Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Objectivism: Capitalism

May 27, 2016

So, continuing on from my discussions of Objectivism started here, here I’d like to talk about how Rand comes to decide that capitalism is, in fact, the best economic system and the one we must follow. A common misconception about Rand — although some of the scenes in “Atlas Shrugged”, if read shallowly, support this — is that for Rand money itself is some kind of ultimate ideal or ultimate goal, and that money is worth having for the sake of having money. This misconception, I think, follows from the numerous times were Rand talks about money in very reverent terms, almost as if it was an object of worship, but also — and probably more strongly — from the idea that strong capitalists do in fact care about money for its own sake. This confusion is only deepened by the fact that Rand doesn’t think of money as either an end it itself or merely as a means to other ends. Instead, she reveres what money represents, and what that represents is something crucial to her underlying philosophy.

As I noted last time, for Rand everything boils down to self-interest. We, as individuals, can have no other ethical obligations than to our own self-interest. And we, as individuals, have needs; definitely basic survival needs but also, as conscious beings, other needs. And we need to be able to achieve those needs if we are going to have any kind of meaningful and appropriate life. But how can we go about achieving those needs? Rand starts from the idea, that follows from Egoism, that no one is required to provide our needs for us simply because we have those needs. If we can’t rely on people to just give us what we need because we need it, then we have to go out and get what we need somehow. And then it becomes clear that the only way we can achieve our needs is to work for it, to use our physical and mental labour to in some way “produce” the things we need. If we can live all on our own and can provide for our own needs completely on our own, this becomes simple … but we can’t provide all of our needs ourselves, and so need other people, at least at times, to help us get what we need. And this help must be purchased through our labour, and in a sense we trade the fruits of our labour for the fruits of their labour.

But of course this immediately raises a question: how do we determine what our labour is worth? Obviously, we all want to maximize the return we get from our labour, and so get as much for our labour as we reasonably can. But since this applies to everyone else as well, we need a way to determine how much is reasonable in a way that respects everyone’s desire to maximize what they get for their labour. This isn’t out of any kind of overarching principle of “fairness”, but simply a recognition that if someone isn’t getting full value for their labour and discovers that, they are likely to stop trading with us and seek out other options that maximize their return on their labour investment. So if I really do need what they can provide, and I don’t want them to do that, I definitely want to ensure that they are paid fairly for their labour, just as I want to make sure that I am paid fairly for my labour.

But we have to return to the question: how do we know what our labour is worth? We need some kind of objective system so that we can determine what the market value of our labour is so that we know what to focus on if we want to get what we need. If we can just trade directly — I need some milk, you have a cow that you milk, you need some turnips, I grow turnips — then this is easier, as we can negotiate between the two of us, but if there are more stages involved things get complicated. Additionally, even there we need some standard to appeal to in our negotiations. And if you start from that simple model, you’ll start to see what standard we end up applying, which is the standard of how much we need each others’ services, which ends up being the standard of supply and demand.

If you have the only cow that can provide milk, and lots of people can provide turnips, then your milk is more valuable to me, specifically, than my turnips are to you. Given that, I’ll have to make you a better deal on my turnips than you have to on your milk in order for you to agree to the trade. However, if I know that there are a lot of turnips around, I might decide to grow potatoes instead and thus provide a protect that fewer people are providing. If that’s the case, then I might have something that you need more than I need your milk, or at least as much as, and so then I don’t have to provide as good a deal. Also, it might be the case that I need your milk, but you don’t care for turnips and so don’t need them. Thus, I won’t be able to trade my turnips to you at any reasonable price. But if there’s someone who needs turnips and has lots of potatoes, I might be able to trade my turnips to him for some potatoes, which I can then trade to you for some milk.

So the idea is that you end up trading things you need but have lots of for other things you need but don’t have enough of. And since all of the things you produce are things that you produce with your labour, you always want to get the best possible return on that labour. So if you have lots of something, you won’t simply hoard it — or, at least, not most of the time — because you need to use those products of your labour to get what you want. You would only hoard it to drive up the price if the exchange is so low that you take a “labour loss” on the deal; you work too hard on it to trade it for that price. Otherwise, even a low price still gets you the ability to get things that you need in exchange for things that you don’t need at the moment, and so the products of your labour still work for you, to your benefit.

Now, we can immediately see how this fits into the common path of the development of currency. Once I start dealing with lots of other people, it starts to become inconvenient for me to have to trade my turnips for potatoes, and then the potatoes for milk, and then the milk for bread, and so on and so forth. It’d just be so much easier here if I could just trade my turnips to the first person and get something that I could just take directly to the person with the bread and then let them take that to the person with the milk if they want milk. And that thing is commonly called “money”.

But for Rand, the use of money doesn’t stop there, because we have to trace all the way back up the chain to see what money represents here: not some abstract value or promissory note, but instead it represents my labour. Under this system, if I have a lot of money it doesn’t (just) mean that I have a lot of purchasing power and so can achieve a lot of my needs (or even desires). No, it also means that my work is, in fact, particularly valuable. I produce a lot of things that a lot of people really want or need, and so they are willing to pay me a lot to provide it. Note that this doesn’t make it “valuable” in the sense that we argue that a doctor’s services are, say, more valuable than Britney Spears’ (even as she makes so much more money). Everyone will agree that I generally need doctor — when I need one — far more than I need to listen to Britney Spears. But this is reflected in how whenever I go to the doctor I, generally, am willing to pay them far more than I’m willing to pay to listen to or watch Britney Spears. However, the nature of Britney Spears’ work is that she can provide that service efficiently, in that she provides relatively cheap services to thousands of people a day, which a doctor simply couldn’t. Thus, Britney Spears is full value for the money she has, because she simply provides services for more people than the doctor does. That doesn’t that we don’t value the doctor’s services more than hers, because at the individual level we clearly do. It’s only in the aggregate where Spears wins.

Thus, the constant wondering about why Rand’s producers don’t just gouge people and try to make as much money as they can has a simple answer: in doing so, they’d devalue their own labour. Remember, money only represents the value of our labour. If we allow it to be the case that people can make more money without in some way having their labour be more valuable, we devalue the system, but that system is the very system that we use to determine what our labour is worth, and we need to know what our labour is worth in order to be able to properly pursue our needs. If we undermine that system, we undermine the very thing that we need to ensure our survival, either basic survival or our survival as conscious beings. Additionally, if we try to extract more money from the system than our labour is worth by gouging others, we are admitting that our labour just isn’t all that valuable. But that, in a real sense, is critical to who we are for Rand. So no True Objectivist will admit that they are trying to extract more value from labour that is less valuable, because it means that the others are in a real sense better than they are, but they are trying to appear more valuable than they really are. At a minimum, such fraudulence is dangerous when or if they get found out, and it also reveals an irrationality in them that they must pretend that things aren’t really the way they are.

So, when Rand and her characters revere money, it’s not money they revere, it’s productive labour. And, in Objectivism, all people should take pride in and try to maximize their actually productive labour, because it’s all they have to make their way in the world.

Bear and Bloom’s Experiment on Free Will … and Why it Fails

May 20, 2016

So, from Jerry Coyne at “Why Evolution is True” comes another experiment that he, and others, seem to think supports the idea of hard determinism, the idea that we don’t really have any kind of free will at all, even the sort of free will that people like Dan Dennett think is worth wanting. Coyne describes the experiment thusly:

The first thing the authors did was expose the subjects (who had been trained) to five randomly-placed circles on a computer screen, asking them to choose one circle quickly. Then, after intervals of time ranging from 50 to 1000 milliseconds (0.05 to 1 second), the computer randomly turned one of the circles red.

The subjects were then asked if their chosen circle turned red. They had three choices: “yes”, “no” and “I didn’t have time to choose before the circle turned red”, all indicated by pressing one of three keys on a keyboard.

Without any “postdictive bias” of the kind I described above, one would expect “yes” to be answered about 20% of the time when subjects reported that they did make a choice, because the circle that turned red was one of five chosen randomly by the computer. Instead, regardless of the interval before the circle turned red, the probabilities that you said “yes, my chosen circle turned red” was always higher than 20%. That’s shown in the graph below, which plots “probability of a yes answer” against the interval after which the circle turned red.

What’s important about this plot is not only that the probability was higher than 20%, which means that people were saying that their “choice” turned red more often than they should, but that that probability was higher when the interval between the start of the experiment and the circle’s turning red was shorter. That is, people’s bias—that they had “chosen” the circle that later turned red—was higher when they had less time to “make” a choice:

Now, the experimenters thought of a potential problem with this — although you should be able to come up with some problems with it beyond that one — and tried to fix it:

The authors thought of one problem with the experiment above. If the subjects were confused about whether they had chosen the circle that turned red, they might simply randomly press the “yes” or “no” button. That would drive the “yes” answers, expected to be 20%, towards 50%, giving the higher-than-expected “yes” rate shown above.

