Meat. Is it humanity's most beloved superior good?
The Blue Tend Sky: How The Left's War on Guns Cost Me My Son and My Freedom by Brian Aitken. I have just finished reading Brian Aitken's tale about what can happen when the justice system makes an example of a man who has been shanghaied every step along the way, whether that's by a police officer who (to avoid perhaps a less than charitable view) doesn't understand the law he is supposed to enforce from a judge who seems hell-bent on getting the jury to come down to the acceptable verdict. After having done that in a single sitting, there's not much that I can write about Mr. Aitken's book other than everybody should buy it and read it. I've included an Amazon link in this post; so, really, go buy it now.
I had contributed to the Indiego campaign to get his tale published, so I knew the broad outlines of Mr. Aitken's story already having first learned about him after his appearance on Judge Napolitano's FreedomWatch made him a cause célèbre. Nevertheless, The Blue Tent Sky didn't disappoint nor did it settle with rehearsing the story many of us had already become emotionally attached to before Governor Christie commuted his sentence. Yet, I was never bored, and I was kept in suspense, wanting to know what happened next.
Moreover, perhaps the most damning part of the book is the part of Mr. Aitken's experience that wasn't really unique to him, and that was his time in prison, when his . He gives a first-hand account of a barbarous institution that is in desperate need of reform. Whether its in the dilapidated buildings, the overcrowded cells, or the cruelty guards regularly showed towards prisoners, any impartial reader would have a difficult time wanting to call the prison system that Mr. Aitken spent only around half a year in their own. Yet, there are human beings, many of whom guilty for nothing less than possession of a drug less deadly than alcohol, who spend years there, and who are then expected to become functional citizens when the, dare I say, criminal War on Drugs has done everything it can to destroy the communities that any normal human being would rely upon to rejoin society.
So, even though it's "The Left's War on Guns" that gets specifically called out, Mr. Aitken's book really is a much wider indictment on the entire American justice system, and it's a visceral indictment at that. It's one of those memoirs that makes one realize just how monstrous the society one lives in can be towards those who are often the most vulnerable.
The book brings to mind the question of how many young black teenagers who didn't have the communities and recourses many white bourgeois people like myself enjoy whose lives were ruined, much like Brian Aitken's, by a hard-on-crime justice system that sought to make examples of them. Unlike Mr. Aitken, though, they won't have the blessing of becoming a white bourgeois cause célèbre.
Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.
- Sir Charles James Napier, The History of Sir Charles Napier Administration of Scinde
From Sextus Empiricus’ Outlines of Skepticism:
We say, then, that the standard of Sceptical persuasion is what is apparent, implicitly meaning by this the appearances; for they depend on passive and unwilled feelings and are not objects of investigation. (Hence no-one, presumably, will raise a controversy over whether an existing thing appears this way or that; rather, they investigate whether it is such as it appears.)
Thus, attending to what is apparent, we live in accordance with everyday observations, without holding opinions - for we are not able to be utterly inactive. These everyday observations seem to be fourfold, and to consist in guidance by nature, necessitation by feelings, handing down of laws and customs, and teachings of kinds of expertise. By nature’s guidance we are naturally capable of perceiving and thinking. By the necessitation of feelings, hunger conducts us to food and thirst to drink. By the handing down of customs and laws, we accept from an everyday point of view, that piety is good and impiety bad. By teachings of kinds of expertise we are not inactive to those which we accept. (I.22-24)
In short, the skeptic cares only for the effective, not for the true. In that manner, the genuine Skeptic is a quack. Like a snake-oil salesman, he can only say that what he does has worked before and he leaves his audience unsure about what conditions the oil has worked in before. Has the oil been found to cure impotence under the conditions of a clinical trail? Or are we supposed to believe the testimony of housewives? Indeed, if we are supposed to “set out without opinions from ordinary life” (I.2454), then how are we supposed to be confident that snake oil is, indeed, snake oil?
The problem is magnified when we consider practices such as Sati and female genital mutilation. Surely there can be a moral standard that can sufficiently transcend our day-to-day lives to help us recognize that those practices, which have been part of the day-to-day lives of many, many human beings, are evil?
