Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Founding Moral Principles

Last night as I went to bed musing on the fact-value distinction, I discovered a curious function of foundational principles. Today, Lawrence Solum provides excerpts (scroll down) from a fascinating philosophy article titled Facts and Principles, by Jerry Cohen, that deals with a very similar issue. My writing is very unlike Cohen's, given that I've had no formal philosophical training, so please excuse (or appreciate, depending on your point of view) the plain speaking. What I've conceived is in the same vein as Cohen, but without references to facts. I've dealt solely with principles (what Cohen labels P and P1).
To give a reason for why I accept a moral principle, I will necessarily invoke a more fundamental moral principle. To explain why I accept the more fundamental principle, I must invoke an even more fundamental principle. Eventually I'll come to the bottom principle that animates my ethical system. To justify this principle I must answer "Just because, there's no reason." If I'm not forced to answer "Just because; there's no reason" then I know that I haven't yet plumbed my thinking to the Founding Principle. But eventually I'll be forced to admit that there is no reason for why I believe a principle -- that principle is my Founding Moral Principle.

Now what occurred to me last night was the impossibility of criticizing anyone else's Founding Moral Principle, no matter how outrageous it might seem to me. There is no basis by which I can claim that my Founding Principle is better than theirs. The only way I could claim my principle was better would be because I have better reasons to accept my Founding Principle than they do. But I can give NO reasons for accepting my Founding Principle. If I could give reasons, then it isn't my Founding Principle. The Founding Principle is accepted, necessarily, on blind, non-rational faith. The only critical discussion two people can have concerns their consistency in building an ethical system from their Founding Principles. The Founding Principles themselves are beyond challenge.

Note: It seems to me that it would be possible to have multiple compatible Founding Principles. One principle could be "human beings have intrinsic value" and another "dogs have intrinsic value."
If anyone knows of a philosopher who's dealt with this curiosity, please send me a reference.

Calling All Brights!

Ok, so my assertion that the Bright religion is no better than any other has gotten a lot of you riled up. My heretical claim that your positions are non-rational has so exasperated some of you that you've turned to personal attacks. (No offense taken, I empathize with your frustration. I like to think my religion is better than others, too.) To advance the content of the debate, however, I propose a more constructive course.

Here's the deal: I invite all Brights to email me the moral premises they accept not by blind faith, but because they are founded in nature. Please trace the moral premise to natural facts. Though submissions will be accepted in any format, syllogisms are especially appreciated. Show your work.

This will allow us determine with certainty whether Brights have discovered a higher rational order, as advertised, or if they rely on non-rational faith, just like every other religion.

Please email all responses to Matt at the email address on the top right. I'll publish the best answers in a future post. Feel free to copy your messages into the Shout Outs. To expedite the diffusion of knowledge, I'll forward copies of all submissions to those who ask for them.

Start your keyboards!

P.S. Recent Bright converts are not expected to have deduced more than one moral premise at this stage in their progression.

P.P.S. Colleagues of Bright clergy, especially Fathers Dawkins and Dennet, are urged to alert them of our project and encourage their participation.

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Interracial Intimacies

Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy has a new book out: Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption. I read much of Randy's book in draft form a few years ago, and thought very highly of it. It should be a thought-provoking read. Here's a quote from the Washington Post's review:
For some time Randall Kennedy has been a member of that small coterie of our most lucid big thinkers about race. By trade and training, he is a professor of law (at Harvard), but his extraordinary body of writings, which include "Race, Crime, and the Law" and "Nigger," as well as his pioneering Reconstruction Magazine, forms an expansive chronicle of the nation's racial landscape. Now in "Interracial Intimacies," he emerges as a prophet of love between the races in all its tender, erotic and nurturant guises.

Throughout, Kennedy displays his usual plain-spoken sharpness, his disavowal of the determined drama of much academic race theory, and an old-fashioned respect for empirical complexities. Ranging from legal cases to contemporary mating rites, from history to novels, Kennedy examines the tangle of attraction and loathing as it has appeared from slave times through black power; in the enforcement and collapse of antimiscegenation laws; in the mix of self-abasement and defiance that energized "passing" (as white); and in recent battles over biracial families, child custody and adoption. Despite the book's density of detail and sprawling scope, the constancy of the tension between two titanic forces -- the zeal for separation and the mongrel mix of our affectionate life -- enforces a certain coherence on this epic exploration.


