Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A Campaign of Deception

What would you say somebody walked up to you with the following deal:

"I need your help. I am working for somebody who is arranging to have dirty bombs delivered to a lot of major cities around the world; Los Angeles, Miami, New York, London, Hong Kong, Sydney. You get the picture. These bombs won't kill many people. What they will do is render large portions of these cities uninhabitable for the foreseeable future. The economic damage would be massive.

"My problem? I think the authorities are on to me. If they move too quickly, they could disrupt the whole program. I need to distract them. That's what I want you to do. I want you to come up with some way to throw them off the scent until the person who hired me can finish his work. I'll pay you half a million dollars each year for as long as it takes, and even give you the first year's worth in advance.

"What do you say? Do we have a deal?"

What type of person would accept such a deal?

Whatever type of person this is, he or she is morally comparable to the employees of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

The terrorist, in this case, is carbon dioxide. The middle-man working for the terrorist is Exxon/Mobile. The people who agreed to create this diversion while bombs are placed that will render large portions of several major cities uninhabitable are those who work in the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

The CEI started a campaign consisting of two 60-second commercial built around the theme, 'Carbon dioxide; some call it a pollutant. We call it life.' They are trying to sell the idea that, because carbon dioxide is something that we exhale as a part of our life and plants use, that it is a harmless product that we should not worry about. They condemn those who would call it a pollutant.

If they truly believe this, they should have no trouble agreeing to a simple experiment. Let us take all of the employees at the CEI and put them in a chamber with 100% pure carbon dioxide. Let us see how much "life" we can find after, say, 15 minutes.

This is a graphic demonstration of a simple fact: What is a 'good thing' at one level of concentration might produce some adverse effects at a different concentration. There is nothing in these advertisements that say anything to counter the science of global warming. It is nothing but a feel-good commercial that says, "carbon dioxide is our friend." Its purpose is to disarm the population so that they will not take steps to protect themselves from the harms they will suffer as carbon dioxide levels rise.

For this, CEI collects money from energy companies who want us distracted while carbon dioxide releases a bomb that will render large portions of coastal cities uninhabitable -- a level of damage that will make a terrorist strike look like child's play.

Some scientists are saying that, in 10 years, the terrorist "carbon dioxide" will be unstoppable. We will no longer have the ability to prevent it from setting off its bombs that will damage all coastal cities. Even if this is an overly pessimistic assessment, I am certain that CEI will not mind. If it turns out that this "terrorist" needs a little more time, CEI is willing to buy this "terrorist" as much time as it needs, as long as CEI continues to get paid.

What type of person would do this?

And let us not forget the middle man -- the people who are funneling the money from the terrorist 'carbon dixoide' to organizations such as CEI. The middle-man in this case is a company such as Exxon Mobile -- who has contributed over $2 million to CEI.

The terrorist 'carbon dixoide' is paying Exxon Mobile billions of dollars per year. That is why Exxon-Mobile has decided to ally themselves with this terrorist -- for the money. CEI is willing to help for table scraps compared to what CEI is making. (Of course, some of the people in CEI may well have large stock holdings in Exxon-Mobile. If there are any, they are getting paid twice. The terrorist pays them once as an employee of the 'middle man', and once again as the organizers of this campaign to divert attention from the terrorist until the job is done.

One of the tools that people use to fight terrorism is to try to cut off its source of funding. So, we need to ask, from where does Exxon/Mobile actually get the money it uses to finance this campaign?

Well, actually, they get it from you, dear reader -- some of you.

They don't get much from me. I quit driving when I was 18 (with a 1 year exception).

For those of you who think that you cannot live without a car, I have a request. There is another company out there called "British Petroleum" (which also sells gasoline under the name 'Amoco'). The next time you need a tank of gas, I would like to ask that you do not give your money to the organization that is more than eager to finance destruction equivalent to a terrorist bomb in every coastal city. I would like to ask that you look for a "BP" or "Amoco" station instead. And encourage friends and family to do the same.

What Free Markets Require

The Competitive Enterprise Institute says that it favors free-market solutions to the world's problems.

That's a lie.

A free market system is one that protects property rights. This includes the right of each individual to preserve their life, health, and property from harms that others may inflict. If I were to start a fire on my property that burns down your house, on a free market system, then I am responsible for the costs (plus punitive damages).

The free market system has a set of rules that have to be set in place in order for the ‘invisible hand’ to operate. One of those rules is: “Those who do the harm pay the cost.” In more technical terms, this is called “internalizing the costs.”

The way this works is that we set up a system so that if an action does harm to others, those who perform the action compensate those affected for the harms done. Free market forces will then give that person a reason to stop the activity at the moment that it quits producing a net social benefit.

If we allow that person to continue the action without paying the costs, then he will do more harm than good. He will continue to perform the action even to the point where he is doing excessive harm to others, because he does not have to pay for the harm. Yet, he still gets to pocket the benefit.

This is the type of system that Exxon/Mobile, CEI, and the Bush Administration are trying to set up. They want a system where rich people can continue to pocket the benefits of their action without paying for the costs they inflict on others –- particularly if those “others” do not have a lot of money.

Let me repeat this.

According to free-market principles, “Justice” = “Those who do harm to others pay the costs.”

According to Exxon/Mobile, CEI, and the Bush Administration, energy companies are free to inflict whatever costs they want on others – up to and including the potential of doing massive damage to every coastal city equal to or greater than that of a terrorist weapon of mass destruction, without paying the costs.

What will the effect of these principles be? What will result from a government that says, “Energy companies can inflict whatever harm they want without suffering the costs, but can still pocket the benefits?” The result will be energy companies inflicting as much costs as possible. Ultimately, it would be rational for them to destroy a city if doing so can bring them a dollar in profits – because they get to keep the dollar, and they don’t have to pay for the destroyed city.

It sounds a lot like the same type of “morality” one would find among a group of terrorists.


I want to go back to my original question. What should our attitude be to somebody who accepts a bribe and agrees to distract officials long enough for a client to plant a bomb that would destroy significant portions of every major coastal city?

That's the attitude we should have to members of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Exxon/Mobile, and the Bush Administration, because this is exactly what they are trying to do. They are funding and campaigns to divert our attention while carbon dioxide plants a bomb that will destroy substantial portions of every coastal city. They don't care. They just want the money.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Bubblegum Argument

I have an unreasonable request. That even those who hold the same position that I do on any matter avoid giving stupid or dishonest arguments in favor of that position. I do not wish to be associated with such dishonest people.

One area in which I have an interest is in the area of space development. I spend a lot of time reading about issues in the area of space science. This weekend, for example, I went to the C-span and picked an interview with NASA Administrator Dr. Michael Griffin to listen to while I exercised.

Okay, I have strange habits.

Nonetheless, in that interview Griffin give an old and deceptive argument in defense of NASA funding that no honest person -- or, at least, an honest person who gave the issue a moment's thought -- would ever use. I call this, "the bubblegum argument."

Before describing the argument, I want to note that I happen to encounter this argument often in discussing the NASA budget. It is not the only place where it is used. One can expect it to come up any time a person with a lack of concern with honest facts wants to con taxpayers out of a little more money.

The Bubblegum Argument

Griffin said that we should not be concerned about NASA's budget because it amounts to "less than the price of a pack of bubblegum per day for each American."

Oh, sure. Pocket change. A few coins here and there -- we would barely miss it. "There's nothing to see here, folks. Just go about your business. Move along. Don't mind us. It's trivial, really."

In real terms, NASA's budget is over $16 billion per year. This amounts to more than $60 per year per person -- or about $0.17 per day.

See, what did I tell you. Pocket change. Less than the price of a pack of bubblegum per day. Certainly, this is not worth the trouble.

Countering the Bubblegum Argument

Now, for all of those of you out there with families, I ask you -- out of whose pocket does the money come when your young child wants a pack of bubblegum? Yours, right?

This is not a simple oversight. This is an act of deliberate deception. People making this argument what those who hear it to think that their contribution is not worth worrying about. Therefore, the divide the cost among the whole population -- including people who have no money to spend. The money that they are not putting into the pot has to come out of somebody else's pocket. That "somebody else" is now spending more than $0.18 per day.

In this case, we are talking about a government funded program. Therefore, the number of "payers" is not even the total number of people with jobs. The amount should really be divided among the total number of people who pay taxes. There are a lot of potential bubblegum buyers who do not pay taxes. Thus, they are not contributing to the $16 billion that NASA will spend this year. If they are not paying, then somebody else has to be paying their share for them.

In its effort to deceive people into thinking that their contribution is trivial, the bubblegum argument ignores these facts as well.

Now, let's just go back to the original bubblegum value of $60 per year.

How many people do you know who could really use $60 per year. Let's say, we set up a stand in the middle of downtown any city that will give $60 to any person who simply signs a sheet of paper. We are talking about every man, woman, and child. A family of four can come up with their kids in tow and collect $240. Grandma and grandpa will get $120. The single mother waiting tables at the diners can pick up $120 for her and her child.

This is after-tax money.

Pocket change?

Not really. The bubblegum argument tells us to ignore the fact that there are a lot of people out there who would love to be able to afford the price of a pack of bubblegum per day. If they had that money, they would not be spending it on bubblegum. They would be spending it on food, clothing, shelter, and to cover their heating bill in the winter. Or maybe the family of four can take a nice trip into the mountains for a weekend.

