Sunday, October 20, 2013

Midas Sdom

(Sodom, modern rendition)

There are four character types among people. One who says, 'What's mine is mine and what's yours is yours' is of average character, and some say, this is the character of Sodom. [One who says] 'What's mine is yours and what's yours is mine' is unlearned. [One who says] 'What's mine is yours and what's yours is yours' is pious. [One who says] 'What's yours is mine and what's mine is mine' is wicked.' 
— Pirkey Avos

I was thinking today in the shull and afterwards about the statement in Pirkey Avos about midas Sdom. "What's mine is mine, and what's yours is yours" is an excellent negative law, for which all societies must strive. What was the problem of Sdom? They took this concept, which should be a negative law for the society, and enforced it as a positive law for the individuals: those were prohibited from giving tzedaka (we find in the passed week's parsha that Lot was almost sodomized by the Sodomites for sheltering the guests).

So, the problem is not the absence of social welfare  a healthy respect for property rights of the individuals  but the prohibition for the individuals to use their property to give charity. That is why Pirkey Avos has two opinions about this midda.

What about the character of the tzaddik: "What's mine is yours, and what's yours is yours"? Why can't it be "socialized"? Because when you socialize it, it becomes: "What's yours is mine, and what's mine is yours", a midda of a socialist... I mean, an ignoramus.

The character trait of a tzaddik ("what's mine is yours, and what's yours is yours"), in order to remain within its definition, must be that of a private individual. That is also what we should teach our children: When someone is visiting us, we share our toys. But when we are visiting someone else, we don't force them to share their toys; we respect their wishes about their property.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Monday, August 5, 2013

Legal breakdown

Sorry I haven't posted for a while. Too busy getting a Ph.D. ... and stuff.

A re-post from Facebook:

Of course, free markets and capitalism are to blame for this, not the corrupt legal system of this country.
This is the same situation as with the environmental pollution 100-150 years ago, when the courts sided with large companies (owners of industrial plants, railroads, etc.) in lawsuits brought against the latter by their smaller neighbors. Fast-forward 100 years, and suddenly everyone is environment-conscious and blaming capitalism, free markets, deregulation, profit, and freedom for the environment being messed up... and of course calling for more government!

But what happened then and what is happening now is not "market failure", but a dysfunction within the state-operated monopolized legal system. One single function that the government is theoretically supposed to do — protect people's rights — it has failed at again and again. And everyone, from the right and from the left, is calling for more government in those areas where it's not supposed to be involved at all, when the only solution is more privatization: including that of the legal system!

And, unsurprisingly, the neocon "justices" voted for the corporatist outcome. The two parties in this country are not liberals vs. conservatives. These terms made some sense in the 19th-century UK, but not the US today (Hayek discusses this quite well in his essay "Why I Am Not a Conservative".) Today it's socialists vs. fascists. Pick your poison.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Real boundaries

There are two major kinds of maps that people tend to use: geographic and political. The first kind represents the nature: landscape features of the land. The second presumably represent people living on the land.

But does it? It surely represents the boundaries of political authority that is imposed from the top, but does it say anything meaningful about the people themselves (besides the fact that in this place people tolerate the fact that they were forced to choose between Bob and Bill, and in that place they tolerate the fact that they were forced to choose between Joe and Jim)?

This new approach to mapping human activity challenges this notion. Briefly, the authors of the approach propose to draw boundaries based on "how far a buck travels": the extent of people's economic activity. The other approach is to try clustering the exchanges of money for products and services. I tend to buy a lot of my stuff locally. I also tend to order some things from a few online stores centered in certain locations. So, I tend to spend my money in the area where I live (with reduced probability of spending with the distance) and in a few "hubs".

Another approach is to try mapping communication: cell phone calls between places. Or employment: how far do people travel to work. Or personal interaction. Etc.

Using one of these approaches, US map becomes this:

Brockmann America

Or this:

MIT Senseable City - "The Connected States of America"

(You can read more in the report on the methodology of creating these maps.)

Notice how rarely the political boundaries correspond with the "real" boundaries of human interaction. (It seems that in most cases that they do, there is also a physical boundary like a river or a mountain range that obviously serves as real boundary for human interaction.)

On the other hand, the political map of Great Britain, a much older country, tends to correlate somewhat better with the country's political map:

British Phone Map

The map actually looks somewhat similar to the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic kingdoms that existed before the Danish invasion in the 9th century CE:

I wonder if these patterns correlate with geographic features or just with traditional established economic centers.

But another, much stronger, point that immediately jumps to one's attention is that thinking of communities in terms of little bounded areas with well-established lines is silly. At best, the lines are very fuzzy. But it's also the case that the communication between people, especially in our times, is so fluid, dynamic and far-ranging that thinking of nations and communities in terms of boundaries seems unjustified.

Much better to think of them in terms of connections that unite people rather than borders that divide them:

Long Distance Map

Monday, April 22, 2013

King Edmund of East Anglia

From Bernard Cornwell's Last Kingdom:


I do not know if King Ed­mund was a saint. He was a fool, that was for sure. He had given the Danes refuge be­fore they at­tacked Eofer­wic, and giv­en them more than refuge. He had paid them coin, pro­vid­ed them with food, and sup­plied their army with hors­es, all on the two promis­es that they would leave East An­glia in the spring and that they would not harm a single church­man.

They kept their promis­es, but now, two years lat­er and much stronger, the Danes were back, and King Ed­mund had de­cid­ed to fight them. He had seen what had hap­pened to Mer­cia and Northum­bria, and must have known his own king­dom would suf­fer the same fate, and so he gath­ered his fyrd and prayed to his god and marched to do bat­tle. First he faced us by the sea, then, hear­ing that Ivar was march­ing around the edge of the great wa­tery wastes west of the Gewæsc, he turned about to con­front him.

Ub­ba then led our fleet up the Gewæsc and we nosed in­to one of the rivers un­til the chan­nel was so nar­row our oars could not be used, and then men towed the boats, wad­ing through waist­deep wa­ter un­til we could go no far­ther and there we left the ships un­der guard while the rest of us followed sog­gy paths through end­less marsh­land un­til, at long last, we came to high­er ground. No one knew where we were, on­ly that if we went south we had to reach the road along which Ed­mund had marched to con­front Ivar. Cut that road and we would trap him be­tween our forces and Ivar’s army.

Which is pre­cise­ly what hap­pened. Ivar fought him, shield wall against shield wall, and we knew none of it un­til the first East An­glian fu­gi­tives came stream­ing east­ward to find an­oth­er shield wall wait­ing for them. They scat­tered rather than fight us, we ad­vanced, and from the few pris­on­ers we took we dis­cov­ered that Ivar had beat­en them eas­ily. That was confirmed next day when the first horse­men from Ivar’s forces reached us.

King Ed­mund fled south­ward. East An­glia was a big coun­try, he could eas­ily have found refuge in a fortress, or else he could have gone to Wes­sex, but in­stead he put his faith in God and took shel­ter in a small monastery at Dic. The monastery was lost in the wet­lands and per­haps he be­lieved he would nev­er be found there, or else, as I heard, one of the monks promised him that God would shroud the monastery in a per­pet­ual fog in which the pa­gans would get lost, but the fog nev­er came and the Danes ar­rived in­stead.

Ivar, Ub­ba, and their broth­er, Half­dan, rode to Dic, tak­ing half their army, while the oth­er half set about paci­fy­ing East An­glia, which meant rap­ing, burn­ing, and killing un­til the peo­ple sub­mit­ted, which most did swift­ly enough. East An­glia, in short, fell as eas­ily as Mer­cia, and the on­ly bad news for the Danes was that there had been un­rest in Northum­bria. Ru­mors spoke of some kind of re­volt, Danes had been killed, and Ivar want­ed that ris­ing quenched, but he dared not leave East An­glia so soon af­ter cap­tur­ing it, so at Dic he made a pro­pos­al to King Ed­mund that would leave Ed­mund as king just as Burghred still ruled over Mer­cia.

The meet­ing was held in the monastery’s church, which was a sur­pris­ing­ly large hall made of tim­ber and thatch, but with great leather pan­els hang­ing on the walls. The pan­els were paint­ed with gaudy scenes. One of the pic­tures showed naked folk tum­bling down to hell where a mas­sive ser­pent with a fanged mouth sw­al­lowed them up.

“Corpserip­per,” Rag­nar said with a shud­der.


“A ser­pent that waits in Ni­fl­heim,” he ex­plained, touch­ing his ham­mer amulet. Ni­fl­heim, I knew, was a kind of Norse hell, but un­like the Chris­tian hell Ni­fl­heim was icy cold. “CorpseRip­per feeds on the dead,” Rag­nar went on, “but he al­so gnaws at the tree of life. He wants to kill the whole world and bring time to an end.” He touched his ham­mer again.

