Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A "Person" or a "Life"?

While I'm on the subject of eugenics (previous post), I have a few more thoughts about abortion. (Many of the links at the bottom of the previous post lead to other posts I have written on the subject.) These few more thoughts are triggered by Judith Jarvis Thomson's article, "A Defense of Abortion" (Philosophy & Public Affairs, 1 (1971): 47-66), which is available online here (among other places).

"A Defense of Abortion" has been rattling around in the back of my mind since I first read it a few years ago. Thomson's case for abortion in rests on the analogy that she poses in the fourth paragraph of the article:
You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, "Look, we're sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you--we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it's only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you." Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. "Tough luck. I agree. but now you've got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person's right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him." I imagine you would regard this as outrageous, which suggests that something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago.
Glen Whitman has criticized, implicitly and effectively, Thomson's analogy and others of its kind. I will not repeat Whitman's criticisms here; read them for yourself at his post, "Every Abortion Analogy Fails."

I want to focus, instead, on another aspect of Thomson's verbal trickery. She begins "A Defense of Abortion" with this:
Most opposition to abortion relies on the premise that the fetus is a human being, a person, from the moment of conception.
In the second paragraph she writes:
I think that the premise is false, that the fetus is not a person from the moment of conception. A newly fertilized ovum, a newly implanted clump of cells, is no more a person than an acorn is an oak tree.
The trickery is this: Most (right-minded) opposition to abortion does not rely on the premise that the fetus is a "person"; it relies on the fact that the fetus is a human life. Thomson tries to evade that fact by appealing to our sense of a "person" as a walking, talking entity -- someone like you and me. "Conveniently" for Thomson, a newly fertilized ovum does not resemble such an entity. The lack of similarity therefore justifies (in Thomson's mind) the dismissal of the fetus as a non-person and, therefore, the taking of its life -- if that is the convenient thing to do.


Ross Douthat (the newest addition to my blogroll) points out that Lefty blogger Kevin Drum is "scoffing at the suggestion that contemporary progressives might be enabling eugenics." Drum doth protest too much. There is no doubt in my mind that contemporary regressives (le mot juste) are enabling eugenics.

Related posts:
I've Changed My Mind
Next Stop, Legal Genocide?
Here's Something All Libertarians Can Agree On

It Can Happen Here: Eugenics, Abortion, Euthanasia, and Mental Screening
Creeping Euthanasia
PETA, NARAL, and Roe v. Wade
Flooding the Moral Low Ground
The Beginning of the End?
Taking Exception
Protecting Your Civil Liberties

Where Conservatism and (Sensible) Libertarianism Come Together
Conservatism, Libertarianism, and Public Morality
The Threat of the Anti-Theocracy
The Consequences of Roe v. Wade
The Old Eugenics in a New Guise
The Left, Abortion, and Adolescence
Law, Liberty, and Abortion
Oh, *That* Slippery Slope
Abortion and the Slippery Slope
The Cynics Debate While Babies Die
The Slippery Slope in Holland
The Slippery Slope in England
The Slipperier Slope in England
The Slippery Slope in New Jersey
An Argument Against Abortion
Singer Said It

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Libertarian Whining about Cell Phones and Driving

Read this bit of whining by Glen Whitman, then this, by me.

I do not want to be on the same road as Glen Whitman (an admitted cell-phone-talking driver) and his ilk. Unfortunately, I haven't any choice -- unless I give up driving.

Liberty is not about doing as one wishes. It is about doing what is responsible. It is irresponsible -- plain and simple -- to drive while talking on a cell phone. None of the excuses invented by Whitman can change that fact.

I say "excuses," because Whitman is evidently looking for ways to evade responsibility for the patently deplorable practice of driving while talking on a cell phone -- "hands free" or otherwise. I've seen more than my share of cell-phone-impaired drivers. I know what I'm talking about.

Some people should just grow up and act responsibly. End of message.

Naming the Presidents

To see how quickly you can type the last names of all U.S. presidents, go here. The time limit is 10 minutes. I finished with 7:53 remaining; that is, I did it in 2:07.


Entering each of the names Adams (John and John Quincy), Harrison (William Henry and Benjamin), Johnson (Andrew and Lyndon), Roosevelt (Theodore and Franklin Delano), and Bush (George H.W. and George W.) accounts for two presidents. Cleveland, who served two non-consecutive terms, is covered by entering his name once.

The most "neglected" presidents -- those who have been named only 49 or 50 percent of the time by more than 88,000 "guessers" (as I post this) -- are (chronologically) Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, Hayes, Arthur, and Harding. Andrew Johnson probably would be in that group were it not for Lyndon Johnson.

The presidents most often named have been Bush (94 percent), Washington (93 percent), Clinton (90 percent), Lincoln (89 percent), Kennedy (86 percent), and Nixon (85 percent).

It rankles that Clinton is named more often than Lincoln (if only slightly). It is consoling that the Roosevelts (at 84 percent) do not outrank Washington or Lincoln.

That only 93 percent of the entries have named Washington is a testament to the low estate of American education and/or the vast geographical reach of the web.

Friday, July 27, 2007

A Critique of Extreme Libertarianism


A few years ago I would have joined Daniel McCarthy's defense of libertarianism ("In Defense of Freedom") against Robert Locke's attack on it ("Marxism of the Right"). Upon mature reflection, I find some of Locke's arguments persuasive; for example:

If Marxism is the delusion that one can run society purely on altruism and collectivism, then libertarianism is the mirror-image delusion that one can run it purely on selfishness and individualism. . . .

The most fundamental problem with libertarianism is very simple: freedom, though a good thing, is simply not the only good thing in life. Simple physical security, which even a prisoner can possess, is not freedom, but one cannot live without it....

Libertarians try to get around this fact that freedom is not the only good thing by trying to reduce all other goods to it through the concept of choice, claiming that everything that is good is so because we choose to partake of it. Therefore freedom, by giving us choice, supposedly embraces all other goods. But this violates common sense by denying that anything is good by nature, independently of whether we choose it. Nourishing foods are good for us by nature, not because we choose to eat them. Taken to its logical conclusion, the reduction of the good to the freely chosen means there are no inherently good or bad choices at all, but that a man who chose to spend his life playing tiddlywinks has lived as worthy a life as a Washington or a Churchill....

Libertarians rightly concede that one’s freedom must end at the point at which it starts to impinge upon another person’s, but they radically underestimate how easily this happens....

[I]f limiting freedom today may prolong it tomorrow, then limiting freedom tomorrow may prolong it the day after and so on, so the right amount of freedom may in fact be limited freedom in perpetuity....If all we want is limited freedom, then mere liberalism will do, or even better, a Burkean conservatism that reveres traditional liberties.

The extreme libertarian, on the other hand, resorts to intellectual sleight-of-hand by asserting that libertarianism has only to do with the conduct of the state. Here is McCarthy:

Libertarianism is a political philosophy, not a complete system of ethics or metaphysics. Political philosophies address specifically the state and, more generally, justice in human society. The distinguishing characteristic of libertarianism is that it applies to the state the same ethical rules that apply to everyone else....

Yes, the state seizes tax money and jails those who do not pay, actions that would be denounced as gangsterism if undertaken by a private organization. But if the only way life can go on is to have the government provide defense and other necessities, such expropriations might have to be called something other than robbery.

