Abortion is Murder (?|!)

My graduate professor, good friend, and author of The Myth of the Rational Voter  Bryan Caplan (corrected regressions here) has been jousting with The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind author Jason Weeden about the role of self-interest in political preferences. Weeden’s claim is that self-interest reigns supreme, while Caplan finds that group or social interest tends to dominate (at least for most questions; there are exceptions). Yesterday on Twitter, I promised Bryan I’d redo the regressions he posted at Econlog (see the second and third links above), except using LDV models.

For those of you not super duper into fancy-pants statistics, what I’m doing is fiddling with the implied underlying relationship. An OLS regression fits the dependent variable to the independent variables in a linear relationship, sort of like how the angle of the sun and your height jointly determine the length of your shadow. A probit model fits a binary outcome to a normal (Gaussian, if that word rings a bell) distribution. Typically, when we’ve got a binary (yes|no) or categorical (red|yellow|blue) outcome, I favor using probit (for binary) or ordered probit (for categorical) regressions. That way, when I look at the margins, the software package returns conditional probability estimates without any additional fiddling. This feature appeals to someone as naturally lazy as me.

I will admit though, that lazy as I am, I do try to make it a point to clean up my data before I jump in. The GSS is notoriously dirty, so here are some of the manipulations I performed before attempting to reproduce the Caplan results:

  1. When reconstructing NUMMENBIN and NUMWOMENBIN, I omitted the categories for “dash or slash”; “some, 1+”; “x”; “garbled text”; “several”; “many, lots”; “n.a.”; and “refused.” n=363
  2. I omitted similar categories for the PARTNERS and PARTNRS5 variables. “1 or more, dk #” is coded as “9”, which would skew results (“more than 100 partners” is coded as 8). n=135
  3. In the BIBLE variable, one response is “other.” I ran regressions both with and without this category, the tables below have it included. For the probit regressions, I converted it to an indicator variable anyway. n=365
  4. I had an old variable for CATHOLIC sitting around. My hunch is that even if Catholics aren’t particularly pious, they’ll still respect the prohibition on abortion.
  5. I used my immigrant category variable too. But I’m still honing my assimilation axe, so it’s pulling double duty here.

Anyway, Bryan used the built-in regression function in the GSS (it’s just a blog debate, after all), so some of these data cleanup decisions will influence the differences you’ll see between our coefficients. Here’s the first one:

Linear regression Number of obs = 12170
F( 8, 12161) = 85.15
Prob > F = 0.0000
R-squared = 0.0521
Root MSE = .48414
ABANY Coef. Robust Std. Err. t P>t Beta
partners -.0059775 .0068631 -0.87 0.384 -.0115607
partnrs5 -.004042 .0047348 -0.85 0.393 -.012975
nummenbin -.0518576 .0029526 -17.56 0.000 -.219523
numwomenbin -.0392227 .0030954 -12.67 0.000 -.1982399
age -.0014184 .0015366 -0.92 0.356 -.0474394
age2 .0000202 .0000151 1.34 0.181 .067471
year .0012656 .0006964 1.82 0.069 .0161483
sex -.0019417 .0152212 -0.13 0.898 -.0019403
_cons -.7817866 1.394001 -0.56 0.575 .

As you can see, the signs are pretty much all the same. The big beta (standardized coefficients, useful for comparison) estimates are number of partners-ever. More promiscuous people are more likely to favor fewer restrictions on abortion. Let’s add POLVIEWS.

Linear regression Number of obs = 11796
F( 9, 11786) = 201.03
Prob > F = 0.0000
R-squared = 0.1109
Root MSE = .46938
abany Coef. Robust Std. Err. t P>t Beta
partners -.0034251 .0067884 -0.50 0.614 -.0066103
partnrs5 -.0009183 .0046737 -0.20 0.844 -.0029471
nummenbin -.0414392 .0029118 -14.23 0.000 -.1758403
numwomenbin -.0345913 .0030325 -11.41 0.000 -.1751062
age -.0034264 .0015312 -2.24 0.025 -.1140498
age2 .0000352 .0000151 2.33 0.020 .1167815
year .0015212 .0006864 2.22 0.027 .0193799
sex .001876 .0148176 0.13 0.899 .0018739
polviews .0875726 .0030081 29.11 0.000 .2486036
_cons -1.641724 1.37364 -1.20 0.232 .

It looks like the lifetime partners variable took a bit of a hit, and the political views picked up a lot of the slack. The R-squared went from 0.05 to 0.11. That’s a heck of an improvement for adding just one variable. Cool. The results still broadly track with Caplan’s. Now to add ATTEND and BIBLE.

Linear regression Number of obs = 9094
F( 11, 9082) = 298.88
Prob > F = 0.0000
R-squared = 0.1993
Root MSE = .44503
abany Coef. Robust Std. Err. t P>t Beta
partners -.006108 .0073149 -0.84 0.404 -.0119162
partnrs5 -.0009723 .0050626 -0.19 0.848 -.0031223
nummenbin -.025976 .0031276 -8.31 0.000 -.1108654
numwomenbin -.0200344 .0033034 -6.06 0.000 -.1015676
age -.0060242 .001662 -3.62 0.000 -.2017812
age2 .0000525 .0000164 3.20 0.001 .1752903
year .0011088 .0007756 1.43 0.153 .0135621
sex -.0337992 .0160843 -2.10 0.036 -.0337808
polviews .0649188 .0034196 18.98 0.000 .1858515
attend .0315904 .0019421 16.27 0.000 .1742591
bible -.1370039 .0072629 -18.86 0.000 -.2012948
_cons -.4886072 1.553844 -0.31 0.753 .

