Nontonomy

Being critical of freedom, liberty, and autonomy is likely to make one the subject of scorn and derision. Most people tend to feel these things are self-evident attributes and goals, but they are all simply rhetorical functions. I was reading a passage in Mills’ On Liberty, where he posits

That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant … Over himself, over his body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

On Liberty, John Stuart Mill

It should come as no surprise that I question a position adopted by the Enlightenment Age. These geezers posited that many things were self-evident, but all of this is self-serving magical thinking, and there is no reason to have truck with any of it. These are all normative claims being dressed as positive, non-normative, ones, hoping to skirt scrutiny by employing a position of self-evidence.

I am generally critical of any notions of identity and self from the start, so affixing some attribute of power to it seems just silly.

It seems that I again am distilling this notion to a power equation. As a person, I want to claim power, if anything, over my self however that might be defined. And though, I would like this, too, it is nothing more than some emotional reaction.

Without delving into the depths of autonomy quite yet, on a proverbial desert island—as necessarily the case with any social constructs, where these notions are meaningless without a social context—adding a second person creates friction. Person A seemed to have full autonomy on this island—notwithstanding the other life forms on this island that are somehow never granted autonomy—now has had this autonomy reduced by the presence of Person B.

Firstly, Person A may have claimed this island to be their own. Given this, Person B is infringing on this autonomous decision, having arrived sequentially. Is Person B tresspassing? Does their presence harm Person B, be limiting their autonomy however slightly?

Mills’ concept is one of no harm: one is free to do what one chooses as so long as it doesn’t harm another. Accordingly, it says one is free to harm one’s self—essentially treating the self, the corpus, as personal property. Just as one could damage a piece of personal furniture, one could damage themself. I am not sure if Mills intend this to extend to suicide, but that’s not an important distinction here, so I’ll move on.

Let’s return to Person A on the island—only Person A is a woman and Person B is a fetus. What rights and autonomy does Person B now possess? For some, it has full autonomy; full personhood. Still, Person B is ostensibly trespassing, so does this autonomy even matter if it exists?

If you are Person X and own a house, and I, as Person Y, enter into it, how does this differ from A and B? Can you justify disallowing Person Y from exercising autonomy whilst supporting Person B? I don’t want to make this about abortion, so I’ll keep stop here.

Moral Tribes

Aside from the political realm, in my quest to gain more perspective on Anarchism in 2022, I am interested in behavioural aspects of the human condition. It seems to me that political constructs as dynamic systems are inherently unstable. Whilst I am predisposed to Anarchy versus the alternatives to which I’ve been exposed, it too is fraught will deficiencies. The question is which system has the fewest deficiencies at any given time. More on this later.

On my journey, I’ve come across Moral Tribes by Joshua Greene, a book recommended in Behave by Robert Sapolsky—perhaps my favourite non-fiction book of the trailing decade, which is also to say my favourite book over this period. Professor Greene summarises his concepts on YouTube.

But

Of course, there’s a but. Joshua Greene seems to come from the same mould as Stephen Pinker. Two Pollyanna defenders of the Enlightenment and Humanism. As such, they are Moderns in the pejorative sense. They’ve drunk the Kool-Aid. They both buy into the Classical Western narrative.

What interested me in Greene’s work was the conflict management aspect. I don’t believe in inherent morality, but I do believe in constructed morality, perhaps better known as ethics. I believe that these are self-serving, whereby self represents any entity at some point or limited expanse of time. They never derive from some neutral place without benefiting some at the expense of others.

The axe I have to grid with Greene in Moral Tribes is his belief in facile notions such as loyalty and some sense of definitive goodness and badness. These things, he believes are instinctual. If we can tap into them and manipulate those with broken instincts—or marginalise them—, all will be milk and honey—or wine and roses. Take your pick.

Deep Pragmatism

Greene is effectively a utilitarian as descended from Jeremy Betham and John Stuart Mill, and he views pragmatism as a sort of panacea. Although I operate as a pragmatist as a fallback position from my more existential nihilistic core, I don’t feel that his recharacterising utilitarianism as Deep Pragmatism™ is a viable solution. Presuming that one could actually dimensionalise a society in a manner to measure this utility is a fool’s errand at the start. And, as I’ve gathered from other sources, he not only believes that there is a best morality, and he’s found it—because of course he has. In my book this is a red flag—a flaming red flag signalling a rubbish claim. In some circles, they’d straight up call it bollox.

Given this foundation, I am not sure how much more I’ll be able to maintain my interest. But for now, I’m not optimistic that he’s relying on anything more than hoping to convert ises from oughts with his magic Modern wand. I’ll give it as least a few more pages, but I won’t promise not to skim through to the end.

What John Stuart Mill Got Wrong About Freedom

Graham Tomlin wrote a piece for Prospect, upon which I comment and whence comes the title of this post. Always the deconstructivist curmudgeon, it seems, I agree with Tomlin’s assertion that Mill was wrong, but so is Tomlin.

In a nutshell, Tomlin makes the argument that the Ancients had it right, and the Enlightenment derailed it. Tomlin wants to return to the days of yore when the artifice of character and virtue ruled the day, a time when men were men and women were women. A return to the good ole days.

Tomlin waxes poetic, nostalgiac to a time that never was, a time that the prescription was to chase windmills of virtue and amass the currency of character. But character as currency is more unstable than Bitcoin.

Don Quixote Tilting Windmills

Is there anything more capricious than the held perception of character? Is there anything more futile than chasing the vicious cycle of virtue, always searching for that deserving true Scotsman?

