Klebold, Free-Will, and Responsibility

— In his column on the Klebolds, parents of Columbine killer Dylan, David Brooks writes:

My instinct is that Dylan Klebold was a self-initiating moral agent who made his choices and should be condemned for them. Neither his school nor his parents determined his behavior.

Brian Leiter rather uncharitably decides to read Brooks's comment as either an espousal of incompatibilist libertarian free will (nothing to do with political libertarianism), or an expression of ignorance. Regarding the latter option, Leiter sort of goes off his nut:

Or maybe, just maybe, he hasn't thought about the issue at all, couldn't make a coherent argument on the subject if his life depended on it, but knows this is what his stinking right-wing sanctimony requires?

He goes on to spout some Nietzsche psychology about our sad, sad motivation for believing in free-will.

But what did Brooks do to deserve Leiter's tirade? There is no reason to read “self-initiating” as making any sort of strong metaphysical claim. It seems clear to me that Brooks means to say that Klebold was not being coerced, had not been brainwashed, or some such thing, that the influence of his school and parents was not sufficient to explain his behavior, and that he was in control of himself in the relevant sense of control for ascribing responsibility. How this is “stinking right-wing sanctimony” is totally beyond me. Some–I daresay MANY–left-wing folks think that persons can deserve praise and condemnation in virtue of their choices relating to their actions in the right sort of way. Is it “stinking left-wing sanctimony” to argue that, say, people who contribute their labor to the production of some valuable good or service deserve a fair portion of the value created? Who knows?

It seems Leiter thinks it's misguided (or pathological, or insufficiently ubermensch, or something) to hold people responsible AT ALL! Here's Nietzsche:

“Wherever responsibilities are sought, it is usually the instinct of wanting to judge and punish which is at work…: the doctrine of the will has been invented essentially for the purpose of punishment, that is, because one wants to impute guilt…Men were considered 'free' so that they might be judged and punished–so they might become guilty: consequently, every act had to be considered as willed, and the origin of every act had to be considered as lying within consciousness….”

Maybe Nietzsche's right about this. Maybe the practice of holding others responsible is based on an illusion about some kind of mysterious, deep freedom, which we link in our minds to the idea of guilt. But you can give up on the metaphysical illusion and still see that our categories of agency, responsibility, desert, retribution, condemnation, etc. are part of a general scheme of concepts and behavioral dispositions that has developed to enable humans to coordinate our behavior to our mutual benefit. The “instinct to judge and punish” exists precisely because our existence as the kind of social being we are depends upon it.

Dylan Klebold did make his choices and should be condemned for them. There were, of course, other important contributing causes of Klebold's actions. And we should try to understand them. If Brooks is saying that we shouldn't try to understand them, and should instead use our idea of responsibility as an excuse to ignore other contributing causes while we shake our fingers at the perps, then he's wrong. But he certainly didn't seem to ME to be saying that. And it's totally unclear to me how Leiter's argument counts as a blow against right-wing sanctimony, rather than as a blow against the idea of any sort of viable moral community.

Bonus question: Is peaceful mutually advantageous coordination possible “beyond good and evil” (acknowledging that the relevant notion of “advantage” will be rather different)?

Consent & Legitimacy

— Very interesting post by Chris Bertam on the problem of intergenerational sovereignty. I agree with Jacob Levy in the comments that the problem basically tells us to pick only one: consent theory or the possibility of state legitimacy. (Not to say we HAVE to pick either.) I also agree that tacit consent is not consent. The best we can hope for is hypothetical consent. But then that's not consent at all. The idea of hypothetical consent boils down to the idea of what we would consent to if we were smarter, knew a lot more, were rational, and appropriately motivated. Which is to say, basically, we would agree to whatever would really be conducive to our lives going really well. So, a set of institutions is legit if it is conducive to our lives going really well. But we don't exactly know what it means for our lives to be going really well, either, although I assume there is some fact of the matter about what it means, and that we do know a lot about what it means. (Maybe, say, democracy leads to “suboptimal” results relative to an idealized version of human nature, but it turns out that real people need to feel like we have some sort of democratic voice in the system in order for our lives to go really well, and so we need democracy in order to satisfy this need to have a voice, although we'd be better off relative to some of our other needs and aspirations if we didn't have this particular need. Who knows!?) And this seems plausible. We're justifiably confident that some kinds of institutional forms aren't legit. Soviet Union. Taliban Afghanistan. Canada. (Just kidding!) But we don't really know enough about well-being and the possibilities for beneficial coordination to say whether or not fairly liberal democratic institutions like our own are fully legit.

