Posts from July 2005

Pet Peeves

There’s quite the debate raging over at Catallarchy, in reply to comments condemning Harry Truman as a terrorist as bad, or worse, than Osama bin Laden:

My view is the direct opposite of what they teach in government run schools. They teach that Truman’s action [the use of atomic weapons] was a heroic choice that saved many American lives. With a similar line of reasoning, a friend of mine argued that the massacre of civilians during war may be justified if the reward is high enough. He hesitated to make a judgment in the particular instance of Harry Truman’s wartime actions, claiming that the good of saving American troops at least partially offset the bad of incinerating Japanese homes and families.

Many other men have used logic similar to Truman’s supporters to justify attacking civilian targets to further national objectives. However, I don’t think my American friends would hesitate to condemn their actions because they don’t bat for the home team.

For example, the name Osama bin Laden has taken its place among Hitler and Satan in the pantheon of evil. The reason? He thinks freeing the Arab world from Western imperial influences is important enough to sacrifice civilian lives. We might call him the Harry Truman of the Middle East.

As most Americans condemn bin Laden for putting civilians in harm’s way, so too do I condemn Truman. If bin Laden is a terrorist, then so is Truman. In fact, Truman’s actions are more indefensible because eventual victory was available through conventional military means. For bin Laden, direct military action, against the most feared armed force in all of history, is out of the question.

Americans have a perverse and dangerous view of their place in the world. Until we realize that our civilians are not worth more than other country’s civilians and that our leaders do not operate within a sacred halo that allows them to turn ugly sins into holy acts, America will continue to be a source of great suffering.

Now, I think that Jacob is right on here, and that the shameless apology for mass murder, as long as it happens under the Stars and Stripes, may very well be the most sickening feature in all of American education. But the fish I want to fry today is meta-ethical, not political, so if you want to argue about the massacres at Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, etc., feel free to do so, but the point I want to call attention to is actually off to one side of the debate. Here’s a comment in the thread from Dave, howling in protest (emphasis added):

Jacob’s post is about moral relativism gone out of control. Maybe next this libertarian will compare Timothy McVeigh to Murray Rothbard because both harbored anti-government feelings. Look at the passive posture he wants the United States to assume. …

And blah, blah, blah.

I pick this out because it highlights a pet peeve of mine. The Right–thanks to the influence of the Christian Right and fundamentalist ideas about the nature of secular modernism–have been throwing around the phrase moral relativism in public debate over the past ten or twenty years, and every year that goes by they seem to get further and further from having any clue at all what it means. Here we have a particularly dramatic case in point: not only is there there is absolutely nothing in Jacob’s post which either entails or even suggests moral relativism. In point of fact, Jacob’s comments demand that moral relativism be rejected, and that moral principles be applied universally, rather than applied ad hoc depending on your relationship to the agent being judged.

It’s no sin not to know meta-ethical theory, but if you’re going to use the terms, you ought to know what they mean. Moral relativism does not mean being lax about taboos that you shouldn’t be lax about; far less does it mean drawing a mistaken comparison in ethics. Moral relativism is the doctrine that one and the same action can be both right and wrong at the same time–that is, that questions of moral value can only be answered relative to some frame of reference that can change from one judgment to the next. For example, some people have believed (wrongly) that whether an action is right or wrong depends on whether the person making the moral judgment has a feeling of approval or disapproval towards it; other people have believed (also wrongly) that whether an action is right or wrong depends on whether or not the person making the moral judgment lives in a society in which the action is generally praised, generally condemned, or generally considered neutral. (For an excellent discussion of, and critical reply to, actual moral relativism, see Chapter III of G. E. Moore’s Ethics [1912].)

Now, Dave might think that Jacob’s moral principles (for example, that deliberately slaughtering thousands or hundreds of thousands of civilians in pursuit of your goals is wrong, no matter what) are mistaken. I don’t think they are, but that’s not the point here. The point is that Jacob is insisting on principled ethical judgments (even if you think the principles are wrong) and he is not claiming anywhere, ever, that the applicability of those principles is relative to the speaker’s feelings, or culture, or relation to the person carrying out the slaughter, or relation to the victims, or anything of the sort. Quite the contrary; he’s insisting that moral principles, which he claims we insist on in bin Laden’s case, ought to be applied absolutely and for everyone. That’s an outright rejection of relativism and the excuses for atrocities that relativism so happily provides.

On the other hand, I can’t say the same for these comments:

If you don’t believe that your country’s citizens are worth more than the citizens of other countries — that is, entitled to live even if it means the death of citizens of other countries — I don’t want to be in the same foxhole with you.

