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Critique of pure Reasoner

Essays and commentary related to topics in Tom Reasoner's "Truth and Beauty" blog

Friday, August 27, 2004

More elegantly stated...

Consciousness is made of the same substance as dance.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

A even shorter note

Since I'm packing for Austin tonight, I likely won't be able to elaborate my response to Nathanael's commentary. As a short point of clarification, however, I can poitn out that minds are immaterial in that they are information. Physical things can map information, but they are not themselves information*. Nevertheless, one need not depart from monism to allow that information is real and important.

*Well, perhaps physical things are also information or something, but that metaphysical quandry is irrelevant.

A quick note on thoughts

I expect I'll write something more comprehensive later, but I wanted to sketch a general reply to Nathanael's discussion of thoughts.

It's true thoughts are immaterial - they are constitutionally informational, and the physical component of thought only matters in that the causal properties of the medium instantiate the information processing topology. Minds are always and essentially logical entities.

It still means physical processes execute our thoughts. We don't experience our thoughts as physical processes, of course, but why would we think our thoughts would seem physically intantiated to us? One can define "thought" in an essentialist manner so as to rule out any 'reductionist' account, but what's the motivation?

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

While I'm waiting

Though I remain posted, I wanted to throw out a couple concerns with Nathanael's latest bit of commentary to make sure we're on the same page as far as the two of us go. I'll let Tom take care of his own end.

First, I want to mention that I think Nathanael meant “Foundationalism” instead of “fundamentalism.” I am also surprised that he declines to mention Reliabilism, though perhaps he considers it a subcategory of Foundationalism. That he doesn’t mention Contextualism surprises me less.

Second, I wanted to address an ambiguity:

I want to admit that, as Nato guessed, I have "not read any of the many answers that scientists have advanced, the models that have grown dramatically in power and fidelity in the last twenty years since the overly-reductive red herring of hard computationalism finally fell by the wayside for good." And I was no doubt too bold in stating categorically that modern ethical philosophers "have been refuted." Frankly, I suspect I could "refute" the recent philosophical efforts if I read them (at least inasmuch as they offer a materialist basis for morality) but I haven't, and I probably won't, which perhaps puts me in an awkward position here, so how can I justify myself?

Nathanael goes on to give a good example of an arena in which one can feel justified in dismissing a whole field of inquiry/theory based on previous experience. He uses computational biblical interpretation as his example where I would probably use perpetual motion, but both apply pretty well. Right off the bat, I can dismiss anything purporting to be a perpetual motion machine as well as anything that purports to predict the future with nonrandom accuracy based on an irrelevant data set. Physics disproves one*, information theory disproves the other. Since I have a great deal of confidence in both, I can dismiss their claim to do things that would disprove either. Anyway, if I didn’t accept this mvoe, how could I remain an atheist in a world with so many different theistic claims that I couldn’t possibly examine them all?

I can understand if Nathanael perceives the position of materialist morality to be analogous. I don’t agree, of course, but I can by no means call the claim out of bounds. Now, if he intends this also to apply to modern theories of mind, then I suggest he’s simply mistaken. His original expression of skepticism:

This whole complex of thoughts, abstract ideas, right and wrong and free will, materialists must somehow explain with reference only to electrical signals bouncing around among neurons. Have they accomplished this? Of course not, not even close. To the question, "If the world is strictly material, then how do we think, and how are our thoughts linked to things in the physical world that we're thinking of, and how can we think abstract thoughts that are not equivalent to anything in real life, and how can ideas be communicated, such that the 'same idea' can exist in two different heads, and if we can make choices, as we seem to be able to do, how can we do that?" the answer is "Somehow." (Perhaps more fancily worded.)

If he has not read modern cognitive neuroscience and cognitive philosophy while dismissing it as handwaving, he is simply engaging in the sort of a priori reasoning that has repeatedly embarrassed philosophers of the past who confidently proclaimed various things impossible until science did them. For good reason has modern analytical philosophy become wary of advancing “self-evidently obvious” empirical claims.

On the other hand, if Nathanael was bracketing the cognition subject and didn’t mean for his crticism to apply to that, never mind.

Nathanael might be leveling the charge that introspection trumps hetereophenomenalism, which might say different things about your cognitive processes than what it seems to you is happening. This makes sense from the perspective that nothing could have a shorter chain of justification that one’s own direct perceptions, but I’ve addressed that mistake before in an old discussion of Chalmers. Dennett’s criticism of Chalmers also addresses the issue.

Finally, on freewill, Nathanael says:

If I am "coerced" to shoot myself, that might mean, 1) you fold your fingers around mine and push them to pull the trigger, or 2) you threaten me with much worse tortures, and persuade me to go the easy way. In the first case, coercion has overcome free will, but it's hard to say then whether I shot myself at all: a better description might be "you shot me, using my own fingers." In the second case, coercion certainly narrowed my options, but I still had free will. Even in the first case I still had free will: my thoughts, my decision to push back, and so on, were still under my control. Free will still exists in a case of coercion, just as it is possible to play baseball without mitts and bases, though each circumstances makes judging the outcome harder. But just as you can never win a baseball game except by scoring the most runs, no matter how many mitts and bases there are, you don't have free will if deterministic molecular interactions predetermine your every move, no matter how absent coercive circumstances are.

Nathanael can define freewill as he likes, saying that it must have a causal force independent of the deterministic stream of cause an effect, but he should explain why he wants that definition rather than the one I propose. To sketch the very broad reason I think one should prefer freewill of my (vaguely described here) definition, when one asks if someone did something of their own free will, they want to know about that person's character. If Mr Convenient Evil Guy threatened Mr Conundrum with the murder of the entire Conundrum family if Mr Conundrum did not shoot himself in the head, then one would draw a different conclusion about Mr Conundrum than if he had shot himself in the head without that threat. Many Christians (for example) might view him as an irresponsible depressive if he shot himself because he was sad, but might view him as heroic to sacrifice his life to save his family. People, Christians and otherwise, are not in the least bit interested in knowing if his decision was microphysically determined or not, and so freewill of my definition participates in a distinction that people care about.

*It’s worth noting that we may eventually find new approaches to “perpetual motion” that achieve that is a totally different way, much like one cannot move faster than the speed of light, but one can fold space so that one travels between two locations before light reaches that place via the conventional route. It seems likely unadorned Utilitarianism and Kantianism are permanently flawed without changing a few basic problems in their framework of assumption, so on those scores I can’t much fault you. However, I do think heuristic morality folds the logical space of the moral problem nicely.

Real World Moral Progress

I think we can make progress morally. I think we’ve made an incredible amount of progress already in both moral thought and practice, though I don’t propose we’re in much danger of exhausting room for improvement. In another sense I deny the attainability of perfect moral theory and practice for finite beings with robust forms of personal utility. This should not be interpreted as a denial of a fully determined ‘best’ morality - an objective “absolute morality.” The denial instead grows from the belief that advance can proceed only asymptotically, and not perfectly so. Better approximations enable still better and so on, in an indefinite loop lasting the span of human history without ever achieving perfection.

Part of the difficulty with morality, however, is its “special” status amongst academic pursuits. Few philosophers of morality and ethics seem willing to take seriously the relevance of rich real-world subjects like game theory, economics, cognitive neuroscience, and information theory on their age-old deliberations. I suppose it is at least somewhat plausible that those theological moral systems founded on the will of a logically neat infinite being need accede no recourse to such untidy studies of dynamic systems. So far as I can tell, however, that set’s avoidance of the usual difficulties predicates on their constitutional incoherence. This by no means disqualifies all theistic moral systems; that broad criticism only applies to morality defined and exhausted by the will of an infinite anthropomorphic entity. I don’t know if the tradition of such hopeful-but-confused attempts to distill all moral considerations remains the proximate cause of philosophers’ distracting quest for a computationally tractable final answer, but I do think it creates frequently disastrous social expectations of parsimonious advice.

