On Philosophy

December 26, 2006

Lawyers And Politicians

Filed under: Political Philosophy — Peter @ 4:12 am

People like to complain about lawyers, about how they lie and do their best to let guilty people go free, often on technicalities. And admittedly this behavior, in most situations, would be considered decidedly unethical. But for lawyers, while fulfilling their roles, such behavior is actually to be encouraged, because a system in which both sides are doing their best to win, by any means necessary, is one in which the laws that are designed to protect our rights (those “technicalities” criminals go free on occasionally) are followed. (At least this is how we would justify it under a consequentialist view of ethics, and if it can’t be justified under other ethical outlooks so much the worse for them.) And so we are led, almost paradoxically, to endorse what would normally be considered unethical behavior. Now another profession we all like to complain about is politicians, specifically corrupt politician, or politicians who are “gaming” the system. Can a similar defense be constructed for their behavior?

Of course, since there are two ways in which politician “misbehave”, we need to construct two defenses. First we have corruption, which I will define as being unduly influenced by special interest groups (usually corporations) as a result of financial contributions. This behavior might be defended if corporations, were they not allowed to “donate” to politicians, would have too little say in the government. And certainly it seems like they might; even though the corporation is made up of many people only the people at the very top will vote (elect representatives) based on what is best for the company, everyone else will vote for whomever seems best for them, and will assume they can get other jobs if their employer suffers as a result. And companies do deserve some representation in the government, because ideally companies make money by selling products, and when you have sold an item you have done something good, because the buyer obviously valued the product more than they valued their money, and so they have left better off. Therefore (if corporations really were such ideal entities) passing laws that allow the company to make more money (by selling more items) would be a benefit to everyone.

Now let me turn to the case of politicians “gaming” the system, which I take to be telling the people what they want to hear, and doing what the people want, and not what they honestly think is best. This goes against some of the ideas of the founding fathers, who thought that in a representative system the people put in charge would be better qualified to make decisions, and would thus go against the wishes of the majority when it was necessary. To defend this fault we might argue that, even though the politicians who act this way are being dishonest, they bring our government closer to pure democracy, and thus are doing us a service. This is of course to disagree with the founding fathers, but just because the started the country doesn’t mean that they were right. Thus if one believes that pure democracy is best system of government then such dishonest behavior could be seen as resulting in the best political situation, just as dishonest lawyers result in the best judicial situation.

But, compared to a defense of the seemingly unethical behavior of lawyers, these justifications of politicians’ faults are weak. Although it may be true that corporations need more representation then they would get in a pure democracy, systematic corruption is not the way to do it. Certainly if they deserve to be represented more there is some fixed amount their representation should be increased to. Corruption will not help this problem, it may still insufficiently represent them, or it may vastly over represent them. The correct solution is to have honest politicians in a system that gives correct representation to corporate interests from the start. Now as for the argument for politicians who “game” the system, well it rests on the belief that pure democracy is better than representative democracy, which I don’t think is the case. So the behavior of politicians cannot be defended as we do lawyers. Still, an interesting idea.

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December 24, 2006

The Right To Privacy

Filed under: Political Philosophy — Peter @ 4:43 am

The right to privacy is not explicitly spelled out in the constitution (although “unreasonable searches and seizures” might be interpreted liberally as a right to privacy). But the decisions of founding fathers have little to do with what rights we should have (or natural rights). Is privacy one of these?

To argue for or against a right to privacy we must first make explicit what justifies a right in general. To put it most concisely I would say that a society in which these rights are granted is better off in some fashion than those without (more stable, longer lived, more prosperous, ect). In general these rights fall within three broad categories:

Economic rights: Economic rights guarantee citizens the ability to prosper as best as they are able. These vary by economic system, but under capitalism they include the right own property, the right to spend money as you wish, and various rights that guarantee equality under the law. A society that gives its citizens appropriate economic rights is better off than one without because with economic rights citizens are encouraged to work their hardest, without fear that their gains will be unfairly taken away from them, encouraging innovation, efficiency, and an ever-increasing standard of living.

Rights to Justice: These rights put limits on what the government can do, specifically in areas relating to punishment (guarantees of fair trials, no cruel and unusual punishment, ect). They also make some guarantees that are intended to promote fairness (such as the right to the lawyer, although not considered by many to be an “official” right). In many ways these overlap with the economic rights, because they give citizens the necessary assurances to allow them to live their lives as they wish (within the law) without constant fear of their government (or lack of government, allowing them to be exploited by others). Again, this leads to greater prosperity.

