No, no, no.

A quick hit on the case of Ahmed Ghailani, the accused terrorist who was tried in civilian court for the bombing of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.  Charged with 281 counts of murder and conspiracy, Ghailani was convicted on only a single count of conspiracy, because the judge ruled that certain testimony was inadmissible on the grounds that it was obtained through the use of torture.

The conservatives are making hay of this. Ed Morrissey at HotAir:

The failure of Holder’s DoJ to win anything more than a single conspiracy count against Ghailani as a result of using a process designed for domestic criminals than wartime enemies shows that the critics had it right all along.  It also shows that both Obama and Holder have been proven spectacularly wrong, since a man who confessed to the murder of over two hundred people will now face as little as 20 years, with a big chunk of whatever sentence Foopie receives being reduced by time already served.

And on the Left, Glenn Greenwald at Salon:

But the most important point here is that one either believes in the American system of justice or one does not.  When a reviled defendant is acquitted in court, and torture-obtained evidence is excluded, that isn’t proof that the justice system is broken; it’s proof that it works.  A “justice system” which guarantees convictions — or which allows the Government to rely on evidence extracted from torture — isn’t a justice system at all, by definition.

They’re both right.

A justice system, if it makes any pretense at all at justice, is predicated on protecting individual rights–including the rights of the accused.  If the evidence was inadmissible (and it likely would have been inadmissible in a military tribunal as well), then it was inadmissible.


Civil justice is simply not the right forum in which to deal with international terrorism. The administration has already admitted that regardless of the outcome of the trial it has the right and the will to hold Ghailani indefinitely anyway.

A justice system, if it makes any pretense at all at justice, is predicated on the idea that the results of trials matter.

The one point on which both Morrissey and Greenwald agree is that this whole exercise was nothing more than a show trial. It was a farce masquerading as principle. Money, time, energy wasted on a mock trial whose outcome simply doesn’t matter.

But we knew all this already. When the Obama administration announced that they would seek civilian trials for some of the Guantanamo detainees, but not all, it made the tacit admission that the trials were being conducted for political purposes only.  When it further announced that it would continue to hold the defendants, even if acquitted, as enemy-combatants, it ceded the entirety of the argument to the opposition.  The administration has admitted that these men are enemy combatants, but will, in an attempt to mollify a particularly vocal group of political partisans, hold show trials and make a pretense of justice.





Just finished Infidel.

Buy it.  Read it.

It’s an amazing book by an absolutely amazing woman.  An unflinching, honest, wrenching and extraordinary memoir from a woman about whom not enough can be said.

I’ve written about Ayaan Hirsi Ali before, but nothing really prepared me for this book. I’m simply astounded and awed.

Two excerpts:


One November morning in 2004, Theo van Gogh got up to go to work at his film production company in Amsterdam. He took out his old black bicycle and headed down a main road. Waiting in a doorway was a Moroccan man with a handgun and two butcher knives.

As Theo cycled down the Linnaeusstraat, Muhammad Bouyeri approached. He pulled out his gun and shot Theo several times. Theo fell off his bike and lurched across the road, then collapsed. Bouyeri followed. Theo begged, “Can’t we talk about this?” but Bouyeri shot him four more times. Then he took out one of his butcher knives and sawed into Theo’s throat. With the other knife, he stabbed a five-page letter onto Theo’s chest.

The letter was addressed to me.


When I was born, my mother initially thought death had taken me away. But it didn’t. When I got malaria and pneumonia, I recovered. When my genitals were cut, the wound healed. When a bandit held a knife to my throat, he decided not to slit it. When my Quran teacher fractured my skull, the doctor who treated me kept death at bay.

Even with bodyguards and death threats I feel privileged to be alive and free.

People accuse me of having interiorized a feeling of racial inferiority, so that I attack my own culture out of self-hatred, because I want to be white. This is a tiresome argument.

Tell me, is freedom then only for white people? Is it self-love to adhere to my ancestors’ traditions and mutilate my daughters? To agree to be humiliated and powerless? To watch passively as my countrymen abuse women and slaughter each other in pointless disputes?

When I came to a new culture — where I saw for the first time that human relations could be different —
The kind of thinking I saw in Saudi Arabia preserves a feudal mind-set based on tribal concepts of honor and shame. Would it have been self-love to see that as a foreign cult, which Muslims are forbidden to practice?

Life is better in Europe than it is in the Muslim world because human relations are better — and one reason human relations are better is that in the West, life on earth is valued in the here and now and individuals enjoy rights and freedoms that are recognized and protected by the state.

