Sunday, November 25, 2012

Men and Beasts at Midway Airport

I flew home to New York for Thanksgiving last Wednesday morning. My faith in mankind has been shaken.

Early in the morning, dense fog cloaking the airport made it impossible for planes to take off, and a dozen flights out of Chicago were canceled. Chaos ensued in Midway Airport. Travelers snarled in frustration as they stood impotently in endless lines. Parents snapped at their whining children. College students yelled nervously on their cellphones at invisible parents.
Meanwhile, the degree to which each traveler lost concern for everyone else at the airport was unnerving. People cut each other off in line. Middle-aged businessmen in suits swore at their customer-service representatives. When I was standing at the front of one particularly long line, a young woman walked up to the agent behind the desk. “Excuse me,” said the woman in a trembling, panicked voice. “I’ve been waiting here for half an hour, and I need to rebook my flight. I’m not in line, but can you help me now? Like, before all these people?” The line grumbled in frustration at her, and I confess to being ticked off myself. If I’d had a case to plead against her, I would have pled it.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression. There was plenty of amiability and commiseration, too. But those moments of solidarity and friendly chatting seemed only to arise where there was no real point of conflict between the travelers involved. I spent half an hour in line with one friendly thirty-year-old man, talking with him sympathetically about rebooking our flights which had been canceled. When we got to the front of the line twenty minutes later, he cut me off with a mumbled, gruff excuse.

I conclude from the evidence that in the absence of enforced social standards, standards of civility simply melted away. The relative anonymity of airport travel and the benefits to be reaped from exploiting other people were extremely corrosive to people’s moral compasses. It seems like without the fear of God and the Leviathan, there’s room for a lot of human evil. Or at least a lot of inconsiderateness. 

That’s not to say that these were bad people at the airport. To the contrary, everyone there had equal, legitimate interests: to get home as fast as possible to the family that he or she loved. The problem was that those equal interests conflicted with each other, and people’s senses of civility were not strong enough to withstand the conflict. But as thinkers from Kant to the illustrious Dennis Prager have pointed out, virtue only counts when it it’s exercised in opposition to natural feeling. You can get a much better sense of someone’s morality from their behavior at the airport than their behavior at the Thanksgiving table.

I do acknowledge that I am succumbing to a sampling bias here. People who lost their civility were more likely to make a scene and to be noticed by me. But I’m not arguing that everyone descended into a beast-like state: just that enough people did to make the experience unbearable for everyone else.

So the prospects for human beings are not uniformly bleak. There is room for peace among men: but only if they are either terrified of punishment or if conflict between them is removed.

Don’t even think about the chat-’n’-cut.
(Actually, the scene in the airport was closer to Locke’s state of nature than Hobbes’s. Hobbes posits a “war of all against all” in which men will exploit every chance they can get to steal each other’s property. To Locke, conflict only arises when men’s interests overlap—they have no inherent interest in seizing as much as they can from everyone else, only in enforcing their individual titles to their own property.)

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Why Vote?

Every citizen should vote, but most arguments for voting are baseless. Let's purge the dross from the gold.

First, from a consequentialist perspective, your vote is next to meaningless. Even if you live in Ohio or Nevada, the odds that one vote will decide the presidential election are practically nil. Your vote will not substantially help your candidate to win. So as long as you're concerned with actually making a positive difference in the world, why not, as my friend likes to say, work professionally for the same amount of time and donate the money to the Against Malaria Foundation? You could save a child's life with a cheap mosquito net instead of smearing ink onto a tiny oval and hoping that it'll marginally help a marginally better politician into office.

There are other utilitarian justifications for voting; too many, too wrong, and too boring to be enumerated fully. But here are two:
  • "Your vote will send a message." It won't. You could vote for Barack Obama after a painstaking study of his handling of the Benghazi crisis, but if the public pays any attention at all to your vote, it will only get the message that you voted for the Democrat. Also, the public won't pay attention to your vote. 
  • "Voting sets an example for other people, and encourages them to vote." So why not tell everyone you're voting, and then read a good book in the confines of the voting booth?
There's only one good utilitarian argument that I've heard for voting. "If I enjoy voting, and I get more utility from voting than from getting paid at my job, why not do it?" First of all, most people, whether they know it or not, prefer spending a day with their family than with the poll-workers in an elementary-school gymnasium. Second, as I mentioned above, as long as you're concerned with maximizing utility, you should work for the sake of African children, not egoistically indulge in sentimentalist patriotism. Most basically, the question that we're asking isn't: why do people vote? but: should I vote? So the argument from personal utility can't persuade anyone who hasn't already made up his mind to vote.

So much for consequentialism. What about a duty to our ancestors? Since revolutionary patriots, southern civil-rights activists, and female suffragists all took great risks to win us the right to republican enfranchisement, we're slighting them if we spurn their gift to us. I personally find this argument very appealing, but I also recognize that it's hard to formalize it into a moral obligation. At the least, it's not enough by itself to justify voting. After all, there are plenty of causes that our ancestors fought and died for that we despise.
Look what's behind Dr. King!
 (My grandmother's photograph.)
Unfortunately, we're going to have to resort to a pre-1970s way of thinking in order to justify voting. Go home unfed, ye econ majors and relativists!

