An interesting new style of video for me...
Thursday, April 24, 2008
Saturday, April 19, 2008
As a result of the donations of the wonderfully kind listeners, I have decided to release the three nonfiction FDR books to the general public for free, in audio book and e-book format. You can listen to them directly on this page, or download them individually, or subscribe to a feed for the material.
You can send people links to the files, or to the page, or the feed if you like.
The purpose of this move is that it will save some money on advertising, as these books get sent around - but mostly it will really help spread the word about the joys and challenges of truth and philosophy, which is, after all, the central purpose of what we're doing here.
Again, thanks so much, and enjoy the books!
Monday, April 14, 2008
My friend Bob is a marriage counsellor, who recently told me a rather remarkable story about a very unusual couple.
"When they came into my office, I could immediately see that she was depressed," he said last night over drinks. "He was kind of punchy and aggressive; she just sat there, hands folded in her lap, staring at the floor. I ask them what their problems were, and he went on a long tirade about how she just wasn't 'committed to the marriage.' I asked her what she thought he meant by that, but she wouldn't answer, just sat there trembling.
"He said that he wanted the marriage to work, that he loved his wife very much, and that he believed that she loved him too, but he felt that she just wasn't committed to the marriage, you know? – and that he was doing all the work, and she just sat there, he said, just like she's doing now."
Bob sighed. "I've seen this sort of thing before, where the man just kind of lords it over his wife, and then gets more and more irritated as she gets more and more passive. It's a real vicious circle – the more passive she gets, the more aggressive he gets, and so the more passive she gets, and so on. It's a really hard to break the cycle.
"I was committed to helping them in this area, though, so I promised them that if they were willing to work at their marriage, they would see significant improvements very quickly. The man immediately agreed to get started, but his wife seemed too depressed to make any kind of real decision, and just wandered out of my office, trailing after him.
"Over the next few weeks, every time I saw them, it was the same story – he talked and talked, and got more and more frustrated when his wife refused to get involved in the process, and just sat there, staring at the carpet.
"I pretty much realized that I wasn't going to get any information out of the woman while her husband was in the room, so yesterday I called her and asked to come in on her own.
"It took forever to convince her – i had to promise her that I would never tell her husband that she had come to see me on her own. I normally don't like doing that, but I sensed a real urgency in her, so I agreed.
"She came in, and couldn't meet my eyes – barely talked above a whisper.
"Why do you think that you are so resistant to getting involved in the marriage?" I asked gently.
She murmured something I couldn't hear. I asked her to repeat herself.
"Because – it is not a marriage," she whispered, tears welling up in her eyes.
I handed her a tissue. "Well no, if you're not emotionally involved, then it's…"
She raised her hand, in a strangely decisive gesture that silenced me immediately.
"No!" she said, her voice suddenly turning to steel. "It is not a marriage! I did not choose this man. I do not love this man, rather in fact I hate him with all my heart!"
"Really?" I paused, trying to figure out what she meant.
Her jaw jutted out, and she wiped her eyes defiantly. "I was taken from my village at gunpoint, I was forced to marry this man. Every act of sex has been an act of rape. I do not have any access to any money, I cannot escape, and even if I did, my parents will be thrown in jail if I leave this man. I am locked in the basement every night, I am only let out to cook and clean, and then I am locked up again. If I contradict my husband, I am beaten, thrown in the basement, and deprived of food, sometimes for days. I live in terror of him." She began to sob. "I hate my life, and wish to die, but if I kill myself, my parents also will be beaten and thrown in jail." Her hand suddenly shot forward, palms upward. "There is no way out of this dog's life for me, and so I throw myself on your mercy, I beg you for help of any kind, I beg you to help me find a way out of this nightmare of enslavement and rape, because I cannot keep living – but I am too afraid to die…"
Her whispered but emphatic words dissolved again into sobs, and she lowered her eyes. I was stunned, completely confused, and sat in silence for a minute or two.
