Episode 138: Toby Buckle discusses Mill's liberty principle
This month, Toby Buckle, host of the Political Philosophy Podcast, returns to talk about John Stuart Mill’s liberty principle! (Also sometimes called the ‘harm principle’.) The occasion for the episode is the recent release of Toby’s cool new book, What is Freedom?, which is out now from Oxford University Press. Get it while it’s hot!John Stuart Mill is probably one of the most influential intellectuals of the 19th century, having penned treatises on markets, logic, feminism, utilitarianism, and freedom of speech that people continue to pick up and read today. In this episode, we talk about how he had one foot in the free market-oriented tradition of liberalism and another in the more social justice-oriented type of liberalism, how he was raised under the world’s most ambitious parenting/education regime, and how he had a lifelong collaboration with Harriet Taylor. We also introduce what gets called his ‘liberty princple’.The idea behind the liberty principle is that we want as much freedom for each person as possible: they should have the ability to set their own agenda and carry it out. But we also need to limit it somewhat, because if everyone was completely unconstrained in how they set their agenda and carried it out, they’d interfere with each other. We’d have one person’s freedom detracting from other people’s freedom. So in order to achieve the perfect equilibrium we want, the thing to do is aim for sort of a greatest lower bound: every person should be allowed to do whatever they want for whatever reason they want, only stopping shy once they reach the point where doing whatever they want would harm another person. It might seem like an obvious principle to us now, but arguably that’s because we’re all living in the shadow of Mill!Part of the background context for this principle is a worry about paternalism. There’s a natural tendency for Person A to prevent Person B from doing what they want because Person A thinks it’s obvious that what Person B wants to do right now is harmful to them. The liberty principle tells us that that’s not a good reason to have laws prohibiting some course of action. We should only have a law prohibiting some course of action if allowing that course of action would interfere with other people’s freedom. That way, Mill argued, we keep the decision about whether to pass a law prohibiting something grounded in empirical facts about what would actually happen if it were passed. He also wanted to emphasize that each person has the right to be their own arbiter of what kinds of risk they will assume.I hope you enjoy our discussion! It was a fun one.Further ReadingIf you’d like to hear more along the lines of what Toby and I discuss in this episode, you can do no better than to take a look at Mill’s exquisiteOn Liberty, which you can get for free here:https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/34901And if you missed the link up at the top, definitely check out Toby’s edited volume, which gathers together a number of the interviews from his own podcast. The overarching theme is what freedom is and what it can be.What is Freedom?: Conversations with Historians, Philosophers, and Activists, Toby BuckleHappy reading!Matt Teichman
Episode 137: Bryan Caplan discusses open borders
This month, I talk to Bryan Caplan (George Mason University) about what a world without immigration restrictions could look like. The work discussed in this episode comes out of Bryan’s incredible non-fiction graphic novel, Open Borders, which I highly recommend checking out. Don’t let the comic-book-iness of it fool you; it is 100% accessible and entertaining, but it is also written at the level of detail you’d normally expect to see in a peer-reviewed research paper.One basic fact about the world today is that it’s kind of a pain to move from country to country. You can maybe pull it off if you’ve already landed a fancy job where you want to move and if you’re coming from a first-world country, but even then, there are more complications than you might think: work visas, sponsorships, visa renewal, permanent residency, possible eventual citizenship. Basically just a ton of red tape. And if you’re coming from a third-world country, forget it: you typically either have to be a political refugee or enter a lottery that leaves you with a vanishingly small chance of getting in. So although it is technically possible to immigrate, assuming that planets are aligned, the fact remains that in most situations, there are strong legal pressures locking us into whatever country we live in right now. Bryan Caplan thinks that we should essentially just eliminate the bureaucratic machine that makes it so difficult to live wherever you please. Sure, there can still be customs, and nation states, and basic security checks—but other than that, make it as easy as possible for everyone to move around.Let’s take the US as an example. One obvious benefit of opening up our borders is humanitarian: anyone living in poverty would be able to come here and with no difficulty whatsoever be able to start earning ten times as much money as they could back home. But far beyond that, there is a growing body of research within economics which suggests that having a large influx of formerly poor, newly productive people will lead to a boost in our economy. So everybody wins. And it isn’t just any old boost; it’s a massive boost. If these models are correct, everybody wins big time.Tune in to hear our guest run through some of the empirical evidence for this prediction and find out why, according to him, the supposed dangers of an open boders policy are greatly exaggerated!Further ReadingIf you’re curious to learn more about the arguments discussed in this episode, you can do no better than to turn to the book:Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration, Bryan Caplan and Zach WeinersmithYou might also enjoy Bryan’s blog post at Econlib running through the many topics the book covers.Finally, our distinguished guest recommends the following paper by Michael Clemens, which was part of the inspiration for his work on open borders:‘Economics and Emigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk?', Michael A. ClemensHappy reading!
