Saturday, August 31, 2013

Quick Overview of Primary and Secondary Qualities

In order to get a better understanding of what Berkeley and Russell are talking about when they refer to primary and secondary qualities, lets look at each in turn.

When we perceive (or imagine) an object, it has a whole collection of properties.  For example, when I look at my car I perceive the following properties in various ways: the color (red), extension (i.e., volume/occupation of space), temporal location, spacial location, shape, texture, temperature, motion, quantity, and sound.

Some of these qualities are subjective in nature and some are objective.  That is to say, some of the qualities appear the way the do as a consequence of how my brain is wired and how my perceptual system works, and some are actual qualities of the objects "out there" that I'm perceiving.

If my brain had been wired differently, the subjective qualities might have appeared differently. For example, maybe my car has been sitting in the sun all day so when I touch it, it has the quality of "warmness."  But "warmness" isn't an actual quality of my car; that fact that I feel warmness is a consequence of how my fairly standard human perceptual system is calibrated to perceive an object's average kinetic energy (i.e., motion).

We can bring the subjective nature of temperature out by considering what would happen if some aliens from Mercury were to touch my car.  Their perceptual system is (most likely) calibrated differently from mine and so, upon touching my car, they might perceive my car's temperature as cold.  The central idea is that the warmth or coolness of my car isn't "in" the car--it's in how I perceive the car when I touch it.

Consider again those same aliens perceiving my car.  Regardless of how their perceptual apparati are wired, they will perceive my car as existing in a spacio-temporal location, of having a shape, and of being solid.  No amount of different wiring could change that.  They could fail to perceive these qualities, like a blind person does, but barring blindness, they could not perceive them in any way other than how they actually are in the object.

So, what inference can we draw from this?  It seems that there are certain properties that are mind-dependent (i.e., subjective) and other properties which are objective--that is, they are properties of the object itself.

Lets look at one more example of a subjective property: color.  Is my car, i.e., the car itself actually red or is the redness a consequence of how my brain interprets certain neuro-chemical signals?  While there is a small minority who disagree, most philosophers and perceptual psychologists will say that the object itself isn't red, it only appears red because of the way my brain interprets the electro-chemical signals which are cause by light waves of a certain frequency.

For example, red light has a frequency of 4×1014 Hz.  The light itself isn't red, my brain simply interprets light at that frequency as red.  However, it's totally conceivable that our brains could have interpreted that very same frequency as purple.  The point is that it is our minds (via our perceptual systems) that add color to whatever we are perceiving.  Color isn't "out there" it's "in here" (I'm pointing at my head).  

So, why does all this matter?  For modern philosophers there is a (fairly) clear distinction between primary and secondary qualities.  Primary qualities like extension, shape, quantity, and motion exist in the objects we are perceiving; they are part of the physical reality--i.e., they are objective.  Any two types of beings who perceive the same object will agree on the nature of that objects primary qualities.  For example, it's not possible for 2 people to look at a circle and for one to perceive it as a triangle.  Shape is a primary quality; it's not in the mind, it's inherent in the object.

Secondary qualities are color, sound, texture, and smell. These are qualities our mind adds to the objects we are perceiving.  Secondary qualities are mental; they do not exist in the external objects of perception.

Anyhow, this should help with understanding some of what Berkeley and Russell are discussing.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Descartes and the First Meditation: What Can We Know for Sure?

Introduction to Descartes Meditation I
Descartes' Meditations is one of the most important works in modern philosophy (i.e., 17th Century philosophy).  It is the point of departure for many philosophical issues and debates up to and including the present.  The overall aim of his project is to determine what we can know beyond any possible doubt; that is, what constitutes genuine knowledge. Once we figure out what beliefs are beyond any possible doubt, it is suggested, we can use reason to deduce the rest of what is knowable.

Meditation I is the "destructive" phase of Descartes project. He's going to try to destroy his own confidence in as many of his beliefs as he can.  In other words, Descartes is going to show why he can doubt, and therefore reject, just about any of his beliefs.  (Spoiler alert: except that he has thoughts and therefore exists).  

