Friday, September 28, 2018

Nationalism 010: Ypi's Permissive Theory

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

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

She builds this thesis from a Kantian foundation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nationalism 009: Securing Basic Rights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nationalism 008: The Rights of Peoples

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

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

What justifies a nation's control over its territory?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Korsgaard 03: Judging Reasons

We are not animals.

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

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

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

She further asserts that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Korsgaard 02: Prudence

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

I would like to start with this quote:

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

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

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

Korsgaard follows the above quote with the following accusation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Korsgaard 01: On Instrumental Rationality

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

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

Here, I want to address Korsgaard more directly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 24, 2018

How Desires Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 22, 2018



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes, aggression is legitimate.

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

Friday, September 21, 2018

Debunking Theories on Moral Realism - A Way Out

I presented this argument to a professor at the University of Colorado. It concerns the way that a moral realist can respond to theories that attempt to debunk moral realism.

Specifically, what it addresses is the claim that one can debunk moral realism itself by showing that it is grounded on a mistake. The most popular form of debunking comes from theories of evolution. The argument states that our beliefs about right and wrong are actually evolved sentiments and have nothing to do with right and wrong. Even if right and wrong existed - were real - there is no reason to believe that our evolved sentiments would track it. Instead, our evolved sentiments would track that which have, in a particular context, produced evolutionary fitness for those who had it. Thus, right and wrong do not exist - they are not real.

I commonly use this debunking argument against certain types of moral realism - those that state that our sentiments identify real value rather than being the evolved or learned desires and aversions. However, as the response below indicates, it does not defeat realism entirely. Even if these arguments work against certain types of realism, they do not work against all types of realism.

To give proper credit, I note that this response is an argument I pull out of J.L. Mackie's book Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong It is not a conventional interpretation of Mackie, but I think I can defend it. It offers a realist response to debunking arguments and, insofar as Street et. al., are offering debunking arguments, I think it offers a realist response to them.

Let me start with some general statements.

Person 1 says P is true.
Person 2 says P is false.

The debunking theorist says that they are wrong. "P is true" and "P is false" are both false.

How can this possibly make sense?

P = (A & B)

Person 1 says (A & B) is true.
Person 2 says (A & B) is false because B is false.

We are going to assume, just for the sake of illustration, that B is true.

The debunking theorist debunks A. That is, the theorist shows that A is false. Thus, "A & B" is false because A is false. Also "'A & B' is false because B is false" is also false. The debunking theorist has shown that both statements are false.

Mackie illustrated this by reference to atoms. I offer that the best interpretation of Mackie's argument is illustrated as follows:

Person 1 says, "The mass of a hydrogen atom = m"
Person 2 says, "The mass of a hydrogen atom <> m"

Given the original meaning of the term "atom", an atom is without parts. Consequently, both of these statements may be rewritten:

Person 1 says, "The mass of a hydrogen atom = m and atoms are indivisible"
Person 2 says, "The mass of a hydrogen atom <> m and atoms are indivisible"

The debunking theorist comes along and argues that "atoms are indivisible" is false (debunking "atoms are indivisible").

Thus, Person 1's statement is false, and Person 2's statement is also false.

What is the realist response?

The response Mackie recommended was to redefine "atom" so that atoms could be divided. For example, one could offer, "An atom is the smallest piece of an element as such (e.g., of gold as such), which has a given number of protons for that element (hydrogen = 1 proton), and some variable number of neutrons, and electrons."

Once we make this change, it is possible for either Person 1 or Person 2 to be making a true statement, depending on what m is.

In changing the definition of atom, are we realists or anti-realists about atoms? Actually, we end up being both, at the same time. Under the new definition, we can be atomic realists - these atoms are real. But, under the old definition, we would be atomic nihilists or eliminativists (anti-realists). Actually, we have no non-ambiguous answer to the question, "Is atomic realism true?" It depends on what one means by "atom".

I want to apply this to the following example:

(1a) Adolf Hitler believes that genocide is permissible.
(1b) I, by contrast, believe that genocide is not permissible.

We turn this into something like:

(1a) "Adolf Hitler believes that genocide is permissible" and "right and wrong is determined by God's commands"
(1b) "I, by contrast, believe that genocide is not permissible" and "right and wrong is determined by God's commands"

The debunking theorist says that there are no divine commands. Hence, 1a and 1b are both false because the second conjunct in each case is false.

Please note that the second conjunct is not what the agent believes. It is a statement about what is true of right and wrong. Indeed, it is what the terms "right" and "wrong" mean, in the same way that "atom" literally meant "without parts". This is offered as a theory of what actually best explains and predicts the use of the terms.

(1a) "Adolf Hitler believes that genocide is permissible" and "right and wrong are intuitively or perceptually knowable moral properties"
(1b) "I, by contrast, believe that genocide is not permissible" and " right and wrong are intuitively or perceptually knowable moral properties"

The debunking theorist says that we have no intuitive knowledge of moral properties. Instead, we evolved dispositions to favor (or disfavor) certain states of affairs. Hence, 1a and 1b are both false because the second conjunct in each case is false.