Episode 136: Christian Miller discusses virtue and character
This month,Yuezhen Liand I sit down withChristian Miller(Wake Forest University) to talk about how to be virtuous. Also known as how to be good.‘Virtue’ is sort of an old-timey word. But the concept is still alive and well today, even though we tend to use different words for it. The idea behind a virtue is: there’s such a thing as being a good person and doing good things, and that there are different ways of being a good person and doing good things. For example, you can be good in the sense that you’re honest, or you can be good in the sense that you’re brave, and you can definitely be one of those things without being the other. In philosophy, the name we give to character traits like being honest or brave is ‘virtues’.We talk a big game about being great people. Maybe I love to tell my friends about how I donated money to a charitable cause, or how I forgive people who did bad things when they apologize, or how I like to help people when they’re in trouble, or whatever. Blah blah blah. Christian Miller wants to cut through the all the talk and find out how virtuous weactuallyare, as a whole. What does the empirical evidence from psychology suggest? In his book,The Character Gap, Christian Miller finds that we are, on the whole, a mixed bag. On average, we aren’t particularly good people, which is maybe a bit of a bummer. But on the plus side, we also aren’t particularly bad people. We’re all sorta meh, in the middle. And there is a full range of variation in the population, with small numbers of extraordinarily good people and small numbers extraordinarily bad people at each of the tails.What should we do about all this? I guess all you ever can do is follow your bliss. But the fact is that most of us want to think of ourselves as good, regardless of how good we actually are, so why not try to be our best selves? Join us for this episode, as Christian Miller discusses some strategies we can employ to nudge ourselves in the direction of being a bit more honest, or a bit more brave, or a bit more whatever we want to be.Matt Teichman
Episode 135: Sara Protasi discusses the philosophy of envy
This month,Charlie Wilandand I sit down withSara Protasito talk about envy. Which she just came out with a whole book about! Awesome.Click here to download episode 135 of Elucidations.You might think that it’s pretty clear what envy is. Isn’t envy just when someone else has something you want, you don’t have it, and that makes you feel annoyed? Well, kind of—but there’s a little more to it. For example, you have to view yourself as similar to the other person in the relevant respect; as in contention for the same resources. If I have no ambition to get promoted into upper-level management, I’m not in a position to get envious when that happens to someone else. Another subtlety is that if you look at how we use the word ‘envy’, we often use it interchangeably with other words like ‘jealousy’ or ‘resentment’. And although the everyday meanings of these terms are probably at least a little bit fluid, there are sharp distinctions between different related emotional reactions that it is useful to draw.In the context of the academic literature in psychology and philosophy, envy is anamoralemotion, which means that it isn’t connected up with feelings of who truly deserves what. It’s just a feeling that you want the envied thing no matter what, and you aren’t really thinking about who deserves it. One test that Sara Protasi proposes for differentiating between envy and resentment is the following. Say you have sort of an angry feeling about your lack of something that another person has, and you want to figure out whether it’s envy or resentment. What you should do is ask yourself: if the roles were reversed, and I had the desired thing while someone who really deserved it didn’t, would I be indignant on that other person’s behalf? Or would I just think: no problem, I’ve got everything I need? If you would be indignant in that scenario, then what you’re feeling is resentment. If you wouldn’t, then what you’re feeling is envy.Sara Protasi also advances the adventurous claim that some forms of envy can actually be good. If I find that a friend has some quality I wish I had, and that realization spurs me to self-improve in some way so that I can bring myself up to their level, then I’m feeling what Protasi callsemulative envy.Join us as we get to the bottom of what kinds of envy are, when they’re good, when they’re bad, and why!
