Theodore Dalrymple on rights and moral imagination

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Theodore Dalrymple (Anthony Daniels) makes the following observation:

When the supposed right to health care is widely recognized, as in the United Kingdom, it tends to reduce moral imagination. Whenever I deny the existence of a right to health care to a Briton who asserts it, he replies, “So you think it is all right for people to be left to die in the street?”

When I then ask my interlocutor whether he can think of any reason why people should not be left to die in the street, other than that they have a right to health care, he is generally reduced to silence. He cannot think of one.

Dalrymple opens his piece by noting that “concrete benefits in pursuance of abstract rights, however, can be provided by the government only by constant coercion.” The obsession with “abstract rights” is not just confined to modern liberals and socialists. This kind of metaphysical thinking about rights is just as prevalent among libertarians and neoconservatives.

Health care as a right?

To understand the background of the recent debates on health care it is instructive to look at how this issue  is being approached in “progressive” states like Oregon. Last year a Constitutional Amendment was discussed  which would declare access to health care in Oregon to be a “fundamental right.” But what is so progressive about a proposal that increases the scope of collective decision making over individual choice?

We can think of a right as a contract between two people in which both parties have agreed to accept the obligations of the agreement because it provides them mutual benefit. Evidence that such rights and obligations exist can be found in a verbal or written agreement. For example, person A is obliged to pay person B a specific amount of money, and person B is obliged to deliver A the product before an agreed date. So far, so good.

But when we talk about health care as a constitutional right we no longer talk about rights in this sense. We talk about rights as the outcome of political decision making. Rights conceived in this fashion do not reflect actual agreement between individuals but political authority. This may not be necessarily problematic when the rights in question reflect the “common good,” but rights that generate massive entitlement programs do not reflect this kind of  consensus.

The right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” reflects the freedom of individuals to live their lives as they see fit. The only obligation these “rights”  impose on others is not to interfere. These obligations can be satisfied by doing nothing and we all have an interest in having such freedoms. Such universal agreement is not possible when we talk about a right to health care. The right to health care does not just mean that people have a right to obtain medical care, but that others have an obligation to supply it.  A right to health care will impose obligations that are far reaching in nature and inevitably lead to a state-run health care system where all people are equal in having no choice and health care is rationed by “experts.”

There are many things in life we think as desirable, perhaps even necessary. But from this it does not follow that other people have an obligation to supply these things. During the 20th century there has been an increasing tendency to claim everything we desire in life as a “right.” This does not just undermine the ideal of having a government that serves the common good, it also produces a society where mutual assistance, charity, and self-reliance are increasingly undermined. The movement to make health care a constitutional right reflects a cynical view of the purpose of a Constitution. Instead of protecting fundamental freedoms that all citizens will recognize as just, the Constitution is used to secure greater protection for partisan political issues.

It is guaranteed that a constitutional right to health care will not come about without a political struggle. This itself is indicative that such a right is the outcome of non-unanimous decision making (to put it mildly) and does not represent the common good. If we secure a right to health care this way, it will not reflect right but might. It should go without saying that “might makes right” is not a progressive but an authoritarian principle to organize society.  The situation is not much different in the case of current proposals to reform health care.  If any breakthroughs will be made it will be in the form of one coalition prevailing at the expense of others.

Arthur R. Jensen against politics

At one point in the conversations between Frank Miele and Arthur R. Jensen in the book Intelligence, Race, And Genetics: Conversations With Arthur R. Jensen, Jensen becomes impatient with all the questions about his politics and makes the following statement:

You keep harping on politics. Over the years, I have become increasingly disillusioned about politics and increasingly suspicious of it. What I see of partisan politics and government’s interference in people’s lives these days lends considerable appeal to the philosophy of libertarianism, although I am not a libertarian with a capital L.

It is interesting that when scientists who are routinely identified as “fascist” actually make statements about their political views they are often in favor of limited government. Charles Murray, co-author of the The Bell Curve, even produced a little book outlining his own views called What It Means to Be a Libertarian. Is seems clear that in the case of people like  Jensen and Murray words like “fascist” are not so much used to make cognitive statements  but to intimidate the writer or (potential) reader. Using phrases from historical politics to identify the work of practicing scientists is indicative of how politicized our society has become.

Keynes and the efficient market hypothesis

Over at The Money Illusion, Scott Sumner has posted a number of blog entries about John Maynard Keynes as an investor and how it informs the debate about efficient markets:

Far from refuting the efficient markets hypothesis (EMH), the story of Keynes’ investments actually supports the buy and hold recommendations of those who adhere to the efficient markets view, “stocks for the long run.” He did best when he didn’t try to time the market, and did poorly when he engaged in fancy speculative gambles during 1928-29.