So the remaining winner winner chickens dinner in the Big Beta Horse Race are belief in a literal interpretation of the bible, partisan politics, age, Church attendance, and then the total number of people bedded lifetime. Adding in CATHOLIC and PARTYID (political party affiliation) further reduced the influence of NUM[WO]MENBIN down to about -0.1 and increased R-squared to 0.20. Adding highest degree completed and log income, per Weeden had similar effects, dragging the beta on sex partners down to -0.95 and boosting the R-squared to 0.23. After all this, I’m using 8385 observations.

At any rate, I am able to more-or-less reproduce Caplan’s results, which is encouraging. On to the fun task of digging a little closer to see what the margins are doing. Let me give you the STATA command for the probit regression, since the output table will be large, unwieldy, and perhaps misleading if what you’re used to seeing is OLS output tables.

With probit, if you want to run margin details on incremental or categorical variables, you have to convert them to indicators. So instead of using AGE and AGE2, I will use i.AGE, which converts each observation to its own variable. This is handy because it doesn’t assume a quadratic relationship, but the tradeoff is that it reduces the power of the test; it eats degrees of freedom. Still, we do what we must because we can. Here’s the command (DV converted from {1,2} to {0,1}):

probit abanya i.partners i.partnrs5 i.nummenbin i.numwomenbin i.age year i.sex i.polviews i.attend i.bible i.partyid catholic i.degree loginc if partners!=9&partnrs5!=9&nummenbin!=9& numwomenbin!=9, vce(robust)

You might still want the big numbers, so here you go:
Number of observations =  8384
Wald chi-square(134)       =  1918.92
Prob > chi-square              =  0.0000
Pseudo R-square               =  0.2024

So that’s good. We’re still looking at about 20% of the variation picked up by our variables. Not bad. Let’s look at some of the margins.



I apologize for the image quality. I’m having a few minor technical difficulties. Anyway, we can see pretty much the Caplan story here: the more strongly conservative a respondent is, the more likely they are to believe that no woman should have an abortion for any reason.

Not pictured: margins by age. The rough 50/50 split is preserved regardless of the age of the respondent.

Also not pictured: Catholic. it’s what you’d expect.



As expected, folks who believe the Bible to be the Word of God are more likely to favor abortion restrictions.



Ditto church attendance.



More college, more willingness to allow abortion (or greater nuance in interpreting the survey question). This effect isn’t quite as strong as for the church variables. Note the Y axis and the relative width of the error bars.

Now for the self-interested hypotheses. The claim is that men and women who sleep around should prefer easier access to abortion. NUMMENBIN and MUMWOMENBIN should slope down if this hypothesis is correct.



To be fair, if you ignore the “8” bin (sex with over 100 men, lifetime), there does seem to be a bit of a downward slope. Let’s omit that category.

>100 partners omitted:


There we go. That’s better. That’s consistent with the self-interest hypothesis. The marginsplot for NUMWOMENBIN is a lot less pronounced, but if you squint, there’s sort of a general downward slope, even if significance tests would reject category-to-category differences. At any rate, NUMMENBIN appears to support the Weeden claim.

Let’s break it down a little further. The church stuff seemed important, so let’s see how promiscuity and piety interact.




Either way, it looks like, at least for the pious, religion dominates. How about education?

ABANYNUMMENDEGREE Same basic result. There’s more of a gap between each series than there is along the series. There’s a .18 drop from 1 partner to 21-100 partners and .23 between “less than high school” and “graduate degree.” Yes, if I were writing a proper paper here, I’d do more sophisticated analysis, but the basic horse race ends up supporting the conclusion that education is a stronger determinant of beliefs about abortion than an individual’s promiscuity.

Okay, last one. How do political views interact with promiscuity? This would clutter the heck out of a graph, so I’ll re-code one more variable POLVIEWSA to lump all liberals and all conservatives together.


Same basic idea. The gap between liberal and conservative is plainly obvious, but you have to get over to the >5 partners bins to see much change in opinion.

Okay, I admit it. My curiosity is piqued. I’m going to redo this, but I want to drop the bins and look at the raw numbers. If you’re an econometrician, please refrain from sending me any nasty messages; I know what I’m doing here is wrong. Technically wrong, anyway. Thanks.


ABANYNUMMENPOLVIEWSX Ha ha ha. Wow. Okay, I guess you can go ahead and tell me off if you really want to. That’s just silly. It’s a bit weird to think of folks who lean conservative who have >100 sex partners anyway. Unless you identify libertarian and happen to be a sex worker. I can ~maybe~ see that. Still, not a lot of useful information out in that right tail.

So what have I learned with this little exercise? Well, I can’t conclusively reject the hypothesis that self-interest has nothing to do with respondents’ position on abortion, though I also have to admit that the number-of-sexual partners is perhaps a flaccid proxy for the variable of interest here. What I can say is that compared to other standard measures of group or sociotropic interest, promiscuity carries relatively little explanatory power. If I wanted to give someone an elevator pitch about what motivates voters, I’d probably stick with something like “they believe in what’s good for society for the most part.”

This was fun. I didn’t livetweet it for a change. Anyway, there’s probably still some good fruit in there. But I’m up to like 1500 words, so that’s probably enough for now.

And for those of you wondering why I’m posting this at Sweet Talk instead of Spivonomy or Euvoluntary Exchange? Well, that’s my business, but suffice it to say I have good reasons that make sense to me.

Dictated but not read. 15 Jan 2015.

