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Population, Resources, and David Harvey

I recently reread David Harvey's essay "Population, Resources, and the Ideology of Science," which discusses the population-and-resources theories of Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo, and Karl Marx. I remembered liking it the first time I read it several years ago, and I've had a number of Marxist geographers refer to it as one of the great examples of Marxist geography. I'll credit it with being more accessible than some of Harvey's other work. And I suppose I should take into consideration that it was written way back in 1974. But I was still not very impressed.

Harvey's thesis is that political ideologies determine choice of research methodologies, which in turn predetermine the outcome of the research -- outcomes which then give seemingly impartial justification for the original political ideology. So Malthus (a defender of the landed classes) and Ricardo (an apologist for capitalism) were led to choose, respectively, the hypothetico-deductive and abstract modeling approaches, which led them to conclude that population would inevitably outstrip resources and plunge the masses into poverty. On the other hand, the socialist Marx was able to use the methodology of dialectics to see that population pressure on resources is not a universal, but rather is created by the way capitalism shapes people's wants. Modern neo-Malthusian environmentalists (such as the authors of The Limits to Growth) use updated versions of the hypothetico-deductive and abstract modeling methodologies, so it's no surprise that they come to Malthusian conclusions. Unfortunately, despite environmentalists' sincerity of concern, such conclusions are useful for the capitalist system -- and so should be abandoned in favor of Marx's dialectical analysis (as was done, he says, in China under Mao).

Harvey shows that each of the three men have the stated combination of political ideology, research methodology, and conclusions. But he does little to show that there is a necessary relation between them -- that a hypothetico-deductive approach will inevitably conclude that population is outstripping resources, for example. And in fact the history of the Limits to Growth debate show quite clearly that Harvey's thesis is wrong -- because it has no place for cornucopians like Julian Simon. Cornucopians make good use of Ricardo-style abstract economic models to show that the free market will stave off a population crisis, and bring prosperity to everyone, through new technologies and resource substitution. They also look to hypothetico-deductive procedures for support, most famously in Simon's (successful) bet with Limits-to-Growth-er Paul Ehrlich over the prices of various minerals. Indeed, the interesting thing here is that Ricardo and Simon could come to such diametrically opposed conclusions about population, resources, and the welfare of the masses, yet each see their conclusions as justifications for capitalism. The ability to get the political conclusions you want transcends any dependence on research methodology.

So what is Harvey's (and Marx's) big conclusion as to why the Limits to Growth thesis is wrong? He says that population pressure on resources could be solved not only by reducing population, but also by changing the per capita consumption level, or developing new technologies and social systems that expand our resource base and allow us to use it more efficiently. This is quite true -- but it's hardly a radical reframing of the issue. And we didn't need a Marxist to point it out. "Consume less" is the standard environmentalist line (indeed, today Malthusian scenarios are usually invoked to prove the need for lower consumption rather than lower birthrates). And "find new technologies" is the standard moderate and anti-environmentalist line. Either dialectical thinking is unnecessary for reaching Harvey's conclusions, or dialectics is far more commonplace than any of the radical academics extolling its subversive virtues would be willing to admit.

I think that this is symptomatic of a lot of "radical" research. Conclusions that are really fairly straightforward are dressed up in language implying the need for a radical philosophical change in order to be able to see the issue. But if even I can understand -- and agree with -- your conclusions, then they don't depend on "dialetics" or a "relational ontology."


The Risks of the Unknown and Bestiality Necrophilia

While I'm on the subject of defending sexual practices that most people assume are bad, Pam Spaulding raises the case of a man who's trying to dodge a conviction for cruelty to animals by arguing that the deer he had sex with was dead, and therefore unable to suffer from his attentions. Spaulding is mostly interested in using this case as more anecdotal evidence that people from conservative regions are sick freaks, but numerous people in the comments point out that the guy does actually have a point. I don't see how it's "legal gymnastics" to think that animal cruelty laws are meant to protect the animal, and that since a dead animal can't be harmed, this isn't a crime.

In the comments, NYMOM brings out the Kantian argument against animal cruelty -- it's not the wellbeing of the animal that's at issue, it's that animal abuse causes future human abuse. This case is interesting because the Kantian argument is generally taken to be more modest than animal-welfare-based arguments. Yet (if we accept NYMOM's premise that whether the animal is living or dead doesn't matter in terms of encouraging future crimes against humans) here a Kantian would prohibit something that an animal welfarist would not*.

