A Different Take on Marriage and the State

From the keyboard of the always delightful IOZ:

Increasingly, however, I come to the conclusion that it's problematic for the state to confer any additional privileges and rights on anyone just because they form a household. What about the singles, yo?

I think this raises an excellent point that's not often considered in the debate over gay marriage. Why should the state have anything to do with marriage in the first place? Is conferring special privileges on couples, whether gay or straight, fair to people who are single? Singles already have enough disadvantages as it is, and many of us are not single by choice.

Leaving aside arguments that venerate tradition (which are totally uncompelling to me), I think a case can be made that the state should promote marriage only to the extent that it is necessary for the perpetuation and well being of the species. As far as I know, there's evidence that children raised by two parents (whether of same or different sex) tend to fare better than those raised by only one. In other words, two moms are better than one (and roughly as good as two dads or one of each).

(As an aside, I don't think there's enough data about the effects of polygamous arrangements on the upbringing of children. To the extent that it seems unlikely to constitute a significant harm, however, polygamy is probably not something that should necessarily be absolutely prohibited.)

If two parents are better than one, then it's in the state's interest to increase the number of two-parent households. But let me stop here and make an important distinction. I said that the state has a reason to interfere in matters of family insofar as it promotes the continuation of the species and its well being. Perhaps a better distinction is to be made between maintaining population and improving the upbringing and education of children. While the latter would seem always to be desirable, the former may not be, because of concerns about overpopulation.

Thus, while the state has an interest in encouraging children that have already been born to be raised by (at least) two adults, it may not have an interest in increasing the number of children being born, especially if its population is growing too quickly.

What this means is that the legal benefits that come from marriage should not necessarily be the same in all times and places. In countries with declining populations, not only marriage, but reproduction is worth encouraging. If a nation is in danger of overpopulation, then contraception should be widely available and encouraged.

I think the key to a rational policy on marriage comes from making explicit the advantages of marriages for society. My position here is a version of libertarian paternalism. Ultimately, individuals should be able to choose to marry whomever they like, so long as its consensual. Nevertheless, while not forcing anyone to do anything, it's acceptable to create mild incentives and disincentives to encourage people to make one choice over another. If a cohabiting couple with children would be more likely to stay together if married, it's not inappropriate for the state to offer some special privileges for obtaining the legal status.

In short, I disagree with IOZ because I can see a point to encouraging marriage in some circumstances. As I've suggested, I think marriage should be allowable between any parties which are capable of consenting (so this would extend beyond gay marriage to include things like polygamy and, eventually, human-robot marriages). I also favor the policy of separating the civil institution from the religious one. Religions should be allowed to set whatever requirements for their marriage ceremonies that they please, but any consenting couple (or group) should be allowed to obtain a civil marriage and the legal benefits it brings.

(I can really see myself now as a kind of left-libertarian paternalist. I like the idea of using a wider range of incentives than merely criminal punishment to influence the behavior of a population, without actively coercing individuals. In every case, we should use science and other knowledge to determine what is good for people as individuals and as a whole, and then incentivize choices to make self-interest coincide to a greater extent with the common good.)

(Sorry if this is a bit rambling. I wanted to record these thoughts before I forgot about them. I definitely appreciate any feedback about the arguments I put forth here.)


Evolution and Human Behavior

I just happened upon this somewhat provocative opinion piece from the Economist arguing for the importance of looking to human evolution in crafting social policy that I recommend. (I was unable to discern the author; I think it might have been produced by the editorial board of the magazine, but please correct me if I am wrong.) I have some reservations about some of the details (for instance, they act as though evolutionary psychology is far more robust a science than it currently is), but I do agree on the general point.

Here's a passage that could provoke some controversy:

Although there is a strong argument for making working conditions more sympathetic to the needs of parents of both sexes, the underlying point is that many women—and certainly many women with children—do not care as much about striving ahead in their careers as men do. Men, the report found, are more motivated by pay and less by job satisfaction than women are. If managers, they are more likely to work long hours. They also take more risks—or, at least, are more frequently injured at work.

The consequence, as Len Shackleton, the IEA report’s main author, puts it, is that: “The widespread belief that the gender pay gap is a reflection of deep-rooted discrimination by employers is ill-informed and an unhelpful contribution to the debate. The pay gap is falling but is also a reflection of individuals’ lifestyle preferences. Government can’t regulate or legislate these away, and shouldn’t try to.” He failed to add, however, that these preferences are often the result of biological differences between the sexes.

What goes for pay probably goes for career choice as well. At one extreme, it is foolish, as Kingsley Browne of Wayne State University, in Michigan, suggests, to expect equal outcomes in organisations like the armed forces. Not only are men stronger and more aggressive but, Mr Browne suggests, the psychology of both sexes has evolved to trust men (and not trust women) in combat, precisely because of this aggression and strength. At the other end of the scale, it is probably an opposite mixture of evolved aptitudes and attitudes that causes the domination by females of professions such as nursing.

This is not to say there can be no good female soldiers or male nurses. Patently, there can. But it is not clear evidence of discrimination that they are rarer than their counterparts of the opposite sex. A Darwinian analysis of the matter cannot say where the equilibrium would lie in a world free from discrimination. But it can say with reasonable confidence that this equilibrium will often not be 50/50.

Many may harrumph at such a Darwinian interpretation of feminism, and say that it is a circuitous route to a traditional destination. It isn’t: not expecting an equal distribution of the sexes within every profession is not the same as saying that a woman’s place is in the home.

Now, before I disqualify myself from ever working in academia in the future (I'm kidding!--I hope...), let me say that I don't agree with or endorse everything that they're saying here. However, I know that I had the very same question about gender parity when the issue was raised in my department. I agree that there should be more women in philosophy (both students and faculty), but I'm not convinced that we should expect a "natural" equilibrium of 50% men and 50% women. Now of course academic philosophy already appeals to such a small minority of people. Might it not be the case that there are certain characteristics it has (for example, its argumentative, competitive, sometimes even combative character) that makes it especially unappealing to many women?

One might argue here that maybe the problem is that academic philosophy is too competitive and should change, but even if that's so, the point still stands. To the extent that there are systematic differences in preferences between genders (whether these are "biological" or "cultural" is beside the point), we should expect to see disproportionate numbers of men and women participating in certain professions (or hobbies or what-have-you) in a society in which individuals are encouraged to choose careers (etc.) based on their own desires.

In any case, it's nice to see the point raised and the question asked. The headaches that are often the result of trying to reconcile values of diversity and equality (in particular, the caution with which one must frame one's arguments to avoid accusations of some pernicious "ism") is usually deterrent enough for most. Perhaps this is why there's no author's name clearly visible on the page.

One other point worth noting: I see evolutionary analysis as only a first step in the creation of social policy. In my view, a good society is one in which a sound fit is found between human nature and social institutions. Most people are only willing to try to change the latter and assume that the former is fixed. I disagree. I think human nature has been and is changed by civilization. (And it should be, because some parts of it are worth encouraging and other parts worth suppressing.) Whether those changes are the products of enculturation or a pharmacological/genetic intervention is, I would argue, immaterial.

As I see it, I'm something of a pragmatist. Which is more feasible: tweaking society so that it's satisfying to all individuals, or tweaking individuals so that they are better able to find satisfaction in a given society? Putting it like that is of course overly simplistic--it's clearly not an either/or, all-or-nothing situation--but why is it that so few are willing even to consider changes of the second type? Why accept biological nature's constraints when there is no good reason for them and when we have the power to mitigate or eliminate them? (See also my earlier post on not trusting nature for more on this perspective.)

In any case, I'm not calling for large-scale, bureaucratic human engineering. Rather, I just want individuals to have the freedom to modify their own bodies and minds however they like. Let the individual experiment, find a way to fit into a crazy world. Individuals in relative isolation may not be able to create a just society, but they may just be able to make their own existence, and the lives of those around them, more worthwhile. This is far easier than what I see as the alternative: reaching consensus (or at least having a majority agree) and implementing some more substantive ideal of what a just society is.

(This is a start. I may decide to develop this idea further in my forthcoming dissertation.)


Why I don't trust nature.

Of all the objections leveled against the various technologies I advocate for, the one that irritates me the most is non-argument that it's "unnatural". There are reasons why the naturalistic fallacy (the claim that "X is good because it is natural") constitutes an invalid argument. But let me explain what it is in particular that I dislike about nature, and why I am all too eager to violate it as far as is possible.

Now, in one sense, the term "nature" can be used to describe everything that is, was, or will be. This is the sense of the term that Spinoza uses, and that many physicists and other natural scientists use when they talk about "laws of nature". Such laws are inviolable, because they are merely descriptive. In this sense, nothing is "unnatural". Translators of Spinoza often capitalize this "Nature", and I'll just follow their convention to more easily distinguish this sense from the other I wish to talk about. I have no problem with Nature.

