Sunday, June 11, 2017

Debate with a Utilitarian, revived again!

Sean:  Disclaimer - this was written at 3am, so coherency is not guaranteed.
Well, then, we've reached an impasse.  I hold morality to be constructed, not discovered, and only useful when applied as a strict system.  You seem to believe it to be something external to the human which our systems attempt to describe.

To which I ask again: show me an atom of justice; a molecule of mercy. 

There is no moral fabric to the universe.  This "fundamental, deeply embedded sense of right and wrong which for most people serves as the litmus test for resolving ethical questions" you describe is biochemistry.  It's emotions by another name. Human intuition evolved to help us survive in small hunter-gatherer groups in Africa, not pierce some hidden ethical truth of the universe.  Under your belief "this is wrong" and "this feels bad" are the same statement.

Debate with your system is reduced mere emotional manipulation.  Fragments of logic and cherry-picked empirical evidence are used to justify a pre-established emotion-fueled position.  This is why study after study shows people rarely change their minds when presented with new facts - facts were never the key driver in the first place.  To convince you of a position I must make you feel good about it. 

Ethical systems are frames which shape our understanding of the world.  They help sort information and direct our efforts towards a clear goal.  They allow us to escape the prison of emotional bias.

The scientific equivalent is the frame "The universe is governed by cause and effect, and all phenomena can be explained as arising from consistent laws".  All scientific theories are subservient to this system and must be consistent with its implications.  Competing systems like, say, divine intervention, are incompatible and cannot be used simultaneously to frame our thought.  I cannot believe in a causal universe but also believe Poseidon's wrath sank my boat.  Can one create an internally consistent system in which the God(s) cause all phenomena?  Of course: the enlightenment philosophy of Occasionalism holds God is the source of all causal relationships - that when I strike a billiard ball, God intervenes to impart motion to the ball.  It is absurd, however, to say "well, some events are caused by God, and some are caused by physical laws, and humans have a deep intuitive understanding of which is which."  The frames are incompatible.  There can be disagreements within a frame (quantum physics and general relativity), but those disagreements must adhere to the axioms of the frame.  And, debate between theories of two different systems is impossible - what empirical evidence can I provide to disprove Poseidon's wrath?

Or, to get more abstract, picking and choosing which parts of each ethical system is like picking and choosing bits of Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry to solve single problem.  The two systems are fundamentally incompatible - they rely on different axioms.

Look, without a consistent ethical frame all we're doing is talking about our feelings.  I feel good about X, you feel bad about X, and we discuss emotions until we both have the same feelings about X.  And in a different context I'm all for that.  But it's not a debate - it's mutual emotional manipulation.  It's storytelling, and the winner is the one with the most emotionally compelling narrative.

After all, how can two umpires decide if the runner is safe if they're not using the same rulebook?  Give inspiring speeches to the crowd?  Logos, ethos, and pathos them for 10 minutes apiece?  No.  Pick a consistent rulebook and operate within its bounds.  The rulebook itself doesn't reveal any deeper meaning, and combing elements of baseball, soccer, basketball, and football doesn't produce some superior sport.  The rules do is help us define and interpret what is happening on the field.  Anything else is a variation on "Well, who do you feel should win?"

Unless you can demonstrate how morality/ethics are real.  That they are something other than a human invention to organize information in a coherent manner.

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 Me:  The BLUF of my response here is “yes, all morality originates with how human beings feel – including strictly applied utilitarianism.”
You write: “I hold morality to be constructed, not discovered, and only useful when applied as a strict system.  You seem to believe it to be something external to the human which our systems attempt to describe.”

Not quite; I think it’s both internal to the human AND something our systems attempt to describe.  We agree that morality has no material existence outside the human body, but that doesn’t mean it is solely a construction of the rational brain that can be modified on a whim.   “It comes from our biochemistry” is more or less true, but this suggests a degree of permanence which our rational brains cannot really construct, and might well need to “discover” about ourselves.
I like your analogy about sports rules, so let’s continue it.  In baseball, it is against the rules to rub tar on the baseball before it’s pitched.  In wrestling, it is illegal to gouge the eyes.  These rules were constructed rationally, and may be applied strictly and objectively: either the tar was applied, or it was not.  Cameras can confirm this and no passionate speeches to the crowd are required.  BUT, the reason these rules must exist in the first place is not objective at all!  They were created based on feelings: because they reflect some innate sense of fair play and sportsmanship shared by almost everyone who plays these two sports.  And if we were to create a new sport, and set about the task of devising a set of rules that would guarantee fair play, we would again have to consult these inner feelings to determine which rules were and were not fair.
So it is with morality.  You say morality is “constructed,” not “discovered,” but the above analogy shows it’s a little of both.  The term I’d use is “logically expressed.”  Morality is articulated.  It is biochemical convictions, translated into rational rules.

