Common Sense Ethics

A significant aspect of the study of ethics is that ethical experimentation is an entirely mental and rational activity.  No laboratory is required, simply a rigorous and serious application of thought.  Why then, I am inclined to ask, do so few people consider ethics at all in their daily lives?  Ethics is essentially an attempt to answer the basic question: “What should I do?”  I don’t mean should in the general sense, but in the sense that the speaker is asking what good truly is.  A vanishingly small fraction of the population takes any time at all to analyze their ethical framework or meta-ethical processes, which is a shame because it’s a faculty that is available to you at all times.  You would think that some people would consider it, if for no other purpose than that they’re bored and want something to think about or discuss.  Instead, most people simply absorb the ethics that are heaped upon them in the form of societal common sense, and run into the sign “stop thinking here” and obediently and immediately cease extending the field.

Common sense makes a great starting point for ethical discussion.  For example, there is the stereotypical children’s ethical mandate of not stealing, learned at a very early age and forcibly conditioned into each and every one of us.  However, it is the role of moral philosophers to question every last scrap of ethical knowledge we have, and to generalize to create rules that apply to reality in as broad a way as possible.  In the case of stealing, it turns out that it’s fairly easy to prove it’s immoral.  Let’s assume theft is moral.  So, by stealing something, I am claiming the rights to property, while at the same time denying the right of someone else to that same property.  Contradictory, and infeasible, so theft is immoral.  Even though this proof is so simple, nobody really thinks of morality in these terms.  Ask someone why theft is bad and they’ll be confused, maybe spluttering back “because it is” or some similar platitude, or maybe regurgitating some quote they heard that sounds like a plausible explanation.

The truth is that a great deal of our common sense ethics is flawed.  Now, most people know this.  In fact, a great part of our education is growing out of our common sense ethical paradigm.  Unfortunately, most modern and postmodern thinkers look at the flaws in common sense ethics and conclude that there can be no ethics, and that everything is relative.  And because common sense ethics, unextended, creates a fertile soil for extreme relativism, most students are fully prepared to accept these ideas because it rings true for them.  We can’t judge another society because we are simply using one cultural standard to judge another, yada yada yada.  In a way this is true, and in a way it isn’t.  This elaborate construct of confusion is presented as the postmodern crux used to conclude that meaning is relative, nothing means anything, ethics are all gray and confusing, we should just live out our lives, yet at the same time you’re special adding a second layer of confusion and there are still more on top of that.  It’s a morass.  Anyway, I am here to say that ethics do make sense.  The world is not inherently a confusing and shades-of-grey place.  True, there are lots of situations where what you should do is difficult to decide.  On the one hand is ethics, and on the other is raw utility which does in fact have ethical significance (more on this later).  Maybe you have to choose which of a number of equally deserving groups should receive your help.  These are all tough choices, but they’re not ethically rigorous choices.  You are not ethically constrained in all situations of your life because in such situations you can usually use a different decision metric to arrive at a more representative conclusion.  For example, when deciding the best way to build a house, an architect isn’t asking what is the most ethical way to make the building not collapse- he’s dealing in structural analysis, and stress, loads, tension, compression, etc. etc.  He’s not ethically constrained in how he should build the house, and is free to use another, more useful, model.

One of the most serious misapplications of ethics is the distortion of what value or utility actually is.  Firstly, utility is simply a mental construct used to formalize the exchange of value.  The concept of utility does not exist in reality, therefore utilitarianism will always default to the subjective perception of the decider.  There is no objective, universal analysis of what utility is.  The idea that there is will truly mess up any model that uses a utility metric (or, all standard-type decision making models).  Secondly, utility is always convertible.  You can convert X utility into anything.  There are a number of common sense ethical fallacies, such as that human life is somehow worth a “different sort of stuff” than other ethical concerns.  True, human life is extraordinarily valuable, and pinning a utility value to it is probably one of the most difficult ethical problems, but it does have a price tag, because utility is subjective.  The idea that ‘human life’ and ‘other stuff’ are inherently unexchangeable contradicts what happens every day, when people kill one another for the sake of causes, or hit men killing people for money, or euthanasia.  To say that human life is infinitely valuable, and can only be meaningfully compared relative to other human life, produces an extremely convoluted ethical meta-model and decision making model.

