Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Cory on Abortion and Immigration

Wednesday, December 9th, 2020

Therese Scarpelli Cory has out an interesting article arguing that Catholics should be more worried about immigration restrictions than many are. Her basic claim is that some Catholics see abortion as inherently evil but immigration restrictions purely as a matter of prudential concerns, a distinction that doesn’t hold up.

This is a little strange for me to address because (besides the fact that I’m an atheist) I think a) abortion is not inherently evil but that b) restricting the rights of peaceable persons to migrate (in normal circumstances) is inherently evil. We share a basic skepticism of a sharp moral/prudential division.

An explanation here: The reason that some things are “prudential” is that they are wise or not to pursue depending on a person’s circumstances. For most people eating peanut butter poses no prudential concern; for someone with a peanut allergy, it does. But, I’d say, there’s also a moral dimension to someone doing the prudent thing. It is not only prudent but moral for someone with a peanut allergy to take reasonable steps to avoid eating peanuts.

A note: Prudential matters can be very hard to rationally evaluate. One can easily be factually wrong about what would be the optimal (most prudential) move. Therefore, the proper standard of evaluation is, did the person honestly seek to make the most reasonable decision possible given limited information?

Another note: Some things genuinely are optional, in the sense that one might as well flip a coin. Let’s say I want to watch a film with my family. There is no morally right answer as to which film we should watch. Some films are definitely in and some are definitely out, but within the range of appropriate films, watching any of the films would be equally moral.

Here is a key passage from the essay: “[U]nder the linguistic shroud, it [the ‘intrinsic/prudential’ distinction] is simply the pale ghost of a widespread individualistic moral theory, in which objective moral ‘oughts’ are viewed as constraints on intellectual and moral freedom that reduce the sovereignty of the individual, and that therefore should be kept to an absolute minimum. Avoid violating that small set of oughts—representing a small, universally-recognized set of especially heinous acts—and then ‘do what you will.’ As long as one is not violating the basic oughts, one’s actions can be shielded from scrutiny, as indicated by the slogan that ‘reasonable people can disagree.'”

This is a totally wrong view of individualism. Individualism does not hold that nearly any action is moral merely because the individual wishes to perform it. Individualism does not mean moral subjectivism. Rather, individualism means that the individual is the fundamental unit of moral consideration, as contrasted with collectivism, which holds that individuals and their rights may properly be sacrifices to group interests. Although it is true that deep strains of moral subjectivism run through libertarianism, an individualist can perfectly well hold that morality is objective and that it extends to all personal actions. That basically describes Ayn Rand’s view as well as my own.

Of course, individualists also (very reasonably!) think that not everything that is immoral should be outlawed. Hence, we individualists maintain two levels of evaluation, one for individuals, one for governments. That is, it can be (and often is) immoral for government to ban immoral actions. There’s nothing odd or inconsistent about this view.

Of course “reasonable people can disagree” about many things, but so what? Reasonable people cannot disagree, for example, that government should permit murder. Reasonable people can disagree about whether (say) the moderate consumption of alcohol is a good idea. And there government properly is silent. Indeed, on the matter of alcohol consumption, government is properly silent (excepting cases of drunk driving and the like) even about the choices of unreasonable people.

Although Cory at one point recognizes “juridical” distinctions, she also makes the simple error of confusing that which is immoral with that which is properly illegal. Me saying “a person has a right to do X” does not imply that X is a moral choice. Those are simply two different issues. But surely Cory would not wish to argue that everything that is immoral should be outlawed! That is a recipe for totalitarianism.

Because Corey confuses what is moral with what is legal, she completely misses the (main) point of Judith Jarvis Thompson’s essay on abortion, which focuses (mainly) on the question of (legal) rights. Now, Thompson also asserts, and I agree, that abortion at least in the early term is not immoral. I’m not rejecting objective morality in making this claim; rather, I am claiming that Corey is simply wrong on this matter, as a matter of objective moral truth. So not only does a person have a right to get an abortion (at least in the early term), a person can be morally right to do so.

Corey then has a long discussion about why the moral/prudential distinction (which she calls the “intrinsic/prudential” distinction) is not a sharp line. “All evil actions are intrinsically evil (and all good actions are intrinsically good), and prudence governs all human actions, not just a certain subset,” she writes. I think the term “intrinsic” is loaded, but if we substitute “inherent” or the like I accept the formulation.

I agree with Corey that objective morality is possible and that it applies to all human action. The fault I find with Corey is that she does not actually advocate a theory of objective morality; she merely pronounces that she does while falling back on the fundamentally subjectivist orientation of religious faith. But that discussion takes us far afield from the essay at hand.

Peikoff and Trump

Wednesday, July 15th, 2020

It turns out that Objectivist philosopher Leonard Peikoff donated funds to the Donald Trump campaign. It is certainly ironic that, for decades, Leonard Peikoff has warned about the possibility of theocratic fascism coming to America, yet he now financially supports Donald Trump, who openly allies with conservative evangelicals seeking to overturn Roe v. Wade. (Ayn Rand was strongly pro-choice.) I take this as a sign that Peikoff is even more afraid of the nihilistic left in America than he is of Trumpian anti-immigrant, anti-free-trade, anti-reason conservatism. I think Trumpism is the greater and more immediate threat. Although some self-identified Objectivists are openly pro-Trump, most other Objectivist intellectuals are strongly critical of Trump.

