A drug dealer’s paradise

August 31, 2012 § 3 Comments

Let me describe for you the perfect business.

The purchase decision makers (PDMs) are relatively small in number, so you can spend a lot of marketing money segmenting them, figuring them out, and telling them (individually if necessary — the message will vary with the PDM segment) just what they want to hear. It doesn’t matter if a particular PDM is a ruthlessly scientific idealist, a heat-seeking innovator, a corrupt greaseball, or any other permutation of characteristics. The fact that the population of PDMs is small means you can spend money equivalent to multiples of their personal incomes just figuring them out and telling them, through various credible organs, precisely what you want them to hear. Your overall market of consumers is enormous; but the market of purchase decision makers is quite small in comparison to your marketing budget.

The actual consumers of your products are not the PDMs, so the consequences of using your products are not born by the same people who decide to purchase your products. (In fact, the consumer is not permitted to purchase your products without an order from a PDM). Contrast this to the pilot-passenger relationship, where everyone is along for the ride together. The PDMs are the expert decision makers, and when problems arise from your products which are not part of the current scientific consensus those problems will typically be attributed to something independently wrong with the consumer himself. The usual response to problems created by your products, then, will be to add on an additional one of your products to address this new problem. Furthermore, when a consumer ceases using your product that will sometimes in itself cause a whole cascade of new problems. (This is often enough the case even when your product was doing nothing beneficial for the consumer in the first place). Frequently these new problems would in fact resolve on their own if things were just left alone long enough after (carefully) ceasing use of your product; but instead what usually happens is that this class of problems is attributed to your product “working” (even if it wasn’t), and to ceasing its use as imprudent; so its use is resumed in order to avoid temporary difficulties involved in ceasing its use. In general the notion that ceasing use of your products is itself a source of (temporary, but often lasting for quite some time) problems is outside of the scientific consensus: those kinds of notions are generally considered “alternative”, that is, not serious, as are alternatives to your products. So once consumers start using your products it often becomes extremely difficult for them to stop using them, even though they may be getting little benefit from them and are often gravely harmed by them.

It also turns out that the all-important “scientific consensus” is something over which you have a great deal of control.

The regulatory agencies for your business require that your overt marketing claims must be evidence-based, but they don’t require you to make all the evidence public. The great majority of the evidence is produced by you, or by those funded by you, and it is considered proprietary commercial data which you have no obligation to share — not even with the regulatory agency. You get to pick and choose from the evidence in your secret files to support whatever thesis you are trying to defend, whether in the domain of legal disputes, marketing, regulatory approval, or what have you. The gold standard for this evidence is “statistical significance”, which is arguably statistical but is certainly not significant, unless by “significant” we mean “begging whatever question you want begged“. Actual consumer experience with your products is considered “anecdotal”, and rests on the very bottom of the evidence heirarchy — when it is reported and believed at all.

The regulatory agencies don’t permit you to market uses of your products unless those uses are scientifically demonstrated and pass regulatory approval (keeping in mind what “scientifically demonstrated” means above). However the PDMs can use your products for whatever they choose to use them for: so this not-so-stringent regulatory requirement boils down to labeling restrictions. Your marketing departments can (and do) commission ghost written papers supporting whatever uses you want to market. This includes inventing new “needs” for your products which do not exist in reality, and backing up those new “needs” with question-begging scientific measurements you have designed with the result in mind, again passing through your selective data filter to get the results you want. Because of the diversity of academia and your pervasive presence there as a funding partner you can always find prestigious academics willing to sign their names to your ghost written papers, not because they are corrupt but because doing so comports with how they as individuals actually view things; and besides it helps advance their careers and uses their time efficiently. Things like bribes and wining and dining may be in the game from time to time, but they aren’t where the real action is. There is no advocate quite like the true believer, and when you feed the true believer just what he wants to see the results can be far more potent than any bribe. The fact that you do the same thing with diametrically opposed academics depending on your own purposes – much like you cherry pick the scientific data to suit your own purposes – goes largely (though not completely) unnoticed. As a result, the great bulk of the “scientific” literature is marketing copy written by you and your competitors, with just enough distance to (mostly) keep you out of legal trouble. Any actual objective science in the domain is insignificant: the consensus is a constructed consensus over which you and your competitors have control. This works not as a conspiracy but because your industry can easily outspend (and out-litigate), by orders of magnitude, any points of view you find less than amenable.

