September 7, 2003
It's amazing. Just as my cynicism about the legal world approaches its zenith, a link like this arrives to renew my faith in the human existence. It just makes my love for the Canadian government even more eternal and consuming. I am truly in awe.
Also glorious is this Rotten entry on George W. Bush. The whole Rotten library rocks, but the particularly intense feelings of hatred for that smirking, corrupt, incompetent moron I had when I read that particular biography made it linger in my mind.
I have a whole piece on intellectual property cooked up, but I am too lazy, at this particular instant, to put it on paper. I will post it soon.
September 2, 2003
I am starting to worry that I am sounding like the Unabomber. Re-reading this blog from an objective perspective, I sound like a tortured, schizophrenic hermit, spewing borderline incoherent rants, praying to be heard. It is only a matter of time before I start mailing out some anthrax with little buzzwords like "substantive justice for all!" or "I was not acting with malice!"
The reason I want to go into public service is that I want to remedy some of the social ills that inflame me so. But I am worried that will be ultimately disatisfying as well, since let's face it, wonky ideologues with weird ideas never really accomplish anything. Sure, it would be great to become the left-wing Karl Rove, but it would also be great to win the lottery. Wouldn't it be more fun to become an algorithms researcher? Or a techno musician? Or a sabermetrician? I feel I have all of these things in me, and other things besides, and I am being pushed towards law school by nothing but ideological obsession. But in the end, is a life dedicated to public service worthwhile for the 99.99% of people who only have a vanishing impact on the world?
I have no idea. But I read an article on Reason, basically saying that it was a good thing that people were less politically involved. I don't totally agree, but it struck a very powerful chord. You only get one life to live, and you only have a certain number of hours in a day to expend your energy. Is making a run at the impenetrable mess of public policy, tracking the blips of political fortune and reversal like a day-trader, truly the best way to live? What if I spent all that time hacking on electronic equipment or writing poetry? Wouldn't I be better off?
I don't know. Living alone in Vermont gives me a lot of time to think, I guess.
August 30, 2003
I'd like to briefly sketch out two theories I have about ethical ways to construct a justice system. These two theories are complementary, and in both cases, despite being intuitively unappealing, rational argumentats seem to favor them.
First, an ethical justice system is one that only takes into account the INTENT of an action. So, for instance, the crime of attempted murder should be punished identically to the crime of real murder. The crime of drunk driving should carry no additional sanction if the drunk driving led to someone dying. Obviously, one gaping problem with this suggestion is that it is impossible for the justice system to perfectly figure out what someone was thinking at a particular time, so we use the outcome of their actions as an imperfect proxy for their mental states. But what if we could caveat this away? Let's posit a machine that perfectly determined someone's intent. So if someone stabbed a voodoo doll with the intent to kill someone, we could reliably be certain that they actually intended to kill them, and weren't just trying to let off steam. Or if someone walked to their car to drunk drive but passed out before the key entered the ignition, we could be certain that their intent was identical as the intent of an actual drunk driver. In that case, is there any reason to take the consequence of the action, rather than the intent of the action, into account?
The benefits of a such a system are obvious. It is immoral to punish people in the basis of moral luck. If we are trying to punish people who made immoral choices, this system is more precise, since our intent is what we choose. If we are trying to promote deterrence, rehabilitation, or public safety - the traditional aims of the justice system - it self-evidently makes more sense to punish intent, since intent is the only factor that someone can control. The main flaw in this system comes from our intuitions - it seems that someone who kills a child while drunk driving should be punished more than someone who doesn't harm anyone while drunk driving. But I don't think there's a way to make that intuition precise, and it basically reduces to scapegoating, which isn't an ethical way for a justice system to operate.
Andrew suggested an interesting opposition to this argument, which is that the boundary between intent and moral luck is fuzzy. If we posit that people are just bundles of molecules, then the fact that my brain had the intent of harming someone is just a different chemical reaction from the fact that my car struck a pedestrian. Accordingly, it makes more sense to punish people on the extent to which their actions harmed society. This argument is suscpetible to numerous responses, but like many arguments about the deterministic nature of people, it certainly muddies our intuitions about the justice system.
The other idea os more controversial. The suggestion is that we should not take exclusively take into account retributive justice - not rehabilitation or deterrence - when assigning punishments. It's all right if society is safer as a byproduct of a 40 year prison sentence, but the actual number of years in the sentence can only be determined by evaluating how morally bad the action was. Thus, if one criminal was perceived as a greater public safety threat than another criminal, it would be immoral to punish him for longer if their actions were the same. The reason for this, in a nutshell, is that people should not be used as means to an end, even if they commit crimes. When you commit a crime, that gives society a moral right to punish you exclusively in proportion to the crime; lopping extra years onto the sentence to make an example, or because you frown a lot at the judge, or because there's a crime wave and the judge is in the mood to crack down, is denying you freedom in exchange for society's collective gain. This system would be bad from a utilitarian perspective, since deterrence and rehabilitation directly lead to social gain, whereas retribution does not. However, it seems like the fairest way to run a justice system.
Neither of these two proposals lead to intuitively positive results, and in fact the second proposal would lead to drastically less social utility. Nonetheless, both are necessary, in my opinion, if the justice system is committed to being fair.
August 24, 2003
Assorted thoughts today:
On the California recall: most people seem to think that the recall is a wonderful thing, a sign that democracy is alive and well and that the people's will will prevail. I personally think it is undemocratic and completely unfair to Gray Davis. Davis is treated differently from the other candidates - he must get a majority, and the others need only get a plurality. That is, if 40% want Davis to be the next governor, 25% want Schwarzenegger to be the next governor, and 20% want Bustamante to be the next governor, then Schwarzenegger wins, even though Davis is a full 15 percentage points ahead of him in popularity. Put it this way: if there was a recall vote for Bush immediately after the election, Gore would have been president, since a plurality opposed Bush and Gore was the second most popular candidate. If Gore had won, and there was a recall vote, Bush would have been put into office, for the exact same reason. If there was a recall vote for Clinton after either of his elections, he would have been kicked out, since he didn't get a majority either time. Actually, I think that the recall law might even be unconstitutional. Imagine if in 1998, Minnesota Republicans and Democrats, alarmed by Jesse Ventura's rise, passed a law insisting that Ventura must win by majority; all other candidates could win by plurality. This would instantly be overturned by any court. However, the effect here is the same; the fact that Davis is the incumbent absolutely should not mean that his supporters get disenfranchised. The only fair way to do a recall would be to simply have another election. Put Davis, Schwarzenegger, Bustamante, and everyone else on a ballot, and let the voters choose.
And does anyone really think that the political process is any more open or inspiring than it was during the election? The two major candidates are the lieutenant governor, whose platform appears to be "I am Latino! Vote for me!" and Schwarzenegger, whose sole advantage is name recognition. It is all a ridiculous sideshow.
On immigration: Storey, P-Money and Seg are arguing about immigration, and I have to go with Storey on this one. I believe that every random dude in North Dakota and Iowa has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, not because this should be a right guaranteed to all Americans (I'm not even an American), but because it should be a right guaranteed to all people. It's not like an American thrown in prison without a trial is having his rights violated any more than a Kazakhstani thrown in prison without a trial. There is really no particular moral relevance to the geographical location in which someone was born. If someone from Alaska or North Dakota moved in next door, I wouldn't begrudge his right to do so, even if his value system was entirely different from mine; I don't view people from Mexico or Russia any differently.
