A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Monday, 20 February 2017

My Experience of Race

Michael Story has yet another interesting question on Facebook:
Facebook pals, what's the most direct personal reason you have for your political beliefs? Not ideology, but experiences, wants, cares etc. 
Like I (probably wrongly, genetics etc) attribute my vague conservatism to living in the 3rd and 2nd worlds and seeing our 1st world political and social institutions from distance as immensely precious, fragile and in need of protection. My vague liberalism comes from being eccentric, highly open to other eccentric people and wanting us all to flourish.
Several of the responses deal with issues of race, which led me to think about my own experience of it. I'm as WASP as they come, but have known plenty of people of other races - both immigrants in the UK, and fellow students from around the world at CEU. It's hard to pinpoint any particular views I hold as a result of this, but it's also difficult to deny that my perceptions of race have been affected by what I have seen.

My primary school had a minority of immigrants, although it's long enough ago that I struggle to remember exactly what proportion of the school they were. I remember H (presumably Korean descent, I won't name this person for reasons which will soon be obvious), Nafees and Pardeep (Indian subcontinent), Reuel Clarke (Caribbean maybe?), David Edeke (going by surname, clearly African), Paige (if Mauritians count), Jason Inniss (African maybe?), and am fairly confident there were others who came and left before them. There was also Nikolai, who was half-German half-Russian and left for Germany when we were ten. Again this reliant upon a shaky memory, but I'd guess the school was on average working-to-lower-middle class; I, being upper-middle, was probably in hindsight one of the poshest people there. (I was also one of three people in my year, our of 27 who were there at the end, to go to a selective secondary school. It will not surprise you one bit to learn that the other two were Nafees and Pardeep).

Were the friendship groups in that group stratified by race? Can't really say by memory, since I don't really remember what they were outside my own (none of my most immediate friends were among those mentioned above, although I got along well enough with Nafees and Pardeep of course, and another friend, Jacob, was American if memory serves). I do remember that the most persistent victim of bullying was H. (I was what you'd call complicit in the bullying - pretty certain I never practiced any violence on him personally, but I was watching and laughing when various of my friends - and one guy in particular - would push him down the slope next to the playground. Certainly my behaviour then is something of which, in hindsight, I am deeply ashamed).

Then we move on to secondary school. I went to King Edward VI Camp Hill Grammar School for Boys, where white were definitely the largest ethnic group but more likely a plurality than a majority. We had lots of people from the Indian subcontinent, a notable contingent of Chinese descent, and the occasional person from various other races. At least within my year group, race was visible and was treated as a joke. When choosing sides for football, we would name one team - typically the one with the most blacks - "EDL". We had Racist Wednesdays, in which everyone would tell jokes about the other races (I remember that whites were mocked for our lack of athletic ability and Asians - "freshies", as in fresh-off-the-boat - for their accents) in a spirit of good fun. Less edgily, the combination of A-levels in Maths and three Sciences (possibly plus Further Maths) was referred to as "the Asian equation", although there were plenty of white guys taking it as well.

So race was visible, noted, and mocked. What of the friendship groups? Well, that's the thing - while absolutely everyone (so far as I could tell) had some friends of different races, and there definitely wasn't anything you could refer to as tension between the races, any given pair of people were considerably more likely to be friends if they were of the same race. Years 10 and 11 come to mind, when during form period we had a room with a fairly clear racial divide in seating patterns - Asians in the back left (aside from Nafees - a different Nafees from the one mentioned earlier, to be clear), whites and Immarni through the front and right, and Chinese all dispersed into other classes within the year group.

In contrast to my primary school, this was a very fine grammar school in which pretty much everyone had at least one parent in the civil service. It was what you would rightly expect to be a beacon of progressivism in the most Moldbuggian sense imaginable. And yet we still had this pattern of racial division.