Despite our experience with the horrible religious insanities that have occasionally seized control of human history, the repeated rise and fall of fashionable isms, the easy answers the ambitious have offered the masses, we have not yet lost our taste for moral guidance in 25 words or less. The ratio remains large of those aligning themselves with bold new ideas to those who invest substantial personal effort in evaluation of the idea’s justifications and those of its best critics. This gives demagogues and opportunists inordinate leverage and thereby our control of our spiritual destiny, singly and collectively, is attenuated.

Daniel Dennett tells the story of a man who walked a thousand miles barefoot and climbed a tall mountain to seek the guru’s wisdom.

“Oh guru,” he asked, “Will you tell me the meaning of life?”
“Certainly,” the guru replied kindly, “but to understand the answer you must first master mathematical logic and recursive function theory.”
This took the man aback after his arduous journey. “Really?” he asked in dismay.
“Oh yes,” the guru replied.
The man looked downcast. “Never mind, then.”
“Suit yourself.”

This little fable evokes humanity’s tendency to be willing to embark on only that sort of personal journey and exert only that sort of personal effort to which we have already committed ourselves. I think our history has prepared us to participate in sit-ins and protests standing up for our convictions far more than it has taught us that legitimate moral certitude carries a price other than an obligation to act in accordance therewith. The September 11th terrorists were so confident of their morality and so righteously motivated that they were willing to devote years of work and their very lives to the cause. Some might wish to object to this example on the grounds that the terrorists’ belief in the quid-pro-quo of divine reward annuls the selflessness of their sacrifice, but this is irrelevant - surely they thought the reward due because of the goodness of the action, not vice-versa. Furthermore, plenty of examples exist of people sacrificing their lives to godless communism. Surely atheists can’t be easily accused of anticipating material advantage in oblivion. Not even the most copious dousing by willingly-shed blood of its faithful proves any creed or guarantees its salubrious effect on humanity.

The foregoing thesis has the single-sided insight of an aphorism; ‘Think before you act,’ I could summarize, and so appear to preserve the gist of the conclusion while demolishing whatever analytical value it may have offered a reader. Almost certainly some better essayist could render the same analysis more concisely without loss of fidelity, but I very much doubt the ability of the best writer to communicate the substantial logic in a moderately-long chapter heading, much less a headline. We pointy-headed intellectuals have been decrying the layperson’s unwillingness to engage the no-doubt sublime truths of our elegantly-argued positions since the invention of writing and before, I’m sure. It’s not that most people have lost the taste for discursive rigor - they’ve never had it in the first place. Otherwise, how is there an “us-them” dichotomy in the first place?

Ask any person how informed they are regarding subjects highly relevant to their lives and how well-reasoned are their beliefs about them, and they’re likely to score themselves above-average. Further, most will assert that they know ‘enough’ to be sure of themselves. Whether implicitly or explicitly, people make judgements regarding the marginal value of further intellectual work. The costs/benefit equation for those of us who enjoy debate and rigor enough to spend our free time on them diverges wildly from those who’d like to get on with the many other genuinely pressing practical problems they face on a daily basis. It would seem more than a little unfair to expect the single mother of three holding down two jobs to keep up with the ongoing quibbling in the uncounted fields of human mental endeavor. Does it really matter to her life whether Nietzsche was misunderstood, sloppy, or just hopelessly confused? Can she expect a raise for being able to explain Pinker’s critique of the Standard Social Science Model? Even more plausibly relevant analysis of the long-term incentive effects of state-funded health care seems a poor candidate distract her from her worries about little Timmy’s undiagnosed thyroid condition.

Is this apology for public disinterest condescension? I suppose it could be if one accepts the ambient perception of intellectual inquiry as high-minded and inaccessible to lesser beings. The truth is rather than people’s decision to leave the issues to others of appropriate inclination and ability is fully rational, if not necessarily fully-considered. The breadth of science long ago exceeded the ability of any human to grasp the whole of it in any great detail even if they spent every waking moment reading peer-reviewed journals. It that realm at least we’ve all had to become more or less comfortable with allowing specialists to do our thinking for us. I haven’t suffered noticeably from my lack of knowledge of how exactly my old VCR worked. I’ve even learned to live with the idea that I will probably never become much more familiar with Nietzsche than I am now, contingently trusting to my current impressions of the worth of his ideas.

But a problem remains: people widely value scientific analysis performed in their stead by others - they do like to have VCRs (or DVD players, these days) to use, after all - but they see less utility in the erudite squabbling of moral philosophers. There’s justice in this, of course. Those who chose to purchase a DVD player get the functionality they want without having to know almost anything about the machine’s articulation. Not so for moral philosophy. Even Christ’s words seem to need exegesis, judging by the number of clergies devoted to that pursuit, and Bentham’s hope that the masses could use his limericks as a tool to craft an expedient first-order approximation of moral rectitude in any situation was simply fantasy.

Another point of difference is the relative amounts of consensus. Scientists sweat details all the time and entire theoretical paradigms every now and again, but generally one can enough agreement on the big issues to satisfy moderate curiosity. Not so moral philosophy. It’s been said that while bad science advances the field less than good science, poor philosophy doesn’t yield any progress at all. Perhaps that explains why millennia and seemingly inexhaustible verbiage has not built many theoretical houses in which most philosophers are willing to live.

I am a little more optimistic, personally. Some areas of inquiry are just not very accessible without supporting understandings that may take a great deal of time coming. Before the identification of deoxyribonucleic acid, all attempts at a comprehensive account of heredity were hopelessly hamstrung. Not to say breeders and the like hadn’t achieved a level of true knowledge, but all explanatory depth was confined to the shallows. The subjects I mention above as examples of fields of which philosophers often fail to take account have all come of age only recently and I look forward to ethical philosophers expanding their intellectual toolkit so that they can make real headway into the deep issues.

At the same time, even if we do take leaps forward in moral theory, I doubt it will translate into a pushbutton moral certitude machine. I expect moral decision making will always be hard, uncertain work - not an answer people like to hear - but I do hope for a time when people can count on substantial and comprehensible help from philosophy in their quest to improve themselves and do the right thing.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Materialist morality and more

I have encountered positions like Nathanael’s many times. Though I have developed something of a psychological callus on the subject by now, it never ceases to dismay me when I hear it issuing from someone thoughtful. But it’s such a fundamental subject, the foundation of everything that matters, and it cuts directly at the heart of every morally engaged human - when I pronounce Christ’s morality lacking or flawed, I can only expect we’re about to talk about the primordial truths, the convictions that drive our inspirations, give us place, fortify confidence in our own values, and guide us to lasting happiness.

To start at the beginning I have to start at the end of Nathanael’s essay, in which he seems to misunderstand Popper’s principle of disconfirmability as the undergirding of empiricism. We’ve discussed this before, in which Nathanael opined that science’s assumption of naturalism amounted to faith. I offered up Popper as an antidote to that, with his description of how what philosophers once described as “induction” is actually the result of deduction in an asymmetrical propositional environment. Nathanael and others (appear to) have interpreted this to mean that scientific method is no more or less arbitrary in its precepts than any other system of investigation, but it’s really intended to show that one need make no arbitrary assumptions to choose the kinds of hypotheses that are deductively tractable and thereby worth making - naturalistic ones. Now, perhaps Popper is wrong, but the key is that one must respond to Popper (and others) in that context if one wants to continue to insist that scientific empiricism is just another faith. One can’t stop with, for example, Hume’s refutation of the forms of inductive principle that existed in his time.

Moving on backwards through Nathanael’s essay, I come to his claim that scientists and philosophers have no credible account of how humans think:

This whole complex of thoughts, abstract ideas, right and wrong and free will, materialists must somehow explain with reference only to electrical signals bouncing around among neurons. Have they accomplished this? Of course not, not even close. To the question, "If the world is strictly material, then how do we think, and how are our thoughts linked to things in the physical world that we're thinking of, and how can we think abstract thoughts that are not equivalent to anything in real life, and how can ideas be communicated, such that the 'same idea' can exist in two different heads, and if we can make choices, as we seem to be able to do, how can we do that?" the answer is "Somehow." (Perhaps more fancily worded.) Materialism demands a colossal leap of blind faith.

