Category: Philosophy

Against Transcendence

Deirdre McCloskey gave the inaugural James M. Buchanan Lecture last week, The Hobbes Problem: From Machiavelli to Buchanan.  It was a good start to the series, eloquent, learned, and heartfelt.  McCloskey argued that the Hobbesian programme of building the polis on prudence alone, a program to which the moderns, Rawls, Buchanan, Gauthier and others have contributed is barren.  A good polis must be built upon all 7 virtues, both the pagan and transcendent, these being courage, justice, temperance, and prudence but also faith, hope and love (agape).

In the lecture, McCloskey elided the difficult problems of the transcendent virtues especially as they apply to politics (I expect a more complete analysis in the forthcoming book).  Faith, hope, and love sound pleasant in theory but in practice there is little agreement on how these virtues are instantiated.  It was love for their eternal souls that motivated the inquisitors to torture their victims.   President Bush wants to save Iran…with nuclear bombs.  Faith in the absurd is absurd.  Thanks but no thanks.

Since we can’t agree on the transcendent virtues injecting them into politics means intolerance and division.  Personally, I’d be happy to see the transcendent virtues fade away but I know that’s
unrealistic.  The next best thing, therefore, is to insist that the transcendent virtues be reserved for civil society and at all costs be kept out of politics.  The pagan virtues alone provide room for agreement in a cosmpolitan society, a society of the hetereogeneous. 

Of course, in all this I follow Voltaire:

Take a view of the Royal Exchange in London, a place more venerable
than many courts of justice, where the representatives of all nations
meet for the benefit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the
Christian transact together, as though they all professed the same
religion, and give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts. There
the Presbyterian confides in the Anabaptist, and the Churchman depends
on the Quaker’s word. At the breaking up of this pacific and free
assembly, some withdraw to the synagogue, and others to take a glass.
This man goes and is baptized in a great tub, in the name of the
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: that man has his son’s foreskin cut off,
whilst a set of Hebrew words (quite unintelligible to him) are mumbled
over his child. Others retire to their churches, and there wait for the
inspiration of heaven with their hats on, and all are satisfied.

If one religion only were allowed in England, the Government would
very possibly become arbitrary; if there were but two, the people would
cut one another’s throats; but as there are such a multitude, they all
live happy and in peace.

The limitations of welfare economics

Here is yours truly again, from his latest book.  I tried to condense the limits of welfare economics into a few simple sentences; here is what I came up with:

On the negative side, the economic approach considers only a limited range of values, namely those embodied in individual preferences and expressed in terms of willingness to pay. This postulate is self-evident to many economists, but it fails to command wider assent. It wishes to erect “satisfying a preference” as an independent ethical value, but is unwilling to consider any possible competing values, apart from preferences. It is hard to see why non-preference values should not be admitted to a broader decision calculus.

Typically economists retreat to their intuition that satisfying preferences is somehow "real," and that pursuing non-preference values is religious, mystical, or paternalistic. The rest of the world, however, has not found this distinction persuasive. They do not see why satisfying preferences should be a value of special and sole importance, especially when those same preferences may be ill-informed, inconsistent, malicious, or spiteful. The decisions to count all preferences, to use money as the measuring rod, and to weight all market demands equally must themselves rely on external ethical judgments. For that reason, the economist has no a priori means of dismissing non-preference values from the overall policy evaluation.

John Rawls, anti-capitalist

This is from his correspondence:

The large open market including all of Europe is aim of the large banks and the capitalist business class whose main goal is simply larger profit. The idea of economic growth, with no specific end in sight, fits this class perfectly.  If they speak about distribution, it is most always in terms of trickle down.  The long-term result of this which we already have in the United States is a civil society awash in a meaningless consumerism of some kind. I can’t believe that is what you want.

So you see that I am not happy about globalization as the banks and business class are pushing it.  I accept Mills idea of the stationary state as described by him in Bk. IV, Ch. 6 of his Principles of Political Economy (1848). (I am adding a footnote in §15 to say this, in case the reader hadnt noticed it). I am under no illusion that its time will ever come certainly not soon but it is possible, and hence it has a place in what I call the idea of realistic utopia.

