The Morality of Socialism

For some reason in the news recently there has been a great deal of discussion about socialism, most often with respect to the Obama health care plan. Before I start ripping into socialism as an idea, I think it’s important for me to point out that I see virtually nothing in any Obama policy that smacks of socialism.

Socialism as a theoretical framework is quite simple to disprove on moral grounds- by any classical argument in favor of the inalienable right of property. However, the people who advocate for welfare programs tend to disagree on the grounds that property is not an inalienable right. Moreover, they will argue that there are people who need help, who are unable to help themselves, and that the agency to help them may as well be the government. Especially since the government is in the business of taking responsibility for its citizens. So the issue is not as clear-cut as many conservatives will claim it is. In fact, I would say pretty much everything is more complex and nuanced than any conservative in the media has the neurons to understand. On the other hand, conservatives do tend to be conservative because deductions from moral frameworks make sense to them, where a liberal instead prefers arguments from emotion, relativism, and pragmatism in chaos. This is not to say that the political strategies they use reflects these paradigms, in fact it tends to be the opposite, where conservatives use smear campaigns, evocative language, and outright lies, and liberals use deliberate logical arguments from effect, which are principally arguments from pragmatism. It is somewhat sad that nobody seems able to reconcile theory with pragmatism- it’s not terribly difficult as long as the theory is sufficiently complete and the points where it is flexible are known.

Anyway, modern “socialism” is really a question of whether liberal democratic welfare programs are morally justified. The conservatives throw hissy fits and cry socialism, and the liberals claim it will address the issues. The conservatives claim the government is going to increase taxes to finance wasteful programs, the liberals claim big business is screwing everyone over and Big Daddy government must step in to save us.

First of all, I would like to point out that both sides of the argument are intrinsically linked, like two sides of a coin. Capitalism allows for owners and shareholders to profit from their businesses and holdings, which can through some wrangling be framed as waste. Conversely, the government can take some of the money in circulation through commerce and salary in sales and income tax, and that can be framed as a waste. There is a finite amount of money in circulation, and claiming that it is a waste when party :X acquires it is erroneous. My reason for this is that it is the nature of money to be spent. Government taxes, in large part, recirculate back into the economy because the government pays for services, in very large part to parties in their own country. Similarly, big business takes its money and either reinvests into itself, pays off its suppliers, or ends up in its employees and executives’ bank accounts. It could be said that overseas commerce and outsourcing “leaks” money, but that is absurd. In the act of paying for labor, a service or act of production is purchased in return, which presumably is worth more than the cost of the labor or it wouldn’t be worth making. If this product is then sold, a profit is made, and also the worker now has a little cash to spend which will recirculate. This process in economics is called the multiplier effect, where one dollar actually does a great deal more than one dollar’s work in the course of a year because it changes hands many times. So this issue of “it’s a waste if X acquires money” is really a question over who has control of that money. The one who controls that money has just that measure of extra power. So, which entity would you vest that power in? This is the fundamental question of welfare programs.

Now, as much as it pains the anarcho-capitalist in me to say this, you don’t necessarily want a company as they exist today to handle some concerns. Development of civilization proceeds in many dimensions, not just technological. The invention of the check caused a revolution of the “web of trust” between people and financial institutions. Before that network existed, credit as we know it was inconceivable. It was a recipe for being ripped off, and the economy was locked into a coin-or-barter mode, except between friends. In truth, it’s not as clean as the development of a technology, for example laws against usury and distrust of Jews and all this nonsense. Anyway, my point is that social development of society allows things which could not have happened before in a similar way that technological development does, it’s just as absolute as “the invention of the airplane- 1904- now we can fly!” It is my belief that government is one of those features that has been evolved over time, and whose evolution is not yet finished. At some time in the future we will not need it anymore, but given our current level of societal development and technological capability, it is most likely a necessary evil. This is not to say we should not try to develop past it as quickly as possible.

Karl Marx was unquestionably a brilliant man, although his theories are not exactly the font of human social development. Nevertheless I think he may have contributed at least one very important idea to the body of human knowledge. When the power of production drastically outstrips the wants and needs of an entire society, then we will have a utopia, materially at least, where everyone has everything they want. The social side is a separate issue, and is in my opinion infinitely more important to creating the sort of utopia that all theoretical political science is predicated upon producing. Now the question is, what is the best method of reaching a stage when we have that sort of productive power at our fingertips? Is it welfare programs, or by technological innovation? My favorite new and upcoming technology is rapid prototyping- check out RepRap. This one technology has the power to obviate material products at a stroke, by having a ubiquitous machine that can produce nearly anything. More advanced later versions will follow quickly, using that very device, and we may well have a true make-anything-machine very soon after that. Now, Marx believed that this world would be Communist in nature. I would react that communism is essentially capitalism where money is no longer relevant in day-to-day life. The best explanation for this is that goods and services change hands so easily that the monetary system is not worth its upkeep.

Those who argue that there are people who are poor and destitute need to be helped by the government providing welfare programs are reacting instinctively, their conscience is grating against the injustice. To some extent that’s fine, although it gets a little out of hand when you see this righteous indignation that some people are fabulously wealthy while others are poor. In any reasonable world there will be a set of choices which anyone can choose from, some of which will result in poverty. I don’t mean to say that all poverty is controllable- there are many, many unfortunates who had no opportunity to do anything else. The mentally ill, the handicapped, the people saddled with medical bills unexpectedly, there are all kinds of possibilities for being poor beyond all control. One stance is that the problem then becomes to differentiate between the deserving and the undeserving. My issue with this position is that any judgment on who is deserving and who is not is made by an agent who will lack a clear and objective metric. So whoever chooses to help one or more of these people is excluding others for subjective reasons. The only way this could possibly work is if it is entirely acceptable for those subjective reasons to be valid, and subjectivity is not something a government should EVER mix itself up in, because then corruption and misuse of public resources will run rampant. So private organizations should pick up the slack, offering resources where they can or choose to, and if they exclude someone for subjective or arbitrary or even completely bone-deep-corrupt reasons, it’s not morally nice but it is entirely within their purview. The government, on the other hand, by reserving the use of force restricts itself to a much higher moral standard that is virtually impossible to meet for beings with human-level intelligence, much less a conglomerate of them. A corruption of the use of force is a terrible, terrible moral crime, while a refusal to give alms to a beggar, however deserving, is not a big deal. Any policy the government might use to help the poor is subject to a host of issues stemming from this problem. But then, so does everything the government does, so it’s not like this will deter them.

My central point is that pragmatism at the expense of ethics is a bad idea in the long run, no matter how good your intentions. The poor and the underprivileged are much better served by advancing technology and social progress than by any attempt to simply hand them their daily bread. Now, I would be open to an argument that instituting government health care is itself a push towards social progress, but that is a very different type of argument than nearly all arguments being put forth in its defense, which tend to run something along the lines of “evil insurance companies! government good! Simple solution!” With the other side pretty much barking the reverse, and decrying that the solution is just as simple. It is not simple, and I hope to hear some real arguments for a change, instead of catering to the reptilian brain of people too stupid to think their way out of a wet cardboard box.

