Wednesday, January 29, 2014

New Questions at Wielding Power

Wielding Power has a new question up today: Should Leakers of Classified Government Wrong-Doings Be Punished?

That means there are currently three open questions:

Should Nations Go to War to Defend International Norms? (Deadline: This Sunday)

Should Nations Restrict Immigration? (Deadline: 3/2/2014)

Should Leakers of Classified Government Wrong-Doings Be Punished? (Deadline: 4/6/2014)

See here for more information.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Is Libertarianism Strange?

Two short articles on Libertarianism have been making the rounds today:

First, an article in the Boston Review, arguing that Libertarianism is Very Strange. The basic argument goes as follows:

(1) The Libertarian view of people as autonomous individuals is a historical anomaly. It's largely a Western (and particularly American) thing; for most of history and in most places, people have not been or seen themselves as free individuals, but as a part in a larger social fabric: "most world cultures have treated the individual as a limb of the household, lineage, or tribe".

(2) Larger, stronger governments have been the driving force behind the great improvements in Americans' "life expectancy, health, physical security, and living standards" in the last 100 years, and that modern nations with a high Human Development Index tend to have relatively large governments.

The second is a short response by Will Wilkinson, arguing that "The best places on Earth are also the W.E.I.R.D-est - Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic." In his view:

liberal individualism, liberal rights, and the high quality of life they produce are best sustained by a certain kind of powerful central state.
It's a sort-of liberal fusion of individual liberty with a powerful government, which he roughly brands: "neoliberalism".

Some Thoughts:

1. The first article is incredibly shallow.

1.a. Why does it matter whether viewing ourselves as autonomous individuals is a historical anomaly? Maybe it's an improvement. (Which is what the second article argued.)

1.b. The claim that large governments have been the cause of progress seems incredibly naive.

How does the author think this works? That the government just waves a magic wand, and *poof* you get progress? To take one of his examples, the list of "Very High Human Development" countries is almost exactly the same group of countries that have the highest GDP per capita.

The connection between being rich and having 'progress' or a better life is direct and obvious: either wealth lets you buy those things, or (more likely) the cultural traits that enable a country to get rich also enable it to improve its "life expectancy, health, physical security, and living standards".

Certainly, it seems hard for a country to get rich without a government that has a monopoly on force and enforces the laws. But beyond that, how would simply increasing government power and reducing individualism improve human development? The opposite story has happened far more often.

2. The second article is better, but vague and sloppy.

2.a. This article pointed out one of the problems with the first article (1.a. above).
That's great.

2.b. Saying, "The best places in the world have XYZ traits" would have been very different at different points in history.

For much of human history, China would have proudly declared itself to be 'one of the best places on Earth', but it would have fit almost none of those characterizations (especially by today's standards).

Had Will been living in continental Europe 400 years ago, before most of those factors had occurred, his argument would have concluded that either a monarchy like France or an empire like Rome was "uncontroversially the best humans had ever done."

Just because something is the best today doesn't mean something else can't be much better.

2.c. What does he mean by 'powerful central state' and how is that compatible with individualism?

Most people who argue for more individualism are first and foremost afraid of the abuse of concentrated government power. People try to accumulate more power, governments try to accumulate more power, and people and governments tend to use power to further their own ends. The more power and control you give over the single monopoly on force, the more it can abuse that power (often in the name of 'helping people'). How is that compatible with greater individual freedom?

Maybe modern Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic (WEIRD) countries are setting themselves up for terrific problems down the road, as their governments continue to accumulate power and start using that power against their own citizens in the name of safety.

But since he's super unclear about what sort of scope for government he's envisioning, it's hard to make a concrete argument against him.

3. There are plenty of other problems with Libertarianism.

As I've discussed here.

Friday, January 24, 2014

What's Wrong With Utilitarianism?

Welcome to Part 2 of the Political Theory Smackdown: Utilitarianism

(Part 1 was on Libertarianism.)

What is Utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism has many, many variants and so it eludes a precise definition. But most people would be satisfied with one or both of the following characterizations:

'The greatest good for the greatest number'


'Maximize happiness'

In essence, Utilitarianism is the moral form of 'cost-benefit analysis'. You tally up the good and the bad, and the action that leads to the most good/least bad is the one you should do. Whichever action leads to the best outcome is the one you should do. That sounds like an attractive way to make decisions!

Utilitarianism, then, is a form of ethics that looks at the consequences of actions, so it's sometimes called "Consequentialism". You can read more about the different variants of Utilitarianism on wikipedia or here.

