Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Two Types of Subjectivism

Tomorrow, I am going to attend a PhD dissertation defense by a University of Colorado graduate student, Jonathan Spelman.

When I learned that Mr. Spelman was delivering a presentation to the summer students at the university on "In Defense of Subjectivism about Moral Obligation" I wrote to him to ask if he had a paper on the topic I could review. He wrote back to say that it was his dissertation which he would be defending the following week. I got a copy of the dissertation - and read it.

My interpretation of Spelman's dissertation was that he gave a good defense of the claim that the facts relevant to a moral evaluation include facts about the beliefs of the agent.

Let's look at it this way:

A moral syllogism contains three parts.

(1) The prescriptive premise: A general principle governing what the ought to do.
(2) The descriptive premise: An account of the facts of the given situation
(3) The conclusion: A statement of what the agent ought to do in that situation.

An example of a moral syllogism - which comes from Spelman's paper - concerns the case of a doctor named Jill. Jill's patient Frank has a non-fatal skin condition. Jill knows that drug A will relieve the symptoms but not cure the disease. Of drugs B and C, Jill knows that one will cure the disease while the other will kill the patient. However, she does not know which is which. From this, we conclude that Jill ought to give Frank drug A. There is no sense in risking Frank's life to cure a disease where there is an effective treatment for its symptoms.

Spelman uses this as an argument for moral subjectivism over moral objectivism.

Let us assume that drug B will actually cure Frank's disease. However, Jill does not know this. There is a sense in which Jill should give Frank drug B in that this would produce the best outcome. However, given Jill's ignorance, this is not what she should do in the given situation. In the given situation - which includes the facts of Jill's ignorance - Jill should give Frank drug A as stated.

For Spelman, this supports the conclusion that beliefs are relevant to the question of what Jill should do. This is a form of subjectivism - a form of the view that something is right in virtue of the agent's beliefs, rather than in virtue of the facts of the matter.

Well, I write back with a comment.

One of those comments is that Jill's beliefs ARE facts of the matter. This is in keeping with my own position that "subjective" and "objective" are not mutually exclusive options. We have objective facts of the matter regarding mental states - such as the facts that describe what Jill believes regarding the effects of drugs A, B, and C.

I have an objection to Spelman's paper in that he does not seem to distinguish between two separate propositions.

Proposition 1: The truth of the conclusion of a moral syllogism depends on beliefs.

Proposition 2: The truth of the prescriptive premise of a moral syllogism depends on beliefs.

As I mentioned, Spelman produces several arguments that can be understood as showing that the truth of a moral conclusion depends on beliefs. In the example above, what Jill ought to do with respect to her patient depends crucially on her beliefs regarding the effects of drugs A, B, and C. Her ignorance over which of the drugs B or C will cure the patient and which will kill him are morally relevant. The conclusion that Jill should give the patient drug A depends on the fact of Jill's limited knowledge regarding the effects of drugs B and C.

However, one cannot infer from the fact that the truth of the conclusion depends on Jill's beliefs that the truth of the prescriptive premise depends on Jill's beliefs - specifically, in her belief in that premise. The prescriptive premise states that Jill ought to do that which - given her beliefs - would be best for her patient. This prescriptive premise is true independent of whether or not Jill accepts it. This identifies an actual and objective moral obligation.

Just to drag desirism into this conversation, this obligation exists in virtue of the fact that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote this sentiment using the social tools of praise and condemnation. But that does not impact the actual argument we are discussing here. There might be some other way to support the proposition that this objective moral obligation exists. What matters is that one cannot infer the proposition that the truth of the prescriptive premise depends on the agent's opinion from the fact that the truth of the moral conclusion depends on the agent's opinion. This is no more valid than inferring the fact that the truth of the descriptive premise depends on the agent's opinion from the fact that the truth of the conclusion depends on the agent's position.

The truth of the conclusion depends on the agent's opinion because the (objectively true) prescriptive premise says that it matters - and that provides the reason for including (objectively true) claims about the agent's beliefs in the descriptive premise.

This yields an objectively true conclusion that depends crucially on the agent's beliefs about the world (such as Jill's partial ignorance regarding the drugs B and C) in premise 2.

