Category Archives: liberal theory

Pigouvian Taxes

Introduction

In economics externalities are the effects of one’s action on third parties. An externality can be positive or negative, and in general the occurrence of externalities is unintended. Negative externalities are those effects which cause harm upon (non-consenting) third parties.

Because of the harm principle the government is justified to create regulation to reduce the amount of negative externalities. There are several ways to do so. First the government can prohibit or restrict certain activities. Secondly the government can discourage certain activities.

Pigouvian tax

One method to discourage certain activities is to impose a tax on such activities. The idea is that by making undesirable activities more expensive, people will either limit such activities or to abstain completely from it.

The first question is how much tax should be levied. There are several things to be considered: the cost of enforcement, the effective deterrent and the compensation of harm caused.

Every tax has to be enforced, and tax enforcement is not for free. Ideally the revenues of a tax should be larger than the costs to collect it. Once we know what it takes to enforce a pigouvian tax, we could determine the minimal tax liability.

A possible problem, however, might be that this minimal liability, does not actually deter people from performing undesirable activities. This because the benefits they can gain, outweigh their tax liabilities. Hence the tax should be large enough to cancel any net benefit. On the other hand, this second minimum could be lower than the costs of enforcement.

Another way to look at the height of tax liability, is to take the cost of compensating negative externalities into account. For instance if water wells have been polluted, there are costs involved in restoring the water wells. On the maxim “the polluter will pay”, it’s reasonable to charge those who have polluted with this costs.

On the other hand, pigouvian taxes are meant to prevent the occurrence of negative externalities. Economically, the costs saved by this prevention should be counted as a benefit. Consequently, it does not actually matter if the revenues raised by a pigouvian tax does not cover the costs of its enforcement, as long as this tax succeed in reducing negative externalities.

Also the success of a pigouvian tax should not be measured in terms of revenues generated, but in terms of harm reduced. In a best case scenario a pigouvian tax will generate zero revenue, because everyone quits producing negative externalities. A pigouvian tax should not be imposed solely for the purpose of raising public revenue. Nevertheless the revenues raised in this way, should be used for public causes.

On Secular morality

Introduction

The purpose of Republic of Lagrangia is the establishment of a secular, liberal and humanist republic. In this post we will discuss the topic of secular morality. We will argue that all meaningful ethical theories are necessarily secular. However, we will start by distinguishing secularism from atheism. Subsequently we will show that non-secular ethics is equal to moral nihilism. Then we will defend the harm principle as the core of secular ethics.

Secularism versus atheism

Some people (deliberately) confuse secularism with atheism. However, this two terms refer to two totally different concepts. Atheism is the ontological position that god or gods do not exists. Secularism, however, is the political position that politics and religion should be separated, or in other words: the state should be neutral in religious matters. This means that the state should not promote religion or non-religion; whatever one chooses to believe or not, is only his concern.

Not all secularists are atheists, and not all atheists are secularists. Many secularists are not atheists, but they are for instance agnostics, deists or pantheists. This three particular positions are (fundamentally) different from atheism. But most agnostics, deists and pantheists are secularists.

Why is secularism important? Secularism is important because different people has different beliefs, which cannot often be proved. It’s almost impossible to prove either the existence or non-existence of god(s). Since one’s personal believes does not affect other people, or at least they don’t need to, it would be better if we keep religious matters private.

What is morality?

Although theists, and creationists, often talk loudly about morality, they have often no clue what they actually mean with morality. There is a strong impression that for theists morality only serves as a last sanctuary for an increasingly collapsing god of the gaps.

The primary question one should ask in moral philosophy is: what is the purpose of morality? Most theists just presume the necessity of morality, and when they are asked the primary question, they either evade this subject or they claim that the need for morality is “obvious”. One should ask why the need for morality is obvious.

Zoologists have discovered “moral” behaviour in multiple species of social animals, and not only in humans. Dutch-American primatologist Frans de Waal is the one of the foremost researchers in this field. This raises the question why social animals do subscribe to a notion of moral behaviour? If we ask ordinary people what they think what morality is about, they will often explain morality in terms of altruism or caring about others. This justifies us to understand morality as altruism.

There is a simple naturalistic explanation for the emerge of altruistic behaviour in social animals. Animals who help each other, think about a group of wolves or lions hunting together, have a greater chance of survival. Since all evidence points in the direction that the sense for morality is determined genetically, it follows that (the need for) morality is simply the product of evolution. In fact we might conclude that only evolution is able to give us a proper explanation for the whole phenomenon of morality.

