Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Clark's Naturalism

Last year I read two important books about metaphysical naturalism, which are very different from each other. I'll review the first today, Thomas Clark's brief summary (only 101 pages) of the naturalist worldview, in aid of his website and institute devoted to the subject, the Center for Naturalism (which has been much updated of late, and now has a rather elegant look and a great collection of articles). His book Encountering Naturalism: A Worldview and Its Uses has the virtue of being a good, brief introduction to naturalism as a worldview, emphasizing the utility of embracing it--personally, socially, and politically (his website continues that theme).

Encountering Naturalism is not a defense of naturalism nor a complete survey, but more like a set of predictions regarding what would be the case, or how we should act, if naturalism were true. But in the process you get a good idea of what naturalism means in terms of the nature of the world and our selves. And in that respect, in large part and on most issues, we agree. But on some important points we disagree. Some will have quibbles here and there about his history of naturalism, but nothing I consider very important. And there may be other disputable trivia like that, which I won't trouble myself with. Clark's book is also a tad redundant, which is particularly unexpected for such a short work. But that's just a matter of style. A more substantive disagreement regards how to define the supernatural, although I think here his error lies in not having or not applying a coherent or well-thought-out definition at all, which could easily be corrected by revising what he says in light of, perhaps, what I have said on that subject (see Defining the Supernatural). [I should also mention (though it is no fault of his) that since his book was published, my home page has changed, so the URL he provides on p. 97 should now read simply www.richardcarrier.info.]

More important is our slightly more significant disagreement about whether and when emotions are warranted. I think anger, for example, is more often warranted than he does, by facts he fails to consider. He occasionally commits the fallacy of thinking that by eliminating one warranting fact, he has eliminated them all. And I think forgiveness is not so readily warranted as he does, by requiring conditions he fails to consider. Cause-and-effect entails that forgiveness must be hard to earn or else it has no value, and it is only by having such value that the desire to earn it (which is caused by socially creating the need to earn it) can cause people to better themselves or right their wrongs or correct their flaws of character. And since we can't mechanically reform people with brain surgery (nor should we, even if we could), reform must come from the individual, and therefore the individual must be caused to motivate themselves. Every other approach has been scientifically demonstrated to fail.

Every expert on drug addiction, for example, will tell you the same thing: escape is impossible until the individual acknowledges they have a problem and embraces on their own the desire to change. No amount of external meddling without those conditions will have any effect. Though external influences must eventually cause those internal conditions to obtain, it is precisely by teaching the importance of personal self-reflection and responsibility (among other things) that we can cause those conditions to obtain. In this and other respects, Clark seems distrustful of American concepts of individual responsibility, as if they were rooted in superstitions about free will, when in fact our memes of individual responsibility have a solid foundation in social and psychological principles of deterministic cause and effect, without any need of a supernatural doctrine of free will. The connection between free will and American individualism is a red herring, one that overly distracts Clark in my opinion.

I explain my own rather different views of the role and importance of emotions (including the conditions of their warrant) in Sense and Goodness without God, pp. 193-208, backed by bibliographies in the latest science of emotion. Likewise, my rather different view of free will is covered there on pp. 97-117. Like Clark, I also reject the superstitious notion of absolute (or supernatural or "libertarian") free will, as in fact logically incoherent. But a coherent concept of free will is provided by modern compatibilism, which is entirely defensible even in the context of determinist physics (in fact, it is almost certainly the kind of free will we actually have, and is the only kind of free will recognized in American law).

To be honest, I have always found Clark's obsession with the free will issue almost blindingly gratuitous. This obsession is reflected in his book, where he revisits the issue again and again--in my opinion, to excess. He does this because he believes it is of central importance. I do not. I think it is almost entirely a non-issue. Every objection anyone has to determinism is based on an incoherent understanding of human will, and thus all those objections vanish when you produce a coherent account of the issue at hand, and in the end nothing really changes for how we should behave or what attitude we should embrace. Clark misses this conclusion by trying too hard to show how things change when we abandon popular superstitions about free will, when in reality anyone who takes a rational position on any issue in the first place will find that it doesn't matter what you think of free will. For example, purely retributive justice is demonstrably immoral regardless of whether we have supernatural free will, and is not rationally supportable even if we did. That's a far more important conclusion. You will understand a lot more about the world, when you understand that.

Accordingly, as naturalists Clark and I occasionally come to different conclusions about what attitudes and behaviors are warranted in various contexts. I think he hangs far too much on his premises about free will, and in consequence I believe some of his conclusions are naively dangerous. For example, on page 65 he suggests a disbelief in supernatural free will warrants politically suppressing free trade and free speech, to create a world in which the government decides what we can see, hear, or have access to, in order to "protect" us from ourselves. That is a doomed project that gives far too much power to the state, power that (as the empirical facts of history and human psychology demonstrate) will never be used with enough uniform justice to ever be a good idea. A better plan
(which Clark also supports) is to promote an education system that teaches people as individuals to make informed, critical, self-reflective decisions, so they can't be so easily manipulated by advertising or propaganda in the first place. That gives power back where it belongs: to the people themselves, not some nebulous cabal of black hats in D.C. (or wherever). Again, a culture of individual responsibility causes people to take charge of their own lives, as they are perfectly capable of doing, if educated with the appropriate skills and experience. The result will always be a better world, with power more decentralized, and people making better decisions in every aspect of their lives.

Nevertheless, despite the disagreements I have enumerated, we far more often agree, and Clark often says things well, and covers angles and subjects I only skim in my book. His entire approach of applied naturalism is one well worth adding to your life and library. At the very least, Encountering Naturalism makes a good starting point for thoughts and discussions about the implications of naturalism and how as a worldview it can improve our decisions and behavior, and our society and government as a whole. Because even when you disagree with him, the effort this will motivate (to identify where either he or you have gone wrong in your thinking, and what the facts establish is correct) will be of considerable use to every naturalist thinker. And to that end I recommend Clark's very affordable book.


For a follow-up essay on Clark's naturalism, in which I respond to his critique of my review here, see Does Free Will Matter?

37 comments:

AIGBusted said...

I popped the comment cherry! lol.

Sounds like a good book. Can't wait for your next review.

By the way, I've written a book about Naturalism, you can read excerpts here:

http://www.godriddance.com/book.php

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

Rick,

You focused on the disagreements and alluded to a greater wealth of worthwhileness. It would seem prudent to get into that at least a little bit. For instance, just listing the items he expands on that you only "skimmed" would be a decent start. Just a suggestion.

Ben

Tom Clark said...

Richard,

Many thanks for your review of Encountering Naturalism and I’m of course pleased that overall you found it worthwhile. Thanks for recommending it and for your kind words about Naturalism.Org. I’ll respond to some of your criticisms, but this shouldn’t obscure the fact that we are in substantial agreement about naturalism and its significance. And let me say that I nearly always find your analyses and arguments cogent and on the mark, and I’ve benefited greatly from your scholarship. So my reply to your points (in order of their appearance in the review) is in a collaborative spirit.

I agree the book is somewhat redundant. Some of the material in Appendix A on Concerns and Reassurances repeats things in the earlier chapters and there’s also some overlap in the discussions of policy (chapter 6) and the culture wars (chapter 8). You’re also right that I didn’t offer a rigorous, defensible definition of the supernatural (an interesting question, I’ll read your blog on it). Instead I relied on commonsense intuitions about supernatural agents like God, angels, etc. and supernatural powers such as contra-causal free will. As you noted, the book doesn’t marshall detailed philosophical arguments as does your Good Sense Without God, but rather provides a concise description of worldview naturalism and its implications for ordinary folks interested in getting the lay of the land.

Re anger, forgiveness and changing behavior: I agree (and say in the book) that anger is sometimes justifiable and necessary, but point out that a naturalistic understanding of ourselves helps to undercut a belief that can incite over-the-top and counterproductive anger: that the person could have done otherwise in the situation as it transpired. You’re right that forgiveness must be earned to be worthwhile, in that those seeking it must show genuine contrition and determination to change their behavior. And we agree that as you put it “external influences must eventually cause those internal conditions to obtain.” I also agree that “our memes of individual responsibility have a solid foundation in social and psychological principles of deterministic cause and effect, without any need of a supernatural doctrine of free will.” But of course many, perhaps most folks think we *do* need supernatural, contra-causal free will for individual responsibility (and many other basic desiderata), and showing we don’t need it was a major focus of the sections on morality and responsibility in the book.