To accept subordination and abuse because Allah willed it — that, for me, would be self-hatred.

Moral balancing

There’s this article in The Guardian (of all places) that describes a study conducted by a pair of Canadian psychologists that purports to show that “green” consumers may be more likely to cheat, steal, lie and less likely to be kind.

The pair found that those in their study who bought green products appeared less willing to share with others a set amount of money than those who bought conventional products. When the green consumers were given the chance to boost their money by cheating on a computer game and then given the opportunity to lie about it – in other words, steal – they did, while the conventional consumers did not. Later, in an honour system in which participants were asked to take money from an envelope to pay themselves their spoils, the greens were six times more likely to steal than the conventionals.

I don’t want to make too much of this.; not everyone who buys recycled toilet paper is a jerk.  But I don’t think the conclusion is entirely surprising.

Dieter Frey, a social psychologist at the University of Munich, said the findings fitted patterns of human behaviour. “At the moment in which you have proven your credentials in a particular area, you tend to allow yourself to stray elsewhere,” he said.

I think that’s likely true. And I’m sure that environmentalists are not the only virtue-obsessed group that engages in moral balancing; any ethic that divorces the virtue of an act from the agent-relative value of an act will tend to foster this kind of behavior. This is especially true if “virtuous” behavior confers social prestige. If virtue is not it’s own reward (and let’s face it, using recycled toilet paper is NOT a reward), but imposes some cost on the virtuous, then the virtuous will be more likely to compensate for their sacrifice in other ways. In a sense, these people feel that they’ve “paid at the office.” It’s a result that is of a kind with the studies that seem to show that charitable giving declines as support for taxpayer funded entitlements grows. If you’ve satisfied an obligation through taxes or hemp, you’re more likely to compensate for that sacrifice by extracting some compensation for that obligation in some other area.

I’d like to see a similar study that controlled for meta-ethical motivation. While I’m sure that most environmentalists are firm deontologists, I’m sure at least some of them must be consequentialists.  My hypothesis is that the consequentialists will be less likely to engage in moral balancing; if you see virtue as a means to a particular agent-relative end, then you’re more likely to find reward in  virtue itself and less likely to seek balancing compensation.

I’m speaking statistically here; not all deontologists are closet criminals and not all consequentialists are moral paragons. But I do think that the extent to which we divorce ethics from the value of human life the more likely we are to see human actors struggle with their “moral” commitments.

Climate and Bias

I’ve been swimming in Climate talk for the past few days. Spurred, obviously by the East anglia data leak. Unfortunately, I don’t feel as if I know anything with any greater certainty. However, the whole subject reminds me of economic arguments.

The debate between “Alarmists” and “Deniers” strikes me as awfully similar to the debate between Keynsians and Austrians… each side is so completely enmeshed in a particular methodological approach that the debate rages endlessly. Each side claims methodological superiority, each side claims to have the data on its side, each side claims to make more accurate predictions, and each side claims to be more interested in truth and less blinded by ideology. For the layperson, the argument that sounds the more persuasive is the argument that better corresponds with an existing structure of knowledge.

So where does that leave me? It leaves me in a muddle.

Where should that leave me? I have no idea.

When I think about economic and policy debates (and I have some small experience arguing for economic theories and policy prescriptions that are seriously outside mainstream thought!) I remind myself that my certainty about a particular issue (say, single-payer health coverage) depends in large part on the interrelation of a relatively large amount of information culled from related but essentially disparate disciplines: economics, philosophy, political science, and psychology. My position on a particular issue (anyone’s position, really) depends on a complex lattice work of accumulated knowledge and interpretation, effectively communicating all the intracies of that lattice work is extremely difficult. And is often extraordinarily frustrating!

So in that sense, I have a strong empathy for the Alarmists. They’ve taken an extraordinarily large body of research from related but disparate disciplines and are attempting to synthesize that knowledge in the form of a useful prediction.

“Average global temperatures will rise over the next several decades and that will cause climatic changes that will pose enormous problems for humanity.”

To me, that sounds awfully similar to,

“Increased federal deficits will rise over the next several decades and that will cause economic hardhsips that will pose enormous problems for humaity.”

Which sounds awfully similar to,

“Average global temperatures may rise slowly over the next several decades but the impact will be slight and the costs are best born by our much wealthy descendants.”

Which sounds awfully similar to,

“Increased federal deficits may rise over the next several decades but the impact will be slight and the cost is best born by our much wealthier descendants.”

