A preliminary argument against moral blameworthiness

For a while now I’ve advocated not an absence of morality, but an absence of moral blameworthiness. Here’s a first, brief attempt to jot down the basic idea.

There’s two arguments. First let’s consider the epistemic conditions that must hold to make a moral judgment. For any enunciator of a moral judgment, e.g. “this murder, being unprovoked, was wrong,” the speaker must have knowledge of specific details of the case — who committed the crime? was there malice aforethought? — and also moral knowledge, knowledge with normative validity. To judge something as moral or immoral, then, requires information of one kind which is open to forensic methods and of another kind which is … highly contested as to its epistemic foundations. Obvious thus far. Now, this is the situation of the bystander judging retroactively. The perpetrator of the immoral act is in an even worse predicament. Most people would agree, as a basic axiom of juvenile jurisprudence, that a person must have “knowledge of right and wrong” in order to be morally blameworthy. This allows us to discriminate between mentally competent adults, on the one hand, and children or mentally challenged individuals on the other. However, like we have said, this domain of right and wrong is highly contested by highly intelligent people, enough to cast skepticism into all but the most stubborn, and so most people, acting according to their ethics, understand themselves to be acting uncertainly. And, unlike the bystander judging retroactively, the perpetrator is on a time crunch, and must make snap decisions without the luxury of an analysis of the objective conditions — who, what, how, why — or a literature review of the subjective conditions, the theories.

So, to sum up, moral blameworthiness requires knowledge of right and wrong. This knowledge is highly contested (and widely considered to be emotional rather than rational); thus, people must act, but must act under highly uncertain information. Without an agreed-upon rubric moral action is more or less guessed. The doer is in a more uncertain situation than the judger so his judgment is likely to be less justified, more forgivably wrong.

Okay, but now as a friend has pointed out, where morality is highly contested is on the margins, and not the fundamentals. There is a lot of agreement that unprovoked murder is wrong, this does not seem highly contested (though certainly there is disagreement provided the forensic circumstances). So, can we not hold a murderer morally accountable?

Here, in response to that, is the second argument, which is much more fundamental and probably exposes me to some logical consequences I don’t want to accept. With action, there is something we could call a “regression to non-autonomy.” Traditional perspectives on morality and punishment emphasized the individual making a choice to commit an offense. This choice reflected bad moral character. More recently, the social sciences have impacted the way we think about choices: people are shaped by their environments, and often they do not choose these environments. Get the picture? But, it is even worse than that. We could say that the murderer chose to pull the trigger; but, he did not choose to be the sort of person who in that situation would pull the trigger. That person was a product of their environment and their genes. Aren’t they also a product of “themselves”? Yes, but they did not choose to be themselves; they simply are. And, even when someone “chooses to be a better person,” this choice logically presupposes the ability to choose to become a better person, which, again, is an ability bestowed upon some and not upon others and is never of our own choosing. Thus if we go back far enough we find autonomy, or a self-creative element, is not at root in our behavior and choices. And non-autonomous action cannot be considered morally blameworthy.

This is my argument (I do not claim originality; many people have said similar things). The murderer is doing something immoral, but finding them worthy of blame seems, to me, almost if not always out of the question. This ends up being hard to accept psychologically: I want to find history’s greatest villains morally culpable. I cannot, though. Instead of any sort of retributivist punishment — found, now, to be psychologically satisfying but morally confused — we are left only with punishment policy that seeks to deter or isolate offenders, the category of “moral blameworthiness” found to be lacking.

I invite criticisms of the arguments as sketched out here — preferrably, ones that don’t require us to get into what actually is moral or the status of free will.

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White rappers and hip hop culture

Post Malone has been at the heart of some manufactured controversy recently. Complex and other hipster millennial outlets (x, y) have criticized his appropriation of braids, grills and slang (AAVE), as a white man who has recently made a name in hip hop.

