Friday, June 27, 2014

Frank Underwood as the Purely Strategic Mind

My wife and I started watching "House of Cards," and we are very much enjoying it. It's an excellent piece of literary fiction, and everyone should watch it for it's story, characters, and truths.

The most fascinating aspect of the show is Frank Underwood's purely strategic reasoning. I have never seen a character who takes a pure-strategy approach. Most people have at least some mixture of strategic and analytical thinking. Those with autism are much more strongly analytical, of course. But Frank Underwood is literally the opposite of autistic.

Of course, one can immediately see the problems that will arise through a pure-strategy approach. The show is, after all, called "House of Cards," and that is precisely what you will get if you are strategic-only in the way you deal with others and with reality. Analysis provides a foundation for what you want to do, and the stronger one's analytical abilities, the stronger one's foundation. Of course, there are some who end up doing nothing but build foundations and fail to erect the building. But Underwood builds his house without any foundation. He hopes the cards he leans against each other will each hold all the others up. That is what strategy-only will get you.

For someone who is on the Spectrum, watching Underwood at work is fascinating. He is my opposite in almost every way. Yet I recognize that many of the things he does are things it would benefit me to be able to do. Each of us are extremes in our ways of thinking; between the two is a golden mean which, because of our respective neural structures (can a fictional character have neural structures? They would be fictionalized as well, but as true as any fictional character is true, meaning they are idealized).

A great deal of literature is dominated by analytical minds. Hamlet is a great example. He analyzes for 4 hours of stage time. And most literature since Hamlet has been dominated by such characters mulling over every little thing. It's the sort of fiction I have written -- not surprisingly, given the way I think and view the world. Thus, Frank Underwood is an unusual character in literature. But he is also perhaps a little more realistic in the sense that most people are more strategic in their thinking than they are analytical. That he is an extreme of this style of thinking is hardly a problem -- literature should purify to clarify and shed light on the truth of things. No, in many ways Underwood is a breath of fresh air to literature. The highly strategic thinker needs to be understood (and, dare I say, analyzed) through literary representation. Only then can we see the kinds of worlds such minds build. Only then can we really see how badly such people, such ways of thinking need to be balanced.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Moral Theories on Theft and Taxation

There are several moral universals, yet at the same time, there are several interpretations of those morals. There is little question that prohibitions against theft, murder, rape, and incest are universal; yet there are variations on each one dependent upon culture. More, there are different interpretations of those morals even within a given culture. In Therapy for the Sane, Lou Marinoff lists deontology, teleology, virtue ethics, providential religious ethics, existentialism, Objectivist ethics, prima facie duties, sociobiology, other-centered ethics, Buddhist ethics, and legal moralism as interpretations of morality. Which is true? Perhaps all of them have some truth to them. But in any case, there are consequences of each.

Let's take theft as an example. We might have to first define what it means to steal something, though. To steal something is to take something that belongs to another for yourself without permission from the original owner. There is implicit in this definition a requirement for the existence of private property, because you cannot steal something that is communally owned. To prohibit theft necessarily implies the existence of ownership of property.

Deontology is also known as "duty ethics." But duty toward whom or what? Historically, it has been duty toward God and/or duty toward government. There is not a set of religious or political laws that do not prohibit stealing. With Kant, though, we see the development of individualistic deontology with his categorical imperative.

With religious-based deontology, the prohibition against stealing is pretty straightforward. It applies to all equally. But with government-based deontology, we run into some real problems. Governments will of course prohibit theft, but we end up running into the issue of whether or not taxation is a form of theft. Under the definition of theft I gave above, if individual citizens are in fact the owners of the property within their possession, then all taxation is theft. However, if we are mere stewards of the government's property -- whether it be land or money or anything else -- then taxation is not theft. So when we argue that government should have the same duties toward us as we have toward it in regards to theft, we have to be clear as to whether or not the property is in fact privately, individually owned and ownable, or if the government is in fact the real owner, and we are mere stewards of it (meaning when we buy property, we are merely buying the privilege of stewardship over that property).

For me, then, taking the government-based deontological view is both clarifying and telling. If taxation is legitimate, then we do not have truly private property, and if we have truly private property, taxation is theft.

