanity?
Wednesday, November 30, 2016
I have been told by a worthy commenter that I should join a political party and thereby learn how politics really works. And this by a person who brags about sitting beside a politician he helped to get elected.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 8:11 AM
Tuesday, November 29, 2016
In 271 days I attend my first class.
Recent projects include reading John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism, and starting John Locke 's Two Treatise on Civil Government.
I am actually including the first treatise, which is usually skipped, and for good reason. In it, Locke argues against a Sir Robert Filmer, who used scripture to defend the absolute power and divine right of kings. Locke argues that scripture contains no such proof.
I, of course, hold that scripture provides a foundation for nothing in morals or politics, it being the imaginative fictions of substantially ignorant tribes. Still, it is an interesting cultural study of what once was - and in some unfortunate parts of the world still is - thought to be an important process.
In this treatise, one can still see and be impressed by Locke's sharp mind - and surprised at how that sharp mind can treat scripture as revealed truth rather than an ancient fiction.
As a side note, he also gives an excellent account, from scripture, of the equality between men and women - or, at least, of husbands and wives. And argues that a wife's subjugation to her husband, like the pain of child birth, provides no reason to continue to suffer that state any longer than it takes to find the means to end it. This - in the late 1600s.
Oh, and I, at one time, thought of Mill as a type of motive utilitarian. He does make the noises of a motive utilitarian when discussing the love of virtue and the sentiment of justice, he does, for the most part, fit a rule-utilitarian mold.
And, I continue work on my paper - which I am now calling, "A Motive Utilitarian Account of Condemnation and Punishment."
As is usually the case, "editing" a document involves completely rewriting it - and this is no exception. However, I am going to make it a rule that, once I get done with this draft, there will be no more substantive rewrites unless evidence is found that I have made a significant error. Instead, I intend to do what philosophers had done generally - which is to create a new edition that addresses some concerns and mentions some additional implications, but the structure of the paper will not change.
I have, as promised, added footnotes and citations - linking to the works of other authors.
I am not mentioning desirism because (1) I still find it a bit pretentious to have my own ethical theory, and (2) I do not want to clutter the discussion. However, in the conclusion of the paper I will point out how the considerations raised in the paper actually yield an implication that utilitarianism - as traditionally understood - is flawed. Motives are not ultimately to be evaluated according by the degree to which they maximize utility, but motives are to be evaluated by the degree that they fulfill or thwart other desires - this providing the reasons that exist to either promote or to inhibit the desire in question.
In this edition, whole sections have vanished - such as the section on the neuroscience of punishment. I need to study that field more before I make claims about its findings - and that is something I intend to do in graduate school. I can take a limited number of courses outside of the department - and I think a class on the neuroscience of "reward" (and punishment) will be rewarding. And the University of Colorado at Boulder has a "Center for Neuroscience" that coordinates activities in 13 departments including philosophy.
As a possible future course of action, I may send the center an email describing my research interest to see if there is anybody there willing to give me some advice on the topic. This, in turn, can be the subject of another paper.
In fact, now that I am nearly finished with this one and I am resolving not to make substantive changes, I want to start researching and working on the next paper - and I am trying to figure out what that next paper should be.
Perhaps I will build on my criticism of Peter Singer and Sam Harris and their use of "external reasons" that do not exist.
Perhaps I will write a paper on the distinction between reasons that an agent has ("to have a reason") and reasons that exist ("there exists a reason").
Perhaps I will discuss the false dichotomy of objective versus subjective morality, and how the vague definitions of these terms keep people debating something that would be settled if people only learned to speak clearly.
Perhaps I will defend my claim that J.L. Mackie is a "schmoral" realist.
Perhaps I will explain how J.S. Mill can defend his utilitarianism from the criticisms of G.E. Moore.
Perhaps I should write on a theory of excuse that describes moral excuses as statements that break the implication from what looks on the face of it to be a wrong action to the conclusion that the agent failed to have good motives.
Perhaps I will address Henry Sidgwick's objections to motives being the ultimate object of moral evaluation.
. . . . um . . . that last one. Yeah. That sounds like a good project. I have already been reading Sidgwick - and it will contribute to my project of getting a basic understanding of moral and political philosophy before classes start. Sidgwick is one of those authors that moral philosophers would be expected to have read and understood. And I will try to write it in such a way that a fan of desirism can hand it out to their friends and family and say, "See, this is what I am talking about. Morality is about evaluating motives, not about evaluating actions."
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 10:57 AM
Tuesday, November 22, 2016
279 days until the start of class.
Don’t mind me. I only stopped by to drop something off.
From Blame to Punishment: Disrupting Prefrontal Cortex Activity Reveals Norm Enforcement Mechanisms.
It is an article on the neurobiology of how the brain determines moral culpability and the severity of wrongdoing.
Of course, there is a distinction between what the brain does, and what it should do. For example, if we took brain scans we can determine what is going on in the brains of people who believe that the earth is 6,000 years old or that there are no genetic influences on intelligence. However, the fact that we can map the thought processes of people who reach these conclusions does not imply that those conclusions are justified. Similar, brain mappings of people who make moral judgments do not show that those moral judgments are logically sound or even that they make sense.
This is what I want to do as a moral philosopher – look at the logical relationships between the different features involved in “norm enforcement” – not just the mechanical process. This is how we can determine when the brain is functioning well, and when it is functioning poorly.
I wanted to put this here because I am going to be referring to it during the long holiday weekend. Reading this and the articles that it references is what I will be doing for fun and enjoyment over the next several days.
(And another article for future reading: Reinforcement Learning Signal Predicts Social Conformity)
(See also Editorial: What Determines Social Behavior? Investigating the Role of Emotions, Self-Centered Motives, and Social Norms)
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 3:30 PM
Monday, November 21, 2016
I dislike it when people steal my ideas before I even have a chance to come up with them. It's so rude!
The biggest culprits in history have been David Hume, John Stuart Mill, R.M. Hare, and J.L. Mackie. But a contemporary example that just came to light is David McAfee - who has taken my idea of a new kind of third party based on reason and evidence.
He calls my invention the Party of Reason and Progress.
He has compounded his offense by actually putting some effort into starting this party, promoting it, and getting it started.
As with the other people mentioned above, McAfee did not steal my ideas precisely. There are some differences, which I would like to comment on.
Before I do, there is an important point that I want to make. There seems to be a strong disposition for critics to adopt the attitude of, "If you do not agree with me in all things, you deserve to fail, and I will oppose you in all you do." This is an irrational position to adopt. Anybody who insists on perfect agreement with their ideas condemns themselves to being alone and impotent. No two people have exactly the same beliefs, so if one is going to work with other people one is necessarily going to work with people with whom they disagree.