But of course the comments come not from Jacob, but from the hawkish Tom, in protest of Jacob’s point. The implied conclusion — that subjects of other States shouldn’t be treated as though they have as much of a right to life as the subjects of your own State — is a textbook case of moral relativism. (Specifically, in this case, the claim that fundamental moral obligations, like the rights of innocents not to be burned alive as a sacrifice for others, can only be decided relative to the relationship between the you and the victim–if you are subjects of the same State then it is not O.K., but if you are subjects of different States, then anything up to and including dropping a fucking nuclear bomb on their heads is, apparently, acceptable.) Maybe Jacob’s principles are right and maybe they’re wrong; but he is employing principles, and insisting that they are universally binding. Tom, on the other hand, is explicitly stating that moral principles are binding relative to one group of people and mere breath relative to another. Yet it is Jacob, not Tom, who is denounced as a moral relativist; this is nothing but darkening counsel with words without knowledge.

The kind of argument that Tom uses is, of course, a method of excuse used all the time by the Right: the idea that any means at all are acceptable in warfare, because our moral obligations end at borders on a map, and so the pursuit of victory can trump any and every other moral consideration. Of course, just saying that a view is relativist is not the same thing as saying that it is false; maybe there are some good arguments for relativism. I haven’t found any, and I think there are decisive arguments against it, but it’s an open philosophical topic. But my concern here is about the proper use of terms, and about consistency; if you are going to support a bloody and unapologetic form of relativism, then you had better argue for it, and you had better not pretend that you’re opposed to it. Yet it seems that somehow the self-appointed arch-nemeses of moral relativism never do get around to condemning this sort of blatant disregard for universality in ethics–perhaps because their situation is as the Prophet has written: We have met the enemy, and they is us.

In Their Own Words: Sausages and Soundbites edition

I add only that I do my best not to swallow the results of sausage-making, either.

Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release
July 11, 2005


James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

Q Does the President stand by his pledge to fire anyone involved in the leak of a name of a CIA operative?

MR. McCLELLAN: Terry, I appreciate your question. I think your question is being asked relating to some reports that are in reference to an ongoing criminal investigation. The criminal investigation that you reference is something that continues at this point. And as I’ve previously stated, while that investigation is ongoing, the White House is not going to comment on it. The President directed the White House to cooperate fully with the investigation, and as part of cooperating fully with the investigation, we made a decision that we weren’t going to comment on it while it is ongoing.

Q Excuse me, but I wasn’t actually talking about any investigation. But in June of 2004, the President said that he would fire anybody who was involved in this leak, to press of information. And I just want to know, is that still his position?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, but this question is coming up in the context of this ongoing investigation, and that’s why I said that our policy continues to be that we’re not going to get into commenting on an ongoing criminal investigation from this podium. The prosecutors overseeing the investigation had expressed a preference to us that one way to help the investigation is not to be commenting on it from this podium. And so that’s why we are not going to get into commenting on it while it is an ongoing investigation, or questions related to it.

Q Scott, if I could — if I could point out, contradictory to that statement, on September 29th, 2003, while the investigation was ongoing, you clearly commented on it. You were the first one who said, if anybody from the White House was involved, they would be fired. And then on June 10th of 2004, at Sea Island Plantation, in the midst of this investigation is when the President made his comment that, yes, he would fire anybody from the White House who was involved. So why have you commented on this during the process of the investigation in the past, but now you’ve suddenly drawn a curtain around it under the statement of, We’re not going to comment on an ongoing investigation?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, John, I appreciate the question. I know you want to get to the bottom of this. No one wants to get to the bottom of it more than the President of the United States. And I think the way to be most helpful is to not get into commenting on it while it is an ongoing investigation. That’s something that the people overseeing the investigation have expressed a preference that we follow. And that’s why we’re continuing to follow that approach and that policy.

Now, I remember very well what was previously said. And at some point, I will be glad to talk about it, but not until after the investigation is complete.

Q So could I just ask, when did you change your mind to say that it was okay to comment during the course of an investigation before, but now it’s not?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think maybe you missed what I was saying in reference to Terry’s question at the beginning. There came a point when the investigation got underway when those overseeing the investigation asked that it would be their — or said that it would be their preference that we not get into discussing it while it is ongoing. I think that’s the way to be most helpful to help them advance the investigation and get to the bottom of it.

Q Scott, can I ask you this; did Karl Rove commit a crime?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, David, this is a question relating to an ongoing investigation, and you have my response related to the investigation. And I don’t think you should read anything into it other than we’re going to continue not to comment on it while it’s ongoing.

