Saturday, January 31, 2009

Netherlands considering eugenics

The Netherlands is considering a law to force unfit mothers to be temporarily sterilized. This moderate form of eugenics has some support, so it is very possible that it could eventually go through. I think this is very clearly unethical, but it is nonetheless worthy of discussion. Briggs Armstrong discusses it here, and there was some debate on the British television show The Big Question (part 1, 2 & 3). The argument basically is a Utilitarian argument, that in the aggregate, the program will do more good than harm, since it will reduce child abuse and neglect only at the expense of some loss of human rights.

Some of the issues that are raised in the include the obligation of the state to help its citizens, the right of people to have children, and the rights of the state to enforce eugenic measures. On The Big Questions, the argument is put forward that "the state has an obligation to help its citizenry..." which includes an unspoken caveat "... whether the citizenry want it or not." But the major dubious assumption that this argument rests upon is that the state actually can help its citizenry. This mandatory sterilization is supposed to address poverty, child abuse and neglect, but, of course the Dutch government, does not have the magic formula for solving any of these problems. The Netherlands hasn't solved them and there is no model that it can look to see a state that has solved these problems either. How can we say the Dutch state has a duty to these children if it ultimately doesn't know how to help them?

Even if the state has some obligation to benefit its citizenry, then wouldn't it be better to try to end programs that are encouraging this problem instead of trying to add another program that tries to stop it and will most certainly have unintended consequences? Poor women frequently have children, in order to get more welfare money? Should we sterilize them, or just stop giving them money? The state has no duty to give them that money; the women have no right to that money; and it will achieve the goal of helping them.

The perverse incentives and unintended consequences created by the welfare system in place should give us all the more pause, when considering something as extreme as eugenics, which is even more liable to create more perverse incentives and bigger unintended consequences. Government actions can have unintended consequences, which lead to further problems, necessitating further government actions, creating further problems and further responses. Sometimes government action can lead to a chain of action and response like some elaborate legal rube goldberg machine, such as the example that Adam Smith gives in the Wealth of Nations, when England closed down all the Catholic churches, which had been responsible for aiding the poor. Without someone to aid the poor anymore, the government forced parsonages to take care of the poor, leading to perverse incentives which the British government had to respond to, leading to more unintended consequences, until finally the poor were ultimately all but forbidden from traveling freely through England, which created huge disparities in labor availability (and thereby wages) from parsonage to parsonage. We can see this type of rube goldberg effect going on in Netherlands now. Welfare increases poverty, drug addiction, and out of wedlock births, so the government tries to respond with mandatory birth control. This will probably lead to unintended consequences, such as racially motivated enforcement (or some other arbitrary criteria) graft from potentially unfit mothers, increases in infanticide as mothers try to avoid becoming officially unfit, or other unintended consequences. These will probably force another response by the Dutch government, and so on.

One might respond, "Maybe this program will be effective. How can we know until we try it out." But this ignores that we are experimenting with human lives, and in a very cavalier way. Damage is being done as we try this out. It also assumes that if the project turns out to be a failure, it will be a simple matter to identify it as a failure and end it. But, the fact is that there is no straightforward criteria for determining success or failure, and the fact is that it can be difficult to end a government program once it is started.

In light of this, it should be clear that the state most certainly does not have the right to interfere in reproduction. The great uncertainty that surrounds such a program, the risk of unintended side effects and perverse incentives, the difficulty of assessing and eliminating such a program were it to be a failure, not to mention the unethicalness of eugenics, all indicate that this is a bad idea and should be scrapped. Not to mention, that if we compare this program to reasonable alternatives, like simply giving women the option of voluntarily being temporarily sterilized, or simply cutting off welfare payments to these women, then we see that such programs have many of the benefits without all the bad sides, and are thus much better options.

Update: I made a mistake on the Adam Smith reference. It wasn't the closing down of Catholic Churches, but the closing down of Monasteries that Adam Smith mentions. Makes more sense now that I think about it, but I guess I was a little absent-minded at the time.

