Does the Is-Ought Divide Make Atrocities More Palatable?

David Hume, seen here contemplating the benefits of the one-child policy
David Hume, seen here contemplating the benefits of the one-child policy

Those who might object to the incendiary title of this post need to stop being such mood affiliators. I’m merely asking a positive question, quit being so normative about it!

This week, on reports that China will be moving from a one-child policy to a two-child policy, I was horrified to see a slew of pieces on the benefits of the original policy, or how it “worked”. Then, when people had the predictable human reaction to such a framing, they received, without fail, this same rationalism-bot response:

The original source of my own horror was Tyler Cowen’s post, Did China’s one-child policy have benefits?

The post is masterful in its way:

  • He starts out by saying that the policy is an immoral restriction on personal freedom so of course he opposes it.
  • Then he points to a paper on how it nevertheless increased investment per child.
  • Nevertheless, the paper, and he, think that decreased fertility explains the lion’s share, if not all of this, so the impact of the policy in this regard was probably small or “it is highly likely the policy has been obsolete for some while.”

When I read this post, I thought to myself: he believes he’s washed his hands by making the categorical assertion about infringement of liberty. And he thinks that this is a mere is-ought matter, or as economists like to say (following Milton Friedman), he’s talking about positive, factual economics as opposed to dealing with anything normative.

And moreover, the moment that anyone expresses outrage, he will call them a “mood affiliator,” which he defines as follows:

It seems to me that people are first choosing a mood or attitude, and then finding the disparate views which match to that mood and, to themselves, justifying those views by the mood. I call this the “fallacy of mood affiliation,” and it is one of the most underreported fallacies in human reasoning. (In the context of economic growth debates, the underlying mood is often “optimism” or “pessimism” per se and then a bunch of ought-to-be-independent views fall out from the chosen mood.)

This is in the fine and growing tradition of saying one is cognitively impaired through some bias, or invalidating an argument by calling some piece of it a fallacy, rather than coming out and saying that you think the other person is arguing in bad faith (or more simply, is mistaken!)

To summarize:

  • A morally monstrous policy that, in a slightly moderated form, continues to terrorize innocent people, is appraised specifically in terms of its benefits.
  • The author washes their hands by saying that of course they’re normatively opposed to the policy, they just want to examine it positively!
  • The costs—in a bloodless utilitarian sense or in the sense of human costs—are not even mentioned.
  • Anyone who reacts with predictable horror at this framing is told that they’re simply being illogical or irrational.

And indeed, in discussing this post a defender of it implied that I was being a mood affiliator.

And consider this glowing comment on the post itself:

This was an excellent post. It clearly separates the normative from the positive, separates means from ends, addresses the most obvious objections (e.g., for twins, “what about birth weight”?) immediately, and kicks the comments beehive.

Excellent post. Clearly separates the normative from the positive, and means from ends! What more can one wish for?

The Unbearable Gulf of Facticity

Hume’s famous (and in some circles, infamous) is-ought divide comes, of course, from his A Treatise of Human Nature. The frequently quoted passage is as follows:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention wou’d subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceiv’d by reason.

Rather than subverting “all the vulgar systems of morality,” it seems to me that rather it has given birth an endless string of philosophers who take it as a matter of revealed truth that you cannot get a normative implication from a fact about the world.

But that isn’t what Hume said. As Charles Pidgen explains:

He was not denying that the moral can be defined in terms of the non-moral. He was merely denying the existence of logically valid arguments from the non-moral to the moral. This becomes clear once we note that Hume does not think that he has to argue for the apparent inconceivability of is/ought deductions. It is something he thinks he can take for granted. This is what we would expect if he were making the logical point since it would have been obvious to his readers. For it was a commonplace of Eighteenth Century logical theory that in a logically valid argument the matter of the conclusion – that is the non-logical content – is contained within the premises, and thus that you cannot get out what you haven’t put in. Thus if an ‘ought’ appears in the conclusion of an argument but not in the premises, the inference cannot be logically valid. You can’t deduce an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ by means of logic alone.

Which isn’t quite as Earth-shattering a revelation as it continues to be made out to be, because you can’t do much of anything by means of logic alone. Moreover, the obvious implication is that if you bake a relationship between is and ought into your premise, you can absolutely derive an ought deductively. For whatever that is worth.

Hume himself wanted to build up a foundation for morality from human nature—hence the name of the Treatise. Morality was not found in “the relation of objects” but rather in subjects, in our in-born moral sense. Our sense of what we ought to do, in Hume’s own system, originates from facts of our nature. Which is obviously different from deducing what we ought to do in a given situation. Nevertheless, even in Hume, this gulf does not appear to be so very vast.

