Monday, September 28, 2009

An important point

From Gavin Kennedy:

Take the parable of the buyer in contact with the “butcher, the brewer, and the baker”. Most readers of the paragraph containing the parable, who have not read and understood Adam Smith in his books, Moral Sentiments and Wealth Of Nations, go hopelessly adrift in concluding that there is a clash of self-interest between the buyer of his dinner and his suppliers.
When someone buys meat from a butcher, both the self-interest of the butcher and of the buyer are served. This is not a zero-sum game; it is not the case that if someone benefits from a transaction, the other party loses.

The ugliness of the internet

Oh, I know there are worse things. But I did a quick search about Roman Polanski, wondering whether I had any comment to make, and found that you can read the full transcript of the allegations made against him, 20 or 30 pages long, while looking at pictures of his victim as a 13 year old girl, the age at which she was raped.

That's certainly a convenience for the paedophile community.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Curing cancer

I have no idea what the rights and wrongs are of the dispute between two Christian hotel owners and a Muslim woman who claims she was insulted by them. I doubt it should be a police matter, if the woman felt insulted she should have taken her business elsewhere. Personal disagreements are not the business of the police, and nor are hurt feelings.

The Christian couple at the centre of this are members of the Elim Pentecostal Church in Bootle. The largest congregation in the Elim organisation seems to be Kensington Temple, where Revival meetings are being held regularly, conducted by Gypsy William Lee:

"What's the point of praying for people if we don't expect them to be healed?" So said healing evangelist Gypsy William Lee during his recent visit to Kensington Temple in February. "When I pray, I expect God to heal", continued William.

Perhaps this is why William has seen such outstanding examples of God's healing power throughout his ministry. People all around the country have been healed of all kinds of sickness, illness and disease, including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, terminal cancer, meningitis, blindness and deafness.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say I don't believe anyone has been cured of terminal cancer or Parkinson's, and that there is still only one recorded case of anyone recovering from Alzheimer's - and that wasn't the result of Gypsy William's ministrations.


What is a "performative"? Here's some context:

All performatives imply propositions. There's no point in my operating a performative like, say, promising, or cursing, unless I have certain beliefs about the nature of reality: that there is indeed such an institution as promising, that I am able to perform it, and so on.
A reasonable test of a passage of argument is that the opposite makes sense or that someone might argue it. If it doesn't, or nobody would, the passage is likely to be meaningless in some way, perhaps tautological, perhaps hollow. Perhaps, and this is more often the case, tendentious. I am in favour of "fair" taxation, for example. Nobody would say the opposite, that they are in favour of "unfair" taxation. We're all in favour of fair taxation, we just don't agree what that means. So using the phrase, as some politicians do, is tendentious.

To take an example from the above passage, it talks of "certain beliefs about the nature of reality". Such a belief might be that God exists. Both that sentence and its opposite (God does not exist) make sense. Does it make sense to say that there is no such institution as promising? Would anyone say that? Would someone be frozen, unable to make a promise, because they do not believe there is such a thing as a promise, or that there is but they are unable - not morally unable but unable because of their "beliefs about the nature of reality" - to perform it? If that were the case with someone, it would tell us nothing about the nature of reality, but rather something about that individual's psychology. But nobody would, just as nobody argues for unfair taxation.

You'll probably have guessed we're in the hinterlands of postmodernism here. Wikipedia's page about performativity includes this:
Philosopher and feminist theorist Judith Butler has used the concept of performativity in her analysis of gender development, as well as in her analysis of political speech. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick describes Queer Performativity as an ongoing project for transforming the way we may define - and break - boundaries to identity.
Peformativity is incredibly useful to a postmodernist, because it enables them to argue against "positivism" or a "representational idiom". What's a representational idiom? Here's where it gets sinister, as these things usually do. Also from Wikipedia:
Performativity is a concept that is related to speech act theory, to the pragmatics of language, and to the work of J. L. Austin. It accounts for situations where a proposition may constitute or instantiate the object to which it is meant to refer, as in so-called "performative utterances".

The concept of performativity has also been used in science and technology studies and in economic sociology. Andrew Pickering has proposed to shift from a "representational idiom" to a "performative idiom" in the study of science. Michel Callon has proposed to study the performative aspects of economics, i.e. the extent to which economic science plays an important role not only in describing markets and economies, but also in framing them.
In other words, it's being argued that in fields like science and economics, the "performance" of the scientist or economist "frames" the outcomes of their work - and not just that but also the very thing they are studying.