Moreover, my Mom immigrated to Canada from Communist Romania and turned into a productive, contributing member of her community. My Dad's parents immigrated to Canada from Poland and did the same. The US had an open-door policy until the early twentieth century, and many of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents escaped poverty to pursue their dreams in the land of opportunity. To support closing the doors on immigration, now that we personally have reaped the benefits of our nation's open-door policies, is grotesquely hypocritical.
Jordan and P-Money argue that our right to freedom of association entitles us to limit immigration. Apparently, since we have the right to exclude people from private organizations, we should also have the right to exclude people from entering the country. I am sorry, but this is a terrible argument. There is an obvious difference between a private organization and a polity as a whole. To illustrate this difference, freedom of association might allow the boy scouts to exclude gays (although I think it shouldn't, because of the nature of the boy scouts... but that's another post). But freedom of association certainly does not allow a neighborhood association to exclude gays or blacks from moving in. It does not permit the country to vote to remove the citizenship of any citizen at any time, which is an obvious, direct consequence of treating the polity as an "association". Freedom of association means that the government can't restrict you from forming private, exclusive associations - it doesn't mean that you have a moral right to prevent someone from taking residence within your geographical borders. I might be more willing to consider this argument for a country like Israel, which defines itself as a Jewish state and whose raison d'etre really would be compromised if Jews became a minority; but the USA does not define itself that way.
The trump card in this discussion is that hoards of immigrants would destroy the American zeitgeist. As Pat puts it: "within a short amount of time those deeply held traditions and values would be overwhelmed by the values of people coming into the country." Immigrants would proclaim Mexas and Mexifornia provinces of Aztlan, throw Molotov cocktails at gringo businesses, etc. That may be true, but keep in mind that arguments like this have been made throughout history, and have proven to be wrong. In the 19th century, people really, honestly worried that the influx of uncivilized Irishmen would destroy American values. Before WW2, people were agitating that America would be forever annihilated by the influx of dirty, loud, uncivilized pagan Jews. Hell, the country of Liberia was created because Americans in the 19th century sincerely felt that it would be impossible for free blacks to live in America. If America opened its doors tomorrow, it seems likely that a hard-working, ambitious, earnest group of immigrants would create a more vibrant and better society within a generation. Even if completely opening the borders would be economically untenable, America could certainly be a hell of a lot more open to immigrants than it is now. At the moment it is incredibly difficult to immigrate unless you went to college, or have a family member already in the USA, neither of which is true for the overwhelming majority of people trying to immigrate.
Finally, I think that American immigration laws foster self-righteousness and racism. The idea that America should be treated as a privileged, exclusive organization is inextricably linked to disastrously immoral foreign policy. Every time I read a newspaper headline like "382 people killed, including FOUR AMERICANS!", I get angry and upset. Who the hell cares what country they came from? Is the loss of an American any more tragic or more significant than the loss of a Filipino or a Bolivian? Americans are infinitely more willing to tolerate the wanton slaughter of foreigners than of Americans - if thousands of Nicaraguans or Vietnamese are slaughtered, Americans routinely shrug it off as "collateral damage" or "A necessary consequence of the war on communism and terror", when they would never dream of even lending legitimacy to these rationalizations if the same fate befell their countrymen. People are simply unable to view the deaths of hundreds of thousands of foreigners as equally tragic as the hypothetical loss of an equivalent number of Americans, which just sucks. Proclaiming that Americans constitute a privileged class, morally entitled to limit the huddled masses from taking up space, only adds fuel to these beliefs.
August 18, 2003
(Humiliating grammar errors corrected)
Random question: what is the better argument against drug laws? Is it that it is bad, in general, for the government to prevent its citizens from exercising their choices? Or is it that the harms of imprisoning people exceed the harms of drugs in society? To put the question differently, let's say there was a way to totally restrict heroin, or LSD, or even marijuana from society without needing a DEA or any enforcement mechanisms. Would such a system be desirable?
(This question is vaguely related to my general question about libertarianism, which is whether principle, or pragmatics, is the correct justification (at least for the economic side of libertarian theory). If you abolished the minimum wage and worker safety laws, and a Dickensian dystopia developed, would a libertarian support maintaining the status quo on principle? Not to editorialize, but if yes, I think that is totally crazy...)
Back to the original question. It seems that the answer is that marijuana laws are bad on face - people should be able to do what they like. I don't personally think that crack or heroin should be legalized, but I think that the laws against them should be reformed because their enforcement is socially destructive. The weird thing is that I actually can't think of a single self-regarding act which is legal, purely because of the social impacts of enforcing laws against it. Alcohol may have been legalized for this reason (although I think it was probably legalized because people wanted booze and the laws were unenforceable, which is slightly different), but today, no one actually rationally advocates abolishing alcohol. Similarly, any proposal to abolish cigarettes would meet vigorous oppostion to the effect that American shouldn't be paternalistic, people should make their own choices, and so on. This seems strange, because enforcing laws always causes some externally negative impacts. It's expensive, innocent people are wrongly accused, people feel coerced and scared, and laws are enforced unfairly. It would seem that there are at least some self-regarding practices out there for which the government might say that "the number of hedons gained by abolishing this practice is less than the number of hedons gained by enforcing it, and so we will keep it legal while institutionally wishing we could have made it illegal". I guess the two possible explanations for this are that (a) the law acquires a moral component, so people do not recognize the pragmatic reasons for the law, or (b) the government believes that it should never apply these principles on principle. Both of these factors scare me, to be honest...
August 13, 2003
SHAQ IS BAQ! Time for the rant.
I mentioned earlier that I was a strong believer in substantive, rather than procedural justice. Everyone probably subscribes to this view, to a certain extent, but I think I do more than most. For instance, consider a scenario where someone (we can name him Bob) is called for jury duty. Bob really loathes drug laws; he believes that marijuana laws, in particular, are grotesque infringments on the basic liberty to do your own thing without the threat of government sanction. I believe that it is morally permissible, and maybe even morally required, for Bob to lie about his views to get himself onto the jury, and then nullify.
Why? Well, presumably the aim of the justice system is to achieve justice. In general, applying the law leads to justice - I think most of us agree with the law against murder. But when the law and justice are at odds, why should we not err on the side of justice? The moral significance of achieving social justice is obvious, but it's not clear to me what specific moral significance there is in applying the law, just because it's the law. Sure, it ostensibly represents the will of the majority of citizens, and if you dislike the law, you could theoretically punt the legislators from office. However, in the real world, laws are drafted by corrupt, clueless, and frequently stupid legislators. The public is frequently completely unaware of the implications of new laws that are enacted. Most of the time they are totally apathetic, or influenced by a government that actively misleads them. Sometimes the democratic will of the majority is morally reprehensible. In general, the option of "just vote the bad law down!" is usually inaccessible to a random juror. I guess I respect my own sense of substantive moral justice more than I respect the obscure rider that former segregationist Trent Lott tacked onto the budget in committee.
Moreover, one of the roles of juries is to protect citizens from government. There are lots of reasons to have juries - elimination of judicial bias, involvement of citizens in government, and so forth - but I think that the most compelling, by far, is that juries shield citizens from unjust laws. In a legal system with juries, the government cannot oppress its citizens unless average citizens are willing to go along with it. When we read about cases like the John Peter Zenger trial, and the many cases of jurors nullifying in cases involving escaped slaves, we are inspired by the act of nullification. Why should we not apply these ideals to today? The War on Drugs, and specifically the War on Marijuana, is obviously not in the same category as slavery, but it is still, in my opinion, truly horrendous. I don't think that compromise is bad - sometimes, it is necessary to defer to the will of the majority, even if you personally disagree with a law. But in certain cases, I think that you have to take a stand and say that the law is just unacceptable.
