Archive for the ‘ethics’ Category

Humpty Dumpty and Commerce

Thursday, 7 January 2021

Fairly inexpensive hair combs made of hard rubber — rubber vulcanized to a state in which it is as about firm as a modern plastic — could be found in most American drugstores at least into the mid-'90s. Now-a-days, they have become something of a premium item. I was looking at listing on Amazon supposedly of hard rubber combs and discovered, to my annoyance, that a careful reading of the descriptions showed that most of the combs explicitly described as hard rubber were made of plastic. To me, the situation seemed to be of pervasive fraud, as it will to many others.

But then I realized that it is more likely to be something else. Fraud, after all, involves deliberate misrepresentation. Whereäs we live in a world in which a great many people believe that no use of a word or phrase is objectively improper — that if they think that hard rubber means a rubbery plastic or a plastic that looks like another substance called hard rubber, then it indeed means just that. (Of course, we cannot trust any verbal explanation from them of these idiosyncratic meanings, as they may be assigning different meanings to any words with which they define other words.)

My defense of linguistic prescriptivism has for the most part been driven by concerns other than those immediate to commercial transactions. And, when I've seen things such on eBay as items described with mint condition for its age or with draped nude, my inclination has been merely to groan or to laugh. But it seems to me that the effects of ignoring or of rejecting linguistic prescription have found their way into commercial transactions beyond the casual.

Well, those who are not prescriptivists are hypocrites if they complain, and they're getting no worse than they deserve.

Judging the Past in the Present

Monday, 28 December 2020

I often hear or read someone objecting to judging an historical person or act by present moral standards. Although there seems to be some element of reasonableness entangled in this objection, it's very problematic.

It is especially problematic as expressed. Technically, we cannot judge anyone or anything at all, except by whatever may be our present standards. If we judge historical people and acts differently from how we do present-day people and acts, it is exactly because our present standards incorporate a recognition of historical context.

I don't see that the real issue is historical context as such, but context more generally. If we are to make allowances for historical person or acts, it is because of what informed them and what did not inform them; and, similarly, acts by persons in some present-day contexts are very differently informed from acts by other persons in other present-day cultures. As L.P. Hartley usefully noted, The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

Cultural relativism, in application to other places or to other times, is sensible when it warns one against presumption that one's own culture is doing things the only right way. (One's culture may be doing things a wrong way, or there may be other ways that are just as good.) But a cultural relativism that instead claims that something is automatically acceptable simply because it prevails in the culture of that place or prevailed in the culture of that time dissolves into nihilism because each person at each time and at each place is him- or herself a subculture.

And I think that some allowances should be made; but I think that too much allowance is often made.

For example, is the case against slavery now available really all that much better than the case that was available in America a few hundred years ago? Inverting that question, was the case against slavery available a few hundred years ago really much worse than the case available now? There is a sound argument, even to-day, for not waging war against slavery in the territories ruled by other states; and there may be a case for making treaties or even forming alliances with such states; but those are different practices from engaging in slavery or actively enabling slavery. Is there really a meaningfully better defense of the slavery of two hundred years ago than there would be of slavery now?

I   don't   think   so.

Nor do I think so for a great deal else that I am told not to judge by modern standards.

Perverted Locusts

Wednesday, 9 December 2020

Those who support locking-down in response to SARS-CoV-2 are like weird locusts. Instead of eating the crops; these locusts prevent growth and harvest. That is to say that they prevent economic activity, which is an implicit consumption of an especially perverse sort. In any case, they leave despair and literal starvation in their wake.

Tasers

Sunday, 6 December 2020

State officials should not use tasers as devices to compel positive acts. I have made and explained this point elsewhere, but I believe that I have failed to do so previously in this 'blog.

When tasers were introduced to policing, they were presented to the public as devices to stop attackers, without potentially lethal force. It would take some contrivance to present a situation in which such use of a taser would not be preferable to lethal force.