Then I went off to the University of Manchester to study PPE. The PPE course itself was mostly, though by no means exclusively, white - but it was also noticeable how much the racial composition of different courses varied. Our economics lectures contained vast numbers of Chinese students, here for a degree, who you would never ever see outside the classroom. There were actually a couple of far-eastern students, Haydn (Hong Kong maybe? He's not on Facebook, which makes checking hard) and Shuen (Malay) on the edges of my immediate friendship group, and in first-year halls I had a couple of Chinese students as flatmates - one of whom left his room for lectures, to cook, and by the end of the year to play us at chess, and one who I saw perhaps twice in the whole year and who I don't think even went to lectures.

Philosophy, by contrast, was the whitest discipline imaginable. (That said, white did not just mean English - I met a surprisingly large number of Cackalack Americans on philosophy courses). Politics had plenty of minority students, but they were immigrants or progeny of immigrants rather than students from abroad. A more general note, and a very sad one for what it says, it that this was perhaps my first time with absolutely no peers of African descent. They'd been present at St. Mary's Primary School, they were unusual but just-about present at Camp Hill; the only people of that ethnicity I can remember from Manchester were a black-Jamaican medic who went to my church and the security guard at the on-campus Sainsbury's.

With the aforementioned caveat about lots of Chinese students with whom we didn't really interact, I had a reasonably racially mixed friendship group. Among my ten or so closest friends on the course were Naz Nahar (Bangladeshi descent, though we joked that it was spray-on tan), Rachel So (Cantonese descent, though her Cantonese was about the level of my Hungarian) and Jawdat Nassour (from Lebanon, although after graduation he made his immigration permanent; I don't know what Haydn did, and Shuen is currently at grad school in New York City).

Outside of the course, my friends were rather whiter. I did kayaking, a hobby in which I can't ever remember seeing a single non-white comrade; I went to church, which had black families but few black students (although in first year I was friends with a visiting Singaporean student). Giving What We Can: Manchester was very diverse within Europe, being led by a guy of Romanian descent and having as one of the most active members a Portugese student, but was ultimately as white as the rest of philosophy.

So then, on to CEU. CEU is a highly international university, with students from all around the globe. Earlier today I cooked alongside a Pakistani (?) woman, while some far-eastern-European girls nattered in the background and sighed over my use of a cheese grater (yes, really). We also have two Americans, a Canadian, a Swede, two Iranians, a Portugese-French-Swiss, an Assyrian who grew up in Georgia, a Hungarian, several Ukrainians, an Italian, and many more besides on the floor. Go up a floor and you'll find my good friend Bhavya from India; up another floor and you'll meet my lunch-companion for tomorrow, Ethelred (Hong Kong), his girlfriend Laura (Romania), the girl who I wish was my girlfriend, Ágnes (AKA Nesi, Hungary), and a whole bunch of others.

These people, by doing to a graduate school and travelling internationally to get there, are strongly selected both for openness to other countries and for intelligence. In short, for progressivism. And yet there are strong ethic lines of friendship. The Balkans kind of form a conglomeration around use of the Serbo-Croatian language, there's a pan-African group, Russians and Russian-speakers get together to smoke, etc. That's not the only thing - courses and academic interests are also pretty important - but it's an undeniable tendency.

So we have a variety of contexts in which you have highly progressive populations with racial divides, and these racial divides are replicated in friendship patterns. This need not mean any kind of prejudice, in fact I think it's primarily driven by shared cultural (and in particular linguistic) background - CEU is rather more polarised than Camp Hill, where we all had the same first language, and a fair few of my friends from UK minorities - Rachel So, for example, or Dwayne Spiteri (a guy of Jamaican descent who joined Camp Hill for Sixth Form) - were very "white" members of those minorities. I don't think the far-Eastern-European women who were enjoying my cheese-grating are from the same country - one is Armenian, one is some kind of Turkic, and no idea on the third - but they were enjoying the use of a common tongue other than English (and are on occasion joined by one of the Ukrainians).

This was originally intended as an answer to Michael Story's question, but it's far too long for that and doesn't easily lead into any particular belief I hold. But it does effect the kind of racial harmony that I think it is realistic to hope for. A world in which all were truly colour-blind would be wonderful. But ultimately, I don't think even the elites of global society believe in the ideal strongly enough to practice it.