One common response to this is that "if everyone nullified if they disliked a law, we'd have anarchy". To me, this response is a non sequitur. First of all, nullifying in a drug case is unlikely to increase or decrease the likelihood that some crazy dude will nullify in a murder case, so it is not like anarchy is any more likely if you nullify. Additionally, nullifying is not like not voting or driving an SUV (i.e., an act which is immoral because, while unnoticeable individually, contributes to a larger aggregate problem.) I do think it's morally required to vote or carpool, because in some small, incremental way, the act of voting or carpooling does benefit the world. But if everyone nullified in drug cases, the government would be unable to enforce marijuana laws - which is a good thing! The reason that nullifying in murder cases is bad isn't because it's bad to nullify. It's because it's bad to nullify for MURDER, which is a good law, all things considered.
You can frame the collective action problem differently. If lots of people nullify in drug cases, it will send an implicit message to other people that it's OK to nullify in other cases. In that case, people will start acquitting white supremacists and cocaine dealers, and then anarchy will really result. Accordingly, your act of nullifying in the drug case, multiplied by thousands of people, will result in anarchy, and therefore you shouldn't nullify. There are two responses to this argument. The weaker response is that it's not right to force someone into prison unjustly in order to prevent other, crazier jurors from making bad decisions. That is a classic case of using someone as a means to an end, which is unacceptable from a Kantian point of view. This is a weak response because the whole premise behind the "substantive justice philosophy" is consequentialist. A stronger response is that yes, the above argument is a reason to criticize nullifying. You might say that nullifying loses some "moral points" due to that argument. But the moral points you lose are far offset by the moral points you gain in sending a man who deserves to be free on his way, especially because in the real world, people don't actually nullify willy-nilly, so there really is no problem in the status quo. Of course, by using this logic, you are in some sense you are taking advantage of the willingness of other jurors to apply the law. But most jurors who apply drug laws actually agree with them, or don't loathe them at least. Thus, you are not really taking advantage of their good will - since they are not acting out of good will.
I also just don't think lying under oath is that bad. First, it seems that if you are willing to nullify to achieve the correct outcome, you should be willing to lie under oath to achieve the correct outcome; even if one is constitutionally protected, both of them subvert the legal system. I understand that lying *is* a significant collective action problem, so in general you should tell the truth. But in this case, the incremental moral consequences of lying are far less than the moral consequences of not lying. As I mentioned above, even Kantians might support lying in this case. While it is true that lying under oath constitutes using other people as a means, not lying means that you are allowing someone to go to prison unjustly, so as to set a general social example that anarchy is unacceptable, which is a far worse case of using someone as a means.
Ultimately my comments are based on a feeling that the government has gone too far. Jury nullification will add a random element to the justice sytstem, which is an unpleasant feature; but justice randomly applied is better than justice never applied. There is little that angers me than people getting screwed by the justice system, and if you can prevent it, it seems that you should prevent it.
August 13, 2003
Arrgh! Computer problems. Real posts will return ASAP.
August 12, 2003
The last post seems hypocritical, but it isn't - I have been AFK for the last few days. This included spending time helping out at my sister's wedding (congrats, Andrea & Dan)! However, I wrote most of a long, angry rant on jury nullification and another one on the draft. I also (surprise!) thought a lot about the Institution of Marriage, which has been up for debate a lot these days. Anyway, the jury nullification thing will be up tonight. Sorry, p33pz.
August 5, 2003
The readership on my blog seems to be declining from its initial heights. This is probably due to my laziness in not updating for days on end. Well, my new resolution is to update more often, so as to keep you hard-to-please readers coming back. If I keep this up, I should get enough readers to substantially affect national policy!
I am a huge fan of Howard Dean, like most people in the blogosphere. His political views are correct for the most part, and he has a healthy loathing of Bush. However, he is being pronounced unelectable by most pundits, primarily due to his opposition to the war on Iraq. Americans, apparently, want foreign policy hawks who are tough on terrorism, not weak-kneed ninnies who surrender when they hear a car backfire.
This belief is united with a firm faith that Iraq was responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks. Well over half of Americans believe that Iraqis were on the flights. Something like 30% of Americans think that Iraq actually used chemical and biological weapons in the war. Americans believe a whole bunch of crazy stuff (I believe the percentage of people who believe in the scientific theory of evolution is around 5%), so one should not find this so surprising. However, the outcome is that lots of people will be voting for Bush over Dean because they are too lazy to read a newspaper.
Many voters will vote on other issues that are just hopelessly dumb. For instance, based on historical trends, many voters would favor Bush because he is taller than Dean, and therefore "just seems" like a better leader. Others will vote for Bush because they believe he is a Texas rancher, due to his frequent visits to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, even though he grew up in New England, and constructed his resort-like ranch property purely for the purpose of political campaigning. Still others will side with Bush due to Bush's career as a CEO, not knowing that his business career was actually comically unsuccessful.
None of these insights are new, I realize. There are dumb people in America; there are dumb people everywhere. There are people who vote for Democrats for equally dumb reasons. However, the following insights seem to be true (and I may be wrong on any or all of these):
The number of Americans who vote for dumb reasons is far greater than the number of Canadians or Europeans who vote for dumb reasons.
More people will vote for Bush for dumb reasons than for Dean (or whoever the Democratic nominee will be) for dumb reasons.
The level of political apathy and ignorance today is higher than in previous eras in American history.
Regardless of whether these are true or false, I think that a voting system that favors a candidate due to explicit misinformation is a voting system that is broken. I am starting to seriously believe that there should be a test to be allowed to vote. One requirement of good citizenship should be having even the most minimal knowledge of the political issues and historical facts affecting the election. Obviously, a question like "were there any Iraqis on the 9/11 flights" would never work, since Bush supporters would inevitably consider it hostile to Bush. In fact, any question that could possibly serve as a disadvantage to either party would be nixed if such a proposal would ever be even suggested, which it clearly never will be. So I am just yelling into the wind.
But maybe the lesson from all of this is that underhanded political maneuvering is justified. Lots of political leaders impose legislation that the population ignores or does not understand, for their own purposes. Lots of unelected policymakers, both judges and bureaucrats, implement laws according to their own whimsies, without regard to the actual congressional directive (if a coherent one even existed). Many people deride this as undemocratic and therefore unacceptable, but if the democratic process occurs based on ignorance and electoral incompetence, is that really such a convincing criticism?
August 4, 2003
After thinking this through, the car thief theory just doesn't hold up. No car thief smashes the back windshield of a car, and then leaves, without making an attempt to steal the obvious cell phone sitting on the seat. The vandal theory is slightly more plausible, but if it was a vandal who did this, it must have been someone who was incredibly deranged. What vandal walks to the end of a parking lot of a relatively low-scale apartment, bypassing every single car on the street, smashes one car window, and then leaves? The police officer assumed it was a vandal or a thief, and I believed her; but the theory just doesn't hold water.
My initial thought upon seeing the damage was that someone had backed into my car, but then, given that the bumper was untouched, I ruled that out. But now, I realize that there is a better explanation. If someone had a bike rack, ski rack, two-by-four, or any other item protruding from their car, it could have punctured the windshield without damaging the bumper. It is even possible that the culprit didn't notice it happen, though that seems highly unlikely. The actual damage on the car also lends credence to this theory; the windshield appeared to have been hit once, in a relatively small area, but with sufficient force that the entire windshield cracked. If it was a vandal with a baseball bat, the damage would probably have been more diffuse.
