Friday, July 10, 2020

Blood Plasma: Peter Jaworski vs. the Hired Guns at Bloodwatch

My colleague Peter Jaworski has been leading the charge to change Canada's policies on blood collection, in particular, on whether Canadians can be paid for their blood plasma. 

Along the way, he's getting attacked by various intellectual prostitutes at an astroturf organization called "Bloodwatch", which describes itself as being all about public safety, but which actively lies to the public about the safety of paid plasma. They have never complained bout imports from the United States. They pushed for a law against paid plasma, but in fact, it was only a law that prevented Canadians from getting paid. This law protects certain Canadian jobs against competition. 

Peter makes clear how absurd their position is. They claim that it is wrong, exploitative, unsafe, and whatnot to pay Canadians for blood plasma. So, what does Canada do? It imports almost all (84%) of the blood plasma it needs from...wait for it...paid plasma "donors" in the United States.

Jesus Christ. These people are like Ayn Rand villains. I would find this implausible if I read it in one of her novels, yet here they are, real people, utterly without shame. 

They're also attacking him (see Twitter) for, I guess, having some sort of connection with Cato, even though he has... wait for it... published extensively on this issue in the very best peer-reviewed outlets.

Voltaire famously prayed for God to make his enemies ridiculous. Peter has no need for such a prayer. 

Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Harm Principle and Toleration: An Interview with JS Mill

As many of you know, I am a trained necromancer. (I learned this skill after I wrote Why Not Capitalism? I so thoroughly destroyed G. A. Cohen's book that Satan was forced to relinquish Cohen's soul to me from hell. I now keep it in a shoebox under my desk and use it as a footstool.) One of my skills is talking to the dead. Today, I'm interviewing John Stuart Mill on his book On Liberty.

Brennan: "You say that neither government nor society should regulate or control actions unless they cause harm to others."

Mill: "Correct."

Brennan: "So, what you mean by that is so long as someone claims an action--such as writing an op-ed criticizing their philosophy of gender identity--harms them, then the action should be regulated heavily by society or government."

Mill: "Uh, no, that doesn't follow."

Brennan: "Wait, why not?"

Mill: "Well, for one, anyone can claim they are harmed by anything. We can't just let individual people decide by fiat that they were harmed. A principle like that would surely be abused. I mean, if all it takes for you to be able to assert control over others is that you were harmed by them, people will claim to be harmed all the time. Human beings are pretty crappy and will generally take advantage of structures of power for their own benefit. Indeed, there is overwhelming evidence that this is how people behave. A church may be created for the purpose of saving souls, but give it 10 years and its new purpose becomes amassing wealth and real estate. You can't trust people--whether in social mobs, bureaucracies, or in governments--with much power. That's one of the big reasons I oppose paternalism, you may recall, if you read the second half of that book."

Brennan: "But suppose they could be trusted, would that be enough? And suppose it did cause real harm by some objective standard."

Mill: "Well, no. The other problem is that you are confusing a necessary condition with a sufficient condition. I'm saying that we should tolerate anything people do that doesn't harm others. But I'm not saying that if something does harm others, it should therefore automatically be subject to any, let alone significant, social or political regulation."

Brennan: "Why not?"

Mill: "I mean, to simplify the argument I make in that book, it comes down to this: When we decide what level of freedom people should have, and how much we should tolerate, we should draw the line where doing so produces the most overall social progress and overall best living conditions for people. High tolerant, risk-taking societies produce great social, political, scientific, artistic, and cultural progress, while heavily moralizing, indignant, puritanical, risk-averse, and mobbish societies do not. Tolerant societies make people flourish, intolerant societies do not. I realize that's an empirical argument and requires empirical proof, but I think history and economic analysis rather clearly demonstrates I'm right."

Brennan: "Can you give me an example of a harm that we should tolerate?"

Mill: "Take one from economics. If a competitor comes along who builds a better mousetrap, she might put your mousetrap company out of business. It's plausible to say that you've been harmed--probably far more than a person would be harmed by, say, allowing a conservative speaker to come to campus, a speaker the person is free to ignore. So, imagine we said that in order to prevent harm, we never allow people to outcompete each other in the market. What do we get? Stagnation, poverty, rent seeking, and a political system run by insiders who control the anti-competitive regulations for their own benefit at the expense of everyone else. See the medieval guild systems, for example. We all are better off in a system where such competition is allowed, even though each of us would prefer that we, and we alone, be immunized and protected against such competition. Similarly, overall, we each benefit greatly from living in liberal, open, tolerant cultures, even though we each selfishly might wish to crush and destroy those who have ideas and beliefs we despise."

Brennan: "People are much less racist, ethnocentric, sexist, and so on today then back when you were writing, say, The Subjection of Women. Do you think we're a more tolerant society?"

Mill: "Yes, for sure. But at the same time, we should be careful not to credit people with being tolerant when they really aren't. Most people today are not very tolerant overall, even if they are more tolerant than most people were through most of history. Toleration means putting up with things you dislike and disapprove of. For instance, Jay, do you disapprove of homosexuality?"