To deal with this, they used an experiment in which they showed TWO randomly positioned, and colored, circles on a screen, with the two colors chosen from an array of six. The told the subjects to choose one color. They then added a third circle between the two that had a color randomly chosen from the two initially displayed. And, as in the five-circle experiment, the third circle appeared at intervals ranging between 0.05 and 1 second. This way a random punch of “yes” and “no”—”I chose the right color” or “I chose the wrong color”, respectively—a randomness due to confusion, would not bias the results. With only two circles, a random punch would just make the probabilities of “yes” and “no” closer to 50%, which is what they should be anyway.

And again, the same bias was shown: subjects generally reported that they chose the circle of the same color as the one that appeared later with a probability of higher than 50%: as high as 63% at short time intervals. And again, the shorter the time interval, the greater bias was seen in the self reports.

Supposedly, this shows something important:

What both of these experiments seem to show is that, as Bear wrote in the Scientific American piece, “Perhaps in the very moments that we experience a choice, our minds are rewriting history, fooling us into thinking that this choice—that was actually completed after its consequences were subconsciously perceived—was a choice that we had made all along.” The paper with Bloom cites earlier experiments that also support this result. We have to face the possibility, just as we now realize that choices can be made by the brain before we become conscious of them,” that choices may actually be carried out before we become conscious of having made them; and yet that we feel that the sequence was the opposite of what really happened.

So, this might show that we make a decision and then trick ourselves into thinking that the decision we made was the one that occurred, no matter what decision we actually made. Put this way … it seems almost nonsensical to have such a convoluted process to trick us into thinking that we made a specific decision based on our own experiences and consciousness only for it to pull the rug out from under us later and rewrite our memory to think that the result of our conscious experience of decision-making was the exact opposite.

Fortunately, there are two other really big issues with the experiment. The first is that the key is the conscious recognition of when a choice was made. It appears that in all cases the experiment relies on the participant being certain that they actually made a choice, and so they can report the cases where they made the decision after the circle had changed colour or appeared so that we can eliminate any bias in the decision-making from this new stimulus. But note that the time ranges are all incredibly small. The longest time interval was one second, so that gives lots of chances for the person to have simply not decided before the stimulus kicks in. Ideally, these would be eliminated, but making this choice isn’t going to be all that binary a process. We’re picking at random, which is mostly subconscious anyway, and so we’re just going to react with a gut “That one!”. When the stimulus and the choice reaction come close together, it’s quite possible that the people were on the cusp of deciding when the stimulus flashed, especially since we do seem to at times be able to react to a stimulus before we are consciously aware of this. Given all of this, the more likely scenario — which they haven’t eliminated — is that the people were generally still making a decision when the stimulus kicked in, and the stimulus impacted their subconscious decision-making processes. To really eliminate this, you’d have to make them hit a button to lock in a choice, and then have the new stimulus appear. But if they did this, it would almost certainly be the case that this effect wouldn’t appear. So at a minimum they need a better experiment, one that can let us ascertain that the choice was clearly and distinctly made before the stimulus appeared, and that the participants aren’t invalidly thinking that they made the choice clearly before the stimulus appeared.

The second big issue is the common one with all of these experiments: as noted above, they are testing decisions that are, in fact, mostly subconscious in the first place. We don’t reason out choosing something at random. But free will is all about the choices we make when we reason out decisions, not instinctive or gut reactions or random choices. So, for libertarians, we’re interested in being able to make choices for legitimate reasons, and these experiments test cases where we are told to choose something for no reason. There’s no reason to think that these experiments say anything interesting about those sorts of cases.

Ultimately, for hard determinists to make their case, they have to start getting into experiments that test the paradigmatic cases of what we think are free choices. These are much harder to test, but these controlled cases simply leave out everything that makes free choices free according to libertarians or even compatibilists, and so add little to the debate.

The New Ghostbusters’ Ditzy Secretary …

May 6, 2016

So, Dave Futrelle over at “We Hunted the Mammoth” is taking a look at the reaction to a recently released clip from the new “Ghostbusters” movie. I haven’t watched the clip myself, but from what Futrelle says the clip essentially shows the replacement for Janine Melnitz from the original movies. Since the powers-that-be decided to flip the gender roles and make all of the new ghostbusters women — purportedly in the name of equal representation for men and women, which is a very odd way to go about that — it seems that they also decided to gender flip Janine and make the character male, played by Chris Hemsworth (of Thor fame and probably some other fame as well, but that’s the one I’ve seen). However, they also seem to have made the character essentially decorative; he’s portrayed as attractive but pretty much incompetent at his job. The implication from this is that he was hired for his looks and not his skills, and given that people on the Internet (Futrelle assumes that they are all or are at least mostly men) are protesting. Since Futrelle’s site is one dedicated to mocking MRAs and the like, Futrelle mocks this, with the overall impression that, well, this is no big deal and nothing to complain about.

There are, however, a number of problems with it that you don’t have to be opposing feminism to see (although, for one of them, it helps).

The first issue for me is this: I really liked the Janine character, especially with how she evolved in the “The Real Ghostbusters” animated series. Her cynical attitude really did work, and gave something to ground Ray’s and Egon’s fascination with ghosts while also providing a foil for Peter, and also potentially for someone for Winston to relate to. Was she used that way in the movies most of the time? No, but her cynical approach definitely did shine through (just read the quotes from her on IMDB for that). Most importantly, she was portrayed as someone who was very competent at her job, if snarky. She wasn’t hired for her looks, but for her skills, and she had them. This, then, is not a replacement for that character. This is replacing a superior stereotypical secretary with an inferior stereotypical secretary. Making the character male but equally snarky might have worked, but the character that I liked is now completely and totally gone. And I can’t see any good reason to go this route, especially considering how problematic this stereotype is. The only reason I can think of is for the writers to take a shot at the stereotype itself … but, as I’ve said before, when works sacrifice entertainment for message they end up, well, sucking. So, this is not promising.

The second issue is what this choice implies: that whomever was doing the hiring chose this person on the basis of their looks rather than their skills. This … is not a good way to hire someone. At the very least, the only reason the person still has a job is their looks. So … which of the Ghostbusters is the one who hires on the basis of looks rather than ability? Which of them is that shallow? Is it all of them? Are they all that sort of person?

See, in the original movie you could get away with that by simply having Venkeman hire the secretary, because as was established early that was totally in character for him. But the key thing here is that that part of his personality was the big flaw in his personality. If I recall correctly, he originally goes with Dana because she’s attractive and he wants to hit on her, but at the end they only at least somewhat get together because he overcomes that and starts to actually care about people and about the job. He moves from being seen, at least, as nothing more than a scam artist to someone who is willing to die to save the city. He gets redeemed.

Now, the original movie didn’t do this. But if it had, Ray and Egon would have protested at least as soon as the secretary screwed up something important, and either the secretary would have had to prove that she had a role, or Peter would have had to admit that it was a bad idea and then accept hiring someone more competent. In fact, I strongly suspect that there was an episode of “The Real Ghostbusters” where Janine quit due to not being appreciated, Peter hires or tries to hire someone who was just hot, and at the end they all realize that they really miss — and need — Janine after all. I could be wrong about that one, but it does sound like something that a cartoon would do.

So, does this happen in the movie? Or do all of the Ghostbusters decide that when women objectify its female empowerment and so not really bad at all? So, are all of them in favour of hiring on the basis of looks in a movie that pretty much is trying to subvert that notion?

Which leads to the third issue, which is exactly that, and something that some of the commenters that Futrelle mocks mention: this movie, as near as I can tell, is about at least trying to present more equality and less sexism than Hollywood movie typically do. Yes, Dave, it’s a movie about ghostbusters, but it’s also a movie going out of its way to be “inclusive”. Having a man who is objectified doesn’t, in fact, do that, and if feminists — like you, Dave — don’t stand up and say that objectifying a character and hiring on the basis of looks as opposed to on the basis of ability is bad no matter what the gender of the people doing it and the person it’s being done to then you only further the stereotype that feminism is about women, and not about equality at all.

Now, Futrelle tries to defend it:

Sometimes comedy plays with stereotypes and is funny. Sometimes it just reinforces stereotypes and while this is often not so great, comedically or otherwise, sometimes it can actually be funny too.

For comedic actors, the best roles are often the ones in which they make themselves look like the biggest idiots. Who was the most idiotic character on I Love Lucy? (HINT: Her name is in the title.) Who was the star in I Love Lucy? (HINT: Her name is also in the title. Because it’s the same person.)

Anyway, dudes, relax just a teensy weensy bit. Men are so overrepresented in movies these days, as protagonists and as supporting characters, that it’s still kind of seen as a big deal if two women characters in a feature film have even a single scene in which they actually talk to one another about anything other than a man. And lots of movies fail that seemingly rudimentary test.

