Thursday, July 10, 2008

Posts of Recent Relevance

A couple of subjects I'd posted about way back in the day came up in conversation yesterday, so I dug said posts up out of the archive. This was an easy post to write as it consists almost entirely of me plugging things I'd already written.

First, on discriminatory marriage institutions.

Second, on (the myth of) free will. In case it's not clear from the post, the reason I don't care for saying that people "earn" things is that the whole idea of free will doesn't stand up to much scrutiny.


Bret said...

Your notions about free will make for unassailable philosophy ("Whatever happened, no matter how complex, was meant to happen"), but extremely poor policy.

The reason policy should decline to redistribute Mr. Jones' income, is because, however he came to be the ubermensch that he is, his work is what carries society forward.

Law to the effect that Mr. Jones is no more deserving than anyone else will quickly cause him to withdraw his strength from the promulgating organization.

Such organizations are, of course, merely destined to fail.

Paul said...

I'm not sure why you think that Mr. Jones not deserving his property implies that the law should confiscate Mr. Jones' property. Determinism doesn't say that anybody else deserves that property either.

That's the point. Arguments about desert are misguided (or, more bluntly, wrong).

Or, to repeat what I said in the post I linked to:

"Desert, as a concept, often plays a very useful role because it inclines us to set up institutions that allow for very large degrees of autonomy and privacy. At the margins, though, we run into cases in which by infringing upon the demands of the concept of desert we can create a situation that is, on balance, more just. In such cases it's useful to remember that desert is a useful idea, but not an intrinsically valuable one."

If we could stop talking about what people have earned and therefore deserve, and start talking about what's best for people, that'd be a major improvement in our political discourse.

(I'd also note that we already have laws to the effect that Mr. Jones doesn't deserve much of what he has. That's why the government confiscates much of it by force through taxation. That plain reality is what makes the entire premise of Atlas Shrugged so silly.)

Tommaso Sciortino said...

I think what's interesting about your point, Paul, is that both your views on desert and Bret's are reflected in the constitution. On the "people deserve what they make" side you have the right to property (of course) but on the "we agree to allocate things to people who are good at making them since this makes society better off" side you have intellectual property rights which exist only insofar as congress thinks they "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts".

Bret said...

Paul, I agree that from a perfectly technical perspective, the concept of desert merely interferes with what is most efficient.

But that point can only be taken so far. Politics is about forming a coalition precisely because people have to see the benefit in giving up individual liberty for collective prosperity. If too few people see the benefit, you won't have the critical mass of participation you need to make the whole machine go in the first place.

I think at some level, highly specialized discourse can do without this rule. But to say that transcending it would be a broad improvement ignores the part that the discourse itself plays in helping people feel empowered, and therefore motivated to participate.

Paul said...

There might be practical limits to how far determinism can be taken, politically, but I think it can be taken significantly further than it has been, especially in America, where there's quite a cult around the idea that people are more or less entirely responsible for their lot in life. I see no reason why, over time, there can't be a shift toward people acknowledging that much of who we are is determined by the circumstances we are born into. (I would say "all of who we are", but baby steps are fine with me.) You see more of those sorts of attitudes in other developed countries and I see no reason we couldn't begin to emulate them.

(You also find determinism in certain strains of Christianity, since it's fairly clearly implied by God's omniscience. In any case, it's not unreasonable to expect that our discourse could adopt significantly more determinist thinking, since it already pops up in a lot of contexts.)

Bret said...

I always thought class mobility was one of the major jewels in the crown of American culture. Abraham Lincoln taught himself law by firelight (though to be fair, so did every lawyer prior to electrification). Kenneth Lay's father was a traveling minister. 'Circumstances of birth' gave Europe a system of Feudal Monarchy that took centuries to fully undo. The moral culpability of "I was born this way, so big effing deal," is eerily similar to that of "I was born this way so I'm very, very special."

I think the productive and happy middle road is, "Well, what'd you get done this morning?"

