How not to reason on common political issues

In the essay Political Bias in Philosophy and Why it Matters, Spencer Case enumerates several examples of perceived political bias in philosophy including a doozy which follows shortly. I don’t have the original text in front of me and therefore can’t judge if the quote is somehow taken out of context, but assuming Case is fairly summarizing, get a load of this:

Later, without pausing to consider any anti-abortion arguments, Wood asserts that “It is an affront to human intelligence to pretend that [pro-life] views are anything but an attempt to confine women, as far as possible, to their traditional sexual subordination as less than free persons.

At least Woods has the virtue of frankness.

I suppose women who hold pro-life views and don’t agree that they should be “confined” “to their traditional sexual subordination as less than free persons” can be dismissed out of hand; their consciousness must be false. Again, I don’t want to slam somebody for something taken out of context, but I will run with it here because I find this attitude disturbingly common among pro-choice people. (It’s disturbingly common but not, I think, a majority view on that side.) If the mark of an educated person is being able to entertain a thought without accepting it, this subgroup sets a very poor example for people aspiring to education. Watch some of these and see if there’s any conceivable reason—that is, other than raging misogyny—why a person might be opposed to this procedure. Any reason at all.

Since it apparently matters for these kinds of discussions, I am pro-choice. Just because we ought to keep the option open for making the best of a bad situation doesn’t mean it isn’t unsettling. It’s dishonest to deny the best available option might have pros and cons. And it’s both dishonest and lazy to think your opponents cannot possibly be motivated by anything other than evil.

“With a system so tortuously involved as this, it may seem remarkable that anyone was ever elected at all”

Another passage from Norwich’s A History of Venice, this time from pp. 166–167, describes a remarkably convoluted randomizing procedure first used in 1268 to try to remove undue partisan influences on the election of the Doge:

On the day appointed for the election, the youngest member of the Signoria [footnote: the inner council of state] was to pray in St Mark’s; then, on leaving the Basilica, he was to stop the first boy he met and take him to the Doges’ Palace, where the Great Council, minus those of its members who were under thirty, was to be in full session. The boy, known as the ballotino, would have the duty of picking the slips of paper from the urn during the drawing of lots. By the first of such lots, the Council chose thirty of their own number. The second was used to reduce the thirty to nine, and the nine would then vote for forty, each of whom was to receive at least seven nominations. The forty would then be reduced, again by lot, to twelve, whose task was to vote for twenty-five, of whom each this time required nine votes. The twenty-five were in turn reduced to another nine; the nine voted for forty-five, with a minimum of seven votes each, and from these the ballotino picked out the names of eleven. The eleven now voted for forty-one – nine or more votes each – and it was these forty-one who were to elect the Doge. They first attended Mass, and individually swore an oath that they would act honestly and uprightly, for the good of the Republic. They were then locked in secret conclave in the Palace, cut off from all contact or communication with the outside world and guarded by a special force of sailors, day and night, until their work was done.

So much for the preliminaries; now the election itself could begin. Each elector wrote the name of his candidate on a paper and dropped it in the urn; the slips were removed and read, and a list drawn up of all the names proposed, regardless of the number of nominations for each. A single slip for each name was now placed in another urn, and one drawn. If the candidate concerned was present, he retired together with any other elector who bore the same surname, and the remainder proceeded to discuss his suitability. He was then called back to answer questions or to defend himself against any accusations. A ballot followed. If he obtained the required twenty-five votes, he was declared Doge; otherwise a second name was drawn, and so on.

Economic lessons from late medieval Venice

Lately I’m reading John Julius Norwich’s A History of Venice. He’s not particularly interested in economics (it’s not for everybody), though I was particularly struck by this section about the middle 13th century (pp. 155–156):

… She was no longer a city. She was a nation.

But a nation founded on trade; and that trade, as the Venetians must – at least subconsciously – have realized, owed its phenomenal success not to any territorial expansion but, paradoxically, to the very smallness of the Republic. Here was another benefit conferred by the surrounding lagoon. By virtually confining the Venetians to so restricted a space, it had created in them a unique spirit of cohesion and cooperation – a spirit which showed itself not only at times of national crisis but also, and still more impressively, in the day-to-day handling of their affairs. Among Venice’s rich merchant aristocracy everyone knew everyone else, and close acquaintance led to mutual trust of a kind that in other cities seldom extended far outside the family circle. In consequence, the Venetians stood alone in their capacity for quick, efficient business administration. A trading venture, even one that involved immense initial outlay, several years’ duration and considerable risk, could be arranged on the Rialto in a matter of hours. It might take the form of a simple partnership between two merchants, or that of a large corporation of the kind needed to finance a full-sized fleet or trans-Asiatic caravan; it might run for an agreed period or, more usually, it might be an ad hoc arrangement which would automatically be dissolved when the particular venture was completed. But it would be founded on trust, and it would be inviolable.