(Incidentally, a context I haven't yet mentioned: online. #MCx is mostly but not exclusively white, most of the people I've come to know through online libertarianism are white continental Europeans; I don't know how different this is from the base rate of young neoliberal or conservative people from the UK. At Freedom Week 2015, which wasn't online but was how I came to know various people who I now know mostly through the web, there was one Asian Muslim guy who was very much at the Toryish end of the people there; Young Liberal Society is mostly white, although if Elrica can use her mixed race as a defence against accusations of prejudice then so can the rest of us in this case.)

Sunday, 12 February 2017

In Which I Propagate Propaganda for the Hungarian State

Orbán Viktor's government has come under criticism for a great many things. Some of these are undoubtedly justified, such as the 4,000 seat football stadium constructed directly across the road from Orbán's country estate. Some are more contentious, such as the opening and continued operation of the "House of Terror", a museum in Budapest discussing the Hungarian experience of Nazism and Communism. The museum, which is operated by an associate of Orbán (and the owner of one of Hungary's leading newspapers) has been accused of selectively or misleadingly presenting history in order to promote the nationalist politics of Orbán's party.

Having at last got around to going through the place, I think most of the complaints are very dubious. Some of them are clearly so - for example, the complaint that the museum gives more attention to the Nazi occupiers than to the Soviets. While this is true, it is also the case that the Nazis occupied Hungary for less than a year towards the end of WWII (Hungary had been allied with the Nazis, but when they saw which way the war was going and attempted to make peace with the USSR, Hitler ordered a coup) whereas the Soviet occupation lasted from the end of WWII until the fall of communism, a period of more than forty years. Indeed, I would suggest that the 20%-or-so of the museum given over to Nazism represents, if anything, disproportionate coverage of that particular travail.

Another criticism is that it portrays Hungarians only as victims, and denies the roll that they themselves played in the regimes. Again, I don't think this is a sensible criticism. The museum makes it clear that Hungarians were involved in these, and in particular the end of the exhibition has a room of "victimisers": Hungarian people named and shamed for their role in the communist secret police. Each entry had a name, birth and death dates, a photo, and a brief description of the person's role. It appears that a quite considerable portion of the people named there are still alive.

 Two things that interested me while going through the museum: first, there was an account of a company of Hungarian youths going on a trip to Yugoslavia, where they built a railway. For much of the Cold War, Yugoslavia was controlled by Marshal Tito, a man fiercely independent of Moscow to the extent that (according to my old GCSE History textbook) there was more Soviet propaganda attacking Tito than attacking the West. Hungary was part of the Warsaw Pact, and enjoyed only limited independence from Moscow, so it was a surprise to see this kind of interaction.

A second thing that I found notable, though not really surprising: how nationalist the Hungarian Socialist State was. It only now occurs to me that the phrase "People's Republic" (as Hungary then was, and e.g. China still is) is only really used by socialist regimes, but has an obvious populist slant. There were many videos of party bigwigs giving speeches - usually either at the State Opera House or at what I assume is now Memento Park - which inevitably ended with the phrase "long live the People's Republic of Hungary". For all that we talk of populism now, it's hard to think of any western politician developing such a habit (with the exception of Trump's "Make America Great Again"s).

Friday, 10 February 2017

Why Benatar is (Trivially) Wrong

David Benatar is a philosopher who appears to delight in controversy, and in that sense is a man after my own heart. Unfortunately, his arguments for the thesis his most celebrated work, Better Never To Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence, are not only sufficient to establish his conclusion but in fact do not even provide support for it. Much of my forthcoming MA dissertation will be showing problems with his arguments; this post discusses one central issue, of whether or not it is conceptually possible to benefit from coming into existence.

I: What does Benatar believe, and what is his argument for this?