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Axiomatic Human Properties

In any philosophy of human nature there are certain parameters of the human condition which are inserted axiomatically. These properties are extremely significant to the formulation of any philosophy governing people, namely ethics and politics, but usually aren’t addressed in a uniform and clear manner. The following elements are single pieces that might be composed together to create complex ethical theories or political philosophies. Simply rattling off a list of beliefs about human nature being one way or the other in reactionary mode is pretty much a waste of time. Connecting them together to create a model that accurately reflects the world, or some piece of it, can be very important to the advancement of human knowledge. Big names in political philosophy like Hobbes, Locke, and Nietzsche have built their ideas up from the same basic elements, but they’ve done it in such a creative, novel, and useful way that reflects the way many people see and interact with the world. I believe that spreading a little understanding about what exactly the building blocks of such thinking can improve the quality of thinking in the US and around the world.

The first and most commonly addressed one is whether people are fundamentally good or evil. This question has so many ramifications for all aspects of any philosophy. If people are inherently evil then it is necessary to use some form of philosophical machinery to control, alter, or ameliorate the evil nature of humanity. This is a totally different viewpoint from someone who believes people are fundamentally good, who doesn’t need their philosophy to do much to control human behavior. Indeed, the entire realm of philosophy, particularly ethics, is more focused on what individuals decide virtue is, and each person can have their own philosophy and you can trust them to be virtuous anyway. Their virtue is given, the philosophy is a result instead of the other way around. If human nature is evil, however, then philosophy must come before human virtue can be achieved, and it is necessary to identify the philosophy most conducive to society and then enforce that point of view on everyone. If they can’t be forced to accept it, they must be forced to at least obey it through the application of laws and punishments. Most political philosophers of sufficient import are in the camp of humans being evil, and most of the governments derived from their philosophy depend upon coercive application of laws and police and courts in order to control their population. Whether people or philosophy come first is the ultimate chicken-or-the-egg question, and its primary embodiment is the debate over whether human nature is good or evil.

There is also a question about whether one man is competent or not, regarding whether one man has great powers available to him or if one man is nothing by himself. It is reasonable to have a point of view where human nature is good, but naturally stupid. This is more akin to the Stoic idea, where everyone has virtue as a driving force. Every murderer has a justification for why they saw fit to commit murder (assuming they aren’t innocent), and they really believe their justification. If they were fundamentally evil, they could care less about virtue. They may still be trying to dress up their actions as virtuous to cynically try to escape punishment, and we arrive at a Chinese Room dilemma of having to verify whether or not someone “really believes” something or if they’re just pretending. In most all cases, however, they truly believe their rationale, despite the fact that it is highly irrational. Murder and other crimes, viewed in a broader context by a rational being, are all stupid, even discounting the additional punishments inflicted by laws. If you lie for your own benefit, then nobody has the incentive to trust you. In the extreme short term, perhaps you don’t care, but if such a person was actually rational they would realize the immense value of having a perfect reputation and rock-solid name can yield far greater dividends for their own success than simply cheating and running. The law is an attempt to make this choice “more obvious” by putting a direct penalty on undesirable actions, making the line of reasoning a little easier for the less rational in the populace.
It is also possible to have a worldview, and this is the particularly sinister Hobbesian or Machiavellian view, that people are both cunning and malevolent. If this is the case, the only recourse is to make people act outside of their nature. Indeed, not only is distrust of everyone to be expected, but there’s no authority to look to for protection who isn’t subject to the same rule- they can’t be trusted, they will seize power and abuse it. Hobbes is the more primitive philosopher, and his answer to the cunning-and-evil dilemma is to put the most cunning and evil of them all in charge, the better to protect the people under the power of the ruler. Obviously he didn’t phrase it like that, but in effect creating a single all-powerful ruler in such an environment will only magnify the problem. Machiavelli addresses the issue more accurately by saying yes, it is the most cunning and evil who will be in charge, and the more cunning and evil he is the better a ruler he will make because cunning and dirty tricks are the best way to get ahead. An extremely pessimistic view, but at least it’s internally consistent. It’s actually very difficult to disprove that argument because it contains within itself its own genesis, but I believe it fails on the grounds that people would shy away from a world like that and attempt to make it a more pleasant place to live in for themselves and others.

Whether people are rational, whether people are social, whether people are natural leaders, natural followers, etc. Indeed, there is always a huge debate over what properties we can ascribe as natural to humans, and which ones are learned or inculcated, and by whom they are or should be conditioned by, whether it’s the parents, the community, the government, the religion, etc. Different philosophers have proposed different traits as being innate, and I imagine that at some point some thinker has claimed each and every imaginable aspect under the sun must be natural and innate. The oldest anachronism of this type is that humans are innately social beings, and indeed this is backed up by recent discoveries in biology, anthropology, and genetics. If we are innately social creatures, then we will congregate into groups and there is no modification you can make to the human condition that will overcome this. You can compensate for it by conditioning behaviors, but the natural tendency will still exist. The idea of human nature is actually a special case of the naturalness argument which argues that people have both a natural ethical decision-making faculty and also makes a statement about the tendencies of that faculty. The argument that there is no such faculty can be used to construct nihilism, pragmatism, and numerous other theoretical frameworks. The same can be said of any given property that you wish to ascribe as natural to humans.

What properties are innate to a person, and what properties can change through the course of their lives. This is a similar issue, but quite distinct, from the question of whether a person has the capability to change themselves, and to what extent such willed self-change is possible, or what properties or aspects can be changed this way. The same question applies to other vectors such as parents, the state, etc. Innateness is distinct from natural appearance in that a property that is innate is dependent entirely on physical (or other immutable) composition. A naturally emergent property is merely said to exist, with no particular emphasis on how or why it is that way. If it’s innate then it is a product of the human physical (possibly soul or spiritual) existence. If it’s not innate then it is acquired at some point over the course of your life. Note that non-innate properties can still be natural. For example, humans lack the capability to walk at birth so it’s not truly innate (I use a philosophically difficult example because this is highly debatable, I apologize, but there is no example of something that is obviously not innate but is natural) but it is natural because it is a naturally emergent behavior. A better example may be language, where it could be argued that a natural faculty for languages in general exists, though perhaps not innate, but the faculty for any particular language such as English is definitely not innate (although it also probably isn’t natural because saying “humans naturally speak English” is obviously wrong. We can get around this by citing a particular unspecified instantiation, such as “Humans naturally speak some language” but this is rapidly becoming too complicated to use as an example).
An argument for extreme nativism puts total emphasis on innateness. The entire course of your development is preprogrammed into you as a baby, and is fully contained within your existence at any point in time. Extreme nativism is a more or less extinct line of reasoning. The opposite end, what has been called “tabula rasa” or “blank slate” is the idea that you have zero internal programming at birth- you are totally blank, and you acquire a mind and life over the course of your life. While this seems a lot more reasonable, purist tabula rasa thinking is also more or less extinct. It’s clear that there is some mixture of the two going on, but exactly how much of each is present is not entirely clear. I dislike this phrasing of the issue, but this debate has been called “Nature vs Nurture.” I hate saying that because nurturing is a natural process- indeed humans have certain parameters for raising children encoded into our genes (preying mantises have different ones…).