Trust is important for social activity in general and for commerce in particular. Venice was a setting in which the behavior of one’s possible trading partners could be easily known and conveyed—and subject to the discipline of continuous dealings. Norwich does not specify the official legal penalties for cheating but one imagines such bad behavior would be hard to sustain in this atmosphere even without them.

This system of easily formed short-term partnerships meant in practice that any Venetian with a little money to invest could have a share in trade. Artisans, widows, the aged, the sick – all could enter into what was known as a colleganza with some active but comparatively impecunious young merchant. … Some small dues [on the proceeds of the colleganza] might be levied by the state, but in these early days Venetian tax was low – infinitesimal in comparison with the punitive sums levied by the Byzantines on their own merchants, or by most of the princes of feudal Europe. So profits were high, incentives were great, and investment capital increased year by year.

We know from the study of economic development that societies in which investment opportunities (in the broadest sense) are within the reach of broad segments of those societies are the ones that get better growth results. This isn’t only a modern phenomenon.

Buchanan on Knight

James M. Buchanan says of Frank Knight:

There seems relatively little in this biographical account to suggest the origins of the intense critical spirit. To return to my original question: “Why was Knight so different from his peers?” my hypothesis is that he can be explained, phenomenologically, only through recalling his roots in evangelical Christianity. Only through an early experience of having wrestled with God, the source of the ultimate putative authority, and having at least held his own in the encounter, Frank Knight had no difficulty at all in taking on any or all of the lesser gods, as variously represented in the many small dogmas of science, art, politics, and history. His fascination with theological issues throughout his life can, I think, be explained by his implied acknowledgment that God had proved, indeed, to be the most difficult adversary to be faced. If man can use his own critical intelligence in wrestling God to a draw, why should he cower before any other claim to authority?

From an essay published in The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan, vol. 19, p. 80.

The JFK Assassination, pt. 14: the fundamentals

In my first post on the topic of John Kennedy’s assassination I said the Zapruder film was the “fundamental starting point” of inquiry. At the time I hadn’t seriously studied or at least seriously considered that the film might have been tampered with. It’s possible, and therefore in retrospect I should call that an earlier error on my part. I blame my having watched the Zapruder film many times trying to learn something from it as my first real exposure to this whole topic; for me it was the contingent starting point rather than the fundamental starting point.

Having said that, even before I recognized the error my thinking slowly shifted more towards the testimony of the Parkland Hospital medical staff being the starting point. The film, even if unmodified and even when stabilized, just doesn’t give us the detail we need to be supremely confident. Many people including me think it shows the Big One as coming from the front right, and we have corroborating testimony like that of Officer Hargis, riding his motorcycle to the left of and behind Kennedy, that supports a rear exit wound:

Mr. STERN. Did something happen to you, personally in connection with the shot you have just described?
Mr. HARGIS. You mean about the blood hitting me?
Mr. STERN. Yes.
Mr. HARGIS. Yes: when President Kennedy straightened back up in the car the bullet him in the head, the one that killed him and it seemed like his head exploded, and I was splattered with blood and brain, and kind of a bloody water. It wasn’t really blood. And at that time the Presidential car slowed down. I heard somebody say, “Get going,” or “get going,“—

…but you could make the case that the film does not show a rear exit wound. Anybody who supports the official Lone Gunman explanation implicitly or explicitly does.

Even so, the testimony of the Parkland staff is not enough to convince everybody although I consider it very strong evidence for a rear exit wound and hence no Lone Gunman. To cover both of these points at once I offer this from Gary Aguilar:

In an interview with the HSCA’s Andy Purdy on 11-10-77 Marion Jenkins was said to have expressed that as an anesthesiologist he (Jenkins) “…was positioned at the head of the table so he had one of the closest views of the head wound…believes he was ‘…the only one who knew the extent of the head wound.’) (sic)…Regarding the head wound, Dr. Jenkins said that only one segment of bone was blown out–it was a segment of occipital or temporal bone. He noted that a portion of the cerebellum (lower rear brain) (sic) was hanging out from a hole in the right–rear of the head.” (Emphasis added) (HSCA-V7:286-287) In an interview with the American Medical News published on 11-24-78 Jenkins said, “…(Kennedy) had part of his head blown away and part of his cerebellum was hanging out.”.

