Friday, August 21, 2020

Is it still self-evident that all humans have natural rights?


The United States Declaration of Independence states:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. (The accompanying painting by John Trumbull depicts the Declaration of Independence being presented to Congress.)

It is strange that at a time when nearly everyone pays lip service to human rights, few intellectuals still recognize that, properly understood, such rights are self-evident and natural. Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl note that it is not even common now for classical liberals and libertarians to appeal to the natural rights of individuals. They explain:

a large part of the reluctance to appeal to natural rights in explaining and justifying liberty has to do with the idea that speaking of the nature of things is not needed and is not defensible, and indeed that metaphysical realism is either false or senseless” (p 340).

Before explaining metaphysical realism, I must first provide context for the quoted passage. It is from The Realist Turn: Repositioning Liberalism, recently published by Palgrave. This book is the third in a trilogy. The others are: Norms of Liberty, in which the authors explain how liberty enables self-directed individual flourishing to occur without one form of flourishing being given structural preference over others; and The Perfectionist Turn, in which the authors explain, among other things, that self-directedness - exercising our rational capacity to pursue and achieve relevant goods and virtues - is fundamental to human flourishing.

Metaphysical realism is the belief that “there are beings that exist and are what they are apart from our cognition of them and that we can know both the existence and nature of these beings” (p 8). That may be self-evident to you. If so, you have managed to avoid being unduly influenced by philosophers who follow Immanuel Kant in maintaining that the nature of what is known in human cognition is the result of a priori structures of the human mind, rather than the nature of things that exist.

Much of the book is devoted to defending metaphysical realism from its critics. Those critics have a range of differing views, but many claim that the mode of our cognition must enter the content of what is known. It is possible to give a brief sketch of the nature of the responses provided by Rasmussen and Den Uyl, by reference to the way a human can be defined in terms of distinguishing characteristics. The relationship between our conceptual knowledge of the nature of humans and the real nature of humans is analogous to the relationship between a map and the territory it depicts. We begin with an imperfect conceptual map and proceed to improve it step by step to distinguish the characteristics of humans from other kinds of things. Our knowledge of reality is partial and incomplete, but capable of being revised. To cut a long story short, as we condense a vast amount of knowledge, we can come to the view that rationality is a fundamental operating feature of human nature (pp 292-296).

Chapter 3, entitled “On Principle” was of particular interest to me because it involves consideration of similar issues to those discussed by Friedrich Hayek in a chapter of Law, Legislation and Liberty discussing principles and expediency. Rasmussen and Den Uyl end up in much the same place as Hayek. For example, this paragraph seems to me to have a Hayekian flavour about it:

“We do not stick to principle because experience and practice are in need of being ordered, but rather because principles reflect an underlying order that will again come to reassert itself if only those principles are followed. In the economic environment in which we now live, for example, the Aristotelian might advise a steadfast adherence to the principles of a market order rather than piecemeal attempts to patch up the economy and stave off unpleasant consequences, precisely because of an understanding that market principles are the way to bring health back to the economy, even if that means a rough road along the way” (p 117).

That paragraph still makes sense to me if I substitute ‘Hayekian’ for ‘Aristotelian’. Hayek expressed similar sentiments in arguing against “a spurious ‘realism’ which deceives itself in believing that it can dispense with any guiding conception of the nature of the overall order” (LLL, V1, p 64).

However, when I think about the paragraph further I see a problem in accepting that Aristotle’s views – including his just price concept and opposition to lending money at interest - were consistent with “steadfast adherence to the principles of a market order”. Perhaps it is necessary to distinguish what a modern Aristotelian might advise – having had the benefit of having read the works of Adam Smith etc. – from what Aristotle advised.

Rasmussen and Den Uyl define the Aristotelian view of principle thus:

“Here principles are generalized expressions of the nature of things. Like the empiricist, the Aristotelian holds that principles do depend upon experience; unlike the empiricist, the Aristotelian holds that principles are not distortions of reality but expressions of its nature” (p 117).

I see no problem in accepting that the spontaneous order of a free market is an expression of “the nature of things”.

It would be unfortunate to allow the most important point that Rasmussen and Den Uyl make about principles to be lost in a discussion of labeling issues. They argue that “there is in the end no antipathy between principles rightly understood and consequences fully considered”:

The following of principles is itself an exercise of securing good consequences; and good consequences are to be conceptualized in terms of principles” (p 103-4).