I get the feeling that Nathanael has not read any of the many answers that scientists have advanced, the models that have grown dramatically in power and fidelity in the last twenty years since the overly-reductive red herring of hard computationalism finally fell by the wayside for good. It’s gotten to the point where Jeffrey Chalmers is acting as a sort of Horatio on the Bridge of Dualism, his “The Conscious Mind” remarkable almost as much for how much it concedes as what it preserves of dualism. He concedes that all functional cognitive processes can be and are achieved in a traditional mechanistic manner and only invokes “naturalistic dualism” as the final province of ineffable phenomenal experience. Even this predicates on his claim that philosophers have not (yet) given an account that describes phenomenal experiences as constituent to functional description.

However, such accounts have been given, and Chalmers is flat mistaken on that point. There are a number of accounts in the marketplace, no one of which is likely to be the complete right answer, but these various models of how to constitute semantic processing in syntactic terms while taking the introspectively familiar non-semantic depths to cogitation seriously (including those aspects historically called ‘phenomenal’) have grown through theoretical critique and input from clinical neurology until they are plausible and occasionally even persuasive. An incredible amount of work remains to match the models to minds, but we’re not nowhere any more. One reason for confidence on this score is the huge strides we’ve taken in understanding perception beyond the “homunculus watching the screen” non-model. For a rapidly aging but nonetheless accessible and eye-opening account, read the late Francis Crick’s “Astonishing Hypothesis,” in which he present the then state-of-the-art understanding of the human visual perception system. Even then we were well beyond handwaving about how it is that we package and process visual concepts, even down to a surprisingly fine grain. Only a decade previously, rampant skepticism that we would ever understand anything as close to semantic processing as human perception held a great deal of currency. By the early 90s when Crick published his book, the situation reversed entirely, with some assuming we’d understand everything about the brain/mind soon. Crick himself remained far more cautious, seeing from a lab’s-eye view the huge job left to do in working out how a gaggle of moderately well-described perceptual subsystems could add up to the flexible, apparently infinite semantic flexibility we observe in the human mind.

In many ways Patricia Smith Churchland’s “Neurophilosophy” heralded the modern, more neurophysically-grounded era of cognitive philosophy. Dennett’s presumptuously-named “Consciousness Explained” redefined the discussion by showing how to obviate a number of apparently insoluble explanatory conundrums through a more clever framing of hypothesis. His heterophenomenological method, growing out of the arguments in his influential book “The Intentional Stance” and applied comprehensively in “Consciousness Explained” helps avoid unnecessary assumptions that grow out of inappropriately applied “folk psychology,” as Paul Churchland calls the common models of mind we use to predict peoples’ thoughts and feelings on a day-to-day basis. In the intervening 13 years, Kathleen Akins, Bo Dahlbom, V M Ramachandran, the Churchlands, and countless others have carried forward in both science and philosophy, the articles and books becoming more and more focused as the ratio of hypothesis to evidence rapidly improved. In 2004, materialism might require a lot of hard work and research, but it does not require “a colossal leap of blind faith.”

But one need not get so deeply into the nuts and bolts of modern analytical philosophy in conjunction with its new partner experimental science to present a simplified counterpoint to Nathanael’s ideas about the incorporeal nature of thought:

...to me materialism flies in the face of the most basic experiences. I have thoughts. I do not see any thoughts in the world around me. Thoughts are within me, and do not have the characteristics of material objects, such as size or shape. They have a certain connection to material objects, as we say "I'm thinking of a mountain." It's almost as if the mountain was in our heads, and we might even say that "I have the most beautiful scene in my head." But of course, the mountain isn't physically in our heads: it wouldn't fit. Another example: I can conceive of abstract things, such as 2+2=4, which, though they may be instantiated in the physical world, cannot exist in the physical world per se. Yet I can most certainly think them.

It can be rhetorically dangerous to compare human cognition to computer processing of the sort familiar at this point in history. The human mind is (to the connectionist theorists who now dominate the field) certainly the result of something expressible as an Von Neumann machine and thus at least potentially portable to some future computer with sufficient memory and processing speed. Nonetheless, the informational topology of computer programs that exist today and that of the vastly more advanced human brain are not similar and human minds are not just more advanced elaborations on Microsoft Windows. All that said, computers can instantiate abstract processing, if not int eh contextually-rich manner human brains do.

When a computer moves electrons around to calculate 2+2=4, there’s no Platonic “two” or “four” made physical in the computer; all that has occurred is the modeling of logical relationships using physical processes. Nonetheless, the calculation got done, and the logic of 2+2=4 has been successfully reflected in the material world. When huge neural associations cooperatively reflect the same logic, the mind of which these calculations are a part has “thought” of this immaterial mathematical relationship. The results of such neural processing gets sent around to other subsystems that process the result in their own idiosyncratic way, evoking, for example, memories related to this much-used logical statement, its implications, and even how it “feels” to us. Thousands of ganglia undertaking their division of labor call up a bewildering variety of descriptors concerning mountains (appearance and spatial characteristics form the visual system, relevant words from the linguistic, smells from the olfactory, and so on) to present to the relevant adjacent ganglia for further processing, it all adding up to conscious consideration. A subset of these present their findings to the generative portions of our linguistic system to shape the linguistic thoughts we think to ourselves (or type into our blogs), another subset’s findings shape the visualizations we visualize to ourselves (or attempt to draw), and so on.

Though this description is necessarily short of detail, it sketches a view of how thoughts get thought through physical reflection of logical relationships. Logical relationships are and will always be immaterial in nature, but minds are immaterial too; they are the network of logical relationships reflected by electrochemical signals of the physical brain, and someday (I believe) by the movement of electrons in futuristic computer hardware.

Next we have this paragraph in which Nathanael correctly notes that any system that denies freewill cannot justify any morality:

And yet, it just seems obvious a priori that there can be no morality for a materialist. Morality implies free will and choice, but for materialists those are illusions, we are all just particles bouncing around. If I stab someone with a knife, I am held guilty, and the knife is not, because the knife is just a material object with no volition of its own. But for the materialist, I too am just a material object with no volition of my own. Can I be guilty? Morality implies right and wrong, good and evil. But how can those metaphysical entities exist in a strictly material world? What could they mean? Not that these questions-- free will and choice, or good and evil-- are easy to answer in the framework of other metaphysical positions (e.g. body/spirit dualism) either; they are still quite difficult. But a materialist cuts himself off from all possible avenues of answering them from square one

Nathanael’s objections about materialist freewill result from a badly-chosen conceptualization or definition of freewill that needs an answer in much greater length and detail than I can offer here, but I can strip the compatiblist position of all its argument and just state that freewill is properly the opposite of coercion and determinism is the opposite of indeterminism. The idea that naturalistic determinism threatens freewill is almost backwards - only indeterminism could threaten freewill by potentially removing causation from moral decisions.* Insisting on choice as the uncaused cause is just a terrible idea, rendering all accounts of responsibility incoherent.

Religious positions may appear at first glance to escape this by making the immaterial soul guide moral decision-making, but this simply moves explanation into the realm of handwaving or brackets it entirely. As soon as I ask why a soul comes to make the choices it does, the prospect of pointless infinite regression looms. Perhaps someone can offer mechanisms for how the soul arrives at moral decisions, but then we’re back to a determined, mechanistic explanation, even if it’s a different substance instantiating the mechanism.

Compatibilism, on the other hand, seems to me to be the only way to save freewill (at least, a form of freewill worth wanting) and thus allow a non question-begging moral system. Since materialist compatibilism is simpler than dualist compatibilism, Occam’s much-invoked Razor invites me to chose the former.

