Thursday, February 28, 2013

Do ideal objects mean existence of soul?

I have recently heard a shiur by one rabbi which is a one of a five-part series called "Philosophical Evidence for Soul". This shiur was part 2 or 3, and the argument of the shiur can be briefly summarized as following:
We have access to knowledge of ideal objects. Those include numbers, imagined colors which we have never observed in real life, geometrical objects, and in general abstract ideas and logical concepts. 
All those things are not a part of the physical world, even though they can have a relationship with the physical world (e.g., objects can be counted using numbers). On the other hand, they do exist, and some of them (e.g., numbers, relationships between shapes) are necessarily true. So, if all there is to our mind is that it's a physical brain, then how can something physical know about something non-physical? Clearly, we need an organ that itself would be non-physical and allow us to know of non-physical (ideal) phenomena. Such as, for instance, soul.
I think this argument is flawed. Not that I disagree with the outcome, but I certainly disagree with the logic.

There are obvious immediate problems with this argument (why soul? why not another mysterious organ?), but I want to focus on the biggest problem with this argument: it misrepresents what ideal objects are.

I am going to spare you of a lengthy discussion of the history of this topic's philosophy and an outline of all the different views. I will just give you my own view, and you can judge yourself what you think of it. I will note that my description is limited to those things that we can observe with out own eyes and that everyone has knowledge of. I am not going to talk about angels, parallel worlds, souls, and other phenomena that I think exist but are not a part of our everyday experience. After all, the argument above states that we can deduce from our everyday experience that materialism is wrong.

The essence of my argument is that something physical can know about something non-physical. And there are things besides our brains that do so all the time. But, first things first:

It is true that physical objects are not the only phenomena out there. Or, rather, it is true that matter is not all there is to physical reality. There is also space. There is time. There are properties of matter, which consist of the ways that pieces of matter behave in space and time and the ways they are arranged. Let us call all those aspects of reality ideal phenomena. (I am just giving a definition.)

A few things immediately should be noted:

1. Ideal phenomena do not exist independently of matter. One can have mushrooms arranged in a circle, or chairs arranged in a circle, but there must be something arranged in a circle. (Now, I know that philosophers claim that there are circles existing as a part of our mind. And as ideal objects in Platonic sense. I am not talking about those right now. Actually, I will touch on the former soon. But, for now, I am just talking about physical phenomena as we think they exist objectively, by themselves, as a part of reality.)

2. Ideal phenomena are not the same thing as matter. As evidenced by the fact that I can arrange different pieces of matter in the same set of arrangement (e.g., I can arrange keys in a circle or mushrooms in a circle).

3. Ideal phenomena are not strictly nominalistic: they are not merely our own descriptions of the world out there. It is crucial to understand what exactly I mean:
  • I do not mean that circular and triangular arrangement are really "out there", the way we perceive them. I don't know what's really "out there", and I do not think it is a meaningful way to talk about the reality at all. I cannot know what's "out there" except through the way I perceive it in my mind. (Although I could compare my views of what's out there with others, including, potentially, aliens who may see reality completely differently from us. But then I would just know one or more ways of perceiving the reality, not the reality "itself".)
  • I do mean that there is something out there, independent of my mind, which I perceive in my mind as a "triangular arrangement" or "color of blue" or "a particular sequence of nucleotides of DNA". That something is distinct from my perception of it. And that something is distinct from the matter that I perceive it consists of.

    The proof that I have is that objects interact with each other independently of my mind, and can even use what we call information: DNA is the best example. Millions of cells in our body use the information of their DNA interactively and have done so before we came to exist. They used patterns of matter of their DNA molecules as a crucial aspect of their survival. They have evolved and continue to do so (micro, macro, whatever) using DNA.

    So, it's silly to say that properties of objects are only in our mind. Our perceptions of them are only in our mind. But whatever caused those perceptions is real, and it is really separate from whatever causes our perception of its matter.

So, what about our mind? What about ideal objects that the rabbi claims we perceive: the numbers, the imaginary colors, the geometrical objects? Well, in my opinion those are nominalistic. They are models of reality that exist in the patterns of our brain matter's arrangement and patterns of its behavior in space in time: what we can collectively call "mind".

To explain:

First, let us acknowledge again that information can exist outside of our consciousness. Computers store, use, and share information. So do living cells (including the non-neural ones).

Information is a representation of some ideal phenomena using another set of ideal phenomena. So, for instance, a specific kind of amino-acids that make up a protein is the protein's property, one ideal phenomenon that is associated with the protein's matter due to its matter's peculiar arrangement.

That property is represented in a sequence of nucleotides on a DNA (or RNA) molecule: a completely different set of matter arranged in a completely different way, but such that the arrangement can be used by the cell's machinery to build the protein. That specific arrangement of pieces of matter on a DNA molecule is information about the protein.

This example allows us to understand what mind is and how physical matter of the brain can "know" about the non-physical ideal phenomena of the world. It can do so by arranging itself in such a way as to represent those phenomena (the same way that nucleotides of the DNA are arranged to represent the sequence of amino-acids of a protein). That arrangement is itself an ideal phenomenon, an information.

That arrangement can be further used to do other things. Unlike DNA (to our knowledge), the brain is capable of making new information (new arrangements of matter) based on the patterns of old information which it used to represent the world's ideal phenomena. It does so to model the world and predict it.

That's what the brain does when it imagines a color that would be between two shades which it observed. It has three types of information stored in it:

a) color A: the representation of the ideal phenomenon that the brain perceived from the world outside
b) color B: ditto
c) color C: a modeled representation of what a color between A and B would look like if it were to exist

It is true that color C was never perceived from the "outside". But we should not say that it existed "somewhere" in some ideal realm. It was invented by the brain.

The same is true for numbers. Numbers are models that brains use to make sense of reality. To say that there are three apples on the table is not a statement about objective reality. It is a statement about our internal model of the objective reality. We perceived a bunch of matter out there and grouped it into separate apples. And we made sense of it by assigning the concept of "three" to the peculiar way in which we grouped the apples.

This is why children need to be taught math, even basic counting. Because it is not something that they perceive as a part of the world naturally, from birth. It is a way that they can model the world in their brains, and this particular way is useful for making all kinds of predictions about the world.

So, the "logical truths" and numbers and geometric objects all come from "within", not from without: neither from the physical world nor from some ideal, spiritual Platonic parallel universe. The reason we can share that information freely with each other (and why Mathematicians get paid salaries) is because our brains are similar enough that, with enough basic training, arranging and modelling our perceptions of the world into numbers or abstract geometric shapes comes easy to us. (Some of it. Some people have very difficult time understanding higher-level mathematical concepts. Which is why most people don't use algebra, calculus, differential equations, or multi-dimensional topology in their everyday lives. Only certain professionals do.) The fact that our brain is so flexible in its modeling of reality and imagining different concepts (some having nothing to do with reality) is probably to blame.

Also, although it is quite mysterious that mathematics is so useful for predicting the reality,
we must realize that:

1) mathematics really merely organizes our internal representations of the reality (i.e., 2+2 always equals 4, because our brains are consistent in how they use the concepts of "2", "4" and "+" and how they apply those to understanding of reality),

2) the specific form of mathematics we have chosen is one that predicts reality well. We may have chosen other systems.

A better question is: how come our mind can predict reality so well, using the systems of abstraction that it creates? But that's another issue. (Isaac Newton would say that the answer is that the world was created by a rational G-d who imparted some of that rationality onto us, creating us in His image. But some people today would say that the brains simply evolved to do so in their environment.)

This is not to say that souls don't exist. I believe that souls exist, but that they belong to a third class of phenomena (besides the matter and the ideal phenomena): the spiritual "objects" (again, it's just a working definition). And that is another story.

And this is not to say that our knowledge about the brain and the physical/ideal objects explains consciousness. I don't think it does (yet). And that (which is part 1 of the rabbi's series) is a valid critique of materialism. But that is also another story.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Rabbi Eliezer Sneiderman on morality

Watch on TorahCafé.com!

What does aggression mean?

Spreading peace and unity serves as a catalyst for the Redemption. This is also reflected in Parshas Mishpatim, for the purpose of the laws placed in the category of mishpatim is to increase peace.
-- The Rebbe's sicho on Parshas Mishpotim

Recently, I have been trying to make sense of the basic axiom of libertarian creed: the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP). The Principle states that it is wrong to initiate aggression. But, as my rabbi has once noted, it is not aggression if the force was used not against your property.

Thus, seemingly, reliance on NAP forces one to have a good definition of property a priori. I have been trying to find and justify one recently and make sense of the popular libertarian justifications for property according to different logical systems, but so far, the most straightforward a priori concept of property for me remains intuitive. Which is not straightforward at all.

