Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Don't Immigrants Pollute More?

One thing I haven't addressed yet in this blog is climate change. I think it's a huge deal, but I don't have any particular insights about it.

However, one objection sometimes given to more liberal immigration policies is that when immigrants get here, they use more resources than they otherwise would. By improving their lives, they contribute more the strain that developed nations place on the planet. In fact, this is actually an argument to improving the welfare of people in the developing world; sometimes people use it as an excuse for why they don't give much to charities, like those recommended by GiveWell or Giving What we Can.

This obviously a self-serving and hypocritical argument. And no one ever takes it to its logical conclusion, of course, which is that you should murder your entire family. Your family certainly consumes many resources, which contributes to climate change, and they would consume less if you killed them. No one says this, because of course it's ridiculous. (A related, but much more plausible implication, is that you shouldn't have children.) This is because we have obligations to those people who exist, which include refraining from killing them and making their lives better if we can.

Making their lives better can lead to greater abuse to our planet, but if that's your concern (and it should be) we should also advocate for policies that mitigate these concerns. So if we're going to open up our borders to the masses of people who want to immigrate, one thing we should do is open up our skies for the building of taller buildings. Repeal zoning regulations that limit high-density living in cities, so that we can get best use out of our land (and pay lower rent!). High density living demands fewer resources per person, and has many other positive externalities, about which Matt Yglesias wrote a book. Also, tax carbon!

If you think animals are important too, as they are, you should join me in advocating veganism to everyone, including anyone who might be moving here for a better life. That way, increasing the welfare of those in developing nations doesn't have to mean an increase in the slaughter of non-humans.

The fact that there are some problematic consequences to fulfilling our obligations does not necessarily nullify our obligation. It often means we have greater obligations! One thing I never thought I'd have to do is learn some economics. But I've decided to learn some economics because advocating for the right policies is a great way to help people.

Most consequentialists would agree with me on these points, I think. But it seems to me that, even if they're right to agree, they shouldn't be quick to agree. They'd actually have to go through the calculus to see which policies are most likely to be effective, and proceed from there. The calculus, of course, is notoriously difficult, so involves a lot of reasonably hopeful guessing, but in principle it ought to be done.

Because I'm not a consequentialist, I don't have to consider all the possibilities. Most notably, I don't have to consider the option of killing my family, because it would be wrong.

Monday, January 28, 2013

More on Equality and Immigration

Part of the reason people believe things like the views of Mickey Kaus that I described in my last post is that they have strong intuitions on the matter. It seems initially plausible to many that we have a greater duty to help our co-citizens improve their lives than to help those of other nations. I have never shared such intuitions, for whatever reason, which is one of the reasons I speak strongly against them; I don't find them to have even prima facie plausibility. I recognize that many people do find them plausible, though, so I do consider them worth discussing.

I do have other intuitions, which shape the moral principles I accept. I think there are many persuasive thought experiments, for example, which count persuasively against consequentialist moral theories. But just because we have an initial negative reaction to a specific theory is not significant enough reason to discount it. Moral reasoning does not stop at the intuition.

For example, many consequentialists have error theories to attempt to explain away why I find the implications of consequentialism to be counter-intuitive. And some error theories are bound to be correct, because sometimes we have opposing intuitions about the same principle, and they cannot both be accurate. But the error theory has to be more plausible than the intuition itself; whether or not this is the case will be the subject of much disagreement, of course, but these are things about which we can have fruitful discussion.

Many people have the intuition that it is not wrong to kill non-human animals. I think they are greatly mistaken, and have argued as much many times. One of the most convincing arguments for this position, in my opinion, is that argument about speciesism. If I am right that speciesism is analogous to racism or sexism, in that it makes moral distinctions based upon irrelevant criteria, then we ought to be strongly suspicious of our initial intuitions about our obligations to animals. If we can then find a plausible theory that explains why animal death is bad, with the strongest objection being an appeal to initial intuition, then we ought to accept the badness of animal death (and hence the wrongness of killing them.)

Similarly, we should be very suspicious of views, like those that Kaus holds, which privilege one group in a certain way. We know this is one mistake in moral reasoning that people frequently make. And one of the common signs of the deficiency of such views is the weak arguments that Kaus gave to support it; basically, he appealed to his intuitive reaction, and then said his view would be "easier" to achieve anyway. Hardly a compelling case.

Increasing legal immigration to the United States would be extremely beneficial to the world. Immigrants here often live better lives and make more money (that's why they want to come), and then they send some of that money to help their families back in their home countries. They bring demand for goods and services here, provide labor, and help increase the wealth of their home countries. If we're worried about the demographic trends of an increasing elderly population, immigration can help solve this problem too.

You might worry that a large influx of immigrant might significantly change our culture, and there might be legitimate reasons to want to preserve culture. But it seems obvious to me that the benefits far outweigh the potential losses.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Social vs Economic Equality

Philosophy is difficult. It is sometimes hard to know which views are correct, especially when opposing views are both persuasively articulated.

Sometimes, though, some views are just obviously wrong. Take, for example, Mickey Kaus's response to Matt Yglesias on immigration

Klaus argues that we should have restrictive immigration policies because he cares more about decreasing the levels of inequality of income that exists between Americans than about raising the well-being of foreigners. No, seriously; he writes, "I worry more about whether [Americans] can earn $12 an hour than I do whether Mexicans who may have made $2 an hour are able to come here and make $8 an hour."

