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.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Atlas twitches

I eventually got around to reading Atlas Shrugged about 5 years ago. I don't really want to talk about the book's literary merits, but rather the book's ideas and, in particular, why I don't think "atlas shrugging" is going to happen.

In the novel the world seems to consist of a tiny number of astonishing geniuses, a small number of semicompetents who hold the geniuses in awe, a larger number of twisted malcontents, equal to the semicompetents in ability but so enraged by their own incompetency that their chief pleasure in life comes from tearing the geniuses down, and a vast horde of incompetents who are capable only on following the simplest instructions. Further, the geniuses all have utter contempt for the opinions of anyone else as to the value of their works, and are so outraged that their works may be expropriated from them to benefit others that the genius destroy their own creations. This destruction of of their creations, and their refusal to continue creating, is what is meant by "shrugging". The world collapses into primitivism because the productive few refuse to serve the interests of the inferior many.

Obviously the characters are deliberately exaggerated to make a point, but I think the point is fundamentally a wrong one. The picture presented is in several ways very different from the truth.

Most (but by no means all) people are reasonably competent to their everyday affairs, it is only when they called upon to make judgements on issues outside their experience that they display startling ineptitude. And even the most intelligent frequently blunder when presented with unfamiliar situations, although they will tend to learn more sensible ways of doing things faster.

Perhaps the fundamental changes to the ways we understand the universe really are due to a few geniuses, but the technological advancements that make direct improvements in our lives are made by a huge number of people making small individual contributions. So as I know, Einstein never invented anything.

The idea that then geniuses know when their work is good really only makes sense in restricted circumstances. Reardon's alloy can reasonably said to be objectively better than steel, since it is stronger, lighter, cheaper, and more corrosion resistant, but it's a bit silly to claim that the composer Halley writes objectively superior music, and the scene in which the philosophy professor makes objectively superior sandwiches is just fucking ridiculous. People seek fame and fortune largely because this achieving them is often the best way of determining that they are actually creating value.

Finally, most successful people feel a certain degree of sympathy for the poor. The idea that one's work is benefitting humanity in general is viewed by most people as a plus rather than a minus, even if the fruits of one's labors are taken without one's consent. But an intense sense of outrage at taxation is really necessary to make "gulching" seem worthwhile. The advantages of mass production and specialization are such that, for most people, the costs of avoiding taxes are generally higher than the costs of paying them. Given a choice between making 100 grand a year and coughing up half of it in taxes and being isolated and self sufficient and iving on the equivalent of about 5 grand a year, almost everybody would choose the former.

Rand's primary flaw as a philosopher is that she is just way too much in love with her own ideas. Her characters (and many of her disciples, although I think not Rand herself) are willing to dismiss any who do not agree to then objective correctness of her philosophy as stupid or deliberately evil, but observation of the real world should quickly demonstrate that this is not the case.

The point is not to criticize Rand (who I think is both vastly overrated by her fans and vastly over-criticized by her detractors) but, again, to explain why "Atlas shrugging" just isn't going to happen.

What will happen, what is happening, is what I will call "Atlas twitching". Some small number of people will completely drop out of the taxable "labor force", and a much larger number will devote an increasingly large portion of their efforts towards improving their lives in ways which do not generate "income" or taxable property. It won't be insignificant, but it also won't be nearly enough to starve the beast.