Saturday, January 31, 2009

Corporate Feudalism

Recently, in a post on the flaws of socialism, I pointed

out that socialism responds too closely to changes in information.

See: The Three Flaws of Socialism

A member of the studio audience challenged me with the following:

Is that why trans-fats had been banned in several countries of the world long before US America would even admit they could be problem? Is that why the various bans on cigarette advertising and smoking in stipulated places was slow to occur in the US?

Part of the answer to this is that a portion of the American economy and its culture is neither capitalist nor socialist. It follows another set of terms that I identify with the label “corporate feudalism”.

I call it this because it is an ideology that divides the population into two groups – those who own businesses, and everybody else. It then grants to the former all sorts of legal rights (not moral rights) and privileges that neither capitalism nor socialism would permit.

Capitalism does not grant any person the moral right to kill or maim or poison others, or to destroy their property, merely because the person doing the killing, maiming, poisoning, or destroying considers it profitable to do so. According to capitalist principles, these would be considered violations of the rights of the person being killed, maimed, poisoned, or whose property is being destroyed.

The American system of government, on the other hand, is one in which the argument is often made that businesses must be given such rights because it is good for the economy – because to prohibit businesses from doing such things is bad for business.

So, for example, we have the issue of global warming. The reason the Bush Administration offered for not taking steps against this problem is that it would harm the American economy to do so. Yet, what he was permitting, according to the best scientific evidence, was the rights of business to engage in actions that scientist told us would take tens of millions to hundreds of millions of lives, and destroy a great deal of coastal property.

I have yet to hear of a Republican candidate, in spite of claiming to be a defender of capitalism, bring up this argument against business practices that kill, maim, or poison others or destroy their property. Instead, Republican candidates seem to exist to do the opposite – to defend the practices – which is inconsistent with capitalism.

Now, we are familiar with those businesses branding their practice of killing, maiming, and poisoning others and destroying their property as “capitalism”. This is because lying is another “right” that the corporate feudalists have. We must remember that these businesses are masters of marketing – at least those that survive tend to be.

In a country like America, businesses that refrain from engaging in the practice of killing, maiming, and poisoning others an destroying their property finds themselves at an economic disadvantage – unable to compete against companies that do kill, maim, poison, and destroy the property of others for profit. Those businesses close their doors, leaving only those willing to inflict such harms to rule the marketplace.

It would actually be an act of instituting capitalism to condemn businesses that engage in these practices. However, any attempt to make the country more capitalistic by prohibiting businesses from inflicting these harms – creating these externalities – is met with political stonewalling from a group of politicians who tend to call themselves capitalists.

It is quite ironic, if you think about it.

Well, actually, it is just another component of this package of deception.

This is not a flaw either with socialism or with capitalism. It is a deviation from an area in which both of these systems speak with a common voice. They both prohibit people with capital from treating people without capital as mere tools of production - or as "statistics" who may be made to suffer externalities without a trace of a moral qualm. Yet, this is exactly what the American system of government permits in far too many cases.

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Fatal Flaw of Protectionism

The Democrats in House of Representatives have put something particularly stupid in the national recovery legislation they have just passed. It is a requirement that none of the infrastructure projects purchase steel from any country other than the United States.

The stimulus bill passed by the House last night contains a controversial provision that would mostly bar foreign steel and iron from the infrastructure projects laid out by the $819 billion economic package.

A Senate version, yet to be acted upon, goes further, requiring, with few exceptions, that all stimulus-funded projects use only American-made equipment and goods.

See: Washington Post, 'Buy American' Rider Sparks Trade Debate

It is widely accepted that one of the things that made the Great Depression far worse than it would have otherwise been, and that made the war that followed much more likely, was the protectionist legislation that sprang up as the world economies crashed. Countries cut economic ties with other countries, demanding that more and more purchases be done locally.

One of the effects of cutting international trade was to promote international job loss and economic decline.

Another effect comes from the fact that as economic relationships between countries weaken, the possibilities for armed conflict tend to increase.

To see the truth of the first of these effects, simply imagine that you are living alone. You are stranded on an island where you must gather food and water buy yourself, create your own clothes, build your own shelter, build your own tools for farming, tailoring, and construction, provide for your own health care, predict the weather, determine which natural foods are poisonous, and the like.

This is not a life with a particularly high standard of living.

Introduce just one more person, and both of you are better off. That one person can focus on growing and preserving food for two people. This makes him much more efficient at his job. Furthermore, it gives him an opportunity to learn how to do his job better. He need not be distracted by other jobs such as building a house or making clothes – you are doing those things. And, as with your partner, you become better and more efficient at the tasks you specialize in.

Add a third person, and a fourth. Every additional person creates more opportunity for specialization and trade.

Add enough people, and soon you have people specifically devoted to the study of health, to predicting the weather so as to better determine when to plant and when to harvest, the study of engineering, and construction itself allowing the community to build aqueducts and to harvest power from the flowing streams.

It no more matters that some of your trading partners live across the ocean than that some of them once lived on the other side of the stream or a mountain. Distance increases the cost of trade (more so for physical goods and services, and less so for information) but is not relevant to the fundamental benefit of trade.

Any time anybody stands up and demands that we cut off trade with some group of people, that we make the economic community smaller rather than larger, then this person is promoting a system that will make all of us worse off. It makes us worse off by blocking our trade with others, and makes those others worse off by blocking their trade with us.

If it makes sense to say that smaller communities can be more prosperous than larger communities, then it makes sense to say that none of us should be engaged in trade with any other person, and we should all live a life where we each grow our own food, manufacture our own clothes, construct our own shelter, and tend to our own doctoring.

Perhaps more important is the fact that isolated tribes are the type who are more likely to go to war with each other. If two tribes have economic links – if the wealth and well-being of one tribe is tied to the wealth and well-being of the other – then there are all sorts of incentives to preserve the peace. But, if there economic borders are closed, then the only way to get something that the other tribe has is to take it by force of arms.

It is quite reasonable to suspect that, without the protectionist policies of the 1930s and its adverse effects not only on the global economy but the severing of incentives to maintain peace between nations, came to be followed by the largest global military conflict in human history.

What the United States does in this economic crisis sets an example for the rest of the world. We have many and good reasons to set an example of keeping economic relationships between different countries open – to foster trade rather than sever economic ties. We have many and strong reasons to demand that, this time, the world works together to get through this economic crisis, rather than split off into isolated tribes.

Because it typically is not long after countries quit trading bread and butter across their national boundaries, that the find they are soon trading bullets.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Certainty of Error

A few posts ago I mentioned that there was an interview of me up at Common Sense Atheism: CPBD 003: Alonzo Fyfe - Morality without God.

The interviewer wrote:

For today's episode of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot, I interview Alonzo Fyfe, who completely changed the way I think about morality with this very interview.

I hope it was changed for the better. Comments like this always cause a bit of moral anxiety.

What if I am wrong?

A morally responsible person is always asking that question when he is making claims which, if adopted, would interfere with the lives of others. He recognizes the duty to continually sifting through the reasons for his belief, looking for a sign that he might have been a mistake.

Similarly, any institution that teaches its people that they need not do this – that they can accept propositions leading to harm to others on the basis of faith alone, and never need to question their legitimacy – teaches moral irresponsibility.

In this area, the institution that teaches intellectual recklessness is less moral than the institution that teaches care and prudence with respect to beliefs, in the same way that the drunk driver is less moral than the sober and careful driver.

So, whenever I get praise for what I write it always makes me nervous. It always causes me to ask, once again, "What if I am wrong?" And to invite others to consider critically anything I may write.

This is . . . or should be the standard throughout. Any person who leads an organization that tells people that their support for policies harmful to others can be grounded on groundless beliefs, he is teaching them to behave recklessly. This is no different than telling a person that he may drink as much as he wants and go ahead and drive home.

In fact, the person who is counseling others to engage in drunk driving would be by far the lesser of these two evils, compared to the proponent of reckless thinking. The drunk driver will, at worst, wipe out a school bus or a family on vacation. The reckless thinker, on the other hand, have wiped out whole civilizations or aided in the death and suffering of millions.

"We are the most moral people in the world, and you are to trust that what I tell you is the right thing to do, even though others may be harmed, and the worst thing you can do is question me or what I say because what I tell you is necessarily true and true without question."

The person who makes any claim like this is uttering a flat contradiction. The person who preaches this type of intellectual recklessness is preaching immorality, not morality.

So, in contrast with their teachings, I have said often and I will say again . . .

It is certain that at least one thing that I have written is false, though I do not know what it is (or, more accurately, what they are).

The morally responsible person takes this attitude towards everything they hear and read. The person who does not question is by that very fact loses all right to claim to being or even knowing the measure of virtue.

