Archive for September, 2009

More from Gene Callahan: do perceptions of "moral truths" make them objectively real, apart from those who perceive them (instead of evolved hard-wiring to cooperate)?

September 30th, 2009 3 comments

It has come to my attention that Gene Callahan has responded to my remarks regarding “objective moral truths” that I noted here.

Rather than continuing the long threadjack of an unrelated post by Bob Murphy (on climate change science), I copy and respond below to Gene`s remarks:

1.  Gene:

“to say morality is objective doesn’t necessarily mean that ‘the same rules’ apply to everybody”

Right, Tom, of course it doesn’t. To say there are objective standards of science doesn’t mean that we judge all scientific discoveries without regard to the circumstances of time and place. If someone submitted to a journal today the fact that Jupiter has moons, he wold be laughed at. That doesn’t mean that objectively we cannot judge that Galileo made a great discovery.

“On the other hand, I have agreed that man has an exquisite moral sense, and have argued that our moral sense and capacity are something that we acquired via the process of evolution”

And, this is relevant how? We have clearly evolved our ability to see trees. Is that good evidence that trees aren’t objectively real? Isn’t it better evidence that they are objectively real? Similarly, if these evolved norms aid intra-group cooperation, isn’t that good evidence that there is something to them?

2.  Me:

a.  To whom do the rules apply?

The italicized quote is a statement made earlier in the same thread by Bob Murphy; my purpose in referring to it is to note that Bob and Gene have, as I have noted in a prior post, “clarified” that the “objective moral rules” that are embedded in the universe have a differing application, depending on the capacities of the creatures that perceive (or fail to perceive) them. This position would appear to collapse any meaningful distinction between “objective” and “subjective” moral rules.

As I commented to Bob on the post linked immediately above:

I`m afraid I have to disagree with you about Gene`s post, which in fact illustrates the weakness of his position regarding “objective truth”. While he suggests that by “objectively correct” we mean something that is correct for `any and all possible perceivers’ (so far, so good), he then presents the example of ants, for whom he asserts it would be wrong for them to commit murder IF THEY WERE CAPABLE of committing murder. But he`s failed to notice that he`s not only begged the question about what we mean by saying that “it is objectively true that murder is wrong”, but he`s suggested that because ants lack a capacity to perceive moral strictures against murder, they are unable to commit it. By doing so, he`s just invited in all of the questions that I`ve outlined above [in item 1 here], plus questions of culture and exigency that you have pointed out by your reference to Eskimos. Can any animals or life forms other than man commit murder? Do moral restrictions against murder require some threshold level of self-reflection, intellectual capacity, typical social structure, physical and social maturity, or upbringing?

So there IS an objective moral order, but it only applies to those able to perceive it?  This is both a very modest position, as well as one that oddly smacks of belief in Leprechauns.

Rather than arguing that still undefined but “objective” moral rules are embedded in the structure of the universe but have only limited application, isn`t it easier to acknowledge that man has a moral sense, observe that it enhances our ability to cooperate, observe that other animals also exhibit patterns of reciprocal behavior and posit that our moral sense is something that we have evolved, as it enhanced our ability to survive and procreate?

b.  Does our perception of moral codes mean they have an “objective”, much less “universal”, existence?

Gene suggests that because we can perceive trees, they have an objective existence; likewise, since we perceive there are moral rules, that such moral rules have an objective existence apart from man. But the parallel doesn`t work.  Ants and other animals clearly behave in accordance with inherited rules that are internal, and not external to them; likewise, our awareness of a moral dimension to our behavior does not imply that the moral parameters that affect our behavior have any objective existence, other than as genetically encoded rules – that find differing expression depending upon individuals, culture and circumstances.

Clearly we perceive that our behavior is imbued with a moral aspect, and we can objectively document the moral rules within various societies, but this does not tell us that there are objective moral codes that apply to all humans and to all human interactions – including to interactions to individuals in out-groups.  Nor does it tell us whether the moral rules that humans follow are “universal” in the sense that they would apply to non-humans.

Other social animals appear to follow similar and clearly genetically-based rules in their mutual cooperative and hostile interactions. If they were aware of their own idiosyncratic rules (the rules unique to their species), no doubt they would view them as being “moral” (or even mandatory) strictures.

It seems to me to be more accurate and productive to view our search for understanding of our moral behavior as a study of the sociobiology of man, similar to the ongoing sociobiological study of ants, other animals and life, and even of neurons, rather than as a venture to discovery “objective” moral standards somehow existing OUTSIDE of or independent of man, that govern our actual or desirable behavior.

In conducting such a study, we may of course find ways in which the moral parameters that appear to apply to man are similar to those of other life forms, as these studies I referred to in another post (on consensus) seem to indicate:


Does responding to climate change risks REQUIRE government?

September 30th, 2009 No comments

A reader of Bob Murphy`s recent post on climate science – “TokyoTom Moving the Goalposts?” – queried my views on whether perceptions of climate change problems themselves justified a need to establish government.  I copy below my response (with a few typo and editorial changes):

“Do you believe that averting climate catastrophe is, by itself, justification for establishing a government?”

