Friday, January 17, 2014

If Utilitarianism is true should individuals practice it?

Paradoxically, the answer is not obviously “Yes”. 

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In a bloggingheads.tv interview Harvard’s Joshua Green makes a compelling case that world peace would be achieved if we all began doing morality in manual mode and became practising utilitarians. 

Joshua is so sure of this that he treats it as a logical imperative. If it turns out not to bring world peace, you are passing a utilitarian style judgement on the system wide outcome. Therefore, whatever was done in the first place was not in fact utilitarian.

Unfortunately for Joshua, this reasoning invokes the fallacy of composition. He is considering the idea that good things happen if individuals become utilitarian agents. Yet the qualities of an individual’s actions and higher levels of social organization are not guaranteed to bear any resemblance.

Fundamentally, he is defending the wrong side of the utilitarian equation. Utilitarianism is about achieving better and worse states of the affairs. Start with naming the global level utilitarian worlds that you want and then consider which types of agent beliefs or behaviours are conducive to them. More simply, instead of rewiring or repressing human nature, build the institutions that will realize those goals by harnessing our natures.

In fact, many uncomfortable conclusions are entailed by utilitarianism. The kind of mind we need may be quite irrational and biased in its own way, in much the same way competitive markets prove opportunistic natures and self-love can be good for the social utility function. And even then, any governance system would only be approximately utilitarian if it’s not possible to satisfy unrestricted domains.

Different levels of social organization require different conceptual modes based on what type of real property our ethics is supervening to. At the policy level the real things are laws, regulations, institutions. A constitution can quite readily be rational, cosmopolitan and consistent (internally and overtime). it makes no sense for agencies to work at cross purposes, or beggar thy neighbour laws or tariffs. Apply coasian methods when making legal decisions or designing healthcare systems. Policy is cognitive, already in manual mode.

The level of the individual, however, is irreducibly non-cognitive. The real stuff are computations, attitudes, habits, and so we must adjust the metaethics required to avoid making a category error (in the same way it would be a category error to derive monetary policy from virtue ethics). Utilitarian criteria don’t disappear, however the role of virtue ethics play a much greater role, as do complex emotions like envy or love. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011
Perhaps the best illustration of the current misconceptions of the individualism of Adam Smith and his group is the common belief that they have invented the bogey of the “economic man” and that their conclusions are vitiated by their assumption of a strictly rational behavior or generally by a false rationalistic psychology. They were, of course, very far from assuming anything of the kind. It would be nearer the truth to say that in their view man was by nature lazy and indolent, improvident and wasteful, and that it was only by the force of circumstances that he could be made to behave economically or carefully to adjust his means to his ends. But even this would be unjust to the very complex and realistic view which these men took of human nature. Since it has become fashionable to deride Smith and his contemporaries for their supposedly erroneous psychology, I may perhaps venture the opinion that for all practical purposes we can still learn more about the behavior of men from the Wealth of Nations than from most of the more pretentious modern treatises on “social psychology.” Hayek in Individualism and Economic Order
Sunday, November 6, 2011

I agree with 100% of this. I wish I had made it.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

SecularNumanist reads from Schopenhauer’s On the Basis of Morals 

Friday, August 5, 2011 Tuesday, July 26, 2011 Monday, July 25, 2011
Adherents of Mises (sometimes peculiarly closer to Rothbard and anarchism than to Mises himself) often claim that Hayek represents an entirely different strand in the Austrian tradition, go beyond the legitimate Böhm-Bawerk/Wieser separation and argue that Hayek is a covert social democrat. Such interpretations are true to the extent that Hayek explicitly opposes the minimal state. But they appear thoroughly absurd if one analyzes Hayek’s economic policy oeuvre, his opposition to the ideal of social justice and his personal political involvement. Another gem from Hayek as Ordo-Liberal [pdf].
Sunday, July 24, 2011
Just sayin’, the people he killed were probably cultural marxist pieces of shit and it’s good that they’re dead. An act of state is an act of war, I doubt if a single one of the people he killed were innocent. If they voted for anything but the abolition of the state, they’re guilty. I’m not saying to kill all statists, but I don’t cry over their deaths nor should one hesitate to do so if it was necessary. Ryan Faulk aka FringeElements, seemingly expressing sympathy for the Oslo shooter. Here’s the whole thread. As if to displace an extreme statement with an insane one, he goes on to say “if i had to choose between 100 random humans and 100 random dogs dying, I’d choose to kill the humans.”
Saturday, July 23, 2011
While it would be an exaggeration, it would not be altogether untrue to say that the interpretation of the fundamental principle of liberalism as absence of state activity (rather than as a policy which deliberately adopts competition, the market, and prices as its ordering principle and uses the legal framework enforced by the state in order to make competition as effective and beneficial as possible – and to supplement it where, and only where, it cannot be made effective) is as much responsible for the decline of competition as the active support which governments have given directly and indirectly to the growth of monopoly. F.A. Hayek, “Free” Enterprise and Competitive Order (Presentation in April 1947 at the founding meeting of the Mont Pèlerin Society), reprinted in: Individualism and Economic Order, Chicago, pp. 107-118. Found in the superb paper Hayek as Ordo-Liberal by Stefan Kolev [pdf]. Yes, it is one sentence.
Friday, July 22, 2011 Wednesday, July 20, 2011