But tasers also inflict pain. And police officers quickly began using them to hurt people until those people complied, even when compliance was a positive act, such as moving one's body in some way. The pain inflicted by a taser is sufficiently severe that it will cause people to act in ways that will lead to their convictions, as when a taser was used to induce a suspect to produce a urine sample. Used to motivate behavior, a taser is a device of torture. Judges have acquiesced to this use of torture to compel positive acts. Almost no one speaks out against it. The taser has become a socially accepted device of torture.

Making Your Vote (or Non-Vote) Count

Sunday, 14 June 2020

In nearly every election of a state official, even those in which only a few hundred voters participate, the margin of victory is more than one vote. What that means is that, if any one voter had refrained from voting, or if any one abstaining voter had not abstained, the candidate who won would still have won. Some people — even some very intelligent people — conclude that the vote of an individual has no efficacy beyond that of other acts of expression. Those people are missing something.

Indeed, one's vote or refusal to vote has absolutely no effect on the election at hand. There are various things that one can do prior to the election which may help one candidate to achieve a margin of victory, or prevent another from achieving such a margin. But one's own vote isn't going to make any difference in that election.

However, as potential candidates and parties decide what to do with future elections in mind, they look at margins of victory in past elections. Potential candidates decide whether to run and, if they choose to run, how to position themselves, informed by those margins. Parties decide their platforms and whom to nominate, informed by those margins. With large margins in their favor, they feel free to alienate a greater number of potential voters; with small margins or losing margins, they consider what to do differently in order to pull voters who previously voted for another, or who didn't vote at all.

Thus, an individual vote or the decision not to vote has a small effect — but its only effect — on later elections and on behavior of those who are acting with concern for later election.

The least effective thing that a potential voter can do is to vote for a candidate whom he or she dislikes. People in America who have held their noses to vote for the Democratic or Republican nominee in order to stop the nominee of the other party did worse than to throw-away their votes; they have helped to ensure that the next pair of choices would likewise be disagreeable, and that the behavior of officials in the mean time would likewise be disagreeable. It is only if one genuinely thought that one of these candidates were worthwhile that one should have voted for him or for her, and then still only to affect the next election and interim behavior of officials.

The most effective thing that a potential voter as such can do is to vote for a candidate of whom that voter approves, even if that candidate has no chance of winning, or to submit a ballot from which no candidate receives a vote. An increasing number of people are doing the latter, either in expression that no candidate is worthy, or to challenge the legitimacy of the process in a way that makes it difficult for these people to be dismissed as apathetic by apologists for the process.

Stick That in Your Lexicon!

Saturday, 23 May 2020
bru·to·ri·al /bruːˈtɔːriəl/ adjective & noun
A. noun. An otherwise useless tutorial that one is not permitted to forgo.
B. adjective. Of or pertaining to a brutorial.

Coming Diagnoses of a Failure of Capitalism

Friday, 17 April 2020

The way in which the political left conceptualizes an economy is a variation on how technocrats more generally conceptualize it. The left imagines the economy as possessing a kernel of processes that take inputs and produce outputs based upon purely technologic considerations. What distinguishes these processes as a kernel is that they are jointly self-sustaining; setting aside natural resources, the kernel produces everything necessary to maintain itself. Depending upon technology, the kernel may do nothing more than to sustain itself. The left often imagines an economy that does nothing more as a subsistence economy; but, as a matter of logic, they might imagine an economy as technologically constrained to produce exactly what it does to continue replicating itself, yet providing a fairly high standard of living. In any case, they more often imagine the kernel as producing a surplus, which is to say production above and beyond that necessary to sustain the kernel. Allocation and composition of the surplus is imagined to be determined not just by technologic considerations, but also by social power. This is why the left often does believe and still more frequently seems to believe that economics is a zero-sum game; they believe that for some people to get more, they must either leave less of the surplus for others or, still worse, must reduce the kernel. Because performance of the kernel is imagined to be determined purely by technologic factors, while it may be acknowledged that in our world resources have been priced largely by markets and hence inputs have been determined largely by markets, it is believed that, ultimately, the markets had little real choice; that they had to settle on relative prices that simply conformed to technologic considerations. The imagined kernel is as if an inflexible machine, however complex it may be. It is only pricing of commodities within the surplus that is imagined to be flexible.

