Sunday, May 25, 2014

Rock Bottom

The world is too complicated for us to deal with as it actually is. We have to make simplifying approximations in order to be able to make any sort of decisions. But at times it is important to acknowledge that these are just approximations. We may want to change which approximations we make. Fundamentally, we don't know anything. Our senses only give us limited infomation and what information they do give is sometimes incorrecy. Our reasoning is similarly flawed. The closest we can come to absolute certainty in a proposition is a degree of confidence sufficiently high that we are able to completely neglect the possibility that it may be wrong; yet it is far from rare for people to feel such confidence, and yet be wrong. There is no objective good and bad. We call things good because they seem good to us. On subjects in which personal preferences widely vary we are generally aware thaat our prefernces are "just" personal preferences. When preferences are universally or nearly universally shared, we think of them as being in some sense correct, and we think of people holding contrary preferences as somehow defecticve. But at some level they are all "just" preferences; even if a preference is universally held, hypothetically one could have the opposite preference. Our preferences are not arbitrary, of course. Preferences that cause those holding them to die young tend to get weeded out of the population. But that still doesn't mean that these dead guys were wrong or defective in an absolute sense. No one's preference are perfectly tuned to maximize darwinian fitness, and I dont think anyone would argue that they should be. Every individual is different. We have different abilities, different knowledge, different desires, and different relationships with other people. Equality is a concept that is meaningful only for numbers. One person's vote may be the equal of another's, but to say the people themselves are equal is simply gibberish.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

More than All

Imagine there are two islands, widely separated. Imagine there is some easily quantifiable difference between the two islands, say average height. The inhabitants of Island A are noticeably talleer (on average) than than the inhabitants of Island B. Finally, imagine that we wish to determine to what extent the difference is genetic, and what extent it is environmental.
We might initially guess that about half the difference is environmental (say, due to differences in diet) and about half genetic, and might consider the possibility that the difference is all genetic or all environmental to be the extreme cases. But that would be a mistake: it's quite possible that the environmental and genetic factors tend to work in opposite directions, and so the observed difference could be "more than all" due to one or the other. Making the simplifying assumption that all environmental differences act through diet, and that there are no synergistic effects between the genes and the diet, we could determine the answer we seek by equalizing the diets. If the difference in heights in our new experimental population is smaller than the previous difference but keeps the same sign, we can conclude that indeed the factors act in the same direction, and can calculate what fraction of the previous difference was genetic and what fraction was environmental.
But it could be that after we equalize the diets, the difference becomes even larger than before. In that case, the previous difference was more than 100% genetic, with environmental differences acting in the opposite direction. Conversely, it could be that after equalizing the diets, the previously "tall" island is now the "short" island. In that case, the previous difference was more than 100% environmental, with genetic effects working in the opposite direction.
Of course, we can't actually perform this kind of experiment. It is unethical and impractical.
The point is, where there are multiple factors at play, a 100% factor isn;t necessarily the whole story. It isn't even necessarily the most important factor. If one factor is is by itself responsible for 100% of an observed effect, that only means that the other factors taken as an aggregate cancel each other out. It does not mean they are insignificant by themselves. It is even possible that the 100% factor is not the most important factor.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Moral Heuristics

