Saturday, December 29, 2007

Libertarianism as Oppression

It occurred to me today that libertarianism is, ironically, oppressive.

Most people most of the time are only concerned about short term gains. What's for dinner tonight? What's on TV? Where will my high school senior go to college? Will my new car have decent resale value in 6 years? Will I have time to grab a bite to eat before the recital this evening? Can I afford to get my foot fixed by the podiatrist?

Only rarely do people consider questions about collective ethics and well being. What should we do about global warming? What can we do to ensure universal access to health care? How can we improve education for everyone?

These collective questions need to be settled collectively. I cannot unilaterally decide how health care should be implemented or how global warming should be solved (or decide if it is a problem).

Humans need informed, collective decision-making. Individuals need to be asked to think about the long term.

How you approach the question of global warming is different when you're deciding what car to buy for yourself versus what legislation should be passed. In the first case, you are asked to consider what your personal comforts will be like for the next few years. In the latter case, you are asked to consider your children's futures. And so the answers you give in each case are different.

I want my sports car, and I am happy to pay the true cost of that decision. However, I don't want to make a futile sacrifice all by myself. For example, I don't want to take the difference between the price of my car and what I think it ought to cost, and contribute it to a private pro-environmental organization that may never make any progress. I will just be cheating myself out of the cash. But if I know that everyone will pay a price, I will think the deal is fair.

Likewise, if I buy a hybrid, I'll pay a bunch more and do very little to affect carbon emissions by myself. I may make a statement with my purchase, but that's not an effective way to solve the problem if only a few percent of buyers buy hybrids. The only way to make the sacrifice effective is to enact legislation that will ensure that there will be enough hybrid purchases to make a positive difference to the environment.

Libertarianism wants to strip us all of the option to make these sorts of collective decisions, i.e., strip us of the right to make binding decisions about our long-term future. So, ironically, libertarianism is a form of oppression. We are not allowed to engage in collective decision-making, but instead we must all sit idly by while the people of the world thinks only about what it wants on its pizza tonight. In a libertarian society, we're not allowed to organize people to make binding decisions.

The only people who get to make binding decisions are those with the personal economic power to make a decisive difference. Who are they? They are the billionaires and the CEO's who run the worlds largest cartels and corporations. Libertarianism is great for them.

Of course, there is a long litany of other reasons why libertarianism is flawed and impractical, but this argument seems like it may be the most compelling of all.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Non-thinking things can't see subjective attributes

Is morality objective or subjective (relative)?

To answer this we have to be specific about what the question means. When I perceive a property of a thing, that property could be in the thing itself, or it could be an attribute that is "painted on the thing" by my mind.

For example, I might say that a particular building has many properties including these two: it is 100 feet in height, and it is tall. If I were from rural Kansas, any building over 50 feet in height would be tall to me. However, if I were from the city of Chicago, a building would have to be over 500 feet in height for me to consider it to be tall. So it is quite obvious that my personal history determines what is tall, whereas height is unambiguous, no matter where I come from. Height is objective, but tallness is a property my mind subjectively paints onto objects with height.

Now, there are two ways I can establish the objective/subjective nature of an attribute. I can positively show that an attribute is objective by finding evidence that the attribute is independent of subjectivity, or I can positively show that the attribute is a subjective property generated when a mind sees objective attributes of other things.

In the case of tallness, we certainly have positive evidence that tallness depends on where you come from and what experiences you have had. We can predict that anyone who has not seen a building more than one story tall will think that the Empire State Building is very tall.

But what would be considered positive evidence of objectivity?

I realized last night that subjective attributes are invisible to non-thinking entities.

Suppose I hold a conical projectile in my hand. The projectile is 10 centimeters long and has a mass of 1 kilogram. I fire it at a metal plate, and the way the plate behaves upon impact depends upon the mass. Yet the plate has no subjectivities of its own because it cannot think. If the mass were a subjective attribute painted on the projectile by my mind (e.g., say, if all 10cm conical objects subjectively feel like they are 1 kilo masses), then why should an inanimate target care about my subjectivities?

One might suggest that the apparent attributes of the debris are also subjective inventions, and that is why they appear correlated. However, this would be rather a coincidence. And we can establish increasingly complicated experiments that will force us to argue for increasingly bizarre coincidences should we stick to the idea that mass is subjective. Thus, we have to give up the idea that mass is a subjective quantity.

Furthermore, we can devise ways to hide from us every attribute of a projectile except for its mass. In that case, it cannot be that mass is some subjective mental decoration we apply to objects with other objective attributes (like size, shape or color).

Yet, with morality, there is no similar evidence of objectivity.

There is no way to create a curtain through which only 'evil' passes. If we could do so, we would have strong positive evidence that evil was objective and not some invention of our minds.

Also, there's no evidence that good and evil affect the environment. If an evil act occurs, it leaves no trace on non-thinking entities. A barrel of oil that was stolen burns as long and as brightly as a barrel of oil that was fairly obtained.

While there may be theories of morality (e.g., the Golden Rule), these theories predict nothing but our own subjective feelings and tendencies. They are not like objective physical theories that predict the behavior of non-mental entities. Rather, moral theories predict the behavior of mental entities that have subjectivities.

In addition to this lack of evidence for the objectivity of morality, there is a growing mountain of positive evidence for the psychological and evolutionary nature of moral perception.