Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Facts and Values

I was educated in a hotbed of Western Straussians led by the hero of that school, Harry Jaffa.  No idea so roused our temper as the infamous “fact-value dichotomy.”  This is the idea that statements of fact (e.g., electricity can kill people) are fundamentally different from statements of value (e.g., it was wrong to electrocute Julius and Ethel Rosenberg).  The former are either true or false and one can attempt to tell which is which by means of argument and evidence.  The latter can be judged as true or false only in so far as they are logically consistent with other value judgments (e.g., it is wrong to kill as a punishment for a crime).  All such logical analysis, however, can only link one value judgment to another and must ultimately come to rest in some basic value (human life is sacred, etc.).  Such basic values can be held but they cannot be argued for nor is there any evidence that would tell for or against them.  The fact-value dichotomy seems to reduce moral judgements to irrational beliefs.  To believe in genuine justice is like believing in fairies. 
For Strauss, and especially for the Western Straussians, this amounted to offense against all moral and political philosophy.  Why think carefully about what justice is or what a just political order would be, as Plato and Aristotle did, if justice is just some idea that can never amount to anything more than an idea one is fond of without reason?  On the contrary, we argued, Socrates in Plato’s Republic and Gorgias offers profound arguments in favor of a coherent account of justice and his account is solidly based in evidence and logic.  Moreover, Socrates derives his logical proofs precisely from the testimony of those who argue against the existence or at least the worth of justice. 
The fact-value dichotomy is usually traced back to David Hume’s discussion of the naturalistic fallacy.  One cannot derive an ought-statement, which describes what one should or should not do, from an is-statement, which describes some set of facts.  For example, one cannot derive the claim “Athens shouldn’t have made Socrates drink hemlock” from the claim that “hemlock is poisonous.”  One can only derive the former from some other ought-statement such as: “you shouldn’t execute good men who will later be both famous and popular”. 
For a long time I thought that Hume’s distinction was silly.  I thought one could easily derive the claim that “one ought not to stick one’s tongue in a light socket” from the claim that “the socket is turned on”.  I now regard that thought as na├»ve and apologize to Mr. Hume. 
This occurred to me as I have been teaching logic and yesterday began a section on moral logic.  I have also been (belatedly) revising my chapter for The Handbook of Biology and Politics.  Both of these activities directed my attention to this question.  Modern logic generally accepts the naturalistic fallacy as a fallacy and hence presents coherent moral arguments as resting on two sorts of claim.  At least one premise of the argument must state some set of facts and another premise must state some value judgement.  For example:
  1. Current carbon emissions are causing global warming and global warming will have dangerous consequences for human beings and other creatures. 
  2. One ought not to do things that are dangerous to human beings and other creatures. 
  3. Therefore: we ought to reduce our carbon emissions. 

I think that the distinction between these two types of statements is logically correct, but I would point out two things that are frequently overlooked in discussion of facts and values.  
The first is that the category of values includes not only moral judgments but all judgments involving such concepts as right and wrong, better or worse, etc.  Thus “I shouldn’t eat what is unhealthy” is as much a value judgment as “I shouldn’t steal candy from a baby.”  What I and my Straussian friends and teachers objected to was the claim that moral judgments were in effect irrational.  Including value judgments about self-interest tells against that claim.  There is nothing irrational about ought-statements when they apply to matters of health.  For the same reason, there is nothing necessarily irrational about such statements when they apply to matters of right and wrong. 
My second point is more important.  The real distinction here is not between facts and values but facts about the living and the dead.  Recently I watched a NOVA feature on North America.  In the second segment we were presented with a line drawn along a hill side in the North Dakota Badlands, which I know well.  The line represented evidence of an asteroid strike.  Below the line (earlier in time) one finds dinosaur bones.  Above the line one finds fossils, but no dinosaurs.  Conclusion: the asteroid strike killed off the dinosaurs.  This kind of analysis is all facts and no values.  The reason for that is that, whatever killed the off, the dinosaurs are just plain dead.  Fossils are not more involved in values that volcanic rock. 
By contrast, living animals, including human beings, always have something at stake.  They are subject to flourishing and withering, surviving and perishing.  That includes all of them, from the giant popular tree I walked around in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, down to the littlest bacterium.  Some organisms are also subject to pain and pleasure.  That includes all (or perhaps almost all) of the animals.  One species is capable of happiness, defined as a self-conscious appreciation of a satisfying life.  Value judgments, far from being products of human culture, or “social construction”, or irrational emotive artifacts, are simple features of organic life.  Every time a slime mold amoeba decides to congregate with its fellows or a snow leopard turns down a trail to follow a scent, a value judgment is made.  Since such efforts can succeed for fail, value judgments can be objectively true or false. 
Aristotle that to understand simple things one must recognize a number of irreducible dimensions.  To understand how a table can be both wide and narrow, taller than a chair but shorter than the kitchen wall, one must recognize that width cannot be reduced to length nor to height.  The world exists in a three dimensional space.  To understand organic life, one must recognize the dimension of value.  Unlike rocks, house plants, horses, and human beings can succeed or fail.  The latter two have good days and bad. 
Moral arguments require value judgments as premises for the same reason that arguments about individual and collective interests do.  If you can’t reduce an is to an ought, that is because human beings are not rocks.  It is nonetheless true that slavery requires telling lies about the slaves and the masters and that tyranny is bad for human beings in general.  Moral and political philosophy is viable because it recognizes facts about human nature. 