Yes, it may take somebody else’s ordinary life to inform somebody else of the monstrosities that lurk within their own ordinary life, but that is why Adam Smith’s fiction of the impartial spectator is so important: Our ability to recognize good and evil is all too often contingent upon the limitations of our ordinary lives. Yet, given impartiality and recognition of those limiting circumstances, human reason is able to come to the recognition of good and evil.
God has played the role of the ultimate impartial spectator in religions like Islam and Christianity. Revelation serves as the sharpest tool for cutting across the ethical contingencies of human culture. The Ten Commandments are the Ten Commandments. They admit of no cultural contingencies, and so each person shall be judged according to their injunctions once they have learned of that divinely impartial perspective. To argue that one is merely following everyday observances in acknowledging the emperor as a god is no defense before divine judgment. Both the Bible and the Qur’an argue that the impartial perspective was there, and, as a being able to discern good from evil, one had an obligation to follow it.
Sextus Empiricus. 2000. Outlines of Skepticism. Edited by Julia Annas and Jonathan Barnes. Cambride, Cambridge University Press.
From Information: The New Language of Science by Hans Christian von Baeyer:
The gradual crystallization of the concept of information during the last hundred years constrats sharply with the birth of the equally abstract quantity called energy in the middle of the nineteenth centruy. Then, in the brief span of twenty years, energy was invented, defined and established as a cornerstone, first of physics, then of all science. We don't know what energy is, any more than we know what information is, but as a now robust scientific concept we can describe it in precise mathematical terms, and as a commodity we can measure, market, regulate and tax it. (von Baeyer 2003: 11)
Just like our notion of energy, our notion of information is at best ephemeral when separated from its context. Yes, we know that energy is spent when we slipe a phone from one side of a table to another, but that part of our mind wanting to know what energy is will always be left a bit disappointed with the explanation.
Like energy, information is a puzzling concept that eludes our desire to know what it is. The form of a great white shark clearly contains more information than that of a common earthworm — that much is known from common experience — but that brings us no closer to knowing what information is.
Obession with non-equilibrium models, however appealing they may be to a theoist, is thus misguided. The study of complexity doesn't need to build itself new textbooks of models; rather, it needs to take to heart the lesson that our universe is nonergodic, that is it is non-repeating. If we could run the history of life on earth multiple times, we wouldn't be left with the same story. There may be repeating themes, such as rows or teeth and quadrapedel species, but that story would look different each and every time we rerun it.
As a result, those fascinated with complexity need to turn their fascination to history, whether that history is biological, social, or otherwise. Plato's heavens need to be left so that concern can be given the concrete and to the contingent. The story of how entities became complex is what matters, and those stories necessarily involve historical detail. The phrase "complex, adaptive order" is pleonastic. All complex order is adaptive order, and has grown the level of information it has because of its adaptation to its environment. The information contained in the complex nature of a great white shark tells us about its environment because
From Information: The New Language of Science by Hans Christian von Baeyer:
The gradual crystallization of the concept of information during the last hundred years contrasts sharply with the birth of the equally abstract quantity called energy in the middle of the nineteenth century. Then, in the brief span of twenty years, energy was invented, defined and established as a cornerstone, first of physics, then of all science. We don't know what energy is, any more than we know what information is, but as a now robust scientific concept we can describe it in precise mathematical terms, and as a commodity we can measure, market, regulate and tax it. (von Baeyer 2003: 11)
Just like our notion of energy, our notion of information is at best ephemeral when separated from its context. Yes, we know that energy is spent when we slide a phone from one side of a table to another, but that part of our mind wanting to know what energy is will always be left a bit disappointed with the explanation. Both are puzzling concepts that eludes our desire to know what they are. For instance, the form of a great white shark clearly contains more information than that of a common earthworm — that much is known from common experience — but that brings us no closer to knowing what information is.
