On Philosophy

October 10, 2007

The End Of Civilization

Filed under: Society — Peter @ 12:00 am

One way that civilization might end is if somehow humanity is wiped out. Certainly this isn’t impossible, some might even say it is likely given the number of potential natural and man-made disasters that can do the trick. Philosophically, however, such an end is relatively uninteresting, with no more people there is nothing to say about their lack of civilization. Of course the possibility of human civilization ending might make nihilism seem unavoidable to some, may make the human enterprise seem pointless if it ends in such a sudden and terminal way. But I have addressed nihilism elsewhere, so I will say no more about it.

However, even without such a disaster and even if one dies civilization still might end. Civilization is a human construction and it exists because it serves a purpose. And so if it ever came to pass that we could replace civilization with something better, or were no longer in need of it, we would expect civilization as we know it to wither away. But before I can say how we might outgrow civilization or what life might be like without it I obviously need to make a claim about the purpose of civilization first. First let us distinguish civilization from an unorganized group of people. Before civilization existed there were still bands of people (although they probably had some primitive forms of organization). Still, we can conceive of bands of people without any structure, who tend to cohere because of the social needs of individuals. Civilization is something more than such bands, and thus its purpose is not social. As I see it then the purpose of civilization is to allow people to better satisfy their individual desires. By adopting an organizational structure people are able to accomplish more; labor can be divided and individuals can specialize. And thus society is able to produce more and to develop faster, and thus give people more of what they want.

So civilization becomes unnecessary only when people are able to satisfy their needs and desires just as well on their own as they can as part of an organized structure. This might seem to imply that civilization will always be needed. No matter what wonderful technologies we develop there will always be a need for raw materials, and since there are a limited amount of raw materials that we have easy access to there may very well be competition for them. And if technology can really satisfy all our needs it probably allows us to harm each other as well. Thus we might still end up with an endless struggle, and so we would still need civilization to maintain some kind of order.

The problem here is the inconvenient nature of the physical world. If we are physical beings then we will require physical things to satisfy our desires, and the physical world is finite, not to mention that the Earth is a relatively small place considering the number of people living on it. But being physical is terrible in many ways. As physical beings we have to obey physical laws. So we can’t travel faster than light, we can’t create matter and energy from nothing, and we can’t impose our will directly on the world. But in the long run we don’t have to live in the physical world, we could live in virtual worlds instead. And in a virtual world there are no such inconvenient laws, the rules are what we wish them to be. If we want to live in a world where we have to walk from place to place, eat and digest food to survive, and waste eight hours of every day sleeping we can. But we could also choose to live in a world where we could teleport at will, be immune to all harm, and never have to rest. In a virtual world all our desires can be satisfied instantaneously at no cost to anyone else, and so we have no need for civilization.

Admittedly that is a bit of an overstatement. Perhaps I should say that we only need an absolutely minimal civilization, because even if we all live in a virtual world someone would have to look after the physical machinery that runs the six billion worlds that we collectively inhabit. How we decide who has those responsibilities and how we ensure that they are doing their jobs requires some organization, but not much. Some might also think that the people living in these virtual worlds might compete for processing power, but such competition is really unnecessary. Everyone could be given an equal amount of processing power while retaining the illusion of an infinite amount of computational resources, simply by slowing down the speed at which they think when the computers need more time to process the task at hand.

What would life be like in such a post-civilization world? Obviously by the time people go digital we will have changed a great deal, and it is thus possible that people will be completely solitary without any need to interact. But I suspect people will still come into contact with each other, perhaps because they still have some need to be social, and perhaps because they will want to share their ideas with each other. The modern internet forecasts, to some extent, what such interactions will probably be like: relatively chaotic with only essentially self imposed restraints. Obviously the modern internet contains few “productive” interactions; because of the lack of structure it is hard to get anything done, there are no standards that elevate the most productive participants and suppress the rest (which is how things get done: by listening to the people who have proven themselves to be the most qualified and basically ignoring everyone else). But that isn’t a problem for our hypothetical future, because the people living in it have no need to be productive, a lack of productivity does them no disservice.

September 18, 2007

The Fair Price Of Music

Filed under: Society — Peter @ 12:00 am

The fair, equitable, and just price of music is $0. And when I say this I don’t mean that this is the price that I would like to see music sell for, or should sell for, in an ethical sense; it is the price that music would sell for in a completely free market. If we work under the assumption that the prices that free markets decide on for products are desirable (perhaps because of their efficiency) then we must agree that the best price for music is $0, and that any higher price is a sign of inefficiency, at the very least.