With Kant's individualistic deontology, we do not run into these problems. We have duties toward each other as human beings, whom we ought to treat as ends themselves and not as means. Theft is again a straightforward prohibition, and one cannot legitimate it even if one is in government. When government taxes, it treats people as means rather than ends. More, a government that is taxing is acting as though the people in it wish that taking others' property ought to be a universal law.

Teleology is also known as consequentialism. With it, what matters is the end result far less than the means to get there. Should you steal? Well, what will be the end result? One can use this to argue that people in general ought not steal, because a society based on stealing will in the end be a more violent, less trusting, less prosperous society. But does this mean that you ought not to steal this or that? And what about taxation? Well, one of the consequences of taxation is that you have a government with enough money to do any number of activities. If you think it is good for governments to have lots of money to do lots of things, then consequentialism will let you argue that governments ought to be able to tax. In the end, we just end up self-justifying whatever actions we take or what others to take on our behalf. In the end, I'm not sure that that's really morality.

Virtue Ethics -- taught by Aristotle, Buddha, and Confucius -- views morality as a kind of moderation of action. Theft is a form of immoderate action. It is a vice, pure and simple. You learn not to steal by being taught it is wrong and through habituation of the virtue of respect for others' property. The purpose of the virtues is to ensure that humans live the most human of lives, which is to live as a social being. Societies that are full of thieves are weaker, less trusting, poorer societies. These are all reasons to oppose theft.

But what about taxation? What makes for a virtuous government? Is it the same as what one needs to have virtuous people? What constitutes a moderate government? Is one even possible, or are they necessarily prone to immoderation? Can there rather be a virtuous form of governance, one which is inherently prone to moderation in action? It seems to me that the morality of taxation would depend on the nature of property ownership, as mentioned above. Unfortunately, I'm not sure virtue ethics is exactly clear as to what the nature of property ownership ought to be. One may make the case that anarchic communism is one extreme, while government (single) ownership of all property is another extreme, and that private property is the golden mean between the two. If one were to make that argument, there is little question that government cannot tax.

Providential Religious Ethics simply means that if you do what God(s) want, you will be rewarded in the next life, and if you don't, you'll be punished. Under this ethics, we are under the care and protection of God(s), and any suffering in this world is a test for you. Under Christianity specifically, we are told to "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and render unto God what is God's." If you accept money printed by government, don't complain when they want it back. Money printed by the government is the government's money; it is their property, and they can properly tax it. This may make income taxes acceptable, but it would still leave problematic property taxes. All of this, of course, leaves wide open the question of what on earth it is that God wants. We are often told what God wants by religious leaders, all of whom claim to have been appointed by God. None of which really helps us, except for the fact that we are again faced with the universality of religious prohibitions against theft. But if may also be true that God wants us to support our governments, that our government is set up by God, and we must therefore support it. Still, as I suggest in this poem, things may not always be so unambiguously pro-government as this.

Existentialism views morality as emerging from our actions and existence in the world. Morality is thus determined by us. For the existentialist, there are no moral universals. Stealing is not being your authentic self; it is an expression of inauthenticity. Why? Because the theft is not taking personal responsibility for himself and his actions. He is making another bear the responsibility for whatever reason he feels the need to steal.

But can a government be a responsible agent? Of course not. So when a government is taxing, is it stealing? The individual agents within the government are not, themselves, engaging in the act of stealing; they are rather simply "doing their jobs." They are responsible for their jobs, but not necessarily for the outcome of the institution for which they work. Should one feel responsible for the actions taken on behalf of the institution for which you work? I would think so, meaning one is being inauthentic working for a government that taxes. Thus, it may not be immoral for government to tax, but it may be immoral to work for a government that taxes. But even then, that would depend on the property rules. If the government is the one that really owns all property, taxes are fine, but if property is individually owned, taxes are theft.

