The 2020 Dems

The two Democratic presidential debates were performed against a broad background of consecrated untruths and the debates gave them new life. Mostly, I don’t use the word “lies” because pseudo-facts eventually become facts in the mind of those who hear them repeated many times. And, to lie, you have to know that what you are saying isn’t true. Also, it seems to me that most of the candidates are more like my B- undergraduates than like A students. They lack the criticality to separate the superficially plausible from the true. Or, they don’t care.

So, it’s hard to tell who really believes the untruths below and who just let’s them pass for a variety of reasons, none of which speaks well of their intellectual integrity. There are also some down-and-out lies that none of the candidates has denounced, even ever so softly. Here is a medley of untruths.

Untruths and lies

I begin with a theme that’s not obviously an untruth, just very questionable. Economic inequality is rising in America or, (alt.) it has reached a new high point. I could easily use official data to demonstrate either. I could also – I am confident – use official figures to show that it’s shrinking or at a new low. Why do we care anyway? There may be good reasons. The Dems should give them. Otherwise, it’s the same old politics of envy. Boring!

Women need equal pay for equal work finally. But it’s been the law of the land for about forty years. Any company that does not obey that particular law is asking for a vast class action suit. Where are the class action suits?

What do you call a “half-truth” that’s only 10% true? Continue reading

“Extreme” abortion laws

You know the story: Alabama, Georgia, Missouri and other states are competing for the strictest anti-abortion laws in recent memory. “Heartbeat bills” are rising, and millennials and younger that grew up only knowing the safety of Roe v. Wade fear its inevitable overturn. Pelosi clarifies that one does not have to be pro-choice to run Democrat. The pot of left-of-center young adults that gradually bubbles socialist renounces centrism for failing to fight this reinvigorated war on women and reproductive rights. The leftists want to kill more children, and face no timely restrictions at all on turning their womb into a uterine death chamber. Also, this is all Trump’s fault.

Or so everyone is saying about each other.

Of all the hot issues where the principle of charity is ceremoniously burnt alive in public theater, abortion stands out as the most sulfuric: “old white Christian men” want to “control women’s bodies” and make them “sexually subservient to the law” by “setting us centuries back”; alternatively, “irresponsible juveniles” want to “have sex without any consequences” by getting “abortion on-demand” and “killing babies at will.” In reality, the pro-life camp is a wide demographic pool, male and female, theist and atheist, old and young, white and not, that doesn’t give a fuck about what you do — in fact, they really seem to just not want to hear about it — as long as you’re not killing children (in their eyes), and the pro-choice people are motivated, in their most vocal advocates, by stories not of free love and reckless abandon but horror, shame, pain, trauma over their experiences with abortion in its current shackles… (in their eyes).

People are good, mostly, but the most antagonistic and moronic take the spotlight instead of the good faith representatives. Abortion is a debate between two people that hate each other but don’t have a shared language to reconcile their differences. And like the rest of political warfare, the fractures build new pits in the bipartisan schism; if abortion is Ares, then racism and sexism are its Phobos and Deimos.

Although I lean heavily on the side of choice, my peers expose their bubble by labeling some of the recent proposed litigation as “extreme.” None of it is extreme with sympathy to the opposing worldview. To the other side, we, the people with “the right ideas,” have had it extremely in our favor for a long time.

Texas recently introduced a bill transitively allowing the death penalty for women who get abortions (by allowing the conviction of homicide, which can be issued the death penalty in Texas). The pro-choice reaction to this is disbelief, a harbinger of a new Dark Ages, domestic terrorism by conservatives: extremism. I had a fruitful conservation on Facebook about the fringeness of this belief. It’s not fringe of a position at all, accepting basic tenets of the pro-life philosophy.

Anti-abortionists consider abortion to be murder, and thus their reaction to abortion should, logically, be consistent with their reaction to murder. This should be true for moral and legal questions both before and after abortion. Opposition to the death penalty is mostly about jurisprudence — it takes in many factors that supervene on a million things without the slightest relation to abortion — but moral equivalencies are not.

So, IF abortion is homicide, and IF homicides can be justifiably prevented by killing the would-be murderer, THEN abortions can be justifiably prevented by killing the abortion doctor or mother to intervene.

Further, IF abortion is homicide, and IF homicides are morally punishable with the death penalty after due process, THEN abortions are morally punishable with the death penalty in the court of law.