For more see CrookedTimber.  The real question is how much this should cause us to downgrade his moral philosophy.  I say "a lot."  I used to think there was some deep argument of consilience behind "maximin," but now I am ready to classify it as a simple mistake, akin to a person who doesn’t understand what drove the flow of traffic across the Berlin Wall in one direction and not the other. 

Philosophical implications of inflationary cosmology

Recent developments in cosmology indicate that every history having a nonzero probability is realized in infinitely many distinct regions of spacetime. Thus, it appears that the universe contains infinitely many civilizations exactly like our own, as well as infinitely many civilizations that differ from our own in any way permitted by physical laws. We explore the implications of this conclusion for ethical theory and for the doomsday argument. In the infinite universe, we find that the doomsday argument applies only to effects which change the average lifetime of all civilizations, and not those which affect our civilization alone.

Got that?  Here is the paper.  Here is brief background.

It seems if you count all possible universes (or call them parts of our multiverse, whatever) as normatively relevant, none of your actions matter in consequentialist terms. 

As to how our world, and our decisions, matter at the margin, we delve into the murky waters of infinite expected values.  With an infinity of alternatives out there, our little add-on doesn’t seem to make any difference for the grand total.  Why should even you raise the average outcome across universes?  (TC yesterday: "No, Bryan, we are not leaping up Cantorian levels of infinity, it is just one version of you getting another Klondike bar.")

One option is that only our universe, or some other "in-group," matters.  The other universes cannot count for less, rather they must count for nothing.  I recoil at such a thought, but it does avoid the mess of infinities.  Alternatively, we might embrace some version of Buddhism. 

On the bright side, philosophic talk about modality is no longer so problematic but rather refers to facts about other existing universes.  Since that problem threatened to bring morality to its knees anyway ("what do you mean, you "could" have done something different?  You did what you had to do."), maybe I don’t feel so bad after all.  And who should care if I do feel bad?  The other me feels fine.  Infinity has its benefits, and there are many worse problems.

You should lower your probability that God exists, since the Anthropic Argument will dispense with the Argument from Design.  Only the ordered pockets of the multiverse can wonder about why we are here and why things seem to run so smoothly.

That’s a lot to swallow in one day, but it seems the probability of all those propositions just went up.

Addendum: Have I mentioned that inflationary cosmology and its implications fit my crude, pathetic intuitions?  Since we have a universe, I feel it must somehow be a kind of cosmic "free lunch."  And once you open the door for free lunches, why stop at just one?  There is no good reason to rely on our locally-evolved common sense intuitions when doing philosophic cosmology.

Tyrone takes on free will

Just last week Tyrone told me the following:

The traditional debate pits determinists against voluntarists.  The determinists believe that man is caught up in the grand causal nexus.  The voluntarists believe you somehow break free of cause and effect.  You are able to spew forth "uncaused events" more or less at will.  You are a truly special being, rather than just another toad.

As for the compatibilists, I say ugh.  I am sorry, but you can’t believe A and non-A at the same time.

The voluntarists just don’t cut it.  What strange theory of physics do they hold?  At what moment in the evolution of man (or monkeys) did cause and effect cease to apply to brains?  Plus neuroscience shows that subconscious brain activity, in the relevant parts of the brain, precedes the moment of conscious decision.

Furthermore I doubt if the voluntarist vision of free will is so fun.  How sad to have to stand apart from the causal nexus.  How alienating.  How totally gauche.  Isn’t the causal nexus what makes sex so fun?

My vision of free will starts with the problems in defining the self.  You know: Parfit, Hume, time-slices, and the fact that I cannot remember what I did last night (fyi, I don’t remember what my wife and I discussed on our first date but I do remember what she ordered).

If you are nothing but a time-slice, the free will "problem" goes away.  There is no "you" freely choosing, but there is also no "you" caught up as a prisoner of the causal chain.  Instead you are your choice.  At least "that you" was your choice at the time.  No more and no less.

You are identical to your choice.  What more dignity or freedom could you possibly expect?  Surely that is better than the voluntarist notion of exogenously originating autonomous control.

