Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The problem with "black on black crime"

Remember Rudy Giuliani? He decided to share some of his thoughts on the recent discussions of racial politics and violence regarding events in Ferguson:
The fact is that I find it very disappointing that you're not discussing the fact that 93 percent of blacks in America are killed by other blacks. We are talking about the significant exception here [in the Brown case]. I'd like to see the attention paid to that that you are paying to this.
I think Giuliani is wrong here, though I think people often do a bad job of explaining why he is wrong. For example, the incomparable Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in response to Giuliani:
It's almost as if killers tend to murder people who live near them. Moreover, it seems that people actually hold officers operating under the color of law to a different standard.
The first point is of course completely apt, and as the Washington Post acknowledges, most murder is intra-racial. But that doesn't really weaken the force of Giuliani's critique; his point is that, if you want to prevent black people from getting murdered, it's best to protect them from black murderers. The claim that the best way to protect white people is to protect them from white murderers doesn't change this claim. (Of course, neither of these is actually a strategy, but a general point about the focus such strategies ought to have).

The second point might be true, that we ought to hold police officers to a higher moral standard, but I'm not sure it actually gets to the root of the problem with Giuliani's argument. Because even if a certain act is more morally objectionable, if another act or group of acts is in effect more costly, it is prudent and wise to concern ourselves with the costly acts rather than the more objectionable acts. 

Let me explain this with an example. Suppose it's a bad thing to litter in the park. Some people, who are really evil, might throw away their batteries on the park because they like doing bad things. Suppose this is more objectionable than somebody who just litters because they are careless, or they don't realize the harm that it does. If the vast majority of the litter in the park is done by careless litterers, and our goal is to protect and support the value of the park, it makes the most sense to focus our efforts on reducing the careless litter, rather than the minimal litter of the really bad actors.

In fact, we might see campaigns decrying the evil litterers, while ignoring the much more numerous casual litterers, as a kind of moral fetishism, an overemphasis on blameworthiness that actually distracts us from what is really most important: protecting the park. This, I think, is the claim that Giuliani (and so many others) are making when they bring up "black on black crime".

Although the structure of the claim is, on my view, valid, it misses out on some important details.* First, Giuliani is just mistaken that no one talks about crime within African American communities. Those discussion happen all the time but (1) many white people just don't care enough to listen and (2) these discussions happen within black communities that, unsurprisingly, do not include many white people. Discussions about police brutality and interracial violence will involve the whole country, so these will be the conversation that conservatives of Giuliani's disposition pay attention to, but that doesn't mean that other conversations aren't also going on.

And, perhaps more importantly, the problem of white supremacy and racial oppression is the context in which intra-racial violence among African American communities arises. As Coates has discussed at length, this is system of oppression has deep effects today. One of the effects, for instance, of a distrust of the (mostly white) police is that disagreements are handled with force and violence is allowed to escalate. And the general disadvantage that black people face in our society foments the ingredients of conflict.

The redirection to "black on black crime" is an attempt to obscure this, and hide the fact that any societal structures play a role in the oppression of communities and the perpetuation of violence. There are several motivations for this obfuscation, some of which I have discussed previously

But it's more pernicious than just obfuscation, because underlying this argument is the assumption that either black people or "black culture" is somehow deeply troubled and flawed. The conservative response to this is to prescribe blanket moral condemnation: "Fix your culture", "fix your community", "where are the fathers?". Instead, we might think that there are deep socioeconomic and broader cultural effects in play, within a nation whose history includes a legacy of racial animus. Thinking that violence is just a "black people problem" trivializes this history and is thoroughly patronizing.

It might seem here that I'm just turning from blaming one culture to another. To some extent that's true, though I'm much less interested in the moral condemnation of individuals here and more interested in understanding the dynamics of power and oppression that structure society. And while it is a racist fantasy to imagine that somehow African Americans just have an inferior culture and simply need to better themselves, it is uncontroversial that our society is the product of doctrines of white supremacy and cultural superiority.