How is this useful to a postmodernist? It's a valuable tool if you're trying to argue something for which there is absolutely no evidence, or against which there is significant evidence. Which brings me to the full context of the first quote. A conversation with Terry Eagleton in the Monthly Review, as reproduced by Norm:
You say he [Dawkins] emphasizes a "propositional" account of religious faith above a "performative" one. But how far can one go believing in God performatively, through political acts, before it becomes a proposition?

TE: All performatives imply propositions. There's no point in my operating a performative like, say, promising, or cursing, unless I have certain beliefs about the nature of reality: that there is indeed such an institution as promising, that I am able to perform it, and so on. The performative and the propositional work into each other. But it is a typically positivist kind of mistake to begin with the propositional, just as it would be for someone trying to analyze a literary text, which is basically a performance. Somebody who didn't grasp that would be making a root-and-branch mistake about the kind of thing being confronted. These new atheists, and, indeed, the great majority of believers, have been conned rather falsely into a positivist or dogmatic theology, into believing that religion consists in signing on for a set of propositions.
Norm, rightly, remarks:
Terry is right to say, as he does further on in the interview, that 'It is a rationalist error to think that your opponents are simply stupid.' But he's wrong to deny 'that religion consists in signing on for a set of propositions'. That may not be all religion is about, but it is, centrally, about that.
Incidentally, thinking your opponents are stupid isn't just a rationalist error, but more on that later. First, I'd like to put in plain English what Eagleton is arguing - because one thing this language does is dress trivial or untenable arguments in fine clothes of verbiage. It is, as Richard Feynman used to say, like turning on a fog machine. Clouds of this fog billow out, and it's hard to see at all, let alone clearly, what the person responsible is saying.

Believing in God "performatively" to "begin with" means that acts, performances, behaviours can lead to specific beliefs. And that's certainly true. The problem with this is that enough ritual, incense, repetition - together with other aspects of religious behaviour, scourging, sexual abstention, sleep deprivation, fasting - can make anyone believe, eventually, in Archwaldo the Giant Turtle. Imagining that rationalists and atheists don't realise this is to accuse them of stupidity. Not only do they realise it, they think it's one of the problems with religious behaviour: it helps you believe in things that aren't true.

The fact that someone believes something has absolutely no bearing on whether or not it's true. The fact that someone can come to religious belief through, or helped by, performance - or that performance is a major part of their religious experience - has absolutely no bearing on whether or not the things they believe are true.

Chris Dillow wrote in support of Eagleton, in terms interesting for one so committed to evidence-based argument. He concluded:
One reason why writing about music is like dancing about architecture is that our language struggles to cross the barrier between practitioner and non-practitioner. Perhaps believer and non-believer will always be unable to understand each other. But then, why should all knowledge and beliefs be explicit rather than tacit and so amenable to “rational” debate?
People do, of course, write perfectly coherently about music, but they don't dance about architecture. I know what Chris means, writing about music is inadequate in some ways, the music has to be experienced. That's true, but it's a false analogy nevertheless. Equally false is the grouping together of knowledge and beliefs. These are not the same thing at all, in some ways they could be said to be opposites. We require belief for assertions for which we have insufficient knowledge, or that run contrary to knowledge. For me to think the world is flat would require belief and the suppression of knowledge, to think it is roughly spherical requires no more than knowledge. The shape of the world can only be determined through rational enquiry - and most importantly it can be determined like that. So can the question of whether, say, deficit spending is appropriate in a recession.

Ultimately, we might reach a stage of understanding of economics where we know - genuinely know - such things in sufficient detail to avoid recessions, or to understand that they are inevitable in the least bad forms of economies but that they can be mitigated according to certain rules. The more recessions we have and the more we study the reality of what happens, the closer we'll get to this stage. Belief, irrational, dogmatic belief, might help. It might produce hunches that can be tested and prove to be correct - as Polanyi argued (Chris's link on the word "tacit"). But the same could be said of throwing darts at a piece of paper with ideas written on it, or throwing dice to choose research avenues. Belief itself is of no value except to the individual holding it and that can be a problem for the rest of us. It's less often an asset.

The same is true of the question of whether or not there is a God. And that is the question, not whether or not some people believe in God, or even why they believe in God except where this is for rational reasons. Eagleton's argument isn't even wrong, it isn't even in the park. But that doesn't matter, it's not meant to be. It's designed to remove the subject from the sphere of the rational - that's what this means: "it is a typically positivist kind of mistake to begin with the propositional".

What looks like a clever dismissal of the inflexible Dawkins is actually a retreat from the debate. Eagleton cedes the ground of rational argument and says, instead, that religious belief is brought into existence through performance.

I think Dawkins might agree with that.

Baroness Scotland and resignation

John Rentoul thinks it wasn't Scotland, but whoever was responsible for the legislation she broke should resign. That's much more important than someone resigning for breaking it.

