Thursday, October 25, 2012

Gaus' "The Order Of Public Reason"

Let me start by saying that The Order Of Public Reason, or something quite like it, is the book I would have hoped to write had I decided to go into philosophy. I don't know that it's going to rise to the level of A Theory of Justice (only time will tell there), but it really is an amazing work which I hope will become part of the canon. Gaus' ability to synthesize a huge number of topics into a single, coherent system really cannot be understated.

Given the effusive praise above it should be obvious that I'm generally in agreement with what Gaus' has to say. The main difference, I think, is that I'm a lot less optimistic about the outcome than he is when all is said and done. So, rather than try to summarize and comment on the entirety of the book I'm instead going to focus on those areas where we diverge or where I have other salient commentary.

I'd like to start with Gaus' discussion of instrumental morality. This section, by itself, makes the entire book worthwhile just by virtue of its (seemingly) definitive treatment of the subject. People who are more well-versed than I in these things may find reason to object, but it looks to me like Gaus makes a solid case that instrumental rationality does not lead to anything resembling a comprehensive morality.

The basic argument is that people have reasons to follow the rules when they can be reasonably assured that they will be detected and punished. Repeated rulebreakers will suffer future harm as well because their reputation will cause people to be less likely to interact with them. However, as societies become more diffuse these reputational effects diminish to the point where they're effectively non-existent. For example, he talks about the relatively tight knit group of (100k or so) Chaldeans in Detroit and how they find it difficult to track individual reputations directly, relying instead on proxies like family name (pp. 92-93). The United States as a whole has long since surpassed the point where such individual attribution is possible, which blows a big whole in instrumentalist theories.

As a tangential note I have to say that I ultimately find discussions of instrumentalism to be a little unsatisfying. It would be great if some variant thereof worked, since it would address all sorts of problems regarding secular morality, but at the same time it almost seems like its missing the point. The success of the various flavors of instrumentalism, to the extent that they work at all, is based on a happenstance alignment of our pre-existing intuitions regarding morality with the utilitarian calculation of "what's in it for me?". For example, Daniel Fincke's answer to the question of why murder is wrong is that it constrains the potential excellence of the murderer. This raises two issues:

  • "Ought"-less morality: Instrumentalism's strength is that it doesn't rely on "oughts"/"ought nots", only an individual's rational calculation of eir own welfare. Is a system without any "oughts" "moral" in the typical sense of the word?
  • Why is it important for murder to be "bad"? Instrumentalists go out of their way to show that various and sundry anti-social behaviors (murder, rape, theft, etc.) are off-limits. The fact that they care at all indicates that they acknowledge a pre-existing list of "bads" which must be addressed. Rather than trying to show that an instrumentalism theory covers all these bases wouldn't it be more efficient to cut to the chase and figure out where that list comes from?

Gaus addresses the latter observation in his discussion of the "moral emotions". For Gaus, the whole purpose of social morality is to allow individuals to co-exist as a society, which goes a very long way towards explaining why murder is bad: Societies with rampant murder very quickly cease to function. However, there's a really big disconnect between this observation and the system of public morality which he develops over the course of the book.

Gaus' linchpin observation is that individuals internalize social norms, leading to the moral emotions of guilt (experience by rule breakers) and indignation (experience by people who detect the rule breaking). This system, having evolved over a long time, is very good at (and perhaps even indispensable for) ensuring social stability:

Our current moral practice is made intelligible and sensible once we understand that human society depends on a social morality based on Rule-following Punishers. For such a system to have arisen, we must care about the moral actions of others, care about making demands on them, and hold that we have standing to make these demands. (p. 193)

Which is absolutely true. However, the evolved morality of Rule-following Punishers is also demonstrably irrational (in the sense of being logically incoherent) and regularly beats down people who deviate from the status quo. What if humanity has managed to evolve itself into a stable, but ultimately unjust, morality? To his credit Gaus recognizes this conundrum:

Still, the worry gnaws: have we simply landed in a confused practice that we cannot reason ourselves out of? That may be a recipe for despair rather than contented resignation, much less justification. We not only wish to know where we have landed but to have some reassurance that it is a destination worth arriving at, and not the result of being marooned with no hope of rescue. (p. 193)

