The Principle of Charity

A slightly different but closely related subject to steelmanning, worth a read

Examining Life

Have you had a disagreement with anyone recently? Did you feel that all participants were understood by one another? Here’s a test: Could your opponent(s) state your position in a way that you would be satisfied with how they describe it? Could you do the same for your opponent(s)? If the answer to either of those is a flat “no,” you are like most normal people having these conversations. I’ve had conversations over social media lasting weeks where I never once felt that my interlocutor wanted to understand where I was coming from. I’ve heard this referred to as “talking past one another” and it’s impeding conversations at every turn.

There are two basic facts that were very, very hard for me to recognize (and I still need to remind myself of them today). Here they are:

1. People have different positions than you do.

2. People think they have good…

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Quantum Mystics

Quantum mechanics or quantum physics is an area of study that has grown rapidly. I want to make it clear that I don’t have a background in physics. Quantum physics has always been fascinating to me, but my understanding is basic. Despite my belief that some findings in this field have definite applications in philosophy, I feel that quantum physics has become romanticized and exoticized. The lack of understanding and seeming mystery has been exploited for use in pseudoscientific claims.

New age figures like Deepak Chopra use the word “quantum” to explain just about anything. It is used in the context of claims regarding parapsychology, metaphysics, spirituality, and supernaturalism of all forms. I have no problem with people exploring the findings of quantum mechanics and contemplating philosophical implications. Where I see the problem arising is when these findings are touted as some kind of scientific support for their beliefs.

I do think it’s imperative that we have discussions of consciousness, the nature of reality, and topics of that sort. Unfortunately, I think these discussions are actually impeded rather than aided by insertions of the word “quantum” or other such mystifying words where they truly do not belong.


Approaching the subject, I tend to be quite dismissive. At first glance it seems obvious to me that government shouldn’t be involved in what someone does with their body. My dismissive attitude might stem from the fact that many of the most vocal supporters of pro-life are dogmatic people of faith deriving their sense of morality from prescriptive doctrine. Some of these are the same people that discourage both abortions and contraceptives and think abstinence is a reasonable solution. Fortunately, there are pro-lifers who debate abortion rationally and intellectually, a good example being the author of Persuasive Pro-life Trent Horn. He’s also featured on this radio show and provides important opportunities for discussion. Hopefully I am not misunderstanding and therefore misrepresenting him or like-minded people, but I believe Trent Horn argues that a fetus has an inalienable right to life and therefore terminating a pregnancy would be forgoing that right.

I think this relates to John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle. This principle basically posits that people should be free to do whatever they like right up until they inflict harm on others. The extension of this principle gives us the libertarian notion that infringement on another individual’s rights is the only justification for setting limits on liberty. Deciding whether or not a fetus has these same rights is the critical juncture of this topic. If it’s merely a lump of cells then the moral quandary is voided. If it’s a human life then it has rights. I think the vast majority would agree that there is a moral difference between aborting a fetus at 1 month vs. at 8 months.

The arguments from both sides make sense. Forcing a woman to go through with a pregnancy she doesn’t want greatly reduces utility. We end up with an overburdened foster care system or children being raised by parents that are financially, emotionally, and socially unprepared. I realize there are thousands of success stories about young single mothers raising children in difficult circumstances and those children going on to achieve great things. Unfortunately, I don’t think that argument holds up statistically. There are millions upon millions of stories of children born into debilitating poverty, neglect, abuse etc. that go untold.

Sometimes contraceptives fail, sometimes people make bad choices, sometimes childbirth poses risks to an expectant mother, and sometimes women are raped. Women in these situations would likely be better mothers in different circumstances, not the present one, so why not focus on discouraging/preventing the events leading up to the situation rather than the abortion itself. Women that are prevented from getting abortions lawfully sometimes seek illegal methods that are much more harmful and dangerous. Abortion shouldn’t be presented as some kind of evil and horrendous act when the root of the problem is the circumstances that put a woman in that position.

I do think there’s a fair criticism levied against this though. Many abortions happen because of unsafe sex. Is it fair to terminate a life (or at least the prospect of a life) because you don’t like the consequences of your irresponsible actions? Though it seems harsh, I think that’s a fair point. There are negative impacts to abortion that can’t be ignored. I think most women who have gone through one will attest to some of those negatives. Though it’s a bit of a departure from the main point, forcing taxpayers to support government funded abortions makes little sense to me. People vehemently disagree on the moral dimension of the topic; and I see no reason why people shouldn’t pay for their own abortions. I think charity could cover the costs for those who can’t afford it. Whether that’s feasible is yet further departure, so I’ll stick to the subject at hand.