My problem is with a different sense of nature, what we might call biological nature. This would essentially include every living organism, all products of biological evolution, life and the processes that sustain it. I would go so far as to say that I hate this nature, and that, ultimately, I would like to redesign its products from scratch.

Here's why. Evolution has produced some remarkable things, no doubt. None of us would be here without it. But evolution is a blind, unintelligent force. As I like to explain in my teaching, evolution is simply the result of things not dying off until after they have in some way perpetuated themselves. Natural selection weeds out only the most pernicious combinations of genes. Thus, the bulk of the genetic material in organisms is entirely superfluous. Synthetic biologists are coming to realize this as they try to create organisms without all the useless clutter.

For example, there is no reason why organisms should age. Aging is simply the product of the accumulation of harmful mutations within species and individuals. Complex life is self-repairing. The only reason we become old and decrepit is because our mechanisms of self-repair eventually break down over time. With the right treatments, however, aging should be completely reversible.

In short, biological nature produces that which is barely good enough, while at the same time producing much that is not going to be successful at passing on its genes. If that weren't bad enough, what does perpetuate often does so out of dumb luck, chance, or contingency--whatever you want to call it. Adaptations are real, but they are always imperfect, the creation of a blind, idiotic force.

Let me be more specific and talk about human beings. Most of us are full of defects and inefficiencies that cause us no end of suffering. Evolution, like the rest of nature, is totally indifferent to our well-being. Some people are born with robust temperaments that allow them to resist the various ills of the world, but many of us are not so fortunate. Some people are such that they will suffer no matter what their circumstances. (I sometimes feel as though I should be included here, because despite having never undergone significant hardship, the bulk of my life has probably been miserable.)

That which we call happiness, flourishing, or even a meaningful and fulfilled life, is on one level a complex, ongoing (but never permanent) series of neuro-chemical reactions. Some people are lucky to have brains which easily produce such states of affairs, but most of us are not. Similarly, some people experience many great external goods in their lives, while others get shafted. Because even Nature is indifferent to us, there is no guarantee that decent people will have tolerable lives. (Plus, whether or not a person is morally decent is itself a product of various contingencies; there is such a thing as "moral luck": some people have to face situations in which whatever course of action they choose will result in some significant ill.)

Biological nature has produced but one thing which may be able to redeem it: intelligence. With intelligence, the world can be reordered in such a way so that suffering is not so ubiquitous and so that so many human desires are not left unsatisfied. Thanks to products of intelligence such as civilization, science, technology, and medicine, we may some day be able to reproduce far more readily the complex chemical reactions which constitute meaningful, happy existence. Whether this be through the use of drugs, genetic augmentations, or integration with our machines is really a matter of indifference. However, if we leave things to chance, if we refuse to tamper with nature, then many of us will continue to lead miserable existences. I would sooner die than embrace that nature.

I think there are primarily two reasons why people put trust in nature and want not to tamper with the natural order. On the one hand, they assume that the universe is not indifferent, but that it somehow cares for human affairs. The easiest way to believe this is to believe in a powerful entity with a human-like psychology that created nature for the sake of human good. (Now is not the time to argue against the existence of a benevolent God, but one would think experience would offer more than enough examples to show that even if such magical beings existed, they don't give a damn about what happens to you.)

But even the more secular among us might still attribute benevolence of a sort to nature, by misunderstanding evolution, thinking of it as quasi-teleological, shaping species in ways that are for their own good. But evolution has only predisposed us to survive long enough to reproduce, and even then, many of us will fail at this task. There's no reason to believe that nature will lead human beings to flourishing without our active intervention.

The second reason people put trust in nature is because it has produced an order that works "for the most part". We have often seen that tampering with this order produces undesired consequences. But this is merely a problem of lack of knowledge. Once we understand the workings of nature sufficiently well, we should in time be able to repair any of the damage that we cause in trying to change it. And the only way to learn how to do such things is to experiment, and to try and see what we can do.

Some people may be content to leave well enough alone. But I, and many like me, never will. Life sucks, but it doesn't have to. Knowledge is power, and its power confers upon us a responsibility to reorder the world in ways that are more conducive to our flourishing, and to the well being of other sentient species. Pain and suffering have their uses in the current scheme of things, but they are merely a cruel side effect, a gross excrescence of the natural order. They are no more necessary than any other of the ills in the world.

Look, people, it's this simple. If we don't play God, nobody else will. Nobody is coming to save us. Nature is just going to do its thing, and unless we are willing to make chance and contingency our objects of worship, then we would do well to embrace intelligence, foresight, and knowledge as the keys to making a better world. Anything less is a complete abdication of our duties.

Ours is a simple choice: dumb luck or intelligent foresight, nature or civilization, passivity or progress.


Obligatory Prediction Post

Tonight, I am down with O.P.P., an obligatory post predicting the results of the coming day's election. Sorry for no fancy map graphics, but I'm not so well-versed in the blogging arts that I can conjure up such phantasms.

I'm just going to do the Presidential and the Senate races, because I don't really care about the House (though I suspect a gain of a few dozen seats for the Dems). I'm doing the calculations in my head, so someone please inform me if I omit a state or screw up my math.

(My thanks go primarily to fivethirtyeight.com for the information on which these predictions were made. It is a superlative political blog that may well be worth frequenting even after election season ends.)

Popular Vote: Obama 53% McCain 45% Other 2%
Electoral College:
Obama 393 (Kerry states + NV, CO, NM, IA, VA, NC, OH, FL, MO, IN, GA, MT)
McCain 145 (AK, AZ, UT, ID, WY, ND, SD, NE, KS, OK, TX, LA, MS, AL, SC, AR, TN, KY, WV)

58 D, 2 I, 40 R
Republican Pick-ups: None
Democratic Pick-ups: VA, NM, CO, NH, AK, OR, NC, MN, GA

In short, an Obama landslide and a filibuster-proof Senate majority. There's probably some wishful thinking here, but I suspect that being burned in the last two presidentials has made many on the left overly pessimistic.


Link of Questionable Value

Some Luddite propaganda from the NYT:

We are living, we have long been told, in the Information Age. Yet now we are faced with the sickening suspicion that technology has run ahead of us. Man is a fire-stealing animal, and we can’t help building machines and machine intelligences, even if, from time to time, we use them not only to outsmart ourselves but to bring us right up to the doorstep of Doom.

We are still fearful, superstitious and all-too-human creatures. At times, we forget the magnitude of the havoc we can wreak by off-loading our minds onto super-intelligent machines, that is, until they run away from us, like mad sorcerers’ apprentices, and drag us up to the precipice for a look down into the abyss.

As the financial experts all over the world use machines to unwind Gordian knots of financial arrangements so complex that only machines can make — “derive” — and trade them, we have to wonder: Are we living in a bad sci-fi movie? Is the Matrix made of credit default swaps?

Seriously, dude, you're going to blame the financial crisis on the machines? Why do some people hate robots so much? Why is that form of prejudice so socially acceptable in this country?

I'd be more inclined to blame the human beings who used these tools, not the tools themselves. But what do I know? I'm a crazy, radical techno-apologist after all, a Gaius Baltar wannabe.


Democrats Better for the Economy?

This piece from the New York Times is a must-read. It summarizes the argument of a forthcoming book by Larry Bartels entitled Unequal Democracy.

It supports something that I've believed, but not really had strong evidence for, namely, that Republican economic policies increase inequality. However, above and beyond that, it suggests that Democrats are actually more effective with the economy overall. Here, the author details two key facts emerging from the economic data:

I call the first fact the Great Partisan Growth Divide. Simply put, the United States economy has grown faster, on average, under Democratic presidents than under Republicans.

The stark contrast between the whiz-bang Clinton years and the dreary Bush years is familiar because it is so recent. But while it is extreme, it is not atypical. Data for the whole period from 1948 to 2007, during which Republicans occupied the White House for 34 years and Democrats for 26, show average annual growth of real gross national product of 1.64 percent per capita under Republican presidents versus 2.78 percent under Democrats.


The second big historical fact, which might be called the Great Partisan Inequality Divide, is the focus of Professor Bartels’s work.

It is well known that income inequality in the United States has been on the rise for about 30 years now — an unsettling development that has finally touched the public consciousness. But Professor Bartels unearths a stunning statistical regularity: Over the entire 60-year period, income inequality trended substantially upward under Republican presidents but slightly downward under Democrats, thus accounting for the widening income gaps over all. And the bad news for America’s poor is that Republicans have won five of the seven elections going back to 1980.

Now, some caution in interpreting these results is in order. Correlation is not causation, and we're dealing with something enormously complex over a relatively short time-span of about 60 years. (Some possible complications: perhaps it takes several years for a president's policies to have any significant impact on the economy; and what about the role of Congress and which party controls it?) Plus, there are many other ways than economic growth that one may use to assess the welfare of a nation.

It may be a stretch to say that Democrats are generally better for the economy, but certainly they are at least comparable, contrary to what Republicans claim. Plus the evidence is quite strong that they are better for reducing inequality, which I would argue is itself valuable because greater equality means greater stability. (And, as Spinoza tells us, stability is the foremost virtue of a good state.)