Three Faults with Capitalism

Well, yesterday I looked at three flaws with socialist solutions to a nation's problems.

(1) Decisions are made by people other than those who are the best informed.

(2) Decision makers are motivated by a number of concerns other than the public good.

(3) Political systems respond slowly (way too slowly) to changes circumstances.

So, let's look at three significant problems with capitalist solutions to social problems.

(1) The wealth effect. In a capitalist system, those with money have the power to bid resources away from the more valuable uses to which the poor people would put them.

Capitalists often boast that its system allows for the most efficient allocation of resources because, if you want something more than somebody else, you simply pay more. Resources always go to the person who will pay more, so resources always are given to the person who values them more.

This is false.

Differences in wealth mean that those people who have wealth can outbid those who have significantly less wealth, even if the wealthy person has a trivial interest in those resources.

I have illustrated this in previous posts with the case of a woman with $20 in a drought-infested land wanting to buy water for her sick child, while another woman with $20 million wanting that water to shampoo her poodle. If the two people had equal wealth, the woman with the sick child would certainly outbid the woman with the poodle for that water. Unfortunately, because of differences in wealth, the water is allocated to its socially least valuable use.

The world is filled with wealthy people bidding resources away from poorer people who, nonetheless, would put those resources to more highly valued use.

It takes about nine pounds of grain to produce a pound of meat. If poor people had the means, they would buy that grain to feed themselves and their families. Instead, wealthier people literally bid the grain off of their table and demand that it be used for what merely amounts to an increase in flavor.

The same thing is now happening with ethanol production. Wealthier people are bidding the food away from poorer people to produce energy that they can then continue to use for purposes, many of which are substantially trivial.

(2) Capitalism is a regulatory system.

Capitalists often market the distinction between them and their competitor as a conflict between "regulation" and "no regulagion".

The fact of the matter is that this is a conflict between two different types of regulatory systems.

What is the difference between an action that imposes a legitimate cost on other people, and one that violates their rights? I lower prices in my store, taking your customers, lowering the value of your business. Did I violate your rights? What is the difference between that and letting my property deteriorate, when you live next to me, lowering the value of your property?

What if I build a dam on my property that breaks, causing a rush of water that destroys your house and kills your wife and daughter? Is this a violation of your rights?

How do we define what risks you voluntarily adopt, and what risks I wrongfully impose upon you?

Even in a purely capitalist system, it would take a mountain of legislators, judges, and lawyers to sift through the minutia of what capitalists call “voluntary exchange”. It is no different then the effort that we must also go through with respect to any other type of regulatory system that we choose to set up.

Capitalism is not regulation free. It is, itself, a system for regulating the ownership and transfer of property.

(3) Capitalism is expensive.

I originally entitled this section, "Externalities and the Free Rider Problem." However, externalities are not a problem with capitalism. Externalities occur where capitalism does not exist. Externalities are costs or benefits that are imposed on other people that are not imposed on the people who cause them.

In order for resources to be perfectly allocated, a person who produces benefits for others needs to be compensated for every single benefit provided – and a person who imposes costs on others has to be made to pay those costs.

If he produces benefits where he does not capture any rents, then others are “taking from him” that which is rightfully his. In the economic realm, it means that people are not going to put as much effort into those activities as they would if those benefits could be properly captured.

If he produces costs that others are forced to pay, this is the equivalent of buying things on somebody else’s credit card without their consent. Activities where people can force others to pay the bill are activities that people are likely to perform even when the social benefit of their actions is negative.

Imagine what it would cost to have a system where every single benefit that one produces for others is captured in terms of rents or payments, and one is forced to pay for every single cost that one imposes on others.

At some point, we have to say that the marginal cost of additional capitalism simply is not worth the marginal benefits. At that point, we say, "We're just going to stop capitalism right here and allow the "thefts" in capitalist terms beyond this point to stand without worrying about them."

Ultimately, we are forced into a choice - to not use capitalism when it does not pay to do so, or to institute some very expensive systems of property rights that cover absolutely every externality produced both positive and negative.


So, capitalism has its problems. It allows for the gross misallocation of resources, it is a regulatory framework that is subject to all of the abuses of any regulatory abuses, and it can be fully extended and applied only at very great expense.

Socialism has its problems.

The question of whether to adopt capitalist or socialist solutions to our problems is not an either or question. It is a question that requires taking seriously the benefits and the problems that exist in each system and then trying to choose which tool is best for a given job.

Sometimes, that is not going to be an easy question to answer. Sometimes, morally reprehensible people are going to get in and muddy the waters as much as they can because they see an opportunity to gain personal benefit by generating confusion and manipulating us into choosing poorly.

These are facts that we simply have to include in our decision making.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Desire Utilitarianism and Political Libertarianism

One this issue of the relative merits of socialism and capitalism, one question that I have gotten from the studio audience is:

do you find it possible for me to consider myself a libertarian (free market anarchist/voluntaryist) as my legal framework position and a desire utilitarian as my moral position, or do you consider that would be an absurd/totally inconsistent thing to be?

Desire utilitarianism does not contradict libertarianism in one sense.

There are, actually, two types of libertarians. There are natural rights libertarians (such as Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard) who argued that libertarianism represented a system of natural rights discoverable in nature. These natural rights, they argued, were revealed by reason alone and were grounded on what is true of "man qua man".

This theory is not at all compatible with desire utilitarianism. First, this entity that lies at the root of this type of libertarianism - this entity known as “man qua man” - is as fictitious as any God. So, natural-rights libertarianism is founded on a false premise.

Second, even if there were such a thing as “man qua man”, the libertarian would need to explain how she can make the leap from certain factual or “is” statements about such an entity to conclusions about what ought or ought not to be done.

At both of these steps, the natural-rights libertarian fails miserably. Their morality is grounded on entities as fictitious as those of any religion and their reasoning about those entities is no more sound.

On the other hand, there is another group of libertarians who are utilitarian libertarians. They hold that capitalism has merit precisely because it fulfills the requirement of bringing the greatest good to the greatest number.

However, utilitarian libertarianism holds that if it were to be shown that libertarianism did not bring the greatest good to the greatest number – if it were to be shown that some aspect of socialism did a better job - the utilitarian libertarian would have to give up on libertarianism (in those cases) and go with the alternative.

This stands in contrast to the natural-rights libertarian, who would hold that any socialist scheme would be a violation of those fundamental natural rights such that, even though some alternative will bring a greater good to more people, it must still be rejected as a violation of these fundamental rights. We may not violate fundamental rights to bring more good to more people.

In fact, some libertarians that I have known said that, even where a violation of the moral law were necessary to save the whole Earth from destruction (one had to forcefully take a plain granite rock from its rightful owner to prevent aliens from destroying the Earth and everybody on it), it would be better that the earth be destroyed than that a single item of property be taken without consent.

Of these two options, natural rights libertarianism is not at all compatible with desire utilitarianism. It asserts that intrinsic value properties exist and can be found in certain families of actions. Intrinsic value properties do not exist.

It also asserts that people can be made to suffer where necessary so as to help to preserve and promote these imaginary entities. This is different than the religious practice of calling for the sacrifice of individuals so that God will show us favor and protect us from natural disasters and foreign aggression. In this, too, it is little different from religion.

In contrast, utilitarian libertarianism can be compatible with desire utilitarianism. A desire utilitarian holds that there are certain desires that people generally have reason to promote or inhibit. It may be that the desires that people generally have reason to promote are those of a capitalist system. They may have reason the libertarian non-aggression policy for the specific reason that if everybody had such an aversion to aggression that the more and stronger of all of our desires will be better realized.

Ultimately, I think that utilitarian capitalism fails as well. I will mention a few of its problems in my next post. However, its problem is not some fundamental conflict with the basics of desire utilitarianism. Its problem is that there are areas in which it fails the utilitarian test of making good people better off.

Three Flaws with Socialism

Announcement. I have been interviewed. A podcast of an interview I performed recently is up at "Common Sense Atheism" titled, CPBD 003: Alonzo Fyfe - Morality without God..

Elsewhere, some members of the studio audience, in the comment section of this blog, have expressed an affection recently with socialism. They believe that, in the battle between socialism and capitalism, that capitalism has proven itself a failure, and socialism wins.

I disagree with that assessment.

For the record, my view on the Capitalism vs Socialism debate is that it is much like a debate that might occur among construction workers.

One worker proclaims all of the work that a hammer can do better than a saw – from pounding in nails to breaking rocks – and declares, “All construction work can and should be done with a hammer.”

The other worker lists all of the things that a saw can do more efficiently than a hammer, such as cut planks to length, and declares that all construction work should be done with a saw, and none with a hammer.