Well, I have exchanged some emails with Mr. Spelman - soon to be Dr. Spelman. He does seem to want to infer from the evidence he provides that the truth of the conclusion depends on the agent's beliefs that the truth of the prescriptive premise depends on beliefs. I think that this is a mistake. At the same time, I have to say that he has done a very good job proving that the truth of the conclusion depends on the agent's beliefs. Even if he draws an invalid implication from this fact, he has demonstrated what, within desirism, would be considered a very important fact.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Problems for Libertarianism: History of Wealth Distribution

Imagine, if you will, a community living on a large island.

A group of strong-men living on the island has been spending years accumulating wealth. Mostly, they have done this through strong-arm tactics. They have gone to property owners and commanded that they turn over property or face the consequences. They have enslaved people - forcing people to work on improving their property, planting and harvesting their crops, assembling material in their shops, collecting the benefits in ways that substantially prevented their "workers" from having the opportunity to leave. As a result, this small subset of the population - let us imagine that this top 1% owns half of the island.

NOW that they have accumulated all of this properly - mostly through violence and forces appropriation - they want to institute a new social rule. This rule says that no person can take property from another by force.

It certainly seems quite convenient for those who now own half of the property in the community that NOW they would be so concerned with prohibiting the use of force to redistribute the wealth. That is what they call it, by the way - a term that presumes their rightful ownership when that, in fact, is exactly what is in dispute.

Let's use another example. A thief pulls out a gun and tells you to step into the alley. There, he forces you to hand over your wallet, your watch, and . . . well . . . "that's a nice looking suit you are wearing." Then, after he has taken these things from you, he then announces, "New rule: No person may take property from another person by force."

The timing is quite convenient.

This idea that no person may take the property of another person by force lies at the core of libertarianism. We can see why those people who have already taken a large amount of property from others by force . . . who have, in fact, taken about as much as they can effectively take . . . would then insist that it would be wrong for others to take property by force FROM THEM.

However, would it not still be the case that the robber owes something to the robbed? The extortionist owes something to those from whom they extorted? The slave owner owe something to those he enslaved?

A lot of libertarians, it seems, wants to just blow past this issue as if it does not matter. It is no wonder that this ideology is favored among those who have already accumulated great deals of wealth, and is viewed less enthusiastically from those (and the descendants of those) from whom wealth was taken.

Problems for Libertarians: Economic Capture

As a part of my attempt to step outside of my particular intellectual bubble, I regularly listen to the podcast EconTalk hosted by Russ Roberts.

The task of stepping out of one's bubble is to read things one may not necessarily agree with. I tend to be on the liberal side of things - so the libertarian-themed EconTalk would qualify. Though, in violation of this principle, I sometimes find myself agreeing with what is said, and incorporating some libertarian thoughts into my own writing.

The fact that global trade is responsible for lifting over a billion people out of extreme poverty represents one area where free-market principles and compassion went hand-in-hand for a better world.

However, in looking at both sides of these debates, I do come up with some problems for libertarians.

A few blog posts back, I wrote a post in which I showed how the moral argument in defense of the right to freedom of speech paralleled the moral argument in defense of a right to freedom of trade - a free market. (See Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Markets)

Basically, the argument states that the right to freedom of speech is a right to freedom from violent interference based on what one says, writes, or communicates in other ways such as art or gestures. The reason we need to keep violence out of the forum is because, once it is introduced, those with power are going to determine - through violence - what people may hear or write. Inevitably, those with power are going to make this determination based on what promotes their own interests. Those with power will allow speech that promotes their interests, and condemn through violence speech that would thwart their interests.

The same argument applies to the market.

Basically, the argument states that the right to freedom of trade is a right to freedom from violent interference in the exchange of property. The reason we need to keep violence out of the market is because, once it is introduced, those with power are going to determine - through violence - what people may trade. Inevitably, those with power are going to make this determination based on what promotes their own interests. Those with power will allow trade that promotes their interests, and condemn through violence trade that would thwart their interests.

If one thinks that this is a good reason to allow freedom of speech, it seems to follow that it is also a good reason to allow freedom of trade.