Friday, November 13, 2015

Paris and What It Means

The scariest short story I ever read (and I, a fan of horror, have read some doozies) was Stephen King’s “Quitters Inc.”  In the story, a man who wants to quit smoking is referred to a program with that title.  He is guaranteed that not only will he quit but he will not gain weight.  After he has signed an agreement form, the program is explained to him.  If he lights up another cigarette, his wife will be tortured.  He quickly finds out that this is real and that he will live the rest of his life in fear of that one extra bite of cheese cake.  It turns out that the founder was a gangster who suffered from lung cancer.  His last act was to turn all of his power to curing people of the habit that killed him. 
What was terrifying about the story was that the ruthless violence of a gangster could be divorced from self-interest and turned to abstract and potentially arbitrary ethical principles.  If left unchecked, such a social trajectory could turn the entire human population into prisoners and wardens. 
I thought about this story tonight as I watched the horrific news from Paris.  As I write this, the fatalities are reported to be well over a hundred.  There were a number of well-coordinated attacks and the terrorists used conventional automatic weapons.  The contrast between the killers and ordinary gangsters is instructive.  Gangsters are social parasites.  They feed on the host of some larger society, depleting its wealth and doing a great deal of harm.  The damage they do is limited, at least in a robust regime.  Like all biological parasites, they have to make some concessions to their hosts if they are to remain in business.  Parasitic fungi that prey on ants need the supply of ants to continue and thieves need the stuff of honest men to steal. 
The French mass murderers are like organized criminals in so far as they occupy a niche in a society, exploit the social structures that benefit the larger population as well its openness, and depend on illegal trade (e.g., AK-47s).  Unlike gangsters, they are not pursuing their own long term self-interest.  They are acting out of a poetic ideal, a story that gives the lives meaning. 
That story is almost certainly incoherent.  I mean that it unlikely to function as the basis for viable political institutions, though they dream of such things.  In its current presentation, in France, it seems aimed at nothing higher than destruction.  Whether or in what sense the attacker turn out to represent ISIS remains to be seen.  While the latter presents as an organization and promises the establishment of a new Caliphate, it also seems to want to hasten the apocalypse.  Here is how Graeme Wood put it in the March issue of Atlantic:
The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.
It seems unlikely to me that such a movement can really coalesce into a coherent state, Islamic or otherwise.  It is rather what happens when a Branch Davidian cult is supplied with a large number of cultists and is able to expand into territories that cannot be defended by the disintegrating states that claim them.  Isis exploits all economic production under its control and no doubt benefits from the largess of dreamers in still coherent states.  Without an internal revolution, it can only destroy. 
If biological parasitism is a good analogy for organized crime, cancer is the best analogy for militant Islam.  It is a product of the DNA of social and political culture, broken beyond coherent function but not beyond dangerous effect.  Today’s atrocity in Paris is another reminder that the cancer can metastasize.  
Our global civilization is an invaluable achievement.  To say that is not perfect, that it has victims as well as beneficiaries, is to say what is trite because true of any human institution.  People are still starving around the world, but we live in the first period of human history in which more people suffer from obesity than from malnourishment.  We live in the first period in which millions of human beings enjoy both prosperity and liberty.  Progress means the survival and continued expansion of that civilization. 