I’m a college student in the Californian city with the highest rate of binge drinking (and a lot of partying). Just like rock n roll replaced jazz, hip hop has replaced rock as the club genre. And Post Malone is popular. I have never once heard someone complain about Post Malone in real life. The first time I heard his genre-fusing cooing was in a Mustang with my Mexican roommate and his girlfriend. I thought it was shit. He found “White Iverson” good enough to turn up the volume whenever it came on, and radio stations are notoriously abusive with new rap singles.

Last year you would see Latina and black classmates dancing to Post Malone at any of Chico’s backyard parties. No one thought he was culturally appropriating, or if they did, they didn’t care. His music sounds good to them. That’s what matters.

Post Malone has said some things in interviews and online that pissed off journalists and maybe a handful of other people with the time to be bothered. One of those things was the n-word, used once on Snapchat long ago. More recently, he stated that the modern hip hop landscape is sort of deficient in conscious rappers, rappers who will talk about “real shit,” and that “If you’re looking to think about life, don’t listen to hip hop.” Some easily offended artists, particularly those who are listened to almost exclusively by white people — Lil B, Earl Sweatshirt and Vince Staples — responded angrily.

In Complex‘s piece, the author was upset with Post Malone for dumbing down the music scene. Funny. XXL, one of the largest hip hop news outlets, which runs (and endorses) a group of up-n-comers every year, had the most lyrically-inept roster in recent history for their 2017 edition: Ugly God, Madeintyo, A Boogie With A Hoodie, Playboi Carti, Kap G, then a few alrights, and a single prodigy who’s now off to prison. (Playboi Carti can’t even rap. He really can’t.) I’m sorry to inform Complex, but the focus of hip hop is about hedonism right now. That’s how it is. No one gives a damn about J. Cole after 2014 Forest Hills Drive, and Kendrick Lamar sold out on his last album.

Since gaining fame, Post Malone has worked with Quavo (of Migos) and 21 Savage. Why didn’t these artists call him out for stealing black culture? And if Post Malone is destroying the often-intelligent culture of hip hop by exclusively sampling stereotypes and gangster imagery… why does no one care that Migos and 21 Savage are doing the exact same thing? Post Malone has also worked with Kanye West, who, again, didn’t care that he is white and immersing himself in the culture. Kanye has a lot of rap clout. So if Post Malone gets Kanye’s approval, what sort of validity do the rest of us have?

Granted: racial slurs are a reasonable line to draw for white artists. But Post Malone apologized and he’s clearly not a racist. What more is there to say?

There is no standpoint epistemology that can be non-arbitrarily applied here. Many people would like to say that white fans are ruining hip hop or that hip hop has always been about criticizing white power structures or some other ahistorical, revisionist narrative. No.

Hip hop is not just a personal liberator. Hip hop is for everyone. Hip hip is a product of black culture but black culture is no monolith. The standards for hip hop change. The style changes. The message is not singular. Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” has become an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. Why? Kendrick’s own personal viewpoints on the struggle for black liberation align much closer with Tupac Shakur’s — the perspective that real change must start in black communities, and any problems with the police and white authorities are secondary or tertiary. Have the organizers at BLM listened to Kendrick’s work before good kid, m.A.A.d city? Did they loop “Alright” so much from To Pimp a Butterfly that they skipped “The Blacker the Berry”?

Do these people want to pretend that all old school hip hop flowed from the mouth of Gil Scott-Heron? Have they listened to “Rapper’s Delight”? What about 2 Live Crew? “If you’re looking to think about life, don’t listen to hip hop”: Post Malone was being provocative, clearly. But hip hop is no special fountain of consciousness and enlightenment. It’s got even more sex and drugs than does rock n roll. Travi$ Scott came on the scene just to rap about partying — and he’s still a fantastic, infinitely creative artist. We will see more and more of this, just like we always have.

To all of this, it might be replied that white people are stealing hip hop like they stole rock n roll before. But music is not zero-sum. One artist’s creation does not prevent another artist’s creation, and especially now, there is always billboard room for more. Action Bronson is, stylistically, a carbon copy of Ghostface Killah (I mean, the off-brand version). But Wu Tang’s spotlight is long gone. A new artist for a new generation is no loss for the old artist, no disrespect to Ghostface. And now, if we look to anticipate the emerging future for hip hop (à la Soundcloud etc.), the new (black-led) wave is directly sampling from historically white inputs: radio rock, nu metal, grunge. Or even East Asian anime influences.

