John Allison at Trump Tower

Readers interested in John Allison’s appearance at Trump Tower may also be interested in Arnold Kling’s review of Allison’s book, The Financial Crisis and the Free Market Cure, which appeared in the October 2012 issue of Reason Papers. 

An excerpt: 

When it comes to the financial crisis of 2008, the conventional view seriously under-estimates the extent to which collectivization of financial risk was the cause of the problem and seriously over-estimates the extent to which strengthening this collectivization represents a long-term solution. I am in complete accord with Allison on that score. However, I do not share his view that there is a free market “cure.” At best, there are movements in the direction of the free market that would reduce the costs of regulation without increasing the risks of another meltdown. However, such changes will not be made as long as the conventional history of the crisis—which treats it as resulting from the loss of will to regulate—holds sway. And I do not believe that, in the end, Allison’s book will have much of an impact on converting those who hold the conventional view.

Read the whole thing here (4 page PDF).

H/t: Alison Bowles (for the WSJ article)

Reason Papers 37.2 is now out

The latest issue of Reason Papers, vol. 37, number 2 is now out; officially, it’s the Fall 2015 issue, but we only just managed to put it up on the website last night. This link will take you to a monster-size PDF to the whole issue (almost 250 pages). This link will take you to the journal’s Archive page, where you can access individual articles for this or any past issue (you have to scroll down a bit). Finally, this link will take you to three (time sensitive) Calls for Papers issued by the journal’s editors: one on “the philosophy of play” (March 1, 2016); one a fifteen-year retrospective on 9/11 (July 1, 2016); and one an Authors-Meet-Critics symposium on Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen’s forthcoming book The Perfectionist Turn: From Meta-Norms to Meta-Ethics (February 1, 2017).

Continue reading

Fernando Teson on the Palestinian State

Fernando Teson’s opening gambit on a discussion of the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine dispute:

Almost everyone has by now accepted the two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

I wasn’t aware of that. Evidence, please?

While we wait for Teson’s response, feel free to read the Wikipedia entry on the One-state Solution at your leisure. It doesn’t seem to cohere with his claim.

If the wait is long enough, you can also read through Reason Papers’s 2012 symposium on Sari Nusseibeh’s version of the one state solution from his book, What Is a Palestinian State Worth? (Note: The RP link goes to a long PDF that requires lots of scrolling down. You can also access the symposium this way, if you find it more convenient.)

As PoT readers know, I spent two months in Palestine this summer teaching at Al Quds University. My experience doesn’t cohere with Teson’s off-the-cuff claim any more than the Wikipedia entry does. And don’t make me haul out back issues of the Journal of Palestine Studies, please. Because you know what will happen if I do?

Postscript, 10 pm: I wonder whether Professor Teson could explain in mathematical terms how majorities of 63% of Israelis and 53% of Palestinians amount to “almost everyone.” Do 37% of Israelis and 47% of Palestinians = no one? Feel free, Professor, to use scratch paper and show your work.

If Israelis and Palestinians don’t count, what about retired American diplomats in far-out radical publications like U.S. News and World Report? I mean, the one-state solution is so marginal an idea that it’s being discussed at conferences at obscure places like Harvard.

Oh, not pro-Israel enough for you, huh? Well, then, how about the current Israeli administration? Or Caroline Glick?

Oh wait, too far to the right for you, huh? Well, then, let’s make a left turn. Wrong part of the left? You could always talk to the nice folks at Dissent. They were “rethinking” things five years ago.

While we’re turning left, why not talk to some Arabs along the way? Like this one.

You want a cross-section of ethnicities? Try this. Not that I want to overdo things….

Changes at Reason Papers

It’s exactly the middle of the year, so it’s the perfect time to announce some changes that are taking place at Reason Papers.

The first is a change to the masthead. After four years as Co-Editor of the journal, I’ve decided to step down. Carrie-Ann Biondi will remain Co-Editor, and Shawn Klein will become the new Co-Editor alongside her. Until recently, Shawn taught in the Philosophy Department at Rockford University*; he’s also an editor for The Philosopher’s Index, runs a couple of blogs (including a philosophy blog and the very popular Sports Ethicist blog), and has done a fair bit of editing and publishing, including at least one piece (PDF) he published in Reason Papers in 2012. In addition, he co-directs the American Association for the Philosophic Study of Society with Jennifer Baker (College of Charleston), so I’m guessing he knows his way around this co-running things thing. I couldn’t be more pleased with my replacement.

Hey, stop cheering so loudly–I’m not departing the masthead altogether. With Shawn in place as Co-Editor, I’ll become the new Book/Film Review Editor. Kate Herrick will remain Editorial Assistant.

Second, a change of policy. Since its inception in 1974, Reason Papers has adopted a double-blind peer referee policy with respect to Articles. After some soul searching and hand-wringing, Carrie-Ann and I decided to change our policy to one that might be called a discretionary peer review policy (unapologetically) modeled on the one adopted at Critical Review. It’s also modeled in part on the editorial approach taken by the founding editors of Social Philosophy & Policy (Fred Miller, Jeff Paul, and Ellen Frankel Paul), where Carrie-Ann worked for a decade.

I can’t improve on Jeffrey Friedman’s explanation for the “discretionary peer review” policy they’ve adopted at Critical Review:

Critical Review has received many such [accolades] over the years. The reason is that while we retain the option of peer review (see below), the default option is to work with authors in an aggressive, often substantive editing process similar to those that used to be common at university presses and literary publishing houses. We find this extra level of editing desirable because Critical Review is designed to be both intellectually rigorous and accessible to a non-specialist audience. Peer review makes most academic journals impeccable in their coverage of the extant scholarly literature, but often at the cost of being inaccessible to those unfamiliar with that literature–and, more importantly, at the cost of de-emphasizing innovation, argument, and broader significance. Therefore, at both the literary and the substantive level, authors should be forewarned of the severity of the tests to which their manuscripts will be put. …

Peer review. Critical Review publishes (i) research papers, (ii) review essays, (iii) articles, (iv) symposia, and (v) replies and rejoinders to previous papers. All research papers, essays, and review essays, unsolicited or invited, may be subject to editorial and/or peer review prior to acceptance. Therefore, they should not contain indications of your identity in the text or notes.

Peer review is undertaken at the discretion of the editor and is anonymous; authors receive copies of the reviewers’ comments. Peer review is also undertaken if requested in advance by an author concerned to satisfy the demands of the academic job market. Symposium contributions, replies, and rejoinders are not usually subject to peer review, although they may be rejected as inappropriate and the editor may, as with all articles, suggest revisions.

Carrie-Ann and I came to agree with that. Even apart from Friedman’s substantive comments, we found that automatic double-blind peer review for all incoming manuscripts consumed inordinate amounts of time in searching for reviewers, waiting for manuscripts, and nagging/reminding reviewers about missed deadlines. But it didn’t necessarily improve the final product. Hence the editorial policy change.

We were also finding ourselves overwhelmed with the job of editing the journal on its twice-yearly publication schedule (which we ourselves introduced when we started editing the journal in 2011). Hence the change to the masthead. Editing Reason Papers just wasn’t a job that two (and with the addition of Kate in 2014, three) people could do. It probably isn’t a job four people can do either, but I’ll save that complaint for the next announcement of a change to the masthead.

Thanks to all our authors (and some of our reviewers) for the work they’ve put into the journal. Thanks in particular to Jeff Friedman and Chris Sciabarra (editor for the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies) for some candid shop talk that helped us think things through. And thanks of course to Carrie-Ann, who did the lionness’s share of the work over these last four years, but left the roaring to me.

Our next issue is coming out this fall. Stay tuned.

*I updated this clause.

Spring 2015 Issue of Reason Papers Is Out

The newest issue of Reason Papers, volume 37.1 (Spring 2015), is now out, our first issue since last July. We’ve been off schedule since 2013, but we’re back on track now, and should have another issue out this fall. Here’s a link to the PDF of the whole issue (189 pages). Here’s a link to our Archive page, which gives access to individual articles. At a mere 189 pages, this issue is shorter than 36.1 (which clocked in at 223 pages), but packed with great material. As usual, there’s an interesting (and coincidental) synergy between some of the pieces.

