Monday, November 26, 2018

Nationalism 018: Reparations vs Distributive Justice

We, as a society, have engineered a set of sentiments whereby somebody who is wronged may demand help, but a person who is merely harmed but not wronged may only ask for assistance. I do not see good reason to engineer society in this way. It is something that people with wealth and power who are concerned about their treatment at the hands of others with wealth and power have reason to engineer. Concern for the poor provides them with no benefit, so they have an incentive to dismiss it as supererogatory. However, this does not justify the practice.

I come to this point in a consideration of reparations for colonization, enslavement of its people, and other wrongs committed by one nation against another.

Imagine a particularly eventful weekend morning. As you are walking down the street, off to your right, a hapless stranger is struck by a meteor shattering his arm, breaking a major artery, and he is laying on the ground bleeding to death. On your left, an individual has been badly beaten unjustly – on the basis of race or religion or having something the attackers wanted – by bigots or gang members either for fun or for profit.

Why is it more important to help the person on your left who is the victim of an injustice, and not the person on your right who is the victim of an accident?

Helping the person on your right is widely considered supererogatory – above and beyond the call of duty. You may help him if you want to – and we will praise you if you do. At the same time, we are anxious to find somebody to blame for the attack on the left and to make sure that the victim is restored to his former state. If the person on the right is left to die of his wounds, there is a good chance that nobody will be arrested or punished. In virtue of being wronged, that person on the left has a claim against others – a claim that he can use to demand assistance. The person on the right has no such claim. He may ask for help, but may not demand it.

This came to my mind as I read the following from Mills’ essay:

Moreover, a reparative normative project has traditionally been seen as more urgent in ethical theory, since it is obligatory for all liberals to correct violations of negative rights, whereas poverty relief is too easily pushed over the moral border into the realm of the supererogatory, praiseworthy but not (for right-wing liberals) required of us. (Mills, Charles W., “Race and Global Justice”, p. 27)

Though it may be a coincidence, I think it is useful to note the fact that if a group of wealthy people were to get together and choose a moral theory, they would have reason to choose this distinction. The political and economic elite have reason to demand compensation or reparations from other members of the elite that cost them money or position. However, they may well expect that they will not have much use for an overall concern for the poor, nor would they have reason to cultivate such a sentiment in others (or to allow others to promote such a sentiment in them).
Kok-Chor Tan defended the use of reparative arguments on the grounds that they work.

So supplementing arguments from equality with arguments from reparation for colonialism can help motivate compliance with the demands of egalitarian justice. It appeals more directly to people’s moral intuitions that individuals must take responsibility for their wrongdoing. (Tan, Kok-Chor, “Colonialism, Reparations, and Social Justice”, in Reparations: Interdisciplinary Inqiries by Jon Miller and Rahul Kumar, (eds.), Oxford University Press, p. 286).

First, it doesn’t work if the person who needs help was harmed but not wronged. In the story I told above, reparative arguments may motivate people to help the person who was wronged but provide no additional motivation to help the person who was hit by the meteor. It only works in cases where an individual was both wronged and harmed.

Second, I have not questioned the descriptive claim that a perception of wrongness motivates. Tan may be correct – pointing out that the person was wronged may, in fact, motivate people to give more and faster help. This is something for psychologists and public relations and marketing firms (firms whose job it is to determine how best to motivate people to act) to answer. I am interested in whether it should be the case that mere harms – harms that are not caused by wrongs – fail to motivate.

Tan has another argument available to defend claims that an individual has been wronged as relevant and important – when they are true. This is to help to establish and set the norms of society – to acknowledge the fact and to teach the lesson that decent people do not behave in this way. Condemnation reinforces the norm. It helps to make it the case that similar actions will not occur in the future because people know better. There is reason to do this. However, it is also possible to do this while giving aid to the person struck by the meteor. This does not answer the question I posed at the start of this essay – it asks the question in different words. Why are we not working to establish a norm whereby those in need of help, even if they have not been wronged – are helped by condemning the failure to help?

Here, I am drawing on the fact that praise and condemnation are processed in the brain to produce rules for behavior - social and cultural norms - that will, in turn, influence future actions. We have reason to condemn colonization and slavery as a way of promoting social norms against them, so as to reduce the possibility of similar crimes being committed in the future. A demand for reparations provides just such a statement of condemnation. In this case, one has reason to use the reparations argument - but it does not explain the supererogatory nature of helping those who were harmed but not wronged.

Charles Mills makes use of this argument in writing about the importance of recognizing the role that race has played in the past and that it currently plays in our political and social systems. It would be fundamentally dishonest to pretend that wrongs committed on the basis of race did not exist. They did not exist, and what we have now are the effects of those historical events. This provides a reason to say, “those people were wronged,” and to seek some form of correction. However, this does not justify the attitude that the person harmed but now wronged may be ignored.

Here, we may conceive of two ways of looking at the person who was wronged. We can debate whether that person is to be helped because he was wronged or because he was harmed. Mills’ arguments and Tan’s as well provide reason to insist that we correctly and honestly describe that person’s situation as that of a person who was wronged. This is because, according to Tan, people are more likely to help him and, because of Mills, because these facts are important – they ought not to be ignored. However, we are still ignoring the person on the right – the person harmed but not wronged.

There is a practical problem here that I do not have any idea how to solve. A morally concerned individual apparently has obligations to end climate change, end the abuse of international domestic workers, prevent the buying and selling of blood oil, resolve race relations, end the refugee crisis, end global poverty, oppose fascism . . . all at once. Any one of these would represent a full-time commitment – and no human being has the capacity to become fully involved in all of them. With so many problems to fix and each of them taking so much work, it suggests that there is no way any individual has any chance of to avoid being a villain.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Fox News playing Joseph Goebbels

Fox News is playing the role of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels to Trump’s Hitler.

Is this your typical election hyperbole?

Every election is filled with exaggerated claims about Presidential intentions. Every administration is met with warnings (from the other party) about how the administration is secretly planning to create a dictatorship and, thus, must be removed from power.

And, for the record, I am not talking about a secret conspiracy to establish a dictatorship. All parties are “playing it by ear”. But, like a tsunami coming in from the ocean, the fact that the water did not conspire to destroy the city does not imply that the city is safe.

In this tsunami, Trump is a showman with no moral compass. He tells people what they want to hear with absolutely no sense of tight and wrong. Fox News (like Joseph Goebbels) sees profit in hitching it’s wagon to the showman. Goebbels had a very prominent role in Nazi Germany by promoting Hitler. Ambitions at Fox News are served by serving Trump in the same way. “Do you want to talk to Trump? You get to him through us.”

But there is far more to it than taking advantage of a relationship.

Hitler gained power on a message that somebody needed to protect Germany (and Germans) from a fictitious “Jewish Menace.” Goebbels accommodated Hitler by filling the media with images and messages of a fictitious Jewish Menace. Together, they filled the German people with a fear and hatred of Jews. At first, it was just words. Then, some took to violence - vandalism, assault, murder. The laws grew harsher. The levels of hatred and fear grew - probably not by anybody’s design. Like a natural disaster, there were natural forces at work. They formed a tidal wave - a tsunami - of hatred, immorality, and violence that left 60 million dead - and that was just a small fraction of the cost.

Trump gained power on a message that somebody needed to protect America (and Americans) from a fictitious “Immigrant Menace.” Fox News accommodated Trump by filling the media with images and messages of a fictitious Immigrant Menace. Together, they filled the American people with a fear and hatred of immigrants. At first, it was just words. Then, some took to violence - vandalism, assault, murder. The laws grew harsher. The levels of hatred and fear grew - probably not by anybody’s design. Like a natural disaster, there were natural forces at work. They formed a tidal wave - a tsunami - of hatred, immorality, and violence that will leave untold numbers dead and that will be just a small fraction of the cost.

Fox News is playing the role of Goebbels to Trump's Hitler.

Fox News is lying to us about the immigrants in Mexico. They are a threat to us in the same way that the family living across the street is a threat to you when they bundle up their children and run in your direction as they flee murderers and rapists who have invated their home. Or, they are just as much of a threat as you would be if you bundled up your family and ran away from murderers and rapists who have invated your home. Fox News wants to fill us with fear and hate because that allows them to keep their position on the right-hand side of Trump. Goebbels wanted to fill the German people with fear and hatred of Jews because it allowed him to keep his privileged position on the right-hand side of Hitler.

“That can’t happen! You are exaggerating.”

If something DID happen, then it CAN happen. And, remember, I am not talking about a conspiracy. I am talking about natural forces coming together to create a very dangerous situation. (1) A political leader that completely lacks any sense of right and wrong, (2) a population of human beings disposed to rally around a leader who promises to "protect" them from an imagined enemy, and (3) a propaganda organization willing to deliver the message that this imagined enemy is a genuine threat.

Trump gives us (1). Fox News gives us (3). Will the American people give us (2)?

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Press and The Enemy of the People

In our current political environment, Trump is playing the role of Hitler and Fox News the role of Joseph Goebbels. And, the election ends in one week from this posting.