The reason that music doesn’t cost $0 is because of monopolies. Although the record companies are one kind of monopoly the monopolies I have in mind here are the bands themselves. Consumers don’t want to buy music in general, they want to buy the music of specific groups. If you want to listen to Elvis you aren’t going to go buy a Crüxshadows CD, even if the second is much cheaper than the first. Most bands then aren’t really in competition with each other, and thus will, if left to their own devices, price their music so as to maximize profits, which usually means more than the price that their music would sell for in a perfectly “fair” scenario (one in which producers don’t have an advantage over consumers).

To see what the fair price of music is we need to envision a situation where these monopolies don’t exist. For example, bands could be forbidden from distributing their own music, and would instead have to sell the rights to distribution. And the band will, of course, try to sell these rights to as many people as possible, in order to make more money (again, assuming we forbid exclusive contracts). And now we have a situation where markets can work, where comparable products (in this case the same music) can compete with each other. In such a situation the price of music will tend towards the cost of distribution. Even though the distributors may have to pay a substantial up-front cost they will try to make that back by selling as many copies as possible, selling each at only slightly over the cost of production, and making that money back simply by selling in large volume. Now in the days of CDs this would have been the production cost of the CD plus a few cents for overhead. However, now that we can distribute music digitally, the cost of distribution is $0. Even bandwidth costs can be effectively passed onto the consumer by distributing music via peer-to-peer software. And instead of needing to add a few cents to the cost of distribution to cover overhead that money could easily be made using advertising instead. Even without the internet I expect most music would still be able to had for free, companies would buy the rights to distribution, but instead of trying to sell the music on its own they might throw it in with another product as an added bonus or give it away as a promotion, in order to increase sales of the more expensive item.

In fact music is just one example of how vertical integration can disrupt the operation of free markets. A more common occurrence of this phenomenon is brand loyalty, where customers buy a product because it is a brand they have bought before or because they have been exposed to advertising promoting it. Brands also inhibit the competition that leads to the best price, because when brand loyalty is factored into the equation it may not be enough to sell your product for less than your competitor. Instead you may need to invest more in advertising in order to convince more people to buy your product, which a reduction in cost could not accomplish. But you can only spend so much, effectively, on advertising. Since cutting prices doesn’t help substantially this means that most products end up costing more than they should, which means that profits might exist. And profits (economic, not accounting) are the greatest evil, not because money is bad, but because their existence is a sign that the free market isn’t working as efficiently as it can. In an ideal world the owner shouldn’t make much more than their employees, because the existence of profit means that they should reduce the cost of their products or invest more money in improving them; even if they don’t their competitors might, and then in the long run they will end up making much less money. Thus the existence of profits means that competition is not as fierce as it could be, and that consumers are losing out.

But we could do the same thing with brands as I supposed that we could do with music, namely disconnect the brand from distribution. Instead of one company that both produces a product and owns a brand we would have two, one that owns the brand and runs the associated marketing campaigns, and another that performs the actual production and sets prices. The brand-owning companies would sell the right to use their brand to companies whose products meet certain standards (so that if your marketing campaign is associating your brand with high quality or low cost goods the production company won’t inadvertently sabotage your efforts by putting it on a different kind of product). As with music this would introduce competition where none previously existed, because more than one company will end up competing to sell the same band of product. And thus brand loyalty and advertising would no longer stifle competition and drive prices away from those that a perfectly free market would decide on.

I could go on, but I think I have diverged enough from my initial topic. Let me conclude then simply by observing that capitalism and free markets can only work when genuine competition exists, which requires multiple companies selling products which are basically interchangeable. Thus vertical integration, in the case when a basically unique product is created for the use of a single company, such as the music of a band, a brand, or an idiosyncratic API, for starters, then competition is stifled and free markets simply can’t work the way they should, even when no explicitly competition stifling monopolies exist.

September 17, 2007

The Assumptions Behind Free Markets

Filed under: Society — Peter @ 12:00 am

Free markets produce the most efficient allocation of resources, or at least that’s the claim. Of course the question then is: efficient by what standard? At least in their pure form free markets are most efficient at satisfying the wants of people in proportion to their ability to help satisfy the wants of other people. Whether this is good or bad depends on several assumptions, which I will discuss below. However, as I see it, this set-up has the potential to create what I see as a treadmills of pointless consumption: someone works to produce junk to satisfy the desires of people to own junk in order to go out and buy junk themselves. And that seems like a massive waste of effort, wouldn’t the world be a better place without that cycle and the associated desires for junk that fuel it?

