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Posts Tagged ‘values’

To make up for my lack of posting, let me link to a discussion over at Aristotle’s blog. It started off with Rawls but has evolved into topics like the nature of morality and the objectivity (or lack thereof) of values.

To a casual reader of the thread linked above, I might come across as rather critical of Ayn Rand and what I consider to be a flawed attempt by her to build an objective theory of morality. So to give a more balanced picture of what I really think of Rand and her works, let me quote myself from a different thread on the same blog.

I won’t say Rand is for everyone; I really do think you need to have certain personality traits in order for Rand’s fiction to really speak to you. This is especially true of the way she depicts the sexual and emotional aspects of her characters.

[…] So, I can see why The Fountainhead does not appeal to a lot of people, including many who really value individualism. As for me, I read it in my late teens and have re-read it since. I love it, and that’s an understatement.

Actually Ayn Rand is *not* my favourite moral philosopher; she does not even come close. There are several fundamental logical flaws in the way she treats the topics of rationality and first principles. But The Fountainhead is a different matter; it distills just the right aspects of her philosophy, perhaps by accident, but nevertheless.

There are a lot of things I dream of doing with my life and none of them have much to do with Rand or objectivism.

But if you ask me the name of just one book, *any* book from *any era*, that I wish *I* had written…. it would be the Fountainhead.

Reading Rand was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. For that I will be eternally grateful.

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Oregon wants to raise the (tobacco) smoking age to 21.

Wait, that can’t be right, can it? Don’t Oregonians love their mountains and their freedom? I mean, come on, Oregon  is a pioneer in assisted suicide laws. It was one of the very few states to oppose ski-helmet mandates in an online TIME poll from last week! And they really like gays and unconventional individuals.

And oh, they love their pot. Marijuana for medicinal use is legal and simple possession for personal use has been decriminalized. If there is one state whose residents would be comfortable with legalizing most drugs, it is Oregon. So how can they get paternalistic about tobacco?

You see, tobacco is just not in. Hell, rednecks smoke it all the time. Some of the lowest taxes on tobacco are in states where gay-haters and religious conservatives rule.

For that matter, fatty foods are not in. Pleasures that are not good for your health are usually not in unless supplemented by some kind of culture. Free speech is in but hate speech is not. Trying to explain to them that hate speech is part of free speech is most certainly not in. Protesting exploitation and capitalism and going to jail for political persecution is in. Woolly sweaters and vegetarianism are in. For a detailed list of things that are in at cities like Portland or Seattle or SF or NY, head over to SWPL.

So I was thinking of all this and that’s when I realized this: Oregon’s supposed libertarianism is an accident. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the moral principle of individual liberty. It has to do with certain value judgements.

It is the same everywhere. It is cool in San Francisco to be stoned for days doing weed or cocaine or heroine but smoke a pack of  cigaretters over there and you will be treated like a demon. Hookah is somewhat in though and will draw no more than mild disapproval. Wine  and most other alcohol is awesome. Prostitution is a private matter and should not be interfered with. However trans fats are banned.

Then head over to Texas or Utah and do all of the above things San Francisco residents approve of wholeheartedly. You will be dragged to jail kicking. But don’t get too despondent! In Texas, they will give you other freedoms than are in over there. Like guns and cigars and low taxes and the right to eat trans-fat laden foods.

Jeffrey Rosen said it best. On the surface it might seem that restrictions on freedom are getting more unacceptable. Horrendous laws like those against sodomy no longer exist. But the truth is that morals legislation is alive and well. The problem with sodomy laws wasn’t that they were based on moral disapproval; the problem was that the public consensus about the immorality of sodomy had collapsed. It all depends on the value judgements of the majority and the influential; the things they consider ok become legal. Defending freedom for freedom’s sake … not just in.

And that realization would ordinarily make me sad but today it makes me smile. For it reminds me of another insight I had when I was very young. Of all the insights I’ve ever had that one is my favourite. And it’s simply this: The world we live in is a ridiculously funny place.

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I found this on the internet while searching for related stuff. It was written ten years ago by someone called Brian Wilson.

This is the important year. The beginning of the end. “The Shift” is happening.

