The Vector: A Post-Theist Moral Framework

By Jaybird

A while back, E.D. asked me to write an essay on the morality of the Panopticon. Luckily, I had been kicking around an essay defining morality in the absence of a God/architect for a while and so I was able to throw together a mashup essay. The first part explores morality and the middle explores moral imperatives that follow — odd ones, if you ask me, being godless, but one has no choice but to follow one’s path (this is a joke that will be a lot funnier in retrospect). Having explored both of those, it’s fairly simple to finish off exploring Bentham’s Panopticon and how it is not only not good, but how in practice it’s actively evil.

And so we get to begin at the beginning.

It seems to me that the issue of “morality” is really a discussion of choices. In a situation where you can choose X or Y, you pick one or the other (or X or Y or Z, or X or Y or Z or A, or so on and so forth). At the very base is the ability to choose this over that — indeed, if there is no free will, discussions of morality become moot, they’re just discussions we had no choice but to engage in.

Uncovering this atomic issue found in morality, we have to ask: “what makes X a more moral choice than Y?”

Deontology says that there are rules. Good consists of following the rules. This leads to the question “who made the rules?” which generally gets one of two answers:

1) God.

2) Shut up.

Utilitarianism says that we define good by outcomes and that we come up with “rules” based on what is most likely to end up with the best outcomes. There are a host of problems with this route as well: Who judges the outcomes? What about second-order outcomes? Third-order outcomes? Fourth-order outcomes? Umpteenth-order outcomes? So-and-so broke up with such-and-such and such-and-such’s ex married who-and-who and they gave birth to whom-and-whom, who went on to play Asa Trenchard in Our American Cousin the night that Lincon was shot (now you know the rest of the story). Once you get far enough away, surely you can say “well, that didn’t cause this”… but then, who gets to judge? The judge whose judgments lead to the best outcomes? Who is the judge of that?

Which brings us back to answer 2).

Now, one definition of morality I’ve seen is based on long-term good of society rather than the individual. The theory comes down to the closeness to the moral actor relative to society. If one picks immediate gratification (“I want to eat that bread, fuck that woman, take that candy”), one is generally considered “evil”.

People who think only of themselves but are longer-term in their thinking tend to get called “selfish”. People who consider only their immediate family are a little better. People who consider their extended family (but no further) tend to get classified as “tribal”. Up through “country” gets to another level of “morality”. The people who say “it’s all about the planet! It’s a brotherhood of man!” tend to be considered the most “moral”.

Some people see us as commonly descended from God (which, of course, ties us into more than just the planet but the universe) and some get there through the common ancestry from Lucy (or whomever) in Africa. Others yet make a claim to “the ecosystem” (and, sometimes, you see them making claim beyond it by pointing out that humans shouldn’t pollute Mars the way they did the Earth). The further the edge of one’s sphere is from one personally, the more “moral” society (or one’s sub-society) tends to categorize one.

But, in a nutshell, the further one says the edge of one’s sphere is from one, translates, generally, into how moral one is perceived to be… so long, of course, as one doesn’t go on to screw the proverbial pooch (or the literal one, depending on one’s proclivities).

I don’t really hold with this theory, myself… though I do see how it makes sense on a couple of levels. The obvious problems are the problems like “he is claiming to be a Universalist but he acts like a Tribalist!” and problems that stem from whose morality actually extends further (I.e. “The Sermon on the mount talks about rewards, rewards, rewards!!! It’s not moral! It’s little more than enlightened self-interest! It’s an opiate!”). I dislike the almost complete absence of focus of choice. It’s just automatically assumed that the less self-interested you are, the more moral you are. I can see how that morality might be useful to those in power, but I don’t see how, in practice, it has worked out on large scales (or medium ones, for that matter).

Both of these strike me as having fundamental problems with the whole “well, who gets to judge?” element, as well as the whole “why is this judge better than that judge?” element, which brings us back to another host of recursivity problems leading us in a wide arching circle, inexorably towards… you guessed it:

2) Shut up

This regression brings me once again to the atomic unit of morality: choice. Having experienced situations where I deliberately chose between this and that and having experienced situations (in retrospect, mostly) where I did not choose anything but merely reacted to stimuli, the focus on morality seems like it ought to be on the ability to choose.

In this regard, I think Buddhist Philosophy/Religion (not the only one, of course, but the first to come to mind) has a tremendous insight. One should endeavor to constantly be in a state of moral awareness. One should never merely react, one should always act.

Using that insight as an atom, I think we can then attempt to build molecules: What is Good? What is Evil? The mere reaction to stimuli, is amorality, of course.But what of Immorality?

If morality consists of the ability to make choices, it strikes me that “good” is a vector rather than a particular achievement… and evil is a direction in the opposite of that vector.The first obstacle to overcome for any given person would be to become a moral agent rather than a mere automaton. Instead of responding to stimuli, looking at any given situation and choosing X or Y (or Z, or what have you).

This leads us, of course, on to the much harder, but much more essential question: What is Good?

Well, it seems that Good is that which results in more Moral Agency (as opposed to more automation).Instead of mere reaction, one can choose between X and Y. Becoming more of a moral agent means that one can chooce between X and Y and Zed. And then Aleph. And so on.

Conversely, evil would, it seems to me, lead down a path of X and Y and Zed and Aleph (and so on) to an ability to only choose between X and Y and Zed. And then only X and Y.

An example can be found in a recent story posted to Drudge… a little girl in Russia was horribly neglected for years. You can read the story here. Now, this child was allowed to return to a feral state; millennium of culture, accumulated habits, language… gone. The child is probably close to amoral… but the fact that this was allowed to happen is wickedness in the first place.The sense of revulsion one feels when one reads that story does a good job of explaining evil as according to the proposed system. Good would, of course, have been raising the child to be able to interact and make moral choices of her own.

Using this framework, we can see why it’s wrong to kill another person: because you are taking away their moral agency. Interestingly, at the same time, it allows for killing someone in self-defense and even allows for an argument that capital punishment can sometimes be allowed (we’re putting the criminal to death to prevent recidivism, for example).

