Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Honoring the Dead: Iraq

Yesterday, in speaking about the engineers who were killed and injured at Scaled Composites, I wrote that you cannot honor the dead by destroying that which they thought it was worth risking their lives to build. Instead, you honor the dead by completing the projects that they risked their lives to complete.

This sounds suspiciously like an argument that the Bush Administration is using to support “staying the course” in Iraq. They argue that to leave Iraq is to dishonor the sacrifice of those who have already been killed and injured there – to cause them to have sacrificed in vein.

I have seen presidential candidates and pundits struggle with this conflict – trying to figure out how to say that the war was a foolish mistake that we should end, while at the same time preserving the honor of the American forces who fought there.

Yet, if one understands the argument – if one understands the concept of honoring the dead - this is not that difficult.

Hill 514

Imagine, if you will, a military scene where a regimental commander, Captain Herb Shrub, has decided to capture Hill 514. He has convinced himself that taking Hill 514 is key to winning the war. However, being an incompetent commander, he has failed to perform proper reconnaissance.

In fact, he has looked at the intelligence reports that have come in, dismissed those he does not like, and selected only those that confirm his own belief that he can take Hill 514. So, he sets his junior officers to the task – dismissing those who question his assertions about how easy it will be to take Hill 514.

If Captain Shrub lacked the authority to dismiss or reassign his critics, then he publicly called them traitors and enemy sympathizers – people who obviously wanted the enemy to continue to occupy Hill 514 and to prevent our side from winning the war. When, in fact, those critics were just as interested in winning the war as Captain Shrub. Their only crime was in disagreeing with Captain Shrub on the feasibility of taking Hill 514.

Then, Captain Shrub sends his soldiers to take the hill.

Only (substantially due to Shrub’s intelligence failures) the battle for Hill 514 goes worse than expected. The enemy holding Hill 514 use defensive tactics that Captain Shrub did not imagine. Even though Shrub’s units were able to plant the regimental flag on the summit of the hill, the battle continued, with Shrub’s forces taking significant losses. To hold the hill, Captain Shrub needs to keep pouring men into the battle.

Now, let us put the Bush Administration’s argument for staying the course in Iraq into this context. In justifying his actions, we see Captain Shrub telling his superiors that if those who do not support his efforts to take Hill 514 are saying that all of the soldiers serving under him died and suffered in vein. He tells us that the only way to honor and respect those who have already sacrificed is to continue the attack and to take Hill 514.

Here, we see just how easy it is to answer such a nonsense argument. There is not a single soldier, living or dead, who had committed his life to taking Hill 514. That is to say, if you had asked any soldier on the day of his induction why he had joined the military, it is laughable to assume that any of them answered, “So that I can take Hill 514 from the enemy, sir!”

Instead, their best answers would have been to protect the people that they loved back home and the rest of their fellow citizens. This would mean not only protecting the lives of those people, but protecting the institutions that contributed to the quality of their lives – their freedom from oppression and other forms of dogma and tyranny. Many active military personnel will say that they fight for the sake of the person standing next to them, that the idea of abandoning their fellow soldier on the field of the battle is unthinkable.

So, how do we honor the dead and the injured in this case?

We do not honor them by taking Hill 514. Hill 514 is not important – at least, not in its own right. We honor them by accomplishing the goals that they thought was worth their lives and well-being. We honor them by keeping their loved ones safe and by protecting and defending the institutions that contribute to the quality of their lives. We honor them by taking care of the soldiers that they would have been standing next to in the field of battle, if they had still lived.

We do not honor them by taking actions that threaten the security of their loved ones and fellow citizens back home, or by destroying the institutions that have, for so many years, contributed to the quality of their lives – their freedom from oppression, dogma, and tyranny. We do not honor them by putting their buddies in harm’s way in ways that do not protect these people and institutions. In fact, we do the opposite. We do not honor them by taking Hill 514. We honor them by winning the war. If taking Hill 514 helps win the war, then we take the hill. If not, then the best way to respect the sacrifice of those who died there is to do that which will win the war.

In particular, we have to worry about Captain Shrub’s insistence in devoting more and more resources to the capture of Hill 514, while the enemy is allowed to regroup and reorganize in a village not far away. If the way we honor those who have sacrificed their lives by securing those things that they felt were important enough to risk their lives, then perhaps we cannot honor them by pouring more effort into Hill 514.

A Scaled Composites Analogy

I can illustrate this same objection to the Bush Administration’s way of arguing for staying the course in Iraq by applying their form of reasoning to the tragedy at Scaled Composites. If Burt Rutan at Scaled Composites were to take up the Bush Administration’s way of thinking, we can soon expect to hear Rutan saying that, now that three engineers have died and three who were injured testing a particular engine, that Scaled Composites will dishonor what those men were trying to accomplish if they should choose some other engine for their rocket. We would hear him say, “To honor the sacrifice of these six engineers, our rocket must use the very type of engine they were testing when this tragedy struck. To use any other type of engine would be to dishonor their sacrifice.”

Yet, nobody expects him to say anything so foolish.

Actually what the Bush Administration seems to be doing is worse than this. The Bush Administration is shamelessly exploiting the deaths of these soldiers. Bush is taking these deaths and cutting them away from the things that those soldiers thought was worth dying for, and attaching their deaths to Bush’s own pet project. This is precisely what the Hill 514 story illustrates. There, Captain Shrub takes his fallen soldiers and discards what was important to those soldiers (winning the war), and replaces their goals with his own (taking Hill 514).

A better analogy on the Scaled Composites version of the argument would have the company that provided the engine telling Scaled Composites, “Now you must use our engine, or you dishonor the sacrifice that your six engineers made.” This is what the Bush Administration is trying to pull when they tell us, “Now you must support my plan, or you dishonor the sacrifice that 30,000 dead and injured soldiers have already made.”

[And why do we only talk about the sacrifices of those who were killed and wounded. What about the sacrifice of those who put their lives on hold, or who lose the opportunity to watch their children grow and to participate in their development? These harms deserve no less consideration, and no less respect, than the harms of injuries and death. Ignoring these harms does such a disservice to the measure of the sacrifice that these people make.]

The Candidate’s Stand

So, the next time a candidate gets asked a question that relates withdrawing from Iraq with honoring the troops, I would recommend an answer like the following:

We honor our troops, and the sacrifices that they make, by better securing the things that they fought to protect. We honor them by doing what we can to secure their loved ones at home, the institutions that protect the quality of their lives, and the buddies who they would still be standing beside in the field of battle if they were here to stand. We do not honor those troops by putting their loved ones at greater risk, destroying the institutions that protect us from tyranny and injustice, and allowing their buddies to be shamelessly exploited and used. The question we need to be asking is, “Are we doing what we need to be doing to secure the things that these soldiers thought was worth dying for?” Because if we are not, then we are dishonoring their sacrifice.

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Death of Space Pioneers

I have spent the weekend mourning over the explosion, deaths, and injuries that occurred at Scaled Composites last Friday.

As reported at Space.com:

Scaled Composites workers Todd Ivens, 33, Eric Blackwell, 38, and Glen May, 45, were killed in the explosion, which occurred as they and other coworkers were conducting a routine cold-flow test of the oxidizer system for SpaceShipTwo.

I knew what I wanted to say in response to that incident, but it took a while for me to be able to write it – and, in the mean time, little else seemed sufficiently important.

I think that the people at Scaled Composites and elsewhere are doing something that is vital to the future of the human race. The future of the human race may well depend on our ability to build a sufficiently large infrastructure in space to keep the human race going, even if Earth should become uninhabitable.

I have had some contact with this particular company. I once (a few years ago) was given a tour of Scaled Composites. It was a tour that first required that I sign a non-disclosure agreement; a tour that lasted for hours (including lunch). As long as it lasted, it was far too short. I left feeling that I had been given the honor of seeing history being made.

These are people who deserve the title of ‘heroes’ – people who are willing to put their lives on the line to bring some goodness into the world. They are like police officers, fire fighters, and soldiers, who think that something is important enough to warrant the risk involved in taking on the job.

Clearly, these six people were aware of the fact that they were in the vicinity of something that could kill them. They were at a testing pad, built quite some distance away from any other structure or installation that could be hurt in an accident. They were there because they knew that this was the type of work that required being at such a place.

These are people who knew that death would happen. They knew that people would die, and that they could be the ones who died. Yet, their greatest fear as they talked about such things was not so much that they would die, but that their death would be such a blow to the work that was so important to them.

[Note: I know these things, because I discussed these issues with people in the industry. My contributions were covered in Chapter 17 of the 2003 publication, Making Space Happen by Bernstein Research.]

These people did not hesitate to talk about the fact that some would die. When they had this conversation, in addition to the standard worries of those who faced the possibility of death, they worried a great deal about what that death would do to the work they were doing. Near the top of their list of fears was the fear that after they died that those who survived their death would use the incident to tear down what these people risked their lives to build.

As a matter of fact, in participating in these conversations, and knowing the day will come in which people will die in this pursuit, I have given a lot of thought to what I would do when that day came. I felt it my duty to make what contribution I could to make sure that, in burying the victims of such an accident, they did not bury the dreams of those who died.

The very reason why my blog has been silent for these past two days is because I knew the time had come to do that which I had so often thought about – and I simply did not want this day to ever come.

