Sunday, October 23, 2011

Dexter and the Juxtaposition of Atheism and Religion as Good and Evil Respectively

I recently came across this article about the tipping point for ideas. If you get 10% of the population to become a true believer in any idea, that idea will shortly represent the majority opinion. To me, what this means is that at least 40% of people don't think for themselves, though the number is likely more on the order of 60-70%. In any case, regardless of whether these numbers are right, the idea that a minority of true believers can easily overtake the majority opinion makes for an interesting discussion.

Dexter MorganImage via Wikipedia
If you don't watch Dexter, you are seriously missing out. It is the best show on television right now, and this season of Dexter might be the best yet. Dexter is about a serial killer who was identified as such by his cop father at a very early age. His dad Harry raised Dexter to become a vigilante serial killer, and taught him how to get away with it. Anyway, what's interesting about this season is that as Dexter brings his son Harrison up in the world, he has to make a decision about whether he wants to bring him up religious or not. Dexter pretty quickly rejects this notion, and this rejection is now being thoroughly reinforced throughout the season as one of the main plot lines involves a Bible thumping serial killer.

The show is having a good versus evil battle where the atheist is the "good guy" and the religious zealot is the "bad guy." Even more interesting, they're both serial killers. And yet, we all root for Dexter, and are on firm moral footing in doing so. A recent episode of  House had an interesting plotline as well, in this case it was self-interest versus altruism, with the altruist being painted as the bad guy (and eventually admitting that she was acting out of self-interest anyway). Add to that the fact that ancestral health is becoming mainstream with the Living Like a Caveman series and you have a trifecta of change coming down the pipeline. This change really cannot come soon enough, so all involved in the above examples must be praised. 

We have officially reached the "tipping point" of "true believers" in the scientific method. In this case though, it's not about being a "believer" so much as it is about being vocal and unapologetic about our ideas. In other words, skeptics have started puffing their chests a little more in an attempt to put an end to this idiocracy that we have evolved into. Now that skepticism is becoming a part of pop-culture, it will not be long before we see science as the majority opinion in all realms, the culmination of which will be an overtly atheist president and a repeal of many subsidies, including agricultural subsidies. 
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Sunday, September 11, 2011

When Great Ideas Go Astray

Sustainable farming is an interesting economic discussion topic. On the one hand, it ties in with the environmental movement, which is an externalities and large government movement. On the other hand, you have government intervening in a free market in the form of agricultural subsidies, which is interesting to small government, free-market economics supporters. The result is an issue that should be perfect for unifying the fiscally liberal and fiscally conservative to make a massive change. Yet it's not. In fact, it's not even talked about.

We can spend months arguing over whether or not to cut the ~$100 million we spend on the National Endowment for the Arts, but the ~$20 billion on agricultural subsidies, those aren't interesting to politicians. There are numerous reasons why; campaign contributions from corporate farms and the short term increase in food prices that would result being the biggest two; but at the end of the day those of us who consider ourselves to be in that movement need to take some responsibility for our failure as well. We parade out hippies, vegans and Al Gore as our ambassadors.

Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms has the potential to be a better ambassador. Polyface Farms is firmly in the sustainable agriculture camp, but he's got that southwest rancher personality to him, so he also appeals to the crowd that liked Bush Jr. as well. Robb Wolf recently put up a series of videos from an interview with Joel for the blog that I definitely recommend checking out. However, one of them in particular, linked here, got me a little riled. In this particular video, Joel brags about his 10 values, which include that he will not service anywhere outside of a four hour radius of the farm, does not advertise his farm, and does not have sales targets.

On the surface, this may seem commendable to some. As a farm grows bigger and services a larger area, one loses "connectedness" to the source of his food, which Joel deems as a cause of unsustainable food practices. I refuse to concede this point, however. Sustainability has nothing to do with farm size. In fact, there will always be economies of scale as a farm gets larger, whether a farm chooses to produce its food sustainably or not. Taking advantage of these economies of scale has the potential to make the high quality, sustainably grown meat more cost competitive, increasing the amount of it that people will opt to consume over factory farmed meat, and thus decreasing the environmental footprint of meat production overall. That's the beauty of capitalism, when you align the economic incentives (growing your farm to increase profits) with the environmental incentives (getting people to choose grass fed meat over grain fed meat), everybody wins.

Let's take this thing to its logical conclusion for a second. Imagine that the world becomes aware of the health problems caused by eating grains, and as a result, there are protests and riots and class action law suits against the US government, the summation of which cause a removal of all agricultural subsidies. Along with this, we see a massive increase in demand for the foods that are actually healthy, and we have to start thinking about growing this stuff on a mass scale. If we are not equipped with the processes, the equipment, the experienced people who have scaled this type of business before, we will not be ready on the supply side.

Take it out even further; we've figured the logistics of growing this stuff sustainably, but now it's 100 years later, the average life expectancy is over 90, and there are 20-30 billion people in the world. We have a real overpopulation problem that needs to be addressed. But do we have the political theory there to deal with it? Have we invested enough money in space travel and biosphere research to start expanding to other planets? Or build self sustaining satellite planets? Or are we instead going to go to war, like we have throughout history? Because that's the result of running out of resources, empires and wars. We need to start having these debates, to start working on solving these problems.

Rather than take a leadership role in this battle by beginning to tackle some of these questions, Joel has instead chosen to put a cap on his business. To sacrifice his personal gain for the sake of the common good. The rub of course, is that he's not sacrificing his personal gain for the sake of spending time with his family, or choosing to stay out of the limelight. No, according to his statements in the video, he is making these choices because they are  In the paradigm of a morality of altruism, this is the virtuous choice. But this is why altruism is a false sense of virtue. Scaling his business up, Joel could not only begin to start solving these problems, but in the process he could help publicize the sustainability aspect, and to some extent even begin to publicize the ancestral health movement, contributing to the saving of millions of lives in the process. Instead, he chooses to be "good."

Joel Salatin is a good man, but he has an opportunity to step up and become a great man. A man who effects change on the world. Instead he chooses mediocrity. Good enough. The choice is his, and his alone, but there is a right reason and a wrong reason to make that choice, and his reason is not a respectable one. There will always be a premium on achievement in a capitalist society because of what achievement represents with regard to technological progress. It's time to acknowledge the source of this progress: productive men creating value and being rewarded in kind for this value creation.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Comments From @EricSchmidt During His Dreamforce Keynote

Sorry for the missed blog post last week. I was out at Dreamforce in San Fransisco for work. At Dreamforce, the final keynote address featured Marc Benioff (Chairman and CEO of Salesforce) and Eric Schmidt (Executive Chairman of Google), having a conversation on the past, the future, and everything in between. In the above video, start at minute 41 and 30 seconds. Marc asks Eric a question about how to fix America. I have been planning a blog post on how to fix America (which is different from defining a moral government in the theoretical sense) for a while, but I am still stuck on the issue of fixing campaign finance, and until I figure this out, I'm going to have to hold off. However, there are a number of other areas that are fully baked, and some of them relate to Eric's comments on the subject. This blog post is a response to those comments, and as such makes much more sense having heard those comments specifically. Please take a few minutes to check those out before reading any further.