Other atrocities fit into the matrix as well: rape is wrong as it removes the moral agency from another (while the removal is temporary, the echoes from the act linger long and choices made in the future can be hampered due to this violation). Slavery is atrocious as well. Even as we go down the list of sins, the skeleton stands.This is why stealing is wrong, for example. It takes options away from someone, and yet we see how a “Robin Hood” situation makes us waver. Robbing from the rich and giving to the poor also increases decision-making ability.

Which brings us back to the idea that this is a vector, rather than a destination. A given situation that grows agency is better than that one, but this situation is not, in itself, good if (or when) it stagnates. The vector must continue.

For a historical example, we can look at “Patriarchy”. One can see what the alternatives were. Patriarchy was a stepping stone up from howling barbarism. As time went on, however, the issue was not one of Patriarchy allowing howling barbarians to become Moral Agents, but one where an imposed societal structure was deliberately acting to prevent women from becoming Moral Agents. It was something good, insofar as it allowed (and even pushed) for more Choices to be made rather than responses to stimuli, but when it actively started making choices that resulted in less Moral Agency, it became Evil.

The ability to choose is better than the inability to be anything but a bundle of responses to stimuli, but it is not the final destination (perhaps there is no final destination). The point is to constantly be moving along the vector while each individual decision maker strives to be in a state of constant moral awareness… which will allow for further distance along the vector.

Side note: I have a disdain for Religion’s tendencies to oppose such things as Gay Marriage (something I support, so long as the two folks love each other, and have a relationship founded on mutual respect, etc) but I have to admit that religion did a good job of helping many move from autonomous behavior to a state of moral agency and then, from there, did a good job of helping those inclined to be automatons to respond to stimuli as if they were choosing the good. Insofar as it has done that (and pockets of it have done a fairly decent job of that, historically), I dig religion.

However, any time that religion has hindered Moral Agency on the part of its practitioners, I’m somewhat opposed in counter-relation to how well it has trained its practitioners to respond to stimuli as if they were choosing the good. I mean, maybe there are people out there who aren’t as capable of making good decisions as others, but it’s good to train these people to at least act good so that they can facilitate (if that’s too high a bar, not hinder) the moral decisions being made around them. When, however, the decisions being made result in practitioners’ own individual Moral Agency atrophying, it becomes wicked, perhaps even moving along on the vector is too much to ask. Perhaps asking that we not backslide might be good enough… but that’s another essay in and of itself.

I’d now like to explore “society” and how it ought to govern itself and others.

It strikes me that Liberty must be at the foundation of a Moral government. To allow the citizen to make decisions is Moral, and the more decisions the better. As a matter of fact, the government ought step in only when the decision making of another will be damaged (murder, rape, slavery, robbery, etc), but other areas ought to be left open.

When the government starts making decisions on the part of its citizens without allowing Moral Agency to grow, it will, eventually, be populated only with perpetual adolescents with atrophied abilities to actually make a Moral choice. Corruption follows this path. You get guardians who follow laws written by another people for another people who don’t remember why the laws were passed in the first place and don’t care, they’re just following protocol, reacting… and throwing people into the Panopticon for breaking laws that no one cares about.

Which, you may have noticed, brings us (finally!) to Bentham’s Panopticon. The idea behind Bentham’s Panopticon is a simple and elegant one. Create a prison where every prisoner can be seen at all times (no privacy) and guard houses where the prisoner can see the houses, but have no idea whether the guards are present or not. When the prisoner begins to habitually act, at all times, like he knows he is being watched, the prisoner is ready to rejoin society.

Well, the Panopticon doesn’t really work like that, does it? It’s chock to overflowing with alpha-male primate behavior, gangs, and, yep, rape. Hell, it’s even become a topic that makes for comedy fodder, but what is really going on? We are taking people who break this or that law (passed before they were born, most likely) and putting them in a building where they will most likely be raped (taking away their moral agency, perhaps repeatedly, and doing damage that is likely to last a lifetime).And the worst offenders can be locked into a cell until he achieves old age and dies.

What are the alternatives? Well, there’s exile, whipping, medical tech, and the death penalty.

Exile may have been an option once (Australia!) but, anymore, there is no place to put people that we, as a society, have decided have sinned sufficiently. Sadly, it would seem that exile is not an option (though, I suspect, it is the most moral option, removing the villain from society while, at the same time, allowing him/her to keep his own Moral Agency).

Whipping, surprisingly to my sensibilities, seems to not be as offensive as I thought it would when I first started thinking about this. Given that Evil was earlier defined as, “most likely, reacting rather than acting,” creating a negative externality could act as a disincentive from doing wrong. Plus, it has the added benefit of being over quickly (as opposed to years and years in the Panopticon).

Surgery (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) might be an option for the most vicious repeat offenders. If someone demonstrates that they will, in fact, be a multiple rapist, the idea of chemical castration seems far, far less offensive than killing the person or locking him in a room until he dies of old age (or merely achieves an age old enough where time castrates him chemically).

The Death Penalty is, of course, the most irreversible of all of these and something that gives me enough misgivings in the first place to make me say that it shouldn’t be an option at all. But if we could assume enough competence on the part of the State to not merely arrest people for laws that predate anyone in the courtroom because the prosecutor wanted a headline, it strikes me that the death penalty could even be preferable to putting a person in the Panopticon to become a rape victim and/or rapist.

Now, of course, there are problems with each and every one of these, the biggest counter-arguments that I think of with regards to whipping are, first, whether it counts as “cruel/unusual” with regards to the 8th Amendment and, of course, the racism issue where, if crime statistics mirror current ones, young African-American males will be whipped by agents of The State creating a simile to the slavery that existed in this country 150 years ago. And these are arguments that have very, very valid points that make me hesitant to argue for this particular punishment as anything but as step up from the Panopticon as it exists today.

All that is to say that I don’t know what we ought to do when it comes to morality, immorality, crime, and punishment. But I know that what we are doing now is wrong and we ought to stop.

What we are doing now is not creating more moral agents, but damaging people with (presumably) impaired agency already and turning them from (in the case of the drug war) fairly harmless automatons into victims of actively wicked people or, worse, putting them in situations where they will have to choose between being a victim or being an actively wicked person. We need to stop this. Not doing anything would be preferable to this.

If we cannot do good we need, at least, to stop being evil.