Hitler delivered a message of hate and fear, and Goebbels amplified that message in the press. Or, Goebbels filled the media with a message of hate and fear, and Hitler exploited that message to become Chancellor of Germany. Both routes lead to the same well-known conclusion.

Comparably, Trump and Fox News are delivering and profiting from a comparable message of hate and fear. They fill the same two rolls.

When I make this comparison, is this comparable to Trump saying that “the press is the enemy of the people?” If somebody were to send a pipe bomb to Trump or Fox News headquarters, would my rhetoric be in any way to blame? Ought I to not write these things in the name of civility?

Anybody who knows my writings knows that I argue that political violence is legitimate only if peaceful options have been eliminated. As long as we can cast meaningful votes, we may not legitimately use guns and bombs.

Granted, the Republican Party has bent over backwards to weaken the right to vote. Through Gerrymandering, voter suppression, and other tactics, a Democratic vote now counts for about 0.9 Republican votes. That is to say, 1 out of 10 Democratic votes are either gerrymandered into impotence or diluted by the need to represent people who are kept from voting through voter suppression tactics. To the degree that the Republican Party continues these practices, to that degree they threaten the legitimacy of the rule of law. But, they have not eliminated democracy. It is still possible to vote them out of power, even though it takes a supermajority of about 55% to do so. While peaceful options remain, bombs and bullets are prohibited.

Also, violence against Trump and Fox News would not work. They are not the source of the problem. They are symptoms of a problem that actually never goes away.

Trump has a simple heuristic. He says something and listens to the audience response. If the audience cheers, he repeats it. If not, he drops it. He is simply an echo of the sentiments of his audience. However, in echoing those sentiments back at the audience, he amplifies them. They grow louder and more extreme.

If Trump had run as a Democrat, it is likely that the same thing would have happened, only with a different message. Instead of unleashing white and Christian supremacy and directed the nation in the direction that Nazi Germany took, we would be at risk of rehearsing for a modern version of the French Terror where we lined billionaires, corporate executives, and priests up at the guillotine for execution. But, he did not run as a Democrat, so we do not have those problems (yet).

The same is true of Fox News. They say something and look at the ratings. If the ratings go up, they repeat it. If not, they drop it. Truth does not matter. Evidence does not matter. Future implications do not matter. Current ratings matter.

So, the problem rests, not with Trump or Fox News, but with what the audience cheers and what is echoed back to them. One is not going to solve that problem with bombs and bullets.

More to the point, it is not wrong in itself to say that the press is an enemy of the people. It is another way of saying that the press is not serving some of the public's interest. Much of the press does not. They prefer to print or broadcast half-truths and deceptions that promote a political tribe. They look at what gets "like" and "shares" and care nothing about truth, evidence, or long-range implications.

The problem is with doing this recklessly or with malevolence.

Imagine that you and I are walking down the street. You are armed. I point to somebody on the other side of the street and shout, “MY GOD, HE HAS A GUN! HE’S GOING TO MURDER SOMEBODY.” You then shoot and kill this person.

It is not wrong in itself for me to shout this. That depends on whether he has a gun and he is about to murder somebody - or whether I at least have credible and responsible evidence to that effect. Given the potential consequences, I had better have very good evidence.

Similarly, it is not wrong in itself to say that the press is the enemy of the people. It is not wrong to say that a caravan of refugees is an enemy army coming to invade our country, kill and rape us, and perhaps even eat some food if they are hungry and it is generously provided. What is wrong in itself is saying on a public news broadcast day after day when all of the available evidence suggests that it is false, “MY GOD, THEY ARE RAPISTS, MURDERERS, AND MIDDLE-EASTERN TERRORISTS FUNDED BY DEMOCRATS AND JEWS ON THEIR WAY TO CONQUER OUR NATION!”

When somebody mails pipe bombs, another shoots two black people at a grocery store, and a third kills 11 Jews after hearing such a message, there is good reason to condemn the people who delivered the message. This is true in the same way that if you were to kill the person across the street on my perhaps malevolent, perhaps reckless assertion that he was about to murder somebody, I would share moral responsibility for those consequences. Decent people are neither malevolent nor reckless about such things. Decent people condemn those types of lies and recklessness.

Trump is playing the role of Hitler. Fox News is playing the role of Goebbels. And we are having an election where we can still peacefully defeat these people.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Nationalism 016: A Refugee's Right to Work

There is no sense to the aversion to employing refugees in the host country. Such an aversion does a great deal of harm, and no actual good. The good attributed to these attitudes is imaginary.

A substantial portion of the problem of refugees is caused by humans.

Here, I am not talking about the humans who created the refugees - either through violent conflict of environmental degradation. That is one of the ways in which we cause the problem, but not the one that concerns me here.

It is caused by the fact that, once a refugee enters a camp in a host country, she is not permitted to contribute to that country. She is forced to sit in a shelter and receive handouts. She becomes a much greater burden than she needs to be and, in fact, a much greater problem than she wants to be (in most cases).

Reference: Why Denying Refugees the Right to Work Is a Catastrophic Error. This is an edited extract from their book, Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System

It is absurd to think that a population of, let us say, 50,000 people who are productive contributors to a state on one side of an imaginary line become a burden to be warehoused on the other side of that imaginary line. This is a part of the absurdity of, "they are taking our jobs". This is scapegoating.

It is as if you were to be so kind as to offer refuge to somebody stranded in a life-threatening snow storm, then deny them any opportunity to help clean the house, chop some firewood, or fix a meal because your "prosperity" depends on doing this yourself. Meanwhile, you are providing this person with food and other necessities, complaining about the fact that he is such a "burden" on your household, and promising never to be so kind in the future.

This is a significant part of the tragedy of the current system for handling refugees - the fact that prohibiting peaceful and honest contributions to the host society feeds a hatred of refugees that, in turn, feeds a resolve to offer no more aid. This is not only harmful to the refugees, it is harmful to those who are acting on an irrational hatred of "foreigners" as opposed to the same type of rational cooperation and mutual support (and mutual benefit) that one provides to fellow nationals.

So, you have a tent city with 50,000 refugees in it. Why not make it a city? You will need infrastructure. Well, there's people in that city capable of working - building structures, developing roads, putting in a sanitation system, teaching, sewing, capable of operating indoor gardens and farms, sewing, manufacturing, collecting and reporting news, providing entertainment from poetry and literature to singing and stage performance, and the like. These things happen in a camp anyway. However, because these operations are officially prohibited, they are not policed, contracts cannot be enforced, and the best businesses are those that do not require any type of capital such as tools (e.g., prostitution).

Indeed, a refugee community permitted to actually work and earn money will have money to spend. Thus, it has the potential to be a source of jobs for members of the host country - providing the refugees with goods and services that will help them in the businesses.

A recent study commissioned by the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford and conducted in Uganda - one of a few nations that allows refugees tow ork - shows that they can make a contribution. In Kampala, the nation's capital, 21% of refugees run a business that employs at least one other person; of those they employ, 40% are citizens of the host country.

Again, this does not include the contribution that these businesses make as consumers of the goods and services provided by others. This also does not include the tax revenue that legal and open refugee-run businesses provide to the state.

The average length of stay in a refugee camp is 17 years. Putting one's life on hold for 17 years is a tremendous burden. It is not unreasonable to compare this to having no life at all. It is little wonder that so many refugees avoid the camps and become illegal residents in urban centers. It is little wonder that so many refugees pay smugglers hundreds or thousands of dollars to smuggle them into another country - a journey where they risk life and limb (including rape, torture, and drowning) . . . because, all things considered, it is better than wasting away in a camp.

The article referenced above describes a pilot program between England, the World Bank, and Jordan to provide work opportunities to Syrian refugees who have fled to that country. One of the points they make is that it has proven to be easier to create work opportunities for these people nearer their country of origin - where they speak the language, know the culture, and in many cases know other people - than to find them work in countries such as Germany where they lack the language and other training skills given to those who grow up in Germany.

The bottom line is . . . let the refugees work. They are made better off. Those around them - those in their host country in particular - are better off. And, when the situation changes in their original country and they are ready to return home, it is not such a long journey to make.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Nationalism 015: Refugee Options

We have created a grotesquely immoral system with respect to refugees.

In my previous posting, I discussed what counts as a refugee. I am following the convention that a refugee is somebody who must leave his country to find or establish a minimum level of security - security from violence, from thirst or starvation, and from death caused by natural disaster (e.g., rising sea levels).

We have created a system that a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would find unacceptable.

This posting is based substantially on work by Serena Parekh. In 2018, she gave a speech at the Naval Academy that discussed in greater detail the points mentioned below.

Refugees are given three options:

(1) A refugee camp. A refugee who goes to a camp will be assigned a location - a building or tent - and told to stay there and do nothing with their lives until conditions change in their home country and they can go back, or they can be relocated in a host country. The average length of stay in a refugee camp is 17 years. In these camps, refugees (particularly women) are still at risk of violence (particularly sexual violence). It's not much different from a 17 year prison sentence in a massive prison - except, if one has children, one's children will be locked up - and can expect to grow up, reach adulthood, and start a family of their own, within the camp.

