Monday, February 29, 2016

The Crux of the Problem

Talking with Bob at lunch on Saturday, I realized that our differences on matters political can be boiled down to a single question: "If one is morally certain that a collective action problem exists but can be solved if someone is granted the power to enforce a solution, is it moral to enforce that solution?"

For instance, if there were an asteroid heading towards a destructive collision with the earth, would it be moral to tax people to blow it up?

I say the answer is clearly "yes": someone resisting paying such a tax is acting immorally. And coercing someone to prevent them from acting immorally is moral.  Put another way: no one has a right to act immorally. (Nevertheless, it may not always be right to prevent them: I am not in favor of coercing people to be polite, for various reasons, but if it could be done in a way that would actually make them genuinely polite, it would not be immoral.)

Social Physics

My review of Alex Pentland's Social Physics is now available online.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Favoring the big

Listening to Daniel Kuehn talking about Georgia's job-creation tax-break program, I noted that in the wealthiest 25% of Georgia counties, the break is only only available to firms that create at least 25 jobs. So if I employ 5 people, I need to increase my payroll by 500% to get the subsidy, while if I employ 2500, a mere 1% increase will do.

And of course there are thousands of other laws that similarly favor large concentrations of capital.

Friday, February 26, 2016

How clichés and catchphrases can make you stupid

They have a used, of course, but be careful, or you wind up writing something like:

"Rodriguez was coming off a season-long ban last year for his links to performance enhancing drugs. Now, not so much." -- The Star-Ledger, Feb. 26, 2016

He's "not so much" coming off a season-long ban? How about "not at all"?

David Brooks isn't real

Could he have written a more embarrassing column than this? But it is funny that none of these "pundits" is ever dismissed for their terrible punditry.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Manners, manners!

"Manners and decorum differ from culture to culture, but in their highest aim they manifest the same recognition that human beings should act with dignity, elegance, and courtesy." -- Claes G. Ryn, A Common Human Ground, p. 24

Manners are excellent domain for illustrating the point I have been stressing concerning the relationship between the universal and the particular. Much of our society falls into one of two camps on this topic, each of which, in its own way, misunderstands that relationship.

On one hand, we have those who recognize the universal element in, for instance, morality. But they miss the particularity of the way their own culture embodies the universal, and misunderstand their genuine insight as meaning that what is right for one person or one culture in one time and place must be right for all people or all cultures in all times and all places. The result is an imperious rigidity and a closure to knowledge one might glean from cultures other than one's own.

On the other hand, those who perceive that, say, whether women in a particular culture bare their breasts in public or not is a somewhat arbitrary matter, often plunge off the other side of the ledge, and decide that morality is simply made up out of whole cloth, and that therefore we can invent whatever morality we please, or even do away with the whole business altogether. They acknowledge the particular, but completely miss the universality it embodies.

We see these two mistakes made concerning manners, and perhaps it is easier to recognize them as mistakes in an area of life less contentious than morality. I think most people can bring themselves to admit that there is nothing inherently more well-mannered about eating with chopsticks than there is about eating with a fork. But hopefully they can also acknowledge that both eating with chopsticks and eating with a fork are superior to plunging your face into your plate and eating like a dog. (Superior for humans! There is nothing wrong with eating that way if you are a dog.) Both forms of utensil "manifest the same recognition that human beings should act with dignity, elegance, and courtesy."

The particular way it is judged proper to eat in your culture is somewhat arbitrary. But it is not at all arbitrary that your culture has a proper way to eat! We can accept chopsticks as the equal of forks (each in their own context), without granting eating from a pig trough the same recognition.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Rationalism in Management

Theodore Dalrymple is feeling listless: "T.S. Eliot said that some people dream of a society so perfect that nobody would have to be good. Likewise, some people (managers mostly) dream of processes or forms so comprehensive that no one will have to think."

Sunday, February 21, 2016

My hands are statistically tied

We often see a news piece on a poll showing that Frip is ahead of Frap, 48% to 46%, followed by a declaration that Frip and Frap are "statistically tied."

This phrase is nonsense. If the poll above was conducted properly, the odds are pretty good that Frip really is ahead, just perhaps not with "95% confidence."

