What’s wrong with Sherlock Holmes

http://moicani.over-blog.com/2018/07/ceci-n-est-pas-sherlock-holmes.htmlThe other day, Aeon published an outstanding short essay by Professor Rima Basu of Claremont McKenna College. Professor Basu argues that, when applied to humans, the sort of detached, empathy-free reasoning dramatized in fiction by Sherlock Holmes is reliable neither as a source of factually accurate information nor as an incentive to morally acceptable behavior. Professor Basu writes:

Consider how upset Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters get with Sherlock Holmes for the beliefs this fictional detective forms about them. Without fail, the people whom Holmes encounters find the way he forms beliefs about others to be insulting. Sometimes it’s because it is a negative belief. Often, however, the belief is mundane: e.g., what they ate on the train or which shoe they put on first in the morning. There’s something improper about the way that Holmes relates to other human beings. Holmes’s failure to relate is not just a matter of his actions or his words (though sometimes it is also that), but what really rubs us up the wrong way is that Holmes observes us all as objects to be studied, predicted and managed. He doesn’t relate to us as human beings.

She continues:

This kind of indifference to the effect one has on others is morally criticisable. It has always struck me as odd that everyone grants that our actions and words are apt for moral critique, but once we enter the realm of thought we’re off the hook. Our beliefs about others matter. We care what others think of us.

I’m reminded of a little incident that took place five or ten years ago. I teach ancient Greek and Latin in a university in the midwestern USA. I was telling one of my classes, an ancient civilization class conducted in English, about family life in ancient Greece. My explanations usually tend to lean on the brutally economic side, so when I came to the custom of exchanging dowries, everything I said was about the role that dowry exchange played in underwriting joint business ventures between neighboring farmers.

One student who came up to me after this presentation was obviously struggling to restrain her anger. In fact, she was furious with me. She was from India, and when she got married, her family gave her husband a dowry. As she labored to keep herself calm, she explained to me that giving him a dowry wasn’t “about” the economic relationship between the households. It was “about” mutual respect between the families, it was “about” the idea of a common future, it was “about” a pledge to be available to each other in times of need.

Now, I had addressed all of those points in my presentation. But I had subordinated all of them all to the cold facts of the struggle for existence and the high stakes of trust in a subsistence economy. So at first, I just encouraged her to keep talking. After she seemed to have run out of things to say, I asked if she had reason to believe that anything I had said about the ancient Greeks was false. She thought for a second and said no, that it might all have looked that way in the cold light of economic analysis, but that the people inside the culture could never have looked at it in such a light. So I was missing the most important point of the whole custom by presenting it as I did.

The reference to Sherlock Holmes reminds me of an event in a story featuring one of the most appallingly wicked fictional characters ever to anchor a series of popular novels, Brigadier General Sir Harry Flashman, VC, KCB, KCIE. In one of George MacDonald Fraser’s last Flashman stories, 1999’s Flashman and the Tiger, the old reprobate has managed to tangle himself up in some bad business with Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis Tiger Jack Moran. After Moran fails in the attempt, described in “The Adventure of the Empty House,” to assassinate Holmes, Flashman tries to escape arrest and disgrace by flopping down on the street and pretending to be a derelict in an alcoholic stupor. Two characters whom he does not name as Holmes and Watson come near:

If they’ve any sense they’ll just pass by, thinks I– well, don’t you, when you see some ragged bummaree sleeping it off in the gutter? But no, curse their nosiness, they didn’t. The footsteps stopped beside me, and I chanced a quick look at ’em through half-closed lids– a tall, slim cove in a long coat, bare-headed and balding, and a big, hulking chap with a bulldog moustache and a hard hat. They looked like a poet and a bailiff.

“What’s this?” said the bailiff, stooping over me.

“A tramp,” says the poet. “One of the flotsam, escaping his misery in a few hours of drunken slumber.”

“Think he’s all right?” says the bailiff, rot him, and blow me if he wasn’t fumbling for my pulse. “Going at full gallop,” says he, and blast his infernal impudence, he put a hand on my brow. “My goodness, but he’s feverish. D’you think we should get help for him?”

“You’ll get no thanks beyond a flood of curses if you do,” says the poet carelessly. “Really, doctor, even without close examination my nose can tell me more than your fingers. The fellow is hopelessly under the influence of drink– and rather inferior drink, at that, I fancy,” says he, stooping and sniffing at the fumes that were rising from my sodden breast.  “Yes, American bourbon, unless I am mistaken. The odour is quite distinctive– you may have remarked that to the trained senses, each spirit has its own peculiar characteristics; I believe I have in the past drawn your attention to the marked difference between the rich, sugary aroma of rum, and the more delicate sweet smell of gin,” says this amazing lunatic. “But what now?”

The bailiff, having taken his liberties with my wrist and my brow, was pausing in the act of trying to lift one of my eyelids, and his next words filled me with panic.

“Good Lord!” he exclaimed. “I believe I know this chap. But no, it can’t be surely– only he’s uncommonly like that old general… oh, what’s-his-name? You know, made such a hash of the Khartoum business, with Gordon… yes, and years ago he won a great name in Russia, and the Mutiny– VC and knighthood– it’s on the tip of my tongue–”

“My dear fellow,” says the high-pitched poet, “I can’t imagine who your general might be– it can hardly be Lord Roberts, I fancy– but it seems more likely that he would choose to sleep in his home or his club, rather than in an alley. Besides,” he went on wearily, stooping a little closer– and damned unnerving it was, to feel those two faces peering at me through the gloom, while I tried to sham insensible– “besides, this is a nautical, not a military man; he is not English, but either American or German– probably the latter, since he certainly studied at a second rate German university, but undoubtedly he has been in America quite lately. He is known to the police, is currently working as a ship’s steward, or in some equally menial capacity at sea, — for I observe that he has declined even from his modest beginnings– and will, unless I am greatly mistaken, be in Hamburg by the beginning of next week– provided he wakes up in time. More than that–” says the know-all ignoramus, “I cannot tell you from a superficial examination. Except of course for the obvious fact that he found his way here via Piccadilly Circus.”

