Saturday, November 22, 2014


Had an exchange on fbook this week. Tried screen capturing but it was tough to read so I'm copying and pasting:

DL (original post):
Step 1: Think of the most despicable villain or group of villains you can (ISIS, Nazis, Pinochet, Saddam...)
Step 2: Explain what's bad about them.
Step 3: Translate your answer to step 2 into principled terms. For example, "it's wrong when anyone does X, Y, Z."
Step 4: Answer the question: "does my government or favorite politician do X, Y, Z?"
Step 5: You answered "no." This is normal, but not in a good way. Now think about how hard your brain had to work to rationalize aggressive imperial wars, torture, etc., to conform to a good guy/bad guy narrative that mostly developed before you were capable of critical thought.
Step 6: Answer the question from step 4 again, this time honestly.


DL: "Are you comparing (something I like) to (something I hate)?! *expression of dismissive disbelief*"

DL: It's not uncommon to equate comparing and equating.

Commenter #1: Aztecs. They ripped apart and dismembered live human beings. Does my government endorse and protect dismemberment via legal abortion? Yes.

JD: Deontology is a red herring. So step 3 is wrong.

DL: [JD], I thought you thought I was a consequentialist, whatever that is. In any case, there's nothing particularly complicated, fancy, demanding, theory-heavy or unusual about suggesting that moving the yardstick is cheating. I'm guessing maybe you have me saying something along the lines of "you should do X because the eternal structure of the universe demands it!" Whereas I'm making a rather obvious comment (or, well, it's obvious sans tribalist bias) about methodology. If you use grams to measure oranges, you should use grams to measure apples. If killing is wrong when the blue team does it, it's wrong when the red team does it.

JD: I disagree! Killing is sometimes wrong and sometimes not so wrong. Life is hard!

JD: Or maybe you're right, but it's certainly disingenuous (although maybe rhetorically savvy) to present it as an open-and-shut case. I say this is deontology because, like, rules, man. But rules are insufficiently flexible for life, which, as previously mentioned, is hard!

JD: Or maybe it's not disingenuous, in which I case, I believe you are mistaken.

JD: So that leaves us with right but mistaken about obviousness, right but disingenuous, or wrong. I think that about sums about the possible states of play. Sorry for so many comments. Off to teach!

DL: Like I said, I'm talking about method, how to analyze politics. Don't move the yardstick. Imagine telling, say, a neuroscientist, "hey, life is hard, you can't just use the same yardstick to study rats and humans." If you did, she'd have good reason to suspect (human) biocentric bias on your part. Mammal brains are mammal brains, which of course doesn't mean that rats are humans. Your insistence that "every situation is different, life is complicated, etc." is the problem. You don't study rat or human behavior by imagining yourself in the subject's shoes. "Our test shows you consistently identified stereotypically Black names with criminality." "But I have a Black friend! I'm not racist, I swear." "OK, we won't count your test then." That's exactly how you move the yardstick and it's what I'm saying you shouldn't do.

DL: Keep in mind, I'm letting you choose the yardstick. Not because it's unimportant which one is used but because you're basically arguing that Omar Vizquel was a better power hitter than Barry Bonds so I'm pretty confident that as long as you don't compare Vizquel's OPS with Bonds' AVG, you don't have a case. This leaves you open to use an oddly arbitrary measure like HRs in 0-2 counts against Al Leiter in the third inning or, politically, maybe the Catherine wheel is torture (because the bad guys do it) but drawing and quartering isn't (because we do it).

JD: My argument is asserting that (Omar Vizquel > Barry Bonds)? That seems like a little bit of a straw man. But it turns out you can't (at least blithely) use the same yardstick to study rats and humans, and if you find out a particular treatment has an effect on rats, the next step is not widespread over-the-counter use. You consider what the two creatures have in common, and how they differ, and then all your statements and assertions are--and must be--contingent assertions.
So we can't have categorical imperatives, unless we simply want them to be sufficiently broad platitudes that they don't actually help very much when trying to distinguish between two courses of action...which means that statements like "killing is wrong" might be rhetorically useful because who could disagree? But ultimately they're not much help in evaluating the rightness or wrongness of a course of action.

And this opens me up to a rhetorical broadside because it sounds wishy-washy and also convoluted, but what is rhetorical weakness is sometimes moral rigor. It is a far more interesting and useful approach to apply moral intuition, examine circumstances that are maybe edge cases to try to discern what are the contingencies. For example, most societies break down "killing" into sub-classes. Killing that was unintentional and in self-defense is morally different than killing that was premeditated and senseless. They are different concepts. Even using the word "killing" for both of them ultimately confuses the issue. So we can get more specific and the contingencies that pertain to that specificity have moral weight. Most societies also treat killing by soldiers differently than killing by civilians...except when they start to cross other moral lines. It is interesting and complicated and not at all obvious how one ought to think about these things. I think clearly a 6-step process to a perfectly coherent and consistent morality is probably simplistic...although that is me turning *you* into a straw man (although in my defense, I think you presented it as simple as a rhetorical strategy so this is kind of rolling with your momentum into a throw).

We can also go more broad: a killing is a violation of one's duty to another and a violation of their rights. So are all duty violations and transgressions against others' rights morally equivalent? Obviously not: mass murder and shoplifting are morally different and our society's judgment, imperfect as it is, reflects that difference.