Hume Was Contributing to a Project Which Has Failed

The Treatise only makes sense in the context of the Cartesian foundationalist project. Reason as it was understood in the Enlightenment was framed by Descartes’ project of radical doubt—only that which could be proved beyond a measure of doubt counted as justified, rational belief. His doubt took him right down to the level of whether he himself even existed, and the fact that there must be a questioner in order to ask such questions is essence of the famous cogito ergo sum. From there, he seeks to build reality back up through abstract reasoning. No one thinks he succeeded.

But he did succeed in imposing a new vision of rationality and reason, one that modern discussions still are all too often caged inside of. This is the notion that what is rational is only that which has some ultimate foundation that cannot be questioned. No such foundation exists, and in fact the very idea of it is incoherent, and so all contributions to this project were doomed to fail. Including Hume’s.

Descartes and his contemporaries also developed the subject-object distinction, something that has at this point become basically everyone’s background assumption of how reality and knowledge work. You can see it in Hume’s argument that “the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects.” Operating within the subject-object schema, he argues that morality is not objective, “out there,” but rather a characteristic of subjects. This is not to be confused with our modern use of the word “subjective” to mean merely arbitrary. Hume clearly believed that noncognitivism, as it came to be called, provided a kind of foundation for morality. Just a different sort from those who believed in an external, objective moral law.

Unlike foundationalism, the subject-object distinction does have its uses. It’s clearly been a helpful tool throughout the centuries. But it is not the only set of joints from which to cut reality, nor, in my judgment, the best. I think we’d all do better to start treating it as a special case rather than assuming it by default.

How to Think Like a Human

Socrates often avails himself of the sophistic arts of argument, but whatever the reason might be, that he does cannot in any way be attributed to some deficiency in the logic of that time. To be sure, Aristotle was the first to clarify the essential theoretical foundations of drawing correct conclusions, and in so doing he also explained the deceptive appearance of false arguments. But no one could seriously contend that the ability to think correctly is acquired only by a detour through logical theory. If we find in Plato’s dialogues and in Socrates’ arguments all manner of violations of logic—false inferences, the omission of necessary steps, equivocations, the interchanging of one concept with another—the reasonable hermeneutic assumption on which to proceed is that we are dealing with a discussion. And we ourselves do not conduct our discussions more geometrico. Instead we move within the live play of risking assertions, of taking back what we have said, of assuming and rejecting, all the while proceeding on our way to reaching an understanding. Thus it does not seem at all reasonable to me to study Plato primarily with an eye toward logical consistency, although that approach can of course be of auxiliary importance in pointing out where conclusions have been drawn too quickly. The real task can only be to activate for ourselves wholes of meaning, contexts within which a discussion moves—even where its logic offends us. Aristotle himself, the creator of the first valid logic, was well aware of how things stand here. In a famous passage in the Metaphysics, he declares that the difference between dialectic and sophism consists only in the choice or commitment in life, i.e., only in that the dialectician takes seriously those things which the sophist uses solely as the material for his game of winning arguments and proving himself right.
-Hans-Georg Gadamer, Dialogue and Dialectic

Nothing can stand up to Cartesian doubt. If that’s the standard, then philosophy will fail every time.

It seems clear to me that scientists have achieved an astonishing amount when it comes to understanding the world we live in, however incomplete that understanding might remain (and perhaps always must be). So when someone trots out an epistemology that calls into doubt our ability to know anything at all, it seems to me that it is that philosopher, rather than scientists, who begins to look rather foolish.

Similarly, it seems to me that every day people are able to leap from an understanding of the facts to what they ought to do. Often they feel they have made mistakes, or think others have also made mistakes. But to trot out a bit of formal logic, where you can’t get an ought in the conclusion if you only have an is in the premise, and then treat any normative conclusions drawn from facts as a fallacy—seems, to me, to be ridiculous.

I will grant that people’s inferences about what they should do is not as strong a piece of evidence as the atom bomb, the astonishingly precise and accurate predictions from quantum physics, or the results of germ theory. Nevertheless, the argument against such inferences is even weaker than the evidence. As Gadamer put it, “no one could seriously contend that the ability to think correctly is acquired only by a detour through logical theory.” And invoking this particular piece of logic is, in the context, quite weak indeed.

Which brings us back to the piece that set me off: Tyler Cowen’s post on the one-child policy.

Look at the title again. The question is “Did China’s one-child policy have benefits?”

And yet the commenter I quoted above assures us that this cleanly separated “normative from positive.”

What, dear readers, is a “benefit”?

This is the problem with economic analysis in general. They talk a big talk about separating normative and positive, and thus honoring the is-ought distinction, but the very notion of a benefit is normative!

The counter argument, of course, is that economics assumes a “benefit” in terms of individuals’ own subjective valuations. But that is not a morally neutral choice, either. It demands, at least while performing analysis within the framework, that we exclude other notions of what a “benefit” is. Pure facticity is to be found nowhere in this.