“Well,” says the other doubtfully, “”I’m sure you’re right, but he looks extremely like old what’s-his-name. But how on earth can you tell so much about him from so brief a scrutiny?”

“You have not forgotten my methods since we last met, surely?” says the conceited ass, who I began to suspect was some kind of maniac. “Very well, apply them. Observe,” he went on impatiently, “that the man wears a pea-jacket, with brass buttons, which is seldom seen except on sea-faring men. Add that to the patent fact that he is a German, or German-American–”

“I don’t see,” began the bailiff, only to be swept aside.

“The dueling scars, doctor! Observe them, quite plain, close to the ears on either side.” He’d sharp eyes, all right, to spot those; a gift to me from Otto Bismarck, years ago. “They are the unfailing trade-mark of the German student, and since they have been inexpertly inflicted– you will note that they are too high– it is not too much to assume that he received them not at Heidelberg or Gottingen, but at some less distinguished academy. This suggests a middle-class beginning from which, obviously, he has descended to at least the fringes of crime.”

“How can you tell that?”

“The fine silver flask in his hand was not honestly acquired by such a seedy drunkard as this, surely. It is safe to deduce that its acquisition was only one of many petty pilferings, some of which must inevitably have attracted the attention of the police.”

“Of course! Well, I should have noticed that. But how can you say that he is a ship’s steward, or that he has been in America, or that he is going to Hamburg–”

“His appearance, although dissipated, is not entirely unredeemed. Some care has been taken with the moustache and whiskers, no doubt to compensate for the ravages which drink and evil living have stamped on his countenance.” I could have struck the arrogant, prying bastard, but I grimly kept on playing possum. “Again, the hands are well-kept, and the nails, so he is not a simple focsle hand. What, then, but a steward? The boots, although cracked, are of exceptionally good manufacture– doubtless a gratuity from some first-class passenger. As to his American sojourn, we have established that he drinks bourbon whisky, a taste for which is seldom developed outside the United States. Furthermore, since I noticed from the shipping lists this morning that the liner Brunnhilde has arrived in London from New York, and will leave on Saturday for Hamburg, I think we may reasonably conclude, bearing in mind the other points we have established, that here we have one of her crew, mis-spending his shore leave.”

“Amazing!” cries the bailiff. “And of course, quite simple when you explain it. My dear fellow, your uncanny powers have not deserted you in your absence!”

“I trust they are still equal, at least, to drawing such obvious inferences as these. And now, doctor, I think we have spent long enough over this poor, besotted hulk, who, I fear, would have provided more interesting material for a meeting of the Inebriation Society than for us. I think you will admit that this pathetic shell has little in common with your distinguished Indian general.”

“Unhesitatingly!” cries the other oaf, standing up, and as they sauntered off, leaving me quaking with relief and indignation– drunken ship’s dogsbody from a second-rate German university, indeed!– I heard him ask:

“But how did you know he got here by way of Piccadilly?”

“He reeked of bourbon whisky, which is not easy to obtain outside the American Bar, and his condition suggested he had filled his flask at least once since coming ashore…”

I waited until the coast was clear, and then creaked to my feet and hurried homeward, stiff and sore and stinking of brandy (bourbon, my eye! — as though I’d pollute my liver with that rotgut) and if my “besotted shell” was in poor shape, my heart was rejoicing.

(Pages 309-312 in George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman and the Tiger, London, 1999)

(Someone called “Workshysteve” has recreated this scene in Lego here; it looks like this: Screenshot 2019-05-24 at 10.33.29 PM)

 

 

 

 

A thought experiment

Einstein made “thought experiments” famous. “Suppose you are traveling on a beam of light,” that sort of thing, where you lay out a hypothetical situation and focus your attention strictly on the terms of the hypothesis, taking care not to put the situation into any context where you would be inclined to draw analogies between it and something about which you already have knowledge. I suppose thought experiments are just the thing when you’re trying to think about something like the relationship between space and time, where our usual habits of mind are not of much help. I’m usually skeptical about thought experiments as a guide to understanding anything that goes on among humans, but I wouldn’t dismiss them entirely as a tool for clearing our minds of prejudice in any field.

The other day, novelist William Gibson proposed a thought experiment on Twitter:

Before posting my reply, I scrolled through the thread to see whether anyone had already said what I wanted to say. Several came close. For example:

To this and other tweets making similar points, Mr Gibson answered with a reminder that the terms of the hypothetical specify that the abductors can be trusted. Since the first rule of thought experiments is that you have to accept the terms of the hypothesis, this was all that had to be said about the matter.

This poster came closer to what I had in mind:

Mr Gibson is a novelist. A very strange novelist, but a novelist nonetheless, and so it was quite reasonable of this person to expect him to have some kind of plot twist in mind that would develop from the psychological motives of his characters. Still, Mr Gibson’s occupation is not part of the terms of the hypothesis, and so it really isn’t playing the game to bring this information in.

This person is also thinking novelistically:

This person seems to have a happy-go-lucky attitude, though it is unclear how deeply s/he has engaged the hypothetical:

This person did stay within the rules:

Though perhaps it occupies too narrow a space within the rules. The terms of the hypothetical are not phrased so as to exclude the possibility that meta-analysis of their own use of words might be the best solution, though I think a minimal application of the principle of charity will incline us away from that approach.

