A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Monday, 16 February 2015

Tribalism in Action

I don't know if I've mentioned it here before, but I support Aston Villa FC. I am also very fond of my home city of Birmingham. Earlier I was reading this article about our new managerial appointment and was surprised the feel a flash of disgust at reading the word "Birmingham" - the context being "The Birmingham club are third from bottom on 22 points...".

The explanation as to why I felt this flash of disgust is obvious - with football primed in my mind, when reading the word Birmingham I thought not of the canals and parks which I spent so much time perambulating when I am back home, but of Birmingham City FC - Villa's rivals.

There isn't any greater point to this post, it's just interesting to observe that the same word can have both positive and negative connotations to the same person, dependent upon the way in which the word is primed.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Various books review from 2014

Further to my reading list for the upcoming indeterminately long time period, I will provide some quick reviews of the books I have actually read in the last few months instead of reading those on my reading list, in other order they appear on my Kindle (which roughly correlates with the reverse of the order I have read them). Books which I have read to completion are marked with an asterisk after the author's name.

Captain Corelli's Mandolin (Louis de Bernieres)*
See here. Also, see a forthcoming article at ESFL focussed upon political themes in the novel.

An Open Letter to Open-Minded Progressives (Mencius Moldbug)
Really suffers from being very long. I've spent a couple of hours reading this and am only in the third chapter. May post a longer review if and when I read more of it.

Good Omens (Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman)*
Amusing, but suffered from very sudden swings in the story. As a result, we had massive build up and then suddenly the apocalypse started mid-conversation, lasted half an hour, and then ended very anticlimactically.

Thinking, Fast and Slow (Daniel Kahneman)
I still have about 30% to read, and certainly intend to read that at some point. And hopefully to reread it all, making proper notes on the thing. A fascinating book, highly recommended.

The Bible Unearthed (Israel Finkelstein & Neil Asher Silberman)
Very convincingly argued, discusses the historicity - or otherwise - of the Old Testament. I am about 40% through, and again I intend to continue reading it. Wikipedia has a summary which I haven't properly read but may be helpful.

Reasons and Persons (Derek Parfit)
I have read only small parts of this - I was reading section three for an essay, and then my Kindle disappeared for several weeks. Very thought-provoking, though less convincing than many (all?) of the other non-fiction books here.

Transmission (Nate Soares)*
An interesting enough short story. It's no Three Worlds Collide, and if you've spent much time in the Less Wrong memeplex then there probably won't be anything especially new to you in it, but perfectly readable as a bedtime story for adults.

Moby Dick: or, the White Whale (Herman Melville)
Was ever a more boring book written? I've criticised Moldbug for being too loquacious and for that I apologise when the monstrosity of a manual that is this book is present in the world. Feel free to try reading it, but I'm not a fan.

Romeo and Juliet (William Shakespeare)*
I find it hard to take the romance seriously - it is just so ridiculously overblown - but perhaps that's the point. It was enjoyable, and the fact that I finished reading it is a point in its favour.

The Last Girlfriend on Earth (Simon Rich)*
Very amusing. Particular highlights include the stories Occupy Jen's Street, I Love Girl, Trade, and possibly others which I can't remember. Also, very cheap on Kindle. Highly recommended.

Rapture (Susan Minot)*
I didn't really get anything from the book that I couldn't have got from the Salon review.

The Obsidian Poplar, and other stories (various authors)*
So-so. The titular story was a retelling of the rape of Persephone which I felt to be rather awfully sympathetic to Hades, but at least that jerk Zeus also got a bashing. The various (I believe teenaged) authors wrote better than I could have, but it wasn't up to the standards I would expect of professional writers.

The Cry of the Icemark, The Last Battle of the Icemark (both by Stuart Hill)*,*
I enjoyed these when I was younger, and I still found them readable now, but I would not generalyl recommend them to anyone without a specific interest in fantasy literature. The Cry of the Icemark  is a wonderful book, but unfortunately the books which follow it in the Icemark trilogy read more like medium-quality fanfics than actual novels - the pacing is all off, every new challenge must be the greatest yet, and in general things are made out to be epic without doing the necessary groundwork. The Lord of the Rings is epic, and it relies upon an absolutely vast groundwork and background; in the Icemark trilogy, the background seems to be completely ad hoc, invented precisely five minutes before it gets introduced into the story. Christopher Paolini was arguably guilty of similar problems in the Inheritance cycle, but he at least gave us a map of Alageasia and gave descriptions of things with no relation to what was happening at the time, so that if and when they did appear he was simply fleshing out things which were already there.