You ask, “After all, how can two umpires decide if the runner is safe if they're not using the same rulebook?  Give inspiring speeches to the crowd?  Logos, ethos, and pathos them for 10 minutes apiece?  No.  Pick a consistent rulebook and operate within its bounds.”

But we have not yet arrived at the business of calling the runner safe or out; we are still at the business of writing the rule book.  Once we settle on a consistent rulebook (which we won’t agree on, but supposing we did) I’d be happy to rigidly operate within its bounds.  But there are no bounds yet, and until there are, we might well settle the matter of what the rules of our sport *ought* to be via inspiring speeches to a crowd!  How different combinations of rules would make us FEEL as human beings, and how they would jive with such amorphous human emotions as fairness and sportsmanship, would be highly germane to that discussion.
Inversely, there is no way to scientifically prove what the rules of a sport SHOULD be.  If Roger Goodell is deciding which endzone celebrations are or are not appropriate, science has no place in that discussion – irrespective of its ability to technically describe the mechanics which cause spiked footballs to bounce.  Yes, those mechanics are objectively true; and yes, no opinion on what endzone celebrations are/are not acceptable can claim such demonstrable truth.  But it doesn’t matter.  Physics still misses the bigger picture entirely.
You lament that “under your belief ‘this is wrong’ and ‘this feels bad’ are the same statement.” This is true to an extent, but only for the most fundamental moral precepts, which are then the building blocks from which we can rationally construct more complex philosophical systems.  Like the rules of baseball, morality is rooted in shared feelings, but not adjudicated by emotion. Emotions are complex, and we often mischaracterize just what it is exactly that makes us feel a certain way.  Consequently, our moral feelings warrant rational scrutiny, especially when it comes to testy subjects.
For example, sweatshops make people feel badly: we can tell something immoral is going on when we see people trapped in them.  But in my opinion, when you ask enough questions, and drill it down to the core thing which people find so offensive about them, what we’re really objecting to is poverty, suffering, hardship, etc.  We are outraged not by the offer of strenuous employment itself, but by the circumstances which make it possible: that anyone on earth can live in such squalor as to deem those dismal working conditions their best option.  Rectifying that moral outrage can only be achieved by improving the quality of life for those poor workers, not by banning sweatshop labor outright.  Our feelings about how to apply moral codes in practice are more fickle and alterable than the universal intuitions I’m relying on to build the foundation.
That said, I grant that universal human feelings are foundational to my moral system.  They are also, most assuredly and without question, foundational to your system. That’s what morality is.  You’re fooling yourself to think otherwise.
You challenged me to show you an atom of justice; I can’t.  My challenge to you is this: show me an objective moral starting point.  Show me an ethical frame which is not, at its root belief, dependent on a feeling.
Which moral fact is empirically demonstrable in the same way gravity or friction are demonstrable?  “Utility is good?” “Death is bad?” “Happiness is good?” “We ought to minimize suffering?” “We ought to maximize human flourishing?” Pick your poison, and I will just keep asking “why?” until eventually you resort to emotional appeal.  The mass extinction of the human species would bring the universe no tears.  It would violate no scientific laws. It’s only bad because you feel it’s bad.
Maybe there’s a provable moral truth out there I haven’t considered, and if so I’d be fascinated to hear it.  But if you cannot think of one either, how can you pontificate that YOUR sort ethical systems “allow us to escape the prison of emotional bias?”  No they don’t!  They may well “organize human action towards a clear goal,” but that goal is chosen based on how it makes somebody feel.  You are no less driven by emotion than I am.
The sentence “this is right” and “this is wrong” are inherently subjective.  They defy empiricism by definition.  We can debate morality logically within the context of a given prompt, but only after certain shared starting points or tenets are established (each of which are necessarily based on value judgments).
This does not make philosophy base.  It does not reduce it to a lower, less dignified source of knowledge than science or math.  It does not reduce all philosophical dispute to “emotional manipulation” or “storytelling,” nor render it impossible for us to change our minds about moral questions.  You patronize all of biochemsitry as “emotions by another name.”  Emotions are certainly biochemistry – but so is logic!  So is the sum of all human thought. Everything we’ve written here is the product of human brain cells doing their thing.  Embrace it!