Divine Command Policy

I’ve never been partial to the Hegelian nation of nation-specific geist, or spirit, but two recent encounters have made me reconsider. The first was the completion of Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy, a remarkable book not only for its scope (starting with the Thirty Years War and moving towards the present at the time of writing, the early 90s), but particularly for it’s observation of the dialectic between Realpolitick presidents, as represented most clearly by Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, and presidents whose foreign policy was value-driven, exemplified by Woodrow Wilson and, at least rhetorically, by Ronald Reagan. The dominance of the latter approach was attributed to Wilson’s and Reagan’s recognition of a kind of moral Puritanism latent in the American population itself, and though the expressions differ (the ethic of isolationism and moral autonomy of foreign nations vs. the ethic of bringing democracy and human rights to the world), the orientation is the same.

This observation was seconded last night, at a panel discussion between retired Foreign Service officers Tom Hanson and Bill Davnie, where they bemoaned the lack of a “concept” around U.S. foreign relations, and the insistence of the U.S. to react rather act to events, and usually in principled terms. The compulsive bilaterism (Davnie’s term) of American engagement with other nations exacerbates the problem, and the overall regression to the mean of U.S. capacities, due more to the “rise of the rest” than any U.S. failings, leads to a world quite unlike that of Kennedy, who offered to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

The resulting policies, foreign and domestic, suffer from the dual failure patterns of selecting one value under which all other values are subsumed, in combination with the inconstancy of which value that happens to be from time to time or between separate policies. It’s the result of a pluralism of “divine command” policymakers.

Divine command morality is the response to Euthyphro’s dilemma (“are the gods good because they’re gods, or because they value the good?”) in affirmation of the first proposition: the gods (or God, in a Judeo-Christian context) are necessarily good; to speak of a separation of God and good, or to say that God represents or values the good, is incoherent and meaningless. It’s strongest expression is given in the story of Abraham, who is willing to obey God up to and including sacrificing his son; the value of human life is subservient to the value of obedience to God, faithfulness to God, as the good, being the only true good. Under American exceptionalism, divine command policy is an approach to policy making that refuses to distinguish “the good” from the political. This can be in actuality, with Bush’s reiteration of America as a “city on a hill” and its opposition to the “axis of evil”, or simply aspirational, as single-issue voters punish politicians who are insufficiently ideologically pure and support those who affirm the pro-life, environmental, free market, human rights or other value that is held as the highest.

The results are disturbing. With moralized political discourse, opportunities for compromise are unilateral closed. After all, if, for instance, you believe abortion to literally be murder, why would you negotiate with murderers or their supporters? If you believe in human rights, why would you ever allow your nation to trade favors with a nation that ignores them? America has been exceptional, historically, in that it has had both the geographical removal and the overwhelming geopolitical and economic superiority to allow it to consider collective security and human rights over its immediate political interests. This is the prerogative of a monopoly. European, Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern nations, abutting their competitors and lacking overwhelming military superiority, did not have the same benefit, and their diplomatic traditions and political histories have reflected that. This is a general principle, not simply limited to nation-states. In Zero to One, Peter Thiel makes the same distinction amongst businesses:

Google’s motto—”Don’t be evil”—is in part a branding ploy, but it’s also characteristic of a kind of business that’s successful enough to take ethics seriously without jeopardizing its own existence. In business, money is either an important thing or it is everything. Monopolists can afford to think about things other than making money; non-monopolists can’t. In perfect competition, a business is so focused on today’s margins that it can’t possibly plan for a long-term future. Only one thing can allow a business to transcend the daily brute struggle for survival: monopoly profits.

However, as we begin to speculate as to the makeup of the world come the twenty-second century (#22C), the kind of guardian syndrome that America has made a core part of its national identity will need to cede somewhat to the trader morality that’s able to understand national interest and a mix of values. The ongoing air strikes against Islamic State means that the U.S. is effectively partnering with Assad and Hezbollah in the west and Iran in the east against a mutual enemy. American political discourse lacks a vocabulary to even talk about this, and as a result, they aren’t. Trader morality doesn’t have to be amoral, but it means knowing the price of one’s values. There’s a facetious dilemma that went around evangelical Christian circles when I was a kid, wrongly attributed to a popular figure at the time, in which the man asks a woman if she’d sleep with him for a million dollars. She says yes, so then he asks if she would sleep with him for 50. The negative response is then shown as proof that she “lacks values”, but I don’t see that at all. The woman, as opposed to her interlocutor, understood her values and knew where she was willing to trade on them. In this case, she valued financial security more than abstinence; the man, on the other hand, by ascribing infinite value to obedience to God (in the form of sexual purity), was shown incapable of negotiation. America similarly shoots itself in the foot when, for instance, it values cooperation fighting terrorism in the Sahel over anything else; the resultant perceived complicity of America with perverse domestic policies can instead motivate terrorism.

The issue is not about simply changing the actions of leaders, but it’s really about changing national sentiment towards one that can recognize diverse values and the need to negotiate between them. This is also the entry fee for empathy, and a counter to dehumanization, for when you can recognize that values are plural, and have different weights, and that these weights can change, then your models of how they may behave in response to your own actions improve. Whether this can happen intentionally or whether it will take a new Thirty Years War remains to be seen.

The Truth Shall Set You Free

A moment of blessed peace at long last. This location seems secure, and I have enough food and water to last a couple of weeks. This old computer looks like it’ll last long enough to get this down, and there’s actually a working dot-matrix printer in here, so I’ll be able to make a hard copy for after the generator kicks the bucket. Small favors, I suppose.

My name is Sam Wilson, and I survived the financial crash of 2008.