See my last post for the script.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

1984 - Anticlerical Masterpiece


"A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible. But since, in practice, no one is infallible, it is frequently necessary to rearrange past events in order to show that this or that mistake was not made, or that this or that imaginary triumph actually happened.”

 -The Prevention of Literature, George Orwell, 1946


1984 is not another Animal Farm, another one-for-one allegory contre Stalin. There are a number of other major influences and themes that can be considered independently, from nationalism, utopianism, futurology, and the relationship between truth and power.

But what I believe is missing from this standard summary are the strong anti-clerical motifs that run through the novel.  

The Spanish Civil war was in Orwell’s own words a watershed moment in his political evolution, during which he took common cause with an anti-clerical Marxist militia. Even Catholic literary critic Leroy Spinner notes the “radical anti-Catholic shift [in his writing] during the Spanish Civil War.”

Yet calling 1984 anti-clerical might seem a little farfetched. After all, Oceania is supposed to be a godless country where religious practice of any kind is illegal, which is itself another direct analogy to atheistic Soviet Communism. And indeed, Stalin persecuted Christians of every stripe, particularly Roman Catholics. The key distinction is that in 1984 the state itself becomes the object of worship. Not all religions are banned, just all but one. It is the culmination of a secular-theocracy.

So even with Fascism defeated and discredited, Orwell’s vision of totalitarianism couldn’t help but be a blend of clerical fascism and hysterical communism, in part I believe to multiply Communism’s hypocrisy even further by relating the Soviet system to the Catholic fascists they mutually despised from the days in Catalonia.

Thus as I’ll show Oceania is modeled under a kind of theocratic Catholic Stalinism.

To start, the Inner Party is at once sacrilegious and absolutely puritanical. Sexual repression is taken so far as to attempt to eliminate the orgasm itself. Marriage is an exclusionary institution explicitly for the purpose of procreation. The sex instinct requires such complete suppression to the point that Winston reflects on how sexual pleasure was itself an act of rebellion, as a foreshadow to the pastoral love making him and Julia eventually have. And all this ideology is indoctrinated into the Proles during daily 2-minute-Hate services that resemble the worst kind of religious hysteria. Fulke Greville’s famous reductio ad absurdum of original sin “created sick – commanded to be well” is unmistakably the concept that Winston is referring to when he notes that “Your worst enemy” in Oceania, “was your own nervous system”.

Christopher Hitchens in God is Not Great bolsters the anti-Christian origin of Orwell’s focus, which:

came to him early in life, when he was enclosed in a hermetic school run by Christian sadists in which it was not possible to know when you had broken the rules. Whenever you did, and however many precautions you took, the sin of which you were unaware could always be made to find you out.

God is not Great, pg. 232

This is the essence of thought crime, the inevitable heresy of mental autonomy. Thinking a thought opposed to the Party was more than just an error, it was akin to blasphemy.

 Denying the holy-spirit, lusting after another woman, coveting your neighbours property, or falling short of impossible standard of compulsory love. Thought Crime in Oceania, and in Monotheism alike, is the first and original crime. All other offences are derived from it. Parsing through the mentions of good work found within the bible, the unforgivable sin, the sin which precipitates your eternal damnation, remains an act of free thought. For Winston, of course, the punishment for his iconoclasm is the Hellish Room 101, a torture chamber capable of delivering on your worst nightmares and operated by a nihilistic Suit.

The character of the God of monotheism permeates Big Brother and the inner party, through and through, up to and including both God and Big Brother’s potential non-existence.

Big Brother is omnipresent and omniscient. The telescreens make it so the thought police are everywhere and know everything possible to know at the moment it happens

Big Brother is all powerful. He can’t lift mountains or walk on water, but with propaganda and coercion he can make you believe he can and otherwise bend you to his will.

Big Brother is infallible. By means of propaganda and the Ministry of Truth Big Brother can be made never wrong.