And so, if you can’t stand Chris Hemsworth taking a comedic turn as an inept administrative assistant, if the very thought of it makes you mad or sad, it’s possible that your head is so far up your own ass that, well, I mean, that can’t be very enjoyable, your head up in there. It’s sort of disgusting to think about, really.

Anyway, angry Ghostbusters-hating dudes, if you’re concerned about people thinking men are a bunch of ridiculous idiots, one excellent way to fight this perception is to STOP ACTING LIKE A BUNCH OF RIDICULOUS IDIOTS.

There’s probably an argument in there, if you turn it sideways and do the standard philosophical charity thing where you build in the arguments that you’re sure they were trying to make/would have made. Of course, even interpreting this charitably, the arguments are all really, really bad:

1) He can be arguing that, hey, Hemsworth looks like an idiot, but, hey, that’s comedy, right? Well, except that if we go back to the original Ghostbusters, the comedy did indeed come from them acting like idiots — or at least stupid and/or odd — and yet none of them were completely incompetent. Peter, for someone with a PhD, knew very little about the field that he supposedly was an expert in. Ray was seen, especially in the cartoon, as being overly enthusiastic about this. Egon was the typical “head for science, and not for anything else” scientist character. Looking like an idiot does not, in fact, require you to be an idiot. It especially doesn’t require you to be an idiot with the clear implication that the only reason you still have a job is because you’re hot. You’d think Futrelle would, you know, want to discourage that sort of presentation more.

2) He could be arguing that men are presented in so many different roles that having one idiot isn’t going to hurt them. Which is true, but also rather odd since, well, idiot male characters have existed for a long, long time now and will continue to exist. The protest is not about having an idiot male character. The protest is that the character is a male version of one of the stereotypes that feminists most hate. Just because it happens to be a man this time doesn’t mean that presenting someone hired for their looks is a good thing. And it also removes a stronger female character from the roster. Why would he think that good?

And the supreme irony is that he finishes thusly:

The only thing about the Ghostbusters clip that really bugs me is that Sony decided to release it on Administrative Professionals Day. And that’s really kind of patronizing as hell. If most film heroes were Administrative Professionals that would be one thing, but this, not so cool.

Now, we have lots and lots of representations of Administrative Professionals who are competent that their job, so there is indeed plenty of representation of competent APs, so that can’t be the objection here. No, the objection must be about presenting the worst possible stereotype, of the AP hired for their looks and who is utterly incompetent at the job. Which, yes, is something that might annoy APs on the day dedicated to them. But that’s the stereotype that Futrelle is asking people to lighten up about. Hmmmmm.

Diversity for the Sake of Diversity

April 29, 2016

Commonly, people advocate for the importance of diversity. One of the usual replies to this sort of reasoning is that companies should be meritocracies, and that a company ought not strive to be diverse just to be diverse. In general, the argument is that diversity, in and of itself, is important, and that companies that are diverse get benefits just from being diverse.

Kristjan Wager at Pro-Science has written an article that aims to defend the latter view. He lists three main reasons why diversity — presumably in and of itself — is important:

  • Fairness
  • Reducing biases
  • Better performance

So, let’s start with the first one. It’s obvious that if people are going to be excluded from a job due to a trait that isn’t related to the job itself that would be unfair. However, that’s not enough to establish that diversity, in and of itself, is actually beneficial. After all, the argument still holds that we should be hiring on the basis of merit, and not consider diversity at all. Wager replies to that, quoting an argument by Eric Ries:

So when a team lacks diversity, that’s a bad sign. What are the odds that the decisions that were made to create that team were really meritocratic?

Wager summarizes it:

A meritocracy would more or less reflect the diversity of the society it operates in.

Well, first, again this doesn’t establish that diversity, in and of itself, is desirable or at all important. If a company could be assured that its hiring practices were really completely based on merit, then the diversity — or lack thereof — that results from that would be something to merely shrug at. So the best this argument can do is say that if you don’t have a diverse workplace, it may be the case that your hiring practices are based on something other than merit (which would lead to the second reason, about biases, and so not apply to this one anymore).

But more importantly, Wager’s reasoning that if you’re hiring on merit that you should reflect the diversity of the society you operate in is false. If you are hiring completely on merit, your workforce should reflect the diversity of the qualified and interested potential employees for your field. If you have a society that is 51% women and 49% men, but 80% of the people who graduate with software design qualifications are men, if you hire software designers completely on merit you’d expect that 80% of your employees will be men, and if 80% of those who go through school for nursing are women, then if you’re hiring nurses you’d expect that 80% of your employees will be women. So, if a company compares their diversity to that of the field of potential candidates and finds that they don’t match, then they might have biased hiring practices. Or they might not, since these are all statistical calculations and that means that some companies, even in the above cases, will have higher or lower percentages while still hiring completely based on merit.

Now, what both of these points mean, taken together, is that companies ought not strive for diversity in and of itself, but instead to hire based entirely on merit, and if they can do that then they’ll get the appropriate amount of diversity. So companies that are trying to be fair ought to work on having fair hiring practices, and not even look at how diverse their company is at the end of it all.

Which leads to the second point, that maybe there are biases in the hiring practices:

While no one is entirely free from biases, and will be affected by general biases in society, there is a strong case to be made for that having a diverse group will reduce biases. Not only biases regarding hiring and promoting people, but also in daily interactions.

Well, maybe. Or maybe it will just introduce competing biases. But this assumes that you can’t make hiring practices that are totally on merit and not free from bias … or, at least, reasonably so. At any rate, again, we need to make sure that we’re hiring on the basis of merit, not on the basis of diversity. The argument that a more diverse workforce might reduce these biases doesn’t justify hiring on the basis of diversity instead of on the basis of merit. And the other benefit given here:

Diversity also helps when it comes to problem solving, as different backgrounds bring different ideas to the table.

Wager goes on to quote a study that says that companies with more diverse leadership tend to have better financial results, but a correlation is not causation, so we’d need to do more work to figure out why that’s the case. After all, it is possible that those companies are able to be more diverse because, due to other factors, they can handle having a more diverse leadership group because their finances are just in better shape. After all, having different backgrounds and different viewpoints doesn’t always work, because you end up with more disagreements and have a harder time ensuring that everyone is on the same page. So differing viewpoints doesn’t always help you. In addition, most of the focus is on gender or racial diversity … but that doesn’t necessarily correlate to significant differences in overall background, or ideas. A black woman and a white man who were both raised in an upper class, academic family have more in common than that white man has with me, from a working class family who was the first on at least one side of the family to go to university. Ironically, then, hiring on the basis of gender and racial diversity, might, in fact, provide more homogeneity, rather than less.

Thus, if having different viewpoints is important and useful to your business, you ought to set that out as a hiring criteria and find ways to test and select for those differing viewpoints. You shouldn’t just aim to get gender or racial diversity, because that’s not necessarily going to get what you want and is actually unfair to boot.

The attempt to argue that it is better for businesses to be diverse is a common one, but tying the argument directly to merit is an interesting approach. Unfortunately, at the end of the day for all of the benefits or potential benefits the right approach is to select for those specific benefits, and not for at least gender and racial diversity. Thus, at best, selecting for that might be a convenient way to get some of the other benefits … but, overdone, doing that will work against those benefits. So, ultimately, diversity for the sake of diversity remains undefended; we really ought to get those benefits “honestly” rather than through the end run of selecting for diversity.

Poly Rationalization

April 11, 2016

So, Richard Carrier as we’ve seen advocates for polyamory as the default relationship style — if polyamory can actually be called that — in society. As we’ve also seen, he tends to advocate for it very badly and illogically. This pattern continues in a recent post, where he attempts to show that polyamory solves more problems than it causes and, anyway, the problems people say it causes it doesn’t cause anyway, as he’ll show using logic and empirical evidence so that no one dare challenge his view lest they be considered illogical and fighting against actual empirical evidence!

Let me challenge that …

He starts with an argument that some feminists have made, arguing that it’s fine to not get married and all, but that sometimes economic considerations get in the way of that. Thus, it’s easy for well-off women to advocate that women don’t need to get married — and even that they ought not — but poor women don’t have that choice; they need at least the economic if not the actual support of another person — especially if they want to have children — that a spouse provides. Since this would be advocating for formal marriage and Carrier is advocating against that — even as he insists that for people for whom it works it should be an option — this can be seen as an attack on his view of polyamory, and so he wants to argue against that.

And he starts by dealing with the simple economic problems — outside of having children — by talking about a wonderful new thing that can solve this:

Even the presumption that two incomes are needed merely to support two adults, because wages are so low that the poor are forced to resort to economies of scale, is brought down by the simple fact of a thing we have in society now called a roommate.