I should also add that I cannot speak for the six people who were in that explosion. I did not know any of them personally. The only thing I can speak to are the attitudes of those who I knew when I participated in that industry.

It is impossible to calculate how much we owe to those who were willing to take the first steps into a new frontier. We know that they have not always fared well against the unknown, yet they went nonetheless. The rest of us wait, timidly, for them to signal back, “Okay, it’s safe.”

These people, the pioneers, have given us the world. Someday, they will give us other worlds – including worlds that we have designed and built ourselves, to our own specifications.

We cannot honor these people by destroying the things they lived for. What a tragic mistake that would be. We would then be like children who, knowing that our parents sacrificed so much for our benefit, sought to destroy our own lives. Such a child makes their parent’s sacrifice less than worthless.

[Note: This argument calls to mind some of the claims that the Bush Administration has made in defense of ‘staying the course’ in Iraq. I do not want to sully this post with a digression into Bush’s policies. Tomorrow, I will explain why Bush’s version of this argument fails, and fails so spectacularly. But, not today.]

The universe is as indifferent to our survival as a species as it is to the survival of any individual person. Whether we live or die as a species depends on the work we are willing to do as individuals to help secure our survival. Some of that work is dangerous. However, the dangers we face as individuals is miniscule to the dangers we face as a species if individuals do nothing.

How do we respect their work? How do we honor what them? We will show them our respect and honor what they were trying to do for us by building the future world that they dreamed about. We will honor them as humans stand among the stars and look back in greater and greater numbers. To do anything else . . . in particular, to kill what they have worked to accomplish or to strangle it in so much red tape that it has no room to move or to grow, would be to show contempt for what many people think of as being so important, so valuable, that they willingly put their lives on the line.

In closing, Scaled Composites have set up a support fund for the families of those killed and injured last week.

Please send your donation for those involved in the accident on July 26, 2007, to:

Scaled Family Support Fund c/o Scaled Composites, 1624 Flight Line, Mojave, CA. 93501

Friday, July 27, 2007

Blaming Religion: Hasty Generalizations and False Attributions

I would like to use a recent post by Michael in Moderate Christians - Take some responsibility, stop blaming Dawkins to clarify my position on the criticism of religion.

I agree with a vast majority of the claims that Michael makes, and with the tone in which many of them are made. However, there are a few areas in which I think the essay went astray. One involves a logical inference – a leap from the specific to the general that qualifies as an example of the fallacy ‘hasty generalization’. The other is a false attribution – an accusation that a group of people are guilty of something that they are not guilty of.

Hasty Generalization

The hasty generalization comes from making the case that something is true of a particular individual or small set of individuals, then asserting that the claim is true of a larger set, when the second claim is clearly false. It is a case of talking about, “this marble, which is red,” or even “these marbles, which are red,” to talking about marbles as if redness was intrinsic to all marbles.

In this case, it involves complaints about a group of people who write in protest of Dawkins and Harris’ tone, as if these were extremely important transgressions worthy of strong condemnation, yet refusing to condemn those who do worse – religious fundamentalists who are responsible for so much death, misery, and ignorance in the world. Indeed, one of the essential tools for riding the world of this suffering is to raise a more united voice against those who are responsible for this suffering. Yet, those who would deny women an education, or stand in the way of stem-cell research, or demand that Israel be restored to its biblical borders, are given a free pass, while those who raise a voice against those who are contributing to these ills are slapped down for their ‘tone’.

Another aspect of this point is to note that these people tend to condemn the critics of religion for their tone, without even addressing the issues of life, health, and well-being lost due to policies grounded on religious beliefs. It is as if to say these harms have no significance.

I agree with all of this.

However, Michael switches from talking about individuals who he claims are guilty of this charge, to using generic ‘group’ labels to make accusations of a whole set of people. As such, a set of statements that I would argue could be defended as demonstrably true, yield a set of conclusions that are demonstrably false or, at best, do not follow from the premises provided.

His argument would have worked much better if he had kept his focus on the specific wrongdoers he mentioned. Michael could have constructed a strong argument that says, “This is the wrong that I accuse these people of. This is my evidence that they are guilty. These are my reasons for believing that they are wrong.”

Any moral claim, “X is wrong,” contains an inherent assumption of universalizability – “Anybody who does anything relevantly similar to X is also guilty.” Specifically, in Michael’s case the argument would be, “These people are condemning the ‘tone’ of people like Dawkins and Harris, yet they are not condemning the greater wrongs – the life-taking, suffering-producing, ignorance-promoting wrongs of religious fundamentalists. It would seem that their priorities are a little screwed up, because we clearly need to take care of the very significant harms that religious fundamentalists are inflicting on others.”

In making this argument against a specific person for specific wrongs and all others who are like him or her, it is quite permissible to be as harsh as the circumstances deserve. Those who can be held accountable for the loss of life and health can legitimately be made the object of very harsh condemnation. This is not a plea for, “Be nice to these people or they will not like you.” It is a plea for “Be harsh, but at those who actually deserve it.”

If we are concerned with reducing the evil done in the world – the harms inflicted on real people – we should note that many of those harms are inflicted because of a human tendency to join tribes, where they view “us” as inherently superior to “them”. One of the most common tools used in this type of dynamic is to take individuals that one had put in the category of “them” and apply their errors to the whole group. It helps to explain why all Montages should hate all Capulets, why all Hatfields must hate all McCoys.

One of the ways to fight the effects if this type of tribalism is to condemn individuals for their wrongdoing and to use the moral implication of universalization to infer that the same can be said of all who perform relevantly similar actions in relevantly similar circumstances. This involves insisting that arguments take the form, “Here is an example of an individual who has done wrong, here is why it is wrong, and here is my evidence for believing these people are guilty.” It’s main characteristic is that it uses proper names and specific evidence, while it avoids gross overgeneralizations made against whole groups.

This method works even if it happens to be the case that everybody in a group is guilty of a particular wrongdoing. Because a moral argument implies, “All who do similar things in similar circumstances are similarly guilty,” if everybody in a particular group actually does similar things under similar circumstances, this argument paints them all guilty. However, the arguer does not have to make the dubious (and usually false) claim that this is the case.

False Attribution

I have spent a fair number of years defending moral realism – the idea that moral claims are capable of being objectively, knowably true. (There is another type of moral realism that says that moral claims were to mind-independent properties. I disagree with that form of realism, but I hold that statements about mental states and statements about relationships between mental states and states of affairs are capable of being objectively, knowably true.)

In all of those debates over the years, I have found that my allies in defense of moral realism have been conservatives, and substantially religious individuals. They have long held that there are moral facts and that it is perfectly appropriate to condemn those who get the moral facts wrong.

On the other hand, I have found myself arguing against people who have tended to be secular liberals. They are the ones who have advocated, “Thou shalt not speak ill of the beliefs of others,” because no point of view can be honestly said to be ‘better’ than any other. For decades they have advocated the doctrines of cultural relativism and post modernism, against a substantially religious crowd that condemned this view and nonsense.

I am pleased to see that the notion that criticism is permissible is now coming back into favor. I am somewhat dismayed to discover that the accusers are letting their allies who have been the most vocal opponents of condemnation off the hook, and making accusations against those who tried substantially to keep the practice of condemnation.

This is another example of the tribalism that I spoke about earlier. Because people in the ‘in-tribe’ are so eager to condemn those who belong to the out-tribe, they look for every minor transgression to pick on. However, people who do worse, but who happen to be fellow members of the in-tribe are let off the hook – even praised. Accusations are made, not on the basis of guilt, but on the basis of tribal membership.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Paying Out from an Externalities Tax

As your pseudo-candidate for the House of Representatives, I am more than happy to respond to the concerns of my constituents, particularly those living outside of the United States.

For example, Psychols has asked how I plan to get the money raised through a pigovian tax on fossil fuel consumption to the victims of fossil fuel consumption – those who will suffer the loss of life, health, and property as a result of American actions.

If I understand you correctly, the pigovian tax on emissions will increase the price of the energy and products we consume.

Yes, but it does not increase the cost of energy or the products we consume. Instead, it helps to ensure that those who consume the products pay those costs, rather than force those costs onto others.

How can those pigovian tax funds realistically be directed to everyone who was and will be impoverished by the emissions generated in the production and use of the energy and products?

I want to start by making the point that we are not going to create a perfect system. While we strive to eliminate unfairness, there comes a point at which one might be forded to say, “This is the limits of our ability to be fair. We can’t do any more.” A system that precisely matches compensation to harms done is beyond the realm of possibility. However, this is not an argument against going as far as we realistically can go to addressing some of these wrongs.

Income Effects and Market Failure

There is also no moral crime in addressing two different concerns at the same time, if it can be conveniently done. One of the examples of true free-market failure – a case where free markets themselves fail to provide for the social good – has to do with the income effect on consumption. One way that free markets fail is that the wealthy are able to bid resources away from poor people who would have put them to a more highly valued use, but who could not participate in the bidding due to a lack of funds.

In an earlier discussion I used the example of a rich person wishing to shampoo her dog bidding a bottle of water away from a woman who wanted to give it to her sick and dehydrated child.