This does not imply unconditional freedom in both cases. The right to freedom of speech does not include the right to lie - or even to make careless claims in some circumstances. False advertising, fraud, libel and slander, are prohibited. And freedom of trade is restricted with respect to nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, to name a few. However, it does argue for a strong presumption in defense of freedom - that freedom be permitted unless and until compelling reason can be provided in favor of violent interference.

The puzzle for libertarians is this:

We introduced violence into the market long ago. If this argument is sound, then this predicts that we should expect to find a great deal of evidence of cases where powerful people are using violence in the market place to allow trade that promotes their own interests and prohibit trade that conflicts with their interests. Yet, when one searches through the works of libertarian think-tanks such as the CATO Institute, Hoover foundation, and - indeed - listens to the podcast episodes from EconTalk - one discovers very little discussion of programs that transfer wealth upward.

This is not to say that such talk does not exist. It is simply much less common than talk about the transfers of wealth that benefit the poor. We see such organizations complaining more about minimum wages, national health care, public school, and public health care than we see them complaining about tax benefits for corporations, restraints of trade, the capture of regulatory agencies, a multi-hundred-billion dollar defense industry that is, to a large degree, a corporate welfare program, government-funded research where the wealthy take the research and sell it, and foreign wars that are fought for corporate interests.

I would like liberal readers to note - all of the items that I listed above that libertarian think-tanks tend not to talk about are cases where libertarian principles support liberal political objectives. Yes, there such things do exist. One can find them if one does not spend all of one's time in one's own political tribe hating everything having to do with the other political tribe - one can find potential areas of agreement and . . . GASP! . . . even areas of potential cooperation.

But, let us put that aside for the moment.

This seems to have two possible implications: at least if we look at things as they appear from the point of view of libertarian think-tanks.

(1) The premise in which the right to freedom of speech and freedom of markets is false. It is not the case that, if violence is introduced into the forum or the market, that those with power will use violence to permit that speech/trade that benefits them and prohibit that speech/trade that is not in their interest.

(2) Those with power can not only use it to buy legislators, regulators, public-relations companies (and advertising campaigns), media, lobbyists, and lawyers with which to manipulate the powers of government to concentrate economic wealth in their hands. They can use their power (and, in particular, their money) to capture the attention of libertarian think-tanks as well.

Option 2 is not a conspiracy theory. It does not require people consciously deciding to do evil. It is simply the case of a market responding to incentives. Think-tanks need money. The wealthy and powerful have money to spend. Powerful people have reasons to fund those think-tanks that put more emphasis on criticizing programs that transfer money downward and ignore programs that transfer money upward. So, these are the types of think-tanks that survive in the market. This is an example of the market at work.

But, then, that illustrates a part of the problem with inequalities of wealth. Inequalities in wealth not only allow the wealthy to concentrate even more wealth into their hands through their control of the government but also through control of education, research, and the media. They create a culture in which academics focus their attention on issues that benefit those with money and ignore research into that which benefits those who cannot afford to pay for that benefit.

That is a problem for libertarianism.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Arab and Medieval Philosophy, Free Will, and Consciousness

In 80 days and some change, I will be attending class.

In the mean time my current activities have involved getting through the History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast. The "without any gaps" component has to do with the fact that it does not skip from Aristotle to Aquinas. Instead, we have spent about 60 podcast hours on the Stoics, Neoplatonists, philosophy in the Arab world, and medieval philosophy before reaching Aquinas.

Let me fill you in on some of the things that I learned so far in this podcast.

First, there's the extensive cooperation that existed between Muslim, Christian, and Jewish scholars in Islam. Some people may be familiar with the fact that much of the scholarship of the ancient Greeks was preserved in Arab countries while Europe went through its dark age. The reason for this preservation in scholarship had to do intentional efforts to translate Greek philosophical works into Arab. For this, they worked with Jewish and Christian scholars who knew Greek and could help in the translation. Furthermore, the works of Christian and, in particular, Jewish scholars were a part of the philosophical dialogue going on at this time. These were not isolated communities - they shared a common culture.