Q Do you stand by your statement from the fall of 2003 when you were asked specifically about Karl and Elliott Abrams and Scooter Libby, and you said, I’ve gone to each of those gentlemen, and they have told me they are not involved in this — do you stand by that statement?

MR. McCLELLAN: And if you will recall, I said that as part of helping the investigators move forward on the investigation we’re not going to get into commenting on it. That was something I stated back near that time, as well.

Q Scott, I mean, just — I mean, this is ridiculous. The notion that you’re going to stand before us after having commented with that level of detail and tell people watching this that somehow you decided not to talk. You’ve got a public record out there. Do you stand by your remarks from that podium, or not?

MR. McCLELLAN: And again, David, I’m well aware, like you, of what was previously said, and I will be glad to talk about it at the appropriate time. The appropriate time is when the investigation —

Q Why are you choosing when it’s appropriate and when it’s inappropriate?

MR. McCLELLAN: If you’ll let me finish —

Q No, you’re not finishing — you’re not saying anything. You stood at that podium and said that Karl Rove was not involved. And now we find out that he spoke out about Joseph Wilson’s wife. So don’t you owe the American public a fuller explanation? Was he involved, or was he not? Because, contrary to what you told the American people, he did, indeed, talk about his wife, didn’t he?

MR. McCLELLAN: David, there will be a time to talk about this, but now is not the time to talk about it.

Q Do you think people will accept that, what you’re saying today?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I’ve responded to the question.

(Text thanks to Catallarchy 2005-07-11.)

Further Reading

Moore summer reading

Two things that you ought to know if you ever want to teach for CTY are: (1) it’s a thrilling, challenging, wonderful experience that changes the lives of nearly everyone involved in it for the better; and (2) you will have almost no time whatsoever to yourself for six weeks, and certainly no time to follow the news. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing for you is a question I leave to you and your god.

But though I may be in no position to offer any timely analysis, I do at least have time to offer some analysis. So, hot off the presses from October 1903, I’m glad to announce that the completed transcription of Chapter V of G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica is now available online from the Fair Use Repository. This chapter is Moore’s treatment of Ethics in Relation to Conduct, and it highlights one of the odder parts of Moore’s ethical system. Moore was, as I’ve mentioned before (in GT 2005-06-01 and GT 2005-06-28) a sharp critic of utilitarianism, and has given the philosophical tradition what I think is one of the loveliest arguments ever given against it. But he wasn’t a critic of consequentialism; in fact, he seems to have regarded consequentialism as more or less obviously true, and a direct consequence of properly distinguishing things good as ends from things good only as means. Although he alludes to this early on, it’s Chapter V that does the real heavy lifting for the argument. If Moore’s arguments go through, then it will turn out that no human action is good as an end in itself, but rather that actions are good only insofar as they are the causes of good effects. But unlike most consequentialists, Moore does not think there is any reason, other than prejudice, to start out assuming that the kinds of effects that are relevant for moral questions are effects on human consciousness at all, let alone the specific effects of promoting happiness (or pleasure, or satisfaction) and minimizing misery (or pain, or frustration). In fact, he takes himself to have shown already (with the Open Question Argument) that there’s no reason, other than prejudice, to start out assuming that you can characterize the quality that all good effects have in common in any terms except the bare fact that they are indeed good. (N.B.: That doesn’t mean that it can’t be the case; Moore thinks that the OQA proves only that if there is some non-ethical property that all good effects in fact have in common, that’s a substantive, synthetic finding about ethics, which will have to be justified by an appeal to ethical intuitions, rather than logical analysis of ethical terms. His discussion in Chapter III is intended to give some ethical reasons why even if there is such a property, it can’t be pleasantness; his positive reasons for thinking that there isn’t any such common quality will have to wait until the forthcoming transcription of Chapter VI.)

The upshot of all this is that although I think Moore goes seriously astray in his argument in Chapter V, he can’t be engaged on the same terms that most criticisms of consequentialism work from–because most criticisms of consequentialism are criticisms of utilitarianism and Moore is no utilitarian. Since he defends, at some length, the intrinsic value of many things (beauty, knowledge, friendship, some character traits, etc.) against utilitarian attempts to treat them as mere means, he can easily stand with anti-consequentialists during most of the common criticisms of utilitarianism–that it requires you to be willing to approve of injustice or lies in principle if there is enough of a pay-off in pleasure, for example; since Moore defends the intrinsic value of many things besides pleasure he is not at all committed to that; since Moore, in Chapter V, so sharply distinguishes the question of what ought to exist from what we ought to do, he may have an easier time than most ethicists would agreeing with Bernard Williams’ criticism that utilitarianism seems to obliterate me and my projects in favor of rigidly impersonal rule-following. If there’s something that Moore’s doing wrong here–and I think that there certainly is–it probably won’t be successfully picked out by most of the arguments that pick out something wrong with more familiar forms of consequentialism.