So which is true? Well, I think the second is demonstrably, obviously, unfailingly true. The last is absurd on its face and utterly wrong. The other two? I don’t know. I tend to agree with Bjorn Lomborg and discount the veracity of the first. But I take that position largely because of all the arguments I’ve read, the inconsistencies and assumptions in Lomborg’s arguments (and all climate predictions depend on inconsistent data and huge, wallowing assumptions) trouble me least becuase those assumptions mirror my lattice-work of existing knowledge and the inconsistencies seem similar to other inconsistencies I’ve been able to reconcile in other areas.

It’s tempting to say that I agree with Lomborg because he confrims my existing bias. But if my existing bias is true (and surely, it is!) then that confirmation is a valid reason to give his arguments greater credence! Of course, if my biases are wrong…

Which is all to say that analyzing complex propositions is extremely difficult. The climate debate highlights the importance of rigorous attention to detail in the evaluation of any new idea. Every new proposition should be checked against an existing set of knowledge–and the parts that don’t match should be ruthlessly discarded. Whether that means discarding the new proposition or, as is often the case, dissasembling the lattice work and rebuilding the scaffolding to accomodate the new idea.

It’s a tough job and prone to error, but it’s the only way to get anything right.

And in the end, it’s why when I see people withold data and strive to align their predictions with their own financial interests (as was clearly the case at East Anglia), I tend to distrust their conclusions. They’ve given me cause to beleive that they aren’t as committed to evaluting their own set of conceptions as I am and so I trust them less.

Which is not to say that I trust all climate scientists less. I just have more work to do evaluating their claims and their counterclaims. And I think, if the East Anglia data leak shows anything, it shows that climate scientists need to do more of that as well.

All up in the philosophy

I got this from Shawn on facebook. But I don’t do much facebook anymore (for reasons mostly relating to the proxy server at the office), so I’m copying this and pasting it here. I stole some responses from Shawn who apparently stole some from Aeon…

This would be good for discussion and comments! (hint hint)

Moral properties Naturalist Moral Realism
Moral knowledge is empirical
Normative ethics Neo-Aristotelian rational self-interest
Animal ethics Whatever the ethics of animals are, they’re not telling. Seriously. Since Animals are non-cognitive, animal ethics are necessarily a subset of human knowledge. What we call “good” is “good” for a particular subject, whatever decisions we make regarding animal ethics are necessarily subject to observational bias. We can decide that it’s OK to eat animals, or not. We can decide that it’s wrong to abuse animals and we can decide what constitutes abuse, but we make those decisions–whatever they are–according to our own criteria for our own purposes and for our own benefit.
Abortion Ethically: Yes, through the point at which the fetus is viable.
Legally: Yes, through the second trimester or in cases where the mother’s life is in danger.
Death Penalty Privatize it. Joking. Mostly. Some people have, in fact, forfeited their right to live, but the State will invariably screw up both the adjudication and the administration.
Political theory Constitutionally limited republican government with separated and enumerated powers and a bicameral legislature composed of distinct houses beholden to separate constituencies. (A house and senate with the additional qualification that only property owners may vote for senate and they may not vote for the house)
Distributive justice “From each as he chooses, to each as he is chosen” (Nozick).
Minds Biological Naturalism. I think Searle is pretty darn close. I don’t think there’s any reason to imagine that the “mind” must necessarily be non-reductive. An emergent process can be wholly reductive and still emergent. Szasz makes good points too.
Qualia produced by interactions of human sensory faculties with objects of world. (Kelley)
Free Will Volitional consciousness: human consciousness has the capacity to focus on this rather than that.
Reasons Humans act on reasons; some of which can be irrational.
Structure of knowledge An integrated whole upon the foundation of the senses.
Acquisition of knowledge Evidence of the senses interpreted through rational faculty
Knowledge of external world See above
Phil of science The scientific method is a reliable way to model the natural world. The progress of science lies in reducing the degree of error in the model’s predictions.
Existence of God A product of human imagination. Except for Thor. Thor was real.
Life after death Only in the memories of those who knew you.
Truth Some kind of correspondence theory. The correspondence need not be either wholly accurate or infallible to hold.
Universals Yes, as epistemological essences (Rand)
Abstract Objects See above.
Time the vector (or rate, depending on usage) of observable causality.
Space orthogonal to time, the limit (or rate) of observable causality.

