Blargh Blog

Monday, October 31, 2005

Burkeans are Trapped

Some people are homosexual. Many of them are involved in loving, stable, committed, nurturing long-term romantic relationships with people of the same sex. Many of those same-sex couples are raising children. These are facts, and, as Dale Carpenter observes, they are not going away. Instead, the numbers are growing.

These facts put the Burkean conservative in a bind. Burkeans argue that people should be cautious about altering an extraordinarily complex system on which large numbers of people depend, as changes could undermine important aspects of the system in unanticipated ways, with disastrous effects for the people who count on the system. It is a reasonable enough concern, kept in perspective, but instead of incorporating it into a more comprehensive doctrine of prudence Burkeans tend to apply it selectively, and to take it as a decisive consideration when they choose to apply it.

In the case of marriage, the Burkean traditionalist argument that is constantly referenced is that we don't want to change the definition of marriage: Marriage = 1 Man + 1 Woman. Same sex marriage would be an unprecedented and risky change that threatens to undermine marriage and family. It would weaken society's commitment to procreation (by allowing a class of people who are biologically incapable of having children together to marry), or it would turn marriage from the norm into a choice (since homosexuals would treat marriage as something optional rather than as what is expected of them, and this attitude would spread), or it would reduce the opprobrium of adultery (since sex outside of marriage would likely be accepted by many gay married couples), or it would weaken the link between parenting and biological relationships, or it would send us down a slippery slope towards polygamy and other kinds of relationships that further threaten the marriage-based social order. What's more, conservatives who oppose same sex marriage or have some apprehensions about homosexuality might view the institution of marriage as corrupted, which would further weaken it. These are risks that we do not want to take, so we should stand pat, refusing to change the institution of marriage to allow homosexuals to marry.

People who make these arguments rarely go on to consider what it means to "stand pat." If they did, they would realize that there is no safe, conservative position that leaves things just the way they were, unthreatened by the kind of radical change that makes Burkeans nervous. The two main alternatives to same sex marriage in public discussions are civil unions and the denial of any systematic kind of legal status to same sex couples, and neither one would conserve the age-old societal institutions of marriage and family.

If same sex couples are denied any formal legal status, then they will be operating outside of the institutions that have survived the test of time in custom and in law. As Brad Plumer (and others) have observed, a whole new set of practices and institutions are going to develop. Millions of couples are going to be living together in long term romantic relationships without getting married (indeed, without any prospect of marriage), and this form of relationship may even spread to the heterosexual community. Millions of children will be raised by couples that are legally incapable of getting married, which could weaken the perceived relationship between marriage and child-rearing. Companies will increasingly grant benefits to their employees' unmarried partners, and they will likely do so whether the partner is of the same sex or the opposite sex, which would serve to reduce the importance of marriage for any couple. What's more, progressives who favor same sex marriage might view an institution that excludes homosexuals as a corrupt institution and choose opt out, which would further weaken marriage. Most of these changes are already well underway, and there is no way to reverse them without repressive, reactionary policies that drastically interfere with the lives of people who are homosexual. This is not the kind of cautious, hands-off approach that Burkean traditionalists adore, and it is probably also politically impossible. And of course it would be terribly wrong.

The other option is to create some new legal status like "civil unions" into which same sex couples can enter, which would grant them most or all of the legal rights of a married couple while denying the status of marriage which will be retained solely for opposite sex unions. On its face, this option appears the least Burkean of all. Instead of keeping the same institution - marriage - and reaching a decision about whether to count homosexuals inside or outside of its scope, they would create an entirely new institution to exist alongside marriage. The result of this compromise position is uncertain. It could stave off both the problems of same sex marriage and the problems of refusing to grant same sex couples a legal status, or it could invite both sets of problems. Civil unions are likely to be an uneasy and unstable compromise, as many homosexuals, progressives, and others will not be satisfied with a separate and unequal institution, while many conservatives who oppose same sex marriage and the "homosexual agenda" would not be happy with any government recognition of same sex relationships, especially not one that differed from marriage in name only. Civil unions are probably also the arrangement that is most vulnerable to slippery slope arguments. If same sex marriage is likely to lead to polygamy and the legitimization within the bounds of "marriage" of other undesirable kinds of relationships, then surely these alternative sorts of relationships are more likely to be recognized by law within the bounds of a lower-status kind of contract like a "civil union." There will be a tension between granting civil unions the importance, significance, and meaning of marriage, and treating them as contracts like any other; the latter view could allow other relationship arrangements to slip in (perhaps even "civil unions" for business partners or old friends), while the former view will make this development nearly as troubling as the "corruption" of marriage.