If abortion is morally permissible during the third trimester right up until the moment of birth, it seems quite arbitrary to instantly consider the fetus a “baby” now. I don’t think the difference of inside the womb vs. outside the womb is what constitutes life (and therefore the right to life). On the other end of the spectrum, isn’t it just as arbitrary a divide to not allow extremely early term abortions? What’s the difference between that and a morning-after pill, or for that matter, contraceptives. Is there some kind of magical chime at the moment of conception that grants an inalienable right to life? I don’t think that’s any less arbitrary than the divide between inside the womb and outside the womb.

So how do we make a non-arbitrary distinction? Well, I don’t think we can make one that won’t appear at least somewhat arbitrary. But I believe a distinction of some sort is necessary. While some might see it as an insignificant factor, I think as soon as fetuses have the capacity to suffer, i.e. the ability to feel pain, the ethics change. The debate on when exactly this happens is apparently “extremely complicated“. It seems that the general consensus is at some point after 20 weeks. I’d say that’s a sensible cut off.

Abortion is not as simple an issue as many make it out to be. I think denying that there’s an ethical dilemma is intellectually dishonest. Disallowing abortions after 20 weeks still provides people who aren’t ready for parenthood an option while harmonizing fairly well with the harm principle.

A Marathon in Futility; The War on Drugs

I’ll start off by saying I don’t personally do any illegal drugs. I say that not to save face but to make it clear that I don’t have a vested interest in legalization. I’ll also clarify that I think there are harmful effects of these substances. Even marijuana has consequences that are often massively downplayed by proponents of legalization. I haven’t done enough in-depth research on the neurological impacts, but I have learned that there may be some link between marijuana and earlier onset of schizophrenia. It does seem like there’s a fair amount of consensus in terms of marijuana having adverse effects on young users. Regardless, prohibition of drugs does not, in my opinion, hinge on the question of harmfulness of these drugs.

The War on Drugs was a well-intentioned program initiated by Richard Nixon in the early 70s. Unfortunately, as stated here, there have been “devastating unintended consequences” such as “mass incarceration… corruption, political destabilization, and violence”. These consequences have largely been the result of an unregulated black market taking control. I’m not normally one to encourage government regulation, especially in the realm of business, but I think taking control of this market is a necessity.

Prohibition of drugs does not eliminate use. Drugs are accessible to anyone. As Peter Christ says here “we do not have one drug-free prison in America”. If the black market is saturated to the point where even prisoners have little problem with supply, the war on drugs has failed. To echo some of Peter Christ’s arguments, law enforcement is not meant to protect people from themselves. Drug addiction needs to be addressed instead on the level of education and healthcare. Harm reduction programs and strategies have been implemented in a variety of areas globally. These strategies haven’t had perfect results, but from what I’ve seen, they’ve generally produced overwhelmingly positive results.

Obviously a practical concern of legalizing drugs is that it might lead to increased use. When we’re discussing something like marijuana, increased use might not be viewed as a great thing, but the problems are minimal. If we’re talking crack cocaine or methamphetamine, the concerns are more evident. I think legalization of more addictive drugs would need to be coupled with a barrage of education and an increase in healthcare access. Some of the funding currently used on the war on drugs could be transferred to education and healthcare to help with the transition. I would say this change needs to be slow and calculated or the risks will be magnified. Legalization does not mean condoning the substances. I think the tobacco market is a great example of one successfully undermined by education. Illegal drugs are already quite taboo, I don’t imagine legalization would change that status too much.

Milton Friedman discusses the role of government in drug policy here. He argues, just as Peter Christ does about law enforcement, that government should not have a role in preventing people from harming themselves. This area is complicated because some people see drug addiction as having the potential to harm others as well. I agree, it has that potential, but I think prohibiting drugs actually has the effect of increasing that potential for harm, rather than decreasing. If addicts are able to purchase drugs from a regulated supplier, they are less likely to run into AND less likely to engage in activities associated with a black market: violence, impurities, disease, imprisonment, corruption etc.