Scanlon on Objectivity

In “Contractualism and Utilitarianism,” and then again in What we Owe to Each Other, T. M. Scanlon compares the alleged objectivity of morality with that of mathematics. In fact, her writes:

In moral judgments, as in mathematical ones, we have a set of putatively objective beliefs in which we are inclined to invest a certain degree of confidence and importance. Yet on reflection it is not at all obvious what, if anything, these judgments can be about, in virtue of which some can be said to be correct and defensible and others not . . . Second, in both morality and mathematics it seems to be possible to discover the truth, just by thinking about it. Experience and observation may be helpful, but observation in the normal sense is not the standard means of discovery in either subject.

Scanlon goes on to plump for a Brouwer sort of mathematical intuitionism (a sort of constructionism, really), which he seems to think stands as a plausible third way between naturalistic nominalism and platonism in mathematics. He wants us to think of morality in the same way. Straightforward non-cognitivism is like nominalism, Moore/Prichard/Ross intuitionism is like Platonism, and contractualism is like Brouwerian intuitionism.

He goes on to write,

Neither mathematics nor morality can be taken to describe a realm of facts existing in isolation from the rest of reality. Each is supopsed to be connected with other things. Mathematical judgments give rise to predictions about those realms to which mathematics is applied. This connection is something that a philosophical account of mathematical truth must explain, but the fact that we can observe and learn from the correctness of such predicitions also gives support to our belief in objective mathematical truth. In the case of morality the main connection is, or is supposed to be, with the will. Given any candidate for the role of subject matter or morality we must explain why anyone should care about it, and the answer to this question of motivation has given strong support to subjectivist views [Emphasis added.]

So, as Scanlon has it, in both cases, we take our intersubjective agreement to provide support for the objectivity of the relevant domain. Secondarily, we take the connection of math and morals to other things as evidence of objectivity. We think math is objective not only because we agree a priori on procedures of correct mathematical reasoning, but because bridges stay up and planes fly. For morals, there is some connection to the will. What might this mean?

I want to play along with the analogy, but it's worthwhile to first point out the significant differences between math and morals. Scanlon is on firmest ground when he notes that math and morals are alike in the sense that they both seem more or less objective, but that it's not clear what mathematical and moral judgments are really about. Some of us get queasy when we start thinking about Numbers and Moral Properties. So, OK.

But in much of math we have formal, mechanical, algorithmic decision procedures. We have PROOF. This is why we think intersubjective consensus is so hot in math. Morality is of course not at all like this. Moral reasoning is messy, often inconclusive, and subject to lots of disagreement about cases, even if there is agreement on principles, and also lots of disagreement on principles, even if there is agreement on cases. You cannot tell someone that it is incorrect to oppose free trade because they forgot to carry the one. Second, the way in which mathematics successfully and precisely describes real physical systems is EXTREMELY IMPRESSIVE. The fact that bridges stay up, planes fly, and that I can be writing all this on a laptop, is to my mind the knock-down case for the objectivity of mathematics. If I was already a Kantian, then of course math would decribe the world, since math is in that case a bunch of very general relationships between the forms of intuition, from which, in the first instance, my mind “constructs” “the world.” But I am not a Kantian. I think math just is an extremely abstract characterization of the world out there, and it's objective because the world is mind-independent. And morals has, what? A connection to the will.

Let's take this seriously. Start with Kant. An action is right just in case the maxim of the action can be willed as a law of nature. What's this about? My somewhat anachronistic hunch is that Kant, in his talk about a Kingdom of Ends, is talking about a system of optimal social coordination. If you can will a maxim as a law of nature, you are conceiving of it as a viable part of a stable, harmonious, mutually advantageous system of individual behavior. A kingdom of ends has the same pleasing complex harmony of a natural, emergently ordered complex system. In the case of a natural system, the macro-level order is a function of the bona-fide natural laws governing the micro elements. In a kingdom of ends, citizens freely WILL maxims, but the system as a whole looks AS IF each individual was deterministically governed by natural law. That a certain macro-level social order is generally beneficial to its members is just a fact about the world. If we grant that that suitably universalizable maxims are consistent with that kind of objectively good order, and other maxims are not so consistent, then our moral judgments will have some kind ojective subject matter.

