On Philosophy

July 31, 2007

Single-Issue Voters

Filed under: Political Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

Naturally certain people care about some issues more than others. If your democracy works by electing representatives based on their positions on various issues this means that for most voters not all the positions taken by a candidate will matter equally. At the extreme some voters care about one issue to the exclusion of all others, which means that the candidate they vote for is determined solely by their position on a single issue, assuming the candidates take different positions on the issue. Such voters are called single-issue voters, and they exist in great abundance (a fair number, for example, can be found among those who are anti-gay marriage).

The existence of single-issue voters is perhaps unavoidable, but it has disturbing implications for democracy. Let me illustrate with an example. Suppose that 10% of the population is single-issue voters who want all stores to be closed on Friday (for religious reasons, let us suppose). Additionally in the upcoming election there are two candidates, each of whom supports a different range of policies. One of them is focused on economic expansion while the other is focused on improving the general quality of life. Between these two candidates the population is divided 50-50, with voters unlikely to be switch from one to the other. Both candidates of course want to win, but neither can be assured of victory as things stand. Closing stores on Friday doesn’t seem like a big deal, so one of the candidates may choose to add that to their platform, as a sacrifice they are willing to make in order to win. This would immediately give them victory, with a 10% margin, due to the single-issue voters who now will vote for them (we assume they are divided evenly among the candidates). Naturally their opponent will respond by also promising to close stores on Friday in order to restore the balance. And at this point no matter which of the two candidates wins then the single-issue voters win as well. And there is something wrong with that, since here we have a minority exercising control over the majority, the very thing democracy was supposed to prevent.

Of course in real life things are more complex. There are single-issue voters on both sides, and often the majority of single-issue voters are already leaning towards one candidate or the other. But still, it is a flaw in the system, a flaw that arises because issues and candidates come as a package deal (and thus a flaw which the alternative form of democracy I discussed yesterday does not suffer from). But is it really a flaw? Perhaps because the single-issue voters care so much it really is fair to let them have their way, despite the fact that they are a minority. Some might say that closing stores on Friday really is the democratic solution. But suppose that 30% of the population organized and decided to declare themselves a new aristocracy. If they were sufficiently motivated they could agree only to vote for candidates who promised them some special benefits (thus turning themselves into single-issue voters). Obviously no candidate would ever give them too much at once for fear of alienating the other voters, but over time the advantages would accrue until they really were treated like aristocracy. And obviously this isn’t right, because democracies were created expressly to get rid of privileged classes of people. And essentially that is what a group of single-issue voters is, a privileged group of people whose opinion counts for more.

Of course pointing out problems with democracy is a bit like kicking someone when they are down (Arrow’s impossibility theorem anyone?). But I think the existence of single-issue voters also show that there are real problems with a cousin of democracy, utilitarianism. The existence of utility monsters, people who become extremely unhappy when they don’t get their way (such that their unhappiness outweighs the happiness of everyone else) are counterexamples to utilitarianism. A world that contains utility monsters is a world in which it is wrong to try to maximize total happiness. One utilitarian response to utility monsters is to deny their possibility or, if their possibility cannot be denied, claim that since there aren’t real utility monsters then utilitarianism is still a good ethical system. But in single-issue voters we have an example of real utility monsters. Of course the happiness or unhappiness of a lone single-issue voter doesn’t outweigh the happiness of everyone else. But, as a group, the opinions of the single-issue voters matter more than the majority opinion (and thus the opinions of the other voters), because they care so much about their issue, just as the wishes of the classic individual utility monster outweigh the wishes of everyone else because they care so much about everything. And, as demonstrated, the ability of a minority to outweigh the majority just because they care more is not something we find acceptable. And so here we have a real life counterexample to utilitarianism.