It’s not necessary to be pro-life and require the death penalty or self-defensive killing when it comes to abortion, but it is consistent with other basic premises that many people hold. It is not extremist.

Now, there can be lots of exceptions to the conditional premises above (killing to prevent a homicide might not always be justified, etc.), but I sincerely doubt pro-lifers accept the common ones — e.g., if I wanted to kill my vegetative spouse because I don’t feel like I could take care of her, that won’t earn me any sympathies and, consistently, should not in the analogous case of abortion (accepting the premises above…).

More pro-life people should, therefore, argue the morality of murdering abortion doctors and would-be mothers; they should also see the death penalty as reasonable if they think the death penalty is already reasonable in the case of mens rea homicide. Abortion, if murder, fits homicidal criteria like premeditation, etc. If someone who is pro-life disagrees that he needs to take this stance because the question of abortion is so socially conflicted, then it probably means he himself is actually conflicted.

Posting thoughts on abortion should be more like encouraging discussion and less like summoning Cenobites. The “extremist” pro-life position outlined above that has started to surface is not “extremist” at all; it’s part of a consistent Weltanschauung completely different than mine own. The more accepted view, the Roe v. Wade decision, appears extremist to the others.

We should all seek to understand our interlocutors as fellow pilgrims on the same journey toward truth, all of us stuck applying archaic moral and scientific categories onto new problems of autonomy, all of us quietly trying to pass a conch while the megaphone of Twitter opinion screams on. Maybe the above conclusions place pro-life into a reductio, or maybe it prompts pro-choice into a more “extreme” logical position to counter. Either way, we’d be better for it, seeing each others’ views as parts of a foreign and strange, but concrete, whole, instead of the fevered, conspiratorial plans of a hostile enemy.

Liberty and pro-choice arguments

Abortion never struck me as a liberty issue. Fundamental ideas that inform libertarian thinking don’t pick a “side” for or against abortion, late-term or otherwise. Abortion is a random issue. But my pro-choice credentials face greater and greater scrutiny as I pal around right-libertarians and conservatives, and I’ve had to re-investigate my own decision-making process here.

I find each political side — abortion jurisprudence — wholly unconvincing. When a sperm and egg becomes “life” is so outside thousands of colloquial years of the word, there’s nothing analytic in the definition to illuminate policy choices; I don’t think medical science is going to answer the philosophical question of the concept of “life” either (“clinical death” violates what should be commonsense notions of death); etcetera. And then, of course, the pro-choice camp (which emphasizes parental choice) rarely cares about parental choice afterward, like in education, and the pro-life camp is an absurdly broad name for their legitimate concerns. The philosophy of abortion is probably interesting — the politics is a waste of time.

Here is what, I think, enforces my libertarian advocacy of choice. I am probably more radically pro-choice than most people I know, but this provides a basic defense.

If the question of whether or not life is “worth it” is a sensible question in the first place, then it is not one that can be answered a priori. Life is an inherently qualitative experience. This is clear enough by the fact that some people would rather choose to have died at age 60 after having lived to age 80, if we take their judgment as the best authority on their own life’s worth (and I do, and I think we should). Therefore, in advance, its not knowable if a person’s life will be worth it. People generally do enjoy living (more than they would otherwise?); this might not be the case if, for instance, the Nazis won and we all were born in camps. This is an accidental property of the current world. We live in a generally worthwhile time period, suggesting life is generally going to be determined to be worth it by each individual.

Since the worth of life is not a priori, the best guess in advance is that from local knowledge. Parents have the most local knowledge about the future of their child’s immediate life, before it gets unpredictable and the knowledge gets divided by millions of individuals who will impact their life and also understand ongoing trends. Therefore, parents are the best option to make a judgment call about whether or not their child’s life will be worth it — if they can care for it, if they will have a genetic problem, etc. Not politicians. Not voters. Not interest groups concerned with in utero life in the abstract.

Thus, parental choice.

It’s been said this is an “anti-human” argument. Lots of us came from lower income or impoverished households, myself included. Our lives are still found worthwhile. Why strawman, as if we’re in countries with terrible childhood obesity, malnutrition, drug addiction, gang violence?

It’s true that in general life is found to be worthwhile. But there’s no Leibniz-like principle that it must be. Nor does the aggregate data that people do, often, qualify life as worth living, mean that random individuals overcome parental ownership of the best localized knowledge.