Your moral starting points are no less rooted in feeling/emotion than mine, so let’s get on with the necessary task of devising systems of rules for human conduct that best represent those core feelings we share.  I’ve laid out the rules I prefer: my three criteria for when actions which fundamentally strike most people as wrong in the abstract may be justified by circumstance.  They are internally consistent.  To be sure, they are open for different interpretations in application; but, so are yours, and so are the rules of many sports for that matter.  I am still proposing “a consistent ethical frame” and I’ve spelled it out quite clearly, it’s just not one of the two options you’ve pidgeon-holed me into.

Or, if you’re tired of going in circles on this, I’ll become consequentialist for a week and we can move on with the discussion.

The importance of an educated electorate is a bad argument for pressuring higher education


People on the political left often argue that society has an obligation to advance universal or nearly universal college education (in other words, that it’s important to pressure everyone to go to college) because we live in a democracy, so the more educated people are, the better decisions they will make in elections and the better policy outcomes we will be left with as a nation.

There have always been problems with this theory, starting with the fact that even graduates from elite universities who majored in political science (like me!) can’t possibly have enough expertise to form qualified opinions on a great many policy issues, and are no less likely to fervently disagree with their equally educated peers. Another problem is that the political system is not nearly so democratic as your middle school civics teacher may have led you to imagine, due particularly to the two-party system and the primary process (wherein a very small group of people narrow down the list of options most Americans get to choose between, such that no matter how educated the people are, they might still be stuck choosing between Trump and Clinton).

But Ilya Somin’s recent book “Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter” presents another reason: political ignorance has not diminished over time, despite the fact that Americans are more educated than ever.

We are all ignorant, only on different subjects. Which subjects people choose to educate themselves in (even when pressured to seek more education than they otherwise would have) has a lot to do with which fields of knowledge they expect to be most useful to them later in life. This leads to an important realization: political knowledge is not all that useful if you didn’t already derive utility from possessing it.

In other words, people are not ignorant of politics because they’re uneducated. They’re ignorant of politics because they have no rational reason to take interest in them, because they have no real power to change political outcomes. Each person’s vote is such an insignificant drop in the bucket that voting is a total waste of time EVEN if you’re already educated on the issues (not to mention the far larger time investment required to read up on what each candidate stands for and understand their positions from an economic, philosophical, and sociological standpoint). 

This is part of why our constitution creates a republic instead of a democracy: learning all the details required to govern effectively was never supposed to be the citizens’ job. Any democracy so large, and making decisions so numerous and complex, as to require a highly educated AND highly invested electorate in order to succeed is doomed to failure.  The larger democratic government becomes, the more social decisions are going to be made by ignorant and disinterested people – no matter how educated those people happen to be about other things.
Inversely, the smaller democratic government is shrunk, the fewer decisions must be made by an ignorant majority, and the more decisions can be decentralized to the accidental aggregation off millions of individuals pursuing something they really do know all about: their own self-interest.  Smaller government is just smarter.

There is no scientific consensus on climate change policy


One of the symptoms of statism – the often implicit belief that the state is the center of human society – is our tendency to conflate opinions on a subject, with opinions on how to govern that subject.

For example, lots of people agree it’s wrong to frequent prostitutes, spank your kids, or do hard drugs. There’s nothing wrong with those beliefs per se, and I often share them.  But statism is that epidemic disease of the mind which causes people, without really thinking about it, to assume from this that such activities ought to be illegal as well.  This does not follow, and very often it proves tragically unwise.


What the statist fails to see, in such cases, is that the law is not an authoritative signpost of right and wrong, so much as a tool designed to achieve a certain goal.  This tool is violence, which makes it powerful, clumsy and morally problematic in equal measure.  It also makes the field of political science distinct from the field of philosophy.  Determining the best policies involves not only forming your moral opinions, but also analyzing the likeliest consequences of various courses of action, and then evaluating those consequences according to your moral framework.