A bit further on, Samantha Vimes takes the Kantian argument a step further by coupling it with the precautionary principle:

I do think this guy needs psychiatric evaluation. He is killing for sexual gratification, although his victims are animals. As others have pointed out, we can’t be sure if this is *just* bestiality or if he may be inclined to move to human victims. When someone is that far out of normal behavior and combining sex and violence, even if he technically has done only misdemeanors (indecent exposure, for instance), expert opinion is a necessity.

I think this sort of precautionary response may underly a lot of "ick factor" objection to various behaviors. It's a variant on the "this particular order or chaos" viewpoint. Someone who commits a very strange act is an unknown quantity -- we don't know what makes them tick, because their brain certainly doesn't work the way normal people's -- including normal criminals' -- do. Such a person is thus seen as presenting a great risk, because we don't know what else they might do. Note, too, that our reportoire for understanding what actions might lead to other actions is extremely culturally-bound -- there's no logical reason why having sex with an animal corpse could lead to all sorts of chaos whereas eating an animal corpse is normal and predictable**, it's just that the latter is familiar in our culture. So we're inclined to take precautionary action, ranging from avoidance to social condemnation to criminalization or hospitalization. We don't trust that this guy is an otherwise law-abiding man who just happens to have a strong fetish for bestiality necrophilia.

*The welfarist may have a stronger objection to killing the animal in the first place, but we're talking about what happens once it's dead.
**Consider, as a contrast, our fairly similar reactions to doing those two things to a human corpse, or to a vegetable corpse.


A Surplus Of Horny Males?

Polygamy is an interesting issue, because it has such low levels of support -- indeed, 95% of people in the USA treat it as self-evidently unacceptable -- despite the serious weakness of the main arguments advanced against it.

The most common argument is that many present-day polygamist men (specifically fundamentalist Mormons) engage in child abuse and oppress their wives. But proponents of this argument have never explained why laws against the real crime are inadequate, and I distrust authority enough to be skeptical of any proposal to criminalize one thing in order to make it easier for the police to go after people who did something else wrong. They certainly don't show a causal relationship in which adding more wives to a household leads to more oppression. (Or as Alon Levy put it, "If that’s an argument against legalizing polyamory, then NAMBLA is an argument against legalizing gay marriage.")

The "it's too complicated" argument is weak as well. Yes, polygamy is more legally complex than monogamy, and we'll need to work out exactly how it's going to be institutionalized -- but egalitarian monogamy is more complex than monogamy with clearly defined gender roles, which is in turn more complex than having no legal marriage. No reason is ever given for establishing when "more complicated" becomes "too complicated." I don't know nearly enough about family law (or the dynamics of existing multi-partner relationships) to give a concrete proposal for how exactly to deal with all the complexities, but I trust that legal scholars and the courts can work something out. To confuse "I can't think of an obvious answer right now" with "no good answer is possible" is a form of the argument from ignorance. In any event, it's a pretty weak rebuttal to say to someone "you can't marry that person because it might end up being hard for judges to rule on."

Part of the problem, I think, is the tendency to use fundamentalist Mormons (rather than usually left-leaning urban polyamorists) as the paradigm case for polygamy. This makes it easy to see additional spouses as a sort of status-symbol luxury good. This conception then makes it possible to say that banning gay marriage deprives people of the fundamental right to marry the person they love, but banning polygamy doesn't. Having a spouse looks like a basic right while having a second seems like a frivolous extra that society need not sanction. Taking polyamorists as the paradigm, on the other hand, inclines one to see polygamy as a matter of allowing people to get legal and social recognition and support for relationships of mutual care and dependence. From that perspective, the significance of recognition of one such relationship is independent of the number of other such relationships that one of the partners already has.

After all that preliminary, I come to the argument I was really interested in rebutting in this post: the "surplus of horny males" argument. This argument states that if polygamy is legalized, a few men will monopolize all the (straight) women, leaving an underclass of men who have been deprived of their fundamental right to sex, and who therefore will cause social unrest. I'm skeptical of the empirical prediction this claim rests on. It assumes that men are far more interested in multiple wives than women are in multiple husbands. This is a questionable use of the "men are more promiscuous" stereotype -- after all, men's desire for multiple partners is typically contrasted with their lower desire for commitment, so it's unclear why (especially once the problems of carrying out polygamy in practice in modern society became better known) men would be so much more eager to tie the knot with multiple women. The prediction further assumes that women would consent to such an arrangement. While they might not have much effective choice in hyper-traditionalist enclaves like fundamentalist Mormon towns, feminism has been rather more successful in society as whole. My guess is that after an initial adjustment/experimentation period, US society would settle down to a mix made up mostly of unattached people and monogamous couples, with a small number of polyandrous households, a slightly larger number of polygynous ones, and a handful of multipartner same-sex arrangements.