I look at the two participants in this debate as both being wrong. Capitalism and socialism (the free market and the state) are both tools. Each has their strengths and weaknesses, and it is foolish to limit ourselves to just one of these two tools.

Since the pendulum is swinging more toward socialism in recent weeks, I think it would be useful to remind ourselves of its weaknesses.

Here are three.

(1) Socialism puts decision-making power in the hands of people who are substantially ignorant as to many of the relevant facts for making a decision.

Each person seeks the fulfillment of the most and strongest of his desires. Now, when it comes to the fulfillment of Person A’s desires, we can give that authority to one of two people. We can give that authority to Person A himself (the individual), or we can give it to Person B (the state).

We should, as our default position, give authority in making particular decisions to the people who are the most well informed of the facts relevant to those decisions. So, when it comes to directing the course of Person A’s life, we should give the decision-making capability to Person A – unless Person A is known to be mentally incompetent (e.g., Person A is a child.)

In other words, we are better off giving people the power to make their own decisions governing their own lives in a free market of voluntary trade among individuals, then we are handing those decisions over to somebody else, such as the state. The state simply lacks the information it needs to make wise decisions in many cases. So, it will make poor decisions, even if all of its members were saints.

Which is another problem with socialism. It puts massive amounts of power in the hands of people who often are not saints.

(2) Each individual is the least corruptible guardian of his own interests.

Each person necessarily acts so as to fulfill the most and strongest of his own desires, given his beliefs.

One of the things we can count on with respect to this government spending program to try to jump start the economy, is that every single Senator and Representative will cast a vote that best fulfills his or her own desires, given his or her beliefs.

And what are those desires?

No leader is motivated solely by the public interests. They all have friends, and are going to be tempted to act so as to make their friends better off.

They like money – because the more money they have the greater ability they will have to spend it to fulfill the more and stronger of their desires – so this will motivate their votes in some instances.

Some of them may want sex, or simply be in love (even if it is an unrequited love without sex), and will seek to pleasure of the person who is the object of his or her affection. And who knows what that person wants?

Some are motivated by a desire for power, and will see merit in various plans (even to the point of deluding themselves that certain claims are true or arguments are valid that lack any support) that promises to deliver more power into their hands or do harm to rivals.

Consider giving full control of your money over to somebody who knows you and cares about you. You will no longer direct the spending of your own income, but you will give it over to your best friend. That friend will have instructions not to come to you for advice on how to spend it, but can only consult outside experts (each acting so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires).

Do you seriously think that the money will be spent as wisely in the fulfillment of your desires as it would be if you were given the authority to spend the money yourself?

(3) Socialist systems respond too slowly to information and not always in the best possible way.

Imagine a large community gets hit by a sudden petulance that wipes out the bulk of its food crop.

This community needs to immediately start treating food as a scarce commodity. It needs to quit using food for things (e.g., decorations and art, glue, dyes) where it is not being consumed for calories and to switch to other substitutes. It needs to immediately set to work discovering new sources of food that it can add to its stores. And, as new discoveries are made (e.g., new food is discovered or there is a fire that destroys some of the remaining food), it needs to respond as quickly as possible to this new information.

Socialist systems are very slow to react to news. It is slow even to recognize that a significant event has taken place and that a change of policy is in order. The government must be assembled. It must weigh the various benefits and costs (this process being hampered by the two problems already described – decision makers who have limited information and who are going to act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their own desires). It must make a decision. Then, it must implement decision.

In a capitalist system, the response to new information is instantaneous. The instant – the very second – that news hits a market that some product in high demand will become scarce, the price goes up. The higher price signals people that they need to start looking for substitutes to use in place of the scarce commodity. It inspires people to go out and find substitutes, and to put extra effort into increasing the supply of the product that has suddenly become scarce.

It does not need to call a meeting into order. It does not need to engage in endless debate. It instantly puts society to work mitigating the damage that the change in the news implies.


These, then, are three unavoidable problems that will plague this multi-hundred-billion dollar economic recovery bill. The final results of the bill will be put together by people who lack sufficient information to do a good job, by people who are easily persuaded to act in ways not necessarily in the public interest, and who will institute a system that will respond very poorly to changes in information.

Capitalism has its own problems. This is not a claim that socialist tools should be abandoned entirely and only capitalist tools should be permitted. It is an invitation to consider seriously that the socialist tool is not perfect – it has its flaws – and we must give an honest consideration of the implications of those flaws.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Morality and Law

I have some questions from a member of the studio audience to address.

One concerns a topic related to several recent posts – the relationship between law and morality.

I am used to thinking about it like this: "every law/everything that is legal should me moral, but not everything that is moral should be legal obligation" or if you prefer "everything that is illegal is immoral, but not everything that is immoral should be illegal"

I believe that this is true with respect to the criminal law. A person ought not to be punished unless he has done something worthy of punishment. If a person has not done anything wrong, then it is a mistake to say that he should be punished.

In other words, legislating morality is not only a legitimate function of the law, it is the primary function of the law. The thesis that it is objectionable to legislate morality substantially boils down to the thesis that there should be no relationship between punishment and the question of whether or not the person being punished actually did something wrong.

The specific difference between criminal law and morality is this:

Morality is concerned with altering a person's desires – so that they will do or forebear from certain actions even when nobody is looking over their shoulder. When society uses social forces to give people a moral aversion to taking the property of others, then those people will leave the property of others alone even when they have an opportunity to take that property.

Law, on the other hand, is concerned with getting people to perform or to abstain from certain actions by threatening to thwart the desires that already exist. "If we catch you performing action A, then we will create a state of affairs that will thwart many of your other desires – a state that you certainly have reason to avoid. You can avoid the realization of such a state simply by not doing A."

The problem with legal penalties is that the motivation only applies when the agent believes that he is at sufficiently high risk of being caught. If the threat of being caught is sufficiently reduced, then to that degree performing action A will not lead to the bad results that the agent has reason to avoid.

On the other hand, the law is a heavy, blunt weapon. To put the rule of law to work in all instances of wrongdoing (e.g., making it a crime for a child to lie to her parents) would be impractical at best.

Another class of immoral actions that should not be made illegal are those pertaining to certain rights such as the right to freedom of speech. No good person would stand before an audience and promote racial segregation, for example. However, the right to freedom of speech means that a person may go ahead and make statements that no good person would make, and the only legitimate responses are words and private actions.

Yet, there is also a class of legislation – other than criminal legislation – that is not concerned with immorality. This has to do with regulation – and, in particular, with standardization.

It is economically and socially beneficial for the country as a whole to adopt certain common common ways of doing things. For example, it is useful if everybody in a country drive on the same side of the road, and for pipes and bolts to have a common number of threads per inch. It is useful for reports to count like incidents as alike so that aggregators can focus on comparing apples to apples.

So, the state can designate a particular street to be a one-way street without appealing to a natural moral law that dictates an obligation to drive only one way on a particular street. It can demand that bolts contain one of two values for the number of threads per inch without proving that all other possibilities represent moral crimes.

We can still make something of a moral case for regulations and standardizations in general. People have a reason to promote conformity in some instances – such as conformity in which side of the road to drive on and conformity in the construction of certain types of tools.

It does not matter what standard everybody adopts, as long as everybody adopts a common standard. So, people generally have many and good reasons to promote a desire to conform to certain common standards, and an aversion to violating those standards.

Sometimes this moral case springs a bit, and we demand conformity even where conformity does no good – even where we would benefit by diversity rather than conformity. We end up demanding conformity in clothing, hair styles, hobbies, viewing and listening habits, and food preferences where there is no reason to argue for conformity at all.

However, the fact that a tool might be misapplied is no argument for throwing away the tool. The possibility that somebody might use a hammer to drive a screw is no argument for ridding the world of hammers or screws.

This, then, is a brief rundown of the relationships that I see between law and morality. Nothing should be made criminal unless it is immoral. Yet, it is not the case that all things that are immoral should be made criminal.

The law is far too unwieldy a tool to be used in cases of minor wrongdoing. Standards and regulations may be imposed even though they do not reflect a specific moral fact. However, we still have many and strong reasons to promote conformity to some standards – reasons to promote a desire to conform and an aversion to violating some standards. Yet, this is not an argument for universal conformity on all things.

The Existence of Rights

A member of the studio audience, Janus, had an objection to a recent post of mine in which I wrote that there were two conceptions of rights.

The two that I offered were:

(1) Rights exist as entities that can be discovered in the real world. Rights exist prior to law in such a way that they allow us to judge certain laws to be just or unjust.

(2) Rights exist as state-created facts. As such, there is no such thing as a just or unjust law because a person has no right unless it the law grants him such a right.

Janus wanted me to consider a third option.

(3) That there are no moral rights. There are no entities discoverable in nature that allow us to evaluate laws and institutions as just or unjust. And states do not create and destroy rights on a whim. There simply is no such thing.

