August 2003

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Friday, August 29, 2003

Violence 

My post below involving my positive reaction to the announced elaborate battle scenes in The Return Of The King, got me thinking about violence, and why there are problems with how some people evaluate it.

There is a popular meme that "violence is bad". This manifests itself in everything from protests against violence in the media and other entertainment, to gun control, and even to being "anti-war". The frustrating thing about this is that there's an important truth here. Violence often is bad. But, it's bad when it's used to violate the rights of people. It's not intrinsically bad. If used for self-defense, for example, it's very good.

Portrayals of violence in art can be very good, too. It can enhance the emotional drama of the presentation. Penn Jillette (one of my heroes), spoke eloquently about this (and censorship) in a Reason Magazine interview years ago. Please read it. The bottom line, though, is that people don't behave violently just because they witness violence in films or TV. They behave violently because they have bad ideas about when violence is appropriate. Violence in art actually gives us more opportunities to think about this and develop our ideas. It helps people evolve good theories about violence. Banning it would be worse. It would not only deny people chances to examine and develop their own theories on violence, but such bans send the wrong message. They tell us that violence is just bad, regardless of the context. This is wrong and dangerous.

Let's consider boxing. Some people think it should be banned because it's brutal and dangerous. It's true that it can be dangerous, and that it's very physically punishing.

But, it's voluntary!

People choose to challenge themselves with demanding training so that they can pit themselves against others in a pure competition of raw physical skill/strength/endurance. These are some of the best athletes in the world. They are willing to accept the risks. I don't think there is anything wrong with this. You don't have to enjoy watching it; but if other people want to do it and pay to see it, I think it's wrong to force them not to. Some may consider the sport brutal, but I think the real brutes are the people who are unwilling or unable to recognize the difference between voluntary and involuntary violence.

Likewise for gun-control, and blanket war-opposition. It's just not the case that we can stop all bad people from using weapons to hurt others. The best response to this is NOT to disarm the good guys! That will just embolden the bad guys and lead to more harm than good. We should make it as hard as possible (while acting morally ourselves) for the bad guys to abuse violence.

One way to do that is to spread better ideas about when force against people is ok, and when it isn't. As these ideas improve, and gain wide acceptance, it will be increasingly difficult for people to gather enough support (or appeasment) to prepare and execute violent assaults on other people's legitimate rights.

And, another way...One that we certainly need now, and might always need, is for good guys to be ready, willing, and able to violently resist bad guys.


Thursday, August 28, 2003

How to Walk 

I just thought of something else I do every day, that makes perfect sense to me, that many others don't seem to have figured out.

While walking in an office building with hallways, offices, blind corners, I never walk right next to a wall. I always leave an adequate distance from either wall so that I can easily avoid collisions with other people walking out of an office or around a corner.

This seems like such a reasonable habit that I can't understand why anybody who has ever bumped into somebody else this way (or has witnessed this happening) hasn't adopted it.


The Two Towers 

We rented Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers last night (Blockbuster has a special running where you can rent it for a day for 99 cents and they guarantee availability). We'll probably buy the Special Extended Edition that will come out in a few months.

The film was as good as I remembered. I'm still amazed by the spectacular battle of Helm's Deep. See it, or see it again. Highly recommended.

The DVDs had several special features including a preview of The Return Of The King film coming out later this year. In it, we heard something I'd read in a newspaper article recently: that the battle scenes make the battle of Helm's Deep look like a small skirmish. When we heard this, my son and I looked at each other in amazement. There were also many other indications that it should be the best of the three films in this awesome series. We're very excited about it.

I started thinking about the fact that we're excited by the battle scenes, and others would be alarmed by our reaction to this movie violence. I think I'll write a blog post about this later.


Saturday, August 16, 2003

Good Guys and Bad Guys 

I just came back from watching Open Range. I really enjoyed it. I'm a fan of old-style westerns and this film put all of the pieces together very well. If you like westerns, then I'm pretty sure you'll like this one.

After the film, I started thinking about why europeans often use "cowboy" as an insult when describing americans in general, or George W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan in particular. I think a lot is revealed by how you react to cowboys as portrayed in westerns.

Yes, I can understand why many people don't like the cowboy. They imagine that the world of the cowboy is a simplistic fantasy, and the real world is never like that.

Well, the real world is like that. Ironically, pretending that this isn't the case is a simplistic fantasy. Some problems just cannot be solved by resolutions and committees. Yes, it's good to explore all options, but sometimes the good guys just have to fight the bad guys.

We need cowboys.


Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Lying Politicians 

Please pardon the redundant title.