"You need to focus on getting a better educated workforce." The primary means by which the species homo sapiens sapiens has survived over the last 200,000+ years is our intellect; our ability to look at the past as a means of modeling the world and using these models in predicting the future. An enormous part of this is obviously looking at the past part; and this is where "knowledge" comes in. We, as humans, leverage knowledge as a means of innovation; it is much easier to make new discoveries when you know the current state of science than it is to make new discoveries in the absence of that knowledge. As such, knowledge, and obviously education (which is the means by which we acquire knowledge), is the primarily means by which we are able to move up in the world. This is completely in line with my discussion of a social safety net, and a public option in education being a part of that, so no need to go any further on that train of thought. Still, it's worth mentioning, as is any agreement in principle by any highly intelligent individual. We all, at the end of the day, use our own mind as a means of evaluating the merit of the statements of others, but as I mentioned in my first ever post on this blog, that does not mean that we do not consider agreement from people who we consider to have intelligent, well formulated opinions, as supportive of our views.

Still, I wouldn't be writing this blog post if there wasn't disagreement. If you start where I suggested that you do, you will have to watch for a while; until about minute 57 and 50 seconds; until you get to the statement that is the foundation of the rest of this post. Right around there, Eric implicates healthcare, specifically, as the primary causal factor of our economic troubles. People getting sick --> government paying for keeping them alive --> government being expensive --> taxes being inflated --> people and businesses that would have, under other conditions, invested in their own growth (resulting in jobs and GDP), instead choosing to save their money. The problem, of course, is that Eric missed an important factor in this chain of events. The simple fact that our lack of health in this country, and as a result the high cost of healthcare, is a result of our food policies. To many, it may have seemed completely bizarre for a blog on philosophy and political theory to discuss nutrition; particularly as its second post; but Eric's keynote serves as a perfect segue into the discussion of why political theory and nutrition need to be so tightly linked in our current day and age; why fixing food policy will necessarily cause the cascade of events that will result in our economy once again being great.

In his discussion, Eric labels healthcare as the fundamental economic sink in our economy. By no means does he call for a removal of medicare, but he does state that the current state of healthcare in this country is completely unsustainable; that it is the primary causal factor in our deficit, and by extension our debt, as well as most other economic issues in our country. I, personally, would put our foreign policy (and by extension our military budget) into this group, but let's stay on point for the moment. We as a country are sick. Rare is the 30+ year old individual who is not sick; whether it be allergies, extra body fatmass, inflamed skin, acne, diabetes, cavities, thyroid disorders, autoimmunity, elevated lipids, etc.; and this is not "normal" from the perspective of evolution. These diseases that we experience are not as result of our increased life expectancy, nor are they as a result of hormones in meat, chemicals in the air, or radio waves hitting our bodies every second of the day. They are as a result of our idiotic, evolutionarily inappropriate lifestyle choices, particularly around nutrition, sunlight and sleep. These choices, which I have already labeled as idiotic, are in large part a result of the fact that the foods that are bad for us are artificially cheap.

My larger point is the following: compared to our national deficit, the 20 billion that we spend on subsidizing agriculture is small. However, when you factor in the fact that it is the cause of our health problems, and thus our healthcare spending problems as a whole, the subsidization of agriculture is much more significant. Eric has his facts right, but like Gary Taubes and his carbohydrate-insulin hypothesis, the effect that he is observing occurs downstream of another event. In Gary's case, this effect is the elevation of fasting insulin, which occurs downstream of leptin signalling as interpreted in the hypothalamus (it is shocking to me that someone as intelligent as Gary cannot recognize this from the literature; it is the brain driving the increase in appetite and fatmass, the observed effects of insulin clearly occur downstream of this). In the case of Eric Schmidt, it is the agricultural subsidies driving our healthcare problems.

It's not surprising that someone like Eric, who has a day job that involves dramatically changing the world on a daily basis, would not have tried paleo. So let this post serve as a direct call to action to Eric to give it a shot. Try a paleo 2.0 type diet for 30 days. He's definitely got some pudge on there, so I feel pretty confident asserting that 30 days will be enough time to see a dramatic benefit. The fact that the neolithic agents of disease and hyperrewarding foods are driving our sickness in the first place necessitates this outcome.That's the difference between causes and symptoms. In a self correcting system; a classification that definitely applies to the human body; Under normal circumstances (the standard american diet) the repair mechanism is mostly just a Sisyphean task. However, if one removes the antagonizing factor, the system should be able to start to make serious headway in repairing the damage until it reverts back to baseline.

While this in no way can definitively prove anything from a scientific perspective, there are times when effect is so dramatic that it is completely impossible to ignore the uncontrolled intervention as the cause. As I stated above, I feel confident that there will be an effect of an impossible to ignore magnitude; if you recall the example of my dad, he lost four pounds a week for about 5 weeks and had his cholesterol completely normalize over that time after having had it be high for years; that's the type of dramatic change that we are talking about. No other mechanism of action is claiming those numbers, even for its long tail. To me this has always seemed bizarre, and has served as evidence that we probably didn't have it right in the past because of my "self-correcting system" heuristic above. Now we do, which is why I am convinced that we have it right this time, at least in a black box sense (we can reliably predict effects from causes, but don't necessarily have all of the mechanisms fully baked yet).

Convincing someone as influential as Eric Schmidt (which, again, is what I expect would happen after even just a 30 day intervention), someone who has the president's ear, can go a long way to getting us back on the right track as a country. To bring things back full circle:

  1. Healthcare costs are the primary cause of our economic troubles (Eric's original statement)
  2. The high cost of healthcare is as a result of almost everyone over the age of 30 being sick in some way as defined above, and many under the age of 30 as well.
  3. Agricultural subsidies make the most unhealthy foods, the neolithic agents of disease, artificially cheap
  4. As a result of these foods being artificially cheap, they get consumed in larger amounts than they otherwise would, particularly by the bottom half of the income distribution, who cannot afford healthcare (microeconomics 101)
  5. Since these are the foods that are making us sick, increased intake of these foods results in increased illness
  6. Therefore, agricultural subsidies are the cause of our economic troubles, and
  7. Removing agricultural subsidies (the causal factor in a self-correcting system) will cause a cascade of events resulting in healthcare costs coming down, and the economic issues being alleviated.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Designing A Moral Government, Part 4 - Taxation

Taxation is important. The American Revolution was fought over tax issues; in particular, that they were being taxed without having representation in Parliament.  I agree with the sentiment, both that taxes are necessary, and that it is immoral to tax someone if he has no say in whether a particular tax should exist or whether a service that a tax pays for should exist. So let's talk about taxes. What is are the characteristics of a moral tax code?

The Morality of Taxation
Let's ask first whether it is moral to tax. Anthony, over at the Dream Lounge, has on many occasions written that an income tax is a violation of man's right to life; that by virtue of government forcing one to pay taxes by threat of violence, government is subjecting man to coercive force. It's an interesting premise, because on the surface it seems pretty logical. Choice is the means by which we preserve our life, so restrictions on choice are bad since we take life as our standard of value; a premise that I have put forth in this post. In the case of taxation, forcing someone to pay tax by threat to life is an example of a restriction on choice. Makes sense, no?

Here's the problem with that logic: one exercised his right to choose when he chose to live in a particular country. His living in that country is a tacit acceptance of a contract with his government. Violating that contract is a threat of force against that government; in the case of taxation, not paying taxes is stealing. One had passively agreed to the terms of the law by residing in the country, and then he consciously disobeyed the law. To be more specific, the contract he violated states that he gets protected by his government's army and police force, gets to drive on public roads, an option for free schooling, etc; but in return he must adhere to these rules, one of which includes paying taxes. Not holding up his end of the contract is a form of stealing his government's services. The only time that force can be used is as a defense against the initiation of force by another party. Stealing is an initiation of force, so his government is free to respond with force in the form of bringing him to jail at gunpoint.

Creating A Moral Tax
Hopefully the above point is clear and agreeable. If not, feel free to comment, but for the purpose of the rest of this post, we are going to accept that taxation is moral. Of course, whether taxation is moral is a different question from whether taxation on income is moral. We'll get there. But let's first talk a little about the process of creating a moral tax.