Moderate libertarians say just that. They propose that the state should do those necessary things that it alone can do—and only those things. Radical libertarians contend there is nothing good that only the state can provide—even its seemingly essential functions are better served by the market and voluntary institutions. The differences between thoroughgoing libertarians and moderates are profound, but the immediate prescriptions of each are similar enough: cut taxes, slash spending, no more foreign adventurism.

McCarthy reveals that he is a radical, "thoroughgoing" libertarian when he assails "foreign adventurism" -- a cheap rhetorical trick aimed at excluding libertarian hawks from the ranks of libertarianism.


I take issue with McCarthy and his fellow travelers on the "right wing" of libertarianism. I argue, specifically, that

  • libertarianism is more than a "political philosophy" that addresses the state, it is a prescription for how individuals should live their lives;
  • it is pure sophistry (or naïveté) to assert that "there is nothing good that only the state can provide"; and
  • the state, properly understood, is not a discrete "thing," it is simply the inevitable means by which a group or society regulates relations among its members when there are too many of them to act by consensus.


A political philosophy -- any political philosophy -- has implications for how individuals live their lives. Consider national defense, a subject about which McCarthy evidently has strong views. He calls taxation for the purpose of providing defense a form of robbery; he sees preemptive warfare as foreign adventurism. Libertarians of McCarthy's ilk argue against preemptive war from the non-aggression principle. The problem with the non-aggression principle in the hands of radical libertarians is that it becomes a non-preemption principle. But preemption may in fact be necessary to the defense of liberty, as I have argued here and here.

A political philosophy that would do away with the state most certainly is a prescription for how people will be forced to live their lives -- and it is a poisonous prescription: We can rely on "private defense agencies" to keep the peace, at home and abroad, and we would have fewer enemies abroad if we only "minded our own business."


Before addressing private defense agencies, I must say a thing or two about the notion of "minding our own business," which is a naïvely dangerous view of the world on two counts. First, it assumes that having and defending overseas economic interests is, somehow, not "our own business." Second, it entrusts the safekeeping of those interests to the beneficence of others. It is as if Hitler, Stalin, bin Laden, and their ilk did not, do not, and could not exist.

Now, to private defense agencies. I once wrote this about extreme libertarianism (known also as anarcho-capitalism):

Among the important particulars not accounted for by anarcho-capitalists is the method of resolving disputes between those who agree to settle their differences without resorting to violence and those persons (foreign as well as domestic) who simply refuse to be bound by such agreements. Anarcho-capitalists, in their blindness to that bit of reality, insist on applying the non-aggression principle to inter-state relations, thus effectively granting immunity to lawless states simply because they have not yet attacked us.

Anarcho-capitalists, in effect, have created a fantasy world in which the American state is unnecessary because anarcho-capitalists do not like what it sometimes does. Anarcho-capitalists believe that, somehow or other, the absence of the state will culminate in the advent of nirvana.

. . . The real question . . . is how to channel the power of the American state toward the defense of liberty. The Constitution of the United States, in its original meaning, offers the best practical answer to that question. Anarcho-capitalists will object that the original Constitution was imperfect (e.g., it condoned slavery) and that its desirable provisions (e.g., the Bill of Rights) have been implemented imperfectly. Such arguments assume that perfection would have overtaken us in a stateless world.

Anarcho-capitalism, in sum, is a belief in the impossible. It is the wrong standard by which to judge the possible. The right standard, simply stated, is this: When faced with politically feasible policy options, support the ones that advance liberty rather than those which detract from it.

Incremental but real steps toward liberty are infinitely superior to the self-indulgent but politically irrelevant fantasies of anarcho-capitalism.

McCarthy doesn't go so far as to offer the extreme libertarian's usual alternative to state power, which is the creation of "private defense agencies," but I can tell that he is itching to do so. I have addressed that pipe-dream in several posts, including this one, in which I commented on an article by one Robert Murphy, who

assumes that if the vast majority of people agree that it's wrong to use violence to settle disputes, then that won't happen. Do the vast majority of people believe that it's wrong to use violence to settle disputes? Perhaps, but it doesn't take a vast majority to inject violence into a society; it takes only a relatively small number of renegades, who may be then be able to coerce others into condoning or supporting their criminal activities. . . .

What Murphy doesn't entertain is the possibility that a small but very rich cabal could create a dominant defense agency that simply refuses to recongize other defense agences, except as enemies. In other words, there's nothing in Murphy's loose logic to prove that warlords wouldn't arise. In fact, he soon gives away the game:

Imagine a bustling city, such as New York, that is initially a free market paradise. Is it really plausible that over time rival gangs would constantly grow, and eventually terrorize the general public? Remember, these would be admittedly criminal organizations; unlike the city government of New York, there would be no ideological support for these gangs.

We must consider that in such an environment, the law-abiding majority would have all sorts of mechanisms at their [sic] disposal, beyond physical confrontation. Once private judges had ruled against a particular rogue agency, the private banks could freeze its assets (up to the amount of fines levied by the arbitrators). In addition, the private utility companies could shut down electricity and water to the agency'’s headquarters, in accordance with standard provisions in their contracts.

Pardon me while I laugh at the notion that lack of "ideological support" for the gangs of New York would make it impossible for gangs to grow and terrorize the general public. That's precisely what has happened at various times during the history of New York, even though the "law-abiding majority [had] all sorts of mechanisms at [its] disposal." Murphy insists on hewing to the assumption that the existence of a law-abiding majority somehow prevents the rise a powerful, law-breaking minorities, capable of terrorizing the general public. Wait a minute; now he admits the converse:

Of course, it is theoretically possible that a rogue agency could overcome these obstacles, either through intimidation or division of the spoils, and take over enough banks, power companies, grocery stores, etc. that only full-scale military assault would conquer it. But the point is, from an initial position of market anarchy, these would-be rulers would have to start from scratch. In contrast, under even a limited government, the machinery of mass subjugation is ready and waiting to be seized.

Huh? It's certainly more than theoretically possible for a "rogue agency" to wreak havoc. A "rogue agency" is nothing more than a fancy term for a street gang, the Mafia, or al Qaeda cells operating in the U.S. A "rogue agency" run by and on behalf of rich and powerful criminals -- for their own purposes -- would somehow be preferable to police forces and courts operated by a limited government that is accountable to the general public, rich and poor alike? I don't think so. However much the American state engages in "mass subjugation" -- and it does, to a degree -- it is also held in check by its accountability to the general public under American law and tradition. A "rogue agency," by definition, would be unbound by law and tradition.

Murphy's analysis takes place in a land called "Erewhon." He chooses to ignore the fact that he lives in the United States because he wasn't a party to the Constitution. Yet that Constitution provides for a limited government, which in more than 200 years has yet to engage in systematic, mass subjugation of the kind practiced in the Third Reich and the Soviet Union, except in the case of slavery. And guess what? The American state ended slavery. How's that for mass subjugation?

Anyone can conjure a Utopia, as Murphy has. But no one can guarantee that it will work. Murphy certainly hasn't made the case that his Utopia would work.

In any event, by focusing on intra-societal violence Murphy ignores completely two crucial questions: (1) Can an anarchistic society effectively defend itself against an outside force? (2) Can it do so better than a society in which the state has a monopoly on the use of force with respect to outside entities? Murphy implies that the answer to both questions is "yes," though he fails to explore those questions. Here is my brief answer: The cost of mounting a credible defense of the United States from foreign enemies probably would support only one supplier; that is, national defense is a natural monopoly. It is better for the American state -- given its accountability to the general public -- to be that supplier. . . .

