Archive for the 'Philosophy' Category

Risk and Reward

Playground Many of us, when we hear the phrase “risk and reward” think of Wall Street.  Or business in general.

But in reality, “risk and reward” affect us throughout our lives.

Our parents take a risk when they conceive us.  They hope that we will provide them with more joy and satisfaction than heartache and pain.  They pray that we will be born relatively healthy rather than sickly.

As we get older, parents do their best to provide a fine environment for us to learn and grow.  What some adults seem to have forgotten, however (if they ever knew at all) – is that all gain requires some risk.  It is impossible to achieve rewards without taking on chances of failure.  Parents want to keep us safe.  Yet, too many protections and too much removal of risk can oddly enough produce difficulties.

Safety is meaningful only in the context of other benefits and risks. Safety always involves trade-offs — of opportunities, of scarce resources and, especially in the case of children’s play, of learning to manage risk. The question is whether the trade-off makes sense. Soft rubber matting will cushion any fall. This is probably a good thing, at least in situations where children may fall on their heads. But rubber matting also gets hot.

There’s only one solution. Someone on behalf of society must be authorized to make these choices. Courts must honor those decisions. Otherwise, the pious accusations of safety fanatics, empowered by the nearly universal fear of being sued, will guarantee a cultural spiral downwards toward the lowest common denominator.

For America’s children today, that means spending more than six hours per day staring at a screen. Is that the way we want our children to grow up?

Philip Howard of The Common Good lectured several years ago at The Center of the American Experiment, and it was my pleasure to be able to hear him then.  Mr. Howard and his organization are battling to return common sense to everyday society.

None of us want a dangerous place for our children – or for adults!  Still, we must never forget that a risk-free society is impossible to achieve.  The removal of some risks must be weighed against what we are sacrificing by removing that risk.  While sometimes we agree that the risk of harm is too great – other times we can see that the purported removal of risk actually heightens the odds of other, not immediately obvious, forms of harm.

If we never forget that reward entails some risk, then we all will be better served.

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Free Riding?

Alex Taborrak has a story:

How an Economist Thinks

Over the weekend a crew came round my neighborhood offering to paint house numbers on the curb. Large bold curb numbers, they pointed out, make it easier for emergency service workers to find houses in the dark. Good argument. The price was good too. Then I noticed my neighbors were having their numbers painted. So of course, I declined.

The comments explode with wonderful econ geek goodness.

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George Lakoff: Neo-Syndicalist

Syndicalism Over the weekend I read with fascination William Saletan’s review of the new offering from George Lakoff, “The Political Mind,” and was struck by the remarkable similarities between it and the revolutionary syndicalism espoused during the prior fin de siècle.

In particular, Saletan summarizes Lakoff’s principal idea as the need for progressives to recapture the and reformulate the social myth that drives the political decisions of the masses:

Lakoff blames “neoliberals” and their “Old Enlightenment” mentality for the Democratic Party’s weakness. They think they can win elections by citing facts and offering programs that serve voters’ interests. When they lose, they conclude that they need to move farther to the right, where the voters are.

This is all wrong, Lakoff explains. Neuroscience shows that pure facts are a myth and that self-interest is a conservative idea. In a “New Enlightenment,” progressives will exploit these discoveries. They’ll present frames instead of raw facts. They’ll train the public to think less about self-interest and more about serving others. It’s not the platform that needs to be changed. It’s the voters.

Lakoff’s concept is not new, although his explanation as to why myth-making is important may be. (more…)

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What Is ASHC?

tensionThere seems to be some confusion on the part of some as to exactly what sort of place ASHC is:

I was rather surprised to read this dubious and scornful appraisal of Michael Yon’s Wallstreet Journal editorial at A Second Hand Conjecture, a heretofore conservative site.

The post Mick Stockinger is referring to was created by Joshua Foust, our resident curmudgeon. Josh took aim at Michael Yon’s apparent advocation for more troops in theater:

This leads us to the most out-of-date aspect of the Senate debate: the argument about the pace of troop withdrawals. Precisely because we have made so much political progress in the past year, rather than talking about force reduction, Congress should be figuring ways and means to increase troop levels. For all our successes, we still do not have enough troops. This makes the fight longer and more lethal for the troops who are fighting.

