Monday, April 23, 2018

The political economy of guns

I’m going to present a (pretty limited) analysis of the gun control debate assuming the truth of two apparently robust social scientific findings:

1. Cross-country analyses show a strong correlation between gun violence and gun availability.

2. Bans and prohibitions are particularly bad ways of dealing with problems or harms stemming from the availability of some object, substance or service.

I’m not at all equipped to evaluate 1 at any particular depth, but I’ve heard it reported and repeated by policy wonks and politicians on both sides of the political aisle. And, here’s a useful graph:

I know a little more about 2. It turns out that if you want to curb the bad social consequences associated with the use of some object, substance or service, other forms of regulation are typically better than prohibitions or bans at securing the policy goals and in ways that are less harmful and wasteful. Prohibitions and bans tend to raise prices in ways that redirect, rather than eliminate, production processes, supply chains, marketing techniques and consumer use. The ways bans do this are predictable and tend to make things worse.

So, for example, with the prohibition of drugs, we get organized criminal organizations that compete, usually violently, to monopolize markets and trade routes. This is bad. We also get drugs more concentrated and potent (like designer, synthetic or home concoctions) that are both easier to transport (smuggle) and more dangerous to consume. This is also bad.

Again, these bad social consequences associated with the war on drugs were eminently predictable as a straightforward playing out of the generalization in 2. If not, then it would mean that without a drug war, or without one as vigorously prosecuted, the social consequences of drug use would have been worse, other things being equal. This is implausible given the empirical evidence.

Say we ban assault rifles. 2 predicts that this will grow the illicit demand market and the comparable incentive for illicit suppliers and supply. The effects would be similar to those in the case of illicit drugs in the sense that the ban would redirect, rather than eliminate, the market. This is not a good way to deal with gun violence if 1 is right and the most significant factor is gun availability. If we assume that gun markets exhibit the same basic features of other markets, most of the explanation for how easy it is to access guns are things like existing supply and price levels, which are marginally impacted by various regulatory costs, like waiting periods and licensing and reporting requirements.

But 1 and 2 suggest that we should be asking things like “what would work best to affect these costs and margins in socially desirable ways?” There’s a clear and consistent convergence on the futility of bans and prohibitions. I understand that it isn’t very intuitive that availability is a (or, the most) significant factor but prohibition doesn’t work. But, first, consider the case of drugs again. It’s likely that the use of highly addictive and dangerous opioids is higher where there’s a higher availability of drugs, yet it’s still the case that drug prohibition is an utter social disaster. Second, regardless of whether you find it intuitive, this is simply what the best social science tells us about the effects of bans and prohibitions. In short, you’d find yourself in a very dubious epistemic position to deny it -- roughly the same position as you would be in if you rejected any other view that reflects a substantial scientific consensus.

To be clear: the argument here isn’t that prohibition wouldn’t affect the availability of guns; rather, it’s that prohibition wouldn’t affect their availability in socially desirable ways.

So what would work better than bans to reshape the market in guns to produce better social consequences? Yikes, I don’t know. I’m just a philosopher. But it would be surprising, I think, if the largest influence on the gun market, and so the largest influence on the mass production and relative availability of guns and the types of guns available, didn’t have something to do with the biggest spender on them. Compared to US federal and state government contracts, the private citizen market for weaponry amounts effectively to, if you’ll permit me to use a technical term, diddly squat. Imposing a ban on private ownership and exchange wouldn’t affect the supply side of the equation at all, and 1 suggests that’s what we should be concerned about.

The level of production and availability of weaponry in the US is driven by massive military, federal agency and state government spending. The impact of this spending on availability isn’t just that government surplus units can find their way into private hands. I’m sure that happens, but much more significant is the way government contracting magnitudes drive economies of scale for production, signal expansion in the industry, and incentivize both new firms and more and more units. Assault rifles are designed and produced with military and quasi-military applications in mind. This is the biggest market. The private consumer market is just spillover for producers. Second amendment enthusiasts and private protection stalwarts aren’t shaping supply. And waiting periods, registration and licensing requirements, magazine restrictions and excise taxes have little effect. Ditto buy-back programs or mandatory liability insurance. None of these measures are likely to make a significant difference on supply in the US when military spending is as high as it is.

