2006-06-14

Cognitive Liberty?

Was checking up on my various blog-feeds and a BoingBoing article struck my attention, it is on “smart drugs”, which apparently help kids study. This includes, according to the article things such as Ritalin. Now this in itself is not surprising for reasons I have talked about previously. With the over prescription of attention altering drugs (stimulants) should we really have any surprise that kids will self-medicate themselves with the same later in life? While this still remains an issue of interest to me, this is not the topic that interested me in the article, it was the phrase:

“This strikes me as the canonical cognitive liberty fight: why shouldn't you be allowed to make an informed decision about what state of mind you'd like to be in?”

This is a canonical libertarian social policy, which at first glance seems to spring full formed from the political philosophy of John Steward Mill, but is actually problematic on several levels. J.S. Mill thought that the role of government is to grant us freedom by keeping us from stepping on each other’s metaphorical toes, to keep us from infringing on the liberties of others. This view of what government exists for leads to a very minimalist version of government, where all actions that do not affect others are permitted. This seems like a very sensible approach to politics, it is beautiful in its simplicity, and in its inherent limiting of the effects of government on our day-to-day life. But the simplicity, at least, is dubious, since the effects on our lives are very complicated. Seat belt laws are my favorite example, not wearing a seat belt would be an act that influences only the agent at first glance, he is risking his life and limb and no one else’s, and thus this should be outside of the purview of government regulation. But on closer analysis we see that this is not true, since there is the question of insurance and medical costs from the injuries caused by not wearing a seat belt, and in some cases these costs will indirectly effect everyone else who will have to pony the bill. The same can be seen for the ever-popular smoking debates that plague our times.

So we can now apply this to the so-called “cognitive liberty” debate, how much of an effect does drug use hand down to society as a whole, the answer to this would determine the amount of allowed freedom in a pure libertarian policy (Millsian).

Another flaw in the “cognitive liberty” idea lies within the phrase ”informed decision”. What is the operational definition of the term, meaning how can one actually judge if one has actually come to a decision that is informed. What variables must one take into account when one decides that self-medication is a desirable outcome? I don’t presume to know the answer to this, but this vague phrase promises to have a high level of actual ambiguity in that most decisions we humans make are not actually informed in any definition of the term, but are more spur-of-the-moment or based on reaction and impulse (such as greed, or falsely perceived necessity).

The competitive nature of modern academe (in that it is coming to resemble a glorified trade-school) seems to warrant the use of cognitive enhancers to allow an advantage over other students, but this is dubious on two levels, fairness, and inauthenticity. The first question is one of pure ethics (on part of the drug user) but the second is more interesting. If a drug gives one an edge over others, and allows one to succeed at academic pursuits ultimately this edge is still synthetic, and will decay once one abstains from drug use. Thus later existence in whatever are the fruits of academic success will be inauthentic and unwarranted, being that the individual does not actually have the attributes that were considered in said reward (employment it seems). This would warrant continued drug use throughout life to maintain the perceived edge. The effects of this can have serious consequences physically or mentally (prolonged use of stimulants has been proven time and again to be detrimental to health), which could lead to direct societal effects. Also the user is actively participating in a continuous lie, in that they are misrepresenting their actual cognitive abilities.

This Inauthenticity moves into deeper philosophical grounds than the pragmatic exploration above. It moves into a more esoteric existential (and Heideggerian) debate, where is it desirable to live something other than what one actually is, synthetically. This might be a insolvable question, but it is one that warrants very careful consideration in deciding to purposely live in an inauthentic way. The authentic existence of the drug user is nullified by the pursuit of a disingenuous existence, in that he exists outside of his actual being. Each of us are born with inherent limitations and weaknesses, and all of use develop our unique individuality through the striving to overcome these weaknesses, but to take the quick route seems somewhat akin to cowardice, or a symptom of a deeper weakness. This also hails back to my previous argument that drug use is a mere temporary fix and does nothing to actually improve the individual, all gains are ultimately temporary and illusionary.