Part and parcel of the natural human condition debate is what is mutable about human nature, and what is immutable, which of course form a continuum between hard wiring and total flux. A certain trait might be imparted at birth, but still be changeable such as through changes in gene expression. My hair color is different than it was when I was eight (I was blonde, now I have brown hair) and this is a property that is usually associated with genes and assumed to be immutable. We usually assume that the Nature side of the debate assumes immutability, and the Nurture side likes mutable traits. There is no requirement that these assumptions be the case, but nevertheless they tend that way. It makes intuitive sense because after all, if you were born without a certain trait, it must have been installed at a later time and must therefore be reversible, right? Wrong. Conditioning received as a young child is often highly immutable and tough to change, and mental models touching core beliefs are often very difficult to change as well, even if they are destructive.

The reason why these human properties are axiomatic is that for the most part you can come to any conclusion you like and have it result in an internally consistent model. These are fundamental building blocks from which you can construct any theory you like. While someone may disagree with you on axiomatic grounds, a direct proof of their argument will not be sufficient to disprove or otherwise dislodge your position. As it should be, an argument made from such axiomatic points can be incorrect from premises, or improper in logic, and pushing an alternate position will not influence the impact of an argument made by someone else. There is an immense possible composite-theory space that can be created just from the extremely few basic axioms I have chosen to mention here, and there are many, many, many more that can be used reasonably.

Creationism and Logic

Watch this creationist if you can handle the stupid.

Quite simply the most disgusting display of the stupid virus I’ve seen in a long, long time.  I’m not going to even attempt to address her because it will degenerate into a litany of how incredibly stupid this woman is, such as how Charles Darwin didn’t use no scientific method, or how the entire world appeared fully formed billions of years ago, and how (irony!) unlikely it is for the world to just pop into existence complete with plants, animals, and people.  I will instead try to present a more rational discussion of the argument between atheism and creationism so that both sides can understand why A) 99.9% of creationists have got the stupid virus.  Some of them have it BAD, like this young lady.  B)  Atheism and evolution are not synonymous, but I would venture to bet that all atheists credit evolution with the status as by far the most probable explanation for the origin of life on earth.  C)  Evolution is not a theory of metaphysics, and D) It is possible to have an argument for God that is not dripping with the stupid virus, but it doesn’t look even remotely like the arguments fielded by creationists and religious people today because, as I said earlier, the vast majority of them are outrightly stupid and proud of it.

Firstly, the video link above doesn’t even make a reasonable attempt to represent any of the arguments it claims to attack.  If there was such a person who created an argument along the lines of the one she is outlining, atheists would line up to take a whack at them.  Perhaps because the argument she outlines looks EXACTLY like the creationist argument, only it occurs much earlier chronologically, and there’s no god.  In order to have a reasonable debate, you first have to understand the argument you are taking a stance against.  The only thing worse than a straw man argument is a straw man argument by someone who honestly doesn’t understand that they’re knocking down a straw man.  Then they proudly look to their authority figures like a child who just built a sandcastle.  That wasn’t an argument, that was you creating an argument that has even fewer legs to stand on than your own, and then proceeding to bash it to bits with crummy logic, however the starting proposition was so ridiculous that the audience doesn’t even need the explanation.  The explanation becomes little more than theatre, as priests and missionaries will understand thoroughly if they’re any good at their jobs.  This is not how scientists think, though.  For scientists, there exists some truth which they can find, and which other scientists can similarly find independently.  As a result, as the number of scientists increases, the reliability of their findings as a community will (hopefully) improve as well.  This of course falls flat if there is not an assumption of universality and of equality of function between humans.  By contrast, if the Pope has a direct line to God and everybody else has to talk up the chain of command, the Pope could theoretically run very different experiments than anyone else could to determine the structure of the universe.

Now on to some more substantive concepts.  Atheism is not the same thing as evolution, not by a long chalk.  Atheism is the belief that there is no god.  I suppose atheism could qualify as a theory considering any tests you run for the existence of god return negative, which count as positive proof for the reciprocal argument, but its label is irrelevant.  Atheism is a theological statement.  Evolution is the theory of biology, not theology or metaphysics.  It is the logical result of three factors: 1) a population with differing properties between its constituents, 2) a method for increasing the quantity of that population which draws upon its current members (in most biologies, sex- sometimes asexual), and 3) a method for altering the properties of the population between generations.  This role is also filled by sex, but mutations also have a marginal effect.  If you accept that those three things exist, then evolution as a theory is already a given.  The Bible itself contains enough evidence for evolution in the bloodlines it describes where one family member inherits properties of another.  That’s it, the chicken’s done.  We have evolution.  Evolution as a broader theory explains the immense diversity of life based on small changes in individual species over large timescales which eventually stack up to create significantly different species.  All this bullshit about how “my granddaddy wasn’t no monkey” is A) wrong because whatever ancestor we both inherit from probably looked very different from modern monkeys, B) wrong because such a creature would be a different species entirely from humans, most likely, meaning in the context of the human species identity we are no longer related, and C) wrong because this basically constitutes a failure to accept obvious proof on the grounds that it might discredit you or your family or be otherwise uncomfortable.  This woman is attacking her straw doppelgangers of evolution and atheism like they are synonymous, which is itself an absurd proposition.  Now, atheists being atheists and failing to accept the assertion that God exists because there’s no evidence for it, are shall we say rather likely to also support the theory of evolution considering the immense amount of evidence backing it.  Moreover, religion will oppose evolution because it is a viable and self-sufficient alternative to religion.  Evolution requires no help from God or some other agent to explain the nature of the world, in a similar way that the Big Bang theory requires no God in order to explain the nature of the cosmos.  In similar fashion, the idea that the earth isn’t the center of the universe is, well, was jarring to the religious because it detracts from the earth’s special status as God’s chosen planet.  Even the most stupid-virus afflicted creationist has gotten the picture on that score, however.  Although perhaps I shouldn’t speak so soon because you can find someone prepared to believe anything these days.  Well, if you don’t believe the earth is round and orbits the sun, you are beyond fucking help pal.  The fact that you can’t actually be packed off to an asylum on “religious” grounds I find highly amusing, though.  But if you try anything really psycho with me or mine, expect to get hurt, badly, because I am far smarter than you.