It seems we disagree on the extent of the connection between American individualism and other central attitudes and beliefs and the belief in contra-causal free will. If as you say the connection is a red herring, then Americans won’t mind being corrected about free will. But in my experience they hold onto it tooth and nail – they really dislike they idea that they’re fully caused. So whether most folks will agree with you about the sufficiency of compatibilism is an open question, see for instance this paper concerning recent research on beliefs about free will.

(more to come in a second post due to space limitations on replies)

Tom Clark said...

Continuing my earlier post replying to Richard's review of Encountering Naturalism:

You’re right that I focus on free will a lot (which adds to the impression of redundancy no doubt), since the book is largely about naturalizing our ideas about self and agency and what follows from that. There’s plenty of literature debunking God, but not that much debunking the soul (what I call the little god) and its supernatural free will. You say I’m “trying too hard to show how things change when we abandon popular superstitions about free will, when in reality anyone who takes a rational position on any issue *in the first place* will find that it doesn't matter what you think of free will.” But the belief in contra-causal free will (CCFW) *is* irrational, hence needs correcting, and I argue that correcting it has considerable implications because it’s so central to our self-conception (this gets discussed in a recent interview at Point of Inquiry ). Even though as you say retributive justice is immoral whether or not we have CCFW, the *belief* in CCFW helps support retributive attitudes and policies, so changing that belief should help move us toward a consequentialist criminal justice system. Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen make this argument in their paper For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything.

You say that I suggest “a disbelief in supernatural free will warrants politically suppressing free trade and free speech, to create a world in which the government decides what we can see, hear, or have access to, in order to ‘protect’ us from ourselves.” This distorts my position considerably. I say “Why shouldn’t the state play a role in fostering healthy behavior and encouraging wise choices? Self-control and mental health are achieved not through the miracle of free will, but through education, environments, and policies that permit optimal development and that provide help when things go wrong.” And in the next paragraph I say “And if we accept that choices about eating, drinking, smoking and gambling are a function of external temptations as well as individual discipline, that’s a good reason to adopt policies of *public* self-management, for instance regulations that limit the advertising and availability of junk food, cigarettes and slot machines.” It’s clear from the rest of the book that, as a good progressive, I’m fully committed to individual liberties, democratic process and the open society, so embarking on public self-management as I envision it wouldn’t be political suppression, but a freely chosen policy decision on the part of the electorate and their representatives. The connection between naturalism and support for the open society is discussed here.

Despite these disagreements, I’m glad we’re on the same page about the incoherence of CCFW, the need “to promote an education system that teaches people as individuals to make informed, critical, self-reflective decisions, so they can't be so easily manipulated by advertising or propaganda in the first place,” and of course the essentials of naturalism. Even though this exchange has focused on some residual differences, I certainly can’t complain about your generally positive review. Many thanks!

Sabio Lantz said...

I've called myself a naturalist but not read people who take "naturalist" to imply a determined way one needs to view politics, emotions and the like. I am very suspicious of these agendas, but will keep reading.

Humphrey said...

"For example, on page 65 he suggests a disbelief in supernatural free will warrants politically suppressing free trade and free speech, to create a world in which the government decides what we can see, hear, or have access to, in order to "protect" us from ourselves"

That sounds utterly crazy to me. Tom might want to read Michael Burleigh's 'Earthly Powers' and 'Sacred Causes' to see the kinds of similarly utopian ideas which were being dreamed up in the 19th century, and the deadly results they would have in the 20th.

Humphrey said...

Ah, apologies. I see from the comment above that he is a good liberal like myself.

Richard Carrier said...

Sabio Lantz said... I've called myself a naturalist but not read people who take "naturalist" to imply a determined way one needs to view politics, emotions and the like. I am very suspicious of these agendas, but will keep reading.

Nothing wrong with caution. As long as you can argue from purely naturalist and factual premises to the conclusion that a particular political or other view is unwarranted (or vice versa), then you're a naturalist. Naturalism doesn't require agreement. Because naturalists are capable of being corrected or persuaded by sound arguments.

Sabio Lantz said...

Curious: I suspect that political positions can not be argued from purely rational or naturalist presuppositions, not enough data or tests. I find very bright people arguing very differently. This is not to despair of reason, and certainly, if someone makes an empirical statement, we must try to test them if possible.

Interestingly, I just suggested with some Christians that they call me a "naturalists" instead of a "materialists" because of the nuances of the words (which are as important as "definitions"):
a) only believe in matter (naturalists are open to much more)
b) the term is pejorative and implies no value placed on desires and values.

What do you think?

Richard Carrier said...

WAR_ON_ERROR said... You focused on the disagreements and alluded to a greater wealth of worthwhileness. It would seem prudent to get into that at least a little bit. For instance, just listing the items he expands on that you only "skimmed" would be a decent start.

I wasn't sure how to. Explaining what we agree on and why becomes redundant with my book and his, and would double the length of the review, so it seemed unnecessary. Anyone who reads both books will already know what our agreements are, once I've bracketed out our points of disagreement, as I've done here (which is what people always ask me about a book anyway). And as I hoped, Tom has helped clarify even those, so our disagreements are even narrower.

Instead, I categorized the whole content of his book with "the implications of naturalism and how as a worldview it can improve our decisions and behavior, and our society and government as a whole" thereby "emphasizing the utility of embracing it--personally, socially, and politically." Our agreements on those points really are too numerous to list (even trying to ascertain a "list" would be a chore, since he doesn't exactly work from a list). I'd rather people just read his book.

You might get a feeling for what I mean if you read his book and try yourself to write a paragraph or two about "what we agree on." But if, unlike me, you have an easy time of that, you can post it here.

Richard Carrier said...

In extension of what I said earlier, I think we should focus here on our disagreements precisely because we don’t need to discuss what we agree on. When we’re already on the same page, nothing need be said. But disagreements require more understanding and communication, and this kind of cordial exchange is just the sort of thing naturalists should engage in more, in the hope of converging more and more on a common worldview, or at least to an understanding of why differences of opinion remain warranted among us.

To that end...

Tom Clark said... Instead I relied on commonsense intuitions about supernatural agents like God, angels, etc. and supernatural powers such as contra-causal free will.

As do most. See my discussion of that fact (when I did a poll of fellow naturalists) in my critique of Michael Rea (which should also be linked in my blog about the supernatural). I think you'll find that interesting, and helpful. In general we need to analyze vital terms more carefully, to ensure their coherence and root out uncertainty and vagueness.

Tom Clark said... I agree (and say in the book) that anger is sometimes justifiable and necessary, but point out that a naturalistic understanding of ourselves helps to undercut a belief that can incite over-the-top and counterproductive anger: that the person could have done otherwise in the situation as it transpired.

Which is the fallacy I referred to: simply eliminating that one factor does not eliminate other conditions of warrant. Anger can be justified even at a person who could not have done otherwise (which even you agree with, if you regard anger as ever justified at all). It can even be justified at material objects. Anger is an essential component of human survival and the management of their environment. IMO, it has nothing to do with "could have done otherwise." That's a red herring.

I think discussing the latter point further warrants a whole blog (which I just posted: Does Free Will Matter?). I’ll just close next with the remaining point about politics.

[BTW, Tom, a bit of editing advice: you need to replace all the smart quotes on your website with the correct HTML codes ([ampersand][pound]8216; for example, and 8217, 8220, and 8221, which should display as ‘ ’ and “ ”), because the characters you are using now don't display in many browsers, showing up as an unrecognized character block that makes an ugly site of every paper there.]

Richard Carrier said...

How Much Power Should the Majority Have?