I may have to check this book out. While I'm not a Democrat, I do tend to vote Democratic, and this is certainly useful information to have.



I'm teaching a "writing-intensive" course this term, and I'm tempted to send my students this:

Funner. Impactful. Blowiest. Territorialism. Multifunctionality. Dialoguey. Dancey. Thrifting. Chillaxing. Anonymized. Interestinger. Wackaloon. Updatelette. Noirish. Huger. Domainless. Delegator. Photocentric. Relationshippy. Bestest. Zoomable.

What do all these words have in common? Someone, somewhere, is using them with a disclaimer like "I know it's not a real word..."


Writers who hedge their use of unfamiliar, infrequent, or informal words with "I know that's not a real word," hoping to distance themselves from criticism, run the risk of creating doubt where perhaps none would have naturally arisen.

Furthermore, those same writers are giving up one of their inalienable rights as English speakers: the right to create new words as they see fit. Part of the joy and pleasure of English is its boundless creativity: I can describe a new machine as bicyclish, I can say that I'm vitamining myself to stave off a cold, I can complain that someone is the smilingest person I've ever seen, and I can decide, out of the blue, that fetch is now the word I want to use to mean "cool." By the same token, readers and listeners can decide to adopt or ignore any of these uses or forms.

A shorter, snappier version of David Foster Wallace's "Authority and American Usage"? (Incidentally, I am assigning DFW's essay to my class, in all its 60+ page glory, because it provides a lot of helpful context that this brief newspaper piece lacks the space/time to include. The essay can be found in his non-fiction collection Consider the Lobster, which is filled to the brim with awesomeness.)

For some reason, I've never much used the "not a real word" line--neologisms are fun!--and I was always a little irritated by it (you never see it in academic philosophy, even though you know they're constantly making shit up).

At the same time, I don't want to see my students writing things like "While Kant was perhaps the most impactful writer of the Enlightenment, he was arguably also the blowiest. Dude needed some serious chillaxin'!" True, but ineloquent.


Words of Political Wisdom

I notice that the last entry I posted, on telco immunity, now sticks out at me in an unpleasant way, particularly since what "must be prevented" was not. This evening, as I was reading Etienne Balibar's short monograph Spinoza and Politics, I happened upon some passages he cites from Spinoza's incomparable Political Treatise. I find them especially relevant:

[W]hen the safety of a state depends on any man's good faith, and its affairs cannot be administered properly unless its rulers choose to act from good faith, it will be very unstable; if a state is to be capable of lasting, its administration must be so organized that it does not matter whether its rulers are led by reason or passion -- they cannot be induced to break faith or act badly. In fact it makes no difference to the stability of a state what motive leads men to conduct its affairs properly, provided that they are conducted properly. For freedom or strength of heart is a private virtue; the virtue of a state is stability.


[I]f human nature were such that men desired most what was most useful to them, there would be no need of artifice to promote loyalty and concord. But since, it is well known, human nature is very different, it is necessary to organize the state so that all its members, rulers as well as ruled, do what the common welfare requires whether they wish to or not; that is to say, live in accordance with the precept of reason, either spontaneously or through force or necessity. But this only happens when the administration is arranged so that nothing which concerns the common welfare is wholly entrusted to the good faith of any man.

I shall leave interpretation as an exercise for the reader.


Why telecom immunity must be prevented.

Glenn Greenwald, far and away the most professional and intellectually honest blogger I've ever encountered, has an excellent defense of the rule of law here.

Too many Obama supporters are willing to look the other way on this issue, since he came out in favor of the "compromise". McCain, of course, is far worse on this issue--his recent claim that allowing Guantanamo detainees habeas corpus rights was one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in history gives you a sense of where he stands. In short, I can understand why they would want to refrain from criticizing Obama, insofar as they fear it would weaken his electoral prospects and could result in something far worse.

But, as cynical as I may be about a lot of things, there are some principles which I believe should be upheld despite the political repercussions. The rule of law is first and foremost on this list. Early modern philosophers like Spinoza and Locke (who stole many of Spinoza's political ideas without citing him) recognized the corruptibility of humans in power, and sought to establish rules of governance to circumvent this corruption. (Even then this was not a new idea; political principles like the separation of powers can be traced at least as far back as the Roman Republic.)

The authors and advocates of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, for all their imperfections, appreciated how vital the rule of law was for long-term stability and a just society. No human being, no matter how seemingly wise or benevolent, should be entrusted with the powers of a monarch. That includes Obama. (In fact, the only exception I would even consider is if such power was necessary to reinstate the rule of law because of a jaded and distracted populace who failed to recognize its importance.)

If any of this resonates with you, read Greenwald's article. It is well worth your time.


Free Speech on the Internets?

This article is worth taking a look at. It's a bit lengthy, but it covers a number of different dimensions of a highly complex problem.

I won't speak to all of it, but I'd like to focus on one particular issue:

Companies in charge of seemingly public spaces online wipe out content that's controversial but otherwise legal. Service providers write their own rules for users worldwide and set foreign policy when they cooperate with regimes like China. They serve as prosecutor, judge and jury in handling disputes behind closed doors.

The governmental role that companies play online is taking on greater importance as their services - from online hangouts to virtual repositories of photos and video - become more central to public discourse around the world. It's a fallout of the Internet's market-driven growth, but possible remedies, including government regulation, can be worse than the symptoms.

With the exception of the totally unsubstantiated claim that "government regulation" "can be worse", these paragraphs get to the heart of the issue I wish to consider, viz., the downsides of privatization.

Much in the way that an ant colony takes on a life of its own above and beyond those of its ants, corporations develop their own sets of survival instincts and quasi-desires. This is a metaphor, of course, but it does come very close to the truth.

An idea popped into my head just now, and I doubt it's entirely original, but I think it's worth sharing. Multinational corporations are like the modern instantiations of the ancient Greek and Roman gods. They are entities which ostensibly care about human well being, but which have their own interests which tend to take precedence and often have very little to do with what is good for human beings.

They share our world with us, but seem to occupy parts of it that ordinary mortals cannot access. They aren't omniscient or omnipotent, but their capabilities far exceed ours. And they are highly flawed, perhaps even more so than we are.

Similarly, there is a large but finite number of them, and a smaller number still of the most powerful ones. Thus, our options for loyalty end up somewhat limited.

This last point is crucial. Contrary to what free market proponents often suggest, corporate consolidation has left us with very few choices. Let's say that I run an open home network, and that my neighbors and their friends use it to download some copyrighted materials illicitly. If the RIAA and MPAA had their way, an ISP would have to cut off your access entirely if you received three accusations of illegal downloading. That's right, they don't even have to successfully prove anything; you merely have to be accused three times. One of your neighbors downloads the latest Metallica album, a second grabs a bootleg of the new Indiana Jones film, and a third pirates a copy of Photoshop and BOOM! no internet for you!

(If you think I'm making this stuff up, you should read BoingBoing more often... In any case, this is particularly unfortunate because it undermines human courtesy, discouraging people from sharing a resource that they don't fully consume. If not for factors like this, I probably would operate my home network without a password.)

In many areas of the country, broadband markets are monopolized, so your choice is: use this particular ISP, or stick with dial-up (if you can even do that; since in many cases the same company controls broadband and phone service, you might find yourself cut off entirely). If you're kicked off of your area's only ISP, you are shit out of luck.

I would probably die without the Internet. I wish I were kidding. Until recently, I lived alone (for nearly four years), and whenever my connection cut out I was both angry and panicked. The 'net allowed me some means of contact with other human beings, probably saving my sanity. It may be relatively new, but high-speed internet access is now, for many people, a need. (In fact, I think free wireless high-speed internet should be a human right, but that's for another post...)

Now, granted, state institutions and bureaucracies exhibit many of the same characteristics that large corporations do. This is especially so with non-democratic governments. In China's case, for instance, it's clear that government control can be a lot worse than having to deal with private corporations. (The author of our article above fails to make this case, leaving "government regulation" as a vague term that could apply to radically different regimes.)

The key difference, though, is accountability. Corporations are by and large highly undemocratic institutions, beholden only to making profit for their shareholders. Certainly this schema works quite well in a number of areas, but there are some in which it is entirely inappropriate, most notably when we are dealing with common goods.

So, for example, healthcare and other kinds of insurance are worth having insofar as they allow the pooling of risk. The profit motive totally undermines this; huge amounts of time and money are spent not to cover particular expenses and companies try to offer insurance only to those who don't need it. It's highly inefficient, which partly explains why Americans pay more for healthcare than anyone else, even though its quality of care is comparable, and sometimes worse, than that of other industrialized nations.