The attacks on Post Malone and the like are part of a larger guerilla ideology. They are one aspect of the cleansing of hip hop (an outrageously politically incorrect discipline) in general. I was in a recent dispute with a female frind over the outro from a song I like, as it came on shuffle:

Well with a pimp we gotta keep pimpin to have a b–h and that’s what she yearns for. She yearns for the pimpin. And once you keep f–king with pimpin, that square is a trick. It turns it from a square to a trick. Why she gone lay with a trick? It’s the nastiest lowest form of a motherf–ker. Pimps do what they wanna do. Hoes do what they’re told. And squares does what they can. They just do what they can. You see what I’m sayin?

She thought it was misogynistic. Sure, yeah, it is. But it’s a sample from a movie and that movie is about life on the streets. And that’s what’s going on. Hip hop tells stories.

I haven’t seen “American Pimp,” from which the sample is cut. But most of us would recognize that the quote is referencing, knowingly or not, the Melian dialogue from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War from twenty four hundred years ago. It is 5th century B.C.E. and the Athenians are preparing for war against the Spartans. The Athenian army, under the direction of Cleomedes and Tisias, sends an expedition to the island Melos for conscription. The Melians, a small Spartan colony, would prefer to stay out of the conflict. In a classic statement of realist political philosophy, the Athenian representatives disregard abstract moral claims and tell the Melians, straight up: join the empire and fight for us, or be enslaved and massacred. There is only a question of morality between equals, and all that truly matters in politics is power:

For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences — either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us — and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

The Melians decide not to give up their freedom, and bet on the odds that they will be aided by the Lacedaemonians, asking only to be left alone. The Athenians withdraw from the conference. The next winter, they siege the Melians into surrender then slaughter all the men and sell the women and children into slavery.

The point is: hip hop can rhyme about snorting cocaine off of a stripper and then reference classical Greek literature in the same song. We don’t really get that sort of postmodern syncretism in other genres. Hip hop is a bastion of creativity and subtlety as well as vulgarity and cruelty. Let’s hope it continues to surprise and offend us.

So let Amber Rose organize Slut Walks promoting sex positivity and feminism while her boyfriend 21 Savage raps about gang bangs and punching women in the face. Rap is for everyone and thus also the scumbags. Hip hop is a free speech fest, an untouched final frontier not yet contorted into submission by the thought police. What the people want is a good 808 and an album every couple months, not another stern voice to lecture them into moral and cultural conformity.

Hip hop has always exhibited the brute political realism of Thucydides’ History. More can be learned about the realities of American government from listening to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony than sitting in a political science class. Its willingness to stay down and dirty is its signature trademark. So cultural appeasement and cleanliness can have everything else: it can have our vocabulary, it can have our media, it can even be enforced by government for all I care. Just keep its indelicate hands off hip hop.

Remembering school

For reasons both inexplicable and ordinary much of my prepubescent memory is off-limits. I can remember leaving Washington for Northern California, in limbo in the back of what might have been a Toyota Highlander, watching streetlights illuminate every fifth second. I remember combing through my mom’s boyfriend’s horror collection, and then biking breathlessly through my neighborhood, conjuring up xenomorphs, Yautjas and Predaliens on my tail for a few hours every day. I remember capturing lizards and salamanders outdoors, sneaking them into my room and losing them in the house, never to be found again.

And, just recently, I remember being extremely bored.

Most of my friends could quote me as claiming that I never get bored. Apparently, I used to be. But it was only one thing: I was bored with school. It got a little better when my teacher suggested I skip third grade. (And a little better recently, when my sister took a year-long break from studying in Santa Barbara: we will now graduate the same year although she’s two years older. I expect to never let her forget it.) But by and large, I wanted out.