The NY Times has an editorial denouncing Bush's latest nominees -- Brett Kavanaugh and Janice Rogers Brown -- as "well to the right of the legal and political mainstream." Here's a quote that strikes me as indisputably misleading:
The main items on an otherwise thin résumé are Mr. Kavanaugh's loyal service to Mr. Starr during the divisive investigation of President Bill Clinton and, later, his loyal service as an assistant to President Bush, in which capacity he has helped engineer the confirmation of the administration's judicial nominees.
Well. As it happens, Kavanaugh has a few other items on his "thin resume." He graduated from Yale Law School, clerked for Judges Walter K. Stapleton and Alex Kozinski, spent a year in the Solicitor General's office, clerked for Justice Kennedy, and made partner at one of the nation's most prestigious law firms (Kirkland & Ellis).

For some reason, the Times doesn't mention any of those outstanding accomplishments. It is as if a conservative newspaper had objected to the nomination of Stephen Breyer to the First Circuit on the grounds that the "main items on his otherwise thin resume are his assistance to Archibald Cox in prosecuting Richard Nixon and his loyal service to Ted Kennedy on the Senate Judiciary Committee" -- while omitting to mention Breyer's Marshall scholarship, his clerkship for Justice Goldberg, or his Harvard professorship.

Natural Ethics and Natural Law

First, let me thank all of those who have taken the time to respond to my post and send me emails. This is a fascinating topic and I've enjoyed learning the different facets of the argument very much.

Several people responding to my charge that moral premises cannot be derived from nature have misconstrued my argument. Brian Weatherson , and others who've left comments on his board, suggest that I'm either arguing for theism or claiming that ethics necessarily require God. They may be doing this deliberately, intending to refute not my specific argument but a strain of argument of the type I'm making. Either way, I point out that I have not claimed that theism is necessary for ethics. My claim is that naturalism is inapposite for a single moral premise (let alone an ethical system); and that no moral premise can be traced to nature.

Another problem is that Lawrence Solum and I are plainly speaking of different naturalisms. He knows of a naturalism that accepts purpose in nature -- that nature has a "purpose." I know of no such naturalism. The definition of naturalism from the Skeptic's Dictionary uses the well-known example of the sex drive, among others, to demonstrate the lack of purpose in nature. This definition tracks perfectly the claim I made about nature having no purpose. Notice too the definitions disavowal of any teleological explanations.

The term "teleological explanations" is another point we aren't using similarly. Teleological explanations, to my knowledge, are explanations based on the self-evident purpose (telos) of a thing. The teleological argument for God's existence relies on the assumption that we know the purpose of mankind in the same way we know the purpose of a watch. Solum suggested that the weakness of the teleological argument is when it moves from the premise "nature has a purpose, just like a watch has a purpose" to the conclusion "something must have willed nature to be, just as something wills a watch to be," but I've never encountered this argument. What I have seen many times, starting with Voltaire, Lichtenberg, and Hume, is the denial of the premise that nature has a purpose. As Lichtenberg sarcastically put it, "How convenient that God placed slits in a cat's skin, right where their eyes are!" Foot and Solum, on the other hand, accept the premise but not the conclusion.

Solum notes that I am "convinced that an atheist evolutionary biologist like Dawkins couldn't possibly have a respectable philosophical foundation for his belief that ethics is grounded in nature." (Note, however, that my claim only extends to the second half of this sentence. A theist monk could not ground ethics in nature either.)

Solum's belief that ethics can be grounded in nature, however, leads me to wonder how he views the strength of the philosophical foundation of those who believe they can derive laws from nature. Either laws and moral premises can both be derived from nature, or there is a crucial distinction between them that allows one to be traced to nature but not the other. My view, as you can guess, is that neither law nor morals can be derived from nature. I'd appreciate Solum's thoughts on this point.

Monday, July 28, 2003

Naturalist Ethics

Brian Weatherson of Crooked Timber takes issue with my co-blogger's post on the impossibility of naturalist ethics. He writes:
Say we know the following facts about the world. It contains creatures who are capable of feeling pleasure and pain, who have hopes and plans and fears and regrets, who are capable of great learning, and creating works of great beauty, who often love their children and parents and occasionally love each other, and who have emotional attachments to those people who they love so they are affected by the pleasures, pains, successes, failures etc of those they love. Now a naturalist could easily come to know all these things about the world.

The person who thinks naturalism can’t ground ethics thinks that we could know all those things about the world and still think it’s a wide open empirical question whether it is morally wrong to torture one of those creatures for one’s own amusement, or to kill all of these creatures to relieve a minor headache one has, and so on.
The obvious response is that Weatherson isn't relying on a purely naturalistic set of physical facts. He's smuggling in a moral premise, namely the principle that it is wrong to torture (for one's own amusement) creatures who are capable of feeling pleasure and pain, who have hopes and plans and fears and regrets, who are capable of great learning, and so forth. Only with that principle in place does it make sense to say that you can derive a moral conclusion from the set of facts Weatherson lays out.