More importantly, though, the "surplus of horny males" argument is insulting to both (straight) men and women. The insult to men should be obvious. The insult to women is that it treats their sexuality as a resource to be distributed for the good of society. (Fundamentalist Mormons have a similar conception of female sexuality, but they favor a hierarchical rather than egalitarian distribution). Every man becomes entitled to a minimum monetary income and a minimum amount of female companionship. It says to women who would want to join a polygynous household "sorry, you have to go marry your second-choice man in order to prevent him from becoming a sex-starved psychopath." Framing marriage this way could end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy, as it feeds directly into the "nice guy" attitude of resenting women for not giving them the sex they deserve, and resenting romantically successful men for taking "their" women.


Saving Souls Vs Not Offending God

One common argument offered to believers in defense of a strong separation of church and state runs something like this: true adherence to religion can come only from persuasion, or from the believer's decision to take a leap of faith. Thus a state-imposed religion would be useless at best, since an atheist going through the motions of going to church would still not go to heaven. Indeed, it may be counterproductive by creating cynicism about religion. I'll call this the sincerity argument.

The sincerity argument is powerful, because it's able to concede both that there is One True Faith, and that we can trust that the religion imposed by the state is the OTF, and yet still conclude that separation of church and state is correct. (Contrast this with the skeptical argument, which is based on a measure of doubt about the existence or identification of the OTF, or the political argument, which is based on a lack of trust that the state will pick the OTF to impose.) However, the sincerity argument relies on two important, and questionable, assumptions about the nature of the religion that the hearer believes is the OTF. Commonly noted is the fact that not all religions believe that only sincere faith counts or that coercion is unable to produce sincere faith. Less noted is the sincerity argument's assumption that the point of government imposition of religion is to save citizens' souls.

The soul-saving assumption flies easily under our radar because we tend to believe, in the modern era, that the only justification for (domestic) policy is the benefit of the citizens, protecting them against each other and (more controversially) against themselves. The corresponding point of religion is to secure the wellbeing of individual believers and potential believers. Thus religion policy should be judged, from the point of view of a believer, by how well it saves souls. However, the eternal fate of the believer is not the only possible goal of religion.

An alternate view is that the government should impose religion in order to avoid offending God. Imposition of religion is thus for God's benefit, not for the imposed-upon person's. It is far more plausible that forced, insincere religious observance is adequate, or at least useful, for avoiding offense to God, than that such observance is useful for saving souls. Sincere belief may still be the highest good, but God would rather have a chaste and church-attending atheist than one who indulges in sodomy on Sunday mornings (assuming that conservative Christians are right about which particular behaviors offend God). Saving souls is consistent with the modern-liberal idea of human society as an arrangement among members of Homo economicus (a Market Pricing view of religion, to use Alan Fiske's terminology). Not offending God draws on a model of society as looking up to an external authority (what Fiske would call Authority Ranking).

The believer in an offendable god would see offense-avoidance as having two rationales. On the one hand, there is a basic moral imperative -- it is simply wrong to do, or allow, things that offend God. The exact nature of the imperative can be conceptualized several ways -- it may be that God's "thou shalt not" intrinsically creates a moral obligation, or it may be that showing the love and respect that is due to God entails not offending him. On the other hand, God is unlikely to let moral offenses slide, so there is a practical rationale -- don't offend God, or he'll punish you. Hence the claims that 9/11 or Katrina were divine retribution for those cities' acceptance of homosexuality. If we grant that explanation for the sake of argument, it becomes plausible that enforced closeting of unrepentant gays could have avoided God's wrath.

Thus, insofar as a religious person accepts "don't offend God" as a legitimate goal, the sincerity argument for the separation of church and state is likely to fail to persuade him. Note on the other hand that the sincerity argument remains valid for the special case of imposing nonreligion, since getting someone to be an atheist can only be for his or her own good, as there is by definition no higher power to be potentially offended by outward religious behavior.


Everyone Loves Leftist Thanksgiving Cartoons

This is apparently my most popular cartoon ever, since nearly half my hits for the past week seem to be coming from Google image searches that land on that cartoon. Unfortunately the way Google image search works, I can't find out what search term they were using.


Voting Yourself Money

Ampersand asks what one piece of legislation we'd most like to see passed. I'm not sure I can answer that, since (in this age of riders) it's unclear to me what constitutes a single piece of legislation. I completely support by Ezra Klein's suggestion (that Amp quotes) of a strong pro-union law. And I think Amp has the right idea in looking for something that will help combat global warming, although his specific suggestion -- throwing more money into alternative energy research -- is quite weak. Our energy system needs structural changes, not just better technology.