The issue starts off with a symposium on Christine Vitrano’s 2013 book, The Nature and Value of Happiness, originally an Author-Meets-Critics event at Felician College. John Kleinig makes an Aristotelian-type case against Vitrano; Christopher Rice offers a hedonist objection to her view. And of course, Vitrano responds to both critics. Many of the same topics arise in a different form in David Kelley’s discussion of Ole Martin Moen’s 2012 paper on the Objectivist Ethics (PDF, 30 pages). It pays to read the happiness symposium and Kelley’s discussion of Moen’s article in tandem, and may pay to read both in tandem with recent conversations here at PoT on related subjects. There’s also a book review in the issue on happiness and well-being (by Gary Jason); I anticipate we’ll be getting more material on happiness in the near future.

The symposium on emergencies has two very different pieces, one by Stephen Kershnar on the ethics of warfare, the other by Thomas May and colleagues on emergency planning in medical contexts. The latter article offers a useful coda to the Ebola outbreak last fall. I had wanted to contribute an essay on the definition of “emergency” in Rand’s “The Ethics of Emergencies,” but unfortunately didn’t get around to writing it.

The articles speak for themselves–one on rational choice, one on egoism, one attorney-client confidentiality, one on abortion. I got a lot out of reading them. Naturally, so will you.

Other material continues the discussion of Nozick and Marx from last summer’s issue (Mark Friedman vs. Danny Frederick on Nozick in the Discussion Notes, plus Dan Swain’s review of Paul Blackledge’s Marxism and Ethics). There’s also a short review of Islamic Political Thought–according to our reviewer Adam Walker, “a welcome and useful resource for the non-specialist reader” (worth comparing with Betsy Barre’s 2011 review of Princeton Readings in Islamist Political Thought).

Finally, two snappy pieces in the Afterwords–a review by Robert Begley of the film “Whiplash” (which came out this past fall; if I got out more I’d have seen it by now, but in the last  year I’ve only managed to see “Atlas Shrugged 3” and “Interstellar“*) and a short piece by NOL’s Brandon Christensen about his undergraduate experiences at UCLA with Young Americans for Liberty and Students for Liberty. The latter piece is part of our series on contemporary student activism, which began in the July 2014 issue with a book review by the globe-trotting Matt Faherty. Reflecting on what these guys say, it occurs to me that we ought to branch out and get some writing not just from other libertarian activists, but from activists across the political spectrum.

So essentially: drop everything, cancel all the plans you had for this weekend, and read the whole issue. You won’t regret it. You have my word.

Totally random postscript, May 14, 2015: I belatedly remembered that I also saw the movie “Wild.”

The Politics of Voting: Four Suggestions

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about voting. I have Jason Brennan to thank for having stimulated me to sustained thought on the subject, via his much-acclaimed book, The Ethics of Voting. As I’ve said before, I agree with Brennan’s thesis in a general way, but the more I think about the details of his argument, the less plausible I find them. (I find his arguments for voter disenfranchisement downright hopeless.) Here’s a link to the 2013 Reason Papers symposium on Brennan’s book, and here’s a link to an earlier critique at PoT of Brennan’s account of character-based voting.

I’ll have more to say about Brennan’s arguments as I find the time to write about them. Meanwhile, here are four quick thoughts on voting, three of them relevant to American elections, the fourth to Israeli elections. In each case, it seems to me that the wrong issues are being discussed–when they’re being discussed at all–and that we ought to change the terms of debate. Only the last of the four topics is relevant to Brennan’s work.

(I) Felon Disenfranchisement
There’s been a lot of talk in the past few years about felon disenfranchisement: felons in the U.S. (perhaps elsewhere, but I don’t know) are deprived of the right to vote. Here’s a fairly typical piece from The New York Times criticizing felon disenfranchisement as racist.

I find discussion of this topic confused. There are at least three different issues involved here; each needs to be distinguished from the others and discussed on its own terms.

(1) A first issue is: given an ideal definition of “felony,” and a well-functioning criminal justice system, should felons be permitted to vote, or should they be deprived of that right as an inherent part of their punishment?

My answer is, “they should be deprived of the right to vote.” I endorse a debt-based conception of punishment according to which, when we interact with someone, we owe him or her (at a minimum) respect for their rights. When someone violates those rights, he incurs a debt to the victim–a debt consisting of compensation for the lost value of the exercise of the victim’s right, among many other things. Punishment, in my view, ought to consist of repayment of that debt. If the debt can’t be paid in full–and for a variety of reasons, it may be impossible to do so–offenders can permissibly be deprived of those goods that would count as ill-gotten gains from crime.

Some simple examples: If you rob me, your voting to dispose of my income without having compensated me for the commission of the crime counts as an ill-gotten gain. Since you’re not entitled to such a gain, you can be disenfranchised. If you kidnap me, what you’ve done is illicitly to try to “govern” my actions by brute force. If I survive, you owe me compensation for your trying to rule me in this way. But voting is a case of ruling me, as well. So ruling me by the ballot counts as an ill-gotten gain (or would) until you’ve paid off the debt you incurred by kidnapping me. And so, once again, you can be disenfranchised until you do.

Suppose that the repayment-requirements on such debts are prohibitively high–high enough that they can’t typically be paid in full by anyone, regardless of how wealthy they are. On my view, government should in such cases have the authority to deprive offenders indefinitely of the right to vote. If you (the offender) can’t compensate me (the victim) for what you’ve done to me, you don’t have the right indirectly (i.e., by voting) to decide the disposition of goods that belong to me. And that, in effect, justifies the disenfranchisement policy we currently have. (For a somewhat similar view of punishment, see the work of Daniel McDermott, who defends what he calls a debt-based conception of retributivism. I’m not sure where McDermott stands on felony disenfranchisement, however.)

Suppose now that we think of government, on Lockean grounds, as a kind of mutual-defense pact for the protection of rights. In that case, any attack on the rights of any member of the pact is an attack on the rights of every party to the pact. By implication, a debt owed to the victim is simultaneously a debt owed to every party to the pact. If the debt in question cannot be discharged in full–and if the crime is serious enough, it probably can’t be–then the parties to the pact can permissibly deny the offender access to ill-gotten goods in lieu of full payment of the debt.

This resolves the old problem of the “missing beneficiary.” For example: if you murder me, you incur a debt to me for having done so. Of course, being dead, I’m not around to collect the debt. In that case, you owe a debt to the rights-respecting members of my society–via their agent, government. Now suppose that you can’t pay the debt in full. In that case, they can deprive you of certain categories of goods on my behalf as well as theirs. One good they can deprive you of is the right to vote: after all, your having that right would give you the right to dispose of the income that they have earned while you still owe them compensation for the right you’ve violated. And you’re not entitled to that. (Incidentally, even if I’m physically unavailable to collect a debt for having been murdered or wrongfully killed, I could during my lifetime have set up an escrow account as an insurance policy in the event of my murder/wrongful death. In that case, an offender might still be obliged to compensate me posthumously, with the proceeds going to my heirs or to the state, as my will or lack of one implies.)

Something similar would apply to rape, to assault and battery, to drunk driving, and to plenty of other recognizable felonies. In short, I don’t see why, as long as we define “felony” properly, felons should be allowed to vote. The debts they’ve incurred to the rest of us are sufficiently high that we needn’t worry so much about whether they have the right to govern us, or dispose of our income. They don’t. I don’t mean to suggest that we have no obligations toward them. I just means that access to the ballot isn’t one of them.

(2) Second issue: is the operative definition of “felony” in the U.S. a good one? Does it, on moral grounds, include and exclude the appropriate items?

I’d say: “no” and “no.” This issue is the one that, in my view, actually gives rise to the felon disenfranchisement controversy. The real problem, it seems to me, is that we’ve made felons of people who shouldn’t be felons, and in consequence of that, have deprived people of the right to vote who should have it. If doing so has adverse racial consequences, my suggestion is: redefine “felon” more narrowly, so as to exclude certain categories of crimes from the list of felonies. If we do, I suspect that the “felon disenfranchisement” problem (insofar as it is a problem) either disappears or is greatly reduced in scope.