Finally, if this is such a trivial amount, then it seems that there are a lot of other organizations out there who should be able to come to ask and ask for "the price of a pack of bubblegum per day."

How about campaigns to find cures for cancer, heart disease, diabetes, leukemia, Parkinson's disease, AIDS, malaria, Alzheimers, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, blindness, schizophrenia, osteoporosis, hepatitis, . . . we are now up to 15 packs of bubblegum per day and we are only talking about fighting disease. We can add funds for exploring the oceans, understanding earth quakes, researching global climate, building super computers, research into alternative energy, agricultural products (such as drought-resistant food types), improving farming techniques in underdeveloped countries, building roads, building power plants in impoverished parts of the country.

Every one of these people are knocking at your door telling you that all they require is the price of a back of bubble gum per day to do great things. If every one of them gets it, you will not be able to afford a pack of bubble gum. So, you have to tell some of them, "No," or, "Not so much."

Alternative energy research gets about a nickel per day.

If we have to say, "No," to somebody, who do we say it to first?

There is one legitimate way to look at budget issues -- and the bubblegum argument is not it. You look at the costs. You compare it to the benefits. And you compare the value of those benefits to the value of the benefits that you can get if you put that money some place else.

So, we need to look at the $16 billion going to NASA, look at what we can get, and look at that value compared to the value we can find elsewhere.

Value in NASA

We find four areas of value coming out of NASA.

(1) Airplane research. Many people forget what the first 'A' stands for in NASA. It is 'aeronautics'. NASA tests airplane technology. As a result, we get safer and more fuel efficient airplanes.

(2) Earth-use satellites. This includes weather-monitoring satellites (to save our lives when hurricanes threaten), as well as communications, global positioning system, and earth-monitoring satellites. A lot of private money goes into communication satellites, but NASA maintains the infrastructure that makes this industry possible.

One of the major new areas for earth-monitoring has to do with climate change. Global warming is threatening to impose trillions of dollars worth of costs on us. It would be nice to know how best to avoid the worst of those costs.

(3) Space resources. The only way to get more resources on Earth (raw materials, energy, and food) is to cut deeper and deeper scars into our living planet. The only alternative to cutting deeper and deeper scars into the living earth is to harvest what we need from the dead of space. Energy from the sun and whole asteroids of raw materials are waiting for us. Space is also where we can do research on deadly diseases and manufacture goods that produce toxic wastes on Earth without having the expense of disposing of them. (Protection from cosmic rays require heavy shields of whatever matter we can put into them -- which might as well include the waste products of mining and manufacturing.)

(4) The survival of humanity. This is like buying insurance. We do not know if the money we spend moving creating a space-born community capable of surviving the loss of earth will produce a benefit -- just as we do not know whether the money we spend on health insurance will come back to us in reduced bills. These are a "just in case" expense. The next time you look at an image of a distant galaxy, I will bet good money that somewhere in that image are the remnants of a civilization that did not do what it needed to do to ensure the survival of their species when they had the chance.

If we look at these values, we can justify the $16 billion per year. Saving our own lives and the lives of our friends and family members, saving the earth, and saving humanity if our quest to save the earth fails, are easily worth at least this much.

As I said, NASA is not the only organization to use the bubblegum argument. We can find versions of it whenever dishonest people want to con an individual to give up some portion of his hard earned money. It is a fundamentally dishonest practice that aims to make an individual's contribution seem smaller than it is in fact, in order to manipulate his support for some program.

Honest people may want to consider taking some money away from people who use this type of argument as a simple reminder to them not to try to gain financial support through deceptive practices.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Flag Burning


I'm sorry, readers, but I took a couple of days off. (This makes a total of 5 days out of 260 days since I started posting, so I don't feel too badly.)

I did not really take two days off, either. I decided that I needed to do something that I had been back-burnerizing for quite some time now -- to go ahead and create a book-type publication of some of the things that I have written.

I have always felt uneasy about writing a book. It just feels a bit . . . arrogant . . . to think that I have something to say that is worthy of being put into a book. On the other hand, I see other works out there (e.g., the writings of Ann Coulter) and it nudges me in the direction of thinking, even if it is not as good as I would like it to be, it is better than many of the things readers can choose from.

The book that I am working on is a compilation of some of the things that I have written elsewhere, presented under four general categories: (1) moral theory, (2) moral issues, (3) political morality, and (4) morality and religion.

I thought that it would be easy. I am a chronic rewriter. I never like anything I have written more than 23 hours after I wrote it. (I am certain that some people say, "Why wait so long?"). So, it will hopefully give a better understanding of some of the ideas presented here. Heck, I have even changed my mind on a few things -- mostly because a few readers had not given up in frustration after shouting at me for years, "That . . . part . . . does . . . not . . . make . . . any . . . sense!"

New Business: Flag Burning

I have read that Senator Frist, majority leader of the Senate, has two major items on his agenda for the near future.

He wants to pass a marriage amendment -- one that says that no state may recognize a marriage or any marriage-like arrangement (e.g., civil union) between two people of the same gender.

I have expressed my view on this earlier. The campaign against gay marriage is the most recent of a long line of religious crusades -- campaigns to add misery and suffering to the lives of decent people because those causing the misery think that it is something that their all-loving God wants them to do. Furture historians will list simply add this to the list of crusades, inquisitions, witch-burnings, and religious wars.

Surprisingly, I once thought that the human race had outgrown these barbaric dispositions.

The other issue that Frist wants to get on the floor of the Senate for an up or down vote this election year is an amendment to ban flag burning.

Why would somebody want to ban flag burning?

The answer typically given is that burning the flag shows dishonor and disrespect for all of those who have fought under and defended the flag over the past 230 years.

Anybody who fights to defend a flag is an idiot. Flags are just so many square inches of colored cloth, and no batch of colored cloth is worth a man's life. Indeed, if I came across an accident where a person was bleeding to death, and the only cloth I had available for which to create a bandage was a flag, I would rip the flag apart and use it as a bandage without a moment's guilt. Because, all things considered, lives are more important than flags.

On the other hand, moral principles can be more important than either flags or lives. For all of those people who fought and died in the service of this country, I would hope that all of them were smart enough to fight and die, not for a flag, but to establish and maintain certain principles of right and wrong -- justice and injustice.

Among the rights worth fighting and dying for is the right to free speech -- a right to say things that others do not want to hear.

Why would somebody want to ban flag burning?

Because they do not like what the person who is burning the flag is saying by that action. He does not agree with that sentiment, so he wants to do harm to those who express that sentiment.

This is the antitheses of free speech.

Indeed, if this amendment gets passed, then the flag will stand for censorship rather than freedom. It will stand for the use of government authority to punish those who say things that others do not want to hear. The flag will become a symbol of opposition to the principles that most of those who fought under it were seeking to defend -- the right of people to express unfavorable opinions without being punished for it.

Ironically, I suspect that there is no act that will bring about more flag burning than passing a constitutional amendment making it a crime to burn the flag. If such an amendment is passed, then we will see the nation divided into two camps. There will be one camp that loves the flag but hate what it stands for -- who will punish those who burn the flag and cheer those who would ban free speech. They will be pitted against a group who loves what the flag stands for more than the flag -- who will burn the flag because they love freedom.

In fact, any Senator or Representative who votes for this amendment, votes to destroy what those who fought under that flag (particularly in the years in which this country was founded) fought to protect.

Friday, May 26, 2006


Hume's Ghost came to me today with a reference to an article that appeared in the British newspaper The Independent about assassinating heads of state.

I had been considering this topic for a while. However, I have shied away from it. Mostly, I kept putting the subject on the back burner because of concern that the NSA with its sniffer programs going through the internet may pick up my posting and get the wrong idea.

Indeed, this is one of the evils of living in a society where there is no true freedom of speech. The problem that everybody focuses on is the case where a person claims something that others sensor. Yet, another, more severe problem is self-censorship where people become nervous about saying things they fear “those in charge” might misinterpret. It is better to be safe than sorry. So, a lot of very useful debate also gets stifled.

These fears (whether rational or irrational) aside, the ethics of assassination is a perfectly legitimate subject, as the essay below will show. There are a number of factors to consider in determining whether the assassination of the head of a country is or is not justified. So, I have decided to go ahead and tackle the subject.

The Article In Question

The article in question concerned a case in which a member of the British Parliament, George Galloway, said that it would be morally permissible for a suicide bomber to assassinate Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Specifically, Galloway said,

Yes, it would be morally justified. I am not calling for it - but if it happened it would be of a wholly different moral order to the events of 7/7. It would be entirely logical and explicable. And morally equivalent to ordering the deaths of thousands of innocent people in Iraq -- as Blair did.


First, we need to get past the fact that this is a very sloppy sentence. It is sloppy enough to suggest that the person who said it has a morally deficient level of respect for truth or moral responsibility.

For example, Blaire did not order the deaths of anybody that I am aware of. He ordered an action that resulted in deaths. However, this is not the same as ordering the deaths. If the President of a corporation approves a marketing program that ends up costing the company $100 million, it is still absurd to say that he ordered the loss of $100 million. Galloway's representation of Blair’s actions is a lie.

