Monday, June 22, 2009

Letter to Representative Benoit (R), CA Senate District 37

As a Republican, there are a large number of basic premises that we disagree on, and I will not of course be able to touch on them all here. But I would like to simply voice my support for tax increases and continued, if not increased, government spending, and give you a brief explanation for why.

I have no illusions about the enormous benefits we all get from choosing to base our economic system on free markets, as well as the many pitfalls in having the government provide services for us that might be done better in private hands.

But I do strongly believe that there are basic inequalities that are either events of misfortune or stem from past inequalities. For example, catastrophic events that put families over the edge, or the historical effects of undereducation and poverty that cripple generations.

In these situations the free market is not capable of, nor should it be required to provide the needed correction. There's generally not a whole lot of money in teaching poor kids or providing free health care! Where possible, the market should be able to step in. But we must realize that ultimately it is larger society that will be bearing the burden.

As for the stimulus, well, that comes down to an embrace of Keynsianism that is beyond my pay grade. But economists tend to believe that stimulus is effective. And I've yet to hear a rational explanation for how simply cutting services and taxes is going to pull us back from the cliff. Especially as the honest misfortune I just spoke of is going to require a shared burden.

I believe in helping my fellow man as best I can. Whether it is the private market or the government that guarantees health care, libraries, low-income reading groups, mental health clinics, etc. then that's what I want.

Thank you for your time,
Eli Rector

It deserves to be said

Health care is a right.

Now, one could easily say - sure, so is a cold beer. Why should anyone deserve to see a doctor to get his blood checked. We don't have the right to food or water. We don't have the right to shelter.

But we actually do - when it threatens our health. Sure, we let bums rot under bridges. But if they are lucky enough to have someone notice them and call 911, then they are certainly guaranteed to have their condition stabilized at the nearest hospital. So yes, health care is a right.

Everyone is guaranteed health care access. The only difference is when and how it gets paid for. People with insurance get preventative treatment. People without it get expensive interventions. No one is turned away from the hospital and no one will likely ever be. People are, however, denied treatments that will either save their lives in the long run (and without costly yet futile emergency procedures), or denied preventative measures that prevent illnesses from ever developing.

How it is paid for is tricky. Depending on the hospital, city and state, uninsured patients are subject to different levels of accountability for payment. I'm not sure how much of the cost of the uninsured is absorbed by the system and how much is recouped from the patient. Certainly families often bear the brunt of expensive treatments the patient is unable to afford.

But should they be required to pay for their own care outright, especially if it is something that could have been prevented had they the means to access care earlier?

As a society, we can sort out who pays for what, via taxes, monthly payments, co-payments, etc. But everyone will get care.

My last thought on moral accountability: if our neighbor lies dying in his home, we are not responsible to save him. But if he lies dying on the sidewalk before us, we are required to do everything we can to save him.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Flogging Will, p.2.3: lobster to preschool

Assumption #1: There is no free will - all of our decisions are all determined by the causal web of biology and environment.*

(*note: determinism will heretofore be defined in the context of human consciousness outcomes, such that human thought be considered determined by events beyond one's control, even if other, non-strictly-deterministic forces may be at work at the atomic or super-atomic level.)


Capitalist economics is based on a simple proposition: that through free trade an economy develops that rewards hard work and allows those who wish to prosper the opportunity to do so. In reality, it's a bit more complicated, but for our purposes we'll assume that this is true enough. As we've ceded from the beginning, since one is not ultimately responsible for making his own decisions, he cannot be regarded as being responsible for his success or failure in this sort of economy; if hard work determines success, then if one is not responsible for choosing to work hard, one cannot be responsible for success.

Some will indeed work hard and achieve great things. Others will be lazy and accomplish nothing. (Many of course will work hard and achieve nothing, while a few will be lazy and find rich compensation, but that is an economic analysis that has no direct bearing on our discussion here.) So how to determine economic justice when accounting for this causal discrepancy?

Determinism does not deny human behavior, it defines it. Much of what we do is determined by failure and reward. It is obviously in society's best interest to have a productive, competitive, innovative workforce. There are many things we could do to intervene in the name of economic justice that would have the ultimately unjust effect of hindering those qualities. The difficulty lies then in devising a system that rewards those qualities we favor while punishing those we do not, yet finds a balance between allowing some to reap the benefits of prosperity and some to suffer the consequences of failure.