Actually, I believe that Janus is correct. (3) is a true statement. Rights do not exist. Arguments for their existence tend to be as bad (or worse) than arguments for the existence of God.

At the same time, (1) is also true. Rights exist as discoverable entities against which we can evaluate laws as just and unjust.

And (2) is true as well. States have the power to create and destroy rights on a whim. A person has whatever rights the state says she has - no more, and no less.

Is this a contradiction?

Consider the following two claims:

(1) Atoms exist

(2) Atoms do not exist.

Is this a contradiction?

It is only a contadiction if we mean the same thing by the term 'atom' in both sentences.

However, the original definition of 'atom' is that it is the smallest possible unit of an element and that it has no parts. "A-tom" literally meant (to the Greeks who invented the term) "without - parts".

Yet, we know that the individual units of an element do have parts - electrons, neutrons, and protons.

So, atoms (the smallest units of an element that, themselves, are made up of electrons, neutrons, and protons) certainly exist. At the same time atoms (the smallest unit of an element which, itself, has no parts) do not exist.

There is no contradition here.

In exactly the same sense, I hold that rights most certainly exist. That is to say, there are certain maleable desires (such as an aversion to cruel punishment, a desire to have guilt proved before somebody is punishment, an aversion to sex without consent, an aversion to responding to mere words with violence) that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote.

At the same time, governments clearly have the power to create and destroy rights. If a government gives a company a permit to cut trees in a national forest it has created a right to do so. If the government revokes that permit than it has taken away that right.

And, as Janus has pointed out, rights, understood as intrinsic value properties that can be found inherent in certain families of actions, do not exist. No action or family of actions contains within it an intrinsic property of "ought to be doneness" or "ought not to be doneness". Any assertion that such an entity exists is false.

Now, we take these three propositions, and we add a fourth.

(4) We must choose one of the first three propositions as being true, and reject the other two as false.

Now, we have set the stage for an endless and utterly pointless debate. Now, we have ushered in a colossal waste of time, energy, and brain power as each proposition gathers a camp of faithful defenders around it – and nobody can actually be proved wrong.

Yet, the culprit in this case is not (1) or (2) or (3). The proposition that we must reject is (4). Once we get rid of (4), then we can put all of that wasted time and energy that goes into deciding which of the first three options to reject back into productive use.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Only Desires Have Moral Value?

A member of the studio audience has asked me whether, in, desire utilitarianism – the moral theory that sits at the foundation of this blog – it is the case that "only desires have moral value."

I am not comfortable with this characterization. It sounds like an intrinsic value claim – a claim that there is this entity or essence called “moral value” and, if you break open desires, you can find this essence within. Since desire utilitarianism holds that there is no such thing as intrinsic value, this characterization would be a mistake.

Let me look at the issue by looking at value in general.

Anything can have value. Movies, pictures, television sets, hammers, knives, sex, reports, schools, laws, and presidents all have value.

In order for something (S) to have direct value it must be the case that there is a desire that P, and P is true of S. S has indirect value if S has a tendency to bring about T, there is a desire that P, and P is true of T.

All desire utilitarianism does is take the two ways in which something can have value – direct value in terms of being such as to fulfill a desire, and indirect value in terms of being such as to bring about a state that fulfills a desire – and applies this method to desires themselves. Desires also have value in virtue of the degree to which they are desired, or the degree to which they are likely to bring about states that are desired.

Moral values can also apply to actions, laws, institutions, and even movies and books.

Moral value applies to actions insofar as they are the actions that a person with good desires would perform. It applies to laws insofar as they are the laws that a person with good desires would support. It applies to a movie insofar as it is a movie that somebody with good desires would want to watch – and to books insofar as the book is one that a person with good desires would want to read.

It makes no sense to apply moral concepts to fixed desires because fixed desires are desires that cannot be changed. It makes no sense for anybody to ask what an agent’s fixed desires should be – any more than it makes sense to ask what the mass of the Earth should be. It makes sense to ask what something should be only insofar as it is within our power to affect that thing.

Actually, I argue that morality is primarily concerned with reasons for action. It turns out to be the case that desires are the only reasons for action that exist. As a result, true value claims have to be claims that refer ultimately to desires. Any value claim that refers to a reason for action other than desires is a value claim that refers to reasons for action that do not exist. If it is a claim that says, "There are reasons for action that calls for bringing about X," and the reasons for action it refers to are imaginary or mythical, then the statement is false.

So, why can’t moral value be assigned to other things like apple pie?

This is like asking why the term "monkey" cannot refer to an elephant. Obviously, we can use it to refer to anything we want. Language is an invention, and there is no law of nature dictating what things are called. In saying that moral values refer primarily to desires I am merely saying that, if we look at the way that moral terms are used, the claim that they refer primarily to desires makes the most sense of that use.

We can apply moral concepts to anything. However, in doing so we have no power to create reasons for action out of thin are, or to dismiss reasons for action that are real.

We can use moral terms to refer to happiness and claim that morality requires that we act so as to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number. However, this claim can never invent reasons for action for promoting happiness. Those reasons for action either exist or they do not exist, and are not at all dependent on what we call things.

Yet, we are free to change our language however we would like.

Yet, in doing so, we are not free to change what is objectively true of what we name. We can use the term "monkey" to refer to an elephant if we wish to re-define our terms. However, what is objectively true of elephants does not change.

We can choose not to apply moral value to malleable desires. Yet, it will still be true that we have malleable desires, that we have reasons-for-action for promoting and inhibiting malleable desires using social forces such as praise and condemnation, that we have reasons for action to promote desires that tend to fill other desires and to inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.

These claims remain facts regardless of how we decide to define the term "morality".

Limbaugh, and Hoping America Fails

In my previous post I wrote about the legitimacy of criticizing the President. I wrote that, if somebody thinks that a President's policies would do harm to the country or are immoral, they have a duty to speak up. Nobody should be condemned merely because they criticize the President – though they may be condemned if their criticism is grounded on false statements and intellectually reckless reasoning.

However, a couple of people have made comments about the Obama administration that truly do count as un-American . . . even anti-American. Rush Limbaugh has said that he hopes that Obama fails.

So I shamelessly say, no, I want him to fail, if his agenda is a far- left collectivism, some people say socialism, as a conservative heartfelt, deeply, why would I want socialism to succeed?

See: Fox News Rush Limbaugh's Shocking Words for President Obama

I have said that it is perfectly legitimate to criticize the President’s policies where one has good reason to believe they will do harm to the country. However, I want you to pay close attention to the difference between the following two statements.

(1) I hope that the engines in the airplane will fail and that the plane will crash.

(2) I fear that the engines of the airplane will fail and the plane will crash.

When a person says that they fear the possibility of a particular outcome, they are saying that they view the outcome as something that there are many and good reasons to avoid. They are saying that they do not want that outcome to be realized and, because of this, they are willing to work to prevent those outcomes.

On the other hand, when a person says that they hope that a particular outcome will be realized, they are saying that the outcome is one that they desire. They are saying that they are willing to work to help realize that outcome and are unwilling to take any action that might prevent that outcome from being realized.

Rush Limbaugh did not say that he fears that Obama's policies will fail. They explicitly said that he hopes that those policies will fail - that they want those policies to fail.

Which means that Limbaugh is resporting that he is willing to help bring about that failure. He is saying that the he would view any news of failure as a good thing, as something that he hopes to see, like somebody might hope to see smoke coming from a jet engine that he hopes will fail in flight.

He hopes that you lose your job.

He hopes that your business goes under.

He hopes that your retirement dwindles away into nothing and you are forced to live your final years in abject policy.

He hopes that America itself is forced to declare bankruptcy.

He (unlike the rest of us) does not fear that these things might happen. He hopes that these things will happen.

It is not propaganda – it is a matter of logical necessity – that a person who hopes that such things will come about are anti-American.

Why would Hannity and Limbaugh want such a thing? A reasonable hypothesis is that their egoes are of such a size that, if given a choice between promoting America and promoting themselves, they would give anything for an opportunity to promote themselves. Rather than a willingness to take a hit for the sake of the country, they would prefer it if the country takes a hit that would benefit them.

In short, they are too much pro Hannity and pro Limbaugh to have any room left for being pro America.

Note: This is not the same as saying that Hannity and Limbaugh "hate America". This no more implies that they "hate America" than a cook making an omlett "hates eggs". They see the breaking of the eggs (the breaking of America) as a mere means to an end. They do not hate that which serves as a means - they simply do not care about its welfare.

As I said in my previous post, criticism itself is no vice. A person who fears that a policy will do harm to America has a duty to speak up and to (peacefully) act to prevent such a policy from being enacted. The person who fears that Obama will fail (and has intellectually responsible reasons for doing so) is not worthy of criticism.