As you might expect, “survived” is a generous way of putting it. I was just lucky enough to on the ground out of the blast zone and just agile enough to get to a stocked 50s-era fallout shelter to wait out the burning snow that fell for what seemed like months after. Since then, I’ve spent most of my time off-horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, fishing where I can and raiding abandoned coastal towns under the cover of darkness. It ain’t exactly glamourous living, but it’s living. At least it was till I cracked my keel last October and had to bumble to shore in a leaky emergency zodiac. Since then, I’ve been busy dodging bandit gangs and the local “governments.” I have to admit that if it weren’t for the blue serge and matching caps, I’d have a hard time telling the difference. So at least there’s a little consistency in the world, eh?

Don’t get me wrong. There are still good people out there. Fine people. If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of them, or one of their descendants. You probably work the little good soil that remains, or haul in the small fish not made poison by the radioactive sea. Maybe you got nabbed by a press gang and you’re biding your time till you can make a break for it. Whatever the case may be, you deserve the right to know why you live in the world as she is and not in some alternate universe where the fields are still green and the cows don’t bleed orange.

I recall that it was early October. The United States still existed, and George W. Bush was her final President. A minor blip in long-term interest rates exposed some pretty serious problems with the way big-time bankers had been trading debt. An otherwise-minor rash of home foreclosures exposed a staggering amount of junk debt held by some pretty immense institutions. AIG alone was worth more at its peak than the whole of the Republic of Arkansas at the time I write this.

You know what the funny thing was? The funny thing was that they could have done something at the time. I remember the news reports that the Senate had drafted up an emergency bill that would have lent the few hundred billion dollars the big banks needed to stay afloat just long enough for them to clean house and get back on their feet. Damn thing never even got out of committee. Hell of a time for American governance to have a crisis of conscience if you ask me.

Do you know how a bullet works? At the business end, there’s a little projectile made of lead and usually jacketed in copper. Behind that is a charge of gunpowder. Behind the gunpowder is a wee little primer charge that explodes when you hit it with percussive force. Holding it all in place is a brass casing. The financial crisis was the gunpowder detonating, the trigger-pull was the mild drop in 30-year yields, but the primer charge was… well, for lack of a better term, it was broken kayfabe.

Kayfabe, for those of you too young to remember pro wrestling, is the carny’s art of peddling pleasant lies to the punters. It’s a shared fantasy. “Heels” pretend to be villains they’re not, and “Faces” pretend to be heroes as they cynically bilk the audience with staged fights and campy antics. And the audiences ate it up! Of course, when it was a bunch of entertainers doing it, you can take it or leave it. No one ever forced you to watch Hulk Hogan grip The Iron Sheik in his sweaty thighs. If it wasn’t your thing, you could just as easily go watch General Hospital or bake a cake, or take a flying leap off a short catwalk if that’s your thing. But politics? That’s a different kettle of herring. If you don’t buy into the kayfabe of politics, if you turn your back on the show, the show won’t turn its back on you. The costs of not maintaining the shared illusion are, well, look around you. Those shattered cities you can’t walk into? That’s what happens when you break political kayfabe, when you reject the lies that make the system work.

And that’s what folks started to do. It wasn’t the same old, same old, “he broke his campaign promises” kind of deal. We get that every election cycle. It was more a matter of, “they cannot possibly keep their campaign promises.” And you know the damndest thing? It happened in-camp. Partisan footsoldiers on both sides dropped their guidons. No one went to the caucuses or the primaries. The Democratic and Republican National Conventions were held in a guest room at the Philadelphia Best Western and the Fresno Arby’s, respectively. The viewership for the debates was statistically indistinguishable from zero. The American public would brook no more lies.

And it was the big lies just as surely as the little lies. Everyone already kind of knew that the President had next to nothing to do with the price of gas or the unemployment rate. Everyone already had a hunch that all the “getting America back to work” jargon was just rhetoric for protecting moneyed interests. Everyone already suspected that appeals to patriotism were cynical power grabs. But never before in US history had the public just thrown in the towel wholesale and refused to, say, accept that the local police had any legitimate authority, or that school boards could rightfully enforce truancy statutes. At the time, people still acknowledged a duty to the standing ordinances of civilization (don’t kill without cause, don’t steal, &c), but they withdrew their faith from all those government institutions. Employers kept their premises safe because they wanted healthy, happy employees, not because OSHA threatened to fine them. IRS agents were chased away at gunpoint… everywhere.

So when the financial crisis hit, it sort of followed that folks withdrew their faith from the Federal Reserve Note. “This note is legal tender for all debts public and private” rang hollow once all those private debts began to hollow out the already-thin reserves dusting the vault shelves. When the 2009 bank run happened, it wasn’t a pell-mell tilt to withdraw deposits, it was a run on metal. Those who could, rewrote contracts against gold or silver. Those who couldn’t (those with international shipping contracts, for example) were stuck with piles of irredeemable green paper. A lot of people were out a lot of fruitful exchange opportunities, but foreign trading partners were out the worst. And wasn’t it just our rotten luck that one of our stiffed partner’s finger just happened to be near that big, red, shiny, candy-like button?

We perished in atomic fire. All because we forgot that the lies are the system.

We forgot that we needed to pretend that prices have some solid, objective meaning. We forgot to pretend that obedience to law, capricious and idiotic though it may be, is what makes enforcement agents’ jobs tractable. We forgot to kid ourselves into thinking that trust and trustworthiness are somehow linked. We forgot to believe that the rules of society, despite being arbitrary historical artifacts, kept alive though custom and selective, intentional ignorance, are completely indispensable for institutional and social continuity.