Perhaps this analysis sounds a little cold.  OK, let’s have a thought experiment.  I present you with a button.  If you press this button, you will receive $1 billion in cash, immediately.  There is a warehouse through that door behind you stuffed with hundred dollar bills, and it’s all yours if you press this button.  The catch is, hoho, that there is a 1 in 1,000,000,000 chance that someone will die if you press this button.  There is a 1 in 1 billion chance that you will have murdered someone to get filthy rich yourself.  Do you press the button?  Is it ethical to press the button?  If you could press it any number of times, how many times would you or should you press it?  Bear in mind that if you press it a billion times, your expected value is 1 person killed in exchange for $1.0 x 10^18 dollars.  That would be, just to print it out for you, $1,000,000,000,000,000,000.  A billion billion dollars, more money than exists in the world right now.  You would literally be able to buy the entire planet if you were so inclined.  Any thoughts?

Here is my analysis of this problem.  You may press that button as many times as you like, up to an infinite number of times.  Now, when dealing with extreme limits, weird things happen, so don’t tell me that I would kill an infinite number of people by doing that- we’re dealing with practical reality.  For example, when you drive to work, what is the risk you are running of killing someone in return for getting to work for one day?  And you are actually having to work for your day’s pay, so your value from arriving is thereby reduced.  If you could just press this button and earn your day’s pay, you have just drastically cut down your fatality footprint on the world.  As the days you drive to and from work approaches infinity, how many people have you killed versus using the button?  Yet we have no moral problem with putting our fellow man at risk when we can just ignore the risk because it isn’t in our interest to cause harm.  Because it is assumed that you don’t want to get into an accident and that you’re trying to avoid one, we ignore the risk of causing one for practical, common sense ethical issues.  Therefore, driving a car is considered perfectly moral, while pressing the button causes a little anxiety.  Now, if you still don’t accept the button concept, let’s play with the numbers.  What if it was a trillion dollars and a 1 in a trillion chance of killing someone?  What if the odds were astronomically small, like 1 in 10^20?  What about 1 in 10^100?  If you believe that human life has an infinite value relative to earthly things’ finite value, you may not press the button as long as the risk of killing someone is nonzero.  So you are condemned to a bubble-life where you never see, talk to, or touch anyone, ever since you might give them a disease.  You will never operate machinery or pick up things you might drop on them, you may never do anything on the grounds that there is some impossibly small chance that you may cause measurable harm to another person.  If you wanted to really push the boat out here, we might say that according to quantum mechanics, you have no guarantee that the statue of liberty’s atoms won’t vibrate in just such a way as to cause her to take a walk down Broadway.  I don’t even want to think about how ridiculously, insanely unlikely that is.  However, that means that morally, you have no right to exist, because there is always some freakishly obscene chance that your atoms will all decide to explode, or that pencil you’re holding will morph into a knife and fly across the room, etc. etc.  And as long as the probability is nonzero, you can’t risk it.  Let’s not even get into the issue of the relative value of life.  Do apes count?  Monkeys?  Cats?  Clams?  Microbes (on whom you commit genocide on a daily basis)?  Why are you assigning such insane values to human life, other than the fact that you want to neurotically control other humans to protect yourself?  Are you that terrified of someone deciding to kill you?

Moral codes are the most frequently used tool to control people’s behavior, and they’re especially good for doing so on a mass scale.   Religion is basically a systematic attempt to control the morality of a large group of people.  In order to best hold on to power, a religion is best served by shutting down the rational capacity of its believers, and it has the perfect vector to do so to those already ensnared.  I’m not going to get into this too much right now, but a moral code that shuns rationality is basically codified obedience to authority, and if you’re already caught by that authority, they have the power to make you reject all other authority, no matter what your religion’s leaders or followers may do.  The idea that all morality flows from faith is absurd if you think about it for two seconds, and that’s what makes religion so powerful.  By citing the sacred versus the profane- very deep voodoo parts of the human mind for exalting and villifying- you can come to any conclusions you like by direct association.  We have the power of hypochondriasis, and can become holy rollers, being possessed, speaking in tongues, we can produce whatever magical effects desired given the right motivation and stimulus, which then feeds the demon that produces those effects.  You can make people shun thinking at all, it’s so powerful.