Of course the Catholic Church changes its dogmas and articles of faith at its historical convenience, and like Big Brother’s Ministry of Truth the Church either pretends it never changed at all or apologizes on the ad hoc basis that the actioners of past theory and practice were never authentic follows of Christ in the first place. Notice here by the way of our theocratic context the new significance contained in the term Ministry. The renowned Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was once warned via an old Russian proverb not to dwell on the past Marxist atrocities or lose an eye. Solzhenitsyn replied by completing the proverb: “forget the past and you’ll lose both eyes.” There is a parallel sense in which both The Church and Big Brother practice this kind of extortion to blind proles and adherents to everything but their version of events.

Case in point:

It’s described as early April, and the 6th day of the Hate Week. “After the processions, the speeches, the shouting, the singing, the banners, the posters, the films, the waxworks, the rolling of drums and squealing of trumpets,” A “Rumpelstiltskin figure, contorted with hatred” comes on stage to begin the liturgy. If it isn’t clear to you by now, Hate Week is a direct analogy to Holy Week in Catholic tradition, the 6th day of which is of course Good Friday. The “Rumpelstiltskin figure” is ranting about the war, and, through an act of what Orwell called Transferred Nationalism, he changes the name of the enemy he’s ranting against in mid sentence. The crowd barely reacts. He blames the inconsistency on the agents of the elusive Emmanuel Goldstein, the Devil scapegoat to Big Brother’s party angels.

 The Bolsheviks were a very Jewish bunch, so the implicit anti-Semitism in blaming everything negative on Goldstein doesn’t reflect the Soviets (beyond the analogy to, but rather represents a quintessentially Catholic example of Orwell’s notion of Negative Nationalism. His 1945 essay Notes on Nationalism is perhaps the most relevant of his non-fiction for formally outlining many of the concepts that would become central themes in 1984, which he began writing earlier in the same year. In it he explains Negative Nationalism as the variety of nationalist hysteria that manifests with public opposition against some abstract scare-object, such as the Jews in general or Emmanuel Goldstein in particular.

In the same essay he wrote that:

“antisemitism comes more naturally to people of Conservative tendency, who suspect Jews of weakening national morale and diluting the national culture. Neo-Tories and political Catholics are always liable to succumb to antisemitism, at least intermittently.”

This should be enough to persuade you that the anti-clerical theme of 1984 is real, and deserves mentioning if not in itself then at least for the purpose of unifying the themes of nationalism, anti-Semitism, sexual repression, compulsory love and doublethink. Yet Orwell’s contempt for political Catholicism in 1984 is never mentioned in the classroom, and can’t be found in the usual references from Wikipedia to Sparknotes. If you try Googling Orwell, 1984, and Catholicism you’re more likely to be taken to Catholic websites dubiously claiming 1984 as their own, than to a critic drawing the parallels I have.

Despite being one of the most analysed books of the 20th century, according to Lawrence Dugan there are only two critics who have paid attention to Orwell’s anti-Catholic views in 1984.

The first, John Rodden, finds a mocking anti-Catholic sentiment in much of Orwell’s work. Even though he notes how “he frequently renounced ‘Romanism’ as the ecclesiastical equivalent of Stalinism,” and how “it is startling to see, piecing together scattered journalistic references, how often the lines of Orwell’s thought on Catholicism, Communism and anti-Semitism ran on parallel tracks” Rodden doesn’t have much to say about how this inspires 1984 specifically, and mostly comments on how mistaken Catholics are for declaring that Orwell was on their side. The second, Leroy Spiller, published a paper in a Catholic journal in order to caution again that exact temptation.

According to Dugan, “Orwell saw Catholicism as a reactionary force working against left-wing movements in the world,” that “religion in general was politics pretending to be something else,” and that the power and universal reach of the Church put it “in direct competition with the Communist Party, a similar organization in his eyes.”

Yet even with all his comparative politics in mind, it doesn’t fundamentally explain why so much of 1984’s subtext is anti-clerical. Totalitarianism might resemble theocracy, but the issue of Catholicism’s collusion with Fascism had long past.

The final clue may be the book’s title itself. The critical blogger David Allen Green has hypothesized that 1984 was a direct assault on the work of conservative Roman Catholic novelist, G.K. Chesterton, a man Orwell at once loathed and obsessed over. In 1904 Chesterton wrote a work of speculative fiction set in London in the year 1984 called The Napoleon of Notting Hill, where almost nothing about London has changed from technology to class structure.

In the story-framing preface, known better than the book itself, Chesterton defended his conservatism by mocking the progressive and revolutionary views of Modernist and Leftist authors, whose prophecies of progressed failed. Orwell directly attacked Chesterton’s conservative beliefs in 1946, by writing:

“It is not very difficult to see that this idea is rooted in the fear of progress. If there is nothing new under the sun, if the past in some shape or another always returns, then the future when it comes will be something familiar.”