Intriguing responses all. But I had something else to say, and it took me three tweets to say it. Here they are:

“If you accept that, however, there is nothing to stop you attempting to escape or to overpower them”- I thought of making an explicit allowance that what is preventing you doing those things is some threat that frightens you even more than the thought of being killed, but I was already posting three tweets on a thread to which no one else had posted more than one, so I decided against making it even longer.

That it is “only one of a list of conditions” means that it is not the case that they will kill you if and only if you win the lottery. It means only that your winning the lottery is one of the circumstances in which they would be prompted to kill you. By “indefinably long,” I mean that there is no rationally discoverable principle that will set a boundary to the range of conditions under which they will kill you.

Why am I playing the game by importing information about how characters like those in the hypothetical are likely to behave when others were not playing the game by importing information about that topic, or about Mr Gibson’s occupation, or about anything else? Because I showed that the hypothesis was incomplete. The hypothesis rests on the assumption that the captive has sufficient reason to fear the abductors that s/he must submit to the threat of murder, but does not specify what those reasons are. This opens the door to a substantial amount of outside information.

Baby Hitler

1_28_cityontheedge

From Planet of Hats  #28, by David Morgan-Mar

From time to time, public interest flares up in a thought experiment invented to illustrate a problem in ethical theory. It’s something utilitarians came up to answer deontologists. Deontologists are ethicists who think that some actions are wrong simply because they are always wrong.  It is supposed to be a comeback in a conversation utilitarians fantasize about having. The deontologist gives “murdering a baby” as an example of an action that is always wrong. The utilitarian comes back with, “What if the baby is Hitler and you’re a time traveler? You could prevent the Holocaust and World War Two by murdering that baby!”

 

To which a wide variety of responses are of course possible. What always gets me about it is the same thing that gets me about utilitarianism generally, which is that it requires people to act on the basis of knowledge which is not in fact available to humans. In order for a utilitarian to know how to act, that utilitarian would have to find himself or herself in some ludicrously improbable situation. The fondness of utilitarians for thought experiments that require the total isolation of the hypothetical from any context is symptomatic, not only of the nature of philosophy as a profession, but also of the impossibility of performing any form of the hedonistic calculus in the circumstances of actual human life.

Bulking large in the context from which this particular experiment requires us to isolate the hypothetical are the implications of the idea that the agent is capable of time travel. I’ve tweeted about this several times. Here is the most recent example:

Other people also think it is silly. Here is a series of short-short stories about Hitler-killing in the form of a Wikipedia talk page. Some excerpts:

At 18:06:59, BigChill wrote:
Take it easy on the kid, SilverFox316; everybody kills Hitler on their first trip. I did. It always gets fixed within a few minutes, what’s the harm?

At 18:33:10, SilverFox316 wrote:
Easy for you to say, BigChill, since to my recollection you’ve never volunteered to go back and fix it. You think I’ve got nothing better to do?

11/16/2104
At 10:15:44, JudgeDoom wrote:
Good news! I just left a French battlefield in October 1916, where I shot dead a young Bavarian Army messenger named Adolf Hitler! Not bad for my first time, no? Sic semper tyrannis!

At 10:22:53, SilverFox316 wrote:
Back from 1916 France I come, having at the last possible second prevented Hitler’s early demise at the hands of JudgeDoom and, incredibly, restrained myself from shooting JudgeDoom and sparing us all years of correcting his misguided antics. READ BULLETIN 1147, PEOPLE!

At 15:41:18, BarracksRoomLawyer wrote:
Point of order: issues related to Hitler’s service in the Bavarian Army ought to go in the World War I forum.

Here’s an SMBC:

hitler killers

I’m particularly fond of this xkcd:

kill_hitler

There’s also some good stuff on the TVTropes page about time travelers killing Hitler.

Taxes and Tyranny

One of the very first bits of political writing I ever read on the World Wide Web was this 1996 column from a British libertarian named Jan Clifford Lester. Professor Lester argues that only taxpayers should be allowed to vote. After discussing the slogan “Taxation Without Representation is Tyranny,” he goes on:

This then prompted me to consider the converse proposition: Representation Without Taxation Is Tyranny. It would, of course, be a fallacy to think that this is entailed by the first proposition. But surely it is just as reasonable. It was accepted by most people as a fair limit on the franchise in the mid-nineteenth century. Why should people who are not taxpayers be allowed to vote money away from those who are? If we must have state services, it should at least be for those who pay for them to vote for which services they want and how much they wish to pay. To allow those providing, or living off, the services to vote is like allowing a shopkeeper to vote on what you must buy from him, or a beggar to vote on what you must give him. Naturally, I hear you say, but doesn’t everyone pay tax, at least on goods and services? And so is it not trivially true, insofar as morals can be ‘true’? No, they do not and it is not. Not by a very long chalk.

Professor Lester then differentiates state employees, who are paid out of taxes, from others who are not:

To take a clear case, when a direct state employee, such as a civil servant, receives his salary cheque there will be an apparent deduction for the amount of tax that he pays. As a matter of fact this is a mere book-keeping exercise designed to keep up the pretence that he is a taxpayer along with everyone else. Abandoning this pretence of taxpaying and simply paying him less in the first place would save taxpayers’ money in administration and make the political reality clearer to all.

If a “direct state employee” is merely “a clear case,” what other cases are there?:

So who does not pay taxes and so ought not to have an electoral vote? Judges, state-school teachers, all in local government, state policemen, all in the armed forces, all in prison, all in the NHS, all in the civil service, all employees of the BBC, all the unemployed, all in academia (except, perhaps, in the University of Buckingham), some farmers, some solicitors, maybe some barristers, any employed in businesses that receive tax-subsidies in excess of their tax-payments, and MPs with insufficient taxed market-incomes to cover their salaries. I cannot list them all, but you see the size of the problem. You can also see that there is no class conflict in any quasi-Marxian sense here.