This subject is so multifaceted that I’ve covered only a sliver of it and I’m afraid I’ve already failed at brevity. Thanks for reading, here are a few other discussions I found interesting:
Versus Debate
Stanford Article
TED talk – Ethan Nadelmann
Ex-cop Michael Wood on JRE

The Steel man Undisclosed

Steelmanning is a term that has been growing in popularity lately. I think I first heard it in this discussion between Dave Rubin and Eric Weinstein. I’ve also heard Sam Harris discuss it, I believe on one of his podcasts. You’ve likely heard of “strawmanning” or the “straw man fallacy” which can take a variety of forms. You could selectively present the weaker pieces of an argument, or only address one small aspect that is not the focal point. It’s basically just an attempt to invalidate a notion that was not actually the one expressed by an opponent. As you might have figured out, steelmanning is roughly the opposite. As I take it, steelmanning is the act of responding to your opponent’s argument as if it were the most coherent and compelling version of their insights that you can manage, even if they have not necessarily offered that. I think of it sort of like taking devil’s advocate against yourself. People have vastly different ways of expressing and interpreting positions, so checking if your criticism addresses the points that seem strongest to you can be a useful tool.

Unfortunately, steelmanning can be misused. I absolutely agree with the point made here about it being “arrogant to declare that you’re definitely doing it”. If you openly state that you’re steelmanning a position, you might as well say “I’m going to do a better job expressing your point than you did”. This is both obnoxious and ineffective. Steelmanning should remain undisclosed. I think Ozy’s post “Against Steelmanning” may in fact be strawmanning the concept of steelmanning. She brings up crucial problems with the application of the concept, but I don’t think it is intended to be used for condescension. I agree that it’s a very difficult skill, but keeping the concept in mind as you debate with someone is valuable. I don’t think it’s meant to be something explicitly mentioned during an argument. In fact, I think her first two propositions for “alternatives to steelmanning” are exactly what steelmanning is intended to be. Chana Messinger’s response to Ozy provides further discussion and I think both parties make some excellent points. If used effectively, I think steelmanning can help to make disagreements clear, improve arguments, and even cut down on polarization and partisanship.

Estate Tax

Unfortunately, this tax is not simple, so I’ll have to go into some details that I’m sure some will find boring. But once I’m through with the details I will explain the reasoning behind my suggestions. Inheritance tax, also sometimes referred to as “the Death tax”, is incurred by the recipient of an inheritance. Estate tax is very similar in nature, though it applies to the estate before being passed on to an heir. Different countries have different formulae for wealth transfer at death. Canada has no inheritance tax and instead applies capital gains taxes at fair market value on the assets (estate) as if they have been sold. Any capital gains on these assets is then taxed at 50 percent. There are exemptions like transfer of assets to a spouse or leaving “marketable securities to a registered charity through your will”. Primary residences and Lifetime Capital Gains also have their own exemptions. In the United States, estate tax is federal and inheritance tax is left to the state to decide.

Obviously this debate could be framed in many ways, but federal estate tax in the United States is easiest to address. The basic exemption is the one I want you to understand. It can be found here. Also shown is the table for tentative tax, which isn’t worth getting into. As you can see, the first $5.49 million is exempt. Estate tax only applies to amounts exceeding that first $5.49 million. So if an individual’s estate is worth $10 million when they die, they will be taxed at 40% on $4.51 million (without any additional exemptions). This means the estate tax will amount to $1.804 million. So if there were a single heir, that person would inherit $8.196 million. My proposition is to have brackets that scale percentage based on the value of the estate. Let me explain.

I think an exemption makes sense, but with an adjustable percentage, that exemption could start quite low. I don’t have exact amounts worked out, but with a reformed tax the exemption could apply to the first $500,000 and then an estate valued between that and $1 million could be taxed at 1 or 2%. As the value of the estate rises, so does the percentage, in much the same way income tax brackets do. The percentages could also be made to apply ONLY to the wealth within that bracket, also mirroring income tax. This is discussed at more length here. The point is, having a flat 40% tax on taxable estates makes little sense. The higher the net worth/estate value, the higher the percentage taxed on wealth that falls into that bracket. This suggestion is just a marginal tax rate being applied to estates.

I completely agree with what Milton Friedman says when he addresses the idea of 100% inheritance tax. Having a 100% inheritance/estate tax would disincentivize business and cause people to spend frivolously on luxuries and entertainment. But I don’t see how having a fairly high estate tax would yield these same results. If people can only pass on say, 60% of their total wealth, are they less likely to try to earn more? I don’t think so. Of course if they’re only able to pass on 5% of their total wealth they’re likely to spend it, but that isn’t what I’m suggesting. I think a marginal estate tax would allow for wealth exceeding $1 billion to be taxed at say, 80%, and still not destroy incentives to earn.