With that, I move further backwards to Nathanael’s offer of quarter to an undefeated enemy:

It's hard to justify any morality in a materialist framework. In fact, I'm inclined to say it's impossible, which is what a lot of people have assuemd[my gratitude to Nathanael for offering a typo to make me feel a bit better about my far more numerous editing failures], and what is argued perennially in the pages of magazines like First Things-- and yet it seems like poor sportsmanship, somehow, to say that. That debate reminds me somehow of a parent is playing chess with a child, and no matter how many times the child is beaten he keeps saying bravely, "I challenge you to another match!" but the parent meanly refuses ever to let the child win.

It tends to be very difficult (sometimes impossible?) to prove that anything is impossible in a way that ends argument, but it’s certainly reasonable to assume something impossible if no one can come up with a plausible account of its possibility. It is incumbent on those advancing an argument to support an idea’s possibility/probability since you can’t prove a negative. Disproving a claim involves disassembling the offered support thereof, like demolishing a building involves destroying its structure. A building doesn’t count as standing just because the plot hasn’t been rendered permanently unusable and some other structure may yet be built there.

On the other hand, being convinced one has flattened a highrise doesn’t suffice to make it so. “First Things” is hardly an unbiased journal of analytical philosophy. While I do not peruse it on anything approaching a regular basis, I have read a handful of articles therefrom over the years and haven’t found myself particularly moved by the admittedly sophisticated apologetics advanced. Neither am I unbiased, so those articles’ failure to persuade me hardly amounts to a searing indictment of the consensus amongst contributors to First Things, but it does raise the prospect that a competing consensus or two might be found elsewhere. The hordes (ha ha!) of materialist analytical ethical philosophers (who, yes, still exist despite the attempts of post-modernist “philosophers” to squeeze them out of the humanities departments) who argue about their latest refinements and corrections to systems of materialist morality certainly believe they have a pretty good shot at arriving at ever-better justifications for human values without reference to anything supernatural. I tend to think theologians are in a poor position to declare victory over materialist ethics. At least one philosopher of science, Michael Martin, chose that field because he felt that the theological positions had been so thoroughly crushed in the academic arena that there was no interesting work left to do and the only people left talking about it were a cabal of professional theologians whose jobs depended on the pretense that rational theology was still viable. It’s a sort of mirror image to Nathanael’s position. Of course, the theologians declined to give up and continued to refine Kierkegaard, Lewis, and etc, so said philosopher returned to “refute” these newer refinements with his book "Atheism: A Philosophical Justification." Did he do so? I think so, but I don’t even claim omniscience and no one’s invented a refutometer to measure that objectively. It’s up to us humans to arrive at our own decisions. Notably those theologians still haven’t retired in embarrassed disrepute.

My ongoing retrograde progression through Nathanael’s essay skips several paragraphs at this point to his claims of events in human history discrediting the enlightenment moral philosophies:

When Enlightenment morality began to reach the masses in the late 19th century, the flaws and incompleteness that an intelligent person can rapidly recognize in reading Bentham or Kant were translated into social catastrophes. In the Soviet state, meddling in every detail of life and liquidating all opposition for the sake of the communist utopia in which the greatest happiness of the greatest number would come to pass, we see Bentham's errors writ large. In the Nazi soldier, braving death and suppressing all kind feeling for the sake of Fatherland and Fuehrer, never mind the consequences, we see Kant's categorical imperative discredited through being realized.

The most parsimonious return volley here is to ask how often actions taken in the name of and ostensibly directed by Christian teachings have turned out to be awful moral catastrophes. The Crusades are a much-ballyhooed member of that vast set (and frequently overstated), but I would also like to point out that people have attempted to justify monarchy, slavery, female thralldom, numerous wars, and even, yes, Naziism in Christian terms. At least frequently these involved distorted simplifications of Christian theology and biblical reasoning, but nonetheless, the people doing the arguing presumably considered themselves to be faithful to Christian truth.

I put my intended opposition to Nathanael’s conclusion more plainly: Soviet socialism is at best a misapplication of utilitarian principles and I reject the claim Immanuel Kant has more connection with Naziism than does Jesus Christ. Nathanael does, however, demonstrate how demagogues can repackage and repurpose originally subtle positions to serve their own ends. Surely a tolerably literate Christian will notice the wide divide between the rousing but sophistic speeches usually offered to the parishioners in the hinterlands and the intricate, carefully crafted arguments gracing the pages of academic theological journals.

In the preceding paragraph Nathanael equates the highlights of Enlightenment moral philosophy with Christian teachings:

...most of what is best in [Enlightenment moral philosophy] draws on Christian themes. Nato identifies Kant and Bentham as initiating the two chief traditions in modern moral philosophy. Bentham exhorts us to seek "the greatest happiness for the greatest number," a translation of Christian charity. Kant, who claims that we should treat people as ends not means, is translating the Golden Rule. Neither Kant nor Bentham have good arguments for their respective theses, and were persuasive mainly because Christian Europe was already conditioned to believe things quite similar to these.

To construe “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” as a mere translation of Christian charity is to help oneself to an astonishing amount. How is Christian charity any more equivalent to that than Muslim charity, or Buddhist charity, or the charity encouraged by Native American beliefs, or the charity urged by myriad other native traditions, ancient philosophers, and so on? Charity seems to be a widespread value in general human culture. Further, I don’t see how “the greatest happiness for the greatest number,” much less the rest of Bentham’s utilitarianism, is equivalent to the idea of charity at all. Utilitarian reasoning in the form of that statement can militate for or against charity in a given analysis of a particular situation, and of course the far subtler modifications of/diversions from the tradition that Bentham started take more words to express than exist in the whole of the Bible.

I hardly know what to say about Kant supposedly translating the golden rule. I suppose one could regard the golden rule as consonant with Kant’s philosophy, but “treat others as you would wish to be treated” is mostly an elegantly-phrased exhortation to be nice with many snappily-put analogues from a plethora of cultures. I can’t figure out any way to meaningfully reduce Kant’s ethical philosophy to an argument for being nice.

Now, it’s true that it helped Enlightenment philosophy that its various ethical systems didn’t demand dramatic departures from European moral intuition, informed as it was by its Christian tradition, but the works of those philosophers and their modern counterparts are not exactly unread and unfollowed in, say, Japan, which has no Christian tradition to speak of.

Finally we arrive at the substantive beginning of Nathanael’s essay:

A lot of modern philosophers "offer theoretical backing to the moral practice that Nathanael grants has been improving" in some sense, but those theories are incomplete and flawed. To be more precise, their arguments have been refuted, by Alasdair MacIntyre and Bertrand Russell, for example. It's not in the interests of professional philosophers to admit this, and moreover, professional philosophers may be a self-selecting group, since, for example, those who see immediately that Kant's arguments fail are unlikely to become Kant scholars. The general public, however, might be said to demonstrate its unpersuaded-ness by having lost interest in moral philosophy, though not in religion.

The first sentence of that quote is an allusion to my statement:

...modern ethical philosophers have some excellent offerings on how to get from raw self-interest all the way to pursuing common goods at (at least superficially) personal disadvantage. Baier, Moore and Hare are examples of this from different schools, but of course there are a great many more. None of them are really complete and flawless by any means...

I am highly skeptical of the ability of finite humans to achieve a complete and flawless moral system, my belief in the ongoing (fitful) improvement of both theoretical and practical morality notwithstanding. Nathanael’s casual assertion that modern moral philosophers’ arguments have been “refuted”, however, may just possibly require more support than his bald asseveration. MacIntyre’s “After Virtue”, presumably the modern source of Nathanael’s belief that ethical philosophy has proven hopeless (and which also focused inordinately on Nietzsche as the father of modern ethics), is certainly a powerful, clever book but not only is MacIntyre’s position highly contentious (and does not address Dennett’s position, to which I subscribe), I think Nathanael has gone a bit beyond even MacIntyre. Certainly I welcome more discussion of the flaws and virtues of particular ethical theories to explore our respective beliefs.

As for Nathanael’s hypothesis regarding the reasons professional philosophers continue to publicly hold Kant and general ethical philosophy in good regard, one could easily turn the same logic against theologians, a tack I have mentioned but dismissed as unfair in previous essays. I doubt Nathanael intends to offer such an ad-hominem type argument seriously anyway.

