Monday, December 31, 2007

TMP 5: Arguments and Universality

[Part of The Molyneux Project; read the main critique here]

This section is going to kill me.

I don't want to address the question of whether operating in an epistemological context qualifies as a presupposition, but I think I have to, because it'll frame the way I deal with the rest of the section separately from the other sorts of objections I have. The first three "premises" which Stefan discusses deal with our capacities to debate with other people. The problem I have with Stefan's handling of this issue is that the word "premise" implies that every time we engage in argumentation, we are consciously thinking, "It makes sense for me to be engaging in argumentation."

Given that Stefan needs to "unpack" these ideas and explain them to us, it seems that this is not the case. We do not actually presuppose any of these things when we engage in a debate. David Hume illustrated this point well when he said that when he stopped thinking about philosophy and started living socially, he forgot about all of the epistemological problems with which he was struggling. He wasn't presupposing that the problems didn't exist; he was neglecting to keep them in mind. So it's not fair to say that we presuppose all of these things when we argue.

But we can say that we would only know that it would make sense for us to be arguing if these things were true. We don't know that there are other people, or that our senses are accurate, or that language has meaning. We also don't know that these things are false. And it would only fully make sense to argue if they weren't false. So instead of saying that we "presuppose" certain "premises" about existence when we argue, which is not true, Stefan could legitimately claim that our arguing would only make sense if certain things are true.

So that takes care of the first three "premises," which I agree would have to be true in order for the concept of an argument to make sense (within Stefan's framework, we might say that it would be preferable for a person to avoid all arguments if any of these were false). The fourth "premise" is where Stefan starts to get into trouble. First of all, it isn't true that the only reason why someone would want to get into an argument is to establish the truth. Someone might get into an argument in order to convince someone into believing something false, for the purpose of some other gain, or she might argue for the sake of practicing her skills at debating.

Secondly, it might be the case that some people wouldn't want to know the truth if the truth were something different than the thing they believe. For example, a religious person might enter an argument in order to establish God's existence, but his doing so would not demonstrate that he preferred to know the truth about God. His preference ranking could be:

1. God exists and I enter an argument about God's existence
2. God exists and I do not enter an argument about God's existence
3. God does not exist and I do not enter an argument about God's existence, and therefore never become aware of God's nonexistence
4. God does not exist and I enter an argument about God's existence, and thereby become aware of God's nonexistence

Given his belief in God, he might enter the argument. But if God didn't exist, then Stefan would want to say that it would be preferable for him not to enter into the argument. In this case, entering the argument would stem from faulty premises. But it wouldn't establish a preference for the truth. It would only illustrate the effect of a faulty assumption in the religious man's decision making.

Going even further, Stefan has already claimed that what is preferable is not necessarily what is preferred. Perhaps an individual does prefer to know the truth, but it would be much more helpful for satisfying the ends she found most important to not know the truth. The classic South Park rendition of "You just couldn't leave it alone, could you? You just had to keep digging..." immediately comes to mind. Perhaps for some individuals, it is more conducive to a better life to not know the truth. If living a good life were more important to these individuals than knowing the truth, then it could be preferable for them to not know it. In such a case, entering an argument might demonstrate a preference for the truth, while simultaneously contradicting the behavior which would in fact be preferable for them.

So in summary, people don't always enter arguments for the sake of establishing truth, people who do enter arguments for the sake of establishing truth might be doing so as a result of a faulty belief of what the truth is, and therefore wouldn't necessarily be expressing a true preference for the truth, and further, it might be preferable for some people who do prefer the truth to avoid entering arguments anyway. So when, on page 36, Stefan writes, "...the truth is not just "better" than error - it is infinitely preferable, or required," I can only say that I'm not at all convinced; none of the evidence he's provided so far gives me any reason to believe that to be true.

Premise 5 seems relatively uncontroversial. This could actually even be a legitimate presupposition, or at least a slightly revised version of it could be: By arguing from evidence, I presuppose that disagreements can be settled with reference to some sort of data which could conceivably be interpreted the same way by all parties to the argument, and which would entail the conclusion which I have drawn, or at least provide enough proof to satisfy my opponents.

I think I may have jumped the gun on 6 with my response to 4, but I think I've dealt with this enough. Arguing doesn't demonstrate that I believe that truth is better than falsehood, and even if I did believe it and entered an argument on the basis of that belief, it might be preferable for me not to have entered the argument.

Premise 7 is probably the most bewildering thing Stefan's said so far. If someone shot anyone he disagreed with in order to avoid engaging in argumentation, then it seems like we would have no basis for believing that he preferred to know the truth (even aside from all the things discussed above). I certainly agree that shooting people who disagree with you is a bad way to get to the truth, but Stefan hasn't shown convincingly that the truth is preferable; in fact, I think I've established why we wouldn't have any reason to believe it to be.

It's true that if you want to get to the truth, it's almost certainly preferable for you to avoid shooting people who you disagree with. But in an earlier post, I attempted to outline the reasons why the fact that bad methods of doing something should be avoided does not imply anything about what should be done. Violence likely should be avoided in the search for truth, but perhaps debate isn't the best available means either. A philosophy professor once told a story which might be helpful here. He said he once had a student who came to him and said that every time he read a philosopher's work, he completely agreed with the writer, but then when he came to class, the professor would explain the flaws in the philosopher's reasoning, and the student would agree with the professor. It seems like for a person like that, debate might not be the best possible means for obtaining knowledge, though I'm not sure about what would be better. It's just like I said before: different means might be best for different people.

Premise 8 is only slightly less bewildering than 7, and just as questionable. Stefan writes, "If I argue that human beings are not responsible for their actions, I am caught in a paradox, which is the question of whether or not I am responsible for my argument, and also whether or not you are responsible for your response." First of all, I'm not sure what Stefan means by "responsible;" does he mean ethically responsible or causally responsible? Does he mean accountable? That is, it might be possible that we can be the cause of our actions without being ethically responsible for having acted in the way we did. Similarly, we can be accountable for things that we do without being ethically responsible for having done them.