[…] “The Shift” is what I call the mass hysteria, the mass group thinking that takes over suddenly, when 95 percent of the population suddenly and ferociously agrees on something that they never cared deeply about before. And what comes next is legislation to force the last 5 percent to bend to their will. To the population caught up in “The Shift”, this sudden new conviction is as strong as religion, and anyone in the last 5 percent who even SUGGESTS a calm debate or alternative is treated like a heretic who should be burned at the stake. If you are getting angry or self righteous at this rant because you suspect where it is going, then you have fallen prey to the mass thinking already.

[…] Now, you might be part of the 1 percent of the population that is like me. If that is the case, I apologize for lumping you in with the rest of the mindless masses. I seem to be immune to “The Shift” in most cases. This isn’t a blessing: I’m continually lamenting the loss of yet another freedom to “The Shift”. Those caught up in the various crusades (anti-smoking, pro-seat belts, pro-motorcycle helmets, etc) joyously give away their freedoms, and seem happy to do it.

This year we are still early enough in “The Shift” that some helmet wearers had some very thoughtful insights. One 50 year old couple who were wearing helmets suggested that the highly publicized deaths of Sonny Bono and Kennedy last year, both by colliding with trees, contributed to the large rise in helmet use. But we are far enough along in “The Shift” that the truly mindless were coming out of the woodwork also. I rode up a lift in Winter Park Colorado with a woman and her 4 year daughter. The daughter was wearing a helmet, and the woman was not. The woman actually told me that she wished the government would pass a skier helmet law, so that she would be forced to wear a helmet just like she forced her daughter to wear one.

For a moment I lost the will to live, and I almost jumped off the lift.

I cannot STAND people who have this kind of attitude. It is not the government’s job to force us to be “safer children”. It is not the government’s job to decide what is an acceptable risk for us personally, and what is not. If you want to wear a helmet while skiing, please do! It is a very good idea. I might choose to wear one also, depending on the conditions and where I plan to ski that day. But you and I need to accept the decision of the informed skier who chooses to feel the wind in their hair, and take the well known risk of going sans-helmet.

That applies today, it will apply tomorrow, and it will apply 50 years from now. Don’t succumb to “The Shift”, in which you suddenly change your opinion at the same time as the rest of the population does, and you hold your new opinion with religious fervor.

I realize this rant is hopeless; I am tilting at windmills. I predict that within 5 years there will be a skier helmet law for anyone under 18. Within 10 years, there will be a skier helmet law for everyone. And 20 years from now, on a ski slope, on a perfect day with a blue sky and perfect snow, I will irritate my friends by playing the heretic. While wearing my government mandated ski helmet, I will wish out loud that just for one run I could feel the wind in my hair.

Do read the whole thing.

Brian’s prediction hasn’t yet come to pass. No  country yet has a universal ski-helmet rule that covers everyone. However many places already mandate  helmets for children and it seems likely that some Canadian provinces will soon pass a a law forcing all skiers to wear helmets. And maybe it will then be California, or some European country, and pretty soon the rest of the world will follow. Or maybe not.

But his thoughts about “The shift” are true, not just in the paternalistic context but about anything really. And if you are thinking that shifts are merely rational reactions to updated human knowledge, I’d prefer you mull over it some more.

***

And now a more personal note. I don’t know what Brian thinks today of his rant from ten years ago. He probably believes his rant made no difference to anyone’s lives. And to an extent he is right. No law has been influenced by his opinion and most people don’t care about freedom anyway. But if he ever reads this, I’d like him to know that it did make a small difference to someone’s life about fifteen minutes ago. His rant made me happy. It made me smile, even if that smile were tempered by sadness and a tinge of hopelessness.

For to believe in individual liberty is to see your strongest moral convictions treated like dirt by ninety-five percent of the population. It is a bit like living in some country in the past where everyone else possesses slaves. When you believe something to be utterly wrong it does not help if the overwhelming majority thinks it is good.

Why did his post make me happy?

I am not happy to be part of a minority that rails against the stupid majority. Such happiness is an enemy of rational thinking. On the contrary, I’d like most other people to think similarly on this core moral issue– my dream world is one where liberty is taken for granted by everyone so that it is not even an issue; where there is no need for me to blog about it or do random internet searches.