I investigated the cars in my parking lots, and found one car that met the description I described above. It had a rack protruding from the back. It was parked in the perfect angle to hit the back of my car as it left the lot. I KNOW who did this. But what the hell am I going to do about it? I left a note in the apartment complex, describing what happened and asking if anyone thinks they might unintentionally have caused it. I doubt he will admit to anything though. What an asshole.
Meanwhile, I am covering the back of the car with a tarp, to prevent water, squirrels, or homeless people from getting in. However, I had to remove this tarp in order to drive home from work. Inevitably, as I drove home, it started raining torrentially, not unlike New Guinea or Hawaii during the rainy season. When I got home, at the precise instant that I exited the car in order to replace the tarp, the rain actually increased; it was not so much rain as a tsunami. As I re-entered my apartment, the rain leveled off, no doubt rebuilding its energy until I leave the building tomorrow. I felt that my rageful energy might actually cause me to levitate off the ground, aerodynamically supported by a wind-rain-burning anger vortex.
But now, I feel stupid to be so pissed about this. I could be, for instance, in Liberia, where cross-dressing 14-year-olds, high on gasoline and methamphetimines, are raping and macheteing small children. In the end, I feel pretty damn lucky that this will not have a significant effect on my life.
August 3, 2003
OK, I am a bit calmer now. First, a bit of Google research seems to indicate that caning, as practiced in Singapore, is really, really horrendous. As in, prisoners routinely go into shock from pain and loss of blood. Amnesty International has pronounced that caning, as practiced in Singapore, is torture. Also, this account of Michael Fay's punishment (warning - not for the faint of heart!) was very disturbing. So yeah, upon reflection, thumbs down to caning - my intuition is strongly against the practice, at least for crimes like vandalism. The government should not have the power to lawfully act sadistically towards its citizens. I admit, though, that this intuition is nebulous and hard to explain in the face of rational arguments like the ones I presented below. Can anyone formulate an objection to caning without resorting to "human dignity" arguments? In particular, can anyone formulate an objection to caning that still allows for the death penalty?
August 2, 2003
My car was vandalized today. While my car was parked in the lot of my apartment complex, the back window was smashed and completely destroyed. Presumably, this is because I mistakenly left my cell phone (a really cheap, shitty cell phone) lying in the car, as well as a five dollar bill next to it. Those were still in the car; presumably, the assholes were scared off by the car alarm. Or maybe they were just joy-riding fuckheads who took Fight Club too literally. I almost wish they had taken the phone, since that might have created a possibility of actually apprehending them.
Given that I am a strong believer in retributive justice, I can fantasize guilt-free about them being caught, thrown in prison, and marrying larger inmates in exchange for cigarettes. I really, really want these losers to suffer, Singapore-style. But actually, I do sort of support corporal punishment, as crazy as that sounds. Like, I seriously think that the justice system should be able to cane people who commit crimes like this. I may feel differently about this tomorrow, as the rage subsides, but I think that there are actually good arguments for this position.
First of all, and this is probably the anger talking, but some people deserve to suffer. I realize that car vandalism is not such a horrendous crime, but for serious crimes, don't the criminals deserve to feel pain? Would anyone really feel upset if Timothy McVeigh got caned daily? I mean, talk about a good way to make a criminal miserable. I think caning also might serve as a better deterrent; people can't really process the difference between, say, five and seven years in prison, whereas they certainly can fear the immediate unpleasantness of being whipped. Certainly, someone who's been caned once will think ten thousand times about committing the same crime again, especially if the justice system doubled the canings for repeat offenders.
Second of all, a lot of what happens in prison is unintended by the justice system, and has serious social externalities. If we adopt a model of corporal punishement plus shorter sentences, many of these problems go away. For instance, many people joke about prison rape, but it really does happen in prisons, and it is truly unacceptable. We would all be horrified if a judge prescribed a punishment of being the sexual slave of a 300 pound man, but is it that much better that society locks people up in allegedly safe conditions while knowingly allowing this kind of thing to go on? How can we say with a straight face that corporal punishment is "immoral" or "violates human dignity" if the actual outcome of sentencing people to prison sentences ends up being a whole lot more demeaning to human dignity? (It isn't clear to me why corporal punishment violates human dignity more than sentencing people to sit on their butts for the prime years of their lives, but maybe that's just me.) If you cane people, but have them stay in prison for less time, you decrease the frequency of this sort of thing.
Moreover, while people are incarcerated, they associate with criminals, join gangs, and in general adopt a criminal mindset. This is one common explanation for why there is so much recidivism, and undermines the rehabilitative goal of the justice system. The less time people spend in prison, the less impact this effect will have. Also, if you let people out of prison earlier, they get a chance to make something of themselves, and are less likely to resort to crime to make money. A 23-year old will do a lot better searching for his first job than a 33-year-old.
But the best reason for supporting corporal punishment, in my opinion, is related to a more general philosophical problem with the justice system. Think of the person you were, five years ago. If you're around my age, you have probably undergone very, very significant personality changes since then. When I think back to the kind of person I was when I started MIT, I almost think of myself as an entirely different person. I had infinitely less life experience and just reacted to situations totally differently at the time. Now, when people serve ten or twenty years in prison, most of that time is being served by someone with a radically different personality than the person who committed the crime in the first place. If we increase a prison sentence from (say) ten years to fifteen years, the first ten years following the commission of the crime remain identical; the additional punishment is exclusively experienced by the criminal as he is ten years after the crime committed, which is probably radically different from the kind of person he was when the crime was committed. Corporal punishment deals with this problem. The 20-year-old asshole suffers, not the 30-year-old model prisoner who wonders where it all went wrong.
July 30, 2003
Another law that I have qualms about is the "zero tolerance for young drunk drivers" law. This law sets the blood-alcohol level at zero for drivers under 21. This means that if a driver under 21 is caught with any alcohol in his system at all, he is considered to be a drunk driver and is punished severely. Like the drinking age itself, this is a law mandated by the federal government; a state cannot get federal highway money unless it passes such a law (and such laws have been passed in all 50 states).
It may be easy to infer from my previous comments why I would find such a law unfair. The fact that it is a breach of federalism is something I have already argued below while discussing the drinking age. However, I do not oppose the law merely by virtue of opposing the drinking age; even within the context of the drinking age being set at 21, I feel it is unreasonable. The reason a blood alcohol level exists for adults is that people below that level are not intoxicated. A 200 pound man who ingests a single beer will not notice any difference in his motor skills from a 200 pound man who is stone sober. Drunk driving is a crime only to the extent that you are endangering other people; and in order to actually be endangering other people, the alcohol needs to have had some kind of physical effect. Therefore, zero tolerance drunk driving laws are, by definition, criminalizing behavior by young people which cannot plausibly be said to be endangering other people.
Some Googling reveals that these laws are treated with universal approbation. The logic is that "since it was illegal to have drunk the alcohol in the first place, it should be illegal to drive with alcohol in your system". Fair enough, but this logic misses the fact that the punishment for driving with alcohol in your system is far higher than the punishment for just being drunk. 20-year-olds caught publicly drunk by a police officer are rarely treated harshly by the law (nor should they be). Usually they are told to go home; sometimes their parents are called or they are given a small citation. 20-year-olds caught with a miniscule amount of alcohol in their bloodstream while driving are treated very severely. Some commentators have justified this law by arguing that teenagers have lower thresholds for being drunk. This certainly justifies lowering the BAL, but does not justify setting it at zero.
