The Truth is Out There!

— And it's out at the Drug Enforcement Agency website and museum, in Crystal City, just down the road!

Did you know that the drug trade has a “symbiotic” relationship with terrorism? Well, you will when you see the shocking exhibit Target America: Traffickers, Terrorists, and You. You can see the work of drug traffickers right before your eyes in this display of the ruins of the World Trade Center:

On the testimonial page, Kate and Alex from Greenwich, Connecticut share their feelings: “We liked the remains of the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. It was moving to see the remains up close.” We like the remains too, Kate and Alex! They show us that murder, suicide, and choking on one's own vomit are only a few of the more pleasant ways that drugs kill.

Or stop by Illegal Drugs: A Modern History where you will learn about the role of the shifty Chinese in “America's First Drug Epidemic: 1850-1914,” and that

By the 1960s, the great majority of Americans had forgotten the lessons of the first drug epidemic. Moreover, the new Bohemians, Beat literary types, were sending a very different and powerful cultural message: drugs and altered states were part of being hip, social rebels. By encouraging a whole generation to see drug use as “normal,” these cultural icons consigned millions to re-learn the painful consequences of rampant drug use–even as the drug menu was expanding to include amphetamines and psychedelics. When many of the 76 million baby boomers embraced not just drugs, but also dealing and trafficking, the drug culture exploded.

The U.S. Government responded with new laws and new anti-drug units, culminating in the creation of the Drug Enforcement Administration in 1973.

And thank God for the DEA! Not only are they whipping that drug problem, and shutting down those damn terrorists, but they also provide us with sound information about the dangers of drugs on a daily basis, and create wonderful educational opportunities, like the DEA Museum and Visitors Center, where visitors to the nations capital are encouraged to contribute their own thoughts.

Madeleine Patton, of Houston, Texas says, “I think that the main problem with drugs is that people don't understand that the law is here to protect you. People are so dead set on breaking the rules that they don't care wether or not it is a good law.”

They sure don't care, Madeleine. But then people are silly.


Clearly no one should show off, Matt. Showing off makes the less fortunate feel bad. When rap stars and actors show off, all we can do is shake our heads, and puzzle over the fact that they have had successful careers as rap stars and actors despite the devastating effects of drugs on their lives. Of course, no one person decided drugs were cool, Matt. The coolness of drugs is a social construct, built out of many, many individual judgments. So until more good people start thinking like you, Matt, drugs unfortunately will still be cool, and you still won't. But keep up the good fight!

I, for one, plan on going the DEA Museum and Visitors Center. You should go, too, to see how wisely your tax money has been invested in ensuring that Americans of all ages have access to the truth about drugs in our history and in our lives today.

[UPDATE: It has come to my attention that certain young people would revel in the irony of attending the museum's while “high” on marijuana (aka, “grass”, “weed”, “reefer”, “Mary Jane,” “chronic,” etc). Besides constituting a dishonor to the brave men and women who risk their lives policing our air and waterways to prevent the infiltration of our borders by money-grubbing Mexicans, Colombians, and Moslem terrorists seeking to poison the youth of America, the effects of “weed” will leave you permanently addled, unable to hold a decent job, dependent on the charity of hopefully loving friends and family, and unfit for higher political office. Now, if you would like to go to the museum with me, I'll be happy to show how we can have a great time without chemical “enhancement,” and maybe afterwards we can have a few drinks or six! So drop a line! We'll write the greatest testimonials!]

Are You Open to the Whole or Aren't You?

— Robert Light posts a long passage from Strauss in the comments to the below post on natural law. I believe Light takes Strauss to be saying something especially relevant, important, or true here. But I find the passage characteristic Strauss. There is very little argumentation. It is more a kind of poetico-philosophical rhapsodizing. Key claims are asserted and then left wholly undefended, as if elevated rhetoric and literary erudition can do real intellectual work. Here's a representative nugget:

Yet granted that there are no valid moral or political objections to classical political philosophy — is that political philosophy not bound up with an antiquated cosmology? Does not the very question of the nature of man point to the question of the nature of the whole, and therewith to one or the other specific cosmology? Whatever the significance of modern natural science may be, it cannot affect our understanding of what is human in man. To understand man in light of the whole means for modern natural science to understand man in light of the sub-human. But in that light man as man is wholly unintelligible. Classical political philosophy viewed man in a different light. It was originated by Socrates. And Socrates was so far from being committed to a specific cosmology that his knowledge was knowledge of ignorance. Knowledge of ignorance is not ignorance. It is knowledge of the elusive character of truth, of the whole. Socrates, then, viewed man in the light of the mysterious character of the whole. He held therefore that we are more familiar with the situation of man as man than with the ultimate causes of that situation. We may also say he viewed man in the light of the unchangeable ideas, i.e., of the fundamental and permanent problems. For to articulate the situation of man means to articulate man's openness to the whole. This understanding of the situation of man which includes, then, the quest for cosmology rather than a solution to the cosmological problem was the foundation of classical political philosophy.

