Thursday, January 31, 2008
Carter begins part 3 of his lecture with his second "torpedo": Richard Lindzen's Solar Iris hypothesis. In what has to be the most infuriating part of the lecture so far, he claims that Lindzen's hypothesis has been verified by the fact that cirrus clouds dissipate after a rainfall event, entailing that rain allows more heat to escape into the atmosphere. But as far as I can tell, the argument about the Solar Iris effect isn't about that. It's about whether or not higher ocean temperatures would encourage more efficient precipitation and changes in cloud characteristics. The whole point of Lindzen's hypothesis is to suggest that global warming will be mitigated by a negative feedback caused by changes in rain patterns and cloud cover. That is, as the oceans get warmer, they'll evaporate more, which will cause more efficient precipitation and changes in cloud characteristics which will allow more heat to escape into space, thereby reducing warming. Demonstrating that precipitation affects clouds doesn't prove anything of any relevance. Carter would need to show that increases in ocean temperatures have the sort of effect Lindzen discusses, and he doesn't do that. So "torpedo" two misses its target as well.
Torpedo 3 is much more to the point. Carter rightly points out that concern about climate change is largely drawn from anticipated positive feedbacks thought to occur in the event of warming. On its own, an increased atmospheric concentration of CO2 wouldn't produce the kinds of problematic changes in global temperature that are generating concern among scientists. To be clear, there would be other consequences (like acidification of rain and the oceans, as well as increased capacity for plant growth in water limited areas and better growing characteristics in other places), but the concern about temperature is largely based on predictions of positive feedbacks. Carter gives the example of water vapor, but other positive feedbacks have been described. For example, as temperatures rise, glaciers and ice sheets would be projected to retreat. Because ice is white, while soil, rock and ocean are dark, retreating ice increases the absorption of light by the Earth's surface, resulting in warming.
But it's certainly possible that Carter is right, and on the balance the Earth system is dominated by negative feedbacks. If that were the case, then perhaps concern over climate change is overblown. But the current stance taken by the IPCC is that we have no reason to believe that Carter is right about this, and it's actually quite likely that we've underestimated the positive feedbacks, and climate sensitivity is actually greater than we currently give it credit for being. So for people who say that the science is settled and we can all go home, this point should serve as a wakeup call. But that's not to say that the mainstream view is not aware of it. In fact, the study of feedbacks is one of the most important parts of climate research today, and we're learning more about how they work all the time. So while Carter is right to say that this is an area of uncertainty, it's absolutely unfair of him to say that it in any way disproves the mainstream view. In fact, it's central to the mainstream view, and explains the caution with which the IPCC makes its predictions.
Carter, however, cites a prediction by Stephen E. Schwartz that pegs climate sensitivity at 1 degree for a doubling of CO2. I'm not familiar with the exact paper that he refers to, but I've read some stuff by Schwartz, and I know that he's both controversial and intelligent. So I won't discard Schwartz' opinion as nonsense, because I respect him tremendously, but I also would caution against taking his views as proof of anything.
And I would strongly disagree with Carter's claim that this "torpedo" is devastating to the mainstream assessment. The mainstream view is the result of a comprehensive examination of the available opinions in the field. Taking the conclusions offered by one paper as proof that the mainstream view is wrong is just irresponsible. This is especially clear when Schwartz' prediction actually falls within the confidence interval of the IPCC prediction! So it's not even like the IPCC is saying that Schwartz' prediction is wrong! It's simply saying that most scientists disagree, and for good reasons, but it's certainly possible that Schwartz is right. The strongest thing Schwartz could say in objection is that his confidence interval extends significantly below that of the IPCC, and so some low levels of sensitivity he thinks are reasonably likely are held to be highly unlikely by the IPCC. But if I had to, I could undoubtedly find you a whole collection of reputable scientists predicting at the high end of the interval, upset about the conservative predictions being made by the mainstream community. So to use Schwartz' paper as a "torpedo" is just patently absurd, and I'd suspect that Schwartz might agree (though he'd probably attack the mainstream opinion for other reasons, some of which I likely touched on in this post).
Carter then goes on to lambaste some climate modelers for not being able to properly model the climate. He doesn't actually go into the reasons that modeling might fail, but in the aforementioned post, I briefly sketched some of those kinds of problems, and I happen to think that attacking climate models is a potentially fruitful avenue of attack on mainstream concern. I do think, though, that Carter was out of line in the degree to which he ridiculed these modelers. It's not fair to make them the whipping boys for the problems with modeling. And it's also not fair to suggest that models in general can't be relied on because this one attempt at a climate model didn't produce very good results. Maybe the paper wasn't accepted because of its model; maybe it was worth publishing for some other reason. I've seen model reconstructions, and while they aren't all the best, they're certainly not as awful as he makes them out to be.
In the middle of his tirade, Carter slips in the suggestion that the sun is actually to blame for climate change, which is much more controversial than it looks on the graph he uses. Actually, the solar influence on the climate system has been widely studied, and the IPCC has made an attempt to quantify it. Of course, it's possible that the IPCC doesn't have a good handle on all of the effects of the sun on the Earth system (as has been suggested by people like Willie Soon, Sally Baliunas, Henrik Svensmark, and many others). But while I'm not sure I'm convinced that the solar hypothesis has been disproved, I do think that a lot of work needs to be done if it's going to withstand some of the more convincing criticism it's received.
We'll see if Carter leans on this point in the next part, but hopefully he doesn't, since it's not really the most fruitful line of attack.
[Go on to Part IV]
It seems that the link Dr. Hunt sent me did not contain parts 2-4 of the lecture. But never fear; I found part 2 on YouTube, so you can watch it there.
In this part, Carter starts off by trying to interpret the temperature trend in the late twentieth century. This makes me a little uneasy because he actually comes out and says that his explanation of the data set as an instance of a step shift is somehow "a much more reasonable interpretation of the data." To illustrate why, it should be noted that an equally plausible claim would be that the trend was flat from 1975 to 1990, and then began to scale upwards in a linear fashion until the present time. But more important is the fact that he's suddenly moved from a time scale of hundreds of thousands of years to a scale of about a quarter century, and is now suddenly interpreting trends, even though he just said that climate trends can't fairly be discussed on such short time scales. To be clear, it's pushing it to say that we can isolate a trend in a century of climate data; it's completely ridiculous to attempt to do so definitively for a time span of three decades, and then say that any other interpretation is flat wrong.
As I feared, Carter's next move is to suggest that the climate has indeed entered a period of "stasis" over the past several years, during a period in which atmospheric levels of CO2 have risen, and therefore the anthropogenic climate change hypothesis has been falsified. Keep in mind that he's just gotten through suggesting that the climate is characterized by extreme levels of natural variability, and that he seems to be implying that it is this variability, and not anthropogenic CO2 emissions, that are responsible for the temperature variations that we've seen over the past century. But if natural variability could be responsible for the entire temperature variation over the twentieth century, why couldn't it be responsible for the recent discrepancies between actual warming and the influence of CO2? That is, why couldn't CO2 be causing the climate to warm, but natural variability be causing the climate to cool, resulting in no trend? I can't think of any reason.
That's not to say that the past several years don't need to be explained. Surely they do. But they shouldn't be taken as proof that anthropogenic climate change isn't happening. They offer no stronger support of skepticism than a decade of warming would offer in support of an anthropogenic climate change hypothesis. And surely if the past decade showed a warming trend, we wouldn't hear that the skeptics had given up. So it just seems like an odd point to try to make. Of course, if the models on which concern about climate change is based predicted warming over the past decade, and there hasn't been any, then it seems like we would have a bigger problem. But I haven't heard anything like that, and Carter isn't saying it, so I'd suspect that it hasn't happened. And if it hasn't happened, then it's likely that it wasn't really contrary to mainstream expectations at all.
That, of course, shouldn't be taken as proof against Carter. But it certainly raises the question why, in a time period in which the IPCC has been working on its latest report which has just recently been released, was no one making a huge deal about this issue? Why is some geologist from Australia the first one to bring it up? It seems much more likely that it's because it's not an issue than that it simply never occurred to anyone.
