Posts Tagged ‘principles’

One question that  is pertinent to politics as well as psychology is the nature of moral progress. When I say moral progress, I mean the process by which individuals end up updating or modifying their basic moral beliefs (or priors). This process usually is a slow one, and at the micro level involves one’s reaction to evidences or thought processes.

This typically happens when Person A comes across some data/evidence that is in tension with his moral system. For example, A may value a certain principle and then realize one day that some regular action of his violates this principle. Or maybe A values several principles, and new data (or just new reasoning) seems to suggest that in at least some instance these principles are in conflict.

To give a couple of examples:

Time: 1790. Place: America. A values both individual liberty and a harmonious, prosperous society. The issue at hand is slave ownership. A reluctantly accepts slave ownership for the time being because he believes that Blacks are intellectually inferior and would not be able to live in the same land as the Whites. Perhaps A supports emancipation in principle but thinks an actual implementation would result in tremendous disorder, huge decrease in prosperity and would also require eventual deportation of all the Blacks back to Africa in a painful, costly and disrupting process. But one day his scientist friend shows him evidence that seems to strongly suggest that the inferiority of Blacks is a myth, and given proper education they would be as likely as Whites to succeed in intellectual endeavors.

Or to give a second example, A is a young European, living currently, who has a strong moral opposition to hunting for pleasure. He thinks it is wrong and rights-violating. Yet he eats meat. He justifies this by saying that killing for food or to achieve some other basic necessity is ok, but killing for pleasure is morally wrong. But one day, after a conversation with a friend he starts to wonder if his position is morally sound. He realizes  that he can get by  without eating animals (gaining the needed protein from other sources, such as lentils, milk and soy, as many Asians do) so the main reason behind eating meat is the pleasure he gains from it. So how is eating meat different form hunting then?

And so on…

The interesting question to me, is what A does in such a situation.  He has several choices:

1. Simple minded denial: He can just deny that the evidence exists. For instance the 18th century American could refuse to believe his scientist friend. He could claim that the facts and the research are false and move on. We seem to see something similar with some (not all) global warming sceptics today.

2. Tweaking:  He can decide that despite the new evidence/argument, he can resolve the tension with minor tweaks. For instance, he comes up with other evidence or arguments to counter the tension. Or he  makes minor changes to his priors that make this tension go away or at least become less pronounced. There are many ways to tweak one’s beliefs, some simple, some highly complex; some honest, some not, some based on reason, some based on emotion.

3. Biting the bullet: He can decide that his values are truly in conflict and modify them significantly. The 18th century American could either give up his belief  in liberty, or abandon his support for slave-ownership. The 2oth century European could decide that animals don’t have rights (and end his moral opposition to hunting) or decide to become a vegetarian. Any of these outcomes are what I’d call significant moral progress. At the individual level, they can be life-changing.

It seems to me that personality plays a complex role in deciding which of the above outcomes occur. As a rule, people have a strong emotional resistance to any sort of change in their moral priors. For that would mean acknowledging to themselves, and perhaps to others, that they have engaged in beliefs/actions that are false/evil. Some make a conscious attempt to avoid letting emotions take precedence over reason in deciding how one deals with such conflicts, while others go with the flow.

Age probably plays an important role in all this; younger people are more likely to change their belief systems. As Fitzgerald once wrote, “At eighteen our convictions are hills from which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide.”

In any case, I don’t have any deep insights to offer, but I think these are interesting questions, and being able to deal with moral dilemmas in an efficient, unbiased and rational manner would certainly improve political outcomes.

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I have written derisively about Michael Bloomberg on this blog before. His positions on various issues are patronising, insulting and completely antithetical to individual freedom.

Yet, there’s one topical issue where his strong stand has won my wholehearted admiration — it is this one. It takes courage to stand up for your principles even when doing so is deeply unpopular, and in the last couple of months Bloomberg has shown he possesses both courage and certain right principles.

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To add to the list of depressing news for the day, have a look at the sorry fate that the medical marijuana bill in Minnesota suffered.

Nonetheless, I think the wind is blowing in one direction in the US; and that is towards legalization. These are not the wishful words of an optimist but a mere appraisal of the expression of views we are seeing currently. Major newspapers are running pro-legalization opeds like never before, the public attitudes have never been more favorable and if you look at the age-breakup of the polls that are being conducted, it is obvious that change is coming.

I have an almost perfect success rate in previous predictions I have made on this blog, and I am confident that the two I am going to make now will come true.

1) In ten years from now, recreational marijuana use will be either fully legal or decriminalized in more than 35 American states; the federal government will no longer seek to interfere in state policy on this matter; most major US urban cities will be as pot-friendly as Amsterdam is today.

2) On the other hand, regulations against tobacco, unhealthy foods and fatty burgers will get more stringent. Vice taxes associated to those will increase substantially. In ten years from now, it will be hard to light up even in most private owned properties except a few narrowly defined areas. Trans-fat bans will be almost universal. Companies will have much less freedom than now about what they can sell you; this will be done to protect you from your bad choices.

