[Editor’s Note: The following is a guest contribution by Adam Gurri. Adam is a founder of Sweet Talk and a writer at The Ümlaut. He is currently working on a book on the role of virtue in a life of commerce.]

The reader who frequents Bleeding Heart Libertarians is no doubt familiar with the storied divide between “first principles” libertarians, who usually subscribe to some theory of natural rights, and consequentialist libertarians, who usually situate themselves somewhere in the family of utilitarian theories. Rarely discussed is a third, more Hayekian approach, which emphasizes civil and political relations that are grown rather than designed. They are discovered not as axiomatic or universal truths but as casuistically discerned approaches which are stable over generations. It is from this perspective that I intend to critically engage with Andrew Cohen’s arguments for parental licensure.

Cohen states that the harm principle is the “core” of his libertarianism, putting him within the personal rights tradition—though his reasoning often resembles consequentialist reasoning in that it deals with the calculus of minimizing harm. Based on the fact that doctors and patients are in a relationship that both have entered voluntarily, and because market competition in theory provides a baseline of quality from the former, he is against medical licensure. Because children don’t have the power to pick who their parents are, and there’s no similar competitive mechanism to make sure they’re more likely to end up with good parents, he argues that parenting should be licensed for the sake of children’s safety.

Most libertarians bristle at the idea of state licensing, especially with an activity so intimate and private. But it’s not merely his conclusions which are inimical to the organic libertarian—it’s the whole style of analysis. Whatever the merits of his argument, he starts from the assumption that right policy is derived from right philosophy, and calmly lays out a blueprint for radical, historically unprecedented change on that basis.The organic libertarian does not see himself as standing above the processes that shape civil association and the body politic; rather, he is a part of them and of his community. He can participate in the discussion and actions that constitute those processes, but he understands it as participation, not engineering. So, for instance, even as radical as the changes the founding fathers proposed were, they proceeded by appealing to lasting and valuable traditions shared by English-speaking peoples of their day.

Personally, I  found Cohen’s proposal quite shocking. The family is the oldest, most durable institution that humanity has. It is also the most sacred; rare is the picture of the good life that does not include the bonds of family. Demanding that all parents justify their merit to a central political body up front is an act of rejecting a set of values that is not only time-tested like no other, but also as close to universally held as is perhaps possible in an era of errant ideologies. Responding to a thick and rich history with something as simple as the harm principle  is to do injustice to that history. A system evolves and grows out of the cumulative choices and actions of generations of people with minds and motivations of their own. To think that the people who inherit that system today can be directed by the motivations of one man, a philosopher-designer, is to become Adam Smith’s “man of system”. This is how Smith describes this character:

He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it.

In particular, Cohen’s plan requires an army of evaluators who will behave in precisely the way he wishes them to. But how do we know that actual evaluators will behave in the way that Cohen hopes? On what criteria will their decisions actually be based? Here, in full, is what Cohen has to say on that question:

I’m inclined to think there are two tests that are involved. First, a means test—that is, no one that cannot afford to raise a child should have a child. Importantly, though, this is fully consistent with having any number of charitable or state welfare programs that provide the means for the parent. If Susie is pregnant and broke but The Sisters of All Children commit to providing her housing, food, etc. until the child is 18 years old (or Susie gets on her feet), she passes the means test. Similarly, if the state has a program to help poor people with children, they will pass the test (if the state provides the means for all those who have the need, there is no reason to actually test means since all would have it). The second, and more important, test would be a psychological exam that indicates whether the individual (a) understands how to parent and (b) can handle the stress a child brings. Regarding (a), the point is to make sure the person doesn’t think its OK to leave a child in closet, to starve it, to have sex with it, etc.—the point is not to require that every parent raise their child in the same way. Someone might suggest that (b) is impossible to test, but I see no reason to believe that. When the military accepts soldiers into special forces units, they are tested. The soldiers sent to Pakistan to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden had undergone tests (formal or not) to be sure that they would not “crack” under the pressure. We could surely do the same for parents-to-be. Indeed, people that adopt children or provide foster care now must go through some training and can be denied if they appear unstable.

His test thus boils down to means, competency, and stress-resilience. And as for plausibility: hey, we do it for the special forces, how hard could it be to do it for parenting?

The problem is that all three criteria are, by necessity, thinly specified. They cannot be defined scientifically; they are inseparable from ethics. And so making judgments about them is going to come down to the ethical judgment of the evaluators who will be the people on the ground of this system. And the nature of these judgments leaves a lot of wiggle room within which many, many parents who Cohen might personally believe should be allowed to raise their children might be left out. But that’s the problem at hand—Cohen cannot control the ethical context that evaluators draw on to further specify what it means to “understand how to parent” or “handle the stress a child brings”. And this isn’t a problem that can be solved with oversight—the same lack of control would come up with the evaluators of the evaluators, and on. And once you set up a system in which every single potential parent in the country has to go through this process, small deviations from what Cohen or I or any of the readers here might consider reasonable specifications would mean flooding child care services with children of perfectly capable parents. Never mind large deviations!

Subjecting parenting to central scrutiny by default also risks creating an ethical monoculture. Such top-down enforced monoculture of ethics and lifestyles ought to be anathema to libertarians and liberals of all sorts, but it is especially heinous to the organic libertarian. Monocultures and one-crop economies are large-scale violations of the ancient wisdom to never put all your eggs in one basket; to force a society into monoculture is to plant a time bomb under its feet. What ground level knowledge, what positive externalities will be lost when the long tail of lifestyles is cut off? Does anyone seriously think that such a central body would tolerate radically different parenting styles such as the Amish for very long, especially if they don’t have the accumulated local political clout that the Amish have?

Moreover, from where I’m sitting, there are no governments on Earth which deal humanely with children that are in their care. And if there are such governments, they certainly are not the federal government of the United States, nor any of our state or local governments. These are the people who would have to run Cohen’s proposed licensure system; even if you created a whole new agency to do it they would almost certainly be the “talent pool” from which such an agency would build its roster.

Cohen is one of far too many political philosophers to attempt to understand and engineer ideal human systems outside of their human context. Both consequentialist and rights-based libertarians have this problem. What I’m suggesting here is that the only way to affect change of human systems is as a participant, not an architect. And participation begins with a healthy respect for the nature of the thing of which we are a part.

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  • http://www.benbachrach.com/ BenBachrach

    Thank you for your excellent rebuttal of Cohen’s attempt at “engineering”.

  • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

    I found this peculiar:

    “Cohen states that the harm principle is the “core” of his libertarianism, putting
    him within the personal rights tradition—though his reasoning often
    resembles consequentialist reasoning in that it deals with the calculus
    of minimizing harm”

    It seems to me that Cohen’s appeal to harm puts him immediately in the consequentialist tradition. For people in the rights tradition, it is okay to cause harm, so long as one does not thereby violate anyone’s rights. For instance, we can harm people with their consent (as surgeons do); or we can harm people by competing with them for scarce resources, as we all do when we obtain a new sexual partner (thereby frustrating, upsetting or emotionally devastating those who failed to secure that partner).

    You say:

    “Whatever the merits of his argument, he starts from the assumption that right policy is derived from right philosophy, and calmly lays out a blueprint for radical, historically unprecedented change on that basis.The organic libertarian does not see himself as standing above the processes that shape civil association and the body politic; rather, he is a part of them and of his community. ”

    I do not think that there is a hard-and-fast distinction there: it is a matter of degree. On the one hand, Cohen’s philosophy is a development of thinking handed down by centuries of political theorising. His appeal to harm is one with which we are all familiar and one which is often made by people in our societies in deciding how to act. He is just extending it in a new way. On the other hand, although the organic libertarian recognises himself to be part of a community with a range of traditions, he is also a thinking member of that community who is on the lookout for where things pinch and is prepared to make modifications accordingly. (Hayek explained why he is not a conservative.)

    You go on:

    “Personally, I found Cohen’s proposal quite shocking. The family is the oldest, most durable institution that humanity has.”

    Something similar could be said about the monarchy; but the founding fathers (whom you seem to count as organic libertarians) dumped it.

    You object:

    “Responding to a thick and rich history with something as simple as the harm principle is to do injustice to that history.”

    That sounds to me like a piece of poetry. Where is the argument?

    I am pretty much in agreement with most of the rest of what you say; but I don’t like the way that you say it. I have no time for mystical terms such as ‘sacred’ or ‘ancient wisdom.’ Anything can be criticised; and if it does not stand up well to criticism it should be modified of binned.

    • Egalitarian

      “For people in the rights tradition, it is okay to cause harm, so long as one does not thereby violate anyone’s rights.”

      Is that how you’d put it? Surely the most natural thing to say is that non-violations of rights don’t count as harms. And there’s the thing: the harm principle claims to be the primitive starting point for a theory of justice, but it can’t be, because you need such a theory in place before you can judge whether many actions count as harms in the first place.

      • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

        Some people do make that move, but it seems to me to be ad hoc. The harm principle is false, because there are many cases of recognisable harm (in the ordinary sense) which are morally permissible. A loves B who goes off with C. As a consequence, A falls apart, suffers long-term emotional agony, cannot concentrate on many ordinary tasks, loses his job, then loses his house, perhaps wastes much of his life in an alcohol- or drug-induced haze, and so on. And you are going to say that A suffers no harm because his rights were not violated? That is a drastic redefinition of ‘harm’ in an attempt to save the harm principle. Such abuses of language tie us all up in knots. Just admit that the harm principle sucks and should be jettisoned.

        • http://adamgurri.com AdamGurri

          Not to mention the “harm” caused when an entrepreneur comes up with a cheaper, more efficient way of producing something that was already being produced, either threatening to put incumbents out of business or forcing them to work harder for lower margins in order to survive—either of which could be interpreted as a “harm”.

        • Egalitarian

          I wasn’t trying to save the harm principle (see my final sentence) so maybe we don’t disagree.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            I see. But effectively you do save the harm principle by redefining harm in terms of rights-violations (at least, if a rights view is correct). I think it is better to kill it than that to reinterpret it to make it consistent with your own view.

    • Sean II

      Right on, Danny. I was evidently composing my reply while you wrote this.

      I’m please to see we both keyed on a) the substitution of poetry and speechifying for argument, disguising some very heavy assumptions, and b) the failure to grapple with Cohen’s central challenge on the harms of bad parenting.

    • http://adamgurri.com AdamGurri

      Excellent feedback. Not going to try to argue against you per se just going to comment on a couple of things you said:

      1. Funny you said that about the harms principle; I originally called it consequentialist as well but Matt Z said it’s typically treated as the right not to be harmed, so I deferred to his superior expertise on these matters.

      2. I just want to call out your point about it not being a “hard and fast distinction” as really very excellent, something I’ve personally struggled with a great deal. Rather than argue, I’ll just say—you’re absolutely right, and it’s something I clearly need to think over even more.

      3. If I were a contemporary of Hume in the Great Britain of his day I’d probably be pretty sanguine about monarchy, as he was. Since we’re living after a mass extinction of such monarchies, it’s rather difficult to muster support for them, especially in our particular political order which has never really seen them.

      4. If you ever want to embark on a (time consuming, so I’ll understand if you wouldn’t be interested) journey into why the “sacred” and other such “mystical” notions are worth taking seriously, I’d recommend Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Virtues.

      • http://adamgurri.com AdamGurri

        Moreover:

        “That sounds to me like a piece of poetry. Where is the argument?”

        The argument is that a huge number of people hold the relationship between parent and child to be something special, and most thinkers throughout history have reaffirmed that. Knocking all of that off the table and replacing it with the harm principle seems rationalist in the most crass, unsophisticated sense.

        • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

          I’m afraid that is still not an argument: it is simply an appeal to authority. You could run the same plea for genital mutilation is some parts of Africa; you could have run it for feudalism, conscription, persecution of gays, etc., etc. until relatively recently. A simple appeal to tradition can be no argument so long as you acknowledge (as I think you do) that some traditions are bad and need modifying or jettisoning. Why is this particular tradition good? Not just because it is a tradition. You need an argument.

          • http://adamgurri.com AdamGurri

            It is indeed an appeal to authority, but not as a conversation-ender. I happen to think that the fact that something is so universally and strongly believed, the fact that a certain relationship is highly valued, should be taken into account. You saying that it shouldn’t be taken into account is the unargued position here—I’m saying it constitutes a legitimate part of the case for traditional family arrangements. And yes, just part of it.

            And yes, there have been terrible traditions in the past (but so too have there been terrible argued-for rational projects; see most of the blood-thirsty regimes of the 20th century). And yes, the onus is on the traditionalist to argue that the family is not like slavery or feudalism or genital mutilation.

            But of course, the onus is also on the philosopher to explain why we should care about something like the harm principle over the principle of utility or contractarianism or natural rights or virtue. Which (you might notice) Cohen did not do, in the case of the harm principle.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            You say:

            “I happen to think that the fact that something is so universally and
            strongly believed, the fact that a certain relationship is highly
            valued, should be taken into account.”

            “Taken into account” could mean lots of things. Obviously, if we plan to remodel or abolish an institution, the fact that it is widely supported needs to be taken into account, not in the sense that it supplies any kind of reason for the institution, but merely in the sense that it shows how we have our work cut out. The point I am making is that almost universal and strong belief that p is no reason to think that it is true that p. We know that from history: there were no witches, for example. Your appeal to the existence of an arrangement is no argument at all for the proposition that it ought to exist.

            Why are you being so resistant to this? You agree yourself that some traditions suck. The only rational way we can distinguish the suck traditions from the non-suck traditions is to find arguments. You cannot simply oppose tradition to rationality, because you yourself admit that some traditions suck.

            Let me make a guess. Here is a good point. We cannot argue rationally about things without presupposing a wide range of things about which we are not arguing. Otherwise, we would have no premises for our arguments. In any argument there is always something unargued.

            It is, however, a mistake to infer from that proposition that there are some things that are unarguable. Whatever is unargued in one discussion can be impugned in another one. So, while we cannot argue about everything (at the same time), we can argue about anything. And once something is impugned, it needs to be defended by argument. Hayek makes this point in various places; so does Popper.

            My guess (and it is only a guess) is that you are slipping from the good point to the bad one without noticing.

            Just to be clear: I am saying that the fact that a particular type of family arrangement has been around for a long time and is very widely supported is no argument at all for the proposition that it ought to continue unchanged – not even one incy wincy bit of the case for that proposition. I am also saying that you are committed to agreeing with me given that you pick and choose between traditions.