Tom Clark said... You say that I suggest “a disbelief in supernatural free will warrants politically suppressing free trade and free speech, to create a world in which the government decides what we can see, hear, or have access to, in order to ‘protect’ us from ourselves.” This distorts my position considerably. I say “Why shouldn’t the state play a role in fostering healthy behavior and encouraging wise choices? Self-control and mental health are achieved not through the miracle of free will, but through education, environments, and policies that permit optimal development and that provide help when things go wrong.” And in the next paragraph I say “And if we accept that choices about eating, drinking, smoking and gambling are a function of external temptations as well as individual discipline, that’s a good reason to adopt policies of *public* self-management, for instance regulations that limit the advertising and availability of junk food, cigarettes and slot machines.” It’s clear from the rest of the book that, as a good progressive, I’m fully committed to individual liberties, democratic process and the open society, so embarking on public self-management as I envision it wouldn’t be political suppression, but a freely chosen policy decision on the part of the electorate and their representatives. The connection between naturalism and support for the open society is discussed here.

I don't think you understand my objection here. It is precisely because you think "a freely chosen policy decision on the part of the electorate and their representatives" to regulate the behaviors of those who disagree is "progressive" and supports "individual liberties" that I find your trend in thinking that worries me. That's why I called it "naively dangerous," i.e. I did not say you were aware of the consequences I discuss, but that you weren't. That you still aren't is exactly what bothers me. Hence I didn't say you were anti-progressive or anti-liberal, but that your position on free will appears to lead you into political positions that could be destructive of both.

But I must be clear: I am not a Libertarian (at least as such). I actually do support government regulation, for example. I think it is perfectly within society's rights to ban smoking in public places because it is a public nuisance (just like foul smells, loud noises, etc.). But to ban smoking altogether (to establish yet another Prohibition) is simply out of bounds, both in principle (give the government the power to do that, and you give it the power to do almost anything--like, say, ban homosexual sex, or teen access to sex education), and in demonstrated practice (nothing good has come out of either Prohibition era, neither of alcohol nor drugs). It sounds great to give power to the majority when you assume the majority is reasonable and making only sound, fact-based decisions, but notice that that is almost never the case and you'll realize why "majority rules" is never a good model of government. Using "there is no CCF" as an excuse to give government powers it shouldn't have, is exactly as I said: naively dangerous.

For example, you suggest banning advertising, which gives the government the power to decide what can be published or said. Now, banning dishonest advertising, fully reasonable. Allowing the government to decide what advertisements will appear on properties it owns (like, currently, the public broadcast frequencies), acceptable. But a total ban, that can't be tolerated--the mere power to do that should never be supported, regardless of what you think it might be used for. To argue that "people don't have CCF, therefore the mob should have the power to control what people see, hear, say, and do" is simply unsound political philosophy, top to bottom.

You may not realize that's what you were arguing, but if so, think it through, and you might want to reword things in a second edition.

Richard Carrier said...

Sabio Lantz said... Curious: I suspect that political positions cannot be argued from purely rational or naturalist presuppositions, not enough data or tests. I find very bright people arguing very differently.

On both points, see my book's entire section on Politics (pp. 367-408). In general, the answer to "not enough data or tests" should be to get the data and tests (hence I think a major problem with modern politics is that hardly anyone is doing it empirically, as they should be). But in many cases there actually are plenty of data and tests, but so-called "experts" simply ignore it, or deliberately distort it (which you can catch them doing when you check the data yourself, and thus identify honest from dishonest "experts," see my book’s section on how to develop a method for relying on authorities: pp. 58-59).

You should approach policy debates the same way you approach debates between scientists and fundamentalists. In science we've carved out a community of experts who adhere to a code and methodology and seek consensus through methods that trump opinion, but in politics we have not, we just let anybody claim to be a politician or pundit or expert, and consensus is often specifically avoided rather than sought, and consequently it is much harder to identify who is on the 'bullsh*t' side of any issue (especially since often both sides are, there being no consistent standard employed by anyone, liberal or conservative, to vet or limit who gets to count as an expert, nor any accepted methodology that experts are supposed to adhere to, again unlike the sciences, even when political experts claim to be scientific).

So in a policy debate, play 'find the fundie'. I don't mean the actual Christian fundamentalist, I mean the analog to the Creationist in the Evolution debate: someone (possibly everyone) is using the same bankrupt tactics and methods as the Creationists do, while very possibly someone (maybe not the one who's getting the press, and possibly that someone at times will have to be you) is using reliable methods like Scientists do (or Historians do, as politics must often rely on historical data that is less certain in its conclusions than science).

Hence as long as you stick to the genuine facts, and remain logical (avoiding fallacies, etc.), and accept degrees of uncertainty (and even distribute risk accordingly), you will be arriving at sound naturalist politics, including the possibility of proving we don't know for sure what the right answer is. Everyone else is full of sh*t and should be told so to their face.

[Re: "naturalism" vs. "materialism"] What do you think?

I agree with you. Materialism is an outmoded word that wasn’t even correct when it was adopted and is even less so now. It’s not even well defined. My book explains what naturalism entails, and it is far more refined than 19th century "materialism." So I find the latter word useless.

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

Rick,

I was just hoping for some idea of where Clark best expands on something you touched on in S&G, but it's no big deal.

thanks,
Ben

Tom Clark said...

Richard,

Thanks for your replies and the blog on the importance of free will which I hope to respond to.

Just a couple of points:

You wrote regarding justifications for anger:

"Which is the fallacy I referred to: simply eliminating that one factor does not eliminate other conditions of warrant."

I'm not sure how I committed this fallacy since I explicitly said in the book there *are* other conditions of warrant for anger.


I agree with you that "To argue that 'people don't have CCF [contra-causal free will], therefore the mob should have the power to control what people see, hear, say, and do' is simply unsound political philosophy, top to bottom." But of course I didn't argue that, only that policies to restrict certain sorts of advertising might be good to adopt, subject to legislative approval and of course the checks and balances of the executive and the courts. This has already been done for liquor ads on TV in some jurisdictions (the whole country?) and no one is talking about mob rule.

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

It's hard to say what the more appropriate emphasis is sometimes. If you "ignore the issue" (by not making as big a deal about it as Clark), then much of your superstitiously inclined audience might be totally lost and misfiling every concept thrown at them because they are convinced they just don't get it (even if there's no reason intellectually that they are incapable). But then again, if you focus a great deal on it like Clark apparently has, you miss the opportunity to show them practical issues that are technically more important. And ultimately you run into so many people who all such attempts just bounce off the cranium no matter what you say. What do you do when you've done the best you can and it's still not good enough, even though it's not your fault? I think I've found myself there a bit more often than I care for. I suppose the virtue of being correct has to have greater weight in the face of general failure to communicate (assuming that's what happens either way), and so Carrier seems to be more correct. If that matters.

Ben

Richard Carrier said...

War_on_Error said... It's hard to say what the more appropriate emphasis is sometimes.

Since, IMO, almost nothing changes whether you have CCF or not, my conclusion is that the most appropriate approach is to ignore CCF as an issue except in the very isolated occasions when it even comes up. For example, how we treat criminals: I can argue persuasively that even someone who believes in CCF should share all the same exact conclusions I do about that. So why bring up CCF at all? Why make the job harder? Get them to see why you are right about that issue (or any other), even appealing to their own CCF assumptions, and then (if they still even care) you can show them how and why the exact same conclusions are entailed even if there is no CCF.

Usually, CCF is never even a real issue. In Q&A if someone asks about it I ask them why they care. Usually they state some fear or other, which I dispel. I don't even have to get into the mechanics of it or explain my scientific model of the human will. Even when it is used as an apologetic tactic by Christians, it's always an analog to race baiting: they try to scare people with "they don't believe in free will," so you know right away the real issue is what they claim is scary about that, not the red herring of whether CCF exists, which is just the prop, not the trick. Thus, always go right to the issue: the fears. CCF doesn't really matter.

That's essentially the point I made in the other blog, Does Free Will Matter?

Richard Carrier said...

Tom Clark said... "Which is the fallacy I referred to: simply eliminating that one factor does not eliminate other conditions of warrant." I'm not sure how I committed this fallacy since I explicitly said in the book there *are* other conditions of warrant for anger.

Just for the benefit of all readers, where?