Furthermore, the statement that assassinating Blair is 'the moral equivalent of ordering the deaths of thousands of innocent people' would suggest that assassinating Blair was wrong. Ordering the deaths of thousands of innocent people is wrong. If assassinating Blair is its moral equivalent, then it would be wrong as well. However, this does not appear to be what Galloway means to be saying.

These mistakes suggest that Galloway is one of a much-too-long list of people who cannot think and speak at the same time.

I am going to interpret Galloway as trying to say that the assassination of Blair would be proportional to the crime of causing (though not ordering) the deaths of thousands of innocent people.

Never Assassinate

Now that I have clarified Galloway’s statement, I want to address a statement made in the report by Labour MP Stephen Pound, who criticized Galloway. He is reported to have said, "It's reprehensible to say it would be justified for a suicide bomber to assassinate anyone."

I can refute this statement with one word.


If the attempt to assassinate Hitler in July, 1944, had been a suicide bombing, it might have succeeded. Hitler’s life was spared, it is believed, because somebody moved the brief case containing the bomb out of the way. More to the point, the legitimacy of the assassination attempt is not to be determined by whether the assassin lived or died in the attempt. The main question is whether the attempt itself is justified.

Mr. Pound should also take care to remember that the first shots fired in the actual invasion of Iraq was an attempt to assassinate Saddam Hussein and his sons. Bush had given Saddam Hussein a deadline for leaving the country. Before that deadline ran out (while it might have been the case that Saddam Hussein was making plans to comply with the demand), the Bush Administration acquired information about where Saddam Hussein and his sons might be. So, they launched a strike on that location in an attempt to assassinate these leaders. I repeat, this attack took place before Bush’s deadline (thus breaking the promise implied within the deadline).

Mr. Pound may wish to make sure that he can come up with a consistent moral position on these cases before he starts to make blanket statements about the justification for assassination.

The response at this point may well be, "Blair is not Hitler."

That is true.

It is also irrelevant.

I did not say that Blair was Hitler. I said that the statement “assassination is never justified” is false by using Hitler as an example. I will assume that I have, in fact, proved that “assassination is never justified” is false.

In addition, a person does not need to be as bad as Hitler to deserve assassination. Hitler was not just barely over the moral line to where assassination is legitimate. Hitler was so far past the line that we still have reason to ask: How bad must a leader be to deserve assassination? Answering this question as it applies to Blair does not require proving that Blair is as bad as Hitler. Blair might be somebody who has crossed the line, but just not by as much as Hitler did.

Mitigating Circumstances

Even if a political leader has crossed over the moral line, there are factors to consider before determining that assassination is justified.

The first question is: Are there other methods for removing a head of state from power that do not involve violence? If there is, then the right thing to do is to use these systems, rather than use violence.

One issue that I have made a lot of noise about in recent posts is the value of due process.

No person should believe that he has so much wisdom that he can unerringly determine who should live and who should die. To reduce the possibility of unjust harm, individuals who advocate harm have an obligation to appeal to a neutral third party to adjudicate the issue. This is why we have judges – we use them to provide “due process” to reduce the chance of unjust harm being done.

If a method of due process exists, then this method should be used.

England has civil tools available to remove a leader from public office. It starts with a vote of no confidence, at which point the Queen is generally asked to call for new elections to find a prime minister in which the House of Commons could find new confidence. These rules are a matter of tradition rather than hard law. However, respect for tradition is strong in some people. This is an effective non-violent way to remove a tyrant from office.

America’s System of Removal

At this point, we have to admit that America’s system for removing a rogue head of state from power is defective. The last 10 years has taught us that the leading predictor of whether a President will be indicted is, "Is the President a member of the same party that controls the House of Representatives?" If the answer is "No", the President will be indicted for trivial reasons. If the answer is "Yes" then no crime will be considered important enough to justify an investigation, let alone impeachment.

We could find solace in that the people still have the power to replace a rogue President’s defenders in Congress with new leaders. Unfortunately, Congress has done such a good job gerrymandering the election districts that it is now virtually impossible to get an elected official out of office.

Our existing political system is one in which a Legislator effectively says, “only those who are very likely to vote for me are allowed to vote in my district.” This is not accomplished by threatening those who would vote against that legislator with fines and imprisonment. It is accomplished by drawing the boundaries of the district in such a way that it captures those who are likely to vote for that person and pushes those who will not into other districts.

We do not choose our representatives any more. Our representatives choose us.

So, our ability to demand that our representatives remove a rogue President has been severely curtailed.

Curtailed enough to justify assassination?


Congress may have engineered significantly higher costs to remove a rogue President, but it has not closed down those options entirely. They are still less costly than promoting the complete disregard for law and civil order that an assassination would imply. If a President is truly such a tyrant, then the people had better muster the courage to have him removed from power even against the obstacles that his partisan supporters have built in his defense. If the people are not willing to go through that much effort, we may assume that they do not care enough to justify an assassination either.


Mr. Galloway was wrong. His words were also intellectually reckless. If it is the case that Mr. Blair should be removed from office, so long as institutions exist that allow for non-violent due process, then those are the systems that ought to be put to use. Only when those systems break down – only where a person truly deserves to be removed from office and yet has dismantled the civilian institutions that allow for his removal (e.g., Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Stalin, Kim Jong-il ) can one legitimately look to assassination as an option.

Even then, there is one more factor to consider. Once this leader is removed, will the people be better or worse off? Are we putting the people on a road to freedom and justice? Or are we putting people on a road to the mass slaughter of civil war as they fight to fill the power vacuum left by a dead tyrant?

The attempt to answer these questions is precisely why a system of due process is a moral requirement. It is utterly foolish to set up a system where a lone idiot has the power to make these types of decisions without needing to present evidence to neutral third parties that his actions actually do make sense. An idiot's actions still tend to make sense to that idiot, but that is not good enough.

Actions that aim to bypass the system of due process that help to provide us with our security are to be discouraged. When it comes to arranging to eliminate a rogue leader from power, no individual (even if he is President) should think that he has the right and the power to make that decision without making an appeal to some system of due process.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Lessons from Jefferson

The fact that the FBI searched and removed items from the office of a Congressman's office seems to have gotten some people in the House of Representatives upset. It appears that they are demanding something of a right to privacy – a right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects.

It turns out that they do not even want to allow reasonable searches and seizures upon probable cause. This was a case in which the FBI first used a subpoena and went to a warrant only after Jefferson ignored the subpoena. Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike are united in a rare bipartisan campaign of indignation over having officials of the Executive Branch of government violate their office space.

These are the same people . . . some of them . . . who had spent months telling us, "If you are not doing anything wrong, you should not have anything to hide?" According to what we have been told as the government pries deeper and deeper into our lives, and collects an ever growing database on each of us (adding phone records to its database of tax records), the government is only after criminals. If we are not criminals, then we should not be worried about the fact that the government is going through our stuff. Should we not then say to these legislators, “If you are not corrupt, you should not have any objections to the FBI coming in and grabbing your records?”

Am I sensing some hypocrisy here?


Here, consistency requires that I use some caution.

I have objected to the argument, “Only those who have something to hide should be worried about these searches and seizures.” I argued against this on the basis that none of us get to decide for ourselves whether or not we have something to hide. I mentioned cases in the past where having a Japanese parent, being a runaway slave, being somebody who aided in the escape of a runaway slave, being a member of the Communist party, or being a friend of somebody on President Nixon’s enemies list all counted as being something to hide.

To an intellectually responsible person, an invalid argument is not to be used even when it supports a desired conclusion. (To a partisan hack, on the other hand, moral constraints are for the weak and foolish.)

What we need is a set of universal moral rules that we can apply to everybody. We can then hold actions and policies up to the light of these rules and use them to say "these actions over here violate the rules, and those do not.”

Legitimate Concerns

To investigate what these rules would look like, let us look at the relevant concerns at stake.

Why would non-corrupt legislators be worried about other people – particularly people who work for the President -- going through their stuff?

It is because their stuff probably contains a lot of notes having to do with political strategy. They probably say things about deals being brokered behind closed doors, and ways in which they are trying to get their own favorite piece of legislation through the mill. If others are aware of these plans, then others have the ability to block those plans to command a higher price in trade. Even honest legislators have good reason to fear this type of information getting out to the public.

Imagine a state in which Vice President Cheney or Karl Rove can call up the head of the NSA and say, "Send me a list of every phone number that Senator Russell Fiengold (D – WI) has called or who called him in the past five years.” Authority comes from the President who gets to be the decider in terms of what counts as a matter of national security, and he decides that this counts as a matter of national security. After all, Feingold voted against the war and is apparently more than willing to let the terrorists walk right into this country with their weapons of mass destruction. Stopping the terrorists means stopping Feingold, so Cheney gets his list.

At the same time, Gonzales is walking around Washington DC reminding everybody that if they leak any information on this war on terror that they, and the reports they talk to, can be prosecuted.

On the surface, this type of abuse of power is something that we have reason to want to avoid.

At the same time, it seems reasonable that authorities who are investigating criminal acts should have access to the documents that are relevant to those actions. Legislators should not be able to hide murder weapons in their office, or illegal drugs or stolen merchandise or embezzled cash, and rest comfortably that the FBI can never come in and get it.