A penultimate point: given the complexities of such a contingent morality, it's interesting to wonder where exactly the "evil" lies. Which act or attitude or vice pushes you over the line into reprehensibility? It's probably a continuum. ISIS, Nazis, Pinochet, Saddam--they're at least different from you and I in degree and volume of their acts (also two of them are organizations and whether an institution can be said to be moral or not feels weird and again, not obvious. I mean, obviously you can *say* that they're evil, but what that means...). Is killing the same as authorizing a killing? If I pay someone to kill a pig so I can eat it, is that the same as me killing a pig? Or am I more morally suspect because I've besmirched someone else? What about cases where the Amish use pneumatics instead of electricity as a work-around? The spirit of the law v. the letter of the law? Wow there is a lot.

Finally, this kind of a contingent morality I assert to be the correct kind of morality! It harmonizes with a moral intuition, which, like much intuition, is broadly right but prone to systematic biases. This is I think what you were ultimately trying to point out--that our moral intuition systematically fails, when, for example, we like somebody. We don't want to believe that they're a bad person capable of bad things. See, e.g. Bill Cosby. Similarly, when we dislike a person or a class of people, we assume the worst. I totally agree that these are bad, and that a 6-step approach to solving these biases is not a terrible thing. It seems like a complementary approach, maybe preferable in the long run, is to construct a functional morality that acknowledges these complexities and also points out our blind spots like unmapped regions with handpainted calligraphy noting here be dragons.

DL: About Vizquel v. Bonds, the U.S., by any reasonable measure, is far beyond Bonds status in terms of deadly military force. Compare the # of wars started in the past century, # of bases on foreign soil, # of countries currently being drone bombed, weapons sold to dictators, nuclear stockpile...If you think Ajmedinamuhdood is anywhere near as bad, you're including intentions in your calculation, and you're saying Vizquel was a better power hitter. It would be a strawman if I misrepresented your opinion. But you think Putin is a bastard whereas Obama is merely imperfect (read: good guy who makes mistakes), as I understand you, so... Anyway, I don't think this is complicated. Like, I understand it, very easily, though it took some deprogramming. (I still need deprogramming in other areas!) If it's complicated for you, it's certainly not due to intellectual deficits. I think it's because by the time "Putin" reaches your conscious brain, it's already associated with so much outgroup baggage that his bad guy status can't help but get rationalized. That's what the conscious brain does. Whether to drone bomb 10 or just 9 countries is not an ethical dilemma (all ethical dilemmas I know of assume "good intentions"). One doesn't need to deduce some fancy shizz from trumped up first principles. One can be a deontologist, consequentialist, or just someone who doesn't think about that stuff and still see what's going on. The scouts and the statheads agree that Bonds was a better power hitter.

JD: Aren't own goals different from goals scored against? The bases you choose to build, the specific countries you choose to bomb--these things matter. You're saying "they're the same they're the same they're the same' and I keep saying "they're different they're different they're different' because *of course they're the same*. But also they're different. And their differentness is waaaaay more interesting and important than their sameness. IMHO.

DL: You know that's what apologists for motherfuckery say, right? Literally, they're saying the same thing. So, what's your yardstick?

JD: Well, sure, lots of people say lots of things. I'm not sure what my yardstick is, but I'd like to have a productive conversation about it. It's the ethical agenda we should be working on. But I'm not sure I've convinced you yet. It seems like your yardstick measures every head of state and judge them in direct proportion to their power...which doesn't seem that useful to me. It essentially just says everything is a yard long. Another way to put it: if your method had moral advice to give, it would essentially be: don't become a head of state. But someone is going to! And we need to be able to differentiate between them, morally. So my ideal yardstick would provide a means of distinguishing between choices.
In addition, it should work up and down the social ladder. Being a father, for example, necessarily puts one in a paternalistic position. If paternalism is bad, or power over another is bad, then the answer could be: don't become a father. But any moral calculus that leads to that as its advice must be deeply flawed. The question isn't "is it wrong to be a father". The question should be "Given that I AM a father, how should I behave?" A yardstick should help us both distinguish between good and bad fatherhoods, as well as provide guidance as to how to move in one direction or the other on the spectrum.

That's what I mean by their differences being more interesting. Both Obama's and Putin's sins, as you tally them, descend directly from their being heads of state, or at least many of them do. But all that tells me is that you disapprove of heads of state. I guess maybe I do too, but it doesn't seem interesting to me, because unlike, say, serial killers, it seems unlikely that better policy will reduce the incidence of heads of state. And I'm still not sure we'd want to. I think they're an unintended consequence of a world order that has improved overall human welfare by many orders of magnitude.

Commenter #2: Great exchange on both sides!

Saturday, November 1, 2014


Heroes get by on the illusion of having willed themselves to success, having earned it, having gotten there by some indescribable "it factor," having "really wanted it." "He wouldn't be denied," they say, on those occasions when the hero doesn't happen to have been denied. But the hero is a speck in a vast universe with conscious access to a fraction of a percent of its brain. The hero is chemicals, mainly, without access to or understanding of or control over that. Everyone tries fairly hard, but the ones who succeed, post hoc, are said to have succeeded by virtue of effort, character, etc., because that's how human brains generally interpret such things.