Friday, August 31, 2007

The danger of overabstraction

Robin Hanson is not a libertarian, clearly. And there's nothing explicitly market-based in the current torture proposal we are kicking around. But I classify him as a marketeer because he's supported a variety of market-based solutions (futures markets, health care, etc) in the past. There's nothing at all wrong with that! An undogmatic support for market-based systems is OK with me. Some libertarians make a fetish of the market, and those are the ones I classify as stupid, but Robin is not one of those. He's worked on and promoted some great ideas, and I have enormous respect for that (in fact, I implemented one of the things he has promoted). So it pains me to see him go in a direction that seems so obviously wrong, and doing it by means of frankly stupid arguments.

Nonetheless, I see a link between market-based thinking and the torture proposal. It's this: the idea that human suffering is some kind of tradeable commodity, that one kind can be exchanged for another based on some mythical calculus of pain. The most plausible version of the torture proposal is that we give, for example, a convicted burglar the choice of five years in jail or five weeks of torture. One of the brave writers at Overcoming Bias, who values his time, say of course they'd pick the five weeks "as long as it didn't do permanent physical or psychological damage". There are so many things wrong with this it's hard to know where to start. For one thing, until you have actually been tortured you have no way of knowing how much disutility it's worth to you. For another of course torture leaves permanent damage! The underlying assumption is that torture is like some kind of scary rollercoaster ride at Great America -- disturbing for a while, but then it's over. Try reading about actual torture victims sometime. For another, the the damage caused by torture is not limited to the victim, but includes a pervasive corruption of the entire social order.

So this proposal is entirely disconnected from reality and doesn't even work well on the abstract level. What's going wrong with people's thinking? I believe that the underlying bug is a tendency towards overabstraction. The essence of markets, and market-based thinking, is abstraction. From the overwhelming complexity of the world, we distill everything into a commodity that can be bought, sold, or exchanged for something else. This works just fine for some things -- soybeans, electronic components, etc. It doesn't work so well for other things. Market-based thinking (and maybe utilitarianism) rests on the assumption that anything of any value, positive or negative, can be quantified and equivalently replaced by something else of the same value. It should be obvious that this isn't the case, since there are many things (honor, bodily integrity) that are by definition not for sale. But it's not obvious to some, and it leads them down ridiculous and dangerous pathways. When random net flamers do it, it's just amusing. But when important thinkers with tenure do it, it's positively alarming.


TGGP said...

So, if I wanted to sell my arm or my services as human punching bag to someone, you would prohibit me from doing so?

By the way, if you are not a utilitarian, do you consider yourself a deontologist?

mtraven said...

We're talking about torture as a punishment for crime, presumably used by the state against an unwilling victim. What does that have to do with you voluntarily offering yourself up for abuse? Not very much.

I don't subscribe to any particular philosophy of ethics. My mission in life seems to be in arguing with people who do have one, and therby arrive at conclusions that are abysmally wrongheaded, as defined by nothing more than common sense and gut instinct. I keep meaning to replace this with a better foundation, but I haven't found the time.

mtraven said...

Oh, I see, you are reacting to my mention of "body integrity" as something that is not for sale. Maybe it's a bad example of what I was thinking of. "Honor" is better -- by definition, if you offer to sell it, you haven't got it in the first place.

As for body integrity, it obviously is for sale, but it also in our culture is treated as an extremely disreputable thing to sell. Prostitution is the most common example. Should it be legal? Probably. Would you do it? For how much? How much would you accept to have your daughter or wife prostituted? The point is not to answer these questions but that even posing them indicates that something has gone wrong somewhere. Markets and utilitarian calculation have crept up on an area where they don't belong. Of course, the market being an all-devouring force, this happens all the time, but that doesn't make it any better, according to my crude and unsystematic ethics.

Robin Hanson said...

By saying we place the same value on two choices we do not at all mean to imply that those choices are identical in all respects. Sure torture differs from prison in many ways. But the question is when those differences are relevant. From the point of view of deterrence, what mainly matters is the value the victim places on the act. If you think other things matter too, the challenge is for you to make clear what those other things are and why.

mtraven said...

This is an excellent illustration of the meta-level point that I was making -- to the marketeer mindset, abstraction is the default position. All things are fungible by default and the onus of explaining why a is different from b lies with the differentiator. I don't really see why that should be.

As to specifics, I think plenty of specific criticisms of torture have been made, here and on Overcoming Bias. Maybe they aren't convincing, but I'm not sure how they could be made so. They rely on a certain amount of gut-level revulsion and empathy. I've also pointed to books about torture, and organizations that try to help torture victims, all of which can give you some empirical facts about the actual practice of torture.

Many of the critiques of torture focus on its effects on the torturer and society at large. The simplest to understand is the political one: even if you think torture is a great way to deal with criminals, you might not want to trust the state with such a power. Here's another: presumablly the society we both want is one comprised of reasonably intelligent, rational, autonomous beings. Of course, people aren't like that by default, so society takes measures to try to make them that way. That's why education is a public good, and presumably that's one of the goals of Overcoming Bias. We try to structure society in such a way as to promote rationality.

Torture inherently undermines both autonomy and rationality. A person being waterboarded or subject to electrical shock treatment is not capable of reasoning -- indeed, their status as rational agents might be permanently damaged. A society that practices torture is a society that has given up relying on reason and rules by means of terror and suffering. Prison takes away a person's autonomy but not their ability to reason, and thus is less brutal, and less of a threat to a rational social order.

goatchowder said...

"the current torture proposal we are kicking around..."

You're kicking it around? Are you using steel-toe boots to kick it around? How do you clean the blood and vomit off of them? Is kicking the proposal around more or less effective than beating it with a truncheon?

The idea of trying to apply an economic value analysis to sadism, is either extremely nerdy or kinda creepy, or both.