Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Why Kant is more Libertarian than Locke

This is all a work in progress.

Broadly, justification usually focuses on the giving of reasons. The belief that p is justified if and only if there is sufficient reason to believe that p. Similarly, political justification typically involves advancing reasons to support (a) certain aspects of the political, e.g. instititions or policy proposals, or (b) the political order as a whole.

In epistemology, "justification" is what separates mere belief from knowledge (Gettier type issues shall be set aside, for the moment.) Political justification is what separates right political action from the mere exercise of force. If a given law is justified, then the government is entitled to enforce that law. Whether citizens are morally obligated to obey a justified law is something I doubt, but we can distinguish -- surely -- between a law that meets certain moral criteria, or that is intended to promote a just end, and the raw force the mugger uses to subdue his victim.

(Some libertarians are unwilling to make this distinction. But I think they do make it regardless: Take two possible worlds, both containing governments. In World 1, the government uses its power to educate citizens who could not otherwise afford an education. In World 2, the government uses its power to kill minorities. Obviously, there is something better about World 1, even if neither world is morally ideal. This shows we can distinguish between morally better and worse uses of government power.)

Justification depends on the existence of reasons. A common theme in liberal thought is that those who exercise political power must offer reasons to those against whom that power is to be exercised. These must not only be valid reasons (as justification always requires) but reasons that the subjects of political power will recognize as valid reasons.

Thus, liberal political justification proceeds from a restricted set of reasons. Not every valid reason will be recognized as such by the subjects of political power. Reasonable people can disagree about what counts as a valid reason. This restriction on reasons, rather than weakening the liberal view, gives it its strength and character, at least according to some. The laws liberals tend to worry about the most -- laws infringing on religious worship, freedom of expression, association, and so on -- are exactly the kinds of laws that can only be justified by moving outside the restricted set of reasons. Or so the argument will go.

Liberal justification, by restricting the reason set, limits what government can justifiably do. This limit carves out a domain in which individuals can govern their own lives according to the reasons they accept as valid. When government steps into that domain, it steps into it without warrant, as its justification will be unacceptable at least to those whose lives are subject to such interference.

It should be clear from this sketch that liberal justification puts limits on government precisely through its universalist aspirations. It is because the political order has to be justified to each and every person subject to its power that the result is a drastically limited government. Why this is a requirement of political justification is something of an open question.

The most direct route to this requirement, in my opinion, is through the second version of Kant's categorical imperative: we fail to treat others as ends in themselves if we exercise force against them without seeking justification; and this justification must be addressed to each and every person, since each has dignity that cannot be sacrificed in the pursuit of other ends.

Without such justification, the law simply treats some as means to the ends of others.

In my view, there is a line between Locke and Kant on this issue. For Locke, political justification requires the free consent of the governed. For Kant, political justification requires the rational consent of the governed. Since, for Kant, rational consent is always free (reason being the free part of us, the self-in-itself), one might think that there is complete convergence between the two thinkers. This is not so, for one reason: for Locke, consent can and probably will be motivated by many factors. An inept, intolerant government will fail to get the consent of the governed because it will fail to serve the interests of the governed. Government must actually serve the interests of all to be justified.

Kant accepts a dichotomy between interests and reason. But because reason by its nature demands freedom, it is the fact -- and only the fact -- that a government supports freedom that can establish rational consent. An unfree government that was very good at serving the interests of the governed might gain actual consent, but it would never gain rational consent. Reason seeks the freedom to govern itself; nothing less than this -- no matter how efficient, or good-promoting -- will be rationally acceptable.

The dignity of the person requires that the political order be justified to each and every subject. But, for each and every subject, reason speaks with one voice: more freedom rather than less.

On this point, I think Kant is more libertarian than Locke. Kant's view can explain why it is wrong to sacrifice liberty for greater welfare, for example. Locke's view allows for greater restrictions on liberty as long as they are, in some sense, Pareto-improvements on a freer baseline. Granted, there are some restrictions on what we can consent to, derived from natural law. But there is much space between the moral baseline and totalitarianism for government to restrict freedom. Kant's view doesn't have that problem because, for him, the moral baseline is identical with the moral ideal: freedom.

Kant's view also begins to allow us to rank liberties. The most vital liberties will be those most closely connected to the development and maintenance of free, autonomous reason. Freedom of speech and conscience will rank very high on such a list.

Friday, March 27, 2009

U.S. government to bring back slavery

Ah, hell.

...To begin with, the legislation threatens the voluntary nature of Americorps by calling for consideration of "a workable, fair, and reasonable mandatory service requirement for all able young people." It anticipates the possibility of requiring "all individuals in the United States" to perform such service -- including elementary school students.