This, I think, is a libertarian argument for choice. It depends on the point that abortion is a unique sort of event — we’re not talking about an old man’s caretaker, who must have the best local knowledge about whether or not we should pull the plug. The question need not arise about who makes important choices once someone is cognizant and autonomous. The argument rides on the point that there’s a vacuum in decision-making autonomy for fetuses by their very intrinsic nature, and we have to make proxy choices in advance.

We give parents plenty of other choices by law. When we are debating potential- or possible-beings still in the womb, before our language game definitively identifies them as “alive,” choice should default to the parents, and I should have no right to the woman’s body to make choices for her about a possible-being I will never see, feed, care for or otherwise worry about except to force the woman to take care of it for nearly two decades.

Nightcap

  1. Imagining post-abortion America Rachel Lu, the Week
  2. A visit to Noah’s Ark Stephen Cox, Liberty Unbound
  3. Adam Smith as centre-left economist (and nothing else) Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
  4. Tequila and US-Mexican security relations Raúl Benítez Manaut, War on the Rocks

Nightcap

  1. Some women don’t want reproductive rights Rachel Lu, the Week
  2. What the West can learn from India Blake Smith, the Wire
  3. A Pullable Thread of the Social Fabric Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias
  4. “Hero-worship is spiritual poverty.” David French, National Review

Nightcap

  1. The firing of Kevin Williamson was a bad idea Conor Friedersdorf, the Atlantic
  2. Among the abortion extremists Ross Douthat, New York Times
  3. Back alley regulation Bryan Caplan, EconLog
  4. What deterring abortion means Russell Arben Fox, In Medias Res

Deontology and consequentialism, again

Christopher Freiman, associate professor in philosophy at William and Mary and writer at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, identifies as both a libertarian and utilitarian. Since my first real introduction to libertarianism was Harvard theorist Robert Nozick, I originally envisioned the philosophy as a rights-based, and thereby in some sense deontological, political theory, with like-minded economists and political scientists arguing for its merits in terms of material conditions (its consequences). In university philosophy courses, “libertarianism” means self-ownership and property rights, often through Nozick’s analytic approach. Consequentialism looked more like a top-down approach on how to live, one that doesn’t necessarily suggest any political theory, or does so only ambiguously.

In living by a deontological ethics, considerations about the consequences of an action will almost inevitably come into play, especially when pressed with more extraordinary cases. (Brandon has pointed out their ostensible — I think it only that — compatibility.) The right of an individual to not be violently attacked, for example, seems trumped in the face of the alternative immediate destruction of every other human being. I don’t think this is a great method for deducing practical principles, however. Although considering extreme cases might be entertaining and enlightening as to the durability of a thesis, their pragmatic import is typically negligible.

However, in considering their philosophical compatibility, libertarianism and utilitarianism feel at odds, and not over extreme counterexamples. Let’s look at a few low-hanging fruits. Suppose the National Security Agency had advanced knowledge that someone was planning to attack a nightclub in Orlando a few weeks prior to June 12, 2016. Private security would have increased, several clubs would have shut down. Were the threat classified as serious enough, state government might debate the Constitutionality of entering peoples’ homes and forcefully taking firearms; they might do this and succeed. Any further firearm sales would also be prohibited. This is an awful lot of state power and intrusion. However, fifty lives are plausibly saved, including Omar Mateen, and the lives of their family and friends are not devastated. Using a hedonistic calculus, these efforts look justified. Now, ignoring the NSA’s incompetency, suppose that our security agencies predicted the hijackings several months before September 11, about sixteen years ago to this day. In a utilitarian model, would the choice to prevent any civilian boarding for so many days, in order to prevent tragedy, be the correct one? In essence, is the partial nuisance to a substantial number of people overridden by the imperative to save 2,996 lives? Certainly — through utilitarianism — yes: the government ought to intervene and shut down air travel. In fact, the state determined it had a compelling interest immediately after the attacks and did this very thing, balancing national security over civil liberties.

Utilitarianism and liberal positions also challenge each other aggressively on issues like gun rights. In theory, were it possible to completely remove firearms from the states, there would be a gain in utility for the lives saved that would otherwise be lost to gun violence accidental or otherwise. Many people suffering nuisance (e.g. loss of pleasure from visiting the shooting range and insecurity about home invasion) is less consequential than the saving of lives.