July 30, 2007

An Alternate Form Of Democracy

Filed under: Political Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

When electing a leader we look for two things. First we want someone who will pass the laws we want them to pass (universal healthcare). And secondly we want a competent leader, someone who is able to make good decisions, compromise with others when necessary, and react well in a crisis. Current implementations of democracy roll these two into one; when it comes time to vote you have to pick a representative who is going to be a good leader and who will implement the policies you want. When you think about it, that is a really stupid way to do things. By doing things this way we often end up voting for poor leaders just because they support the policies we like. And because our choices in public policy are tied to candidates there is often no candidate who supports everything we want; often candidates pick the issues they back so as to divide the voters among them, which makes it harder for candidates representing compromises between extremes to win.

There is no reason things have to work this way. It is perfectly possible to vote for the leader who we judge to be the most competent and then, in a second election, vote on the issues. Afterwards we would expect the leader we had elected to act according to the expressed wishes of the people, as expressed by the vote on the issues. Obviously there is the possibility that the elected leader won’t respect the will of the people and instead act as they want rather than as the people want. But this is not a new danger, the possibility already exists in the current system for candidate to betray the trust of the people, say by acting contrary to the platform they campaigned on. As things are currently done we suppose that such behavior can be discouraged by not reelecting anyone who acts that way, and similarly in the alternate system we could refuse to reelect anyone who acted contrary to the expressed will of the people.

One improvement that would be brought about by such a system is that it would virtually destroy political parties. Although nothing could prevent a political party from forming they really wouldn’t have any role to play. If such parties defined themselves by their positions on various issues then no candidate could afford to belong to them, since it would throw doubt on whether they would really listen to the people. And, if they followed the party’s wishes rather than the people’s wishes, well then they wouldn’t be elected again. Political parties might survive by reinventing themselves as a kind of standard of credibility, meaning that being endorsed by those groups would indicate that the candidate is well qualified to be a leader. Such parties would be basically harmless, unlike political parties as they currently are.

A second improvement that would be brought about by this system is that it would motivate elected officials to create compromises that satisfy people on both sides of the issue. Suppose that on a certain issue the populace is basically evenly divided. Now the official in charge could choose to obey the will by just doing whatever was slightly more popular, but that would leave a large number of people feeling dissatisfied, which might make reelection hard. But if the official devises a compromise that makes both sides reasonably happy (or at least keeps them from being too unhappy) then people on both sides of the issue will be willing to reelect them (and the compromise itself will probably make for good PR when it comes to election time, as compared to a decisive decision for one side or the other, which will make almost half the population unhappy to be reminded of).

And, most importantly, this system gives elected officials the freedom to do what they think is best, even if that is contrary to the will of the people. They have this freedom in virtue of the fact they are elected because of their competence, not because of their position on specific issues. So when it comes time for reelection an official can justify their correct, but unpopular, choices by pointing out how well things turned out. Similarly an official might lose their position as a result of making a popular choice that turned out poorly. Their opponents would simply have to point out that by just doing what was popular they have proven themselves to be an incompetent leader, because the best leaders make unpopular choices when they know the popular choice is wrong.

So, to summarize, by voting for officials and on issues separately we can avoid the many problems that arise from politicians and political parties gaming the system by selecting their positions on issues so as to divide the voters to their benefit. Because people tend to care more about the issues than the candidate (perhaps justifiably) it is also easy under the standard system for incompetent leaders to be elected. And because candidates and issues come as a package deal it is often the case that no candidate represents the truly democratic outcome. But, despite the inferiority of the standard system to this alternate system, it is practically impossible to switch from one to the other. Since people are so used to voting for candidates in order to express their opinion on issues even after making the switch candidates would still take stands on various issues and people would still vote for them based on their positions. Which wouldn’t work if we had started originally with the alternate system, since a candidate taking stands on issues would be effectively announcing that he or she intended to ignore the will of the people, and would thus be unelectable. (Or, to look at it from a different angle, say they took a stand on an issue. If they take the minority position they won’t be elected. But if they take the majority position there is still no reason to elect them on that basis, since their opponents will also take that position once they are elected, if it really is the majority position, and so the majority has no reason to vote for them.)