Nevertheless, we don’t need to know what information is to work with the concept. It is merely the formal key to understanding other concepts, and should be understood merely as an instrumental concept. Claude Shannon, for instance, defined a message’s information content as the number of binary digits that message could be expressed in. That definition doesn’t address what information is, and yet it can enable us to tackle topics, such as the information content of a stand of RNA.
If you’re like me and have a very strong desire understand objects in terms of what they are, then such a definition of information will be disappointing, but such big-think obsessions can do more harm than good. What matters is the concrete and imminent. Explaining how the entities with information that we see around us got their information content is what matters. As James Buchanan once wrote, order is defined in the process of its emergence, and so we know that entities we see around us got their information by the process of their creation. As a result, attention is best turned to the creation of particular objects around us than a wild-goose chase over what ‘information’ is.
In civilized life, law floats in a sea of ethics.
- Earl Warren
“Omnes legum servi sumus ut liberi esse possimus.” “We are servants of the law so that we can be free.” Cicero spoke these words in Pro Cluentio, a defense of Aulus Cluentius Habitus Minor against charges of poisoning his stepfather,in 66 B.C. A terse and enigmatic statement, it is one the most succinct explanations of the relationship between the virtue of commutative justice, the rule of law, and liberty. Prima facie, Cicero’s words are almost a glaring contradiction. Rather than nonsense, though, what we find is a sentence encapsulating the essence of law for ensuring people’s freedom in society because it restricts people’s actions in a predictable manners.
Liberty and obedience to commutative justice are two sides of the same coin. One side is what commutative justice demands from a person, that is obedience, and the other side is what it promises him, liberty. In social life, we are all therefore perfectly free insofar as we are all servants of the law.
I) Justice is a virtue, not just an abstract entity unattached to singular human actions.
Justice, and commutative justice in particular are not just abstract entities existing at the level of society alone. Instead, they are both virtues which are practiced by people each and every day even in the most trifling of circumstances. Justice is practiced day in and day out by people living with harmony with those around them, and so the question of a just society can largely be distilled into a question of whether a society is conducive to the virtue of justice, and whether people are, in the words of Cicero, “servants of the law.”
There is a reason that philosophers like Adam Smith and St. Thomas Aquinas have described justice as a virtue. Just as commutative justice is a social grammar which we can understand by looking at people’s interactions within society, so too it is a virtue which sets by which we can measure and judge other people’s actions. Is someone just? That is a question we can answer by looking at their habits, and whether those habits correspond to commutative justice. Whether people have the virtue of commutative justice can, in turn, be seen as a question of whether they do not mess with other people’s stuff.
Every human action can have multiple goals, the virtues serve to condition human action into striving towards certain goals in a habitual fashion. In his discussion of virtue in the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote about how the virtues incline human beings to their proper actions: “But the rational powers, which are proper to man, are not determinate to one particular action, but are inclined indifferently to many: and they are determinant to acts by means of habits…” (Aquinas ST, Ia-IIae 55.1). Aquinas further described virtue as “an operative habit, is a good habit, productive of good works” (Aquinas ST, Ia-IIae 55.3). The virtues are those habits which incline people towards proper actions
Even though its fruits ensure that people have their liberty, (Commutative) justice is a virtue which restricts a person’s degrees of freedom in their behavior. A just person is a person obedient to the injunctions of commutative justice, and thus could be considered less free than someone who did not have any regard for those rules. However, if there is going to be perfect liberty in a society, then it’s members must have the virtue of (commutative) justice. Becoming a “servant of the law,” as Cicero expressed it, is a matter of having the virtue of commutative justice.
Overall, even though institutions may certainly do much to ensure justice, the question of whether a society is just is first and foremost a question of whether there is the virtue of justice in a society. While institutions can do much to ensure justice while that virtue fails, institutions themselves cannot ensure justice, and they cannot operate where people do not think of them as legitimate. Even the question of whether there are institutions that ensure commutative justice
II) Commutative Justice is not messing with other people’s stuff, and liberty is other people not messing with our own stuff.
