Conscription and Libertarian Naivete?

— The conscription debate rages again. I pretty much agree with Julian and Tim. (I discussed the Posner/Galston debate, which Julian mentions, last summer. And I think I'm right about what I said there.) Matt, on the other hand, is off the rails.

Matt complains about the way Julian flogs him with wet Rawls:

At any rate, this is all by way of introducing the notion that the actual political tradition of actual liberal societies (as opposed to the liberal tradition inside philosophy departments) owes more to a rough-and-ready consequentialism than it does to these Rawlsian ideas. I would speculate, indeed, that the Rawls of Theory should be thought of as attempting to offer an ex post facto deontological justification for a set of emerging Great Society institutions that were, as a matter of fact, implemented for broadly consequentialist reasons. Political Liberalism then tries to re-think the theoretical underpinnings of Theory and ends up presenting a view that's rather detached from the real world shape of things.

This is sort of right and mostly wrong. First, societies that we think of as liberal which require mandatory service are to that extent NOT LIBERAL. This, for instance, is a bad chain of reasoning: France is a liberal state. France bans headscarves in public schools. Thus, it is liberal to ban headscarves in public schools. Now, regarding Theory, only the aspects of that work which attempt to vindicate the liberal welfare state (e.g., difference principle, social bases of self-respect, etc.) could plausibly be seen as an ex post deontological justification for Great Society institutions. The aspects of Theory Julian deploys are a deep part of the broader liberal tradition from Locke down through Kant and Mill, and have nothing in particular to do with moves in American politics. Furthermore, it's sort of weird to claim that the Great Society was not motivated by quasi-deontological theory/ideology about the dignity of each person and the respect and opportunity due to each of us in virtue of our humanity. Or was all that positive rights rhetoric just a veneer over the Johnson administration's secret panel of Benthamite calculators? Bizarre.

Setting aside the conscription debate, let me address another claim of Matt's:

Last but by no means least, all this talk of letting people work out the[ir] own life plans seems to me to demonstrate an all-too-typical libertarian sociological naivete. Life plans are, clearly, circumscribed by the economic circumstances into which people find themselves born. Julian and his co-ideologues don't seem very concerned about this. In practice, many people might find themselves more capable of successfully executing their life plans if the service regime came with mobility-enhancing rewards (see, e.g., the GI Bill) and if service promoted a greater level of social equality. Relatedly, these “life plans” don't spring from heaven, but are rather shaped by the expectations that are, in turn, shaped by social institutions. Talk of arranging institutions so as to not interfere with the plans treats them as though they had a great deal more independent existence than they've really got.

I think Matt is succumbing to welfare-liberal sociological naivete about market-liberal sociological naivete. Some us defend free markets, small states, and low levels of regulation on precisely the grounds that life plans don't spring from heaven, but do spring from dynamic, open-ended commercial cultures. Matt is right that our plans are shaped by our expectations, and that these are shaped by our social institutions. It happens that dynamic market cultures with high rates of growth provide the broadest range of possible life plans, and tend to inculcate a sense of openness and the availability of alternatives kinds of lives.

This sense of openness is reduced by the culture of dependency created by ill-designed social welfare policy (but not all social welfare policy), and the ethic of hopelessness and non-achievement engendered in millions by failed public school systems. That is, the state has at times been very effective in helping to remove the social bases for self-respect that allow people to formulate life plans that will make the most of their capacities and engender allegience to society. Talk of “expectations shaped by social institutions” from welfare-liberals generally tends to naively overestimate the ability of state institutions to create positive expectations, and underestimate the ability of the system of voluntary institutions to not only shape positive expectations, but to lead people to search through the space of possible life plans, and present the best of these through the popular culture, in a way that enhances our abilities to forumulate a fitting conception of our good.

[UPDATE: Julian also has a response to Matt.]

Holy Fucking Shit, Dude. I Totally Understand EVERYTHING Now

— OK. I've been waiting for this study for years. Now we're halfway home! I've had a hypothesis since my undergrad days that there was a distinct set of neural mechanisms responsible for the “Aha!” experience, and the linked study seems to show that. NEXT, they need to put people on LSD in the MRI (there are probably many good reasons NOT to do this, but bear with me). The hypothesis is that the LSD and other hallucinogens sometimes randomly trigger the “Aha!” experience for folks under their sway. Because there is no particular representational content leading to the “Aha!,” our ever integrative brain just seizes on what ever we happen to be paying attention to, and presents it to us as if THAT is the content of a profound realization. Of course, it rarely makes sense, but we're subjectively sure that we're really on to something, because we are having the experience we generally only have in the event of a real breakthrough. Hence statements like: “Have you ever really THOUGHT about your skin, man? I mean, REALLY? It's like, dude, the ANSWER. Skin, man, I mean, holy shit. Skin.” Or “the moon” or “tree branches” or “blades of grass” or whatever. They can all be experienced alongside an “Aha!” but get integrated by the narrative mind (see Gazzaniga) as the content of insight.