Second, Arab intellectual culture continued past the Crusades. The way history is generally taught, when the Europeans attacked the Middle East in the Crusades and made off with their books, this sparked a resurgence in philosophy in Europe, while the Arab world went into a rapid cultural decline. It would be more accurate to say that, once the Crusaders made off with the books they captured, they quit paying attention to Arab culture. Therefore, the continuing Arab intellectual activities after the Crusades went unnoticed. However, it is not the case that what Europeans decided not to notice did not exist.

Third, a great many scholars in medieval Europe and in the Middle East during this time period "scriptualized" Aristotle. They thought that Aristotle could not be wrong. They also thought that scripture could not be wrong. Consequently, a great deal of philosophical effort went into trying to discover an understanding of Aristotle that matched their understanding of the Bible. If both were true, then they had to agree with each other. This was difficult considering that, for example, Aristotle argued that the universe was eternal and scripture argued that it was created. This was only one of the struggles that was taking place.

Fourth, a lot of excellent brain power was spent trying to prove the truths revealed in scripture. Humans may be able to come up with some tremendously imaginative ideas to argue that this is the case. In fact, many of those ingenious ideas might even have a place in the real world - for example, aiding in our understanding of the relationship between universals and particulars. However, in the end, it would be like adopting a project to show that the events in The Lord of the Rings were actual historical events. Regardless of how imaginative and innovative those solutions were, it would have been great to have had that intellectual power devoted to real problems.

I am forming the opinion that contemporary philosophers are also working on projects comparable to trying to prove how wine and bread can literally become the body and blood of Christ while showing no indication that such a transformation has taken place. These have to do with free will and consciousness.

I have never found much use for either of these two concepts. I don't think either of them exist.

Proving that something does not exist - unless it involves a straight-out contradiction - is near to impossible. I think that the proof of its nonexistence will come directly from the observation that people have quit talking about it. In the moral philosophy that I defend, I make no reference to free will. It is thought that, after years of discussion of moral theory, with no sign of free will, people may begin to wonder where free will went. In fact, it did not go anywhere. It never existed. I can leave it out of my discussion of morality because it does not do anything. Rather than being disproved, the theories will just fall into disuse. We will also find that consciousness does no good. It is unneeded and, consequently, may be cut out of your most recent efforts.

In its place, we have the physical structure of the brain motivating behavior - structures that can be molded by experience praise, reward, condemnation, and punishment. Reward and punishment have a determined effect, and are motivated by that which is a fact in the brain.

"Consciousness" is another thing that will fall into disuse until we decide that it was not being used for anything. It plays no role that requires its existence.

Well, the next part of my studies - once I catch up on the History of Philosophy - is to brush up on my logic.

I am now in regular communication with the philosophy department at the University of Colorado. As a graduate student, I have been assigned an advisor, and made arrangements to take a class in modal logic this semester. When I took propositional logic, the class was exceptionally easy. But that was two dozen years ago. Now, we get to find out just how rusty my mind is.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Trump and the Paris Agreement

I have been spreading the following moral analogy concerning President Trump's decision to have America leave the Paris Agreement:

[I]President Donald Trump has actually given us all reason to be embarrassed to be Americans.

Imagine a village where an alarm has sounded that the river going through town will flood. The villagers gather to put sandbags along the banks to keep from flooding the town.

The wealthy owner of a large house watches them work, while sitting back drinking lemonade. His house will be flooded, too, if the river breaks over the banks. But he is counting on the hard work of the other villagers to save his home, with no contribution from him.

Or, he will help, if the other villagers will pay him enough to make it worth their while.

I would be acutely embarrassed to be that person. But that person is the United States under Trump.

This analogy is missing one important element. The owner of the house sitting on the porch drinking the lemonade is CONTRIBUTING to the size of the flood. He owns a dam upstream. He has ordered the spillway opened to pour even more water into the river, making the villagers work all that much harder, or forcing them to pay him not to flood the town.

That is the type of "greatness" Trump is aiming for.

It's embarrassing.[/I]

In addition to the points raised in this post, there is a related point to consider.

Imagine that you were somebody living in this town trying to save his home from the flood, working side by side with the others. There, on that porch, sat a man drinking lemonade - refusing to help - and even suggesting that his employees at the dam feed even more water into the river.