This view allows us to maintain that human beings are ruled by the same natural laws which govern the behavior of stones.  Physics remains monistic.  At the same time, you are not reduced to a mere puppet.  Ha!  There’s not even a "you" to be subject to reduction!

To up the ante just a bit, dare I mention multiple worlds quantum mechanics, David Lewis’s modal realism, and inflationary cosmology?  These views are distinct but all lead us to the conclusion that many possible universes, perhaps all possible universes, exist in some fashion.  They will give you lots of time-slices and lots of bits of you walking around.  Who cares in what order the deck is shuffled, or where the different cards lie spatially?  The time-slice you, temporary as he or she may be, is connected to an infinite or very large number of other time-slices.  A very large number of those time slices will be very close to the "you" that constituted your choice.  Furthermore some other time-slice will get to experience some almost identical version of your choice, sooner or later.  Being a solitary fellow, I like that better than voluntarism.

In some versions of these views, literally everything is removed from the causal nexus.  In fact there is no causal nexus in the first place.  Surely that should make you feel better and restore your underlying pantheism.  No self.  No reduction.  No causal nexus.  Just lots of you, you, you.  Better than having your own TV show.

Tyler, of course, is a determinist.  He thinks I had to write this post.  More to the point, this post is who Tyrone really is.

Tyrone is really quite a sad fellow.  Many of you believe in free will, but I know determinism applies to me and to my choices.  I feel the pull of those causal chains, day in and day out.


A few points:

1. "Transcendental" arguments fail in epistemology, as in most other realms.  "Well, if you couldn’t know things, really know them, you couldn’t even be here to doubt that we can know things…" etc.  Please.  Don’t bring this up.  It is not logically impossible to imagine a non-knowing computing device spewing out all sorts of true claims.

2. I love Thomas Reid, but I run away when I meet others who like him, much less love him.  He is too often used to dismiss the doubts that others have about your ridiculous, completely unsound philosophical positions.

3. The relevant real world question is why we ignore obvious truths, rather than how we come to know the tough things we do.

4. The quest for "justified true belief," a’ la Nozick, is a chimera.  Gavagai, I say, and no, Quine does not require behaviorist roots, even though Quine was a behaviorist.  As a general rule, expect either underdetermination or overdetermination in your theoretical endeavors.  For that same reason, don’t think that epistemology can be reduced to neuroscience.

5. Ask an agnostic to give you betting odds on the existence of God.  Most of them hate this question, but I do not see how they can eschew it.  Hard-core atheists will be torn between "zero" and "one in a trillion," but when you ask them where the "one" comes from, they get flustered.

6. Bryan Caplan still mocks me for saying "one in twenty."

7. When they shoot phasers ("set to kill") in the original Star Trek, how does the phaser "know" to wipe out the person and his clothes, but not the ground nor the boulder he is leaning upon.

8. You are wrong so, so, so often.  That is, or rather should be, the central lesson of epistemology.  It is a lesson which hardly anybody ever learns.  And you don’t need the fancy philosophical machinery to get there.  That is why the rest of epistemology is so often so fruitless.

Modal wives and why it is hard to marry well

I define a modal wife (or husband) as a person you would have married (could have married?) had you met them at the right time, unattached, and under normal life conditions.  The number of modal wives is typically greater than or equal to the number of real wives, although clever philosophers will recognize possible [sic] counterexamples. 

Under one view, you have hundreds or thousands of modal wives, most of whom you never meet.  (How many does the average person meet, how soon do you know when you meet one, and how confused would you be if they were all in the same room at once?)  Your correct dating strategy is to cast your net very widely, and hope to find and marry one of these people. 

Under another view, modal wives are no big deal.  Your so-called "modal wives" are no better for you than, say, the best woman you could pick out of a lot of thirty eligibles.  The key inputs for a good marriage are attitude and a minimum degree of compatibility, not search and discovery.

If this is true, searching for modal wives, or perhaps even thinking about the concept, can make you worse off.  The quest for the perfect mate makes it harder to come to terms with what is otherwise a compatible marriage.  Which perhaps is all you are going to get anyway.  Marriage is good for you, and don’t be too fussy, this is not iTunes.  Too much choice, or too much perceived choice, is problematic.