A reasonable suggestion for dealing with both of these concerns suggests the following rules:

That each member of the legislator shall enjoy the right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

That is to say, the FBI has to go to a judge. They have to tell the judge exactly what they are looking for and their reasons (probable cause) for thinking they will find it in the congressman's office. If their claims are convincing, the Judge authorizes the search and the FBI can then search for, find, and remove the items on the list. All the while, judicial oversite is used to make sure that the information collected is not used for illicit (political) purposes. The information is strictly kept in the hands of those who are using it to prosecute an alleged offense.

Let us go ahead and apply these principles to everybody. Let us have a Constitutional Amendment that says something like:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Instead, we get something entirely different.

The Deal

The Congress has protested loudly enough and efficiently enough that, today, President Bush ordered that Jefferson’s materials be sealed for 45 days while they work out the legal issues.

I wonder what it would take to get the President to order the NSA database of all of our phone calls to be sealed while the legal issues are looked into.

Clearly, the legislative branch has the power to force such a concession from the President. We can only assume that they lack the will to do so.

I see, in this, an excellent opportunity for the Legislature and the Executive branches of governments to work out a perfect deal to their mutual satisfaction. The terms of the deal would go something like this:

Congress agrees to allow President Bush to have unlimited authority to spy on the American People (not including Legislators) without investigation or limitation. Bush can collect all of the information he wants on all of us. In return, President Bush agrees never to allow the FBI to search for evidence of wrongdoing on the part of legislators, even when an order is issued by a federal judge convinced of ‘probable cause.’

In short, we, the people, and our Constitutional Rights, are killed and offered up as a religious sacrifice to His Majesty, King George so that the Legislators get stronger immunity from criminal prosecution.

Sounds like a perfect poltiical solution, does it not?

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Subjective Morality

Announcement: I am honored to have one of my postings selected for this edition of "Carnival of the Liberals."

New Business: Subjective Morality

I consider common moral subjectivism to be one of the most obnoxious belief systems around. In fact, I have more intellectual respect for the religious ethicist than the moral subjectivist, based on one principle point.

If you go to a religious ethicist and ask, "What would be the implication if you were to discover that there is no God and everything you base your morality on is simply made up, having no tie to reality?"

The religious ethicist will answer, "That will be a problem."

Ask the same question to a moral subjectivist, and he would answer, "What do you mean 'if'?"

The subjectivist admits that his rules have no bearing on reality. He even draws a hard distinction between 'fact' and 'value' to stress the idea that any talk of 'value' has nothing to do with 'fact.'

In this, as I wrote yesterday, the subjectivist's so-called 'morality' has a lot in common with a child's game of 'let's pretend.' The moral subjectivist makes up a set of rules. He decides to act as if those rules were true. While, at the same time, he admits that they are not true.

Furthermore, if somebody else were to invent a different game of 'let's pretend' with different rules, he cannot say that his game is objectively better than theirs. All he can do is appeal to his own let's pretend rules. Those rules might or might not not include rules like, let's pretend that slavery is wrong or let's pretend that people who seek to execute all the Jews in a Holocaust are evil.

The particularly obnoxious feature of subjectivism is that it is a game of 'let's pretend' that is used to 'justify' real-world violence. The subjectivist's game of 'let's pretend' is a game of, "Let's pretend that it is okay to fine, imprison, enslave, or even kill X." Importantly, it is then actually used to fine, imprison, enslave, or even kill X.

Why is okay to kill them? Ultimately, the subjectivist answers, "Because I invented this let's pretend rule that says that it is okay to kill them. If I had invented a rule that says that they should live then, ergo, they should live. Of course these are make-believe rules, and I could have just as easily adopted a different set of make-believe rules in which these people lived rather than died. But, they happened to find themselves in a universe in which I adopted the make-believe rule that said that they should die. So I killed them."

One Argument for Subjectivism

I particularly enjoy the argument for subjectivism that notes that people have different moral beliefs. "Therefore, morality is subjective." For example, in a recent discussion, one participant offered to prove that morality is subjective by saying, "I know one person who is a Muslim who believes that a man can have multiple wives, and another who is a fundamentalist Christian who believes that a person should have only one wife."

Sorry, sir, but I know a scientist who thinks that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, and a biblical literalist who insists that it is no more than 10,000 years old. Should I imply from this that the issue of the age of the earth is subjective?

Your Muslim and Christian friends are both basing their moral claims on a false premise -- 'God exists.' It makes absolutely no sense to say that we should take conclusions grounded on a false premise and say that they are equally sound. We already have good reason for rejecting both claims -- or, at least, rejecting their evidence for these claims.

The only type of evidence that would count as 'proof' of subjectivism would be cases where two people agree on all of the facts yet reach different moral conclusions.

A Matter of Taste

One of the mistakes that subjectivists make is that they start talking about personal preferences as if they were moral claims.

For example, it is possible that I can agree with my wife on every single fact in the universe. Yet, it is the case that I like calamari, and she hates it. Does this not prove that value is subjective?

Well, it is also the case that my wife and I agree on every fact in the universe (hypothetically), yet I am male, and she is female. Does this prove that gender is subjective? Even though we agree on every fact in the universe, I have brown hair while hers is red. Our agreement on every fact in the universe happens to coincide, at the moment, with the fact that I am in Denver while she is in Boulder. Yet, none of these facts are properly called 'subjective'. They are not put in separate category that is somehow different from 'fact' the way that subjectists put value in a category distinct from fact.

The fact that have different likes and dislikes, even while we agree on all of the facts of the universe, is no more proof of subjectivity than the fact that we have different genders, hair color, and location. These qualities are still a matter of objective fact. Treating them as something else is simply a mistake.

Then, there is the question of whether moral claims are claims about one's personal preference - a claim that runs into its own problems.

The Implications of Personal Preference

Once we recognize that personal preferences are still matters of objective fact -- like gender, hair color, and location -- we must then recognize that we are limited in the conclusions that we can infer from having these qualities. For example, the proposition "I have a desire to have sex with Martha" does not entail, "Martha is morally obligated to have sex with me."

This implication, however, lies at the foundation of moral subjectivism. The moral subjectivist draws moral conclusions from what are, in effect, his or her own personal preferences. Their 'morality' as they call it is nothing more than their own individual likes and dislikes. Yet, in appealing to their likes and dislikes, they draw conclusions about what others ought to do, who ought to be punished, who deserves a reward, and who he will fine, imprison, enslave, or kill. They make an entirely incomprehensible and invalid leap from "I like X," to "You ought to bring about X."

What the moral subjectivist needs to explain, which I suggest that no moral subjectivist can explain, is how they make the leap of logic from "I like" to to "You ought" and "You ought not."

This logical leap requires the introduction of make-believe rules that have validity merely because the subjectivist has decided to insert them into his argument. The subjectivist admits that these rules have no basis in reality or 'fact'. Yet, these make-believe rules have the power to infer 'You ought' and "You ought not.'

This does not solve the problem. If the rules that one is appealing to are make-believe, then the ought and ought-not conclusions that one draws from them are make-believe as well.

Recommendation to Subjectivists

What I would like to suggest to the subjectivist is, "Let's not pretend." Let us deal only with facts and, if something is not a fact, then it should be discarded as being irrelevant in the real world. If values are not facts, then let us throw values out.

If we find that we cannot throw values out -- that we cannot explain and predict events in the real world accurately without postulating the existence of values as real-world entities, then this suggests that values are real-world entities.

If we can throw them out -- if we lose no explanatory or predictive power by never again talking about values -- then they are not real and we have no business using them in the discussion of real-world events. We particularly have no businesses using them to justify our actions when we work to fine, imprison, enslave, or kill other people.

If we get to the point of claiming that values are real entities that explain and predict real-world events, then we can start asking questions like, "What type of real-world entities are they?"

What the Subjectivist Gets Right

As with most belief systems, there are some things that the subjectivist gets right, which provides the initial incentive to adopt the system.

In the case of subjectivists, two principle propositions that they get right are these:

(1) There is no such thing as 'intrinsic value'. There are no 'value entities' that adhere to certain states of affairs, releasing 'goodons' and 'badons' that we somehow sense (and sense correctly) through a magical moral-sense organ locked somewhere in the brain. Any theory that depends on these types of entities can be thrown out as fiction.

(2) People always act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires (given their beliefs). Many of the claims that subjectivists make -- though they say they are talking about morality -- are merely descriptive claims about why they do what they do. To explain their actions they make reference to their own beliefs and desires. To appeal to an outside force -- particularly an external moral force -- as a part of the explanation for their actions is a mistake. To the degree that any outside force is responsible, then the action is not their action.

Whatever values are, they must be made consistent with these facts. Yet, at the same time, they cannot be made into imaginary or 'let's pretend' entities. This is the issue that I discussed yesterday. In answer to this challenge, I argue that values exist in the real world as relationships between states of affairs and desires. But states of affairs, desires, and the relationships that exist between them, are all real. They are facts, through and through.

Desires are the only reasons for action that exist. Value claims are claims about reasons for action. Value claims are objectively true or false depending on whether the relationship between an object of evaluation and reasons for action is true or false.