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63 thoughts on “The Vector: A Post-Theist Moral Framework

  1. Fascinating piece, Jaybird. Thanks for the contribution.

    Thieves, I suppose could be made to repay or perhaps even work off the value of what was stolen (plus whatever interest accrues, etc.) Each time they were caught they could be made to payback or work off more then previously. Thieves are easy, though. It’s the violent criminals that raise the real problems. What’s to be done with the sexual predator? The homicidal maniac? The cannibal?

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    • Exile seems the most humane… insofar as it protects “us” and makes sure that “they” can’t harm “us” anymore… but there’s nowhere for “us” to put “them”. Australia was, seriously, a brilliant idea.

      In absence of that… house arrest, maybe?

      It’s tough. I don’t know.

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      • Further answer to your question:

        If you are suffering from house arrest and you cannot get anybody, not even a charity, to bring you food (and you’re too dumb/lazy to grow food in the back) then what?

        Would that be, effectively, a death sentence? I mean, if you couldn’t even get a nun to bring you ramen?

        Would that be preferable to what we have now?

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  2. Very good, thoughtful essay. I’m reading a book on morality now which takes a naturalist view of what are the best choices according to our nature as humans, based on present knowledge with the understanding that knowledge can expand, and our choices can change for the better accordingly.

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  3. “Well, the Panopticon doesn’t really work like that, does it?”

    What are you basing this on? Bentham’s plans to bring the Panopticon to reality were foiled by the king’s refusal to grant him the land, despite Bentham having invested thousands of his own pounds in the project personally by that point.

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        • Would we be able to look at the prisons inspired by the panopticon and say that the prisons inspired by it aren’t reaching the potential?

          Or is this one of those things where if it isn’t done exactly as Bentham would have wanted it to, we can’t say that it didn’t work?

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            • Can we agree that what Bentham wanted is not achievable in practice, then?

              If you check out the link to the panopticon, you’ll see a ton of prisons. Not just one or two.

              If you wish to argue that none of those come close enough to Bentham’s idea, can I then come to the conclusion that what Bentham wanted is not achievable in this world?

              Or is there always one more attempt worth making and, besides, if it doesn’t work out we can always say that it wasn’t implemented properly?

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              • Idk if you’re being intentionally infuriating or not, here.

                No, it wasn’t achievable at that point in history, but only because the king wouldn’t hand over the damn land.

                I honestly don’t know how closely those prisons you mentioned (& which I knew of) were built to his (meticulous & extensive) plans. The history faculty’s library at my university is supposedly a Panopticon (with the librarians as the guardians, obviously) but since they didn’t line the areas behind the shelves with mirrors, it isn’t really one as their are areas you can hide in.

                I don’t know whether they were built like Bentham planned, & I doubt that you do either. They were certainly “inspired” by it, but Avenged Sevenfold once wrote a song “inspired” by Hunter S. Thompson, & a listen of that certainly tells you fuck all about him.

                Additionally, I haven’t actually even seen any statistics showing that people in these prisons go mad or get raped, or at least not that they do so with any more frequency than people in standard issue prisons.

                Which is sort of the point, isn’t it? You can’t really hold Bentham up to present day standards, not entirely. Although in many respects he was not only ahead of his own time, but ahead of ours (this was a man writing about animal rights in 1781) in others he was shaped heavily by his surroundings. He still seemed to hold the standard 18th century aristocrat view about the poor to some degree having earned their fate & needing to be kept in hard labour. You could say that others moved beyond this, or you could say that he didn’t live in a time which had benefited from the Rowntree studies into poverty. Either way, it’s anachronistic in the extreme to launch condemnations along these lines, not to mention perverse in the extreme castigating a man who wrote in favour of the legalisation of sodomy & equality of women in a fashion which a good reading of could still benefit many nations in the present day world…

                How does the Panopticon fit into this? Well, irrespective of whether it would have worked it would have been a damn sight nicer than the standard gaol of its day, which were as close to Hell as is possible. If you’re going to look at Bentham as a prison reformer you have to look at what he was aiming to reform, just as when you’re considering him as a law reformer you can’t just wave your hands and say “Look at how far we’ve moved past that sort of a view!”, you have to realise that Bentham was confronting with a horribly ornate system choked by an absurd legal fictions that served nobody save the lawyers (a caste of society who obtained exclusive understanding over the law & then were accordingly unlikely to back anything which would challenge their elite status).

                But I think one of the charms of the Panopticon, perversely, is that it never came to be. It was typical of Bentham in that way, really: he concocted an endless league of immense plans which could never possibly be brought to fruition. His over-ambition & meticulousness led him to stage critiques that spent pages on each paragraph he was attacking, in a fashion which suggests he would have wasted all his living hours performing a singular, if entirely decisive, fisking were he to have lived in these days. He was constantly setting himself absurd challenges he could never rise to, surpassing men with lesser ambitions easily in the process & still ending up disappointed. That this case caused so much harm to his mood is most likely because he came so tantalisingly close to its actualisation, thwarted just before approval was granted. In all other senses it was typical.

                Despite a pity, because a pity, the failure to implement this grandest of plans was emblematic of the grandiose melancholy of this great thinker.

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                • I’m not trying to be intentionally infuriating. I honestly have no idea what you are trying to argue.

                  Is it that the panopticon was an idea that we’ve never successfully implemented but it would have been worth successfully implementing (and, more importantly, possible)?

                  Because I see a lot of potential comparisons to, say, Marx in your praise of Bentham.

                  No one is denying that the Panopticon, if it had worked, would be the bomb diggity.

                  My problem is that what we end up getting when we attempt to create a panopticonish prison is not only not anywhere *NEAR* what Bentham intended, we actually end up with something actively wicked in practice.

                  Pointing out that, well, we never really built what he intended sounds like the defenses given against Marx.

                  Sure, Stalin and Lenin failed… but, man, if only the right people were implementing this stuff…

                  Is there any point at which we might be able to say “okay, we ought to quit reaching for this particular star”?

                  Because the Panopticon, as practiced, is bad.

                  Sure, sure. It wasn’t intended to be.

                  At what point can we say that our experiences and our intentions line up very little and we ought to try something else?