From here, the transcription will continue with the final chapter, Chapter VI: The Ideal, in which Moore attempts to give his full positive discussion of the sorts of things which are good in themselves. I hope to keep up my pace of 1-2 sections per day (although I probably won’t be able to begin until tomorrow). If you want to keep up with the progress of the transcription, you can subscribe to the Atom feed of Chapter VI, which will be updated as each section is completed. Onward to the ultimate end!


Other news

For those of you who just can’t get enough fin-de-siècle English philosophy, you’re in luck. Not only is the transcription of Principia Ethica nearing completion, but you may also be interested to know that:

  1. I’ve also found and transcribed G. E. Moore’s review of Franz Brentano’s The Origin of the Knowledge of Right and Wrong, which appeared in the International Journal of Ethics in the same month that Principia Ethica was published; Moore refers to Brenatno’s book and his review of it in the Preface to Principia Ethica, where he says that he discovered the book after completing PE but found [in it] opinions far more closely resembling my own, than those of any other ethical writer with whom I am acquainted. The review singles out Brentano for praise mainly because of Brentano’s parallel emphasis on the irreducibility of good (The great merit of this view over all except Sidgwick’s is its recognition that all truths of the form This is good in itself are logically independent of any truth about what exists), but offers some criticism of Brentano’s attempt to define good in terms of other ethical predicates (as that which it is right to love). Also, apparently, the translation sucked, but that was Cecil Hague’s fault, not Brentano’s.

  2. I’ve transcribed several articles from the April 1895 issue of Mind, and will probably finish transcribing the rest of the contents within the next several days. I picked that issue out in particular because it had Lewis Carroll’s fantastic three-page essay, What the Tortoise said to Achilles; the issue also features some rather mediocre material from Bradley, an apology for the Common Sense school of Scottish philosophy by Henry Sidgwick, an early book review by Bertrand Russell (not yet online), and an interesting introductory essay on Hindu Logic by S. N. Gupta.

  3. I hear tell that the court scribes of the Austro-Athenian Empire have also been hard at work, with three new transcriptions of essays from Herbert Spencer’s 1902 book Facts and Comments. In addition to his essay Patriotism, which Roderick made available online a while ago, you can now also find his (sadly topical) denunciations of war, empire, and its corrosive effects on civilization in Imperialism and Slavery, Re-barbarization, and Regimentation.

Just a reminder: just because something’s old doesn’t mean it’s not topical; and just because something’s not topical doesn’t mean it’s not good. So, enjoy!

Libertarians for Protectionism

It’s always so cute to see self-proclaimed libertarians engaging in the most egregious sorts of protectionist argument when it comes to intellectual property restrictions. Consider the recent exchange on patents and copyrights over at Catallarchy, in which we are apparently supposed to grant drug companies and record labels the power to violently halt competition because (1) they have high sunk costs, and (2) they’d have to rethink their business strategy on a free market.

For example, here’s Joseph Weisenthal:

Matt, it’s been estimated that it takes approximately $500 Million dollars to develop the average drug, although that number can swing wildly. If companies were simply allowed to copy a compound and produce it as soon as a drug became available, the cost would fall roughly to the cost of current production, but that doesn’t suffice when you have up to 15 years of previous R&D expense to recoup.

The cost theory of value just doesn’t cut it, here bra, and yes, if drugs did fall to this level, there would be little reason to spend the enormous amounts of money, and spend the time to develop the compound.

And so, if patent protectionism is withdrawn, pharmaceutical research and development may have to be done by somebody other than for-profit pharmaceutical companies!

On a similar note, here’s Brandon Berg, adding an appeal to pity for the poor record companies on top of the protectionist argument:

What about the record companies who fund the production of their albums? People like to think of them as some sort of parasitic middlemen, but they’re not. They provide the capital and take on the risk that most musicians can’t afford. If profits fall, then recording studios will decide not to fund albums by musicians whom they think are less likely to be successful.

And so, if copyright protectionism is withdrawn music companies might have to rethink their current business model!

O tempora! O mores!

Economics lesson for the day: protectionism doesn’t work. Markets do.

Ethics lesson for the day: the world doesn’t owe you a living, even if you’re very smart or very creative. Honest people try to find a new way to make a living if the old way can’t work without the use of government force. Clever people find out new ways of making useful things, if they realize they can’t make an honest living in the old ways.

