Saturday, December 28, 2013

The U in UPB: Universality

I've been thinking about some questions and quibbles from my discussion of UPB with Stefan Molyneux, from FDR2549, Evil is a Confession of Inadequacy, recorded December 6, 2013. 
The discussion starts at about 55 minutes into the show. I have posted a full transcript.  In this post, I want to think about universality.

Stef says, "All moral claims, claim universality."  "All UPB does is say if you're making a moral claim it has to be universal, if it fails the universality test, it's an invalid moral theory.  The UPB framework validates moral propositions by demanding that they be internally consistent and universal in terms of time, place, and individuals." What does Stef mean by "universal?"

What would break universality? If X is true now, but it wasn't true last year, it is not universal. If it applies to you, but not to me, it is not universal. If it is true in Texas but not in Tahiti, it is not universal. At first this seems clear. Imagine some person making a choice at a time and place. Any moral restriction that applies to one particular person, time, or place must apply to all of them. But who do we mean when we say "all of them?"

One obvious complication is that this cannot apply to some persons (infants are the most obvious example, perhaps those with brain injuries, etc.). On the other hand, such persons tend to face practical limits that prevent them from being placed in a position where they face a serious moral choice. So UPB does not apply to all persons in the same way.

How does Stef argue in favor of his universality requirement? Having one moral rule for some and another for others is like having two different sorts of mathematics. The only two mathematics we can imagine are correct mathematics and incorrect mathematics. These are analogous to UPB and non-UPB. I suppose Stef's opponents would say that morality is more like language, there can be more than one. More on this topic here.

If universality did not hold, a skeptic should be able to give an example of a plausible moral proposition that breaks universality. Can we think of an example of a tempting candidate moral proposition that fails as a result of universality?

How about, "Killing is wrong, except in self-defense?" We can interpret that as applying to all persons, times, and places, so no problem. That is, specifying exceptions based on circumstances (other than who, where, and when) does not violate universality?

How about, "Agents of the police may do some things that others are not allowed to do?" Stef clearly would reject this both because it fails universality and because he believes the state is not legitimate. Many ordinary people would accept it. Perhaps this is one of the surprising results Stef promised.

How about "Adults should not seduce children?" At least some children are mature enough to be considered moral agents and have UPB apply to them. Must we amend this statement to make it universal, as in "No one should seduce children?" Keep in mind, the children include those who are seventeen years old. It works well as "no moral agent should seduce someone who is not a moral agent." There are other age restrictions in society, some quite arbitrary. Must we abandon them all? 

Lets go back to "Killing is wrong, except in self-defense." Clearly Stef believes something like this. In the book, he often uses the word "murder," as in 'Don't murder' is UPB. But this just pushes the problem into the semantics of the word "murder." That is, our decision about whether killing in self-defense is acceptable or not will determine whether self-defense will be excluded or included from our definition of "murder," and both cases satisfy universality. Maybe we can generalize this semantic sleight-of-hand to other situations, and redefine our words to describe crimes in a way that implicitly excludes circumstances that absolute universality would include.  E.g. Refraining from theft is UPB, but we might define theft so that it excludes taxation by a "legitimate" government agency. Going back to the special moral proposition regarding police, what if we define kidnapping so that it excludes seizure of criminal suspects by the police? I think Stef would want some sort of restriction requiring universality of time, place, and actor in such definitions. How do we resolve this? I'm not sure.

Could propositions in the following form pass the UPB universality test?
You will be punished if you don't do X frequently enough. Vague.
You will be punished if you do X more than Y times. Arbitrary.
Can we restate these in a way that satisfies universality by redefining terms? That is, could we include some idea about frequency or locality in the definition of X? 

General moral propositions occupy one level of abstraction, specific derived statements fit in another. Property rights provide an example. By analogy: Newton's equation (universal) predicts that when we fire the cannon at this angle in this landscape, the ball will travel this distance (not universal). Similarly, "observe property rights" is UPB, and leads to the specific non-universal application, "This is my car, you would be wrong to drive it without my permission."

If we accept "everyone should respect property rights" as UPB, that does not settle the question of what specific rules of property to follow.

Can we reorient our terms so that all moral claims are a claim of property rights? 
Can we use UPB to derive the NAP and property rights, then use those to derive everything else?

I apologize for my patchy thinking here, this does not qualify as an actual essay. Blog post, okay, maybe.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Government PR Disaster Immunity?

Watergate, Waco, Ruby Ridge, Katrina, Iran-Contra, Iran hostage crisis.