The post below, about whether Arnold Schwarzenegger is libertarian, got me thinking about what I should expect to hear in his policy statements during the campaign if it is so, or if it isn't. Would he actually talk about what programs to cut, or what lifestyle choices to legalize?

This got me to think about politicians and lying in general. It seems to me that it might have become impossible to win a major election without lying. You have to tell different groups of people things that please them, and unless you contradict yourself, you probably won't please enough people to win the election.

Also, carrying out foreign policy might be easier without being completely truthful. For example, it's possible that if the Bush administration had laid out its actual case for war in Iraq, it couldn't have garnered popular or congressional support; or it might have invited more opposition from other countries, making the task deadlier for our troops. So, it might have been a good policy for the national interest, but telling the whole truth about it might have endangered it.

So, suppose there was a candidate you really like; you share basic values, you think he's honorable, reliable, smart, etc. Would you want him to be scrupulously honest during the campaign? After the election? Would always telling the truth enable him to win, or be effective in office?

I notice that Republicans seemed more concerned with Clinton's lies, and Democrats seem more concerned with Bush's lies. This isn't surprising. But, could it be the case that nobody really cares about whether politicians lie? Don't they expect it? Could it be that what they really care about is whether the politician has good values, instincts, sense, etc?

And, if it's the case that lying isn't really that important to us, does that put democracy in danger? Does democracy depend on politicians telling the people the truth? Or can the people find out enough about politicians' characters and values and policy preferences even though they often lie?

What do you think?


Thursday, August 07, 2003

Arnold Schwarzenegger, libertarian? 

Jacob Sullum has a short piece up at reasononline, that seems pretty encouraging about the recently announced Schwarzenegger candidacy for governor of California:

What was the Terminator doing at an anniversary celebration for a libertarian think tank?
The Reason Foundation (which publishes Reason magazine, where I work) may be based in Los Angeles, but it's a world away from the glamour of the movie business. The only plausible explanation for Schwarzenegger's presence was a genuine interest in the ideas promoted by the foundation, which focuses on maximizing individual freedom and minimizing government.
That impression was confirmed by the actor's enthusiasm for Milton and Rose Friedman's PBS series Free to Choose, which explores the connections between personal, political, and economic freedom. When the series was reissued in 1991, Schwarzenegger taped an introduction in which he said:
"I come from Austria, a socialistic country. There you can hear 18-year-olds talking about their pension. But me, I wanted more. I wanted to be the best. Individualism like that is incompatible with socialism. I felt I had to come to America, where the government wasn't always breathing down your neck or standing on your shoes."

Sounds pretty good to me. This should be fun..


Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Abortion 

Someone suggested that since I hinted at it in the previous post (the comment about protecting embryos), I should go ahead and post my opinions about abortion. I know that a post on this topic is incredibly unlikely to change anybody's mind, but perhaps some might find it interesting. And, I've already posted on politics and religion and haven't managed to alienate everybody yet, so I have to keep trying!

First, let me say that I think a pregnancy is a very special thing and the chance to bring a human being into the world should be taken very seriously. I hope I've made it clear that I value human life tremendously, especially that of children, and I think there is plenty of room in our society for more children who will be raised well by eager, competent, parents (and I think there are many such candidates for adoption if the parents don't qualify on this score). So, I'm all for taking pregnancies to term and delivering babies.

But, it seems to me, if you take people's rights seriously you have to take the rights of the pregnant woman seriously and acknowledge that the decision to continue a pregnancy must be hers (at least at the early stages). At that point, she's the only human being involved. A fertilized egg might be a potential human being, but until its brain begins to operate as born humans' brains do, it isn't a human being yet.*

So, should the law prohibit abortions after that point, assuming we could analyze fetal brain activity well enough to determine if this sort of activity is present?

No.

While I think this would be the right test to determine if the fetus is human, I don't think it's the right test to determine whether the state should prohibit abortions. I think that test should be viability: when the baby could be delivered alive with excellent chances for the safety of both the mother and child.

To understand why, consider this thought experiment:

Suppose somebody had a fatal disease, and the only way for them to be cured would be for a particular person, you, to be hooked up to a machine for nine months while some kind of transfusion process occurred. While hooked up to the machine, your autonomy would be severely limited; you couldn't do everything you wanted, you would be ill part of the time, you'd have to limit what you consumed, etc. At the end of the transfusion you'd have to undergo a separation procedure that would be traumatic, painful, and somewhat dangerous.

Should you be forced to submit to this process? If you decided to go ahead, should you be forbidden from separating early? Even if it would mean certain death for the dependent person?