Philosophical Importance and Context:
One last point before we look at his specific arguments and methods:  the context of this whole exercise is important to the philosophical debate between rationalists and empiricists over the source of scientific knowledge. Rationalists believe that true knowledge comes from within; that is, the only beliefs that we can really know are true are those that we access through introspection.  Empiricists, on the other hand, argue that if we want to know anything, we have to look at the world: the source of all knowledge comes from empirical observation and experience.

This roots of this debate actually reach back to Plato vs Aristotle and it still rage on today in various incarnations; nevertheless, we're going to pick things up beginning with Descartes.

Although I'll do my best to avoid jargon, there are 2 technical terms that are impossible to avoid in the study of epistemology and most philosophy, so we might as well get them out of the way right now:

A priori:  This means "before experience."  It refers to the category of beliefs we can have without having to go out into the world to verify their truth.  For example, you don't need to go running around with a measuring stick to know that the shortest distance between any two points is a straight line.  

Similarly, if you know that the interior angles of a triangle = 180 degrees, then, given either only 2 interior angles or an interior angle and the length of the adjacent side, you can infer the other 2 angles.  You don't have to go measure each triangle to verify. We can know the angles will be right before we measure. 

Definitional truths also fall into this category, like "all bachelors are unmarried men."  We can know this before empirical experience.  All we need is an understanding of the two concepts "bachelors" and "unmarried men." You don't need to go around interviewing bachelors to find out if they are also unmarried. 

A posteriori:  This means "after experience."  A posteriori knowledge refers to beliefs that we can only know as true once we have gone out into the world and verified them.  For example, "apples are red" or "Miley Cyrus danced with giant teddy bears." Before we can know whether these beliefs about the world are true or not, we'll need some sort of empirical evidence.

Part 1:  Explanation of Method.  Method of Doubt
In the first part of the 1st Meditation, Descartes takes a moment to explain what he's about to do.  He says something along the lines of:

Have you ever had the experience where you realize that something you thought was true as a child turned out to be false?  Or maybe it was only a few years ago that you thought Santa was real...

The point being, few of us ever stick with the exact same set of beliefs for the entire duration of our lives.  Sometimes our experiences teach us that a previously held belief was false. So, why should we suppose that at this particular point in our lives, all of our beliefs are true?  I mean, seriously, given all the different conflicting beliefs in the world about the 1000s of different possible topics, what are the chances that YOU, at this particular moment in time, just happen to have stumbled upon all of the true ones and EVERYBODY ELSE, except you, has some false beliefs?  Take a moment to do the calculation if you like...

So, here's the problem.  Supposing that some of my current beliefs are false, how am I to distinguish them from the true ones if I know that some that I previously believe to be true turned out to be false (Curse you Santa!).  How do we tell in advance which beliefs are true and which are false?  

His solution to this problem is to treat any belief that has even the remotest possibility of being false, as false.  That is, he will not only reject beliefs that can be shown to be false, but also beliefs that could be false--even though maybe he can't show them to be false.

The net result will be that whatever beliefs cannot possibly be false will necessarily be true.  Once he establishes all the necessarily true beliefs (the ones that withstood all doubt), he can deduce the rest of his knowledge.  In other words, since many beliefs rest on a foundation of prior more fundamental beliefs, if we can establish a firm foundation, then we can construct a strong edifice of knowledge.

Let's formalize the method:
Suppose we want to know if something (P) is true.
(P1)  The only way I can know for sure that P is true is if I cannot possibly doubt its truth.

(P2)  But I can doubt P is true.
(C)   Therefore, I do not know that P.

('P', in philosophy, usually stands for "some proposition" kind of like how 'x' is used in math to represent "some number")

Now, lets go back and look a little bit more at that previous idea--the edifice of knowledge built on a firm foundation. Descartes' idea of the "structure" of knowledge is what's known as foundationalism.   Foundationalism is the theory that all beliefs (or knowledge) ultimately depend on other more basic beliefs, which in turn depend on more basic beliefs, and so on until you get to the beliefs that are foundation of all your beliefs.  In short, the structure of knowledge is heirachical. 