Government is antifragile, scandals sink particular politicians, never the system that created them.
Government is antifragile with respect to politics and violence. More violence means stronger government, until the government falls. And then what replaces the government will be another government, probably worse. Because the state and society compete for mindshare and resources, that which strengthens the state weakens society.

Knock down government today and people will rebuild it tomorrow. They would do this because they believe in the legitimacy of government, and because they can't see any good alternatives. If you want to change what they would build after a collapse, you must change their beliefs about what is possible. Before the collapse arrives, they must possess already the tools, the raw materials, and the working prototypes of a different sort of world. If we can create a social laboratory to develop these tools and skills, we can end the cycle. These tools will entice our allies and befuddle our enemies, because they do not threaten violence. And because the state and society compete for mindshare and resources, that which strengthens society weakens the state.

I've noticed that people like to ignore evidence of government misconduct. Government takes credit for society's success, while passing off blame for failure, ineptitude, or corruption to particular persons. Individuals lose elections, lose jobs, or even go to jail, but the system remains. Nixon was a crook, but "the president" inspires hope. People quote Acton, but they misapply him. 

Similarly, when society works, it works invisibly. When it fails, we easily exaggerate its flaws.

 We can pursue the objective of increasing popular tolerance for experimentation and individual, organizational, and social learning.

FDR in a thimble

Here are some ideas that seem to come up on FDR often. I am convinced of some, unsure about others. Please add any I missed to the comments section.
  • Just as battered wives are entitled to divorce their abusers, abused children are entitled to separate from their abusive parents when they become adults. If the parent denies the abuse, or refuses to accept responsibility, separation is urgent. The ordinary public resist this idea.
  • Hitting or yelling at kids is bad for them. You may be fine, but if you were hit or yelled at as a kid, you could have been even more awesome.
  • Manipulators will hold their children to a high standard of morality, but make exceptions for themselves.
  • Nearly everyone is carrying baggage from childhood, this is why they reject ideas based on good evidence and logic.
  • If you don't deal with your own childhood, you will inflict something similar on your own kids.
  • Honesty and integrity are important for happiness and the good life. Being dishonest with those you love will destroy the relationship.
  • Morality motivates people better than self-interest, efficiency, or consequences. Give them a why and they will find a how. 
  • Common thinking on morality consists largely of post hoc rationalizations and motivated reasoning. 
  • Someone who has never experienced manipulation, who was raised around people who showed consistent honesty, integrity, and patience and who refrained from yelling, hitting, insulting or punishing, will not give manipulators a chance to pull their tricks. It takes two to dance that tango, and those who never learn this pattern of victimhood will never be victimizable.
  • We seek truth using logic and evidence. We must recognize confirmation bias etc., but we can gain certainty with relative ease if we possess self-knowledge.
  • You know a lot more about yourself and your relationships and the people you are close to than you admit consciously to yourself. Self-knowledge will bring this to consciousness.
  • The elite replaced slavery with democracy because they thought it would increase their profits. Take the chains off, put up a fence, free-range slaves will give you more profit.
  • If you disprove UPB, you disprove logic.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Motivating Change

If you want people to change their behavior, you must show them new alternatives. Rarely can you just talk about such alternatives. If you want a good reaction, you need to show that it works in practice, give people a working prototype, a proof of concept.

It all boils down to motivation, communication, and belief. If I can make you believe anything I want, motivating you will not be that difficult (though there are a few additional things I should know about motivation). So it is important both to know how to persuade others, and how others may try to persuade us.

We can break this down further, by trying to separate those methods of persuasion that depend on truth from those that do not. If someone is "playing fair", sticking to honest methods, we should play along with enthusiasm. If they talk us out of something, then we should be happy to learn a purer truth. It is difficult for us to challenge our own ideas and we should feel gratitude when someone helps us do so. If someone plays "dirty pool", we want to detect it and call them on it, even if they are arguing in favor of something we believe. What could be more valuable for us to know, than how to check the reliability of our own beliefs, and how to detect when someone is trying to slip one past us? This should be taught starting in kindergarten and be part of every graduate program.

Haidt thinks persuasion evolved so we could maintain our status in the tribe. Truth takes a slow second to whatever helps us to fit in. We are better at adapting to what others believe than at detecting the actual truth. Am I agreeing with Haidt, or is this different? He sees rational argument as a tool used by the brain to justify selfish actions. The intuition decides about something, the conscious mind then justifies it. But where did the intuition come from?

Haidt's 6 moral foundations are motivators.

What demo project would show clear evidence of the strength of the decentralized, non aggressive approach?