          • http://adamgurri.com AdamGurri

            “The point I am making is that almost universal and strong belief that p is no reason to think that it is true that p.”

            That would be the case if morality were something like physics, but it is not. Unless you believe that moral truth is woven into the fabric of the universe somehow? Perhaps in a Platonic sense?

            But I do not.

            “Why are you being so resistant to this? You agree yourself that some traditions suck. The only rational way we can distinguish the suck traditions from the non-suck traditions is to find arguments. You cannot simply oppose tradition to rationality, because you yourself admit that some traditions suck.”

            But they suck in terms of notions that I believe in because I am a part of certain moral traditions. Isn’t it funny that no matter whether a well educated American considers themselves a traditionalist, contractarian, or consequentialist, none of them is likely to support either slavery or genital mutilation. This is Haidt’s “rational tail” trying to wag to “emotional dog” https://www.motherjones.com/files/emotional_dog_and_rational_tail.pdf

            “I am also saying that you are committed to agreeing with me given that you pick and choose between traditions.”

            I’d recommend Oakeshott’s essay “The Tower of Babel” in which he discusses unreflective following of traditions vs self-conscious engagement with it. (It’s in the collection Rationalism in Politics which I have a PDF of if you’d like it).

            The bottom line is that the traditions themselves give you the tools for engaging with them critically. But contrary to your comment, there *are* assumptions at bottom that remain unquestioned. There have to be; consider Godel’s incompleteness theorem, or Russell and Whitehead’s failed attempt at a self-contained mathematical universe. There are limits to articulation and there are limits to how encompassing reasoning can be.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            Just a brief reply for now, Adam, as I am going off to bed (up early tomorrow).

            I do take morality to be objective. I think you should argue your case to leave open that possibility: if your case depends upon moral subjectivism, it is much weaker.

            “But they suck in terms of notions that I believe in because I am a part of certain moral traditions.”

            That won’t do, because you impugn some of your own moral traditions. If your position is not to be purely arbitrary, you need some reasons for discriminating the parts of the inherited fabric you accept from the parts you reject.

            I have Oakeshott’s ‘Rationalism in Politics’ and I have read a substantial portion of it. I have not got around to ‘The Tower of Babel’ yet; but I am very familiar with his views on tradition – which, of course, I think are quite mistaken. Popper’s ‘Towards a Rational Theory of Tradition’ could be taken as a response to Oakeshott.

            Again, you seem to be confusing two different points:

            (i) there is always some assumption we have not criticised;

            (i) there is a specific assumption that we cannot criticise.

            Take the case of Godel’s theorem. There is always some theorem we cannot prove from the axioms. But for any such theorem, we can always add it to the axioms in which case we can prove it from the augmented axioms. But then there will be another theorem that we cannot prove from the augmented set of axioms. And so on.

          • http://adamgurri.com AdamGurri

            Well let’s leave it at that for now; we probably cannot solve the problem of the metaphysics of morals in a comment thread on a blog. But thank you for your excellent remarks and cogent critiques; I enjoyed this a great deal. Rest well.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            Thanks to you too.

          • http://adamgurri.com AdamGurri
          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            It seems to me that you still exhibit a tendency to fall back into uncritical acceptance of tradition rather than taking the critical rationalist position of starting by accepting inherited views and then proceeding by criticising them and trying to improve them. You criticise dogmatic rationalism which presumes that moral questions can be reduced to very simple formulas. Fair enough. You prefer instead the acceptance of a tradition that emphasises tacit, embedded wisdom over explicit, logically consistent, articulated theories, while admitting that there is a role for the latter against the background of inherited theories. That seems to come pretty close to the critical rationalist position. But then you end by saying: “Better to draw on the whole of the wisdom of the ages than to willingly sacrifice four of our five senses in order to hone the perfection of the remaining one.” That is not a particularly clear remark. But if we proceed by criticising some inherited views (while accepting others as a shared background) we will, if we are diligent and lucky, discover some new views which are better than the ones we criticise, in which case we will adopt the new views and discard the old ones, i.e., discard some part of the inherited tradition. If we achieve such success, we will not then ‘draw on the whole of the wisdom of the ages’ because we will have dumped some of it (because we discovered that it was not wisdom after all).

            One other point. The terms ‘practical wisdom’ and ‘judgement’ are just rather pompous ways of referring to a guess – pompous because they pretend to a knowledge, or worse, to a faculty of knowing, that we just do not have.

          • http://adamgurri.com AdamGurri

            It’s interesting that you think “practical wisdom” and “judgement” are in some way nonexistent, yet speak of discovering “some new views which are better than the ones we criticize”, without any characterization about what it is, exactly, about criticism that would lead us to improvement. Other than a simple rationalist romance for criticism in itself, a few questions naturally arise: what is the basis of the criticism, for instance?

            The basis is always (and I do mean always) some body of tradition we’ve interfaced with in some way, by reading books and talking with people—and using your judgment (which is a thing, and a thing that can be trained, your remarks to the contrary). Unless you think we somehow draw on Platonic forms or knowledge or something equivalent?

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            Perhaps my last message was particularly unclear; but you seem to have got the wrong end of the stick entirely.

            “It’s interesting that you think “practical wisdom” and “judgement” are in some way nonexistent”

            I never said that. I said they were (pompous) ways of referring to guesses. And guesses exist.

            “without any characterization about what it is, exactly, about criticism that would lead us to improvement”

            Criticism can identify inconsistencies, faults and problems with existing views. Our attempts to remove the inconsistencies, rectify the faults and solve the problems can lead to the discovery of new and (sometimes) better views.

            “what is the basis of the criticism, for instance? The basis is always (and I do mean always) some body of tradition we’ve interfaced with in some way, by reading books and talking with people.”

            I make that point myself in my last message, as well as in earlier ones.

            “using your judgment (which is a thing, and a thing that can be trained, your remarks to the contrary)”

            I agree it is a thing. I said, it is a guess. And some guesses are better than others.

            “Unless you think we somehow draw on Platonic forms or knowledge or something equivalent?”

            No. I don’t know how you got that idea.

          • http://adamgurri.com AdamGurri

            Consistency sure seems a poor basis for arriving at greater truths. You can be a completely consistent slavery apologist. And what exactly do you mean by “rectify faults and solve the problems” in this context?

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            Inconsistency is a pretty good way of identifying falsehoods. We can eliminate inconsistent theories and those which are inconsistent with things that we (currently) think true. Theories can have various other faults: they might be vague, woolly, unfalsifiable, explanatorily weak, of limited scope, and so on and so forth. Amy of these things can constitute a problem. Theories can also be in tension with other theories which is another kind of problem.

            I’m off to bed again now – up late tonight!

          • http://adamgurri.com AdamGurri

            I am skeptical of your faith in the power of mere consistency. But thank you again for the criticism. Rest well!

          • http://adamgurri.com AdamGurri
          • TracyW

            The point I am making is that almost universal and strong belief that p is no reason to think that it is true that p.

            Your point is wrong.
            Humanity has been surviving on this plant for 200,000 years. How could we do this if the relationship between our beliefs and reality was about zero?
            Yes, some universal and strong beliefs may turn out to be wrong. But many are true: we do need food and water to survive, sex does cause babies, the sun and stars can be used to predict changing seasons, etc.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            No, my point is right. We do not need true theories to survive. Evolutinary psychologists and behavioural economists are in the habit of pointing that out. We need only theories which are false but good enough for us to get by in our particular niche. An example from physics: Newton’s theory is false; but it gives predictions which are good enough for just about all practical purposes (even for putting people on the moon and getting them back).

          • TracyW

            You are conflating “is a theory true” with “do we have some reason to think a theory is true”.

            Outside mathematics we never know with certainty that a theory is true – Newton’s Laws are, as you cite, an example of this. But, there was a heap of evidence until the 19th century that Newton’s theories were true. The result of Newton’s various scientific experiments were a reason to think that his theories were true, that humans have a universal and strong belief is a reason to think that that belief is true.
            This may be overturned by later results, but that knowledge does not tell us how we should make decisions now.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            “there was a heap of evidence until the 19th century that Newton’s theories were true”

            That is not so, becuse of the problem of induction.

            “that humans have a universal and strong belief is a reason to think that that belief is true”

            I find that ridiculous. Worse, it seems self-contradictory, because humans have had a (near) universal and strong belief at one time which contradicted a (near) universal and strong belief at another time. I added ‘(near)’ because I doubt that there has ever been any belief that is univserally held.

          • TracyW

            If you read up on the problem of induction, you’ll note that every philosopher who has grappled with it has come to the conclusion that:
            1) It has no justification in logic.
            2) It is impossible to get through life without it.

            If it were not for induction, how could you decide what to eat as food? Even if you chemically test a sample of your potential breakfast and decide it’s edible and nutritious from the ground up, you still need induction to go from “this sample I just demolished in my lab is food, consequently the rest is food.” Let alone to go from “this egg was edible and nutritious yesterday” to “I could have an egg for breakfast today.”

            As for the rest, it looks like you have some words missing. What is this (near) universal and strong belief at one time which contradicts another (near) universal and strong belief? Slavery?

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            Popper showed how we do get by without induction. Corroborated theories are not confirmed; they are just those that have stood up best to criticism and testing.

            You can decide which action to perform any way you like. That is known as free will. Many successful actions are counter-inductive. For example Edison produced his electric light in spite of the unanimous scientific opinion that such a light was impossible. I discuss the issue in section 3 of my ‘Popper, rationality and the Possiility of Social Science,’ which is available here:

            https://www.academia.edu/1202022/Popper_Rationality_and_the_Possibility_of_Social_Science

            and here:

            http://www.ehu.es/ojs/index.php/THEORIA/article/view/1879/6587

            For centuries it was a near universal belief that the sun moved around the earth; it is nowadays a near universal belief that the earth moves around the sun.

          • TracyW

            Popper showed how we do get by without induction. Corroborated theories are not confirmed; they are just those that have stood up best to criticism and testing.

            So how did Popper decide what to eat each day, if he was getting by without induction? If he said that he had a “corroborated theory” about eggs that led him to eat eggs for breakfast, how’s that different from Hume eating eggs because he thought induction was useful, even if illogical?

            And, how much did Popper test his theories about which food is nutritious? How many criticisms and disproofs did he subject his eggs to (assuming he ate eggs)? Not to mention everything else he ate?

            Or, perhaps Popper was allergic to eggs. How many cases of anaphylactic shock would it take him to feel reasonably confident that he should avoid eggs?

            Many successful actions are counter-inductive.

            Indeed, but many many more successful actions are inductive. We note the successful counter-inductive actions because they are relatively rare.

            For centuries it was a near universal belief that the sun moved around the earth; it is nowadays a near universal belief that the earth moves around the sun.

            For centuries it was a near universal belief that eggs are nutritious and yummy food. It is nowadays a near universal belief that eggs are nutritious and yummy food.

            For centuries it was a near universal belief that jumping off a high place is dangerous. It is nowadays a near universal belief that jumping off a high place is dangerous.

            For centuries it was a near universal belief that wagons require an external motive force, unless travelling downhill. It is nowadays a near universal belief that wagons require an external motive force, unless travelling downhill.

            I could multiply indefinitely.

            And, note, many of the near universal beliefs that have been disproved had a good deal of truth in them. Yes, Newton may have re-conceptualised motion, saying “an object in motion will remain in motion until acted on by an outside force”, but in everyday life friction is ubiquitous. Newton’s Law explains why one can skate faster and with less effort on ice than one can run on land, but generally one needs to keep applying a force to an object to keep it moving, the medieval idea of impetus has some explanatory power. If a student has a physics teacher who told them Newton’s Law but refused to explain friction, that student would be justified in rejecting Newton’s Law (unless of course they knew about friction from other source).

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            The first question you raise I deal with in section 3 of the paper to which I provided a link last time. Please excuse me not repeating it here, but it takes time to explain, and the paper is freely downloadable.

            On the second question, it is probably true that counter-inductive actions are relatively rare. But they are the actions through which progress is made. Scientists test a theory by trying to bring about a situation that the theory says is impossible; when they succeed, the theory is falsified and needs modification or replacement. Inventors and entrepreneurs often produce something that was thought to be practically impossible before. Open markets encourage counter-inductive behaviour.

            On the third question, you have missed my point. I was not speaking about the frequency with which near-universal views are given up. I was trying to show that you subscribed to a self-contradictory principle. Here is your principle:

            “that humans have a [near] universal and strong belief is a reason to think that that belief is true”

            At one time there is a near-universal and strong belief that p; at another time there is a near-universal and strong belief that q; but p contradicts q. Now, if you had said that a [near] universal and strong belief is a CONCLUSIVE reason to think that that belief is true, you would have been committed to a self-contradiction. But you did not say ‘conclusive,’ so I had jumped the gun. What I should have said is that a near-universal and strong belief is NO reason to think that that belief is true. One reason for that is simply that many near-universal and strong beliefs have turned out to be false. Another reason (which many people will find more difficult to accept) is that there is no reason to think that humans can ever discover the truth about anything; in fact, evolutionary theory seems to imply that truth is beyond us. I develop that last point in another paper, available here:

            https://www.academia.edu/426573/A_Puzzle_about_Natural_Laws_and_the_Existence_of_God

            Finally, you say: “many of the near universal beliefs that have been disproved had a good deal of truth in them.”

            That was Popper’s view. He said that such theories had ‘verisimilitude.’ Unfortunately, his attempts to explain verisimilitude ended in failure. I think that the truth behind the claim is simply this. A false theory can have true consequences. In the case of empirical theories, some of those true consequences concern the observable behaviour of bodies. Further, some of the false consequences of a false empirical theory concern the observable behaviour of bodies and are approximately true (as with Newton’s theory). Such theories are often practically useful and may be treated as ‘true for practical purposes.’ But they are still false.

            Thank you for your persistent criticism. You have forced me to state my position and arguments more clearly. I like the way that you will not let go when you think that someone is making a mistake (I have noticed that in many of your contributions). I am similar in that respect. And you have made me realise how tiring it must sometimes be for people to argue with me. But trying to understand something is hard work (though also enjoyable); and criticism is essential for improving our understanding of anything.

          • TracyW

            The first question you raise I deal with in section 3 of the paper to which I provided a link last time.

            No you don’t. The closest you come to that question is when you say:

            It might be objected that there are some ways of acting against one’s accepted view … that are irrational becuase they risk substantial adverse consequences for the agent … as with someone who leaves a building via a tenth-floor window becvause, for all we can know, he might just float to the ground gently.

            (page 68).