But, I had an epiphany tonight that I may have been going about it the wrong way. Or not the only possible way. What follows is a portion of an e-mail I wrote to my rabbi. I am not fully convinced this is the right approach, but I suppose it doesn't hurt to think out loud.

Imagine we play a game called "Don't Be an Aggressor". The rules of the game are:

1. We have a resource about which we are in conflict (both of us claim it as our own).

2. One of us gets labeled as an aggressor (and loses the game) if he does one of the following:
a) he initiates violence (or threat thereof) to force his claim 
b) he uses deception (e.g., fraud) or cover of ignorance (e.g., nighttime) to take hold of the resource and run away 
c) he doesn't seem willing to come to a resolution of the claim in a reasonable time (e.g., he holds on to the resource indefinitely and never shows up to court and just hides behind his armed walls, or he uses the above rules to prevent the other disputant from taking control of the resource under the threat of being labeled an aggressor) — there may be an arbitrary time limit imposed by a local custom or some other factor 
d) in one variation of the game, if the time ran out, per c), both of us have lost (the situation deteriorates into "might makes right", and both are labeled aggressors, or the one who gets the resource is labeled an aggressor; he gets the resource at the price of social and/or ethical disapproval).
3. Once someone has become an aggressor (in a-c), the other disputant can use either violence or deception to take control of the resource, and he is not labeled an aggressor. So, for instance, if someone tries to take the resource from me by trickery or cover of the night, or pulls out a gun, I can pull out my gun and shoot him — and I am not an aggressor.

Also, people in the society can help me. (This assumes that the society watches the situation from the outside and sees clearly who initiated violence or deception or dilly-dallied until the time ran out. And that people in the society agree to play this game.)

This means that we are forced both to agree whom the resource belongs to. It doesn't matter how we do it. We can both actually agree after discussing it with each other. We can each hire a third-party arbitrator or each get our own rav, with both rabbonim picking a third one (it was also done this way, lehavdil, in the "Wild West"). We can flip a coin. We can divide the resource. But the point is that we have to come to resolution peacefully (and, remember, time is ticking as per 2c).

The point of the game (and of NAP) is not to assign property "justly", but to assign it b'darkei sholom -- peacefully. It assumes that initiation of violence is the wrong way to prove the justice of your claim. The game doesn't mean you can't have an a priori conception of property or justice based on whatever convictions, but you have to convince your opponent of it peacefully, or come to some sort of negotiated compromise, or leave it to a third party to arbitrate between you. But you just can't force your claim through aggression.

By the way, the government loses because: 1) it proves the justice of its own claims with threats of violence, 2) it is its own arbitrator according to its own rules.

I am not saying that this approach does not have holes and there aren't things to be worked out here. We may need to create more rules, etc. But I think I may be onto something here... I am also not saying I agree with the above. I am just trying to make sense of the different views to see whether I agree or disagree with them.

Also, this may be just one aspect of aggression and NAP. The other may be making claims on resources that have already been claimed (without having other claims beforehand). Or claiming resources unjustly (according to universal intuitive concepts of justice). Etc.

Another point is that one might think that libertarians hold freedom as the highest value. And that's foolish because it's not the only or the highest value. But the above analysis shows that libertarians (at least anarcho-capitalists) hold darkei sholom (peace) and justice to be the highest values. Freedom is the extension of those principles.

And I don't think that's quite so foolish.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The purpose of gemilus chassadim

What is the purpose of gemilus chassadim, the acts of kindness?

There is a ma'amor by the Rebbe that says that there are three levels of avoida:

1. The lowest level is tzedaka: it brings about the "reparation" of the lower worlds
2. The middle level is mitzvos and Torah: it brings about the increase in the keilim of Atzilus
3. The highest level is gemilus chassadim: it connects a person to the Kesser (the siman of that is that gemilus chassadim transcend time; when you give someone a loan, the act of the loan keeps existing even beyond the moment of the giving)

One could ask: the bottom two levels benefit both the person and the purpose with which Hashem created the world (so that people bring Him into the world). But what is the point of connecting to Kesser which is above Seider Hishtalshelus? How can Hashem or a Yid care about that?

The point is that the relationship itself is the purpose.

This is reflected how one does kindness to another person not because of some calculation, but because the act itself is its own purpose. When you give yourself over to the mashpia, what do you get? The hashpo'oh? No: you get the mashpia himself.

I want to add personally that this is also reminiscent of the idea of metziuso m'atzmuso: the existence of something is from its own essence. This is only true about Hashem. But it also feels true about this world, because this world shares connection with Atzmus. Which is why only through the physical mitzvos in the physical world can one get to Eibeshter (in this sense, Judaism differs from Christianity in that the matter is higher than the form; the act is higher than the purpose and is a purpose in itself).

So, what is the point of morality? Modern moral relativists either reject morality at all or define it in some relative term: I should act morally because people will be nice to me, because it will be better for my personal virtues, because I happen to like it, because it's aesthetically pleasing to me.

That's narishkeit. We all know that people ought not to kill each other because killing is wrong. The fact that killing hurts the victim's family, the fact that it destabilizes the society, the fact that it affects the killer himself — all of that is true. But even if all that were not true (the killer has no relatives, he felt no pain, the murder happens on a deserted island, and the killer is a psychopath beyond repair), we still know that the fact of killing itself was evil. Everyone intuitively knows that, unless he is a sociopath (in which case we say that he cannot "see" morality like a blind person cannot see light).

So, we don't keep morality because it produces some result. Keeping it is the purpose itself. Metziuso m'atzmuso. When we do that, we connect to Atzmus of Hashem (who has endowed us with a moral compass and a sense of imperative in our everyday lives, besides Halacha): not for some purpose, but just for the sake of connecting to Hashem, in and of itself.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Divine Command and Euthyphro dilemma


What makes something moral? What is the nature of morality?

There are many answers given by philosophers. They range from answers by moral realists (different variations of "morality is out there") to moral subjectivists (different versions of "morality is each person's personal taste"). There are a few other brands and some groups in between (e.g., cultural relativists who assert that the morals are societies' norms, and in that sense they are objective and "out there", but, they can differ from society to society and in that sense they are subjective), but those are the major divisions of views.

Divine Command and Euthyphro dilemma

Then there is a view that morality is equivalent to Divine Command (DC). That morality = Will of G-d. It can be classified as either objective or subjective (I prefer the former logically). There are a number of "external" objections to the DC, such as "how do we know that G-d exists" which I will not address here (see this, for instance).

I have read about an "internal" objection called Euthyphro dilemma, named after a character in Plato's play, which can be summed up as:
Is what is morally good commanded by G-d because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by G-d?
Possible answers

Well, let's look at the options:

1. That which is morally good is commanded by G-d because it is morally good.

This is a problematic answer for a number of reasons:

a) It doesn't really give an answer about the nature of morality. G-d wants that which is morally good because it is good, but why is it good and what makes it moral? We are back to square one. If this were the essence of DC, then DC could not be a valid moral theory; it would be just a confirmation that G-d cares about morality.

b) This answer contradicts the very definition of morality. DC cannot logically tell us we should do something that we know is moral because it is commanded by G-d. Morality by definition is "that which ought to be done". So "because it is commanded by G-d" is superfluous as the impetus for doing morality. If we already know what is moral, we don't need to be told that we need to do it because X . We already know we need to do it.

(I.e., this argument is the flip-side of the previous one.)

c) This definition implies that there is something binding on G-d, which is problematic for a number of theological reasons (which I won't discuss in detail here) such as: primacy of G-d, omnipresence of G-d (not just physical, but logical), and omnipotence of G-d (ditto). I.e., G-d must precede all concepts, cannot be dependent on any concepts, and must be "found" in all concepts (the last point is controversial according to some schools of thought, but suffice it to say that I wouldn't eat their shechita).

So, what's the other option?

2. It is morally good because it is commanded by G-d

Let us define very clearly what might be meant by this statement. One possibility is that to find out what is good, one needs to ask G-d (or see what G-d told others, if it's applicable to one too).

I don't think this definition is logically problematic, but it is empirically problematic. I.e., if we look at Jewish tradition, we find that there are indications that humans (and Jews in particular) should know already what is moral, even without having been told by G-d. For instance, there is a statement by one of the meforshim that someone who has to pay his wife a kesuba doesn't only need to depend on what it says in Torah. He must know by himself that he has to pay the kesuba because he made a promise.

There is a statement that even if mishpotim were not given, one would be able to learn them oneself.

There is a sense, from learning various Jewish texts, that rabbis already have a sense of justice and morality independently of Torah. In fact, oftentimes, Torah is tested against those concepts: one asks, how can Torah prescribe X, or how can G-d do Y, and then people answer, revealing that in fact X and Y do not contradict our concepts of justice and morality. Why don't we merely say: "Don't asks stupid questions. Whatever G-d decided must be just by definition." (Similarly to someone who might say: "He who made oil burn will also make vinegar burn". I.e., don't ask how G-d can violate laws of nature: He created them!) It is assumed not only that Torah and Hashem must behave according to the concepts of morality (which is another issue, to be discussed below), but also that those concepts are known to us already.