For example, I might hand you a remote control and tell you that by pressing the power button, you'll turn on a nearby television set. But perhaps I sneakily wired the button to set off a bomb in a nearby car. Having no reason to disbelieve me, you press the power button and the car explodes. Did you cause the explosion? Yes. Are you morally at fault for the damage? It doesn't seem so, at least not to me. Let's say that I was a suspicious looking person, and the remote control I gave you looked nothing like a television remote. And let's say someone near you was shouting, "Hey, look! A remote control bomb! Does anyone know where the remote is?" Perhaps you never made the connection, and so were still not morally to blame for your action. But we might say that you were negligent, and that you should have known not to press the button. Accordingly, a judge might find you to be somehow accountable for the damage, even though you didn't do anything evil or blameworthy. The point is, it's important that we know what we mean by "responsible."

But no matter how we take the word, Stefan's argument seems shaky, immediately suggesting the possibility of another hasty generalization. Engaging in an argument certainly wouldn't make sense if we didn't have any sort of responsibility for any of our actions, or at least the ones involved in the argument itself. But that doesn't demonstrate anything about our responsibility for all of our actions. Perhaps we're only responsible for some of our actions, including those involved in the argument. Stefan doesn't explicitly say why this is not a possibility, but judging by the fact that he titled Premise 8, "Individuals are responsible for their actions," it does seem like he is denying it.

I noticed that Stefan plans on writing a book on the relationship between free will and determinism, but I can only hope that he doesn't attempt such a task for a long, long time. As it stands, he's nowhere near qualified to write such a book, given his performance in the metaphysical portions of this book. As a political thinker, Stefan has some interesting ideas, but as a metaphysician, he's not working from a position of strength. I'd just as soon see him focus on revising this book.

I'm not entirely sure what to think about the course of my project from this point forward. If Stefan is going to take the same kind of approach that Hoppe took in The Economics and Ethics of Private Property and attempt to derive an ethical system from the premises of argumentation, I'm not sure how much he'll be able to accomplish. Only four of his eight premises seem to have survived, and of these, only one of them (Premise 5) seems to have any potential for justifying anything. Nevertheless, I've pledged to critique his argument, and not just the premises of his argument, and so I'll move on next to the section on "Universally Preferable Behaviour."

Why Would the World Belong to Us All?

It's obvious why most libertarians bristle at issues concerning justice in appropriation. If you didn't create something, and have never even used it, then how could you possibly have a legitimate complaint if you found it to be the property of someone else? No one is detectably made worse off when someone encloses a formerly unused piece of the commons. Perhaps private appropriation of commonly owned property, like that discussed by Holcombe and Long, would be dispossession, but how could we say the same thing about something which was never so much as touched by the allegedly "dispossessed" parties?

It does seem that Locke rested on the idea that the world was "given" to us in common when he casually tossed in his "proviso." If one takes a skeptical view of religion, as I do, then it seems fair to say that we have no decisive proof of the fact that the world was in fact "given" to us in common by anyone or anything. If the world was not given to us - if we were never collectively declared its owners - then how could we possibly argue that it belongs to all of us in common?

I'm honestly not sure how to respond. And if anyone has any ideas, I'd love to hear them. But it seems to me that the idea that the world belongs to all of us is not completely empty. I'm not sure what it means to say that the world belongs to all of us, or why we should believe it to be true. But as far as moral intuition can serve as a good starting point, it does seem to me that any theory which denies outright the claim that we have no right to a share of nature's "gifts" cannot be right.

If, in an anarcho-capitalistic society, a person were ejected from her parents' land, and had nowhere to go because all of the land was privately owned and no one wanted her, then it seems absolutely wrong to say that she should just die or somehow vanish. It doesn't avoid the question to change the story so that someone would want her. That sort of evasion can't anchor a philosophy. Perhaps everyone in the area knows and loves the girl's parents, and wants to honor their decision by refusing the girl a place on their land. Doesn't the girl have the right to demand that she be granted access to some place to live on the surface of the Earth?

I can't say how it could be determined what place she ought to be allowed to go, or whether she should be able to own such a place (that is, exclude others from using it), but it does seem like a proper theory of appropriation would include some assurance that the girl would have somewhere to go. I don't want to get ahead of myself, so I'll stop there.

But what could justify this sort of intuition? That is, we don't seem to disrespect the girl by originally appropriating the land, and we don't seem to be disrespecting the girl when we refuse her access to our property. At least, if taken individually we wouldn't think any of our actions to be disrespectful. Perhaps we might want to consider this as an emergent problem? That's a can of worms to be opened later, but I do think it's a promising possibility.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

TMP 4: From Preferences and Existence, to Preferences and Arguments

[Part of The Molyneux Project; read the main critique here]

The book has gotten a lot denser, and seems to be flirting with a dangerous path. I'm starting to have some difficulty understanding why Stefan is saying some of the things he's saying, and it's becoming a little harder to interpret his arguments in a way that would make them make sense. However, Stefan has tied up some of the loose ends I pointed out in my last post, and it seems unfair to suppose that he won't be able to do the same with these issues.

For example, on page 33, Stefan somewhat addresses the issue of opportunity cost which I discussed earlier (though he doesn't make his point in the language of the framework which he has been building, which is somewhat frustrating, having dedicated so much effort to figuring out how it worked!). He also clarifies his concept of universally preferred alternatives in the first way that I suggested he could, which is to deny that all sets of alternatives contain universally preferable choices. He writes, "Clearly, some preferences are subjective. Musical tastes, personal hobbies, favourite literature and so on are all subjective and personal preferences." I wonder, though, if he would still want to affirm the universal preferability of a statement like, "If someone wants to enjoy listening to music, she should listen to music which corresponds to her tastes." It seems like that would still work.

However, I'm concerned with how Stefan proceeds from there. At the end of page 33, Stefan writes, "When I say that some preferences may be objective, I do not mean that all people follow these preferences at all times. If I were to argue that breathing is an objective preference, I could easily be countered by the example of those who commit suicide by hanging themselves. If I were to argue that eating is an objective preference, my argument could be countered with examples of hunger strikes and anorexia." I agree that these would be good counterexamples. But before moving on, it might be helpful to point out that these two examples are very different from each other.