We forgot to lie. We forgot to lie to each other, and we forgot to lie to ourselves. And the world burned because of it. The truth set us free. It set us free to loot, to pillage, to grab whatever we could carry. We dropped the thin civilizing lie that we have a sacrosanct duty to each other, that there was a “we” at all. We torched our saints, made hamburger of our sacred cows, chucked everything into the shitter apart from a ruthless, monomaniacal dedication to ourselves and ourselves alone.

And now our cities lie in radioactive dust.

My advice to anyone who finds this? Rediscover myth. Rediscover glamour. Rediscover the joy of the shared lie. Trust even when you have nothing but the fleeting flicker of hope. Love the hardest when you are unloved. Tell stories. Believe against the evidence of your senses. The alternatives? Well, on the bright side, you have nowhere to go but up.

Good luck, and may whatever God rises from the ashes of our fallen civilization bless you.

The Twitchy Problem

I once had a bougie, white, left-liberal feminist girlfriend(well, more than one, but that’s a whole ‘nother tragic story) who loved discussing politics, economics, feminism, etc. Now, I didn’t and don’t agree with much of what she believed in nor did she believe in much of what I believed, but I also don’t view differing political ideology as a sticking point in my personal relationships, it’s just one input into the relationship function. In the end, the relationship didn’t work out, but that was due to more quotidian concerns than our disagreement on whether Teh Patriarchy or Teh State was the root cause of all evil in the world.

During one of our discussions about this, that, or the other, I mentioned to her about some of the rhetorical excesses of a certain subset of online/campus feminism,

“How is that [X rhetorical excess] supposed to advance your stated goals?”

“There are always the fringe elements in every ideological group. They don’t represent me.”

Anyone who knows anything about libertarianism knows this sidestep; there is no true Scotsman, other than I. Now this, depending on the context, is obviously true or obviously false. Under the tent of self-described libertarians, you’ve a wide range of disparate and, at times, contradictory beliefs. Cato vs Mises Institute, Conservatarians vs Left-libertarians, AnCaps vs Constitutionalists, Consequentialists vs Deontologist, Brutalists vs Humanitarians, and on and on and on. This is essentially true of any group that has no effective means of exclusion. I cannot meaningfully exclude neoconfederate goldbugs from using the label libertarian any more than my ex-girlfriend can meaningfully exclude Critical Theory-spewing campus feminists or All-PIV-Is-Rape feminists from using the label feminist. In an ideological world where Second Wave vs Third Wave vs Sex Positive vs Radical vs Intersectional feminisms is a thing(obviously there is overlap and certain redundanies), when does critiquing become cherry-picking and when does differentiating become evasion?

One favorite pastime of a large segment of politically-loud internet people is to seek out the more ridiculous ideological opponents and mock endlessly. This, while, at times, entertaining, is really just ideological candy, tasty, but unfilling. Of course, to extend that analogy a bit more, one can certainly find their fill of candy on a regular basis, but then they usually find themselves with ideological diabetes, unable to control their own ideological blood sugar, and end up getting into interminable twitter arguments with two-follower eggs as a form of ideological insulin.

There is some inflection point, however, where this sort of activity actually becomes a flashlight, illuminating on a particular ideology’s shortcomings. The questions is where does this actually occur, and how do we know when we’re actually engaging with others rather than scoring points because someone on the internet is wrong, or worse, when obvious trolls are taken seriously because of our skewed understanding of those we seek to critique? As an example, I fully, well and truly, believe that the state is just legitimized violence, and that there’s an inevitability to the second-order(and sometimes first-order) effects of well-meaning public policy. Pig heads need to be decapitated for you to enjoy your pork chop. This doesn’t necessarily preclude government actions as a legitimate answer to a legitimate problem, just that we acknowledge that it is the gun in the middle of the room. So, my pointing out some of the rhetoric of what some call Carceral Feminism, to showcase the callousness of certain preferred public policies, isn’t cherry-picking, in my point of view, but as central to my argument(or so I think).

Rhetoric is srs bzniz, but I understand the telos of sites like Twitchy and Salon and the political operatives who work for them, but for those who consume what these sites are producing, we should recognize the kayfabe for what it is. Also, when we engage with those we disagree with, or even just form an opinion on something we’ve no stake in, we should try to differentiate between the straw and steel(wo)man versions of what’s presented and act accordingly, with #phronesis.

We have to ask ourselves, are we really engaging with others and their ideas, or just masturbating in real-tweet-time?

Joshua Greene’s “Deep Pragmatism” is Deeply Problematic

I was only 16 at the time, but I had already developed a strong interest in moral psychology thanks to the lingering suspicion that ethics was a fatal weakness for philosophical naturalism. And so when Marc Hauser‘s now classic book Moral Minds first came out in paperback, I rushed to buy a copy.

The book was a detailed exploration of human moral cognition through the lens of trolley problem experiments and Hauser’s (now dubious) research with primates. And despite Hauser’s indefensible academic misconduct, it remains a tour de force.  In fact it is still in my possession, now twice as thick and stained by sunlight from multiple re-reads.

My original copy of Moral Minds still sits in my book shelf
My original copy of Moral Minds still sits in my book shelf

At the time I became convinced of Hauser’s basic approach that updated David Hume in light of Chomsky’s work on innate syntax. This view says that our moral sense is at base noncognitive, that it is a product of our “passions” or sensations built into us like a “moral organ”. While morality may often seem relative to culture and upbringing, it is constrained by a “universal grammar” common to all moral orders. That grammar, I believed, was the key to resolving the moral divergences between tribes. If we could only speak clearly about our shared inheritance there could be no lasting rational disagreements.