I applied this to ethanol, where we have the case of rich people bidding corn that they will then use to fuel their vehicles away from poor people who would have used the corn for food. There has already been a measurable affect on corn prices due to ethanol production, and it is expected to get worse.

So, in light of these facts, I have no qualms for using the revenue from the pigovian tax not only to compensate the poor for harms done through fossil fuel production, but to correct for the income effects on welfare. I would use the money to fund an organization that will use it to purchase food for distribution to third-world nations, particularly those that will be hit the hardest by the effects of fossil fuel consumption.

I want to stress that this is not charity. This is compensation for harms done (or risk of harms done). Any protests against ‘foreign aid’ to third-world countries do not apply.

Energy Assistance

This section is a slight aside. Of course, an increase in energy prices is going to harm the poor people in this country, and steps should be taken to alleviate that suffering. Technically, this money should not come from proceeds of the pigovian tax – that money should go to the victims of consumption itself. Money to help the poor should come from a general tax on the wealthy – something that respects the fact that the wealthy can bid resources away from the poor, who have a more valuable use for it.

As your pseudo-legislator, I do not see much wisdom in making this support take the form of subsidies for the use of fossil fuels. The types of assistance that I would support include increasing available public transportation and lowering prices, particularly for the poor. They also include providing renewable energy options such as solar and wind power to augment traditional fuel sources in rural climates.

Efficient Mitigation

Another principle that I would apply to answering this question is to look for programs that will provide the greatest benefit to the greatest number of victims of fossil fuel consumption at the least cost. As I see it, one of the greatest concentrations of people who will need some sort of mitigation or compensation of harms done are those who live in the delta regions of major rivers and island nations threatened with sea-level rise.

As a part of my energy package, I would include funding for studies on how best to help people of these regions – whether this involves creating barriers against sea-level rise, relocating these people to higher land, rebuilding the towns themselves so that its people can literally live on a shallow ocean, making cash contributions for property destroyed, or providing for education benefits so that their children will have options that do not require living on the same plot of land.

Specifically, I would use the revenue to fund studies into how best to help the people who live in the deltas for the Nile River. I will leave it up to these experts to make specific policy recommendations and study carefully their suggestions.


I would argue for using the revenue from the pigovian tax to fund an international program that would fight malaria around the globe.

First, many of the people adversely affected by malaria are also those who would be adversely affected by global warming. Reducing the malaria problem may well be an important compensation to forcing people to live with other greenhouse-gas induced problems.

It is also the case that one of the externalities of fossil fuel consumption is to expose people to a risk of diseases that they had little or no risk of being exposed to before. Warmer temperatures will allow the mosquitoes that carry malaria to live in parts of the world that they are now currently incapable of living in. Mitigating against the effects of this and other tropical diseases would be an important form of compensation for the harms done by global warming.

One of the potential threats due to global warming are those who will suffer the added risk of diseases that they have not had to deal with before.


These illustrate some of the policies that I would support in terms of using the pigovian tax to compensate and mitigate the harm. They do not do a perfect job of getting the assistance to those who deserve it. However, the question to be asking is not, “Are these options perfect?” The question we need to be asking is, “Are these options better than the alternative. The alternative, in this case, is the injustice of robbing the poor of trillions of dollars worth of life, health, well-being, and property from the poor, and transforming it into a few tens of billions of dollars in profits for the rich. On this measure, I would suggests that these options would make an improvement

Improvement is a good thing.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Emissions Trading

Today, your pseudo candidate for the House of Representatives is going to continue to look at energy policy. One of the policies that would be put before me, if I were elected, would be ‘emissions trading’.

What Came Before

So far, if elected as your pseudo Representative, I have said that I will not support renewable energy subsidies. Nor will I support renewable portfolio standards. I am not going to support a policy of providing customers with price relief - keeping the price of fossil fuel consumption artifically low - since this will only encourage consumption and increase the negative effects of consumption.

I will, on the other hand, support a pigovian tax on fossil fuels that brings the price of fossil fuels consumption up to its true social cost. I would make sure that this tax covered the additional costs imposed on the people of the world by the energy company’s actions in deceiving and manipulating the public on the harms that result from the use of their products.

However, I will not support any policy that protects the customers from the costs of those increases. After all, it is the behavior of those customers (consumption levels) that we most need to influence. We want the consumer to quit consuming at the point that the net social benefit of his consumption is less than the net social costs, and that does not happen if we shield the customer forom he net social costs.

Finally, as a legislator, I hold that a legislator’s duty is not to vote only for ideal options, but to vote for the best politically possible option. I would violate these rules and vote for renewable energy subsidies and renewable portfolio standards if these are the best politically viable options. However, these are only the best political options only to the degree that energy companies have a legal license to kill and maim others for profit.

[Let’s see. Have I alienated ALL potential voters yet?]

Emissions Trading

Emissions trading, in one simple form, involves putting a cap on emissions. For the sake of illustration, let us simply say that Congress has set an emissions cap of 1,000,000 of, say, 1,000,000 units. It then sells permits for emissions. If Company C emits 10,000 units per year, then it would have to purchase permits to emit 10,000 units. It would find itself in competition with others who would want to emit the same substance, which would bid up the price. If this company wants to save money, or to get itself out from under these restrictions, then it could do so by installing technology that would reduce its emissions, to the degree that it is cost effective to do so.

Emissions trading has a lot to recommend it. For one thing, politicians do not decide where to cut emissions. The market makes this decision. The system employs man of the market’s advantages of blending information and incentives. The system captures the relative value to the public of the different reasons to emit the substance, driving the least valued uses out of business, while allowing the most valued uses the ability to collect the money that would allow them to purchase licenses. The very instant that a new technology is invented, the price of emissions permits will drop, making emissions available to industries that otherwise could not have afforded them. All of this gets done without an ounce of legislative interference, once emissions trading is established.

The objective for a cap and trade policy would be to establish a trading system where the purchaser’s price of emissions permits reflects the social costs of emissions. This includes the price of the emissions trading system itself. Furthermore, the revenue should go to those who will be made to suffer the effects of those emissions. Otherwise, our system is still producing negative externalities and free riders – where the free riders, in this case, would include those who are actually obtaining the funds that should go to the victims of the activity.

Externalities, Subsidies, and Taxes

I want to tie this in with a comment that ADHR made to my earlier post on subsidizing renewable energy.

One might want to claim reduced emissions are the lack of a negative externality, but given that emissions (and associated penalties) are continuing to rise, reducing emissions clearly generates a benefit relative to other possible outcomes. I don't see any in principle reason, though, for denying that someone can free-ride on a reduced negative externality just as easily as on a positive externality.

I have argued so far that it is best to deal with positive externalities by subsidizing the activities that produce them, and negative externalities with a pigovian tax – a tax that drives the price of an activity up to the point where it covers social cost, and where the revenue can then be used to mitigate or compensate for the harms done.

ADHR is correct to note that a reduction in externalities is certainly a good (or, at least, a ‘better than’). However, when it comes to giving companies an incentive to reduce emissions, it is a ‘better than’ best brought about through a pigovian tax. Subsidizing a competing industry still leaves the price of those activities below the social costs, and thus still encourages people to engage in those activities even where the activities do more harm than good.

However, the argument that a rise in negative externalities justifies subsidizing industries that produce fewer negative externalities is something like saying that since rape-murder is on the rise we should subsidize mere rapes. After all, if we can induce people into mere rapes, we prevent murder, which is a good thing.

Subsidized renewable energy may produce fewer negative externalities, but it still produces externalities. It may cause impose less injustice, but it still imposes injustice. This is inevitably the result of lowering the price that a consumer pays for a product below its social cost. Others still suffer those social costs. The only time when a subsidy is legitimate is when one wants to raise the benefits to a provider up to the level where the provider can realize a reward for the benefit he provides for society. A benefit to society is not ‘doing less harm and injustice than the next person’.

Cap and Trade

Now, assume that you run a company that puts 10,000 units of emissions into the atmosphere. Licenses cost $100 per unit. However, Company D, at a cost of only $10 per unit, can engage in an activity that sucks 10,000 units of emissions out of the atmosphere. Why should the company be forced to pay $1 million for emissions licenses? Why not allow it, instead, to pay $100,000 to Company D to suck 10,000 units out of the atmosphere, and save $100,000?

Note that this will not work if the adverse effects of the emissions are local. For example, if an emission produces health effects for those those who live downwind, then it does no ogood to have people on the other side of the world suck an equal amount of the emissions out of the atmosphere – those who live downwind from the plant will still suffer. However, the system does work if the problem is more widely distributed. Greenhouse gas emissions affect the planet, and the effects of 10,000 units of emissions on one part of the gloe can be mitigated by 10,000 units drawn into a sink on the other side of the globe.

Ultimately, the difference reflects the different activities between the price of an activity and its true social costs or benefits.

The way this works is that the sink industry is allowed to ‘manufacture’ emissions permits. The sink company engages in an activity that sucks 10,000 units of emissions out of the atmosphere. The company has then ‘manufactured’ permits for 10,000 units of emissions that it can then sell on the market. Companies then bid for these emissions permits. The higher the bidding goes, the more profitable the sink industry becomes, the more money that goes into growing the sink industry.