Episode 134: Claire Kirwin discusses value realism
This month,Josh Kaufmanand I talk toClaire Kirwinabout whether things are objectively good or bad, or whether it’s all in the eye of the beholder. Professor Kirwin is a fan of peanut butter cup ice cream, and Josh and I are fans of mint chocolate chip. Is there an objective fact of the matter about whether either is good, or whether one is better than the other? Or are we all just expressing our preferences, i.e. doing nothing more than providing information about ourselves? Can goodness be ‘in’ ice cream, or is it just ‘in’ the person eating it? If we think peanut butter cup ice creamcanbe objectively good, is that somehow disrespectful to people who prefer something else? Does everyone have a moral right to have their ice cream preferences respected by others? The example may be somewhat frivolous, but it ties into lots of similar questions that many of us think of as more weighty, like whether classical music can be objectively great/terrible, or whether a given behavior can be morally objectively great/terrible.Value realismis a catch-all expression for the belief that all of these things are objectively in the objects themselves. Peanut butter cup ice cream deliciousness is in the ice cream itself, not in the person experiencing it, and classical music greatness is in the music itself, not in the audience member listening to it at Carnegie Hall. Claire Kirwin espouses value realism across all of these cases, but we focus on ice cream in this episode because, uh, hopefully it’s a little less of a hot button thing than some other topics. We’d like to be able to talk about it without raising an undue amount of ire.Kirwin’s two main ideas are as follows. First, you might wonder how the heck there could even be some sort of objective deliciousness in ice cream itself. Doesn’t everyone disagree about that? Her general line of response is that there can be experts in the flavor of ice cream, and if there can be experts in the flavor of ice cream, then there must be something about ice cream that they’re especially good at picking up. Maybe you’re a master chef, or maybe you’re a food critic, or maybe you’ve just eaten more ice cream than most people. Whatever. There are lots of different ways of being an expert. The point is that if you understand a lot about ice cream it can sensitize you to little details in its flavor that other people haven’t been trained to notice.Her follow-up idea is quite interesting. She argues that when one person prefers mint chocolate chip ice cream and another prefers peanut butter cup ice cream, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the two people disagree. It could very well be that peanut butter cup ice cream is objectively good, and mint chocolate chip ice cream is also objectively good. It’s just that one person only has the expertise required to discern the tastiness of the one flavor, and the other person only has the expertise required to discern the tastiness of the other flavor. So saying that some flavor you have expertise in is objectively good is actually potentially remaining neutral about other flavors—at least the ones you feel like you don’t have a good grip on.Join the three of us as we entertain a peaceful solution to the ice cream wars!Matt Teichman
Episode 133: Aristotle discusses his philosophy
This month,Agnes Callardand I talk toAristotleabout his philosophy, including his work on physics, biology, and ethics. Featuring an introduction by our awesome intern,Noadia Steinmetz-Silber! Click here to downloadEpisode 133 of Elucidations.Not everyone is familiar with Aristotle’s work today, but the case could be made that science, political theory, logic, ethics, and philosophy exist in their current form largely due to the precedent he set. That said, in this episode, Aristotle opens by telling us a little about how the foundational assumptions made by a number of today’s scientists and philosophers differ from his. One distinctive feature of his work—both as compared to today’s intellectuals and as compared to his peers in 4th century B.C. Athens—was how his philosophy was meant to accommodate the possibility of different types of phenomena requiring totally different types of theoretical explanation.Today, this is reflected in the fact that we have different departments for different sciences in universities. Like, we don’t have a ‘science’ department. We have a physics department that aims to explain the behavior of physical matter and energy, a biology department that aims to explain the behavior of living organisms, a chemistry department that aims to explain the behavior of chemical compounds, a psychology department that aims to explain the behavior of minds, an economics department that aims to explain the behavior of markets, and so on. Could all of these things be reduced to one fundamental science? Maybe, maybe not. It’s possible that there’s a way of, for example, reducing all of biology to physics, but if there is, we haven’t figured it out yet. Aristotle’s main thought here is that that’s fine. If we have to have separate scientific fields for physical matter and biological organisms, that isn’t necessarily a failure on the part of the hard sciences—it could just be that different types of entities in the world need different types of explanations.Aristotle then observes that if you’re okay with the idea that there could be different types of phenomena that need to be explained in different ways, that goes along with believing that things can be created and destroyed. How come? Well, at the level of common sense, you and I would say that when a dog is born, the universe now has a new thing in it: this dog. But if you’re one of these ‘nothing exists other than fundamental physical particles’ people, you think that nothing is ever created or destroyed. It’s just that the atoms—or maybe the quarks and leptons—are just rearranging themselves, and the nickname we give that at the macroscopic level is that ‘a dog came into existence’. One of the main tasks that Aristotle set for himself was explaining how it makes sense to take talk of things being created and destroyed literally, at face value.Join us as we discuss the ancient Greek perspective on causality, matter, biology, physics, and whether or not people have a purpose!Matt Teichman