Another early sign of recovery

Another early sign of economic recovery here (via):
The market’s ability to absorb the maturing debt may build confidence that U.S. companies are able to fund themselves without government support, said Deborah Cunningham, chief investment officer for taxable money markets at Federated Investors Inc. Investors, betting the commercial paper market has stabilized, pushed interest rates to record lows this month and bought the most 90-day debt since September, Fed data show.
Again, the democrats better hurry. Every emergency is an opportunity to push through unpopular agendas (as Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said). The democrats may not have another chance for a while to push through such a destructive and unpopular set of legislation.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Plato's Philosopher Kings and Lack of Information

Here is an article from last week on information problems related to Keynesian stimulus. This continues the same idea that I just talked about recently with the information issues that even the wisest of leaders will inevitably face. Mario Rizzo is talking about deciphering whether an economic slowdown is merely the result of the lack of confidence and the aberrant whims of peoples' "animal spirits" (the Keynesian theory) or is rather due to malinvestment (more of the Austrian theory). The two interpretations require different approaches to address the problem, and the problem could be aggravated by picking incorrectly. But how is one to know whether it is malinvestment or lack of confidence or both or neither. And the larger the population and the more centralized the leadership, the less likely the leadership is to understand it. Thus, decentralization is better able to handle such problems.

We might ask: "is frenzied activity when you don't know what you're doing better than doing nothing?" Why doing nothing is usually the best policy when you don't know what you're doing. A nice metaphor: if you're camped near the edge of a cliff on a cold night, is a good idea to collect firewood, or wait until morning and not risking falling off the edge of the cliff?

Reasons to Pass the Stimulus Bill Quickly

A couple of reasons why congress and the president should pass the stimulus bill as quickly as they possibly can.

a) Someone might actually read this 647 page monstrosity and realize that there's not exactly a lot of stimulus in it. Most of the money is spent on Democratic pet projects and pork.

b) If they don't hurry, they might start to lose popular support for it, as the American public starts to realize that not a lot of that stimulus money is coming their way.

c) The economy might start to recover before the bill takes effect. Take into account possible early signals of the beginning of recovery with the amount of time it will take for most of the money to actually matriculate into the economy. The supporters of the stimulus bill might lose the opportunity to claim that they saved the economy.

Of course, this is as much to say that the bill's supporters might be better off doing nothing. But if you're going to do nothing, of course, you want to make it clear to businesses that you will do nothing. Regime uncertainty, the uncertainty that businesses face when they don't know what actions government and politicians will take, has probably been delaying recovery for months. If there's any good argument to act quickly, it's to end regime uncertainty. But of course, blindly passing bills without considering them carefully in a time of crisis is how the Patriot Act became law (Stimulus Package = The Dems’ PATRIOT Act?).

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Ethics and the new administration

Seems the president and his new administration have some ethics issues. First of all, there's their new Treasury Secretary Geithner, who was confirmed despite having "accidentally" forgotten to pay over $30,000 in taxes over four years.

Second, there's Obama and his VP misrepresenting the consensus among economists. Why would we think economists would support the stimulus when half of them think FDR's New Deal made the depression worse, and most of the rest think it didn't do any good?

Third, there's that whole issue with Obama's own ethics standards of not hiring lobbyists with recent employment that presents conflict of interest problems. He's decided that some exceptions are okay. One wonders why he even created such a rule, if he is going to immediately turn around and violate it. I guess he'll start abiding by it strictly next month, just like he advocates fiscal discipline, and will start on that right after his $800 billion dollar stimulus splurge.

Update 1/31/09: Looks like Geithner's tax evasion is dwarfed by another cabinet nominee, Tom Daschle, who had to pay over $100,000 in taxes that he "accidentally" forgot to pay.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Higher Education Bubble

An article by Donald Downs last month wonders whether higher education could be the next bubble.
believing that higher education is a necessary, if not sufficient, ticket to personal success and social progress, the public has tolerated increasingly higher costs and tuition---forces that citizens have rebelled against in other consumer domains .... With seemingly no viable alternative or exit strategy, consumers have stretched their pocketbooks to the breaking point and taken out loans to purchase a chance at the American Dream. (Today over 35% of students rely on student loans, and the number is growing.) .... Believing that home prices would rise virtually forever, consumers and investors were willing to stretch themselves and their debt to the limit in order to obtain housing stock. We all know what happened when that assumption ran into the brick wall of reality. Is higher education immune to such a shock?
Higher education is facing some difficult times as endowments, even at top tier schools decline, and schools are asking for a bailout.