Taylor, I don`t see that a looming climate catastrophe (or other
apparent catastrophe) by itself would justify the formation of a state.
Absent governments, other voluntary responses would no doubt arise, and
more quickly than when hampered by governments and rent-seeking.

am curious if you seek to use the government to solve this problem
because it already exists and thus you see it as expedient and
practical to do so”

My view is quite a bit more subtle.
First, the fact of the matter is that we HAVE a government; even if we
didn`t, we`d have to deal with the governments of other peoples on an
issue such as this. Theoretically, in negotiations with others around
the world regarding the atmosphere and climate, we might very well end
up creating forms of government. Be that as it may, we cannot ignore
that states exist; the question is in part whether we can put them to
any good use, and in part how do we avoid making them worse.

again, our government has already helped screw up the issue in any number
of ways. In my view, the focus should be as much on UNDOING what has
been counterproductive and what libertarians have never supported.
Those who don`t want to see MORE government should not be closing their
minds to the fact of the status quo, and ought to see in concerns about
climate change and resources issues (irrespective if the concerns are justified or not) an OPPORTUNITY to undo existing
and damaging state actions.

See my point?

But in all this, libertarians rarely strive to be positive change agents, but instead have been almost
wholly co-opted by rent-seekers who benefit from rights to pollute for
free and barriers to entry under the status quo.

[A few lists of my many posts related to this subject can be found here, here and here.]

Categories: Bob Murphy, Coal, rent-seeking, state Tags:

Consensus on my brain: Murphy on "Orwellian" consensus, Callahan's consensus on "objective" moral truths, & consensus among neurons

September 30th, 2009 No comments

A recent post by the prolifically productive Bob Murphy, “A Quick Note from Baltimore“, provides an opportunity for further thoughts on my continuing effort to puzzle out what Bob and Gene Callahan mean by their insistence that there is an objective moral order to the universe, and on what science seems to tell us about how both brains and groups of individuals function.

In his latest post, Bob decries a statement by Brad DeLong that another economist (Edward Prescott) simply does not live in the consensus reality with the rest of us.”

Says Bob:

Is anybody else weirded-out by the term “consensus reality”? Have you ever heard of a more Orwellian phrase? Not reality mind you, but consensus reality. Prescott’s sin is not being wrong per se, but rather that he disagrees “with the rest of us.” …

Now this “consensus” criterion has spread from climate change to economics?

am not being flip. DeLong’s use of the term “consensus reality”
disturbs me far more than his endorsement of a Keynesian model. At
least if he agrees that things are objectively right or wrong–and uses
language accordingly–we can at least debate the merits of a Keynesian model.

we have no hope of changing anyone’s mind, if we fall into the dreaded
minority viewpoint, in a world dominated by “consensus reality.”

My comments are copied below, with minor editorial changes:

1.  Bob, I think Bertrand has put his finger on the “problem” that seems to
bother you so much: religions – indeed, moral codes of all kinds – work
in precisely the same way.

Don`t you understand the role of
shared moral codes – which evolve to suit changed circumstances (i.e.,
it`s “wrong” to litter, to keep slaves or to make racist, bigoted or
ant-gay remarks) in our societies?

Are all shared consensuses “Orwellian” (which I thought involved a heavy-handed state role), or only non-Christian ones?

Or are you simply complaining that you don`t like DeLong`s effort to enlist public support, since you disagree with him?

this note, do you remember Gene Callahan`s post on how a libertarian
society might employ moral suasion as a key lever in addressing
concerns about man`s roles in climate change? [discussed here and here]; does moral suasion require “objective” truths, or merely shared/consensus values?


2.  “isn’t the “consensus reality” trick how Gene_Callahan usually tries to win philosophical debates?” [a comment by Silas Barta, with reference to comments by Gene Callahan on the thread I remark on here]

Silas, while I think your observation is fair, it seems to me the more
telling point is that Gene`s own behavior belies his arguments that
there are objective, universal moral truths.

Instead, we each
perceive our own reality, influenced by incoming information, including
the beliefs of others and apparent gaps between our mental map of
reality and incoming information.

Our reliance on an apparent
“consensus” should not be ignored. As a society of individuals, we are
significantly affected by what others believe, and we often find we are
weaker than we hope when faced with consensus views that we disagree

Further, each of us lacks the ability to independently
confirm the validity of the beliefs about reality that we accept into
our mental maps.

As a result, the “appeal to” authority, popularity, etc. fallacies are not simply rife, but unavoidable.

scientists are finding that “consensus decision-making” processes are
at work not only in groups of individuals, but even at more fundamental
levels of personal perception, at the level of groups of neurons:

Murphy and Callahan on my brain; Murphy says: "The Brain and Mind Are Not the Same Thing!"

September 20th, 2009 No comments

[Note: I find that Bob Murphy deleted the comment thread.]

Allow me to draw the curious reader`s attention to the latest post by Bob Murphy on the subject of mind, the brain and what is “real”.  Again, the ensuing conversation suffers from confusion since Murphy refuses to clarify what he means when he uses the term “mind” and “real”.Sure, we usually mean different things when we use different terms, but in my view a Venn diagram of these two would have “mind” entirely within the boundaries of “brain” (there are no disembodied minds).

Also, Gene Callahan makes an appearance and does battle with Silas Barta in an interesting exchange that reveals to me, at least, how little I know. Not surprisingly, though, Callahan again storms FROM the Bastille, earning the following playful admonishment by Bob:

“Whoa there tiger. I realize your brain chemistry made you type those insults out, but by the same token my neurons are making me chastise your tone here. Remember, it is the Rothbardian wing of Austrian economics that resorts to name-calling as opposing to scholarly debate. You NYU guys are supposed to be above that.”

Which leaves an interesting question: when we emote, are our minds actually thinking? Or, as Bob seems to concede (by adopting my “the brain produces the mind” rhethoric), are we really just reacting, and verbalizing the flow?

The extra richness of Robert Bradley/MasterResource: diehard libertarian making a living at pure rent-seeking ("political capitalism")

September 11th, 2009 No comments

Lord knows I`ve got better things to do, but I can`t resist.