My primary concern is that you don't explore this when you should have. For example, you argue (in effect) that we shouldn't be angry at criminals or drug addicts (or losers or layabouts or screwups etc.), but if anger at such people is sometimes still warranted, when and why? Your book doesn't tell us. Or is it only warranted at certain kinds of people, and if so, who and why? Had you fully thought through questions like this, your book would have been much better for it.

Instead, a reader gets the opposite impression that all there is is the question of determinism, and all it does is remove warrant for anger. For example, where in your book do you describe a case of warranted anger against a person?

Tom Clark said... I agree with you that "To argue that 'people don't have CCF [contra-causal free will], therefore the mob should have the power to control what people see, hear, say, and do' is simply unsound political philosophy, top to bottom." But of course I didn't argue that, only that policies to restrict certain sorts of advertising might be good to adopt, subject to legislative approval and of course the checks and balances of the executive and the courts. This has already been done for liquor ads on TV in some jurisdictions (the whole country?) and no one is talking about mob rule.

Well, on the one hand, yes, they are. The anti-blue-law movement is not trivial. But on the other hand, the case is different. The government owns the broadcast frequencies, so advertising on them is identical to advertising at Yosemite or in a city park without permit or approval. The government has full right (and in some cases even obligation) to limit what people can do on its property. But liquor can still be advertised on cable networks, in magazines, on billboards, on the internet, on your front lawn.

If all you meant was that the government should enforce "help the stupid weakling" rules in deciding what adverts to allow on its frequencies, but still not interfere with any advertising properties it doesn't own, then you need your book to have said that. And it does not seem likely to be what you meant anyway, since your justification was controlling human behavior (because people lack CCF, they can't make good decisions for themselves--that's the gist of your book's argument), and only restricting broadcast advertising would have no relevant effect in that regard. Either it is good for government to save people from themselves, in which case it should ban all harmful advertising, or that is not a power the government should have at all. Either you don't see the inevitable logic of this, or you do a poor job of navigating it in your book.

The question must always be: what powers should a government even have, and what powers must it never have, for the very reason that the risk of those powers being misused is too great? If the lack of CCF entails the government should control what people get to see and do, that entails government should have some very terrifying powers indeed. But if you believe that is not an acceptable consequence of your argument from the lack of CCF, your book does not explain how or why. That's what I find dangerous.

Tom Clark said...

Richard,

Here's the passage in Ch 5, The Self and Relationships, in which anger gets discussed:

It’s also important to see that taking the naturalistic perspective on others does not mean you become non-judgmental or passive in the face of abuse, or stop looking out for yourself. Standards of right and wrong still apply and it’s important to enforce them unequivocally. But the unwavering understanding and acceptance of causality makes it difficult to justify reveling in punishment or revenge; we only do what’s necessary to protect ourselves and prevent future wrong-doing. This insight of course relates to criminal justice policy; see below in Chapter 6.

Finally, and significantly from a practical standpoint, naturalism permits us to be wiser in setting up conditions under which we behave well toward each other. After all, since actions always result from causes, not from free will, we can learn to control those causes to our benefit and the benefit of others we interact with. If you have a relationship that’s troubled, look at the whole situation carefully, yourself included, instead of simply pointing the finger at your partner, child, co-worker or friend. If someone’s behaving badly, there’s a reason, a cause, a set of conditions that’s contributing to the behavior, and these have to be addressed.

Again, this doesn’t mean that anger and discipline are never appropriate, but it does mean they should be applied judiciously and compassionately. When you find yourself asking, irritably and rhetorically, “Why the hell does he keep doing that?!”, I strongly recommend you *answer the rhetorical question*. The causal story revealed in the answer, which always has roots outside the person, might reduce counter-productive blaming and contempt, and it will give you vital information about how the behavior might be changed. Such psychological and practical insights can help heal relationships that might otherwise fall apart, should we cling to a supernatural understanding of human nature. [end quote]


On the second point, you say that "because people lack CCF, they can't make good decisions for themselves--that's the gist of your book's argument."

This is not a fair statement of the gist of the book's argument. I've repeated a couple of times that policy on restricting advertising should be formulated by means of open democratic process, which of course includes peoples' decision-making, not by autocratic government fiat. I don't think I implied, and certainly didn't mean to imply, anything like that in the book, but if I did I hereby retract it.

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

Rick,

"Since, IMO, almost nothing changes whether you have CCF or not, my conclusion is that the most appropriate approach is to ignore CCF as an issue except in the very isolated occasions when it even comes up."

I totally agree. That's basically what I do in practice since generally I don't confront people who object to the obvious with lame philosophical points of view. However, if you are writing a book, every sophist in town (i.e. the internet) is going to give you petty philosophical blow back one way or the other, because that's just what they do. So that's what makes the toss up linger in my mind even if I might side with your perspective anyway for the sake of the virtue of just being correct. When virtue and consequence are at a stalemate, it seems virtue should win.

Ben

Richard Carrier said...

Tom Clark said... Here's the passage in Ch 5, The Self and Relationships, in which anger gets discussed

Which for the information of the readers here, begins on page 34. As you rightly noted before, that's an example of some of the places where you do include sound qualifiers and more nuance, and I quite agree with those two pages.

I just don't think "could have done otherwise" has anything to do with it. It's always irrational to avoid inquiring as to the causes of anger-inciting behavior even for a believer in CCFW. Hence to make it about CCFW is simply incorrect.

I also think you need much more discussion than this about warranted anger and its function, since elsewhere you make arguments that give no hint what would even warrant anger or what function it could have. It's not enough to just "say" your argument does not entail abandoning all anger, because it's not at all clear why that claim is even true: your arguments as stated seem to entail the opposite, or at least leave no explanation why that claim is true. Hence my objection regards that defect, not the complete absence of any mention of limits on your argument.

In other words, if you are going to argue that abandoning belief in CCFW "might attenuate feelings of anger or moral superiority" and so on (p. 33), you are obligating yourself to explain why then any feelings of anger or moral superiority are justified at all, and when. And if you undertook a chapter on that, I suspect you might find (as I have done) that the issue isn't about CCFW, but the epistemic warrant of emotion-states. The results of that inquiry would then hold every bit as much for believers in CCFW as deniers.

And again, this is just an example. There are perhaps a dozen lines of argument you tie into CCFW that go the same way. Thus, you seem overly obsessed with CCFW, to the point of giving too short a shrift for other topics of importance (like the epistemic content of emotions, the conditions of their warrant, the relevance of causal factors even to believers in CCFW, and so on).

Hence just as I asked: "If anger at such people is sometimes still warranted, when and why? Your book doesn't tell us. Or is it only warranted at certain kinds of people, and if so, who and why?" Your book still doesn't answer these questions.

Richard Carrier said...

Tom Clark said... On the second point, you say that "because people lack CCF, they can't make good decisions for themselves--that's the gist of your book's argument." This is not a fair statement of the gist of the book's argument. I've repeated a couple of times that policy on restricting advertising should be formulated by means of open democratic process, which of course includes peoples' decision-making, not by autocratic government fiat. I don't think I implied, and certainly didn't mean to imply, anything like that in the book, but if I did I hereby retract it.

You misunderstand me. I'm not saying the gist of your book's argument is to endorse autocracy. I'm saying the gist is that lack of CCFW entails people need protection from themselves, and that the majority can (and, you imply, probably even should) limit the freedoms of the minority for that reason. There is no other argument you give for banning certain food and advertising, for example. And as I explained well enough in my earlier comment on this that you really need to read it again, what is naive and dangerous is thinking that interfering with liberty in consequence of "democratic process" is actually any better than autocracy. You don't seem to understand why even what you are proposing is dangerous and should never be endorsed.

Again, I don't think it's always wrong to restrict liberties, there are valid arguments for many restrictions, but the argument you give cannot be endorsed as one of them. There are certain powers a government should never have, no matter how much good it could do with it "in principle," and there are certain things the majority must never be allowed to deprive the individual, no matter how much we trust "the majority" to make wise and moral choices about that (if even we had such trust). Once you allow the argument "because we don't have freewill, therefore the majority can make decisions for us," you create a monster that will destroy far more than it will ever protect.