There is great intuitive appeal to a system that says the way to fix our social and political problems is to do the thing that brings the most happiness. How can anyone disagree with that?

5 problems with Utilitarianism

1. It's meaningless.

At it's heart, utilitarianism is a maximization process, but what's being maximized? This is where the problems start, because that's really unclear. If you looked through the links above, you'll notice how the Utilitarians don't even agree amongst themselves what to maximize.

Is it something more objective, like 'pleasure' and 'pain'? (One problem with that approach is that you often find yourself trying to argue that certain pleasures are 'higher' or objectively better than other pleasures. For example, you might say that going to a classical concert is a 'higher' pleasure than getting drunk, even though most people would say they get more pleasure from getting drunk.)

Other people use looser language and talk about 'happiness' or 'utility' as the thing being maximized, where 'happiness' isn't necessarily an emotional state but a catch-all term for 'good outcomes' (again, whatever that means).

Others are careful to note that 'happiness' means something different to different people, so we should do those things that make the most people happy in their own way. Hence, 'the greatest good for the greatest number'.

So if you ever find yourself in a debate with a utilitarian, make sure you ask what they're maximizing. Why? Utilitarians can be very slippery- if you back them into a corner, they have so much wiggle-room in their idea of what 'better' is, that they can argue for almost any outcome they want. If they want something to occur, all they've got to do is argue for why what they want is 'better' than what they don't want. If they happen to believe that something is good, surprise! They will find some argument that will show that it'll maximize utility.

That's why there's so many flavors of Utilitarianism. If a particular flavor isn't giving you the outcome you want, just pick a new one. Like all good sophistry, you can argue for almost any conclusion using Utilitarianism and a flexible definition of what 'better' means.

2. Whatever it is, you can't measure it. 

Let's say you find a particularly honest utilitarian who gives you a consistent definition of what 'utility' is.

How do you measure how much happier or less happy a particular policy will make people?

The best attempts try to translate everything into common units, and dollars are usually the most convenient measurement.

Using dollars is also natural because businesses commonly operate based on a particular kind of utilitarianism called profit maximization. Cold, hard 'profit' substitutes for the warm, fuzzy 'happiness', and that makes decision-making far easier. Dollars and cents have undisputed meaning, and since maximizing profit seems like a sensible goal for companies, this particular version of utilitarianism dominates business and economic thinking.

The economic cost-benefit analysis of proposed laws is just an extension of this way of thinking. By translating everything (even the value of human life) into dollars, economists, policy-makers, and others can do a simple maximization problem to determine the best course of action. It's a very powerful tool.

But when you have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. The further you get from measuring the value of goods and services, the more hazy these calculations become. Say you face a tradeoff between freedom and security- is there any way of translating the 'freedom' and 'security' at stake into dollars that makes any sense and that people will agree with?

One of the great challenges of politics and society is that the things we care about are not easily comparable in value. If they were, we'd agree on them far more than we do. As it is, we spend a lot of time and energy arguing about the relative value of them. Which should be proof enough that reducing everything down into common terms is hopelessly naive.

3. Even if you could measure it, you can't calculate it.

Suppose you've figured out how to (roughly) measure what you care about. Even then, you can't do the utilitarian calculation in any reasonable amount of time. There are simply too many unknown variables to take into account. To do it right, you'd have to know all the possible variables, and how much each impacts every person's individual subjective happiness.

To get around this problem, some Utilitarians advocate rules-of-thumb as ways to make decisions more quickly and generally get good answers. You might not always do the best thing if you follow the rules, but in general and over time you would, so it's a useful shortcut.

But life involves many decisions, and each is nearly hopelessly complex from the utilitarian point of view, particularly when you're making a suggestion for a new law that will impact millions of people. If you don't yet have a rule-of-thumb, you've got to actually do the utilitarian calculation.

For example, take the question: Should you ban overt religious clothing in public schools? If this appears as a new question, you've got to assess all the possibilities and determine (somehow) how each would impact every person's individual subjective happiness. And maybe you should also consider how it would impact future generations? And how will you figure out what they'd prefer? And how much weight do you give the future generations' preferences?

The only hope for a utilitarian to answer this question is to argue in a very non-utilitarian way. They'd have to appeal to 'principles' or rules-of-thumb that in very broad strokes they believe improve happiness over long periods of time. But when those loose, broad 'principles' or rules-of-thumb conflict, what confidence can the utilitarian have that they're making the right decision in a particular case?