Objectivist Ethics is the ethics of enlightened self-interest.This ethics is highly individualistic, and the individual takes precedence over the collective. Too many interpret this as "selfishness." If it were pure selfishness, theft and other immoral acts would be just fine. However, since I already noted that only if there is collective ownership can there not be theft, and since under objectivist ethics individuals take precedence over the collective, there cannot be collective ownership and there must therefore be theft. Individual ownership is real and therefore theft is immoral, since theft violates ownership. But does government ownership of property and subsequent stewardship violate objectivist ethics? Only if government ownership is understood as collectivist ownership. If government ownership and collective ownership are one and the same, then governments cannot tax under objectivist ethics, because taxation is theft. But this equation between government ownership and collective ownership raises the issue of what theft itself means. As noted, only if there is ownership can there be theft. Why would a government prohibit theft if it were the true owner? To maintain the illusion of private ownership among its stewards. And why would a government want to do that? To have the benefits of private property-based free enterprise along with the benefits of being able to legitimately tax. There is a great deal here to object to using objectivist ethics, and it should be clear how this ethics in many ways forms the foundation for a great deal of classical liberal philosophy.

Prima Facie Duties if a theory of ethics which views humans as part of a social contract, meaning we have rights and benefits, and duties and obligations. If we have duties to others, we cannot steal from them. But if we have duties to others, that may also mean taxation is a legitimate way to fulfill our duties. I won't dwell on the issue of whether or not government programs are the best way to fulfill that duty, though one may legitimately suggest that we have a duty to find out what the best way to help people is.

Sociobiology attempts to find our morals in our biology. Too many this means biological determinism. In other words, there is no ethics; we are determined by our genes, and that means we really shouldn't judge anyone's actions as right or wrong. Of course, this is not at all what biologically-based ethics really says. Sociobiology recognizes human beings as a hypersocial species of mammal. Any actions that undermine that hypersociality is unethical, and theft is therefore immoral because it fosters distrust within the social group.

Humans are also a hierarchical species with a person on top. This is the foundation for government. Humans originally evolved in a tribal setting, and it was the tribe itself which was the owner of the territory on which the tribe lived. This suggests a collective ownership of property that gets translated into tacit government ownership of territory with the expansion of social/political order beyond the tribe. From this perspective, taxation is fine, since it is the government which really owns the territory.

This would seem to undermine any sort of liberal order and support the government-as-property-owner-and-individuals-as-stewards point of view. If all we are and will ever be is fundamentally tribalist, this makes sense; but what if this is only half of the equation? What if there is something about our hypersociality that allows us to break out of our tribalist morals?

Other-Centered Ethics is the view that we have responsibilities to others simply because they exist. And we care due to empathy -- their pain causes our pain. Thus, if we steal, we cause another pain, which causes us pain. We should never steal from anyone, whether they are part of our group or not.

This ethics also does not necessarily tell us if governments should tax. It depends on who truly owns property. However, government should be other-centered, meaning those in government should not be looking out for themselves. This would suggest that our government ought to be more efficient and less corrupt than it is. But it could also be used to support the existence of social programs and of the taxation needed to support it.

Buddhist Ethics seeks to reduce suffering. If someone steals from you, you suffer because of it. Thus, one should not steal because it increases suffering. Along these lines, taxation also causes suffering. Whether the person taking my stuff is a criminal or a government, I will suffer as a result of that loss. This will be true whether or not there is private property or stewardship. More, since stewardship means the government can take the property over which you have stewardship any time you fail to pay taxes, stewardship itself is a cause of suffering. Private property is the form of property ownership that causes least suffering, from the perspective of the government not being able to legitimately take it from you.

Legal Moralism equates lawfulness and morality. What is law is moral, and what is moral is law. This theory just basically avoids the question of morality entirely. Theft is immoral because it's illegal. But why is it illegal? Taxation is moral because it's legal. This boils down to "so what?" To me this is just an abdication of morals. It is following authority because it is authority. Whatever this is, it's not morality in any sense of the term.


In going through this exercise, I came to realize a few things. One is that it is at best difficult to argue that taxation is theft without first making the case that property ought to be privately owned rather than set up as individual stewardship over government property. The ought of "government ought not take my property" is founded on the ought of "property ought to be privately owned." But that's another "ought" entirely.

What we also see, though, is that if a government taxes, that means that we necessarily do not have private property, but rather stewardship of government property. The government can legitimately take back into possession its own property over which you have stewardship. This solves the ethical dilemma of taxes as theft, but it also makes clear that private property under a regime of taxation is an illusion. So long as we have taxes, we do not and cannot have private property. 