But let us put that aside for the moment and return to the assumptions that must hold true if the efficiency that is created by free markets is to be a good thing. Free markets are only desirable is the satisfaction of wants is a good thing, if the strength of the want corresponds to the value of satisfying it, if consumers know what will satisfy their wants, and if consumers are wise spenders. We will consider each in turn.

The satisfaction of wants is good
Of the four assumptions this is probably the best. Certainly we can argue about whether all wants are good or how to evaluate wants in comparison to each other, but it is fairly clear that it simply isn’t worth doing something if it doesn’t satisfy someone’s wants or contribute towards satisfying them. To do otherwise, to act in ways that no one endorses, is simply ridiculous.

The perceived importance of the want corresponds to value of satisfying it
But while few will argue against the idea that at least some wants should be satisfied, and are in some way the basis of all action, it isn’t as clear that every want is worth satisfying, or if the perceived strength of the want has any bearing on whether it should be satisfied. To endorse this assumption is effectively to say that people are always right when it comes to their wants, and I can’t agree with that. The problem with the assumption is that people are not perfect reasoning machines. Their wants may fluctuate unpredictably and they may have inconsistent desires. Consider someone who suddenly wants something very strongly, but only for a brief moment. Does it make sense to satisfy that want at its period of higher strength, even if the person may later regret satisfying it? Similarly we must consider the possibility that some wants are more central or fundamental than others to who the person is, and that even if they aren’t always perceived as most important they might still be the best wants to satisfy. Since I have discussed these topics, and more, in my writings about the good life I won’t spend any more time on them here, except to point out that these considerations give us good reason to think that satisfying wants based on their perceived importance is a bad strategy, or at least a sub-optimal strategy.

Consumers know what will satisfy their wants
In some ways this assumption is problematic for the same reasons that the previous one is: people are often poor reasoners when it comes to their wants. And in this case the problem is usually aggravated by advertising, which is promoted by the free market system. Or, in other words, not only is the assumption bad, but the free market makes reality diverge even farther from the assumption. Consider someone who wants to be popular with the ladies. If they don’t think about the matter very hard (or don’t have the faculties to mentally ignore advertising) they might believe that they can satisfy this want by buying the right goods, fashionable clothing, and so on. But this probably won’t help them satisfy their want. And similar situations can arise with many modern products, which are simply too complicated for most consumers to make an informed choice about (most electronic devices spring to mind).

Consumers know how to best allocate their money to satisfy their wants
Yet again, an assumption that rests on a mistaken faith in the rationality of consumers. In an ideal world consumers would spend their money on the basis of the want satisfying power per dollar of their purchases. However, at least in my observations, people tend to buy things on the basis of how much they want them alone. Price does seem to factor in to some extent, but only when something is simply too expensive to buy or when by foregoing that purchase they can a huge number of other wants in return. Of course not everyone spends their money in this way, but what we are dealing with is generally different varieties of irrational spending habits. For example, I am an over-saver, if there were only people like me nothing would ever be produced in the first place, because I am unwilling to buy anything new that could possibly be gotten used for cheaper (and if there aren’t any used items yet, well then I’m willing to wait).

Thus, as I see it, three of the four assumptions behind free markets fail to hold to some extent. Which doesn’t mean that free markets are bad, just that they aren’t maximally efficient, to a degree that depends on how far reality diverges from the assumptions. And this means that we could improve the efficiency of free markets by changing the rest of the world so that the assumptions do hold. One way to do that would be via education, making individuals better able to judge which wants they should satisfy and to rationally evaluate ways to satisfy those wants. But of course that is not a feasible or sustainable solution, education is hard, people are stupid, and every corporation has an interest in making people bad consumers while there are no entities with an opposite interest. A better possibility is collective consumption. Collective consumption would be a situation in which individuals give up their ability to buy things on their own and instead join groups who are aimed at satisfying certain wants. The groups then decide collectively what to buy (individuals pay dues and get goods in return, but exactly which goods are determined collectively). Of course there are a number of details involved in making such a system workable, but there is no need to get into all the specifics here. It suffices to point out that collective consumption is likely to be efficient for the same reason that the supply side of the equation works so well in free markets; corporations, being collective entities, are excellent rational deliberators and evaluators of what they need. Thus when corporations deal with each other free markets work much more effectively. Given the three possibilities I see for improvement: abandoning free markets for something else, wiser consumers, or collective consumption, I think collective consumption is the most likely to move the free market closer to maximum efficiency.