You may in fact worry more about Americans than Mexicans, but that's because you're ethnocentric. It's not an argument in favor of your conclusion.

Let's assume that he's trying to move Americans from $8 an hour to $12 an hour. So the increase in pay is both greater for the Mexicans in absolute terms, in percentage terms, and because the Mexicans are coming from such a low baseline there are prioritarian reasons (reasons for helping those who are worst off) in favor of helping the Mexican. On the face of it, is seems clear that we have greater reasons to help the Mexican. It's hard for me to believe that he could write what he did, without much elaboration, and think it would be persuasive.

Yglesias was actually pretty generous in his response. Yglesias writes, "Mickey Kaus has an elaborate theory of social equality vs "Money Liberals" that I don't really understand." Well, I think I do understand it, it's just not an attractive theory.

For Kaus, Social Equality is more important than Money-Equality. Social Equality means that everyone within a given society (nation) should be (more or less) equal. Money Egalitarians instead think we should do our best to raise everyone's welfare (in terms of income), ideally so everyone reaches equality (or perhaps just a minimum baseline.) If making gains in money-equality comes at any cost to gains in a given country's social equality, we should favor social equality.

This really puts the cart before the horse. Now, to Kaus' credit, there are some bad social consequences to inequality, such as resentment and a loosening of social bonds. But I have always thought that the worst part about inequality is that many people are left badly off, and that all other negative effects warrant far less concern. (In fact, it's an interesting question to ask what objections there are to inequality, given there no one is left badly off, precisely because people being badly off is what is worst about inequality.) Kaus gives no reason to accept his apparently upside-down conclusion. Given that the people whose welfare Kaus is inclined to discount are foreign-born, it's hard to see what justifies favoring our own internal social cohesion other than discriminatory bias.

It's easy to see how this view falls apart. What if the rich of US decided to buy Florida, kick out all the poor people, and (legally) become their own country? Perhaps we could object to the transition process, but once New Florida becomes the richest new nation in the world, any imperative to redistribute the wealth from these New Floridians to the poorer people in Philadelphia disappears. What fantastic metaphysics nation states control!

Kaus says that social equality is much easier to achieve than money equality, because money equality means improving the lives of everyone in the world, whereas social equality is just the equalizing of incomes across nations. I'm not sure when the ease of success was ever a decisive reason for accepting a moral view. And does he really think that we ought to give up on the (admittedly difficult) goal of raising global living standards?

I find this view pretty offensive, almost not worth bringing up. But it is worth bringing up, for a couple reasons. One is that it's an example on non-consequential moral thought gone wrong. I think there are some considerations that count against total welfare considerations (we shouldn't enslave Mexico even if it would improve the living conditions of the rest of the world) but total welfare considerations are still very important. Second, I think this kind of thinking is implicit in many people's unreflective moral views, and that people often unduly privilege their own group or tribe. Part of the importance of reflecting on our moral reasons is to discover these biases and fight against them.

Friday, January 25, 2013

How Science Can Lie

Scientists want to discover interesting things. So they decide on something they're interested in, figure out a way to measure that thing, then run through dozens of trials with different subjects and variables and control groups. Then they publish their results and we learn new things, all the better for the world!

That's the hope, anyway. One trouble that arises is that lots of interesting things are difficult to measure. So we might pick a stand-in for that thing, and measure that, and hope the correlation between the stand-in and actually interesting thing is close enough. Any good scientist knows this, of course, and any good scientist will explain how their measurements are conducted and what possible problems might arise from this method of measurement.

But not every scientist is a good scientist. And we don't always hear about scientific studies from the scientists themselves, but a bizarre creature known as a "science reporter." And it's quite easy to take the simplest readings of the results of a study and draw superficial conclusions, and once these conclusions are taken as scientific fact by the media or public, that toothpaste is never going back in the tube.

Let's take an example. Consider happiness research. Happiness is really important, so naturally lots of people want to research it. But I'm not really sure what happiness is; and I'm sure that there aren't great ways to measure it.  There are several bad ways to measure it, one of which is probably most common, which is asking people how happy they are.

Now the problem becomes clear. What you're measuring is how people report their emotional state. And one thing that might correlate to is what their actual happiness level is like, but it also might correlate with what they want you to think about them. Or whether or not they ate breakfast that morning. Or their relative emotional state compared to those around them, or compared to people on TV, or compared to how happy they think they should be.

And if we're studying whether or not higher income makes you happy, it's important to be able to tell the difference between it actually making your happy, or making you more likely to want other people to think that you're happy. Those are not the same things at all.

But like I said, people want to discover interesting things. It's a mundane epistemological point that there are lots of things that are very difficult to know, and some of these things would be interesting to know. Sometimes, when people want to know things that are very difficult to know, they'll just take their best guess at how to measure it. And then they convince themselves that because there's science behind it, they must be right.

All of which is just to say that conclusions are different from results. We must be careful not to report conclusions of studies as if they are the results. The best way to reach solid conclusions in science (these problems may be more common in social sciences, but they apply to all science) is to try to find many different ways to measure what it is you're trying to study, and see if the different measurements react similarly to different variables. Which means you might have to run a lot of different studies, and be very cautious in publishing conclusions. You also have to have the self-critical awareness to ask, "What, besides what I'm trying to study, might I actually be measuring?"