Government expenditure on weaponry functions as a subsidy for guns. Subsidize something only if you want to get more of it. I recommend not doing this anymore (or drastically reducing this expenditure). Prohibition just makes things worse. Piecemeal regulations avoid the most significant problems associated with prohibition, but I doubt that any regulatory scheme would have an effect on reshaping the market in ways that would have a significant impact on weapons production (or tragic shootings) as long as total spending remains so high.

Kyle Swan
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State University

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Sanctuary States and the Right of Conscientious Objection

In a liberal society, one of our most treasured liberties is the freedom of conscience and the ability to follow our conscience, even if it involves breaking the law. Ronald Dworkin observes that both liberals and conservatives may agree with this, but the conservatives would say that the conscientious objector must bear the legal consequences of his civil disobedience. Either way, some right of conscientious objection seems to be solidly grounded on the freedom of conscience.

The right of conscientious objection has played a large role in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, the Vietnam War protests in the 1960s and 1970s, and the pro-immigrant sanctuary movement in the 1980s under the Reagan Administration. But what is unique about the current sanctuary movement is that rather than primarily private individuals and organizations protesting an unjust law, as in these earlier cases, the current movement also notably involves cities and even states.

Conscientious objection by states may raise many concerns (including whether states have such a right in the first place), but assuming they have this right (e.g., on the grounds that a state may assert the rights of its citizens on their behalf), I want to focus on the following questions: (A) should states exercise this right against certain parts of federal immigration law and (B) should they be able exercise the right without federal repercussions.

(A) I would argue that states should be able to exercise a right of civil disobedience if they (or their constituents) have at least one compelling overriding reason to reject the federal law or policy. Let’s assume that federal law or policy requires cooperation by a state and its agents with the federal government’s enforcement of federal immigration law. Let’s further assume that federal immigration law allows the federal government to locate and deport undocumented immigrants consistently with due process.

Let me sketch three possible reasons:

(1) First, the federal law or policy aims to enforce an immoral law (assuming a deontological framework). If a federal law or policy involved the enforcement of segregation laws, there is good reason not to cooperate with the enforcement of such laws. Similarly, if the relevant parts of immigration law (concerning minority groups) are immoral, in that, they were enacted with discriminatory animus or have the effect of discriminating against certain groups on the basis of race, ethnicity, or nationality, there is good reason not to cooperate with their enforcement. The history of immigration law, arguably, and sadly, is a history of discrimination starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Immigration Act of 1924 that determined quotas and restricted admission by Blacks and Native Americans, the combined effect of the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 that replaced quotas with numerical limits and the end of the Bracero program, up to the more recent policies limiting refugees from South America in the 1980s and certain Arabs around the world today.

(2) Second, even if the federal law or policy is not itself immoral, it is being enforced in ways that are immoral or highly questionable (again assuming a deontological framework). For example, it would be wrong to enforce federal law against certain individuals, including undocumented children, i.e., persons who should not be made to suffer for something that was beyond their control. It also arguably would be wrong to force migrants to return to conditions that jeopardize their basic rights, see here and here. The use of for-profit detention centers and the new numeric quotas for immigration judges to push through immigration cases furthermore suggests a system that is more suitable for cattle than humans.

(3) Third, even as a matter of law, states have constitutional grounds for not cooperating with the federal government. There are potential conflicts of laws concerning immigration enforcement. The federal government enjoys broad authority over immigration matters and federal enforcement agents may request local cooperation with its efforts to deport persons who are illegally present in the United States. However, the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures and requires a warrant supported by probable cause of criminal activity. It is not a crime for a removable alien just to be present in the United States. The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment also protects individuals from being singled out for unequal treatment. Consistent with these protections, a state may reasonably believe that its officers should not single out a member of a minority group and ask for her documents and should not stop or detain a person any longer than is necessary to investigate criminal activity. When there is a potential infringement upon a constitutional right, a state may choose to follow the Constitution over requests from federal agents.