The broader argument of Coates' piece (linked to above) is a bit strange. He makes an interesting analogy to the problem of "American on American" crime, which is far more common than crime from muslim terrorists. Yet so much more of our national conversation (and budget) exists around addressing the much smaller problem of Muslim terrorists. This analogy is meant to show that the Giuliani and similarly minded conservatives are hypocritical, and that the "black on black crime" argument reveals racial bias, because they don't make the connection to American-on-American crime.

It's an interesting point, but I think it cuts the wrong way for Coates. His brief discussion about American crime vs. Muslim terrorist crime is actually compelling. We do worry more as a country about terrorist attacks than we do about, say, gun control, which is plausibly to our detriment. So the suggestion would be that if conservatives are to revise their hypocritical views, the should worry more about American on American crime (which, in fact, conservatives do talk about a fair amount, though not in that language), not that their dismissal of police brutality and white supremacy is misguided.

For the reasons I've given above, I think this dismissal is misguided. But Coates, to whom I am intellectually indebted for much of my thinking on this topic, neglects these points in this post, with problematic results.

*Both of these point have been discussed by Coates previously, to who has greatly helped to clarify my thoughts on the matter. I don't mean to make any general critique of Coates here, who is exceptionally thoughtful on these topics--I simply mean to critique the brief argument I quoted above, which many have employed, but is in my view too flippant.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The worst argument in the world

Photo Credit: tobym via Flickr
Over at the Reason.com, Peter Schiff gives yet another warning that inflation might still be just around the corner, a warning we've heard constantly over the last several years. I'm not an economist, but it's clear these predictions have proved phenomenally wrong, repeatedly, and yet they persist.

More interesting to me, though, is one of the arguments we've heard over the years that Schiff here repeats. It is, in my view, a version of the worst argument in the world.
Mainstream economists (who hold sway in government, the corporate world, and academia) argued that as long as the labor market remained slack, inflation would not catch fire. My fellow Austrian economists and I loudly voiced the minority viewpoint that money printing is always inflationary-in fact, that it is the very definition of inflation.
If Schiff, and his fellow Austrian economists, were right about this, there would be no question. The title of his piece, "Where is the inflation?" would have an obvious answer. It would be in the Fed's balance sheets, where we've seen a huge expansion of the monetary base.

But this is a mistake. Because, obviously, Schiff sees the problem for his worldview: the monetary base has expanded significantly (i.e. the Fed has "printed money") but inflation remains modest. These things, after all, are measured in different ways. So printing money is not, by definition, inflation.

But suppose it were true that inflation just meant the printing of money. Well, then the question would be, who cares? That means that we've printed lots of money, that is, expanded the monetary base. But to say that means we've also had inflation is to just repeat yourself, because they mean the same thing. What we want to know is if there are any negative effects of printing money--but having a definitional relationship tells us nothing.

What I think Schiff wants to say is that money printing always necessarily leads to inflation, that is, rising prices. And rhetorically, it's tempting to illustrate this necessity by appealing to, or declaring a, definitional relationship. But instead, this move actually negates any substantive assertion, and merely makes confusing use of words that have better definitions.

Inflation is the general rise in the price of goods and services across the economy. Printing money, or monetary expansion, is the macroeconomic tool that the Fed has of essentially increasing the supply of money ("money printing" is, of course, misleading because money is no longer just printed dollars and cents, but the term as metaphor is suitable). It does this by lowering interest rates or buying treasury bonds. Schiff might think that, always and in every case, monetary expansion leads to inflation. But if that even if that were true, they wouldn't mean the same thing.
Take another example, "the square root of 9" and "the sum of 1 and 2" are both necessarily 3. But that doesn't mean that the two phrases mean the same thing. Clearly they do not.

This argument even fails for Schiff on his own terms; if monetary expansion and inflation were the same thing, if one means the other, then there's no argument to be had. That might sound good for Schiff's case, but it really indicates that he hasn't made any interesting or worthwhile claims at all. He might has well have said, as philosophers are prone to, "all bachelors are unmarried men". 

In fact, it's worse than this--the definition of bachelor is uncontroversial. But if you're introducing a definition that is controversial, for words that have perfectly good definitions already, you're just making matters more confused.

Once you realize this argument for the sham that it is, you realize that people use it all the time. But it's just a trick, an illusory argument. The reason I think it's the worst argument in the world is that it seems so powerful--relationships of necessity are important, and definitional necessity appears to be the strongest kind of necessity--but it is entirely vacuous.