If Caplan is correct, convincing people to change their minds is necessary and sufficient. Unpopular policies usually do not survive long in democracies. What makes policies popular? What makes them change?
There are some narrow margins where putting pressure on politicians and bureaucrats accomplish something, but lack of broad support would limit the accomplishments. So whatever tactic we adopt, we should make our central object the accumulation of broad public support.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Stef's UPB elevator pitch

Below is a partial transcript of my discussion of UPB with Stefan Molyneux, from FDR2549, Evil is a Confession of Inadequacy, recorded December 6, 2013.  The discussion starts at about 55 minutes into the show. I have taken some liberties in transcribing, leaving out some conversational hemming and hawing, and removing some digressions.

I still don't have a solid grip on Stef's ideas. I hope to blog more about it later, and once those entries exist, you should be able to find that page by clicking on this search which shows all my blog entries labelled "UPB." There are already numerous hits, but those are all based on my reading of the book. When I add new entries, the search will find them too.

D: Hello. I want to talk about UPB.
S: Alright, let's do it brother. 
D: Okay, I was hoping to get your elevator pitch for UPB, the quick and dirty, short and sweet version. Because I have trouble summarizing it for myself. But I just found something great on page 100, that I think is a good starting place. It says, "The UPB framework validates moral propositions by demanding that they be internally consistent and universal in terms of time, place, and individuals."
S: Yeah I'll give you the elevator pitch. All moral claims claim universality. All moral propositions claim universality. Whether it's explicit or implicit, they differ from aesthetics in the universality of the claim. And the claim is universally preferable behavior. It distinguishes itself from physics. And physics is universally measurable behavior or universally detectable behavior, something like that. Physics theory is universal by nature, if it's not universal it's not physics. For moral propositions, universally preferable behavior is proposed. UPB focuses on that and says if you make a claim of universally preferable behavior, we must test whether it is universally preferable behavior. In other words, whether the behavior can be enacted universally, by all people at all times (who are moral agents, you know fetuses there is some gray area). But basically, if you're going to make a moral claim, then it has to be universal. It has to be preferable universally and it has to be behavior not thought, for reasons I sort of go into in the book. So if you say, "thou shalt steal," it cannot be validated, according to universally preferable behavior. It cannot be universally preferable behavior for everyone to steal, because stealing is the act of taking someone's property who doesn't want you to take it. In other words, it's asymmetric. Someone has to want your iPad, and you have to not want them to take your iPad, in order for the theft to have occurred. And therefore universality is broken, in that with regards to the iPad, two people have opposite moral desires or opposite preferences. One is to keep, one is to steal. And the stealing can only be achieved, if the person wants to keep. If you want to give it away, it's charity or something like that. So "thou shalt steal" cannot be sustained in terms of universality. It's logically completely impossible. "Thou shalt rape", rape is unwanted, therefore it cannot be universalized to all people. "Thou shalt murder", murder is unwanted, cannot be universalized to all people. "Thou shalt assault," cannot be universalized, since assault is something definitely not wanted, which is why we don't charge people in a boxing ring with assault, because they're there voluntarily and it's not unwanted. You may want to win but you can't charge someone with assault, that's implicit. So all moral propositions claim universality, all moral propositions which failed the test of universality cannot be moral propositions at all. The moment your moral proposition fails the test of universality, it is no longer in the realm of ethics, it is no longer a moral proposition. It's exactly the same in physics, if you say "The law of  gravity is universal except for these three rocks" then it's no longer a physics theory. Then it's madness. All UPB does is say if you're making a moral claim it has to be universal, if it fails the universality test, it's an invalid moral theory. Does that help at all?
D: Yes to some extent. I think it's also interesting though that the realm of property, at the high level of abstraction we can say okay stealing is bad, but the universality breaks down as in okay this is my car it's okay for me to drive it, sorry you can't drive it you don't own it. So it would be wrong...
S: Hang on. You got to be precise. I just gave you a whole description here and you went back into random land when it came to your language. "Stealing is bad" , that's not moral language. That's like naughty child language. That's not philosophical language. It's like me saying I refuted Einstein's theory of relativity because relativity is bad. You wouldn't get far in a physics paper with that as your sole argument. It's not "stealing is bad," it's that violations of property rights cannot be universalized. And therefore all moral theories which are predicated on violations of property rights are invalid. 
D: The universality is at a different level. It's sort of like saying, rocks behave differently on the surface of the earth then they would out in outerspace, but still there's one theory of Gravity that explains everything in a universal way. 
S: Yeah, if I make a claim in physics that my theory applies to all matter, then I cannot simultaneously exclude certain matter. [... 1:03:10.] 
D: I had another point, I should've made notes.
S: No, listen, this is horribly difficult stuff. I've had 30 years and it still makes my brain fart fairly regularly.  It is challenging stuff.
D: The thing that was always throwing me off, was that it wasn't like here are the assumptions, here's the logic, and here's the conclusion. It's more like this is a process, there are moral propositions, we apply the process to the moral proposition to say it fails or it passes, ...
S: Hang on a sec. To sort of explain the challenge, for those who are less familiar with it, morality is owned by religion and consequentialism, and both of those are two sides of the same coin. So religion says do this or God throws you in hell and if you do this God puts you in heaven. I mean that's just fundamentally consequentialism. That's not a rational argument, it's not reason and evidence, it's just Pascal's wager. Some seriously eternally bad shit's going to happen to you if you don't do X. And in the secular world...
D: Trust me I'm God, I'm smart, I know what you should be doing.
S: We'll, yes, except, ...
D: Just do what I say, don't think about it.