Who, then, does pay taxes? Well — anyone who is left. If you are in any doubt as to which category that you are in then the simple test is to ask yourself whether, in your current position, you would have more purchasing power or less purchasing power if taxation were completely abolished.

That is rather a sweeping list- denying the franchise to “any employed in businesses that receive tax-subsidies in excess of their tax-payments,” for example, would mean that a great many people would have to wait for the results of quite a thoroughgoing audit of their employers before they would know whether they would have a place at the ballot box. And if we take Professor Lester’s “simple test” at face value, no one would be qualified to vote. If “taxation were completely abolished,” taking with it all enforcement of laws, one might expect new obstacles to be put in the path of wealth creation.

Professor Lester reaches his conclusion:

There are some who are on the periphery of net tax-receiving and whom it will not be possible to distinguish with certainty. These people receive most of their income from purchases by state institutions or state employees. The latter is especially hard to be sure of. For instance, those working for The Guardian and New Statesman &Society might just fit this category. But if it is too hard to prove then they might have to be given the benefit of the doubt. Though if the state sector shrinks, due to a new Taxpayer Democracy, then enterprises will decline to the extent that they necessarily depend on indirect state patronage. In the case of the latter two publications I would expect such journals as The Times and The Spectator to expand to replace them.

In view of the percentage of economic activity in modern societies that “purchases by state institutions and state employees” represent, one rather doubts that even The Spectator would pass this test.

And why stop there? If the employees of The New Statesman are disfranchised because most of their subscribers are net tax recipients, why should employees of the bar across the street from the offices of The New Statesman retain the right to vote? And if those workers are classified as net tax recipients because most of their income is derived from purchases made by net tax recipients, shouldn’t any purchases they make, and any purchase the bar makes, also be classified as a transfer of tax monies? Follow those knock-ons far enough, and again we come to a scenario in which voting is abolished altogether.

Moreover, while there are various schools of thought which propose that in a well-ordered society the laws defining those relationships among people which we call “property” could be written in a way that would reflect some moral reality given in nature, the radicalism of Professor Lester’s proposal would suggest that he does not believe that the UK has attained a particularly high level of justice. So, how can he consider any corporation chartered and regulated by the British state, even if the voting shares of that corporation’s stock are held by private individuals, to be less than suspect?

And what of tax recipients in other countries?  To return to his examples of The New Statesman and The Guardian, while it may in 1996 have been the case that both of these publications derived most of their revenue from net recipients of UK taxes, two thirds of  The Guardian’s revenue now comes from readers outside the UK, half of them in the United States. Few of these readers are in the pay of the British state, but it is possible that most of them are net tax recipients in their own countries. If so, would employees of The Guardian still be disqualified from voting in Britain because they are indirect recipients of US tax dollars?

Nor is that the only implication. Professor Lester is surely right that our conception of taxpaying is too narrow if it is simply limited to figures that appear on ledgers. I would not defend the idea that the line on a state employee’s pay stub indicating that some number of pounds or dollars has been deducted from his or her gross pay represents actual taxpaying. On the other hand, his conception of tax-receiving is just as narrow as this. So in the USA, profitable corporations pay their shareholders far less in dividends, and their executives far more in compensation, than do their counterparts in other advanced countries. This is largely the result of the US corporate income tax, under which companies pay taxes on money they distribute as dividends but not on money they pay to executives. Therefore, a rational analysis of taxes in the USA should classify as tax payments all compensation executives receive in excess of what their counterparts receive in countries with different tax regimes. That analysis would reveal that many of the individuals who are in the habit of regarding themselves as the USA’s greatest taxpayers are in fact net recipients of tax dollars. Professor Lester would have to deny them the franchise as well.

In fact, Professor Lester’s proposal might have some rather amusing consequences if applied to the USA. Not only executive compensation, but interest payments are also deductible from the corporate income tax. That encourages US firms to take on far more debt than do their counterparts in other countries. Those debt levels in turn give rise to the private equity sector, the “corporate raiders” who sometimes make such a big splash in the business pages. If we classify them as net tax recipients and on that account deprive them of the vote, we would suddenly have a bunch of disfranchised billionaires and centi-millionaires running about. I confess that I would find it difficult to refrain from laughing out loud if corporate raider-turned-politico Willard “Mitt” Romney were to lose the right to vote.

What brought this old column to my mind was an essay that popped up in my Twitter feed this morning, a 2017 piece by philosopher Philip Goff. Professor Goff begins with the observation that right-wing libertarians who denounce all taxation as theft are only the most extreme advocates of a widespread notion, the notion that what is listed on pay stubs and other accounting instruments as a payee’s pre-tax income is property to which that payee is morally entitled.  Again, this is the fallacy that Professor Lester identified, equating taxpaying with ledger items rather than with the actual allocation of resources.

Professor Goff writes:

Your gross, or pre-tax income, is the money the market delivers to you. In what sense might it be thought that you have a moral claim on this money? One answer might be that you deserve it: you have worked hard and have done a good job, and consequently you deserve all your gross income as recompense for your labour. According to this line of reasoning, when the government taxes, it takes the money that you deserve for the work you do.

This is not a plausible view. For it implies that the market distributes to people exactly what they deserve for the work that they do. But nobody thinks a hedge-fund manager deserves many times more wealth than a scientist working on a cure for cancer, and few would think that current pay ratios in companies reflect what philosophers call desert claims. Probably you work very hard in your job, and you make an important contribution. But then so do most people, and the market distribution of wealth patently does not reward in proportion to how hard-working people are, or how much of a contribution they make to society. If we were just focusing on desert, then there is a good case for taxation to correct the amoral distribution of the market.