In the comments, Robert raises a favorite conservative suggestion: take the vote away from anyone whose income comes from the government. And he's consistent enough to argue that this includes not just welfare recipients and retirees on Social Security, but also teachers, police, and military personnel (and later, he properly extends it to employees and stockholders of companies with government contracts)*. The idea here is that recipients of government money have a selfish incentive to vote themselves more money. Taking the franchise away would correct that distortion.

Robert's suggestion makes sense only if you conceptualize government spending as charity. The important point about charity is that, while it may be morally right to give charity, the recipient cannot claim charity. Scrooge may not be a very nice person, but he wasn't violating Tiny Tim's rights under the charity model.

However, the plausibility of conceptualizing all government spending as charity collapses when you consider that we're talking not just about welfare recipients, but also fundamental services like teachers, soldiers, and police. Hiring police is not an act of charity toward the officers, it's a moral imperative for the maintenance of society. So we can all agree that there's some level of spending that's morally required (of course, some of us would argue that the moral benchmark is set much higher and includes some degree of welfare)**.

But once we agree that there's some morally required level of spending, a symmetry appears between the recipients and the payers, between the disenfranchised government employees and the mostly-still-enfranchised taxpayers. Those taxpayers have a selfish incentive to cut spending, meaning that leaving spending decisions only in their hands will lead to lowballing the amount of spending -- which will be a distortion so long as, as we've agreed, the morally mandatory level of spending is greater than zero. Thus taxpayers are just as able to "vote themselves money" through supporting lower taxes as welfare recipients are to vote themselves money through increased taxes.

*It's interesting to note how this conflicts with another old conservative favorite, also mentioned in the comments, of allowing only military personnel and veterans (and people who do alternative service) to vote. Comparing those two suggestions to the popular liberal ideas of Instant Runoff Voting and strengthening unions, it becomes clear which side sees democracy as a moral imperative to be expanded, and which sees the franchise as a privilege to be given or withdrawn in the service of other ends.

**And if the morally required level is zero, then why not skip the awkward hack of taking away the franchise, and skip straight to direct abolition of taxation, relying on private sector charities to distribute any largesse the rich may feel like giving?

Why White Liberals Get So Defensive

Read the blogosphere for any length of time, and you'll quickly observe that white liberals, while they claim to be wholeheartedly on board with the anti-racist cause, don't handle it well when they are accused of perpetuating racism. I think a big part of the explanation for this comes from the way that white liberals conceptualize racism, through a lens of moral identity*.

White liberals hold two major premises: the abstract proposition that racism is wrong, and the empirical observation that racism by whites against other races remains a serious problem in contemporary society. To apply these premises, white liberals tend to implicitly draw on a model of racism-as-character-flaw. That is, there are basically two kinds of people -- racists and non-racists. While not necessarily immutable, it requires something akin to a conversion experience to move from racist to non-racist. Racism is conceptualized as a feature of the person, not an effect of the person's behavior (including thought and speech behaviors) in the environment. In the racism-as-character-flaw conceptualization, moral importance is attached to "not being a racist," i.e. not being one of the bad people, rather than "not doing racist things."

Racism-as-character-flaw is a useful conceptualization for white liberals**. It allows us to define ourselves as part of the "good guys," the non-racists, while directing our energies to fight the bad racist other. Self-righteousness is more fun than self-criticism, after all.

This becomes a problem when a white liberal does something that helps to perpetuate racism, and gets called on it. The racism-as-character-flaw concept escalates an accusation of committing a racist act into an accusation of being a racist. After all, racist acts are committed by racists. The white liberal responds by trying to establish that they fall on the correct side of the racist-nonracist divide.

On the one hand, there's the external component to the accusation -- calling someone a racist, implying that racism is a fundamental part of their character, is a pretty severe charge. Once the criticism is misframed in this way, it's not surprising that the accused would become defensive, particularly if they have invested a lot in fighting those other racists. Thus a common response to being called out on one action is to list all the other non-racist or anti-racist actions one has done, seeking to show that the action in question can be dismissed as an outlier.

Perhaps more important, though, is the internal componenet. Seeing racism or nonracism as a part of one's fundamental identity leads to an ongoing sort of existential angst -- "might I really, deep down, be a racist after all?" So long as racism is seen as a character trait, this is a potent fear. A percieved accusation that one is a racist brings this fear to the surface. This is especially so since the racist act in question is inadvertant or thoughtless rather than a deliberate and conscious attempt to enforce white supremacy. We generally assume (with good reason) that unintentional acts are better guides to what someone is really like. To battle our own internal conscience, we direct defensiveness outward against the messenger.