Taxation Axiom #1: First you justify the expense, then you come up with the money. If there were no market failures, there would be no need for government. Since there are market failures created as a result of life being of infinite value, government needs to be as big as is required to smooth out these failures. Government seeks to maximize GDP, which means keeping as much money in the pockets of individuals as possible while maintaining efficient markets. This means that government cannot tax first and figure out how to spend money later. It must identify the market failure, come up with a solution, and only then should it figure out how to pay for the agreed upon solution.

Taxation Axiom #2: The most effective tax is one that varies as a positive function of the market inefficiency. For example, you tax alcohol in a way that causes the revenues from alcohol use to pay for mitigation of the externalities (like accidents as a result of drunk driving) associated with alcohol use. The idea being that if some independent factor causes an increased incidence of the behavior (drinking), then the revenues should increase with that increase in behavior such that they cover the cost of regulation incurred by government.

Taxation Axiom #3: Tax policy during times of fiscal deficit require different policy from times of budgeting balance. In times of budget balance/surplus, the singular purpose of government is to maximize long term GDP. There are times when taking on debt is necessary to this end, and in such times, there may be occasions when the long term maximization of GDP requires a short term decrease. These are the times of budget deficit.

Applied Taxation Theory
Taxation is simple enough when the budget is in balance or surplus. You tax in order to cover the expenses of government, and leave the rest of the money in the market. If this were actually followed, there would never be a situation during which we would find a deficit that continuously grows every year with no specific long term GDP purpose.

As it stands in the United States, though, we have dug ourselves quite a hole. We spent and still spend money that we do not have, and don't really have a plan to fix it any time soon. I've heard various figures quoted with regards to how big the national debt will get before we again balance the budget at our current spending levels, but they are all upwards of four times the current national debt.

The question of spending is not particularly relevant to this post, but suffice it to say that there are some easy ways to stop spending so freaking much, like ending our wars, legalizing drugs and prostitution, getting rid of all agricultural and energy subsidies across the board. The question of revenue is relevant though. One party in particular has taken the idea that taxes should never be raised to the point of it being a religious idea. The reason for the confusion is simple; there is no understanding of the "why" in the conversation. Since government is supposed to be long term GDP maximizing, there are times when it may be advantageous for a government to be temporarily profit maximizing. This then becomes a rational discussion, specifically "what does the Laffer Curve look like" and where do we currently lie on it? That, my friends, is a debate for economists to discuss, not politicians.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Designing A Moral Government, Part 3 - Local vs. Central

When the United States was founded, the word "state" had a very different meaning. Unlike today, where a state is closer to a subsection of a country than a country in and of itself, back then, an independent entity is exactly what it was. So the United States of America was actually more like what the Euro Zone is today than its own modern incarnation.

At the time, there was a massive debate between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson about the topic of localization versus centralization of government. Hamilton favored centralization, while Jefferson, who was from Virginia, feared northerners controlling him since the lifestyles were so very different, and as such favored localization. The compromise that they came to was nothing short of genius, in my opinion. That said, it was designed for a specific world as a result of specific circumstances, and our world is very clearly orders of magnitude different from the world for which it was designed.

Let's take a step back for a second and talk about the advantages of each. Since the role of government; as a monopoly on force; is to maximize market efficiency, centralization makes sense in many ways. There are economies of scale associated with more centralized governments, so market inefficiencies that are universal across the country will be better served in general to be regulated at the federal level. It is efficient to have a universal currency, a drivers license that works in every state, large social safety net initiatives being managed at a federal level, etc. That said, there are issues with centralization, which is where localization has its role. Large governing bodies can take a while to get things done. There is bureaucracy to deal with, a lack of focus, and at times an inability to understand how local culture effects a particular situation.

These pros and cons will always be around, but as the world changes, so too does the weight of each. In 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was signed, getting from Boston to Richmond was not an eight hour drive or a one hour plane ride. We couldn't call someone on a cell phone and have a real time conversation, or video chat in real time over Skype. Clearly in such a world, localization is of the utmost importance in most aspects of life. The primary reason for the uniting of the states was the economies of scale associated with a federal army, but in few other things would it be advantageous. However, since this question is so dependent on transportation and communication, as these improve, government needs to change, with the trend moving toward more centralization to continue to take advantage of economies of scale.

Just 100 years after the signing of the Declaration, the world was much different. Telegraph communication could get a message across the country at the speed of electricity, the invention of the steam engine allowed for trains and ships that could carry massive loads across great distances quickly. With the effective size of the world dramatically diminished, is it any wonder that we would want to correct for this change with the biggest expansion of federal powers ever, the 14th amendment?

This question of federal versus states rights comes up all the time in modern day politics, and certainly much more than it should. The intent of the debate was the one discussed earlier, but a strict reading of the text as opposed to the intent of the text results in trying to frame modern issues with an 18th century mindset, which is akin to ignoring 200 years of technological development;. to ignore that I can access just about any information I could ever ask for from a 5oz device in my pocket; to ignore that I can buy a plane ticket in New York from a laptop in my bed at noon and be partying in Miami by six. Imagine a world in which we have an elaborate transportation system built on teleportation technology, where one could get from New York to Dubai in less than half a second. In that world, how does the question of localization versus centralization of government change? How does the definition of a "country" change?

Politicians (or at least their campaign managers) are not stupid. Disingenuous, yes. Stupid, no. When a political figure attempts to make an argument for a particular law or right to be relegated to the state, the vast majority of the time this is his way of finding a loophole in the law, rather than standing up for what he actually believes in and outright saying that this right should be allowed. Politicians are too afraid of the "do-gooders" who take altruism and self sacrifice as their standard of value to ever say this outright. Of course, if the question is actually about states rights, then the debate is very different. It's numbers, it's intellectual. How effective is regulating X at the state level versus at the federal level, based on the evidence? How cost-efficient is regulating X at the state level versus at the federal level, based on the evidence? Agreement on the facts results in agreement on the policy.

And that's the point. That is why we desperately need a rational basis amendment in this country. Our country was founded on a morality of indivualism; on a morality based on the inalienable rights of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" (might remind you of something). That's why this blog exists. So the adults can talk. This blog exists to reframe the debate in terms of reason. Disagree with me if you choose, but disagree with me on the facts in the context of an intellectual debate. The constitution is a living document, the legal code is a living document. It is outlets like this where we can discuss what the laws should be, not what they are or how difficult it would be to modify them.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A Real Life Ellsworth Toohey

A friend of mine from work sent me this article that was reposted on Deadspin though originally ran in The Nation magazine. At first glance, I actually thought I agreed with where the article was going. Dividing the world into "jocks" and "pukes" reminded me a lot of the distinction between "producers" and "looters" made in Atlas Shrugged. A couple paragraphs in things started to feel a little off, but it wasn't until paragraph six; in which the author says in an aside, "Obviously, I am for de-emphasizing early competition and redistributing athletic resources so that everyone, throughout their lives, has access to sports. But then, I am also for world peace;" that I officially wanted to choke Robert Lipsyte, the article's author.

His basic premise is that growing up playing sports makes you competitive, ambitious, greedy, amoral, and submissive to authority (with illusions toward this being a Republican ideal), and that in our enlightened post-feminist world, we can finally start to question some of these foundations in order to move past them. Also that we should, of course, because greed is bad, bullying is bad, and competition is obviously bad. Now to be sure, I am not trying to defend "jock culture;" I think there are some major problems with it that need to be addressed; however, this article cannot stand unanswered, because it is the most vile, immoral, senseless piece of propaganda I have read since Elsworth Toohey's speech in The Fountainhead (text version here) on how to rule the world, and the fact that it is trying to pass itself off as taking the moral high ground is at the root of everything that is wrong with America, and to a larger extent, the world.