The Humean turn in this regard is just one more way in which Enlightenment rationalism has made us very bad at thinking carefully about our rhetoric. Tyler Cowen is usually very careful in this regard, which is part of why I was stunned by the rhetoric of his post. But it’s clear, as his commenter observed, that the provocation was the main goal of how it was framed. I find this irresponsible given the horrors of the policy in question, horrors which remain unmentioned in the post.

Moreover, while he did not levy the accusation this time, this bit about “mood affiliation” is part of another trend that is due for a reversal; that of taking anything human about the nature of arguing, and categorizing in a way that makes it easy to dismiss.

Let’s take a relatively old one: the “ad hominem” fallacy that is the bread and butter of all Internet arguing.

When we’re talking about an Internet troll who is simply insulting you, of course there’s nothing productive going on.

But once you step out of foundationalism, it starts to become clear how much what we know rests on who we can trust. Trust puts the “faith” in arguing in “good faith”. If we cannot trust the one making an argument, we cannot trust the argument—simple as that. Taking an argument on its merits is not simply looking at the logic of the thing, it’s also looking at the credibility of both the one advancing it and the sources cited.

It’s one thing, in other words, to call someone ranting in a knee-jerk, thoughtless manner, a “mood affiliator.” I don’t know why you wouldn’t simply call such a person unhinged, but if sounding more clinical floats your boat, who am I to judge?

But when you’re talking about the benefits of a policy that is not only an infringement on freedom, but involves an ongoing brutality and inhumanity of a systematic sort, it is shameful to call the predictable negative response to it “mood affiliation” or a failure to understand the is-ought distinction.

Take Responsibility for Your Rhetoric

The Politics of Truth had several explicit targets and many more implicit ones that I felt best left unnamed. I will continue to leave them unnamed, but here are a couple of passages that might be of interest:

There’s a problem inherent to this fact of our nature. What if merely asking a particular question automatically made you less credible? And what if any group that systematically investigated that question, and other related ones, became similarly less credible as a result?

This is no abstract point. Asking “what should be done about the Jewish problem?” tells us a lot about who you are and the group you belong to. Anyone with an ounce of decency would not pay any attention to the claims made by the kind of person who would seriously ask and investigate that question, or the groups that would focus on it. The only attention that such people would draw would be defensive—it would be the attention we give to something we consider to be a threat.

Further down:

Now a modern libertarian, good child of the Enlightenment that they are, wants to assert the clear mathematical truth that no individual vote makes a difference. Especially at the national level. I have seen this happen many times, as a GMU econ alumni. I have done this many times myself.

The problem is that it’s never really clear to me what people hope to accomplish by doing this, other than being correct. Certainly the strong emotional backlash shows that there’s a cherished idea there. But other than casting ourselves in the role of unmasker of a manifest truth, what do we do when we insist upon this point?

A single vote does not sway an election, and therefore it follows…what? Other than undermining a cherished idea, which is indeed incorrect, what exactly is the larger value of the specific point?

In my view, “I believe in freedom so I would never implement the one-child policy, but if I didn’t, here are some benefits” is highly irresponsible and impolitic rhetoric.

Here’s one way that the substance of Cowen’s post could have been framed:

Subject: “Did Decreasing Fertility in China Result in Higher Relative Human Capital Investment?”

Body: “A recent paper suggests that this is the case, drawing on the natural experiment created by twins. They ultimately conclude that the one-child policy likely had little impact on this due to pre-existing trends in declining fertility in China and the rest of the region.”

Sounds different, doesn’t it? And the substance really is basically the same.

To frame it in terms of “the benefits” of the one-child policy, especially with substance so reasonable as that, is either poorly thought out or unethical.

But perhaps I am just a mood affiliator who does not properly understand the is-ought distinction.

The Road Goes Ever Backward

Sometimes while I’m driving the two older boys from our home north of Buffalo to their hockey games in the Southtowns, tootling along the I-90, my mind will wander from the task at hand to some of the work I find myself doing. Certain tasks grind away in my consciousness, nearly to the point of making the whole works come to a stop.

At that point, to clear the gears, so to speak, I’ll jam on the brakes, bringing the truck to a complete stop so that I can look them in the eyes without putting any of us in danger.

“Listen to me, boys,” I’ll say. No, that’s not what I say. What is it? Oh yes, “Listen to me, my sons,” I’ll say. “For the love of all things good and right, please forgive me and your mother for whatever we might be doing wrong to you, whatever we might be doing to hurt you or bring you harm. I swear to you, on all that’s holy, on all that’s pure, that we’re just doing the best we can.”

When I know I have their full attention (which I scientifically ascertain by the quotient of fear in their eyes), I continue, “Promise me you won’t leave me and your mother alone when we’re old. Please promise me you won’t do that.”

The older one is the one who usually speaks, “Okay, Dad.”

