For the reason that makes you afraid of it

The title of this book may evoke the kind of question that I hear once in a while: “Why do you use the word ‘selfishness’ to denote virtuous qualities of character, when that word antagonizes so many people to whom it does not mean the things you mean?”

To those who ask it, my answer is: “For the reason that makes you afraid of it.”

Ayn Rand, The virtue of selfishness, Introduction

Brett Hall has tweeted a criticism of Ayn Rand’s use of the word selfish:

Hall later writes:

So he would have preferred that Rand use the term ‘rational self interest’ instead of ‘selfishness’. Now, Rand could have used the term ‘rational self interest’. Presumably if she didn’t use it, she had a reason for not using it. She stated her reason for using the word selfishness (The Virtue of Selfishness, Introduction):

It is not a mere semantic issue nor a matter of arbitrary choice. The meaning ascribed in popular usage to the word “selfishness” is not merely wrong: it represents a devastating intellectual “package-deal,” which is responsible, more than any other single factor, for the arrested moral development of mankind.

Selfishness is used to mean that you pursue your interests by harming other people. So the only word for pursuing your own interests includes the idea that doing so requires harming other people. This assumption is deeply embedded in many of the ways people think about life. Any policy cutting back the welfare state or even slowing its growth is said to be selfish. CEOs are condemned as selfish for making lots of money. A child is condemned as selfish for having any preference that a parent finds slightly inconvenient at a given moment. Replacing the standard idea of selfishness is necessary for moral progress and skirting the issue isn’t going to help.

Now, what about using the term “rational self interest” instead of selfishness? The problem with calling Rand’s book “The virtue of rational self interest” is that many people would think they know what it’s about without reading it. There are similar terms that stand for bad ideas, like enlightened self interest, which means that if you act to help other people you will somehow benefit. You shouldn’t plan to benefit cuz that would be doing something other than helping other people. Rather, the benefit should magically pop out of nowhere despite you doing nothing to specifically bring it about. So if I sold all my stuff, gave the proceeds to the poor and lived in a cardboard box under a bridge that would somehow benefit me.

The term rational is also used in ways that are anti-rational. The definition of rational in Merriam Webster links to the definition of reasonable, which includes “not extreme or excessive” and links to the definition of moderate. So rational is often seen as not taking a position to extremes, which means you should be willing to have a position that can sometimes lead to bad stuff when you act on it. In reality, if you have a position that won’t work if your pursue it consistently, you should ditch that position because it’s wrong. So many people will read “rational self interest” as “sometimes you should act in your self interest but sometimes you shouldn’t cuz that would be unreasonable”. So if Rand called her book “The virtue of rational self interest” she would have misled many people.

UPDATE For the sake of clarity, I chose to reply to this tweet mostly because I think it expresses a common misconception about Objectivism and how to promote ideas. I didn’t write it as a reply to Brett Hall per se. To be clear I think Brett is in the group of people targeted by Rand’s sentence ‘For the reason that makes you afraid of it.’ He is afraid of advocating Rand’s good ideas clearly, so he would prefer to adopt terminology that muddies the waters. This means he can deceive lefties he is talking to and himself into thinking they agree more than they do. His tactics are doomed to fail as promotion of Rand’s ideas. People who won’t even consider an idea advocated using the word ‘selfishness’ won’t come around to Rand’s views if they are dressed up a little. In reality, the mistakes such people make are much deeper and no terminological change would fix that problem.

The EU and the sanction of the victim

Theresa May has produced a deal that is possibly the worst political document I have seen in a long time. The substance of the ‘deal’ is that the EU keeps making rules for the UK but we have no MEPs. Yes, that’s right is even worse than our current political position, which is already terrible.

The Prime Minister has tweeted about the deal being offered by the EU and how much businessmen allegedly love it. All this tweet makes me think is that some businessmen hope to profit by getting the EU’s boot to stamp on the faces of their competitors. In reality, this advantage would erode the businesses that take “advantage” of it by making them into politicians’ pets who are incapable of surviving without special treatment. And of course, those politicians would quite happily destroy every single one of the businesses in that tweet the second it was convenient.