Lisa Smith on Bias

Wednesday, June 24th, 2020

Lisa Smith has out an interesting short video on bias (focusing on implicit bias). Smith has an expansive view of bias; she says, “a preference is a sort of bias.” In this view any sort of disposition is a bias. I think this is an overly broad view of the term.

Looking at the etymology, the term “bias” means something like angled, sloped, or sideways. “In the old game of bowls, it was a technical term used in reference to balls made with a greater weight on one side (1560s), causing them to curve toward one side.” The site quotes Herbert Spencer, who distinguishes a bias, which arises in some social context (education, politics) from “constitutional sympathies and antipathies.” So, in this view, judging people differently by the color of their skin is a bias, but enjoying the flavor of sugar arises from a “constitutional sympathy.”

The site also includes this great quote from Francis Bacon (1620): “For what a man had rather were true he more readily believes. Therefore he rejects difficult things from impatience of research; sober things, because they narrow hope; the deeper things of nature, from superstition; the light of experience, from arrogance and pride, lest his mind should seem to be occupied with things mean and transitory; things not commonly believed, out of deference to the opinion of the vulgar. Numberless in short are the ways, and sometimes imperceptible, in which the affections colour and infect the understanding.” What Bacon describes is what I think we accurately call bias. A bias is some disposition or habit or temptation to believe something for poor reasons. A bias, in this view, is always something bad and always something we should seek to avoid or overcome.

The complication is that our intellectual habits and our emotions are tightly linked. So a false belief, say, that someone with a particular skin tone is for that reason superior or inferior, typically gives rise to visceral emotional reactions toward different people, and such emotions can give rise to harmful actions.

Smith mentions a preference for blue over pink as a sort of bias. Obviously people do have all sorts of preferences that are not strictly “constitutional” (biological) in origin but rather the result of an individual’s particular experiences and reactions and thoughts. But I don’t want to call that a bias because there’s no intellectual content to preferring blue over pink. It’s not as though I’m saying (if I prefer blue) that other people should prefer blue or there’s some sort of universalizable reason to prefer blue. I just happen to prefer blue, and that’s fine, and it doesn’t cause any problems, and it’s fine if my preference here changes. By contrast, a visceral reaction against vaccines or against people of some particular skin tone arises from, or at least are influenced by, a set of particular beliefs which are false and which the person holds out of bias.

Smith then gets into implicit or free association tests. She points out that an association, say between hotdogs and ketchup, does not entail any normative belief. Most associations we have are benign and a means of mental efficiency, she notes, but some associations, particularly involving people, can be damaging. For example, in our culture a lot of people associate Black men with violence or Black women (or women generally) with oversexualization or Black people with poverty. Such expectations and associations “feed our beliefs,” Smith says. Such associations can lead a business manger, for example, to more-quickly discard resumes with Black-sounding names. Now, Smith says that the manager who does this does not necessarily even hold racist beliefs. I think the qualifier “explicit” is needed here; I think some underlying beliefs clearly are at work.

Smith makes the point that, to overcome implicit biases, often we have to actively work against them. This seems obviously right. For example, stripping names off of resumes might allow for more-fair evaluations, insofar as some names convey ethnicity or gender. However, the social science about such blind hiring is mixed, as Faye Flam reviews. Blind hiring seems to help, and my attitude is, it can’t possibly hurt.

Smith discusses some of the limitations of these association tests. And one thing that Smith points out is that not just white people can (say) associate Black men with violence and not just men can associate women with lower status. Black men and women can hold the same associations. People interested in taking Harvard’s implicit association tests can see the site for that.

Smith suggests a point about (as I’d put it) the interaction between our “fast” and “slow” brains. We’re not normally acting just on our associations; rather, usually, our “slower,” more-deliberate thinking also is at work. “We can’t use the implicit association test to predict behavior,” Smith notes.

There’s this peculiar dynamic at play, for those of us who hope for a post-racial future, that to get to that future we have to think seriously about “race” today. Obviously our culture has been highly racialized for centuries. That’s not just going to go away because we ignore it. Paradoxically, we can only make racism go away in the future by focusing, today, on the ways in which “race” continues to matter.

The Term Object

Saturday, June 20th, 2020

It’s worth noticing that the term “object” is both a noun and a verb. As a noun, the term means roughly something put before the eyes or the mind. It is something external to us that we can recognize. As a verb, to object means roughly to put something before the eyes or mind of another, to get the person to reconsider some false belief by presenting contrary facts or argument.

Brink Lindsey on Libertarians and Pandemics

Friday, June 12th, 2020

Brink Lindsey rightly points out that libertarianism (at least a dominant form of it) is anti-government: “The modern libertarian movement . . . is dedicated to the proposition that the contemporary American state is illegitimate and contemptible. In the libertarian view, government is congenitally incapable of doing anything well, the public sphere is by its very nature dysfunctional and morally tainted.”

