Archive for March, 2010

The parable of Pip

March 28, 2010

Imagine a boat full of sailors in the Caribbean Sea. They travel from island to island in search of gold and silver. Most of the sailors want to visit Puerto Rico, but they don’t have any power. The captain is the one who makes all the decisions, and he decides the boat will sail to Cuba.

The crewmen quickly grow tired of having their wishes disregarded by the captain, so they decide to throw him overboard. The sailors announce that from now on, all sailing decisions will be voted on by the crew.

This new system works much better, but one of the sailors is still unhappy. His name is Pip, and he has his heart set on visiting Jamaica. He argues with the crew about where to sail, but what can he do? They are many, and he is only one. Puerto Rico it is.

Pip is no quitter, and soon he begins thinking of other ways to get what he wants. When the crew lands at San Juan, Pip tells his shipmates that he will be taking a boat to Jamaica.

“But we don’t want to go to Jamaica!” shout his shipmates.
“Who said anything about we,” retorts Pip. “I won’t be taking your boat. I will build my own.”

Within months, Pip has built a small raft he uses to sail to whatever island he wishes, whenever he wishes, unencumbered by the will of his former crewmen.

If you thought this was an allegory, you are correct. If you thought it was an allegory about politics, you are correct again.

The political system that existed under the captain is, of course, an allusion to autocracy. The second one is an allusion to democracy. Those were easy. But what about the third system, the one in which individuals aren’t told what to do by anyone else, either by a single strongman or a large majority? That, my friends, is known as capitalism.


The bias for statism

March 23, 2010

If I joined Rotary International, I bet that my friends and family would be proud of me. If I joined the Ku Klux Klan, they probably wouldn’t be. The reason we commend a person for joining Rotary but not the KKK is that the two groups do radically different things. Rotary International is a humanitarian club that has spent millions of dollars on polio eradication. The KKK, on the other hand, is a racist organization that has a long history of murder and violence.

Interestingly, there is one entity that people are always praised for joining, and that is the military. This is not because everyone agrees that the military is a force for good. There are plenty of opponents of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but even most of these people do not discourage young men and women from joining the armed forces.

What explains the difference? I think it is a simple case of statist bias. We think of the government we belong to as representing “us”, so when it acts, “we” act (and it goes without saying that “we” are good). We do not extend this “we” attitude to non-governmental groups. We reserve it for the state.

A case in point is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has co-authored a bill with Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) to phase out private contractors from war zones. Pay attention to his use of pronouns in describing the bill:

Bernie Sanders: The American people have always prided themselves on the strength, conduct, and honor of our United States military. I therefore find it very disturbing that now, in the midst of two wars and a global struggle against terrorism, we are relying more and more on private security contractors – rather than our own service members – to provide for our national defense.

For a good column on the travesty of using “we” to mean “government”, see David Henderson’s piece on


March 23, 2010

A group of acrobatic basketball players known as “Team Acrodunk” performed at the Junior High School in Washington Tuesday, March 23. I took photos of them for the newspaper and then, in my spare time, recorded a video of them doing one of their routines. I understand this group appeared on the television show America’s Got Talent a few years ago.

Richard Posner on animal rights

March 14, 2010

In an email exchange a number of years ago, the famous philosopher Peter Singer engaged Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner in a debate about animal rights. Singer took the position that we should not discount the suffering of animals just because they belong to a different species. Posner disagreed. Although I was unfamiliar with Posner prior to reading these emails, I had heard good things about him from David Friedman, so I assumed he was sharp as a tack.

I was very disappointed with Posner’s arguments. It is difficult to take Posner seriously in a few of the emails he sent to Singer. I have pulled a few paragraphs from the exchange and have provided my own commentary below them.

Posner: You [Singer] assume the existence of the universe-wide community of pain and demand reasons why the boundary of our concern should be drawn any more narrowly. I start from the bottom up, with the brute fact that we, like other animals, prefer our own—our own family, the “pack” that we happen to run with…

Posner is describing what evolutionary biologists call kin selection, which is altruism we direct at organisms that share our genes. I think Posner is correct to take into account the biological factors that affect our attitude about other creatures. It is unrealistic to assume humans can be totally free from their instincts when thinking about ethics. While we should try to overcome these ingrained biases, we shouldn’t kid ourselves about their existence.

Well, that isn’t what Posner thinks. In fact, he sees nothing wrong with this pack mentality.

Posner: Americans have distinctly less feeling for the pains and pleasures of foreigners than of other Americans and even less for most of the nonhuman animals that we share the world with…Now you may reply that these are just facts about human nature; that they have no normative significance. But they do.