There is a segment of the population, mostly libertarian (oh, that Posner!), that thinks that the government should get out of the business of granting marriage licenses. The government's role, they say, should just be to enforce unions as contracts like any other, and to provide a minimal set of rights or benefits to partners in such a contract. Marriage is an important, significant, meaningful event, but its significance comes from the people involved, their religious tradition, their friends and relatives, and society at large, not from the government. These people essentially favor "civil unions for all." The government should get out of the marriage business and into the business of granting partnership contracts of all sorts, perhaps including polygamy, open relationships, temporary unions, etc. Some liberals have argued for this sort of view as a compromise that can grant rights to homosexual couples, give them equal status to heterosexual couples, and even present the legal change in a way that would not offend conservatives and religious people. We are elevating religious marriage, they would say, as the only true kind of marriage. The government is just dealing with civil contracts. As the Burkean conservative should be quick to recognize, it is unknown to what extent the significance, meaning, and importance of marriage would withstand this drastic change in the role of the state. Although this position may seem radical now, once an unstable two-tiered system of marriage for heterosexuals and civil unions for homosexuals developed, the sway of this libertarian argument would be likely to increase.

It seems that the Burkean conservative should be highly pessimistic about our future, no matter what way the political winds blow. Is the problem here with homosexuality? No, it is with elevating Burke's insight to the cornerstone of an entire political philosophy. Society is always changing, never more than in our recent history, and often change is drastic and unavoidable (or not worth avoiding). The opportunity for homosexuals to be open about their sexuality and to pursue relationships that can be fulfilling for them is a great achievement of our society, just as the inclusion of women and blacks as (more or less) full members of our society has been a great achievement. Prudence often does not mean focusing on everything that could go wrong and struggling to block change, but rather trying to figure out what options are open to us and to direct the coming changes into one of the most promising channels.

There is an interesting discussion to be had about the structures that marriage and family have had in our history, the recent changes to these institutions, and the forms that they may take in the future (including the places for homosexuals within those institutions). Unfortunately, we have not been having that discussion. Even the thoughtful arguments that go beyond simple slogans and knee-jerk reactions to express doubts about gay marriage only reach the inadequate level of selective Burkean conservatism.


Thursday, October 27, 2005

Political Philosophy Meme

Taken up from Christopher Tollefsen

Part I

1. Do you support a right to abortion, even in normal consensual situations?
2. Do you support a very robust notion of animal rights?
3. Are you a pacifist?
4. Do you consider the traditional family to be an oppressive and arbitrary institution?
5. Do you style yourself an opponent of tradition.
6. Do you consider capital punishment to be immoral?
7. Do you consider the Iraq war to be unjust?
8. Do you believe that Intelligent Design is not a reasonable scientific position?

My Answers:

1. Yes.
2. Yes, I think, though the question is too vague to be sure.
3. No.
4. No, I guess, assuming that "the traditional family" mostly means having a husband, a wife, and their kids, and does not require highly unequal gender roles which give most authority to men or place severe burdens solely on women. Also, I am assuming that denying the arbitrariness of the traditional family does not require viewing all other family arrangements as illegitimate.
5. No, that's not my style.
6. Ambivalent, and I don't think that it's all that important, but I lean towards the view that we should get rid of the death penalty for criminal trials.
7. Yes.
8. Yes.

