Nudge, Nudge, Wink, Wink, Know What I Mean, Know What I Mean?

OK, here’s where I think Sarah Conly goes wrong. She thinks that she can defeat “conservative” libertarianism in favor of “liberal” paternalism without sliding into conservative paternalism, by the following expedient: liberal paternalism accepts the agent’s own ends, and only “nudges” (coerces) when irrationality would tend to lead the agent to sabotage their own ends. Conservative paternalism, she thinks, instead concerns itself with setting ends for the agent. The problem is that this distinction won’t hold up, because a lot of conservative paternalism can be construed or re-construed as liberal paternalism plus stigma, with the stigma itself as a part of the benign “nudge”. For example, she would say that a conservative paternalist who bans abortion is saying that the life of a mother is inherently superior, and that a liberal paternalist would never ban abortion, because this would be to stray into setting ends. But suppose that the conservative paternalist reasons that in fact most women ultimately prefer the life they have that includes their children, or eventually regret not having children, so that having children is not the conservative’s foisted end, but the women’s own end. And suppose further that the conservative paternalist says, look, you’ll thank me later, but you are prone to miscalculation, undervaluing having children out of ignorance, tending to delay having children too long by overestimating how much time you’ve got, being overly optimistic about resources that will be available to you to raise children and pursue a career, etc. You’ll wish that we had made that abortion harder for you to get. For that matter, you’ll wish that you had been “nudged” away from a career altogether and into being a stay-at-home mom, you’ll wish that you had been nudged into a more traditional set of attitudes toward gender and a relationship to match, etc. etc. So it will turn out that the difference between the righteous liberal paternalist is not what policies are actually pursued (that’s an empirical question) but whether they are pursued with a nasty, moralistic, mean-spirited, stigmatizing intent, or a wonderfully benign “you’ll thank me later” patronizing intent. And that’s not going to be much of a difference in the end, unless it turns out that the kinds of things the conservative paternalist wants to do are always, remarkably, a bad idea on empirical grounds, and the kinds of things the liberal paternalist wants to do are always, remarkably, a good idea, again, on purely empirical grounds. But there’s no reason to think that the conservative paternalist’s policies are any better or worse in terms of what someone will thank you for later. (There are further questions: whether there can be a principled distinction between means and ends in the way her theory requires, whether expressed regret is a reliable indicator of actual ends, whether actual behavior isn’t a reliable indicator of actual ends, etc.)

Better Than Nothing, Ctd.

I wouldn’t want to convey the impression that I expected better, but I should say that I found the following amusing. I wrote to my representative Suzanne Bonamici, suggesting that non-domestic use of drones against U.S. citizens require a warrant from the Surveillance Court or some such similar body yet to be created. The computer writes me back thanking me for my concern about drones. If it had left it at that, I probably wouldn’t have minded, understanding that the representative’s staff simply has no time to determine what a constituent has said. But it went on to reassure me that the domestic use of drones is illegal, but in case I disapproved of that, it’s not Bonamici’s fault because she wasn’t in Congress when it was made so.

I know, I know. I’m just supposed to act like a trained seal and pick a party based on which one stimulates my limbic system the right way (my “values”) and if I wanted to actually influence my democracy in any substantive way I should run, not merely opine and vote. Treating voters who actually bother to involve themselves in a thoughtful way as if they were trained seals is useful though, as it encourages us to get out of the way so our betters can get on with running things.

This may actually be for the best. Plato has powerful arguments against democracy and in favor of rule by knowledgeable experts. However, he never satisfactorily addresses the question of how to persuade the many, who outnumber the few, to wear it. Well, I just thought of a way, but I don’t think I’ll write to Congress about it because I think they’ve already got it covered. And if it actually troubles me, our current system was perfected well before any particular representatives became such, so it would be unfair to blame them for it.

I also wrote to the Senate Intelligence Committee and got a nice note back explaining that I’m not from the right state for that. Noted.


