The Sensible Knave

"I do not see that we are further along today than where Hume left us. The Humean predicament is the human predicament." - W.V.O. Quine

Friday, September 30, 2005

Addressing Risks

A few years ago, I read an editor's introductory column in a scientific journal. He argued that America's response to terrorism was disproportionate, not to the magnitude of (then) recent terrorist attacks, but to the attention we given to graver threats. Environmental damage and species loss, he argued, pose more serious harm than terrorist acts on the order of the 9/11 attacks. This argument commits the "dominant risk" fallacy:

To reason that if risk A is greater than risk B one should pay no attention to B, whatever its absolute size, is like telling a person who has cancer not to seek treatment for a broken arm.

- Richard Posner, Catastrophe: Risk and Response, pp. 116-7

In many cases, one would be able to address both risks. It is only when one cannot attend both that one should ignore risk B. But suppose that one chooses to ignore risk A. Is there now a compelling to ignore B?

Thursday, September 29, 2005


See the correction at the bottom of this.

Where are they?

The physicist Enrico Fermi pointed out that an advanced spacefaring extraterrestial civilization could colonize the entire galaxy in only a few million years. On a galactic timescale, this is a blink of an eye. That no civilization has apparently done so already is the Fermi Paradox.

The Drake Equation is used to calculate the likely number of extraterrestrial civilizations in the galaxy on the basis of a number of astronomical assumptions. If the assumptions are reasonable, the result is not a crowded galaxy. However, the assumptions don't take the factor of colonization into account.

The star nearest to Earth is about four light years away. A spacecraft traveling at 10% of the speed of light (well within the realm of plausibility, unlike warp drive, hyperspace, etc.) could reach it in a few decades. Would you expect this to be beyond the reach of a civilization 10,000 years more advanced than our own? Suppose this society could colonize a new star system every 10,000 years (allowing time for ship construction, travel, and the adaptation of suitable planets), and every colonized world could colonize another every 10,000 years. They would run out of space relatively quickly.

It seems that nearly every conceivable approach to the paradox, plausible and otherwise, has already been advanced. A list of them is here. But for some reasonable explanation, it should be rather easy to detect an extraterrestrial civilization. Whatever the reason we have not detected this extraterrestrial civilization may be, this does not bode well for the SETI program. Either there's nothing to find, or no one wants to be found.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Foreign Precedents

During his confirmation hearing, John Roberts made a strong case against their use in Constitutional cases:
If we're relying on a decision from a German judge about what our Constitution means, no president accountable to the people appointed that judge and no Senate accountable to the people confirmed that judge. And yet he's playing a role in shaping the law that binds the people in this country. I think that's a concern that has to be addressed. The other part of it that would concern me is that, relying on foreign precedent doesn't confine judges. It doesn't limit their discretion the way relying on domestic precedent does. Domestic precedent can confine and shape the discretion of the judges. Foreign law, you can find anything you want. If you don't find it in the decisions of France or Italy, it's in the decisions of Somalia or Japan or Indonesia or wherever. As somebody said in another context, looking at foreign law for support is like looking out over a crowd and picking out your friends. You can find them. They're there. And that actually expands the discretion of the judge. It allows the judge to incorporate his or her own personal preferences, cloak them with the authority of precedent -- because they're finding precedent in foreign law -- and use that to determine the meaning of the Constitution. And I think that's a misuse of precedent, not a correct use of precedent.

Ann Althouse addresses this:
I think the defense of using foreign law is that you cite it for its persuasive power, not because you regard it as binding authority. So it's not different from quoting a passage from Shakespeare or a philosopher. Thus, the fact that you're "picking out your friends" isn't a problem... It's not as if judges rigidly follow a method of eliminating all extraneous material from their opinions. As long as they don't slip into the problem of imagining the opinions of foreign courts to be authoritative, why is it wrong?
And it is not unlike a state court drawing on precedents laid down in another part of the country, despite Roberts' suggestion to the contrary. There are many independent jurisdictions in this country, and judges could often cherry-pick precedents favorable to their opinions. One of the benefits of a legal system with independent jurisdictions, free to some extent to develop their own precedents, is the freedom of states to experiment with new rules. Until such rules prove themselves successful, their effects are contained.

Of course, many unsuccessful laws will be adopted elsewhere by misguided judges. Yet, those misguided judges could very well have created the same laws out of thin air. That's really what this is all about. To the extent that you are hostile to "legislation from the bench", you're likely to be hostile to any judicial approach that does not draw solely upon authoritative sources of law.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Bar eligibility

Apropos of my concern about 1L and 3L (the jury is still out on 2L), the Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements lives up to its name. The table on pages 10 and 11 indicates where the J.D. is not a requirement for Bar admission.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Political blogging

I have to admit that I'm addicted to political blogs. Not just the ones in my blogroll, and their ilk, but blogs of all political stripes. I truly thought I'd learn a great deal about opposing viewpoints. Instead, I've come to recognize pitfalls of political blogging:
  • It gets very repetitive. With the exception of posts discussing breaking news, I'd often be hard-pressed to tell whether what I'm reading is current, a month old, or a year old, but for entry dates.
  • It's hard to remain civil. Everything is provocative to someone. Don't be provocative unless you're ready for escalation (assuming that anyone is reading what you write).
  • Because political discourse is so emotionally charged, it's hard to avoid becoming entrenched in positions that might be unreasonable after all.
  • It's hard to say anything original. The sad fact is that too many people spend too time mulling over these issues. Rare is the insight that hasn't been gained independently by many others.