Again, none of this is news to any decent scientist. But critical thought is important to me, and to the world, and I see a lot of bad reporting about science. It's worth the time to remind ourselves of these things, because it's too easy to accept claims at face-value.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

What is "Terrorism," Anyway?

From CBS News Hilary Clinton testifies about Benghazi:

"We had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or because of guys out for a walk one night and decided to go kill some Americans? At this point what difference does it make, Senator?" Clinton asked Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., when asked why the administration initially gave an inaccurate version of the events that took place.

What difference, indeed. After the attacks on the embassy in Benghazi, and the administration's reaction to it, there were a lot of people asking whether it was a terrorist attack or not. What was never clear to me was why this was an important, or even meaningful, question to ask.

If it was a protest that turned violent, that certainly can be taken to be an act of terrorism. But people seemed to take this question to be turning on the difference between a pre-planned attack, and a spontaneous uprising. I don't see how a definition of terrorism would require premeditation, but even ignoring this, the whole question is just a bad one. Because the attacks could have been premeditated and used the protests as a cover. Then is it an act of protest or an act of terrorism? Well, both; but it seems like a spontaneous protest can also be conceived of as an act of terrorism, and a premeditated terrorist attack can be a form of protest. So what mileage are we even getting out of these distinctions?

Perhaps it seems I'm being pedantic, but this is important. This question featured in the second debate between Romney and Obama is a prominent way, and Obama won by technicality.  But doesn't it all skirt the real issue any? The questions we should ask in cases of these sort are: Who committed these crimes? Were they committed in a way that offers us any insight into future crimes? Was anyone negligent in failing to prevent these crimes?

All of which are much more important questions than the quibbles over whether it was a terrorist attack or not. And the larger point is this. People often don't realize when they are asking empty questions. Often they think they are asking something that they might think is implied by the form of their question, but it is not. And if you're not asking the right questions, especially if you're not asking the right questions of people who are predisposed to disagree with you, you are not going to get any meaningful answers. You're just wasting time.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Philosophy and Advocacy

It might have come as a surprise in my previous post that I did not mention any animal rights theorists in my discussion of stand-out philosophers. In my defense, I wrote that post in quite a state of pain and illness, having slept most of the evening, and I needed something to do in bed while I was unable to fall asleep. It's a small miracle the post is coherent as it is.

That being said, there are some other, more interesting reasons why I didn't mention any animal rights theorists in that post. The first is that it was a question about the best philosopher, rather than best person. And you don't have to be a great philosopher or thinker to support animal rights, just as you don't have to support animal rights to be a great philosopher. Of course, the ideal philosopher ought to support animal rights, but I only considered philosophers who actually exist or existed, and was limited in that way.

The truth is, the vast majority of philosophers (and people) haven't supported animal rights, and if part of the question is who influenced the history of philosophy in important ways, that biases us toward the past when there were even fewer animal advocates

Another thought is that, as I've said, the arguments for animal rights are not too complicated, you don't have to be a brilliant philosopher to make them. Gary Francione, for example, I think is a wonderful animal advocate, and a brilliant scholar and orator, but his philosophy is not overly complex or challenging. I think he would agree . His arguments rely on a lot of popular premises, and he writes in a way that is accessible to a large audience. Which is what you do if you want to be a great advocate, not necessarily what you do if you want to be a great philosopher.

If you're going to be advocating against prejudice, you want your arguments against that prejudice to be your centerpiece. Christine Korsgaard (whom I did mention in that post) in fact does include animals as a significant subjects of moral obligations in her work, though is somewhat vague on the precise prescriptions that follow. But many elements of her work are very controversial(and expertly argued), so if her aim was to be an unabashed animal advocate, I'd recommend losing some of the Kant-talk. Because she's interested in being a great philosopher, she writes a lot about Kant.

Finally, there is something of a bias these days against professional philosophers doing advocacy work. I get the impression that many think it unseemly, that it's more appropriate to write about things like moral worth and blame in peer-reviewed journals, and less appropriate to be telling other people that their actions are wrong. This is one part of academic philosophy that I see as very problematic, and I worry that many great voices for change might be wasted in echo chambers. But too, I think I carry some of this bias, and thus fail to see outspoken advocates as less philosophically "pure" somehow.

Favorite Philosopher

The Philosophy Bites podcast recently had an episode in which they asked various guests of theirs to name their favorite philosopher. I didn't do a tally, but it was clear that David Hume was far and away the most often mentioned, with Aristotle and Nietzsche following behind. Aristotle and Nietzsche are really not too much of a surprise; Aristotle was hugely prolific and ahead of his time, it's really difficult to grasp how such an achievement was possible. Nietzsche represented such a radical turn against received wisdom that philosophers almost have to admire, and coupled it with being such a complex and larger-than-life figure(for similar reasons, Wittgenstein was also a popular choice).