"Well," I said finally, leaning forward, "the important thing is that for this marriage to work, you have to get more involved emotionally, and learn how to really communicate with your husband…"
I interrupted my friend Bob at this point, utterly shocked and appalled.
"You did what?"
Bob rubbed his forehead, averting his eyes. "Well, the issue was that she was disconnected from her marriage, you see, and so remained emotionally unavailable to her husband – so I wanted to teach her some ways that she might be able to open up and be more honest with him. More vulnerable…"
My mouth dropped open. "But – didn't you hear a word of what she said to you?"
Bob smiled in a sickly manner. "Oh yes, I understood that she was not happy in her marriage – my goal as a counsellor is to give her some tools that help empower her in her relationship…"
"But – Bob," I said, trying to slow down my breathing and calm my hammering heart, "did you not hear her when she said that she had been kidnapped at gunpoint, imprisoned and terrorized, and faces dire threats to both herself and her family every day?"
Bob shrugged. "But the important thing is to figure out how she can improve her situation now, not fuss about what happened in the past, which cannot be changed."
"But what happened in the past is essential to figuring out what is happening now – and what must happen in the future!" I cried. "I mean – you keep calling this a marriage, but it's just institutionalized rape and enslavement! Do you not understand? You cannot conflate that which is chosen voluntarily with that which is enforced at the point of a gun!"
He looked away, swirling his cognac, then shrugged again resentfully. "Perhaps, but the important thing now is to try and find a way to make this marriage work now – not obsess about what happened in the distant past, which as I said cannot be changed."
I took a deep breath. "So you genuinely believe that you have the power to turn years of rape, abuse and imprisonment into a positive and happy marriage?"
"Well, certainly every situation can be improved, and quite often in life we do have to try to make the best of a difficult situation…"
"So you believe that you can turn this obscene travesty of brutality and exploitation into a positive and loving marriage?"
"Well, certainly some good can come out of my involvement with this couple, I am sure of that…"
"But – why would you not tell this woman to escape from her imprisonment?"
Bob blinked. "I'm sorry – what?"
"Well you're trying to turn this evil and hellish situation into something wise and benevolent, which I don't think it's possible. It is completely unreasonable to expect a woman who has been brutalized and raped for years to try to be open, vulnerable and loving towards her abuser. Good cannot come from evil."
He smiled wryly. "Well, I can't very well counsel her to leave her husband, now can I?"
He smiled, taking another sip of his $50 cognac. "Ahhh, you philosophers are so unrealistic…"
Bob laughed. "Well, I cannot tell this woman to leave her marriage, because I am a marriage counsellor, and if she leaves her marriage, then I am out of pocket!"
Does this story make you feel a little queasy? Does my friend Bob's inhumanity and desire to exploit an evil situation upset you?
This is the ghastly world of government programs.
I am currently reading a book entitled "The White Man's Burden" about the endless disasters of foreign aid programs. The same pattern is at work everywhere that the state attempts to use stolen money to do good – the welfare state, the war on drugs, public schools and, most sadly, war.
Intellectuals continually say that we should attempt to do good with public money, while perpetually ignoring the basic reality that government money is either explicitly or implicitly ripped from the pockets of helpless and largely disarmed citizens at the point of a gun, or through inflation and deficit financing.
Once money passes through the bloody wall of violence, expecting it to do good on the other side – in the realm of evil – is exactly as irrational, corrupt and exploitative as imagining that a brutalized and imprisoned woman can learn to love her tormentor.
Evil can never create good, any more than cancer can create health or heading south can make you go north. Ignoring the moral origins of interactions is entirely corrupt; it is the refusal to differentiate between rape and lovemaking, between theft and trade, between a hotel room and a prison cell.
If a psychiatrist diagnoses a man locked in a tiny cell as suffering from "agoraphobia," we can easily understand that his diagnosis is tragically flawed, because he is ignoring the basic reality that the man is locked up. We can also understand that any such psychiatrist who "diagnoses" a man in a cage while ignoring the fact that he is in a cage is engaged in something pretty nefarious himself.