With that in mind, perhaps you have heard there is a “scientific consensus” on climate change.  This is arguably true; that is, some high percentage of climate scientists agree that the climate is changing (specifically, that it’s getting gradually warmer, and on track to reach at least 2 or 3 degrees C warmer than pre-industrial levels by 2100) and that human activity is contributing to that change (specifically, through the emission of greenhouse gases).

But that’s not the same as a scientific consensus on climate change POLICY.  Before you consider your climate policy preferences “on the side of the scientific consensus,” you need to be able to answer all of the following questions *objectively* (that is, you must answer them NOT with one climatologist’s quotes and opinions, but with objective sources that *essentially all of the experts* agree on):



1.     What are the likeliest consequences of manmade global warming if it is left unchecked? By when will those consequences occur, and how likely are they relative to different sets of possible consequences (for better or worse)?



2.     What course(s) of action would be required to prevent or mitigate those adverse consequences with a high degree of certainty?



3.     What are the tradeoffs of taking those courses of action in all relevant fields (economics, sociology, politics, philosophy, etc?)



4.     For which courses of action do the likeliest benefits outweigh the likeliest costs?


I am no expert on climatology, but so far as I know, there is nothing remotely approaching 97% “consensus” on any of these five questions – and certainly not on question four.  Perhaps I’m wrong!  If you’ve actually studied the data on those questions yourself, and fancy you can answer them objectively, please show me that data.  I’m also troubled by the possibility of climate catastrophe, and I’d sincerely love to see any data which narrows the range of uncertain outcomes.

But if you haven’t, and you’ve just heard somebody on Facebook (or
Twitter…) shouting about how “97% of scientists agree climate change is real!” and taken it on face value that this means environmentalist policymakers should get a blank check, you are no more serious a student of climate science than any of the people you deride as “deniers.” And furthermore, if you repeat that claim yourself without knowing where it came from, and then make that same aforementioned “rookie mistake” of statists everywhere by using it to agitate for ever-greener policies without any quantifiable assessment of what specifically they will accomplish and at what cost, you blowing more hot air than the climate will ever have.



Not everyone on the left is guilty of this, mind you. And, even those who are may well be exaggerating in service of a good cause.  Just because there’s no consensus behind a policy proposal doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.  The alarmism may prove prudent.

But much of what I do on this blog is umpire the public discourse, and unfortunately, it seems to me most of the people currently parading themselves as the champions of measured, objective scientific analysis are no better versed in the hard data of it all than those they lampoon as scientific ignoramuses.  They do not scrutinize exactly what the scientific “consensus” says are the likeliest consequences of global warming, nor what it would take to prevent those consequences with a high degree of certainty, nor what the tradeoffs are to taking that course of preventative action. They do not do the legwork required to quantify what’s at stake first, and then make value judgements accordingly.  Rather, they make their value judgment first, seek out a narrative which flatters those value judgments, and then and excitedly regurgitate any empirical tidbit they encounter which supports that narrative.



If I’m right about this, it makes most environmentalists just the same as their conservative opponents.  A friend of mine recently made light of this similarity, writing:


“Environmentalism is an anti-science religious movement. If you believe that the Earth was once a Garden of Eden before we corrupted it with sinful exploitation of resources, and that we're going to be punished with environmental collapse on judgement day, fine. But lots of us don't believe that. So let's keep church and state separate.”  


Maybe that was too broad a brushstroke, but the similarities remain.  Just as the story of Christ is something people believe without proof, many environmentalists are driven by faith in a narrative they haven’t much investigated themselves, but find compatible with their cognitive biases against global capitalism and therefore easy to accept.  Just like the church, a group of trusted authority figures make a living refuting the skeptics, assuring the masses that this is true, and warning them of the fire and brimstone to come if our sinful society doesn’t change its ways.



In other words, there may be a consensus on climate change – it is just not what left-wing activists keep saying it is.  They have rhetorically hijacked the consensus which actually exists, and portrayed it as the consensus they WANT to exist; to say “97% of climatologists agree climate change is real, manmade and ongoing” is not the same as saying “97% of climatologists agree drastic carbon reduction is urgently needed now to stave off irreversible environmental catastrophe.”  The 97% figure became so pervasive not because it has any implications for policy on its own, but because it’s a NUMBER; because it disguises the almost spiritual origin of Greenpeace policy preferences as a rigid analysis of temperature spreadsheets; because it provides the Marxist distrust of worker “alienation” in favor of local, organic, small-scale production of everything with the empirically-backed moral imperative it has always lacked. 