But were I asked the question, I'd probably throw in with Hume. His deep and thorough-going skepticism is really a work of art, and the fact that he contributed his greatest work by the age of 26 is also remarkable. That a young man could have such deep insight into the human experience sets a high bar for us all. Of course, I say this despite disagreeing with many of his views about morality (as far as moral philosophers go, I'd have to choose Kant.) But his critical take on what seemed obvious to many, and his fearless critique of religious dogma, seems to be truly unprecedented, and to some extent, unmatched since.

Socrates deserves honorable mention, though depending on my mood I might favor him over Hume. His personality and philosophical approach really are the foundation for modern ideas about critical thinking and method. To a certain extent, I think we should all aim to be more like Socrates, speaking truth to power, challenging people to be critical of themselves, thinking through all the implications of our views. Many found him annoying and threatening, so much so that they put him to death--but we should all be willing to do as much as he did for pursuit of the right and good.

Of contemporary philosophers, I'd choose either Derek Parfit or Christine Korsgaard. The way they make such complex and subtle views readily accessible represents the direction I hope philosophy is heading.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Intellectual Property and Theft

Some recent events have caused me to become interested again in the concept of intellectual property. I've often thought of this as somewhat of a fringe issue, interesting and demanding further attention, but among the lesser pressing problems of the day. However, this view is something I'm coming to reconsider, and either way I think it is at least an interesting question.

It helps to begin with our conceptions of ordinary property. John Locke's idea of property was that if you find something in nature, and "add/mix" your labor with it, you thereby gain property rights over this thing. (The actual theory is obviously much more involved, I'm just going for the philosophy 101 snapshot right now.) So if you take some wood and you build a hut with it, that's your hut. If you pick some apples, those are your apples, and if you develop some land into farmland, that's your farmland. Once people own things, fair and legitimate trading can commence.

There are many well-known problems with this theory, not the least of which is that it derived some of its appeal as a justification for taking the lands of more nomadic peoples. In a globalized world, in which we face resource shortages and overcrowding of certain areas and over-consumption, as well as incredible inequality, I think Locke's natural law theory of property rights is less plausible  than it once seemed. I think more promising theories of property rights see these rights as arising out of the social contract, as a pragmatic solution to the distribution and possession of goods rather than the consequences of some metaphysical relationship we have with objects.

Now there's obviously a lot more that could be said about property in those terms, and that's a very interesting discussion in itself, but this should suffice for now. Having a conception of property rights, understood as a pragmatic agreement about how certain goods may be come reserved for an individual's use and benefit under protection of the law, we can see why stealing is wrong. If you steal someone's property, you (1) undermine the social arrangement that is useful for all of us, you (2) deprive them of something that they've fairly obtained through a process developed by social convention and impose a cost upon them, and you (2) unfairly benefit from their deprivation.

All of which assumes, of course, that underlying framework of legal property ownership is just, which is a huge assumption that is definitely open to challenge at present. But even if you think that the underlying social conventions of property rights are unjust, this does not imply that there are no moral reasons not steal. It likely remains true that a system of unfair property law is better than a society without any property laws, so the reasons against stealing still apply (thought perhaps to a limited extent). We have reason to support the social contract that we have in place, even if it's not ideal.

Now consider the case of theft of intellectual property. I've seen many ads and people who claim that "You wouldn't steal a purse, so you shouldn't illegally download a song." But I think the reason people feel the need to make this analogy is that the rhetoric behind intellectual property rights supports such an analogy, despite the fact that intuitively, people think there is a difference. The problem with the rhetoric is that it doesn't answer the question someone might seriously ask, which is what makes theft of intellectual property wrong?

The concept of intellectual property, it seems to me, is not nearly as important to social cohesion other kinds of conceptions of property. We know this because many societies have gotten along fine without intellectual property law as we know it. Also, many cases of intellectual property "theft" (i.e. illegally downloading a song) don't actually deprive the victim of anything. It's true they don't get the income they'd get if you paid for the use of their intellectual property, but this also is the case if you never hear their music. It's not the same as someone actually being materially worse off when you steal their purse, because when you steal someone's purse, they end up with fewer resources than before, while you end up with more. If you steal somebody's intellectual property, you are benefited (you have a new song to listen to!) and they haven't lost anything.

Of course, the reason we have intellectual property laws is that it is, supposedly, a useful part of the social contract. The idea is that the fact that people are able to have intellectual property rights makes it more profitable for them to produce there intellectual property, and thus they are ale to produce more and better material. So if it is true that the property laws work this way, intellectual property "theft" would likely be objectionable, because it undermines a beneficial social arrangement, and unfairly benefits the thief.

Notice how, even assuming the strongest case for intellectual property law, the objection is not as strong as the objection to the case for material theft. Obviously any two cases would differ on a wide range of specific considerations, but in principle there is an important disanalogy between property theft and intellectual property theft, and property theft is in principle worse. This is because the "victim" of the theft is not left off materially worse than they would be had the theft not occurred.

And the question of whether or not intellectual property law is on the whole beneficial to society is an open one. The answer would have to consider many empirical facts that are not my forte, and on which I am not sufficiently informed. But if it's true that intellectual property law does not bring a net benefit to society, and we would be better off without it, the remaining reasons that I have given to object to intellectual property theft evaporate..