As for regular theft, we see that whether we are talking about private property or stewardship, we should expect theft to be considered immoral and to be punished somehow. The reason with private property should be obvious, but in the case of stewardship, the transference of property between stewards has to be legitimate. Paying for the right of stewardship over a piece of property transfers that right legitimately from one person to another. But when someone steals from you, that is an illegitimate transfer of stewardship, and the government will come in to make sure that the right person maintains stewardship. That helps maintain its legitimacy and maintains the illusion of private property necessary to maintain a market economy.

My conclusion is that the best moral foundations for a liberal order of truly private property would be Kant's individualistic deontology, objectivist ethics, and Buddhist ethics. In different ways they deny the legitimacy of government-ownership-and-private-stewardship of property. With stewardship, people are treated as means rather than ends, which makes this approach illegitimate with Kantian deontology. Objectivist ethics already takes the individualistic point of view, and with Buddhist ethics, we see that the negative consequences of taxation makes illegitimate stewardship over private ownership.

I am sure there are other ethical views. And I think it's important to expand on the sociobiological view to include self-organizing scale-free network processes as a legitimate outcome of human interactions. But these are a start. I encourage others to include their suggestions and criticisms of my descriptions here.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Autism, Empathy, and Practicality

I have previously written about the issue of whether or not people with autism have empathy or not.My son's reactions to two recent episodes suggest that the claim people with autism do not have empathy is in fact quite wrong.

First, our babysitter for our two youngest recently hurt her leg mowing her grass. The lawn mower threw out a brick, and cut and bruised her pretty badly. Daniel's response was, "I'm going to grow up and become a doctor so I can fix your leg."

What this suggests to me is not a lack of empathy, but a focus on solving the problem. Rather than giving a "there-there" response that may make one feel better emotionally, he gave a (to a 4 yr old) practical solution to fix the problem. Is that a lack of empathy or evidence of it?

More recently, our youngest, Dylan, hurt himself shoving a q-tip into his ear. He was bleeding and we took him to the emergency room to make sure he was okay. Anna and I were in other rooms when it happened, any only Daniel saw what Dylan had done. So when the doctor asked what happened, Daniel stepped up and started trying to explain what happened. Understand that Daniel was in a strange place for the first time, talking to a strange person -- but he was more concerned making sure the doctor knew what happened than he was with being in a new situation with a new person. More, he went up to Dylan while he was crying and patted him on the leg. Again, Daniel focused on the practical, but in this case he also tried to comfort Dylan.

As for me, I stayed calm as I first cleaned Dylan's ear to try to look at it, then took him to the emergency room. Was the fact that I was calm an indicate that I did not have empathy? It might to some people. Am I being unempathetic when I focus on the practical and try to figure out ways to actually solve the problem at hand rather than say or do something that sounds nice but doesn't actually help anyone? I don't think so.

In fact, on this last point, the very reason I am a libertarian is because I have a great deal of empathy for the poor and I want them to have much better lives. I am persuaded that the evidence overwhelmingly supports the role of free markets in eliminating poverty. Support for welfare programs and such all amount to saying or doing something that sounds nice but doesn't actually help anyone. More, they actually harm the people they are supposed to help. I don't find support for such programs empathetic. I find them unthinking and lazy.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

More on Hobbesean Libertarians

Yesterday I discussed two kinds of libertarians: Hobbesean and non-Hobbesean libertarians. I want to discuss this idea a bit more.

The difference between Hobbeseans and non-Hobbeseans boils down to whether you think humans in their original state were isolated individuals who have had to be organized or if you think humans in their original state were social and that social order and organization are natural, respectively.

Hobbeseans believe that humans have to be organized to be made social. How that happens may be from people doing the will of God and creating that order or from people using reason to create that order. In either case, social order comes about from the top-down, and all evidence of order is evidence that there is someone somewhere creating that order.

Now, most people think that social order is good. The left and the right may disagree about which particular way to order people is the best and right one, but both are in complete agreement that someone somewhere has to do the ordering. Both believe people are naturally nasty, brutish isolated individualists who have to have their nasty tendencies reigned in and their individualism suppressed for the greater good. For them, planning society is not just possible, but desirable.