Education has been able to continue increasing in price because it has always seemed well worth the price, since those with college degrees earn so much more income throughout their life than those without degrees. But these statistics are probably inflated since most college graduates are people who would probably succeed with or without a degree, and most of those who don't get degrees are the type of people that wouldn't succeed even if they had a degree. If you really wanted to see how much education increases lifetime earning you'd want to compare two sets of people who both have equal probability of success and see how education helps them. I'm sure a college degree still does increase lifetime earning, but the actual increase in lifetime earning is probably much closer to the amount being paid by college students (especially at more expensive private schools) and is probably only barely worth it for some and not even worth it for others. And the more the cost of education increases the number of people for whom it is still worth it will decrease. As students become aware of this, enrollment numbers will drop.

Bryan Caplan makes the argument that the whole purpose of education is signaling, which is to say that the degree announces to a prospective employer, "I'm smart, hard-working and can make long-term commitments." In other words, you don't actually learn much useful knowledge or many useful skills is college, you're just showing employers that you're capable. But, if higher education is just signaling, surely there are cheaper ways for prospective employees to demonstrate these traits, like passing skills and knowledge exams before being hired or doing unpaid internships. Employers still haven't yet figured out a cost effective way to do this, but if they do, this could also lead to further declines in enrollment.

People are asking whether college education is worth it (here and just today here and Charle's Murray's book, Real Education) and prospective students will be too. The business model of universities (bloated administrative costs, giving professors ample time for research, tenure, large expensive facilities, revenue mostly from student loans and alumni donations) is not sustainable, and it is likely universities will be changing. The education bubble may be ready to burst

Postscript: As someone trying to enter into higher education as a professor, this is definitely of interest and concern to me. I do think universities will be adapting, and I think myself and anyone else in my position should be thinking about what place we might have in this future.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Lack of Expertise at Davos

The New York Times has an article about theWorld Economic Forum meeting in Davos Switzerland. The power shift is noted,
This year, politicians, not corporate titans, are poised to be the big draw, echoing the broader power shift away from the free market as one government after another tries to prop up its sinking economy.
This reminds me of an argument that Socrates made (for example in the Apology and the Republic). If you want to get someone to do a service for you, you get an expert. You don't get a blacksmith to train your horses, and you don't get a horse trainer to repair your spade. Thus, having an economic forum dominated by politicians is like going to an art museum curated by a bunch accountants. Socrates, also uses this argument to object to democratically elected politicians. Namely, why have your country run by a bunch of people who's expertise is mainly in politic manipulation and winning elections? But that's another issue.

Of course, the reason so many business leaders aren't coming to the forum is because either their businesses are struggling, and so they don't quite have the credibility, or because they are working hard to keep their company successful in these crisis times, or they simply don't have the surplus money to squander on such frivolities. Since government officials don't have to worry about tightening their belts, they've got plenty of surplus money to splurge on this gala.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Ashley Madison

I just came across this relatively new dating website that is specifically for people looking to have extramarital affairs. It's a curious concept, and it's definitely received a lot of criticism for this. Most criticism has been fairly hasty, so it makes me wonder whether this site is genuinely immoral.

Infidelity is immoral. What constitutes infidelity obviously is going to vary from couple to couple, since some couples are open, and thus having an extramarital affair would not be infidelity for them. But when the case involves betrayal and deception, the it is infidelity. And I think it is immoral precisely because of the betrayal and deception. The question is whether a site like this is complicit in this immorality.

First we might ask, does it increase the likelihood of infidelity? Daniel Hamermesh thinks no. But it seems surely that giving people a different way of finding an affair, diversifying their options, means it's more likely more people will find someone. For example, in one scenario some guy is thinking of cheating and goes out to a bar to pick up someone, but he is unsuccessful, and gives up and returns to being faithful. If, on the other hand, he discovers Ashley Madison at this point and is able to succeed at infidelity, then whereas, he may not have been unfaithful before, now he is. This infidelity is the result of Ashley Madison. But is this a likely scenario? Are many people who are in an unhappy relationship actually out looking for someone to cheat with? Or is it rather, that they just happen to meet someone who fills in everything that's been missing in their current relationship? On the other hand, that Ashley Madison has been quite successful so far (3.2 million members) suggests that it might be a likely scenario. Ahsley Madison's success suggests that there actually are people who are deliberating about infidelity and who start actively considering having an affair even before they meet someone that they'd like to have an affair with. Thus, it seems plausible that Ashley Madison could increase infidelity rates, if it helps those who might have been unsuccessful in cheating find someone to cheat with.