Carter's next point is, essentially, that some Australian scientist guy doesn't believe that climate change is occurring, that a committee of some sort potentially overstepped its boundaries by making statements it wasn't qualified to make, and that most people who talk about climate change don't know what they're talking about. I honestly see no reason to object to any of these claims, but I'll point out that they have absolutely nothing to do with anything, and certainly aren't a "torpedo" against the mainstream view.
He moves on to say that governments around the world have agreed that "the Alarmist case does not stack up." And this is true, except that the "Alarmists" those governments are talking about are the ones predicting certain doom and catastrophe, while Carter seems to be implying that anyone concerned about climate change is an alarmist. This isn't fair, but it's a rather minor point anyway.
Carter ends the section by comparing the mainstream opinion to a religion. Given what he's said so far, I think it's fair to say that he either hasn't read the IPCC's reports, or is intentionally misrepresenting them. The fact of the matter is that the science is available for anyone to see. The reason that people like Carter get shouted down is that they misrepresent the science and convince people of things that aren't supportable, even with the data that Carter uses. But more importantly, people like Carter get shouted down because the people who could explain why they're wrong are too busy to deal with people like Carter. Just look at how much time I've just spent critiquing 17 or so minutes of Carter's speech. It's simply not worth it for a reputable climate scientist to go through this every time a Bob Carter comes around spouting a bunch of nonsense.
But I'll forge on to the next section; hopefully things get better and not worse...
[Go on to Part III]
One of the first points Carter brings up is one which was made most famous by Bjorn Lomborg, which is that it would require significant energy and resources to do something about climate change, and more benefit would come from doing things about more pressing current problems like global poverty. Though Lomborg has written multiple books on the subject, his views are more or less captured in this speech he gave to Congress last year. I have a lot of sympathy for this viewpoint, though most people who hold it come to their conclusions by discounting future costs by something of a “social discount rate.” I’ve written about discounting damage caused by climate change in a paper I can make available by request. But it’s possible that even without discounting, the damage associated with climate change is significantly outweighed by the damage caused by things like poverty, hunger and AIDS. I’ve discussed this possibility here, concluding that while I see where Lomborg is coming from, I believe that if we're responsible for causing climate change, then the damage it causes is morally different than damage caused by things we're not responsible for bringing about, like hunger and AIDS.
Carter moves on to a slide discussing the long term temperature trends displayed by "Greenland ice cores." This is an intriguing move, because one of two things could be happening, and because I'm writing this critique as I'm watching, I'm not sure which it is. The first is that he's being honest and showing that different proxies in different regions show very different things, and that it's extremely difficult to separate global trends from regional anomalies and noise. This is especially important because the time period we're analyzing in discussing climate change is extremely short. And when talking about climate change in the context of historical climate conditions, we're forced to rely on these proxies because before about 100 years ago, we weren't able to acquire reliable human-instrument-measured temperature data.
This sort of view was put best, I think, by Stephen Gardiner in his 2004 essay, "Ethics and Global Climate Change," in Ethics, Vol. 114 , No. 3, pages 555-600 (and yes, I think I will cite this quote in every post on climate change, thank you very much). On page 567, he wrote, "The skeptics are right...when they assert that the observational temperature record is a weak data set and that the long-term history of the climate is such that even if the data were more robust, we would be rash to conclude that humans are causing it solely on this basis. Still, it would be a mistake to infer too much from the truth of these claims. For it would be equally rash to dismiss the possibility of warming on these grounds. For, even though it might be true that the empirical evidence is consistent with there being no anthropogenic warming, it is also true that it provides just the kind of record we would expect if there were a real global warming problem."
But the dishonest thing he could be doing, which is so obviously dishonest that it would be fair to question his intentions if he were doing it, is suggesting that the Greenland ice cores are representative of the historical global temperature record. To do so would be just as dishonest as focusing on the fact that in North America, 1998 was no warmer than 1934, even though worldwide, 1934 was a significantly cooler year than 1998 (which is true, by the way). But it would be especially dishonest of him to infer from this something like "Global warming is likely due to natural variability" or "Over the last 8 years, global warming has halted, as we can see from these Greenland ice cores." But let's see what he actually does say.
What he does, incidentally, is move onto the idea that we're currently in an unusually warm period of time, and that we can expect that in the future, the world will become much colder than it is today. This time I'm not sure what point he's trying to make if he's not being intellectually dishonest. It's true that some time over the next several millenia (or maybe less), it's probably fair to predict that the Earth will enter a prolonged cooler period, where humans will likely be driven towards the equator in order to avoid the encroaching ice caps characteristic of the Pleistocene era (the period between 1.8 million years ago and about 11,550 years ago), as there is indeed no reason to believe that the Holocene warming (the period we live in) represents an end to the Pleistocene.
But it's also true that all of human civilization arose during the Holocene warm period, so it's irrelevant to point out that the climate is "typically" colder than it is today. This is especially significant because I haven't heard any predictions that the next glaciation is to come any time soon. If we can predict dangerous warming over the next several centuries, then I'm not really sure how it's relevant to point out that in several thousand years, we'll likely experience another ice age. Impacts on humans need to be discussed over smaller time scales than the extremely large geological time scales that he's using.
The last point he makes in this section, regarding the polar bears, is an important one. Most scientists don't believe that polar bears will likely become extinct as the result of climate change, though their habitat will likely be reduced significantly. Polar bears have been around a very long time, and will likely figure out how to make do. That being said, this speaks more to sensationalism in the media than the scientific basis for concern about climate change, and so it's not clear why he brings it up at this point, unless it's just for comic relief. I wonder, though, if that's a penguin on that grill; polar bears and penguins live on opposite ends of the Earth.
So far, I can't object to any of the facts Carter has brought up, but I'm sort of uncomfortable about the way that he's presented them. He's been good about not actually saying anything that's false, or drawing any conclusions which he has no right to draw. But he has seemed to imply a lot of things which aren't right, and if I didn't know better, I would think he was trying to lead people astray. Anyway, on to the next section!
[Go on to part II]
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Before asking whether future people do have such a right, it seems important to know whether it would make sense to talk about such a right being held in light of the non-identity problem. Let me try to flesh out why this is an issue at all.
To say that another way, when we talk about an infringement of rights, we compare a certain outcome to a baseline. In a paradigm case, we might say that if I infringe your right not to be robbed by robbing you, I "move you away" from the baseline of you not being robbed, in the "direction" of you being robbed. And if I infringe your right to inherit an unspoiled Earth, I must be bringing it about that you do not inherit an unspoiled Earth. And indeed I do. But I can't coherently say that I "move you away" from a baseline of inheriting an unspoiled Earth. So instead I have to say that I simply place you in a situation in which you are not on the baseline.
Is this morally the same sort of thing? If the critical element of a rights infringement is that I bring it about that you aren't on the baseline, then my action might qualify as one. But we have to acknowledge that your rights are not to "remaining on the baseline" or "not being moved away from the baseline." They're purely to "being on the baseline," even though you couldn't possibly have been there. We would have to say that the "movement away" from the baseline is not an essential part of the equation. But honestly, I think it is. So unless someone can give me a reason to feel differently, I'm concluding that there isn't a good way to say that future people could have a right to inherit an unspoiled Earth.
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
This section almost made me angry, but I just had the most delicious Cuban rice and beans, and nothing can bring me down right now. So, as calmly as I can, I'll attempt to show why this section is preposterous.
On page 57, Stefan writes, "Using the above "lifeboat scenarios," the conclusion is often drawn that "the good" is simply that which is "good" for an individual man's life. It's important to note that this isn't the only conclusion that can be drawn, nor is it even the most commonly drawn conclusion. Other conclusions include the idea that "the good" is "that which is preferred by the agent" (which is not the same, since people aren't completely self-interested), or that it's "that which produces the most happiness," or "that which corresponds to general rules which, if universally followed, produce the most happiness," or "that which is preferred by the agent, but doesn't violate the rights of others" (where these rights are construed in a way that doesn't prohibit the standard reaction to the lifeboat situation). Also included is the conclusion, "Our perceptions about lifeboat situations are unfounded."
