NYT apologists for the NSA surveillance state reach their zenith

From Bill Keller’s recent op-ed:

Tom [Friedman]’s important point was that the gravest threat to our civil liberties is not the N.S.A. but another 9/11-scale catastrophe that could leave a panicky public willing to ratchet up the security state, even beyond the war-on-terror excesses that followed the last big attack.

Let me get this straight. The primary threat is an out-of-control security apparatus that arises from public panic in the face of a spectacular terrorist attack. And the best way to respond to this threat is with… an out-of-control security apparatus that arises from public panic in the face of a spectacular terrorist threat.

Note that I use ‘spectacular’ advisedly: the 9/11 attack, in the grand scheme of things, didn’t kill or harm all that many people (compared, for instance, to domestic gun violence), but it got a lot of attention. The Boston marathon attack was similar.

Of course, I wouldn’t have expected anything better from that paragon of moral and intellectual fatuousness. But Keller is usually a little less stupid than Friedman.

What I said to Simon Cotton

Today, I commented on Simon Cotton‘s terrific paper, “Non-Domination and Economic Justice: An Egalitarian Critique,” at the Princeton University Center for Human Values.  Below are the comments, along with some links.


In his paper, Simon Cotton criticizes a brand of republicanism associated with our own Philip Pettit by arguing for the inadequacy of Frank Lovett’s (2010) General Theory of Domination and Justice.  Today, I will briefly summarize the relevant parts of Lovett’s theory, catalogue Cotton’s criticisms of it, and make a few programmatic suggestions.

First, what does it mean to say that justice – at least economic justice – is a matter of non-domination?  Although neither Cotton nor Lovett approach the matter in a formal way, I find it useful to do so.  Lovett begins by proposing a biconditional analysis of justice: a society counts as just if and only if no one dominates anyone in that society.

1Next, Lovett defines domination in terms of social relations, dependence, and arbitrary power.  One agent is said to dominate another just in case they are in a dependent social relationship in which the former exercises arbitrary power of the latter.


From this it follows that a society is just if and only if no one exercises arbitrary power over another person in a dependent social relationship.


Lovett then goes on to claim – and this is a crucial move – that justice thus defined entails and is entailed by provision of a basic income to all members of the society.


Why is this?  According to Lovett, the provision of a basic income makes people no longer dependent.  In our formalism, that means that the second conjunct of the definition of domination is false, and hence that domination does not occur, and hence that justice obtains.

Cotton offers five criticisms of this theory.  Two question the sufficiency of non-domination.  In other words, they claim that the right-hand side of the first biconditional does not entail the left-hand side.  The other three question the necessity of the basic income.  In other words, they claim that the left-hand side of the final biconditional does not entail the right-hand side.

According to the first criticism, it’s possible for a society to lack domination and yet for there to be people – potentially many people – who suffer direct harm as a result of others’ behavior.  Provided that those inflicting the harm are not in a social relation with those they harm, no domination occurs, and hence there is no complaint of injustice to be made.  Cotton – I think correctly – claims that this is an unappealing consequence of Lovett’s theory.  But how, one might ask, could one agent directly harm another without there being a social relation between them?  The answer to that question depends on Lovett’s definition of a social relation.  According to Lovett, “whenever two or more persons or groups are, in some significant respect, fully related to one another strategically, […] they are in a social relationship” (2010, p. 35).  What does this mean?  In game theory, I stand in a strategic relationship to you if what counts as my best move depends on what you do.  Let’s say that a relationship is pairwise strategic if each participant stands in a strategic relationship to at least one other agent, and fully strategic if each participant stands in a strategic relationship to each other agent.  In the two-person case, these are equivalent.  We are now in a position to see why Cotton’s criticism goes through.  Imagine a large manufacturing conglomerate that spews pollution into a stream that feeds a local farmer’s crops, thereby destroying her livelihood.  The farmer stands in a strategic relation to the conglomerate (if they pollute, she needs to find a new job, but if they don’t pollute, she can go on farming).  But the conglomerate does not stand in a strategic relation to her (nothing she says or does makes a difference to their practices or bottom line).  The relationship is not fully strategic, and therefore does not constitute a social relation, and therefore cannot involve domination, and therefore cannot constitute an injustice.  At least, not on Lovett’s theory.  This is implausible, which suggests that non-domination is insufficient to guarantee justice.

Cotton’s second criticism is that non-domination is consistent with members of the society being in dire need, which intuitively constitutes an injustice but does not do so on Lovett’s definition.  The basic idea here is that there are likely to be people who are not in a position to enter social relationships such as employment because they are, for instance, severely disabled, and also likely to be people who are in a position to enter only non-dominating but still highly undesirable social relationships.  In both cases, it would seem that there is a failure of justice even though there is no domination.  In the former case, the person cannot be in a dependent social relation characterized by the exercise of arbitrary power because she cannot be in a social relation at all.  Nevertheless, one might think, justice requires that she not simply be left to starve or to depend on charity.  In the latter case, the problem seems to be that there needs to be a welfare threshold below which it is an injustice to subsist, even if one is not below that threshold because of domination.

Both of these arguments suggest that some further conjunct or conjuncts need to be introduced on the right-hand side of the first biconditional.  Perhaps justice obtains if and only there is no domination and no one is arbitrarily harmed and everyone subsists at or above an absolutely-determined acceptable level.