Fortunately we already do this in the form of progressive taxation and a social safety net. On one end, while individuals are allowed virtually unlimited prosperity, their privilege is tethered directly back to the society from which it was granted. On the other, individuals are not only given a basic level of health and safety, they are also given basic services intended to encourage in them the qualities and access that are key to success. At a minimum, individuals are guaranteed emergency health care treatment, basic education, and a variety of services targeted towards the minimization of disadvantage.

But the striking disparity between the poorest ghettos and the most lavish mansions is ample evidence that do not indeed embrace a determinist view of human consciousness. We allow some individuals to live in abject filth and others in splendor precisely because we believe they have earned their place, and we have devised a system that not only tolerates it, but arguably encourages it. But if we are we to truly take determinism as causal fact, then we must radically shift our tolerance for such inequity.

Now, this is easier said then done. As previously mentioned, it is difficult to strike a balance between encouraging good economic behavior and equitable distribution of prosperity. But at a minimum, we can ask just how much suffering we would be willing to allow, and how much pleasure. For it is an objective fact that by scaling one man's luxury back to a reasonable level, you could alleviate the suffering of another. When we remove the concept that neither the former nor the latter can be justified on account of some special personal merit, this becomes easy.

There is no clear evidence of what is always the best way of going about doing this, but that it is worthy, and moral, is a start.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Flogging Will, p.2.1: i/o


Assumption #1: There is no free will - all of our decisions are all determined by the causal web of biology and environment.*

(*note: determinism will heretofore be defined in the context of human consciousness outcomes, such that human thought be considered determined by events beyond one's control, even if other, non-strictly-deterministic forces may be at work at the atomic or super-atomic level.)

Taking only that assumption as a baseline proposition, one runs into profound implications both at the individual and societal level. Because the notion of determinism seems contrary to common sense, and until only relatively recently has a large body of evidence been gathered to support it, we have a large infrastructure of cultural and civic institutions that operate with the assumption that we are each rational agents, responsible for our individual choices and actions. In our personal lives, we also operate under this assumption. Our concept of self, as well as that of others, is predicated on the seemingly obvious notion that we are the originators of the good or bad choices we make.

In Western religion, the concept of free will is the fundamental basis for the determination of one's fate in the afterlife. There is a black and white distinction between choices, and one is ultimately held accountable for one's decision. Contrast this with the East, where the concept of reincarnation transcends individual choice, and assumes a fatalistic process whereby one's very existence is predicated on the notion that bad choices will be made, and not until one has learned the correct path may eternal reward be found. This does not however completely shut the door on free will, as one could certainly insert an ad hoc "soul" into the bio/enviro equation. But the fundamental frame work is at least much more forgiving to the prospects of determinism. For the purposes of this discussion, and as I am certainly a Westerner, I'll keep to the political, cultural and religious implications for Western society.


Religion is difficult to fit into this discussion, as it is split rather sharply by two interpretive experiences - the sacred/emotional and profane/rational. Our discussion is at its root one of logical inference and scientific data, not common sense or intuitive knowledge. Indeed it is at the experiential level that we had thus far received the illusion of free will, and now having renounced it from the onset we curry in as much reason and as little intuition as possible. Yet casting away the sacred knowledge of experience, we are left only with the cold profanity of reason. And this makes for poor religion. So one finds it difficult to continue to carry religion onwards, in strictly materialist fashion, when our subject has reached such a limited conclusion.

Or has it? Just as a liberal mind might find ways to let religion in through the cracks and bars of scientific materialism, allowing it to serve as a sort of placeholder for the unknowns within the knowns, so might it be possible to let some religion in here. As an atheist, however, I'll have to allow others to interpret the religious implications of determinism.

Next time…


Flogging Will, p.2.2: falling trees

Assumption #1: There is no free will - all of our decisions are all determined by the causal web of biology and environment.*

(*note: determinism will heretofore be defined in the context of human consciousness outcomes, such that human thought be considered determined by events beyond one's control, even if other, non-strictly-deterministic forces may be at work at the atomic or super-atomic level.)


Our modern concept of justice is somewhat nebulous. At its root, it is based on an empathetic response. We identify with the victim and their suffering, and we then lash out instinctively, as if it were us that was threatened. This is justice of the moment, and is as simple as self-preservation. As an empathetic extrapolation to broader society, this puts in place systems of physical response (police, army, etc.) and systems of imprisonment, both of which provide direct protection from crime, and also a measure of deterrence for would be criminals. These are obvious measures and one of the basic premises for civilization itself.