Wow, so even outside of children, Carrier thinks that the whole solution to economic and financial concerns is, in fact, to get a roommate to share rent. Because, presumably, there are no other financial benefits at all to marriage, unless you have kids. The only thing you have to worry about is rent and utilities, because things like food, transportation, incidental expenses, life and health insurance, and a host of other things aren’t part of the standard roommate contract. Also, they don’t have to — and likely won’t — share their savings with you. And if they decide to leave — and if they can generate enough economic clout or get married themselves, they’re going to want to at some point — they don’t have to leave you anything. All they have to do is wait until the lease expires, or sublet it, or whatever, and move out, leaving you with nothing more than that they paid rent for X amount of time, so you didn’t have to pay for it all yourself.

Contrast that to a marriage, or any committed monoamorous relationship. While in the marriage, all expenses are shared, from rent to food to transportation. If it’s a formal marriage, you can lump yourselves together to, for example, get loans based on the earning power of both of you, which doesn’t carry over to a roommate. Thus, even getting loans will be easier. And even if the marriage does not end up as a lifetime committment, if you separate you get half of the communal property, which includes savings, and thus you are both encouraged to save, and can work together to save for things you need or want, which a roommate won’t do. Sure, you also don’t have to be responsible for the debts of your roommate — beyond rent if they can’t pay it because they’re too heavily in debt — but that seems like cold comfort since the only reason you have a roommate is to have them pay that rent that they might not be willing or able to pay, and you get nothing more out of it than that (maybe they can be friends, too).

So, no, it doesn’t seem like you can simply substitute “roommate” in for a spouse. Carrier also adds the option of living with family, which ignores the fact that they have their own lives to lead and things to do, and supporting children, grandchildren, or nieces and nephews might not fit into that … and might not be something that they ought be asked to do to support the life choices of those people.

He kinda almost sorta excludes the case of if the person wants to have children, but then denigrates what it means to get married:

Until you have kids. The cost of helping then becomes enormous. And how are you going to pay those helping you for that labor? Green, essentially, recommends you pay them with sex. In legal fashion, of course. But still. That’s all marriage then becomes.

Well, no. The idea is that if a woman wants to have children, they have to realize that, practically, a lot of resources have to go in to raising children, in terms of money and time and labour. Thus, if you want to have children, you have to think about how that’s going to be provided. If you can do it yourself, or have the money to pay people to provide it for you, then you don’t need to worry about having a spouse or anyone else to help you with that. But if you can’t, then who ought you call upon to provide that? Well, as stated above, it might be unfair to ask your friends and extended family to sign up and commit to providing that for the life of your children, but reasonably there is one person that you can call on: the other biological parent. After all, if we assume that they want children, too, then they also have to be thinking about how to provide for it, and want to be involved in that child’s life. From this, the ideal relationship is, indeed, a monogamous partnership with someone that you at least respect enough to life with day-in and day-out, if not completely love, as this partnership provides the financial benefits outlined above, and builds in the sharing of child raising, for two people who really ought to have an interest in doing it. So, no, not paying them with sex (and it’s a bit sexist to assume that women want children and pay men with sex so that they’ll help them raise them).

Carrier, though, thinks that polyamory can do this as well if not better:

I know of several poor poly women and men who share resources to raise children. Whether those resources are money, property, time, or other things (like emotional labor).

We’ll talk a bit more about this later — as Carrier takes on issues with children and polyamorous relationships — but the issue here is that this is great if it works … but there is no reason, even with Carrier’s “ethical polyamory” for someone entering into one to sign up to this. If I was polyamorous, and liked someone who had children, the idea that I didn’t have to deal with her children might well be a benefit, and thus part-and-parcel of my entering into that relationship. And if I agreed to help with her children because I liked her and so was willing to give her what she needed there that I could provide, if it became too onerous or problematic I could easily — and have to be able to easily, under Carrier’s view — leave and seek out a better relationship, leaving her in the lurch. Yes, this can and does happen in monoamorous relationships as well, but Carrier’s whole principle of polyamory lends itself to the idea of ditching a relationship when it doesn’t work out as nicely as you’d hoped, while monoamory discourages that sort of thinking.

Of course, Carrier’s next move is to make these things more formal:

And even insofar as marriages are secured within polycules today for their legal empowerments, society could be providing much easier access to those rights and privileges without requiring a whole-shebang marriage contract. The concept is obsolete anyway. Hence the state has been trying to “privilege” marriage by stacking heaps of legal advantages onto it. But we could have rethought that, and still can. Those advantages could be distributed by different instruments than marriage. Legal and tax advantages to parents should be awarded simply to parents, and through parenting contracts. As for example. Likewise hospital “visiting rights” should be something we can award to anyone we want. And so on.

Many of them you can, but the question is going to be this: why should a non-parent of a child commit in any way to them when they enter into a polyamorous relationship? Why accept that obligation? In monoamorous relationships, the other person enters expecting this relationship to last for the long term. No such assumption can be made about polyamorous relationships, and many of them will be entered into with the explicit assumption that they won’t be. Heck, that “freedom” is one of the main benefits of polyamory according to Carrier. And he can’t appeal to “ethical polyamory” here because ethical polyamory, for him, has to include the ability for someone to leave a polyamorous relationship when they want, for whatever reasons they want, or else the other person is being too controlling, and thus unethical.

So, at first blush, it looks like Carrier’s advice for women who want to get married and need someone else to help them with that is to ask people to support their life choices, and potentially to pay off polyamorous suitors with sex — or other favours — in return for giving them what they want. Huh.

Next, he compares monoamory and polyamory in a few categories to argue for how polyamory isn’t any worse and is often better in these specific arguments against polyamory. He starts with STDs:

Guess what? Research shows you are just as likely to catch an STI when “monogamous” than when ethically non-monogamous. In fact, if you are “monogamous,” you are actually substantially more likely to catch an STI if your partner is cheating. Because ethically non-monogamous people are extremely conscientious about safe sex practices, testing, and communication. Monogamous couples are not. In reality, if you are in a monogamous relationship, odds are good you are actually just “monogamous.” Because it’s all too common for one of you to in fact be unethically non-monogamous.

Note the subtle slight-of-hand here, which is usually the sign that someone is rationalizing their choices. What does Carrier compare here? He compares ethical polyamory to unethical monoamory to claim that since ethical polyamorists will all practice safe sex but that cheaters in monoamory won’t, you’re more likely to get an STI from monoamory than from polyamory. Thus, he contrasts the best case in polyamory and the worst case in monoamory and declares polyamory, therefore, superior.

Things look a lot different, though, when we compare ethical monoamory to ethical polyamory. Since ethical monoamorists don’t cheat on their partners, for any monoamorous relationship all you need to do is take a test before you commit and you can be guaranteed to not catch an STI. On the other hand, with polyamorous relationships, you have to make sure that everyone in the relationship is safe and is always using safe methods … even while trying to get pregnant, one assumes. With ethical monoamory, you only have to practice “safe sex” to avoid having children; beyond that, there is no risk. That doesn’t hold true for even ethical polyamory.

Okay, but we can’t rely on everyone being ethical all of the time, so what happens if we don’t assume that everyone is acting ethically? Well, if that’s the case, your partner might be cheating, and so might not be practicing safe sex, and so might pick up and give you an STI. So you might want to practice safe sex with your partner just in case. On the other hand, if we don’t assume that all polyamorous partners are acting ethically, you … still have to insist on that for the same reasons. In monoamory, the only reason you have to worry is because your partner might be having unsafe sex with other people who might be infected, but polyamory pretty much guarantees it if we don’t assume that everyone is acting ethically. And in monoamory, at least, you have to decide if you can trust your partner, whom you also ought to know really well; in polyamory, you have to know if you can trust all the partners of your partners, and their partners, and their partners … some of whom you don’t even know.

This, then, carries forward if we expect that there will be unethical people, but that the majority will be ethical. In monoamory, there’s one person you need to trust; if they aren’t trustworthy, you’re in trouble. In polyamory, every partner of every partner has to be ethical. If one of them is unethical and spreads the STI, unless you’re engaging in safe sex all of the time with all partners, well, it won’t take long for that to spread.

Carrier can only make his argument by doing two things: comparing ethical polyamory to non-ethical monoamory, and ignoring the fact that the behaviour that puts you at risk in monoamory — if we don’t assume that polyamorists are all ethical — is the encouraged behaviour in polyamory. The worry in monoamory is that your partner might have sex with other people; in polyamory, they will have sex with other people.

He also tries to argue, as if he realizes this at some level, that STIs aren’t all that bad anyway:

Of course, we also over-stigmatize STIs. Just as we used to over-stigmatize unwed mothers. In reality, getting an STI is no worse than getting food poisoning from eating takeout or a friend-cooked meal, or a staff infection from using a public restroom or visiting a hospital. Our reaction should be the same.


This is ridiculous; we all take strong measures to avoid getting those things, and STIs can be more problematic and can be spread before we realize that we’re sick. We’re seeing pushes in business for people staying home while sick to avoid spreading illness, and he somehow thinks that we think these things are no big deal? The only reason they get brought up specifically wrt polyamory is that sex is the whole point of polyamory for most people, Carrier especially included. I assume that he’d like to avoid getting an STI, surely.