It's clear that someone who commits suicide by hanging (unless she does it by accident, a possibility which I don't think Stefan is concerned with) would not want to consider breathing to be a preferable behavior. If fact, so far as she wanted her death to be caused by her asphyxiation, she would want to say that breathing would have been decidedly incompatible with her achieving her ends. Or alternatively, we would say that it was preferable for her not to breathe.

With the person who was involved in the hunger strike, it's likely that we would want to say that he wanted to survive. But if a hunger striker died of malnutrition (again, not by accident, but through an act of will), we wouldn't want to say that he acted contrary to preferable behavior. What he did was similar to the scuba diver in my previous post. He valued his cause more than he valued his life, and so sacrificed the achievement of his end of survival in order to achieve his incompatible and more valued end of furthering his cause. Just like the scuba diver, he wanted to live, but he should have starved to death. So though his case is different than the one of the suicidal person, we would similarly want to say that it was preferable for him not to eat.

What made me nervous was when Stefan wrote, "Thus when I talk about universal preferences, I am talking about what people should prefer, not what they always do prefer." The reason this bothered me is that the above examples do not illustrate this point at all. A good illustration of this point would have been one along the lines of my big-handed musician choosing a piccolo, or of the small-handed musician picking up an upright bass. The person who hung herself was acting consistently with what her preferred course of action should have been, because she was achieving her ends. The same is true of the hunger striker. On the other hand, the small-handed person would not be acting consistently with how she should have if she chose the upright bass.

By saying this in the way that he does, it seems like Stefan is implying something that comes way out of left field: that the ends chosen by the suicidal person and the hunger striker are somehow bad ends. Luckily, it seems like Stefan moves away from this point in his subsequent examples, where he argues that the scientific method is the only way to produce knowledge about the universe (I totally called it in my last post!), and a non-functioning ceremony should not be chosen to cure a disease. In passing, I'd point out that there could be entirely non-supernatural reasons why performing a mystic ritual could cure believers of certain ailments, but that's besides the point.

But as long as I was misinterpreting Stefan about the issue that I expressed concern about above, it seems like we're still working in the right direction. Just as nitpicky points, I want to point out two more things in this section which jumped out as potential problems. The first is that on page 32, Stefan wrote, "Preference exists as a relationship between consciousness and matter, just as gravity exists as a relationship between bodies of mass." The analogy implies a necessary, immutable relationship which doesn't seem to exist in the case of preferences. I agree that preference is a relationship between someone who prefers and the object of the preference, but it seems like a very different kind of relationship from the one between bodies of mass.

The second issue comes up when, on page 32, Stefan writes, " is reasonable to assume that whatever a person is doing in the present is what he or she "prefers" to do." This is a minor issue, but I think the word "action" is better than "doing," because it distinguishes between things that we actively choose to do and things that we don't really choose to do (like when someone wakes up because she was shaken, or when a child who has been conditioned to respond to certain commands unthinkingly obeys a particular order from his parents). Since I'm pretty sure Stefan means "action," this doesn't bear discussion.

I think I'm going to call it a night.

TMP 3: From Ethics to Preferences

[Part of The Molyneux Project; read the main critique here]

Stefan was kind enough to send me a new link to his book, and so I'm back in business. I'm getting the impression that I'm starting into the meat of the book, and so I'm going to probably end up doing a lot of summarizing so that I can seek clarification of Stefan's ideas in my own mind. Hopefully these analyses will prove helpful for people who might get hung up on some of the points in this section, because they do come at you rather quickly.

On page 30, it seems like the word "eating" should be "nutrient intake." Otherwise, Stefan's point would be obviously false. That is, if we desire survival, and it is preferable to eat, then it is just as preferable to drink smoothies or swallow nutrient pills or inject oneself with an IV. If "preferable" means "required," as Stefan insists on page 32, then it's clear that eating is not preferable. You do not need to ever eat anything in order to survive. If Stefan said that "nutrient intake" is preferable, though, the problem would vanish (if we bio-engineered ourselves full of chlorophyll, that might even be too loosely stated).

In light of that recognition, it's clear that no particular means need be "preferable;" so long as the chosen means is capable of achieving the desired end, it would be acceptable. Accordingly, we can identify Stefan's point as a negative one. As stated, it doesn't entail anything about what means must be chosen, but it does imply something about means which should not be chosen. If I want to achieve the end of surviving, then I should not choose a means which negates one or more of the necessary conditions for survival. That is, I shouldn't starve myself. Doing so would directly cause the negation of my desired end.

This, of course, seems to require qualification which Stefan doesn't immediately provide (though I'm sure he'll address it later). Individual ends can conflict with other ends, and often we are forced to incur opportunity costs when we make choices. That is, I might want to go scuba diving, but doing so would make me too tired to go dancing later in the night. I might still want to go scuba diving, but I'll incur the cost of missing out on dancing later. So clearly, we would want to make an exception for cases like these. Even if I want to go dancing, it might still be the case that I should go scuba diving (which will make it impossible for me to go dancing), because I want to go scuba diving more. I get a counterbalancing benefit which outweighs the cost of making my night of dancing impossible.

People might say that in a case like this, I don't want to go dancing at all. But I don't think this is right. I think I do want to go dancing, but I am willing to sacrifice the opportunity to go dancing in order to achieve something I want more, which is the opportunity to go scuba diving. To be clear, I'm not criticizing Stefan's account by pointing this all out; I'm sure he'll point it out later, and if he doesn't for some reason, I'm sure it's because he forgot, or didn't think it necessary.

Moving on, I recoiled at Stefan's use of the word "universally," because it seems to imply that the same means can be used by everyone to achieve a particular end, or at least that a means which could only be used by some people and not by others could not be considered "universally preferable," but rather just "plain-old preferable."