The debunking theorist must not only show that they are targeting the theory that best explains and predicts the common use of moral terms, the debunking theorist must also be able to block all revisions to those terms of the type that chemists used when they decided that atoms had parts. Otherwise, the debunking theorist cannot complete that step from making an alethic challenge to making an epistemic challenge. Though the debunking theorist could take a defensive stance, haul up the draw bridge, and assert that they are willing to defend their position against all challengers (a challenger being somebody who offers an alternative account of the second conjunct).

When it comes to offering an alternative account of the second conjunct, please note that chemists were able to use "has parts" as an alternative to "has no parts". Granted, the only reason they could do this was because "has no parts" - even though it was a part of the meaning of the term 'atom' - had not been playing a significant role in their previous discussion about atoms. However, it does illustrate the range of alternatives that the debunking theorist must be prepared to defend against.

Ultimately, I think there is an alternative account debunking theorists cannot defend again. Indeed, it is very close to the alternative that I think Mackie offers. But, that is beyond the scope of this discussion.

(I know that Mackie is considered the paradigm error-theorist anti-realist. But he turns out to be an anti-realist about morality the same way that early chemists were anti-realists about atoms. Mackie was aware of how a realist could avoid this trap and, in fact, he took that route himself. The argument I attribute to him here is in Chapter 4 of Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, and it includes the "atom" analogy. Though this development has a lot more detail than Mackie provided.)

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Presumption of Innocence

Accusations of a sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh when he was a high school student has some people declaring that he should be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

The presumption of innocence is a proper principle in a criminal courtroom and, if Kavanaugh were on trial, this would be a proper instruction for the jury. The reason for this is to prevent the State from railroading political opponents by having them arrested an imprisoned on trumped up charges. One has to be convicted by a jury of the people.

However, this is not an appropriate standard outside of the courtroom. If you were interviewing tutors for your young child, you would not be obligated to assume they were innocent of all crimes and accusations until you proved them guilty. If you were buying a house or a car, you are not obligated to assume that the seller is being entirely honest until you can prove a lie. If you were being asked to invest in a company, you are not required to assume its profitability until you prove that there is a flaw in its business plan.

Outside of the courtroom, we are entitled to use a different standard of evidence. Sometimes, people may even be required to prove their case while we have a right to begin with skepticism. Such is the case when somebody wants to sit on the Supreme Court.

Indeed, even in the case of civil trials, the standard of presumed innocence does not apply. They use “preponderance of evidence”.

This is not to deny that there may be bad reasons for drawing one’s conclusion. A person can be condemned for being too quick to judge a person guilty because of that person’s race, gender, or party affiliation. One may not have an obligation to presume innocence, but they do have an obligation to apply their standards based on actual evidence, and not on prejudice and bigotry.

Indeed, people in both parties tend to be too quick to declare fellow party members “innocent” and members of the opposing party “guilty”. People should strive for consistency. People should ask, “What would I say if the accused was a member of my party?” Or, where the accused is a member of one’s party, “What would I say if the accused was a member of the opposition party?”

Consistency matters.

In desirism terms, the above analysis compares the "aversion to intentionally causing harm" which people generally have reason to promote universally, with a range of "permissible" interests.

"Permissible" interests are those that people generally do not have reason to promote universally, or to inhibit. They include such things as interests in how to dress, where to live, what profession to go into, what to have for supper, what movies to watch, and where to shop.

Permissible interests feed into decisions about who to hire for a position.

Criminal punishment identifies a set of cases where the aversion to intentionally causing harm gets overridden by greater concerns - to provide deterrence and to teach aversions to even more harmful actions such as rape, murder, theft, assault, fraud, and the like. We respect the aversion to causing harm with a presumption of innocence. In the case of choices made on the basis of permissible interests, there is no "causing harm" in the relevant sense, thus no presumption of innocence.

Yet, we also have reasons to include, universally, aversions to counting race, gender, and, in some cases, party affiliation among the permissible reasons for making a decision. Where serious accusations are used as a reason for action outside of a criminal court, there is still an obligation to base one's acceptance or rejection of those accusations on the evidence. Even though sufficient evidence to clear the "presumption of innocence" standard is not required, race, gender, and party affiliation are not evidence.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Toys for Rich People - Billionaire to the Moon

I generally favor a (massive) redistribution of wealth from the extremely wealthy to the extremely poor (understood globally). Imagine that we were to transfer $1 trillion from the wealthiest of the wealthy to the poorest of the poor. Entrepreneurs will then suddenly discover a lot less reason to invest in building toys for rich people, and find $1 trillion reasons to start looking for ways to deliver food, education, medical care, clean water, security, and sanitation to poor people.

However, not all toys for rich people are created equal.

Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa bought himself a trip around the moon.

Yes, we have problems here on Earth to worry about, but the long-run survival of the human species depends, in part, on changing the fact that we are currently carrying all of humanity's eggs in one planetary basket. There are reasons - beyond the hedonistic pleasure of a billionaire - to be developing ways to live and work in space.

