Friday, 30 December 2011

Witticisms Are Still -Isms

From the truly excellent Ivan:

Some religious believers fear that without any religious morality, atheists will take immoral or anarchic actions that could harm society. To them I say, Don’t worry—atheists are just as irrational and inconsistent in their ethics as you are in your religion.

This is a strong contender for one of the funniest things I've read this year.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Non-Human Moral Authority

Adam, of Daylight Atheism fame, argues that since there are no non-human sources of ethics, we must act according to some human-created ethic or other.  Here's the quote he's critiquing, from Peter Hitchens (the late Christopher Hitchens' brother):

"For a moral code to be effective, it must be attributed to, and vested in, a nonhuman source. It must be beyond the power of humanity to change it to suit itself."

And here's Adam's response:

The fatal flaw in this position is that, contrary to your confident presumption, there is no non-human moral authority. Every religious book is written, edited, and printed by humans. All moral opinions, interpretations, and proclamations are human opinions. If there were a huge, glowing set of tablets with commandments engraved on them that descended from the sky accompanied by angels blowing trumpets, and the choice was between following those or making up moral laws on our own, we'd be having a very different debate; but there is no such thing.

I don't know precisely what Hitchens was arguing here, but from the quote itself it appears that Adam's missing the point.  Vested in a non-human source doesn't mean made up by a non-human source.  What does it mean?  Well, we're told: an ethics that's vested in a non-human source is 'beyond the power of humanity to change it to suit itself'.  Adam thinks the only kind of ethics that falls into this category is divinely-dispensed commandments - but what about, for example, Kant? 

Kantian ethics is based on respect for the rational nature of others, and Kant certainly believed that it could be derived using pure logic.  Rationality could easily be conceived of as a non-human source, beyond the power of humanity to change. Sure, it's a made-up moral law, but it fulfils the criteria that Hitchens set for an effective moral code.  Adam's post could have been quite interesting - can non-theistic philosophy provide an effective non-human basis for morality, and, if so, how - but instead it's a thousand or so words of straw.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Liberate That Bottle Of Malt Liquor

More anarchy set to music, this time by Atom and His Package.  That's some threat, right there - we're gonna drop our trash on you - but unfortunately you need high ground for that.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

A Very Chomsky Christmas

Santa Claus is portrayed as a paternal manifestation of the welfare state which will benevolently give gifts to all without regard. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality the biggest gift getters are corporate executives, getting both outright grants and tax breaks while their employees are lucky to get a lump of coal.  Instead, most people will be shopping at these big chain stores, which make tremendous profit by preferential and illegal exclusionary deals. These stores are supposedly operating in a free market but it's anything but that. Further, the volume of their transactions means that within their organizations, they are a virtual command economy, a totalitarian top-down structure with no democratic input from their workers.

At this time of increasing sales volume, many are staffed by temporary workers, who have no benefits or health insurance and can't afford to get sick. And there's not going to be a good-hearted Scrooge to pay for your operation like he did for Tiny Tim. God bless us, every one. We'll need it.

From here. Merry Christmas, everybody!

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

I'm A Better Anarchist Than You

David Rovics, taking a cheap shot at anarchist freegan freight-train-riding black bloc kids.  Honestly, this:

i'll just keep moshing
to rancid and the clash
until there are no differences
in gender, race or class

sounds like pretty good advice to me.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Is It Ethical To Call The Cops?

Here's an interesting idea that I've been wrestling with for a while: is it right to call the cops on somebody?  Let's say your house gets broken into and some of your property stolen.  In response, you call the State's law enforcement apparatus into effect, which hunts down the perpetrators and locks them up for years in terrible conditions (imprisonment, forced labor, prison rape and so on).  This does not seem like a proportionate response to losing a few hundred dollars' worth of belongings.  Would you trace down the burglars yourself and lock them in your basement for a year; or would you consider that a gross moral wrong, much worse than the original burglary?  If you consider that wrong, how can you justify having the State do it for you?

One preliminary point: I'm only talking about minor crimes here, and I'm only talking about cases where your life isn't actually in danger.  (Victims of impending assault, serial killers, or domestic violence have more iron-clad justifications for calling the police.)  Now I'm going to lay out a few counter-arguments that might justify calling the cops to investigate a minor crime, and give a brief rebuttal to them in italics.