So when Stefan offers his "syllogism" later on the page, in which he "concludes" (through a clearly invalid argument) that "Thus what is good for the individual is the ultimate moral standard," we can replace his conclusion with "Thus ____________" (where the blank is filled with one of the above views), and be on exactly the same ground (this is why philosophers prefer valid arguments).
Stefan's next step is to critique this "what is good for the individual is the ultimate moral standard" point of view. He writes, "This kind of "biological hedonism" may be a description of the "drive to survive," but it is only correct insofar as it describes what people actually do, not what they should do." But obviously, the alleged "biological hedonist" would object, saying that in this case, what people actually do is what they should do, because biological hedonism is true. Stefan offers absolutely no argument against this.
Instead, he offers an absolutely maddening critique, writing that this kind of position "...also introduces a completely unscientific subjectivism to the question of morality. For instance, if it is morally permissible to steal food when you are starving, how much food can you steal? How hungry do you have to be? Can you steal food that is not nutritious? How nutritious does the food have to be in order to justify stealing it? How long after stealing one meal are you allowed to steal another meal? Are you allowed to steal meals rather than look for work or appeal to charity?"
The reason this critique is so maddening is that Stefan just finished saying that we need to make room for gray areas, and that people who obsess over specifics are obviously wrong. Basically, his argument is, "Because we can't draw a non-arbitrary line between when it's permissible to steal and when it isn't, and clearly it's not always permissible to steal, it follows that it's never permissible to steal." But he literally just finished a section that had the sole purpose of making the point that "People who insist on non-arbitrary distinctions are ridiculous." And by "just finished," I mean that this section started on the same page as the one in which he made that point.
Then, as if he hadn't done enough to ensure that I would wake up with bad-philosophy-nightmares tonight, he concludes by saying, "As we can see, the introduction of "what is good for man in the abstract - or what most people do - is what is universally preferable" destroys the very concept of morality as a logically consistent theory, and substitutes mere biological drives as justifications for behaviour. It is an explanation of behaviour, not a proposed moral theory."
But by Stefan's own assertion, moral theories are supposed to "identify" universally preferable behavior. This controversy isn't about morality, but rather about what is universally preferable. If what's preferable for people to do is that which is good for them personally, then by Stefan's own argument, any moral theory which did not accept this would be wrong. Stefan is just blatantly contradicting himself here. Basically, he's objecting to a particular theory of the good by appealing to a moral theory which identifies behaviors which the theory of the good does not consider universally preferable. Given the relationship Stefan's drawn between moral theories and universally preferable behavior, this objection is inexcusably misguided. It's like objecting to the alignment of real roads because you have a badly drawn map. "My map clearly shows that these roads aren't aligned this way, so how could they be?" Since in Stefan's framework, moral theories identify universally preferable behavior, it's not possible to object to a characterization of universally preferable behavior on the basis of a moral theory. The entailment goes in the opposite direction.
Stefan seems to more or less wrap up in the next section, so I'll put that into a new post and offer some preliminary closing thoughts on Stefan's argument.
I won't dwell on Stefan's discussion in his section on "Gray Areas," except to note that he belies a complete lack of knowledge about the things he's talking about. Philosophy of biology is a thriving and interesting field, and if Stefan wants to criticize people who hold certain views, he should first find out why they hold them. As it stands, he regrettably ends up sounding like one of the countless bitter pseudo-intellectuals who think that mainstream philosophy is stupid because philosophers hold positions that sound obviously counterintuitive to people who don't understand what they actually are, or why they should be believed. I think Stefan's better than that, and I wish he wouldn't give me reason to doubt that opinion.
In the next section, on page 56, Stefan asserts that "Clearly" the statement that "There are no such things as gray areas" can be "easily discarded," and thereby concludes that certain gray areas do exist. I don't want to dwell on this, but some people might say that gray areas don't actually exist, but language is often imprecise, and knowledge is often incomplete, leading to the usefulness of accepting the concept of gray areas. Either way, most people are relatively comfortable with the idea that some ideas cannot be (or sometimes are not) expressed with perfect precision, and that this shouldn't lead us to reject a statement as being false.
But I just wanted to point out in passing that Stefan's examples make no sense. He writes, "...certain gray areas do exist, and we know that they are gray relative to the areas that are not gray." So far so good. He continues, "Oxygen exists in space, and also underwater, but not in a form or quantity that human beings can consume." Still okay. "The degree of oxygenation is a gray area, i.e. "less versus more"; the question of whether or not human beings can breathe water is surely black and white." Huh? What does that even mean?
The next example: "A scientist captured by cannibals may pretend to be a witch-doctor in order to escape - this does not mean that we must dismiss the scientific method as entirely invalid." Again, huh? The scientific method is useful for working towards knowledge. A scientist captured by cannibals wouldn't be pursuing knowledge when she acted like a witch-doctor, and (as Stefan seems to imply) the scientific method would be an awful tool for escaping from murderous cannibals. How does this have anything to do with gray areas?
Then Stefan makes a pretty big mistake. He writes, "Similarly, there can be extreme situations wherein we may choose to commit immoral actions, but such situations do not invalidate the science of morality, any more than occasional mutations invalidate the science of biology." This is plainly an unsubstantiated claim. Biology doesn't claim to make incontrovertible claims about animals. According to Stefan, universally preferable behavior identifies behavior which everyone should engage in. Otherwise, he would simply have to say that there is no universally preferable behavior for the kind of situation in question. If biology made the kinds of claims that Stefan makes about universally preferable behavior, then it would be "invalidated" by occasional mutations. The science of biology survives because it doesn't make the kinds of claims that Stefan is making. Biology can't define a species in a strict manner for precisely that reason. And biologists don't. Since Stefan is defining morality in a strict manner, he's helping himself to some wiggle room that he has no right to.
Stefan's conclusion, incidentally, is correct. But I'm not sure how he arrives at it. He writes, "In fact, the science of biology is greatly advanced through the acceptance and examination of mutations - and similarly, the science of ethics is only strengthened through an examination of "lifeboat scenarios," as long as such an examination is not pursued obsessively." It's true that ethical theories are improved by taking "lifeboat scenarios" into account. But if morals are supposed to identify universally preferable behaviors, then it's clear that moral theories must be changed in order to take account of these scenarios. That is, Stefan is running into problems because he insists on calling the reactions in lifeboat scenarios "immoral." If he thinks that we should commit these actions, then he cannot call them immoral. And if he thinks that we shouldn't, then he'll need to offer the kind of explanation I discussed in my last post.
I'm going to pause here before moving into the next section, "Universality and Exceptions," because I have a funny feeling that it's going to take a while.
Not having written this post yet, but having read the section on which it will be based, I have a feeling that this is the Gettysburg of the project. I don't think there's any way to interpret what Stefan says here in any way that wouldn't lead us to reject his argument completely. It's almost as if he doesn't understand the implications of what he's said thus far in the book.
But before I get into those problems, I want to address something I just noticed. I initially started my post by writing the following:
The problems begin right away when on page 55, Stefan starts the section with the words, "The fact that UPB only validates logically consistent moral theories..." Without even letting Stefan finish the sentence, two glaring issues should be obvious. First, logically inconsistent moral theories are necessarily invalid, and therefore cannot be validated by anything. To say that something only validates logically consistent theories doesn't tell us anything about anything. Everything that validates theories only validates logically consistent moral theories.
Second, Stefan has defined morality as a set of "rules" which identify universally preferable behavior. In other words, if something is morally right, it is universally preferable, and if it is morally wrong, then avoidance of it is universally preferable. Accordingly, it means precisely nothing that universally preferable behavior "validates" morality. So "The fact that UPB only validates logically consistent moral theories" can not possibly tell us anything about anything, except maybe the principle of non-contradiction. Moral theories are universally preferable behavior.