(2) Urban centers. Many (most) refugees go to the nearest city where they can disappear into the crowd. However, in this situation, they have no access to food or medical care. Their children have no access to education. Because they are there illegally, they are subject to exploitation by employers or others who can use the threat of deportation against them. The advantage is that, even though they are subject to these risks, they can at least build something of a life. They have options other than sitting in a tent for 17 years.

(3) Smuggling. The refugee pays a smuggler that will get them through the barriers that developed countries have placed around their countries. These smugglers also subject their "cargo" to rape and other forms of violence. Once the smuggler gets paid, they have little use for their "cargo". So, they put their refugees on boats (rubber rafts) that are cheap (since the boat will be confiscated), overcrowded, with too little food and water, and let the refugees take a risk of reaching the shore of the country where they are seeking refugees.

Parekh calls this "institutional injustice". People are causing (are morally responsible for) creating - not just with failing to prevent, but with actually creating - a great deal of harm by creating institutions whereby only harmful (or extremely risky) options are available. We give a person an option: "either cut off your right arm, or cut off your left arm," and then we deny responsibility for the fact that the victim is missing an arm because we say "it was her choice." We give refugees these poor options of lifeless camps, lawless life in an urban center, or human trafficking, and we deny our own moral responsibility because, whichever option they choose, it was their choice.

One of the principles responsible for this condition is that a refugee can not seek refugee status until after they have left the country where they are experiencing the problem. The problem that I am talking about here is a fear of death or other significant harm caused by criminal agents (an oppressive state, armed gangs that the state cannot control), cultural oppression (child marriage, genital manipulation, discrimination that deprives the individual of a meaningful life), or natural disaster (sea level rise, drought). By "problems", I am talking about somebody whose life is at risk of becoming tragic - a massive dose of human suffering.

So, we create rules where we tell these people, "You can only escape this if you can get to a country where people can take care of you", and then we put as many barriers as we can in the way of these people getting to countries where they can find refuge. Nations deny visas to individuals from countries from which they may be wanting to seek refuge. Navies patrol the waters with an intent to actually prevent the rescue of refugees at sea since recuse is a way of reaching the shores of the desired country. We build walls. We send in armies.

This is the rule that is causing the problem. If you can keep the refugee out of your country, you are not responsible for that refugee's fate. You can stand by and watch as they suffer and die, so long as they do not suffer and die on your property. Only then, according to this moral model, are you obligated to help.

The question to ask is whether the person with good desires and lacking bad desires only cares about the people who suffer and die on his property. It would seem difficult to justify this sentiment. If you are suffering and dying one one side of an imaginary line, your suffering and death matters . . . but if you suffer and die ten feet to the left on the other side of an imaginary line, the good person would not care.

We can reduce . . . not eliminate, but certainly reduce . . . many of these problems with one simple rules change.

Allow the refugees within the refugee camps to work and be productive - to earn money.

They do this to some extent anyways. They set up black markets in these refugee camps. However, this is necessarily limited and riddled with crime and corruption. Furthermore, it tends to involve the types of businesses that are not easily controlled - such as prostitution. It is a poor substitute to allowing the refugees to seek honest labor.

The objection here is that they will be taking jobs from the local population.

This objection makes no sense. You have a population where, when they were on the other side of the imaginary line, was making a net contribution to their own society - one in which they are able to take care of their own families out of their own pockets. They built cities that decidedly were not a burden on their neighbors. There is no reason to believe that, just because they moved to the other side of an imaginary line, that they could not make a meaningful contribution to that community as well.

We turn refugees into a burden because we do not allow them to make a contribution. We then promote an attitude of hostility to refugees because they are seen as a burden.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Nationalism 014: What is a Refugee?

There are folks in the world who get trapped in horrendous circumstances. A malevolent dictator seeks to have them chopped up into little pieces and buried in a garden, or a theocracy wants to have them slain for believing in the wrong gods (or no god at all), or denies some intelligent and curious young woman any option but to be the housebound near-slave of some patriarch, or bigots are rounding up homosexuals for the purpose of throwing them off of the highest roof, or bullets and bombs fly all around as two factions engage in violent conflict.

The reading in this post concerns Chapter 5 of: Miller, David (2005), Strangers in our Midst, Harvard University Press.

We are going to start with the 1951 convention on refugees that describes a refugee as:

owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.

Let's be honest, this system has some weaknesses. First of all . . . persecution? That seems an awful narrow standard for determining whether or not one is a refugee.

In order to try put some of these moral points into perspective, I want to consider an analogy.

I have a house. I have a large couch that I am certain somebody would like to sleep on – particularly on a cold winter night. However, I exercise a right of exclusion over the use of that couch regardless of the outside temperature. I deny others refuge. Though, clearly, there are circumstances in which I have no moral permission to exclude.

Of course, in the terms of desirism, whether it is right for me to deny refuge depends on whether a person with good desires and lacks bad desires would deny refuge under those circumstances. This is the principle that I am going to use to examine whether to deny refuge to certain people.

In order for this to make a bit more sense, I also want to imagine that my house has a yard covering several acres and is surrounded by a wall. This wall is not so large that somebody could not scamper over it if the need arose. However, it is a barrier and I can keep people on the other side if I put enough effort into it. The question is whether or not to offer refuge to somebody who scampers over my wall.

The 1951 convention says that, if somebody makes it over my wall, and that person is fleeing "persecution" - that is, some warlord or other group is seeking to cause him harm, then I cannot just throw him back over the wall. In the literature on refugees this is called "refoulment" and it is considered morally prohibited. I would agree . . . a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would not just throw the person back over the wall.

However, let us say that what he is fleeing is rising floodwaters or a forest fire. He is not being persecuted. Therefore, according to the 1951 convention, I can, in fact, throw him back over the wall. However, no person with good desires and lacking bad desires would do such a thing. This person deserves refuge as much as the person fleeing the despotic warlord.

Miller agrees with this, by the way. He includes in his qualifications for refugee status:

Those whose human rights are under threat either from natural calamities or from private acts of violence that the state is unable to prevent, and who can only avoid this threat by migrating.

I want to look at David Miller’s third criterion. This refers to:

Those whose human rights are presently under threat, but who could be helped either by migrating or by outside intervention.

In my analogy, this would apply to the person who wants to use my couch on a very cold winter's night. According to Miller, I can throw him back over the wall so long as he "could be helped . . . by outside intervention." Indeed, he could be helped by somebody building a shelter on the other side of the wall. Therefore, he does not qualify as a refugee, and my obligation to provide him with refuge is limited.

This seems to have an important ambiguity. The mere fact that somebody (else?) could build a shelter seems insufficient for denying refugee status. If I deny refugee status on the possibility of a shelter that does not exist, the refugee has neither refuge nor a shelter. We need to replace “could be helped” with “would be helped” by migrating or outside intervention. If an actual shelter exists, then I can feel free to keep him from using my couch. But there has to be a shelter.

And it has to be a good shelter. It can't be a shelter that, itself, violates the rights of those who forced by circumstances to make use of it.

Another thing to notice about Miller's statement is its use of passive voice. He writes about "could be helped" without saying anything about who is doing the helping. This is actually intentional - he addresses the issue of assigning responsibility in the second half of his chapter. Suffice it to say at this point that, even though I may deny the person the use of my couch so long as there is a shelter available for him to use, I also have an obligation to contribute to the creation of a safe shelter, so long as I can do so. This is what a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would do.

(I don't really think about these issues as much as I should. As a result of writing this, I felt compelled to do some research to make sure that there were adequately funded shelters in my area. It seems that there are. The most recent news articles I found on the subject suggest that they are adequate. And I, as a taxpayer, have an obligation to vote in such a way that it stays this way.)

Nationalism 013: Informed Voters

Is it possible, in a democracy, for voters to cast informed votes on scientific matters when the voters do not have the scientific competence to assess these matters?

Elizabeth Anderson says yes. This is because voters, even though they lack scientific competence, have relevant competencies in identifying scientific experts. They do not use this competence as much as they should, but everything they need is available to them.

This comes from: Anderson, Elizabeth (2011), "Democracy, Public Policy, and Lay Assessments of Scientific Testimony", Epistome Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 144-164.

In her argument that voters have all they need to cast informed votes on scientific matters, Anderson argues that what voters need is not scientific competence, but the competence to assess scientists. Specifically, voters need easy access to information that will tell them a scientist's level of expertise, honesty, and integrity.

In the area of expertise, voters need easy access to information that will tell them the scientist's rank in the profession, their relevant area of expertise, and whether they are currently publishing in the field.

In the area of honesty, voters need to be able to determine whether the scientist has any conflicts of interest and whether there is evidence that the scientist has misrepresented findings or made misleading statements.

In the area of intellectual integrity, the voter would be looking for evidence that the scientist responds appropriate to reasonable objections and whether the scientist elsewhere supports crackpot ideas.

Anderson argues that, with a reasonable amount of effort, a voter can determine what the consensus is among respected experts in the relevant scientific fields on matters such as climate change and other scientific concerns.

Let's grant this.

Let us assume that I follow Anderson’s advice and I go through her formula to discover that competent scientists believe that global warming is taking place, it will be destructive overall (though some people will benefit), and that there are things that humans can do to prevent it.