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                  • Because I see a lot of potential comparisons to, say, Marx in your praise of Bentham.

                    *sighs* Y’see, I could see that coming from your very first post. I don’t know if you realise you’re that transparent/predictable, but you really are…

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                    • “Y’see, I could see that coming from your very first post.”

                      It’s a funny coincidence, because I could see the comparison to Marx in your own very first post.

                      Out of curiosity, *IS* there a point where we might be able to say “okay, trying for this particular goal has, once again, failed to the point where we ought to try something else”?

                      Can a reasonable person say we’ve hit that point?

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                    • It’s a funny coincidence, because I could see the comparison to Marx in your own very first post.

                      Yes, I know. At that stage I’d just pointed out that the Panopticon never got built, thanks to a refusal of land. At that point in history, it was impossible to build. Much like you said it was.

                      Out of curiosity, *IS* there a point where we might be able to say “okay, trying for this particular goal has, once again, failed to the point where we ought to try something else”?

                      Can a reasonable person say we’ve hit that point?

                      I don’t really understand what point you are trying to make here. I said that the Panopticon never got built. You then claimed that it had done, or at least that buildings “inspired” by it had been.

                      You then introduced Marxism, as you clearly were aching to all along. I’m not going to talk to you about Marx, although the arguments you are making are both hackneyed & wrong (I’d suggest you actually read some Marx to work out why, as I sincerely doubt you have at the moment. Here’s a good site for you: http://www.marxists.org/ ).

                      With regards Bentham: yes, the Panopticon was an impossibility at that stage in history. There wasn’t land available, everything fell through. It was clearly impossible, the best evidence for which being that it never did happen. At that stage in history if it were possible I can’t conceive of it being worse than the prisons typical of the time. That, however, is a counter-factual, & I don’t enjoy counter-factuals or consider them particularly useful. Bentham thought that it would be an improvement on the status quo & I do think that that was an entirely justifiable argument for him to have made.

                      I don’t know how closely to his original blueprints, etc, the “inspired” prisons you mention kept. Neither do you. I haven’t seen any research showing that incidents of prison rape or madness are any higher in them than conventional prisons, & neither have you. If it was, I wouldn’t say that this indicates Bentham was wrong until you demonstrated to me that they were based on Bentham’s designs faithfully.

                      I’m afraid that the balance of evidence really does lie with you, here. I haven’t actually made that many claims. I’ve just pointed out that there isn’t a Panopticon. If you think that there is, show me evidence of that. If you think that there are “Panopticon inspired” prisons & it was the “inspiration” is what made the prisons fucked up places then show me data to support that too, & perhaps I’ll even let you off of the old causation-correlation linkage.

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                    • You would need some historians, a few architects (or engineers, preferably, less meddling), a state willing to give you permission, a large amount of money & a willing volunteer (Bentham’s calculations of it not costing more than conventional prisons were largely based around there having to be only one guard, with him recommending it be him because he was willing to do it for free).

                      If you had them, then yeah.

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                    • Given the guard union issue and the “state willing to give you permission” issue, I’d say that it’s not possible in theory… but, even so, look at the “Bentham’s calculations of it not costing more than conventional prisons were largely based around there having to be only one guard, with him recommending it be him because he was willing to do it for free” thing.

                      This tells me, right off the bat, that this would not work. Let’s say that someone acts out… how quickly could Bentham regain control? Would it be more likely that he couldn’t? It sure seems to me that the whole “aryan brotherhood” thing, at the very least, would require more than Bentham to keep watch over everybody.

                      And, of course, the second we get a second guard… well, at that point, we’ve deviated from his idea.

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  4. The Panopticon is perhaps best thought of as an ideal type, a blueprint for a liberal society made up of self regulating individuals. Of course there are no such societies, but one can certainly measure a given society’s approximation to this ideal. And by comparison with other putatively liberal societies, the United States must count as a failure. We have a world historic record number of people in jail, serving sentences 5-10 times the length of sentences meted out in Europe for the same crimes. The problem, as I see it, is two fold. First, there just isn’t enough government here — the basic education and discipline needed to be a self-regulating individual. Second, the US is exceptional in a cultural sense insofar as there is a real desire to punish and humiliate people here — a vengeful streak that permeates all discussions of crime and punishment. Neither of these factors is immutable, but currently the combo of them is potent and the fallout has been catastrophic. The solution — and in criminal justice there are never final solutions, only empirically better and worse outcomes — is mundane and obvious. It’s missing from you list of whipping, surgery, exile, and death. I speak of good old rehabilitation and penal welfarism. It is unglamorous work, but it does work more effectively than the alternatives.

    By the way, “exile” to Australia wasn’t exactly a holiday. The whole country was a prison to start with. But – thanks to liberal government – it’s a comparatively well regulated and free place now, with nothing like the crime problems of the USA.

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    • It’s not supposed to be a holiday, per se.

      If you do something sufficiently wretched, I would think that society would be able to say “you can’t live among us anymore”. That’s something that I might even be willing to argue that society has the Right to say.

      Australia may not have been a picnic… but it was a place where a person was not automatically doomed to certain death (because what is the difference between that and capital punishment?) and protected those at home at the same time.

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  5. “I don’t know how closely to his original blueprints, etc, the “inspired” prisons you mention kept. Neither do you. I haven’t seen any research showing that incidents of prison rape or madness are any higher in them than conventional prisons, & neither have you. If it was, I wouldn’t say that this indicates Bentham was wrong until you demonstrated to me that they were based on Bentham’s designs faithfully.”

    Okay, well, I’ve got the wiki… let’s see what I can come up with.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stateville_Correctional_Center
    (This is one of the prisons linked to on that page)

    Here’s from the link:
    Opened in 1925, Stateville was built to accommodate 1,506 inmates. Parts of the prison were designed according to the panopticon concept proposed by the British philosopher and prison reformer, Jeremy Bentham. Stateville’s “F-House” cellhouse, commonly known as a “roundhouse,” has a panopticon layout which features an armed tower in the center of an open area surrounded by several tiers of cells. F-House was the only remaining “roundhouse” still in use in the United States in the 1990s.

    That’s interesting, to me. The “only remaining ’roundhouse’ still in use”.

