A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Two brief thoughts

Some thoughts that I really ought to write up properly, but don't presently have the time for:

-Many people appear to think either that (P) all social constructions are bad, or (P*) that belief in (P) is central to SJWism. Hence much mockery has aimed not to point to clearly beneficial social constructs (e.g. respect, love, money) but to suggest that almost anything can be a social construct (e.g. the penis).
A more sophisticated view is that something's being a social construct points not to it being bad, but to it being replaceable or at least malleable. But even this is perhaps too simplistic. Musical harmony is a social construct - while in the West we use a 12-tone scale, many other cultures (or composers within the West, e.g. Harry Partch) use different scales with greater or smaller intervals between notes - it is hard to see how we could overturn many aspects of harmony. (Though we could of course tweak it in particular ways, e.g. moving from equal temperament to just intonation).
(edited to add: this is probably old hat to anyone who reads my blog. I'm not trying to say anything especially original here, but it occurs to me that it would be useful to have something to point to, making this point, which isn't the length of a Slate Star Codex post or three)


-In a liberal society, we want both a principle of exclusion and a principle of inclusion. Thus our society can take in and integrate outsiders, but need not roll over in the face of those who threaten it. A "Propositional Nation" goes much of the way towards this - anyone who affirms the key propositions can become a citizen, people who do not affirm those principles cannot. Contrast this with historical or blood-and-soil nationhood, as exists e.g. in UK and Scandinavia. (France is a weird case - it ought to be a kind of propositional nation given the way French nationhood developed after the revolution, but it's still more of a blood-and-soil nation). Blood-and-soil has practical advantages - among other things, a country can hardly expel native-born citizens for their political views - but lacks such an easy criterion of inclusion. Should places like the UK aim to become more "propositional" in terms of their national spirit? Can they do so without abandoning their present identities? (Can "loyalty to the queen" function as the kind of proposition that would bind a nation?)

Monday, 7 August 2017

Free Speech and Violence

Suppose Alfie hits Betty. We would hold Alfie responsible.

Suppose Alfie throws something which hits Betty - that is, the harm takes place at a distance. We would hold Alfie responsible.

Suppose Alfie throws something and doesn't check that he's throwing into an empty space, and consequently it hits Betty. The harm was not strictly intended. We would nevertheless hold Alfie responsible.

Suppose Alfie throws something which hits something else, which falls on Betty. The harm does not flow directly from Alfie; nevertheless we would hold Alfie responsible.

Suppose Alfie throws something which hits another person, who stumbles into Betty quite heavily. The harm flows through another person; nevertheless we would hold Alfie responsible.

Suppose Alfie throws something which hits another person. This person was menacing Betty with a knife, and consequently stabs her. The harm was worsened by someone else's actions. But we would still hold Alfie responsible.

Suppose Alfie throws some sound waves, conveniently produced by his mouth, at another person. This causes the person to commit an act of violence against Betty that they may not otherwise have committed. Obviously, Alfie is 100% innocent of any wrongdoing.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

An Athanasian Heresy?

I'm reading de Incarnatione by Athanasius of Alexandria, and it's brought to light a question that never really came up during my Anglican upbringing: what is the relation between sin, sinfulness, and salvation?

By sinfulness, or what Athanasius refers to as corruption, I mean the tendency towards sin. A standard Anglican view would be that our history of sinning means that we are generally unable to be with God - that is, to enter heaven. However, Jesus sacrificed himself to bear the punishment for our sins, with the result that by accepting this sacrifice we can be free from our sins and so enter heaven. Corruption, if it even enters the picture, is something that may be reduced through the work of the Holy Spirit, and which will be eviscerated entirely before we enter heaven, but it has no bearing upon the fact of our salvation. (Nor, for that matter, is there any discussion of precisely how we will cease to be corrupt: it will simply happen).

A Catholic view, as I understand it, pays more attention to this issue. Corruption cannot eternally prevent entry into heaven in the way that sin does, but it can delay it. Although Christ's death on the cross paid for our sins, we must also be purged of our corruption before ascending to heaven - hence Purgatory, in which through chastisement we are gradually purified. Eventually we emerge as the perfected visions of Christ, ready to enter heaven free of both sin and corruption. Or something. This is probably innaccurate, I am neither a Catholic nor a trained theologian.