The root of these laws is that drunk driving by teenagers is a humongous problem in the United States, causing numerous tragedies every year. That's true. The question is, if we are criminalizing behavior that is no more dangerous than driving without having drunk alcohol, how will this legislation help the problem? I can think of three ways:
1. Some teenagers might think they are below the legal limit, even though they are actually intoxicated. This law will disincentivize them from driving in the first place. (Of course, this is only effective assuming most 19-year-olds are aware of the laws, which they probably aren't.)
2. The kind of teenager who will drive with a BAL of 0.4 is the same kind of teenager who will drive with a BAL that is much higher. Better to nip the problem in the bud, and take their licenses away now. Of course, this logic applies to adults over 21 as well, but since young adults are just inherently more irresponsible, it is reasonable to apply this restriction.
3. If your BAL is at 0.4, you might be slightly tipsy and disinhibited, but your motor skills are likely to be largely unimpaired. Adults, who are likely to be experienced with alcohol and more mature, can still drive safely under these conditions; young people will be more likely to be driving irresponsibly. I actually think this is a pretty good argument, but again, it is an argument to lower the BAL for young adults, rather than setting it at zero. Moreover, I'm unclear whether the argument is actually accurate. An hour after you have a single beer, are you really that disinhibited? In my own experience, I'm not sure that's the case.
The underlying premise behind these arguments is that it is reasonable to criminalize behavior that is not dangerous, in order to disincentivize, or prevent, behavior that is dangerous. In general, I find this premise disturbing. Being caught in the teeth of the justice system is an extremely serious matter. You lose freedom, job opportunities, money, and your sense of well-being. Such an infringement on individual liberties, in my opinion, can only be justified if someone actually does something that harms or endangers someone else. Zero tolerance alcohol laws do not fall into this category. Making matters worse, the government does not apply these laws to eveyone; they are selectively applied to a group of adults (those under 21) who have a greater statistical tendency to drunk drive than any other group. If such statistical tendencies existed among a minority group, or even among senior citizens, I doubt the government could adopt such a law. As I've said before, young adults lack political representation or political relevance; that is how such laws get generated.
July 23, 2003
Purporting to be "tough on crime" is a winning political platform. Politicians, desperate for something to do and wanting to seem macho, routinely raise penalties for whatever crime happens to be in the news at the moment. In contrast, reducing penalties for crimes is an unpopular political position. Think of the last time you saw a news article reporting that the minimum sentences for a crime had been drastically slashed by Congress. If this is true, then the following law must hold:
"Unikowsky's Law: As time passes, the punishments for all crimes will increase to infinity"
I can think of three possible factors to counterbalance this trend.
1. The popularity of the tough-on-crime stance is only a response to the squishy liberalism of the 60s and 70s. Eventually, as punishments grow more draconian, attitudes will change, and sentences will stabilize or decrease.
2. As time passes, people figure out new and innovative ways to be antisocial, and new laws have to be introduced to keep up with them. For instance, laws against music trading online were enacted because new technology made these crimes possible. Increases in the number of laws only result from increases in the number of crimes.
3. Politicians rarely soften penalties for crimes. However, in the real world, judges and police officers enforce the law, and they may silently soften the laws in response to changing social values. Laws on the books slowly become unenforced, or judges routinely give lower sentences than suggested by the law.
I think all of these factors play a role in reducing the impact of the the constant barrage of new prohibitions and new penalties. But it is well-documented that the number of prison inmates has drastically increased in the last twenty years. This bothers me immensely. Prisoners have no money and no political lobby. They often cannot vote, and when they can, they rarely do. Basically no one cares if a punishment is grotesquely out of proportion to a crime. And arguing against increasing criminal penalties generally represents political suicide.
Moreover, factor number 3 is troublesome as well. An unenforced law is a recipe for disaster. People start becoming ignorant of the law or breaking it wantonly, and suddenly the government can prosecute someone for a practice that no one could have imagined would be illegal. When you prescribe ridiculous punishments, but trust DAs and judges to disregard the punishments on the books, you place enormous power in the hands of the government; they can choose to selectively prosecute someone grossly out of proportion to how the law is generally applied, and argue that they are merely "applying the law". In the US, especially in drug cases, this kind of thing regularly occurs, and as I've mentioned before, I feel it is the most disastrous problem with the justice system.
July 22, 2003
Has it really been five days since my last update? Geez, I am a lazy ass.
I'd like to talk about alcohol laws. Among the laws in the US I abhor the most is the fact that the legal drinking age is 21. Technically, states are free to set the drinking age at 18, but they lose federal highway money, meaning that they really don't have a choice. This is, on face, unacceptable. Withholding federal highway money is an act of irresponsible government. Given that the government forces its citizens to pay for highways, the government shouldn't have the choice of withholding the money to satisfy its political aspirations. Moreover, anyone in the federal government with any kind of respect for states' rights ought not use this type of bribery, regardless of their own views on underage drinking.
The policy itself is also idiotic. Someone mature enough to get married and get conscripted is mature enough to purchase alcohol. Moreover, all college students will immediately tell you that they have absolutely no trouble, whatsoever, getting alcohol, whenever they want it, at any time of day or night. Most people who would blanche at running a red light out of respect for the law have no moral qualms of committing the crime of furnishing alcohol to minors. I understand that unenforceable legislation can be defended to "send a message", but it is clear that no message is being sent to anyone; the law lacks any moral force, and no amount of advertising is likely to convince anyone otherwise.
The law against furnishing alcohol to minors is only enforced when a teenager kills himself, or someone else, due to alcohol. This does not happen very often, so the law essentially does not act as a disincentive or moral statement to anyone. The only time it is enforced is when the furnisher of the alcohol is really unlucky. As I mentioned in my anti-speeding rant, laws which are broken by huge numbers of people, but are rarely, randomly enforced, are in general to be avoided. However, these laws are at least defensible when the law itself makes sense; in this case, the law is both nonsensical and rarely enforced, making it doubly bad.
Not surprisingly, our legislators have tried to address the problem of underage drinking in the least intelligent possible way. They have made the provision of alcohol to a minor a felony, but ONLY if the minor hurts himself. Legislation that would have made sense would have been to increase enforcement of the law against providing alcohol to minors, by raiding fraternity parties and the like. This would have been a bad policy, but at least a consistent policy, aimed at providing some modicum of fair and equitable enforcement. Instead, they have made enforcement even more unequitable, by screwing over the unlucky college senior even more. Obviously there is no moral difference between the millions of college seniors who furnish alcohol to sophomores who merely get hung over, and the handful of college seniors who furnish alcohol to sophomores who kill themselves. The unfair, but at least implicit, inequality between how these two groups are treated has been made explicit. You cannot disincentivize the act of "providing alcohol to a minor, so that they hurt themselves" any more than you can disincentivize the act of providing alcohol to a minor in general; this law is therefore just an angry, useless attempt at retribution and political posturing.
But back to the main issue. I understand that preventing drunk driving deaths is of massive social importance. As a responsible person, I get very upset when the government restricts my own enjoyment to prevent other idiots from being irresponsible, but perhaps this viewpoint is selfish. I recognize that if a family member of mine was killed by a drunk driver, I might think differently. But it is not clear to me that lowering the drinking age actually does prevent drunk driving in any significant way. Even MADD hedges on whether or not this is true. Intuitively, the law abolishes safe, healthy drinking, such as buying a beer in a restaurant, while preserving unhealthy drinking, such as drinking twelve shots of tequila in a fraternity. People over 21 drink in bars, in which a bartender can stop serving you alcohol; people under 21 drink with buddies, in which there are no such controls. On face, the law seems to have the completely opposite impact to what was intended.