Three Men in a Boat (Jerome K. Jerome)
The wry humour is amusing. I would recommend at least starting this novel, even if you subsequently don't enjoy it.

Das Kapital (Karl Marx)
Interesting in the same way that an autopsy can be interesting. I've only read his first chapter, on "Commodities", and it is fascinating to see how he arrives at the Labour Theory of Value. As we all know from Mises et al, the economic value of a good is subjective; however, if you make the mistake (one which Marx copies from Aristotle) of thinking that a good's exchange value is an objective property of the object, then his argument almost makes sense.

Reading list, January 2015

Quite a while back I set myself a summer reading list. I did appallingly at reading the books on it, most of which still anguish on my Kindle (I did eventually finish reading Poor Economics). Despite this, I'm going to set myself a new reading list for the upcoming year. I now have a Goodreads account, where I will hopefully be writing reviews of each book that I read.

As a clarification: in the spirit of experimentation, I am aiming less to commit to reading entire books here, than merely to start reading them and reach (say) 10% of the way through. If I still feel a book is worth reading, then I should read it all, but I don't want to force myself to read entire books if I am not gaining from them or enjoying them.

The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt
In my partial defence, I read this last summer - or rather, I listened to the audiobook. It is the latest book for the new and shiny Effective Altruists Reading Group, so I have started reading it on my Kindle and am making notes on it. This is the exception to the "I just have to start the book" rule.

Free Will: An Introduction, Helen Beebee
Useful for one of the courses I am currently taking. I'm putting it on here largely as a reminder to myself that I ought to be reading it properly.

The Libertarian Reader, editor: David Boaz
I received this for Christmas, and hope that it will provide me with some easy topics for ESFL articles.

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
An English MA student I once got chatting to at a bus stop recommended this to me as her favourite book. (My new source of conversation when I can't think of anything else to talk about: ask for book recommendations). I read the first twenty (?) chapters or so when I was an English GCSE student and found it reasonably interesting, but never got around to continuing it.

I will aim to add more books to this list as time continues.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Links, December 2014

Earlier in the year I started doing links posts. Then there was a month when I didn't have enough new links. Then I had far, far too many, and didn't feel like sorting through them for a considerable while, during which time the list grew longer and longer. So, after a long absence, here is a bunch of links.

Vox: 7 things the most-highlighted passages tell us about American readers.

A true story of Turkish politics. It tells the strange tale of a coup, launched by democratically-elected politicians, against the military leaders.

Yet another reason to protest against the Chinese government: it gets you lavish, all-expenses paid holidays.

I wonder what became of this: an attempt to crowd-fund a drone for the defence of Ukraine.

Why is Barcelona FC so strong: Tiki-Taka or Lionel Messi?

We're nearing Christmas, so why not celebrate in the traditional way? That is, to have a man on hand to perform "one whistle, one jump and one fart." That man went down in history as Roland the Farter.

A rather more modern entertainment: rap mash-ups, to the Thomas the Tank Engine theme tune.

Theological Engineering Exam. "For all questions, assume a perfectly spherical Jesus of constant density D... 25 grams of wafers and 20 ml of cheap wine undergo transubstantiation and become the flesh and blood of our Lord. How many Joules of heat are released by the transformation?"

An artist's impression of what various Pokemon would look like if they were real. Some of them look fine (e.g. Eevee), some look different but alright (e.g. Pikachu), and Togepi looks disgusting.

Philosophers have argued for many years on the possibility of zombies which lack concious experience. The answer to this question has an important implication: whether zombies should be regarded as capital or as labour.

Speaking of philosophers: the views of major political philosophers, explained with reference to the question "Should Batman kill The Joker?"

