Archive for February, 2011

Rand Paul on the joy of voting

February 28, 2011

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) was on David Letterman’s show last week. I thought he handled himself well and made some good points about why the government should do less and the private sector should do more. (He does make a mistake when he defines the top 50 percent as people who make over $70 K. The number is in fact $33 K.)

The only criticism I have of Paul is his use of “voting” rhetoric to support the private sector over the public sector.

Rand Paul: We think that when you go to Walmart, or Kmart, you get to vote on which businesses succeed. That’s what you want in the private sector. In the government sector, you don’t get to vote. You may get a special perk if you gave a contribution to a politician.

What Paul seems to be saying is that: 1) voting is good; 2) voting occurs in the private sector; 3) voting does not occur in the public sector; 4) Therefore, the private sector is better than the public sector.

The most obvious problem with this analogy is that it’s confusing to say voting does not occur in the public sector. The 535 members of the U.S. Congress are there because they received the most votes in their respective elections.

Secondly, I doubt very much that the people who shop at Walmart do so because they want Walmart to succeed over a competing business. They do not necessarily want Walmart to swallow up Kmart. In fact, they may enjoy shopping at both retail outlets.

Beyond those two admittedly petty complaints, there are two other major problems with the voting analogy, which we will examine in turn.

1) The success of the free market has to do with the autonomy it gives to people. It does not have to do with aggregating desires as in voting.

Shopping at Walmart instead of Kmart is not analogous to voting between two candidates. In politics, the winning candidate rules over people who voted for him as well as people who voted against him. That is not true in the private sector, where a business must gain your consent before taking your money.

The analogy only works if you imagine that everyone is riding in a car, and the car can only go to one store. Then you will have to resort to some method of picking one store over the other. However, this is clearly not the case in the real world, so we should drop the analogy to voting.

2) Voting is good to the extent it mimics the free market, not vice versa.

Even supporters of the free market advocate for it on the grounds that it allows us to “vote with our dollars.” This suggests that the free market is good because it vaguely resembles democracy, which is taken to be a good thing. This gets the analogy backwards. Choice is good. Freedom is good. To the extent that voting is good at all, it is good insofar as it gives people choice and freedom.

Possible counter-argument:

Perhaps Paul would respond that he is talking to people who have a favorable impression of democracy but not of the free market. Showing that the free market resembles democracy would raise its stature in the eyes of those who value democracy.

The problem with this line of argument is that 1) It concedes too much and 2) Free market advocates can appeal to much stronger and more widely held intuitions than a support for democracy.

If you start with the premise that voting is good, you’ll find that putting an issue up for a vote does not reliably increase freedom. This can be seen in the way California voters spurned marijuana legalization and the way Iowa voters ousted Supreme Court judges who overruled the state’s gay marriage ban.

Even if you are speaking to a staunch democratic advocate, it is highly likely that they enjoy such things as choice, freedom and autonomy. These are values to liberals and conservatives alike. To make your case for the free market, appeal directly to these values. “Oh, you’re the only one in your state who eats organic food? That’s wonderful! In a free market, you can eat as much organic food as you want and no one can stop you.”


Define your insults, you Jabberwock!

February 14, 2011

Bill O’Reilly recently interviewed Barack Obama. Comedian Bill Maher was upset at the number of times O’Reilly interrupted Obama. In fact, he thought O’Reilly’s conduct was “unpatriotic.”

Presumably, Maher meant this as an insult and not a compliment. The implicit assumption is that “unpatriotic” is something you do not want to be.

The Free Dictionary defines patriotic as “feeling, expressing, or inspired by love for one’s country.” According to Maher, O’Reilly was doing something opposed to this, namely, that he was disrespecting the president by talking over him. This works if you allow “Obama” to stand in for “country.”

There is a problem with using the word “unpatriotic” this way. First of all, there is clearly a distinction between Obama and the United States. Maher obviously knows this, so he must not have been using the common, dictionary definition of the term.

Perhaps what Maher means is that patriotism entails loving your country plus respecting your president. In this case, its antonym “unpatriotic” has lost most of its force as an insult. It is one thing to accuse someone of hating “what America stands for,” and another to say they possess bad manners. If Maher had made his understanding of the term explicit at the beginning, no one would care that he was just accusing O’Reilly of bad manners, and no one would be talking about it now (as people on cable TV are).

A similar problem exists with other common insults whose meanings are vague. For instance, those who oppose wars or massive military spending are often called “weak on defense.” It is not at all clear what it means to be “weak” on defense, or “soft” on defense. If someone is called weak on defense because they oppose an aggressive war, then to be weak on defense is no insult at all. In fact, it is morally obligatory to be weak on defense, if it is defined to mean opposition to aggressive wars.

There are two lessons we should take away from this:

1) When someone accuses you of doing X, and you don’t know what X is or you don’t know why it matters, just ask the person why it matters. It is that simple. Barring this, there is no sense in retorting that in fact you do not do X. For instance, do not argue that you are in reality very tough on defense before you know why it is wrong to be weak on defense. Depending on your verbal assailant’s definition, weakness on defense may be perfectly acceptable.

2) A term that denotes something genuinely bad can lose its meaning through inflation, that is, by becoming overly broad. As an example, anti-semitism used to mean hatred of Jews. While it carried that connotation, anti-semitism was certainly bad. Now, according to the U.S. State Department, anti-semitism means demonizing not just Jews but Israel by “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” and delegitimizing Israel by “denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination, and Israel the right to exist.” These beliefs are certainly not on a moral plane with a hatred of Jews. In fact, it is debatable whether they are wrong at all. Under this new definition, anti-semitism has ceased to denote something truly offensive and may even be defensible. If you want to maintain that anti-semitism is bad, do not include these other beliefs in its definition.