On the other hand, is it really that much worse that such people have an affair in deed, if they've already started to cheat on their significant other in thought? In other words, if you're considering having an affair, and considering it seriously enough that you sign up for a dating site, haven't you already betrayed and deceived your significant other? Is it any worse for you to take it one step further and now consummating this betrayal and deception by actually having the romantic affair? Additionally, does the act of actually having an affair increase the likelihood that you'll get a divorce? If it does, then that would definitely seem to be something bad about Ashley Madison.

But perhaps there are benefits to the site. The founder, Noel Biderman, actually contends that it can save some marriages. If you're in a sexless marriage and are considering a divorce, then maybe it would be better to have a purely sex-driven affair with someone else to fill in what's missing in your marriage. With this infidelity there's a division of labor going on: your affair provides the sex, while your spouse provides all the other things you want from a relationship. This will allow you to be contented and remain together.. This can avoid all the unfortunate collateral damage from divorce. I admit, I'm not too convinced by this argument, since it still involves deception and betrayal, but I guess it might happen in some cases.

I think a more likely positive benefit is that Ashley Madison will draw would be cheaters away from other dating sites. Other dating sites do have considerable numbers of married men looking for love on the side, and these men are not usually forthcoming about their marital status, since it decreases their chances of success. If a married man who might list on, decides to instead list on Ashley Madison, then some woman who is looking for a single man on might be spared falling into that snake pit of having a relationship with a married man.

Admittedly, the benefits are small, but on the other hand, the negatives that can actually be attributed to the website (and not simply to the people who use it) itself seem small too. So, on balance, I'd say the site itself is fairly morally neutral, even if infidelity is bad.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Centralization and Information

I will continue on the theme of centralization from a recent post. Philosophers have definitely favored centralization of power. Descartes favored a state organized by a single vision in his Discourse on Method (I discussed this earlier) and Kant was a proponent of an international cosmopolitan state ("Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View"). Plato believed in centralization in terms of power resting in the hands of philosopher kings. The philosophers, in their wisdom would be able to make the best decisions in light of their access to truth. Unfortunately, this philosophers, as with other centralized power, run into problems of limited information.

Even if it is possible that a leader could have the knowledge to know what the ideal state of the society is, the leader still needs to have information to know how the society at hand is deviating from that ideal state, who and where and how and in what ways. If the leader knows exactly how to address problem x, by implementing solution y, the leader still needs to know whether problem x is occurring and who is facing it. Modern governments expend considerable time and resources trying to collect reliable information, but there's still so much they don't know.

Let's relate this problem to current circumstances. There was an article last month in Time about the debate over whether there is currently a credit crunch in the US. There in fact has been considerable debate among economists and in the blogsphere on this issue. Many economists think credit is extremely tight right now, but there's also much opposition who think that the extent of this credit crunch has been overexaggerated. Some things are clear from this debate: 1) the data is not entirely unambiguous concerning the availability of credit to businesses, banks and individuals, and 2) the situation is complex with different creditors and different potential borrowers facing very different situations. The fact is, that people are getting credit and loans, it's just a matter of whether there is enough credit available. Unfortunately, what exactly enough is in this context is ultimately unknown (they usually just assume a given amount by extrapolating trend lines, but this is not entirely unproblematic).

But it gets even worse, because the credit crunch is just one problem among many. We don't know exactly whether there is a credit crunch, exactly how severe it is, and thus our ability to address it as a problem is very limited. And then there are many other issues and problems that are similar: issues we only partially understand and only partially understand how to fix. Think about the situation with the credit crunch: we're talking about thousands and thousands of individuals and institutions dealing with lending and borrowing. For many, things are fine. For others, things could be improved. But how it could be improved, can vary a lot. If we try a blanket approach, it's going to hurt some for whom things are fine, help some for whom things are fine, as well as harm some for whom things could be better, because it can't be addressed to every last one of these individuals. Problem-solving is best left decentralized because then the various individuals can have a better shot of understanding all the relevant factors in their situation and addressing them, even if they perhaps do not have the grand oversight to see how best to achieve the ideal state of things.

