Apr 16

The Wire

It is often hard to sell The Wire to people. When people hear that it is about the drug trade in Baltimore, they are likely to immediately misunderstand it. There are a few ways such a show could traditionally go. It could glorify the drug trade and gangsters, like a classic Mafia movie parading around violent criminals as if they are all charismatic heroes. It could be a heavy-handed anti-drug show, depicting how the cops are nobly fighting a group of evil thugs. Or, perhaps, it could be a self-important leftist effort to show how drug dealers are misunderstood but good people who don’t deserve to be so maligned. But The Wire is none of those things.

Another reason people often feel drawn away from The Wire is that they have an assumption going in that they won’t be able to relate to these people. Maybe it’s good for what it is, but what do the struggles of inner-city gangsters and the cops that are trying to stop them from selling drugs have to do with me? How can I connect to such people, or care what happens to them? This problem is so drastic that the show was nearly cancelled because it’s focus on mostly black characters kept foreign audiences from giving it a try. But this concern is grossly misplaced. I have never cared half as much about any character on any other show as I do about even some of the most minor characters on The Wire.

Finally, many people who give The Wire a try give up after the first few episodes. It doesn’t feel like any show you’ve ever seen. There’s no soundtrack, the development seems astonishingly slow, and, for a show about gangs, the violence and drama isn’t filling every minute like it would in a movie. It isn’t until you get through about half of the first season that you begin to see that, as Lester Freamon puts it, “all the pieces matter.” The show doesn’t just unfold with careful character development and important stage setting like a novel does, the entire series is crafted to deliberately take the form of a nineteenth century serialized novel, and the writing is better than virtually any such novel ever written. At some point you start to see that what looked like unusual television is actually an art form never tried before and likely never to be done with such skill again.

When you read a great novel, you sometimes imagine what it would be like to experience it as a great film, perfectly acted and directed to capture all the realism and all the detail, yet somehow maintaining the depth and meaning that is so hard to transfer from the written word to the screen. Every episode of The Wire is like experiencing a chapter of your favorite novel perfectly brought to life and not only capturing what you thought would inevitably be lost, but enhancing it. With episodes lasting a full hour and the story stretching across Baltimore and embracing every level of the city, The Wire manages to be better written, more complex, more engaging, and far more satisfying than any literary work written in my lifetime. Watching it unfold feels like reading one of the great, serialized novels of the 19th century. It is an amazing work of art; indeed a better one than I thought we had it in us to make any longer. To say that it is a great show, or even the best show, or my favorite show, would be to drastically undersell it. The Wire is a phenomenal work of art. It is an unparalleled accomplishment in any artistic medium for at least the last three decades, and probably longer. Nothing else is even close. Don’t pass up the opportunity to experience it.

Sep 06

Why Study Philosophy?

A college education is usually thought to provide three main things to students:

1. Valuable knowledge about various subjects.
2. The acquisition of useful skills.
3. A signal to future employers of intelligence and a willingness to work hard.

Students should study philosophy because it does a very good job at providing value relative to these standards.

Valuable Knowledge:

Philosophical knowledge has a reputation for being impractical. It is. What is weird is that so few other disciplines have the same reputation. Here is a simple fact about education: almost everything you learn in a college course consists of information you will never need and never use at any point in the future. With the exception of a few majors that teach very specific information in areas many of their students will actually spend their lives working in, such as degrees in engineering or marketing, almost no information you obtain in college will be of any value to you at any point in your career. This might be disheartening to some; I prefer to think of it as freeing. Since you won’t actually need the information in the future, it doesn’t matter what information you obtain. Given this, you might as well learn the coolest and most interesting information you can find. On this score, philosophy does very well. Philosophy addresses issues that have fascinated people forever, and deals with questions most people wonder about when they have free time. Given the fun and interesting nature of the subject matter, if you have to obtain a bunch of useless information to get the degree you want, shouldn’t it at least be cool useless information?

Acquiring Useful Skills:

While philosophy is no worse than most other things in terms of useful information, philosophy’s reputation as an impractical subject isn’t deserved, because unlike most majors, philosophy actually teaches you a useful skill. Specifically, it teaches you how to think. Many people don’t realize that thinking is a skill, or that it takes a lot of training to do it well, but it is and it does. Here are two compelling pieces of evidence that philosophy teaches you how to do it well. First, philosophy majors do better than virtually every discipline out there when it comes to scores on post-graduate (grad school and law school) entrance exams.* This seems to suggest that it teaches you the skills you will need to be able to become an expert at whatever field you plan to go into. Second, mid-career salaries for philosophy majors are higher than they are for any other humanities major despite the fact that entry-level salaries for philosophy majors are often lower.** This shows that philosophers are getting promoted while others lag behind. This isn’t surprising. When you learn how to think well you will understand, anticipate, and be able to solve problems better than others. You will also be able to communicate your ideas more effectively. This will get your bosses to trust you, and will lead to promotions and success. So, unlike many other disciplines, learning all the useless information in philosophy will have a wonderful side effect of teaching you a useful skill that will actually help you in life.