However, the person who hopes that Obama fails is somebody who hopes that America fails.

I am not the one saying that Limbaugh is hoping for America's failure. Those words came straight from them.

Criticism of the President

At Crooks and Liars, I saw a clip from Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" about right-wing criticism of Obama's decisions at the start of his Presidency.

(See: Crooks and Liars: The Daily Show: The Fox News Fears Imbalance)

It also presented clips in which those same commenters such as Bill O'Reilly saying, when Bush was President, that people who do not rally around and support the President and his policies are anti-American. Their principle seemed then to have been that, once the election is over and we have a winner, everybody should support the winner.

Now, we see that their real principle is that everybody should support the winner only when the winner is a Republican, and that dissent and criticism is perfectly legitimate now that the President is a Democrat.

This is simply hypocrisy. This is a case of people who have adopted one set of standards for themselves, and a different set of standards for others. Republicans are patriots when they criticize the administration, Democrats are traitors.

They are pure tribalists. They appear to be completely submerged in an "us" versus "them" mentality where morality applies only to "us" and never to "them".

Let them wallow in their lack of moral principles, but let us not join them there. While they switch allegiance from "dissent is un-American" to "dissent is the only true sign of patriotism", let's apply a consistent set of moral principles across all boundaries.

Criticism of the President is a perfectly legitimate activity. If somebody has reason to believe that the President's policies will do harm to the country, or that they are simply immoral, they not only have a right, they have a duty, to speak their mind.

They have a duty even to act to (peacefully) act so as to prevent the enactment of those policies that they believe will do more harm than good. This is not a duty to break the law, but a duty to engage in legitimate political activity that best promotes those policies that they think will serve the country well, and prevent those policies that will do the country harm.

This means that no criticism should be condemned for no reason other than the fact that it is criticism, and the President may never be criticized.. It means that when people do criticize the President, one must respond to the actual substance of that criticism - to show that the criticism is unwarranted and invalid.

Nobody has a duty to get in line behind the President if the President is going to do us harm. Nobody had a duty to get in line behind Bush, and nobody has a duty to get in line behind Obama. Obama, and those who wish to defend his policies, in turn have a duty to argue for those policies and to make the case that they are necessary for the common good.

This public debate is the essence of an open democracy.

On this ground, criticism of the President can still be condemned. Criticism can be condemned if it is deceptive, or if it aims to promote the interests of some special-interest group at a cost to the nation as a whole. Criticism can be condemned if it is fallacious rhetoric or if it assumes as true that which has been proved false. Critics themselves can be condemned for lying, or for intellectual recklessness if they did not act responsibly in determining the truth of their premises or the quality of their reasoning.

There are a great many things that a critic can do to be worthy of condemnation.

However, the mere fact that somebody is criticizing the President is not in itself a justification for condemnation, even if that person had previously made the false claim that it was justified. Such a person can be charged with hypocrisy, but not with being anti-American.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

BB3: Sally Satel: Individual Flourishing and the Mental Health Industry

This is the 13th in a series of posts on presentations given at Beyond Belief 3: Candles in the Dark"

You can find a list of all Atheist Ethicist blog postings covering Beyond Belief 3 at the Introduction post

And I would like to encourage you to give a contribution to the Science Network, who makes these presentations available for free.

Sally Satel rose to speak about the relationship of the mental health professional to human flourishing.

She started off her talk by looking at the reasons people seek mental health professionals, linking those reasons to the pursuit of human flourishing.

She included such things as:

• Symptom relief - depression and anxiety "because those limit human potential significant."

• Change behavior.

• Obtain insight and self-understanding.

• Because they know that they are sabotaging themselves.

She also spoke about her own role as a part-time worker in a methadone clinic. She looked at the question of whether there is any sort of incompatibility between human flourishing and the use of medication in order to obtain such a state - such as the use of methadone by opium addicts.

She admitted that the drugs were a crutch. However, she denied that there is any relationship between the use of a drug to obtain flourishing and flourishing itself.

Her claims were made against the belief that a person who used some drug (e.g., Prozac) to influence the brain could not obtain the flourishing of somebody who did not use such a drug. She compared the state that a patient may be in with medication with the state that the patient would be in without the medication and gave the argument, "It is better than the alternative."

Yet, better than the alternative need not be good. A financial setback where an individual loses half of his wealth might be "better than the alternative" of losing everything. However, it is still not as good as losing nothing.

So, the question still comes up whether a person who obtains a state of "human flourishing" through the use of some sort of medication can have as good a life as a person who uses no medication.

There is absolutely no reason to think that the use of medication is, in itself, a detraction from the quality of a person's life.

When we eat or drink, we ingest chemicals because those chemicals are useful to maintaining particular body functions. We put iodine in salt to prevent some physical problems, vitamin-fortify breakfast cerials, take vitamins. Even breathing is an ingestion of a chemical that helps the body to function better than it would have functioned without oxygen.

There is nothing about the ingesting of chemicals that is, per se, something incompatible with flourishing.

The only argument that can be given against medication is that it involves the ingestion of chemicals that people generally do not use. It is an argument that only makes sense under the assumption that "natural" has some sort of intrinsic value. However, intrinsic values do not exist. Any claim that what is "natural" is (intrinsically) better than what is "unnatural" or "not natural" is false. There is no useful measure of value to be found in this area.

Satel then went on to look at the impact that the mental health industry itself might have on helping - or, actually, on hindering people from obtaining human flourishing. She argued that, with respect to some problems such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the reaction of the mental health industry might have a strong negative influence on the patient.

She illustrated her point with the story of an Iraq War soldier who applied for and obtained the status of 100 percent disabled as a result of injuries he suffered during the war. According to Satel, this was a disservice to the individual soldier because it confirmed the view that he would no longer be a functioning member of society. The award of total disability becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The patient can say, "See, this proves that I am now incapable of doing anything productive with my life - the military said I am totally disabled."

The general concern about this specific story is for mental health professionals to learn to recognize when they are contributing to a problem, rather than dealing with a problem. Where people come to the health professionals to improve "human flourishing" (whatever that is), the health professionals need to be concerned with the possibility that they are locking in states that will get in the way of flourishing.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Moral Rights and the Issue of Torture

In my last post I compared two conceptions of rights.

One conception holds that rights represent moral facts of some sort and are independent of the whim of the state. On this conception, states can violate rights, which means that states can be identified as morally just or unjust.

The other conception holds that rights are contrivances of the state. A person has only those rights that the state gives them, so the state cannot actually violate anybody’s rights. If the state sanctions the slaughter of a whole group of people then those people simply do not have a right not to be slaughtered.

I showed that Representative Young of Florida defends the second conception of rights, while both Desire Utilitarianism (the theory I use in this blog) and America’s founding documents – the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights are consistent with the first conception.

I made these claims in the context of the debate over the rights of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners. The question is whether those prisoners have moral rights and can thus be treated unjustly, or if their rights are mere government contrivances making unjust treatment impossible.

I suggested that a right, in desire utilitarian terms, is something towards which people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion. Rights to freedom of the speech and the press exist insofar as people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an overall aversion to responding to words with violence.

The claim that the only legitimate response to words are words and private actions is the claim that a good person (the person with desires that people generally have reason to promote) would be averse to responding to words with violence.

People generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to torture as well, and to secret trials, and to lengthy imprisonments without a trial, and various other evils that the Bush Administration visited on people (making this one of the most morally bankrupt administrations in American history).

The problem with allowing torture – with being a country that condones or even praises the use of torture – is that it weakens the aversion to torture. In weakening the aversion to torture, the attitude creates a social climate in which torture will be more common.

I am not speaking just about state torture but private torture – including private crimes in which a guardian tortures a child or a citizen acts in a particularly cruel way towards another citizen.

One way to reduce the incidents of these types of situations is to promote a general aversion to these types of situations – to seed the moral conscience of all people with a distaste for such activities that is so strong that it overrules other desires that people might have.

We do this, in turn, by condemning any and all instances of torture. The stronger our interest in reducing the incidents of cruelty of one person towards another, the stronger should be our condemnation of torture.

The Bush Administration pats itself on the back for saying that, because of its practice of torture, it has kept us safe. However, even to the degree that torture helped rather than harmed that goal, it still put innocent people around the world at risk of being tortured.

Bush gave would-be dictators and tyrants around the world moral permission to apprehend anybody that they conceived of as a threat to the state, arrest them, and torture them for information. Where some mob of people are trying to gain power, Bush gave them moral permission to capture and torture as well.

Bush did not make people around the world generally safe from torture. He did the opposite. He destroyed decades of work in securing innocent people from such a fate by promoting and encouraging what people generally have many and strong reasons to discourage.