The second major ethical issue I want to address is the idea of truth.  Now, people say things like “lying is bad.  Never lie.”  Well, if you think about it, why?  Why is telling somebody something that is not true an immoral action?  OK, first of all, by what standard is something true?  Statements in English will have many standards which will be necessary before they will be true.  They must be grammatically, syntactically, and semantically correct, they must refer to objective or subjective reality as appropriate, they must speak about something which exists, make a declarative statement which introduces new information or refers to definitions, and cannot be self-referential, circular, or contradictory.  We have just outlined the nature of propositional statements only.  What about questions, commands, or interjections?  I know I’m talking in a way similar to people who talk as if there is no real truth, but that’s not what I’m saying.  There is indeed a real truth, and we can know it, but to say that it is a moral imperative to share that truth does not follow from those premises, and one of the reasons it does not follow is that the methods by which we understand the world are themselves suspect.  I am saying that the idea that “Statement A will be either true or false” is a meaningless statement.  While the real world has truth values, language and the human experience is subjective and relativistic.  I can experience the world very directly and assume it’s valid.  However, if I say a true statement to someone else, they have no way of knowing that my subjective reality is valid, just from my statement that it is so.  This refers back to the nature of consciousness.  I know that I’m conscious.  But I have no way of knowing that you are, or that anyone else is.  I assume so because I know I am, and you look and act in a way that is quite similar to me (relative to, say, a monkey, a tree, or a lump of quartz).  If there were some way to directly share consciousness, then we would be the same person with twice the mental hardware and be left in the same quandary relative to everyone else.

Back to truth.  Basically what I’m saying is that you cannot utter statements which can be objectively true because they are statements- they are a representation of reality which must necessarily occlude and distort information in order to fit into language.  By the same token, you must compress your understanding of reality by editing and distorting information in order to think about it, causing a subjective experience of reality because everyone will do so differently.  That’s all subjectivity means- it’s being encoded differently in each of us.  I realize I haven’t said this before.  Objectivity and subjectivity are not inherently inconvertible either.  Objective reality simply means that it refers identically to reality.  Now, the only way that’s possible is if it is reality, because otherwise it will be a reference or a copy.  Subjectivity is when you have a reference or a copy, and in our case it must necessarily be distorted and cropped in order to be useful.  The reason it’s subjective is because we all edit and crop differently.  In any given moment, we’re paying attention to different things, we’re learning different things, we have different models based on things we have experienced or learned, etc. etc.  If somehow we could all have lossless thought encoding, we would experience an objective reality (although still a reference) and could agree perfectly by citing endless amounts of evidence.  It still wouldn’t be the objective reality, but close enough that the difference is irrelevant.  The hardware required is unimaginable, but it may be possible.  Now, the fact that it’s possible to get “close enough” proves the point that speaking only the truth is not morally required.  You can refer to reality by using a statement which is not true.

I need to clarify here.  When I say that lying is not morally required, I am not saying that lying is morally acceptable.  Attempting to manipulate someone else’s mental model by supplying them with faulty information is just evil.  However if someone asks about an embarrassing part of your life, don’t feel bad about just lying about it.  You have done no wrong.  If you try to steal people’s money by claiming that if they give you $5 today you’ll give them $10 tomorrow and then disappear, or otherwise take advantage of people, you’re not evil because you’re a liar, you’re evil because you’re a manipulative thieving scammer.  Actions, objects, and so on, are all morally neutral.  Knives are neither good nor evil- they are merely an arrangement of atoms.  They just are.  Actions are merely sequences of motion- they just are.  Keep in mind though that words in language tend to combine objective meaning with connotation, secondary motivations, and other bits and pieces.  So when I say stealing is bad, the simple raw action of taking someone’s property is actually morally neutral.  However when we use the English word “to steal” we are saying a great deal more than just that.  We are saying things like 1) the thief has no right to the property in question, 2) the victim is innocent and unwitting, 3) the victim has full and morally legitimate property rights to the item in question, 4) the thief is greedy/lowlife, etc. etc.  Maybe I should have simply gone with the short and simple version instead of appearing to contradict myself by being complete.  Too late now.

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Seizing Property

I just read an intriguing article which talks about Bush’s recent executive orders to enable the secretary of the treasury to seize the assets of anyone who is in any way, directly or however indirectly, interferes with Iraq or Lebanon.  While I agree that this is the utmost insanity, I have a more interesting argument to make than merely discussing the lunacy of the politicians of the day.  Here is a quote from the article linked above:

“While both orders bypass the Constitutional right to due process of law in giving the Secretary of Treasury authority to seize properties of those persons posing a risk of violence, or in any vague way assisting opposition to US agenda”

Oh, so the problem is that the Secretary of the Treasury now can do it without due process.  Meaning that they don’t have to notify you about how they’re just about to freeze and then steal all your assets.  It’s that they won’t permit you to hire a lawyer that this article is bemoaning.  While this is indeed bad, I think we’re all missing the point somewhat.  Shouldn’t the Secretary of the Treasury simply not have the power to just reach out and grab whatever they feel like?  Shouldn’t the government simply be unable to outright steal everyone’s assets?  The offhanded way that this article ignores the fundamental crime that is being committed here is disturbing.

