Wednesday, February 27, 2008


There is an altruistic philosophy that asserts that one should take an action if the benefits to another are greater than than cost to one's self, without demanding any sort of reciprocity. Leaving aside the very significant point that costs and benefits to different people really aren't directly comparable, the idea has a certain intellectual appeal. If one attacks the problem of morality by asking how it would be best for everyone to behave, the altruistic conclusion seems reasonable.

But of course if one asks one's self how one's self ought to behave, it would be absurd to assume that every other human on the planet would, asking himself the same question, obtain the same answer. That different people have different ideas as to what is moral is easily observed to be true. The very idea that we should begin by asking how it would be best for everyone to behave seems to be making an assumption that we know to be false, namely that everyone is the same. Altruism fails because altruists can be victimised by non-altruists.

This isn't to say altruism is necessarily a bad idea in all cases, but in order to avoid self-destruction it seems logical to limit it in scope and extent in pretty much just the way that people do in the real world. People will sometimes perform major sacrifices on behalf of friends and relatives, largely the people they would expect to do the same for them if the situations were reversed. People will generally only do small favors for strangers, and try to avoid relying on strangers doing anything for them. A largely altruistic society could exist, but only if it limited its altruism to members, and punished members for failing to be sufficiently altruistic.

Libertarians often ridicule altruists, but the non-aggression principle seems to me to be a product of the same circular wouldn't-it-be-great-if-everyone-were-just-like-me thinking that leads to altruism. Libertarianism (int its strict sense) must fail because libertarians can be victimized by non-libertarians.

I have become convinced that there is no one correct moral philosophy, nor is there such a thing as a best culture or a best way of organizing society; rather, there may be any number which are "best" according to their own standards of goodness. This of course does not mean all are equally good; one society may consider some other to be better according to the first's standard of goodness, and so will seek to become more like the second. If two societies cannot peacefully coexist, perhaps one will destroy the other. This will not prove that the surviving society is better than the vanquished one in every way, but it must have been better in at least one way.

Every society has rules, with some sort of punishment for members which break the rules. Whatever other rules there may or may not be, for stability there must be the meta-rule: failure to assist in punishing rulebreakers is itself a violation of the rules. Further, a society must have some way of distinguishing between members and nonmembers. It would be unreasonable to expect someone who is not a member of a society in the first place to obey that society's rules (except when as a guest in what it acknowledges to be that society's territory), and it would be surprising if the full set of obligations to members of one's own society were extended to outsiders.

The only way to ensure that disputes can be resolved peacefully and noncoercively is if all disputants (and that means all members of the society) have agreed in advance to abide by some sort of dispute resolution procedure. Perhaps a largely libertarian society is possible, but it would have to have a clear distinction between members and nonmembers, and the strict demand for noninitiation of coercion would only apply to members. This doesn't mean "anything goes" with respect to nonmembers, of course. Limits on what behavior is acceptable would have to be devised based on the need to avoid conflict with other groups and basic human decency. But a strict requirement of noninitiation of coercion couldn't work, both because nonmembers could not be expected to submit to any sort of peaceful dispute resolution, and because it is unrealistic to assume nonmembers would necessarily refrain from initiating coercion given opportunity.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Magic, Mysticism, and Science

The magical and scientific viewpoints toward the world are fundamentally different. The scientific viewpoint asserts that the universe behaves according to fixed mechanical principles. The magical viewpoint is that what happens is fundamentally determined by the wills of concious entities (gods, spirits, whatever). The magical viewpoint is consistent with, but does not necessarily imply, the idea that some or all human beings can effect changes in physical reality through acts of will alone. The scientific viewpoint is not. I fully subscribe to the scientific viewpoint. I cannot prove it is correct, I very much doubt that it can be proven, even in principle. Disputing the scientific viewpoint goes outside the scope of this blog.

It is, of course, possible for a scientist to believe in the existence of some sort of deity. He could, for example, believe in a deistic god which created the universe and its physical laws, and afterwards refrained from interfering. Or he could believe in a more personal God which normally allows the universe to proceed according to physical laws, but who can and does sometimes cause miracles, events which are impossible according to normal law. But in order to do science, one must for all practical purposes rule out the possibility of a miracle occurring in the course of one's experiments.

The key element of the scientific viewpoint is that matter, at least at its most fundamental level, lacks any sort of purpose or goal or morality. Water doesn't seek its proper level, it merely follows the grade; it can't spontaneously flow uphill in order to later flow farther downhill. Of course, human beings do exhibit goal-oriented behavior, but our constituent elements do not.

Mystical beliefs (astrology, alchemy, etc.) are often thought of as being part of magic, but actually they were essentially scientific, but they were bad science. Their practitioners believed in universal rules, but their rules didn't work. The alchemists were bad enough chemists to realize that their attempts to transmute lead into gold were futile, but good enough economists to realize that in order to achieve the vast riches they coveted they needed not only to learn the process, but to keep it secret from others. Secrecy is the essence of mysticism, and thus mysticism is almost invariably bad science. It is nearly impossible to keep a principle of nature secret while making use of it for some practical effect.

Since the "Age of Reason", calling an idea "scientific" has been a way to imbue it with credit, but the fact that something is called scientific doesn't mean that it truly is. Not only can it be bad science, it can be an appeal to magic disguised with scientific terminology or rationale. Scientific vocabulary or equations notwithstanding, an attempt toc cause physical results via will alone without a physical causal mechanism is magic, not science.

There is, however, one area in which something much like magic might plausibly be expected to work: when the desired effect is to change human behavior. Because people act on the basis of their beliefs, it stands to reason that changing people's beliefs will change their actions. Also, because most people crave approval, if one could be control what gains social approval, behavior would adjust accordingly. This type of thought is central to the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century.