An illustration might help. I have average-sized hands, with which I am able to play my guitar. However, I doubt I would be able to play a piccolo (a very small flute) with any degree of proficiency, and I know from experience that an upright string bass is a little too big for me to handle. If I wanted to master a musical instrument, it would be imprudent for me to choose a piccolo or an upright bass for my endeavor. But I might imagine someone with such tiny hands that the only instrument he could play would be the piccolo, or someone with such giant hands that the only instrument she could play would be the upright bass. So it would appear that between us, there would be no instrument which would be universally preferable for our ends.

Stefan could respond in two ways. The first would be to say that not all sets of alternatives have universally preferable options. That would be perfectly alright with me.

But more effectively, I think, he could respond that the universally preferable behavior would be to choose an instrument which correspond to the player's capacities. Accordingly, no particular means would be universally preferable (in my case, I could play the piano instead of the guitar, so in fact no instrument would even be preferable for me to choose), but the general principle would be.

This, I think, illustrates the point I made above about Stefan's principle being a negative one. It doesn't seem to directly entail anything about what we should do, but rather points out what we should not do. The statement "All people should choose an instrument which corresponds to their capacities" doesn't tell us anything about what instrument we should choose, but it does make very specific prescriptions about instruments which we should not choose. Seeing that an instrument corresponds to my capacities is not sufficient for me to choose it (both a guitar and a piano could fulfill this criterion). But seeing an instrument which does not correspond to my capacities is sufficient for me to avoid choosing it.

This interpretation is reinforced by the examples Stefan gives on page 32, which all correspond to the sorts of ideas I've discussed here. "The scientific method" is not a specific way of doing things; arsenic is something that one should not choose as a means for living; no particular theory is necessitated by adherence to internal consistency and empirical verifiability. And similarly, Stefan would want to say that truth about the world cannot be found in any way besides the scientific method, eating arsenic can not bring about life, and no theory can function in the absence of internal consistency and empirical verifiability (these claims are controversial, but it's still perfectly clear what Stefan is trying to say).

I think that's good for now. If I'm wrong about this part, I'd really like to know, because it seems like this is going to be an important building block for the rest of the book.

TMP: Some Inappropriately Abstract Ruminations and a Road Block

[Part of The Molyneux Project; read the main critique here]

A warning: I can't imagine that anyone will find this post interesting. It's probably for the best that it's completely ignored by anyone who isn't a total philosophy nerd. I promise, this is not the kind of thing I want to be writing about, and I'll be keeping posts like this one to a minimum.

Since last night, I've had some time to go over my questions to see if I could figure out how they might be answered. The first question related to what Stefan was trying to demonstrate with his three examples of the "relative" nature of truth. I think the answer might simply be that Stefan was trying to say that our evaluations of certain things depend on more than the nature of the things themselves. That is, a healthy man doesn't change when others become more healthy; Newtonian physics becomes no less flawed when we use it to approximate the behavior of matter in simple calculations; gains in water purity are not inherently valuable at low increments, nor inherently undesirable at high increments. What changes is within us. In other words, value is subjective.

If I have interpreted Stefan correctly, then what threw me off, I think, was Stefan's use of the words "truth" and "relative." That value is subjective is uncontroversial; economists have long acknowledged that to be true. An object may inherently be potentially useful for achieving certain ends, but it's an act of the mind which ascribes value to such an object for this capacity. The classic example is crude oil, which was long considered an undesirable polluting substance until its usefulness was discovered. Oil gained no new physical quality upon the discovery of its usefulness, but it unquestionably became more valuable.

I want to make sure it's clear, though, that I've just put words in Stefan's mouth. It's fully possible that he intended to demonstrate some other point through these examples, which I am obscuring with this discussion. If that's the case, then I'd appreciate it if my error were pointed out, and the correct idea explained. Otherwise, I think it's safe to move on.

My second question pertained to Stefan's account of logic. Reading over what I wrote, I'm thinking I didn't do such a good job explaining my confusion. What I had in mind, and didn't realize that I should have to say, is that I am presupposing the rules of logic to be necessarily true. They are a priori truths. I am also presupposing that there is a substantive difference between a logical falsehood and a contingent falsehood. That is, I think that the falsehood of "1+1=3" is a different sort of thing than the falsehood of "My computer is an Apple" (it's actually a PC).

But if one accepts logical fatalism (the view that all propositional statements are either true or false, and that if something is true, then it is necessarily true, and if something is false, then it is necessarily false), then both statements would be necessarily false. Given that Stefan has stated that he is an athiest and believes that all matter must behave according to immutable laws, it seems fair to suppose that he is a logical fatalist (denying logical fatalism would require that he either claim that this universe could have not existed, or that the state of a material system is not determined by its previous state and the laws of nature). Accordingly, Stefan could be suggesting that in this universe, it's not possible for the person who was being addressed in the example to do the three things Stefan mentioned. Accordingly, it would be necessarily impossible for him to do any of them.

Stefan would still need a further step in order to answer my objection. He would have to say that in a logical fatalistic framework, true propositional statements are rules of logic. I don't think I've ever heard anyone argue that before. But if he did say that, then he could coherently argue that all three of his examples represented instances of logical impossibility. It seems to me that we should resist this conclusion, though, because it completely abandons the meaning of the word "logic," as it's traditionally used, and rests on such controversial underpinnings that it practically begs the question.

Again, I should be clear that Stefan hasn't said any of the things that I've proposed that he could say in defense of his examples. I think it's far more likely that Stefan just made a mistake here. I was only trying to be charitable.

I don't have much of a problem with my third point, except that I think I made it sound like the three possible meanings I discussed were the only things Stefan could have meant. I didn't intend to suggest that; I was only trying to think up a few possibilities. If Stefan meant something completely different, then I'd love to know.

I still can't figure out an answer to my fourth question, so I think I'm happy with what I've written so far. I still think my two objections in the first part of the critique are right, though I'm definitely going to have to refine them if I ever want to officially pose them to Stefan.