September 11, 2007

How Societies Compete

Filed under: Society — Peter @ 12:00 am

Societies, like species, are in competition with each other, and thus, like species, are continually evolving into forms better suited to that struggle. Of course when I say “society” there are two things I might mean. Usually when I use the word I mean a number of individuals who interact in a structured way and share a common set of values. Thus when I exhort people to do what is best for society I mean to say that they should do what is best for this group of people. Here, however, I am considering society in the abstract sense, as a set of values that governs the way a group of people structure their lives and interactions. In this sense society corresponds roughly to species. Societies and species of course do not directly compete with each other; the idea doesn’t even make sense, since they are abstractions and not physical entities, and are thus unable to struggle with each other. However, just as species are instantiated in individuals, so are societies are instantiated in groups of individuals. And these groups of individuals may struggle with each other, with their success determined in part by the strength of the abstract society that they are instantiating.

It is hard to say exactly how one society is doing in comparison to another. We might be tempted to compare the number of people composing groups that fall under this abstract society, or the number of distinct groups falling under it. Such measures are like comparing the success of species by arguing that fleas are more successful than dogs because they outnumber them, and the bacteria that live in the gut of the flea more successful yet. Such a measurement is relatively easy to make, but it doesn’t necessarily reveal how well the species, as an abstract, is doing in comparison to other abstract species. Fleas could be argued to be more successful than dogs, but the bacteria specially adapted to live in side fleas are certainly less successful than the fleas themselves. A better measure is to compare how long the abstract species or society, or one of its descendant species or societies, survives (meaning how long there is something that instantiates it). Thus the success of a species or society is not measured by how numerous it is, but how many variations arise, and whether these variations can survive changes in the environment. Thus a society which is instantiated by a single group of people may be more successful than its more numerous contemporaries if its structure allows it to better to adapt to changing times, and thus to outlast them.

With that said there are basically three ways for societies to compete: militarily, economically, and socially. Military competition tends to favor the societies that are most efficiently able to use their resources, and which are most technologically advanced. Military competition allows one society to out compete another by either by eliminating all the individuals who previously composed groups forming different societies, or by forcefully imposing a different social order on the conquered group. However, military competition has a chance of going both ways, meaning that victory is never completely assured. Thus societies that tend to avoid military competition are probably going to be more successful in the long run. Moreover, if military competition was central to the success of some society then we would expect many groups to structure themselves according to those social principles, thus leading to a state of near constant conflict, or a situation in which almost everyone belongs to a single group of people, also a fragile state of affairs. Thus economic competition is a better strategy then military competition. To compete economically means that both societies are attempt to increase their share of the available resources, which means reducing the share given to other groups. And this can be accomplished by being better at turning those resources into products, thus leading people from the other society to desire them, making that society wealthier, and thus able to control more resources. Economic competition isn’t as self-destructive as military competition has the possibility to be; even if every society is competing economically that doesn’t necessarily lead to disaster. But the problem with economic competition is that there is no ability to eliminate rivals as there is with military competition. At best all you can do is reduce them to poverty. Thus economic competition must be supplemented with social competition. Social competition is the most passive form of competition, and one that has no biological counterpart. Social competition is a process of eliminating a society by leading the groups that instantiate it to change their society, or by depopulating them because their members leave to join a group with a different society. This is the best kind of competition, at least from the perspective of individuals, because it encourages society to serve the needs and wants of the individuals that compose as best it can, in order to attract more people.

Of course if societies can compete socially there will be defenses against such competition. Forbidding immigration is not one of those defenses, however. In fact forbidding immigration is effectively to cripple the ability of your own society to compete socially. Naturally some people worry that immigrants will import their own customs, and thus undermine the existing society. It is true that immigrants may have an effect on the dominant culture, but they are unlikely to influence the social structure, because traditions and customs are simply window dressings for the values of society; the same traditions can exist in a number of different societies. What is more important are the laws, and it is rare for individuals to emigrate with the idea of disobeying the laws of their new home. The real defense mechanism against social competition is the dogmatic attitude that society’s existing values and structure is perfect (see the rabid pro-capitalism, anti-communism attitudes during the cold war). But while such attitudes may be good for society they are bad for individuals. Don’t we want to live in the best society possible? If that is the case then a mind closed to alternatives isn’t helping us.