A wasteful, accountable, American state is certainly preferable to an efficient, private, defense agency in possession of the same military might. Hitler and Stalin, in effect, ran private defense agencies, and look where that landed the Germans and Russians. Talk about subjugation.


Contrary to Murphy and his ilk, there is no such thing as statelessness, at least not for groups larger than, say, hunter-gatherer bands or Hutterite colonies. Why? Because it is impossible for a group of more than a few dozen or a dozen-dozen persons to live together in pure consensus. In the end, a faction will dominate the group (a shifting faction, perhaps). And that faction will define harms that may be punished, punish those harms (i.e., administer justice), and take responsibility for the group's defense.

The state is not a "thing" to be kept at bay; it is the mechanism by which a people enforces justice and defends itself against outsiders.The questions facing a group always are these: Upon what principles shall we found and guide the state, and to whom shall we entrust the the functions of the state?

Consider this:

A group of persons may be said to live in anarchy only if all of the rules that affect everyone in the group (e.g., where to live, how best to defend the group against predators) are made by unanimous, informed consent, which might be tacit. It follows, then, that a group might -- by unanimous, informed consent -- give a subset of its members the authority to make such decisions. The group's members might delegate such authority, willingly and unanimously, because each member believes it to be in his or her best interest to do so. (The reasons for that belief might vary, but they probably would include the notion of comparative advantage; that is, those who are not in the governing subset would have time to pursue those activities at which they are most productive.) With a governing subset -- or government -- the group would no longer live in anarchy, even if the group remains harmonious and membership in it remains voluntary.

The government becomes illegitimate only when it exceeds its grant of authority and resists efforts to curb those excesses or to redefine the grant of authority. The passage of time, during which there are changes in the group's membership, does not deligitimate the government as long as the group's new members voluntarily assent to governance. Voluntary assent, as discussed above, may consist simply in choosing to remain a member of the group.

Now, ask yourself how likely it is that a group larger than, say, a nuclear family or a band of hunter-gatherers might choose to go without a government. Self-interest dictates that even relatively small groups will choose -- for reasons of economy, if nothing else -- to place certain decisions in the hands of a government.

All talk of anarchy as a viable option to limited government is nothing more than talk. Empy talk, at that.


The political view that there should not be a state, if followed to its logical conclusion, would leave most Americans prey to the very real predators who lurk at home and abroad. Those very real predators care not one whit about non-aggression principles and contractual obligations, contrary to the assertions of Gustave de Molinari, a favorite of anarcho-capitalists, who wrote this:

Under a regime of liberty, the natural organization of the security industry would not be different from that of other industries. In small districts a single entrepreneur could suffice. This entrepreneur might leave his business to his son, or sell it to another entrepreneur. In larger districts, one company by itself would bring together enough resources adequately to carry on this important and difficult business. If it were well managed, this company could easily last, and security would last with it. In the security industry, just as in most of the other branches of production, the latter mode of organization will probably replace the former, in the end.

The "customers would not allow themselves to be conquered"? Tell that to those who pay gangsters for "protection," and to the residents of gang-ridden areas. Molinari conveniently forgets that the ranks of "competitors" are open to those who, in their viciousness, will and do attack the persons and property of their rivals. If not everyone is honorable, as Molinari admits elsewhere in his essay, why would we expect private providers of security be honorable? Why would they not extort their customers while fighting each other? The result is bound to be something worse than life under an accountable state monopoly (such as we have in the U.S.) -- something fraught with violence and fear. Think of The Roaring Twenties without the glossy coat of Hollywood glamour.

Molinari and his anarcho-libertarian descendants exhibit the Anne Frank syndrome. About three weeks before Frank and her family were betrayed and arrested, she wrote:

It'’s a wonder I haven'’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.

McCarthy, Murphy, Molinari, and their ilk do not proclaim the jejune belief that all "people are truly good at heart," yet they persist in the belief that the security can be achieved in the absence of an accountable state. That is, like Anne Frank, they assume -- contrary to all evidence -- that "people are truly good at heart." But competition, by itself, does not and cannot prevent criminal acts.

Competition, to be beneficial, must be conducted within the framework of a rule of law. That rule of law must be enforced by a state which is accountable to its citizens for the preservation of their liberty. The present rule of law in the United States is far from perfect, but it is far more perfect than the alternative that is dreamt of by extreme libertarians.


As I wrote here, extreme libertarianism

rests on invalid conceptions of human nature and the state. Contrary to the evidence of history, it presumes that no one would or could accrue and exercise enough power to flout the common law and treat other persons coercively. Contrary to the evidence of history -- especially American history -- it presumes that a properly constituted and governed state cannot increase the quotient of liberty.

There is no choice between anarchy and the state. Anarchy leads inexorably to coercion -- except in a dreamworld. The real choice...is between the toughest guy on the block or a state whose actions are capable of redirection through our representative democracy.

The proper task at hand for American libertarians isn't to do away with the state but to work toward a state that defends free markets, property rights, the common law, and freedom of contract.

Another task for American libertarians is to work toward devolution of power back to the individual States and, within the States, to the lowest possible level. The key to liberty is the ability of the individual to pick and choose among a variety of "experiments" in government. That is true federalism.

Related posts:
Libertarian Nay-Saying on Foreign and Defense Policy (06/29/04)
Libertarianism and Preemptive War: Part I (07/10/04)
Libertarian Nay-Saying on Foreign and Defense Policy, Revisited (07/23/04)
An Aside about Libertarianism and War (08/02/04)
More about Libertarian Hawks and Doves (09/24/04)
Defense, Anarcho-Capitalist Style (09/26/04)
The State of Nature (12/05/04)
Getting Neolibertarianism Wrong (04/19/05)
Fundamentalist Libertarians, Anarcho-Capitalists, and Self-Defense (04/22/05)
The Legitimacy of the Constitution (05/09/05)
Another Thought about Anarchy (05/10/05)
Anarcho-Capitalism vs. the State (05/26/05)
Rights and the State (06/13/05)
The Essential Case for Consequentialist Libertarianism (07/10/05)
But Wouldn't Warlords Take Over? (07/26/05)
Sorting Out the Libertarian Hawks and Doves (07/27/05)
A Paradox for Libertarians (08/04/05)
A Non-Paradox for Libertarians (08/15/05)
Common Ground for Conservatives and Libertarians? (09/04/05)
Liberty or Self-Indulgence? (10/10/05)
Some Thoughts about Liberty (11/23/05)
Libertarianism and Preemptive War: Part II (11/27/05)
Give Me Liberty or Give Me Non-Aggression? (12/08/05)
My View of Warlordism, Seconded (12/15/05)
Anarchy: An Empty Concept (12/20/05)
The Paradox of Libertarianism (01/05/06)
The Fatal Naïveté of Anarcho-Libertarianism (01/28/06)
Liberty as a Social Compact (02/28/06)
Social Norms and Liberty (03/02/06)
A Footnote about Liberty and the Social Compact (03/06/06)
Liberty and Federalism (03/12/06)
Finding Liberty (03/25/06)

See also (at Favorite Posts):
Libertarianism and Other Political Philosophies
War, Self-Defense, and Civil Liberties

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Firing of Ward Churchill...