That being said, it is not a reason to refrain from addressing those matters of disagreement - particularly in an organization that values reason.
Admittedly, what I called a "party" used the term lightly, since its members would be advised to join that political party in their district that is likely to select the next winning candidate. If one lives in a Republican district, then party members should join the Republican party; and if in a Democratic district, one should join the Democratic party. The reason is to have the maximum influence on deciding the person who will actually be sworn into office.
As a merely educational organization, PORP is not offering anything substantially different from other organizations that aim at promoting evidence-based policy making. In that case, it would be more useful for its members to join - and thereby to augment the strength of - one of the organizations that already exists. However, the idea being presented here of having its members join the political party that dominates its district provides it with a way of influencing elections that is currently not being tried.
This leads to a second point of difference between what I would recommend and what the Party of Reason and Progress is planning.
According to a posting on the blog Danthropology, PORP intends to focus on helping the Democratic Party.
While the party is going to focus on Democrats, for now, it would be wonderful to see it expand in the future and help elect third-party candidates at a more local level and build a true reason based party.
This causes me to ask whether this is actually going to be a "party of reason and progress" or whether, instead, it is going to be a "party of rationalizing the policies of the Democratic party."
This risk, I think, is augmented by the fact that the organization name contains the term "progress" in the name. While progress, generally conceived, is a good idea, this may be taken to suggest that its organizers have prejudged the "progressive" ideology as containing all truth and wisdom and that all good evidence necessarily supports this belief. It is as dogmatic as believing that all good evidence will support the Bible or some other religious text.
Actually, I do not think that the Democratic Party in general, or progressives in particular, have a monopoly on intelligence and wisdom. There are areas where Republicans support the better and wiser policy position, and where Democrats - with their ties to particular special interests - have adopted unreasonable and irrational views in order to curry favor with those groups.
In order to combat this potential bias, I think it would be a mistake to simply slap away anything Republican and, instead, to challenge Republicans to, "come here and show us what you have".
Accordingly, as with all things that exist in degrees, it is as true among Republicans as it is among Democrats that some are more rational and responsive to reason than others. Consider, for example, the Republican 2012 Presidential candidate Jon Huntsman who tweeted, "To be clear, I believe in evolution and I trust scientists on climate change. Call me crazy."
For my own part, I think that, when it comes to climate change, once it is admitted that the scientists know what they are talking about, the best course of action to pursue in the light of those facts are to follow the plan favored by market economists - to try to solve the problem by internalizing the costs rather than by adopting a body of complex and confusing regulations.
These, then, would be my two initial recommendations.
(1) Have its members join whatever political party that dominates their region (if any) and work within the primary process to help that party select the best candidate possible for the general election.
(2) Do not assume that progressivism has the one true and accurate set of solutions for all the world's problems and, instead, look outside of that political ideology when seeking real-world solutions to real-world problems.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 11:44 AM
279 days until the first day of classes.
I have just finished John Stuart Mill's book On Liberty.
I seriously recommend reading it. Consider the views of somebody writing purely from an interest in the public good, some of whose views will agree with your own, and some of which are like those of political rivals you might consider the enemies of civilization. Yet, he gives good arguments for them - showing that "political rivals" are not necessarily villains.
It is surprising how many things said over 150 years ago are no different from assertions made today.
This book is in the public domain, so none of these options cost any money.
I read a copy of the book that I found on Bartleby.com.
You might prefer a PDF file that you can upload into your favorite reader.
Or, you can get an audio version to listen to.
However it is done, it will take perhaps 4 to 5 hours - and it is a valuable way to be spending 4 or 5 hours out of one's life.
While I was doing this - and other things - I did not make much progress on the "Moral Aversion Theory of Punishment". Or, actually, I did - since I read Mill because I wanted to find out what he might have said on the subject of that paper.
And he did have something to day.
Mill, in his essay On Liberty argued that harm to others not only defined the limits of criminal law, but it also identified the limits of social condemnation. In other words, he argues for a limit to our use, not only of state punishment, but of private social punishments, based on a principle of harm to others. Any behavior that an individual can engage in that concerns only his own legitimate interests is behavior that people have no right to respond to with moral criticism.
In fact, Mill was more concerned with limiting moral criticism than he was with limiting civil punishments. Social criticism, he argued, can be far more powerful - seeping into every corner of a person's life - areas where such a blunt instruments as the criminal law can not hope to enter.
He does not provide a particularly strong example of the type of issue he is concerned with. However, in considering some of his views, I think that a primary set of examples would be those of women who wanted to step outside of her traditional gender roles. Even if the law did not prohibit it, private morality still made it nearly impossible for a woman to become a politician, or a business leader, or a research scientist, or captain a ship. Because the woman who seeks such a life does harm to nobody but herself, if she does harm at all, then it is nobody's business but hers whether she engage in these pursuits. The rest of society should just back off and let her live the life she wants for herself.
In fact, this fits in with the ideas that I wrote into "The Moral Aversion Theory of Punishment." I argued that private punishment be used to promote aversions to lying or breaking promises. With the exception of lying under oath or the breaking of serious contracts, generally we do not give the state permission to become involved in the common promise-breakings and lies that individuals may tell each other. These are not appropriate objects of civil punishments - but they are still the appropriate objects of condemnation and anger.
This same type of moral condemnation is not applicable to matters where people have reason to enjoy a non-obligatory permission. What a person wears, what they eat, the entertainments they enjoy, the peaceful practices of their religion that they engage in - none of these can be made the proper object of moral condemnation.
The same applies to the professions (or hobbies) that a woman might want to engage in . . . or a man, for that matter, since men, too, are limited by a society that considers certain ways of living to be "unmanly" and, thus, subject those who men who pursue those options to condemnation and ridicule.
This does not meant that we cannot criticize decisions such as these. The right to freedom of speech gives us the right to criticize even when we are wrong. However, criticism is possible without condemnation. The claim, "I think you are making a mistake" means something quite different from, "I think you are perverse and deserve to be condemned."
Next, I am going to turn my attention to Mill's Utilitarianism. I once argued that one can give a motive-utilitarian interpretation to his theory of right action. I am wondering if I can find my reasons for that conclusion again, or if it was something I merely imagined.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 9:36 AM
Make America Great?
Let's look at this. When you think of a great country, what is it that you think of?
One way to imagine greatness is to imagine a future history book looking back on these times.
Future students - will they see these events as a source of pride? Or as a source of embarrassment? Will these events stand in a spotlight? Or will it be a historical era that future historians gloss over because it is just too embarrassing?