When I hear him renew his promise, I put the truck back in gear, and we continue our journey into the mundane, usually before any traffic enforcement officer can be summoned.

The lady with the picture: remember her? The picture has moved from the living room into her bedroom. She had her 91st birthday recently. Her body gave her the gift of stopping the bleeding from the gut into her stool, so she’s feeling pretty zippy. “I got some bad news,” she said at one point. “It seems I’m always getting bad news lately.”

“What’s that?” I said.

“I found out that my son is dead.”

She hasn’t seen or heard from her son in decades. This is her only child.

She continued, “I knew he was out of state somewhere, but they never told me where he was exactly. I don’t know when he died or where he died when he died. I don’t know what year he died. I don’t know what he died of, and they never even told me when I had a new grandchild.”

“How did you find out he was dead?”

“Some girl put it in the computer.”

One tries to learn instead of judging. And when one judges, one avoids judging the person; dear God, let me not judge. The story didn’t stop. So I listened.

“When I was a little girl, we lived on a farm. One day, she saw a small garden snake in the kitchen. She hates snakes, so before my father had even come in from the field, she had the house packed and we moved to another house that day.”

The center of the story of this old lady has departed from her and moved to her mother.

Hers may be atypical, but the margins are being pushed inward.

Topological Politics

“Were the people who believed in eugenics just fools? I think we have to try to stop them!”

“You can’t stop other people from pursuing their projects, their dreams. Even if they are crazy dreams, even if they won’t work. If people want to do it, they will. Then later their children will suffer, sure. We can point that out, and we will. But it’s everyone who has to stop these people, all of us together. It has to be an idea that fails, that no one will act on because no one believes it anymore. That may take a while. And meanwhile, listen to me: kick the world, break your foot.”

Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson

If Adam Gurri’s a recovering libertarian, then I’m a recovering anarchist; but while his exit vector has been through virtue ethics and hermeneutics, mine was through evolutionary biology and the mathematics of complex systems.

It is in giving up one’s cherished beliefs that one’s thinking is given teeth, and the starting point for me was with two works of “systems history”, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs & Steel and Manuel DeLanda’s A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History. The former attempts to outline a naturalized account of European colonization, a topic traditionally enjoined to a rhetoric of self-congratulatory supremacy or scornful retrodiction. The latter abandons teleology in favor of witnessing history as a series of movements of systems in and out of equilibrium. Equilibrium need not mean stasis, as complexity theory demonstrates. Predator/prey systems are an example of binary equilibria, where adaptations by the one are met by adaptations by the other (the so-called red queen effect).

More generally, however, the tools of the sciences can be turned on systems of ideology and political philosophy, and used to examine some of the unspoken assumptions behind them. For instance, idealists keep returning to the notion of a clean break, a revolutionary transformation of society that will result in a situation of high collective satisfaction. They’re even right! History demonstrates that human collectivities can experience significantly higher satisfaction, at least in bursts: the Paris Commune, or Burning Man, or even the vibe in Tahrir Square when Mubarak was ousted, all represent kinds of temporary autonomous zones of liberated living. Nevertheless, they were all physically and temporarily constrained, and the status quo that subsequently obtained left much to be desired.

In a physical system, a gradient describes a situation that is far from equilibrium. The second law of thermodynamics, therefore, implies a statistically-certain movement towards a higher-entropy state; in an open system, it would entail harnessing the energy from another gradient to arrest the entropic decay of the first.

The problem of revolutionary politics, in sum, is one of thermodynamics. There is no second gradient sufficient to provide sustained energy in quantities large and consistent enough to see the revolution secured. The terrible, bloody end of many revolutions is a fruitless gesture of a King Canute attempting to command the tide to stop.

This, therefore, is the rationale behind institutions; they are the ponds carved out of the mountain face to ensure that not all the water runs out to sea, particularly when generations may go by without rainfall.

To shift metaphors, diverse political systems may be thought of as fitness landscapes as used in evolutionary biology. The peaks represent optimal fitness, and assuming a stable environment and random mutation, a population will gradually ‘climb’ the nearest hill available to them. This hill may represent small, fast-moving wings and a long, thin beak for drinking nectar, or an elongated neck and a predilection for particular leaves. In theory, the abstract (‘virtual’) topology of the fitness landscape could represent other peaks that are improvements over the one being climbed, but there may be no available path from point A to point B. Repeated insistence on how much higher another peak would be does nothing to move the population across the valley—unless, of course, this counter-productive direction is fueled by some other force that negates the drift towards short-term fitness—this is the nature of selective breeding, for example.

Via Wikipedia

Using this topology, then, you can imagine revolutionary movements as sharp spikes in the fitness landscapes: maximally fit, but tragically destructive if one moves only a little in any direction. Given the natural random jostling around any population experiences, conservatives are correct to judge such a pinnacle as existentially precarious. Their preference for gentle inclines and plateaus means that sudden moves in any direction do not yield dramatically different results, but having reached the plateau, there is a tendency to justify one’s altitude with a rhetoric of post hoc lesser-evilism.