Rob Bradley has written extensively on energy regulation from a libertarian viewpoint and spent a number of years as an adviser to Ken Lay inside Enron – apparently seeing up-close (while conscientiously fighting a losing battle to steer Enron away from) the now well-known efforts of Enron to use the power of government to create profitable markets for it. Bradley`s energy commentary came to my attention a few years ago (on the Mises pages), and I have been observing him fairly closely over the past year, particularly after the launch of MasterResource, his “free-market energy blog”.

Unfortunately, even while Bradley has been making some very thoughtful comments on energy policy, he is now rather nakedly involved in precisely the game of
rent-seeking (Rob`s preferred term is “political capitalism”) that he
so loudly decries in practically every blog post or other piece of
“free-market” commentary that he spins out.

Bradley`s activities now include:

  • his commentary and support for Institute for Energy Resources
    a “free market” “think tank” that he founded and remains CEO of but which is
    now staffed by former Republican K Street apparatchiks Essentially the same staff as AEA, noted next), and which has moved from
    Houston to DC, the better to engage in influence peddling, but whose
    cover was blown wide open last year when ExxonMobil (a firm that Bradley has made clear, in post after post, that he adores), announced that it would no longer fund
    and others whose activities were tied too closely to anti-climate change
    science and policies that Exxon has decided are counterproductive);
  • support for the public lobbying arm of IER, the American Energy Alliance, staffed by former Republican K Street apparatchiks, which
    has been coordinating “grassroots” events to put political pressure on
    Congresscritters from coal-producing and -consuming states; and
  • his relentless blogging on climate police at MasterResource
    his chief soapbox – with co-bloggers who are generally well-regarded
    but nevertheless professionals at the climate policy influence game (such as Chip Knappenberger, who works at a self-proclaimed “advocacy science consulting firm”).

This is clearly a rent-seeker`s game, and Rob is in the thick of it, producing a steady stream of one-sided political, economic and scientific argument after another.

Bradley valiantly pretends simply to be an opponent of some possibly counterproductive government policies (of which there are plenty, to be sure) that various nefarious and/or corrupt interest groups are advancing, but in reality serves as a paid spokesman for that group of interests that have benefitted most from the status quo, and have the most to lose from any form of carbon pricing –  including “King Coal“, as Bradley so aptly names them. Coal merits unfailingly positive references – it`s clean, it`s cheap, it`s the FUTURE – but never any observations of the pollution resulting from coal (significant annual deaths, breaches of fly ash dams, court cases regarding cross-border pollution) or of the negative role of government ownership of coal reserves or of misguided federal regulations (Clean Air Act grandfathering of the oldest, dirtiest plants, and right to pollute; and the federal supplanting of private tort protections regarding air pollution and mountaintop removal practices).

It looks like a pretty good brew that Bradley serves up – he serves his clients well – but it`s always been a bit too strong for me. As a result, Rob has booted me from his bar, and I`ve been left to occasionally grumble outside. I haven`t particularly lost interest so much as run out of time and an ability to keep up, particularly as the flow of rhetoric and partial “analysis” has increased (in step with the legislative agenda).

But in a couple of recent posts by Bradley, the brew of self-righteous, self-serving and self-deceptive rhetoric has proved too rich for me to ignore.

1. The first is a naked appeal to influence the policy leanings of the natural gas industry, in Bradley`s September 8 post, the title of which lays bare Bradley`s clients: “Why Natural Gas Should Not Play the Cap-and-Trade Game (the real enemy is mandated renewables/conservation, not coal)” (geez, has he beat my record for long titles?). Why is this rich? First, because coal is the heaviest producer of GHGs per BTU, so coal is obviously most threatened by climate bills (that`s why Bradley and a legion of others can make a living at this, after all). Next, some of the reasons he trots out, such as his reference to “grassroot” citizens in Houston that Bradley and the American Petroleum Institute organized, and the more straightforward argument that, to be blunt, “Big Coal is too powerful for a Kill Coal bill on the Senate side“.  But despite all of coal`s bluster, Bradley knows that it is THEY that are on the table, not natural gas, and so he argues that it`s really natural gas “as the swing fuel in electricity generation” that loses mostly from a climate bill. Which is why Bradley closes with an appeal to natural gas to help not coal, but “capitalism in its desperate hour”.

2. The second post is a re-post of interesting earlier commentary by Bradley concerning Enron. This is rich because Bradley continually tries to draw important lessons about what went wrong at Enron (while thumping his chest about his own efforts to correct “philosophical errors” at the firm), while blindly ignoring his own present involvement in the self-same “political capitalism” that he decries. Bradley just conveniently overlooks that “political  capitalism” lies not solely in seeking CURRENT political favor, but also in PAST efforts to secure such favor, and in ongoing efforts to preserve it. One wonders whether for Bradley, reciting the lessons he learned from Enron might be serving as a salve for a guilty conscience for actually forgetting the inconvenient part of such lessons (and deeper Austrian lessons about problem solving and the frustration of preferences when government is acting heavy-handedly).

Okay, I`m all out of rants for now.


Categories: Bradley, Coal, Enron, rent-seeking Tags:

Callahan finally speaks: but are external, "objective moral truths" needed for a community to enforce shared rules?

September 10th, 2009 4 comments

[Well, the Mises server just swallowed my first attempt at this post, so the reader will just have to suffer this sketchier one.]