Contrary to certain myths, here never has been a prophet or sage or messiah who brought us the law. Neither an exhaustive list of rules we should follow, nor a set of general principles that can reliably used in all circumstances to determine the rightness or wrongness of an act. All attempts to formulate such a set of rules which would be superior ot individual human judgement have met with failure, and I see no reason to think future attempts will be more successful. People persist in attempting to formulate such rules because they see no other alternatives than a pure nihilism in which every individual acts according to his current whim, and a consequentialism by which we judge the rightness and wrongness of acts according to the foreseeable particular consequences of those acts. Consequentialism must fail, because trying to calculate all the possible consequences of an action, along with their probabilities and utilities, must be a hopeless task except under very restricted circumstances. Pure nihilism must obviously lead to disaster. What we have are moral heuristics: general rules of behaviour, based on reason and experience, which tell us whether the consequences of an action are likely to be good or bad. Attempting to transform these heuristics into absolute laws which trump all practical considerations must fail, because it is only the fact that these heuristics (usually) lead to good results that causes us to respect them in the first place. Telling the truth is good, lying is bad. But if you're living in occupied Holland during world war 2, and someone asks you if you know where an Jews are hiding, and you've got a whole family of them hiding in your attic, of course you straight up lie and say "nope". Trying to figure out what the consequences of lying is in general is hopeless, but in this particular case the consequences of telling the truth are obvious and disastrous. We could imagine attempting to formulate a complete set of rules, including exceptions to te exceptions, but I don't see any point going down that road. We are human beings with human judgement. At least in circumstances, we must allow our judgement to outweigh the general rule, when exactly we must do this is something each of us must decide as an individual. Nor is there any procedure which we can use to resolve disputes when our judgement differs. There will always be the potential for circumstances where the minority refuses to abide by the decision of the majority, and rightly so. So we have heuristics like truth is good, coercion is bad, voluntary cooperation is good, security of private property is good, ability to make enforceable contracts are good. Are they? Good for whom? Good by what standards of goodness? And what about kindness, or simple courtesy? What about equality? equality for whom? Equality in what sense? and how are we to weight the tradeoffs when goods conflict? Our choices here are rooted in our beliefs about what the consequences of these beliefs will be, whether for ourselves, our families, or anyone we feel sympathy for. Charismatic megafauna, if you're in tom that sort of thing. Which personally I am; if I have a choive between saving a random human being and saving a blue whale, I am totally saving the whale. There is no reason to think we should ever come to agreement on these issues. If I assert that I can be as rude to everyone else as I please, but everyone else has to eb polite to me, then people would rightly dismiss me as a hypocritical asshole. But I could to assert that everyone has a right to be as rude as he pleases, or that rudeness for the sake of rudeness should be considered a form of agression and justifies a physical response, and either point of view could be internally consistent. Personally, I would prefer a world in which we are free to speak without fear of physical retaliation, but fundamentally that's just a personal preference. "You don't have a right not to be defended" can be answered, perfectly reasonably, with "you have no right not to have your ass kicked". We have those rights which we can defend, and those which others will defend on our behalf. Depending on what society we live in, a "right not to be offended" or a "right not to have our asses kicked" may or may not be among them. Similarly with the right to freedom of contract, and property rights in general. It's easy to see how security of property and enforcement of contracts can lead to increased production, and how forbidding certain kinds of contracts or uncertainty of property rights can lead to what are called dead-weight losses. But that does not imply that all contracts should be permitted, nor that property rights must be absolute; if it turns out that a free market leads to conditions in which a very few are extremely wealthy (and I don't concede that it does, but I can conceive that it could), it is unreasonable and unrealistic to expect the majority from using whatever tools they have at their disposal to improve their situation. But the same argument applies tom the other side: if the wealthy few feel they deserve their position, if they feel contempt for or dislike of the masses (and I'm not claiming they do, but certainly they could) then it would be unrealistic not to expect them to use whatever tools they have available to maintain their position, and even to improve it. Why the hell wouldn't they? Som where does that lead us? It's misleading to express this in a form as simplistic as "might makes right". But fundamentally the only that happens, the only thing that can happen, is that a coalition forms whose members have at least a reasonably compatible conception of the good, and they will make rules in accordance with this conception, and will enforce them, both upon members of the coalition and upon dissenters. The coalition membership will change over time, and the rules will change. People will refuse to comply, either overtly or covertly with rules which they consider to be unreasonable, and they will be punished for doing so. We'll never have anything like universal agreement, it's just not in the cards. Not on the rules, not on the methods we use for determing the rules, not on the general principles that guide our decisions as to what teh rules should be. No universal agrement, but we can do a hell of a lot better than we are doing now. What we need are 1) an honest assement of what we want for the world, as opposed to what we think we ought to pretend to want in order to appear virtuous and 2) an honest assesment of what the effects of our proposed policies will be, as opposed to what we claim the intended effects are.