    Let’s check the website that they link to as a source for that.

    http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/11144.html

    There’s a picture and this paragraph:
    Stateville Prison opened in 1925 with the capacity to house 1,506 inmates. Originally designed by criminologist Jeremy Bentham as a panopticon cell house, the structure was commonly known as a “roundhouse” that featured an armed tower in the center of an open area surrounded by cells. Pictured here in 1992, Stateville has the only remaining “roundhouse” still in use in the United States.

    Yep, no mirrors on that roundhouse. The prisoners would probably have an inkling as to whether they were being watched or not at any given time. That’s enough to get us to say that it’s not even close to being close enough, right? So it’s inspired by Bentham in the same way as the Daredevil soundtrack, right?

    So why is the roundhouse not used anymore?

    I mean, it seems to me that if it was actually useful and/or resulted in rehabilitation… it’d still be used, right?

    Is this a case where whenever the government has attempted it, it’s only screwed it up (it is, after all, the government) and its own 80% solution was 100% worse than, say, the SHU idea (which appears to be the current big thing)?

    Now, when it comes to your argument that Bentham was trying to go in a new and better direction, dude… that totally resonates with me. He saw what was actually there and wanted to move the vector (!) and I appreciate that.

    But we’re here now. As well-intentioned as his original idea was, can we at least agree that the 2nd or 3rd or 7th order effects are negative to the point where we need to try something else?

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    • Idk if you’ve been reading my posts here, but it seems like you approached this debate with a fairly tired template (well intentioned, but with bad consequences!) & then proceeded to stuff what I was actually saying into it.

      Again: I haven’t seen any research showing that the Panopticonic style prisons (that’s a term I can settle for, if you insist) cause more madness or anything of the like. As for this:

      ” I mean, it seems to me that if it was actually useful and/or resulted in rehabilitation… it’d still be used, right?”

      it’s entirely fallacious. Plenty of good ideas fail to take off. But you aren’t really engaging with anything I came here to say.

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      • It seems to this unbiased observer that you came here to say that US prisons are not, in fact, perfect replicas of Panopticons and therefore one shouldn’t claim that our experiences in using them in any way, shape or form reflect upon the awesome perfection that was Bentham’s original idea.

        No theory survives contact with reality. There are always changes (corruptions, if you prefer). If one’s theory or plan requires that everything work *just so* or the whole thing fails, then it’s almost assuredly useless.

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      • “Again: I haven’t seen any research showing that the Panopticonic style prisons (that’s a term I can settle for, if you insist) cause more madness or anything of the like.”

        Have you looked?

        The stuff I’ve looked for said that “this stuff was used, now it’s not, there’s only one still around”.

        Is it because folks didn’t have Bentham as the guard and, as such, weren’t following his design the way he intended?

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  6. Jaybird, probably best just to give up. James always already has everything figured out, including who you are, what you know, what you think you know, and how much more he knows than you, y’see.

    PS – stop being so transparent, gawd!

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  7. And yet you still argued that, had we built the building down to the exact specs Bentham required, it might have worked and we don’t know otherwise.

    Yes.

    I mean, dude. You *KNEW* that I was doing the whole “Marxism has never been properly implemented” thing and you *STILL* said that The Panopticon has never been properly implemented.

    I knew were you were headed, yes. My error was in engaging you at all. You are quite obviously entirely ignorant about Marxism, yet still parrot the hackneyed little talking point “anti-statists” have been happily jabbering away with for many decades, now.

    Anyone who had even a basic grounding in Marxism would be perfectly aware that the notion that Stalin could somehow “implement” the ideology is a clear nonsense. One of the definitive features of Marxism is it’s refusal to stress the personal as decisive, & it’s focus upon class. That’s why he said “A dictatorship of the proletariat”, not “A dictatorship of a proletarian.” You are quite obviously mistaking someone acting in the name of Marx with somebody acting in a Marxist manner. Tbh if Lenin/Stalin had of wanted to act in a Marxist manner they’d have been best served to analyse society, then write a book. Acting like a Marxist and acting like a revolutionary are two distinct things, your conflation of the two demonstrates your pig ignorance quite nicely.

    & you barely know more about Bentham.

    What’s clear is that you came here with something you wanted to talk about, a fool’s critique based around a worn out old right wing talking point super-imposed grotesquely upon a morbidly inappropriate topic, & then prodded me to try and get us around to discussing the matter.

    Well, there you are. I trust that this will content you & you can piss off now. Who knows, perhaps someone could even start writing responses to the original (& very fine) post that triggered this inane conversation.

    Have you looked?

    The stuff I’ve looked for said that “this stuff was used, now it’s not, there’s only one still around”.

    Is it because folks didn’t have Bentham as the guard and, as such, weren’t following his design the way he intended?

    The claim was made that they send people mad, etc, so it must be supported. I’m not interested in trying to prove a negative.

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    • Oooh, excellent. A real response.

      “You are quite obviously entirely ignorant about Marxism, yet still parrot the hackneyed little talking point “anti-statists” have been happily jabbering away with for many decades, now.”

      See, from my perspective, it’s not a “talking point”. It strikes me as a reasonable conclusion that attempts to impose a Utopian society have resulted in quite a large number of bodies. Now, of course, blaming Marx for this would be like blaming Jesus for the Crusades.

      However, the defense that *REAL* Christians had nothing to do with the Crusades because *REAL* Christians would have turned the other cheek strikes me as a “No True Scotsman” kinda game.

      How’s this? I’ll not blame “Marx” but “his followers”. I don’t have the competence to say whether Lenin or Stalin were “true” followers or not… but they sure as heck claimed to be his followers and the folks like Walter Duranty didn’t help with the ability of dispassionate observers to make their own judgments on whether or not they were. If anything such folks cultivated “pig ignorance” in the masses thus preventing them from being able to make properly informed decisions (choices!).

      “What’s clear is that you came here with something you wanted to talk about, a fool’s critique based around a worn out old right wing talking point super-imposed grotesquely upon a morbidly inappropriate topic, & then prodded me to try and get us around to discussing the matter.”

      Dude, I would oh-so-much more rather discuss the moral framework I wrote an essay about rather than whether Lenin was really a Marxist or only thought he was one. I would honestly rather discuss the moral framework than whether Bentham’s prison had been properly implemented or whether the fact that its pretenders haven’t worked is indicative of whether the theory, noble as it was, was mistaken.