In short, the pro-marijuana legalization winds that are blowing today have less to do with libertarian principles and more to do with what is currently considered ok. Here’s an old post by me on this theme.

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Of the Browne resolutions, I find this one particularly important:

I resolve to cleanse myself of hate, resentment, and bitterness. Such things steal time and attention from the work that must be done.

Related to which I’d like to resolve:

I will not let myself be poisoned with negative emotions by things I view as evil but have no power to eradicate.

For God knows, there are so many of them!

Of course, a simpler (though not easier) solution is to stop viewing them as evil. I confess that I have thought of that possibility in the past.

Which reminds of this story. Would you trade your knowledge and moral principles for a simpler, more ignorant existence where you would be happier? I wouldn’t. After all, even if I did, that happy person wouldn’t be me. And there are parts of me that I value higher than an optimum level of serotonin and dopamine.

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(Post updated)

In my earlier post on this theme, I expressed my opposition to using coercive legal means to advance social goals and my moral abhorrence for laws which censor expression, ban consensual behavior or limit freedom of association. I wrote:

Any rational system of morality that makes the basic libertarian distinction between the personal and the political must conclude that laws [which restrict individual liberty] are immoral.

To give another side of the issue, I am also surprised when people think that it is ‘unlibertarian’ to attempt to modify other people’s behavior — for good or bad — through non-coercive means. A controlling husband who does not want his wife to dance with other men, a guy who ‘makes’  his girlfriend eat healthy foods, a friend who tries to emotionally pressurize you to give up smoking or a lover who makes you give up something you love as a precondition of being with you are not in any way violating the non-aggression principle. Such behavior can be sensible or irrational, helpful or counter-productive but as long as they do not involve actual coercion, they are neither libertarian nor unlibertarian.

Let me focus on the cases when the controlling behavior is generally seen as bad or unfair. In those examples, the offending party may not often act in an understanding or considerate manner. However they certainly have the right to be inconsiderate. I most definitely have the right to demand that my partner do things in a certain way. The partner also has the right to refuse. At that point, each of us has the right to suggest a compromise, let the other’s wish prevail or end the relationship. As a general principle, I think such controlling behavior is a terrible idea because even if the other person acts as you wish, she will usually resent it and if you do it often enough, end the relationship with you. However, simply because an idea is terrible does not mean it violates another’s liberty. When private, consensual relationships are involved, everyone has the right to stay in it strictly on their terms.

For instance I would never date a deeply religious person. I would also prefer that my partner’s tastes and convictions are compatible with mine. I might attempt to persuade her to do things in a certain way if they are important to me, even if those things are essentially her personal matter. If the matter is core and non-negotiable, I would even make it clear that we cannot be together if she does not change. These actions may or may not be the best thing for the relationship but they certainly are a natural consequence of my liberty to live my life (which includes my associations and relationships) on the exact terms I wish.

Libertarianism deals with the legal and the political. The meme that it also governs one’s behavior in a purely social or personal setting  is misguided and display a lack of understanding of the underlying philosophical principles. That is not to say that social and personal behavior is not important or that the pros and cons of a particular kind of behavior should not be discussed; merely that such discussions (or any ethics/principles underlying it) are distinct from the principles that underlie individual liberty. Using pressure and emotional leverage to make a friend change his behavior is fundamentally different from having a law that mandates this behavior change. Social pressure is on an entirely different plane from legal coercion. Friendships, marriages and relationships can be ended by either party for any reason, rational or irrational; an oppressive law can never be escaped from.

The personal is not the political. Period.

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I wrote earlier about Obama’s attempts to silence ads critical of him by legal intimidation.

His “truth-squad” at Missouri is, however, no less disturbing. [However, see update below]

Perhaps we are getting overworked about the whole thing and this “truth squad” is simply there to issue rebuttals and not actually engage in prosecutions.

Perhaps Obama really does not believe in free speech and like Stalin, Che Guevera or Hugo Chavez has no qualms about crushing dissenting voices using all the force and cunning at his disposal.

The truth probably lies somewhere between these two extremes. I think Obama does generally believe in free speech and civil liberties but he also believes it is of paramount importance that he get elected. And he probably thinks that if some false propaganda against him can be silenced only by intimidatory tactics, it is not such a terrible thing.

That brings one to an interesting moral question. To what extent should one be willing to compromise one’s principles for some ‘greater good’?

I know where I stand, at least with regard to this particular issue. But Obama, and surely over 70% of the country, would probably view me as a free speech radical.

[Update] Eugene Volokh has another post on the issue. Perhaps, as he suggests, the “truth squads” are nothing worse than an apparatus to systematically rebut falsehoods. If so, I have no problems with the principle. The devil however lies in the details: to many ordinary citizens, the sight of officials such as sheriffs and prosecuters forcefully countering claims might seem rather close to intimidation.

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