Posts Tagged ‘beliefs’

Ryan Avent on the incompatibility of climate science and some libertarians:

That is to say, confronted by a problem demanding solutions inimical to libertarian beliefs, libertarians were faced with the choice of reneging on their beliefs or turning their back on science. Tellingly, they chose the latter. One might think that’s a rather drastic decision, given the role scientific endeavors have played in delivering the material prosperity so dear to the hearts of the libertarian world, and one would be right.

A belief system that cannot grapple with the fundamental reality of a situation is, quite simply, not a belief system worth having. 

I agree completely with Avent’s last sentence. I am also a libertarian. So what goes?

First off, Avent is wrong in his basic claim. There are very many libertarians who approach scientific questions scientifically. And most of them conclude that human induced climate change is real. Sure, some libertarians do turn their backs to science, but it is wrong to use that as an excuse to tar the whole movement.

Secondly, what Avent and others of his ilk forget is the question of how to deal with the problem of climate change is not merely a scientific one. It is perfectly consistent and reasonable to accept that AGW is happening and still reject most of the solutions being proferred. The question of what to do about any problem (or indeed, whether to do anything at all) depends not merely on an analysis of the problem (this is the scientific part) but also of how much value, that is costs and benefits you attach to each aspect of the problem and the possible solutions (and their consequences). This is where analysis and ideology interact in a complex manner.

I had a conversation with a friend a week ago. He asked me the following question: what would I do if I had to choose between truth and libertarianism? I answered that such a choice would never be necessary. Sure, the pursuits of truth and happiness do conflict, and so do freedom and happiness. But I cannot conceive of truth and freedom ever conflicting. I believe my moral axioms are good enough to ensure that.

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As I wrote in the comments following this post, I believe parents — being responsible for the birth and day to day care of their children — should also have considerable freedom in how they choose to raise them. Short of physical abuse or gross neglect, they have an absolute right to bring their children up in the way they think is best and teach the kids their religious and moral beliefs or whatever else they feel strongly about. Nothing will convince me that the state has any business interfering in those matters or that telling your kids about heaven or hell (or the superiority of socialism) amounts to “child abuse”.

However I draw the line when the parents’ beliefs actually lead them to deny their children vital medication or other fundamental assistance the lack of which may lead to death. Thus, I agree with every word Andrew Sullivan writes here:

We rightly understand sexual abuse to be horrifying and a legitimate reason to intervene. But withholding vital medication from a child out of religious or ideological reasons strikes me as no less abuse. I’m reminded of this acutely by the case of Christine Maggiore, a woman I met and interacted with as another person with HIV. Christine adamantly denied that HIV was related to AIDS and refused anti-HIV medication on those grounds. She died last week. Of AIDS. That was her choice, it seems to me, however tragic it is.

What was also her choice, however, was to refuse anti-HIV meds when pregnant and then to refuse HIV meds for her daughter when she was born. Eliza Jane lived three years before succumbing to HIV-related pneumonia. Magiore was never prosecuted for negligence, since she had taken Eliza Jane to doctors. One of those doctors suffered mild professional consequences.

What rights did Eliza Jane have to protect her very life from her own mother? What rights did Jett Travolta have under the control of Scientologist parents? I find it hard to believe they had none; and I find the sympathy for parents under those circumstances to be misplaced.

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A nice follow-up by Robin Hanson to his earlier post I had linked to:

You just can’t fight “conformity” by indulging the evil pleasure of enjoying your conformity to a small tight-knit group of “non-conformists.”  All this does is promote some groups at the expense of other groups, and poisons your mind in the process.  It is like fighting “loyalty” by dogged devotion to an anti-loyalty alliance.

Best to clear your mind and emotions of group loyalties and resentments and ask, if this belief gave me no pleasure of rebelling against some folks or identifying with others, if it was just me alone choosing, would my best evidence suggest that this belief is true?  All else is the road to rationality ruin.

Indeed. Whether your views are simple and mainstream or whether you subscribe to some fringe philosophy such as libertarianism, it is always a sign of danger when your beliefs and conclusions are affected and (subconsciously) dictated by emotions derived from your identification. I guess the human psyche, by its very nature, is hopelessly susceptible to this kind of bias; the first step in fighting it is to realize that it exists and it is poisonous.

[Edit] Just in case it wasn’t clear, I am not saying one should have no emotions associated with one’s beliefs. However, you need to be wary when your emotion is at least partially derived from loyalty to your group or your ideology; for it can then affect your reasoning ability when faced with a new issue. The pleasure of non-conformity should not get in the way of dispassionate analysis. See Robin’s last paragraph above, also see my comment below.

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In my last post I linked to a video of the Human Rights Commision of Canada getting its ass kicked by Ezra Levant. At that time I’d forgotten that Dean Steacy, of the remarkable exchange below, is one of the investigators of the same commission.

MS KULASZKA: Mr. Steacy, you were talking before about context and how important it is when you do your investigation. What value do you give freedom of speech when you investigate one of these complaints?

MR. STEACY: Freedom of speech is an American concept, so I don’t give it any value.

MS KULASZKA: Okay. That was a clear answer.

MR. STEACY: It’s not my job to give value to an American concept.