      But one responds to the comments one gets.

      “Well, there you are. I trust that this will content you & you can piss off now. Who knows, perhaps someone could even start writing responses to the original (& very fine) post that triggered this inane conversation.”

      Dude. That would be the bomb diggity.

      “The claim was made that they send people mad, etc, so it must be supported. I’m not interested in trying to prove a negative.”

      I would, instead, claim that they put people in situations where they have no choice but to make wicked choices… and, as such, we should do something else. And the Panopticon ain’t it (whether or not it has been properly implemented in the past).

      Actually, I did say that in the essay.

      Full circle.

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      • Well it’s good to hear that we’re on the same page, Jay. TBH I’m not really sure that the Panopticon is really that closely associated with the rest of his ideas. As I said earlier, I find it emblematic of the man, his mind & his thought, but I’m not so sure about it all being inter-connected.

        It’s similar: when approaching the matter of morality & legislation he encountered some problems & solved them with the Principle of Utility, when approaching the horrors of the contemporary prison system he solved them with the Panopticon. That doesn’t necessarily link the two beyond that, & although it’s a fascinating concept I find the former more interesting than the latter.

        The critique of it in this post was sound enough, I suppose, but as an ethical system I find that it’s precisely the avoidance of that kind of blind abstract hypothetic craft that appeals to me. The only reason ethics matters is because of cause & effect, if our actions had no consequences then there ethics would be a fool’s errand. Utiltiarianism, specifically the original strain created by Bentham, seems to do this very well. Ironically enough one of the centrepieces of Mill’s critique of utilitarianism as Bentham first created it is that it’s overly focused upon consequences & outcome, without enough attention paid to motivation & intent, but there we are.

        I never did prefer Mill…

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        • I don’t know that utilitarianism necessarily does.

          Or, more to the point, in practice, utilitarianism becomes another deontology and outcomes that don’t meet expectations are ignored, called outliers, or (seriously, I’m not harping on this) have it pointed out that the rules were not implemented correctly and, had they been, the outcome would have been as advertised… or the 2nd order effects are the good ones. We need to wait for them. I mean the 3rd order effects. That’s where everyone’s going to be better off.

          And a moral system based on outcomes becomes a dogma that waves outcomes away.

          In practice, of course.

          (Okay, maybe I am harping on it by this point.) Maybe it’s because Utilitarianism has never been properly implemented.

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          • I don’t really see how your point applies here. Utilitarianism holds that your actions should aim to generate maximum pleasure. Obviously you do have to make your own mind up about how best to go about that, but that is true of every ethical theory. Ultimately you have to decide what you think should be done & should not be done. You can’t get that call right every time, but that hardly matters since we are talking about a basis, not a method.

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            • Without getting into buttons that one could push to give bunnies endorphins, the problem seems to be the same of every ethical theory. The theory is most appealling to those two or three (or four) standard deviations to the right of the mean and rules must be created for those to the left.

              Which, of course, become dogma at which point they have as much relationship to Utilitarianism as Stateville does to the Panopticon.

              (Which, I suppose, is also a problem with any/every prescriptive ethic.)

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              • Well it is a common problem for all ethical theories, yes, but in brief the reason utilitarianism is superior to them is this: you are forced to consider others, since they are capable of pleasure. Additionally that sort of a focus means that you can quite easily avoid the most endemic problem amongst the ethical: self-righteousness.

                How many times have you encountered blazing, sprawling, pointless rows which, when you enquire, are staged over “The principle of the thing”. When that principle is utility those sort of aimless fury fed face-downs are immensely hard to justify.

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                • This is where “building character” comes in.

                  Which would give more pleasure?
                  A) A snickers bar now
                  B) A piece of dutch chocolate cake with a caramel drizzle with a custard layer sprinkled with powdered sugar and nutmeg next month

                  Because of that, you’re not getting anything today, ever again. It’s for your own good. You’ll be thanking me next month when you get that piece of cake.

                  Additionally, people totally have blind spots when it comes to measuring their own pleasure and measuring the pleasure of others. “Oh, this cake would be wasted on those people! Wasted! They wouldn’t appreciate the subtle interplay of the vanilla custard and the nutmeg! They’d get as much pleasure from a Snickers, the fools. Thus, I get the cake and they get Snickers and pleasure is therefore maximized.”

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                  • This is where “building character” comes in.

                    Which would give more pleasure?
                    A) A snickers bar now
                    B) A piece of dutch chocolate cake with a caramel drizzle with a custard layer sprinkled with powdered sugar and nutmeg next month

                    Because of that, you’re not getting anything today, ever again. It’s for your own good. You’ll be thanking me next month when you get that piece of cake.

                    I can’t tell you what would bring you more pleasure. You will have to decide for yourself as best you can.

                    Additionally, people totally have blind spots when it comes to measuring their own pleasure and measuring the pleasure of others. “Oh, this cake would be wasted on those people! Wasted! They wouldn’t appreciate the subtle interplay of the vanilla custard and the nutmeg! They’d get as much pleasure from a Snickers, the fools. Thus, I get the cake and they get Snickers and pleasure is therefore maximized.”

                    That sounds rather a lot like Mill’s utilitarianism. :P

                    But less snarkily, yes, the limitations of human empathy & lack of human omniscience are indeed limitations upon the extent to which we can ever expect ethical behaviour to reach. That’s unfortunate, but any ethical theory is going to have to cope with that. As they go I prefer utilitarianism, which at least tries, to something like Kant’s idea, which seems to consist of: “everyone likes exactly the same kind of cake, & if you think otherwise then you just haven’t thought things through properly everyone wants exactly the same thing & to live in the same sort of world, despite what they might inform you on the matter in a frivolous & under-considered matter.”

                    I don’t think you can expect perfection, or even a Utopia (which are far less fun things than they’re cracked up to be, in my view & from my reading of utopian writing). I do think that utilitarianism is the ethical theory which deals best with the humanity which exists.

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                    • “everyone likes exactly the same kind of cake, & if you think otherwise then you just haven’t thought things through properly everyone wants exactly the same thing & to live in the same sort of world, despite what they might inform you on the matter in a frivolous & under-considered matter.”