The story of Isabel Moctezuma, daughter of the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II. By the age of 18 she was a widow four times over, and had been impregnated by Hernan Cortes. She is presumably an outlier, but still it causes one to wonder: if this was how bad it was for women in the royalty, how terrible must life have been for the average woman in those times.

While I'm in a feminist mood, I'll link to this fascinating review of the Hermione Granger series of books and this picture of the wrong way to stare at a girl:

I first saw the picture below on Twitter, but it went around Facebook too:

Also, yet another reason not to trust the state to handle this kind of thing: a man spends six months on bail for receiving, not making, a video in which a woman was believed to be having sex with a tiger. What happened after six months? The police finally realised that the tiger was talking, and that it was a man in a tiger suit.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Response to Kane on luck, indeterminism and free will

"It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are far more than our abilities."
      - Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

In this article I shall provide a summary of Robert Kane's paper Responsibility, Luck and Chance: Reflections on Free Will and determinism (Journal of Philosophy 96 (5), pp217-240; 1999). I shall then present two challenges to the view he elucidates.

Before I get into the serious meat of the paper, allow me to quote its opening words:
Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that "to solve the problems of philosophers, you have to think even more crazily than they do". This task (which became even more difficult after Wittgenstein that it was before him)...
Oooh! Burn!


Kane is responding to the arguments of Daniel Dennett. Dennett is a compatibilist of sorts - he argues that we have moral responsibility, and this is frequently taken to entail possession of free will but to me it feels more like a denial that moral responsibiliity requires one to act freely. (Dennett's position is actually very similar to one I very briefly wondered about back when I was a naive fresher who hadn't read much philosophy - see the section titled Moral Identity here.) Furthermore, Dennett argues that libertarian free will is in fact rather unsatisfying: it seems to involve people doing things for no very good reason, as opposed to his conception in which people perform actions in accordance with their character and may be judged for an action in terms of how representative the action is of their character. If  under similar but non-identical circumstances the agent would have acted differently, then the action may be seen as an aberration for which the agent should not be held responsible. If large changes to the situation would have been required to change the action, then an action is representative of a wider trait of the agent and is therefore something for which the agent ought to be held responsible.

Kane's aim is to present a view of libertarianism which actually seems worthwhile. He argues that rather than having a character which determines our actions, we form our character through the actions we take. He labels the key decisions we make which determine we shall become "Self-forming actions", and argues contra Dennett that there are good reasons for making these choices, but they are not all immediately visible - indeed, many of them lie in the future.

A particular challenge that Kane aims to deal with is as follows: suppose a man has the choice of going on holiday to either Hawaii or Alaska. He deliberates over this decision, and finds several good reasons for going to Hawaii - it is more pleasant, cheaper, etc - and none for Alaska. At this point, what kind of freedom is it which allows the man to still choose Alaska? This is surely less a case of meaningful choice than of perverse randomness.

Kane's response it that we do not possess free will in that kind of case - it would indeed be perverse to choose Alaska. Instead, we possess free will pretty much entirely in our SFAs, but the preferences which dictate our many other choices stem from SFAs. The man's choosing to go to Hawaii would not be an SFA, and would not of itself be a meaningful choice; however, his preference for hot over cold might stem authentically from his past enjoyment of summers, and so the choice may still be indirectly meaningful.

He also responds to the problem of "moral luck". Suppose a woman is walking to an important interview, when she sees a person being mugged in an alley. She has pepper spray in her handbag, and so could save the person who is being mugged, but this would cause her to be late for her interview. If it is truly indeterminate as to whether or not she does the moral thing by stopping the mugging, then what is there to distinguish it from luck as to whether she saves the person? How, then, can she be either praiseworthy or blameworthy for her action?

Kane responds that, since the businesswoman has good reasons for multiple courses of action, and these courses of action conflict with each other, she is at an SFA. She may be viewed as simultaneously attempting both courses of action - stepping in to stop the mugging, and hurrying along to her interview - and succeeding at one, failing at the other. Suppose that, in the event, she keeps out of the mugging and just rushes along to her interview. Kane would say that she could not control whether or not she succeeded at stepping in, nor could she control whether or not she succeeded at moving along; nevertheless, she could control which one of the two it was that she succeeded at. Hence she is responsible for her decision to move on.