I remember excelling on my tests but having essentially zero interest in what the board had determined to be necessary cirricula. And the classes that they pressed on me, I only wanted to snoop the outskirts. Although math is probably my weakest subject now in middle school it was my best. My professor, Mr. Sharp, would play Apocalyptica until everyone took their seats. He wanted to expose us equally to the Pythagorean theorem and the versatility of the cello. I would challenge him to explain the philosophy behind what we were learning, to just below his breaking point. In the beginning I would ask questions because I thought mathematics was too abstract to be saying anything at all useful or real; in the end, I would ask questions mostly because my classmates got a kick out of it. Much of the time I was trying to understand the context of the formula, an approach which, I think, made reading Thomas Kuhn so fulfilling to me later. Mr. Sharp both loved and loathed me. Once a week we wouldn’t complete the lesson. Nothing quite compared to that environment and I haven’t enjoyed a math class since.

What I remembered just this morning was the real sense of a lack of freedom. Not only in school but in pre-adolescence as a whole. I was allowed to watch R-Rated films, sure, and go on the computer to play Neopets. I could ride my bike at night sometimes, and if I wasn’t allowed I could sneak out. But what I wanted was that radical freedom, the kind that Sartre says I already had. There were too many authority figures and not even the freedom to choose between them. Choice is limited, and American democracy itself didn’t extend to me. And where were my representatives? I couldn’t vote for them. They governed me regardless of my input.

Maybe it’s a good thing that 9 year olds don’t vote. That would be a massive voting bloc for whichever candidate is willing to promise an extra hour of television before bed. Yet I remember feeling powerless as a kid, and astonished that no politicians were out trying to represent us. I realized that people must forget as they get older, and they must think, erroneously, that it’s good that children don’t have the same set of freedoms as the adult population once they join the latter. I remember promising myself with as much moral force as I could muster that when I became an adult, I wouldn’t forget: I would represent kids and fight for their freedom from the servitude of parents and teachers.

Well, I forgot. Until now. And my younger self was right — it now seems perfectly right to me that the youth be granted less freedom than the elder. Does this make me a class traitor of sorts? So be it.

But, what I do see now is that the education system is not serving young people very well. The people in my classes still do not want to be there. The incentives are all messed up for test-taking. Although I went to a very creative and nurturing high school, much of my time in higher education has been “unlearning” things I was taught in lower levels and am being taught concurrently. This has not been so much learning that what I was taught was false, though there has been some of that, but moreso learning that what I was taught was an incomplete picture, open to questioning, and often tainted with ideological bias. The things I have studied outside of class have made me better informed and, I would say, more genuinely knowledgeable than the textbooks inside of class.

The story David gives about “unschooling” his children provides one alternative to the standard model. I have friends, though, that demonstrate the non-universality of this option. Part of the solution lies in fostering an independent mind, and part of it on behalf of the child. David describes learning more about English from reading Kipling’s poetry in his free time than in class. I had read the entire Stephen King pre-2011 corpus before entering high school, and I don’t think any sort of class on writing could have improved on that. David also criticizes the idea that there is a single subset of knowledge that ought to be taught to all people, as our education system performs now. For a more extensive criticism of this, and even more radical, I suggest Feyerabend.

I don’t share the sentiment of my much younger self in radical freedom for children. I have effectively broken that promise, but a promise to oneself is, I have to think, less binding if one person is 10 and the other is 20 and the two persons are the same. The solution to the problem, though, at least of boredom in education, is much clearer now. Though of course, the clarity came from reading material outside of school.

“The Impossibility of a University”

I was just reading David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom. He published the first edition in 1973. Amidst the wild ride of the contemporary American university (Evergreen State College being the most heinous single episode), one passage seems especially prescient.

From chapter twelve in the third edition:

The modern corporate university, public or private, contains an implicit contradiction: it cannot take positions, but it must take positions [sides]. The second makes the demand for a responsible university appealing, intellectually as well as emotionally. The first makes not merely the acceptance of that demand but its very consideration something fundamentally subversive of the university’s proper ends.