Of course, all this assumes a static environment and an absence of feedback loops between the population and the ecology, when in fact both are highly dynamic. As a result, the conservative impulse to preserve gains held, reasonable when moving up a small hill surrounded by deep valleys, is paralyzing when land bridges appears, or when the hill one was ascending suddenly plummets.

Everyone wants to be the butterfly flapping its wings in Tokyo, causing a hurricane in California. But the implicit premise is that the system itself is far from equilibrium, and that there is more than one attractor. But not everyone can be Mohamed Bouazizi, and if Bouazizi hadn’t been, another Tunisian would’ve, because the situation itself was unlikely to stay on the knife’s edge. A pure power politics is a single-attractor system that sees the cynic acquiesce and the activist crushed by the Sisyphean burden of fate.

Politics understands that change comes easiest not by forcing large stones up steep hills, nor waiting for the perfect butterfly moment to strike, but by terraforming the social landscape. This implies a knowledge of what the structural elements of the social consist of, and in this it seems we are still woefully ignorant. We allow ourselves to be distracted by national politics when the most substantive actions happen at lower (state and city) or higher (trade agreements, treaties) resolutions. We are more captured by the names of things then their realities (treating, for example, Iraq, as ‘a’ nation-state). Our political vision is weak, inveterately biased towards the status quo and our vocabulary actively misleads us. We frame issues of coordination as wicked problems, giving up before we’ve begun.

So let’s change that.

As a first step, let’s at least amend our language to acknowledge the capabilities and publics when we look at the large problems in front of us. In a recent essay Venkatesh Rao recently chided the choice of framing challenges like climate change as problems, and instead recommended:

It is far more useful to approach challenges from the perspective of the scale of existing capabilities, and asking how much capability growth can be creatively accelerated without triggering collapse in the mechanisms themselves.

This is a dynamical understanding, where even the parts of the system ostensibly at odds with it are taken into account. This should be paired with the concept of publics, in the sense outlined by Walter Lippmann, who was deeply skeptical about the idea of a mass of rational individuals, coextensive with the set of citizens. Instead, he calls on publics to

…judge. Where the facts are most obscure, where precedents are lacking, where novelty and confusion pervade everything, the public in all its unfitness is compelled to make its most important decisions. The hardest problems are those which institutions cannot handle. They are the public’s problems.

Publics are short-lived assemblages that live, grow and die in a blink relative to the lifespans of their host civilizations; from school board meetings to Black Lives Matter. We’ve become so acclimated to only understanding activities that have been culturally-coded “politics” as political that we forget that the entirety of our culture is a sedimentary rock laid down by the processes of politics, from public hygiene to the existence of trade.

This then, should be our manifesto as we engage with a dynamic world of shifting equilibria:

Here is a Copernican revolution of radical proportions: to finally make politics turn around topics that generate a public around them instead of trying to define politics _in the absence_ of any issue, as a question of procedure, authority, sovereignty, right and representativity.

— Bruno Latour, Turning Around Politics

Identity and Ideology: an Oblique Defense of Feminism

I would like to defend feminism in a more direct and full-throated way, but I could only do so for my particular kind of liberal feminism. Here I’d like to offer a defense of feminism generally, but it must be a little more indirect, by way of defending the ideological impulse itself.

It turns out some folks are really hostile to feminism. Interestingly, this sentiment comes not just from misogynists, but from genuinely nonsexist people. The hostility seems to stem from the conspicuous existence of feminist ideas and feminist people that are absurd. Statements like “All men are rapists”, “All heterosexual sex is rape“, or “Straight white men cannot suffer discrimination” are all statements that have been uttered by feminists. Then there are the disproportionate public shame campaigns, often whipped up on Twitter, like Shirtgate or Nobel laureate biochemist Tim Hunt getting shamed into resignation over some sexist remarks. Shame is a weapon regularly used by feminists, especially against white males who express frustration at romantic difficulty, with epithets like “mouth-breathers, pimpled, scrawny, blubbery, sperglord, neckbeard, virgins, living in our parents’ basements, man-children” all too common (a list supplied by Scott Alexander). Feminists have been behind some truly scary assaults on free speech and due process, especially when it comes to college life and those accused of sexual assault.

Continue reading “Identity and Ideology: an Oblique Defense of Feminism”

A Taxonomy of Power

leviathanI have lately found the question of power asserting itself to me with increasingly insistence. This is unfortunate, as I don’t feel any special qualification to answer it.