If you are an Apologetic of the Faith, perhaps you will counter with a sort of Pascal’s Wager: the idea that in the presence of uncertainty, the only responsible course of action is to avoid [environmental] catastrophe.  This might be reasonable, IF catastrophe were only possible in one direction.  Unfortunately, that is not the case.

I am no expert on economics either, but I have studied it enough to know that the price of energy directly impacts the price of literally everything else on the market.  As such, it is directly associated with the standard of living for billions of people on this planet.  For some of these people, the price of energy is quite literally a matter of life and death.  The exact economic consequences of an immediate, large-scale shift away from fossil fuels are as hotly disputed as the environmental ones are; there is no consensus on either question.  But there is ample concern that prohibiting fossil fuels now – AFTER the West has gotten rich off them, but before the developing world has had time to follow suit, and before the reliable/cost-viable alternatives are ready – might very well plunge the poorest people on earth into an untold level of further suffering.  It might undo the decades of progress humanity has made in the fight against extreme poverty and bring wealth inequality to unprecedented levels.  And crucially, it might not even prevent many of the environmental calamities that some have warned against.



So which is the catastrophe we ought to wager against? Are you so certain economic disaster won’t happen, and so certain climate change disaster will happen, that handing global governments massive control over our everyday purchasing decisions immediately is really “the only responsible course of action”?  Unless you yourself have studied the latest science AND the latest economic forecasts in detail, it seems to me you shouldn’t be.

When the stakes are so incredibly high in BOTH directions, there is no such thing as erring on the side of caution. Any course of action not backed by rigid cost-benefit analysis is reckless superstition.  I am not qualified to crunch all the probabilities required to make that sound cost-benefit analysis.  Chances are, you aren’t either.  Every one of us is entitled to an opinion on the matter, but nobody’s entitled to lie about which debates “science” has settled, and which it has not.

Two quick thoughts on Trump’s decision to leave the Paris Climate Accords

1.     Leaving the agreement was foolish and a worse “deal” for the United States than staying in.


Sometimes symbolic gestures are worthwhile.  The global community is rightfully concerned about climate change, and rightly or wrongly the hold the United States accountable as a chief culprit. Accordingly, even the optics of international cooperation on the issue are a valuable first step, and one which helped the United States’ image much more than the agreement’s wholly optional stipulations would have hurt our economy.  This is why even conservatives like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were advising Trump to stay in the deal.  It would have bought him some good will from the international community and a better willingness to compromise elsewhere. 

For what it’s worth, I personally would have stayed in the deal, and pushed for a revenue neutral carbon tax (as part of a comprehensive tax reform plan that lowered income tax rates and closed deductions to make our tax code simpler and fairer) in order to meet the US’s carbon reductions target.  It’s still not too late to do this.




2. Nevertheless, it will have no measurable impact on the climate and people should stop freaking out over it.

Even if the United States had remained in the deal, and even if all of its signatory nations met their current (voluntary) emissions reduction agreements, the resulting temperature impact 100 years from now was STILL highly uncertain.  The entire deal was primarily a symbolic gesture to begin with.

What’s more, “the United States” never technically agreed to the Paris Accords in the first place.  President Obama said we would in December of 2015, but the agreement was never ratified by the US Senate (as would be required under our constitution to make it legally binding).  This means Obama's "pledge" was never more than empty promises, and Trump sending the wrong message on this is no more consequentially impactful than all the other things he sends the wrong message on every single day.  The next President could just as easily reverse course yet again, and the law still wouldn’t have changed.




Regrettably, the climate was not saved 18 months ago when a single man unilaterally signed a tepid resolution which no American voter, worker nor congressman ever approved.  Fortunately, that also means it isn't doomed just because another man unilaterally unsigned it.  Our brief participation in the Paris Climate Accords was purely ceremonial, and all public fanfare about our exit is straight virtue signaling.  There’s no greater need to catastrophize today than there was a month ago.  Whichever strategy you favor for solving global warming can still be achieved – although, admittedly, the clock is ticking.