Finally, it seems that Torah does not have a very detailed discussion of morality like it does, say, of laws of tefillin. Certainly there are moral statements in Torah and certain prescriptions pertaining to morality (such as laws of visiting the sick, loshon ho'rah, business dealings, etc.), but the general discussion of morality seems to be lacking. (Maybe I am wrong.)

(There are concerns brought by philosophers that usually rely on intuitionist moral conservatism: i.e., taking our moral intuitions seriously. The concern is usually voiced as: "If G-d told you to torture someone, would you do it? Would that make it moral?"

I don't think this is a valid argument because it presupposes the truth of moral intuitionism. The argument assumes that we know what is moral from our intuitions, and then finds a possible contradiction between that morality and DC-produced morality. But that basically amounts to saying: "I think DC is wrong because I think we know what is moral intuitively." I would classify this as an external critique of DC, not an internal one, and I am not completely sure that the intuitionist approach could defeat DC on these grounds.

In fact, it could probably be defeated on its own grounds: if we have two intuitions, one telling us directly that X is wrong and another telling us that we know that G-d told us X is right, we should probably trust the second intuition and assume the first one erroneous. If the first intuition is strong, we can double-check the second one multiple times to make sure that that is indeed what G-d said and there is no room for mistake, but once we are assured of that, we should probably go ahead and rely on the intuition telling us that X is right.

This is no different in principle from observing by eyes that a lake is shallow, but some independent measurement telling us that the lake is indeed very deep. If that happens, we should probably double-check the measurement, but, as my boss says, the data are what they are.

Which is not to say that intuitionism is useless. Keep reading.)

The Verdict

What does this mean? Well, I think it means that while we might identify the commandments that G-d gave us directly as moral imperatives, we must have an independent way of identifying the "regular" (mishpotim-like) moral truths.

So, actually I think one might say that intuition is actually a good source of morality. I have been exploring this idea recently and have found myself growing more fond of it. (I have discussed it here and here.)

But does this mean that DC has failed? I think that there can be an intermediate solution: We can identify morality as G-d's will, but say that it is not discoverable (only) directly as G-d's will. To quote myself:
We might say that our intuitive feeling of goodness is one of the good's principia cognoscendi (its giluim): the qualities by which it can be recognized (the other being the fact that G-d told us that he wants it to be done). On the other hand, the fact that good is G-d's purpose for the reality is good's principium essendi (its atzmus): the description of what it is
One can still identify good or bad through his intuition, not only through Halacha; I am just explaining what it is that he is identifying. (Likewise a physicist might explain that when I feel cold, I am sensing indirectly the average kinetic energy of molecules around me.)
This also solves the problem of whether G-d can order us to do something which we will intuitively feel as wrong. One might say that no. My wife recently gave me the following argument of why Halacha cannot contradict morality:

Both Halacha and morality are prescriptive systems (they tell us what we ought to do). Both come from G-d (because everything comes from G-d). Presumably, G-d cannot at the same time want us to do X (according to Halacha) and not want us to do X (according to morality). Therefore, Halacha can never violate morality.

(Importantly, I don't think one could argue that everything comes from G-d, but not everything is allowed by Halacha or morality. Our animalistic urges, although they come from G-d, are not binding on us. But morality is, by definition. So is Halacha.)

So, what happens if G-d tells one to sacrifice our child? Well, that's like asking: if Earth's magnetic North and South shift places, where will the needle of a compass point? Well, obviously to the new location of the North, the former South pole. Now replace the compass with intuition and North with good, and you get the analogue.

This is assuming that one's intuition picks up good automatically (sort of like compass points to North automatically). It could be that G-d set up our intuitions to work a certain way (or even that they developed biologically in a certain way — although that would amount to the same) which is more rigid. After all, our sensory perception is rather rigid: this is why we get optical illusions. But we have a way of dealing with illusions, as mentioned above: just compare them to observations from other, more reliable, sources.

So, it is possible that we might feel intuitively wrong to do X but at the same time know objectively that G-d commanded X. Some sources say that this is how Abraham felt at the time he was commanded to kill Yitzchok. He felt intuitively that this was wrong, but he also knew intuitively that G-d told him to do so. So, he figured that the second intuition makes more sense to follow.

(In our times, the situation regarding child sacrifice is actually reversed. If you have a strong intuitive feeling that G-d is telling you to kill your children, check yourself in to a mental health facility. This is because we know that G-d doesn't want us to kill children and will never command us to do so. Therefore, whatever you feel like "G-d's will" is probably just an illusion or psychosis. Assuming one has not lost all his logical capacity, he can figure this out on his own by reminding himself that he is not a prophet.

On the other hand, this problem may be philosophically unsolvable. If I accidentally take a strong hallucinogenic drug and think my wife is a bear attacking me, I will have to defend myself. How am I to know better? (Remember that illusions don't just come as perceptions; they come with intuitive feeling of reality to them.) It seems there is nothing to be done in this case except to lock me up (hopefully temporarily, until the drug wears off). But it also seems I cannot be blamed for my actions.)

In any event, I think the above answers the Euthyphro dilemma to some extent.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Simple application of the Golden Rule

Imagine that we have agreed that there is objective morality. (Maybe we agreed so because of the evidence of introspection, or because our religious views tells us, or some other reason.)

Also imagine that we agree that one way to verify whether something would be bad is to try it on oneself (or imagine trying): if something is bad when done to me, it is also bad when done to someone else. The reason is that bad is bad, and good is good. Unless there is a particularly compelling reason why another person should be different from me, I must assume that if action X is bad when I am its target, it must also be bad when another person (no different from me in any important way) is its target. For instance, if killing me is evil, then killing someone else is equally evil. (I realize this is rather simplistic, but we are starting from very general premises. I.e., hold yer herses!)

But then there is a problem of diffuseness of human nature. All people are different. I may not like to receive pain, but a masochist might. I may like to eat fish, but my wife doesn't. Therefore, I must generalize the sort of things that I would not like done to myself and therefore should not be done to others.

It seems to me that respecting my wishes about what I may do in my life is one such way to generalize. There is no reason for a sadist not to apply pain to a masochist if such an application is consensual. But what about the Golden Rule: surely the sadist would not like to experience such pain? Yes, but the masochist doesn't mind. So, if the sadist can imagine that it would not be evil if something was done to him that he didn't mind, then he must realize that doing the same to someone else is also not evil.

The same goes for the masochist: he works as a hairdresser, and the sadist asks to give him a buzz cut. The masochist would rather die than get a buzz cut himself (he cares about his long ponytail very much). How can he reconcile his views of morality with the sadist's request? Similarly, he must abstract the sadist's request to "doing whatever he desires", not to the particular content of desire in order to discover that it is not evil to do so.

This approach seems to arrive at the libertarian non-aggression principle: that the basics of morality (at least in interpersonal relations) is respecting others' freedom and not coercing them to do anything against their will.

* * *

A situation may arise when two wills are in conflict. What is the right thing to do then (either for one of the wills' holders or for a third party)? Somehow we need to assign primacy to the wills. We have no choice at this matter, because A wants to do something with object X, and B wants to do something else with the same object (or wants something done with it, including leaving the object alone).

We cannot do nothing, because that would be worse. I.e., we have the following choices:

1) Honor A's wishes, but violate B's;
2) Honor B's wishes, but violate A's;
3) Violate both their wishes (which is doing nothing).

Clearly, third choice is the worst of all evils. We must choose the best.

This is where property rights come in. Property rights are ways for resolving the conflict between A and B by assigning primacy to one of their wills. I think if we knew that A expressed his will regarding X first, that would give a greater legitimacy to his claim. For example, if a cannibal wants to eat me, and I want to continue living, I have primacy to my claim, because my occupation of my body was there first. Likewise, if someone wants to use a stick that I found, I have a right to refuse him, since my will over the use of the stick takes precedence.

But, I cannot formulate this intuitively self-evident concept very clearly. Also, I cannot formulate why someone should get the right to control his money over a person who needs that money to survive. Note that I don't care about the government here. I mean what is fair and moral: if someone takes someone else's money by force because he needs it for medicine, should we let him keep it? Should he not have a moral problem himself stealing it, since he needs it more? I.e., why should we assign primacy of will based on homesteading rather urgency of use (determined in whatever way, possibly by a third party) or some societal purpose?

Some people may argue that this is a rather arbitrary way of determining the primacy of use. Who gets to be the judge? I am not convinced this is a good argument. First of all, a person may ask someone who he thinks is impartial to judge what is more urgent: e.g., to send one's kids to yeshiva or to pay off mortgage. Second, we will need to use third-party expertise to judge the evidence over first-come use (homesteading) as well. I need to have some evidence as to whether I used something first.