The connection to the will, however, is obscure. Although an optimal social order will be by definition good for us, its realization often requires considerable forebearance on our part. If we attempt to locally maximize our well-being, and others do as well, we'll all do worse than we might. That's why we generally won't be able to universalize maxims based in present desire. But my ability to constrain maximization now requires an expectation of constraint in others. How do we ensure commitment to mutual constraint and mutual gains? Kant stipulates a thing called the good will, which, although not related to desire (it is part of the noumenal self) is able to motivate action according to qualifying maxims. It's not clear how this helps, though. It doesn't seem like it makes sense to do one's part in bringing about a kingdom of ends if not enough others will. Perhaps our interest in autonomy provides a compensating benefit. (NOTE: This is by no means Kant scholarship! This is a idiosyncratic pet quasi-Kant.)

Scanlon, like Kant, takes the content of our moral judgments to be about a kind of social ordering. Instead of a good will, he posits a general desire to be able to justify our actions to others in terms they cannot reasonably reject ('reasonably reject' meaning something like “reject as part of an 'informed, unforced general agreement' about our terms of association”). Now, if you could catch Scanlon saying something about an optimal social order, you could take him to be saying that our judgments about what we could reasonably reject are really judgments about the kinds of prinicples that are consistent with an objectiviely optimal order. But Scanlon won't have that, since there is no clear, independent standard for optimality. That is, well-being can't be understood independently of our conception of ourselves as beings who act on reasons we could justify to others, and considerations of well-being is just one consideration in the fuzzy calculus of who could reasonably reject what. (E.g., Bob, Bart and Bill have a choice over two distributions of utils. Suppose that no transfer or redistribution is possible. A: Bob: 100; Bart: 200; Bill: 300, or B: Bob: 99; Bart: 200; Bill: 1000. Bob has a superficial reason to reject B because he gets one less util. [Indeed, maximin demands A.] But Bill certainly has a reason to reject A, because he gets 700 less. It's not really reasonable for Bob to deprive Bill of 700 utils just to get an extra one for himself. How do we know? WE KNOW!) But, if there is some objective fact of the matter about a really worthwhile social order, and our judgments about wrongness, and our dispositions to act consistently with out judgments, tended to track truths about the kind of actions consistent with this kind of social order, then Scanlon would have a strong claim to objectivity connected in the right sort of way with the will.

New Blogger

— The new edition of Blogger looks great. They now have a comment system!, which I am implementing. (Try it out! Needs some formatting…) The puzzle is how to keep my old comments in the archives. For now, I'll just have them both. The isolated number, like this [n], is the link to the old comments. The link that says comments is the new Blogger system. If anyone knows of a permanent fix, please let me know.

More Human Bondage for the Public Benefit

— For a sec I though Matt was being facetious, until I got to the middle:

And of course one should be honest. A big part of the notion here is a nefarious leftwing scheme that hopes to use mandatory service as a mechanism for producing social interaction across class, regional, and ethnic lines so as to produce a more solidaristic generation. The thought, both mobility-wise and solidarity-wise, is that the “greatest generation” of conscripts built a nice, relatively egalitarian, middle-class society on the backs of GI Bill benefits and a general sense of social cohension.* Of course, they had an apocalyptic war to create the need for conscription and we do not. Nevertheless, through a sick millenial perversion I (and others like me), believe the positive externalities of conscription justify re-implementing it anyway.

Unfortunately, I guess Matt is being facetious about “sick millenial perversion.” But there is indeed something, um, unwell, about Matt's thought here. I have grave doubts about his empirical claims about the potential net benefits from conscription, but I'll set them aside. What really offends against liberal sensibility is that Matt is clearly unimpressed by the fact that concription systematically denies entire classes of people their liberty and autonomy, and blithely assumes that this sort of mass revocation of fundamental rights may be justified by a balance of positive externalities. To make matters worse, the thing that makes Matt's externalities “positive” do not seem to be neutral to competing conceptions of the political good. No doubt Matt has a special penchant for “solidarity” and “relatively egalitarian” societies, as do “others like him.” But it is distinctly illiberal to use state power with the specific design of inculcating a pet conception of the political good. And it is massively, DIZZYINGLY, illiberal to use state power to systematically strip citizens of their basic liberties in order to promote pet political values.

I can imagine positive externalities that might ensue from a policy of identifying and preemptively imprisoning teenage boys statistically most likely to later commit crimes and disturb the peace. Should we do it? Matt's proposal is morally no better, and probably much worse.

Oh, God!

— From Brio Magazine, it's Ask Suzie! …

Dear Susie:
Brio gives me comfort and conviction in my relationship with Christ, and I'm so grateful for that! However there's one element that's bothering me. I have many non-Christian friends, and it frustrates me that you say they're sinners. Does that mean there will be billions of people who will be going to hell? This is such a bothersome thought to me, and I have difficulty believing it.