Evolution’s lack of metaphysical explanation is something most creationists cannot understand.  By creationist ideology, ANY assertion about the world must be metaphysical.  Metaphysics has its place, but in day-to-day affairs, metaphysics really doesn’t do much, usually.  This is one of the reasons why creationism can grab people so powerfully, because any assertion about the world at all will require challenging that person’s most basic presuppositions about the world.  By “going to root” immediately, the amount of work required to even consider the thought of a slightly different world is much greater than for a scientifically-minded individual.  A scientist can easily conceive of one specific piece of errata being wrong, while the entire model as a whole being functional. It is entirely possible for us to be wrong about, or flatly not know exactly how every animal evolved from every ancient creature in all of history, but still accept the theory of evolution. For religion, however, any given single aspect of errata must be correct.  Therefore, challenging that single piece of errata will resolve to a challenge of that person’s metaphysics and most basic ideology.  People have died over whether the bread and water taken at communion is the body of christ, or whether it is, metaphorically, the body of christ.  Because challenging any assertion in a religion constitutes a challenge of the fundamental truth of the religion.  In the case of the people who accept the fundamental truth unconditionally, this means only shaking their most deeply-held roots will convince them of even the smallest thing, and such a shaking will likely be effective at completely changing their entire ideology.  This also serves to help a religion by preserving homogeneity among its believers, which is a powerful tool for social pressure based conversions.  The religions that people practiced because they were pleasant and easygoing have all gone the way of the Quakers.  I bring up the Quakers frequently because I think that they are memetically very interesting because they didn’t use the most effective and widely used today methods to acquire converts, and they’re all but extinct now. However, I’m not going into that for now.

Lastly, and this is the topic I intend to focus the most on, is it possible to have an argument for the existence of God that is actually intelligent and reasonable?  Right off, I’m going to say that most of the people who want to prove the Bible and common creationism or most religions that I know of, no.  It is impossible to make a case for a particular religion which includes a text of stories such as the Bible.  Invariably, they are filled to a comic level with contradiction, which by definition cannot exist in reality, among other reasons.  However it is possible to have an intelligent philosophical argument about whether or not there is a God, or even many Gods.  What is a god, and what properties must such a being necessarily have to constitute a god?  If there was a god, how would that change the metaphysics of the world as we know it?  What broad categories of metaphysics require, make possible, or render impossible the existence of a God or gods?

My favorite argument for the existence of God is called the ontological argument, because it’s just fun.  Basically, it goes like this: can you conceive of a being that is all-perfect?  Yes.  Ergo, there exists a God.

Smiling now.  It’s an amazing argument isn’t it?  Short, sweet, and to the point.  Now, it happens to be sound but in a very interesting way.  Basically, on a deeper level the argument is that a perfect being would be more perfect if it exists.  Therefore, an all-perfect being must exist because you can conceive of a being that is all-perfect.  I think this argument is philosophically interesting, but of zero metaphysical consequence, and doesn’t actually prove that there is a god.  It’s pretty easy to poke fun at this argument by parodying it with a pair of children, “Can you think of a big-huge candy bar?”  “Yeah?!?”  “Well, wouldn’t it be even better if it existed?”  “Yeah!”  “Therefore, there exists a big-huge candy bar.”  A fun argument because even atheists who are experienced at arguing against the existence of God will be completely stumped.  Well-read atheists will of course have heard of it and probably be able to call you on using the ontological argument by name.  Now, there are as many writings on why the argument is valid or absurd as there are philosophers, but I think that it’s wrong because it uses a premise-truth paradox.  This is an extremely rare form of paradox whereby the premise creates a paradox whereby if it is true then it must necessarily be true, and if it is false then it must necessarily be false, and there is no other criteria by which you can judge the truth or falsehood of the premise.  So, can you conceive of a being that is all-perfect?  I would say the answer is probably not.  You can create a generic entity and slap the label “all-perfect” on it, but that doesn’t count.

An argument similar to the ontological argument whose name I can’t remember for the moment stems from an interesting application of modal logic, using possible worlds.  Basically, any logician would give you as axiomatic that there exists at least one possible world where some form of something that could be called a God exists.  Jumping from there to conclude that God must therefore exist in all possible worlds because God is omnipresent and all-powerful is one tactic you might use to throw an atheist.  With a little logical discipline they will quickly understand how you’ve cheated them.  Basically, they gave you that there exists some possible world on the grounds that, and this is of course exactly how modal logic is created, that these worlds are global-strength containers that nothing within them can possibly escape from or otherwise influence other possible worlds.  Taking advantage of their generosity in giving you “some form of something that is God” in one possible world to say that because it is omnipresent, it therefore exists in all possible worlds is to cheat on the application of modal logic by putting God in some world that contains all possible worlds, axiomatically, and without the consent of the person you’re arguing with.  Don’t use this, please.  An atheist who doesn’t figure that one out might want to take a class on logic to make their thinking a bit more rigorous.

These are canonical examples of arguments for God.  They aren’t perfect, but I am an atheist exactly because I can’t think of a good argument for why God exists.  That’s where you come in.  If you are religious, come up with a well-reasoned, solid argument for why God exists.  If you can’t do it, hen you should be an atheist too because you don’t believe God exists either.  If you can, however, tell it to atheists.  If it really is a good argument, and they’re really atheists for the right reasons, they will actually believe you.  If I were presented with such an argument that was sufficiently good that it outperformed the default position of atheism, and also explained all the observable phenomena of the world without contradiction, I might even believe you.  Do not, however, even attempt to push Christianity or other religions as-is on me because it’s frankly not worth my time anymore.  If you’re interested in atheism there are resources all over the internet.  They don’t really exist offline, which is fascinating if you ask me.  Atheists correlate with the tech-savvy young?  Cool.  We’re going to win.  Even if we can’t convince you, we’re young.  You’re going to go first.

Not considering the idea of immortality in digital form, which of course is out of the question for the religious.  So atheists still win.  The atheists shall outnumber the hordes of the faceless dead, such shall be the glory of their technology.

On Antisocial Stoics

I would like to address a claim that is sometimes made against stoics, particularly against some of the ideas of Marcus Aurelius, who said, among other things, “Permit nothing to cleave to you that is not your own, and nothing to grow upon you that will give you agony when it is torn away.”  Given the extremely elevated status of friends and interpersonal relationships in our society, this concept doesn’t jive well with the idea that we all have to form deep bonds with one another.  The idea of being stoic and of suppressing your emotions as subservient to your mind seems to conflict with the idea that we’re supposed to share our feelings with others.  Why the belief is that if someone else is aware of the factual state of your existence creates a bond is beyond me, but it is implicitly assumed in our interactions with one another.  The most canonical example is when you encounter someone you know and ask them how they’re doing, what’s going on with them, or the like.  Both of you probably know, if you thought about it, that the other person’s answer is irrelevant.  Neither of you could give a damn.  But it’s the greeting you use because it is a sharing of information of a moderately personal nature, or at least it’s a question requesting that information which implies a certain closeness.  Whether you’re doing it to provoke that sense of intimacy in the other person, in the impressions of people listening in, or to convince yourself, I don’t know.  However I do know that very little of what is commonly thought of as conversation is an actual sharing of empathic significance or deep thoughts.  What is commonly accepted as “small talk” is the norm of human interaction, and it is accepted as having zero functionality.

Now, I am of course being a little over-literal here.  The purpose of small talk is that it is talk where everyone concerned might be uncomfortable in having a real conversation, it fills up the time and allows people to get comfortable with one another.  However it is not and will never be the goal or endpoint.  It is vital that just “being with” other people is never something you’re setting out to do, because standing next to other humanoid figures and flapping your vocal folds is, in and of itself, not really a worthwhile activity.  If you’re interacting on an empathic, mental, philosophical, or whatever medium in a way that gives you genuine enjoyment such that you would actively choose to enjoy that person’s presence in favor of some other activity you enjoy then of course it’s a good thing- that’s just a basic pursuit of your own satisfaction.  This is obvious and a trivial proof, but I think I need to inject it here so I’m not scaring off exactly the people who need to hear this.