S: Which is why you get shunning in religious communities. That's just the mark of a bad argument. "I'm shunning you for disagreeing with me." That's one form of consequentialism. Consequentialism also transfers itself to the secular world. Where you say, taxation is the initiation of force. If there's no taxation the poor will starve, the sick will die in the streets, and there will be no roads. Roads are built by companies hired by governments and no one else can hire them, right? So this is just consequentialism. And consequentialism has no place in philosophy.  It's really hard for us to get that in terms of ethics because all we ever hear about is consequentialism, do this or I'll spank you, do this, be nice or we're going home. Kids, stop fighting with each other or I'm turning this car around and I'm driving it home. Finish your homework or you'll get a detention, pass this test or you don't get to the next grade. [...] and to understand that you just need to understand the argument that says that the very of relativity is incorrect because it might lead to an atomic bomb. Well that may or may not be true but it has no bearing on whether the theory of relativity is correct or incorrect. Newtonian physics is incorrect because it allows people to sail over to the new world where they kill the Incas. No. Consequentialism has no bearing whatsoever on the truth or falsehood of a proposition. And because we are so mired in consequentialism which is the opposite of philosophy ( religion and statism are both the opposites of philosophy because one relies on lies and the other relies on force, both of which are the opposite of philosophy) and so it's very hard for us to think of ethics outside of consequentialism.  It's really hard for philosophy to rise up from its 3000 year grave, and attempt to take back ethics into the realm of reason. Because it's all just consequentialism, nightmare scenarios, catastrophe scenarios, massive bribery scenarios, you'll go to jail, you'll go to heaven, you'll burn in hell, it's all just emotional aggression and manipulation that is in the realm of ethics so that simply returning it to the realm of reason and evidence is really really hard for us. I just really wanted some point that out.
D: Okay, but the theory itself doesn't really generate propositions that are candidates for being universally preferable, there are ideas out there in the culture and then it says "yes this one passes" or "this one fails." Am I correct?
S: I'm sorry I don't understand what you just said. [...]
D: Stealing is not universally preferred.
S: No again you have to get used to describing it in the right way. Stealing could be universally preferred. In other words, everyone in the world could wake up tomorrow and just decide to become a thief. It's not likely, but it's possible. But I'm saying is that stealing cannot be universally preferable. Stealing cannot be university preferable, and it is not consequentialist, it's not because well if everyone steals nobody will produce anything and we will all starve to death. That's maybe true but it's irrelevant to the falsehood of the proposition that stealing is universally preferable. Stealing cannot be universally preferable because in order for it to be stealing somebody has to not want to be stolen from. Therefore it breaks the test of universality. Stealing cannot be universally preferable and therefore we should steal or stealing is good or stealing is universally preferable is false. It cannot work logically, it doesn't work logically, and it doesn't really take that long to figure that out. It's just that, again, we have so much noise from the consequentialists and the fear-mongers about ethics.
D: My question is about where do the universally preferable propositions, propositions about universally preferable behavior come from? They're not sort of springing from the theory. You find a statement lying around in culture and you apply the method to them and method says oh, this one passes and it's true or it fails it's false. Is that anywhere near?
S: Yeah, thou shalt not steal, stealing cannot be universally preferable behavior. The 10 Commandments, thou shalt not kill, murder cannot be universally preferable behavior. You can universally respect property rights, everyone can do that because that doesn't require a contradiction like stealing that's one person respecting one person violating for it to occur. Therefore the person who's violating can't be respecting and the person who's respecting can't be violating. Respect for property rights, the inviolability of another person's chosen physical boundaries, rape, punching, stabbing, murder or whatever, respect for persons and property can be universally achieved. Not in practice, but the proposition works logically. Respect property, everyone can achieve that. Guy in a coma can achieve that, he's not stealing from anyone. 
D: I was just using that as an example. So there are a certain number of these propositions that would pass and be considered true by the method. Do we know the complete set of those?
S:  I don't know for sure but I that we have enough of a set for about five generations of hard work. And that's enough for me. You know it's like saying do we have enough bricks to build 10 cities? Well, we have enough bricks to build eight cities so let's get going. 
D: Okay I was just curious.
S: That's a fine point and if we get to where we discover semi sentient crystals living on Betelgeuse's planets, whatever, but we've got enough to do at the moment with spanking and the Federal Reserve and national debts and taxes and wars and military and police and the war on drugs we've got enough to keep us busy for a couple of generations at least. Maybe there's more, but to keep looking rather than to act is not that responsible. 
D: I missed it if it was in your version of the elevator pitch but, the idea that if you disprove UPB with logic, that is self-detonating, because somehow logic presupposes UPB. 
S: Well to disprove is to use universality. I can't prove that one jazz player is "better than" another. And I can't prove that one song is "better than" another. You might appeal to popularity and so on. You can prove or disprove mathematical and physics theories, and rational proofs. So if somebody uses the word "proof," then they're talking about universal absolutes. Proof. Boom! Universal absolutes. Not "I like John Coletrane better than Eddie Winter" or whatever, to mix my genres. Somebody says proof, bang, universality, logic, rigor, absolutes they're right there. They are not talking about pistachio versus rocky road ice cream. And so when somebody says, I am disproving UPB, which requires universality, what they're saying is, it is universally preferable behavior to reject universally preferable behavior, which is a complete logic fail. [1:14:04 long digression on childhood trauma 1:18:00]
D: So, the universality of the logic is sort of okay here's the syllogism here's the logic, it works the same way for everybody no one's going to say "This step doesn't work for me because I have a different logic." 
S: The moment they say different logic then it is no longer ethical. It's no longer a moral thing. As soon as someone says that ethics is relative, they're saying science is subjective. It's a contradiction. Ethics is not subjective.  Taste is subjective. [digress on tv 1:19:50 ] So the moment somebody says I have a different logic or it's subjective or whatever it's relativistic or its cultural, they don't know what ethics is.
Ethics is universal. And if you're saying it's subjective or relative or cultural, it's just wrong. It's like saying that math is a personal preference. It's not. Once you say math it's not a personal preference. [...]

