Apologies to Eric Schliesser

In my last post, I noted that Jason Brennan’s published work strongly opposed disenfranchisement in the ordinary sense, and I claimed that Eric Schiesser had misrepresented his words in order to derive that conclusion. Today, Eric Schliesser supplied an unpublished paper in which Brennan offers an argument for experimentation with competency tests to disenfranchise incompetent voters.

Eric, please accept my apology.

Here are some telling highlights from Brennan’s paper:

  • In this paper, I argue that the practice of unrestricted, universal suffrage is unjust.  Citizens have a right that any political power held over them should be exercised by competent people in a competent way.  In realistic circumstances, universal suffrage violates this right.  Since nearly all current democracies have universal suffrage, all current democracies are to that extent unjust.
  • Restricted suffrage is about as unjust as voting age laws.  It creates a ruling relationship between different classes of citizens based on a distinction that all reasonable people can accept in the abstract, but about which in practice there will be reasonable disagreement.  In contrast, universal suffrage is about as unjust as a policy of enforcing jury decisions not matter what, even when we have conclusive grounds for thinking the jurors were incompetent or made their decisions incompetently.  Thus, universal suffrage appears to be more intrinsically unjust than restricted suffrage.
  • We do not know for sure whether voter examination systems would produce better or worse results than democracy universal suffrage.  However, as I have argued, such systems are less intrinsically unjust than democracies with universal suffrage.  And there are good reasons to think they will produce better results than democracy with universal suffrage, though there are reasons to worry they will not.  Since we are unsure of the consequences, but have reason to expect them to be positive, we might experiment with voter examination systems on a relatively small scale at first.  For instance, perhaps it would be best if one state in the U.S. tried the system first.  (We would want to start with a relatively non-corrupt state, such as New Hampshire, rather than a corrupt state, such as Rhode Island.)  If the experiment succeeds, then the rules could be scaled up.  Similarly, consider that a few hundred years ago, we have little experience with democracy.  Some advocated democracy in part because they believed it would tend to produce better and more just outcomes than monarchy.  Others worried that democracies would be even more corrupt, or would collapse into chaos.  In light of their lack of experience, a democrat might reasonably have argued in favor of experimenting with democracy on a relatively small scale, and then scaling up if the experiment succeeds.

Unlike a call for abstention from voting, a call for restricted suffrage is certainly support for disenfranchisement. I intend to respond to this paper in depth when it is published, but for now I will say that Brennan ought not to look to Burkean conservatism for practical objections to such experiments, but rather to Hayekian liberalism or Arendtian republicanism (cf. Brennan’s comments on civic virtue.) As always, the difference between micro and macro, small experiments and institutional redesigns, should not be overlooked. (No doubt Brennan is exploring territory similar to the prediction markets I discussed with Robin Hanson last year here and here.)

Warning Signs: Beliefs that Signal Loyalty or Ability

My last post has generated some controversy on Facebook, where the audience is a bit more diverse, faith-wise, than those who read the blog. I thought it might be useful to continue pressing on the critique of instrumental beliefs with an instructive list of warning signs that your opinions are primarily instrumental, from Robin Hanson. How many of us derive our beliefs about the economy by negating whatever is popularly prescribed on Fox News? How often do you find yourself thinking that Glenn Beck or John Boehner may have a point? (Even a stopped clock, etc.) How often do you reject a line of research because you can’t think of a good journal to publish it in? How often do you acknowledge that your opinions on an important matter are fairly conventional? If we notice these kinds of patterns, shouldn’t we wonder if our non-theological beliefs follow a similar structure to other kinds of instrumental beliefs?

Hanson’s list of warning signs:

  1. You find it hard to be enthusiastic for something until you know that others oppose it.
  2. You have little interest in getting clear on what exactly is the position being argued.
  3. Realizing that a topic is important and neglected doesn’t make you much interested.
  4. You have little interest in digging to bigger topics behind commonly argued topics.
  5. You are less interested in a topic when you don’t foresee being able to talk about it.
  6. You are uncomfortable taking a position near the middle of the opinion distribution.
  7. You are uncomfortable taking a position of high uncertainty about who is right.
  8. You care far more about current nearby events than similar distant or past/future events.
  9. You find it easy to conclude that those who disagree with you are insincere or stupid.
  10. You are reluctant to change your publicly stated positions in response to new info.
  11. You are reluctant to agree a rival’s claim, even if you had no prior opinion on the topic.

Tyler Cowen adds this, which helpfully sums up the way in which status games (and honor talk!) can blind us to the truth:

12. You feel uncomfortable taking a position which raises the status of the people you usually disagree with.

The only problem I have with this list is that it doesn’t model instrumental beliefs among academics quite as well, because we have a different incentive structure and are a bit better at creating opportunities to converse on neglected topics if we can prove to our fellows that we have important insights. But even there, we might question our own motives when, for instance, we find ourselves taking a provocative and unpopular view.