When people discuss natural rights a question that often arises is where they come from. To believe in natural rights do we have to believe in a Creator who endows them? Rasmussen and Den Uyl do not appear to address that question explicitly, but they make a strong case that it is possible to reason our way from an understanding of human nature to recognition of such rights as being necessary to prevent various forms of human flourishing from being in structural conflict; and to protect people from having their lives, possessions and conduct used or directed by others for purposes to which they have not consented. The authors contend that a cultural change that enables the natural order to be seen as the basis for individual rights will be required to bring about an understanding of a proper defense of liberty (p 343). As discussed previously, I think a consideration of the nature of human evolution can also help us understand why we (as individuals) tend to have intuitions that other humans have natural rights that should be respected.

Of course, as Rasmussen and Den Uyl acknowledge, there are some people who choose not to recognize or follow ethical principles requiring the rights of others to be respected. As I see it, even in the liberal democracies large numbers of people believe that it is in the nature of things that the political/legal order must involve a struggle by different groups to have their flourishing advantaged at the expense of others. However, the authors have reinforced me in the belief that even when it appears impossible to implement a political/legal order that would sufficiently recognize and protect liberty, it is still worth considering ideal moral frameworks because such visions provide us with reason and motivation to care about practical problems of implementation.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Is it possible to have sensible policy discussions about climate change?


Development of public policy depends to a large extent on sensible public discussion to filter out stupid proposals.  Climate change is no exception. The problem is that instead of having sensible discussions a lot of people just accuse one another of being deniers or alarmists, and use political stunts to advance or defend stupid policies.

It is easy to get the impression that most people can be classed as either deniers or alarmists, but surveys suggest to me that such extremists make up a relatively small proportion of the population of most countries. How many people get classified as deniers and alarmists is obviously influenced by the way these concepts are defined.

It makes sense to classify people as “deniers” if they claim climate change is “not a threat”. A survey by the Pew Research Center conducted in 2018 found that the percentages saying that climate change is not a threat vary substantially among the 26 countries included, from 21% in Nigeria to 3% in France and South Korea. Corresponding numbers were 16% in the U.S., 9% in Australia and 4% in Sweden.

The Pew survey found that in most countries a majority viewed climate change as “a major threat”, but it would be an exaggeration to label all those as alarmists. The people I describe as alarmists tend to say things like: “It is already too late to avoid the worst effects of climate change”. An international poll by YouGov, taken in 2019, found that people who say that vary from 20% of the population in France to 4% in Oman. Corresponding numbers were 10% in the U.S. and Australia, 8% in Sweden, 11% in Britain, and 6% in China.

False alarm

I was prompted to attempt to get a handle on the percentages of deniers and alarmists by my reading Bjorn Lomborg’s latest book, FalseAlarm: How climate change panic costs us trillions, hurts the poor, and fails to fix the planet. Lomborg sees climate change alarmism as a greater problem than denial. He suggests that the arguments of the deniers have been “thoroughly debunked” and approves of media refusing to give space to deniers. His main gripe is that media are “failing to hold climate alarmists to account for their exaggerated claims”.

However, it seems to me that different media outlets have different biases. Some pander to the prejudices of the noisy alarmists among their readers, while others pander to the noisy deniers. Unfortunately, the mass media no longer does much to promote sensible discussion of issues that have become politicized.

Lomborg’s book seems to me to advance a coherent viewpoint that could provide a basis for sensible discussion among people who are not wedded to extreme positions. His main points are as follows:

  • Climate change is real. The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere affects global temperature.
  • Global warming will have a negative impact on human well-being. Estimates of the likely damage from global warming by 2100 amount to a modest percentage of GDP (about 4%) if allowance is made for adaptation, fertilization (positive impacts of CO2 on crop yields and forest production) and the expanding bullseye effect (the tendency for more people to live in flood prone and fire prone areas).
  • If all nations met their promises under the Paris Agreement, that would have only a small impact on global warming.
  • With known technology and using the most efficient policy instrument to achieve Paris Agreement targets, the cost involved would be much higher (perhaps 3 times higher) than the expected benefits.
  • There is potential for research and development to reduce the cost of green energy alternatives to use of fossil fuels. However, governments are not meeting the commitments they have made to expand relevant R&D activities.
  • Carbon taxes and green energy innovation will not obviate the need for adaptation to a warmer climate over coming decades. Adaptation is a less costly option than attempting to reduce CO2 emissions to zero over the next few decades.
  • Geo-engineering is worth researching as a backup plan to be used as required, e.g. if the West Antarctic ice sheet starts to melt precipitately.
  • People in low-income countries will be better able to cope with the adverse impacts of climate change if they become wealthier. Holland and Bangladesh both have substantial areas of land below sea level, but Holland can afford infrastructure that enables it to cope better. 