We elected as our leader a bully - a person who seems to be incapable of going a day without abusing (verbally or otherwise) other people. If this is greatness, then contempt for others must be great.
We have elected as our leader a pathological liar. In my imagination, a great leader of a great country stands up before the country and tells them the truth and rallies them, in the face of that truth, to change the world and make a greater truth. Nothing Trump says can be trusted. If he were to go on the air and announce that a terrorist attack had been thwarted, all those with a respect for honesty would have to disbelieve him, until evidence came from another, reliable source. If this is greatness, then honesty and truth are a corruption which no great nation would aspire to.
One of the reasons why we cannot get the truth out of our President is because he does not know the truth. I do not know the biographies of every President, but I think it would be a challenge for a historian to name any that was as pathetically uninformed - as painfully ignorant - of the facts of the world as Donald Trump. When future generations generate lists of "the 10 stupidest American presidents", please let this forever be the bottom of that particular list. I want no future generation to surpass us on this measure.
If we had been lucky, this would have happened in a time when we could simply sweep the Trump presidency under the metaphorical rug and - after selecting a competent leader in 2020 - pretend that the intervening four years did not exist. The history books could have gone from Obama to whomever follows with just a few words about what happened in between.
Unfortunately, we selected an idiot for President at exactly the time when we could least afford to have an idiot for President. Future generations are going to watch their cities (and whole countries) disappear under rising seas and ask, "When did this happen? What was the pivotal decision?" Future historians will have little choice but to point to the year 2016 - the year that America "the greatest country on Earth" - elected an idiot for President.
They will also likely be looking back on decades of global violence and ask, "How did this happen?" They will trace its roots to the time when America abandoned justice and embraced injustice. They will trace the cause to our decision to abandon tactful and intelligent diplomacy and replace it with brute force and blunt trauma - inflicting suffering on millions who had done nothing to deserve it. Behavior that will, without a doubt, create in countless people a desire to strike back against the authors of those injustices - and to ally themselves with any who have the power to do so.
There is a chance, however slight, that the world can correct for our mistake. The rest of the world has an option to deal intelligently and rationally with the challenges of our time and, thus, be the heroes that save future generations from the suffering that they would have endured with Trump's America serving as an actual world leader.
But this is not "making America great". This is "making America so pathetic that its greatest contribution to the world's problems would be to go to its room, close the door, and not bother the grownup nations as they deal intelligently with these problems."
And there is a chance that this may be premature. Trump lacks intelligence, wisdom, or any actual concern for the welfare of others. But perhaps he is not so great a fool that he cannot recognize his own incompetence - and not so lacking in compassion that he lacks the motivation to put competent people in charge of making actual decisions. His first two weeks as President Elect give us little reason to hope. Like arrogant idiots throughout history, he mistakes flattery for competence, and gives to the flatterer what he should give to the competent.
Make America great?
A great nation values honesty, integrity, and deals intelligently and rationally to provide real-world solutions to real-world problems.
On that measure, we are not making America great. We are making America an embarrassment.
We have done exactly what a great nation would never have done. It would take the greatest self-deception to see the next four years as a period of greatness. It will be a period of injustice and ignorance that spread suffering that a more intelligent and virtuous nation - a greater nation - could have avoided.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 8:47 AM
Sunday, November 20, 2016
Do you like the idea of a "Third Party"?
This, I think, is an idea for a third party that can actually make substantive change.
This idea comes out of several different discussions, both before and after the last elections, regarding third parties, open primaries, and related matters.
In two years, 99.9% of the candidates elected will be either a Democrat or a Republican. Screaming about it won't change anything. It's a fact of the world we live in. If you want the next representative, senator, governor, council member, or whatever to more closely represent your views, you need to make sure that the next Democrat or Republican selected in your district better represents your views.
There is no value in voting for a losing candidate. The only measure of political success that means anything is getting your candidate elected.
Now, of these candidates, the vast majority will be selected in the primaries - not the general election. The vast majority of political districts in this country are one-party districts. The person who will be sworn in at the start of the new term is the person that the dominant party selects for that position.
All of this means that, if you want to have a say in government, you must devote your energies to deciding who the dominant party will select for that position. Everything else is just playing around.
So, here's the idea for a new political party.
I would like to call it, "The Party of Truth and Reason." This is a bit presumptuous, but names can be a bit presumptuous. By the way, it will not be the case that the party judges that it is the perfect and final arbiter of truth and reason. Rather, this identifies its goal - its ideal - never fully achieved, but always that which it aims for.
The way that this party works is that, if one party dominates the legislative district such that whoever that party selects to run the general election is the person who will be sworn in, then all of its members will register with that dominant party. If it is a Republican district, they register as Republicans. If it is a Democratic district, its members register as Democrats.
Remember, the goal of the party is to influence who actually gets sworn into office. It finds no value in spending time and resources on those who have no hope of winning.
The party does most of its work in the primaries, helping the dominant party select the most honest, reasonable, and rational candidate among those available. It can even run one of its own members. Here, too, it will not waste its efforts on candidates that have no chance of winning the election. It will look at those who have a chance of winning and, among them, put its efforts and political influence behind the most honest, rational, and reasonable among them.
I find it interesting to think about what would happen if this political party actually got to select candidates. A state legislature comes into session. In it, it is discovered that the Party of Truth and Reason backed four Honest and Rational Republicans, and three Honest and Rational Democrats. As the legislative session begins, perhaps it can host a dinner, and bring those Republicans and Democrats together and tell them, "We expect you to work together to create rational legislation based on the best scientific evidence."
Naturally, the more people one can find in a region willing to join in this project the more powerful the group will be. However, even one person can make a difference.
This would be a third party that has an actual chance of influencing the next election for the better. For somebody who actually has an interest in a third party, I would suspect that a third party that can make a real difference would be preferable to a third party that takes like-minded people out of the electoral process and have them throw away their votes.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 3:48 PM
Thursday, November 17, 2016
284 days until I will be attending my first class – I hope.
Readers of previous posts know that I have been reading David Boonin’s book The Problem of Punishment.
The problem of punishment involves the fact that punishment involves intentionally harming another person. This is something that ought not to be done unless there is a good reason to do so. In his book, Boonin surveyed the "good reasons to do so" that different philosophers have offered over the years. This includes consequentialist (deterrence) theories, retributivist theories, moral education, fairness. He finds fault with all of them.
However, I do not think he gave motive utilitarian theories a fair hearing. Consequently, I have been working on a document that gives a motive utilitarian response to his objections.