The bigger issue is that society has to strike a balance between freedom and utility. Our legislators have decided that the freedom for adults over 21 should prevail over the safety benefits of prohibiting alcohol to everyone. They have decided the opposite for adults between 18 or 21. Do these laws exist because young adults are that much more unsafe? Or because young adults lack any kind of coherent political representation? There are no congressmen under 21. Young adults rarely vote. They have no money and no lobbyists. There is no reason for politicians to consider their interests, or interact with them in general. I'd venture to guess that this is the main reason that adults under 21 can get executed, but cannot drink, and that fact is really, at root, what rankles me so much.
July 17, 2003
I think it is important that people understand how computers work. One of the reasons I majored in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science was that it bothered me, at a very fundamental level, that I had no idea how a computer could possibly be doing what it was doing. I had some idea of how a lightbulb, or a battery, or even a car might operate; the details were hazy, but it was all at least plausible. But computers were completely inexplicable. I thought, and still think, that this knowledge was more useful, tangible, and rewarding than almost anything else I could study.
It turns out that the main reason computers are so, so cool is that they are so, so fast. Your 1 GHz processor is processing instructions at a rate of one billion per second. Think about that for a second. If you push five keys per second, your computer has time to process 200 million distinct instructions, between each keypress. You may think you understand this, but I remember designing a Pac-Man game in hardware in a lab course I took at MIT, and it all just becoming clear to me. Getting Pac-Man to work required a whole lot of operations, but my clock was running at 0.8 MHz without any trouble at all. Producing a new frame every sixteenth of a second still gave me more than 30,000 instructions to process per frame. It was the easiest thing in the world (well, sort of).
Computers work quickly because of transistors. They don't need transistors per se, in fact they can use gears and pulleys, but it is hard to build 0.8 nanometer pulleys that work perfectly billions of times per second. Transistors can be grossly approximated as little switches, which work due to curious properties of silicon doped with phosphorus and boron. With transistors, you can make logic gates. Consider the space of two-input, one-output gates, where all inputs and outputs are either ones or zeroes. So, one gate (an AND gate), would have the following property: if both of the inputs are ones, the output is zero; else, the output is zero. An OR gate would operate as follows: if both of the inputs are zeroes, the output is zero, else, the output is one. An XOR gate would output ones if exactly one of the inputs were a one, and a zero otherwise. There are 16 such gates, which a little thought should make clear. These gates are easy to make out of transistors, and are able to compute in a meaningful sense. Hooking more of them up together can make them compute more complicated functions. And that is, in a nutshell, where the computation comes from.
It's interesting to see how far you can take this knowledge in building a computer. Can you build something that can add two binary numbers? Perform other interesting mathematical operations? Can you imagine how these kinds of basic operations can allow you to perform more complicated functions that your computer can do? All of this will seem hopelessly banal to anyone with any familiarity with computers, but I think everyone should get the feeling of knowing, a little bit, just what computation could possibly embody in the real world.
July 15, 2003
I visited Phil's cottage over the weekend, with fellow ex-debaters Raj and Stephen. It was fun and wholesome, until I came down with a hideous illness, which included two nights of crazy, hallucinogenic fever dreams. I spent a night twisting and turning on my bed and believing that the position I was on the bed determined which continent I was in on earth. It wasn't actually a dream; I was awake and able to respond to external stimuli, but I was just extremely confused. I am not really sure how I justified this belief to myself, I think my brain just took a huge dump or something.
Later, Phil and I watched the Miss Universe pageant on NBC, won by the very beautiful Miss Dominican Republic. At one point in the show, there was actually a segment on how these women were feminist crusaders. There was a panel discussion of the 75 contenders, a panel which I would just kill to be able to join. "I hope", they would say, "that someday all women will get a chance to be politicians! I hope no one will discriminate against me like they did to women in the past". Even for someone like me, who isn't usually bothered by things like this, this was appalling. These women are parading on TV in swimsuits and high heels, are being judged by a bunch of randy men and daytime soap stars on how hot they are, and are basically a slightly classy way of getting T&A; into prime time. It was also a little unclear how the judges winnowed down the field; it seemed that anyone who did not have straight, long hair could not be a contender (Miss USA, who had to be included in the final fifteen for the ratings' sake, went out quickly for having the audacity to have curly hair).
When the field was reduced to five, the women were asked questions, and presumably the cleverness of their responses determined the winners. However, the competition was not barbed. Sample exchanges:
Maybe my years of debate have accustomed me to glibness, but honestly, these responses were pathetic. (The winner, I believe, answered the blistering "what is the most important thing in your life" with the gripping response of "my family". I was hoping she would answer "my laptop" or "my parakeet".)
I wouldn't really object to a Miss Universe pageant that took into account all human qualities. The women would have to be accomplished, brilliant, giving, educated, and so forth. It would be fine to have beauty as one of the conditions - women have no more control over their innate ability to solve math problems than their innate ability to be beautiful. But they'd also have to run marathons and have Ph.D.'s. This would lead to some exciting dilemmas. "Sure, that woman may be prettier, but she's only published two papers in the last three years - the other one got a Nature cover!" Half of the judges could be tenure application reviewers, and half could be Cosmo writers. I feel that this could get terrific ratings.
July 11, 2003 (cont.)
This essay (a zipped text file), by Neil Stephenson, is absolutely phenomenal. It discusses the interaction of culture and operating systems, and all you crazy philosophy majors should read it to get a sense of the culture surrounding technology. It is by the author of one of my favorite all-time novels (Cryptonomicon), and it is just marvellously written.
July 11, 2003
John Dolan must be ecstatic about this bit of news. Personally, I just feel bad for her.
Some thoughts on free will from a non-philosophy expert (refer to Tim's blog if you want to read a more learned perspective)...
I think a useful way to frame the issue is to assume that some of the tenets of determinism are true. Thus, imagine aliens came to earth, and presented us with a machine that could look at all the molecules in our brain (and our surroundings) and perfectly determine what would happen to us. (I realize that quantum physics could conceivably make this impossible, but it seems likely that the errors associated with quantum physics wouldn't make a difference in terms of whether or not neurons fire.) The aliens could predict the next thing you would do, and no matter what you'd try to do to thwart them, their predictions would be correct, because the laws of physics are inviolable. Better yet, imagine these same aliens actually came to earth and informed us that our brains are meticulously well put together computers, loaded with software written by the Krong version of Microsoft (late and overbudget and a bit buggy, which might explain Alzheimer's, but good software anyway). Again, they could demonstrate to us that they could predict what we would do. The question is, how would this affect the free will vs. determinism debate (as well as the retribution vs. reconciliation debate, and any general debate in which "human nature" plays a role)?
I personally think it wouldn't affect anything. I am a big believer in free will, but if these aliens came I'd still be a believer in free will, at least according to some modified conception of free will. I think that the machines I described above could theoretically exist - I'm an atheist, and I think that the laws of physics govern everything, including our neurons. But regardless of whether we are deterministic creatures, my own experience tells me that I have the capacity to make free decisions, and my own experience is what I trust the most. I wouldn't deny the fact that a machine could predict what I was going to do; rather, I would just be incapable of disbelieving the free will which is at the centre of my existence. I guess I may have just said two completely contradictory things, but I cannot think of a way to reconcile them any better.
