Archive for the 'preferences' Category


Hangman is coming down from the gallows

I’ve decided that when I title my posts in a very informative, uncreative way, less people read them than if I allude to the content of the post without really giving away what the hell I’m talking about. So, henceforth, I’m going to title my posts with song lyrics (if I can think of appropriate lyrics).

But now that you’re into this post a little bit, I can reveal what I’m actually going to talk about, which is the death penalty. I’m reading a book right now called Ultimate Punishment by Scott Turow, a novelist, but also a lawyer who served on an Illinois Commission to exhaustively investigate the use of the death penalty. I really like the book, partly because of Turow’s unpretentious and easy to understand prose, but also because he tries to address all the major arguments for and against the death penalty with succinctness. I’ll mention some of the cool parts of this book, and then, as I am trained to do, I will take issue with some of the arguments and try to move things in a different direction.

The most interesting part of this book is Turow’s emotional honesty. He has, at different times in his life, been in favor and opposed to the death penalty. Thus, he makes for an excellent guide to this charged issue. Also, he has inside experience with some Illinois death penalty cases. He has some UNBELIEVABLE stories (I mean there’s nothing secret here, it’s all in the public domain) about the conduct of some of the US attorneys in the death penalty cases he was a part of. Holy shit it will blow your mind.

You see, as my father is always fond of telling me, the defense and prosecution are different. The defense gets to play dirty; they are supposed to try and win for their client at all costs. The prosecution however, is constrained by the duty to “seek justice.” They are not supposed to do everything they can to get the accused in jail, but rather, to try and find, objectively, who did the crime. If I’m a mob lawyer and I know my client killed ten people, my duty is still to defend him, as the term goes “zealously.” But if I’m the prosecutor and I find new evidence that the person on trial didn’t do it, I must reveal it, and possibly, dismiss the case.

These US attorneys in Chicago did some unbelievable shit. They were supposed to “seek justice” but instead just ended up hiding a bunch of evidence in DEATH ROW cases. Good god, I wanted to see these guys put in jail for prosecutorial misconduct. They were indicted, but never convicted (insane that they weren’t.) The anecdote I remember most clearly from the book was where a prosecutor was leading a forensic expert through questioning and establishing that the shoe prints found outside the home were size 6 and that the defendant’s shoe size was six. Of course, it came out later upon cross examination, that the shoe prints at the scene of the crime were A WOMAN’S size 6 while the accused was a man. I can’t tell you how angry that made me. Seeking justice my ass.

Anyway, Turow moves to a discussion of the issues, and I think he does a great job.

Nonetheless, there is something I disagree with.

He writes,

To me by far the greatest fallacy in justifying capital punishment with the oft-heard mantra that “the victims deserve it” is that it is, in a favored lawyers’ phrase, an argument that “proves too much” — an argument that, when extended, defeats itself. Once we make the well-being of victims our central concern and assume that execution will bring them the greatest solace, we have no principled way to grant one family this relief and deny it to another. From each victim’s perspective, his loss, her anger, and the comfort each victim may draw from seeing the killer die are the same whether her loved one perished at the hands of the Beltway Sniper or died in an impulsive shooting in the course of a liquor-store holdup. The victims-first approach allows us no meaningful basis to distinguish among murders.

Yet in a state like Illinois, 49 times out of 50, a death sentence is not imposed for a first-degree homicide. Are we saying that justice has not been done in 98 percent of cases? Not according to the Supreme Court, which has established constitutional requirements that presuppose that the death penalty will be imposed on a select basis. The Court requires legislatures to create exacting guidelines about the factual circumstances under which capital punishment may even be considered, followed by a scrupulous weighing of the aggravating and mitigating factors that characterize a particular crime and defendant. And in this formulation, no matter how liberal the victim-impact rules, the expressed desires of survivors for the death penalty have no permissible role. Indeed, when we allow victims to “own” the process, we are defying that framework. (54-55)

What I object to in this is not really the end destination — the conclusion is fine — but how he gets there. In argumentative format, the argument is this.

1. What victims want is just.

2. Victims want first degree murderers to be put to death.

3. Most first degree murderers are not put to death

Conclusion: Our criminal justice system is not handling most cases justly.