Rights to sedition: These rights allow citizens to engage in activities that could possibly lead to the overthrow of the government. These include free assembly, free speech, and the right to bear arms. Generally these rights don’t directly benefit society (except for free speech, which protects art as well), but they are not meant to. They do provide assurances that the government won’t infringe on the other rights, because they allow citizens to overthrow the government if it does. It is expected the rights to sedition won’t be exercised (by which I mean that the citizens won’t actually revolt, not that they won’t speak freely), but their mere existence is intended to keep the government in check (by fear). If privacy was to be a right it should probably be considered a right to sedition.

With this framework laid out all that remains to be done is decide whether privacy does more good than harm. Certainly a right to privacy does have its disadvantages. For example it makes many crimes easier to commit, but the same can be said for all the rights to sedition. In many ways the right to privacy, given enough strength, could subsume the other rights to sedition. Free speech would be covered because conversations between people, outside of public areas, would be considered protected. Likewise assembly, not in public areas (such as to plot a revolt), would be considered private. And finally possession of weapons would also be protected, because what you own would be considered a private matter.

Now not all rights are necessary. Perhaps if the other rights to sedition were given enough strength the right to privacy would be redundant. However in our day and age the rights to sedition have been greatly eroded (which is what you would expect, since the people who have the power to erode them have the most motivation to do so). Thus a strong right to privacy seems called for, if only to make up for weaknesses in our other rights.

Note: We might also be able to argue for privacy as part of our rights to justice, but to do that would require a robust theory as to what justice is, and that is not a task I am up to at the moment.

December 23, 2006

Truth in Philosophy (or: Why I Am Not A Continental Philosopher)

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 6:00 pm

There are some who think of philosophy not as a search for truth in some unique range of topics (distinguishing it from various sciences and math, which have their own topics). Some of these people see philosophy as an art form, or as entertainment, or as guidance in life. It is hard to see how one could even begin to refute such a view (what would you say if someone said the same thing about math or science?), but I will do my best.

Let us consider the existence of absolute ethical facts. If we were working with a classical logical system we could say that the claim that there are absolute ethical facts or there are no absolute ethical facts must be true, but to satisfy certain alternate views on the subject I will instead say that the claim that that there are absolute ethical facts or there are no absolute ethical facts or to speak of absolute ethical facts is meaningless is always true. But if that claim is true then one of the following possibilities must be true: there are absolute ethical facts, or there are no absolute ethical facts, or to speak of absolute ethical facts is meaningless, or that the disjunction is somehow true without any of the individual claims being true (a very odd possibility), or it cannot be discovered which possibility is true. What then is the discipline that investigates which of these possibilities is true (and one of them surely must be)? Neither math nor science can, even though, as I have shown above, there is some fact of the matter. And certainly these topics fall under what is usually considered philosophy (ethics and epistemology). So it seems logical to conclude that philosophy is the discipline that searches for the truth in certain areas that are outside the scope of science and mathematics, since there exist truths in these areas to be discovered.

Of course it could be the case that philosophy is an attempt to discover certain truths as well as fulfill some other function (such as being art). However, we already have disciplines that cover that ground, namely art, entertainment, and religion. Thus to require that philosophy do those things would be redundant, not to mention interfere with its function of discovering certain truths. In contrast there is no other discipline that investigates quite the same topics as philosophy does, and certainly there are some truths to be found there (as demonstrated above), so it seems logical to conclude that philosophy should be the discipline that investigates them, and that this is the only thing philosophy should do. (If it isn’t sign me up for the discipline that does.)

But some would still object to this, arguing that philosophy can’t be concerned with discovering truths since it doesn’t have a specific area of investigation. I don’t see how not having a specially designated area affects the issue, but it is easy to delimit such an area if it makes you feel more comfortable. Simply take the set of all areas in which truths can be discovered. Then subtract out the areas covered by science and mathematics, and what you have left is the area of study for philosophy. Admittedly this region changes over time, as science expands there is less and less that is considered the domain of philosophy, but, as shown by the fact that it can expand, the area that is the domain of science isn’t fixed either.

