This Argument Needs Cognitive Enhancement

Andrew Sullivan says this essay by Justin D. Barnard, director of the Carl F.H. Henry Institute for Intellectual Discipleship at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, is “the most convincing case I've seen against cognitive enhancing drugs.” I guess that means Sullivan has yet to see a very convincing case against cognitive enhancing drugs.

Like the athlete who uses steroids, those who advocate the “responsible use” of cognitive-enhancing drugs among the healthy falsely presuppose that one or two cognitive goods among many are the most important goods among the many that constitute the life of the mind considered as a whole. They presume, in other words, that cognitive improvement (and by extension, human improvement) is exclusively a function “adding” information and “better” information processing. 

This presumption is simply false. For while the capacities to procure and to process information are indeed goods of human life, they are neither the highest of human goods nor are they ends in themselves. Yet, the use of cognitive enhancers by the healthy implicitly treats the single good at which the drug aims as though it were the most important or only good of one’s mental life considered as a whole. As our thought-experiment about robotic baseball makes clear, if merely thinking (very fast!) about lots of information were the most important or only good of the human mental life considered as a whole, why not simply replace us with computers? 

This is a blatantly poor argument. First, why is “responsible use” in scare quotes? If scare quotes can beg the question, then Barnard's quotes are fallacious. Second, why does Barnard assert that proponents of the responsible use of cognitive-enhancing druges “presuppose that one or two cognitive goods among many are the most important goods among the many that constitute the life of the mind considered as a whole.” Who presupposes this? No one, I hazard. So what's the point of this exercise?

This morning, like every morning, I had some coffee. I wasn't thinking of it in quite these terms, but “cogntive enhancement” was part of my aim. I daresay I use coffee responsibly, but in doing so I presuppose nothing in particular about “mental life considered as a whole.” I recently bought new running shoes, which I certainly hope will (responsibly!) enhance my ability to run, but I do not therefore presuppose that the single good of physical life as a whole is to run as fast as possible. You can do lots of things with your body. You can do lots of things with your mind. Why not do them a little better? 

Does the fact that I would like to run faster imply that I ought to be replaced by my dog, who runs faster than me, or by my car, which moves faster than either of us? Does my interest in personal speed enhancement imply I should replace my dog with a cheetah, or my Honda with a Maserati? I'd think not. I want to run, so the point is to enhance my physical performance. I want to write an essay, so I use caffeine and methylphenidate to help me maintain my otherwise fragile focus. What do robots have to do with anything. Does Bernard really suppose that there is someone somewhere sitting around longing to maximize something or other's information processing. That I am sleepy and I would like to stay alert implies the desire to be made obsolete by sleepless machines? 

Is there something special about drugs? A calorically sufficient, well-balanced diet is cognitively enhancing. A slide-rule is an effective mental prosthetic, not to mention a computer. Reading is utterly unnatural and learning to do it is a big cognitive upgrade. So is, for that matter, taking an elementary principles of reasoning course. Perhaps the Carl F.H. Henry Institute for Intellectual Discipleship should offer one. I'm sure they could manage to do it responsibly.

Libertarian Ideal Theory as Silent Complicity

Steven W. Thrasher in the NY Times a couple days ago:

In 1958, when my mother, who was white, and father, who was black, wanted to get married in Nebraska, it was illegal for them to wed. So they decided to go next door to Iowa, a state that was progressive enough to allow interracial marriage. My mom’s brother tried to have the Nebraska state police bar her from leaving the state so she couldn’t marry my dad, which was only the latest legal indignity she had endured. She had been arrested on my parents’ first date, accused of prostitution. (The conventional thought of the time being: Why else would a white woman be seen with a black man?)

On their wedding day, somehow, my parents made it out of Nebraska without getting arrested again, and were wed in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on March 1, 1958. This was five years before Nebraska would strike down its laws against interracial marriage, and almost a decade before the Supreme Court would outlaw miscegenation laws throughout the country in Loving v. Virginia.

When the good state of Iowa conferred the dignity of civic recognition on my parents’ relationship — a relationship some members of their own families thought was deviant and immoral, that the civil authorities of Nebraska had tried to destroy, and that even some of my mom’s college-educated friends believed would produce children striped like zebras — our family began. And by the time my father died, their interracial marriage was seen just as a marriage, and an admirable 45-year one at that.

