A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Monday, 11 September 2017

The Rhetoric of Desert

There are two ways in which a person can fail to deserve what they have. The first is that they are actually undeserving of it: the prodigal son does not deserve his father’s welcome, Job did not deserve to be tormented with destruction and agony. The second is that the concept of desert fails to apply: thus neither James Potter nor Lily Evans deserved the love of Lily Evans, because in the decision of who she should marry desert is simply not a relevant factor.

These two situations are very different, yet we use the same phrase of “not deserving” to describe them both. This is liable to create dangerous confusion: when a good (or bad) is appropriate for distribution by deservingness, someone’s lack of desert generally provides a reason for taking that good away from them (and typically giving to them). Physical property is, in most naive views of the world, taken to be appropriate for distribution according to desert: thus a simple argument for economic redistribution would be that the poor are no less deserving than are the rich of worldly goods.

When a good is not appropriate for distribution according to desert - for example, love - the fact that someone is undeserving is no reason to remove the good from them. While most people naively think of private property as something to be distributed according to desert, this view is exceedingly rare among philosophers. The most obvious example of an anti-desert theorist is John Rawls, who argued that we cannot deserve anything at all: any good traits we possess are the results either of our environment or of our genes, neither of which we chose and therefore neither of which we can be credited for.

This anti-realism about desert does not - cannot - provide an argument for redistribution of goods. If desert is not real, then no goods can be appropriately distributed according to desert, and so the fact that the rich are no more deserving than the poor is no argument for redistribution. One may, of course, favour redistribution on other grounds, and this was Rawls’ purpose: to disarm desert-based arguments against redistribution! But if one only takes the conclusion of his argument - that the rich do not deserve their wealth - and puts it not into the context of Rawls’ wider theory, but rather the naive view that desert is real and is a moral basis for property, then one arrives at a rhetorically effective, but subtly self-contradictory, agument for redistribution. I suspect that many people who dabble in political philosophy without studying it in depth, including many politics undergrads ae liable to fall into this trap.

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.

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?