The bill also summons up unsettling memories of World War II-era paramilitary groups by saying the new program should "combine the best practices of civilian service with the best aspects of military service," while establishing "campuses" that serve as "operational headquarters," complete with "superintendents" and "uniforms" for all participants. It allows for the elimination of all age restrictions in order to involve Americans at all stages of life. And it calls for creation of "a permanent cadre" in a "National Community Civilian Corps."
This was what worried me the most about an Obama presidency: forced service to the state. And uniforms? UNIFORMS!? I have an idea: the uniforms can have a giant O on the chest and "volunteers" can wear armbands emblazoned with words like "hope" and "change".

Different versions of the bill have passed the House and Senate. They need to be reconciled before the final version goes to Obama for signing. And he's said he'll sign it; indeed, it's not unfair to say that this plan is his idea.

It's kind of ironic that a black guy is poised to bring back slavery. But shouldn't he move to repeal the 13th Amendment first?

Maybe he could get some help from Ron Paul with that.

H/T: Sandefur

Stupid arguments from pro-choicers

William Saletan has another thoughtful piece on the morality of abortion in Slate. Key quotation:

So why do I keep bringing up abortion as a moral problem? Because it is a moral problem. It's the destruction of a developing human being. For that reason, the less we do it, the better. When I say abortion is bad, I'm not saying it's necessarily worse than bringing a child into the world in lousy circumstances. I'm saying it's worse than avoiding unintended pregnancy in the first place. That's why I keep pushing contraception. If you cause an unintended pregnancy and an abortion because you didn't want to wear a condom, you should be ashamed.
Of course, Saletan is not arguing that abortion ought to be illegal. We don't (and couldn't) ban all actions with bad-making features. Oftentimes, this is because passing a law banning the action would have even worse results, or because enforcing the law would involve the violation of fundamental deontic constraints (e.g. rights.)

At most, that an action has a bad-making feature is a pro tanto reason against performing that action. It is not -- or so I would claim -- even a pro tanto reason for making the action illegal (I would distinguish between bad-making features and wrong-making features. An action has wrong-making features if, for example, it would violate another's rights. Not every action with bad-making features has wrong-making features, and probably vice versa.)

However, I agree with Saletan that in most cases the fact that an action would destroy a developing human being is a reason against performing that action. It is also a reason, a moral reason, to avoid creating a situation in which the destruction of a developing human being will be a likely consequence. When such reasons are ignored -- as in Saletan's example of a person who doesn't take reasonable precautions against conception before having sex -- shame is a fitting first-person attitude to have.

So much for Saletan's argument. Looking at the forum section on his article and around the blogosphere, I see pro-choice individuals (of which Saletan is one) respond in several ways. I will deal with each response in turn.

1. Because he is a not a woman, what Saletan thinks doesn't matter.
This is an incredibly silly response, but let's unpack it a little bit. If the pro tanto reason I identified above exists, then all Saletan is doing is pointing out that exists. In that case, his gender/sex doesn't matter: there is a reason and that's that. If the pro tanto reason does not exist, then Saletan is wrong. But he would be just as wrong if he were not a man. Thus, in either case, Saletan's gender/sex is irrelevant.

I should add, this particular response -- frequently seen from pro-choicers -- is pernicious in another way. What motivates it is an argument like this: Abortion is about pregnancy. Men can't get pregnant. Therefore, men can have nothing to say about abortion.

Aside from its status as a crude ad hominem, the argument, by parity of reasoning, would exclude infertile women from saying anything about abortion. It also denies the fact that men, pro-choice or not, have a stake in the debate. After all, they have mothers, sisters, etc. Since men presumably care what happens to their female family members, laws pertaining to abortion have an indirect impact.

2. Saletan is helping out the religious right
A sound argument is a sound argument. A valid argument with true premises is an example of good reasoning, whether it is being uttered by Adolf Hitler or Barack Obama. And an invalid argument is a bad one -- again, regardless of who is speaking.

I almost feel ridiculous even addressing this kind of point, except I've encountered it personally: I will follow the arguments where they lead. If your ideological opponents take solace (warranted or not) from my reasoning, then attack my reasoning. If you can't, then you have bigger things to worry about than the feigned comfort of your "enemies."

3. Moral approbation interferes with a person's autonomy
Less one argument than a whole cluster of them. A more dogmatic libertarian than myself would just say: you're wrong, because only physical force/violence can violate a person's autonomy.