            Nothing in there about what to do in ordinary everyday life like how to decide what to eat for breakfast. Most of section 3 is about how we have to be uncertain about everything, it doesn’t answer the problem of how to go about life anyway.

            In other words, if Popper has an egg for breakfast, he’s picked it because he found eggs to be nutritious and yummy in the past (probably because his nanny fed eggs to him, or he’s seen others eating eggs), not based on a comprehensive testing or a well-corroborated theory of whether this particular egg is nutritious or safe to him.

            We can’t get along in life without induction. Popper’s escape is playing dictionary games, replacing “induction” by “well-corroborated theory”, it doesn’t lead to any practical difference.

            What I should have said is that a near-universal and strong belief is NO reason to think that that belief is true.

            You did state that earlier. You were wrong then, and if you say it again in the future, you’ll be wrong then too. For the reasons I’ve been pointing out. Putting the word “no” in capitals doesn’t make it any truer.

            Another reason (which many people will find more difficult to accept) is that there is no reason to think that humans can ever discover the truth about anything;

            Well, replace the word “truth” by whatever word you use to describe things like the common experience that, say, eggs are a nutritious food (or a deadly substance, depending on allergy status), and cardboard isn’t.

            I use “true” because it’s short and simple and corresponds to common practice, but the point remains the same even if you use some other word. We have to use induction to get through life. No one subjects every breakfast to comprehensive testing for nutritiousness, in part because the testing process destroys the food.

            I note that despite your complaint about my use of the word “true”, you then go on to, in the same comment, talk about that “a false theory might have true consequences”. The word “true” is too useful for even you to be self-consistent.

            I like the way that you will not let go when you think that someone is making a mistake

            That’s because I’m bothered by the thought that I might be making a mistake.

            One reason for that is simply that many near-universal and strong beliefs have turned out to be false.

            I already made a response to that argument. What did you find wrong with my response?

            On the second question, it is probably true that counter-inductive actions are relatively rare. But they are the actions through which progress is made

            Counter-inductive actions are only some of the actions through which progress is made. A lot of actions are inductive. Take a biologist who is starting to build on another biologist’s experimental results about the growth of some bacteria in solution. First, they replicates the previous work, say, growing the bacteria over 3 or 4 days. When they’ve successfully replicated the first biologist’s experiment, they then make progress by assuming that this result still holds true. If the biologist were to ignore induction, they’d spend his time forever re-doing the first experiment, because, after all, how can they logically be reasonably confident that the conditions that led to successful replication still hold true now?
            (Obviously in reality the experimental conditions might have changed, eg the cleaner might have moved things around overnight, which is what makes debugging such a joy. And greatly complicates the job of philosophers who think about how can we know what we know.)

            Beyond that, manufacturing is totally dependent on inductive assumptions. For example, take Edison’s light bulb. Edison, having put together some working lightbulbs, did not feel the need to check that every single sample of carbon filament had the same properties as the sample he got working in his prototypes. Nor did he run around the world checking that the lightbulb that worked in the USA worked in Britain and worked in India, and worked in Antartica, nor did he feel the need to test that the process that worked in 1879 would still work in 1880 or 1890. Who would invest in a factory to manufacture lightbulbs if you didn’t build based on induction?

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            You say:

            “Most of section 3 is about how we have to be uncertain about everything,
            it doesn’t answer the problem of how to go about life anyway.”

            But it does. The point is that every decision is a guess, every decision is risky. Because there is no (valid) induction, whichever way you decide, you may come a cropper (as I show with examples). We are not rationally required to act on the best-corroborated theory. That, as you intimate, would be a form of induction. We can instead attempt to refute the best-corroborated theory by acting in opposition to it. The future is uncertain: make your mind up.

            I have already rebutted the reasons you gave for the claim that a belief’s being widely held is a reason for thinking it true. The history of human error is a reason for thinking that, if a belief is widely held, it is very likely to be false.

            I agree that we act largely habitually and that we often adhere to traditions of thought and behaviour. I have been saying that in my exchanges with Adam. But that is perfectly consistent with the point that there is no reason to think any of these theories true or styles of behaviour reliable. The fact that something has worked in the past is no guarantee that it will work in the future.

            I have never rejected the term ‘true.’ I use if often, for example, when I say that we can never know which propositions are true,

            You say that you have already made a response to the argument that many near-universal and strong beliefs have turned out to be false. Please remind me of the response, because it looks to me as if I answered all the points you made.

            You describe a case in which a biologist, B, tests a claim made by another biologist, A, by trying to reproduce A’s results. In short, B is testing A’s claim. What has that got to do with induction? If he cannot reproduce A’s results, A’s claim is falsified – so long as B’s results can be reproduced (there is no infinite regress there because the reproduction only has to be done once, or once by each interested researcher). If B does reproduce A’s results, then A’s claim survives testing. But it might be refuted next time it is tested because there is no such thing as an inductive guarantee that it won’t. That does not mean that B has to keep on testing just in case the next test delivers a falsification. Having done that test once, he is likely to move on to something else, not because he is making any inductive inference about what the future will be, but simply because his time is limited and he prefers to spend it doing interesting things.

            The same point applies to Edison. The rejection of induction does not commit us to trying to verify the truth of a theory by testing it comprehensively. The rejection of induction means there is no comprehensive testing, no verification. In consequence we try to falsify theories, and we hold on to them provided they survive testing.

          • TracyW

            Because there is no (valid) induction, whichever way you decide, you may come a cropper (as I show with examples). We are not rationally required to act on the best-corroborated theory. That, as you intimate, would be a form of induction. We can instead attempt to refute the best-corroborated theory by acting in opposition to it.

            I’m imagining you feeling hungry at breakfast. Hmm, should I eat eggs, or yoghurt, or cardboard, or the spoon or the table or the doorknob? Well, I like the taste of eggs and yoghurt and mum fed me them as a kid and I grew up strong and healthy, while my attempts to falsify the theory that we need to eat food have led to a loss of weight and painful feelings in my stomach and warnings from my doctor, but hey, maybe today I’ll find the doorknob tasty and nutritious. Doorknob it is!

            Induction may not be rational, but it is practical.

            I have already rebutted the reasons you gave for the claim that a belief’s being widely held is a reason for thinking it true. The history of human error is a reason for thinking that, if a belief is widely held, it is very likely to be false.

            Nope. You cited some examples of widely held beliefs that proved false. I cited some more examples of nearly-universally held beliefs being proved true. I also noted that many examples of nearly-universally held beliefs turned out to have a lot of truth in them (eg that you need to keep pushing a wagon to keep it moving, because of friction, unless you’re going downhill).

            Neither of us have attempted anything like a full statistical survey of all the near-universally-held beliefs to see their relative accuracy.

            Having done that test once, he is likely to move on to something else, not because he is making any inductive inference about what the future will be, but simply because his time is limited and he prefers to spend it doing interesting things.

            Actually, yes, indeed, he is making an inductive inference about what the future will be. That’s why he bothered doing the replication in the first place, even though his time is limited and he’d prefer to spend it doing interesting things.

            In consequence we try to falsify theories, and we hold on to them provided they survive testing.

            Actually, no we don’t. I don’t try to falsify what’s good to eat for breakfast each day. Neither did Popper. Even the most dedicated scientist, engineer or philosopher only attempts to falsify a few theories at the time. Edison didn’t try to falsify the theory that his lightbulb would continue to work everywhere in the world and would keep working every minute, before he started churning out lightbulbs for commercial sale, instead he just went ahead and assumed that the laws of nature are the same everywhere and every time.

            We can’t get by without assuming induction.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            Your complaints against me are simply complaints against the world (and are therefore unreasonable). It is simply a fact that past success is no guarantee of future success. You, it seems, want to say that because eggs have nourished you in the past, you can rely on them doing so in future. But you cannot (think, for example, of the cases of salmonella poisoning that were common some years ago). We need to face up to unpalatable facts, not pretend they do not exist.

            Your comment that induction is practical may mean two different things. It may mean that we are to a great extent, and unavoidably, creatures of habit; and that acting according to past habits saves a lot of time compared with conducting full-scale option appraisals. That is true. But your comment may mean that acting according to what has worked in the past is some kind of guarantee of success. That is false. That is the point I am making. What we do in the light of that falsity is up to us, and some people will be more tradition-bound than others. Who will turn out to be more successful, we have to wait and see.

            “I cited some more examples of nearly-universally held beliefs being proved true.”

            No, you didn’t. At best, you cited some examples of views that have not yet been refuted. We cannot prove any view to be true (not even in maths and logic).

            “I also noted that many examples of nearly-universally held beliefs turned out to have a lot of truth in them.”

            The same objection applies. So also does another: so far as I know, no one has been able to make sense of the notion of one proposition having more truth in it than another. As I said before, Popper invested a great deal of time and ingenuity in trying to make sense of the idea; but his attempts ended in failure.

            “Neither of us have attempted anything like a full statistical survey of all the near-universally-held beliefs to see their relative accuracy.”

            It cannot be done because we do not know of any proposition that it is true. At best we know of some of them that they have not been falsified. But even if we could do the survey, it would tell us nothing much. How would we know that the collection of views previously widely held is representative of total set of views that will ever be widely held? We can’t. And even if we could, what would that tell us about the next view that comes to be widely held? Nothing. For all we know it could fall into the true or the false subset.

            The biologist who does the replication is not doing anything inductive. Science is defined by a set of procedures which concern the criticism, testing and evaluation of guesses. The biologist is acting as a biologist only insofar as he adheres to those procedures. What makes a procedure scientific is that it is one of a set that facilitates (but does not guarantee) the generation of new explanations which are better than their predecessors. That, in a nutshell, is Popper’s account of science; and it makes no mention of induction (except to say that science does not need or use it).

            “I don’t try to falsify what’s good to eat for breakfast each day.”

            I doubt that anyone does. Our time is limited, so we have to be selective in what we test.

            “We can’t get by without assuming induction.”

            That is false. But I understand the sentiment. As an undergraduate It took me more than a year of arguing against Popper’s view before I came to accept it. Since then, the attachment of philosophers and others to induction has seemed to me just comical. I should perhaps mention that, while philosophers have tended almost universally to ignore Popper, scientists have been more impressed (in fact Popper is the only philosopher in modern times to have been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society primarily in recognition of his philosophical achievement).

          • TracyW

            Your complaints against me are simply complaints against the world (and are therefore unreasonable)

            I am terribly sorry that I made a complaint against you, as a general rule I try to avoid ever complaining against the person I’m arguing with. I disagree, I criticise but I try to not complain. I have re-read my prior comment and I can’t see a single complaint I made against you in that comment, can you please point out what my complaint was, so I can avoid it in the future?

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            I didn’t mean a complaint in that sense. It was an alternative to saying ‘criticism’.

          • TracyW

            Ah okay, thank you for explaining. No, I wasn’t criticising the world. I was criticising your arguments.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Thanks for the great, interesting discussion!

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Thanks for the great, interesting discussion.

          • TracyW

            It may mean that we are to a great extent, and unavoidably, creatures of habit; and that acting according to past habits saves a lot of time compared with conducting full-scale option appraisals. That is true.

            Yes, as Hume would say, we can’t get along without induction.

            “I cited some more examples of nearly-universally held beliefs being proved true.”

            My apologies, this was wrong. I should indeed have said “not yet refuted”.

            so far as I know, no one has been able to make sense of the notion of one proposition having more truth in it than another.

            And, yet, the idea of impetus still has more truth in it than the idea of the divine right of kings.

            The biologist who does the replication is not doing anything inductive.

            Indeed not. What is inductive is the biologist assuming that the conditions under which he managed to replicate the experiment still hold when he moves onto the experiments that build on the first experiment.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            “Yes, as Hume would say, we can’t get along without induction.”

            Hume insisted that induction is invalid. He thought that we assumed that it is valid. Some people plainly do. But those of us who admit that it is not valid can still continue to act in largely traditional ways (while acknowledging that such ways may fail us the very next time we use them).

            “the idea of impetus still has more truth in it than the idea of the divine right of kings”

            So you say. But what does it mean to say that? A proposition is either true or it is false. What can ‘having more truth’ mean? Popper tried to spell it out in terms of the number of logical consequences of the proposition that are true and the number that are false. But that enterprise was not successful.

            “What is inductive is the biologist assuming that the conditions under
            which he managed to replicate the experiment still hold when he moves
            onto the experiments that build on the first experiment”

            Making an assumption is not inductive. It is making a conjecture, one which can be tested (so long as it is falsifiable, as it is in this case).

          • TracyW

            Hume insisted that induction is invalid. He thought that we assumed that it is valid.

            Maybe. Hume thought and said a number of things in life.

            But those of us who admit that it is not valid can still continue to act in largely traditional ways (while acknowledging that such ways may fail us the very next time we use them).

            I am glad that you have come around to my opinion on induction.

            A proposition is either true or it is false.

            On the contrary. If you are, for example, trying to find your way to an office for a job interview using Google Maps, if Google Maps is out by two metres then that’s rather more useful than Google Maps being out by 2 kilometres.

            If you’re trying to decide what to eat for breakfast, an egg might give you salmonella, but it’s still a better guess than a doorknob. Unless you have an allergic reaction to eggs, in which case the doorknob is probably a better bet.

            Popper tried to spell it out in terms of the number of logical consequences of the proposition that are true and the number that are false. But that enterprise was not successful.

            Yes, and physicists can’t explain why a changing magnetic field induces an electric current. It still does though.

            As for “conjecture” versus “assumption”, I seldom see much point in arguing about the meaning of words. Feel free to restate my argument using the word “conjecturing” if you like.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            “I am glad that you have come around to my opinion on induction”

            Ha, ha! I thought you had come around to mine.

            “if Google Maps is out by two metres then that’s rather more useful than Google Maps being out by 2 kilometres”

            That only works for quantitative propositions. Aristotle’s contention that a descending object is seeking its natural place and Newton’s claim that a descending object is being pulled to earth are both false (we now think). Which has the more truth? I don’t want an arbitrary answer: I want an generally applicable account that makes sense in this case and in other cases too. Suppose we have an egg before us which, unbeknown to us, will infect us with salmonella if we eat it. The proposition ‘eating that egg will do us good’ is false. The proposition ‘eating that doorknob will do us good’ is also false. In what sense is the former more true than the latter – a sense in which Newton’s theory is more true than Aristotle’s (or vice versa)? Unless you can say, you have given us no idea what it means to say that one false theory is more true than another; in which case anyone can claim of any false theory that it has more truth than any other, without fear of his claim being found wanting

            “As for “conjecture” versus “assumption”, I seldom see much point in arguing about the meaning of words. Feel free to restate my argument using the word “conjecturing” if you like”

            The point is that conjecture-and-test is a scientific mode of proceeding which does not depend upon induction being valid.