I've invited my friends to church and offered them the New Testament, but they say they want to maintain their own respected religions (Judaism, Islam, etc.). These friends give so much to the community, possess sound morals and are genuinely good people. It saddens me to think they're going to hell. Is this really true, or am I worrying for nothing?

From our e-mail bag

Suzie's answer will make you rage with loathing for God. Let's hope Saddened's healthy moral sense pulls her out of this vicious nonsense. Enjoy!

Pancake Mountain!

— How is it possible that I was unaware of Pancake Mountain, a prototype of a surreal children's show featuring Ian MacKaye, Bob Mould, Thievery, Uncalled4 (a swell go go band, for you people who live in an actual state) and other “famous for DC” types? Do check out MacKaye's new endeavor, the Evens, performing “Vowel Movement” and Anti-Flag doing a quite rousing version of the Pancake Mountain theme song. Who wouldn't expose their children to luddish, anti-corporate propaganda if the music was this good? If Captain Planet had cameos by, say, Chuck Brown, I'd tune in.

Capitalism, Fascism, and Democracy

— In this review essay on a book about fascism, Terry Eagleton concludes:

The assumption that the free market and political democracy go naturally together was always pretty dubious, and fascism is one dramatic refutation of it. But we might now be moving deeper into a world where the two go together like a horse and cabbage.

We do not expect much from Eagleton, so this isn't surprising.

Now, the first sentence is a bit hazy on the meaning of “go naturally together.” If Eagleton means “are rather often found together,” there's nothing dubious about this. I don't have the statistics at my fingertips, but I do remember seeing numbers somewhere that showed a strong correlation between liberal democracy and capitalism. The question is blurred by the fact that there's no universal agreement on the right way to use these words, but I take it that the liberal democracy/free-ish markets correlation is fairly conventional wisdom.

It's clear, at least, that the sort of “democracy” where voters are frogmarched to the ballot-box to cast their vote for the resident autocrat tends not to be congenial to free markets. And we should probably expect a fully populist sort of democracy to feature plenty of redistribution from losing coalitions to winning coalitions, especially if the minority happens to dominates the market. (And we should also, I take it, expect violence in these cases. To put it in Scanlonian language, market dominant minorities have a “reason to reject” a system of principles that allows expropriation based simpy on numerical superiority, and they often express their rejection in not entirely peaceful terms.) So, yes, markets and democracy, per se, are not by their essence complements, like punch and pie.

But, according to one sort of bourgeois liberalism, there is a deep logical-normative relationship between free markets and democracy. Suppose we take it for granted that it's better for people to realize their reasonable ends than to not realize them, and that there is such a thing as cooperation to mutual advantage, i.e., interaction by which the interested parties jointly advance their ends. In general, the best piece of evidence that an interaction is mutually advantageous is that the parties to the interaction have each agreed to its terms and have carried them out. If somebody had to be forced to agreement, or to compliance with it, that's evidence that it's not really mutually advantageous. Which means that somebody's ends are being frustrated, which is a bad thing. So unless we can't avoid it, the unanimity rule should prevail as our favored principle for collective decision.

Anything less than unanimity tempts noncompliance by the overruled, which may in turn necessitate coercive means for gaining compliance, which, aside from moral qualms about coercion, is also expensive to those who have to pay for the mechanisms of force. Other things being equal, it's better to get things done voluntarily and cheaply rather than coercively and expensively. Does it require saying that, in general (negative externalities aside), the market is a system of unanimous decision, i.e., cooperation to mutual advantage? Yes, I suppose it does.

Alas, there are collective action problems and public goods, and so we often need some mechanisms of coercion and public finance to best facilitate a general system of mutual advantage. How are we decide how to implement these? If unanimity is required, everyone has a veto. But someone always stands to lose relative to any particular coercive policy. So we need a decision rule short of unanimity. That is, we need some kind of majoritarian, or extra-majoritarian democratic principle. And each of us can see that this will be to our benefit. We might lose in certain cases, but we will win overall, assuming the system's a good one. Now, which system of collective decision principles, and which structure of public roles and institutions will best constrain and control the use of state coercion and facilitate an overall system of cooperation to mutual advantage is a damn hard problem. But it remains that the point of such a system just is to facilitate such cooperation, and to help us achieve our ends in concert with others.

So it seems that the logic that governs the market is also likely to deliver democracy. Moreover, it is likely to deliver a democratic structure that will tend to minimize the ability of the ambitious to dominate the means of coercion in the manner characteristic of a fascist state. The generally negative-sum struggle for fascist state power is diametrically opposed to the positive-sum logic of cooperation that is the very heart of capitalism, and the justification of democracy.