A third function of our justice system is the prospect of rehabilitation. This is controversial for a number of reasons, a good portion of which depends upon the very subject of this article: the concept of free will vs. determinism. As its efficacy is frequently debatable, and requires extra resources to provide, rehabilitation must make the case not only that it works, but that the criminals are worthy of such social investment. Assuming for the moment that a certain method is effective, the question then becomes down to the generosity of the public to pay for it. At this point one can still believe in free will and find two reasons for merit in rehabilitating criminals.

The first is practical: it eliminates recidivism, and thereby future threat. The second is more spiritual, or intuitive in nature. As a Judeo-Christian concept, forgiveness has a long (although rocky) history. But it is safe to say that it thrives in the following of standard church doctrine across the West. In a secular sense, whether as a direct extension of this dogma, or simply as an outgrowth of psychological development, the concept of forgiveness is also a powerful force as it appeals to the idea that people can change and feel remorse for their crimes. Social logic tells us that the promotion of peaceful behavior in the individual has a direct impact on society as it acts as an example of positive behavior, promoting peace and safety for the group. As a description of socialization, this is also an argument for determinism, yet it could be seen as having a minimal impact, and thus of little consequence for the free application of will. However, this leads us back to the degree to which denial of determinism influences one's interest in rehabilitation to begin with: if one considers will independent of such things as peer influence, then the socializing impact of rehabilitated criminals is limited.

Finally, and least quantifiably, our justice system seeks to provide a "sense of justice" to the victim (whether an individual or society at large). This "sense" of justice serves a powerful social purpose, and is universal enough to be considered a possible evolutionary trait. To the extent that it defines crime, it offers society a model for what and what not to deem acceptable.

Beyond this establishment of a criminal model, however, the "sense" of justice is also thought of as providing a sort of emotional compensation to the victim. Whether it actually accomplishes this goal is certainly a difficult proposition, as it depends upon what justice ultimately means in an intuitive, emotional sense. Does it require suffering on the part of the perpetrator - and if so, according to what metric? Does it require that they repent and truly feel remorse for their crimes? Should they be required to "repay" some level of debt to society?

And how so (again, by what metric)? And lastly, society's "sense" of justice must be different than that of the individual. It is a commonly held conviction that, were a serious enough wrong be committed against a loved one, personal vengeance would be seriously considered. And the more heinous the crime, the more violently passionate the response.

This threat response is obvious when the danger is to one's self or close family and friends. Yet as the circle of familiarity widens, the threat response diminishes. Modern society however, through various social institutions allows us to attach ourselves ever further, to identify more closely, to distant people. The most obvious instance of this is the rather arbitrary standard we apply to threats faced by our nation's citizens. As we identify as citizens of a particular country, we place a higher value on that citizen's well-being. Another example would be perception of harm to begin with, as in the case with abortion. Those who view fetuses as full human beings, and thus identify with them, feel personally attacked by abortion.

So what role does determinism play in justice? As a practical matter, in the sense that a definition of crime is established and sought to be prevented, it is irrelevant. But to the extent that the criminal's motivation is brought in to the equation, its implications are profound. Determinism demands that we radically alter, or at least impose an entirely new set of controls on our fundamental nature as humans. As noted, we have a strong impulse for vengeance, likely biological in nature, but certainly affected by cultural disposition. Yet this impulse is strongly dependent upon how we view the perpetrator.

To illustrate, consider the difference between a natural "disaster" and a human act of violence. Were a tree to fall on one's home, killing a member of their family, despite intense suffering over their loss, the concept of vengeance, or "justice" applied to the tree would be absurd. However, absurd as it may be, the human impulse is still active - who among us has not stubbed their toe on some piece of furniture and not cursed it in a fit of pain-induced delirium? Yet we immediately recognize it as a completely irrational impulse and chide ourselves for making such a ridiculous feat of illogic. The inanimate object had no intent to harm: and so vengeance is predicated on an illusion.