(Note: At this point, one would normally talk about whether climate change is caused by human activity - but I hold that to be politically irrelevant. If a meteor were heading towards Earth or a new outbreak of Ebola emerged in Africa, the fact that these threats were not "man-made" would not be used to argue against taking action against them. The "man made" debate in the realm of climate change is used by those who profit from activities that produce greenhouse gasses to cloud the public discussion and, thus, hinder effective political action. What matters is not that climate change is man-made, but that there is something we can do to prevent it.)

After I do my research, I then write a blog post where I present my findings to my reader.

Should my readers pay any attention to what I write?

One interpretation of Anderson's article says that they should not. After all, I have the lowest possible ranking in the category of "expertise", that of "layman". If we accept this answer, this means that each voter has an obligation to make this assessment themselves and to ignore anything said to them by those friends and family members who do not have the relevant expertise, honesty, and integrity. It means that all public discussion of political matters among non-experts is . . . probably . . . illegitimate.

At this point, we can grant Anderson's claim that a voter could find out the scientific consensus on climate change. But, can they also find out the scientific consensus on gun control, universal basic income, tariffs, monetary policy, minimum wage laws, drug laws, asbestos, ozone, pre-school education, class size, spanking, racial injustice, drone strikes, immigration, etc., etc., etc. This list is quite long.

I would argue that it is impossible to become an informed voter on more than a few issues.

Actually, Anderson allows that responsible voters may go to sources other than the scientists themselves. She devotes a large portion of her discussion to responsible media. This at least assumes that a voter can get her information from the media, where the media, in turn, gets its information from the scientists in the manner she described. This would allow me to produce my blog posting on climate change.

However, what voters would then need is not a set of criteria for determining reliable scientific testimony, but criteria for determining what counts as reliable media. Her thesis that democracy is not threatened, “provided citizens can make reliable second-order assessments of the consensus of trustworthy scientific experts” needs to be replaced by, or supplemented by, a thesis that citizens can make reliable second-order assessments about the expertise, honesty, and responsibility of public media, such as my blog.

Without the ability to (and the willingness to) assess responsible media, we still confront the problem that voters may be casting votes without understanding the issues relevant in any given election.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Nationalism 012: Epistemology of Disagreement

This posting is less concerned with political philosophy than with epistemology - the theory of knowledge. However, it does have relevance for the latter subject.

In my previous post, I considered the idea that political liberalism (or, perhaps, better described as a culture of political toleration), combined with elements of the philosophy of disagreement, suggested that citizens in such a society needed to be skeptical of philosophical, moral, and political truths. Political toleration and philosophical, moral, and religious conviction were incompatible.

This "philosophy of disagreement" from which this argument sprang asks the question, "How should a person respond to the fact that equally intelligent people disagree?" We must all admit that, on most political issues, at least some people who disagree with us are as knowledgeable (if not more knowledgeable), as intellectually responsible (if not more intellectually responsible), and as concerned with the welfare of the world than we are. Yet, they advocate a different path. On what grounds do we assert that they must be wrong and that society must listen to us?

As I have mentioned, there is a level at which this is the question that got me started in asking questions in philosophy. I had my own ideas on how to create a perfect world, and was concerned about the fact that intelligent people who are at least as caring as I disagreed with me on how to do it. The common public response to this type of situation is to merely dismiss any critics as corrupt or ignorant. I did not take that route. I acknowledged their concern and their intelligence - and yet, somehow, they came up with a different answer.

Now, when I look at issues where I disagree with others, I notice that I seldom confront a situation where I must make a conclusion based solely on the fact that others disagree.

I have learned to distinguish between a person who is informed on an issue, and a person who is uninformed.

An uninformed person should not be drawing any conclusions on an issue but should instead say, "Because I have not studied the matter in sufficient detail, I am not well enough informed to have an opinion."

The only person who has a right to render an opinion is the person who is informed. However, the person who is informed not only knows that others disagree with her, but why. Furthermore, she has a "theory of wrongness" = a theory that explains why they are wrong. She also knows that those who disagree with her believe that she is wrong, and she has answers to their "theory of wrongness".

I am not denying the possibility that two intelligent and concerned individuals can ultimately reach different conclusions. This is possible where two philosophers who have studied all of the philosophical literature still come to a disagreement on the existence of God, the objectivity of value, the reality of numbers, or the foundations of knowledge. However, this does not describe the situation that most voters find themselves in. If we are restricting our discussion to the common voter responding to disagreement, we get a different response. Disagreement is a sign and a symptom of one's own ignorance. The fact that others disagree should be taken as evidence that one does not know the subject matter well enough to have an opinion.

We should distinguish the epistemology of disagreement from the epistemology of insufficient information. These are both important areas of study - and I am not dismissing either of them as being some trivial matter containing only obvious answers. There are situations where a person must make a decision even without having all of the relevant information - where obtaining more information is either too costly (in terms of economic opportunity costs) or, simply, impossible. It is to be expected that when two insufficiently well informed people reach a conclusion, each of them, partially misinformed in different ways, may come to a different answer. The vice is in false assumption that one is the intellectually perfect agent who can reach true conclusions easily based on insufficient information while one's critic is an arrogant and ignorant fool.

In short, I would replace the epistemology of disagreement with the epistemology of limited information - asserting that the latter, and not the former, is the true situation that the average voter faces. The question then becomes: What is a voter's epistemic responsibility given the fact that she is casting a substantially under-informed vote?

How about, to begin with, stop this presumption too often made that anybody who comes to a different conclusion is either corrupt or foolish, but is simply somebody else who, having a different set of limited information, came to a different conclusion.

Nationalism 011: Van Wietmarschen's Separation of Philosophy and State

Some people fear that political liberalism - a society built on the tolerance of many different groups - is incompatible with people actually believing in the teachings of those groups. Philosophical, moral, and religious doctrines seem incompatible with letting others live their lives as they choose. If something is wrong, then it is universally wrong. If God forbids something, it is forbidden to everybody. Indeed it is the case that if slavery is wrong, then it is wrong to tolerate enslavement. If the killing of a fetus is murder, it would still be wrong to allow murders in the name of political tolerance.

Han van Wietmarschen argues for a skeptical conclusion from political liberalism by combining it with certain principles found in the philosophy of disagreement. (See: van Wietmarschen, Han (2018). "Reasonable Citizens and Epistemic Peers: A Skeptical Problem for Political Liberalism." Journal of Political Philosophy, pp. 1-22.)

The philosophy of disagreement states that if you have a belief (e.g., that a god exists, or that no god exists), and if you live in a society where a reasonable person can disagree with you, then you ought to be somewhat skeptical about the beliefs that you hold.

This happens to be the principle that got me into philosophy when I was quite young. I had my beliefs about how to make a better world - as just about every teenager does. Yet, I was aware that there were some very intelligent people who had done a great deal of research and study who disagreed with me. I thought, "By what right do I declare for myself to have superior knowledge to those who have spent their lives studying this subject? Am I claiming that I need only a passing glance at the material and its arguments to make a judgment on the issue? That is an arrogant and presumptive attitude to take - one that can be founded only on a misplaced ego.

Let me present a few more details about this view of political liberalism.

The conception of political liberalism under consideration says that political matters may only be justified on the basis of “public considerations.” Public considerations are understood to be considerations that, according to van Wietmarschen, “all reasonable people can reasonably be expected to accept.” This means that considerations which reasonable people can reasonably expect to disagree about – called Non-public considerations – are not legitimate considerations for political matters. They are only relevant to an agent's private decisions.

Van Wietmarschen provides an example - the case of ensoulment. Ensoulment is an issue about which individuals can be expected to disagree. We must note that to be counted a private consideration requires more than disagreement about ensoulment. It requires rational disagreement - an admission on the part of those who hold one view that those who disagree with her are not necessarily irrational; they have their reasons (even if she believes those reasons must ultimately fail). This is a part of the idea of a respect for different points of view; the attitude, "Though I think you are mistaken, your mistakes are not unreasonable."

I want to take van Wietmarchen's ideas and apply them to another dispute - a dispute about slavery in 1860.

If a time traveller dropped van Wietmarchen's manuscript off on the doorstep of a northern abolitionist in 1860, it appears that the abolitionist would have to abandon his view that slavery was wrong - or, at least, that his views on the wrongness of slavery counted as any type of "public consideration". It is a private consideration only. Consequently, it is not a consideration on which any national political policies ought to be based.

We clearly see that the defense of slavery in 1860 involved prejudice and bigotry that caused people to draw unreasonable conclusions from evidence that was substantially made up. Their ideas on the "nature" of black people that allowed them to thrive in a condition of slavery had no basis on reason or evidence.

However, what is at issue here are the applications of the principles of disagreement we find in the field of epistemology. The abolitionist in 1860 does not have our perspective. What she knows is that there are certainly people supporting slavery who are at least as intelligent and as concerned with morality as the abolitionist herself. After all, virtually the whole population south of the Mason/Dixon line supported slavery at the time. There had to be a few counted among them at least as intelligent as she is, looking at the same evidence - perhaps even more evidence given their proximity to the slave society - who yet held that her own views were mistaken.