Vidoqo said...

Carrier: "Once you allow the argument "because we don't have freewill, therefore the majority can make decisions for us," you create a monster that will destroy far more than it will ever protect."

I think this disagreement is exactly why we need to sort out whether CCFW exists: we need to determine what will is and how people get it.

As far as I can tell, CCFW is some magical mechanism of consciousness that allows people to A) have prior knowledge of things they before did not, and thus B) then make decisions that over-ride impulses they are not sufficiently aware of while simultaneously predicting the outcomes of those decisions.

It seems entirely relevant to any debate relating to human behavior that we first decide whether CCFW exists.

I'll give you an example from my kindergarten classroom. I assume that my students have no CCFW (as I think most people would). This means then that every action they take is a direct result of their particular cognitive and emotional state at that time.

Were they to have CCFW, their actions could be the result of them having special knowledge of things they did not, and thus the ability to over-ride impulses they are not aware of, as well as accurately predicting the likely result of their action.

So when the child acts like a "typical 5 year old" (i.e. emotion & cognitive state recognized), I adjust my response accordingly. Sure, they knew it was wrong to smack their playmate with a book - but they had not developed enough of a neural framework to process & contain their emotional impulse.

Thus I - acting in the role of a "nanny state" - make all sorts of arrangements to nudge my students in the right direction. I don't leave candy out on the tables. I don't lecture them for an hour straight. I require them to walk in the hall instead of run.

Of course, human adults in general have more developed cognitive and emotional systems. The need for regulation is less severe. Yet we generally agree there ought to be some. Hence traffic laws, drug laws, etc. These are instances in which no negative consequence has yet resulted, but the possibility of one occurring is deemed to warrant deterrence.

The degree to which one believes the public can self-regulate is in direct proportion to the degree one believes in state-regulation. Unless of course one believes in CCFW. Because, it would logically follow, that everyone is necessarily capable of self-regulation. Although I'm not sure if kindergartners are included - I think there may be a cutoff age, but I'm not sure.

Richard Carrier said...

I disagree.

As you already note, children bear no valid analogy here to adults. But governments don't even exist for the purpose teachers and guardians do.

What authorizes a state to regulate anything has less to do with how well we can regulate ourselves, than with the actual purpose of a government, which is to create and maintain a civil society, so each individual can pursue their own happiness at minimal detriment to everyone else's. Though of course this involves forcing regulations on people who can't voluntarily abide by them, that is not the justification for the regulation. Otherwise, anything the majority wanted could be forced on anyone. There is nothing moral or acceptable about a government that operates that way.

Thus there must be strong limits on what governments can do. That's the very notion captured by our Bill of Rights, for example. Regulations exist to keep society civil and free. They would exist whether we all voluntarily followed them or not. And it is only the few who choose not to, and who we thus force to.

We don't need to ascertain whether CCFW exists to confirm any of the above: whether it existed or not, we'd still want those regulations, most of us would still voluntarily follow them, and some of us would freely choose to violate them. Thus, CCFW makes no difference.

Although I agree it is useful to teach people that their assumptions about free will are often based on the mistaken belief that an agent was omniscient at the time of an act, this really has no bearing on the question of CCFW, because plenty of philosophers (well, okay, mostly Christians, but they claim to be philosophers and try to act like them) accept that agents aren't omniscient and yet still defend CCFW, and even deniers of CCFW can make the mistaken assumption of agent omniscience.

Thus CCFW remains a red herring. The only valuable insight is that agents do not act with omniscient insight. Everyone will benefit from learning that, whether they believe in CCFW or not.

Vidoqo said...

I think you're right that CCFW does not bear on the situation, as long as you define government in a particular way. And yet, in order to define what government ought to be, you need to determine whether CCFW exists. Governments can be, and are, defined in all sorts of ways. I think the modern world is pretty well discovering that, while not perfect, a capitalist social democracy is generally best. We enjoy electing our leaders, starting businesses, and public education. I think it’s safe to say that neither extreme communism nor libertarianism are sensible options.

The government ideal you describe seems a very limited one. Its concern is only the most basic needs of the people - their civility and freedom, which you then emphasize as having largely to due with the regulation of behavior. I think this is a very subjective reading, however, as civility, freedom, and regulation inevitably mean very different things.

Because I don't believe in CCFW and the processes underlying what makes us who we are, I don't believe it is fair for a child born to a family poor in social capital to have to compete with a child born to a family rich in social capital. Therefore, any government system that does not actively seek to redress this inequity of means not only does not guarantee freedom, but through inaction actively promotes the continuation of a status quo that is anti-freedom.

For instance, in our modern economic system, if one man is able to live richly off the low wages of thousands of others, whose freedom are we talking about? Should his wealth be relative to the stability and basic fairness of the larger society upon which his market is based, or is it simply relative to what he can buy with it?

These are certainly not easy questions. And we see them being labored over intensely in current debates over healthcare - does our modern society owe it to each individual to guarantee a minimum of health services?

Conservatives know exactly where they stand on the issue of free will and why it is so central to their concept of government. They come back to it again and again as a justification for their interest in maintaining the status quo. They see a socially activist government as entirely unethical: not only does it seek to unfairly redistribute income through progressive taxation, but it seeks to fritter it away on services that would be unnecessary if people would only CHOOSE correctly (drugs, parenting, education, hard work, crime, etc.).

Liberals are the ones I always find oddly oblivious to the inconsistency in both holding that society has a responsibility to promote fairness, and that free will does indeed exist. I think the reason has more to do with free will having an entrenched philosophical advantage in being the incumbent world view, well, for most of recorded history.

But I think the paramount example of why CCFW matters is in constructing a criminal justice system. Currently, we inflict terrible punishment upon convicted criminals – a prison sentence is certainly cruel, if not unusual. Yet if CCFW does not exist, then what business do we have in exacting revenge upon people who could not have chosen any differently? Going back to my point regarding children: we treat them with forgiveness to the degree we attribute to them a lack of CCFW. The reason we treat them with the full harshness of the justice system when they reach 18 years of age is precisely because we deem them as suddenly possessing full CCFW: they could have made better choices.

Vidoqo said...

(continued!)
Were we to instead deny CCFW, we would then have to treat adult criminals with the same sort of understanding that we do children: that they were not really responsible for their behavior: that society and genetic chance was. While acknowledging any continued threat they may pose society, as well as providing a message of deterrence, we should certainly still hold them accountable and protect society from them. But we ought to treat them with dignity, at least attempt rehabilitation, and certainly not subject them to the sort of violence and abuse rampant in today’s prisons.

On the flip side, neither does rejecting CCFW allow us to treat the millionaire as if he is responsible for his own success, rather than society and genes – at least in so far as he enjoys a level of power and privilege due to simple circumstance. This is why we no longer tolerate kings and aristocracy. What right does the wealthy man have to his wealth when it was obtained through no doing of his own? A civilized society is, as you stated, based in the concept that every man ought to be free to “pursue their own happiness at minimal detriment to everyone else's”. Implicit in this assumption is that we all ought to begin that pursuit at a reasonable level of equality of social capital.

So it would appear to me that not only does the question of free will have great bearing upon our personal values, but it must be dealt with if we are to structure a government that is able to best deliver freedom of opportunity to society. Fittingly, just as whether or not CCFW exists we must act as though it does, we must also structure our society according to whether or not we believe in CCFW. The consequences for either belief or disbelief could not have more dramatically different political implications.

Richard Carrier said...

The Irrelevance of CCFW to Politics

Vidoqo said... in order to define what government ought to be, you need to determine whether CCFW exists.

Not really. As I demonstrate in Sense and Goodness without God (cf. pp. 97-118), whether CCFW exists or not makes no difference to the decisions we make. So it can't have any effect on that decision, either.

You may be confusing illogical decisions (i.e. fallacious conclusions reached from a premise of CCFW) with what CCFW actually entails. But fallacious conclusions are wrong even when reached from a premise of ~CCFW. Thus CCFW isn't the issue. Incoherent reasoning is. Which exists whether CCFW does or not. Hence, again, CCFW is a red herring.