Admittedly, such evidence can be much clearer than arbitrary judgement of urgency. So, perhaps this is the answer: dividing property up based on who took possession first is less arbitrary than dividing property up based on urgency of use. After all, how do you determine what's more important: to send kids to yeshiva or to pay off mortgage?

But a bleeding-heart liberal (or libertarian) may argue that in all such dubious cases, rely on homesteading, but in the case of life-and-death (or health) vs. luxury, give precedence to that which maintains life...

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Are intuitions trustworthy?

(are the lines between the arrowheads of the same or of different length? how do you know?)

A re-post from Facebook:

I buy a package that has 12 beer bottles in it (it says so on the package, and for a number of reasons, I happen to believe the label; also, maybe I can feel the bottles). I tear a side of the package and take out a bottle. My friend takes out another bottle.

Without looking inside the package, feeling it, etc., I KNOW that there are 10 bottles left in the package. This fact is independent of the type of beer, of the colors of the bottles, or of any other properties. In fact, this observation is true even regardless of the kinds of objects I am counting.

This observation is not empirical. I.e., one might say that I have encountered the "12–2" situation enough times to know that there are 10 items left. The same way that from experience, if I hear a certain noise from my engine, I know what's wrong with it without looking inside (or if I drop the beer pack from some height and hear a certain noise, I know that at least one bottle broke inside).

I can imagine the situation or a universe (or a kind of engine) that would make a certain noise that did not indicate that kind of breakage. I can imagine a universe in which when I dropped an object from a great height it wouldn't break. I cannot imagine a situation in which 12–2 would not equal 10. It's a necessity of reality.

But it's not an introspective subjective observation either. It's not the same as me liking fish and my wife hating it. First of all, I expect both my wife and myself to agree on 12–2. Second, I think the internal knowledge that there are 10 bottles left is about an objective fact outside my head (assuming the bottles' existence is also an objective fact and not an illusion, which I am inclined to believe).

So, what is this knowledge? Where does it come from, and what does it mean?

Some say that it is knowledge of properties of groups objects (their number) that comes from intuition. But that doesn't seem right because we have to be taught addition and subtraction.

It might be that numerical truths are objective truths about the world, basics of which we acquire empirically (for instance, we know that items come in groups, and we can count them using our fingers), but relationships between which we can know logically (I have never in my life verified that 4 groups of apples, each containing 23 apples, makes up the total of 92 apples, but from my knowledge of basic numeric properties of objects, I can deduce that).

Anyway, some people say the same about moral truths: that they are objective properties of some objects and events that we know about intuitively (perhaps we need to learn the basics of them from experience, such as by trying certain events — for instance, those producing pain — on ourselves, but once we have learned the foundational moral truths, we can deduce more complicated moral assumptions logically and intuitively).

We know that murder is wrong; it is wrong in all situations, between all kinds of beings. (There may be nuances which may make the act not murder; for instance, self defense, killing of passion, human sacrifice, war, etc. — we may argue which of these are murder, but once we agree that, for instance, killing of passion is always murder, we will necessarily agree that it is wrong. This is similar to asking "how many objects are there in the package" and disagreeing whether we count bottles and caps as separate objects. Once we agree that, for instance, they are one object, we will also necessarily agree on their numerical properties: such that, if we took out two of them, there must be ten left.)

* * *

This is not to say that intuitive knowledge could not be mistaken: for instance, all people succumb to optical illusions, such as perceiving two colors or lengths of two lines to be different, but once we compare the colors or length to each other under different conditions (for instance, after covering the background, or using a ruler), we will have intuitive perception that they are the same: and then, we will have a choice which of the two intuitive perceptions to trust and a set of reasons to trust one more than the other.

The same way, people get logical illusions about numbers; for instance, in statistics. But they can be shown, not empirically, but logically, that they are wrong. And the same can be done with ethics: people may believe that inequality is bad, but one might be able to show them that it is not (by presenting different scenarios of inequality that even they would find morally satisfactory, while forced equality under those scenarios would be in fact bad), and what they think is bad is something else (poverty, aggression of the mighty over the weak, etc.).

* * *

An important logical/philosophical argument against anti-intuitionism is that all of our rational facts, rules, observations, and deductions, must eventually rest on some set of intuitions. For instance, my intuition that Dr. X is a good physician may be wrong if it's based only on his charisma. But imagine that I define "good" as "having adequate knowledge and skills to diagnose a sickness with a high [insert whatever number if you want] probability of success". Then I verify that this is so experimentally. Or I know that someone else has verified so. Or I trust his medical certification. Etc.

Well, in each of those deductions, I have relied on a number of intuitions: namely, that my observations and my logic are trustworthy. There is a good (existential) reason to rely on those intuitions (and believe that they are more trustworthy than my intuition based on the doctor's charisma), but they remain intuitions nonetheless.

What's the alternative? That every rational concept must be derived from another rational concept which is derived from another rational concept — and so on, an infinite regress of derivations. Or that the derivations are circular. Both seem to be less satisfactory (to put it mildly) than accepting the fact that all our knowledge rests eventually on a set of intuitions.

An audio of an excerpt from Dr. Michael Huemer's book:

Friday, February 15, 2013

Are moral truths objective?

In the previous post, I have assumed myself and relied on a proof by the philosopher Dr. Michael Huemer that moral truths are objective, rather than subjective. For instance, I believe that Hitler was objectively evil and that murder is objectively wrong, not that they are so only in the eye of a particular beholder. As I wrote:
Hitler was evil in and of himself, independent of anybody perceiving him as such and not in definition of the targets of his evil acts. I.e., that Hitler killed a lot of Jews was certainly bad for them, but we also think that the fact that he caused all that harm was an evil event in itself, not just from his victims' point of view (and not just because we fear that he or someone else might do the same to us, chv"sh).
Otherwise, it would be nonsensical to argue that murder is wrong: after all, if it's only wrong subjectively, from the point of view of the victim, then the victim is no longer there! So, once the victim is dead, the murder is no longer wrong, as there is nobody anymore to whom it could be wrong. But a murder is by definition murder only after the victim has been killed.
The best one could say then is that it's wrong because it caused suffering to the victim's family, but that is not what we mean when we say that the act of murder is wrong independently of whatever side effects it caused. I.e., yes, murder is wrong because it causes suffering to the living, but first and foremost it is wrong because it eliminates life — even of a completely useless person who has no relatives or friends. Likewise, we must distinguish between wrongness of murder and that of threat of murder.
There are, of course, those who disagree that Hitler was objectively evil. In my opinion, they are objectively wrong, just like those who think that moon is made of cheese, but our disagreement is not subjective. My disagreement with my wife over whether fish tastes good is, on the other hand, subjective. Neither of us thinks that it is an independent property of fish to taste good or not; we think that tasting good/bad is a unique reaction that fish produces in our brains/minds.

Dr. Huemer attempts to prove objectivity of moral truths in his essay Moral Objectivism. I urge you to read it carefully to judge for yourself whether he is successful. But I also wanted to quote a summary of his argument from another paper on moral objectivism:
[Claim:] Moral values are objective. That is, they really exist, and are independent of observers.
I have discussed this issue at length elsewhere and do not wish to repeat myself (at least not very much), so I will just review briefly two general reasons for this opinion. First, and most importantly, I think it is essential to our common sense conception of morality. When we contemplate or discuss moral issues, we normally experience ourselves as exploring a subject, debating matters of substance, and trying to make the correct judgements about them. Nor do we think that our obligations (etc.) depend on our or anyone's beliefs about them. We do not, for example, think that one way to solve all the world's problems would be for everybody to get together and agree not to consider anything bad anymore. We don't think, for instance, that one way to eliminate all oppression would be for a sufficient number of people to say, "There's no oppression." 
Therefore, we think that the evil (and of course the same would be true of good) exists independently of what observers say or think. And I think that one always ought to assume that things are the way they appear, until they can be proven otherwise. [Emphasis added — AC.]
Second, moral objectivism (like objectivism in general) seems to be entailed by the law of excluded middle and the correspondence theory of truth, along with a couple of what seem equally obvious observations about morality:
(1) There are moral propositions. 
(2) So they are each either true or false. (by law of excluded middle) 
(3) And it's not that they're all false. Surely it is true, rather than false, that Josef Stalin's activities were bad. (Although some communists would disagree, we needn't take their view seriously, and moreover, even they would admit some moral judgement, such as, "Stalin was good.")
(4) So some moral judgements correspond to reality. (from 2,3, and the correspondence theory of truth)
(5) So moral values are part of reality. (which is objectivism)
I don't know if a typical subjectivist would try denying (3), but if so, then to resolve the dispute, what we have to do is weigh the plausibility of the most plausible moral judgement there is (since he claims it is false) against the plausibility of whatever argument he produces (assuming he has one). For instance, suppose that the most plausible moral judgement you can think of is "It is wrong to torture people just for the fun of it;" and suppose that the subjectivist claims that this is not true; and suppose he claims it on the basis that the existence of moral values is incompatible with logical positivism. Then what we have to ask is: Which do we find more plausible, that it is wrong to torture people just for the fun of it, or that logical positivism is true?
This is just an example of the sort of difficulty the subjectivist or skeptic will get into, which convinces me that no argument against objectivism could possibly discharge its burden.
In other words, what Dr. Huemer is saying is called phenomenological conservatism (in this context: phenomenological = pertaining to our observations; conservatism = taking stuff seriously). Which means: if you see that an apple is round, unless there is a good reason for you to think otherwise, you can assume it's round. If you think there are ten bottles left in a pack after you took out two of then, you should treat that thought as a fact, unless someone demonstrates to you that your math or knowledge of facts (e.g., someone taking a bottle without you knowing) are wrong.

