Tuesday, November 25, 2008

On the Unified Smart Grid

My boss had me take a brief look at Al Gore's WeCampaign's proposal for a Unified National Smart Grid, and I figured I'd post my summary here in case anyone cares about these sorts of things. I apologize to the hardcore libertarians in the audience for my decidedly less-hostile-to-statism-and-intervention tone, but such is life.

The Smart Grid: An Introduction

Smart Grid is the name of a Department of Energy initiative charged with the modernization of the national energy grid.

The Premise: Existing electricity infrastructure is approaching the limits of its capacity. It is in the public’s interest to have a secure and efficient supply of electricity. But because existing technologies do not allow generators to effectively communicate with their consumers, and because rates have historically been unresponsive to dynamic market conditions, the importance of increased efficiency and security has not been properly captured in the market price of electricity. Accordingly, the current incentive structure does not encourage electricity producers to invest in more efficient and reliable technologies. This can lead to socially costly system failures, power outages, and energy quality issues (the DoE estimates that these issues cost Americans $100 billion per year). Government action is being used to bring about a more efficient outcome by allocating social resources towards the modernization of our nation’s grid.

The Strategy: It appears to be twofold. First, the DoE will incentivize investment in new energy infrastructure and promote research into new efficiency-improving technologies. A cornerstone of this approach seems to be the widespread introduction of Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) to allow customers to coordinate their energy use with grid conditions through the use of customizable personal profiles. The increased cohesion, responsiveness, and customizability of the Smart Grid would bring about lower costs, smaller loads put on existing infrastructure, and greater flexibility in responding to problems.

The second part of the strategy will be to promote decentralization of electricity generation through distributed facilities. By localizing production capacity and utilizing a broader portfolio of smaller scale production methods, grids would be better protected against problems. The technologies introduced through the first part of the strategy will also increase the potential for the success of distributed production methods, and allow for energy solutions that are more tailored to the specific needs of customers.

Unified National Smart Grid

Unified National Smart Grid is a concept put forward by the WeCampaign, a project of Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection.

The Premise: Our current national grid is plagued by “Balkanization” and an excessive reliance on CO2-intensive generation methods. The technology for a CO2-neutral economy exists, but realizing this goal would require a nationally integrated system of electricity transmission so that electricity could be used far away from its point of generation.

The Strategy: Most of the efficiency-promoting infrastructural improvements of the DoE’s Smart Grid program are embraced by the WeCampaign proposal. The major difference, though, can be found in the fundamentally different paradigms in thinking about the nature of an ideal future generation regime. The Smart Grid program is focused on encouraging decentralization and distributed generation, allowing communities to be more self-sufficient and independent of failure-prone regional systems. The WeCampaign proposal seeks to go in precisely the opposite direction, centralizing the production and distribution of electricity using a vast new network of transmission lines to transport electricity all over the country.

The most obvious question raised by this strategy has to do with the cost of erecting high-efficiency electricity transmission lines across the United States to create a nationally integrated grid: even if it were true that such a system could be constructed, and that if it were constructed it would be possible to have a CO2-free economy, it would be unclear that we would really want to pursue such an option. Surely there are other values besides mitigating climate change! A one-dimensional analysis like the one offered by the WeCampaign ignores the fact that there are other important things besides responding to climate change. Neither the monetary nor the opportunity cost of a nationally integrated system is ever addressed in the WeCampain analysis, and one can only suspect that both would be formidable.


The Smart Grid plan described by the DoE is among the better kinds of government policies. It is clearly set out as a response to transactions costs which prohibit the attainment of certain public goods, and acknowledges that the decentralized planning of market actors must be relied upon in order to achieve an efficient solution to our electricity needs. The central features which distinguish the WeCampain Unified National Smart Grid proposal from the DoE’s plan are a single-minded focus on the use of CO2-free electricity production methods and an integrated national electricity transmission system. Both of these features, I think, would require substantial arguments which are not offered by the WeCampain, and on their face seem economically unfeasible. Accordingly, it’s very difficult to imagine that the DoE would amend their policy to accommodate the WeCampaign’s suggestions (unless the WeCampaign can generate enough public support to force the adoption of a clearly bad policy).

Friday, November 21, 2008

On Relationships Between Parents and Young Libertarians

So there's been this fiasco over the last week or so in the aftermath of an article in The Guardian, which basically pointed out that Stefan Molyneux, host of Freedomain Radio, may be influencing young libertarians to break off contact from their parents in situations where that's actually a bad idea. A lot of people have had a whole lot to say about this, including myself in various places, but I'm not really interested in getting into the he said, she said elements of the issue. What I do want to talk about is the fact that young libertarians often have significant difficulties in relating to their parents, and that there is a lot of potential for families to be strained as one of their younger members is exposed to libertarian ideas for the first time. This incident with the Guardian article, and the greater concern surrounding Stefan's work, I think, is partly an outgrowth of this deeper problem (though the particular case in question doesn't seem to have been about political philosophy), and I think that the libertarian movement as a whole has done a rather poor job of addressing it. So I'll take a stab at it, admitting up front that this isn't likely going to solve anything, but hopefully it can be useful to someone, particularly parents whose kids are becoming exposed to libertarianism for the first time, and who find themselves in a difficult position with their kids.

The first thing that parents need to understand about the libertarian movement is that most young people do not become libertarians because they learn about libertarianism in their economics, political science, or philosophy classes and find the position the be more appealing than the other coherent paradigms in political philosophy. Rather, they are generally exposed to a set of insights which are very intuitively compelling to young people through some resource that's outside of the mainstream educational system or their family upbringing. They hear Ron Paul speak, or they read Atlas Shrugged, Economics in One Lesson, The Law, What Has Government Done to Our Money, etc., or they listen to Stefan Molyneux, or they read an inspirational article on the internet, or whatever. Or alternatively, they speak with a libertarian who exposes them to these insights. But when you trace the source of libertarian ideas back to their sources, you rarely hear that someone's parents made them libertarians, or that they learned about libertarianism in school (of course, if someone were turned on to libertarianism by their parents, I wouldn't expect that the parents would need to read this article...)

Now, it's very important that this is how young people come across libertarianism. Because libertarianism is not suggested to most people at a young age, and because "the establishment" basically doesn't recognize libertarianism as a legitimate worldview, young libertarians almost inevitably feel alienated from the world around them. Everywhere they look, they see the institutionalization of the things they so ardently oppose: collectivism (the idea that "the good of society" is what matters, and that individuals are just parts of society), statism (the idea that centralized authority should solve all of our problems and make our lives complete), authoritarianism (the idea that it's acceptable for some people in positions of power or influence to use or authorize force to impose their will on others), and paternalism (the idea that people in positions of power should be free to force us to live "properly," instead of the way that we think is best, even if we're not hurting anyone). And even worse, most of the people around them seem to have no problem with this state of affairs; many of them even support it!

And in this state of alienation, here are their parents -- typically nice enough folks who don't know much about political theory, but who are thankful to live in the greatest country in the world -- and they're completely oblivious to these great new ideas to which the young libertarians have been exposed. Being extremely enthusiastic and believing that they have discovered a long lost truth which will save the world, the young libertarians inevitably find some opportunity to confront their parents about their non-libertarianism. At this point, things almost always go badly. Some parents try to duck out of the conversation with something like, "I don't know anything about these sorts of things; I think we're lucky to live in such a wonderful country." Other parents disagree more openly, with something like, "I think you're wrong; the government needs to take care of these kinds of things because otherwise society would fall apart!" But since they almost never actually understand what they're talking about (it's not unusual; most people don't), they don't make a compelling case. Other parents defend their views with even more vigor, even attacking the child or her positions, with something like, "Where did you hear about this nonsense? You've become an extremist!" or "Lots of young people feel strongly like you do, but when you grow up, you'll realize that the real world is a lot more complicated." In pretty much any of these situations, the child leaves the conversation feeling scornful towards their clearly close-minded and unintelligent parents, and offended that after all the time and effort they put into forming their views, they were dismissed so summarily and without real consideration.