But where does that principle come from in the first place? That's the question. And Weatherson presents no reason to think that a set of physical facts alone can supply it.
I really don’t think that anyone around here seriously thinks that in such a position we have to do extra work to find out whether it’s right or wrong to torture these creatures for fun. We already know enough to know full well that it isn’t.
Says who? Is that just a feeling that many people happen to share at this point in history? Is there any ontological grounding outside of our own feelings? And remember: "We" used to "know" that slavery was morally permissible. Was it? By what set of physical facts can one condemn practices that are widespread and quite possibly superior in Darwinistic terms?
In case this isn’t entirely obvious (and frankly I can hardly think of a more secure premise in ethics, but just in case) try the following thought experiment. Imagine we find out tomorrow that all theistic theories are just wrong. (Everyone makes mistakes.) There’s really nothing around here but us baryons. Would anyone, I mean anyone, think that suddenly we had no ethical obligations whatsoever? That it was now OK to torture babies for fun? To put the point in Bayesian terms, anyone whose confidence in any extra-natural hypothesis is as high as their confidence in the proposition that it’s wrong to torture babies for fun has a very odd worldview.
Here's a question: If there is no God, is it moral for spiders to eat flies for fun? Or (I'm riffing on Lawrence Solum's invocation of an example from Philippa Foot here), is it immoral for a bear to slaughter a deer for fun? Do these questions even make sense? No -- bears and spiders do what they do, and morality isn't even relevant. And if those questions don't make sense for bears and spiders, why would it make any more sense to ask the same sort of question about us language-using animals?

And it's not a question of degrees of confidence, except in this sense: We think that torturing babies for fun is really, really wrong. We think that this is not just a personal feeling, but a moral truth that is binding whether or not anyone agrees with it. But how is it possible to have moral truths that are binding on all individuals throughout time and space? If it is impossible to derive such moral truths from purely physical facts, something else is required. If the existence of God would make such moral truths possible, then perhaps our confidence in moral truth should be translated into a confidence in God's existence.

Imagine that you wake up to find yourself in a space suit on the moon. In that situation, you would be justified in arguing thus: 1) It is impossible for a mere human like me to fly to the moon without the aid of some sort of spaceship. 2) I find that I am on the moon. 3) Conclusion: I must have been flown here on some sort of spaceship.

Weatherson's response strikes me as analagous to this: "I am more confident of the fact that I'm on the moon than I am in the existence of spaceships. I can imagine a possible world in which spaceships don't exist, and yet I somehow find myself on the moon. Therefore I might have the capacity to have flown here of my own accord."

More on Dawkin's Naturalism

Several people have emailed defenses of Dawkins.

Some have claimed that Dawkins is arguing for personal, not universal, ethical systems. Though I doubt Dawkins accepts this (his column on brights attempts to persuade others by general appeals) it's immaterial to my initial criticism. No ethic of any stripe can be derived from the naturalistic world view. Whatever his personal ethical system is, it was not derived from naturalism.

Two other respondents have tried to justify naturalistic ethics because "moral sentiments are a feature of the natural world," as one of them put it. But this can't be Dawkins' standard, either, because he denies the validity of superstition and mysticism despite the fact that superstitious and mystic sentiments are features of the natural world of the same order as moral sentiments. Being a "feature of the natural world," in this loose sense of "feature" (observable phenomena), is insufficient in Dawkin's eyes.

Naturalism's Ethics are Derived from Teleological Explanations?

Lawrence Solum has written a post in defense of naturalism-based ethics. Solum's tack is to first assure moral naturalists that their religion is being zealously defended from attacks by traditional philosophy, and second to summarize the apologists' arguments. Given the nature of the defenses, however, I'm very doubtful that naturalists accept these purported defenses because they rely on premises specifically rejected by naturalism (as I know it).

I concede that my familiarity with the subject stems solely from books, and I admit to having read only one book in defense of the emotive theory of logical positivism, the response Sollum offers to the is/ought gap. The arguments Sollum represents as the strongest available were made in this book, The Logic of Moral Discourse, by Paul Edwards, so I have no reason to believe I am attacking weak forms of the argument. However, if someone can refer me to an essay, or short book (exposing the error of the is/ought gap or the naturalistic fallacy shouldn't require more than 1000 words) I would gladly read it. I mention this because I wasted 240 pages of print and 5 hours of my life chasing Edwards claim that he was going to bridge the is/ought gap, but he never did. Life is too short to spend time reading books that can't fulfill their claims, so no foolish claims, please.