Joshua Greene’s “Deep Pragmatism”

Consider this a premonition of what Joshua Greene has since dubbed “deep pragmatism”. Greene is also a Harvard neuroscientist and expert on trolley problems, and his recent book Moral Tribes is also concerned about what he calls the “failure of common sense morality,” i.e. when divergent moral orders collide. While I am about to be quite critical of Greene, let me say at the outset that I am actually a massive fan, and that I tend to be most critical of the ones I love.

If it is fair to say Hauser’s theory merged Hume with Chomsky’s linguistics, then Greene’s theory merges Hume with Daniel Kahneman’s Dual Process Theory. He claims our non-cognitive passions are part of our System One, or automatic / intuitive mode. But if we study the evolutionary function of our passions, we can then use our System Two, or rational / conscious mode, to resolve impassioned disputes deliberatively. Specifically, Greene posits that if morality is fundamentally about enforcing cooperation in order to reap collective benefits, two tribes with distinct ethical systems for cooperation simply have to recognize that they are using different means but have common ends.

The only thing truly novel about Greene’s argument is its tantalizing terminology. Indeed, on a recent EconTalk episode Greene admits that “deep pragmatism” is just his word for plain vanilla utilitarianism. Despite formal utilitarianism’s many problems, Greene believes clashing cultures can settle disputes by consciously reformulating their ethics based on the greatest good for the greatest number. When pressed by the host with counter-examples, Greene contended that the problems with his proposal are either merely empirical or due to an insufficient application of utilitarianism (for thinking too short-term, say).

I believe Greene makes three fundamental mistakes and thus has not provided a compelling solution to the tragedy of common sense morality. On top of this, his scientific pretenses distract from the fact that his core moral arguments come straight from the proverbial arm-chair. Indeed, as meticulously demonstrated in Selim Berker’s The Normative Insignificance of Neuroscience, Greene has a tendency to obscure his philosophical presuppositions behind a fascinating and important, but ultimately tangential, deluge of empirical data.

The three deep mistakes Greene makes are: a) to accept the Humean starting point of moral noncognitivism, b) to reify deontological thinking and utilitarian thinking as “System One” and “System Two” respectively, and c) to leap to utilitarianism when, even accepting his premises, better alternatives exist.

Deep Problems:
a) Noncognitivism Is False

Noncognitivism rose in popularity after the Enlightenment in large part due to an incorrect Cartesian view that morality like belief required an ultimate foundation. Hume put foundationalism to the test by taking it to its logical conclusion. In lieu of an infinite regress, Hume realized that connecting ought to is was impossible. Thus noncognitivism — and thus moral skepticism. And while Hume’s argument and conclusion were valid, the premise that we need foundations in the first place was dead wrong.

Since Quine, philosophers have largely accepted coherentism for beliefs. That is, it makes most sense to think of any particular belief as inhabiting a holistic web of beliefs rather than to link beliefs in a linear chain of justifications down to some “foundational” belief. When we are persuaded to change our beliefs we thus often are required to update a large number of interdependent beliefs to ensure coherence.

It turns out the same Quinean argument works for desires, preferences and other vernaculars for Hume’s passions. It’s tempting to think of desires as following a linear chain down to some base foundational affect, implanted somewhat arbitrarily by evolution. But this is an elementary error.

While true that evolution has equipped us with certain somatic states (like hunger pangs), desire (like “I desire to eat”) contains propositional content. Like beliefs, desires are part of a holistic web that we draw from in the discursive game of giving or asking for reasons. In turn, desires like beliefs are capable of being updated based on rational argumentation and the demand for coherence.

For whatever reason ethicists have been much slower to embrace coherentism for morality, preferring to soak in tired debates like deontology vs consequentialism. Greene is no different. And his attempted foundationalist argument for utilitarianism has not closed Hume’s gap one iota.

b) Dual Process Theory is Irrelevant

Using fMRIs to conflate deontology with automatic thinking and consequentialism with deliberative rationality is neither valid nor advances the argument. To quote University of Toronto philosopher Joseph Heath in his overview of empirical approaches to ethics:

Greene offered no reason to think that the theory of value underlying the consequentialist calculus was not based on the same sort of emotional reactions. In this respect, what he was really doing was presenting an essentially sceptical challenge to moral reasoning in general, yet optimistically assuming that it undermined only the position of his opponents.

Moreover, there are good reasons for thinking of deontological modes of reasoning are essentially cognitive. As Heath argues in his book Following the Rules, social norms take the form of a web of deontic constraints that we reference just like when we reference beliefs or desires when pressed to defend certain behavior. This makes social norms — and deontology in turn — analytically cognitivist. That is, regardless of the fact that deontic violations are more likely to elicit an emotional response, deontic reasoning must still inherently make use of System Two at some point.

Greene even acknowledges the more plausible explanation for why deontological violations cause more emotional fMRI activity than utilitarian ones: namely, that they each require different kinds of construal. Utilitarian reasoning tends to be about system wide outcomes and that level of construal imposes a psychological distance between the agent and the moral dilemma. But even if there is a link between construal level and dual process theory, just because utilitarian thinking is slow does not make slow thinking utilitarian!

c) Utilitarianism is a Non-sequitur 

Even accepting all of Greene’s major premises, the conclusion of utilitarianism is still unwarranted. Greene suggests that the social function of moral psychology points to a “common good” through cooperation, but utilitarianism is only one possible interpretation.