Character is a term especially bandied about by political Conservatives, although Progressives tend to play the #MeToo game because it’s a game of appearances. It doesn’t matter what you do; it only matters what it looks like you do.

And even this is a game. Time and again politicians ‘slip’ (read: get caught), they apologise for the temporary lapse, and ask for forgiveness. Whether or not they keep their position, they are still forgiven and may return to their position learning their lesson (read: don’t get caught again). Let’s just dispense with the formalities.

Perception is reality

In Plato’s day, he holds out four moral virtues to pursue: courage, temperance, justice, and prudence.

Courage: the resolve to act virtuously, especially when it is most difficult

Temperance: moderation in all things; the middle path

Justice: to render every man what’s due

Prudence: application of practical wisdom

Courage seems to be caught in an infinite loop, as it essentially says to exercise temperance, justice, and prudence in the face of danger. Typically, courage is associated with heroic acts, though I fail to see the connection to rescuing a baby from a burning building with any of these other virtues. Perhaps the definition has morphed over the years. Everyone needs a hero. Only Zeus needs a Hera.

Temperance is to find the middle ground: eat but not too much; drink but not too much; rape but not too much; kill but not too much. Is there really a middle ground for all things? In traversing a canyon, shouldn’t one stay close to the edge—or what about sidewalks? Is it temperance that led US President Donald Trump to declare that Nazis and white supremacists. are ‘some very fine people‘, or does he just lack prudence?

Justice is the constant and perpetual will to render to every man his due.

Justinian — Institutes 1.1

Justice I’ve written about at some length so I won’t spend any additional time here.

Common sense is not so common.

Voltaire

Prudence, which advises one to use common sense, relies on a rare jewel. As Voltaire wrote, « le sens commun est fort rare ».

Perhaps I’m just too hard on people, but I find that most people are pretty dimwitted outside of some small area of focus, and I have to agree with Voltaire’s position on common sense. This is why as an economist, I find it so difficult to accept the homo economicus assertion so key for modern microeconomic theory and why behavioural economics has become a bigger deal in the past 30 years as more and more social scientists realise that people are predictably irrational.

Thanks but no thanks. There’s got to be a better way.

The Ones Who Walk Away

As a (slightly) more considered response to Marvin Edwards’ comment in response to a prior post: ‘I’m working under the presumption that “the best good and least harm for everyone” is behind every rule that our consequentialists have created…’, I wanted to bring to the forefront the adolescent-appropriate short story, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (PDF). Among the key themes,  author Ursula K Le Guin paints a thought experiment that showcases the weakness of the foundation of Utilitarianism.

To summarise, Omelas is a utopian city, and the residents are copacetic—all but one. The one is a veritable scapegoat. The one suffers all of the pain, to create a system wherein the best good and the least harm could be experienced. Whilst the concept breaks down well before this scale, this thought experiment illustrates the absurdity of the claim. At a more basic (and classic) level, we can simply look at the various trolley experiments or the conceptual dilemma proposed in the scenario wherein some number—4 and 5 seem to be popular—of ill people may be saved at the expense of 1 healthy one.

At a more conceptual level, at its inception in the Age of Reason by Bentham and Mill, a time where Scientism was wrestling the reins from the Age of Superstition Scholasticism, utililty was thought to be able to be quantified and measured. As with other non-ontic concepts, it can’t be.

As with other non-ontic concepts, utility is specious. Like a Pointillist painting, it looks coherent at a distance, but upon any scrutiny, it becomes incoherent, and the best an adherent can do is to step back until it again feels rational, arguing that to get any closer is to make perfection the enemy of the good. But that’s not the point, to ask for a workable definition prior to engaging in discourse is not about perfection; it’s creating a common basis for discussion. Utility offers little utility.

Henri Cross - Three Nudes
Henri Cross – Three Nudes

Utilitarianism

As I read his Utilitarianism, I want to like John Stuart Mill. He seems like such a clever man, but he is a victim of his Enlightenment Age. Attempting to fabricate order created by science’s encroachment on the absolutes of religion and the shifting sentiments toward monarchies, Mill tries to replace this moral compass with Jeremy Bentham‘s utility.

£1 ≠ £1

The problem is that despite (sort of) dispensing of religious doctrine, Mill was still fettered by the dogma of virtue ethics of dignity and duty. To this, he adds happiness. Not to go full-on Foucault, but these are concepts leveraged, like religion, to maintain power—take an elevated system in a constructed society, and the duty becomes a burden to the bottom, save for pretence of duty and dignity at the top.

I’ve had an issue with the concept of virtue and all of its offspring: duty, justice, and so on. I’ll likely write about this later. I expect that I’ll be reading Mill’s On Liberty next, so stay tuned.

Ignoring my contention that Utilitarianism is baseless, I have two other issues, using economic examples, each related to prospect theory (pdf):

  1. Regressivity: A person with less money values an incremental dollar more than a person with more money.

  2. Loss to gain asymmetry due to risk aversion: A person values losing a dollar more than earning a dollar, ceteris paribus.

Pareto efficiency, a cornerstone of Classical economics, does not take this into account. For this theory, all dollars are created (or perceived to be) equal, so it doesn’t matter whether person A, who earns £10,000 p.a., or person B, who earns £100.000 p.a.,  gets £100, but in the real world, person A would give it a higher value, so a transfer from A to B would be an inferior transaction to a B to A transaction.

This said, person B values the £100 more than having gained the amount, but it is not clear how to reconcile (in order to reach perceived parity) what the fair equilibrium would be, allowing that equality of outcome might not be the desired outcome.