One reason would suffice, but I think all three provide strong justification to conscientiously object to the enforcement of certain parts of federal immigration law.

(B) There is, however, the further question of should states be able to conscientiously object without federal repercussions (e.g., loss of federal funding). It is important to note that the above reasons should give the federal government cause to reconsider its own laws and enforcement policies. But given the current political climate, the prospects of reconsideration are slim.

Should states object and deal with the consequences? Using Dworkin’s distinction, liberals would say yes, conservatives no. But, if I’m a state, I would disobey and deal with any federal repercussions because, at the very least, legally, there is uncertainty on the resolution of the legal issues mentioned in (3) involving the constitutional rights of individuals and the power of states under the Tenth Amendment. The matter is currently before the courts. Moreover, morally, justice sometimes requires that we do the right thing, even if the right thing happens to be illegal at the time.

Chong Choe-Smith 
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State University

Sunday, April 1, 2018

The Metaphysics of Time

Let's suppose that you slip and spill a cup of coffee all over yourself right now, and that you also spilled a similar cup last month, and that you will again next year. Of these three events, the present spill is so much more vivid, isn't it? That is a principal reason why metaphysicians called presentists say that if anything is physically real, then it exists now. Advocates of the growing-past theory of metaphysics argue that, although that past cup of coffee is less vivid, nevertheless it is just as real. It simply is not present. The past grows, they say, by accumulating more objects and events. Those past cups of coffee are real because they once were present. Future cups are unreal, though, because they have never been present.

Opposed to both presentism and the growing-past theory, the metaphysical theory of eternalism implies that all future cups of coffee are just as real as the present and past ones. Presentism is the metaphysical position that is closest to common sense. It is the position that was adopted by most philosophers before the confirmation of the theory of relativity, yet now eternalism is the most popular position.

The debate is about physical time, the time that clocks are designed to measure. It is not about psychological time, the awareness of physical time.

Opponents of presentism complain that it cannot account for causation, for April showers causing May flowers. Can there be causation without both the cause and the effect being real?

Regarding eternalism and its acceptance now of the reality of the future, the philosopher William James famously remarked that the future is so unreal that even God cannot anticipate it. The eternalist counters that not being anticipated doesn't imply not being real.

The eternalists' primary argument is that the distinctions among past, present, and future are not reflected in the laws of physics and so are merely subjective, depending on whose perspective is being assumed. Regarding these perspectives, your birth is in your past, but it is in George Washington's future. So, at least some of George Washington's future is real. If some, why not all?

The cup of coffee being handed to you here is no less real than a cup of coffee far away in Antarctica. Distance is not a mark of unreality. Similarly, a temporally distant cup of coffee is no less real than the cup you are having now, says the eternalist. Temporal distance is not a mark of unreality. The concepts of being here, being there, being present, being past, and being future are all subjective because they depend for their reference upon the situation of the person using the concept. The concepts do not signify any difference in what is objectively real.

Don't we all fear impending doom? But according to presentism and the growing-block theory, it should be irrational to have this fear since the doom is known not to be real. The eternalist defends our rationality.

A key feature of eternalism is that events are fundamental; three-dimensional objects are not. One interesting implication of this is that fundamentally you as a child, you as a teenager, you as an adult, and you (hopefully) as a very old person are not periods of the same 3-dimensional person but rather are different parts of the same 4-dimensional person, the real you. In ordinary discourse, it is usually helpful to think of persons and coffee cups as 3-dimensional, but fundamentally they are not. They are temporally extended events.

What propels philosophers and scientists toward eternalism is their belief that it is implied by the best understanding of physics. If we trust the physics, we should trust its metaphysical implications, they would say. Reality is not what it seems. Einstein adopted this position when he said, after the confirmation of his relativity theory:

It appears therefore more natural to think of physical reality as a four-dimensional existence, instead of, as hitherto, the evolution of a three-dimensional existence.