Signaling Employers:

Because philosophy is so poorly understood, it hasn’t always provided as much of a signal to employers as it ought to. However, recently this trend seems to be changing. In his book The Undercover Economist Tim Harford praises philosophy degrees as great ways to signal to employers that you are smart and hardworking since obtaining a degree in philosophy is usually harder than obtaining one in most other disciplines.*** In addition, publications varying from the New York Times**** to the Bloomberg Businessweek***** have praised the value of a degree in philosophy for succeeding in life. This suggests that more and more employers are recognizing that training in philosophy is a valuable sign that the person they are hiring will be smart and capable. Given this, there is reason to be hopeful that by the time a prospective student is on the job market philosophy degrees will have higher initial value on the job market than they have had previously.

So, philosophy will introduce you to a bunch of cool ideas, teach you valuable skills, possibly help you get a job, and probably help you succeed and get promotions at a job once you find one. Prospective students who are interested in thinking about cool ideas while setting themselves up for successful lives should seriously consider majoring in philosophy. In particular they should do so if they are smart, but lack interest in majors that involve learning information and skills that are specifically suited to particular career paths.

*- See http://www.uic.edu/cba/cba-depts/economics/undergrad/table.htm , http://www.ncsu.edu/chass/philo/GRE%20Scores%20by%20Intended%20Graduate%20Major.htm


***-See p. 111 of the paperback edition, ©2007, Random House: New York



Aug 16

Why Health Care isn’t a Right

Positive and Negative Rights:

When someone has a right to something, this always creates obligations in others. My right not to be killed creates an obligation in others not to kill me. My right to be compensated for my labor in accordance with the terms of a contract creates an obligation in my employer to pay me for my work. It is common in discussing rights to differentiate between positive rights and negative rights. A negative right is a right that creates an obligation in others not to interfere with us. A positive right is a right that creates an obligation in others to provide us with something. To fulfill the first sort of obligation, all we have to do is refrain from interfering in the lives of others against their wishes. To fulfill the second, we have to accept a burden of providing something to someone and carry through on an action.

Natural vs. Contingent Rights:

Natural rights are rights that we possess merely in virtue of existing. Contingent rights are rights that we acquire in virtue of the specific circumstances we are in. The right to life and liberty are generally thought to be natural rights. We don’t have to do anything in order to acquire them, nor does anyone else have to do anything to us in order to be obligated not to violate them. A right to be paid by your employer, however, is contingent. If I walk into a building and start working, I don’t have a right to be paid. In order to create that obligation in another, there has to be an agreement between parties creating the obligation. Similarly, we don’t have a right to charity from others. The difference between a charitable contribution and a payment of a debt is that the former is voluntary while the second is morally obligatory. This is why charity is praiseworthy, while paying one’s debts at least ought to be expected.

Against Natural, Positive Rights:

While people certainly obtain positive rights in a large number of circumstances, there is debate over whether or not any natural, positive rights exist. There is good reason to believe that they don’t. This reason is that any such rights would seem to violate our general right to liberty. If, merely in virtue of the fact that you exist, I am required to act in such a way as to provide you with some benefit, then I am not free to live as I see fit, because I must put forth whatever effort is necessary in order to fulfill my obligation to provide you with the good or service in question. Negative rights merely require us to leave one another alone. Positive rights place requirements on us even when we aren’t interfering with anyone else. This interference in how we choose to live our lives in spite of the fact that we have done nothing to create any need in those to whom we are presumed to be beholden seems to require a great deal of effort to justify. I find it unlikely that such justification can be found, or that we possess any rights to be given goods or services merely because we exist.

What about Children?:

One case that seems like it may be an exception is the case of children. It seems at first glance that a child has the right to be provided with what she needs to survive by her parents. I think, however, that this right is actually contingent. Specifically, I think it is grounded in the fact that the parents are responsible for the fact that the child has the needs in question. By bringing a child into a world while knowing that it would need to be cared for in order to survive, you create an obligation to provide for that need in the same way you would be obligated to provide for the medical needs of someone you injured. This explains why we are obligated to provide for the needs of our own children, but not for the needs of other’s.

Health Care:

If health care were a right, it would seem to have to be a natural, positive right. We haven’t done anything to one another that would seem to justify a requirement that we pay for one another’s health care. Since we aren’t responsible for the bad health of others, it seems quite implausible that we are nonetheless obligated to provide for fixing or improving their health. We may, of course, choose to do so, and we could, if we wanted to, all agree to pay for one another’s health care, but I see no reason to believe that we are all naturally morally obligated to do so.

Does that Mean we shouldn’t Provide Health Care?:

Not necessarily. Rights aren’t the only reasons to act. There are at least three sorts of reasons to help others that could justify deciding to pay for the health care of some people. First, there is the basic fact that it is good to alleviate suffering and to help one another. This provides a strong moral reason (although not an obligation) to do what we can to help one another obtain the health care we need. Second, it is good for us to express our concern for one another and to demonstrate compassion and charity. Creating a morally decent citizenry should include encouraging us, when possible, to help those in need, including medical need, when it is in our means to do so.