How would you feel?

Donald Trump is promoting a great deal of hatred and contempt of the United States. One question that we have reason to ask is: How do they intend to express that anger and contempt?

One of the ways in which they may be expected to express their anger is by simply resolving to have nothing to do with the man sitting on his porch. This could range from refusing to do business with him, to failing to do anything to help protect him if some burglar, vandal, or arsonist (for example) should decide to attack his home.

We would reasonably expect the people in the village in this example to resolve to quit doing business with the man on the porch to whatever degree they are able to do so. They would resolve to take their business to the neighbor who helped them on the dikes, not the selfish man on the porch who not only refused to join them but made their job that much harder. Rather than making America great again, Trump is giving people around the world a good reason to carry out their economic activities with fellow countries who have joined in the fight against global warming and to deny their business to the country who refuses to help.

We would also reasonably expect the people in the village to be a bit less concerned about the fact that somebody in the village may form an intent to rob or vandalize that man's house. After all, they will think to himself, he is only getting what he deserves. In the world today, this means simply not caring to help to prevent a terrorist attack against the United States and not caring one bit about our security. Some of the people in the village may get sufficiently angry that they may carry out such an attack. Others, though they would not conduct such an attack themselves, certainly will not see much reason to put any effort into helping to prevent it. The result is that living in the United States becomes that much more dangerous.

These possible responses may help to explain why several states, cities, and companies resolved to continue to help in the fight against climate change, even as Trump pulls the federal government out of the Paris agreement. These human beings recognize that there is a lot to be gained by joining the others on the banks of the river to fight the rising floodwaters. There is reason to cultivate the good will of the other villagers. It is good for business, and it provides benefits in terms of mutual security. Promoting a culture of mutual cooperation requires that one agree, from time to time, to cooperate.

Of course, one of the manifestations of this culture of cooperation is that members of the community will sometimes choose cooperation for its own sake - merely because it is the right thing to do. Sitting on the porch refusing to contribute, and even taking action that forces the others to work that much harder, can be expected to have some significant costs.

Nobody in the village is going to think that the man sitting on the porch while they work to save the village from the flood is 'great' in any sense of the word. They are going to think that he is a . . . well, honestly . . . that he is an asshole. Because that, in the proper understanding of the term, is exactly what he is proving himself to be. His attitude and his actions will leave him without friends and without help when he needs it most.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Value of a Life of Reason

I am starting my next paper. This one seeks to promote the virtue of seeking true and relevant beliefs in deciding on courses of action that impact the lives of others.

This is how the paper starts:

The Value of the Life of Reason (20170523)
Alonzo Fyfe

I write this document primarily to try to get you, the reader, to adopt – a bit more strongly than you have – a devotion to truth and reason, and to promote that interest across the community as a whole.

Your life may depend on it.

Its importance seems obvious beyond question. We can illustrate it in countless examples.

For an illustrative example, imagine that you are a prisoner presented with two glasses, each with a clear odorless liquid. One contains a poison that causes excruciating pain, while the other is good clean water.

It seems beyond question that you would want a way to determine which glass contains poison and which contains water. Towards that end, you discover that the poison is an oil that floats on water. You only need to take a drop from one glass and put it in the other. If that drop floats on the surface, then you should skim that drop off of the surface and drink the contents of that glass. If the drop sinks, then you should drink from the glass from which that drop came.

Having true and relevant beliefs can save you a lot of pain.

Now, let’s introduce a number of prisoners. Each prisoner is presented with a glass of water and a glass of poison, and asked to choose which glass to give some other prisoner. In this community, you have reason to promote not only an aversion to causing others pain, but also reason to promote an interest in true and relevant beliefs so that prisoners in general are choosing the glass with water rather than the glass with poison.

We live in a society where people are drinking a great deal of poison. This is happening because people are being careless about the truth and relevance of their beliefs. They are acquiring beliefs through unreliable sources, and failing to inquire into whether even the truth beliefs they have are relevant to their decisions regarding the glass from which others will be forced to drink.