Because of the "shape" of knowledge in Descartes' foundationalism, you can deduce or infer higher level beliefs from the more basic beliefs...kind of like doing geometry or arithmetic.  (This is no coincidence since Descartes was primarily a mathematician and geometer.   If I know from the rules of arithmetic that 1+1=2, then I can infer that 2+1=3 and so on.  I can infer from my basic knowledge of the rules new knowledge that I didn't have previously.

So, why were we talking about foundationalism anyway?  Oh right...because instead of Descartes' piecemeal going through every single one of his beliefs and subjecting them each to doubt (is this really a chair I'm sitting on?  Is it really black? Did Miley Cyrus really just do that?) he can shorten the process by only looking at the foundational beliefs.  If the foundational beliefs are subject to doubt then everything else that's built on them will also come a tumblin' down.

The Argument from the Unreliability of the Senses:
Sometimes when I see a tower from a distance, it looks rectangular, but when I ride my horse up close to it, the tower is in fact round!  Or sometimes when I'm walking my dogs at night, I think I see another dog in the distance, but in fact it's just a garbage can.

Given that my senses can fool me, why should I put any stock in my sensorily acquired beliefs?  As a famous man once said 

But, Descartes realizes that if he were to fully commit to this argument, his position would be no different from that of a raving madman--it's a bit too crazy.  Sure, we can all agree that sometimes under certain conditions our senses fool us about the external world, but it's a bit of a stretch to move from that to the idea that we can't trust anything our senses tell us. 

Lets quickly formalize the argument:
(P1):  Sometimes my senses fool me.

(P2):  I can't distinguish between when they are fooling me and when they aren't.
(C1):  Given (P1) and (P2), I can't confidently say that my sensorily acquired beliefs are true.

Counter argument:  Simply because my senses sometimes deceive me about the external world, it doesn't necessarily follow that I should reject all sensorily derived beliefs. Maybe the one's that are most obvious, like "I have a body" or "the chair I'm sitting on is solid," are more probably true than untrue.

So, where are a priori beliefs in all this?  So far, the argument from the unreliability of the senses leaves them untouched.  The ability for our senses to fool us about the external world has no effect on the truth of "all bachelors are unmarried men" or "the shortest distance between 2 points is a straight line."  I don't need the outside world to know that these assertions are true--all I need is an understanding of the relevant concepts. 

The Dream Argument (Argument vs Empirically-Acquired Beliefs)
Sometimes when I'm dreaming I imagine I'm flying but I'm actually lying in my bed.  Or maybe I dream that my arm is cut off or that I'm late for class, but that's not what's actually happening.  Surely, we can all agree that we've been fooled by dreams that seemed real at the time we were dreaming.

This raises a problem: How do can we distinguish between when we're dreaming and when we're awake?  How do I know whether I'm a butterfly dreaming he's a human or a human dreaming he's a butterfly?  Because I can sometimes fail to make this distinction, it follows that I can't be sure that my beliefs about the external world are entirely free from any doubt. 

Lets formalize the argument:
(P1)  When we are dreaming, we cannot always distinguish whether we are dreaming or whether we are awake.
(P2)  It follows from P1 that there will be times when we think we are awake and form beliefs about the world but in fact we aren't awake, and so those beliefs are actually false.
(C)  Therefore, it is possible to doubt the truth of our beliefs about the external world.

Descartes brings up a possible counter argument:  Lets suppose I am dreaming and in my dream I have purple octopus arms and the head of a dragon.  Surely, this does not match up to the world as it is. However, all the perceptions of the basic constituent parts of my dream, like the color purple, the shapes, the textures, size, quantity, temporal duration and so on, all had to have come from somewhere.  As he says:

[...] it surely must be admitted that the things seen during slumber are, as it were, like painted images, which could only have been produced in the likeness of true things, and that therefore at least these general things--eyes, head, hands, and the whole body--are not imaginary things, but are true and exist.

In short, you cannot imagine things ex nihilo (out of nothing); the original building blocks of your ideas have to originate from somewhere besides the inside of your head.  

What follows from this?  Here Descartes argues that because we are able to mix and match general and universal qualities in any manner of ways in our dreams and imagination (and sometimes we can't tell when we're dreaming) we must doubt truths that are about composite ideas.  That is, ideas about things other than the fundamental properties of our thoughts.  Some examples of things about which we can doubt are physics, astronomy, medicine (because they are about composite things). 