Consider another example (courtesy of Derek Parfit in On What Matters). Some people think that "the morally right action" just means "the action that has the best consequences." These people think this is a declaration of the truth of consequential moral theory, but in fact it is the opposite. It means that moral theory is nothing more than consequentialism, which is just an assertion. Such an assertion could have no more meaningful effect on our lives than the realization that garbanzo beans and chickpeas are the same thing.

The problem for a consequentialist who held this view is that a non-consquentialist could completely agree. In fact, it's always a generous move in an argument to accept your interlocutor's definitions. So as before, I might accept that "morally right" means "having the best consequences", but any question I had about such actions with the best consequences (such as, is there always conclusive reason to act thusly?) would thusly apply to "morally right" action. I might ask, is there always conclusive reason to do what is morally right? Ought I do what is morally right?

Normally we might think that "what I have most reason to do" or "what is morally right" or "what I ought to do" all refer to the same concept.* But if I accept the consequentialist definition of "what is morally right", I have to use other (to me, synonymous) phrases to ask the pertinent question. If she chooses to define all of these phrases in her special way, she may do so, but she simply leaves her interlocutor unable to question what is most interesting--and not in a helpful way.

Definitions and words are just the tools with which we have arguments. But arguments are actually about the features of the world and the things that matter to us. You can adjust the definitions of the words to mean whatever you like, and it might seem like you're making a point. But really, you blur the intuitive connection that words have to the features of the world and the things that matter to us. And this makes argument less clear and less helpful, and our thinking more muddled. 

What I've said here might seem to suggest that there's never any point in arguing about definitions. That's not quite correct--and I'll show why in a subsequent post(which--I anticipate--will be (even!) more interesting to readers than the topics covered here).

*Some people do not accept this. More on this later.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Is there anything wrong with sex-selective abortion?

Photo Credit: Marcus Hansson
Over at Oxford's always interesting "Practical Ethics" blog, Nicholas Shackel addresses the question of sex-selective abortion (that is, choosing to have an abortion based on the sex of the fetus), a hot topic in British politics.

He concludes that if we think abortion is broadly permissible, then we must also think that sex-selective abortion must be permissible. Essentially his argument is that if an action is permissible, then the reasons we have for carrying out said action cannot make it impermissible. However, this conclusion is a mistake. (What follows is a modified version of my comment left on Shackel's post.)

There are, it seems to me, two reasons to object to abortion as a method of sex selection(and, indeed, any method of selecting the sex of a fetus):

(1) It shows a lack of proper respect for persons generally by exhibiting sexist prejudice. This is most plausible if it is female fetuses being aborted. In the same way we could think selective abortion of fetuses that we (if it were possible) could predict would grow up to be homosexual or transgender is wrong, or (as many believe) aborting fetuses we suspect will be disabled is wrong, we might think aborting female fetuses is wrong.

(2) It could have bad consequences, in particular, disrupting a (supposedly valuable) gender balance in the population.*

Either of these conditions could render certain abortive conditions wrong, even if we generally think there is a right to abortion. This is because the general permissibility of abortion could be seen as legal position rather than a moral one. And this, to my mind, is the most plausible view.

Even if we think abortion is morally generally permissible following either of the arguments Shackel mentions, this doesn’t entail that it’s never wrong to have an abortion. Suppose someone had an abortion even though they wanted and would have cared for the child lovingly, simply to spite a pro-natalist family member. That seems to be a bad reason to have an abortion, and that person would be open to moral criticism. But even though we might want to say this act was morally wrong, we wouldn’t want to criminalize this kind of abortion, for the same reason we don’t want to criminalize any number of morally wrong actions.

If we believe either (1) or (2) above, we might think that criminalizing sex-selective abortion would be appropriate. It certainly wouldn’t stop all cases of it, because as Shackel mentions, there are several work-arounds. But having prohibitions in place would offer some forms of disincentive, and might promote the kinds of norms we want promoted. And since many people in fact value honesty, even when it fails to help them achieve their ends, we might expect that fewer sex selective abortions would occur.