President Obama, in reversing Bush’s policies, is creating a world in which innocent people around the world are less likely to be subject to torture and other forms of abuse.

By taking a stand against torture, he is setting a moral example for others to follow. He makes it easier to condemn the dictator or tyrant or warlord or tribal leader who practices torture. He makes it harder for those who practice torture to find friends and allies, and thus weakens those who would engage in such acts.

There is, then, a moral right not to be tortured – because there are many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to torture regardless of what any given state allows or prohibits.

Obama’s orders respect those rights, thus making America a morally better country than it was under the Bush Administration. Recognizing that a state has no power to create or destroy rights – only to respect or abridge rights – he has turned the country away from the practice of abridging certain rights, and towards respecting those rights.

At least in this one instance.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Representative Bill Young's Wrong View of Rights

Representative Bill Young (R - FL) objected to Obama's decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility because:

[O]nce they become present in the United States, what is their legal status? What is their constitutional status? I worry about that, because I don't want to have the same constitutional rights that you and I have. They're our enemy.

Now, there are two ways in which to view Constitutional rights.

First option: They are moral rights. A right to freedom of speech, fredom of the press, a trial, against cruel and unusual punishment is something that a person has as a matter moral fact. They are, in other words, 'inalienable' rights.

On this model, governments may decide to respect those rights or to violate them, but governments are not the creators of moral rights, nor does government have the the power to destroy moral rights. A government that exists within the bounds of morality is a just government, a government that violates moral rights is evil.

Second option: Rights are a contrivance of the state. They are human inventions that governments can create or destroy at will. On this model, there is no such thing as "good government" or "bad government" because the government itself determines what is good or bad.

On this model, if the government wishes to round up a section of its population and slaughter them, no moral crime has taken place. No right has been violated, precisely because the government does not recognize that the victims of such a slaughter have a right not to be slaughtered.

In other words, this second model does not recognize the possibility of an unjust law. One cannot say that a law is unjust - that it treats people unjustly - if justice itself is determined by what the law says.

It is clear that the founding fathers believed in the first model. The whole of the Declaration of Independence is a statement of this model - that rights are inalienable, that governments are established to secure these rights - that whenever any government becomes evil and systematically violates these rights it is the right of the people to alter or destroy that government and to put a new government in its place.

We also find this philosophy in the way that the Bill of Rights were written. The Fourth Amendment, for example, states

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated,

This is not a statement that the government creates such a right. This is a statement that the right exists in nature, and the government is morally bound not to violate that right. It states that one of the ways we can distinguish moral government from immoral government is the degree to which it obeys or violates this right.

Representative Bill Young apparently holds to the second view of rights. His view, apparently, is that no moral rights exist at all so that. If one does not get his rights from government, one has no rights.

One can only wonder whether his philosophy that rights are created by government and governments can do no evil applies to his moral obligation to uphold his oath to uphold, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.

I need to add something for the benefit of long-term readers that explains how these two theories of rights relate to the desire utilitarian theory that sits as the moral foundation for these posts.

Desire utilitarianism holds that a "right" is "that which people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to violating." So, the right to freedom of the press implies that people generally have reason to promote an aversion to abridging the freedom of the press. A right against cruel and unusual punishment is a claim that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to cruel and unusual punishment.

Desire utilitarianism, on this model, is consistent with the first option for a theory of rights given above. Governments have no power to decide by legislative fiat what people generally have many and strong reason to promote desires for or aversions to. These relationships exist as natural facts to be discovered.

Consequently, desire utilitarianism holds that there is a difference between good government and bad government - between just laws and unjust laws.

It is quite a different view of rights from that which Representative Bill Young believes in - and significantly more consistent with the view that this country was founded on.

President Obama and a Non-Believer's Values

I want you to send a letter to President Barack Obama. The letter should go something like this:

Dear Mr. President

Several times now you have had gatherings where people of faith have been brought together to present their visions of America both in the form of informal discussions and through services. You have given them an opportunity discuss their views and their values, and to give sermons and offer prayers regarding your administration and the future of the country.

In each of these cases, you have sought fit not to make room for anybody to present a non-theistic view.

It is as if you hold a common prejudice that, when it comes to questions of value and to how best to guide the country forward, that an atheist has nothing to say on these matters. Only people of faith have values – which easily translates into the view that only people of faith have value. All others – non-believers – are fit only to be ruled by their religious 'betters' who will serve as guides, but unfit to offer guidance on the direction that the country should go or the values that the nation should promote.

Perhaps you think that non-believers do not have a place at such a gathering because they have plenty of other opportunities to present their view to the President. Yet, there are two problems with this line of reasoning.

The first is that it assumes that, when not in a faith-based gathering, you prohibit those who believe in God from speaking and listen only to the atheist. Yet, I sincerely doubt that you exercise this type of control over who is allowed to give advice when not at such a gathering.

The second problem is that such a doctrine would still falls into the morally murky ground of "separate but equal". It is a Segregationist’s approach to values.

Of course, one could make the claim, "Why would an unbeliever want to attend a faith-based conference anyway?"

Which is a bit like asking, "Why would a black person want to be a member to a whites only club anyway?"

The question I am asking is about the appropriateness of a whites only club – a club in which white people (and white people only) are allowed to assemble and present their views to the President, and a faith-based only club where only people of faith are invited to come together and share their views with the President.

Perhaps a better option would be to have a values gathering. It would be a gathering where people of faith, certainly, can come together to express their views and provide a vision for the future of the country. However, it would be a gathering from which those whose values are not grounded on scripture can also have their say and express their vision.

Every time you have one of these gatherings – and you do not make a place for somebody who believes that there is no God – you are promoting and fostering the idea that, when it comes to guiding the country, non-believers have nothing of value to say. They are not worth listening to. Somebody must be a person of faith to have a vision for the future of the country that is worth considering. Those without faith have no values and, as such, they have no value.

That makes you an agent of prejudice.

I write to ask you to put an end to that particular practice.


Alonzo Fyfe

Promoting the Value of Transparency

President Obama seems to be taking a substantial risk for our benefit.

So far, he has made significant efforts to make the workings of government more transparent than before. He has told agencies to be default to giving people information they request through the Freedom of Information Act, rather than hunting for reasons to keep the information secret, and has taken steps to put government information on the web where government activities can be monitored by private citizens.

However, transparency comes with risks. It leaves the Obama Administration open to embarrassing disclosures that previous administrations would have been able to cover up. There is little use that Obama’s political adversaries will be ready to use these freedoms to attack Obama himself, and to try to clear room for an opportunity to reach their own ambitions.

Whether future Presidents will choose openness over secrecy will depend substantially on whether Obama's experiment turns into a success or a failure. They will be able to make an easy contrast between the Bush’s administration’s success in avoiding any serious consequences for its actions (even winning a second term), and whatever fate Obama faces as a result of his openness.

We have the capacity to influence how future generations will run their affairs in a government devoted to transparency or a government of secrecy substantially by influencing whether the government produces more openness or more secrets. We do this by taking action to see if the author of an open government gets our praise for their actions, or our wrath and condemnation.

The problem is that the challenges to the doctrine of transparency will not come directly. The lessons will be learned indirectly. When some piece of information made freely available to others allows those others to raise objections, the dispute will be over whatever matter the information pertains to. Yet, the effect may make Obama regret, and future Presidents decide to avoid, any attempt at transparency.

If we wish to preserve this doctrine of transparency for future generations, then we need to help ensure that it works.

We do this by being ready to condemn any person who exploits the doctrine for personal gain.

The response, to have ready at all times, should always be:

Okay, you don't like X. However, I remind you that the very reason the President makes this information freely available is so that we the People have an opportunity to comment on it – to express our approval or disapproval and make suggestions to improve it. Obama could, as other Presidents have done, keep all of this information hidden, then he would have been free of your criticism. But we would also not have a government of the people.

This does not mean that a doctrine of transparency implies that the leader is now immune from criticism. If the Bush Administration had made public all of the things it did in private, the proper response would not have been to make the administration immune from criticism because of the transparency. The criticism in this case would have been rightfully deserved. The Bush Administration needed secrecy in order to get away with much of what it got away with.

Yet, ironically, it also spent the last seven years telling us, "If you have nothing to hide, then you have no reason to be worried about the fact that we are reading your emails and listening in on your telephone calls."

The point is to focus attention on the specific policies that are worthy of criticism and why they are worthy of criticism, while protecting and preserving the doctrine of transparency.

It requires a delicate balance. Which is precisely why I start practicing that balance as soon as possible.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Afghanistan and the Issue of Religious Tolerance

With the start of a new administration, we have an opportunity to start to look at existing issues in a new light. Since I am not a holder of or a candidate for public office, I have the luxury of speaking plainly.