(3) Third issue: regardless of the definition of “felony,” is the U.S. criminal justice system systematically and unjustifiably biased against certain populations or sub-populations?

My answer: “probably.” No matter how we define “felon,” there will probably be residual problems in our criminal justice system, some of them with adverse racial consequences–some of them just plain old unjust–and those problems need to be addressed. But the resolution of those problems is not facilitated by the enfranchisement of felons. Convicted murderers, rapists, batterers, and drunk drivers have no distinctive insight into the rights and wrongs of criminal procedure. Nor does it make much sense to bank on the possibility that some small fraction of those convicted felons might be innocent (I’m sure some are), and might impart the wisdom of innocence to us via the ballot. The probabilities of that happening are tiny enough to render the venture as a whole quixotic.

The bottom line is that instead of crusading for voting rights for murderers, kidnappers, rapists, robbers, etc., we ought to be redefining “felony” and actively reforming the defects of our criminal justice system. Felon enfranchisement is just a distraction from those far more important tasks.

(II) Voter ID laws
Now consider voter ID laws. Here’s a usefully balanced article, also from the Times, suggesting that voter ID laws, while problematic, do not have the large-scale effects that some have alleged of them.

The standard argument for voter ID laws is that they pre-empt or minimize voter fraud. The standard argument against them asserts that there is little evidence of voter fraud in the U.S., that voter ID laws have racist effects, and that contrary to their proponents’ rhetoric, voter ID laws are covertly there to produce racist effects.

Once again, however, all this seems to me a distraction from the real issue. To see why, consider the tacit implication of the arguments against voter ID laws. Why, according to those arguments, are voter ID laws unfair? Spelled out, the answer is that large numbers of Americans lack the means to obtain photo IDs for themselves. Lacking access to photo IDs, they can’t meet the requirements of voter ID laws, and are de facto disenfranchised by them.

Suppose ex hypothesi that that’s true, and pause on it for a moment. Voting aside, isn’t that precisely the problem in need of discussion and rectification? How is it that large numbers of people in a first world country do not have access to the means of self-identification? Even if we do away with voter ID laws, the underlying problem remains in place. In other words, even if you don’t need an ID to vote, you need it for other things. How are people without IDs expected to open bank accounts, visit the doctor, or travel by plane–or get driver’s licenses, library cards, discount cards, or government benefits, etc.? Either they’re to do without these things because they lack ID, or they need access to these things, and must therefore obtain access to IDs. I would opt for the latter option, but no matter how you slice it, the issue is not voter IDs, but access to IDs as such. 

The scarce-access-to-IDs situation seems to me a good argument for having some equivalent of a national identity card in just the way and for just the same reasons that so many other countries have them. Here’s a case for them, from the Washington Post.

I agree with the reasons the Post gives for having them, but I’d give one more. It’s been argued by critics of social contract theory since Hume* that express consent theories of consent to government do not or cannot work because we never in fact consent expressly to government. I suppose that that’s partly true, at least for natural-born citizens; we don’t consent to government in the way that we consent, say, to the terms of a credit card. But I see national ID laws as a chance to respond to that problem. Why not structure the task of getting a national ID so that the act of getting one either requires express consent to the government issuing the card, or requires explicit non-consent? If you consent, you get an ID card, and with it, the benefits and burdens of “membership” in the polity. If you refuse consent, you don’t get a card, and can be denied the benefits of membership while being spared the burdens.

There are, to be sure, lots of complications here, many of them entangled in debates about immigration and immigration policy. I can’t settle those here. I would just say that it seems to me that the mechanism I describe is possible, and that its existence would rebut Hume-type arguments against consent, and solve some other practical problems as well. At the very least, focusing on our ID problem–which has significant adverse effects on people’s living their lives–beats focusing on a voter ID problem that seems not to have any significant effects on voting.

(III) Low voter turnout
Now consider the low voter turnout issue. The problem here is supposed to be that relatively few voters show up to vote. In partisan terms, that means that Democrats fare badly in the elections (which, of course, matters more to Democrats than to others). In more general terms, it means that our democracy is not as “robust” as it could be. Personally, I happen to think it means that the ballot choices we’re typically offered aren’t worth voting for, whether for or against. Here’s a website,, devoted to discussion of the issue. Once again, however, it seems to me that much of the discussion there and elsewhere is focused on the wrong things.

Suppose that we want to increase voter participation. (There are reasons not to want to, having to do with wrongful voting and voter incompetence, but set them aside.)  In that case, I’d offer two proposals:

(1) Put a “None of the Above” option on the ballot, so that voters can vote against all the (other) options on the ballot. As things currently stand, you can write “NOTA” as a “write in” on the ballot (I regularly do), but few people realize this, and most people surmise, correctly, that write-ins are meaningless. (I’ve encountered poll workers unaware of the fact that NOTA is a write-in possibility.) But if “NOTA” were on the ballot, it would be at least as significant as any other option on the ballot, and all those disgruntled voters who don’t vote because they dislike all the options might now vote in order to express that view.

(2) Move Election Day from Tuesday to the weekend. Yes, a small minority of mostly religious voters might be inconvenienced by that move (if so, they can use absentee ballots), but as it stands, huge numbers of working people are inconvenienced by Election Day’s having to compete with the workday. Change the day, and I suspect you’d increase voter turnout.

(IV) Voting and the right to complain
 Let me move now from American to Israeli elections, or more precisely, elections in Jerusalem. When I visited Israel/Palestine in 2013, I was both surprised and dismayed to discover that while East Jerusalemite Palestinians have the right to vote in Jerusalem’s municipal elections (though not in Israeli national elections), they almost unanimously refuse to exercise that right, even though their exercising it would substantially change the political landscape of Jerusalem, and benefit them. The argument I heard from Palestinians was that voting would legitimize Israel, which they refuse to do. Sadly, the few Palestinians who offered to run for municipal office, or to vote for pro-Palestinian candidates or causes, were widely regarded by other Palestinians as traitors to the Palestinian cause.

I find that a self-defeating and incoherent set of attitudes. East Jerusalemite Palestinians widely accept–and demand–government benefits from Israel, so it makes no sense for them to refuse to exercise political rights that are on offer from Israel, especially if the refusal to exercise those rights merely disempowers those who refuse to exercise them. The fact is, the budget for government services in East Jerusalem is in the hands of non-Palestinian Israelis, as are decisions bearing on the protection of Palestinian rights. As things currently stand, decisions on both sets of issues are made in ways that ignore or violate Palestinian rights. I would argue that respect for one’s rights is essential to one’s well-being. As it happens, the only efficacious way of ensuring respect for Palestinian rights in Jerusalem is to make changes to the budget and policies of the Jerusalem municipal authority. And the only efficacious way of changing the budget and policies of that authority is to vote to change them. So the options are: vote to defend your rights, or acquiesce in their violation and the consequent diminution of your well-being.

Suppose that we each  have a self-regarding moral obligation to promote our well-being (insofar as doing so is open to us). If so, give the preceding facts, Palestinians ought to vote. If “ought-hood” is sufficient for “duty” or “obligation,” then eligible Palestinian voters have a moral obligation to vote. Contrary to a recent argument of Jason Brennan’s, then, the case of East Jerusalemite Palestinians seems a picture-perfect example of the old saw that if you don’t vote, you shouldn’t complain–or more precisely, if you don’t vote, you shouldn’t complain about the things that voting would have improved, and that only voting can improve, at least for the foreseeable future. If you’re going to be taxed, and you’re going to be regulated, it makes no sense to stand by as your tax money is spent by everyone but you on everything but what matters to you. It likewise makes no sense to stand by as you are regulated to death by the people who are spending your money, as your rights go violated or ignored. Voting is in effect an act of self-defense, and self-defense is a moral obligation.