A emissions cap and trading system still has a disadvantage in that the legislature needs to decide what the proper cap should be. Ideally, the cap should be where the marginal social cost of an additional unit of emissions exceeds the marginal social benefit. Those legislators will be expected to try to figure this out while being lobbied by special interest groups where many have no moral qualms against legislation allowing them to bring about the death and suffering of others when it profits them to do so.

However, the question is not whether this is an ideal solution. The question is whether this is among the best of all available real-world solutions. Emissions cap and trading is clearly not ideal, but it is better than many of the alternatives.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Renewable Portfolio Standards

Your pseudo-candidate for the House of Representatives is back to discuss energy policy. I have already pointed out that I would oppose subsidies for renewable energy, but support a carbon tax. The proceeds of that carbon tax would be used to provide mitigation or compensation to the likely victims of fossil fuel consumption.

I should add that, earlier, I expressed my opposition to price controls (they further force innocent people to suffer the costs of other people’s consumption and reduce the incentive to switch to alternatives that do less harm to others).

I also objected to a windfall profits tax. We have good reason to tax a large number of activities, but ‘making a profit’ is not one of them. I would, however, make sure that the carbon tax covered all additional harms that will result from the energy companies marketing lies to slow our response to the threat of global warming. However, the activity being targeted here is not ‘making a profit’ but ‘doing harm, and covering it up’.

The next plank in my energy platform will be opposition to ‘renewable energy portfolio structure’ (RPS). An RPS is a law that requires energy providers in a state to meet energy demand through a portfolio of energy supplies that includes a certain percentage of renewable energy. One of the most popular RPS objectives is “20% renewable energy by 2020”. This means that, by the year 2020, the region affected by the law should be getting 20% of its energy from renewable sources.

I do not think that politicians (including myself, if I should be elected as pseudo representative) have the information that they need to know the optimum level of renewable energy production. Technically, the level of renewable energy production we should have is that level at which 1 additional unit of renewable energy costs more than the benefit it provides.

Energy suffers from the law of diminishing returns. If somebody has 1 unit of energy available (and is rational), he is going to buy the least expensive unit of energy and put it to the most valued use. The next unit of energy will be the second least expensive and go to the second most valued use. Each additional unit will be more expensive and go to a less valued use. Eventually, the cost of a unit of energy will exceed the value of its use. At that point, the agenet should stop purchasing energy and forego all remaining uses.

“Least expensive” here actually means overall social cost. We are assuming that the agent is covering the externalities imposed on others by his or her actions. Otherwise, all of the problems with externalities occur. Also, by ‘benefits’ we are also counting potential free-riders; people who can obtain benefits without paying for them. I discussed this issue in more detail yesterday in “Subsidizing Renewable Energy.”

These principles are as applicable within types of energy as it is to energy in general. So, for example, the agent purchases his first unit of energy. That unit comes from Source X. Naturally, he will use the cheapest Source X available. His next unit of energy will be the next cheapest unit from Source X – until the price of Source X has grown so high that Source Y is now cheaper. At that point, he will add energy from Source X and Source Y according to which provides the next least expensive energy.

What is the ideal ratio of Source X to Source Y that this agent should purchase? Should it be 80% X and 20% Y? Maybe it should be 50/50? Maybe, we have not yet reached a point where Source Y is a viable alternative, and Source X consumption still has a lower social cost than Source Y consumption.

We have one good way to find out. Make sure that the price of Source X energy and Source Y energy reflects the true social costs, then let people buy energy as they see fit. They will migrate towards the optimal ratio of Source X and Source Y.

However, to obscure the true social costs behind subsidies, tax breaks, and other complications destroys the information that people need to make intelligent decisions – and drives them into making stupid decisions that harm themselves and others (or, at best, fail to realize benefits that are otherwise available).

Somebody might be tempted to argue that we do not need the information and incentives that markets provide because legislatures are so brilliant and pure of heart that they can make better decisions than the market. It’s not like they are going to sell their votes to the highest bidder – bidders who are more than willing to promote policies that promote social harm, as long as those harmed are ‘others’ and those who profit are themselves.

I suggest that this view of the power and virtue of legislators is somewhat optimistic.

Another failure that legislatures will experience is their slow response to changing situations. What new discoveries are waiting for us in the next, say, 13 years? What new problems are we going to discover?

There is, for example, the problem that food-based ethanol is an inexpensive way to meet a renewable portfolio requirement. However, this involves diverting food production from providing 2 billion people with something to eat, to instead providing 800 million people with fuel for their car. Yet, the 20% RPS does not pay attention to the cost of providing this energy – it has set an absolute goal. Once the 20% limit has been set, the market is not going to pay attention to the fact that the policy is bidding the price of corn above what a couple of billion people can afford. It has statutory requirements to meet.

One way for the legislature to get around this is to write these concerns into the law. This is where the legislators lack sufficient information to make these types of decisions, or to respond appropriately. They cannot anticipate all of the changes in understanding and discoveries that would affect this law and, once they learn the new information, it will take months to get the updated data into the law.

All of this assumes that there are not special interest groups out to make a profit any way they can – without regard to the fate of the average person. As pseudo congressman working in a pseudo lecture, I can ignore all of the special interest groups However, any serving member of congress is aware of the fact that if he says something this group will not like, he can count on directing that group’s money and labor into his opponent’s camp.

Here, I want to add a comment about belief. Many people view the effects of campaign contributions is on the agent who, without using so many words, simply announce, “I hereby offer my vote to the highest bidder.” However, the effects of cash on belief is often more subtle. Many people base their beliefs on feelings – a proposition is true if it feels right. Knowledge that a particular belief will affect campaign contributions and future job prospects will alter the feeling of a particular belief. These feelings will determine whether the agent actually believes the proposition.

So, we are not dealing with a corruption that convinces legislators to support projects they do not believe in because it is profitable to do so. We have a corruption that convinces legislators to believe in projects that have no merit, though are profitable to the people who then pay professional lobbyists and public relations staff members to manufacture particular beliefs.

The option that I would support, as your pseudo representative, is to simply do the best job we can to make sure that the cost to the consumer of using various types of fuel reflected the social cost, and let the market with its blending of information and incentive work out the details.

Once again, I need to close with a comment about political reality. The reality is that the lobbyists, public relations campaigns, the lies, and the deception of the oil companies will still be there, lobbying for the right to destroy the lives, health, well-being, and property of others to the degree that it is profitable for them to do so. Against this, it may not be possible to get the social cost of burning fossil fuels built into the price. That is exactly what these people will be campaigning against.

In light of this possibility, one may have little option but to vote for renewable portfolio standards. These, at least, may have some effect on the amount of death and suffering the energy companies are capable of inflicting in the name of harvesting profits. It may be the lesser evil. However, this does not make it good.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Subsidizing Renewable Energy

As a pseudo candidate for the U.S. Hosue of Representatives, I am here today to announce my policy regarding renewable energy.

Before going into policy details, however, I want to set the context for this presentation.

First, as a pseudo candidate, I am blessed with the liberty that I do not have to announce a policy that will actually muster a majority of the votes in the House and Senate and be passed into law. Rather, I get to propose a policy that should earn a majority of the votes and be passed into law. The objection that my proposal could not pass because certain special interest groups would block it, in this context, implies only that those special interest groups are engaging in immoral practices – imposing suffering on others for their own benefit.

For similar reasons, it is not an objection against this policy that, if I was actually running for Congress, that this policy could not get me elected. I’m not going to be elected anyway. However, this is not an objection to the conclusion that this is the type of policy that moral and rational voters should support.

So, now, let me get into the details of my policy.

(1) I shall not support any subsidies for renewable energy – solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, wave, biodiesel, ethanol, any of them.

This stand is not based on believing in some sort of pure capitalism ideal where subsidies are never permissible. Instead, there are particular types of situations that call for the use of a subsidy, and certain types of situations that do not. Renewable energy is one instance where subsidies do more harm than good.

The type of situation where we should use subsidies is a situation that generates economic free riders and there is no other cost-effect method for dealing with the free-rider problem.

A ‘free rider’ is a person who obtains a benefit from some activity without paying for it.

Standard examples of where activities generate free ridership include national defense. If national defense depended on voluntary contributions, we can expect that somebody living in the middle of Kansas to conclude that his home will be protected if any of the homes near his will be protected. He does not have to pay anything; he can obtain the benefits of protection as a free rider. Even if he does decide to contribute, his contribution will not make a significant difference.

The courts and legal system also produce free riders. The benefits of apprehending and confining a serial rapists are to be had by anybody who would become a future victim of that individual, or anybody who cares for somebody who would become a future victim. In this case, we cannot even identify who the greatest beneficiaries are, let alone ask them for payment.

The education system generates free riders that warrant government subsidies. Yes, it is true, that a person with a higher level of education can expect greater income. However, the benefits to society of being surrounded by educated people – particularly educated people who vote – far exceeds what the individual will obtain in terms of increased salary. Those who obtain these secondary benefits of having an educated population without paying for those benefits are ‘free riders’.

The idea in all of these cases is to have the free riders pay something, which can then be used to support the institution (military, courts, education) that they benefit from but otherwise would not contribute to.

Renewable energy does not fit this criterion. Renewable energy has no free riders.

The response here may be to say that everybody benefits from a cleaner environment, and there would be a whole lot of ‘free riders’ who would benefit by our attempts to avoid global warming.