The best corollary to this whole mess is our modern conception of sex, especially among men.  Men tend to be in a position of weakness and insecurity due to having conflicting internal models and programming and all manner of other nonsense going on in their heads leaving them a little lost and confused.  One of the dominant themes that result is a pursuit of sex that is driven more by social power than actual personal satisfaction.  Many men are more gratified by the fact that they are having sex than they are enjoying the sex itself.  They’ll brag to their buddies about it and allow themselves that extra iota of self-respect because they “got laid.”  The self-destructive side of this thinking is that they honestly believe they aren’t worth anything unless they can convince a woman that they are worthwhile enough to sleep with.  I am unsure of how many women have this problem, but it is widespread among men.  I suspect that because women are dealing with this population of men, they live in sexual abundance and don’t develop the same complex- attractive women at least if not all women.  I am speculating now, but I find it probable that women have a similar complex revolving around marriage, gratified more by the fact of being married than they enjoy the marriage itself, resulting in the “must get married” effect at a certain age.  Many, many people of both sexes are gratified more by the presence of other people than they are actually enjoying being with them.

The simple fact of the matter is that if you go out seeking deep bonds, what you will find is the most superficial of relations with people as desperate for companionship as yourself.  Deep bonds, described as such, actually don’t exist as we conceive of them.  It’s not that you spend a lot of time with someone or that you have known them for a long time, or even that you know a great deal about them and their personal preferences such as their favorite flavor of ice cream.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that knowing a huge amount about their preferential minutiae actually subtracts significantly from the goal that most people are seeking.  If there’s a woman I like, I could care less what her favorite flavor of ice cream is.  The question is whether or not she is fun to be around.  If I was to feverishly try to get her to like me or memorize her personal preferences, that’s work.  Stupid, counterproductive, and manipulative work, at that.  That’s all.  Perhaps we have deep empathy, perhaps we’re alike, maybe we have good discussions or great sex, it makes no difference (OK, I lie) the question is only if she’s a positive presence in some- preferably many- ways.

Part of the problem is the widespread perspective of the “personality.”  And for the love of life NEVER evaluate someone’s “personality” as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’  Both those words are the most abused semantic identities ever created, and they both can mean nearly anything while being very specific about one thing and one thing only- and by hiding the implementation of that judgment there is no way to argue with it.  There is no such thing as a personality- a person is composed of the sum of their mind and actions derived from it.  There is no way that you can ascribe someone a personality which if they do something that is “not like them” then they’re being fake or somehow not being themselves.  Whatever the circumstances, they are merely exhibiting a decision-making pattern you haven’t previously observed or were otherwise unaware of.  It is the same person, ergo they are the same person.  This idea that we can understand someone else, ascribe them a simplified model that will predict their behavior and then expect that behavior from them is disgusting.  People are very complex- one person is far more complex than the sum of all of their understandings of other people, much less someone else’s understanding of them.  It can’t be your personality that you like coffee, and that you’re doing something bad when you don’t drink coffee.  The drive to be consistent is not a natural one- it’s a societal stamp mark on the inside of your brain that tells you to be simple so that others can understand you better.  But who gives a flying shit about whether other people understand you?  Do what you want!  If you wake up and wonder if eggs scrambled with cocoa and baking soda tastes good with ketchup, then go right ahead and try it!  It doesn’t have to be your personality that you eat weird things- it’s just something you want to do, so you do it.  That’s a bit of a weird example, but it holds.  Why we don’t expect one another to do what we want is just beyond me, especially in our day and age with so many options available.  There are all manner of stigma against jocks, nerds, cheerleaders, sluts, you name it, there’s a stereotype that someone wants to slot you into.  So, how about, just to screw with them, completely break their model of the world by totally not fitting into the model they would like you to.  Just for fun.

So here’s the question.  “Permit nothing to cleave to you that is not your own, and nothing to grow upon you that will give you agony when it is torn away.”  The idea here is that you are your own pursuits and not permitting external people or objects to influence you or your goals.  This is both a warning against addictions of all forms, perhaps especially social ones, and a caveat emptor for everything you allow into your life.  You control your personal sphere- to the best of your ability at least.  It is your responsibility and nobody else’s to make sure that only elements you want are a part of your life, and it’s your duty to yourself to safeguard the vaults against the thieves that would seek to plunder your wealth.

I have something to say about victimization here.  Blaming the victim for a crime committed against them is the original scam.  It is the classical attempt to cheat and then get away with it, and the more serious the crime, the more potent a tactic it becomes.  The idea that you control your person means that yes, to a degree, you are responsible if something bad happens to you.  There are precautions you could have taken, etc. etc.  No matter the event, there are always choices you could have made to avoid that outcome you deem makes you a victim.  However part of the idea of being actually in control means that you are never a “victim” of other people’s choices or actions, because the very idea implies that you aren’t actually in control.  So you are only actually a victim when the aggressor has actively applied intelligence to disable, short-circuit, or otherwise evade whatever defenses or precautions you have taken against being taken advantage of.  Think of it like this: if you’re on a desert island and a bear comes and steals your food, then you’re a victim.  But you could have done any number of things to prevent your food from being stolen, such as hanging your food from a tree, out of reach.  The bear is fundamentally at fault here (I don’t believe the conventional idea of “blame” either, so this explanation might be a little awkward without a background but I’ll have to go on anyway) but that doesn’t mean you can sit there and rage about how that damn bear has made you a victim.  Your actions, to the degree that you invested resources to prevent an undesirable outcome, resulted in some probability of that undesirable outcome occurring- a risk.  Now, there are obviously far too many *possible* risks to address, but we can exercise our reason to determine which ones we need to address, which ones are worthwhile to address, and which ones we can safely ignore.  If you ignore a risk you should not have, then you are responsible for that mistake, even if you aren’t the acting agent of the aggression committed.  A bear is too animate.  Let’s go with physics.  You leave your food outside for a long time, and it rots.  Well?  You are responsible because you misjudged the risk of it rotting, didn’t take sufficient precautions, and now your food is gone.  In this case, there is no aggressor at all- it’s you against the laws of physics, but the situation is exactly identical.  You can mope around claiming to be a victim, perhaps go to the government and demand that your food be replaced…  yada yada.  Now, I absolutely do not want this concept of judgment and addressing of risk to be confused with actually blaming the victim as the active agent in their own victimization.  These are completely different concepts entirely.  An agent acting in a way that is exploitative of another agent is doing so because their incentives line up appropriately to make that a course of action they find acceptable.  The idea of punishing them is to tip these scales enough that it is no longer economical to exploit others.  There is of course the problem of giving the power of retribution to who, exactly, which I won’t go into here because this isn’t a post about anarchism.  The reason why you can’t have the punishment be equal to the crime (remove connotations of law or government) committed is that the risk of capture is never 100%.  Let’s say a thief steals purses.  If he gets caught 50% of the time, but each time he’s caught he only has to return the amount he stole, then it doesn’t really change the thief’s decision-making circumstances that much.  However, if the cost is losing a hand then the thief will think twice before stealing that purse because there would need to be a lot of money in there to justify a 50% chance, or even a 1% chance, of losing a hand.  Now, the funny thing about punishment is that you also have to account for a certain probability of false positives.  So if an innocent man is accused of stealing that purse and gets his hand cut off, well that’s pretty damn unjust, isn’t it?  So we have to scale back the punishment until it is enough to stop thieves while being acceptable to the innocents based on the risk of being hit with that false positive.  Keeping in mind that we are assuming the populace has a say in what the punishments are.  If you’re a totalitarian government, you could give a damn what the civvies say, and drastic punishments make sense because it’s less crime you have to deal with, freeing up resources for you to put towards your own ends.  Draconian methods of control are, pound for pound, more efficient in terms of resources spent versus results achieved.  Their main problem, in fact, is that they are so efficient that it makes life a living hell for nearly everyone.

