July 2012

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Letters to the Ethical Spectacle

Spectacle Letters Column Guidelines. Send your comments to me at jw@bway.net. I will assume the letter is for publication. If it is not, please tell me, and I will respect that. If you want the letter published, but without your name attached, I will do so. I will not include your email address unless you ask me to. Flames are an exception. They will be published in full, with name and email address. I have actually had people follow up on a published flame by complaining that they thought they were insulting my ancestry privately. Nope, sorry.

Dear Jonathan:

Regarding Dear Greta, You Are Being Lied To:

That title is truer than your Greta might realise.

You write 'So why do Republican politicians accuse the President and other Democrats of being socialists so often? The word doesn't really mean anything when they use it, except "I don't like him".'

Yes, it does mean something, something very important which you have omitted. It's just that they are using it as short hand and you didn't follow up the reference - which is why one of the most important pieces of advice to people doing exams is "read the question", as otherwise they give accurate responses to something that was not asked.

To see what that something is, consider Margaret Thatcher. In terms of what she presided over, she was far more socialist than President Obama, what with Britain's plethora of nationalised industries, quangoes, etc. at the time. But her focus was on winding back those and their supports. As she pointed out, for decades there had been a sort of ratchet under which incremental changes in a socialist direction stuck and occasional reverses didn't. She wanted to reverse that ratchet and produce enduring moves away, not just buy time.

So when these politicians speak of socialism they are not speaking narrowly of actually achieved socialism, but of a slippery slope that goes there. They are calling people socialists when they want or act to lock in a course that goes there; as Jerry Pournelle has remarked, it is a vector, not a position. Two politicians may be practically indistinguishable in their current position, yet very different in where they want or act to move things. On that, I think Obama and Romney are at about the same point, but they want to move in opposite directions - which makes Obama a socialist and Romney not. Unfortunately, Romney's track record suggests that, for reasons that are sound in the short term, he has acted and will act to move things in a socialist direction over time just as Bismarck did, even if not as far and as fast as Obama - so, practically speaking, they are both socialists in that they are both working to accomplish socialism.

You also write "Every once in a while, you may find that an absolute rule stated loudly by a blow-hard conflicts with your personal beliefs and goals. If you pursue a conversation about this, instead of deflecting away from it or meekly giving in, you will place the blowhard under a difficult obligation. He must either persuade you that the apparent conflict in your goals is not real, that your interests, despite appearances, are best served by doing things his way--or he must undertake the much more difficult obligation of explaining to you why you lose--why it is your moral or religious duty to give in, and be harmed by his rule."

No, he faces no such choice; that is a false dilemma. All he has to do is get his way. Very often, all that takes is neutralising the particular objectors and getting yet other people on side. So, in this situation, all he has to do is show everybody else or a large part of them. That's why debates between politicians don't have to persuade their opponents, just the audience.

Much of the remainder of the article reminds me of the philosopher's reply "we already settled that question, we're just arguing over the price" to the young lady who had hypothetically agreed to sleep with him for a million dollars but indignantly asked what he thought she was when he concretely offered ten dollars. It rests on the idea that the hypothetical Greta has already conceded that intrusions for security are OK, that schools should be run by the community, that emergency rooms should be and necessarily are operated that way (and what was wrong with the emergency care at charity hospitals, and the fact that not all hospitals offered such emergency care?), and so on. But this is the very principle at issue, and wrapping a concession of the point in small steps clouds it and is just what makes a slippery slope - I am sure you know the lawyer's term "of the essence", things that make something what it is and without which it would be something else.

None of that means your view is necessarily wrong. It just means that you are using unsound means to support it. I would suggest you read Thouless's "Straight and Crooked Thinking", and then marshal arguments and supporting material bearing those pitfalls in mind. Otherwise you are just leading all the hypothetical Gretas further down the primrose path to perdition - doing what may be the right thing for entirely the wrong reason - and sidelining actual objectors I have seen on the internet who already object to intrusions even for security etc. and who have not conceded the point at issue in advance (we - for I am one - do not read "Yet every politician, every school teacher, everyone we know professes to idolize democracy, to think it is the best possible system of government, despite the flaws" as support of democracy but as proof that even this best - or rather, least worst - government is bad, and that you have wrongly marked us down as idolising it). But this is the very blowhard tactic I outlined in an earlier paragraph, and no service to truth.

"The reason they have all closed: they were required to treat people who were shot or had heart attacks and had no coverage. So they went bankrupt. Single payer or Obama's mandate would have saved these hospitals." has the superficial appearance of being just such a sound argument for Obamacare or similar. In fact, it proposes doing the same thing on a larger scale, which by itself would only put things off and eventually lead to a similar collapse on that larger scale in much the same way. The only sound reason for such buying of time is to use that time to make lasting and sound arrangements - and, so far, your proposal has not brought out anything of that sort.

May I end by suggesting that you follow up the thinking of Kevin Carson who, like you, has experienced the U.S. hospital business from the bottom?