The most important claim, relevant to the debate about the relative merits of contemprary philosophical naturalism vs. scholastic “natural” law, is this:

Whatever the significance of modern natural science may be, it cannot affect our understanding of what is human in man. To understand man in light of the whole means for modern natural science to understand man in light of the sub-human. But in that light man as man is wholly unintelligible.

The first sentence is a BIG claim. And it is not defended. And it is false on its face. Modern science HAS affected our understanding of what is human in man. If Strauss means to say that it should not affect our understanding, then he should say so, and say why. But he doesn't. The latter two sentences are mystifying. The first is I guess true, if by sub-human he means non-human. (If he's invoking a “great chain of being” picture, then he's just wrong straight out of the gate.) Explanation and understanding proceeds by the elucidation of the mechanisms that underlie observation and experience. Man, as a part of nature, functions according to mechanisms that are, of course, not themselves human. They are cognitive, neural, hormonal, chemical, physical, etc. mechanisms.

Apparently this form of explanation does not capture “man as man.” But what is that? We can't argue against Strauss unless he tells us what he means, and he doesn't. Apparently he means something like “a conception of man revealed by a priori philosophical reflection according to which man is that which is 'open to the whole'”. And… well, aghh! How DO you argue against this? There seems to be an assumption that “the whole” is not simply the physical totality. He needs to say why not. I think “the whole” IS the physical totality. He can't argue against my claim simply by arguing that man's manifest image is not simply one according to which he is an embedded part of a complex physical system, because we naturalists can tell you why it makes sense in naturalistic terms that man's manifest image is unlikely to reflect man's true relationship to “the whole,” or even to himself. We can say something credible about the cognitive mechanisms that enable epistemic access to the physical totality, and why that access is very imperfect, and why those mechanisms can be systematically misleading (and why even very smart people can become irretreivably committed to mythological self-conceptions). It strikes me as intellectually impossible to NOT have a fundamentally changed conception of human nature–of what is human in man–after the neo-Darwinian synthesis and the cognitive revolution.

Strauss writes that Socrates “held. . . that we are more familiar with the situation of man as man than with the ultimate causes of that situation.” But how about this instead? We are in general more psychologically confident of our introspectively derived self-conception than with the theory of the ultimate causes of that confidence and that self-conception. But we are more epistemically confident in–have greater evidential warrant for–the scientific theory that explains our erroneous confidence in the manifest image.

I don't blame people who confuse their confidence in their self-conception with evidence for the truth of their self-conception. It's what we should generally expect. But if we are truly open to the whole–to understanding how humans are folded into nature–we can come to understand some of our tendencies to self-delusion. And to the extent that we can so understand, we can do something to overcome them. But those actively fighting rear-guard battles to insulate our delusive self-conceptions against genuine advances in knowledge of our relation to the whole are, wittingly or unwittingly, closed to the whole, friends of ignorance, and enemies of philosophy.

Mutual Advantage vs. the Draft

— In his reply [scroll down] to Judge Posner's defense of an all voluntary military, Bill Galston writes:

Let's begin with a conception of society as a system of cooperation for mutual advantage. A society is legitimate when the criterion of mutual advantage is broadly satisfied (versus, say, a situation in which the government or some group systematically coerces some for the benefit of others). Each citizen then has a duty to do his or her fair share to sustain the social arrangements from which all benefit, and society is justified in using its coercive power when necessary to ensure the performance of this duty. As John Stuart Mill, whom Posner wrongly drafts into the anti-conscription army, states in On Liberty, the state may legitimately require each citizen to bear “his share … of the labours and sacrifices incurred for defending the society or its members from injury and molestation.”

A counterargument urged by the late Robert Nozick is that we typically don't consent to the social benefits we receive and that the involuntary receipt of benefits does not trigger a duty to contribute. Mill anticipated, and rejected, that thesis, insisting that the duty to contribute does not rest on a social contract or a voluntarist account of social membership. Besides, the argument Socrates imputes to the Laws in the Crito is compelling: If a society isn't a prison, if as an adult you remain when you have the choice to leave, then you have in fact accepted the benefits along with whatever burdens the principle of social reciprocity may impose.