After that long digression, back to the main issue.  If you’re simply enjoying another person’s presence, then there’s no further expectation in the matter.  If they leave, you’re no longer enjoying their presence.  You start to run into problems when you ascribe ultimate value to people or objects, because you can’t unlink ultimate value as long as you actually perceive it as “the ultimate good in the whole universe.”  Now we run into a very controversial edge case when dealing with the loss of loved ones.  I say it’s an edge case because it doesn’t happen very often relative to our lifetimes.  We’re not losing loved ones every other week.  A model that was focused primarily on dealing with death of the most intimate friends (I will not say “and family” because if your family are not your close friends then why are you with them?).  You know what, I’m going to elaborate on that parenthetical thought.  Your family, especially your nuclear family such as parents and immediate siblings, are people.  You know them for longer, and have more opportunity to become very good friends with them, and when you’re a child there is a certain amount of not-having-a-choice in the matter that forces you to make friends or make war, and rational individuals choose the former in all but the most extreme circumstances.  So there’s just very close friends.  The fact that you’re biologically related is of no philosophical significance whatsoever.  Medical significance, yes, but only because knowledge of your family’s genes can be used to deduce your genes.  Social significance, of course not.  So I will treat death of family as the death of friends who were equally close as family members.  Now, to be honest, this is a topic that I’m reluctant to exercise my usual methods of beating to death because there may be readers who have such a powerful subjective experience of the matter that I will waste my time if I try to dismiss the bits that require dismissal, focus in on what is significant , and use it build up a new model that more accurately fits reality and rationality.  We have arrived at the idea that being with people is something you do for yourself, but it seems like lunacy to say that the death of a loved one shouldn’t hurt because you aren’t able to enjoy their presence any more.  That’s just not strong enough, right?  BUt isn’t that exactly what mourning is?  You won’t speak to that person again, or see them, or talk to them, or whatever else.  If you could do those things then you wouldn’t care if they were technically dead- that’s just a cessation of some bodily functions.  If they could die and leave the person intact, now wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing- you wouldn’t have to worry about death.  This is actually a fairly direct deduction for most people, but the idea that the physical death isn’t the source of their trouble, isn’t.  It is the result of the event of death that they’re mourning.  Many religions exploit this weakness in thinking to interject “But life does continue after death!” and then the explanations, the fairy tales, and the bullshit that follows.  They are careful, however, to always exclude the very functionality that death precludes because they are unable to provide it.  They can’t help you talk to your dead loved ones, so they hide them away somewhere as ghosts or in heaven where you will go, too, once you die.  The intuitive universality of the death process makes this nearly logical, except that a slight elaboration can add a significant degree of control over the behavior of the people who want to believe.  And some of the crueler religions take advantage of exactly these people, and make this death process conditional upon your life, and exactly prescribed behaviors.  The most common trick is to exploit vague semantic identities such as “good” and “bad” which enable retroactive changing of what exactly those conditions are for live updating of the behavior of the believers based on what is expedient at the time.  I’m always amazed and fascinated at the complexity of religion as an organism, and the huge potential that religion proves memes have as a life form.

I am not suggesting that you shouldn’t feel pain- what a ridiculous assertion for a stoic.  The idea is that pain, like other sensations or emotions, are there to help you, not govern you.  If you felt fear and were unable to do anything else but freeze up, curl up into the fetal position, and pray, then what use is that?  For animals like the possum, it is an irresistible instinctive reaction programmed into them because in 99% of cases (at least in the genes’ experience) this is an effective defense mechanism, and giving the possum control over the matter would just screw up the system.  This isn’t strictly accurate because possums evolved their primary featureset in the time before memetic delegation had been “invented” by evolutionary processes.  The application of reason is itself a major feature of humanity, and quite novel in genetic terms.  If you wanted to be truly biological about it, you can look at memetic evolution as the ultimate genetic trick, but the problem is that it is so effective it makes genes obsolete.  Also, intelligence is so effective that genetic evolution can’t keep up with the rate of change.  For the prurient example, we have invented cars and now they’re everywhere.  And now possums, with their very effective defense mechanism of freezing up when afraid, causes them to get run over by speeding cars, and the genes can’t un-wire that feature given the new environment because they aren’t able to perceive and judge.  I would like to say, though, that genes are definitely alive.  Not just in the sense that a person is alive, but the gene of HUMANS is alive in a strange information amalgamation of the genes in every person in a way that we really can’t quite comprehend because there’s too many people, too much noise, and too much uncertainty about genes themselves.  The day that we truly understand genes completely, we won’t need them anymore because we’ll be able to construct our own biological machines to any specification or design we like.  They’re just like any other machine, but far more complicated and sophisticated.  Especially the organic ability to reproduce.  Interestingly, though, the body is itself one of the few things that we are currently unable to separate our selves from.  Some can conceive of what that might be like, and most of them have it wrong (I guarantee that I do, but it’s more complete than most, at least).  Note that the objective is to separate your self from as much as possible of what you don’t want, of that which subtracts from your good or your happiness.  I would argue that, for as long as it works, your body adds immensely to that happiness.  And as far as it doesn’t, it subtracts immensely.  So an ability to perfectly fix the human body, a hypothetical perfect medicine, would obsolete the need for mechanical bodies unless their features were so far beyond those of a human body (which is the case) that you could get even more out of one.  Probably the main advantage is the ability to add processing power and memory, and the ability to have direct inputs.  Anyway, permit nothing to cleave to you that is not your own.  I am not my body, but insofar as I use it, rely upon it, and wish to keep it, it is mine.

So if I don’t even value my own body enough to want to keep it, what does that mean?  Well, I never said that I didn’t value my body, just that the value it provides is of the material sort, similar to eating a burrito, except that instead of the satisfaction of the burrito, my body contains the hardware necessary to eat the burrito, and without it any sort of gustatory satisfaction would be impossible (not strictly true- a perfect simulation of the experience is an identity).  This is similar to having a computer.  The computer in and of itself doesn’t actually provide a whole lot of satisfaction, but the things you can do with it will.  Perhaps the computer hardware hobbyists who make it a point of pride to have the best possible machine wired up in the best possible configuration get significant enjoyment out of simply possessing the hardware itself.  However, even with that example, we see parallels with the human body, such as with fitness junkies who make it a point of pride to have bodies sculpted out of steel, and enjoy simply having it.  Important note: most of these “fitness junkies” are doing it because of other people, not because they genuinely enjoy it, or because they even want the results.  And they get further conflicted by the fact that they are causing a change, which might conflict with their perception of themselves, or with others’ perceptions, and for some reason they’re anxious to step outside of that box.