There is a notion that has been circulating for as long as I can remember in every piece of writing in the humanities on race and racism to the effect that the concept of race has been scientifically discredited. The most recent example is a piece in last weekend’s New York Times, which contains the statement “Since the mid-20th century no mainstream scientist has considered race a biologically significant category.” In a sense this is true: biologists are not in the habit of using the word “race” in attention-attracting ways. The question is, in what sense has the concept of race been scientifically discredited? The answer proves to be more complicated than at first appears.

It is easy to see why regarding race as scientifically discredited would be useful morally. Racism involves negative value judgments of individuals based on their membership in a race. These judgments receive support from factual claims about racial characteristics. These factual claims, in turn, have to be about something that exists, otherwise the chain of reasoning falls apart. However, notice in passing that the chain might fall apart at any, or indeed at several, of the stages leading to the negative judgment about the individual. One might be correct in claiming that races exist, and be wrong about the factual claims about a race (for example, about average intelligence). One might be correct about a factual claim about an average trait while being wrong about an inference from the average to the trait in a particular case. Lastly, one might make the wrong moral judgment in response to a factual claim about an individual. The claim that the concept of race has been scientifically discredited seems to invoke error at all these stages except the last, since the notion that a moral judgment has been scientifically discredited (as opposed to the facts upon which it is based) is problematic. However, when people make claims like the aforementioned quote, they generally mean not that factual claims about races are false, but that racial predicates don’t map onto anything real (apart from social facts). If this were true, it would cut off racism at the knees quite effectively. The tagline that links to the aforementioned article expresses this with admirable clarity: “When we learned that witches did not exist, we threw out the category. So why do we cling to the discredited notion of race?” However, when the notion that race is scientifically discredited is presented, this is seldom explained.

Up until quite recently, the basic mechanisms of heredity were not understood at all. Two crucial discoveries, that of the rules of Mendelian genetics, and that of the structure of DNA, changed all that. Before that understanding emerged, one popular view, extending all the way back to antiquity, was that every species possessed an Aristotelian essence that existed within each individual, which determined the normal characteristics of members of the species, explained why our classification of individuals into that species was correct, and which was somehow involved in the transmission of heredity. These essences formed nested hierarchies upward (genera) and downward (subspecies). On this account, a possible view is that races are subspecies, determined by Aristotelian sub-essences.

One thing that “discredited” means here, apparently, is that there are no such sub-essences.   If this means that there is no item present in each individual by virtue of which they are members of a race, that is both true and important. Rather, what there are are self-replicating systems (organisms) assembled from information coded in DNA sequences, and populations of such systems. What defines such populations are continua of genetic similarity which can be characterized statistically. However, it is important to note that this particular discrediting applies to species as well. There is no metaphysical item each member of the same species possesses by virtue of which it is a member either.

This point, however, tends to get confused with a different point, which is that, whereas classification by species is biologically meaningful, classification by race is not. This point is not about the existence or non-existence of racial essences, but about the character of the underlying continua, and the arguments that have been made to establish this claim are of a different sort. Crudely, the idea here is that each individual is a unique constellation of traits (phenotypes) and underlying genetic material that codes for them, and whether or not any two individuals are similar or dissimilar depends upon which traits are focused on. For example, if I compare a brown-eyed, dark-skinned person to a brown-eyed light-skinned person, they will be similar as to eye-color, more so than a brown-eyed light-skinned person and a blue-eyed light skinned person. However, if the comparison was by skin color rather than eye color, the similarities and dissimilarities fall out differently. Which group the individual is a member of depends on which trait is chosen as the basis. If several such traits are chosen and it turns out that there is more genetic variability within populations we folk-classify as a race than there is between then, racial classification is said to be not biologically meaningful. A sophisticated version of this argument was made by the famous biologist Richard Lewontin, in his 1972 paper “The Apportionment of Human Diversity.”