These are the type of issues that a leader would face in Plato's society, even if that leader had perfect access to knowledge and was unclouded by biases and selfish proclivities. In all likelihood, a truly philosophical and knowledgeable leader would ultimately end up doing very little, and would probably much better approximate Lao Tzu's ideal leader:
[The highest kind of leader] completes his tasks and finishes his affairs.
Yet the common people say, "These things all happened by nature.(17, trans Hendricks)

Monday, January 19, 2009

Douglass and Stowe

I just finished reading through Uncle Tom's Cabin, which was somewhat of a disappointment, but interesting. Right before it, I'd read through Douglass' Slave Narrative, which is excellent, and definitely should be read by all. The two were definitely good to be read together. They provide a sobering reminder of the intransigence of ideas that are both immoral and ineffective. That such an immoral practice as slavery could happen and continue for so long, Douglass does try to explain, by saying that it is a corrupting institution, that if even a good person holds slaves, they will tend to be corrupted by it. Stowe sees the power that being a slaveholder gives as being really the most corrupting aspect, and I tend to agree.

But the ineffectiveness of slavery also deserves comment. Here, I simply mean that slavery was an unproductive way of organizing labor. The economic disparity between the American North and South provides the best illustration of this. the South and North went from roughly economically equally well off around 1790, to the North being far wealthier by 1860. Explanations have been given by historians for this disparity, but the major difference between the North and South is the obvious primary reason: the South had slaves, the North didn't. Other differences result from this fundamental difference.

There are numerous reasons why slave labor is economically considerably less productive than free labor, and the two books give us a number of examples. Firstly, slave owners prevented their slaves from being educated. Perhaps a prudent policy if they didn't want slaves to run away, but this could've only improved the productivity of their slaves, making them more skilled, especially if you have a slave like Frederick Douglass, who was smart enough that he would be far more valuable as a skilled laborer than an unskilled laborer. Secondly, slave owners actually discouraged labor saving innovations. These would have allowed slave owners to produce far more, in the same amount of time with fewer hands, which would considerably increase profits. But slave owners discouraged slaves from innovating because they assumed the slaves were being lazy. Thirdly, slaves had little incentive to work hard. The laziness of slaves is a constant complaint among slave owners. Free laborers work hard because they have the incentive of making more money or advancing themselves, but there is little prospect for advancement for slaves. Thus, the only incentive to work hard is to avoid punishment, which is a weaker incentive, especially if overseers and owners meted out punishment arbitrarily (which they frequently did) or meted it out too often (which can make the slave think it is inevitable and thus not try hard to avoid it). And there are other reasons besides these three why slavery was considerably less efficient.

The question is, if slavery is both inefficient and immoral, why did it hold on? I think part of it is the pleasure of power, as I have already mentioned. The other is ignorance of the wealth that freedom would bring. Douglass describes how surprised he was to find that in the North, there were many wealthy individuals without slaves. He had assumed, from his experience in the South, that the only way a person could be wealthy is by owning slaves. Only the wealthier Southerners owned slaves. Douglass also found to his surprise that people up North that were relatively poor for Northerners, were actually better off than even most Southern slave holders. If Southern slave holders had realized that by moving North, liberating all their slaves, and hiring them back as paid employees they could actually make more money, it's doubtful they would have so zealously tried to hold onto their privilege of slave holding. But, like the young Douglass, with only experience of wealthy persons owning slaves, Southerners were led to conclude that robbing them of their slaves would merely impoverish the Southern aristocracy.

Ultimately, they didn't really have enough information to make a good comparison to life with slaves and life without. And it may be this which ultimately explains the intransigence of ineffective ideas. Even when tried out, ideas aren't properly compared to alternatives and thus seem adequate enough.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Centralization of Science

Aaron E. Hirsh has an interesting column about the centralization of science. He thinks science is becoming more centralized in the hands of a few large institutions
Across many different fields, new data are generated by a smaller and smaller number of bigger and bigger projects. And with this process of centralization come changes in what scientists measure — and even in what scientists are.
and his primary example is the Large Hadron Collider.

