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.