The obstacle here is supposed to be that it is not instrumentally rational for individual voters to vote, because individual votes cannot change the outcome of an election (or more precisely, cannot change the outcome of a sufficiently large election–a qualification that is sometimes relevant but often ignored in discussions of “voting,” as though all voting were large-scale voting). But if you know anything about Palestinian political culture, I think you’ll see that this objection is spurious. There is no need to worry about the efficacy or utility of individual votes qua individual if the voters in question don’t conceive of their votes in those terms in the first place. If voters naturally conceive of themselves as members of a solidaristic group, and can coordinate their efforts in a given direction as a group–and have a strong reason to do so, and might well be inclined to do so–then the unit of concern is not the utility of individual votes, but the the votes of voting blocs qua blocs whose members self-consciously act in concert.

I realize I’m describing an idealized case, but my point is, it’s a possible case. In fact, it’s more possible and plausible than half of the thought-experiments that clog the philosophical literature. (By the way, there is no contradiction between seeing yourself as an individual with an individual obligation to promote your well-being, and seeing yourself, qua voter, as part of a voting bloc. Membership in the bloc could precisely be what promotes your individual well-being, so that your individual well-being is what dictates membership and a solidaristic self-conception in the first place.)

Now suppose that Palestinians** get their act together, ditching the nationalist and Islamist rhetoric that has retarded their progress for decades. They come to see voting as an act of both collective and individual self-defense. They also see the defense of their rights as a contribution to the common good (which includes Israelis). Suppose (perhaps improbably but not impossibly) that the Israelis do not interfere significantly with Palestinians’ voting en masse.

Suppose further that Palestinians think of voting by analogy with having an intifada. In other words, as with the first intifada in the 1980s, they organize their efforts to vote strategically*** as a single unified voting bloc: they caucus, organize, and promise one another to vote for pro-Palestinian policies. Suppose that it is relatively obvious what these policies should be, and what the votes for these policies should be. Suppose, further, that voters are well-informed. Now suppose that a large number of Palestinians enter these caucuses voluntarily, and through caucusing, manage to ascertain (by mechanisms internal to the caucuses) that there are enough Palestinian votes among them to tip the scales of a given Jerusalem election. If so, each Palestinian voter could regard himself or herself as part of an assurance contract with all other Palestinian voters. And if so, each voter would have an obligation (to the others and to him or herself) to vote in the way he or she had promised in the contract.

My argument here is essentially that if you can organize a mass uprising–an intifada–you can organize a mass voter campaign. Further, if an intifada involves the implicit equivalent of an assurance contract (as it does), you can in principle model  a mass voter campaign on an intifada, and turn the campaign into an activity that involves an actual assurance contract. But if contracts bind, an electoral assurance contract yields a duty to vote. So under certain nomologically possible conditions, there can be a duty to vote, and given this duty, it can be irrational to complain about unfair or harmful political policies if you don’t vote.

I can’t work through all the details here, but take a look at Brennan’s argument in light of the preceding. Either my East Jerusalem case is a counter-example to his thesis, or it’s a defeater for it. In the first case, it refutes the thesis as stated. In the second case, it suggests that the thesis is highly misleading as stated. Given that, my argument requires that Brennan qualify his claims about the ethics of voting in ways that take more explicit stock of cases like the East Jerusalem one–something that would substantially change the “flavor” of his theory.

I realize that Brennan has an explicit discussion of strategic voting in his book (Ethics of Voting, pp. 129-33), and that the discussion includes a “strategic voting clause” (p. 131), but I think almost all of what he says talks past what I’m saying here. What he doesn’t discuss either in the book or in the article I’ve linked to, is the possibility that you could have a duty to vote in cases like the East Jerusalem one, that your vote would matter in those cases, and that you’d have no right to complain if you didn’t vote. (See the notes below for a comment on “strategic voting.”)

While you’re looking at Brennan’s arguments, read his discussion of “the moral disenfranchisement of poor minorities” in The Ethics of Voting, pp. 105-7. I find the discussion very inadequate even on its own terms, but for present purposes it’s worth noting how narrow it is. Like so many American writers, in writing about “minorities,” Brennan structures his discussion around black-white relations in the U.S., assuming somehow that what he says about that will generalize elsewhere–everywhere. It doesn’t. In particular, he assumes that “poor minorities [will] overwhelmingly qualify as bad voters” by his criteria, and offers some rather handwaving suggestions about how they’re to handle–or how he would think about handling–their disenfranchisement.

What he doesn’t consider is the possibility that the issues in contention in a given election may sometimes be entirely straightforward and require nothing in the way of the social scientific “credentials” he regards as necessary conditions for eligibility to vote. Putting aside the American case, I think this is patently obvious in non-American ones, like that of East Jerusalem. It takes no special social scientific wisdom to figure out that your interests, your rights, and the common good are better promoted by someone who stands for fairness than by someone who makes no secret of wanting to subvert your interests, violate your rights and exclude you from the common good. If Brennan’s epistemic elite hasn’t figured that out, frankly, they have a lot to learn.

I’m hoping to spend the summer of 2015 in East Jerusalem teaching at Al Quds University. While I’m there, I intend to make the case for what I call rights-based strategic voting by Palestinians in Israeli elections. Feel free to hit me with objections in the combox if you disagree with the sketch I’ve just given of it. I may well be hit with more than that while I’m there, and I’d like to start my preparations now.

*Actually, Hume concedes, almost parenthetically, that consent is a possible basis for political legitimacy: “I only pretend [aver] that it has very seldom had place in any degree, and never almost in its full extent” (paragraph 20). But that claim is entirely compatible with consent’s coming to be the basis of political legitimacy in the future by concerted effort aiming to bring it about. Considered as an argument against Locke on consent, what Hume says in “Of the Original Contract” strikes me as a series of ignoratios elenchi.

**For brevity, I use the word “Palestinian” throughout, but I don’t really mean to be restricting that to ethnic Palestinians. I’m using “Palestinian” as short-hand for those who would actively organize for and act on behalf of Palestinian rights in East Jerusalem. The bulk of those people would most likely be ethnic Palestinians, but not all of them would. It’s just too cumbersome to be explicit about this in every sentence.

***I’m using the term “strategic” in its colloquial, not its technical sense. In its technical sense, “strategic voting” is voting for candidates or policies that are contrary to one’s sincere preference, in the hopes that doing so will realize some preferred outcome. In the colloquial sense, “strategic” voting is simply voting to bring about some end by means of a collectively-adopted political strategy for bringing the end about. I happen to think that the technical concept of “strategic voting” is a confused and equivocal one, but that doesn’t matter. My scenario makes no reference to insincerity on voters’ part.

Postscript, Nov. 30, 2014 (relevant to proposal I, felon disenfranchisement): This blog post, at Slate Star Codex, is well worth reading on the race and criminal justice in the United States. It complicates the picture, but I don’t think it changes anything I said about felon disenfranchisement. Hat-tip: Kate Herrick.

Postscript, April 5, 2015 (relevant to proposal IV, voting and the right to complain): Useful background on the political situation in East Jerusalem, from the London Review of Books.

Postscript, December 25, 2015 (relevant to proposal II, voter ID laws): An interesting article in The New York Times about Mayor DeBlasio’s “New York ID” program and the obstacles to success it’s facing at area banks. All things considered, the program seems a step in the right direction.

My famous friends: name-dropping without (much) shame

A couple of days ago, I wrote a post dedicated in part to discussing the work of people I either don’t know, or barely know at all. Today’s post is just the opposite: a name-dropping attempt to bask vicariously in the glory of others’ accomplishments, simply because they happen to be friends or relatives of mine. There’s no credit like unearned credit! I’m going to bold everyone’s name below, just to make this post look more like the gossip column that it is.

My friend William Dale is Associate Professor of Medicine at Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago. (He has a half dozen other titles, but never mind.) He seems to make it into The New York Times every other day for his work on geriatrics, but here’s the latest, about the connections between his work and the National Social, Life, Health, and Aging Project at Chicago. And yes, that’s him in the header photo of their page.

I’m not sure I know Jose Duarte well enough to call us “friends,” but we have hung out a bit, so I’ll gloss over the niceties. Jose has been creating waves for his research, with Jonathan Haidt, on the political biases of research in social psychology. Here’s a piece in The New Yorker about his most recent publication. And here’s a link to the paper itself, “Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Research.”