I want to start with President Obama’s Inaugural Address and, more specifically, about the war in Afghanistan. The Address contained a couple of passages relevant to that conflict.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.

. . . for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

There are some who will argue that this is a contradiction. They hold that Islam is a religion that promotes the use of terror and the slaughtering of innocents, and are able to quote multiple passages in the Koran to support this interpretation.

Though there are other passages that can be interpreted as prohibiting the slaughter of innocents, when God commands people to do X in one instance, and prohibits people from doing X in another, it is left up to the reader to decide whether or not to do X. Whatever he decides, he can claim that he is doing God’s will.

I deny that there is a “Muslim World” per se. Instead, there are hundreds or thousands of Muslim cultures that share in some characteristics and differ in others. Among these hundreds of Islams there is one that is the most peaceful, and one that is the most violent, and a range of Islams in between.

I would be hard pressed to argue that there is any one thing that all of these Islams have in common. There is probably even an atheist Islam, just as there are atheist Jews and – cultural Islams in the same mold that Richard Dawkins talks about when he calls himself a cultural Christian.

In light of these facts, and in light of the quest for peace, there is an inescapable conclusion that people are seemingly extremely reluctant to admit out loud.

The quest for peace will necessarily involve a decision on the part of this administration and every other government in the world to promote some religions and to inhibit others. The war against terror is, at one level, a war against some Islams.

In other words, there are some Muslim worlds against which the United States cannot and will not “seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”

There are some who read the First Amendment to the Constitution – the one that says that Congress shall pass no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof – to mean that the government cannot get into the business of promoting some religions and inhibiting others.

This is nonsense.

The government has every right – it has a duty – to inhibit some religions. It has a duty to inhibit those religions that tell their people that God wants them to strap on bombs and kill innocent people.

The only way that this duty can be made compatible with a prohibition on laws prohibiting the free exercise of religion is if we define religion in such a way that nothing that commands such an act is defined as a religion. Yet, if we take this route, we can easily get to a conclusion where the First Amendment tolerates even so much as a national church. All we need to do is re-define religion so that only a given faith (e.g., Catholocism) counts as a religion, and all competitors are thus defined as “non-religious” (meaning “non-Catholic”).

The first Amendment then becomes a law that merely prohibits the government from passing laws against the free exercise of Catholicism, while permitting any restrictions one can imagine against other “non-religious” practices.

The point here is that these types of maneuvers are just playing with words. In the absence of these types of word games, we should be honest with is involved in this war on terror. It is a war against both religious and non-religious philosophies that practice certain forms of violence against innocents. It is, in part, a promise to pass laws and to use weapons to prohibit – to outlaw and to arrest those who promote and practice – certain varieties of Islam, Christianity, Judaism . . . and, yes, certain species of atheism.

There are some religions that simply do not deserve – and can never be granted – our respect.

I do not need to take the position of somebody like Sam Harris that this should be a war against Islam in all of its manifestations. In fact, I do not agree with Harris' position. Harris argument involves an unwarranted leap from what is true of "a religion" (the specific religion he uses as an example), and what is true of "religion", making his arguments invalid.

However, we do not need to make this leap to reach a similar conclusion. Even if our complaint is against "an Islam" and we refuse to make the hasty generalizations that Harris makes, it is still the case that there is just cause for a war against some Islams. Congress can and will pass laws prohibiting the free exercise of some religioius practices - such as the practices of flying airplanes into sky scrapers and blowing up busses and trains.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Better President

Today the world became a better place. Many anxieties lurking in the back of my brain have vanished as power has now been transferred to somebody who I think has the capacity to look at issues intelligently and come up with evidence-based solutions. The merit that I see in an Obama administration is not that I will agree with all of his policies, but that I trust that decisions will be made by somebody with an open and inquisitive mind who bases his conclusions on the evidence.

As Bush leaves office, I see his one greatest moral failing, and the biggest contributor to the mess we find ourselves in today, was that Bush was sophist. By that I mean that Bush was somebody who decided what to believe first (as a matter of faith or convenience or personal desire), who then looked at the evidence afterward.

Not only was he a sophist himself, he was an advocate of sophistry. He held his sophistry up as a virtue, declaring that gut feelings were better than evidence-based reasoning when it came to making "the tough choices".

We saw this attitude at work in his claim that Saddam Hussein aided Al Quida in attacking the United States, and that it had weapons of mass destruction. He did not base these beliefs on the evidence. He grabbed onto them as useful fictions (refusing to admit even to himself that they were fictions). He then used them as the measure for all evidence that came his way.

If a piece of data suggested that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, he saw this as proof that he was right. If some contrary evidence showed up, he saw this as proof that he was right and that somebody out to sabotage his plans or too incompetent to see the truth was feeding him false information.

In fact, the Bush Administration's attitude towards warrants and trials reflects the same moral failing of sophistry.

The reason to take a case before a judge and obtain a warrant is to make sure that the warrant is based on the available evidence, and not because of some preconceived (but unfounded) whim of the investigators. The reason for a trial is to determine if the evidence supports the belief that the accused is guilty and to avoid the prejudices of the prosecutor.

The idea that we do not need warrants or trials is the idea that the investigators and prosecutors need not base their conclusions on evidence. It is consistent with the idea that evidence-based thinking is to be shunned in favor of sophistry. Investigators and prosecutors are free to determine in advance who is guilty and who is innocent, and then look for the evidence that supports that belief.

A third area in which we saw Bush's sophistry was in the area of climate change (global warming). Instead of basing its policies on the best scientific evidence available, the Bush Administration thought that that they had the power to alter the laws of nature (by rewriting scientific reports) to conform to its policy.

Imagine the leader of a team in charge of inspecting airplanes taking the reports of the people who inspected the plane and rewriting them to give the results that he wanted. It is obviously better if the airplane was sound rather than unsound, so he altered the inspection reports to introduce uncertainties where none existed, and introduce unwarranted assumptions.

He does so in the sincere belief that altering the reports actually makes them more accurate – because he is evaluating the reports based on his (prior) belief that the plane is sound, rather than basing his judgment on the soundness of the plane from his reports.

Ultimately, we cannot ignore the fact that the Bush Administration was fully submerged in a culture that embraced sophistry. They belonged to a religious tradition that told people that virtue consisted in adopting a particular set of religious beliefs "on faith" and looking at that evidence through those beliefs. Observations that supported the Bible are to be considered as proof that everything in the Bible is correct and true. While anything that contradicts the Bible is to be considered weakly understood or dismissed as an aberration.

This is where Bush and millions like him learned to ignore the real world.

The real world insists on having things its way. The only hope we have in order to plan effectively is to recognize the fact that the real world is indifferent to our welfare and will follow its own rules independent of where we put our wants or our faith

If there is one benefit to come out of the last eight years, I hope that Bush provides a lesson throughout the rest of recorded history of the foolishness of having a President who thinks he can decide what reality is first (and reality will conform to his wishes and his faith), and look at the evidence second.

Today, the world took a turn for the better. It gave power to somebody who is curious enough to know that he must understand the world around him if he is going to make wise decisions. That is a major step in the right direction.

Bush's Conscience

Today, we come to the end of the Bush Administration.

We would have been better off if it had happened four years earlier. We would have been better off if this Bush Administration had never existed.

Bush has made the world a worse place than it would have been if he had not existed. He will never be able to admit this to himself. (Neither will his co-horts such as Cheney.) However, what these people can admit to themselves and what is fact are not the same thing. In this case, they are quite different.

The best that Bush could say for himself was that I have followed my conscience and done what I thought was right. You may not agree with some tough decisions I have made, but I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions. .

The fact is, everybody can say that they followed their conscience.

Hitler almost certainly followed his conscience, as did Stalin and every other dictator. Certainly, the 9-11 hijackers followed their conscience. The vast majority of slave owners before the 1860 followed their conscience.

People follow their conscience because their conscience is nothing more than a set of their own desires and aversions. They are sets of what the agent has learned to like or dislike.

The question is never whether a person has followed their conscience. The question is always whether a person had a conscience worth following. It is on this latter test that Bush failed.

He did not fail as spectacularly as some - as spectacularly as Hitler and Stalin, for example. However, he did fail. His conscience had more in common with theirs than this country needed or deserved.

In fact, it is an act of supreme arrogance for somebody to "follow their conscience". This is the act of somebody who thinks so highly of themselves that they (unlike everybody else in the world who holds different standards) cannot possibly make a mistake. A person has to consider their conscience to be incapable of error to make it the standard for all their actions.

The person who admits to the possibility of error would have reason to examine his conscience.

But not Bush.

Bush was far too arrogant for that type of self-evaluation.

