We burnt our own history

(Epistemic Status: Polemical. No lies but meaningful omissions)

When I read conservative websites, the more intellectual ones, they see the history of the west as being something meaningful. They see an unbroken line stretching from antiquity through the greeks and Rome, the rise of christianity, the dark ages and finally the renaissance and birth of a new democratic and free world order. They see the grand enterprise of western civilisation, how our norms and values are a combination of so much that came before us. How most of the values we see as normal today, from not hating the weak to seeing virtue as morality rather than strength or beauty or wealth, came about from the triumph of christianity over paganism. It’s a good story. Better than the ahistorical denial of western culture the far left embraces. It’s still wrong. It’s wrong because it misses out a very important part. The part where we burnt our past.

Aristote. Plato. Diogenes. Anximander. Pythagoras. We trace back many of our ideas today to the greeks. From science to democracy. The funny thing is that all we have are fragments and fragments of fragments. That’s because christians spent hundreds of years manically and pathologically burning every trace of pagan writers, tearing down statues and generally exterminating any echo of the past which didn’t conform to their manic outlook on the world. Many writings we do have come from the muslim world where the knowledge of the west was preserved for centuries. Our modern translations often aren’t from greek, they’re second hand, translated from arabic.

It’s worth remembering that ideology always contaminates the search for truth. Just like the left choose to ignore or downplay the fact that the west did have a distinct culture and history so the right downplays or omits the horrors christianity and the church wrought. It’s not (usually) intentional. It’s just that when making up stories about the world our brain tends to want to show our tribe in a good light and other tribes in a bad one and modern political tribes tend to identify more or less with historical ones.

Is Paying Taxes As Morally Weighty as Murder?

A while ago I wrote about a person who chose to join the military without giving any real thought to the morality of taking life. I said that they were a bad person. We all pay taxes. Taxes fund the military. Most of us don’t seriously consider whether we should be paying tax. Are we just as bad as the amoral reservist?
I’d say we are bad but not quite as bad for a few reasons:

  1. Taxes are coercive. Voluntary military service is not.
  2. Paying taxes probably contributes less to killing than military service
  3. Paying taxes is more causally distant than working in the military
  4. Taxes have other net-positive effects

The coercion argument is simple. The choice to pay tax is not a free one. Not paying taxes means either:

  • Spending your life in prison
  • Having no taxable income
  • Lying

The first two are serious costs, serious enough to qualify as coercive, and the third is unlikely to work in the long run. If a choice is not free, you are less accountable for it in proportion to how unfree you are. (Or so run most peoples intuitions). Hence the free choice to join the reserves is more morally culpable than the coerced choice to pay tax.

The second reason is an empirical question and so a lot more murky. Assuming a median income, does paying tax contribute more to wartime killing the military carries out than joining directly? Maybe yes. Maybe no.

  • The marginal value of your labour is greater than the value of your tax donation
    • But not if you are only marginally better than the person who would have gotten your place
      • But the (UK) military has a manpower shortage

Also, this kind of pure consequentialism isn’t something I or most people accept. Being a death camp guard during WW2 but using your salary to donate to effective charities which save more lives than you take probably wouldn’t work as a defence in court and I’m not sure it’s a defensible moral position either. The outcome isn’t all that matters.

As for the third reason, causal distance, it’s dumb but true. Right or wrong, our intuitions say that we are less morally accountable for acts which we are moral causally distant from. Not sure if that’s a good practical moral norm to have, although life seems pretty unworkable without it. Not sure it’s actually a pure moral value either. Maybe it’s just something we use to make consequentialism tractable given our limited real world computing power. Still.

Taxes being good for other reasons also isn’t an easy win. Yes taxes are good for other reasons. So is war if it stops dictators. So is joining even the most unjust, genocidal wars if you can make them slightly less bad by replacing a worse person. Again it’s just not clear how far we should be consequentialist vs deontological here. The death camp guard murder offsetting objection still applies.

In conclusion, ethics is hard and anyone who says otherwise is lying or stupid or probably both. More seriously, I think paying taxes is a moral decision and one that most of us should put a lot more weight on than we currently do. The fact that something is normal is not an excuse. Still, carrying a gun and killing seems much more morally weighty. I’m not sure why but I think it’s mostly because of the casual distance.

Genetically Engineered Children and Moral Panic

Hu JianKui and his team created a genetically engineered human baby. Many of the news articles that followed labelled his actions as morally unethical, dangerous and immoral. What’s interesting is that the vast majority of these articles didn’t actually state their reasoning. There are good reasons to doubt the ethics of what Hu did ranging from uncertainty over the patients consent to whether there were better alternative treatments. Most of the articles I saw near the start of the news cycle didn’t mention these reasons. They didn’t explain why editing children’s genes to make them safer from a horrific, life-destroying disease was bad. They didn’t explain why it’s okay for the state to determine for parents what genes their children can have, okay for it to condemn children who could be healthy to a life of disease. They didn’t explain why gene editing is dangerous or so unethical. The lack of argumentation combined with how one sided the coverage is disappointing but not surprising. I’m not sure that eugenics and genetically engineering humans is a good thing. I am sure about is that one sided discourse in which a scientists efforts to make babies immune to HIV is painted as dangerous, unethical, immoral and exploitative without serious consideration is not conducive to a good epistemic culture or rational, productive legislation of future technologies.

What does a broad conception of free speech actually look like?

In my last post I argued against narrow, legalistic conceptions of free speech. In doing so I implicitly endorse a broader conception. What does that broader conception actually look like? My intuitions say something like this:

In the public sphere:

  • As an employer, never let an applicants ethics or politics influence your decision to hire them.
  • As an employee, never let your employers ethics or politics influence your decision to work for them.
  • As a consumer, never let a firm’s ethics or politics influence your decision to purchase from them.