This legislation was malevolent and stupid. Malevolent because it seeks to transfer responsibility for managing immigration from the government to private citizens. I'd be all in favour if that was it, and the government had stepped away from managing migration entirely, leaving it up to the web of individual contracts. But they haven't. So there are people here illegally, but now it's your fault.

Strictly, now it's your fault if you employ them. The correct remedy for illegal migration is to remove the illegal migrants from the country. But no, the government would have to take responsibility for that, and there'd be distressing press coverage of people clinging to door frames by their fingertips, or being given sanctuary in churches. So lots of them stay here. But what we can't do is let them work while they're here. This is the stupid thing. They stay, but can't be productive members of society.

Deficits and Keynes

Two interesting reads. In both cases, people not normally identified with the left make an argument for deficit spending.

Richard Posner, who is difficult to categorise but sometimes identified with libertarian thinking, writes: How I Became a Keynesian. An extract:

But for a confidence-building public-works program to be effective in arresting an economic collapse, the government must be able to finance its increased spending by means that do not reduce private spending commensurately. If it finances the program by taxation, it will be draining cash from the economy at the same time that it is injecting cash into it. But if it borrows to finance the program (deficit spending), or finances it with new money created by the Federal Reserve, the costs may be deferred until the economy is well on the way to recovery and can afford to pay them without endangering economic stability. When investors passively save rather than actively invest, government can borrow their savings (as by selling them government bonds) and use the money for active investment.

From Samuel Brittan's speech to the Spectator Conference a couple of weeks ago:
I am in the delightful position of disagreeing with the consensus wisdom on economic policy. This states that the most important, if disagreeable, task of whatever government is in power after the next election will be to slash the public sector deficit.
The basic fallacy is known as the fallacy of composition: the belief that what is true on the small scale must be true on the large. Shakespeare's Polonius said "Never a borrower nor a lender be." Margaret Thatcher advised young people not to get into debt (except of course to buy a house!) Even accepting these homilies at their face value, they do not necessarily apply to the Government of the whole country.

The big error of the present economic discussion is to treat national budgets as on a par with the budgets of individuals or firms, which need to balance except for narrowly defined investment projects. Even if you also favour a balanced budget at the national level, it is at most a second order rule to give way if it impedes the achievement of broader economic objectives.

In fact the public sector balance has an entirely different function: that of offsetting gross disequilibria in the national and international economy. If attempted savings exceed investment opportunities, public sector deficits are needed for as long as necessary to fill the gap - a job which will otherwise be done by stagnation and unemployment. When economic recovery has reached a certain stage, the time may come to roll back public sector borrowing. But we have certainly not reached that stage yet and it is far too early to rule out a second or even third leg of the recession.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Starkey on constitutional reform

I know most people who read this will also read Iain Dale, but this paragraph from his interview with David Starkey deserves prominence. Starkey gets it exactly right:

We need a version of the American constitution. When you think of all the silly fuss over the office of Lord Chancellor - when did a Lord Chancellor last do any serious harm? The alleged confusion of political and judicial functions. What's been so striking about a lot of Labour constitutional reform is that on the one hand it's done big things that it shouldn't have done, and it's also done little things that there was no need to do like fiddle around with the position of Lord Chancellor. The catastrophe is one body being both the executive and the legislative. It means that it does neither job very well. In particular our Parliament is useless as a legislature. It's why our legislation is so awful. It's why, of course, MPs have actually got no function. MPs now are, at best, overpaid social workers. What we need, I think, is something very much like the American model, and I would go the whole hog. I would have a directly elected Prime Minister. The emergence of somebody like Gordon Brown, who is so totally unsuited to the office and never actually been subject to the test of election, would be unthinkable in America, because from primaries onwards you are subject to this test. We should have something very much like the American cabinet, which is outside the legislature. We should have an elected Lords. The obvious basis for the Lords are the old counties. The catastrophe of the semi-abolition of the old counties under Heath was a catastrophe. Incidentally, there's only been one government that's as bad as this and that's Heath's. Heath and Joseph together were a catastrophe. Every single thing they touched turned to something brown. I would create a second chamber that has two members elected from each county.

The cooling scare of the 1970s

One of the points that climate alarmists seek to "debunk" nowadays is the idea there was a global cooling scare in the 1970s. Here, for example, is Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs, writing of "the myth that climate scientists previously believed the Earth was entering an Ice Age" and linking to a YouTube playlist of global warming information videos that make this claim.

The problem with this is that there was a period of alarmism about a coming ice age, and it involved some of the players in the current warming scare. Alarmist-in-Chief James Hansen's computer models were at the heart of it, for example.