More Gmail —

I love it. It is hands down better than any other web-based email service, especially once you get used to the shorcuts, etc. I'm finding it much more convenient than my local email program, Thunderbird, and it does everything that I loved so much (categories/labels as opposed to folders; swift searchability) about my previous email program, Bloomba, without the sometimes ponderous feel. On the other hand, the Gmail spam filter is really suprisingly bad, and does not begin to compare favorably with, say, the Oddpost spam filter. Suprising, I guess, because one has come to expect Google to do everything better. The infamous ads are totally unobstrusive, and somewhat entertaining. (Need I mention that it is moronic to get upset about a machine matching strings of shapes [and maybe guesses about underlying syntactic structure] in your email to entries in a marketing database?)

Pat Tillman, RIP

— Pat Tillman, the NFL star who turned down millions of dollars to join the Army Rangers, has been killed in Afghanistan. I am deeply impressed by Tillman, and am grateful for his choice to serve. His family and friends have every reason to be profoundly proud.

I bring up Tillman, because it's worth bringing up in its own right, but also because it bears on the conscription issue pursued below. Being killed in active military duty is not a little hitch in one's life plan; it's the conclusion. The taxes that finance our volunteer military are a burden, but a justifiable burden. Burdening young men involuntarily with the prospect of death in combat is unjustified, if not unjustifiable. Tillman's choice to make military service part of his life plan was an expression of his autonomy that we have every reason to admire. And though his death is tragic, Tillman himself recognized and embraced the high risk of death inherent in service in the special forces. He would have preferred to live, but, judging from accounts of his character, he did not eschew the possibility of completing his life by dying in the service. On the other hand, men who are drafted and killed have had their lives stolen from them. Their deaths are unrelated to the ends they had chosen for themselves, and are the consumation of nothing but a moral crime.

Metaethics: Internal and External

[NOTE: The foregoing is excerpted from an online class discussion for Patricia Greenspan's metaethics course at the University of Maryland. This is out of context, but I thought some of you might find it interesting. The topic is whether we should consider the task of moral philosophy to be the systematization of our internal/first-person intuitions about normativity, or an external/third person investigation into the natural bases of our moral discource and activity. In a previous message I was, not unreasonably, interpreted as defending the external task, and a deflationary metaethics, and sent this clarification to the list.]

I certainly don't wish to give the impression that I'm just ruling out the internal perspective from the beginning, or even from the middle, or at all. I think it takes a lot to get to the point where an attitude of skepticism toward the first-person perspective makes sense. At the point that it does make sense (if it ever does for a given individual), it's not really a last resort, but it's certainly a later resort, because we are right to try to preserve as many as the appearances as is possible within a good general picture of the world.

An epistemological excursion may help me convey some of what I have in mind.

Roderick Chisholm presents a nice distinction between methodism and particularism in epistemology. A methodist begins with a method or criterion for determining rational or justified belief, and then tests our commonsense beliefs against the criterion to see what lasts. The arch-methodist, Descartes, finds that nothing survives the method of doubt, save god and the self. Hume, trying to reconstruct everything according to the theory of ideas and impressions, finds that we can't really know some things that we think we know (that causal relations are necessary, for example). Reid, my particularist hero, in a proto-Moore's-hands move argues that our reasons for accepting Descartes and Hume's theoretical methods for determining justified belief are much weaker than our reasons for believing that the world exists independent of consciousness, that I really see a dog out there, and not just an internal representation of a dog, that laws of nature really are laws, and so on and so on.

So the particularist just catalogs all the things we are sure that we know, including moral propositions. Beginning from our list of certainties, we try to construct a theory that unifies and systematizes them. In the process of theorizing, we find that items on the list come in conflict. How do we adjudicate the conflicts? Well, first, we note that every item on the list doesn't get equal weight, and that we'd be perfectly willing to give up one item to save another. But our weightings (the “prior probabilities” we assign to items) can be idiosyncratic. So we try to devise a method for determining rational beliefs that will deliver most of the list, but will be useful for helping us assign weights and adjudicating conflicts in a non-idiosyncratic way. Our initial standards of reason and evidence when applied over time helps us to erect general scientific methods, which we discover to have the capability of adding new items to the list that are weighted with very very high probabilities.