Readers of previous posts also know that I no longer consider myself a motive utilitarianism. However, it is close enough to what I do believe that the points that the motive utilitarian would bring up are similar enough to the points that I would bring up. The defense I offer works within a tradition that many moral philosophers are familiar with, and avoids muddying the waters by giving the specifics of an alternative theory. Still, a careful reader will see that I use the language of desirism (people generally have many and strong reasons to do X) instead of utilitarianism (doing X will maximize utility).
I uploaded a copy of the paper in the Desirism facebook group. Look for the posting on the "Moral Aversion Theory of Punishment" and you can download a copy of the paper. At least its first draft. (Actually, its second draft.)
My intention with this paper is to work on it some more over the Thanksgiving holliday, add some citations and references, and take whatever comments people give me, and make a second edition. Finishing this second edition on November 28, I hope to be able to present it to some lawyers that I associate with and see what they say of the ideas contained within. Many of those lawyers have likely lost any interest in the philosophy of law, but, hopefully, I can find three or four who will read it and give constructive comments.
I wonder if this can become a master's thesis. However, I am not wedded to the idea. I have a lot of things that I can write about - and this one might be considered a bit too ambitious for a master's thesis. A doctoral thesis, perhaps.
Anyway, I would like comments, and you have permission to pass it around to anybody you think may be interested.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 12:28 PM
Tuesday, November 15, 2016
286 days until I start classes.
Trump's victory will likely make it the case that I have no option but to be a serf working in some corporate-feudal empire, as that will become the only way to get access to health care. Of course, the corporate-feudal lords and masters will love the power that this gives them over workers. Unfortunately, I am not in the corporate-feudal class. I am in the worker class.
And since, unlike some very wealthy but very ignorant media pundits expressing opinions that have no basis in morality, I do not say the things that corporate-feudal lords want said, so I am not in a position to get much money from them.
Well . . . that is my rant for today.
If you like your economic and social policies grounded on hard data, I would like to recommend a series of three lectures from the London School of Economics that I have just finished. I needed to wait until the end of the third lecture to make sure that my biggest objections to the first two lectures were addressed. He addressed them directly and to my satisfaction.
Professor Raj Chetty presents a "big data" examination of facts and policies regarding upward mobility. The conclusions that he draws comes from a huge data set - and he explains how he and others use this huge data set to try to figure out how to improve the upward mobility of people born into households in the bottom 20%.
Upon discovering what aids in upward economic mobility - what allows the children of the poorest families to be better off than their parents - he looks at policies that should improve upward mobility.
His data yields conclusions that traditional conservatives and traditional liberals both will not like.
In the second lecture, he discussed education policies, and makes the case that children would be better off if principles had the power to fire the worse teachers and replace them - even replacing them with average teachers would be an improvement. He also argued that principals are quite adept at identifying the best teachers so that allowing principles to base teacher pay on merit rather than experience would likely result in significant improvement.
The quality of teachers, as it turns out, has a massive effect on the upward mobility of students - far more than class size or, for example. Consequently, we can gain more by giving an excellent teacher a larger class than we can by cutting the size of the class and assigning some of the students to a worse teacher.
His lecture focused not so much on policies that would require that we spend more money, but argued that the money we spend on policies can be spent more efficiently. In fact, some of our policies to help lower-income households are counter-productive.
For example, the way we handle programs that allow families to move into better neighborhoods is built in such a way that, for many children, it does more harm than good. Without spending any more money - but instead by redesigning the policies such that the money spent in them are spent more productively - we can get much better results.
One of the conclusions that he supports from this big data project is that children that are born and raised in integrated communities - as opposed to segregated communities - tend to experience greater upward mobility.
In the final lecture, he addressed some of the concerns I was having with the first two lectures such as: if somebody goes up in social mobility doesn't somebody else have to fall down to take their place? Here, he talks about two social goals - equality and overall wealth - and shows how the policies that he discussed earlier promote both goals at the same time. They both increase the overall size of the pie, and gives each person a more equal slice.
He even ventures into taboo territory and argues that there may be some genetic influence on economic success - though it is far from being the whole story.
I still saw a couple of inconsistencies in his argument. For example, while he talks about giving the students with the best math grades some type of assistance that would allow them to have the type of exposure that promotes upward mobility, he argues against using school vouchers to remove "the creme of the crop" from lower quality schools.
As I said, if you want your policy opinions to be based on data rather than repeating the "de dicta" beliefs of your social group, then this might be worth looking into.
There are three lectures.
The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility.
Policies to Remove Upward Mobility
Upward Mobility, Innovation, and Economic Growth.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 8:14 AM
Monday, November 14, 2016
This post is written in response to many of the social media posts and comments I have encountered in the last few days.
I also want to make clear that this is not an objection to protests, which I have defended in an earlier post. It is a discussion of strategy. More importantly, it discusses strategy not only as a practical concern, but a moral concern.
I would like to compare two strategies.
The first is Obama's strategy against ISIS.
One principle he used was that of isolation. Obama refused to use the term "Islamic terrorism" because he did not want to associate ISIS with 1.6 billion people, many of whom were willing to work with us against this contagion. He argued that we were far better off with these people as our allies in battling ISIS than we are by forcing them and ISIS into the same camp.
The other principle actually seems to be better illustrated by those who stood opposed to the drone strikes. Their message is that the drone strikes can only be expected to cause the communities that suffer the results of these strikes to hate us all the more. We can well understand why they strike us, the opponents to drone strikes argued, given what we have done to them.
On this latter point, I would say that the Obama administration was aware of and shared these concerns. They saw themselves as having two competing objectives. One was to disrupt plans to launch another terrorist strike by taking out their leaders and assets, while another was to avoid risking the propaganda effects of harming civilians. Sometimes they judged that success in realizing one objective required a sacrifice in obtaining the other objective.
The second strategy I want to examine is found in reactions to Trump's victory in the election.
One principle I find here is to be to target responsibility for Trump as broadly as possible. Republicans, "people who voted for Trump", "People who failed to vote for the only candidate with a chance of defeating Trump," "People who did not support Sanders" - the objective seems to be to create the largest target group possible. This is in contrast to an the anti-ISIS strategy which, in this application, would be to isolate Trump and his immediate associates and say to as many others as possible, "We know that you are better than this - so we refuse to associate you with this racism unless you do so explicitly yourself."
The other principle that I have seen people defend applies to the protests against Trump's presidency. Some have defended and argued for acts of violence. This comes from people who seem to think that random violence against others is a way of earning their cooperation and respect.