Indeed, the development of space resources may well be a solution to some of those earthly problems. Compare, for example, the environmental costs of turning a dead asteroid in the radiation-filled cold of space into metals and a system for collecting (solar) energy compared to the environmental costs of accomplishing the same thing on Earth.

NASA - and other space agencies - are not so much engines of space development as they are engines for transporting tax money into the bank accounts of Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and other large companies . . . for producing very little.

So, there might be some merit in letting wealthy people have some toys, then those toys serve an important social end.

Personal Broadcasting

We are all broadcasters.

Because of social media, each of us gets to run our own media outlet. We select the news to report, commentary, editorials, and the like.

This post concerns the rights and responsibilities we have as broadcasters.

One has a right to determine the subject matter one will report on. One’s personal channel may resemble “home and garden”, “(auto) biography”, “food”, or “CNN”. Or any imaginable mixture of the possibilities.

One does not have any obligation to provide a platform for ideas one thinks are contemptible or false. In other words, it is absurd for anybody to claim, “You did not share my ideas! I am being oppressed!”

When one does present the ideas of others, one has an obligation to present those ideas fairly and honestly. But a fair and honest presentation may well be, “That is stupid and no responsible person would accept such a thing.”

One has a responsibility to filter for truth. Consider this a condemnation of anybody who passed along malicious or false statements or distortions simply because it suits an agenda. Such people are like a disease that bring avoidable suffering to others. This applies not only to liars, but the intellectually reckless - people who make drunk drivers (with the death and suffering they cause) look like saints.

A liar is a parasite, who seeks to profit by planting false beliefs in others - false beliefs that cause the victim sacrifice her own interests and those she cares about for the benefit of the liar.

One must avoid unnecessary cruelty. Many viral postings violate this rule. This mostly applies to comments and many “viral” videos and pictures. Not only are they often dishonest, the inflict far more suffering on others than their “crimes” deserve. People form something of a Lynch mob, stringing somebody up for a “crime” that deserves only a mild reprimand. Ask yourself, "Haven't they suffered enough already?"

Hypocrisy is the essence of insisting that others follow rules one is not willing to follow. The person who lists false or misleading information is a hypocrite if she then condemns others for posting false or misleading information.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Nationalism 007: "International Problems" Reason for a Global Government

In recent posts, I have raised objections to Gillian Brock's arguments for global governance. (Brock, Gillian (2009). Global Justice: A Cosmopolitan Account. Oxford University Press.)

In the first case, I argued that her dependence on a Rawlsian "veil of ignorance" argument has problems. The fact that we would choose to do something in an imaginary situation governed by a number of hypothesis such as ignorance of our own conditions does not imply that we should choose to do the same thing in the real world where we are not ignorant. Morality was invented by people who were fully aware of who they were and what they were doing. These fictitious imaginary situations have no relevance to morality in the real world.

In the second case, Brock's lists of needs that this global governance would be involved in is either so limited that the possibilities range from almost nobody having their needs met (because there are so many things listed as "needed" to almost everybody does (because as long as you are alive and can make a decision your needs are met).

In spite of these failings, Brock then goes on and identifies a number of genuine real-world reasons for global governance. Please note that these reasons, unlike those given above, are reasons that real people who know their real situation have for finding some way to deal with these issues.

Of these, the most obvious is the fact that we have a number of global problems to solve. These include such things as ozone depletion, climate change. Ownership and use of resources in the oceans and deep sea. Species preservation. Corporations that can slip across borders with impunity. Global pandemics of disease. Global financial crisis. Wars and refugees. International security is an issue - terrorists and criminals crossing national boundaries. A failed state in one region can create terrorists and warlords in another. The powerful countries are subject to violence from poorer countries and poorer countries are subject to exploitation and abuse by powerful companies (or the corporations and other entities who live there). And moral concerns give the people in one country reason to be concerned with the immoral activities happening in another. The mere fact that people are being raped and murdered or children are being tortured, killed. or left without the basic necessities provides a reason for people in other countries to get involved.

We have two options. We can settle these differences with violence - go to battle until one country becomes dominant and can then impose its will on the other. Or we can agree to a common set of principles for a negotiated and peaceful settlement. However, negotiated and peaceful settlements require some form of enforcement. They work without enforcement where there is trust. Trust, in turn, requires a history of abiding by one's treaties and promises. However, as the United States has shown, it is all too easy to select a leader who cares nothing about prior agreements, and then trust goes out the window. As any parent tells their child, once trust is lost, it is extremely difficult to get it back again.

The other option consists in agreements with some form of enforcement - some way to help to ensure that each country lives up to its promises. It requires entities that can coordinate activities across borders to deal with issues that are bigger than nations or entities that live in multiple countries at once (like large corporations).

Unlike arguments grounded on Rawlsian veils of ignorance, this type of discussion involve real people who have real reasons to promote universally (through praise and condemnation, incentives and punishment) reasons for countries and people universally to . . . for example . . . refrain from breaking promises and refraining from harming the innocent (either through direct attack or by giving corporations within its boundaries permission to engage in harmful activity in exchange for payments to the national leaders).