I suppose some of you will say that the “libertarian” position in 1958 was that the state has no place in marriage, and so the libertarian, as such, would have had nothing to say about the refusal of many states to recognize marriages between mixed-race couples. But in the world as it was, this stance would have amounted to an active refusal to resist the law's codification of racial discrimination and segregation. It would have made one a silent partner in injustice. Those making similar arguments today will have to excuse me if I find this stance disgraceful. Many libertarians think there ought to be no government regulation of the economy, for example, but do not hesitate to take the practice for granted when they loudly opine about the extent and structure of regulation. Few say, “There should be no regulation, and so I, as a libertarian, have no opinion about how it should be carried out.” Yet I hear again and again that, since the state should not be in the business of marriage, one should not, as a libertarian, have an opinion about how this business is to be carried out. Increasingly, I find this an obnoxious and shameful form of moral recusal. One cannot use an ideological image of perfect justice to excuse or ignore an obvious injustice within the actual imperfect system. That these injustices could not arise within one's vision of the best society does not mean that they have not in fact arisen. That a debate would not occur in an ideal world does not mean that it is not occuring or that nothing morally hangs on its conclusion. To decide to sit out the debate, with an eye on utopia, is not a way to keep one's hands clean.

Falsity: Not a Hill Worth Dying On

If I read him right, Robert Stacy McCain’s argument for state-enforced marriage inequality (“a hill to die on”!) is that there is a DEEP TRUTH about inequalities between men and women that must continue to be observed:

Feminist ideologues insist that men and women are not merely equal in the Lockean sense — having the right to life, liberty and property — but are radically equal in the sense of being inherently identical.

The differences between men and women, according to the egalitarian view, are so trivial that the law must forbid any recognition of such differences, so that the sexes are treated as interchangeable. As I argued in January, it is from a careless acquiescence to this egalitarian falsehood that Americans have been steadily — one might well say “progressively” — marched to the point where the Iowa Supreme Court mandates gay marriage and anyone who questions that ruling is dismissed as an ignorant, hateful bigot suffering from the mental disorder of “homophobia.”

What did McCain argue in January?

Are men and women equal in the fullest sense of the word? If so, then equality implies fungibility — the two things are interchangeable and one may be substituted for the other in any circumstance whatsoever. (La mort à la différence!) Therefore, it is of no consequence whether I marry a woman or a man.


This is why so many of those who would defend traditional marriage find themselves unable to form a coherent argument, because traditional marriage is based on the assumption that men and women are fundamentally different, and hence, unequal. Traditional marriage assumes a complementarity of the sexes that becomes absurd if you deny that “man” and “woman” define intrinsic traits, functions, roles.

To declare men and women unequal, however, puts one outside the law — you are guilty of illegal discrimination if you say that there is any meaningful difference between men and women. Yet if you refuse to argue against sexual equality, you cannot argue effectively against gay marriage, and find yourself subjected to lectures about “accessing the positive social norms” with nothing important to say in reply.

I suppose one could say this is refreshingly frank. But let’s think about the argument (setting aside McCain’s risible claims to membership in some legally and socially persecuted class of put-upon sexist homophobes).

Like many conservatives, McCain makes libertarian noises when it suits him, but when it comes right down to it, he believes the role of the state is to reinforce “traditional” social forms though the law. The “libertarian” conservative rarely wants the state to leave people alone. He wants social change to leave state-enforced legal inequality alone, which is, after all, a proud tradition, sanctified by history. As McCain says, “traditional marriage”—and the state that ensures the exclusivity of its privileges—assumes certain “intrinsic traits, functions, roles” for men and women. He wants the state to police these imagined distinctions. And he very clearly recognizes that there is an alternative “egalitarian” view according to which the there is no relevant difference between men and women—as far as a just scheme of laws is concerned. So he recognizes that there is a stark moral disagreement between egalitarians and anti-egalitarians. McCain clearly has no problem with the state taking sides in this disagreement. He demands that the state take sides with anti-egalitarians. Indeed, he thinks the conservative movement ought to be willing to die fighting to ensure the state keeps taking the side of inequality.

Now, the conservative tends to make two arguments in this kind of dispute. First, that the inequality they wish to preserve in law is an inequality that has been there a long time. Second, that the inequality reflects a DEEP TRUTH about humanity. Generally, these are linked. The inequality in question is embedded in law and tradition because it reflects a DEEP TRUTH. So the fundamental issue is the DEEP TRUTH’s truth. McCain seems to accept that everything turns on this. He seems to know that if he’s wrong about this, he has no case against marriage equality.

