Monday, September 27, 2010

What Does Property Imply?

Sometimes discussions about the concept of property can seem bogged down in esoteric philosophical reasoning. It's not something that necessarily piques our interest at the fundamental level. Instead, what tends to suffice is an a priori general understanding of property and its implications, in place of first-principle foundations. For most purposes, this application is roughly interchangeable with a ground-up understanding of the concept. But there seem to be instances where our vague understanding and appreciation for the social concept of property can lead people to somewhat odd conclusions, perhaps mistakenly.

One example that I'm reminded of recently pertains to the issue of theft. For instance, say a watch is stolen from someone, and that thief later sells that watch to another person. That person later finds out (by interaction with the owner) that this watch was stolen. Is he then obligated to give the watch back to the original owner upon request. If you've developed a more foundational understanding of property, the answer is a clear, "Yes!" But even some fervent defenders of property often get tangled within their own response. After all, how can you justify taking something from someone that they have paid for?

This becomes even more confusing if you move to ask such a person if title to such property has exchanged hands at any point in this, to which they will likely reply, "No." So, on the one hand, you have a customer of a thief who you believe now rightfully owns the watch. And yet you believe that the original owner still holds title to it. This is an obviously inconsistent view. For if the original owner still holds title to this property, and yet the property is now rightfully in the hands of some other person, then what does property imply at all? Is property not the rightful ownership or possession of an item? If you hold property that rightly belongs to someone else, it would seem like this is not your property at all.

One can certainly sympathize with the third party here. After all, they have likely spent hard-earned money on an item, and it would seem almost as a tort to pry it from them. But what such an observer would be failing to see is that the criminal has committed fraud against them, and has essentially stolen their money - much in the same way that if I had claimed I owned the house across the street, and "sold" it to you, on the spot, for $1,000 and left the premise, I would have just robbed you of $1,000. I'd expect that we'd certainly feel sorry for you. But what we probably wouldn't do is tell the rightful owner that his property has now effectively changed hands, and that he will now have to take it up with the criminal. No - the title of ownership was never transferred to the criminal to begin with. He was, in effect, fraudulently selling a house. In other words, he was selling you ownership that he never had...he was selling you, quite literally, nothing. The original owner has still retained the title of ownership.

It's examples like this, I think, that show how important it is for us to think about the implications of terms before we move forward with employing them. Someone who contests the right of the original owner to reclaim his property in the above story, and yet still claims that title had never been transferred, has not resolved the implications of the term "property" correctly - however fervent they may be about it.

Ayn Rand less famously used to make a similar rhetorical point regarding broader economic terminology. She argued that fascism and socialism were not really inseparable on the account of what property actually implies. In one system (socialism) the state owns the property. In the other (fascism) the state directly controls it but private ownership remains. But Rand recognized that this dichotomy was false - based purely on the implications of property. Socialism is clearly state-ownership. But how is fascism fundamentally different? What is the difference between someone owning your car and someone having ultimate control over whatever is done with that car? We could simply say, on a piece of paper, that you still "own" the car in the second example. But what does property imply if it does not imply rightful control over something? At that point, to Rand (and I for that matter), it sounds more like verbal masking than it does an accurate description of reality.

When we move back to talking about core social concepts, it's important that we're not only coherent, but consistent. If something is the property of someone, we want to recognize the consequences of that reality, and not merely pay lip-service to it and substitute for it our own sympathies. If you find yourself arguing that property isn't really property, theft isn't really theft, or that violence isn't really violence, then it's probably worth retracing your steps.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Fun with Statistics

Statistics can often be a double-edged sword. They can seem very useful in argument, as it can add an element of empiricism to the point at hand. However, statistics are VERY OFTEN misleading in the worst of ways. And opponents can certainly take advantage of that fact just as well as you can. This is exactly why it's so important for an audience to have a good intuitive understanding of how statistical facts can be manipulated to sway them.