It is clear that this is going on in particle physics, as experiments become much bigger and more expensive. But I disagree that it is realistic to think this is going on in all disciplines. He does cite the few number of institutions for example consulted for information on CO2 levels, or for mapping genomes, but he doesn't actually point to any trend of fewer institutions now than there used to be, in fact I think there is expansion going on. The cost of mapping a single human genome has been dropping rapidly since we first began trying to do it, and it is anticipated to continue to the point where things are like in the movie Gattaca, and companies and individuals can afford their own automated instant genome readers.

Genetics is a thriving area of scientific research for this reason, whereas particle physics, sorry to say, is not. Physics thrived in the nineteenth century as thermodynamics was the hot topic, and then in the early twentieth century elementary particle physics was the new hot topic and a whole slew of great scientists worked side by side: Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Bohr, Paui, and on and on. The problem was it got more expensive to do empirical research and larger and larger particle accelerators became necessary. There are dramatic increases in costs from Galileo rolling balls down hills to Count Rumford measuring the heat produced in cannon boring, to building a 17 miles particle accelerator to see a Higgs Boson particle. Nowadays, discoveries in areas more like genetics, psychology and medicine are showing up in newspapers more frequently and are sources of considerable discovery. Its because physics is subject more to the trend of centralization than these other fields. Decentralization makes for more fertile science.

Hirsh's antidote to the centralization trends is "Citizen Science," which is data collection by vast numbers of individuals consolidated into large databases, generally facilitated by the internet. Here Hirsh is really onto something, and this trend is already beginning to happen, in many fields. It may be hard to imagine how might expand Citizen Science into a a field like particle physics, but with other fields that have tended to centralize, like astronomy and climate research I think there is potential. Lots of people have miniature weather stations, lots of people have telescopes, just a matter of collecting the information and consolidating it. I agree with Hirsh that Citizen Science will probably become a big part of scientific research in the future, especially in certain areas of research that are more amenable to this type of data collection. And this will further foster greater scientific advancement.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Election imprecision

I've just been thinking about the still undecided Senate election in Minnesota between Al Franken and Norm Coleman. Politics aside, to me the issue is ultimately a measurement issue. The purpose of an election is to measure the preference of the active voting population. When the margin between the lead candidates is large, there is no real issue with deciding who voters prefer. The methods and technology used are accurate enough that we can easily determine that one candidate is preferred by the active voting population over another. But when the election results are close, we can't really make such a determination because the measuring device just isn't precise enough.

This is similar to the problem faced by early geodesy in measuring the circumference of the earth. For example Eratosthenes around 240 BC first calculated the circumference of the earth using measurement of shadows at a solstice and the distance between Alexandria and Swenet. His estimate was probably better than 99% accurate, which is quite good considering the technology he was using. Realistically, he couldn't have done much better with out much improved measurement technology and it was roughly two millennia before much more accurate measurements were made. Now, if we were comparing the size of the earth to the size of some other nearly equivalently sized planet using Eratosthenes' technique, we wouldn't be able to determine which planet was bigger if they were too close in size. We'd need a better measuring stick. Similarly, imagine if you were trying to compare the height of two different trees over fifty feet in height that are within inches of each other's height and all you've got to measure with is a yard stick. For all practical purposes, it would be a tie for which one is taller.

The same goes with the election in Minnesota. There were about 2.9 million votes counted for Senate, and the difference between Franken and Coleman is less than three hundred votes. Which means that there is about a .0078% difference. The vote count is subject to imprecision for many reasons, including mistakes by voters and deliberate fraud. In addition, now that the election is over there have been debates and legal actions about counting certain votes, and politicians and courts fighting over which ones are legitimate and so on. This factors make it impossible for us to know exactly what the active voters' preference was. For all practical purposes, the election is a tie.