An­oth­er pan­el, be­hind the al­tar, showed Christ on the cross, and next to it was a third paint­ed leather pan­el that fas­ci­nat­ed Ivar. A man, naked but for a loin­cloth, had been tied to a stake and was be­ing used as a tar­get by archers. At least a score of ar­rows had punc­tured his white flesh, but he still had a saint­ly ex­pres­sion and a se­cret smile as though, de­spite his trou­bles, he was quite en­joy­ing him­self.

“Who is that?” Ivar want­ed to know.

“The blessed Saint Se­bas­tian.” King Ed­mund was seat­ed in front of the al­tar, and his in­ter­preter pro­vid­ed the an­swer. Ivar, skull eyes star­ing at the paint­ing, want­ed to know the whole sto­ry, and Ed­mund re­count­ed how the blessed Saint Se­bas­tian, a Ro­man sol­di­er, had re­fused to re­nounce his faith and so the em­per­or had or­dered him shot to death with ar­rows. “Yet he lived!” Ed­mund said ea­ger­ly.

“He lived be­cause God pro­tect­ed him and God be praised for that mer­cy.”

“He lived?” Ivar asked sus­pi­cious­ly.

“So the em­per­or had him clubbed to death in­stead,” the in­ter­preter fin­ished the tale.

“So he didn’t live?”

“He went to heav­en,” King Ed­mund said, “so he lived.”

Ub­ba in­ter­vened, want­ing to have the concept of heav­en ex­plained to him, and Ed­mund ea­ger­ly sketched its de­lights, but Ub­ba spat in de­ri­sion when he re­al­ized that the Chris­tian heav­en was Val­hal­la with­out any of the amuse­ments. “And Chris­tians want to go to heav­en?” he asked in disbelief.

“Of course,” the in­ter­preter said.

Ub­ba sneered. He and his two broth­ers were at­tend­ed by as many Dan­ish war­ri­ors as could cram them­selves in­to the church, while King Ed­mund had an en­tourage of two priests and six monks who all lis­tened as Ivar pro­posed his set­tle­ment. King Ed­mund could live, he could rule in East An­glia, but the chief fortress­es were to be gar­risoned by Danes, and Danes were to be grant­ed what­ev­er land they re­quired, ex­cept for roy­al land. Ed­mund would be ex­pect­ed to pro­vide hors­es for the Dan­ish army, coin and food for the Dan­ish war­ri­ors, and his fyrd, what was left of it, would march un­der Dan­ish or­ders. Ed­mund had no sons, but his chief men, those who lived, had sons who would be­come hostages to en­sure that the East An­glians kept the terms Ivar pro­posed.

“And if I say no?” Ed­mund asked.

Ivar was amused by that. “We take the land any­way.”

The king con­sult­ed his priests and monks. Ed­mund was a tall, spare man, bald as an egg though he was on­ly about thir­ty years old. He had pro­trud­ing eyes, a pursed mouth, and a per­pet­ual frown. He was wear­ing a white tu­nic that made him look like a priest him­self. “What of God’s church?” he fi­nal­ly asked Ivar.

“What of it?”

“Your men have des­ecrat­ed God’s al­tars, slaugh­tered his ser­vants, de­filed his im­age, and stolen his trib­ute!” The king was an­gry now. One of his hands was clenched on the arm of his chair that was set in front of the al­tar, while the oth­er hand was a fist that beat time with his ac­cu­sa­tions.

“Your god can­not look af­ter him­self?” Ub­ba en­quired.

“Our god is a mighty god,” Ed­mund declared, “the cre­ator of the world, yet he al­so al­lows evil to ex­ist to test us.”

“Amen,” one of the priests mur­mured as Ivar’s in­ter­preter trans­lat­ed the words.

“He brought you,” the king spat, “pa­gans from the north! Jere­mi­ah fore­told this!”

“Jere­mi­ah?” Ivar asked, quite lost now.

One of the monks had a book, the first I had seen in many years, and he un­wrapped its leather cov­er, paged through the stiff leaves, and gave it to the king who reached in­to a pock­et and took out a small ivory point­er that he used to in­di­cate the words he want­ed.“Quia malum ego,” he thun­dered, the pale point­er mov­ing along the lines,“ad­duco ab aquilone et con­tri­tionem mag­nam!”

He stopped there, glar­ing at Ivar, and some of the Danes, im­pressed by the force­ful­ness of the king’s words, even though none of them un­der­stood a sin­gle one of them, touched their ham­mer charms. The priests around Ed­mund looked re­proach­ful­ly at us. A spar­row flew in through a high win­dow and perched for a mo­ment on an arm of the high wood­en cross that stood on the al­tar. Ivar’s dread face showed no re­ac­tion to Jere­mi­ah’s words and it fi­nal­ly dawned on the East An­glian in­ter­preter, who was one of the priests, that the king’s im­pas­sioned read­ing had meant noth­ing to any of us.

“For I will bring evil from the north,” he trans­lat­ed, “and great de­struc­tion.”

“It is in the book!” Ed­mund said fierce­ly, giv­ing the vol­ume back to the monk.

“You can keep your church,” Ivar said care­less­ly.

“It is not enough!” Ed­mund said. He stood up to give his next words more force. “I will rule here,” he went on, “and I will suf­fer your pres­ence if I must, and I will pro­vide you with hors­es, food, coin, and hostages, but on­ly if you, and all of your men, sub­mit to God. You must be bap­tized!”

That word was lost on the Dan­ish interpreter, and on the king’s, and fi­nal­ly Ub­ba looked to me for help.

“You have to stand in a bar­rel of wa­ter,” I said, re­mem­ber­ing how Beoc­ca had bap­tized me af­ter my broth­er’s death, “and they pour more wa­ter over you.”

“They want to wash me?” Ub­ba asked, as­ton­ished.

I shrugged. “That’s what they do, lord.”

“You will be­come Chris­tians!” Ed­mund said, then shot me an ir­ri­tat­ed look. “We can bap­tize in the riv­er, boy. Bar­rels are not nec­es­sary.”

“They want to wash you in the riv­er,” I ex­plained to Ivar and Ub­ba, and the Danes laughed. Ivar thought about it. Stand­ing in a riv­er for a few min­utes was not such a bad thing, es­pe­cial­ly if it meant he could hur­ry back to quell what­ev­er trou­ble af­flict­ed Northum­bria. “I can go on wor­ship­ping Odin once I’m washed?” he asked.

“Of course not!” Ed­mund said an­gri­ly. “There is on­ly one God!”

“There are many gods,” Ivar snapped back, “many! Ev­ery­one knows that.”

“There is on­ly one God, and you must serve him.”

“But we’re win­ning,” Ivar ex­plained patient­ly, al­most as if he talked to a child, “which means our gods are beat­ing your one god.”

The king shud­dered at this aw­ful heresy.

“Your gods are false gods,” he said. “They are turds of the dev­il, they are evil things who will bring dark­ness to the world, while our god is great, he is all pow­er­ful, he is mag­nif­icent.”

“Show me,” Ivar said.

Those two words brought si­lence. The king, his priests, and his monks all stared at Ivar in ev­ident puz­zle­ment.

“Prove it,” Ivar said, and his Danes mur­mured their sup­port of the idea. King Ed­mund blinked, ev­ident­ly lost for in­spi­ra­tion, then had a sud­den idea and point­ed at the leather pan­el on which was paint­ed Saint Se­bas­tian’s ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing an archer’s tar­get. “Our god spared the blessed Saint Se­bas­tian from death by ar­rows,” Ed­mund said, “which is proof enough, is it not?”

“But the man still died,” Ivar point­ed out.

“On­ly be­cause that was God’s will.”

Ivar thought about that. “So would your god pro­tect you from my ar­rows?” He asked.

“If it is his will, yes.”

“So let’s try,” Ivar pro­posed. “We shall shoot ar­rows at you, and if you sur­vive then we’ll all be washed.”

Ed­mund stared at the Dane, won­der­ing if he was se­ri­ous, then looked ner­vous when he saw that Ivar was not jok­ing. The king opened his mouth, found he had noth­ing to say, and closed it again, then one of his tonsured monks mur­mured to him and he must have been try­ing to per­suade the king that God was sug­gest­ing this or­deal in or­der to ex­tend his church, and that a mir­acle would re­sult, and the Danes would be­come Chris­tians and we would all be friends and end up singing to­geth­er on the high platform in heav­en. The king did not look en­tire­ly con­vinced by this ar­gu­ment, if that was in­deed what the monk was pro­pos­ing, but the Danes want­ed to at­tempt the mir­acle now and it was no longer up to Edmund to ac­cept or refuse the tri­al.

A dozen men shoved the monks and priests aside while more went out­side to find bows and ar­rows. The king, trapped in his de­fense of God, was kneel­ing at the al­tar, pray­ing as hard as any man has ev­er prayed. The Danes were grin­ning. I was en­joy­ing it. I think I rather hoped to see a mir­acle, not be­cause I was a Chris­tian, but be­cause I just want­ed to see a mir­acle. Beoc­ca had of­ten told me about mir­acles, stress­ing that they were the re­al proof of Chris­tian­ity’s truths, but I had nev­er seen one. No one had ev­er walked on the wa­ter at Beb­ban­burg and no lep­ers were healed there and no an­gels had filled our night skies with blaz­ing glo­ry, but now, per­haps, I would see the pow­er of God that Beoc­ca had for­ev­er preached to me. Bri­da just want­ed to see Ed­mund dead.