I have been chasing both Gene Callahan and Bob Murphy to try to get them to spell out what they mean when they assert that there is an “objective moral order” in the universe; until recently Bob has been by far the most congenial, as well as evidencing more interest in discussing the subject, but he has just thrown in the towel for the time being, after conceding that “to say morality is objective doesn’t necessarily mean that ‘the same rules’ apply to everybody” and that he has no good answers my questions as to whether the objective moral order applies to all creatures and to all men regardless of age, gender and mental development.

On the other hand, I have agreed that man has an exquisite moral sense, and have argued that our moral sense and capacity are something that we acquired via the process of evolution, as an aid to intra-group cooperation and conflict with out-groups. Similar arguments have been made

– by Bruce Yandle,

– by Roy Rappaport (former head of the American Anthropology Assn.) in his book “Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity” (which I have discussed here) and

– by David Sloan Wilson in his book “Darwin`s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society“.

However, Bob did point to a related post by Gene Callahan in which Gene essentially argued that the “objective” moral truths rules that are embedded in the structure of the universe apply only to those creatures able to perceive the rules. In other words, not to ants – and perhaps not to other life forms or to humans whose age and mental development leave them incapable of perceiving the rules. 

I have received no response from Gene on my posts here (perhaps he hasn`t yet perceived them), but he did start to provide a little meat in a rather long threadjack at a totally unrelated blog post by Bob (TokyoTom Moving the Goalposts? – regarding my comments on the rush to sell poorly-understood science in the political marketplace). 

Since it`s a topic of interest but I don`t wish to continue the threadjack (and it`s difficult to follow there, given unrelated comments, and contains largely irrelevant ad homs/replies), I take the liberty of excerpting relevant portions here, and I respond further below.

1.  From Bob`s thread (unedited, with emphasis added):


As you assert, right and wrong are all just subjective opinion, so, if I can profit from these impacts, why should I care? By your own principles, the fate f those poor schucks in Sri Lanka should mean nothing to me.


Again you misunderstand my principles. But the glory of the world, of course, is that you get to base your behavior on your own principles (and objective truths as you perceive them), not mine, as well as on any moral pressure you might feel from the broader community in which you dwell.


I am not saying you actually think it is merely a subjective matter whether or not millions die in a man-made tsunami, etc. In fact, you correctly think that such a thing is objectively wrong. For the third time, I will say that what I am saying in posts like this is not what I think your views are, but what by logic you ought to think, given your rejection of objective moral truths. I am pointing out that you’re position is inconsistent, and therefore incoherent: You claim not to believe in objective moral truth, and yet you make arguments that depend on the existence of what you deny.


– I have not so much “claim[ed] not to believe in objective moral truth” as to note that G.C. has singularly failed to explain what he means by his statement or to offer any support to for. Proof of this is not only in GC`s threads, but in the fact that Bob felt the need to re-open the subject himself.

– If I “make arguments that depend on the existence of what I deny”, then G.C. has failed to show it.

First, I have made it clear that not only to I believe that the material universe (of matter and energy) objectively exists, but that I believe that it has an underlying structure that we can strive to understand (and express mathematically) even as our understanding (and descriptions) of it will always be incomplete. Thus, an algorithm may or may not be an accurate description of the structure of the universe. In any case, the objective existence of a poorly-understood structure to the universe offers no support for the proposition that there is a moral order to the universe.

Further, G.C. has argued that there is an object moral structure to the universe; I have argued that man has an exquisite inherited moral sense, and that we inherited this moral sense via evolution over eons because it provided benefits by allowing enhanced intra-group cooperation and reducing tragedies of the commons.

Accepting that man has a moral nature which is genetically based (but that is expressed differently in each individual and culture, and that is largely applied to in-group transactions but applied much more lightly in interactions with those outside our groups) does NOT depend on arguments that there is any universal moral order, applicable outside of man to all of Creation (or to such of Creation as may be conscious).

Sorry, but my arguments simply do NOT “depend on the existence of what I deny” – including arguments over whether or not G.C. has “behaved badly”, or arguments that man ought not to engage in actions that directly or indirectly harm others. Such things may be measured and tested based strictly on a study of human nature (which is objectively different from other animals and has an objective genetic base).


“I have argued that man has an exquisite inherited moral sense, and that we inherited this moral sense via evolution over eons because it provided benefits by allowing enhanced intra-group cooperation and reducing tragedies of the commons.”

And so what? Either “enhanced intra-group cooperation” and “reducing tragedies of the commons” are objectively good things (and you’ve given up moral subjectivism), or you’ve gotten precisely nowhere.

Let’s say in the remote Amazon some group has evolved so that THEIR “exquisite moral sense” requires the smashing in of the infant’s skulls of whatever other tribe they meet. Then, through some fluke, they wind up in Tokyo and go on a skull-smashing rampage. Hey, well, that’s just the way their moral sense evolved, hey? You, by your own premises, are in absolutely no position to tell them what they are doing is wrong. In fact, since obviously my behaviour is a result of my evolutionary past, then if I am being “rude” to you, well, that’s just MY “exquisite moral sense,” isn’t it? Who are you to go saying my moral sense is wrong and yours is right, when clearly both are the product of the same evolutionary process!

So, although I realize that you do not understand that you pre-suppose that which you deny, you do. (In fact, we should suspect that anyone making such an error will pretty much always fail to recognize that they are making it, since no one can consciously embrace incoherence.)


2.  My further comments:

Ironically, it is Gene who is pre-supposing what my presuppositions and my objectives are. 

First, I can argue (though I haven`t made such a case) that it would be wrong if millions die in a man-made tsunami, without “think[ing] that such a thing is objectively wrong,” based on a moral code external to man. Rather, I can simply rely on my own values and those of the communities of which I am a member.