The problem with both of these reasons to act is that while they certainly justify a great deal of charitable action on the part of individuals, typically we don’t recognize such moral considerations as justifications for state action. Since state action is inherently coercive, using it to require people to be charitable in the way that you would prefer them to be rather than allowing them to decide for themselves how to use their own money is a violation of their rights. Therefore, while I strongly encourage the development of charitable actions to help those in great medical need, justifying state intervention in health care requires a different approach.

Here, we come to the third reason we may choose to help one another pay for health care: because we believe it is in our best interests to do so. One reason we form social contracts is for mutual benefit. Therefore, if we believe that we would all be better off if we chose to pay for health care through state action, we could create an obligation in one another to pay for it in the same way we create an obligation in one another to pay for the security of the nation or the building of highways. This avenue of argument seems to be the best avenue for arguing in favor of government health care. From what I understand about the issue, I tend to find the arguments for the view that government health care would be a better option than private health care unpersuasive, but since many, if not most economists disagree with me on this point, I am far from willing to be dogmatic about the issue. If good practical grounds for government involvement in health care can be found, then that would provide reason to adopt it. The arguments that rest on rights, however, seem to have little basis, and the arguments that appeal to other moral considerations, while they provide good reason for charitable action, aren’t the sort that justify government action.

In the meantime, here’s a practical suggestion for those who are interested in helping others pay for insurance. When I get my electric bill, there is an option to donate money to help pay for the cost of heating for poor people during the winter months. The electric company will take donations and use them to lower the heating bills for low-income families. This procedure doesn’t require forcing others to pay more for their service, but it gives people an opportunity to be charitable if this issue concerns them. I see no good reason not to offer a similar service to those who otherwise couldn’t afford health care. If you want to contribute to your health insurance company to offset costs so they can provide for those who are in financial need, then there is no reason not to do so. Encouraging insurance companies to set up charitable funds for this purpose would be a non-coercive and convenient way for those who care deeply about providing health care to those in need to choose to help provide it.

Jun 23

Judicial Confirmation

The threat of the “tyranny of the majority” has been recognized as a serious problem for democratic societies since the formation of American democracy. The solution to this problem the founding fathers envisioned was to establish a set of rights as a foundation for American democracy, and to set up a branch of government whose job it was to ensure and protect those rights no matter what the people wanted. This branch, the Supreme Court, was supposed to be independent and completely free of the interference or even the input of the electorate. We don’t get to vote for Supreme Court justices precisely because they are supposed to be a branch of government whose actions are beyond the say of the public, and free from the influence of the tyranny of the majority. This makes the current processes for confirming justices seriously problematic. Holding proceedings to determine the fitness of judges in a public forum virtually requires politicians to act as if their constituents political views should be reflected by nominees to the court, when this is precisely what establishing the court was intended to bypass.

So long as justices are competent and willing to use their judgment in protecting the rights of the people, no matter what the popular views of the citizens are about such protections, it is wrong for members of congress to stand in the way of judicial nominees. It is certainly wrong to do so out of concerns over “judicial activism,” whatever one takes that to be. It was recognized at the time of its creation that the bill of rights was artificially limited, and that laws would be created that violated our right without violating the bill of rights. Part of the proper role of any judge is to ensure our rights, even in the absence of precedence from the founding fathers. The real test of the proper conduct of a justice is whether or not they are willing to subjugate the rights of individuals to the interests of groups or the interest of government. Actions of that nature would be clear violations of the proper role of the judiciary in our society. Actions that seek to protect our rights, on the other hand, even when they go beyond those guaranteed in the initial formulation of the rights guaranteed by the founding fathers are part of the proper role of a judge. We should want wise people (Latinas or otherwise), guided by an underlying aim of protecting individual rights, to have the authority to do so no matter what the public wants.

There are any number of issues where there is room for legitimate debate over whether or not something is a right that ought to be protected on behalf of the people. Such debate can, of course, lead some to believe that the court is legislating contrary to our rights while the court can view itself as protecting them. However, on issues where great legislative minds strongly disagree, deferring to a less informed public hardly seems a superior alternative. In the long run, it is likely better to defer to the informed, if debatable judgments of those whose function is the preservation of our rights against the threat of democracy than subjugating all of us to the whim of the people at any given time. The long view of the preservation of our rights is what made the founding father’s decision to create an independent judiciary sound, and it has led to the long-standing preservation of our rights in this country. There are any number of issues where I would likely strongly disagree with the views of any of the recent appointments to the court by either party in power. Despite this, I think it is a good thing that the people don’t have a direct say in who gets chosen for those seats. I also think it is a problem for the long-term preservation of our freedoms that people of vision and independent thought are so often kept from prominent positions on the court due to the inappropriate influence of the public through the televised and lengthy processes of judicial confirmation that judges are now subject to.

Jun 20

Common Sense Philosophy FAQ

What is Common Sense Philosophy?

Common sense philosophy is a branch of philosophy that places restrictions on the legitimate results of philosophical investigations requiring such results to be compatible with common sense. It views the appropriate role of philosophical inquiry as the codification and gradual extension of our pre-theoretical understanding of reality, rather than as the development of new and counter-intuitive worldviews that would overthrow some significant aspect of that common sense worldview.