*The analysis here I think applies to some extent to some other forms of oppression -- certainly sexism and somewhat to homophobia, but not really to class or fat-phobia, for example.

**It seems almost inevitable that whenever one group is the target of criticism (justified or unjustified), some members of the target group will respond "I agree that there are bad Xs and we need to crush them, but I'm one of the good Xs."


Outsourcing Emissions

Dave Roberts scoffs at a response from a Bush administration spokeswoman on the topic of climate change:

"He is opposed to any program which shifts jobs and emissions overseas," Hellmer said.

You'll pry our emissions from our cold, dead hands!


I certainly support taking anything this administration says about the environment with a whole shakerfull of salt, since they're constantly on the lookout for ways to stall while still looking slightly green. But regardless of whether she actually means it, Hellmer's comment about shifting emissions overseas is smart. We live in a globally integrated economy. That means that anything we do to our economy (including withdrawing from global trade) is going to have ramifications for the economies, and hence the emissions, of other nations. Nothing but self-righteousness would be gained by cleaning up American emissions in a way that caused increased emissions elsewhere in the world. (Simplistic applications by enviro-skeptics of the environmental Kuznets curve -- the tendency for environmental damage to peak then decline as a country gets richer -- tend to ignore the interconnectedness issue as well.)


Moving Trout

I'm not quite sure what to think about this, but it's an interesting story:

Montana trout moved because of wildfire

About 1,000 Yellowstone cutthroat trout, feared in jeopardy from the aftereffects of a major Montana wildfire, are being captured and moved temporarily to streams not threatened by fire damage.

The cutthroat could vanish from two Yellowstone River tributaries at risk from last summer's Derby Mountain fire, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks said. It anticipates that melting snow, rushing down slopes denuded by fire, will carry too much ash and soil into the streams next spring, perhaps smothering cutthroat, clogging gravel where they spawn and reducing the flies and aquatic insects they eat.


Sustainability for Animals

Jason Scorse asks whether environmentalism should separate itself from the animal welfare movement and just focus on sustainability. The question implies that the two movements are distinct but may enter into an alliance because of the similarity of their ends, like blacks and Native Americans working together to fight racism. But I don't believe the two can be separate. If you believe that animal welfare must be defended, then it has to be pursued conjointly with environmentalism.

Any morally defensible view of sustainability includes some idea of welfare. That requires us to ask: whose welfare? Thus, even before beginning to work on sustainability, one has to settle the question of the boundaries of moral considerability. Scorse's question implicitly defines sustainability as sustainability of human welfare. A movement focusing only on human welfare implicitly demotes the animal rights movement to the status of a cultural phenomenon, on a par with the local historial society or LARPers (and to be clear, I have nothing against either of those groups). There's no room for recognizing animal rights as a morally righteous quest for justice. People fighting for religious freedom, or immigrants' rights, can remain separate from (and agnostic toward) the question of animal rights, because their issues are irrelevant to animals' welfare. Other movements (such as workers' rights/anti-capitalism) have to answer the animal rights question because the oppression they fight, and the possible solutions to it, are causally linked to animals' welfare. Environmentalism is one step farther -- if animals count, then they are in the same boat (or at least the same kind of boat) as humans.


Ask Mr. Answer Man

I've been getting some interesting search results this election night. I unfortunately forgot to mention my polling place (right next door to my house, conveniently enough), so I wasn't of much help to the people searching where to vote. (Speaking of my polling place, the voting booths here were really poorly designed. The ballot was this giant sheet of light card, which was half again as long as the little table part of the booth -- but the table had an inch-high rim all around it.) On the other hand, I was hopefully of some help to the many people searching for information on Arizona's various ballot propositions (though apparently not enough help, since at the moment most of the important ones besides the minimum wage raise are going the wrong way. ¡Qué lástima!)

Tougher questions are raised by the folks looking for Bob Casey and Ned Lamont's views on animal rights. I don't actually know what either man thinks on this issue, but perhaps we should call up Lamont HQ and suggest that as a new career move for him.

Someone found this blog looking for "utilitarianism versus feminism." As someone with utilitarian and (pro)feminist sympathies, I wouldn't really describe it as a "versus" situation.

Finally, one searcher observes that ""when you hate someone"- God does not like it." Amen.



I stand by my earlier (can't be bothered to find the link right now) prediction: the Democrats will retake neither house of Congress. Specifically, I'm expecting about a 12 seat gain in the House and 3 seats in the Senate.