This is a reductio ad absurdum, because the argument depends on the listener rejecting the conclusion, meaning that one of the premises must be false. Which one? Turow think we should reject 1, but this argument does not force us to do so, because nowhere does he give any statistics about how people think about first degree murder. He gives arguments about the death penalty is popular and how many people are angry every at the murderers of those they love, but nothing specific enough to support the argument. It’s a simple factual question: do most people who have someone murdered wish the death penalty on the perpetrator?

It’s hard to get data on this because people are usually asked about the policy of the death penalty and not about what they in particular would want. Even then that it seems that many prefer life imprisonment.

However, I think Turow is on to the right argument, but how can we tighten the reasoning behind thinking that victims alone don’t determine the justness of the intensity of punishment? Here’s an argument.

1. What victims want is just.

2. A victim might want the murderer of their loved one to be agonizingly tortured for years.

Conclusion: If a victim wanted a murdered to be tortured, it would be just to torture that murderer.

Of course, I’m expecting most people to think that the conclusion is false thus forcing us to find one of the premises to reject. Unlike with Turow’s argument, there is no choice. 2 is a hypothetical posit and so can’t be denied, leaving us with 1.

This is not a surprising result, and Turow agrees with it: society at large has a place at the table in how we punish people.

I’ll leave this here for now, but if people would be interested in a post about the argument that the death penalty is needed for morally proportionate response to horrible crimes, I have some ideas I’ve been kicking around. Leave a comment and I’ll see if that post would garner any interest.


Chinese Mothers and Self-confidence

In this article, a highly successful Chinese mother and yale law school professor argues that raising children with high expectations is the best way to parent, a way she labels as a the “Chinese” way. Though her choice of racial association is likely to draw a lot of criticism (and she does qualify the claim that this is the Chinese way, it’s recognizably Jewish and many other “ways”), I’m not that concerned with it.

But this article does concern me for another reason, which is that it comes very close to espousing something that I think is a deep truth, but it tarnishes that truth with a misunderstood elaboration along with some language that I think is deceptive and sometimes downright crude.

The idea of the article is that parents should feel free to be very demanding and in fact, unrelenting about making their kids achieve. In a sense, I agree with this thesis because I believe that people flourish when they are put under strain and when they face challenges. I also think that aspiring to excellence is one way to respect oneself and others and breeds confidence and happiness. The tricky part about this way of life is that there is always a tension between the state of confidence and competence that characterizes happiness and the difficulty and struggle that is needed to earn that position; in fact, to continually earn it and to sustain it.

In this article though, Amy Chua mistakes hardship and overcoming for arbitrariness and just plain meanness I think. But before getting to a deep philosophical point, I want to just make some ad hominem attacks and point out some passages that rubbed me the wrong way.

Chinese parents can get away with things that Western parents can’t. Once when I was young—maybe more than once—when I was extremely disrespectful to my mother, my father angrily called me “garbage” in our native Hokkien dialect. It worked really well. I felt terrible and deeply ashamed of what I had done. But it didn’t damage my self-esteem or anything like that. I knew exactly how highly he thought of me. I didn’t actually think I was worthless or feel like a piece of garbage.

Really? Is this the example you want? I mean, maybe it’s unfair of me to challenge her sincerity; maybe she really did not feel abused, but you wonder if maybe this author (now a yale professor) was just hard-nosed in a way that allowed her to profit from that kind of parenting; a type of parenting that I, being a “westerner” in her lexicon, would call abuse.

Then there’s this:

By contrast, Western parents have to struggle with their own conflicted feelings about achievement, and try to persuade themselves that they’re not disappointed about how their kids turned out.

And again, this is amateur psychoanalysis on my part, but I think this paragraph really reveals more about the author than any general trends of parenting. I don’t think many parents with “mediocre” kids really do have regrets about their kids in that way. In other words, most parents are proud of their kids, even when their child is in fact very poorly skilled or very disturbed, or even mean or flawed in a variety of ways. Yet these parents, quite sincerely I think, are proud of what their kids are and do.