My overall impression is that Lomborg has made a serious effort to focus discussion on things that are worth discussing. I have some reservations about his views, which I will mention below, but my initial focus is whether the book is generating useful discussion. I have found a couple of reviews by people who could be expected to challenge the argument that Lomborg advances.


The first review is by Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel prize winning economist. Stiglitz’s review was published in the New York Times. Rather than addressing the cost of current policies, Stiglitz appeals to an authority which he seems to view as infallible - an international panel chaired by himself and Lord Nicholas Stern – which apparently “concluded that those goals could be achieved at moderate cost”. I have not been able to find that conclusion in the report of his High-Level Commission, but I can’t claim to have read the document thoroughly. My brief reading left me with the impression that the costs will only be moderate if there is rapid progress in development of green technology. Stiglitz does not acknowledge that Lomborg advocates increased R&D for to promote more rapid development of green technology.

Stiglitz concludes by asserting:

Lomborg’s work would be downright dangerous if it were to succeed in persuading anyone that there was merit in its arguments”.

Rather than engaging in sensible discussion, Stiglitz seems to me to be intent on using polemics to defend alarmism.

Surprisingly, there has been more sensible review in “The Guardian”. That review is by Bob Ward, who is associated with the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change at the LSE. Ward combines his review of Lomborg’s book with a review of Michael Shellenberger’s book, Apocalypse Never. Ward’s remarks are somewhat offensive - he labels the authors as “lukewarmers”, promoting a “form of climate change denial”. Nevertheless, he manages to acknowledge that they make legitimate criticisms of alarmism by environmentalists. He agrees that the world should be investing more in helping poor people become more resilient to climate change. He also expresses sympathy for the view that nuclear power has a role to play in creating a zero-carbon energy system.

My reservations

The main problem I see with Lomborg’s argument relates to the use of GDP as a welfare measure. As well as the usual problems in the use of GDP in this way, there is the additional problem that many of the costs of adaptation are counted as making a positive contribution to GDP. For example, infrastructure investment to build walls to hold back rising sea levels is counted as part of GDP. As such adaptation investment comes to represent an increasing share of total investment, it will crowd out other investments that have potential to enhance human well-being.

This line of reasoning reinforces the importance of R&D that has potential to reduce the cost of alternative energy and hence to reduce the cost of mitigation. If it becomes less costly to pursue greater mitigation over the next few decades, that can obviously reduce the combined total of damage and adaptation costs over the longer term.

My other reservation relates to something that is not central to Lomborg’s argument, as outlined above, but is difficult to let pass. It is his endorsement of the proposition that “if everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little”. That seems to me to promote unwarranted pessimism about the likelihood of success of the polycentric approach promoted by Elinor Ostrom.

In a paper presented to the World Bank in 2009, Ostrom suggested that rather than wait for national governments to take concerted action, the best way forward was multi-layered action by individuals and firms, as well as by local, state, and national governments. The polycentric approach is messy, but there are hopeful signs emerging that it is developing sufficient momentum to facilitate effective action. The individual actions of environmentally conscious individuals may not add up to much by themselves, but they seem to be inducing an increasing number of firms to modify their behaviour. Some firms are presenting an environmentally friendly image without doing much to back it up, but others seem to be actively planning for a carbon-free future. The announcement last year by the world's largest asset management firm, BlackRock, that it will put climate change at the centre of its investment strategy, seems to me to signify a substantial change in the way the game is being played. If enough firms adopt R&D, innovation and investment strategies based on expectations of a carbon-free future, those expectations will tend to become self-fulfilling.

Bottom line

Lomborg’s book is not likely to persuade many climate change alarmists (or deniers) to modify their views, but it provides a basis for the rest of us to have sensible discussions about policy options.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Is a good person like flowing water?