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Libertarianism and objectivism have always shared a somewhat uneasy relationship. Most libertarians, while acknowledging the importance and influence of Ayn Rand’s ideas, nonetheless feel a certain degree of discomfort with the more simplistic or dogmatic aspects of her message. In the words of Nick Gillespie, former editor of Reason Magazine, Rand is “one of the most important figures in the libertarian movement” and she “remains one of the best-selling and most widely influential figures in American thought and culture” in general and in libertarianism in particular. However he confessed that he is sometimes embarrassed by his magazine’s association with her ideas [1] .

On the other hand, Ayn Rand never cared to hide her disdain for libertarians, claiming that they used her ideas “with the teeth pulled out of them.” However, some of her ire may have been due to a misunderstanding of the term — according to Nathaniel Branden, Rand’s one time lover, she did not realize that libertarians were mostly advocates not of anarchism but of constitutionally limited government [2] . Many modern objectivists, meanwhile, continue to share Rand’s sentiments. In the words of popular blogger Gus Van Horn:

(The Libertarian) party is hardly a friend of liberty, given that their lack of a coherent philosophical approach makes them unable even to define the term… In essence, the Libertarians pretend that a concept as sophisticated and controversial as freedom is whatever anyone, no matter how mindless, wants it to be.

Elsewhere though, Van Horn describes himself as a (small-l) libertarian.

Van Horn’s dilemma is, I suspect, shared by most present-day objectivists. The heart of the matter is that libertarianism is a broad political ideology while objectivism is a closed philosophy. Objectivists value the basic tenet of individual freedom, but view it as a consequence of (in their view) more fundamental axioms. Thus, objectivism is a special kind of libertarianism, one that attempts to fit various libertarian principles as corollaries of a particular systematic philosophy.

In his very readable autobiographical essay, libertarian economist Bryan Caplan describes his shift away from objectivism.

I rejected Christianity because I determined that it was, to be blunt, idiotic. I rejected Objectivism and Austrianism, in contrast, as mixtures of deep truths and unfortunate mistakes.

During my undergraduate years, I spent far more time reading and thinking than writing. But two essays that appeared while I was in graduate school – “Why I Am Not an Objectivist” (by Michael Huemer), and “Why I Am Not an Austrian Economist” (by myself) – ultimately articulated the main objections I formed as an undergraduate.

Michael Huemer was a fellow Berkeley student, and the most powerful influence on my mature philosophical outlook; he is now a philosophy professor at the University of Colorado. You might say that Huemer provided a modern restatement of the Scottish philosophy of common sense, best represented by Thomas Reid, but this seriously understates the originality of Huemer’s contribution. In any case, like Reid, Huemer maintains that philosophers’ great error is to set up inherently unfulfillable standards for knowledge, and then turn to skepticism once they realize that their beliefs fall short of these standards. As Reid puts it:

[W]hen we attempt to prove, by direct argument, what is really self-evident, the reasoning will always be inconclusive; for it will either take for granted the thing to be proved, or something not more evident; and so, instead of giving strength to the conclusion, will rather tempt those to doubt of it who never did so before. (1872, p.637)

I do not think that Rand would have objected to Reid’s basic point. She maintained that there were three self-validating axioms – “Existence exists,” “Consciousness is conscious,” “A is A.” But for Reid and Huemer, the set of knowledge-not-in-need-of-proof is more expansive. In particular, it includes some moral truths. It is obvious, for example, that murder is wrong. If someone denied that it was obvious, what argument could convince him?

Rand of course thought she had an argument for the wrongness of murder (see “The Objectivist Ethics” in Rand (1964)). The more I reflected, though, the more I realized that her “man qua man” standard was question-begging. If Rand did not approve of an action that seemed plainly conducive to one’s self-interest, she declared it contrary to the life of “man qua man.” The Reid-Huemer route was to openly recognize the wrongness of murder as an independent moral fact. In the admittedly rare circumstances where murder serves one’s self-interest, it remains wrong.

Thus, the very systematic philosophy (‘leading’ to freedom) that objectivists view as their strength, Caplan sees as unnecessary and dogmatic.

My position on the matter is similar to Caplan’s. If one has to deal with purely moral questions, individual freedom needs no justification more basic than itself. However, there is no uniform route, moral or otherwise, to a political ideology. Libertarianism distills the essence of Ayn Rand’s philosophy — yet, by not imposing any further axioms, it retains a breadth that objectivism lacks. Thus, libertarianism comes in many different flavors — rights libertarianism, green libertarianism, consequentalism, anarcho-capitalism — each with its own philosophical underpinnings but united by the common thread of liberty. Van Horn and others may regard this as a weakness; however, I see it as a strength. 

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Apropos of nothing…I remembered myself from ten years back.

When I hated all mongerers of superstition; when I simply could not fathom why the government did not declare the practice of astrology, quackery, faith-healing and all related unscientific mumbo-jumbo illegal; when I would have liked all religious extremists and preachers of hate put behind bars; when the ultimate aim of the government to me was the advancement of a scientific spirit; when I truly believed that the world would be a better place if those who were caught in the warp of irrationality and actively spread dogmatism were silenced, by force if necessary; when I was fifteen.

Today, as then, I believe in the scientific spirit. But I no longer believe in coercion. Does that make me a wiser person?

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