How does Common Sense Philosophy differ from other branches of Philosophy?

Most philosophers believe that the purpose of philosophy is to get beyond our superficial understanding of reality in order to find out what the true, underlying nature of reality is. Common sense philosophers also want to acquire a deeper understanding of the nature of reality, but they don’t believe that one can have successfully discovered that underlying nature if it is significantly at odds with our superficial observations and our basic conceptualization of the nature of the world. Most philosophical methods place some restrictions on what sorts of views deserve legitimate consideration, but common sense philosophy is unusual in its insistence that cohering with our common sense view of the world is a pre-requisite for a view to be deserving of serious consideration.

What is Common Sense?

The phrase “common sense,” as common sense philosophers use it, refers to a broad set of foundational beliefs that are presupposed in human discourse and action and help to make possible our ability to engage in everyday life. For example, when you want to buy something at a store, you and the shopkeeper both assume a large number of things that you would never have to actually state: that the item you are bringing to the register really exists, that you and the shopkeeper both exist, that you both have minds capable of understanding what is happening, that time will continue to move forward throughout the transaction, that the floor beneath your feet is real, that you can choose whether or not you want to buy the item, that it would be wrong for you to torture and kill the shopkeeper and then steal the item for no good reason, that you have both existed for more than five minutes, and probably a vast number of other beliefs. A fundamental, shared understanding of the world is presupposed in all ordinary human action and conversation, and the elements of that understanding are the principles of common sense. Common sense philosophers believe that if your philosophical worldview is at odds with any significant portion of that understanding, then your philosophical view should be rejected.

Why Privilege Common Sense?

The reason that is most often appealed to in defense of privileging common sense centers on the nature and the structure of our evidence, or our reasons to form beliefs. When we come to know something, we do so because, in one way or another, it’s truth became apparent to us. Some things, such as that there are trees and buildings, are apparent merely by opening our eyes, and paying attention. Others need to be brought into the light in some way. One common way to try to make a claim seem true is by placing in light of a set of other claims that we might think are correct, and evaluating them in light of those other claims. This is why we give arguments for views. However, in any argument, the evidence we have for the conclusion depends upon the reasons we already had to accept the premises. Given this, we can never have more reason to believe something that isn’t obvious on its own than we have to believe the claims that we use in support of it. Common sense beliefs, however, are both obvious on their own and serve as a central component in what makes it the case that other things seem true to us. Given the dependence of our other beliefs on common sense, we can never have more reason to believe anything else than we have to believe the tenets of common sense. Therefore, if, in your attempts to explain things, you wind up saying things that are incompatible with them, it is always more rational to believe you made a mistake than to believe that common sense was wrong.

But isn’t it Still Possible that Common Sense is Wrong?

Yes. The arguments in favor of privileging common sense don’t show that it is impossible for common sense to be wrong. Rather, their aim is to show that it is not possible (at least in the absence of serious incoherence within common sense itself) to ever be justified in abandoning any significant aspect of common sense. No procedure for formulating beliefs, other than refusing to believe anything at all, can possibly guarantee immunity from error. What we need to find out is what our best means available are for getting at the truth. If it turns out that even when doing our best we are still wrong that’s unfortunate, but is not an objection to a philosophical method.

Who are the most Important Common Sense Philosophers?

The two most prominent figures in the tradition are Thomas Reid and G. E. Moore. Reid was a contemporary of David Hume, and started a tradition of Scottish Common Sense Philosophy that lasted for over a century. Reid’s works include An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, and Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind. G. E. Moore was an early 20th century philosopher who was influential in the early stages of analytic philosophy, and is the most commonly read common sense philosopher today. Others who have been influenced by this tradition include J. L. Austin, Roderick Chisholm, and, most recently, Michael Huemer, whose web page can be found by clicking on the link to right, and who was personally responsible for my interest in common sense philosophy.

Mar 22

The Gap in the Market

Currently, it is against the law for any business to engage in any practice that they believe will fail to maximize profit for their investors. In a way, this makes sense. People invest in companies because they believe that these companies will give them a good return on their investment. If companies were allowed to behave in ways that didn’t meet their investor’s interests, then investors would stop funding start-ups, the economy would stagnate, and unemployment would go up dramatically. The effect of this policy on businesses, however, is that they aren’t allowed to have a conscience about anything else, and any socially beneficial actions must be justified on the grounds that the activity increases public relations or publicity, and therefore helps the investor.

There is an alternative way to be charitable, of course, and that is to start a private charity. Here, people who invest in your organization don’t expect to see their money come back to them. They simply give it to the organization, trusting that they will do more good with it than the investor could have done on her own. Private charities are great things, especially in the face of serious problems that a lot of people would want to help solve.

There is, however, an obvious gap in the marketplace here. The current situation requires investors to be either purely selfish or purely altruistic in their motives when they decide to invest in something they believe in. But real people rarely have such pure cognitive motives, and the intermediate areas are being inefficiently wasted by the current policies. If we could establish a middle market where investors could establish what counts as a successful return on investment in ways that reflect all their intentions in investing, then companies could both be charitable and profitable to the degrees that the investor wants them to be.