We will have to summon enough industry, courage, and genius to meet its greatest threat, or else the darkness.  

Friday, November 6, 2015

Political Climate

On the same day that President Obama finally made a decision about the Keystone Pipeline (he killed it) we learn that the New York State Attorney General is launching an investigation targeting Exxon, on the theory that the oil company lied to its investors about the risks of climate change.  Both stories should chill the hearts of anyone who believes that economic policies should be made for economic reasons and that science requires that scientific theories be open to challenge. 
After seven years of dithering, including a State Department approval of the project, the President decided to nix the Keystone approval on political grounds.  From the New York Times:
Mr. Obama said that the pipeline has occupied what he called “an overinflated role in our political discourse.”
“It has become a symbol too often used as a campaign cudgel by both parties rather than a serious policy matter,” he said. “And all of this obscured the fact that this pipeline would neither be a silver bullet for the economy, as was promised by some, nor the express lane to climate disaster proclaimed by others.”
Yes, the pipeline would not have been a “silver bullet.”  It would just have been the most efficient and safest means of moving the oil from the tar sands where it was extracted.  Those are economic reasons for approving the pipeline.  It would not have been, as the President admits, “the express lane to climate disaster proclaimed by others.”  Why not? 
Environmentalists had sought to block construction of the pipeline because it would have provided a conduit for petroleum extracted from the Canadian oil sands. The process of extracting that oil produces about 17 percent more planet-warming greenhouse gases than the process of extracting conventional oil.
But numerous State Department reviews concluded that construction of the pipeline would have little impact on whether that type of oil was burned, because it was already being extracted and moving to market via rail and existing pipelines. 
So approving Keystone would have been economically indicated and denying it would have paid no environmental dividends.  The only difference is now we are moving it by rail through urban centers where an unfortunate event would kill lots of people. 
So why did the President kill it?  Poetry. 
“America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change,” Mr. Obama said in remarks from the White House. “And, frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership.”
The move was made ahead of a major United Nations summit meeting on climate change to be held in Paris in December, when Mr. Obama hopes to help broker a historic agreement committing the world’s nations to enacting new policies to counter global warming. While the rejection of the pipeline is largely symbolic, Mr. Obama has sought to telegraph to other world leaders that the United States is serious about acting on climate change.
Mr. Obama wants to “telegraph” world leaders that we are serious about acting on climate change.  The rejection of the pipeline is not “largely” symbolic.  It is altogether symbolic. 
Politics trumping economic policy is a dog bites man story.  Politics attempting to strangle science is a different kettle of canines.  Again from the Times:
The New York attorney general has begun an investigation of Exxon Mobil to determine whether the company lied to the public about the risks of climate change or to investors about how such risks might hurt the oil business.
According to people with knowledge of the investigation, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman issued a subpoena Wednesday evening to Exxon Mobil, demanding extensive financial records, emails and other documents.
The investigation focuses on whether statements the company made to investors about climate risks as recently as this year were consistent with the company’s own long-running scientific research.
The notion that Exxon could know how future climate change might hurt the oil business is utterly ridiculous.  It’s hard enough to predict the oil business a year in advance.  The best climate science can only give you a range of possibilities (1.4 degree to 4 degrees by the end of this century).  Is it really possible that Exxon lied about what this will to do to their portfolios eight-five years from now?  No.
What this is really about is that Exxon funded both “good” climate research (i.e., that supported the climate change alarmist agenda) and groups that criticized the alarmist view.  The purpose of the investigation is to punish Exxon for funding the heretics and thus starve the latter.

Good science need critics.  Environmental policy needs real solutions, not symbolic ones.  Precisely if you believe that climate change is a real danger, you should welcome challenges to your view.  If you are right, your view will be confirmed.  That means, however, that you have to be open to the possibility that your view is wrong.  Neither the President nor the Attorney General of New York are interested in that. c