So that's good for now. I'd like to move on to the next bit of the book, but my project has hit a bit of a snag. For whatever reason, I haven't been able to access the file Stefan sent me with the PDF of the book. I e-mailed Stefan about it, and hopefully I'll be back in business soon.

Friday, December 28, 2007

TMP 2: From the Beginning of Part I to Empericism Versus Rationality

[Part of The Molyneux Project; read the main critique here]

Moving onto the first part of the body of Stefan's book, I was struck by a bout of unclarity in Stefan's writing. First, on page 22, Stefan tells us that "truth" is a relative term, and proceeds to give three examples of the relative nature of truth. I should immediately suggest that "contextual" or "circumstantial" would have been much better, because Relativism is a well-known concept which Stefan explicitly distances himself from repeatedly. But more worrisome was the fact that I was simply unable to understand what Stefan was trying to tell me.

Stefan claims that the following kinds of scenarios demonstrate the relative nature of truth: (1) Object A is seen as having a relatively high degree of quality P when compared to the members of set X, but A would be evaluated as having a relatively lower degree of P if compared to set Y, whose members generally exhibit high degrees of P; (2) In choosing a tool to perform a simple task, tool A is being chosen because it is easier to use than tool B, but if the task were more intricate, tool B would be chosen for being the more precise tool of the two; and (3) The marginal costs of a particular good increase with quantity, while the marginal benefits diminish, so that obtaining a marginal unit of the good is worth the trouble only below a certain threshold.

Honestly, I'm not completely sure how these relate to each other. I mean, at first glance (1) and (2) seem more similar to each other than (3) is to either. But on further reflection, I think that (1) and (2) are so different from each other that I can't figure out what similarity Stefan is trying to coax out.

I had similar trouble on page 24, where Stefan wrote, "Fundamentally, the laws of logic are derived from the behaviour of matter and energy, at least at the perceptual level. If I tell you to throw a ball both up and down at the same time, I am asking for the impossible, which you can easily test by attempting to fulfill my request. If I tell you to plough both the north field and the south field simultaneously, you will be unable to comply. If I demand that you turn a rose into a donkey, my demand will never be met." It seems to me that these examples are also fundamentally different from each other. And this time, I am certain that only one of them describes what Stefan is seemingly attempting to illustrate.

You can't throw a particular ball up and down simultaneously, because "being thrown down" can be accurately described as being logically incompatible with "being thrown up." But "plowing the north field" is not incompatible with "plowing the south field;" it's logically possible to plow them both at the same time (though perhaps no person could do so on her own, she might be able to do it with the help of technology, or alternatively, a giant might be able to). You could say that "turn to the north and plow the field directly in front of you" is logically incompatible with simultaneously turning in some other direction and plowing the field there, but as stated, the example doesn't make sense. The demand that I tun a rose into a donkey is even more confusing, because I'm not even completely sure that a person couldn't turn a rose into a donkey (the technology to do it doesn't exist, but perhaps it could be done someday). I suppose this is a nitpicky objection...

But continuing with the theme of unclear concepts, on page 25 Stefan writes, "Logic as a discipline arises only as a result of the consistency of reality; empirical observations are also valid or invalid only as a result of the consistent nature of reality." I'm not quite sure what he means by this. He could conceivably be saying: (1) The rules of logic, and the reality of experience, are a consequence of order, and would not be true in an unordered universe; (2) logical and empirical statements could not coherently refer to anything in an unordered universe; or (3) the rules of logic could never be understood, and no one could ever gain knowledge of the world from empirical observations, in an unordered world.

Statement (1) seems obviously false; 1+1 would still equal 2, and I would still directly experience sensations, no matter how unpredictable the universe was. I'm not sure how to interpret (2), since it could refer to a few different views, from Berkeleyan idealism to concept empiricism, but nothing that would make sense for Stefan's viewpoint. I'll just assume that he doesn't mean (2). The last possibility, (3), seems like the most likely candidate for being Stefan's true meaning, and if this is so, then I would reject it simply on the basis that we have no way of knowing whether or not it would be true. Perhaps there are innate tendencies to certain sorts of reasoning which would persist in such a world, and perhaps not; it is not within the realm of philosophy to know.

A final difficulty arose from Stefan's two criteria for measuring truth on page 25. I'm not sure what the difference is between saying that "Truth is a measure of the correlation between the ideas in our minds and the consistency of rationality, which is directly derived from the consistent behaviour of matter and energy in the real world" and simply saying that truth must be internally consistent. If that's all he meant, then there's no problem. But if there's something more that explains why it's stated in such a complex manner, I can't figure it out.

But again, I think all this has been a symptom of Stefan dealing with issues that are not central to his argument. For example, on page 26, his discussion of internal consistency lies in the face of centuries of philosophical thought, but not in any way that has any relevance to this book. Our theories don't need to be based on immutable laws because matter acts according to such laws; we can't possibly know that they do, and our theories only posit the existence of such laws because matter seems to act according to immutable laws. Further, anyone positing the existence of free will from the metaphysical libertarian position (no relation to the normative libertarianism) would fiercely contest the view that everything operates according to immutable laws. If another edition of this book is in the works, I'd suggest recruiting the help of a philosopher of metaphysics and epistemology (sorry, not my specialty!). It would save a lot of grief from people like me who have been trained to analyze these sorts of things to death. I think I'm going to call it quits for now, but the section on Ethics next, so I'm starting to get excited!

TMP: Hello and Disclaimer

[Part of The Molyneux Project; read the main critique here]

It appears that Stefan and the rest of the folks at Freedomain Radio have discovered my blog, which is an incredible honor. I admit that I had sort of hoped to compose my thoughts a little bit better than I will here before presenting them to him and all of you, for two reasons. First, I didn't want to make points that would be addressed later in his book. That can be incredibly annoying. And second, I didn't want to come off as too critical. I really am enjoying this book, and it's likely that I'll deal mostly with my objections on this blog, and fail to give enough credit to the work that Stefan has put forth. This is especially important in light of Stefan's unexpected generosity and genuine belief that he has accomplished something important. If at the end of this book, I agree with him, then it's clear that the little things that I pick at over the course of reading will fade completely into insignificance. So when reading my critiques, please keep in mind that I'm using this as a notepad, and not as a platform for insulting Stefan's intelligence. If I tried to do what Stefan has done, it's inconceivable that I would not make serious mistakes. I'm only trying to keep track of those that Stefan makes, so that I can challenge any later conclusions that he draws. I hope this proves helpful for all of you, but especially for Stefan as he revises and improves upon his work. Thanks for reading!