This metaphor of drinking from a glass of poison stands for suffering from the results of carelessness with respect to the truth and relevance of beliefs. Those who will suffer the ill effects of greenhouse gas emissions, vaccinations (or the lack of vaccinations), a higher minimum wage, homeopathy and other forms of crack medicine, or lured into smoking, are examples of people who have been made to drink from a glass of poison – often by people who are careless in determining the truth and relevance of those beliefs causing them to choose the glass containing the poison.

This is a moral failing worthy of condemnation. Those who are put at risk of drinking poison – let alone those who are forced to drink the poison that others choose – have good reason to condemn, in harsh terms, those who made that choice carelessly.

One of the reasons we are drinking a great deal of poison these days is due to a common misunderstanding of the claim, “everybody has a right to their beliefs.” The popular misunderstanding is that it is wrong to condemn people for a careless belief that the glass they choose for others to drink from contains water. If it ends up containing poison, rather than to condemn the person who made the choice for carelessness, we are told, “everybody has a right to their belief” – and we may not legitimately condemn the person who carelessly acquired the belief that the glass contained water.

We are also drinking a lot of poison because of beliefs grounded on faith. Some of the prisoners are making their decisions based on a passage in religious scripture that says, “Always choose the glass on the right.” In fact, the glass on the right, as often as not, contains poison. The people who wrote those scriptures long ago knew nothing about the “poison floats on water test.” Now that it is known, people with a slaving devotion to scripture are still choosing the glass on the right, and thus serving their fellow prisoners poison. If your scripture tells you to always choose the glass on the right then, as long as you are choosing for yourself, that’s fine. But, when you are choosing for others, you may be obligated to use a different standard.

Scripture is only one source of potential error. There are those who choose what glass others will drink from based on horoscopes or other signs, or think that they can choose the right glass based on intuition or some other special faculty whereby, if they close their eyes and point, they will point to the glass of water rather than poison. Repeated failures in these tests do not dissuade them. There are those who carelessly believe that they can tell the poison from the water because the poison has a slight reddish color that they can see, but which exists only in their imagination. Yet, they confidently assert that they are incapable of error, and that their methods for determining truth are flawless.

We also need to consider the poison vendors – those who manufacture and sell the poison being used in the test. They obtain a profit when they can convince prisoners to choose poison instead of water. Consequently, they have reason to flood the prison with misinformation – telling them such things as that water floats on oil or, at least, that the “oil floating on water hypothesis” is “just a theory” and there are a great many reasons to doubt it. Because of these campaigns, they bank billions of dollars, and many more prisoners end up in agony.
Finally, we must consider the prison employees – often paid off by the poison vendors, or under the influence of scripture – who encourage prisoners to select poison over water.

As a result of these customs, people are drinking a lot of metaphorical poison.

People will make mistakes – that goes without saying. However, much of the poison being served is not due to the innocent mistakes of people who are, nonetheless, doing the best they can. Much of this is due to carelessness, and some of it is due to malevolence.

The solution is to say that truth and reason matter – and to hold in deserving contempt those who carelessly or malevolently come to believe, or to choose, to have their fellow prisoners drink poison instead of water.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Criticizing an Idea (Again)

With the terrorist attack in Manchester, the debate between "the legitimate criticism of Islam" and "Islamophobia" once again emerges.

On this topic, my first question is: Can you tell the difference?

In 1879, several Europeans, tired of being condemned for being anti-Jew, answered that they were not against the Jew. They were against the Jewish philosophy, "Semitism". They were engaged in the legitimate criticism of an idea - or "anti-Semitism". However, what they called anti-Semitism, and which they said was the legitimate criticism of an idea, was still bigotry under a new name. This bigotry under a new name lead to the Holocaust 60 years later.

Can you tell the difference?

I am constantly engaged in the criticism of ideas. Utilitarianism, moral relativism, hard determinism, Objectivism, Kantianism, theism, and the like. There are rules to criticizing an idea.

One of those rules is that criticism does not count as criticizing an idea unless it is criticism of a defining characteristic of that idea.

For example, I am not criticizing act-utilitarianism unless I am criticizing the idea that the right act is the act that produces the most utility.

