Saturday, August 21, 2010

Legality and Morality

Prescriptive human inquiry explores the basis for normative human behavior guided by "norms." Philosophers often distinguish between two spheres of normative activity: "legalty" and "morality." Political philosophy focuses on how organized societies employ these two alternative means of social control. Liberal societies tend to rely more on on morality, communitarian societies tend to rely more on legality. Let's sort out these two basic concepts a little bit.

Individual human beings are planners by nature; that is, we are goal-directed animals that have the ability to deliberately alter our present behavior in order to bring about a preferable future state of affairs. Social psychologists argue that although we are capable of altering our own goal-directed behavior for the sake of the future, we're not very good at it, and therefore we tend to live more in the present or near future. (There are evolutionary reasons for this that we explore later.) Living in social groups requires placing limits on at least some forms of individual behavior. All groups employ the use of painful disincentives (or sticks) and pleasurable incentives (or carrots). Legality and morality represent two different ways that societies and social groups to use those sticks.

Legality enforces rules, primarily, by punishing rule violations with painful dinincentives. Historically, societies have used physical pain (whipping), killing (hanging), deprivation of resources (fines), and incarceration (jail time). The degree of punishment has always been set in proportion to seriousness of the rule violation (or crime): "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." The rules that are monitored and enforced by any given group, reflect the values of the central planners. The Taliban's recent execution (by stoning) of a young couple for elopement, reflects the "value" that it places on the rules that govern marriage. The United States government still imposes longer sentences for drug offenders that use "crack cocaine" than for "powdered cocaine." (Don't ask me why!) Legality is obviously enormously complicated. Justice requires that rule violations must be deliberate, and therefore enforcers must decide the degree of voluntariness involved in the rule violation. Individuals that are declared "incompetent" are given lighter sentences, or placed under the control of psychiatrists rather than prison guards or executioners. The laws themselves are written by "lawmakers," in an obscure language that only lawyers can understand (sometimes they can't even understant it!), which means that questions of guilt or innocence are shaped by credentialized lawyers and judges, who control the processes of criminal justice. Some laws are so vaguely written that it's difficult if not impossible to decipher the lawmakers' original intent. Old laws are especially problematic. The courts generally rely on tradition to resolve these vague cases by referring to previous "legal precedents." In the end, judges and juries decide matters of guilt or innocence and the degree of punishment. Of course, the more laws that are being enforced, the more difficult it is for individuals to know what's illegal. And finally, most societies have processes by which convicted rule-breakers can appeal to another judge or jury. We can go on-and-on...but the point here is that legality is one way that human beings enforce rules that shape social behavior.

Morality is different. First of all, morality (by definition) is not enforced by any one single centralized entity: otherwise it becomes legality. Morality naturally arises from personal and group relationships. In it's purest form the rules of morality spontaneously emerge out of specific social contexts. We praise good behavior and blame bad moral behavior. Blameworthy behavior is discouraged by public sentiment, and not by physical threats to person or property. Public sentiment can be applied in various ways such as "labeling" the person that violate the rules, labels with negative connotations such as: whore, cad, tight-wad, drunk, or addict. Sentiment also includes punishing violations by individually and collectively treating that person as less valuable than others, including the practice of "shunning." The specific rules of morality tend to be rather stable because they get locked into bodies of tradition via teaching and learning. In fact, many individuals justify moral rules based on tradition alone: "We've always done it that way." But over the long run, moral rules evolve based on variation and selection. In the United States we do not regard having children out of wedlock as immoral or ilegal, although we do not think its very prudent. We certainly don't stone them. The advantage of relying on morality to insure social cohesion is that it does not require the formentioned expensive legal institutions: policemen, lawyers, judges, prison guards, and executioners. A moral society is "self-organized."

The nature of any society is based how much morality is monitored and enforced via legality. Minarchist libertarians, like myself, seek to limit the sphere of legality to harm to persons or property. Hence, limit legality to controlling murder, theft, and fraud. Communitarian societies tend to monitor and enforce much of their moral codes via the coercive power of legality, including . In countries like this, the legal codes become enormous, and the costs of monitoring and enforcement rise proportionately. One sign of a society that relies primarily on legality is the size of their police force,judiciary, and the number of lawyers. We can also look at the number or prisons and/or executions (for non-violent crimes). Now when groups are organized based on legality, members obey the law based on "fear of getting caught." Therefore, in groups that have many laws, but don't have enough policemen, those laws are routinely violated. My personal view is that a "Good Society" or "Good Social Group" is one that limits legality to monitoring and enforcing laws against harm to others. Why? Because legality interferes with the natural evolution of morality. I'm glad we don't stone young couples that want elope any more, but I am concerned that the Drug War marches on, even though most of us are concerned with the exponential growth of police forces and the inordinate amount of time spent on drug crimes. One consequence of using the police to enforce legal moralism is that the police rarely catch murderers, rapists, thieves, and frauds; and jails and prisons are all full of junkies. No room left for real criminals. Go figure.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Experts and Imperfect Information