First, I want to address this idea that a "willingness to subordinate [oneself] to authority" is a necessary part of athletics or achievement, or even jock culture for that matter. I can see where Lipsyte got this idea from, but it is a total perversion of reality. Among athletes, as is the case with all producers, respect is earned. An athlete may take on the role of a student, seeking knowledge, trying things that on his own he would not have done; but he chooses to do so because he trusts the authority figure telling him to do it. He has made this evaluation of trustworthiness based on the judgment of his own mind, not based on a blind sense of supplication.

Do great players actually submit to authority? I mean, Derek Jeter is known as one of the classiest individuals in sports, and for good reason. I do not recall a single incident between Jeter and a Yankees manager during his 15 year career (though that's not to say that they didn't happen). It's quite a stretch to call this "blind loyalty" or supplication, though. Jeter has had two managers over the course of his career. The first was Joe Torre, who led Jeter and company to win four championships in five years. If that is not an example of someone who has earned the respect of even the biggest stars, I don't know what is. His second manager, of course, was Joe Girardi, who played on three of the four championship teams, and managed the Yanks to one world series as well. This is another guy who commands respect from everyone, even the Derek Jeters and Alex Rodriguez's of the world.

Let's talk about Michael Jordan. We all know and love Jordan. I remember being a Knicks fan during Jordan's second run of three championships; if he was on the team, that team was unstoppable, period. He left the league to go try to play professional baseball, and without him, the team went no where. Then when he came back in the league, which was when I was a fan, reinserting him into the starting five was all that it took to put the Bulls back on top. When Jordan was inducted to the hall of fame, he gave this speech, and it was people like Lipsyte who criticized it.

Jordan is the ultimate competitor. He achieved what every athlete wishes he could, and that is why he is who he is. The perfect combination of natural ability and commitment. Few people in the history of the world have done any single thing as well as Jordan played basketball. This realization of the ideal basketball player, as personified in Michael Jordan, was not as a result of submission to authority. When he was coming back from an ankle injury and was told he could only play 10 minutes, he walked into the owner's office and demanded that he get more time. He had a love of the game clause in his contract which stated that he could play anytime he wanted, even in the off season at the risk of injuring himself. So bringing it back full circle, are the "pukes" really the only ones that are capable of independent thought and questioning authority? Decidedly NO.
At a critical time when masculinity is being redefined, or at least re-examined seriously, this sports system has become more economically, culturally, and emotionally important than ever. More at service to the empire. More dangerous to the common good.
Great, here comes "the common good." Now we are really starting to delve into some Toohey speak. This is straight out of the playbook of the virtue of selfessness. We shouldn't build a stadium for a football team in Texas at the benefit of only the jocks. We should redistribute this money to the education of the children. Nevermind that it was the football program that raised that money in the first place, and the stadium will pay for itself many times over, bringing money back into the school. Granted, this is Lipsyte quoting someone else, but this is his point throughout the article, in particular in the aside that I mentioned earlier.
Jock culture is a distortion of sports. It can be physically and mentally unhealthy, driving people apart instead of together. It is fueled by greed and desperate competition. At its most grotesque, think killer dodgeball for prize money, the Super Bowl.
You have the cause and effect wrong there, bud. Competition and self interest are at the core of human nature. It is our biological imperative to stay alive, and we have evolved these characteristics because they provided us a survival advantage. We take life as our standard of value, and since we long ago realized that not finding an outlet for this competitive nature creates problems, we have created a competitive outlet for ourselves that adds value to the world. Try for a second to imagine how many people would be out of a job if we decided that the Super Bowl should no longer exist. I'll wait.

Lipsyte is suggesting that we get rid of not only the Super Bowl, but if I'm extrapolating correctly from the words "think killer dodgeball," it would seem the sport of football as well. He is asking athletes to sacrifice their happiness for his virtue of selflessness. He is asking hundreds of millions of fans to sacrifice their happiness for his virtue of selflessness. He is asking tens if not hundreds of thousands of people around the world to sacrifice their living for his virtue of selflessness. This is not moral. This is not GOOD. This stops here.

The false sense of virtue based on altruistic behavior and the "common good" is propagated by the weak in an attempt to control strong. "Pukes" like Lipsyte still resent the jocks who picked on them throughout their school years, and attempt to use guilt as a tool by which they can control others. They carry a chip on their shoulder throughout their lives, just like Jordan did about getting cut from his high school basketball team. But instead of using this chip as motivation to create value and self-actualize like Jordan did, the Lipsytes of the world use it to try to rule; to amass power and respect; to try to bring great people down to their level of mediocrity.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Designing A Moral Government, Part 2 - Social Safety Net

Under the first post in this series, we established how important it is that a moral government protect the life of its poorest and weakest citizens from a theoretical perspective, since the parents we are born to is the result of a figurative genetic lottery. In this post, I want to talk about the social safety net again and in more detail, but this time from a more practical perspective. The short version of this argument is that by not having any form of social safety net, you actually create more threats of force and right to life violations than by having one, at least up to a point.

As we know, government's primary role is efficiency of markets. One tool in our toolbox is to start by looking at the most extreme forms of government in order to establish where the appropriate middle ground is. So let's talk anarchy; does anarchy create efficient markets? Decidedly no. If one owns a store, he has to allocate a large proportion of his resources to hiring security to protect his store when there is no central government to protect against theft. In fact, in high crime areas where the police presence is insufficient to provide a deterrent or the quality of life is so low that people don't care, buying protection from the nearest mobster is not an uncommon practice. In this example, the mob actually serves as a de facto government, but clearly not a moral one, since the mob, by definition, is a criminal organization.

So the first thing that we need to understand about government is that it doesn't have to be moral. People are willing to submit to an immoral government long before they are willing to choose anarchy. That said, if a government is too oppressive, history shows that people are also willing to revolt. We grant a particular government the power to rule by force by passively choosing to abide by it's laws, and if your government's power gets out of reach, the options are to leave or fight back.

The Case for a Social Safety Net
The above discussion is related to the healthy person who doesn't want to die. However, it's important that we look at it from the opposite side as well. What about the person who is unhealthy and wants to be saved? His incentives are very different, but still need to be accommodated by a moral government.

Because we define life as our standard of value, most if not all of these market failures result from the value of life being infinitely large. When you look at it from this perspective, it is understandable that someone would be willing to spend every cent that he can get his hands on in order to pay for life saving medical treatment. That he would be willing to rob a bank in order to obtain healthcare, or take a hospital hostage in order to get his son a heart transplant, likewise makes perfect sense (that second one is fictional, but I can't imagine anyone watching that movie without feeling that John was justified in doing so). Stated more broadly, that someone would be willing to risk his life in order to save his life is not in any way surprising.

As we have already established, there are times when it is moral to take what would normally be immoral action. The two above examples illustrate this pretty clearly. But the question is, should it be punished? Rather than answering this question directly, allow me to answer this question with a question: would punishing this behavior prevent it? Obviously no, those people's lives are already in jeopardy, so they are willing to risk their lives in order to possibly save themselves. So punishing the behavior does not deter it, but is there another way to prevent it?

This is where the social safety net comes in. This is not the first time we have run into a problem where a threat to one's life is not a sufficient deterrent against immoral behavior. Similar things can be said about drugs, prostitution, alcohol during prohibition, etc. Sometimes restricting behavior with threat of force is just not the right way to solve the problem of the externality it places on society. Regulating and taxing seems to have solved the problems with prohibition. Similarly, a social safety net prevents the starving or the sick etc. from robbing people just to get by.