The problem for McCain is that you don’t need to be a feminist ideologue to see that the alleged DEEP TRUTH is in fact an especially vulgar instance of the naturalistic fallacy. From the point of view of a decent morality, men and women are equal in all morally relevant respects. Marriage is important to men and women. Family is important to men and women. So a morally decent set of laws ought to maintain the conditions under which men and women are able to express their love and commitment through marriage and realize their desires to raise families. The problem is precisely that the law fails to do this. The reason it fails is that the law (in most states; not here in Iowa!) reflects the still-popular but intellectually bankrupt view that biological regularities establish binding moral guidelines.

Now, no two individuals are identical, and differences in capacities and preferences are relevant to differences in individual reasons and plans. The capacities and preferences of average men and average women mostly overlap, but sometimes they starkly diverge. But the divergence in capacity and preference between an average man and an average women is no more interesting morally than the differences between two individuals of the same sex. If I like brunettes and McCain like blondes, so be it. And if I like women and McCain likes men, so be it. The fact that an individual’s capacities and preferences diverge from the statistical norm for their sex has no interesting moral implications, either. 

It is a fact that most men and women find something deeply meaningful in the complementarity of masculinity and femininity. It is a fact that most couples who marry will form families in the usual mammalian way. But recognizing  equality under the law with respect to marriage does nothing to change this. It does nothing whatsoever to keep statistically average men and women from doing what they will do anyway. It is also a fact that the law, as it now stands in most states, prevents certain men and women from enjoying the legal privileges of marriage and protection for their less conventional families. To see the move to rectify this injustice as itself some kind of injustice simply because men are convex and women are concave is an embarrassing absurdity, not a hill worth dying on.


John Holbo knows what's up:

What do the [National Review] editors, and Gallagher, really think? The ick argument, I’ll wager. They want to stop same-sex marriage as a way of sending a message of ‘ick’ to gays, and about gays. But they also don’t want to be labeled homophobes. That is, although saying ‘gay marriage shouldn’t be allowed because I believe gay sex is icky’ is actually a less terrible argument than anything they’ve got – hey, it’s not flagrantly internally incoherent, it’s basically honest (I’ll wager), and who doesn’t believe that on some level people steer, morally, by emotional attraction-repulsion drive? – it’s considered embarrassing. (Homophobia: the yuck that dare not speak its name.) And, even if it weren’t embarrassing, it’s obviously not strong enough in the current environment. So what do you do? You end up thoughtlessly backing into something that’s frankly orders of magnitude worse than just saying gay sex is icky. Namely, gays are un-persons, so far as the state is concerned.

What makes these arguments so weird is the mildness of the underlying opposition to homosexuals and homosexuality – the implicit inclination to be basically tolerant. ‘C’mon, gays, you know you’re ok, and we know you’re ok, and you even know that we know you’re ok, but we don’t like it, so can’t there be some way that we can insist on us being a little better than you? It can be a small thing. Symbolic, but slightly inconvenient for you, so people know it’s also serious?’


Reasons to Have Zero Kids

The first one hits marital satisfaction hard

An eight-year study of 218 couples found 90 percent experienced a decrease in marital satisfaction once the first child was born.

“Couples who do not have children also show diminished marital quality over time,” says Scott Stanley, research professor of psychology at University of Denver. “However, having a baby accelerates the deterioration, especially seen during periods of adjustment right after the birth of a child.”

Parents are more likely to be depressed than non-parents.

A new study shows that raising [children] is a lifelong challenge to your mental health.

Not only do parents have significantly higher levels of depression than adults who do not have children, the problem gets worse when the kids move out.

“Parents have more to worry about than other people do—that's the bottom line,” said Florida State University professor Robin Simon. “And that worry does not diminish over time. Parents worry about their kids' emotional, social, physical and economic well-being. We worry about how they're getting along in the world.”


“People should really think about whether they want to do this or not,” Simon said of parenting.

Neither study summary mentions the effect of having two children compared to one, or three compared to two, etc. It may be that once you've taken that big first step toward depression and marital dissatisfaction, the extra kid doesn't make things any worse. But if I were Bryan I'd be sure to track down this data and check it out. 

[NB: I still want kids!]