“Are you ready?” Ivar de­mand­ed of the king.

Ed­mund looked at his priests and monks and I won­dered if he was about to sug­gest that one of them should re­place him in this test of God’s pow­er. Then he frowned and looked back to Ivar. “I will ac­cept your pro­pos­al,” he said.

“That we shoot ar­rows at you?”

“That I re­main king here.”

“But you want to wash me first.”

“We can dis­pense with that,” Ed­mund said.

“No,” Ivar said. “You have claimed your god is all pow­er­ful, that he is the on­ly god, so I want it proved. If you are right then all of us will be washed. Are we agreed?” This ques­tion was asked of the Danes, who roared their ap­proval.

“Not me,” Ravn said, “I won’t be washed.”

“We will all be washed!” Ivar snarled, and I re­al­ized he tru­ly was in­ter­est­ed in the out­come of the test, more in­ter­est­ed, in­deed, than he was in mak­ing a quick and con­ve­nient peace with Ed­mund. All men need the sup­port of their god and Ivar was try­ing to dis­cov­er whether he had, all these years, been wor­ship­ping at the wrong shrine. “Are you wear­ing ar­mor?” he asked Ed­mund.


“Best to be sure,” Ub­ba in­ter­vened and glanced at the fa­tal paint­ing. “Strip him,” he or­dered. The king and the church­men protest­ed, but the Danes would not be de­nied and King Ed­mund was stripped stark naked. Bri­da en­joyed that. “He’s puny,” she said. Ed­mund, the butt of laugh­ter now, did his best to look dig­ni­fied. The priests and monks were on their knees, pray­ing, while six archers took their stance a dozen paces from Ed­mund.

“We are go­ing to find out,” Ivar told us, stilling the laugh­ter, “whether the En­glish god is as pow­er­ful as our Dan­ish gods. If he is, and if the king lives, then we shall become Chris­tians, all of us!”

“Not me,” Ravn said again, but qui­et­ly so that Ivar could not hear. “Tell me what happens, Uhtred.”

It was soon told. Six ar­rows hit, the king screamed, blood spat­tered the al­tar, he fell down, he twitched like a gaffed salmon, and six more ar­rows thumped home. Ed­mund twitched some more, and the archers kept on shoot­ing, though their aim was bad be­cause they were half help­less with laugh­ter, and they went on shoot­ing un­til the king was as full of feath­ered shafts as a hedge­hog has spikes. And he was quite dead by then. He was blood­ied, his white skin redlaced, open­mouthed, and dead. His god had failed him mis­er­ably.

Nowa­days, of course, that sto­ry is nev­er told; in­stead chil­dren learn how brave Saint Ed­mund stood up to the Danes, de­mand­ed their con­ver­sion, and was mur­dered. So now he is a mar­tyr and a saint, war­bling hap­pi­ly in heav­en, but the truth is that he was a fool and talked him­self in­to martyrdom.

The priests and monks wailed, so Ivar ordered them killed as well; then he decreed that Earl Go­drim, one of his chiefs, would rule in East An­glia and that Half­dan would sav­age the coun­try to quench the last sparks of re­sis­tance. Go­drim and Half­dan would be giv­en a third of the army to keep East An­glia qui­et, while the rest of us would re­turn to sub­due the un­rest in Northum­bria. So now East An­glia was gone.

And Wes­sex was the last king­dom of England.

Sunday, April 21, 2013


(NOTE: for those who don't wish to read my summary of moral intuitionism, skip till after the second set of asterisks.)

I wish to propose a meta-meta-ethical view that will give reason for existence of meta-ethical theories.

What does that mean? Well, ethics asks evaluative questions. Such as: "What actions or circumstances are good or bad?" and "What actions or circumstances are right or wrong?"

Meta-ethics asks questions about the nature of evaluative truths. What is good and bad? What is their nature? What do we mean when we say those words (or should mean if we are to make any sense)? How do we know what actions are good or bad? How can we find out?

A meta-meta-ethical analysis asks what the role of making meta-ethical theories is. And how we know that those are true.

One simple answer is: by using reason. We can just see if a meta-ethical theory makes any sense internally. (Just like we would with, say, a geometric theorem.)

For instance, Kant says that a categorical imperative is a kind of imperative that would be binding on you if you knew it to be binding on everyone. Which you can verify by imagining a world in which such an imperative is not binding on anyone. Is this view coherent? Does it make sense? One can ask questions like: Well, yes, it makes sense that were absolute binding rules to exist, they would take form of categorical imperatives. But who says they exist? Also: how are we to judge whether a world in which everyone is free to lie or murder is a good world? Should we use our emotions? Why is that a good method for evaluating whether a world is good or bad?

In other words, we can test the internal coherence of a specific meta-ethical theory.

But people oftentimes don't do just that. They do that and they also test the conclusions of the theory. For instance: is torturing puppies for fun moral? Some might argue that it passes every one of Kant's moral maxims. Is lying to a Nazi asking you where the Jews are hiding immoral? Some argue that according to Kant's maxims it is immoral, and one shouldn't lie even in such a situation.

When people hear such conclusions, they infer that there is something wrong with Kant's meta-ethical theory. Or at least that it is incomplete. Because it leads to absurd conclusions.

But why should that be a test of a meta-ethical theory?

* * *

It seems that people already know what the correct moral answers are — at least in some cases. Even without having a coherent meta-ethical theory on their hands. How do they know? And if they do, what's the use of having meta-ethical theories?

Well, this is where the theory of moral intuitionism comes in. I've discussed it before, and I was introduced to it through writings of a moral philosopher Michael Huemer (whose book, Moral Intuitionism, I am currently reading and recommend to everyone interested in the subject), but, briefly, the idea is that there are moral truths about the world and our actions which we perceive intuitively.

What are these truths metaphysically? I haven't read that far in Huemer's book yet, but from his essays, it seems that he believes that the answer doesn't make sense. It assumes that moral truths must be defined in terms of some other set of truths, like natural truths. But, first, this would defy Humean is–ought gap, and, second, there is no reason why we cannot think of moral truths to be a separate set of truths, besides the natural ones.*

(I expressed my frustration and skepticism with this analysis before and offered an alternative explanation as to the metaphysics of moral truths. But I will leave that issue alone for now. And I am not completely sure I was right.)

How do we know about moral truths? Well, we perceive them. Intuitively. We have a perceptual modality called moral intuition, and through it we perceive certain actions as "choice-worthy" or not. And the idea called phenomenal conservatism says that unless we have a good reason to do otherwise, we should take our perceptions seriously. Because: well, they are there. We know about them. That is some sort of knowledge. Unless you have another sort of knowledge (usually from other perceptions) that denies this knowledge, it seems unreasonable not take the latter seriously.

* * *

So, how can moral intuitionism be a meta-meta-ethical theory? Doesn't it sound like a meta-ethical theory in itself?

Well, to answer this question, we have to humble ourselves a little regarding our physical and mathematical theories. We perceive physical and mathematical "truths" to be exactly such: true (we hope). Of course, with physics, we often re-evaluate our models later. And then again. With math we don't re-evaluate them, but we just make new ones if we need to. (So, in physics, "F=ma" is corrected by Einstein. In Math, Eucledean geometry exists in parallel with Riemannian geometry.)

But perhaps another equally correct way of thinking about both physical and mathematical models is not in terms of their absolute truth (or a degree of approximation thereof), but in terms of their usefulness. It is useful to imagine the world being countable in discrete numbers. It is useful to imagine shapes of all objects as being drawn on a sheet of paper. It is useful to think of the world as full of moving particles.

Until it's not useful anymore. And then, on that level, we apply a different model. What do I mean by "useful"? Useful in what sense? Only in the sense of explanatory power. I can explain how heat flows from one room to another if I model it in terms of many particles' kinetic energy. Such a model is more useful than one having some mysterious substance phlogiston flowing from one place to another, because the first model fits and predicts more observable phenomena.

The same goes for physical concepts like field, mass, energy, force, spin, voltage, and so on. They are just lego pieces that we invented; a perceptual glue to hold our observations together and make them fit into one shape. It's not really clear to me, for example, whether field really exists out there, as a property of space, or whether it's just something we made up to explain charged particles' behavior when they are a certain distance from other charged particles.

Why do we need the models? Because we can't observe all aspects of nature directly. So, we must deduce existence of something from those observations that we can make directly. And those deductions must be judged in terms of their usefulness in terms of their predictive and explanatory power.

What does this have to do with ethics? Well: I know it's wrong to kill humans out of pure convenience (or to prevent inconvenience). I know it's wrong to kill newborn babies. I know it's not wrong to kill one's cancer tumor (lo aleinu) or remove a mole. All these things I know from intuition.