The public at large has a very different perception of how things work: a situation you have carefully cultivated. The public falsely thinks that when you come out with “improved” products, you have to have actually shown that those products represent improvements over previous generations of products which have now fallen off-patent. In actual fact your new products are frequently less effective and more dangerous than previous generations of product; but you only have to show that they “work” (in the sense of “statistical significance”) compared to doing nothing at all in order to get regulatory approval. At the same time, when you show that they “work” along some scientific measure (which you get to select) you can ignore any negative effects they may have, both by preselecting what data you want to use and because the studies and their data are, by design, not intended to bring bad effects to light. You don’t have to show that your products actually improve things for consumers. The public falsely thinks that regulatory agencies will not approve your products for sale unless your products have been demonstrated to be safe. The public falsely thinks that there is lots of independent study of your products which insures their safety and effectiveness. The public falsely thinks that your industry is heavily regulated, when in fact the regulatory structure is something to which you have fully adapted and now use to your advantage: the false appearance of tight regulation is better for business than no regulation at all. The list goes on.

Finally, the fact that problems are usually attributed to the consumer rather than your product creates a moat of social stigma and institutional ignorance around your business. When someone has trouble getting rid of one of your products it is typically attributed to a character flaw (or some other flaw) in the person, and our social institutions are designed only to deal with people with those flaws, not with innocent victims. The consumer-victim is typically either categorized as an abuser or as a psychiatric case: there is no institutional support of any kind for unwitting victims.

Neither you nor the PDMs want the category of unwitting victim to exist as distinct from character-flawed or mentally ill individuals. This also happens to comport well with hypocritical modern liberal non-judgmentalism: there is no such thing as character flaws because that would imply that there is such a thing as character, which means that “tolerance” goes out the window. But as with white flight, what we say and what we do are different things: I still wouldn’t be caught dead as one of those flawed people.

The institutional approach to dealing with abusers and psychiatric cases is wildly inappropriate and ineffective in actually helping consumers deal with problems caused by your products, but it has the advantage of making it impossible for them to find the right kind of help. Most of the PDMs don’t understand issues that arise with your products and will refer consumers to “experts” – “experts” who will treat the consumer as an addict or as mentally ill. As a result of this moat of social stigma and ineptitude, consumers are far more likely to remain a customer of yours for life than they are to escape from the chains you’ve sold them. The only real downside is that your products shorten your customers lives, so the annuity stream doesn’t go on quite as long as you might prefer.

That perfect business is, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, the modern pharmaceutical industry.

Libertarianism and the tyranny of contract

August 30, 2012 § 10 Comments

On a practical level a lot of what libertarians see as good governance overlaps with what I see as good governance, at least in the higher levels of government hierarchy, because of the principle of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity means that higher levels in the authority hierarchy should only do those things which are absolutely necessary at that level: that in general, legitimate authority derives from the common good, is bottom-up in nature, and higher authorities should butt out of local matters without some truly compelling, necessary interest.  If it isn’t absolutely necessary to provide a certain kind of governance and enforcement at a higher level, it should be provided at a more local level.

Polities violate subsidiarity at their peril: embracing universal health care as a compelling federal interest has resulted, quite unsurprisingly, in the HHS contraception mandate and what will now be a scaled-up ongoing federal war on natural law morality under the guise of “health”.   This should be no surprise to anyone who takes subsidiarity seriously, as opposed to merely giving it lip service and attempting to de-fang the requirement of subsidiarity by appealing to solidarity, as if solidarity and subsidiarity were in opposition rather than complementary.  The idea that subsidiarity and solidarity are in conflict is of a piece with other atrocious modern ideas like feminism, which proposes that the natural complementarity of male and female are in opposition.