However, these environmental and climatological effects are not ‘positive externalities’ generated from the use of renewable energy. They identify the negative externalities of using fossil fuels. The proper response to this type of situation is not to subsidize renewable energy, but to institute a pigelian tax against those activities that contribute to environmental damage and climate change.

Let us look at what happens when we use a subsidy rather than a pigelian tax.

We have an industry where those who consume a product pay, in our example, $3.00 per unit to consume that product. In doing so, the product generates another $2.00 per unit in costs on others – costs borne by those who suffer the effects of pollution used in creating or consuming that product. However, those victims of negative externalities are forced to pay this cost out of their own pockets. The person paying the $3.00 per unit only has to cover the costs the manufacturer passes on to the purchaser. It does not cover the costs that are not passed on, that are borne instead by the victims of these negative externalities.

If the consumers were required to pay the full cost, then they would be paying $5.00 per unit.

Let us assume that there is a use for the product that is worth $4.00 per unit to an individual. He would not use the product in this way if he had to pay $5.00. Because of the negative externalities, he is using the product in a way that realizes $4.00 worth of social benefit, but which inflicts $5.00 worth of social costs. Society would be better off if he did not use the product in these circumstances. However, he uses the product anyway because he only pays $3.00, and using the product provides him with $1.00 worth of benefit.

Now, we introduce a product that has a $4.50 social cost, but all of those costs are passed on to the consumer. So, now the consumer has a choice between paying $3.00 for a product that produces $5.00 in social costs - $2,00 of which are borne by the victims of negative externalities. Or he can pay $4.50 worth of costs for a product that produces $4.50 in social costs, but no negative externalities.

We have two policy proposals before us.

One is to impose a $2.00 pigovian tax on the first product – forcing the consumer to cover the entire social costs of his purchase.

The second option is to subsidize the second option. Here, the government says, “You cover $3.00 worth of costs for this new product, and we will cover the additional $1.50.”

Now, again, look at the optional use that produces $4.00 worth of social benefit. Because we have used a subsidy, the consumer has a choice between paying $3.00 for either the product with the $2.00 in externalities, or pay $3.00 where the government will cover the remaining $1.50 in tax revenue. In this case, we still have consumers engaging in activities that produce more social cost than benefit.

On the other hand, if we use the piqovian tax, the consumer has the option of paying $4.50 for a unit of the unsubsidized Product B, or the full $5.00 social cost of Product A. Since he obtains only $4.00 worth of benefit, he does not engage in the activity at all.

Now, at this point a bunch of Republican politicians will likely stand up and shout that, because we have prevented $4.00 worth of activity, that this is bad for the economy.

That is false. Not only is it false, but it is one of those maliciously deceptive pieces of propaganda used by people who want to get away with harming others for their own benefit. What is ‘bad for the economy’ is having people pay $3.00 to obtain $4.00 worth of benefit from an activity that inflicts $4.50 or $5.00 worth of costs on others. The social cost is still greater than the social benefit. Overall, the activity makes people worse off. Overall, the claim that cutting off this activity is bad for the economy is at best an intellectually reckless claim, and is probably most commonly an outright lie.

Now, having said all of this, even though subsidizing renewable energy is not a good option, it is also not the worst. As your pseudo representative in Washington I would try first for a carbon tax so that the price of using fossil fuels more accurately reflects their true costs. Failing that, there is some merit for moving society from an activity that generates $2.00 worth of externalities on the poorest people in the world, to an activity that generates $1.50 worth of additional costs born substantially by the American taxpayers (who, we may assume, can afford the cost far better than the African desert-dweller or the poor family living in the river deltas in South East Asia whose land will be consumed by sea-level rise).

Now, obviously, there is some risk involved. We do not know what the actual costs would be. Again, it makes no sense to argue, “We do not know what the full costs will be; therefore, the victims have to suffer those costs.” This would be as absurd as arguing that we do not know how much damage you will inflict on others from your next automobile accident, so the victim of that accident will be required to suffer the cost. Or, worse yet, we do not know how much money you will take in your next armed robbery, so armed robbery should not be illegal. The fact that we do not know what the costs will be does not argue that the victims are responsible for coving those costs. It is still the duty of those who do harm to compensate the victims for the harm done.

So, as your phantom representative I could be coerced into supporting a subsidy. If it appears that the fossil fuel companies are capable of preserving its ‘right’ to impose death, disease, destruction of property, and other costs on others for the sake of profits, I may be forced to support subsidies for renewable energy as a way of reducing those costs and shifting them to those more able to pay. However, I will not pretend that it is a good thing. I will not stand before an audience and tell them that this is a great plan. I will only tell them that this is not the worst plan. The worst plan is what we would get if I did not vote for these subsidies.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Unsound Moral Reasoning: 4 Examples

As should be obvious to anybody who has followed this blog for any extended period of time, I am somebody who believes that there are true and false moral statements. There is a fact of the matter concerning the rightness or wrongness of particular acts, and we can discover these facts like we can discover the chemical composition of a substance or the facts about an ecosystem that existed hundreds of millions of years ago.

A more important (though, certainly, related) question is not whether moral statements can be true or false, but whether moral arguments can be sound rather than unsound, or at least strong rather than weak.

What follows is largely a summary post, meant to put a number of different issues I have written about into a larger context.

Logicians have their own particular vocabulary for talking about arguments. A sound argument is an argument where the conclusion logically follows from the premises (the ‘reasons for believing’ the conclusion), and all of the premises are true. A strong argument is one in which the premises render the conclusion to be almost certainly true, but does not guarantee that truth.

For example, the major problem with religious arguments is not that their conclusions are false. The problem is that their arguments are unsound, because many of the premises are false.

One of the important facts about logic is that, even though an argument is unsound, its conclusion can still be true. For example, I could wake up in the morning, see a bright red sunrise, and conclude that an airplane crashed last night. My argument would not be sound. It would not even be a strong argument. Yet, this does not prove that no airplane crashed last night. It only proves that no rational person, presented solely with evidence that the sunrise is red, would have any reason to conclude that a plane crashed last night.

So, take the moral prohibition against bearing false witness against others – a prohibition that I have defended as being more important than a prohibition on lying. It is a prohibition that, of course, covers lying (lying is one way to bear false witness against others). Yet, a prohibition against bearing false witness also prohibits rumor-mongering and making intellectually reckless accusations and associations – because of the risk of bearing false witness.

Divine Command

If a person bases a conclusion of the form, “It is wrong to bear false witness,” on premises that say there is a God and that this God frowns upon bearing false witness, then that argument is unsound. The premises are false. It is like basing a belief that an airplane crashed during the night on a red sunrise in the morning, when the morning was, in fact, covered with a thick fog.

However, once again, claiming that the argument is unsound is not the same as saying that the conclusion is false. This is where some theists make a significant mistake. They assert that, “Because you criticize my premises, you must be arguing that it is not wrong to bear false witness against others. It certainly is true that it is wrong to bear false witness against others, so my premises that there exists a God and this God disapproves of such things must be true.”

Of course, this defense fails. This would be like having a person argue, on a gray and foggy morning, “There must have been a bright red sunlight this morning because the news reported that a plane crashed last night.” It is a clearly flawed and question-begging form of argument.

Even though false premises do not guarantee a false conclusion, they certainly do not guarantee a true conclusion. Many theists are convinced through religious argument to do things that are actually wrong. They were not believed to be wrong by the tribesmen who created the holy scripture – but those were largely ignorant people with a limited understanding of the real world. Their moral science, as it turns out, was little better than their physical science.

Intrinsic Value

Another form of argument commonly used rests their moral conclusions on fundamental, basic ‘ought’ statements that cannot be further reduced to anything in the real world. Here, I am also going to argue that these propositions do not exist. All premises of the form, “There is a basic, irreducible ‘ought’ that says ‘people ought to do X’ are false.

One of the most common arguments in favor of the existence of these fundamental, irreducible ‘oughts’ is that one cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Here is where I insert my view that there is no distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’. There is only a distinction between ‘is’ and ‘is not’ – and if ‘ought’ cannot fit in with what ‘is’, then the only place left for it is in the realm of what ‘is not’.

Surprisingly, it does not matter which category a person chooses. Regardless of whether ‘ought’ is put into the category of ‘is’ or ‘is not’, desires still exist. Relationships between states of affairs and desires are still real, and desires continue to provide agents with reasons for action in the real world. We may have to come up with a different name for these aspects of nature, but we have no basis on which to question their existence or the reasons for action embedded within them.

Common Subjectivism

Another form of argument that is very popular, and also entirely unsound, is the argument from personal preference. It is an argument that states, “I desire that everybody do X; therefore, everybody has an obligation to do X.” In other words, a person makes a statement such as, “People should not bear false witness against others.” Then, when asked to defend it, the speaker merely asserts, “I have come to adopt the attitude towards bearing false witness that it is something that should not be done. If I had been raised differently then I would not now be a person who holds that this is something that ought not to be done. Similarly, somebody who was raised differently might not hold the attitude that this should not be done. Nonetheless, I have come to hold the attitude that it should not be done; therefore, it should not be done.”

This is much like adopting the attitude that God exists; then, when asked to defend this claim, asserting something like, “I have come to adopt the attitude towards God that He exists. If I had been raised differently, then I would not now be a person who holds that God exists. Similarly, somebody who was raised differently might not hold the attitude that God exists. Nonetheless, I have come to hold the attitude that God exists; therefore, God exists.”