          • TracyW

            I don’t want an arbitrary answer: I want an generally applicable account that makes sense in this case and in other cases too.

            Well, from what I’ve read of epistimology, you might be waiting a while.

            Unless you can say, you have given us no idea what it means to say that one false theory is more true than another;

            Indeed not. Nor have I tried to. All I’m doing is pointing out that it is our common experience that some statements are closer to the truth than others. I’m pointing out a commonly known feature of life, I can’t explain why it is that way, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

            The point is that conjecture-and-test is a scientific mode of proceeding which does not depend upon induction being valid.

            Agreed. Where the induction comes in is once you’ve done the replication/conjecture-and-test, and then continue to assume/conjecture that the conditions that caused the replication/conjecture-and-test result to happen still hold true as you build on the replication/conjecture-and-test results.
            You keep confusing building on the test results with actually doing the test. It’s the former that’s inductive, not the latter.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            “All I’m doing is pointing out that it is our common experience that some statements are closer to the truth than others”

            But you are pointing out nothing unless you can give content to the idea of ‘closer to the truth’. It is just an empty phrase otherwise.

            “Where the induction comes in is once you’ve done the
            replication/conjecture-and-test, and then continue to assume/conjecture that the conditions that caused the replication/conjecture-and-test result to happen still hold true as you build on the replication/conjecture-and-test results.”

            Let me put it this way. To conjecture that the previous conditions still obtain is not to make an inference that they will obtain because they obtained in the past and it is not to make any claim that it is more likely that they will obtain than that they won’t. It therefore involves no claim that there is any validity to induction and it is thus not an inductive procedure.

          • TracyW

            But you are pointing out nothing unless you can give content to the idea of ‘closer to the truth’. It is just an empty phrase otherwise.

            You’re wrong in your claim. Giving examples is also a way of pointing things out. I gave examples, thus moving my claim beyond that of an empty phrase.

            Look at it this way, how can we know anything if the only way we can know it is if we can give a generally applicable account from theory? This leads to the dictionary problem, because we can only define words in terms of other words. A way to break out of that loop is to refer to common shared knowledge, by giving examples.

            To conjecture that the previous conditions still obtain is not to make an inference that they will obtain because they obtained in the past and it is not to make any claim that it is more likely that they will obtain than that they won’t.

            Maybe so, I suspect the truth of this statement depends on how you are defining “conjecture”. It remains that what the biologist does in building on the results of the successful replication is induction.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            “Giving examples is also a way of pointing things out. I gave examples, thus moving my claim beyond that of an empty phrase.”

            I agree that giving examples ia a good way of explaining what a term means. We rarely explain the meaning of terms by definition. But the example you gave involved quantitative statements, which gives no guidance with regard to the massive class of non-quantitative statements.

          • TracyW

            Uh, I also gave examples of the medieval idea of impetus, compared to “the divine right of kings”, and eating an egg for breakfast, compared to eating a doorknob.

            You even responded to the egg example by asking about what if the egg unbeknown to us, contains salmonella, so you must have read that one at least. (And you also quoted the impetus versus divine right of kings example, though I suppose that could have been accidental.)

            (Note, the answer to your question about the salmonella-contaminated egg is, as we don’t know the egg contains salmonella, this is a case where induction would get it wrong. Which is why inductive reasoning can’t prove a statement to be true, or false, induction can only make an argument weaker or stronger. As you yourself have pointed out, induction has no logical foundation. The only reason for using it is that we can’t get through life without it.)

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            “I also gave examples of the medieval idea of impetus, compared to “the divine right of kings”, and eating an egg for breakfast, compared to eating a doorknob.”

            Yeah, but I pointed out that they did not work. Let’s leave it there. Thanks for the discussion.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            “I also gave examples of the medieval idea of impetus, compared to “the divine right of kings”, and eating an egg for breakfast, compared to eating a doorknob.”

            Yeah, but I pointed out that they did not work. Let’s leave it there. Thanks for the discussion.

          • TracyW

            Yeah, but I pointed out that they did not work.

            So why then did you claim before that I didn’t make any qualitative examples?

            And, don’t you think that you should abandon your claim that my examples didn’t work, given that you then went on to agree with my response, after all you yourself said:
            “I agree that giving examples ia a good way of explaining what a term means. ” ?

            Overall, it strikes me that you’ve reached the realisation that you can’t defend your claims any more, but, rather than change your mind, you’ve decided to try to deny the evidence.

          • Linear

            The history of human error is a reason for thinking that, if a belief is widely held, it is very likely to be false.

            “Very likely to be false” compared to what? Compared to only an individual holding a belief?

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            Thanks. I am there using ‘likely’ in the colloquial or subjective sense it which to call something likely is to say that it is plausible. I do not think it is possible to say what the objective probability is that any belief is false.

          • Linear

            But since we are on a more subjective scale, I think the question remains: plausible compared to what?

            There are a couple of scenarios I’m considering:

            (1) Given a random question, who is more likely to give a (more) correct answer: a random person or everyone else? cf. “Ask The Audience” in Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.

            (2) Given random cases where a person disagrees with everyone else, who is more likely to be (more) correct?

            Do these answers change on the basis of a strong belief vs. weak belief?

            What experimental scenarios are you considering?

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            I don’t think that the notion of plausibility is essentially comparative. That is, I think we can say that something is plausible, even highly plausible, without having in mind anything else that it is more plausible than. The reason is that something is plausible when it coheres with the theories we already hold. Such coherence is a matter of degree. But it can be plausible that p without us having in mind some other proposition, q, such that p is more plausible than q.

            We cannot know the answers to questions (1) and (2), at least if we are talking about objective probabilities. Whatever the objective probabilities are, what people believe (and however strongly) is irrelevant to them.

            I was not considering any experimental scenarios. All I was saying was that the fact that, throughout history, widely-shared beliefs have often turned out to be false makes it highly plausible that the next widely-shared belief will also be false.

          • TracyW

            All I was saying was that the fact that, throughout history, widely-shared beliefs have often turned out to be false makes it highly plausible that the next widely-shared belief will also be false.

            A) It’s not a fact, it’s an inference drawn from a bunch of facts. The facts are that “widely-shared beliefs have often turned out to be false”, the inference is “it’s highly plausible that the next widely-shared belief will also be false.”
            B) You are only considering one side of the equation. You are not considering all the widely-shared beliefs that have turned out to have some truth in them.

            To give an example, let’s say that 1 egg in a million has salmonella. Apparently Americans eat 236 eggs a year, or 76.8 billion per year. So, every year, there will be a lot of eggs contaminated with salmonella. But, overall the odds that the next egg you get will have salmonella is 0.0001%.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            A) No, its not an inference. If it were, it would be invalid. I think it is actually a psychological claim, namely, a person who considers that widely-shared beliefs have often turned out to be false will think it highly plausible that the next widely-shared belief will also be false. As a psychological claim, it needs to be tested empirically. But prior to testing, I find the claim plausible.

            B) As I have said before, we need to clarify the idea that a false proposition has some truth in it, especially if we want to say (which I think is the point of it) that some false propositions have more truth in them than some others. Every false proposition has an infinity of true logical consequences. That gives a sense to the claim that a false proposition has some truth in it; but it does not distinguish one false proposition from another.

            Your example seems to be question-begging. You arrive at the conclusion that the next egg you eat will infect you with salmonella has a specific probability; but to get the conclusion you first assume it as a fact that the required proportion of eggs are infected with salmonella. But the conclusion does not follow anyway. The next egg you get is either contaminated with salmonella or it is not. If it is, there is a probability of 1 that it is. If it is not, there is a probability of 0 that it is. So the probability that the next egg you get is contaminated with salmonella is either 0 or 1. It is certainly not 0.0001%.

          • TracyW

            Wow, I’ve finally come across someone who claims to believe that a probability can be only zero or one! Care to put your money where your mouth is?

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            I never said any such thing. Probability values range from 0 to 1. In some cases in which we do not know what the probability of something is, we can know that it is either 0 or 1. Your egg example is one of those cases. Either the egg is contaminated or it is not. That is a fact. The situation is determinate (though we do not know which of the two states obtains). Therefore, either the probability of its being contaminated is 1 or it is 0 (though we don’t know which). A different case is a roll of a die. It might turn up a 6 or it might not. The situation is not yet determined: it could go either way. If it is a fair die, there is a probability of 0.167 that it will turn up a 6.

          • TracyW

            Yeah, I suspected you’d start backing away the moment you read my suggestion that you could put your money where your mouth is.

          • Linear

            TracyW is being derisive, but you are mostly misusing the term “probability” there.

            With a sample size of 1, you are right that you would get a probability of either 0 or 1, but the entire point of probability is to consider larger, representative sample sizes because they can be useful in predicting future cases. A sample size of 1 tells us almost nothing by itself.

            Indeed, if you only roll the die once and you get a 6, then the “probability” of a 6 in that case is 1 and of any other possibility is 0. In order to empirically derive 1/6, you have to use a large sample size. Same thing with eggs.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            Tracy’s confusion was between objective and subjective probability. It looks to me as if you are making the same mistake. Let’s go back to the die.

            If determinism is true, then every event has an objective probability of either 1 (if it is determined that it will happen) or 0 (if it is determined that it will not happen). On that view, if the die turned up a 6, then at every time before the die was rolled, there was a probability of 1 that the die would turn up a six. Of course, we would not have known beforehand that the die would turn up a six, so we might have assigned a probability of 0.167 to the die turning up a 6. But that would be a subjective probability, i.e., an assignment of a numerical probability on the basis of our relative ignorance. The assignment would be false (because 1 does not = 0.167); but it might be the best that we could do before the fact.

            If determinism is false, i.e., if indeterminism is true, then some events have an objective probability between 0 and 1 before they occur: it is genuinely open what will happen. Of course, we might not know what the objective probability of such an event is; but we might assign a numerical probability between 0 and 1 to it on the basis of our partial ignorance. Unlike the determinism case, here it is possible that our assignment is correct, but perhaps not very likely.

            In my die example I was assuming indeterminism; more specifically, I was assuming that it was not determined which number the die would turn up. So, if it was a fair die then, other things being equal, it would have a probability of 0.167 of turning up a 6 before the die was thrown (and after the die was thrown it would have a probability of either 0 or 1 of turning up a six on that throw, depending on how the throw turned out).

            You might also be confusing frequencies and ropensities. Roughly, talk of sample sizes belongs with frequencies; talk of probabilities of particular events belongs with propensities.

          • Linear

            Compare these two games:

            (1) You have to predict the indeterministic outcome of a roll of the die before it is rolled, and

            (2) The same game as #1 but the die has already been rolled and you do not know the outcome.

            For each game, what is the probability that the die shows a six?

            For the past roll, you might be tempted to say that it has a probability of “either 0 or 1″, but that is a _set_ of probabilities, not the probability of a single outcome. Indeed, every side has that same set of possible probabilities, so all that accomplishes is defining the possible outcomes.

            Similarly, an egg either has salmonella in it or it does not, but that fact is practically meaningless since we do not know which is true, which is the whole point of using probabilities. People eat eggs because that probability is low. Saying it is 0 or 1 helps not a jot.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            “For the past roll, you might be tempted to say that it has a probability of “either 0 or 1″, but that is a _set_ of probabilities, not the probability of a single outcome”

            The statement

            (s) the probability that a 6 has turned up is either 0 or 1

            expresses our ignorance about which outcome obtains. It also, as you say, expresses an objective state of affairs in that it expresses a necessary truth. And it continues to express a necessary truth if we replace ‘6’ with any of the numerals for the preceding five integers. But there is something additional which is objectively the case, though we do not know what it is. So let us suppose, for illustration, that the die has in fact turned up a 6. Then the objective facts are that there is a probability of 1 that it has turned up a 6 and a probability of 0 that it has turned up a 5 or a 4 or…etc.

            The fact that we are ignorant of what the specific objective probabilities are does not alter any of those objective probabilities. And if we, on the basis of our ignorance, assign a probability value of 0.167 to any of the six possible outcomes, then we say something false.

            “Similarly, an egg either has salmonella in it or it does not, but that fact is practically meaningless since we do not know which is true, which is the whole point of using probabilities”

            It is not at all practically meaningless that an egg has salmonella. And it does not become practically meaningless just because we do not know whether it has salmonella or not. Further, the whole point of probabilities is not to substitute falsehood for truth because it enables to reach a decision (however bad) about a state of affairs concerning which we are ignorant. One point of probabilities is to give a true description (or a description which might turn out to be true) of an indeterministic situation, as happens in quantum mechanics.

            The use of subjective probabilities in decision-making gives just an illusion of knowledge. If an egg either has salmonella or not, I would rather know which is the case than making a decision on a (false) assumption that it has a probability of 0.167.

          • Linear

            The fact that we are ignorant of what the specific objective probabilities are does not alter any of those objective probabilities.

            (1) Those are called “possible outcomes”, not “objective probabilities”, because you have not yet aggregated them into a probability. “0 or 1″ is not a probability, much less an objective probability.

            In other words, you have to aggregate all of your “suppose, for illustration” possibilities in order to obtain the probability of getting a six.

            (2) We are ignorant of the specific outcome, but we are not ignorant of the objective probability of getting a six. In both of my games above, the objective probability is 1/6. Test them empirically if you doubt me. Any valid evidential construction should match those empirical results.

            And if we, on the basis of our ignorance, assign a probability value of 0.167 to any of the six possible outcomes, then we say something false.

            (1) Probabilities are always assigned on the basis of our ignorance of outcomes.

            (2) By what test are you concluding that the probability value 1/6 is false?

            As far as I can see, you do not have a test. Instead, you are saying that it is false by (your) definition — a definition that is both uncommon and not useful, in part because it classifies empirical probabilities as “false”.

            It is not at all practically meaningless that an egg has salmonella.

            Of course, but that was not my claim. My claim is that the statement “an egg either has salmonella or it doesn’t” is practically meaningless. In binary logic, “p is true or false” is true for all p. It is trivially true. It is tautological. It is true by the definition of “binary logic”. It tells us nothing.

            If an egg either has salmonella or not, I would rather know which is the case than making a decision on a (false) assumption that it has a probability of 0.167.

            No kidding! :) But the whole point of this discussion is that you do not “know which is the case” — that is the reason why we use probabilities.