As a one-time (and still in the eyes of many) libertarian, my understanding of power went from sharply defined (or so I thought) to rather muddled. I read Foucault recently, thinking I might find one of the canonical takes on power of our times, but I was disappointed. As the ignoramus in that particular hermeneutic encounter, it was no doubt more my fault than his. Either way, I didn’t feel like I took too terribly much away that I hadn’t already encountered in conversations beforehand.

As usual, I find I cannot think properly without writing. Since wisdom is to be found in making distinctions, I’ll put together a taxonomy of power as I currently understand it.

The radical incompleteness of human understanding gives all arguments a speculative quality to them, no matter the confidence or competence of the author. In this case, I’ve neither confidence nor competence, so my taxonomy is very speculative indeed. I offer it as part of my own process of thinking this question through, but also in the hope that more knowledgeable people than I will find it, read it, and critique it.

Continue reading “A Taxonomy of Power”

Even Calls Me By My Name

The “Bastogne” episode of HBO’s Band of Brothers does some heavy lifting when it comes to Christianity’s relationship to society, as tested by the fires of absolute warfare. The setting is December 1944, in Bastogne, Belgium. The 101st Airborne Division is tasked with defending Bastogne from conquest by the German Army in the definitive battle of World War II known as “The Battle of the Bulge,” a counteroffensive launched by Hitler to break the steadily advancing Allied lines.

Here I’ll frame the episode with observations interspersed periodically with commentary.

Spoiler Alert

Instead of a rehearsal of battlefield events, “Bastogne” is a drama overlaying a historical event, complete with a clear plot progression, character development, and with rising and falling action. Everything following this paragraph is a reveal. I encourage you to watch the episode, read this, then re-watch it under the magical influence of the power of suggestion.

Continue reading “Even Calls Me By My Name”

The Various Manifestations of The First Rule of Policing

I’d originally imagined this to be a simple cut-and-paste of some Facebook comments, but I was informed that the reading given by Noah Smith may not be exactly what Rajiv Sethi’s original thought process or conclusions were.

So, assuming this to be correct, which I believe it to be, after having actually read Sethi’s post, I’m still going to just cut-and-paste, but I’ll include a caveat that Sethi’s point in his original post is not what was laid out originally, and that the timing isn’t exactly correct, but it’s  close enough for primetime.

Facebook Masturbation Thread:

Adam Glurri: Turns out you were wrong about everything Boatfloating Racial bias in police killings

Boatfloating: Not going to read the links in your link, but, assuming Noah’s representation is correct, Sethi’s got the closer of it. Who Pays for the Costs of the System?

Boatfloating: Cowardice, Sausage-Making, and Public-Mindedness

Boatfloating: First Rule of Policing, and all

(1 hour later)

Boatfloating: I’m trying to finish an accounting project, Adam. y u tryna make me destroy my career?
As I understand the points

Mullainathan: The rate of cop killing civilian per encounter is the same across races
Sethi: The types of encounter are skewed towards more (perceived as having the potential for being) violent encounters with blacks
Noah: Why would cops go into encounters scared, they just got a case of roid rage
Boatfloating: Cops get into more (perceived to be potentially) dangerous encounters because its sorta their job to respond to citizens who claim potentially dangerous situations and/or they’re assigned higher crime rate areas so are automatically more wary of potential dangers




(40 minutes later)

Boatfloating: goddammit Adam

Also, it’s not like the power/fear thing is actually binary. If the First Rule of Policing has any validity, it’s obvious that the, ingrained by martial rhetoric and training, fear or worry of not making it home for dinner can manifest itself in out-and-out fearful actions, like, maybe, shooting a teenager holding a Wii-controller to an overreliance or over emphasis on needing to establish and maintain absolute and complete control over a particular interaction with a citizen, and (over)reacting to any perceived disrespect or non-compliance

(1 hour later, in response to my failing to reiterate the points correctly)

B: Sethi’s theory is the opposite of what you say here. His hypothesis is that black encounters with police are disproportionately safe (in reality) because cops are more likely to stop blacks for no reason. The hypothesis is necessary to explain how the odds of ending up shot aren’t any higher for blacks conditional on being stopped by police.

FWIW, when Scott Alexander looked at this issue a while back, what he found doesn’t seem consistent with the hypothesis (Sethi doesn’t present any data).

Boatfloating: That’s Sethi’s position? I must have really misread Noah’s presentation

B: Noah seemed confused by it too

(1 hour later)

Boatfloating:GODDAMMIT Adam

Okay, I’m actually reading the linked posts, and dear lord there are a lot of issues in Mullainathan’s article, Sethi’s post, and Noah’s post.

Biggest point
The general lack of good use-of-force data taints much of the conversation
Without knowing, or even just being in the same goddamn ballpark, the true encounter to population rate, encounter to detention, encounter to arrest, encounter to use-of-force, etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc, much of this is just guesswork
As the Goolsby article notes, any mention of use-of-force is missing from the police report


Adam Glurri is the devil.