Let's start with the strongest: the concept of State justice.  Individuals hunting down criminals and imprisoning them is obviously wrong, but not because imprisonment itself is wrong.  Imprisonment is ethical when it's delivered as fair recompense for a criminal act.  If we let individuals hunt down and punish criminals in any way they wanted, we would not have a fair system.  Therefore it's ethical to call in the State to do terrible things to criminals which you could never do yourself.

But are prisons fair recompense?  If forcing someone to live in current prison conditions counts as a disproportionate response, then it can't be justice.  This argument would work if prison conditions were much better than they are; currently, I don't think it does.

There's also a utilitarian argument for calling the cops that revolves around deterrence.  Locking up a thief in prisons (and prisons are goddamn awful) is clearly a disproportionate response - and it would be unjustifiable if it were done for its own sake.  However, imprisonment deters other crimes and lessens the overall level of suffering in society.  Deterrence works best when everybody knows about it, so the State is far better suited than the individual to punish in a flashy way.

However, do prisons deter crimes?  If we are to believe Foucault, prisons created organized crime (and it's very plausible that locking up petty criminals with worse criminals for months and years is going to create a breed of even worse criminals.)

You could justify calling the police by arguing that criminals forfeit their rights.  On this view, our rights are respected insofar as we respect the rights of others.  Once we disrespect another person's rights, our own rights are forfeit and others are ethically permitted to do what they like with us.  Thus, once a criminal steals your property, it's no longer wrong to lock him up in prison.

On the other hand, it's hard to condemn hunting down a criminal yourself on this view.  Moreover, who hasn't disrespected someone's rights at some point?  Who here would 'scape a whipping?

There's a response to my question - is it ethical to call the cops - that isn't quite a counter-argument.  It goes like this: "prison conditions aren't perfect, but we have to work with what we have.  Let's call the cops, and let the justice system run smoothly, and at the same time work for improved prison conditions."  I'm not going to argue against this at length, but I want to point out that this argument is not going to be much comfort for those who are actually imprisoned.  You could also argue that prison conditions (in Australia at least) aren't as bad as all that.  My research here isn't exactly bulletproof, so I'm prepared to be convinced.  However, if you accept that prisons are terrible, terrible places that nobody deserves to be in, my question stands: if you are burgled, how can you ethically justify calling the cops?

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Epistemic Humility

One of the most important philosophical virtues is humility: the drive to reconstruct your opponent's argument in its most convincing form and to limit your own claims to that which your arguments strictly prove.  Philosophy without humility is mere rhetoric.  And there's a kind of philosophical humility that is very useful in everyday conversation, even for non-philosophers.  It ties into the philosophical definition of knowledge as justified true belief - in short, A knows that p if and only if:

1) A believes that p.
2) A is justified in believing that p.
3) p is true

where A is a person and p is a proposition.  Here's what I'm calling epistemic humility: respect for another person's justifications; for the second component of truth.

Often we meet steps 1 and 2 but fail at step 3, which is another way of saying that many reasonable-sounding propositions that are supported by evidence turn out to be false.  This holds for scientific propositions (Ptolemy's cosmology, for instance), mathematical propositions and philosophical propositions.  It's usually impossible to know whether a certain philosophical proposition is true until you've gone down the route of justification.  A common and unfortunate pattern of behaviour is believing that steps 1 and 3 are all that matters - that if you believe in something that turns out to be true, you're 'better at knowledge' than somebody who justifiably believes something false.

Let's take anarchism as an example.  Say you're studying the ethical implications of anarchism - concepts of freedom, property, coercion and all that - and, while you started out fairly anarchist-leaning, you end up after several years at a middle-of-the-road establishment leftist position.  In this instance, you were wrong - and the legions of commenters at places like Balloon Juice were right.  "You took your time coming round," they might sneer, "but I always knew you hadn't really thought your position through."  But this kind of thing is coming from a person who has not thought their own position through themselves!  Are they really 'better at knowledge' than you?

This is where epistemic humility comes in. What the establishment leftists ought to do here is recognize that you had justification for your anarchist position, just as they and the far-righters have justification for theirs.  Unless you're holding a position that's obviously wrong (few positions fall into this category, especially if they've been written on by philosophers at some point or other), you deserve at least an appreciation of why you hold that position.

Be humble in this sense, and don't ridicule people who took a long time to come around to your position. After all, they know that their old position was wrong, while - even if it's true - you just believe it.

(I should mention that the example above is purely hypothetical, and I am still a dyed-in-the-wool bomb-throwing goatee-wearing anarchist.  Smash the state, yo.)