My friend Stephen Hicks is celebrating the tenth anniversary of the publication of his 2004 book, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. It’s gone through God-knows-how-many printings, and at least five translations that I know of, with more on the way. (I’d like to put in a vote for an Urdu translation, by the way.) I’d like to think that I made some tiny contribution to the success of the book; as co-managing editor of Reason Papers, I happened to edit  (all right, co-edit) one of the longer and more positive reviews of the book. But obviously, I couldn’t have done that unless Stephen had written the book (and Steven Sanders had written the review!) in the first place.

Finally, on the Famous Friend Front, my buddy Chris Sciabarra is featured in a piece on Ayn Rand in New York Magazine, improbably titled, “Ayn Rand, Girl Power Icon.” Amusingly, the piece opens with Chris’s professed puzzlement about the phenomenon, and only gets better from there.

I mentioned famous relatives. Did I tell you that my cousin Khawaja Saad Rafiq is the Minister of Railways for the Islamic Republic of Pakistan? I only mention that because here’s a piece featuring Saad bhai in the Pakistan Observer. In it, he takes issue with Jason Brennan’s thesis in The Ethics of Voting. According to Dr. Brennan, we have no duty to vote, but according to cousin Saad, the “Country Can Only Make Progress Thru the Power of Vote.” Well, Saad bhai doesn’t quite mention Dr. Brennan by name, but the implicit spirit of contention is there. I actually think that a conversation between Saad bhai and Dr. Brennan on voting would be a hilariously instructive affair for all parties. In fact, I offer in advance to serve as interpreter to overcome the language barrier* for the conversation. I rather doubt that the event will ever happen, but as a thought-experiment, I think it has a lot to recommend itself.

*PS, I kind of think that language would be the least of the barriers involved. Cf. Bernard Williams on real and notional confrontations, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, pp. 160ff.

Postscript, December 19, 2014: Amazingly, within a few weeks of my issuing a call for an Urdu translation of Explaining Postmodernism, Stephen Hicks has announced a forthcoming Hindi translation. Behold the power of PoT.

It’s Alive! The Creatures from Aristotle’s Lagoon

While making my way through B.F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity a few days ago, I happened across this passage at the beginning of the book, a characteristically blunt criticism of ancient Greek philosophy, and in particular, of Aristotle’s philosophy of science:

Twenty-five hundred years ago it might have been said that man understood himself as well as any other part of his world. Today he is the thing he understands least. Physics and biology have come a long way, but there has been no comparable development of anything like a science of human behavior. Greek physics and biology are now of historical interest only (no modern physicist or biologist would turn to Aristotle for help), but the dialogues of Plato are still assigned to students and cited as if they threw light on human behavior. Aristotle could not have understood a page of modern physics or biology, but Socrates and his friends would have little trouble in following most current discussions of human affairs (p. 3).

By some great irony, I happened to open this morning’s New York Times Book Review and found a review there, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, of Armand Marie Leroi’s new book, Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science. I found this passage from the review positively reinforcing:

Armand Marie Leroi is a scientist, and Aristotle is his hero. This conjunction is interesting because, in the official telling of modern science’s origins, Aristotle is hardly regarded as heroic. Instead he’s portrayed as the obstacle over which the early heroes of the scientific revolution — Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo — had to leap in order to impose a genuinely explanatory methodology over the often deceptive input of sense perception.

This one, too:

…Leroi’s heart belongs to Aristotle, who not only was, like him, an enthusiastic student of biology, particularly of zoology, but who also, unlike Plato, was besotted by the world of appearances. Aristotle, as Leroi makes wonderfully clear, exemplifies one kind of scientific aptitude. He was an enthralled observer of the natural world, bedazzled by data, seeking causal explanations not in abstract numbers but in concrete details acquired through avid sense perception.

Likewise this bit of verbal behavior from Leroi himself:

“As I contemplate the elaborate tapestry of his [Aristotle’s] science, and compare it to ours, I conclude that we can now see his intentions and accomplishment more clearly than any previous age has seen them and that, if this is so, it is because we have caught up with him.”

A far cry from Skinner’s assessment, to say the least.

I haven’t read Leroi’s book myself, but while browsing it online, I was intrigued to discover that Leroi quotes from or cites recent work on Aristotle’s philosophy of science by (among others) Allan Gotthelf and James Lennox. I single those two scholars out because Gotthelf in particular had made it his life’s task to rehabilitate Aristotle’s reputation as an epistemologist, scientist, biologist, and philosopher of science in explicit opposition to mainstream views like Skinner’s; Lennox was his long-time associate and partner in the endeavor. Gotthelf tells the story of his engagement with Aristotle and lays out the case for intellectual rehabilitation in his 2012 book, Teleology, First Principles, and Scientific Method in Aristotle’s Biology. Suffice it to say that for Gotthelf, it all began with Ayn Rand—specifically with Rand’s 1963 review of John Herman Randall’s 1960 book, Aristotle.* This passage from Rand’s review must surely have had something to do with it:

Above all, this book [Randall’s Aristotle] is important culturally, as a step in the right direction, as a recognition of the fact that the great physician needed by our dying science of philosophy is Aristotle–that if we are to emerge from the intellectual shambles of the present, we can do it only by means of an Aristotelian approach. (Review of Randall’s Aristotle, in The Voice of Reason, p. 12)

If Leroi’s defense of Aristotle is any indication, Gotthelf and Lennox seem to have succeeded at their task of making a scientist out of Aristotle–and of starting the first chest compressions on Philosophy.

This passage from Rand’s review, in retrospect, has a kind of subtle interest to it:

The best parts of Professor Randall’s book are Chapters VIII, IX, and XI, particularly this last. In discussing the importance of Aristotle’s biological theory and the ‘biological motivation of Aristotle’s thought’, he brings out an aspect of Aristotle which has been featured too seldom in recent discussions and which is much more profound than the question of Aristotle’s ‘functionalism’: the central place given to living entities, to the phenomenon of life, in Aristotle’s philosophy.

For Aristotle, life is not an inexplicable, supernatural mystery, but a fact of nature. And consciousness is a natural attribute of living entities, their natural power, their specific mode of action—not an unaccountable element in a mechanistic universe, to be explained away somehow in terms of inanimate matter, nor a mystic miracle incompatible with physical reality, to be attributed to some occult source in another dimension. …

Life—and its highest form, man’s life—is the central fact in Aristotle’s view of reality. The best way to describe it is to say that Aristotle’s philosophy is “biocentric.” (pp. 10-11).

Granted, some of what Rand says here is debatable and slightly tendentious. For one thing, it’s unclear whether Aristotle has a word for or the concept of “consciousness”; so it’s unclear whether he could discuss consciousness under anything like that description. For another, as Goldstein aptly points out (and Jonathan Lear and others have pointed out before her), “Aristotle can’t be entirely naturalized.” The supernatural plays an obvious role in Plato, but there are gods in Aristotle, too.

That said, I do think Rand was on to something, and that she verbalized the insight long before it became fashionable to do so. I think she’s right about Randall’s book; those are the best chapters in it. She’s also right to emphasize the biological motivation and character of Aristotle’s thought, and was right that as of 1963, that part of Aristotle had gotten relatively little attention. (The sustained attention began with the pioneering work of David Balme in the 1970s.) On a more technical note, Rand is also right, I think, to suggest that the attempt to interpret Aristotle as a “functionalist” was an anachronistic red herring. And she’s also right that Aristotle has something to teach us about the “meaning of life,” whether in the sense of zoe or of bios or the relation between them.

I’ve been beating up a bit on Rand here lately, but I regard her valorization (and popularization) of Aristotle as both insightful and prescient. Among other things, it had the salutary and intended consequence of motivating a small cottage of industry of scholars to give Aristotle the scholarly attention he deserves, with a view to bringing what they learned with them into contemporary philosophy. The cottage industry I have in mind included Gotthelf and includes Lennox, of course, but it also includes Neera Badhwar, Jurgis Brakas, Roderick Long, Robert Mayhew, Kelly Rogers, and Fred Miller, and more recently, Greg Salmieri, Corinne Bloch, Monte Johnson, Mariska Leunissen, and PoT’s own Carrie-Ann Biondi.** In fact, a sociologist of knowledge would have an interesting story to tell about how we got from the sea creatures in Aristotle’s lagoon to Leroi’s book–via Aristotle, John Dewey, John Herman Randall, Ayn Rand, David Balme, B.F. Skinner, and Allan Gotthelf (and the other scholars I just mentioned). I wonder whether anyone will end up telling it.