Now we have reasons for real-world actions that does not involve being ignorant of one's reasons for entering into such a state.

Nationalism 006: Basic Needs

Continuing with the book: Brock, Gillian (2009). Global Justice: A Cosmopolitan Account. Oxford University Press.

As mentioned in the previous posting in this series, Brock defends a view of distributive justice that says that, after satisfying some minimum level of economic welfare ($ per year), everything above that amount can be distributed so as to create the highest average.

There is still a distribution problem with this. Let us set this minimum amount at $10,000. Let the distribution be: 8 billion people with $10,001, and 1 person with $100 trillion. Let this be the highest average. It seems unlikely that people would select this when compared to a more equitable distribution above the minimum. However, let us set this question aside a moment.

Brock mentions Davit Braybook's list of "basic needs."

The list consists of needs for a life-supporting relation to the environment; for whatever is indispensable to preserving the body intact in important respects (including food, water, exercise, and periodic rest); for companionship; for education; for social acceptance and recognition; for sexual activity; for recreation; and for freedom from harassment, including not being continually frightened.

Either some work needs to be done in establishing what counts as a basic level of these goods, or Braybook is providing us with a list where no living human being (or very few of them) has every need on this list satisfied.

She also mentions a list generated by Len Doyal and Ian Gough.

These are: nutritional food and clean water, protective housing, a non-hazardous work environment, a non-hazardous physical environment, appropriate health care, security in childhood, significant primary relationships, physical security, economic security, appropriate education, safe birth control, and safe childbearing.

Working from these, Brock comes up with the following list:

So, putting this all together, human agency requires: (i) a certain amount of physical and psychological health; (2) sufficient security to be able to act; (3) a sufficient level of understanding of the options one is choosing between; (4) a certain amount of autonomy; and (S) decent social relations with at least some others.

She handles this in part by saying that one of these goods counts as a need to the degree that it is necessary for functioning at any level.

The needs that matter morally are those that are necessary, indispensable, or inescapable, at least with respect to human functioning in social groups.

Now we have a standard that seems too low. For each of these goods it is possible to make the case that, to the degree that an agent has it, to that degree the agent is able to have a better life. Yet, one can "get by" with almost nothing in any of these categories. A group of people hiding in a cave or stranded (imprisoned) on a tropical island can have something of a functioning life. Or, imagine the limited crew of a space expedition.

Indeed, in all of the dictatorships - the tyrannies and dictatorships of the ancient world, the dark ages, and on to the present, people in some extremely challenging circumstances were able to have a minimally satisfying life. At one level, we can say that the needs of slaves and serfs were met. And on the other side, as I said above, the wealthiest person may suffer from depression, a crippling shyness, health problems, addiction, or live under the constant threat of violence. Emperors and other monarchs seldom died of old age.

I think that a reader can reasonably ask at this point, "What's your problem? What are you really objecting to?"

I agree that, to the degree that somebody has one of these goods, to that degree a person can be made better off. I also agree that some people have more of each of these goods than others, and that the help should be given to those who are the least well off. Economically, we can set a floor and say that, for example, everybody can get a certain basic level of income. (I still say that there are insurmountable political difficulties - but that is a separate argument.) But for many of these goods - particularly those that are not so easily quantifiable - the problem is with coming up with a bureaucracy that can make sure that some minimum can be met. More importantly, if we were to create a different bureaucracy and assign to each one particular good, we would soon find them warring against each other for attention.

Consider the effort that is going to have to go into identifying those who are truly needy and those who are gaming the system. For example, we must distinguish from the shy and unassuming person who is reluctant to ask for help from the "squeaky wheel" who insists that every disappointment generates an obligation for others to fix her problems.

To be fair, I have no read the whole book. There may be answers to these types of problems elsewhere. But that does not change or deny the fact that these are problems.

We have different NGOs working on each of these goods. Different NGOs working on the same good often adopt different standards - simply because there is no quantifiable way of precisely defining each good and when it has been met. Many of these NGOs could be better funded. However, a centralized bureaucracy built for ensuring the correct distribution of these goods (as opposed to the simple good of basic income) seems problematic.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Nationalism 005: Veils of Ignorance

Famously, philosopher John Rawls produced a test for determining what counts as a just distribution of goods.

There are philosophers trying to apply these principles to relationships among nations.

In the book, Global Justice, A Cosmopolitan Account, Gillian Brock examined issues of global justice according to a Rawlsian approach. (Brock, Gillian (2009). Global Justice: A Cosmopolitan Account. Oxford University Press.)

A Rawlsian approach, by the way, was invented by the late Harvard philosopher John Rawls. It involves imagining yourself behind a veil of ignorance where you did not know anything about the type of person you were in reality. You did not know your race, gender, into what generation you were born, how wealthy your parents were, how wealthy you would be, whether you had any handicaps . . . none of that. And you were to decide on the rules that society would live under. The suggestion is that the rules people would adopt behind this veil of ignorance represented what a just society would be like.