Conservatives know exactly where they stand on the issue of free will and why it is so central to their concept of government.

Only illogically. Their concept of CCFW produces no logically valid path to their conclusions about government. Hence the problem is not their belief in CCFW. It's their embrace of fallacious reasoning, which is a far more pervasive problem. And that won't go away by disabusing them of CCFW. But disabusing them of fallacious reasoning will get them to a sound ideal of government even if they continue embracing CCFW. Hence CCFW is a red herring.

But I think the paramount example of why CCFW matters is in constructing a criminal justice system. Currently, we inflict terrible punishment upon convicted criminals – a prison sentence is certainly cruel, if not unusual. Yet if CCFW does not exist, then what business do we have in exacting revenge upon people who could not have chosen any differently?

I've already discussed this issue here in considerable detail. You're simply wrong. There is no logically valid argument from CCFW to our stupid prison system. Thus, the cause of our current system is a failure to reason coherently, not a belief in CCFW. Coherent reasoning plus belief in CCFW would produce the same conclusions about prison reform that Clark and I (and you) endorse, whereas incoherent reasoning minus CCFW will not. Thus removing CCFW will have no effect. But removing fallacious reasoning will have every effect we desire, even if CCFW remains.

The real reason for our system (as I have already explained above) is that people feel better hurting criminals. It has nothing to do with CCFW and everything to do with irrational revenge fantasies, and a desire to just get rid of a problem without doing anything hard to solve it. For even CCFW proponents believe in prison reform: they can't stop talking about the awful people who "turned their life around" and became ministers, missionaries, charity workers, and so on. Thus, CCFW does not produce the belief that prisoners can't be reformed. So why are no realistic attempts made to reform them? It can't be because they "deserve" punishment, because even the reformed people freewillers praise "deserved" punishment and yet now they are praised as reformed, and no one says they "deserve" to still be punished.

Thus the problem is not CCFW. It's irrationality.

Richard Carrier said...

Prison Reform and CCFW

Vidoqo said... Were we to instead deny CCFW, we would then have to treat adult criminals with the same sort of understanding that we do children: that they were not really responsible for their behavior: that society and genetic chance was.

Yet this won't have the result you expect. If we remain as irrational, then abandoning CCFW could just as easily have the effect of warranting universal execution of all criminals. After all, if they have no CCFW, they can't change, so reform efforts are useless, and we'd best just get rid of them, right? Yes, illogical. But that's exactly the same fallacious reasoning that leads CCFW proponents to slight reform policies, too.

But think rationally, and we get to the same place regardless of CCFW: even if prisoners have CCFW, it still follows that we could have used that CCFW to persuade them onto another course before they turned to crime, and we could still use that CCFW to persuade them onto another course in a reform-oriented prison. In other words, logically, if a criminal really has CCFW, then he can freely change the course of his life, and if he can freely change the course of his life, he can do so before turning to crime, as well as after. So if our objective is to reduce crime, we should aim to persuade potential and actual criminals to use their CCFW to that very end.

Yet that's absolutely identical to the conclusion about prison reform that compatibilist's reach. Hence CCFW is irrelevant.

Even CCFW proponents reveal this when they tout religion as the means to do exactly this: turn potential criminals away from crime before the fact, and actual criminals away from crime after the fact. Thus, they overtly agree with compatibilists that changes in society will reduce crime and changes in prison operations will reduce recidivism, they just have completely irrational beliefs regarding what mechanism works (they claim we should have bibles and prayer and posters of the ten commandments in schools and fund Christian missions in prisons, and so on; we claim that instead of such demonstrably ineffective voodoo, we should apply the findings of psychology and sociology).

Thus, most freewillers agree with you (and publicly say so all the time) that "society" is to blame for criminals, because (they claim) "society" has excised God from schools and neighborhoods. That's exactly the compatibilist thesis--only with hocus pocus inserted in place of actual facts. But the hocus pocus isn't CCFW. It's the causal mechanisms they think influence the exercise of human will.

We thus don't really disagree over CCFW. In practice, their CCFW operates exactly the same way our compatibilist free will does. What we disagree on are the facts of how to influence people, before and after turning to crime, to turn away from crime.

Thus, Clark and I agree with you that, e.g. "we ought to treat [prisoners] with dignity, at least attempt rehabilitation, and certainly not subject them to the sort of violence and abuse rampant in today’s prisons," but I can prove this is the correct view even if those prisoners have CCFW. Thus CCFW is a red herring. Irrationality is the real problem, and we should devote most of our time to attacking that. As I've said here several times, if we prove to a freewiller that our ideas about prison reform are correct even give CCFW, they will join our cause of prison reform, and will eventually see the irrelevance of CCFW on their own. But if we waste all our time attempting to disabuse them of CCFW, we will face a much harder intellectual and communicative task, and they still will have learned nothing about why our ideas about prison reform are correct.

Richard Carrier said...

Eliminating CCFW Does Not Eliminate Responsibility

Vidoqo said... On the flip side, neither does rejecting CCFW allow us to treat the millionaire as if he is responsible for his own success, rather than society and genes.

This is exactly the kind of non sequitur I disavow. It simply isn't true. A self-made millionaire very definitely is responsible for his own success: quite literally, had he not done what he did (not society or his genes, but the man himself), he would not have been a millionaire. Yes, certainly, he also owes a debt to society and his genes, and so on, but there is still a human being in that equation, not some automaton strung about like a mindless puppet by genes and society.

While CCFW proponents reach illogical conclusions by reasoning fallaciously from CCFW, too many determinists reach just as illogical conclusions by reasoning fallaciously from determinism. You cannot erase human responsibility merely because determinism is true. A man who is lazy is still responsible for not achieving anything: because it is a material fact, even on determinism, that he chose not to. It doesn't matter how he got to be that way, it's still a fact that he is the one who isn't working hard at anything. And we are entitled to tell him so. Because the fact of the matter is, if he wants to accomplish something, he has to stop being lazy, and since we're not going to perform brain surgery on him, the only way he'll change is if he chooses to, and the only way he'll choose to (unless he figures this out on his own) is if we tell him this is what he has to do.

Thus, when someone chooses not to educate themselves, we have every right to tell them that they are ignorant because they chose to be, and that they will never understand the world unless they choose differently. Because that's simply the truth. Telling them that may then deterministically cause them to choose differently, but that's irrelevant. There still was no way they would cease to be ignorant without their having made the choice to educate themselves.

Thus, some people don't want to put in the time and labor to become a millionaire. That's fine. But someone who does (assuming they did it morally) will have demonstrated qualities we have every right to admire: determination, discipline, hard work, self-education, adaptability, creativity, leadership, etc. And a person with all those qualities is still better company, and better for society, and thus a better person, than a person who lacks them all. Even if they rolled directly out of a factory with their qualities hardwired in, like some sort of man-made replicants, it would still be true that the model A with all those extras is better than the model B without them. We would rather be around model A's, we would rather live in a society inhabited with model A's, we would rather encourage and reward model A's, and we would rather model B's got upgrades into model A's. And all human language and behavior of praise and blame, reward and punishment, is simply a realization of those desires, which are perfectly rational and entirely just. CCFW has nothing to do with the matter.

Richard Carrier said...

The Ideal Government

Vidoqo said... The government ideal you describe seems a very limited one.

Not as limited as you might think. See my extensive discussion in Sense and Goodness without God (pp. 367-408). There I explain what I mean by a civil society and what is politically necessary to achieve and maintain it. It's a lot more than the casual Libertarian thinks.

I don't believe it is fair for a child born to a family poor in social capital to have to compete with a child born to a family rich in social capital. Therefore, any government system that does not actively seek to redress this inequity of means not only does not guarantee freedom, but through inaction actively promotes the continuation of a status quo that is anti-freedom.

That's dangerously simplistic. For you could say the same about genetic endowment. By your reasoning the government should intervene in all pregnancies and compel all fetuses to undergo genetic engineering so every child has identical advantages and capabilities. In other words, we should all be identical, and have entirely identical houses, entirely identical parenting and schooling, and so on. That would actually destroy happiness, not improve it.

