Sans Frontiers

People sometimes ask me what it’s like behind the scenes at Sans Everything. Pretty luxurious, I usually say. When you’re dealing with an operation of this size, you really notice the benefits of economies of scale. Last week for example, we decided to re-do all the ensuite bathrooms, and because our order for marble is so large, the same supplier has offered to put a second fireplace in the ballroom at no cost. Yet despite our high-toned surround, life in Sans mansion can get pretty boyish and jocular at times. Take Jeet, for example. From the outside, you might guess that he spends most of his time up in the library, in order to bolster his already phenomenal learning across such an impressive range of subjects. In reality, however, he has practically moved into the pool room (he does some of his best writing in there) and loves to flick his towel at the rest of us whenever we so much as poke our head in the sauna.

This same mischevious spirit has now appeared on the blog itself, in Jeet’s recent post on Barack Obama adviser Austan Goolsbee. Like John in his response below, I was struck by the passage in which Jeet contrasts his economic views to that of the other writers of this blog: “I believe I’m the only skeptic of our group when it comes to neoliberalism and the policies that are often described as ‘free trade’ (but which are in fact managed trade agreements designed to bolster corporate power).”

John has already made many of the points I would make, so let me add only three quick comments.

I could not help noticing that Jeet runs together the principle of free trade with particular trade deals that, although they have “free trade” in their name, do not in fact liberalize trade. What struck me about this aspect of Jeet’s post is how it echoes a line of thinking that was once most common on the right, but increasingly seems to be employed by the left. It is the idea that you can refute an ideal or principle by pointing to a case in which it has been poorly or disasterously implemented. When the Soviet Union was around for example, left-wingers were often careful to distinguish between Marxism and Stalinism. Marx’s philosophy was one thing, they would point out, what was being done in the Soviet Union in its name quite another. The difference between the two is evident in the fact that there have been Marxist critics of the Soviet Union (such as Terry Eagleton).

Leftists who made a distinction between Marxism and Stalinism were making a fair point. To refute Marx, you had to go beyong the USSR, and point to problems with his actual philosophy (such as, say, the labour theory of value). By using dubious free trade deals to attack the principle of liberal trade, Jeet’s position is reminiscent of conservative anti-communists who failed to distinguish between Marx and Stalin.

Perhaps this only shows that dismissing a given philosophy by pointing to its thwarted implementation is a temptation we all sometimes succumb to. But it seems to me that when it comes to defending our own views, whatever our politics, we invariably distinguish between the principles we hold and cases where those principles have been implemented in a hamfisted way. If that is the case, consistency would seem to demand that we judge rival views by the same standard. In the case of Jeet’s objection to free trade, this would require showing not only that free trade has sometimes not been advanced by particular trade agreements, but showing that it can never be. That strikes me as a tall order, to say the least.

The second thing from Jeet’s post that struck me was not something he said, but a remark he guotes from Nation writer John Nicols:

Next, Obama needs to go to Pittsburgh and deliver a very serious, very detailed speech in which he makes it clear that he is the only remaining candidate who is fundamentally opposed to current U.S. trade policies — and that if he is elected he will drop the fast-track model for negotiating these deals. That speech should be delivered at the international headquarters of the United Steelworkers of America in the city’s downtown.

Nicols, I take it, is no fan of free trade either. What is strange to me is how widespread such a view has become on the left. I would argue that protectionism of the kind Nicols is calling for is not in fact a progressive view. This is because it is gives too much weight to nationalism, and seeks to protect the jobs of American workers at the expense of workers in poorer countries. I much prefer the more inclusive philosophy of Peter Singer, who points out the problem with rich-world protectionism in his book The Ethics Of Globalization:

Since Mexico is a much poorer country than the United States, any tranfer of work from the United States to Mexico can be expected to raise the income of people who are, on average, much less well off than those U.S. workers who lost their jobs. Those who favour reducing poverty globally, rather than only in their own country, should see this as a good thing.

In line with Singer’s comment, I would argue that the thing for unions to do is not to oppose free trade agreements and support proectionism with the frequency that they do, but to try to improve the working conditions of people in Mexico and elsewhere, by fighting for eight-hour work days and other benefits that union activism helped establish in rich countries.

