Vote “Yes” on the MEFTA

I think every thought experiment should conducted n times, where n is the number of unique moral agents contained in the experiment. Doing so might help mitigate the risk of our inborn proclivities toward The Fatal Conceit.

(Finally – finally – I have been given an excuse to invoke Hayek on these pages, a rarity for the pulpit-pounding Misesian of the group. But that is just what impact Samuel’s recent argument against free trade had on me.)

Re-conducting the thought experiment n times will hopefully provide us with a certain moral weight.

Let n = k + s, where is the number of kings, gods, aristocrats, wonks, and watchmakers in the world and s is the number of serfs, plebes, average joes, peons, and Trump voters. Let us further note that in every system across the totality of human history, including the present system, s > k. And not just “>,” but “much >.”

Let us further acknowledge that, at the time of this writing, the only person who stands to profit in the near term from terra-forming Mars is the most vocal proponent of doing so:

Humanity could colonize Mars with a few key technological advances, Elon Musk said. Chief among them are fully and rapidly reusable rockets, and the ability to produce rocket propellant from local materials on the Red Planet….

For example, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket costs about $16 million to build, but the fuel for each of the booster’s liftoffs costs just $200,000, Musk said Tuesday. So finding a way to fly rockets again and again has the potential to slash the cost of spaceflight by a factor of 100, he added.

Musk hopes to be a key player in the spread of humanity to another planet, but he doesn’t expect to be around to see the full fruits of his labor.

Emphasis mine. $16 million (plus margin) is a lot of cheddar. You can bet that’s going to show up in the marginal tax rates and rates of inflation borne by s. To be sure, k will also bear some of this cost… but then again, it was their choice to do so. (They’re the k‘s, remember?)

And while I’m banging away at libertarian hobby-horses, let’s briefly tackle “what is unseen.” The chief cost of terra-forming Mars is the opportunity cost of spending hundreds of billions of dollars and countless human lives mitigating against a risk that never comes to pass. (Yes, Elon, such as superintelligent killer robots.) There is a whole other trajectory of human progress that may unfold if we choose to do pretty much anything other than protecting ourselves from non-existent killer robots. That trajectory will impact the quality of life for both the k‘s and the s‘s, but it will make the best and most important impact on the s‘s.

Okay, now go ahead and re-run the thought experiment n times. Run through the billions of poor people who will continue to die in the streets for lack of improved economic development. Run through the billions of dollars that could have been spent on increasing the number of cancer screenings in the world, or on reducing the cost of insulin analogues, or on increasing the wage rates of the desperate, or etc., etc. Do this s times, for every s alive in today’s world, and for every s that will ever live over the course of the development of Musk’s Mars plan. Then do it again for every s living on both Earth and Mars, who could easily trade with each other and improve their lots in life, but for the k‘s who just happen to “know” that the hypothetical risk of an imaginary killer robot or et cetera is too great to justify raising the total amount of calories consumed by an abandoned Bangladeshi child.

Then, when you’re done with all that, go ahead and run through the k‘s. They probably won’t save themselves (no matter how rich they get) because they’ll be long dead before the plan ever comes to fruition. But they do get a substantial utility boost, after all. It’s not just the money, it’s the knowledge they have that they’re saving humanity – perhaps not today’s starving child, but some child who never would have existed otherwise! Just think of how many lives are saved or created by this process! And since “humanity” is infinite (especially if “we” save it), and “starving child” is finite, that’s a whole lot of salvation the k‘s get for their money.

Still, after all this, I have a difficult time believing that anyone who went through the thought experiment n times would walk away concluding that, yep, we gotta break a few eggs and cook ourselves an omelet. That is likely why Samuel ended with the Tyler Cowen quote that he did: when our growth plan involves redirecting calories from the mouths of today’s starving to the future of humanity many generations from now, the decision just doesn’t make sense.