Athanasius has a third and even more different view. There are two crucial building blocks to his view. The first, which I imagine both Anglicans and Catholics would in general be willing to accept or at least to be persuaded of, is that corruption comes as a consequence of sinning. The second, I think, would prove far more controversial.

There is danger in imputing views to historical figures, but it seems to me that Athanasius sees corruption as the primary force keeping us away from God. "Had it been a case of a trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough." (p16) Sin itself is covered by our repentance, our acknowledgement of it, with no need for Christ's death on the cross.

What, then, did Jesus come to save us from? "The Word perceived that corruption could not be got rid of otherwise than through death... For this reason, he assumed a body capable of death, in order that it, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all, and, itself remaining incorruptible through His indwelling, might thereafter put an end to corruption for all others as well, by the grace of the resurrection." (p17-18) (Apparently not even Paul himself could compete with Athanasius for overly long sentences).

Let me be blunt: I have no idea how Athanasius' model of salvation fits together. The Christ-died-for-sins is quite clear: death is a punishment, we deserved this punishment, Christ suffered it instead. The debt was paid. ("How did he in three days bear the weight of the sins from billions of entire lives?" "Shut up, that's how.") It is much harder to see how a death could remove corruption.

But perhaps it will become clear from further reading. And perhaps it provides perspective on the theological debates of today, to see that at least we agree on what the founding event of our religion meant - so ething that, it seems, cannot be taken for granted.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Hey, Remember When I Used To Do Regular Links Posts? Neither Do I!

In the spirit of cleaning out my "links" folder, a dump of things I found interesting at the time and hopefully you will too:

Perhaps you have plenty of time to get where you want to go, but are tired of dull and ugly routes. Look no further than this tool for identifying not the quickest, but the most beautiful route between two places! The only catch: it's for Yahoo rather than Google, so no-one will ever use it.

An 88-year-old man has found the ultimate trick for getting to sleep with young women under hegemonic capitalism: market yourself as a commodity! "Grandfather Busted For Prostituting Himself To Young Women".

An article about one of my favourite albums of recent years, The Lyre Ensemble's The Flood. The Flood is an attempt at recreating, or at least composing in the spirit of, ancient Babylonian music; more about the album can be found here and the album is on iTunes, my personal favourite songs are "Enkidu Curses the Harlot" and "Ishtar's Descent".

Staying on the topic of music, "Towards a 21st century orchestral music canon". Various enthusiasts chip in with their thoughts on modenr long-from orchestral music and why there's relatively little of it.

The collection of Wellcome Library, Euston Road, includes an impressive selection of calling cards for London prostitutes. Fascinating both because sex and as a reflection of the social history of London. "Until the mid-190s, the typical tart was of apparently English stock. From around 1994 onwards, we see Oriental beauties, busty Amazons and Jamaican Dominatrices. Raunchy photographs become common at this point, but are often cribbed from magazines and bear little resemblance to the goods on offer. The production values improve as well. One lady poses next to an inset that shows her recent endorsement by the News of the World."

Another library I'd have been interested to visit: that of the IRA prisoners. People are often surprised at how well-educated and middle-class most terrorists are, but you have to remember that terrorism is a fundamentally political act, which means that it is most popular among the political classes. In this light, the greater surprise is not that the prisoners were so interested in Marxism, but that they were able to establish such a remarkable compendium of works in the tradition.

Only the true Messiah denies his divinity! (via this 2009 Marginal Revolution post)

Stewart Lee defends the German sense of humour. Incidentally, a dirty Hungarian joke I heard last night about Transylvanians, but which could be about many other nationalities too:
A young Transylvanian man is getting married, and asks his father for advice concerning the wedding night. The father tells him: "First, you must pick up your new wife, to show that Transylvanians are strong. Then you throw her on the bed, to show that Transylvanians are masculine. Then you remove your clothes, to show that Transylvanians are beautiful. And I'm sure you can work out what to do from there."
After the newlyweds return from their honeymoon, and the delighted son checks in with his father. "It was just like you said! I picked her up, to show that Transylvanians are strong. I threw her on the bed, to show that we are masculine. I removed our clothes, to show that we are beautiful. And then I stood next to the bed and masturbated, to show that Transylvanians are independent and autonomous!"