In the same way, when intellectuals talk about how government money should be used, they are engaged in exactly the same kind of corruption. Intellectuals will generally talk about the failures of government programs – such failures are so impossible to ignore now that they must at least be addressed on the surface – and then will provide endless suggestions about how government programs can be "improved" to achieve their stated goals.
This is directly analogous to Bob the marriage counsellor giving an imprisoned woman the advice on how she can "improve" her behaviour to achieve a happy marriage. By ignoring the basic evil at the root of the interaction – her enslavement – he is actually acting with complicity and sympathy towards her abuser.
We can also directly see Bob's financial motive to continue pretending that this abusive subjugation is in fact some sort of "marriage" – and we are repulsed when Bob openly states that he will not recognize or act on the evil she suffers because he wishes to profit from its continuance.
How is this any different from an intellectual who works at the World Bank or the IMF who refuses to address the basic fact that the money he hands out to despots and dictators throughout the world is blood money that has been stolen from citizens at the point of a gun?
By refusing to address the evil at the root of the interaction, because he wishes to profit from its continuance, he confirms his existence as a corrupt state toady who will ignore any crime in order to continue to pocket the coins that fall from his masters table.
Is it that the violence at the root of state funds is so hard to understand? Of course not. No man with an IQ over 90 has any trouble identifying what will happen to him if he does not pay his taxes. Statist intellectuals are perfectly aware what will happen if they refuse to pay. There is no possibility that they can remain ignorant of the basic nature of state funding. They do not need, as Bob did above, for someone to come in and confess a crime.
They know the crime already, in their reflections.
Wednesday, April 02, 2008
Flagpoles, Lifeboats and the Edge of Ethics
It seems to be a near-universal compulsion for those interested in ethics to attempt to find situations where ethical rules contradict themselves, therefore introducing an element of irrationality or subjectivity to ethics. “Lifeboat” scenarios (cannibalism-is-wrong-but-what-if-you’re-starving), “desperation” scenarios (all-starving-men-will-steal-so-how-can-stealing-always-be-wrong) and so on all seem to be endlessly obsessed over.
One central problem I believe is that philosophers – like most thinkers in the humanities – suffer from both “Physics Envy” and “Newton Paranoia.” “Physics Envy” is a desire to gain the kind of universal absolutism that remains possible for those dealing with non-conscious matter and energy – or mathematics, for that matter. “Newton Paranoia” is the fear that a seemingly-comprehensive and accurate theory will turn out to be incorrect in extreme situations, just as Newton’s theories did in situations of extreme gravity and extreme speed.
It is interesting to note that biologists do not seem to suffer from either of these pathologies. In dealing with the effects of DNA replication and mutation, they face a large number of “gray areas,” as well as continued scepticism from Christian superstition and a few significant challenges in the differentiation of species. Plus, the discipline was also invented centuries before the discovery of DNA, yet somehow managed to soldier on!
The fear that extreme situations will break a theory, combined with the desire for absolute certainty, has stalled the development of ethics since the days of Socrates. In the absence of rigorous philosophical proofs, ethics has remained embedded in the rather soupy morass of culture and religion, much as physics did before Bacon.
However, to me there is something enormously unpleasant and frankly irresponsible in endlessly hacking away at all of the “lifeboat scenarios” and trying to find the final and irrevocable ethical answers to the various catastrophes and extreme situations that can be imagined in this or any other world.
Philosophers – particularly moral philosophers – are the ethical physicians of mankind. Currently, ethics remains such a subjective and murky swamp that it can be reasonably said that the world is suffering from a plague of bad ethics. It is certain that the ethical propositions accepted by most thinkers – the nonaggression principle, property rights and the validity of voluntary contracts – would solve or prevent almost all the institutional evils that the world currently suffers from.
However, ethicists – particularly the academics – worry themselves half to death (and bore us almost entirely into the grave) fretting about whether a man hanging from a flagpole can kick in a window to save his life.
To me, this is like possessing the cure for cancer, but refusing to release it because if someone takes it, and is simultaneously struck by lightning, falls into a sinkhole and sneezes, there may be an adverse reaction.