If any parents of libertarians are reading this, it's likely that one or more of the above conversations has already happened. I had pretty much all of them with my parents at one point or another! So perhaps now you have an alienated, possibly hostile kid on your hands who quite likely feels like you don't respect him and that you're part of what's wrong with the world. What should you do? Quick disclaimer: take note of the fact that everything I say here is just my opinion. I feel like I have a pretty decent perspective on this, as I'm relatively young, so I can remember what it was like to first become interested in libertarianism and to have to relate to a family which was not particularly receptive to it, but I'm also far enough removed from that state of affairs that I feel like I can sympathize with both sides. That said, this post is meant to help, not to command.

But the first thing that you might want to do is step back and take a look at your own perspective on political issues. Most adults don't understand the nature of the political system in which we live, and have no idea how or why the government does the things that it does. Many of these adults think that they do understand these things, because they've been around a while, or because their jobs expose them to markets and government policy, or because they pay attention to the issues during election years, or because they read the newspaper or watch the news, and therefore know what's going on. But the fact is, most adults don't know the first thing about political, economic, and social thought, and those who do tend to know only what is immediately relevant to their particular job or living situation. Perhaps they read The Economist, or took economics in college, or are exposed to government policies on a regular basis. But most cannot name, for example, any of the dominant schools of economic thought in today's academic and policymaking world (i.e., admit it: you don't know what "Neoclassical" means). They don't know who John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Joel Feinberg, James Buchanan, Kenneth Arrow, F.A. Hayek, Ronald Coase, Lionel Robbins, or Ludwig von Mises are. They don't know the difference between the Justice as Fairness and Sufficientarianism. As a parent, you should probably start by acknowledging that you simply don't possess many of the intellectual tools, and much of the theoretical perspective, that would be necessary for you to properly critique your child's newfound views.

So the first step is to look long and hard in the mirror and say, "My son/daughter's views are not my own, and they don't sound right to me. But I really don't have any idea how to go about analyzing his/her position. Therefore, it would be inappropriate for me to treat him/her like he/she doesn't know what he/she's talking about. I don't know what I'm talking about." I'm serious; say it. Out loud. And realize that by saying this, you're not saying that libertarianism is the gospel truth, or that your views are wrong. All you're saying is that you haven't really examined the issue closely enough to be really sure. And that's almost certainly true. So say it again.

The next step is to ask yourself a really important question: Do you want to learn about this stuff so that you can intelligently talk to your son/daughter? Or would you rather just try to maintain a relationship with your child which does not have anything to do with political theory? For most parents, the answer will be of the latter variety, and so that's the possibility I'll address here. But if you're one of those parents who genuinely does want to gain a better understanding of these issues, I would be more than happy to help. Feel totally free to contact me!

If you think that things would be much better for your relationship with your child if you just avoided the issue of political, economic, and social philosophy altogether, I can give you an "out" which is both honest and respectful, and which will hopefully make your child feel better about his/her disagreements with you. But first you'll need to determine what kind of libertarian your child is, because believe it or not, we aren't a homogeneous bunch. Below are some sample responses tailored to a few different kinds of libertarians. If your child is none of these sorts, feel free to ask him/her to describe what kind of view he/she holds, and let me know. I'll update this post with a model response tailored to his/her point of view. But here are the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

Your child is a libertarian because he/she believes that...

...Ron Paul (or another libertarian political figure) understands what needs to be done in this country, and the mainstream candidates do not.

"Ron Paul (or whoever) has a lot of interesting ideas, but to the casual listener, a lot of them sound very extreme and unintuitive. I don't understand a lot of the theoretical ideas that underpin his arguments, and without that understanding, it's very difficult for me to decide whether I think he's right or wrong. If I were to change my voting patterns just because you think I should, without understanding the reasons why, I would be a part of the very problem that you're trying to fight. I wish you the best of luck in working towards a better understanding of the political process, and hope that you can spread awareness of the kinds of changes that need to be made in order to make this country better. But I don't have the time or energy to give those questions the attention that they deserve. I hope that you can understand and respect that."

...the way that our government is set up makes a peaceful and productive society more difficult to maintain (or, the institution of government in general is detrimental to the prospects of having a free and prosperous society).

"I don't know enough about the reasons you might think that to form a real opinion. But I will say this: I've become accustomed to living in the kind of society we have now, and so have a lot of other people. So hopefully a part of your view is the idea that a good society will be one where people do not have to completely derail their lives in order to implement some ideal set of institutions. If you think that a society more in line with libertarian principles would be better than our own, then I wish you the best in trying to spread awareness of those ideas and in setting in motion change that would make our society a better place to live. But I don't know enough about the things you've been thinking about to really talk about them with you on an intelligent level. So I hope that you can appreciate that and not feel like I'm trying to be dismissive; I'm just not a social engineer, and it would do me no good to try to talk like one."

...our government does not properly respect human rights, and we must fight oppression everywhere (or, government is institutionalized coercion, and we must stand up for the victims of its tyranny).

[Warning: Libertarians of this stripe can be the most difficult to deal with for someone who plans to continue doing things like voting or advocating certain kinds of government policies. If your child believes that his/her views reflect matters of human rights, you have to understand that your positions may strike him/her in much the same way as someone might strike you if they advocated the Jim Crow laws.]

"I respect your position, but I'm not sure if I think that people are due the kind of treatment that you do. I'm not saying that you're wrong; I'm only saying that I don't feel oppressed by our society, and that I haven't given enough attention to the issue to really understand why you feel the way that you do. I understand that you feel very strongly about this, and to hear me saying what I'm saying might sound really terrible to you. But even among professional economists, ethicists, and political philosophers, libertarianism is not universally recognized as the one true way to think about justice, and there are arguments on all sides of the debate. Unfortunately, I don't have the time or energy to try to figure out for myself who's right and who's wrong. So perhaps I'm not quite ready to take the leap that you've taken, because I don't have the understanding that you have which makes you think that such a leap is justified. But I respect your opinion, and I'm proud to see you so passionate about the things that matter to you. I just know that I won't be able to speak intelligently with you about these things, because I don't really have the knowledge that would be necessary to do so."

Hopefully these examples can be helpful to struggling parents! And hopefully they can make your family feel whole again, and convey to your children that you respect them, even though you don't necessarily buy into everything they're pushing. And that's really the goal: to have respectful disagreement which allows you to move on to the parts of your relationship that really matter to both of you. Good luck, and please let me know if I can be of any help!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Happy Birthday, Robert Nozick!

Here's to Robert Nozick, the most influential figure in my intellectual development by far. I wish I could have had the opportunity to meet him...

Nagarjuna in Context

I've been on a little kick lately of putting my old work online, and I suppose I may as well continue that trend with a paper I wrote on the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna a few years ago. This one goes out to Anne Cleveland, whose fascinating post on Admiral Byrd made me remember writing it. Thanks, Anne! Without further ado:


In the second century in India, many different schools of thought were trying to unlock the secrets of existence through the pursuit of some form of ultimate knowledge. It is in this setting that we can find the man who was perhaps the most significant thinker in the Buddhist tradition after the Buddha himself: Nagarjuna. Little is known for certain about the historical Nagarjuna, but it is believed that he was born in the southern Andhra region of India, probably to an upper-caste Hindu family, and lived around the period of 150-250 CE (Berger, 2006, 1; Wikipedia, 2006a). This essay will examine the historical context in which Nagarjuna’s work came into being, Nagarjuna’s contribution to philosophical discourse, and the reception he earned from contemporaries.

Details regarding Nagarjuna’s conversion to Buddhism are hazy (Berger, 2006, 1). What we do know is that Nagarjuna encountered Buddhism at a critical point in its development, when Buddhist thinkers were grappling with the very foundations of their shared worldview. Historically, Buddhism had not been concerned with uncovering the secrets of existence. The Buddha famously refused to answer existential questions, even going so far as to formulate an argument known as the “four errors” denial (catuskoti), which disproved all common ways of approaching such questions. With regard to the question of whether the world has a beginning or not, we may illustrate the four errors denial by answering that “the world does not have a beginning, it does not fail to have a beginning, it does not have and not have a beginning, nor does it neither have nor not have a beginning” (5). This principled opposition to the pursuit of ultimate truth about the universe identified the Buddhist tradition as one of skepticism, but not of pessimism; though absolute knowledge was viewed as irrelevant, Buddhists would have agreed that people can still diagnose and cure their own problems, and this was considered to be quite satisfactory (5).