Episode 132: Rebecca Valentine discusses queer hackerspaces
This month, we sit down withRebecca Valentine(co-founder ofQueerious Labs) to talk about anarchism, feminism, tech culture, and creative hacking. Hack this, hack that. What is a hacker, anyway? In pop culture, it’s common to use the term ‘hacker’ as a synonym for ‘cybercriminal’—that is, a person who engages in illegal activity over a computer network, usually involving gaining access to something they shouldn’t. But if you’ve ever spent any time in the tech community, you’ll know that there, the term is used in a very different way. It’s complicated to define precisely, but generally, ‘hacking’ involves taking apart a ready-made product in an exploratory way, whether to understand how it works, or to put it back together in a different, more customized way.We live in a world of mass-produced artifacts, each of which is manufactured in bulk to serve a specific purpose. But despite that fact, we are all individual people, many of whom want different things out of their artifacts. For example, maybe I have a car and want to give it my own paint job that it wouldn’t have gotten in the factory. Or maybe I have a handbag and would like to embroider a cool pattern on it. Those are simple examples, but our guest stresses that hacking often involves going further and subverting the original intentions behind the thing being hacked. For instance, there are people who have managed to get Alexa and Siri to talk to one another, each device responding in speech the way it would respond to a person. Neither was designed to talk to another device in English—rather, each was designed to provide a voice interface to a single human owner. The result can be pretty bizarre and interesting to listen to!In this episode, Valentine discusses why she founded Queerious Labs, a public nonprofit whose purpose is to encourage these sorts of tinker-y explorations. Most other spaces of this kind tend to be dominated by men, especially straight cisgender men, and often that can have the effect of alienating people who aren’t men, or who aren’t straight, or who aren’t cisgender. In addition, Queerious Labs is intended to be a friendly environment for people with socialist, anarchist, and feminist backgrounds. In the course of laying out how all those things hang together, we have the chance to dig in a wide range of topics, including political power, bottom-up vs. top-down organizational structures, mass culture, the patriarchy, natural language, theory vs. anti-theory, and how gender roles are in flux across time and history.
Episode 131: Greg Salmieri discusses egoism and altruism
This month, Greg Salmieri (University of Texas at Austin) returns for his third appearance on Elucidations, this time to talk about doing right by yourself.What was the last thing you did? The last thing I did was pull a shot of espresso. I wouldn’t say I made coffee as an end in itself, even though I love the taste of the roast I just used. If I had to tell you the main reason I made a coffee, it was in order to speed along my transformation from groggy podcast host to awake podcast host. But why do that? Hmm. I guess I wanted to wake up so that I could start writing this blog post, pay a couple bills, and put together a cool new IKEA lamp? But why pay a couple bills or put together a new IKEA lamp? So that I can continue to live in my apartment, be able to see things in it, and so on, maybe? Plato and Aristotle were interested in these ‘but what are you doing XYZ in order to accomplish?’ type questions, and they had the idea that if you keep re-asking the question every time you come up with answer, eventually you’ll get to something that is the ultimate reason you’re doing everything for. Once you get there, there won’t be any further justification for anything you do.‘Ethical egoism’ is a nickname that philosophers give to the idea that being a good person means that everything you do, ultimately, at the end of the day, you do in order to benefit yourself.Note that there’s already a lot of subtlety in this idea as we’ve defined it. For example, if you’re deceived about what’s good for you, and the thing you think is good for you is actually bad for you, then if you do everything you do in order to bring that about, you don’t count as a good person. Maybe I think that fame will be great for me, because of all the money, power, and attention that comes with it. But in a few years, once I actually become world famous, I realize it’s actually pretty miserable to be hounded by paparazzi, speculated about in the tabloids, and subjected to intense scrutiny every time I make a comment about anything. Once that happens, I might decide the whole get famous plan was misbegotten, longing for the days before I was a celebrity. So one point of subtlety is that what’s good or bad for a person can be complicated to determine—there are lots of cases where you can make a mistake about what’s really good for you.A second point of subtlety is that how your everyday behavior corresponds to what you’re ultimately doing everything for can be complex. Maybe you’ve adopted a monkish lifestyle, sacrificing the day to day comforts we take for granted so that you can help as many other people as possible, volunteering, donating to charities, and so forth. An ethical egoist would say that if you’re ultimately doing all those things because of the deep, persistent, long-term satisfaction it brings you—because of how it enriches your life to the fullest possible extent, then that counts as being a good person. So it’s not like commonly-held stereotypes about what selfishness is necessarily line up with what ethical egoists recommend.Due to those two factors, there’s a lot of wiggle room in what concrete behaviors can count as acting in your self-interest, and different behaviors are going to count as self-interested for different people, because different people often have fundamentally different needs and abilities. And I would say that’s what makes it especially interesting to think about whether ethical egoists have it right.Join us this month as our esteemed guest defends the viability of ethical egoism!