TMP 1: From the Beginning to Part I

[Part of The Molyneux Project; read the main critique here]

The first thing that strikes me about this book is that it's written with so much enthusiasm that one can't help but feel excited about it. And better still, it's written with the kind of enthusiasm that doesn't come across as pretentious and arrogant, which is an accomplishment in itself. But possibly the best part about the book so far is that it isn't written with the kind of reckless abandon that characterizes some of the other attempts at doing what Stefan is doing. He actually takes into account some of the most obvious objections to his points, and structures his arguments to respond to them. How refreshing in the work of a non-academic philosopher!

So far I have two objections to what I've read. The first is that Stefan bites off more than he can chew with his forays into metaphysics. I really don't think that this is going to create serious problems for his overall argument, but it will create problems with his ability to appeal to legitimate philosophers. For example, on page 14, he writes, "No sane man experiences God directly. In his daily life, he fully accepts that that which cannot be perceived does not exist. No reasonable man flinches every time he takes a step, fearing an invisible wall that might be barring his way. The greatest abstractions of science support his approach." To be honest, I'm very surprised to see Stefan write this, because I know that he has a background in the history of philosophy, and so I would expect him to know why this is a really bad thing for him to be saying.

My point is not to try and nitpick. It's clear that Stefan isn't trying to write a book about metaphysics. I guess I'm just trying to suggest that maybe Stefan should stick to the task at hand, and reign in some of his tangents. Not because they detract from the strength of his argument as much as because an academic philosopher would have trouble taking the rest of the book seriously after reading them. And I think that would be a shame, because I don't think these metaphysical ideas are going to end up being very important to the main argument.

The second objection I have is to Stefan's discussion of the "null zone." I fear that unlike the metaphysical difficulties I just discussed, the fundamental problem with this discussion is going to have major implications for Stefan's argument later on. Unfortunately, Stefan reasons from "small truths" to "great truths" in a manner similar to scientific induction, but fails to acknowledge one of the most serious problems faced by inductive reasoning, so that his conclusion is easily discarded.

The problem is this: When inducing a general principle from a set of observations, it is critical that the principle extend no further than to those phenomena which are substantively similar to the members of the observation set. We will call this problem by one of its common names: the fallacy of hasty generalization. Stefan belies ignorance of this problem when, on page 13, he writes, "The idea that the world is immobile is an incorrect assumption that contradicts the direct evidence of our sense, which is that everything falls." I was hoping that Stefan didn't mean "fall" in the typical sense of the word, which means to move in the same direction as gravity is pulling, but in light of his later mistake, I'm not so sure. Clearly we do not usually say that a helium balloon falls when it is dropped, nor does a suspended object. But Stefan could defend himself if he meant "Moved in accordance with the influence of all external and internal forces," or "Followed its natural course of movement, as conceived of in terms of space-time," or something similar.

However, the fallacy of hasty generalization is not confined to this one instance. On page 14, for example, Stefan writes, "If a private man is paid to murder another man, we call him a "gun for hire," and condemn him as a hit man. If, however, this man puts on a green costume with certain ribbons and commits the same act, we hail him as a hero and reward him with a pension. The little truth (I should not murder) is perfectly consistent with the great truth (murder is wrong) - yet in the middle there lies a "null zone," where murder magically becomes "virtuous.""

There are at least two ways to demonstrate that this reasoning is faulty. First, we can attack part of his claim. Stefan writes that a soldier commits the same act as a hit man, but it is clear that if a soldier did what a hit man does, he would be guilty of immorality. That is, if a soldier murdered an innocent civilian who had not threatened him in any way, then we would likely condemn him as a murderer. It is only when a soldier commits murder in a particular sort of way that we laud him as a hero. And incidentally, most civilians would be lauded as equally heroic if they murdered in the same way that a soldier does. The American Revolutionary War provides a fine example of this.

The second route to exposing the problem with Stefan's logic focuses directly on his hasty generalization. Stefan starts with the set of observations that it would never be acceptable for a civilian to murder another civilian, and reasons that therefore, it would be wrong for a soldier to murder another soldier. But this doesn't follow. The same argument could be made to say that in all of our observations of rocks being dropped, we heard the thump of a rock on the ground, so therefore we should hear the same thump when we drop a balloon. The fallacy should be obvious.

None of this should be taken to suggest that Stefan is wrong in saying that soldiers are murderers. Perhaps they are. But Stefan relies on inconsistency in people's thinking in order to show that this is the case, and there is no such inconsistency. Rather, I can think of two factors which could be at play. First, people could consider soldiers to be substantively different than civilians. Second, people could consider the act of murder in war to be substantively different than the kind of murder that is objectionable. I do not wish to suggest that the first possibility is false, but I would contend that the second possibility is true. By putting on a uniform, one acknowledges that he is a soldier, and is willing to murder anyone else wearing a uniform of the opposing side. As long as this is clear, then it seems uncontroversial to say that there is a substantive difference between the act of a hit man and the act of a soldier.

Stefan sets himself up for the same problem when, on page 19, he suggests that taxation is wrong because theft is wrong. Incidentally, I'm not sure I can think of a reason why taxation might be justified, and so I can't think of a distinction that would establish the innocence of taxation without begging the question. That is, I would have to rely on some premise that would be no less controversial than the justice of taxation. For example, I couldn't argue that "Taxation is different from theft because government agents represent the interests of the people who they are taxing," because in a non-voluntarist state, it is not clear that the government is justified in ruling over the people who it would be taxing. If anything, this illustrates an important point about the problem with induction to which Stefan has fallen victim: A fallacious line of reasoning does not automatically lead to a false conclusion, it is simply invalid as an argument in favor of the conclusion. So perhaps a soldier is a murderer, and a tax agent a thief, but these conclusions are not entailed by Stefan's argument.

