A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

The Metaethics of the Harry Potter universe

The field of metaethics is broadly concerned with the following questions: are there any true moral facts? And if so, how can we come to know them?

As an example of what this would mean: take natural-rights libertarianism, as espoused by Robert Nozick, Murray Rothbard, and legions of spotty teenagers. According to this theory, there exist certain facts along the lines of the following:

(a) The copy of Anarchy, State, and Utopia upstairs is my property.
(b) For any entity X, if X is my property then others ought not to interfere with my usage of X unless my usage of X interferes with their usage of an entity Y which is their property.

Of course, a lot of attention in this kind of theory will be devoted to exactly what it means to say that an entity is someone's property. A standard response made by a non-libertarian philosopher would be to observe that the notion of property is entirely socially constructed. To bring out the difference between socially-constructed and non-socially-constructed features of things, compare the properties of belonging to a person and of being less dense than water. Whether something belongs to me or my neighbour is determined entirely by the beliefs of society: if everyone believes the copy of ASU upstairs belongs to my neighbour, it's not that everyone is wrong - it's that the book actually is my neighbours, and I will be obliged to return it to him at the next opportunity. If something is less dense than water, however, it matters not one jot what any of us believes - it will float, and all the assertions in the world will not change that.

Since property is socially constructed, then, perhaps we ought to construct it strategically so that it operates to the greatest advantage of all. Thus we might decide to agree that notions such as taxation are baked into the very notion of property: taxation is not theft, but simply the proper functioning of the property system. (There's a more ambitious version of this argument which holds that no property would exist without a state and so submission to the state in general is part of what it means to own property, but this is silly because (a) property has existed throughout history without the existence of states and (b) even if that were not the case, it's not at all clear how the move from an is to an ought is supposed to be occurring here).

One thing that would support natural rights libertarianism, then, would be if facts about property somehow turned out not to be socially constructed but to be intrinsic features of the world in the same way as density. It turns out that there is a well-known fictional universe in which this is the case: the Harry Potter novels, in which a key reveal towards the end of the last book is that the Elder Wand, a weapon of deadly power, never truly recognised Voldemort as its possessor - despite him having wielded it for much of the last book, ever since he ransacked the tomb of Dumbledore, a previous owner of the Wand. Instead, the wand recognised first Draco Malfoy and then Harry Potter as its true owner, despite neither of them having prior to this point even touched the wand. In the Harry Potter universe, ownership is not a social construct but a real and tangible feature of the universe - and so it may well be impossible, even if desirable, to move to a more socially beneficial meaning of the notion of "property".

Libertarians should not rejoice too quickly, however: the way the wand passes between owners almost always involves violation of the Non-Aggression Principle. Grindelwald stole it from Gregorovitch, Dumbledore kept it after defeating Grindelwald, Malfoy ambushed and disarmed Dumbledore, Harry burgled and overpowered Malfoy. While there are substantial facts about property, which stand in addition to the facts which are known through science and empiricism, they are surely different from the facts which libertarians would have us believe. Perhaps not entirely different - wands aside, most objects seem to behave much as they do in the actual universe with regard to owners - but not the same either.

As a final aside, it is interesting to note that this universe also contains one of the more notable examples of a society with markedly different but non-utopian rules concerning property. I refer, of course, to the goblins, who believe all objects to truly belong to their makers: one cannot purchase an object, only rent it for life. To pass on to one's heirs something that one did not produce oneself is regarded by goblins as theft. Unless the original maker of the Elder Wand is still alive (and according to tradition, the wand was in fact made by Death Himself), this theory must surely remain live as a possible metaethical truth about property in the Harry Potter universe.

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.