Monday, October 18, 2010

Race, collective failure, and collective responsibility

It was really hard to listen to this Bloggingheads episode, because the tone of the argument was pretty charged, and because this is an issue that goes down into the traumatized core of the American collective psyche. That sounds a bit too pseudo-literary and clich├ęd, but I think there's some truth to it; almost every American seems to have a strong opinion on this issue, and most seem to get pretty emotional when they talk about it.

I have thoughts about various aspects of Lowry and Wax's argument, and about their arguments.

I had a similar reaction to the tone and basic approach of both. Wax struck me as a bit overly eager to arrive at her conclusion, which is pretty typical for a lot of conservatives. This is, I'm speculating, why Lowry seemed to have a bit of adverse emotional reaction, which was both understandable and counterproductive.

Lowry's objection to Wax's analytical framework struck me as a little vague, but also pointing to something important- perhaps a fruitful line of inquiry. But as it stood I think it was hard for Wax to substantially respond to it, especially in an hour long dialog.

Lowry mentions that Wax's approach of diagnosing a cultural problem among blacks has political consequences- ones that, he intones, are problematic. I think it's not unfair to say that he suggests that this way of thinking leads to something like a racist political outcome. Lowry says that we should only be willing to go down that road if we're on very solid analytical footing, which, he suggests, Wax is not.

Wax defends against this attack mainly by saying that (1), cultural analysis is just hard to make analytically solid, at least given our current knowledge, and that (2) the data seem to overwhelmingly point to a black problem- that is, there are statistics, like crime rates, among blacks that can not be accounted for by any other variable. This is were a different tone would have been helpful, by the way. She seemed a bit too eager to push this point, and at some points seemed to suggest the ridiculous posture often taken by conservatives that being willing to talk about this stuff is in itself somehow courageous.

Anyway, this all got me thinking about about some conceptual (dare I say- philosophical?) issues I've thought about in the past about the nature of social or cultural failure, collective responsibility, and collective guilt.

It seems to me that there's a lot of conceptual blurring that happens in discussions involving these topics, perhaps because these discussions are often around emotionally charged topics, but also, I suspect, because something about the way we've evolved to think about moral responsibility tends to lead us into confusion when we get to this level of talking about it.

UPDATE: This post languished for about a month- I want to finish it, but I may write less than I had initially planned:

The confusion I mentioned above comes, I think, from ascribing responsibility to groups in the same way we do to individuals, and from the conflation of collective responsibility and collective guilt.

The problem is that we've developed the concept of individual guilt/responsibility because it incentivizes people to behave in a more pro-social way (I think most evolutionary psychologists would agree with this hypothesis, but I'm open to being corrected). This same concept has gotten applied to groups because it's easy for us to think of groups the same way we think as individuals. But the incentive effect doesn't work here and, worse, it ends up getting mixed up with intergroup conflict and goes against our intuitions of justice. (Does that make sense?)

In the case of the debate about blacks in America, people like Wax suggest that blacks have some kind of responsibility as a group to improve their situation. This gets interpreted as a kind of accusation of guilt, and as alleviating whites of any responsibility. And Wax's tone does nothing to assuage the concerns of anyone skeptical of her motives.

If I was going to make the kind of argument that Wax was making, I would put it something like this: There is such a thing as cultural failure. Culture is a pattern of behavior among individuals is any group that separates itself from others enough to be able to create and enforce internal norms. These patterns can be conducive to, or destructive of, individual flourishing. They develop through internal and external influences.

In the case of blacks, a culture destructive of individual flourishing has developed. We don't really know why. It's likely that the unique exploitation and oppression of blacks in America is one reason.

Whether or not that's true, it is simply a fact that improving the situation of blacks will require individuals within the black community to engage with the culture and change it. This says nothing about the ultimate moral responsibility for the current situation. It is probably true in some sense that there is broader moral responsibility to be assigned to American society, American politicians, etc.

I don't have much confidence in this argument. If I were making it, I would also add that I do think government policy has a role to play, especially abolishing the War on Drugs and taking steps to improve education. I think my preferred policy for the latter would be to abolish public education and provide financial resources to those who need them, but that isn't going to happen, and there are probably ways to make marginal improvements in the meantime.

I don't know if any of this makes much sense, but I wanted to get it out there. I appreciate any feedback!