By the principles of epistemology, she ought to be skeptical of the idea that she is such an specimen of intellectual superiority that she got right what so many others who are at least as smart got wrong.

Then, by the principles of political liberalism, she ought to consider her attitudes on slavery to be "private considerations" - considerations of the type where reasonable people disagree and, as a result, ought not to be put forth as the reason for adopting or abandoning any political policies. Political liberalism - or, at least, the type of political liberalism that van Wietmarchen was concerned with - prohibits this.

This creates a problem. The pro-slavery advocate is in the same position. Skepticism on the legitimacy of slavery is skepticism on the illegitimacy of slavery. It provides no answer one way or another.

Or, to return to the issue of ensoulment, skepticism about ensoulment implies skepticism about non-ensoulment. One cannot argue from skepticism to, "Therefore the opponents of ensoulment win," any more than one can argue from skepticism about slavery to, "therefore the opponents of abolitionism win."

This means that political issues involving ensoulment or slavery cannot be settled until the people are brought into agreement. Yet, they are being forced into an agreement about a matter where, according to the best information at the time, reasonable people could disagree. This seems to be an impossible trap.

Indeed, it is an impossible trap.

The fact of the matter is that political disagreement includes private considerations. The assertion that people must leave what van Wietmarchen would call "private concerns" out of political disagreement is absurd. Part of our political disagreement involves fighting to persuade others that the position we take that it would label "private considerations" are fully relevant in determining what policies and procedures to adopt.

A part of our political debate is persuading others that our "private considerations" ought not to be private considerations at all.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Identity Politics

Identity politics

This came from a discussion elsewhere on the topic of what desirism has to say about identity politics.

This is an area where the question of whether desirism is true or false is one thing, and how to apply it to certain issues is another. It is possible for desirism to be true, but yet misapplied. What follows is a suggested, but possibly mistaken, application.

We do have to say that bigotry exists, and there are many and strong reasons against having an aversion to having a female boss or President, black neighbor, or gay school teacher. There is reason to condemn such attitudes. And it is reasonable for those adversely impacted by these attitudes to unite to make a more powerful force for combatting these attitudes.

Also, there is nothing wrong with tribes per se. The family is a tribe - its members selected not entirely by genetics but by adoption, marriage, and even the inclusion of close friends who become “a part of the family.” Church congregations and similar tribes give people access to resources in times of trouble - people they can draw on for help.

Problems occur when tribe is mixed with power - the ability to do harm to non-members and to obtain by the abuse of this power an unfair advantage. In this context, any tribe with power is a threat. Race, gender, religion, political party, nation. Tribe + power = trouble.

Which implies, if (when) power relationships change, do not expect the new tribe in power to be intrinsically just while the old tribe was unjust. The idea that the tribe in power is intrinsically unjust and immoral and that power should be given to a different, more virtuous tribe is a mistake.

Indeed, we should not forget that these tribes are made up of humans and the facts of human psychology apply. We can expect to observe such groups forming increasingly extreme views in which “the other” is portrayed as a monolithic malevolence where everything “they” do or say is interpreted in an increasingly negative light.

Equality does not solve this problem. Two tribes of equal power = war until one tribe wins.

Where tribes tend to be useful and stable is where there are 100 tribes and 99 will gang up on 1 that abuses its power (family, small congregation, town, small business). Which provides an argument for decentralized power - state and community government over federal and global regulation unless dealing with issues that transcend borders.

Now, imagine an island community where a gang - through intimidation, corruption, and violence - gains control of 80% of the island’s wealth. They then declare, “From this point on, forced transfers of wealth are prohibited. Only voluntary exchange is allowed.” It’s a bit self-serving at that point. To be a member of the dominant group, enjoying the benefits of that history, while insisting on new rules that "treat everybody equally" and ignore that history, can legitimately be criticized.

Indeed, criticism of “identity politics” by the dominant tribe looks suspiciously like a tactic of “divide and conquer.” Keep “them” (subject groups) disunited and weak. Culturally, socially, and politically obstruct their ability to organize and oppose “us”. The effect is to keep the dominant group in power. That effect is likely not lost on those who advocate these values.

One can find elements of these remarks in my comments concerning the atheist “tribe”. The “new atheism” was an attempt to form a tribe - complete with its own banners and cultural icons. It is true that atheism makes one prone to costs and abuses at the hands of the more powerful religious tribes. In some territories, atheists are banned (executed, punished).

Other religious tribes have found a use for atheists, so long as they know their place. The atheist is permitted in the scientific labs where they may produce useful discoveries, “but don’t you dare peek your head out of the laboratory and make comments about society at large. You are morally bankrupt and are not to be trusted. You have value only where you continue to make discoveries we find useful.”

But, you can see in this atheist tribe, all of the problems of tribalism. It is not the case that, “We atheists are perfectly wise and virtuous and if our tribe ran the world it would be run with perfect wisdom and virtue.” The French Reign of Terror shows that an atheist tribe in power can produce atrocities as severe as those of any religious tribe.

Indeed, the atheist tribe even has its fictions - beliefs, contrary to evidence and reason, that members must not criticize. Those who do are ostracized - removed, virtually if not literally, from the community. Among these fictions, “Atheism is not a belief,” “Nobody has ever committed an act of terror in the name of ‘no God’”, and “Religion is a source of evil.” This last point can be true only if religion is a source. But it is not a source. It comes from the people who created it. It's source is in human nature, and the atheist tribe is made up of people having that same nature.

I would argue for a continuation of identity politics. However, I would like to see each identity adopt a position, “We are human, and prone to certain types of errors. Let us include in our movement something that aims to identify and prevent these errors.”

Which, by the way, also applies - far more importantly - to any tribe with power.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Nationalism 010: Ypi's Permissive Theory

[T]he citizens of each state are entitled to the particular territory they collectively occupy, if and only if they are also politically committed to the establishment of a global political authority realizing just reciprocal relations.

This is the thesis that Lea Ypi defends in "A Permissive Theory of Territorial Rights," European Journal of Philosophy, 2011.

She builds this thesis from a Kantian foundation.

A cornerstone of this foundation is the "principle of right" - a principle that states that each person should be given freedom to pursue his or her happiness comparable to the equal freedom of others. This principle creates a problem for the acquisition of property (and, for similar reasons, for the acquisition of territorial rights) in that, whenever a person acquires property, one reduces the freedom of others. I say that this 160 acres of land is mine. I put a cabin on it and plow and plant the fields. In declaring that it is mine, I declare that all others must stay off. I maintain a liberty to use this land as I wish, but I deny the equal liberty to others.

This might not be the case if others had as much and as good a land to declare their own. However, there are two problems with this. The first is that this has not been the case for a long time - and perhaps never if you look at the effects that our current territorial claims have on future generations. The second problem is related to the declaration given above. It means that my ownership of this property is contingent on my support for some sort of regime that is responsible for maintaining and defend the rights of people generally to own and control property. I may exclude you from my property only insofar as I am willing to support institutions that would also keep me off of your property.

For ease of illustration, I have picked the identical rights to exclusive use of one's own property by agreeing to equally respect the rights of others to their property. However, Ypi does not make such a specific claim. She argues that this requires agreement to an institution - a "rule of all" - governing the range of rights and responsibilities concerning property.

In this way, the unilateralism of initial acquisition and the arbitrary use of exclusionary force is mitigated by the commitment to make our will consistent with others’ will through collective rules of property arbitration and enforcement.

This Kantian requirement to enter into a political organization that determines the equal property rights of all individuals means ALL individuals - not just those within a certain territorial boundary. This means that one's right to property is conditional not only to agreeing to enter into a political union with others in one's state, but to enter into a like political union that respects the equal political rights of those within other countries - a global, cosmopolitan political union.

Another route that goes in the direction of a similar conclusion is that, in the same way that individuals have a right to property only insofar as they agree to enter into a political union that establishes the equal property rights of all others in one's country, countries have a right to territorial sovereignty only insofar as they are willing to participate in a super-national political union that aims to respect the equal political sovereignty of all countries.

Ypi is not clear which of these she would favor. In the realm of theory, she talks about the relationships among individuals - that an individual has an obligation to join a community that resolves disputes of rights among all others. In the realm of practice she talks about an association of states - not of persons.

Consider that the territory of the United States requires entering into some type of agreement with other nations that respects the territorial sovereignty of countries generally, which respects not only the territorial sovereignty of the United States but that of every other country. If we are not willing to enter into such an institution, then the lack of recognition of sovereign rights applies equally to all countries - including the United States. Either there is an institution for recognizing the sovereignty of nations generally that applies to all countries including the United States, in which case its sovereignty is institutionally recognized - or there is not.

Ypi does not provide an account of what this global political association would look like. However, she provides a list of what they might do. This includes (1) negotiating boundary disputes, (2) refugees and migrations, (3) natural resource management, and (4) resolving the effects of climate change and similar cross-border effects of human actions.