A moral social safety net is one that provides a bare minimum standard of living and absolutely no more. Any amount above the bare minimum to get by acts as a disincentive to become self sufficient. A moral social safety net provides a public option for all of the essentials. These absolutely include food and healthcare, and there are cases to be made for things like shelter, transportation and education as well. This bare minimum social safety net will obviously not prevent everyone from committing crimes, but it will prevent moral people from doing so.

As someone who values his life, a moral actor will choose to sustain himself in this bare minimum standard of living only as long as he has to, and will never infringe on another's right to life so long as he has this basic level of sustenance. Those who still commit crimes despite their life not being in danger, well, those are the immoral actors, and should be punished accordingly.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Come On Avril

Avril Lavigne - Girlfriend Avril Lavigne - Gir...Image by Asthma Helper via FlickrWhen Avril Lavigne first came out, as adorable as she was, she always seemed a little too young looking for me, even though I was a couple of years younger than her at the time. Still, it was hard not to like her blend of punk rock and girlyness. It wasn't until her song "Girlfriend" and the accompanying video came out that I started to really like her. These days, of course, she's a mother and a divorcee. Wow, they do grow up fast!

She apparently has a new album that came out a couple of months ago, and the first single off of it is called What the Hell. If you haven't seen it, I definitely recommend you take a second to watch. The way that she carries herself is so adorably sexy in that video, kind of makes a man want to tear her apart She Wants Revenge style. I came across this song by accident today, and thought it made a perfect opportunity to start a new theme that will be at the heart of the purpose of this blog.

The hook of the song is, "All my life I've been good, but now, I'm thinking what, the hell? All I want to do is mess, around. And I don't really care about, if you love me, if you hate me, you can't save me, baby, baby. All my life I've been good, but now, Whoa, what the hell?"

So how does this relate to ethics? Well, looking at the chorus again, what is the implied standard of value? It states that she used to be good, but now, she's in the mood to sleep around, flirt, have fun, i.e. be bad. So she is choosing to act immorally as she defines it, because she doesn't like being moral, at least not for the moment. Of course, as I define good, the only immoral thing that she is doing in this scenario is being apologetic about acting in her own self interest when it doesn't violate anyone else's right to life.

This song is a perfect illustration of the false moral code that runs through our society; a system of morality that takes altruism and self sacrifice as its standard of value. This system of ethics is at the root of much of what is wrong with the world today. The sad thing about this ethical code is that it causes people to do extremely immoral things that are in direct conflict with their ability to achieve happiness. Further, by convincing people that self sacrifice is a good thing, immoral actors use this system of morality to sell their immoral actions to the public, and we buy, oh do we buy. They say that killing animals is bad, so you go vegan, never mind whether such a lifestyle will be good or bad for you. They say that women who sleep with too many men are bad, that chastity is in some way something of value.

Here's the thing: altruism doesn't exist. Selflessness doesn't exist. Everything we do is selfish because all of our drives have been hard coded by evolution into a template of morality that has served as a survival and replicatory advantage. When we do things for others, we do them because we want to do them, it feels good to do them. Or because we think other people will like us more if we do them. Either way, these actions are still in our self interest. So all of our actions are selfish. If that statement makes you mad enough to go out and donate a kidney to a random person in order to prove me wrong, the fact that you are trying to prove me wrong means that the action is selfish.

On the other side of the coin, the problem with defining selfishness as a virtue, of course, is that "selfish actions" can be virtuous or nefarious. If you rob a bank because you think you can get away with it, this is definitely selfish, but it is not moral. However, if you go on a million dates, like Avril says she does in the song, this is also selfish, but this is not immoral. The selfishness of the action is not the relevant variable. The relevant variable is whether you are infringing on the rights of others or not. In the former, you were, in the latter, you're not, so there you have it. Those are the correct ethical judgments.

So Avril, stop apologizing for doing what you want to do. You have been judged for your actions your whole life. Now that you're 27, you're starting to hit your sexual peak, and you're starting to mature as a human being. As a result, you're starting to care less what other people think. It's time to take your new found maturity to its natural conclusion and reject their false sense of morality. Ethical egoism for the win.
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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Designing A Moral Government, Part 1 - The Genetic Lottery

Now that we have defined good and government, it would seem that it's time to start getting to the heart of the issue. What is a moral government?

Let's talk about the concept of the "genetic lottery," which we will define as the idea that when you are born, it is completely random to whom you will be born. This premise is instrumental in designing a moral government. The fact that there exists a genetic lottery of which we are all a product means that in designing a government, we have to assume that it is possible to be born to parents of any income level, in any profession, with any disposition. As such, one would never design a government in which one person is king and everyone else is a slave, because the probability of you being born to a king is extremely low. Likewise, we would never design a communist society in which everyone has exactly the same rations independent of the value they contribute, because we value achievement as a means of achieving happiness.

Thinking about this question from the perspective of an optimization problem, the task at hand is to define the constraints and pick a variable to maximize. The variable to maximize is pretty obvious; the role of government is to create market efficiency, so we want to maximize value creation, which correlates pretty well with the concept of gross domestic product.

The constraints follow from the genetic lottery framework. Since we accept life as our standard of value, we certainly want to minimize the likelihood of our birth parents disposition making it impossible for us to survive into adulthood. We also want to create a system under which upward mobility is possible, since there will always be a much higher chance of being born to a middle to lower class family than there is to be born to an upper class family. As rationalists, we deny the existence of life after death, so upward mobility must be possible during one lifetime; caste systems definitely do not cut it. We also trust our mind above all else, since it is our primary means for survival in the world, so moral governments must minimize situations in which there is a lack of choice.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Premises, Part 3 - Free Will

As I type this blog post, I feel completely in control of my actions. I can start and stop as I please, take a break and do something entirely different and come back to it later. Best I can tell, I have free will. And yet, I also believe in a deterministic universe. I believe that everything in the universe can be explained by some set of equations of the interaction of matter/energy on the most basic level, that there's no such thing as randomness. A deterministic universe does not allow for deviation from a predetermined path.

In the most specific sense, we do not have free will. Free will is what is known as an error of agenticity, where we look for patterns in the universe and assign the idea of free will to the agents creating said patterns. Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga has labeled the section of the brain that interprets the signals and creates a story for us about our "will" the left hemisphere interpreter. He came up with this name based on a series of experiments with a split-brain patient, where feeding a command like "walk" into the right brain (presumably by only showing the flash card to one eye?) caused the patient to make up a story as to why she wanted to go right, such as "I wanted to go get a Coke."

Like our discussion about objective reality, the fact that we perceive free will in ourselves is sufficient to accept it as a premise. We evolved the perception of free will as a survival advantage, and there is no rational reason to think that overriding this feeling would be advantageous to survival, so this premise must be accepted if you accept life as a standard of value. Since everyone in the world perceives that they possess free will, and choose to exercise their individual wills according to the standards set forth by the template of morality, we assume it is within their control to change their actions, and thus we can punish them for their actions, and in particular for the intent of their actions.
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Monday, July 11, 2011

Premises, Part 2 - Objective Morality

In part one of this series, we discussed why it is essential that we take it as a premise that there exists an objective reality in which we are living.  Saying that reality is relative posits that it cannot be measured and interpreted. That it is impossible to achieve knowledge in the world because my knowledge can be different from your knowledge, and yet they can both be equally valid. In such a world, there is no value in science, the scientific method, or even reason for that matter. Rejecting the premise of an objective morality has similar consequences. The alternative to accepting an objective morality is to take some kind of moral relativist perspective that not only has no scientific plausibility, but also makes it impossible to prescribe actions, pass judgment, and deter "bad" behavior.