Bombs Or That Sort Of Thing

"Is he really an anarchist, then?" she asked.
"Only in that sense I speak of," replied Syme; "or if you prefer it, in that nonsense."
She drew her broad brows together and said abruptly—
"He wouldn't really use—bombs or that sort of thing?"
Syme broke into a great laugh, that seemed too large for his slight and somewhat dandified figure.
"Good Lord, no!" he said, "that has to be done anonymously."
And at that the corners of her own mouth broke into a smile, and she thought with a simultaneous pleasure of Gregory's absurdity and of his safety.

GK Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday.

Say what you like about his Catholicism, but Chesterton was a very funny writer.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Chesterton's Anarchist

"Well," I said, "if the time ever comes when we all storm those houses, will you tell me one thing? Tell me how we shall do it without authority? Tell me how you will have an army of revolt without discipline?"
From GK Chesterton's essay 'The Anarchist'.

Chesterton was a beautiful prose stylist, and The Man Who Was Thursday is still one of my favourite books ever.  Nevertheless, I sympathized with Lucian Gregory more than Gabriel Syme; and I feel that Chesterton's image of the dapper, theory-obsessed anarchist is less effective than it might be.  It's possible to ridicule any political philosophy - indeed, any philosophy - by setting as its sole defender a man like Chesterton's Anarchist, a man who can speak for hours without mentioning anything of real-world significance.

If Chesterton had met his other anarchist, Gregory, on that park bench, I suspect he would have had a harder job dismissing him.  And regardless, I like to think that today you could reply to Chesterton's question by mentioning Occupy or Tahrir Square (and I'm sure there were equivalents in Chesterton's time.)  An army of revolt is not only possible without discipline, it is impossible with discipline.  A revolution organized by a central authority is a revolution in the literal sense of the word - it goes around and around, without changing anything.

Monday, 12 December 2011

How To Talk To Crazy People

(I'm aware that 'crazy' is pretty loaded language for people with mental disabilities.  I'm using it in the colloquial sense; if that's a problem for anybody, let me know and I'll probably change it.)

It's a reasonable question: how do you talk to people you think are crazy?  I'm not mainly talking about people who disagree about matters of established fact, but people who have a basic preference that you simply can't understand.  Say you're a committed fan of chocolate milk (or Jesus) and you meet somebody who's an equally committed fan of unflavoured soy milk (or Joseph Smith).  If you can't find the slightest shred of common ground, what on earth do you do?

Step 1: Back Away Slowly

If you can't find common ground with this person, then don't!  Go and talk to somebody else about chocolate milk and the Incarnation.  You'll have a better time, and so will they.  It's very unlikely that you'll be able to convince this person of anything, and you need to realize this as soon as possible.  As David Hume said, you can argue about how things are, not how things ought to be.  The instant you start using the magical cancer-curing properties of cocoa beans to argue that your preference for chocolate milk is objectively superior, you're trying to justify the unjustifiable.  Would you like it if they used the excellent prose of Orson Scott Card [1] to convince you that Mormons were right?  Probably not.

Step 2: Ask Questions

So you've tried to get away from this person, but you can't. Maybe they're your significant other's parents; maybe they're your son.  Maybe they're Superman, and they're following you with super-speed!  In any case, you're forced to have a conversation - a conversation you should start by asking questions.  You know that you're not going to convince them of anything, but you can't assume that this soy-milk-drinking Mormon feels the same way.  If you make flat statements about your belief in the love of Christ, it's likely to come off to them as an attack.  Far better to ask them about the health benefits of soy protein and sit back.

Step 3: Keep It Friendly

At some point in the conversation, chances are that either you or them are going to get angry about something and want to argue. This is a terrible idea!  Unless one of you is engaged in some kind of logical contradiction - you believe in the absolute value of limited government, say, but you want abortion to be illegal - there's no possibility of making headway.  It's tempting to assume that the other person is engaged in a contradiction, but don't: if there exists any consistent set of principles (a reflective equilibrium) that could justify their behavior, assume that they hold those principles.  This is a practical point - think how silly you'll look if they turn out to be consistent after all.

These steps are common sense, and I wouldn't have mentioned them at all if these kind of pointless debates didn't happen every day (on the internet and elsewhere).  On the internet, backing away slowly always works, so next time you're tempted to get in a huge fight, go outside instead.  Or read a book.  Or do literally anything else.