In criticism of both presentism and the growing-past theory, the eternalist asks, "Whose present is the real present?" If my present and your present are different, could one be real and the other unreal? Surely not. Now consider the implication of what you just agreed to. Relativity theory implies that which set of events counts as the present is relative to the observer's reference frame. If I move fast relative to you, then a distant event on Jupiter can be present in your frame and still five minutes in the future in my frame. These last remarks radically violate common sense. So much the worse for common sense, Einstein would say; common sense is too often the faulty product of limited experience. If the presentist and the advocate of the growing-past theory imply that the Jupiter event is not real for me, being in my future, doesn't this imply there is a problem with presentism and the growing-past theories?

These are the eternalists' main reasons for their eternalism. Presentists and advocates of the growing past have heard the reasons, yet they do not crawl away into metaphysical obscurity.

One counterargument to eternalism is from H. A. Lorentz who said that merely because relativity theory implies that any reference frame is legitimate and that nobody's present is better than anyone else's, the theory could be mistaken. Somebody's frame might still be the privileged one. Scientific theories have their limits. The philosopher A. N. Prior added that perhaps Einstein's theory shows only that we cannot know which distant event on Jupiter is simultaneous with one of our present events.

Opponents of eternalism often complain that Einstein's block of past, present, and future events is too static. It just sits there. Yet change is very real. It is the essence of time. So, there is clearly something lacking in the eternalists' block perspective, and it should not be our guide on important metaphysical issues. In response, one eternalist said, "What? Do you want the block to wiggle?"

Brad Dowden
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State University

Monday, March 26, 2018

A philosopher you recently discovered...

This week, faculty members write about a philosopher they recently discovered, and what they like about them.

One author who has come to my attention over and over again recently is Deborah Rhode, Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law at Stanford University. She has written extensively on legal ethics, gender and the law, and other areas of law and ethics. I cited her articles critiquing the teaching of ethics in law schools in my article on service learning. I required students to read a chapter of her anthology, Ethics in Practice: Lawyers’ Roles, Responsibilities, and Regulation, in my professional ethics course. She co-edited, along with one of my former advisors, the hornbook on legal ethics (i.e., the textbook used to teach ethics in law schools). Most recently, I came across her book on discrimination on the basis of appearance, The Beauty Bias, as we were looking for guest speakers for this year's Nammour Symposium (we asked; she could not make it, but wished us all the best on this important topic). She is a lawyer by training, but students who are interested in legal ethics would do well to become familiar with her work (start with her article, Ethics in Practice, in the anthology mentioned above). 
Chong Choe-Smith

    I wanted to draw attention to a non-philosopher, the economist Peter Leeson, who’s written what amounts to a fun introduction to rational choice decision and game theory. The recent book, WTF?! is, as the book’s subtitle suggests, an economic tour of the weird. Some of the most outlandish practices in history have been solutions people hit upon for solving pressing social problems of their time and place.
    Leeson pushes the rational actor model to its limits, showing how seemingly senseless and/or barbaric practices -- like burning witches, selling wives, and holding trials by combat or ordeal and of animals -- were (and in some cases, are) sensibly grounded in expected benefits, given the set of prevailing beliefs and values and other constraints.
    But are old-timey superstitions relevant to us, the enlightened, in our situations today? Read this short piece by Leeson on polygraph tests and think about how trial by the ordeal of walking on red-hot ploughshares could have provided a similar sorting mechanism.
Kyle Swan