The same goes for moral knowledge: if we know that Hitler was objectively evil (because we perceive him to be evil), then unless some other observations tell us otherwise, we should assume he was objectively evil: that he had a property of evil to him (or his actions). In Moral Objectivism, Dr. Huemer refutes a number of subjectivist arguments against objectivism: for instance, that our feeling that Hitler was evil is just an emotion. He says:

Call the first the appeal to introspection. The making of a normative judgement is experienced as just that — making a judgement: i.e., as a matter of good phenomenology, when one considers a moral issue, it seems clear, one is engaged in that mental process known as judgement; one is not primarily engaged in imagination or memory or perception or feeling (though those may accompany the process of judgement, of course). And I think that everybody can see this if they think about it — that is why moral judgements are, after all, called "judgements". 
If someone reports that when he introspects he does not ever detect a process of judgement going on where morals or practical matters (meaning matters of what to do) are concerned, then in the first place, I won't believe it, and in the second place, if I did then I would conclude that the unfortunate fellow is simply unable to grasp moral concepts and is therefore unable to think about them — I would conclude that he is moved by emotions and instincts rather than reason and morality. Moral concepts and arguments are as a rule highly abstract, and the existence of such people as cannot understand them is certainly not inconceivable. Animals are most likely all in that position.

In other words, upon introspection, moral judgments don't "feel" like emotions, projection, social norms that you liked, etc. They feel like judgments: perceptions about reality no different in principle from judgments like "there are ten bottles in the pack" or "apple is round". And, unless there is a good reason to disbelieve this introspection, then we should continue believing it.

You may ask: if moral truths are truly objective, then how do we come to know them and how to we verify that our knowledge is correct (after all, people disagree on morality — even  objective morality — all the time). And isn't there a pernicious is-ought problem that prevents us from deriving any ought statements from is observations of the world?

Dr. Huemer's answer is that we come to know the moral truths intuitively. In a sense, moral knowledge is the sixth sense. Dr. Huemer defends this view in this and some other essays, as well as one of his books, Ethical Intuitionism.

The famous libertarian-anarchist economist and legal philosopher David Friedman also touched on this subject:
Let me suggest an analogy that I find informative. Think of moral intuitions as playing the same role in our knowledge of normative propositions that sense data play in our knowledge of positive propositions. 
The way we choose scientific theories is precisely by taking our sense data as input and trying to make sense of what they tell us. And it would seem very odd to argue that "it is not clear why we need theories at all: we can just consult our sense data" for understanding the world. For one thing, having formed theories, we sometimes use them to conclude that we ought not to believe particular sense data. [...] 
For me, at least, the crucial step to making this account plausible was realizing how shaky the basis is on which we accept our senses' account of the physical world (to the extent that we do). While the grounds for belief in physical objective reality—more precisely, in an objective reality reasonably close to what our senses report--are not as strong as they might at first seem, they are, in my view strong enough. The grounds for belief in a normative objective reality are not, in my view, enormously weaker. [...] 
If you take the sixth sense analogy seriously, the next step is to ask why you believe the other five senses. The answer is not "because I understand how they work." To begin with, you probably don't, and even if you do, Aristotle certainly didn't—and none of us are willing to argue that he ought to have denied the evidence of the senses. 
You believe your five senses because you have imposed on them all the consistency tests you can think of, and they have mostly passed. You see something, your eyes tell you an object is there, you reach out and sure enough you can touch it. The thing is a bell. Last time you tried hitting a bell your ears told you there was a sound; you try it again and it still works. 
Occasionally there is an apparent contradiction—you can't touch a holographic image, and when you hit a holographic image of a bell it doesn't make a noise. But as you get farther and farther into the structure of the physical world revealed by your senses more and more of those contradictions turn out to make sense after all. 
A second set of tests occurs to you. Your senses tell you that other people are very much like you. If so, they should perceive the same physical universe. You ask them, and sure enough they almost always do—again with very rare exceptions such as color blindness, exceptions that turn out, on further examination, to make sense. 
Note, however, that what you are finding to be consistent is observation of very primitive facts—there is a table there, there is not a lion sitting on the table. About the patterns implied by those facts—for example, whether capitalism or socialism results in higher standards of living, or whether the earth goes around the sun or the sun around the earth, or whether paying enough money to the Church of Scientology will turn you into a superman—there is lots of disagreement. 
You conclude that your senses give you a reasonably accurate picture of the base facts of physical reality, consistent with that of almost everyone else, but that reasoning up from there is sufficiently hard, and/or depends sufficiently on the particular subset of facts observed, so that people disagree a good deal—and your confidence about your beliefs on that level should be appropriately weaker. You accordingly conclude that the physical universe is really out there, and the parts you have observed really have about the characteristics you observe. If someone tells you that there is a lion on the table you conclude he is a lunatic. If he is very convincing, you ask a few other people first and then conclude he is a lunatic. 
Now apply the same approach to moral reality. Replace sense perceptions with moral judgements—not grand theories such as "you should never violate rights" but "perceptions" such as "in the following well described situation, person X acted wrongly." Checking with other people you find, pace the ethical relativists, a very high degree of agreement. The disagreement either involves the sort of situation that, on consideration, you find morally difficult or (far more often) disagreement about the assumed facts, not the judgements. 
Some people will find this claim implausible. I offer as one of my reasons for it the following observation: 
I have been arguing politics for a long time. In arguing with people on the left, I find it is very hard to come to an agreement on the assumed facts surrounding the situations we are judging. My imaginary capitalist has capital because he worked hard clearing part of the boundless forest while his employee-to-be was being lazy and living on what he could gather—so it is entirely just that the capitalist gets part of the output of his land and his employee's labor. But the leftist doesn't like that hypothetical. His imaginary capitalist inherited his capital from a father who stole it. I don't like that hypothetical. I conclude that our moral intuitions are similar enough so that the same assumed facts push both of us in the same direction—and since we want to go in opposite directions we want so assume different facts. 
My (very tentative) conclusion is that the normative universe, like the physical universe, exists. Certain ought statements are true, certain ought statements are false. Torturing small children for the fun of it really is wicked. I cannot go behind that and explain "ought" as derived from "is"—or "is" from "ought." Both are undefined terms, which I am confident that normal human beings understand. I can observe "normative facts" and try to form theories about them, just as I can observe physical facts and try to form theories about them. But I should not be surprised if other people form other theories in both cases.

Simple proof that G-d exists

(what is the purpose of this structure?)

In which I prove from evidence that G-d exists and outline my immature ethical theory...

First, let's define G-d for the purpose of this proof as a conscious, willful, purposeful creator of all existence. (I am not saying that that's all that G-d is; I am saying that this is one of His roles/behaviors.) Furthermore, let's assume that all creation is constant, i.e., that G-d is a continuous creator (I will show below why that's important).

I am not completely sure this proof is correct, but I am writing it out just in case.

The outline of the proof is as following:

1. Without G-d, objective morals cannot exist.
2. But morals do exist, per our observation, and they are necessarily objective.
3. Therefore, G-d must exist.

By the way, the part of the proof that most people (including campus Chabad rabbis) oftentimes miss is number 2. Without that part, one can just answer to number 1: "ein hachi nami" ("So what? I agree with you...") and move on without having to accept number 3.

Now the proof itself:

1. Without G-d, objective morals cannot exist.

Evidence for this statement can be presented in multiple forms. For one of them, you can watch this debate video (assuming you agree with the second speaker and not the first):

But here is my own idea of why you cannot have objective morality "simply 'cause": it doesn't make sense.