Part II

Do you hold the following tenets?

(1) Belief in a transcendent order
(2) Affection for variety and opposition to the uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of radical systems
(3) Opposition to the idea of a "classless society"
(4) Conviction that freedom and property are closely linked
(5) Faith in custom, convention, and Burkean "prejudice"
(6) Prudence as regards social change
(7) The perfectability of man
(8) Contempt for tradition
(9) Political leveling
(10) Economic leveling

My Answers:

(1) No, at least I don't think so.
(2) Ambivalent. I don't see how this is a single tenet. Yes I have an affection for variety, but no, in many cases I am not opposed to systems that pursue certain kinds of uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims.
(3) I have no idea what this means.
(4) Sort of. In practice many important kinds of freedom require institutions of property, though many do not (freedom to think and do as you please). I also don't think that it is necessarily the case that freedom to use something requires that you have an exclusive right to it.
(5) Sort of. The beliefs, feelings, and practices that arise through social life should not be dismissed lightly, but they should be open to questioning, investigation, and change, not accepted on faith.
(6) Yes, of course. Unless "prudence" has some weird technical definition here.
(7) No.
(8) No.
(9) I have no idea what this means.
(10) Sort of. I favor efforts to improve the economic circumstances of people who are in a bad economic situation, and I would like people to be in a position where they have opportunities to succeed, but I don't take a completely level economic distribution to be a goal worth pursuing.

The first list, 1. through 8., is the Goss list. Apparently any genuine conservative must answer "no" to 1-5, though 6-8 are open to disagreement. This strikes me as an odd litmus test for conservatism, as I don't see how the five requirements represent a single coherent political philosophy. How you set the boundaries on who belongs within our moral community (farm animals? human fetuses?) does not strike me as very central to the way we deal with the rest of our society. It is good to see someone with the honesty to admit that conservatives are exclusive with respect to the views on abortion that fit inside their tent. I am surprised, though, by the claim that support for a very robust notion of animal rights is also a deal-breaker, as Goss himself seems to put fairly stringent restrictions on how we should treat animals, favoring "serious political action to reform the meat industry" (my words, his assent), since "humans should have a serious regard for animal welfare" (his words). Maybe he only considers an outright prohibition of animal-killing to count as "very robust", but if that is so then this criterion has a similar problem to the "no pacifism" restriction and other questions on which I fell on the conservative side: they only rule out people with rather extreme views. People who are skeptical about wars or traditions but do not have a blanket opposition to war or an outright opposition to tradition will probably fall outside the conservative camp, though they remain in a position to appreciate many conservative arguments.

The second list, (1) through (10) is the Kirk list, with 1-6 representing the essential tenets of conservatism and 7-10 the essential tenets of radicalism. Kirk's tenets strike me as more of a mixed bag. I should probably withhold judgment on them, since I'd need to read more by or about Kirk to even know what several of the tenets mean. One thing is clear, though: conservatism and radicalism are not an exhaustive set of alternatives. It looks like I am not a conservative according to his definition (I should hope not! (for the sake of his classification system more than for the sake of my self-image)), and I am certainly not a radical. Someone give me another set of tenets to assent to, as I'm obviously something. How about progressivism?

I've never been much of a meme-tapper, so for now I think I am content to await the coming months of discussion as Tollefsen, who tapped himself as an autonomous initiation to Right Reason, considers his positions on these issues in more detail.


Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Iraq now Immune to Authoritarian Dictatorship

So proclaimeth the Hitch. His argument? I think, therefore it is so:
Since Iraq has no choice but to be a plural and various country, these diversities can be handled in only one of three ways: by a fascistic dictatorship of one faction over all others, by civil war leading to partition, or by federal democracy. The first option has now, I think, been demolished for all time. The second two options need not be mutually exclusive or incompatible, since one is still possible and the other is still hard, and since a great deal of damage was done to intercommunal relations (to phrase it mildly) during the decades of the fascistic expedient, and since there are neighboring countries that have an interest in supporting their own religious or ethnic clienteles within Iraq.
Well, that's a relief.