On other current news, the government is handing out $700 billion to banks.  OK, so let me get this one straight.  You reserve the right to steal from citizens at will, and you restrict yourself by having little bits of paper which sometimes say you do, and sometimes you don’t.  However . . .  Unfortunately this makes perfect sense because the average citizen hasn’t the capital to siphon down from the great pie-in-the-sky that is government funds.  Fiscal governments raise barriers to entry.  Laws.  It’s what they do- they make regulations and restrictions, and they throw money around.  The bailout, the executive orders, everything, the whole deal is just business as usual.  Can you imagine how poorly the American government would be doing right now if it were a company?  If citizens had the option to leave and go to a competitor without dealing with the huge barriers to entry which are actually barriers to exit, they would be gone.  All the features the US government offers have become corrupted in recent years, from the Constitution to the balance of powers to the services rendered.  However they don’t care, quite simply because no matter what, they will keep their revenue stream alive.  That’s the purpose of taxes.

I’m going to cite Stefan Molyneux’s example, perhaps again, but I can’t be bothered to check.  Let’s say there’s a paperboy.  He goes from house to house and delivers papers.  Part of his job is to try to sell subscriptions to more houses.  If the paper offers more value to consumers then he sells more papers, and everyone is better off.  The consumer gets the paper, he gets paid, and the publisher makes money.  Now, let’s give this model a twist.  Let’s turn the paperboy into a government force- say the paperboy has the force of arms to walk up to someone’s house and tell them, flat out, that they are now subscribed to his paper and will pay the subscription cost.  He doesn’t care what they do with the paper- they can burn it for all it matters.  But they must subscribe and receive the paper, or there will be consequences.  For example, let’s say he can have them thrown in jail for failure to comply.  In the short term, you’ll see a massive increase in the number of subscriptions.  This looks like a fan-fucking-tastic idea.  True, some people get thrown in jail, but on the whole the economy is being stimulated, and so many more people are getting newspapers than they used to.  They’re keeping up to date, they’re reading, they’re becoming more international.  Of course, the paper no longer has any incentive to print anything at all- they could give out blank sheets of paper for all they care.  They have more subscriptions than ever, and are growing explosively.  If the paperboy is ethical, he might exercise his power to make the newspaper print good stories, but how do you judge that, and are you need boards and standards, and so on…  Of course, the paperboy is making a lot of money since he’s the crux of the operation- or at least him and others like him.  Of course, this puts the paperboy in a powerful position, giving him the option to push hard for more money, exploit his employer, turn corrupt, etc. etc.  Crime- at least, white collar crime, is a result of this crevasse created by the government.  For example, if the paperboy is trying to help people with his power, he might demand that people receive the paper in order to give the publisher more money with which to hire more reporters, editors, etc. to make more and better stories.  So everyone enjoys the paper more, lots of people are receiving it, and everything is just dandy.  This puts our paperboy squarely in the naive liberal point of view.  This is fantasy.  You can’t put the cart before the horse and expect it to go.  You can’t legislate that the machine will work.  You let people who want the machine to work fix it so it goes.  If nobody wants the machine to go- if it’s uneconomical to run it, then it shouldn’t be run anyway.  By demanding that people receive the paper, you’re skewing the incentives to screw over the consumer, or buyer, and thereby alleviate the burden on the seller.  If you expect them not to take advantage of that, you’re stupid.  The way to stop them is to regulate the seller, too, but now that crevasse is widened and you’ve made everyone worse off, and introduced counterproductive protocols and immense complication.  If it gets too complicated, you might even create niches for specialists to help people navigate and cope.  It’s madness.