So, what types of beliefs does the dream argument leave untouched?  The answer is beliefs about disciplines that trade in a priori beliefs; that is beliefs about things we don't have to go out in the world to verify for truth.  Arithmetic, geometry, for example, don't require for us to go out into the world to verify the truth of their assertions.  

For example, when I divide 100 by 25 and give the answer of 4, I don't need to go out and physically manipulate things into piles to verify this truth.  So long as I correctly follow the rules of arithmetic, I'll have the right answer.  Not only will I have the right answer, but I'll have the right answer whether I'm dreaming or not.  That is, regardless of whether I'm dreaming, so long as I follow the rules of arithmetic, I'll have the correct answer. 

The same applies for geometric proofs.  A square will have 4 sides whether I'm dreaming or not.  If it doesn't, then it's no longer a square--it's something else.  The same also applies to the bachelor example...and all a priori knowledge.

In the next section there's a little digression where Descartes talks about the possibility that his creator, if he so chose, would be able to be deceive him even about algebraic and geometric facts (i.e., a priori beliefs).  Then he remarks that the combination of the 2 arguments and the possibility the God could deceive him are not quite enough to break him of his habit of trusting his sensorily-derived and a priori beliefs.  He finds himself slipping back into the habit of assenting to them because it's "much more consistent with reason to believe them than to deny them."  The same applies to God as a willful deceiver. 

To prevent himself from slipping back into his old ways and to help him stick to his project of trying to reject any belief that it is possible to doubt, he's going to need a stronger method. 

Enter the demon argument...(cue ominous music)

The Demon Argument (Or the Matrix)

Here we are to imagine a powerful evil genius who has dedicated himself to deceiving us.  Everything you experience has been constructed by the evil genius.  Here's the modern equivalent of the argument

The idea is this:  All of your thoughts are being fed to you by an evil genius or a computer program--take your pick. Supposing this scenario, what can we know, that is, what beliefs can we have that we can be 100% sure are true? 

If you've read the 2nd meditation, then you know...

Friday, August 16, 2013

Libertarianism and Moral Obligation to Others

Libertarianism:  Intro
I've been wanting to write a post on libertarianism for a while and since I have a ton of things I'm supposed to be doing right now, I thought now would be an excellent time.  When I was philosophically naive I found libertarianism quite compelling.  I think this is common for most youth--especially young white men.  (Libertarians in the US are 80% white and 67% male PEW US political demographics ) It's very easy to attribute our individual successes solely to personal effort and to be blind to the effects of social privilege as well as overlook the social hurdles others must face.  

My position on libertarianism, however, is evolving.  For the last decade the pendulum swung to the extreme opposite side.  I considered libertarianism juvenile and naive, not to mention morally bankrupt.  Recently however, I've started to moderate my position, from visceral dislike to a recognition that there is at least some merit to some aspects of libertarianism.  Don't get me wrong.  I'm still see libertarianism--particularly it's contemporary popular form--as a scourge that is merely a justification for greed and selfishness.  Nevertheless, I think there is something to learn from its emphasis on individual responsibility and ownership (which I discuss at the end of the post).

 Lets get the definitions out of the way so I can get to what I actually want to talk about:  the relationship between libertarianism and moral obligation to others.  I guess before I do that, I should say that there are several different flavours and aspects of libertarianism and so I'll give a couple of definitions soz you get the gist of it:

Libertarianism: (1) is the idea that individuals fully own themselves and have certain moral powers to acquire property rights in external things. SEP

(2) is a set of related political philosophies that uphold  liberty as the highest political end. This includes emphasis on the primacy of individual liberty, political freedom, and voluntary association. Wikipedia

(3) is the view that people should be permitted to run their own lives as they wish. The Machinery of Freedom by David Friedman

(4) is the view that each person has the right to live his life in any way he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others. Libertarians defend each person's right to life, liberty, and property-rights that people have naturally, before governments are created. In the libertarian view, all human relationships should be voluntary; the only actions that should be forbidden by law are those that involve the initiation of force against those who have not themselves used force-actions like murder, rape, robbery, kidnapping, and fraud. Libertarianism: A Primer by David Boaz

There are a couple of key elements you should extract from these definitions.  
(1)  Libertarians typically favor individual rights over collective/community rights. 
(2)  From (1) it follows that government should have very limited power and a very limited roll in people's lives.
(3)  Property rights are very important to libertarians.  (Gid doffa my lawn!) 
(4)  Libertarians are primarily concerned with negative freedoms rather than with positive freedoms.  (distinction is discussed below.)
(5)  Classically, the libertarian view of moral obligation to others is simply that we ought not to interfere with their negative freedom.