But suddenly I noticed something. On page 40, Stefan indeed wrote, "...morals are a set of rules claiming to accurately and consistently identify universally preferable human behaviours..." But on page 48, Stefan wrote, "Ethics is the subset of UPB which deals with inflicted behaviour, or the use of violence. Any theory that justifies or denies the use of violence is a moral theory..." I'm wondering if perhaps I had misinterpreted Stefan earlier, and whether that misinterpretation could be important. Perhaps somehow Stefan thinks that moral theories identify universally preferable behavior, but are somehow external to that framework. That is, a moral theory could, as part of its nature, identify universally preferable behaviors in the process of justifying or denying the use of violence. But it would do so in the way that normal ethical theories do that (by using normative concepts).
To be clear, if I'm misinterpreting Stefan, it's because he misspoke when he said that Ethics is a subset of UPB. A normative system of ethics cannot be a subset of a framework which positively identifies actions which are required for achieving particular ends. Stefan would need a theory of axiology (what sorts of things have moral standing or moral significance?) which he hasn't offered, as well as a set of moral principles (what does it mean to have moral standing or moral significance?) which he also hasn't offered, in order to justify normative views. But if he were talking about morality as a normative system which operates separately from the concept of universally preferable behavior, it would clear up a lot of my confusion about why Stefan seems to think universally preferable behavior suggests any particular moral theories.
This reinterpretation of Stefan's view also responds to the second part of my original objection, that Stefan's claim about moral theories being validated by universally preferable behavior is meaningless because moral theories are the same thing as universally preferable behavior. According to my suggested revision, a moral theory wouldn't be the same thing as universally preferable behavior.
Of course, Stefan's point still doesn't say anything, because obviously only consistent moral theories can be validated (note that Stefan doesn't say that moral theories can be proven sound by reference to universally preferable behavior; I'm not sure if this is intentional, but if it is, then it's clear that Stefan has acknowledged that moral theories don't follow from the concept of universally preferable behavior).
So let's move on to the rest of Stefan's opening statement. He writes, "The fact that UPB only validates logically consistent moral theories does not mean that there can be no conceivable circumstances under which we may choose to act against the tenets of such a theory." This conclusion is not technically problematic, but could be very misleading. Stefan has indeed said (on page 33), that "...when I talk about universal preferences, I am talking about what people should prefer, not what they always do prefer." So it's true that people might choose to act against a moral theory, because they prefer something they shouldn't prefer.
But what might be misleading is that someone might interpret this statement to be saying that sometimes we should act in a way that goes against a moral theory. So far as moral theories identify universally preferable behaviors (as Stefan said on page 40), a sound moral theory must always identify behaviors which we never should avoid doing. A moral theory cannot say "X is a universally preferable behavior" and also "Person A should do ~X (~ is philosophical notation for "not" or "the negation of")." To do so would be inconsistent. And as Stefan has correctly acknowledged, only consistent moral theories are valid.
In light of this fact, how can we interpret Stefan's next paragraph? He writes: "For instance, if we accept the universal validity of property rights, smashing a window and jumping into someone's apartment without permission would be a violation of his property rights. However, if we were hanging off a flagpole outside an apartment window, and about to fall to our deaths, few of us would decline to kick in the window and jump to safety for the sake of obeying an abstract principle." This is sort of a shocking paragraph, in light of Stefan's apparent respect for the concept of property rights, because he seems to be unknowingly declaring it to be problematic! Watch:
1) To adopt an ethical system including property rights entails acceptance of the claim that it is universally preferable to avoid smashing someone's window and jumping into her apartment.
2) If a behavior X is universally preferable, it means that no one should do ~X.
3) If someone should smash someone else's window and jump into her apartment, then it must not be the case that no one should smash someone else's window and jump into her apartment.
4) If it is not the case that no one should smash someone else's window and jump into her apartment, then avoiding smashing someone else's window and jumping into her apartment is not universally preferable.
5) If avoiding smashing someone else's window and jumping into her apartment is not universally preferable, then adopting an ethical system including property rights entails acceptance of a false claim.
Accordingly, the integrity of the concept of property rights (in a moral system which, by Stefan's definition, identifies universally preferable behavior, and according to a system of property rights which matches Stefan's characterization), it must be the case that no one should ever smash someone's window and jump into her apartment. But Stefan seems to be suggesting that we would all do so if put in the right situation. So what's going on here? Is Stefan saying that we'd all do it, but that we all shouldn't do it?
Another clue can be found in the fourth paragraph of the section, where Stefan writes, "This is not to say that breaking the window to save your life is not wrong. It is, but it is a wrong that almost all of us would choose to commit rather than die. If I were on the verge of starving to death, I would steal an apple. This does not mean that it is right for me to steal the apple - it just means that I would do it..." This statement brings us all the way back to the beginning.
In TMP 4, I first expressed concern over an example Stefan offered where he seemed to imply that a hunger striker and suicide victim were "bad ends." And in TMP 6, I had this to say:What sorts of ends could be identified as being preferable for all people? Can we evaluate whether ends are preferable? Economists typically take ends as given, and don't attempt to say anything about what is best for people. Psychologists can evaluate ends on some level, but usually have to operate from the presupposition that people want to obtain some sort of happiness or wellbeing. This is relatively uncontroversial for most people, but it's unclear what one might say to someone who rejected that what's best is to be happy or well off (where wellbeing is not synonymous with welfare/preference satisfaction). Religious thinkers are typically the source of ideas about the proper ends of mankind; following much the same line of thinking as Stefan's account of preferable behavior, it doesn't matter what you do prefer, but rather what you should prefer. Economists and psychologists can only talk about what you should prefer given some presupposition about your ends. If Stefan wants to make statements about universally preferable behavior, then he'll have to either say that all individuals do hold certain ends, which would validate the economic/psychological style of presupposing ends, or he'll have to make some sort of statement about what ends people should prefer, more in the style of religious thought (this isn't to say that only religious people use this style; Ayn Rand is a perfect example of someone who used it without any explicitly religious claims).
It seems like my suspicions were warranted. In his discussion of right and wrong, Stefan now seems to be talking about "proper" ends, instead of the ends people actually have. So, for example, I value my own life, and in order to preserve it, it might be necessary for me to smash a window and climb into an apartment without permission. But Stefan seems to think that it's "wrong" for me to do this. I don't think that it's controversial to suggest that he means that it's "immoral" or "unethical" for me to do it, which would entail that it's "universally preferable" for me not to do it. But so far as we take "preferable" to mean "required for the achievement of certain ends," we seem to have a problem.
If the "certain" ends are my ends, then it's preferable for me to smash the window and climb in. And if it's preferable for me to do so (and as Stefan suggests, most people would want to do it, so under this interpretation of "preferable," it would be preferable for most people to do so as well), then it wouldn't make sense to say that it's "universally preferable behavior" to avoid smashing in the window. Accordingly, any theory of morality claiming that avoiding smashing the window is universally preferable would be making a false claim, and would be proven unsound. And it seems that Stefan thinks the doctrine of property rights makes such a claim (of course, it doesn't need to, but Stefan doesn't acknowledge that).
If the doctrine of property rights is not proven false by the fact that my ends require me to smash in the window, then it must be the case that the "certain" ends served by universally preferable behavior aren't my own ends, but rather some other sorts of ends ("proper" ends, perhaps we would say). Accordingly, it could be perfectly consistent with my own ends to smash the window, but still preferable that I not smash the window, because not smashing the window is required for attaining these other ends. Only under this kind of interpretation of "preferable" behavior could we say that my behavior is "wrong," even though my own ends require that I do what I'm doing.
But if this is what we're going with, then why would I care about what's preferable? What reason could I possibly have for giving precedence to ends which are not my own over ends that are my own? Religion says this kind of thing all the time, but Stefan has no God to lean on. I really want to see what he's going to say about this.
So I wrote an article about restraining people from using drugs, which received a rather hostile response from a number of Strike-the-Root readers. Fellow Root-Striker Glen Allport also responded rather heatedly a few days later. Unfortunately, I honestly don’t have the time and energy that this debate deserves, so I won’t be releasing a reply in the form of another article (at least not any time soon). But I didn’t want to just walk away in the middle of the conversation, so I figure I should address some of the concerns expressed by Glen in his article, and by Rob (the editor of Strike-the-Root) in personal correspondence. I apologize in advance if the style and readability aren’t up to my normal standards, but I just want to get this posted so I can devote my energy elsewhere. And Glen, I liked your original title idea better, so I stole it. Thanks!