Stephen Schneider achieved some notoriety when, in 1989, he told Discover Magazine that it was important to:

... reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that we need to get some broadbased support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This ‘double ethical bind’ we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.
(emphasis added)
Schneider was also concerned about the risk of global cooling. He took part in a TV show on the subject in May 1978, and footage has now made its way onto YouTube. In this, he talks - very sensibly - about the problems of taking action to avert the anticipated cooling:
We can’t predict with any certainty what’s happening to our own climatic future. How can we come along and intervene then in that ignorance? You could melt the icecaps. What would that do to the coastal cities? The cure could be worse than the disease. Would that better or worse than the risk of an ice age?
It seems Schneider has since tried to deny that he placed any weight on the idea of global cooling. In 1990, he was caught out during a TV interview when confronted with parts of a book he had written in which he discussed this.

Of course, none of this means we are not facing a risk of man-made global warming. It does show that there's what I'll be polite and call a frankness gap. Having been wrong in the past does not prevent someone from being right in the present. But we do seem to be seeing the same people extrapolating, first from a cooling period to a coming ice age, then from a warming period to a future inferno. On the face of it, the human instinct to cry 'disaster' is reacting to any and all fluctuations in temperature.

UPDATE: John Holdren - President Obama's Science Czar - co-authored an essay with Paul Ehrlich in 1971 in which he managed to be alarmist about global cooling and warming at the same time, and also about the heat produced directly by humans, warning of possible 150 foot sea level rises. Full details are at Zomblog.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


The rational argument is that when Jesus Christ was born as a human being, the taking on of flesh by God changed for ever the status of the human body. It is a "temple of the Holy Spirit". Once saints are in heaven, honouring their mortal remains is to honour the God who made them saints.
What's the irrational argument, Chris?

A national disgrace

Two soldiers wearing at least three types of camouflage because the British Army has not properly outfitted its soldiers. Missions here range from Brown Zone to Green Zone back to desert brown within minutes. The soldiers need camouflage similar to what special operations folks wear. British and American special operations folks use camouflage suitable for both environments. It’s cheap and every combat soldier should have it.
Michael Yon (Give him some money).

I knew about the vehicles and helicopters. But uniforms? Uniforms? For fuck's sake.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A rugby man

A lovely tribute to Keith Floyd in the Telegraph.

I just started playing again, after a break of something like eight years. So on Saturday, I'll be a few weeks from my 49th birthday and playing second row in the "development squad" - a slightly fancy name for the Second XV - for my local club. I initially tried to join the vets team, but this is what's happened so far. I'm rather pleased to be in a development squad at my age.

It's not the highest level in the world, but it is competitive league rugby (thanks, Greene King). And I'm having a ball, only slightly punctuated by physiotherapy. Ironically, that's because of a gym incident. I decided to try explosive leg presses with the maximum weight on the machine. By the end, I had to move the machine back into its place - my efforts had "walked" it across the floor - and I'd irritated an old knee injury and buggered my quads.

Ah well. That's what comes of training. This was the day before the selection match, a friendly with a local team, and I didn't want to miss it. So I phoned an old mate who has one of the worst jobs in rugby: he's the coach of Trinidad's national team. The poor sod has to live there, drinking cold beers and scuba diving when he's not coaching. His advice was taken onboard, so after a night and a morning of ice packs, I taped the kneecap into an elevated position, ate perhaps too many painkillers, and ventured forth.

No good. I was still crocked. The quads felt like they were pulling every time I took a step. I played for just under an hour, if played is the word I'm looking for. Last week was better. Onwards and upwards, I say. After all, I am in the development squad.

PS During the selection match I used a couple of tubes of deep heat cream, trying to get the leg muscles to cooperate. It reminded me of a remark of Gareth Edwards' - I might not have been fit, but by God I smelt fit.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Tim Ireland and the sockpuppets

A couple of months ago, I deleted a comment from this blog. It was posted anonymously and accused Tim Ireland of being a paedophile - Ireland has made this detail public himself, or I wouldn't repeat it. It was plain that someone had been googling Ireland's name and posting these comments everywhere he or she could.

I've been the subject of a similar campaign and have a clear policy, though I don't try to tell others how to run their blogs. If some sockpuppet or anonymous commenter tries to pursue a vendetta through a comment here I'll delete it. If someone posts under their own name and has a serious point to make, I'll leave the comment in place. So I deleted the comment and mailed Ireland to let him know.

The most likely reason for this campaign against Ireland is that he had uncovered a couple of "security experts" who were posting as radical Moslems on various websites, then tipping off Conservative MP Patrick Mercer about these sockpuppet postings. Some of these made it into the press. There's no suggestion, so far as I can see, that Mercer knew this information was planted.