Finally, I must respond to the public’s supposed “unpersuaded-ness.” If we measure the public’s interest in moral philosophy by its references to Christ versus Kant or Mill, the existence of a large, well-funded, 2000-year-old Christian church (in its various incarnations) gives Christ a distinctive advantage. Philosophy departments do have their own pedagogical heft, but they hardly outweigh seminary schools nor do very many recipients of degrees in philosophy go on establish large weekly social groups devoted to advocating their favored school of thought. A handful do go on to earn doctorates and a proportion of those end up teaching philosophy, but this represents a vanishingly small cadre compared to their theological competition. Given such a large demagogic lead, it would actually seem like the relative pervasiveness of explicit invocation of Enlightenment moral philosophy requires explanation. I can offer a number of hypotheses that don’t require the philosophies in question be any more attractive or persuasive than religious alternatives, but I think that’s sufficient to cast doubt on the ascription of Christianity’s powerful share in the marketplace of ideas to its more persuasive content.

I could also argue that many Enlightenment moral ideas have won so completely that they are now the status-quo, obscuring the link between modern intuitions about moral calculus and these theories that are no longer novel. Advancing that position, however, would require a lot of careful study and analysis that I’m ill-equipped to undertake. Likely the idea has been suggested, defined, criticized and defended already by trained professionals, but as I’ve not encountered such a dialog, I hold only a very weak preliminary opinion on its sustainability.

And so at the end of a little shy of 4000 words I arrive at my conclusion that Nathanael’s perception of what is “obvious” about the weakness of materialism and the prospects of materialist ethics is at least as dubious as my ill-chosen claim that tradition “OBVIOUSLY cuts ZERO ice.” At this point I want to leave attempts at objective analysis aside for a moment and turn to a poem I wrote a while back that expresses my feelings about evangelism of secular, materialist morality. I’m not much of a poet, but perhaps sometimes the spiritual side of one’s deep convictions is best evoked by poetical language.

I have nothing to offer you
No easy answers
No freedom from toil
No way to set your conscience to rest
In three easy steps

If you buy my product I can guarantee you
Only hard work
Only uncertainty
Only a long hard fight to give people what they already own
But don't want

I can't offer you the stars or the moon
Everything I give you will be the sweat of your own brow
I have nothing to offer you

Except freedom

*For a popular but confused attempt by an eminent theoretical physicist to make room for his “uncaused” conception of freewill via quantum calculations, see Roger Penrose’s “The Emperor’s New Mind.” Though quite brilliant, Penrose’s approach to consciousness suffers fatally from a lack of appreciation of heuristic algorithms - not particularly surprising in a physicist but nonetheless crippling in someone addressing cognitive science.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Materialism and freewill

As Nathanaelpoints out, the concept of agency is vital to any moral system. If materialism is incompatible with freewill, than there can be no materialist morals. Fortunately, this is very far from the case. Compatibilism, the position that freewill and determinism are not in opposition, is age-old and well respected, though not universally accepted. I actually stumbled onto a primitive version of it myself in the course of writing a paper evaluating William James' pragmatism.

Years later I read Daniel Dennett's elegant (if initially unappreciated because it was in certain ways too far ahead of its time) book "Elbow Room: Varieties of Freewill Worth Wanting." Until then I had been tolerably rpoud of my stance avec James, but Dennett's discussion... well, I've bought that book four times now, because I have been overcome now and again with the burning desire to read portions of it again, especially the chapter "Could Have Done Otherwise." It remains the most beautiful bit of philosophy I've ever read.

"The Intentional Stance" might be a necessary companion book to address technical concerns that tend to occur to analytical philosophers, but it's not necessary and it's very much Dennett's dryest and most difficult book. On the other hand, the Intentional Stance was considered quite formidable and has had huge influence.

In any case, though, there's nothing I can say that "Elbow Room" doesn't say better. And I still have one spare, if Nathanael wants it.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Christ's moral modernity

In my last meandering post on tradition and gay marriage (far from my best organized essay ever) I both defended and moderated my criticism of appeals to tradition. Nathanael seems more or less satisfied with it en total, (even the editing mistakes which I throw in, um, as an interpolation exercise for the reader) but in response to my claim that the Bible is “not exactly state-of-the-art ethical reasoning these days” Nathanael asks:

What in moral philosophy over the past 2000 years has surpassed the words of Jesus Christ? Alasdair MacIntyre and Bertrand Russell both see post-Enlightenment moral philosophy as finding its logical culmination in Nietzsche, whose mercilessly "heroic" doctrines underlay Nazism. I know some people look for moral systems in Rawls, Kant, Nozick, or even Marx, but does anyone really have the bravado nowadays to see these as "state-of-the-art," and Christianity as somehow passe?

After I finish wincing at the very idea of Nietzsche as the pinnacle of moral philosophy, I open my eyes and notice, yes, Nietzsche is incontrovertibly an influential example of almost-modern moral reasoning, if not at all the foot I’d want to put forward.

As Nathanael points out immediately prior to the above passage, the Bible has some unsavory parts and makes some moral progress of its own from beginning to end - answering my statement that the Bible “has its wise and less-wise parts” - but he does not, nor does modern Christian theology, identify these unsavory parts as the culmination of Christian or Biblical moral reasoning. Christ’s words specifically are the archetype here. This, filtered through the most erudite and advanced exegesis offered by modern Christian theology, is Christianity’s ‘best foot,’ to which I must offer a counterpart if I am to make my claims credible.

One issue at the outset is that I view all words through the lense of assumption that the inspiration of their human authors came from non-supernatural sources. Instead of trying to tease the sublime from a few sentences based on the idea that the person speaking has an extraordinary conduit to transcendent truth, I interpret using the same principles of literary analysis I apply to everything else. In the case of Jesus Christ, this can be problematic, because his recorded statements are sparse relative to the length of the bible and a good amount of what he says holds only implicit moral reasoning. As soon as we’re attempting to deduce the reasoning, we’re thrown on our understanding of context, intended audience, the narrative traditions of the day, and so on. It leaves us lots of room for disagreement.

Theologians, of course, have already done a great deal of work on these subjects, but while I’ve read some C S Lewis and others, I can by no means lay claim to mastery of the modern understandings. I’m also not sure if these count in our comparisons, since while they take the Bible as their primary text, they by no means restrict themselves to the contents thereof to achieve their more explicit moral systems. I suppose if I wanted to escape this whole essay cheaply, I could just say that the two sources of moral reasoning (Christ’s words and modern philosophy) are incomparable. Alternately I could dismiss theology as necessarily tendentious, since it has no work to do without the divinity of its subject. Neither of these is fair, so I’ll carry on in the consciousness that I’m inevitably going to elide the separation between modern Christian thought and the original content of Christ’s words.

So, then, we come to modern philosophy, of which I do not have an encyclopedic knowledge so much as a working familiarity. I am not a ninja even of ethical philosophy, but I do have my bearings and a position. The major schools of personal ethics that still hold sway in ethical philosophy all sprang from Mill (or Bentham) and Kant, and just about every ethical philosopher tends to get classified as some form of Utilitarian good-maximizer or Kantian rule-follower*. I first encountered my favorite “third way” of ethical reasoning in Dennettm who advocates “heuristic” ethical analysis, but I doubt his idea is completely novel and I bet it gets categorized as a sort of update to Kantian ethics using some Utilitarian reasoning. Nietzsche has his influence, but as Dennett has implied in his own writings, Nietzsche’s position is too confused to engender any single coherent school.

In political philosophy the major modern voices are Rawls and Nozick, with updates from their peers. Both leave a great deal to be desired in my eyes, but they certainly crush the classic analyses of Hobbes through Marx in terms of rigor and rooting in fundamentals. Since Justice as Fairness and Anarchy, State and Utopia plenty of philosophers and others have built on - and improved - those foundations so that we now have a relatively robust set of answers that compare very favorably to those of the early and late Enlightenment scholars.