Likewise, I need not (and do not) make any arguments that either “enhanced intra-group cooperation” and “reducing tragedies of the commons” are “objectively good things”; I need merely to observe scientifically that man, like his cousin critters, has evolved, that he has a moral sense akin to, but more more highly developed than, patterns of reciprocal behavior in other animals (while more genetically identical communities of social insects cooperate even more closely), and to suppose that this moral sense of right and wrong and the related predilection towards the social development of norms and rules were evolutionarily ADVANTAGEOUS, by enhancing group cohesion while moderating internal frictions and behaviors that were costly to the group as a whole, better enabling the group to take advantage of resources in the environment and respond to challenges, including challenges by out-groups.

Gene suggests one must have “objective truths” to get somewhere, but that just tells us the HE has an agenda for man; rather than particularly trying to get SOMEWHERE I`m just applyng an evolutionary approach to figure out how we got HERE.

It`s a shame I lost my previous post on this, but I think it pretty clear that our “exquisite moral sense” is both highly developed and very two-faced (highly selective would be a more gentle expression): we act one way to members of our group (based on highly developed codes and bonding rituals that became religions as our groups grew larger), but generally act as if we have little or no obligations to outsiders, to whom we might very well be downright suspicious and hostile. Why would that be? Maybe because, like the chimpanzee bands that so famously disillusioned Jane Goodall, we`ve been engaged in murderous competition with rival bands from time immemorial.

While it`s possible to argue that man`s deliberate struggle through history has been one of extending the limits of those whom we need to be decent to from a small circle to all of mankind (or further, to pets, other animals, etc.) – and there have certainly been individuals who have made conscious efforts to do so – one may also see the “progress” in this direction as being the simple consequence of Darwinian struggles between different human groups and societies, with the societies that more successfully united their own peoples, seized opportunities and vanquished other groups (through a combination of defeat, elimination and inclusion). Religions and our moral sense have clear served as both weapons and tools in this process; the gods have served on both sides of most conflicts, at least until one won, frequently by putting the heathen to the sword. Thus, “moral progress” has frequently been bought by brutal blood-soaked violence in which the victors routinely failed to pay much attention to the morality of their own conduct toward the other – as has always been our nature.

Forced change can be seen in both in the US. Civil War in the case of slavery and in this anecdoctal quote regarding British attempts to stamp out the Hindi practice of ritual immolation of the wives of a deceased husband in India:

You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.

Very seldom has such forced change been primarily motivated by a desire to bring about moral progress.

Persuasion and mass moral suasion can often work, as can be seen in the cases of ML King and the civil rights movement, as well as Ghandi`s efforts, particular when public opinion was mobilized. Gene has argued for this himself; while those arguing for change of course may feel united by religion and may employ appeals to the shared beliefs of others, no external “objective” moral order is needed for moral suasion to work.

Gene conjures up an Amazonian skull-smashing tribe at loose in Tokyo, but why look so far? The Japanese and the rest of the “modern” slaughters millions of unborn infants annually (and particularly females in China, India and the Middle East). The difference, of course, is that we are just doing it to ourselves, rather than having it inflicted on us by outsiders.

Gene is right to note that my rather cold-eyed observations about our remarkably self-serving moral sense might leave me in “absolutely no position to tell [Amazonian skull-smashers rampaging in Tokyo] what they are doing is wrong,” but so what? Gene is simply asking the wrong question. The Japanese do not need “objective” external moral standards to deal with such behavior; they need simply to STOP it. And make no doubt about; stop it they would FIRST, and then ask questions, and perhaps later, if time and a surviving Amazonian or two permits, they might attempt a discussion on moral issues. This of course is true of every community when faced with an attack; banding together in self-defense is virtually instinctive.

Gene might posit other, stickier situations, of which we face a bottomless pit. We have our tribal need for close groups, but have on large parts of the planet blessedly stilled the fraternal slaughter between rival societies. In larger societies, we face stresses between our attenuated bonds to others and our wish for close communities. On one front the religious bonds that united particular societies have frayed, but our urge for uniting bonds of ritual and belief remain, while on another we`ve managed to stir up more religious fundamentalism and distrust at home and abroad.

In all this, the desire for an objective set of universally binding moral rules that is floating around in the universe just waiting for everyone to become enlightened and to voluntarily submit to them is quite understandable, but obviously pie in the sky. I suggest that we try to work instead in understanding our own nature better and work at trying to persuade each other and to lessen tensions that may become murderous.


P.S. Gene`s error can be seen further in his comments about rude behavior. He thinks that taking a cultural, evolutionary view leaves one without a basis for criticism, so therefore I must unintentionally be relying on objective, external standards to criticize him. He`s got it precisely wrong – while clearly we ARE both “the product of the same evolutionary process”, my appeal is not to objective external standards, but to shared COMMUNITY standards (that can be objectively described). Further, by publicly arguing my position, I hope to marshal public support of the kind that he has himself usefully pointed out.

The questions are simply whether Gene and I actually share ANY communal bonds and obligations, what those obligations are, how they apply in this instance, and whether Gene cares what anyone else thinks.

What is ironic is to see someone like Gene who so clearly wants to see a better world take the position that “objective” moral standards permit such lack of concern for how he treats others and how such treatment is perceived. But an evolutionary thinker would simply see it as more evidence for the remarkable moral flexibility that the Creator has endowed us with.