The two views offer directly conflicting advice (TC: My views are closer to the first position, although attitude remains all-important).  Yet we may be uncertain which view applies to us and to what extent.  You could put all your eggs in one basket and pursue just one strategy, but what a risk if you are wrong.  You could act upon some weighted average of the two views; I suspect this is what most people do.  But then the two strategies are constantly undercutting each other.

That is one reason why it is hard to marry well.

Addendum: Here is a good post on Deception Island, and do also read the excellent comments thread on this post.

Must I Retire Now? Must You?

I will leave the philosophical assumptions unquestioned.  What about the economic assumptions?

1) What happens if everyone follows the philosopher’s advice and
retires so long as they are below the median of the unemployed?  Is
there a stable equilibrium?  Yes, in equilibrium every worker with a
job must be better than the average worker without a job.   This
certainly seems possible although it is hard to see how it is optimal –
can no change in wages or job assignments make it beneficial to hire
more workers?  The fixity of jobs assumption is very strong.

2) More generally, if workers are
paid their marginal product and are appropriately assigned (e.g. better doctors work on harder cases) then no worker need retire.  With appropriate assignment, when a below-median doctor does retire he would not be replaced by an above-median doctor.  Instead, the new better doctor would be slotted in for
more difficult work, everyone else would move down slightly and the
retiring doctor would be replaced by one only marginally better. 

3) What happens in general equilibrium?  With flexible markets everyone gets a job so the worker who retires because he is below median is replaced by a worker from another industry.   It’s no longer obvious that this is optimal.

Most generallly, comparative advantage tells us that markets find a place for even the lowest-quality workers.  For the argument to apply we need a relatively fixed number of jobs, relatively fixed wages and a large reserve army to draw from.  Supreme Court justices come to mind.

Markets and morals

Markets are indifferent to our love.  That is why the emotions we feel toward the market are often perceived as negative.  She never reciprocates.  Worse, she is indifferent.

That is Kevin Depew, from Victor Niederhoffer’s investment site, which Victor describes as "enterprise-oriented."  Here is Victor playing squash.  Here is a Victor Niederhoffer quotation.  Here is Victor on chess, I once gave him knight odds and he beat me.

Intuition Error and Heritage

Intuitions are our least introspective belief components.  We know the least about their origins, or how they would change if our other beliefs changed.  Of course this does not make them wrong; since we are only consciously aware of a tiny fraction of what goes on in our minds, in a sense most belief is intuitive.

reminds Tyler that initial moral intuitions are often contradictory, and therefore in error.  We should thus “curve fit” around our initial intuitions to create a better estimate of moral truth.  And the higher our error rate, the less influential each specific intuition should be.  In this post, let me highlight a huge error source: cultural and genetic heritage.

Put yourself into the frame of mind of a reasonable creature of some indeterminate species and culture, before your culture or species arose.  Did this creature have a reason to expect the moral intuitions arising in your culture or species to be closer to moral truth than intuitions in other random cultures or species?  If not, then any such correspondence would be random luck.

We do not want to just hope that we happen to believe truth; we want to see that the process that produces our beliefs produces a correlation between our beliefs and the truth.  So random influences on our beliefs are bad, inducing more error.  Unless you can see a reason to have expected to be born into a culture or species with more accurate than average intuitions, you must expect your cultural or species specific intuitions to be random, and so not worth endorsing.

A similar argument suggests you reject ways that your intuitions differ the average in your culture or species.  If a neutral observer would have no good reason to think you special, then neither do you.

Against Intuition

Larry Temkin, the noted philosopher, was trying to convince Robin Hanson and I that some moral values should not be traded.  He posed the following question:

Suppose that you had a million children and you could give each of them a better life but only if one of them had a very, very terrible life.  Would you do it?

"Of course," I answered.  "You would be crazy not to," said Robin.  I could tell by the look on Larry’s face that this was not the answer that he had expected.   "But, but," he stammered, "almost all philosophers would tell you that that is wrong."  "So much the worse for almost all philosophers," I replied.