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tim Lee on Liberaltarianism

I want to associate myself with this post by fellow Minnesotan Tim Lee, on which I posted the following comment:
Sign me up for the emerging Lindsey-Lee-Sanchez-Wilkinson School of Libertarianism!
Will Wilkinson has it right that the liberaltarianism thing is best understood as a longer-term project- an effort to convince people with liberal impulses that a lot of libertarian insights are genuinely liberal, and to build a broader liberal coalition in years ahead. I think some progress has been made in this direction, insofar as people like Matt Yglesias seem to at least take libertarian arguments seriously. Remember, 40 years ago libertarians were MUCH MORE of a crazy fringe group.
My vision for the future is a worldwide coalition of pragmatic, bottom-up focused epistemologically cautious liberals who understand that markets are a force for progress.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

What's a libertarian to do?

Reason has an interesting debate on the topic "Where do libertarians belong?" featuring Brink Lindsey, Jonah Goldberg, and Matt Kibbe. I have a few thoughts (again, scattered):

Lindsey is seems to be making two arguments: one about political strategy and one about ideological affinity. These arguments overlap a bit, but I think they ought to be handled separately. I'll put it as a Q and A:

Will libertarians achieve more if we disassociate ourselves from the right?
I've never felt a particular affinity for the right. But Lindsey is probably addressing politically active/ influential libertarians, of which I am neither. I imagine he's also trying to push Cato a bit away from it's association with the Republican Party as well.
Anyway, I would answer "Yes", because I don't really see the point in blanket political alliances Lindsey's suggestion that libertarians should make alliances on a case-by-case basis seems obviously right. Associating yourself with a political party for it's own sake is stupid.

Are libertarians more ideologically affiliated with modern American liberals?
Depends on the libertarian and the liberal in question. Many libertarians are basically, to use Will Wilkinson's phrase, "liberals who like markets". But then there are the Randian leave me alone types, who, though I may agree with them on many specific policy issues, don't seem to care a lot about promoting human welfare (that's probably an overstatement).
But both of these put together represent maybe 5% of the American population. There are a lot of Americans with libertarian beliefs, but, in my experience, they have plenty other very non-libertarian beliefs.
I guess where this is leading me is that ideology as a way of categorizing a large group of people is a pretty big abstraction from reality. My feeling is that it would be enough for Lindsey to point out that republicans, and the Tea Partiers, have a lot of beliefs that libertarians probably disagree with. From there, individuals can make up their own minds. Isn't that the libertarian solution?

Not really related to the above, but I see this kind of debate as being largely about identity. A lot of libertarians may feel the need to associate themselves with other, larger movements or subcultures.

Scattered thoughts on morality

  • We should face the difficult reality that there are no moral facts. The best we’re going to do is to reach consensus among a sufficient number of people. Luckily, there is a lot of room to achieve consensus.
  • One reason for this opportunity is the growth in opportunities for positive-sum interactions. There are more chances for people to get what they want, in a way that can benefit everyone.
  • Rising standards of living make people seek higher goals. This makes moral discourse- rather than rule of the strongest- possible.
  • There’s a lot of truth to economic determinism- a lot of social changes are emergent. Moral discourse is tinkering at the margin.
  • Taleb’s tinkering concept (as I understand it) suggests to me that we want differing moral viewpoints. They function to diversify social practices, making society more robust to unforeseen changes.
  • So we don’t want one all-encompassing moral vision for everyone. We do need some basic principles, but they should be minimal (a case for negative rights at the state level?). This minimalism allows for a diversity of moral convictions, positions and actions.
  • This does not rule out the possibility of irresolvable moral conflict, which may be inescapable under any circumstances. Some conflict is probably beneficial. We can hope to avoid the most destructive conflict (creative destruction, however, should be allowed to thrive).
  • We should clearly acknowledge the limits of our understanding. Tinkering and diversification are ways to deal with the ever-present possibility of error, as well as unforeseen changes

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A vlog?

I've been doing a video diary on and off for a week or so. So I thought I'd post today's entry here. If it works I'll put some of the past ones up.
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Update: Seems the audio is off for some reason.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

An update photo for Mom















This is a little embarrassing, but my mom asked to see how I was doing losing weight on my new diet and lifestyle, and I couldn't upload it on Gmail. I guess it's good to get it out there, both for my body image and to have a public record of progress. Here you go, Mom!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Another comment on another Kling post

The post is here. I commented (with a typo :-( )

I'm sure there are many reasonable small government types among them, but, as inquiring minds notes, nost of them seem to be driven by nationalism and other not very (classically) liberal sentiments.

I think Arnold wants to believe in the possibility of a populist libertarian movement, one that jives with his notion of the elites and progressives versus the common man, but I don't think that's really tenable. We have big government because that's what almost everyone wants. Many say they want small government but want to keep Soc Sec, medicare, and a massive military. Most probably favor the pork projects in their particular area, and one can see what that adds up to. Concentrated benefits, diffuse costs...

