Thursday, January 19, 2006

Tech Central Station posted two complementary pieces today, though I doubt the editor warned the writers they'd be supporting each other. The first deals with economics; and I've cut it to shreds to retain the basic idea that ideas start from original thinkers, and that original ideas are then used by pracitical innovators until such time as the unthinking mass has absorbed them by osmosis. The second piece deals with socail contracts; and again, I hurry to discourage this as a legitimate basis for anything other than the most banal of social transactions between sane adults under armed supervision.

Max Borders writes in our second piece below that men are agreeable and rational in pursuit of their own interests, and they will give a little to get a little, so he opts for Occam's razor in the discussion of why we need a metaphysic of morals, an add-on that he seems to argue isn't necessary. Arnold Kling writes about economics, from which I extrapolate that he writes that an idea is usable and practical when such ideas come about and change according to the marketplace of ideas working on them regardless of the intentions of the original author. Whether an idea is good is debatable, and whether it is better to write it clearly in the hope one will be attended to is less than certain. An interesting idea in itself.

Our position here is that consinsus is not a valid way of determining anything because it has no legitimate authority. It is contingent, and it is relativistic. We leave it to the reader for now.

Why do we need metaphysics when we can have rights by agreement?

"The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil"
-- John Maynard Keynes

...My claim is that great thinkers have an impact when they affect popular beliefs, and the process by which this occurs is indirect and haphazard.

Folk Beliefs vs. Scholarly Beliefs

Ordinary people and scholars may treat the same ideas differently. In terms of influence, it is the folk beliefs of ordinary people that matter, not the beliefs of scholars.


Folk beliefs tend to be much more settled than scholarly beliefs. [....] "What Keynes really meant" is a hot topic for dispute. Moreover, when scholars can agree on what he said, they disagree on whether or not he was right.


Dominating the Charts

If folk beliefs were popular music, then one of the biggest rock stars of the 1950's and 1960's was Sigmund Freud, who had died in 1939. Freud dominated the charts, with hits like "Oedipus complex," "sibling rivalry," "phallic symbol," and many others. What strikes me about Freud is both how spectacularly pervasive his ideas became in a relatively short period of time -- and how quickly many of them have faded. The idea of unconscious desires has survived, and with it the term "Freudian slip." Overall, however, the prevalence of Freudian concepts in popular discussion among people born after 1980 is far lower than among people born before 1960. The scholarly impact of Freud may persist, but in the decades to come Freud may turn out to have no more cultural significance than Herman's Hermits.


The process by which an idea becomes a hit is somewhat mysterious. Many people adopted Freudian folk beliefs without ever reading any of Freud's work. With folk beliefs, this is the norm, rather than the exception. Somehow, major ideas seep into the popular culture, promoted by disciples and spreading by word of mouth. Perhaps even more mysterious is the process by which ideas seep out of the culture, as many folk Freudian beliefs evidently have done.

Folk Christian beliefs were shaped by Christ's disciples. It was the disciples who ultimately defined what it means to be a Christian. This, too, is common in the process of the dissemination of ideas. A great thinker's impact depends on how his or her ideas are expounded by others.

One question that this raises is whether or not folk beliefs reflect the true ideas of the original thinker. However, the issue of whether disciples are true to their master is relevant only to scholars. Folk beliefs have a life of their own. By the time that Karl Marx reportedly said "I am not a Marxist," he had become just another scholarly commentator, no longer able to affect the folk beliefs that bear his name.

To Be or Not to Be Clear

In the arena of political economy, beliefs have consequences. An important thinker can influence institutional arrangements by affecting folk beliefs. However, the process of spreading beliefs from an individual to the larger population requires disciples. This creates an opportunity for slippage between the intent of the original thinker and the folk beliefs that ultimately result.

A cynic might suggest that poorly-articulated ideas help attract disciples. Disciples have more opportunity to contribute if your ideas are difficult for ordinary people to grasp. If there is nothing left to explain, then there is no reason to become an explainer. The trade-off is that poorly-articulated ideas are more likely to be misconstrued by the time that they become folk beliefs.

Is it better to be a clear thinker or not? Perhaps the answer is not as clear as one might think.

Arnold Kling is author of Learning Economics .

In "The Metaphysics of Conservatism" Ed Feser presents an annotated history of Western philosophy with the hope of guiding us to the idea of Natural Rights . He doesn't say that outright, but it's clear that Feser is concerned about the loss of certain principles summoned from "natural law." Such principles might tell us that:

[E]very single living human body… counts as the body of a person and as a being having all the rights of a person...

Thus, we can summarize Feser's conclusions rather crudely as follows: In the absence of realist metaphysics, Natural Rights would be impossible. And in the absence of Natural Rights, humanity would be lost in the void.

But is this the case? Do we really need Feser's ancient metaphysics to have rights?

Enter great thinkers like James Buchanan, David Gauthier and Jan Narveson who allow you to eat your cake and have it to. They let us socially construct our reality by inviting each of us to play off of one another's individual interests.

Consider the anti-Platonic tradition of Hobbes that started, perhaps, with the character of Glaucon in Plato's Republic who said:

They say that to do injustice is, by nature, good; to suffer injustice, evil; but that the evil is greater than the good. And so when men have both done and suffered injustice and have had experience of both, not being able to avoid the one and obtain the other, they think that they had better agree among themselves to have neither; hence there arise laws and mutual covenants; and that which is ordained by law is termed by them lawful and just. This they affirm to be the origin and nature of justice; it is a mean or compromise, between the best of all, which is to do injustice and not be punished, and the worst of all, which is to suffer injustice without the power of retaliation; and justice, being at a middle point between the two, is tolerated not as a good, but as the lesser evil, and honored by reason of the inability of men to do injustice.