Sunday, January 27, 2013


The simplest conception of production is "making stuff". But of course, one can't make something out of nothing. All one can do is transform things, hopefully into a more useful form.

Productive capacity, therefore, is the ability to transform goods from one form into another. In the modern world, this often means highly specialized machinery for transforming particular kinds of "raw materials" into particular kinds of "finished products". The machinery is very effective for this particular purpose, but may be virtually useless for anything else. It is tempting to think of underutilized capacity as wasted resources, and in some cases this may be true. But in other cases it is very much the contrary. "Overproduction" is a misleading word; producing "goods" that no one wants is not merely wasted effort, it is also turning usable raw materials into trash.

The same fundamental error behind thinking that "production" is always good and that unused productive capacity is wasted is behind the idea of "economic stimulus", at least in its most stupid form. Keynes really did suggest that it might be useful for the economy to "employ" men in digging holes to bury jars of money and then digging them up again. It seems obvious that the dubious benefits of transferring money to these "workers" could just as easily be achieved by keeping them on the dole. Bullshit statistics would indicate that people would be transferred from the "unemployed" to the "employed" category, but this transfer would not be in any practical sense true. It is true that keeping them occupied would leave them less opportunity to create trouble, but it would also leave them less opportunity to get anything actually useful done. On balance, for most people, this should be a bad trade.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Winners and Losers

In any social order many people will be unsatisfied with their possessions and status. The fact that their situations don't measure up to their expectations may be due to lack of effort or ability, or to mere bad luck, but in some cases they will with some justification blame the social order itself: they could easily imagine some other order in which their talents and abilities are more valued, and this other order will likely seem "better" to them, not merely because they would benefit personally, but because people tend to come to the attitude that whatever they excel at is in some sense important, and if the world does not value it, the world is somehow defective.

Consider a libertarian conception of how the world ought to be, in which an individual is entitled to what he makes himself, what he is given, and what he receives in a freely agreed to contract, and in which there is no restriction on production or contract. Contrast that to the world as it is. Who benefits and who suffers from the actions of government?

Winners include those who receive goods and services from the state, either gratis or subsidized, and also those who have better paying or more prestigious jobs than they would absent government action. This may include those employed directly by the government, government contractors (in those cases where the contractors get a significantly better deal than they would selling their goods and services to private entities), people whose jobs are protected by licensing requrements, an employees for whom the government has interceded in disputes over wages and working conditions. Losers are those who pay taxes, those who are denied opportunity to obtain well-paying jobs which they are perfectly capable of performing, and those who pay more than they should for goods and services because the state has restricted their availability.

Almost everyone is to a certain extent in both categories, but obviously some are big net winners and others big net losers. Unsurprisingly, for the most part winners favor big government and losers oppose it. Of course, because forcible transfers and restrictions on opportunity destroy wealth more must be lost than won, but that does not imply that losers outnumber winners. Even if losers do outnumber winners in fact, many losers will believe themselves to be winners because the benefits they receive tend to be overt but the costs are often hidden. Nonetheless, because a free market is capable of producing enormous disparities of wealth, it is quite likely true that our current structure produces more winners than losers. And even if it is not true, it is probably impossible to convince most people who believe themselves to be beneficiaries of government that overall they are victims. There are too many persuasive people with an interest in convincing them otherwise, and they quite sensibly would look on claims as to how they might benefit from some hypothetical changes with suspicion.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Natural Rights

In a sense, nobody is entitled to anything. We come into this world naked and helpless. In a state of nature not only are we not guaranteed food, or even the opportunity to obtain food, we don't even have a right not to be eaten.

For the concept of "natural rights" to make any sense, therefore, it must mean not "rights endowed by nature" but something more like "rights it is natural to have", that is, rights derived from reason. Fundamentally I think it was originally primarily a rejection of rights justified by custom especially what was considered to be the arbitrary privileges enjoyed by those fortunate enough to have "noble" or "royal" ancestry.

Usually systems of natural rights begin with a premise that all people are in some sense equal and deserving of equal rights, and the only question becomes what rights and responsibilities everyone has. This naturally leads to libertarianism or something pretty close to it, although experience has taught us that people who are more or less libertarian can spend lifetimes quibbling over details.