He then turns to jealousy:

The research so far shows no advantage to monogamy in avoiding frequency of feeling jealousy or avoiding its negative effects in a relationship. In fact, polyamory performs better: most people will experience jealousy less often, and less noxiously, and its effects will be less damaging. This is because polyamory forces you to continually confront the reasons for your jealousy, and to communicate and work through those reasons, which ends up reducing how often you get jealous, and how jealous you get, and substantially reducing its effect on the relationship.

The issue here is self-selection: the people in polyamorous relationships are, of course, going to be people with less issues with jealousy than people who are in monoamorous relationships, because polyamorous relationships require that. So anyone who cannot get over the jealousy issues will move back to monoamorous relationships, thus leaving only those who, for whatever reason, aren’t that jealous. Thus, trying to use that self-selected sample to prove that somehow people in polyamorous relationships just would be less jealous isn’t valid. We don’t know what would happen if people who normally did have problems with jealousy were strongly encouraged to try polyamory anyway, and work through it by confronting the reasons for it.

Especially since Carrier’s model actually provides reasons to be jealous. As I said in my other comments, Carrier’s model favours the person who needs or cares for the other person less, because if they feel that they need something or need to be excluded from something in the relationship, they have more power to get what they want by taking the totally acceptable step — in Carrier’s view — of saying that without that the relationship isn’t working and that they then want to end it. This means that it is always the case that the person you’re with could end the relationship at any time, for any reason. If you’re okay with that, then that’s not a problem, but if you like them enough and want to maintain that, then there are going to be issues where you try to make sure that they don’t leave. So that’s the one side of what we commonly call “jealousy” in a relationship. The other side is that in polyamory for anything except primary relationships — again, by Carrier — there’s only one or two things that you provide to a potential partner that causes the relationship to be formed. In short, you are in a relationship with that person because you fulfill specific needs of theirs. If they manage to find someone who satisfies those needs better than you do — even if that’s just that they find them more attractive — the reasonable and rational thing to do in Carrier’s model is for them to leave you and take up with that person, if that person will have them. Thus, if you care about what they give you at all, you have to be nervous about them being friendly with anyone who gives them what you give them, in case they might be better at it and have you be out in the cold. Again, it’s only you don’t care about the relationship that this won’t bother you.

Contrast that with monoamory. The other person has committed to you, which ought to both give you a reason to stay with them — since they were willing to do that — and gives you a reason to think that, at least, they don’t think they’ll get anyone better. And monoamory encourages people to choose the best aggregate partners, which means that even if someone else is better in one area they’d have to be better across the board to replace you, at least in theory. Given all of the factors that are supposed to control jealousy in monoamory, one should be skeptical that polyamory can solve them for most people that easily. Sure, as Carrier says you pretty much have to be able to deal with it in a polyamorous relationship, but that doesn’t mean that everyone or even most people will, just because those who are in them now are the ones who can. And, on top of that, the best way to deal with it is to take Carrier’s advice to heart and follow its implications to treating the relationship as merely something that satisfies your needs, but that you can easily replace. That’s not all that deep and meaningful a relationship, in my opinion.

Finally, Carrier talks about children:

There is actually no evidence any harm results. And in practical fact, the benefits are obvious. If two people are an asset in dividing expenses and labor, three people are even more so. Likewise four. Five. Six.

But how can he assume that that will be divided that way, and that any new partner won’t be demanding the time and money of the other partner? Why should other partners want to support children that are not theirs, and put aside their desires and needs at times to provide for the children? Sure, this can indeed happen in cases, but surely this can’t be expected.

Think also of the effects of moving for work, or changing schools, and all sorts of life decisions that affect children by making their life less stable, forcing them to deal with the loss of even their own friends and having to find new ones, and so on. This happened to a lot of us. In actual fact, we do just fine. We even learned from it all. And with good parenting, we adjusted readily

Um, many of these things are considered to be very problematic for children, and most people agree that these things should happen only when necessary. For polyamory, these things will happen regularly. That might cause issues in the long run, and especially if polyamory becomes common place.

Carrier, thus, is rationalizing away concerns, assuming things that he can’t assume should polyamory become the default, and makes invalid comparisons to try to prove that polyamory is a really good thing. His logic, then, simply doesn’t work. He might be right about polyamory, but the more he tries to defend it the more it seems to me that it depends on people not caring about each other and having shallow relationships, or else simply devolving to an open marriage. I see no “Polyamory Solution” to anything here.

Objectivism: Enlightened Egoism

April 8, 2016

So, Adam Lee is reading and review “Atlas Shrugged”. He seems to be trying to do it as both a literary reviewing and as a philosophical review, but I find that the series doesn’t do a very good job of either. I’ve been reading along with the series, but haven’t read the book itself. Instead, I dug through her actual philosophy, and so can confirm that, yes, Lee gets a number of things wrong in his zeal to mock Ayn Rand, which is one of the reasons why I hate the “Let me mock my opponents!” style of posting/argumentation; too often, it ends up being a way for people to ignore reasonable arguments in favour of cheap “Gotchas!” that are easy to patch up. And philosophy is full of cases where an original philosophy gets patched up in response to criticism.

Anyway, the biggest thing that I’ve taken from that series is that if you want to understand Rand, you have to start from Hobbes. Once you’ve grasped Hobbes, then you can understand one of the main — if not the main — pillars of her philosophy, which is Enlightened Egoism. Now, I’m not saying that she knew about or was inspired by Hobbes in her philosophy, but if you start from Egoism a la Hobbes, then you can understand the difference between that and Rand.

So, what did Hobbes say? Hobbes is what I’ll call a Psychological Egoist. He argued that we, as humans, are inherently self-interested, and so never act altruistically. No matter what action we take, it’s always because it benefits us, and so, in his words, we are inherently selfish, and never selfless. Now, you can take this stronger or weaker, with the weakest claim being that an action has to benefit us in at least some way or else we won’t take it, without having to insist that it be the action that most benefits us. So if we take an action that helps others because it makes us feel good, then by Hobbes we are not acting altruistically, but instead selfishly. The response to this is that Hobbes equivocates on selfishness here, but I don’t really think that charge sticks to Hobbes, mostly because it’s only those who insist that acting selfishly is really, really bad that are equivocating, as Hobbes doesn’t have to think that acting selfishly in that manner is inherently bad, and in fact his system kinda relies on us doing that.

So what does his system say? Well, since we are always self-interested, you can’t rely on us not acting that way. But no one can guarantee their own self-interest — and the most important thing for Hobbes, our lives — completely on our own. Even the strongest person can be tricked out of their resources, or even overpowered if enough people band together, even if only temporarily. And smart people can be overpowered. The state of nature is where everyone thinks only of their own direct and immediate self-interest, protecting themselves from others and taking from others if they can get away with it. This is Hobbes State of Nature, and according to Hobbes it is characterized by being nasty, brutish and short.

But as thinking beings, we can come to see that this is the result of unrestrained self-interest, and so the Social Contract is born. We get together and agree to restrain our self-interest in some ways in order to have an overall better life. In short, we restrain our short-term self-interest in order to form a society where we might have to sacrifice our interests now, but are far better off in the future. Hobbes thinks, it seems to me, that we always need to have a reason to give up seeking our own self-interest, and that if we are at all rational the only thing that can constantly motivate us to give up our own self-interest is a threat to our life, which is what pushes us to accept the contract in the first place. Thus, Hobbes places a sovereign over everyone with the ability to kill anyone who breaks the Social Contract, ensuring that everyone always has the most reason to follow the contract even if it would, in the short-term, benefit them to break it.

This is where Rand parts ways with Hobbes. She is not, in fact, a Psychological Egoist; she thinks that we are, in fact, psychologically capable of acting not only not in our self-interest, but in fact in ways completely opposed to our self-interest. We can, indeed, act altruistically. But she thinks that we ought not act altruistically. It is immoral according to Rand to act altruistically. We are morally bound to act in our own self-interest all of the time. Thus, Rand is an Ethical Egoist.

So, how, then, does she propose to escape a Hobbesian State of Nature? Well, she is an Enlightened Egoist, taking the starting point of Hobbes — that we form these contracts because we rationally understand that this is in our best interest. If we understand this, then what do we need the sovereign for? Ought we not act in our own proper self-interest and work to preserve this Social Contract that so obviously benefits us? The only reason for us not to do so is that we are in a situation where we can indeed act in our own specific and immediate self-interest and can maintain the Social Contract benefits. In short, the only issue is when we can legitimately cheat and end up benefiting in the short-term without costing us anything in the long-term. But as Rand is an Ethical Egoist, this means that the sovereign — or the government — only have benefit or value in cases where they need to force us to act against what is, in fact, in our own rational self-interest, and for Rand that is absolutely immoral. Thus, for her, we don’t need a sovereign.