Unfortunately, Gaus doesn't ever confront that question head-on. Rather, his answer to the problem seems to be that we merely need to internalize rules based on the principle that all persons are free and equal and then the moral emotions will do the rest:

Once a society of free and equal persons has coordinated on specific moral rules and their interpretation, the point of invoking moral authority is to police this equilibrium selection against "trembling hands" - individuals who make mistakes about what rule is in equilibrium - and those who otherwise fail to act on their best reasons. In these cases the overwhelming social opinion concurs in criticizing deviant behavior. An individual who violates the social equilibrium will not simply be able to check demands on her, for she will meet the same demand form almost all others. In Mill's terms, the deviant will not simply confront the opinion of other individuals but the judgment of "society." This, I shall argue, renders decentralized authority effective in inducing compliance with social morality. (pp. 47 - 48)

Color me skeptical. "Don't steal" is a very concrete prohibition; it's easy for the moral emotions to come into in such situations, for people to feel indignant or guilty as appropriate. "All persons are free and equal", by contrast, is highly abstract, which makes its interpretation and enforcement an intellectual exercise. It might be the case that the "specific moral rules" on which we have coordinated are sufficiently concise and clear-cut as to accurately trigger the moral emotions, but I'll need a lot more convincing in that regard.

This is the first place where I think the edifice that he has so painstakingly constructed starts to fall apart. Because he places an emphasis on the practical, lubricating aspects of social morality, it is necessary for him to endorse a system of moral reasoning which is readily accessible to the bulk of the populace:

As Baier says, social morality is for everybody. Such weak publicity is absolutely essential for the rules of social morality ot perform their job of coordinating a mutually beneficial social existence. Rules that are too complex to be reliably taught to children could not be followed by the population in general. A social morality composed of abstract principles that required sophisticated philosophical reasoning to be applied simply cannot form the basis of a shared public morality; neither could a social morality that required sophisticated case-by-case moral judgment. Perhaps such moral theories apply to some aspects of moral discourse, but insofar as the cognitive demands far outstrip the abilities of normal moral agents, they cannot provide the framework of our shared social existence. (p. 296)

Then he turns around and acknowledeges that there are "better" moral reasoners:

But better moral reasoners may be able to extend reasoning in ways that others cannot. For example, it is widely agreed today that a person with a normal concern for her own welfare and values could not be expected to care for a rule that, say, enslaved her, and so such a rule could never generate a justified internal ought for her: it could not be a binding moral rule... A better moral reasoner, though, may point out that the same considerations show that the slave cannot be bound to show that a similarly reasonable person cannot be bound by an oppressive property regime. Such people may serve us all as moral critics and reformers; they do not disqualify the rest of us from being competent moral agents. (p. 217)

There is an apparent tension between Gaus' desire to democratize moral reasoning and his recognition that there are better ways to reason, so it's worth a detour to consider what precisely Gaus means by "better". He endorses, with caveats, Kohlberg's six-stage model (pp. 214 - 217), and talks approvingly of "post-conventional" reasoners at several points. However, a criticism that can be levied against Kohlberg, Gaus, and moral philosophers in general (which I do not necessarily think is valid) is that post-conventional reasoning is the secular equivalent of asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, a fancy language game that has nothing to do with right or wrong. Why, then, should we equate "more sophisticated" with "better"? Gaus never addresses this objection directly, perhaps coming closest in the following passage:

Kohlberg hypothesized that these stages form a universally invariant sequence of increasing cognitive sophistication; higher stages were more adequate than lower stages, providing solutions to issues left unresolved by lower stages. (p. 216)

Whether he fully explains himself or not is beside the point; my main purpose for this digression is to establish that he's using the term "better" in the way that it is typically understood. Furthermore, this "betterness" is (mostly) objective rather than subjective, being characterized by a fuller, more competent assessment of the pertinent facts and their implications in any given situation. So my question to Gaus is, if post-conventional reasoning is objectively better than that displayed by the typical individual, shouldn't we grant post-conventional reasoning/reasoners more weight in those situations where they have the superior argument?