This, too, is part of the “neoreactionary” ethos – an important part. We can deride them for being “populists” or “anti-elite” (sometimes called “anti-intellectual”), but when our thought experiments place us in the position of k‘s, while they can only ever be s‘s, their criticism sticks. It’s not as if it’s irrational to think that the elites might cook up a plan that comes at a terrible cost to the rest of us. It’s happened before. If we are to take neoreactionism seriously, we’ll have to acknowledge this.

Now, I’m not an unreasonable man. If a few eccentric k‘s want to spend their own money, combined with voluntary donations, on interplanetary colonialism, I say more power to them! Fair is fair: I spend my disposable income on too many guitars and too much cognac, they spend theirs on space ships. But that’s a choice any n can make, be she a k or an s.

But if we succeed in colonizing Mars, then I’m already in favor of MEFTA. Free trade is fair trade. No moat!



Context Reduction

I’m working on my brevity these days, so I’m going to try to write this post in twenty minutes or less.

In Adam’s recent post about context, he writes (emphasis mine):

Ryan’s recent post relies on an optimistic hermeneutic. At least, it is optimistic in the sense of holding that it is possible to know the relevant context for understanding something, if pessimistic that most people will bother. I share his optimism.

But in discussing the post with him, it seems that he believes a lot of meaning is radically historical, where most believe there to be more general meaning outside of the most contingent of context.

I may indeed be radically historical, but I haven’t ever considered that. In fact, the mere notion of a “radically historical perspective” is  an entirely new ingredient not initially contained in my post about frames of reference. It’s entirely possible that Adam is correct about my perspective – but I honestly don’t know about that, and it doesn’t directly pertain to my point.

The reason I’m writing about this is to highlight a risk in the consumption of ideas: Not only is it possible to lack context, it is also possible to import context that was not or should not be there.

I see this quite often. The news is replete with stories of well-meaning university faculty whose innocuous emails receive an identity-politics reevaluation, and next thing we know, a scandal has erupted. Scarcely can any major crime occur that the media begins saying things like, “We don’t know yet if the suspects are tied to terrorist groups,” which is a factually correct statement that nevertheless imports the context of terrorism to a situation that might not actually involve real terrorists.

I see this also in the marketplace for ideas. For example, Paul recently wrote a blog post about capabilitarianism that I quite liked. I felt that he was correct in the main, but Paul references the ideas of Amartya Sen in absence of the context of the Indian partition, the Pakistani genocide of Bangladeshis, the subsequent Bangladeshi war of independence, and the resulting martial law and systemic bifurcation of Bangladeshi society between “rich” and “poor.” In that context, the context in which Sen’s ideas actually emerged, the comparison to American civil liberties is much weaker. And because I know a bit about Bangladeshi history, I found that part of Paul’s otherwise excellent blog post less strong than the balance of it.

In short, it is possible to universalize something that is not truly universal. It’s possible to bend the language of the civil rights movement so that it can be deployed against campus faculty emails, it’s possible to use emerging market societies’ theories to attempt to explain developed-market social trends, and so forth.

My view is that we should be very cautious about generalizing intellectual principles. In some cases they can indeed be generalized, but in some cases not. What you include in your frame of reference can affect your conclusion every bit as much as what you exclude. The goal should always be not to be “right in a manner of speaking,” or “right from a certain perspective,” but to simply be right.

I’m not saying it’s easy, I’m just saying that’s the goal.

Frames Of Reference


Some people read Moby Dick and think it’s a story about hunting whales.

There are people out there who have read and have loved The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde without having ever known that Robert Louis Stevenson had bipolar personality disorder.

There are people who find Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray to be powerfully moving despite having absolutely no idea that Wilde was not heterosexual.

There are people who claim to love the works of Franz Kafka. They talk about their love for The Castle or The Trial, but they know almost nothing about German bureaucracy in the decades leading up to the rise of the Nazis. They love The Penal Colony, but they have never read The Bible in depth. They love The Metamorphosis, but they have never witnessed the slow decline of a person suffering from a serious disability or a chronic illness.

A lot of people love Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture despite not knowing what was happening in the year 1812.