Unlike the case of the drone strikes, we cannot say that the people who would commit these acts of violence perform them reluctantly because they have some other, more important goal to promote. Their "greater concerns" are not concerns that require violence - particularly violence against random targets. Their strategy would be like a drone strategy that simply targeted random buildings for destruction as a way of protesting our disapproval of acts of terrorism.
The ironic thing is that there seem to be quite a few people who, at the same time, support and defend the first strategy (ideological isolation and minimizing harm done to civilians) and the second strategy (ideological bundling and using violence to demonstrate disapproval).
It is true that the drone strikes are deadlier, and this is a significant moral difference. Yet, I would not expect those who oppose the drone strikes to suddenly cheer them if the government announced that they were only going to destroy property.
In fact, imagine Trump going on the air to announce a new strategy to battle terrorism. Trump announces that he has directed the military to direct their drone strikes against random buildings and other property as a way of protesting terrorism. I have no doubt that a lot of people would quickly brand that as one of the stupidest ideas in the history of stupid ideas.
I would have to agree.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 8:01 AM
Friday, November 11, 2016
"Give Trump a chance" they say.
I already have.
Trump had over 500+ days to prove that he was a decent human being with sound policies that would help - rather than hurt – good, honest people.
That's what campaigns are for.
He spectacularly, unequivocally failed.
“Not My President”
What is this supposed to mean?
More importantly, what it is supposed to accomplish?
On its surface level, it is simply denying reality. In the real world, Trump will be the next President of the United States. That is a fact. It is an unfortunate fact – something like the fact that diabetes is responsible for 73,000 amputations last year. It is a horrible fact - with a lot of human suffering packed into it. But it is a fact.
It may be defended as symbolically rejecting his policies and attitudes. However, it would make more sense to explicitly reject those policies and attitudes and, more importantly, to be using this opportunity to take action to prevent the greatest harms he is inflicting on the country.
That Trump will be the next President of the United States is a fact.
However, there are two things NOT implied by this fact.
First, it does not justify standing aside while Trump and his ilk cause real and lasting harm to innocent people.
No moral human being has an obligation to set their moral principles aside simply because somebody like Trump won an election.
My obligations as a citizen are not to silently and obediently step aside while he implements his agenda. In fact, my obligations - to my fellow human beings and to the nation as a whole - is to stand in the way of those policies that would inflict suffering on the innocent or harm the country as a whole. "Trump is the next President" changes none of that.
Second, it does not justify obstructionism.
There are those who are saying that the only attitude one should take to anything Trump tries to do is to block it.
That is not right. That is the response of a child threatening to hold her breath until she turns blue. That is not the response of a mature and morally responsible adult.
Yes, this is what the Republican legislature did for 8 years. But in doing so they engaged in morally reprehensible behavior. That's what we told them at the time. It was true at the time. It remains true today.
If we do the same thing ourselves - if we even advocate the same thing - then we are telling the Republicans that, when they did it, they did nothing wrong. We are vindicating behavior we once condemned. We are justifying actions we once said were unjustifiable.
Either that, or we are voluntarily and deliberately engaging in behavior that we ourselves claim to be morally contemptible.
Our obligations as citizens is to do what we believe and once said the Republicans ought to have done.
Our duty is neither to step aside, or to obstruct.
Our duty is engage.
(1) To try and find common ground where we can do what we all agree is good and necessary.
(2) To oppose that which is harmful or destructive.
(3) To find compromise so that we can accomplish things that do more good than harm - that improve the quality of people's lives, if not so much as we would have liked to have done so, at least by as much as we can.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 8:31 AM
Thursday, November 10, 2016
The Fine Art of Effective Protest
There are three things wrong with these current round of protests.
(1) They are not nearly big enough.
(2) They need a reason to exist - a clear message.
Protesting the fact that Trump was elected is nonsense. He's elected. That's a fact. Protesting this fact is like a child throwing a temper tantrum. "I don't want Trump to be President. Whaaaaaa!"
Here's a reason to protest. There are a lot of people in a communication bubble made up of Fox News and paid for by corporate interests. (Not all corporate interests are malevolent, but some of them certainly are.)
On the internet, and in our personal lives, we create communication bubbles. We hear only from those people we agree with. All others, we "unfriend" or we simply refuse to access their internet sites or click on their links.
We heed to burst these internet bubbles and get real, accurate information to these people - information about climate change, about Obamacare, and about social injustices. This is a benevolent act. They are harming their own interests, those of their friends and neighbors, and, most of all, those of their children.
Write up something. One page. Pass it around to anybody you encounter. Put it on windshields of cars. Invite people to meetings where they can learn more.
The purpose of the protest is to get them to pay attention - to "look this way".
The purpose of a protest defines its content. It needs to be packed with information. Good, honest, reliable, fact-checked information. Not "leftist propaganda" that can be easily dismissed and discarded. Not mere opinion that has no facts behind it. Facts, that people can look up for themselves - that Politifact will identify as "True".
(3) It must be non-violent.
Loud, but not violent.
By "loud", I mean something that is hard to ignore. I mean shouting. I also mean civil disobedience - actions that may be technically criminal but that do no actual harm.
NOTE: Civil disobedience needs to be announced in advance with a clear messasge. Ghandi's salt march, and King's march on Selma Alabama are paradigm examples. "We are going to do X. We are going to do X at this date at this time and at this location. We are doing X for the following reasons."
And it is best to precede the act with some perfectly legal action that nobody has any right to stop. The best preliminary action is a march from a rally location to the location where the civil disobedience will take place.
Violence will only invite hatred and make retaliation seem justified. Worse, violence tends to spiral out of control. Group A commits acts of violence against Group B, who now feel justified in retaliating against Group A, who now feel that they are justified in further violence against Group B. Pretty soon you have a situation like Iraq or Lebanon (or North Ireland, until recently) - filled with people whose main goal in life is to deliver yet another deadly blow against the opposition.
The best place to stop this cycle of violence is before Round 1 - do not start it. If the other side starts it, then it both starts and ends with them. If not before Round 1, then when? Round 9? Round 109? 1000 years from now? Nope - before Round 1 is the only rational place to stop the violence.
Trump is an authoritarian. He is going to hate protest. A person who can be provoked with a tweet will be provoked by a protest. He will look for ways to make a violent response. Count on it. Be ready for it. Be resolved to the principle that the violence starts and stops with them.
If there are people on your side prone to do violence, then plan your activities without them. Do not let them corrupt and contaminate your message. The message is important. Corrupting and contaminating it is counter-productive.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 8:23 AM
Wednesday, November 09, 2016
As the finger pointing begins, to aid discussion, I would like to establish some ground rules.