If we have a moral claim on our gross income, it is not because we deserve it, but because we are entitled to it. What’s the difference? What you deserve is what you ought to have as a result of hard work or social contribution; what you are entitled to is the result of your property rights. Libertarians believe that each individual has natural property rights, which it would be immoral for the government to infringe. According to Right-wing libertarians such as Robert Nozick and Murray Rothbard, taxation is morally wrong not because the taxman takes what people deserve, but because he takes what people have a right to.

Therefore, if taxation is theft, it’s because it essentially involves the violation of people’s natural rights to property. But do we really have natural rights to property? And even if we do, does taxation really infringe them? To begin to address these questions, we need to think more carefully about the nature of property.

Professor Goff distinguishes between three schools of thought. Right libertarians hold that all things that have value to humans gained that value because someone discovered those things and by his or her labor created that value. For them, it is a truth inherent in the structure of the world that each individual has inalienable right to possess the fruits of his or her labor. Property law represents an attempt to tease out the moral facts that make up this truth. Property law must therefore recognize ownership as a relationship between a particular person and a particular object, and it must prohibit all other persons from interfering with this relationship.

Left libertarians agree that property law is just if and only if it teases out moral facts about the relationship between people and things. However, they do not accept that these facts are as Right libertarians say they are. Rather, they believe that it is unjust for any one person to lay exclusive claim to nature. At its most extreme, Left libertarianism proscribes ownership of anything other than one’s own body. At its most modest, it lays down rules enjoining requirements for sharing what one does own, and insisting on joint responsibility among members of a community for the use of the resources under their control.

Opposed to both varieties of libertarians are the social constructivists. Professor Goff summarizes their views thus:

Libertarians believe that property rights are natural, reflecting basic moral facts about the world. Others hold that property rights are merely legal, social constructions, which are created by us and can be shaped to suit our purposes. We can call the latter view ‘social constructivism’ about property. (Please note, our focus here is specifically on social constructivism about property; we are not considering a more general position according to which morality as a whole is a social construction.)

To bring out the difference, ask yourself: ‘Which comes first: facts about property or facts about property law?’ For the social constructivist, the right to property is not some natural, sacred thing that exists independently of human conventions and legal practices. Rather, we create property rights, by setting up legal institutions to ensure that people have certain legal rights over the material world. For the libertarian, in contrast, facts about property exist independently of human laws and conventions, and indeed human laws and conventions ought to be moulded to respect the natural right to property.

This distinction is crucial for our question. Suppose we accept the social-constructivist view that property rights are merely legal. Now we ask the question: ‘Do I have a moral claim on the entirety of my pre-tax income?’ We cannot argue that I am entitled to my pre-tax income on the basis of my natural property rights, as there are no such things as ‘natural’ property rights (according to the social-constructivist position we are now considering). So, if I have a moral claim on my entire pre-tax income, this must be because it is exactly the amount of money I deserve for my hard work and social contribution, presumably because in general the market delivers to each person exactly what they deserve. But we have already concluded that this is not a plausible claim. Without the belief in natural property rights, existing independent of human laws and conventions, there is no way to make sense of the idea that the deliverances of the market are inherently just, and hence no way to make sense of the idea that each person’s gross income (which is just the income the market delivers to them) is hers by right.

Here’s where we’re up to: to make sense of the idea that taxation is (moral) theft, we have to make sense of the idea that each person has a moral claim on the entirety of her gross income, and this can be made sense of only if property rights are natural rather than mere human constructions.

Further:

As already discussed, social constructivists do not deny the existence of property rights, rather they take them to be social or legal constructions, which humans are free to shape to reflect what they deem valuable. Jesus declared that ‘The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.’ Analogously, for the social constructivist, property rights are made to serve human interests and not vice versa.

It is plausible that human flourishing requires certain legally protected rights to property, and hence most social constructivists will advocate a system of property rights. At the same time, there are other things of value – perhaps equality, perhaps reward for hard work and/or social contribution (which as we have seen is not well-protected by the market) – and in order to promote these other values, most social constructivists propose making property rights conditional on the payment of taxes. In the absence of pre-existing natural property rights, there is no moral reason to respect the market distribution of wealth (there will of course be pragmatic, economic reason, but that is another matter).

Professor Goff argues that Right libertarianism fails at two points. First, it cannot answer the basic claims of Left libertarianism, and so fails at the outset. Second, even if we choose to overlook this failing, it can defend the idea that gross income is a measure of special moral importance if and only if it can demonstrate that the market is operating in its best possible state, in no way distorted by political intervention. As this claim would leave Right libertarians without much of anything else to say, they would seem unlikely to adopt it.

I would like to add one point to Professor Goff’s description of social constructivism. Many years ago, I studied the legal codes of ancient Rome. I can’t say that much stuck with me from that study, but one thing I remember very clearly is that every time the ancients said they had “rights” they specified against whom they had those rights.  That is to say, rights were definitions of what was and what was not allowed in particular relationships among people. The concept of rights is simply not relevant to relationships between people and inanimate objects.

A property right describes, not what may happen between a person and a thing s/he owns, but among various people who might encounter that thing. That’s why I can’t kick your door down, but a police officer with the proper warrant can. Your ownership of your door gives you rights against me that it doesn’t give you against the agents of law enforcement. Likewise with the various actions allowed a tenant and a landlord with regard to the same location. Or for that matter, with regard to the right of free speech a citizen may have against the state, as opposed to the rights that same citizens might have against the owners of a social media platform with terms and conditions specifying that they can “terminate your account at any time, for any reason or no reason.” You may be able to challenge their particular exercise of that right in court, but if so it isn’t because you have the same right against them that you have against the state. Rather, it is because there are rights built into the law of contract that sometimes override particular provisions parties may write into a particular agreement.

It seems to me that the social constructivist view of property law is obviously right, and that the both varieties of libertarian are simply being childish. If you disagree, well, there is a comment section.