In the time between the Buddha’s life and Nagarjuna’s, however, the intellectual atmosphere had shifted, making it imprudent for Buddhists to continue to refuse to engage in existential discussion (Berger, 2006, 5). Questions from other schools of thought were challenging the legitimacy of the basis of Buddhism (5-6). Brahminical logicians posed such questions as, “If there is no self, then what is this I am experiencing?” (6). Other philosophers inquired, “If there is no enduring identity, who is it that practices Buddhism and is liberated from suffering?” (9). Faced with these intuitively damning critiques, Nagarjuna’s Buddhist contemporaries had no choice but to play ball.

The initial Buddhist response was anchored in a sort of Substantialism. This system was built upon two main tenets. The first was the assertion that causality exists. Without causality, the Buddhist thinkers reasoned, it would be impossible to diagnose and solve the problem of suffering (samsara). The Buddhist’s second axiom claimed that since causes are not arbitrary, but rather are predictable and orderly, things must have some fixed nature (svabhava) which makes this so (Berger, 2006, 10).

Within the Buddhist camp, two factions were readily identifiable. The first was known as the Sarvastivada school. Adherents to this system of thought believed that the fixed natures of objects determine the ways that they are able to act as causes (Berger, 2006, 10). This idea can be illustrated by the statement that “Water…can quench thirst and fire can burn other things, but water cannot cause a fire, just as fire cannot quench thirst” (10). The Sarvastivada school’s main adversaries represented the Sautrantika school. These thinkers believed that change is only potential until it affects some change in the receptor. In other words, someone who ascribed to Sautrantika ideas might claim that water quenches thirst because molecules in your stomach interact with the water (10).

The differences between the schools should not obscure the fact that they both agreed on the fundamental idea of fixed natures. The logic behind this belief can be illustrated by the assertion that if people did not have a fundamentally fixed nature, we could not say that an individual really is suffering or that nirvana is attainable by anyone who perfects their wisdom (Berger, 2006, 8). This newly formulated view of causal potential as being inherent in objects and phenomena was applied by the Buddhist thinkers to all of Buddhist practice, with the intention of justifying them. Nagarjuna’s contemporaries concluded that because essences were fixed, “Those causes which lead to enmeshment in the worldly cycle of rebirth (samsara) [could not] be the same as those which lead to peace (nirvana). These states of existence are just as different as fire and water, samsara will quench thirst just as little as nirvana will lead to the fires of passion” (11). They believed that the Buddha’s words had the potential to purify consciousness (11). But these ideas were not uncontroversial; rather, they were the source of Nagarjuna’s disagreement.

Like the Buddha, Nagarjuna viewed metaphysical theory as a waste of time. He did not believe that it facilitated, explained, or justified practice, but rather that it was the enemy of practice, and must be exposed as irrelevant (Berger, 2006, 6). He was intent on “showing all the players that the game had all along been just that, merely a game which had no tenable real-life consequences” (8). One commentator, Andrew Tuck, points out that “Nagarjuna…did not intend to substitute his theory for those of his opponents. His only intention…was to cure others of the philosophical illness…” (quoted in Khandro Net, 2006). To do this, he set out to disprove systems which looked at reality as composed of substances or essences (Berger, 2006, 3).

Nagarjuna thus set out to express his doubt in a methodical, consistent way, believing that the best way to refute a system was to show that it didn’t make sense even in its own terms (Berger, 2006, 4; 6-7). Nagarjuna employed a form of philosophical argumentation called “destructive” debate, a method by which one does not pose a thesis of one’s own, but rather endeavors only to disprove the opponent’s thesis. This was generally looked down upon because it could only establish falsehood, and not truth, but this was Nagarjuna’s goal from the beginning (7).

Nagarjuna dredged up the Buddha’s “four errors” denial, and adapted it to fit the situation at hand. Recall that the Sarvastivada school of Buddhism viewed causal abilities as inherent in objects. Nagarjuna argued that if all properties were contained in the objects that expressed them, then causal reactions would simply be the manifestation of causes which were predetermined to react to some circumstance; this view would entail the admission that novel change is impossible (Berger, 2006, 11-12). On this ground, Nagarjuna rejected the Sarvastivada view of reality, and turned to the Sautrantika schema with equal disdain. As discussed above, the Sautrantika view held that actors can affect each other, and yet have their own fixed nature. Nagarjuna dismissed this view as well, pointing out that if the actors can change their own natures in response to other actors, then their natures are not fixed (12).

Nagarjuna then addressed the view that events come about due to their own causal powers, as well as the causal powers of other things around them, a view held by Jaina philosophers of his time. Nagarjuna cast this argument aside by illuminating the contradiction involved in claiming that something is caused by external factors, and simultaneously claiming that they are caused by things which are not external factors. This involves characterizing things by some attribute as well as its negation, which is a fallacious method of argumentation. Nagarjuna turned next to the view that metaphysics are nonexistent, that there are no cause and effect relationships between phenomena, a view held by the Indian Materialist school. This conception of reality goes against the most fundamental teachings of the Buddha, because Buddhism is predicated on the idea that one can predictably affect change through rational means, and so Nagarjuna asserted that no Buddhist could accept this as true (Berger, 2006, 12).

Nagarjuna’s argument can be boiled down to the claim that novel change is only possible if things do not have fixed essences. Using the four-errors denial format, Nagarjuna asserted that change can not produce itself, can not be introduced by outside influences, can not be both self-produced and introduced extrinsically, nor can it arise with no influence at all (Berger, 2006, 3; 8).

Nagarjuna’s conclusion was that Substantialist views of essential properties of objects are inadequate for describing reality. He recognized that changes do indeed happen, and so they must happen somehow. But since changes can not happen as a result of the fixed essences of objects, they must happen because of a lack of fixed essences in these objects (Berger, 2006, 12). To illustrate this position, Nagarjuna even attacked the most fundamental of Buddhist concepts, going so far as to say that “There is not the slightest distinction between samsara and nirvana. The limit of the one is the limit of the other” (quoted in Berger, 2006, 11). In this statement, and in his four-errors denial, he hopes to convey that the alterability of phenomena means that even concepts like samsara and nirvana are not built upon essence, but “upon the fact that nothing (sunya) ever defines or characterizes them eternally and unconditionally” (13). This view can be refined and expanded on by pointing out that by taking one point of view as to the nature of some phenomenon, we necessarily exclude other points of view which may be crucial for complete understanding of the phenomenon. Asserting one view as correct implies that the others are false, which often results in conflict. Nagarjuna would further hold that a single view, if taken as completely true, leads to contradictions and dead ends. Thus if we cling to extremes, we will never be correct (McFarlane, 1995).

Accordingly, Nagarjuna’s view of reality was multifaceted. His emphatically non-theoretical view of existence, the “Two Truths doctrine,” holds that there are two seemingly mutually exclusive tools for looking at reality which must be taken into account simultaneously in order to gain a true understanding of the world around us (Wikipedia, 2006c). The first of the two paradigms has been called Samvrtisatya, and refers to the conventional way of dealing with concepts used in everyday life (Berger, 1998, 2). Nagarjuna accepts the fact that there is value in this schema, because it allows us to act and convey meaning to others. However, the use of concepts carries the implication of differentiability, and therefore can not account for the difficulties in identifying the essences in things. Therefore, Nagarjuna offers another way of viewing reality, Paramarthasatya, which encapsulates an ultimate, or transcendental, truth of existence (ibid). This ultimate truth requires the recognition of existence as a single boundless “conceptionlessness.” The crucial understanding to be drawn from this view is that separating one part of existence from all other parts causes one to run into the difficulties alluded to above.

However, Nagarjuna was very explicit in his assertion that both of these truths must be viewed as equally significant parts of an integrated whole. He recognized that people might easily get hung up on the idea of emptiness (sunyata), and might become attached to it as a “something” or as “non-existence.” Nagarjuna saw the importance of practical action, and believed that holding onto the idea of emptiness would paralyze one’s ability to act (Khandro Net, 2006).