Solum uses the teleological argument, the idea that one can deduce nature's purpose through observation, as the basis for his attack on the is/ought gap. The excerpt from Elizabeth Anscombe specifically endorses the "teleological explanation." But as anyone familiar with the debate surrounding Intelligent Design (the argument for God's existence based a teleological explanation of nature) knows, naturalists reject the argument precisely because it rests on a teleological explanation. This is why I was so surprised by the content of Solum's defense. And while it's possible that their is a subset of naturalists that accept teleological arguments, they are completely absent from the Intelligent Design debate.

All naturalists that I'm aware of specifically deny that nature has any purpose. When someone claims to see purpose in nature, naturalists argue, they are actually just projecting their preconceived ideals. Take something as seemingly purposeful as the sex-drive. If you asked most people for the natural purpose of the sex-drive, they would sensibly tell you that its purpose is to motivate animals to copulate so they'll reproduce. Not so, answer the naturalists. The sex-drive has no purpose. It's just that those animals that have a sex-drive are likely to reproduce. Those with no sex-drive are unlikely to reproduce. Nature didn't try to make animals with sex drives -- nature didn't have a purpose -- animals with sex-drives just happened and they survived.

Solum's hypothetical of the xenobiologist similarly offends naturalism because it depends upon the reader's ability to project values. But the naturalistic fallacy challenges the reader, and the xenobiologist, to question whether their values, the values being projected on the subject, are, indeed, good values. Nature cannot even tell the biologist that "flourishing" is good and "dying" is bad.

UPDATE: Searching the web for information, I discovered that emotive logical positivism, or descriptivism, is frequently called "naturalism." I suspect Sollum confused these distinct theories with the same name that don't have anything to do with one another. That's why he offered the emotive theory of logical positivism as a defense of Dawkin's ethics. Naturalism (emotive logical positivism) is based on teleological arguments. Dawkin's naturalism (antagonist of Intelligent Design) rejects teleological arguments.

Alas and Alack and Alaska

Bob Hope has died.

Powell on Media Consolidation

Michael Powell has an excellent op-ed in the New York Times defending the FCC's recent change in media consolidation rules. Powell actually knows what he is talking about, which is more than can be said for 99% of the bloggers and pundits who claim to find the rule change objectionable.

Friday, July 25, 2003

Privacy vs. Price Discrimination

A very interesting new article from Andrew Odlyzko of the University of Minnesota. He makes the general point that while the information age allows greater invasions of privacy by large corporations, the end result may be a greater ability to engage in first-degree price discrimination rather than relying on relatively inefficient versioning, etc. Here's the abstract:
Privacy, Economics, and Price Discrimination on the Internet

Andrew Odlyzko
Digital Technology Center
University of Minnesota

The rapid erosion of privacy poses numerous puzzles. Why is it occurring, and why do people care about it? This paper proposes an explanation for many of these puzzles in terms of the increasing importance of price discrimination. Privacy appears to be declining largely in order to facilitate differential pricing, which offers greater social and economic gains than auctions or shopping agents. The thesis of this paper is that what really motivates commercial organizations (even though they often do not realize it clearly themselves) is the growing incentive to price discriminate, coupled with the increasing ability to price discriminate. It is the same incentive that has led to the airline yield management system, with a complex and constantly changing array of prices. It is also the same incentive that led railroads to invent a variety of price and quality differentiation schemes in the 19th century. Privacy intrusions serve to provide the information that allows sellers to determine buyers' willingness to pay. They also allow monitoring of usage, to ensure that arbitrage is not used to bypass discriminatory pricing.

Economically, price discrimination is usually regarded as desirable, since it often increases the efficiency of the economy. That is why it is frequently promoted by governments, either through explicit mandates or through indirect means. On the other hand, price discrimination often arouses strong opposition from the public.

There is no easy resolution to the conflict between sellers' incentives to price discriminate and buyers' resistance to such measures. The continuing tension between these two factors will have important consequences for the nature of the economy. It will also determine which technologies will be adopted widely. Governments will likely play an increasing role in controlling pricing, although their roles will continue to be ambiguous. Sellers are likely to rely to an even greater
extent on techniques such as bundling that will allow them to extract more consumer surplus and also to conceal the extent of price discrimination. Micropayments and auctions are likely to play a smaller role than is often expected. In general, because of the strong conflicting influences, privacy is likely to prove an intractable problem that will be prominent on the the public agenda for the foreseeable future.

New to the Blogroll

I've added a link to the Dallas Morning News' new blog. It's a collective effort by the editorial writers there, but so far it looks like my friend Rod Dreher is doing a lot of the blogging.

Thursday, July 24, 2003

Someone's Life on the Line

According to this report, CNN is refusing to broadcast footage of the attacks in Iran against student dormitories in order to protect the life of the source. But the source has already been captured and received forced surgery to recover additional evidence he swallowed during his arrest. The story's author makes a convincing case that the best way to protect the source is to publicize his plight so the mullah's feel international pressure to account for his well being. Read the story. It's only 300 words.