The title of Yon’s WSJ piece was “Let’s ‘Surge’ Some More.” So the obvious inference was that Yon thinks we should be committing more troops to Iraq as we did with Petraeus’ “surge” last year. Josh took exception with that (in his typical, short-post, snarky way), and he made a valid point: our military is admittedly stretched and strained, to the point that further commitments are not exactly feasible.

I’m not concerned here with the merits of Josh’s post, but instead with the characterization of ASHC as “a heretofore conservative site.” I understand why Mick (and others) think that, but we should set the record straight. This is not a “conservative” site by any stretch of the imagination. The great majority of us support the war in Iraq, but not based on any sort of conservative principles. Essentially we all believe that winning is possible, and that winning is in the best interests of America. The only difference between Josh and the rest of us on this score is that Josh thinks (and can cogently explain when he wants to) that the war was a mistake and that the costs of continuing it are greater than any perceived benefits. Josh and I fundamentally disagree on this point, but that does not make him “liberal” nor me “conservative.”

Which leads me to the ultimate point: ASHC is not a conservative site. We are an amalgamation of views loosely coalesced around the idea that more freedom is better than less. We each hold different views on what that means, and the sole issue on which we are diametrically opposed is with respect to the war in Iraq. Josh stands alone here on ASHC, but I defy anyone to produce a more intelligent and reasoned voice when it comes to articulating why taking on Iraq was a bad idea. Even as I routinely and vociferously disagree with Josh’s assessments, I appreciate the value that Josh adds to the discussion. In other words, Josh may be wrong, but he makes wrong look as right as anyone possibly could.

In sum, if ASHC is deemed insufficiently “conservative” because of Josh’s posts then so be it. We never claimed that moniker, nor is it one that we’ve ever expressed any interest in holding. Personally, I’m proud to have Josh as a co-blogger precisely because our views conflict. You will often find arguments here opining as to how we are winning in Iraq and the GWOT, and you’ll also see arguments suggesting that Iraq was a huge mistake. That does not make ASHC deficient in any category. It makes us more useful and interesting.

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Free Will

As a philosophy student, issues of free will were some of the most complex and intriguing that I studied. Is free will real or a chimera? If real, is it always applicable? How do we judge such questions?

At one of my favorite blogs, The Volokh Conspiracy, guest blogger Adam Kolber addresses these topics with a fascinating example.

Consider the subject of this medical case study, who had no prior history of unusual sexual behavior. At around age 40, he began to demonstrate pedophilic behaviors (e.g., he made sexual advances toward his prepubescent stepdaughter). The man was found guilty of child molestation and given the opportunity to successfully complete a sexual addiction treatment program in lieu of going to jail. Unfortunately, he made sexual advances toward others in the treatment program and was forced to leave the program. Prior to being sent to jail, he complained of severe headaches and was taken to the hospital. Doctors soon discovered that he had a brain tumor in his orbitofrontal cortex. After the tumor was surgically removed, his sexual behavior returned to normal. You have to read the full case study for all the details. The bottom line, though, is that the study authors think it quite likely that the tumor played a causal role in the subject’s inappropriate behavior.

Many of my students have the intuition that the man should not be deemed criminally responsible for his sexual activities while he had the tumor. He is certainly not responsible for having the tumor, and it seems like the crime would not have happened but for the tumor. In most jurisdictions, however, I think the subject would be unlikely to mount a successful insanity defense.

It has been argued for ages that if one is incapable of exercising rational free will, but has made choices to lose the ability to exercise rational free will, that one is still responsible for bad outcomes that may occur in such situations. Should someone whose brain is malfunctioning, however, be considered someone who had a choice in resulting bad behavior?

Do check out the the blog and Kolber’s more recent posts.

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“You grew up in freedom, and you can spit on freedom, because you don’t know what it is not to have it.”

For your viewing pleasure, watch Ayaan Hirsi Ali effortlessly dismantle the typical leftist tropes thrown at her in an interview with Avi Lewis (Naomi Klein’s husband). The quote serving as the title comes across as venomously pointed when read, but when Ali delivers it towards the end of the interview it sounds perfectly reasonable and just.