I think the answer is that, even if it costs a human life, you should be free to separate from the machine. And, I think this is similar to the situation of a pregnant woman. It's her body, she should be able to control it, even if a dependent human will die if she chooses to end her pregnancy before it is viable. But, once the other person is viable, I don't think one should be able to separate in such a way to ensure his death; in that case, the separation should be done so as to preserve his life.

I know that some people think that these situations are not analogous. They say they are different because the woman caused the fetus' dependency. This is true, in a way, but it isn't so simple. It's not the case that she caused the fetus to change from an independent person to a dependent one. On the contrary, she caused it to change from a non-existent state to a dependent one. If she owes it something, it's to return it to its state of non-existence.

So, using this argument, I think we can side-step the question of when the fetus becomes a human being and declare that it's only after the fetus becomes viable that abortion would be murder. Until that point, I think it is the, possibly regrettable, legitimate exercise of individual liberty.

*As an aside, I thought I'd just mention how incredibly unpersuasive I find the "argument" that a fetus is a human being because we can recognize fingers and toes in a fetal image. This is an absurdity of Pythonian proportions:
"How do you know she's a witch person?"
"SHE LOOKS LIKE ONE!"

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Suicide and Assisted Suicide 

I posted the following as a comment to a post at Setting The World To Rights:

This is a great issue to use to test whether somebody takes individual rights seriously.
If you think that people have individual rights to their lives and to pursue their goals without the permission or approval of others, then you must acknowledge their right to make an informed decision to choose death; and that physicians assisting them are helping, not hurting, their patients (because their job is not to prolong life; but, rather, to help their patients solve their health-related problems by their own lights).
If not, then you really think that people are slaves of the state, or society, or the religious or some other tyrants.
The right to die is fundamental. If you don't have it, then your life does not belong to you; your existence is under the control of others.

I really think this is a very telling issue. It lets you know if a person sees people as ends in themselves, or as means to the ends of others. And that's what's at the heart of morality.

I don't just value life. Life is common. Bacteria are alive. What I value most is human life: autonomous people pursuing their own goals, making their own mistakes and discoveries.

If you insist on forcefully preventing people from making an informed choice to end their own lives on their own terms, or on preventing someone from helping them do it painlessly, then I don't think you really value human life.

I think that people who would coerce others to prevent suicide (assisted or not), or to protect dependent embryos, are promoting a simplistic notion of human life that is actually destructive of what's truly valuable about being human.


Friday, August 01, 2003

Hopeless 

I like Christopher Hitchens. He's very smart and fun to read.

But I was disappointed by this hatchet job he did on Bob Hope. I don't mind that Hitchens has a disability that prevents him from appreciating Hope's humor, but he doesn't have to inflict his pain on us.

I know Hope had many writers who probably wrote the vast majority of his jokes. But he delivered them with fabulous timing, and had an amazing connection with his audiences.

My first impressions of Hope came from his Road movies. He was brilliant.

I admire Hitchens' switch from the radical-left to more classical liberalism and anti-terrorism. I also admired his willingness to mercilessly criticize Mother Teresa.

But, this scathing attack on Bob Hope makes me wonder if, perhaps, Hitchens prefers being radical to being right.


Unnatural Disasters 

Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) is upset because African Americans are inadequately represented in...

Wait for it...

the names of hurricanes.

I remember when feminist groups complained that hurricanes were all named for women, and so the National Weather Service started scrupulously alternating between male and female names. But, remember, the feminists were upset because the hurricanes were clearly named for women. Now, Lee is upset because hurricanes are not clearly named for African Americans.

"All racial groups should be represented," said Lee.

It's nice to know that race relations are so good in America that this is the kind of "problem" people are finding.


Intellectual Property 

Lawrence Solum has a good thoughtful post today considering the RIAA's recent tactic of threatening to file numerous lawsuits against people who share many copyrighted songs on peer-to-peer networks.

Go read it.

I agree with Solum that this strategy is not likely to be successful, and that the future of file-trading depends on the evolution of "copynorms" (the informal social attitudes about the rightness or wrongness of duplicating material that is copyrighted).

I think this topic is fascinating and I'm very curious to see how this all plays out.

I used to think these issues were straightforward. It seemed clear to me that artists and authors should have complete intellectual property rights over their works and should be able to dictate the terms of their distribution and use. But, over time, things began to look a bit murkier. Digital copies are different from objects whose use by one person excludes its use by another. It seems that there are limits to what kind of control over these copies the creator should have.

I'm not very confident that our legal system will strike the right balance, but I hope that markets and the common sense of most people will get us to a reasonable state where artists are compensated for their efforts and fans have enough flexibility to explore and enjoy the works without onerous restrictions

It should be an interesting ride.