There won't be smaller government until the situation gets tangibly more dire or until the basic logic of politics changes, or more people become principled libertarians. I'm not holding my breath for the last two.

I don't understand Kling's attraction to the tea partiers. What are we going to get out of them? A Sarah Palin presidential nomination? Roll back Obama care but boost the military budget some more and spend billions on "securing the border"? I'm probably painting with too broad a brush here, but I do think that's more or less what we can expect.

Comment on a post by Arnold Kling

The post is here. I commented:

I've said it before, and...
Arnold, I think you might be projecting your own hopes on the tea partiers bit. How many of them would seriously scale back the scale of government were they in control? Where were they during the Bush years? How many of them are motivated by the conviction that Obama is not an American?

Based on what I've been reading, I'd hardly feel more secure putting these people in charge. Send the Mexicans back to Mexico! Torture more people! Don't dare expand government involvement in health care, but don't dare touch Medicare and Soc Sec, and spend as much on the military as we "need"!

Ok, it's a bit of a caricature, but is it that much of one? I'm sympathetic to Arnold's distrust of elites, progs, etc, but are the TP's really the answer?

Yes I know they're a loose coalition, and I'd be happy to be proven wrong.

It's tempting to think that centralized power and its inevitable abuse can be curbed by these kind of populist movements, but I fear that such movements are often filled with internal contradictions, and they have no real alternatives to offer, so they just end of putting some other ass in power.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Responding to Matt Yglesias' response

I'm a bit late on this, but I was absolutely thrilled to see Matt Yglesias respond to my query. It's short, so I'll paste it all here:

Here’s a query I got recently and thought was worth responding to:

Mr. Yglesias:

I’d like to make a suggestion: You have a lot of insightful and important things to say. Do you think it’s constructive to engage in as much snark as you do? It seems to me like it serves to rile up people who are on your ideological side, and I suppose I could see some constructive purpose in doing that. But I would suggest we’d all be better off if political discourse was based more on humane and rational conversation and a shared commitment to building consensus about justice and finding the truth. I see your point that the right often represents entrenched power, and it may be necessary to struggle against that. But what about people like me, basically of liberal sympathies but not allied to the left per se, who are turned off by this tone of discourse? What about thoughtful and humane conservatives that might actually be convinced to change their policy positions? I guess it seems to me like your considerable talents and moral decency might be better served in a more consensus building, persuading, and a less base-riling, partisan role. I’ll keep reading your blog, but the bitterness will often leave me a bit sad, and thinking you could be doing better.

For one thing, I think this message reflects a widespread confusion about what it is to be “partisan.” Find me someone who thinks Olympia Snowe is history’s greatest monster but Ben Nelson is a great man and I’ll show you a partisan. I’m just someone with political views that are more liberal than the views of most Americans.

As for the rest, I think humane and rational conversation is important and I like to think that plenty of the posts on this blog are dedicated to it. But there are also a lot of liars and idiots in the world and subjecting them to

scorn and mockery is part of what you’ve got to do in life.

I responded in the comments, but I don't think that (mine) was a very good response, so I'll try it again here.

Yglesias is certainly right that he's not a partisan in the sense that he describes, and 'partisan' was probably the wrong word to use. He regularly criticizes other lefties and democratic politicians. Indeed, the only reason I sent him that message was because basically not a partisan, but a highly intelligent and morally decent person who seems to be concerned with the truth.

But he does often take a fairly harsh- one might even say smug- tone when speaking of many conservatives. It was this tone I was objecting to. I think it doesn't have a purpose other than fueling the sense of self-superiority of many of his reader.

In an earlier post I
gave some arguments for snark, and ended up kind of agnostic. But, as is often the case with my writing, my point is not to argue for positions that I'm really confident in, but rather to bring up points that strike me as reasonable but overlooked. In this case, I think Yglesias is probably overvaluing snark because it serves his interests to do so. This may sound like a serious accusation, but everyone has such blind spots. Part of the reason dialogue with those of differing opinions is so valuable is that it makes us more likely to find our own blind spots.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Excellent thoughts by Matt Yglesias

If more folks on the left thought like this, I'd be much more likely to consider myself on the left- albeit with some serious disagreements. Call me an idiot, a reactionary, or whatever, but I still suspect that a lot of lefties are overemphasizing the importance of climate change, and tending to overlook the enormous humanitarian importance of economic development and immigration liberalization. Still, (liberal) libertarians ought to take folks like Matt Yglesias really seriously.