Whatever you think of Ireland, he has done good work with this and has been threatened and vilified as a result. The planting of fake "radical Islamist" material can only hinder the struggle against the genuine problem of Islamic extremism. His work has been used by some in the "Old Media" without credit.

This post is to give credit where it's due and to express support for Ireland in this matter. His account of the affair can be read here. The only support I've seen for him so far has come from left of centre blogs, and that's wrong. In my view, we should all be concerned if a senior MP is misled, if the press runs stories based on faked evidence, and if a blogger is subjected to a campaign of vilification.

Unfortunately, Ireland conducts his own somewhat obsessive campaigns, including one against the numbingly anodyne Iain Dale. Obviously, I don't think that means he's disqualified from support when he's in the right.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The green revolution

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Property Rights again

Chris says he is surprised that Tim and I:

... in denying that people have some kind of natural right to the fruits of their labour... are throwing out the libertarian baby with the Marxist bathwater.
Tim made a:
purely consequentialist point about how we should evaluate the extant and/or proposed rights to property that we grant through both the law and societal means.
I argued that there is a natural right to the fruits of one's labour:
... it is fair that someone experience the consequence of their actions
I didn't mean to imply there was a simple dichotomy between "full private property on the one hand and a totalitarian hell on the other", rather the word I've added emphasis to in the following was meant to have full weight, un-emphasised:
... every time there has been an attempt to radically impose the imaginary agency of reward for effort, there has been genuine horror: totalitarianism, oppression, secret police, prison camps.
Chris does, though, point up the problem that exists with this subject for Marxists:
the Marxist says: “people are entitled to the full fruits of their labour, so profits are theft.” The libertarian says: “people are entitled to the full fruits of their labour, so taxes are theft.” The arguments are philosophically similar.
But the libertarian leaves it at that. The Liberal accepts that there are externalities and injustices that make some intercessions necessary, but still places the greatest possible weight on personal autonomy. The Marxist has to go on to say, as Chris does:
If you’re going to argue that the case for property rights rests only upon consequentialist arguments - do they encourage creators? [this was Tim's argument] - then the difference between classical liberals and revolutionary Marxists such as myself comes down largely to merely empirical questions. Is this really the case?
I fear that it is, if one rests the case for property rights purely on consequentialist arguments. The implication of this, of course, is that we are now discussing the consequences of policies towards private property and if a case can be made for the removal of it all by the state, then this is what can happen, with full moral justification. That's why I don't like the consequentialist argument.

The further implication of Chris's last quote above, and the reason why it's a problem for Marxists, is that this contradicts the view that the worker is morally entitled to the full fruits of their labour - that is, that they own the full output of their labour and the capitalists aren't entitled to any of it. This point was made by Dan Waxman at the Oxford Libertarian Society blog recently, and I've pointed it out before. You might also want to read his latest post on the subject of property rights. He concludes:
The point is really that when opponent of property say "private property is a social construct," they do so in a very misleading way. They don't really mean that it is wrong or meaningless to attempt to evaluate different property regimes independently of their social context, because, on pain of accepting the legitimacy of segregated housing (something that, to their credit, opponents of property do not frequently do), they happily engage in such evaluations themselves. What they usually do mean is that they disagree with the particular pre-political standards of morality that proponents of private property endorse and would rather use their own; and this is a perfectly coherent position to take (although of course I disagree with it), just one that is not compatible with blunt assertions that private property is simply a social construct.
My initial post talked about agency, in the context of a post by Norm. I see the same thing, that I think is an error, in this post, also by Norm (emphasis added):
Yes, one can assess the justness or otherwise of a legal system. But penal justice doesn't exhaust the field of what we mean by justice. There's also what we call distributive justice. And unless one has no thoughts at all about how resources are allocated within a society, where burdens and benefits fall, one must hold a view, explicit or implicit, about whether wealth and income are justly distributed or not. That's not only about the meaning of words; it concerns the normative principles at work within a society, what they are and what one thinks they should be.
The first "are allocated" and the second "are justly distributed" represent the shift that concerns me. In the first instance, there's a mixture of things - inheritance, earnings, luck, skill - that do not mean there's been a wholesale control of outcomes by the state. In the second instance, that's just what is meant. This is sleight of hand.

A valuable lesson

On Sunday, between 6:00 and 6:30pm, I stood in Trafalgar Square as part of the Iran Solidarity campaign:

I won't preach about it here, either you're concerned about other people's freedom as well as your own, or you're not. If you are, and can spare half an hour, the organisers are looking for more volunteers. Email Maryam at if you want to have a turn.