However, there is another group of Hobbeseans who think that social order is bad. These people tend to think that all social order is indeed created by someone somewhere. Planning for them is possible, but not desirable. There is a tendency for such people to believe in grand conspiracies, that there is some man behind the curtain pulling all the levers. They tend to argue even against social pressure against practically any activity. They want to get rid of government because they equate government with society, and they want to get rid of society so they can do whatever they please without judgement. These people tend to identify themselves as libertarians, though their libertarianism is not necessarily informed by economics, and it is driven not by improving society, but by bringing society as such down to bring back the Hobbesean jungle.

That leaves us with the non-Hobbeseans, who I already discussed yesterday.

Non-Hobbeseans tend toward classical liberalism, believing people are naturally social, and that it's through our social networks that we individuate. The two are co-dependent and not at all at odds, as the Hobbeseans believe. Social order is natural and emerges naturally. Social pressures are to be preferred to legislation because people are then free to change, evolve, and move.

The Hobbesean libertarians and the non-Hobbesean classical liberals are in many ways incompatible. Indeed, almost all of the conflicts I have seen within libertarianism boil down to this underlying incompatibility. You have the "brutalists" and "conspiracy theorists" on one side and groups like the Bleeding Heart Libertarians and other classical liberals on the other. One is anti-order; the other is pro-order.

One can probably pick apart at the edges and borderlands of this model, but the exception doesn't negate the rule. The fact that there exists these two general groups suggests that the deep conflicts in libertarianism will continue so long as the two identify with each other under the same label.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Hobbesean and Non-Hobbsean Libertarians

Human beings are a species of social mammal. 

It may seem odd to have to say that, but this seems to be a foreign concept to too many. Both the left and the right tend to think that human beings are only social if there is a government around to force people to be social. Otherwise there would be a war of all against all, and people would live in isolation. The fact that all of the evidence from anthropology, evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, primatology, and the social sciences demonstrate that human beings are not just naturally social mammals, but are in fact hypersocial, is not taken into consideration at all. The fact that we are naturally hypersocial means human are going to be social no matter what. Legislation will not make it so.

It is the belief that humans are naturally social and that our social rules emerge naturally from our interactions that underlies classical liberal thought. The right tends to take the position that rigid hierarchies are natural and that rules come from the top-down – typically from God and His representatives on Earth. The left tends to take the position that everything can be developed through human reason, that humans are a blank slate on which those rules developed through human reason can be written. Both tend to deny the fact humans are naturally social and that our rules emerge naturally and evolve over time. Both groups thus tend to be anti-evolution when it comes to the human mind and to human society.

Among libertarians, there are those who support the libertarian world view precisely because it is the most pro-social world view. Such libertarians view government legislation as being fundamentally anti-social in nature. Legislation tends to make the law more rigid and, thus, less able to adapt to changing circumstances.

Take, for instance, the laws surrounding marriage. Many states in the U.S. continue to prohibit same-sex marriage, and both major parties have opposed same-sex marriage until recently. The legislation in many states is lagging far behind social views on the matter. In other words, the naturally emergent laws surrounding marriage – regarding whether or not same-sex couples can marry – is well ahead of changes in legislation. Legislation does not necessarily change with changing circumstances, and when it does, it is typically well behind where the rest of society already is.

However, there are also libertarians who support the libertarian view because they think it is a fundamentally anti-social world view. In this sense, they in fact agree with the left and right that it is government which makes us social. These libertarians favor libertarianism because they want to be free to do any number of things that are currently illegal and may or may not be unethical. You can typically identify these libertarians by the fact that they will complain not just about government legislation, but about social pressure against unethical behavior. They want the world to fall into disorder, and view libertarianism as the pathway to that end.

 But the world is not a Hobbesean jungle just waiting to happen the moment governments disappear, as these latter libertarians, the right, and the left would all have us believe. This world view is not supported by any of the evidence we have about human beings. It is only the classical liberals who truly believe in our evolved human nature. That can, of course, give rise to a wide variety of beliefs about the proper role of government, from a basic income guarantee welfare state to anarchy, but such discussions are at least discussions of real human beings as hypersocial primates. And that is how all discussions about the economy, culture, government, philanthropy, and all other social interactions ought to proceed.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Asperger's, Autism, and I.Q.

It seems that people who process sensory information differently are those we identify as having a high I.Q.

Of course, "sensory processing problems" is a main aspect of autism. Does this mean that those with autism ought to have a high I.Q.?