Yours sincerely,


Dear Jonathan:

have been reading your blog since 2001 and "Greta" has to be the best writing that I have ever seen you do.

Thanks a lot.



I've been having an on-line debate with another man who has claimed that human zygotes have a natural right to life. I don't believe they do, and in fact, I believe that there are no "natural rights." In browsing the internet I was lucky to come across your article Natural Rights Don't Exist which you wrote back in 2000, and which I think is excellent.

Have you written anything else on this topic? If so, can you give me a link to it?

Do you have any suggestions about what tack to take with my opponent?

Are you still "doing philosophy"?

In your article you said: "Rape is physically possible; if we derive natural rights from anything which can be done in a state of nature we could just as easily say there is a right of rape as to claim there is one of self-defense. Yet in our society we lock up anyone who acts on this belief. But I challenge anyone who believes there is a natural right of self defense to explain to me why there is no right of rape."

Although I would not agree with my opponent, I think he would say this in response to your challenge: "Because all people naturally defend themselves when attacked, but not all people naturally rape when they feel horny." What would be your reply?

Best regards to you.


Thank you for the good word. The only other article of mine which seems related is on abortion, from a few months ago.

For the sake of the argument, I assume life begins at conception, then reason for a right of abortion nonetheless.

I am intrigued by your suggestion as to what your adversary would argue in response to my rape analogy. Two things seem fatally infirm. One is the argument from human behavior to human morality, which is essentially circular. The idea that not everyone rapes someone when they are horny doesn't support any kind of moral prohibition in itself; not everyone eats when they are hungry. Nor is the statement that everyone defends themselves correct either. Some people are unable to, others choose not to. Others run away or hide, which is different than fighting.

This line of analysis (if it even can be called one) leads to a concept of moral precepts via polling. If 95% of the population does something, does that make it automatically moral? 51%? 49%? 15%?

Also, human behavior is more in the nature of legislation than natural rights. If 51% of the population follows a certain rule, that suggests they find it convenient, satisfying or beautiful, not that it is engraved in the fabric of the universe. I am more used to a natural rights argument which points at animals, not people--e.g., we have a right of self defense because animals have claws, horns and sharp teeth. My rape argument had to do with animal species, such as tortoises and sea turtles, where every act of intercourse seems to take place to the distress of the female. Female sea turtles actually congregate in the shallow water during mating season because the males can't get to them there. There are numerous higher species where the males don't really care about consent, including dogs. But, as Huxley wrote in "Evolution and Ethics", nature's solutions to reproduction and evolutionary success in no way add up to a moral scheme.

Hello, I want to inform you, that if you ever got message requesting your permission to translate your publication, don’t trust those people. They making that in a commercial purpose. The translation made by Google translate (you can check that). When you post the link back to the site (where the translation is located) you help them to prove the site Google score and the PageRank of the site. The higher PageRank and Google score the more people can find the site, the more money this site cost. It’s a commercial sites.

The example of the first letter you may got:


I've known you website for ages, strictly speaking from year 2000. I found  interesting your  publication "Name of the publication" which  I googled on  ! I'd  love to use it in a project I'm involved with called "Web Flower Society" (“Translation for education”, Geek Science”, etc)  so I'm seeking your permission for translation to Spanish language. "Web  Flower Society" is a freemium-model non-English language orientated startup  with collection of scientific articles, personal notes etc. in several  languages that is collaboratively edited by volunteers from around the  world since 1999. Young and old, students and professors - even your  neighbor could be a volunteer member.
If you agree, we will credit you for your work in the resulting  translation's references by stating that it was based on your work and is  used with your permission, and by mentioning the name of my project "Web  
Flower Society" (“Translation for education”, Geek Science”, etc)  back to:
Thank you for your time and patience.
I look forward to your response next week.
Wishing you the best,”

Doesn't one's relationship to the other prisoner-friend or foe-come into one's reckoning of the prisoner's dilemma?


In pure game theory versions I don't think there is a way to account for it. But in daily life our sense of the relationship would definitely form part of our calculations, similar to the way your poker strategy would be influenced by knowledge of the individuals with whom you play. However, in life a prisoner's dilemma can be a learning experience--half or two thirds of the people you thought would play the cooperation card end up betraying you instead, and you may not have seen it coming. You really find out who your friends are when you encounter a real world emergency that has elements of the PD.

Mr. Wallace,

I recently read your article on Leadership: just fantastic. Thank you,


Dear Mr. Wallace:

Regarding Why I Hate Prosecutors:

Thanks for writing this article......I watched the Dateline tonight on Barry Beach and just felt like the prosecutor in that case believed he went back in time and was there at the murder.

It seemed like even if someone else came forward and confessed and was convicted......he would still believe Barry did it until the end of time

Anyway.....I enjoyed your article and am glad someone else sees the issues with some of these over zealous individuals.

Thank you,