Monday, April 26, 2010

An email I sent to some of my students, as part of an ongoing conversation

Hey Remy, Jack, et al,
Let me explain my (tentative) position that the notion of filial piety is irrational and evil. This is pretty strong language, I realize, so I think I ought to provide some reasons for it.
I believe one of the necessary steps toward improving society is for at least some people to escape the confines of traditional, parochial morality and embrace a more universalist morality. In my reading of history, substantial moral progress has been made through a minority of people who sought to expand the sphere of who counted as morally equal or relevant. Examples include Gandhi, the civil rights movement, and the anti-war movement. Connected with this idea, for me, is the idea of individual autonomy and recognition of supremacy of reason over authority.
In contrast, parochial morality always emphasizes the moral superiority of ones particular group, and by extension, tends to endow groups leaders with higher moral authority. I take filial piety to be a parochial and authoritarian way of thinking. I believe this method of thinking and social organization has several negative effects:
It allows some people to assert broad authority over others, thus limiting their freedom and, hence, their happiness. There is no place in Confucianism to really question authority, nor any official means to remedy abuse of authority. (Always remember the famous bit from Lord Acton: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.")
It limits the moral imagination and individual reason, and thus makes people less likely to cooperate with and help more distant people, with all the benefits that can bring (expansion of trade, humanitarian work, etc.)
It tends to make people more conservative in their lifestyle and career choices (because they do what their parents tell them to), thus inhibiting economic and cultural innovation and diversification, which are key to a more prosperous, free society.
I think the forces of economic development tend to, fortunately for us, encourage more universalist and individualist morality. I think, however, that individual advocacy can still play an important role. So those of us who want to see more of this sort of morality and thinking ought to stand up for it.
I should make clear that this way of thinking in no way means that people shouldn't care at all about their families- there are many good reasons to do that, and I certainly do. The issue here is what we see morality as being, what purpose it serves, and where moral authority comes from. I suppose you could say I think we need more enlightenment morality and less Confucian morality.
To that point, it's a total falsity that the ideas of the Enlightenment are something you find only in the west. Confucianism is taken by most Chinese to represent "Chinese morality", but in Confucius' own time and thereafter there were, as you know, a many thinkers espousing a variety of ideas. It was only through the endorsement of the Han Dynasty that Confucianism became established as "Chinese morality" (though there of course was precedence in ancestor worship and other practices). I would encourage Chinese people to explore this heritage of diverse and rich ideas. Culture is a dynamic process, and just because a certain way of thinking predominated in the past does not mean that it must or ought to predominate in the future. Of course, being an anti-nationalist and individualist, I think you should take wisdom wherever you find it. :-)
Peace and Love,
Nicolas

Saturday, April 24, 2010

My feeble attempts to promote civil discourse

A message I sent this morning to Matthew Yglesias (or whoever looks at messages sent through his blog:
Mr. Yglesias,
I'd like to make a suggestion: You have a lot of insightful and important things to say. Do you think it's constructive to engage in as much snark as you do? It seems to me like it serves to rile up people who are on your ideological side, and I suppose I could see some constructive purpose in doing that. But I would suggest we'd all be better off if political discourse was based more on humane and rational conversation and a shared commitment to building consensus about justice and finding the truth. I see your point that the right often represents entrenched power, and it may be necessary to struggle against that. But what about people like me, basically of liberal sympathies but not allied to the left per se, who are turned off by this tone of discourse? What about thoughtful and humane conservatives that might actually be convinced to change their policy positions? I guess it seems to me like your considerable talents and moral decency might be better served in a more consensus building, persuading, and a less base-riling, partisan role. I'll keep reading your blog, but the bitterness will often leave me a bit sad, and thinking you could be doing better.
Regards,
Nico Dornemann

I also attempted to submit a comment on a Connor Friedersdorf post at The American Scene, but I closed the tab before hitting "submit". I'm an idiot sometimes.

The tribalism, jingoism, and nastiness that so often characterizes political discourse makes me sad. More important, I think it serves little constructive purpose- though I understand there are coherent arguments that it does. Shall I try to summarize them? OK.

One argument for partisan tribalism is that, given human nature, it's a good way to organize people into coalitions, which allows them to collectively reach goals. If people where more inclined to individualism, questioning their assumptions, always looking for new evidence, etc. they would not form coalitions and better organized, perhaps more sinister factions would get their way.

I guess that's the only argument I can think of right now (gotta get more sleep!!!). That strikes me as a plausible argument, and I can't say that it's wrong. I'd only submit that there are obvious costs to partisanship (group think, mob mentality, etc) and that there may be a possibility for an alternative strategy for liberal-minded folks, one that, in fact, many smart people seem to follow: Make arguments in good faith, don't be nasty to people, but always try to persuade them. If you think someone is acting in bad faith, first, give them the benefit of the doubt, then, if that fails, state clearly that you believe they aren't arguing in good faith, and continue to make your arguments to receptive audiences. If your views are correct, you will persuade people, and, in a reasonably democratic system (I would count the U.S. here), people will vote according to that view.