This morning, in listening to the radio, I heard a fairly negative reaction to what I believe to be (probably) an accurate statistic. An audio clip relayed the rant of a young man who claimed that Census data showed that 70% of first-time marriages are successful. Cynical reactions ensued. I think their intuitions, in mistrusting him, were correct. But they couldn't seem to reconcile their gut-feelings with the statistical data, so they disregarded it as being false.

Now, this isn't brain-surgery. I'm certainly not the brightest person in the world, and I don't claim to be bestowing some kind of esoteric knowledge on ye lay people. But, in fact, this isn't something hard to unravel if you just take a couple of seconds to question it.

What should stick out like a sore thumb to most people is the "first-time" qualifier. Now there's nothing wrong per se with looking at things this way. But it can be misleading. We're usually fed marriage statistics in relation to all marriages (or more accurately each marriage). So we're all familiar with the statistic that over half of all marriages end in divorce. Both of these statistics could be true. Let's walk through a small example.

Let's say we have a pool of 20 men and 20 women. They all get married (that's a total of 20 marriages). Let's also say that 10 of those marriages end in divorce. And now let's say that those 10 men and 10 women each end up remarrying someone else in that smaller pool of divorced people. Those couples, later, get divorced. Now, let's try to break down the statistics on this in two different ways.

In total, there were 30 separate marriages. 20 of those marriages ended in divorce (10 in the original marriages, 10 in the second set of marriages). So, in this example, about 33% of total marriages were successful. Now let's take a look at the same group of numbers in a different way. Let's just look at "first-time" marriages. In our case, there were 20 "first-time" marriages. 10 of those marriages ended in divorce. So, looking at it this way, about 50% of these marriages were successful. Now, granted, other things (sample size, bias, etc.) may have affected the statistics in a more general fashion. But this is a great example of how a seemingly meaningless qualifier can not only give you different statistical outcomes, but can push someone towards different conclusions.

This isn't a good reason to simply ignore statistics. As much as we might hate it, they are a part of our lives, and perform countless useful functions as part of the modern world, from the theoretical all the way down to the technical. But, as with any method of relaying information, we have to constantly be aware of not only the biases of the person relaying the information, but of the determinant factors constraining the data-set. In short, don't ignore the facts...just keep your head up.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

NAP Pro-tip

We all have strengths and weaknesses regarding the defense of our socio-political arguments. I'm sure there are gaping holes in mine. But sometimes I'm a little caught off guard by a weak defense, especially when it's employed often and to little effect. This probably completely captures my love-hate relationship with talk-radio, come to think of it.

One of my favorite of feeble retorts is a common response to the accusation that we (Americans) are essentially free because/if we are allowed to leave the country any time we wish. The assertion itself is incredibly weak (from my perspective) and I wouldn't think it would take much to knock the legs out from under it, but apparently I'm wrong. I've seen both the well-intentioned and well-informed whiff at this one time and time again. Among my favorite typical responses, "Well the other governments are less free so I don't have a choice!" What?!? That's the best you have? Silly commentators, you're conceding the premise just by giving that kind of answer!

My approach:

If someone started walking at you and flailing his/her arms, would it not be assault when they hit you simply because you could have stepped aside? If every time I tried to enter my house, and you attempted to corral me into a cage, would you claim you weren't usurping my freedom because I could simply go live somewhere else? Would taking my car from me by force not constitute a theft simply because I could have put it somewhere else?

These are meant to be rhetorical questions. If they are stupid enough to start biting bullets on any of it, just stand back and let them hang themselves. Any other retort you can give to their claim that starts with, "Well yes, but..." is giving them too much ground. Drag them kicking and screaming back to first principles. My guess is that anyone dumb enough to even make that initial assertion isn't going to make it out of that bog without some serious issues. Socratic method. It works.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Christian Consequentialism

There often seems to be quite the divide within the Christian sphere - one of politics. We often talk about the political pressure exerted by conservative Christians, particularly near election season. Less often we recognize their counterparts, liberal Christians, in a formal fashion. The reason for that, I'll leave for someone else to ascertain. However, it occurs to me that this particular divide may speak more to a general philosophical division that may seem less obvious; one between Consequentialists and Deontologists.