Friday, January 18, 2013

Kant's Appalling Departure from Descartes

One of the more interesting chapters of Gary Steiner's Anthropocentrism and Its Discontents discussed Descartes view of duties to animals. Steiner essentially defends the orthodox (and obviously correct) view that Descartes viewed animals as mere biological automata, without subjective experience of their own. Some recent writers have dissented from this orthodox reading, but Steiner argues pretty persuasively that they are mistaken. Descartes in fact denied that animals were meaningfully sentient, and thus that we could have any obligations towards them.

As I've stated, the landscape of historical positions on animal ethics is relatively flat and unvaried. Kant, like Descartes, believed we have no direct duties towards animals. He argued only that we ought not treat them maliciously, as that would cause us to become callous toward violence, and make us more likely to wrong rational agents (the true subjects of worth.) Most people agree that this is quite a weaker source of obligation than they find plausible. But, in fact, it's worse than that, because the actual implication of Kant's view is that if you were an ideally rational agent, you'd be permitted to treat animals however you like. This is because as an ideally rational agent, there would be no chance of your maltreatment of animals carrying over to your treatment of humans.

In his chapter on Descartes, Steiner often suggests that Descartes' view is now considered quite repugnant. And so it is. However, it occurs to me that there's a certain sense in which it is far better than Kant's view, because Kant didn't deny that animals were sentient. In fact, he argues that they do have their own subjective experience of the world. He just denies that they have any moral status worth respecting.

In contrast, however, Descartes felt the need to deny the sentience of animals in order to justify their lacking moral status. Descartes knew that if animals had no subjective experience of their own, then they could not be wronged or harmed, and we could have no obligations to them. Such an ethical view is correct. What he got wrong was a metaphysical claim; it's now considered relatively indefensible to deny that (many) animals are sentient. But having wrong metaphysical beliefs seems less condemnable than having the correct metaphysical beliefs (as Kant did about animal sentience) but failing to see the ethical implications of such a view.

It is not clear what Descartes would have thought ethically about animals had he realized they were sentient. But Kant certainly did think they were sentient, and constructed an entire ethical system that nevertheless saw them as worthless. This, for me, is far more repugnant than Descartes' implausible metaphysical beliefs.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Anthroropocentrism and Its Discontents: History Repeating

I recently finished Anthropocentrism and its Discontents by Gary Steiner, a historical review of animal ethics. I have to say, I was disappointed. With the exception of Plutarch(a vegetarian), the historical views on the moral status of animals have basically amounted to: Don't hurt them too much while you're slaughtering them for food. Not terribly inspiring. Even Plutarch seemed unduly worried about the welfare of plants, and appears to have abandoned his prohibition against meat-eating near the end of his life.

Such a history should give us some pause, as having views that are in direct opposition to the vast majority of thinkers in human history is striking. It would be more comforting if something like an animal rights view were one of many competing historical views. The apparent uniqueness of an anti-anthropocentrist position to our point in time gives us some reason to doubt its veracity.

But, as we have seen in many other cases, humans have been slowly widening the scope of the moral community, and have had to overcome many prejudices. Given the inability of non-humans to advocate on their own behalf, we should expect that the prejudice against them would be harder to overcome. It's also not unlikely that some moral truths would be surprising to a vast majority, and we should expect that there will be points at history when great revisions are required to get things right. Now might just be such a point in history. These considerations, in light of the strength of the arguments for animal rights and veganism on their own, suggest that we should not be swayed by the historical near-consensus against such views.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Moneybox Begs the Question

Apropos of nearly nothing, Matt Yglesias, of whom I'm usually quite fond, commits my favorite fallacy in a recent post.

The gist of it is this: Texans are experiencing a backlash against their push for standardized tests as a way of improving education outcomes. They led the way in promoting standardized testing nation-wide, and Yglesias fears they may lead the backlash. Why is this worrisome? Well, because Texans have been doing a great job improving their education outcomes. Just look at their standardized test scores!

Without being too flip, this does get at something important. It should not be surprising that focusing on standardized testing will improve scores on standardized tests. Those who oppose an increased focus on standardized testing, I imagine, don't do so because they think it is self-defeating. They do so because they think other things in education are more important.

One thing that we might prefer is that students are taught to be creative, which is difficult to measure in a standardized way, but is clearly a valuable goal. Or teachers in general might just be better at educating children if they are given more freedom to teach to their own and their students' strengths, and this might be a better outcome than students doing marginally better on a single measure.

Following Socrates, I see education as making good citizens, not making good workers. But clearly it's going to be much easier to measure whether or not we're making better workers.

There are obviously lots of good reasons to want standardized measures of education quality. And perhaps these tests are the best way to improve education quality! But we certainly don't learn that by just looking at the results of these tests. We need to consider other possible measures (perhaps, unfortunately, longer-term measures, like students' future outcomes), and consider what costs we may be incurring by focusing on the standardized tests.

Unfortunately, it's a mundane epistemological fact that we can't know or measure everything. That's part of what makes these quetions so hard.

In Defense of Dawkins

Via PZ Meyers, we get a post from Satoshi Kanazawa that is strongly critical of modern atheism and Richard Dawkins. It's not a primary focus of mine in this blog, but I am familiar with a lot of the arguments on these matters, and it seems to me that Kanazawa is deeply confused.

I also feel the need to add my voice in support of Dawkins, as I think he is often unfairly criticized. More on that at the end of this post.