The modern understanding of Christ’s words seem to center around the ideas of love and avoidance of hypocrisy. We can derive from just those two principles many great things. If we endeavor to love consistently and thoughtfully, so that we do not reduce our love to a thin facsimile of itself, we indeed lead to many excellent insights. However, Christ offers little justification to the materialist for his directives. “Why?” we ask, and we receive back an answer that references God’s will - not a convincing tactic for those who fail to believe in God in the first place. Also, there are problems with making God’s will the source of moral value rather than a guide thereto. In any case, the promise of an afterlife or presumably positive “closeness to God” do offer efficient reasons for the described moral behavior in terms of personal benefit, but I’m not sure how to respond to such a supernatural quid pro quo. Fortunately, I don’t believe in God or an afterlife anyway, so I escape that particular quandary.

But let us say for instance that we’re actually only talking about actual (practical) moral directives rather than their justification. We should also throw out Christ’s directives concerning God if we expect to discuss answers relevant to the many people whose metaphysical positions lack a deity. Christ has a good amount of personal instruction to give, though he has little to offer on political ethics except to render unto Ceasar what is Ceasar’s. One might regard this as a major weakness since the real-world state very much needs ethical direction to guide lawmaking and enforcement, but it’s also been mentioned that if we were all angels government wouldn’t be necessary. Ditto if the world was going to end pretty soon, as Christ seemed to be saying in Mark 13:30-33 (as well as in other places). Since it didn’t work out that way, I don’t know if that amounts to poor moral advice or not.

Anyway, Christ’s morality is pretty sparse by word count, which reminds me of how Bentham’s rhymes and formulations attempt to package a complex moral system into a small set of adages that evoke rather than describe moral solutions. Both, I think, are open to similar pedagogical criticisms, though in Bentham’s case there exists the rest of his writing in which he attempts to flesh out a comprehensive moral structure to back up the simplifications. Unfortunately for Bentham, his attempts are pretty inadequate; Mill well-earned his standing in the Utilitarian tradition with his more robust reworking thereof. Am I comparing Christ to Bentham now? Not exactly - no one now has seen what comprehensive system of argument lurked behind his words, so we must either bracket that consideration or try to read between lines. Since bracketing the logical substance of Christ’s moral thought makes attempts to compare Christ’s morality with modern morality, I suppose we must choose the latter.

Since to do this convincingly would require much closer and more comprehensive reading of the Bible than I have ever brought myself to perform, I’ll have to give my impressions with the caveat that I don’t regard them as particularly reliable. When I said in my previous essay that there are more and less wise portions of the Bible, I was thinking of the (somewhat Hellenist) New Testament as broadly wiser and the (somewhat tribalist) Old Testament as broadly less wise, not intending to take a strong stance on Christ specifically. Since we’re already on the same page about moral progress in the Bible, this is quasi-tangential to my thesis at the time.

Christ seems to stick to the idea that obedience is a cardinal virtue and that authority justifies his command to love. Also, the form of ‘love’ he recommends seems a little different that what I would hope. I think of Matt 21:18-21 when Christ withers a fig tree because it didn’t have fruit when he wanted something to eat. Now, this is by no means a human and I don’t think of trees as having moral rights, but in conjunction with Christ bearing a sword, and his episodes with cursing villages that were insufficiently impressed with his miracles, I get this idea that his love is a bit erratic. Perhaps it has to do with so much of his love being pointed toward deity or something, but I find it a little less person-positive than I would hope. He sometimes seems to support the idea of all people having the same value and sometimes he seems to be less willing to take his message to gentiles. I have heard a lot of apologetics regarding Jesus’ seemingly less-than-perfectly-loving actions, but stripped of the theology which I find empty and unpersuasive, they fail to convince me that his actions are anything like a guade to perfect living.

Now, some Christian theologians drop a lot of the details and synopsize Christ’s innovation as the elevation of love over mechanistic, heartless law. Some of the more liberal brand even manage to do this without distorting the definition of the word “love” into something I don’t want in the process. The problem I find with this is that all of these theologians are heavily influenced by the Enlightenment. Humanist currents within the Catholic Church sparked that to some extent in conjunction with contact with the much more learned Muslim lands. To a large extent this marked a turning away from the focus on heavenly concerns that, to me, is very much a divergence from Christ’s own apprehension of priorities. A search for God, infinitude and Truth ensued that was perhaps inspired by Christ’s message of love but seems to have traveled very far beyond it, eventually forming naturalistic science, secular ethics, and so on. It just doesn’t seem that even the best modern Christian moralists find Christ’s teaching sufficient - he’s perhaps a muse or stands in for an idealization of human potential.

Meanwhile, modern ethical philosophers have some excellent offerings on how to get from raw self-interest all the way to pursuing common goods at (at least superficially) personal disadvantage. Baier, Moore and Hare are examples of this from different schools, but of course there are a great many more. None of them are really complete and flawless by any means, but they certainly do offer theoretical backing to the moral practice that Nathanael grants has been improving. My personal favorite philosopher, Daniel Dennett, is not a straight ahead ethical philosopher, but I think his ideas about incremental improvements in moral heuristics, which takes realistic account of limited information and ability to calculate (predict), offers a way of reifying our substantial progress without requiring any particular theory be the final answer.

Ultimately, there may be no fair way to compare the parsimoniously preserved words of an ancient prophet to a modern thinker who can not only draw on that prophet’s words (and other forerunners) but write quite a few more of her own to craft a truly deep moral position. Nonetheless, I think it’s also difficult to describe Christ’s words as constituting especially advanced morality.

* Of course utilitarianism is a sort of expansion on consequentialism and within utilitarianism there’s a bunch of finer gradations, such as Moore’s ideal utilitarianism and Hare’s preference utilitarianism. I simplify egregiously.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Tradition and gay marriage

Nathanael stepped up to challenge my (rather dramatic) statement “tradition should OBVIOUSLY cut ZERO ice” with his 0752 17AUG04 post, more or less pointing out that thousands of years of human thought have crafted tradition and one is foolish to discard such collective wisdom.

Of course, he has a point. Once upon a time I went to Kingdom Hall with Jehovah’s Witnesses because I figured that a sect that had lasted so long, kept so tight and had so many followers probably had something wise to say. It did, but of course not so wise I felt it was ultimately other than pernicious. The Christian Bible has its wise and less-wise portions (and its wise and less-wise followers) and is incontrovertibly a prominent distillation of a millennium and more of Mesopotamian thought, but of course it’s not exactly state-of-the-art ethical reasoning these days. Aristotle was quite the philosophical ninja in his day but by now he’s mostly a historical reference point and an obligatory part of introductions to the history of philosophy.

Nonetheless, to break from everything said in the Bible or by Aristotle simply because they are old is foolish. Progress happens by building on and improving existing ideas more than demolishing them, because people who went before us committed the ideas they considered best to the ages, and one might expect that these would beat a sampling of randomly generated ideas in any worthwhile test of veracity.

Then again, some ideas recur because they tend to serve the purposes of those having the power to disburse them. Though Europe forbore to call the station of their underclass “slave,” serfs weren’t exactly free, either. Not to mention that if one was not a noble or a cleric, one was almost always a serf, which doesn’t leave much room for freedom at large. Nathanael refers to slavery as an “innovation for the Portuguese when they re-introduced it to European culture in the 1400s,” but one might suppose that it was really a return to tradition in which making a slave of one’s own tribe remained verboten but outsiders were fair game, allowing for more complete domination without the credible fear of insurrection. Slavery is not a unique to any cultural tradition and though some of its variations and alternates (such as “untouchables” which have analogues in the ‘eta’ of feudal Japan) are less common.

Furthermore, Nathanael quotes but does not address the other two clearly unacceptable examples of tradition - racial discrimination and disenfranchisement of women - that I offered. That there is plenty of evil embedded in tradition remains undisputed. Rather, Nathanael attempts to show that lack of “respect for tradition” leads to many of the worst kinds of revolutionary brutality and regression. Even the sins of many calling themselves traditionalists he ascribes to this lack:

Self-conscious "traditionalists" are always innovators, who have to dumb tradition down in order to render it into something that can be deliberately "obeyed" or "followed." What narrow-minded "traditionalists" lack is adequate respect for tradition. Students of contemporary Islam, such as Bernard Lewis, are keenly aware of this.