Anyway, my entire point is quite simple, as usual, but it’s dressed up with many trimmings like mirrors in every corner of the room to show off the gleam on the little gem in the middle.  The idea that you should be dependent on others, the idea that that constitutes good social practices, the concept of a social personality, all of these things are foisted upon us because others had them foisted upon them.  We are the monkeys conditioned not to reach for the bananas within our reach because someone, at some point in the past, was punished for trying.  So now we have to live with everyone else.  But the most vital point is this: they don’t matter.  If you want to reach for that banana, they could physically stop you, but if they do then you have a clear and objective obstacle in your way, which can be overcome, instead of the hazy, confusing aimlessness of contradiction.

The Bailout

Dammit.  I usually find the reserve to just keep on talking about timeless issues, the human condition, and problems that persist and grow.  But this is just too much.  While I’m still going to avoid talking about the election and such, I just have to talk about the bailout.  It can no longer be avoided.

The source of my agitation is this article (http://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/years/2008/1007083aig1.html) from the Smoking Gun.  Essentially, the executives of AIG have, days after the $85 billion bailout, thrown a massive executive party at a resort in California.  Now, let’s be honest, this article does slant the situation in the obvious direction.  But don’t they just bloody well deserve it?  I mean, seriously.  These people are seriously threatening even my steely impartiality and objectivity, if I do say so myself.  What on earth are these executives thinking?  Was the whole thing a scam and they simply no longer care because we’re all going to economic hell anyway?

OK, first, let’s be fair.  The invoice tells us that the vast majority of the funds were spent on either rooms or food and not on luxury services like spa services, exploding cakes, urinating ice statues, and the like.  Although there were sizable figures under those categories, to say that they spent a fortune (relative to the $450k price tag) would be improper.  I don’t want to pore through their invoice because it’s a limited source of information anyway, and you can only extract so much information from it.  Anyway, it seems to me that the exorbitant cost of their retreat resulted from their choice of location rather than any particular absurd excess.  Whether or not they might have simply gotten a convention hall for an executive summit is debatable, but any argument we might have lacks all basis because we have no context.  It’s highly probably there is a good reason why that location was chosen, possibly to secure ties to some other company or maybe something as small as associates of the company involved with the resort.

All that said, dammit, do you guys care that little about our money?  That $85 billion is supposed to be saving your asses, not letting you party like it’s 1929.  They must have known how this would look, which only strengthens the possibility that there is a good reason we aren’t seeing.  Of course, Occam’s Razor says they’re just partying because they feel like it and don’t give a damn if we despise them for it.

The basic issue at hand here, though, is not corporate irresponsibility.  In a perfect world, CEOs and executives can do whatever they want with their money.  However, the critical point here is that it must be their money.  The second that they control money they don’t actually own or have legitimate authority to manage, we have a problem.  Of course, that’s exactly what the government has done.  The government extracted that $85 billion from us against our will with the vapid promise that it was *still ours.*  Of course that’s nonsense because we have absolutely no control over how it’s spent.  So they give it to big corporations because those big corporations can incentivize the people in power however they need to in order to get a piece of that pie.  They’ll figure it out if it’s possible.  You can’t build a system that will get the job done properly that will not be open to willful subversion to the same degree.  If you count on intent, then intent will be its weakness.  If you count on structure and checks, then structure and checks will be its weakness, and so on.  If you count on open violence, then open violence will be its weakness.  It doesn’t matter on what motive power the government is managed, it can be subverted by an appropriate strategy because the only way it can’t give money to the wrong hands is if they can’t give money at all.  Anyway, I’m getting off topic.  My point is that those bankers now control a great deal of “our” money, so it pisses us off when they do stuff like this, and rightly so.  We’ve been robbed on the promise that we would get something in return, and later we were deprived even that (as usual I might add).  If there were no public money floating around, then why should it irritate you if these CEO’s throw flagrantly irresponsible parties?  You already got your goods or services rendered.  Just like how they don’t care if you burn that plasma TV after you buy it, you don’t care if they burn your money once you’ve paid for that TV.  It’s not yours anymore- you willfully parted with it in exchange for your new TV.

There are so many unfortunate fools who will blame the companies for this type of fiasco.  What bullshit!  Imagine if you were handed $85 billion dollars on a silver platter.  Well, that’s not strictly true.  Imagine that you could spend all of your assets and have some probability of pulling down $85 billion from the government cloud funds, and it pays off for you.  You’re A) going to party like a wild animal because you’re set, and B) you’re going to keep on using that money to try to get more.  It is obviously a very effective strategy.  Not only that, but there comes a time when they don’t even need to provide the same level of services.  Because when things are in the shitter, they get free money.  Does this sound like a good plan to fix the economy?  No.  These banks are going to do their damnedest to keep that free money flowing.  The only way they would stop would be if they could make significantly more money by actually working.  There must be a significant enough difference that their profits from being honest will exceed the free funds they get while cutting expenses at the same time.  Which probably is never going to happen.

My point is that these executives are being completely reasonable given their environment, even if they’re just being 100% wasteful.  Imagine if you were paid to spend money.  The more money you spent, the more you earned.  In fact, if you were so bad that you were in a constant state of poverty, you would get even more.  I’m not trying to argue that the poor don’t deserve aid, but I am trying to say that this incentive structure is just insane.  It will literally incentivize insanity.  Doing the exact opposite of the preferred behavior is rewarded.  Total madness.  “We want people to be wealthy, so we should give money to people who are poor.”  What the hell?  The banks are actually in this situation.  The worse they are at managing their business, the more money they get from the government, on the grounds that if they fail it will be bad for the economy.  Haha!  It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so sad.

Now a lot of people think that incentives are a crude way to look at humanity.  I would agree.  However, incentives provide a direct model upon which complications can be built.  It’s like how we discovered algebra before we discovered complex numbers, but the discovery of the complex numbers doesn’t invalidate the process of algebra.  Deeper structure to the human mind and personality doesn’t change the fact that they judge by application and comparison of incentives or utility functions.  If the deeper structure would predict that someone would pick a free $5 over a free $10 then your model is broken, no matter how complex or interesting or otherwise intuitive.