So much for what I intended to be a quick summary. I find his account very appealing, and would very much like to believe it. Unfortunately, I have two key issues with it.

Multiplicity of potential SFAs

Brian is addicted to smoking. He knows it is bad for him, and every single day he swears to himself that he will quit. Yet, every day without fail, he will give in and sooner or later he will pick up the first cigarette of the day.

It seems in this case that each and every one of Brian's attempts to quit smoking has the potential to be an SFA. If he were to succeed, it would be a classic example of an SFA. It also seems strange to claim that certain decisions can be SFAs only if they go in a particular direction. Yet this seems to commit us to the idea that Brian is making an SFA every single morning, in spite of the fact that each and every one of these SFAs is the exact same decision.

If it does not seem strange to classify a decision as an SFA only when it goes a particular way, consider Brian's brother Steve. Steve also smokes, and has been thinking about giving up. However, he decided once and for all that he is approaching retirement and has earned a vice or two to keep him going in his old age. This seems like a very good candidate for an SFA, and does not seem importantly different from the decision made every day by Brian.

Lack of responsibility for failure to act

Let us go back to the case of the businesswoman. She did the presumably immoral thing of moving on and abandoning the mugging victim. This is something for which we want to be able to hold her morally responsible. Unfortunately, according to Kane it seems that we cannot.

Remember, according to Kane the businesswoman was simultaneously trying both to help the person and to move on. She failed at the first and succeeded at the second. According to Kane, then, she was trying to move on and therefore is responsible for doing so; however, she was also trying to help the person, and it was not in her power to succeed at this. Suppose then that we ask her; "Why didn't you help the mugging victim?" She can then honestly respond: "It's not my fault! I was trying to, it's just that I failed at doing so!" I see no reason why this should not generalise across all actions where we wish to hold someone responsible for failing to do something. "I was trying to give money to the poor! I just failed, because I was prevented by buying this shiny new iPhone!" "I was trying to fulfil the terms of the contract! I just failed, because I was prevented by my desire to save money and effort!" "I was trying to resist my urge to do unspeakable things to this person! I just failed, because of my desire to forcibly have sex with them!"


While I would very much like to endorse Kane's account of free will, it has severe problems which seem to vastly exaggerate the importance of certain small decisions, and which prevent us from holding people responsible for failing to act in certain ways.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Externalities and Rights Infringements

This post is laying out the framework for a couple of future posts. If you have even a basic familiarity with economics, then outside of the final paragraph this should be nothing new to you, and even the final paragraph is pretty trivial.

It is often the case that one person's action affects the wellbeing of another person, despite no intent to do so on the part of the first person. Economists call this effect an externality, and divide them into positive externalities, which benefit the affected party, and negative externalities, which harm the affected party. Goods which produce positive externalities are called merit goods; goods which harm the affected party are called demerit goods. Examples of merit goods include vaccinations (due to the reduced risk of passing diseases onto other people), foods which produce pleasant aromas, and attractively painted houses. Examples of demerit goods include any industrial processes which produce pollution, late night music practices, and driving during rush-hour (which contributes to congestion).

A related concept is the rights infringement (or rights violation; there is a subtle difference, but that shouldn't be important here). This constitutes one person breaching a certain protected sphere around another person; example would include assaulting someone, stealing from them, and damaging their property.

The first point I want to make is a simple one: that negative externalities and rights infringements are different things. Painting your house purple with the effect of reducing the value of your neighbour's house is not usually a rights violation (though it would be if you had signed a contract not to do such a thing) but it is a clear case of a negative externality. Trespassing may often be a rights violation without actually producing an externality to the landowner.

My second point is also simple, even obvious: in general, it is morally wrong to inflict a negative externality upon someone even if you are not actually violating their rights. There are exceptions to this, and it's not deontologically wrong in the way that a rights violation might be, but if you make a habit of inflicting negative externalities then basically you're kind of a dick.

Is Not Voting a libertarian issue?