Ought statements are prescriptive. They prescribe that something should be done for some purpose. For instance, imagine that someone asks you where you should stick needles into a human body. Well, if his purpose is to torture the person, then you might give one kind of answer; if his purpose is to do acupuncture  then you may give another answer (assuming you're an expert at both). But saying that morality is a description of what you must do, "just 'cause", without any particular goal (it's just the right thing to do, but for no actual reason) is nonsensical. It's not saying anything.

One might say that the purpose of moral ought statements is to do good. One ought to do those things that are good and ought not to do things that are bad.

My problem with this definition is that it's circular. We do not have a good definition of what good and bad are outside of prescription. Good and bad are descriptions of certain things that we ought to either gravitate to or stay away from. That is how we define good and bad subjectively anyway. We say that in our opinion (according to our tastes) a movie is good in the sense that it would be "oughtful" to go see it, for whatever purpose (to enjoy oneself, to derive some lesson from it, etc.) — but we see that the purpose must be included in the definition of "good" (movie or anything else); otherwise, it makes no sense to use that concept (as above with the needles).

Well, this is subjective good (a Quentin Tarantino movie may be good for me, for the purpose of enjoyment, but not for my wife who hates violent movies). On the other hand when we say that morals are objective, we mean that objects and events independent of our mind have quality of goodness (or badness) to them. But, as I hope I have shown, the concepts of goodness and badness must include a purpose to them!

But how can there be an absolute, "objective" purpose to the world out there? I walk in a forest and see a beehive. My purpose for it is to eat the honey to satisfy my hunger. The bees' purpose is to keep the honey to feed their larvae. Maybe somebody else's purpose is to take the honey and sell it on the market. How can there be an "ultimate" or absolute purpose, independent of any agents, built-in into the fabric of reality of the beehive? Clearly there cannot be, unless there is one agent who imbues all reality with a purpose: that who created and continues to create the beehive, consciously, willfully, and with a certain goal in mind (so to speak). I.e., G-d (per our definition above).

2. Morals do exist, and they are necessarily objective.

I am not going to provide a full proof for this statement here. Instead, I want to direct my reader to an essay by a philosopher Michael Huemer: "Moral Objectivism" (not to be confused with Ayn Rand's philosophy under the same name). I also encourage you to look at some of his other essays (and an excerpt from one of his books) in the Ethics and Metaethics section of his website.

Dr. Huemer basically argues in favor of the position that things can be good and bad in and of themselves, just like they can be red or green (or two or three in number) in and of themselves, independent of the observer. Please refer to the linked essay for the detailed analysis.

Note that Dr. Huemer is not arguing that objective goodness or badness of things is independent of any source (such as G-d); he is arguing that from our experience of dealing with goodness and badness and intuiting those qualities about events and objects, we must conclude that they are objective and not merely "figments" of our minds (like our tastes or emotions are). Hitler was evil in and of himself, independent of anybody perceiving him as such and not in definition of the targets of his evil acts. I.e., that Hitler killed a lot of Jews was certainly bad for them, but we also think that the fact that he caused all that harm was an evil event in itself, not just from his victims' point of view (and not just because we fear that he or someone else might do the same to us, chv"sh).

(Otherwise, it would be nonsensical to argue that murder is wrong: after all, if it's only wrong subjectively, from the point of view of the victim, then the victim is no longer there! So, once the victim is dead, the murder is no longer wrong, as there is nobody anymore to whom it could be wrong. But a murder is by definition murder only after the victim has been killed.

The best one could say then is that it's wrong because it caused suffering to the victim's family, but that is not what we mean when we say that the act of murder is wrong independently of whatever side effects it caused. I.e., yes, murder is wrong because it causes suffering to the living, but first and foremost it is wrong because it eliminates life — even of a completely useless person who has no relatives or friends. Likewise, we must distinguish between wrongness of murder and that of threat of murder.)

Again, see the essay for more details. He addresses possible objections like: "Well, maybe we are just being empathetic to the victims and that results in a psychological feeling of 'evil' in our mind."

3. But if all the events and objects can be objectively good and evil (shown in 2), but cannot be understood or defined as such without subscribing to them some purpose by an absolute purpose-giver (shown in 1), there must be such an absolute purpose-giver: namely, a continuous, willfull, conscious, and purposeful Creator of all reality. (The Creator must be continuously creating all the reality for us to say that it has a constant purpose.)

Quod erat demonstrandum.

One might point out that the above does not explain why we ought to carry out G-d's purpose for creation. I.e., why G-d's purpose is binding on us. (A wrong answer in my opinion is to say that we must do so out of duty to G-d or because the world is His property. Such answers presuppose that duty or respect for property are moral concepts worthy of consideration, but we are trying to derive objective morality from G-d's purpose for the world, not vice versa.)

My answer is that the above simply defines "objective good" as G-d's purpose for the world and explains why it must be so. It doesn't motivate one to actually do objective good.

First of all, it seems that it's better to have some definition of objective good than no definition at all, or to say that it is just a quality that we perceive in the world. We could say that about "red color": there is no way to explain what it is besides saying that it's just something we perceive as true — aye, that's not the case because now we know that color corresponds tp a wavelength of visible light, but we might have said that before we knew the nature of color (i.e., I sense this thing called color, and there is nothing else I can say about it, just that there is a modality of my consciousness caused by a phenomenon called color out there in the world). But we can't possibly say that about good because, as I explained, goodness is by definition prescriptive: it is that to which we sense a need to gravitate to.

Second, we might say that our intuitive feeling of goodness is one the good's principia cognoscendi (its giluim): the qualities by which it can be recognized (the other being the fact that G-d told us that he wants it to be done). On the other hand, the fact that good is G-d's purpose for the reality is good's principium essendi (its atzmus): the description of what it is. One can still identify good or bad through his intuition, not only through Halacha; I am just explaining what it is that he is identifying. (Likewise a physicist might explain that when I feel cold, I am sensing indirectly the average kinetic energy of molecules around me.)

Third, one could give a number of subjective selfish or aesthetic answers (one wants to be one with G-d; one wants to deserve Heavenly rewards; one simply wants that G-d's purpose be done out of love to G-d). In that case, objective morality derives from one particular case of subjective desires. I am fine with that in this particular case.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Legitimate use of the government to create customs

If you read my blog, you must be used to the idea that I consider government an illegal and an immoral organization whose laws for the most part are non-binding. I write "for the most part" because there is a case where I think the government's laws are binding today, and in my opinion, that is a legitimate application of the concept of dina d'malchusa dina.

But I can also imagine a situation where in a free, anarchist society some people might set up a government which would have no legal powers over the people, but whose laws might be binding.

First, let me quote myself from an earlier post:
When people interact, they do so within certain customs. Customs are implicit understandings between people that need not be negotiated explicitly. That is why the majority's custom may be binding upon a minority (as long as the minority interacts with the majority in the area that the custom applies to). For instance, if in some locale, upon hiring a worker to paint your house, it is customary to pay him for a half-an-hour lunch break, then the workers have a right to demand the break. If you did not pay them for the break time, you stole from them (or committed a form of stealing, called neshek, "withholding a debt").
Customs may arise spontaneously. Customs may also be set up by the authorities. For instance, in the US people drive on the right side of the road. In the UK — on the left. It could be that these customs arose spontaneously. It might also be that they were set up top-down, by some authority. It doesn't matter. As long as the majority abide by this custom, it becomes binding on the minorities and individuals (as long as they share the same commonly used road with the majority).
Because the laws of the government practically speaking create such customs (whether government coercion is ideal or moral doesn't matter; the fact is that it creates patterns of human behavior), "dina demalchusa dina" — the law of the land is binding.
Note, first of all, that this refers only to the laws which create patterns of behavior. Not arbitrary positive regulations or restriction (such as "it's illegal to sell used mattresses in Massachusetts"). Second, the chazakah (custom) mentioned here is not regarding the acceptance of the government, but regarding  the acceptance (or tolerance, or obedience under threat of punishment) of its laws as customs. Hence the popular translation of dina demalchusa dina: "the law of the land is the law". The law of the land: meaning, its people's customs.
 So, when might a group of people create a government that would have no authority but some of whose laws might be binding?

Imagine a situation when 1000 people fly to another solar system and colonize a planet. Since they come from many different cultures and societies, they so far do not have a common custom of any sort. But, they agree not to aggress against each other (or they form protection agencies to prevent aggression).

Next, say 600 people decide to form a government. They create some sort of council and vote 5 people in to it (let's say 550 people vote for those 5 members). That council creates positive laws for those 600 people.

Under libertarian principles, those laws are still not binding. Just because 550 out of 1000 people voted for some "government" doesn't mean anything.

But then, the 600 sheeple people start observing those laws. For instance, they observe the decision of the "government" that whenever someone sells an item, he sells it "as is", without any warning or return policy necessary. Or, for instance, they observe the decision that when the item is sold, there is a 30-day return period, and if the item is somehow damaged, then the buyers have to be notified; otherwise, the sale is retroactively void.