The idea of human equality has a certain degree of appeal because it is a Schelling point: we treat others as equals in order that they treat us as equals. But the fact that we are willing to treat others as equals does not imply that they will be willing to treate us as equals, not does the fact that others are willing to treat others as equals necessarily imply that we shoudl treat them as equals. In fact, people are clearly simply not equal, physically, mentally, or morally. Which of two people is "better" by any criteria is likely to be clear, although the answer will depend on the criteria chosen.

Even if equality of merit existed, equality would not be sufficient to determine rights and responsibilities. Different people have different preferences, and it is simply unreasonable to expect anyone to accept someone else's preferences as being somehow cbjectively correct. They simply are not. In many societies an insult is considered justification for a killing. In others, it is considered a right to say what one wishes, regardless of who it offends. Neither is objectively correct, but people who accept one set of values will have difficulties in a society based on a very different set.

Most people spend much of their time around people with values and preferences much like their own, particularly when they can choose their own company, and so frequently overestimate how common or "natural" their preferences are. This allows them to delude themselves into believing that disagreements are largely about misunderstanding, that if only they could explain themselves clearly and fully, if only others would take the time and effort to listen and understand, then others would accept that their ideas are "correct".

Reason alone is simply insufficient for determining what rights people have or ought to have. This is not to disparage the power of reason. Reason can allow us to come to agreements, but only if we agree on basics premises to an extent that people in general simply do not.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Other People's Religion

For quite some time I was baffled by the question, "why do so many people believe, or at least purport to believe, statements which clearly are not supported by the evidence?" The clearest example of this is other people's religions. We may convince ourselves that our own religion is true and clearly so, but given the variety of different beliefs in the world, it is undeniable that the vast majority of them must be wrong. In fact, viewed from the outside, other people's religions often seem not just obviously wrong, but literally laughable.

It turns out the answer is reasonably well known. The beliefs in question serve as group membership markers. Evidence has nothing to do with it. These beliefs are often of matters which are unknowable (what happens after one dies), or at least seemed to be when they were first formulated (where did the world come from). Often compliance with some sort of ritual is required, but I think people comply with the ritual in order to demonstrate their commitment to the group, not because of a genuine belief that violating some taboo will genuinely do harm to the violator or to anyone else.

These beliefs tend to be of little practical significance for those who hold them. It's easy to find people who will tell you this, but it may be difficult to convince yourself this is true, particularly since the significance of the beliefs are if anything more often asserted from the outside than from the inside; atheists often talk as if it's just a baby step from allowing the teaching of creationism as an "alternative theory" to witch burning. Conversely, Christians often talk as if a belief that humans are just another species of animal will lead to people acting like animals; they won't so much behave immorally as behave as if morality isn't even a meaningful concept. In the real world, not only do a majority of Americans believe in some form of creationism already, but most people who "believe in evolution" have some comic-book conception of it that is no closer to the scientific theory of evolution by natural selection than is the Genesis myth, and incidentally is somehow not incompatible with a belief in God.

In any dispute in which people separate into identifiable factions, whether allegedly religious, political, artistic, or even scientific, it is likely that a significant fraction of the adherents of each side have chosen their position not on the evidence of the issue itself but rather on which group they identify with. In principle scientific disputes can be resolved by observation and experiment, but in practice, particularly in the "soft sciences", this is not possible, particularly if one has very demanding standards for the burden of proof.

Unfortunately, none of this actually helps determine truth. As a neutral third party, it is easy to conclude that disputants on both sides are expressing far more confidence in the correctness of their opinions than is reasonable that this is largely based on a feeling of solidarity with those on their side and a dislike of those on the other, particularly since they aren't at all sgy about expressing this dislike, although they will reverse the arrow of causality. And if one is oneself involved in a political or "scientific" dispute in which emotions run strong, the idea that those on the other side genuinely believe that they are "the good guys" seems even more preposterous than the idea that they simply believe that what they say is true. Nonetheless, they do.