And what of abortion? I align with reproductive rights, like plenty but not nearly all libertarians. Is choice, here, compatible with utilitarianism? All the additional children, bringing their own default happiness (cf. David Benatar for a counterargument), might be a utility bomb large enough to warrant invasive pro-life measures under utilitarianism, regardless of first, second or third trimester.

There are surely historical arguments that protest awarding the consequentialist victory so easily to the side of authoritarianism. For example, a nation equipped with the administrative power to invade private citizens’ homes and families, or cancel intranational travel or immigration, is probably not the nation which, in the long run, leads to the most utility or happiness. Nationhood aside, if all firearms were removed from society, this too might not be that which leads to the greatest net utility: maybe home invasion becomes epidemic; maybe rural areas that capitalize on hunting fall into unforeseen economic concerns; maybe the sheer quantity of the nuisance outweighs the beneficial effect of confiscation. The consequences of most of these issues are empirical and fall to historical argument. However, at least to me, utilitarianism seems incompatible with a variety of rights-based libertarian commitments, and thus deontological considerations become essential.

Here is another challenge to utilitarianism in general, and particularly Bentham’s project of a utilitarian legal system: discovering utils, or quantifying how much utility is connected to any action, is difficult. (And, since it has been, in all instantations, attached to government policy — not cooperation among peoples — it suffers from planning concerns on an even more detrimental scale.) The calculation is even more challenging when considering “short” versus “long term” effects. In the cases of Patriot Act-style defense, gun control (were it possible), and abortion, large-scale government intervention is, prima facie, justified by utilitarianism; yet over time, it may become evident that these choices result in overall poorer consequences. How much time do we wait to decide if it was the utilitarian decision? — And in the episodes of history, did any of those scenarios play out long enough to give a definitive “long term” case study? Swapping classical for “rule ulitarianism” doesn’t remove this epistemic barrier. There isn’t a non-arbitrary rule that determines how many moments into the future one must wait before judging the utility-consequence of any action, for those actions where we cannot pinpoint the closed-system end of the casual chain. Another related concern is that utilitarian judgments take on society as a whole, with little room for specific circumstances and idiosyncracies. This is why it strikes me as viciously top-down.

Thus the two philosophies, one etho-political and one entirely ethical, appear to conflict on several important considerations. (Most of the principles of the Libertarian Party, to name one platform, are not utilitarian.) Lengthy historical arguments become necessary to challenge the compelling nature of particular hypotheticals. J. S. Mill, whose utilitarian work inspired much of the classical liberal tradition, was, at the end of the day, a consequentialist; however, his harm principle from On Liberty is definitively rights-based, and this principle is at the core of his libertarian import, along with his anti-paternalism as espoused by people like Freiman. Freiman acknowledges some of the criticisms of utilitarianism, being (I think) a Millian and a libertarian, including one of its most prominent objections from those concerned with individual liberty: the separateness of persons, as offered from critics like Rawls. His response to this problem is essentially the one that falls to historical argument: “While it is possible for utilitarianism to recommend organ harvesting, hospitals that expropriate organs would not contribute to a happy and peaceful society in the real world.” This empirical conjecture leaves the realm of philosophy for us.

The inconsistencies promulgated by Mill — from his political philosophy, namely in On Liberty (1859), and his ethical philosophy, namely in Utilitarianism (1863) — may be why both consequentialist and deontologist libertarians can find support in his writings. Combinations like these are no doubt why Brandon finds the two compatible.

I don’t find them compatible, though utilitarianism as it was understood before Rawls may be the worse of the two (although rhetorically more effective). The modern father of deontology, Immanuel Kant, rejected the consequentialist ethos in his call to “treat people as ends, not means.” Utilitarianism, as broadly understood, has every reason to produce an omnipotent authority figure that will approve any gamut of regulatory and coercive policies if it seems to benefit the greatest interest of the majority. The “seems to” part is the only part that matters, since plans have to be acted on the basis of best knowledge; and I would maintain that estimating utils is never certain, being an empirical question made especially blurry by historical confusion. Brandon gave the example of the Great Leap Forward as an instance where we see utmost disregard for human sanctity in the sake of majoritarian or nationalist or “best interest” considerations.