This middle market would make the free market solutions to problems far better. Currently, there are any number of problems the solutions to which aren’t sufficiently profitable to spur much investment in solving, but whose social benefits are too limited or too mundane to motivate much desire for charitable contributions. These problems must therefore either be left unsolved, or left to the government to deal with. By creating a market that can address a more realistic set of investor interests, we could start to address these problems through private mechanisms and move further away from the need for government action. We would also have versatility to handle more problems than we currently can solve.

Mar 22

The Slow March to Anarchy, Part 2

Although I have tried to explain their underpinnings in the last post, most people consider my political views to be rather extreme.  When it comes to method, however, I take a far more cautious approach.  My approach is still underwritten by general principles, however, including the following:

We ought to do what works:

It’s very useful to have a vision for how things should be.  It helps give direction and purpose to political planning, and without it, it is easy to simply accept whatever view sounds interesting at the moment without careful reflection on the costs or consequences.  However, when we find something that actually works, we have to be willing to subjugate our ideological concerns for the welfare of others.  The reason for this is that it is always easier to be mistaken about broad, general issues than it is in evaluating the success of certain projects.  Seeing Norman Borlaug feed billions of people who otherwise would have starved through agricultural developments and genetic engineering of crops, and still insisting the whole world regress to organic farming is either callous beyond measure or utterly insane.  Although alternative explanations for results should be considered, we can often tell that some ideas are working, and we should stick with them if they do, even if our general political views are hard to square with them.  Blindness to success, and a willingness to force people to suffer rather than reconsider one’s political worldview, are fundamentally immoral.  On a related note, insistence on persisting in projects that are obviously unsuccessful because your views tell you it must work eventually is similarly immoral.  Seeing 100,000,000 innocent dead, for example, at the hands of Marx’s vision, and insisting we’ll get it right one time can only be the cry of a madman (or an academic).  One should always adjust to the facts on the ground, not insist that they aren’t there because they don’t fit one’s ideology.

We should understand the costs of government action:

Nothing in life is free, and money that’s “the governments” doesn’t magically appear in a large pile waiting to be doled out as people wish.  When we choose to do something through government action, we are required to take money out of people’s pockets.  In addition, we are choosing to use their money on one cause rather than another.  Therefore, the idea “this would be good to do, let’s get the government on it” is almost never a good one.  Governments pay for programs by taking money away from people and directing it toward one cause rather than another.  Taking people’s money isn’t a good thing, and poor prioritizing just makes it worse.  The real test of government is “can government do this better than anyone else, and is it vital enough to justify forcing everyone else to pay for it?”  The answer to both questions is usually “no”.

The consequences are hard to see:

The effects of our plans never stay limited to our area of interest.  If we decide to help out farmers by preventing other people from growing food, we raise the cost of bread, and poor people go hungry.  Policy decisions are brought down on everyone’s head, so we should be cautious in implementing our decisions.  However, if people have options to choose from when they face problems, we can limit the scope of bad policies and have more opportunities to see which things are working.  This is probably the best argument for state’s rights, and trying things at the local level before they go federal.  It’s an even better argument for leaving things to the free market whenever possible, so everyone can work on solving everyone else’s problems.

Stability Matters:

One cost that people don’t think about enough is the cost of adjustment.  Think about every time Facebook changes its homepage.  People go nuts.  It doesn’t matter what the changes are, it doesn’t matter if they might turn out to be improvements, a huge group of people inevitably hate it.  Why?  Because they liked the old one just fine, and now they have to adjust to something new.  People don’t like periods of adjustment, and change for its own sake is never worth it.

Speed Kills:

For the reasons just given, trying to implement large-scale changes quickly will almost certainly be a disaster.  Fortunately, things are designed in this country to run with beautiful inefficiency.  When people see a problem, there is a natural tendency to want to solve it right away.  But when we are dealing with large-scale policies, it is far better to take a lot of time to hear everyone out on the potential problems, and make sure that we are actually making things better instead of worse in our efforts to help.

Massive suffering is the most important political concern:

There are plenty of places in the world where the average life is absolutely horrid.  People live in squalor, disease runs rampant, people starve and die young, genocidal maniacs kill millions, women are locked indoors and beaten for failure to satisfy their husband’s every whim.  Great evil exists in this world, and there’s plenty of massive suffering even in its absence.  People cannot live a life of freedom or hope or prosperity in such conditions.  Alleviating such suffering is a moral imperative that supersedes our other concerns where they conflict, and where such suffering can be alleviated.

Resources aren’t fixed:

For decades, people have been insisting that the world is going to be horrible in the future because we are using one thing or another too often.  People seem to think that our current level of a resource is all we’ll ever have, and that it’s value in the future will nonetheless remain constant.  These things aren’t true.  Usable oil supplies keep going up because when we started to use up the easily accessible oil, we’ll found ways to access oil that’s harder to get to.  When we start to use that up, we’ll find other ways to power our vehicles, ones that will almost certainly become more efficient.  People who face problems find ways to solve them.  Requiring that people in the future remain as creative in their lives as we had to be to live ours isn’t a hardship, it’s part of life.  Making people suffer now so that people in the future won’t have to find new ways to use resources, or ways to create new resources, doesn’t make sense. Certainly, wrecking the environment completely, or changing policies so that people in the future can’t implement their solutions would be horrible things to do to those who will come after us.  Using what we have to improve our quality of life, however, and trusting that people in the future will continue to be smart enough to do the same with what they have available to them, is not immoral.