According to Rawls, those people behind that veil of ignorance would adopt two principles. The first is a liberty principle - each person would enjoy as much freedom as could be allowed consistent with the freedom of others. The second is a difference principles - inequality would be tolerated only if the inequality is such that it would make the worst-off people better off. So, if everybody had an equal $10,000 per year, and a system were introduced that gave some $100,000 per year, yet the worst-off only had their income rise to $11,000 per year, this would still make the worst people better off. This would be tolerated. However, if the worst off dropped below $10,000 per year, that would be unjust.

Note that, there is a simple way to make those at the bottom better off than they would have been. Tax those who become better off to raise the worst off above the previous minimum. So, if there is a plan under consideration that would raise some people to $100,000 per year, but drop others below $9,000 per year, then simply tax the person getting $100,000 and use it to raise the worst off above the $10,000 minimum.

To make this relevant to our subject matter here, the idea is to take this "original position" argument and apply it to the whole population.

Would they adopt Rawls' two principles?

Brock reports that there has been some empirical research on the subject.

[Norman] Frohlich and [Joe] Oppenheimer . . . designed experiments to set up conditions of impartiality so they could assess what principles would be chosen and how stable these choices are over time.

According to those experiments, what people would choose is the principle:

Maximizing the average with a floor constraint of $?????: `The most just distribution of income is that which maximizes the average income only after a certain specified minimum income is guaranteed to everyone'.

The participants were allowed to determine the floor dollar amount. It is relevant to note here that the participants needed to come to unanimous agreement on a principle. This is not necessarily the one that everybody preferred over the others, but it is the one that the people could agree upon. People were willing to compromise away from a preferred position to this one. It was "good enough".

In a sense, we can judge this to be a "guaranteed basic income" model. Everybody gets a guaranteed basic income. After that, let people do their best.

I have some problems with these types of thought experiments.

How can it be the case that a decision that I would make under conditions that are not true in the world is applicable to what I should do in the real world.

I can ask you, "What would you do right now if the fire alarm was going off and you smell smoke?" You may answer, "Leave - get far away from this area - as quickly as I safely can." But, that does not imply that, in the real world, where I do not smell smoke and the fire alarm is not going off, I should get away from the area as quickly as I safely can.

Philosophers love thought experiments. However, other thought experiments do not imply that the agent should do something in the real where the conditions established in the thought experiment do not apply. For example, there are the famous trolley thought experiments.

In this thought experiment, imagine that you are standing at a switch along a railroad track. If you throw the switch, the train will go down the left track. Leave it alone, and the train will go down the right track.

Now, as you stand at this switch, imagine that I am asking you to imagine that you are standing at a switch. A runaway train is coming. If you let it go by, it will hit a school bus full of young children and a truck containing poisonous chemicals that will drift over a nearby city killing tens if not hundreds of thousands of people. If you pull the switch, the train will go down a side track where it will hit an elderly man slowly ambling across the tracks. Do you pull the switch?

The fact that you would pull the switch in that imaginary situation implies nothing about what you should do to the switch in the world where none of those conditions applied. It simply is not relevant.

Accordingly, matters of global politics are going to be decided by people who are perfectly aware of what their positions and their prejudices are, and who will act accordingly. The job in global politics is to try to get them to act in ways that are beneficial to others.

Another problem is that I think that such accounts beg questions concerning liberal attitudes. For example, it argues for "freedom of religion" on the grounds that people would not want to have their religion oppressed by others. Yet, if somebody truly believes that a particular religion is true, then they would argue for the oppression of other religions even if they were to be a member of that religion - simply based on its falsehood.

Even atheists are subject to this. It is quite possible that an atheist would approve of blocking all theists from positions of authority on the grounds that their delusional thinking will make them a danger to others. They would vote for this even if, in the real world, they would emerge as one of the religious on the grounds that, "I would not want my delusional thinking to make me a danger to others."

The thought experiments discussed in the book do not consider these types of situations - they only look at principles of economic distribution. So, the empirical findings are not relevant to these objections.

On Torture

On Torture:

This came from a discussion elsewhere which concerned the wrongness of torture.

Torture cannot exist without creatures capable of being tortured.

Furthermore, torture necessarily is something that thwarts the strong desires of the creature being tortured. Which means that it is necessarily the case that it is something the tortured creature has reason to avoid.

Consequently, it is necessarily the case, in all possible worlds in which torture can exist, that there are reasons to cause others to refrain from torturing. There are, in fact, very powerful reasons to do so.

However, there is no reason to perform any action that is not effective at preventing torture. Such actions are a waste of time. The reasons to avoid torture provides agents with no reason to snap their fingers three times, unless snapping their fingers three times is an effective way of avoiding torture.

But, if prayer and snapping one's fingers ARE effective ways of avoiding torture, then there are reasons to do these things.

The reasons for avoiding torture are reasons to promise incentives or threaten punishment of potential sources of torture that have desires and aversions. However, it provides no reason to promise incentives and threaten punishments to . . . for example . . . inanimate objects such as a campfire (that can set fire to one's clothes). Campfires can cause significant harm, but campfires are not moral agents - moral terms do not apply.