...was long overdue and is entirely fitting. Hank Brown, president of the University of Colorado, explains his decision to fire Churchill (at last):
Controversy -- especially self-sought controversy -- doesn't immunize a faculty member from adhering to professional standards. If you are a responsible faculty member, you don't falsify research, you don't plagiarize the work of others, you don't fabricate historical events and you don't thumb your nose at the standards of the profession. More than 20 of Mr. Churchill's faculty peers from Colorado and other universities found that he committed those acts. That's what got him fired.
Precisely. As I once wrote, apropos l'affaire Churchill,
[e]ducators are paid not only to educate but also to educate well. Perhaps the Churchill affair will serve as a reminder that gratuitous titillation isn't education.
But l'affaire Churchill holds a broader lesson than that:
[A]lthough Ward Churchill and his ilk are despicable human beings, I don't care what they say as much as I care that they represent what seems to pass for "thought" in large segments of the academic community. Clearly, universities are failing in their responsibility to uphold academic standards. Left-wing blather isn't knowledge, it's prejudice and hate and adolescent rebellion, all wrapped up in a slimy package of academic pretentiousness.

The larger marketplace of ideas counteracts much of what comes out of universities -- in particular the idiocy that emanates from the so-called liberal arts and social sciences. But that's no reason to continue wasting taxpayers' money on ethnic studies, gender studies, and other such claptrap. State legislatures can and should tell State-funded universities to spend less on liberal arts and social sciences and spend more on the teaching of real knowledge: math, physics, chemistry, engineering, and the like. That strikes me as a reasonable and defensible stance.

It isn't necessary for State legislatures to attack particular individuals who profess left-wing blather. All the legislatures have to do is insist that State-funded schools spend taxpayers' money wisely, by focusing on those disciplines that advance the sum of human knowledge. Isn't that what universities are supposed to do?
Yes, it is.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

More from the Apocalyptic Left

This article in the current issue of Newsweek carries the subhed "If humans were evacuated, the Earth would flourish." The final graph of the article puts the idea in perspective: "Too bad there's no one there to see it."

Actually, the central figure of the piece -- one Alan Weisman -- proposes more than evacuation. He's trying to organize a voluntary human extinction movement. Weisman's Leftist pedigree is quite evident in his affiliation with Homelands Productions.

Weisman is an extreme example of what I said here:
The emphasis on social restraints -- to a Leftist... -- means social engineering writ large. He wants a society that operates according to his strictures. But society refuses to cooperate, and so he conjures historically and scientifically invalid explanations for the behavior of man and nature. By doing so he is able to convince himself and his fellow travelers that the socialist vision is the correct one. He and his ilk cannot satisfy their power-lust in the real world, so they retaliate by imagining a theoretical world of doom. It is as if they walk around under a thought balloon which reads "Take that!"
Weisman isn't content to foresee the apocalypse. He wants to rush toward it and embrace it.

A Case in Point

I wrote yesterday about the arrogance that underlies the redistributive urge:
It is liberals who empower the state to dictate the redistribution of income, even though redistribution is a violation of the very autonomy that liberals claim to value. Liberals are willing and ready to draw arbitrary lines between those who (in their view) deserve more income and those who deserve less of it. And liberals are more than willing and ready to use the power of the state to enforce their arbitrariness.

By the same token, liberals are unwilling to allow free institutions to determine who fares well and who fares poorly. And their unwillingness to do so undermines the ability of those free institutions to enable the "cold/sick/hungry/stupid/isolated" to better their lot by their own efforts, and to care for those who are unable to do so.

My only regret is the exclusive use of "liberals." The arrogant attitude that "no one deserves to be so rich" extends beyond liberals. A good case in point is Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA). According to an article in the current issue of Newsweek, Grassley
has a profound frustration with superrich businesses and corporations that do not pay their fair share of taxes. Now the senior senator from Iowa is fighting to eliminate what he sees as a giant tax loophole by co-sponsoring legislation that would raise the tax rates (from 15 to 35 percent) on publicly traded partnerships like the private-equity giant Blackstone. To Grassley, the bill would help prevent ultrarich financiers from conspiring with their lawyers to "screw the taxpayer." To his opponents, it’s a wrong-headed means of stunting economic growth.
Wrong-headed is right. (See below for a sample of the consequences of "soaking" the "super rich.")

The Newsweek piece about Grassley is a sidebar to another article in the same issue of Newsweek, namely, "Taxing the Super Rich." From the lede:
In Wall Street's pecking order the partners in private-equity firms are the true aristocrats...Global in reach, able to marshal billions to buy big companies...Private-equity partners are not just in it for the money (though the successful ones make tons of it), but for the power to reshape whole industries. Unlike corporate CEOs, who are shackled by the short-term focus of shareholders, private-equity managers can swoop in and transform a troubled industry to create efficiency and growth. [Emphasis added: ED]
But that isn't enough for the class-warfare crowd. Returning to the article:
Ever since the rise of the populists in the late 1800s, lawmakers have periodically threatened to soak the rich. Usually, these movements fizzle, partly because Americans hope that they, too, might one day become rich, and partly because there are good economic arguments against discouraging investment and the accumulation of wealth. But from time to time comes a tipping point. In the early 20th century, the Progressive Movement managed to impose a federal income tax, partly in reaction to the vast fortunes made during the late-19th-century Gilded Age.
Those vast fortunes were made because those who made them were responsible for the rapid economic growth of the late 1800s. Productivity rose so rapidly during that era that prices fell, even as the economy grew.

As for the fruits of the Progressive Movement -- which imposed a federal income tax and punitive anti-trust and regulatory policies -- read this, in which I point out:
  • Had the economy continued to grow at the rate of 1790-1907 (the era of laissez-faire, more or less), real GDP in 2035 would be $107 trillion (in year 2000 dollars).
  • If the economy continues to grow at the rate of 1970-2005 (the era of entrenched big government), real GDP in 2035 will be $27 trillion (in year 2000 dollars).
  • Thus the average American will "enjoy" about one-fourth the real output that would be his absent big government.
We owe the sharp drop in economic growth after 1907 to the Progressive Movement. The great-grandchildren of last century's "progressives" haven't seen enough. In their ignorance and arrogance, the wish to redouble our economic pain by "soaking" the "super rich" whose efforts -- as even Newsweek admits -- create efficiency and growth.

Related post: More Commandments of Economics (see #13)

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice: Part III

The prologue is here, part I is here, and part II is here. This post focuses on the redistribution of income and wealth, specifically, its counterproductive effects and its roots in class warfare and "liberal" arrogance.


In a libertarian regime, everyone is entitled to negative rights: the free enjoyment of one's own life, liberty, and property as long as one does no harm to others. With negative rights there is no taking from anyone else, except to underwrite those state functions (justice and defense) that protect negative rights. (An extreme libertarian -- i.e., anarcho-capitalist -- would say that the functions of justice and defense can be provided through voluntary contractual relationships.)

Positive rights, on the other hand, are assigned selectively by a regime that takes from some and gives to others. How much the "donees" receive from the "donors" depends only on the dictates of those who create and enforce postive rights, namely, paternalists (usually "liberals") and power-seeking politicians.

Joe Miller (Bellum et Mores) is a liberal who supports positive rights:

...I still hold on to one core insight of liberalism: respect for autonomy means more than just non-interference. I can have all sorts of freedoms from various things, but those freedoms don't mean a damn thing if I'm too cold/sick/hungry/stupid/isolated to exercise them. And I remain convinced that, at least for right now, the only way to ensure that everyone has the shelter, medicine, food, education, and access needed to enjoy his/her freedom is through some form of redistribution. Insisting that you redistribute part of your wealth is no more a violation of your autonomy than is insisting that you refrain from hitting me in the nose. Both hitting me in the nose and refusing to help those too poor to exercise their freedoms are violations of autonomy.

(I addressed the argument about autonomy in parts I and II.)