Humans are not a very genetically diverse species. We have an effective population size of about 10,000, which means that the entirety of the genetic diversity of our species can be captured in about 10,000 individuals. Despite the population boom that we have experienced over the last 12,000 years from a few million to well over 6 billion, the amount of genetic diversity has remained the same, though previous iterations of our species have been significantly more diverse. As a side note, genetics are by no means the only relevant element when it comes to heredity. Still, the small effective population size is at least suggestive of the idea that not only are we very similar to each other, but we are very similar to our ancestors going back at least 1.2 million years. There has undoubtedly been selection pressure during this time period, but I suspect that most of this has been as a result of pathogens, leading to selection for immune function (including the passing of antibodies and gut flora from other to child) rather than genetic mutation.

As we've discussed before, our drives, our desires, our needs are all shaped by evolution to keep us alive and pass on our genetic material. So unless you reject life as a standard of value, it follows that those drives that keep us alive are good. If we are all very similar; as the above discussion suggests; and our moral compass is largely shaped by our evolutionary experience, it follows logically that we all have a nearly identical sense of morality, at least on the genetic level. So there is a template of morality that is hard coded into our brains that is very similar, if not identical, in all of us, with the exception of the very rare genetic mutation. This template is the objective morality.

There is no question that culture plays a huge role in morality. The objective morality is a template, and various symbols in culture will always come to represent different aspects of that template. There was a time when being overweight represented value because the foods that made people fat (and still make us fat today), were too expensive for poorer individuals to procure in large enough quantities. There was even a market for foods that fatten people, though for most of the rest of modernity weight loss has been a much larger market. Anyway, the point is this: yes, culture can influence how our minds interpret the virtue of a particular action, but this interpretation can change as new information comes to light and the rational brain refocuses its attention, causing the emotional brain to respond differently to the same action. When people say that "ignorance is bliss," this is a product of the rational brain not having certain information; i.e. being ignorant;  and as a result making different value judgments from what it would have made did it have more complete information.

So when you have moral disagreement with someone, there are two primary areas in which the disagreement can occur. The first is the moral premises, which is why it's important to think about these things, tease out the disagreement, and come to some sort of conclusion or at least agree to disagree on a certain point. The other place that two people can disagree is on the information or the relative weight of the information. These differences are much more easily resolved, as they are not steeped in beliefs, which are obviously very hard to change. The goal of this blog is to start from the ground up and build a rational and scientific morality based on the best evidence available today. So if you disagree with any points on this blog, which I welcome, and would like to argue the point, please make it clear what type of disagreement you are putting forth. If it is one of information, we can discuss the specifics, if it is one on moral grounds, figure out where we break off, i.e. where you agree with my premise but disagree with my conclusion from that premise.

In saying that there is an objective morality, I am saying that there is only one right course of action in any dilemma given perfect information and a perfect understanding of morality, and that is the course of action that is the one that is most likely to keep us and our genetic material alive. There is a similar idea to this in poker, which is known as the fundamental theorem of poker. Any deviation from this course of action is as a result of either:
A) false premises e.g. religion and all the immoral behavior that it prescribes
B) bad or incomplete information (regarding the facts of the particular situation as opposed to morality in general)
C) overtly immoral choices e.g. robbing a bank because you want to live a certain lifestyle, knowing that it is immoral and should be immoral, but doing it anyway because you want to. This drive to have the money is a moral drive, but the action that you are taking violates the rights of others.

The purpose of the study of ethics is to prevent these "Type A" disagreements. Type B disagreements are just about getting the person the right information, and Type C actions can only be prevented by the threat of force from a governing body. We need to define the template of the objective morality, independent of societal influences, in order to design a moral government. Any level of restriction that goes beyond that prescribed by the hard coded morality will inevitably result in someone's freedom of choice being infringed upon.

To be clear, morality is emotional first. It's a backwards rationalization. An attempt at mapping rationally that which we feel intuitively. Because the emotional template does not evolve quickly enough to keep up with our changing environment, we evolved a rational element to our brain that is capable of teasing out how environmental changes influence our survival ability. So if we define rationally the parameters of the emotional template, we can use that template as a framework within which we can make decisions about overruling our emotions. Since the rational framework can influence the emotional response in this way, morality can also be looked at as emergent system.
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Saturday, July 2, 2011

Premises, Part 1 - Objective Reality

This series was probably supposed to come before the post on defining good for the sake of addressing our operating premises. The premises represent the foundation on which morality is built. The first stage in any attempt to sway opinion must be to achieve agreement on the premises. From there, it's a matter of following the logical thread until you determine the primary point of contention, and building your case on that leverage point.

First, a definition:
Premise - A previous statement or proposition from which another is inferred or follows as a conclusion.

In creating the rationalist philosophy, there are three basic premises that we are going to need to accept:
1. The world around us represents an objective reality. It exists independent of our consciousness, and independent of our life. Alterations to our brain chemistry can modify our subjective perception of this reality, but this has no impact on the facts of the world, only in the way we perceive them.
2. We are all hardwired by evolution to each have the same drives, urges and emotions with the purpose of perpetuating our individual survival and reproduction, and to a smaller extent the survival of our species as a whole. The totality of these evolutionary drives represent an objective morality.
3. We have to assume that free will exists. We have to assume that humans have the capacity to make good or bad decisions in order to punish them for their decisions.

In part one of this series, let's take a look at the first of these.

Objective Reality
Major hat tip to Richard Nikoley from Free the Animal for including the Hitchens video in this post. The video is one of seven, and in the second video, there is an extremely interesting discussion of a philosopher at Oxford, Nick Bostrom. Bostrom has a theory called the Simulation Hypothesis, which has been featured to various capacities in movies.

The simulation hypothesis posits that it is very likely that we will achieve singularity at some point in the future. This means a number of things, one of which is that we will be able to take a human brain, break it down to its most basic elements, and simulate it in a computer program. Once we can do that, it is not far off to create a virtual universe in which all of the simulated humans perceive themselves as having free will. Once we can create a simulated universe, we can and presumably will create a large number of these simulated universes on computers. As technology advances, the number of simulated universes will approach infinity, and the likelihood that any individual is in the objective reality as opposed to a simulated universe will approach zero. The question then becomes, are we in a simulated universe? Can we know for sure either way? Does it matter?

It is impossible for a person who is scientific minded to reject the possibility of the above scenario. However, it is also irrelevant. If you ever watch the show House, M.D., you will see that occasionally House comes up with a diagnosis that fits better than anything else, but he refuses to accept it, not because it is illogical, but because that diagnosis is untreatable and it would mean giving up on the patient and letting him die. By the same logic, worrying about whether we are in an objective reality or a simulated one is irrelevant, because unless someone is going to come and unplug you Morpheus style, it leaves no course of action other than to continue to try to achieve your own happiness. So here at Armchair, we accept that the world around us represents an objective reality. However, our experience of the world is entirely subjective, as it is filtered through our senses. Still, as the breadth and depth of our experience of the world increases, our concept of the world asymptotically approaches that of the objective reality.
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Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Government Versus My Government

Having a healthy fear of government is good. Most people on both sides of the aisle lack an appropriate level of skepticism toward their government. Still, there is a point where too much fear becomes fringe lunacy, and it is my opinion that someone like Ron Paul is past that point. The reason that Ron Paul is "fringe" while less moral politicians of both parties are "mainstream" is because the threat to one's life posed by too little government can often outweigh the threat to one's life of too much. That's why systems like feudalism existed, because people would rather live under an immoral government that protects their life from outside threats than a government that is afraid to infringe upon a few liberties and offers little to no protection as a result. So while there is a point where the absolute cost of too much government is too high, and revolution becomes the moral imperative, it is often safer to err on the side of more government than less up to a certain point. Someone calling for the end, at least on the federal level, of basically every government entity other than those explicitly in the constitution is on the wrong side of this point, which is why Ron Paul and libertarian politicians like him will never be voted into the presidency.