            Your tangents into determinism and indeterminism and subjective and objective probabilities are both misguided and irrelevant because probabilities are always assigned out of ignorance.

            Whether we are ignorant because it is impossible to predict (indeterminism or determinism with unknowable initial conditions) or because it is difficult or inconvenient to calculate or test (eggs), is irrelevant.

          • TracyW

            It also, as you say, expresses an objective state of affairs in that it expresses a necessary truth.

            If it’s an objective state of truth, you should be willing to bet on it.

          • TracyW

            Tracy’s confusion was between objective and subjective probability

            Care to bet on that?

          • TracyW

            Yes, I am rather derisive to people who knowingly talk nonsense.

          • Linear

            That would tend to make me derisive, too, but I’m not convinced it is “knowingly”. He just seems stubborn to me. In fact, it seems like he’s read about the philosophy of probability, but he has somewhat misunderstood the common use of the terminology and lacks practical experience.

          • Linear

            Whether it is essential or not, such comparisons help us understand what you mean, and moreover, even assuming you are right, if the alternatives are less plausible, then that is a reason to choose the widely-shared belief.

            Devising some scenarios to (at least roughly) test your theory would help your case. In fact, I suspect that you have some qualifiers in mind that I am not considering.

            Both scenarios that I gave are testable, with some degree of subjectivity. #1 is roughly tested on that TV show. Strength of belief, as I used it, corresponds to confidence, which is also roughly tested on that show.

            I have not run the numbers, but I think that both scenarios favor “everyone else”, and that factoring in confidence improves the odds. Consider the Wisdom of the crowd. Of course, this is statistical and not a guarantee, and there are caveats, but a general correlation seems to exist.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            I have to admit that I do not really see what your point is. But I will make some comments on the things you say.

            Here is one:

            “if the alternatives are less plausible, then that is a reason to choose the widely-shared belief”

            It depends what one’s purpose is. If one wants to choose the most plausible belief then, obviously, yes, one chooses the widely-shared belief if the alternatives are less plausible – but only id those are the only alternatives possible. If other alternatives are also possible, one might instead try to think up some new theory.

            If one wants to choose the true theory, then in some circumstances it may make sense to choose the widely shared one, given the research on the wisdom of the crowd. But the wisdom of the crowd concerns specific types of cases, like guessing some numerical quantity or picking the right answer from a list of answers which includes the right answer. It ain’t much good in answering questions such as ‘why do unsupported heavy objects move toward the ground?’ How many people are likely to come up with any sort of answer along the lines of: because space-time is curved and bodies take the easiest course through undulating space-time?

          • Linear

            My point is that “everyone else” is favored in random matchups and factoring in confidence tends to our improve odds of correctness. A reason for this is that we train our confidence to that benefit, and also if “everyone else” is wrong, then the individuals therein also tend to be wrong.

            If other alternatives are also possible, one might instead try to think up some new theory.

            And what is the likelihood of random new theories being correct?

            There is a force of attraction between objects. If the “correct” answer is that objects curve space-time and they take the “easiest course”, then I suspect you are trying to make a point of precision, particular language, and comparing experts (by some criteria) to laymen, whereas I was randomly selecting individuals and topics.

            Those are the kind of qualifiers which would manifest in experiments that demonstrate your theory. My larger point is that you should detail some of those experiments. Even if the experiments are too difficult to actually perform, they provide clarification of your meaning.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            I’m afraid I still do not understand what you are up to. I guess there is some background to what you are saying with which I am unfamilar. I find your first paragraph unintelligible.

            As I indicated before, I do not think it is possible to answer the question ‘what is the likelihood of random new theories being correct?’

            If general relativity theory is correct, there is no force of gravity. What Newton explained by a force of gravity, Einstein explains quasi-geometrically in terms of space-time curvature. That was the point of my example. How many people know that? How many people could have come up with a theory like that? The ‘wisdom of crowds’ seems irrelevant to substantive and serious issues, however useful it is in trivia quizzes.

          • Linear

            Your general relativity example shows that you are comparing widely-shared beliefs to the beliefs of experts. You may even be defining an “expert” as someone who has more accurate knowledge on the topic than most of the population, in which case, your hypothesis of the inferiority of widespread beliefs is correct by that definition.

            So, when I asked:

            “Very likely to be false” compared to what?

            Your answer is “compared to the belief of experts”.

            How does your theory help us? Well, it is useful if we can prospectively identify such experts. For basic physics, this may not be too difficult, but where there is contention, this can be quite difficult.

            Applying it to the origin of this sub-thread, who are the experts on the value of traditional family arrangements?

            More generally, who are the experts in a free market? Isn’t value determined by the market as a whole?

          • TracyW

            Um, but:
            Africa is not the world. Plenty of societies get by just fine without FGM.
            Feudualism: an economic system confined to NW Europe for a few centuries.
            Conscription: confined to large nation states at a particular level of military technology.
            Persecution of gays: not in Ancient Greece!

            I’m having trouble thinking of any society though that gets by without the family.

          • Theresa Klein

            How about an appeal to basic human nature and biology?
            The desire to procreate is intrinsic to life. The desire to raise one’s own children is part of what it means to be human.
            A system that pretends such connections don’t exist would be inhuman and inhumane.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            Why isn’t this just rhetorical overkill? Cohen was not suggesting that we abolish the family. He was suggesting some changes to the institution to make it work better. I should have made this point earlier against Adam.

          • Theresa Klein

            But he’s suggesting divorcing the family from the biological relationship between parent and child. As if biological relationships don’t matter.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            Again, isn’t that an overstatement? In most cases, families will go on pretty much as before; in some cases there will be some interference, but there is already some interference now. It is just a modification of an existing institution.

      • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

        On point 2, I’d like to add something that might (I hope) assist you in rethinking the point. Both Hayek and Popper criticise the overly intellectualist thinkers who think that they can re-design everything from scratch. Hayek calls them ‘constructivist,’ Popper calls them ‘utopian’ or ‘canvas cleaning.’ Plato, Bacon and Descartes are examples.

        There are different aspects to the Hayek-Popper criticism. One is that ‘canvas cleaning’ is impossible, because without inherited theories we cannot think, indeed we cannot even be self-conscious minds. A consequence of this criticism is that constructivists/utopians are deluding themselves. Whatever new system they offer us is never entirely new but presupposes a vast swathe of theories that they cannot see beyond, theories which they have never questioned because they are not explicitly aware that they hold them. Thus, as Kant pointed out, Descartes’ ‘I think’ assumes that ‘I’ refers to the same thing from moment to moment, whereas, for all we know, it does not. And various people have pointed out that Rawls assumes that the people in the ‘original position’ will be just like Rawls in relevant respects.

        So when I said that the difference between the utopians and the piecemeal tinkerers is just a matter of degree, I was making that point. The utopians THINK they are being dramatically bold; but they are deluding themselves because their thinking is warped by background assumptions that they have inherited biologically or culturally.

        So, there is a qualitative difference between utopian thinking and thinking which acknowledges (some of) the traditions in which it is working. But there can be no utopian thinkers. All we have is some thinkers who portray themselves as utopian but who are actually working within a tradition, perhaps a tradition of which they are not conscious.

        I have not re-read what Popper and Hayek say on this matter, so I might want to re-write some of the preceding after I have done that. But that will not happen in the immediate future. In the meantime, I wanted to offer you some assistance with your re-appraisal. I hope this is helpful!

    • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

      Danny,

      Appeals to “harm” in general might sound rather consequentialist. But I take it that those who talk about the “harm principle” are making an appeal to rights. Those, like Mill and Feinberg, who talk about the harm principle are saying that individuals have not to have their actions interfered with unless they are causing harm to others. Harm isn’t something to be interpersonally compared aggregated. Rather, it serves as a marker of the domain of one’s individual sovereignty.

      Don’t you think?

      • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

        No I don’t. The harm principle gives the wrong answers. I have already pointed out that some harmful actions are permissible. But it is also true that some harmless actions are impermissible (e.g., someone gaining entry to my house and snooping through my cupboards and drawers).

        Or am I missing your point, Matt?

        • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

          What’s harmless about a gross invasion of privacy?

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            It does not actually cause any harm!

          • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

            You’re welcome to try to convince me of that.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            According to my ‘Concise Oxford English Dictionary’ harm = physical injury, esp. that which is deliberately inflicted; material damage; actual or potential ill-effect.

          • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

            Okay, agreed that it does not cause physical harm. But neither does pulling an empty revolver on someone during an argument and pretending that it is loaded; who among us would argue that this isn’t “harmful?”

            Surely we can agree that some kinds of serious harm can be non-physical, even if we don’t ultimately agree about the particular case we’re discussing, right?

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            It is debatable whether the empty revolver causes harm, because we might speak of psychological harm (distress) as well as physical. But pure trespass and snooping causes no harm, physical or psychological.

          • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

            Sounds to me like you get to decide what is and isn’t debatable. I’ll leave it at that.

          • Nicholas Geiser

            The point is that you can’t figure out what counts as “harm” through conceptual analysis alone–you need a moral theory. Mill, for example, wanted to rule out most forms of psychological harms because he feared that prudish Victorians would use it to stifle individual expression.

          • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

            I agree with that much, Nicholas. It’s not obvious to me that this is what Danny’s point is.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            You are right that my point is different. It seems to me that people naturally focus on harm as identifying what is impermissible. But taking ‘harm’ in its ordinary sense of physical damage, that is not so. Taking’ harm’ in the naturally extended sense of either physical or psychological damage, it is also not so. Rather than just admitting that they were wrong, however, people then try to define harm in some more extended sense (‘harm to one’s interests’ is a good one). But that sort of move ends up by just defining ‘harm’ in terms of ‘impermissible.’ The harm principle was supposed to help us to identify what is impermissible; but we end up needing to know what is impermissible before we can say what harm is. This futile rigmarole, which causes a great deal of confusion by defining old terms in various new ways, is simply a consequence of people’s inability to admit that they made a mistake. The harm principle is wrong, dead wrong, it sucks ass! Just admit the damn facts and we get get on with some serious theorising instead of all this verbal quibbling.

          • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

            I won’t argue with you, but it may help to note that Gurri comes from a school of thought in which specific definitions of “harm” and “permissibility” etc. organically emerge from social interaction rather than from theory. You may agree or disagree with that, but there it is.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            And dictionaries attempt to codify such usage. I quoted from the dictionary earlier.

          • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

            Man you are really more stuck than you have to be. Languages evolve over time; words are added to and subtracted from dictionaries. It isn’t theory that determines what goes in a dictionary, it’s human interaction and spontaneous use of language. So citing a dictionary definition is little more than providing a point-in-time estimate of what human interaction has determined organically.

            Lots of people – including the world’s foremost linguists – agree with that view of language. Folks like Gurri simply apply the same principle to economic and moral interaction.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            You seem to be missing my point entirely. For one thing, the evolved use of words as recorded in dictionaries shows that the harm principle is false. For another, we are still talking about the meanign of words instead of doing something serious – all as a consequence of trying to save from refutation, by verbal manoeuvres, a principle (the harm principle) which is evidently false.

          • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

            Yeesh, what straw man are you building?

            Gurri is overtly critical of the harm principle in his post, for reasons I just articulated.

            Zwolinksi clarifies that the harm principle fits better under a natural-rights framework than a consequentialist – but he does not overtly endorse it, at least not here.

            So first and foremost, you’re winning an argument no one else is having.

            I could engage the rest of your argument, but the payoff seems low at this point.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            I am not attacking straw men.

            “Gurri is overtly critical of the harm principle in his post, for reasons I just articulated.”

            I was criticising his equation of the harm principle and the rights principle (see my original message).

            “Zwolinksi clarifies that the harm principle fits better under a natural-rights framework than a consequentialist.”

            I explained why I think Matt is mistaken (see my response to Matt).

          • Les Kyle Nearhood

            That goes against your own example, used above, in which you say taking a mate from another suitor is doing them a harm. Surely not a physical harm right?

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            Take a look again at the dictionary definition: as well as physical injury it lists material damage and actual or potential ill-effect. My example involved a range of ill-effects, including psychological harm or distress. I am a bit surprised, though, that the dictionary includes potential ill-effects (risks): there seems to me to be a difference between harms and risks.

        • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

          I am not trying to defend the harm principle as correct. I’m just saying that the harm theory, as developed in Mill and Feinberg, is best understood as a kind of rights-based theory, rather than a consequentialist one.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            Yes, I think that is right. I would put it something like this. What they were subliminally seeking was a theory of rights. But they regarded the notion of rights as in some way suspect (perhaps for different, but overlapping, reasons in each case). So they looked for, or assumed, that rights were grounded in something else, something empirical; and the empirical ground that naturally suggested itself was harm. Feinberg realised that that was not right. He eventually started speaking of ‘harm to a person’s interests’ (mealy-mouthed obscurantist nonsense – unless we take ‘interests’ to mean ‘rights’ and ‘harm’ to mean ‘violation’). But I do not think we should slur over, or cover up, the mistake that they made. The harm principle is false. And because it cuts across the rights principle, often egregiously, it is an aid to statism, authoritarianism, egalitarianism, and every other pernicious ism. We should expose it for the pernicious falsehood that it is, even though this will mean pointing out that Mill and Feinberg were confused (in fact, each was confused about many things – aren’t we all?).

          • Andrew

            1. I think you work with a common understanding of “harm.” As you know, Feinberg gave us a more refined (perhaps better) understanding of the term; one that helps make sense of what Mill wrote and one that I think makes the principle work.

            2. Saying what “they were subliminally seeking was a theory of rights” sounds good, but why wouldn’t they say that rights theorists are “subliminally seeking a theory of harm”? I find it much easier to understand wrongs than rights. We all recognize that boiling a baby for fun is wrong. We do not all recognize that babies (or anyone) have rights. We don’t recognize that because rights are incredibly complex sorts of things. Wrongs are simpler (not to say they are simple).

            3. Feinberg was not speaking “mealy-mouthed obscurantist nonsense” when he started talking of interests. He made very clear what he meant by the term. (It was not meant as a synonym for rights.)

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            How does replacing ‘harm’ by ‘harm to a person’s interests’ make the harm principle work? Recall one of my earlier examples:

            “A loves B who goes off with C. As a consequence, A falls apart, suffers long-term emotional agony, cannot concentrate on many ordinary tasks, loses his job, then loses his house, perhaps wastes much of his life in an alcohol- or drug-induced haze, and so on.”