Amazingly, in an interview with author Gerald Posner on March 3, 1992, Jenkins’ recollection had changed dramatically. “The description of the cerebellum was my fault,” Jenkins insisted, “When I read my report over I realized there could not be any cerebellum. The autopsy photo, with the rear of the head intact and a protrusion in the parietal region, is the way I remember it. I never did say occipital.” (Gerald Posner, Case Closed”, p. 312) Jenkins has obviously forgotten that in his own note prepared, typed, and signed on the day of the assassination, Jenkins said, “a great laceration on the right side of the head (temporal and occipital) (sic)”, and HSCA’s Purdy reported that Jenkins said “occipital or temporal bone” was blown out.

Aguilar’s piece makes it clear that the overwhelming consensus supports a rear exit wound. Parkland staff, those who received the body only minutes after the shooting—not operating under any assumptions about the source(s) of the shots—were virtually unanimous at the time (with only one bizarre outlier) and most maintained their original positions afterwards. Many at Bethesda also recalled a rear exit wound. Testimony from Bethesda is obviously not unanimous but must be considered less weighty than that from Parkland given that (1) explanatory scenarios were already being formed by investigative authorities and (2) after the conclusion of the autopsy itself the autopsy report went through several revisions offering different conclusions before settling on the one we now have as official.

The Zapruder film may or may not have been tampered with. Admitting this possibility means we need a different starting point. In my estimation the Parkland staff testimony is that starting point. It’s possible for all those doctors and nurses, minutes after the shooting, unconcerned with explaining the wounds, to be mistaken in essentially the same way, but it’s so unlikely as to be excluded from consideration. A rear exit wound ⇒ a shooter in front of Kennedy ⇒ Oswald could not have acted alone (even assuming he acted at all). The conclusion is the same for me as watching the Zapruder film but with less suspicion.

If this is correct the overall task is now much harder. One of the nice things about the Lone Gunman scenario is its simplicity: Oswald was a lone nut communist who shot Kennedy, no other moving parts, case closed. If there’s a conspiracy, resolving it—enough to satisfy our curiosity but never completely—is orders of magnitude more difficult, but it seems that we have no other feasible choice.

Ancient law & economics: Sabbath-breaking edition

Ancient law often seems especially cruel to us moderns. Not only do ancient laws often condone and systematize things we find repellent—a topic for another day—but the punishments seem especially harsh. One famous example from the Torah*:

Exodus 31:12-17 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

The Sabbath Law

12 And the Lord said to Moses, 13 “Say to the people of Israel, ‘You shall keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. 14 You shall keep the sabbath, because it is holy for you; every one who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. 15 Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. 16 Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant. 17 It is a sign for ever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.’” [emphasis mine]

One way to deal with this passage is to say that God said it, and God’s wisdom is greater than ours, so we don’t have to understand it, we just have to do it however harsh it seems. (As long as we’re in the population to whom the law applies, Jews in this case.) There are various other apologetic ways to look at it. I’m not inclined or qualified to discuss all of them, but they’re similar.

If one interprets this example as coming from a human document the analysis is very different. There must be some other justification intelligible to humans. A little law & economics can help here. The Torah law is incredibly thorough in its proscriptions. Some of them govern the minutest details of daily household life. The probability of detection for many of these infractions is very low. If a person is seen to commit an easily detectable infraction, it’s likely he is also committing and getting away with smaller infractions.

The logic of punishing things that are easier to detect because of an assumed correlation to things that are harder to detect (or prove) is apparent even today. Al Capone went to prison for income tax violations even though it was known by everybody that he was involved in many more serious matters. Structuring laws punish how people deposit and withdraw cash because this is much easier to detect than the illegal things they might do with the cash.

There was no science of forensics in the ancient world, no dedicated police force, and rarely any paper trails. In order to deter people from breaking the law when the chances of getting caught were slim, the magnitude of the punishments had to be ramped up. While we have no way of knowing it’s fair to assume violations occurred all the time without anybody else ever finding out about them.