No ethics can be derived from naturalism

In his column urging his fellow atheists to unite under the more attractive name of Brights, Richard Dawkins offered an example of how a bright might explain his world view to the uninitiated:
"A bright is a person whose world view is free of supernatural and mystical elements. The ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic world view."
Mr. Dawkins is mistaken here, however, as there are no ethics in naturalism. Naturalism is an acceptance of what is, and ethics is the domain of what should be. There is no way to bridge the is/ought gap without referencing an extra-natural source. If a Bright accepts moral absolutes, such as "it is wrong to kill Jews for being Jewish," he does so by faith. Naturalism cannot take him there. It cannot show him that it is wrong to kill Jews for being Jewish.

Other atheists and agnostics take naturalism seriously; they believe there are no moral absolutes, there are no ethics. Morals and ethics are merely social constructions. To these people it isn't wrong to kill Jews for being Jewish, it's just that some people think it's wrong to do so. Though I spoke with many atheists and agnostics in college and law school, I never found one who adopted this view. None of them could give up the element of faith inherent in moral absolutes. None of them could come to grips with the conclusion, required by the view that ethics are socially constructed, that slavery was moral when people thought it was moral. Each of these people believed that slavery is immoral regardless of what people think. Which is of course the position of the moral absolutists and contrary to naturalism.

Either way, Dawkins was wrong when he said his ethics are based on naturalism. His religion, like all others, ultimately rests on non-rational faith.

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Compassionate Conservatism

This essay in City-Journal is excellent in its explanation of why compassion -- a form of love -- is distinct from pity. The author then asserts, unconvincingly to my mind, that liberals and liberal programs are motivated by pity, not compassion. While it might be true that the liberals' focus on changing social structures distracts their focus from the individual, liberals believe they're changing structures to enable people to focus on the individual. They want lower teacher/student ratios so that the teachers have more time to spend making individual assesments of each student's hopes, needs and ambitions.

To my eyes, liberals' weakness lies in their willingness to use violence and force to create a "loving community". It requires no compassion to offer a poor child someone else's money and resources. It is not compassion that motivates liberals to force others to give up their resources under threat of jail time (i.e., taxes) in the name of loving your neighbor. Compassion moves you to give of yourself. Only pity, as defined in the essay, allows someone to congratulate themselves for efforst to build a "loving community" on the back of threats of violence. The effect of liberals cheap, counterfeit notions of communities has been to weaken ideals of genuine communities: communities saturated in
love and concern for ones fellow man.

Bush would be wise to vocally encourage wealthy Americans (almost all of us) to do more to alleviate the suffering. He should explain that he hopes people will conscientiously use their tax refund money to bless the lives of others. This is what compassionate conservative should mean: recognizing the hope of building an inclusive, loving society, but showing that threats of violence (taxes) can't get us there.

Sunday, July 20, 2003

Random Observations

A few random items:
  • I can never remember the difference between "approbation" and "opprobrium." Which is not good, because they're basically opposites.

  • One of the weirdest things I ever saw on television: A Claymation music video of the Gypsy Chorus from Verdi's La Traviata. It was hilarious in a creepy sort of way.

  • One of the most mind-boggling coincidences I ever saw: While driving on I-395 in DC last year, a car passed me on the left. Its license plate read: "Tax Man." The very next car that passed me on the left had a license plate that read: "Law Man." In other words, the Law Man was following the Tax Man. (And the two cars weren't together; the Tax Man car exited soon thereafter and the Law Man car kept going.) I mean, what are the odds?


The NY Times magazine has a long article on Peter Olson, CEO of Random House. A lot of detail about the publishing industry. This caught my eye:
Citing a figure often bandied about in the industry, he went on, ''only 50 percent of adults have read a book since they finished school. And only half of those people buy more than two a year. Our job is to build that number.''
I find that quote staggering. Only half of American adults read a book -- any book -- after they finish school? Ever? Can that be true?

Saturday, July 19, 2003

Lieberman and Mfume

A lot of left-wingers are anxious over Bush's campaign statement that he would prefer to nominate Supreme Court Justices on the model of Scalia and Thomas. Compare that to Joseph Lieberman's recent statement that he would like to nominate Kweisi Mfume, a non-lawyer, to the Supreme Court. I suspect that Lieberman was joking here, but one can only wonder what sort of controversy would erupt if Bush said, even jokingly, that he would like to nominate a similarly ideological person from the right -- say, Pat Robertson, who at least has a degree from Yale Law School.

Friday, July 18, 2003

More on Controlling Drinking

One possibility that I've never seen considered would be to set up a system of "Tradable Alcohol Permits," akin to the tradable emissions permits that are used for sulfur dioxide in the United States or the "individual transferable quotas" that are used in fisheries throughout the world.