July 29, 2007

More On The Ark Problem

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

Previously I discussed a hypothetical scenario in which Earth was doomed and we had to pick what to save and what to leave behind. The fact that some decisions about what to save seem superior than others reveals, I claim, that there is a strong intuitive (and, I would argue, practical) pull towards treating everything as though it does in fact have an objective value (although we may be unsure exactly what that value is). Here I am going to further investigate the consequences of that thought experiment, with a slight modification. I would add to the set-up an additional ship which has all that is required to preserve humanity at its current level of development. This eliminates the possible confusion between generic value, in the what-is-worth-saving sense, versus survival value.

First let’s consider again the possible dogmatic assertion, meant to block ascribing value to everything on the basis of this thought experiment, that all possible loadings of the ark are equally good, or are incomparable. Treating all possible ways to load the ark as equally good has an obvious problem. If all ways to load the ark are equally good then a particular way of loading it is just as good as that same way minus a single item. And so any particular way of loading the ark is just as good as not loading the ark at all (by induction). Now, while it is hard to say what the value of a particular way of loading the ark is, I do know the value of not loading the ark, the value of doing that is 0 (neither harmful nor helpful, loading the ark with the black plague, for example, would have negative value). And so insisting that all ways of loading the ark are equally good is really to insist that everything has zero value.

Of course that doesn’t work if we insist instead that they are incomparable. But incomparability has its own set of problems. Consider a particular loading of an ark meant for people that puts two individuals on it, Alice and Bob. If we can’t compare ways to load the ark to each other then we can’t compare this loading of the ark to loading the ark with just Alice, and leaving Bob off. But choosing the second way to load the ark over the first is effectively to murder Bob (since we don’t accomplish anything positive by excluding Bob). And so to claim that those two ways of loading the ark are incomparable is to say that we can’t definitively say that murdering Bob is bad. And that is a reductio ad absurdum right there.

So to escape that problem we might instead insist just that everyone (and everything) that can go onto the ark is of perfectly equal value. This might recover some of the intuitions motivating the claim that different ways of loading the ark are all equal or incomparable (specifically the difficulty in making objective value judgments that one is better than another). But if that is the case then we are back with a single best way to load the ark, namely whatever fits the most into it (preferring small people and small paintings to large ones). So we haven’t really made them equally valuable after all, what we have done is make their value (in comparison to each other) dependant primarily on accidental features of the circumstances, which obviously differ from situation to situation. This doesn’t necessarily invalidate the claim, but it removes most of its motivation; if we are going to judge people (and art) as being more or less valuable than each other anyways we might as well make those decisions based on what “really matters” instead of seemingly irrelevant qualities like their size.

Naturally this raises the concerns that always arise about value. Specifically that value, independent of anything else, seems somewhat meaningless, as compared to value for some purpose, and, similarly, that completely objective value seems somewhat meaningless, as compared to value from a specific viewpoint. Naturally I concede the point on these issues, there is no such a thing as completely objective value independent of value for a purpose and from a point of view. We only mistakenly think that it exists because we over-generalize from thinking about value in these contexts. Am I contradicting myself? No, while such objective value doesn’t exist on its own, so to speak, there is nothing stopping us from constructing it from value as relativized to a purpose and point of view. The point of constructing it would be that it could serve as a useful abstraction, that it might be better (say, from an ethical point of view) to load the arks (and make choices and laws and so on) guided by this objective value, so constructed, than the value we assign to things from our own point of view for the particular purposes we are currently interested in. But here I will stop, because it is not my point to try to actually construct this objective value (I would like to, but the topic deserves its own post), my point is to show that objective value in some form or other has a role to play, that we can’t just get rid of it by trying to avoid making judgments about comparative value (of people and art and whatever else we may want to compare) by insisting that things are incomparable or of equal value.