Enjoy (via Copious Dissent):

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The Wildness Lies in Wait

The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait.

-GK Chesterton

That, by the way, is my favorite quote of all time.

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Libertarian Timeline

John LockeAs told by Mother Jones … so yeah, it’s a little, umm, “slanted.” My favorite distortion:

1977: The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, is founded in San Francisco with funding from oil baron Charles G. Koch. The name comes from Cato’s Letters, newspaper articles written by two Englishmen using the pen name Cato the Younger, an allusion to the defender of republicanism in ancient Rome. With a yearly budget of nearly $20 million, Cato defends corporate empires.

Heh. OK, I guess that’s the only way a socialist rag could possibly comprehend an organization like The Cato Institute. So the list is slanted, but interesting nonetheless. C’est la vie. They did have the decency to include these gems:

1792: German philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt, in The Sphere and Duties of Government, argues that providing security is the only proper role of the state. Citizens must be granted freedom to live as they choose, he writes, because “the absolute and essential importance of human development [is] in its richest diversity.”

1819: “Every time collective power wishes to meddle with private speculations, it harasses the speculators,” complains Swiss-born thinker Benjamin Constant in France. “Every time governments pretend to do our business, they do it more incompetently and expensively than we would.”

Feel free to add what you think was left out in the comments. I’ll add the best to a post update.

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“I don’t like other people telling me what to do.”


One of the reasons I abhor communitarianism (and tend to see my political philosophy as the opposite of that) is because it vests communitarian thinkers with the self appointed power to tell me (and others) what to do. Provided, of course, that they come up with a claim to do so in the name of what they call “the common good.” “For the good of all.” It’s utilitarianism on stilts.

That’s part of Eric Scheie’s introduction to his assessment of Global WarmingBurning World as religion:

The source of today’s soon-to-be-ascendant total communitarianism (would that be “communitarian totalitarianism”?) can be summed up in two words:


It is the best thing to hit communitarian thinking since theocracy.

Depending on how you look at it, Global Warming Theory might even be a form of theocracy, and I don’t mean because it’s a form of earth worship, but because it shares something in common with all religions.

Actually, I have compared it to a theocratic regime before:

Few things annoy me more than the modern Lysenkoism of Anthropogenic Global WarmingTM and its rapturous congregation who viciously condemn any who dare challenge their scriptures. Each day it seems that we are bombarded with yet more bald-faced propaganda designed to scare us (and especially our children) into submission to the will of the environmental elite. These mullahs of climate change brook no dissension amongst their ranks, and harbor no compunction against destroying their enemies, by whatever means necessary. The Grand Imam himself jets around the world, in seeming hypocrisy, to deliver the message that the planet is doomed at the hands of evil capitalist oppressors unless we submit to the daily regimen prescribed for us at the site of his own personal Night Flight, and embodied in the Kyoto Protocol.

Well, I was obviously taking some poetic license there.

Still, leaving aside whether or not “communitarianism” is the proper moniker for the philosophy supporting AGW adherents, I think Eric summarizes the issue nicely with his lead in: “I don’t like other people telling me what to do.”

Anyone who values him or herself as an individual immediately comprehends that sentiment, and why it’s important. We all begin to part ways somewhere along the line towards being part of a community, in that we have varying degrees of tolerance for what we’ll put up with from others, but “leave me alone” is a fairly common sentiment amongst us all. This is especially so when we see no harm being done to anyone else by our behavior, thoughts, feelings, etc.

Again, that invisible line between “leave me along” and “hey, you stop that!” is different for each of us, but I would argue that we all start from a position of individual autonomy, and then agree to join larger and larger communities based on the amount of complete freedom we are willing to give up. A good indication of where that line resides generally for all people occurs when the hands of “others” reach too far into the individual sphere, such that more and more people start screaming “leave me alone!”

I think that is basically what happened with the Kelo case, which garnered broad support from Americans of all political stripes. The state taking one’s home in order to give it to another promising more benefits to the state elicited a visceral reaction from a large number of us, who instinctively found the state’s incursion to be have grossly transgressed that invisible line. “Leave me alone!” we shouted, and the individual states responded.