In economics there are two basic approaches to social welfare, one top down and the other bottom up. The top down approach is the closest in spirit to the utilitarianism expressed by Greene. It posits a social welfare function and conditions that must hold for its maximization, aka the greatest good for the greatest number. Adherents of this approach have spanned centuries, from Bentham up to Pigou.

The other approach begins with the process of transaction itself. It posits that two people will only exchange if they each preceive a mutual advantage in doing so — that is, if the trade will move them toward a Pareto improvement or win-win outcome. This is at the heart of bargaining theory, which would presumably make it a good candidate for solving the “tragedy of common sense morality” or any scenario where conflicting interests or value systems collide.

Batalla - Sebastian Franck (1640)
Batalla – Sebastian Franck (1640)

One of the worse “tragedies of common sense morality” in history occurred in the 1600s when Protestants and Catholics fought throughout Europe in the 30-Years War. From the ruin rose modern Liberalism and the legal basis for religious toleration and value pluralism. Liberalisms core value is thus mutual advantage in the Paretian sense, not a crude formula for util maximization.

In fact there is a substantial literature within trolley problem research analyzing the effect of Paretian considerations on moral judgement. Greene is even a contributor. Indeed, in all sorts of artificial moral dilemma subjects are consistently more likely to judge harm as permissible if it leads to a Pareto improvement.

For instance, this 2011 paper [pdf warning] co-authored by Marc Hauser suggests that “Paretian considerations should be treated as an abstract principle that is operative in folk-moral judgment across a wide variety of contexts, involving different sources of threat and different degrees of contact.” Note that this fits the criteria for Greene’s “deep pragmatism” surprisingly well, without any of the attending controversy or highly demanding prescriptions surrounding Peter Singer style utilitarianism. Indeed, the authors are correct to report that Paretian considerations “provide a reason for action even for the non-consequentialist.”


Despite my skepticism for Joshua Greene’s “deep pragmatism” I strongly commend his efforts. In fact it is mostly in line with my own approach. Yet its current manifestation suffers from philosophical naiveté.

Humean noncognitivism is tempting for any student of psychology, but it turns out to be philosophically untenable. Indeed, by their very nature the deontic statuses we assign taboos and other social norms are part of a cognitive process of giving and asking for reasons. We can even reason and debate over our desires and preferences since (in contrast to pure affect) they carry propositional content.

Furthermore, while utilitarian calculations often require over-riding our more intense “gut reactions,” that does not make them any more foundational to morality. This is especially the case when it is always possible to interpret ostensibly utilitarian outcomes as resulting from a bottom up process that respects the Pareto standard.

And from the point of view of resolving tragedies of common sense morality, liberal principles like value neutrality and free expression that implicitly endorses Pareto have never been more influential on a global scale, nor more vital for our continued peaceful coexistence. The inferiority of the utilitarian alternative is shown in the recent attacks on free expression in Paris. Who today could defend Charlie Hebdo’s provocative iconoclasm on purely utilitarian grounds in a country of perhaps 6 million Muslims?

Finally, it important to remind ourselves that free expression as such is not a “Western Value” unique to the strategy of our hemispheric “tribe”. Rather, the Pareto standard of mutual benefit transcends the tribe and individual as the only proven basis for peaceful, pluralistic civilization.

What is Self-Reliance?

This is something I struggle with. A few years ago, my father wrote about the virtue of self-reliance. On the other hand, in the modern world we’re more deeply interdependent than ever. Russ Roberts went so far as to say that “self-sufficiency is the road to poverty“, given that we’ve known since Adam Smith that the wealth of nations depends upon specialization and trade.

But my father is no atomic individualist, and I don’t think he has complete Robin Crusoe self-sufficiency in mind. So what can meaningfully be said about a virtue of self-reliance in a world and for a species as interdependent as ours?

He characterizes it like this:

Self-reliance equals adulthood, in politics but also in social and family life. Adulthood is a lonely condition, full of cares and responsibilities. We are not minors. The fantasy life of childhood, with its adorations and superstitions, has been transcended, left behind. Nor are we cowards or weaklings, begging for the protection of powerful parental figures. The burden of every action falls on us, whether at work, in the community, in the political arena, or even in the unmowed lawn. We are now adults — we are no longer free to turn our back on the unpleasantness of life.

The payoff? The payoff is the freedom to engage, and from that freedom flows all the dignity of the human race.

The self-reliant person works not for lust of money, but for a wealth of choices inaccessible to the idle. He loathes debt, and will pay off his credit card bill each month. He rebels against favor-currying, and would rather do without than go, hat in hand, to trade away his independence for a mess of potage. Whatever his moral and political convictions, he will not bend them to attract a panderer or appease a bully.

As I see it, self-reliance is not about dependency per se, but having a particular relationship with those on whom you depend in particular areas. You depend on your employer to make your living but you won’t let that stop you from doing what you think is right, in the office or elsewhere; you won’t let yourself be held hostage by the possibility of losing your job. In short, you take ownership of your own life and your own choices; you make your life your own. Your relationship to the external goods on which you rely has been internalized into the practice of living well.

Just as self-reliance isn’t self-sufficiency, it, like all virtues, isn’t sufficient on its own. The unity of virtues applies. My father listed self-reliance as just one of the “virtues of freedom” alongside public-mindedness, self-rule, and tolerance. Self-reliance without these isn’t virtuous, just as courage without prudence becomes mere recklessness.

I think that self-reliance can and should be a meaningful ideal even when we acknowledge the extent of our interdependence, and the extent to which our membership in various communities is an embodied part of who we are. Really, it only can become a meaningful and practical ideal once we take both of those things into consideration.