Liberalism in general cannot deal with complementarian realities, because complementarian realities imply that some discriminations and inequalities are natural and good in a way which trumps the whims of putatively free and equal citizens who get to decide for themselves what they want to be.  As a result liberalism necessarily has to turn a blind eye to certain parts of reality; most especially those parts of reality where substantively good discriminations are enforced.

This willful blindness manifests itself in the language used under libertarian auspices.   How often do we hear the issue of enforcing contracts between sodomites-qua-sodomites phrased as “allowing gays to marry?”  The passive libertarian language of “allowing” deliberately conceals the reality; for what is advocated is not mere passivity.  What is advocated at the most basic level is for society to enforce certain kinds of legal contracts, even though those legal contracts are grossly immoral.  The passive language “allow gays to marry” is a lie.   Enforcing contracts is an activity of government (not a passivity), and it is impossible to decide what to actively enforce and what not to actively enforce without making substantive judgements about the good.  Substantive judgements about the good will necessarily discriminate: every function of governance, including contract enforcement, is an authoritative discrimination of some kind resting on some substantive concept of the good.  What makes liberalism (including libertarianism) different from other political views is that liberalism has to make authoritative discriminations resting in a substantive conception of the good while at the same time denying that it is doing so.  What makes liberalism different is that it has to lie about itself in order to invoke its own justifying principles, that is, nondiscrimination (equality of rights) and freedom from substantive discriminating authority.

We don’t “allow” – that is, actively enforce with police, courts, and jails – just any sort of contract whatsoever, and we shouldn’t.  We also shouldn’t allow language to abused that way, because active enforcement of contracts is anything but the live-and-let-live passivity implied by the lying word “allow”.

Boom Like That

August 29, 2012 § 5 Comments

I’ve suggested that the action of jumping on a grenade may not be an intrinsically immoral action – a literally suicidal action – because it requires the cooperative actions of others in order to achieve suicide.   One thing we know for sure is that when it is someone else’s behaviour, it isn’t the object of your act.

Some have expressed skepticism.  I offer the following video clip to illustrate the fact that grenade-jumping is a composite action requiring the cooperation of multiple independent actions of different people in order to be a killing behaviour:

Post title from this:

Some arguments ought to throw themselves on a live grenade

August 26, 2012 § 16 Comments

Plenty of interlocutors invoke a kind of transitivity of bafflement in a way which supposedly fogs up the moral requirement not to kill the innocent. It goes something like this: “Golly, look at this baffling case of self-sacrifice, when a soldier throws himself on a grenade to save his fellows! Is it suicide? I’m so baffled! Therefore(!) the bombing of Hiroshima might have been morally licit after all!”

Supposedly moral bafflement is transitive: because moral questions of self-sacrifice putatively give rise to bafflement, it follows (through the implicit property of transitivity-of-bafflement) that other moral questions are baffling; especially the ones that Zippy talks about, like contracepted sex and blowing up innocent people with bombs.

The whole approach to argumentation is silly, of course, and is even alluded to by my favorite papal encyclical which goes into detail about the moral theology of human acts. (It is my favorite papal encyclical which goes into detail about the moral theology of human acts partly because it is, as it says itself explicitly, the only papal encyclical to go into detail about the moral theology of human acts). It says:

Although the [Catholic moral tradition] did witness the development of a casuistry which tried to assess the best ways to achieve the good in certain concrete situations, it is nonetheless true that this casuistry concerned only cases in which the law was uncertain, and thus the absolute validity of negative moral precepts, which oblige without exception, was not called into question.

Transitivity of bafflement is hokum and we really shouldn’t take it seriously once we recognize what is going on rhetorically. Nevertheless the question of self-sacrifice, and what distinguishes it from suicide, is interesting in its own right.

In the first place we should note that it is possible to commit suicide in multiple different ways.

Two of those ways are obvious: one can commit suicide either as one’s own act, or as formal cooperation with the act of another. In the first case I might blow my brains out with a gun; in the second, I might contract with Dr. Death to administer a lethal injection. In the first case my guilt arises from the intrinsic evil of my own chosen objective behaviour; in the second, it arises by formal cooperation: through the fact that I intend the intrinsically evil objective behaviour of another. In both cases the moral species depends upon the object of someone’s act: the objective behaviour chosen. My personal responsibility in the second case though arises through my formal cooperation with the intrinsically evil act of another person. If I don’t intend for Dr. Death to do the deed, I’m not committing suicide.