The government could set up a societal maximum of alcohol consumption, say, one drink per day per person. It would then set up a yearly auction for roughly 102 billion drink-a-day permits (i.e., 280 million people times 365 days in the year). In the initial auction, wine and beer manufacturers would probably purchase large blocks of permits, and then resell the permits to individual drinkers.

The only problem with this approach is that tradable permits are used to control the overall societal level of pollution, while leaving it up to individuals and corporations to decide how that overall cap is going to be divvied up. That means that if Company A finds it cheap to reduce pollution while Company B is finding it very expensive to reduce emissions any further, Company B can buy Company A's permits. Society is happy because the overall level of emissions is still being reduced, and Company B is being forced to internalize the costs of polluting.

But with drinking, we do not just care about controlling the overall societal level of drinking. We care about the distribution of drinking as well. We would not be happy if 10 non-problem drinkers stopped drinking and sold all their permits to a problem drinker who could then put down 11 drinks per day.

So I'm afraid the "Tradable Alcohol Permit" idea won't really work.

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Taxing Drinking

Mark Kleiman says:
Iain Murry (*) objects to alcohol taxation as a means of controlling drinking problems on the grounds that most drinkers don't cause problems. He prefers an approach focused on problem drinkers.

There's no reason to choose. Both approaches are useful; neither, taken alone, is a complete solution.

Alcohol taxation reduces drinking by both problem and non-problem drinkers. By reducing the total amount of drinking, taxation also reduces the proportion of the population that develops alcohol abuse or dependency.
To this I would add: The effect of a tax depends on the price elasticity of demand for the product in question. Which is just a fancy way of saying that some people want booze (or tobacco or whatever) so much that they're going to buy it no matter how much it costs (i.e., their demand for it is inelastic). And it is precisely the "problem drinkers" whose demand for alcohol is going to be more inelastic. Thus, an alcohol tax will have a proportionately greater effect on non-problem drinkers, whose demand for alcohol is more elastic, i.e., responsive to changes in price.

On the other hand, perhaps a stiff alcohol tax would be just the thing to aid in deterring non-drinkers from ever taking up the habit in the first place. This would be useful to the extent that those non-drinkers have a propensity to become alcoholics, although you would have to balance that benefit against the deadweight loss from deterring socially efficient drinking by non-problem drinkers.

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Dennett on Brights

1. June 21, 2003 -- Richard Dawkins writes a Guardian op-ed arguing that atheists should adopt the self-flattering term "brights" for themselves.

2. July 12, 2003 -- Daniel Dennett writes a much-noticed NY Times op-ed arguing that atheists should adopt the self-flattering "brights" for themselves.

3. What this sequence of events inevitably, if perhaps a bit unfairly, brings to mind -- Stephen Jay Gould's (in)famous dismissal of Dennett as "Dawkins's lapdog."

Monday, July 14, 2003


I just read Jacques Barzun's book Simple & Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers. It's in the Strunk & White tradition, and is generally delightful, if a bit tedious to read in one or two sittings. Some of my favorite passages:
pp. 59-60. I need not add that the allowable split of the infinitive is limited to inserting one word, and the shortest possible. Anyone who writes: "They wanted to, in a manner of speaking, eat their cake and have it too" is virtually deaf and blind to language and requires severe clinical treatment.
pp. 126-27. [T]he tone of courtesy, ever important, is often destroyed by usages copied from snappy journalism. The worst of these is the turning of descriptions into titles . . . , which are then stuck on to proper names. Thus it is widely believed that to write "Author Hemingway" is as legitimate as to write "Bishop Butler"; but that is not true. Certain names of occupations have become titles because the public duties attached affect society at large and must command certain kinds of response -- hence Doctor, Bishop, General, Senator, etc. But most employments do not carry such implications and it is uncivil to reduce a private person to what he may happen to be doing for a living: "Assistant Town Clerk Mary Jones was married yesterday at noon to piccolo-player L.C. Robinson." This is the tone of bureacratic regimentation, whether intended or not. If designations are needed, let them qualify the name, not box in the person: "Mary Jones, the attractive chief assistant to the Town Clerk, and L.C. Robinson, the well-loved piccolo player in the town band, were married yesterday . . . ." This gives her a chance to study medicine and him to take up the guitar.
p. 164. On the form accompanying a project submitted for a research grant, the scientist referee found a question that asked him: "How would you rate your estimate of its originality?" The answer he put down was: "My estimate is excellent; its originality is nil."

What Would Jesus Drive?