The lock-downs that have been the political response to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic are variously imagined either as shutting down production outside the kernel, with economic activity labelled as essential continuing, or indeed as going further to shut-down much of the kernel itself. As the lock-downs come to an end, it will be expected by many — including many not on the political left — that the economy will pick-up at about where it was before the lock-downs. If one imagines the proper inputs to each part of the kernel (or of the economy more generally) as technologically determined, then restarting the economy is a simple matter of resuming those proper inputs. If the kernel is believed to have been kept in operation, then what remains is again to allocate the surplus roughly as it was, or (in keeping with left-wing values) with a greater share given to those who are not wealthy.

The economy will not pick-up where it left-off, because the technocratic conception in general and the left-wing conception in particular are so terribly wrong. But the political left will diagnose the failure to restore the economy quickly as a failure of capitalism — either to solve a problem of technologic programming or to produce a socially just or fair division of the surplus. And, so, they will demand that the state become further involved, to take greater command of those industries that they regard as within the kernel, to strengthen worker unions, to establish floors on wages and both floors and ceilings on salaries, and to redistribute income through transfer programmes.

Blinded by the Light

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Sometimes, people who have trouble understanding an expression that is complete, unambiguous, and concise will claim that the expression is unclear. This response is very much like claiming that a day upon which they want sunglasses is foggy.

On the Meaning of Sexism

Thursday, 11 May 2017

In a previous entry, I noted that the original definition of racism was a theory or an adherence to a theory that merit is in part intrinsically a function of race. It was exactly by analogy with the word racism that the word sexism was introduced in 1968, thus referring to a theory or an adherence to a theory that merit is in part intrinsically a function of sex.

Now, here is where matters get tricky. In any case in which one rejects sexism, it is regarded as an inappropriate response to the sex of people; and, in particular, the treatment is likely to be seen as unethical. A very great many folk employ the concept of unethical response to the sex of people as if that were the very definition of sexism. That notion is going to operationalize very much like the actual definition whenever and wherever the issue at hand is one of ethics and ethics actually call for neutrality — for a rejection of the relevance of sex to the issue. But nearly all of us regard people of one sex as better suited to some rôles that are of importance. For example, if I presume that sexism must refer to something unethical, then I am compelled either to associate sexism with something other than neutrality of a sort, or as a matter of justice to try to entertain thoughts of accepting a man as a potential spouse for myself. (People are led astray by the analogy with racism; the cases in which sex is relevant to selection loom larger because of the importance of reproduction.) And the substituted notion is not going to operationalize at all like the original definition exactly when someone believes that merit is a function of sex in a far wider range of cases than do folk such as I; then the substitution is going to get things almost perfectly twisted around. He or she will label anti-sexism as sexism and will label some sort of sexism — perhaps quite an intense sexism — as anti-sexism.

The spurning of a claim of relevance is the maintenance or adoption of indifference. This indifference is an equality of one sort — and we often see the words equal and equality used in antonymy to sexism — but it is not an equality of various other sorts. Advancement of a conflicting equality would itself be sexist. Such conflicting equalities can arise when the equality sought is equality of outcome. If people, regardless of sex, may be presumed to respond to a framework in essentially identical ways, and we observe markèdly different outcomes for one sex compared to those for another, then this difference is prima facie evidence that the framework is sexist. But if it is recognized that people of one sex behave differently in that framework, then the presumption that the framework is sexist does not follow from the mere presence of a difference. If we say that the different behaviors must be treated as of equal merit because otherwise a difference in outcomes emerges, then the merit that is ascribed to the behavior is treated as a function of the sex of the people who engage in that behavior; that prescription is itself intrinsically sexist.