These relationships between desires and states of affairs are not 'make believe'. They exist as a matter of objective fact. Because they exist as a matter of objective fact, we can talk about what their real-world properties are. Nothing is 'make believe'. Value-facts are discovered like any other type of fact.

Reasons for Action (Again)

When a person makes a value claim he is making a claim about reasons for action. A person who calls X 'good' is making a claim that there are reasons for action to maintain or bring about states of affairs where 'X' exists. A person who calls X bad is saying that this is a state of affairs that there are reasons for action to avoid.

If he is making a claim about reasons for action, either those reasons for action exist and the statement is (objectively) true, or those reasons for action do not exist and the claim is (objectively) false.

Making a claim about something being good or bad that is divorced from reasons for action is nonsense.

If you are going to assert that there are reasons for action for bringing about or avoiding X, then please identify the real-world reasons for action that exist for bringing about or avoiding X. If you cannot identify real-world reasons for action for bringing about or avoiding X, then, please, do not make assertions to the effect that there are reasons for bringing about or avoiding X. Above all, do not claim that, "There are no real-world reasons for bringing about or avoiding X but I insist that everybody pretend that such reasons exist and those who do not shall be punished."

The quest for reasons for action that exist -- that are real -- is not in vain. Reasons that exist are called desires. Different individuals have different desires -- just as they have different genders, hair color, and location. This does not make them any less real.

Moral obligations and prohibitions are not derived directly from personal preferences. It is wholly invalid to assert, "I would like it if you did X; therefore, you have an obligation to do X."

Statements about obligations and prohibitions, insofar as they are value statements, have to be making a reference to reasons for action (desires). Insofar as "I like/dislike; therefore, you ought/ought not" is invalid, statements about obligations and prohibitions cannot be making a reference solely to the 'reasons for action' of the person making the statement. Moral statements make a reference to reasons for action (desires), but not those of the agent.

I do not have space here to discuss which reasons for action are embodied in moral statements. In that discussion, I would conclude that moral statements evaluate desires (reasons for action) according to whether they fulfill or thwart other desires (reasons for action). But I have no room to defend that position here.

However, whether this is right or wrong it does not save the subjectivist from the problem I have already mentioned -- the problem of 'let's pretend' reasons to fine, imprison, enslave, or kill other people that are actually being used to fine, imprison, enslave, or kill other people.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Moral Relativism

Hellbound Alleee has started a so-called self-proclaimed "war on moral relativism". She describes this in terms of a proposed "strike against the rejection of fact in morality."

I do not know, actually, where the ideas that I present in this blog would put me in terms of her war.

I am a moral relativist.

I also believe that there are objective moral facts.

The common belief that these are mutually exclusive categories is mistaken. If we look at the two options in detail, there is no way to draw the distinction between 'relativism' as it is commonly understood and 'objective morality' that allows the two terms to be both (a) mutually exclusive, and (2) coherent.

The Distinction


Moral absolutism is the claim that there are these fundamental moral laws that determine what ought and ought not to be done. These laws exist as substantive moral forces that we can somehow 'sense' with our 'moral senses' and which tell us how to behave.

The problem with this view is that we have no evidence that such a force exists. If they exist, what are they made of? How do we sense them? Why do two people looking at the same action get two different moral readings? Which one of them is right?

The difficulty in answering these questions strongly suggests that such a property does not exist.


Moral relativism, as it is commonly understood, asserts that each individual or culture merely asserts a set of moral principles. Right and wrong are determined by these baseless, unfounded assertions. If Culture A holds that slavery is good, then slavery is 'good for them' merely on the grounds that they have asserted its goodness. This system is no 'better'' or 'worse' than any other system. The concepts of 'better' and 'worse' in this context imply an intrinsic, absolute value that does not exist.

Moral values, on this model, have the same substance as any other work of fiction. Having no foundation or no grounding, a person can 'make up' whatever he wants just as he can make up the characters and events in a story. He can make up a system of ethics where slavery is permissible, and where people are obligated to help in the extermination of Jews in a Holocaust. Again, any system he makes up is no better or worse (in an absolute sense) than any other.

The absurdity of these implications lead some to think that morality must be more substantive than this; it must clearly prohibit such things as slavery and a Holocaust.

Mutual Rejection

The fact is, the critics of both of these positions are correct.

There is no such thing as 'intrinsic value.' It does not exist. We have no evidence for such an entity. No instrument has yet measured it. No theory in physics requires it. It is a fiction, like ghosts and angels.

At the same time, 'subjectivist' morality is nothing more than a game of make-believe. The subjectivist is like the kid who says to his friend, "Let's pretend that there is a dinosaur between here and school and we have to get to school without it seeing us." The kids will then scamper down alleys and through yards on the way to school, and may even point at their fictitious dinosaur and scream, "There it is!" However, the dinosaur is not real. Neither is the subjectivist's morality. It is just a game of 'let's pretend'.

Unfortunately, the subjectivist is willing to take his game to the extreme of actually throwing people in prison and killing them. It would be like one of the kids deciding that the only way to save himself from the dinosaur would be to kill the other and let the dinosaur eat it -- so he kills his playmate. This is taking a game of "let's pretend" a little too far.

Objective Relativism

To find a sensible alternative to these two options, I would first like to make the idea of objective relativism at least initially plausible.

When I first started college, I was interested in astronomy, so I took a lot of science classes -- namely physics, chemistry, and earth science. My physics courses included a class in relativity theory. In it, I learned how Einstein showed that many of the things we thought were absolute -- mss, length, and even the speed at which time passes -- are actually relative, and depend on the speed of the object.

In spite of the fact that Einstein blew away many of the absolutes in physics, physics did not become any less objective. Physics is still a hard science. So, this told me that objectivism does not require absolutes.

I applied this to the concept of location.

I assure you, you will never be able to tell me the location of anything without describing its position relative to something else. Where are your car keys? On the kitchen table? In your coat pocket? Try answering that question without mentioning some other object. It cannot be done.

All location statements are statements about an object relative to some other object -- the keys relative to a kitchen table or a coat. There are no location absolutes. Yet, location statements are as objective as any statement in science. Statements about relational properties are no less objectively true or false than statements about absolutes.

The Objectivity of Brain States

Desires exist.

Desires are mind/brain states and they are as real as the minds/brains that instantiate them.

Some people try to prove that values cannot be objective by saying, "If you eliminate all of the people, there would be no value."

This is a poor argument.

We would have no moons if planets did not exist.

However, planets do exist. Moons do exist. We can objectively study the moons that exist and make hard, scientific claims about them. The fact that moons depend on the existence of planets that do, in face, exist does nothing to affect their objective reality.

The fact that values depend on desires that do, in fact, exist does not allow us to draw the conclusion that values lack objectivity either.

The critic may say, "But desires are brain states and planets are not."

And planets are round while brain states are not.


Some things in the world exist as brain states. Some things in the world exist as round clumps of rock. There is no fundamental difference between brain states and clumps of rock; no reason at all to say that one has 'objectivity' in any way that the other lacks.

Value as a Relational Property

As I wrote yesterday, desires are propositional attitudes. A 'desire that P' is a brain state that motivates the agent to pursue states of affairs where 'P' is true.

If it is an objective fact that Agent has a desire that P, and it is objectively true of some state of affairs S that P is true in S, then it is objectively true that S is such as to fulfill Agent's desire that P. Then it is an objective fact that Agent has a reason to bring about S. Agent may also have reasons not to bring about S -- depending on other desires. Yet, the reason to bring about S remains.

This is what I call 'value.'

Why do I call this 'value'? Because 'value' has to do with reasons for action, and the only reasons for action that exist are desires.

If somebody is making a value claim, and he is not at all concerned about reasons for action, I hold that his statements are incoherent. Since the only reasons for action that exist are desires, then the person making a value claim had better be speaking about desires, or he is asserting the existence of reasons for action that do not, in fact, exist.

Desires and Action

Now, I do not need to convince you -- by reason or any other means -- to seek to fulfill your desires. Intentional actions simply are attempts by agents to fulfill their desires. Even the choice to do nothing, if it is intentional, is grounded on the fact that, if the agent's beliefs were all true, doing nothing would best fulfill his desires. If he leaves some desires unfulfilled, it is because he has other desires that outweigh those he chooses not to fulfill.

I argue that moral value has to do with the value of malleable desires. By 'malleable desires' I mean those desires that can be modified through social conditioning such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. We have discovered that we have the power to determine, to some limited extent, the desires that others have. This has invited us to ask which desires we should choose to instill in others, and which we should seek to prevent. The institution known as ‘morality’ is that institution of choosing desires to promote and desires to inhibit through social conditioning.


Another thing that I learned about the time I spent studying astronomy is that scientists care little about definitions. As long as we all agree to use the same definitions -- or to allow easy translation from one set of definitions to another -- that is all that matters.

So, astronomers name comets after those who discover them, and planets after ancient gods. The people who discover an asteroid gets to name it, which is why we have four asteroids named George, John, Paul, and Ringo.

The names of all things in science are somewhat haphazard. For a while, newly discovered elements are named after the location of their discovery, giving us elements such as Berklium and Californium. Somebody just named a newly discovered dinosaur species out of a fictional school of magic, Dracorex Hogwartsia.