Can you think of any parallels between this example and, say, the school system?  The stock market?  Other systems or government programs?  Can you guess why they use contractors whenever they actually need to get stuff done, and done well?  I have a thought experiment for you.  Let’s say that the government didn’t issue defense contracts.  Do you think that the defense contracting companies would even attempt to make weapons the way they do when they’re being paid for their effort?  How do they expect to make money?  Do you think these people just want to make weapons, and they would do it anyway even if they wasted millions or billions doing it?  Of course not.  Now, if there was a legitimate reason for those weapons to be built, agreed upon on a sufficiently massive scale to make the general public want to pay for their production out of their own pockets, they could be made.  But I don’t believe a situation like that has ever occurred without being created in the first place by one or more governments screwing their citizens.  I don’t want a company representing me to attack anybody- what a complete waste!  But of course that’s just the point.  The government doesn’t actually represent anybody.  Even if you wanted them to stop representing you, you can’t.  QED, they don’t represent you.  The reasoning behind this is very simple.  Let’s say you’re in a conversation with three other people, and one of them is telling the other two about your opinions.  At any point you can simply declare that person incorrect and retract their right to represent you, granted on a very temporary basis.  If they keep going and say, “No, I represent you.  You don’t get to argue with me,” they are clearly the problem.  I mean, seriously, does anyone actually think this is a sane way to run a conglomerate of millions of people?  At the end of the day, this stuff is truly simple, but so many people are being misled.  Like the “terrorist fist jab,” it would be hilarious, if it weren’t so sad.

Conservatives

Keeping the more progressive sections of the populations from running off into whatever fad madness strikes their fancy.  Without them, we would waste countless resources every year reacting to every whim or fashionable cause to grace the earth, and we would waste ourselves uselessly.  Of course, if you actually let them push their own policies they can range from pointlessly restrictive to outright draconian or criminal by today’s standards.  The design of most modern governments deliberately incorporates a slow-down mechanism.  For example, the American government’s House of Representatives can be subject to large and sweeping change with the times because each representative sits for two-year terms.  If public opinion sways massively enough, half the house could be toasted in one cycle.  On the other hand, the Senate features six-year terms, putting the brakes on any movement without sufficient staying power to stick around to replace senators.  To go even further, the Supreme Court is appointed for life by the President of the day, so justices can put the brakes on movements decades later using mindsets that are hideously out of date and out of touch.  Some might say that they counteract the impulsiveness of electoral politics because nobody has the power to remove them and can act impartially.  While these are all good points in the design of a governing body, and I believe that the American government was, in its day, the finest form of government that 1776’s brightest could create.  I am not going to go off on my usual tack of how these same design features could work for a non-coercive power such as a DRO, and indeed these types of traits are one of the main reasons to choose one DRO over another.  However, I am instead going to analyze the nature of government today in a more conventional fashion.  To say the least, times have changed.  The old system of government really is out of date.  The world is changing faster than the government can accommodate.  Technology is the greatest and most prevalent difference between the age of governments- there was a large string of revolutions around the time of the American revolution- and the modern world.

First, let’s talk about the effect of technology’s dramatic extension of our life spans.  Firstly, the minimum age for office in the United States varies but generally it’s about 30 or so, maybe a little older.  Convention often requires a few more years.  Google tells me the average lifespan in 1776 was 33 years.  Now, keep in mind that this factors in infant mortality, so children who live through the first year or two would probably live to be much older than 33.  Let’s say for the sake of argument that the average adult in average health around the time of the American revolution would live to be about 50 or 60.  if you could expect to live to 55 then that meant you had about 25 years in office before making way for the next generation.  While that’s a long time, it’s manageable.  The turnover is approximately the same length as one generation, about 20 years.  Today, however, the average lifespan in the US is known much more precisely to be 78.14 years.  Also, let’s not forget that the infant mortality rate has lowered dramatically in the last 300 years to just 6.3 per 1000 live births, so that number is much more reflective of the actual age of the population.  So now the possible political impact over time of any given person is increased from a scant 25 years to a full 50, if not more.  Especially in the case of Supreme Court justices, they can live to be even older than 78 and further extend their influence.  The median age in the US is now about 38, or 40 years behind the life expectancy.  I would like to note here that this effectively sets the political decision-makers back as much as two generations from the modes of the age, rather than less than one.  This gap is more significant if society is changing rapidly because being behind will produce behavior that seems irrational and ridiculous.  I’m not being unkind here, I’m simply stating that actions that seem reasonable to a mind which is perceptually based in a time that is sufficiently different will make poor decisions.