So far as I can see, however, his case against this ‘lack of respect’ has more to do with ideological purges executed by totalizing political revolutionaries. Such revolutions necessarily have to be packaged and sold to a power base, rhetorically streamlined, and so on. I’m sure Nathanael can easily find places where sudden, internally-generated social departures have also caused chaos, but these are less dramatic and easier to set in contrast with their not-particularly-attractive traditional bretheren.

Before I go on, however, I should enter a caveat: historical social agreements evolved in response to pressures of their day, with each party negotiating the best it could expect to get under the circumstances. In an era dominated by the right of might, one can expect those whose physical traits were statistically less suited to martial pursuits (women) would be not only disadvantages, but would likely support systems in which they trade “freedom” of dubious value for the literal patronage of even an unequal system of marriage alliance in which one attaches one’s fate to a another who would presumably fight for one’s interests for love or at least offspring. Likewise did peasants attach themselves to their lord, who may not have been kind or particularly just but at least had reason to prevent his people’s housing from being razed and farmland from being salted. Many people view these arrangements purely as examples of tyranny without seeing the benefits they offered the disadvantaged in comparison to the alternatives conceivable at the time. And the fact remained that even a lord had an interest in keeping his peasantry minimally happy, as a husband had an interest in treating his wife minimally well - those with nothing to lose could still revolt and damage one’s interests even if they can’t advance their own.

Furthermore, Daniel Dennett’s defense of tradition as engineering is quite valid to my mind. Traditions have intrinsic design value as intricate solutions to a set of problems and constraints that are both novel and frequently beautiful. The loss of heritage is an acute pain, as Dennett points out, that only humans feel. It can be sad to watch the ‘ambulatory phase’ of meme-sets disintegrate, as we do tend to cherish our history in its own right and don’t wish it to end even after the death of everyone who still holds them. I suppose it’s because we hope for our traditions to be an enduring patrimony. Nonetheless, maintenance has costs, and we must ask ourselves if a tradition that requires us to, say, ‘circumcise’ our daughters is worth preserving.

In any case, it’s the modern world now, and I think we have the technology, both social and technical, to eliminate most forms of unfreedom. I would further say that freedom as a value trumps the value of preservation of traditions, so Dennett’s defense doesn’t really hold sway here when they come in conflict. Nozick would even argue that freedom is a primary value that allows the pursuit of all others. In that view, the value of tradition is irrelevant.

So we’re back to talking about the functional value of tradition to determining the best ways of doing business. It’s a rock of wisdom that’s nonetheless shot through with flaws. Can we justify effectual things with appeals to tradition? Not directly. I suppose we can say that we have no idea how something works and thus we must do it as we always have, but this only persuades people who share the conviction of our own ignorance.

I, for one, see plenty of reasons for the institution of marriage as well as the advantages for any (set of) individual(s) wishing to avail themselves of it. Governments have an interest in recognizing them both because households are to a large extent the basic granules of the economy and because they incubate future adult citizens. Individuals have an interest in legal recognition of marriage because of the legal and (occasionally) financial benefits provided by the government. Human psychology sustains the actual tradition of the interpersonal contract for reasons related to both sociobiological programming and the clear advantages of resource-pooling with a committed partner. Marriage between animals and humans don’t have any of these features to a significant extent.

Nathanael says regarding marriage:

Another way to look at this is an ad absurdum argument. If two men can marry, why can't a man marry an animal, or his car, or two women, or himself, or his mother? There may be good reasons, but they are incompatible with the simplistic nondiscrimination rule Nato proposes. To decide if a rule is being applied in a nondiscriminatory way, we have to first define the rule, and if we are to define that rule as (for example) "only two human beings may marry," then there is no logical reason not to restrict the rule further, and say "only one man and one woman may marry."

“This”, Nathanael says, “is enough to refute Nato’s argument,” but I think that claim is at best premature. There are reasons to define the rule a certain way. As he quoted me:

if one wishes to curtail freedom of any kind, it is incumbent on one to explain why. If one wants to curtain[sic] freedom in a discriminatory way, one must explain not just why the freedom should ever be abridged, but why it is valid to abridge in a special case.

The legal recognition of marriage is for something. It has a function. If it was entirely arbitrary as well as functionally neutral, then it would certainly not be accessible to reasonable critique and so the preservation of tradition would be the only value in town. But it does confer advantage (as well as disadvantage, but presumably those who desire it judge the advantages to weigh more in their case) and it does have a purpose, so we must show why it should be available to some and not to others with reference to that purpose. Nathanael appears aware of this when he continues:

it is not a case against gay marriage. It simply makes it clear that the task is to explain why a man should have a right to bind his future to another man, as (for some reason) he is considered to have a right to do with a woman, but as he is not considered to be allowed to do with an animal, an inanimate object, a place, a member of his immediate family, etc.

The only problem is that he seems to think that this is some sort of unanswerable rhetorical question, or he would not be able to claim that he “refuted” anything. Perhaps he thought I had no answer to that question and admitted none, which would certainly have made my argument incoherent.

On the other hand, the legal recognition of marriage for anyone can be called into question, and I admit that’s a contentious issue. I still tend toward the recognition of marriage but I think reasonable people can disagree. Besides, that is not the matter in dispute.

In the end, though, I’m forced to moderate a bit - it may not be obvious that appeals to tradition cut no ice. If the ice is very thin and there’s no reason available to apply, then one can, I suppose, appeal to it directly. Further, tradition has within it all sorts or reason that is not necessarily visible to the naked eye, so one should seriously address oneself to understanding how it functions and why. It is valid to demand justification someone who opposes tradition. In the heat of my personal outrage on this issue (of which I have a great deal) I slightly overstepped.

Still, marriage is legally recognized and confers advantages. If they are going to be offered to anyone, then it must be explained why they are not offered to everyone. Saying that they are offered in the way they are because of tradition is unimpressive. One can throw up one’s hands and say “well, if you won’t accept tradition, we’re all in a muddle,” but that can only hold while there’s no non-arbitrary reason for marriage and thereby implicitly militates for removing legal recognition thereof. The position assassinates itself.

If some broad-minded traditionalist can give me a reason for marriage that doesn't rely directly on tradition and also excludes gay marriage, then we'll have something to talk about.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Nathanael on Tom on morality

Nathanael said in response to Tom's discussion of morality: "Tom's conclusion leaves me less satisfied" then quotes the admittedly ambiguous end of Tom's essay:

Now we're at the end, the end of man. The end of man is to act within his nature, just like everything else. It is natural for man to ask questions, seek answers, and create answers, even in the absence of rational justification. It is natural for man to act in his own self-interests, and to determine what those interests are, even those that may require a personal sacrifice. Above all, it is natural for man to propagate, both physically and intellectually. That is the sum of it. All of human morality can be derived from these ends. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to discover how.

Not surprisingly, Nathanael took Tom's "conclusion" in precisely the unfortunate direction I predicted some would in the comments I posted on Tom's essay, though of course, in a more thoughtful way than some might. From Nathanael's post:

Above all, it is natural for man to propagate, both physically and intellectually." The "physically" seems to recommend an African moral universe, where the chief is polygamous and measures his success in the quantity of his offspring relative to his rivals: not, I feel, a good ethical ideal. The "intellectually" (slurred together with "physically" by a clever sleight of hand, luring the reader into a strange and unwarranted feeling that man's propensity to discussing, believe and philosophize is somehow an extension of the physical process of reproduction) I can sympathize with-- that's what blogging is all about!-- but what does it mean, after all, to "propagate intellectually?" If I convince others to believe what I believe, have I propagated intellectually? Is that my end? If so, do I fail to achieve my end when I become convinced that I was wrong and someone else was right? I think, on the contrary, that I benefit more by abandoning my own false belief and adopting someone else's true one, than by persuading someone else to adopt my false belief, or even my true belief. "Intellectual propagation" is not the end, but truth, to which "intellectual propagation" is a means when and only when I have (or think I have) truth that others lack.