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Hayek on Individualism

"What, then, are the essential characteristics of true individualism? [...] It is primarily a theory of society, an attempt to understand the forces which determine the social life of man, and only in the second instance a set of political maxims derived from this view of society. This fact should by itself be sufficient to refute the silliest of the common misunderstandings: The belief that individualism postulates (or bases its arguments on the assumption of) the existence of isolated or self–contained individuals, instead of starting from men whose whole nature and character is determined by their existence in society. [...] But it's basic contention [...] is that there is no other way toward an understanding of social phenomena but through our understanding of individual actions directed toward other people and guided by their expected behavior. This argument is directed primarily against the properly collectivist theories of society which pretend to be able directly to comprehend social wholes like society, etc., as entities sui generis which exist independently of the individuals which compose them. [...] By tracing the combined effect of individual actions, we discover that many of the institutions on which human achievements rest have arisen and are functioning without a designing and directing mind; that, as Adam Ferguson expressed it, "nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action but not the result of human design"; and that the spontaneous collaboration of free men often creates things which are greater than their individual minds can never fully comprehend. [...]
"The difference between this view, [...] and the view which traces all discoverable order to deliberate design is the first great contrast between the true individualism of the British thinkers of the 18th century and the so-called individualism of the Cartesian school. But it is merely one aspect of an even wider difference between a view which in general rates rather low the place which reason plays in human affairs, which contends that man has achieved what he has in spite of the fact he is only partly guided by reason, and that his individual reason is very limited and imperfect, and a view which assumes that Reason, with a capital R, is always fully and equally available to all humans and that everything which man achieves is the direct result of, and therefore subject to, the control of individual reason. One might even say that the former is a product of an acute consciousness of the limitations of the individual mind which induces an attitude of humility toward the impersonal and anonymous social processes by which individuals help to create things greater than they know, while the latter is the product of an exaggerated belief in the powers of individual reason and of a consequent contempt for anything which has not been consciously designed by it or is not fully intelligible to it.
"The anti-rationalistic approach, which regards man not as a highly rational and intelligent but as a very irrational and fallible being, whose individual errors are corrected only in the course of a social process, and which aims at making the best of a very imperfect material, is probably the most characteristic feature of English individualism."
Friedrich Hayek
Individualism and Economic Order, pp 6-9.