I don't know whether it's wrong to kill fetuses. That's a gray area for my intuition.

For that reason, I need to construct a meta-ethical theory that will somehow incorporate my intuitive knowledge about ethics of "everyday" killing and will give me an answer about the morality of abortion. The data for this theory (that will either verify or break it) will be the moral facts I already know intuitively.

For instance, if we say that it's wrong to kill someone because you're extinguishing consciousness, then it seems OK to kill a fetus before his nervous system is developed enough to be conscious. Well... is it moral to put someone under anesthesia? Is it moral to kill someone, once he is under anesthesia? The answers to these questions seem intuitively obvious, and these answers break the "extinguishing consciousness" theory.

Note that "extinguishing consciousness" theory is not itself internally complete. It doesn't explain why extinguishing consciousness would be wrong. It only attempts to systematize our existing beliefs in some cohesive whole and make predictions about moral truths not immediately accessible to our intuition. Unfortunately, as I said, it is not a good meta-ethical theory, because it is broken by the data: our intuitive knowledge.

This way, moral intuitionism serves not only as a meta-ethical theory (it explains about the nature of moral truths and how we are to know them), but also as a meta-meta-ethical theory: it explains how meta-ethical theories can be useful even if we are not to think of them as "real truths" as opposed to mere models.

* Also, as an aside, if someone asks you: "What is water?", the most straightforward answer is: "What I perceive to be water: a clear, odorless, tasteless, drinkable liquid, with certain observable physical and chemical properties". Based on those characteristics, I know I am dealing with water.

If you answer: "Well, water is H2O", that invites the question: "What is hydrogen? What is oxygen? What are atoms?" You can explain in terms of electrons and protons, and so on... but eventually you will have to stop. You will have to say that there is a set of phenomena in the universe that behave a certain way, but why they behave that way we don't know for sure yet.

So, does this mean that you fundamentally don't know what water is? That seems strange. Also, imagine that — as unlikely as it sounds — it was proven that actually water is not H2O and H2O is not water. What would that mean? Would we continue calling the H2O water? Seemingly not. We would continue calling water the phenomenon of clear, odorless, tasteless, drinkable liquid that freezes at 0 degrees Celcius.

Basically, this analysis shows us that our perceptions are not chopped liver. Now apply the same analysis to "what is good" and "what is evil", and the answer "that which I perceive as something that ought not be done in principle" doesn't seem so silly anymore.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Intellectual property and scarcity, part 2

(If you're too bored to read the whole post, skip to the summary at the bottom.)

In the first part I have briefly outlined Stephan Kinsella's argument against intellectual property (IP) that is very popular in libertarian circles. To recap, Kinsella states that property rights exist to resolve conflicts over scarce resources. Because information is not scarce (my use of an idea does not conflict with/prevent your use of the same idea), property rights do not apply to information; in fact, they create a conflict rather than resolve one.

I said that I would outline possible objections to Kinsella's approach in the next post. It will probably take at least two posts. First, let's list the two possible metaphysical theories of information:

1. Information is a bunch of platonic objects
2. Information is patterns of matter isomorphic to other patterns of matter (I will explain below what this means)

A platonic object is a hypothetical ideal object ("ideal" as in "idea", not in "perfect") existing either in a parallel realm or as a part of our reality. Whenever we access some information through a piece of matter, we are actually observing that object, either in its "pure" form, or somehow distorted. So, if a few mushrooms are arranged in a circle, there is a platonic circle which somehow communicates with the matter of the mushroom resulting in their arrangement in an approximation of the said circle.

Likewise, the idea of Middle Earth is a platonic object (either created or discovered by J.R.R. Tolkien). Every time someone reads The Lord of the Rings, he accesses the Middle Earth platonic object. Likewise if he writes a novel set in the Middle Earth.

The assumption that information is non-scarce (that Kinsella and other libertarians make in their anti-IP analyses) alludes to the concept of platonic objects. Each such platonic object is non-scarce in the sense that both I and Tolkien can use Middle Earth to write a separate book (after Middle Earth has been created/discovered). Supporters of IP claim that Middle Earth can be owned by Tolkien estate. Critics of IP claim that Middle Earth cannot be owned by anyone, since nobody may exclude someone else from accessing Middle Earth, precisely because it is a non-scarce object, and one person's use of it does not conflict with another person's use. In other words, a rule that would allow such an exclusion would be both immoral and illegal in the sense that it would go against the moral/legal purpose of property rights: to prevent conflicts over scarce resources.

* * *
Here is the first part of my critique:

Kinsella's argument is based on the acceptance of the doctrine of platonic objects. But why should one do that? Why not assume the alternative hypothesis: that information is not platonic objects but merely patterns in matter not separable from matter itself? Or, if you wish, information is a series of patterns isomorphic to another series of patterns. "Isomorphic" here means "corresponding" in such a way that someone can use set of patterns A to recreate or analyze set of patterns B. For example, sequence of nucleotides on DNA is isomorphic to a sequence of amino-acids in a protein. Note that this doesn't have anything to do with human brain; cells use DNA code to create proteins all the time.

This argument is much more straightforward in that it does not require assumption of religious-like concepts like Platonic objects. If someone believes in platonic objects, let him bring forth evidence of their existence. (I will deal with a religious assumption that platonic objects exist in the next post.) Likewise, if he believes that we live in a Matrix, and all information we have is owned by some Matrix machine, let him also bring forth that evidence. Prima facie, it seems that information is nothing but patterns of matter that can either be recognized by our brains (by creating a set of isomorphic patterns in them) or not.

(The burden-of-proof argument is significant, by the way. If someone believes that platonic objects exist, he must formulate exactly what they are and how he knows about them. It may still turn out, from his evidence, that they cannot be property. For instance, if platonic objects exist in a non-material world, created by G-d, then who says they are our property? They are G-d's property. To be sure, so are all the objects in the material world, but G-d granted people rights of ownership because of the scarce/rivalrous nature of the objects. My point is: we can't willy-nilly state some theory without looking at its context.)

* * *

Significantly, this means that information is scarce. Only one person can read a given piece of information in a given book. Or, at least, it is as scarce as the carrier of the given instance of information. And someone certainly can own information -- by owning its carrier. If I bought a book from you, I now own the ideas in the book: the specific patterns of ink that create isomorphic patterns in my brain. You don't own them, because you don't own the book (since I bought it from you).

Can I use these patterns to create new patterns? (Either by copying the book or by using its fantasy-land setting to write my own book.) Why not? I am using my property the whole time. The book and information within it is my property. The new book that I am writing is also my property: I am using my paper and ink (presumably). I can sell it to anyone I want, since it's my property.

So, this analysis still argues against IP. And to me it seems like a much more straightforward approach that does not require the mental gymnastics of scarcity and justification for property rights. (Which I will deal with in the next post.) It's not clear to me why Kinsella, who is an atheist (and writing mostly for an atheist crowd) does not use it.
* * *
One can probably also criticize the platonic model as somewhat vague and incoherent. Imagine I re-write The Hobbit, replacing each instance of "Bilbo" with "Shmilbo". Is my Shmobbit the same ideal object as Tolkien's Hobbit? What if I write a novel (as has been done) from the point of view of Orcs: in which the latter and Sauron are actually misunderstood fighters for freedom against the oppression of the West? What if I write a novel whose fantasy-land setting has Misty Mountains, but nothing else from the Middle Earth? How about the Misty Mountains and a forest called Lothlórien? What if in my novel, the plot is very similar to Tolkien's (someone goes somewhere to destroy some object of power), but doesn't use the same details?

You can perform this kind of mental experiments to see that the concept of platonic objects is too vague to be used successfully as a set of rules for allocation of property. But this analysis also demonstrates that even if the universe of platonic objects existed, its anatomy would be so vague and alien to our mind that it would be difficult to determine who owns what and to what extent. It would be like owning land whose borders sometimes expand and sometimes contract.

In the next post I will try to analyze what would happen if we were to overcome the problems of figuring out what exactly platonic projects are and if we had some source (e.g., a religious revelation) that told us that all information is actually a bunch of platonic objects.

* * *

To summarize:

In the first version of critique of Kinsella's anti-IP argument, I am stating that a much easier argument would be to ask: what exactly are we owning? What is that object? Where is it?

If we discover that there is no such thing as platonic ideal objects (or their existence is subject to burden of proof), then we have to identify information with its material carriers. I cannot own contents of something without owning also its carrier. The contents of something are merely the properties of that thing.

The fact that my key fits my lock is my key's property. The unique pattern of the key's molecules is mine as long as I own the key, because it is the key. (Sure enough, another pattern on another key is that key and belong to whomever owns the key. Even if it is "the same" pattern, in the sense that it can fit the same lock or can be recognized as the same by a human brain.)

Some people may be against this attempt of "isolating" where and what objects are. But I disagree. Perhaps as a scientist, I find it important to understand the nature and ontology of some phenomenon before we deal with it.