I honestly don't know what to make of this, because it seems to be a glaring and obvious contradiction. To recognize a superior mode of reasoning, but then to deny it any formal weight, seems manifestly irrational. Ultimately this may be a symptom of Gaus' aversion to charges of moral authoritarianism (pp. xv - xvi); to give formal weight to post-conventional reasoning would allow some people to dictate the terms of social morality to others. But if this weight derives from better application of the rules of logic, rules which Gaus is quite happy to invoke elsewhere, then it is hard to see how this complain can stand.

More likely, I think, is that Gaus has a vision of what he hopes a just world would look like, and is glossing over those bits that make his vision less plausible. He would like to see a "Great Society" (p. 268) of free-and-equal individuals who converge on principles of social morality which all can endorse. However, there are at least two other major conflicts, apart from the problem I just described above, inherent in Gaus' system:

  1. "All persons are free and equal" is not a widely-accepted principle.
  2. Obtaining universal asset to any rule at the level of the Great Society seems impossible.

With respect to the first point: A significant fraction of the American public, perhaps a plurality or even a majority, have not and never will internalize the concept that all persons are free and equal in the manner which Gaus requires. I'm not just talking about supremacists of various stripes, but rather the ordinary citizens who collectively form the foundation of society. They may pay the it lip service, but deep down in their hearts they still regard their own judgments as superior to that of others. These individuals are not "committed to the moral enterprise and treating others as free and equal" (p. 282) and thus "our moral relations with such people [are] transformed into the relations that obtain between us and those who are not capable of moral autonomy" (p. 283). Consistently applying the rules that Gaus has laid out would result in the widespread exclusion of individuals from moral society; this does not appear to be his intent, but it seems to be an unavoidable result.

As for the second point: I think that his fundamental approach to the issue is correct, I'm just less sanguine than he is about the result. Gaus requires universal assent to any moral rule:

The socially eligible set, then, consists in all those proposals that are unanimously ranked by all Members of the Public as strictly preferred to blameless liberty - this is, rules that all have reasons to endorse as authoritative. We thus must eliminate as a possible moral rule among "citizens of the realm of ends" any proposed moral rule that is in the ineligible set of any Member of the Public. (p. 322)

This, by itself, would not be a problem if there were any sort of restrictions on the constitution of the ineligible set. However, consider the example of a "strictly unacceptable" proposal which Gaus provides on p. 311:

Given the plural basis of the parties' deliberation, we cannot preclude that Alf, some other Member of the Public, will advance proposals that Betty finds objectionable in this way. To be sure, given that all are reasoning on the basis of evaluative standards that all accept as relevant to moral deliberation, and further that all Members of the Public hold that their proposals conform to the formal constraints on moral rules, there will not be out-and-out dictatorial, selfish, or manifestly oppressive proposals. Yet their differences in evaluative standards can still lead some to propose moral rules that others find strictly unacceptable. For example, when deliberating about rules concerning freedom of religion, Alf may sincerely propose (w) a rule of freedom of thought and exercise, though with an obligation to support (at least financially) a single national Church, on the grounds that this will promote community spirit and dampen sectarian conflicts. As an adherent of a particular faith, Betty may insist that such a rule is strictly unacceptable.

If proposals may be offered and rejected on religious (i.e. fundamentally untestable) grounds then there seem to be essentially no constraints on the contents of the ineligible set. Thus, as more Members of the Public are introduced it becomes more and more likely that any given proposal put forward will be found in some Member's ineligible set and thus must be removed from the socially eligible set. It seems a virtual certainty to me that the socially empty set will become empty well before we reach a Public representative of the population of the United States. Gaus recognizes this as a possibility, but doesn't have much in the way of a rejoinder:

We cannot exclude the possibility that an interpretation may be strictly unacceptable to some Members of the Public (Betty may certainly have sever doubts about Charlie's Freudian proposal). A proposal might, in the opinion of a Member of the Public, be such a bad interpretation of the abstract right of freedom of speech that it does hardly anything to secure the core interests and concerns of agency that are being interpreted, or else it severely and unnecessarily attacks her own evaluative standards. This certainly should not be a commonplace, since all are devoted to these core interests and all agree that it is of the first importance that the basic claims of agency be secured. To end up with a null set of eligible interpretations would be a moral disaster for the agency of all. And we must remember that the constraints on proposals still apply, including reversibility and the weak common good requirements (§15.2). Members of the Public are thus confronted by a set of socially optimal eligible interpretations of an abstract justified right, just as they were confronted by a socially optimal eligible set of possible rules, x, y, z. We have compelling reasons to think that the set would be neither null nor a singleton.