My thoughts on the private sphere are more hazy and uncertain:

  • Politics is not the sum of a person. Don’t hate those with different beliefs nor try to exclude them from your social circles.
  • Don’t try to narrow the intellectual horizons of other people or manipulate them into believing what you believe. Manipulation includes lying but also extends to not telling others arguments you don’t find persuasive but think they would.

These norms are extensive and some of them, like the one about employees not discriminating against employers, are uncommon and deserve an article of their own. Still I think that it’s not really these specific intuitions or rules that are important. They’re just my rules and I could well be wrong. What’s important is the underlying principle which goes something like this: “A free society is one where people can hold any view they choose and speak as they wish without fear of reprisals”. My general litmus test for any behaviour is whether that behaviour universalised would lead to a society which is more or less free. If it’s the latter, there needs to be a damm good justification for it. Not being able to find employment if you have the wrong beliefs is coercive and an unjust restriction on speech. Not being able to found or lead a company if you have the wrong beliefs is also an unjust, coercive restriction both for the individual and for the belief-holders as a group because they are denied economic power. Ditto for a hundred other things we consider normal and acceptable but shouldn’t.

Counterpoint:

  • Conflicts with the individual freedom we believe people should have. Strongly so in the private sphere, you shouldn’t have to socialise with Nazi’s if you don’t want to, and more weakly in the private sphere, shouldn’t have to buy from regressive leftists if you don’t want to.
  • The general anti-open-society argument. Open societies lead to bad ideas and norms spreading. We should choose norms we like and enforce them. Not through violence but through social coercion.

Against legalistic conceptions of free speech

I think back to the day I met my girlfriend. We talked about free speech. Someone said that as long as the law does not punish speech, there is free speech. I disagreed. If social norms punish speech, if saying the wrong thing makes it impossible to have a career or home or family, then there is no free speech. 

Imagine a society. There are three political factions, the 1’s, the 2’s and the 3’s. There are no legal restrictions on speech but there is a strong social taboo against supporting 3. If you publicly support 3, others will choose not to associate with you. Employer’s won’t hire you. If you have a job, you’ll be passed over for promotion or fired if you choose to talk about why you like 3 in the workplace, despite talking about liking 1 or 2 being fine. Talking about 3 may even mean your children are taken away, not because talking about 3 is illegal but because it indicates you’re a bad person and likely can’t be a good parent. It may even mean your family disowns you, no one will marry you and no magazine, paper or journal will publish your work. Is this society free? Does it have freedom of speech? The answer is no and the absence of laws discriminating against believers in 3 doesn’t change that.

A society with perfect freedom of speech is one where people are free to speak their minds. A society with perfect freedom of religion is one where people may worship whatever gods they wish. A society with perfect freedom of association is one where people can spend or not spend time with whoever they wish. If people are less free to do these things, then their society has less of that freedom. Whether the restriction is enforced through the institutions of the state or through social norms is not relevant. Both are ways the collective controls the individual.*

Counterpoint:

  • There is a conflict between people’s freedom to associate with who they wish and other people’s freedom of speech.
  • State restrictions on speech are clear. What social norms constitute restrictions, less so. Does any norm which makes speech more (socially) costly reduce free speech?

A code makes you free

Living and dying by an ethical code makes you free. We are all constrained by those around us. By the web of social norms and expectations and the punishments for breaking them. Most people are simple and respond to incentives predictably. If doing something will cause more pain than pleasure, they avoid it. If the reverse is true, they seek it out.* All societies are different and some allow more and some less freedom. Still, even the most liberal societies force compliance with a range of norms. From what you can and cannot say to how to dress to how and when to sleep. Since material incentives are omnipresent, there is only one path to true freedom. Living by a code.

When you decide to do what is right, regardless of the costs to you, you are free. You’re free from social control and manipulation. From the laws and norms which punish dissent. You’re free from nature’s coercion, from the dark part of your mind telling you to gain status and power, to be a good mate and create a good life for your children.

Counterpoint:

  • An absolute code of ethics is both freeing and binding. It frees you from worldly constraints and the manipulations and coercions of the tribe. If binds you much more tightly to a set of moral rules which may well be more constraining than any society. I still think that embracing a code of ethics means eventually becoming it and at that point it no longer binds you any more than you being you binds you. Still, this is my view and your may differ.

*(Simplistic. It’s not the balance that matters, it’s the relative utility of the option compared to other available courses of action. People will choose to suffer when they other choices only promise more suffering)**

**(Still simplistic. People aren’t utility monsters. Most people do assign weight to their moral preferences, they just assign less weight to them than I would like.)

The good man is more dangerous than the egoist

A person who is driven by self-interest is only so dangerous. They cannot give their life to inflict harm on their enemies. The main benefit of harming your enemies is deterring future aggression. That deterrence means nothing if you are dead.

A person who is driven by communal interest is more dangerous. They can give their life to harm their enemies. Even if they die, their community, their family, their tribe will benefit from their sacrifice. Still, they can be controlled. If they community faces reciprocation or is held hostage, they can do nothing.

A person driven by ethics alone is the most dangerous. They can do anything. Their life means nothing if the alternative is giving in to evil. The wellbeing of their community means nothing. The only thing that matters is doing what is right. There is no way to control them. A man person driven purely by ethics is a person who has risen above the material world and achieved pure free will.

Counterpoint:

  • Communally interested people are more dangerous collectively because they make strong communities and strong communities are more powerful than even the strongest individuals