Episode 130: Jessica Tizzard discusses weakness of the will
This month, Long Dang and I sit down to talk to Jessica Tizzard (University of Connecticut, Storrs) about weakness of the will.You’re at a party hosted by a close friend. It’s been three hours since you got there, and the evening thus far has been chock full of scintillating conversation, a fun round of Charades followed by Assassins, first rate cocktails, and a dessert to die for. You’ve just now been invited to play one of your favorite games, which usually takes about 90 minutes to complete—when out of nowhere, the onset of a yawn yanks you back into reality. Suddenly, you remember you’d promised yourself that you weren’t going to stay out late, because you’ve got to get up early tomorrow for an important meeting. You realize that now is the time to go home and get a good night’s sleep. And yet, the allure of the game pulls you in. Against your better judgment, you play the game deep into the night, future consequences be damned.Since the time of the ancient Greeks, some of the sharpest thinkers in philosophy have tried to figure out what is happening in that scenario. Obviously, we frequently decide that X is the best course of action, and yet our willpower falters and we decide to do Y, even though we know full well that doing Y is counterproductive or self-destructive. But why? In what world does that make any logical sense? Surely, if you decided that X was the thing to do, the natural next move is to do X. Not do the thing you convinced yourself was going to be bad for you. Right?The trouble is that every obvious answer to this puzzle feels unsatisfactory. You could be like: well if I did Y, then I must have really decided Y was best. But if that’s the case, why do you feel so terrible when you do it? Why do you feel guilty staying at the party until deep into the night, if you’ve supposedly decided that staying at the party is for the best? Taking that stance is effectively saying: no one ever has a crisis of willpower. Whenever you do anything, that is definitive proof that you believed it was the best possible thing to do. But insisting that everyone always has the willpower to do everything they think they should just seems to fly in the face of what we know about the human experience.Another option might be to say: well, ok, I did decide that X was the best thing to do, but when the moment to suck it up and actually do X came, I was overcome with desire. The feeling of pleasure at the prospect of partying hard swept over me and signal jammed my rational faculty, blocking me from doing what I knew I should. So I stayed, and had to suffer the consequences the next morning. But then that feels unsatisfactory as well, because if I really was overcome by the pleasure instinct, blocked from doing what I thought I should do, then what I did was really involuntary. Like a muscle spasm. Or a brain tumor that made me do it. That just seems wrong: clearly, in these types of situations, I actively chose to e.g. stay at the party and suffer the consequences. Staying at the party didn’t just happen to me, like a headache.Jessica Tizzard thinks that the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant offered an interesting and novel way to understand what’s going on in these moments when you’re weak-willed. Step one in his approach is to take cases like the one described above and assimilate them all to what is often thought of as a different situation: the moral dilemma. A moral dilemma, as standardly construed, is a situation where you really can’t decide which of several options is the best to take. The idea here is that what look like situations where you knew you should do X but instead did Y are often, upon closer examination, really situations where you genuinely couldn’t tell which of those two things you should do. Sometimes, perhaps, when I thought I was having a crisis of willpower, I was in fact just torn and couldn’t decide.Number two in Immanuel Kant’s bag of tricks is to accept a version of the ‘I wanted to go home, but the desire to stay swept over me and made me stay at the party’ explanation, with one key difference: namely, he has a different take on what a desire is. Maybe a desire isn’t some physical pleasure sensation seizing control of your body like a puppet and forcing you to do something other than what you really want to do. Maybe a desire is really more like another set of factors to consider in your reasoning—it may come with a feeling, and present itself to you with a certain urgency, but really what it is is a set of reasons that you’re weighing up like any other. Understanding desire on those lines puts Kant in a nice position to say that lacking the willpower to do what you think is right is actually just a case of being racked by indecision.Tune in to hear Jessica Tizzard lay out the Kantian story about what happens when we act against our better judgment!Matt Teichman