Put crudely but effectively, commutative justice is not messing with other people’s stuff. We can talk about it in more glamorous terms as abstaining from another’s, as Adam Smith puts it in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Nevertheless, the cruder expression viscerally cuts to the heart of the meaning of commutative justice: There’s a line between my stuff and yours, do not cross it! The virtue of commutative justice enables human beings to enter society knowing, because of their confidence that their persons and their property are secure.
I prefer talk in terms of commutative justice to talk in terms of property titles. The reason is that commutative highlights both the social aspect of property titles as an outcome of human interaction as well as provides a richer context for understanding property titles in context of. After all, the creation and preservation of property titles requires simply more than the existence of property titles in written law. They require a social ecosystem, made possible by the virtue of (commutative) justice, which ensures that people respect the injunction not to mess with other people’s stuff.
Reliable property titles are only an outcome of commutative justice. The virtue needs to be there before that outcome can be observed, one reason why simply legislating property titles into existence without any concern for the underlying culture is bound to fail. What matters more for a society in the long run, in the historical perspective, is not whether there are property titles, but whether the virtue of commutative justice, is prevalent. That is turn is a sine qua non for there being reliable property titles.
Commutative justice ensures liberty by providing each person with a protected private sphere, demarcated by their stuff, which ensures that they are protected against other people’s coercion. The essence of coercion is the replacement of one persons’s hopes and ambitions with another’s. It manifests itself when a person imposes their will upon another. Commutative justice protects against coercion by providing each person a space demarcated by their person and property which no other equal can step in without her consent. It is a grammar, a set of rules admitting of no exception or modification (Smith TMS, II.6.11), which ensures that people within society are treated with respect as an equal whose own ends are legitimate in the eyes of society.
III) Liberty can only be achieved if everyone obeys commutative justice, and therefore necessarily involves social interaction. The virtue of commutative justice is singular, but the rule of law is emergent.
The rule of law, the rule of laws not of men, is an emergent outcome of a society of people perfectly obeying the virtue of (commutative) justice since the law is an outcome of everybody’s virtue rather than a single person’s dictates, and, without that need for a single person’s dictates, the virtue of (commutative) justice alone determines the interaction of people within society. The rule of law is the outcome of a society in which the people who constitute that society are all obedient to the injunction of the virtue of commutative justice not to mess with other people’s stuff.
When we think about freedom as being able to do what one wants (which is certainly a way the word is used in common language), then the virtues restrict human freedom. By being commutatively just, we are restricting ourselves not to mess with other people’s stuff. Indeed, the tyrant and the thief, in their violations of commutative justice, could be said to be more free than the virtuous citizen and the man of public spirit. However, the tyrant and the thief are only more free because they are intruding upon the freedom of others. For people to be protected against the interference of others and to be confident in their liberty, other people in a society must restrict themselves by adopting the virtue of commutative justice even though that virtue restricts the degrees of freedom a person enjoys in his behavior.
Commutative justice is not a cosmic constant; instead, it is a cultural innovation which human beings have learned in order to cope with the problems of social life. When human beings live in close proximity of one another, problems of conflict emerge because of the disparate ends which people seek in their own lives, and the various disagreements which occur in the course of social existence.
The rule of law can then be understood as the emergent outcomes of human interactions directed by the virtue of (commutative) justice. It is an emergent outcomes because it cannot be understood by looking at the actions of only one person; rather, it is only once the greater choreography of society, with its many interacting components, comes into view that we can see what commutative justice actually is. By establishing a line beyond which each is free to pursue their own desire, property titles ensure that people of disparate ends can cooperate peacefully in society, and that no one will be made, against their will, another’s mean towards ends they have no say over.
That commutative justice is necessarily social is illustrated by its meaningless outside of the context of human interactions. Take Robinson Crusoe: Any notion of commutative justice would be alien to him, surviving alone upon a deserted island. Alone upon his island, he does not have to deal with the problems of living in close proximity with other people. The injunction not to mess with other people’s stuff is meaningless to him. He has no need for such things as the rule of law, and has no need to constrain his actions according to its dictates. Crusoe may do as he pleases because there is no other human being with whom he can have a conflict of ends with. Just as he has no use for the concept of society, he has no use of the concept of commutative justice.