There are people who are converted to Islam upon reading The Qu’ran, but who have never read the Old Testament. There are people who read The Bible and are converted to Christianity without having ever read about the competing religions of the period and the area, without having studied the Torah and Talmud.

I have encountered folks who quote Gandhi fondly, even though they’ve never been to a remote Indian village and have no thorough understanding of the lives lead by the lower castes there. Nor have they ever fought for freedom under a genocidal occupying government. And their closest frame of reference is the disadvantaged groups they’ve seen in North America. That’s the kind of thing that they think Gandhi was talking about.

I once met a woman who traveled to remote and poverty-stricken villages in Latin America and then came home to the comfort of her house, her smart phone, her law degree, her steady income, and her habitual drug use, and told me with a straight face, “I really envy their way of life.”

I asked her why. She told me that she thought their lives were simple.

Never before has so much human knowledge been placed in the hands of virtually everyone. The result is that anyone can start learning at any point in the stream. We can hear The 1812 Overture before we learn about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. (Some of us don’t even know that it happened.) We can be assigned to read a story like The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde without ever having been taught about bipolar personality disorder. We can watch Hollywood films like The War of the Worlds without having to confront its Marxist thematic elements. We can convert to religions in absence of any understanding of their historical contexts or supporting-but-peripheral canon.

We can espouse the political or philosophical beliefs of people from distant times and places without having to bother about understanding how those beliefs, when initially proposed, were influenced by the specific context in which they first arose. We can think and learn anything in absence of context, of a correct frame of reference, because the information is simply everywhere, and readily available on a smart phone.

And, so long as we talk about them theoretically rather than in their original context, we can completely redefine what the intent of those theories was in the first place.

It all depends on our frame of reference.

“Me” and “We,” Where “We” Is “Thee”

CHRIS: I think we ought to do more to help the poor.

PAT: So do I!

CHRIS: How can that be? Just yesterday we were talking about a proposal to tax the 1% more heavily in order to fund poverty relief programs, and you said you opposed that plan.

PAT: I do oppose that plan. What does that have to do with anything?

CHRIS: Well, evidently you oppose at least one thing we can do to help the poor.

PAT: Well, hang on. You just said you thought we ought to do more to help the poor. Now you’re saying that you think someone else ought to do more to help the poor…

CHRIS: What I meant was that I think we as a society ought to do more to help the poor.

PAT: I see. I agree with that, too. Only, now I have question: Don’t you consider yourself a part of society?

CHRIS: I most certainly do.

PAT: I thought so, but then why, when talking about what we as a society ought to do for the poor, did you choose to single out a group to which you do not belong? Don’t you think you, personally ought to do more to help the poor?

CHRIS: I give what I can, but the wealthy could afford to give much more than I can give.

PAT: Yes, that is probably true. However, you said before that you thought we as a society ought to do more for the poor. Upon clarification, I now see that what you really meant was that you personally cannot afford to do more for the poor, but someone else can, and so you feel that they ought to. You began by talking about “us,” but what you really meant was “them.” Why did you say “we” when what you really meant was “they?”

CHRIS: We are all part of society, all of us. If we want to enjoy a society in which all of us has the opportunity to flourish, then we must all meet our ethical responsibilities. Because the wealthy are part of our society, I include them whenever I say “we.”

PAT: Chris, are you okay? I thought you were doing pretty well for yourself. You have a nice job and seem to be making a comfortable living. You even have some money left over to donate to charity. Are you not flourishing?

CHRIS: Wait, what? Of course I’m flourishing; I have a great life.

PAT: Well, doggone it. Now I’m really confused.

CHRIS: I didn’t think it was a very complicated concept. What seems to be perplexing you?

PAT: Well, before, you were saying that “we” ought to do more, but what you really meant was a group of “us” to which you don’t belong. But just now, you said you thought we all had to meet our ethical responsibilities in order for all the rest of us to enjoy the opportunity to flourish…

CHRIS: You don’t seem to be confused to me, Pat.