As I said, just because the government said so doesn't mean anything. But when the hive-people obey their government and start carrying out the edict, their behavior sets a custom.

Therefore, since they are technically in majority, it can be argued that this custom has to be respected even by those 400 people who did not accept the "government" as their own.

I think this opinion coincides quite well with one group of the halachic opinions about dina d'malchusa dina. And I think the reasoning I provided above for the DDD works quite well.

Monday, February 11, 2013

What should the law be?

First, your return to shore was not part of our negotiations nor our agreement so I must do nothing. And second, you must be a pirate for the pirate's code to apply, and you're not. And third, the code is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules. Welcome aboard the Black Pearl, Miss Turner.
— Captain Barbossa, Pirates of the Caribbean 

A repost from elsewhere. I am answering the question: "Should we give a brother and a sister a right to get married?"

My response:

The concept of law can be summarized as "a set of rules that will allow people to live in peace and resolve their conflicts non-violently if they choose so". The alternative to law is Hobbsean jungle, where every person defends himself with violence against everyone else, basically treating all other humans as forces of nature which one can either give in to or fight. The concept of society and civilization presupposes a desire to avoid such conflicts and live in peace.

This shows that any kind of violence cannot be a part of law. Note that I am not talking about law enforcement: that may or may not require violence (law can also be enforced through non-violent threats of  ostracism, for example). I am talking about law: figuring out, theoretically, whom a certain resource should justly belong to in a case of a conflict.

Law must be such that all members of society should agree to it. This is what separates law from morality: the latter is a rule for someone to keep even in private. If I consider stealing immoral, I shouldn't do it whether or not I will be caught. Law, on the other hand, is a public "sign" for all to read, agree to, and enforce. (In particular, because everyone agrees to a certain law, everyone finds its enforcement appropriate.) If stealing is unlawful, then we all agree to catch thieves and make them return the stolen property back to the owners (plus the costs of catching them).

This understanding of law shows that:

a) it cannot use violence or threats of violence
b) it must be a common denominator between different groups of people living in a society and even sometimes having different moral preferences.

Both principles explain why polygamy or incest or homosexual marriage cannot be considered illegal (unlawful) if we stick to the above definition of law. Laws against such activities would not be not solving conflicts; in fact, they'd be creating them!

Note that I may consider a certain behavior (for instance, eating pork or gossip) immoral, but not unlawful.

The concept of rights as interpreted through this definition (what the law should recognize as someone's right) means that the rights are not given, but discovered (as the most rational means to promote peace in a society).

Note that Jefferson agreed to this idea in the Declaration of Independence. He starts off by saying that all people have rights deriving from their nature as rational beings (which was granted to them by the Creator, evolution, aliens, or whatever you believe in). Only then he says that in order to protect those rights, the governments are formed.

On the other hand, the same concept of law also explains why law cannot be positive: created by the government. Simply because Obama says X doesn't explain why X should be the law. X must be justified as the best way to resolve a conflict between two parties and create justice. And if X has nothing to do with conflict resolution, then it's not a law at all!

Nowadays, what is Obama's (or any other politician's) justification for declaring X a law?

a) if you disobey X, I will put you in a cage
b) 51% of the people elected me

But neither is a good justification for why X leads to greatest justice. In fact, both are threats of violence: the former, violence of the government on the people; the latter, violence of the majority on the minority.

The view that law cannot be positively declared but must be objectively discovered may sound shocking, but in fact it was the traditional view in all societies until the Enlightenment and the so-called "nation-states". Kings back in the day were not in charge of creating laws; they were in charge of adjudication, enforcement, and, more often, protection of their "subjects". If you told people that we should ask a king what the law should be, they would look confused and ask back: "Should you also ask him what 2+2 equals to?"

Here are some quotes to prove that historically, people held the above view of the law (taken from Roderick Long's essay The Nature of Law):

"I find that it has been the opinion of the wisest men that law is not a product of human thought, nor is it any enactment of peoples, but something eternal ....

From this point of view it can be readily understood that those who formulated wicked and unrighteous statutes for nations, thereby violating their trust and compact, put into effect anything but laws. It may thus be clear that in the very definition of the term law there inheres the idea and principle of choosing what is right and true. ...

What of the many deadly and pestilential statutes which nations put in force? These no more deserve to be called laws than the rules a band of robbers might pass in their assembly. For if ignorant and unskillful men have prescribed deadly poisons instead of healing drugs, these cannot possibly be called physicians' prescriptions."
— Cicero, Laws (1st c. B.C.)

"Jurisprudence is acquaintance with things human and divine, the knowledge of what is right and what is wrong. ... These are the precepts of the law: to live rightly, not to wrong another, and to render to each his own."
— Institutes of Justinian (6th c. A.D.)

"The Roman jurist was a sort of scientist: the objects of his research were the solutions to cases that citizens submitted to him for study, just as industrialists might today submit to a physicist or to an engineer a technical problem concerning their plants or their production. Hence, private Roman law was something to be described or to be discovered, not something to be enacted – a world of things that there were, forming part of the common heritage of all Roman citizens. Nobody enacted that law; nobody could change it by any exercise of his personal will."
— Bruno Leoni, Freedom and the Law

"The Anglo-Saxon courts, called moots, were public assemblies of common men and neighbors. The moots did not expend their efforts on creating or codifying the law; they left that to custom and to the essentially declaratory law codes of kings. ... As in other customary legal systems, the moots typically demanded that criminals pay restitution or composition to their victims .... The law codes of early medieval Europe consisted largely of lists of offenses and the corresponding schedules of payments. In issuing these, Kings were not legislating in the modern sense: they were rather codifying and declaring already existing custom and practice."
— Tom Bell, "Polycentric Law," Humane Studies Review 7, No. 1, 1991/92

"Law in the sense of enforced rules of conduct is undoubtedly coeval with society; only the observance of common rules makes the peaceful existence of individuals in society possible. ... Such rules might in a sense not be known and still have to be discovered, because from 'knowing how' to act, or from being able to recognize that the acts of another did or did not conform to accepted practices, it is still a long way to being able to state such rules in words.

But while it might be generally recognized that the discovery and statement of what the accepted rules were (or the articulation of rules that would be approved when acted upon) was a task requiring special wisdom, nobody yet conceived of law as something which men could make at will. It is no accident that we still use the same word 'law' for the invariable rules which govern nature and for the rules which govern men's conduct. They were both conceived at first as something existing independently of human will. ... they were regarded as eternal truths that man could try to discover but which he could not alter.

To modern man, on the other hand, the belief that all law governing human action is the product of legislation appears so obvious that the contention that law is older than law-making has almost the character of a paradox. Yet there can be no doubt that law existed for ages before it occurred to man that he could make or alter it. ... A 'legislator' might endeavor to purge the law of supposed corruptions, or to restore it to its pristine purity, but it was not thought that he could make new law. The historians of law are agreed that in this respect all the famous early 'law-givers', from Ur-Nammu and Hammurabi to Solon, Lykurgus and the authors of the Roman Twelve Tables, did not intend to create new law but merely to state what law was and had always been."
— F. A. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty

"Since it is by law that what is legislated is legislated, in virtue of law's being what is this legislated? Is it in virtue of its being some awareness, or some showing, as what is learned is learned through the science that shows it? ... Aren't right, and law, most fine? ... And wrong, and lawlessness, most shameful? ... And the former preserves states and all other things, while the latter destroys and overturns? ... So one ought to think of law as something fine, and seek it as good? ... So it wouldn't be appropriate for the wicked official judgment to be law. ... And yet even to me law seems to be some sort of judgment; but since it's not the wicked judgment, isn't it clear that law, if indeed it is judgment, is the worthy? ... And what is worthy judgment? Is it not true judgment? ... Isn't the true, the discovery of what is so? ... Law, then, wishes to be the discovery of what is so .... but men, who (so it seems to us) do not at all times use the same laws are not at all times capable of discovering what the law wishes: what is so. ... What's right is right and what's wrong is wrong. And isn't this believed by everyone ... even among the Persians, and always? ... What is fine, no doubt, is everywhere legislated as fine, and what is shameful as shameful; but not the shameful as fine or the fine as shameful. ... And in general, what is so, rather than what is not so, is legislated as being so, both by us and by everyone else. ... So he who errs about what is so, errs about the legal. ... So in the writings about right and wrong, and in general about ordering a state and about how a state ought to be organized, what is correct is royal law, while what is not correct, what seems to be law to those who lack knowledge, is not, for it is lawless."
— Plato, Minos (5th c. B.C.)