OK. I like to begin with the idea of society as a cooperative venture for mutual advantage. But Galston's argument moves way too fast. (It is a letter to the editor, so I admit that it's not fair to expect a tight argument.) I'm sure part of my problem stems from the fact that I have a stricter conception of what it means for the “criterion of mutual advantage” to be satisfied. Suppose Galston's right, and citizen's have a duty to do their share to sustain the system. Well, it's a non-sequitur to move directly from a duty of a citizen to do her fair share to a permission for some other citizens, as agents of a government, to use coercive means to ensure the execution of the duty. Granting some a right to employ coercion, while denying that right to others, creates a form of inequality that is morally troubling on its face. The suggestion that this sort of inequality in coercive power be institutionalized requires a special justification in terms of it's effect on mutual advantage. But suppose we find some justification. It remains open what a “fair share” requires. If an all volunteer military is MORE effective than a conscripted military, and requires LESS sacrifice and burden then conscription, then it seems obvious to me that, from the perspective of cooperation to mutual advantage, a volunteer system is better justified. If sacrifice and burden are unnecessary–if you don't need to interfere with people's pursuit of their personal projects over and above the level of taxation required to provide the good–then a system that demands it will straightforwardly fail the mutual advantage test.

Furthermore, the positions from Nozick and Mill that Galston plays against each other are perfectly compatible. Nozick is right that positive externalities don't necessarily trigger a duty to contribute. I have no obligation to throw quarters at attractive women walking past on the sidewalk. (Econo-geek code: “Got a quarter?” = “She's hot.”) Nor do I have a duty to contribute to the R&D costs of a company that develops a vaccine, the side effect of which is that a disease dies out, and I therefore never get exposed to it, even though I was never vaccinated, and never gave a red cent to PharmaCorp. The beauty of a system of cooperation for mutual advantage is that the private pursuit of private ends creates positive spillovers that benefit us all, and the private actors creating the benefits are generally happy to internalize the costs because a disproportionate amount of the benefits accrue to them. We want a system where it is possible for everybody to constantly free ride, but where nobody minds.

And Mill is right that the duty to contribute does not require explicit consent. But whether explicit consent is required to justify a system where some are granted powers to coerce others into contributing according to duty is an entirely different question. (Again, P has a duty to A does not even BEGIN to entail that S is permitted to coerce P to do A. It may be that S always has a duty to refrain from coercing P, no matter what other duties P has.) In any case, we're all already meeting our duty to contribute insofar as we're paying the taxes that pay the salaries of the people who have volunteered to internalize the risks of serving in the military. The logic of Galston's argument, even if we grant him premises about the justification of coercion in the service of mutual advantage, only gets him as far as the current system. He doesn't HAVE an argument for conscription. If he thinks we have a duty to serve in the military even though the voluntary system is most effective and places lower burdens on citizens at large, then he has abandoned the principle of mutual advantage as the basis of political obligation.

— Post Lawrence, the advocates of natural law have been emerging from their ghetto to speak of the “unnaturalness” of gaydom. [See E. Volokh's sound analysis.] In this vein, Robert Light has passed along to me a short dissertation on Scholastic metaphysics by his acquaintance Marc Balestrieri, who writes:

Everything of material creation in the world has a “final cause,” on the contrary, finality is the “prime cause,” or first of all causes. Potentiality and actuality being two elements of being necessarily composing every essence in existence, the finality of an object is the act towards which every potency necessarily tends towards during the duration of its existence. It is, by analogy, the “raison d'etre” of a faculty of every being which is human, of everything which exists. . . .

Therewith, it is without a doubt that the finality of the genesic faculty is the creation of offspring, just as the finality of the eye is to see, as the finality of the intestines is to digest, as the finality of the brain is to intellectualize, the finality of the mouth is to maciate and swallow wholesome food. If one of those faculties were to be willfully used contradicting its finality, or finis operis, than one would act “unnaturally,” or “irrationally,” per Aristotle and Aquinas. . .

Now, no doubt Marc gives us solid scholastic philosophy. But why think scholastic philosophy has to do with anything important?

Aristotle's system is a thing of intellectual beauty, especially insofar as he was striving to provide an empirically adequate characterization of the world. The spirit of Aristotle lives on in contemporary naturalists, who, like Aristotle, actually care about the way the world works. Catholocized Aristotelians, however, long ago gave up on Aristotle's project, and have made an elaborate a priorist dogma of Aristotle's essentially empirical enterprise. Aristotle was the first systematic biologist, and perhaps the finest that ever lived. Nevertheless, Aristotle's biology is in most important respects false, and we know vastly more about nature than the Philosopher could have dreamed. I would suggest to Marc that he begin taking the Aristotelian project seriously by apprising himself of this knowledge.