Things didn’t have to be this way. All Theresa May had to do two years ago was say the following:

We will have no tariffs with the EU and will maintain our current border arrangements with Ireland. We’ll make our own laws and won’t be passing any of your regulations.

Then we just leave the EU to do whatever they want. If the EU choose to raise tariffs with the UK, then we just say:

It’s a terrible shame that EU politicians are so blinded with hatred for people who want their politicians to be accountable that they are willing to stab their own constituents in the back by making mutually beneficial trade more difficult.

In other words, just tell the truth about the EU and don’t take any shit from them. And what are the EU going to do? Nothing. The EU only has power that member states choose to give them. The EU needs the sanction of the victim and if we withdraw it the EU is finished:

I saw that there comes a point, in the defeat of any man of virtue, when his own consent is needed for evil to win—and that no manner of injury done to him by others can succeed if he chooses to withhold his consent. I saw that I could put an end to your outrages by pronouncing a single word in my mind. I pronounced it. The word was “No.”

MPs and businessmen and everyone else should just say ‘No’ and leave the EU with or without a ‘deal’. We have nothing to gain from a deal with corrupt, unaccountable politicians. They don’t make anything of any value. They don’t do anything of any value. They have nothing to offer. All we have to do is walk away.

Errors of knowledge vs evil

Brett Hall has tweeted about an alleged Ayn Rand quote:

The alleged Rand quote is “It makes a difference whether one thinks that one is dealing with human errors of knowledge or with human evil.” I haven’t been able to find this exact combination of words so I don’t know if Rand actually wrote this quote. I’m not saying she didn’t. I am saying that I haven’t found it. I looked it up to look for context to explain what Rand is saying.

On page 1059 of Atlas Shrugged John Galt explains Rand’s ideas on the difference between errors of knowledge and moral errors:

“Learn to distinguish the difference between errors of knowledge and breaches of morality. An error of knowledge is not a moral flaw, provided you are willing to correct it; only a mystic would judge human beings by the standard of an impossible, automatic omniscience. But a breach of morality is the conscious choice of an action you know to be evil, or a willful evasion of knowledge, a suspension of sight and of thought. That which you do not know, is not a moral charge against you; but that which you refuse to know, is an account of infamy growing in your soul. Make every allowance for errors of knowledge; do not forgive or accept any breach of morality. Give the benefit of the doubt to those who seek to know; but treat as potential killers those specimens of insolent depravity who make demands upon you, announcing that they have and seek no reasons, proclaiming, as a license, that they ‘just feel it’—or those who reject an irrefutable argument by saying: ‘It’s only logic,’ which means: ‘It’s only reality.’ The only realm opposed to reality is the realm and premise of death.

This is an important distinction. Somebody who commits a moral breach in the sense described in that passage is a lot more dangerous than somebody who is factually mistaken.

I’ll give an example. there are a couple of kinds of socialists. Some socialists are young people who take ideas seriously and in particular they take seriously the moral ideas preached by their parents, teachers etc. You should be unselfish, the highest virtue is sharing and all that rubbish. If these cliches were actually true, then it would be bad to refuse to give away your stuff to the poor. So why shouldn’t the government make you give away your stuff? So lots of young people who don’t know any better support socialism.

But if you’ve been on the internet for a while, you will find out that there are people who disagree with socialism. Some of those people will mention that socialist governments killed over 100 million people. I’l list some of the options you can take on finding out about these deaths. Option (1): ditch socialism since an ideology that results in so much death must have something wrong with it. Option (2) is to look into this issue until you find out why so many people were killed by socialist governments. The first hit when I look for criticisms of socialism on Google was a wikipedia page that mentions Mises. So there are leads you can follow to find better ideas than socialism. Option (3) is to do neither of those things. Rather, you just call people names like ‘fascist’ when they disagree with socialism.

