16 November 2011

Dennett - Free-floating rationales and the reason why law exists

From Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting (1984).

Free-floating rationales (pp. 24-25):

a set of reasons that were appreciated by, thought out by, and rendered explicit by no one. The subtlety and deviousness of this thinking-without-a­-thinker is often more than a match for the thinking we thinkers do. ...

explain  as little as possible and tell one's field operatives only what they abso­lutely need to know to perform their roles. Mother Nature is similarly stingy when she apportions comprehension, it appears. When larger "goals" can be achieved by cleverly organized armies of uncomprehend­ing agents, such as ants, the "Need to Know" rule is ruthlessly invoked. ...

Mother Nature abides by the "Need to Know" principle, but we appreciate a contrary principle: our ideal is to be completely savvy, to be  able to notice all the reasons that concern us, to be in the dark about  nothing of relevance to us, to be the completely and perfectly informed guardians of our own interests. That is what it would be to be able to choose one's course of action always as reason dictated. We often say that "reason dictates" a certain course of action to an actor in a certain circumstance.  ... we mean that a certain problem (abstractly considered-that is, whether or not any creature has explicitly expressed and addressed it) has a certain (optimal) solution. The problem is defined by the circumstances and interests of the actor in question. ...

Kant draws our attention to the distinction between merely doing what reason dictates and doing what reason dictates because reason dictates it. One might, in the first instance, just happen to do "the right thing," or be caused by extraneous and irrelevant factors to do the right thing. However fortunate one might be to fall into such a circumstance, this is to be distinguished from the good fortune enjoyed by one who has the marvelous further power to be moved by reasons.

Intermediate between the actor who purely coincidentally "does the right thing" and the actor who is moved by the right reasons to do the right thing is the actor who tends to do the right thing (because the actor was designed to tend to do the right thing), but nevertheless does the right thing (when it does) unwittingly. This intermediate actor, it seems, does not attend to the wise voice of Reason directly, cannot itself actually hear and comprehend Reason's dictates; however, it seems as though the process (or agent) that designed the actor was thus responsive to Rea­son's dictates.

Diminished Responsibility and the Specter of Creeping Exculpation (pp. 158-164):

Why do we want to punish people who "commit crimes"? ... We can readily identify sorts of harms we would like to see minimized in our society, and we have reason to believe that if we prohibit the causing of these harms, and give force to the prohibition by threatening sanctions, we will thereby I, diminish the frequency of those harms. We believe this institution is at least somewhat effective, and we believe this for good reasons. First, it  follows from our conception of rationality that if the members of society are even approximately rational, they will see that it is not at all in their interests to be caught having committed the prohibited deeds, and will hence in general be deterred. And we have plenty of empirical evidence that the citizenry, taken as a whole, is appropriately sensitive to such institutions. Laws (backed by sanctions) do make a difference, and in the desired direction. But we recognize that these desirable effects fall short of the ideal. ...

this system of laws would deter perfectly, because (unlike us) everyone would be so rational. People-all people-would see as plain as the noses on their faces that crime didn't pay, and hence would all abstain from it. Judges and policemen and jailers would be appointed and trained, and would sit around, like the Swiss Army, waiting to be called into action, but rather doubting that it would ever happen in their lifetimes. Why isn't that the situation we find ourselves in? If we're really homo sapiens, the "rational animal," why are our prisons overcrowded and our judges overworked? One reason seems to be that we skimp on our institutions of enforcement, and hence people, being rational indeed, see that under certain conditions crime does  pay, or at any rate is likely enough to pay to be worth the risk. The deterrent power of laws is (ideally) a function of people's perception of the likelihood of their being apprehended and the severity of the penalty that might be inflicted. Increasing either factor increases deterrence. ...

Since rapidly diminishing returns would be the result of any further investment in strengthening our enforcement, the optimal institution will be one in which a certain amount of lawbreaking, apprehension, and conviction is "tolerated." That is not to say our present system needs no serious reform, but-runs this argument-it would be irrational to hold out any hope of devising a system of perfect deterrence. So lawbreakers will always be among us; the jailer will never have-should never have­ an entirely ceremonial position. ...