My article did operate on the premise that we have reason to believe that the jogger doesn't want to run off the bridge, and we would be able to convey the relevant information to him without imposing any significant harm upon him. I maintain that if these things were true, then we would be justified in grabbing the jogger. And so far as informing someone about the risks of drug use is analogous to the situation involving the jogger, I think restraint could be justified there, too.
But perhaps by grabbing the jogger, we would unintentionally harm him significantly. Perhaps he had already been told about the bridge, and would have avoided it, but needed to be allowed to jog uninterrupted for the rest of his run in order to obtain some desired health benefits. Would we not violate his rights by impeding his course? I think in this case, we clearly would. So how do we know that in grabbing the jogger, we wouldn't violate his rights? Perhaps we don't.
I suppose I'm less troubled than some other people with saying that some action would be just if certain things were true, but we may never be able to know whether those conditions were true in advance, and therefore would never know if the action would be just. I guess I sort of see it as being like leaning in for a first kiss; it's often difficult to know whether or not it's the right thing to do, and if it isn't, then leaning in is a bad idea. But in my opinion, that doesn't mean that it's always wrong to lean in. In the same way, we risk violating the jogger's rights when we stop him, but that doesn't mean that it would always be unjust to stop the jogger. It just means that we have to accept the possibility that our good intentions will end up leading to bad outcomes.
Another important possibility is that we may be wrong about the bridge, just like we may be wrong about drugs. Perhaps between the time we passed by the bridge and the time we see the jogger, the bridge was repaired. In such a scenario, grabbing the jogger would not actually prevent any life-threatening outcome, and so the justification for using force would evaporate. Again, I don't think that this makes real trouble for my argument, because if the bridge were out, we would be justified, and the only problem is a lack of knowledge.
A third possibility is that we may not be able to properly communicate the dangers to the jogger (or the prospective drug user), and so our use of force might not accomplish the desired task. Perhaps the jogger didn't speak English, and couldn't understand our attempts to explain with hand motions and sound effects. If he wanted to keep running, what could we do? Would we be entitled to restrain him completely and indefinitely? In the case of drug use, would we be entitled to prohibit drugs if we didn’t have any good way of getting through to potential users? This is especially important when discussing drugs, since it would be extremely unclear whether or not someone would choose to use drugs if she possessed accurate knowledge of the costs and risks, where it might be less controversial to say that the jogger probably would prefer not to run off the bridge if he properly understood the circumstances.
To be honest, I'm not sure what would be right in such a case. I can certainly see why one would want to say that we must err on the side of freedom, especially since it would be impossible to know that we weren't forcefully preventing the jogger/prospective drug user from doing what he or she would have wanted to do, even with perfect knowledge. Also, in the case of drug use, it probably wouldn't be a death sentence to let the drug user find out for herself. I'm just a little squeamish at saying that we would absolutely have to immediately let the jogger go to his death if he didn't speak English. I can't really offer a substantive argument for that; it just seems like it's not completely unjust for us to try to do something to save his life (assuming that he would want to avoid jogging out onto the broken bridge if he knew the truth). Perhaps we could base something on the idea of what the jogger would want us to do if he were looking at the situation from the outside, but the epistemological problems there seem fatal. The short of it is that I don't know what to say about this possibility, but I'm hesitant to say that it should be used as proof that my conclusions are wrong, and that we could never justify using restraining force in a scenario like this.
The final issue that needs to be addressed is the fact that restraining force imposes costs on those who are restrained, and these costs seem like infringements (if not violations) of the rights of the people being restrained. To clarify, a person's rights are violated if the person who infringes upon them acts wrongly in doing so. Grabbing the jogger (in the ideal scenario where the jogger doesn't want to die, and can’t be warned in any other way) seems beneficial to the jogger in almost any scenario, because the benefit of avoiding death is almost certainly preferred by the jogger over the costs imposed by the grabbing. But would the jogger have the right to be compensated for the grabbing anyways, since it would indeed constitute an infringement of his right to not be grabbed? I’m honestly not sure.
Ultimately, I’m sure I’ve just raised more questions than I’ve answered. But hopefully in light of this discussion, it’s clear why my position shouldn’t be discarded as casually as was done by Glen. That is, unless Glen wants to say that in the ideal case where we have perfect knowledge, we wouldn’t be justified in grabbing the jogger. If that’s what Glen thinks, then I’ll have to leave it to him to explain why.
If we were to act to prevent or mitigate climate change, we would bring it about that people would spend their money on different things, travel to different places, meet different people, get different jobs, and most importantly, have different children (just think how tiny are the chances of a particular spermatozoon fertilizing a particular egg!). In 100 years, it's likely (if not certain) that the world would be populated by an entirely different set of people.
As a consequence of this "fact" (I will accept it as one), we are pretty much forced to say that the people who inherit a world affected by climate change are no worse off than they could have been, because if we had caused less climate change, they wouldn't have existed. Accordingly, it seems difficult to see how we could say that climate change "harms" anyone; if we did anything differently "to" them, they'd simply not exist.
Libertarian conceptions of justice generally hold that if something doesn't harm anyone, then it can't be considered "unjust" (where we accept the view, as Peter Vallentyne suggested on page two of Left-Libertarianism and its Critics, that "...an action is unjust if and only if others are morally permitted to coerce one not to perform it"). So if we can't say that climate change harms anyone, we might be forced to say that it's perfectly just (though perhaps we might still lament it or consider it immoral for people to contribute to it). But is there really no way to say that climate change harms anyone?
In his essay, "Liability, Responsibility, and Harm," Dan Hausman suggests three different conceptions of "harm." He writes, "...one might take A to harm B whenever A diminishes B's budget set or A interferes with or damages any of B's capacities. B's budget set is the set of all possible outcomes obtainable by B, provided that B's capacities are unimpaired. To simplify somewhat, one can take A to harm B whenever A limits B's options." He continues, "This notion of harm as limiting options contrasts with two other notions: harm as decreasing utility and harm as violating rights."
It's clear that the first conception of harm as limiting options can not be appealed to in discussing climate change. If we suppose that doing anything differently would cause the alleged "victims" of climate change to never exist, it's easy to see why we wouldn't want to say that their options are in any way limited by our causing climate change. In fact, they only have options because we caused climate change.
The second view, of harm as a decrease in wellbeing or utility, fails to work here for similar reasons. When we say that we make people worse off by causing climate change, we must appeal to a counterfactual regarding what would have happened if we hadn't caused climate change. But it's hard to see how we would want to say that someone is "worse off" if there would have been no possible way to make them "better off" than they are already being made by our actions.
So the only view left is to say that future people might be being harmed by climate change because climate change violates their rights. But how can you say that people have the right to something that couldn't have happened? That is, to say that someone's rights are "violated" suggests a comparison to some kind of baseline. I'll illustrate with an example from Judith Thomson's book, Rights, Restitution, & Risk: Essays in Moral Theory. In her chapter on "Self-Defense and Rights," Thomson writes, "Suppose a man has a right that something or other shall be the case; let us say that he has a right that p, where p is some statement or other, and now suppose that we make p false. So, for example, if his right is the right that he not be punched in the nose, we make that false, that is, we bring about that he is punched in the nose. Then, as I shall say, we infringe his right. But I shall say that we violate his right if and only if we do not merely infringe his right, but more, are acting wrongly, unjustly in doing so." (I don't want to address the question of whether causing climate change would be better thought of as an infringement or a violation, though I do have more to say about that. For now, I'll say that if I can show that we infringe a right held by future people by causing climate change, then this exercise will be a success. But as long as I'm not quoting anyone else, I'll try to use the word "infringe" so as to avoid objections.)
In light of Thomson's characterization, it seems difficult to see why we would suppose future people to have a right that something happen if it wouldn't be possible for that to happen and for them to exist. In other words, let's say climate change is going to cause more floods in Pedro's village, and let's say that we're wondering whether Pedro has the right to not have those floods be caused. If we could say that preventing those floods from happening would also prevent Pedro from ever existing, it's unclear that we would have any basis for upholding such a right on Pedro's behalf.