Finally, I could not help but notice Jeet’s use of the work “skeptic” to describe his economic views. How often have we heard journalists describe themselves as skeptics, in contrast to all the highly credulous people who disagree with them? Announcing oneself as a skeptic has become one of the most common rhetorical moves of our time. Yet it is a misleading way of putting things. As in this case, the disagreement is not between skeptics and non-skeptics, but people who believe in different things, i.e. free trade and protectionism. Moreover, there is a certain irony in how popular the “I’m a skeptic” move has become. The herd-of-independent-minds aspect was well brought out by a friend of mine who told me he wanted to write the most iconoclastic book imaginable. “What would the title be?,” I asked.

“Against contrarianism,” he replied.

Singer on climate change

A few posts down I mention Peter Singer on egalitarianism. It must be Peter Singer week in the blogosphere, because over at his blog Philosophy Sucks!, Richard Brown also has a post quoting Singer, this time on the subject of climate change:

Yesterday LaGuardia College hosted Peter Singer who gave a short talk entitled “Climate Change and Ethics.” His basic argument was that by any reasonable standard of justice that one picks the U.S. comes out having a duty to lead the movement to reduce climate change. This is directly contrary to Bush’s stated reason for opting out of the Kyoto agreement (he said it wasn’t an ‘even-handed’ agreement because it exempted China and India . . . thereby implying that the treaty was unjust). He talked about three reasonable sounding principles of justice.

1. You break it you buy it: Historically the U.S. has been the number one contributor to greenhouse gasses and so should have the most responsiblity for cleaning up the environment

2. Forget the past, divide it up evenly according to how much each industrialized nation pollutes: The U.S. puts out about six times as much greenhouse gasses (per capita) as any other industrialized nation and so again, we have the greatest responsibility to clean up the environment

3. Benefit the least advantaged: This is the Rawlsian conception of justice according to which an inequality is acceptable only if it is to the advantage of the least advantaged member of (the global) society. This would (obviously) entail that the U.S. would have to make drastic cuts to the amount of greenhouse gasses that we contribute (per capita).

So no matter how you slice it it looks like the U.S. has a moral obligation to take the lead in reducing climate change, and yet we refuse to be a part of Kyoto because it is “unfair”!

Until recently, Australia was also a Kyoto holdout. Following the recent election however, one of the first things Kevin Rudd’s new Labour government has done is to ratify the Kyoto protocol. Let’s hope that following the U.S. election in a year’s time, we see something similar happen there.

Race, Intelligence and Egalitarianism

Philosopher Peter Singer.

Jeet’s post below about Beatniks with low IQs refers to a debate in the American blogosphere about race and intelligence. Click on Jeet’s link to Matthew Yglesias and from there you eventually come to a series of posts by Slate writer Wiliam Saletan, who started the latest controversy over this all-too-familiar topic. Saletan’s series has already generate several rebuttals, most of which have focused on whether or not the scientific claims he is publicizing are true. That’s a perfectly valid response. However, in addition to all the scientific issues, there is a philosophical problem with Saletan’s series: it runs together two different meanings of equality. Once this ambivalence is pointed out, it illustrates a larger problem with “race science” research and the debate around it.

Ideas about equality take many different forms, but in terms of the race and IQ debate, two that are often run together are equality of ability and equality of consideration. One is a factual claim about people’s abilities, as when we say two athletes are equally matched. The other is a moral principle that is meant to guide our decisions, as when we say that a law should apply equally to everyone, regardless of their race, gender or religion.

Peter Singer, the well-known philosopher, does a good job of separating these two understandings of equality as they appear in the race and intelligence debate:

The appropriate response to those who claim to have found evidence of genetically-based differences in ability between the races or sexes is not to stick to the belief that the genetic explanation must be wrong, whatever evidence to the contrary may turn up: instead we should make it quite clear that the claim to equality does not depend on intelligence, moral capacity, physical strength, or similar matters of fact. Equality is a moral ideal, not a simple assertion of fact. There is no logically compelling reason for assuming that a factual difference in ability between two people justifies any difference in the amount of consideration we give to satisfying their needs and interests. The principle of the equality of human beings is not a description of an alleged actual equality among humans: it is a prescription of how we should treat humans.