But let us assume that we are talking about a source of torture that has desires and aversions - but not a reward system. Let us assume that you are dealing with an entity (creature, machine, it does not matter) which you discover will inflict a severe and prolonged electric shock (torture) unless doing so causes a light to come on. You will have a reason to turn on a bright light every time the creature inflicts a shock.

However, it makes no more sense to morally blame the entity for delivering the shocks than to blame the campfire for catching your clothes on fire. Moral concepts simply are not applicable here. You simply threaten to turn on the light if the entity should shock you, and the entity quits shocking you.

Now, give the entity a reward system. You can now make it the case that the entity has an aversion to delivering shocks by the use of praise and condemnation. Previously, where you had a reason to turn on the light switch, now you have a reason to praise and condemn. You have a reason to call the entity that inflicts shocks "bad" and those that refrain "good". You have a reason to call the act of delivering the shocks "wrong".

The overall point is that it makes no sense to even use moral terms - to call an act right or wrong - unless we are talking about agents that have a reward system. Campfires can cause severe burns, but are not moral agents. Entities that merely have desires and aversions that cannot change are not moral agents. It makes as little sense to praise and blame them as it does to praise or blame a machine in order to get the desired output. Praise or blame only makes sense where praise and blame itself can change behavior.

Moral Luck Summary

Moral Luck

There has been discussion recently about what desirism has to say about moral luck.

A reader reminded me that I once wrote a five part series on moral luck, starting with the this link. Reading through it, I still substantially agree with what I wrote back then.

Some of what is called "moral luck" is simple luck. Two people perform a careless action. Luck determines that one of them causes $10 in damage while the other causes $10,000 in damage. To say that the one person owes more compensation than the other is not a matter of moral luck, but of simple luck. If the damage was done to the agent's own property, the fact will remain that the agent will lose more in one case than another, but this difference has nothing to do with culpability.

Some of what is called "moral luck" is epistemic uncertainty. The philosophers with their thought experiments can declare that the cause was outside of the agent's control. However, the real world where we must make judgments day to day in the face of uncertainty is not the world of the philosopher's thought experiment. We have reason to wonder if the difference between success and failure is not actually a part of the agent's character. Consequences are the primary evidence for the culpability of the agent.

We can now combine these two elements with an element of practical rationality.

It takes effort to determine culpability. In light of the epistemic problem, it can take a great deal of effort. There are efficiency reasons for allowing consequence to serve as the primary evidence for culpability. If, per chance, actual culpability is different from what the evidence suggests, this is not "moral luck". This is "simple luck".

By condemning people according to harm done, some will be more severely condemned. Some will be less severely condemned. However, we end up with a practice that condemns such actions on average according to the harm done. That a specific individual in a specific case ends up being punished too little, and another punished too much, is because of the simple luck that cause one person's wrongful action to cause more harm than another's.

Having a Reason

As I have mentioned in a couple of places, I am not too happy with my answer in the Embrace the Void podcast concerning the limitations of "Having a Reason". So, I wrote up a more complete answer more to my liking.

To "have a reason" to do X is to have a desire that would be fulfilled by doing X. If a person says, "Agent has a reason to do X" then either "Agent has a desire that would be served by Agent doing X" or "Agent has a reason" is false.

When I say "Agent has a desire that would be served," I mean an actual desire that would be fulfilled. The agent might think she has a reason and be wrong. Dead wrong, if she makes a particularly serious mistake. She might think that she has a reason to take homeopathic medicine, but she does not. She may think that she has no reason to be concerned about who wins the election, and be wrong. This is because she may be wrong about what serves her desires.

The idea that to have a reason to perform an action is to have a desire that would be served by performing that action actually comes from David Hume.

No other type of reason exists. If a person claims that an Agent has a reason to do something, and the agent does not have a desire that would be served by doing that thing, then the statement that he has a reason is false.

It is not logically false. That is to say, it is logically possible that other types of reasons exist. This is true in the same way that it is logically possible that ghosts exist. They do not exist, as a matter of fact. But they are not inconceivable.

Here, I think I have been accused of blowing off these other types of reasons a bit too quickly - as if I need to do more work.

However, I can't do more work. This is now "nonexistence" works. The only evidence for nonexistence is that there is no evidence of existence. That is to say, I must wait for somebody who asserts existence to say, "Here is my reason for thinking this must exist" and refute it. The ball is in their court, as it were.

In this sense, the argument against the existence of other types of reasons is like the argument against the existence of ghosts, angels, the Loch Ness Monster, free will, and the like. I can do no more here than "all that I can do".

The argument for the existence of desires is pretty straight forward. We need desires to explain intentional action. Intentional actions are observable phenomenon that need an explanation, and the explanation includes desires. The "desire that p" provides the agent with a motivating reason to act so as to realize a state of affairs where 'p' is true, and we can see people acting on reasons.

I don't know of an argument for the existence of any other types of reasons.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Nationalism 004: I Am a Globalist

I am a globalist.