Yes, I know that any definition of causality depends on concepts of Time and Space and therefore I’m being rather circular. However… I think we have a natural bias to organize our qualia in reference to a limited physiological understanding of causality. I think it’s likely that this base perception of causality lies at the root of our epistemological process and so therefore I’ll treat causality as the epistemic primary and time and space as derivative. But maybe the question is metaphysical rather than epistemological, in which case both time and space are aspects of reality. Time and space exist and they have a particular relationship.

Persistence for a while     : D
Natural kinds Yes.
Composite objects Yes.
Beauty Normative: that which affirms the glory of human life and achievement.
Descriptive: that which affirms the observer’s psychological sense of human life and achievement.

Beauty may arise from either production (art) or active identification (natural beauty).

Artworks Art is the result of deliberate effort to produce beauty.


Sandefur gets it right

This post on the Left’s dissonant support of sexual freedom by Tim Sandefur is great. He locates the central contradiction in the left’s support of individual sexual rights as contrasted with its total rejection of all other individual rights and offers a compelling diagnosis.

The answer is: historical accident. During the 1960s, natural rights arguments were heard most powerfully from the leaders of the Civil Rights movement, who associated themselves with the left. That injected the left with a rhetorical tradition that is powerfully effective. They aren’t able or willing to let that tool go. They often employ it in the most ridiculous ways (esp. environmentalism) but in the area of sexual freedom, they’re on solid ground arguing natural rights, even though it clashes with their view on virtually everything else.

Of course, if the Left’s support for sexual liberty is tactical rather than foundational, then we should expect that support to ebb with the daily tracking polls. Which, of course, is exactly what we do see. None of the major Democratic candidates for President supported same-sex marriage and all agreed to define marriage as between a man and a woman. Sandefur sees this and points out that the status quo is inherently untenable,

And so we’re left with a weird and totally unsustainable situation: the left, which rejects the principle of individual rights in virtually every other sphere, speaks with the most morally grand tones of the fundamental human right of sexual freedom. That situation can’t last. How can it be that a business license or a building permit is a mere government privilege, but a marriage license is a basic human right?

There are certainly arguments to be made about the centrality of sexual choice and the importance of sexual freedom and why those liberties deserve protections that economic liberties do not. But as Sandefur notes, those are not natural rights arguments; they are progressive arguments that treat sexual liberties as privileges granted by the state in furtherance of the state’s objectives. The left doesn’t often use that language to defend sexual liberty because… well because doing so would reveal the underlying truth: that the progressive commitment to sexual liberty is merely instrumental. If social engineering demanded restricting sexual freedoms (like criminalizing sexual reproduction) then sexual freedoms will be restricted. In the end, for the progressives, neither the business license nor the marriage license is sacrosanct.

Eventually, supporters of sexual liberty will discover the same kind of betrayal that supporters of economic liberty encountered on the right. If the progressive commitment to sexual liberty is merely instrumental, it is no less instrumental than the conservative commitment to free trade and economic liberty. The sad fact is that we have long moved past the point where any major political party or movement regarded individual liberty and autonomy with much respect or attention.

It will be interestingto see exactly how the next challenge to Proposition 8 is handled. With today’s ruling upholding the amendment. It appears that the only options are either yet another amendment to reverse what was reveresed (and another court challenge to attempt to reverse the reversal of the reversal of the original judicial reversal), or Califonria activists can try to take their fight to the feds. Given the current political climate and the, shall we say tepid support, that gay-marriage proponents have gotten from Obama, that route doesn’t see too promising. But who knows?

It would certainly be a pleasure to hear why gay-marriage should recevie protection as a fundamental right and incorporation through the 14th amendment, but why the second amendment should not be incorporated. If a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, what should we imagine is the stubborn insistence on inconsistency? The bugbear of dullards?

On the radio!

I’ll be on the radio today! I’ll be doing a segment on Today FM’s Last Word on the ethics of human cloning. If you want to tune in, I’ll be on at 5:30 pm local time. (12:30 pm Eastern)

In Ireland.

I think it might be possible to listen in here:

It’s been a while since I did a radio interview…. wish me luck!

Update: Well, it was quick. 6 minutes, tops. I had a bunch of sound bites and didn’t get to use any of them. Oh well, I’m kinda rusty.

I added an article I wrote in 2001 to this site. The article is almost surely the piece that got me the interview. It’s gottan a bit of play over the years, and every so often I get asked to talk about it.

If you’re really a glutton for philosophical punishment, there’s more of my older stuff here.