                      So should I like Dancing with the Stars or should everybody else stop talking to me about it?

                      As frivolous a question as that is, it sums up my problem with Kant… which was also my problem with Rand.

                      There’s more than one way to do it and individuals are the best judges of their own pleasure… which gets back to the idea of liberty and allowing adults to choose what pleasure they prefer to engage in. Or, at least, pointing out that others don’t have the competence to accurately judge whether someone else is experiencing pleasure (the whole false consciousness thing).

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                    • I figured out what bugs me about both of them. I’ve put my finger on it.

                      In neither case do you really need to interact with the other person.

                      In both cases, you “know” what is best for them (or what would bring the most pleasure) and if they don’t agree… well, they probably just need it explained to them again.

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  8. Neither Rand or Kant are much concerned about pleasure, so far as I can tell. Just “Duty” for Kant &…Well, Rand is a bit of a mess… She wants a set of rational free-thinking individualists to become conscious as a class & agree with her over everything without fail & at pain of purging from the gang, is the best way I can describe it.

    I always did wonder whether claims that the Ayn Rand Collective’s name was intentionally ironic were being overly generous…

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  9. For what it’s worth, I am convinced that Nietzsche is right: punishment does not have, and has never had, anything to do with morality or utilitarianism (Kant or Bentham). It is grounded in instinct and — more generally — how instinct instantiates itself politically in given circumstances. Nothing systematic or universal can said about punishment. The policy of transportation to Australia cannot be comprehended without reference to the circumstances in 18th century Britain — it was an expedient measure to deal with urban overcrowding in the wake of the industrial revolution. The current American situation is comparable in so far as the prison industrial complex has become a form of waste management for a society still grappling with how to become post-industrial. Moralizing the issue is to ignore reality. The reasons we lock people up, or transport them, or force them to parade around the street with a sandwich board publicizing their offense, or pump poison into them, or (in Asia), give them a salutary whipping – the reasons, I say, are always historical and painfully particular. And the techniques of punishment always say more about the punishers than they do about the punished.

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    • I kinda disagree with the “and has never had” part of that. There are a handful of ideas that pop up every now and again that say that we ought to rehabilitate.

      The problem comes when you take this idea from a guy 4 standard deviatations to the right of the mean, explain it so that a guy sitting right on top of the mean can understand it, then create 20-30 instances of his idea… well, you’re lucky if you get a 50% solution at that point.

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  10. You believe that there are instances where you truly made a choice, which forms the foundation of your agency-expanding ethics. Could you compare and contrast an instance of your making a choice to an instance where you merely reacted to stimuli in order to illustrate the difference? Otherwise I’m unsure how to engage with your philosophy. Would it still work even if choice was meaningless and the extension of moral agency was merely another stimulus?

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    • Well, the possibility exists that choice is an illusion and it is impossible for us to tell the difference between being a Moral Actor Acting and a casual observer reacting to stimuli in such a way that presents identically to Moral Action.

      Honestly, I have no way of telling the difference between the two. None.

      I just assume that, in the absence of a God, if there is a morality, then it must have a foundation of choices upon it.

      Those are a lot of assumptions.
      No God.
      Choice is possible.
      Morality Exists.

      Having swallowed those camels, I then went to the business of the gnat-sorting of what morality would consist of.

      If you want to argue that there’s no way to know the difference between a choice an a sufficiently complex response to a sufficiently complex group of stimuli… well, I’ve got no counter-argument stronger than “it sure seems different when I choose and when I just respond”. Oooh, here’s one. The Wife. Sometimes she drives me nuts. It’s 11:30 at night and she wants to talk and I want to go to sleep. If I just respond to stimuli, as happens sometimes, I say something like “dear, please shut up and let me get some fucking sleep, Jesus Christ”. When I step back from myself and make a decision, however, I can either choose to be a good person (e.g., “Honeybear, let’s discuss this now” or “Honeybear, I am not at my best but will be at my best in the morning… can we discuss it then?”) or choose to be a bad one (e.g., “dear, please shut up and let me get some fucking sleep, Jesus Christ”).

      Having done both within, oh, the last couple of months, those are the examples I could give.

      If you wanted to argue that both were responses to stimuli despite “feeling” different (can I quantify that? No, I cannot.), I wouldn’t have a counter-argument other than to point at the three camels I swallowed.

      If you’re willing to swallow them, for the sake of argument, can you see how I got to where I did?

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  11. I’m sorry if I came across as more belligerent than I intended. The free will/determinism argument has been something gnawing at me for years, so when you described the difference between choosing and reacting to stimuli I was curious as to what difference you perceived.

    I do believe that I can see the appeal of a choice-maximising ethical theory. I’m now curious, although it’s beyond the scope of your essay, how you resolve the dilemma of economic choice hampering social choice (and vice-versa) under your understanding of Agency-maximization.

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    • Not at all! As it’s a criticism that, fundamentally, I have no real, robust, argument against, I can’t help but see it as a very good one.

      Re: “the dilemma of economic choice hampering social choice (and vice-versa) under your understanding of Agency-maximization.”

      I’ll cop out and say that where you (or others) see “society”, I see a bunch of individuals jocking for position. Appeals to “society” are generally appeals made by established players to keep the status quo.

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      • with economic v. social I was trying to say “certain choices are prohibited to people because they don’t have the resources to afford them while others have the resources to afford them out of luck (the children of rich people)”. Are these constrained choices outside of your system as none of the choices that are limited by wealth are examples of exercising Moral Agency? Is it a problem that cannot be rectified because you would be destroying the Moral Agency of the rich people by depriving them of their weatlh? Is it a calculus that can find an ideal point where moral agency is increased on net by, say, redistribution?

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        • This was pretty much my main problem with the post, as well. Determinism is a fairly brutal outlook at times, but so far as I can tell it holds true.

          Choices do exist, of course, but you are the person who you are (messy wrangle of n. vs. n. aside) & that person has certain values that will lead to them making certain judgments. Those can tell others a lot about you, they can certainly influence who you become, but I don’t believe in the much depended upon but irksomely vague & seemingly mystical force “Free Will”.