His post made me happy because, quite simply, it gave me some kind of support. In a small way, it told me I am not alone. I can not justify this happiness except to say I am human. So thanks Brian, and all those other advocates for liberty who I have read but never met.

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The Center for Science in the Public Interest is an interesting organization. Ostensibly, its purpose is to be a “strong advocate for nutrition and health, food safety, alcohol policy, and sound science”. It publishes a health newsletter and has several programs to educate the public on various issues related to science, nutrition and public health.

Scratch deeper, and a frightening picture emerges. The CSPI is one of those entities that believes in science but not in freedom. It believes in equating the nutritious and the safe  with the universally good, and is happy to enforce these value judgements on others by any means at their disposal.

Their latest target is “alcoholic energy drinks”. This is from their website:

The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest today filed suit against MillerCoors Brewing Company, formerly Miller, over its alcoholic energy drink, Sparks. The product has more alcohol than regular beer and contains unapproved additives, including the stimulants caffeine and guarana. The lawsuit is asking the Superior Court of the District of Columbia to stop MillerCoors from selling the controversial drink, which is also under scrutiny from state attorneys general.

Drinkers of caffeinated alcoholic drinks are more likely to binge drink, ride with an intoxicated driver, become injured, or be taken advantage of sexually than drinkers of non-caffeinated alcoholic drinks, according to a 2007 study conducted at Wake Forest University.

Sparks products contain 6 to 7 percent alcohol by volume, as opposed to regular beer, which typically has 4 or 5 percent alcohol. Also unlike beer, Sparks’ appeal to young people is enhanced by its sweet citrusy taste, redolent of SweeTarts candy, and the bright color of orange soda. (Sparks Light also contains the artificial sweetener sucralose). In October, MillerCoors plans to release Sparks Red, which will have 8 percent alcohol by volume.

They have already stopped Anheuser-Busch from selling a similar product. Shockingly, they do not have an action project to ban the serving of coffee to a customer who has had a glass of wine — yet.

The rest of their website contains arguments in a similar vein. They go on about how the raising of the drinking age has saved lives, how alcohol is a terrible drug that deserves to be severely restricted from just about every place imaginable, how the trans fat ban will save fifty thousand lives a year and so on. They want to employ every coercive technique imaginable to stop such horrors from happening.

It always surprises me when I read this kind of analysis.

In the CSPI worldview, the only negative costs are those that are directly measurable, such as death and disease. Any action that reduces these figures is good. But clearly extending this reasoning to everything leads to absurdities. For instance, ban all cars today and the number of speeding related deaths will become zero. No one advocates such a thing because the costs in terms of inconvenience, quality of life and — may I mention it — freedom will be too high. How is it that when they rile against unhealthy or unsafe foods and drinks, they completely neglect the intrinsic cost of taking away from millions of users something that they enjoy? How is it that they put absolutely no weight in their analysis upon the fact that they are taking away my basic right to live my life the way I deem fit?

It is possible that CSPI is acting in good faith and in their moral code, these intrinsic costs are negligible or at any rate, low enough to merit coercive regulation.

But everyone has a core, inalienable ethical belief and here is mine. There’s only one word that accurately describes actions such as those of CSPI. That word is “evil”. It is irrelevant to my moral code that they may not view things the same way. There is simply no other way I can think of people who believe in imposing their personal choices on others. And unlike bandits or robbers who commit crimes for their gain, the evil that such organizations do never stop.

(Hat Tip: Reason Hit and Run)

Also read:

Jacob Sullum’s old article on CSPI and their pseudoscience.

My post on smoking bans in San Francisco.

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Jeffrey Rosen, in an excellent article, reminds us that moral legislation is far from dead. Indeed, as points out, the repeal of certain laws (such as those that criminalized homosexuality) should not be viewed as a victory for civil libertarianism but merely as a statement that American society no longer views the concerned act as wrong. An important distinction, in my opinion.

However– as Eugene Volokh points out, oddly, does not refer to the recent case in which the old Texas ban on dildoes was struck down on the grounds that it violated the right of “adult consensual sexual intimacy in the home.” Assuming that a significant proportion of Texan society looks down upon such toys, that case was a rare victory for the libertarian principle of personal freedom.

(Link via The Volokh Conspiracy)

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