Believers in positive rights seek "cosmic justice" (though they may not realize it). What is cosmic justice? I like this example from Thomas Sowell's speech, "The Quest for Cosmic Justice":

A fight in which both boxers observe the Marquis of Queensberry rules would be a fair fight, according to traditional standards of fairness, irrespective of whether the contestants were of equal skill, strength, experience or other factors likely to affect the outcome-- and irrespective of whether that outcome was a hard-fought draw or a completely one-sided beating.

This would not, however, be a fair fight within the framework of those seeking "social justice," if the competing fighters came into the ring with very different prospects of success -- especially if these differences were due to factors beyond their control....

In a sense, proponents of "social justice" are unduly modest. What they are seeking to correct are not merely the deficiencies of society, but of the cosmos. What they call social justice encompasses far more than any given society is causally responsible for. Crusaders for social justice seek to correct not merely the sins of man but the oversights of God or the accidents of history. What they are really seeking is a universe tailor-made to their vision of equality. They are seeking cosmic justice.

In an earlier post, "Rights and Cosmic Justice," I wrote:

Those who seek cosmic justice are not content to allow individuals to accomplish what they can, given their genes, their acquired traits, their parents' wealth (or lack of it), where they were born, when they live, and so on. Rather, those who seek cosmic justice cling to the Rawlsian notion that no one "deserves" better "luck" than anyone else. But "deserves" and "luck" are emotive, value-laden terms. Those terms suggest that there is some kind of great lottery in the sky, in which each of us participates, and that some of us hold winning tickets -- which equally "deserving" others might just have well held, were it not for "luck."

That is not what happens, of course. Humankind simply is varied in its genetic composition, personality traits, accumulated wealth, geographical distribution, etc. Consider a person who is born in the United States of brilliant, wealthy parents -- and who inherits their brilliance, cultivates his inheritance (mental and monetary), and goes on to live a life of accomplishment and wealth, while doing no harm and great good to others. Such a person is neither "lucky" nor less "deserving" than anyone else. He merely is who he is, and he does what he does. There is no question of desert or luck.

As Anthony de Jasay writes in "Risk, Value, and Externality,"

Stripped of rhetoric, an act of social justice (a) deliberately increases the relative share . . . of the worse-off in total income, and (b) in achieving (a) it redresses part or all of an injustice. . . . This implies that some people being worse off than others is an injustice and that it must be redressed. However, redress can only be effected at the expense of the better-off; but it is not evident that they have committed the injustice in the first place. Consequently, nor is it clear why the better-off should be under an obligation to redress it....

There is the view, acknowledged by de Jasay, that the better-off are better off merely because of luck. But, as he points out,

Nature never stops throwing good luck at some and bad luck at others, no sooner are [social] injustices redressed than some people are again better off than others. An economy of voluntary exchanges is inherently inegalitarian....Striving for social justice, then, turns out to be a ceaseless combat against luck, a striving for the unattainable, sterilized economy that has built-in mechanisms....for offsetting the misdeeds of Nature.

Most seekers of cosmic justice simply claim that they want only what is "fair" for those who "deserve better." They overlook or simply choose to ignore the evidence that the quest for cosmic justice harms those whom it is intended to benefit. I address that matter in the section "Does Redistribution Work?."

Then there are those who claim that redistribution can be made to work because it is possible to calibrate well-being across individuals, thereby maximizing "social welfare." I address that claim in the section "The Roots of Redistribution: Class Warfare and Arrogance."


The redistribution of income (and thus of wealth) is an integral function of the regulatory-welfare state (i.e., big government). Redistribution not only harms those who are taxed for that purpose but it also does not lastingly help its intended beneficiaries. In fact, it works to their detriment in the long run.

Liberals are unable to grasp that reality because they, more than most Americans, suffer from economic ignorance. Because of economic ignorance, liberals are unable to grasp the subtle, corrosive effects of big government on those things that drive economic progress: invention, innovation, entrepreneurship, the saving that funds those activities, and the hard work that enables the rest.

We Americans are far better off materially than our antecedents of a century ago -- but very few of us (especially liberals) understand how much better off we would in the absence of big government. In this post, for example, I assessed how much worse off Americans will be a generation hence because of big government. The bottom line:

  • Had the economy continued to grow at the rate of 1790-1907 (the era of laissez-faire, more or less), real GDP in 2035 would be $107 trillion (in year 2000 dollars).
  • If the economy continues to grow at the rate of 1970-2005 (the era of entrenched big government), real GDP in 2035 will be $27 trillion (in year 2000 dollars).
  • Thus the average American will "enjoy" about one-fourth the real output that would be his absent big government.
  • And more than 50 percent of that greatly diminished output will be taxed to support the state's regulatory mechanisms and the growing numbers of persons (especially the elderly) who have become dependent on the state.

In sum, redistribution does not work. As part of liberalism's "package deal" (tax, regulate, spend, and elect) it harms those whom it is supposed to help by undermining economic growth and thus depriving the "cold/sick/hungry/stupid/isolated" of jobs and (for those who simply cannot support themselves) vast amounts of voluntary charity.

The astute reader will have noticed that I have not mentioned programs that are designed to favor particular groups. The most intrusive and controversial of such programs is affirmative action, which is simply an indirect form of redistribution. All I need say about affirmative action I have said here, here, here, here, and here. The bottom line: Affirmative action costs us dearly.

The astute reader will have noticed, also, that I have not mentioned the issue of dependency on the welfare state. There is little to say but this: A guarantee of income (or income-in-kind benefits) for not working is a disincentive to better one's self through work. Dependency on the welfare state is -- and has been -- so well recognized as a real and destructive force that even Bill Clinton signed welfare reform into law (the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996). And that law has worked.


Liberals wage class warfare on behalf of the "cold/sick/hungry/stupid/isolated" and any "oppressed" or "disadvantaged" group (i.e., one that is not white, male, employed without benefit of affirmative action, law-abiding, and heterosexual). It is a wonder that Jews remain, for the most part, in the liberal camp, but that habitual tendency may arise from liberal guilt (see below).

Liberal politicians are abetted in their cause by the votes that they attract from those groups on whose behalf they wage class warfare. Liberals and their constituencies, for the most part, do not understand the undesirable economic consequences of redistribution. There are many, of course, who simply choose not to understand -- choosing class warfare over reason.

It is strange that liberals can claim to believe in the benefits of intellectual liberty (the competition of ideas) but not in the benefits of economic liberty. Liberals' token adherence to intellectual liberty often is hypocritical. (Consider campus speech codes, for example.) In any event:

  • Liberals prize talk (especially when it is their kind of talk). But talk is cheap. Economic achievement requires action, not talk. The liberal imagination cannot value that which it does not understand.
  • Rich liberals either don't understand how they came to be rich (if they did so on their own) and/or they feel guilty about their wealth. They are therefore quite willing to infringe the autonomy of others (through taxation) in the service of their ignorance and their consciences.
  • Liberals, who claim to prize autonomy, are nevertheless quite willing to tell others how to lead their lives. Witness the decades of regulation and taxation imposed upon Americans by "compassionate" liberals.
  • Liberals are quite willing to decide precisely who is deserving of "compassion" and who is not. That is, they (and only they) are fit to decide where to draw the dividing lines between those who are "too cold/sick/hungry/stupid/isolated" and those who are not.