Brennan: "No, not at all. I think there is no moral difference between heterosexual or homosexual sex, or really any consensual sex among adults."

Mill: "Then you can't really be said to tolerate these actions, because you don't disapprove of them. It's a bit like saying you are tolerant of people using red toothbrushes. Toleration means putting up stuff you dislike and disapprove of. In contrast, if an evangelical Christian thinks homosexuality is sinful but puts up with it, doesn't harass gay people, and generally leaves them alone, that's tolerance. So, what are some things you disapprove of?"

Brennan: "Illiberalism, for one. Liberalism is the correct theory of justice. I also, frankly, tend to think that non-liberals are almost universally motivated by a will to power and that their putative reasons for illiberalism are a cover for their self-interested actions."

Mill: "Ok, so as a liberal, you have to tolerate illiberal people. Here, read this FAQ to understand what that means. Toleration is an extremely demanding principle, and most people don't live up to it."

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Confronting Marx's Bigotry

Academics are now rightfully confronting the bigotry and racism that pervades the history of philosophy. However, one philosopher is conspicuously absent from many of these accounts (including each one linked above): Karl Marx.

Consider, for instance, an opinion piece from the New York Times titled: "Confronting Philosophy's Anti-Semitism." The piece discusses Hume, Voltaire, and Kant (and briefly mentions Hegel, Schopenhauer, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein) but says nothing about Marx.

The omission of Marx from a discussion of antisemitic philosophers is remarkable. Here's a passage from Marx's "On the Jewish Question":
Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew.

What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money.

Very well then! Emancipation from huckstering and money, consequently from practical, real Judaism, would be the self-emancipation of our time.

An organization of society which would abolish the preconditions for huckstering, and therefore the possibility of huckstering, would make the Jew impossible. His religious consciousness would be dissipated like a thin haze in the real, vital air of society. On the other hand, if the Jew recognizes that this practical nature of his is futile and works to abolish it, he extricates himself from his previous development and works for human emancipation as such and turns against the supreme practical expression of human self-estrangement.

We recognize in Judaism, therefore, a general anti-social element of the present time, an element which through historical development – to which in this harmful respect the Jews have zealously contributed – has been brought to its present high level, at which it must necessarily begin to disintegrate.

In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.
There is far more to be said about this essay that I can hope to say here. For now, I'll simply note how Marx's antisemitism and anti-capitalism are intertwined. Marx invokes the antisemitic trope that identifies Judaism with greed and moneymaking, which he in turn associates directly with the dehumanizing properties of capitalism:
Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist. Money degrades all the gods of man – and turns them into commodities. Money is the universal self-established value of all things. It has, therefore, robbed the whole world – both the world of men and nature – of its specific value. Money is the estranged essence of man’s work and man’s existence, and this alien essence dominates him, and he worships it. The god of the Jews has become secularized and become the god of the world. The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew.
Marx's bigotry is not restricted to antisemitism either. He accused the Chinese of "hereditary stupidity." He also extensively praised racist Pierre Tremaux's amateur work on evolution. In a letter to Engels, Marx writes,
In its historical and political applications far more significant and pregnant than Darwin. For certain questions, such as nationality, etc., only here has a basis in nature been found. E.g., he corrects the Pole Duchinski, whose version of the geological differences between Russia and the Western Slav lands he does incidentally confirm, by saying not that the Russians are Tartars rather than Slavs, etc., as the latter believes, but that on the surface-formation predominant in Russia the Slav has been tartarised and mongolised; likewise (he spent a long time in Africa) he shows that the common negro type is only a degeneration of a far higher one.
Engels himself lauded the "energetic Yankees" who "seized" California "from the lazy Mexicans who did not know what to do with it" in the Mexican-American war. He writes of the "filth" and "savagery" of the Irish here. And this is not nearly an exhaustive account. A more detailed look at the racism of Marx and Engels, including their repeated use of vile racial slurs, can be found here.

The comparative infrequency with which philosophers grapple with Marx's bigotry is startling. (I'll note in passing that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on Marx and "On the Jewish Question" makes no mention of the essay's antisemitism). Not only is Marx's racism glaring and pervasive, his work continues to exert a profound influence on academia. The Communist Manifesto is one of the three most assigned texts at American colleges. Nearly 18% of social scientists identify as Marxists. For all of these reasons, no serious reckoning with the racist history of philosophy can take place without confronting the case of Marx.

Moral Talk Is Not Magic: From Grandstanding

Grandstanding is the fantastic book by Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke that you should be reading. 

Here's a wonderful passage from the first chapter, p. 5:

...many people don't see the downside of abusing moral talk. They act as if moral talk is always admirable (at least when their side does it). For these people, moral talk is magic. Invoking sacred words--justice, dignity, rights, equality, or honor, tradition, faith, and family--magically transforms your nasty, abusive, selfish behavior into something heroic and praiseworthy. Want to be cruel to people you don't like and have your like-minded peers congratulate you? Wrap your behavior in high-flying moral language. Voila! Brave, Admirable, Speaking Truth to Power.