About kinds & essences… Organisms form natural kinds only on an extremely loose and discreditable conception of 'natural kind'. Aristotle understandably did not understand that species are impermanent and contingent. He did not understand recombination, mutation, drift, or speciation. There is little to species membership other than shared lineage. There are no species essences.

At best, for each species there is a normal distribution of traits, such that certain members are more typical than others. But the nature of the distribution shifts over time, and variation may occur on any dimension without an organisms thereby becoming any less a member of its kind. At time t, statistically typical members of one and the same species might have one behavioral profile, and at time t+n have quite another. Perhaps the environment changed causing some old behaviors to became maladaptive, and so an atypical and tenuously adaptive behavioral profile from t came to dominate the population by t+n. At each point in time, the behavorial elements of the typical profile had likely been selected for, and thus it was the proper function of the underlying behavioral mechanisms to produce those behaviors. But there is no proper behavioral function for a species for all time.

Likewise the function of organs can change over time. The thumb, say, has a function: grasping. But the thumb is an evolutionary transformation of some non-thumb appendage of one of our ancestors, and that appendage had a different function.

Human organs have functions on this etiological/adaptive conception of function. But there is no reason to understand the function of human organs as straightforwardly normative. If organisms have an overall function, then it is to maximize inclusive fitness. But who cares? We don't WANT inclusive fitness. We want happy, deeply meaningful lives among others who are also trying to have happy deeply meaningful lives. The fact that we want THIS, and not inclusive fitness, may or may not be an accident of our evolutionary history. I use my mouth for smoking cigarettes, chewing gum and kissing, not just for “maciating wholesome food.” But whatever.

Insofar as using our organs according to their biologically proper function contributes to happy, meaningful lives among others, then we should use them that way. Insofar as they don't, we shouldn't. I guess one COULD say that the function a trait adapted to perform among small bands on the savanna tens of thousands of years ago is precisely what we ought to use that trait for NOW… COME WHAT MAY! But you'd have to be caught in the grip of an utterly mystifying ideology to say it.

Of course, the scholastic doesn't understand our traits and their function in Darwinian terms. But Darwin and his school is right. Which is why scholastic noodling about human nature is perfectly irrelevant.

We are talking about homosexuality here, right? Think of it this way. Or, anyway, this is how things seem to me to be. There are some human beings who find themselves sexually and emotionally attracted to members of the same sex. A happy, meaningful life among others seems unattainable to these people without same-sex relationships. Now, there is this old metaphysical system, and the reason it has not died out completely is that it was adopted as dogma by a major world religion. There is otherwise very little of intellectual credibility to be said in its favor. Our best, current, highly confirmed empirical theory of the natural world says merely that predominantly homosexual behavior is almost certainly atypical in a population, but nevertheless obviously natural, because observed in nature. It is also observed that a large number of people engaged in same-sex relationships have happy, meaningful lives, even despite widespread discrimination and persecution. Okay. Now somebody decides to explain to us that according to the elaborate ancient dogmatic system, there is something unnatural or irrational about same-sex relationships.

My reaction: “Oh. Interesting. And I wonder what the Hindus think.”

Dialogue on Rationality

— At the Social Change Workshop for Graduate Students, a conference I ran a couple weeks ago, John Tomasi and I did a little workshop session called “Ideal Justice, Real Institutions” about the constraints social scientific evidence about the possibilities for social organization place on theorizing about justice. It was a good time. John and I were really just thinking out loud with the workshop participants. And it really got my juices flowing. Some further reflection led me to consider just how a moral philosopher (untainted by hallway conversations with Gordon Tullock) might react to a social scientist's misgivings about philosophical theorizing about the best society. The following (hastily composed) dialogue encapsulates a good bit of my reflection.

Comments, please!


Political Philosopher (PP): Behold! Here is my picture of the best social order!

Social Scientist (SS): Well, it's unrealizable. [Throws Calculus of Consent on the table.] Look, you're assuming perfect voluntary compliance/costless enforcement, and perfect alignment of incentives between agents of the state and the citizens they are supposed to serve. The social world doesn't work like that. Your scheme isn't obviously utopian, but you can't get there from here.

PP: SS, your conclusions about the untenability of my ideal society assumes a conception of rationality that is both false and degrading. And you're simply missing the point. The IDEA of normative political theory is to create a picture of what society could look like if we behaved BETTER. Why should I accept the assumption that we're all going to behave badly? Nobody ever said justice would be easy.