A second example is in the cultural sphere, in art and music. Back before today's oppressive copyright regime, artists frequently borrowed images and ideas from their predecessors and contemporaries. Today, you can't even use a 5 second sample from a song without permission. (In fact, according to the AP's idiotic new policy, I shouldn't be able to post quotations from their articles any longer than 5 words, without paying for it. Perhaps I should just split up those two paragraphs into a series of 4-word quotes...) This has driven certain genres of music that depend on practices of sampling and remixing underground. Everyone loses as a consequence (except the huge media conglomerates--who for some reason seem very reluctant to share their ill-gotten gains from suing their customers with the artists they are purportedly protecting).

A third case, the last I'll consider, involves infrastructure. Only the most diehard/insane libertarian wants to privatize the roads. Nevertheless, much of the US infrastructure is crumbling because of moves toward privatization in the past few decades; there's little profit to be had in making sure bridges are safe. So why is it that when it comes to the Internet, the aptly named "information superhighway", that we run almost entirely on privately-owned toll roads?

The fall of Communism as a realistic alternative to Capitalism does not mean that the latter is the best we can do. We should use markets in the places where they are most effective, but not shy away from trying out other models when they are not. If the concern is that governments are inefficient or incompetent, we can always rely on local experimentalism. (Remember "states' rights"? Neither do I...) If a state institution is not producing the effects it is supposed to, you scrap it and try something else.

But even when we do rely on markets, we need to keep corporations in check. They will maximize profits by whatever means they can get away with. (That's not a statement about "evil CEOs" but rather about the nature of the system, and the ways it promotes some kinds of behavior over others.) It's the state's job to set the rules and enforce them so that corporate interests don't trump human ones.

Why is that so difficult for some people to swallow? I don't understand how you can be totally distrustful of one large set of institutions (government) and totally trusting of another (the market). (I mean, at least most first world governments are ostensibly democratic.) As with any powerful entities, we should set them up in opposition to each other to ensure that none becomes too strong. But instead, we get them colluding while most citizens are too fat and entertained to really care.

(Hmmm... This is not the most coherent post I've ever written. I need to refine some of these thoughts, but I might as well publish it as is for now.)


In Defense of Hypocrisy

[This entry is something I originally posted on another (private) blog of mine, with a few minor edits. I was prompted to write it after recent incidents involving presidential candidate Barack Obama and popular website BoingBoing, both of whom have been mercilessly accused of hypocrisy in the recent past. The cases aren't really equivalent--I think Obama is actually more deserving of the epithet--but I did get sick of all the drama.]

Yes, that's right, I'm going to defend hypocrisy.

A lot of otherwise nonjudgmental people seem very quick to throw out this particular accusation. Nobody likes a hypocrite, but why? I think it's time to challenge some assumptions.

The first problem with calling people out on hypocrisy is that we're all hypocrites (for example: I have in the past and probably will in the future call people out for hypocrisy). Many of us have at least a few strong ideals that we will share with other people from time to time, but we're all of us imperfect, human: we don't always live up to our values, although we're very good at making excuses for ourselves when we fail.

There's been some social scientific research on hypocrisy, but I don't feel like looking it up and you probably don't feel like reading it. Suffice to say, from what I have perused, there's evidence (surprise, surprise!) that hypocrisy is quite common, for just about everyone. But we all know this, anyway, from experience, so I'll move on.

At this point you may object: "Sure, we're all hypocrites sometimes, but some are bigger than others. Nobody listens to me, but public figures can have a lot of influence on other people, and there's nothing worse than them telling others not to do things that they themselves do."

My response to this brings me to my second point. Sometimes it's okay to hold different people by different standards. (In fact, the very objection hypothetically posed presupposes that public figures be held to a different standard than private citizens.)

Take Al Gore as an example. He travels around the world a lot, doing his slideshow and so forth, to try to convince people of the enormity of human-caused global warming and to inspire them to take action against it. Since he doesn't have a magical zero-emissions jet, his carbon footprint is rather considerable.

Now let's pretend (counterfactually; in truth, Gore spends large amounts of money to offset his carbon footprint) that he ignored this fact and continued to do his slideshow all over the world. Has our hypothetical Gore lost all credibility because he's a hypocrite?

In a world of black-and-white morals (like Tennessee, perhaps), that might be the case. I don't know how many times I've heard arguments to this effect: "Don't trust Noam Chomsky; he hasn't given up all his positions to go live on an anarchosyndicalist commune!" But in the real world, sometimes you have to do things you don't approve of in order to accomplish things you value more. Gore has changed so many other people's behavior that his effect will be a net positive regardless of what he does.

Take another, less controversial example. Let's say that you really support candidate X or proposition Y and spend large amounts of effort, time, and money to convince people to vote for him/her/it. Voting day comes around, and you suffer a lapse of energy, deciding to stay home instead of going out to the polls. As it happens, the race is close (say 100 votes), but your desired outcome is achieved. (Elections are almost never decided by a single vote.) Would you be a hypocrite in this case? In a sense, yes, but you still achieved more good than if you had merely voted without campaigning. (In presidential elections, this is more excusable for people who don't live in swing states.)

In short, people's circumstances often differ. We live in an egalitarian-minded society, but few ethical rules can be applied uniformly without consideration for the situation. When the actions of a mass of people easily outweigh those of an individual, hypocrisy isn't all that bad (except to the extent that it does in fact undermine your credibility, reducing your potential impact).

Third, and finally, accusations of hypocrisy are often leveled as excuses for one's own questionable behavior. In logic, there is a seldom invoked fallacy called "tu quoque", which is just Latin for "you too", that applies to charges of hypocrisy. It's an instance of ad hominem, in which you attack the speaker rather than what s/he says. Wikipedia has a decent article on it, so let me copy their formulation. The following argument is invalid:

A makes criticism P.
A is guilty of P.
Therefore, P is dismissed.

I see this a ton on political blogs. "The Republicans are telling us not to use 527s to smear them? But what about the Swiftboat Vets, etc.? If they can do it, we certainly can too!" This is one reason the high road is seldom taken in politics.

But you can see how easily this can be used to rationalize a person's behavior. In the previous example, if dirty politics is wrong in one case, then it's still wrong for you to do it even if your opponent does it and at the same time says not to do it. It may make it easier on your conscience, but just because large numbers of people do something does not make it right. (Two wrongs don't make a right, as it is often said but seldom practiced. :-) )

In this case, in fact, the accusers are being doubly hypocritical. First, for trying to justify their use of practice Z, which they otherwise say is wrong, and second, for accusing another person of being a hypocrite while themselves being hypocritical ("meta-hypocrisy" you might call it).

Look what has happened here, though. In all the accusations back and forth of hypocrisy, the real moral issues at stake have been lost sight of. Instead of discussing the appropriateness of policy T, we end up discussing whether minor infraction U counts as a violation of principle V, thereby making actor W a hypocrite. While these kinds of social games may be fun (and increase TV ratings), they are totally counterproductive.

So the next time you feel the urge to accuse someone of hypocrisy, stop a moment and think if it really matters. (Just because everyone else likes to yell "hypocrite!"--including me, at least sometimes--doesn't make it right, after all.) If it's an issue that you care about, playing the hypocrisy game will be self-defeating. More likely than not it will serve as a distraction, leaving the undesirable status quo in place. Why not just focus on what's objectionable about the policy position, behavior, or whatever, that's in question?


What's so bad about partisan politics?

Obama's recent selling out of the Constitution and the rule of law has served as a wake-up call for me. If you think that means I'm not going to vote for him, though, you are mistaken. Rather, it has helped me to put his claims of a new kind of politics into a more helpful perspective.

Part of Obama's appeal, which I until recently was also influenced by, is his renunciation of the old way of doing things in Washington. His call for a new kind of politics he likes to bill as post-partisan, as transcending the divisions of red and blue, Republican and Democrat, and the like. While he identifies the proper source of frustration, he misinterprets what is objectionable about it. What we need is not less partisanship, but more. Here's why.

Following Chantal Mouffe--whose work, specifically her 2005 book On the Political, I was prompted to return to after recent events--I would distinguish between three models of democratic politics: the aggregative, the deliberative, and the agonistic. The first two are versions of liberalism, in the sense it is used in political theory, an individualistic, rationalistic view that sees the goal of politics as compromise (aggregative) or consensus (deliberative).

The precise differences between the two views are not important for my purposes here. The primary distinction I wish to draw is between the liberal and agonistic models. Mouffe advocates what I like to call the "Ant-eater Model of Democracy" (to my knowledge, this is an original formulation, the cleverness of which is no small point of pride, as shall be seen). Partly following conservative theorist Carl Schmitt, Mouffe defines the political realm as the space of conflict and antagonism. People disagree about how society is to be organized, about how things ought to be arranged to allow for human coexistence. Politics is the set of practices designed to make decisions in this realm among options which are mutually exclusive.

The problem with consensus-based views, such as the one advocated by Obama and many Democrats, is that they fail to recognize that any consensus is necessarily exclusive. Dissent does not disappear in this model; it is merely concealed, relegated to the margins. This has dangerous consequences, because it leaves those who do dissent with the feeling that they are not being heard, leading to disillusionment and apathy toward the political process.