So would your proposal, for much the same reason: happiness is not dependent on wealth or material means. Once you have a minimum baseline of means, you have exactly the same opportunities to be happy as a billionaire. They will be entirely different opportunities, but nevertheless your means to live a satisfying life will not be impaired. Indeed, some people wouldn't want more than a simple life, while others will be more satisfied with a more ambitious one. Government should not be telling them how to be happy. Thus disparities in wealth do not entail injustice.

As has been repeatedly demonstrated, attempts by a government to "force" things (like jobs) to be bought at fixed prices (and thus to force all incomes to be the same) are economically and socially disastrous. We need to get out what we put in, so we can choose freely how much to give and receive, as only then will the whole system function to make that possible. Thus, counter-intuitively, we need disparities in wealth to maximize fairness for everyone. Unless by "fairness" you mean something destructive of happiness, e.g. you want to create a system that's "fair" but in which no one is happy, which would be morally wrong--since people just want to be happy, whether that requires fairness or not.

Should his wealth be relative to the stability and basic fairness of the larger society upon which his market is based, or is it simply relative to what he can buy with it?

Neither. No government can ever be omniscient enough to decide what anything is actually worth (including what different kinds of skills and labor are worth). That's why the market must be free (including the labor market). But to work, the market must also be transparent and honest, which requires regulation. And everyone must have equal access to justice, so the wealthy can't get away with crimes merely because the poor can't afford to prosecute them. And so on. But once you have all those things (and a civil society needs them), everything will be priced more or less at what it's worth, and everyone will be content with that. Disparities then won’t matter.

Richard Carrier said...

Social Welfare Is Essential to Civil Society

Vidoqo said... Does our modern society owe it to each individual to guarantee a minimum of health services?

If the society can afford it, and the people desire it. Only when those two conditions are met does enacting a national health care policy advance rather than impede a civil society. I think we have a society more than wealthy enough for universal health care, especially if it is intelligently managed, and it is clear from polling data that the people want it, they only disagree over what form of it they want and how to pay for it. Those disagreements are reflected in the compromises now present in the Health Care bill being prepared for this Christmas, which I fully support (see my recent blog on ObamaCare).

Education is an example already no longer disputed by most. Government should aim to make full and excellent educational opportunities available to everyone with the desire and ability to pursue them. Thus, we should improve the education system we have, and it should be free to all. But this does not necessarily mean entirely free, only available to all who haven't the upfront means. For example, we could have a system in which anyone who completes college on the government dime will incur a surtax on all subsequent income over a certain baseline, thus the government would pay for college the same way insurance companies make a profit: the aggregate income of the system would pay all the expenses of sending every able and willing student to college--for even if some don't ever earn enough afterward to pay for what they individually received, others will earn so much that their surtax will not only cover the other loss but also put no significant burden on that taxpaying graduate. Meanwhile, the independently successful can just pay for college without requiring government subsidy.

In that system, everyone gets treated fairly, because everyone gets the same education, and thus gets the same opportunities. Though disparities in wealth and means will remain, they will be irrelevant to each individual's capacity to pursue their own happiness. In fact, such disparities will power the system without interfering in this pursuit of happiness, e.g. college graduates who will be happy earning little will have no burden (they will earn less than the baseline and pay no tax, or only a trivial tax given what little they earn above the baseline) are thus free to do so, while college graduates who want to pursue more lucrative endeavors, in higher-paying employment or their own business enterprise, are free to do so. And the surtax would be designed to statistically match the aggregate result to the expenses incurred. In such a system, disparities of wealth are actually an expression of fairness.

Richard Carrier said...

Economics 101

Vidoqo said... For instance, in our modern economic system, if one man is able to live richly off the low wages of thousands of others, whose freedom are we talking about?

That's not how the economy works.

First, a factory owner is not "living richly off the low wages of thousands of others," he is paying those wages, i.e. if that factory owner wasn't rich to begin with, those "others" would have no wages at all. What the factory owner is living on is the income earned from what those laborers produce, which is a vastly more complex reality.

Second, the value of labor is not fixed. Different skillsets, desires, and abilities have different market values. Just look at a nonprofit business to see why taking the capitalist out of the system makes little difference to the reality that some people's labor is worth more than others (it's harder to do, more expensive to train for, fewer people want to do it, etc.). Labor is like any product: it's value is determined by supply and demand, and attempting to interfere with that reality produces wildly unexpected injustices throughout the rest of the system.

Thus, if that factory were nonprofit, you would still have a manager earning more, because the manager's skills and abilities and labor are, in material fact, worth more. The janitor's skills are so simple he is easily replaced--so the supply for that labor is large--whereas the manager's skills are so complex he is not easily replaced--so the supply for that labor is small. Hence on the labor market, the governing board of a nonprofit factory will have to pay a higher price for the manager than the janitor, otherwise they won't get anyone in the management position better skilled than a janitor, and then their company will be badly managed and fail, and all those thousands of other laborers make no wages at all.

Thus, even nonprofits show disparities in wealth. So disparities in wealth are not the product of "the rich living off the poor." Don't confuse unjust disparities with the justified disparities required by any well-functioning market. In terms of management, the janitor does not earn as much as the manager, but if the business is run morally, both will be happy. In terms of pricing labor, if the janitor and manager are earning what their labor is actually worth, the disparity will be just, but if the manager is inflating his income beyond it's actual market value by underpaying the janitor (and otherwise damaging the janitor's happiness by cutting costs in respect to the safety and comfort of the janitor's work environment and tools and so on, merely to increase the manager's income), then you see unjust disparities arise.

Most unjust disparities of wealth in the American system are the product of two inequities: disparities in the quality of government education (when that quality should be uniform regardless of neighborhood) and unjust laws favoring the wealthy over the poor (such as limiting the transparency of the market and depriving the poor of equal access to justice, e.g. the banking industry depends on our being unable to see what they actually do with our money, and on it being too expensive for us to pursue litigation against them, two evils the government could easily remedy by paying for all meritorious civil litigation and compelling market transparency of bank activities; another common example is the inhumane cost-cutting greed that led to destructive work environments, now remedied by labor laws and safety laws and so on; as I argue in my book, regulations should compel people to do what they ought to have been doing already).

But remove those inequities and you will still have disparities in wealth. Just no one will care about them, because everyone will be satisfied with what they have (and have access to, should they desire to work for it).

Vidoqo said...

Some very good points.

On the whole, I think our disagreements seem to be of tone, and its relationship to the politics of policy.

For example:

On criminal justice: You are right that CCFW doesn’t necessarily lead to non-retributive justice. I’ll still be as angry if someone steals from me. But – to tone and policy – knowing that he had no choice to do otherwise, and that he was a product of a determined system allows me to do what is rational, not what my emotions are telling me.

On social responsibility (the millionaire): Society will be instructive, and the task is how to set it up to promote the greatest good. If that requires allowing people to enjoy a good deal of wealth, or making low-skilled work less rewarding, then it is logical. But these decisions have consequences for the individual. Vacationing in the Bahamas is wonderful, and working fast food sucks. I think we can set it up so that we still have the reward/deterrence without going to extremes in either direction. Basic wage laws, socialized medicine, public education, etc. soften the blow, while progressive taxation provides both revenue for social programs as well as a limit on undemocratic political power. My argument is basically one of reasonable fairness, based on the fact that no one “deserves” their lot in life – sure, when a tree fell on your house you “deserved” it in the sense that it happened to you. But it sucked and was unfair.

Government should never do anything that causes more suffering than benefit. It should do some things that cause harm to some if increasing benefit elsewhere. But it is false logic to then assume that government can do anything to increase benefit. Some freedoms are too important. Injecting fetuses is a tad invasive. Placing limits on fish harvesting, or driving speed is not. Every situation will be different, and require debate – but in principle the greater good is a perfectly sensible basis of governance.