Results: The slow march to anarchy:

While I think that we should eventually get rid of the government if possible, I certainly don’t support a dramatic revolution to get there.  People currently need the things that government provides, and we don’t currently have the private institutions we would need in place to fulfill a number of vital government functions.  We should starting making them, however, and start reducing the government in size as we find viable alternatives.

Government solutions have an impact on entire societies.  Non-governmental ones are optional for people, and so we can try a large number of them without the unforeseen side-effects crippling an entire society.  Private charity is vital to solving the problems of the world, and we should try as many good ideas as we can to see what really helps people.  In the process, we will be developing private alternatives to government solutions that can show that we can handle the problems we face without the intervention of government.

This effort to solve problems cannot be merely local.  We are a part of a global society, and we should want everyone’s involvement in our efforts to make the world a better place.  We can’t have a stable non-governmental option in the presence of widespread global suffering.  We should all want to help people who are suffering, wherever they are in the world.  We will benefit from doing so, because it is always better to have a larger group of people and resources to draw from, and because prosperous societies rarely find much benefit in warring with their trade partners.  Ending global poverty will help ensure national security without the need for military action.  It will make us all more prosperous and capable of helping one another.  And, most importantly, it’s the right thing to do.

Mar 12

Arguments and Bias: An X-phi Experiment that should be Conducted

Despite the fact that I am a thoroughgoing rationalist, I find myself liking a lot of experimental philosophy.  Since I’m an advocate of common sense, studies about what people actually believe seem like a good place to at least start in checking that we’re right when we claim that the folk think something is true.  Although it’s certainly not the end of the discussion, these experiments have a lot of value to contribute to the field.

One problem with x-phi projects, however, is that most philosophers aren’t trained in how to properly conduct experiments, and they don’t have a lot of access to the funding needed to conduct studies.  Certainly, the average grad student can’t just run out and do one of these experiments at the drop of a hat.  This is too bad for me, because I came up with an idea for an experimental philosophy project that I think would be very valuable.  I couldn’t find any papers where someone had already done it, though, and I don’t have the resources or the training to do it properly.

My hypothesis is that people are irrationally drawn toward conclusions of arguments merely because they are presented as a conclusion.  There is some everyday data to support this contention.  Students in intro classes tend to want to accept every argument they see, even when they are incompatible.  Most people I know have found themselves drawn into the process of reasoning in an argument to a degree that makes them less questioning of the premises than they ought to be.  And then there’s the fact that otherwise sane and rational people can find themselves believing crazy things simply because they can’t see any way to avoid the conclusion of an argument.  I take all of this as evidence of a strong appeal we have for conclusions.  But there is a way to test this to be sure.

The experiment is based on the fact that arguments are logically interrelated.  In any valid argument, the conclusion will have to be true if all of the premises are.  That means that if the conclusion was false, and every other premise was true, the remaining one would have to be false.  So, for any argument, there are as many other logically related, valid arguments as there are premises.  You can construct these arguments by replacing the premises one at a time with the negation of the initial conclusion, and replacing the conclusion with the negation of the premise in question.  Each argument will be valid if the others are, but at most one of them can be sound.

To do an experiment on people’s biases toward conclusions, one could present various versions of logically interconnected arguments to separate groups of people, and ask them if they think the arguments are sound.  Since the arguments are mutually exclusive with respect to soundness, if people are rational, the sum of the percentages of people who answer “yes” to each version should be around 100%.  If people are biased away from conclusions, it will be lower, and if they are biased toward conclusions, it will be higher.  I suspect, given the aforementioned considerations, that while it will depend to some extent on the topic, the average set of arguments will garner far more than 100% collective support.

Since arguments are one of the central tools of philosophy, if people have a natural bias when evaluating them, then this poses a difficulty for how we do philosophy.  This would especially be true if philosophical training didn’t adequately correct for these problems, and so an experiment among professional philosophers would also be worth conducting.  I am of the opinion that philosophers put too much emphasis on arguments, and are too willing to change their minds in the face of an argument they don’t know how to respond to.  Perhaps if there were empirical data supporting the view that how we evaluate arguments isn’t fully rational, we could fight against this trend.  If our ability to evaluate arguments is not as good as we thought, then there are fewer issues on which rational debate would be the ideal method for pursuing the truth.   If we stop fighting over every little thing that we should already know from our basic capacity to understand the world, we can once again focus on the big, traditional questions that drive people toward philosophy in the first place.

Mar 03

General Politics: The Slow March to Anarchy (Part 1)

As a first blog post on politics, I thought it would be appropriate to describe my general political view of things.  As I see it, one’s politics is determined by two things: their view of how the world should be, and their view of what we should do to get there.  When it comes to the first issue, my views are rather extreme.  When it comes to the second, my views are far more moderate.  I’ll start with the fist question here, and address the second one in my next political post.