I don’t have a settled view on this, because I’m not sure how successful (1) and (2) are. But I do think there is a more of a legitimate argument here than Shackel seems to think.

*Some feminists who accept these arguments suggest we should permit sex selection in cases where families are just trying achieve a balance of these sexes of their own children. This is interesting, but it doesn't seem to me to actually avoid either the objections in either (1) or (2). If only families with female children opt for the balancing forms of sex-selective methods, then the problems re-emerge.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Verbal harassment is wrong, even if you're trying to be nice

Photo Credit: Magdalena Roeseler
Before delving into the substance of this post, I have a few comments on the subject of men writing about feminism. Several feminist writers have expressed misgivings about "male allies" in feminism. I think these pieces are important. One of the main thrusts feminist thought is the recognition that male voices have historically been dominant in social discourse, and female voices have been largely suppressed and erased. For a movement that seeks to address that disparity, the threat of men taking over the discussion or undermining it should be taken seriously.

One common method of defending privilege is denying the experiences of the oppressed. Feminism shines a light on female experiences that have often been denied or ignored, and in that way, men have little to contribute to feminism. However, we all have a part to play in improving our society, and shaping cultural values.

Which brings me to the topic of street harassment. A woman recently posted a video compiling some of the verbal harassment she faced walking around New York City. I know women face this harassment all the time, but the video made it startlingly vivid for me.

Some people (mostly men, but a few women) did not see all the comments in the video as harassment. This is a huge problem. As Kat George puts it, "Women feel vulnerable on the street, period. When a man interacts with her on any level she did not invite, it’s threatening, period." Another way to put this would be to look at the simplest definition of harassment, which is "unwanted attention." Since we can assume, and many women have said, that being frequently verbally commented on in the streets is unwanted, we should classify such comments as harassment.

George goes on to list several behaviors that absolutely constitute street harassment, and I think no reasonable person should disagree. However, there is one argument in her article that I do disagree with. She writes,
I retweeted the post from my personal account, and while many sane people expressed support for the article, some responded with questions like, “But don’t you think some of those guys were just trying to be nice?” No. No I don’t think that. Not for one second.
And later,
...after enough years of encountering enough different kinds of people engaging in enough different kinds of interactions, all women (YES, ALL WOMEN) develop a sixth sense: We can immediately tell if someone is, in fact, being “nice”, or if their seemingly innocuous words or actions are laden with latent undertones of objectification and entitlement, and the threatening implications that go along with someone who holds that view – who views you as a less-than-human thing which they want and feel entitled to have – has set their sights on you. We can tell. 
This line of argument seems to me to be unnecessary, and incorrect. To be clear, I'm not denying that women may experience this "sixth sense" about the intentions of men. But I do deny that they in fact have access to the intentions of others, because discerning others' intentions is a notoriously difficult task(indeed, attributions of this sort are notoriously plagued with prejudice). In fact, the philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that we often don't even know what our own intentions are.

But George needn't have made this argument at all. The intentions of the offender don't determine the wrongness of the act (though they might somewhat mitigate the blameworthiness of the individual.) Men shouldn't comment on a woman's appearance in the street, even if he is only trying to pay her a compliment.

Regardless of what a man intends by his comments, he is likely to contribute to the objectification, fear, and discomfort that women are openly telling the world they feel. This is sufficient reason for concluding that these comments ought to be omitted. Because this argument doesn't't rely on any false assumptions, it is stronger than George's argument. This argument also has the plausible result that, for instance, gay men don't get a pass for commenting on a random woman's appearance on the street (yes, it happens).

It destroys the false dichotomy of good men vs. bad men implicit in George's view. It's just not the case that just some men are a scheming to objectify women, and women just need to avoid these men. Men, who might in all sincerity believe they are simply complimenting a woman, are likely to intact be harassing her.

Which, in the end, is the point of George's list of harassment behaviors. It shows that, as we really should expect, there are some things that shouldn't be done if we want a polite (and safe, and secure, society.) And it councils all men that, even if they think their intentions are pure, they should probably just let that woman walk by in silence.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Why "Privilege" Is So Hard For People To Understand

John Stewart does his best to explain the concept of "white privilege" to Bill O'Reilly. The discussion is interesting, though a lot of it feels very much "two steps forward, one step back."