Immediately preceding this Nathanael notes: "Tom leaves an unresolved tension between "self-interest" and "personal sacrifice"-- maybe a good thing, since what looks at first glance like self-contradiction is often a recognition of complexity." Thereby he sort of touches on the reason I refer to the last paragraph of Tom's essay as the 'end' rather than the "conclusion" - it intentionally leaves us in ambiguity, with work to do. Like many of the best philosophical positions, it merely sets the stage for doing work rather than doing it, its virtue being in avoiding doing the wrong work. It may be very interesting to analyze a game that's very much like chess but, say, the king can move two spaces in any direction and the queen can also move like a knight. Unfortunately at the end of the day, the hard-won truths toward which the analysis has worked applies to no game anyone plays. Theories of moral calculus can be the same way.

Nathanael takes strongest issue with "the end of man is to act within his nature, just like everything else", not realizing that Tom mentions this as a tautological antidote to idea that the purpose of anything is defined by the intentions of its creator. It's the sort of sloppy phrase that one frequently lets slip when one has gotten too used to talking to other people of like mind. I am far from innocent in that, for sure. The use of the word "propagate" is also misleading, not least because it has a number of meanings. Of course, that sort of smeary semantics can be quite intentional if one wants to bracket the exact form of the answer or if one wants to answer on more than one level at a time, but of course that opens one up to unfortunate interpretations, such as that one's purpose is to have as many children as possible and to convince people of as many of one's own opinions as possible. Propagation occurs in the sense of transmission in time and/or space of patterns, whether genetic code in children or thought processes in brains. The exact form of propagation we choose is not specified, but it's justified by our own existence. Therefore morality is determined in human terms, not the terms of God's (empirically inaccessible) love, Gaia's diversity, or Gouda's... um... odor.

But of course, the difficult task still lies ahead of us humans to work on that determination.

The speed of reform

I love cities. They provide so much humanity, convenience and culture in a cauldron of interaction that makes each a living entity of its own, every one unique and increasingly rich as time passes.

As they build up, of course, they start to get crowded. Rent prices in the better areas climb higher and higher as competition for limited space intensifies, which leads many well-meaning city councils to impose rent controls. Sometimes the reasoning is specifically socialist in nature, informed by a conviction that rents greater than X are exorbitant extortion. Other times the motives are somewhat more sophisticated - the city council may value neighborhood consistency and want to defend families from sudden inclines in rents caused by the positive externalities of surrounding development such as a major new park or completed cultural building. Still more thoughtful analysis will reveal large inefficiencies in an environment that forces frequent wholesale transplanting of the economically displaced.

The fact of the matter is, of course, that rent controls as they have usually been imposed quite simply discourage new building. Once imposed there becomes a more-or-less fixed amount of living space available in more-or-less fixed parcels. This increases the attractiveness of the living space relative to its price, inducing a predictable shortage. Now those who have found apartments hold on to them because they know they may not be able to find a new one and those without apartments either find a leaseholder to move in with or, more frequently, move to the suburbs. Flight to the suburbs in turn reduces the economy of scale for city services, increases transportation problems and destroys either farmland typically amongst the most productive or wilderness that once raised the value of city lands. Suburbanization also tends to reduce aggregate health, resource efficiencies and cultural engagement.

Even when rent controls don’t exist there still tends to be a lag between building and demand as well as a number of pressures encouraging suburban growth (cultural expectations chief amongst them), but they exacerbate those tendencies and as time goes on make things worse. The obvious solution to the damage caused by rent controls is to get rid of them.

Many cities do exactly that. The problem is, the sudden repeal of those measures does not imply a commensurate sudden growth in living space. Buildings take time to build - especially if city codes and similar legal barriers complicate the implementation of development plans. The bigger the building, the more time it’ll take (and typically, the more codes and oversight apply), and in an urban area the buildings tend to be pretty big. Years could go by before a building boom can catch up to the suddenly unleashed supply-demand equilibrium point, especially considering possible limitations credit agencies may want to place on lending to the construction sector in a localized area. Meanwhile, current owners of buildings can charge hugely inflated rents in the intervening period of constricted supply. Renters end up paying owners of dilapidated or even squalid properties the large premium supplied by the convenience of city infrastructure or have to pick up and leave. The character of districts, cultural nuclei, and the pattern of use of city services abruptly change as families move out of or into school districts, as they are replaced by single professionals, as restaurants and entertainment centers close down or relocate, and so on. Agents that had arranged a network of economic choices for greatest efficiency find their whole web disarranged and destroyed before they have time to adapt, leaving them, and much of the city, to start over.

Frequently this turns into a backlash and the repeals are rolled back, exchanging one the new set of problems for the old one, but with a great deal already destroyed. Sometimes political will survives and a city eventually recovers. The problem is, there’s no good reason to endure these destructive shocks, as a thoughtful process of gradual change can obviate the most severe pain.

To offer a single, lightly researched proposal, a city council could announce the impending end of price controls several -let’s say five - years in advance and institute measures to make the change difficult to renege upon so that developers feel confident enough to take on the risk of new construction. Furthermore, after the first year, the percentage of annual increase allowed on existing leases will be relaxed somewhat to offer property owners the possibility of a return on investments in renovations as well as to allow them to signal to current tenants what to expect in the future while still leaving them time to adjust. Finally, the city should invest some of its own reserves in beefing up its infrastructure as well as those offices that handle development oversight so as to expedite the approvals process for new construction.

Even once a city has banished price controls in general, it still does have a legitimate interest in some price regulation, because the tight integration of a city creates many externality effects. Sudden spikes in demand for residency or office space ina certain area do occur, and a property owner is only intelligent to charge what the market can bear. However, since that property owner’s choice effects a large number of uninvolved parties, the most interests of the city, even in mere dollar terms and bracketing cultural/social goals, may diverge dramatically from those of the owner. Leaving aside the hardcore libertarian objections against state interference on property rights grounds, it would behoove the city to try to find a balanced way to mitigating the suddenness of changes without doing too much damage to the market’s ability to find equilibrium through price signals. Perhaps modest caps on rent increases - say 10% annually - would help. Exemptions from price increase caps for renovation are offered by many cities. I don’t know of any cities that cap the rents on new buildings, but the promise of being able to adjust rents easily to market conditions would eliminate most of the worst fears of potential property owners.

I’m sure better, more refined proposals crafted and debated by true experts would far outshine my invention, but I think it already shows a highly desirable middle ground between jarringly sudden reform and the status quo. It’s a specific member of the large set of long-standing imbalances that afflict our global situation, all of which should be rectified as quickly as we can. Or, if you will, as quickly as would be prudent.

Immigration , exchange rates, agricultural subsidies, NTBs, outsourcing, and a variety of other socio-economic issues all cry out for liberalization, but the ideological elegance of a world without them does not imply that sudden, full liberalization on those issues wouldn’t be worse than the status quo, at least for a good long while. Not only is the extended period of chaos and hardship in the offing unnecessary, it frequently engenders political regression that rolls back the liberalization well before it starts to pay off. Purism may be personally gratifying, but it’s not the way to approach policy change.

That’s why I register Libertarian every year but would not actually want a fully Libertarian government to take over suddenly. As the party currently exists, it tends to consist mainly of ideological extremists who rarely even pay lip service to the idea of graceful transition or that end states should be anything other than identical to the theoretical optimum of utopia. The real world has a variety of odd corners and awkward situations to which we cannot apply a one-size-fits-all solution without regard to the details.

And the oddest situation of all is the current accidental status-quo that is undesigned but nonetheless the result of a huge number of actors negotiating the best spot they can find in the bewildering network of interactions. Change must be applied informed by intelligence, detailed knowledge, and flexibility in addition to the theoretical elegance that attracts so many to libertarian principles. Above all, of course, we must have patience.