It is very common to hear people talk about "the government" as if it is an independent entity that they are fighting against, clawing with tooth and nail to inch out any civil liberty they can. To me, this is a huge misrepresentation of reality. There are two reasons why it seems intuitively obvious to me that the possessive "my government" or "our government" more clearly states what is actually going on. Reason number one is simple enough; we vote politicians into their jobs and can vote them out. Reason number two is slightly less so, although I already talked about it when I defined the purpose of government. Every day of our adult lives that we spend living in the United States; or almost any other country in the world today for that matter; is a day that we opted to not move to another country. We are passively choosing one government out of 100+ governments around the world that don't restrict emigration (without the freedom to leave, like in North Korea, there is obviously no choice to stay). Reading through my blog, you'll notice that when I refer to government, I will either use a possessive article or leave the article out entirely, and this is no accident.

I bring this up not to nit-pick semantics, but rather to illustrate that we, or people like us, created the American government, and likewise we can change it and deconstruct it as necessary. The slogan of this blog is "don't hate the player, change the game" because while you are entitled to judge a person's actions or a company's actions as immoral, it is not now nor has it ever been a given that we live in a world where everyone acts morally. This fear of immoral actors is exactly why we created government, to be monopoly on force that disincentivizes immoral action. So while I can judge a company or a person's actions as immoral, the fault really lies in the structure and policies of our government, which is supposed to protect us against immoral behavior if and when that behavior infringes upon our right to life. When that action does not infringe upon one's right to life, the fact that an action is immoral in and of itself is not sufficient to restrict it.
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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Defining Government

Now that we have a basic understanding of good and bad, it's time we turn our attention to government. What is government? Why do we need it? What should government have control over?

Looking up the word "governmnet" in a dictionary actually yields very little in the way of a definition. To understand what government is, we have to understand why we want/need it. Based on what we know about morality, and in particular about when it is moral to take immoral action, it should be at least intuitive if not obvious that the role of government is to protect us from the force of others, since the force of others infringes on the choices we can make in order to protect our own life. We know that force is the only way that force can be met, so we can define government as a monopoly on force.

When we create a government, we are creating a body that has the absolute jurisdiction in the realm of force. We are choosing to put limits on our ability to take forceful action against others in the hopes that the threat of force from this larger, stronger body; government; will provide a deterrent against other people taking forceful action against us. Feudalism came about as a result of people afraid for their lives seeking the protection of nobles with money, and so to has every government come about as a means of protection from threats. These threats can come from individuals within your clan as well as from outside your clan, so government must have the capacity to protect against both.

It would seem that giving a government absolute jurisdiction over the use of force would be counterproductive or maybe paradoxical, since force is exactly what you want to avoid, and in a world where there is only one government, where you have no choice as to what government you want to live under, this may be true. In the modern world, however, you do have choice. You have the capacity to choose what system of force you would like to live under, which in the long run creates competition between countries for citizens. And if there are no moral governments in the world, you have the right to band together and create one, like Americans did with the Revolutionary War.

So yes, the government is allowed to force you to pay your taxes by point of the gun, because you are choosing to live in the United States under the tax laws we have established here. If you don't like it, you can change it or leave. Me personally, I prefer to stay and pay taxes, although if our taxes went up to 60% or something like that, I may need to reevaluate. The government needs to collect taxes, because this is how it pays for itself, how it is able to create a monopoly on force that is stronger than any individual.

Protecting us from direct threats to our life is not the only role of government. Government also needs to protect us from indirect threats to our life, namely, threats to our ability to choose, and threats from others who are morally justified in taking immoral action, like the guy who takes a hospital hostage in order to get his son a heart transplant. It does this by mitigating externalities. In other words, government manipulates incentive structures in order to encourage positive externalities and discourage negative externalities. Externalities can come in the form of people driving drunk and hurting people driving sober, which may require cops out on weekends to catch drunk drivers, or nuclear waste from a power plant, which require regulation around their disposal to prevent nearby towns from getting sick. Where regulation is required, taxes on those goods and services need to be levied to pay for that regulation.

There are some cases in which the only way to mitigate the externalities properly is with the deterrent of the threat of force. This is where laws come in. Since it is impossible to put a price on life, murder is one example of this. However, when a law does more harm than good, i.e. costs more than its benefit (drug laws for example), this is an immoral law. Most things that are illegal today should probably be legal but regulated, which is why we so badly need Amendment #28.

Occasionally though, there are things that are so essential to life that not giving them away for free to the people who cannot afford them can create a situation in which that person becomes ethically justified in taking immoral action. In these cases, the only way to protect its citizens from the use of force is to cover the costs. I'll talk more about this in the future.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Ethically Required to Take Immoral Action

In my last post Defining Good, I discussed the idea that you are not allowed to infringe on someone else's right to life, with the caveat that you are allowed to infringe on another's right to life if it is in defense against their infringement on your right to life. This is an obvious example of when it is ethical to take immoral action that is of equal magnitude to the threat. But when else is this the case? In this post, I will flesh out the limits of this "loophole," so to speak.

From a strictly Darwinist standpoint, there is an obvious example. Is it moral to stand by your morals while your kids die? No. Obviously no. Your genetic material would die with them, and you would be filtered out of the gene pool. So it's moral to jump in front of a bullet if it saves your kid's life. It is moral to sacrifice your life for the sake of your kid's right to life. That will be our basic building block.

What are threats to your child's right to life? Well, there are quite a number, I suppose. Your child could end up not being born because you died before reproducing. Your child could die during child birth. If you are totally homeless and have literally $0, it is possible for your child to starve to death. Your child could be hit by a taxi at a time when you don't have the money to pay for the medical expenses to get her better. You get the point.

So my morality, as it is defined in my previous post, requires that it be moral for you to take immoral action when your child's right to life is being threatened. It would be the immoral choice to choose to stand by your convictions in that scenario, just as it would be immoral to not defend yourself when your life is being threatened. This caveat to Objectivism is what Ayn Rand missed the impact of, and this is why the free market economy state that she stood for is immoral. I'll get to that in future posts, stay tuned.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Defining Good

Life as a Standard of Value

"Cogito ergo sum" translates to "I think therefore I am." This is the basic philosophical premise that Descartes started off with nearly 400 years ago, and remains the foundation for all philosophy. It posits that the mere fact that I am thinking right now is proof that my mind exists. That I am alive. This is the only certainty in the universe. Since life is the only thing that we can be certain of, it follows naturally that things that keep us alive are good and things that kill us are bad. Human life is the standard of value.

In a 1973 essay, Theodosius Dobzhansky said that "nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution." What this means is that since evolution is the preeminent theory through which all empirical data in biology is to be evaluated, biology is essentially completely random and arbitrary  without it. Since morality is a subset of the study of how the mind works, it falls into the large umbrella of biology. Thus we can accept the theory of evolution as a basic premise of morality.

The human body has evolved to keep us alive and proliferate our DNA, and our brain represents our primary tool of survival. Over thousands of generations, our brain has developed a very complex system of heuristics in order to keep us alive. Generally speaking, those things that are pleasurable are perceived that way in the brain because they are helpful to our chances of surviving and reproducing; on the flip side, those things that are painful are perceived that way because they hurt our chances of survival and replication. That which makes us happy has evolved that way to improve our chances of survival. These are imperfect mechanisms however, and in order to be adaptable in the variety of environments that humans can live; from the arctic tundra where the Inuit reside to the Amazon rain forest where the Ache live and everywhere in between; humans have developed a rational mind that can determine when things that feel good are actually detrimental to survival and when things that feel bad may be beneficial.