My response to Tyler’s post on animal welfare is similar.  Tyler wants to find a theory that both rationalizes and is consistent with our intuitions.  But that is a fool’s game.  Our intuitions are inconsistent.  Our moral intuitions are heuristics produced by blind evolution operating in a world totally different than our own.  Why would we expect them to be consistent?  Our intuitions provide no more guidance to sound ethics than our tastes provide guidance to sound nutrition.  (Which is to say, they are not without function but don’t expect to be healthy on a yummy diet of sugar and fat.)

The reason to think deeply about ethical matters is the same reason we should think deeply about nutrition – so that we can overcome our intuitions.  Tyler argues that we don’t have a good approach to animal welfare only because he is not willing to give up on intuition. 

Tyler asks (I paraphrase) ‘Would you kill your good friend for the lives of a million cats?  What about a billion cats?’  He answers, No, but says "Yet I still wish to count cats for something positive."

My answer is not only Yes it is that we do this routinely today.  The introduction of "your good friend" (or "children" in Larry’s example) engages our primitive intuitions and feelings and that is why Tyler’s answer goes awry.  But consider, last year Americans spent more than 34 billion dollars on their pets.  That money could have saved human lives had it gone to starving Africans.

Similarly, contra Larry, we do make tradeoffs concerning our children and more generally we accept that some people, such as coal miners,  risk a much worse life, i.e. death, in order to benefit everyone else just a little bit.

The dilemmas that Larry and Tyler raise tell us that our intuitions,
taken as a package, are not rationally derivable from a handful of
premises.  But that is no reason to abandon reason instead we should
happily accept that some of intuitions lead us astray.

A sound mind and a sound body both require that we abandon our gut instincts. 

The public choice economics of Star Wars: A Straussian reading

The only spoilers in this post concern the non-current Star Wars movies.  Stop reading now if you wish those to remain a surprise.

The core point is that the Jedi are not to be trusted:

1. The Jedi and Jedi-in-training sell out like crazy.  Even the evil Count Dooku was once a Jedi knight.

2. What do the Jedi Council want anyway?  The Anakin critique of the Jedi Council rings somewhat true (this is from the new movie, alas I cannot say more, but the argument could be strengthened by citing the relevant detail).  Aren’t they a kind of out-of-control Supreme Court, not even requiring Senate approval (with or without filibuster), and heavily armed at that?  As I understand it, they vote each other into the office, have license to kill, and seek to control galactic affairs.  Talk about unaccountable power used toward secret and mysterious ends.

3. Obi-Wan told Luke scores of lies, including the big whopper that his dad was dead.

4. The Jedi can’t even keep us safe.

5. The bad guys have sex and do all the procreating.  The Jedi are not supposed to marry, or presumably have children.  Not ESS, if you ask me.  Anakin gets Natalie Portman; Luke spends two episodes with a perverse and distant crush on his sister Leia, leading only to one chaste kiss.

6. The prophecy was that Anakin (Darth) will restore order and balance to the force.  How true this turns out to be.  But none of the Jedi can begin to understand what this means.  Yes, you have to get rid of the bad guys.  But you also have to get rid of the Jedi.  The Jedi are, after all, the primary supply source and training ground for the bad guys.  Anakin/Darth manages to get rid of both, so he really is the hero of the story.  (It is also interesting which group of “Jedi” Darth kills first, but that would be telling.)

7. At the happy ending of “Return of the Jedi”, the Jedi no longer control the galaxy.  The Jedi Council is not reestablished.  Luke, the closest thing to a Jedi representative left, never becomes a formal Jedi.  He shows no desire to train other Jedi, and probably expects to spend the rest of his life doing voices for children’s cartoons.

8. The core message is that power corrupts, but also that good guys have power too.  Our possible safety lies in our humanity, not in our desires to transcend it or wield strange forces to our advantage.

What did Padme say?: “So this is how liberty dies, to thunderous applause.”

Addendum: By the way, did I mention that the Jedi are genetically superior supermen with “enhanced blood”?  That the rebels’ victory party in Episode IV borrows liberally from Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will”?  And that the much-maligned ewoks make perfect sense as an antidote to Jedi fascism?