An SUV. If you're talking about Jesus Rivera, that is:
SUV group answers 'What Would Jesus Drive?' campaign

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Frustrated by a slew of ads attacking sport utility vehicles, including religious leaders' "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign, a pro-SUV group is launching its own ads celebrating plus-size vehicles for their safety and versatility.

In today's edition of USA Today, the fledgling Sport Utility Vehicle Owners of America is scheduled to run a full-page ad that asks, "What Would Jesus (Rivera) Drive?" The ad shows a smiling, waving man named Jesus Rivera in front of his 1995 SUV.

Rivera says he likes his SUV -- which has logged 150,000 miles -- because it gets him through the snow in winter, and his wife likes it because she can easily transport their grandchildren.

"For millions of people like Jesus Rivera, it's all about safety, utility and versatility. Maybe that's why they call them SUVs," the ad says, before urging SUV owners to protect their rights.

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New to the Blogroll

Check out Terry Teachout's new blog, which I have added to the blogroll. He's a wonderful commentator on the arts, and his blog should be worth reading.

Saturday, July 12, 2003

A Misleading CNN Story

Lots of bloggers are up in arms about this brief CNN story:
OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) -- An Oklahoma man arrested on suspicion of beating his wife faced year in prison and a fine. But when he spit in an arresting officer's face, he got a life sentence instead, officials said Wednesday.

John Carl Marquez, 36, was convicted of "placing bodily fluid upon a government employee," a felony that can carry a life sentence because of the possibility of transmitting a potentially deadly disease.

State judge April Sellers White sentenced Marquez this week even though Marquez and the officer tested negative for any communicable disease.

Marquez also was convicted of assaulting a police officer, and a jury recommended the maximum sentence because he had previous convictions.

Marquez, arrested several months ago, could have received one year in prison and a $3,000 fine for wife beating, according to the Creek County court clerk's office.
* * *
The story implies that Oklahoma's sentences for wife-beating and for spitting on an officer are amazingly disproportionate: One year vs. life in prison. And this implication rightly upsets a lot of people.

But anyone who does a little more research might come across this National Post story, which provides a few more details that make the sentencing a bit more explicable:
* * *
In Oklahoma, as in many other U.S. States, a third felony conviction provides the jury with an opportunity to sentence a suspect to anywhere between four years in jail and a life sentence.

Marquez had two prior convictions from 1986, for first-degree rape and first-degree burglary, according to Assistant District Attorney Laura Farris.

After his arrest on the spitting charge, Marquez agreed to plead guilty to two felony counts of assault of a police officer and placing bodily fluids on a government employee and misdemeanour domestic assault on his wife.

Under the agreement, he was to receive a 40-year sentence on each felony, of which eight years would be in prison and the rest suspended.

But a district judge rejected the plea deal because of Marquez's prior convictions.

During the subsequent trial, Ms. Farris sought a 25-year term based on Marquez's prior convictions. His lawyer, Jason Serner, asked the jury for the minimum four-year sentence.

The jury, comprised of seven women and five men, unanimously rejected the defence request and opted for the most severe penalty.
* * *
So: The assault on Marquez's wife was a misdemeanor, which would explain the lower maximum sentence for that offense. And on the other hand, Marquez had two prior felony convictions, rape and burglary, and had pleaded guilty to two more felonies. In a "three strikes" state like Oklahoma, it shouldn't be too surprising that the jury took the opportunity to lock this guy up.

But you wouldn't know any of those details from reading the CNN story.


A Christopher Hitchens book review of Patrick McCarthy's Language, Politics, and Writing: Stolentelling in Western Europe. A sample:
I was once as happy as anyone to sit with McCarthy and to discuss Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks or the ambiguities of Sartre’s Les Tempes Modernes. I still enjoy these pursuits, though they occasionally strike me now as comparable to well-conducted tours of Atlantis. Perhaps that’s why the cultivated guides have such a marked tendency to gurgle, as they make their appointed rounds.

Friday, July 11, 2003

Police and Religious Beliefs

The 7th Circuit issued an interesting decision yesterday involving a policeman who claimed that it violated his religion for him to be assigned to guard a casino. A few quotes from Easterbrook's opinion:
Many officers have religious scruples about particular activities. Does [the law] require the state police to assign Unitarians to guard the abortion clinic, Catholics to prevent thefts from liquor stores and Baptists to investigate claims that supermarkets mis-weigh bacon and shellfish? Must prostitutes be left exposed to slavery or murder at the hands of pimps because protecting them from crime would encourage them to ply their trade and thus offend almost every religious faith?"

* * *
Law-enforcement agencies need the cooperation of all members. Beyond all of this is the need to hold police officers to their promise to enforce the law without favoritism.
* * * Firefighters must extinguish all fires, even those in places of worship that the firefighter regards as heretical. Just so with police.

Thursday, July 10, 2003

Why Steal Music But Not Food?