I believe that this scholastic “retreat to inconsequentiality” occurs because it is far easier to endlessly debate ethical impossibilities then to actually live your ethics in your life. If – academic or not – you believe in the moral validity of the nonaggression principle, then clearly to really live that value requires you to no longer associate with people who advocate aggression, in the form of domestic violence, child abuse, or institutional violence such as war, taxation and unjust imprisonment. Certainly, most people do not see the violence inherent in the existence of a government, but it does not take more than a few moments to understand this basic fact, once it is pointed out. If, however, after weeks or months of pointing out the violence of the state, those around you continue to support it, then ethics means absolutely nothing at all if you continue to associate with them.
Of course, this is all emotionally very unpleasant, but unpleasant or not, it does remain a simple fact that if you claim that something is evil – the initiation of force – then you must by definition also accept that those who advocate evil are corrupt at best, and complicit at worst. For an ethicist to continue to associate with people he defines as corrupt or evil is a complete contradiction of any reasonable ethical standards, as foolish and ultimately contemptible as, say, a District Attorney who rails against prostitution turning out to be a customer.
That having been said, I will do my best to eliminate at least one of the challenges posed by those who wish to find the limits of property rights.
I have worked for the past few years on developing a rational proof for secular ethics, which I talk about in my book Universally Preferable Behaviour. In it, I discuss the oft-cited example of the man on the flagpole.
In this scenario, I am hanging by my fingernails from a flagpole outside the window of someone’s apartment. My choices are to either (a) kick in the window and clamber to safety, or (b) fall to my death.
I will take it as a given that just about everyone on the planet would choose option ‘a’ rather than falling to his death. In this situation, clearly we have an abrogation of property rights (breaking someone’s window and entering the apartment) which is considered the most sensible, right, proper and rational thing to do.
If voluntarily initiating the destruction of someone else’s property can be the right and sensible thing to do, how can we claim that property rights are absolute? (There are countless variations on this basic argument, such as stealing a loaf of bread when you’re starving and so on.)
To answer this opposition, we need to understand the nature of property rights a little more comprehensively.
If we start from the position that there are no unchosen positive obligations, we can easily understand that the exercise of property rights is voluntary. If my car is stolen, I am not morally obligated to assert my property rights and report the theft to the proper authorities, or go hunting for my car myself. I can quite easily shrug, blame the will of the gods and go and buy a bicycle.
Similarly, we can easily imagine a scenario wherein I would be very happy to have my car stolen. Perhaps it requires an expensive repair, and I would rather get the insurance money. Perhaps I was involved in a hit-and-run, and am happy to get rid of the evidence.
In these cases, if the thief were to ask my permission before stealing my car, I would tell him, “Yes, please go ahead and take it!” Thus his removal of my car could scarcely be called “theft” at all, but rather would be a kind of “free removal,” such as when someone takes a television set that I have left by the side of the road.
It is very likely that most people will be very upset if their car is stolen, and will attempt to pursue justice and recover their property. A tiny minority of people will actually be relieved to have their car “stolen,” in which case permission to take the car is in a very real sense granted after the theft, rather than before.
Of course, this “permission” does not have to be implicit, but rather can be entirely explicit.
Imagine that I buy a lottery ticket for five dollars, and find out that it wins nothing. Is it reasonable for me to then present this lottery ticket to you, saying that I bought it on your behalf, and that you now owe me five dollars? Very few of us would feel flattered and gratified by this unsolicited “generosity.”
Since I did not ask you to buy a lottery ticket for me, I will not accept an obligation to pay you for it “after-the-fact.”
On the other hand, if I buy a lottery ticket, and then find out that it wins $1 million, what would you do if I present this lottery ticket to you, saying that I bought it on your behalf, and that you now owe me five dollars? Clearly, you would jump at the chance to pay me five dollars in order to receive the million-dollar prize, thus happily accepting an obligation “after the fact.”