My basic point here is that while a small restraint on the whims of today are a good thing, yet too much restraint will produce a resistance to the needs of the modern world, a stubborn refusal to accept reality that will cause serious problems.  The important thing to realize about at least some of the old-fashioned, outdated generational phenomena is that the new phenomena exist for a reason.  At least, the ones that we care about.  Fads or the awesomeness of anything are insignificant and while there may be a reason it’s not a substantive one, it’s a subjective one.  What I’m talking about is stuff like the terror threat.  We don’t need to be afraid- the world is not a scary place.  Virtually all its people want to cooperate with us, not attack us.  The whole threat is just blown so far out of proportion it’s disgusting.  But we’re talking about a generation ago- the Cold War.  This generation is accustomed to having a massive threat hanging over them.  In fact, they probably don’t feel comfortable unless there’s an enemy out there which they can try to defend against or outmaneuver.  Now, if there actually is a massive and frightening enemy out there then that sort of mindset is quite useful.  But if you don’t, the security measures and the paranoid aggression and the “preemptive strikes” against enemies that couldn’t possibly harm you are just insane.  Yet these Cold War babies are the ones running our government, and the people voting them into power are generally about the same.  The young are generally credited with having more energy and are therefore more politically active.  Yet that is simply untrue.  The young adults who actually care are probably about the same proportion of the population as older age groups.  Yet they have a large amount of political pull for two reasons- 1) Their time is cheap.  They don’t have high-paying jobs that require constant attentiveness and leaves them worn out at the end of the day.  And 2) they are generally in line with the zeitgeist of the time because they were raised in it, recently.  The thinking intellectuals of the time tend to flow with the times, they enjoy progress immensely.  Conservatives, on the other hand, are averse to change and risk.  So progressive, liberal, etc. tends to get the young, the academics, and the intelligent.  Conservatives get the uneducated, the super-rich, and those who just don’t know any better.  Once again, I’m not bashing conservatives.  There are a lot of intelligent conservatives, but as a general voting population you have the very successful and intelligent who are very wealthy, and then the trailer park crowd, the rednecks, etc.  Part of the reason why the Democrat/Republican debate is so fervid is that it is by definition impossible to resolve.  This goes a long way towards explaining both parties’ successes.  Republicans tend to be economically and socially conservative, where Democrats are liberal.  Democrats want to give out services and taxes are a necessary evil to fulfill that goal.  Republicans want to get rid of taxes, and the abolishment of services is an unfortunate side effect.  There can be no compromise here in the same way that two sides of a tug-of-war can’t agree to disagree.  When one side wins, the other one must necessarily have lost.
(all numbers in above paragraph courtesy of the CIA World Factbook)

So while being modern is fantastic, it’s vital that we understand why we’re being modern and progressive.  We vet with rational choice which elements are improvements, and which are just madness.  In a way, that’s what I’m trying to do with this blog.  The biggest issue is that everything anyone does has secondary, tertiary, and other ripple effects that nobody can predict.  For far-reaching changes like the invention of a new product or new capacity in technology, or new discovery, the effects are rapid.  For slower phenomena like cultural drift and parenting artifacts, such as the behavioral effects of being raised with a single mother, the effects take longer to take effect, are more subtle, and more enduring.  Older people tend to be conservative because the environment they grew accustomed to, in their opinion anyway, worked well.  Even if they believe it was a nightmare, they still bought into it.  The old guard act as a fallback position.

Think of it like this.  When you’re designing a product you keep meticulous records of everything you try.  When you try something and it works a little bit, you’ve made progress.  You incorporate elements of the improvement into your future experiments.  But if the next experiment doesn’t work at all, you haven’t lost anything because you retain the information from the previous experiment which worked.  In fact, you have gained some critical data which you can use to further discriminate between functional and useless designs to try.  However, due to the term of cultural shifts, this same type of rational analysis doesn’t necessarily take place.  It is possible to go backwards as generations forget or are conditioned into behaviors that a previous generation improved upon already.  In fact, because at certain stages of psychological development we rebel against parental or authority figures, there is a certain subsection of the population that is actively resisting progress and striving to regress at any given time.  If the forces for progress falter substantially, there will be a serious loss of ground into ignorance and barbarism.