Voting is simply part of being a decent citizen. Whether by the grace of God or our own determination, we live on a continent where we have the power to choose our own government. And as intelligent, probing people, it's on us to use our prudence to collectively make sure that that government is responsible. This isn't a utilitarian responsibility; we shouldn't be under any illusions that our marginal voice will actually improve any policy. Nor is it a formally moral responsibility; it's still far more important that we give to charity. It's the kind of responsibility that we might have on a camping trip (like this one) to wash the dishes. Everything will be fine if we don't, and no one will mind, either; but if no one does it, we'll end up with a worse result. The proper response to this tragedy of the commons is to act responsibly. Call it the "don't be a cynical cretin" rule.

What if neither candidate is responsible? Then make the best of it.

We might call this, as some have, a Kantian approach: if no one voted, or if substantially fewer citizens voted for responsible candidates, the country would be worse for it. So be it, but although he's helpful in everyday situations like this, I don't think that anyone outside of a university has thought along Kantian lines in a century. I think we can justify voting without discussing the Categorical Imperative.

A better writer than me has stated this principle better. Or, to quote one of my favorite documents:

This is a story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody. There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that because it was Everybody's job. Everybody thought that Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn't do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.

Unfortunately, the casuistry of the last half-century has destroyed this kind of thinking. Alas!

Friday, November 2, 2012

On the Perverseness of Umpirical Realism

On June 2, 2010, Armando Galarraga almost threw a perfect game. By the end of the top of the ninth inning, Galarraga, a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers*, had already retired twenty-six batters. But when Jason Donald, a batter for the Indians, came up to bat, he hit a ground ball and dashed for first. The ball made it to the first baseman before he did, but Jim Joyce, the umpire, declared Donald safe. The hit went to the Indians, and Galarraga lost his perfect game.

We're left with two questions. First, did Galarraga throw a perfect game? Second, can we call Joyce to task for blowing the call?

No and no.

That there could be any doubt on this question speaks to the pervasiveness of umpirical realism: a philosophy that is as wrongheaded as it is common. According to this school of thought, the relevant fact in deciding the play was whether or not Donald made it to first. The umpire was only acting as a reporter: he was closest to the play when it happened, so he was entrusted to give an accurate account of it. And since instant replay has since made it blindingly obvious that Donald touched the base after the catch, Joyce's call was illegitimate. He failed in the trust placed in him to make the right call. Moreover, the play would likely have been decided correctly if someone else had been the first-base umpire that evening.

But there is another, better way of thinking about umpires. The only reason that umpires are on the field in the first place is to make calls that render disputes between the teams impossible. In the majority of informal games, umpires are not necessary, because the teams have enough goodwill towards each other to be able to adjudicate disputes without a moderator. But when the stakes are higher, and the players more competitive, the game cannot proceed without an impartial moderator to give swift judgment calls. It is not essential that these calls reflect what actually happened: only that they be respected by both teams. The purpose of umpiredom is thus not to make careful scientific analyses of the past trajectories of rubber balls. Who cares about that? The point is to enable an exciting and smooth game. So the relevant fact is not whether or not Galarraga beat the throw; it's whether or not Joyce said he did.

This is not to say that there is no such thing as a bad call—a call that does not reflect the facts on the field. Umpiredom is a craft, and in every craft there are good and bad craftsmen. But a bad call is not an illegitimate call, and it should be given no less respect by fans and players. If the World Umpires Association or Major League Baseball wants to punish umpires whose calls don't correspond to real plays, that's their prerogative: the MLB can hire anyone it wants. I might also fire a potter whose pots I don't like. I won't tell him, though, that his pots are not legitimate pots. Neither will I refuse to use them if they're capable of holding flesh.
plato and aristotle 237x300 Aristotle vs. Plato view of ‘substance’
The man on the left is a lunatic subscriber to the notion that umpires' decisions must correspond to real events in the past. The man on the right is the founder of Western Philosophy.

I want to make one more point about the role of umpires: they're more judge than juryman. An umpire's job is to examine the facts as they appear to him, and then to issue a ruling designed both to give a fair outcome for the teams and to set a precedent that later umpires and players can rely on. There is theoretically no limit on the calls that he can make, but as a judge within a long tradition, he can be expected to follow certain well-established precedents. (If players know that they are almost certain to be ruled out if they're beaten by the throw, they can always play the game with that understanding in mind. Exertion within predictable rules is what makes almost all sports exciting.)

We might object that the presence of a rulebook in the Major Leagues limits umpires' arbitrary authority to make calls. According to this argument, the umpire's job is solely to determine matters of fact as they relate to fixed, clear rules. But this objection misunderstands the nature of the rulebook. The rulebook is a codification that describes the accumulated precedents that umpires have set over the years. It does not command umpires to rule a certain way in each case. So umpires do and should have complete authority in every call they make, limited only by a long tradition of precedent and the danger that they'll lose public support as judges if they stray too far from traditional norms. In other words, if an umpire wants to rule that a batter who gets tagged off the plate is safe, he can, but he'd better be able to give a good reason for that decision.

If you agree with me on this point, you belong to an ancient and noble Anglo-American tradition stretching aeons into the past. If you don't, you're in the company of Napoleon and the Louisianans. Make your choice.

*Correction: Galarraga was a pitcher for the Tigers, not the Indians.