Incidentally, Reason Papers is looking for a review of Leroi’s book. If you’d like to do the review, or know someone who might or would, please contact Carrie-Ann Biondi or me via the journal.

*The book was published a year before, and reviewed in Reason Papers about a month before, Gotthelf’s death; I don’t know whether he saw the review or not.

**This list consists of Aristotle scholars either (a) directly influenced by Rand to go into Aristotle scholarship, or (b) mentored by people highly influenced by Rand. Obviously, it’s not meant to be an exhaustive list of prominent Aristotle scholars, or confined to people necessarily influenced by Rand.

Postscript, December 8, 2014: I just noticed this interesting piece on Leroi’s book at Daily Beast from a few months back (hat-tip: Edward Feser). I was amused by this passage:

Some of his observations about animals appear equally bizarre. He reports that the European bison fires caustic dung when pursued and that the trunk of an elephant is in fact a snorkeling device that allows it to swim. He even claims that hen partridges conceive just by smelling the scent of males.

As the author later points out:

It was only fairly recently that two of Aristotle’s seemingly bizarre claims were actually confirmed….[E]lephants do occasionally use their trunks as snorkels while swimming.

Confirmation from Google Images, the omniscient source:

Defining “emergency” (Part 1)

I’m in the middle of editing, and writing a contribution for, Reason Papers’s forthcoming symposium on the epistemology, ethics, and politics of emergencies. (Though I’ll be contributing an essay to it, credit for the idea of the symposium goes to Carrie-Ann.) The topic turns out to be an amazingly interesting and fertile one, with ramifications in a number of directions, including the epistemology and semantics of definition; the application, scope, and stringency of moral principles; the scope and content of rights; the proper role of government; the rule of law; and so on.

The topic has been made particularly timely by a number of recent events–the recent Ebola outbreak; the state of emergency declared this past summer in Ferguson, Missouri after the riots; the states of emergency declared during Hurricane Sandy in 2012; the states of emergency that have been thought to obtain after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, etc. But those phenomena hardly exhaust the applications of ‘emergency’: once you start looking for emergencies, you find them everywhere, often in the most unlikely places. And then there are emergency-cognates, like disasters, catastrophes, crises, epidemics, and pandemics, as well as pseudo-emergencies of every kind.

At the most basic level, emergencies are events that are ontologically and normatively discontinuous from “normal” events. It’s part of the very concept of an emergency that it’s an exceptional sort of event, that it involves danger, and that it demands urgent attention and action. Given those facts, emergencies drastically affect the content and application of normative principles–epistemic, ethical, and political: principles that apply to ‘ordinary’ life don’t apply, or at least don’t apply in the same way, to emergencies. Ordinarily, we expect people to form their beliefs on the basis of the evidence for them–but in emergencies, guesses and hunches become acceptable. Ordinarily, we expect people not to kill, torture,  kidnap, steal from, trespass on, cheat, deceive, or manipulate others–but in the right kind of emergency (some would say) just about anything goes. Ordinarily, we’re governed by the rule of law, including constitutional law, but in emergencies, we either bend the rules, or are governed by open-ended edict or fiat. And so on.

Given this, emergencies give rise to a difficult dilemma in need of solution. On the one hand—call it the rigorist hand–there’s the danger that the invocation of “emergency exceptions” to moral principles serves as a rationalization or excuse for ad hoc exception-making. The concept of an “emergency” seems ill-defined and elastic, and “emergency exception” seems like a magic wand by which moral principles are undercut and effectively ignored. If we define “emergency” too broadly, every form of duress becomes an “emergency,” so that the concept loses its meaning, and emergency exceptions serve to subvert the stringency of the moral principles that are supposed to govern normal life. At a certain point, a moralist has to put his foot down and insist that duress requires the exertion of moral strength and endurance in the name of normality rather than exception-making in the name of abnormality. But the appeal to “emergencies” is one of the most seductive ways of evading this responsibility. From the rigorist perspective, then, emergencies are philosophically important primarily because we have to put them in their place. Emergencies, the rigorist insists, are marginal exceptions in life. We should cordon them off as essentially irrelevant to normal life, and focus our attention on the non-exceptional rules that govern normal life.

On the other hand—call it the pragmatist hand—there’s the danger that if we ignore emergencies, or minimize their significance or frequency, we ignore a real phenomenon that affects the proper application of moral principles. All principles, even the most stringent, apply within a specific and in-principle specifiable context. If we ignore the difference between emergencies and non-emergencies, we apply principles designed for one context to a context where they lack application. In doing so, we run the risk of sacrificing things of greater value to things of lesser value on the basis of a robotic commitment to empty verbal formulations masquerading as moral principles. In doing that, we risk the dangers of imposing pointless burdens on those suffering great duress, invoking “morality” as a pseudo-justification for our dogmatism. From this pragmatic perspective, we ought to take emergencies seriously because emergencies are an extreme instance of duress, and duress is a ubiquitous but easily-ignored part of our moral life. Goodness is fragile, and emergencies underscore that fact in an acute way.

The rigorist and pragmatic views are, of course, one-sided caricatures of possible positions. Each view gets something right, but each view ignores the merits of the other view, and thereby gets something wrong. A good dialectician would have to work through the two views, integrating their best insights, discarding what each view gets wrong, and fashioning an alternative to them that avoids the pitfalls of either view. The task would be to strike the mean between rigorist and pragmatist extremes.

I’ve argued elsewhere—very briefly and tentatively, in a footnote (p. 219 n.29)—that Ayn Rand appears to have been the first writer to have ‘thematized’ the topic of emergencies in twentieth-century English-speaking philosophy. (If I’m wrong about that, as I very well could be, I’d be interested to hear about it in the comments.) Her discussion appears in “The Ethics of Emergencies,” a 1963 essay published in her 1968 essay collection, The Virtue of Selfishnessand anthologized every now and then in philosophy textbooks. I have mixed feelings about the essay, as I do about much that Rand wrote.

On the “pro” side, I think she gets four or five things basically right.

(1) Most fundamentally, she gets the basic framing issue right:

It is important to differentiate between the rules of conduct in an emergency situation and the rules of conduct in normal conditions of human existence. This does not mean a double standard of morality: the standard and the basic principles remain the same, but their application to either case requires precise definitions. (Ayn Rand, “The Ethics of Emergencies,” The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 54).

In other words, some principles straddle emergencies and non-emergencies, retaining their identity across both contexts, but taking different forms in the one context as opposed to the other. Good theorizing keeps both facts in mind. It’s not enough for a theorist to insist on the sameness of the principles that apply to emergencies and non-emergencies; she has to explain how a principle can prescribe opposite courses of action in emergencies as opposed to emergencies and yet be the same principle. Nor is it sufficient for a theorist to insist on the need for exception-clauses in emergencies, based on the dissimilarity of emergencies to non-emergencies. She has to explain why the exception clauses exemplify the general and universally applicable principles that apply to both contexts. In other words, if it’s wrong to lie in ordinary life, but right to lie in an emergency, what needs explanation is what single principle is exemplified in both contexts, and how that single principle demands truth-telling in the one case and lying in the other. The constraint seems to me a plausible one, even if Rand herself doesn’t explain exactly how it works, and even though most theorists (in my experience) seem to violate or ignore it.

Having said that, it’s worth adding that some philosophers have emphasized the constraint. For better or worse, Mill does so in the last few paragraphs of Utilitarianism. A more recent example is Alasdair MacIntyre’s trio of papers on moral dilemmas and truth-telling in Part II of Ethics and Politics: Selected Essays, Volume 2 (2006). Another interesting discussion is Thomas Hill’s “Making Exceptions Without Abandoning the Principle: or How a Kantian Might Think about Terrorism,” in Dignity and Practical Reason in Kant’s Moral Theory (1992). There are, of course, many others.