Take the example of the American military empire. No national politician of any prominence can argue that we should drastically reduce military spending and close all of the unnecessary bases that we maintain around the world. This view as seen as illegitimate, as out-of-bounds for "serious" political discussion in the US. Consequently, those of us who understandably question this state of affairs, have no real political outlet for our dissent. (I'm not saying that we're right about this necessarily, but simply that it should be regarded as a legitimate point of disagreement.)

What recourse are we left with? We can rant and rave on the Internet, call our elected representatives, picket and protest--but to no real effect. It's not surprising that people with strong principles find themselves frustrated with our political process, and become disillusioned and apathetic. This is where we come to Mouffe's Ant-eater Model. She makes a distinction between antagonism--a relationship between enemies who view their opponents as a threat to their coexistence, meaning they can only be dealt with by force--and agonism, a relation between adversaries who view their opponents as having legitimate dissenting views, and who participate in a process which decides between their conflicting positions.

If you are my enemy, I cannot engage you as an equal; I either ignore you or push you aside or, in the worst case, try to kill you. If you are my adversary, the way we resolve our disputes does not involve violence or coercion, but the use of practices and institutions which resolve conflicts and make decisions non-violently. Democracy, on Mouffe's formulation, seeks to transform antagonism into agonism (hence, democracy as "ant"-eater). Democracy is the legitimation of dissent, to borrow a common formulation. It's how we coexist without having to resort to violence.

Returning to our central question: what exactly is so objectionable about the way national politics has been done in this country? The problem is not disagreement per se, but the form which that disagreement takes. Arguments ignore the issues, focus on the petty and the superficially personal; we get "spin" and sniping between parties, the elevation of minutiae to a position of eminent newsworthiness. The differences between the two political parties are often blurred or effectively non-existent--this certainly seemed to be the case in 2000, and while things have changed, the range of opinion that is deemed legitimate is still far too narrow.

While governing coalitions, blocks which can make up majorities, are necessary parts of a parliamentary system, there's no reason that these coalitions must be single political parties. In other democracies with multiparty systems and proportional representation, people in specific minorities can find politicians and parties who come much closer to representing their views. Our choice, however, is between Coke and Pepsi, which does us little good if we don't particularly care for either. Sure, there may be substantial differences between the two on important matters (like who, if anyone, we to go war with) which make it reasonable to prefer the one to the other, but that doesn't reduce our dissatisfaction if neither cares about certain issues of great personal importance to us.

This is not to say that, in the US case, one must then side with the various ineffectual third parties. We at least have a primary election system which allows us to influence the shape that the different political parties take. I'm inclined to think that proportional representation, public financing of elections, viable third parties, and other such reforms would make for a stronger democracy, but unfortunately we don't have the option of starting over again from scratch. (Should something drastic like this occur, it would undoubtedly not be a matter of choice.)

Working within the system and changing the system needn't be mutually exclusive. I think a lot of the leftist "netroots" enacts such a philosophy by supporting those Democratic Party candidates who most closely share their vision. Similarly, it's possible to have legitimate disputes on issues, and substantive differences between parties, without resorting to spin, personal aspersions, and all of the other objectionable tactics that color contemporary political discourse.

In short, what we need is not a post-partisan politics. As this most recent debacle has reminded us, there will always be differences of opinion, even among allies. Rather, we need a kind of smart partisanship, that eschews the dirty tactics and the commitment to pursuing political power at any cost, and gradually replaces it with a system that gives voters more real choices, by means of electoral and media reforms and the like.

(And if that doesn't work, that's when I call in the robots.)


"Arguments" Against Enhancement

Last week I had the intellectual opportunity of a lifetime: a special invitation to an intensive 4-day faculty seminar on my main topic of interest, human enhancement technologies (HET). Without exception (excluding perhaps myself), everyone in the seminar had a fascinating and sophisticated take on the issues at stake. With their acute intellects and their intimidatingly large knowledge bases, the participants in the seminar taught me a ton about the issues surrounding enhancement.

Nevertheless (and not surprising to any student of human nature), my strong opinions have not really changed. I'm a little more skeptical both of what will be possible in the near future and of how desirable the transformations that enhancement promises will be in a larger social context. In truth, I think the only compelling arguments against it would be ones that emphasize negative social consequences.

As an illustration of the uncompelling fare usually offered, I will consider four claims, helpfully crystallized by our discussions, which are often invoked as reasons to oppose HET. I consider these to be non-arguments (hence my scare quotes above), which play upon strong emotions and vague moral intuitions for rhetorical efficacy. There are four, having to do with: God, nature, hubris, and dignity. As it turns out, these are often cited not just with respect to HETs, but for just about anything, technological or otherwise, which could lead to massive social change. In short, these are four conservative "arguments" seeking to maintain the status quo (or, in more reactionary forms, hoping to reinstate a nostalgic golden age that never was).

Playing God

This first is the easiest to debunk, but annoyingly perhaps the one most commonly cited by lay people. In general, the claim is that {genetic screening, therapeutic cloning, creating human/non-human hybrids, stem cell research, etc.} is contrary to God's will, or something which only he is allowed to tamper with.

Like any argument purporting to know the will of God, the burden of proof lies with the one making the claim. Since there is no way to prove either that (their) God exists or that such-and-such is what that God wants, this kind of claim has to rely on faith. In a secular liberal democracy, that is by itself insufficient reason for opposing a policy.

(To the extent that "playing God" is meant to be a metaphor for human beings taking on a power of which they are not worthy, it turns out to be another version of the hubris argument which I consider below.)

It's Unnatural!

This is similar to the God argument in that it tries to bring in some super-human authority, in this case "Nature", to justify an individual's personal prejudices. Whenever something being "unnatural" is cited as a reason for opposition, rest assured that some mistake is being committed. I've contemplated teaching a class just on this subject ("What is nature/natural/unnatural?")--and I think I could find enough material to do so, given the huge amount of confusion that exists--but I will keep my response here as brief as possible.

The "naturalistic fallacy" is a name often given to the kind of mistake being made here, although admittedly the specific designation of that term (and whether it is even fallacious) is disputed by philosophers. (Yeah, I know, big surprise!) As the term is usually used, it refers to the unwarranted leap from "is" statements (descriptive claims) to "ought" statements (normative claims). In general, regardless of what you call it, the mistake typically involves confusing the descriptive with the normative in some way or another.

This confusion is bad enough, but even greater is to be found when we consider the wide range of meanings given to the term "natural". If people used the term "natural" in the way that, say, physicists used it, applying to everything that actually exists, then everything we find in the world is natural. This is the sense that Spinoza uses when he talks about nature, importantly noting that good and bad, i.e., normative concepts, are not by nature. It would be simple to see how to debunk the naturalistic fallacy if this were the only thing people meant.

However, this is not the way in which the term is usually used. In the "natural law" tradition, a very different kind of moral interpretation is offered (often associated with Catholicism). To the extent that this is a religious theory, it amounts to another case of the "playing God" non-argument. In non-theological applications, the question that arises is this: can we furnish definitions of the terms "natural" and "unnatural" that have moral connotations that can be applied consistently and without begging the question (i.e., just equating "natural" and "moral" by stipulation).

A number of articles have been written on this issue, although the ones I've seen have taken the term as it applies to homosexuality (homosexual behavior is wrong, the "argument" goes, because it is unnatural). The authors, defending the permissibility of homosexuality, will go through as many different senses of natural as they can, showing that no definition can be consistently applied.

For example: if by "unnatural" one means "artificial", then anything made by humans (i.e., most of civilization) would also be immoral; if "unnatural" means "something that non-human animals do not do", the fact of homosexual behavior among penguins, bonobos, and numerous other animals would make homosexuality moral but, again, much of human society immoral; if one defines "unnatural" as that which provokes disgust, then this would not only leave it open to individual differences but would tend to make things like cleaning toilets immoral; if it means "unusual" or "uncommon" (i.e., if "natural" is taken in the sense of "normal"), then any human idiosyncrasy becomes unethical, while many common vices become perfectly acceptable; and so on. While not entirely parallel, a similar analysis can be applied to HETs.

In short, it is insufficient to oppose research into and use of HETs simply because they are "unnatural". Other reasons must be given and must be able to be applied consistently to other areas (otherwise, we're merely creating masks for our prejudices). Remember: just because something is natural, does not mean it is good.


This term comes to us from Greek tragedy, usually referring to the tragic flaw that a dramatic protagonists suffers from which leads to his or her downfall. "Overweening pride" is a common definition of hubris. HETs are not only called "hubristic" but are sometimes said to express an obsessive human drive for "control" or "domination" or "mastery over nature". Generally speaking, under this heading I include any claim that amounts to: we are messing with powerful forces beyond our understanding that we foolishly think we can control.