Benatar argues for an "asymmetry of pleasure and pain" such that "existence has no advantage over, but does have disadvantages relative to, non-existence". I understand this to mean the following set of claims:
(a) When one comes into existence, one inevitably suffers some bad things (e.g. pain) and in most cases enjoys some good things (e.g. pleasure).
(b) Pains are harmful relative to the alternative of non-existence.
(c) Pleasures are not beneficial relative to the alternative of non-existence.
(d) The combination of (a), (b), and (c) entails that coming into existence is in all cases overall harmful.

He thinks that we should accept this on the grounds that it provides the best explanation for several other asymmetries which he takes to be rather more intuitive. (I do not share all of these intuitions). These are:
(1) That there can be a duty to avoid bringing someone into existence if their life would be characterised by suffering; there is no duty to bring someone into existence merely because their life would be a good one, nor would there be even if doing so came at no cost to oneself.
(2) One might decide not to bring a child into existence on the grounds that the child would suffer certain harms; it would be strange to cite, as a reason for bringing some child into existence, that the child would enjoy certain benefits.
(3) One can regret bringing a person into existence for that person's sake; while one can regret failing to bring a person into existence, one cannot do so for the sake of the person who would have existed.
(4) We feel sad when thinking about people living far away whose lives are characterised by suffering; we do not feel sad that various uninhabited places are not full of people enjoying happy lives.

If one accepts Benatar's asymmetry, then one will believe that so long as one's life contains anything at all that is bad for you (which it will, since someday you will die) you are harmed by being brought into existence.

II: Being more precise about Asymmetry

In the dissertation I draw several distinctions between different types of asymmetry, but here I will look at only one distinction: between "strong" and "weak" asymmetries. Benatar defends what I call a "strong" asymmetry, according to which coming into existence is always bad. A "weak" asymmetry would agree that coming into existence is never good, but would deny that it needs to be bad. If the good in one's life outweighs the bad, then one is neither benefited nor harmed by being brought into existence.

In other words: while pleasures are not independently good relative to non-existence, they can cancel out pains that would otherwise render existence harmful.

I do not defend weak asymmetry either: my view is that one can be either benefits or harmed by being brought into existence. The point here is that Benatar's arguments, as we will see, support only weak asymmetry.

III: Problems for Strong Asymmetry

Benatar's conclusion that coming into existence is always harmful is already pretty weird and extreme. A further problem, which I don't think anyone else has previously picked up on, is that it gives very strange judgments about how bad it is to come into existence. Compare two lives: one is a long and generally happy existence, while the other is very short and very painful with almost no pleasure at all. Due to their longer life, the first person undergoes greater total suffering; however, if asked they would confidently say that the good in their life vastly outweighed the bad. Intuitively, the second person was harmed by being brought into existence whereas, if the first person was harmed at all, the harm was fairly trivial.

This is not what Benatar's view implies, however. According to Benatar we count only the pains and ignore the pleasures, with the result that the person with a happy life suffers greater harm in existing than the person with a miserable life.

Both of these problems go away if one rejects strong asymmetry in favour of weak asymmetry.

IV: Why Benatar's arguments only support Weak Asymmetry

There are two important things to note about the intuitions from section I: firstly, that they are all explained just as well by weak asymmetry as by strong asymmetry. Second: they concern the existence of people whose life are characterised by suffering, not merely by people who suffer at some point in their lives.

There is probably a duty not to bring into existence someone whose life would be generally unhappy; there is no intuitive duty to avoid bringing someone into existence merely because they would experience suffering at some point in their life. Perhaps it would be strange to bring someone into existence so that they could enjoy life (though Benatar merely asserts this without defending it in the slightest), but it would be just as strange to avoid bringing someone into existence merely because in some moment of their life they would be unhappy. One would not regret bringing someone into existence merely because that person was briefly sad. And we are not sad about far away people whose lives are generally happy but include moments of sadness.

All this suggests that strong asymmetry does not really explain our intuitions in these cases. Benatar elides the difference between strong and weak asymmetry, providing arguments for weak asymmetry and then mistakenly claiming that this constitutes support for strong asymmetry.