A possible counterargument is that some people will only vote out of anger, so, in order to piece together the coalition you need to win, you need to fuel the anger of these people. Again, I can't say that's wrong. I'd reply that you can win new converts by convincing people, and you'd be contributing to a culture of more civil discourse, which would ultimately benefit us all.

I suppose ideological coalitions actually contain people engaging in both strategies. So there are lefties who are paragons of civility, and those who sling mud with relish (ditto on the right, of course). It's possible that a coalition should want to have both types. So those who want all civility and no nastiness have to make the case that our model really is better by most folks' standards. Alas, Robin Hanson is probably right that politics isn't about policy, the we may first have to get more people to actually care about policy, or convince those who don't to focus on other status-based activities, such as World or Warcraft.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Why Bryan Caplan is (mostly) wrong

...about this (followed up here). I say "mostly" because you could interpret what he says as saying that, while greater wealth and social freedom matter, from a libertarian perspective we have to define 'freedom' narrowly.

I see some merit to this argument, in so far as it's a response to the left, who, in the name of "freedom" encourage more and more government intervention, which often just benefits some at the expense of others, or worse. Still, though, I'd have to come down on the side that says that we should understand freedom broadly, and that, by such a conception, most people, certainly women, are more free than they were in 1880.

It's possible to make the case that freedom from oppressive social pressure is essential to a robust freedom, but that, in order to preserve other essential liberties, we're better off respecting freedom of speech and association in the law. At the same time, it's consistent with libertarian principles to act as a private citizen to influence the culture to make it more tolerant (indeed, my libertarian principles push me to do so). I suppose many libertarians won't go for this stance, but I also suspect, ala Will Wilkinson, that there are a lot of people with basically libertarian sensibilities who are turned off by the more conservative, rightish flavor of current "mainstream" libertarianism. As Caplan always says, truth comes first, but I'd suggest my take is closer to the truth.

P.S. I suppose Caplan could also agree with me on this- and I'm misunderstanding his point. He may just be talking about libertarian as a political agenda, and that a more limited negative rights conception of liberty is what fits into that agenda. I suppose that would make sense, though he seems to be talking about a broader, more philosophical libertarianism.

P.P.S. This makes me think about how we think about rights. I think it's only productive to think of rights in a narrow, institutional sense. That is, right are that which will maximize human flourishing if states recognize them as rights and act in the way that states normally do to protect rights (is that just obvious?). There are plenty of things that I consider essential to human flourishing, and I'd be pretty content to call them "rights" in a broad moral sense, but which we shouldn't try to enforce as institutionalized rights. In addition to freedom from certain kinds of social pressure, I'd also include a sense of one's life having meaning, and many others. Other things simply seem impossible to guarantee in a non-arbitrary way- health care comes to mind (How much health care are we entitled to? I haven't heard a satisfactory answer so far). Part of the problem is that people think of rights in terms of absolutes. But scarcity exists, so we have to think about how to allocate scarce resources at the margin to solve real problems. There is such a thing as devoting too many resources to protecting essential rights.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Teaching philosophy in China to non-philosophy students

For the past year or so teaching in Ningbo I've tried to introduce some basic philosophical topics into my "social clubs", which are basically lecture classes whose content is entirely up to me. I think I've been getting better at making the ideas accessible and interesting. So far the students have been most interested in ethics and the good life.

My students come from a range of backgrounds. Some are professionals, some are university and high school students, and some are, as it were, full time students at Web who hope to find a job once they've improved their English. I have yet to meet one who has studied philosophy, and if I were to they would have mostly studied Marxist philosophy, taught as unquestionable truth. So this stuff, as far as I know, is completely new to all of them.

A few of the students have taken a particularly keen interest, and always have a lot to say. And what they say, while not as clever as what you'd hear in a philosophy class at Macalester, is often more insightful.

More and more I think philosophy in the west has gotten way off track. It ought to be a discussion of basic values and concepts that anyone can participate in. It's gotten so loaded with unnecessary jargon that one has to take hundreds of hours of courses and write hundred of pages before you are are seen as being able to converse in it intelligently. But a lot of this stuff is really not that hard, if you try to make it clear, rather than tossing in as many clauses and obscure references as possible.

In China the culture seems ready for honest, open discussion about social values. There's already a lot of it going on, especially online. This makes it an interesting place to be an amateur philosopher.