To know what is right

Here’s a Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal strip that I’ve been silently disagreeing with for about a week:

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The part with which I disagree is “Moral standing is assigned to other creatures based on how similar they are to average human intelligence.” I’d say that the key consideration is that social life among humans involves an intricate mixture of competition and cooperation. Because a great deal is often at stake in our competitions with one another, conflicts of interest often render our judgments regarding one another unreliable.  Because the most valuable goals for which we compete can be fully attained only among people who trust each other to act charitably toward one another, excessively aggressive behavior in competitive situations is usually counterproductive at both the individual level and for society at large.

Therefore, codes governing human conduct must begin by acknowledging that no one can be the judge in his or her our own cause.  When we deal with someone who is in competition with us for the good things in life, we cannot justly demand the power to force that person to accept our decision that we should have access to these things and s/he should not. If we are not in direct competition, then perhaps one of us might be acceptable as judge over the other.

An extreme case would be selective breeding of humans.  In various societies there have from time to time been projects to establish a central authority to decide who is allowed to reproduce and who is not.  Since reproduction is one of the principal functions towards which humans and other living beings tend to be oriented, the stakes in this sort of decision are as high as they could possibly be.  For that reason, no central authority could ever be established that would be able to make such decisions in a truly rational manner.  Kinship groups compete with each other to produce offspring and to promote the interests of their offspring in the order of society; no conceivable human being could be altogether disinterested in the implications any particular a ruling for or against sterilization, for or against fertilization, for or against pairing, would have for his or her own kinfolk.  Most judges would, consciously or unconsciously, discriminate in favor of unions that are likely to produce mates for his or her future descendants, and against unions that are likely to produce rivals for them.  A few self-loathing individuals might discriminate in the opposite direction, but in no case would an altogether fair and above-board decision-making process be possible.

Compare this with the selective breeding humans conduct of other animals and of plants. We do not compete directly with any of the creatures whose breeding we direct.  Sometimes we use them to compete with other groups of humans, as a more prosperous agricultural will gain the advantage over its neighbors and gain opportunities to drive them out of their land, and sometimes we use them to compete with other creatures that we classify as pests or weeds or pathogens.  So, if we are to interact with the natural world in a healthy way, we ought to grant some form of moral standing to those pests and weeds and pathogens, inasmuch as our competition with them blinds us to the roles they play in the earth’s ecosystems.  What that form of moral standing would be, and how it would be enforced, is of course not an easy question to answer.  Religions that make particular places and particular species of animals sacrosanct may be good at doing that, though one can hardly be expected to adopt a religion in order to meet the requirements of a single argument from ethical theory.

Intelligence is not altogether irrelevant to the question of moral standing. Of course, creatures that are radically different from humans in average intelligence could not very well make a case for their interests in a way that humans could understand.  What is more, the closer creatures are to one another in their abilities, the fiercer, and therefore the more distorting to perceptions, competition between them is likely to be.  If it is difficult to imagine how a rhinovirus could gain a fair hearing for itself in a human court, it is scarcely any easier to imagine how a human struggling to save a wooden house from a termite colony could keep a clear view of that colony’s ecological role.  Indeed, that human would likely see the corporate intelligence formed by the termite colony, not as a virtue calling for protection, but as a menace to be eradicated by any means necessary.

Maps and Territories

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One of my favorite maps, available for purchase here

It’s odd how the mind works.  If you’d asked me last night if I’d ever heard the phrase “stackable probabilities,” I would have said that I had not. Yet this morning, I woke up from a dream in which I was looking at a photograph of the surface of the Moon while a voice in the background explained that “a map is not an image depicting a territory, it is a graphic representation of related sets of stackable probabilities.”

I woke up before the voice could explain what that meant. Since I have never studied statistics, and did not know until I googled it that there really is such a phrase as “stackable probabilities,” probably the only way a voice in a dream of mine could explain it would be if I were sleeping in a room where someone was giving such an explanation.  Making it even stranger that such a phrase would pop into my head, most of the results for “stackable probability” that came up in that Google search were from gaming forums, and I haven’t spent any time playing or discussing electronic games since about 1983.

Anyway, it is in fact plausible that someone might describe a map as graphic representation of related sets of stackable probabilities. As I understand it, a set of probabilities is stackable if it is made up of a series of variables, each of which is dependent on the item preceding it in the series but independent of the item following it.  So there can be river systems only where the parts of a landmass vary in elevation, but parts of a landmass can vary in elevation where there are no river systems.

It becomes plausible to think of maps as summaries of probability structures rather than as images of territory when we consider that maps of large areas of the Earth’s surface do not feature cloud formations, and that maps of coastlines do not show the tide either coming in or going out. It’s virtually certain that a satellite photo of a continent or an ocean would show at least a few clouds, and utterly certain that the seas continuously show tidal motion, but there is no relationship between the probability that any particular cloud formation or state of the tides will prevail at a given moment and the probability that a user will consult the map at that moment.

Standard features of large-scale maps of populated areas, features such as mountains, rivers, roads, cities, centers of extractive industry, coasts, political boundaries, etc, are likely to be there and to be of interest to a user of the map. Moreover, these standard features are also the features most plainly related to each other. Roads connect cities to each other and to centers of extractive industry, unless mountains, coastlines, or political boundaries block them; rivers flow from mountains to coasts and cities grow along them; etc.

In my dream, I was looking at a photograph of the surface of the Moon. There are no rivers, roads, cities, industries, coasts, or political boundaries there. So, what is the difference between a photograph of the Moon’s surface and a map of the Moon’s surface? Add labels naming the mountains, craters, maria, etc, add notations of the elevation of those features, and isn’t the result a map?