Fortunately, from this day forward, he gets to follow his conscience as a private citizen, without dragging the rest of the country with him.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Malleable vs. Fixed Desires

A couple of people asked in comments about my claim that, where a malleable desire comes into conflict with a fixed desire, that the malleable desire should give way. The claimed that there is nothing in the nature of either value that declares that the fixed desire has a natural right to rule in such a conflict, and the malleable desire has a natural duty to yield.

So, let’s assume that we are dealing with a run-away train. It is out of control. There is no way to stop it or to switch it to a different track. Ahead of the train there is a second train heading the opposite direction. This train, however, is under control. We have the option of moving this train onto a side track, so that the first train speeds harmlessly past.

As we are getting ready to switch the second train onto a side track, somebody chimes up, "Why should the second train yield the right of way to the first train? We have two trains heading towards each other who are about to collide.

There is absolutely no argument from nature – no intrinsic value – that declares that the first train has a natural right of way over the second train. Except for the fact that one train can be moved to a side rail and the other cannot, there is nothing that distinguishes these two trains – nothing that makes one train inherently better than the other.”

All of these claims about the intrinsic merits of the two trains are perfectly true. Yet, we can still ask what relevance these facts have to the question of whether or not to move the second train to a side track given the fact that moving the first train to a side track is not an option.

We are facing two option – moving the second train onto a side track, or a head-on collision. Moving the first train onto a side track and giving the second train the right-of-way is ex hypthesi not an option.

There is a principle in morality that says that 'ought' implies 'can'. It makes no sense to say that somebody 'ought' to do something that it is not possible to do.

It makes no sense to condemn a person for failing to teleport a child out of a burning building unless and until teleporting a child outside of a burning building is something he could have done. In that case, we can ask him why he did not do so and condemn him if his reasons-for-action are not good enough. Without that power, we can assume that even a person with the best reasons available would have failed to teleport the child out of the building.

Many people take this principle of 'ought' implies 'can’ to mean that morality requires some sort of counter-causal free will. However, I don’t see it that way. I see the principle of "ought" implies "can" to mean that we are going to focus social forces where they can have an effect, and ignore cases where they cannot have an effect. It is the moral equivalent of saying, "If you have two trains that are going to collide, one of which cannot be steered, you avoid the conclusion by steering the train you can."

If we were facing a different situation – if the first train could be switched to a side track, and the second train were this out-of-control train whose speed and direction we could not influence – then prudence suggests switching the first train, not the second.

Desire Fulfillment Rule Utilitarianism

A Set of Questions

I have been spending much of these first two weeks of 2009 addressing questions to the moral propositions that provide the foundation for this blog – with a couple of digressions into applications and real-world implications.

I have more questions that I wish to address.

[I] is your theory basically "desire fulfillment rule utilitarianism," where the rule is that the good act is the act a person with good desires would perform, and good desires are desires that tend to fulfill more and greater desires than they thwart?

Not really.

First, because the name suggests that rules are the primary object of moral evaluation, while I hold that it is maleable desires. The name should properly identify the object of evaluation.

Second, because the term would seem to suggest that the end of evaluation is being evaluated by its ability to maximize the entity called "desire fulfillment." This would suggest that "desire fulfillment" is an entity with intrinsic value that we need to create as much of as we can. I deny that this is the case.

Desire fulfillment is not an end having intrinsic value that needs to be maximized. Instead, desire utilitarianism is a pluralistic moral theory. It states that each desire creates its own end – that a “desire that P” creates an end of realizing a state of affairs in which P is true. If an agent has a desire that P and P is true, I say that the desire has been fulfilled. However, this is just a name for a particular combination of states.

To illustrate the difference, imagine a choice between two possible worlds. World A is one where there is a creature with a desire that P, and P is true. World B is one in which P is true, but there is no creature.

The term "desire fulfillment rule utilitarianism" seems to suggest that we should pick World A (or that we should adopt a rule where the rule is better to the degree that it tends to recommend World A over World B), because World A contains desire fulfillment, and World B does not.

However, neither world has more value than the other.

The state in which P is true has value to the creature in World A. However, even the creature in World A does not have any reason to prefer World A over World B. It has a desire that P, P is equally true in both worlds, so he has no “reason for action” for choosing one world over the other.

In order to get the creature to choose World A we need to give him a second desire – a desire that Q, where Q is true in A but not in B. For example, if we added a desire to be alive to the desire that P, given that "I am alive" is only true in A and not in B, he now has a reason to choose A over B. But only because he has a desire that is fulfilled in A but not in B – not because A contains more "desire fulfillment" than B.

The same is true if we look at both worlds from the point of view of an impartial observer. Impartial observer theories make up a large branch of moral philosophy. However, if an impartial observer were truly impartial (he has no desires), then he has no reason for choosing one world over the other. He would be indifferent.

If we start to give our impartial observer desires, then he ceases to be an impartial observer. He becomes partial – depending on the desires we give him. As we give the observer desires, we give him reasons for action for choosing the world in which the most and strongest of those desires are fulfilled.

If we give our observer an aversion to desire fulfillment, he has reason to select World B, rather than World A. He has no reason to pick a world merely because it has the most desire fulfillment. He only has reason to pick the world in which the propositions that are the objects of his own desires are true.

If we look at our own sentiments, I suspect almost all of us will see a preference for World A rather than World B. We would rather it be the case that a world with a creature with a desire exists than that a lifeless world exists.

Here, we are simply appealing to our own desires. We are not perceiving some type of intrinsic merit in one world over the other, only that the propositions that are the objects of own desires are true in one world, and not the other.

So, in conclusion, any formulation that says that World A has more value than World B, merely because World A has desire fulfillment and World B does not, is making a false claim that intrinsic value exists. The goal is not to maximize the amount of desire fulfillment (to realize a world in which desire fulfillment exists). The goal is to realize states of affairs in which the propositions that are the objects of our desires are true.

If those propositions are true in a world where desire fulfillment does not exist, then so be it.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Responding to Congressman Diaz-Balart's Bigotry

I want to say a few words about how to respond to the Congressman Diaz-Balart incident (and any similar future incident).

As I mentioned in my last post, after attending the "Divine Performing Arts" show, Diaz-Balart said:

“I was very moved by the song that talked about the damage that atheism has caused and is causing. It was very moving, but all of the performances were moving, uplifting; they teach us about the eternal nature of mankind and of how we have to be humble.

In that post I provided a link to media in Miami, the media center closest to Diaz-Balart’s district.

So, Step 1, create a radio advertisement and some money, and purchase time for the advertisement on Miami radio stations.

Let’s start the advertisement with something that would catch peoples’ attention.

Voice 1: "I was very moved by the song that talked about the damage that the Jews have caused and is causing."

Voice 2: If a politician were to make this type of statement, we would recognize immediately that he was unfit to hold any public office. Public office is not the proper place for such blatant bigotry. It is the duty of all morally decent people to keep the power to make laws away from bigots such as this.

This is no less true when a politician targets some other group with unfounded, general hatred, as Representative Diaz-Balart did after attending a performance of the Divine Performing Arts.

Afterward, he said, "I was very moved by the song that talked about the damage that atheism has caused and is causing."

Many decent, law-abiding patriotic Americans happen to be atheists. They have a right to the equal respect and consideration of their political leaders. Religious bigots have no place in public office.

This is just a suggestion. In general, I argue for consulting with marketing experts in such a project. However, you do what you can with the resources you have available.

At the same time, send out a fundraiser to collect money for the advertising campaign. Contact the head of any atheist or free-thought organization. Have them communicate with their members.

Also, include organizations that are not specifically geared towards atheism, but have taken a position against bigotry in all forms – religious, racial, gender, and the like. As long as you allow bigotry to go unchallenged, you leave people the option of asking themselves, "Why can't I do to your group what you allow people to do to atheists?"

At the same time, somebody should create a short YouTube video reporting this incident and start circulating it as widely as possible. Because this statement was made by a Republican, see if one can get the video written about and linked to in media such as Crooks and Liars and Democratic Underground.

Contact other bloggers . . . regardless of the size of their audience . . . and see if they will include mention of the incident and embed the video.

The advertising campaign should come with some publicity. The advertising campaign buys a small advertisement somewhere deep inside the paper. However, the article about the advertisement shows up in the front page of the Politics section of the newspaper, on television, and in other media.

Look at the way the London bus campaign has reached an audience that is several orders of magnitude larger than those who actually see busses on the London street through media coverage of the advertisement.

Use this incident to create a fund for the next campaign – to use to target the next politician or business who decides to express this type of advertisement. Use this incident to establish the network, so that the next time the campaign moves farther, faster, and more efficiently.

When politicians and businesses can expect an immediate and harsh response to such statements of bigotry, they should learn to think twice about using hate to market their product or themselves.

That would be a step in the right direction.