Huh? Nazis don’t care about the pains and pleasures of Jews. Does that have normative significance?

Posner gives us an example of what he means:

Posner: Suppose a dog menaced a human infant and the only way to prevent the dog from biting the infant was to inflict severe pain on the dog—more pain, in fact, than the bite would inflict on the infant. You would have to say, let the dog bite (for “if an animal feels pain, the pain matters as much as it does when a human feels pain,” provided the pain is as great). But any normal person (and not merely the infant’s parents!), including a philosopher when he is not self-consciously engaged in philosophizing, would say that it would be monstrous to spare the dog, even though to do so would minimize the sum of pain in the world.

The implication is that in a world run by utilitarians, dogs would be permitted to go around biting babies. Posner thinks this idea is horrific, and if it is a logical extension of utilitarianism, we must reject utilitarianism. But Posner stipulates something that is almost certainly false: that the bite would cause less harm than preventing the dog from biting.

If a dog is about to bite an infant, why would you assume the dog is only going to inflict minor pain on the infant? Isn’t there some chance the dog may seriously injure the child or even kill it? Given that dogs have been known to harm small children, a utilitarian could be perfectly justified in severely hurting a dog that was about to bite an infant if that was the only way to avoid the bite.

Of course, if you stipulate that X causes more suffering than Y, then Y is to be preferred. But if your example has assumptions that clearly do not reflect the real world, then the example’s conclusions have no implications for the real world and they are not a good reason to reject utilitarianism.

What if a pinprick to a dog caused 100 times more suffering than murdering a human? Then we’re probably not talking about dogs and humans on planet Earth.

Posner: And if, for example, we could agree that although a normal human being’s life is more valuable than a normal chimpanzee’s life, it is only 100 times more valuable, you would have to concede than if a person had to choose between killing one human being and 101 chimpanzees, he should kill the human being.

Posner is suggesting that Singer is a moral monster because he would rather save the 101 chimpanzees over the human. But look at what Posner wrote earlier in that same email:

Posner: I agree, for example, that human beings are not infinitely superior to or infinitely more valuable than other animals; indeed, I am prepared to drop “infinitely.”

Posner thinks a human is clearly worth more than 101 chimpanzees. But he acknowledges that human beings are not infinitely more valuable than chimpanzees. Doesn’t that mean that he would be willing to sacrifice a human life to save some number of chimpanzees?

Throughout the exchange, Posner accuses Singer of being an off-the-wall radical, and that the people who read his book Animal Liberation don’t fully comprehend how extreme his positions are.

Posner: You say that some readers of Animal Liberation have been persuaded by the ethical arguments in the book, and not just by the facts and the pictures. But if so, it is probably so only because these readers do not realize the radicalism of the ethical vision that powers your view on animals, an ethical vision that finds greater value in a healthy pig than in a profoundly retarded child, that commands inflicting a lesser pain on a human being to avert a greater pain to a dog, and that, provided only that a chimpanzee has 1 percent of the mental ability of a normal human being, would require the sacrifice of the human being to save 101 chimpanzees.

Is Singer really alone in thinking that some animal concerns take precedence over some human concerns? The answer is no, Singer is not alone. In fact, we don’t have to look at unrealistic hypotheticals where we choose between killing humans and chimps. We can look at the way modern human beings treat their pets.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, there are more than 72 million pet dogs and nearly 82 million pet cats in the United States. The average pet owner spends $366 on their pets per year in veterinary expenses. While American pet owners collectively spend billions of dollars caring for their furry friends, 16,000 children in the world die every day from hunger-related causes. Millions of pet owners would sooner pamper Garfield and Odie than save their fellow human beings from starvation. And Posner thinks Singer’s (supposed) preference of 101 chimps over one human is grotesque?

The best is yet to come…

In his second letter to Singer, Posner blatantly contradicts himself.

Posner: Where I disagree with you [Singer] most profoundly is over the question of whether ethical argument either can or should affect how we feel about animals (or foreigners). My view is that ethical argument is and should be powerless against tenacious moral instincts. You point out quite rightly that such instincts often are mistaken. But then the need is for pointing out the mistakes. In the 18th century it was a capital offense in some American states for a human being to have sexual intercourse with an animal. One of the grounds for this harsh punishment was a belief that such intercourse led to the birth of monsters. The belief was unsound, and showing that it was unsound undermined the case for punishment.

To the extent that lack of consideration for animal suffering is rooted in factual errors, pointing out those errors can change our intuitions concerning the consideration that we owe animals. (my italics)

What would Singer have to do to change Posner’s mind about animals? This is what Posner had to say about the dog-bites-baby example from before, where Posner recoils at the idea of allowing the dog to bite the infant.