As I’ve already mentioned, Orwell’s Notes on Nationalism is virtually an outline for the themes he develops in 1984, and it’s in the same essay that he writes the following:

“Ten or twenty years ago, the form of nationalism most corresponding to Communism today was political Catholicism. Its most outstanding exponent - though he was perhaps an extreme case rather than a typical one - was G. K. Chesterton.”

David Allen Green’s analysis ends by pointing out The Napoleon of Notting Hill and 1984’s striking similarities and contrasts, while leaving the question of Orwell’s naming rationale open in the absence of direct evidence.

But to the extent that all literary criticism bends towards the circumstantial, it’s evident to me that G.K. Chesterton and Orwell’s militant anti-clericalism in 1984 are connected. And that far from being simply a journalist cum novelist whose superficial allegories are decipherable at a glance, George Orwell’s 1984 is a rich and multi-faceted work of political fiction for which a full interpretation has yet to come.

For what it’s worth, my guess is that with 1984 Orwell sought to refute Chesterton’s cynicism about revolutionary prophecies by writing one of the most prophetic books of all time, at least as far as the Soviet Union was concerned. For Orwell foresaw the theocratic forms Totalitarianism would naturally come to emulate.

Friday, July 15, 2011

All that Hume holds is that our passions are part of whatever mental state is revealed by our taking something as mattering to us. Far from implying that there are no reasons for anything or that nothing matters this is the only plausible account of why we think that there are reasons for things, and find that things do matter. Hume never bars himself from using the word ‘reasonable’ as a term of praise, and indeed peppers all his works with it, talking happily of reasonable precautions, demands, policies, traits and feelings.

It’s not as if Parfit has an alternative account that is much help. In his view reasons play roughly the role of Plato’s Form of the Good, and are in many ways just as elusive. Reasons are not part of the natural, causally interlocking world. We do not perceive them or respond to them in anything like the way we gain sensory information about our physical environment. Parfit compares our knowledge of them to our knowledge of mathematics, forgetting Frege’s insight that numerals start life as adjectives describing the empirical magnitudes of collections, and forgetting as well that it is quite easy to describe why we might be interested in those magnitudes. But in Parfit’s account, reasons are kept within a tight circle of evaluative terms (good, right, obligation), linked up in eternal verities whose intelligible connection with anything outside the circle, such as actual human decision-making, has to be left utterly mysterious. Parfit frequently presents himself as having an ‘account’ of ethical truth, but since the account simply consists of restating value judgments in terms drawn from the tight little circle, it is not an account, and it is not unavailable to Humeans.

Blackburn defends Hume in his review of Derek Parfit’s On What Matters. Blackburn defended his expressivism against Parfit before, here:

"Parfit’s iterated ‘should’s do not get him so far. Their ‘direction of fit’ remains, in his eyes, entirely representational, and he can provide no necessary connection with any states of mind with the motivational direction. All he will be able to do, in tackling this question, is to produce more of what are, in his eyes, just representations of how things are. Naturally, he may plead and cajole that people make these cognitions practical. But it remains logically possible that nobody listens, in spite of their having, right across the board, the most perfect repertoire of moral judgments all of which they sincerely accept. And if nobody listens, then their motivations may be totally and blithely orthogonal to their cognitions. It is this possibility to which the critics with whom I am numbered rightly object.”
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Who is the ultimate entity, that he himself, may judge as to whether or not a characteristic is a flaw or not? And What sets the boundaries between a flaw and Perfection? Can’t any be either depending on the purpose and use of that trait? from a guy on my Facebook who completely by accident discovered Pragmatism 
Monday, July 11, 2011
Patricia S. Churchland, the philosopher and neuroscientist, is sitting at a cafe on the Upper West Side, explaining the vacuousness, as she sees it, of a vast swath of contemporary moral philosophy. “I have long been interested in the origins of values,” she says, the day after lecturing on that topic at the nearby American Museum of Natural History. “But I would read contemporary ethicists and just feel very unsatisfied. It was like I couldn’t see how to tether any of it to the hard and fast. I couldn’t see how it had anything to do with evolutionary biology, which it has to do, and I couldn’t see how to attach it to the brain.” from The Chronicle of Higher Education review. I absolutely agree that Moral Philosophy needs its baring in hard psychology, but that doesn’t make philosophy obsolete. A little knowledge isn’t as dangerous as a little philosophy, because without philosophy we wouldn’t know how to use what little knowledge we have.