Block/Huebert/Kinsella revisit corporations, beg Qs of grant of limited liability towards persons involuntarily injured and resulting fight to influence state action

September 10th, 2009 No comments

I left the following comment at a recent Mises Blog post by Stephan Kinsella, but the number of links included apparently triggered the spam filter and held up the comment.  According, I post it here, so I can re-comment with a cross-link here.

Stephan, we have extensively discussed this matter previously, focussing mainly on the point that Vincent Cook raises, namely, the consistency with libertarian principles of the state grant of limited liability as against parties who become unwilling “creditors” of the firm as a result of being injured by the actions of the firm.

You continue to dodge this point just as Block and Huebert have explicitly begged the question in their latest effort (emphasis added):

“As long as there is no fraud, as long as all those who deal with corporations know full well that in case of any dispute, they will only be able to sue for an amount up to the full capitalization of the corporation and not have access to the shareholders’ personal assets, there can be no problem with the libertarian legal code.”

It goes without saying that injured persons don`t choose ahead of time who will injure them, much less the whether the liability of their tortfeasors will be limited to corporate assets. [IOW, when it comes to limited liability corporations, there IS a fairly glaring problem with the libertarian legal code.]

Our previous discussions on the Mises Blog took place here and here

And an earlier related discussion on the Mises Blog was here:

I have commented extensively myself on the consequences of this grant – which I see as fuelling risky corporate behavior and a cycle of “rent-seeking” fights with private interests seeking to use the state as a check against corporations – in a number of blog posts, such as the following:


[Update] Bob Murphy & Gene Callahan flesh out the "objective" moral order: it applies only to those able to perceive it?

September 8th, 2009 2 comments

[Update: Bob Murphy sends in an email comment, copied (in relevant part) at the bottom of this post.]

I`ve addressed here on five different threads the question of whether there is an “objective moral order”, which Gene Callahan broached in a May blog post. I`ve commented here mainly because I find the subject interesting, but the subsequent discussions at Gene Callahan`s blog and at Bob Murphy`s blog to be rather unproductive, if not frustrating and disappointing.  However, I note that Bob Murphy, bless his soul, has kindly emailed me a comment for me to post on one of my recent threads, in which Bob refers to a recent relevant comment elsewhere by Gene.

Allow me to repost here Bob Murphy`s comment, and my response, but first here`s some context from the post that Bob Murphy is responding to:

1. Me:

While I certainly agree that man has an exquisite moral sense, my
own view is that that sense and capacity are something that we acquired
via the process of evolution, as an aid to intra-group cooperation,

– as Bruce Yandle has suggested,

– as argued by Roy Rappaport (former head of the American
Anthropology Assn.)
in his book “Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity” (which I have discussed here) and – as I have recently discovered –

– as David Sloan Wilson has argued in his book “Darwin`s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society“.

I note that the NYT has recently run a series of posts on related topics

In my view, our moral sense, rituals and “sacred postulates” (later, religions) have played a central role in the evolution of man as a
social animal, by
providing a fundamental way of ordering the world, the group`s role in
it, and the individual`s role in the group – thereby abating commons
problems both within and created by the group. The religious
lies at the root of our human nature, even as its inviolable, sacred
truths continue to fall by the wayside during the long march of
culture and science out of the Garden of Eden. While we certainly have
made progress (partly with the aid of “universal” religions) in
expanding the boundaries of our groups, we very much remain group,
tribal animals, fiercely attentive to rival groups and who is within or
outside our group, and this tribal nature is clearly at work in our
cognition (our penchant for finding enemies, including those who have
different religious beliefs that ours).

But I didn`t really kick off this discussion – why are Callahan and
Murphy so reticent to describe what it is they think they mean when
they assert that there are “objective moral truths” and an “objective
moral order”?  (I can understand why I seem to have earned the clear
hostility of one them; after all I have proven by my persistence and/or
thickheadedness to be, if not an “enemy”, then in any case not one of
the august clear-sighted.)

Here are a few questions I left with them at Bob`s most recent post:

Are those who believe that there is an objective “moral” order
asserting that, for every being – regardless of species – that there is
a uniform, objective moral order in the universe? Or is the argument
that there is an object moral order only for conscious and self-aware
beings, and none for organisms that are not conscious, or are conscious
but not self-aware?

– Or is the argument that the “objective”
moral order exists only for humans, and perhaps someday can be
identified and located in universally shared mental processes, based on
brain activity and arising from shared genes?  Will such objective moral order still exist if all mankind ceases to exist?

– Or is the
objective moral order one that exists for some humans, but not all –
depending on physical development of the brain as we mature (with the
development of some being impaired via genetic or other defect)?

– Is the human “objective” moral order universal, for all individuals – of whatever, gender or age – across all history?

– Is an objective moral order something real that can be tested for
despite the inability of a particular observer to perceive directly –
like beings that can`t directly perceive light (or like us who can`t
personally physically observe much of what technology allows us to)?

– And
if the objective moral order is a part of the universe, can we apply
the scientific method to confirm its existence of and explore its
parameters, and to explain (and test) it with “laws”?

– What are some of the parameters and laws governing the moral order?

2.  Bob Murphy`s comments: (emphasis added)

On the general issue of “are morals objective for everyone?” I refer to this excellent discussion by Gene Callahan:…/freedoms-just-another-word-for.html

[Here is Gene`s relevant comment:

“Something that is correct only ‘to’ someone is subjectively, not
objectively, correct. What ‘objective’ means is precisely ‘to any and
all possible perceivers.’ And, of course, it is simply a further muddle
to introduce beings incapable of perceiving the objective item in
question, as if that raised doubts about its objective status. ‘Would
this be objectively correct for ants?’ makes no more sense than ‘Is it
objectively true for ants that Mars has two moons?’ It is objectively
true, not ‘for’ anyone, that Mars has two moons, and it is also
objectively true that ants are a kind of being that cannot peer through
telescopes or count to two. It is objectively true that murder is
wrong, and if ants were the sort of being capable of murder, which they are not (as far as we know!), it would be wrong for them to commit murders.”