September 8, 2007

Utilitarianism Is Unjust

Filed under: Ethics,Society — Peter @ 12:00 am

A system is unjust when it treats people differently without a good reason for this different treatment. Obviously what counts as a good reason will be debatable, but to get started let us consider only reasons that all parties can understand as good reasons. Racism then is unjust because there is no good reason behind the unequal treatment given to the different races. Of course the racist does have a justification for their bias, they will claim that the other races are inferior. But this is not a reason that both parties will understand, while people of the same race as the racist may agree with him, few members of the races being oppressed will consider themselves naturally inferior. And the racist lacks objectively sound evidence that could in principle convince everyone of that judgment. On the other hand the fact that people receive different treatment according to their wealth in a capitalist system is not necessarily unfair. The justification for this unfair treatment is that the wealthy can spend more money, and hence catering to their needs receives more generous compensation. Thus pricing a good out of someone’s ability to purchase it isn’t unjust, because there is an objective fact of the matter that they simply can’t give as much to you for it as others may be able to. Of course this doesn’t mean that there may not be a good reason to moderate capitalism as well, the poor may argue that principle X implies that they should receive some special treatment. But this is not a rejection of the reasons behind the unequal treatment resulting from a difference in wealth, and hence such unequal treatment is not unjust.

According to this principle utilitarianism is unjust because it treats people differently based on their capacity for happiness; although utilitarians can appeal to their principles to justify this different treatment, so can racists, and like the racist the utilitarian arguments are not based on objective facts. But before we get into the details allow me to give examples of some groups of people who would be treated unfairly in a purely utilitarian system. The first are those who have no capacity for happiness or unhappiness. There are rare people born without this ability, and we can easily imagine possible species (such as the Vulcans from Star Trek) or conscious computers (such as Data, also from Star Trek) who lack it as well. Utilitarianism cares only about maximizing happiness or pleasure, and so these people effectively wouldn’t count; their treatment would be invisible to the system. Since we can’t make the Vulcans unhappy we would be free to exploit them, turn them into slaves, or whatever else would make us happy. And since we can’t make them happy there is no reason for the system to give them any of the rights or privileges that make us happy. Since they aren’t made unhappy by this treatment the total amount of happiness may be increased, and hence utilitarianism as a system would endorse it. Also treated unfairly are people who are in a permanent state of unhappiness. It isn’t inconceivable that someone might have a condition that prevents them from being happy, and, although many such people might choose to end their lives, there would probably be some who would still choose life. A utilitarian system would take that choice away from them, and to execute them immediately, since they will always be unhappy (negative happiness) eliminating them would increase the total amount of happiness.

If such actions could be considered just it would only be if we could somehow convince these people that abusing them on the basis of their capacity for happiness is reasonable, which means convincing them of the validity of utilitarianism. This may be impossible, and not just because utilitarianism advocates acting against their interests. Consider an alien species who is rational, and has emotions, but whose emotions don’t correspond to human emotions. While we are naturally motivated to try to be as happy as possible these aliens are naturally motivated to bring the strength of their Zeb and Geb emotions into balance. Could we convince these aliens that maximizing happiness is reason for them to be treated differently? I am sure that we could make them understand that we are motivated by happiness, and that we wish to maximize it. But they won’t see that as a good reason to let themselves be abused, just as we don’t see another’s desire to steal as good reason to let them steal. No, we will reply that we have interests of our own that stealing from us hurts, and there is no good reason to favor the desire to steal over the desire to be stolen from, and every reason to do the opposite. Similarly, the aliens will reply to us that maximizing total happiness is also against their interests, and that they can’t see a reason to systematically favor happiness over a balance of Zeb and Geb.

Moreover the aliens will wonder how happiness, a quirk of our physiological construction, can be invoked as an objective reason to treat people differently. Certainly our own happiness may be taken into account when we act, but it is irrational to act on the basis of other people’s happiness because we have no direct access to it. If someone comes up to us an tells us that they are extremely unhappy, but that a donation of $10 can make then happy again does this supposed suffering give us a reasons to give them money? Of course they could be lying, but they could be telling the truth as well, and since happiness is basically internal we aren’t in much of a position to tell the difference. And because happiness is internal there is nothing stopping us from distorting our judgments of it to justify all kinds of biases. For example, the racist can argue that other races have a diminished capacity for happiness, and that this justifies mistreating them to serve our own needs, and no one can disprove him. Thus it is reasonable to insist that actions be justified by an appeal to objectively measurable consequences that all parties can have a reason to endorse when it comes to creating a system for everyone to live under. And maximizing happiness isn’t among these.

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