Allow me to remind you as well that God's omniscience has been of little help in assuaging Republican voters about the ills of higher taxes. ;) See Calvinism and other early splits from Lutheranism.

Paul said...

Not to put too fine a point on it, but when I said it was a "cult" I meant that to imply that the beliefs were largely wrong. Economic mobility is either as good or better in many other industrialized countries:

And I'd also say that if you take determinism seriously - and I take it you agree that there's not really a good argument not to - then it becomes unclear what "moral culpability" amounts to. So I'm not sure what your point is there.

Bret said...

There's a difference between 'responsible' as in 'Being born smart doesn't mean I deserve more' and as in 'I should have all the food I want whether I work or not.'

Without some concept of moral culpability for individual actions, you cannot have, for example, criminal justice. I think we can probably agree that criminal justice is 'good for people'.

If you accept that, it begs more specifics on exactly how you'd like to see less emphasis on personal responsibility as part of the American political landscape. Clearly, the concept is not wholly useless.

I'd address your link, but it didn't work for me?

Paul said...

You can absolutely have criminal justice without moral culpability, as long as you can recognize that moral culpability and legal culpability are not the same thing. We should lock people up because not doing so would cause the world to be a worse place in such-and-such a way. Passing moral judgment on a convicted criminal is a superfluous action on the determinist account.

Let's try the link this way:


Tommaso Sciortino said...

I'll have o second Paul. Though I can't explain why I do understand Bret's position. On first glance it does seem like you can't lock people up if you don't pass moral judgments.

Bret said...

Legal culpability without moral culpability is completely arbitrary. How do you define what a crime is? How do you define the world as a better or worse place? You must have some notion of right and wrong to begin with.

I would say you -can- lock a person up without an immediately associated moral judgment. ("You are likely to make the world a worse place, therefore we will prevent you by force from doing so." As opposed to "You did a bad thing and we will now punish you with deprivation")

However, underlying the notion of "better" or "worse", you will ultimately find a moral judgment.

I simply can't imagine that determinism's response to the question of what is moral is, "It doesn't matter." That's an obvious dead end for any (political) philosophy that requires even a modicum of context.

I guess the argument I'm trying to carry here is, desert -is- in fact, intrinsically valuable as a concept. The open question in my mind is, just how far do you carry it in politics?

Bret said...

Well, I looked over the link... the crux of the thing is that Relative Mobility, as measured by changes in income between generations in specific families, is not as high as it is in European Social-Democratic nations.

If you follow that colorful chart in the blog, back to EMP's report, back to Economist Miles Corak's 2006 paper, you find some interesting things:

"Income Elasticity Between Generations", the statistic measured in the chart, is actually a function of comparison between two random families (carried out many times over and averaged), across two generations. The higher the IEBG, the more likely it is that the disparity between the two families decreased over time.

Naturally, there is more than one way to explain this phenomenon (the simplest two possibilities being 1) the poor got richer and 2) the rich got poorer), and the difference matters.

What's most interesting about the report is probably on page 52, with an explanation of the data running a few pages up to it.

This article is only one of many recently published on the topic, and the various attempts at studying this index have produced widely varying results.

The way I tend to analyze politics, (as opposed to policy) is to begin by asking the question, "What does it mean that group X would want me to have this information?" In this case, while it is very curious that AEI and Heritage would be pushing income inequality is an issue, the data they've cherry-picked to push it, is of course not without caveat.

Paul said...

You're just confusing moral culpability and morality, is all. It's the difference between judging a person and judging a state of affairs.

If a meteorite smashes into somebody's head and kills them, we make a moral judgment (e.g., "People being killed by meteorites is bad!"), but we don't bother to bring in culpability. And note that it wouldn't be at all weird to take steps to prevent the meteorite from hitting that person in the head, even though we're not holding the meteorite "morally culpable" for anything.

At bottom blame, like desert, is a concept that is often useful but that doesn't refer to any actual ethical feature of a person.