I equate nationalism with war. Wars are, in turn, “Nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!”
In saying that I am a globalist, I am saying that there should be a level of bureaucracy above the national level that enforces peace and cooperation among states. This implies a loss of sovereignty. Yet, it is the same type of loss of sovereignty that people give up when they join a state.

As a result of living in a community, I have given up my right to do certain things . . . to drive drunk, to violently assault people I do not like, to enslave those that I think will be productive workers, to drive on the left side of the road. There are certain disadvantages to giving up these options. There are certain advantages as well.

There are also reasons to do such things that have nothing to do with personal advantages or disadvantages, such as moral reasons. One country’s obligation not to destroy a city in another country does not depend on the ability of the first country to develop.
David Miller (1995) provides us with a defense of nationalism built on an ethics of relationships between individuals. Actually, Miller seems to take nationalism as a given, and uses this as a defense of particularism over universalism. The former, and not the latter, can explain the nature of nationalism. However, we can use this to examine the case for nationalism.

Universalism is, indeed, a natural ally of globalism. Universalism holds that morality is universal - no person has greater moral worth than any other. This means that an individual in a nation on the other side of the world cannot be thought of as having less moral worth than your neighbor.

However, as Miller points out, we do not treat everybody the same. We have a moral permission to treat those who stand in a special relationship to us better than others. We can scarcely find the parent who is indifferent between the welfare of his or her own children and a child on the other side of the world. When we do find such a person, we are more inclined to morally condemn that person than judge that person to be the epitome of moral virtue.

Relationships between parents and children are only the most striking example of these types of relationships. It extends to siblings and other members of one’s immediate and extended family, to groups one belongs to such as a church or sports team.
As Robert Goodin (1988) argues, we are not only entitled to treat those related to us better in some aspects of life we may treat them worse in others. A nation may extract taxes from its citizens, confiscate property for public use such as to build a road, and conscript them for military service. An impartial universalist system of ethics has trouble with both sides of these relationships.

In light of this, we have two questions to answer. The first is whether universalism can handle these special rights and duties that seem to arise from relationships with particular individuals. The second is whether globalism depends on universalism.
Concerning the first question, I wish to argue that there is a problem with the idea that these rights and duties that arise from relationships are fundamental moral principles. They can be subject to evaluation, meaning that one must appeal to an outside standard to determine if such relationships have moral merit.

There are those who argue that we are under a set of rights and responsibilities arising from the relationship of race. In the same way that somebody being a member of the same family generates certain rights and responsibilities, the fact that somebody is of the same race creates a special relationship as well. This relationship allows one to privilege people of the same race over those of a different race.

One may object that race does not exist as a biological category – it is a social construct. However, the nation is also a social construct with artificial boundaries that exist merely where people opt to draw them. In fact, the family is an artificial construct as well, allowing for adoption, disowning, marriage, divorce, and for close friends to become “like family”.

The moral problem of racism does not prove that Miller is wrong about an ethics built on particular relationships that one might call “familyism”. However, it does suggest that we need to look for a relevant difference between the two. Then we can see where nationalism shares the legitimacy of familyism or the illegitimacy of racism.

This needs to be a short paper, so I am simply going to leap to the suggestion that the difference between familyism and racism concerns power. Integrated mutual loyalties seem to provide significant benefits when the units involved are small enough that the weight of everybody else in the community is enough to prevent these loyalties from leading to the abuse of outsiders. However, integrated mutual loyalties become problematic when one group obtains the power to enforce its will on other groups. At that point, the idea that the “in group” or “us” has greater moral significance than the “out group” or “them” tends to result in abuses. Indeed, it tends to result in the types of abuses that has defined our history, from slavery to genocide to war.

Even the integrated mutual loyalties of family become problematic when it is combined with power. The empirical and royal dynasties that have occurred through history provide evidence of this. The Roman Empire enjoyed a long span where Roman emperors had no legitimate heirs and “adopted” their successors – choosing competent people to take the role when they died. This era is known as “the five good emperors”. It ended when Marcus Aurelius handed the title to his son Commodus.

The problems that arise from the integrated mutual loyalties of family is precisely why many organizations adopt norms again it for positions of power, if they do not prohibit it outright. It is why judges and other officials must recuse themselves from cases involving family members.

If it is the case that these integrated mutual loyalties among a morally more significant “us” as opposed to a morally less significant “them” become problematic when they are combined with power, this suggests that nationalism has more in common with racism than it does with familyism (in the absence of inherited titles). In only the last two centuries, the Crimean War, World War I, World War II, the Cold War with its proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam, Afghanistan, the global inability to take effective action on climate change and other global threats, identify the problem of linking integrated mutual loyalties at the national level with power.

None of this refutes the fact that integrated mutual loyalties of family, friendship, and other social organizations and groups, appear to be important to overall quality of life. People generally have reason not only to tolerate, but to encourage and protect such institutions, so long as no group acquires excessive power.