Kanazawa, it seems, does not believe in God, but does not identify as an atheist because,
"Thanks to Richard Dawkins and his ilk, “atheist” now means someone who is (and acts as if he is) intellectually superior, and who mocks and derides the deeply held and personal religious beliefs of less intelligent others by pointing out how wrongheaded and stupid they are to believe what they believe."
This is just wrong, regardless of how prominent atheists may or may not behave. It's just as wrong to say that "Christian means someone who is heterosexist" or "Muslim means terrorist."

And also(!) everyone knows this--no one uses these words interchangeably, and it makes perfect sense to say a "respectful atheist" or "gay-friendly Christian." It doesn't make any sense to say "pacifist warmonger" because the meaning of "warmonger" rules out being a pacifist. Words can change their meanings, but the evidence that any particular word has changed its meaning is how that word is used by, and makes sense to (native) language speakers. This is just a misunderstanding of semantics on Kanazawa's part, but it undermines his whole thesis, so it's important.

Next, he goes on to say that "apart from Islam, most contemporary religions throughout the world today are for the most part forces of good most of the time." The exclusion of Islam is unjustified and prejudicial. All of the criticisms that can be laid against Islam have analogues in other religions.

What's more, he criticizes Dawkins and people like him, because "Dawkins tells religious people to their faces that their beliefs are delusional because God in fact does not exist." Of course, Kanazawa agrees with Dawkins--he just would never tell people to their face, apparently. And this is one of the things that I find most annoying about the criticisms of Dawkins. The claim is that it's more respectful of religious people to let them practice and preach their religious beliefs, and to never engage with them on the content of their beliefs.

This claim is actually very widely held, it seems, but it seems wildly mistaken to me. Obviously, I don't think we should accost people with our points of view, but many religious people like getting in these discussions. They like talking about their religion, which is no surprise! And I think it shows them more respect to take their claims and points of view seriously, even whilst you vigorously disagree. If I respect you, I care about what you believe, because it matters would you do and what you say. That's why, when it's appropriate, I often try to engage with those who disagree with me on an number of topics. The idea that respecting religious people means never challenging their beliefs is exceptionally condescending, because it implies that we don't have to worry about what certain people believe. In fact, it's important that we all have justified beliefs as best as possible, which is why I support critical public dialogue and a rigorous education system.

If you watch some of the documentaries Dawkins has done, in which he has discussions with religious people, I think you'll find that he is very respectful. He tells them when he thinks they are wrong, and sometimes gets upset when they make outrageous claims. But that's how we treat adults.

Kanazawa makes a bunch of other claims, citing studies that show that Americans are much friendlier than other countries. This is supposed to be because we are more religious, and maybe it is. But it's hardly clear to me that being "civil and courteous" is the real measure of how "good" a society is--things like foreign aid, income distribution, and equal treatment under the law are likely better criteria for the moral character of a society.

One last bizarre quote:
It is ironic because, according to Dawkins himself, I am actually more atheist than he is in the original meaning of the word. Fellow Big Think blogger Mark Cheney quotes Dawkins as saying “On a scale of seven, where one means I know he exists, and seven I know he doesn’t, I call myself a six. That doesn’t mean I’m absolutely confident, that I absolutely know, because I don’t.” It’s funny, because, unlike Dawkins, I absolutely know for sure that God doesn’t exist, as any scientist would. For scientists, it’s very simple; absolutely nothing exists in the universe, except for those entities for which there is credible scientific evidence for their existence. So I know for sure that God doesn’t exist for the same reason that I know Santa Claus or Superman doesn’t exist[sic]

But I am not an atheist.

This is just bad philosophy of science. Even old-school logical positivism (which is now considered philosophically naive) would not entail that God absolutely does not exist. At most it would entail that the sentence "God exists" is semantically meaningless, because there's no way it could be verified, and thus no way for it to be true. But that leaves open the possibility that the concept of God could be understood in a way that could be verified, and thus leave the possibility of his existence open. The correct position for scientists on the existence of things that cannot be detected would be withholding judgment. In the case of something that seems fanciful(fairies, God, Santa Clause), we can provisionally assume non-existence, which is Dawkins' position.

As I mentioned, I think Dawkins gets unfairly crticized. He's often lumped in with Hitchens and Harris, who do espouse other problematic views, but for the most part Dawkins is quite mild-mannered and respectful. I think his treatment as some vitriolic anti-religious bigot is evidence of two things: one, the position held by many intellectuals that I mentioned above, which is that not actually taking the claims of the religious seriously constitutes respect; and two, that religion generally is privileged over irreligion in our society. Just as speaking out against other forms of privilege (say, human privilege) is thought to be impolite or unseemly, speaking out against religious claims chafes with many people's sense of decency. And when there aren't any substantive reasons to counter someone's argument, you can always call them a jerk.

Monday, January 14, 2013

How Veganism is Extreme

Some people recognize the great wrong of animal exploitation, but think that veganism is extreme. They might instead advocate for vegetarianism, or "flexible" veganism, saying that we needn't avoid all animal use, just most. Because they perceive it to be difficult to refrain from consuming animal products, or finding vegan alternatives for clothing or hygiene products, they think the "extreme" position of veganism is onerous and unnecessary.