Recall that Nagarjuna’s intention was not to get involved in a complex theorization. Nagarjuna believed that the Buddhist doctrine was a pragmatic one, meant to provide a guide to living satisfactorily, rather than one meaning to explain the mysteries of the universe. He thus took the stance that no essential difference could be pointed to between the world of suffering and the practices which lead to nirvana and satisfactoriness. He interpreted the Buddhist view to merely be embracing the lack of guarantees in the world and the possibility of change, and he painted the oath to avoid suffering as not intending to deplore existence, but rather aiming to express a desire to work towards nirvana (Berger, 2006, 13). Nagarjuna viewed samsara and nirvana as nothing more than “alternative outcomes in the nexus of worldly interdependence” (13). Thus, emptiness was not intended to be viewed as a theory, but as a mental attitude which would help one avoid becoming attached to concepts and theories (Khandro Net, 2006). Appropriately, Nagarjuna compared someone clinging to emptiness as a theory to “a customer to whom a merchant has said that he has nothing to sell and the customer now asks to buy this ‘nothing’ and carry it home” (quoted in Khandro Net, 2006).

Nagarjuna’s anti-theoretical stance was quite contentious at the time of its exposition, as it stood in stark contrast to the position of the main intellectual heavyweights of the day: the Vedic school of Logic known as the Nyaya. The Nyaya posited a form of Realism which defined all knowledge as being related to substances, qualities, or activities (Berger, 2006, 2; 16). Accordingly, attainment of true knowledge was accepted as being possible, as long as logic was strictly adhered to (5). One commentator, Douglas Berger, explains that “For Nyaya, while anything and everything can be doubted, any and every doubt can be resolved” (5).

Indubitable and unerring knowledge was viewed to be the causal result of pramanas, which took four different forms (Mohanta, 1998, 1): perception (pratyaksa), inference (anumana), comparison (upamana), or word (sabda). The pramana of “perception” refers to sensory contact with objects, which the Nyaya believed to be unerring. “Inference” describes the movement from particular to particular via generality, and, if done correctly, was viewed as an infallible source of knowledge. “Comparison” expresses the relationship between some object and a word describing that object (Wikipedia, 2006b). It was thought that if there is a word, there must be an object which that word is describing (Berger, 1998, 2). The final type of pramana, “word,” encompasses truths which are communicated through the sacred texts. These truths were also held to be infallible (Wikipedia, 2006b).

The Nyaya argued that the acceptance of pramanas is central to any argument, and that argument can not exist without it. They claimed that the denial of any particular pramana necessarily presupposed the acceptance of some other pramana (Mohanta, 1998, 2). From this framework, the Nyaya claimed that Nagarjuna’s logic was self defeating; countering with the question, if nothing has a fixed nature, then what about the truth of the statement that nothing has a fixed nature? Why is such a statement necessarily true (Berger, 2006, 14-15). This question hinges on the recognition that a universal denial must hold true across circumstances, and thus contradicts the denial of the possibility of something maintaining its identity across all circumstances (15).

To combat this attack, Nagarjuna resorted to the sort of destructive debate which was his trademark. His goal was to dismantle the Nyaya system of thought from the inside out, and to substitute his principled non-argument in its place (Berger, 2006, 7). Hence, he called into question the criteria of proof which were considered by his contemporaries to be axiomatic (4). Nagarjuna inquired, if knowledge can only be obtained through acceptance of pramanas, then how can one know that pramanas must be accepted? If pramanas are self-validating, but all other knowledge must be based on reference to pramanas, Nagarjuna claimed that it must be explained why pramanas are given such privileged status (Mohanta, 1998, 3). This line of questioning went outside the logical framework established by the Nyaya, because it could not presuppose the validity of pramanas as sources of unerring knowledge, and called into doubt the epistemological basis of the entire Nyaya system of thought.

The Nyaya understanding of epistemology held that a piece of knowledge could either be self-evident, or could be acquired through reference to other true facts. Nagarjuna attacked the latter claim first, citing the example of determining the weight of an object. He mused that if a scale is used to arrive at this knowledge, then must the scale not be tested for accuracy using another scale? And that scale must be tested with another scale, and so on, because it will never be possible to actually eliminate all doubt. Consequently, the epistemological status of reference to true facts was left discredited. At this point, the Nyaya were left only with appeals to self-evidence, but Nagarjuna rejected this method as well, claiming that epistemology seeks to know how knowledge becomes evident; if all knowledge were self evident, then there would be no need to ask these questions (Berger, 2006, 15).

In any case, Nagarjuna continued, his argument of sunyata did not fit into any of the categories of knowledge which the Nyaya had defined, for it described neither a substance, nor a quality, nor an activity. He pointed out that the Nyaya system of logic presupposed that no one making such an argument could enter into rational philosophical discussion. But this was exactly the point being contested (Berger, 2006, 16). Nagarjuna conceded that if his argument was a positive statement, he would be incorrect. However, we can recall that the idea of emptiness was not intended to represent an actual thing (Berger, 1998, 1-2). Thus, Nagarjuna’s argument against the Nyaya could be summed up by the twenty-ninth verse of his Vigrahavyavartani, where we find Nagarjuna declaring victory, explaining, “If I had any proposition, this defect [(that accepting sunyata would require acceptance of the Nyaya framework)] would be mine. I have, however, no proposition. Therefore, there is no defect that is mine” (quoted in Berger, 1998, 2).

Ultimately, Nagarjuna’s was received with skepticism by his contemporaries. Most did not accept that he was taking a genuinely philosophical stance, because of his refusal to take a stance himself while engaging in destructive argumentation (Berger, 2006, 16-17). This would not have bothered Nagarjuna, because this was his intention from the beginning. Recall that his purpose was not to put forward any theory of existence; rather, Nagarjuna aimed only to show that his opponents would be unable to achieve the epistemological goals towards which they aimed.

Nagarjuna’s importance in the context of his time can not, however, be ignored. His voice was central in altering the course of Buddhist understanding of existential questions. With Nagarjuna’s argument in mind, we can safely turn away from the questions of precisely what sort of existence we are faced with, leaving us to ponder the questions which Nagarjuna deemed to be much more important, like how to escape from a life of suffering, and how to find stable peace in a world that is constantly changing.

Works Cited

Berger, D. (1998). Illocution, No-Theory and Practice in Nagarjuna’s Skepticism: Reflections on Vigrahavyavartani. Retrieved Nov. 10, 2006, from http://www.bu.edu/wcp/Papers/Asia/AsiaBerg.htm

Berger, D. (2006). Nagarjuna. Retrieved Nov. 10, 2006, from http://www.iep.utm.edu/n/nagarjun.htm

Khandro Net. (2006). Nagarjuna. Retrieved Nov. 10 from http://www.khandro.net/buddhism_doctrine_Nagarjuna.htm

McFarlane, T. J. (1995). The Meaning of Sunyata in Nagarjuna’s Philosophy. Retrieved Nov. 10, 2006, from http://www.integralscience.org/sacredscience/SS_sunyata.html

Mohanta, D. K. (1998). Cognitive Skepticism of Nagarjuna. Retrieved Nov. 10, 2006, from http://www.bu.edu/wcp/Papers/TKno/TKnoMoha.htm

Wikipedia. (2006a). Nagarjuna. Retrieved Nov. 10, 2006, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nagarjuna

Wikipedia. (2006b). Pramana. Retrieved Nov. 10, 2006, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pramana

Wikipedia. (2006c). Two-Truths Doctrine. Retrieved Nov. 10, 2006, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two-truths_doctrine

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A Blast From the Past: On Marxian "Alienation"

A little over a year ago, I posted a discussion of Marx's concept of alienation, as described in his essay "Estranged Labour," on the old Austrian Forum. I basically wanted to post a copy of the summary on my blog so I could reference it without having to track down those posts every time (plus, if that site ever got taken down, it would be a bummer if I lost this forever). So here goes nothing:

As close as I can tell, Marx's idea is built on the idea of species-being. According to Marx, "The animal is immediately one with its life activity. It is not distinct from that activity; it is that activity." The nature of man as a species-being, then, is man's ability to separate some sense of "self" from his need to sustain himself as an animal. Thus the species-being man exists to the extent that he can fulfill the nature of this "self." As Marx writes, "...man produces even when he is free from physical need and truly produces only in freedom from such need." To try and put it differently, Marx is setting man as an animal apart from man as a man, and he's saying that man as a man can only exist once man as an animal is taken care of.