(Before delving any further, I think it's important to recognize that these divides are fuzzy. There are obviously people who don't fit neatly into this paradigm. But the schism doesn't seem any less apparent for it.)

I often hear more liberal, Christian friends and family members mocking conservatives for being somewhat inconsistent in their "Christian" values. The most obvious example that comes to mind is the issue of social programs. More liberal Christians seem to want to pound the moral war-drum on this issue, excoriating what they deem to be hypocritical Christians on the Right - who have apparently never heard of the pleas Jesus had made in the Gospels for us to give of ourselves to those in need. At first that position seems rather tenable (if not laudable) on the surface. But upon deeper reflection, I'm convinced that it's a somewhat misguided notion. So where exactly does, what seems to be, such sensible logic fail them?

If there is a single, continuous moral expression found within the New Testament, I would be hard pressed to say that it's not some form of what Christians have come to call "The Golden Rule." In fact, I'd venture to say that most Christians, liberal and conservative alike, would find this to be the most important and consistent message of Jesus. Great - so that doesn't seem so terribly divorced from the idea of redistributing wealth to charitable ends, right? Well, yes and no. The problem that many liberal Christians have to face (being largely consequentialist) is that it never seems like this is purely an application to ends. Jesus never seems to implore people to help others because this is the most pragmatic end. Rather, he seems to be imploring us to embrace the treatment of other human beings in this way as part of a larger ethical norm.

Indeed, it would seem that the "golden rule" is a norm that encompasses all modes of action without regard to any particular consequence. It implies that you're not to steal, to murder, to lie. It implies that you're to give, sacrifice, and serve. All of this without particular regards to ends, but rather with regard to moral duties to each other as human beings. An interesting implication of adhering to moral/social constructs as a norm is a fundamental regard to means as ends in an of themselves...which is something that consequentialists largely push aside (in theory). An adherence to such a moral maxim is demonstrated time and time again in the Gospels - often with one or more of the apostles making hasty decisions that they believe might further God's ends, with Jesus gently walking them through the issue. For instance, we don't see Jesus call any of his disciples to murder or steal. This isn't because it couldn't further some of the ends he endorsed (indeed it may) but rather because he treats the means as ends themselves, and calling someone to lie, cheat, or steal would be inconsistent with one's moral duty to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

So what does this mean? Well, largely it would seem to indicate that Jesus brought with him a deontological moral standard, while largely rejecting consequentialism. So when trying to connect the tenets of Christianity with a more modern liberal, utilitarian ethic, some obvious problems arise. The funding of government social programs comes practically exclusively from theft. The legitimacy of that theft is contestable, of course, but the action itself is not quite as contestable as a reality of fact. So we have an ultimate end (charity/sacrifice) that is consistent with the normative counsel Jesus provided. On the other hand we have means which are not.

Pending some kind of undiscovered scriptural text that alludes to Jesus' advocation of violence and theft to achieve the ends of charity, liberal Christians who believe Jesus' call to charity can act as a political wedge against their opposition find themselves in what appears to be an untenable position. Of course, this isn't to say that the moral or political reasoning of their opposition is any more correct, even if their beliefs are more consistent with Christian morality. In fact, I would guess that few Christian conservatives are explicitly aware of the deontoligical nature of Christianity, or the fact that this property inexplicably ties their moral views to the political theory of Natural Law in many ways. And, of course, Natural Law is the product of "classical" liberalism in many parsing through some of the transitional terminology may be a little menacing when trying to distinguish liberal vs. conservative thought historically with regards to Christianity.

That being said, the fact remains that, while conservative Christians certainly have a number of conflicting issues worth addressing, liberal Christians may find themselves backed into a serious philosophical corner if they press their "Jesus was really a communist/hippie" view too far.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

My Contention

If men were angels, no government would be necessary.

- James Madison

If men were angels, government would be acceptable.