One thing she does rule out - or, at least, which she claims that Kant would rule out - is the use of violence against states as a way of enforcement. The article seems to imply that such things as economic sanctions and other uses of soft power would be legitimate. However, the use of violence to impose solutions on states would involve the type of unilateral decision making incompatible with the equal freedom of others. Resorting to violence for any reason other than self-defense seems to be - if not ruled out - at least highly restricted.

Nationalism 009: Securing Basic Rights

In my previous post I discussed David Miller's defense of national sovereignty, which covered the nation's rights of jurisdictional control and control of resources within, as well as a right to control the movement of people across, national boundaries.

Miller defended these rights as a matter of people controlling the economic and cultural values that tie them to the land in a particular region.

Using the Confederacy as an example, I argued that there are limits to the controls that one can justifiably place on others in order to preserve a given "way of life". It can't justify slavery, and it is questionable whether it can justify the right to impose criminal penalties and control the movement of people. These cultural values may count as one reason among many for certain principles and institutions, but it it must be weighed against - and does not automatically trump - rights to liberty.

Chris Armstrong, in contrast, accepts Miller's claims that these attachments to the land generate certain rights - but not necessarily a right to state sovereignty. (Armstrong, Chris (2014). "Against 'Permanent Sovereignty" Over Natural Resources", Politics, Philosophy, and Economics pp 1-23.

He argues that, in some cases, the rights of people cross national borders. As an example, he points to the Saami people in northern Europe. Their cultural traditions involve the managing of reindeer herds as they migrate across the far north. Their cultural traditions carry them across four nations - Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Preserving their way of life does not allow any of these countries, individually, to claim exclusive resource sovereignty over the reindeer herds. Rather, it would seem to require that they release sovereignty to the Saami people, giving them the right to cross national borders with impunity.

Another example of how cultural values can cross national borders involves, "a Canadian Hindu wishing to perform puja at the Ganges." Preserving this interest would prohibit, rather than permit, India from controlling who can cross its borders. We may say the same of Saudi Arabia attempting to ban Muslims from performing the Hajj - a pilgrimage to the holy sights within its national borders.

At the same time, many of these cultural values involve a few people in a community and does not require control over all of its natural resources. Within any nation-state, there may well be supplies of natural resources that have no cultural or social significance whatsoever - other than to provide a source of income. If this is all that it is being used for, then it may make more sense to use that income to secure the cultural rights of people living in a different country.

The Lockean Proviso states that a right to own property is limited by the proviso of leaving "as good and as much for others". A standard case used to illustrate this proviso is that of a person who claims property in the only source of water for a community. His control over the water would allow him to virtually enslave everybody else in the community. Since his claim does not leave as good and as much for others, others are left with a claim to some of that water. The agent does not have exclusive rights over its distribution.

We may apply this principle to nations. Assume a particular nation is the sole source of a particular resource. Indeed, we may assume that the question of national ownership of a resource would not even come up if there was as much and as good left for others. The very fact that people are asking questions comes from the fact that there are those who do not have as much and as good. In order for the people in one country to pursue their cultural values, they may have a need for this resource that is within another nation's boundaries. Cultural values, then, would provide a poor justification for the other country having exclusive ownership and control over those resources.

More specifically, a people cannot pursue their cultural values in any sense if they do not have nourishing food, clean water, sanitation, and basic medical care. Even if the resources within another country does not serve their cultural values directly, it could provide them with the income to acquire these basic goods that are necessary for enjoying any cultural values - with perhaps a few exceptions. Considering these basic needs and the ability to satisfy them with income produced by the sale of nearly any natural resource, the "ability to pursue one's cultural values" argument would imply giving them the revenue from the sale of surplus resources in another country.

In short, even if we grant that cultural values are a reason for action, they are not necessarily a reason for preserving the doctrine of natural sovereignty over resources. In many cases, they provide a reason for abandoning the doctrine of national sovereignty, allowing the people in one nation to obtain the benefits of natural resources in another country precisely so that they can better secure and engage in the practices that are common to their culture.

Nationalism 008: The Rights of Peoples

What may you legitimately do to other people in order to protect your culture, practices, institutions, and way of life?

This question concerns the following article: Miller, David (2011), "Territorial Rights: Concept and Justifiation", Political Studies, Volume 60, Issue 2, pp. 252-269,, accessed Sept. 28, 2018.

What justifies a nation's control over its territory?

According To David Miller, these rights are justified by the fact that a group of people have improved the value of the land, economically and culturally, and have come to attach cultural significance to the land through their continued occupation and shared history.

In order to secure these values, the people who hold those values need to have jurisdictional control over the territory in order to determine what happens to the lands and entities that hold those values. A part of the problem is that the "value" of territory cannot be expressed purely in economic terms. There are cultural factors to consider. For example, a group of people may have built a culture around herding animals along the rocky slopes of a mountain range where they graze their herds first in one district or another. They would not be able to protect this practice without jurisdictional control

They also need to be able to control the use of its natural resources because the ways in which they are used will have an impact on those values, since the manner in which those resources are secured and marketed will have impacts on the culture and its people. How those resources are extracted and marketed will have an influence on who has economic and political power within the community. Also, the question of how to harvest and market these resources must be done in a way that preserves peace. There are also resources - such as sacred forests or national parks established for conservation that have value without being harvested.

Finally, the society needs to be able to control who may cross its borders - and, in particular, needs to be able to take up residence, in order to preserve its culture and its values. New people will create economic demands that may threaten cultural values - such as pressure to turn historic battlefields into residential areas or shopping centers. They also bring new ideas that risk swamping and, ultimately, extinguishing the culture of the people who were originally there.

All of this is built on an intrinsic right of a group of people to protect and preserve "their way of life".

A lot depends on what that "way of life" happens to be.

The Confederate States of America saw themselves as having a particular culture, a particular way of life, a particular culture, and a particular set of values that they sought to protect. It was a white supremacist culture that expressed its values through, among other things, the institution of slavery. They could use Miller's argument quite effectively.

They needed jurisdiction over the Confederate states in order to protect their institutions and practices. They needed to control the methods by which their resources were harvested - particularly concerning the ways in which their agricultural lands produced cotton that could then be marketed. Finally, they needed to be able to control who might enter or leave their land in order to preserve and protect those institutions. Particularly, they needed to keep out northern abolitionists and free blacks, and they needed to prevent slaves from escaping.

The existence of the Confederacy suggests that there may be certain values that transcend Miller's rights to national sovereignty. It raises the question of what, exactly, may a group do to other people in order to preserve their cultural values? Enslave them? If enslaving them crosses a moral boundary, then there is at least an argument to be made that jurisdictional control - passing laws that limit their freedom for the sake of protecting cultural values - may also be going too far. Excluding them from the potential benefits of natural resources and restricted their freedom of movement are also, at least, morally questionable.

The mere fact that people place a certain type of value in certain institutions, practices, and lands may certainly be a value worth considering - when those values fall within a certain range of legitimate concerns. However, it comes with limits. We may well have reason to respect and try to preserve the traditions of a people who traditionally herd animals across the rocky slopes of a mountain range. Yet, if we accept certain animal rights claims, this constitutes a practice as bad or worse than slavery.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Korsgaard 03: Judging Reasons

We are not animals.

Well, yes, of course we are animals, but we are different. We are the only animals with the capacity to judge the quality of our reasons for acting. We can say, "This is a good reason. That is a bad reason."

Christine Korsgaard, in The Normativity of Instrumental Reason seeks to investigate whether the instrumental principle, whereby A’s being a means to B gives an agent a reason to do A if B is one of A's ends. She objects that:

A practical reason must function both as a motive and as a guide, or a requirement. I will show that the empiricist account explains how instrumental reasons can motivate us, but at the price of making it impossible to see how they could function as requirements or guides.

She further asserts that:

Empiricists . . . suppose that the instrumental principle is either obviously normative or does not need to be normative because we are reliably motivated to take the means to our ends. Instrumental thoughts cause motives.

I will go with the "reliably motivated to take the means to our ends" option . . . or, what is actually the case, "reliably motivated to take what would have been the means to an end if the agent's relevant beliefs were true." Clearly, we sometimes fail to take the means to our ends when our beliefs are false, but that should not be taken as the focus of the debate.

Using the model of how desire work that I wrote up a little while ago, cognition and perception put actions at action gates and then desire opens the gate for its preferred option. The reward system is a black box, but we can have an idea of how it works from its effects, and "choosing the action that would fulfill the agent's desires if her beliefs were true" appears to be a reasonable hypothesis.

Korsgaard argues that, if this is the case, then the instrumental principle cannot be a guide for action. That is to say, our actions are not guided by a principle that states, "since action A will fulfill my desire that P, I ought to do A."

Well, that's fine. It is not a guide for action. We do not need it as a guide for action. It is a statement about how the black box of desire selects actions at the gate - a statement that allows us to explain and predict which actions the black box will open.

Then, how is irrationality possible? It would seem, in this case, that an agent always chooses the most rationally best action. Korsgaard brings up the case of Howard whose fear of needles prevents him from getting a treatment he would otherwise get. Korsgaard claims that, if we always chose the means to our ends, and one of those ends is to avoid needles, then Howard is acting rationally to avoid the needles.