The remaining three arguments all challenge the necessity of a basic income for guaranteeing non-domination.  One way to summarize Cotton’s points in this connection is this: domination is defined in terms of three conditions.  The basic income is one way of ensuring that the second of these three conditions does not hold.  But, purely from a logical point of view, there are other ways of ensuring that the three conditions are not simultaneously met.  We could ensure that the first condition (social relation) does not hold.  We could ensure that the third condition (arbitrary exercise of power) does not hold.  Or we could find a different way to ensure that the second condition (dependence) does not hold.

So, for example, in his third argument, Cotton points out that regulations could be instituted to limit or eliminate employers’ ability to exercise arbitrary power over employees.  In particular, this could be done by requiring that labor contracts be “sufficiently complete,” or by directly legislating the “rules, procedures, and/or goals” that constrain and guide decision-making in the workplace (p. 22).  Similarly, in his fourth argument, Cotton points out that non-dependence could be guaranteed via competition policies that dictate that workers’ best alternatives to employment be sufficiently good not just in relative but in “absolute terms” (p. 27).  Finally, in his fifth argument, Cotton suggests that even in relationships other than employment, such as charity, Lovett’s non-domination constraint and provision of basic income doesn’t do the job because it doesn’t guarantee a level of subsistence above the minimal threshold identified in his second argument.

In closing, I want to offer three suggestions.

The first is on Lovett’s behalf.  It seems to me that his definition of a social relation is just too strict.  Cotton’s criticisms would not go through so easily if a pair of agents could be in a social relation provided that at least one of them was significantly and strategically related to the other.  For instance, the case of the farmer would qualify as domination under this definition.

The second suggestion is also on Lovett’s behalf.  Perhaps he could revise his notion of what counts as a basic income to handle both the second and the fifth argument.  In particular, perhaps the basic income could be set in such a way that it is enough to keep whoever receives it above the absolute threshold Cotton points to.  I’m not an economist, so I’m not in a position to say what that threshold is, nor am I in a position to say whether it would be feasible to provide such a guarantee.  Nevertheless, this seems to be one promising way of responding to both argument two and argument 5.

My third and final suggestion is that Cotton go on to give a more positive account, now that he has provided such a compelling negative account.  What, at least in sketch, would constitute justice, if not merely non-domination?  From his discussion, it seems that there are at least three further criteria he might like to add: non-harm, a subsistence threshold, and predictable and comprehensive social rules or norms.  I invite him to say which of these he takes to be necessary and why.


What I said to Alex Betts

Here are my comments on Alex Betts’s paper, “The Sources of Normativity in World Politics: Rethinking States’ Obligations Towards Refugees,” which I am giving at the Workshop on the Ethics and Politics of the Global Refugee Regime, organized by Robert Keohane, Luara Ferracioli, and Lami Abdelaaty at Princeton.  As readers of the blog will realize, this is a topic well outside my domain of comfort and expertise….


Continue reading

What I said at Princeton: Some Normative Implications of Preference Instability and Indeterminacy

Today, I presented a paper on some normative implications of the instability and indeterminacy of preferences for the Princeton University Neuroscience of Social Decision Making series.  On Monday, I present the same work to the Center for Human Values Laurence S Rockefeller seminar.  Here’s a draft of the paper.



Psychologists and behavioral economists have recognized for decades that preferences and other motivational attitudes are indeterminate: for some pairs of outcomes, a and b, a given agent will neither prefer a to b, nor prefer b to a, nor be indifferent as between a and b.  Sometimes, there’s just no fact of the matter concerning what people want.  Moreover, psychologists and behavioral economists have recognized for some time that preferences and other motivational attitudes are unstable: for some pairs of outcomes, a and b, a given agent may prefer a to b now, but be disposed to reverse her preference ordering a few moments from now in response to seemingly trivial and normatively irrelevant situational factors.  Philosophical theories that make use of the concepts of preferences and desires, however, rarely take the indeterminacy and instability of preferences into account.

This paper has three main parts.  In the first, I discuss two convergent lines of empirical evidence, both of which suggest that preferences – at least as traditionally conceived – are both indeterminate and unstable.  In the second, I outline a descriptive model of preferences that I first articulated elsewhere (Alfano 2012) as an attractive response to this evidence.  In the third section, I draw on my descriptive model to explore some of the normative implications of the indeterminacy and instability of preferences with respect to right action, wellbeing, public policy, and meta-ethics.  At first blush, it might seem that indeterminacy and instability spell trouble for normative theories couched in terms of preferences and desires.  After all, if right action is at least partially a function of preference-satisfaction, and preferences are indeterminate or unstable, then what it would be right to do would presumably inherit this indeterminacy and instability.  In other words, it could be argued that there’s no fact of the matter about what it would be right to do, or that that fact is in constant flux.  Similar worries arise in the cases of public policy and personal wellbeing: if your welfare is at least partially a function of whether you’re getting what you want, and your desires are indeterminate or unstable, then presumably there is no fact of the matter concerning how well your life is going, or that fact is in constant flux.  Pursuing or promoting one life goal over another might then turn out to be a mug’s game.  Against these worries, I argue that the local indeterminacy and instability captured by my descriptive model preserve any intuitions worth keeping about the normative status of preferences.  I then go a step further, arguing that local indeterminacy and instability are to be embraced because they help to counter a prominent argument against the normative weight of preferences: the demandingness objection.  I conclude with some methodological remarks about the appropriate use of empirical information in philosophical theorizing.

Continue reading