Intentions don’t matter II: war & terrorism edition

February 1, 2011

What is the moral difference between killing someone intentionally and killing him accidentally? This question comes up when we talk about war and terrorism, and the difference between the two. In the public consciousness, there seems to be something morally distinct about accidentally bombing a school that’s near a military target and planting a bomb in that school with the aim of blowing it up.

We have a couple questions to answer. First of all: Are these two acts morally distinct? And second of all: How are they different?

I think that intentionally murdering someone is usually worse than accidentally killing someone. My reason for thinking this may be different from the reason other people would give, which in turn explains why I also have a different view of collateral damage than most people.

One possible reason we might have for judging the acts differently is that in one case the perpetrator wants the victim to die whereas in the other case he does not. In the case of the US, I think it’s fair to say that in many of its wars since WWII, its collateral damage has been unwanted, meaning that it would have preferred that the victims not die (it is harder to make this statement about its bombing campaigns in Japan and Germany). Al Qaeda, on the other hand, bombs buildings with the expressed purpose of killing the people inside.

Many people seem to think this is a key reason the US and al Qaeda are not on a moral plane, even if the US actually kills more people in its counter-terrorism operations.

I think it’s a mistake to focus on what a person wants to happen. Why? Because wanting something doesn’t mean very much. Actually, I think it’s meaningless. If we encounter a drowning child in a shallow pond, we might hope and pray the child swims to safety. But wanting it won’t make it happen. The fact is that the child will drown if we don’t save him, but that would entail getting wet. Someone who turns away a drowning child just to stay dry is guilty of a deeply immoral act, regardless of that person’s desires. I don’t think that is a controversial statement.

Another reason “wants” don’t count for much is that even most murderers think of their killings as regrettable necessities. If they got to design their own perfect world, they probably wouldn’t be a murderer. White settlers in North America just wanted to make a living. They didn’t want to dispossess and make war against the American Indians. I’m sure that if the whites had their druthers, the natives would live like royalty (just as long as they lived somewhere else). Al Qaeda wants the US to leave the Middle East. If the group could accomplish that without terrorism, if they had a magic wand that could whisk American troops back home, they’d use it. But they don’t, so they look for other options.

“All right, smarty pants,” you say, “if desires don’t count for anything, then what does?” If you think about the examples I’ve used, you may be able to see it already. In the drowning child example, we think that a child is clearly more valuable than an article of clothing. The right thing to do is to sacrifice the clothing for the child. In the second example, you can’t kill someone just to make a better life for yourself. Their right to life is more important than a few more acres of farmground.

Have you figured it out? We don’t care about what a person wants, we care about what they’re willing to trade. We recognize certain moral facts that pertain to value judgments, such as the value of a life, of a piece of land, and of a piece of clothing. We may not have exact values like you’d see in a grocery store, but we’re able to put them in some kind of order. We all recognize that a life is worth more than a pair of pants. We don’t condemn someone for wanting to protect their clean underwear. We condemn them for wanting to preserve it more than someone else’s life.

I think this explains pretty well why we condemn murder most of the time but make exceptions in instances such as self-defense. Killing someone to take their money is wrong because the victim’s life is clearly more valuable than the money is to you. But killing someone in self-defense means that you value your own life more than the life of the attacker, and that doesn’t seem wrong at all.

It also explains why we condemn even an accidental killing if the death were foreseeable and caused by your recklessness, but not as much if the death were unforeseeable. If I’m on the highway, re-enacting a scene from Speed Racer, and I run a stop sign and kill someone, people will rightly say that I’ve done something immoral, even though I didn’t intend to kill anyone. I valued the pleasure of my joy-ride more than the high probability of killing someone, and that is wrong. I have my values in the wrong order. But if I’m driving sensibly and kill someone else who’s run a stop sign, we think of that as a genuine accident. In that instance, the mere fact I caused an unfortunate death does not indicate I have distorted values, so we may not condemn me at all.

How do we apply this insight to war and terrorism? Let’s think about 9/11. The purpose of the attack was to force the US to withdraw from the Middle East. How important is that? I think many Arabs feel their religion, culture and way of life are under siege, that they’re being pushed around by a big bully. If the US left, they wouldn’t feel this way, which would be good. But how good? So good that it’s worth killing 3,000 people? Should you trade 3,000 lives for a small chance that the US will withdraw? Even if the chance of success were 100 percent, the idea is preposterous. (Not raising any eyebrows here)

What about US collateral damage in the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Sudan, etc.? Again, remember that the fact the US doesn’t want the deaths doesn’t mean anything. We know air strikes produce collateral damage, whether the US wants it to or not. War produces large-scale death and destruction, whether the US wants it to or not. The question is, what is the US doing that is so important that it could justify one hundred thousand civilian deaths? I already acknowledged that murder in self-defense, when your life is in imminent danger, is just. Is the US on the brink of annihilation? No, in fact if you read Robert Pape’s excellent book “Dying to Win,” you’ll learn that the insurgents who fight the US want to control their own countries, not the US. They are not about to wage a genocidal war against Americans. The fact of the matter is that the US is willing to trade 100,000 deaths for a little political leverage in a foreign country. It is that valuation, that trade-off, that should serve as the basis for our moral judgment of its actions. And on that basis it is clear that the US is deeply wrong.