The same goes, for example, for numbers, rights, values, tastes, truths, etc. We must identify what they are exactly before we are to deal with them.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Intellectual property and scarcity, part 1

(who owns Middle Earth?)

I have recently thought about Stephan Kinsella's core argument against intellectual property (IP) and whether it has a hole in it. I think it might not, if certain assumptions are made, but I will try to discuss my approach to the issue. This will also be a useful review of why intellectual property makes no sense.

First, let me outline Kinsella's argument:
Nature, then, contains things that are economically scarce. My use of such a thing conflicts with (excludes) your use of it, and vice versa. The function of property rights is to prevent interpersonal conflict over scarce resources, by allocating exclusive ownership of resources to specified individuals (owners). 
(Against Intellectual Property, p. 20) 
You can read the quoted essay for more details of the argument. Here is my understanding of what Kinsella is saying:

1. Some resources in nature are scarce: they can only be used by one person at a time.

2. Sometimes two or more people will want to use the same resource and will not give way to each other. This is called "conflict over scarce resources". (The conflict can be actual, with two people arguing, or theoretical: for instance, if I see a resource and want to know whether I have a right to take it.)

3. Property rights exist (as an aspect of both law and morality) to resolve conflicts over scarce resources peacefully. NOTE: this means peacefully determining whom the resource should "belong" to. Enforcement of that decision can be violent or not.

The last point is important. Assume someone disagrees to honor a certain determination of property rights. It seems that the rights-holder has, well, a right to defend his property. With force if necessary. (Or threat of ostracism. Or personal authority.) Point is: it's moral and legal for the owner to exclude others from use of his property.

4. Resources that are not scarce don't fall under above justification for property rights. In other words: if my use of X does not conflict with your use of X, then it doesn't seem like there is any conflict. So, what exactly are property rights to X supposed to resolve? What is the justification for you to prevent me from accessing X if my doing so doesn't prevent you from accessing it?

Now, let's look at what information is. Information is a non-scarce resource. If you describe a new method for getting rid of garden gnomes or a new fantasy land, and I gain access to that information (e.g., by buying your book in a store), why should you prevent me from using that information whichever way I want with my property? (E.g., printing out instructions in my book and selling them or writing a new novel set in the same fantasy land setting.) It's not like I am preventing you from using the said information for your purposes.

One quick objection is that my activity can lure some of your potential customers away. But: therefore what? Do you own your customers? Do you own their money before they gave it to you? Certainly not. Is it a loss to the original author? Well, it is in the same sense that the fact that I cooked tonight and didn't go out was a loss to whatever restaurant I would eat out at. (And if I ate at a pizza place, that decision resulted in a loss to the deli next door.) It's a loss from the estimated potential future profits. But potential future profits were not in your possession — that's why they were "potential" and "future". So, I didn't steal anything that you actually owned.

What IP laws do, therefore, is not protect from theft of actual property. Quite the contrary: they themselves create theft (if we define "theft" more generally as "violation of property rights"; such as "borrowing without permission is theft"). If I am not allowed to use my pen, ink, and paper to write a novel in a fantasy world invented by you (or, for that matter, to distribute the book I bought from you), my property rights to my pen, ink, paper, printer, hard drive, etc., are being violated.

That is the general outline of the anti-IP argument prevalent in the libertarian circles. I will discuss my slight objection — and the potential answer to it — in the next post.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The case for open borders by Michael Huemer

Michael Huemer, a libertarian and intuitionist-moralist philosopher (who's been receiving some attention both on this blog and on Cato Unbound website recently) talks about ethics of open borders and unrestricted immigration:

Interestingly, Dr. Huemer discusses the concept of prima facie vs. absolute right to travel.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Liberty versus prosperity

A copy of two comments I made elsewhere (one of them on Facebook).


I grow less interested in economic arguments and more in ethical arguments. Here is why:

1) Economic arguments themselves are based on moral presupposition that "increasing wealth of the society = good".

I mean, you could objectively say that something is stupid, because it won't get you to the goal you set yourself; so, in that sense Hitler's decision to allow the 6th Army to be encircled at Stalingrad was a stupid decision (although I am personally glad he did that). We could analyze economics and politics from such a detached point of view: e.g., "politicians want to cure poverty, but their programs just exacerbate it for the following reasons...".

But I don't think anybody actually thinks that way. If it turned out that Stalin actually did want to starve millions of Ukrainians, we wouldn't call Holodomor an economic success. There is a built-in assumption that the purpose of economic policies is to increase wealth for a society through ethical means (not, for example, conquest).

2) I was reading some stuff about Germanic tribes and Roman Empire. And I realized that I'd rather have lived as a free German tribesman, albeit without the benefits of Roman civilization and prosperity, than as a Roman slave or semi-slave ("subject"). So, if I had a choice around the time of Arminius whether to ally myself with Germanic tribes or Roman Empire, I would do the former.

I care more about freedom and rights than about prosperity. That is my personal preference. I also think that resounds more with my views on objective morality, but even if there are no objective morals outside of religion, my subjective preferences are such that I abhor any violation of personal freedom in favor of some supposed prosperity for the greater number.

Normally, freedom correlates with prosperity, but not if there are confounds, such as difference in capital and knowledge accumulation (such as in the case of Roman Empire vs. Germanic tribes). So, there could be a case when freedom doesn't correlate with prosperity.

In such a case, I would choose freedom anyway.

* * *

And here is the other comment, where I elaborate on the second part above and contrast it with Roderick Long's views:

I was reading recently about Arminius and the ambush on three Roman legions by Germanic tribes. Very briefly, as Roman Empire was expanding into "Germania" during the times of Augustus Octavian, Romans started subjugating certain tribes just east of Rhine. They taxed them and introduced Roman law, replacing traditional Germanic law. This obviously provoked a great deal of displeasure from many people. On the other hand, contacts with Romans brought benefits from trade, exposure to new technologies and way of life, etc.

Arminius was a son of a Germanic chieftain who was taken as a child a hostage to Rome to be brought up as a Roman officer. He gained command of Roman auxilia and was eventually sent back to Germania by Augustus together with Varus, a new governor of the "province". Long story short, he sided with Germanic tribes, contrived a scheme to get rid of Roman presence, lured three legions led by Varus into German forests, where they were butchered by a confederation of Germanic warriors led by Arminius himself. This is basically an equivalent of Stalingrad Battle for Hitler. Despite some future wars with Germanic tribes and punitive incursions by Roman army into Germania, this basically was the end of Roman expansion east of Rhine.

Interestingly, at the time when Arminius was planning his scheme, some chieftains had to be convinced to side with him, because for them it was better off to live under Roman semi-subjugation.

So, as I was reading all of this, I realized that I don't agree with Roderick Long that justice is always profitable. (Let's assume that continuing to live under Germanic law in a relatively greater freedom = more justice here.) Maybe having absolute justice is more profitable than having absolute injustice, but you can have more justice and less prosperity and vice versa. I am not talking about just some chieftains who were in the Romans' pockets. One might imagine a situation when all Germans would be better off in terms of prosperity living under Roman rule.

So, which one would you choose?

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Peisach: with liberty and unity (for all)

One of the main themes of Peisach is liberty. Another theme is unity. It is explained that we say "dayeinu" to being brought to Har Sinai, because on that day, klal Yisroel experienced unity. It also says that the whole reason for the slavery in Egypt was bittul: to mevatel our egos, making it possible for each of us to accept each other else.

What's the value of unity, and what is its connection to liberty?

First, there is a concept in Chassidus that lower unity parallels the upper unity. In some discussions, it is stated that lower unity results in upper unity.

"Lower unity" can refer to Malchus and z"a, or the lower spiritual worlds, but it can also refer to us: the Jews. This point of view is stressed in the ma'amor of Derech Mitzvosecho in which Tzemach Tzedek talks about Ahavas Yisroel. He states that one must unite in his soul all the sparks of all the Jews (represented there) before he can offer his soul as a karbon during davening. With a blemish within a Jew, he cannot pray effectively.

But, from the positive perspective, the reason to create a lower unity is that it results in upper unity: within the name of M"A. That is because all neshamos are routed in the Above, and when one creates unity between them (or between sparks representing them), one also creates a unity within their source. This is why it says that all of Torah is about the mitzva of Ahavas Yisroel. The purpose of all of Torah is to create unity Above through performance of the mitzvos Below. This is the effect that mitzva of Ahavas Yisroel accomplishes.

A philosophical, rather than mystical, explanation is found in the Duties of the Heart by R. Bahye. He says that the purpose with which G-d made all the multiple forms of creation is to show His lack of limitation: that anything can be created by G-d. Demonstration of G-d's unity is another purpose: we can see how all the creation works together as a machinery, each part complimenting each other, all bound by the same laws.

From another perspective, it is why, as mentioned above, we are given mitzvos: we have to demonstrate the unity of purpose and function Below. It is obvious Above that G-d is one. This is simply because He is singular and indivisible. He is one entity with no limitations or parts. But, it is also true, as R. Bahye mentions, that G-d has potentials to create many forms of existence. Perhaps there is a disunity in these potentials? What does G-d's potential to create a tomato have to do with G-d's potential to create a banana? They are separate, independent potentials, one might say, and they do not unite with each other except in the fact that they derive from the same Creator.