"But what is violence and lawlessness, Pericles? Isn't it when the stronger party compels the weaker to do what he wants by using force instead of persuasion? ... Then anything a despot enacts and compels the citizens to do instead of persuading them is an example of lawlessness? ... And if the minority enacts something not by persuading the majority but by dominating it, should we call this violence or not? It seems to me that if one party, instead of persuading another, compels him to do something, whether by enactment or not, this is always violence rather than law. Then if the people as a whole uses not persuasion but its superior power to enact measures against the propertied classes, will that be violence rather than law?"

— Xenophon, Recollections of Socrates (5th c. B.C.)

"When a case arises for which no valid law can be adduced, then the lawful men or doomsmen will make new law in the belief that what they are making is good old law, not indeed expressly handed-down, but tacitly existent. They do not, therefore, create the law: they 'discover' it."

— Fritz Kern, Kingship and Law in the Middle Ages

"As Augustine says, that which is not right seems to be no law at all; wherefore the force of a law depends on the extent to which it is right. ... Consequently, every human law has the nature of law only to the extent that it is derived from the law of nature. But if, in any point, it deviates from the law of nature, it is no longer a law but a perversion of law. ... when an authority imposes on his subjects burdensome 'laws' conducive not to the common good but rather to his own cupidity and vainglory .... the like are acts of violence rather than laws .... wherefore such 'laws' do not bind in conscience .... A tyrannical government is not right ... Consequently, there is no sedition in disturbing a government of this kind .... Indeed, it is the tyrant, rather, that is guilty of sedition .... If a thing is of itself contrary to natural right, the human will cannot make it right ...."

— Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ (13th c.)

"A human legislator does not have a perfect will, as God has; and therefore ... such a legislator may sometimes prescribe unjust things, a fact which is manifestly true; but he has not the power to bind through unjust laws, and consequently, even though he may indeed prescribe that which is unjust, such a precept is not law, inasmuch as it lacks the force or validity to impose a binding obligation."

— Francisco Suarez, On Laws, and on God as Legislator (17th c.)

"Nihil quod est contra rationem est licitum: nothing which is against reason is lawful. It is a sure maxim in law, for reason is the life of law."

— Richard Overton, A Defiance Against All Arbitrary Usurpations or Encroachments (17th c.)

"These are the eternal, immutable laws of good and evil, to which the creator himself in all his dispensations conforms; and which he has enabled human reason to discover, so far as they are necessary for the conduct of human actions. Such among others are these principles: that we should live honestly, should hurt nobody, and should render every one its due; to which three general principles Justinian has reduced the whole doctrine of law. ... [God] has graciously reduced the rule of obedience to this one paternal precept, 'that man should pursue his own happiness.' This is the foundation of what we call ethics, or natural law. ... This law of nature, being co-eval with mankind and dictated by God himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding all over the globe, in all countries, and at all times: no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid derive all their force, and all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original. ...

Those rights then which God and nature have established, and are therefore called natural rights, such as are life and liberty, need not the aid of human laws to be more effectually invested in every man than they are; neither do they receive any additional strength when declared by the municipal laws to be inviolable. On the contrary, no human legislature has power to abridge or destroy them .... For that legislature in all these cases acts only, as was before observed, in subordination to the great lawgiver, transcribing and publishing his precepts. ... [A judge is] sworn to determine, not according to his own private judgment, but according to the known laws and customs of the land; not delegated to pronounce a new law, but to maintain and expound the old one. Yet .... if it be found that the former decision is manifestly absurd or unjust, it is declared, not that such a sentence was bad law, but that it was not law; that is, that it is not the established custom of the realm ...."

— William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England (18th c.)

"But let the origin of government be placed where it may, the end of it is manifestly the good of the whole. Salus populi suprema lex esto [let the welfare of the people be the supreme law], is of the law of nature .... To say the parliament is absolute and arbitrary, is a contradiction. The parliament cannot make 2 and 2, 5: Omnipotency cannot do it. The supreme power in a state, is jus dicere [to state the right] only: — jus dare [to give the right] strictly speaking, belongs alone to God. Parliaments are in all cases to declare what is for the good of the whole; but it is not the declaration of parliament that makes it so: There must be in every instance, a higher authority, viz. GOD. Should an act of parliament be against any of his natural laws, which are immutably true, their declaration would be contrary to eternal truth, equity and justice, and consequently void: and so it would be adjudged by the parliament itself, when convinced of their mistake. Upon this great principle, parliaments repeal such acts, as soon as they find they have been mistaken, in having declared them to be for the public good, when in fact they were not so."

— James Otis, The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (18th c.)

"... justice is an immutable, natural principle; and not anything that can be made, unmade, or altered by human power. ... It does not derive its authority from the commands, will, pleasure, or discretion of any possible combination of men, whether calling themselves a government, or by any other name.

It is also, at all times, and in all places, the supreme law. And being everywhere and always the supreme law, it is necessarily everywhere and always the only law. Lawmakers, as they call themselves, can add nothing to it, nor take anything from it. Therefore all their laws, as they call them, –– that is, all the laws of their own making, –– have no color of authority or obligation. It is a falsehood to call them laws; for there is nothing in them that either creates men's duties or rights, or enlightens them as to their duties or rights. There is consequently nothing binding or obligatory about them. ... It is intrinsically just as false, absurd, ludicrous, and ridiculous to say that lawmakers, so-called, can invent and make any laws, of their own ... as it would be to say that they can invent and make such mathematics, chemistry, physiology, or other sciences, as they see fit .... "

— Lysander Spooner, Letter to Grover Cleveland (19th c.)

"I deny that legislators make law. They create legal Acts, statutes, which may or may not coincide with real Law, and in fact seldom do. ... the great majority of such legislative Acts are intended to prevent or hamper or stop harmless and useful human action, so the enforcement of them has that lamentable effect."

— Rose Wilder Lane, The Lady and the Tycoon (20th c.)

Thursday, February 7, 2013

My answer to a police officer

On the subjects of whether police have privileged rights by the virtue of being "officers of the law".

In the history of the United States, before the document mentioning the three branches of the government, there were two other documents. One of them said: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men...".

Note that Mr. Jefferson did not write that the governments grant rights to their subjects. That was quite a popular view throughout the world at the time and is still popular in most countries (and probably among the most US citizens). But, Thomas Jefferson (and some of his colleagues) belonged to a legal, ethical, and social tradition that held that people receive their rights from their human nature of rational beings (which was granted to them by their Creator, evolution, or whatever one chooses to believe).

As a result, I have rights even outside of any government's jurisdiction. If the two of us meet on a deserted island, it is wrong for you to rob me of my life, liberty, or property. Likewise, it is right for me to defend those inalienable rights. (And, of course, the same goes for you.)

It is equally right for me to hire someone to protect my rights. If you attack me, why does a third person have a right to defend me (including with violence against you)? Because I have delegated to him my rights. Whatever I have a right to do, my guard can do on my behalf. Note that what I do not have a right to do, my guard cannot do on my behalf. For instance, he cannot rob or enslave you on my behalf; I could never delegate to him such a right, since I never had such a right a priori.

If the population of our island grows from 3 people to 300 million, nothing changes. We have a choice: to live in a constant state of violence or peace and cooperation. An agreement to  respect each other's rights and the mechanism for safeguarding them on a societal level is what law is.

Note, therefore, that in this view the government is not the people's sovereign. People are sovereigns. The government receives its rights from the people who delegate them to it. People who work for the government, including officers of the law, must have the same rights as all the other people, because they derive their rights from people's innate, natural rights.

Furthermore, there is no intrinsic difference between officers of the law and "regular" people. As one person said: "The police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence."

Now, from my definition of what law is, it is clear that law is not "whatever the king/president/chief said", but "method for peaceful conflict resolution aimed at defense of people's natural rights". Sometimes the government can recognize people's rights and state them in a positive law (instructions for its officers), but sometimes the government's edicts can masquerade as law without being it.

For example, in this country (I do live in the US), there was a time when it was "legal" (per government's definition) to own slaves and illegal to help them escape. In 1920s, it was illegal to consume alcohol as today it is illegal to smoke weed. During FDR's times, it was illegal to hold on to gold or work outside a work quota. In Nazi Germany, it would have been illegal for me to be... I would have to be shipped off to a concentration camp, and someone hiding me would be a criminal. In US and UK, it was legal for a husband to rape his wife until early 1990s. Recently, someone leaked our Supreme Commander's team's view that it is legal to kill US citizens and innocent civilians with drone strikes. (And in the past, President Truman obliterated two cities and set a number of cities on fire all as a part of his legal position.)

But from my definition of the law, slave traders, terrorists (domestic or foreign), and Nazis were criminals, even though they were following the laws of their country. ("I was following the law" and "I was just doing my job" were the most frequent defense lines in Nuremberg Trials.) And so were the police officers enforcing those so-called "laws".

I know my view is not particularly popular anywhere in the world, even, unfortunately, in this country. But, there it is... If you want to know if anyone's actions are legal or moral, you should just ask: do these actions violate anyone's natural rights?