And the 95% confidence level is itself arbitrary: there is no real reason to prefer it to 93% confidence, or 97% confidence. And the magical power granted to passing the 95% threshold is completely unwarranted: if a poll one week shows Frip ahead with 94.9% confidence, it will be reported that Frip and Frap are in a "statistical tie," but if, the next week, Frip is ahead with 95.1% confidence, it will be reported that he has a "decisive lead." But if we applied statistical reasoning to the difference between the two polls themselves, we would surely find that their predictions were "statistically tied," and far more "tied" than were Frip and Frap in the poll that put Frip ahead with 94.9% confidence!

Scientism: Peak Enstupidation

Friday, February 19, 2016

An a priori proof that Hoppe is a silly ninny

I recall reading Hans-Hermann Hoppe's a priori "proof" that all government services must get worse over time. Even when I was a libertarian, I found his argument to be ridiculous.

For instance, sitting in my apartment, in Brooklyn, at seven in the evening, I just renewed my Pennsylvania driver's license in about 30 seconds. Twenty years ago this would have involved a trip to the DMV two hours away, during their business hours, and then a 20 minute wait in a line. You may feel the government should not be in the business of licensing drivers: fine, but that is a completely separate point. The fact of the matter is that the process of interacting with the government on matters like this has vastly improved over the last couple of decades. Another example: I can now walk out to catch a New York City bus and see, on my phone, exactly where the bus is at that very moment.

Collingwood on the problem of pain

"the practical problem of pain is not how to avoid it but how to lift it to a heroic level; and the presence of pain in the world is not a contradiction or an abatement of the world's value and perfection. Pain may make the world difficult to live in; but do we really want an easier world? And if we sometimes think we do, do we not recognise that the wish is unworthy?

"At any rate, the wish is useless. I do not think it serves any purpose to imagine hypothetical worlds in which this or that element of the real would be absent. And it does seem to me that pain is such an element. Whether or no it is always due to our own imperfection or sin or the sin or imperfection of others, it cannot ever be eliminated, simply because a perfection of the type required can surely never exist in a world of free agents; because even if no one did wrong, the effort of doing right would still be difficult and painful just so long as the practical problems offered by the world were worth solving. Pain seems to involve imperfection only in the sense in which any one who has a thing to
do and has not yet done it is imperfect; and in that sense imperfection is only another name for activity and perfection for death." -- Religion and Philosophy

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Collingwood on the vacuity of "evolutionary ethics"

"The last theory we shall examine defines evil by reference to the conception of evolution. Our sins,
according to this theory, are the habits proper to a past stage in the evolutionary process, lingering on like rudimentary organs into our present life. Here again there is a fact at the bottom of the theory. It is true that the particular way in which we go wrong is often explicable by reference to past habits of which we have never entirely got rid. But the question still remains unanswered why we should go wrong at all. Nor is the theory fully true even so far as it goes ; for atavism is not a crime, and just so far as our " crimes " are really cases of atavism they are not culpable; unless indeed it is supposed that our evolution is entirely in our own hands. But if that is so, morality must be called in to account for evolution, not vice versa.

"It is a striking fact that the biological conception of evolution has never yet produced anything but confusion when applied to philosophical questions. The reason seems to be that it gives, in the form in which it is commonly held, no answer to the one question with which philosophy is concerned. As we said in a former chapter, science (including the theory of evolution) is simply a description of behaviour, and advances no hypothesis as to why things behave as they do. The theory of evolution is a purely historical statement about the way in which life has developed ; ethics is concerned with the force of will which lies behind all merely descriptive history. It makes little difference to the scientist whether he regards evolution as a purely mechanical process or as directed by the volition of conscious agents ; but until this question is answered, evolution is simply irrelevant to ethics.