Aside from these objections, I enjoyed the beginning portion of the book. It was fun to read, and well laid out. I must admit, though, that I'm somewhat apprehensive about the chapters to come; I really do hope that the hasty generalization discussed above doesn't ruin the whole book!

The Molyneux Project

[Part of The Molyneux Project; read the main critique here]

So I made this bet with Stefan Molyneux of Freedomain Radio. See, he put out this book, Universally Preferable Behaviour: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, in which he attempts to...well...rationally prove his ethical views. Of course, I don't think he could possibly have done that. I inquired as to exactly what a Universally Preferable Behavio(u)r is, and being the saint that he is, Stefan offered to send me the book for free, saying that I could pay him for it if I liked it.

Being the jerk that I am, I proposed a bet with Stefan, that I would pay him $50 if I couldn't demonstrate why his argument was flawed, and that I would get to keep the book for free if I could. So I've started reading through his book, and I figure that I'll keep a running log of my thoughts on this site. This project has very important implications, in that Stefan's views often conflict with mine, and if he were able to prove himself right, he would simultaneously prove me wrong. Hopefully that's good enough by ways of introduction to The Molyneux Project, or TMP as I'll call it. Now to actually start the critique...

Is It Justifiable to Use Punishment as a Deterrent?

I don't mean to suggest that there is no justification for punishing people beyond forcing them to compensate the victims of their actions. It does seem like it might be fair to impose a penalty on someone for violating the rights of others. But it occurs to me that using punishment as a way to deter future rights violators is very obviously a way of using someone as a means to an end. Accordingly, it seems like a just society would not allow punishment of that sort.

One might wonder why I would make a big deal out of this, given that I've admitted that there could be other justifications for punishing people. What I have in mind is Nozick's idea that we apply certain labels to the reasons for particular arrangements, and that we might drop the labels if presented with alternative reasons. So if the only reason we could possibly come up with for punishing someone in a certain instance were that doing so might deter future people from repeating her offense, then I would contend that such a punishment would be unfair, because it would sacrifice her in order to achieve our ends.

It seems that I should make a distinction between established penalties and ad hoc punishments, though I'm not sure that this distinction is exactly the one which is making me feel unsure of myself. What I'm thinking is this: it would be perfectly fair to say that "Anyone who breaks this rule will be punished significantly on top of being forced to compensate any victims." Such a rule would clearly be a deterrent, and it would be using punishment as a way to deter people. But it doesn't seem disrespectful.

The sort of deterrent I'm calling illegitimate is where someone is being made an example of, in spite of the fact that she clearly doesn't deserve the punishment she's getting. Could there possibly be any reason that would justify this sort of punishment without being subject to the objection I've raised?

I can think of one response to what I've said here, which is that by violating the rights of others, a person forfeits a claim to respect. A good example of this comes from Locke: "In transgressing the law of nature, the offender declares himself to live by another rule than that of reason and common equity...and so he becomes dangerous to mankind, the tye, which is to secure them from injury, being slighted and broken by him. Which being a trespass against the whole species, and the peace and safety of it, provided for by the law of nature, every man upon this score, by the right he hath to preserve mankind in general, may restrain, or where it is necessary, destroy things noxious to them, and so may bring such evil on any one, who hath transgressed that law, as may make him repent the doing of it, and thereby deter him, and by his example others, from doing the like mischief" (Section 9).

Locke's claim seems to contain a bunch of different points. The first is clearly that by violating the rights of others, a person forfeits the right not to be harmed. I don't object to that. The second is that people have the right to punish the offender, because they have the right to preserve mankind. I'm not sure I agree with this line of reasoning, because it seems to want to use the offender in order to achieve social ends, which makes me uncomfortable. To be clear, I'm not disagreeing with the claim that we have the right to punish an offender; I'm only unsure whether I think that the source of this right is our right to do what is necessary to preserve mankind. But my disagreements do not impact the validity of conclusion of the second point, we can safely move on.

The third point is that we have the right to punish an offender to the point of making him repent what he has. I think this is right, though again I'm not sure I agree with how Locke got there. But the movement from the third point from the fourth point is what really interests me. The fourth point is that others will be deterred by the repentance of the offender. I like this way of thinking about it a lot.

So taking this into account, it seems like we could say that we are justified in punishing an offender beyond what's necessary for compensating the victim to the point of causing the offender to be repentant for his transgression. And because of this, we would be able to deter others from committing the same act in the future, because others would see that they would be punished to the point of repentance as well if they offended. But it seems like we could simultaneously say that we would not be justified in punishing someone far beyond the point of repentance in order to even further deter others. I think I'm pretty happy with that.

Otsuka's Theory of Appropriation

I just opened Michael Otsuka's Libertarianism without Inequality, and came across the idea that "...across a fairly wide range of individuals who differ in their capacity (productive or otherwise) to derive welfare from resources, it will be possible in principle to distribute initially unowned worldly resources so as to achieve equality of opportunity for welfare in a manner which is compatible with each person's possession of an uninfringed libertarian right of self-ownership that is robust rather than merely formal" (11). Now, not having read Otsuka's book, and not actually knowing whether or not he's going to try to argue that such a distribution would be desirable, I just want to point out something I find interesting about this idea.

It seems to me that there are not many ways of distributing of resources that are worse than doing so with the goal of having equal resource-derived welfare for all. Imagine that there are three people, Larry, Moe, and Curly, among whom we must distribute some resource, say acorns. In our example, let's say there are 9 acorns. And let's also say that Larry would really get a whole lot of pleasure out of having acorns, Moe would get a medium amount, and Curly wouldn't get very much pleasure at all.