I think Rand gets some other things right.

(2) She’s right, I think, that the philosophical literature misuses emergencies and moral dilemmas to the point of systematically indulging in fallacious appeals to the emotions in order to induce readers to accept otherwise under-argued moral claims. (Peter Singer’s drowning child example is a paradigm of this approach–an approach my graduate school roommate Patrick Kain once aptly dubbed “The Argument by Surely Operator,” as in, “Surely, we would all save the child…”  Interestingly and counter-intuitively, both Singer and Rand regard it as utterly uncontroversial that one has an obligation to save the drowning child, but neither of them has an argument for it. I have never, in twenty years of reading on the subject, seen or heard a bona fide argument for saving the child beyond table-pounding appeals to intuition, consensus, or plain old emotion.)

(3) Unlike much of the literature, Rand insists on defining “emergency.” It’s amazing how much of the literature discusses emergencies without ever defining the term.

(4) Again, unlike most of the contemporary analytic literature, Rand’s definition of “emergency” takes the form of a definition by genus and specific difference (“An emergency is an unchosen, unexpected event that…”) rather than biconditional equivalence (“An emergency takes place if and only if…”). This is a large topic, but I tend to think that the traditional Aristotelian format for definitions has advantages over the newer analytic one. I’m also inclined to think that Rand’s definition of “emergencies” is basically right, while admitting that she says nothing in defense of it, and admitting that any any adequate defense of it would probably require revisions to it.

Unfortunately, I also find Rand’s essay seriously defective. I see at least seven or eight basic problems.

(1) For one thing, though the essay is titled “The Ethics of Emergencies,” it’s not primarily about the ethics of emergencies at all. In my edition, the essay is about eight pages long, and is about a variety of topics, none of them particularly well developed. Rand opens the essay with a page-and-a-half-long well-poisoning polemic against the misuse of emergency scenarios in ethics. Another four pages go to a paradoxically illuminating but ill-argued explication of the egoistic basis of human relationships. A mere page and a half discusses emergencies. Another half page concludes the polemic against the misuse of emergency scenarios in ethics, focusing on the role that such scenarios play in defending altruism. Despite the title of the essay, then, the discussion of emergencies ends up being a mere afterthought to, and application of, the claims about the egoistic basis of human relationships. The cumulative result is that the essay is torn between at least two different topics–relationships and emergencies–and fails to do justice to either topic.  For that reason, though I think the essay has some worthwhile things to say, it is, on the whole, a failure.

There are other serious failures of argumentation in it, failures that have essentially gone undiscussed in the “literature” on the subject, almost all of it written by writers sympathetic to Rand. (For a notable exception, read pp. 100-104 of Carrie-Ann’s 2008 Reason Papers review of Tara Smith’s Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics.)

(2) In discussing egoistic relationships, Rand repeatedly stresses that a rational egoist forms a hierarchy of values, incorporates other people’s well-being into that hierarchy, and then treats others well-being as part of his own. What she doesn’t explain is how or why anyone would do that. Yes, if you incorporate others’ well-being into your own, you come to treat their well-being as part of your own, and thereby promote their good while promoting your own. But why would an egoist do that? What benefit does an egoist get by making the initial choice? She doesn’t explain. Her failure to explain would, by itself, merely be an omission rather than a defect in her view (or in the essay), but having omitted a discussion of that crucial topic, she then goes on to make very strong claims about the structure that a rational hierarchy of values would have to take, as well as the actions that would have to follow from its adoption. But unless she specifies the benefit that an egoist gets from doing as she prescribes, she’s not entitled to such claims. What we need but don’t get in the essay is a derivation of other-regard from egoistic self-interest, not a rhetorical deflection of the accusation that egoists are mean people.

(3) Rand divides her discussion of other-regard into two parts: how an egoist deals with his intimates, and how he deals with strangers. As for intimates, she says, we incorporate their welfare into ours based on their past track record of virtue. Roughly speaking, the more virtuous they are, the more deeply integrated into our own welfare; the less virtuous, the less so. Though there’s deep truth in this claim, it’s also a gigantic oversimplification. But never mind that for now; let’s accept it ex hypothesi. One problem is that it explains how egoistic relationships continue, not how they come to be. I can continue to incorporate your welfare in my hierarchy of values based on your past track record insofar as you have a past track record (with me). But there has to be some initial point at which you lacked a track record (with me). How then do relationships begin?

The same problem applies even more problematically to strangers. A stranger by definition has no track record with another stranger. So we can’t incorporate the welfare of strangers into our own on the basis of their past track record of virtue. What then do we do? Rand acknowledges the problem here, and claims to deal with it, but what she says is very compressed and obscure (p. 53). We grant a stranger a “generalized respect and good will,” she says, on the basis of “the potential value he represents” (my italics). Later she describes the rationale for this respect and good will as “a consequence, an extension, a secondary projection” of one’s own self-esteem (p. 53, my italics).

There’s an intriguing idea lurking here, but taken at face value Rand’s claims are pretty puzzling. Why does a stranger “represent” any value to me at all, especially if I’ll never see him again? And why does he “represent” value rather than straightforwardly being valuable to me (or not being so)? Elsewhere, in the context of the debate about abortion, Rand derides the idea that potentialities are morally significant (“Of Living Death,” reprinted in The Voice of Reason). There, she says, the embryo and fetus are merely potential human beings, hence not rights-holders. Here, however, the argument asserts that a stranger is potentially valuable, hence valuable. The latter inference seems ad hoc, and the two claims together seem inconsistent. Rand doesn’t seem to have had a consistent position on the normative significance of potentialities, a problem, I suspect, that lies at the heart of the common accusation that she has no adequate ethical account of children, the family, and moral patients.

Finally, the language of “projection” is equivocal and potentially problematic. What does it mean? Here are some possibilities:

  • We project the value of the stranger in the Goodman-Quine sense of treating his being-valuable-to-us as a “projectible” predicate.
  • We project the value of the stranger in the Humean or Freudian sense of ascribing to him traits that belong to us.
  • We project the value of the stranger simply in the sense of expressing our self-value in relation to him, treating him as its proper object and beneficiary.
  • Some combination of the preceding.
  • None of the preceding.

Unfortunately, she doesn’t say a word to decide between the options.

(4) Rand rather arbitrarily asserts that we ought to give assistance to strangers only in emergencies, but she never explains either the restriction or the ought:

  • Why help only in emergencies (as opposed to elsewhere)?
  • Why help in emergencies at all (as opposed to not helping even there)?

Again, she says little or nothing to clarify.

(5) Rand equivocates as to whether helping strangers in an emergency is a moral obligation (an “ought”) or merely a permission (a “may”). Sometimes she suggests that we ought to help strangers in an emergency (as long as the risks to us are “minimal”), implying that anyone who doesn’t help is morally defective, or lacking in virtue (specifically, lacking in integrity). Sometimes she suggests that we may help others in an emergency if we wish, but only if we do so from a sense of good will, and only if we want to, implying that we are not defective if we don’t help. Both claims can’t be right, and the latter claim contradicts Rand’s insistence, elsewhere, that her Objectivist Ethics is an ethic of conditional “necessities,” according to which every morally right act is a conditional imperative necessitated by “the conditionality of life” (“Causality Versus Duty,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It). Prima facie, a necessitated permission is a contradiction in terms.

(6) Having told us that we ought only to assist strangers in an emergency, Rand abruptly contradicts this claim, and tells us that it’s permissible to assist strangers in cases of illness or poverty that aren’t emergencies (p. 55). What she’s saying here may be a concession to commonsense, but in the context of the essay, it really seems like nonsense. Either we help others only in emergencies, or we help others in emergencies and elsewhere. We can’t have our “only” and eat it. An additional problem here is that her definition of “emergency” leaves no clear way of conceptualizing medical emergencies. But medical emergencies are a paradigm case of emergencies.

(7) Though I’m inclined to agree with her definition of “emergency,” she shows no awareness of how controversial it is, or of the most obvious objections that a reader might have to it (namely, that it seems too narrow). Even if I ended up agreeing with her definition, however, I’d have to disagree with her applications of it to cases.

