Anti-Immigration Anonymous

My name is David, and I’m Anti-immigration.

“Hi, David.”

Well, not anti-immigration, I’m against illegal immigration, seeing as how when I immigrate, I do it legally. And this is no small point: I commute to Canada from New York three or four times a week to pursue happiness there; I have happiness in two countries, and I’m taxed in both countries, and, in the extremes, I’d gladly take up arms to defend the institutions of both, unless, finally, the US tries to take Canada, which would be mutually beneficial anyway, so that’s a moot point (right: let’s see you pay the bridge tolls day after day, week after week, year after year). Moreover, the Canada-US border is sealed tight as an old Tupperware container: not even air crosses the border without accredited paperwork. The grayed locals pine for the old days when crossing the border involved no more than a wave and a nod from the border patrol.

This is my commute. Life is cruel, isn't it?
This is my commute. Life is cruel, isn’t it?

I suppose some of my attitudes stem from this anecdotal reality. And when Sam Wilson published a couple of jeremiads (his word), wherein he had the temerity to call me a “Republican,” I dismissed his arguments as so much more kayfabe, just more browbeating because I didn’t love the “children.” As I mentioned to him, as tenuously as possible, from my perspective on the border, the children are, unfortunately, the folding chairs in a high-stakes wrestling match. Life is cruel, not me.

However, he recently published a more measured review of the situation, and a few things he wrote caused me to realize that my attitudes were not aligned with what I believe. To be sure, I care not one whit about the economics of the thing; I care about the cultural aspects, namely our institutions, which seemed to be good once upon a time, then under constant assault, and now crumbling. Will a river of low-skill poor people not wash their facades away into the ever-consuming yesteryear?

Indeed, what if they do? I actually believe that it is good for institutions to come crumbling down, in due course, of course, not in a violent revolution. People rebuild them, not gods; they will not be perfect, cannot be perfect. Yet when we rebuild our institutions, we are attentive to mistakes of the past, are we not? As I keep saying, in real life, to myself, to my wife and children: the little boys and girls must die in order for the men and women to rise up to meet their end, their telos. It’s a pretty hard thing to do, especially since we have a propensity for childishness.

This one from Sam struck at the child in me: “The myth of the criminal immigrant is just that: a myth. The laws that ‘illegal’ immigrants break are the ones written specifically to target them.”

If I really believe that all our institutions are under everlasting construction, which requires controlled demolition, then I must bring my attitudes about “illegal” immigration into alignment with my beliefs. Unfortunately, as a part of my daily life, I am caught up in the actual process of immigration, which is paternalistic, nay, maternalistic, which, in turn, makes me into an enraged little boy.

Ethics in the Here and Now

AB’s post gets at the heart of why I’m hesitant to concede the point that it’s all about darwinian fitness or pleasure or utility. In the moment, or even for making and sticking to long term goals, no one asks “which goal will maximize my darwinian fitness?” Even people who strongly believe a darwinian narrative with regard to morality rarely (if ever) rely on such a narrative to make choices in their own lives.

And how could it be otherwise? Fitness is prospective, we have no idea what’s going to maximize it. Some might argue that AB’s choice 1 is the best route because it’s tried and true. But some version of choice 2, where we jump from bed to bed, might result in having many more kids and thus increasing your odds of having high darwinian fitness Genghis Khan-style. The number of strategies that could plausibly fit into the rubric of darwinian fitness is unhelpfully large, and in practice often boils down to rationalizing what traditions already bias us towards valuing. Not that that’s any great critique of darwinian ethics—most ethics seem to boil down to that sort of rationalization.

I think it is possible to say that our preferences and ideas about ethics were shaped by darwinian processes without making those processes our final end, our telos in Aristotle’s sense of what we must order our life as a whole around. When we look at what sort of creature humans are—the nature of which was, once again, determined by evolution—we see that they rely on one another for examples of virtuous behavior. As Protagoras said thousands of years ago, we constantly learn from and teach one another right and wrong throughout our lives. It is within this frame that AB’s question can be answered, not from some reductionist consequentialist that tries to crush down the vagueries and richness of human experience into something like darwinian fitness or pleasure.

As Daniel Estrada once put it in response to this dialogue, there are questions about science and then there are questions about practice and action (praxis). They are not disconnected but the conclusions of the former do not necessarily help us inform the latter.

The utility of inherent thinking

I wake up in the morning and there’s four things I could do-

  1. Get someone pregnant and otherwise prepare for raising happy and healthy babies.
  2. Spend my money on hookers and blow at a rate that maximizes some utility over a given lifespan.
  3. Put a bullet in my head.
  4. None of the above, but continue to exist in a day to day fashion.

Does anyone have a suggestion for how I might weigh the costs and benefits of these courses of action? They’re mostly exclusive (especially #3) and time is limited, so I have to pick one and only one (at least for today).

The key to answering this question of course depends on your values. Do you value parental satisfaction, short-term pleasure, the immediate cessation of difficulty and pain, or just avoiding decisions entirely? No one can answer this for you, and there’s no moral framework. Because your existence is a given, and time moves forward, you are here and you must decide what to do.

Once you have a goal there are many useful heuristics can help you achieve it, but the picking comes first. Or as my old scoutmaster might say, a compass can get you home, but only you know which home to walk towards.


Instrumental or Inherent

I want you guys to help me out with something, which I’ve been struggling with lately. Is there such a thing as something being good in itself? Is all value in some way derived from either evolution or some version of felt satisfaction and pleasure, or both? Does this question even matter?

Of course, at the end of the day there has to be some final good or goods in order for anything to have instrumental value. By definition, something being instrumental means its value is derived from its ability to serve as a means to some valued end. In other words, the value is from the end.

But a lot of people feel that pleasure and its more healthy cousin satisfaction are not good enough (not satisfying?) as ends. And a lot of people recoil at the idea that it’s all just derived from what enables effective reproduction across generations (which is what any evolutionary account boils down to).

This was on my mind again today as I read Rupert Read and Nassim Taleb’s paper on religion as intergenerational risk management. Taleb’s whole worldview, the thing that has made him famous, is entirely consequences-oriented: if you don’t think in terms of bounds rather than attempting to master probability distributions you can’t actually know, a black swan will come and kick your ass and your loved ones’ asses and your civilization’s ass and probably the ass of the whole human race. His arguments are given their bite, in short, by the threat of catastrophic consequences.

Yet Taleb says left and right that we should only do things because it is our duty to. He is clearly some kind of deontologist with a fondness for virtue ethics, especially the Stoics. But should we do our duty because of the categorical imperative, which is indifferent to consequences, or because it is the right thing to do, in itself?

It seems to me that there is no getting around the fact that human morality emerged through the evolutionary process, and any morality that results in the destruction of the peoples who adopt it is unlikely to last for long. It also seems to me that you should do the right thing even when it might mean very bad consequences, at least in the short term. I’m not comfortable making the logical leap from there and saying that the right thing inherently means doing what has the best consequences in the longest term and the largest scale.

I have more thoughts on this, but I’d rather leave it as a question now than attempt to answer it any further. All thoughts are welcome.