If Jeremy, who calls himself an act-utilitarian, were to blow up a building, saying that he believed that this act would produce the most utility, in order to make this a criticism of act-utilitarianism it would not be sufficient for me to show that Jeremy called himself an act-utilitarianism, that act-utilarianism says to do the act that produces the most utility, and that Joe believed that his act produced the most utility.

I would also need to show that Jeremy made no mistake in believing that his act produced the most utility.

Plus, I would need to demonstrate not only that Jeremy made no mistake in believing that his act produced the most utility, but also that the act was nonetheless wrong.

When somebody falls short of these requirements, we have reason to believe that they are "criticizing an idea" is, in fact, false. What they are doing is using Jeremy's action - and the emotional response to it - to promote hatred of a people (those who self-identify as act-utilitarians), many of whom would not have ever endorsed Jeremy's actions.

Applying these standards to the case of using a terrorist attack to criticize Islam, one would need to demonstrate that the terrorist was a Muslim, that he justified his actions on the basis of Islam, that his understanding of Islam is correct, and that there is a more accurate account of morality that would have condemned the action.

It's this requirement of showing that "his understanding of Islam is correct" that is the hard part - and the part that critics often leave out. This is comparable to saying, "no Muslim deserving of the name would have disagreed with Jeremy," or "Everybody who disagrees with Jeremy is not actually a Muslim."

If the critic says, "Yes, there are Muslims worthy of the name who would have disagreed with Jeremy," then this is as good as admitting that his claim that he is criticizing an idea called Islam is false. He is not actually criticizing an idea. A likely explanation of what he is doing in fact is promoting hatred of a people who call themsleves Muslim.

He is merely calling his hate-montering the "criticizing an idea" to give it the appearance of legitimacy.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Markets

Recently, I have been trying to get participants in discussions at the Party of Reason and Progress to respect conservative ideas.

This is not because I think that intellectual diversity has any type of intrinsic value, or because I believe that everything is just a matter of opinion and one opinion is as good as any other, or because I think that beliefs should be evaluated on any standard other than (or addition to) whether they are true. It is because I hold that some beliefs attributed to conservatives and Republicans are true, and some beliefs attributed to liberals and Democrats are false.

If the Party of Reason and Progress and its members adopt the idea that one major party is a fountain of all wisdom and virtue, and the other is a cesspool of ignorance and malevolence, then it will not be operating on the principles of reason. It will, in fact, be embracing a great many fictions precisely because they are the beliefs that one must have to obtain membership in a particular political tribe.

In this respect, recently, I noticed an interesting parallel between the arguments for freedom of speech and the arguments for freedom in the marketplace.

In a nutshell, the main argument for a right to freedom of speech goes as follows:

A right to freedom of speech is a right to an immunity from violence or threats of violence for what one says and does. We wish to prohibit the introduction of violence into the forum. The reason for this is, primarily, because introducing violence will start us down a road where those with power will ultimately decide what is said and written in the public forum. If they have the power to say what is said and written, they will inevitably allow those things that serve their interests, and prohibit that which goes against their interests. We do not need to even imagine a malevolent conspiracy on their part. This will come about simply because of the common arrogance people have to exaggerate the benefits to themselves, to imagine benefits to others in that which benefits themselves, to minimize harm to others, and to imagine harms to others in that which harms them. In other words, we do not need malevolence. We only need self-deception. And we have plenty of that. Though, clearly, this will also tempt the malevolent.

We can write the freedom of exchange in almost exactly the same terms.

A right to freedom of speech is a right to an immunity from violence or threats of violence in exchange. We wish to prohibit the introduction of violence into the market. The reason for this is, primarily, because introducing violence will start us down a road where those with power will ultimately decide what is traded and for what price. If they have the power to say what is traded, they will inevitably allow those trades that serve their interests, and prohibit that which goes against their interests. We do not need to even imagine a malevolent conspiracy on their part. This will come about simply because of the common arrogance people have to exaggerate the benefits to themselves, to imagine benefits to others in that which benefits themselves, to minimize harm to others, and to imagine harms to others in that which harms them. In other words, we do not need malevolence. We only need self-deception. And we have plenty of that. Though, clearly, this will also tempt the malevolent.