This rests on a mistake. If you come to see the ubiquity of animal exploitation, this means that the problem of animal use is extreme. That billions of sentient animals are brutally tortured and killed, and then endlessly processed into products offered up for our consumption sounds like an extreme dystopian nightmare, but it's true. This means that the response, veganism, ought to be extreme as well. How could the appropriate response to such egregious wrongs not be extreme?

Which is not to say veganism is difficult, in a day-to-day sense. Once you realize what you need to do to live a vegan life, you get used to it quite fast. You'll learn that though animal products are everywhere, there's also vegetable-based alternatives that abound as well. And once you really grasp the injustice at hand, it's no challenge to become sufficiently motivated to go vegan. But there is certainly a sense in which you are rejecting much of what our society to produces, which is an extreme step to take. And that's exactly why it's required.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Contemporary Philosophy Will Eventually Be History of Philosophy

Why do we study the history of philosophy? Well, there are obviously lots of good reasons. But one important reason is that it gives you perspective on your own philosophical views.

It's very difficult to believe that in the future many will look back on many beliefs that are common today as misguided ad perhaps deeply problematic and wrong. We feel this way now about many historical beliefs, and there's no reason to think that the present is epistemically privileged. This is one reason we have not to be overly concerned by the unpopularity of animal rights theory. We know that many correct theories have historically been very unpopular, and it's easy to see how previous prejudices against correct theories are potentially analogous to prejudices against animal rights theory (hence the discussion of speciesism.)

Of course, this is not an argument that animal rights theory is correct. Many theories (ethical and amoral) have been unpopular when first advanced, and remained so because they were incorrect. I believe that people who believe in moral obligations to plants are greatly mistaken, for example. The point I'm making is just a simple defense of holding (very) unpopular ethical views.

This line of reasoning occurred to me a long while ago, and is perhaps, in part, why I have been willing to accept animal rights theory. Perspective on my place in history made it imperative for me to decide which, if any, of my beliefs might (correctly) be judged harshly by future generations. Of course, animal rights theory could be correct, even if it is never accepted by future generations. I just hope that they'll be more ethically progressed than we are.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Some Thoughts on Anthropocentrism and Its Discontents

Currently, I'm reading Gary Steiner's Anthropocentrism and Its Discontents, a look at the West's historical understanding of the moral status of animals. One point that jumps out at me as I'm reading is that, despite my particular interest in the topic, it's not a terribly important book. That is, if someone came to me and were really curious about what they should believe about the moral status of animals, I would point them to contemporary debates. I would not suggest looking into the long history of thought discussed in Steiner's book, even though I find it very interesting.

This is because the moral status of non-humans is really not that complex an issue. It's an important one, and it's certainly difficult in a variety of senses, but really there are only a few relatively plausible views. And the arguments in general are relatively simple. Most people agree that animals matter morally. This must mean that we cannot cause them unnecessary pain or suffering. Unless you accept some bizarre metaphysical views then we also can't unnecessarily prematurely end their lives. These simple prescriptions rule out nearly all current use of animals. There are objections here and there to be answered, but all told, the answers are not very complex or surprising.

Why don't people just accept the arguments then? I'm not sure, you'll have to ask them. Part of the answer, I suspect, is that although accepting these arugments does not require a significant break from structure of ordinary moral beliefs, it is a break from an ordinary conception of the world and our place in it.

I like knowing what Descartes thought, and Plutarch, and St. Augustine. And knowing this history does give some important insight into my own thoughts, and the ongoing moral conversation, which is important in its own right. But really, if what you're looking for is a good answer to the question of the moral status of animals, all it takes is a little bit of reading, and a fair amount of reflection. The world would be a better place if people were more willing to do both.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Killing a Chicken and Breaking Your Arm

On a more plausible view of animal deaths than the one I discussed in the previous post, animal deaths are bad, but not as bad as the deaths of humans. Perhaps the badness of death corresponds to the complexity of certain psychological characteristics, or the capacity for happiness or fulfillment. Different people might cash out the view in different ways, depending on other philosophical commitments. I imagine something of this is a relatively common view. However, I think the implications of it are often misunderstood.

One might think that if killing a chicken is significantly less bad than killing a person, it might be permissible to eat a chicken. But when we think about killing a person, we tend to consider it one of the worst possible things you could do to a person (short of making them wish they were dead.) So even if killing a chicken is 1/100th as bad as killing a person, it might still be a pretty bad thing to do. I'm not really sure how to measure these types of things, but imagine breaking your arm is 1/100th as bad as killing you. It still would take a lot to justify breaking your arm, and the mere pleasure of a single meal would not cut it. And if I were responsible for the deaths of 100 chickens over say, 5 years, through all my consumption of flesh and eggs, etc., I would be blameworthy for the equivalent of one fully thought-out human murder every 5 years, which is pretty condemnable.

I don't really ascribe to this view, because I think there's not a strict covariance between wrongness and badness. It might be less bad if a sullen and removed human dies rather than a wonderful philanthropist who thoroughly enjoys life, but it is just as wrong for me to kill either. Likewise, I must not kill a typically functioning person or a severely disabled one for identical moral reasons. This doesn't go to showing equal culpability, which is a much more complicated question, but it does suggest that killing an animal might be on a par with killing a human in terms of wrongness. Which is a statement many people find wildly implausible, but most people are speciesist, so this shouldn't be surprising.