It should be clear what kind of right we would intuitively want to appeal to when we're talking about climate change: the right to inherit an Earth which has not been made more dangerous and inhospitable by intentional, non-critically important or necessary, self conscious human activities. But if a person born into a more dangerous world would never have been born if the world were not made more dangerous in the way that it was, then how could such a person complain? How can we talk about a right which doesn't involve either of the first two kinds of harm? I'm finding it extremely difficult to find an answer.
But John Broome offers a helpful suggestion in his book, Counting the Cost of Global Warming. He writes, "One way this thought might be rescued from the nonidentity problem is to recognize that the owners of rights are not necessarily individual people. It seems that nations have rights. Kuwait has a right not to have its territory seized, and this right seems separate from the rights of the individual citizens of Kuwait. It will survive even when the entire present population of Kuwait has died, and been replaced with a new population. Perhaps the rights of a generation might be conceived in a similar way." Libertarians are sure to bristle at the analogy of Kuwait having rights. After all, in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick wrote, "...no new rights "emerge" at the group level...individuals in combination cannot create new rights which are not the sum of preexisting ones," and most (if not all) libertarians agree.
But before deciding whether to accept or reject this sort of notion, we should take a look at what kind of thing Broome might have had in mind. Let's call the set of all "possible people" who could have existed at some future point in time "Generation L." If Generation L has the right to inherit an "unspoiled" Earth, then if we bring it about that the Earth is "spoiled" by our actions, then we infringe upon Generation L's rights. This would result in Generation L being manifested as some group of people, all of whom would not have existed in a scenario in which the Earth was unspoiled. But since the rights are held by Generation L, and not by the individuals who represent L in the spoiled-Earth scenario, we can still say that a rights infringement has occurred, even if we wouldn't be able to say that any representative of L has had his/her rights infringed upon.
And to be completely honest, it seems like this sort of thing is exactly what people mean when they say that we're doing something wrong by causing climate change. So does this go against Nozick's claim that there are no emergent rights? And if so, what does that mean? Which side should we come down on?
Let's say, for the sake of discussion, that we don't immediately reject this view. Because we're saying that we're infringing upon the rights of "Generation L" and also that we're not infringing the rights of any of the people who represent Generation L in the spoiled-Earth scenario, it's unclear what it even means to say that we've infringed upon the rights of Generation L. What obligations does such an infringement impose on us? Are we acting wrongly (that is, violating Generation L's rights) if we spoil the Earth?
On the other hand, what would it mean to reject this view? Would we need to conclude that there isn't any basis for coercive prevention of climate change?
Obviously, there's a whole lot more to be said about all of this. But hopefully this will get the ball rolling. I'm going to be meeting with Dr. Hausman (mentioned above) tomorrow, and hopefully he'll have something to add.
Monday, January 14, 2008
In this section, Stefan wanders into some extremely dangerous, and perhaps fatal, territory. On page 54, he writes, "A moral rule is often proposed called the non-aggression principle, or NAP. It is also called being a "porcupine pacifist," insofar as a porcupine only uses "force" in self-defense. The NAP is basically the proposition that "the initiation of the use of force is morally wrong." Or, to put it more in the terms of our conversation: "The non-initiation of force is universally preferable.""
To be clear, Stefan is perfectly entitled to propose the claim, "The initiation of the use of force is morally wrong." And this claim does, by Stefan's definition of morality, equate to the statement, "The non-initiation of force is universally preferable." Recall that on page 40, Stefan wrote that "...morals are a set of rules claiming to accurately and consistently identify universally preferable human behaviour..." So there's no problem with this part.
The problems with Stefan's claim are twofold. The first is simply that Stefan's moral claim is controversial. This will be addressed later, since Stefan provides a discussion of his own. The second problem is more severe: the Non-Aggression Principle that Stefan has proposed is not the moral rule which is often proposed by porcupine-pacifists using the same name.
It certainly sounds like it's the same moral rule. The words are pretty much all the same. But Stefan has redefined the important word in the sentence: "morality." When libertarians say that the initiation of force is immoral, they mean that people ought not to initiate force. Stefan has redefined "morality," however, to be a set of statements about what means are required in order to achieve certain ends. So for Stefan to say that the use of force is immoral, he needs to show that all people can't achieve their ends (or proper ends) by using force; it is universally preferable that they avoid using violence. But that's not what matters to libertarians. Even if it were not preferable to avoid initiating force, libertarians would still want to say that initiating force is immoral. If it's logically possible for a use of force to be immoral, without it being preferable that the use of force be avoided, then it must be the case that Stefan is not talking about the same thing as the advocates of the Non-Aggression Principle.
Further, Stefan has suddenly switched from the language of "justifiability" to the language of "morality." This is sort of nice, since it wasn't ever clear what he meant by "justifiability" or how it related to "morality" or "preferability." But it makes me worry that the entire discussion about justifiability Stefan just finished offering will be irrelevant. We'll see if Stefan comes back to this later.
But even if Stefan's Non-Aggression Principle isn't the same as the one most people have in mind when they talk about the Non-Aggression Principle, it would still be extremely interesting to see Stefan prove that it was actually universally preferable for people to avoid initiating force. This would be significant, because it would demonstrate that anyone initiating force was simply unaware of the imprudence of her actions, and that the initiation of force is actually inconsistent with achieving one's ends (or proper ends). Such a claim would not directly determine whether or not people ought to use force, but it would certainly be an interesting observation.
So how does Stefan go about proving his version of the Non-Aggression Principle? He sets out seven possible ways to evaluate the universal preferability of the NAP:
"1. The initiation of the use of force is always morally wrong.
"2. The initiation of the use of force is sometimes morally wrong.
"3. The initiation of the use of force is never morally wrong.
"4. The initiation of the use of force has no moral content.
"5. The initiation of the use of force is never morally right.
"6. The initiation of the use of force is sometimes morally right.
"7. The initiation of the use of force is always morally right."
Stefan correctly acknowledges that his definition of morality is confined to the identification of universally preferable behaviors. Accordingly, he "whittles" the seven statements to the following three:
"1. It is universally preferable to initiate the use of force.
"2. It is universally preferable to not initiate the use of force.
"3. The initiation of the use of force is not subject to universal preferences."
It is clear why numbers 2, 4, and 6 of the first set of possibilities reduce to the claim that "The initiation of the use of force is not subject to universal preferences." The reasoning behind converting 4 in this way seems obvious. And for 2 and 6, Stefan writes, "As we have seen above, however, UPB is an "all or nothing" framework. If an action is universally preferable, then it cannot be limited by individual, geography, time, etc."
But reducing 3 and 5 from the original set seems more confusing, and since Stefan doesn't directly explain his reasoning, I'll do so here. Take 3, that "The initiation of the use of force is never morally wrong." For something to be "morally wrong," it seems like Stefan would want to say that it is universally preferable that it be avoided. If the initiation of the use of force is never morally wrong, then there are two possibilities. The first is that the initiation of the use of force is not subject to universal preferences, which is the new third possibility. The second is that the initiation of force, rather than being morally wrong, is actually morally right. This would equate to saying that it is universally preferable to initiate force, which is the new first possibility. So the old 3 is can be stated as a disjunction between the new 1 and 3. Along the same line of reasoning, the old 5 can be restated as a disjunction between the new 2 and 3.
I'm going to pause again here, because Stefan starts a new section. But it's critical to repeat that what Stefan is now talking about is not obviously related in any way with morality as traditionally conceived. Stefan doesn't come across as wanting to say that people ought to act as would be prudent for them for the achievement of their own ends, given his whole mysterious discussion about "justice." And he hasn't yet offered any claim about there being "proper" ends for people. So how Stefan is going to move from preferable behavior and "morality" (as he defines it) to "justice" (whatever he means by that) is unclear. I guess the only thing to do is keep reading.