So, if we demonstrate that in fact both the banana and the tomato have the same purpose, and their existence Below can be used to demonstrate the existence of the Creator Above by carrying out His Will with them, we make a chiddush: we demonstrate unity even in the yechoilos, the potentials of G-d.

So, for all of the above reasons, unity is crucial.

* * *

What does it have to do with liberty? Because liberty makes unity possible. The concept of liberty is lack of oppression. When a person is free, he is free to be himself. If I force everyone to wear what I like to wear, I am forcing them to be me. If I let everyone wear whatever they want to wear, I am letting each person be himself.

So, one key to liberty is respect. And respect is all about boundaries. Paradoxically, because of the nature of people to express their will (given the opportunity), it is the fact that the stricter the boundaries around each person and the more respect the others have for those boundaries, the closer people can be to each other.

To explain: every person has his own desires and character. Every person tends to express them. If others contradict this expression, he tends to move away to find a space where he can do so. (Or he is forced to stop being himself and conform to others' will.) This is why there have been massive emigrations throughout history: people want to go somewhere where they can live their lives the way they want to live them. (Of course, another reason is that people go towards the places where life is already better. But, for many people, part of life being better is lack of oppression. Another point, already made by me earlier, is that freedom and prosperity correlate strongly throughout the history.)

So, paradoxically, if I create a very strong boundary around some person, a boundary that I cannot cross, I can coexist with that person — as close as that boundary. But if there are no boundaries around that person that I respect, than the person will tend to move away from me, and no co-existence will be possible.

There are many nuances here that I am not developing fully. Obviously, one person's boundaries cannot overlap with another person's boundaries. We might respect someone's right to wear whatever he wants, but not his right to beat his children to a pulp. Or his right to drill a hole under himself in a shared boat. Because those "boundaries" include other people — and their boundaries — in them. What exactly the picture of the co-existing boundaries should look like is a separate question.

Let us assume for now, therefore, that I am talking about legitimate boundaries. What hat someone wears. Whether he keeps gebrochts or not. Which Rebbe he follows. Whether he follows strict diet or whether he eats whatever he wants (within boundaries of kashrus). These are legitimate choices that one can make, and we have a choice: to respect other people's choices — and therefore co-exist with them in unity — or to disrespect them and push them away from us, creating disunity.

So, this is one connection between unity and liberty that I see. If you give Chessed liberty to be Chessed and give Gevurah liberty to be Gevurah, they can coexist with each other in unity.

The fact that we were liberated only to serve Hashem doesn't change the equation. Every person has his own circumstances and his own place in creation (both space and time), and that person and his place are dear to Hashem. We must love and respect our fellow Yidden and allow them to fulfill the role for which they were liberated by granting them freedom within their individual circumstances and characters.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Chances are: the world was just created

Here is a proof that the world is constantly being created ex nihilo.

A: Science tells us that the states of the Universe progress from less to more entropy (more to less order).

B: This is because a state which is more entropic (less orderly) is more likely to occur than the state that is less entropic (more orderly). Which is because there are more possible former kind of states than the latter.

This is why it is less likely for the smoke to go back into a cigarette than come out of it. Which is why the flow of time has a directionality: things progress from more to less ordered and don't go back, because it's more likely for them to go forward. The Universe has more states to choose from in the "future" pile than in the "past" pile, which is why it tends to pick the "future" ones.

Now, imagine two hypotheses:

1) The world came into being (as it is, with everything in it, including our memories, etc.) 5 minutes ago
2) The world came into being 10 minutes ago

The world in 1) is less orderly than the world in 2), as per A. But that means that that the world in 1) is also the one more likely (as per B)! Hence, it's more likely that hypothesis 1) is more correct.

Which means that it is more likely that the world came into being 5 minutes ago than 100 billion years ago. And so on...

But that also means that it's more likely that the world was just created — a Planck unit of time ago — than any time before it. Ex nihilo.

Any questions?..

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Should Orthodox Jews demand gay marriage to be illegal?

The author of the Emes ve-Emunah blog laments about Western society abandoning Bible-based ethics and Bible-believing people supporting laws going against the Bible-derived ethics. He uses gay marriage as an example.

You can read the post to see his argument and to judge whether you agree or not.

Here is my comment to the post (it uses my approach to the issue which I have written about multiple times, so don't expect any novel thoughts here):

Your assumption is that laws should be based on societal ethics. But this is erroneous. The purpose of law is to create a society, not to create a particular ethical version of a society. There has to be a basic set of prohibitions that maintain the society: prohibition from murder, stealing, rape, and fraud. Without those, there is no society.

After that, people are free to create private communities in which they can implement their personal ethical standards. The communities don't have to be geographically segregated, they can coexist, just like in modern American cities, Catholics, Protestants, Muslim, Hindus, atheists, and, lehavdil, Jews, coexist and co-operate (trade with each other and even work together).

There is absolutely no need for a society to determine what "marriage is" at all. This is not the society's concern. Jews can define marriage one way; atheists can define it another.

Anyway, according to Judaism, there is no concept of marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew. Therefore what? Would you want to make that into a law? Before our ancestors came to US, they have lived in the lands where people thought it ok to impose their views of what is ethical on Jews. And that continues to be so: in California, people attempted to ban circumcision. In Germany (in the same country where being a Nazi is illegal), it was actually banned. (So, you may think that banning views that you dislike is a good idea, but be prepared for the majority to ban your lifestyle if it doesn't like it.) In Scandinavian countries, shechita is banned on animal cruelty grounds. In Sweden, not sending your kid to a public school is forbidden. And so on. Supporting ethical paternalism doesn't seem to be in our favor...

If your ethical, moral, and religious principles prohibit you from tolerating people in a society who behave according to ethical standards foreign to yours (e.g., those who live gay lifestyle, or those who worship what you consider avoida zara), to the point that you'd prohibit those lifestyles through a use of force (which is what law is), then start by not doing any kind of business with them or those that do business with them. Even if you live in Israel, I think you will find this position impossible. We have to trade with nochrim (both in our country and abroad) to survive. We have to rely on their technology and services that they provide. Sometimes we even have to work for them. We have, therefore, to co-exist with them.

If we have to co-exist with them, we cannot find it unethical for the laws of our society not to prohibit their lifestyles — unless, of course, aspects of those lifestyles endanger the concept of a society. (So, our laws can tolerate them worshiping gods but not sacrificing children to them. Because once you make murder legal, there is no society or law to speak of. It all becomes "might makes right".)

The whole issue of gay marriage is completely moot. There should be no government-approved marriage. I don't want some stinking bureaucrat to "bless" my marriage. Nor do I want him to bless anyone's marriage on my behalf. In fact, I don't want anyone to do anything on my behalf (including Obama dronning people in some far-away lands), unless I explicitly contracted him to do something.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Deontological vs. consequentialist ethics

Deontological = rule-based. Consequentialist = consequence-oriented. Or, deontological = focused on the means, whatever the end; consequentialist = focused on the end, whatever the means.

An absurd example of deontological ethics is making it a rule never to lie and not lying to a Nazi asking you whether you're hiding any Jews. The result (people killed) is intuitively recognized as horrific, but you have adhered to the rule you committed yourself to. The point of this ad absurdum argument is that not caring about the consequences, as long as you adhere to the rules, is sometimes ridiculous. Or, in Latin, fiat justitia ruat caelum (“let the justice be done though heavens may fall").

One can also think, of course, of consequentialist ad absurdums. For instance, one achieves some worthy goal through lying or bullying others: you invest your client's money into something against his wishes, and that earns profit for him. Yes, you have achieved a positive result, but you have done so through an immoral act. Or, for instance, if you see some guy who owns some land that he doesn't use or uses badly. You confiscate the land from him, pay him very well for it, and put the land to a much better use, enriching the community. The guy was paid more than he would ever earn, and everyone benefited so much, but you have violated his property rights.

So, it would seem that it's important to take into account both consequentialist and deontological approaches.

One way to reconcile them is to treat deontological approach as producing long-term consequences with certain high but not 100% probability. Deontological rules can be framed in terms of slippery slopes. On the other hand, consequentialist approach worries about short-term consequences that have very high, near-100% probabilities (such as someone drowning). Usually it's more responsible to worry about long-term over short-term consequences, unless short-term consequences are totally terrible (and possibly unforeseen or an exception/emergency). So, this is the way to frame the balance between them in consequentialist terms (long-term vs. short-term consequences). Deontological framing would be to make a rule: e.g., "generally speaking, we don't lie, unless lying can save someone's life." Or: "generally speaking, we don't break into people's houses, unless we need to save someone's life from a fire." Etc.