"In this case, for instance, there are three conceivable hypotheses, either of which might be adopted by science without greatly altering its particular problems ; but for ethics they are poles asunder. (i.) If the process is really mechanical, the habits may be explained, but they are not sins, [If (i) is held, as is usually the case, then "evolutionary ethics" actually is not a theory of ethics, but a theory as to why there is no such thing as ethics.] (ii.) If a central mind such as that of God directs the process, then the habits in question are not our sins but God's. (iii.) If, as above suggested, the process is in the hands of the evolving species, the bad or superseded habits are sinful, but they are not explained. Thus the evolutionary view of the question only restates the problem in terms which conceal the fact that no solution is offered." -- Philosophy and Religion

And for those inclined to think that "evolutionary ethics" is a new development… the above was written in 1916. The fact that ideas refuted a century ago are today put forward as if they were new discoveries is simply a symptom of philosophical ignorance on the part of those forwarding them.

Phil Magness to Libertarians: Don't Bother Trying

Phil Magness tries to debunk Will Wilkinson's argument that perhaps libertarians should support Bernie Sanders by claiming:

“Such a sweeping and systemic move, if attempted in the U.S., would immediately encounter several deeply entrenched political interests that simply make it an untenable proposition. And if, by some miracle, it were ever able to overcome those already entrenched interests, it would then succumb to new political appropriation by further interest group capture, leading to the perversion of its original stated goals.”

As Magness is a libertarian, he has a problem here: this same argument completely undermines any policy suggestion for trying to put libertarianism into practice: however good the idea may be in theory, if Magness is right, attempting such a "sweeping and systematic move" will guarantee that what gets implemented instead will be a completely perverted version of what libertarians want.

Meanwhile, Wilkinson is just saying that on the margin, we might get more liberty by moving towards a system more like Denmark's. Of course, a lot of the policies suggested for moving in that direction would get perverted along the way. And maybe on the importance of that point rests a good case for just sticking with the status quo. But it certainly is a terrible foundation for any case for libertarian activism!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The truth in progressivism

We can find a core of truth in any "successful" ideology, without which it would be too implausible to gain any traction. For progressivism, that core is the dramatic advances we have made in science and engineering over the last four centuries. They give credence to the idea that we are "more advanced" than Shakespeare or Dante, that being "modern" is better than being "Medieval," and that next year we will be even more advanced than this year. Sin, in progressivism, is being on "the wrong side of history," since tomorrow is always better than today. (Except, of course, when it isn't, which is when the "reactionaries" have temporarily reversed the march of progress.)

But consider running into a friend you have not seen for a year. He was a bit pudgy the last time you saw him, but now he is rippling with muscles.

"What happened to you?" you ask him.

"I've been going to the gym: I am a lot more advanced than when you last saw me, aren't I?"

"Well, you certainly are more muscular. But what do you mean by 'advanced'?"

"I mean that I am more modern than you. For instance, look how many push-ups I can do!" (He drops and does fifty.)

"Ah, so you have advanced beyond me in fitness?"

"No, no, in every way: ethically, philosophically, artistically... I am progressive."

"But where is your evidence that, for instance, you are ethically more advanced than me?"

"Look at how long I can hold a leg lift!"

Your friend is of course talking nonsense: simply because he is made progress at fitness does not say anything about whether he has made progress in any other area. Similarly, the fact that our science is more advanced than the Elizabethans has no relevance for judging whether our theater is better than theirs; the fact that we can build bridges better than the ancient Greeks says nothing about whether we can philosophize better than them; the fact that Buddha did not have a smartphone does not mean that we have a better grasp of the meaning of life than he did.

Monday, February 15, 2016

What the contextual nature of morality does and doesn't mean

We typically fine people occupying one of two extremes on the issue of moral relativism. Some people wish to impose rigid rules across all of time and space, regardless of circumstances: e.g., "The ancient Israelites were wicked because they practiced animal sacrifice." Others sense the (partially) historical character of right and wrong and leap from that genuine insight to the unwarranted conclusion that right and wrong are subjective, or whatever any particular society happens to deem them to be.

In Religion and Society, Collingwood explains why both extreme views are wrong:
"What is right for one society," we are told, "is wrong for another. It would be sadly narrow-minded to wish that every portion of the human race could live under the same kind of social organisation. On the contrary, to confer the blessings of civilisation upon the savage often means nothing but to force him into a mould for which he is quite unfitted and in which he can never be either happy or prosperous. His institutions are the best for him, and ours are the best for us ; and when we ask what is the right manner of life, the question always is, for whom? Nothing is right in itself, in isolation from the circumstances which make it right."