On Politics: hopefully you’ll see where I’m going with this. I think our belief in CCFW has a great impact on the decisions we make. Just because it is illogical for many conservatives to say that teenage criminals ought to be punished because they deserve it, it doesn’t mean that they don’t believe it and vote their beliefs! Liberals aren’t “softer” on crime and more supportive of prevention programs because they are more empathetic (at least there isn’t any evidence yet), but rather because they believe that the “system” has failed these individuals and we ought to have compassion, as well as a responsibility to alter the system. You are correct in pointing out the inconsistencies in conservative belief in this area – calls for more cultural restraint – whether religious or tradition-based is incredibly behavior-based. People can’t both have CCFW and need more religion, discipline, less Hollywood, etc.

Belief in CCFW is a worldview with powerful implications for how you view human behavior and what kind of policy you favor. From your “tone” – as I have attempted to employ the word – it seems that your compatibilism informs your position on policy greatly. But a large portion of the population would seriously argue that every man and woman has the capacity right now to make the decisions necessary to succeed – even though they know full well that tomorrow they won’t, because they have CCFW. And so every human indignity they face is not only entirely deserved but has nothing to do with the society around them (i.e. your or my tax money that might pay for a drug treatment center, homeless shelter, hospital stay, etc.).

Your last response to my statement on the rich factory owner was misplaced. Or, at least in that I think you took my meaning differently than how I intended it – although I know it sounded like an entirely pat Marxistism. I meant only that markets can be (and have been) taken advantage of in ways that limit freedom and promote injustice – not that this is always or necessarily even ever the case.

Vidoqo said...

BTW, Richard - Really appreciate the debate. Merry Christmas! :)

Richard Carrier said...

Vidoqo said... You are right that CCFW doesn’t necessarily lead to non-retributive justice. I’ll still be as angry if someone steals from me. But...knowing that he had no choice to do otherwise, and that he was a product of a determined system allows me to do what is rational, not what my emotions are telling me.

Oh, certainly. But so can any other ideology that motivates you to place reason or theory before emotion.

For example, Christianity teaches forgiveness is essential for salvation, and that vengeance is a sin (hence you are instructed to turn the other cheek). Now, if Christians actually believed their own religion, they would have the same motivation to behave the way you describe, without having to reject CCFW.

More broadly (and more sensibly) I don't need to convince someone there is no CCFW in order to convince them their emotions in that situation should not be dictating how they treat criminals, because even if the criminal had CCFW their response is still not rationally defensible. And I think it's far more important that they learn that (i.e. why that is), than that they abandon CCFW. Because abandoning CCFW won't teach them that, even if it would improve their behavior.

Which, incidentally, it won't necessarily do: because determinists can be just as irrational, becoming fatalists for instance, and doing something else just as stupid, like set all criminals free because they had no choice to do otherwise. In other words, merely eliminating CCFW is not itself a boon, whereas getting people to behave rationally is much easier (and more important) than disabusing them of CCFW. And once they start seeing things rationally, they'll abandon CCFW on their own anyway, without any argument from us.

Society will be instructive, and the task is how to set it up to promote the greatest good. If that requires allowing people to enjoy a good deal of wealth, or making low-skilled work less rewarding, then it is logical. But these decisions have consequences for the individual.

You bet. Hence I oppose laissez faire capitalism. But I also oppose excessive socialism, as being just as harmful. We can't meddle in the economy too much without doing more harm than good, but we have to meddle in the economy some or else we allow outcomes equally as bad. The path should be one of the least possible reliance on human micromanagement, because people suck at running a system as complex as a modern economy. You have to simply set up the game so it works better.

working fast food sucks.

But it doesn't have to. It's a management and exploitation mindset that makes it suck, not the job itself (i.e. the actual work that has to get done). For only a small compromise on profit margin, the happiness of every employee could actually be more than amply served, merely by changing the way the environment is run (coupled with a relatively small boost in wages). For a good read on this point see Daniel Pink's Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (2009). Happiness is a lot less about money than most people think.

Basic wage laws, socialized medicine, public education, etc. soften the blow, while progressive taxation provides both revenue for social programs as well as a limit on undemocratic political power.

I agree with all but the last--the evidence doesn't suggest it has had that effect. I have different ideas about what we may have to do to achieve that last goal (which I discuss in Sense and Goodness without God).

Richard Carrier said...

Vidoqo said... My argument is basically one of reasonable fairness, based on the fact that no one “deserves” their lot in life – sure, when a tree fell on your house you “deserved” it in the sense that it happened to you. But it sucked and was unfair.

I disagree with the comparison. There is a huge and crucial difference between a tree falling on your house, and you negligently felling the tree onto your house. The latter involved a malfunction in a very fixable location: your own personal stupidity. The function of praise and blame and reward and punishment is to train our brains not to do stupid things. No such mechanism can prevent a tree from accidentally falling on your house, but only such a mechanism can prevent you from negligently felling the tree onto your house.

Hence it is actually dangerously fallacious to treat human decision making as identical to accidents of nature. That's exactly the kind of irrational nonsense determinists should not be getting caught up in.

...in principle the greater good is a perfectly sensible basis of governance.

As I ague in Sense and Goodness that greater good can only be achieved by limiting government to the maintenance of a civil society. Socialist benefits should thus be limited to achieving that goal. Hence, right now, public roads, education, and medical insurance will all certainly create a more stable civil society, and thus are warranted. But when it comes to deciding what "the greater good" actually is, the government will never be qualified to say--because everyone's "greater good" is different from everyone else's. Hence the only universal greater good is to let everyone pursue their own greater good without getting in each other's way. That is therefore what the business of government should be, what I call the civil society.

Richard Carrier said...

Vidoqo said... I think our belief in CCFW has a great impact on the decisions we make.

I think that's an armchair assumption. The facts on the ground don't hold it up. I've made this point amply enough already. The problem is not CCFW. It's irrationality. Only curing the latter will do any good. Because if you teach an irrational person to give up CCFW, now you've just created an irrational determinist, which is no improvement. But if you teach a believer in CCFW to be rational, nothing they do will be any different from a determinist, and thus their faith in CCFW will do no harm.

Liberals aren’t “softer” on crime and more supportive of prevention programs because they are more empathetic (at least there isn’t any evidence yet), but rather because they believe that the “system” has failed these individuals and we ought to have compassion...

Actually, I think I've seen some hard scientific evidence that liberals are more empathetic (which is a synonym of "have compassion") than conservatives when it comes to treatment of criminals. I suspect it is only because of that empathy that liberals see the failures in the system, while it is a comparative lack of empathy that blinds conservatives to those same failures (e.g. they think prison rape isn't a systemic failure, but an actually desirable part of their "revenge fantasy" model of punishment). Another major difference in motivation is fear: conservatives are far more driven by fear than liberals are, causing many of their do-nothing decisions (fear of losing their income to more taxes to reform criminals, and fear of letting too many criminals out to rape their daughters and eat their pets). This has also been studied scientifically.

But a large portion of the population would seriously argue that every man and woman has the capacity right now to make the decisions necessary to succeed

But in at least one relevant sense, they do.

For example, everyone would agree that a person who makes bad decisions even though all the information necessary to make good decisions is freely available to them, is simply lacking some piece of information (such as how to find and make use of all the information freely available to them), hence every rational person seeks to solve bad decision making in others by providing more information to them. Hence when we say "that was a stupid thing to do, when all the information you needed was right here" we are shaming the stupid into acting more informedly next time. That is in fact the only way to do that, even on determinism.

It also happens to be true: to make decisions while ignoring freely available information is, in actual fact, stupid. It doesn't matter if you were determined to be stupid, you're still stupid. And pointing that out is the only way to cause people to be less stupid.

Hence conservatives do not oppose improvements in education (advocating improved values education, for example, as a means of reducing bad decision making), yet they oppose sex education, which contradicts their own belief in CCFW. That to make a good decision requires being informed, is as true on CCFW as not. If that's true in values education, it's true for sex. Even their campaign to get creationism and bibles in school entails the same belief: that kids are making bad decisions only because they are being deprived of information, and therefore need to be "saved" with the requisite information, which evil atheists are keeping them from. Clearly CCFW makes no sense of this contradictory behavior, therefore CCFW cannot be the problem. Irrationality is the problem.

I meant only that markets can be (and have been) taken advantage of in ways that limit freedom and promote injustice.

And on that point we do agree.