V: Why this is a problem for Benatar

What does this mean? Well, Benatar goes on to mount a general defence of anti-natalism, the view that we ought not to reproduce. He defends a "pro-death" view of abortion, according to which abortions are not merely permissible but in fact mandatory. He argues that humans should attempt to extinguish ourselves. But neither of these conclusions follows from weak asymmetry.

Weak asymmetry still concedes far too much to the anti-natalist, in my opinion. But the fact that strong asymmetry is unsupported by his arguments, and has highly counter-intuitive implications which weak asymmetry does not, is sufficient to refute the argument that Benatar actually makes.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

A (Relatively) Brief Note on Animal Suffering

Despite discussing animal welfare, Singer doesn't really go into wild animal suffering much in Practical Ethics, so I didn't really go into it in yesterday's review. However, in the EA memes group it is one of the main topics of discussion, and it's potentially a genuinely very important consideration in how we ought to behave towards the natural environment. While writing this, it occurred to me that much of it probably applies to domesticated animals as well.

There is a long tradition of people arguing that human life is universally terrible. The most famous person to have argued this is probably Arthur Schopenhauer, although David Benatar has also made an argument of this sort as part of his general case against child-bearing. (At some point I will write a post going into detail on why Benatar is wrong, for he is and it's quite obvious that he is once you see the problem. But enough about my MA dissertation...)

Sometimes they appeal to the great sufferings that we endure in life. Sometimes they start with an axiological approach to "what the good life consists in" and argue that it is rarely met. Either way, the fact is that plenty of people have made these arguments, and yet the fact is that the vast majority of us are glad to be living.

I think a large problem with these kinds of arguments is that while they may allow us to come up with a rough ordinal ranking of lives, there is no cardinal value of a life - and therefore no objective "zero point" at which one should be indifferent between existing and not existing. That's not to say there is no such point, indeed I think there clearly is: rather, it is to say that where this point lies is a subjective issue. A life which I consider worth living may not be one that anyone else would consider worth living, even if there is no disagreement either upon what that life involves or on the value of the life and its components.

(The obvious response to this claim is to ask whether it is really plausible that one could rationally prefer an existence of utter misery to non-existence? I would say two things in response: first, I would be inclined to revise to the slightly weaker claim that the extent to which pleasure balances out pain is subjective, hence a life must include at least some pleasure to outweigh the inevitable sufferings. Second, quoth Hume: "'Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the wntire world to the scratching of my finger. 'Tis not contrary to reason for me to choose my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. 'Tis as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowledged lesser good to my greater, and have a more ardent affection for the former than the latter." - A Treatise of Human Nature, book II, part iii, section 3. To say someone ought not to consider a life of almost complete suffering to non-existence is to accuse them of irrationality, but rationality is at least primarily, if not entirely, concerned not with what one takes as goals but rather how one seeks to achieve them. Such a preference ranking would be strange, but not irrational).

Arguments for the importance of animal suffering tend to presuppose a roughly hedonic view of the good life - which is fair enough, given that most animals lack the requisite cognitive resources to have a conception of whether their lives are happy overall, rather than merely whether they are happy in any given moment. They then proceed to detail the many sufferings undergone by animals: cold, starvation, being eaten alive, etc. What we have, then, are two challenges to this kind of argument:

(1) it is impossible to simply compare pleasure with pain. These two phenomena may occur in the same subject, but unless that subject is sufficiently advanced to see itself as persisting over time and have opinions on this, there is simply no fact of the matter as to whether the pleasure outweighs the pain or vice versa. Hence while we might think that the improvement of animal conditions is a morally good thing, and the worsening of their conditions a morally bad thing, one cannot say that an animal life containing both pleasure and pain is either good or bad as a whole.

(2) philosophers have tended to make a particular kind of argument to the effect that humans generally suffer by existing, yet we know empirically that these philosophers are wrong. We should therefore be highly skeptical of such arguments when made in relation to animals.

Monday, 6 February 2017

How to be Practically Perfect in Every Way

Practical Ethics (3rd Edition)
Peter Singer

There is a great danger when reviewing a book on a contentious subject that one ends up concluding "the bits I agreed with were good, the bits I disagreed with were bad". This review won't quite say that, but comes closer to this sentiment than I am really comfortable with.