Lindsey finds the libertarian position obviously absurd and argues we obviously need effective government: “When public safety is threatened, whether by war or disease, our dependence on government becomes immediately and viscerally obvious. There are no Centers for Disease Control in the private sector. There is no possibility of swiftly identifying the virus, and launching a crash program to develop tests, treatments, and vaccines, without massive government support for medical research. And for those tests, treatments, and vaccines to be effective, their distribution cannot be restricted by ability to pay; government must step in to ensure wide availability. In addition, vigorous use of the government’s emergency powers–banning large public gatherings, temporarily shutting down schools and businesses, issuing stay-at-home orders, quarantining the sick and those exposed to them–has been needed to help contain the outbreak. When a highly contagious and fatal disease can spread before its victims even show symptoms, the libertarian ethos of personal responsibility–do what you want, and bear the consequences for good or ill–leads not to mass flourishing but to mass death. Only the government has the power and resources to internalize the externalities of contagion and coordinate a rational response.”

The problem is that Lindsey pitches a large and aggressive positive-welfare government as the only alternative to no government.

The Objectivists (who very strongly reject libertarianism) have laid out a reasonable third path. One Objectivist publication runs the article, “‘Big Government’ Is Not the Problem.” The idea is that government needs to vigorously protect people from others who would harm them. More recently, Objectivists have argued that government has a legitimate role to play in keeping people safe from others carrying infectious diseases (see video conversations involving Gregory Salmieri, Amesh Adalja, Yaron Brook, and Ben Bayer). So government is perfectly within its proper guardrails in providing testing, setting up quarantines, and so on. I do think this line of thinking generates a lot of questions in terms of where to properly draw the lines delimiting government action.

Lindsey asserts that a free market could not otherwise counter a pandemic, but he just presumes this without evidence or serious argument. I want to offer a few reasons to think he might be wrong.

  1. Bill Gates has spent enormous sums of money fighting infectious diseases around the world, now including COVID-19. Tyler Cowen leads a group to provide fast grants to researchers working on the problem. So it is obviously not the case that only government can address externalities in this positive way (as opposed to strictly playing a protective role). The interesting question is whether government is needed at all for it, and, if so, to what degree.
  2. Firms have enormous financial incentives to stay open. The problem is that, in most cases, private testing has been literally illegal. The CDC and FDA derailed early testing efforts. In Colorado, only recently (within the past few weeks) could people get tested for COVID-19 without a doctor’s prescription, and testing was limited to people with symptoms. You can’t outlaw private testing and then blame the market for not providing private testing.
  3. Largely through a system of state laws, American government has imposed serious price controls during emergencies. This substantially throttles the market response and arguably is largely to blame for shortages in masks and other important products.
  4. Government has so royally screwed up health payments by turning health insurance largely into an employer-paid and prepaid system that it’s really absurd to measure a free healthcare market by today’s mostly-government-controlled “market.”

Objectivists on the Protests

Thursday, June 11th, 2020

People who follow Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism may be interested in a recent video featuring Objectivist scholars discussing the protests. Of interest to me is a difference in emphasis between “second generation” Objectivist Peter Schwartz and “third generation” Objectivists Onkar Ghate and Gregory Salmieri. Schwartz argues that the Black Lives Matter movement is essentially bad because it promotes the overthrow of capitalism, a generalized “white guilt,” and the defunding of police. Ghate and Salmieri argue that some people sympathetic to the movement have legitimate concerns regarding police abuses. (With that I completely agree.) Ghate argues that an intellectual’s job is to help people sort out the good from the bad aspects of a given broad movement. The speakers use environmentalism as an analogy; Objectivist discussions of libertarianism and religion also are pertinent.

What should people do, rather than support the Black Lives Matter movement? The speakers say support individualism and capitalism, explain the proper purpose of government, support objective law, and promote sensible police reforms toward protecting people’s rights. Objectivists generally are on board with ending the war on drugs and reining in asset forfeiture, among other specific reforms.

Salmieri notes that a philosophic perspective integrates the more-concrete concerns of the day with abstract principles. Ghate notes that rising racism on both right and left is part of a general cultural trend toward collectivism, tribalism, and irrationalism. The speakers agree that intellectual intimidation is a growing problem in our culture. Toward the end the speakers delve into some of the problems of finding good research on particular issues such as police abuses.

Balanced Selfishness

Sunday, June 7th, 2020

An interesting video from School of Life discusses how some people become pathologically selfless and how, to be any good to yourself or others, you need to take your own needs and interests seriously. Hat tip Robert Wiblin. Related: “How to Stop Being a People Pleaser.” (I can’t help but notice the parallels to Ayn Rand’s ideas on selfishness and “second-handedness.)

Also in the series: “Why You Don’t Need to Be Exceptional.” My take: We shouldn’t need to be “exceptional” in others’ eyes, but it’s perfectly healthy and desirable to try to achieve great values in life. (This too ties into Rand’s idea of “second-handedness.”)