Employing this argument, I suspect many liberals will have little trouble imagining a society a few decades after we introduce violence into the forum - and the wealthy and powerful have gained increasing power to dictate what is said and written. Those who oppose the people in power are arrested and imprisoned - their property compensation - and otherwise forced into silence. The defender of freedom of speech would then tell these people, "I told you this would happen. You didn't listen. Now you have a forum where speech only benefits those in power."

Today, a few decades since violence was introduced into the marketplace, conservatives are saying the same thing. They see many liberals complaining that activities benefit to those with power more than any other group. They see economic activity going to increase their power. Indeed, the force of government is used quite extensively to take wealth from those who lack power and give it to those who have power - which tend to be those who can afford lawyers, lobbyists, and public relations firms that specialize in manipulating the public. Against this, the defender of freedom of markets would then tell these people, "I told you this would happen. You didn't listen. Now, you have markets where trade only benefits those in power."

I favor the affordable care act.

However, I condemn the attitude common among liberals that conservative who oppose the act get off on the idea of taking medical insurance away from tens of millions of people and watching them suffer and die. However, the liberal attitude in this case is like that of a person viewing a person perceiving a defender of freedom of speech as a defender of all sorts of malevolent and harmful beliefs that are sometimes found in an unregulated forum. Interpreting a defender of freedom of speech as a defender of lies, and interpreting a defender of freedom of market as a defender of suffering and death, are comparable malevolent and dishonest distortions of an opposing view.

If I may quickly summarize a sketch of an opposing view, it goes as follows:

People are resourceful and imaginative. The best way to deal with the health-care problem is to put that resourcefulness and imagination to work to come up with solutions that have the lowest cost and maximum benefit. When we "kick tens of millions of people" off of government-funded health insurance, we do not expect them to suffer and die. We expect them to find new and better ways to prevent suffering and death.

The liberal plan is one of violence and arrogance. It is violent in that people are forced to participate in their plan; those who do so face people with guns, and those people with guns have a legal permission to kill any who resist. This is not an exaggeration - this is a description of how the state works. The government passes a law. People with guns who have a permission to kill those who resist enforce the law. The liberal plan is arrogant because it assumes that a government employee can come up with a brilliant plan to solve the problems - a plan that is so certain that he can be justified in sending people with guns to threaten to kill any who do not obey his dictates.

Instead, the conservatives expect these tens of millions of people - so long as they have the freedom to do so - to come up with some number of non-violent answers to the problem and to implement them. Since the costs come from their own pockets, and since they harvest the benefits directly, they will inevitably seek the solutions that produce the greatest benefits at the least cost. To the conservative, "We are not the ones condemning people to suffering and death. You are. You are the ones relying on arrogant bureaucrats with guns. You are the ones who are blocking the invention of dozens of non-violent solutions that will ultimately provide far more help to far more people at a much lower cost."

In my posts, I argue extensively for the freedom of speech using precisely the argument I outlined above. As such, I have to admit that the same argument applied to a freedom of market has some merit.

I note, however, that the right to freedom of speech is not absolute. It does not give a person a right to lie. Perjury, fraud, libel, slander, false advertising, are all prohibited. At the very least, the right to freedom of speech applies only to those who believe what they are saying. In many cases, they must also believe on the basis of good reason. Negligent speech is also prohibited.

Consequently, we can argue, even where these arguments are parallel, that there are some market activities that can also be considered harmful to the public good and, thereby, regulated. In this respect, I would argue that the very poor actually lack market freedom. Their economic situation means that they are often acting under duress, as in, "Do what I say or your children starve and your spouse will not get needed medical care." A right to freedom in the market no more applies to these types of trades than a right to freedom of speech applies to lies and negligent acts of libel and slander.

But the more important point is that this is a type of conclusion that one can reach if one takes the arguments of critics seriously - rather than manufacturing straw men that allow one to charge the critics with stupidity or malevolence. Sometimes the critic has a grasp of a truth. Presuming that they are malevolent or foolish merely blinds oneself to a truth that could, ultimately, produce great benefit or prevent great harm.