(1) Direct one's criticism at a trait or attitude, not at a person or group. Bigotry, authoritarianism, intolerance, misogyny, a disregard for the truth - these are all problems worthy of condemnation. Trump supporters, Muslims, Atheists, Mexicans, Progressives, Conservatives, Liberals - these are people - some more of whom may have the quality in question, some may not. More importantly, there are always people outside the target group who share the quality. When they do, they need to share the criticism and not be left out because they are not a member of a target group.
(2) Explanations have to point at real difference, not just perceived difference. One cannot rationally blame Clinton's dishonesty or corruption, for example, because there is no actual evidence of sufficient dishonesty or corruption. Significantly more dishonest and corrupt people won their elections. So, we needed to find actual difference.
(3) Where an explanation lands on a perceived difference not grounded on evidence, then an explanation is required for the mistaken perception. It is best if independent reason exists for that explanation. Implicit gender bias explains misperceptions concerning Clinton's "dishonesty" and "corruption". It causes people to accept as true derogatory claims independent of evidence and react to them out of proportion to that of a male facing the same accusations.
(4) A common rhetorical trick is to treat a proposed explanation as the sole explanation and then respond by saying that because this is not true, the explanation being offered can be rejected. This is a straw man response - constructing a too-weak interpretation of an argument in order to easily attack it. Explanations should be taken as contributing to that which is being explained, not as the sole cause.
(5) From (4) it follows that two people offering different explanations can both be right. Getting into a shouting match over such differences is a waste. Instead, they should be taken as identifying two different problems, each of which needs to be addressed.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 7:57 AM
This morning, a lot of Americans are waking up to a more hostile world.
Muslim Americans, Latino Americans, women, are going to find themselves facing verbal abuse, even violence.
Some will get angry, and they will want to react in kind.
Of course, we can imagine how an authoritarian violence-loving administration will respond to this type of retaliation by disgruntled minorities. The treatment becomes harsher, more violent. The response, then, becomes harsher and more violent. Each side justifies their actions as "just retribution", and the "just retribution" grows.
The USA starts to look more like Iraq.
I would like to say to the members of these targeted groups, "Do not respond to injustice with violence. Trust to democracy. We'll take care of it."
But to say that now is to utter an obvious absurdity. Democracy cannot always be trusted. Tyranny of the majority, and injustice against the minority, are real.
Still, that does not make violence a better solution. It may be more satisfying in the short run, but there are many and strong reasons to condemn it as a solution. We are not going to improve the quality of life with a growing cycle of violence. At some point, we are going to have to agree to end it and make peace. It will be much easier to do if we do not first create a long history of violent injustices demanding retaliation.
Yet, I can hear the response. “It is all fine and good for you to sit there in your position of white privilege and tell us to sit back and do nothing - to not make waves. Remember what Martin Luther King said. 'Justice too long delayed is justice denied'."
This is a fair and just accusation in many cases. It is not an accusation to be ignored.
However, it misinterprets my argument. King was the leader of non-violent protest, and he was responding to people who claimed that even non-violent protest was objectionable.
Anger is a legitimate response to injustice. In anger, one should act.
The problem is found in an escalating cycle of violence - until both sides feel that they must get in yet another act of retribution - justice demands it. And their retribution takes the form of violence against "them" - "the other" - regardless of individual guilt or innocence. That is what creates a place like Iraq, or Lebanon, or (until recently) Northern Ireland. It is an argument that sides fully with Martin Luther King against his critics. It is an argument for standing beside him, not against him. And for making it a duty to do so.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 7:55 AM
Tuesday, November 08, 2016
Today is election day. The fate of civil community hangs in the balance.
It seems odd to say that. Important issues were on the table in previous Presidential elections. However, we would have survived a McCain or a Romney administration. They might have done some good.
I thought that Obama would be the better President than John McCain and Mitt Romney - but they were not horrible human beings. They were decent people with ideas as to what would make a better community - and with political alliances to subgroups that I thought were advocating poor policies. That is all.
This year it is different. Trump is not a decent human being. He is nationalist authoritarian xenophobic sexist bigot with no understanding of - let alone respect for - the Constitution of the United States or for any type of rational free-market economic system.
I am seriously saddened by the fact that we have spent 500 days enduring the celebration of traits and attitudes that are utterly contemptible.
The word itself does not properly convey what is wrong here. In the form that Trump embodies, it means taking half of the population and treating them as if they have no purpose in life but to be attractive play-things for men. They are to be judged entirely by their looks. If one finds a woman attractive, one may pick them up and fondle them as a toy – and discard them when they are no longer pleasing. For 500 days, the idea that this is the way a man acts has been broadcast across our culture, and into the brains of today’s teenage boys - who will share this community with the teenage women of today.
That was a step backwards – a step that will endure for generations.
People make mistakes. We all will utter a false claim from time to time. However, there are two types of morally objectionable false claims. These are claims that people interested in living in a thriving community have reason to condemn.
There are lies – false statements that the speaker knows to be false but which the speaker utters for the sake of manipulating others for their own ends. Elsewhere, I have described this lying as parasitical. The liar tries to put a “bug” in your brain that will cause you to act in ways that would sacrifice your own interests, and serve the interests of the liar instead.
There are also reckless claims. These are false statements where a minimally responsible person would have looked them up and tried to determine their truth before uttering them. Or, at the very least, a person concerned with truth would have stopped repeating a claim once it was pointed out to be false, or even where it has been questioned.
For 500 days, Trump has taught us to have an absolute disregard for the truth. Both lies and recklessly false claims – including claims that can lead to the deaths of others. DNA evidence showed that the Central Park Five were shown to be innocent of the crimes they were charged with – but Trump still wants them executed. Truth does not matter. Only satisfying Trump’s own desire to see people killed matters.
In this blog, I have defined bigotry as making derogatory over-generalizations about a group of people. One takes the wrongful actions that a member of a group may have done, and one uses them to tar the whole group. A Jew gives the appearance of having gained financially through shady business transactions, and all Jews get sent to gas chambers. A black man is accused of a rape, and it becomes appropriate to lynch all black men.
For Trump, we should treat all Mexicans as rapists, and all Muslims as terrorists.
Justice says that a person is not to be treated like a convicted criminal – rapist or terrorist – merely because of race or religion. It says that each person is to be presumed innocent unless proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. However, Trump has been telling us – and the teenagers among us specifically – to judge individuals by their race and religion, rather than as individuals.
Bullying. Telling his followers to beat up anybody who speaks in protest. Telling the military to torture people even if they have no information “because they deserved it” and to target women and children of suspected terrorists, to saying that having nuclear weapons makes no sense if one can’t actually use them . . . Trump has no qualms against the use of violence to get his way. And he tells his followers the same thing – use violence against any who object or get in your (our) way.