But there is a third kind of case. In this third kind of case, I can set someone else up to accidentally kill me. In such a case, the person who kills me attempts a certain act and kills me by accident. His material act is not the behavior he was attempting to choose, so it is not the moral object of his act. Nevertheless, because I snookered him intentionally, his material act is intended by me. The act is someone else’s, but as with the previous example of Dr. Death I am guilty by formal cooperation with the material behaviour of another person. My moral responsibility arises because I intend an evil action, even though the person who actually performs that action quite literally did not choose it.

A fourth kind of case is instantiated in, for example, the concept of “suicide by cop”. I don’t choose the behaviour that kills me, but because I intend my death I am nonetheless guilty of suicide: formal cooperation once again.

In general, then, suicide consists in either choosing an intrinsically self-killing action myself, or in intending my own death even though someone else does the deed. If my death requires the cooperation of others in addition to my own actions, it is only suicide when I intend that cooperation in addition to my own actions.

So how about the soldier and the grenade? He clearly doesn’t intend his own death. At the same time, his death isn’t predicated on his own behaviour in isolation, without the cooperative acts of others: it depends on the bad guy pulling the pin and throwing the grenade. If he were attempting suicide our soldier would have pulled the pin himself.

A kamikaze pilot, on the other hand, is himself choosing an objectively self-killing behaviour.

I don’t think this necessarily ends the discussion of the morality of self sacrifice. But I think self sacrifice may not be the wellspring of unanswerable bafflement that the bafflement-transitivitivists seem to think it is.

Non-determinism doesn’t mean you have any choice in the matter

August 25, 2012 § 1 Comment

Tom writes pithily:

If it bothers you when other Catholics point out the objective evil in your candidates’ positions, then get better candidates.

This made me laugh, but it also raises an interesting psychological issue about voting: the fact that election outcomes are non-deterministic is one of the things that leads people to believe that they should consider the election outcome in deciding how, personally, to vote. But that is demonstrably irrational.

I think part of the psychology may stem from a false “commonsense” idea about random or non-deterministic inputs into a process. I remember many years ago arguing with a blogger about randomness and Darwinism (Hey, I found the discussion with Google! I am the commenter “Matt”). Here I take Darwinism to mean macroevolution by random mutation and natural selection as the primary efficient cause of the transformation of prokaryote world (when the only life on Earth was bacteria, according to fossils) into the world of wildly varied life forms we see today[*].

The commonsense idea is that because a system has varying inputs and varying outputs, it is possible to control the outputs by controlling the inputs. There are two problems with thinking about mass-scale democracy with universal suffrage in this way.

One problem is that the commonsense idea about systems is just false: the fact that a system has varying inputs and varying outputs does not actually mean that it is possible to control the outputs by controlling the inputs. That just depends on the nature of the system. We can design systems that take random inputs – required random inputs, without which the system will not function – and produce symphonies as outputs. People seem to think that vast scale elections taking place in the context of a culture are a simple system, where if only we can provide the right inputs we will get good results. But that is just an assumption: an assumption quite contrary to experience with the actual system situated in actual reality.

The other problem is that the system is stateful (link is just an example, I’m not suggesting that our elections follow a strict Markov model): that is, the inputs of tomorrow depend on the state of the system today, and the idea that the feedback loops can be non-destructively disconnected so we can drive the system in the direction we want is most likely false.

In summary, I think people need to consider the possibility that our system of governance is producing precisely what it is designed to produce, in a way which is highly resistant to the effects of attempted input changes; and to further consider what that implies.

[*] Evolution/Darwinism tends not to mean that anymore: Darwinism follows this process of proposing specific mechanisms, having those mechanisms discredited, and loudly proclaiming that those discredited specific mechanisms are just trivial details. Evolution itself is “established fact” until we try to pin down just precisely which facts are established and which are not. Evolution is Zen: the Evolution which can be concretely pinned down to specifics is not the true Evolution.