Monday, October 10, 2005

Moving the Goalposts

Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio explaining what looks to be a poor crop of new Republican office-seekers in '06:
[Candidates] aren't stupid. They see the political landscape. You are asking them to make a huge personal sacrifice. It's a lot easier to make that sacrifice if you think there's a rainbow at the end.
Remember when the goal used to lie at the end of the rainbow? In today's America, it seems, the rainbow itself suffices. Ah, the soft bigotry of low expectations.


Saturday, October 08, 2005

Self-referential pick-up lines

"If I were to ask you for sex, would your answer be the same as the answer to this question?"

A version of this pick-up line has apparently been the title of a conference presentation, alongside such presentations as "A New Look at Falsification in Light of the Duhem-Quine Thesis" and "Ontological and Ethical Issues of Androids".

See here (or here) for an appropriate response.


Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Good, The Bad, and The Empty

I've never understood Kant. His take on lying, for instance, always struck me as bizarre, and not even supported by the categorical imperative. Maybe it's just my interpretation of the categorical imperative that's nonstandard, but it seems right to me.

Consider the famous case (discussed by Kant in On a Supposed Right to Lie) of the murderer at the door, looking to kill a friend of yours (who you know to be inside your house). Kant claims that, if the murderer asks you if your friend is there, and you must "answer Yea or Nay", then you have a duty to tell the truth. Why do you have to give him good information? Because you could not universalize the maxim underlying the lie you want to tell, since no one would believe you if lying was a universal law. Kant goes on to say some weird things about responsibility, but we don't need to get into that.

Kant's mistake is clearest if we think about the communication between you and the murderer as a transmission of information. If you answer honestly, then you transmit what we might call positive information - information that points him in the direction of true beliefs about where your friend is. If you're dishonest, then you transmit what we can call negative information - information that makes his beliefs further from the truth than they were before. In this case, we can think of the transmission of information as altering the subjective probability that the murderer places on your friend being in your house. Because your friend is in your house, positive information is whatever makes this probability closer to 1 and negative information whatever makes it closer to 0. If you remain silent, then you transmit zero information - the murderer's subjective probability remains unchanged.

Now, efforts to transmit negative information tend to fail the categorical imperative, whether they are outright lies (false statements) or less direct attempts to mislead. Universalizing a maxim essentially means making your decision procedure transparent to the person who you are communicating with. Once he knows the relationship between your beliefs and your utterances, there he will not be deceived by the verbal content of your utterances, as this content is irrelevant. So if your communications in this context do not reliably track the truth, he can dismiss them as bad information.

However, efforts to transmit zero information withstand universalization. All that you have to do is give the same response, regardless of what is true. No matter where your friend is, say "No, he is not here." This response is just as good as silence, since even if the murderer knows your decision procedure, and every person in the world would follow the same maxim, he cannot learn anything from your statement. Kant seems to have had an inkling that transmissions of zero information were not defeated by the categorical imperative, and to have tried to exclude these responses, which is why he ruled out silence as a possible response. However, he failed to realize that any answer could be an empty communication, as long as it is given consistently.

The categorical imperative does rule out another pattern of responding, which intially seems cleverer than the "always say no" strategy: the "always lie" strategy. If you say no when your friend is there and yes when he is not, then, if your maxim were universalized, it would be just as useful to the murderer as honesty. Your responses distinguish the two states of the world, and even though you attempt to do so in a way that transmits negative information, a murderer who knew your decision procedure could see past your utterances to recognize that you did serve as a reliable indicator of the truth. You would be like a poker player with a stupid tell: you said your cards were good when you were bluffing, and claimed to bluff whenever you had a good hand. Or, you'd be like one of those knaves who always lie in logic puzzles, and the murderer would be in a position to discover the correct solution.