(As an aside, one can find an interesting conflict in the Christian tradition on this point. Human beings are given by God dominion over the natural world, over all animals, vegetables, minerals, etc. However, pride is a great sin, Lucifer's sin and arguably a component of Adam and Eve's original sin. So, does our mastery over nature entitle us to manipulate it, say, at a genetic level? The Bible cannot answer this question conclusively, not only because it contains conflicting, even contradictory, passages, but also because it was written long before people even knew what "genes" were.)

Following Spinoza (and Aristotle and Nietzsche, among others), I do not see pride as a vice, nor humility as a virtue. It is possible to be overly proud, but what is ideal is having pride commensurate to one's capacities. It is good to know both our capabilities and our limitations. On the opposite end of the spectrum from hubris is excessive humility, which can prevent us from taking actions we should otherwise take. Believing oneself incapable of something is often sufficient to render oneself actually incapable. The point is: trying to control nature is not by itself a bad thing--in fact, we do it all the time--and there are times when we know well enough to do so, particularly if some greater good prompts us to act under uncertainty (and, in truth, we always act with some degree of uncertainty; none of us predict the future all that well). Don't forget: Hamlet also had his tragic flaw.

That said, the hubris "argument", unlike the previous two, actually offers an important lesson. We should not overhype our abilities, we should not presume that our technologies can satisfy all of our desires. Granted, but I would argue that human enhancement should only be developed with an eye to safety concerns and its potential social impact. We should use science and other cognitive tools to understand as well as we can, but just because there will always remain unknowns does not mean we should not act on our best information. Calling something "hubris" is effectively throwing in the towel, preempting inquiry before it even gets started.

I'm inclined to think that most people who accuse scientists of hubris simply are not aware of the vast extent of what we now know and what we are capable of doing with this knowledge. It's easy to throw up one's hands, especially if one occupies a privileged socioeconomic position, and argue that we should just "play it safe". However, refusal to change might just mean our downfall. Assuming everything will turn out OK if we leave well enough alone is simply not justified, especially if we recognize that evolutionary solutions to problems of survival are the products of blind trial and error. Just because something has worked or is working does not mean it will continue to work in the future. (In Enhancing Evolution, John Harris makes an excellent argument to this effect against what's often called the "precautionary principle".)

An Affront to Dignity

Dignity. There are few words in the English language that are so vague. Steven Pinker, in an excellent piece for The New Republic, makes a case for "The Stupidity of Dignity". His primary argument is that this nebulous quality is ethically unnecessary and, in the very least, should take backseat to more rigorous notions such as autonomy and respect for persons. If we don't even know what dignity is (is it something that everyone possesses equally, or can it be increased or decreased by what one does or by what one is supposed to endure?), we should not use it as a reason to oppose a policy which has the potential to do tremendous good.

Frankly, even if I ignore issues of vagueness, I simply don't see how HETs threaten dignity (just like I can't see how gay marriage is detrimental to the traditional institution of marriage). Adversity will never be eliminated from the human condition, nor death, nor suffering. We will always have limits. The quest for enhancement is not a quest for perfection, but for making life better. It may lead to new and unusual forms of life, but that does not effect the ethical worth of traditional forms.

As Pinker points out, dignity is not the sole human good, and ascriptions of dignity are extremely subjective. If we believe in a liberal democratic system in which individuals are as free as possible to determine their own conceptions of the good--to take a page from Rawls--then forcing everyone to conform to a moral standard of dignity is highly questionable.


Now, all this is not to say that there are no good reasons for opposing human enhancement. There may well be, perhaps even ones that could convince me. Nevertheless, using loaded terms like God, nature, hubris, and dignity adds little to the debate. (Conversely, merely invoking "freedom of choice" or a "right to bodily self-determination" is insufficient for justifying the use of HETs. There may be conflicts with other rights or freedoms that could take precedence.)

Bonus: Equality

A fifth claim against HETs is that they will heighten inequality (and hence, lead to conflicts and undermine democratic institutions). I think there is something to this argument, but that it too fails. I'll briefly say why.

Equality is an ideal. By nature, human beings differ in many qualities and there's no reason to think that everything balances out in the end. Social programs and environmental interventions can redress some differences, but it cannot change biological potentials. Whether we wish to admit it or not, there is a genetic lottery. With respect to our initial genetic makeup, some people get all the breaks, others several, most of us probably a couple, and some virtually none.

To use a personal example. I'm very lucky to be born with naturally high intellectual abilities. I'm smart, through no doing of my own. (I've seen enough cases of people who work harder than I do but who still cannot best me in many intellectual endeavors.) I'm grateful for that, but when I look around me I see mostly other smart people (because of where I live and work), and some of those people also have other talents which I lack. They are more creative, or more socially adept, or in better shape, or taller, or upbeat by disposition.

This last one, disposition or temperament, I cannot stress the importance of enough. Whether you have a sunny or a cloudy disposition colors the entirety of your experience. Some people lacking other talents can persevere simply because they are naturally resilient. This is grossly unfair.

Why do we ignore these natural inequalities when people complain about the "unfairness" of using steroids in professional sports or popping Ritalin before a test? People are no more responsible for their "natural gifts" than they are for whatever artificial means they use to boost themselves. But even if we consider something like how hard somebody works--because we think people who work hard deserve good things--we should ask, how did they acquire this predilection? Even if a work ethic is something largely socially determined, there is still a difference between people raised in different environments. Should I be blamed for not being raised to appreciate the value of hard work?

In truth, if equality is an ideal that we maintain, then the most egalitarian course of action is wide-scale funding for HETs, and subsidies to ensure that every individual can have the enhancements he or she wants. Trying to ban HETs will create a black market, raising costs and decreasing safety while simultaneously assuring that only a small elite will have access to them. (Even worse, this elite will be by definition law-breakers, meaning that they may find it easier to break other laws in the future.)

We should admit to ourselves that the main reason many of us oppose HETs is because we find them weird and unsettling; they are something radically new, something we aren't used to, and therefore something that frightens many of us. Let's stop dressing up these fears by invoking values which we apply selectively to rule out the things we just happen not to like.

If you don't want to enhance yourself, no one is forcing you too. But I do. So lay off!


On the Evolution of Intelligent Life

Nick Bostrom, philosopher and transhumanist from Oxford, has penned an excellent analysis of why it might in fact be better if life were not found on Mars. His reasoning is not entirely without problems--he's (still) only human after all--but I think he covers most of the important bases.

Thinking about the distant future is extremely difficult, but worthwhile if we have any concern for the future of our species or our civilization (not necessarily identical). Even if technology is not advancing at an exponential rate as some technooptimists proclaim, the pace of discovery and invention seems to be accelerating and will likely create for us problems we've never before faced. It would be nice to have some foresight, perhaps to take preventative measures against major threats.

A lot of future forecasting is a probability game, and one in which we have no idea what the real figures might be. Even if we could determine them, would it do us any good? A 1-in-a-million chance may seem highly unlikely, but given the vastness of the universe, such happenings are rather frequent. We can scarcely fathom the difference between 1-in-a-million and 1-in-a-trillion, but the probabilities we're dealing with are probably more infinitesimal by many orders of magnitude. However--and this is key--if the universe is truly infinite, anything that is possible will exist somewhere or other. We have no way of determining whether our case is unexceptional or nearly impossible.

With those caveats in mind, Bostrom still offers some helpful insights on the basis of his notion of a Great Filter. Think of it as a kind of "natural selection" for advanced civilizations. Since the universe has existed for much longer than we or our evolutionary predecessors have, it is quite likely that if the genesis of intelligent life were not so improbable, we would find instances of it. But SETI has yielded nothing. (See the article for further elaboration; I'm skipping some of the finer points.) This means that the emergence of intelligent organisms and cultures is unlikely--but for what reasons? It may be that the hard part is getting self-replication going. Once that happens, intelligent and eventually space-faring life might be virtually inevitable (so long as the planet on which it arises is not destroyed or otherwise rendered uninhabitable in the meanwhile).

Still, even if the jump from non-life to life is tremendous, the jump from intelligent life to space colonization could itself be as tremendous, or more so. (To a certain extent, this seems to me unlikely: we probably now have the means to start colonies on the moon and Mars, but lack sufficient motivation for doing so. In the very least, it's something that we could accomplish within a couple decades. At this point, no technology we have created makes it inevitable that expansion into space be precluded.)

The upshot of the discussion is this: is it possible for any sufficiently advanced civilization to escape destruction at its own hands? Or is the relationship between intelligent life and technology like that of the necromancer devoured by summoned demons he could not control? Can a civilization colonize other parts of space allowing it to persist even if its home planet is destroyed? And how likely is this kind of existential catastrophe anyway? Since most of us will not be colonists, it would be nice to know about these potential global cataclysms. (The greatest ones which are now being developed make nuclear weapons look like children's toys. Self-replication, in biotechnology, nanotechnology, and AI, are much more potent threats, because self-replicating things multiply at an exponential rate and could quickly overwhelm us. See Bill Joy's article from the April 2000 issue of Wired.)