As for the hand-waving on the economic mobility research, if there's some actual evidence that economic mobility is higher in the U.S. (for people born here) than in other developed countries, I'd be interested in seeing it. Otherwise I'm not sure why we'd just take it for granted that economic mobility is higher here.

Bret said...

I think we might be arguing semantics at this point. A murderer is not an inanimate object, and I don't think jailing meteorites is the natural extension of my thoughts on justice.

You still haven't explained how you knew that a meteorite braining a person was bad, which was my original challenge.

Paul said...

I don't understand. Do you think a meteorite killing somebody isn't bad? What's the point of the challenge if we don't disagree?

Bret said...

My point is that there are things in governance that cannot be divorced from morality. Justice is one example, and equality before the law follows from there. You responded by claiming that we can judge situations without judging people. I disagree, but I also don't think this refutes my claim. You still need morality even to judge a situation. How else would you know that accidental death is undesirable? There are notions that are fundamental to the human experience; things we agree upon, as a culture, to be good and bad. Without them, you haven't got a basis for collective action at all (would you stand next to a person who thought murder was mostly okay?), let alone liberal democracy.

Bret said...

PS - As far as the mobility index, it is of course much harder to prove a point than to disprove one. It is probably fair that I withdraw the claim that the U.S. has high mobility. I meant it to exemplify that a cultural emphasis on personal responsibility leads to good things, but that's probably calling down a double-dose of 'prove it' upon myself anyway. I got into construction because I didn't want to write these books! :)

Paul said...

I think I'm confused. You seem to be thinking that determinism somehow undermines morality in some general way. But I don't recall seeing an argument to that effect. Am I missing something?

Bret said...

Essentially, I feel Americans hold self-determination up as a right, based (incorrectly, ironically) on the old Calvinist value that the saved would be known by their good works.

To contrast this with your amoral (literally; not in the rhetorical sense) determinism, I pointed out how determinism's sense that you're not responsible for your good works is an eerie inverse of Divine Right of Kings' implied notion that a 'just' ruler's works are, in a sense, automatically good.

Essentially, I'm trying to point out that determinism, while philosophically and spiritually correct (in my view), is moderately to seriously flawed as an axiom for governance in American Democracy, because it contrasts too sharply with our shared morals (not, per your post, morals in general).

I think your feeling is, America should transcend those morals. I think this is essentially impossible, and undesirable to boot.

Paul said...

Well, as we hashed out before, there's no reason to suppose that American society couldn't move toward deterministic thinking and still function effectively. Other societies do, and Americans are neither as homogeneous nor as internally consistent as you suggest. (Baby steps, remember.)

I think such a society would look significantly more European, and I think determinism itself implies that such a society is more just, in many respects, than our own, since it isn't premised as much on naive conceptions of desert.

Bret said...

Please define 'just' without referring to desert.

Paul said...

Can I ask whether you actually read the post I linked to about desert? I feel think this is the second time I've had to repeat a point I already addressed in that post. To quote myself:

There is an unfortunate use of the word "desert" that allows us to say things like, "All people deserve to be treated with respect." I think those statements are true, but they seem to use a somewhat different definition of "desert" - one less tied up with the idea of "earning" something - than the one I'm referring to above.

Look. There are lots of conceptions of justice, and on some level all of them are about giving people things that they "deserve". But the whole reason I brought up determinism is that one conception of justice that doesn't make sense is "give people the things that they have earned", because people don't earn things in any meaningful sense.

Nobody with a conception of justice denies that people deserve things. The question is, Why do they deserve things? One very naive answer is, They earned them. Other possible answers include, Because them having those things would increase net happiness in the world (utilitarianism), Because them having those things would make the world a more equal place (egalitarianism), or Because them having those things would satisfy conditions we would agree to from behind a veil of ignorance about our own position in the world (justice as fairness).

Whether you formulate those positions with or without using the word "desert" is neither here nor there.