            B did not violate the rights of A. B’s action was permissible. But B harmed A. So the harm principle gets it wrong. What if we replace ‘harm’ with ‘harm to a person’s interests’? It initially seems pretty clear that A’s interests were harmed. But who knows what A’s interests are? Perhaps the fact that B went off with C showed that B was not right for A, and it is not in A’s interests to be attached to someone who is not right for him, so when B left A, A’s interests were not harmed. That will bring the answer given by the harm principle into line with the rights principle and with what we think is permissible. The trouble is, it is entirely ad hoc. You can use the formula ‘harm to A’s interests’ to get any answer you want. For example, perhaps it is not in A’s interests to be attached to someone who is not right for him, but perhaps B was right for him and A was right for B, but B just didn’t realise it; in that case B did harm A’s interests, but acted permissibly. And so on and so forth. Replacing ‘harm’ with ‘harm to a person’s interests’ makes the harm principle unfalsifiable. That is why it is mealy-mouthed obscurantist nonsense. And it illustrates the way in which contemporary philosophers generally proceed.

            I don’t want to get into Feinberg exegesis, but I will note that he did not think that simply replacing ‘harm’ with ‘harm to a person’s interests’ would save the harm principle. I still think, though, that it was reprehensible of him to introduce the woolly talk of harm (or setback) to a person’s interests: it obscures rather than clarifies and it allows theorists to immunise their theories to criticism, thus returning philosophy to the sort of mediaeval scholasticism that was rightly reviled in the Renaissance.

            I don’t think wrongs are easier to understand than rights. The two notions are too wrapped up in each other for one to be understood without the other being understood. One could understand wrongs without understanding rights only if the notion of rights were redundant. But examples like the one I just gave (and others I gave earlier) show that the notion of rights is not redundant.

          • Andrew

            1. Feinberg does not “replac[e] ‘harm’ by ‘harm to a person’s interests’.” He argues for a definition of harm as “wrongful setbacks to interests”–for use in the harm principle.
            2. As for your example: on the face of it, it does not look like either B or C wrongfully setback A’s interests, so there is no harm in the technical sense. The harm principle gets it right.
            3. I believe there are wrongs that are not violations of rights. Most people do, actually.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            1. As I said before, I do not want to get bogged down in Feinberg exegesis. Instead, let me ask you: what is the purpose of the harm principle? If it is to guide us as to which actions are wrong, then defining ‘harm’ as ‘wrongful setback to interests’ gets us nowhere, because we first have to know which actions are wrong (involve a wrongful setback to interests) before we know whether they are harmful. Why isn’t this manoeuvre like the scholastic recourse to a ‘dormitive virue’ ridiculed by Moliere?

            2. If the harm principle gets my example right, it is only because you have redefined harm in terms of wrongfulnes, i.e., it is only because you have transformed the harm principle into an unfalsifiable and useless one.

            3. I, too, think that there are wrongs that are not violations of rights. But one cannot give an account of wrongfulness in general which does not refer to rights.

          • Andrew

            1. The point in the harm principle is most definitely not “to guide as to which actions are wrong.” It’s point is to tell us when interference is permissible.
            2. As I said, it was part of Feinberg’s project to give a definition of harm that made sense in the harm principle. I do not see that the definition makes the principle un falsifiable or useless and you haven’t said why you think that.
            3. If you think there are wrongs that are not violations of rights, I don’t think your definition of wrongs will have reference to rights as a necessary condition. If you think it does, I’d be happy to look at the definition.

          • Andrew

            Thought I posted this already, but it apparently didn’t work, so I’ll try again (apologies if it then shows up 2x).

            1. Feinberg did not “replac[e] ‘harm’ by ‘harm to a person’s interests.” He argued that the harm principle required a technical definition of harm as “wrongful setbacks to interests.”

            2. In your example, no one wrongfully sets back the interests of anyone else, so the harm principle says no interference is permitted. I.e., the harm principle gets it right.
            3. I think there are wrongs that are not violations of rights. I think most people think that.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            You did post it, and I replied to it.

    • TracyW

      Personally, I found Cohen’s proposal quite shocking. The family is the oldest, most durable institution that humanity has.”

      Something similar could be said about the monarchy; but the founding fathers (whom you seem to count as organic libertarians) dumped it.

      No monarchies in hunter-gatherer societies.
      Not to mention that even before the USA, there were examples of non-monarchial countries: eg Ancient Rome was a republic for a time, Ancient Athens a democracy, Switzerland’s history of political systems is awfully hard to sum up, but not a monarchy, Venice, not a monarchy.

    • TracyW

      Anything can be criticised; and if it does not stand up well to criticism it should be modified or binned.

      That’s very self-confident. Things have not stood up well to criticism, and then have gone on to be well-defended later on. Consider for example the history of infinitesimals in mathematics: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infinitesimal.

      Democracy is another example, Ancient Athens was not a dramatic argument for its success.

      Furthermore, some rules might easily have effects that are not easily visible, and yet are important. For example, laws that encourage long-term investment might appear somewhat bad in the short-term, but in the long-term societies that have them might flourish at the expense of those that take the more “logical” approach.

      • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

        None of that contradicts what I said. The calculus was self-contradictory. It could not be left in that state. But it was modified. And so on.

        • TracyW

          Actually, all of what I said contradicts what you said.

          On the contrary to your assertion that calculus could not be left in that state, infinitesimals kept being used by physicists and engineers all during the time that mathematicians rejected the idea.

          And I don’t know what you mean by claiming infinitesimals were modified. The background for them was supplied later on, but the mathematical operations are still used the same way by physicists and engineers.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            The calculus worked, but there was no self-consistent explanation for it. If we were just being pragmatic, we could have left things like that. But as theorists we cannot rest content with a self-contradictory theory. Sure, we can leave the engineers to carry on using it. But a theorist would have to dismiss the theory’s claim to be a true theory until it can be modifed to remove the contradictions.

          • TracyW

            You are changing your argument. You have gone from the broad position that anything that does not stand up to criticism should be modified or binned to the much narrower position that a self-contradictory theory should be binned by theorists.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            Not quite. I have been assuming throughout that we are talking as theorists – a natural assumption on a site run by academic philosophers. As theorists we cannot rest content with self-contradictory theories. Nor can we rest content with theories which have fewer explanatory merits than their rivals. In both cases we have the option: bin the theory or improve it. If we are not theorists, but engineers, the situation is different: we just want something that works, and we can use one theory at one time and a different theory, inconsistent with the first, at another time – or even use an inconsistent theory if we know how to manipulate it to get the results that we want.

          • TracyW

            Yep, you’ve still shifted the argument to much narrower grounds. Even granting you your previously-unstated assumption, that you are only talking about theorists, despite that this is a blog post about a particular proposed real-world policy, you’ve gone from modifying or binning *anything* that can’t stand up to criticism, to modifying or binning *theories* that are self-contradictory or have fewer explanatory merits than their rivals. Or are you now going to bring in a new assumption that-you-totally-were-assuming-throughout that by “anything” you meant “any theory”?

            And, also, you’ve now introduced a false dilemma. Another option is that one can live with the self-contradictory theory, keeping an eye out for a solution (be that from an external source or just the hope that one day one will have a breakthrough, maybe in the bath). Take Zeno’s paradoxes, such as Achilles’ race against the turtle. And let’s say an Ancient Greek theorist can’t find a satisfactory answer to that paradox, must the theorist bin or modify their ‘theory’ that in reality Achilles could beat the turtle, or can the theorist just say “Hmm, well, I don’t see how Achilles can capture the turtle given Zeno’s criticism, but I know in reality fast runners do indeed often catch up and pass slow ones, so I’m just going to live with this contradiction, and, in particular, no I’m not going to bet on the turtle, thank you for asking, now, if you want a game of poker, I’m up for a hand, let me supply the cards.”

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            Actually, you are right: I did shift my ground a bit there, but without realising it. Let me go back to what I said originally. Anything may be criticised; and if it does not stand up well to criticism, it should be modified or binned. Now let me add a qualification. We should not bin something that is useful unless we have something better to put in its place.

            Criticism does not just apply to theories; it can be applied to anything. As theorists, we want theories with greater explanatory power. As practitioners, we want theories that give us efficient practical solutions. The two things can come apart. As theorists, astro-physicists prefer Einstein to Newton; as engineers (working at NASA), they prefer Newton to Einstein. As theorists, they criticise Newton’s theory for its comparatively poor explanatory power; as engineers, they criticise Einstein’s theory for its cumbersomeness in practical application.

            A self-contradictory theory has no explanatory power, because a self-contradiction entails every proposition (in classical logic, at least). Because it expains everything (even things which contradict each other) it explains nothing. But by employing selective attention we can sometimes use a self-contradictory theory to get workable solutions to problems that we cannot otherwise solve. As theorists, we cannot rest content with self-contradictory theories; as practitioners, we can.

            Thanks for the correction.

            “Another option is that one can live with the self-contradictory theory,
            keeping an eye out for a solution (be that from an external source or
            just the hope that one day one will have a breakthrough, maybe in the
            bath).”

            But keeping an eye out for a solution = not resting content with the theory.

          • TracyW

            Thank you for displaying this open-minded approach.

            I agree with you that we should not bin a useful theory unless we have something better to put in its place, I think that telling what theories are useful can be, however, very difficult, and tradition does have a role to play in that assessment, although not an over-riding one.

            I agree with you that keeping an eye out for a solution is not resting content with the theory.

  • Jason Kuznicki

    So you’re against gay marriage then?

    • http://adamgurri.com AdamGurri

      Mostly I’m against attempts to engineer a form of marriage through policy.

      There are obviously many varieties of organic political theory, and it’s no surprise that many of them do tend to be fairly conservative. But as I read Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty—the first half, on the engine of innovation through small scale trial and error—experiments in different lifestyles, as much as experiments with new technology and new business models, just is the hallmark of a free society, and has always been the primary cause of evolution of even the most illiberal societies over time.

      In short, just as there can be quite statist version of contractarianism, natural rights, and consequentialism as well as libertarian versions of each, so too can there be quite conservative organic political philosophy, but I believe a libertarian (perhaps more appropriately, a liberty-embracing) version is not only viable, but comfortably suited to it.

    • http://bigplayar.com/ Morgan Warstler

      Arghh!

      Adam, awesome on spontaneous order growth, but then just go ahead and crib me!

      TECHNOLOGY changes human morality. In 15 years tech made gay marriage legal (and Jason never even found a geek to say thank-you). In next 15 years, the Left will loathe laziness. Tech is the organic path. Tech makes everyone Libertarians.

      Why must we suffer Libertarian Firing Squads:

      https://medium.com/@morganwarstler/libertarian-firing-squads-8b50cd75d4ff

      BHL are the Rick Santorum of Libertarian politics. Moralists who want to dictate at a Federal level.

      Technology doesn’t want parental licensing. Technology wants to make shitty parents awesome for a couple of bucks.

      • Jason Kuznicki

        In 15 years tech made gay marriage legal (and Jason never even found a geek to say thank-you).

        You presume a lot.

        • http://bigplayar.com/ Morgan Warstler

          lulz.

          Only one thing is making gay marriage legal. Human brains are being deeply rewired… faster now than ever before in human history. The lever of discussion was always there, the lever was way too short to accomplish much. Tech came along and made the lever long enough that just a bit of pressure upends everything.

          That’s simply what any rational intelligent person would admit.

          My joke about thank-you is that you don’t know what did it.

          I’ll go further, it’s NUTS that a CATO isn’t clamoring for you to move policy towards code.

          Libertarianism is the political end of technology.

      • Sean II

        Morgan,

        Apart from Cohen’s, yours is the best argument we’ve seen so far for parental licensing.

        • http://bigplayar.com/ Morgan Warstler

          See there? It’s in your BHL genes, you just need a nudge to let it out!

  • Egalitarian

    “The family is the oldest, most durable institution that humanity has.”

    Well, there have been many different forms of the the family, both in earlier times and now and in different countries and cultures.

    • http://adamgurri.com AdamGurri

      Well sure, but there’s limits to that variation. The basic form of having parents raise their own kids is as close to universal as these things get.

      • Theresa Klein

        And the only counter examples are generally considered dystopian hells by the rest of humanity.

        • http://adamgurri.com AdamGurri

          Hence the natural horror with which I think a lot of people reacted to Cohen’s piece. It didn’t seem very sensitive to history (a problem in general for moral philosophy).

  • Sean II

    For the record: I don’t support parental licensing.

    Even so, Cohen is NOT losing this debate. Most of his opponents simply respond with pearl-clutching hysterics (see the comments on his most recent post), leaving his challenges unanswered.

    Today Adam responds with a post that laughably romanticizes the family. When someone begins by declaring something “sacred” – whether its god, country, or family – you know what comes next is gonna be a question-beg. Adam’s post is half that. His practical objections to licensing are solid, but since he never addresses the harms of bad parenting, his argument utterly lacks a “compared to what?”

    We know parental licensing would be bad for all the familiar reasons that make statist social control bad, but until someone is honest about the hideous externality of bad families and neglected/abused children, we don’t know if parental licensing would be worse.

    Indeed, Adam harms his own cause plenty by using the Amish as an example. He just takes it for granted that it would be tragic if Amish people lost the ability to inflict totally unnecessary harm on their children.

    Because here’s the thing: the Amish are child abusers. Being born Amish is a major stroke of bad luck. If a non-Amish parent got caught inflicting such avoidable hardships on a child today, the world would turn against him, no divorce court would grant him custody, etc. If a child suffered such bad luck from any other cause, we’d be here talking about how social justice demands a search for ways to make him whole.

    What are we doing instead? Well…

    Forgive me, but on this point I’m more than a little bitter. I first came to this place because I found people talking like grown ups about libertarian issues, without the usual choir preaching, speechifying, robotic recitation of natural rights/non-aggression axioms, etc.

    I note with distress how quickly this board reverts back to those behaviors, when the issue at hand is some harm people don’t take seriously. Most of us here had good parents, or parents that were good enough, so fuck it: let’s just wave the Gadsden flag around on this one and call it a day!

    As I said before, I don’t agree with Cohen, but I offer him this defense: so far no one has said anything in reply to him that couldn’t be found at Reason Mag or Lew Rockwell. That’s nothing to be proud of.

    Children have always posed problems for libertarian theory. Even for the purest of natural rights libertarians, children pose problems. They don’t just magically stop doing that when he use the word “family” to collective those children.

    The problems Cohen raises are real, and deserve a real answer. So far he isn’t getting one.

    • http://bigplayar.com/ Morgan Warstler

      Bub, I am winning this debate.

      Technology doesn’t want the state licensing parents.