It may well be that we face such existential threats in our lifetime. One error in the laboratory could eradicate us before we even knew what was happening. Even if this is extremely unlikely, it only has to happen once to kill us all. We would be foolish not to try to predict and prevent such possibilities as far as is possible. Thus, if we find no life anywhere else in the observed universe, it may just mean that we've already overcome the hard, astronomically improbable parts, and it may be smooth sailing from here on out. Then again...


Obama's Speech on Race

Race is an issue that I don't often talk about. Like a lot of white men, I tend not to think of myself in racial terms (or gender terms for that matter) while I generally try my best to treat everyone as equals regardless of the color of their skin or any other physical characteristic.

The metaphor of navigating a minefield here is as apt as it is frequently invoked. When I have discussed matters related to race in the past, I have no doubt that I've made an occasional misstep, uttering remarks which may have been racially insensitive. I honestly regret the offense I may have caused anyone at those times.

Despite the dangers involved, it would be a mistake never to speak about race, because it is clearly something that plays a significant role in American life, whether we like it or not. This is why Barack Obama's speech on the issue, an extremely powerful statement that did not shy away from tackling it head on, is so important and so necessary.

I strongly encourage you, if you have not already done so, to take a look at the speech, or at least read the transcript. I will offer my thoughts as I do in this forum, but I think it best for people to form their own opinions by going to the source without the distorting influence of pre-given interpretations by others. Of course we always carry with us preconceptions and prejudices, but there is nevertheless a value in trying to approach things with an open mind.

From here on, I will assume the reader has experienced the speech firsthand.

As I perused the Internet after reading it, looking at editorials and analyses as well as comments on these pieces from anonymous netizens, I found that most people's responses fell into one of two groups. In one, there was the expression of a kind of ecstatic hope, an almost religious feeling of being uplifted and deeply touched by his sentiments. The other consisted of vociferous anger directed at perceived contradictions accompanied with disgust that so many people could be "duped" by Obama's rhetoric. Given such strong and opposite reactions, what are we to make of this speech?

It should go without saying that one's prior feelings about Obama play a significant role here. Those who support his candidacy will almost invariably find his words inspirational, while those who oppose him will more than likely be upset and dismissive. These two groups hear in Obama's oration what they want and expect to hear, and by and large would react in a similar way even if it had taken any number of other forms.

(This is not to suggest that there aren't people who defy these expectations. A substantial number of people offered good reasons to justify their emotional responses. In taking up the stance I am now, I'm writing as though I did not fall into either of these groups. This is not entirely true, however, because I decided a few weeks ago, albeit with some reluctance, to back Obama. This speech put a number of my worries about him to rest, but I can't deny that I went into the experience with a generally positive outlook.)

At any rate, the most informative responses, I believe, will be those coming from people who, up until now, did not feel strongly one way or another. I came across a few of these. Some who were undecided said they were touched and that this made the decision for them. Even some previously ardent Clinton supporters seemed to find themselves torn between the two candidates after hearing Obama's moving words. At the same time, I saw reports of others who reacted with discomfort, who were uneasy about dwelling on these difficult contradictions in American life. Some thought race was not really an important issue and were unhappy that this much attention was being focused on it.

Even though I saw fewer of these, the variety of responses from people in this group was significantly greater, and unsurprisingly I was unable to discern any general trends from the small, unrepresentative sample I encountered. In the coming days and weeks, we'll see polls and eventually primary results which will give us a better sense of the larger impact.

Right now, it's anyone's guess what shape that impact will have. It's clear that Obama took some serious risks--he wrote the speech himself and delivered it without vetting it before focus groups or taking polls to see how people would react--and decided to communicate what he actually felt with a candor almost unprecedented in the politics of our time.

He defied the expectations of many "savvy" political commentators and reporters (many of whom seemed to entirely miss the central points of the speech) and actually addressed the issues with a degree of subtlety and nuance that presupposed that Americans are intelligent and reasonable enough to make complex judgments about almost intractable moral and political problems. Perhaps he overestimated the ability of most Americans, but it's painfully obvious that too much of the news media and far too many politicians underestimate it, perhaps grossly.

I found Obama's speech to be both brilliant and inspirational, and perhaps one of the greatest speeches in modern American history, for at least three reasons, which I'll share.

First, he was able to draw parallels between black experience and white experience, showing how both groups are capable of racist thinking, while giving an account of why such thinking occurs and acknowledging that it won't disappear over night. At the same time, he called on both groups to take responsibility and not to blame members of another race for the problems they face.

Instead, he deflected the blame to the unchecked greed and unregulated excesses of corporate America. This was a master stroke, both because it acknowledges that human beings need to blame someone for their problems, and because more people now are being pressed economically and are all too aware of Wall St.'s misdeeds with the recent financial bail-outs making the news. In addition to being strategically brilliant, it has the added virtue of being true.

Second, Obama showed, once again, how the politics of hope can overcome the politics of fear. Spinoza, in addition to penning the highly relevant quotation I cite in my header (the one that acknowledges that reason alone is insufficient to sway people, but must also have an affective, emotional dimension), rightly argued that hope and fear are the two most powerful emotions politically. Reason will get us nowhere, he teaches us, if we ignore the fundamental realities of human psychology. It's difficult, but one can influence people without being manipulative, and I think Obama does just that.

Obama's campaign has become a broad-based social movement because he knows how to wield hope skillfully and because people are sick of the fear that has disastrously guided this country's actions for (at least) the past seven years. He doesn't talk down to people as does President Bush, and is far more transparent about the motivations for his policy preferences. In short, he treats others equally as rational moral agents, regardless of how much they may disagree with him. Applying these strengths to the race issue, one in which fear of the Other plays all-too-dominant a role, is not only appropriate; it is of potentially tremendous benefit to this country's future.

Finally, Obama eschewed many of the pretenses and rhetorical flourishes of some of his earlier speeches and tried to connect to citizens on a personal level. Having come from mixed ethnic background, he was able to tell both blacks and whites, I think credibly, that he knows what we're going through. As he has often done, he was able to use specific examples of real people's lives powerfully, ending with a story of how Americans from very different worlds, a young white woman and an old black man, were able to come together over a common political purpose.

In some ways, this is the most important quality of this speech and the one that demands firsthand exposure. It made me think to my own experience. I of course have never been the victim of racism firsthand, but I happen to have a member of my immediate family for whom this is a very real possibility.

Several years ago, my parents decided to adopt a little girl from Guatemala. She's of mixed ethnicity but has the features and skin-tone to appear as an African American. She is also one of the most delightful people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. Even though she has been on this earth not much longer than a decade, she has been able to make astounding connections with other people of all walks of life--my parents joke that she has more adult friends than they do. Her affability and empathy, coupled with a flair for occasional theatrics (although that could just be a product of youth), make her unlike anyone else in my family (we tend to be bookish and on the shy side).

That she could be the victim of racial slurs and slights, of discrimination and prejudice, is a matter I prefer not to think about, because it deeply saddens and angers me. But I look to the example of Barack Obama and what he has been able to do both to transcend racial divisions personally and to inspire others to come together across this divide, and it literally brings tears to my eyes. It gives me hope at a point in my life when cynicism comes all too easily.

Perhaps Obama cannot deliver on his promises and will turn out to be a politician like any other. Perhaps. But I've seen what American politics looks like in the past quarter century and I know that I don't like it. I think he deserves a chance.

To be able to inspire people with his eloquence is more than just rhetoric; to effectively instill hope in others is to increase the likelihood that those hopes will be realized. When people are motivated to pursue a common good, they can do far more than they could isolated in the world of distraction that capitalism has created for us.

That's why his words matter and that's why he should be the next President of the United States.

UPDATE: This article in the NY Times on the impact of Obama's speech and the way it actually is opening up a conversation in America on race is exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about (see also my response to another commenter below). Today, in fact, I myself had a very productive discussion with fellow grad students about this very topic.

Some people complain that he is all talk and no action, but they fail to understand how a skilled orator like Obama is acting in profound ways when he speaks. (Those familiar with "speech act" theory might consider extending its insights to an example like this.) That he is able to inspire people with his words, to motivate them to take further action--this is perhaps his greatest asset as a presidential candidate (and president, much of whose power is, as one of my friends pointed out, largely symbolic, directing the national conversation and so forth) and why I feel quite confident now in supporting him.


The Abolition of Intellectual Property

Information should be free.

Music, movies, books, software, and other intellectual or artistic products should be a source of income only to the extent that something physical is being sold (e.g., a CD as opposed to its songs, a physical book as opposed to its chapters). The very notion of intellectual property is, in our digital age, no longer tenable; this turns out to be yet another aspect of life that shows there are limits to the capitalistic model that maintains that self-interest (profit) is the only feasible human motive.