Stefan builds on his explanation of what is just in these sections, introducing some clarification and new ideas. On page 51, Stefan writes, "For the moment, we can assume that any threat of the initiation of violence is immoral..." This seems to be a strengthening of the fourth claim discussed in the last post, that using violence is unjust unless it is preferable for achieving certain ends. The new claim seems to be that using violence is unjust unless, as a result of the actions of some other person, it has become preferable for achieving certain ends. This reflects Stefan's focus on the idea of "initiation," and would still allow the wife of the cheating husband to use violence to escape from her imprisonment, since she was put in her situation by the actions of her husband.
Stefan suggests a fifth claim when he writes, "...the more that a threat interferes with the normal course of daily actions, the more egregious it is." This seems clear enough; I actually suggested something like this in the last post when I wrote, "Stefan's view can be saved by redefining "inflict" in a way that would imply that an action inflicts something on a person if it does something to her which she cannot escape from. This seems like what Stefan is trying to say when he suggests that the case moves into the realm of ethics if the guest is chained to a chair." The cheating husband's imprisonment of his wife would be "more" unjust if he were prepared to hunt her down if she ran from him than it would be if the wife could simply have ran out the door to avoid being captured. This introduces a new idea, that things can not only be "just" and "unjust" (remember that as I pointed out in TMP 11, Stefan has not given us any explanation for what it means for something to be "just" or "unjust," he has simply been setting up the boundaries for "justice;" he still needs to tell us what "justice" is and why it matters); they can also be more or less just or unjust.
On page 50, Stefan also provides some clarification on the distinction drawn earlier between aesthetics and ethics. He writes, "This question of avoidance is key to differentiating aesthetics from ethics. Aesthetics applies to situations that may be unpleasant, but which do not eliminate your capacity to choose." This might seem slightly murky in light of Stefan's claim on page 40 that "Ethics is the subset of UPB which deals with inflicted behaviour, or the use of violence. Any theory that justifies or denies the use of violence is a moral theory..." It seems like any situation which is unpleasant as the result of someone else's behavior would involve the unpleasantness being "inflicted" upon the victim, and would therefore fall within the bounds of ethics and morality. But remember that I had to redefine "inflict" to talk about unpleasantness which can't be avoided, in order to explain why Stefan would say that nothing had been inflicted on a dinner guest who was free to leave. Under this new definition of what it means to "inflict" something on someone, Stefan and I are in agreement.
I'm going to cut this post short, since Stefan moves on to a new section from here, and in the interest of organization, I think it makes sense to keep this post separate.
Friday, January 11, 2008
Stefan starts his discussion of "Choice" by giving an example of someone having a dinner party, but being offensive in the eyes of one of the guests. He claims that so long as the guest has the opportunity to leave, the offensive behavior is within the realm of "aesthetics," and not "ethics." Recall that on page 48, Stefan suggests that ethics deals only with "inflicted" behavior, or "violence." It seems to me that being offensive is very much to "inflict" something on the guest, in the sense that it does something that the guest does not prefer without the guest's direct permission. But Stefan's view can be saved by redefining "inflict" in a way that would imply that an action inflicts something on a person if it does something to her which she cannot escape from. This seems like what Stefan is trying to say when he suggests that the case moves into the realm of ethics if the guest is chained to a chair.
Stefan implies that chaining the guest to the chair is unjust, but why is this the case? By the way we have defined the situation, we are dealing with an ethical matter: we are trying to determine whether an inflicted preference (an act of "violence") is justified or not (Stefan defined ethical matters this way on page 48). But as I pointed out in an earlier post, Stefan hasn't actually told us how we are supposed to decide ethical matters. He has only told us how to recognize them.
I've already suggested that Stefan seems to accept at least one moral guideline, but I'm not exactly sure what it is. It seems like something along the lines of, "If a behavior is preferable for achieving some kind of end, then it is justifiable, and the actor is not morally responsible for engaging in it." But what kinds of ends justify behaviors in this way aren't completely clear.
This example helps to shed some light on the matter, though. Clearly, if the host actively chained the guest to the chair, it must have been desirable that the guest stay. And if chaining the guest to the chair was in fact preferable for the host to do (perhaps there was no other way to get the guest to stay), then to call the host's actions "unjust" could imply that not all preferable behaviors are justified. However, it could also imply that the host's ends were not the proper ones, and in achieving the proper ends, it would have been preferable for the host to let the guest leave.
The example also suggests another ethical claim. Obviously, it was preferable that the guest leave in order to achieve her ends, and the host's actions have prevented this from happening. So at the very least, it seems that what Stefan has done is to suggest that it is "unjust" to prevent someone from engaging in certain kinds of preferable behavior. I anticipate that Stefan will want to extend this claim further (perhaps to all preferred actions), but I don't want to put words in his mouth.
So up to now, we can interpret Stefan as making at least three vague claims. The first is that in some cases, preferable behavior is justified. The second is either that not all preferable behaviors are justified, or that not all behaviors which are preferable for achieving improper ends are justified. And the third is that it is unjust to prevent people from engaging in some kinds of preferable behavior. It's still not clear what it means for something to be "unjust," but perhaps Stefan will explain that later.
Let's see how these ideas hold up against Stefan's next example, where a man has cheated on his wife. Stefan implies that the husband would be unjust in preventing the wife from leaving him by locking her in the basement, so our third claim seems like it applies. But Stefan writes, "Infidelity does not destroy a partner's capacity to choose; locking her in the basement does." So it seems like we can even strengthen the third claim from saying that preventing preferable behavior is unjust, to the stronger claim that preventing some kinds of merely desired behavior is unjust (perhaps all?).
Further, Stefan suggests that "...we would recognize the regrettable necessity if she [the wife] had to use violence to escape from her imprisonment." So our first claim, that some kinds of preferable behavior is justified, seems confirmed.
Finally, it is possible that restraining the wife was preferable for the husband's achieving his ends. In implying that his behavior is unjust, and that the wife is justified in using force to prevent him from employing the preferable behavior of restraining her, Stefan affirms our second claim (outlined as a disjunction above). This is strengthened even further by Stefan's claim that "We would not generally consider a wife who shoots her husband for infidelity to be acting morally..."
Stefan also introduces what seems to be a fourth claim when he says that when the wife is not restrained, she "...has the free choice and capacity to leave her husband, and thus violence would be an unjust response to the situation..." The claim seems to be that using violence is unjust unless it is preferable for achieving certain ends, like leaving one's cheating husband.
But while Stefan has returned to the language of universally preferable behavior in talking about necessity and goals, it's still unclear where he's getting these ethical claims from. They certainly don't follow from anything he's said so far in the book. If he continues in this way, it seems very likely that I'll be able to win my bet; Stefan seems to be embarking on a non-sequitar. Stefan hasn't offered any real arguments in favor of any of the moral claims he's suggested so far. There are still a few more pages left in the first part; hopefully Stefan offers them soon!
Monday, January 7, 2008
The inspiration for this idea came from page 13 of an article by George Reisman in which he said, "If global warming or ozone depletion or whatever really are consequences of the actions of the human race considered collectively, but not of the actions of any given individual, including any given individual private business firm, then the proper way to regard them is as the equivalent of acts of nature. Not being caused by the actions of individual human beings, they are equivalent to actions not morally caused by human beings at all, that is to say, to acts of nature."
When I read this, my first reaction was that Reisman's conclusion was just about as wrong as a conclusion could possibly be. But why is he wrong? I'm going to use the terminology of global warming to discuss what Reisman says, but the same basic ideas should apply to other problems substantially similar to it in the way Reisman is describing.
Reisman's core claim is that climate change is not caused by the actions of individual human beings, but only by the actions of human beings in general. What he means is a little clearer in light of something he says on page 12: "...I, as one individual, am utterly incapable of causing any of the effects alleged; and the same, of course, is true, mutatis mutandis, for each and every other individual." Reisman seems to be relying on the idea of a counterfactual: If I couldn't have prevented climate change by not acting, then I cannot be held responsible for causing it. Given Reisman's later focus on business firms, it seems like he would want to refine that counterfactual to say: If one individual, or a group of individuals composing a coherent analog to a single agent, could not have prevented climate change by not acting, then no one can be held responsible for causing it.