So absolutely, I can see why a 100% (or close to it) estate tax is bad, but I think raising it (especially in the sense of scaling to wealth) makes sense. I see no adequate justification for repealing estate tax (or lowering it for that matter). Peter Schiff argues that the wealthiest Americans don’t even pay much estate tax because they use loopholes in tax code, lawyers and the like to essentially avoid paying these taxes. Here’s the full podcast for context. The problem with this argument and others involving inefficiency (at generating government revenue) is that they address estate tax as if corruption is built in. If we can do something about heavy lobbying in regards to tax reform then we can start to challenge tax avoidance and evasion. I don’t blame business moguls when it comes to avoiding taxes within legal parameters. Unfortunately many of these tycoons attempt illegal methods as well (evasion). Enforcing stricter policies is a good way to make businesses more accountable. No, I don’t mean more regulation, I mean reforming current regulations to make them more concise and to include fewer loopholes. A reform to estate tax like the one I suggest must coincide with a reform in the way tax policies are enforced or it’ll be insignificant. I recognize that it’s not an easy task. Further discussion here.

As far as fairness goes, the current U.S. estate tax does not seem unfair to me. As stated, I believe it could use reform, but certainly not in the direction of reducing the burden on the wealthy. Schiff and other opponents of the estate tax imply that this tax is targeting small family business owners and farmers. I would hardly call a $5.49 million business a small family business. It’s a substantial estate at that point. And beyond that point, you’re only taxed 40% of the additional wealth. It takes until roughly $20.5 million to be taxed even 30% of your total wealth. That doesn’t seem so unreasonable. As far as farming goes, it’s a relatively expensive industry, so I can understand issuing some exemptions. But those exemptions should be for owners of small farms with high costs for assets (equipment, machinery, inventories). I think exemptions can also be given on the basis of renewable energy and other sustainability practices (as long as they don’t become vessels of further tax avoidance).

If the heir to a business has to sell their parent’s business in the case that they can’t afford the assets because of estate tax… is that truly a bad thing? Of course they will have valuable skills if they were an apprentice to their parent, but those skills do not automatically qualify the heir to take over as CEO. They would certainly already have an advantage if they sought employment with whoever purchases the business from them and they could work their way up to the top like everyone else is required to do.

I would love to hear some alternative perspectives and criticism of my suggestion of creating a bracket system for estate tax.

The Biggest Misconception About Income tax

This video touches briefly on most of the debates concerning income tax. Obviously, it’s a sensationalist title and the discussion itself is reduced to character attacks and shouting, but it’s entertaining and significant nonetheless. I by no means wish to claim that this debate offers the best positions for either side of the discussion, nor do I think it’s the most productive debate on the issue. The reason I picked this debate in particular is because Stuart Varney (The Fox Host) glosses over the issue of marginal tax rates when he says  “federal income taxes and state income taxes add up to a net loss of 50 cents on the dollar for me, for every extra dollar that I earn“. This is the most crucial and most misunderstood fact of income tax brackets. Many people, possibly even the majority, think that it can actually mean a decrease in net income if you move up a tax bracket. This is simply false. The higher marginal income tax rate applies only to the income generated that exceeds the last bracket. Hypothetically, if income under $40k were taxed at a rate of 10%, and I earned $40k, I would pay $4k in income tax. Someone who earns $10 million per year pays that EXACT same rate on their first $40k earned. I think Stuart Varney understands this but he certainly does a good job of obfuscating this fact.

An issue that is relevant to estate tax as well as income tax is the setting of a maximum. Estate tax in the U.S. essentially functions as a flat tax (40%) after $5.49 million. Income tax for 2017 in the U.S. maxes out at 39.6%. I would love to hear a coherent justification for brackets halting at an arbitrary point. Why does the tax rate not increase as income increases? I see no sound justification for why someone earning say, $1 million above the ~$420k bracket should pay the same rate (on the $1 million) as someone earning $1 billion above that bracket. If percentages scale with income up to ~$420k it makes no sense to have them suddenly cap at 39.6%. Sure the percentages would have to level off and increase at an exponentially smaller rate at higher incomes as to not approach 100%, but having the tax become flat arbitrarily past the $420k mark is senseless.

There are, of course many more topics brought up in the video I linked such as capital gains taxes, national deficits, the nature of tax being non-voluntary, etc. I think to even broach these subjects it’s crucial to develop an understanding of commonly held misconceptions that many people share.