I suspect that most of the people who read this blog are sympathetic to the idea, for instance, of free music. But even if you regularly use BitTorrent or some other P2P sharing, you probably have some reservations. You might think that what you're doing is stealing in some sense, or at least that there's something vaguely wrong about it (just not wrong enough to prevent you from doing it).

I would suggest that there is absolutely nothing wrong with it, that in fact trying to charge somebody money for an idea is the real theft. It seems the other way only because this absurd notion, "intellectual property", has been institutionally imposed on these older legitimate concepts: ideas, images, theories, words, artworks, songs, films, etc.

Let me back up these claims with arguments. First, consider the consequences of abolition. Imagine, tomorrow, that all copyright laws were to be purged from the books. Industry groups like the RIAA and MPAA would vanish in a puff of smoke and sulfur (along with a good many lawyers). Would this mean that artists, authors, entertainers, and so forth, would also cease to exist, no longer having the means to support themselves? By no means--here's why:

Let me use an analogy, by looking at a case where ideas still exist free of the notion that they are property. Scientists conduct experiments and publish the results but this data is freely available (especially as more academic journals are going online). This relatively free distribution (I'm skipping some of the details, but bear with me) is not only not a problem, it is of tremendous benefit to scientists everywhere. Indeed, this openness is a prerequisite of the success of the sciences; it is necessary for innovation and progress.

There's a system in place so that credit is given where it is due--i.e., by citing sources--but these citations do not function as a source of income. Imagine what it would be like if we had to pay a fee every time we cited someone else's research results or theories: it would destroy the institution of science as we know it.

How is it, then, that science is a sustainable practice if people aren't directly profiting from their ideas? Simple: they support themselves by other means. Most scientists are either academics--making a living by also being educators, teaching classes, supervising dissertations, and the like--or are private researchers working for companies that sell other goods and services that put these ideas to work.

The same can apply to the music industry and by extension to movies, television, and other areas. Musicians can make a living by selling the kinds of things that aren't information-based and can't be freely copied, say, by performing live shows for money and by selling CDs and T-shirts and other physical media just as they do now. If they are good and develop enough of a following, they can make a decent living.

As an example, I need only cite my two favorite bands, Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails, who are moving to a model like this--and quite successfully, I might add. Now, of course, not every musician has the popularity that these groups enjoy. It will be hard for new artists to emerge and establish a name for themselves, but this is already the case under the current regime. Unfortunately, not everyone has the talent to make a living off of music. (This of course doesn't mean that they can't still play music in their free time; they may just have to take up another vocation to support themselves.)

There'd be other advantages to eliminating copyright and similar laws. Consider remixes and the practice of sampling in genres like hip-hop. This has almost become impossible because of the idiocy of intellectual property--contrary to the corporate propaganda, trying to charge money for every sample, no matter how brief, has severely stifled creativity and innovation in music.

Art has a long history of artists "citing" famous images produced by other artists without paying some absurd fee to them. (I'm not an art historian, so I can't offer tons of concrete examples, but it's a long recognized practice in the art world. One example: Marcel DuChamp's famous rendition of Mona Lisa with a mustache.) As long as we give people credit and don't try to pass off their artistic or intellectual creations as our own, we are not doing anything morally objectionable.

See, I'm not entirely opposed to capitalism (I'm not for the abolition of all property as is, say, Marx), but we should reassess our assumption that people can own ideas, words, images, and the like. These belong properly to the public domain and constitute a common good--something which the rampant reign of capitalism has practically destroyed.

In the spirit of this alternative proposal, I must give credit to Wired's Chris Anderson, in particular, who wrote an article in this month's issue of the magazine outlining something very much like this. I've just expanded on his arguments and extended their scope. I will gladly recognize my indebtedness to his thinking, but don't expect me to send him a check!


Addendum: Some further support for this position just occurred to me. I'm going to try to articulate this dialogically by invoking an imaginary objector--I will do my best to prevent turning him into a straw man.

"What you say is all well and good, but the fact of the matter is that it's against the law, and is therefore wrong."

I grant that it is currently against the law. This is a question of fact, or at least of legal interpretation. My argument is that the law does not have a solid ethical justification here. Whether that merits breaking the law is a question I'll remain neutral about. If nothing else, my conclusion would warrant trying to change the law.

"But there is some justification to the law. If I write a poem or make a sculpture or compose a song, assuming I already legitimately possessed the tools and materials used, shouldn't I own that thing that I've made?"

To answer this I think requires looking at the institution of property more generally. Unless you are someone like Locke that thinks that property is somehow a natural right--a view I won't contest here, but one I doubt is commonly held today--you recognize that it is a social institution. It's a matter of convention, so there are no facts to determine whether an idea is "really" a piece of property or not aside from the social facts, i.e., the laws and implicit norms of a specific culture.

Now let's consider the kinds of justifications given for property laws. There are numerous practical advantages to be able to have exclusive control over certain physical objects. Since these are obvious I won't go into details or try to provide further justifications, but take this exclusive control as a recognized good. Now, it would be bad if someone took one of those objects from me without my permission, because I would no longer have that object under my control.

But what if, hypothetically, he could just make a facsimile of that object for his own use? I would keep my object and he would have one of his own to control as he saw fit. In fact, when I wasn't using my object, it would just be selfish of me not to make it available for that process of copying, although it would be nice if the guy gave me credit if someone asked him, "hey, where did you get that?" I think you can see how this hypothetical case is roughly how things stand with ideas, which can be shared without anyone losing anything.

"But what if, say, I put a lot of hard work into making that item while this other person skips all that and just takes the finished product for his own use? Isn't this unfair?"

I think you are getting at something here having to do with issues of relative status. I'm not hurt by losing the object, but if I'm in competition with this other individual I am now at a disadvantage, because he benefits from my work without having to put forth the effort himself (aside from the relatively easy act of the copying). So, to employ a useful distinction: in absolute terms, I am no worse off because I have lost nothing; in relative terms, however, I am worse off because someone else has gained something without paying the costs I paid to make that object.

"Precisely. The same thing applies to issues of prestige or fame. It would be wrong to profit from someone else's efforts like that. Isn't this a sufficient justification for intellectual property?"

I would say it's a justification but not a sufficient one, and one that happens to be overruled by the following considerations. The problem with status competitions and the like is that they are zero sum games. In order for someone to be rich or famous, most people have to be relatively poor or unpopular. Now, this is good to the extent that it can motivate people to produce things that everyone can benefit from; you do your work, I do mine, we trade, etc., etc., you have the foundations of a market economy.

But, there are plenty of non-zero sum games whose benefits for all of humanity can outweigh the benefits that are accrued by playing according to the rules of zero sum games only. Hence, with cooperation, you have a good which is greater than the sum of its parts.

(If this isn't obvious take the following example. Let's say we're both farmers in a relatively simple culture and we're trying to prepare our land to raise food, but there are a couple of large rocks that we each have on our property. Neither of us is strong enough to move the rocks alone, but if we join forces and take turns, first I help you move your rock then you help me move mine, we can move them. The same level of effort, roughly speaking, is able to be more effective because it's redistributed more sensibly.)

So, the question we need to ask is this: are the consequences from losing the motivation that relative status offers (i.e., the "profit motive") sufficient to eliminate the goods that we recognize and enjoy from having a wide assortment of intellectual and artistic creations at our disposal? In other words, it again comes to the issue of how we can encourage people to put serious effort into producing ideas and images, how we can foster a culture in which arts and sciences and other intellectual disciplines flourish.

But most good artists and writers and so forth do what they do because they enjoy it. The issue is not, "How can we motivate people to become artists?"--because the motivation is already there. The real question is rather, "How can we ensure that people can be artists and still be able to make a living?" And I've answered that above. They can sell things other than their ideas, such as live performances and physical objects that "put their ideas to work".

These artists are doing their part by creating goods that people enjoy, so they aren't mooching off of society, but if they lack sufficient talent (i.e., not enough people are interested in what they're producing), then they will just have to find other ways to support themselves. Them's the breaks.

"You have thoroughly convinced me. I was foolish not to see the larger picture. You truly are a great thinker and wise person and probably also an excellent dancer."

Thank you, imaginary interlocutor, you yourself have proven to be a formidable opponent (since you're my creation after all ;-) ).


To summarize: because ideas and information can be copied easily, they can be shared among individuals without causing any absolute losses. The relative losses, in terms of prestige and so forth, pale in comparison to the goods that are produced by free sharing because we are dealing with a non-zero sum game. The profit motive is able to operate in other ways and there is no serious danger of losing the goods of rich artistic/intellectual communities.

With respect to music, which all along has been the main example I have in mind, the only people who stand to lose are industry groups, lawyers, and perhaps the big record labels themselves. They invoke the artists for support (the really outspoken artists tend to be the ones who make a lot more money than they deserve, but society doesn't owe them the perpetuation of an extravagant lifestyle) only as a cover to promote their own interests. Humanity as a whole would be better off without these institutional monstrosities. They are no longer necessary and the people who constitute them should look for other lines of work. The RIAA is the real thief here, not music downloaders.