I don't want to take that route. My own position is that autonomy can be undermined in a number of ways, including the case in which one person exercises violence against another. But I don't think moral approbation interferes with autonomy much, if at all. When I say, "What you are doing is morally wrong," what I am saying is that I believe there are good reasons against performing some action.

If I am right, then you should listen to me. If you do listen to me -- after reflecting on my argument, etc -- then you've exercised your autonomy, in the fullest sense of the term. Autonomy isn't just a matter of acting on the first desire to pop into your head (otherwise, the heroin addict is the exemplar of autonomy.) Rather, autonomy requires judgment. Judgment requires a reflection on reasons. Bringing reasons to a person's attention isn't undermining her autonomy, but facilitating it.

If I'm wrong, then you shouldn't listen to me. But by finding the error in my reasoning, you're better off than you were before. Again, your autonomy hasn't been undermined.

Of course, all of this is contingent on the idea that there really are reasons that apply to people, independently of their own preferences. Someone who denies the existence of such reasons -- moral reasons -- won't comprehend much of what I've written. At the same time, I would wonder how such a person could even begin to criticize laws, e.g. with regard to abortion, as "good" or "bad" without falling back, tacitly, on the idea of moral reasons; and, more broadly, on the idea of moral truth.

There are some other pro-choice themes I'd like to address, but I'm running out of time for today. The fact is, I am pro-choice, but I get so very, very tired of people offering stupid (non-)arguments for conclusions I already endorse.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

On the Liberal Narrative

The title sounds pretentious, but the topic is relatively mundane: why are some so quick to believe the worst about their ideological opponents?

Here's an example of what I mean. Benjamin Edelman of Harvard Business School publishes a study tracking pornography consumption in the United States. According to the study, people living in "red states" buy about the same amount of porn as people living in "blue states." Sometimes more. The state with the most porn subscriptions is Utah, probably one of the reddest of the red states.

New Scientist published an article discussing Edelman's study. The headline?

Porn in the USA: Conservatives are biggest consumers

I don't have the evidence to blame Edelman for that headline, although his remarks as quoted in the article suggest he endorses it. But it's a stupid headline, which the study itself does not support.

The study does not show that conservatives purchase more porn than liberals. What it does show is that people who live in "red states" purchase at least as much porn as those who live in "blue states." But we don't know anything about the people who are actually purchasing the porn. Nothing at all. Read it again: not. a. thing.

It could be that liberals who live in "red states" are buying all the porn, because living in red states leaves them feeling sexually frustrated. It could be that conservatives in blue states are buying porn because living around liberals has a corrupting influence on their sexual mores. The data supports either hypothesis as well as it supports the hypothesis that conservatives consume porn at higher rates than liberals do.

My wonderful stats prof from the last year of my undergraduate career should use this article, if not the study itself, as an example of blatant misuse of statistics.

This blog post knocks down the New Scientist article better than I ever could. Here's another idiotic article that could use the same treatment.

So our example thus far is a terrible article that draws unsupported conclusions from a Edelman's study.

Here's example 2...

Actually, where do I start? See here, here, here, and especially here, here and here. I found those links by doing a Google search of blogs, using the keywords "conservative" and "porn", limiting results to the last month or so. There are plenty more to choose from. Almost everyone uses the study as evidence of conservative "hypocrisy." Jezebel, for example:
Conservative hypocrisy is no surprise: anyone who has watched the Republican party fight off allegations of bathroom sexual encounters, child molestation, and prostitutes has witnessed the "Do As I Say, Not As I Do" philosophy that seems to sweep through the right-wing on a regular basis.
At Huffington Post, people opine in the comments about conservative hypocrisy, and is further evidence of the repressive attitudes of conservatives. "Phoenix Woman" at the well-known liberal blog Firedoglake headlines her post: "Word from the Porn Belt: Do as I Say, Not as I Do"

I could go on, but I won't. There are two things to observe in these examples:
  1. The New Scientist headline is accepted completely uncritically. This is pretty strange since liberals often claim to be great at the whole "critical thinking thing", and only a little bit of that is needed to blow holes in the article.
  2. Once accepted, it is taken as evidence of conservative hypocrisy.
Both these observations deserve further examination.

Why did liberals accept the headline so completely? The answer seems simple: they accepted it because it provided further evidence for what they already believe about conservatives, e.g. that they're all sexually repressed hypocrites.

When a study claimed to show that conservatives were more generous than liberals with their money, liberals were very quick to contest both the findings and the methods of that study. Why? Because it went against the narrative. According to the narrative, conservatives are: (a) evil, (b) stupid, (c) sexually repressed, and, above all, (d) hypocritical. The New Scientist piece provided confirmation of all of these traits.