Things get turned on their heads when allowance to break the long-term rules for short-term emergencies gets confused for not caring about the long-term rules. It's like a cousin who asked to sleep on the couch for the night and stayed for a month. I.e., the time frame of both the rule and the consequences gets confused. For instance, "we can confiscate someone's house to pay for someone else's cancer treatment". (Note, also, how the usual criticism of libertarian arguments involves life-boat situations.)

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Morality and law: an expanded version

Someone on Reddit replied to what I wrote in the previous post and asked, basically: "Well, but if you believe something is moral, you believe it ought to be done. I mean, that’s the definition of something moral. So, how can you say that something’s ought to be done but ought not to be a law? Isn’t that a contradiction?"

I thought it was a good point. I responded the following:

I struggle with this as someone with a very developed ethical system (I am an Orthodox Jew) but also someone with strong political views.

I think it is exactly like I wrote: law is a contract. A social contract. Not between you and the government (that's nonsense), but between you and other people. Law allows you guys to coexist together.

(A slight tangent: You probably think of law as "something that the government, elected by We the People, said", but that's not the case, and it has not been the case throughout human history. Kings were not in charge of creating laws. People were (not democratically, but through customs or favoring private arbitrators who resolved disputes). Law is a natural way for people to resolve conflicts peacefully, rather than through violence. It is all about the civilization. You can cut out the government from the model completely, and you'd still have the need for law and have some way that people would find to create the law (as they have for millennia). Now that we’ve established that, let’s go back to answering the question:)

Suppose one's moral views tell him that all males must wear little hats on their heads. In his opinion, that's the right thing to do. Should he urge people to make that into a law?

Well, imagine he has very good martial arts skills and a lot of friends with sticks and guns. Should he go from house to house and force people to put on little hats? First, he has to decide whether violence or threats of violence fit into his moral views (he might think wearing little hats is a moral imperative, but also abhor violence, for instance). But even if he decides that it fits, notice that what he is doing is simply bullying. He did not create a law, because wearing little hats has nothing to do with conflict resolution. He just decided: screw the law, I am going back to the jungle and might makes right, because I just care about the little hats this much. Which, I suppose, is his choice.

Now, if he and his little gang are called "government" nothing changes. If 51% of the people in the neighborhood voted for him and his friends, nothing changes. He may think he is doing a morally upright thing, but it's still not the law. It's an instance of bullying among otherwise possibly peaceful society.

So, why should someone choose law over moralistic bullying? Well, as I said, for starters because maybe he thinks bullying is immoral (whether done by him or "the government"). Or because he values peace.

Throughout history, even the societies that felt that they knew what's right (as David Mitchell puts it in one of his Youtube videos, they felt like they were certain as to what the hell was going on and, in fact, which specific hell was going on) at some point found it beneficial to stop fighting and recognize that it's more important just to survive and not kill each other. Emergence of the classical liberal values (as opposed to neo-liberalism, which is basically Marxism) in the Western culture was the same idea but applied within the society: coexisting with others peacefully is as much a value as whatever moral values one has.

Finally, there is something to be said for upholding the concept of law over "whatever we happen to think is right". It's a long-term principle. Today we may think it's beneficial to forbid people to grow as much wheat on their farms as the want. Or we may think it's a good thing to outlaw Communist party. But by supporting whatever (imagined and usually wrongly estimated) short-term benefit, we are destroying the concept of law: that it is wrong to bully people and that interaction between people in the society must be peaceful, by definition of the society.

And the next thing we know, well, pick your favorite 20th-century atrocity. It is always a direct result of that slippery slope that starts with the idea "I know what's best for the society, so let's force everyone to do it".
This is basically the deontological argument. The principled one.

[Before you read the rest, note that I was responding to a moral utilitarian.]

The economic/consequentialist one is: you don't know what is best for the society. Nobody knows. Just like you don't know what the best next model of the smart phone should be. And nobody knows. A bunch of people have good ideas, but you have to let them experiment, compete with each other, then send their phones to Best Buy, and let the public choose. And the public will choose more than one correct answer (some more correct than others), and those answers must be allowed to co-exist.

Every single central-planning strategy in anything, from cars to roads to economics to warfare to politics, is horrible compared to the strategy of letting people do whatever they want* and comparing the results.

*The obvious caveat is that there are things we cannot let people do. Those things that would tear the fabric of the society. I.e., violence and bullying. Murder, theft, robbery, rape, fraud. Those should be illegal. But everything else — you may think you're the new Oracle of Delphi and the Universe has shared its secrets with you how to build the perfect society, but you're wrong. Your little Sim City will not run as smoothly as it will if left to its own devices.

As I said, this is the pragmatic/economic argument. Very different from my original "principled"/legal/contractarian argument. But I think the two go hand-in-hand.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Why not base law in morality?

Someone asked the above question on Reddit. Below is my answer:

Because the purpose of law is to create a civilized society with non-violent resolution and prevention of conflicts over scarce resources. Law is a way to resolve those conflicts peacefully. (Not to be confused with law enforcement, which may or may not be peaceful. I.e., law simply determines whose claim over a scarce resource is right.) This has nothing to do with morality. It's just a mutual contract. Rules of a game called "society".

(Of course, not taking others' property and not aggressing against them could be a part of one's morality and the reason why living in a lawful society might be preferred by him/her. But that is a meta-reason for having law - one of many possible - not the law itself.)

These rules allow for people with very different views of morality to form societies together. I think that eating pork is immoral for Jews because the Creator of pork asked them not to (as far as I know). But I don't think my view should be a law, since this would prevent me from living in a society with all those who think otherwise.*

The same with utilitarian morality. Presumably, a utilitarian thinks that if forcing two people to fight to death (or maiming) will entertain a crowd of thousands, they should be forced to do so, since this maximizes utility of the society. But such an act of force would not be law; it would be returning to Hobbsean jungle of might makes right, since it would not be a way of peaceful resolution of the conflict of the crowd vs. the two people over a scarce resource (their bodies).

So, only the actions that prevent us from forming a society can be prohibited by law: namely, aggression against each other and our respective properties. If "law" prohibits wearing blue shoes because doing so offends many people, such a rule is not law. It's just bullying of a minority by a majority. In fact, it's anti-law; it's a pocket of violence in possibly otherwise lawful society.
* I realize that this party of my argument may be unconvincing to some religious Jews, but here's my question: do you think it's against Halacha to do business with those who don't keep Halacha or Mitzvos Bnei Noach? Presumably not. (Even though we may have an obligation to try to influence them.) Next: are you prepared to live in compete isolation from those people, not being a member of their society in any shape our form (including trading with those who trade with these people)? And finally: even though there is an opinion among some of our authorities (such as Rambam and Ramban) about vigilante justice and "righteous wars", do you think it's a feasible idea nowadays and a proper way to go?

I.e., are you completely prepared to cut yourself off from the society of those who in your opinion live against Halacha?

Conflict resolution in a free society

A friend on Facebook asked me the following question:
Imagine it's 12 am. Your neighbor is playing music loudly. As a libertarian, what do you do?
The context of the question is: what would happen in this situation in a libertarian society?

This is a perfect example of conflict resolution. Today it is done through legislature, courts, and police. How would conflict resolution happen in a free society? The answer is: the same way as hunger resolution (eating) would happen: through private service providers. There are three services that are done by the three mentioned organizations:
  1. legislation (creation of laws that specify when, for example, it is no longer acceptable to disturb your neighbors with music),
  2. arbitration (if I sue you for disturbing my peace with music, we can go to court),
  3. law enforcement (if it has been determined — by either courts or legislative bodies — that you're "in the wrong" for playing music so late and yet you continue doing so, law enforcement agency will come and force you to comply).
Today, the government has a monopoly on these three services (which it enforces by threats of violence). In free society, these services would be provided by free, independent organizations competing with each other (for customers) on the market:

1. Legislation.

Under the theory of natural rights, the function of legislation is not to create order or to express the ruling prince's desire, but to create boundaries between people's rights. Sure, that also creates order, but there is presumably order in a concentration camp, but without human rights being respected.

Different theories of rights can exist "on the market", each espoused by different legal authorities: people that express their opinions about what the boundaries between rights should be. This is similar to how today, different "experts" express their opinions on how words should be spelled, or where a comma should be in a sentence. Note that these people get their ideas from observing the on-going customs (if an expert on spelling would tell us that the correct way to spell dog is doug, most people wouldn't accept his opinion just because he is an expert) and from logic. They may also have some considerations about efficiency and function of grammar. (For instance, I have for years been advocating placing punctuation outside of quotation marks and surrounding em-dashes with spaces. Of course, I am not a renowned expert in grammar, so nobody listens to me.)

If this reminds you of something, it should. This is exactly how Halacha has been paskened for the last two millenia: through independent private authorities. Nowadays, such authorities may even live within the same locale. For example, on a block in New York, you may find a Litvish, a Sephardic, or a Chassidic authority in Halacha — and sometimes all three.