I’m inclined to think not. Several times Apollo astronauts lost their way on the Moon; the best-known such episode came during the Apollo 14 extra-vehicular activity, when Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell lost so much time trying to orient themselves that they did not manage to reach the rim of Cone Crater, a key mission objective. Many have accused  Admiral Shepard of showing a cavalier attitude to the geological aspects of the mission; most notable of these is perhaps David Reynolds, author of a well-regarded book called Apollo: The Epic Journey to the Moon, 1963-1972 (Zenith Press, 2013.) Be that as it may, Captain Mitchell is a famously conscientious man (as witness his willingness to sound rather odd at times,) and it is difficult to believe that he did not use every available resource to prepare himself for such an important assignment.

I suspect the problem was that the resources available to Captain Mitchell and his superior officer included too many photographs and too few real maps.  On a surface where the horizon is so much closer than it is on the Earth, people do not have conventional reference points and cannot rely on reflexive mental habits to determine their location. The essential visual aid for such travelers is therefore one which illustrates, not the surface features which their experience on Earth has not prepared them to interpret, but such statistical relationships among those surface features as are likely to shape their journey.

Halloween logic

Saul and the Witch of Endor, by Washington Allston

A few days ago, Rod Dreher posted some thoughts about séances, mediums, and the like.  This prompted me to arrange some thoughts about the topic as a formal argument.

  1. Either disembodied spirits operate in the world, or they do not.
  2. If they do not, we ought not to do business with mediums, as they would not be able to deliver the service which they advertise.
    1. Moreover, any good we might incidentally receive in the course of our dealings with mediums would be, on the one hand, offset by the harm we would be doing by supporting a fraudulent business, and, on the other hand, would likely be available in other forms, offered by trustworthy psychotherapists or other honest dealers.
  3. If disembodied spirits do operate in the world, either they have intentions concerning our well-being, or they do not.
  4. If they do not have intentions concerning our well-being, we ought not to do business with mediums, as they would in such a case have no messages to convey to us.
  5. If they do have intentions concerning our well-being, either those intentions are all alike, or they are not all alike.
  6. If they are all alike, either all of them are friendly, or all of them are hostile.
  7. If all the intentions disembodied spirits have concerning our well-being are friendly, the degree of suffering and injustice humans endure in the world suffices to prove that those spirits are of little consequence in the world.
  8. If all the intentions disembodied spirits have concerning our well-being are hostile, the degree of prosperity and good feeling humans enjoy in the world suffices to prove that those spirits are of little consequence in the world.
  9. If disembodied spirits are of little consequence in the world, we ought not to do business with mediums, as the information they offer is of insufficient practical value to justify the investment, not only of money, but of intellectual attention and emotional energy, which they demand.
  10. If disembodied spirits exist, have intentions concerning our well-being, and are of great consequence in the world, points 7 and 8 above show that some of them must be friendly towards us, while others are hostile.
  11. There is not now and likely will never be an empirical test to determine whether a particular disembodied spirit is friendly or hostile in its intentions concerning our well-being.
  12. Either there are mediums who can facilitate communication between us and disembodied spirits, or there are not.
  13. If there are not, then we ought not to do business with mediums, for the same reasons explained under point 2 above.
  14. If there are, then we ought not to do business with mediums, as we would have no empirical test to determine whether the spirit communicating with us through the medium was a friendly spirit providing information that would lead us to good, or a hostile spirit providing information that would lead to our destruction.
    1. Even if a friendly spirit did provide us with information that would benefit us, the success of that act of communication would likely bring us back to the medium for further consultations.  Since there is no test to distinguish friendly spirits from hostile ones, each further consultation would represent another opportunity for a hostile spirit to approach us.
  15. Therefore, we ought not under any circumstances do business with mediums.

I rather wonder what the relationship is between a logical construction like this and the sorts of games fortune-tellers play.  Games such as the Tarot, the I Ching, the Ouija board, etc.

Once, when I was in a logic class in college, the professor said something he usually had occasion to say at least once a week, “A valid argument is one where, if you accept that the premises are true, you must accept that the conclusion is also true.”  What made this occasion different was what he said next: “You may wonder where that ‘must’ comes from.  Who says you ‘must’ accept the conclusion of a valid argument if its premises are true? That would appear to be an ethical statement.  In that sense logic is a subfield of ethics.”  This remark was particularly striking coming as it did from a professor who taught only logic, metaphysics, and the philosophy of mathematics.  He never taught ethics or anything too obviously derivative of ethics.  But it did seem unavoidable to him that logic was ultimately rooted in the moral sense.

A culture might regard a particular divination game as a holy act of obligation.  It is certainly the case that many groups of people defined by religion look on each others’ practices as so much traffic with the spiritual forces of darkness.  Perhaps the rules of logic according to which I constructed the argument above would seem to some or other religious group to be as peculiar and as unwholesome as the rules of a séance would appear to me.

A logical God?

Probably the least popular of all the familiar arguments that are from time to time offered to prove the existence of God is the Ontological Proof.  Here is a one-paragraph synopsis of Saint Anselm’s version of the Ontological Proof, taken from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The first, and best-known, ontological argument was proposed by St. Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th. century C.E. In his Proslogion, St. Anselm claims to derive the existence of God from the concept of a being than which no greater can be conceived. St. Anselm reasoned that, if such a being fails to exist, then a greater being—namely, a being than which no greater can be conceived, and which exists—can be conceived. But this would be absurd: nothing can be greater than a being than which no greater can be conceived. So a being than which no greater can be conceived—i.e., God—exists.

Even believers tend to react to the Ontological Proof with distaste and irritation.  So it was rather interesting when, in 2013, German logicians Christoph Benzmüller and Bruno Woltzenlogel Paleo proved that Kurt Gödel’s demonstration that the basic axioms of Logic K, a form of modal logic developed by Saul Kripke (the “K” in “Logic K” stands for “Kripke,”) imply that the Ontological Proof is sound.