That's the question asked by junior Volokh Conspirator Tyler Cowen, referring to the fact that people who would never steal food see nothing wrong with downloading music in violation of copyright laws. Among the answers offered by Cowen are the nature of anonymity, a physicalist notion of property, a resentment of record companies, and a hatred of the record industry's business model. Co-conspirator Orin Kerr adds a further answer here, pointing to social norms.

Oddly enough, no one mentions the reason that comes first to my mind: People have an intuition that the price of something should reflect its marginal cost. The marginal cost of appropriating a piece of intellectual property is zero, or practically zero. Thus, people don't often feel guilty about downloading their favorite pop song when they know that no additional cost has been inflicted on the record company. (The record company may have lost the chance to make additional profits, but that is only on the assumption that the person would have actually bought the song if downloading had been unavailable.)

UPDATE: Pseudonymous Volokh conspirator Philippe de Croy now offers an additional explanation: The non-rivalrous nature of intellectual property. I think this is right. (It's probably neither here nor there to cite Boldrin's and Levine's famous paper of last year in which they argue that intellectual property actually is characterized by a tiny amount of rivalrousness.)

A Free Speech Decision

From the Washington Post:
NEW ORLEANS - A federal judge on Tuesday blocked Louisiana from issuing specialty license plates, dealing a victory to abortion-rights activists who challenged the state's decision to allow "Choose Life" plates.

U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval ruled that Louisiana's system for specialty plates violates the First Amendment because it allows the anti-abortion plates but does not offer one for the opposing view.

"If the state built a convention hall for speech and then only allowed people to speak with whom they agreed with their message, the state's actions would be in contravention of the First Amendment," Duval wrote. "There is no significant difference in the case before the court."

The state had argued unsuccessfully that the law for issuing specialty plates was a protected state right and not covered by free-speech protections.

Louisiana has nearly 150 varieties of specialty plates that sell for $25 to raise money for groups and causes including universities, wildlife conservation and the Girl Scouts.
* * *

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Another Economics Puzzler

This weekend we went up to my parents' town in Arkansas. We used to stay at a Days Inn when visiting, but this time it turned out that Doubletree had bought the Days Inn location. So we stayed at the Doubletree.

It also turned out that the Doubletree had a new policy on breakfast: Whereas the Days Inn had provided "free" breakfast, Doubletree was charging $6.95 per person.

I resented this. But I'm not sure why. When I think about it rationally, I know that Days Inn was not providing a "free" breakfast. Whatever they provided was incorporated into the price of the room. All that Doubletree was doing was making the price of breakfast explicit -- and avoidable, for that matter, if we wanted to eat elsewhere. So I really should have been grateful.

But I still found it mildly irritating. It felt like being cheated somehow. And I assume that other people would share this feeling, irrational as it is.

Anyway, it's something else to add to the list of human cognitive biases that affect our rationality. I suspect this bias shows up in other venues as well: Think of the feeling of resentment you experience when you find out -- ahead of time -- that the airline is not providing a "free" lunch or dinner on your three-hour flight.

Monday, July 07, 2003


You never know whether to believe anonymous postings, but someone on the Greedy Clerks website claims that Rehnquist just hired at least one law clerk for the 2004 term. That's no guarantee that he won't retire in 2004; Justices often leave prospective clerks in the lurch when they retire. But it does seem like an indication that he's not planning on retiring right now.

News That Makes Me Happy

I just got word that Julian Morris of the University of Buckingham and the International Policy Network is putting together a book on environmental economics, and is interested in using a revised version of a law review article that I co-wrote with Bruce Yandle of the Clemson Department of Economics. The article was published in the Harvard Environmental Law Review last year, and analyzes the Kyoto Protocol using Yandle's "bootleggers and Baptists" theory of regulation (it's related to Stigler's economic theory of regulation).

Thursday, July 03, 2003

Judicial Ethics

Via Max Power, I found this fascinating WSJ article on a 96-year-old federal judge named Milton Pollack, who just threw out an investor lawsuit claiming that financial advisers had a conflict of interest in the stocks they recommended. As is often the case, the passage that seemed most remarkable to me was something that the reporter apparently didn't intend to highlight:
Judge Pollack, through a clerk, declined an interview request for this article; the clerk said he was "too busy and too tied up with other work in the office."
Of course he declined the interview. No responsible judge, whether he was "busy" or not, would talk to the Wall Street Journal about a case he had just decided. Here's what Canon 3 of the Code of Conduct for United States Judges says about such things:
A judge should avoid public comment on the merits of a pending or impending action, requiring similar restraint by court personnel subject to the judge's direction and control. * * * The admonition against public comment about the merits of a pending or impending action continues until completion of the appellate process.