If this idea is clear, then the next component needed to understand Marx's theory is a basic understanding of Marx's view of labor. To Marx, labor is a commodity which men inherently possess in a specific quantity. Accordingly, using one's labor is irreversible. As Marx writes, "The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he produces. The devaluation of the human world grows in direct proportion to the increase in value of the world of things." Think of this idea as Marx saying that when we work, we use ourselves up.

Marx tells us that "...the object that labour produces, its product, stands opposed to it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labour is labour embodied and made material in an object, it is the objectification of labour. The realization of labour is its objectification." That is, the physical equivalent of labor is its objectification, and this physical object of labor can never be reintegrated with the person who created it.

So Marx thinks that when we work, we use ourselves up. The physical equivalent of this process is the "object" of labor, and it represents the part of ourselves that's no longer within us. Integrating this with the idea of species-being, we can reason that man fulfills his species-being when he objectifies his labor in a way that reflects his nature as a man. As Marx writes, a man fulfilling his species-being "...produces himself not only intellectually, in his consciousness, but actively and actually, and he can therefore contemplate himself in a world he himself has created."

Because Marx believes that labor becomes objectified in objects, and a man fulfilling his species-being objectifies his labor in such a way as to create himself as a species-being, Marx thinks that when one objectifies her labor in any other way, this causes her labor to be "estranged." That is, the object of her labor does not reflect her, but something else. This causes the worker to feel distanced from her work, and further makes it impossible to feel like she's living her own life, except when she isn't working. As Marx puts it, "...the fact that labour is external to the worker – i.e., does not belong to his essential being; that he, therefore, does not confirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy, does not develop free mental and physical energy, but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind. Hence, the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself." Marx also tells us, "Estranged labour...turns man's species-being - both nature and his intellectual species-power - into a being alien to him and a means of his individual existence. It estranges man from his own body, from nature as it exists outside him, from his spiritual essence, his human existence."

Thus, man feels alienated from his labor, because it doesn't reflect him as a species-being, but rather some other purpose. But the alienation doesn't end here.

Man finds himself in a situation in which his labor has been estranged from him. His work and station in the world is not a reflection of himself, but rather some alien purpose with which he doesn't identify. In this station, he has to relate to others according to their relationship with his adopted "purpose." For example, the factory worker does not relate to his foreman as another person, but rather as a foreman. Because he is forced to identify with his nature as a factory worker, he can not relate to the foreman except through the lens of a factory worker. As Marx writes, "In the relationship of estranged labour, each man therefore regards the other in accordance with the standard and the situation in which he as a worker finds himself."

This is especially true of a man's relationship with his "superiors." Since a man whose labor is estranged is doing something that is not consistent with his nature as a species-being, he feels enslaved. This feeling is projected on his employer, who he views with hostility. Marx writes, "If...he regards the product of his labour, his objectified labour, as an alien, hostile, and powerful object which is independent of him, then his relationship to that object is such that another man - alien, hostile, powerful, and independent of him - is its master. If he relates to his own activity as unfree activity, then he relates to it as activity in the service, under the rule, coercion, and yoke of another man."

Marx's concept of alienation is a very valuable addition to our understanding of life in a society characterized by the division of labor. It's a very important observation that when a person's work does not reflect her view of herself, she feels somehow detached from that work, and can often feel like a slave. Marx's assertion that this feeling of enslavement is projected upon the "cause" of that enslavement - one's employers - is insightful and largely correct. It's also true that despite their detachment from their work, people come to identify with their station in life, and relate to each other through the lens of that station. This is especially true in the workplace, where people often come to view their patrons as "customers" instead of people, and their coworkers as "secretary," "intern," and "manager," instead of as people.

Does this imply that Marx was correct about the need or inevitability of socialism? No, of course not. But understanding alienation can help us improve the way we go about living in capitalism. I'll leave it to others to explain why socialism is stupid, or why the labor theory of value doesn't make sense. But hopefully you can now understand what Marx was trying to tell us about our world in his theory of alienation.

Just as a side note, I wanted to offer a defense of alienation against two important objections.

Objection 1: Marx's idea of alienation, as he explains it, is contingent on people getting poorer at exactly the rate at which their labor was estranged from them. Clearly this isn't true. First of all, it's nonsensical to talk about a rate at which one is losing "labor," which is not a commodity. And secondly, people don't "lose" their labor. They are paid for their work, and this payment allows them to do the sorts of things that "create themselves as species-beings." Because people wouldn't be capable of producing the things they consume on their own, this payment represents an increase in their wealth, and this is a good thing. Therefore, Marx is wrong to say that people are impoverished by their estranged labor. In fact, they are made substantially more wealthy. This wealth means that a substantially smaller portion of their time is spent sustaining themselves, and much more is devoted to acquiring the means to obtain luxuries that would have been unimaginable in Marx's time. Thus, Capitalism is good, and alienation is a stupid concept.

Response: It is indeed true that capitalism and the division of labor allow people to live better lives. Marx did recognize the virtues of the capitalistic order, but he believed that the trend would be towards gradual impoverishment of workers, bringing them closer and closer to subsistence wages. This is not how things actually turned out. But those elements of Marx's theory of alienation were the things that helped him establish socialism. The theory of alienation is a vital one even with the socialistic parts removed. Marx was correct in observing that people feel less whole when they have to work a job they don't consider to be a reflection of themselves, and it's worth asking whether or not we could work towards making capitalism less slavish in that sense. I don't mean by government, necessarily, or by communism. But employers would be wise and right to facilitate conditions in the workplace which made people feel more human. And people in the workplace often do treat each other like "coworkers" instead of as people. Fostering a working environment where workers could relate to each other in a more personable way would be a good thing. The same idea goes for treating one's employees like peers, and not like slaves.

Objection 2: Marx's concept of alienation would suggest that anyone producing anything for others to consume would be alienated from that labor. We can't produce everything we consume on our own, so we can never avoid alienation.

Response: That's sort of true. People who fulfill themselves through their work will not be estranged from it. Marx wouldn't have put it this way, but if the objectification of one's labor can be construed as the feeling of a job well done, or a feeling of pride for one's position and accomplishments, then alienation doesn't have to be apparent, even if the physical object of labor is lost. But it's true that when we do work we don't find fulfilling, we'll feel alienation, and people will always have responsibilities that don't reflect their deepest desires as individuals. So alienation is, in a sense, an unavoidable part of life. But recognizing this fact is valuable nonetheless. We would be wise to consider alienation when making life choices and weighing alternatives. For example, I could probably make a bunch of money if upon graduation, I went to work for this asset management firm I'm interning at this summer [remember, this was originally written a year ago -- incidentally, I went back to work there for about a year between finishing my undergrad and starting grad school!]. But I find philosophy so much more fulfilling. I mean, I'm writing this post out on a Saturday morning. So I'm choosing the professor route, even if it may be harder for me to get by.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Some Thoughts on the Bailout and Consequentialism

It seems clear to me that the underlying justification for the economic bailout we're seeing right now is consquentialistic in nature, and is in no way based any conception of rights that the recipients of aid have to what they'll be getting. The idea, then, is that if we don't let the bailout go through, then a lot of people will suffer and have their goals frustrated, and that this would be a bad thing. In order to avoid this terrible consequence, then, we are morally obligated to undertake measures that would lessen the negative impacts on the people who are being hurt by the current financial situation. And we are obligated to do this even if we know that by trying to lessen these negative impacts, we set in motion events which will cause significant personal loss to those who would not have been significantly affected by the economic crisis.

Now, political economy of that kind is not really my specialty, and I don't really want to get into a discussion of what I specifically think should be done from a public policy standpoint. I don't really know, to be honest, and my opinion is basically worthless on this. But I was reflecting on this earlier, and I immediately thought of something John Simmons said in his totally unrelated (but nevertheless very interesting) essay, "On the Territorial Rights of States":
...one of the fundamental problems with all varieties of consequentialism is the way in which they permit their conclusions to be strongly influenced by the weight of frustrated expectations and desires, however unjustified these might be, and by considerations of simple convenience...