Negative freedoms are typically described as "freedom from x."  For example, I have the right to be free from harm and intervention in how I live my life.  It is primarily concerned with absence of constraints on what I do or think.  Summed up, it's the philosophy of "you're not the boss of me so you can't tell me what to do" or "your right to swing your arms ends at my nose."

Positive freedoms, on the other hand, are about having the possibility of acting in such a way as to control or fulfill one's life purpose.   So, under this idea of freedom, the absence of physical obstacles isn't sufficient for one to be free.  Freedom also requires having the available means, infrastructure, and social support (amongst other social goods) to pursue one's goals.  Basically, it's not enough to say someone's free to eat if they can't afford a meal.

Lets consider an example to bring out the differences.  Consider college education.  A proponent of negative freedom says since there's no one physically stopping the poor marginalized individual from attending college, they are free to go.  The proponent of positive freedom sees things differently.  They say that an individual without the social and economic capital to attend is not free to attend, even though there are no physical obstacles.

This is taking us a bit off track, but such scenarios are at the heart of the conflict between small 'l' liberals and libertarians.  Libertarians argue that it's not the role of government to redistribute funds (because that'd be stealing another's private property through taxation) and provide the social goods necessary for the marginalized to attend college (or do whatever to increase their positive freedoms).  

You cannot interfere with another's negative freedom (to do what they want with their money/property) to help another (i.e., increase another's positive freedom).  If someone voluntarily donates the money, that's fine, but it has to be voluntary.  

Isaiah Berlin's famous essay "Two Concepts of Liberty" lays much of the groundwork for discussions about a tension between the competing goals of social equality and negative freedom.  

Moral Obligation
Ok, so now that we have a little background I wanted to throw one more element into the mix: moral obligation.  I'm just going to assume that most people feel some moral obligation to help people or animals who are badly off in life.  There many be disagreement over just who is deserving, but I hope most people reading this blog feel that there are at least some categories of people (and/or animals) that are badly off to whom we have a moral obligation to help.  

Libertarianism and moral obligation to others: one of the more pernicious aspects of the modern libertarian movement--especially the brand espoused by Ayn Rand and her followers--is that everyone is somehow responsible for their own situation, no matter how poor it is.  

All circumstance result from a chain of perfectly autonomous decisions on the part of the agent, so it follows that they are responsible for the end result.  Because they're solely responsible for their circumstances, others are not; and there is, therefore, no moral obligation to help them.  I may have missed a few steps of the argument but this is what it amounts to.

Problems for Libertarianism: Although, not the main topic of this entry, I'd like to point out a few problems with the above argument.  First, implicit in libertarian is the idea of absolute free will.  I think this is mistaken because it flies in the face of well established empirical research in psychology and social psychology.  The social sciences provide us with more that enough evidence to show that mere willing is not how people make decisions nor how they end up where they do in life.  We have to consider the subtle and not so subtle effects of culture, genetics, home-life, socio-economic class, ethnicity, and so on.  Basically, there are a whole bunch of things outside of our control which influence how we make decisions.

Anyhow, even if we dismiss the psychologic/sociological evidence against total free will and suppose that people are 100% responsible for their current circumstances--no matter how poor, it simply does not follow that we are absolved of any moral responsibility to them.  

Proof of Moral Obligation:  
Scene A:  You're the only one around except for some guy who has a heart attack in front of you.  Are you morally obligated to help in whatever way you reasonably can?  In this case, probably just calling 911?  Or is it OK for you to just walk away?  I'm going to assume your answer is that you're obligated to call 911.