I call bullshit; Gaus has given nothing in the way of "compelling reasons" to think that, given a large enough group, the socially eligible set will be anything other than null.

This isn't a fatal blow to his theory as a whole, but it really does crimp his aspirations to a social morality which operates on a grand scale. Taking the US as an example, I expect that the application of his method would lead to rapid fragmentation into largely-autonomous sub-communities bound together at the "top" by little more than realpolitik. Consider the following, fundamentally-irreconcilable divisions:

  • Archists vs. minarchists vs. anarchists
  • Naturalists/materialists/atheists vs. theists
  • People committed to the proposition that "All persons are free and equal" vs. people who think that's liberal bilge.

And so on. Which goes back to Nozick's observation that, given reasonable diversity of opinion, the will not be a single Utopia but rather utopias. The search for one social morality to rule them all may be fundamentally misguided.

Now, since this may be the last blog post I write for awhile (or, perhaps, ever), I want to end on a personal note. Gaus has neatly encapsulated a lot of the ideas that I've had that have caused me to take up the mantle of libertarianism. The fundamental intuition is that we cannot prove the truthfulness of moral rules and, thus, cannot foist them on other people without their consent. This standard, combined with the reality of evaluative diversity, means that there will not be one monolithic, "just" society. Rather, societies will form spontaneously when enough individuals with enough overlapping concerns get together. The boundaries of theses societies, and the sub-societies (and sub-sub-societies and so on) of which they are comprised, will be defined by this sphere of common concern and its associated commitment to a shared set of norms.

What I believe this means in practice is that any nation state which makes a pretense of being just (provided that such a state is even possible) will necessarily have a very lightweight set of rules that cover "the basics" (don't murder, don't steal, etc.) and not much else. Further rules are certainly possible, but the scope of their application must be narrowed in order to obtain the requisite level of acquiescence. Ultimately:

Do not do unto others what you would not have them do to you.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


I've half-written and then tossed a couple of posts in the past two days. I got halfway through a rebuttal to Stephanie Zvan's post on negotiation, but there doesn't seem to be much to gain in pointing out the flaws in her reasoning; it's just fighting the same battles over and over again. I think I'm going to try to write up my notes on The Order Of Public Reason and then maybe put this blog down for awhile.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

One Final Thought On Privilege

I promise, and then I'll put down the topic for awhile.

The post wherein I analyzed Natalie Reed's definitions was approvingly linked to by a blog called No Anodyne, which is home to a coterie of (self-identified) radical feminists. Talk about strange bedfellows... Anyhow, the specific article in question is titled "Pro Female and Trans Critical" and is essentially a defense (w/ links to resources) of a negative, though not necessarily incorrect, view of portions of the trans* community. Which, in turn, is apparently just shrapnel in a long running dispute between feminists and trans activists, fraught with charges and counter-charges of "privilege" on both sides.

So here we have two traditionally marginalized groups, women and trans-persons, making mutually-incompatible claims regarding privilege. For "privilege" to be worth anything as an analytic concept it needs to provide a mechanism to arbitrate between these claims. And I just don't see that happening at all, even in theory.

Take the idea of what constitutes a "safe space". Is it alright for biological women to want spaces that are restricted to biological women, or is that yet another example of transphobia? And is biological womens' inability to recognize their actions as transphobic a result of privilege?

It's not like one group or the other needs more education; both are very aware of the realities of various -isms and -obias and can be regarded as thought leaders in the identification of privilege. That they don't see eye-to-eye tells me that reasonable people may disagree on the issue of when privilege is operative.


I need not be sad: Mo Yan FTW.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Things That Make Me Sad

The mere possibility that Haruki Murakami could get the Nobel Prize this year. By the end of 1Q84 I was totally indifferent to the fate of every... single... character. Not a winner.