SS: I don't think you quite understand. OK, OK. There is no homo economicus. Rational choice ain't so rational. Whatever. But I don't have to assume a strict homo economicus model of behavior to get all the problems I mention (and I could mention more). All you need is to understand that people do not at all times (if ever) deliberate over their alternatives in the guise of a citizen of the Kingdom of Ends. All I need for my conclusions is the fact that each person sometimes make choices in the guise of, say, mother or son or employee or friend or artist or businessman, etc., and that a great many people are making choices on the basis of these kinds of practical identity at any given time. And although each person may in principle endorse your conception of justice, their motivation as individuals trying to realize their life-plans and capacities… to do the best they can for their children, to fulfill their obligations as an employee, or whatever, is often in conflict with the motivation they would need to act upon if your ideal were to be realized.

PP: OK. You sound a lot like philosopher for a social scientist. But I still think you're assuming too much. Let me try to sound like a social scientist. Suppose we're in a society that is deeply impoverished, deeply corrupt, deeply distrusting, and also violent and dangerous. Sadly, such societies are all-too-common. In such a society it would be rational, in your terms, to place a very high “discount rate” on expected future benefits, because the future is so uncertain, others are so unreliable, and there is no systematic assurance that I will ever see benefits from cooperation or collective action. Even if we all badly need certain public goods to be provided, it will be “rational” for each of us to take $10 from the treasury today, thus draining the treasury, rather than leave the $10 in treasury as part of the pool of funds that could provide us all with the public goods that could have many, many times $10 value to each of us. Now, this description seems true enough to life. And so perhaps you economists are right and the _explanation_ here is a superduper high discount rate. But is this a moral JUSTIFICATION of the discount rate? Is this really supposed to constrain my theorizing about justice for this society? Do I have to assume right at the beginning that cooperation or collective action is impossible? The question is: SHOULD people have such a high discount rate? Wouldn't they all in fact be better off if they trusted each other more? So SHOULDN'T they be more trusting and cooperative? The point is that morality is precisely what overcomes the constraints of rationality, in your cool sense of rationality. I mean, if I think like you, it would seem that we're stuck in a sort of basin here without the momentum to get over the lip. That's WHY people need to behave morally. That's the point of my theory: to show us where we can get if we behave better.

SS: OK. I see where you're coming from. But ought implies can, right? Is there in fact some Rawls-flavored “sense of justice” that disposes people to comply with the principles of justice once they come to rationally (in your moral philosopher's sense of 'rationally') endorse them? Can they just take a leap of faith to trust and cooperation once they see they morality of it? I don't think you can just stipulate this, any more than I can just stipulate utility maximization as the principle of choice. In order to have a constructive conversation, I think we need to come up with a characterization of rationality that is not blithely descriptive. I agree that your moral theorizing should not be so tightly constrained by regularities of behavior that may be a consequence of people acting worse than they could be acting. But we need a characterization that is also not dreamily aspirational. We need to know HOW good people can be, and under what conditions they WILL be good. The experimentalists show us that people are in fact more cooperative than rational choice led us to expect. So we can't just assume defection in coordination games. And that gets us SOMEWHERE. But cooperation and trust in these games are context sensitive. It depends on the way the game is structured (logically identical games aren't necessarily played identically), and how people represent the games they're playing. Perhaps “morality” is a kind of lens through which to represent games, such that people seeing the game in this way will commit to the cooperative outcomes and enable larger cooperative surpluses. But then we've just pushed the question back to a cognitive problem. Given the de facto social psychology of a people, is there a psychological/cultural route to a schema of representation, say, a moral schema, that will facilitate trust and cooperation? Or are there cognitive and cultural path dependencies that limit the range of feasible representational schemas we can get to from our starting point?

PP: Well, I'm not sure. But I'm inclined to assume that persons have a fundamental nature as moral beings that enable them to take up the moral point of view at any time. This is consititutive of our moral personhood.

SS: Well, I'm not inclined to assume this. The moral point of view strikes me as a contingent and conventional cultural achievement.

PP: I hope you're wrong.

SS: Me too.

The Paradox of Blogging

— It turns out that the more your life is worth blogging about, the less time you have to blog.

Things have been pretty interesting while I've been MIA. Just for instance, on Saturday I spent a couple hours in a car driving Douglass North to D.C., talking about the problems with the prevailing wisdom in economics, cognition, and international development. And I just got back from the Tombs, where a bunch of us drank, smoked, and chatted with Hitchens for a couple hours. But the best of it is that my friends, who have been congregating frequently at Westminster, are hardly an intellectual letdown from Nobel Prize winners and the Orwell of our age. So, it's a good life.