I discussed this articule in an e-mail conversation with Dr. Walter Block of Loyola University, New Orleans, where he made an analogy to the "death of a thousand cuts." For those who aren't aware, the death of a thousand cuts tells the story of a person who is attacked by a thousand different people, each cutting the victim with a small knife. As a result of the cuts, the victim bleeds to death. Critically, no single cut would have been capable of killing the man, and the man would not have been saved if any of the cuts had been prevented. The example is supposed to show that even though no individual caused or could have prevented the murder of the victim, it would be ludicrous to say that "no one" had murdered the victim. Clearly, the attackers all contributed to the murder, and therefore were all somehow responsible for it.
At first glance, this does seem to be a good analogy for climate change. But Reisman could coherently accuse us of smuggling in an idea which begs the question. In the death by a thousand cuts example, the victim's death occurs as a result of knife attacks. And there is no question that knife attacks represent violations of the victim's rights. But individual CO2 emissions do not harm anyone. In the quantities emitted by individual actors, CO2 is not toxic or bothersome in any way. Therefore, Reisman could lean on Nozick's claim that any move from a just state which involves only just steps is itself just. If individual emissions of CO2 violate no rights, then climate change would seem to represent the outcome of just steps. And so, as Reisman contends, we would have to say that it is just.
But again, I am skeptical. Reisman's view seems to simply declare out of existence the very notion that climate change could be objectionable. The only proof he gives is an assertion that the "proper" way to think about climate change is as an act of nature. However, climate change is, I think, clearly not an act of nature. It's the result of intentional human actions. And if it produces objectionable consequences, then I think that the people who contributed to those consequences should bear the burden of the blame.
I propose to call scenarios like this "Emergent Problems." I've taken the name from Nozick's claim on page 90 (and elsewhere) in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, that "...no new rights "emerge" at the group level...individuals in combination cannot create new rights which are not the sum of preexisting ones." I don't wish to discuss this claim of Nozick's; I just want to point out why I use the word "Emergent": it implies that new problems are created which are not simply the sum of the individual actions which bring them about. The death of a thousand cuts does seem like it's an emergent problem (though each of the actions which cause it is also unjust on its own), while climate change also seems like it's an emergent problem (each of its contributing actions is perfectly acceptable on its own).
If we accept that Emergent Problems exist, then Reisman is in trouble. His assertion that climate change should be thought of as being morally uncaused by human beings seems obviously questionable, and in my opinion clearly false. What does this mean for Nozick's claim that whatever arises from a just state, through just steps, is itself just? I don't want to get ahead of myself, but...
Sunday, January 6, 2008
In an earlier post, I criticized Stefan for using the words "valid" and "rule" while talking about morality. I still think that Stefan's use of those words is somewhat unclear, but I want to take back the definitions I proposed of those terms. I was thinking in terms of formal logic when I wrote that post, and it's not fair to attack someone for using terms in another way, when the way Stefan used them was very similar to the way they're used in most other contexts. I maintain that Stefan's idea of a "valid concept" needs a lot of work, because I'm still not sure why he would use that term. But I withdraw my claim that Stefan commits any category error, because he would only be guilty of that fallacy if we accepted certain definitions of "concept" and "rule" which are not the only acceptable definitions. So I apologize to Stefan for the undue criticism, and I apologize to any other readers who didn't catch my mistake.
I just want to point out that this is a perfect illustration of why I'm hoping for criticism. This time I caught my own bad argument, but I'm sure that there are other problems with my reasoning which I haven't noticed yet. Please feel free to point out any weaknesses, even if you aren't sure that I'm wrong. Clarification is a good thing!
Saturday, January 5, 2008
On page 49, Stefan starts the section by identifying two core components of ethical theories: choice and personal responsibility. On the first, Stefan writes, "If a rock comes bouncing down a hill and crashes into your car, we do not hold the rock morally responsible, since it has no consciousness, cannot choose, and therefore cannot possess personal responsibility. If the rock dislodged simply as a result of time and geology, then no one is responsible for the resulting harm to your car." This seems to imply that if a person does not choose to inflict damage, then she is innocent. But it should be noted that some moral theories do not accept this concept; some might say that a person can be held morally responsible for things they do involuntarily, especially if measures could have been taken to prevent those involuntary consequences from coming about. For example, If I sleepwalk into your house and break your teapot, it's clear that my actions were no more caused by my choices than the damage to your car was caused by the rock's choices. But some people might still want me to pay for the teapot. This would be especially true if I knew that it would be possible for me to do such a thing, and hadn't taken any precautions to prevent it.
Stefan continues, "If, however, you saw me push the rock out of its position, you would not blame the rock, but rather me." Again, what if I were sleepwalking? Would I be responsible? The general thrust of Stefan's argument seems to imply that the answer is "no," but he'll need to give some evidence for this. And what if you knew that you were prone to sleepwalking, but hadn't taken any precautions to prevent things like this from happening? Would you still be in the clear? That Stefan doesn't immediately provide an answer doesn't suggest anything about the correctness of his view; I'm just wondering...
Intriguingly, Stefan next writes, "To add a further complication, if it turns out that I dislodged the rock because another man forced me to at gunpoint, you would be far more likely to blame the gun-toting initiator of the situation rather than me." In my last post, I suggested that Stefan might want to say that we have the "right" to engage in certain kinds of preferable behavior, where the ends were of a certain kind. Clearly when I dislodge the rock at gunpoint, I actively choose to do so. But my doing so seems to be a response to the preferability of doing so; it is necessary that I dislodge the rock if I want to live. So however we want to define the set of ends which seem to automatically justify engaging in a preferable behavior, it seems like Stefan wants to say that saving one's own life justifies behavior that's preferable for achieving survival.
An interesting thing about this is that Stefan still hasn't given us any indication of why we need to "justify" certain behaviors. It seems like he's implying that dislodging the rock at gunpoint would be "justified," and that if the end achieved by dislodging it were somehow "less important," then we would be "morally responsible" for dislodging it. But what does it mean to be morally responsible? Why should it matter if we are justified or not? If we are morally responsible, what happens to us? Stefan already said that a lightning bolt doesn't come and strike us down, so what's the deal? What relationship does this have with preferable behaviors? Is it preferable to avoid doing anything for which we will be morally responsible? Or is it the case that anything that's preferable is justified?
Coming at the issue from another angle, are we completely justified in dislodging the rock if there's a gun pointed at us? What if there's a school bus full of children below us, and dislodging the rock would kill them all? Perhaps the importance of the end is related to whether or not a certain behavior is justified in a given situation. Does this have anything to do with Stefan's discussion on page 22 about the "relative" nature of truth? I'll have to keep reading to see.
Stefan makes an extremely curious statement at the beginning of page 50: "We all have preferences - from the merely personal ("I like ice cream") to the socially preferable ("It is good to be on time") to universal morality ("Thou shalt not murder")." It seems like "socially preferable" here refers to the sort of behavior Stefan was talking about earlier when he discussed irrationality and lying. And Stefan suggested that it was not justifiable to "enforce" preferences with regard to those sorts of things. But as I pointed out earlier, there's no explanation of how we are supposed to arrive at this conclusion. He simply leans on common-sense morality, which I already suggested is unwarranted.
So to Stefan, the "socially preferable" is different from "universal morality," but there's absolutely no explanation as to why. Further, it seems like Stefan's account of "universally preferable behavior" offers no reason why it would be unjust to "enforce" preferences regarding "socially preferable" behavior. If it's consistent with our ends to enforce such preferences, it seems like Stefen could not say that it's preferable not to enforce them. And if it's necessary for our achieving our ends to enforce them, Stefan would even have to say that it would be preferable to enforce them (and perhaps even justifiable, as discussed above). So if Stefan wants to say that it's unjust to enforce preferences regarding socially preferable behavior, he's going to have to offer some explanation which hasn't been given so far. But judging by his claim that "...we can turn to Ann Landers for a discussion of socially preferable behaviour..." it seems like we might never get any such explanation.