In a meaningful way, Robinson Crusoe could be said to be freer than the citizens of the most liberal nation imaginable because Crusoe does not have to obey commutative justice. People tend to want to be able to judge each situation on its own, and to act unobstructed by any general principle Commutative justice gives people no such opportunity. By being just, people are bound to not mess with other people’s stuff, and as Adam Smith writes in The Theory of Moral Sentiments: “The rules of justice are accurate in the highest degree, and admit of no exceptions or modifications” (Smith TMS, III.6.10). The man living in society has to obey this social grammar in order to live in harmony with his fellow human beings. Otherwise, he cannot live with the expectation that he will be protected from the coercion of those around him.
Crusoe, though, is no way constrained by the demands of those around him, and he can therefore do whatever he pleases without a concern for them. Crusoe, though, does not have to deal with all the problems of social existence which commutative justice, and the rule of law are meant to alleviate. Just as Crusoe does not have to deal upon the restrictions upon the degrees of freedom in his actions which commutative justice would impose upon him, he does not deal with the threats to his freedom which conflict with other people could have, and which commutative justice alleviates.
Here we can understand the thrust of Cicero’s saying that “We are servants of the law so that we can be free.” Each person must constrain his own behavior according to the grammar of commutative justice if there is to be perfect liberty in a society. By obeying that grammar, they all become servants of the law, and they are all free because they can be confident that others will be obeying the same virtue.
In the end, the perfect maintenance of liberty requires that each person voluntarily accept the injunction of commutative justice not to mess with other people’s stuff. Liberty and obligation, albeit obligation to a virtue rather than a person’s desires, therefore come hand-in-hand in human society. The very force which ensures our liberty demands that we obey it ourselves if it is to have any meaning.
Like so many political philosophers, Michael Huemer fails to consider that all political authority occurs within a cultural context. Political authority isn't something that is created out of a void, nor is it something that people sit around and agree to; rather, political authority — the actual political authority that we are all witness to on a daily basis — evolves across history driven by processes so complicated even Francis Fukuyama's two massive volumes on the subject only do so much justice explaining.
Political authority cannot be removed from the context in which it is exercised. Nevertheless, Mr. Huemer divorces his remarks from any historical context by the repeated use of the word 'agent' whereas a proper noun would've been more fitting. One cannot understand Maximilien de Robespierre's authority in launching the Reign of Terror without understanding the context in which Robespierre's commands were carried out just as one cannot understand the legitimacy of Caesar's assassins without almost drowning in the historical detail of the end of the Roman Republic. They were all political decisions made whose decision makers, be they Robespierre or Brutus, thought that their actions carried along with them a just demand for obedience. Whether that was actually the case, though, cannot be examined from a purely formal point of view because obedience necessarily involves material considerations: Who is giving the command? What are they commanding?
Mr. Huemer mistakenly treats what he calls "the problem of political authority" from the point of view of everybody in society as equals, yet any historical point of view will recognize that certain people have the authority to commit acts that would have been viewed as unquestionably reprehensible if done by another. It did matter that Brutus and a band of senators, rather than Ioannes Doeus and his friends, stabbed Caesar to death. What separates an act of tyrannicide from an act of murder can actually just be the context.
Consequently Mr. Huemer's problem of political authority is only a problem because it doesn't open its eyes to the political reality that not everyone is equal in society. The state's decision makers can extract money from its subjects and not have it called theft because the state has a conventional authority to do such things whereas a private citizen does not have such an authority. Yes, the authority is conventional, but as Edmund Burke remarked in Reflections on the Revolution in France:
If society be the offspring of convention, that convention must be its law. That convention must limit and modify all the descriptions of constitution which are formed under it. Every sort of legislative, judicial, or executive power are its creatures. They can have no being in any other state of things; and how can any man claim, under the conventions of civil society, rights which do not so much as suppose its existence?