There are a number of general principles that underlie my view of how the world should be.  Among them are the following:

Perfection is not attainable:

As Obama likes to remind us, Voltaire once said “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”  Too often political discussions turn disingenuous because they forget this.  In politics, it is not enough to show that your opponent’s views have problems.  The reason is that every political view has problems.  There is no way to structure society so that no one has any difficulties, all death, disease, and suffering is eliminated, and we are free to live happy and prosperous lives free of strife.  What matters is not whether a society is perfect, but whether it is better than the viable alternatives.  Relatedly…

Societies should be evaluated as a whole:

Because political views are defended through comparing the alternatives, it is important to look at the big picture when evaluating the options.  Focusing too much on pet issues rather than on large-scale issues risks giving up on fundamental concerns to make sure that comparatively minor issues are done correctly.

Other things being close to equal, we should prefer the society with more freedom:

Personal freedom is vitally important, because it is the foundation on which we are able to pursue our means of living happy and successful lives.  Given this, if there are two societies that are comparable in terms of overall welfare, we should prefer the one that gives us greater personal freedom.

On average, people aren’t malevolent:

For any group of people, it may be true that they will seek personal advantage, be lazy or ineffectual, be stubborn or stupid or clumsily harmful, but on average, they aren’t out to get you.  One can take various stances on why this is, but it seems quite clear to me that, for most people out there, you just don’t matter enough to them for them to have any desire to harm you.  And since pleasantries make life easier, you can usually count on them to treat you well most of the time.  There is nothing, be it race, or sex, or class, or religion, that will make the average member of any group antagonistic toward particular people they do not know.  No one is out to get you.

Central planning sucks:

Consider the problems you face in life.  Now imagine that a small group of smart people who face, on average, very different problems from you were to plan every detail of how your life should be lived.  Wouldn’t that suck?  The reason is that problems are too various, and small groups, even if well-intentioned and intelligent as you could hope, too narrow in their vision, to see what everyone will face.  When solutions come from oligarchies, even at their best they’re vastly limited, and often blind to the problems we face.  And they usually aren’t at their best.

Creativity and need solve problems:

However, if other people like you have similar problems, then presumably they’ll want to fix them.  Giving people access to the means of creating solutions would mean that we could have various ones to chose from, including ones created by people who better understand what solutions will work for people like you, because they were made by people like you.  Numerous solutions from an open forum where everyone can try to help fix people’s problems don’t have the problem of trying to fit every shape of person into the round hole solution of central planning.  It also allows you to try various solutions, and to weed out the ones that don’t work.  Open access to problem solving creates empirical tests of successful projects.  This is good.

Capitalism makes greed useful:

What would really help in getting people to think of and to create the means of solving our problems would be if they could gain from being successful.  We should seek to ensure that the only way for people to succeed is to give other people what they want.  Harnessing our basest desires for the public good would mean that whatever our motives in creating our goods, they would need to be the sort of thing people actually value for us to be able to produce and to sell them.  That’s the idea behind capitalism.  It creates an open vehicle for the creation of solutions to our problems, or means of addressing our desires, that is empirically testable in terms of success, and harnesses both the greatest creativity and the basest greed of humanity, driving them both toward producing social good.

The more, the merrier:

When you let everyone create solutions, the more people there are working on them, the more likely it is that someone will come up with the answer you were looking for.  Free markets work best when more people are involved in them.  The world is better when we see each other as companions trying to help one another solve our problems rather than as enemies.  Trade stops wars.  Capitalism makes friends of us all if done right.  There is no cause to fear the inclusion of others in our system, because people everywhere have things of value to contribute.  I don’t understand how anyone can so much as decide where to go for dinner, considering the vast and magnificent options we now have that we missed out on even a decade or two ago, and not see the value of having everyone contribute to our lives and our options.

Government is essentially coercive:

Imagine if someone said that if you didn’t do what they told you to, they would steal your stuff.  Imagine if they said that if you tried to stop them, they would take you away from your life, lock you in a small room, and not let you out.  Imagine if they said that if you tried to stop them from stealing your freedom away from you, they would shoot you.  Wouldn’t that be horrible?  Now imagine if they told you that everyone else has already agreed to let them do this, so if you tried to get help from your neighbors, they would ignore your pleas for help, and think it was okay for them to do as they wish.  Wouldn’t that be government?

Every time we give the government authority over our lives, we empower them to do horrible things to people who refuse to comply with that authority.  Governments are institutions that we consent to have treats us in ways that we would find atrocious if done by anyone else.  We do this in the hope that they will do good things with their power.  We do it in the hope that they won’t abuse their power and become tyrants.  We do it in fear of one another, and with the idea that if there is an intervening authority, we can be protected from the evil people among us.  People claim that government is necessary.  If this is so, government is certainly a necessary evil.  Finding ourselves in such a sad state that we need to give someone this power over us is not a good thing.  Coercion is the last resort of those who cannot stop unacceptable harms in any other way.  It should be used as little as possible.