Robert Wiblin has one of the most interesting Facebook feeds I know, and this is a particular highlight: a discussion of "What's the strongest argument against a political position you hold dear?"

Everyone likes to joke about homoerotic readings of the relationship between Batman and Robin, but this is an impressively thorough history.

The complaint that English people only know England, and have no idea of how the world works or of how they are perceived beyond their borders, is a familiar one: I hear it all the time from Scots and Northern Irish. If I had any Welsh friends they'd probably say the same thing, the British-but-not-English countries are all basically the same anyway. In any case, an expat skewers this mentality from a more international perspective, with regard to our beloved "athlete" Eddie the Eagle.

Braess' Paradox: adding capacity to a road network can increase congestion, without changing the volume of traffic!

Edward Feser explains a particular view of the nature of heaven and hell, according to which people choose to go to hell. Warning: relies on kooky metaphysics (though nonetheless fascinating if you have an interest in theology).

A defence of Napoleon, portraying him as a great reformer who sought to avoid war, at least following his return to power in the Hundred Days. In a similarly revisionist but less hot-takey, more plausible vein, various instances of private violence being taken over by the government as a way to restrain and control it. "Many southern states tightened "Jim Crow" racial codes between the World Wars as part of an attempt to stop lynchings"!

Since I may have just defended governments, better even it out with a reminder that many of them are literally evil: as famine is declared in two counties of South Sudan, the government increases the fee for work permits for foreign aid workers from $100 to $10,000.

Some people just hate progress: an argument against colonising Mars. That said, perhaps the problem is that Mars is the wrong target and we should aim for Venus first.

A takedown of certain elite views that war with China is inevitable. Convincing as an explainer, I particularly enjoyed the section suggesting that the same argument imply inevitable war between the US and Europe.

Friday, 9 June 2017

The Banter Heuristic Strikes Again!

So Theresa May is bringing the DUP into a governing coalition:

-After campaigning in 2015 on the fact that a Labour government would rely on a purely Scottish party with 5% of the vote, the Tories go into government with a purely Northern Irish party with 0.9% of the vote.
-After calling an election in order to obtain a strong majority, the Tories lose the majority they had.
-After branding Corbyn a friend of terrorists, the Tories bring some actual (former) terrorists into the governing coalition.
-A mass movement of socially liberal youngsters has brought a climate-change-denying anti-abortion anti-LGBT party into the government.
-The DUP can't even govern Northern Ireland due to a corruption scandal, but they're going to be helping to govern the whole of the UK.

Can anything top this bants?

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

In Condemnation of Enthusiasm

Over the last few days I've tweeted various thoughts about tomorrow's general election. The key points I have made, expanded to take advantage of there being no 140 characters limit and to include explanation I didn't really give at the time:

(1) May and Corbyn are both absolutely awful.


(2) It's very difficult to say who is worse. I suggested, however, that May is probably worse in the long-run. (And ultimately, the long-run is the only thing that matters):

(2a) May is likely to make changes not just to our laws, but to our very society.

(2ai) Firstly, by massively restricting immigration (and quite possibly forcing out foreign citizens who are already present), she will remove many of our most reliably cosmopolitan members. Second, our population is already ageing and immigration is one of the things keeping it from going up faster - both because immigrants themselves are typically relatively young, but also because they raise the fertility of native Brits.

(2aii) Second, May is moving away from entrusting immigration control to a few sociopaths on the border and more to employers and landlords. If they employ or let to unauthorised immigrants, then they will be punished - so they will have to be vigilant to avoid this. Given the way that government enforcement tends to create public acceptance (see chapter 6), I think this is likely to further contribute to negative views of immigration and immigrants.

(2b) As Rory also notes, Corbyn is likely to fail a lot more visibly than May. Perhaps we undergo a few years of stagnation or recession, fine. Hopefully people see this isn't working and after a decade or so of self-inflicted misery, we end up with better policies. (This feels relevant, though I'm not certain how).


(3) But ultimately, this is just a guess. I would put my confidence that May is worse somewhere between 55% and 60%, and would not blame anyone for deciding that either May or Corbyn is the lesser evil.