Hanson’s frequent point in his blog is that many of our beliefs, and not just our beliefs about the divine, are primarily instrumental ones. He calls this the “homo hypocritus” hypothesis. Given the popularity of ideological and psychoanalytic analyses among continental philosophers, I think my friends would benefit from checking out his blog “Overcoming Bias.” Hanson, on the other hand, would benefit from reading more Foucault or (if he’s doing so, which his writing frequently suggests) from acknowledging his scholarly non-economist influences more often.

One topic that I think deserves a lot more attention in political philosophy and ethics is the status of the biases and heuristics research coming out of the social sciences, especially psychology but to a lesser extent behavioral economics. So this post is part of my effort to raise the relative status of such questions among my own philosophically-inclined readership.

Cloning isn’t about Genetic Identity: More on Procreation

Ever since I wrote negatively about the justice of procreation, I’ve been hoping that someone would come along and take the positive position. It’s the kind of argument about which one doesn’t quite want to be right. Sadly, there’ve been no takers.

However, there’s recently been a spate of discussions on a more narrow topic that have raised the pro-natal issue again, and I think helpfully. It all started when Bryan Caplan solicited advice on the following paragraph in his book:

I confess that I take anti-cloning arguments personally.  Not only do they insult the identical twin sons I already have; they insult a son I hope I live to meet.  Yes, I wish to clone myself and raise the baby as my son.  Seriously.  I want to experience the sublime bond I’m sure we’d share.  I’m confident that he’d be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by me.  I’m not pushing others to clone themselves.  I’m not asking anyone else to pay for my dream.  I just want government to leave me and the cloning business alone.  Is that too much to ask?

I think this is a great paragraph because the controversy it generates is mostly misplaced. So yes, keep it! Of course our general objections to cloning are rooted in unreflective moral intuitions, and of course they ought to be rooted out. Genetic identity is a stupid thing to object to, rooted in all our worst doppelganger fears. There’s nothing a priori immoral about cloning, and certainly there’s nothing a priori immoral about twins.

But yet there’s something odd here. Caplan seems to want to provoke the purity intuitions (Don’t meddle with nature!) rather than subduing them, and so he says something that squicks us out. Perhaps he wants to provoke objections because provocation and controversy sells books. But an alternative possibility is that he is provoking a misplaced objection so that other objections receive less attention. For instance, there may be something immoral about spending vast resources to have oneself cloned. The concern being covered is the radical pro-natalism of cloning, and that’s the discussion that really needs to be had. Tyler Cowen recently raised this question in demanding to know why Caplan’s selfish claims about having children wouldn’t actually work equally well for adoption:

So here is my challenge to Bryan: write down the ten most important selfish reasons to have kids and then ask how many of them apply to adopted children.  Most of them will.  Which isn’t to say those are the only reasons to adopt (or have) kids, but they are real nonetheless.  So why do the adopting parents seemingly get described as selfless martyrs?

To paraphrase Robin Hanson, “Cloning isn’t about Genetic Identity.” “Always room for one more” is obviously a problematic position, especially when that “one more” is immensely expensive. What we ought to do is tamp down our disgust and have a discussion about the best distribution of GDP, but our disgust distracts us.

Of course, that’s the argument at the heart of Caplan’s new book, which seems to be a defense of the endowment effect. That’s why it’s called Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. If our unique commitment to actually existing persons allows us to live free from regret, then there’s a pretty good retroactive justification for just about anything.

“All partial evil, universal good…. One truth is clear, whatever was, was right.”

That’s the gist of this argument, that by biting the bullet of the Non-Identity Problem, we can justify historical injustices:

if you offered me a “do-over” on any aspect of my life prior to my children’s conception, I would refuse, for it would mean that these specific children would never have been born.

Having children produces interested persons who have retroactive rights to exist, and if that existence depends on an injustice or regrettable action, that injustice is justified. But of course this is a lot to pin on the admittedly problematic bias encapsulated by the parental endowment affect, which is just a version of the status quo bias. Aren’t we supposed to be overcoming our biases rather than writing elaborate defenses of them?

Cowen to the rescue, again:

I put a big stress on how children help you see that a lot of your immediate concerns aren’t nearly as important as you might think, and how spending time with children brings you closer to — apologies, super-corny phrases on the way — The Great Circle of Being and The Elemental Life Force.  In some (not all) ways, adopted children may be teaching you those lessons more effectively than do biological children.  It’s an oversimplification to say that “children make you a better person,” but they do, or should, improve your ability to psychologically and emotionally integrate that a) you want lots of stuff, b) what you end up getting remains, no matter what, ridiculously small and inconsequential, and c) you can’t control your life nearly as much as you think.

None of those are benefits more realizable through genetic identity than through biological paternity or adoption, and even the the claimed justification effect of procreation is lost in genetic identity because you’ve displaced the lottery of spermatozoa selection. Thus the justice considerations remain paramount in evaluating cloning, just as they ought to do when deciding to procreate.

That leaves the mistaken claim that there’s a real benefit to raising someone who is genetically identical to oneself. As Caplan put it originally, “I want to experience the sublime bond I’m sure we’d share.  I’m confident that he’d be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by me.” But this assumes that genetic identity will actually produce a similar preference structure, and here Caplan is playing fast and loose with nature and nurture. Caplan’s response demonstrates as much.