An odd point that seems to be contained in the use of drugs to learn seem to be the acquisition of facts is more important than actual learning or knowledge (as practical application). This seems to be becoming an endemic flaw of our success and competition driven society, learning and scholarship is much more than simply memorizing textbooks, it must contain a huge element of comprehension which is more than the sum-total of facts. There seems to be no desire (in those presenting the “cognitive liberty” argument) to actual learn or excel in their fields, but rather to advance by rote, and in the case of education get their diploma for the pure sake of employment in the sense of financial gains. There doesn’t seem to be any pride of accomplishment here, just the pride of having more money to purchase stuff. This seems the dream existence of the sad and hollow.

The worst part of this argument is that it is easily expandable from the already dubious cognitive (or utilitarian) region to that of “harder” recreational drugs such as heroin, which have more serious practical and philosophical issues. To make a flippant phrase, this issue is a gateway issue that leads to issues that have serious impact on individuals and societies.

This issue is one that would prove to be interesting to debate, but as we can see from above the issue of “informed” becomes a quagmire, so many issues need to be considered, and most of these issues are imminently debatable to any rational agent.

The modern libertarian needs to rethink his position, freedom needs rational constraints, pure individual freedom is not always the most advantageous, or responsible (in the eyes of cohesive society) position one can take. The doctrine of pure freedom (often synonymous with anarchy) seems to often be based off of a juvenile sense of entitlement or pure egotism. There are times when we must look at society, and not just our limited happiness.

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3 comments:

Dark Lord Xenu said...

You offer up an obvious problem, tell us we need to rethink our position, then take the coward's way out by offering absolutely nothing rational in its place.

You've simply pointed out the flaws inherent in ANY system involving humans, without offering anything concretely superior. You're just shooting philosophical fish in a metaphorical barrel.

If the individual can not decide for herself what is in her best interest, exactly who do you think should do it? Government? Puhlease. In the end, I'm responsible to myself. I pay the consequences. The government holds no responsibility to me as an individual.

Want proof? How many people got fired or even demoted because of the breathtaking screwups on 9/11? ZERO. Find me one. Just one. These are NOT the people I want making decisions for me.

To horribly paraphrase Churchill: "Libertarian philosophy is the worst political philosophy there is, except for all the others.

If you think Libertarians need to rethink their position, then you must think that Locke, Paine, Jefferson and Russell need to rethink theirs also.

I'll side with those who truly cherished individual liberty over those who think they know best how each individual should run their lives.

I found your last paragraph a horrifying mashup of straw men, ad hominems, poisoning the well, and unsupported assumptions. Let me demonstrate:

freedom needs rational constraints, pure individual freedom is not always the most advantageous,

"pure individual freedom" would be anarchy. No Libertarian has ever advocated that. I understand that I give up the "freedom" to run around and punch people in the face to gain the "security" of having my face generally unpunched. That's just basic civilization.

or responsible (in the eyes of cohesive society) position one can take.

But who is willing to take that responsibility is really the crux of the argument isn't it? Government has absolutely no responsibility to me as an individual. I think Libertarians offer that its rational to leave that responsibility who the person most likely to suffer the consequences of the decision. Individual liberty is the closest we can come to that rational proposition.

The doctrine of pure freedom (often synonymous with anarchy)

I think you're poisoning the well with a straw man here. That's pretty damned impressive. Since Libertarians don't argue for "pure freedom", you can only be equating "pure freedom" with "Jeffersonian individual liberty".

seems to often be based off of a juvenile sense of entitlement

Let's throw in an ad hominem while we're at it. What you characterize as a juvenile sense of entitlement would be more closely identified with a "Creator granted right" by the Founders.

or pure egotism.

more correctly characterized as "rational self interest", I would say.

There are times when we must look at society, and not just our limited happiness.

Show me a Libertarian who has ever argued anything different. But Libertarians argue that doing so with a sense of self-interest is infinitely preferable and more productive to society than doing so via the threat of violence by a goverment.