      Technology just makes shitty parents better.

      Libertarians give technology what it wants.

      • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

        If by “winning,” you mean “spamming,” then I agree.

        • http://bigplayar.com/ Morgan Warstler

          Technology wants progressive commenters at Huffington Post to yell at the lazy taxi cab driver:

          http://www.huffingtonpost.com/umar-lee/cab-drivers-uber_b_5179635.html

          Technology gets what it wants.

          Technology can reprogram and train parents. Get over it.

          • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

            Technology wants me to keep identifying your spam.

          • Sean II

            But his spam IS technology, therefore…paradox.

          • Linear

            I think he is “Technology” and he’s just referring to himself in the third person. At least to me, that makes it more entertaining to read.

    • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

      Maybe it comes down to what one sees as the purview of “libertarianism.” Just because one can pose a problem doesn’t mean it’s a problem that can or ever should be addressed by libertarianism.

      Take a clearer example having a more one-sided rights/harm component, like murder. Is the purpose of libertarianism to address the best way a society can prevent murder, or do libertarians merely seek to address what to do about murder given that a small percentage of people in any society are murderers?

      For me, it’s the latter. I don’t think libertarianism can “solve murder,” nor do I think that libertarianism can “solve child abuse.” That’s not what libertarianism is. It’s not a philosophical solution to everything anyone wants to make better. It’s a philosophy for “governance,” where that word can be used broadly enough to capture the ancap stuff, too.

      “How will we stop child abuse?” sounds a lot to me like, “Who will build the roads?” Good question, but not one that need always be addressed by the state. That’s the only libertarian “answer” that makes sense to me. No, it doesn’t solve the problem. But at least it doesn’t create other problems and force us into stupid trolley problems.

    • http://adamgurri.com AdamGurri

      Some quick thoughts.

      1. It’s easy to dismiss “sacred” when its object isn’t what you, yourself, consider to be sacred. Clearly you must consider the right to life, or the right to property, or the right to the best welfare outcome society can provide, or _something_ to be sacred. You cannot talk about morality or politics at all without having some picture of the good.

      If you think that a simplistic, reductionist formula of the sacred is preferable to a complex, holistic, traditionalist one, that’s your right, but to call it “question begging” from the outside is rather to beg the question yourself, don’t you think?

      2. I apologize if I did not sufficiently emphasize the horror of child abuse within families or anywhere, because of course it is terrible. You might say that I feel children, in their vulnerability, are sacred, and deserving of what help we can give them :)

      3. Calling the Amish child-abusers is _definitely_ question begging. They live just as long as anyone else, they are well fed; you have no reason ex ante to presume they are any less likely to end up in a loving home than any other children.

      You call them child abusers simply because you disapprove of their lifestyle, because you think that the more typical modern approach to child rearing is the One True Way (it would seem; correct me if I’m wrong).

      You wanted to have an adult conversation about libertarianism. Well, it seems to me that if “liberty” means “you have to raise your children in more or less the same modernist lifestyle as everyone else”, then what is the point of liberty?

      • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

        Ehh… no, in Sean II’s defense, there is some well-documented child (and other) abuse within Amish colonies. I’m not familiar enough with the data to know whether the problem is more pervasive there than outside the colonies, but it is certainly pervasive enough to have captured international press attention on more than one occasion over the last few decades.

        • http://adamgurri.com AdamGurri

          “Pervasive enough to have captured international press attention” is worse than no evidence for the existence of a problem, IMO. Obviously child abuse happens (has it been abolished anywhere?) but the question is relative to what?

          • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

            My point is that this is an empirical question. You can’t dismiss Sean II’s point about the Amish by anything other than empirical means.

            Likewise, Sean II might owe us some data on the prevalence of child abuse in Amish colonies in order for his point to stand.

            But neither of you get to be right until the empirical question gets answered.

          • Sean II

            To be clear: I’m not saying Amish parents are prone to child abuse.

            I’m saying Amish parenting IS child abuse, because it’s not nice to needlessly deny one’s children the benefits of industrial modernity for the sake of superstition.

            I suppose, out of respect for any Unabombers present, I should note that one could dispute the benefits of industrial modernity. But none of us here do, so I see no need to entertain that particular line of bullshit.

          • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

            I see both sides on this one, but personally I’m a lot closer to Gurri’s side here than yours. But I do take your point.

          • Sean II

            To be even clearer, I take for example these positions:

            a) Human sexuality is good.
            b) For girls, too.
            c) There’s this thing called hormone-based contraception, which you can give to girls, allowing them to enjoy human sexuality without becoming parents sometime during their first eight attempts.
            d) That’s really good.
            e) People who stop girls from getting that better have a damn good reason. (e.g. underlying clotting disorder).
            f) “Because the Bible” is not a good reason
            g) People who stop their female children from getting hormone-based contraception because they partially dispute premise a) on grounds f) are doing something bad.

            h) The Amish do that. Likewise Catholics, etc.

          • Libertymike

            Denying one’s children the benefits of industrial modernity, whether for superstitious reasons or otherwise, can not be, as a matter of fact, worse than denying one’s children the benefits of public educational modernity where the child is caged and his intellectual curiosity stifled by statist scum.

          • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

            I agree with all of that. The main reason I totally agree with this argument and not your others is because you nowhere used the word “abuse.”

          • http://bigplayar.com/ Morgan Warstler

            Good lord.

            I’m glad you take those positions. They are basically mine. But you literally speak only for you.

            The Libertarian standard is not: are others “doing something bad”

            Our standard is: what is the proposed mechanism (the actual POLICY) of stopping this bad thing from being done? Does it increase or decrease the power of the state over ME, now or in the future? Is the person asking me to stop this, really just after stopping it, or do they ALSO have designs on other things they want to stop in the future. Do they appear to have any regard for the wall of personal defense from the state I seek? This proposed mechanism, can I personally think of a cheaper better way to solve for X% than is being proposed? If I have such an idea, what does opposition to PLAN B tell me about the proposers of PLAN A?

            This isn’t about “the bible.”

            It’s about a weak state… how weak a state is it when it can’t even bully a church?

            It’s so weak it won’t be able to bully individuals!

            Churches are like forts people can hide in so they don’t have to follow rules you and I might make up.

            It makes us feel sad and weak and makes us stop trying to tell everybody what to do.

            And that’s obviously a good thing that should happen to you!

          • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

            By the way, 100% of the ex-Mennonites and ex-Hutterites I know personally report some level of emotional or physical abuse in their own childhoods, and a significant non-zero percentage have either attempted or contemplated suicide. Maybe this is just “selection bias,” since I’m not friends with many non-ex-members, but it strains credulity to think that this is just a data anomaly. Maybe you just don’t know many former-Amish?

          • http://adamgurri.com AdamGurri

            Well I’m not going to argue against your personal experience, of course. And that’s awful. But how many people are we talking about when adding up this 100%?

          • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

            Perhaps a dozen. Not a representative sample, but still hard for me, personally, to ignore.

          • http://adamgurri.com AdamGurri

            Totally understandable.

          • Libertymike

            Almost 100% of the current members of the human race whom I know personally have experienced some level of emotional or physical abuse in their own childhoods.

          • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

            I’m so sorry to hear that! :(

          • Libertymike

            The point is that a parent who decides to permit his child to be caged by the state in one of its schools is, a priori, better than an Amish parent who homeschools?
            Either a parent knows, or should know, that sentencing his child to the state’s childhood detention and indoctrination camps is a practice that is, per se, abusive.

          • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

            IMO, you are equivocating too far on the definition of “abuse,” as is Sean II. I agree that public schools can be dangerous indoctrination institutions. I disagree that exposing one’s child to the risk of indoctrination is the same thing as abuse, unless you further plan to define “indoctrination” in a way that would be widely agreed-upon and still consistent with what you’re saying.

          • Libertymike

            Is it merely a risk?
            John Taylor Gatto would beg to differ.

          • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

            Given the number of failed indoctrinations is greater than zero, I’d have to call it a risk. I count myself among those who came out unscathed. That doesn’t mean I approve of public schooling, of course. I just don’t think it’s abuse.

          • Libertymike

            Well, count me as a survivor as well.

          • Sean II

            You may not like my definition of “child abuse”, but I’m not equivocating.

            Everywhere I use that term it means the same thing: the infliction of preventable harm on children.

          • Linear

            If you define “abuse” that pervasively, can anything be done about it?

            More to the point, such a broad definition seems to avoid dealing with the difficult problem of defining what warrants taking a child from their parent or emancipating the child to choose.

          • Libertymike

            The point is that this is one of those rare occasions where Sean II does not have his good stuff. I have heard that even the likes of Sandy Koufax were not immune to this phenomenon.

          • Linear

            Hehe. :) Yeah, I agree, Sean errs too far on the state’s side here.

          • Sean II

            How can I err on the state’s side? I’m an anarchist who opposes parental licensing.

            I’m merely taking Adam to task for the weakness of his argument. That doesn’t mean I like the thing he’s arguing against.

          • Linear

            The term “child abuse” is generally used to justify intervention, which is what I called “the state’s side”. That is why Libertymike and Ryan responded as they did to your lower standards for child abuse, and why Adam called it “question begging”.

            What does child abuse entail for an anarchist? Would you personally intervene against the Amish parents?

            Adam’s rebuttal is a mixed bag, but the Amish both do not conform to the larger parenting monoculture and they are presently permitted to keep their children, so they at least provide an extant dichotomy. Indeed, any example of what would be lost by enforcing a parental monoculture would necessarily be outside of the monoculture’s morality and would therefore be subject to similar criticisms as you level against the Amish.

          • Sean II

            I don’t not understand the term “child abuse” to include the concept “therefore the state can come blundering in a child’s life and do whatever it wants”.

            I just understand “child abuse” to mean: what happens when a child is harmed through malice or neglect.

          • Linear

            Ok, that’s also how Libertymike was using the term when he commented that nearly everyone has been abused as a child, but as I replied to him, such pervasiveness dilutes the utility of the term and is not really pertinent to the problem here of defining what warrants intervention.

            Would you agree that, despite their abuse, the Amish should be permitted to keep their children? If so, I think that was roughly Adam’s point. If not, how would you intervene?

          • Libertymike

            To be precise, I was attempting to make the point that if one were to argue that Amish parenting is, per se, child abuse, one would have to also include parenting that condemns children to be caged by public schools and subjected to parasitic pedagogues preaching Progressive orthodoxy and being forced to pledge allegiance to the Rulers and their enforcers as child abuse, PER SE.

          • Linear

            Yes, but at least they have access to contraception in public school! :)

            I agree that public school could qualify for that broader category of abuse. I certainly have traumas from that experience.

          • Sean II

            “Would you agree that, despite their abuse, the Amish should be permitted to keep their children?”

            Yes, but only because I can’t think of any better solution.

            I do think, however, that the Amish should face relentless pressure from the outside world to stop being Amish. Can’t put it any better than Sam Harris when he said that declaring a belief in god should bring the same social sanction – swift, certain, and smart – as declaring a belief in the living Elvis. This of course goes double for anyone who inflicts some heavy price on their kids in the name of that belief.

            I would also gladly donate to any charity that came into being with a mission to shelter the runaway children of religious sects at war with reality, especially the reality of human nature, as for example Mormons, Amish, Muslims, Roman Catholics, etc.”

          • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

            There are many such charities.

            I think Linear has a point that, by expanding the definition of the term “child abuse,” you’ve changed the subject being debated. If by “intervention,” we mean something equally as broad – something akin to “passionately campaign for my personally favored outcome” – then I agree that there should be “intervention.”

            But to take the debate to this level renders it general to the point of being meaningless. We’re talking about licensing parents. It’s not a “good question” to dump an impossible problem on the lap of libertarians and say, “Solve that, sucka!” That’s actually what Lubos Motl would describe as a “stupid question.”

            The fact that libertarian philosophy can’t solve every problem that one can dream up is no mark against libertarianism. It’s like saying an-caps are bad people because they’ve yet to invent the Warp Drive spaceship engine.

      • Sean II

        “…but to call it “question begging” from the outside is rather to beg the question yourself, don’t you think?”

        No. Now you’re just acting like any disagreement can be reduced to a question of question-begging. That’s absurd.

        “Calling the Amish child-abusers is _definitely_ question begging.”

        No, again. The Amish are child abusers in the simple sense that they deprive their children of good things that other children, even poor children, have. They don’t, for example, deny that pre-natal vitamins are good. They don’t deny that neonatal ICU care saves the lives of children who would otherwise die. They just refuse to accept these things because of some scruple that has nothing to do with health (though thankfully, many now cheat when the chips are down).

        But really this whole distraction on your part is silly. The only way the Amish are not child abusers is if they’re right about modernity being bad.

        I don’t believe that, and neither do you. So there are no serious, meaningful questions being begged here.

        • http://adamgurri.com AdamGurri

          “The only way the Amish are not child abusers is if they’re right about modernity being bad.”

          We have very ideas about what liberty entails, my friend.

          Modernity does not have to be “bad’ in order for me to think it’s not only acceptable but legitimate to either opt out or opt for some compromise, something, in any case, different from what you or I would do.

          I don’t have to think that piercings and tattoos are attractive in order to respect someone’s right to get those things and think there isn’t anything wrong with someone who does. I don’t have to believe in God or think there’s anything wrong with atheists in order to believe that there’s plenty to be respected in church-going community life.

          • Sean II

            “We have very ideas about what liberty entails, my friend.”

            That’s a cop out. We both agree, for example, that you – an adult – should have to liberty to move into a hermit’s cave if you want.

            But what part of liberty allows one person to make that choice for another, simply because the first person is called “parent” and the second “child”?

            You’ll need a concept other than liberty, to explain that.

            Amish children – and I remind you, we’re using your example here – do not choose to be born Amish, and while they are children, cannot choose to remain so.

            That’s the central problem you have never addressed.

          • http://adamgurri.com AdamGurri

            Nor do modern children choose to be born in modern households. Apparently you don’t believe there are any trade-offs in living in modern households? It was just all gain, no loss? All benefits, no costs? And you’re comfortable making this determination on behalf of children in general, but aren’t comfortable with parents making that determination for their own children?

            I think you’d be hard pressed to find people outside of libertarianism who are willing to make so central a feature of human life contingent on rationalist-theoretical approval as you seem to be.

          • Sean II

            I wonder, Adam, can you give me a reason consistent with your comments here today why clitoridectomy is wrong?

          • http://adamgurri.com AdamGurri

            I can give you many reasons. It tortures children too young to defend themselves and does irreversible damage, it violates their human dignity, it is monstrous.