Scene B:  Suppose you see a guy do a jump with his skateboard.  He lands about 10ft from you and smacks his head on the concrete.  He's bleeding everywhere and he's got a concussion.  You're the only one around.  Since you've been trained in first aid, you know that if you bandage his head with your shirt and call 911, you'll save his life.  

Question:  is it morally permissible for you to just walk away?  Or do you have a moral responsibility to help?  The skateboarder chose to do the stunt.  Does this absolve you of your obligation to help?  I don't think it does, and neither does sweet baby jesus. 

The point is that between Scene A and B the only important difference is that while the skateboarder chose to engage in potentially dangerous behaviour, the man in A didn't choose to have a heart attack (assuming he lived a healthy lifestyle).  Nevertheless, I don't think we can reasonably say that we are morally responsible for helping the heart attack victim but not the skateboarder.   You may disagree, and if you do, please tell me why in the comments section, however, I'm going to assume that most of you are with me up to this point. 

Notice that it doesn't really matter whether you are a moral realist or some form of anti-realist (relativist, constructionist, etc...).  All that is needed is that you agree that it'd be morally wrong to not to help and morally right to help.  Quick qualification: ...so long as helping doesn't impose an unreasonable burden on the helper.  I'm not going to quibble over what the conditions for an unreasonable burden might be. There will certainly be grey areas, but this doesn't mean that we won't be able to identify clear cases. 

Before moving to my next point lets quickly recap where we are right now:
(A).   There exists a moral obligation to help others who are badly off if we are in a position to help and helping doesn't place an excessive burden on us.  

Libertarians and Taxation
Libertarians are often opposed to taxation.  Why?  Personally, I think it's just greed and selfishness, but they also have a reasonable philosophical justification that follows from their doctrine of non-interference. 

Recall that negative freedom and property rights are 2 pillars of libertarianism.  When the guvamint comes along and, against your will, takes a portion of your property (i.e., your money) and does with it something you wouldn't have otherwise done, then they interfere with your negative liberty as well as commit theft.  

So, as you can see, taking money from some and redistributing it to others via social programs that enhance the positive freedoms of others (i.e., via funding public schools, universities, medical care access, roads, welfare, food aid, rent subsidies, etc...) is incompatible with strict libertarianism.  Because these public social goods are quite diverse in nature, I'm going to focus on the idea that the government should pay (i.e. collect taxes for) programs like welfare, healthcare, and food stamps.  Recipients of these programs are generally the ones to whom the moral obligation to help is greatest and least controversial.

So, lets start to relate this back to the previous section on moral obligation.  To my mind, social programs such as I have mentioned are a logical consequence of accepting (A) (i.e., there exists a moral obligation to help others who are badly off if we are in a position to help and helping doesn't place an excessive burden on us.)

Libertarians argue that it is morally wrong for the government to collect taxes for and to administrate such programs because doing so necessarily infringes on the negative freedom and property rights of those from whom the tax money was collected.  The negative freedoms of taxpayers supersede the needs of those who are badly off. 

The Moral Libertarian?
But lets suppose the libertarian also has a basic sense of moral obligation and accepts (A).  How does he reconcile (A) with his commitment to libertarian values?  In other words, how can you reconcile a recognition of a basic moral obligation to others and at the same time uphold negative freedoms and individual property rights as paramount?  

The libertarian answer is that both moral commitments are not in conflict.  They only come into conflict when they are forced against their will to help (via maditory taxes).   They reply that it's not a necessary condition that social programs be conducted through government-run tax-funded programs. To meet the moral obligation of (A) and to avoid infringing on negative freedom, it's perfectly fine for an individual to donate to a NGO, create their own charity, or hand out money on the street. 

But here's the prollem with that.  What to do when, given the choice, people don't help others to whom they have a moral obligation?  Is there then an obligation for guvamint to step in?  Or are these people who need assistance to receive that assistance only at the whim of those who can help?   In a culture that worships the accumulation of money more and more, I would not like my chances if I had to rely for help on the good will of wealthy strangers.  I'll come back to this in a moment. 