Thus, the constant arguments in those posts and comments that Rand is wrong about what is in our self-interest and that there are a number of things that it is better for us for the government to run aren’t arguments against Rand. If those arguments are successful, Rand will merely expand the role of government in her society … or, at least, she’d do that if she’s any kind of reasonable and rational philosopher. To attack Rand, then, you have to undercut the pillar of Egoism out from under her. If you get into arguments about what’s really better for us, you’ve pretty much accept her Ethical Egoism, and now are just trying to shake out what exactly that entails. And people like Lee, certainly, don’t want to accept that we are ethically bound to act only in our own self-interest, and that altruism, in and of itself, is immoral.

Conservative Atheism …

April 4, 2016

For a while now, the atheist movement, as represented by groups like Freethought Blogs, Atheism+, and whatever other groups have joined in calling for Deep Rifts[tm], have been pushing the line that the only proper atheism is that which is liberal and progressive, even going so far as to say that conservative atheists should, as the latest post on the matter from the blog “Death to Squirrels” by Iris Vander Pluym “get out of mah tent”, meaning the overarching atheist tent. So what this means is that if someone becomes convinced that atheism is correct and that there are no gods, but don’t happen to abandon their conservative beliefs at precisely the same time, then they aren’t welcome in the atheist “Big Tent’. Add in that religion and conservativism often correlate and there’s an awful lot of potential atheists that this attitude will exclude until they form the “right” set of beliefs.

So when Pluym criticizes one who is in some way conservative — and was described as an asshole — this way:

And movement atheism, which likes to consider itself a “Big Tent,” is already so chock full of them [assholes] that many, many good people have been driven away and quite understandably want nothing to do with it.

It looks like liberals can achieve that lofty classification themselves, and so it’s not limited to conservatives. Maybe, then, the liberal and progressive atheists ought to start by cleaning up their own house first, because those who insist that conservatives need not apply are going to push away a lot more at least potential atheists than the conservatives will.

(At which point, the reply will be that it’s about what’s right, and not about recruitment. Flip between the arguments as appropriate so that you can always claim to be totally right about everything.)

Then Pluym moves on to talk about those who claim to be fiscally conservative but socially progressive, who potentially then would meet the ideological requirements to be included in the “Big Tent”:

Gosh, that sounds reasonable! Fiscally conservative, yet socially liberal!

Except for one little problem: that position is utterly, laughably, fatally incoherent.

Greta Christina did an excellent job deconstructing it in a piece for AlterNet titled 7 Things People Who Say They’re ‘Fiscally Conservative But Socially Liberal’ Don’t Understand, wherein she points out that self-professed fiscal conservative/social liberals (“FC/SLs”) are depressingly common.

Now, I read that article, and as Pluym points out, the main argument was that fiscal considerations and social considerations aren’t, in fact, completely distinct from each other. Fair enough. But that doesn’t mean that one can’t think that fiscal conservativism can produce good outcomes even in the social sphere. If you look at Christina’s arguments, they essentially boil down to the idea that if the government gives people less money, it impacts all sorts of social concerns because, well, people have less money. But a fiscal conservative can easily deny that the way to fix that ought to be through government intervention, and that it isn’t the case that the only solution to the problem is the one that the progressive wants to implement. And both sides can claim, credibly, that no society has really tried their pure solutions.

The problem, though, is that Pluym doesn’t seem to understand what capitalism — and even equality — really is:

Conservatives are opposed to equality in principle, except when an issue directly affects them. You cannot have a “free market” and equality. Indeed, capitalism is predicated on inequality, and cannot exist without it. Are the uber-wealthy building or cleaning their own palaces, growing and preparing their own foods, making their own fabric and clothing, or home schooling their own children? No, they are not. They are instead very busy buying politicians who ensure they pay “low taxes” and that the people who perform all of these jobs for them are paid as little as possible. EQUALITY, everyone.

What Pluym is doing here is taking the worst properties of people who claim to be fiscally conservative — many of which would also be socially conservative — and elevating that to be what it means to be fiscally conservative, throwing in a lack of understanding of equality into the mix. First, the uber-wealthy are, in fact, hiring people to do that for them, trading the money they earned through other means to gain labour and time by getting other people to do that … just like pretty much everyone does. I don’t fix my own car or do house repairs beyond the very simple. I get other people to do that for me. If I didn’t want the exercise, I could hire someone to cut my lawn and shovel my snow, too. Does this mean that somehow those people aren’t my equal? If they hire me to do work for them, am I thus inferior to them? The whole notion of this is absurd.

Pluym also misunderstands “equality” here, insisting, it seems, that it must mean equality of outcome, which is indeed the form of equality that capitalism doesn’t guarantee … although, contrary to Pluym’s assertions, it can survive with it as well. What it guarantees is equality of opportunity: if you have a good enough idea and work hard enough, you can be a success. Now, starting points and luck come into it as well, but maybe the issue is that life just can’t be purely capitalist. But, at any rate, capitalism isn’t predicated on inequality, and would work far better than it does if we really did have an equal society.

It’d be more reasonable to argue that fiscal liberalism is predicated on inequality, because it’s predicated on taking from those who work harder and produce things of more value and giving that to people who work less hard and produce less value. And that would also be a strawman of the position.

Look, let me walk through my Not-So-Casual thoughts on what fiscal conservativism and fiscal liberalism entail. Fiscal conservatives, it seems to me, believe that the government should only provide that which a government is obligated to provide, and only take enough to fund those necessary services. Otherwise, as Elan says in this “Order of the Stick” comic, “the consumer knows best how to spend his or her hard earned money”. The market will provide what people want enough to pay enough for to get, and if the market tries to overcharge for a product, then people won’t buy it and either the market will have to lower the price or no one will be able to get it. The government should not get involved in determining what people want and what they do with the products of their labour.

Fiscal liberals, on the other hand, want the government to provide not only what only they can provide, but also at least what it would be better for them to provide if not what they think it would be good for them to provide. They have no problem talking the hard earned money from people as long as that gets spent in what they consider to be a manner that works better for society. Indeed, they don’t trust people to not spend their money only on selfish measures, and ones that hurt society.

This leads to the two extremes, which are not representative of the whole. On the fiscally conservative side, you end up with a very small list of things the government must provide, while on the fiscally liberal side you end up with the government taking the proceeds of everyone’s labour and using it to make everyone “equal”. From this, you can also see the benefits and downsides of each. Under fiscal conservativism, you have the most freedom in your spending … but you and/or a number of people might get “priced out” of really important things because you don’t earn enough; your financial freedom is limited not by direct action, but instead by how expensive all of the things that are important to you are. For fiscal liberalism, you can get the things that are important … but have less financial freedom to purchase or support the things you want but that the government doesn’t want to provide.

This is why the common criticism of fiscal conservativism that they don’t seem to complain about defense spending doesn’t work. Fiscal conservatives think that defense is something that the government is obligated to provide — even Ayn Rand thought that — and think that they are spending what they need to to maintain military supremacy. You’d have to argue that defense is not something that a government needs to provide, or else that we are spending more on it than we need to (although the weakness of that argument is that history has shown that it’s better to spend too much rather than too little).

So, how does Pluym go on to talk about conservatives in the “Big Tent”?

cannot believe this needs to be said, but one cannot reasonably expect people of color and women, for example, whose lives and most basic human rights are under constant, violent and escalating assault by conservatives, to occupy the same goddamn Big Tent with racists and Forced Birthers who just so happen to grok that there probably is no god. We should all come together in the cause of what? Atheism? To what end? “Equality for everyone”? Please.

By conflating fiscal and social conservativism in the worst possible way, and then excluding conservative atheists … who at least need as much support in their atheism as progressives, if not more. Nice, that.

Is there no possibility of disagreeing on some points, even major ones, but agreeing that you all share similar concerns that relate directly to your shared atheism? If you do, then partitioning out the “Social Justice” angles to focus on those specific issues makes sense. If you don’t, then what need do you have of an atheist movement?

Pluym finally gets around to talking about things specific to fiscal conservativism:

… there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that a robust welfare state (especially quality universal single-payer health care) decreases religiosity, while economic insecurity (with respect to wages, housing, food, etc.) increases it. See, e.g., Phil Zuckerman’s book “Society Without God.” Fiscal conservatism in the form of Dave Silverman’s “small government, low taxes, a free market” is entirely antithetical to taking the path most likely to get us to the very outcome he seeks: the death of religion.

Except that fiscal conservatives will argue — with some justification — that a free market (even if not totally free) can produce more economic security and so reduce religiosity that way. Strong communist societies that have very robust welfare systems still had to try to reduce religious impulses through force … and generally failed. Booming economies provide financial security, regardless of how “welfare state” they are. Also, they can argue that expanding the social network just to create more atheists is a bad solution, as long as they really believe what they say they believe. The facts are not completely on the progressive side, despite Pluym’s and Christina’s assertions that they are.