In other words, liberals are strong believers in positive rights and, therefore, dispensers of cosmic justice. It is liberals who empower the state to dictate the redistribution of income, even though redistribution is a violation of the very autonomy that liberals claim to value. Liberals are willing and ready to draw arbitrary lines between those who (in their view) deserve more income and those who deserve less of it. And liberals are more than willing and ready to use the power of the state to enforce their arbitrariness.

By the same token, liberals are unwilling to allow free institutions to determine who fares well and who fares poorly. And their unwillingness to do so undermines the ability of those free institutions to enable the "cold/sick/hungry/stupid/isolated" to better their lot by their own efforts, and to care for those who are unable to do so.

Some proponents of positive rights (e.g., Joe Miller) nevertheless defend their position by asserting that they are not drawing arbitrary lines between those who deserve more and those who deserve less. For it is possible (according to Joe, among others) to make valid interpersonal comparisons of utility (hereafter interpersonal utility comparisons, or IUCs). The implication is that the ability to make valid IUCs enables someone (them? bureaucrats? politicians?) to make valid judgments about how to redistribute income so as to foster the maximization of a social welfare function (SWF), that is, to exact cosmic justice. (Joe does not refer to the SWF, but there is no point in making IUCs unless it is for the purpose of increasing the value of the SWF.)

The validity of the SWF, then, depends on these assumptions:

  • It is possible to make interpersonal utility comparisons (IUCs), that is, to determine whether and when it hurts X less than it benefits Y when the state takes a dollar from X and gives it to Y.
  • Having done that, the seekers of cosmic justice are able to conclude that the Xs should be forced to give certain amounts of their income to the Ys.
  • Making the Xs worse off doesn't, in the longer run, also make the Ys worse off than they would have been absent redistribution. (This critical assumption is flat wrong, as discussed above.)

All of this is arrogant moonshine. Yes, one may safely assume that Y will be made happier if you give him more money or the things that money can buy. So what? Almost everyone is happier with more money or the things it can buy. (I except the exceptional: monks and the like.) And those who don't want the money or the things it can buy can make themselves happier by giving it away.

What one cannot know and can never measure is how much happier more money makes Y and how much less happy less money makes X. Some proponents of IUCs point to the possibility of measuring brain activity, as if such measurement could or should be made -- and made in "real time" -- and as if such measurements could somehow be quantified. We know that brains differ in systematic ways (as between men and women, for instance), and we know a lot about the ways in which they are different, but we do not know (and cannot know) precisely how much happier or less happy a person is made -- or would be made -- by a change in his income or wealth. Happiness is a feeling. It varies from person to person, and for a particular person it varies from moment to moment and day to day, even for a given stimulus. (For more about the impossibility of making IUCs, see these posts by Glen Whitman of Agoraphilia. For more about measuring happiness, see these posts by Arnold Kling of EconLog.)

One answer to such objections is that an individual's utility must diminish at the margin. (After all, diminishing marginal utility, DMU, is a key postulate of microeconomic theory.) Therefore, the Xs of the world must be "sated" by having "so much" money, whereas the Ys remain relatively "unsated."

If that were true, why would Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and partners in Wall Street investment banks (not to mention most of you who are reading this) seek to make more money and amass more wealth? Perhaps the likes of Gates and Buffet do so because they want to engage in philanthropy on a grand scale. But their happiness is being served by making others happy through philanthropy; the wealthier they are, the happier they can make others and themselves.*

Most of us, I suspect, simply become happier as we accrue wealth because. But how much wealth is "enough" for one person? I cannot answer that question for you; you cannot answer it for me. (I may have a DMU for automobiles, cashew nuts, and movies, but not for wealth, in and of itself.) And that's the bottom line: However much we humans may have in common, each of is happy (or unhappy) in his own way and for his own peculiar reasons.

In any event, even if individual utilities (states of happiness) could be measured, there is no such thing as the social welfare function: X's and Y's utilities are not interchangeable. Taking income from X makes X less happy. Giving some of X's income to Y may make Y happier (in the short run), but it does not make X happier. It is the height of arrogance for anyone -- liberal, fascist, communist, or whatever -- to assert that making X less happy is worth it if it makes Y happier.


There is a liberal urge to exact cosmic justice through positive rights -- primarily redistribution in various forms. But redistribution harms those whom it is intended to help because it curtails economic growth and discourages work.

The urge to exact cosmic justice arises from arrogance, that is, from a penchant for dictating economic outcomes (and social relationships) that cannot be justified by pseudo-scientific appeals to IUCs and the SWF.

If there is anything unjust or unfair in this world, it is the effort to exact cosmic justice. Robert Nozick put it this way in Anarchy, State, and Utopia:

We are not in the position of children who have been given portions of pie by someone who now makes last-minute adjustments to rectify careless cutting. There is no central distribution, no person or group entitled to control all the resources, jointly deciding how they are to be doled out. What each person gets, he gets from others who give to him in exchange for something, or as a gift. In a free society, diverse persons control different resources, and new holdings arise out of the voluntary exchanges and actions of persons. (Quoted by Gregory Mankiw in "Fair Taxes? Depends on What You Mean by Fair," The New York Times, July 15, 2007.)
The urge to exact cosmic justice is more than harmful and arrogant. It is futile, as I will explain in part IV.

Other related posts:
Why Class Warfare Is Bad for Everyone
Fighting Myths with Facts
Debunking More Myths of Income Inequality
Socialist Calculation and the Turing Test
The Social Welfare Function
Taxes, Charitable Giving, and Republicanism
Ten Commandments of Economics
More Commandments of Economics
Zero-Sum Thinking
On Income Inequality
The Causes of Economic Growth
The Last(?) Word about Income Inequality
Democrats: The Anti-People People
Median Household Income and Bad Government

* I want to underscore the essential difference between government-enforced charity and voluntary charity. Government-enforced charity may make liberals happier, and it may make Ys happier (in the short run), but it does not make Xs happier (except for liberal Xs who actually enjoy paying taxes as well as controlling others' lives). Acts of voluntary charity, on the other hand, make the donors happier. That such acts (might) also make the donees happier is incidental.

It may seem that I am arguing for a position known as psychological egoism (PE), which Joe Miller summarizes (here) thusly: "PE maintains that, as a matter of fact, all human beings are always selfish." Joe goes on to argue that PE is a false concept. He proffers altruism as the alternative; that is, people actually do unselfish things, things that make them worse off. I will not revisit all of the arguments pro and con PE and altruism, there is plenty of food for thought in Joe's post, my first comment on the post, and this paper by Keith Burgess-Jackson.

I come down here:
There is no essential difference between altruism, defined properly, and the pursuit of self-interest, even if that pursuit does not "seem" altruistic. In fact, the common belief that there is a difference between altruism and the pursuit of self-interest is one cause of (excuse for) purportedly compassionate but actually destructive government intervention in human affairs.
And here:
The implication of calling another person's act a "sacrifice" [i.e., altruistic] is that someone can get into that person's mind and determine whether the act was a gain or a loss for the person. I say that someone must be able to get into the person's mind because I don't know how else you one determines whether or not an act is altruistic unless (a) one takes the person's word for it or (b) one assembles a panel of judges, each of whom holds up a card that says "altruistic" or "selfish" upon the completion of an a particular act.

To illustrate my point I resort to the following bits of caricature:

1. Suppose Mother Teresa's acts of "self-sacrifice" were born of rebellion against parents who wanted her to take over their business empire. That is, suppose Mother Teresa derived great satisfaction in defying her parents, and it is that which drove her to impoverish herself and suffer many hardships. The more she "suffered" the more her parents suffered and the happier she satisified her personal values.