But, as is becoming a theme, you need not agree with me fully to accept the imperative of veganism. You could accept the view I described at the beginning of this post, and hopefully realize that this view implies that you ought to remove yourself from the animal exploitation industry.

Another implication of this view is that it leaves open the possibility of sentient alien beings who have developed to an extent such that their deaths are much worse than ours. They might then come here, see us, and feel the right to use us as property, because their lives are so much more valuable (this has been a common argument against anthropocentrism.) If we find this implausible, and think that they would have decisive reasons to treat us with respect for our lives, then we must extend the same consideration to non-human animals.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Deaths of Animals

One view that is held by some of those who think about animal ethics is that it is not intrinsically wrong or bad to kill a non-human animal. This is a view supported by many utilitarian thinkers, such as Peter Singer. What makes killing a person wrong is that they have plans for their lives, desires about their future, and a desire to go on living, and all these things are thwarted by imposing death on the person. Animals, on the other hand, are said to live in an "eternal present," they have no concept of the future, and perhaps are not strongly connected to their future selves, such that ending their life is not much of a harm to them. On this view, it is still wrong to unnecessarily harm them, because it's worse for them to have bad experiences than positive or neutral experiences, but we don't have any obligation to refrain from killing them.

It's important to note that even if you hold this view I think there are still decisive reasons for being vegan, as I argued in a recent post. But I think this is an extremely bizarre position to hold, with implausible implications and a very weak intuitive basis. I think people only find it plausible because of an exaggerated view of the metaphysical differences between humans and non-humans, and because it helps to mollify the scale of the wrongs done to animals.

To see why this view is mistaken, first consider the idea that the fact that we have plans for our future is a significant factor in the wrongness of killing. While this might sound plausible at first, it would seem to imply that it's more wrong to kill someone with lots of plans for their future than someone with a few. But most people tend to think that killing someone who is depressed about their life, and doesn't see much of a future for themselves, is just as wrong (all else equal) as killing an ambitious person with many future goals. A severely depressed person may even want to kill themselves, but the fact that they have decided not to have a future does not give us the right to kill them, or even significantly mitigate the wrong of killing them. I think upon reflection the connection between plans for the future and the wrongness of killing is tenuous at best. It might be a component of the wrongness of killing, but not an essential one, and certainly not the difference between a permissible killing and an impermissible killing.

Gary Francione has made similar points, and he draws on the case of individuals who have transient global amnesia, and can only conceive of themselves in the present. Obviously, if a human has these qualities, we don't think it becomes permissible to kill them. But perhaps it's hard to imagine this case, and our intuitions might not be trustworthy on it because such a condition is relatively alien to us. It's possible we might be mistaken about the wrongness of killing of someone with tranisent global amnesia (I find this a much less plausible concession in the case of the depressed person in my example, because depression is much easier to imagine.)

But what could it mean that we could kill an individual without a sense of the past or future, and not wrong them in doing so? We must assume that the life they would continue to leave would be valuable and worth-living, because we're not discussing cases of euthanasia. So why would it not be wrong to deprive them of their valuable future?

It seems to me the only way to make sense of this view is to believe that, due to the individual's lack of a sense of past and future, there's a meaningful sense in which the valuable future will belong to someone else, someone who does not exist yet. Almost everyone agrees that we don't have an obligation to bring new individuals into existence; that is, there are no obligations to make non-existent persons into existent persons. How could a non-existent person have anything but non-existent rights? (There are some theoretical problems surrounding this view, though most believe that this premise is relatively certain. I would take it to be a strong objection to a view if it implied that non-existent persons did have rights, especially the right to come into existence.)

So we can see how this explanation makes sense of the "kill animals isn't wrong" view. If all animals live in an eternal present, each new moment is in some sense a new animal, and so killing (painlessly) the animal doesn't wrong it, it just (permissibly) prevents a different animal from coming into existence. An animal, on this view, is not a wholly unified individual, but rather a series of connected, but morally unrelated experiences. But now, I hope, this should strike us as a rather implausible view. It would suggest that the dog I take a walk today is not (in a significant sense) the same dog I took on a walk yesterday. It just inhabits a similar form and has a similar psychological make-up. On this view, the dog is in a certain sense, not a dog, but a succession of experiences of dog-ness that are generally cohesively organized.

I find such a view very difficult to accept. Of course the dog I walk today is the same dog I walk tomorrow, and the same dog we rescued from the shelter. The view I've described requires a serious shift in our sense of what animals are, and I think gives us little compelling reason to do so. Perhaps the psychological connections that constitute identity over time are weaker for some non-human animals than for humans, but they also vary across the different forms of human life, and in these cases the differences seem to have little implication for our judgments about the wrongness of killing. And the only reason we have for adjusting such views is that people want to justify the killing of animals.

Like many of my arguments concerning animal rights, I find this one to be rather straightforward. We should not kill animals because they have valuable lives which are wholly their own that they have an interest in pursuing. Is it better for an animal to have one happy year of life or two? The answer is obvious. What's puzzling is why it isn't obvious that killing the animal, and thus depriving it of many more valuable months or years of life, is seriously wrong.