God Is Evil?

You don't often see Christians responding to the Problem of Evil by saying "actually, God is an unjust, cruel, sadistic bastard."

A Grain of Salt With Your Tradeable Fishing Quotas

There's a lot of talk about a recent study showing the significant collapse of many of the world's fisheries, and its predictions of more of the same if we don't do something about it. The go-to policy recommendation on the center and the right is Individual Transferrable Quotas. ITQs are basically an attempt to bring the magic of the free market to bear on a classic "tragedy of the commons" situation. We can't fence wild fish in (and anyway most fish farming depends on wild-caught fish for food), but we can give out a limited number of rights to bring fish to market.

I'm not against ITQs as part of a broader fisheries management strategy, but I think we need to take a bit of caution in extolling their virtues and viewing them as the solution to overfishing. There are two key shortcomings of ITQs from an environmental perspective: they don't privatize everything, and they're only as good as the quotas they're based on.

Let's discuss the adequacy of the quotas first. Scientists are increasingly realizing that ocean ecosystems are far more complex than we once thought. This makes it even more difficult to what level of fishing would be sustainable, and hence how many ITQs to issue. In theory a precautionary approach could be taken, but that would be politically unfeasible, as fishers who stand to lose out would demand proof that a higher quota would be detrimental. And even with a quota established, there are enforcement issues -- e.g. sneaking fish to market, or "highgrading" (catching more fish than you can keep, then throwing back all but the best however-many).

ITQs create an approximate privatization of the target species. However, many of the environmental impacts of fishing go beyond catching too many of the target species. For example, bycatch -- the useless fish and other sea creatures swept up by a fishing net -- can have big impacts on the marine ecosystem (including indirect harm to the target species). But because (unlike fencing off land) only the target species, not the ecosystem that produces it, is privatized, the impacts of decisions about taking steps to minimize bycatch are spread across the community of ITQ-holders for that fishery, retaining the tragedy of the commons. After all, in Hardin's original illustration, the sheep were privatized but the ecosystem (the pasture) was not.

ITQs are a comparatively recent invention. Looking at how other cultures (who lack the kind of population modeling that enables us to set quotas) have dealt with fisheries can give us ideas for additional measures that can offset the problems with ITQs. Around the world, societies have employed two major strategies for limiting overfishing -- reserves and technology limits.

Reserves are simply places where or times when nobody can fish. This creates a sheltered portion of the ecosystem, from which fish spill over into the fishable portions. Reserves thus play on the very fluidity of population movements that make fisheries impossible to privatize on the pasture-fencing model.

Technology limits constrain the ability of fishers to overexploit or to catch in ecologically detrimental ways. For example, traditional societies have net size rules that are callibrated to let fish of certain ages through, preserving future generations. An important advantage of technology limits is that they are more easily enforced.

This Blog Has The Meaning Of Life

Not only am I the top search result for "What constitutes a meaningful and worthwhile life?," I'm the only result when you put that phrase in quotes.


Thoughts On Divine Command Theory And Atheist Morality

One of the most common calumnies advanced against atheists is that one can't be moral without belief in God. Aside from explicitly religious moral injunctions like "thou shalt go to church every week," this claim is empirically false -- the atheists I know quite happily follow general principles like "love thy neighbor," and you can even find atheists adhering to some of the more specific and arbitrary religious injunctions like "no gay sex."

The claim about atheist morality also has to be addressed at the philosophical level, since the empirical morality of atheists could be explained away as a form of false consciousness arising from immersion in a religious culture. (That is, while religion is clearly not necessary or sufficient to motivate moral behavior, it may be necessary to justify moral behavior.) The usual approach here is to defend some secular moral theory like the Categorical Imperative or enlightened self-interest to show that it's possible to build a moral system without God.

I think, though, that from a theistic perspective positing a fully omnipotent creator and advocating a divine command theory of morality*, it makes sense to think not just that atheists can have some morality, but that they can arrive at the same morality that religion does. To say that religion is required for morality means that the only way to know whether something is right or wrong is for God to weigh in on it directly. The implication is that moral rules are just tacked on to the world, arbitrary declarations that have nothing in particular to do with the structure (physical or logical) of the world around us. Not only could God have declared whatever he felt like to be right or wrong, but if he had, nothing whatsoever would be different about the factual world we inhabit. This may have some appeal if you value obedience for the sake of obedience, but it's otherwise unappealing. Indeed, I'm not even sure that this kind of arbitrarily added-on morality would be morality -- some kind of connection, some link between the facts of the world and God's pronouncements, is needed to make those pronouncements binding on us rather than being the pointless blatherings of a random being.