Posner: I do not feel obliged to defend this reaction; it is a moral intuition deeper than any reason that could be given for it and impervious to any reason that you or anyone could give against it. Membership in the human species is not a “morally irrelevant fact,” as the race and sex of human beings has come to seem. If the moral irrelevance of humanity is what philosophy teaches, and so we have to choose between philosophy and the intuition that says that membership in the human species is morally relevant, then it is philosophy that will have to go.

Posner says that new facts about animal suffering can change our intuitions, and that what Singer needs to do is produce these facts. At the same time, he says that in the case of human versus animal welfare, his intuitions are so strong they are impervious to reason, and that he feels no need to defend this belief. How is Singer supposed to respond to that?

I understand that at some level of abstraction, we are unable to give logical arguments for our beliefs and actions. I believe that pleasure is better than pain. I don’t have an ethical argument for that. If you don’t share that belief, we probably can’t get anywhere arguing with each other. However, Posner gives up way too early when he says that his preference for humans over non-humans is beyond rational examination. What would he say to someone who said their preference for the Aryan race was so deeply held that it was impervious to reasoned argument? Does Posner think arguments about ethics are ipso facto completely useless? If so, why is he wasting his time with this debate?

[Editor’s Note: I received an email of the best animal welfare websites, and was asked to publish it on my blog. For those interested, the websites can be found here.]

Why internationalists should be libertarians

March 6, 2010

There are people who want to reduce the role of government in society (i.e. libertarians). There are other people who want to reduce the role of citizenship in moral calculations (i.e. internationalists). To what extent are these two goals related? If I want more liberty, does that imply that I should be more or less patriotic? If I want people to treat each other equally regardless of nationality, should I favor an interventionist state or a policy of laissez-faire?

The reason I ask these questions is that it seems intuitive to me that the less the government does for its citizens, the less they notice it, and the less they care about who is under the government’s jurisdiction and who isn’t. If the functions of government are limited to naming streets, declaring holidays and doling out medals, then whether or not you’re a member of the government is of no real significance.

If the government is responsible for its citizens’ education, hospital bills, unemployment insurance, and defense, then whether or not you are a member of that government is a big deal. I think this partly explains why there is such strong opposition to the U.S. policy of automatically giving citizenship to children born in the country regardless of the immigration status of their parents. If the government didn’t perform so many functions for its citizens, receiving birthright citizenship would be as meaningful as earning an honorary degree from Moo U.

Returning to the earlier question of whether libertarians should embrace patriotism, I think the answer is no. The reason why was articulated well by George Mason University Law Professor Ilya Somin. Somin noted that nationalism often buttresses arguments for protectionism, discrimination of minority groups and suppression of dissent. More importantly, he argues that such positions are logically required by a nationalist ethic:

Somin: Nor are these abuses simply the result of misinterpretations of nationalism by unscrupulous rulers. To the contrary, if you genuinely believe that we have special obligations to members of your ethnic or national group that sometimes trump universal principles, consistency requires that you be willing to sacrifice the rights of other groups to benefit your own, at least sometimes.

Ok, so there is some reason to think libertarianism should shy away from nationalism. But what about the converse position? Is there any reason to think an internationalist is logically obligated to be a libertarian?

As stated earlier, awarding only the citizens of one nation lucrative benefits hurts the cause of internationalism by making national distinctions more salient in the public’s consciousness and in public policy. There are two ways of remedying this problem for internationalists. One solution is to make the national government irrelevant by turning over its functions to private corporations, or in some cases eliminating its functions altogether (such as drug control). The other solution is to take the functions now done by the national government and give them to a world government.

The biggest problem I see with the world government solution is that all existing international bodies, such as the United Nations, are simply organizations of nations. If decisions at this level are made by the government of each nation casting a vote, as is now the case in the Security Council and the General Assembly, we will not have solved the problem of the citizen – non-citizen distinction that internationalists seek to abolish. The distinction between people of different nationalities will remain and may even grow stronger as decisions that affect the whole world are decided by one group of nations acting against another. This does not figure to promote global goodwill as the internationalists intend.

Corporations, in contrast to governments, have no reason to pay attention to national borders. Corporations will go to where they can make a profit, whether that’s in Denver or Dubai. As consumers, we are no different. We care about what a product can do for us and not about who makes it or where it comes from. In the free market, people consummate mutually beneficial exchanges with strangers on a daily basis without regard to those strangers’ nation of origin. This is the very kind of cooperation internationalists seek to foster, and is much preferable to the conflict and resentment that characterize the political sphere.

P.S. For those who are interested in how a society would function with no government, see David D. Friedman’s book, The Machinery of Freedom.