I don't mean to suggest that I think that convenience or frustrated expectations and desires are morally irrelevant, and I'm sure that Simmons would agree. But it is interesting to note that when we think only in terms of consequences, we often lose sight of the fact that there are other things that matter, e.g., the fact that the money that's being used to help these people who screwed up belongs to other people who worked hard for it and earned it, or that people may be frustrated because of their own poor judgment.

I'm not among the people who believes that there's no role for coercion in order to promote positive consequences. I do, however, think that we need to think long and hard about the fact that this bailout is not being used only to save lives and protect people from the worst kind of poverty and loss, but also to protect people from bearing the consequences of entirely unreasonable and irresponsible decisions that they made without giving proper thought to the risks that they were incurring and doing so, and to protect firms which unscrupulously invested in products which were founded in deception and predatory opportunism, and which are now being penalized for their lack of foresight and integrity.

I'm certainly not saying that everyone's mistakes were proportionate to the losses which they will likely incur as their result. But we live in neither a meritocracy nor a desert-based social order, and proportionality has nothing to do with the way that we live our lives. If I'm walking down the street and I accidentally step awkwardly on a crack, causing me to severely sprain my ankle, it seems fair to say that any absentmindedness I might have displayed in failing to watch where I put my feet would not make a severe ankle sprain my just deserts. But that doesn't mean that I could legitimately hobble into a nearby house and write myself a check for the price of crutches. As communities, perhaps we have an obligation to help people out when they're in need, and I would certainly think that if someone sprained their ankle in front of me, I ought to help them out in some way. But the idea that we have an enforceable responsibility to make people whole again when, in some cosmic sense, they don't deserve their fates seems odd to me, and somehow antithetical to the way we ordinarily think about our responsibilities to other people.

So ultimately, I'm not sure what to say about an ideal economic policy. It's not really my specialty. But what I will say is that from an ethical standpoint, there's something fishy going on.

On Minding One's Own Business

I wrote this paper on John Stuart Mill's On Liberty for my political theory class during my Junior year. I have no illusions about its quality, as it was written in the same semester that I switched to majoring in philosophy, and so I had very little experience with philosophical writing at that point. But one of my friends is working with the book, and so I figured I'd post this in case it could be of any help to her. So without further ado:


John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty is, for some people, an inspiring guide to better government. Its main focus, the principle of harm, is an extremely interesting concept both for its simplicity and for its intuitive acceptability. But in life, good explanations are rarely as elegant and simple as Mill’s, and so it seems necessary to put it through its paces before we accept it as gospel. In doing so, we will examine what problem the principle of harm is meant to solve, how its design is meant to solve that problem, and whether it is successful.

Mill opens his essay with a discussion of majority rule. He points out that popular government arose because “…men ceased to think it a necessity of nature that their governors should be an independent power opposed in interest to themselves” (1859, 2). Accordingly, people created governments that responded to the desires of populous, rather than to the caprice of the ruling class. Because these governments, in theory, were the institutionalizations of the general will, people did not seek to impose limits on them, because “There was no fear of [the nation’s] tyrannizing over itself” (ibid, 3).

But Mill points out that “…such phrases as “self-government” and “the power of the people over themselves,” do not express the true state of the case” (ibid, 3-4), because those who guide policy are not the whole of the populous, but rather only “…the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority” (ibid, 4). This majority could make laws to subjugate those who opposed them in much the same way that a tyrant could. But Mill explains that the power of majority rule extends further than the legal sphere; social opinion can be equally, if not more powerful and coercive than law when it comes to producing conformity, as “…it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself” (ibid). This is dangerous because, as Mill discusses in the third chapter of his essay, “…it is the privilege and proper condition of a human being, arrived at the maturity of his faculties, to use and interpret experience in his own way” (ibid, 55). In order to live worthwhile lives, people must be free to choose their own fates. In much the same way that law does, social pressures can prevent people from choosing certain paths which would result in the greatest happiness.

Mill’s discussion of the power of social norms is similar of Emile Durkheim’s later description of social facts. As Durkheim puts it, there are “…types of behavior and thinking external to the individual…[which are] endued with a compelling and coercive power by virtue of which, whether he wishes it or not, they impose themselves upon him. Undoubtedly when I conform to them of my own free will, this coercion is not felt or felt hardly at all, since it is unnecessary. None the less it is intrinsically a characteristic of these facts; the proof of that is that it asserts itself as soon as I try to resist” (1982, 1). Some social facts, like laws prohibiting murder, are necessary and just. But Mill is concerned that some sorts of social encumbrances, both those imposed by the coercion of law and those imposed by “…the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling” (1859, 4) can and do go further in regulating society than can be justified.

Mill therefore asserts that “…there is a sphere of action in which society, as distinguished from the individual, has, if any, only an indirect interest: comprehending all that portion of a person’s life and conduct and conduct which affects only himself or, if it also affects others, only with their free, voluntary, and undeceived consent and participation” (ibid, 11). According to this view, those actions falling outside the aforementioned sphere of action, which might be called the sphere of liberty, could be justifiably intervened in if such interventions were deemed fit by society. But Mill believes that all action within the sphere of liberty is off limits for coercive intervention, both legal and moral.

Mill’s doctrine gives us a prescription summarized well in William Graham Sumner’s later exhortation to “Mind your own business…Let every man be happy in his own way. If his sphere of action and interest impinges on that of any other man, there will have to be compromise and adjustment. Wait for the occasion” (1911, 120). This idea is intuitive enough, but will it hold up under closer examination?

One obvious question that arises from Mill’s definition is directed at the definition of the boundary between behaviors that directly harm others and that which do so only indirectly. For one thing, can emotional damage to others count as harm? Charles Lawrence once asserted that “Psychic injury is no less an injury than being struck in the face, and it often is far more severe. Racial epithets and harassment often cause deep emotional scarring and feelings of anxiety and fear that pervade every aspect of a victim’s life” (quoted in Altman, 1997, 377). On a related point, Joel Feinberg claimed that offensive behavior has the power to “…create at best a kind of painful turmoil, and at worst that experience of exposure to oneself…which is called shame” (1973, 44). Surely this would suggest that behavior that inspires indignation, anxiety, fear or shame could safely be considered harmful. It is doubtful that Mill would disagree.

But if Mill’s principle of harm protects only those actions that do not so much as offend anyone, does it really accomplish anything of real value? It might seem that Mill is arguing in favor of protecting behaviors that do not upset anyone, and therefore would give people no reason to want to regulate them in the first place. In this case, a very real charge could be leveled against Mill holding that his principle is too weak to be very useful.

Further clarification may be found in analyzing another application of Mill’s principle. In a discussion of the morality of prohibition of drugs such as cocaine, heroin and PCP, James Wilson points out that illegal drugs “…lead you to neglect your duties to family, job, and neighborhood” (1997, 298). Accordingly, he believes that social intervention is justified. But what would Mill say? Does negligence of duties qualify as harm to others? In the fifth chapter of his essay, Mill explains that “When a person, either by express promise or by conduct, has encouraged another to rely upon his continuing to act in a certain way – to build expectations and calculations, and stake any part of his plan of life upon that supposition – a new series of moral obligations arises on his part toward that person…” (1859, 102).

So Mill might agree that a spouse, child, or employer could level an accusation of wrongdoing on a drug addict, as the addict would be violating some implicit contract through his or her actions. But Wilson’s argument in favor of prohibition extends further than condemning those who shirk on their responsibilities. He claims that “…cocaine alters one’s soul. The heavy use of crack…corrodes those natural sentiments of sympathy and duty that constitute our human nature and make possible our social life” (1997, ibid). But while Mill believes that we “…owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter” (1859, 74), he also thinks that we have no right to tell anyone “…that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it” (ibid).

This example shows that Mill’s principle can indeed allow us to distinguish quite easily between the sorts of actions that ought to be protected from coercion and those which might justify coercion, and that there are significant instances where Mill’s principle would direct us not to intervene. Therefore it is not justifiable to say that Mill’s proposal is irrelevant. Some people clearly do want to engage in the sorts of actions that Mill is condemning.