What makes more sense is that just as the facts about the world are interconnected, so too the correct moral code is embedded in the logical and physical structure of the world. Morality fits the world and is part of the world, rather than being just added on as an afterthought. God created our world in such a way that a certain moral system would be the correct one.

(Note that this argument is different from the one proposed by Socrates/Plato in Euthyphro. Socrates' argument related to the a priori arbitrariness of God's choice as to which actions should be moral, whereas my argument relates to the arbitrariness of morality with respect to logical and empirical facts. This view must still bite Socrates' bullet by saying that God's choice of what moral system to embed in the world is arbitrary.)

The trick about this embeddedness view, however, is that we can discover that morality without God's direct instruction. We can apply our reason to empirical facts and logical principles that we know to be true, and from them deduce moral principles -- through, for example, the aforementioned Categorical Imperative or enlightened self-interest. Thus it's possible for atheists to have not just a morality, and not just a morality that by coincidence approximates the correct one, but one that is the truly correct moral system.

So why do we need God here? If morality is discernable in the structure of our world, then shouldn't Occam's Razor cut God out of the picture (at least when we're discussing morality)?

Certainly the existence of God is no longer proven by the existence of morality (at least in any way separate from a generalized "first cause" argument). But I think even under the theory I'm proposing, God still plays two roles. First, God is part of the causal explanation for morality, from the theist's viewpoint. Atheists can figure out what morality demands, but a correct explanation of why that particular morality exists -- why the structure of the universe is set up in such a way as to lead to that morality -- requires reference to God. (Atheists, obviously, will hold that a secular causal explanation is possible. Additional non-moral information would be necessary to settle this.)

Second, God may play an epistemological role, if the God who actually exists is one who is in the habit of revealing himself directly to his followers. It's much easier to just read Matthew 7:12 than to follow Kant's derivation of the Categorical Imperative. However, this epistemological fast lane is compromised by the added burden on theists of determining accurately what things are in fact the word of God, since false prophets and conflicting interpretations are rampant.

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that a responsible theist ought to begin by establishing her morality on a purely secular basis. Once we determine what actions truly are right or wrong, we can use that knowledge as a test of which version of God is the correct one. For example, it's quite clear to me (for reasons I won't go into here) that correct morality includes the principle "gay sex is OK." Therefore any conception of God that entails an injunction against gay sex is inaccurate. This moral test won't necessarily pick out the one true religion, but it will certainly narrow the field (including eliminating some of today's biggest contenders).

*Note that I actually hold neither of these positions. In my view, the logical structure of our world -- and hence the moral code derivable from it -- are prior to, and constraining on, God, and even within this realm God's power is substantially limited.


Voting In Arizona

In lieu of real posting, here are my intentions for Tuesday. Conveniently, my polling place is right next door to my apartment complex. From a vote-security perspective I'm happy we use scantron ballots, but from an aesthetic perspective I'm kind of disappointed to leave behind the old-fashioned push-the-lever machines I used in Pennsylvania.

Senate: Jim Pederson
This is much more a vote against John Kyl than for Pederson. Pederson made his fortune as a developer, which right there is a big strike against him, since I resent living in sprawl-topia. But Kyl is among the more conservative Republicans in the Senate, and his attack ad claiming that Pederson supports amnesty for undocumented immigrants (he actually supports the much more modest proposal for earned legalization) only made me more likley to vote D. I don't actually think Pederson has much of a chance of winning. There's been a lot of talk about the DSCC's decision to pour some 11th-hour money into this race, but I think both the "head fake" and "they know Pederson has a good chance" explanations are wrong. I think it's a combination of looking for a new angle after getting frustrated at not making progress in the key swing races (e.g. Tennessee and Missouri), and getting caught up in their own hype.

House (District1): Ellen Simon
Another vote against, this time targeting incumbent Rick Renzi, who's under investigation for various (albeit not very sexy) incidents of corruption. He also gets a big fat 8% from the League of Conservation Voters (which is actually an improvement over last year's 0%). Sadly, Simon has even less of a chance than Pederson.

Governor: Janet Napolitano
Jeez, my choices just get worse and worse as I move through the ballot. I have an irrational prejudice against candidates who feature their first names more prominently than their last names in their campaign materials (I'm looking at you, Rick, Hillary, and Joe). This race is all about immigration, and Napolitano is bad on immigration. The problem is, Len Munsil (the Republican challenger) is even worse. At least Napolitano is likely to win.