2. Suppose Bill Gates really wanted to become a male version of Mother Teresa but his grandmother -- on her deathbed -- said "Billy, I want you to make the world safe from the Apple computer." So, Billy went out and did that, for his grandmother's sake, even though he really wanted to be the male Mother Teresa. Then he wound up being immensely wealthy, much to his regret. But "Billy" obviously put his affection for or fear of his grandmother above his desire to become a male version of Mother Teresa. He satisfied his personal values.

Now, tell me, who is the altruist, my fictional Mother Teresa or my fictional Bill Gates? You might now say Bill Gates. I would say neither; each acted in accordance with her and his personal values. One might call the real Mother Teresa altruistic because her actions seem altruistic, in the common meaning of the word. But one can't say (for sure) why she took those actions. Don's definition of altruism nevertheless requires such knowledge. Suppose the real Mother Teresa acted as she did not only because she wanted to help the poor but also because she sought spiritual satisfaction or salvation. Would that negate her acts? No, her acts would still be her acts, but we would understand them as acts arising from her values. That's the best we can do absent the ability to read minds.

My argument rests on the proposition that human actions are, by definition, driven by the service of personal values, which come to us in many and mysterious (but not supernatural) ways. As a consequentialist, I prefer to look at results, not motivations. ("The road to hell," and all that.) I eschew terms like altruism and egoism because they imply that a given result is somehow better if it's "properly" motivated. A result is a result.

And redistribution yields very bad results, indeed.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Why Stay the Course?

Victor Davis Hanson gives five excellent reasons.

UPDATE: Thomas Sowell offers some more, plus some thoughts about bringing "democracy" to the Middle East.

Saturday, July 14, 2007


You may in the past have tried, unsuccessfully, to see the posts in one (or more) of the categories listed in the sidebar. I have fixed the glitch, partly. By clicking on a category you can now see the twenty most recent posts in that category. But it seems that Blogger will not display more than the twenty most recent posts in a category. Boo! Hiss!

UPDATE: Well, Blogger might display all of the posts in a category if I customize my template. It's too late for that, today. Demain, peut-être.

UPDATE 2 (07/18/07): Done, except for some fine-tuning of the sidebar.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Metaethical Moral Relativism: Is It Valid?

I recently quoted this definition of Methaethical Moral Relativism (MMR):
The truth or falsity of moral judgments, or their justification, is not absolute or universal, but is relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of a group of persons.

I found the definition useful, regardless of the validity of MMR. I now address its validity.

The "traditions, convictions, or practices of a group of persons" are not ends in themselves. Rather, they are (or were originally) aimed at the attainment of a "greater good" -- a moral imperative -- which is (or was) served by such traditions, convictions, or practices.

The moral impetus for those traditions, convictions, or practices becomes tenuous with the passage of time. As the generations roll by, the members of a group turn their focus from the original moral imperative to the traditions, convictions, or practices that once served it. That is to say, the group's morality becomes rote.
Because of this rote morality, the moral framework of the group becomes falsely identified with its particular traditions, convictions, or practices. (A good analogy can be found in the widespread practice of celebrating the Fourth of July without giving more than a moment's thought -- then or during the rest of the year -- to the struggle for independence or to the meaning of liberty.)

MMR is valid only to the extent that there is no moral imperative that cuts across groups of persons: nations, races, ethnicities, clans, tribes, religions, political parties, and the like. (I disregard -- for the moment -- exceptions to the rule, that is, sociopaths, who (a) are likely to be found in any group of more than a few members, (b) quite often force or connive their way into positions of power (it goes with sociopathy), and (c) surround themselves with sociopathic henchmen.)

The crucial issue, then, is the existence (or non-existence) of a universal moral imperative, one that is common to the people (if not to the leaders) of nations, races, ethnicities, clans, tribes, religions, and the like. Kant would say that there is such an imperative, his categorical imperative (in its first formulation): "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." [1]

Kant's categorical imperative, however, is a Platonic universal: something that just is, a deontological duty. Kant, himself, distinguishes it from The Golden Rule, which (because of its commonality to so many forms of religion and philosophy) can be understood as a man-made utilitarian or consequentialist command. The Zoroastorian version, for example goes: ""Whatever is disagreeable to yourself do not do unto others."

Why is The Golden Rule utilitarian or consequentialist? Because people have learned -- from experience over the eons -- that if most everyone follows the command to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you," most everyone will benefit from doing so. One's self-restraint with respect to others encourages (almost all) others to practice self-restraint toward one's self. The Golden Rule does not apply to rule-breakers, who must face consequences (or one kind or another) for their rule-breaking. (That there are rule-breakers only underscores the humanness of The Golden Rule.)

Now, to answer the question of the title: Metaethical Moral Relativism, as defined above, is neither neither a valid concept nor an invalid one; it is an irrelevant concept. It treats different groups as if they had different moral imperatives. By and large, they do not; most groups (or, more exactly, most of their members) have the same moral imperative: The Golden Rule.

There are, of course, groups that seldom if ever observe The Golden Rule. Such groups are ruled by force and fear, and they deny voice and exit to their members. The rulers of such groups are illegitimate because they systematically try to suppress observance of The Golden Rule, which is deep-seated in human nature. Other groups may therefore justly seek to oust and punish those despotic rulers.

There is a relevant -- but logically and factually invalid -- form of Metaethical Moral Relativism:
The United States is imperfect. It is, therefore, no better than its enemies.
Such is the relativism we see in those who excuse despotic, murderous regimes and movements because "we asked for it" or "we are no better than they are" or "war is never the answer" or "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" or "terrorists deserve the protections of the Geneva Convention." That kind of relativism empowers the very despots and terrorists whose existence is an affront to The Golden Rule.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

America Has Grown More Libertarian?

It has, according to Cato's Brink Lindsey:
[G]rading on a global and historical curve, America is a distinctively libertarian country. And despite the best efforts of ideologues on both the left and right, it has grown more libertarian, on the whole, over the past few decades.
Lindsey supports that conclusion by citing (among other things) specific changes in our laws and mores. (Many of those specific changes are signs not of liberty but of license.) Lindsey fails to reckon with the big picture: the ceaselessly growing burden of taxation and regulation that has pushed us further from the degree of health, wealth, and happiness that we would enjoy absent the regulatory-welfare state.

For more about the huge and growing cost of the regulatory-welfare state, see this. Also, go here and here.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The End of Global Warming

[W]e have been unable to find a scientific forecast to support the currently widespread belief in "global warming."

Monday, July 09, 2007

Religion As Beneficial Evolutionary Adaptation

I have written thrice (here, here, and here) about Richard Dawkins's apoplectic views on religion. Dawkins -- in a nutshell -- views religion as a bad thing because, in his view, (a) many bad things are done its name and (b) it is anti-scientific. Now, (a) does not prove that religion causes people to do bad things (people just do bad things), nor does (b) prove that religion is anti-scientific (many religious persons are and have been excellent scientists).