From H.L. Mencken’s proclamation that “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard,” to Jason Brennan’s near-constant stream of papers lambasting democracy, there is a long tradition of libertarians being at best sceptical and often hostile to democracy. My aim in this article is not to comment on whether they are correct, but to discuss whether this ought to be part of the libertarian movement.
The basic argument against giving scepticism about democracy a prominent place in the libertarian movement runs roughly as follows:
(1)    Many people have a deep, almost religious attachment to democracy.
(2)    By attacking people’s most deeply-held beliefs, libertarians risk alienating people who might otherwise be interested in libertarian ideas.
(3)    By attacking democracy, libertarians risk alienating people who might otherwise by interested in libertarian ideas. (from 1 and 2)
(4)   Scepticism about democracy is not important to libertarianism.
(5)   If something is not important to libertarianism and it risks alienating people, it should be kept separate from libertarianism.
(6)   Scepticism about democracy should be kept separate from libertarianism. (from 3, 4, 5)

The evidence for (1) is all around us. See the constant exhortations that “If you don’t vote then you can’t complain!”, the haranguing received by Jon Stewart over a mere joke that he had not voted, the ongoing debate over whether voting should be compulsory, and a million and one other examples which would only cut into my word allowance for this article.
I’m not going to argue for (2) here, but I don’t think it should be especially controversial.
(4) seems, to my mind, the weakest of the premises. Libertarianism does not require scepticism about democracy – one could well be a libertarian and yet think that democracy is overall a good system. But perhaps this scepticism might be considered part of a “thick libertarianism”; in particular, it might be part of a “strategically thick” libertarianism. “Strategic thickness” refers to those practices and ideas which tend to undermine the implementation of libertarian institutions, even if they do not necessarily contradict the non-aggression principle (or whatever else one regards as the fundamental moral grounding of libertarianism).
I can think of two ways one might argue for this. The first is that, so long as people remain wedded to the ideal of democracy, they will remain sympathetic to a form of collectivism, which will generally lead to bigger governments. The second would be that there are specific ways in which democracies tend to fail, ways which are particularly harmful to liberty. One example might be immigration, where anti-foreign bias systematically leads to people being more likely to oppose anything involving foreigners. (Incidentally, philosopher Arash Abizadeh – not, so far as I am aware, a libertarian – has argued that there are no reasons why voting should be limited only to present citizens of a nation, and therefore that there is no way in which democracy could actually justify immigration restrictions).
There are two problems here. One is that, by focusing on areas where democracy has a tendency towards failure, we almost by definition focus on areas where people will tend to be irrational and will want to ignore our arguments. The second is that proposing to abolish democracy means replacing it with something else, and although we might have in mind simply to abolish government involvement in the issue being discussed, this is neither what people are likely to take us as saying nor what is actually likely to happen. Many people, including (perhaps especially!) libertarians, are heavily opposed to technocratic rule. Libertarian scepticism of technocracy is an honourable a tradition as scepticism about democracy, as famously expressed by Friedrich Hayek in The Fatal Conceit: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”
(5) also seems potentially vulnerable – one might perhaps suggest that we should be honest and forthright about every aspect of what we advocate, regardless of whether this is the most convenient thing for us. However, the strength of this objection will turn upon how strongly we use the word “forthright”. I certainly don’t think that libertarians who also happen to be sceptical about democracy should lie or even mislead in order to hide their scepticism, but there is a difference between concealing unpopular views and making them important planks in a platform. In an academic setting, where the entire goal of discourse is to arrive at truth on every individual issue, it is reasonable – even virtuous – to loudly advocate for unpopular views which one seriously believes, even if this is liable to reduce people’s trust in you regarding other issues. In politics, we must be more pragmatic.
“Scepticism about democracy ought to be kept separate from libertarianism”.
I do not mean to insist that this conclusion is either true or false, but I think that it is a question that libertarians ought to think about when lambasting the failures of democracy in a popular setting. The way we go about libertarian advocacy has consequences for people’s freedom, including our own, so we should be cautious when attacking people’s deeply held beliefs – even when those beliefs are strange and irrational. I don’t wish to suggest for a second that we should compromise on our basic principles in order to be more presentable, but there is often far less need to push people’s buttons than we might think.