The worthiness of the goals of these ancient laws, and indeed of parallel modern laws, is a separate topic. The goals of the Torah law may have been order and social cohesion among the people of Israel, or they may have been fabrications to shore up the power of the powerful at that time, or a combination. Readers of this blog know that I think the War on Drugs is a fantastically awful institution, for example, and it is one of the major justifications for structuring laws. But you can see how, given the ends, there is a logic to the legal means.

As a final note, though I don’t intend this as an apologia for any particular religious law, I suppose one could explain the passage by saying that God had the law & econ reasoning in mind when declaring the penalty for breaking the sabbath.

* I use the RSV here since the relevant passage in the Orthodox Jewish Bible is harder to follow for those not versed in it.

Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit” pt. 1: politics and social media

Harry Frankfurt’s great essay “On Bullshit” was originally published in 1986 but has aged incredibly well. Briefly, for background, a lie depends on the truth, as the speaker of a lie intends to misrepresent something that is not true as something that is. In contrast, bullshit isn’t the misrepresentation of something false as something true; truth and falsity don’t really enter into the equation. Here’s a sample that is especially relevant today:

Why is there so much bullshit? Of course it is impossible to be sure that there is relatively more of it nowadays than at other times. There is more communication of all kinds in our time than ever before, but the proportion that is bullshit may not have increased. Without assuming that the incidence of bullshit is actually greater now, I will mention a few considerations that help to account for the fact that it is currently so great.

Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled—whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others—to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant. Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country’s affairs. The lack of any significant connection between a person’s opinions and his apprehension of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for someone who believes it his responsibility, as a conscientious moral agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world.

As the scope of government has increased over time politicians are led to articulate positions about more and more things they don’t really know or care about. Most people can recognize these as bullshit at least some of the time, and many dislike it at least some of the time, but as Frankfurt says it probably is inevitable given the circumstances.

Social media is in large part about expressing the image of yourself that you want other people to have: how good/caring/special/smart/patriotic/etc. you are and what socio-political tribe you’re part of. Since it’s so low-cost to broadcast these messages to the world, people broadcast them constantly. But of course one can’t be expert in everything, and can’t deeply care about everything. Which leads to mountains of bullshit.

So here’s the tricky part: is there any end in sight to all the bullshit? I expect some adjustment to social media bullshit as people learn how meaningless it really is, but political bullshit seems unstoppable.

Bradbury remembers

Ray Bradbury:

The most beautiful sound in my life, dearly recollected, fully remembered, was the sound of a folded newspaper kiting through the summer air and landing on my front porch.

Every late afternoon from the time I was nine until I was fourteen that sound, and the thump it made hitting the side of the house, or the screen-door, or a window, but never the porch-planks themselves, that sound had an immediate effect upon one person inside the house.

The door burst open wide. A boy, myself, leapt out, eyes blazing, mouth gasping for breath, hands seizing at the paper to grapple it wide so that the hungry soul of one of Waukegan, Illinois’ finest small intellects could feed upon:


It’s hard to imagine that today’s 9–14 year olds will recollect their childhood treasures as breathlessly. There’s your Great Stagnation.

Non-Muslim Berbers in Spain?

From Early Medieval Spain by Roger Collins:

Unfortunately the question of the Berber contribution to the culture of Al-Andalus has received little attention. It is often assumed that they were thoroughly Islamicised by the time of their entry into Spain in the early eighth century. However, the Arab conquest of North Africa was hardly complete by that point. What is more, evidence of the continued use of Latin there can be found for as late as the tenth century, and substantial Christian communities were still in existence in Africa in the eleventh. It is thus highly improbable, particularly in view of the general indications of slow conversion to Islam on the part of the Arabs’ subject populations, that large numbers of Berbers were Muslims in 711, nor in view of their role would they have been required to be. A reference in Al-Makkarī to the religious practices of Berber rebels who besieged Mérida in 742 makes it clear that they were not Muslims.

Without in any way being expert on the topic of the expansion of Islam this runs counter to what I thought. Probably the biggest first-pass lesson I get out of reading history is that the most common mental error in thinking about history is to project today backwards onto yesterday. I doubt I am alone in this.

Price/Scholer on Biblical ambiguity

In discussing Colossians 1:24, Robert M. Price paraphrases his Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary professor David Scholer:

When there are loads of different interpretations of a Bible verse, it’s probably because the meaning is obvious. That is, so obvious—and offensive—that people will try to make it mean anything else.

This is from The Human Bible podcast, episode 3, starting at around 37’20”.


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