Then again, this isn't all that different from political discourse in any other medium.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Humean Predicament

What is the predicament referred to in the heading of this blog? One of Hume's overarching theses is that many of our basic entrenched beliefs lack rational grounds. We can, however, better understand their nature by investigating their causes. These causes are often rooted in custom, habit, or sentiment, and have little or nothing to do with logical derivation.

This is indeed a kind of skepticism, but it is not the most far-sweeping kind. Some hardcore philosophical skeptics would argue that one ought to purge all belief lacking rational grounds, as though this were even possible. Hume recognized that purging fundamental beliefs about the external world and morality, to name a few examples, is easier said than done. We just might as well recognize them for what they are. I guess there are worse predicaments to be in.

Welcome new visitors

Many of you have come here via my wife's beautiful blog, which documents our daughter's progress in the NICU (for now). I'd like to welcome you to this blog, which is very impersonal by comparison. I enjoy writing here about social, legal, and ethical issues. My posting can be sporadic, as I don't usually post just for the sake of keeping current. Also, I have a daughter in the NICU.

Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for being supportive of my wife and daughter. You know who you are.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Abolish the first year of law school?

There's another path, after all.

It's our fault...

Let's agree for the sake of argument that America has helped to bring about or sustain a great deal of evil in the world. We were once an ally of Saddam's Iraq, aiding it in its war against Iran. We armed Islamic guerillas in parts of Asia. We supported despots in Africa. Let's just agree that we did these things, which had terrible consequences, and we were wrong in doing them.

What follows from this? Critics of American foreign policy can be inconsistent on this matter. Sometimes, it follows from the fact that we had a hand in the rise of a particular evil that we have no right to oppose it. I've heard this kind of reasoning many times in connection with Saddam Hussein. Sometimes, it follows from claims about our dirty hands that we ought to rectify what we helped to bring about. I've heard this reasoning many times in connection with African genocide and other matters. Again, I'm not disputing any factual claim here. I just can't see how judgments about responsibility for bad things can have such wildly varying implications. Does it depend on who is the target of our action?

Many parties appear to be very selective in how they apply these lines of reasoning. It only seems to come down to this: when you support a certain course of action, our responsibility for the status quo only counts as a reason in favor of action; when you oppose a certain course of action, our responsibility for the status quo only counts as a reason against action.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Abolish the third year of law school?

Laura I. Appleman and Daniel Solove are debating this issue at Legal Affairs. I already weighed in a while back, and I haven't budged. Honestly, Prof. Solove's case for a third year seems pretty thin. Sure, a third year would give students a little more breadth, and a little more time to reflect on their career options. Many students all but commit themselves to a certain kind of practice early on, however. Imposing an extra year of tuition, coursework, and opportunity costs just to counter this smacks of paternalism.

If we're so concerned that aspiring lawyers make careful decisions within a longer timeframe, why not stop admitting recent college graduates? Let them work for a few years. They can decide whether legal careers are really what they want. I'm sure they would choose law school after all, and enrollment wouldn't drop. Or maybe only tuition-payers should be forced to sit and reflect.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Aerin Amelia

My daughter, Aerin Amelia Marx, was born a week ago, 14 weeks early, weighing in at a whopping 1.75 lbs. Her progress has already astounded her doctors. Her mom has created a blog for her, with frequent updates on her development.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

You may have to risk a catastrophe to prevent one

In Richard Posner's 2004 book, Catastrophe: Risk and Response (which must be 6 or 7 books ago for him by now), he discusses a number of far-fetched if not completely implausible catastrophic scenarios. Among them is the spread of "Grey Goo", i.e., the uncontrollable spread of a culture of self-replicating matter-consuming nanomachines.

Posner also discusses the prospect of catastrophic meteor impacts. In the long run, there is a high probability of a potential impact that would kill many millions, were it to happen today. I say "potential" because we might develop the means to avert such a disaster.

We've seen nuclear bombs used in Armageddon and Deep Impact (comet, same difference). We might instead attach rockets to a meteor in order to alter its velocity, as Posner mentions. What Posner fails to consider in this context is a potential application of grey goo. A capsule full of mineral-consuming nanomachines could be launched to intercept the meteor. By the time it reached Earth, the approaching body could be consumed, its elements now comprising a larger clump of grey goo. Being a more diffusive substance, it would, perhaps, completely incinerate in our atmosphere before crashing into the planet and eating it.