Well, historically people with autism have been shown to have lower I.Q.s than the general population. However, those with Asperger's generally are seen to have higher I.Q.'s than average. Now, if Asperger's is, in many ways, simply autism without the language delay, then this raises some interesting issues. Are the low I.Q. scores for those with autism a result of language issues? It seems that that may in fact be the case. Indeed, when alternative measurements of intelligence have been used with certain people with autism, their I.Q. scores jumped from "mentally retarded" to "genius."

Consider the results from the first article. Two of the aspects of people with high I.Q.s are the ability to focus and to pick out details. These are aspects commonly found in people with Asperger's especially. It is part of bottom-up thinking -- the details give rise to the big picture for someone with autism. Neurotypicals, on the other hand, see the big picture first -- this is part of top-down thinking. As a result, they may miss the details, just as bottom-up thinkers may miss the big picture.

In a sense, this means that "high I.Q." is practically equivalent with "having autism." Or at least "having Asperger's." And as we find more and better ways of reaching non-verbal and low-verbal autistics, I suspect we will find more and more high I.Q.s out there.

Part of the issue involves the general ability to integrate the details. Integration of details becomes increasingly problematic as you move along the autism spectrum. Those with Asperger's can integrate the best among those on the spectrum, whereas the most sever may not be able to integrate at all. Such a person would, of course, be identified as having severe mental deficiency, since they cannot make any sense of the world at all. The result, it would seem to me, would be a sort of U-shaped range of I.Q., with large numbers with high I.Q. being closer to the Asperger's end and there being a tipping point of inability to integrate then resulting in very low I.Q.s at the extreme other end.

The result of this would be a situation where those with Asperger's would appear to have high I.Q.s on average, whereas those with autism would appear to have average I.Q.'s on average. Of course, if you average a group that in fact has two groups in it -- one with high I.Q. and another with low I.Q. -- you would expect the average of that larger group to be average I.Q. All of which points to some problems with looking at groups statistically without paying much attention to the details.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

400 Distinct Autisms (and some ADD)

In complex systems, many causes can have a single effect. This is true in social systems, neural systems, and biological systems. And we can see this in the fact that there are at least 400 distinct autisms, at least from the perspective of causes.

The above linked article also notes that one of the causes of autism is also a known cause of ADHD. It has been suggested by a friend with ADD that our daughter, Melina, might have it as well. If there is in fact a connection between ADD and certain kinds of autism, that would make sense, given my (obviously) heritable autism. There is a known protective effect from being female when it comes to autism, and it may be that ADD is what peeked out with Melina.

This points, too, to the fact that when it comes to multiple causes, we have to understand that those causes are all interacting with other causes, affecting effects. This is true in biological systems, neural systems, and social systems, equally.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Left-Handedness, Autism, and High Steroid Levels In Utero

Being left-handed, I have done a bit of reading on the topic. So I have known for a while that one of the causes of left-handedness is the presence of higher than normal levels of testosterone in utero. If there is a high level of testosterone during certain stages of brain development, hemisphere dominance can change, and left-handedness can be a result.

A new study by Simon Baron-Cohen shows high levels of steroid hormones in utero for children who later show signs of autism. Testosterone is, of course, a steroid hormone. This made me wonder if there is a correlation between left-handedness and autism.

Not only is there, but we have known about it since 1983.While the general population shows 37% non-right handed dominance (meaning left-handedness or various forms of ambidexterity; left-handedness alone is about 18%), that number is almost twice as high in people with autism: 62%. This is pretty much a complete inversion of neurotypicals' handedness. More recent papers all suggest people with autism may be three times more likely to be left-handed.

Of course, autism is not the only condition strongly associated with left-handedness. Dyslexia is as well. And so are many other mental disorders. Equally, about half of lefties are clearly neurotypical (not autistic, dyslexic, etc.), so it's important to understand that while the presence of left-handedness may indicate non-neurotypical neural architecture, it does not necessarily do so.

Still, the correlation between high testosterone levels and left-handedness and the correlation between high steroid levels (including testosterone) and autism points toward Baron-Cowan's theory of autism as a more male brain. Now, given that I subscribe to the "intense world theory" of autism (at least for myself and my son), I have to wonder if there is a relationship between these high steroid levels and neurohyperactivity.