This leads me to an aside.  The libertarian might respond here that..."welp, tough titties.  Whatever crappy circumstances you're in, they must be the result of choices you made, so you sort of deserve it. And besides, if I help you, you're not going to learn your lesson and it's only going to encourage you to stay in your shitty position."  Sadly, I hear stuff like this all the time from libertarian-minded folk.  

Or worse, you get responses like this: (The fact that this type of statement can be made in public without inciting the same reaction one would have to a psychopath is evidence of a sad state of affairs of American morality.)

Obviously, this type of response ignores the reality that many people who are in a crappy situation aren't there as a consequence of poor decisions.  Many people lose their homes and go bankrupt because they had to pay medical bills.  And I don't think many people chose to get sick.

People can suffer from mental illness too.  Are they responsible for that?  Are they responsible for the psychological consequences of a poor upbringing? There are plenty of other counter-examples, but that should suffice.

Anyhow, returning to the main issue:  the conflict between individual negative freedoms and property rights with the moral obligation to help others.  Let say we agree with the libertarian and say, OK, ain't no guvamint gong touch your precious $ or force you to do anything you don't want to do.  Suppose we do this, and lo and behold, no one helps out the poor or the ill and they all die the death.  But hey, at least no one had their negative freedom transgressed! 

The libertarian objection to taxation for social programs is that it violates a moral obligation to respect people's negative freedom.  Fine.  But why does the moral obligation to not violate negative freedom win over the moral obligation to help others when you can (and it won't adversely harm you).  We have a moral values cage match on our hands.

You Want to Make a Wrestle? 
So here's what I think.  Oh shit.  I just realized that to properly support my view and pre-empt obvious objections, I'd probably need to write a book...so, I'll just restate what I've already said:  The moral obligation to help others is fairly uncontroversial if helping them isn't excessively burdensome.  We can quibble over what "excessively burdensome" means another time, but for now, going to leave it mostly unqualified except for this: Helping would be excessively burdensome if it prevented an individual from living their life in modest comfort. 

(Particularly) in a culture that worships the accumulation of wealth for its own sake and in which there are massive inequalities in wealth, the guvamint plays a necessary role in ensuring the moral obligation to help others is met.

What I Think Libertarianism Gets Right
I think libertarianism is partially right about emphasizing personal responsibility and the dangers of creating a psychology of dependence.   I'm too tired to look up the articles right now, but there is some psychological literature supporting the idea that top-down assistance programs can create a culture of dependancy.  (See especially the literature of foreign aid to Africa).  

But these problems on their own aren't an argument against government supported social programs.  The moral obligation to assist isn't dissolved simply because some methods of discharging it are ineffective.  It simply means that social programs need to reconsidered and perhaps employ some libertarian principles such as being bottom up and actively empowering its participants in coming up with solutions and pathways. 

Projects that eschew a top down approach in favour of individual empowerment have had very good success rates:


By and large, it seems people will live up to the standards and expectations that are set for them--whether they be high or low.  And of course it doesn't hurt to help people set their own standards...

When we talk of personal responsibility I think we have to be careful that it doesn't devolve into victim-blaming.  There's a distinction in there somewhere, but I'm too tired right now to tease it out.   Maybe someone can point me to some literature on the topic.  Anyhow, social and psychological factors should be recognized but not seen as an excuse.  This approach robs the individual of their autonomy.  I think the libertarians have that part right.

I think there's also something to their idea that ownership of personal property is important, but maybe it needs to be toned down a bit.  From personal experience, (that's science!) since I've become a home owner and landlord, I not only take better care of my own living space, but I'm better able to understand why I need to respect and take care of other people's property.  When everything I owned fit in a backpack, I don't think I really understood why it's important to respect and take care of the property of others.  If more people can develop this respect for other's property, there might be less vandalism and theft. 

Anyhow, I'm fading.   Lemmi know what y'all think.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

My Ceremony for Ezra's "Canadian" Wedding in Germany

Ok, so lets start from the start.  A few months before my brother's (Ezra) wedding, his future sister-in-law wrote me an email asking me if there were any Canadian traditions we might want included in the wedding.  Here is my response:

Canadian Wedding Traditions
There are several Canadian wedding traditions you should consider making time for. We don't have to do all of them, but I think it's important to include at least one. I'll let you decide which one:

1. Feats of Strength (groom): Normally, the groom must complete both feats of strength: (a) In order for the groom to prove his physical strength, and therefore his ability to provide for his new wife, early settlers of Canada began what is now known as the Felling of the Tree Ceremony. 