The valuable lesson? When I got there the area I was to stand in was crowded. As I unveiled my posters, the crowd melted miraculously away. I think I'll try it at the Notting Hill Carnival next, or when I want some space on the Tube at rush hour.

A few people did stop to chat. One Iranian woman in a headscarf came over to ask what it was all about and when we explained she smiled and thanked us. Iranian democrats say they'd appreciate gestures of solidarity from around the world. This is an opportunity to make one.

Thanks to (UKIP PPC) Magnus for turning up and for being there every Sunday so far.

I cover the waterfront

John Lee Hooker and Van Morrison. Just because. It's brilliant.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

The MoD and Yon


I mean, WHAT?

Michael Yon has been providing despatches from embeds with UK troops, offering a standard of writing and insight - and just plain information - we get nowhere in the conventional media. His embed just ended abruptly. Why?

The specific problem for me was that MoD cut off the embed with zero warning and no chance for me to prepare. … MoD is giving the reason that my long stay is prompting uproar among journalists who cannot get embed slots. I’ve embedded longer in Iraq with combat troops, for instance, than any journalist of any sort. I don’t buy their backpedalling now that this is public, but even if they are being truthful the truth itself is lame reason to stop me embed. There is no journalist in the U.K. or the U.S. who spends more time in combat. It’s silly to lump me in with the war-tourist sorts who come here for a month or two (usually a week or two). Among those who do come, most rarely if ever go on true combat missions to see what our lads are dealing with.
That's a fact. This unique voice has now moved over to work with American troops.

Tea leaves

A quick note on Norm's response to my post about property rights. In this, Norm said:

Peter takes me to be saying more than I intended to in that post: to be commending desert as a criterion of ownership, and overlooking the benefits of private property, ignoring the horrors of totalitarianism - and possibly other things besides.
It's more that I was pointing out that there was, in his argument about desert, an idea of agency, some unidentified entity, allocating a desert or reward for labour or effort, where in fact no such thing exists.

I still don't see any argument that this invisible entity exists.

Norm went on to comment, of a post by Tim:
However, Tim's point is that we give the creator the right over the thing to encourage her to create it. Does this mean I should have no right to what I've created if everyone else regards it as useless? In which case you could make off with it. Right?
But it isn't implicit in Tim's argument that property rights should be withdrawn if someone's creation is widely considered to be useless. Perhaps we should leave all creations as the property of the creator because we can't know which will turn out, at some point in the future, to be useful. We should encourage creation anyway, and the outcome of this will be useful things. Any limitation we place on this will result in fewer useful things. If people can steal things that are widely considered to be useless, the incentive to create will be reduced.

This began as a moral argument. Religious morality condemns theft. What of the basis of ownership? I argued that a product is the consequence of a producer's actions and that this is a basis for ownership. “As Ye Sow, So Shall Ye Reap” might support this idea.

Secular moralities tend, so far as I know, to be based on outcomes. As both Tim and I argued, the outcomes of this basis of ownership are favourable.

In both cases, Christian and secular, we have a moral justification for consequential ownership. I don't know enough about other traditions to comment.

Harsh but fair

JuliaM reported disapprovingly, a few days ago, about a protest mounted by British Humanists against a creationist zoo that has opened near Bristol:

The Noah's Ark Zoo, in Wraxall, near Bristol, is accused by the British Humanist Association (BHA) of misleading tens of thousands of annual visitors and "threatening public understanding".

The BHA has written to the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA), North Somerset Council, Visit Britain and South West England, asking them to remove Noah's Ark from their material.
Julia commented:
But isn't this just typical of today's society, where it's not enough to be free to have your own beliefs, you also feel free to stifle another's because it's in direct opposition to yours?
Worse things have happened. In 2007, a Dutch creationist opened his full scale reproduction of Noah's Ark to the general public (emphasis added):
Reckoning by the old biblical measurements, Johan's fully functional ark is 150 cubits long, 30 cubits high and 20 cubits wide. That's two-thirds the length of a football field and as high as a three-story house.

Life-size models of giraffes, elephants, lions, crocodiles, zebras, bison and other animals greet visitors as they arrive in the main hold.

"The design is by my wife, Bianca," Huibers said. "She didn't really want me to do this at all, but she said if you're going to anyway, it should look like this."

A contractor by trade, Huibers built the ark of cedar and pine — biblical scholars debate exactly what the wood used by Noah would have been.

Huibers did the work mostly with his own hands, using modern tools and occasional help from his son Roy. Construction began in May 2005.

On the uncovered top deck — not quite ready in time for the opening — will come a petting zoo, with baby lambs and chickens, and goats. And one camel.