July 28, 2007

The Value Of Philosophy Degrees

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

A philosophy Ph.D. is not required to do philosophy, but neither is a physics Ph.D. required to do physics. But, while not required, such degrees are considered practically necessary, in the sense that the likelihood of contributing significantly to either field without having one is exceedingly small. Partly of course this is because of a selection effect; only people dedicated to the field are likely to make useful contributions, and people who are dedicated to the field tend to obtain the relative degrees. But I wouldn’t discount the process of getting the degree as making a difference either. Here, however, physics and philosophy diverge. Working towards a degree in physics is to develop an understanding of method and current physical theory that is necessary to do any serious work in physics. The same cannot be said for a philosophy degree, because there is a great deal of debate as to whether philosophy even has a distinctive method, and more about what that method would be. Similarly there isn’t really a state of the art when it comes to philosophy; certain theories are more popular than others, but few treat them as definitive.

A common misconception is that working towards a philosophy degree forces you to read all the historically significant philosophers, and that such a foundation is required to do significant philosophy. This is flawed in two ways. The first is that a philosophy Ph.D. only requires a thorough understanding of the history of philosophy if you want it too. In my program I think you could get away with reading as few as two historical philosophers (and two modern ones, thus allowing you to take issues classes for the remainder of the requirements), if you tried really hard. The second is the idea that you must read the great old philosophers in order to do philosophy. That’s simply not true. What is required is a familiarity with the issues and the major theories relevant to them (as well as a handle on the recent literature). Often that knowledge does come through reading the great old philosophers, but I don’t see any reason that it necessarily would have to.

But you can’t avoid having to have a handle on the current state of philosophy to contribute significantly to philosophy, even if your focus is on the history of philosophy. And working towards a philosophy Ph.D. does force you to keep up with current philosophy, whether you want to or not. Trying to contribute to philosophy without being familiar with its current state would be like trying to create a new theory of gravitation without knowing general relativity, you could try, but you would be unlikely to be successful. Naturally there is a downside to this as well, by being familiar with current philosophy it becomes almost reflexive to adopt the standard approaches to philosophical problems (for example, it certainly makes life easier just to describe knowledge as justified true belief in passing rather then trying to spell out a nuanced and unique position when all you really want to do is outline a rough connection between knowledge and ethical beliefs). And it is possible that the standard approaches are significantly flawed, and that by developing our ideas either on the basis of them or in reaction to them we are prevented from developing the philosophical theories that would solve our problems. While that may be a high price it is a price worth paying, because without that familiarity there is the tendency to either wander away from the problem inadvertently (via radical re-understandings of all the key concepts) or to simply produce redundant philosophy without realizing it (I can’t even begin to count the number of times that I have discovered that what I thought was a unique idea had already been developed by someone else). And this cannot be avoided by focusing on philosophical problems that haven’t received any mainstream attention, because to know which problems haven’t received that attention would require knowledge of the current state of philosophy.

But the real benefit of the philosophy Ph.D. is not to the person who earns it, but to the community of professional philosophers as a whole. Philosophy suffers from the fact that there are fewer barriers to entry to doing philosophy, compared to other fields. To do math or physics takes significant skill and dedication, so the ability to produce a mathematical proof by itself shows that the person who produces it has some degree of credibility. In contrast any fool can produce a philosophy blog. Thus many people produce what they call philosophy, despite the fact that it doesn’t really have anything to contribute to philosophy as a whole. Philosophy Ph.D.s then indicate to other philosophers who is worth listening to and who can probably be ignored, by leaving only the people who have shown a significant commitment to philosophy. I know that sounds elitist (but hey, I’m one of the people being ignored), but it is simply a matter of necessity; there is too much to read and not enough time, thus professional philosophers reasonably try to maximize the expected return on their time by reading mostly other professionals.