I know St. Thomas Aquinas; and you, sir, are no St. Thomas Aquinas

August 22, 2012 § 85 Comments

Some days I wish my relic of St. Thomas Aquinas could talk.

In various places on the Internet you will find various Catholics arguing that Aquinas’ understanding of the human act specifies the object of a human act as some sort of de facto subjective proximate intention, motivation, or goal, as opposed to the acting subject’s objective chosen behaviour. They won’t call it an intention by name, of course, because that would undermine the whole cloaked consequentialist project of developing justifications for killing the innocent in some circumstances (e.g. warfare, abortion to save the life of the mother, etc). Nonetheless by re-making the object into a subjective intention, contrary to the magisterium’s characterization of the object as the objective aspect of a human act, our consequentialists-in-disguise attempt to de-fang Veritatis Splendour.

You know Veritatis Splendour: the encyclical where the Pope uses the term behaviour 60-ish times to refer to the object of a human act (and the term action a similar number of times), while using the term intention to refer to the object precisely never. The encyclical which expressly refers to itself as the first Magisterial document, ever, to go into detail about the moral theology of the human act. The encyclical which stands athwart modern proportionalist, consequentialist, and other ‘teleological’ moral theories shouting “wrong!” The encyclical which reaffirms and then goes into detail about the dependence of absolute morality on universal moral norms which forbid certain actions no matter what intentions or circumstances might obtain. That Veritatis Splendour.

De-fang the object of a human act by making it subjective, apply the principle of double-effect, and bombs away! What’s not to like?

Now I’m no Aquinas scholar, but I do speak Aquinas 101. Looking at the matter scholastically (hah!), a human act has the same four causes as any other thing. The two pertinent causes for our purposes here are the formal cause and the final cause. In Aquinas’ account, the intention is the final cause of the act: it is the reason why we choose to do a particular action. The object of the act is the formal cause (form) of the act: it is the specific kind of behaviour or action chosen by the acting subject.

It seems to me that attempts to recruit Aquinas as a way of de-fanging Veritatis Splendour just go to show that you can lead a Catholic to logos, but you can’t make him read.

Surgical Strikes

August 19, 2012 § 38 Comments

And Jesus calling unto him a little child, set him in the midst of them, And said: Amen I say to you, unless you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 18:2-3

I’ve talked before about the difference between an acting person knowing what he is doing and that same acting person wishing he didn’t have to do what he is doing in order to accomplish his goal.  As with the difference between accident and on purpose, this is something that a small child understands very well: it takes an adult with an agenda and a fear of foreseen implications to really grind it into obscurity.

A little review:

Every human act consists of object, intentions, and circumstances.   All three must be good for a human act to be good.  Any one of object, intentions, or circumstances can render an act evil:

But on what does the moral assessment of man’s free acts depend? What is it that ensures this ordering of human acts to God? Is it the intention of the acting subject, the circumstances — and in particular the consequences — of his action, or the object itself of his act? …

… Certainly there is need to take into account both the intention — as Jesus forcefully insisted in clear disagreement with the scribes and Pharisees, who prescribed in great detail certain outward practices without paying attention to the heart (cf. Mk 7:20-21; Mt 15:19) — and the goods obtained and the evils avoided as a result of a particular act. Responsibility demands as much. But the consideration of these consequences, and also of intentions, is not sufficient for judging the moral quality of a concrete choice. The weighing of the goods and evils foreseeable as the consequence of an action is not an adequate method for determining whether the choice of that concrete kind of behaviour is “according to its species”, or “in itself”, morally good or bad, licit or illicit. The foreseeable consequences are part of those circumstances of the act, which, while capable of lessening the gravity of an evil act, nonetheless cannot alter its moral species.