It is because I view philosophy in this way (as a search for truth in a unique subject area) that I am not a continental philosopher. The difference between analytic and continental philosophy can be seen as primarily one of method. Analytic philosophers focus on making progress by argument about the issues. Continental philosophers make “progress” by reinterpreting philosophical texts. The method of continental philosophy is often “philosophy via oracle”, where a work of philosophy is considered good because it says things that seem plausible, and not because its theses are well supported by argument and evidence. This is unlikely to lead to the truth, because what seems plausible depends more on out intuition than what is really the case. And certainly one cannot expect to proceed by pronouncements and get closer to the truth. And thus I consider myself to be an analytic philosopher, and am continually amazed that anyone can consider the continental tradition, which produces people such as Heidegger, good philosophy.

December 22, 2006

How Not To Do Philosophy

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 6:55 pm

There have been philosophers that have had extraordinary minds, as demonstrated by their writings. But despite their great intellects we also have rejected many of their central ideas, although we do keep bits and pieces as impossible to improve upon, and much modern philosophy is done in response to their thoughts, and not built upon them. A great example of this is Kant. I don’t think any modern philosopher accepts Kant as wholly correct. Different people take different ideas away from Kant, but argue for them in ways that Kant did not, and often modify them extensively. Consider the categorical imperative. Its simplicity and basis in rationality make it seem attractive to many, but it is obvious that it has serious flaws. Not all situations can be appropriately generalized, and occasionally the categorical imperative would endorse behavior that is clearly unethical. But Kant was no fool, why didn’t he see these problems?

I think the problem is rooted in the attempt to do philosophy based on some set of “first principles”, and to solve all problems with a philosophy developed from those principles. This is not an approach attempted by many modern philosophers, but in previous centuries many of the great minds seemed to do philosophy in this way, perhaps starting with Aristotle. And there are obvious benefits to this approach. For one, if done correctly, it becomes hard to argue with such a philosophy, because to do so would seemingly be to reject those indubitable first principles (and I think this is the primary motivation). There is also the added benefit that such philosophies tend to give rise to schools (groups) of people who follow that philosophy, which is certainly flattering to the philosopher’s ego (or would be if these groups didn’t tend to arise after the philosopher’s death).

Certainly the promise of a philosophy that cannot be disputed is attractive, but there are good reasons not to practice philosophy in this way. All people, no matter how skilled in philosophy they are, may make mistakes when arguing to a conclusion from some premises. And, not only may they make a mistake, they may make one that they are unable to detect even upon careful review (for example, omission of some possibility). Now in a short philosophical piece this isn’t really an issue; although I am aware that I may have made an error that I cannot detect I judge that the possibility is small enough to justify some confidence in my work. But a philosophical argument from first principles is not like such a short argument. Instead of going fairly straightforwardly from premises to the conclusion there must be a large number of intermediate steps, in which more and more complex principles are developed, until finally the desired philosophy is built up. (This is why the philosophers who develop their philosophy from first principles tend to write such large books, or so many books.) But in such a situation the probability of an undetectable error becomes much greater, as there are many more chances to make such an error, and so the probability that the entire work is error free becomes very small. But, since the entire work hangs together as one large argument, any error has the potential to destroy the entire enterprise, or at least cast doubt upon it, which is why, upon discovering such problems, few accept such works “as is”.

An equally serious problem is that it encourages self-deception on the part of the philosopher who creates such a work. Because it all hangs together accepting that one part is flawed implies that the whole is problematic, as I pointed out above. And this is a strong motivation to ignore the flaws in your own work, or at least assume that they can be resolved without difficulty by others, otherwise you might have to set aside the project that you have devoted so much of your time to and start again. It is my guess that this happened to Kant with the categorical imperative. I assume that he realized it had problems, but, because he didn’t want to abandon his project or admit that not everything he wanted could be derived from it, convinced himself that the problems were minor and could easily be overcome. Perhaps if Kant had worked with his categorical imperative in isolation he could have come up with a more robust version, but his desire to fit all the pieces together into a larger picture prevented this possibility.

In any case it is not currently in fashion to approach philosophy in this way. Philosophy is advanced through papers, which must be relatively short (compared to The Critique of Pure Reason), and must stand on their own, for the most part. Perhaps then I simply wrote this in order to resist my own temptation to connect everything in to one big picture, which could surely end no better.