[1] This is, of course, a matter of opinion.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Ripple, Ripple

One way to get around the infinite-future problem posed in my last post would be to view consequences as like ripples in a pond: very strong around the point of origin, but getting progressively weaker as time goes on.  If I shoot a man in Reno, just to watch him die, the immediate effects are huge - a man dies, his family are adversely affected, I might be arrested and jailed - but the secondary effects are a little smaller. 

Now, if it's true that a 'butterfly effect' occurs, then the secondary effects aren't practically smaller.  In a hundred years' time, the world might be substantially different than if I had not shot a man - but we can work around that as well.  As time passes, even if the ripples don't diffuse, the responsibility does.  Other people make decisions based off my shooting a man; people make decisions off their decisions; and it goes on and on like that. 

A consequentialist might say that I am not responsible for a third-tier decision made by somebody, or at least that they bear the responsibility for the consequences of their actions as much as I do.  On this view, after a hundred years, the number of people who made decisions based off my decision has ballooned to millions, who all bear the responsibility equally.  My responsibility for the state of the world then has broken up into a million fragments - and when near-infinite time passes, my responsibility dwindles to an infinitesimally small value.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Moral Luck and the Infinite Future

In my last posts I talked about Thomas Nagel's 'moral luck' and the problem it posed for consequentialism: if the morality of an action is dependent on the consequences, doesn't that mean that how moral our actions are is determined to some extent by chance?  Let's consider how this works for a moment.  We can control the morality of our actions to the exact same extent that we can predict or control the consequences of those actions.  If we know exactly what will happen when we take a particular action, then we can act in a way that we know is moral, right?  Well, sure, but that's not a situation that occurs in real life.

Most of us can have a pretty good guess at the short-term consequences of our actions. If we are very clever, we can sometimes predict the consequences of our actions over the period of a few years.  Nobody, however, can accurately predict what's going to happen in a few hundred years (outside of some very specific scientific claims,) and the future just keeps on going.  Consider the total consequences of an action, which are infinite or near-infinite, and consider the percentage of those consequences that we can predict.  It's an infinitely small percentage, which means that we have infinite uncertainty as to how moral any action we take is.

Applying moral luck to the infinite future means that consequentialism suddenly becomes much, much less practical.  A simple corollary: not only can we control the morality of our own actions, we can't judge the morality of other people's actions either.  How can a utilitarian say that Stalin's actions were wrong when the full consequences aren't yet clear?  You might pick an arbitrary period - say, fifty years - over which to consider the results of Stalin's actions, but I can see no way of justifying why one might pick fifty years rather than fifty thousand.


(I should mention I'm talking exclusively about 'resultant moral luck'.  Nagel identifies three other kinds of moral luck that are less important.)

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Nagel's Moral Luck

Here's a quick philosophical sketch of a concept that I think is useful when discussing consequentialist theories of ethics (theories where the moral value of an act is determined by its consequences, like utilitarianism).  If I'm missing an important aspect of this, feel free to correct me.

Thomas Nagel's concept of 'moral luck' is exactly what it sounds like: when how moral you are is determined by luck.  Intuitively, we think that we can decide (at least in theory) what the right action is before we act, and if stuff happens that's out of our control, then that's not our fault, right?  Not according to consequentialists: they argue that if the consequences of your action are bad then your action was bad - regardless of what your intentions were.

Here's a fairly uncontroversial example: two smokers are walking at night, each down a different street in a different city.  Both smokers take a last drag and toss their cigarette into someone's front garden - but while the first smoker's cigarette lands in a puddle of water and gets put out, the second smoker's cigarette lands in a spilled puddle of kerosene and sets the whole garden and house alight, killing everyone inside.  We would tend to regard the first smoker's act as an asshole move, but nothing too serious, and certainly not criminal.  The second smoker, though, is the kind of guy who gets used in cheesy anti-tobacco PSAs.  What's the difference between the two?  Just luck.

This, says Nagel, presents a problem for consequentialists. How can they provide an intuitive explanation for not considering both smokers equally?  There are various ways of dealing with this - expected value consequentialism, drawing a distinction between blame and moral responsibility - but I contend that the problem's larger than Nagel makes out.  In my next post I'll explain how.

Why We Thugs

Call me an animal up in the system
But who's the animal that built this prison

Man, prisons are a terrible idea. Or, in other words: "The prison also produces delinquents by imposing violent constraints on its inmates; it is supposed to apply law, and to teach respect for it; but all its functioning operates in the form of an abuse of power. The arbitrary power of the administration."

Is it just me, or is there very little pro-establishment hip-hop?