Once we see that moral egalitarianism is an ethical principle, not an assertion of fact, it becomes clear that no amount of scientific research could ever debunk it. Ask yourself: is your opposition to racial bigotry really conditional on any given minority’s IQ scores? Surely Singer is right: members of all ethnic groups deserve equal consideration and moral respect regardless of how well they do on intelligence tests—or in Olympic events, or line dancing, or any other activity we might think of. That’s because, to be worthy of equal moral consideration, it is sufficient simply to be human. As Singer puts it elsewhere, “Equal status does not depend on intelligence. Racists who maintain the contrary are in peril of being forced to kneel before the next genius they encounter.”

Once we have the distinction between factual and moral equality clearly in mind, it is worth asking whether Saletan-style discussions of race, genes and intelligence challenge one or both kinds of equality. Consider three possibe forms such discussions can take:

1. They give a genetic explanation for racial differences in IQ while stressing that equal moral consideration remains a foundational moral principle, one that is not possibly affected by any scientific findings.

2. They give a genetic explanation for racial differences in IQ while remaining silent on the principle of equal consideration.

3. They give a genetic explanation for racial differences in IQ while simultaneously criticizing or calling into question the principle of equal consideration.

Approach number one makes a controversial scientific claim, one that I doubt for reasons that have been well explained here and here. Nevertheless, however much I might disagree on scientific grounds with someone who adopted approach one, I would not morally criticize them, as they would not be calling moral equality into question.

Approach number two is just as scientifically controversial as the first one, but more ambiguous about moral equality. Nevertheless, there may be times when it is appropriate to discuss a hypothesis about race and intelligence without also mentioning equal consideration. Such might be the case, for example, when writing for a scientific journal.

Approach number three also makes a controversial scientific assertion. In addition to that, however, it makes a gratuitious moral claim, one that derives no support whatsoever from any possible answer to the race, genes and IQ question. Moreover, the moral claim at hand is disturbing. To suggest that racial minorities are not entitled to the minimal entitlement of equal consideration quickly leads into dangerous territory. For these reasons approach number three, in addition to being confused, is also highly objectionable.

Which approach does Saletan take? Consider the following passages in which he mentions equality:

The same values—equality, hope, and brotherhood—are under scientific threat today. But this time, the threat is racial genetics, and the people struggling with it are liberals.

Today, the dilemma is yours. You can try to reconcile evidence of racial differences with a more sophisticated understanding of equality and opportunity. Or you can fight the evidence and hope it doesn’t break your faith.

Saletan is clearly taking approach number three: not only is he inquiring into race and genetic IQ differences, he is linking the scientific “findings” on the issue with the possibility that we might have to give up on moral equality. As he puts it in an addendum to his series, “I wanted to discuss whether egalitarianism could survive if [genetic IQ differences among races] turned out to be true.”

The premise of Saletan’s series is based on a conceptual confusion. Yet it is also representative of how the most extreme race and IQ researchers have framed the significance on their findings. As Saletan notes, one of his primary sources, J. Phillippe Rushton of the University of Western Ontario, gives presentations on his research at conferences organized by American Renaissance, a pro-segregation magazine. Another prominent race and IQ researcher, Richard Lynn, has addressed the same group, telling them that the lower average IQ of black people supports restricting Caribbean immigration to England.

It is not fair to put Saletan on the same level as Rushton and Lynn. As anyone who reads his writings knows, Saletan is an egalitarian at heart, one who has taken temporary leave of his senses. Nevertheless, Saletan’s series inadvertently represents a sleight-of-hand that race-science extremists also make. They simultaneously put forward both a scientific and a political argument, and misleadingly suggest that their politics derive support from their “science.”

No doubt it is because the arguments against moral equality are so weak that Rushton, Lynn and others cloak their political arguments in the guise of science. If they put their political claims forward without scientific cover, it would only reveal the casual bigotry on which the rejection of moral equality rests.