But moral talk is not magic. We do not have free rein to treat others badly simply because we are invoking sacred words, or because we are showing in our own way that we care. Being morally outspoken is not in itself an achievement.  [Emphasis added]

Tuesday, July 7, 2020


1.  Q: Should people say bad things, (e.g. demeaning, inegalitarian, or mean comments)?

A: No.


2.  Q: If people shouldn’t say bad things, then should saying bad things be illegal?

A: No. Most things that are bad shouldn’t be illegal.


3. Q: But maybe if someone says a bad thing outside of work, they should still get fired from their jobs?

A: Not usually. Often the same reasons against making something illegal are also reasons against imposing other sanctions on people.


4. Q: Ok but what if a boss fires someone for saying a bad thing? If that’s wrong, then shouldn’t what the boss did be illegal?

A: No (see question #2).


5.  Q: What if instead of people getting fired or facing legal penalties, everyone just yells at the person who said the bad thing?

A: It depends. Sometimes this is a good idea. Sometimes, yelling at people in this way amounts to saying a bad thing (see question #1).


6.  Q. So basically, you’re saying that people can’t say bad things but they have to put up with other people saying bad things and not facing legal penalties or getting fired. And it’s only sometimes ok to yell at people who said bad things? It sounds like you’re saying that people have to put up with a lot of stuff they disapprove of in order to avoid inappropriately sanctioning or punishing someone. What kind of view is that?!

A: Liberalism.


Monday, July 6, 2020

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Violent Protest and Harmful Intent

The demonstrations against racial injustice have generated varied reactions, some showing support, others showing anxiety and distress. Here I assume that the protests are substantively justified. In the parlance of just war theory, protesters have a just cause: to end racial injustice. (I do not define racial injustice; I just assume that ending it is a worthwhile goal.) But many protesters destroyed the property of innocent parties. Can protesters justify this harm by pleading a just cause?

Some have answered yes. To them, sometimes innocent persons must bear the cost of rectifying injustice, especially if they suffer harm to their property and not to their life or limb. As the saying goes, to make an omelet you must break some eggs.

I think this view is questionable. To see why, consider an analytical framework used to evaluate collateral destruction in war: the doctrine of double effect (DDE). A major problem with an otherwise justified war is that the just warrior is bound to harm innocent persons. This may be enough to condemn war altogether and be a pacifist, as some have done. But those who believe that some wars are justified have tried to distinguish between direct and oblique harm in pursuit of the just cause. Direct harm to innocents is almost never justified, while oblique harm to innocents may sometimes be justified. The DDE is complex and there are many versions in the literature, but reduced to its bare bones it claims the following:

An act with two effects, one good, one evil, may be performed (1) if the evil effect is not directly intended but merely foreseen, and (2) if the good achieved by the good effect is significant enough to permit the evil of the evil effect to come to pass.

The DDE, then, poses an intent condition and a proportionality condition. These are each necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for the permissibility of acts that harm innocent persons in the pursuit of a just cause.

Now let’s apply the DDE to violent protests against racial injustice. To justify harm to innocents, the protesters must not directly intend that harm, even as a means to end racial injustice elsewhere.  The harm to bystanders can only be justified as a collateral effect of the protesting actions. This difference can be illustrated in two scenarios.

In the first scenario, protesters confront the police. The protesters, let’s assume, are justified in using proportionate violence against the police, perhaps by throwing stones at them. In the course of this confrontation, the property of neighbors is damaged, as they are caught in the middle of the riot. This harm complies with the DDE. The protesters did not intend to harm the neighbors (intent condition), and the cause pursued, ending racial injustice, is important enough to justify such collateral damage (proportionality condition). While the protesters could foresee that harm, they didn’t centrally want it, it was nothing to their intent.

In the second scenario, protesters, after having confronted the police, marched through the neighborhood burning the residents’ property. This harm violates the DDE because it does not meet the intent condition. Protesters directly intended to burn those buildings as a way to demonstrate against racial injustice. The harm is not collateral harm but direct harm. This is true even if the action meets the proportionality condition. It may be that the end of racial injustice is important enough to allow the destruction of some property. But it must be done right, with the right intent.  Protesters willed the burning of property; that harm was central to their intent.

Someone may retort: “Racial injustice is systemic, so no one, and especially not property owners, can claim to be an innocent party. These persons benefit from a racist system, so burning their property is a direct action against culpable persons.” This reply is unconvincing. It justifies any act of violence against anyone who happens to live in a community saddled with the social problem in question (here, racial injustice.) Such reasoning would have justified the 1971 Munich massacre and similar acts of terrorism against innocents.  Whatever the usefulness of the idea of systemic racism in other contexts, it cannot be used to justify directly harming third parties in this way.  (By the way, the reply illustrates conceptual difficulties of the idea of systemic properties, but that is a matter for another post.)