This is clearly a very poor defense. Yet, it is extremely common among those who are trying to defend a moral conclusion. It effectively states, “If I have come to a completely unsupported and indefensible attitude that something is the case, then I am completely justified in asserting that something is the case, even though somebody else who acquires the attitude that something is not the case would be justified in asserting that something is not the case. In fact, if I were to acquire the attitude that something is not the case, then I would be totally justified in asserting that.

It is a nonsense position – and one of my main exhibits in defending my claim that religion is not the only source of absurdity in the world, and eliminating religion is no guarantee against eliminating absurdity.

Genetic/Biological Morality

I have discussed this option repeatedly over the past week. I add it here only to fit it into context. This is the view, “It is wrong to bear false witness because I have been programmed by evolution to adopt the attitude that it is wrong to bear false witness.”

So, what of the person who has not evolved a disposition to view bearing false witness as wrong. Or, what of the person who views the establishment of ‘in group’ loyalty and ‘out group’ hostility, manifesting an urge to attack out-groups and destroy them, taking their resources from them? What of the person who evolved a disposition to rape? If we (or to the degree that we) did not evolve altruistic dispositions, then is it the case that to that degree we are not good? Or does that imply that altruism is not good?

If we look at nature, we do not find an environment filled with cooperation and love. We see an environment that is a blend of cooperation and competition – with forms of cruelty by one creature against others that many people simply hope to ignore. Those people who argue that morality comes from evolution would have to have some place in the horrendous brutality and cruelty we also find in nature, and explain how, if morality comes from nature, that nature (and thus morality) does not and cannot command horrendous brutality.


None of these arguments actually have much merit. Yet, people appeal to them time and time again. They do so in defending conclusions that are as serious as deciding who to kill and who to let live, who to harm to who to help. There is a lot of talk given recently about how religion, with its false premises and invalid arguments, is used to ‘justify’ support for policies that bring death and suffering to millions. Yet, religion is not the only argument that can work this way. Religious people are not the only people who base moral conclusions on some very shaky arguments.

Here are three examples that fit beside religious-based ethics in terms of shakiness. Some of them are very popular, even among those who are the first to ridicule those who base moral conclusions on shaky premises.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Why Worry about Morality?

I was thinking about taking the day off, when olvlzl provided me with this comment:

One thing I am absolutely certain of, if someone lives in a situation, a country, region, etc. where their basic rights are violated up to and including the right to life all of this analysis would not only not be necessary, it would be rejected as absurd…. Reality is real.

It is a comment that precisely fit my mood at the time.

It is also true that a corpse has no need of the science of medicine. All of this effort that goes into keeping people alive is of no value to one who had already died. Yet, it does not follow from this that medicine is of no value. Similarly, all of the work done in the realm of fire prevention – building codes, materials research, smoke detectors, and fire departments – are irrelevant to the person walking through the ashes of what was once her home. Yet, this does not imply that these studies are worthless.

We can think of morality as a type of ‘wrongdoing prevention’, in the same way that much of medicine deals with ‘disease prevention’ and building codes, materials research, smoke detectors, and fire departments as elements of ‘fire prevention’. It is quite true that these institutions have failed whenever we find evil, disease, or fires. Yet, it is still the case that evil prevention, disease prevention, and fire prevention are good ideas.

Evil prevention takes the form of using social tools to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires. To the degree that we are successful, then to that degree we have created a society in which actions are motivated by a desire for things that tend to benefit others and an aversion to that which causes harm to others.

If you raise a group of people with an aversion to responding to words with violence – even the violence of law – then you will not need to live in fear of what will happen if you should state an opinion that is unpopular. You can, for example, write a blog in which you are heavily critical of the President of the United States and his administration, knowing that the society-wide aversion to responding to words with violence will keep you safe.

If you are raised among a group of people who have an aversion to slavery – who are repulsed by the idea of slavery in the same way that one might be repulsed by the idea of drinking urine, then you can rest assured that you can live your life without becoming a slave.

This is where all of this analysis acquires its necessity.

If we raise a generation with an attitude of indifference towards the violence that one person may do to another when that violence is justified by appeal to a religion, then we create a society where people need to worry about becoming victims of religious violence. If we want our children or grand children to be free of those particular fears, we do so by teaching an aversion to violence even when the agent appeals to religion to justify it.

On this subject, I hasten to remind my readers that the religious fundamentalist who flies a passenger jet into a sky scraper is an impotent little gnat compared to the religious fundamentalist who flies legislation into people’s life. Those who pass legislation against stem-cell research, early abortion, homosexuality, who promote ignorance in our school system and raise children on a diet of distinguishing “we – patriotic Americans” from “they – un-American” on the basis of ‘trust in God’ or being ‘under God’ – do far more violence to their neighbors than suicide bombers.

All of this analysis tells us that if we want our children and grandchildren to grow up surrounded by less religion-based violence than we do, then we must replace the current attitude of ‘acceptance’ of violence (including the violence of legislation) when backed by religious beliefs, to an active ‘aversion’ to those who appeal to religion to justify harms done to their neighbors.

A significant failures of the current generation towards those that will follow us come from the large numbers of us who are teaching our children an indifference towards warrantless government spying, extraordinary rendition, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, habeas corpus, cruel and unusual treatment of prisoners, wars of aggression, government secrecy and deceptive manipulation, destroying the system of checks and balances in the federal government. We have had a chance to teach an aversion to these things to the next generation. Yet, with our own indifference, we teach then to shrug off these concerns and go back to whatever form of entertainment is on their ipod.

As a result, we can expect a future in which governments will be far more likely to inflict these pains on citizens and non-citizens alike. We are creating a future society in which our children and their children will more likely be victims of these ills, since we are creating a generation that passively accepts those who inflict these ills on others.

I am not talking merely within national borders when I make this statement. Bush’s support of such things as arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, abuse of prisoners, repeal of habeas corpus, warrantless wiretaps, and unchecked executive power will serve as precedent around the world. Bush has effectively given every political leader around the world permission to do all of the things he has been caught doing. They will maintain that permission unless or until we take steps to deny that permission.

However, I do not see those steps being taken. Even the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate is not taking action against these abuses. I worry that it is because the Democratic political leaders are wringing their hands thinking to themselves, “Imagine what I can do when I become president with all of these powers at my disposal.”

Refusing to inoculate future societies from these diseases is like refusing to inoculate one’s children from disease. It is equally irresponsible, because sick societies have done as much if not more harm to people than bacteria and viruses.

At this point, I will quickly add the principle that I have defended before. That unless we want society to descend into a chaos like we find today in Baghdad, that one of the principles we need to promote is the principle that the only legitimate response to words are words and private actions, and the only legitimate response to a political campaign is a counter-campaign, and that good people have and promote an aversion to responding to these things with violence.

It means getting angry, letting that anger be known, letting those who contribute to these problems know what type of people they are, and always asking oneself who and what one will support with their words and private actions.

As a weapon of evil prevention, these points are far from unnecessary and absurd.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Defining 'Rights'

I have another question from the studio audience that I would like to take on.

I wonder if you'd agree with me that defining human rights is ultimately an act of social agreement (with input from culture and, hopefully, design principles)? Or do you think a set of objective and well-defined inalienable rights can be reached through reason? (Or as certain theists might phrase it, are human rights as absolute as 2+2=4?)

This is a very popular question. Unfortunately, I think that the question itself contains some mistakes. It is an example of what logicians call a ‘complex question’ – a question of the form “Do you still beat your wife?” The question itself assumes that two things are true that are, in fact, not true. Consequently, the question cannot be answered without first identifying and eliminating those mistakes.


One of the problems with this question can be illustrated by asking a similar question. “Do you think that (the word) ‘dinosaur’ was invented in the 1800s? Or did dinosaurs die out about 65 million years ago?”

Before answering this question, one has to ask, “Are we talking about the word ‘dinosaur’, or are we talking about dinosaurs?” Because, these are not the same thing. The word ‘dinosaur’ did not exist until the 1800s. Dinosaurs lived over 65 million years ago. The word ‘dinosaur’ was made by combining the Greek words ‘deino’ (terrible, fearfully great) and ‘sauros’ (lizard). Dinosaurs were made of cells.

When a person asks a question about definitions, they are asking a question about the word. The danger here comes from saying something true about the word that is not true about things in the real world. It is like saying, ‘The word ‘dinosaur’ did not exist before 1840; therefore, there were no dinosaurs in existence before 1840.”

So, now, let us look at the statement, “Defining ‘human rights’ is ultimately an act of social agreement.”

This is true.

It is also true that defining ‘dinosaur’ is an act of social agreement. Defining ‘planet’ is an act of social agreement. Defining ‘atom’, ‘malaria’, ‘argument’, ‘hypotenuse’, ‘blog’, and every word ever conceived in every field of study from physics to entertainment are all acts of social agreement.

The fact that defining ‘dinosaur’ is an act of social agreement tells us nothing about dinosaurs. In particular, it does not give us any reason to argue that dinosaurs themselves existed merely as a consequence of social agreement. The fact that defining ‘human rights’ is a matter of social agreement tells us little about human rights as defining ‘dinosaur’ by social agreement tells us about dinosaurs.