“28 in the last year” Yes. Good and correct stat for the problem at hand, bruh.

In Dialectic Over Telescopic Morality

I’m currently working on another piece about telescopic morality.

Before writing it, I thought it’d be a good idea to review what I’ve written previously and all the responses to them that I’m aware of. It’s been a very lively discussion, with many humbling critiques.

Many of the conceptual problems that people pointed out nearly immediately came, I think, from the fact that I started with a polemic but then stubbornly clung to treating it as though it had been an analytical piece. I also ultimately contradicted myself in a few places over time—most clearly, by saying originally that the near is all that matters, and later conceding that “of course” far concerns matter.

In any case, I thought I’d do a roundup here for my own convenience, but also for anyone interested in the discussion. There’s some good stuff in here, especially from my critics.

Continue reading “In Dialectic Over Telescopic Morality”

Methodological Terribleness


People with training in economics will tell you that the system works because we’re able to channel selfishness into public gains. That is unarguably part of the system, and a very important part. But it is far from the whole story.

The economists’ simple model of a person is the selfish maximizer. He pursues gains right up to the point where the costs equal the benefits. If he tries to get what he wants by trading, and certain other conditions apply—in terms of how much information is available, how competitive the market is, and so forth—he will help enrich us all while working to enrich himself.

Problems arise very quickly when this model encounters the world. Rather than directly compensating people for what they produce, workers and employees are compensated either hourly or on an annualized salary, to an overwhelming degree. Rather than being directed by the residual claimants, an extraordinary amount of resources are commanded by corporations with a wide pool of shareholders, run by managers appointed by a board elected by these shareholders.

Areas of vulnerability to opportunism seem rampant.

Agency theory was developed in direct response to the shareholder-manager relationship, which they refer to as a principal-agent problem. Agency theorists focus primarily on the information asymmetry between managers and shareholders, arguing the former can milk their position for personal gain at the expense of the company’s bottom line in ways that are hard for shareholders—a more distributed group—to monitor.

The response to agency theory within economics has typically progressed in two directions. One involves a call for regulation, making penalties for defrauding investors steeper and requiring greater public disclosure. The other points to the way in which market discipline can be brought to bear against managers; mergers and hostile takeovers are among the mechanisms that can be used. Henry Manne was the pioneer of this line of argument, with his “Mergers and the Market for Corporate Control”.

Among the Virginia Public Choice School, it is also argued that regulators and politicians are selfish maximizers, too, and this must be taken into consideration when calling to expand their powers. As Eli Dourado has half-jokingly put it, governments, as well as markets, need to be robust against “methodological cynicism;” that is, the assumption that everyone involved is a cynical opportunist.

I think he doesn’t go far enough. Let’s examine the world under conditions of what I’d like to call “methodological terribleness.”

Assume that everyone is terrible.

By that I don’t just mean opportunitists, though that might be one way their terribleness manifests itself. But they could also be arbitrary and spiteful and abusive in a way that works against their own interests. “Terrible” is a very versatile word, and I don’t think I need to pin it down—I’m fairly sure you get the idea, or you will, if you pay attention.

In a world under methodological terribleness, all governments seem horrifying—all of those weapons and prisons, and people just let them have their way for the most part? Who came up with that idea? If any of these terrible people manage to overcome their mutual loathing and get organized, it’s a recipe for death camps, massacres, and pointless wars! On a good day they’ll probably wreck whole ways of life through absurdly high taxation and burdensome regulation, just for the power trip.

What, you think the voters wouldn’t let them get away with it? Voters are terrible! They completely look the other way when bad things happen to someone else, and half the time don’t even notice it being done to themselves. Completely asleep on the job, when not being actively malicious.

Businesses are right out. Too much leverage—what if they sexually assault an employee who really needs the job? What if they emotionally abuse employees just to see how much they’ll put up with?

Heck, throw all of commerce out the window. Customers are terrible. In retail and the restaurant business, they can enjoy their status as petty despots over any employee or manager eager to provide good service and build a reputation. And sellers are just as bad, selling defective products for the hell of it.

And the family—forget it. “Family” just means “trapped together under a roof,” and we’re all aware of the terrible ways that arrangement can go wrong.

What is the point of this little exercise?

If humans were thoroughly and uniformly terrible, human society would be impossible. In fact, even if they were just thoroughly selfish maximizers, it would be impossible.

Joseph Heath’s paper on agency theory has the best discussion of this. Drawing on criminology, he argues that in general the evidence is that people are not terrible or maximally opportunistic. Instead, they are conventional; they believe in doing the right thing for a fairly lukewarm, widely held version of what that means. They tend to rationalize their actions when they deviate from that standard, but in general it’s more or less what they strive for.