Logic K is not the only possible system of logic, so this implication does not by itself prove that God exists.  What makes Professors Benzmüller and Woltzenlogel Paleo’s work so interesting is that Logic K is an extremely simple system, especially as compared with a system like arithmetic, which as Gödel himself showed is infinitely complex in its basic axioms.  The reasoning we use in practical life adds manifold layers of complexity to propositional frameworks such as those of formal logic or mathematics.  If something as specific as monotheism can come springing out of something as spare as the basic axioms of Logic K, then the idea that any form of rigorous intellectual activity can be neutral regarding the kinds of questions monotheism is supposed to answer becomes tenuous.

That is not to say that our cultural formation precedes our intellectual activity, and so that all of our systematic reasoning is infused with the particular circumstances of the society in which we were raised, often in ways of which we are unaware.  It would no doubt be true to say this; however, it is a statement that rests on the findings of the social sciences, expressed in language that has grown up in the development of those sciences.  And the social sciences themselves derive their authority from their status as products of rigorous intellectual activity.  If all such activity is already implicated in theology, then an attempt to confine the implications of Professors Benzmüller and Woltzenlogel Paleo’s work to areas already explored by the social sciences is an attempt to minimize the scope of the problem.

A God who holds the world record for eating the most skateboards is greater than a God who does not hold that record

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Nor is it even to say that as we develop a system of reasoning we are condemned to stack the deck, consciously or unconsciously, in favor of our own religious commitments.  Aristotle grew up in a society in which monotheism was an alien phenomenon which, on those rare occasions when it would be mentioned, was regarded with undisguised contempt. Yet, as such Muslim and Christian commentators on Aristotle as Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, and Thomas Aquinas showed many centuries ago, Aristotle’s logic works best when it is applied to a monotheistic universe.  Aristotle himself would no doubt have regarded this as a reductio ad absurdum of his work, and would have gone back to the drawing board to produce a new system of logic, one that fit with what he regarded as the real world of multiple gods and other beings whom it was obligatory to worship.  Perhaps he would have succeeded in creating such a system; he was Aristotle, after all, and was as well equipped as anyone has ever been to accomplish such a thing.  But as it happens, he never had occasion to try, and for two thousand years Aristotle’s logic was the prevailing system in the world from India to Ireland.

When Aristotle’s system of logic was in favor, the work of men like Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, and Thomas Aquinas gave compelling grounds for accepting monotheism.  That Aristotle, as a polytheist from a resolutely polytheistic culture, could not be accused of stacking the deck to produce a system that supported monotheism, certainly added to the force of these grounds.  Nowadays, Aristotle’s logic is obsolete, and so one could hardly expect logicians to become monotheists simply because the Medieval Scholastics found in it support for monotheism.

Still, that it is monotheism that jumps out, not only from a logical system constructed by a rabbi’s son like Saul Kripke on the basis of a metaphysics constructed by vaguely Christian thinker like Leibniz, but also from a system constructed by the thoroughly pagan Aristotle, does make it difficult to claim that the relationship between monotheism and systematic reasoning is entirely an illusion resulting from indoctrination in monotheism.  It is likely that the idea of a single deity who is the supreme creator, ruler, and judge of the world is a sort of default position built into the whole project of codifying the rules of logic.

Just as it does not follow from the fact that Logic K rests on axioms which, taken together, imply the existence of God, that God in fact exists, so it would not follow from God’s status as a default hypothesis of formal logic that God in fact exists.  Like all other human activities, formal logic is a byproduct of any number of particular and contingent circumstances, starting with the biological adaptations that enabled our ancestors to survive, continuing through the particularities of our cultural backgrounds, and continuing through the countless vicissitudes that make it possible to distinguish the life of one individual from that of another.  It may well be that formal logic, mathematics, and the sciences, pursuits in which only a small minority of the people in the world today and only a minuscule percentage of all the people who have ever lived take an interest, will ultimately prove to be trivial matters sharply limited in their ability to cast light on the weightiest matters.  Perhaps the sorts of things most people find more interesting and which a majority has always found to be more interesting will prove to be more powerful aids to understanding, or perhaps systematized reasoning in the forms we now know will ultimately turn out to be relatively trivial preparations for some new form of understanding that awaits us in the future.  Perhaps neither of those things will happen, but we will simply come to accept a tendency to monotheism as a not-very-interesting shortcoming inherent in projects to codify the rules of correct reasoning.

Of course, monotheism is also a minority pursuit in the overall picture of humanity.  At no point in the history of the world has a majority of the human race been monotheistic in its views.  Today Christians, Muslims, Jews, and members of other monotheistic groups are probably more numerous than ever before, yet they still comprise well under half the world’s people.  What is more, monotheism seems to have been invented only once, in Babylon during the Captivity, while polytheism, animism, ancestor-worship, and other religious orientations all likely arose independently in many times and places.  In that context, monotheism looks like a freak occurrence.

It is that very freakishness that makes the recurrence of monotheism at the roots of logical systems a matter of interest.  If something so particular can keep cropping up wherever people make their most intense attempts to be general, what oddities might come out of the far more complicated sets of axioms that underlie applied reasoning?  In the light of what Professors Benzmüller and Woltzenlogel Paleo have shown about Logic K, we could hardly be surprised if hidden somewhere in the axioms of trigonometry were a recipe for kosher chicken soup, or for that matter if a description of the Loch Ness Monster were encoded somewhere in Newton’s Laws of Motion.

Plato’s allegory of the cave is easy to attack, hard to defend, and impossible to escape

Two recent Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comics:

From 9 September:

And from 14 September:

As do dystopian classics like E. M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops,” the second strip transfers the world of illusion that Plato presents as the default human condition to a certain time, a future that is presented as a possible outcome of specific present trends.