To truly be clever, you need a more flexible strategy than always lying: say whatever you think will minimize the subjective probability that the murderer has for whatever state of the world in fact obtains. This puts you in a battle of wits with the murderer. You could play it safe and just try to transmit zero information, or you could try to outsmart the murderer in a way that transmits negative information. You might try to size up your opponent: If I say this, he'll think that I think that ..." If you do try to transmit negative information, though, then you run the risk of losing the battle of wits and having the murderer see through your ploy (recognize your tell) and gain positive information. However, if you're smarter than your opponent, in the murderer scenario or any other, then you're likely to succeed in transmitting negative information. Indeed, if the murderer is going through the trouble of asking you whether your friend is there, then there's a good chance that he's gullible enough to at least put some credence in your claim that your friend is not there.

When people universalize a communications maxim, they tend to do so in such a way as to rule out the possibility of succeeding through your superior cleverness, or your opponent's foolishness. Thus, it simplifies the problem to one where all parties are rational, and makes morality into a game theory problem. The right action is whatever communications strategy, pure or mixed, maximizes your expected benefits. This leads to a zero information strategy in most cases that I can think of, including the murderer at the door scenario. However, the categorical imperative really has nothing to say against the strategy of communicating information that is as negative as possible, as long as you consider the limiting case, transmitting zero information, to be among the acceptable outcomes that do not defeat your communicative intention.

There are further wrinkles. One type of transmission of negative information that can withstand the categorical imperative, when used in moderation, is mimicry of honest communication. Say that you would ask for a loan and intend to pay it back in situations X, Y, and Z. If there is a situation, W, where you want to ask for a loan but do not intend to pay it back, and if situation W is indistinguishable from situations X, Y, and Z to the potential lender, then, even after making your decision procedure transparent (i.e. universalizing), you may still be able to get away with asking for the loan in situation W. The potential lender's subjective probability that you are lying is the frequency of W divided by the total frequency of W, X, Y, and Z, and if this probability is low enough for him to be willing to take the risk then you may have lied yourself into a loan, while remaining covered by the categorical imperative.

Similarly, using a "This house protected by ABC Security" sticker as your only home security system can be allowed by the categorical imperative, as long as the cases where you would have actually installed an ABC security system are common enough, and indistinguishable from the actual case to the eyes of a potential criminal, so that potential burglars would consider your house to be too great of a risk. So, for instance, you could save on your expected home security costs without running afoul of the categorical imperative by flipping a coin and buying an ABC security system and a sticker if it comes up heads, and just putting the sticker in your window if it comes up tails. But if you let the probability drop far below .5, then your security plan would not survive universalization, and, in practice, you would be free riding on other people who shell out for the real security system.

Of course there are other decision procedures besides coin flipping, such as looking at your budget to see if you can afford an ABC security system. However, you must be sure that you are being honest with yourelf about your decision procedure (are you setting the conditions for buying a real security system only after you know that you will not meet those conditions?), because if you are just coming up with an excuse to free ride then you fail the categorical imperative. You also must succeed at mimicry if you end up transmitting negative information, although here it is OK to "free ride" and to mimic the cases where other people actually buy home security systems, rather than the cases where you would have bought a home security system, since if you had bought a home security system under different conditions others would have been able to mimic those conditions.

The right way to decide what to do under deontological morality can often be more similar to consequentialist thinking than many deontologists realize.
Related: My incomplete series on truth, knights & knaves
Richard on lying


Monday, October 03, 2005

Replacing Justice

As you may or may not have heard, President Bush has nominated White House Counsel Harriet Miers for a seat on the Supreme Court of the United States. Many people have expressed concern that she shows no sign of the exceptional legal ability that a Supreme Court Justice should have, instead receiving the nomination because she is a female and she has a close relationship with the President. People on both the left and the right rate her below a replacement level Supreme Court Justice. Personally, I don't see what all the fuss is about. Whatever expertise she is lacking, she can easily make up for by surrounding herself with talented law clerks.