- Me

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Burning Books, Buildings, and Bridges

Over at Pileus, James Otteson writes an excellent post which begs the following:

Why is burning the Koran any more offensive than building a mosque near Ground Zero?...

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that both are indeed outrageously insensitive, and people of good faith should oppose them both. But is there a consistent principle among those who oppose the one but not the other? Or is it that some people’s sensibilities are more important than those of others?...

James is one of my favorite contributors at Pileus, although my take is often somewhat different than his (Check out his great book, Actual Ethics if you get the chance!). I offer my take on his question in the comments:

The juxtaposition is kind of interesting. And, of course, the outrage is just going to continue to ramp up over the next couple of days. However, I do think there are some obvious differences – even if they don’t warrant different responses ultimately.

My two cents:

I think there are essentially two distinguishable facets to the sensibility issue; intention and perception. So I tend to compare and contrast the two items from that perspective.


On the one hand, you have an Imam with a (largely) unquestionable track record in his moderate and reconciliatory views on Islam and Western culture. His intention, if we are to take him at his word (past and present) is to build a bridge between these communities…to tear down the walls.

On the other hand, you have a pastor who’s intentions seem largely hateful and inflammatory. I don’t think anyone is under the delusion that he is trying to build bridges or promote peace between the two groups.


Regarding the “mosque”, a large portion of the American people are obviously offended by an Islamic community center being built in the somewhat near vicinity of ground-zero. What I find interesting about this reaction is that it largely seems to be the result of a somewhat tautological progression in reasoning. The first part is the somewhat obvious realization that not all Muslims were responsible for 9-11, and as Roderick Long has lamented, “banning an Islamic cultural center because the 9/11 highjackers were Muslim would be no more salient than banning a YMCA because the highjackers were male.” So justification for a profound amount of sensitivity regarding an innocent Muslim building a place of worship on private property is ultimately the vilification of Muslims in entirety – which had been going on long before this provocation. The truth, I think, is that intention does play a large role here (particularly when it comes to the actions of a person who hasn’t even committed a crime). So opponents have had to continually question the motivations not just this particular Imam, but the whole religion itself. And we’ve certainly seen this argument in spades in the last couple of weeks.

Regarding the burning of the Qu’ran, there are obviously a large amount of people in the Muslim world who are very offended by this action. So how is the perception of those people any different than those of the “sensitive” Americans? Well, since no crime has actually been committed here, I would say the largest difference would be intent. Muslims don’t have to make up a long and drawn-out conspiracy theory to convince us of the uniform hatred all Christians or Americans harbor for Muslims to pin this man as having hateful intentions – he’s being perfectly blunt regarding his actions. If, say, the Imam greatly sympathized with the 9-11 attackers and wanted to build the center as a shrine to the hijackers, I would say THEN Americans would have every right to be just as offended as Muslims around the world now seem to be.

With that being said, I have no sympathy for those that wish to coerce innocent people on the simple grounds of having their feelings hurt – this goes for disgruntled Americans who may wish to start revoking property titles or angry Muslims who are threatening violence over burnt books. So while it may seem like some people like me are being hypocritical, note that I’m certainly not excusing any Muslims who do or wish to do harm upon other people over this. It should be criticized just as swiftly and heavily as the people who are pushing to have government force used to stop the “mosque” from being built in New York. But my larger point, to reiterate, is that when it comes the sensitivity I believe a large part of that kind of response really does require untoward intentions of the “offending” party – which is precisely why, in the “mosque” conversation, opponents have quickly and forcefully woven incredibly generalized statements regarding the intentions of all Muslims into their denunciation of Feisal Abdul Rauf and his project.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Self-Effacing Arguments

From a comment in one of Gene Callahan's recent blog posts:

I've been struck by the passing resemblance anarcho-capitalism bears to feudalism -- they're both forms of landlordism, and ancaps rarely seem troubled by the idea that the "defense" agencies will have far more military power than than the people they're supposedly defending.

Oh, you mean as opposed to the situation we're in now - where "we" clearly have more military might than the agency defending us?