I Won’t Take Your Stuff, Here’s Some of Mine

I know who the Christian Libertarians are. I’ve been to their luncheons. I’ve read their books. They have paid for bits and pieces of my education. And Elizabeth Bruenig is right. There is a logic problem.

Bruenig says most Christian Libertarians would support these two Propositions:

  1. Property rights are pre-political.
  2. It is the role of the state to recognize and protect rights.

But how can property exist pre-politically apart from mechanisms of allocating property that can only exist within the context of political institutions?

This set of Christian Libertarians, whom Bruenig identifies as being among the Rothbard, Hoppe, and Von Mises league (a bit unfairly, I’d say, but not so far as the public conscience is concerned), are certainly more likely to say “I should suffer no interference with my property, either by state or individual” than to say “They can live with me.”

Bruenig’s main line of attack is that Christian Libertarians are not consistent with Christian tradition, and as a Christian Ethicist she is much more familiar with that than I am.

That tradition does say, “They can live with me.”

Bruenig’s argument then says that Christian Libertarians are not really Christian. Agreed.

Complement her argument with this: Christian Libertarians desire a minimalist state that enforces property, but provide no redress for those who have suffered loss of property prior to a given particular institutional iteration. That is, they conveniently ignore the transitional gains trap, and the need to address historical injustices.

That’s a problem with Libertarianism, writ large.

The solution is to be really Libertarian and really Christian.

That is, advocate rules that protect property generally, but then unilaterally work to correct injustice. I won’t take your property, but you can have mine. That’s a better Christian Libertarianism.

It starts from the anarchist premise that the system itself is irredeemable. It also assumes that exchange is pre-political. The best folks can do is catallaxy. But if anyone were to want to do better they have to resist the urge to make a general rule out of it. Instead, unilateral sacrificial altruism sees itself as always subverting whatever system it happens to find itself within, illuminating the illegitimacy of that system, and providing the catalyst for peace.

Terror and Rhetoric

The moral and political dilemma is that murder, conducted in public, will go viral. Violence, in a sufficiently large scale, will make headlines. Given an open society, this is impossible to prevent. The terrorists in Paris may advocate a tightly controlled society, but they understand the ways of liberal democracy well enough. They know us without illusions, better than we know ourselves.

Murder of innocents in the West: that is the medium. We then wonder why we should applaud the message. But I repeat: we – our dead and wounded – are the medium, we are not the intended audience. The audience is elsewhere.

-Martin Gurri, Information and terror attacks

A Gun Vanquishes A Pen

It’s 68° in my home right now, 4° outside, Fahrenheit, both readings. Very comfortable. I wouldn’t dare publish what Charlie Hebdo published–never, never, never. Wife, three kids, career (of sorts), etc.

The pen, however, is still mightier than the sword, no matter which side of the muzzle you’re on, but the price just got higher. The price for the pen’s might just saw a spike because it is evident–I write in confidence–that Western governments will not protect the freedom to wield the pen. The very next person to pick up the pen will find it quite a bit heavier against the balance of the scales. The offices at Charlie Hebdo were already wired with sophisticated security measures, and its cartoonists had bodyguards, but the premises were not fortified. Is fortification next? How much will that cost?

How did he put it? “I’d rather die standing”? He did, I hope. Perhaps his standing to is a crie de guerre to arouse passions in men and women that are too cool, too institutionalized. It’s awfully cold outside. Should we all rather die? How does courage work? How does it actually proceed so that I can offend and be offended without fear of the ultimate bodily reprisal? And (let’s drop the kayfabe for a moment) so that I can condemn and be condemned, reject and be rejected, by means of the pen?

Won’t I lose too much comfort if I somehow enter the breach? Isn’t that for someone else to do? This is all terribly confusing.

Scientific Government

What would it mean to have a “scientific” government? Does it mean that you rely on the government to make scientific determinations on matters not related to governance? That would be a mistake. Science is a process that only incrementally crawls towards truth, and at given times is (later revealed to be) frequently wrong on matters of consensus opinion. Add the distortions that political incentives introduce to reasoned decision-making, and you’ll often get dogmatic pronouncements without the necessary caveats and disclosures of unknowns.

However, part of my support for Ordoliberalism is based on the idea of scientific governance in the sense of “let’s do experimental governing and see what happens.” In my previous post I alluded to governing “not always without missteps or uncertain outcomes”. What I was trying to pack into this little parenthetical was a disclaimer regarding the limits of knowledge, but also the willingness to proceed anyway with humility, tolerance for risk, and willingness to change our minds (and policies) in the future. At one time there was widespread belief that communism was a more efficient means of running an economy than the combination of free markets and rule of law that you see in Common Law jurisdictions. And some countries ran a large (and terribly horrible) experiment based on that hypothesis. The hypothesis proved to be wrong.

When I say that Ordoliberalism holds the promise of better government, I don’t mean that I (or anyone else) knows what the optimal policy mix is with a great deal of certainty (if such a thing can even be said to exist). What I mean is that we can approach governance the same way we approach chemistry or any other science. Government should be seen as a field of social science, one with discipline, humility, admission of ignorance, and the willingness to be wrong on occasion. Because government effects the real lives and property of real people, we should of course try to keep these experiments as small and local as possible, and correctly quickly when (not if) people start getting hurt.

Is this ideal achievable? I think it is, on a small scale. Getting a population of people to volunteer to be guinea pigs will always be hard, but it’s a lot easier on the scale of towns and counties than States and Federal Republics. This is one of the reasons I agree with the teachings of subsidiarity – the more laboratories of democracy we have running experiments concurrently, the more quickly we grow the public good of governing knowledge.