Now we arrive at the real issue.  Technology, only a product of the more enlightened sections of society, has the effect of amplifying the regressive parts as well.  The Internet has the effect of strengthening communications and sharing of information, which makes it easier for the regressors to organize and entrench their positions.  Groupthink is strongest among the regressive elements, since rational and intelligent individuals recognize and avoid groupthink communities, and the artificially elevated levels of certainty and social proof that go with it.  I think it’s important to point out right now that the regressive sections of society don’t think of themselves as regressive.  They believe themselves to be seeking the “good old times”- a return to good old American values of family and patriotism and freedom.  It’s the “good old” part that is mistaken.  Historical categorizations tend to be extremely positive, such as the noble savage description of the Indians, or the free-and-easy cowboy reputation of the wild west.  They are all wrong.  There has been progress in virtually every year since the Industrial Revolution, technologically, socially, morally, and in so many other ways as well.  The devaluing of nationalistic and family values is one of those advances.  They were necessary to group mankind together into cohesive tribal groups, but in a global community they are destructive forces which must be overcome.  The hard part of removing them completely is that a majority of the population believes there is a moral imperative behind these principles.  You cannot convince such people that they are incorrect because they will interpret any attempt as an immoral person’s attempt to corrupt them.  Interestingly, they tend not to recognize the same effect in others and believe religious conversion to be effective on its own merits.  They ignore the marketing, conditioning, and manipulative elements of the conversion process.  But I digress.  Anyway, moral imprecations produce circular logic.  That’s their purpose.  You cannot violate a moral imperative and remain a moral person.  Therefore, questioning the limits of morality is itself an immoral act.  I’m not saying it’s a logical conclusion, just that it’s the way moral imperatives work.  Particularly so for religious moral imperatives where there is a power base being challenged by questioning their commandments.

I need to find a way to wrap this up.  My basic point is that conservatives serve as a pacifying force for turbulent times, mitigating the effects of rapid cultural shifts.  However, at the same time and as a result of the same properties, they also resist positive progress.  They slow down the social experimentation that advances society socially, they slow down the scientific experimentation that advances technology, and they slow down the cultural shifts that make lasting change possible.  By the experiment model used previously, they limit how much you can change after each experiment, and limit the number of experiments.  This helps because society doesn’t necessarily remember all the data of previous experiments to reconstruct a perfect fallback position at the latest, most effective model.  This hurts because we could go so much faster if they weren’t around- in either direction.  Progressive elements don’t work like conservatives, however.  When progress is made, the conservative only get that much more fodder with which to feed their conservatism.  Yet when the conservatives regress society, the progressives have fewer tools with which to push forward.  We’ve been caught in such feedback loops before- the Dark Ages were the worst one, broken only by the Black Plague killing a third of the population.  This brought basic survival drives into play and overpowered the conservative elements because it was simple: change or die.  Let’s not get into that situation again.

Intellectual Property’s Conundrum

There has been a great deal of conversation about intellectual property on the internet, with a recent uptick with regard to the IsoHunt incidents and other torrent sites.  In this post I intend to address the root ethical and economic issue imposed by intellectual property in, I hope, an objectve and reasonable perspective.

In order to do so thoroughly, I’m going to start with my own opinion and then the valid arguments of the opposition.  I believe that the modern take on intellectual property is, not to put too fine a point on it, insane.  There are so many gray areas introduced by the current legislation in everything from the right to patent genes that actually exist in people for commercial benefit by those who discovered them, software patent lunacy, etc. etc.  Now, I come pretty close to out and out declaring that intellectual property is foolish because you can’t own information sequences.  But there are certain facts that make this just an unreasonable expectation.

Firstly, there are a large number of very legitimate issues with a truly free information marketplace.  Firstly, there exists information that loses its value if it’s made public.  That said, this doesn’t mean that would-be patent owners should have their rights voided if the patent information is divulged before they apply for a patent.  This represents an impinging of the legal realm onto clear-cut ethics. Also, if we were unable to pay the creators of intellectual property, nobody would do it.  So we would be left without our most important industrial sector- the idea-people.  Artists would have to get “real jobs” instead of being full-time creators, and there would be all these other issues or “brain drain.”  Trade secrets are necessary because they can’t be protected any other way.  If Coca-Cola released their recipe, you could go to the grocery store and pick up enough ingredients to make it yourself.  Without their secret recipe, they have a lot of hardware and workers but nothing to do with them.  Also, copyrights are necessary so the creators are actually the ones who make money off of their inventions.  If anyone at all could steal their knowledge and clone their work, the original creator earns nothing for their efforts.

