Raining cats and dogs …

by Daniel on October 24, 2004

One of the least attractive features of Steven Landsburg’s column in Slate was always his habit of assuming that anyone who disagreed with him obviously did so out of ignorance, and indeed that appears to be his response to my post on the subject of quantum game theory and information. As a matter of fact, I do understand a bit (just a bit) about quantum probability and I understand a bit more after mugging up on the relevant chapter of David Williams excellent book on probability. Landsburg’s point appears to be that since no information is exchanged, there is no communication, but this won’t do. “Information” in the physical sense is not exchanged, but “quantum information” (not the same thing, but neither something completely different) is, and that is enough to turn it into a communication game. Let me elucidate with yet another variation on the cats/dogs game.

[click to continue…]

Compassionate Conservatism

by Henry on October 24, 2004

“Scott McLemee”:http://www.mclemee.com/id4.html has an astute review of Gertrude Himmelfarb’s “The Road to Modernity” in tomorrow’s _New York Times_. I’ll leave her claim that one can distinguish between a ‘good’ Enlightenment (English theorists of moral sentiments) and a ‘bad’ one (nasty French rationalist universalists) to more qualified commentators. What I liked was McLemee’s little sting at the end, which nicely illustrates certain of the limits of Himmelfarb’s brand of conservatism, and indeed “compassionate conservatism” more generally.

bq. When Himmelfarb’s attention turns to colonial America and the early United States the results are less persuasive, and indeed reveal far more than she may intend about the limits of moral sentiment she extols. ”For economic if for no other reasons,” she writes, ”the displacement of the Indians was the precondition for the very existence of the settlers.” As for slavery, Himmelfarb acknowledges it as an evil, but is curiously silent about its cumulative effect, over 400 years, on the nation’s stock of moral capital.

bq. I was reminded of something the ”elitist” Diderot wrote, in a moment of bitter hatred for the slave trade: the Africans ”are tyrannized, mutilated, burnt and put to death, and yet we listen to these accounts coolly and without emotion. The torments of a people to whom we owe our luxuries are never able to reach our hearts.” A more robust sociology of virtue might begin with the realization that the power of moral sentiment so often fails us. Yet when it does, our moral obligations remain. Meeting them is, arguably, one function of the state. But in the eyes of the neocons, I suppose, such thoughts smack of John Rawls — or even, worse, Le Monde.

This seems to me from my limited reading in the literature to be one of the key problems of conservatism – coming up with a coherent and convincing argument about those moral and ethical obligations that don’t spring ‘naturally’ from our pre-rational loyalties to family and friends. I suppose if you were a conservative, you could retort that obligations that aren’t natural are by virtue of that fact not obligations. But this leaves conservatives in a rather awkward position, given that many of the loyalties that conservatives prize (such as patriotism) are clearly artificial in nature (nation states are relatively recent social constructs). Others, such as the belief that slavery is morally repugnant, have changed dramatically over time. I suspect that there has to be a conservative literature out there that tries to grapple with some of these problems – can anyone point me in the right direction?