Doherty Defends "Folk Activism"

In today's installment of Cato Unbound, Reason senior editor Brian Doherty defends “folk activism” (that's we do here at Cato, in case you're wondering) against Patri Friedman's complaints of ineffectuality

Doherty argues, in effect, that Friedman's effort to simply go out and float a boat on which one can do whatever floats one's boat is parasitic on earlier “folk activist” aimed at persuasion. It is hard to find 20,000 people who will commit to moving to New Hampshire for the cause of liberty and, as Brian points out, it's even harder to find people who will now commit to moving to a man-made island. The viability of projects like Seasteading seems to depend on the success of prior evangelism. 

That said, one of the merits of Friedman's “dynamic geography” is that it is not really a “libertarian” project at all. As he writes in his Unbound lead essay:

Because we have no a priori knowledge of the best form of government, the search for good societies requires experimentation as well as theory — trying many new institutions to see how they work in practice.

I think there's good reason to expect competing sea-top jurisdictions to settle on a scheme of governance more libertarian than what the world's current nation states have to offer. But I also think there's little reason to expect a seastead to embody the system of most libertarians' dreams unless a lot of libertarians coordinate and settle there. In that case, it's really clear that creating a libertarian society from whole cloth depends on the prior existence of libertarians, which depends on the success of the folk activism that produces them.

For more on seasteading, check out yesterday's Cato Policy forum with Patri Friedman.

[Cross-posted at Cato@Liberty]

How the Promise of Future Subsidies Can Freeze Markets

I think Casey Mulligan nails it:

The [Chicago city] council has debated mandating hybrid purchases. But the rumor among taxi drivers is that in addition, or perhaps instead, the city or other government agency will eventually subsidize the purchase of a hybrid.

Drivers have decided that they should not purchase a Prius or other hybrid until the subsidy arrived. Buying one now would mean over-paying.

Regardless of whether it is realistic to expect Chicago to someday subsidize purchases of hybrid taxis, the fact is that some cab drivers are considering the possibility. If taxi drivers consider future subsidies in their industry, then so must bank executives.

Last fall the public learned that banks were not selling many of their legacy mortgages and mortgage-backed securities, despite the impression that ownership of the assets were hindering the banks’ lending. A variety of theories have been put forward to explain this failure, and to suggest what the government might do to fix it.

But the lack of trade in mortgage-backed securities may have something in common with the lack of trade in hybrid Chicago taxicabs. The secondary market for legacy mortgages may have stagnated largely because of the (ultimately correct) anticipation of a huge government subsidy.

Ladies Still Not Taxpayer Dispensers

At Slate, Kerry Howley talks sense to Michelle Goldberg about the doubtful feminist wisdom of using population panic as a pretext for putatively “feminist” policies. Goldberg has clearly neglected Howley's powerful Reason feature on natalist policy from which I offer this concluding excerpt:

But as pro-baby policies are inevitably sold as pro-mother, and by extension pro-woman, it’s worth recalling the sentiment behind the Australian birth premiums and Singaporean matchmaking schemes. At the heart of any fertility incentive lies an attempt to encourage a particular group of women to orient their bodies in a traditional way. Every pro-fertility policy is an effort to slow cultural transformation, to stabilize a society’s ethnic composition, to ossify a current conception of a national culture by freezing the genetic makeup of a nation. From Poland to Singapore, swollen wombs are a bulwark against change.

There is a reason we speak of “Mother Russia” and “Mother India.” Feminist sociologists such as Nira Yuval-Davis refer to women as the “boundary markers” of a state or society. While men may leave, fight, and be compromised, women represent purity and continuity. Yuval-Davis points out in her book Gender and Nation that the Hitler Youth Movement had different mottos for girls and boys. The boys’ motto was: “Live faithfully; fight bravely; die laughing.” For girls: “Be faithful; be pure; be German.” Girls simply had to be. They were the collective.

In times of great social anxiety, we see new calls for women to return to home and hearth—calls alternately cast as a return to tradition and as a progressive leap forward, but efforts, nonetheless, to enlist women in a national project while defining the boundaries of national inclusion. Depopulation is not a given, but ideologically fraught and scientifically questionable debates about gender, race, and culture will be with us no matter which way the population swings. “To know what demography is, we need to know what a population is,” the French social scientist Herve Le Bras wrote in The Invention of Populations. “That is where the trouble begins.” 

[Full disclosure: K.L. Howley and I co-own a rumbustious vizsla.]