After all, why should a deity actually care about morality? Theists are unable answer this question, and often they claim because of god’s love. But we should consider that love can also be explained by evolution, since our capacity to love enhances our chance of survival (think about the love of mothers for their children). However, god is supposed to be unevolved, so how can he be able to love?

So we can conclude that morality is the set of behavioural attitudes which brings us to help/care about others, which increases the chances for survival of our species.

Why non-secular ethics is equal to moral nihilism?

The Euthyphro problem as formulated by A. C. Grayling:

Is an act wrong because a god says it is, or is it forbidden by god because it is wrong? (Grayling p. 105, 2013).

Grayling argues that if the first clause is true than anything whatever god might decide to be good, is therefore good. This include murder, rape among others. Certain acts are only bad or good because of the arbitrary whims of a deity. Therefore non-secular ethics is nihilistic, since good and bad have no objective, independent meaning.

If the second is clause is true, we need to develop a secular theory of ethics.

What kind of morality should we have?

Although evolution is able to explain why people have a sense of morality, it fails to tell us what specific moral rules we ought to have. The primary objective evolution impose on all living beings is their will to survive, and in particular on animals.

Although most humans are born with a sense of morality, many people have different set of moral values. According to Canadian-American moral philosopher David Gauthier argues that moral values are inherently subjective. Because different people have different preferences, there will be conflicts of interest among these people.

It seems from this point of view it will impossible to establish any kind of objective morality. In a literal sense this would be true, but we can say: why not construct a set of rules which enables us to pursue as much of our interests as possible? In fact such rule is possible: the harm principle. Although John Stuart Mill has introduced this moral rule for slightly different reasons, it’s quite useful for organising a society with many conflicting interest.

According to the harm principle individuals should be allowed to do what ever they want as long as no other person is harmed by such act. Therefore you can live your life by your own values, provided that these value do not harm others. And the main task for the government is to minimize the amount of harm in society.

References

Grayling, A. C. 2013. The GOD Argument. Bloomsbury, London.

Freedom of speech and the denial of historical facts

Recently Cambodia has passed a law which outlaws the denial of crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge. People can receive up to two years of imprisonment. Many Western countries has passed similar laws for denial of the holocaust. Classical liberals are against any of such laws, because they are a violation of the right to free speech.

Some people will argue that crimes against humanity are facts not opinions and therefore they are not covered by the freedom of speech. Classical liberals reject this argument. After all who is to determine what constitutes a fact and what an opinion? Often there is no clear-cut distinction between facts and opinion. For instance, when scientists are discussing different hypotheses. Are these opinions? When a hypothesis has been confirmed by evidence, it’s considered a fact. Science is about establishing facts regarding the world we live in. However, science is also about questioning the things we consider to be facts.

A more important question, is why we should give facts any legal protection? As far as I am aware of, there no laws in any country outlawing the denial of gravity. Any such bill would be dismissed as ridiculous. Generally, it is accepted that facts should speak for themselves.

According to classical liberalism the litmus test for determining whether an action should be prohibited (or regulated) is the harm principle. Only if an action results, or might result, in (physical) harm to third parties then the government is entitled to prohibit said action. Therefore the question becomes: Does the denial of historical facts constitute harm? Although people might be offended by such denial, for understandable reasons, no one is actually harmed by such denial.

John Stuart Mill, the philosopher who has formulated the harm principle in his On Liberty, has also given the most profound defense of practically unlimited freedom of speech. He presents several reasons for allowing broad freedom of speech: An opinion which some seek to suppress, might be true; further by being forced to refute obviously false opinions we are able to know why certain facts are indeed true.

But Mill made a few exceptions to the freedom of speech. In his famous example of a rioting crowd, he argued we should not give a speech to such crowd which might incite them to commit violence, even if such speech could be published in a news paper. Thus, incitement to violence is not covered by freedom of speech.

Further, Mill has also argued that though the government is not permitted to prohibit the denial of historical facts, people might censure the fellow citizens for their opinions. We are not obliged to provide people the means to promote their views, nor are we obliged to associate with such persons.

Our conclusion is that governments should not be in the business of outlawing denialism.

On the need for a secular, liberal and humanist Republic

In this post we will defend the case for the establishment of a secular, liberal and humanist Republic. We believe the establishment of such state is necessary, but it is almost impossible to create such state on earth.

What is secularism?

First we should explain what secularism is. Unlike what some religious motivated demagogues pretend, secularism is not about prohibiting religion in all aspects of life. The real meaning of secularism is the separation of religion and politics. Secularists believes that religion is a matter for one’s own conscience, whilst politics is about public affairs.