This type of thing is inevitable so long as you have elections with relatively primitive vote-counting technology. And the more people you get voting the larger the absolute difference in voters it takes to have an election that's too close to be able to distinguish the preference of the active voters. It happened in Florida in 2000 and it will happen again. The solutions are either to simply use re-votes, or to update the technology, use more electronic technology that's going to be less subject to uncertainty, to let absentee voters vote via phone or internet, so that they know their votes will definitely get counted. Otherwise, you get a situation like you have now in Minnesota and had in Florida where the voters are not the one's choosing who gets elected.

Monday, January 12, 2009

False moral dilemma on torture

It was put forth during the Bush administration as the US pursued terrorist intelligence-gathering that torture was necessary in order to gather information to thwart terrorist plots and thereby save lives. Some objected that it is morally reprehensible to torture, which sets up an interesting moral dilemma: is the suffering of one worth saving many lives. A Utilitarian ethicist would respond yes (since the suffering of the many victims is clearly outweighed by the suffering of one or a few), many other ethical schools of thought would respond no, and this would lead to an interesting ethical debate. Alas, such a debate rests on a false premise, namely that torture is actually an effective and reliable way to extract information, and thus there really is no dilemma.

A survey of movies, tv shows and books can provide ample examples of torture used in many different ways to extract reliable information. The hero has capture some minion of the antagonist, the minion is reluctant, the hero applies pain, and suddenly the minion is talking. This genuinely realistic scenario can lead us to think that pain makes people talk and if the person is still reluctant under minor torture, then we just need to apply more torture and yet more torture and then they'll talk. This is the foundation for a longstanding view, which made torture in Roman times and the Middle Ages an instrumental part of jurisprudence. Torture was considered to make people unable to lie. Thus, confessions extracted under torture were actually considered more reliable by courts. This is a good example of what is called "naive psychology," namely the understanding of human psychology that the average person develops through experience. Naive psychology is generally accurate in most normal situations, but for less common situations our naive psychology becomes generally inadequate and sometimes grossly mistaken.

In this case, though our naive psychology can lead us to an inaccurate view, nonetheless, I think our naive psychology is sufficient to help us understand why torture doesn't work, simply if we reflect upon it a bit more. Let's imagine three scenarios. Scenario one: a person active in terrorist organizations bearing considerable information is captured by US officials, he is at first reluctant to give information, they apply torture, he starts confessing what he knows. Scenario two: another person active in terrorist organizations bearing considerable information is captured, he too is reluctant to give information but is persuaded under torture and tells them all he knows, unfortunately officials think he is either lying or is hiding something, they apply more torture, now he starts making stuff up just to get them to stop, and he starts telling them the names of real but innocent people. Scenario three: a person with little or no connections to any terrorist organizations is captured and is completely honest and forthright about knowing nothing, officials think he is hiding something, they torture him, he finally cracks and starts making things up to get them to stop and he again starts telling them the names of real but innocent people. Of these three scenarios only scenario one actually provided accurate information, and scenario one can easily slip into scenario two, and scenario two leads to innocent people being captured, which creates scenario three, which is probably the most common. This is the type of thing that happened with the many centuries of anti-witch efforts in Christian Europe. People would be suspected of witchcraft and consorting with the devil. They would be captured, tortured, and ultimately made to confess. And then they would be forced to name others. Since, of course they weren't a witch and didn't consort with the devil and thereby knew no other witches, they would provide the names of other innocent people. And the cycle would continue. And I can guarantee that all three of these scenarios still do happen in our anti-terrorist efforts today.

Torture is a good way of extracting confessions. You can probably get a person to confess to just about anything under torture. You can get someone to confess to having kidnapped the Lindberg baby, assassinated Kennedy. sold nuclear secrets to Russia and brought Hussein to power if you just tried hard enough. But if you're intending to get reliable information for use in intelligence gathering, torture is very unreliable. You don't know whether the person is being honest or is simply saying things to get the torture to stop. Vanity Fair had an article last month about how unreliable our information-gather through torture has been.

Generally the most effective way to get information from people is to earn their trust. In the case of terrorist suspects, that would mean putting moles in their prison cells: people from their native country who will get friendly with them and get them to start telling their secrets. We humans don't really like keeping secrets and love having an outlet for information that's bottled up. This requires a bit more subtlety and a bit more patience. Torture is a way of getting quick results, which is why it is more attractive to the military and the government. With torture they can point to better productivity--namely more information and more confessions extracted--even if most of the information is junk.