After all that, I still believe that information should be freer than it is.  There are a lot of people who want to convince you that intellectual property is confusing, has lots of gray areas, and that it’s a difficult problem.  It’s really not, unless you look at it through legal goggles which only let you see the current situation’s madness.  The underlying principles are very simple.  First and foremost, you can’t apply the same conception of physical property to intellectual property as we’ve been trying to do.  It’s trying to creatively fit a square peg into a round hole.  Can’t be done without damaging something, either the peg or the frame.  Just so, you can’t give more rights to the people or to the rights-holders without damaging the other.  At least to me, this indicates that we have erred somewhere, perhaps seriously.  Regarding the above paragraph, all those problems refer to information or processes related to physical products, not information-based products.  Different rules apply.

What can I posibly mean, you say?  Let’s take a look at the preeminent information product: software.  Software is generally treated as though it was a physical product, even to the point that you can go to a store and buy it off the shelf.  This is no longer as true as it once was, but in large part physical media are still the main distribution method.  However, software can be copied without limit.  Anyone can share their software with anyone else, even if you’ve never met or even seen them, using the internet.  So how do software developers react to this dilemma?  They try to lock down their software into a physical form.  They create DRM, use product keys, registration, encrypted channels, etc. etc.

I have a better idea.  How about taking advantage of all the power that this medium has to offer?  Distribute your product at the fastest possible rate you can by giving it away, for free.  Give away your best material, and let everyone who cares pay for the rest.  Software developers have an especially cushy position in this matter, since software requires updates.  Shareware has tried a type of marketing like this using free trials.  But what I’m saying is that the software doesn’t have to be the money-making vector of software developers.  Give away the software, and if enough people start to use it, then you can make money from them in a huge variety of ways.  The easiest way is to simply ask for donations, and this has worked well in the past.  However as a successful large business model, donations limit growth severely.  They also limit the capital available for getting more resources.  As such, donationware works for small businesses, but large companies need a more formal structure.  They could still ask, but maybe they’re too grown-up for that.  OK, how about a subscription model?  If you subscribe to a particular software firm, they give you all their software (which is free anyway), support, updates, additional resources, and even physical products.  This can work, especially for well-established small-medium businesses which have a lineup of software to offer.

All these models share two features.  One, the vendor has to demonstrate value before the customer has to pay for it.  There is absolutely no reason that I would ever pay for a song without having heard it, software without having used it (except on recommendation), and so on.  Movies use previews to give an impression of familiarity and value without actually spoiling the movie.  iTunes shows you a teaser clip of a song to make you feel that you know it enough to buy it.  In this respect, piracy is necessarily a part of information exchange.  In order to sell information, I have to tell you enough to make you willing to pay for it.  Of course, oftentimes that means I’ve told you enough that you don’t even have to pay for it anyway.  This is the conundrum of intellectual property that everyone is trying to wrestle with.  How do you force someone to pay for something they don’t know, or make sure that the vendor gets payment for something they have provided, without infringing on either party.

The bottom line?  You can’t.  It’s a contradiction in terms.  The common approach is to give the information and payment in multiple installments to confirm compliance.  I show you a trailer for free, you pay for it, and I give you the movie/song/game.  In situations like these, the property model is fundamentally broken.  The only reaction is that you can’t “own” it because in order to distribute it, you have to violate your own ownership.  Copyright’s solution is to give people different rights.  This person whom we shall legally deem the Creator, has the rights to duplicate, distribute, and profit from specific works, while the rest of the world doesn’t.  So, we have transformed an information set into a meta-information identity which we attach to its creator and there can be only one of by definition.

The solution is to flatten out the information space.  The information is not an object, and encapsulating it with abstractions and legal jibberjabber won’t change that.  Pirates know it full well.  So the old model of the “product” as the monymaking vector is broken with intellectual property.  So what?  Make the act of producing intellectual property the profit vector.  If you want software from a certain company which needs money to do it, you had damn well better give them the money they say they’ll need from you.  Otherwise, you can’t expect that they’ll produce it.  That’s just hypocritical.  You’re not entitled to the fruit of their labors implicitly.  You can’t expect that they will work for you anyway.  The objective of intellectual property, the intelligence industry, if you will, is to constantly produce new things, not the production of property.  So why not reward that pursuit, instead of treating it as property?  It’s the job of factories to produce stuff, and to the degree they produce stuff, they should be rewarded.  It’s the job of a thinker to think of new, useful things.  To the degree that they think of new, useful things, they should be rewarded.  Not to the degree that the product of their labor is produced.  As a metric of usefulness, that’s just going to need a committee or a court or other legal nonsense to decide if it’s useful, novel, non-obvious, etc. etc.  The ultimate judge of the value of the thinker should be the degree to which people wish them to continue working.  SImple