There are just too many unknowns to take into account to have much confidence in your conclusion.

4. It's Unfair.

This isn't surprising, since life is unfair. In a Utilitarian system, 'utility' or 'happiness' is the ultimate arbiter. There are no rights, no laws, no justice, no protection of minorities, nothing. Those things can only come if you can show that having them brings more 'happiness' than not having them. Not surprisingly, Utilitarians bend over backwards to show that under a 'proper' understanding of happiness, they can defend whatever social rule we believe is intuitively obvious. (Which just goes to the point we made before, where Utilitarianism can be used to conclude anything. An absolute monarch would be able to argue that his rule brought greater 'happiness' to his people than anything else.)

You can easily construct all sorts of 'what-ifs' that make Utilitarianism look absurd (e.g. it might make everyone far happier and more productive in life if we took all new-borns from their parents and raised them in a special facility using the latest advances in cognitive neuroscience). A Utilitarian apologist will construct some contorted rational for why the scheme you've cooked up wouldn't actually increase 'happiness' (usually by changing their definition of 'happiness'). But they've got to try because there is nothing in the utilitarian approach that guarantees any sort of fairness. So long as 'utility' is maximized, 'fairness' is irrelevant.

Again, to the utilitarian, 'unfairness' is just a flavor of 'unhappiness', which is to say that it has almost no real meaning. Try explaining to a lynch-mob using only Utilitarian reasons why they shouldn't murder their victim even though it would bring them great pleasure.

5. It undermines morality.

That brings us to the fifth point. 'Right' and 'wrong' don't really exist for the Utilitarian. There's just better and worse, as calculated by them.

As hinted at before, I think this eats at Utilitarians deep down, which is why they go to great twisting lengths to 'prove' that utilitarianism reaches the same conclusions as traditional 'right' and 'wrong'. Our intuitions say that some things are just right and others are just wrong, so the utilitarians try to reverse-engineer them.

For example, in the lynch-mob case, they've got to somehow argue that the lynch-mob shouldn't do it, even though the mob desperately wants to. After all, the value of a human life is only around 6 or 7 million dollars, so if you filled a football stadium with a blood-thirsty, ticket-paying mob, you could easily justify killing several people as a one-off event. (So long as the mob credibly promised to never do it again, you can't include 'future fear' as a negative cost.)

Or, in a more mundane image, most utilitarians have great difficulty arguing against a world where people just go around following their desires and ignoring what they believe is 'right'. They would look at the overweight, unhealthy person sitting and binge-watching TV and say 'great! they're doing what they want to do. They're preferences have been revealed by their actions. How can we improve the softness of their couch?' The great virtues of love and courage and fitness and friendship are ignored as people chase after the latest shiny toy in a futile attempt to fulfill their endless desires. To many utilitarians, that's a better world.

Final Thoughts

Utilitarianism has much going for it, and in some narrow applications where what you want to maximize is clear (e.g. business, some economic policy), it's probably a great way to make decisions.

But that doesn't mean that it's the best way to solve every problem.

As I've repeatedly noted, I don't expect to dissuade true believers by these arguments. If you were a utilitarian when you started reading this, then you probably still are now. Nevertheless, I think it's worth reflecting on why utilitarianism isn't the 'obvious' answer that so many people believe it to be.

Next Up: Liberalism

Friday, January 17, 2014

President Obama on the NSA

Obama's speech today on the NSA was long, but absolutely worth watching. Please do so; we're living in a new world and everyone's trying to figure out what the rules are.

For my part, I think that the only safe way through this tangle is to create the Oversight Branch.

Monday, January 13, 2014


What's the worst thing you can do? Harm someone. Or, at least, that's the nearly unanimous answer in this day and age.

It's worth pausing and thinking about that. The view is so deeply engrained in us that it's hard to imagine anything else. But that hasn't always been the answer. Something like Pride or Hubris has been the great crime in ages past. At other times and in other places, lust and sexual immorality was the taboo.

In the 1800s, John Stuart Mill stated the famous 'harm principle': "that the only purpose for which power can rightfully be exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."

Many complaints have been leveled against this principle ('what constitutes harm?'), but it has wormed it's way into the modern subconscious. (Meanwhile, the notion of 'harm' has elastically expanded to justify almost any government action.)

Is this for the better or for the worse?