There is very little morally objectionable about using moles to get to people to confess, and its more reliable. Thus, as it turns out in this situation, the most reliable method and the most ethical method are one and the same. No dilemma here.

Update: Julian Sanchez over at Cato lays down a number of the unseen disadvantages to using torture for interrogation, bolstering the case that torture really isn't a pragmatically sound option.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Higher and Lower Pleasures in Mill

Mill distinguishes higher and lower pleasures in his essay on "Utilitarianism." Presumably higher pleasures are generally more intellectual pleasures and lower pleasures are more sensual pleasures. Mill's utilitarianism is an ethics that says the highest good is what produces the most pleasure. Bentham before him hadn't made this distinction and his ultilitarianism had been criticized as an "ethics of swine." Clearly, it seems, to maximize pleasures you should just seek the most and best of food, drink, sleep, sex, etc. But Mill comes along and responds that you should instead there are higher pleasures. So, reading a good book, seeing a good play or other edifying pleasures would be far superior and would supersede food, drink, sleep, sex etc.

The question is, are the type of pleasures he designates higher pleasures really more pleasurable? They seem to be the types of things that a well educated Victorian gentleman would valorize. Most philosophers (with rare exceptions like Aristippus and the Cyrenaic school, who valorized bodily pleasures) would agree. But I don't think most people would agree. Is Mill right?

To be fair to Mill lets try to compare apples to apples, and compare the most pleasurable intellectual pleasures with the most pleasurable physical pleasures, and try to see what we would prefer. The most pleasurable physical pleasure I think is clear: sex. And of course, we should imagine here good sex, with someone that you very much want to have sex with. The most pleasurable intellectual pleasure is not so clear. I think it would be curiosity. And I think the best example of that is a book that you simply can't put down. So, to discern whether intellectual pleasures are really higher try to think of being in the middle of a wonderfully engaging book that you simply can't put down (neither to eat or sleep) until you're done. At this point, the man or woman of desire requests that you put the book down and have sex right now. Do you a) keep reading and defer the sex for an hour (we'll assume, to make things equal, that the person is willing to wait an hour) or b) have sex and defer reading for an hour? Many would put the book down simply because it can wait whereas the other is a real person with feelings, but for the sake of this thought experiment, to keep things equal, we should imagine that the person is infinitely patient and won't feel slighted. Try to give both sides a fair shake. And try to think of the aftermath, of the pleasures after the fact from the one and the other If you'd choose the book, then maybe Mill is on to something. But if you choose the sex, maybe Mill's attempt to dodge the criticism that utilitarianism is nothing but swine morality is groundless.

Postscript. What would happen if I said the best physical pleasure is a sustained mind-blowing, cosmic, out-of-body Tantric orgasm? Is there any intellectual pleasures as good as that? Or is that an example of an intellectual pleasure?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The ethics of prosperity

Isaac M. Morehouse writes an interesting article about the contrast between the ethics of Hesiod, who was a laborer living in a time of relative Greek poverty and Aristotle who was an Aristocrat living at the tail end of a time of relative Greek affluence. Hesiod was at the forefront of a long period of Greek economic growth, whereas Aristotle was in the midst of a period of significant decline. Morehouse notes,
generations who grow up wealthy often lack respect for or understanding of the values and ideas that generated the very wealth from which they benefit
There is an honesty, realism, and practical virtue often accompanying generations that have to endure difficult labor that is sometimes lost on later generations that inherit a comfortable material life.
I think Morehouse rightly characterizes Aristotle as a philosopher who believes in virtue as born of leisure, which is certainly not an economically productive mode of living. Prosperity creates the possibility for leisure, and a possibility of abandoning the more difficult type of ethics that attained the prosperity.

It leads to the question of whether prosperity inevitably leads people to abandon the ethic that got them there and lead to the inevitable decline that follows prosperity. Many great and diligent entrepreneurs of substantial wealth often do produce children who, instead of being the hardworking creators of successful business like their parent are rather great patrons of the arts or world travelers or womanizers or other such more enjoyable pursuits.