Of course, in order for any of that to make sense we have to know what the words mean; and the most notoriously tricky of those words is the word object.  The Church tells us that a lot of bad moral theory stems from “an inadequate understanding of the object of moral action”; so if we want to make sense of things, we’ve got to get that part right:

The morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the “object” rationally chosen by the deliberate will, as is borne out by the insightful analysis, still valid today, made by Saint Thomas. In order to be able to grasp the object of an act which specifies that act morally, it is therefore necessary to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person. The object of the act of willing is in fact a freely chosen kind of behaviour.

The reason we use the term “object” to refer to an aspect of human acts distinct from intentions is that (at least according to the Magisterium of the Church) intentions refer to a subjective aspect of the act – what desirable consequences one wants, subjectively, to flow from one’s act – while  the object refers to an objective aspect of the act: the chosen action or behaviour of the acting subject.

All three aspects must be good — the objective act, the subjective intention, and the circumstances — in order to have a morally good act.

Now, because the acting person is a person, a unity of body and soul, the ‘subjective’ or personal aspect cannot be abstracted away without abstracting away from the action as a human act.  This is where the distinction between knowledge and intentions comes into play.   We cannot be morally responsible for choosing an objective behaviour unless we are, in our own will, actually choosing it.  In order to choose a behaviour, we have to actually know what we are doing.

So the classic “accidentally sleeping with your wife’s identical twin” pose doesn’t apply, and charges of physicalism miss the mark.  A man who accidentally sleeps with his wife’s twin, by the definition of the problem (and setting aside practical matters for the sake of gedankenexperiment), does not know that he is sleeping with his wife’s identical twin.  You have to place yourself into the perspective of the acting subject in order to know what behaviour he is actually choosing, and the behaviour he is actually choosing is not adultery.

Rather, that object is the proximate end of a deliberate decision which determines the act of willing on the part of the acting person. Consequently, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “there are certain specific kinds of behaviour that are always wrong to choose, because choosing them involves a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil”.

And that is just what behaviour is: the proximate end of a deliberate decision.  It is the actual object of choice, the thing we actually choose to do, regardless of the reasons why we do it (our intentions) or the circumstances surrounding our act (circumstances which include the totality of consequences we expect to flow from the act).  If any of those three – object, intentions, or circumstances – are contrary to the moral law, the act is evil.

So a lot of things that pose as moral dilemmas in Internet discussions and elsewhere really aren’t.  There isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with cutting into a human being’s body with a knife, such that all behaviours which fall under that description are immoral.  The behaviour chosen by a surgeon with a scalpel is radically different from the behaviour chosen by a murderer with a knife.  If a surgeon’s patient accidentally dies while under the knife, there is still no ambiguity in the behaviours he is choosing versus the behaviours chosen by a knife-wielding murderer.  Even a clever murderer posing as a surgeon is choosing a very different behaviour from a real surgeon: what is literally an accident for the real surgeon is on purpose for the murderer, and the actual behaviours being chosen from one moment to the next are radically different despite any superficial similarity to a third party observer.

One reason children understand morality and adults don’t is that by the time we’ve reached adulthood, we’ve come up with all sorts of ways of rationalizing doing what we want to do – and possibly are terrified of not doing – rather than doing what is right and trusting that God will sort it out.  “Don’t kill them all, and let God sort it out” is a leap of faith we aren’t willing to take. We understand consequences a lot better than children, and those consequences are often dire. We feel helpless when the moral law does not allow us to take evil actions, to engage in evil behaviours, even when the evil strikes us as quite inconsequential and the consequences of failing to choose the evil action are quite large.

That, finally, is why we see “rationalization hamsters” on steroids conflating the term “object” with an acting subject’s intentions, completely tone-deaf to the fact that “object” – certainly according to Magisterial texts cited in this post – refers to objective concrete behaviors or actions, not subjective intentions.  That is why we see widespread question-begging overuse of the principle of double-effect in situations where it has not even been established that it applies.  That is why we are subjected to endless peppering with “what if” scenarios that are supposed to make us give up our “childlike” rejection of evil behaviours.

We just can’t accept it that the moral requirement never to kill the innocent means, yes, that we must not bomb civilians, period, and we must not abort the unborn, period, no matter what is at stake in terms of consequences.

Where Am I?

You are currently viewing the archives for August, 2012 at Zippy Catholic.