It is certainly easier to build a society around minimizing harm than minimizing pride or lust. Harm is an obvious action, not a mental state, so it's easier for outsiders to judge. Plus, harm has a victim, who can be easily motivated by retribution or 'justice' to say when harm has befallen them. Lust of other vices can easily be done quietly with willing participants away from others. That makes it much harder to police.

You also get societal benefits from reducing harm. By reducing harm as an option, you can't just steal from others to get what you want, you've got to give them something they want. Moreover, if people feel more confident that others aren't going to harm them, they're able to plan more accurately for the future. Thinking about and planning for the future improves our behavior today, because we have to align our actions and work to get the results we want. Many of the things we want take time and planning to achieve. If we don't bother to plan, we likely won't get them, which makes life worse.

And, of course, people like not being harmed.

But there are plenty of other vices out there. By obsessing over harm, it's really easy to think harm is the most important thing to avoid and excuse ourselves from all the others.

There are also other downsides, which I'll explore in a later post.

On the whole, I think it's probably for the best that we worry about harm (for the reasons above), but we probably shouldn't be too self-congratulatory about it, since our obsession with it often causes us to stumble in many other ways.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Is Anything Wrong With Performance Enhancing Drugs?

In sports, performance enhancing drugs are seen as 'cheating' and 'interfering with the purity of the sport'. It's thrilling to see an athlete like Lance Armstrong compete on an extraordinary level, but we're disappointed (even if not totally shocked) when we discover his achievements were boosted by supplements.

Why are we disappointed? I'm no expert in doping, but many people think it's likely that most of the top riders were also doing it. 'If Lance wasn't doing anything different, that shouldn't diminish his accomplishment. After all, he still did it.' So what's the big deal?

Malcolm Gladwell has suggested that perhaps performance-enhancing drugs make sports more pure by reducing the 'unfair' impact of genetics and making sports more about the will to win. Drugs level the genetic playing field and make practice more important than natural ability.

Would we think doping is ok, so long as everyone knows it's part of the rules? Maybe as long as we expect the players in a sport to be artificially enhanced, we're ok with it. Mr. Gladwell suggests this too, by noting all the ways baseball players can upgrade themselves that we're totally ok with (such as getting laser eye surgery to see the ball better). We viewers would know, going in, that we were watching enhanced players, so we wouldn't feel tricked when we found out how they did it. There might even be excitement and gossip about which enhancement techniques different players were using, and which ones worked best. Plus, you'd get to see the sport played on a far higher level than you had before.

Is that right? Is that what we want?

Would we line up to see a robotic golfer hit a near-perfect shot every time? Would we be more excited to watch basketball players who'd grown to 8 ft tall through some science fiction tweaking of their hormones in adolescence?

With the pace of medicine and robotics, it's not crazy to think that in 100 years super-enhanced humans or robots (or part-human, part-robot) could play all of our sports at a level unthinkable today. There could be 'enhanced' and 'classic' versions of every sport.

My guess is that we'd think the 'enhanced' version were somehow cheaper and less interesting versions of the sport. While some people will inevitably gravitate to the 'enhanced' version, I think we like sports because of the human achievement. We love seeing what people can do with what they were given 'out of the box'. We can identify with that achievement as fellow humans and admire the mix of skill and luck that got that athlete to where they are. We say, "wow! look at what that person did". If we can't imagine getting those enhancements ourselves, we can't really identify with players anymore. We can identify with a strict diet, lifting weights, training, eating dietary supplements, or even getting eye or ligament surgery. And so we're ok with those modifications. But we can't imagine injecting ourselves with steroids or re-injecting ourselves with vials of our own enhanced blood. We don't see that person as one of us anymore, and so aren't wow'd by them in the same way.

In the end, I think we see performance enhancing drugs as making us less human (or 'super' human).

I mostly agree with that. An 'enhanced' version of a sport would quickly become less about the sport and more about an engineering problem: what digital, mechanical, chemical, or biological changes would best increase performance? The nature of the 'enhanced' sport is very different from the nature of the 'classic' sport.

As an example, imagine watching three games of chess:

Human vs. Human

Computer vs. Computer

Human armed with Computer vs. Human armed with Computer

The interest in each of those is completely different. You're admiring and cheering on totally different abilities in each case. Computer programmers will likely identify with the second one the most and find it the most interesting, whereas the rest of us will identify the most with the first (though, increasingly the third as well), and will thus find it the most captivating.

Sports tap deeply into the human psyche and trigger in us a sense of what it means to be human. What's wrong with performance enhancing drugs is that they violate that sense. (Though, as the chess example shows, our notion of what it means to be human can evolve too...)