(4) Anyone who has a reasonable knowledge and understanding of economics ought to realise that both are awful, and enthusiasm for either one indicates that you should views on politics should not, in general, be taken seriously. (This is not intended as a personal slight. There is nothing wrong with knowing nothing about politics, any more than there is with knowing nothing about car maintenance. The problem comes when one attempts to force one's uninformed views on others, rather than leaving politics well enough alone).

(4ai) Donald Trump received just under 63 million votes last year. The overwhelming majority of those were not from out-and-out racists, but rather from people who think that it is more important that the president have an R next to his or her name than that he or she be a sound thinker of calm disposition who adheres to even basic standards of ethical conduct. Party loyalty and partisanship allows people to overlook terrible flaws in their candidate; to be enthusiastic for either May or Corbyn, rather than resigned to whoever one takes to be the less bad candidate, is to place oneself in the same category as those millions who elected the ape currently occupying the White House. If the candidate one supports is less bad than Trump, this has nothing do with one's own virtues and everything to do with the fact that one is fortunate enough to live in a place with less awful candidates than the US.

(4aii) Anyone who genuinely believes in communism ought never to be allowed anywhere near government office, regardless of what they profess in order to get elected (or to be acceptable in polite society). Firstly, this belief displays a severe lack of judgement, and judgement is key to good governance. Second, the communist will attempt to implement communist policies, constrained by what they think they can get away with.
Tony Blair was acceptable is Prime Minister because he demonstrated, in particular by forcing the rewriting of Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution, that he was not any kind of communist. He was not someone who wanted communism but would settle for being able to implement liberal policies with a leftist slant; rather, he genuinely accepted the superiority of liberalism over communism. If one is the kind of leftist who ought to be entrusted with power, then one will - as a genuine liberal - be horrified at the prospect of Corbyn getting to implement his policies.

(4b) Both (4ai) and (4aii) are valid criticism of some enthusiastic Labour supporters. However, attributing both to any individual voter is perhaps to make things overdetermined. If one is a full-on socialist, then while one almost certainly despises the Tories this is hardly necessary for one to gather around the Labour flag. Similarly, becoming a loud and enthusiastic Corbynite merely to keep the Tories out has its own problems, but it does not indicate a deficit of judgement in the way that being a genuine Marxist does.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Eugenics: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Eugenics is the attempt to improve the genetic quality of the human population. Some people might object to the notion that we can talk of "genetic quality", insisting that all people are fundamentally equal and that this rules out the possibility that some genes are better than others. I say this is nonsense. A gene that predisposes you to be unhappy, violent, or stupid, with no other effects, is clearly bad. No parent should want their child to inherit such a gene. If this is contrary to human equality, then so much the worse for human equality.

With that out of the way, I wish to suggest a division of our notion of "eugenics" into three categories: pro-natal eugenics, which aims to increase the number of people being born with preferable genes; anti-natal eugenics, which aims to reduce the number of people being born with less-preferable genes; and improvement eugenics, which aims to improve the genetic quality of people who are going to be born anyway. An example of pro-natal eugenics would be providing financial subsidies for high-IQ couples to have children; an example of anti-natal eugenics would be compulsory sterilisation of people judged to be defective in certain ways; an example of improvement eugenics would be screening embryos for disease among people undergoing IVF treatment.

These different kinds of eugenics ought to be assessed differently. My key thesis here is that improvement eugenics is clearly desirable, pro-natal eugenics is likely to be anti-egalitarian but that the good consequences may well outweigh this, and that confusing these with anti-natal eugenics is responsible for most of our worries about eugenics. (I'm not going to take a strong position on whether anti-natal eugenics might be overall justified, but it seems far more problematic than either of the other kinds).

There is a risk with any of these programs that policy-makers will seek to promote not good traits but traits which they personally like - for example, particular colours of skin. We should acknowledge this danger, should fight against all such misapplications of eugenics, and may find that the risk of abuse is to high to practice any eugenics. But I maintain that these practical issues are irrelevant to the in-principle-acceptability of certain kinds of eugenics.