A Little More On Privilege

I think we can agree that having the ability to send your kids to private school is a symptom/reflection of economic privilege, yes? Turns out that sending your kids to public school may be so as well:

Another friend in Brooklyn, N.Y., takes the argument one step further. When I first mentioned our private-public dilemma to her, she responded by saying, "I don't see how that's a dilemma." As she saw it, "'liberal guilt' surrounding education is a privilege; it's a privilege to not want to send your kids to the best private school because it's not 'just' or 'even' or (I hate to say it), because it isn't diverse enough." She told me about how her own parents, as immigrants, moved to an affluent suburb of Long Island where they didn't fit in, so that their kids could go to the richest (and, sadly, whitest) school. "I hated it," she told me, "and tried explaining the reason to them, and they just couldn't understand what I was going on about."

What are we to make of that?

Perhaps we can say that the individual quoted above is incorrect? But her reasoning seems sound enough or, at least, not obviously wrong, so it's hard to argue against her. Absent a rebuttal, however, I think we must treat her assertion as (provisionally) true.

Here's where it gets interesting: If we treat the above assertion as true we've identified a situation where both of the options1 available to a well-off family are the result of "privilege" of some kind. This may undoubtedly be true; having any sort of choice in the matter of schooling at all may truthfully be said to be the result of their privileged position in society. But if that is indeed the case then why bring it up at all?

This goes back to Kant's observation that "ought implies can"; to attach moral significance to an action (an "ought") it needs to be logically possible for an actor to undertake that action. The (implied) ideal is that people should not act from a position of privilege, or that when they choose to act in some particular fashion they should try to do so in a way which is congruent with minimizing the effects of privilege. But if all available options have been identified as "privileged" in one way or the other then the whole notion of "privilege" becomes morally vacuous by virtue of the fact that there's no "!privileged" choice.

This is a clear example of the third definition of "privilege" that I posted about earlier. "Privilege", in this instance, becomes something akin to original sin. It adheres to a person by virtue of history and cannot be discharged by any action on eir part.

Which, again, is probably one of the reasons that there is some degree of hostility to the notion of privilege, especially within the skeptic community. The parent mentioned above is privileged, Conor Friedersdorf is privileged, but in neither case does that make their choices/positions necessarily wrong from a logical or moral standpoint. The invocation of "privilege" in these instances is more of a rhetorical bludgeoning device than an actual argument, which understandably annoys some people.

1 Excluding home-schooling and/or tutoring.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012


Because it's tangentially related to the previous post, but mostly because I find it hilarious, here's a link to Tumblr.TXT.

The Multiple Meanings of "Privilege"

I've been ruminating a lot about the concept of "privilege" recently. The inciting incident was a post by Matt Dillahunty in which he said:

I’m not even sure I can comment on that, as my own privilege might be preventing a clear understanding.

I noted at the time that this was an unusual, and perhaps problematic, comment to hear being uttered by a freethinker/skeptic, as it strongly implied that the concept of privilege is beyond the bounds of rational analysis. Then, last Thursday, there was a mini-debate among various factions of the blogosphere as to whether Conor Friedersdorf's reasons for not voting for Obama made him a privileged douchenozzle or whether the argument from privilege actually worked in his favor. All of which served as preamble to an article I read yesterday about the inherent racism of mentioning sandwiches in a multi-ethnic school.

No, seriously... here's a summary quote:

According to Gutierrez, using the example of a peanut butter sandwich in classroom lessons is technically a problematic and discriminatory move — one that was made by a teacher in her building last school year. While such a notion may bring out laughs among those who find it absurd, the principal explains her logic.

“What about Somali or Hispanic students, who might not eat sandwiches?,” she said. “Another way would be to say: ‘Americans eat peanut butter and jelly, do you have anything like that?’ Let them tell you. Maybe they eat torta. Or pita.”

On the face of it that seems to be a highly questionable claim. Surely there can't be anything wrong with mentioning sandwiches, right? And yet, at the same time, it may cause minority students to reflect on their own difference, triggering stereotype threat and thus depriving them of equal educational opportunity. Anyone who holds otherwise is blinded by privilege.

Am I just making shit up? I don't know!

The above example is pretty ridiculous on a number of counts, but it nevertheless highlights a serious issue: How do you go about testing claims of privilege? The problem is that reasonable people can agree that privilege exists in the abstract, but disagree about whether its a relevant factor in any particular instance. If the invocation of "privilege" isn't to automatically forestall discussion there needs to be some way to determine when privilege is and is not at work.