The person who takes option (3), let’s call him Jim, has some serious moral flaws that make him a lot more dangerous than anyone who takes the first two options – this is a breach of morality. Since he insults and ignores anyone who tries to explain reality, it is difficult for him to improve his ideas. This creates two relevant problems.

The first is that Jim is dangerous. Lots of people are being scapegoated on the internet by people who take option (3). Jim may be willing to try to destroy people who disagree with him. He may try to get critics fired, or kicked off the internet, kicked off payment processors and so on. He doesn’t have a problem with a pile of corpses and he may not have a problem with trying to put your corpse on the pile.

The second problem is that it’s difficult to correct Jim’s errors. He would have to learn better ideas about how to engage with criticism. Trying to get him to change his mind about that issue is a different kind of task than just pointing somebody to Mises to correct his bad ideas about socialism.

Jim’s errors are a result of lack of knowledge, as the quote from BoI claims. But the knowledge he lacks is very different from the knowledge lacked by somebody who has never heard criticisms of socialism. Morally, Jim is a lot worse than somebody who takes options (1) or (2). To pretend he is no different is bad for reasons Rand pointed out.

Families vs socialism

There is a talking point by some wishy-washy somewhat lefty “classical liberals” to the effect that families are socialist:

We’ve talked on here–I think it’s a Walter Williams quote; maybe it’s somebody else–but, a family is a Socialist institution. It’s a top down institution, as well. As I’ve said many times on the program: I don’t sell the last cookie to the highest bidder among my children. I make an estimate of who got a treat more recently; I might decide who looks hungriest. I might let them chat for a bit and gain knowledge about it. But, that system works. It’s stood the test of time–the family–although it’s a little bit different today than it was 50 years ago, and certainly different than it was 5000 years ago. But that stood the test of time.

I’m going to point out a couple of problems with this idea.

The first is that socialism is a system of political economy. That means it is largely about the rules for dealing with people you don’t know. So there is no direct way to apply it to your family.

The second problem is that socialism is an anti-rational, anti-freedom, pro-violence ideology. Every variant of socialism and interventionism involves threatening people with violence unless they obey some particular group of people. The original definition of socialism sez the means of production should be controlled by society or the workers or the poors. Usually the government actually controls the means of production on behalf of the workers. But leaving that detail aside, the key idea is that some particular group of people get to control production and everyone else gets to fuck off and die. In substance socialism means that the most ruthless person gets to be in charge and to murder anyone he dislikes by saying they’re not a worker or whatever.

Socialism is also based on self sacrifice. You’re supposed to be willing to sacrifice yourself for the good of the proletariat or whatever. So you’re not supposed to do what’s good for yourself. You’re only supposed to help other people. This is an authoritarian idea since it excludes using a particular source of knowledge about what you should do – your own preferences. Also, you can learn to understand your own preferences more easily than you can learn to understand those of other people since you can test your own preferences more easily.

Russ Roberts sez he doesn’t sell the last cookie to the highest bidder among his children. Deciding who gets the last cookie using the highest bidder system would be immoral since the parent decided to have a child and should be willing to help the child. If you don’t like helping children, you shouldn’t have children. Having a child puts that child in a position of being dependent on you for several years. Putting somebody in that position and then requiring him to pay you for food is stupid and wrong.

To the extent that this story is accurate, Roberts chose to buy an amount of cookies that wasn’t satisfactory, so there was a dispute about who should get the last one. And now he sees his role as being similar to a socialist planner, i.e. – a dictator. There are many ways to avoid coercing your children over cookies. You could consult them about many cookies to buy so they can know how many are available. You could buy more cookies when the cookies run out. You could come up with something more interesting than cookies for the children to do. More generally, it’s not necessary to coerce your children over other stuff either. Being a dictator doesn’t work as a solution to any problem of dealing with other people. Being a dictator requires ignoring other people’s preferences, which hurts them. It also involves suppressing criticism of your ideas, which is bad for you since it stops you from improving. So families shouldn’t be socialist. Parents should reduce the extent to which they act like dictators rather than coming up fancy excuses for bad ideas.