In other words, when something confirms a person's narrative, he's more likely to accept it uncritically than if it sharply diverges from the narrative.

I've argued elsewhere that, insofar as liberals tend to espouse moral relativism, the hypocrisy charge is really the only one they can make against conservatives. After all, you can't claim conservatives have false moral beliefs unless you're prepared to admit that there is such a thing as true moral beliefs.

This makes finding evidence for the hypocrisy charge vital: it's the only item in the moral toolkit of the typical liberal.

At the same time, the hypocrisy charge doesn't stick unless you believe that conservatives don't really hold the moral beliefs they claim to hold. Otherwise, one could explain inconsistency between belief and action through weakness of will (something liberals tend not to believe in, anyway, but conservatives certainly do.)

Thus, to prove the conservative is a hypocrite, you have to believe more than this:
1. Conservative says he believes believes pornography is wrong.
2. Conservative still consumes pornography.

You also have to believe:
3. Conservative doesn't really believe what he says he believes.

As a matter of fact, liberals typically do not stop there. They will attribute all sorts of motives and mental states to their ideological opponents. Here are some common examples:

"What anti-abortion conservatives really want is to make women their property. That's why they oppose abortion."

Or: "What free market conservatives really want is for the poor to suffer and starve."

The problem is that (3) (or any of the other attributed beliefs) is very hard to prove. How do you show that a person is lying about her moral beliefs, and not just suffering from weakness of will when she doesn't act on them? The very fact that this is vital part of the liberal narrative virtually requires the manufacture of evidence, or the uncritical acceptance of inconclusive statistics. It requires the use of deceptive non sequiturs, moving from (1) and (2) to the desired conclusion without noting the gap in the argument.

I will say: conservatives have their own narrative, and hence exhibit similar traits. More on that later...

A Puzzle About Rights?

The only legitimate function of government is the protection of rights. I take this as a central tenet of most libertarian thought.

Person A's rights establish moral limits on the ways others can treat her. Rights do this by establishing duties -- to say that A has a right to phi is to say other agents have a duty not to stop A from phi-ing.

I will assume that if Person B has a duty to phi, then he has a reason to phi. Indeed, I will assume he has a special kind of reason to phi: a moral reason. Moral reasons, as I understand them, have categorical force. If an agent has a moral reason to phi, that reason applies unconditionally, regardless of whatever else is true about the agent.

Other reasons do not have categorical force. My reason to eat this peach ceases to exist if I no longer desire to eat the peach. My reason to stop smoking would cease to exist if I discovered that, through some quirk of genetics, smoking was actually beneficial to my health.

The duties that correspond to rights have categorical force. Person B has a reason (his duty) to respect the rights of person A, even if Person B would very much like to violate A's rights (e.g. to steal his stuff.)

There is much that is overlooked in this analysis, but it will suffice to make my point. Consider two possible worlds:

World 1: Anarcho-capitalism. People make use of private protection agencies to protect their rights. This process is imperfect, and rights are violated quite often.

World 2: Minimal state. The state claims a monopoly on the retaliatory use of physical force. It enforces that monopoly quite harshly. Independents who pursue vendettas against suspected murderers are dealt with in a harsh manner. However, the state is fairly good at its job, and rights-violations do not often occur.

I will assume that anarcho-capitalists will hold that when the state persecuted independents in World 2, it is violating their rights. The state has no legitimate claim to its monopoly.

The first question is: which world gets closer to the libertarian ideal, whatever it is?

The second question requires some setup.

Suppose you find yourself in charge of the state in World 2. You come to accept the anarcho capitalist argument that it is a violation of individual rights to forbid would-be independents who would like to start up their own protection agencies from doing so. Thus, you consider abandoning this restriction, and moving toward World 1.

However, you know more rights violations will occur in World 1. You also know that in World 1, you won't be the one violating anyone's rights. Your hands will be clean, so to speak.

Should you move from World 2 to World 1? If rights have categorical force, then perhaps you should: after all, your sincere desire that no one's rights ever be violated cannot justify violating anyone's rights. However, there is something strange, in libertarian terms, about deliberately creating a world in which you know rights are more likely to be violated.

One might argue that since, other things equal, your rights are more likely to be violated in World 1 than in World 2, it would be rational to resist the move from 2 to 1. But this only shows that it is not always rational to respect the rights of others.

Thus, the puzzle remains: should you irrationally move your society toward World 1, so that you no longer have to violate anyone's rights, or rationally maintain the status quo in which you, personally, have to violate the rights of a few?