            But the question is where those reasons come from. The very notion of cruelty is thinly specified; the context for what counts is provided by culture and tradition. Neither of these things are some monolithic entities that exist and cannot be questioned; it is not contradictory to be both a reformer and a traditionalist.

          • Sean II

            Okay, so clitoridectomy is bad. Glad we got that straight. Glad there appear to be some limits to your conflation of libertarianism with cultural relativism.

            So what about a kid who dies from meningitis because his parents don’t believe in antibiotics? That, too, afflicts “children too young to defend themselves and does irreversible damage”. That, too, seems to “violate human dignity” and give us an outcome that is “monstrous”.

            Are you against that? Are you willing to say the words “parents who let kids die from untreated meningitis are bad”?”

          • http://adamgurri.com AdamGurri

            I said it quite recently in fact http://sweettalkconversation.wordpress.com/2014/08/09/a-free-society-is-an-advertising-society-a-rhetorical-society/

            Of course we can take this to the other end—should huge swaths of people die because we DO believe in antibiotics and are rapidly making bacteria immune to them? Or should a panel of doctors decide what medications and vaccines we all have to take, and make it compulsory, with jailtime if you do not comply on behalf of yourself or your child?

          • Sean II

            The second paragraph is a herring pond, so let’s leave those question for later.

            The point at hand is simply this: libertarianism does not entail cultural relativism when it comes to parenting. A few comments ago you were all but insisting that it did, and you only backed away from that when presented with an especially nasty bullet for biting.

            The even bigger point is: if you believe in rights, then you must believe that children have them. Which means that children have rights independently of their parents.

            And that, in turns, means that parenting is a big time source of externalities – defined as “situations where some people are impacted by decisions they did not themselves make”.

            And THAT, finally, means there is at least a prima facie case for thinking about ways to limit the negative part of those externalities.

            Parental licensing is one such way. I don’t happen to think it is a good one, but…we don’t get to just dismiss it by pretending the externalities don’t exist.

          • http://adamgurri.com AdamGurri

            I don’t think we’re going to settle this here, but I’m in the process of writing an Umlaut piece for Monday that will deal specifically with these sorts of questions. I’d be happy to continue the conversation after that.

            In any event I thank you for coming down so hard on my and my position. It has helped clarify a lot of the problems I need to address, both conceptually and in a failure of conveyance on my part. I hope we can continue this again some time. Either way, thank you.

          • Sean II

            Glad to be of service. Let me add this final note…

            It’s easy to get cheers from the crowd – really any crowd, but especially a libertarian one – by taking a stand for the sacred family against the detested state. Politicians do it all the time.

            The problem is an honest look at families shows them to be something very un-libertarian: social associations which are wholly involuntary from the child’s point of view, and which involve a huge amount of private-and-thus-well-hidden power being wielded over a uniquely helpless category of subjects.

            If I were you, I’d start there before building a case that the state would make things even worse. Then you’d find me to be an ally instead of a critic.

          • http://adamgurri.com AdamGurri

            Thank you for the advice. I agree that it’s easy to get cheers from a libertarian crowd by taking a stand against the state (in any capacity). But just as you suggest I shouldn’t pander to this crowd instead of engaging in serious analysis, so too do I not feel the need to compromise a position I feel is largely correct just to make it more specifically libertarian. The character of my traditionalism is basically libertarian, but I do not see libertarianism as a Procrustean bed into which my traditionalism must be made to fit.

            In as much as family circumstances are un-libertarian, I depart from libertarianism. Of course, the “no true libertarian” problem is sort of ineradicable, and I think there are plenty of people who would consider my view of the family to be comfortably libertarian, or at least comfortably classical liberal.

          • http://adamgurri.com AdamGurri
          • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

            Aren’t you ignoring the possibility that Right A and Right B can sometimes conflict, despite the fact that they are both rights?

            Obviously there are subjective preferences at work here. For some people, right to religion trumps right to life, and for others it’s the reverse. The only way you can “solve” that dilemma is by denying one or the other. You’re clearly willing to toss out freedom of religion for the sake of right to life. I personally agree with you on that, but taking that point of view too far presents obvious problems of its own. The lines aren’t always clear-cut. All Gurri is saying is that, in his point of view, they “spontaneously emerge” from social interaction.

          • Linear

            But that central problem is notoriously difficult for even you to address, and your stance that not providing hormone contraception is child abuse is pretty far left statist in the balance. Does that really warrant revoking the negative right to parent your own child?

  • http://www.abstractminutiae.tumblr.com Samuel Hammond

    I still maintain that Cohen has identified a real problem but proposed the wrong instrument to address it. Instead of licensing, the libertarian policy has two parts:

    – The right to parent a child should be a negative right that can be revoked if you’re proven abusive or incompetent.
    – We should strengthen laws governing emancipation for minors with proven competence to self-govern, thus enhancing exit as applied to the family.

    A parental filter upfront would not only be politically incendiary, but by the harm principal only justified if abuse was the default expectation. Fortunately, really awful parents are a small minority, just like violent criminals in general. Likewise, we don’t grant freedom licenses for people to walk the streets. We let people live their life, but if they are violent their rights to freedom are revoked.

    • Sean II

      Good comment. Much better than than the post. And all it took was a willingness to acknowledge Cohen’s concerns, and a bit of creativity in suggesting an answer.

      Take note, flag-waving Adam. This is how it should be done.

    • http://bigplayar.com/ Morgan Warstler

      There’s another but its the first one you should mention.

      Technology makes parents better YOY, just like cars get better YOY, so much so, that even writing the damn thing in the first place is odd.

      Go back to say 1960’s. The author then gets on his soapbox and Screams LIcense Parents!

      Everybody looks around at themselves and how they parent in 1960’s, and they think, this guy is F*cking loon.

      Since 1960’s parents have dramatically increased in skills on average. Even our really bad ones, are nothing like the really bad one of yester year.

      Technology did that, and the author KNOWS IT, yet here he is again screaming the same sh*t.

      Logic says to tell him to STFU bc in another 50 years everyone is going to look back at how we parent and laugh.

      And they will be right, and today we are right, and in 1960’s they were right.

      The state cannot help us. Only technology can.

      • http://www.abstractminutiae.com Samuel Hammond

        Don’t forget to hydrate, Morgie

        • http://bigplayar.com/ Morgan Warstler

          It’s the 1AM-7PM developer schedule I’m on right now. It’s an outright deathmarch.

          it’s 10AM and I’m ready snap necks :)

          • Sean II

            Real or fake: Morgan’s apparent ability to take insults as good will?

          • http://bigplayar.com/ Morgan Warstler

            Let’s just say it’s never personal. And I always speak with grin. Guys who I beat on, guys who I enjoy, guys who infuriate… I’d drink easily with any of them. I make the same arguments out loud everyday IRL, and I get along with everybody.

            But make no mistake, you are wrong.

            Technology changed morality from 1960’s to 2000 and from 2000 till today at blindingly different speeds.

            And the Child Licensing guy, is coming the to table completely unaware, that in ten years we will very much feel that his own current style of parenting is UNACCEPTABLE.

            And that’s because all the parents, all of us, are adapting and improving YOY at speeds that never happened before.

            Whenever someone starts complaining about an unfixable problem, I smell profit and opportunity.

            The issue is that the author can’t SMELL the profit. His nose is broken.

            Men with a broken nose for profit shouldn’t make laws.

    • Theresa Klein

      This is basically the current system, with a couple minor tweaks.
      But, IMO, the problems with the current system are that it errs too far in the direction of taking kids away from parents already. There is no actual trial and the parent need not be charged with any crime to have their children taken away. Records are often sealed, supposedly to protect the child, so there is very little transparency in how cases are decided.
      And we constantly see reports of parents having their children taken, even temporarily for things like smoking marijuana (unsafe home!) or letting their kids play in the park unattended (neglect!).

      • http://www.abstractminutiae.com Samuel Hammond

        I agree with everything you said. And it being close to the current system is a feature not a bug. It makes it more achievable. There are a lot of institutional problems with the foster care system that need to be addressed, too. Fixing those problems won’t be easy but it is something I could see congress or state govts actually achieving.

  • http://bigplayar.com/ Morgan Warstler

    Hypothesis:

    Libertarians that are not actual technologists or entrepreneurs want to think about themselves as heroic problem solvers, none the less. But Libertarianism trusts the market which means trusting technology and entrepreneurs.

    But rather than simply sit around being thankful for technology and waiting for innovative solutions to political problems, but without the means to conceptualize what those might be, they fall back on “there should be a law.”

    • Linear

      You make it sound like technology is a substitute for morality rather than a feasible helper and clarifier.

      Libertarianism should be possible at any level of technological development.

      • http://bigplayar.com/ Morgan Warstler

        Technology > Morality. No I’m not kidding. And I’m not opposed to you having a moral sense about yourself. I do.

        What I’m saying is just more factually correct when you look at the human race.

        The scientific evidence (Haidt) is pretty overwhelming at this point. Moral foundations are deeply hardwired, they are down there with sexuality.

        HOWEVER, morals can change, and technology is the lever that unsticks hardwired morality. It used to change VERY SLOWLY.

        Not now baby!

        The Internet is now a much longer lever, it is toppling conservative disgust (a hereditary survival attribute for christ’s sake) with gays and drugs.

        Data darwinism and trusted feedback systems have Liberals no longer just amping hard on their old moral approach to fairness as in feel bad for the taxi guy and his union. Now it’s “screw you guys” because there’s not just a better system in Uber, but level of comfort and trust, in Uber driver, that Taxi’s don’t deliver technologically.

        Tech ALTERS us. It ALTERS who you are and what you deem moral. It alters you in ways that debate with opposing sides never does.

        And so of course I say Tech > Morality, because the morals you’ll feel tomorrow literally depend on the technology being invented today.

        So I view your moral arguments towards Libertarianism as flighty, I just want to strategize towards smaller government. I want to horse trade and compromise and hack to a future that alters your morality and everyone elses.

        I want us to PRINT Libertarians with their technology driven lifestyle, not woo them with silly philosophical debates.

        • Linear

          It’s wonderful that you already seem to have a libertarian basis from which you advocate technology, but tech can also be used to aid statism by more easily monitoring, micromanaging, and controlling people. Then there is tech hype, pseudoscience, hubris in weighing uncertainties, eugenics, etc.

          Technology is a tool. It does flourish in capitalism which also orients it toward beneficial use, and I suspect it is that virtuous dynamic which has you so enamored. And, I agree, capitalism can win and has won many converts as a result.

          I also agree that technological advancements can obviate many moral debates by changing the options available or improving our clarity in predicting outcomes, but that is not quite the same as altering morality, and, in any case, moral decisions must still be made in the meantime until such technology arrives.

    • Not the last word…

      I “trust” the market because technology, entrepreneurs and people are unreliable.

  • Matthew DeCarlo

    And who determined the metrics for Cohen’s constructs? That would be the learned people with degrees in the dominant culture, here again to civilize the wretched poor and atavistic minorities. Because we know better. And helping relationships don’t need to be voluntary.

  • Theresa Klein

    I don’t think anyone has answered my objection in the previous thread. Taking a child away from a parent is a harm to the parent. Preemptively taking a child away to prevent harm is harming an innocent person.
    Does anyone seriously argue that it is not? if so, I would like to see that argument.
    If not, then Cohen’s argument doesn’t even work under the harm principle. One does not harm innocent people just because you think they are likely to harm others in the future, whether those others are children or not.

    • http://adamgurri.com AdamGurri

      I agree with this, and it gets to the problem with the “harm” principle. “Harm” is not an intrinsic notion, it’s an ethical, to-be-specified one. And that specification happens in embedded, normative contexts.

      • http://bigplayar.com/ Morgan Warstler

        Adam I’d love to see you put some cultural structure to the idea of when the “state” should intervene and take a child away. Should the City, State, USG decide? Should standards change based on age of child? Where should that age be decided?

        • http://adamgurri.com AdamGurri

          I’d like it to be at the lowest possible level. I’d be more in favor of empowering members of a community to take some parents to court than having agencies dedicated to policing this.

          • http://adamgurri.com AdamGurri

            btw I think “who decides” and “how” are the most important questions for anything like this. Following Thomas Sowell in Knowledge and Decisions.

          • http://bigplayar.com/ Morgan Warstler

            I think my most of my thinking on removing children depends on the effectiveness of the “get them back” system.

            Again, you’ll see me veer into behavioralist brain wiring – I can’t stay out of it – if a bad parent is presented with a series of steps, not really legal court stuff, but maybe more like – get a job, and here’s an app, with it we will monitor this kind of stuff:

            let’s track your spending

            create a new space at home for the child
            show you can cook dinner each night for 1 month
            show you can read childrens books for 20 minutes every night for 1 month
            Show you can go to playground and sit for 30 minutes 3x a week

            Real actionable stuff that doing it day in day out without a kid there, just being monitored alters you. you don’t just learn to parent. Your brain is like “jesus, why am I doing all this! I must really love these kids!”

            Anyway, the better the system is at training/altering, and getting them back, the more comfy I’d be with taking more away.

  • Jerome Bigge

    People who wish to adopt have to meet certain standards set by the “State”. However these standards do not always meet with what most people would consider sensible. For example it is very difficult for a single woman to adopt, even if she has a steady job and has the necessary income to afford raising a child. So these state standards really are not really based upon a minimum of what is needed to raise a child, but much more selective. From what I know of this, it appears to be a typical “nanny state” type of situation of the sort that is increasingly commonplace today.

    I do question the idea of involving the “State” in these sort of affairs.

  • martinbrock

    Because children don’t have the power to pick who their parents are, and there’s no similar competitive mechanism to make sure they’re more likely to end up with good parents, he argues that parenting should be licensed for the sake of children’s safety.

    A state is a monopoly definitively; therefore, no competitive mechanism makes sure that a child ends up with a good state either, and every child subject to a bad state suffers the bad state while only the child subject to a bad parent suffers the parent.

    So a consequentialist must ask, “What’s more likely? That a randomly selected child is subject to bad parents or that the child is subject to a bad state?”

    Of course, most parents freely subject themselves to the standards of a community, like a church to which they belong, so we can easily imagine something like “parental licensure” without a state.

    If we want to make a dystopian horror movie, we can imagine a community of bad parents all encouraging one another to harm their children, but we can also imagine a state dominated by a few politicians, who need not be parents at all, imposing bad parental habits and corresponding harms on subject children.

    And we don’t need to imagine such a state, because we’re all subject to one.

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