Dykes on objective law

Nicholas Dykes has written a paper criticising objectivist criticisms of anarcho-capitalism. I’m not going to say much about most of the article in this post, except for one brief comment on note (30):

Peter Saint-Andre chided me for claiming that the Law Merchant and other customary laws are entirely objective without providing a definition of what I mean by ‘objective’ law. Since Rand did not define objective law, other than to contrast it with bureaucratic whim, we cannot turn to her for guidance. I therefore propose this definition: an objective law is a moral principle (and its derivatives) known to all adults of sound mind in a community and accepted by them as a rational and binding guide for dealings with other people.

It follows from this that if one person thinks it is acceptable to murder people when you get angry, then a law against murder wouldn’t be objective. And if all adults accepted a ridiculous principle that can’t be implemented, then that principle and all of its implications would constitute objective law. Dykes’ objective law definition is just the whim of a mob, which is not objective by any reasonable standard.

Dykes’ claim that Rand didn’t define objective law is also wrong. I found her definition of objective law in the Ayn Rand Lexicon:

All laws must be objective (and objectively justifiable): men must know clearly, and in advance of taking an action, what the law forbids them to do (and why), what constitutes a crime and what penalty they will incur if they commit it.

Rand’s definition makes sense unlike Dykes’ definition. (The only part of Rand’s definition that doesn’t make sense is saying the law must be justifiable. Justification is impossible, so no law is justifiable. The rest of the definition is okay.) Rand’s definition highlights an important property a law can have by virtue of its implications, not because people happen to agree with it. Antitrust law is non-objective because it is impossible to tell in advance of taking an action whether that action breaks anti-trust law: see chapters 3 and 4 of Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal,and for discussion of more recent cases see Antitrust: The Case for Repeal by Dominick Armentano. By contrast, if you commit murder, then you know in advance that you’re breaking the law so that law is objective.

38 degrees vs medical care

There is an organisation called 38 degrees that runs petitions for left wing political causes. They have written a blog post about a proposed US-UK trade deal:

The NHS as we know it is at risk. A group of lobbyists have published a plan for a US -UK trade deal. [1] They want to let American healthcare companies make money off UK patients when we’re sick, vulnerable and in need of care. [2]

They quote from a report by the Cato Institute. The relevant section on p. 228 reads:

With that in mind, what might a realistic U.S.-U.K. FTA look like? First of all, full and fast trade liberalization should be the goal, with exceptions limited to the most sensitive products. Tariffs on all U.S.-U.K. trade should be zero or close to it soon after the agreement enters into force.

On services, there are opportunities for innovations, but also some sensitivities. Both sides have strong financial services sectors, which could thrive when subjected to greater competition. It is proposed that mutual recognition exist across all financial sectors (including banking, investment banking, dealing, broking, fund management, custody, derivatives dealing, clearing, financial infrastructure, and, where possible insurance and reinsurance) from day one. Given the experiences after the 2007–2008 financial crisis, we believe the two regimes are generally already synchronized and seek to achieve the same outcomes.

As for other services areas, health services are an area where both sides would benefit from openness to foreign competition, although we recognize any changes to existing regulations will be extremely controversial. Perhaps, then, for other areas the initial focus should be on other fields such as education or legal services, where negotiators can test the waters and see what is possible. That said, we would envisage a swift, time-tabled implementation of recogni- tion across all areas within 5 years.

Let’s consider what the quote from 38 degrees means first. They don’t want American healthcare companies to make money off NHS patients. Are they just opposed to American healthcare companies? Does the fact that a company is American make it bad? Or is it the case that 38 degrees don’t want anybody making money by providing healthcare to sick patients? If so, shouldn’t nurses and doctors be forced to work for free so they don’t make money by caring for patients? And what about the NHS’s suppliers? They make money by selling stuff to the NHS. Should they be forced to make no profit from such sales? And if nobody is allowed to make any money by caring for sick people, then how are the people who do so going to put food on the table?