Make Believe

So, the question is, “Are human rights a matter of social agreement?”

Here, I am going to engage in a reduction ad absurdum argument – I am going to reduce the belief that rights are a matter of social agreement to an absurdity. Because, if human rights are a matter of social agreement, then the institutions and practices where human rights are used are a game of ‘make believe’ or ‘let’s pretend’.

Let’s pretend that people have a right to life. The way we play this game is that we say that everybody has this ‘right to life,’ which means that anybody who takes the life of another (in a certain way) deserves to die, so the rest of us get together and kill him. Killing him doesn’t violate his right to life because we are going to pretend that this ‘right to life’ disappears – it evaporates, sort of – whenever a person kills another in a particular way.

But is there really a right to life?

Well, no. Don’t be silly. There’s not really a right to life. Everybody knows that. We’re just pretending.

But, if you are just pretending that there is a right to life, then are you just pretending to kill people who violate that right?

We have the power of changing the definitions of words simply by agreeing to a new definition (as astronomers did with the word ‘planet’). But changing our definitions has zero effect on things in the real world. Pluto did not change, simply because we changed our definition of ‘planet’.

Yet, those who hold that human rights are a matter of convention, hold that we can change things in the real world simply by changing the way we talk about them. Call something a right and it acquires new properties – new powers – that it did not have when we did not call it a right.

The only things that we can change simply by agreeing to change them are things in the realm of ‘make believe’ or ‘let’s pretend’. If we all decide to agree that Santa has a ninth reindeer named Rudolph, then Santa has a ninth reindeer named Rudolph.

This ties in with what has become a slogan in my writing:

I do not accept that there is a distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’. I accept that there is only a distinction between ‘is’ and ‘is not’. We must either place ‘ought’ squarely in the realm of what ‘is’, or we must relegate it to the realm of what ‘is not’. To claim that there is a third option – a third essence or realm reserved for ‘ought’, that is distinct and separate from ‘is’, but which must not put in the realm of what ‘is not’ is an extraordinary claim – the type of claim that we have no reason to accept, except through extraordinary proof.

The False Dichotomy of Ethics

Now, we enter the realm of the second false assumption written into one of the most commonly asked questions in ethics – the false dichotomy. I am either required to say that morality is a game of make-believe as described above, or I must defend the thesis that the universe is filled with a particular type of value-entity – a type of ‘goodon’ and ‘badon’ radiation emitted by certain states of affairs that we have the capacity to detect.

This is why discussions in ethics so often go around in circles. One person says, “The idea that morality is a game of make-believe filled with imaginary rights and duties is so absurd that goodons and badons must exist.” His opponent then counters, “The idea that the universe is filled with goodons and badons is so absurd that morality must be a game of make-believe involving such let’s-pretend entities as rights and duties.”

The question of which view is correct can never be answered, because both views are mistaken.

Desires exist. They are not make-believe, they are real. They are as real as we are.

Desires are propositional attitudes that provide reasons for action. A ‘desire that P’ for some proposition P is a reason for that agent to act to bring about or preserve a state of affairs in which P is true.

Some of the states of affairs that people have reason to bring about is to promote the existence of desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and to inhibit the existence of desires that tend to thwart other desires.

Everything I have mentioned is still real. Yet, I have not, nor will I ever, need to bring in any mysterious entities such as ‘goodons’ and ‘badons’.

Some of the desires that there are many and strong reasons to promote is an aversion to taking the life of others, aversion to action without consent, and an aversion to responding to mere words with violence.

Another way of saying the same thing is to advocate a right to life, to liberty, and to freedom of speech (to give just three examples).

The proposition that there are many strong reasons for action for people generally to promote these aversions is as true as propositions about height, weight, distance, numbers, or locations of things in the universe. There is nothing make-believe in any of this. There are no intrinsic values involved.


So, my conclusion is to say that I am not talking about defining ‘human rights’. Our definition of ‘human rights’ is as unimportant to the study of the reasons that exist for and against an aversion to killing, as our definition of ‘planet’ is to our study of Pluto.

I am talking about relationships between desires and states of affairs – between the different things that can exist and the reasons-for-action that exist for preserving or bringing about those states. In this, all objectively true statements fall within the realm of what ‘is’, and all else false within the realm of ‘is not’ – with some wiggle room created by fuzzy logic and similar concepts that still apply equally to all sciences.

I think that there are objectively true and false relationships between desires and states of affairs. In the realm of value theory, this is all I need.

Thursday, July 19, 2007


I have received another question from the studio audience.

What does DU say about the egoist? Rather, what reason does anyone have to accept the DU definitions of "good" and "bad"? to be more precise: What does DU say about egoism? What arguments can be used against it?

Reasons for Accepting DU Definitions

As far as anybody accepting my definitions of 'good' or 'bad', I answered this question most recently just a couple of days ago.

Ask an astronomer, "What reason does anybody have to accept your definition of a 'planet'?"

The answer is "None, really. But, if you think that something of significance hangs on that fact, you are mistaken."

Pluto's properties do not in any way depend on whether or not we call it a planet. Similarly, the relationships that exist between states of affairs and desires do not depend on what we call them.

So, call them what you will - as long as your terms do not make assertions about those relationships that are not true.


The Meaning of 'Morality' Is Subjective

Choosing a Moral Theory


When it comes to confronting egoism, there are two versions of egoism that are relevant here.

Psychological Egoism. This is a descriptive theory that states that all human action can best be explained in terms of seeking that which benefits the agent. It holds that, as a matter of descriptive fact, no agent ever acts in any way other than according to what he beliefs benefits himself. No person ever acts so as to benefit another except as a means to securing a benefit to himself. One version of psychological egoism holds that a person only acts to maximize his own pleasure and minimize his own pain. Another version holds that a person only acts to maximize his own happiness and minimize his own unhappiness.

Ethical Egoism. Ethical egoism holds that, as a prescriptive theory, no person should act in any way other than to obtain benefits for himself. On this ethical theory, even if we have the capacity to make sacrifices for others, it is always wrong to do so.

Defeating Psychological Egoism

Psychological egoism needs to be treated like any other scientific theory. We use it to make predictions. We then make observations. If those observations fit the theory, then the theory is confirmed. If not, then the theory is falsified. Falsified theories end up in the scrap heap as soon as a better theory comes along that can handle the observations that the scrapped theory cannot handle.

One set of observations that psychological egoism cannot handle concern ‘experience machines’ or ‘The Matrix’ options. If we can hook you up to a machine that gives you perfect pleasure and no pain, or that we can guarantee will stimulate your brain in ways that produce the greatest happiness and the least unhappiness, would you enter that machine?

Psychological egoism implies that people will crawl all over each other for a chance to get hooked up to that machine. Yet, when we ask real people what they would choose, they often express a strong dislike for the experience machine – it is not their example of an ideal life. They would rather suffer the pains and unhappiness of the real world, than spend their lives hooked up to such a machine.

A theory that better handles these observations says that we act so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of our desires, given our beliefs. A desire is a propositional attitude – a mental state that motivates an agent to make or keep a particular proposition true. Thus, a person with a desire to see her son graduate from college is motivated to choose options that will, some day, make the proposition, “My son has graduated from college,” true.

Experience machines simply cannot make these propositions true. They can make a person believe that they are true. But desires motivate people to make these propositions true in fact, and a false belief that these propositions are true simply are not good enough.

So, desire fulfillment theory beats out psychological egoism as the best explanation of intentional behavior.

Confusing Psychological Egoism and Desire Fulfillment Theory

It is easy to confuse desire fulfillment theory with a form of psychological egoism. After all, desire utilitarian theory says that a person acts so as to fulfill the most and the strongest of his own desires. That is psychological egoism, right?

Not really.

The claim that a person acts so as to fulfill the more and stronger of his own desires simply states that, if you trace the muscle contractions associated with any intentional action back to its source, it originates in the brain of the actor. In fact, if you were to trace a particular set of muscle contractions in my body to somebody else’s brain (say, through a system of remote control), then those actions would not even be my actions. If, for example, they caused somebody’s death, I would not be guilty of murder. Those actions would belong to the person whose desires spawned them. That is to say, the person with the remote control device would be the one guilty of murder.

Desire fulfillment theory’s ability to account for assignments of responsibility is yet another mark in its favor. My intentional actions are those that spring from my intentional mental states (beliefs and desires) and define the limits of my responsibility. Your intentional actions are the consequence of your intentional mental states and define the limits of your responsibility.

Egoism does not stop at saying that my actions are those that spring from my mental states. It limits the content of those mental states. Egoism says that I cannot genuinely want somebody else to be happy. I can only want my own happiness. The happiness of other people can only have instrumental value – can only be important to the degree that the happiness of other people is a useful to me.

Desire fulfillment theory, on the other hand, does not place any limit on the content of an agent’s desires. Just as an agent can believe just about anything (any proposition can be the object of a belief that ‘P’), a person can desire just about anything. For example, there is nothing to prohibit an agent having a desire that P where P = “no child goes to bed hungry”, or P = “humanity or its descendents will survive as long as the universe has energy capable of supporting life” or, on the cruel side, P = “people who do not believe in God are made to suffer an excruciating pain worse than death but cannot die.”