Logic lesson for the day: before you have a successful reductio ad absurdam the conclusion of the lemma must actually be absurd.

Burn, baby, burn

Take down that flag and for the love of God turn off that Lee Greenwood. Independence Day is not about the United States. (There was no such country in 1776, before or after the Declaration; the Declaration only claimed to absolve the former colonies from any allegiance to the Crown.) Least of all is this a day for the government or for its loyalists. 4 July is for rebels and radicals.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it …. [W]hen a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

— Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1776

Jefferson, of course, claimed that the natural consequence of altering or abolishing government was to “institute new Government.” So much the worse for Jefferson (and especially for those whom he later came to govern), but that affects what’s entailed by the principles enunciated in the Declaration about as much as the fact that Jefferson pretended like he didn’t have a moral duty to immediately release his slaves from bondage affects the fact that the Declaration’s defense of complete equality and inalienable natural rights nevertheless condemned slavery beyond hope of appeal. Whatever Jefferson’s failings, his argument, if sound, is an argument against any form of coercive government whatsoever. If indeed we do have the “right to alter or abolish” government–any government–in virtue of our right to withdraw our consent to their authority, and we retain that right as free human beings no matter what institutions we may have been born into or roped into, then no government can ever rightly demand our allegiance against our will; we are, all of us, free to withdraw that allegiance and (thereby) remove ourselves from any obligation to any government at any time. The only question that remains is whether that right to alter or abolish government is a right that belongs to each of us, individually, or a right that has to be exercised collectively (by some group of us acting together). But if our right to refuse government authority derives from (1) our birthright to equal station as sovereign individuals, and (2) the natural and unalienable rights that follow from that, then it’s hard to see how these individually held rights could entail anything less than an individual right, as the political equal of any puffed-up prince or president on Earth, for you, personally, right now, to sever all political connections if you want, and to tell your would-be rulers just where they can go promulgate their law.

Over at Catallarchy they’ve been singing the praises of flag-burning. I might be more enthusiastic about it if I thought the flag were really the problem; but, aside from being even uglier than most of the world’s military colors, there’s not too much harm that you can say the flag itself has really done. But flags aren’t all that you can burn. Here’s how William Lloyd Garrison, for example, marked the occasion 151 years ago today, when Boston was outraged by the use of armed federal troops to force Anthony Burns back into Southern slavery:

The rally began with a prayer and a hymn. Then Garrison launched into one of the most controversial performances of his career. To-day, we are called to celebrate the seventy-eighth anniversary of American Independence. In what spirit? he asked, with what purpose? to what end? The Declaration of Independence had declared “that all men are created equal … It is not a declaration of equality of property, bodily strength or beauty, intellectually or moral development, industrial or inventive powers, but equality of RIGHTS–not of one race, but of all races.

Massachussets Historical Society, July 2005

We have proved recreant to our own faith, false to our own standard, treacherous to the trust committed to our hands; so that, instead of helping to extend the blessings of freedom, we have mightily served the cause of tyranny throughout the world. Garrison then spoke about the prospects for the success of the revolutionary spirit within the nation, prospects he regarded as dismal because of the insatiable greed, boundless rapacity, and profligate disregard of justice prevalent at the time. He concluded his speech by asserting, Such is our condition, such are our prospects, as a people, on the 4th of July, 1854! Setting aside his manuscript, he told the assembly that he should now proceed to perform an action which would be the testimony of his own soul to all present, of the estimation in which he held the pro-slavery laws and deeds of the nation

— from Thoreau: Lecture 43, 4 July, 1854

Producing a copy of the Fugitive Slave Law, he set fire to it, and it burst to ashes. Using an old and well-known phrase, he said, And let all the people say, Amen; and a unanimous cheer and shout of Amen burst from the vast audience. In like manner, Mr. Garrison burned the decision of Edward G. Loring in the case of Anthony Burns, and the late charge of Judge Benjamin R. Curtis to the United States Grand Jury in reference to the treasonable assault upon the Court House for the rescue of the fugitive–the multitude ratifying the fiery immolation with shouts of applause. Then holding up the U.S. Constitution, he branded it as the source and parent of all the other atrocities,–“a covenant with death, and an agreement with hell,”–and consumed it to ashes on the spot, exclaiming, So perish all compromises with tyranny! And let all the people say, Amen! A tremendous shout of Amen! went up to heaven in ratification of the deed, mingled with a few hisses and wrathful exclamations from some who were evidently in a rowdyish state of mind, but who were at once cowed by the popular feeling.

–from The Liberator, 7 July 1854 (boldface added)

Happy Independence Day.