The question arises from a Lao Tzu quote that I recently stumbled across:

A person of great virtue is like the flowing water”, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 8.

The passage appeals to me because it seems to accord with my casual observation that good behaviour seems effortless for some people. That may link to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's theory of the flow experience where people in high challenge situations are so deeply involved in what they are doing that nothing else seems to matter. The good people I have in mind would not give much thought to judgements that others might make about their behaviour.

I will return to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's theory later, but first I want to look for clues about the intuitions that Lao Tzu was hoping to convey. To view the quote in context, I have chosen a translation by Red Pine (Bill Porter) who also provides readers with commentary of sages and other translators. Chapter 8 reads:

“The best are like water

 bringing help to all

 without competing

 choosing what others avoid

 they thus approach the Tao

 dwelling with earth

 thinking with depth

helping with kindness

speaking with honesty

 governing with peace

 working with skill

and moving with time

and because they don’t compete they aren’t maligned.”


There is no explicit mention of “flow” in that translation or in the associated commentary, but it still seems consistent with the imagery of flowing water.

In his commentary, Chuck Gullion, the Libertarian Taoist, sums it up:

It all boils down to being content to simply be yourself. We expend way too much effort comparing and competing with others. Lao Tzu is wanting to show us a better Way. Be like water!”

Red Pine notes that some translators have difficulty in accepting that kindness is the correct word in the line “helping with kindness”, because of Lao Tzu’s professed “disdain for the social virtues”. In An Introduction to Daoist Philosophy (previously discussed here)  Steve Coutinho explains that Lao Tze opposes cultivation of the ethical virtues (including humanity and rightness) on the grounds that cultivation converts the virtues into objects of desire, thus becoming an obstacle to flourishing. Paradoxically, much of the Tao Te Ching presupposes “recognizably ethical values” (pp 64-5).

In Csikszentmihalyi's view, the flow experience requires cultivation. He suggests that the normal condition of the mind is one of informational disorder, with conflicting desires, intentions and thoughts jostling each other in consciousness. Innate talents cannot develop unless a person learns to control attention to get the heart will and mind on the same page. Flow tends to occur when a person faces a clear set of goals that require appropriate responses.

Csikszentmihalyi’s perception of good is activity leading to the increase of complexity and order, while evil is analogous to entropy:   

“Good is the creative overcoming of inertia, the energy that leads to the evolution of human consciousness. To act in terms of new principles of organization is always more difficult, and requires more effort and energy. The ability to do so is what has been known as virtue” (Loc 2031/2382).

The idea of evolution toward greater complexity has intellectual appeal, but “creative overcoming” seems far removed from the idea that goodness is like flowing water. Csikszentmihalyi may even be seeking to distance his view of flow from that imagery, because he suggests that the evil which causes pain and suffering usually involves “taking the course of least resistance”, for example acting “in terms of instinct alone”.

Would acceptance of the imagery of goodness as being like flowing water be likely to tempt people to view instinctive “red in tooth and claw” aspects of nature as providing reason to accept that “might is right” in human conduct?

To answer that question, it is helpful to consider the view of Zhuangzi, a Daoist philosopher who followed Lao Tzu. Zhuangzi observed that there must be genuine humanity before there can be genuine understanding of the relationship between what is human and what is natural. Coutinho notes:

“According to Zhuangzi, there is something salvageable about our humanity: it is not pure artifice. There is a central core of genuineness that is natural. When we nurture this genuine humanity, we reconnect with the natural world, become more distanced from the everyday hopes, fears, and anxieties that plague us, and are more tranquil and accepting of all our circumstances” (p 112).

As I see it, cultural evolution has left us with intuitions that it is good to be the kind of person who manages his or her own life wisely in ways that respect the natural rights of others. We greatly admire those who bring out the best in the people they interact with most closely. Our language reflects an understanding that humane conduct is ethical. Cruelty is often described as inhuman. We have come to perceive voluntary cooperation for mutual benefit as good, and predation as bad. It should be easy for us to understand that a spontaneous order evolving from the actions of free individuals is the most natural form of human society.  

In that context, the imagery of a good person being like flowing water may help people to understand that ethical conduct is integral to their human nature. That kind of imagery might help people to set goals that are consistent with their values and to stay on course toward acquiring better habits, perhaps ultimately reaching the point where goodness becomes effortless.