          You can justify that as a Christian, it was a gift from God, etc., but apart from through theism or faith of some kind (i.e., if you are a materialist) I can’t really see how distinction between us as physical beings and…Well…Physics, can be made.

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        • Well, I’ll unpack this: “certain choices are prohibited to people because they don’t have the resources to afford them while others have the resources to afford them out of luck (the children of rich people)”

          I would instead say that the choices are not *prohibited* by virtue of their merely not being available.

          An analogy I use in the health care/pharma debate is that of a new miracle drug that will fix (problem) while having the (minor) side effect that it stimulates hair growth.

          This drug is not on the market and, indeed, does not yet exist at all. For me to say that I am entitled to the drug would be folly.

          I would go on to say that the state of whether I am entitled to the drug does not change one jot, no – not one tittle, when the drug finally gets created and hits the market.

          Once the drug *DOES* hit the market, I can either pay for it or not pay for it. But I am not entitled to it, but have an option I never had before. If I cannot afford this drug, my situation has not changed. I am not having this thing that, years ago, I also didn’t have.

          The fact that someone else can and does purchase the drug does not mean that this option is denied me.

          See what I mean?

          Now if we get into Robin Hood situations, we can discuss what level of taxation is moral and whether people who feel that their taxes are too high should just love it or leave it. Sure.

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          • If that’s so I’m missing the need for increased moral agency. After all, before the patriarchal societies there was never a choice of settling down in ancient civilization; therefore there is no need to create a patriarchal society. Similarly as wealth increases, there is no need to give moral agency to women; they never had it, therefore denying it to them is like denying the newly-created drug to someone who cannot afford it (that is to say, acceptable due to inability of the person to obtain it within the rules of the society).

            By using the word “choice” I was probably giving the impression that I meant something like the right to a prescription drug. Instead I meant that without a certain level of wealth you are far less free to engage in the moral self-awareness you hold as the core of your atheistic morality. The people living in the war-torn areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are too busy surviving to think about extending choice to more people. To go to a less violent example, a homeless child in the USA is far less likely to obtain the education, the perspectives, etc. that lead to moral self-awareness. In fact, it’s quite possible for them never to have the concept conveyed to them, especially not at the formative times that richer children do. It’s not really that any choice is denied them (they could save up enough money to afford charity or something similar, in theory) so much as they are much less likely to behave in your ideal fashion if they are economically insecure.

            Look at the hotbeds of social tolerance: elite universities, whose culture is dominated by teachers with secure jobs (or their overworked and underpaid associates hoping to become them) and students who fully expect to complete their collegiate studies in four or five years. Surely agency-maximization would seek to promote economic stability through such robin-hood-style methods as taxing the rich/providing services to the poor in order to expand tolerance for expanded moral choice (unless you don’t believe those would increase morality).

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            • Well, I see a difference between X not being an option and X actively being denied as an option.

              The whole women thing, as an example. When women started fighting for increased agency, saying “you can’t have it” would be a wicked response (an example of “society” trying to keep the status quo). The act of going back to that would be a move of the vector in the wrong direction. Saying “no, you can’t have this” would be an attempt to prevent the vector from moving in the right direction and, as such, would also be bad.

              “Instead I meant that without a certain level of wealth you are far less free to engage in the moral self-awareness you hold as the core of your atheistic morality.”

              That seems to be an accurate description.

              “To go to a less violent example, a homeless child in the USA is far less likely to obtain the education, the perspectives, etc. that lead to moral self-awareness.”

              An exceptionally accurate description as well.

              “Surely agency-maximization would seek to promote economic stability through such robin-hood-style methods as taxing the rich/providing services to the poor in order to expand tolerance for expanded moral choice (unless you don’t believe those would increase morality).”

              Well, please understand that I am looking at this as a group of individuals. If I am going to take stuff from you to give to someone else, I would first have to ask “why do I have the right to take this from you?”

              That the other person would be made better by it is not, in itself, sufficient, I wouldn’t think.

              One could also look at such things as “have we tried this sort of thing in the past?” and, if we did, look at what the outcomes (and maybe 2nd order outcomes) were.

              I’m one of those bastards that thinks that Johnson’s War On Poverty did more harm than good, for example. If what we do results in atrophied decision-making on the part of those we are ostensibly helping, we are creating 2nd order harm (no matter how well-intentioned our 1st order help was).

              See what I mean?

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              • I find your argument against the outcomes of redistribution more compelling than the “by what right?” argument. After all, we’ve already established that it is evil to deny women ageny and right to force men to accept that agency whether they wish to or not. If redistribution works to increase agency, and those with means refuse to voluntarily surrender some portion of their wealth, at some point of the miserliness continuum the same calculation would argue that it is moral to forcibly redistribute wealth to the extent needed.

                A question your dislike of schemes like the great society raises, however: is it due to the nature of the great society, the nature of government redistribution plans, or the nature of redistribution itself? Would private charity on the same scale as the great society have had an equally poor effect?

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                • Well, when I look at “society”, I ask “do I have the right to take X away from someone and give it to somebody else?”

                  If the answer is “no”, then I would have to look at where “society” would get the right to do that. Heck, I’d like to see where “society” has the right to do anything that I, as an individual, would not have the right to do. Does it come from “we took a vote”?

                  “is it due to the nature of the great society, the nature of government redistribution plans, or the nature of redistribution itself?”

                  Probably the 2nd one. Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy states: in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representative who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.

                  I see that as, sadly, accurate. As such the organization that gets put in charge of helping people will, eventually, become a Brezhnevian organization in charge of helping itself. It’ll eventually become an iatrogenic problem where it’s perpetuating what it’s supposed to be helping and, of course, the only solution is more of the same.

                  “Would private charity on the same scale as the great society have had an equally poor effect?”

                  I wouldn’t think so because private charity could say “huh, this isn’t working, let’s try something else” or even just stop. The ability of a government the size of the great society’s to do one or the other isn’t that well-demonstrated.

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                  • “Probably the 2nd one. Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy states: in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representative who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.”

                    I’m wary of the tendency of those who study human behaviour to try and craft “Laws”. It seems to me an attempt to suckle up the glow from the much deserved reputation of scientific laws, which are largely quantitative equations.

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