But we may still be hesitant to accept Mill’s distinction. It may offer us solid prescriptions and ease of use with regard to real world problems, but it may not provide us with the sorts of policy conclusions we believe would benefit society most. One way to demonstrate this would be to locate a class of actions that falls within the sphere of liberty as Mill defines it, but which we think ought to be subject to social coercion. A possible illustration is animal cruelty. In his book Social Philosophy, Joel Feinberg provides an example in which John Doe, in order to avoid distressing others, leaves his community, “…buys a five hundred acre ranch, and moves into a house in the remote, unpopulated center of his own property. There, in the perfect privacy of his own home, he spends every evening maiming, torturing, and beating to death his own animals” (1973, 41). With this example, Feinberg argues that the principle of harm is inadequate in describing the boundary society must not cross in using its power to coerce individuals. One way to defend Mill would be to argue in favor of extending the harm principle to animals. But harming animals is, in many cases, perfectly acceptable to us. As Feinberg puts it, “We must control animal movements, exploit animal labor, and, in many cases, deliberately slaughter animals” (ibid). Therefore, extending the principle of harm to animals does not solve the problem, it creates new ones instead. In light of Feinberg’s criticism, we are forced to concede that Mill’s principle is not fully capable of producing acceptable policy prescriptions.

But it does not seem right to discard Mill’s ideas altogether. Mill’s main point seems to be that toleration of the choices made by others is a good thing for society. This is itself a valuable insight. Even if we must not be as unequivocal as Mill in saying that all actions that do not harm other people ought to be protected from legal and moral coercion, the basic idea behind such a claim is still valuable. A society in which everyone is accorded the right to pursue their own happiness in their own way, independent of the biting judgments and legal impositions of others, seems intuitively appealing to us. And while we may want to discuss certain moral impositions, like those prohibiting cruelty to animals, Mill’s principle urges us to consider such measures very carefully, to ensure that we do not impose unjust constraints on others in our society. And that is worthwhile in itself.

Works Cited

Altman, A. (1997). Speech Codes and Expressive Harm. In H. LaFollette (Ed.), Ethics in Practice: An Anthology. (1997, pp. 376-385). Malden: Blackwell Publishing.

Durkheim, E. (1982). What is a Social Fact? Retrieved April 18, 2007 from: www2.pfeiffer.edu/~lridener/DSS/Durkheim/SOCFACT.HTML.

Feinberg, J. (1973). Social Philosophy. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.

Mill, J. S. (1859). On Liberty. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

Sumner, W. G. (1911 [1883]). What Social Classes Owe to Each Other. New York/London: Harper & Brothers Publishers.

Wilson, J. Q. (1997). Against the Legalization of Drugs. In H. LaFollette (Ed.), Ethics in Practice: An Anthology. (1997, pp. 295-299). Malden: Blackwell Publishing.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

On the Power of Trolls: A Response to Kotecki

James Kotecki recently released a video commenting on the Rebuild the Party website which was the subject of a previous post on this blog (which, as I expected, seems to have had precisely no impact on anything). The video:

I wanted to point out a slight error in this show which is entirely not Kotecki's fault, but which could have made the show much funnier if he had known about it. The problem is this: Kotecki anticipated that because the Rebuild the Party site was both politically oriented and on the internet, it would come to be dominated by libertarians. And that was not a bad prediction. But he of all people should have known that on the internet, there is one group that is far more powerful, and far more dastardly, than the libertarians. That group, of course, being the trolls.

See, unbeknownst to Kotecki, the "Reach out to Ron Paul and the Campaign for Freedom" idea was not actually the most popular idea on Rebuild the Party, though it might appear as such to the casual observer. Because I'm a super secret Republican Party insider (that is, because I submitted an idea on the site, and automatically got put on some kind of mailing list without noticing), I received an e-mail from Rebuild the Party which listed the most popular ideas on the site in order of votes received:

It appears that the most popular idea on the site was actually member Hotlaska's "Truck Nutz for all!" The idea, which has since been marked as "inappropriate" and therefore no longer appears on the main site, simply advocates that the Republican Party chairman should "Give all Red Blooded Americans a pair of Truck Nuts for their F150's!" Though apparently the idea has lost some votes since I received my e-mail, it is still vastly outpacing the Ron Paul idea for the lead on the site.

Not only is the comments section of this idea a paradigm cooler-of-Haterade-on-the-coach masterpiece, but the subject of the idea, Truck Nutz, is perhaps the funniest product in existence:

So I hereby applaud Hotlaska for a fantastic episode in troll history, and nominate him/her for Haterade Hater of the Week. And Kotecki, I expect a correction.


Thanks are due to the anonymous commenter who alerted me to the source of this brilliant phenomenon. Props go to Sara K. Smith, Jim Newell, and the rest of the Wonkette hate legion. Bravo!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

I'm in the Top 100 of Something!!!

Apparently my blog has been listed in the Top 100 Libertarian Blogs! I win!

Batman and the Social Administration of Risky Enforcement Procedures

So I saw the latest Batman movie over the summer, and immediately wanted to write this post; I wrote a note to myself, and never got around to it. But I really, really wanted to make this point, so here it is (several months too late to be relevant).

In the movie, Batman uses surveillance technology to spy on a whole bunch of people in order to save the city of Gotham from certain doom. The interesting thing that happened when I watched the movie was that at first, I recoiled at the suggestion that Batman would be justified in spying on these people, but as soon as I did, I immediately felt like I was being unreasonable. As far as Batman knew, his actions could save a lot of lives, and since he was the one doing the surveillance, he knew that he was going to be acting as uprightly as possible. He could end up being wrong, and that would make his invasions of others' privacy extremely regrettable. But I think that most of us would do the same thing if we found ourselves in Batman's situation, and would not think ourselves evil for doing so. And I really had trouble thinking that Batman was evil while I was watching the movie.

So there I was, a staunch opponent of government programs which engage in precisely the sort of surveillance that Batman was engaging in, and for precisely the same sort of reasons, yet feeling like Batman's actions were not illegitimate. What gives?

Immediately, I took comfort in the idea that the sorts of government programs that I'm accustomed to opposing have nowhere near the sort of evidential grounding that Batman's actions did. Batman wasn't trying to stop "criminals posing a danger to America/Americans any time they should decide to pose a threat." He was trying to stop a very specific criminal in a reasonably specific place at a reasonably specific time. But because I was still uneasy about a government with a mandate for surveillance on its citizens' private affairs, this didn't quite satisfy me.

So here's what I decided: Batman was justified in what he did, but he could not claim the kind of moral authority on behalf of his actions which seems implicit in government action. Of course,

It seems difficult to say that Batman was clearly wrong to do what was necessary, given the importance of his mission. But it seems important that it be Batman who do something like that, and not someone who was explicitly entrusted with acting as the agent of justice. The idea here, then, is that someone believing that Batman was acting wrongly would be justified in trying to stop him, whereas standing in the way of the police or security forces is in some sense only legitimate when they are acting outside of their social roles as enforcers of justice. I suppose that people might object to the idea that there can even be people who are The social enforcers of justice, but whatever. If that's the thing that gets people up in arms about this post, then so be it. I think I'm as happy with this as I'm going to be.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Uniting the Factions: Virtue Ethics, Deontology, and Consequentialism

Why is it that people think of virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism as incompatible or in tension with each other? It seems to me that each view can be stated in terms of any of the other views. For example, deontological theories state that we must take certain actions and avoid others. But it seems reasonable to think that the reason why we should do those things have something to do with what will happen if we don't -- the consequences of our actions. What a deontologist is basically saying is that consequences matter, but the way that they matter is not simply aggregative. Capricious killing is wrong because your victim dies, and that is morally significant, so you should avoid capricious killing regardless of the overall outcome for society. From there, there will be disagreement about what kinds of consequences ground moral obligations, but that's what we would expect to happen.

To reformulate a deontological view in terms of virtue ethics, it seems like we could ask, "Well why should I do what's morally right?" And the answer, to borrow some terminology from preeminent virtue ethiconomist Dan D'Amico, would be something along the lines of "Because don't be a dick, dick." Working the other way, when we try to think about a hybrid between virtue ethics and deontology, we can see that the marriage helps us deal with what I find to be one of the trickier issues in deontological ethics: imperfect duties. Imperfect duties, I would argue, aren't really duties at all: they're virtues. And because we ought to be virtuous, we should do our best to do virtuous things. Drawing from deontological theories, though, we can understand why some situations are more demanding of us to be virtuous than others: it's not simply that doing certain things is virtuous; we are morally required to do them -- they are our moral duty.