It cannot take positions because if it does, the efforts of its members will be diverted from the search for truth to the attempt to control the decision-making process. If it takes a public position on an important matter of controversy, those on each side of the controversy will be tempted to try to keep out new faculty members who hold the other position, in order to be sure that the university makes what they consider the right decision. To hire an incompetent supporter of the other side would be undesirable; to hire a competent one, who might persuade enough faculty members to reverse the university’s stand, catastrophic. Departments in a university that reaches corporate decisions in important matters will tend to become groups of true believers, closed to all who do not share the proper orthodoxy. They so forfeit one of the principal tools in the pursuit of truth — intellectual conflict.

A university must take positions. It is a large corporation with expenditures of tens of millions of dollars and an endowment of hundreds of millions. It must act, and to act it must decide what is true. What causes high crime rates? Should it protect its members by hiring university police or by spending money on neighborhood relations or community organizing? What effect will certain fiscal policies have on the stock market, and thus the university’s endowment? Should the university argue for them? These are issues of professional controversy within the academic community.

A university may proclaim its neutrality, but neutrality as the left quite properly argues, is also a position. If one believes that the election of Ronald Reagan or Teddy Kennedy would be a national tragedy, a tragedy in particular for the university, how can one justify letting the university, with its vast resources of wealth and influence, remain neutral?

The best possible solution within the present university structure has been not neutrality but the ignorance or impotence of the university community. As long as students and faculty do not know that the university is bribing politicians, investing in countries with dictatorial regimes, or whatever, and as long as they have no way of influencing the university’s actions, those acts will not hinder the university in its proper function of pursuing truth, however much good or damage they may do in the outside world. Once the university community realizes that the university does, or can, take actions substantially affecting the outside world and that students and faculty can influence those actions, the game is up.

There is no satisfactory solution to this dilemma within the structure of the present corporate university. In most of the better universities, the faculty has ultimate control. A university run from the outside, by a state government or a self-perpetuating board of trustees, has its own problems. A university can pretend to make no decisions or can pretend that the faculty has no control over them, for a while. Eventually someone will point out exactly what the emperor is wearing.

With an activist culture in place, the university endures more and more blows to its truth-seeking abilities. UC Berkeley spent an estimated $600,000 on security for Ben Shapiro a couple months ago, after the chaos and protests of the past year. Staff cut seating in half, worried that protesters would dismantle chairs and throw them onto the audience on the bottom floor. Now, so I hear, student clubs are having difficulty hosting evening meetings on campus, as the administration makes up for the expenses by cutting down on electricity usage and janitorial services. Club stipends, of course, are down. All of this damages the educational environment.

My friends went to see Ben, and watched a woman with a “Support the First Amendment! Shalom Shapiro!” sign get dragged into a crowd and beat up. (Not reported by major media; falsely reported as a knifing by right-wing media.) David identified the internal problem of the corporate university, which I believe we see escalating; the external problem is when outsiders — most of the violent rioters in Berkeley since the beginning of 2017 — understand the political power of the university and the speech that goes on there, and seek to control the process of intellectual conflict through physical force. Both are advanced in accordance with the political involvement of the students as well as the teachers.

Free Speech Ball at Chico

Our Chico State Young Americans for Liberty chapter just hosted our first Free Speech Ball, rolling around a massive beach ball with the Constitutional protection to write whatever comes to mind in the middle of the day on campus. Here’s the write-up I did for the YAL blog. I might also add, the level of engagement on campus was completely unexpected for me. Some news outlets have stated the free speech problem at universities is overstated; others, that it’s getting worse. Wherever you bring the ball, though, there might be a few extreme opponents, but the great majority of students are excited to see a giant gaudy ball with the words “Trump sucks cock” on it and are equally excited for their opportunity to write an opinion on campus outside the constraints of 12-point MLA. Liberty is awesome.

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Sunday reading: Bertrand Russell

We have a lot of fresh faces in my philosophy club this semester. On one hand, the new perspectives remind our old heads about some of the basic questions we studied when we first arrived at university, and it’s nice to introduce new students to philosophy; on the other, it makes us behave like a wolf pack, moving at the pace of the slowest member. Sometimes, I want to be an elitist and focus on more complex areas, utilizing the knowledge of our most experienced members. This would mean we lose all of our new members. Ultimately, semester after semester, keeping a high membership (and keeping students participating) always proves to be more important.