However, he argues that agency theory is a useful tool, even if not literally true. It helps to identify “fault lines,” where people are most likely to misbehave. But it’s only because most people do not misbehave to any great degree that we can have any hope of policing such behavior. When it is a relatively rare deviation from the norm, it is not only easier to spot and more manageable to punish, but the relative goodness of most people makes it acceptable to punish the right people for the right reasons. In a world of selfish maximizers, punishment is only ever a pretext for someone else’s advancement; a cynical front. In a world of pure terribleness, punishment is only ever the work of a temporary collusion of sadists, or someone with a chip on their shoulder, or some perceived slight.

The fact is that all of these scenarios can and do play out. We do live in a world where people are often immorally opportunistic or petty or cruel. But our great accomplishments and our ability to live together in commerce, society, and state, are possible only because of the goodness in us all. If we often fall short, we also often strive to do better. If we give in to temptations, we also support the people in our lives during their moments of weakness. If we are sometimes cruel, we often are fair and loving—and forgiving.

Laws, and agreements of all kinds, are pointless without ethos—without a population that is more or less the right kind of people for living and working and governing together.

Methodological Moral Anti-Realism

As a curative to the worst aspects of arguing on the internet, I’ve developed a simple heuristic when I start getting my ire up—asking the question:

What would have to be true for this person to do/say what they are and not be stupid and/or evil?

The implicit premises here are deeply inspired by Spinoza’s Ethics. In Part III, Of the Affects, Spinoza lays out his typology for a new ethical language. It’s a palette, with three primary colors: desire, defined as an appetite + awareness of one’s appetite, joy, which is the increase one one’s power of acting, and sadness, which is the diminishment of the same.

Joy and sadness are both passions, by which Spinoza means phenomena we encounter which we only understand partially, and therefore understand inadequately. Adequate knowledge would be knowledge that proceeds from cause to effect with no remainder, so to the extent that the effects are not fully understood from their causes they are understood inadequately.

There are some subtle implications to this typology. For one, there is no such thing as a ‘negative’ amount of a power of acting; death is the failure to preserve one’s essence and organization, but anything shy of that involves some measure of power. Secondly, joy and sadness are both movements; Spinoza quite explicitly argues that if one were perfect and remained perfect, they would experience no joy (using his definition above), since their power of acting remains constant and neither increases nor diminishes.

Conspicuously absent from these are notions of good or evil, and this is intentional. Good and evil are not meaningful conceptions independent of an agent or agents for whom they increase or decrease their ability to see their desires fulfilled and their organization preserved.

Here, then, we gain the tools for a kind of radical empathy, and the heuristic I gave at the beginning makes more sense: we can ask of anyone what they believe will see their organization (their physical body, their family, their nation, etc.) preserved and their desires fulfilled. Because their beliefs are inadequate, there are often confusions between correlations and causation, or simply about facts of the world. When people engage in abhorrent actions or express abhorrent beliefs, we can uncover the hidden logic behind these actions and statements, and occasionally even find ways to engage.

The small child who insists “I’m not tired” after missing their nap isn’t stupid, although they do hold an incorrect belief that less sleep, rather than more, will improve their state of affairs. The terrorist isn’t evil, but does have desires that they believe will be best fulfilled by the deployment of violence. The parent withholding medical treatment from their child isn’t evil, although their understanding of what will contribute to their child’s welfare is deeply confused. And so on.

This is where an improvement of understanding contributes to improving our lot. First, by better understanding our own desires, we can more effectively realize them, and not chase after arbitrary correlations. By improving our beliefs, we can more accurately model the world and take actions with a stronger likelihood of achieving our desired ends. By taking the time to understand others, even when their desires conflict with our own and their beliefs are incorrect, we can amend our own behavior to circumvent or confront them in a precise and targeted way, or find otherwise improbable opportunities for collaboration.

A good example of this is presented in Maggie Koerth-Baker’s book, Before The Lights Go Out, about green energy and the U.S. energy grid.  She cites examples of political conservatives getting on board with green energy when the issue is framed in alignment with their espoused values (fiscal responsibility, defense, autonomy, stewardship) instead of in a deliberately provocative way where some can be made to feel joy by shaming conservatives and blaming them for recalcitrance. Even when true, this is not an effective strategy for collaboration, and unless one somehow holds enough power to act unilaterally, this sort of bridge-building will always be necessary.

Finally, as this process iterates over itself, we start to see the emergence of many of the traditional liberal values: we begin to see that our own desires and the preservation of ourselves can be better achieved when we put in place institutions and folkways that enable others to do the same. The meta-good, here, is a bias for increasing one’s own power of action by building structures and patterns that increase other’s powers of action. This is an ecological argument, and  while it won’t be true for every situation or agent (as there may be competing ‘basins of attraction’ that have a stronger draw), probabilistically and in aggregate Spinoza’s argument for freedom and mutual benefit, derived from the simple tools of self-preservation, desire, and joy still attracts.