When I say that I think morality is objective, what I mean is that a
statement such as “it is better to kiss an infant than to drown it” is
a different type of thing from the statement “chocolate ice cream is
better than vanilla.” The latter is clearly stating a subjective
preference, whereas the former is (I claim) reflecting an objective
truth about reality.

Note that to say morality is objective doesn’t necessarily mean that
‘the same rules’ apply to everybody,
at least not in the sense that I
think you mean. It might not be immoral for Eskimos to euthanize old
people, whereas it could be considered murder in Manhattan.
But this
doesn’t actually prove morality is subjective. By the same token, it’s
OK for me to eat the food in my fridge. But if somebody else wandered
into my house and did the ‘same thing,’ it would be theft.

I’m a Christian so if you ask me for a list of these rules, a good
start is the Ten Commandments. And then if you want to know how to
apply these rules, I’d tell you to read the gospels and study the life
of Jesus.

As far as your specific questions, I don’t want to bother trying to
answer them. I admit I can’t give you great answers on some.
But to me,
that doesn’t show that morality is subjective after all. There are
plenty of non-material things (like mathematics etc.) that are
rock-solid objectively true. So I think our difference here is much
deeper than an issue of mere morality. I think you are a materialist
and I’m not, which is influencing our discussion on morality.

3.  My response: (emphasis added)

Bob, thanks for troubling to visit and
read, but your comments are obviously a disappointment – as you`ve
simply done none of the heavy lifting that you have implied by
insisting on various occasions that there is an “objective” moral order.

All that you`ve done here is to make a very weak argument that MAN
has a moral sense regarding how we treat others. But this is not only
obvious, it is also something that I have asserted all along.
While it
tells us something I agree is objectively true generally about man –
something that I have made various attempts to explore here and to
sketch out on your blog and Gene`s – it tells us essentially nothing
about an objective moral order to the universe
, that is applicable to
other life forms, and that will survive mankind if we were all ever to

I`m afraid I have to disagree with you about Gene`s post, which in
fact illustrates the weakness of his position regarding “objective
While he suggests that by “objectively correct” we mean
something that is correct for `any and all possible perceivers’ (so
far, so good), he then presents the example of ants, for whom he
asserts it would be wrong for them to commit murder IF THEY WERE
CAPABLE of committing murder. But he`s failed to notice that he`s not
only begged the question about what we mean by saying that “it is
objectively true that murder is wrong”, but he`s suggested that because
ants lack a capacity to perceive moral strictures against murder, they are unable to commit it.
By doing so, he`s just invited in all of the questions that I`ve
outlined above
[in item 1 here], plus questions of culture and exigency that you have
pointed out by your reference to Eskimos.
Can any animals or life forms
other than man commit murder? Do moral restrictions against murder
require some threshold level of self-reflection, intellectual capacity,
typical social structure, physical and social maturity, or upbringing?

So there IS an objective moral order, but it only applies to those
able to perceive it? 
This is both a very modest position, as well as
one that oddly smacks of belief in Leprechauns.

Rather than arguing that still undefined but “objective” moral rules are embedded in the structure of the universe but have only limited application, isn`t it easier to acknowledge that man has a moral sense, observe
that it enhances our ability to cooperate, observe that other animals
also exhibit patterns of reciprocal behavior and posit that our moral
sense is something that we have evolved, as it enhanced our ability to
survive and procreate?


re: Evolution, religion and our insistence on a still undefined “objective” moral order

[Remove this Comment]

Tuesday, September 08, 2009 4:27 AM

By the way, I note that fellow Community blogger lilburne and I agree generally about morality*

“There is a burgeoning school of thought in evolutionary biology and
the cognitive sciences (led by Marc Hauser and Steven Pinker) which
contends that morality is not just cultural artifice, but that it is an
intrinsic feature of the human mind which evolved over the countless
millennia of humans living together.”…/245211.aspx


If anyone is still reading, let me note that I posted a week or so ago further thoughts on the evolution of moral codes and why we fight over them (rarely applying to those outside our group the same moral standards that we apply to those within our groups).

[Update:] Further email comment from Bob Murphy (posted with approval):

I’m going to have to punt on this debate for now. If you agree that
“Bob should not kill an infant” has a truth value more significant
than “Bob should not wear a dress to work” than I’m happy. I think
maybe when I say “morality is objective” you are interpreting it to
mean something more than what I do mean. After all, you are saying
moral rules apply to all humans, so I don’t know what our difference
is at this point. I thought originally you were saying you were a
moral relativist.

"TokyoTom Moving the Goalposts?" Bob Murphy dislikes my criticism of the rush by "skeptics" to print climate science news

September 4th, 2009 No comments

Further to my preceding post, on “Confirmation bias, rent-seeking and the rush to print the latest science “scoop (Linzen-Choi)“, I note that Bob Murphy has kindly  put up a new blog post that notes and responds to my comments to him.

Since it`s late here, interested readers might want to check out Bob`s post, including and the comments that I and others have left.

On a meta-level, yes, I`m aware that on this and similar public policy issues involving science, each group of protagonists seems eager to rush into battle with the latest science that they view as favorable to their cause. My point is NOT that the latest news may not be important, but that we should be careful that we are actually seeking to understand it, instead of blindly looking for confirmation of our pre-existing notions. We should also be careful of the motivations (rent-seeking; self-justification, etc.) of those who are quick to bandy news about. 