I did a non-trivial amount of googling yesterday and today and have been able to turn up precious little writing on this topic. Crommunist wrote a post awhile ago talking about the mechanism of privilege in some detail, and even goes so far as to say that it "bothers deniers because it seems like a non-falsifiable hypothesis ", but doesn't actually address that objection.

However, that foray offered me the chance to do a bunch of reading on the subject which is helping me to clarify things in my own mind. It seems that part of the problem is that the word "privilege" is used to convey multiple, somewhat distinct concepts:

  1. An umbrella term describing the operation/effects of a bunch of -isms. This would be the context that Crommunist is addressing.
  2. A type of epistemic closure which prevents members of favored classes from accurately perceiving reality. Dillahunty's statement would seem to be an example of this.
  3. A worldview and set of advantages which adheres to members of favored classes by virtue of their membership in those classes. This is the type of "privilege" cited by Erik Loomis in his article on Friedersdorf.

Now it feels like we're getting somewhere. The sandwich example above would fall under definition 1; we can argue back and forth about what (if any) -isms are in operation, but at least we have a toe-hold for analysis. And, in theory at least, its possible to test for the operation of aforementioned -isms. Definitions 2 and 3 are the ones which have the characteristic of being non-testable.

And now, a grand realization: I suspect this is why "privilege" has caused such problems in the skeptical community, because it's a single word which encompasses both testable and non-testable concepts. Both sides can talk about "privilege" and have different ideas about what they're actually discussing.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Wherein I Disagree With Ed About Atheist Politicians

Quoth Ed:

Speaking for myself, there was never a time when I would have voted for a conservative atheist over a liberal Christian candidate. I think this is an incredibly easy question to answer. I simply don’t see what someone’s religious views have to do with who I vote for, especially since openly atheist politicians are nearly as rare as albino unicorns. I couldn’t possibly care any less whether a politician believes in God or not; I care what they believe about the issues that matter. I just don’t see why this is even a remotely difficult decision.

Ed's heart is in the right place on this one and, in an idealized world where people were able to adequately compartmentalize their beliefs, he'd probably be right. However, in a non-idealized world a person's religious beliefs, or lack thereof, are likely to influence their preferred policy positions, so to disregard their religion entirely seems like an act of willful blindness.

Consider that a politician who holds views that ey knows are unpopular may conceal, equivocate, obfuscate, and even outright lie about them in order to win election. We've seen a lot of that this election cycle in regards to the Romney Tax Plan or Ryan's on again/off again relationship with Ayn Rand. On the religious front there's Mike Huckabee, who doesn't seem particularly crazy (for an evangelical), except when you start digging a little bit you find out that he may be a dominionist. Surely that point is relevant in assessing the sorts of policies that he'd be likely to endorse if he were to win office? To address Ed's criticism directly, religious belief can be a valid proxy in a world where politicians aren't forthright about "what they believe about the issues that matter".

There is also a meaningful discussion to be had about how atheists differ from theists. Ed is right that openly atheist politicians are exceedingly rare, in which case questions of belief usually fall along the lines of "too much/not enough" and "right god/wrong god". These, I concur, are totally useless.

However, there are real, material differences between theists and atheists. The former has, by definition, a metaphysical commitment to the supernatural while the latter (probably, but not necessarily) does not. All else equal I'm more likely to agree with/trust the judgement of an atheist by virtue of the nature of eir metaphysics.

Now, as to the original question, it essentially asks which axis (belief/unbelief vs. liberal/conservative) should be weighted more heavily when evaluating a candidate for office. It's objectively a bad question because the axes aren't independent; there's a high degree of correlation between belief and political inclination. That's the major reasons why conservative atheists are so rare. It also treats liberalism/conservatism as a single axis for purposes of evaluation when, in reality, political ideology is multivariate.

More subtly, it also relies on a dichotomy of "liberalism good/conservatism bad", which is completely baseless as an abstract proposition. There are lots of different beliefs systems which qualify as liberal, some of which are useful and some of which are foolish and wrongheaded; the same is true of conservative belief systems. I'd rather elect a Burkean conservative than a Titoist.

Those objections noted, what I'm most concerned about in a politician, first and foremost, is that they be reality-based/evidence-driven. Given the discussion of metaphysics above I would pick the conservative atheist on the grounds that they are more likely, all else equal, to be so.

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