It seems to me that one of the errors that many people (including some academics) make when discussing market efficiency is to assume that the hypothesis requires that all participants in the market are rational. Since this postulate so obviously contradicts empirical reality, it is argued that economic approaches associated with market efficiency (such as New Classical Macroeconomics and Real Business Cycles) must be flawed as well. But does the efficient market hypothesis really require such a strong postulate? Is it not enough to propose that rational individuals take advantage of the profit opportunities created by those who make mistakes?

Another flaw in discussions about rationality and efficient markets is that little attention is being paid to the question whether it can be rational to be irrational. As Bryan Caplan has argued in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, the average  voter in a mass democracy does not have a strong incentive to be rational because irrationality is basically costless. Thus Caplan writes “irrationality, like ignorance, is sensitive to price, and false beliefs about politics and religion are cheap.” Linking rationality to incentives in this fashion offers the prospect for a reformulation of classical economics that can lead to improved insights into the observation that we see so much variability in the applicability of the strong rationality postulate.

Of course, the case against efficient markets is of little practical interest unless it can be argued that something meaningful can be done about it. Government intervention seems to be of little use if the incentives that shape and maintain irrational behavior apply to collective choice as well; instead, we should expect them to be worse for reasons that are unique  to government (monopoly, the absence of price mechanisms, the prospects of redistribution etc.)

The Unity of Science

From the preface of Michael Munowitz’s Principles of Chemistry:

The wonder of the world is not its complexity, but its simplicity. Given enough color and canvas, anybody can make a mess; that, we do ourselves. More to admire is the artist who makes do with little, the artist whose art is to conceal an economy of form and design. That, nature does unsuspected–in a hidden world from the senses…Start small. Celebrate what molecules and reactions have in common, not what masks their essential unity. Build a foundation. Understand why a university may want to maintain separate departments of chemistry, physics, and biology, but understand also that elementary particles, atoms, molecules, forces, interactions, and the laws of nature respect no academic boundaries. Nature is one.

Further reading on the unity of science: The Scientific Conception of the World: The Vienna Circle

Liberal and religious creationism

The blog OneSTVD [One Standard Devation] has produced a useful table that outlines the similarities between religious creationists and “blank slate” liberals:

These educated, liberal elitists believe their shallow acceptance of evolution distinguishes them from the ignorant “Jesus freaks”. Yet, it is amusing how closely liberal creationism matches the creationism supported by religious fundamentalists.

This chart reminds one of a section in Bertrand Russell’s discussion of Augustine’s philosophy and theology in his  “A History of Western Philosophy.” Russell draws attention to the similarities between Jewish/Christian eschatology and Marxist socialism:

Yahweh=Dialectical Materialism
The Messiah=Marx
The Elect=The Proletariat
The Church=The Communist Party
The Second Coming=The Revolution
Hell=Punishment of the Capitalists
The Millennium=The Communist Commonwealth

The theme that socialism and modern liberalism have been shaped by, or at least display, quasi-religious, anti-realist,  and puritan tendencies has recently received interesting support in a recent piece on the early religious thinking of the political philosopher John Rawls.

Further reading:

The New Enemies of Evolutionary Science

Liberal Creationism and Transhumanism

HT Secular Right

Rudolf Carnap politicized

I like to keep my philosophical work separated from my political aims.” (Rudolf Carnap)

It is a welcome development that there is an increasing interest in the history and substance of logical positivism (or logical empiricism). Most of this literature, however, is produced by professional philosophers and social scientists, and, therefore, should be approached with caution.

Despite the refinements that have been made to the basic tenets of the early Vienna Circle, logical positivism remains identified with physicalism, the unity of science, a rejection of metaphysics, and non-cognitivism; an overall outlook, at least in its implicit moderate form, that has become dominant among most practicing (natural) scientists.

As a general rule, the more obscurantist and multi-interpretable a philosopher, the higher the probability (s)he will be admitted to the ranks of “important thinkers.” Therefore, as one browses the philosophy section in a book store one should expect to find numerous books on Martin Heidegger and Theodor Adorno, and little, or nothing, on systematic and disciplined writers like Rudolf Carnap or Hans Reichenbach.

In the case of Carnap this situation is changing. For a long while, Carnap was being perceived as an outdated thinker whose contributions had been “refuted” by Karl Popper and other critics of logical positivism.  In the case of Karl Popper this opinion has been further reinforced by Popper the person, reflecting his desire to establish himself as an important philosopher by distancing himself from the philosophers of the Vienna Circle.  In his essay on Popper, Martin Gardner writes that  “it seems that every time Carnap expressed an opinion, Popper felt compelled to come forth with an opposing view, although it usually turned out to be the same as Carnap’s but in different language.”

In hindsight, Popper’s vanity has been unfortunate because both philosophers would most likely have been appalled with the state of contemporary philosophy. The differences between Popper and Carnap  are a lot smaller than the differences between them and what constitutes “critical thinking” today. What could have been a potential refinement of logical positivism became “critical rationalism.”