For example, the rates at which men are arrested for, charged with, and convicted of criminal behavior of various sorts are much higher than the corresponding rates at which women are arrested, charged, and convicted. We cannot conclude simply from these differences that the system of criminal law is sexist, because it may be that men simply engage in that behavior more often; indeed, most of us are fairly sure that this latter case holds. If we insist that the behaviors themselves must be decriminalized in order to reduce the rates at which men are arrested, charged, and convicted, then we are inferring the relative merit of the behavior from the sexes of those who engage in it. The very same sort of analysis would apply to hiring practices and to the wages or salaries paid to those in various occupations.[1]

(Many people, including certainly me, would argue that an unfortunate sexism prior to whatever exists in the legal system is one factor contributing to greater criminality by men, but few-if-any people propose that part of an appropriate response would be an adjustive sexism, giving more tolerance to male criminalized behavior than to female criminalized behavior. Likewise, some of us assert that an unfortunate sexism prior to whatever exists in the jobs market is one factor leading to different career outcomes for women, but we don't propose an adjustive sexism attempting to compel employers to pay women more than the expected values of their marginal products.)

The confused presumptions that only an unethical discrimination can count as sexism and that sexism is found where there is some sort of inequality other than non-neutralityan attention to sex — causes people in all sincerity to misapply the word sexism and to fail to see legitimate application of the word, perhaps to their own attitudes and actions. If substitutions of these sorts are not recognized by those who use the word sexism in accordance with its definition, then interactions will be characterized by mutual incomprehension, quite possibly enraged. Attempts to employ logic and facts won't be persuasive because one of the two groups will actively misunderstand a word central to any communication. Additionally, there are people who implicitly believe that ethical significance clings to symbols, such that by changing labels what was wrong may be made to be right and vice versa. In dealing with them, the principal point that ought to be made is not that words cannot be redefined, but that, if we should for any reason redefine sexism, then whatever case was made against what was originally called sexism isn't thereby logomantically transformed into a case against whatever is now to be called sexism, nor is a case against something that was originally called sexism somehow invalidated by ceasing to call it by that name.[2] Of course, there are also those who effect the substitution as a device of unconscious projection, and others who opportunistically seek to sow further confusion.


[1] In the absence of a coherent explanation otherwise, if any population really could be hired at bargain rates, then not only should we expect all members of that population to be hired before any members of any other population; we should expect employers to bid-up the wages and salaries of this less expensive population to the point that they matched those of other populations, before hiring any members of those other populations. If there is some occupation such that the cost of hiring workers for it is notably less than the expected values of their marginal products, then we should expect employers to increase their hirings for those occupations, and in doing so (each in competition with the others and in the face of otherwise ever more reluctant workers) to bid-up the wages or salaries of those workers until the difference disappears.

[2] The same principle of course applies to efforts to redefine racism.

Spurious Invocations and Socialized Medicine

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Advocates for funding or for in-kind provision of medical services through the state — some degree of socialization of medicine — frequently assert that there is a basic human right to health or to medical services. But there is invariably a bait-and-switch, because health cannot be provided as a right, basic or otherwise, universal to human beings or even held by all members of a large, naturally formed community such as a nation; and a right to medical services gauged in terms other than consequences for health would be grossly implausible and otherwise unappealing.

It should be immediately obvious that there cannot be a basic right to medical services, because a basic right exists in any context in which there is a person, even when that person is in isolation. One cannot make a claim to the services of others if there are no others, nor can one make a claim to the use of technologies that simply don't exist. That's why genuine liberalism understands that basic rights aren't claims to the services of others, but instead are claims to be free from various sorts of interference by others. Robinson Crusoe cannot see a doctor when he is alone on the island, yet can speak his mind whether he is alone or has neighbors.