It should be obvious that if we wanted to make Curly as happy as Moe, it would take more acorns, and the same would be true about making Moe as happy as Larry. Perhaps it would take 3 acorns to make Moe as happy as Larry would be with 1 acorn, and perhaps it would take 5 acorns to make Curly as happy as Moe would be with 3. Since that adds up to 9, it seems like Otsuka's principle would have Larry getting 1 acorn, Moe getting 3 acorns, and Curly getting 5 acorns.

But is it just me, or does that distribution suck? Why would we want to give Curly 5 acorns when he clearly doesn't value acorns very much? I mean, maybe I could see giving him 3 acorns, because he has just as much a right to them as anyone else. But when has "Oh I don't like those that much, so I should get more" ever worked as an argument? I can't wait to see what Otsuka says about this.

Can We Have Property Rights to Natural Processes?

In its operationalized form, Libertarianism relies strongly on the notion of property rights which extend beyond the self. If we want to talk coherently about these rights, we need some understanding of what sorts of things people can own, and how they come to own them. And while the second issue seems more interesting from a philosophical perspective, I think a lot of bad ideas have resulted from a poor handling of the first.

It seems like a lot of Libertarians build their views about property rights on the notion of homesteading. But I’m not sure that we’ve actually answered the fundamental question of what we can homestead. I bring this up because I’ve perceived a lot of knee-jerk hostility from a lot of Libertarians towards environmental concerns which appear to me to be totally justified.

For example, in my research on global warming, I’ve happened upon the prediction that certain climate shifts will make it difficult for some farmers to grow crops in the way that they’re accustomed. And for whatever reason, the reaction I’ve gotten from a bunch of Libertarians has been, “So what? They don’t have the right to the rain, or the temperature, or whatever. If they didn’t create it, or cause it to happen, then they have no claim to it, and cannot legitimately complain if changes in the natural environment bring about outcomes that they don’t like.”

This reaction seems intuitively ridiculous to me. Of course people didn’t create rain, or cause it to happen. Why would they have? Is this implying that people can’t possibly have any right to their natural environment? What justification could there possibly be for such a view?

I think the problem comes from looking at property rights as necessitating exclusive ownership of things. If this property rights were necessarily exclusive, then we would surely want to say that people couldn't have a right to natural phenomena. What right do you have to any rain that I collect and use?

I would argue, though, that Randall Holcombe and Roderick Long were right in saying that common ownership can fit into a property rights framework. In his essay, "Common Property in Anarcho-Capitalism," Holcombe suggests that when people collectively use a resource without mixing their labor with it in any meaningful way, the resource should be considered to be owned in common. He then contends that if one individual or group of individuals enclosed the property for their exclusive use, they would be depriving others of their rightful access.

The analogies to climate change are not perfect, but it does seem that if we all "utilize" local climatic conditions in ways that benefit us, then we have the right to continue to do so. If someone or some group of people were to change the climate in a way that made it impossible for us to continue our climate-dependent activities, couldn't we say that our rights had been violated? I think this is obviously right.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Raising Children

When talking about ethics, the subject of childrearing has always made me uncomfortable. I fully agree with Marx and Mill about the idea that a person's ability to plan her life is affected significantly (even constrained!) by her upbringing. It seems to me, then, that it would be profoundly disrespectful of a child's individuality to bring her up in a way that hampers her ability to choose and pursue a life which best suits her. But I wonder if this intuition could be sustained.

For one thing, it seems impossible to bring someone up without influencing her decision making in one way or another. For another, I wonder if there really are "best" life paths for each of us which we would choose if we weren't influenced in one way or another. In light of these objections, it might be that the most respectful way to bring someone up is to do so in a way that enables her to change her mind and to pursue a wide breadth of life paths. Although they'll inevitably be influenced somehow or another, perhaps what's best for people is to be able to be critical of their own life choices, and to have the tools for pursuing different life paths if they choose to do so. I think this seems basically right.

But if this were the case, then we would be forced to confront two uncomfortable entailments. The first is that certain lifestyles may be incompatible with such an upbringing; no one would choose them except by being brought up in a way that would "force" one to choose them (by affecting one's ability to critique the choice in light of alternatives, or by denying one the tools to pursue alternatives, or through actual barriers to exit). The second is that we would be implying that by continuing to exist, it is clear that such lifestyles are inherently disrespectful of people's individuality.

What I have in mind is the classic story of the child brought up in a deeply traditional lifestyle, indoctrinated throughout his upbringing and unable to escape even if he wanted to because of his undeveloped real-world sensibilities. Clearly such an individual could be said to have been deprived of both the ability to properly critique his own lifestyle, and the capacity to pursue alternatives. Such an upbringing seems completely disrespectful to the individuality of the child so raised. Further, it's clear that the disrespected individuals are going to end up being the very same people who disrespect the next generation in the same way.

But am I not, then, supposing that those lifestyles are somehow worse? Mill said that we must come to conclude that tradition is useful and valuable on our own, and I have smuggled in that prejudice. It may be that the freedom to choose can't ensure the right choices because we can't necessarily understand why a lifestyle is best without living it. Or even worse, the value of a lifestyle might be built on one's not choosing it in the uninfluenced manner which we've been discussing.

If one of these were the case, then it seems that complete respect for a person's individuality would severely hamper their ability to make the best choices. For example, it fully respects the individuality of a young child to allow him to have sex with an older pervert who allures him with praises of maturity. But we would hopefully view this kind of respect for individuality to be improper; a child seemingly must be prevented from making such a disastrous mistake, even if the child could not have been made to understand why the choice would have been a bad one. If we are like children, then it could be that despite our inability to see the value in some lifestyles, they would be better for us than any alternative we could have chosen on our own.

So what are we to say, then? On one hand, it clearly disrespects one's individuality to indoctrinate and brainwash someone into accepting a lifestyle that they would not likely choose in the absence of outside influence. But on the other hand, it could be that people are unable to make proper life choices without being influenced, and so it might be perfectly acceptable to disrespect people's individuality to ensure that they don't squander the only life they have. How can we resolve this without asserting the objective superiority of our lifestyles to others which we have never ourselves experienced? Or can we assert this somehow in an unobjectionable manner? I have no idea...
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