Visitors on the first day were stunned.
I know creationism is very silly indeed, but that seems a little harsh.

More cartoon frolics

Arab News reports:

Dutch prosecutors said Wednesday they will charge an Arab cultural group under hate speech laws for publishing a cartoon that suggests the death of 6 million Jews during World War II is a fabrication.

The public prosecutor’s office in the city of Utrecht said the cartoon insults Jews as a group and is therefore an illegal form of discrimination.

Prosecutors plan to press charges for insulting a group and distributing an insulting image.
This seems to be the cartoon in question:

I'm publishing it for the same reasons I published the Danish cartoons. If there's a controversy over a drawing, we need to be able to see it to judge for ourselves. I'm a strong defender of free expression, and this isn't limited to the expression of ideas I agree with or like. Attempts to suppress a viewpoint should be met by the wider distribution of that viewpoint than would otherwise be the case.

The cartoon above is plainly a holocaust denial. This is as intellectually negligible and contemptible as the belief that the earth is flat. But neither viewpoint should be illegal. So I publish it not because I agree with it or like it, neither is the case. I publish it because the Arab European League has an absolute right to the expression of its ideas.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The diaper technique


... the humiliation and health issues of forcing someone to remain in their own filth for over three days raise serious legal issues.

Glaciers shrinking?

It's actually a mixed picture.

Sins of the fathers

It has been remarked on fairly widely that a descendant of Stalin is suing a Russian newspaper for suggesting that his ancestor killed lots of Russians. Apparently, this has official Kremlin backing.

Less widely commented on is the suit threatened by the law firm of Ahmed Zaki Yamani - once a well known name as Saudi Arabia's Oil Minister - on behalf of "several thousand descendants of the Prophet", against a number of newspapers who published a cartoon of Mohammed, following the death threats against the cartoonist Kurt Westergaard.

That's this cartoon, by the way:

That isn't a libel on Mohammed, who after all lived at a time when explosives were not known in his part of the world. It's a comment on those of his followers who use the terrorist bomb. And it's a fair comment.

Property rights

For perhaps the majority of people, property rights are based on an unquestioned and obvious truth: if I buy something, make it or grow it, it's mine - be it a shirt, a house, a shovel or a carrot. Intuitions like this are not always reliable or easily defended, but that is how most people, in my experience, see things.

Some property rights are less clear to the intuition; few file sharers regard themselves as thieves. Chris Dillow discussed file sharing in a recent post, concluding:

There are a vast number of ways in which property rights are severely limited. To take an example from the music industry, the Licensing Act, in effect, limits the ability of new acts to perform in small venues, thus limiting their opportunities to earn money from their talent. It’s rather odd that a government that supports this restriction upon musicians should be so keen to defend their “rights” in other ways*.
Now, these considerations don’t suffice to refute the claim that musicians’ rights over their music are so extensive as to debar file-sharing. What they do, show, though, is defending such rights requires one to either argue for many changes in the law, or to show that there’s something special about those rights.
None of this is to defend large-scale file-sharing. In a free society, many things are morally or aesthetically deplorable but not illegal. One could argue that file-sharing falls into this category. We could say to the file downloader: “don’t you think you should instead give the artist some money for creating that song?” without asserting that the artist should have a full legal right to the money.
* Actually, it’s not odd at all. The principle is that government does what big business wants, but not what smaller businesses want.
It's possible to consider the charging of rent for artistic performances to be a temporary stage we passed through as recorded media became available, and that we're moving back towards the situation that pre-dated that, in which performers were paid for performances.

But I was struck by Norman Geras's discussion of one point Chris raised:
Talking about property rights, Chris refers to one common justification for property: namely, that 'creating something generates rights over it'. There's no doubt that it's a widely shared moral intuition. If I fashion an old piece of wood into an intricate sculpture, whose should the sculpture be but mine? If you spend long days writing a literary masterpiece, are you not a proper beneficiary of its publication and sale?

What is less clear is why we think the creation of the object generates an entitlement on the part of its creator.
Expanding on this, in his final paragraph, Norm makes what I see as the founding error of Marxist thought: the imposition of agency where none exists, followed by the assumption that this agency should be directed.
Scepticism towards the moral robustness of an affirmative answer to these questions, of property rights resting on an entitlement to the 'fruits of one's labour', may suggest that the real principle at work is, rather, one of reward-for-effort[1]. I made the sculpture and it cost me time and energy to do so - that's why it's mine[2]... However, once ownership is to be decided[3] on the basis of desert[2], things become more complicated. For there are different bases of desert than merely effort, and there are other reasons for assigning things to people than merely desert - need being one of these. And should two people who have to expend different amounts of effort to achieve the same result be rewarded differently?[4]
1. The idea that the consequence of some effort is a "reward" for it is unfounded. The consequence of the effort is just that, a consequence. That an apple hits the ground if I drop it is not a reward for letting it go. The word "reward" suggests an external agency providing the sculptor with a compensation for his effort. This isn't what happens, though. A consequence of moulding clay is that the clay winds up moulded. Nothing intercedes to reward the person with clay under their nails with the final shape of the material. It would be more meaningful to ask whether the clay was the sculptor's to mess with in the first place. Maybe they dug it up - in which case the lump of clay would not have been a "reward" for digging, but again the consequence of doing so.