[I]f we reject the claim that prudence is a rational requirement, we will say: fear determines what Howard's preferred end is, but there is no irrationality in the case, for reason has nothing to say about what ends we should prefer.

However, this does not follow. Korsgaard is confusing the reasons for action given the agent's desire, and the reasons to desire. Both claims can be true at the same time: Given Howard's fear, he has more reason to avoid the needle than given the treatment. Howard has many and strong reasons to rid himself of this fear.

Howard's fear does not give him a reason to fear. It gives him a reason to act. The desires that Howard would fulfill if he did not fear needles gives him reason to not fear - to do something that would get rid of his fear, so that it would quit motivating actions that thwart those desires. In other words, Howard has no reason to fear. He has reasons not to fear. So, he has more and stronger reasons not to fear than to fear. Avoiding needles is NOT an end he should prefer or even have.

This means that, if there is some course of action that would rid Howard of this fear . . . such as sensitivity training or cognitive therapy . . . then Howard has more reasons to go through this therapy than not to. This may not continue to be the case if we add in the opportunity cost of time and money, but in their absence we can still draw this conclusion from Korsgaard's example.

So, it is not the case that, if the empiricist account of instrumental rationality is true, we "have nothing to say about what ends that we should prefer." Ends are also, at the same time, means to the fulfillment (or thwarting) of other ends. In their role as means, we have reason to judge them as we judge any other means.

It is important here to note that the grounds for our judgment is based on desires. If the fear of needles did not thwart other desires - if it, instead, tended to fulfill other desires - then it would not be true that Howard has reasons to rid himself of this fear. He might - depending on the consequences of having this fear on the fulfillment of other desires - be something he has reason to cultivate. Once again, it is desire that determines the "ends we should prefer" - not any kind of appeal to pure reason.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Korsgaard 02: Prudence

As I read through The Normativity of Instrumental Reason by Christine M. Korsgaard, I found many things that I wanted to comment on, so I am going to devote a few posts to this subject.

I would like to start with this quote:

Moral requirements, [empiricists] think, must therefore be given a foundation in one of two ways. Either we must show that they are based on the supposedly uncontroversial hypothetical imperatives—say, by showing that moral conduct is in our interest and so is required by the principle of prudence—or we must give them some sort of ontological foundation, by positing the existence of certain normative facts or entities to which moral requirements somehow refer.

I do not know if I qualify as am empiricist. This seems to apply to me, but I reject both options. I do ground moral requirements on hypothetical imperatives - but on the hypothetical imperatives that others have to praise and condemn, not on the agent’s own hypothetical imperatives. Thus, not on “showing that moral conduct is in our interest and so is required by the principle of prudence”. Indeed, I hold that moral conduct is not always prudent - but that it “should be” prudent in that people generally have reasons to promote those interests that will make it prudent.

But, even on the subject of prudence itself, there is an important ambiguity.

Korsgaard follows the above quote with the following accusation:

Part of the problem is that empiricist philosophers and their social scientific followers have obscured the difference between the instrumental principle and the principle of prudence by making the handy but unwarranted assumption that a person's overall good is what he “really” wants.

I would like to assure the reader that I have not done this. I do not recognize a difference between what an agent wants and what an agent “really wants”. I hold to the Humean claim that an agent has a reason to do X only if the agent has a desire that would be served by doing X . . . full stop.

I do recognize a difference between what an agent believes that she wants and what she wants. That is to say, the belief, “I want X” can be false. This can happen because we have no direct access to our own desires and, consequently, must theorize about the. Even though we have a great deal of evidence about our own desires and an incentive to get the facts straight, we sometimes make mistakes. Another reason for mistaken beliefs is that we use the term "want" to refer to things we desire in terms of a relationship of means to ends, and our beliefs about the relationships between means and ends can be mistaken.

Still, the only sensible interpretation of “I really want X” is “‘I want X’ is true.”

This is not to deny that we have a concept of "overall good". In the same way that you can give the location of an object by describing its relationship to any other object, you can describe some action in terms of its relationship to many other desires. Consequently, we can describe the relationship between an action and an agent's current desires, an agent's current and future desires, the desires that the agent prudentially has reasons to cultivate, the desires that people generally have reasons to cultivate universally, and the like. I fear that our term "prudential" is ambiguous among these various relationships - and the agent must determine any given use by looking at the given context.

I would still limit "has a reason to do X" to "has a desire that would be served by doing X".

And I would argue that "moral requirements" have little to do with what an agent "has a reason to do". They have to do with what an agent "should have a reason to do" - which, in the moral sense, have to do with the reasons that people generally have reasons (in the above sense) to promote universally. As for "overall good," I think I am inclined to agree with Chris Heathwood's statement that it has to do with having a life where one's desires have been fulfilled at the time that one had them.

Korsgaard is going to have problems with this thesis. She is going to present cases where a person "has a desire that would be served by doing X" where she is going to want to deny that the agent "has a reason to do X". I will need to look at those in detail. Though . . . spoiler alert . . . my answer to those cases will be to employ the distinction between the reasons an agent has (practical 'ought') and the reasons an agent should have (moral 'ought') - and I will make no attempt to reduce one to the other, either directly or through an intermediary concept of "really want" or "overall good". In fact, the two are often in conflict.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Korsgaard 01: On Instrumental Rationality

Assume that you had, as an end or goal, to learn a new language. You judge that a satisfactory way to learn a language is to enroll in an online course. Why should you enroll in the online course? Just because something is a means to an end, why should that be a reason to do it?

A participant in a discussion elsewhere has directed me to The Normativity of Instrumental Reason by Christine M. Korsgaard. This is the reason why I posted How Desires Work in my previous posting. Korsgaard argued extensively against the Humean theory of reasons. Hume’s theory is nearly 300 years old and I sought to present a more modern alternative.

Here, I want to address Korsgaard more directly.

Korsgaard answers this question of why one ought to perform the means to an end by saying that, first, one needs to endorse the end as a legitimate end. If the end is merely something desired or, worse, the result of fear or depression, then it does not provide a reason to pursue the means. One must assign an “ought” to the end. Then the “ought” can be transferred to the means to that end.

This goes against the Humean way of understanding things. On the Humean model, desires identify ends. The desire to learn a foreign language itself is an end and is sufficient to provide a reason to enroll in the course. Note that I said, “a reason”. There may also be reasons not to. Money. Time. One may lack the ability and experience only frustration in the attempt. But the desire provides “a reason”.

According to Korsgaard, this move violates Hume’s own “law” that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”. One must first “ought” (normalize - convert into a norm or make into a personal law) the end before one can “ought” (normalize) the means to that end. That is where the endorsement of the end comes from.

In response, it seems to me that this significantly over-intellectualizes action. An animal with an aversion to pain has a reason to avoid the fire without having to “normalize” the aversion to pain. It is simply in virtue of having the aversion that one has a reason to avoid pain. It is merely in virtue of being hungry that one has a reason to eat; in wanting sex that one has a reason to seek sex. Again, I said “a reason” - he may also have reasons not to.

Another way in which this over-intellectualizes action can be demonstrated by looking at more common actions. I am thirsty and decide to get a soda from the refrigerator. First, do I need to normalize thirst? Can it not be the case that my reason to go to the refrigerator is quite like the deer’s reason to walk to the stream?

It is also the case that my going to the refrigerator, getting a soda, and drinking it requires a number of actions. I must walk to the refrigerator, putting one foot in front of another, stepping around the backpack I had set on the floor, open the refrigerator door by applying just enough force on the door to open it without flinging it open, direct my hand and fingers to grasp the can, open it, pour its contents into my mouth, and swallow. Each of these actions can be further broken down.

Two things to note about these actions is that they serve ends other than quenching my thirst. There are interests served by not opening the refrigerator door too quickly, going to the refrigerator for a soda rather than the cupboard (where I keep a spare six-pack) or to the convenience store across the street. There are additional ends involved in getting a soda rather than water or orange juice, walking rather than running or bunny-hopping into the kitchen, and the like. I have a great many ends to normalize to get my drink. And I do all of this while my mind is busy outlining the next few paragraphs of this post.

Specifically, I was able to get myself something to drink while I considered trying to make an argument that each of these actions needed to be normalized – and then figuring out that Korsgaard could respond by saying that the normalization of the end of quenching my thirst would carry through to all of the various means, however small. Then, I thought of the issue whereby I serve a great many ends while I get a drink. A desire-based theory can handle these – there are a number of desires guiding my action as I go for a drink. Korsgaard’s thesis of normalization of ends seems to require an additional unnecessary component to each of those desires.

When the deer I mentioned gets to the stream and discovers that the water level is too low for her to drink from it, she paws the ground in order to dig a small hole. Again, this is a means to an end, but the deer does not seem to need to normalize her thirst to perform this action.

Now, what about the fact that we have ends that, we think, do not give us reason to perform an action. For example, a person who is shy and timid wants to avoid conversation, but sees her shyness as something to be overcome. Here, we have to ask, what reason does she have to overcome her shyness? The only viable answer is that she has some other interest which the shyness comes into conflict with. Without the shyness, she could accomplish these other ends. With it, those other ends are frustrated. In order for her to have a reason to preserve her shyness, it must fulfill some other end – an end that then gives her a reason. If it only thwarts other desires and fulfills none, she has reason to get rid of it and none to keep it.