In my previous blog, I suggested that the Gulf Oil Spill is has been polluted by a surge of experts. Since I already discussed a libertarian stance on leadership, I thought it might be worthwhile to take a closer look at those "experts."

First of all, leaders and experts have a lot in common. Both enjoy the social privileges associated with authority and both gain those privileges via a maze of socio-political construction. So what is an "expert?" Well, today the process of gaining expertise is a lot different than it was in the past. On the other hand, let me suggest that all societies in all times and all places produce experts and that the processes employed are very similar. At the cultural level, the first experts were probably religious experts that claimed to possess knowledge of the will of God. More recent experts claim to know the will of Nature. While we'd all like to say that there's a major difference between experts on religion and experts on nature, I'd argue that there's more commonality than difference. The most obvious commonality is that expertise has always been conferred by a public institution of some kind. Religious experts are coronated by religious institutions and scientific experts are coronated by scientific institutions. Today, scientific expertise is contingent upon the completion of a series of tasks and the acquistion of a technical language that signify membership in the community of scientific experts. FThis entails attending a college or university that confers documents that confer expertise. Once you complete this series of tasks (usually four years) you must undergo a ceremony of initiation. These ceremonies exhibit highly ritualized speech and behavior that involve costumes, music, documents and a gallery of witnesses comprised of family and friends of the conferees. These pompous ceremonies are conducted by old experts that have already completed these rituals. Near the end of the ceremonies, conferees are awarded their official documents, which signal the acquistion of expertise. These documents are usually prominently displayed on a wall where the expert sells his/her expertise. Once this document is secured, the new expert joins an association, which has its own rituals and mode of communication.

It is important to note that throughout human history the vast majority of conferers and conferees of expertise have been men. Although, in recent years, many females have entered the brotherhood of experts, they tend to be experts in areas involving the "care" of other humans; especially in primary education, health care, and social science. But there are still very few female experts in physics, mathematics, engineering, or religion. In recent years there has been an overall surge in the number of female experts, as the number of males that complete the ritual declines. How that plays out over the long run remains to be seen.

Now there are two different kinds of experts. First, there are experts that acquire "perfect information" over the course of their ritual. The hallmark of the acquisition of perfect information is that it leads to the ability to effectively predict or control something of value. An expert in mathematics can accurately add, subtract, and multipy numbers; and expert in engineering can build a bridge. This kind of expertise is easily demonstrated so if your mathematical calculations are wrong or if your bridge falls into the river, your expertise may be questioned, despite the possession of the document displayed on a wall. Occasionally, the conferers of expertise withdraw their expert designation and remove the document from the wall of the conferee. But not very often. In fact, the higher the level of expertise attained, the less likely it is that you'll lose that document.

The second kind of expert, claims possession of "imperfect information." These experts are usually held to a much lower standard, given that the phenomena that they predict and control are more complex and therefore there is less consensus among the conferers of expertise as to what the expert will be able to predict or control after the document is conferred. The most noteworthy experts on imperfect information are in religion, philosophy, social science, medicine, theoretical physics, macro-economics, and ecological science. The hallmark of experts on imperfect information is that it is more difficult for them to publically demonstrate their expertise and even more difficult to disprove their expertise. Therefore, experts in imperfect information primarily demonstrate their expertise by producing documents that other experts in their association occasionally read and criticise. Fortunately, publication of these documents is sufficient to maintain expert designation, even if no one understands or even reads those documents.

Finally, it is important to note that experts on imperfect information, rarely if ever, admit that their information is imperfect. But instead, they claim to possess perfect information. Since their bridges never fall in the river, and their oil wells rarely pollute the waterways, these kinds of experts tend to enjoy a high degree of job security. Therefore, in the near future we can expect an increase in the number of experts on imperfect information. We can also expect more falling bridges and oil spills.