In fact, models tend to be constructed to formalize specific inconsistencies in the way that the world is filtered.  Fallacies are easily communicated through analogy, models, and other constructions.  For example, it seems perfectly logical that gun ownership would cause crimes involving guns.  Very intuitive, right?  The more guns there are, the more likely people will be to use them because they will be more available.  Actually, this is not the case.  In fact, I would wager that gun crime goes down if you decrease, or increase, the supply of guns.  The gun-control-slanted middle area is where the most crime involving guns will take place.  Those who really want to can legally acquire them, and they can be reasonably sure that nobody else will have one.  If you make them harder to acquire, it goes down a little.  Although crime might remain equally high- it’s just crime with guns that would probably go down.  However, if you increase the supply of guns, then the thugs no longer have the same certitude that they will not be met with lethal force.  Even if the probability that the person they’re mugging will be armed and belligerent are small, they only have to do it numerous times before statistics kills them.  Knowing this, a whole slew of crimes such as violent crime, muggings, robberies, etc. all would be expected to drop.  This is of course a theory only moderately supported by evidence, but it’s a reasonable hypothesis that deserves further testing.

Before I end this post, I want to talk about positive obligation.  There is no such thing.  Who cares?  Well, how come it’s possible to take out a loan which your children are then responsible for, even though they never spent a penny of it?  Irresponsible and morally reprehensible for the person, sure, but how come it’s even possible?  Simply put, it’s because the people lending the money are the people with the money.  They get to decide how those loans are paid back.  And it is true that if some loans where the client dies are paid back, it makes capital cheaper and more available.  This somewhat stimulates the economy, and at the expensive of only a little moral questionability.  This is acceptable to the people lending the money, and they have a legitimate case to make.  However, the day my government can spend money it doesn’t have on the good faith that I’ll pay interest on it?  Not a chance.  I’m not old enough to have a stake in the vast national debt.  So I just won’t.  If they make me pay for it, I will, but not because I want to.  I’m not going to put myself in a difficult position or enter direct conflict with the government- that’s just foolhardy.  You can’t fight them- they’ve got everything from the army up to and including the nuclear option.  So don’t.  Just do what they say, but keep to principles.  They can threaten you.  Let them, and accede to their demands.  Very simple.  It’s the mob.  You don’t pay, your life gets difficult.

The Fallacy of Composition

The fallacy of composition is an especially effective and insidious mental tic that affects many decisions made in society.  To go over the basic nature of the fallacy quickly, it means to ascribe properties to a group as a logical result of the composition of that group.  When described that way, it seems perfectly logical.  However we arrive at such propositions as “I shall get all the strongest men in my army, and they will form my strongest unit.” (example originally used by Madsen Pirie in How to Win Every Argument)  Now in a sense this is true.  If you are looking to make a military unit that is adept at moving large amounts of freight.  However military units aren’t strong in the same sense that men are strong, and this misapplication of semantic significance leads to the fallacy.  If you wanted a strong military unit you need things like discipline, competence, efficiency, morale, ability to survive in tough conditions, and so on.  If you were to convert the desired properties appropriately, such as specifying that you want to select men for their ability to work together, keep morale up, survive, or whatever else you’re looking for, and those skills are commutative, then you might be getting somewhere.  As I said earlier, if you got 100 men who are adept at lifting things, it is the case that the group of 100 men will be adept at lifting things because every member within it is, and direct action is commutative.  For example, if you have 100 people playing ping-pong, it is correct to say the group of 100 are all in the act of playing ping pong.  However, I didn’t specify if they were playing each other, other people, or if there are only 100 people playing ping pong (they could be 100 among many more).

This seems like an obvious fallacy, used as above.  How could anyone fail to notice that?  Well this same logic, or illogic, is used in countless places in modern public discourse.  For example, whenever anyone argues that it is moral for the government to give money to group X, they are probably utilizing it.  For example, charity.  There is a soup kitchen that feeds homeless people and needs money.  Or some other program to help the homeless, the needy, the hungry in foreign countries, etc. etc.  They probably say or otherwise imply something along the lines of “it’s a kind act to give your time or money to help other people, therefore it’s moral for us to help them.”  Consider the actual significance of the statement: because it’s moral for an individual to give money to charity, it’s moral for society.  Now, while that might (arguably) be a proper application of individual-group semantic conversion, consider that the “society” as a semantic identity is not a decision-maker.  “Society” cannot actually do anything because it is just a vague/y specified conglomerate of individuals.  Things can happen to a society, in the same way that I as an agent can drop a ball or eat a sandwich.  But the sandwich cannot act in such a way to determine whether or not I eat it.  In order for “society” to do anything, there must be some agent controlling that group- implying the existence of a government or controlling body.  So what you’re really asking is whether it’s moral for the government to give money to charity.

This is a sticky issue for many people, but consider where the government gets its money from.  Taxes are involuntary.  If taxes were optional, nobody would pay them.  If you presented people with the option of A) Taxes, get complete government services, or B) No taxes, no government services, a great many would choose to live independently.  This is unacceptable for governments because it actually puts competitive pressure on them.  They actually have to offer value to get people to stay with them, they have to somehow convince recalcitrant customers that their product will help them.  Every company would really rather have a guaranteed income backed by threats of persecution.  Now, among the people who gave their money voluntarily, knowing the mechanism through which it will be filtered before eventually being spent,  I have absolutely no issue with that money being spent on anything at all.  I can have an issue with things they might do with it, of course.  If they use that money to buy tanks and attack people, we’re going to have a big problem.  But I don’t have an issue with the basic operation of such an entity.  However, government taxes are basically bold-faced theft.  Worse, they’ll try to convince you they’re doing it for your own good.  If it really was for my own good, then you wouldn’t have any issue with me choosing or not choosing your service.  If it’s really going to help me, I would choose it anyway, wouldn’t I?  Even the Mafia at least has the good decency to be honest with you.  They want your money, and they’ll beat you up if you don’t give it to them.  The greatest subtlety of the mob is calling it “protection money.”  The government actually believes it is protection money- it’s called National Security and Homeland Defense.  I’ll be totally honest with you, I really don’t see any significant threat that isn’t actually created by the government itself.

While it is true that there are terrorists, who may or may not hate America, it is certainly true that they are ascribing specific characteristics to Americans that are based on actions taken by the US government.  By the same token, many Americans are ascribing characteristics to Muslims or Middle Easterners based on the actions of a few extremists.  While some would call this simple generalization and stop there, I think it’s more detailed than that.  The thought process is a back-and-forth interplay between the individuals in the group and the conception of the group itself, a sort of repeat fallacy of composition, over and over again, getting worse and worse each time on both sides.  Like telephone played with abstract sketches in a kindergarten art class.

I’m getting a little off topic, and just found another instance of the fallacy of composition somewhere in the tangent sea.  Anyway, the government is not subject to the same type of moral analysis as an individual.  Neither are corporations.  They are groups, not individuals.  Moreover, moral laws as applied to individuals will apply to each individual in that group.  Moral laws for groups will apply to the entire group.  So, the government, as any group, would be virtuous in giving to charity if the money belonged to it in the first place.  Using charity as a justification for theft is just ridiculous.  However that’s exactly what the “generous” politicians are asking you to do.  Let’s say they convince some people that it’s a good thing for people, and therefore the government, to give to charity.  Fine.  Then why isn’t the politician, and why aren’t the individuals so convinced, going and donating money to charity instead of voting to force others to do so against their will?  And why isn’t the politician simply asking people to donate to a particular charity, as opposed to asking for taxes to be spent in that fashion?

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.