And the problem in the atheist movement is conservative atheists. Their rationale doesn’t even withstand the most cursory scrutiny, and their conservative ideology is precisely what will prevent them from ever reaching their stated goals. More importantly, if history is any guide, conservatives will happily throw allies right under the bus, if it means they get to keep their guns or their regressive tax deductions or whatever selfish and destructive bullshit they truly hold dear.

And you are willing to toss potential allies in fighting for atheism under the bus to promote your progressive ideas, no matter how destructive they think they are. Sounds like you’re really no better, and that your “Big Tent” has a label of “All the people who agree with me on pretty much everything that I think important”. Which isn’t an “Atheist Big Tent” at all.

What Is the Right to Free Speech, Anyway?

March 18, 2016

So, for a long time now, there have been discussions and rants over free speech and censorship, and one of the the things I’ve been hearing — explicitly stated in this xkcd comic and in a number of other places — is that the right to free speech only applies to the government; they can’t arrest you for saying things. However, it doesn’t apply to anyone else, and so no actions taken by any body that isn’t a government body cannot, in fact, infringe on your right to free speech, which they use against anyone who claims that any private actions are infringing on that right.

I find this argument suspicious, and we can see why it should be when we look at, well, every other right that exists in the world. The right to life doesn’t mean that the government can’t kill you, but that no one can unduly kill you … and the government is in fact obligated to protect your right from people who are not in the government who want to take it. The same thing applies to freedom of choice, of movement, of religion, and of non-discrimination. Even the right to a free press almost certainly applies to people, say, using undue economic pressure to stop the press from, well, doing their jobs. Given that, it seems unlikely that the right to free speech is such an exception that only the government can violate it, and nothing anyone else can do can infringe on it; for all other rights, there always seem to be at least theoretical cases if not practical and real cases where ordinary citizens can infringe it and where the government needs to step in and protect that right.

So, let me point out what I think the right to free speech really means: a person has a right to not be punished merely for holding and expressing a view that some don’t like, and must be able to express that view under the same conditions as those who express all other views. The government making expressing a particular view illegal, then, follows directly from this, as putting someone in jail for that is definitely a punishment, but it does leave it open to other ways of punishing the expression of a view, like firing someone for simply expressing a view that the owner of the business doesn’t like but that doesn’t, in fact, actually relate to the work the person is doing.

But, some will protest, surely the right to free speech can’t protect you from the consequences of that speech, right? Well, as it turns out, this was a problem that I faced in my own moral theory, where it appeared that either I couldn’t imprison someone for doing something wrong — as that would count as a punishment — or else I had to try to find some way to differentiate between an action taken to punish someone and an action that counted merely as setting something up as the reasonable consequence of their taking that action. And what I came up with was intent: is your intent to punish them for their action? If it is, then that’s a punishment and not allowed, and if it isn’t it’s merely a consequence and so allowed. We can apply that to the right to free speech. When you take an action, what is the intent of that action? What are you trying to do?

Let’s use the “Ender’s Game” movie as an example here. Orson Scott Card — who, if you didn’t know, is the author of the book the movie is based on — is seen as homophobic. There may even be homophobic undertones to the book, although I haven’t read it and so can’t say, and I don’t trust anyone who makes a claim like that and doesn’t actually back it up with scenes from the book. At any rate, even though the movie itself doesn’t seem to have any such issues as far as I can tell, there was an explicit campaign for people to boycott it, based on the fact, as the linked campaign says, that they didn’t want to give Card money from his work — even if it was one that they’d like — because of his views that, again, were definitely unrelated to the movie and were likely unrelated to the book itself. So, take the base situation here: there is an author who outside of their works expresses views that you find appalling, even though you’re pretty sure you’d enjoy the works themselves. What can or should you do, and can you infringe on the right to free speech of someone with any action you can take here?

So, if it was the case that you were aware of the author’s views and that the entire time through the work you’d be reminded of that and then it would ruin your enjoyment of the work, given the above “consequences vs punishment” example that falls squarely into the “consequences” example. It’d be the same as if, say, the work was written by or reminds you of an ex; it’s not that there’s anything bad about the work, but there are emotional connotations there that will definitely get in the way of your enjoying it. So, what if you want to organize a boycott of it, like the linked campaign above? The campaign is explicit that they are doing this to deny Card the “reward” of their dollars, that he can use to support his expression of his views that they find odious. That is, in fact, clearly an attempt to punish him from holding and expressing his views, and so infringes on his right to free speech. It might be different if the work itself was advocating for those views, and you can ask people to not support the ideas themselves in that case … but even then, one should think long and hard about whether the real goal is to deny the money rather than make a statement about the views themselves.

We also have a distinction between public and private action here. If someone expresses an idea that you find odious and it makes you see them as a despicable person, it’s not a violation of their right to free speech if you stop being friends with them, or exclude them. You have the right to associate with whomever you want without interference. If, however, you decide to exclude them either to try to use that exclusion to get them to change their views or to convince others that adopting and expressing those views is not a good way to go, then that’s punishment, and violates their right to freedom of speech. The same thing applies to hosting the views in private or public venues. If someone comes into your home and says those things, or wants to book your private speechifying hall (and how sad is it that my spell checker doesn’t flag “speechifying”) to express them, you aren’t violating their right to free speech if you deny them that venue … as long as the venue isn’t intended for the public at large to use. If the venue is public, then you can’t deny them access to it based on your disapproval of their ideas without it being a punishment for their expressing them, and so violating their right to free speech.

There are also exceptions where the expression of those opinions will legitimately have a consequence on a specific area. For example, if someone expresses the idea that women are inferior to men, it would be reasonable to say that that isn’t the sort of person who should be heading up your “Status of Women” office, if for no other reason than that people will be rightly skeptical about the credibility of your office when the person running it is expressly against its very goal. And you might be able to fire a hiring manager — or, perhaps, anyone who works with women — for expressing that same sentiment, out of at least a fear that they will discriminate, which will impede the work environment (of course, if they hold that and have proven to not treat anyone any differently despite those views, then it certainly wouldn’t be valid to do that on the basis that the co-workers might not believe it; if the data shows that they are fair, those people need to accept it). It clearly wouldn’t be fair to fire them because people outside the company demand they be fired despite the fact that they do their jobs properly and the views they express don’t have an impact on their job, as that would be giving in to a demand to punish, and not a reasonable consequence. So if someone doesn’t approve of same-sex marriage, for example, and campaigned against it, it wouldn’t be a reasonable consequence that they lose their job as, say, a store clerk … or any other job, for that matter.

Of course, things aren’t simple in real-life, and there will be a number of grey areas. But for the most part, the right to free speech means that everyone has the right to express their views without the fear of undue and unreasonable consequences, and that people cannot impose consequences on people whose sole purpose is to try to push them into at least not expressing those ideas or even get them to change them. Ideas must be changed with discussion and debate, and must be tested in the marketplace of ideas. You are not allowed to bully people into shutting up or changing their ideas, no matter how odious you find them or how odious most people find them. The right to free speech doesn’t just protect us from the government’s attempts to do that, but from everyone’s attempts to do that. Denying that leaves us with a right to free speech that is not on the same playing field as all other rights, and so with a right to free speech that’s not worth having.

Why Do Atheists Denigrate Philosophy?

March 11, 2016

So, in response to the latest case of a scientist talking smack about philosophy — in this case, Bill Nye — P.Z. Myers and others are trying to defend why these people are willing to spout off like that wrt philosophy. Myers focuses on atheists:

It’s because so many smart people are idiots about psychology. I deal with a lot of atheists, and one of the many flaws in that group that have been coming to the fore lately is the obliviousness they have to their own motivations.

So, despite the fact that Myers is a biologist and not a psychologist, he’s going to feel free to opine about what their motivations really are. How do you get that much irony into a short paragraph?

Anyway, he opines this:

Atheists are all about the scienceyness. Good people are rational, objective, and unemotional, which whether they are aware of it or not, is a value judgment built on emotion. There is a lot of self-esteem-building going on, centered around who is smarter than who, who can build the most logical argument, and who is best at being aloofly superior. It’s all very annoying.

But, unfortunately for the atheists, philosophers tend to be better at the logical argument dealio than most of them are.

Um, except that the main objection of scientists and scientific atheists to philosophy has always been that their arguments don’t work, and don’t apply to the real world. Thus, the main counter is that philosophers only do logical argument, not empirical investigation. That might be a reaction to being outargued, but that’s hardly likely.

The other psychological gambit I’ve been seeing a great deal of is the herd mentality. Big name nerd disses philosophy; then swarms of followers agree, “Philosophy is a joke!”, and they all laugh and slap each others’ backs and cheer on more jeering at the stupid discipline.

This assumes that there wasn’t already an attitude that philosophy is a joke rampant in scientific and atheistic communities, which is, in fact, absolutely false. It isn’t a big name expressing their opinion and everyone following along, but the big name expressing an opinion that is common and getting the chorus back for doing it.