Yet Kant can be interpretated as no less controlling. Deontology, from deos “duty,” is the study of what is morally permissible or obligatory, and to this natural rights is just one possible derivative. He is taken to be a natural rights theorist, and there is a separateness of persons explicit in his ethics absent from Bentham and Mills’ greatest happiness principle. But although Kant’s metaphysics of morals has persons, and not majorities, his Protestant upbringing shines through in his conservative views on sexuality and otherwise non-political behavior.

In a comment on Freiman’s post, Matt Zwolinksi objects to his assertion that utilitarianism is opposed to the interference of government in private, consenting interactions between adults (for some of the reasons mentioned above, and I agree). Zwolinski says, on the other hand, that Kant was strongly anti-paternalist. I doubt this. Immanuel Kant wrote criticisms of casual sex — each party is self-interested, and not concerned about the innate dignity of the other — and, like other Enlightenment philosophers, advanced that true freedom is something other than acting how one wishes within the bounds of others’ rights (true freedom is, in fact, acting according to how Kant wants you to act). It’s not exactly clear if his traditionalist positions on personal morality follow from his categorical imperative, but his duty ethics in isolation prohibits many activities we would take to be personal freedoms regardless. Kant might have opposed forms of government paternalism, but his entire ethical philosophy is paternalistic by itself.

For example, what would a Kantian say about a proposal to legalize prostitution? When someone pays another for sexual favors, the former is definitely not considering the latter’s innate dignity. The person who sells their body is treated as means to an end and not an end in themselves. Presumably, since Kant thought the state has a role in regulating other behavior, he would be against this policy change. This is confusing, though, because in most trades people use each other as means and not ends. The sexual transaction is analogous enough to any sort of trade between persons, in which we consider each other in terms of our own immediate benefit and not inherent humanity. When I purchase a Gatorade from a gas station, I am using the cashier as the means to acquire a beverage. Kantian deontologists could, the same as the utilitarians, call to organize all the minutiae of personal life to coordinate with the ideals of one man from Königsberg.

Meanwhile, what does the classical utilitarian say about legalizing prostitution? We only have to weigh the utility gained and lost. First of all, it helps the customers, who no longer have to enter the seedy black market to buy a one-night stand. Next, it helps the workers, who in a regulated marketplace are treated better and are less likely to receive abuse from off-the-radar pimps. There would likely be a dip in human trafficking, which would raise the utility of would-be kidnapees. In addition, it creates new jobs for the poor. If you are in poverty, it automatically benefits you if a new way to create income is opened up and legally protected. Further, with legalization there would be less stigmatization, and so all involved parties benefit from the mitigated social ostracization too. The disutility is minor, and comes from the pimps (who lose much of their workforce), abusive tricks who get away with physical violence as long as prostitution is underground, and the slight increase in moral disgust from involved sexual prudes around the globe. So, it seems safe to award the legalization case to Bentham and Mill, and indeed decriminalizing prostitution is the right thing to do. (Although we see another fault. Since all humans are equal, their utility too is considered equally: the utility of “bad men” is worth as must as the utility of “good men,” there being no meta-util standard of good.)

In this situation, utilitarianism helps the libertarian cause of individual freedom and self-determination; in others, duty based ethics are a closer bet. Natural rights perspectives, from Cicero and Aquinas to Nozick and Rothbard, on average satisfy more of the conditions which we find essential to libertarian concerns, especially when the emphasis is on the individual. That said, Kant is a deontologist and not necessarily a freedom-lover. Neither utilitarianism nor Kantian deontology point obviously to libertarianism. The moral psychology research of Jonathan Haidt gives us reason to surmise that it’s mostly “left-libertarians” that think in terms of consequences, and “right-libertarians” that stick to natural rights or deontologic premises. I think, regardless of which theory is more correct, they both capture our ethical intuitions in different ways at different times — and this without even considering other popular theories, like Aristotle’s virtue ethics, Rawlsian justice as fairness, loyalty ethics or Gilligan’s ethics of care.*

I like a lot of Christopher Freiman’s writing on Rawls and basic income. However, I find utilitarianism has to submit to empirical inquiry a little too often to answer fundamental questions, and in its ambiguity often points to policy that disrespects the atomic individual in favor of a bloated government. I don’t think utilitarianism or deontology à la Kant are the bedrock of libertarian principles, but ultimately natural rights is the most non-incorrect position and groups together most cohesively the wide range of positions within libertarianism.

* Gilligan’s ethics of care is terrible.