Lewontin’s analysis was subject to a powerful critique by A. W. F. Edwards in his 2003 paper “Human Genetic Diversity: Lewontin’s Fallacy.” The problem, in brief, is that not enough loci and alleles were being compared (say we compared eye color and skin color and hundreds of other traits, instead of a small number). There have been in the past decade or so several  papers which, leveraging more recent data from DNA sequencing and a mathematical tool called “cluster analysis,” reveal that sets of DNA sequences do fall “naturally” into clumps based on degree of similarity and dissimilarity within and between populations, and that these DNA sequence clusters, arrived at independently of folk racial classification, happen to map on to them. In one cluster analysis paper, when the algorithm for clustering was set at K=6, the sets of DNA sequences naturally clumped into African, European, Asian, Melanesian, Native American, and an obscure mountain tribe in Pakistan called the Kalash (Noah Rosenberg, et. al., “Genetic Structure of Human Populations,” Science, vol. 298, Dec. 20, 2002.) In another study, ethnic self-identification deviated from independently determined cluster membership only 0.14% of the time (Hua Tang, “Genetic Structure, Self-Identified Race/Ethnicity, and Confounding Case-Control Association Studies,” American Journal of Human Genetics, vol. 76, 2005). In short, there are underlying biological facts (statistical frequencies) which correspond to the folk classification. To say that there is no such thing as race, rather, all there is are DNA sequences and statistical patterns populations of them fall into is not unlike saying there is no such thing as water, only underlying facts about protons, electrons and neutrons. We can choose to talk that way, if the concept of water is so freighted with bogus social significance that using the word “water” causes more harm than good. But absent such significance, we don’t say “there is no such thing as water, there is only H2O.” Rather, we say “water is H2O.”

There is of course a further question. That, however, is not a judgment about what is real, but a judgment about what similarities and dissimilarities are important, and how important. And though it is true that we have a confusing tendency to use the word “real” to mean “important” (using the phrase “The real question is not X but Y” to redirect attention from X to Y), there is another, more primary sense of the word “real.” In that sense of “real,” races (statistical clusters of DNA sequences) are real, and witches are not, whatever we choose to call them. The fact that historically, humanity has chosen to run straight to the lowest reaches of hell with that concept is, uncomfortably, a separate issue.

Postscript: I can’t really leave it there, can I? Well, here’s a proposal, and because it is a very slight modification of existing social practices, it is feasible. Let’s simply retire the word “race.” It is, to put it as I did above “freighted with bogus social significance.” However, the “scientifically discredited” meme not only is grossly misleading, but it encourages people to politicize biological inquiries into human geographical populations. But what to do with the “scientifically discrediting” business? I propose that we forge an exclusive link between the word “race” and the pre-Mendelian, pre-Watson and Crick notion of an Aristotelian racial subessence, and the large body of false empirical claims made in the 19th century and earlier about geographical populations. Then humanists can continue to say “science has discredited the concept of race” and for clarification refer, if necessary, back to Mendel, Watson and Crick, rather than referring back to Lewontin’s notion that race is not taxonomically real (since as far as we can now tell, it is). To make this even clearer, humanists should refer to the discrediting of “racial essentialism” and assert a strong analogy between this kind of discussion and gender versus sex discussions. Why? Because one can claim that gender is a social construction, that there is a kind of “essentialism” that promotes sexism, without for a minute denying the manifest fact that there are such things as biological males and females. Thus biologists can continue with their population genetics, and humanists can continue with their critique of essentialism, and not get in each other’s way. But let’s leave the Lewontin Thesis out of the discussion, because if we make the truth of Lewontin’s Thesis a central reason for eschewing racism, we thereby strengthen racism when we discover that Lewontin’s Thesis is better referred to as Lewontin’s Fallacy.

The Limitless Hypocrisy of Republicans

An article is being circulated among the Republican base that attacks John O. Brennan, the Obama administration’s nominee for director of the CIA, for having apologized for tyranny thirty-two years ago, in a master’s thesis he wrote for his MA in government and Middle Eastern studies from the University of Texas.

The clear implication of the article is that you, the reader, should oppose this nomination, because you believe in individual rights, freedom and democracy, and the nominee is opposed to all these things. But what is the thesis actually about? In effect, it is an extended argument circa 1980 for moderating Carter’s policy of being tough on our allies for their human rights violations, at least as regards Egypt. Presumably, US and Israeli interests are better served by dealing with a benevolent dictator than a full democracy whose foreign policy might reflect the aspirations of the Egyptian people, which presumably include the aspiration to drive the Israelis into the sea.