Deterrence depends on several factors, and one is "publicity": deterrence has a chance to succeed only with people who know the law and understand the conditions and sanctions. There may be individuals, we recognize, who fail to meet these conditions, and hence may commit the prohibited deed because the deterrent effect of the law never reaches to them. That is why a part of the cost of the institution of laws is public education; secret laws are useless as deterrents. The cost-effective way of achieving a suitably high level of knowledge is to combine a sufficiently energetic public information program with a somewhat peremptory (and hence bracing) legal wrinkle: ignorance of the law is no excuse. This latter condition provides a motivation to all to maintain a state of mild inquisitiveness about the law and any new changes in it. ...

There is a tacit requirement that laws be made as straightforward and comprehensible as possible, so that it is not asking too much to suppose people under their jurisdiction can comprehend them, but for some people this is asking too much. These are, paradigmatically, the mentally incompetent and insane. We excuse them from criminal liability because they manifestly do not meet the minimal conditions for deterrability, and the attempt to educate them, to bring them up to the knowledge and comprehension threshold, would be fruitless-or at least too costly. To punish them as if they were responsible citizens would be to undermine the very institution of pun­ishment (which depends on its credibility) by undermining its rationale. It would be as outrageous-as offensive to the rationality of the citizenry at large-for the law to refuse to distinguish these people as nonrespon­sible, as it would be for the law to maintain its "ignorance is no excuse" rule while passing and enforcing secret laws. So in order to preserve the credibility and defensibility of the system, we add explicit provisions excluding various types of people from legal responsibility.

This has the effect of diminishing the pool of eligible punishees, the genuinely responsible and guilty-as-charged. But we recognize that per­haps the principles used to demarcate this class are crude, and the ques­tion arises whether the law's credibility and acceptability (its justice, in short) could be further improved by making finer-grained distinctions. ...

So we must get arbitrary again, and draw the line-exactly where is no more impor­tant in this case than it is in the case of setting a legal age for drinking or driving. We must set up some efficiently determinable threshold for legal competence, never for a moment supposing that there couldn't be intui­tively persuasive "counterexamples" to whatever line we draw, but de­claring in advance that such pleas will not be entertained. We mustn't look too closely at the particular micro-details of the accused's circum­stances, but just try to establish (crudely and swiftly) that in general this agent is deterrable, even though he was not deterred on this occasion. ...

We cannot conclude from the fact that a wager was lost that it was irrationally made. So long as the risk was taken in full knowl­edge of the consequences of the loss, the agent can hardly complain that the sanctions now imposed are unfairly applied to him.

02 November 2011

We're 7 billion

Jack Goldstone at NewPopulationBomb:
For the two hundred years from 1750 to 1950, the fastest population growth took place in the world’s most advanced economies. Their rising productivity and improving governance ushered in previously unseen prosperity, and fuels optimism for the future. 
But in the next century, the fastest population growth will take place in the world’s least advanced economies and some of its worst-governed countries. A global effort to improve governance and education in those countries, allowing the world to benefit from the human potential of billions of additional people, could again usher in a new stage of global prosperity. But failure to meet this challenge may consign billions of people to live in countries with failing states, brimming with angry and frustrated youth, prone to high levels of violence, and recurrent humanitarian disasters on ever-larger scales. There is still time to build partnerships and make investments to respond to this challenge, but every week, another three million children are born in the poorest countries, and the clock ticks on.
Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist:
The peak is in sight. Even as the population passes seven billion, the growth rate of the world population has halved since the 1960s. The United Nations Population Division issues high, medium and low forecasts. Inevitably the high one (fifteen billion people by 2100) gets more attention than the low one (six billion and falling). But given that the forecasts have generally proved too high for the past few decades, let us imagine for a moment what might happen if that proves true again.
Africa is currently the continent with the highest birth rates, but it also has the fastest economic growth. The past decade has seen Asian-tiger-style growth all across Africa. HIV is in retreat, malaria in decline. When child mortality fell and economic growth boomed like this in Europe, Latin America and Asia, the result was a rapid fall in the birth rate. For fertility to fall, contraception provides the means, but economic growth and public health provide the motive. So the current slow decline in Africa’s birth rate may turn into a plummet.
If that happens, the low UN estimate could prove more accurate with the world population peaking a little above eight billion and falling to a billion less than today by the end of the century.
Good things might happen: "agricultural productivity continues to rise", "EU tariff barriers against African produce are lifted and America’s crazy policy of diverting food into motor fuel is reversed", "with more people able to afford fossil fuels, fewer will depend on forests for cooking fuel", "water use grows steadily more efficient with the spread of drip irrigation". So:
It is quite possible that your great grandchildren will not only be fewer in number, but will live in a world with huge nature reserves, vast forests and rich seas.