I came to Practical Ethics with mixed expectations. On the one hand, it came highly recommended by people whose opinions I take very seriously, and after all there's a reason why Peter Singer is widely considered one of the greatest philosophers of our time. That said, I've been disappointed by some of his writings in the past, and had kind of got the impression that while he has great and original ideas his attention to detail was not always the greatest.

Well, that's a highly unfair characterisation of him. The first half of Practical Ethics, at least, is a masterpiece of clarity. He discusses the possibility of racial differences in cognitive abilities dispassionately, demonstrating that belief in it is utterly consistent with a liberal worldview. I didn't really learn much from that discussion, having thought about it plenty beforehand, but it was remarkable to see it discussed with such courage by an important, politically-left-of-centre public intellectual.

Similarly, his discussion of abortion demonstrates the problems with the main arguments advanced by both sides of the debate. Ultimately I disagree with Singer - he really ought to give moral weight to benefits enjoyed by individuals whose existence is dependent upon the decision we make - but he demolishes thinkers regardless of which side they are, and while the position he arrives at (support for post-natal abortions) ought to be a reductio of his premises we are left in no doubt either of his sincerity in advocating it, nor of his understanding the issue on a very deep level. (Personally, I'm in favour of something slightly stricter than the UK system - abortions being available on demand up to about 20 weeks of pregnancy, and after that in cases of medical emergency only).

One passage I found particularly illuminating of his discussion of what is particularly wrong with murder. Prior to reading Practical Ethics I had a vague sense that we ought to take the interests of non-human beings into account (i.e. concern for animal welfare) but that actually holding rights was something to do with being human and a full agent. I'm now much more persuaded by Singer's view, which is similar but attributes the possession of rights to those beings which conceive of themselves as existing through time. I can't say I'm 100% convinced, but Singer acknowledges the weak points of his view - e.g. the implication that murder is not so much a wrong to the person murdered but rather to the other people around - and, unlike many philosophers who paper over the holes in their arguments and hope we won't notice, draws attention to this problem.

With all that said in defence of the book, it's worth noting some issues I had. The first is in his discussion of equality: Singer defends his utilitarianism as "equal consideration of interests". That's one form of equality, to be sure, and it sounds a lot nobler than "equal marginal utility of consumption" (as Amartya Sen amusingly describes utilitarianism). But does it really come close to our ordinary notions of a worthwhile conception of equality? Utility monsters are one problem for this view - Singer ends up committed to the view that we really ought to give them all of our resources and debase ourselves before them - but more fundamentally, equality talk is at least somewhat about grabbing. It's about preventing one member or group within society from coming to dominate the rest of us. The union gangmen may not represent an admirable form of "equality", with their happiness (for example) to beat up anyone who dares vote against the party line, but ultimately that's what our equality instinct developed to achieve. Singer should either accept this, or he should find a genuinely noble ideal (like pure happiness! It's not difficult) upon which to base his utilitarianism.

Second, his discussion of the social discount rate - while drawing attention to a severely neglected issue, and not so far from the truth on the issue - failed to mention the absolutely crucial difference between what Tyler Cowen calls the "pure preference rate" and differences in the marginal utility of consumption across time. One cannot simply compare £50 now to £1000 in 100 years, observe that the one is a much greater number, and conclude from this that it is to be preferred. If we replace pounds with utils, then of course such a comparison is appropriate - but this is not what Singer did, and his chapter on the environment suffers in clarity for it. (My discussion here is much less exact than I would like, relying upon vague memories of a Cass Sunstein paper that my google-fu skills have failed to turn up).

Overall, though, the book is very much worth reading - both as an introduction to the subject of applied ethics, and as a contribution to the ongoing debate. I note also that there are several sections which are very much of use to my thoughts, but which (unlike e.g. his argument for post-natal abortions) I would not have picked up just from reading reviews. So this is at least one data point in favour of reading whole books rather than just review of them, even on relatively-easily-summarised subjects such as philosophy.