Derived rights are another matter. Derived rights are founded upon basic rights, but may emerge in a social context and be informed by the available resources, including technology. And there might even be a derived right that, though only emerging in some context, were universal to some population and involved positive claims to goods or to services. To provide an argument that health or medical care were just such a right, advocates of socialized medicine would have to identify and explain a process of derivation. While some persons making the assertion that there were instead a basic right to health or to medical care are simply swept-up by emotion, doing so also short-circuits a recognition of responsibility for that identification and for its explanation.

There are advocates who speak and write of the social contract and propose to find support thereïn for socialized medicine at present levels, and perhaps at still greater levels. But what is here called the social contract is not the contract that Hobbesians or liberals once imagined to be adopted at the beginnings of civil society; rather, a set of expectations held by some members of a society is being called a contract, as if such expectations alone could somehow contractually bind everyone within that society. The need to identify and explain the derivation of an ostensible right to medical care remains unmet by the use of the misleading metaphor of a contract. (Perhaps Mr Crusoe expects Friday to begin studying medicine upon arrival, but what of it?) It might also be noted that reference of this sort to a social contract is profoundly conservative — in the original sense of conservative — because the principal informant of expectations about social outcomes is tradition. And, if such expectations did have the sort of moral force that is imputed to them by the invocation of the social contract, then practices such as the subordination of women in various societies could be defended by reference to the social contracts of those societies. Even if such defense is somehow progressive, it is utterly illiberal.

In any case, health itself cannot be delivered as a right universal to human beings nor within some smaller but still large and naturally formed community. Some people have dire medical conditions for which there is no effective treatment, so there is no right to health itself. One might acknowledge that indeed there is no right to health yet assert that there were still a right to medical care; but others have conditions that could be corrected only by diverting resources that would otherwise be used to provide medical treatment to different people; and it is incoherent to speak of rights as things that may be in conflict — indeed, the point of insisting that health or medical care were a right (as opposed to a lesser desideratum) is to make an over-riding claim. One might finally punt to an assertion that everyone simply had a right to medical care regardless of need; but, thus unlinked, there is no more reason to suppose an entitlement to some allotment of adhesive bandages and of aspirin tablets than to suppose an entitlement to an allotment of bubble gum.

The actual provision of medical goods and services under socialized medicine cannot be about rights, and so it isn't about rights; it is instead a matter of politicized collectivist calculations. Essentially, popular opinion is motivated by a naïve and incoherent utilitarianism — trying somehow to maximize an implicitly quantified sum of human well-being (with perhaps odd lexicographical properties), but making exceptions here and there driven by pity or by respect for some people and enabled by blindness to the costs to others; and officials of various sorts try to keep some share of the public happy but more generally pursue their own interests. Those who are not served under the programme or who find their access to medical care reduced or even effectively ended by socialism are waved-away as unfortunate victims of practical limitations, previous talk of rights not-withstanding.

I'm not at all a fan of collectivist calculations; typically they assume quantifications that don't hold, and otherwise they seem arbitrary in what they seek to maximize. But, if those calculations truly made sense, then one would want to consider the long run, to include the well-being of people in the future in one's aggregation; and thereïn lies the rub. Unless one assumes that humankind is fairly soon to come to an end, there are more people yet to be born than are alive to-day. If there truly were a collective aggregate to maximize, then anything done to-day that impaired economic development in the future would be counter-indicated. If people in the future were generally wealthier, then they would enjoy better medical care and almost surely better health. If we allow for considerations beyond the medical, the case for economic development is greater still. And, because it cannot allocate resources with economic efficiency, socialized medicine is ultimately a drag on economic development and thus on medical progress.

Socialized medicine doesn't deliver a basic right; it doesn't deliver a derived right; in the long run, it means that more people suffer (though suffering itself has no aggregate across persons) and that at any given age a greater share of people die. Refusing to face these points doesn't make one a nicer person; accepting the truth doesn't make one uncaring. Forcing the innocent to swallow bad medicine is not kindness.