Perhaps AGW is beginning to have the same effect? If not, Eric points out the single most important reason why it should (my emphasis):

What I do not like (and what to me is theocracy) is when any individual or group posits that a particular theory or explanation of the unknown gives it an exclusive right to rule. Thus, I find the idea of Christian theocracy repellent, as I do Sharia, or state-enforced atheism.


I’ve lived more than half a century, and I have yet to see any system of control based on a theory of the unknown which promises to be as all-encompassing as the theory of Global Warming. That’s because we are creatures of carbon, both producers and consumers of it.

Any theory declaring carbon to be a poison declares all of us to be poison, and all of our activities to be poisonous. By doing this, Global Warming Theory is the ulimate trump card. It will reach out and touch every one of us, in every and any way imaginable and in ways none of us ever imagined.

This is really the same as the libertarian argument against universal health care: once the state has the right to intrude into the basic and fundamental areas of our individual lives, there is no stopping it, and it will soon control our entire being. Both AGW and universal health care rely on the concept of negative externalities to justify their intrusions. Both claim that individual decisions need to be checked by the state for the common good. Both rely upon the state to decide what the consequences of each individual action will be, who other than the individual will be affected and by how much, and what consequences should be used to curb such behaviors. Ultimately, both supplant the will of the individual with the will of the state as expressed by our betters, euphemistically deemed “experts.” In reality, they would be nothing more than slave-masters.

I would posit that the purveyors of AGW doom understand the invisible line quite well, and try to subvert it by painting ever more fantastic scenarios of death and destruction, scenarios which are specifically designed to overwhelm the individualist reflex we all feel when the invisible line has been crossed for us. Thus the outlandish claims put forth in propaganda pieces like An Inconvenient Truth are tolerated by those who know better, because they all want to see the end result where the common good (as defined by these same experts) abrogates the decisions of individuals.

Why would they want to do that? Well, in the end, everybody is a control freak, and we all think that the world would be a much better, saner, safer and happier place if everyone would just play by our rules. In fact, nearly every conflict of every sort has, at its root, this sentiment in one form or another — i.e. who’s in charge? The difference between individualists and “communitarians” (as Eric puts it) is that individualists eschew force in favor of reason in their pursuit of philosophical world domination, while communitarians consider force the primary means of exacting compliance since guilt only goes so far.

So where does that leave us then? Eric sums it up this way:

If mass regulation of human activity is required to save man from himself, the proper way to do that in this country is by constitutional amendment giving the government the vast and sweeping new powers it would need.

Good luck getting it through.

I hope I never live to see it.

Amen, brother. Amen.

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A Torturous Dilemma

In light of the recent discussion about torture around here, this little thought experiment seems appropriate and perhaps informative. If you don’t think that torture is ever a good choice, then read to the end of this post — you will change your mind:

If neither event is going to happen to you personally, but you still had to choose one or the other:

Would you prefer that one person be horribly tortured for fifty years without hope or rest, or that 3^^^3 people get dust specks in their eyes?

I think the answer is obvious. How about you?

Eliezer Yudkowsky, author of the dilemma, explains the number of people to receive dust specks (written as 3^^^3) as this:

3^^^3 is an exponential tower of 3s which is 7,625,597,484,987 layers tall. You start with 1; raise 3 to the power of 1 to get 3; raise 3 to the power of 3 to get 27; raise 3 to the power of 27 to get 7625597484987; raise 3 to the power of 7625597484987 to get a number much larger than the number of atoms in the universe, but which could still be written down in base 10, on 100 square kilometers of paper; then raise 3 to that power; and continue until you’ve exponentiated 7625597484987 times. That’s 3^^^3. It’s the smallest simple inconceivably huge number I know.

So the choice is between 50 years of torture for one person, or dust specks in the eyes of an unfathomably large number of people. You as an omnipotent being personally unaffected by either event must choose between the two. Would it surprise you to learn that a good number of rational, sentient and non-sadistic people would choose torture? I’m guessing it would. (more…)

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