Yet this is what determinism reduces human behavior to. As people's choices are "animated" by processes set in motion beyond their control, they can be considered "inanimate". And this is indeed the concession we make for many human behaviors. If one is deemed insane, or mentally incompetent, as horrific as their actions may have been, we are forced to remind ourselves that they were operating with mental faculties beyond their control. This is certainly the case with small children. When a two year old hits his playmate in the face with a stick out of anger, we scold him (rehabilitation), but well understand that his behavior was limited by his cognition. Determinism simply extends this conceit to the entire human race, at every level of cognition. Just as the child's consciousness is seen as existing within a framework of cognitive and social development, determinism sees the adult as operating within the same boundaries, just at a higher level of complexity.

For next time...


Saturday, June 6, 2009

Flogging Will, P.1: following logics

(from a thread but became so substantial I couldn't bear not to share!)

I'd like to chime in here. I think I mentioned in a prior post that what originally led me to question whether something such as free will existed was my desire to get to the root of a difference between modern liberal and conservatism. Very crudely: liberals feel that society should intervene on behalf of the less fortunate, while conservatives feel that they should be held to greater account.

In following these logics, I realized that the difference lay in how the two philosophies viewed human behavior. When seeking to explain personal circumstance, liberals saw it as greatly dependent upon biology and environment, while conservatives frequently deferred to the concept of individual "free will".

My undergraduate background is in social sciences, so I spent a good deal of time studying social research, which unfortunately, has been essentially the domain of the left since the civil rights era (what was basically being examined was the "history of inequity", not something conservatism is generally concerned with - one could almost say is "defined against".) But that is somewhat beside the point. What I want to emphasize is the degree to which inequality not only exists but is strikingly predictable based on a plethora of very simple factors such as race, income-level, parent education level, etc.

The immediate question is begged: why do these inequalities persist? If it is true, as the conservative argument goes, that everyone is just as capable of success, than why the predictive difference in equality across demographics? If it were merely a matter of individual choice, having nothing to do with biology or environment, than would we not see similar results across the board? There are many other events that occur with relatively similar frequency amongst different races or economic backgrounds. Although in fact, it is difficult to find a human behavior that cannot be correlated in some way with a socio-cultural demographic. I think advertisers have known this for years!

Which finally brings me to your original post:

""If you could take the same child and put him into completely different circumstances he would make completely different choices in life. This is common sense. We may have free will in a limited sense. But the circumstances we are born into and raised in have a huge impact on decisions we make in life."

Is there any way to know that for sure? We have no real way of testing, so would it *Really* be the "same" child?"

While you couldn't possibly give the exact same child different experiences, you can make valid inferences. You can take a group of 10,000 children, say, try and eliminate as many variables as possible, and look for patterns. The results are complex, as the variables are tough to pin down. But some pretty big themes will emerge. Things like family environment, nutrition, peer grouping, violence, education have strong correlations with levels of success.

There was quite a powerful study that came out in the 90's (published in book form as Meaningful Differences, by Hart & Risley), that came out of the 60's war on poverty, itself part of the broader civil rights movement, that examined what role language development played out at various class levels. Three socio-economic groups (high, working & low) were studied, with home observers recording language use amongst family members, coding it, and measuring its correlation with early-childhood language development. The results were striking: the differences between the high, working and low were large. Kids were simply getting very different experiences at home, which were then correlating with different levels of success in school.

Now, this is all actually pretty common sensical. Would you rather your child have a safe, healthy, richly stimulating and positive childhood, or one that was unsafe, unhealthy, etc.? The answer is obvious.

In your following comment, you made a very common argument to support your position - that either you or someone you knew indeed lived a disadvantaged childhood yet managed to find success. In logical terms, this is an appeal to anecdotal evidence. If the question was whether it is possible to succeed at all despite the odds, your example would provide falsification. But the proposition is different in critical way. M. Zehnder wrote:

"....the circumstances we are born into and raised in have a huge impact on decisions we make in life."

Notice that he is only claiming that those circumstances have a "huge impact", not a definitive role. We will never be able to gather data on every single thing that has happened to a person, but we can develop pretty good theories as to what type of environments do what to a person, drawing from sociology, psychology, anthropology, etc.

Yet even then we will still be missing the internal, biological nature of the individual. Fortunately, people are pretty similar, again, from psychology, anthropology, neurology, etc. we have pretty good data on baseline human nature. In fact, much of what we know about the human brain has only come about in the past 30 years, coinciding interestingly enough with the civil-rights era push into social studies.

Now, removing all of that, what we are left with is what one might call free will. Somehow all of that data is not enough, and we must still resort to that mysterious, scientifically dubious proposition.