Thursday, September 15, 2005


In spite of what I wrote earlier, I find this blog to be interesting. Futurism often seems to be comically misguided. Just visit Epcot Center and see for yourself. A little bit of optimism never hurts, though. Futurists do seem to have a dismal prediction record, but it is especially bad when the predictions are dismal. Things tend not to turn out as bad as many expect. Consider this. In the interest of fairness and balance, look at this.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

My first rant

Costco sells gasoline to its members at a rate typically about 20 cents below the local retail average. Today, they were completely out of regular grade. I'm so glad to see someone who isn't price gouging. I paid nothing for Costco gas today.

It's like the 1970s all over again. I'm not old enough to remember the fuel shortages, but I was young enough to suffer the indignity of being unable to drive.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

On haruspicy

Divining the future is a cheap rhetorical trick used to ram forward nontrivial moral conclusions. Consider a few examples:
  • Marxists often foretell of a sweeping workers' revolution.
  • A neo-nazi idiot I heard on NPR a couple of years ago prophesized a full-blown race war.
  • Leftists often give assurances of an impending widespread progressive awakening.
The speakers in question all seem to want the outcomes they predict. Yet, these sorts of divinations seem to be employed in place of arguments justifying these outcomes. I suppose the normative conclusion they would derive is that you ought to accept the inevitable. Who could argue that you shouldn't accept the inevitable? And why bother to justify a particular state of affairs that must come to pass?

Divination also paves the way for strong criticism. Take the impending military draft. A renewed military draft would be an awful thing. Since it is inevitable, we can blame the parties who would be responsible for something that hasn't even happened yet.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

I forgot to mention that...

I deplore political haruspicy.

Why you shouldn’t expect a new military draft

There are many dire predictions to be found in some areas of the blogging world. Some already claim to see the writing on the wall: it is only a matter of time before our quaint experiment with an all-volunteer military comes to a close. Frequent recruitment shortfalls, heavy war casualties, declining morale, and the prospect of additional prolonged conflicts would all seem to indicate that a new military draft is necessary. Fortunately, dire predictions don’t always come to pass. Let’s consider why this one won’t.

If it really got to a point where only a draft could sustain military ranks at the levels we need under current conditions, the military would be more likely to reconsider its strategies. In Iraq and Afghanistan, our strategies and tactics are geared toward minimizing civilian casualties. That sort of approach has its costs. When you try harder to avoid hurting the good guys, you are less likely to hurt the bad guys. When you bomb a house, rather than an entire city block, your target is more likely to escape. Now, keeping collateral damage to a minimum makes using more ground troops necessary. The same thing goes for strategies that involve preserving and rebuilding infrastructure, and peacekeeping operations.

The military could change its strategies, reverting to something more like what we saw in the first Gulf War and the Kosovo operations. More heavy-handed strategies could decimate militant operations. Fortunately, our military leaders are unwilling to exact that price on innocents. But would you put that past anyone who would also be willing to revive the draft?

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Is suicide bombing cowardly?

Here is the case for answering in the negative:
Most terrorists fearlessly make huge sacrifices for beliefs they hold dear. Suicide bombers aren't cowards; they are evil. If they were cowards, they wouldn't be so much trouble. Why do people call terrorists cowards? Is it because it is fun to take cheap shots at evil people? Or is it because being evil has less stigma than being a coward? Perhaps, this abuse of language is optimal deterence, because fearless people are particularly loathe to being labeled a coward.

Whether these evil people experience any fear at all is unknown to us. If they do, however, then it would seem that they act in spite of it, and not because of it. People often seem to strain to interpret terrorist bombings as cowardly. This is unnecessary, for there are so many apt derogatory terms for terrorists and their actions. In fact, I think that many people mean something more like 'dishonorable' when they use the term 'cowardly.' Under the account I gave recently, we might say that one acts cowardly by acting dishonorably from fear. However, dishonorable conduct is not cowardice per se.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Saturday night special

Miss Emily Anne has exhorted all bloggers to list five blogs they like. Since she has recently heaped tons of praise upon me, I shall indulge her.
  1. The Iraq War Was Wrong Blog
  2. The Iraq War was NOT Right BLOG
  3. The Iraq War Still Is Wrong Still
  4. The Iran War Was Wrong Blog
  5. Blame Bush
There are many wonderful blogs out there, especially those to which I've been linking. I thought that this would be a good opportunity to recognize some heretofore unacknowledged gems.

And speaking of comments

Miss Emily Anne suggests that I use an 0ld-fashioned Jack card as a profile image. I hope to sometime develop enough technical acumen to do so. She really knows her court cards, and their storied history! So Jacks used to be known as Knaves, eh? Well, they represented knaves in the sense of being commoners, or servants. The knave, in Hume's sense, is potentially a "tricky, deceitful fellow."

New comment settings

Greetings to my reader(s)! I changed the settings for comments, in light of a new option. Blogger now allows for image-based word verification. Hopefully, this will make it safe to open comments to unregistered users while keeping spammers at bay.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Robot vigil

Miss Emily Anne is keeping a close eye on a household robot. This service is much appreciated. After all, we humans are a key source of household dust. It's only a matter of time before the Roombas reprogram themselves to address the root cause of the dust problem.