(8) Rand conspicuously fails to meet her own adequacy-condition for a discussion of the subject, as described above.

For present purposes, as well as for purposes of my RP symposium contribution, I want to continue the task that Rand started–defining “emergency” by genus and specific difference. As I see it, the two basic definitional questions about emergencies are these:

(a) What are emergencies?

(b) Of what kinds of thing are emergencies properly predicated?

The two questions are verbally distinct but conceptually interconnected. Any answer to (a) probably constitutes an answer to (b), though I don’t think that the reverse is bound to be the case.

Rand defines an emergency as “an unchosen, unexpected event, limited in time, that creates conditions under which human survival is impossible” (“Ethics of Emergencies,” p. 54). She adds, in elaboration of the definition, that “[i]n an emergency situation, men’s [sic] primary goal is to combat the disaster, escape the danger, and restore normal conditions” (p. 54). Presumably by “men” she means “rational agents acting rationally”: men aren’t the only people who respond to emergencies, and some men fail to respond to them at all.

In any case, Rand takes “emergency” to contrast with “events that take place in normal conditions,” so that either (i) “emergency” and “normal-condition event” are correlatives, or (ii) “emergency” is defined in terms of (and as a basic deviation from) some conceptually prior notion of a “normal-condition event.” I’m inclined to think that (ii) is the case. If so, a great deal of the definition of “emergency” depends on spelling out that prior conception of metaphysical “normality.”

“Normality” is a notoriously difficult concept to define in a non-circular, non-statistical way.  The concept is one to which Rand often helps herself, and which bears some unclarified relation to what she elsewhere calls “the benevolent universe premise.” But it also finds its way fairly often into the non-Randian literature, whether in discussion of emergencies or other topics. Here’s one example from the scholarly literature on Aristotle’s ethics: The virtuous agent, Terence Irwin writes, “will correctly regard as dominant those rational and rigid states of character that secure complete happiness in moderately favourable external circumstances” (“Permanent Happiness: Aristotle and Solon,” in Aristotle’s Ethics: Critical Essays, p. 15, my italics). I take Irwin’s reference to “moderately favorable external circumstances” to pick out a concept similar to Rand’s notion of “normal-condition events.” “Favorable circumstances” seems to do analogous work for Aristotle as for Rand.

There’s a lot going on behind Rand’s definition–a lot of questions to be asked of it, and a lot of refinements to be made to it even on the most charitable reading. Here are a few questions that seem to me worth asking, and which I hope to address in my RP essay.

  1. Suppose that “emergency” is parasitic on some prior notion of metaphysical normality. What is metaphysical “normality,” and how is it to be conceptualized prior to and independently of “emergency”? On the other hand, if “metaphysical normality” and “emergency” are correlatives, is there some other concept that allows us to break free of the conceptual circle they form?
  2. Rand says that emergencies are unchosen, but why, or in what sense, can’t you bring an emergency on yourself? Does Rand mean that you can’t self-consciously bring about an emergency under that description (“I’m going to bring about an emergency right now”), or does she mean that you can’t chose to bring about an emergency, full stop? If I plan to commit suicide, and then start to enact the plan, is the enactment not an emergency even if it’s genuinely life-threatening? There’s something right about her claim, but it has to be made more precise and explicit than she makes it.
  3. Rand says that emergencies are “unexpected.” Does that mean that they’re unpredictable? If so, why, or in what sense, can’t they be predicted? Mutatis mutandis, the same follow-up questions apply here as in #3. If, for instance, I correctly predict a hurricane, and correctly predict that it will lead to fires in a certain city, is Rand’s point that the subsequent fires aren’t emergencies? Or is her point that while “fires” are predictable of the hurricane as event types, the corresponding event-tokens are unpredictable emergencies? In other words, what is expected (but not an emergency) is “fires resulting from the hurricane”; what is unexpected and is an emergency is, say, the particular fire that breaks out on Broad Street at 10:43 pm during the hurricane. If so, Rand’s view seems to imply that while the hurricane itself is not an emergency, unexpected micro-events caused by it could be.
  4. That, however, raises another set of questions. How predictable does an event have to be to qualify as “predictable”? I may not be able to predict that I’ll have a serious traffic accident today, but if I’m on the road and see a bus hurtling toward me–and have nowhere to go as it does–I may be able to predict, a few seconds before the event, that a serious traffic accident (construed as an emergency) is about to happen. Does that sort of predictability count or not? Here again, Rand’s definition needs some “chisholming.”
  5. What justifies the stricture that emergencies are “limited in time”? The claim seems plausible, but needs an argument. Among the considerations that make it plausible: human pre-history lasted a long time but involved an enormous degree of pain, suffering, and duress; we might be inclined to regard the latter phenomena as emergencies if we suffered them, but there is something problematic about describing hundreds of thousands of years of human history as one long “emergency.” Supposing that emergencies are limited in time, how are the limits set? After all, some wars (or totalitarian dictatorships) last decades or centuries, and create life-threatening conditions. Does Rand want to deny that wars or dictatorship are emergencies? (It’s worth remembering that her novel We the Living features a protagonist who lies and cheats her way through life in order to survive as best as she can under Soviet socialism.) Perhaps, as in the hurricane case, only unexpected micro-events within wars or dictatorships are emergencies, but the macro-events themselves are not. If so, recurring causal chains of emergencies under long-lasting emergency-prone conditions are not (qua chains) emergencies, even if they require massive adjustments to the adoption and practice of “normal” moral principles (as they obviously do). Similar issues arise about life in, say, prisons, concentration camps, totalitarian states, and epidemics–generally, of phenomena unfavorable to life but durably long. (For an interesting novelistic portrayal of life in an epidemic, I’d recommend reading or watching Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil. [Afterthought, October 23: Obviously, another one is Camus’ The Plague!]).
  6. Rand says that emergencies “create conditions that make human survival impossible.” Prima facie, this seems too strong. Most dictionaries tell us that emergencies threaten life, health, and/or property, or raise the probability of threats to survival.  Why insist on the strong modal claim–that emergencies create survival-impossible conditions? Further, does survival have to be threatened at all in an emergency? Imagine a case where someone gets her hand terribly stuck in a glass pickle jar, and calls 911. Is that an emergency? (That’s a real example described to me by a paramedic.) What about bathroom emergencies, e.g., desperately needing to use the bathroom but not being able to find one?
  7. Suppose that we accept Rand’s definition as stated. Does the definition entail that “emergency” and “non-emergency” is a proper distinction, i.e., mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive? Or is it compatible with the existence of borderline events between emergencies and non-emergencies, or events that fall into neither category?
  8. Suppose that emergency/non-emergency is a proper distinction. Is it a sufficiently  fine-grained distinction, or are there non-emergencies that are sufficiently like emergencies to justify our thinking of them as quasi-emergencies, and to justify our creating a precise, fine-grained vocabulary to describe them (e.g., ‘crises’)?

I’m curious what readers think about any or all of this. In later posts, I’ll offer some answers of my own.

P.S.: Here’s a directly relevant article from out of today’s New York Times science section: “Ethicist Calls CPR Too Risky in Ebola.” I have no specialized knowledge of the issue, but Fins’s advice strikes me as nearly self-evident. I also agree with Fins that the issue needs to be discussed more widely than it has.

I was, incidentally, somewhat surprised to discover that medical ethicists don’t just regard “self-sacrifice” as virtuous, but as a special virtue of its own. Does anyone know of a good argument for that?

I’m curious to know whether Arthur Caplan has an argument for the claim that it would be morally wrong for health care workers to invoke Fins’s advice in cases of patients who are asymptomatic for Ebola but have (or even may have) come into contact with an Ebola patient. It simply isn’t obvious to me that health care workers have a duty to resuscitate in cases where there is–symptoms or not–a reasonable basis for believing that someone might have Ebola. Medical ethicists seem to me in the bad habit of offering prescriptions about the risks that health care providers are obliged to bear without really being able to explain why they should or must bear them. Relatedly, it’s worth pointing out that you can’t prove that p by asserting that you “can’t help thinking that p must be true.”