Voting doesn’t work:

It is far too easy for government to become evil if no one else has any say in how things are run than the people at the top.  Seeing this, people reasonably decided that it would be better if people had a more direct say in who was in charge.  Democratic societies are far less prone to tyranny from government, and democracy is certainly an improvement along the political spectrum.  But the problem for democracy is that voters don’t make good decisions.

Political issues are incredibly complicated.  Seeing the outcome of decisions that affect millions of people is virtually impossible even for people who have studied the likely effects a lot.  The average voter obviously hasn’t.  However, the average voter is expected to form a judgment on these matters anyway.  In fact, in a democratic society a significant portion of a person’s self-image is often built off of their views on these matters.  If they simply had hesitant judgments, or random ones, this wouldn’t be so bad, since errors like those typically cancel each other out.  But instead they have passionate opinions based on shallow reasons and considerations of how policies make them feel instead of what the results of enacting them will be.  This is a terrible way to make decisions.  It is only in contrast to the evils that inevitably arise from central planning without the capacity for the citizens to challenge it that it looks so good.  If democracy really is the best government except for all the rest, as Churchill claimed, I can think of no clearer statement showing just how bad government is.

The Result: Compassionate Anarcho-Capitalism

There are times when markets fail.  It doesn’t happen often, but there are certain problems where, for whatever reason, markets cannot produce optimal outcomes.  In these cases, we may be tempted to use the government to create a solution for us.  In principle, it is possible in these circumstances for central planning to do better than even the creativity of all of us trying to solve the problem.  The problem with government solutions in a democratic society, however, is that solutions are subject to the assent of the public.

Because governments are dependent on voters when they are at their best, and dependent upon despots in nearly every other circumstance, it is highly unlikely that government solutions will actually be good very often.  This means that in any actually obtainable society, government solutions to problems almost certainly won’t be significantly better than non-governmental ones, even in cases where it is technically possible for them to be.  Since non-governmental solutions include a higher degree of personal freedom, my general principles support a society where there is no government, only a free market society where we all create solutions to the problems we face with the understanding that we will be compensated for our efforts.

Mar 03

Why Waving Hands?

The title of this blog is drawn from one of my favorite philosophical arguments: G. E. Moore’s Proof of an External World.  Moore gave the following proof of the existence of things outside our minds:

  1. Here’s one hand (waves his hand).
  2. Here’s another (waves other hand).
  3. Therefore, there are external objects.

Moore’s proof may sound like he was trying to be a smartass, but he was entirely serious.  He believed that this argument proved that there were things outside our own minds that we could have knowledge of.  The hand gestures are a key part of the proof.  Moore was proving that a certain sort of thing existed (external objects) by providing examples of them.

For centuries, philosophers had been trying to provide a rational argument for the existence of the external world.  They didn’t think that simply giving examples would be enough.  However, this sort of proof is accepted all the time.  If someone claims to have the newest iGadget before it’s out on the market, they can prove it by showing it to you.  Most people don’t believe that the Loch Ness monster exists, but if we actually dragged one out of the loch, that would be enough to end the debate.  Ordinary standards of evidence legitimize the sort of proof Moore offers.

So why did philosophers wonder for so long if they could know that there are tables and chairs, and waving hands out there in the world?  The historical story is too long to go into in detail, but ultimately the reason is that they believed that before we could trust our senses, we needed reasons to believe that they could be relied upon, and that the only way we could offer such assurance was by using reason.

Part of what Moore was doing with his proof was arguing that this is the wrong way to look at evidence.  When we care about the truth, we accept the evidence of our senses as a good reason to believe things.  We take eyewitness testimony seriously, and would laugh at someone who still claimed something didn’t exist after seeing it with his own eyes.  We don’t do this because we haven’t taken enough philosophy to learn that real evidence is philosophical evidence.  We do it because standards of evidence already exist in ordinary life, and they correspond, more or less, to the actual strength of the reasons they provide.

Philosophy should be engaged in the rational pursuit of truth.  But not all rationality is a matter of philosophical arguments.  Good reasons for belief can come in a variety of forms.  In fact, as a matter of logical necessity, arguments are one of the worst sources of evidence we can have.  Arguments depend upon the strength of their premises for the evidential support they offer.  But that means that we must antecedently have good reason to accept those premises on which they depend.  Barring an infinite set of arguments behind them, these premises must depend on ways of knowing that are legitimate independently of philosophical reasoning.  It is only because we have so many other ways of knowing that we can engage in philosophical reasoning to learn more about the world.  The view endorsed by people like Moore and Thomas Reid that philosophy is dependent on common sense isn’t some arbitrary proclamation.  Philosophy should grow out of common sense because philosophy is entirely dependent on it.  Arguments, reasoning, and debate can take us beyond where we began, but they can’t fundamentally change or overturn our foundational view of things without losing its own credibility.

Moore’s proof helps remind us of this.  It helps us see the place of reasoning in understanding the world, and helps keep us from becoming so enamored of our clever arguments and skillful reasoning that we are willing to ignore what we have always known, and have always had far better reason to believe.

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