For instance, parents of serial killers often proclaim that they still love their kids, and in all of this, maybe that is what’s missing. If you search this post, the word “love” does not appear a SINGLE time, and the above quote makes me think that Ms. Chua is projecting her own interest in her child’s objective success by claiming that western parents obsess about this. Again, things are tricky, because I am sympathetic to the point that parents have to ask for more to get more when it comes to their children, but there are bigger problems.

The main one in my mind is that I think Chua is working with a defective and shallow view of what counts as self-confidence. She gives an example (you really have to read it; it’s eye opening) in which she forces her child to learn a violin (some instrument) piece by threatening all sorts of sanctions. The child eventually gets it and Chua pats herself on the back for having the gumption to keep pushing her child even in the face of resistance. The lesson is that force is met with success, and ultimately — and this is Chua’s big argument — an iron core of self-confidence that can never be taken away. Here are Chua’s words

Western parents worry a lot about their children’s self-esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there’s nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn’t.

To me this seems to get things exactly wrong. Self confidence and trust in oneself does not come from finding that one can achieve under duress WHEN ANOTHER PERSON forces you to succeed. One only gains confidence if one overcomes hardship BY ONESELF. Having someone push you to succeed merely to have you succeed doesn’t teach confidence or boost self-esteem (except, and this is interesting, indirectly by breaking the child down). What really promotes confidence is when a child encounters a problem and works through it on their own and in the process comes to trust his or her instincts or toughness. Anyone can do extraordinary things when a gun is put to their head, what is much more useful and much more difficult to master is the ability to set a goal and then respond to new situations (setbacks) as they pertain to that goal’s attainment. In Chua’s example, her child was happy to be playing the piece right, but how sustainable is this feeling? What happens when another difficulty comes up? The confident child would replay past successes and think “if I did that, I can do this.” But Chua’s child may have to wonder how to motivate herself or train herself. She will think “I better call my mom to scream at me until I do this.” That’s why sometimes the most “hardcore” type of control is just neglect; forcing the child to rely on his or herself. In my mind, self-confidence is the most exhilarating type of freedom, but on Chua’s analysis it feels very cramped and restricting. It also feels imposed or exported from another person, and freedom that is exported is not freedom.

The trick is, as always, to find the middle ground. Chua seems to think it’s a victory to get a child to play the violin well just to say that the child can play the violin well, and she paints western parents as taking a “do what you want to do attitude” toward everything. Both are wrong. Instead, the trick of parenting is not to hone the child’s skill at any one thing (even school) but rather to hone an attitude or a “way of seeing” — something much more ephemeral and abstract — that lets the human being that the child will become determine her ends for herself and then act on them.

Confidence is autonomy unfolding itself, and I think Chua misunderstands its value by placing it in the hands of an arbitrary parenting strategy. Kids should pursue what they want and the trick is to show them that what they want isn’t necessarily want they want AT THIS MOMENT but rather a process of overcoming or character development. That lesson can’t be learned by giving them a list of accomplishments that they must check off before reaching age 16.


The constant gardener

No not the movie. Philosophy only posts are boring to most people so I’ll try to expand the point, but what I want to talk about here is building theories. How do we do that? Well the most important thing to do is to go for the weird cases; situations where our theory goes wrong or where the circumstances are very unusual.

For example, in this post I discussed solitary confinement, and its a very fruitful thing to examine because it gets away from the normal way things go to expose the workings of when things go wrong. Many early social scientists took this approach toward society at large, looking, for example, at crime. The idea was to find out about society by looking at what happens when people ignore its dictates. Freud also thought he could understand society and human life by looking at what happens when our psyche breakdowns.

So, what is the job of a philosopher. As I see it, the good philosopher nourishes examples from everyday life. The philosopher grows these examples over the course of often very long periods of time, tending to the example, finding ways to express it and just generally nursing it along.

Here’s an example. I’m writing a paper on weakness of the will, and the example is simple. You decide to do something, but don’t do it. You don’t change your mind or anything, you really do think you should do x, but you just don’t it. Instead, you do something else instead.