But first, we need some notion of what Egypt’s human rights performance is like, and in the course of trying to produce some way of operationalizing this notion, the thesis reviews the history of philosophical arguments about natural rights. What the article does, then, is take these arguments out of their argumentative context, in order to convey the impression that the thesis defends tyranny as an end in itself.

Now that alone is misleading, of course, but it isn’t hypocritical. What’s hypocritical is that the view the nominee’s 1980 thesis expresses is the Republican party line in 2013. Well isn’t it? I could hold a national conference of Republican enthusiasts for Arab Spring in my living room (it’s not a very large living room). OK, I wouldn’t call that limitless hypocrisy. But how about this: only a few short weeks before, the party sunk another nominee, this time for the alleged Benghazi scandal. Now set aside the fact that Benghazi is in Libya, the only country thus far to represent a successful application of the Bush Doctrine’s notion of democratization of Middle Eastern countries through force. The real subtext of the pseudo-scandal is that if only the administration wasn’t pussyfooting around with the Islamofascist terrorists currently running Egypt, if only it hadn’t “lost” Egypt, the US ambassador might be alive today. But, alas, the administration’s hesitant endorsement of Egyptian democracy shows where its true sympathies lie, vis a vis Israel, terrorism, everything. If only the administration’s policy had been the policy defended in the CIA nominee’s master’s thesis, in other words.

Well, at least they haven’t gone as far as to criticize targeted drone killings of Islamofascist terrorists.

Postscript: the original Daily Caller essay on occasion misrepresents the content of the thesis itself. For example, they claim that he cites Bentham and Burke in defense of his own claim that there are no such things as rights. It is clear from the text that they are only being cited in a survey of the history of opinions about the nature of rights. Their central argument, however, is that the philosophical chapter provides adequate evidence that Brennan does not regard human rights claims as binding because they are culturally relative or subjective, and that this explains his tolerance for rights-violation elsewhere in the thesis. As I read the text, it seems more confused than sophistical, let alone clearly committed to a subjectivist or relativist view. The gist of the discussion is that when it comes to legal rights, ascertaining whether they exist and what they are is relatively straightforward, as one can consult the relevant legal materials, but when it comes to human rights, matters are complicated by the fact that they are not just artifacts of our legal systems but moral concepts. Thus, we are presented with an epistemological problem: given that there are such rights (which the thesis acknowledges) how do we find out what they are? One answer is that historical experience, community consensus, etc. serve as evidence for a claim that something is a human right. There is a further question of whether a particular human right is reliably enforced in a particular setting. The defect of how the thesis treats these issues is that it is simply unclear whether he is reducing the rights to the evidence for them, so that community consensus constitutes the right, or whether he merely thinks it serves as evidence for the right. Thus it is actually quite difficult to tell what he means by such sentences as “Since it is the morality of a person or a society that determines the existence of such rights, it will be the same morality that will determine what actually constitutes these rights” (emphasis mine). Existence in what sense? In the sense of the validity of the moral claim, or in the sense that the claim is recognized and enforced?  It is important to realize, however, that the purpose of the preliminary discussion is not to create a notion of rights sufficiently flexible to permit their disregard in special circumstances. Rather, his purpose is to operationalize the concept of rights so that the concept of rights-violation can itself be measured. Later in the thesis he will argue for tolerating rights-violation, but this presupposes that he has already secured a notion of rights-violation determinate enough to excuse. In short, “it’s OK what Egypt does because rights are subjective (or who’s to say what rights there are)” does not appear to be the gist of his argument. Rather, it is “it’s OK for Egypt to do what it does, despite the fact that rights-violations are involved.” Of course, a philosopher would not be overly impressed with the level of clarity in the philosophical chapter, but it is worth remembering that this was a government thesis, not a philosophy thesis, and as Brennan himself says, “The purpose of this essay is to evaluate four political goods rather than define them …” (p. 68).