A nationalist may assert that the proper principles to use are those that are (at least according to legend) incorporated into the Peace of Westphalia: let each state determine the principles of its own territory without outside influence. However, there is an immediate tension here regarding whether these principles themselves are going to be imposed on countries, or whether a nation will be free to ignore them and adopt a principle of violent interference with their neighbors. To impose these principles universally would seem to require a nod towards universalism.

In fact, there is room in a globalist ethics not only for the principles of impartiality and equality, but also for the universal value of autonomy. We allow this at the level of family where we say of each parent that they may raise their children as they see fit – within limits. Allowing a community to overrule family decisions in some matters (e.g., abuse) is fully compatible with a broad presumption of autonomy in all other matters.

This leads to a question of what to do when these groups come into conflict.

If Group A approaches the conflict that Group A and its members are privileged over a Group B and its members, then we can see how this dispute can become very unpleasant very fast. If we are going to have any hope of ending this without bloodshed, the only principle that makes sense is one that denies privilege. The participants enter the negotiation as equals, perhaps best presenting their dispute before an impartial arbitrator. In short, while Miller’s particularist principles may govern relationships within the group, either we approach disputes between groups under the universalist principles of equality and impartiality, or there will be violence.
Habermas denies the role of integrated mutual loyalties even at the level of the nation state. He distinguished between national identity and citizen. National identity consists of these systems of integrated mutual loyalties. The nation state may have started when these people with integrated mutual loyalties sought self-rule. However, they have since evolved to become organizations of cooperation and coordination among collections of different groups of integrated mutual loyalties. The principles of cooperation and coordination among varied groups must be the universalist principles of impartiality and equality.

I am a globalist. Globalism does not deny the importance of relationships of integrated mutual loyalties. Indeed, it can recognize them as being important to people and, like their interest in avoiding pain and violence, as something to be protected where they do not create more problems than benefit. However, when different sets of integrated mutual loyalties come into conflict, this is the time to set these integrated mutual loyalties aside and try to reach a solution that everybody can agree, as opposed to a solution that “us” tries to impose on “them”.


Goodin, Robert E. (1988). "What is so special about our fellow countrymen?" Ethics 98 (4):663-686.

Habermas, Jurgan (1996). “Citizenship and National Identity: Some Reflections on the Future of Europe”, as reprinted in Between Facts and Norms, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1996.

Miller, David (1995), On Nationality (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 49-80.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Nationalism 003: Haabermas: Citizenship and Nationality

I think that I am finally beginning to understand Jorgen Habermas.

In the course on political philosophy, we were given:

Jürgen Habermas, “Citizenship and National Identity: Some Reflections on the Future of Europe”, as reprinted in Between Facts and Norms, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1996.

And, the first two times I read it, it was as if somebody had changed the meanings of all English Language words and strung them together in sentences that LOOKED like English sentences, but did not make any sense.

Reading it a couple of times, a good night's sleep, and a review of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Habermas, I think I am starting to get it.

We have these two things. They are 'national identity" and "citizenship".

People have a bad habit of thinking that there is some conceptual link between them - that to be a citizen is to partake in a national identity.

Habermas says that this is not the case. The two are distinct.

People might think that they are the same because they grew up together. There were people who shared a culture, language, and history who got together and created a form of government to rule over them. Viola! A nation state made up of citizens who shared a common culture, language, and history.

However, current events - Habermas points specifically to the United States, India, and the European Union (which was just forming at the time this article was being written) showed that these concepts were drifting apart. A person's citizenship had little to do with shared culture, language, and traditions. Instead, a country was made up of citizens with different cultures, languages, and traditions, who have decided on a common set of rules and institutions that aimed to help them to get along with each other.

People were given the liberty to live their lives in whatever social spheres they were comfortable in. The government existed to help these social spheres get along with each other and to decide on policies and practices that required their mutual cooperation.

This, by the way, was an essential part of democracy, according to Habermas. Political legitimacy required that the people see the laws of the state as something that came about through their own action - as something that they made. Thus, they had what business strategists now call "ownership". Because it was theirs - because they helped build it - they valued it.

Now, let us look at these trans-national organizations such as the European Union.

These democracies also need some way to foster cooperation and peaceful coexistence among diverse groups.

Well, we could do the whole war thing which, now that we have nuclear weapons and the like, could get out of hand. And we can continue to do harm to the environment where one country's emissions completely destroys cities and countries on the other side of the world (but still profits from the activity.

However, if we are assuming that we want to avoid these things, then perhaps discovering a way in which we can talk to each other and make decisions that are a benefit to people generally.

Habermas does not seem to support the idea of a global democracy where people participate in global debates the way that they currently participate in national debates. Instead, as I read him, he holds that the relationship between states and this super-state organization through which states come to mutual agreements is like the relationship between citizens and their government. Each "state" is a citizen in this super-state organization as each citizen is a citizen of the state.

After all, Habermas is a big fan of the idea of there being a "right answer" (or at least an answer that reasonable people can agree on if everybody who is effected will just sit down, hear each other out, and agree to come to a decision). The same, I would wager, is true of states (or state representatives) working out common plans among them.