Somehow, we need to start rebuilding a civil society. There are certain core values that we need to survive – honesty, justice, and civility. We can disagree on the right way to go about things – on the best way to create a safe and prosperous community. But we cannot disagree on whether to be honest, just, and civil and still survive as a community.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 9:31 AM
Monday, November 07, 2016
294 days until the start of class.
I must say, my introduction to the Philosophy department on Friday did not go as I would have liked. I introduced myself to a few people, but nobody seemed interested in talking.
However, they now know what I look like (some of them).
I did, as is my current MO, provide Dr. Heathwood with an email with some comments after the presentation. It makes me quite nervous to do so, but . . . it's my job.
Heathwood's presentation was on unconscious desires and the attitudinal theory of pleasure.
I had not heard about the attitudinal theory of pleasure until a couple of days before I went to the presentation. I decided that I wanted to know something about the subject before I attended the presentation, so I went online and did some research. I can't say that I actually understand the attitudinal theory of pleasure at this point. However, I found the neurobiological research on unconscious pleasures to be interesting.
Neurobiologists tend to divide rewards into "wanting" (motivational force) and "liking" (hedonic quality).
Naturally, I am more interested in the neurobiology of "wanting". "Wanting" influences behavior - provides motivational force. In fact, the paper that I am currently working on - concerning a moral aversion theory of punishment - focuses heavily on creating an aversion to performing certain types of actions: theft, vandalism, assault, etc.
However, my readings take me into the subject of pleasure.
What neurobiologists mean by unconscious pleasures are likings (and dislikings) that we are not aware of.
[E]vidence suggests that subjective pleasure is but one component of reward, and that rewards may influence behavior even in the absence of being consciously aware of them. Indeed, introspection can actually sometimes lead to confusion about the extent to which rewards are liked, whereas immediate reactions may be more accurate. In extreme, even unconscious or implicit “liking” reactions to hedonic stimuli can be measured in behavior or physiology without conscious feelings of pleasure (e.g., after a subliminally brief display of a happy facial expression or a very low dose of intravenous cocaine). (Kent C. Berridge et. al, “Dissecting Components of Reward: ‘Liking’, ‘Wanting’, and Learning,” Current Opinion in Pharmacology, 2009, 9:65-73)
In the field of "wanting", I am quite comfortable talking about unconscious wants. An agent can be seen to be approaching (desire) or avoiding (aversion) various states of affairs that the agent himself is not aware of. A prime example that I have discussed in recent posts is implicit bias - such as this case:
In one study of implicit bias, two resumes were created – one showing education and limited experience, while another showed experience but limited education. Male and female names were randomly assigned to each resume. In this experiment, if the man’s resume contained experience but limited education (and the woman’s application the opposite), subjects tended to say that experience is what mattered and select the male application. If the man’s resume contained education but limited experience, the subjects tended to say that education is what matters and select the male’s resume. (Erie Luis Uhlmann and Geoffrey L. Cohen, “Constructed Criteria: Redefining Merit to Justify Discrimination”, Psychological Science, 16:6 pp 474-480.)
These experience suggest an attitude towards the male applicant that the subjects are often not aware of. It is an unconscious aversion to having a woman in a particular position. The agent may not be aware of the fact that he has such an aversion - but it is the best explanation for the observations regarding how they treat the resumes.
Heathwood's presentation was not on the existence of unconscious pleasures. His presentation was on the claim that this created a problem for attitudinal theories of pleasure. This is because of a principle that he reported as "No Awareness: No Attitude." I do not understand this principle. In the presentation it seemed like the interpretation being used was "No awareness of an attitude implies no attitude" - which is how I took it.
However, on further reflection, it may have meant something like, "No awareness of a state of affairs then no attitude towards that state of affairs." I have argued that animals do not fear death because animals do not have a concept of death - a being cannot have an attitude towards something they cannot sense or comprehend. This, I think, is true. However, this still allows an agent can still have an attitude towards something they unconsciously perceive or comprehend.
Yet, I need to set those questions aside. I do need to get further into the neurobiology of wanting. However, my first duty is to this paper on the moral aversion theory of punishment. I will have more to say on that in the posts ahead.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 10:05 AM
Thursday, November 03, 2016
The first day of class is in 298 days – but I am visiting the philosophy department tomorrow.
As I work on editing my paper on a moral aversion theory of punishment, I have turned my attention in reading to neuroscience, for three reasons.
Reason 1: The presentation I will be attending tomorrow is on unconscious pleasures. In preparation, I went to Google Scholar and looked up “unconscious pleasure” and was treated to a number of neuroscience articles.
Neuroscientists believe in the existence of unconscious pleasures because they have conducted experiments on pleasure and associated pleasure with certain other observable characteristics – e.g., facial expressions. They have also taken brain images of people experiencing pleasure. They then discovered that it is possible to generate the same observations as well as correspondingly relevant neural images even though the subject reported no consciousness of pleasure.
Reason 2: A person interested in desirism has reason to be interested in the neuroscience of wanting, so my reading has wandered into that area as well. Within these documents on pleasure, the neuroscientists discussed other parts of the reward system, such as wanting and learning.
Reason 3: The neuroscience behind learning certain aversions – such as aversions to act-types such as theft, vandalism, lying, and promise-breaking – are relevant to this paper that I am writing on punishment. If punishment is used to promote aversions to performing certain act-types, then it would help to have an understanding of the neuroscience behind this process.
Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to find any research on this subject specifically – so I cannot point to a paper and say, “See, like that!” Of course, I also cannot find a paper that refutes it. I can only find papers that discuss aspects of neuroscience that have implications for the elements that I am interested in – such as these discussions on pleasure and wanting.
However, it seems that I am going to have to revise my views at least a little in light of this recent research.
In my writings, I have been reducing aversion to desire. I have been expressing an aversion to P as a desire that not-P. In terms of propositional attitudes, this may be true. However, in terms of neuroscience, this reduction does not work.
It turns out that the brain contains two parallel but distinct structures. Positive motivation – motivation to realize a particular state of affairs – seems to be found in the left frontal cortex. Meanwhile, avoidance behavior – a disposition to act so as to prevent the realization of a state of affairs – is processed in the right frontal cortex. This leaves open the possibility that desires and aversions function differently, as it brain could have easily evolved functional relationships to one hemisphere and not the other.
The details are for neuroscientists to work out. I have not yet come upon any evidence that there is any functional difference between desires and aversions, but the possibility is there. This would relate to creating aversions to theft, vandalism, assault, and the like.