PAT: Well, hang on. When you say that we need to meet our ethical responsibilities, you obviously mean that the wealthy ought to do more to help the poor, right?

CHRIS: Right.

PAT: But “the wealthy” doesn’t mean you.

CHRIS: Right.

PAT: And since you say you have a great life, then that means “the poor” doesn’t mean you, either.

CHRIS: Well… right.

PAT: So then when you say that you want all of “us” to flourish, you mean that you want someone other than you to gain something contributed by someone else, other than you.

CHRIS: Yes, so?

PAT: So, you keep saying “us” and “we,” but in no case do you actually mean to refer to yourself. I know you and I have disagreed on politics in the past, but I never expected us to disagree so profoundly on the meaning of the words “we” and “us.”

CHRIS: Come, now, Pat. Don’t you think you’re being a little obtuse? I’m talking about making our society a better place. We all live here, rich, poor, and average. We should all accept some level of responsibility for the society in which we live, and we should all strive to provide the foundation of a better polity. That naturally means that some of us will be beneficiaries and some of us will be benefactors. Because I’m doing okay, I make a point of donating what I can, and I never make a point of accepting a donation I don’t need. But those who are doing much better than I am should give more, and those who are worse off than I should be given more. But we’re all part of the polity.

PAT: I agree with all of that. All I’m saying is that you’re not really talking about “society” or “the polity,” you’re talking about what should happen to people other than you. Even worse, you’re talking specifically about people who have different characteristics than you have. Some of them give more, some of them receive more, but none of them are you. Let me ask you another question: Would you say you belong to the same society as “the 1%?”

CHRIS: I see where you’re going with this. In one sense, I belong to the same society they do because we are all part of the same polity. But in another sense, we don’t exactly hang out in the same social circles, so I guess I don’t belong to their society per se.

PAT: Neither do you hang out with the poor, Chris.

CHRIS: That’s true, too. But we all belong to the same polity, meaning we are all subject to the same government and the same laws. So when I was talking about that progressive tax increase, I meant that this is a policy everyone within the same polity should support.

PAT: Well, I still disagree with you there, but I think you probably know now that my disagreement has nothing to do with “society.”

CHRIS: Of course it has nothing to do with society, Pat. It’s rational self-interest. You’re rich. You don’t want to pay more taxes.

PAT: Wait a minute. That means that when you first said “we,” what you really meant was… me?

CHRIS: So it would seem.

PAT: Why didn’t you just say so in the first place? You made it sound like you wanted to help. And remember, I initially agreed that you and I ought to do more. You never intended to do more for the poor.

CHRIS: I guess it doesn’t sound very nice when you put it that way. I only wanted to make an agreeable case for our helping the poor… er, I guess for your helping the poor. Look, I’m sorry for putting it to you in an offensive way. I really didn’t see it that way.

PAT: It was an honest mistake. We’re friends, apology accepted.

CHRIS: Well, now I feel a little awkward. Let’s talk about something else.

PAT: Okay, sure.

CHRIS: I think we ought to treat women more fairly…

Theory and Practice, Episode Four


If you spend any time at all thinking about moral philosophy, eventually you face a set of difficult questions. Some of these are:

  • If making ethical decisions comes down to learning and applying the correct moral framework, why do people disagree about morality at all?
  • Couldn’t we just sit down together, discuss The Virtues, or whatever, determine what the most virtuous action is, and proceed accordingly?
  • Why, even after acting in accordance with our moral philosophy, do we still face doubts and even regrets about what we’ve done?
  • And so on.

There are a few possible explanations for all of this. One might be that, while the Virtues (or our preferred moral philosophy) are perfect, human reasoning is not. Another might be that truth is untruth in the moral realm as much as elsewhere. Still another might be that morality is subjective. Or, more radically, perhaps morality is a psychological illusion or a sense of self-justification we instigate ex post facto.

But I gravitate to another explanation: Moral reasoning is a skill that must be practiced and perfected.  Continue reading “Theory and Practice, Episode Four”

So You Live In A Rape Culture: Now What?