The names of things are wholly made up. Yet, these made-up names do not affect the objectivity of science.

So, if you, the reader, do not like that I call these things ‘value’ and ‘morality’, that is fine with me. Call them what you like. The names do not matter. No matter what you do with the terms ‘value’ and ‘morality’, the following are still true.

Desires exist.

• Desires are the only reasons for action that exist.

• Any claim that there is a 'reason for action' that does not reference a desire is a claim that is false – there are no other reasons for action in the real world.

• Some desires are malleable and can be influenced through social conditioning.

• Because our actions have the power to influence the desires that exist, we have the option of choosing those desires. This raises the question of which desires to promote, and which desires to discourage.

• For desire-fulfilling creatures, it makes sense to promote desires that fulfill other desires, and to inhibit desires that thwart other desires.

• So, it makes sense to discover what those malleable desire-fulfilling desires are and to promote them through social conditioning. At the same time, it makes sense for us to seek to discover what those desire-thwarting desires are so that we may set to work inhibiting them.

Though I assert that this particular set of propositions come quite close to describing that phenomena that we call ‘morality,’ I do not care if others agree with me. They remain true nonetheless.

Absolutism and Subjectivism Revisited

Absolutism invents reasons for action and assert that they are real, intrinsic properties of certain states of affairs. Anybody who appeals to such an entity as a reason for action is making a mistake. There are no such entities. There are no such reasons for action.

Subjectivism involves somebody picking a state or entity and saying, “Let us pretend that there are reasons for action that are intrinsic properties of this state. We will admit that they are not real. If somebody else decides to invent a different game of let’s pretend, we cannot say that our game is better than theirs, except within the context of our game.”

Their reasons for action are still “let’s pretend” reasons – like the dinosaur that the children try to avoid on the way to school is a “let’s pretend” dinosaur.

Unfortunately, “let’s pretend” subjectivist moralists are using their game as a reason to do harm to others. Theirs is a game of, “let’s pretend that there is a reason to kill, enslave, imprison, fine, or otherwise do harm to these people.” They then assert that their “let’s pretend” rules somehow justify this real-world harm. The problem is that “let’s pretend” reasons for action justify nothing.


So, I can't tell where I would fit into Hellbound Alleee's war on moral relativism.

I consider moral relativism to be a fact. Value statements, including moral statements, are statements that describe the position of an object of evaluation relative to a given set of reasons for action. An object that is in one position relative to a given reason for action may bear an entirely different relationship to a different set of reasons for action.

Yet, these relationships exist as a matter of fact. Anybody who is asserting a relationship between an object of evaluation and a set of reasons for action had better be talking about reasons for action that exist, or his statement is false. Value statements are objectively true or false depending on whether the relationships between objects of evaluation and reasons for action that exist are objectively true or false.

I am a moral relativist.

I also believe in objective moral values.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Misconceptions Regarding Desires and Values

In a recent post, a commenter named "Chris" made some remarks about desire utilitarianism -- the system of ethics that lies as the foundation of these posts. Since they represent some of the more common misunderstandings and misinterpretations of what I am saying, I have decided to answer them.

I want to start with Chris's statement,

If satisfying desires is the fundamental measurement of good in your system, how can it be trumped by anything, including truth?

First, it is not the 'satisfaction' of desires that I am concerned with, but the 'fuflillment' of desires. I have a technical definition of what this means.

Beliefs and desires are mental statements. Specifically, they are propositional attitudes or attitudes towards a proposition.

A 'belief that P' (for some proposition P) is the mental attitude that P is true.

A 'desire that P' (for some proposition P) is the mental attitude that P is to be made or kept true.

A 'desire that P' is fulfilled by any state of affairs S in which P is true. (Any state of affairs in which P is false thwarts the desire that P.)

A person always seeks to act so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of his own desires. He always acts in fact so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of his own desires if his beliefs were true.

A person sees a glass of cool, clear liquid on a table. He drinks it. He is seeking to fulfill his own desire to drink something cool and refreshing. However, we can see how false beliefs (e.g., his belief that the liquid in the glass was clean water) can cause him to act instead in ways that thwart his desires.

He sought to fulfill his own desires. He acted in a way that would have fulfilled his desires if his beliefs were true. False beliefs prevented him from fulfilling his desires.

So, here is the value of truth. The person with a desire that his child be healthy and happy is a person who desires a state of affairs in which “my child is healthy and happy” is a true proposition. He will act to make it true, and he will act as if all of his other beliefs are true. If he has false beliefs, these only get in the way of him fulfilling his desires.


The claim that people act so as to fulfill only their own desires is drawn from the fact that there is only one brain attached to a person’s muscles in the right way. Certainly, the desires that motivate John’s actions are John’s desires. Even if it were possible to hook Jane’s brain up to John’s muscles in such a way that John acted to fulfill Jane’s desires – a machine that allowed Jane to control John’s body – these actions would no longer be John’s actions. They would be Jane’s.

This is not a claim that people are basically selfish. A person desires that no child go hungry will work to make the proposition “no child goes hungry” is true. He will not do it for personal reward, or for fame, or even for happiness. He will do it because this is what he values – this is what he wants. To call such a person ‘selfish’ would have to be thought of as a very peculiar use of the term.

Unchanging Desires

Chris offered the criticism that there seem to be desires that do not respond well to praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment – like sexual orientation.

This is an application of the “hasty generalization” fallacy. The fact that there exists a red marble, and that one can point to a red marble and show that it is definitely a marble and that it is red, is not proof that only red marbles exist.

I hold that morality is concerned with promoting good desires and inhibiting bad desires to the degree that we are able. Yes, there are desires that we are not able to change. However, society has the ability to mold other desires. Nothing else explains the reabit transition of a society. Clearly, the (moral) aversion to slavery did not come about because of a genetic change. We did not evolve into abolitionists. We learned abolitionist sentiments from our culture.

The wide varieties that we see among different cultures and, even more importantly, the changes within a culture over time, tell us the power of learned desires.

Deciding between Incompatible Desires

As for deciding between incompatible desires, this is not that difficult. We look for the desire that tends to fulfill other desires, and the ease with which it is possible to change that desire. We choose to change those desires that can be most easily changed in ways that promise the best results.

Chris writes,

Why should we believe that "evil" desires are somehow easier to extinguish? It almost seems like a Pollyannaish conviction that everyone wants to be good if they only knew how, which may be true of some people but is clearly not true of all people.

If an airplane is heading towards the earth at a high rate of speed, reason suggests which option: trying to move the planet so it does not crash into the airplane, or trying to move the airplane so that it does not crash into the planet?

Reason suggests going with whatever is the easiest to move.

All that this principle states is that in molding desires through praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment that we use these tools where they can do the most good, and not use them where they can have no effect. It is a simple question of efficiency.

It does not require any presupposition of a natural desire to do good. It only requires that people act so as to fulfill their desires. It is axiomatic that a person seeking to fulfill his own desires has an incentive to promote desire-fulfilling desires and to hinder desire-thwarting desires (since his desires will almost certainly be among those fulfilled or thwarted).

Just as it is reasonable for him to promote desire-fulfilling desires in others, others have reason to promote desire-fulfilling desires in him. The result is a cultural institution of seeking to identify desire-fulfilling desires and desire-thwarting desires, and an interest in using positive and negative reinforcement to promote the former and obstruct the latter.


Ultimately, this theory is grounded on the idea that value only exists in the form of a relationship between states of affairs and desires.

Moral theories that pick a set of “goods” and proclaim, “I am going to advance these things as being ‘the good’” are making one of two possible claims. They are either saying, “These goods have an intrinsic ought-to-be-doneness that is built into their very substance,” or “I am going to pretend that these goods have an intrinsic ought-to-be-doneness built into their very substance, even though they do not.”

The first option simply is not true – no such power or entity exists. The second option at least has the advantage of admitting that the agent is playing a game of ‘let’s pretend’. However, it is still a game of ‘let’s pretend.’ Such an individual cannot explain to me or anyone what relevance his ‘let’s pretend’ game has on the real world, or why it is okay to force all of us to play his game of ‘let’s pretend.’

I am not saying that desire fulfillment has intrinsic value. Quite far from it – I deny that intrinsic value exists. My claim is that desires are the only reasons for action that exist. Value claims are claims about reasons for action. Therefore, value claims are either claims that take the form “the object of evaluation is such as to fulfill the desires in question,” or they are false and have no relevance in the real world.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Political Corruption

A couple of times I have chided the Democratic Party leadership for adopting the campaign strategy of branding the Republicans as establishing "a culture of corruption" in Washington DC. It was as if the Democrats were saying that they had a monopoly on political virtue.

Now, the FBI has alleged that they have filmed a Democratic congressman accepting $100,000 in $100 bills last summer. Apparently, William Jefferson (D - LA) stuffed the cash in his freezer.

This article is not concerned with Jefferson’s actions. Jefferson has the right to be presumed innocent unless proven guilty. Still, the accusation raises a point of criticism against the Democratic Party leadership and their proposed “campaign of corruption.”

What were the Democrats trying to accomplish in this campaign?