This single example basically underlies an entire area of philosophy known as action theory. Why doesn’t our best judgment work to get us to act? Of course, there is a psychological reason, that is not in dispute. But the issue is that we can act intentionally event against our best judgment. We can judge in favor of working and then go meet a friend. But if we can act intentionally (its not an accident that I go see my friend) then our best judgment is not a necessary component of intentional action.

Ok you say, intentional action is unrelated to judgment, but its not hard to see what it is: it’s just a desire. We have a stronger desire to meet our friend then we do to work. That may be true, but this raises problems in itself. Doesn’t it seem like there should be a connection about what we judge we should do and what we ACTUALLY do.

Also, and worse, a desire can’t be what underlies intentional action, and here’s why (this is a very famous example). Say I’m holding a rope while climbing with a friend and I suddenly have a desire to drop the rope. The thought of this cowardly desire so unnerves me that I drop the rope, out of shock. This is not intentional. The desire made my body MOVE, but I did not ACT.

What this example shows is that desires cannot be what underlies intentional action (you have a desire but no action, therefore desires are not SUFFICIENT for action. Something else is needed. What is that something else?) A whole area of philosophy takes off from just that problem and that is how all philosophy is: one example sets off a chain reaction of issues and complications. There is no easy answer and so someone has to think deeply about what it means to act.

To do philosophy, one must always be taking little instances of things that may seem totally innocuous and grow them; one must be a constant gardener of the everyday.


Sex selection

Still reading through Becker and Posner’s book Uncommon Sense, which is really just their blog. Never have I come across so many interesting arguments for positions that I find very unpalatable. This book is very provocative in that way.

Here’s a post in which Becker argues in favor of allowing sex selection of offspring (for the purposes of this post, imagine we can select sexes before impregnation rather than just by aborting girls, which happens in China. This separates the issues of sex selection from those of abortion, which is a separate debate). His test case for this argument is the preference for boys to girls in China.

His argument has many parts, but his basic point is that sex selection is welfare enhancing because parents will take better care of the type of offspring that they want to have. Also, its better to have a boy than to have a girl and give her away to an orphanage (which happens fairly regularly). He also argues that having less women in society is better for women because they are rarer and so more desirable (yea, they’re talking about people, not bushels of wheat, but you wouldn’t really know it by the rhetoric in this post).

Anyway, I think there are several ways to get at this argument. The first is that some preferences are adaptive, meaning they change after experience. In fact, many goods are advertised with this in mind. So-called experience goods often grow in value after they have been sampled. People who sell fast cars try to get people to test drive them because after you’ve experienced the car, you’re more likely to appreciate it. Many other things are experience goods in this way. (this is my post elaborating this point).

So, you see where this is going: girls might be experience goods in that once you have a baby girl of your own, you my re-think your preference. You just need to get hooked first by seeing the smiling face of your young daughter. This is extremely plausible I think given the way biology makes us attached to our offspring. You may decide to you don’t want a girl when you see the ultrasound screen (although that seems hard too) but once you actually see a daughter staring at you, you may become more attached to her needs.

And this has consequences that go beyond a mother and father caring for a girl versus neglecting her. There are studies that show that people who have daughters of their own are much more progressive about women issues such as access to contraception, rape laws, and other health issues. A nice paper about this is here. In other words, people with girls defend the interests of girls in public institutions. This is the democratic flipside to the economic reasoning of Becker. Sure, less girls = economic value of girls goes up, but the reverse is true from a democratic perspective. When there are less women and fewer families with women, the chance of public change defending women is less (of course China isn’t even a democracy really…but my guess is that the effect here doesn’t rely on voting and that families with girls might defend their interests in a variety of ways rather than just simply at the ballot box).

Lastly though, what is the principle behind Becker’s argument? If we cater to people who don’t like girls, then girls will be better off. Ok, maybe, but think of the analogy to something like civil rights. Maybe blacks would be better off if civil rights protesters didn’t agitate for change, but maybe the long term battle for equality outweighs short term utility losses due to backlash from racists (in fact, it seems very certain it does). So maybe, it’s worth not condoning a discriminatory practice and conforming public institutions with the value of non-discrimination, even if some women end up being raised in households that didn’t want them. Not a slam-dunk point, but one worth considering.


attitudes toward money

Money is fungible. If you have x dollars in your checking account and y in stocks and z under your pillow, that’s how much money you have altogether. You may have money tied up in a car or a home as well (which are less liquid). These things all together determine your assets.