It’s especially irritating when groups of atheists fall into this trap, because their usual mantra is “show me the evidence,” and most of the ones playing this game have never studied philosophy at all.

So, if you read Myers’ article … where is the evidence, there, for his conclusions about their motivations?

Anyway, I’m going to tell you why atheists in general and even why scientists disparage philosophy. For atheists, it all starts from theology.

What we’ve seen in the atheistic movement is a general disparagement of theology, and that disparagement has taken on a particular form: theology is derided, mostly, for ignoring science and reality and empirical data in making its conclusions. These are the main objections to arguments like the Ontological Argument and the Cosmological Argument, and any number of theological claims. The problem is that these are, in fact, philosophical arguments, and the dismissal of those arguments has been that they simply can’t work to prove the existence of God, and just aren’t the right sort of arguments to generate any kind of truth. In order to find out truths, you have to use empirical methods, and the king of empirical methods is, in fact, science.

Myers’ “Courtier’s Reply” itself only adds to this problem, as when people are told that they need to read the relevant philosophy and theology to understand what the argument really is, they can invoke the “Courtier’s Reply” to, essentially, insist that they don’t need to read that sort of arguing to know what the obvious answers are. But for the Ontological Argument, a philosopher as august — and empirical — as Bertrand Russell said that it clearly isn’t obvious what’s wrong with the argument (even as he was convinced there was). So atheists were taught and taught methods to simply ignore philosophical arguments like the Ontological Argument, and to dismiss them without consideration. But since philosophy will, of course, not support that move, it would get involved and show that there’s more to the argument that a shallow examination will reveal. And so atheists will start to regard philosophy with suspicion, as an enabler of theology.

This only, then, gets worse when scientists and atheistic scientists start wading into areas that were traditionally philosophical. As they focus on empirical and scientific answers to these questions, they get philosophers pointing out that those answers don’t work, and are often far too shallow. And then, like Krauss, they get upset at philosophy, and insist that their empirical and scientific examinations are right. This leads them to insist that empirical methods are the only ones that can lead to truth, and that the problem with philosophy is that they don’t use empirical methods. They also see what they see as quibbling over definitions, and thus say that philosophers are only good at arguing because they play word and semantic games, not because they find truth. They also find the fact that good philosophers are well aware of the weaknesses of most philosophical positions and are comfortable with the fact that we, at least currently, don’t have proven answers for most of the important questions disturbing, because their justification for the effectiveness of science is that it has come up with great and testable answers. Philosophy hasn’t. How can it be a great system for generating truths if it hasn’t come up with some answers?

Thus, they suggest that philosophy needs to be more empirical. That philosophy constantly resists this for some of its biggest questions is taken as a sign that it is anti-empirical and anti-science. The problem is that philosophy doesn’t reject empirical and scientific answers a priori. Most atheistic critics of philosophy ignore the long standing naturalistic movement in philosophy, of which Dan Dennett is a member (and is one of the few philosophers they tend to like). The problem with these answers is not that they aren’t properly “philosophical”, but instead that they don’t work. And the reasons that they don’t work have been documented in philosophy for a long, long time now.

Ultimately, at the end of the day, scientists and particularly atheistic scientists fall into scientism because science answers the questions that they really want answered and gives shallow answers to the important philosophical questions that they want answered. Given that, they don’t understand and don’t see the need for a particularly philosophical approach, and feel that the philosophical approach provides cover for bad arguments and bad ideas, and at best only introduces doubt into the picture for a lot of other questions. Science’s approach works, and they can’t see how philosophy’s works, so what good is philosophy? No good, they conclude.

It comes down to them not understanding the field and the scope of the questions that philosophy is chasing, mixed in with being stuck in a mindset where the philosophical approach is foreign to them. Add in that philosophy often tells them that they ought not be so fast in rejecting conclusions that they think obvious and that it casts doubt on their most successful epistemic approaches, and they end up simply dismissing it as being out of touch. And thus, end up dismissing it entirely.

Exclusionary Code?

February 19, 2016

So, there’s a controversy in the R coding community (which I’ve never heard of, but that doesn’t mean anything). Again, this controversy strikes such a chord that both Vox Day and P.Z. Myers have commented on it. Again, you get no points for figuring out which side each of them is on. Anyway, here are the details:

It points to a line in the R source code containing a variable called, with all seriousness…


I don’t think that this is an intentional sexual reference – far from it, I’m certain it’s just due to an absence of familiarity with one particularly crass English idiom, and I have only ever known the developer who wrote the code (whose first language is not English) to be entirely proper, entirely reasonable, and the model of what a productive Core member should be.

But it needs to go anyway: it’s exclusionary as all hell to have language like this in the core implementation and we can’t expect people to instantly understand intentions.

The reaction to this change was, well, strong, to say the least:

The second was a set of emails from Duncan Murdoch, President of the R Foundation and an R Core member, in which he dismissed my “bug report” (note the skeptical scare quotes he put on it) “about some variable name that you find offensive is clearly an example of nothing more than shit-disturbing” and stated that myself, and those who had commented in favour of changing it, were no longer welcome to participate in R’s bug-tracker.

I independently confirmed that our accounts had been banned and locked – as had the bug, and replied to Duncan explaining my thinking and motivation and asking in what capacity the ban had been made.

Eventually, at least some of the people’s accounts were unlocked, and the change went through.

Now, the main question here is this: is it really the case that the variable name was “exclusionary as hell”, or was this a case where people should have just done the equivalent of “Heh, heh, ‘iGiveHead'” and went on their merry way? Note that everyone accepts that this was not intentional, and thus that it likely follows a personal or even standard variable naming convention that happens to produce this unfortunate phrasing given English sexual slang. So we can’t call it exclusionary on the basis that it was aimed even at being unprofessional, let alone that it was aimed at excluding certain people. So we need something else to make that case. What, then, makes that case?

If you follow the comments on Myers’ post, you’ll see a lot of people trying to explain why this is exclusionary, which ends up being nothing more than a massive set of psychobabble and pseudo-philosophy that, ultimately, says nothing at all. For example:

In a male-dominated culture, particularly one with a high content of brocialists, “iGiveHead” would be read as those who give head, and those who receive, split into the standard binary, giving more value, of course, to the natural receivers (themselves), and that reads sexist to me. Perhaps I’m alone on this one.

Caine is not alone on this one … but there is no reason to think that interpreting it that way is, in fact, at all reasonable or meaningful. Again, this wasn’t intentional, so no one is trying to say that, and most people will react to this with “Heh, heh, iGiveHead” in the same way as the OotS reacts to “Great Cleavage”. So this reaction really says more about the person who is taking offense than anyone else.

The best argument boils down to “It’s not professional”. And it isn’t. But I suspect that Oliver, when he submitted the report, was careful to point out that he wasn’t claiming any sexist intent on the part of the author … but still suggested that it needed to be changed because of its exclusionary and sexist implications. I might be wrong, but given the reaction I suspect that he didn’t just say that it was inadvertently unprofessional, but that it was inadvertently offensive, which spawned the reaction that all he was doing here was causing trouble. A simple comment of “Variable name is kinda unprofessional” probably wouldn’t have garnered the reaction that it did.

Which leads me to the idea that for something that those opposed to the change think is so minor, they’re certainly angered enough by it, a common complaint in the comments in Myers’ post. They’re not upset over the debate, but instead over the fact that, essentially, this is taken as a comment on the community with implications that don’t follow from an inadvertent “iGiveHead” variable name. Somehow, someone coming across that variable should think that the community is in some way “exclusionary”, and trying to cut them out of the community, when in reality most people think that it deserves a snort and moving on. It’s particularly bad here because, again, everyone concedes that it’s not intentional and just an inadvertent result of some kind of standard naming convention … but somehow someone just coming onto the project would be reasonable to assume that that one case is an indication both of the attitudes of the community as a whole and of attitudes that don’t even necessarily follow from the variable name itself.

The recent fights between “Social Justice Warriors” and myriad others, it seems to me, fits well into this pattern. While the “Social Justice Warriors” claim that they are merely commenting on specific events and attitudes and aren’t really attacking anyone, they almost always end up at least implying something about the attitudes of the community, and this gets revealed the instant someone doesn’t agree with their suggestions. And if you attack people for attitudes that they don’t have, they tend to react … badly, to say the least. Can those who advocate for “Social Justice” achieve their ends without attacking people directly, and just pointing out how things are, at least, inappropriate for the circumstances? It seems not, and maybe that’s because, despite all their claims to care mostly about the specific harms to specific people, they really care about far more than that … and, perhaps, not about that at all unless it also fulfills their specific Social Justice agenda.

(Yeah, that last bit is a bit inflammatory. Then again, this kinda annoys me, too, as I always here the “I only said X!” when, in my experience, they never merely say X).


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