What is liberalism?

Classical liberalism is the tradition within political philosophy which advocates a limited government, especially by imposing constitutional restrictions on the scope of permitted governmental actions. Individual liberty is restricted only by the liberty of other persons.

What is humanism?

Humanism is the world view that humans and humanity are the cornerstone of both society and ethics. Human life is not a mean but an end in itself, therefore both society and ethics should be based on their dedication to human dignity. Humanism can be either religious or secular.

Why a secular liberal and humanist Republic?

Currently there are no states in the world that enshrines the principles of secularism, liberalism and humanism. Many societies have religious inspired laws or are giving a special status to religion. Even in nominal secular societies, such the USA, religious groups are able to influence public policy even if they are an minority.

In order to protect the legacy of the Enlightenment, it is necessary that secular, liberal humanists will unite to form a new society, which explicitly based on these values. Once such society is established all immigrants and public officials has to sign a pledge to uphold these values.

Adam Smith on the functions of government

The Lagrangian Republican Association promotes the establishment of an independent and sovereign republic, which is based on the principles classical republicanism and classical liberalism. With classical liberalism we mean the tradition in political theory based on the works of Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. In this post I will discuss Smith’s vision on the proper functions of government. Continue reading Adam Smith on the functions of government

Alternative for Abortion

This post describes a personal opinion of the author, and is therefore not necessarily representative of Republic of Lagrangia or the space movement in general.

Although I am a proponent of humanistic secular liberalism, I happen also to be pro-life, i.e.  I oppose abortion, which I consider as a violation of the right to life, a fundamental right in classical liberal theory. Since I do not believe that this right can be denied on developmental state, I reject the slaughter of animals and consequently I choose to be a vegetarian. The idea you can be both vegetarian and pro-abortion, is in my opinion hypocritical.

However, unlike (some) many christian pro-lifers, I do support abortion in a very few situations: in case pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, the (mental) health of the mother is at stake or in case of serious defects of the foetus. A further difference between me and many “conservative” members of the pro-life movement, is that fully support both adequate sex education and the use of contraceptives. It has been proven that proper sex education (as opposed to “abstinence only”) reduce both teenage pregnancies and subsequent abortions.

Abstinence maybe an effective tool to prevent unwanted pregnancies, it is unrealistically to believe that abstinence only will solve this problem. Whatever you might want, people are going to have sex before and outside marriage, and it is in contradiction to liberalism to impose legal prohibitions against non marital sex.

The first step to eliminate the evil of abortion is to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. Contraceptives are essential for this, one thing the government may do is to distribute free or cheap (female) condoms in public spaces. Of course condom are not the miracle solution, although they may do a great job. People may forget to buy or use a condom from time to time, and condoms may break during use.

An interesting new way of contraception is discussed in Robin Baker‘s book Sex in the Future. Baker proposes a system in which people get sterilized at young age (16 or 18 for instance) and that their gametes would be stored ex vivo. When a couple wants to start a family they would retrieve their gametes from the storage and became pregnant through in vitro fertilization. Of course this program should be entirely voluntary, although it would be quite effective.

Another topic discussed in Sex in the Future, are artificial uteri. I discussed this in a previous post, although very shallowly. There many prospective uses for artificial uteri, we can think about career women who want to have children, but do not want to be pregnant because of their job, women with defective uteri or no uteri at all, male same-sex couples who want to start a family etcetera.

In these particular examples the pregnancy will start with in vitro fertilization, although scientists who are experimenting with artificial uteri (on animals, of course) usually transfer embryos from their natural environment to the artificial one. As far as I know, no scientists has ever succeed to establish a full ex vivo pregnancy. The possibility of transferring a foetus from a natural to an artificial uterus has a few prospective uses.

One example would be in case of pregnant woman who has died before her child was sufficiently developed to survive outside the body. Another example would be in case a woman who wants an abortion, but doesn’t fulfil to the requisites I mentioned above. If artificial uteri were available, a woman would be able to choose to terminate her pregnancy without killing her child.

In case the woman does not want to have a family, artificial uteri would enable the father to raise his child, provided he is both known and willing to have a child. Otherwise the child would become a warden of the state from the moment he or she is transferred into an artificial uterus.

Some pro-lifers suggest that adoption should be an alternative for abortion. I agree with them only partially. Their plans still force women to carry on their pregnancies to term, since giving up a child for adoption can only happen after birth. Artificial uteri will free women from this kind of compulsion.