Meh, I came here to see why you equate Rand with L. Ron Hubbard, and only find big words and poor logic.

Dark Lord Xenu

Omestes said...

First off, thanks for your reply. I am often amazed, though, at how angry fanatics can be (a point of comparison between L. Ron and Rand, btw), which is odd because rationality is generally the best way of promoting a beleif.

As for proof of how libertarians ignore the society in light of their egotistical wants, is the topic of this article itself, legalizing socially harmful drugs. Last time I checked herioin (and the like) don't have a single positive social consiquence, and many many negative ones owing to the drug in itself, and not the illegality of the drug.

I don't presume to offer a solution. I admit that I don't have one, and potentially that one is not possible. I think an open mind is better, though, than a bad solution. I would rather have people forced (against their "creator given right") to help those less fortunate, than have them starve for some bastards entitlement to 7 cars. Forcing them to pay is better than people suffering, and for this there is no argument. What makes the most people (and not the richest) is the best solution, and this means that often people are going to have to pay against their will. As for the creator... Em... Anything claiming a right from a mythical figure, is flawed. "God said so..." might be proof for the beleivers, but the rest of us don't care. If a peice of paper uses that as a proof, or assumption, then it is worthless.

Yes, perhaps the above contained straw-men to YOUR individual sense of libertarianism, but I never claimed to be representing your unique brand, I was repeating, and synthesizing various libertarian views I've heard.

Yes, you are responsible to yourself, but also to everyone else though action or neglect. You (and all of us) are obligated to the sum total of humanity, as they are to us.

Dark Lord Xenu said...

By what "right" do you presume to use the threat of violence to force others to use the friuts of their labors for what you consider "less fortunate"? "Forced charity" is an oxymoron. Who will make those decisions about what's "fair"? You?

If you want to talk real world, look at how many billions were wasted by giving those debit cards to the Katrina victims. A lot of them blew it on bling and gambling and are right back where they started. This is money taken from taxpayers by threat of violence, and to what end?

How exactly am i "obligated" to the rest of humanity or them to me? Where does my responsiblity to them end? Who decides how much *I* get to keep for what *I* worked for? How many of other peoples' kids should I be forced to support? What responsibility do they have to limit ther children to a number they can support? What you propose is nothing short of slavery. You are advocate a political/philosophical position, you have a responsibility to justify that position. Anything less is just ignorant bloviating.

Each individual being "responsible" to humanity is much closer to Marx and Engels than it is to Jefferson and Madison. Perhaps you were simply born in the wrong country.

And I didn't argue that heroin has a single positive social consequence. But neither can you argue that the War On Drugs is a net gain for society. We spend hundreds of billions of dollars, to very little effect. Its responsible for the erosion of our rights to a degree that would have shocked the Founders. It puts millions of people in prison for relatively minor issues. It allows the police to break into houses and terrorize and murder citizens with little or no evidence (or consequence for errors). It supports a supply system that guarantees money to criminals and terrorists. It allows the government to seize property with little recourse to the "citizen" for retrieving it. Which system has been PROVEN more harmful to society (see prohibition)All these are well documented facts. What will you use to support your position?

You offer no facts to support your conclusions that criminalizing personal, private behavior is beneficial to society.

In truth you state quite clearly that you offer no solution, so one can only assume that you cannot use history, psychology, philosophy or sociology to justify your position. You accuse libertarians of being egotistical,yet both of your posts on this topic have been nothing more than "what I think is right, therefore that's the way the world should work". How much more egotistical can a person be than that? Solipsistic much?

And you were doing a helluva lot more than "synthesizing" various libertarian views you've "heard". You were mischaracterizing them and then attacking those mischaracterizations. That's a "straw man" in ANY context.

Lastly, you apparently cannot tell the difference between "passion" and "fanatic". By your comparison, Jefferson, Madison and Franklin were "fanatics" also.
If that's a similarity you can find between Hubbard and Rand, then by by definition it equates anyone who's had the courage to stand up and change things to a religious lunatic. I can't imagine what point you're trying to make with THAT comparison.