However, it is possible, and I think in some sense useful, to psychologically partition one’s thinking about money. The way I do this is to think of money solely in terms of my checking account. Basically, if there’s no money in my checking account, I assume I have none (even though I could easily sell my stocks to get more or take my money from savings). This is one sense irrational. As I said before, money is money….is money.

But what this bizarre behavior does for me is motivate me to work harder and spend less. If I think that the money in my savings account is somehow off limits, then there is a strong psychological barrier in place against spending more than my income. In this way, my bank account continually goes up, albeit slowly. Now of course, in an emergency, I would not hesitate to spend my savings (pretend that I need to a pay a bill or have my internet turned off. I would obviously transfer the needed to money to keep the internet, which I use all the time). The point is just that this would be a case in which need breaks through the psychological dam I’ve put in place.

The bigger point is that psychological attitudes toward money are just as important as the strict amount that exists on paper.


The death of altruism

Psychological  egoism is a doctrine about the way the world is. The claim is that people are self-interested and never altruistic, but the truth of this claim depends on how it’s interpreted.

One view would claim that an action is egoistic if one’s own advancement is it’s goal. On this interpretation, it seems that psychological egoism is plainly false, because we act for the benefit of other people all the time. People take their  parents to the hospital, play with the neighbor’s kids, and give to charity, for the benefit of helping others. One might say, “but these people gain from such actions; they feel better for being better people.” This may be true but this satisfaction is only a side effect, and oftentimes, to get this satisfaction, one must act for the benefit of the other person. Giving to charity in front of one’s boss to try to help raise one’s chances for a promotion usually doesn’t make us feel good, but giving for the sake of giving does.

The move that psychological egoist partisans often make at this point is something like the following “well, if you did something, then you must have wanted to do it, which means that you did it for some reason that appealed to you and thus your action was egoistic.” The problem with this approach is that it misses the point. Of course we can only intentionally (as opposed to by accident) do things that we want to do, but this is just to say that the action is ours and not someone else’s. The more important point is that the person who wants to help others, though they want to help others, is the very paradigm of an altruistic person: they have a desire to help others.

If an egoistic action is just one that we choose to do, then of course there are no actions that are no egoistic, but that’s a tautological and uninteresting formulation of the theory. The better question to ask is “what is the content of a particular choice?” If the goal of my action is the benefit to someone else, then my action is altruistic even if I cannot help but being pleased by the good that I do.


Exeperience machine again

In this post I argued that what bothers about stepping into Nozick’s experience machine is that everything is planned. I suggested that living in such a planned virtual world would bother us, but that even if we were in the “real” world and everything was planned out, something we would be missing. The issue would be that we have too much control over our lives.

However, there is still the question about whether there is something that is still worse about the experience machine compared to reality. Imagine that you can live out a full and spontaneous life, meeting what challenges arise, in the real world, or, you can do the same thing in the experience machine. Neither one is planned and program has been created that be completely spontaneous in what challenges and situations are thrown at you. Is there something missing from the experience machine compared to life outside of it?

I’m not particularly disturbed by the experience machine on this view, but here’s one argument: it’s valuable to be in contact with real people and real things (the people part I find much more convincing). But then some people retort: “well there’s no way to know that the ‘real’ world is the way we think it is. What evidence do you have that other people even exist.” On this view, skepticism about our current world suggests that our world may be no different than an experience machine of sorts.

Here’s the problem with this retort. In the real world, I may not know one way or the other if external objects exist, or if there are other minds or not. But in the experience machine, I know that I will not interact with other things and people. It seems that it’s at least reasonable to opt for the real world, even if one could never know in principle whether things were the way we thought they were. At least there would be a chance.

So maybe, we should opt for the real world after all, to at least come into contact with other people. Of course, this works only until the scientists discover a way to link people in different experience machines to each other….o wait, what about the internet…