Although, it is now largely ceremonial, it is an important tradition in Canadian weddings. The groom is provided with an ax and must chop down and de-limb a tree that is at least 30 cm in diameter. He must do this in less than 15min. Originally, the wood was used to build the couple's new home. Now, people just sit on the log.

If you could find a park or nearby forest where we can perform this ceremony, I know it would mean a lot to Ezra and his attending Canadian friends and family.

(b) In the next task known as the Great Leader Canoe Ride, the groom must demonstrate his canoe-handling prowess. The groom gets into his canoe and the bride's family also get into their own canoes. The canoes of the bride's family are all tied to the back of the groom's canoe. The groom must paddle his canoe one mile while pulling the entire family with him.

This act symbolizes his commitment to his new family and that he will not be a burden to them, but instead he will be willing to lead and drag their dead weight behind him.

During the Great Leader Canoe Ride, no one is allowed to help the groom. Also, sometimes for fun, his extended family can paddle in the opposite direction and he is not allowed to complain. This seems tough, but it is meant to prepare him for his new relationship with his bride's family. His friends and family are encouraged to cheer him on. This is often one of the most exciting events at a Canadian wedding.

2. The Airing of the Grievances: In this ceremony, usually the night before the wedding, the bride and groom go into separate rooms. In the groom's room are all the male guests and in the bride's room are all the female guests. Each has about 2 hours to complain about the character and habits their future partner. Each room is usually supplied with several bottles of hard alcohol. 

The idea is that if they say what irritates them about the person they are about to spend the rest of their life with, they can get it out of their system and enter the wedding with a clear mind.  The friends and family of the same gender are there to empathize and also relate to the bride or groom their own grievances about their own respective partners.  

3.  Feats of Strength (bride):  In order to show that she will be able to feed and serve her husband well, the bride must complete both feats of strength.  (a)  At 6am the day before the wedding the bride must wake up early and by herself, and from scratch, she must make pancakes for all the guests.  Traditionally, she would also clean up after, but recently in more progressive weddings, the other women help her clean.  

(b)  The night before the wedding most Canadians eat roast moose meat.  For her second feat of strength, the bride must go to the market and carry the dead moose on her back all the way back to her house (or wherever the moose dinner will be served).  She's not allowed to ask for help, but her friends are allowed to go with her to cheer her on.  

There are other more regional wedding traditions, but these are the one's that are most universally practiced in Canada.  I'm sure some of Ezra's friends can suggest some others that might be good. 
The only song that I'll insist on is "Tura lura lura." Apparently, when Ezra and Katharina first met, he would serenade her with this song. He also loves the Macarena.

At the Wedding...
After a few subsequent emails, we agreed it'd probably be a logistical nightmare to organize all of the feats of strength and we should aim to do just one.  After some thought, I suggested a modified version of the Felling of the Tree Ceremony.   Here is how it was presented and performed at the wedding:

Feats of Strength Ceremony:  The Chopping of the Log
Since the early days of Canada's settlement, a unique marriage ceremony developed which still continues today in modern Canadian weddings.  In the next part of the service, we would like to acknowledge and honour Ezra's Canadian heritage by engaging in the traditional log-chopping ceremony.

In Canada, when a man acquires a new wife, he must prove to the community and to the woman's previous owner (her father) that he will be able to supply her with enough wood to build a home. There are several regional variations on how the ceremony is conducted and this wedding will use the West Coast variation.

Ezra must choose one other male family member to compete against 2 males from the bride's side--usually including at least one family member.  The two teams will compete to see which can chop through the log twice.  One team member begins with the ax and chops until he has cut through the log. Once he has done so, he passes the ax to his team-mate who begins his cut.  The first team to chop through the log twice wins.  The losing team buys beer for the winners.

Ezra and I ended up winning but were subsequently challenged to a beer-drinking relay.  Chugging beer was never a strength of mine and the Germans beat us handily.