    Anna Marmodoro is an Italian metaphysician teaching at Oxford. I first discovered her while researching Anaxagoras’ theory of ‘homeomerous seeds,’ which seemed to me a gunk theory very advanced for its time (460 BC). Marmodoro’s book on Anaxagoras, Everything in Everything, confirmed this for me. This led me to other work of hers, in which her powers account of causality leads her to a neo-aristotelian ‘hylomorphic’ theory of objects.
    Since I had come to the conclusion that Galilean elementalism as an explanatory strategy, having produced the Scientific Revolution, has now run its course, much in the same way the medieval Aristotelian synthesis ran its course in the 16th century, I was interested.
    Marmodoro’s hylomorphism is ‘holistic’ in that matter and form are not parts or constituents of the substance. If the substance is composite, such as organism, its organs cease to have an independent existence but are ontologically subsumed by the whole. So substances like organisms are the fundamental reality, not the elements composing them.
    This constitutes an attractive solution to the metaphysical ‘Problem of Composition’: How are the elements in the Cap’n Crunch my grandson Matthew eats for breakfast related to Matthew? Are grandchildren emergent entities out of what they eat, thus rendering them either epiphenomenal or redundant? Or is ‘Matthew’ merely a heuristic concept, a way of thinking about stuff temporarily arranged a certain way. Either way, Matthew becomes dubious or derivative entity.
    I’m a realist about grandchildren; Marmodoro’s theory is one way of making sense of that.

Everything in Everything, OUP 2017
“Aristotle’s Hylomorphism, Without Reconditioning,” Philosophical Inquiry 36:5-22
Thomas Pyne

    David Hilbert claimed that mathematics was sloppy and should be made more rigorous by formalizing its theories in, say, predicate logic, and then showing both that a theory's truths are provable and that anything provable is true. Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem of 1931 upset Hilbert's program because it established that any proposed formal arithmetic must have unprovable truths. If we were to add this formal arithmetic's unproved truths as new axioms, the new arithmetic would have other unprovable truths. In 1950, Abraham Robinson, a Yale philosopher of mathematics, discovered the absolute minimum number of assumptions needed to carry out Gödel's proof. The elegant result is now called Robinson Arithmetic, which I am teaching this semester in Phil. 160.
    Robinson's second, original idea is that any proposed formal theory of real numbers will have two unintended consequences: (1) infinite numbers bigger than any real number, and (2) Leibniz-like infinitesimal numbers. This is a surprising limitation on the ability to formalize any science that uses math.
    Robinson's third, original idea was to create a calculus true to the spirit of Leibniz's idea that speed is an infinitesimal change in distance divided by an infinitesimal change in time. This is an easier-to-learn calculus than the kind taught at Sac State with epsilons and deltas. But very much like the metric system that cannot replace the entrenched English system of units in the U.S., U.S. universities resist the wholesale change to Robinson's nonstandard calculus even though they admit it is a more intuitive calculus.
Brad Dowden

    I’ve become acquainted with Tamar Gendler’s work fairly recently and I’m attracted to her notion of alief, which she introduces for the purpose of explaining belief-discordant behavior.
    Briefly, the question here is whether people can really believe something when their behavior clearly suggests otherwise. Can I really believe that airplanes are safer than cars when I am terrified of flying but not of driving? Can I really believe that men and women are equally intelligent when I routinely defer to the opinions of men? Can I really believe that turd-shaped chocolates are perfectly tasty when I am disgusted by the idea of eating one?
    Behaviorists say no. To believe something just is to act as if it is true. Behaviorists happily allow that people are often poor judges of what they believe. In cases like these we unwittingly report what we think we ought to believe rather than what we really do believe.
    But Gendler subscribes to a more traditional intellectualist view according to which what we believe is what we sincerely reflectively endorse; what we will tell other people when we want them to know what is true.
    Gendler argues that if this is the case then we need another notion to explain belief discordant behavior. What we believe is one thing, what we alieve is another. Alief is a concept that fits nicely within Kahneman’s concept of System 1 thinking: intuitive, associative, rapid and effortless forms of inference that lie largely beyond our voluntary control. 