With me so far? Good. So since the rational mind is an individual's primary means of survival, reason must be held as the tool with which all things in this world are to be evaluated. Our perception of happiness and fulfillment has evolved to keep us alive, so a rational application of the mind toward the end of achieving happiness for oneself and more importantly for one's kids is an individual's moral imperative.

Achievement as the Path to Happiness

Above we've established that achieving happiness is virtuous, but this is not prescriptive unless we outline how to achieve happiness. Here we're defining happiness as a long term state of well being, not as a short term emotion. It is a Boolean, meaning that you are either happy or unhappy, and there is no relative measure of happiness. The relative discussion of happiness applies only to people who are unhappy, i.e. not self actualizing in the sense that Abraham Maslow describes it. 

Have you ever heard of Maslow's hierarchy of needs? It is an attempt to define human motivation, and just as earlier I pointed to the theory of evolution as the preeminent theory of biology, I am going to accept Maslow's hierarchy of needs, at least in the general sense, as the preeminent theory of human motivation. In the linked wikipedia page above, there is mention of this idea of "self-transcendence," which was not included in Maslow's original hierarchy of needs, and I reject its inclusion, although its inclusion does not really change this discussion, as achievement is still a prerequisite to transcendence.

The first four levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs; physiological needs, safety needs, love and belonging, and esteem; are known as deficiency needs. Basically what this means is that these four needs have to be met at a basic level before happiness is possible. What's interesting about this is that most people consider these four needs as the only requirements for happiness, which is why most people are not happy. While the deficiency needs are prerequisites in order to go after self actualization, it is this fifth need that needs to be met in order to achieve happiness.

Self actualization loosely translates to "fulfilling one's potential." This is not some woo woo concept of destiny as much as it is about finding something that you love and becoming the best you can at it. For some people this will be about curing cancer. For others, it may be about athletic achievement, or writing a novel, or any number of other things. Some people may never achieve their goals, but happiness is more about the process of going after an actualized version of yourself than actually achieving it. When Stephen Hawking said that "we should seek the greatest value for our action," he was referring to self actualization.

Maslow said that "most of us function most of the time on a level lower than that of self-actualization. He labeled this the psychopathology of normality. When you see mention on this blog of people "settling" for mediocrity, I am referring to this psychopathology. In other words, a person who settles is someone who chooses to not self-actualize, but rather to accept the condition of an unactualized self. Someone who chooses to accept unhappiness.

On Coercion and Force

Why is freedom so valuable? Since each individual must evaluate what is an appropriate course of action for himself with his own mind; as these decisions can potentially mean life or death; coercive action that forces one to do or not do something is a threat to his life, and should be treated as such. Since it is immoral to threaten someone else's right to life (as life is the primary standard of value), it is immoral to force others into or out of any action. Force is the only defense against force, and as a defense is the only time when force is morally acceptable. Any attempt by someone else to force you to do something that you do not want to do must be met by force.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Amendment #28 - The Rational Basis Amendment

The rational basis test is "a judicial standard of review that examines whether a legislature had a reasonable and not an arbitrary basis for enacting a particular statute." According to the Wikipedia article, this level of scrutiny is the lowest level of scrutiny that can be applied by the courts when engaging in judicial review, and in the case law it specifically applies to cases related to due process and equal protection issues relating to the 5th and 14th amendments respectively.

Sophomore year of college, I took my second favorite class of my entire college career (first being ELE 491, high tech entrepreneurship, where among other things, I was exposed to Tim Ferriss for the first time). It was a constitutional law class taught by Professor Ken Kersch (he was still at Princeton through my senior year). Admittedly, I slept through many of the lectures, but the precepts were incredibly engaging. Mine was run by Professor Kersch himself, and it was one of the first times I had to give any serious thought to the ideas of natural rights of man and the role of government.

During that class, I undoubtedly said some batshit things. I had yet to face my own mortality, I had yet to fully form my ideas about right and wrong, and I was still a few years from being exposed to the true level of incompetence and corruption in government. But I did say one thing that I'll remember to this day. One thing that looking back was a stroke of brilliance. I forget what case we were discussing in particular, but at some point I basically said that there was no rational basis for the law in question, and so the court should strike it down as unconstitutional. When Professor Kersch pointed out that nowhere in the constitution or case law does it require that there to be a rational basis to pass laws, I tried to create an ad-hoc justification from the Declaration of Independence and general sentiment of the Constitution taken in its entirety. I then went on to proclaim that we need to amend the Constitution with a rational basis amendment.

Today we take the first step toward that end, creating a first draft of the language of what an amendment like that might look like:

Section 1: No law shall be passed by Congress nor by any state that inhibits individual freedom or appropriates governmental funds without, at minimum, a rational basis for doing so.
Section 2: Existing laws are at all times subject to a rational basis scrutiny, and should be struck down in the face of new evidence.

How can anyone vote down an amendment like that? Last I checked, no one wants to be called "irrational" since it's pejorative. And because of the way the amendment is phrased, anyone voting it down will be automatically construed as irrational, since as rational human beings they support rational scrutiny of any law.

In discussing this with people, the primary objection to this that I always get is that the phrase "rational basis" could mean anything, but as we saw with the earlier definition, that's not really true. The rational basis test is well defined in case law, so it can't really mean "anything." The phrase "at minimum" is in there to prevent this amendment from being used as a loophole around employing a higher level of scrutiny where appropriate. Let's take a look at a couple of the policies that become unconstitutional as a result of this amendment:

  1. Farm and Subsidies - Grains and legumes, in particular corn, wheat and soy, make us sick. We feed them to our cattle and they make them sick, while at the same time decreasing the healthfulness of the meat produced making us sicker still (admittedly by a small margin). They create negative externalities. There is a better argument to be made for taxing their production than for subsidizing it. 
  2. Energy Subsidies - Energy subsidies are always billed as being there to encourage the exploration and market viability of alternative energy sources. Still, if you have an appropriate level of skepticism for everything that the American government does, it shouldn't surprise you to know that these subsidies actually hurt green energy companies. Subsidies are disproportionately allocated to (quick, opposite of alternative) traditional energy producers, actually making it MORE difficult for green companies to compete rather than less. Removing all subsidies across the board would make green technologies more price competitive as a result.
  3. Drug Laws - The war on drugs costs the US an inordinate amount of money, and does an atrocious job of preventing drug use or the drug trade. Addictive substances are not something you can take-on from the supply side, they must be dealt with on the demand side. To the extent which they create a negative externality, they should be taxed to cover the cost of that negative externality. 
  4. Prostitution Laws - The regulate and tax method applies here in the same way that it applies to drugs. Regulate the industry to the extent that it is safe for all participants, and tax the product to cover these costs.
  5. Gambling Laws - I'm particularly sour on this one since all of the major online poker sites were just shut down in the US not too long ago, but come on people. Legalize gambling, regulate it, tax to pay for the regulation, everyone wins.
  6. The Death Penalty - It costs more money to execute someone than it does to keep that same person in jail for life. Enough said.
  7. Obscenity/Pornography - The logical corollary to the right to free speech is that you lose the right to not be offended. That should be obvious, but I suppose it's not. A rational basis amendment means that restrictions would have to be subject to the rational basis test, and because of the offended corollary to the right to free speech, these items of legislation fail.

What do you think? Could this amendment be passed? If it were passed, how would America be different?