I also think that it shouldn't affect any of our moral judgments. I believe that the laws of physics govern our brains in a deterministic way. I don't think that this should prohibit me from making "should" statements, because my own experience tells me that "should" statements are perfectly coherent...and the existence of this machine would not give me any new information.
Human nature is mysterious, and the entire interaction of rationality with instinct is just incredibly strange to me. I read an article explaining why people eat food right in front of them, despite the fact that they are trying to lose weight. It's because evolution has made us instinctually eat food that we can acquire with no danger. (Going to the pantry to get a bag of chips isn't dangerous either, but our brains don't know that...all they perceive is that food that is directly accessible is something that we definitely want to consume.) This makes a lot of sense, but imagine an alien species, which was perfectly rational, reading this paragraph. This alien species did not act according to instinct or emotion; they made exclusively rational decisions. The aliens would be confused. "Those humans eat chips right in front of them", they'd say, "even when they know it is unhealthy, because of something programmed into their brain. So that implies that they don't have free will!" A curious alien might ask us if our arms operate uncontrollably, against our will, and we'd respond that no, they don't; we could have avoided the chips if we wanted. "So why'd you do it", they'd ask. And we wouldn't be able to answer. I can't provide a coherent explanation of what goes through my mind when I do irrational things. The instinct center of my mind somehow drowns out my rational side, though I am still making the explicit choice to eat the chips. A smart philosopher could probably make an argument that that kind of conscious experience is impossible to reconcile with free will. But I still do believe in free will.
July 8, 2003
Tim has started a new blog, allegedly in response to my God comments. I'm honored! Don't let Tim's self-deprecation fool you...he's as good a Linux and hardware hacker as any I've met at MIT. Email him your Linux questions.
Before addressing what Tim says, I must say that the thrust of my original comment was that I find it difficult to justify a religious lifestyle, as opposed to theoretical claims for the existence of God. The real opinions that I could not imagine holding are (a) that we should adopt a particular religion with a particular mythology, and (b) that we should try to have religious or spiritual experiences, as opposed to theoretically believing in a god.
But anyway, Tim says there are teleological claims to believe in God. The fact that the universe did not crunch or explode is derived from the fact that a particular, obscure cosmological constant is to within one part in 10^-23, or some such thing. Therefore, there might be a God. This is not convincing to me. Aaron Lemon-Strauss, on Tim's blog, really echoes my views on this. Maybe, there are many, many universes, each with a different cosmological constant, and the fact that we find ourselves in this one derives from the fact that it's the only one we could find ourselves in. Maybe there are new universes that generate as a function of time, with changing cosmological constants. Maybe the physical theory is totally wrong (really a legitimate possibility, it is like ten years old). These to me all seem more plausible than a theory that includes God, since the God theory has all kinds of unpleasant consequences to a skeptical philosophy. For instance, if God created the laws of physics, presumably he is not restricted by the (existing) laws of physics; therefore, God is not made of atoms; therefore, cognition can arise mysteriously from something that is not material. If God existed before the Big Bang, then God can exist lacking any kind of spatial extent (since the world was constricted almost to a point before the Big Bang).
Maybe this God is just a really, really, really, really intelligent alien who is subject to some other set of physical laws, but creates all these other physical laws to try to delude us, or something. Maybe. It violates Occam's Razor, but I mean, it's plausible. It does not provide any reason for me to want to pursue spiritual experiences.
Tim's other argument is that we have no proof that objects exist, but believing in them is a reasonable way of explaining the world. Similarly, we have no proof that God exists, but it demystifies the mysteries of life, so it's reasonable to believe in it. This sort of reduces to the first argument, I think; God is a good explanation for counterintuitive facts (like the cosmological constant), so it is reasonable to believe in it. I object to the premise of this argument. While believing in material objects is a pretty plausible belief, believing in God to me is deeply counter-intuitive, and does not really unify my world-view, at least.
Pnichols, whom I love dearly, says something which I disagree with. First, he says that all moral beliefs derive from your parents, not just religion, so that is not a reason to criticize religion in particular. Well, while it is true that my beliefs correlate with those of my parents, I do have independent reasons for believing in abortion rights, or socialized medicine, or whatever. It's true that the manner in which I weigh different arguments is related to what my parents taught me, but I can give independent reasons for defending the beliefs I hold. Whereas, there are no reasons, almost by definition, to have faith in the Bible, other than it being an act of faith. If you ask a religious person "why do you believe in the Bible?", there are two possible responses. Either they will say "because that is my tradition that I have always believed", or something related, or they will say "I have actually experienced contact with God", which is actually a better explanation but will make you think they are schizo. I would find it metaphysically unpleasant to think that my deepest beliefs about the universe were an accident of birth.
July 7, 2003
Back in Vermont, back at work. Boston was a sociable, intense change of pace.
I want to talk about religion for a moment. Unlike 98% of Americans, but like most of my close friends, I am an atheist. I suppose there might be a god, but it seems unlikely to me, akin to the hypothesis that there are puppies that can fly. I always get a flash of anger when self-righteous religious people assert that "atheism is as much a belief as religion". It seems that the belief that there exist four-headed monkeys who can form a string quartet is distinct from the belief that there exist no such monkeys. It is true that both of these positions denote beliefs, but one is more plausible, at least without significant countervailing evidence. I see religion no differently.
Even if there were some omnipotent figure, or some extraterrestrial life form whose intelligence made us look like amoebas, I see no reason to pray to it, think about it, or do anything religious. People have asked me a few times whether I respect people's religions. To be honest, I have no opinion on other people's religious beliefs; it's a free country, and people can believe what they like. To me, a literal belief in the Koran, Bible, etc., is basically equivalent to a belief, say, that aliens and UFOs populated the earth five thousand years ago; I respect the two beliefs equally. I seriously mean religion no disrespect when I say this.
My Mom is decidedly not an atheist, and has told me that religious experience is very rewarding and that a spiritual aspect would add a lot to my life. But the reason that I am not religious is not that I choose not to be; it is that I can't be religious. I cannot convince myself that I am a superb hockey player, I cannot convince myself that I may someday be a matinee idol, and I cannot convince myself that there is some god up there listening to my prayers. Religious experiences may be rewarding, though to me they have always seemed depressing; but I do not think I can achieve the monumental feat of self-delusion as convincing myself that yes, Moses really did split the sea, regardless of how personally rewarding it may be.
I sometimes wonder if it bothers religious people that their belief is basically a function of their parents. If you ask me why I believe that the sky is blue or that evolution occurred, I can cite evidence. But if you ask someone why they believe in the Bible, rather than "Dune" by Frank Herbert, it is basically because their parents and peers told them that the Bible was fact and that "Dune" was fiction, rather than the other way around. If they had Muslim parents, right now, they would almost certainly believe in the Koran. If they had Hindi parents, they'd have Ganesha statues. Isn't it a bit odd that their deep personal beliefs are solely a function of the parents they had, rather than reasons that they personally can enunciate? I guess you can say the same thing for my atheism, but I had a religious upbringing and attended a religious school, and anyway, a lack of belief is distinct from a belief, as I mentioned above. Sometimes my Mom cites things like "love" and "joy" as evidence that there "must be something more". Lots of people say "well, I don't believe in the Bible literally, but I still believe in a deity in some metaphorical and subtle way." Well, maybe...it's not clear to me precisely what that means, but yes, maybe some omnipotent alien/physical law/weird fact exists that we are unaware of. It's not clear to me (a) why this means I should believe in any one religion, as opposed to any other, and (b) why I should unproductively try to speculate on this point, as I doubt it would get anywhere.