In terms of the question about playing music at 12 am, three approaches may exist:

a) Absolute rights: if your music invades my space, it is the same as your body or your bullets invading my space. You are clearly violating my rights. Therefore, if I ask you to stop playing music (even in the middle of the day), you have to comply.

b) Homesteading rights: what was the situation like when you moved into your house? If the area was quiet at night (and then my music-playing neighbor moved in), then I have homesteaded the quiet environment of my house. I have rights to the quiet. When my neighbor moves in and starts playing music, he violates my rights. On the other hand, if he "was there first", then he is not.

c) Local custom: what is usually the accepted practice by the people of the community? If it is a community of musicians, who play at random times at night, then perhaps my neighbor is not violating my rights. (This is similar to the previous point, but not exactly the same.)

Different experts may adhere to some or all of the these (and maybe some other) rules for legislature. Different arbitration authorities may or may not consider these authorities' opinions. Thus, the markets will select for these authorities' (and their opinions') popularity. (They may get paid for publishing their legislative theories and teaching. They may also get hired as experts to testify during arbitration.)

2. Arbitration.

When my neighbor plays music loudly, first I will ask him to stop. If her refuses, I will call my "protection company" (a company that provides protection service and insurance for me for a fee). They will contact my neighbor's protection company, and the two companies will go to an arbitrator.

Note that the two companies can also resolve the conflict through violence: the way some mafia may do. But on a free market in a society where people favor peace (as in North America, for example), companies that resolve conflicts through violence may quickly lose clients. Thus, it will be in economic interest for the two companies to resolve the conflict peacefully. They may do so between themselves, or they may do so through a private arbitrator. The arbitrators will also be selected by the market for the fairness of their decisions (their cases will be published), and the public — including the protection companies — will be able to pick the arbitrators who are well known for their judgement skills (and for the legislators whom they bring in as experts or whose opinions they follow).

Note that multiple legislative and arbitration strategies may co-exist on the market. Some protection companies may be known for seeking arbitrators who follow strategy X. When signing up for those companies' services, the public will know this and can make a decision (the same way the public decides today whether to buy a computer that has Apple OS or Windows installed on it).

3. Law enforcement.

After the decision has been made by the arbitration company, a number of things to enforce it may happen. First, my neighbor may be informed about the decision. Let's say he refuses to abide. In that case, either I or my protection agency may have power to enforce the decision or hire an enforcement agency: a bunch of guys who can come in and use threat of violence to force the guy to stop playing music (or force him to pay a fee).

This sounds rather violent, but remember what happens today: if I call the police, they will come and at first talk to my neighbor. If he refuses to stop, they will use threat of violence (or actual violence) to restrain him, bring him to some holding facility, where he may end up receiving a fine or even be imprisoned long-term. Except, remember, there is no competition. We have only one kind of police, only one kind of prisons, and only one kind of judges. If the police are exceptionally brutal while arresting my neighbor, I don't have a choice to use another law enforcement agency.

In a free society, there would be competition: agencies that enforce the laws with unnecessary violence will lose customers (and so will the protection agencies that hire them). They may even get sued themselves (something that cannot happen today with the police, or happens with low efficiency, since the government is usually on their side; it's almost impossible today for a police officer to lose a job and to suffer some economic penalty; at worst, he may be suspended for some short time).

This is basically the short answer. There are many nuances to consider, and the picture of all these possible interactions is a little fuzzy, but the nature of all business interactions is somewhat fuzzy. Different entities on the market always compete to provide different way to satisfy the customers' needs for a certain service (or a number of services combined in a package). The above services are no different, though, after millenia of living under the governments' monopolies, it may be difficult for us to conceive of this.

Think about the other example I mentioned: eating. Today it is done through many parallel channels. You can go to a restaurant. You can buy your own food and cook (and there are multiple places to buy ingredients and cooking utensils from). You can pay someone else to come and cook for you. And for each mentioned service, there are many other services sustaining it. For many people in the Soviet Union, as late as 1980s, it was difficult to imagine what would happen if collective farms, where food was grown by the government, were disbanded. Some people really believed that people would starve.

So, this is basically where we are today regarding conflict resolution. We think that without the government doing it, the society would break down into chaos and violence.

Some of the questions immediately arising after reading the above may be addressed in the following sources and examples:


Chaos Theory by Bob Morthpy
Law in Medieval Iceland and Ireland


Market for Security by Bob Murphy
A brief excerpt from the above video explaining the point about the warlords
A recenty interview with David Friedman:

Monday, March 4, 2013

Pay your taxes if you want roads

Swedish propaganda video.

Yes, citizens. Taxes is the price you pay for maintaining laws of economics. Supply and demand do not exist without taxes.

Nobody except the government would demand paved roads or have the extreme insight to provide them.

Yes, private entrepreneurs can find a way to create smartphones and electric toothbrushes and virtual online societies and checking food for kashrus, but they would have no clue how to pour some concrete on some dirt and find a way to earn profit for it.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Riddles in the dark

I stated earlier a position that mathematical concepts are just our way of making sense of our internal logical reality, not so much making sense of reality "out there". I repeated this view in a later post, stating:
Mathematical truths are merely descriptions of the internal laws governing our processing of the world outside. Specific laws and notations of mathematics are our ways of making sense of the external world. To say that there are 10 bottles in a pack merely means to say that we have grouped the matter in the pack into 10 objects (per our definition of "ten" and "objects") in our heads. There is nothing more to it. 
The reason why Math is useful is because our brain can model the reality pretty well (at least to a certain extent), having been created/evolved for that purpose, and the brains of people are quite similar in this capacity, such that these models can be shared and mutually recognized as either true or false (or, rather, good predictors of reality or bad ones). 
 As a matter of support for this view, consider that mathematicians and physicists choose different kinds of Mathematics to describe the world. Eucledean mathematics can allow you to build a pyramid, but not circumnavigate the world. And Newton had to invent of a whole new set of mathematical concepts in order to prove his theory of gravitation. Same for Einstein: he had to adopt a radically new set of mathematical models to describe his view of the physical reality. 
 So, while the physical reality is "external" and objective, our ways of understanding and modelling it are internal and subjective, pure products of our minds.
Let me illustrate this point of view with a few examples:

* * *

What is 400+200? Most of you will say: 600.

But imagine we are on a sphere that is 1000 miles in circumference. Each of us can be at most 500 miles away from each other (half the circumference). Imagine we are standing on the equator of the sphere, and you start walking away from me along the equator. You are 200 miles away. Then you walk 200 more miles. How far are you? 400 miles.

Now, pay attention: you walk 200 miles more. How far are you? You may be tempted to say: 600 miles, but remember that the sphere allows us to be at most 500 miles apart from each other, along the surface of the sphere. What happened is that you reached the opposite end of the sphere and then started circumnavigating it back towards me, along the other side. So, you're still 400 miles away.

On such a sphere, 400 mi +200 mi = 400 mi, when measuring distance between two objects.

The same is actually true for Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Once you start moving really fast, the speeds don't add up as they do in our everyday reality and they can never add up above the speed of light, c. So, what is 0.6 c + 0.5 c? It's some number smaller than c.

And according to Einstein's General Relativity, sometimes 3-dimensional space curves.

* * *

Another example would be of a wall clock. According to wall-clock arithmetic, 11 o'clock + 3 hours = 2 o'clock. 11 + 3 = 2. One way to state this is that the number line of the clock is curved onto itself, such that 12 = 0.

* * *

Imagine a string of numbers:

N = 1 – 1 + 1 – 1 + 1 – 1 + 1 – 1 + ... to infinity.

Can we figure out what N is equal to?

Well, we can write N as:

N = (1 – 1) + (1 – 1) + (1 – 1) + (1 – 1) + ... = 0 + 0 + 0 + 0 + ... = 0

But, another, equally valid way of writing this is:

N = 1 + (−1 + 1) + (−1 + 1) + (−1 + 1) + … = 1 + 0 + 0 + 0 + … = 1

So, N is equal to both 0 and 1.

But, we could also say that:
N = 1 − 1 + 1 − 1 + …, so:
1 − N = 1 − (1 − 1 + 1 − 1 + …) = 1 − 1 + 1 − 1 + … = N,
1 − N = N; thus N = 0.5

So, we can get three different answers for N just based on the simple concepts of addition of integers and infinity.

* * *
Then there are statements like: "This statement is not true". Is the statement in quotation marks true?

There is the well-known case of Xeno's paradoxes which was solved through invention of Calculus.

And so on...

* * *

All these examples show that specific systems of notation and logic get us only so far. A specific method of "keeping track" of our internal world's perceptions of the outside works for only certain kinds of perception; other methods may be devised for different kinds, and even within the methods we already know well, there may be limits of their applicability.

I think it may be true that the reality "outside" has certain logic to it, and we are mapping out different aspects of this "grand-logic" in our head using many different kinds of "mini-logic". This doesn't just apply to Math, but to any kind of logic, symbolic and formal or not.

The point is that we must be prepared for the idea that there are "creases" in the outside's grand-logic where our internal mini-logics flow into each other (or transition sharply). There may also be areas of the grand-logic where "here be dragons".