Paul’s recently proposed definition of the term “rape culture” is a worthy attempt at explaining to those who require such an explanation that the cards are stacked against rape victims in today’s society.

One challenge with his definition, however, is that it seems to indicate that if you are a human being, you are someone who lives in a rape culture. Any difference between the cult-like sexual mutilations that occurred during Rwanda’s genocide, India’s ability to produce horrific gang rapes on public transportation (in addition to thousands-a-day public gropings), and jokes about prison in the United States is not a difference in kind, according to Paul, only one of degree. Welcome to Planet Earth: Rape Culture.

I think Paul’s hope is that it will dawn on some how bad things are for rape victims, even right here “at home,” so to speak. I he hopes that his audience, upon consideration of his definition, will be moved to alter their behavior. However, there are a few reasons why I don’t think this is likely.

The first reason is that there is probably a category difference between “people who would use the phrase ‘rape culture'” and “people whose behavior needs to change.” To the extent that I am right about this, then the phrase “rape culture” provides no benefit that the phrase “your behavior needs to change” does not already provide. (It’s unlikely to me that a person who regularly engages in the behaviors that comprise Paul’s definition will change his mind solely because his behaviors have now been identified as “rape culture.”)

A second reason I don’t think Paul’s proposed definition will sway people is that there is cry-wolf effect involved. What I mean is, despite the fact that there is lots of room for improvement, life in the Western world is pretty good – even, or perhaps especially, by comparative rape culture standards. If someone lives in a pretty-good culture, but is told that they live in a rape culture, it’s possible that they will become desensitized to Paul’s claim. A phrase, once used for shock value, cannot be reused for shock value; we can only be shocked by it once. Afterward, it becomes “another one of those aggressive terms social justice warriors use,” like “greed culture,” “victimhood culture,” or essentially, Anything-That-Needs-To-Change Culture. It blends in with the other things being shouted at us and we no longer give it specific attention, even though it is indeed a matter that deserves our attention.

A third reason I don’t think Paul’s definition will persuade people to change their mind is because ordinary people – especially those most likely to be unwittingly misogynistic – don’t tend to think in the terminology of academic philosophy or feminism. So, to them, being told that they live in, and might be passively propagating, a “rape culture” feels like they are being accuse of something. If there is anything less effective at changing someone’s mind than immediately putting them on the defensive, it’s seemingly accusing them of one of mankind’s most heinous crimes.

As an important side-note to this third point, there is a growing body of journalism that seeks to call attention to false accusations of rape. Imagine what impact it must have on Average Joe when he sees victims advocates calling his culture a “rape culture” in one place, and making actually false allegations of rape elsewhere. Needless to say, Joe would not be convinced.

What Paul has managed to do, however, is provide a list of serious grievances that any sufficiently introspective person will find non-contentious. The content of Paul’s list is basically indisputable, as his many citations ably demonstrate. I believe his list functions as an excellent starting point for identifying problematic aspects of cultural behavior and attempting to correct them. To that end, I feel his invocation of the term “rape culture” works against his objective – an objective with which I most assuredly agree.

Theory and Practice, Episode Three

Maybe it was a bad idea to cite an acerbic guy like Lubos Motl. When a guy says that a lot of questions are just stupid, that’s not exactly “sweet talk.” Motl has an important point, but I won’t defend his tone.

He did take the time to outline exactly what he means when he says “stupid questions,” and not only does that definition not apply to Adam, it is also fully consistent with the Gadamer quote Adam gave us. In fact, I am as surprised that Adam would quote an argument in favor of authentic dialogue as a response to a criticism of inauthentic questions as I was when Samuel quoted a Situationist to critique my endorsement of Situationism.

Clearly there is a gap between what I think I’m saying and the message I actually manage to convey. And clearly this gap is caused by me because it keeps happening, and I am the common denominator. Motl might be wrong for his aggressive tone, but at least he gets his point across. No such luck for me. Even when my fellow Sweet Talkers agree with me, they think they disagree. Continue reading “Theory and Practice, Episode Three”