2. Sticking with Norm's argument, he then suggests that the artist gets this "reward" because they "deserve" it. This is a pure invention, they wind up with it because it's the consequence of the actions they took. However, this then opens the way to argue that...

3. Since the "reward" the sculptor gets is "decided" by some unidentified agent on the basis of merit (desert)...

4. These decisions of reward allocation could take into account the fact that people have differing abilities. Maybe, it could follow, students of a pottery class should line up their creations at the end of a session, then see them handed out on the basis that the best ceramic should go to the person who worked hardest, not the one who made it.

This argument only works, to the extent it appears to do so, because an external agency has been inserted into the proceedings, the quality of choice has been attributed to them, it has been argued that this choice could be exercised differently, and then a notion of fairness used to guide such choices. This notion of fairness is also completely arbitrary. Once you depart from the idea that it is fair that someone experience the consequence of their actions, you can just make it up as you go along. Most people who make these kinds of arguments wind up suggesting that their view of how things should be allocated is based on morality, but this is "morality" in the sense of "my opinion is so important I'm going to use a word that suggests it's an eternal truth".

That's not to say that the issue of whether the sculptor owned the clay in the first place isn't important. It is, to every side of the debate except the purely anarchist. A fierce defender of property rights would want to know the clay wasn't dug up from somebody else's land, without their permission. A Marxist might argue that one person taking that piece of clay deprives others of the right to take it themselves.

The latter is trivially true and unavoidable. If I eat a carrot I deprive others of the right to eat it. Without such deprivation, neither I nor the others, similarly depriving me of carrots, could live. If I use a piece of wood to build a house, I deprive others of the right to use it. I deprive others of the right to use the land I build the house on. If we didn't all do that, none of us would have shelter.

The defender of private property has an easier argument. The wood isn't zero sum, we can all plant trees. The land is zero sum, but there's enough to go round and it's rationed, rationally, by price. The potter needs a start, but once they have it they can make pots, sell them and in time buy some land. Inheritance fits badly into this argument, but that's another subject.

I haven't yet seen a Marxist argument against private property that does not rest on the logically fallacious imposition of agency where there is none and desert where there is only consequence.

But there's a stronger argument in favour of private property, for me. Well, two stronger arguments, both pragmatic. Private property works. It has delivered extraordinary gains in well-being for every human alive. Only where property rights are abrogated, in countries with arbitrary and corrupt governments, do people languish in genuine, as opposed to relative, poverty.

But most importantly of all, every time there has been an attempt to radically impose the imaginary agency of reward for effort, there has been genuine horror: totalitarianism, oppression, secret police, prison camps. And I can't really care how well motivated a philosophy is, expounded from the warmth of a private property-owning democracy. If that's been the consequence of your philosophy, then it's plain wrong, morally. And that's from a morality based on the avoidance of known causes of extreme human suffering.

UPDATE: Norm has responded to this post. I accept he was "posing a number of questions" rather than making a firm argument for one conclusion, but the issue of agency I wrote about above often appears in discussions of property rights and I took his post as a convenient hook from which to hang my discussion. I didn't mean to imply that Norm himself argues for totalitarian ends, because he doesn't. At least, I've never seen him do so.

I do say you should be entitled to "own what your actions have brought about as a consequence". The reasons I give are pragmatic. The first argues that acknowledging this ownership gives good outcomes. The second offers a watered-down version of utilitarianism: rather than seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, I recommend avoiding known causes of extreme harm. Both could be offered as a basis for morality, just as utilitarianism (also based on outcomes) was by Mill. If that is accepted, then we do have a moral case for the ownership of the consequences of our actions.

This is one problem with moral arguments; we have no commonly accepted principles on which morality is based, against which propositions can be tested.

I expect some would react to that by thinking of the plight of the least well off, in a society with absolute property rights and no form of redistribution. But redistribution to the needy does not have to be seen as based on the questioning of property rights. It can be advocated as a humanitarian, rather than egalitarian, policy.