As a final example, if you come up on the street and stab me in the neck, that would be an example of a violent assault. On the other hand, if I am choking to death in a restaurant, and you are a surgeon who performs an emergency tracheotomy on me, you are also stabbing me in the neck without my permission, but I would doubtless thank you profusely afterwards for saving my life.
The difference is that I would give you my permission to stab me in the neck if I could, but you cannot secure my permission under the circumstances, so you make a perfectly reasonable guess about my preferences, which is that I would rather be stabbed in the neck then choke to death. In the same way, if I cannot or do not get your permission to buy a winning lottery ticket beforehand, I can reasonably assume that you will be happy with me buying a ticket on your behalf after the fact.
In fact, I can be completely certain that if I came back to you without the lottery ticket and said, “I held a winning lottery ticket in my hand, but I threw it out because I did not have your permission to buy it ahead of time,” you would surely be enraged – or least upset – with me.
Thus one-sided contracts created without permission are perfectly valid if the permission can be achieved voluntarily after the fact.
In this way, we can re-examine the “flagpole scenario” under quite a different light.
If I come home to find a policemen in my apartment, who introduce me to a man who had kicked in my window in order to save himself from falling to death, I would be thrilled and fascinated, and entirely pleased that he had found a way to prevent his own demise. I am quite sure that the man would be more than willing to compensate me for my broken window, but even if he did not – if he were homeless, say, or utterly broke – I would still be pleased to have played even a tiny role in saving his life. A broken window can be considered a small price to pay for a story that will thrill people for the rest of my days, and the satisfaction that comes from helping to save a life!
If, on the other hand, I come home at the end of the day to find policeman out front of my apartment building, and discover that a man had fallen to his death, crying out that he did not want to break my window in order to save himself, I would be absolutely appalled. “Why on earth would he not want to break my window, and prefer instead to plummet to his death?” I would ask.
I would surmise – no doubt correctly – that his obsession with preserving the integrity of my window was in fact a mere cover for a deeper and darker death wish.
In this case, we can see that the man who kicks in my window would be doing so with a reasonable expectation that I would prefer him to do so rather than fall to his death – just as a surgeon who cuts into my throat while I am choking reasonably assumes that I would prefer him to do so rather than allow me to die.
If permission cannot be reasonably gained about the use of property ahead of time, then it can always be sought after the fact. If I grab a lifesaver from your boat in order to throw it to a drowning man, it scarcely seems reasonable for me to imagine that you would prefer that I let the man drown rather than “steal” your property.
We perpetually take this approach in the realm of gift-giving, insofar as we transfer property with the goal of enhancing happiness, without gaining the prior approval of the recipient. If I buy you a cat for Christmas, you may be very pleased, or you may be allergic to cats. If you are pleased, and accept the present, you now own the cat. If you sneeze, and reject the present, then I cannot force the cat upon you. In other words, I cannot compel you to accept a property transfer after the fact, although of course since I’m trying to please you, I should reasonably guess which gift would give you the greatest pleasure.
Thus we can see that kicking in someone’s window to save your life is not a violation of his property rights at all, but rather a use of his property based on a reasonable assumption of how he would want his property to be used if permission could be sought ahead of time, or in the moment.
If I guess wrong, then I am liable for the consequences. If I steal your car, it is not a reasonable defense for me to say, “It was not theft because I believed that you wanted me to take your car.” If I buy a cat that you turn out to be allergic to, then the ownership of the cat reverts to me.
In the same way, if you would have preferred that I fall to death my rather than kick in your window, then of course I am liable for the property damage that I have incurred. My “guess” as to how you would want your property to be used has turned out to be false, just as if I had taken your car thinking that you wanted me to, when it turns out that you considered my action to be rank theft.
Naturally, for any of this to occur, a man must be hanging from a flagpole, have no other option than kicking in a window, and the man whose window is kicked in must have preferred that the hanging man fall to his death – and the man who has saved his life by kicking in a window must refuse to pay any and all restitution for the window he has broken.
Such a circumstance will never arise in this or any other universe. The endless pursuit of these topics tells us much more about the limitations of ethicists than it does the limitations of ethics.