This fall I assigned Bertrand Russell’s Problems of Philosophy, as an easy intro text. As he introduces ideas, he injects his own interpretations and potential solutions, and I find I usually disagree with him. However, Russell is great at moving between analytic argument and simple, digestible prose, so I started seeking his other writing out, as one of the canonical popularizers. Here is an essay I thought I’d share, on his meeting with Lenin, Trotsky and Maksim Gorky, when, as a self-identified Communist seeking out the new post-capitalist order, he inadvertently ended up completely disillusioned with the “Bolshevik religion.” He would publish The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism shortly after in 1920, condemning the historical materialist philosophy and system he saw just three years after the October Revolution.

Russell remained somewhere between a social democrat and a democratic socialist throughout his life (e.g., his 1932 “In Praise of Idleness” on libcom.org), but a vocal critic of Soviet repression. He was also a devout pacifist, which explains his early infatuation with the Russian political party which advocated an end to WWI. He died of influenza in 1970 after appealing to the United Nations to investigate the Pentagon for war crimes in South Vietnam.

From his article on meeting Lenin:

Perhaps love of liberty is incompatible with wholehearted belief in a panacea for all human ills. If so, I cannot but rejoice in the skeptical temper of the Western world. I went to Russia believing myself a communist; but contact with those who have no doubts has intensified a thousandfold my own doubts, not only of communism, but of every creed so firmly held that for its sake men are willing to inflict widespread misery.

What is a “left libertarian”?

I often hear a contrast drawn between “left-” and “right-libertarians.” In fact, I hear it so often, that I have no idea what it could possibly refer to. The history of the word makes it particularly confusing.

The word “libertarian,” prior to, perhaps, the later 20th century, referred to (definitely) left-wing, anarchist philosophies. The point is well-known and harmless. The modern day, American usage of the term refers to a different branch of philosophies, with a common root in classical liberalism. Comparing the left-wing anarchists of old to the Libertarian Party, for instance, would draw an obvious line between left-wing and right-wing politics. There’s nothing wrong or appropriative about this name change. The word “liberal” has also suffered a large definitional change in the United States that it hasn’t in most other countries. It could be argued that most political groups have shifted around under various names, at times co-opting even their ideological opponent’s.

So, “libertarian” to the average joe nowadays means something different than the libertarian socialism espoused by Proudhon or Bakunin. However, it could still be applied; it might just be an anachronism: two very different referents.

Then, for the modern libertarian movement, there again appears a “left” and “right” division. For instance, I hear Cato or the Institute for Humane Studies regarded as left-libertarian, and the Mises Institute as right-libertarian. Bleeding Heart Libertarians is called left-libertarian. These “left” groups are, however, all clearly in favor of mostly free market capitalism. Then there’s Center for a Stateless Society, which labels itself “pro-market anarchist,” and then, when people confuse it for just, I don’t know, anarcho-capitalism, Kevin Carson says he wants to use the word market instead. Maybe capitalism is too long to spell. In any case C4SS is considered left-libertarian. Michelangelo seems to use the term to refer to, again, capitalism-inclined folks. (I also hear Students for Liberty referred to as left- and Young Americans for Liberty more right-libertarian.)

“Left-libertarians” are not all anarchists intent on abolishing the state, but some are; meanwhile, libertarian socialists would hardly call market anarchism an “anarchism” at all, since they oppose private property rights. If you ask them, they generally seem pretty pissed off about the whole name co-opting. Noam Chomsky is, anyway.

So, it looks like there’s the left libertarians, who may be using an American anachronism, but maintain their philosophical etymology just as classical liberals try to. And then there’s the left-libertarians, who would still fall in the bottom-right of the modern political compass, directly to the left of the right-libertarians. Does that sound right? What is the sense in which a libertarian qua libertarian would use the term “left-libertarian”?

It doesn’t usually seem like libertarians use the term left-libertarian to refer to anarchic socialists, but it sometimes does. Hanging out with Marxists only makes it worse. I’m looking for someone who has been around the liberty movement longer than I have to make sense of it.