In Glaucon's account, justice (rights) doesn't have to exist for us to have them, rather they are the product of agreement.

An analogy can help illustrate this. How is it that something that one piece of fibrous paper and another of the exact same shape, size and ink content can be worth $100 and $1 -- respectively? Well, currency is a good example of socially constructed reality. Of course, in the days of the gold standard, we might be able to go into a bank and get gold in exchange for our bank notes. But then again gold is subjectively valuable due to its rarity, beauty, or its relative preciousness in the eyes of those who want it. In any case, those subjective forces balance against one another creating what we call a market price in gold. So whether or not currency is ersatz gold, nothing detracts from the primary point: Things are valuable in as much as people agree that they are.

When we leverage the subjective interests of others against our own, some very interesting things start to happen. With luck, we come to a kind of concord. In the case of money, we agree that this piece of paper is worth $100 and this one is worth $1. And we move mountains. No metaphysics necessary.

So in the case of rights, they do exist in the sense that money exists. But they aren't mysterious essences that, a la Feser, inhere in physical human bodies (any more than the souls that supposedly animate them). Rights are the convenient and rational human artifices that are contrived from mutual agreement among people willing -- collectively -- to lay down their "absolute right" to harm others in exchange for not being harmed. More or less this is the way social contract thought works -- and a whole discipline of Rational Choice was born out of it.

As Buchanan might have put it, we can assume a costly predatorial/defensive posture, or we can cooperate. And cooperative strategies tend to benefit any given individual over time, more than the unilateral strategies of a predator, cheater, or thief (i.e. one who defects from the contract) -- especially when we add the disincentives of enforcement and punishment. Gauthier argues very well for a social contract along similar lines and adds that, in the context of human community over time, it never really makes sense to be a defector. And Narveson might round out this overview both by dispelling any idea that a social contract is utilitarian and adding that -- where appropriate -- we can be very libertarian in our interpretation of social contract theory.

The foregoing is self-evidently why we don't, and shouldn't, give as many rights to criminals, enemies, or terrorists. When we do, we risk disrupting the very edifice that makes up our own socially constructed reality of rights. That is to say, we risk breaking our own social contract by allowing those who would do us harm to free-ride on our rights agreement -- thus nullifying it.

This doesn't mean we ever have a positive duty to "boil people alive" (or replace with your favorite blog-baiting form of torture); rather it means that the moral status of those outside of our political "rights compact," is sort of up for grabs. Notions of rights outside of our political regime become a fabrication of foreign policy expedience or PR-speak -- and are often necessary and useful ones as in the case of human rights.

But why shouldn't we believe in Natural Rights? After all, it's one thing to argue that we don't need rights to be part of our ontology in order to have them. But it's quite another to deny their existence to begin with.

My argument is that neither souls nor rights exist in the same way tables, atoms, matter and energy exist. And while there are a number of philosophical debates about whether or not you can truly know the existence of tables, atoms, and energy, science does a pretty good job of providing the pragmatic, instrumental and commonsensical reasons for believing they do. But souls and rights are a different matter (no pun). On these, science is silent. And for good reason: there are no such things as rights or souls.

Contractarian beliefs can be grounded in a meta-ethical form of skepticism that goes something like this:

  • If things we call rights (much like "good" and "bad") exist in the world, they must be something like tables, chairs, quarks, neutrinos, electricity -- i.e. something that we can discover through our usual methods of discovering that which exists. For me, like Quine, it's science. It's certainly not religious faith. This is not a slam against faith; it is simply noting a tautology. Faith, by my definition, is belief despite the complete absence of evidence (where evidence can be a combination of observations, causal footprints, or at least inference-systems linked into something observational).
  • Rights don't reveal themselves in our observations, nor exert themselves causally, nor show up even inferentially -- like radiation, quarks, or some other things do. And it's difficult to see how they would if they could. In fact, if rights were actually things-that-existed, they would -- as J. L. Mackie once said -- be things of a very "queer" sort.

Feser, like many libertarians and conservatives, is committed to the existence (in the strictest ontological sense) of rights. Of course, if we go looking for his kind of rights in the world, we will end up casting ourselves back into the void. If you don't believe me, try getting an NSF grant to discover Natural Rights. Feser's rights -- not to mention his souls -- are metaphysically queer entities. They, like the ghost of Christmas past, are sometimes useful fictions, but fictions nevertheless.

Feser and others might reply a la Kant, that Natural Rights are an animal more like logical proofs or mathematical entities such as triangles. Feser has already suggested that an anti-realist would look to evolutionary explanations for such phenomena. In my case, he would be right. Suffice it to say that debates about the ontological status of triangles can become baroque and technical to the point of absurdity. So in this context, I'll simply lean on the handle-side of Ockham's Razor and slice those entities away. Then I'd ask my reader to return to the coda: why do we need metaphysics when we can have rights by agreement?

Most conservatives and libertarians alike believe in some sort of Natural Rights, or the vaguer, less intellectually edifying "human rights." John Locke gave us the theological justification for rights, which most Conservatives buy. This justification is similar enough to arguments for creation in that it relies to some extent on the will of God. Of course, we'd better hold off on that discussion, because it might require that we settle the debate on whether God exists. And that's an argument for another day.

Max Borders is Managing Editor of TCS Daily.

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