So, although we didn't start out with the propositions of the bacterial theory of infection, say, we find that they come to have a fairly priveleged place on the list (to be near the center of the web of belief, in Quine's terms.) Now, if one keeps going in this way, one finds that the methods one has devised to unify and systematize the list end up pushing us to radically revise the list, perhaps assigning low probablities to certain theological and ethical propositions that had begun with very high probabilities. As a matter of fact, there is no way to get everyone to converge on a list (well, Bayesians tell us we should, but we don't–we don't update probabilities in the “right” way), because of differences in priors [and differences in techniques of updating]. And some people may choose to reject the methods rather than some items on the list (one man's modus ponens…), which may or may not be rational (I'm not sure).

The charge of “scientism” I think applies to a priori scientific methodists who just begin with the standards of science and see what survives scientific scrutiny, much as Descartes begins with the method of doubt and sees what's left. This is I think quite different from a naturalism wherein scientific standards emerge through a reflective process of attempting to unify and systematize the materials of common sense over time.

The reason I have come to be a bit skeptical of the internal perspective is that I've come to put higher weights on the work in psychology that tells us that we are very often victims of self-deception, systemic bias, and unreliable introspection than on my own (and others') first-person judgments about, say, the nature of agency and moral obligation. As a consequence, I assign a higher weight to the existence of curved space-time, something that I don't directly experience, than to the existence of supremely authoritative, rationally binding moral imperitives, something I do find some basis for in my first-person experience.

Now, I agree that it would be dogmatic and premature to simply rule out the existence of moral reasons that are normative in just the way it seems to us that they are. I think it is rational and extremely worthwhile to attempt to preserve these appearances within a theory that relates well with our best overall picture of the world. But it happens that I find the external explanatory task, that of making sense of the empirical grounds of our moral experience, to also be extremely useful and interesting. And it's possible to do both at once, I think.

One of Rawls's points in “The Independence of Moral Theory” is that metaethical questions are hard, and that throughout a very long history of inquiry, we haven't nailed down the answers, but we still need to figure out how to live with each other, so we mustn't wait on the metaethics to get to the practical ethics. Rawls seems to think we can build something useful largely out of the matter of our standing first-person moral conceptions. He does say that science comes in during the process of wide reflective equilibrium, and that the “theory of human nature” places constraints on our ideal of the moral person/citizen of the well-ordered society. However, I don't think he takes these constraints seriously enough. This is what really motivates me to follow up on the “external” project. But I really don't mean to disparage the aims of traditional metaethics. I do find that I sometimes have trouble remembering what set of questions I'm trying to answer, and so I'll slip into external/descriptive mode when the question at hand is internal/normative, and so I'll seem to be debunking when I don't really mean to be.

Fitter, Happier, More Productive . . .

— Tyler Cowen points to Michael Sandel's Kass-like essay on the perils of genetic enhacement in the New Atlantic. Tyler makes a good point: if you're worried genetic engineering will indirectly imperil some social value, like solidarity, say, you can always solve the problem by directly engineering a better sense of solidarity. Sure, but I think Sandel may be worried that it may take a while to learn how to rejigger our sense of solidarity while the ability to build in a few extra inches, or a few points of IQ, purple eyes, or whatever, is coming soon. So we might get a solidarity problem in the interim.

Anyway the prospect of genetic engineering raises all sorts of interesting moral puzzles. Does hedonic utilitarianism imply that we ought to re-engineer people to find breathing, say, especially pleasurable? If I propose that some aspect of our existing moral sensibility be re-engineered, does any argument against my proposal based in our existing moral sensibility beg the question?

Technical Difficulties

— The Fly Bottle and related pages may suddenly go down today or so as I switch webhosts. Thank you for your tolerance.

Oh… and my willwilkinson.net email will also be temporarily unavailable. Try my gmu.edu, umd.edu, or yahoo.com email address. If you don't know any of these addresses, then I guess it can probably wait.

[Update: Seems to have been pretty painless. Now I need to figure out how to get my obsolete commenting system to work. Hope I didn't lose all the comments!]