Much of this is perfectly true. Not only is one people's life not good for another people, but even one man's meat is another man's poison. Every race, every person, every situation is unique, presents unique problems and demands unique treatment. And if the argument means no more than that we must not impose the treatment proper to one case on another (as we frequently do), it is legitimate. But those who use it seem often to imply that, since every evil is relative to some situation, a perfectly free man who had no particular prejudices and no merely parochial interests would be superior to the distinction between good and bad. This of course is absurd ; for every man must be an individual and stand in some definite relation to other individuals ; and these relations will determine what is — and really is — right and wrong for him.
 And the Bible offers a perfect illustration of this point: Mosaic Law, which it was right for the Jews to obey, is no longer binding on Christians.

Right and wrong are dependent on historical circumstances. But what is right in a particular situation really is right, and what is wrong in that situation really is wrong.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Baptists, bootleggers... and libertarians

Many libertarians like to point out that it is an alliance of "Bootleggers and Baptists" that drives legislation like Prohibition.

But that is just a two-legged and stool, and it won't stand without its third leg: libertarians! By presenting complete license as the only alternative to full prohibition, the libertarians serve to drive people into the camp of the bootleggers and the Baptists: if the only alternative to having prostitution publicly marketed to one's children is a complete ban, then a lot of people will opt for the ban.

We used to have more sensible options on the table: prostitution was permitted, but in a defined red-light district, and certainly couldn't be widely marketed. But we live today in an age of extremes.

Friday, February 12, 2016

My new bibliography engine

is still under development, but is online here.

Source code is here. To-do list for enhancements is here.

The idea is that everyone can have there own publications up in searchable form.

Anyone with lots of publications want to try building their own searchable bibliography? (Murphy, ahem, Murphy.)

Monday, February 08, 2016


An interesting piece from Roger Scruton about music. My readers will recognize the themes of the concrete and the abstract in the essay.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Using evidence in an "unthinking" way

"Evidence-Indices [e.g., smoke as a sign of fire] may always have been used in an unthinking way by people going about their daily business; but to elevate them into being a reliable basis for theoretical knowledge..." -- David Wootton, The Invention of Science, p. 427

Here we come to the basis of Wootton's extraordinary claims about the Scientific Revolution replacing a world of abysmal ignorance with one that for the first time contains true knowledge: Wootton does not consider what ordinary people do in their day-to-day activities to be thought at all. But this is wrong: To move from an index to what that index signifies is an act of interpretation. In other words, it is thinking. It may not be great thinking, it may not be theorizing, and the move may have become so habitual that the thinker barely notices the thought involved at all. But nevertheless, it is an act of intelligence, and constitutes a genuine form of knowledge, without which the human species would not have survived a week after it had evolved.

Abstract thought does not have as its foundation "raw sensation" or any other such impossibility: its only possible basis is concrete thought.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Debugging Web apps

It has been a while since I've done any web application development, but this week I have begun trying to master Django. I have hit an interesting situation along the way: I wrote a query that I think ought to return some records, but does not. In order to understand what is going on, I tried to set up Django logging and log some relevant values at that point in the program. But the logging itself is failing, and failing silently: no log file appears, but neither do any error messages in the pre-existing web server error log. So how does one debug one's silently failing debugging tool?

Any ideas?

Stuck in the "Sauces"

I happened to have been reading an essay mentioning Forrest McDonald's insistence that his students keep looking to primary sources in their work, and a young person's PhD thesis, at the same tim and so I was struck by something extraordinary in the latter.

Let us call the newly minted doctor of philosophy Jones. Jones's work was essentially "Examining the Debate Concerning Great Thinker X." I was perusing his bibliography, and what struck me was that it did not contain a single reference to anything written by X! And this is a book-length work, which I believe has actually been published as a book.

Apparently, Forrest McDonald would actually avoid the secondary literature on a topic he wanted to explore and immerse himself in the primary sources. I don't blame Jones for his very different approach, but his elders, and their obsession with "the literature."

Old-fashioned excuse: "The dog ate my homework."

Modern excuse: "Dual-factor authentication ate my ability to do my homework."