The concept of "privilege" itself is not very difficult to understand. The idea that there is a certain type of privilege associated with belonging to a race (or gender, or any other socially recognized characteristic) simply means that societal benefits (and the lack of societal burdens) are more heavily distributed among members of that race. White privilege in the United States is the legacy of imposed white supremacist policies and attitudes that shaped our government, our institutions, and our culture. There are many different forms of privilege, just as there are many forms of disadvantage.

It seems it's more difficult to accept the reality of the concept of privilege than to understand, though one's ability to accept a belief and one's capacity to understand it are in practice intertwined. Obviously, it's hard to accept a belief that you don't understand, but it also seems that resistance to a certain belief can undermine one's understanding of it. This is clear in the video above.

One point of confusing for O'Reilly is purely mathematical. At one part of the discussion, he lists President Obama and Oprah Winfrey as proof that white privilege doesn't exist, or perhaps rather to show that African Americans are not systematically disadvantaged. But this is clearly a mistake, because statistically we should expect some people from disadvantaged groups to be exceptionally successful in society's terms. The point is that in general, there will be more obstacles for members of these groups than for members of the privileged group, and these obstacles will have significant costs.

He also makes the mistake on the other side of the problem, when he asks Stewart if they are both well-off only because they are white. But the point isn't that everyone who is white will have a well-paying job or become famous, but that it will in general be easier for white people to occupy the spotlight than people of other races. But "easier" doesn't mean "easy", and this is no reason to discount the skill and talent both O'Reilly and Stewart have developed to have achieved what they have achieved.

Even more deeply though, there's a fearful undercurrent to O'Reilly's remarks. It's not just that his own success is apparently threatened if racial privilege played any part in it (though insecurity is certainly a factor). But he is worried that those who are worse-off will use "disadvantage" as an excuse to avoid helping themselves.

The worry here is quire common among American conservatives, and I think it might be genuinely more complex than is often recognized. To be sure, conservatives don't want disadvantage to be used as an excuse because they think it might be seen to justify taxation and redistribution of wealth away from the wealthy and privileged. On this point, they are just factually and morally wrong. Historical and continuing injustices have severely privileged certain groups at great cost to others, and this unequivocally justifies financial redress (before considering any other moral reasons we might have for pursuing socioeconomic justice).

But there's another worry here that is legitimate, if unfounded. Do the concepts of "privilege" allow for the abdication of responsibility? If we acknowledge that we are thoroughly influenced by our culture and circumstance, do we diminish the importance of personal choices? That is, can disadvantage an excuse for any bad actions done by those who are oppressed?

Certainly not. The importance background factors does not mean that we cannot, to some extent at least, take ownership of our actions. We are the ones who are acting, we are not mere dice being rolled. (Obviously, such claims require a plausible account of choice and freedom for support, but I take my potential interlocutors in this instance to be on board with these assumptions.) Surely, many of the consequences of our actions are completely our of our control, but this doesn't imply that our actions are divorced from our agency.

The conservative mistake is confusing this kind of responsibility as attributability, as T. M. Scanlon has deemed it, with substantive responsibility. Responsibility of the first kind allows us to make judgments about individuals and the choices they make. Substantive responsibility concerns what obligations a person has because of choices they've made. It is an error to assume that because someone has made choices for which they are responsible(in the first sense), that they are necessarily obligated to bear the full weight of the consequences.

Assessing which choices produce which obligations and duties is a complex task, and a hallmark of daily moral life. I won't attempt to give a sketch here. But it is the claim of many, including myself, that the background circumstances of an individual's life, the privileges and disadvantages they carry, should weigh significantly in our judgments of what they deserve.

This view preserves our judgment that the actions of others are open to moral assessment, while clarifying that this is not the sole determinant of what individuals are owed.  To those who are interested only in reducing their responsibilities to the disadvantaged and oppressed, the clarifications I have made here will seem to make little difference. But for those who believe that injustices and unfortunate life circumstances demand compensation, but don't wish to give a blanket acquittal to those who act wrongly under bad conditions, this view has considerable appeal.