People can desire these things because they are useful. However, people can also desire these things as ends in themselves – for the sake of no further reason at all, not even for the sake of their own happiness.

A person can have a desire that P says that I can have a genuine desire that somebody else be happy, in which case I will be motivated to make the proposition “somebody else is happy” true, for no reason other than the fact that I value another person’s happiness.

This easy confusion between psychological egoism and desire fulfillment theory is part of what gives psychological egoism some of its intuitive plausibility. However, the theory of psychological egoism is like the theory of a flat earth or a geocentric solar system. It has a superficial appearance of being true, but is easily proved false once we start looking at the details.

Defeating Ethical Egoism

Once we have defeated psychological egoism and put desire fulfillment theory in its place, the defeat of ethical egoism is easy.

Ethical egoism says that we can measure the moral value of a desire by some internal or intrinsic property – that ‘desires for the benefit of the desirer’ are somehow intrinsically superior to all of the other desires an individual might have. Since intrinsic values do not exist, all claims that one set of desires are intrinsically better than other desires are false.

Here, some people make the mistake of claiming that because no desire has intrinsic merit that makes it the case that no desire is better than another, that all desires have equal value. The desire to torture young children would have to be declared equal to the desire that no child go to sleep hungry.

This is a mistake. Desires still have value. However, the value of a desire is like the value of everything else in the universe – it depends on the desire’s tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires. People have reasons to reduce or eliminate the desire to inflict pain on others in people generally the same way that they have reasons to reduce or eliminate the chance that they will be burned alive in a fire. Saying that some desires are bad simply means that the desires tend to thwart other desires.

Statements to the effect that desires tend to fulfill or thwart other desires are true statements. When they are true, those whose desires will be thwarted have real-world reasons to reduce or eliminate those desires. They have the capacity to do so using tools such as condemnation and punishment. There is absolutely no sense to be made of the idea that it is somehow a mistake to report these facts. These facts are all one needs to be able to evaluate desires and label them, “desires that people generally have reason to promote” and “desires that people generally have reason to inhibit.”

However, this idea that desires have the same type of value that everything else has – value in accordance to its ability to fulfill other desires, is clearly at odds with ethical egoism. Ethical egoism does not have a metaphysical leg to stand on. Desire utilitarianism, on the other hand, requires only the existence of malleable desires and reasons to promote and inhibit those desires – all of which are very real.

This is how I would answer the egoist.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Political Equality Without Faith

Friendly Atheist has posted a challenge he received from a theist to account for moral equality without any reference to a deity – to explain it purely in scientific terms. ("Can We Have Government Without Faith?") This theist suggests that it cannot be done, which leaves the atheist with a problem. The atheist must either abandon the idea of moral quality, or allow that he holds onto a belief (a belief in the rightness of moral equality) in the absence of information – on faith alone.

Using that definition, it seems the belief in equal worth, equal treatment, and autonomy are more faith based than science. So given that we want these principles in government, is it not necessary to have faith inside government? For people reading this who identify themselves as atheist yet believe in these principles, how is that not faith?

I read the many attempts to answer this challenge with interest, and thought I would offer some comments on the issue.

It does not make any sense to try to account for something such as the moral principle of political equality unless we first know what it is. Try looking for an ukalarn some day, without first answering the question, “What is a ukalarn?”

So, what is this moral principle of political equality that we need to account for?

Equality as the Absence of Divine Right

It turns out that it is not anything at all. It is the absence of something. Specifically, it is the absence of a natural right to rule on the part of one group of people, and a natural duty to obey on the part of some other group.

We can see this clearly when we look at the context in which this moral principle was discovered. It was in the 1600s. For 1200 years Europe had been governed by the unquestioned principle of the divine right of kings. Everybody believed that God picked the rulers for a country by manipulating political events in a way that put His chosen leader on the throne. At least, every leader in Europe had a vested interest in making the people think that they ruled in God’s name.

As God’s chosen leader, every king or emperor had a right to rule, and every subject in his kingdom (and it was almost always a ‘his’ – God seemed to have an aversion to selecting female leaders and putting them on the throne, though He did make an occasional exception) had a duty to obey.

I want to point out that this arrangement of God-given rulers and subjects used to be one of those moral absolutes that religious people like to talk about as proof that there is a God. Certainly, there can be no such thing as a divine right of Kings without something divine to give that right. To question the existence of God is to question the King’s divine right to rule. That was a threat to both church and state, so it was an idea that both had a particularly strong interest in suppressing.

Anyway, in the 1600s, people started to get the idea that they could look at nature, make observations, apply reason to those observations, come up with ‘laws’, and use those ‘laws’ to try to predict and explain what goes on around them. They kept those ‘laws’ that made the best predictions, and threw away those ‘laws’ that could be falsified. They started talking about such things as proof and reason – ideas that came about when they discovered the writings of some ancient pagan named Aristotle.

These methods, applied to physical observations, were yielding truly stupendous results. Galileo and the astronomers were showing that the Earth was not at the center of the solar system. Newton was revealing his laws of planetary motion. Electricity, weather, magnetism, light, were all being put under a microscope – which, by the way, was one of the new inventions of the age.

Some people got the bright idea of doing the same thing to morality. They said, “Let us look at man in a state of nature – without governments or social structure of any kind. What type of society would it make sense for them to adopt?”

Thomas Hobbes argued that life in a state of nature would be perpetual war of all against all where individuals could anticipate an existence that was nasty, brutish, cruel, and short. Rational people would give their authority to a dictator – a leviathan – with asolute power to crush anybody who opposed him. The monarch’s interest in preserving his power would motivate him to prevent conflict among his subjects.

However, John Locke had a different idea. Locke noted that, in a state of nature, we could find no natural right to rule or duty to obey. This ‘moral absolute’ of the divine right of kings that Church and State had been pushing for 1200 years under Christianity, and perpetually before that, turned out to be absolutely wrong.

Of course, neither Church nor State liked the idea that there was no divine right to rule and divine duty to obey. So, ultimately, dethroning the idea that such divine right existed ultimately required a revolution – in England, in America, and elsewhere. This rebellion was a rebellion against a “moral absolute” that God picked our monarchs who ruled in His name.

For purposes of this posting what is important here is the observation that the concept of political equality was the concept that there was no divine right to rule and no divine rule to obey. These are claims that any atheist would have no trouble accepting. It certainly makes no sense to argue, “There is no divine right to rule and no divine duty to obey; therefore, God exists.”

Theists Restore Divine Right

It is worth noting that, with the controversial Presidential election of 2000, how many theists were eager to restore the doctrine of the divine right of kings. Some (including Bush himself) asserted that God selected Bush to be President and, to accomplish this end, interfered in the election to prevent Al Gore from winning the election. The implication we were invited to take from this is that, since God picked Bush to be President of the United States, anybody who opposed Bush or his policies opposed God.

The religious right proved to be all too willing to set the clock back 500 years, back to the philosophy that denied political equality and asserted the medieval idea of the divine rights of rulers and divine duties of subjects.

Which Religious Morals are Absolute?

It is also strange, at best, to argue that religion gives us moral absolutes when religious people change their minds so much over time. First there was the divine right of kings, then there was democracy, then the divine right of kings again. First there was slavery, then slavery became a bad thing. First it was wrong to charge interest when lending money to fellow citizens, then charging interest became the foundation of a free-market economy. It makes one pause to ask, “If religion brings us moral absolutes, what are they?”

Note that “thou shalt not murder”, “thou shalt not steel”, and “honor thy mother and thy father,” are not moral absolutes because they are utterly question-begging. Murder, for example, is wrongful killing, so the claim ‘thou shalt not murder’ really says that it is wrong to engage in wrongful killing. The same can be said about the wrong of stealing, since stealing is the wrongful taking the property of another. If there are, indeed, moral absolutes that come from God, then why is it that the religious community has changed and return to an era where God picked our leaders, and disobeying the leader was the same as disobeying God.

Theists certainly do not preach the value of political equality when it comes between humans and God. Let us assume that some interstellar race were to come upon our little planet. Let us assume that they are vastly more intelligent than we are, and significantly more powerful. This combination of intelligence and power still would not give them a right to rule. It does not give us a duty to obey. We are still, by right, political equals, since neither has an intrinsic right to rule the other.

God’s Right to Rule

The same principle applies to God, as it turns out. Let us assume that there was a God, and that this creature created us and populated the planet with us. We may be grateful to such a being and buy him a present on his birthday. However, even this generosity does not give God a right to rule, nor does it give us a duty to obey. If somebody were to save my life, I would be grateful, but I would have no obligation to become his slave and obey his every wish, putting his will above mine in all things. I have a right of refusal.

Denying this is to deny the principle of political equality, while at the same time telling us that a right to political equality is a moral absolute.

Atheism simply has no problem with the concept of political equality. On the other hand, atheists would have a great deal of difficulty denying the principle of political equality. The atheist would somehow have to come up with a theory to explain where a natural right to rule and a natural duty to obey comes from. A theist will find it easy to deny political equality – and did so for thousands of years. The theist says that the right to rule and the duty to obey comes from God. The atheist does not have that option. So, many atheists find that they are stuck. They have no choice but to assert political equality. There is no evidence that something exists that would break this tie.