Category Archives: ethics

love or nothing

In Watch on the Rhine (1943; screenplay by Dashiell Hammett from a play by Lillian Hellman) the penniless Count remarks,

Blecher, we do not like each other.

The Nazi to whom he hopes to sell information replies,

But that will not stand in the way of our doing business.

To link such a sentiment to fascism implies a remarkable kind of snobbery.

what didn’t happen in Juneau didn’t stay in Juneau

In “It Happened in Juneau”, near the end of the third season of Northern Exposure (one of very few TV series of which I’ve seen every episode twice), Maggie flies Joel to Juneau for a conference; they both get lonely, and drunkenly seduce each other. But Maggie falls asleep and cannot be roused, so Joel puts her to bed alone.

In the morning they return to Cicely. Maggie believes that they did copulate, and partly regrets it. Some time goes by before Joel succeeds in telling Maggie what really happened. She is insulted: “Why didn’t you? I had consented!”

Maggie later invites Joel to her house to try again. She asks him to say his desire for her is so strong that he’ll let nothing get in its way. She then finds (or reveals) that that expression of desire, rather than the execution, was what she really wanted from Joel, and dismisses him.

This affair bugs me on two points. First: I can accept that Maggie is insulted by Joel’s inaction, but wouldn’t the insult be outweighed by relief? (Well, the people of Cicely are quirky, and Maggie more so than some.)

Second: what Maggie asks of Joel in the end, taken literally, includes a commitment to rape her. Am I sick for noticing that? On reflection, I guess it’s in character – and suitable for prime time – that Joel is too startled (and perhaps deflated!) by the dismissal to respond with more than a bewildered verbal protest; but I’m still disappointed that the script didn’t explore that point at all.

individualism ≠ egalitarianism

Elsewhere someone wrote that libertarians cannot be racist or sexist because our defining tenets include individualism. I responded:

As I understand it, individualism is the moral principle that consent can be given, and obligation incurred, only by the acts of an individual, not by membership in a group (definition made up on the spot, probably flawed). I’m not convinced that it is incompatible with racism or sexism. Enlightened people reject racism/sexism because the weight of evidence says that psychological differences within groups outweigh differences between groups, not because individualism decrees a priori that it must be so.

Have I missed something?

I intentionally glossed over the distinction between personal groupism (treating members of the outgroup differently in one’s private capacity) and institutional groupism (e.g. legal disabilities), partly because the context didn’t specify.

It will be interesting to see whether egalitarian legal principles can survive contact with or creation of

  • autonomous artificial intelligences that are more capable than humans in some ways but permanently childlike in other ways;
  • uplifted animals;
  • aliens in whom the concept of ‘individual’ is fuzzy, such as Didonians (Anderson, The Rebel Worlds), Boaty-Bits (Pohl & Williamson, Farthest Star) and Tines (Vinge, A Fire Upon the Deep et seq.).

2+2=God?

Travis Corcoran wrote, in response to a question:

This is deserving of a longer post, but the ultra-brief version:

I started out soft atheist, but always accepted the absolute existence of good and evil (it is evil to kill Jews in gas chambers, even if both the law and the prevailing culture say that it is OK).

The acceptance of an absolute moral code eventually lead me to theism.

Given that one absolute that I accept, I felt I had to accept theism.

I guess hope there’s a lot hidden under that word eventually.

I rashly commented:

Hm. Should I bother writing up my godless views on objective evil?

and, to my amazement, someone took me up on it:

If you’re feeling like it, I’d be happy to read them!

Continue reading

from where I sit

On Wikipedia, a quarrel over this sentence:

Most members of libertarian parties support low taxes and a balanced budget because they believe citizens should keep most of the money they earn, while logically consistent libertarians, including anarcho-capitalists, refuse all methods to subject people to tax.

The words logically consistent were inserted by Irgendwer (German for anywho), who objects to replacing them with radical or even other. While any taxation is obviously inconsistent with the letter of the nonaggression principle, I do not agree that the NAP is the only coherent foundation for libertarian policy; two proofs of the same theorem need not resemble each other. (See also.) I see nothing logically inconsistent in the minarchist opinion that an anarchic order cannot keep the burden of crime below that of crime-plus-tax in a well-conceived low-tax state, and thus that such a state minimizes coercion (which is undesirable even if not the fundamental sin). I’m an anarchist not because I believe such a state is logically impossible but because I believe it is practically impossible: to prevent such a state from mutating into a predator is a prohibitively difficult engineering problem, which does not lend itself to empirical tinkering.

Some libertarian writers worry too much about the deficiencies of either NAP or utilitarianism in extreme cases. In the absence of divine revelation, moral philosophy makes more sense as an empirical science than as an axiomatic one like mathematics (or theology!). It’s a bit incongruous to insist on individualism, whose moral force comes from our observable differences, and on an axiomatic approach, which must abstract away some of those differences.

An empirical science infers the axioms (laws of nature) from the “theorems” (phenomena), and tests them by attempting to derive the latter from the former. If the derivation fails, the scientist asks where was the flaw in my reasoning? and the engineer asks is this approximation good enough to work with until a better one comes along? As a citizen (by which I mean a member of a civilization) seeking to live a moral life, I am more engineer than scientist; I find the nonaggression principle both “close enough” and conveniently simple. And the Coase principle suggests that wherever nonaggression is not “close enough” the deficiency is not the end of the world.

Thus spake the insomniac, who hopes no one was overly bored by it.