Approaching consequentialism from a virtue ethical standpoint, we can see that narrow-minded teleological views which do not include a place for anything but aggregate felt happiness will not only fail to carry convincing moral weight, but will also likely miss much of what is actually worth promoting about human life and wellbeing. Going the other way, we will see that the propensity to consider the big picture and to take proper account of the consequences of one's actions are obvious virtues, as will be a willingness to make personal sacrifices for the common good.

So essentially, I'm just not seeing why these approaches have to be separate. If anyone can shed some light on this, I'd love to hear it.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

It's Worth a Shot!

So apparently the Republican Party is having an identity crisis, and a bunch of Republicans have put together a website asking for suggestions about new directions for the party. I have no illusions that this will produce any noticeable change in any direction that I would support, but this might be a pretty good opportunity to get some good ideas out into the public discourse. Accordingly, I wrote out the following suggestion, titled "Focus on decentralization and pluralism":

Republicans know that the federal government can't solve all of our problems. But this has all too often come across as a view that the problems that Democrats seek to solve are not worrisome, or do not deserve to be addressed in an organized way. Standing in opposition to humanitarianism and compassion is a sure recipe for failure.

So instead, a different way of saying the same thing is to focus on decentralization and pluralism. Basically, the idea here is that the federal government doesn't need to be the one to solve social problems, and in fact it shouldn't be. Federal planners necessarily lack specific knowledge of particular circumstances in different areas of the country, and this often hamstrings their capacity to make decisions that reflect the specific needs of different communities. And as different regions of the country are often characterized by very different values, some policies which are seen to be morally necessary in some areas might be thought to be unacceptable in other areas.

By adopting a position centered on embracing differences between cultural groups, and acknowledging difficulties faced by even the most well-meaning officials, the Republican party could stake out a clear distinction between the central planning-oriented policies of the Democratic party without discounting the humanitarian elements of those policies. In fact, because a program like the one discussed here would actually promote the Democrats' goals better than would their own policies, it seems like a win-win strategy. Further, a focus on decentralization and pluralism would embody the promotion of competition and limitation of government scope that have traditionally characterized the Republican party.

If anyone actually reads this, it would be kind of cool if a bunch of people went over to the site and voted for this suggestion. It might be an effective way of getting our ideas out to the general public, and if it doesn't work, who cares? It's worth a shot!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

But What About the Poor? (Education Edition)

On the LvMI message board, a common question was posed:

Hey guys just a basic question. How would the really really poor afford school for their kids under a complete free market system?? I mean what if a family was extremely poor?? It seems to me that this is a tough question to answer when I am asked it.

The conversation had already started by the time I saw the question, but I figured I'd throw in my two cents (which, of course, had expanded to about $3.50 by the time I was done). I thought it might be worthwhile to re-post my response here:

Well one way people could be provided for would be through voluntary community organizations aimed at ensuring certain kinds of social outcomes. For example, a home-owners' association could design a policy by which members who could not afford to send their kids to school would be granted financial support. Or individuals might participate in mutual aid societies which could perform similar functions.

As others have noted, we might also imagine the emergence of charitable institutions designed to help needy children afford an education, and it would be surprising to find schools failing to offer financial assistance in a decentralized educational system, given that most private schools already do so today.

Additionally, some children might be able to secure financial assistance for an education more directly aimed at preparing them for success in the workforce, where the ability to repay loans would likely be better and the education itself less costly. I have in mind here vocational schools with less emphasis on a broad liberal arts education and more emphasis on technical skills that would help children participate in the work force.

What we might find, however, in a radically decentralized system is that in communities that didn't place a high value on children receiving a broad liberal arts education, many children would end up going without one. It is somewhat reasonable to expect that given the sheer financial profitability of some level of education for a child, most families would be able to afford to have their children educated to some extent. But some facets of a liberal arts education may not be profitable in a financial sense, instead producing value for the child in the form of a rich life and improved intellect.

A proponent of radical decentralization would need to ask herself: In the event that charitable individuals and organizations in a community did not feel that a broad liberal arts education for needy children was worthy of supporting, and such an education would simply fall outside of the means of some families, would it be permissible to coercively take money from some individuals in order to ensure a liberal arts education for all children? If so, who would be justified in doing so, and how would they have to administer the support? Further, is failing to support a liberal arts education for poor children a violation of a duty, such that it would be morally impermissible to defend yourself against someone coercing you to do so?

I think that a case can be made on both sides in this debate, but ultimately I would expect to see the issue to be a moot point in most communities. As mentioned above, there are a number of mechanisms by which education could be supported in a decentralized system, and I would be surprised if we really ended up with communities where parents wanted to send their children to school, but simply couldn't find a way to afford it. It could be that in some communities, poor children might end up with more "practical" (i.e. market-participation-oriented) educations, which could be very regrettable. But the upshot is that these children would likely grow up to be able to afford better educations for their own children. And I would imagine that many communities would offer the kinds of assistance necessary to ensure that all children received a broad education, regardless of financial background.

Ultimately, though, what's needed is not an immediate abolition of the current educational system, but rather a movement away from centralized planning and towards more decentralized, competitive provision. Once we commit to that trend, we can start debating about the intricacies of a radically decentralized system. For now, we should focus on the area on which I think we share common ground: this is not an issue in which the federal government needs to interfere.

On Alarmism and Denialism in Discussing Anthropogenic Climate Change

Every once in a while, someone brings to my attention a new article or video attacking the mainstream position on anthropogenic climate change, and I pretty much always end up responding with one of the following responses:

1) "This doesn't say anything that would be particularly troubling to the mainstream position. It simply highlights one area of uncertainty -- one which has already been acknowledged by the mainstream community. The balance of available evidence still supports the position that humans are likely having a significant impact on the climate system which will probably continue into the future, but considerable uncertainty does indeed remain. As scientists learn more, they could discover that they overestimated the significance of certain phenomena, or that they posited causal connections which either aren't there or are canceled out by other factors. But they could also find out that they underestimated those things, or that things are likely to be a lot worse than they thought. We simply don't know. The mainstream estimates provide "best guesses" about what might happen in the future, but there are no guarantees. Issues like this one show us just how much more we have to learn. However, it would be irresponsible to dismiss the mainstream position because it is grounded on science that is wrought with some uncertainty. As I said above, the balance of evidence points to some reason for concern, and that needs to be taken very seriously."

I think the paradigm cases which warrant this kind of response are the objections to proscription and tuning in models, questions about model resolution and intracellular processes, and uncertainty surrounding the impacts of aerosols, oceanic heat-transfer processes, changes in cloud dynamics, and solar phenomena (including the issue of cosmic rays). I like giving that kind of response a lot because I think it puts into perspective both the fact that we have a lot left to learn before we can be comfortable with our understanding of the climate system, and the fact that we can't just expect the scientific community to hold off on making predictions until we have perfect knowledge of what's going on.

The other kind of response I sometimes give goes something like this:

2) "Why would you listen to this person? He/She is not a climate scientist, clearly has not read the part of the IPCC report (or any other significant mainstream publication) that addresses the issue he/she is discussing, and seems to think that issues in climate science can be discussed through one-liners. If you don't want to actually learn about the issue at hand, then don't go around spouting your ignorant opinion, or tossing links around leading to other people spouting their ignorant opinions. It's infuriating that people even pay attention to this nonsense."

Unfortunately, I seem to give out more (2)'s than (1)'s by a wide margin. What needs to be recognized by those who receive these answers is this: The points discussed here do not apply with any more effectiveness to climate change alarmists or climate change denialists. Members of both parties are very often guilty of not knowing the first thing about the subjects that they're talking about (especially the individuals who come to deserve the (2) answer). People need to acknowledge that while the mainstream scientific position is not necessarily perfect, it is at least not flawed for simple, obvious reasons, or because there's some perfectly legitimate and groundbreaking scholarship out there that simply was never heard of by anyone.

There are certainly some large uncertainties, and a lot still needs to be done in order to get a proper handle on what we can expect for the future. But rather than try to frantically poke holes in the mainstream position, people should be spending their energy learning more about the basic concepts on which that position is built. Otherwise, I'm going to keep having to hand out more of those (2)'s, and I don't want to do that.
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