What does the Cato document mean? Tariffs are taxes imposed on goods imported from another country. In other words, if you import something and there is a tariff the government is forcing you to pay more for it. The second paragraph talks about the US and UK government having similar goals when it comes to regulating finance and basically sez they should deliberately try to match policy so companies can operate more easily in both countries. So I think we can expect that they have something similar in mind for healthcare companies, although they are kinda vague about it. An American healthcare company would be able to operate more easily in the UK. Likewise UK healthcare companies like BUPA would be able to operate more easily in the US. This is not some enormous change, it’s just allowing people who want to buy healthcare services to do so more easily from more companies.

The Cato report doesn’t mention the NHS, but it’s a bit difficult to see how the NHS could get worse if the people running it have the option of buying healthcare goods and services from the US for their patients. An American company might make some items more cheaply, or make something that isn’t made by a UK company. Should the NHS pay more for the same good from a different source just to avoid buying from the US? That would mean less patients could be treated for the same amount of money so more people would suffer. So 38 degrees is advocating a policy that would lead to more people suffering.

The 38 degrees blogpost is typical of the intellectual level of discussion of healthcare in the UK. Their position is that you shouldn’t be allowed to take any responsibility or make any choices for your own healthcare or for anything else. You are a drone who has a right to standard issue government services and no right to anything else.

Behavioural genetics and the anti-conceptual mentality

A behavioural geneticist called Robert Plomin has written a book called “Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are”, which will be coming out soon. I haven’t read it and I don’t expect I will read it. Human behavioural genetics is bunk. I will explain why it is bunk and say something about why so many people apparently think it is plausible.

Behavioural geneticists like to claim that human behaviour is influenced by genes and by something called “environment”. They claim to be able to tell the influence of genes apart from the influence of environment by clever experiments. For example, identical twins have more genes in common than fraternal twins, who have more genes in common  than unrelated people. So if we look at the behaviour of identical twins compared to fraternal twins and the identical twins are more similar then their behaviour may be more genetically influenced. There are variations on these experiments that involve twins being reared apart and that sort of thing. See Chapter 6 of “Behavioral Genetics”, Sixth Edition by R. C. Plomin, J. C. DeFries, V. S. Knopik and J. M. Neiderhiser. On p.81, the authors write:

If a trait is influenced genetically, identical twins must be more similar than fra­ternal twins. However, it is also possible that the greater similarity of MZ twins is caused environmentally rather than genetically because MZ twins are the same sex and age and they look alike. The equal environments assumption of the twin method assumes that environmentally caused similarity is roughly the same for both types of twins reared in the same family. If the assumption were violated because identi­cal twins experience more similar environments than fraternal twins, this violation would inflate estimates of genetic influence. The equal environments assumption has been tested in several ways and appears reasonable for most traits (Bouchard & Prop­ ping, 1993; Derks, Dolan, & Boomsma, 2006).

A subtle, but important, issue is that identical twins might have more similar experiences than fraternal twins because identical twins are more similar genetically. That is, some experiences may be driven genetically. Such differences between iden­tical and fraternal twins in experience are not a violation of the equal environments assumption because the differences are not caused environmentally (Eaves, Foley, & Silberg, 2003).

They continue to describe studies in which twins were adopted:

The adoption-twin combination involves twins adopted apart and compares them with twins reared together. Two major studies of this type have been conducted, one in Minnesota (Bouchard, Lykken, McGue, Segal, & Tellegen, 1990; Lykken, 2006) and one in Sweden (Kato & Pedersen, 2005; Pedersen, McClearn, Plomin, & Nes- selroade, 1992). These studies have found, for example, that identical twins reared apart from early in life are almost as similar in terms of general cognitive ability as are identical twins reared together, an outcome suggesting strong genetic influence and little environmental influence caused by growing up together in the same family (shared family environmental influence).