Since Rudolf Carnap has the reputation of being a bone dry and technical philosopher who did not allow hyperbole, moralism, and politics in his published philosophical writings (presumably because he recognized the challenge, if not  impossibility, of linking his technical writings and political views in a logical manner), one would think it would be impossible to use Carnap’s technical writings as a starting point for social philosophy. Enter A. W. Carus’s Carnap and Twentieth-Century Thought: Explication as Enlightenment, who takes on this task.

The author of this book must have realized himself that  his proposal has a strong subjective component, as evidenced by the following self-conscious passages from the Preface and Introduction:

“The purpose of this book is to describe that proposal , to make it more explicit than Carnap did…”

“In the particular case of the Vienna Circle, certain assumptions about the broader cultural and ethical context of their philosophical project were so obvious to them they were never made explicit in their writings.”

“But although he remained politically aware during his American years, and involved in radical politics, he made no effort whatever to connect these activities with the philosophical work he was publishing.”

Towards the end of the introduction, Carus informs us that he will not engage with  most of Carnap’s specific technical writings but proposes to work out a “general programme of explication”, “something toward which Carnap approached, in his later years, but which never quite crystallized, probably not even in his own mind.”

It cannot be denied that Carnap had political interests that preceded or continued during his academic work. As a number of quotations from Carnap’s autobiography make clear, Carnap certainly had an interest in political matters and was even engaged in political organization throughout his life (for example, Carus mentions Carnap’s apparent sympathy for the socialist anarchism of Gustav Landauer). But some writers cannot resist to treat these personal political and cultural ambitions as necessary linked to (or a prerequisite for) their technical work, an exercise that seems to me just as futile as envisioning the idea of a “socialist chemistry” or a “feminist physics.”

Moreover, to the extent that there are indications of ideological bias in someone’s scientific work (Otto Neurath’s writings may be a good example) the proper approach is to highlight those and separate them from the meaningful (sic) work. Carus’s approach, on the other hand, seems to embrace such tendencies and further amplifies them, an attitude that seems to be highly at odds with the logical positivist tradition and presents a formidable obstacle to clear and disciplined thinking.

The result is a book that cannot seem to decide what it wants to be (see Alan Richardson’s review on this point).  The introduction and the final chapter of the book attempt to link Carnap to a specific cultural, if not political, philosophy and produces a rather artificial and arbitrary brew as a result. The remaining bulk of the text is a well researched and interesting review of the evolution of Carnap’s (early) thinking. No doubt the author could claim that these two elements are not mutually exclusive, perhaps even complementary to each other, but the parts in which the author allows more space for Carnap’s broader ambitions convey as much information about the author as about Carnap.

Even if an attempt along the lines of this book is made it does not strike me as obvious to place the relevance of Carnap’s thought in debates such as those between John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas.  The tradition of logical positivism, and its associated meta-ethical theory of non-cognitivism, seems to be more compatible  with an outlook that is influenced by evolutionary or game-theoretical approaches to social phenomena.

Although Carnap has admitted in his autobiographical writings to have remained sympathetic to a planned economy and world government, the general worldview that was implicit in the logical-empiricist movement permits secular views ranging from analytical marxism to “right wing” counter-modernism. This tolerance to various interpretations of the Enlightenment is very clear in its 1929 “manifesto” “The Scientific Conception of the World: The Vienna Circle”, which mentions Adam Smith as well as Karl Marx as predecessors of a scientific and anti-metaphysical attitude.

In my opinion, if there is an urgent matter in which the perspective of logical positivism can be of important value it is the explicit  post-war taboo on the use of evolutionary biology in the shaping and evaluation of public policy. Although a logical-empiricist approach may not be be able to shed light on the formation and persistence of this taboo (although public choice might), it can critically analyze the arguments that have been offered to justify the “modern denial of human nature.” I do not think that it would be proper to offer this proposal in a book about Carnap though. And this brings us back to the topic at hand. The renewed interest in Carnap is wonderful and deserved, but I’d rather see works on Carnap that are more modest and which do not propose “a framework of discourse in which a utopian partnership for reason and Enlightenment can co-exist with a pluralism more radical and fundamental than that envisaged by liberal political philosophers such as Rawls.”

One of the real strengths of the logical positivists was how their views were shaped by modern developments in the physical sciences and mathematics. Carnap’s work can benefit from placing it in a broader perspective but I think that it will be more  illuminating to review his relevance in light of recent developments in science instead of contrasting his thinking with other (political) philosophers. There is a lot of contemporary work in science that is close to the spirit of Carnap’s thinking, and logical empiricism in general, but it is rarely identified as such because many of these scientists (physicists, biologists, neuroscientists, etc.) are not aware of the empiricist and anti-metaphysical premises in their work.