Improvement Eugenics

When we talk about ways to improve outcomes for people who will exist anyway in ways which don't involve genetics, no-one bats an eyelid. Controls on lead emissions are obviously desirable. Education, insofar as it represents real improvements in people's capabilities rather than just a form of signalling, is similarly desirable. The only question, then, is whether the fact of these changes being genetic rather than through other mechanisms makes a moral difference.

It does introduce some extra reasons to be concerned, to be sure. Genetic changes are rather harder to reverse than many other kinds of change: if it had turned out that we were wrong about lead and that it was in fact vital to children's development, we could start pumping it into the air and would within a few years fix much of the damage caused; if it turned out that an incident of gene editing had significant negative consequences, this would take longer to correct and would require significantly greater resources, if it was even possible. But this does not affect the case, on the level of pure principle, for improvement eugenics.

Some people object that by meddling with genes, we are "playing God". Given that I don't believe in any kind of God, at least in the conventional sense, I'm not inclined to take this kind of argument seriously. Besides which, such arguments seem woefully underspecified. What is that makes fixing people's genes blasphemous, but throwing a ball not blasphemous? Both involve meddling with the world in certain ways which might happen to be either in accordance with or contrary to God's will. I'd be happy to have this discussion with a serious religious thinker willing to supply such a condition, but in the absence of such an interlocutor I feel the attempt would be a waste of time.

Perhaps changing someone's genes involves some kind of interference with their autonomy. OK, but it can also improve their autonomy if it leads to higher intelligence, conscientiousness, or similar. Moreover, it's highly unclear why we should take their natural set of genes as the moral default from which any deviation must be justified.

Ultimately, it's hard to see why we shouldn't edit out things like hereditary diseases from the human genome, unless there are significant side-effects of doing so. Is it right to save life, or to kill?


Pro-natal eugenics

This is more problematic than improvement eugenics. Most obviously, it's likely to involve anti-egalitarian transfers of resources and welfare, since the people we would be attempting to incentivise to have more children would in many cases be those who already have plenty. (Perhaps the solution would be, rather than rewarding high-IQ types for having more children, punishing them for having fewer children? But even if this is judged worthwhile when intelligence we wish to encourage, it becomes rather less palatable when trying to encourage greater procreation by people with genes that lead them to be more pro-social than average, or other things we view as virtuous).

That said, I think in general this ought not to be much more controversial than improvement eugenics. If you accept my arguments that people benefit from existing, and you think that certain people create net positive externalities for the rest of society (and would continue to do so on the margin if there were more of them), then why would you not want more of those people? Yes it has certain inegalitarian aspects, but any good Rawlsian should recognise than in the end we all benefit.


Anti-natal eugenics

This is the bad boy. This is the kind of eugenics responsible for giving eugenics in general a bad name, the kind of eugenics used to justify forced sterilisation of despised minorities.

When considering any kind of anti-natal eugenics aimed at abolishing a condition X, there are two questions to be asked: (1) what does X mean for the quality of life of the person who possesses it? (2) Do people with X tend to make the rest of society worse off?

If the answer to (1) is that X usually makes people's lives not worth living, as with certain medical conditions, then we do not need any kind of eugenic principle to justify preventing people with condition X from coming into existence: we need only a sense of mercy.

If the answer to (2) is no, that they simply end up in a worse condition than the average member of society - so what? Let these people live, let their parents have full reproductive freedom!

The complicated cases come when a person is fully capable of having a life worth living, but would impose costs on society in doing so. Sometimes these costs will be concrete, such as those who are in important ways disabled at a young age and so require another person to act as a full-time carer. Sometimes they will be harder to detect, such as the stuff Garett Jones writes about. My tentative inclination is to think that some anti-natal eugenics may be permissible in such cases, but I cannot claim to have thought this through in any great detail. Moreover, any interests society may have in avoiding these costs must be weighed against various interests - in particular procreative interests and bodily autonomy - of the would-be parents of children with condition X. Paying criminals to be sterilised is probably acceptable, mandatory sterilisation is probably not.


Conclusion

Eugenics gets a bad rap due to the genuinely reprehensible things which it has been used to justify. However, eugenic interventions aimed at improving the genetic quality of people who will be born in any case and/or at increasing the fertility of people with desirable traits are in principle morally acceptable - though we might nevertheless have justified worries about the practicalities of such programs.