I am expecting that Dr. Heathwood’s paper tomorrow will touch on this research – so I should be able to get a little more information.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 8:34 AM
Wednesday, November 02, 2016
299 days until I attend my first class, and 49 hours until I introduce myself to the philosophy department.
If I get a chance to meet any of the graduate students, I intend to offer to read any papers they may be writing. This will give me a chance (1) to get to know them and their work, (2) to see the current state of the debate, (3) to see what graduate students are expected to produce, (4) to test some of my own ideas through my own comments and their responses to my comments.
My paper on punishment is coming along well. I have rewritten it for a general office, and I have finished the first draft. I am going through it now on a second draft. It is currently 9000 words long. It has taken me 2 weeks to write from start to finish, with a full-time job and other commitments I have not yet given up (but which I will give up when I start school). This was a self-test of my ability to do the types of things that will be expected of me as a student.
What follows below is a section of the current draft that examines two types of arguments that might be raised against a motive-utilitarian theory of punishment. (1) That the theory fails to justify the punishment of people who should be punished, and (2) the theory calls for the punishment of people who should not be punished. It would be possible to exhaustively go through each possible counter-example. However, the section below tells of the types of responses that could be made against these types of objections.
Oh, and I know - as I have argued in the past - that mine is not a motive-utilitarian theory of punishment. Yet, the concept of "motive utilitarianism" at least gets close to what I defend - close enough for the discussion to continue.
The Range of Punishment
In his book, Boonin raises a couple of different types of objections to almost every moral theory. One is that the theory justifies too little - there are people who deserve punishment according to the theory, but who may not be punished. The second is that it justifies too much – there are people who have done no wrong according to the theory, but who may be punished.
The moral aversion thesis can be targeted with each of these objections. There are people who commit acts of a type that people generally have reason to promote aversions to who may not be legitimately punished.
Consider a person who breaks a promise to meet a parent for lunch. We have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to breaking promises. However, this person should not be hauled up before a judge.
Or – to use one of Boonin's favorite examples – the case of a person who uses a car that has failed its emissions test to drive a sick friend to the hospital. This person displays a proper set of motives, but he is still subject to punishment for breaking the law.
Not Punishing the Guilty
One of the types of arguments that Boonin frequently uses against various theories of punishment is that they "punish too much". He raises an objection that there are people who meet the criteria for justified punishment established within the theory, but where punishment is not, in fact, justified.
He could raise that type of objection to the present theory by pointing out that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote aversions to lying and promise-breaking. This means that they have reason to punish liars and promise-breakers, as a way to promote that aversion. Yet, the law would not punish a person who lied to a friend about not having enough cash to pay for lunch, or who broke a promise to visit a friend. The theory, then, justifies the punishment of people whom it would not be permissible to punish.
Since I am defending this as a consequentialist theory, it is permissible to bring in consequentialist considerations as to the permissibility of state punishment in these cases. If the state were to get involved in investigating every instance of lying and promise-breaking that takes place, it would require such a massive increase in the size of the police force and the court system. The costs would be tremendous – perhaps even prohibitive.
Consequently, there are reasons to require that, in these cases, punishment is left up to private individuals. This, in turn, would limit the types of punishment permitted to those that individuals can carry out on their own – such things as verbal condemnation and refusing to interact with the liar or promise-breaker (because they cannot be trusted). Violent responses to these wrongs would be prohibited.
Another type of case where we make certain actions immune to legal punishment, even when there is reason to condemn or punish the actions, is in the realm of freedom of speech. For utilitarian reasons, there are reasons to prohibit the use of violence in response to mere words in a large number of cases. This is because, where violence against mere words is permitted, it tends to produce bad consequences.
Consequently, we have adopted a prohibition to responding to mere words with violence – a prohibition expressed in terms of a right to freedom of speech.
Yet another restriction on punishing wrongdoers is that the wrongdoer must actually violate a statute. Punishing a person for an act that is not law would be counted as a type of ex post facto law. The authority to punish after the fact for actions that were not illegal when they were performed has a long history of abuse. Sovereigns would invent laws, then arrest their political opponents for actions performed that were not criminal at the time. To prevent this type of abuse, governments adopt a principle that allows punishment only for wrongdoings that were crimes at the time the action took place.
In general, there are reasons (motives) not to punish every wrongdoer. Any objection to the motive-utilitarian theory based on the claim that it fails to punish the guilty must consider these possible reasons why a motive utilitarian would not want to punish the guilty in those circumstances.
Punishing the Innocent
On the other side of the coin, there are people who break the law for good reason – Boonin's example of a person driving a car that she knows has failed its emissions test to get a sick friend to the hospital. This is not a bad person. This is not a person that the "moral aversion" theorist has any reason to punish. Yet, she has broken the law and, according to Boonin, may legitimately be punished.
I disagree with Boonin on this matter. Such a person ought not to be punished. If the law calls for her punishment, then this is an example of a bad law – a law that ought to be changed.
There are several ways to create a law that respects the principle that good people cannot be justifiably punished.
One option is to write the exceptions into the law itself. A law against speeding can include an exception for cases where there is a medical emergency that is a matter of life and death. Prohibitions against assault and even killing another person often come with a built-in exception in the case of self-defense or the defense of another.
Alternatively, the law can be written in vague terms that require those who enforce the law to use moral judgment. The act being prohibited might be defined as "showing reckless disregard" or "with the intent of causing harm" that would exclude actions performed by good people.
Yet another option is to give people discretion as to when to enforce the law. The victim's discretion to press charges, the police officer's discretion as to give a warning or citation, the prosecutor's discretion to file charges, the grand jury's discretion as to whether to indict, the jury's discretion as to whether to convict, the judge's discretion as to overrule a jury's guilty verdict, and an executive's discretion to pardon, are all examples where the law provides opportunity to prevent a good person from being punished. The moral aversion thesis suggests treating these as a feature that exists to prevent the types of problems that Boonin uses in these objections.
On the subject of discretion, there is an argument that can be made in favor of a type of rule worship. People are given discretion so that they can help ensure that the law punishes only those that should be punished. However, individuals are at risk of using this discretion to act on explicit and implicit biases – allowing more white people to escape punishment than blacks, or bringing the law down particularly harshly on Muslims or punishing men more severely than women. To prevent these types of actions, one may argue for less discretion rather than more.
However, this does not invalidate the argument for discretion. It simply admits that there are competing interests that we must weigh against each other. It still remains the case that the good person ought not to be punished. It is still counts as a reason in favor of a modification in the law that it would reduce or eliminate these types of consequences.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 11:15 AM