They wanted to go to the American people and tell us that it was not only permissible, but even a good idea, for us to take the proven guilt of a few Republicans (if and when such guilt could be provided) and apply it to every Republican Senator and Congressman. To the degree that the Democrats could get us to think that all Republicans are tainted, to that degree the Democrats could increase their own power.

If we look a the form of this argument -- the argument structure and its implications, we see that it has the same form that we find in every type of bigotry against race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. The bigot takes the behavior of a group of individuals who belong to a group that they wish to denigrate and asserts that we, the people, should paint everybody in the group with this common brush.

The bigot’s assertions are in direct conflict with the principle of individual responsibility – where the guilty are punished and the innocent go free. They want to punish the guilty and innocent alike by focusing not on the guilt but on the skin color, sexual orientation, or political affiliation of others.

Now, nobody can seriously deny that the Republicans do this as well. However, this does not forgive the crime. There is no moral difference between asserting that all Republicans are bad people based on the actions of a few bad Republicans than there is in saying that all blacks are bad people based on the behavior of a few bad blacks. This is a paradigm case for which the slogan “two wrongs do not make a right” applies.

Even if statistics could show us that the members of the target group are "more likely" to be guilty of wrongdoing than average, it is still fundamentally unjust to consider a person to be guilty simply because he is a member of that group, when there is no evidence against him as an individual.

Democrats have argued for decades that it is fundamentally unjust to accuse an individual based on the actions of others that he had no part in and no control over. The instant that Democrats can see a way to power by promoting and nurturing bigoted habits they put those bigoted habits to work and stand ready to profit from getting the people to think like bigots.

On this matter, I want to make one point clear. What the Democratic leadership is doing is promoting the type of thinking that is the foundation of all bigotry. Those who are truly interested in ending bigotry would attack it at its source. They would say that the moral failing rests in the form and structure of bigoted thought – of drawing general conclusions from the acts of a few individuals. They would not be designing a political campaign to make use of that type of reasoning.

As the Democratic Party trains people to think like bigots, we can well expect that some who learn these lessons will apply those habits to targets other than “Republicans.”

Why No Challenge to the Idea of the Omnipotent Presidency

This, in turn, suggests an alternative explanation as to why the Democrats (with the vocal exception of Russ Feingold (D - Wisc) are not up in arms about the Bush Administration power grab. The Democratic leadership has decided not to challenge Bush's claim that he may rewrite the laws and bypass the judiciary, torture prisoners, establish secret prisons, hold American citizens in captivity without trial or charge, or any of his other transgressions.

Why would they do this?

Earlier, I suggested that the American people themselves are a threat to any politician who dares to stand up and defend our freedoms. Karl Rove seems to have accurately deduced that the American people prefer tyranny over freedom, as long as the tyrant can generate enough fear.

Several opinion polls support this theory.

However, another possibility is that there are several Democratic leaders who are looking for the opportunity to serve as or with a President of unlimited power. It may be that they can hardly wait to find out what they can learn from warrantless wiretaps and the other violations of civil rights that are currently being put to use to secure and defend the Republican Party.

We, the people, have no less reason to fear the abuses of a Democratic tyrant than those of a Republican tyrant.


Personally, what I would like to see is a shifting of the alliances in the Senate and House of Representatives. I would like to see uncorrupt politicians of good character -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- allied against the corrupt members legislators, than see Democrats (corrupt and uncorrupt alike) aligned against Republicans (corrupt and uncorrupt alike).

And I wish that neither party try to gain political power by teaching the people how to think like a bigot.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Senator Roberts (R-Kan): Liar, Coward, Friend of Tyranny

At the Daily Doubter, Hume's Ghost recently posted a critique of Senator Pat Roberts' (R-Kan) opening statement at General Hayden's confirmation hearing yesterday.


In it, Hume pointed out that Roberts' statement is a flat-out lie that seeks to condemn, and even suggest that harm be done to others for wrongdoing and crimes that Roberts simply made up.

Specifically, Roberts said,

The National Security Agency's Terrorist Surveillance Program became public last December as the result of a grave breach of national security. A leak allowed our enemy to know that the President had authorized the NSA to intercept the international communications of people reasonably believed to be linked to al Qaeda people who have and are trying to kill Americans.

Hume's Ghost satirically points out that Roberts, quite simply, is lying. The statement is so insanely stupid that either Roberts is an idiot of the first order and actually believes this statement, or he knew that his claim was misleading and deceptive before he uttered it.

The "insanely stupid" option is found in the fact that Roberts' statement is no different than saying that, The New York Times' is responsible for aiding the terrorist because they published an article that revealed that the sum of 2 + 2 = 4.

The lie option rests in the fact that Roberts' must have known that he is giving a malicious and deceptive interpretation of what the Times actually did -- and did not care if that lie (deceptive interpretation) was insanely stupid.

My question is: Why do we, the American people, put up with this garbage? Roberts is lying to us. He is trying to mislead and misdirect the attention of the American people. Furthermore, he is doing so in order to defend people who have committed crimes against the American people. In this case, he is lying to defend actions that violate the 4th Amendment to the Constitution and the FISA courts.

(Of course, Bush says these things are legal and he should not be punished. About the only time a criminal can be pressured into actually pleading guilty is when he faces some sort of reduction in punishment. Bush, facing no reduction in sentence with a guilty plea, is of course going to plead that he is innocent.)

There is only one way that we, the American people, are ever going to get honest representation from our elected representatives. This is if we start taking steps to make sure that dishonest politicians pay a price for their dishonesty. This will only happen if statements, such as this insanely stupid lie from Roberts, is met with harsh punishment in terms of polls, volunteer assistance, and campaign contributions.

We need to start to pay attention to the fact that those who contribute money to Roberts are people who are funding and promoting the art of lying to the American People and fundamentally misrepresenting the facts of issues that are vitally important to all of us. Sure, the deceiptful politician deserves a fair share of the blame. Those who put them in office and support their campaigns deserve more.

Those who volunteer to get somebody such as Roberts elected are volunteers in an army fighting for deceipt and misrepresentation.

And those who vote for somebody such as Roberts are people who cast their vote in favor of a culture within which 'bearing false witness' is not only permitted, but to be encouraged and rewarded.

Unfortunately, when we encourage and reward moral shortcomings such as this, we can expect nothing but to be made to suffer for our short-sightedness.


Senator Roberts also used a line that I have criticized a couple of times:

I am a strong supporter of civil liberties. But, you have no civil liberties if you are dead.

This is not the first time he said this. A couple of months ago in a post called “Civil Rights and Death” I wrote that I would like to see a cartoon (or an advertisement) created that has Roberts making this claim to the soldiers of the Continental Army as they prepare to fight the British.

There is nothing that a person can say that more dishonors George Washington and those who fought under him in the Continental Army – and any who fought in the armed forces of this country -- than to assert that liberty is not worth fighting – and possibly dying – to protect.

There are few things that I would say should automatically disqualify a person to be a leader of a free people. Holding this standard of values is on that list.

If people such as Senator Roberts had been leading this country 230 years ago, we would have surrendered to the British as soon as they started marching on Lexington and Concord. Roberts and those like him would have been right in front, waving the white flag, asserting, that the fight for liberty is foolish because, “You have no civil liberties if you are dead.”

Roberts’ deserves the same consideration as we would give those who would have thrown up a white flag at the first sign on British troops 230 years ago.

More importantly, we should treat those who work for, contribute to, and vote for Senator Roberts the same way that we would have treated those who worked for, contributed to, or otherwise supported the British cause 230 years ago. They are, at heart, the same type of people. At heart, they have the same values.

And they are NOT the values upon which this country was founded.


Senator Roberts is a liar, a coward, and a firm supporter of an autocratic Presidency who faces no checks and balances on his arbitrary decisions and who answers to nobody but himself.

And he wants to be our President.

He does not even deserve to be a House page. No decent American congressman would have him.

Friday, May 19, 2006

A National Language (Revisited)

Old Business: Homosexuality

A Senate Committee passed a proposed Constitutional Amendment to declare that no state may permit marriage other than between a man and a woman.

This is really nothing more than a 20th century version of the Crusades, Inquisitions, religious wars, and witch hunts of the past carried up to the present. Once again a group of people have decided that their all-loving and benevolent God has commanded them to identify a group of “others” and to bring some misery into their lives.

My personal hope is that future generations will see this as the last instance of a long history of persecution on the basis of divine command.

Old Business: The Mexican Wall

The Senate is also approving the construction of a wall between the United States and Mexico.

Since I wrote my posting on “Immigration” I still have not been given a reason to believe that I should be concerned with people coming from Mexico looking for work, but I ought not to be concerned with people coming to my state from California, Texas, or Florida looking for work. It seems to me that if the latter is not a cause for concern, then neither should the former.

New Business: A National Language (Part II)

Recently, the Senate passed two amendments to an immigration bill. One amendment declared that English is our national language, and prohibit the use of any other language in promulgating government ordinances and other government services. The second amendment said that English is “the common and unifying language of the U.S.”

Earlier, I wrote in defense of a national language in a post called, “A National Language” I argued for a national language on the grounds that a common language promotes efficiency. It is a part of a national infrastructure, like roads and a court system, that makes society run more smoothly to everybody’s benefit.