Let’s see what they say about tests of the EEA in Derks, Dolan, & Boomsma, 2006:

It has been shown that MZ twins in childhood more often share playmates, share the same room, and dress more alike than same-sex DZ twins (Loehlin & Nichols, 1976). However, this does not necessarily imply that the EEA is violated. First, the greater environmental similarity in MZ than DZ twins does not have to be related to a greater phenotypic similarity. Second, even if a greater environmental similarity is related to a greater phenotypic similarity, this association could be mediated by a greater genetic similarity in MZ than DZ twins (Scarr & Carter-Saltzman, 1979). The EEA is only violated when the correlation between environmental similarity and trait similarity is significantly greater than zero within zygosity groups. Eaves et al. (2003) concluded on the basis of simulation studies that the absence of any association between environmental similarity and trait similarity justifies the claim that environmental similarity is not a factor in twin resemblance. However, the counterclaim that the presence of an association between environmental similarity and trait similarity falsifies the EEA is unfounded.

So the sort of thing that behavioural geneticists have in mind when they discuss the “same environment” is whether they are in the same room and have the same playmates. If the twins are adopted they don’t live in the same room or have the same playmates so they don’t have the same environment.

This line of argument doesn’t work. A person can consider what choice to make in the light of the ideas he has adopted. So all that has to happen for separated children to have a similar “environment” is that the ideas they adopt have something to say about how you should behave based on your appearance or on anything else that can be affected by genetics like eyesight. If you have poor eyesight you may end up wearing glasses, and this may result in you being treated as the kind of person who wears glasses: you may be treated like a geek or whatever. So the relevant similarities in environment are mostly not on the level of concretes like being in the same room. Nor is there any way that intellectual similarities in environment could be removed or accounted for.

Ayn Rand had something to say about the sort of blindness to ideas exhibited above: they have the anti-conceptual mentality. In Philosophy: Who Needs It, Chapter 4, Rand writes:

These cases are examples of the anti-conceptual mentality. The main characteristic of this mentality is a special kind of passivity: not passivity as such and not across-the-board, but passivity beyond a certain limit—i.e., passivity in regard to the process of conceptualization and, therefore, in regard to fundamental principles. It is a mentality which decided, at a certain point of development, that it knows enough and does not care to look further. What does it accept as “enough”? The immediately given, directly perceivable concretes of its background—“the empiric element in experience.”

To grasp and deal with such concretes, a human being needs a certain degree of conceptual development, a process which the brain of an animal cannot perform. But after the initial feat of learning to speak, a child can counterfeit this process, by memorization and imitation. The anti-conceptual mentality stops on this level of development—on the first levels of abstractions, which identify perceptual material consisting predominantly of physical objects—and does not choose to take the next, crucial, fully volitional step: the higher levels of abstraction from abstractions, which cannot be learned by imitation.

The anti-conceptual mentality takes most things as irreducible primaries and regards them as “self-evident.” It treats concepts as if they were (memorized) percepts; it treats abstractions as if they were perceptual concretes. To such a mentality, everything is the given: the passage of time, the four seasons, the institution of marriage, the weather, the breeding of children, a flood, a fire, an earthquake, a revolution, a book are phenomena of the same order. The distinction between the metaphysical and the man-made is not merely unknown to this mentality, it is incommunicable.

To the behavioural geneticist, people don’t have ideas. Anything that isn’t a gene has to be something concrete like a room or a particular playmate. Ideas and choices don’t exist or they are irrelevant.

An article covering Plomin’s new book contains the following paragraph:

He [Plomin] finds that genetic heritability accounts for 50% of the psychological differences between us, from personality to mental abilities. But that leaves 50% that should be accounted for by the environment. However, Plomin argues, research shows that most of that 50% is not attributable to the type of environmental influences that can be planned for or readily affected – ie it’s made up of unpredictable events. And of the environmental influences that can be moderated, much of it, he argues, is really an expression of genetics.

The position attributed to Plomin here doesn’t acknowledge the possibility of being able to think rationally about some event you haven’t predicted and solve any problem it presents. Concepts and explanations don’t exist in this worldview. If, like me, you get a sinking feeling of boredom when you read stuff written by Plomin and other human behavioural geneticists, now you know why – they have no ideas of any substance. They have nothing useful or interesting to say about anything.