Last but not least, it is an irony worth appreciating, several ironies in fact, that the closest Brennan ever comes to making a clear statement of where he stands on these issues is in the very last paragraph, where he says, “If nothing else, this study has shown how difficult any human rights analysis is. The fact that absolute human rights do not exist (with the probable exception of freedom from torture) makes the analysis susceptible to innumerable conditional criticisms” (p. 113, emphasis mine). Indeed.

Great Moments in Cinema, XIII

CRASSUS Are you on guard duty?

GLABRUS My dear Crassus, congratulate me. Or better still, let us congratulate each other.

CRASSUS I congratulate us.

GLABRUS Tomorrow I lead six cohorts of the garrison against the slaves on Vesuvius. The whole city is turning out to see us off.

CRASSUS Great merciful bloodstained gods! Your pardon. I always address heaven in moments of triumph. Did Gracchus have something to do with this brilliant affair?

GLABRUS Yes, he even proposed it. Rather decently, too.

CRASSUS And you? Do you think I made you commander of the garrison to control some rock patch on Vesuvius? It was to control the streets of Rome!

GLABRUS I only take six cohorts. The rest of the garrison remains.

CRASSUS Under whose command?

GLABRUS Under Caesar’s.

CRASSUS Excellent, excellent! Finding Gracchus in control of the mob and the Senate, you felt compelled to hand over the garrison to him also.

GLABRUS I see. I’ll refuse. I’ll withdraw from the expedition.

CRASSUS One of the disadvantages of being a patrician is that occasionally you’re obliged to act like one. You pledged the Senate to go, and go you must.

GLABRUS If Gracchus should decide to move against you–

CRASSUS He won’t! Has no need to. He has, with your assistance, immobilized me altogether.

GLABRUS Your legions are still in camp outside the city walls.

CRASSUS My legions? Do you truly believe I’d order my legions to enter Rome?

GLABRUS I only point out that you can if you have to.

CRASSUS Are you not aware of Rome’s most ancient law that no general may enter the city at the head of his armed legions?

GLABRUS Sulla did.

CRASSUS Sulla? To the infamy of his name! To the utter damnation of his line! No, my young friend. One day I shall cleanse this Rome which my fathers bequeathed me. I shall restore all the traditions that made her great. It follows, then, that I cannot come to power or even defend myself by an act which betrays the most sacred tradition of them all. I shall not bring my legions within these walls. I shall not violate Rome at the moment of possessing her. Go. Prepare your troops at once. March out of Rome tonight, but the city tribute is impossible. We’ve already been made to look a fool. Let’s not add the trappings of a clown. Leave by unfrequented streets, without fanfare, without even a drum! Sneak out.

GLABRUS As you wish.

CRASSUS And for heaven’s sake, my young friend, try and see to it that you don’t have to sneak back again. Farewell.


Better Than Nothing

As a nation we conduct military operations using drones as a part of the war on terror, a practice which has aroused criticism because of the lack of any meaningful oversight by the other branches of the federal government.

While Vicki Divoll was being interviewed by Bill Moyers last night, she mentioned the fact that in the case of targeted drone use to kill Anwar al-Aulaqi, a US citizen by birth and Al-Qaeda member, there would have been more judicial process involved in the decision to tap the man’s cell phone than in the decision to end his life. This fact is both irrational, and morally shocking, but it also immediately suggests a solution.

Why do we not have a statute creating a court analogous to the existing United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court which can provide analogous judicial review in a manner that does not compromise national security by undue public disclosures in the case of drone use in anti-terror operations? If this is politically unpalatable because of the sole function of the court would be itself unpalatable, the simplest solution is to confer this function on the FISC itself. Not only would such an approach be more rational, and more moral than our current one, but it would provide a response to common criticisms of the practice. If the exigencies of the war on terror do not permit us to stop this practice altogether, let us at least subject it to the rule of law, and meaningful but secure judicial review.

If Democrats in Congress as well as the White House cannot come together on this, as a part of the President’s attempt to create a legacy of taming the excesses of the previous administration while respecting the needs of national security, what should we infer?