July 27, 2007

The Ark Problem

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

Suppose that the Earth was doomed to destruction in the near future. But fortunately for us the international community has created a number of space ships, each of which is to preserve some part of the planet. People go in one ship, animals in another, art in a third, and so on. But of course there is not enough room to fit everything in.* The ark problem then is to decide what to take and what to leave behind. The ark problem is interesting for two reasons. The first of course is that it forces us to come up with a scheme for deciding the relative importance of things. But, more importantly, it reveals that some things are better than others, whether we would like to admit that or not. Someone may claim that there is no objective standard for art, and that works of art cannot be compared to each other. But when it comes time to actually load the ark I think we will find that even such people will leave out some children’s drawings to make room for the Mona Lisa.

Now the ark problem might just show that we have common preferences with regard to art. Maybe there isn’t really any way to compare works of art, but that we just happen to all prefer the Mona Lisa. It is unlikely however that the loader of the ark will just pick whatever they like best to save. No, the loader of the ark will probably try to correct for their own preferences. They will put on art that seems historically significant even if they don’t personally like it, and they will leave off the art that only they like, although it may pain them to do so. Now it could be that the ark loader is delusional, that art really is incomparable, and so it doesn’t matter what art they load the ark with. But if they actually loaded the ark in that way I do not think future generations would forgive them. If we arrived at our destination and opened the ark to find that it only contained medieval frescos we would think that the ark loader had made a mistake.

This puts someone who thinks that works of art can’t properly be compared to each other in a bit of a bind. They might try to weasel** their way out by arguing that the works of art should be selected by their historical or cultural impact, so that while the works of art do not have intrinsic value with which they can be compared to each other there is still some way of selecting among them. But that is essentially to admit that works of art do have objective value and can be compared to each other, we simply take their value to be their historical or cultural impact. And this is true no matter how we choose to load the ark; if we choose a systematic method which prefers some works of art over others then we are effective admitting that works of art do have comparable value, and that our criteria of selection roughly track that value. Or we can dogmatically maintain that there really is no way to compare art, and thus that every possible way of loading up the ark is equally good.

To deny that some ways of loading up the arks are better than others is, I think, patently absurd, which thus forces us to conclude that all things are comparable in value to each other. But of course this doesn’t mean that we actually know how to compare them. This is the second part of the ark problem then: how do we create a selection criteria that saves the most valuable pieces of art despite the fact that we don’t know exactly makes a piece of art valuable? As I see it there are two criteria we can use. One is simply to go by the historical and cultural impact of the piece of art, which we can calculate roughly, for example, by measuring how much it is referred to in other sources. But I do not think that that criteria necessarily saves the art that is the best art, it saves the art that is most essential to human culture, which only roughly aligns with the best art. Assume then that we have the ability to make judgments about whether a piece of art has positive or negative value (it’s hard to think of an example of art that clearly has negative art, unless we are talking about art that promotes certain undesirable ideas, but obviously I am giving a general analysis that can be applied to more than art). Take all the art that has positive value then and save those pieces that the most effort was put into making, and which the effort put into them had the desired result. Those pieces of art are the ones we should put on the ark. Now this is not to claim that the effort put into a piece of art correlates directly with its value. However, better art will of course require more effort to create, and we can assume that artists have some sense of what makes art valuable. Of course most of them are wrong to some extent (since we have already established that no one knows with certainty exactly what makes art valuable), but we can assume that at least some of them were more right than wrong. Thus the criteria is likely to save the best art, even though we don’t know exactly which art among the pieces that are saved is best. (Mathematical analogy: you have a set of vectors which you only know the magnitude of but not the orientation. Given a subset of size z, we can maximize our chances of picking the vector with the greatest extension in the x dimension by picking the z vectors with the greatest magnitudes.)

Obviously the ark problem applies to more than just art, it applies to human lives as well. And I would say that the same process we used for selecting the best art can be used to select the best people. We consider only the people with positive value (those who aren’t massively unethical) and then select from them those who have successfully put the most effort into their lives. Of course effort in this context doesn’t mean calories; while I have no desire to try to pin down exactly what it is I will say that effort involves striving to be better than we already are.

* Assume the arks are just for the preservation of Earth, not for starting over again; the practicalities of starting over skew things in ways that are irrelevant to the task at hand.

** In the technical philosophical sense.

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