And yet, that's exactly what Mr. Huemer is assuming: Political authority without the social context that provide the causes of that authority. It's just a nonsensical way of actually understanding human society (and I hope that political philosophy actually aims to understand human society rather than build castles in the sky). It is an ancient principle that to understand something, we must understand its causes, and the same is true with political authority. To treat of political authority without treating of the conventions which give it force, as Mr. Huemer does, is simply the abuse of any metaphysical doctrine of right.
Perhaps those conventions which motivate political legitimacy are just bestial. Perhaps human society, by its very nature, isn't just, and isn't worthy of our better nature. St. Augustine came close to that statement when he compared Rome to a band of thieves in The City of God. St. Augustine recognized, though, that the vicious conventions, if I may speak of conventions as 'vicious', were a product of this world, and that to expect them to change for the better was naïve. Instead, St. Augustine argued that we should fix our eyes onto Heaven and care not for the political rubble around us.
Mr. Huemer offers no such consideration. If he wants to condemn modern human society — keeping in mind that the nation-state is part-and-parcel of our commercial society — as unbefitting to the human soul, then he is free to do so, but I doubt he'll follow St. Augustine's exhortation that the only society that matters is a spiritual one, unsoiled by the sordid realities of Homo sapiens politics.
From Jack Slack's "Street Fighting Roos" over at Fightland:
All joking aside, the martial arts have been influenced by the behavior of animals for thousands of years. From the numerous White Crane and Preying Mantis styles of chuan fa to Roy Jones Jr.'s study of fighting cocks, animal behavior has always had a hand in human strategy.
But more than that, many of the basic principles which govern all fighting are visible in the animal kingdom. Clashing bulls try to shuck their opponents past them in order to take a dominant angle and gore the opponent's flank. Mongooses attempt to draw venomous snakes into lashing out and falling short, in order for the mongoose to comes down on the back of the snake's head while it is recovering from the attempted strike. The relationship between fighting and animals is a fascinating one, and I hope to look at it in detail very soon.
Like human martial artists, a kangaroo has to deal with the same constants of F=ma, and many of the same biological constraints, such as two arms and a need to defend the head. The principles determining the winner of two rams fighting are all often the same principles that determine which of two human fighters will be victorious.
Fighting technique must therefore express some constants across species and across disciplines that can only be appreciated by recognizing how different fighters cope with those constants. The costs and benefits of a square stance can only be genuinely appreciated by understanding why some disciplines, such as Muay Thai, favor that stance, and others, such as boxing, advise against it. It's all constrained problem-solving.
From The Economist's "How AIDS first spread: Journey into the night":
RAILWAYS are one of humanity’s most important inventions. But they can transport bad things as well as good, and one of those bad things is disease. In particular, suggests a paper just published in Science by a team led by Oliver Pybus of Oxford University and Philippe Lemey of the University of Leuven, in Belgium, they had a crucial role in the early dissemination of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Dr Pybus and Dr Lemey have been investigating the origin of this infection. Most cases are caused by HIV-1, originally a chimpanzee virus. HIV-1, however, comes in several varieties, a lot of which are rare, and only one of which, group M, has become pandemic. The two researchers wanted to understand why.
HIV-1 evolves fast. That has two useful consequences for science. One is that family trees can be drawn up which show not only what derives from what but also (because the rate of genetic change is reasonably constant) when the various branches diverged. The other is that the virus genotype varies from place to place, depending on when it first arrived somewhere. This means it is possible to track its spread in some detail—which Dr Pybus and Dr Lemey have now done.
They confirmed two suspicions. One is that the common ancestor of group M dates back to the 1920s. The other is that it originated in Kinshasa (then called Léopoldville) in what was the Belgian Congo and is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. The analysis ruled out other mooted points of origin, such as Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire.
What happened before and after the origin of group M, though, is intriguing. The group’s ancestor seems to have come from Cameroon, whose chimpanzees have the simian virus most similar to it. Some time before the first world war someone there (probably a hunter) was infected, probably through close contact with chimp blood. (Transmission of pathogens from animals to people in this way is also thought responsible for the current Ebola epidemic.) It then, most likely, travelled south down the Sangha river, which was used to trade rubber and ivory between Congo and Cameroon.