Randolph Mayes

    Dallas Willard (1935-2013), a philosopher who taught at the University of Southern California, is someone I only met once, but read and listen to quite a bit. An idea he had, and I like, is that one’s personal philosophy will inevitably will be embodied in one’s actual life. So one way for each of us to evaluate a personal philosophy is to see how it seems to work out for individuals who believe it and embody it. Willard’s own life is one example of this, a nice glimpse of which can be seen from one page his family and friends have developed to honor him, especially its “about” section and a “tribute” by his USC philosophy colleague Scott Soames.
Russell DiSilvestro

    I was recently re-introduced to philosopher Eleonore Stump through this talk. I found it so interesting I decided to purchase her book, Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering. I came across Stump some 20 years ago when she presented at a lecture series on faith and the problem of evil. These lectures, interestingly, were the first of her attempts to articulate what was later to become the book I am reading now.
    I am only on page 27, and there is no guarantee that I will finish it. From what I have read so far, I have really enjoyed. Stump writes that she prefers to frame the problem of evil as a problem of suffering, as it is suffering rather than evil or pain that can undermine the desires of our hearts.
Also, I really like this quote:

At its best, the style of philosophy practiced by analytic philosophy can be very good even at large and important problems… But left to itself, because it values intricate technically expert argument, the analytic approach has a tendency to focus more and more on less and less; and so, at its worst, it can become plodding, pedestrian, sterile, and inadequate in its task… (p. 24-25)
    I hope I make it to the end of the book. I think I can learn a lot by reading it. In the meantime, I’ve got to get through these midterm papers, some of which seem to be undermining the desires of my heart.
Dorcas Chung

I would recommend Porphyry of Tyre, who was, like Pythagoras, an advocate of vegetarianism on spiritual and ethical grounds. These two philosophers are perhaps the most famous vegetarians of classical antiquity. He wrote the On Abstinence from Animal Food (Περὶ ἀποχῆς ἐμψύχων; De Abstinentia ab Esu Animalium), advocating against the consumption of animals, and he is cited with approval in vegetarian literature up to the present day.
Clovis Karam

Cambridge was home for some of the most towering geniuses of the 20th century: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes, G.E. Moore. But one name gets far less attention than it deserves: Frank Ramsey.
    A genuine polymath, Ramsey accomplished more by his death at the tragically young age of 26 than most intellectuals do in lives three times as long. He began learning German at 18, and by 19 produced the first English translation of Wittgenstein's Tractatus. Shortly after turning 20 he traveled to Austria and in the space of two weeks convinced Wittgenstein that there were fundamental flaws in his argument, prompting Wittgenstein to later return to Cambridge to set things right.
    The year after that he produced a new branch of mathematics (today called "Ramsey Theory") which pertains to how order is understood in mathematical structures. In the next two years he wrote two papers in economics that transformed thinking on taxation and savings, founding a new branch of the discipline now known as 'optimal accumulation.'
    His philosophical work was no less influential. His theory of truth (known as the 'Redundancy Theory') dissolved several problems that had haunted philosophers since Plato. His analysis of theoretical vs. observable terms in philosophy of science inspired both Rudolf Carnap and David Lewis. His work on subjective probability was a cornerstone for von Neumann's development of game theory.
    Try to imagine how all of these disciplines would have been transformed if Ramsey had not died shortly before his 27th birthday.
Garret Merriam

    I recently got to know the work of Diane Proudfoot. She is a professor of Philosophy at the University of Canterbury, in New Zealand. She works in several areas, including the history and philosophy of computer science, Turing, and philosophy of religion. I was looking for works in the philosophy of Artificial Intelligence and found her chapter “Software Immortals: Science or Faith?”, which is part of the book Singularity Hypothesis: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment. We are witnessing a growing body of researchers talking about unsavory futures brought about by our accelerating technological progress. Some, like Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom, warns that human extinction is one of them. Futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that digital enhancements will replace the messy mortal flesh in a few years. Since the robot-takes-control scenario has been a favorite of science fiction for a long time, it’s difficult to separate speculation from scientifically justified hypotheses. Proudfoot’s chapter was a refreshing and surprising reading for me, as a newcomer to the topic of digital minds and technological promises. She compares the promises of AI with those of religion. Both are supernaturalist proposals based on faith, she argues. And techno-supernaturalism, as she calls it, does not do a better work compared to old religions, especially as a way of dealing with humans’ fear of death. Techno-naturalism, she writes, “can be seen as a new-and-improved therapy for death anxiety, based on AI and neuroscience rather than on revelation”.
Saray Ayala-López