I think that a sincere religious belief is just a mental state I will never be able to understand. It is just as unimaginable to me, in Nagelian fashion, as what it could feel like to believe in the Bible.
July 4, 2003
Today is America's 227th birthday. It is also my 22nd birthday, which is really scary. I always find birthdays somewhat depressing, because I hate the idea that I'm getting older. However, I'm in Boston and will hopefully see various friends and acquaintances, so hopefully it should be a good time.
Whenever I drive on the highway, as I did today, I always feel that the government should raise speed limits, to somewhere around 85 or 90 miles an hours. There are a few reasons for this:
Also, does anyone find it curious that cars can easily exceed the legal speed limit? The maximum allowable speed in every single state is actually smack in the middle of the speedometer. (Montana used to have no speed limits on their highways, but now I think they have speed limits of 75). It is just bizarre that the standard speedometer, used by all car manufacturers, operates with the expectation that you will be breaking the law. Why does the government allow this? Why doesn't the federal government force car manufacturers to limit the speed of their vehicles (this happens in the status quo, but at like 140 mph)? I can think of two arguments. First, in emergencies, you sometimes might need to go faster. But one can envision a system where you can disable the speed limit, but the government is automatically informed of it and you have to submit some kind of good excuse. This isn't an invasion of civil liberties; I mean, you are explicitly breaking the law. Second, in other countries, the speed limits are different. But again, we could have a system where the speed limit could be disabled as long as you can demonstrate that you are leaving the country. The real reason that this doesn't exist is that GM has a powerful lobby, and (more importantly) that the government implicitly condones speeding. They just enforce anti-speeding laws at random, in order to keep you on your toes, or recoup money in speeding tickets, or make it easier to search black people's cars. I really hate laws conceived that way...
July 2, 2003
I had a chance to listen to the Bill O'Reilly vs. Al Franken video yesterday. Bill O'Reilly is a pretty abusive talk show host, and I had heard that Franken "really put O'Reilly in his place" when they both went on C-Span. Unfortunately, I think O'Reilly came off as an honest guy, and Franken came off as a total moron. Franken kept talking incredibly slowly, making inane jokes and insulting O'Reilly, and it was just unpleasant. The nadir was when Franken told O'Reilly that he was trying to bring civility to political discourse, and O'Reilly pointed out that he had a book called "Lies and the lying liars who tell them". Franken's barbed retort was that he had gotten the name of the book slightly wrong. I realize Franken is a comedian, but he reminded me of when Bush would respond to Gore's intelligent points by saying that Gore was using "high school debate tricks". I think the left needs a better spokesperson than this!
Of course, as annoying as he may have been, he is not as bad as Ann Coulter. This strange anti-Coulter article on Salon.com is just breathtakingly good. This book review, entitled "When Right-Wing Fembots Attack", is also just incredibly delicious. My love of Salon.com continues, unabated.
Currently on my mind is the relationship between emotions and political philosophy. The debate between efficiency and equity is often hard to resolve, and it's not really clear to me a lot of the time how to weigh these two values. Now, possessing things makes me feel good. Like, it may be irrational, but I enjoy the feeling of having the right to exclude other people from certain things, and having the government back me up on it. Different people probably value this feeling in different ways. If we could quantify this feeling in some way, would it have an impact on how much the government regulates private property? I have some sketchy thoughts on this, which I'll discuss at some future point.
Public service announcement
It's my birthday on July 4, and I am considering having some kind of dinner followed by drinking session, which is what I did last year, as some of you might remember. I'd be doing this in the Boston area, but I probably won't come down unless people are actually interested... if you'd be in for such an event, please email me.
July 1, 2003
Happy Canada day! And in honor of Canada Day, here are some terrific quotes from our beloved Prime Minister Jean Chretien. I actually have the "pepper on my plate" comments on a wav file, so IM me (at IM name "aunikows") if you want to hear it.
These comments are rather different from George Bush's frequently inane remarks. Bush, I think, is just an idiot; not an idiot compared to what one would expect from a commander in chief, but a real, genuine, blithering moron. Chretien, on the other hand, is vaguely corrupt, and totally apathetic to the supposed good graces of modern political discourse. Bush is more pathetic, but Chretien is just hilarious, because his comments seem driven by irritability.
Anyway, another thing I wanted to mention was that a little while ago, when I went home to Montreal, I found an old diary I had apparently kept circa 1991, when I was nine years old. This was really cool, since I did not even remember that I had kept a diary. There were not very many entries, as I apparently became bored of it pretty quickly, but it was still interesting to read. The most surprising thing was that it was immediately recognizable as me. The handwriting was slightly different, the phrasing a little less sophisticated, but I could definitely recognize my own writing style. I was pretty dramatic - one entry included the line "it is my sister's 14th birthday. She refuses to accept any gifts. Guilt is around me everywhere." I was apparently very stressed over my grades in school, especially when other people would beat me on spelling tests. But the last line of the last entry was: "I'd give me life a 7.5 out of 10. Maybe more." which is, I suppose, an encouraging sign. If there's anything I learned from this, it's that sometimes nine-year-olds might be more sophisticated than you give them credit for.
June 29, 2003
I am pleased about the sodomy decision, like most of you are...hearing the religious right squirm is a lot of fun. I think the interesting question is, which would have been the better outcome - the decision overturned on the basis of the Fourth Amendment right to privacy, or equal protection? From a strict constitutional basis, the equal protection argument is more convincing, since the right to privacy is rather obscurely derived from the Fourth Amendment, while equal protection is explicitly stated as a constitutional right. Don't get me wrong, I believe in a constitutional right to privacy, but in a perfect world we'd have a constitutional amendment that actually talks about privacy, rather than forcing judges to use linguistic sleight of hand. (Not that that will happen.) Practically, the Fourth Amendment decision is better, since it abolishes all sodomy laws, rather than anti-gay sodomy laws. If O'Connor's decision had been the majority decision, sodomy laws would have been preserved for both heterosexual relationships and homosexual relationships; and to the extent that they would have been enforced at all, they would have been used against gay people, which meant that nothing would have really changed. But I think that the implicit argument for equal protection is more progressive than the privacy argument. The privacy argument carries the undertone of "no matter how gross gay people having sex is, the government shouldn't bother them". Whereas, the equal protection argument really is a statement that the law should not make any kind of value judgment between homosexual and heterosexual relationships.
What I really don't get, though, is why people want to abolish sodomy. Like, people talk about moral values, and families, and all the rest of it, but what, precisely, is the argument? Saying the word "family" very loudly is not an argument (geez, that is something I would say in a debate round... it never really leaves, I guess). I intend on getting married and having kids someday, and it is really not clear to me how the gay relationship down the street would affect this. I have actually read through issues of the National Review and I have went to religious right webpages to try to solve this mystery. I just don't get it. I understand why people would think abortion is murder, I can understand why people would want to kill welfare and abolish gun control...but why sodomy? It is true that creating a constitutional right to sodomy might actually create a constitutional right to incestuous relationships where reproduction is impossible, which is pretty gross, and is something I suppose I am uncomfortable with; I guess that discomfort is what anti-gay groups feel too. Rationally, though, there is no reason for me to oppose such a right. But that doesn't explain why these groups would want legislatures to abolish sodomy. It will not lead to legalizing incest or pedophilia if you don't want it to, since, well, the legislature can just not do that. It's really the only public policy debate where I just don't understand where the other side is coming from (aside from a strict interpretation of the bible, I guess).