There is one significant difference between what I argued and what follows from these premises and what the Senate voted to do.

This analogy between roads and a national language is more than superficial. One of the characteristics that both have in common is that they are what economists call “public goods.”

In economic terms, a “public good” is a good that people can get or benefit from without paying for. A paradigm example is national defense. It is not possible for the military to defend the property at 1226 Main Street, without also defending the property at 1228 Main Street. So, if the owner of the first property pays for a national defense, then the owner of the second property can benefit from this without paying a dime.

Imagine how much money the military would receive if its contributions were entirely voluntary. The military could not go to each person and say, “because you paid, we will defend your house, but not your neighbor’s.” There would be a lot of people who would under-contribute, and the military would be funded at a level far below its worth.

To counter the problem of free-ridership, we have the government provide for the national defense and to pay for it through taxes. This reduces the amount of free ridership because the government can make people pay whether they want to or not.

What I am talking about here is straight-forward free-market economics. Free ridership is a type of wealth redistribution from those who produce wealth to the ‘free riders’ who exploit those goods without paying for them. However, it is a free-market argument in favor of some sort of intervention. That is to say, the government must step in to ensure that those who benefit from a (public) good pay for that benefit.

In the case of a national language, this means that those who benefit from the economic efficiencies that a national language provides should pony up some of the costs.

Specifically, this argues for a policy in which the government itself gets involved in funding English-education courses – collecting money from those who would benefit from the increased economic efficiency, and giving some of that wealth to those who would otherwise have to suffer the costs.

The amendment the Senate passed, authored by Senator James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, is simply a mean-spirited piece of legislation. It aims to increase the amount of suffering and hardship inflicted on those who do not speak English without offering them any form of relief. To somebody like Inhofe, their suffering is not important.

What apparently is important to somebody like Inhofe is giving certain voters an even larger economic advantage over potential non-English speaking job competitors, and protecting the free ridership status of those voters.

Republicans typically assert that they are opposed to wealth-redistribution schemes. They want to use the free market to obtain maximum efficiency in the distribution of goods and services. This requires using the government to eliminate free-ridership; to prevent people from ‘redistributing the wealth’ by becoming free riders on the efforts of others. It is entirely contrary to this objective to be passing legislation that has the purpose of maintaining and defending the redistribution of wealth that is inherent in this amendment.

Yet all but one Republican voted for this amendment. They were almost unanimous in their agreement to abandon the economic principles that they claim to stand behind for the sake of this legislation.

This hypocrisy is only one more reason to believe (as if we needed one more reason to believe) that the Republicans – at least those Republicans serving in the Senate -- are not the party of moral principle that they claim to be. They are more than willing to harm innocent people and to pass wealth-redistribution schemes when it suits them. What is important is that the wealth distribution goes in the right direction.

Typically, as in this case, the wealth redistribution is from the poor (since non-English speakers tend to be poor), to the wealthy free-riders who are in a position to exploit them.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Punishment and the Case for Due Process

Yesterday, in a post called "Harsh Words", I wrote about the appropriateness of condemnation in morality. I claimed that doing the work of morality requires using the tools of morality, and that one of those tools is condemnation. Through the use of condemnation (and the companion tools of praise, reward, and punishment), we promote good desires and inhibit bad desires.

Punishment is condemnation taken to an extreme. Punishment means that we are not just going to shout at the person who does wrong. Instead, we are going to do something violent. We are going to take away his property (fines), liberty (imprisonment), and perhaps even his life and we will use violence against those who try to stop it.

By the way, perhaps the best argument for the justification of condemnation is that punishment is sometimes justified. If punishment can sometimes be a justified response to another person's actions, and condemnation is less severe than punishment, then condemnation can certainly be a legitimate response.

Because of the particularly harsh nature of punishment, its use requires some safeguards. We need ways to make sure that these calls to do violence are justified.

History is filled with examples in which a call to violence in the form of punishment was not justified. Innocent people were made to suffer. People were made to suffer for light and trivial reasons – and for wrong reasons. These ‘injustices’ are states that good people are going to try to avoid.

To avoid them, we establish rules and principles of ‘due process.’

How do we keep the violence of punishment properly restrained?

(1) We should begin with the assumption of ‘presumed innocent unless proven guilty.” Under this principle, we resolve that we are not going to jump to conclusions of guilt (or ‘deserving of punishment’). Instead, we are only going to jump to conclusions of innocence. In order to get to a conclusion of guilt, we must be forced into it by the evidence.

(2) We need to recognize that people have a habit of believing that which it benefits them to believe. As a result, we should not trust a person to be a judge in his own case. Instead, we should demand that the case be presented to somebody who has no stake in the final result. We should give these people -- individually or collectively -- a title such as 'judge' or 'jury'.

(3) We must recognize that some types of evidence are more reliable than others. We can even test the quality of different types of evidence. Stage a fake purse-snatching in front of several witnesses, then interview them to determine the quality of their testimony. From this, we know that hearsay and eye-witness testimony are not very good. Other types of testimony -- physical evidence -- are quite good. We should train professionals to be able to tell the difference, and to make sure that only good evidence is used to support a conclusion that punishment is deserved.

(4) We can help to make sure to reduce the risk of punishment being inflicted when it is not justified by inviting somebody to play the role of 'devil's advocate' or 'defense attorney.' Their job is to present the best case possible against punishment. We do not want the call for punishment to be grounded on a straw man of our own construction. The defense attorney's job will be to expose any straw men that those who call for punishment demand.

(5) We debate, negotiate, and seek results that have broad, mutual support. It is an act of pure arrogance for anybody to claim that he knows the truth and that anybody who disagrees with him is wrong. A sprinkling of humility -- which all people should have -- suggests the possibility that the critic is right. In order to reduce the possibility of error, rather than give one person dictatorial power to make all of the rules, we give rule-making power to a group and have them negotiate a solution.

(6) This institution of negotiation requires that we ban one side from taking up arms against the other. Whatever the group decides, everybody who is under that group agrees to live peacefully under those rules without instituting acts of violence against other members of the group. Everybody will have some reason to hate some part of the rules reached through this type of compromise. Yet, a willingness to live under rules that are less than ideal is better than living in a state of perpetual war.

(7) If the rules are determined by vote, we need to institute some system whereby the majority does not tyrannize the majority. Let us imagine a vote on an issue where 60% of the population are going to kill off the other 40%, take their property, and distribute it amongst themselves. We see in this possibility the fact that 'majority rule' gives us no guarantee that all violence is justified. We must temper 'majority rule' with a measure of 'minority rights'. That is to say, there will be recognized limits on what the majority may do to a minority. "51% approval" will not be taken as being synonymous with "right."

(8) By definition, each instance of protecting the rights of a minority is an instance where the will of the majority is overruled. Because of this, the rights of the minority must be trusted to somebody who does not answer to the majority and, in fact, can speak against the majority without fear of repercussions. Each time somebody complains about a judge who overrules the will of the majority, he shows himself to be somebody who thinks that the majority may do whatever it pleases to the minority, and the minority has an obligation to accept whatever is done to them. He shows himself to be somebody who does not understand the concept of minority rights. 'Minority rights' means that, under certain narrowly defined circumstances (those in which a minority are being made to suffer some extraordinary burden that would benefit the majority), the minority gets to make the rules and the majority has to live with them.


Punishment is as much a part of the essence of morality as condemnation. However, punishment is violent and far more intrusive. As such, its use requires a set of safeguards. Those safeguards do not eliminate all possibility of mistake. However, they help to reduce the frequency and the magnitude of harms caused by unjustified violence.

One of the things that I would like the reader to notice is that the Bush Administration has violated every one of these safeguards. Since getting into office, they have worked ceaselessly to eliminate all of the protections against unjustified violence that I have described. Through signing statements, executive orders, and simple assertion, the Bush Administration has assigned itself to the role of judge, jury, prosecuting attorney, and executioner.

In fact, I think that the Bush Administration and those who still defend and support it do not even grasp the significance of procedural safeguards. Arrogant and foolish people do not appreciate the value of safeguards -- they think that they can operate quite well without them. In fact, they tend to see safeguards as a hindrance -- a barrier that denies them the freedom they need to move freely.

The problem is that without those safeguards, some people move a bit too freely. If these people only did harm to themselves (such as the motorcycle rider who refuses to wear a helmet), then we may decide to allow them to play the fool and suffer the consequences.

Unfortunately, a national leader without safeguards seldom suffers the ill effects of his own arrogance and foolishness. He causes others to suffer -- citizens, soldiers, foreign nationals. We do not establish these rules to protect national leaders from themselves. We establish these rules to protect their potential victims.

It is precisely because the Bush Administration has neglected these principles that we find ourselves in the mess we are currently in. In attacking Iraq, the Bush Administration took none of the safeguards that have been created to prevent unjustified violence. The Administration appealed to nothing but its own desire to attack.

A better respect for these principles would have likely saved the world hundreds of billions of dollars and tens (hundreds) of thousands of lives.

More than this, we do not know how much money or how many lives will be lost in the future because the principles of due process – the principles that best prevent unwarranted violence – have been swept aside.

The Bush Administration may still have a good idea of what it is fighting against. Yet, it is clearly blind to what it should be fighting for.