As for the is/ought problem, I have dealt with this on a number of occasions. Most recently, in a response to Sam Harris' most recent attempt to derive "ought" from "is".

If an “ought” is going to cause physical substances to change its properties – to move in different ways – then there must be something of an “is” to each “ought”. I can draw support for this from Donald Davidson's thesis that reasons are causes - and causes must exist in the realm of "is". (See: Davidson, Donald (1963). Actions, reasons, and causes. _Journal of Philosophy_ 60 (23):685-700.)

I argue that “Agent ought to do X” means “There is a reason for Agent to do X”. This latter is an “is” statement and can be derived from other “is” statements. Please note that this is referring to a pro-tanto “ought” not a moral or practical “ought” – though they can be derived from pro-tanto “oughts”. Anyway, “Agent has a reason to do X” means, “Agent has a desire that would be served by Agent doing X.” Here, I made a shift from “There is a reason for Agent to do X” and “Agent has a reason to do X”. These should follow a distinction between “There is a desire that would be served by Agent doing X” and “Agent has a desire that would be served by doing X.” Of course, reasons for A to do X can exist without Agent having a reason, in the same way that there can be red cars even though Agent does not have a red car.

Effectively, the deer's thirst gives it a reason to walk to the stream, dig a hole, and take a drink, just as my thirst gives me a reason to go to the refrigerator and get a soda. Desires themselves produce reasons for action. There are some desires we have reason to get rid of if we can but, until we do, they provide reasons for action. After all, the only reasons to rid of it are its conflict with other desires.

Monday, September 24, 2018

How Desires Work

A theory of desirism requires some understanding of how desires work. This is a very brief (metaphorically toned) description of an account of intentional action, In Praise of Desire by Noma Arpaly and Timothy Schroeder - slightly modified.

A very brief (metaphorically toned) description of his account of intentional action is:

Perception and cognition (belief) creates a menu of optional actions. These sit at action gates waiting to be released.

The reward system (desire) then selects an action and opens the gate.releases it. No deliberation is involved at this point.

If desire has difficulty selecting among options, then it throws the dispute into arbitration. This is where deliberation occurs. Deliberation looks for a solution that appeals to the most and strongest desires. If it finds one, it sends that option to one of the gates to be selected. If not, the stronger desire-combination wins.

Some people have a brain disorder whereby a certain action slips past its gate without the reward system selecting it. This is Tourette’s Syndrome.

Some people have a disorder whereby the dopamine-producing cells in the reward system die off. The reward system becomes less efficient at opening the gates and, in extreme cases, stops entirely, resulting in paralysis. This is Parkinson’s Disease.

There is no pathway from belief/perception to intentional, deliberative action without the influence of desire. If there was, then the direct cognition or perception should be able to produce intentional action in an agent with Parkinson’s Disease. This is not observed.

Deliberation, on this model, is not a cause of action, it is an action. It is something that an agent does because a combination of desires come into significant conflict and "send the dispute to arbitration" sits as an action gate.

The reward system, by the way, is a black box. There is no direct neural links from the reward system to memory or perception (even internal perception). Consequently, we are not conscious of its operation. We simply observe its effects.

Korsgaard seems to be focusing on deliberation (arbitration). But, in doing so, she is looking in the wrong spot. We act on desire at a pre-conscious level.

In arbitration, we (unlike animals) can consider what things would be like if certain desires are different, present, or absent. But the consequences of these deliberations do not lead directly to action. They result in a plan that goes to an action gate to be selected by existing desires.

This is why you can resolve to get up early to go exercise, but fail to do so. When the morning comes, the action is sitting at an action gate, but desire selects something else. Similarly, one can resolve to stop eating donuts. However, when the perception of a box of donuts in the kitchen puts the act of eating a donut at an action gate, desire selects it, and the resolution goes out the window.

Future desires, by the way, cannot influence present action. Present actions are caused by the present wiring of the brain. We can be aware of the fact that a present action will thwart future desires and be unmoved (or insufficiently moved) by that fact. We can also be aware that the thwarting of present desires could have been prevented if we had acted differently in the past, and resolve to do more to consider future desires. But that resolution can easily fall prey to the problem identified above.

When we do choose to alter our desires, we do so because we have other desires that motivate the change. These other desires are what select the plan for change when it sits at an action gate.

The best plan for altering our desires is a plan of self-reward and self-punishment. If we merely try to “will” a change, we will likely fail. We can not directly choose a desire (the option to have or not have a desire itself will not appear at an action gate to be selected).

These facts are quite relevant to treating addiction, phobias, and similar problems. The patient must want to change. An addict, for example, is taught to avoid perceptions (people, places) associated with the behavior as a way of preventing the addictive behavior from appearing at the action gate to be selected.

Saturday, September 22, 2018



I was asked about what desirism has to say about aggression, and decided I should give a response.

First, a point of clarification. I will be talking about the libertarian concept of aggression. Libertarians have a technical definition of aggression that is more precise than the vague term used in common speech. It means the first use of violence in a negotiation. A voluntary exchange of goods and services is perfectly fine. It remains morally legitimate until somebody brings violence in the negotiation. That is, somebody says, "Do as I say or I will make you suffer."

Note that fraud, lying, and other forms of deception count as aggression in the libertarian sense. A voluntary exchange of goods and services means a voluntary exchange of goods and services.

Many people equate libertarianism with an selfishness. This is because one of its most popular advocates, Ayn Rand, also promoted selfishness as a virtue. However, this is not a necessary part of libertarianism. Libertarianism, in its most basic form, is a philosophy of non-violence. It is one step short of pacifism in that, where pacifism prohibits all violence, libertarianism prohibits the first use of violence. The second use - violence in self-defense - is perfectly legitimate.

One should also note that, on the libertarian concept of aggression, pollution and other negative externalities are prohibited. They are acts of violence. If I were to start a fire on my property that got out of hand and burned down your house, that would be an act of aggression, and I would be responsible for the costs. If I were to put greenhouse gasses into the air that put your property at risk of being lost to a hurricane or sea level rise, then I owe you compensation for the loss of the value of your property. Libertarianism, then, is also a strongly anti-pollution philosophy.

On this definition, it seems quite reasonable to believe that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote, universally, an aversion to aggression. People should not be eager to bring violence into interactions. It has a bad habit of getting out of hand, causing a great deal of death and suffering that people generally have reason to avoid. Even where violence does not get out of hand, it is often because one group is so much powerful than another that it may freely (and violently) abuse and exploit the other without fear of effective retaliation.

In the United States, where we have at least restrained the use of violence to violence by the state, the power of the state to redistribute wealth through violence means that agents have a strong motivating reason to use the state to use its threats of violence to redistribute wealth in their direction. Resources that would be invested in productive activities - producing the goods and services that would improve lives - instead gets invested in gaining control of some of that state violence, so that the special interest group can use it to force some money into its bank accounts.

On the off chance there may be somebody virtuous in the society who is opposed to these transactions backed by violence, they must still invest in preventing the power of the state being used against them. So, everybody - even the virtuous - ends up investing a great deal of lavor and capital in using state violence to manipulate wealth transfers.

However, desirism does not allow for any absolute good. There may well be many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to aggression, but this is only one of the sentiments that a person would have. An absolute prohibition means that an agent can have no other desire or aversion other than the aversion to aggression. If they had any other interest at all, then there would be a situation (at least a hypothetical situation) where the aggression is so small, and the force of this second interest is sufficiently great, to motivate an aggressive act.

So, the right to freedom of aggression is like a right to freedom of speech. It is something that each person should be granted. However, when other values are at stake. The right of freedom of speech is a right against violence for what one may say. However, agents do not have an unrestricted right to broadcast military or other government secrets. Nor do they have a right to commit fraud; a person who makes false statements about a product may be punished. Perjury is speech, and it is punishable. False advertising is prohibited and punishable.

These exceptions occur when the aversion to the use of violence in response to things said or written or otherwise expressed clashes with other goods or interests that people can also reasonably be expected to have. Every once in a while, those other interests outweigh the aversion to violence for things said.

In the case of aggression, the most problematic case is one of uneven power. Let us say that one person gains ownership of all of the water. This is a particularly sadistic individual and, at the start of each month, he identifies one person and claims that he will sell water to people of those people promise to refuse to trade with that person or anybody who trades with that person. For extra enjoyment, he usually chooses a child. He enjoys watching that child suffer and die.

On the libertarian account, others are duty-bound to refrain from giving water to this person. We are assuming that there is no other source of water, that contracts are binding, and the contract for receiving water says that none is to go to the agent's intended victim of the month.

Sometimes, aggression is legitimate.

This does not eliminate or erase all of the arguments above. Like the right to freedom of speech, there is reason for a strong presumption in favor of a freedom from aggression. Those who would use aggression are under a burden of proof to show that it serves and important good and no peaceful option for promoting that good exists. It is not up to those who would be victims of the agent's aggression to show that the aggression would be legitimate - it is always up to the person who would advocate for aggression to show that it is important and necessary.