Other Races
I don't know enough about the remaining races to give much analysis. I plan on voting for the Democrat in any contested race, and writing in my friends for any uncontested race.

Now we get to the fun part: the propositions. I generally dislike the proposition process, since I don't think that a one-time vote of 51% of the general population should be able to change the state constitution. (I'd rather have propositions become regular laws, albeit shielded from legislative interference for a set amount of time, with some sort of multiple-supermajorities condition for constitutional amendments.) This year's theme is playing defense against petty and spiteful xenophobia.

Prop 100 (Denying bail to illegal immigrants): NO
This is one of several propositions meant to hurt immigrants without actually addressing the issue. With the advent of tracking bracelets that cut down on absconding, I think we should be getting more generous about granting bail. After all, if one of the problems with immigration is that immigrants suck up too much of our tax dollars, why should we be paying to feed and house them at our prisons?

Prop 101 (Recalculating property taxes): NO
This is an attempt to lock in lower tax rates. Right now each municipality has a cap on how much tax they can levy, but not all of them charge the maximum. Prop 101 says "use it or lose it," capping tax rates at the current actual rate.

Prop 102 (No punitive damages for illegal immigrants): NO
Another bit of anti-immigrant sadism. Courts would be barred from awarding punitive damages to illegal immigrants -- meaning that people and companies would be freer to hurt them, since the punishment would be less. If one of the problems with immigration is that immigrants work for lower wages in poorer conditions, why are we trying to make it easier to take advantage of them?

Prop 103 (English as the official language): NO
Government exists to serve the people. If some of the people (including many native-born citizens, mind you) speak Spanish, then the government should serve them in Spanish.

Prop 104 (Municipalities can use debt to finance public safety and transportation): YES
Given the way Arizona is growing, municipalities may need to get their infrastructure in place now, before the property taxes from the new golf-course subdivisions start rolling in.

Prop 105 (Land conservation): YES
Prop 106 (Land conservation): YES
Prop 106 conserves half again as much land, so I'd favor it. But Prop 105 is better than nothing, so I'll vote yes as a backup.

Prop 107 (Attack on marriage): NO
If you think I'd support a "marriage and marriage-like status for opposite-sex couples only" amendment, you need to spend some time in the archives of this blog.

Prop 200 (Voting lottery): NO
This is a frivolous waste of money. There are a lot better ways to enhance voting -- for example, make election day a holiday, and run candidates that are worth voting for.

Prop 201 (Smoking ban): NO
Prop 206 (Smoking ban): NO
I'm mildly in favor of smoking bans, but I don't think this ought to be in the state constitution. Municipalities can each pass their own smoking regulations.

Prop 202 (Minimum wage increase): YES
I'm in favor of anything that shifts business profits toward the workers, and minimum wage is a modest way of doing that. I'll side with the empirical data over the abstract models when it comes to whether a whole $1.60 an hour will cause massive layoffs.

Prop 203 (Increased early childhood education funding): NO
I'm on the fence about this one, but the fact that it's funded by a regressive cigarette tax pushes me into the "no" camp.

Prop 204 (Better cages for farm animals): YES
As animal rights measures go, Prop 204 is a micro-band-aid -- the tiny handful of pigs and calves raised in the state would get room to lie down most of the time. Which makes it all the more depressing that people can manage to vote against this proposition. Can your capacity for empathy be that stunted?

Prop 205 (Voting by mail): YES
This is a tough call, but stories about voter intimidation and disenfranchisement at polling places tilt me toward yes. I'd be a more solid yes if the proposition didn't seem so eager to shut down in-person voting locations -- it would be better to give people a choice of method.

Prop 207 (Private property): NO
This is a case of libertarian extremists hijacking the legitimate backlash against the Supreme Court's Kelo decision. Prop 207 would require compensation for "regulatory takings" -- any reduction in property value caused by, e.g., zoning laws or environmental regulations. That would cut the heart out of attempts to establish a more sustainable society.

Prop 300 (No classes for illegal immigrants): NO
Another case of trying to hurt immigrants for the sake of hurting immigrants.

Prop 301 (No probation for meth users): NO
One would think that the point of the criminal justice system is to prevent crimes from being committed -- a goal that can often be accomplished through efforts to rehabilitate offenders. But most people seem to see the criminal justice system's goal as proving that we have Really Big Penises because we Get Tough and Crack Down on Bad Criminals.

Prop 302 (State legislators' salaries): YES
I don't actually have much of an opinion as to whether the salaries are adequate (and I have trouble believing many people do it, or decline to, because of the money anyway). But I'll vote yes just because I'm happy to see this question put to the voters, not the legislators.