December 21, 2006

Another Economic System

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 5:06 am

I enjoy pointing out capitalism’s flaws on a regular basis, probably because most people seem to unquestioningly accept it as the way things should be done. People tend to respond in two ways, either they think that I am advocating communism or that we just have to live with capitalism, as it is the best economic system possible. I will attempt to put both of these responses to rest by outlining an economic system that is neither capitalism nor communism. Although I wouldn’t argue for the system I present here, since I haven’t worked out all the details, it is possible that it is superior to capitalism, and it certainly isn’t communism.

Let’s start with the idea of simply taking our current system and paying everyone (even those already employed) enough to live on (with a few luxuries). Although it would be nice it wouldn’t work. In response to such payments there would be massive inflation, meaning that we would have to continually increase the payments if we were to maintain them as enough to live on, which would in turn result in more inflation. This would result in either never-ending inflation, or, if wages were held constant, it would increase until almost everyone was making roughly the same amount of money (whether they were working or simply living on the handout), at which point there would be no incentive to work.

To correct for this problem the prices of goods must be fixed in some way. Now we could simply rule that the prices for existing products couldn’t be altered, but this would leave us with no way to price new products (and problems if people’s preferences changed). We might assume some kind of committee could do it, but there are too many products and the committee would be bad at pricing them even if they didn’t become massively corrupt (which I would expect). The solution is to keep markets in place, but, instead of allowing companies to adjust their prices, have the prices controlled by some kind of algorithm. The computer system would attempt to maintain a balance between the demand for competing products, raising the prices of products that are demanded more and lowering the competing items. This is what companies naturally do on their own, but because it is a computer that is setting prices in response to demand we can program it to keep the total cost of living at roughly the same amount. New products would have to be introduced in trial areas in order for the system to gather data before they could be released to everyone.

Obviously these changes would drastically impact industry, and I suspect that paying people fixed wages would become impossible; instead employees could receive a share of the profits (with different employees having different sized shares, naturally). Essentially this would be making all employees stockholders and then paying them through dividends, which is not as radical an idea as it might sound. Foreign trade would also be a potential problem. Products sold by foreign companies would have to have their prices fixed in the same way that local companies do, which would discourage some foreign trade. Local companies could sell at any price they wished outside the nation however. What makes foreign trade tricky is considering what would happen in the case of a trade imbalance, which I haven’t calculated yet. Feel free to tell me if you work it out first.

But the big question is where the government will get the money to pay everyone. Obviously if the government printed new money this would result in massive inflation, resulting in the system collapsing (side note: inflation obviously wouldn’t manifest as increased prices. Instead people would all have more money, meaning that they could buy more things. This would probably result in shortages, and thus money would have less buying power, as not all items could be purchased at all times. And this in turn would discourage people from working, since their paychecks mean less). One way to reduce this cost is not to pay absolutely everyone. Obviously people who are working don’t need the money as much as those who aren’t, but it should be equally obvious that we couldn’t simply not pay those who are working, as this would encourage people to only work at high paying jobs. Instead we could gradually reduce the amount that we are paying people, based on how much they are earning, say a reduction of one dollar for every two they earn. In essence this would be a 50% income tax on the first 2 x N dollars everyone makes, where N is the amount we pay everyone (a 25% income tax on the first 4 x N dollars would also work). The government would also have to heavily tax the profits from sales, probably somewhere in the range of 20% to 50% of the item’s price. Finally banks would have to be nationalized, meaning that the government would be the only bank. Together these measures would ensure that the government had enough money to pay everyone. (Everyone either saves money or spends it. If they save the money it goes to the government. If they spend it the government gets some fraction of it, the rest going to someone else, who must either save it or spend it. Eventually most the money ends up in the hands of the government, excluding loose cash.) Obviously the government (like most modern banks) would keep some reserves on hand to cover those who want to withdraw money, but if too many people wanted to withdraw money at the same time then the government would have to print money, causing inflation (this is one of the few ways that inflation can occur in this system).

Now no system is perfect. One of the flaws of this system is that it is hard to determine how items such as land should be priced. Another flaw is that even an automated system for pricing items might be fooled (for example the company could pay people to buy its products in the test areas, fooling the computer into thinking that demand was higher, and resulting in an artificially high price). A third problem is that it still encourages certain activities that don’t create wealth (such as advertising), a problem faced by any system in which markets are used to determine prices.

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