Now comes an article by David Sloan Wilson ("Beyond Demonic Memes: Why Richard Dawkins Is Wrong about Relgion," eSkeptic.com, July 4, 2007). Wilson, an evolutionary biologist and professor of anthropology and biology at Binghamton University, assesses Dawkins's The God Delusion. Wilson begins:
Richard Dawkins and I share much in common. We are both biologists by training who have written widely about evolutionary theory. We share an interest in culture as an evolutionary process in its own right. We are both atheists in our personal convictions who have written books on religion. In Darwin’s Cathedral [link added: ED] I attempted to contribute to the relatively new field of evolutionary religious studies. When Dawkins’ The God Delusion was published I naturally assumed that he was basing his critique of religion on the scientific study of religion from an evolutionary perspective. I regret to report otherwise. He has not done any original work on the subject and he has not fairly represented the work of his colleagues. Hence this critique of The God Delusion and the larger issues at stake.
Later, after summarizing his points of agreement with Dawkins, Wilson turns to the evidence for religion as an evolutionary adaptation that helps groups to survive and thrive. He observes, for example, that
On average, religious believers are more prosocial than non-believers, feel better about themselves, use their time more constructively, and engage in long-term planning rather than gratifying their impulsive desires. On a moment-by-moment basis, they report being more happy, active, sociable, involved and excited. Some of these differences remain even when religious and non-religious believers are matched for their degree of prosociality. More fine-grained comparisons reveal fascinating differences between liberal vs. conservative protestant denominations, with more anxiety among the liberals and conservatives feeling better in the company of others than when alone. Religions are diverse, in the same way that species in ecosystems are diverse. Rather than issuing monolithic statements about religion, evolutionists need to explain religious diversity in the same way that they explain biological diversity.
Wilson writes, later in the article, that
In Darwin’s Cathedral, I initiated a survey of religions drawn at random from the 16-volume Encyclopedia of World Religions, edited by the great religious scholar Mircia Eliade. The results are described in an article titled “Testing Major Evolutionary Hypotheses about Religion with a Random Sample,” which was published in the journal Human Nature and is available on my website. The beauty of random sampling is that, barring a freak sampling accident, valid conclusions for the sample apply to all of the religions in the encyclopedia from which the sample was taken. By my assessment, the majority of religions in the sample are centered on practical concerns, especially the definition of social groups and the regulation of social interactions within and between groups. New religious movements usually form when a constituency is not being well served by current social organizations (religious or secular) in practical terms and is better served by the new movement. The seemingly irrational and otherworldly elements of religions in the sample usually make excellent practical sense when judged by the only gold standard that matters from an evolutionary perspective — what they cause the religious believers to do.
What religions do (on the whole) is to cause their adherents to live more positive and productive lives, as Wilson notes in the passage quoted earlier.

Now, this says nothing one way or the other about the truth of religious belief. But it does underscore the irrationality and unscientific nature of the virulent anti-religious emissions of Richard Dawkins and his ilk. Religion is, in the main, a beneficial social institution.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Why Vote Republican in 2008?

For one excellent reason, if no other.

The Case against Genetic Engineering

Slate's William Saletan, writing at The New York Times, reviews Michael J. Sandel's The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering. I have not read Sandel's book, nor do I plan to read it. My case against genetic engineering, to which I will come, may bear no resemblance to Sandel's. But there's no way of learning what Sandel's case is, given Saletan's rather glib criticism of Sandel's book.

Saletan's glibness is evident in passages such as these:
[G]enetic engineering is too big for ethics. It changes human nature, and with it, our notions of good and bad.

When norms change, you can always find old fogeys who grouse that things aren’t the way they used to be....But eventually, the old fogeys die out, and the new norms solidify.

Once gene therapy becomes routine, the case against genetic engineering will sound as quaint as the case against running coaches [a practice apparently unknown before the 1924 Olympics].

In a world...controlled by bioengineering, we would dictate our nature as well as our practices and norms. We would gain unprecedented power to redefine the good. In so doing, we would strip perfection of its independence. Its meaning would evolve as our nature and our ideals evolved.
Saletan, in so many words, professes a tautology: The future will bring what it will bring, and whatever it brings will be the future. Saletan might as well write this: If murder is widely accepted in the future, murder will be acceptable in the future. I doubt very much that Saletan would endorse such a statement. I suspect, rather, that an effort to be clever at Sandel's expense led Saletan down a moral blind alley of his own construction.

What is that moral blind alley? If it is not obvious to you, consider this passage from the entry for moral relativism at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Metaethical Moral Relativism (MMR). The truth or falsity of moral judgments, or their justification, is not absolute or universal, but is relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of a group of persons.
The definition of MMR* points to Saletan's error. He treats the same (or very much the same) group of persons as being a different group because of the passage of time. In other words, the future just "happens" -- as if people cannot make judgments in the present about the consequences, for them, of pending or reversible decisions.

To come at it a different way, Saletan conflates what could be with what should be. There could be a market for genetic engineering, but should there be such a market? There are, after all, markets for murder, arson, and the fruits of theft (among other such things), but I doubt that Saletan would condone such markets.

The real issue, then, is whether to allow genetic engineering, in light of its consequences. Saletan finally approaches that question when he says that "self-engineering....seizes control of humanity so radically that humanity can no longer judge it."

But Saletan waits until the final paragraph of his review to say even that much. He then quickly closes the review with with smart-alecky observations instead of pursuing the consequences of genetic engineering. Perhaps he thinks that he has done so when, earlier in the review, he writes this:
The older half of me shares [Sandel's] dismay that some parents feel blamed for carrying babies with Down syndrome to term. But my younger half cringes at his flight from the “burden of decision” and “explosion of responsibility” that come with our expanding genetic power. Given a choice between a world of fate and blamelessness [without genetic engineering] and a world of freedom and responsibility [with genetic engineering], I’ll take the latter. Such a world may be, as Sandel says, too daunting for the humans of today. But not for the humans of tomorrow.
There again, Saletan assumes that the future will be what it will be. More importantly, he badly mischaracterizes the world of today. Our present world, contra Saletan, is (relative to the brave new world of genetic engineering) one of freedom and responsibility. To use the example of a baby with Down syndrome (properly Down's syndrome), parents who choose to abort such a baby (for that is what Saletan means) have every bit as much "freedom" to make that choice (under today's abortion laws) and are just as responsible (morally) for their decision as they would be if they were to choose bioengineering instead. Genetic engineering simply introduces different "freedoms."

Thus we come to the real issue, which is the wisdom (or not) of allowing genetic engineering in the first place. For, as we know from our experience with the regulatory-welfare state, once an undesirable practice gains the state's approbation and encouragement it becomes the norm.

And that is the broad case against allowing genetic engineering: If it gains a government-approved foothold it will become the norm. It will result in foreseeable (and unforeseeable) changes in the human condition. It will cause most of us who are alive today to wish that it had never been allowed in the first place.

How so? Consider the specific case against genetic engineering:
  • Following upon (but not supplanting) abortion, it would enable humans to retreat further from the acceptance of responsibility for the consequences of the procreative act. The prospective acceptance of responsibility for our actions is a restraining influence upon which civil society depends. That restraining influence has been lessened enough by such elitist initiatives as the legalization of abortion, leniency in the punishment of criminals, and permissiveness in the face of disruptive speech and behavior in public schools.
  • It would reinforce the attitude -- inherent in abortion -- that humans are mere machines to be overhauled or junked at will. It would, in other words, take us another giant step down the slippery slope toward state-condoned (if not state-conducted) euthanasia.
  • From there it would be an easy step for the state (controlled by "liberal" elites) to dictate who may have children, how many children they may have, the gender-mix of the children, the occupations those children may pursue, etc., etc., etc.
Yes, genetic engineering could have some positive consequences (e.g., reducing the number of children born with Down's syndrome). But the prospect of such consequences should not eclipse the broad, fundamental, negative consequences for human dignity and liberty.
* The validity of MMR is a matter for another post...sometime, perhaps.