Yes, this cuts more than one way; we are all human, after all.


Confirmation bias, rent-seeking and the rush to print the latest climate science "scoop" (Lindzen-Choi)

September 4th, 2009 1 comment

Since I`m in Tokyo and deprived of Bob Murphy`s enviable access, via talk radio, to cutting-edge climate science, I thank him using his blog to bring it to the attention of his audience (which occasionally includes me). Says Bob (emphasis added):

Chip Knappenberger explains
the significance (and remaining holes to be plugged) in the recent
Lindzen-Choi paper that’s got talk radio in such a tizzy
. The opening
sentence: “MIT climate scientists Richard Lindzen and collaborator
Yong-Sang Choi soon-to-be published paper (Geophysical Research
Letters, American Geophysical Union) pegs the earth’s “climate
sensitivity”—the degree the earth’s temperature responds to various
forces of change—at a value that is about six times less than the “best
estimate” put forth by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Well, well, if talk radio is covering a new article that purportedly downplays climate risks, then others who have invested time in casting doubt

I`ve blogged previously about my various conversations with Chip Knappenberger, who is employed by the self-described “advocacy” group of Pat Michaels, New Hope Environmental Services.

I went to pay a visit to his post at Rob Bradley`s pro-coal, “free market” MasterResource blog, which I have discussed on any number of occasions here – especially after Mr. Bradley unceremoniously withdrew the welcome mat for libertarian critics (yours truly) while in mid-conversation with (and without notice to) several of his guest bloggers.

I reviewed Chip`s precis of the Lindzen-Choi paper and attempted to leave comments at MasterResource, but they were “disappeared” as soon as they were posted, so I forwarded a copy of my comments by email directly to Chip, which I copy below (with minor edits):

Chip, I couldn`t resist trying to comment on your post at MR, and
checking to see if Rob still has his blog set up to automatically
exclude all of my comments. Unfortunately, he still seems to be
convinced that a principled and libertarian approach (or his clients`
needs) requires maintaining his echo chamber by excluding me.

To check the sophistication of his method, I have for the first time
just tried commenting anonymously (I have until stayed away and simply
hoped Rob would change his mind), and to my surprise the comment went
through – though it is “awaiting moderation”. [update: this post has now received immoderate , “echo chamber” moderation]

I thought I would give you a head`s up on my pending comment, which I
do not expect to see published – but who knows?  Strange things
sometimes happen, such as Rob quoting with approval a link to a
comment that I have made:

My comment is below; I will wait until tomorrow before cross-posting
at my own blog.



[comment left at MasterResource]
“It is too early to tell whether Lindzen and Choi’s findings will
prove to be the end-all be-all in this debate.”

But it`s not too early for you, for others who act as paid mouthpieces
for fossil fuel and others who wish to avoid policy action, to trumpet
this as yet unpublished paper all over the intertubes, is it Chip?

By the way, continuing studies on the “sensitivity” of temperatures to
GHG increases should not lead us to ignore either the problem of ocean
acidification from our accelerating CO2 build-up or the very exquisite
sensitivity of the Earth`s climate and ecosystems to the 0.6 C average
temp increase that we have experience over the past 50 years
(remaining stuck at a peak for the past 10).  The Arctic and temperate
zone glaciers continue to rapidly thaw, and other changes affecting
ecosystems and human livelihoods are still underway.

I note I have seen very preliminary remarks by James
, and by

Schmidt here

“a waste of time and effort”

More directly, don`t you mean that such efforts would cost your clients money?

Sure, there are reasonable grounds to dispute practically any use of
government (though I note that Exxon and Margo Thorning of the ACCF
are both expressly advocating carbon taxes), but let`s not pretend to not

that those speaking most loudly in support of our radical, ongoing
planet-wide “experiment” on the affect of GHG emissions and albedo
changes are precisely the investors and firms (and their mouthpieces)
who benefit from the status quo (leaving all of these activities
unpriced), while it`s the world`s populations more generally who end
up with all of the risks.

This climate experiment and those paid to provide it cover are hardly
a “conservative” or “libertarian” enterprise.

I note that Bob Murphy is no climate expert, but simply posting blindly about something that he thinks cuts in the direct he wants; in a similar vein, Knappenberger also evidently is puffing the importance of a scientific article that is hot off the presses, but can`t be troubled to link to any articles providing additional context. (A recent blog post and comments by Steve McIntyre at Climate Audit also point out the difficulties in reaching conclusions from the new research.)

I also note, as I have previously, that not only Chip but Bob as well – when he has on his “economist for IER” (which is a coal and public utility front group that was de-funded last year by Exxon) hat – are, at least in part, being compensated to undercut climate change policy.

In this context, we all are prone to note evidence that fits into our existing world view, while discounting contrary information, such “confirmation bias” is readily apparent in the internet and radio coverage of this piece.  While climate change and climate policy are certainly hot topics, it doesn`t seem to me that the so-called “skeptics” are at all taking this new study skeptically, but are instead eagerly lapping it up, assume it is good news, are are loudly trumpeting it. Now who`s fooling whom?  Many “skeptics” look just like the “alarmist” “global warming cult” “believers” whom they abhor.

Unfortunately, while it`s impossible to know what Rob and Chip are actually thinking and why, it`s clear that a dangerous mix of self-deception, confirmation bias and rent-seeking permeates the tribal conflicts that we are seeing in current over the use of government, not the least in the case of climate change, which is a difficult scientific and policy issue.