Bodyguards, mercenaries, and Kavka’s Toxin Puzzle


In “The Toxin Puzzle”, Gregory Kavka presents the following thought experiment. An eccentric but completely trustworthy billionaire offers to give you one million dollars on the condition that at midnight tonight, you intend to drink a toxin (which he will provide) tomorrow afternoon. The toxin will make you violently ill for a short time, but it is not life-threatening, nor will it leave any lasting harm. Moreover, you will receive the million dollar payment regardless of whether or not you drink the toxin. You just need to intend to drink it. Of course, because it’s a thought experiment, the billionaire has a perfectly reliable mind-reading machine he can use to determine whether or not you’ve held up your end of the bargain, so you really do have to have that intention at midnight tonight in order to collect the payout.

At first you think you’ll just intend to drink it at midnight, but as soon as you’ve collected those sweet simoleons you’ll flush that toxin down the toilet and skip all the unpleasantness. The problem is that this plan is incompatible with intending at midnight to drink the toxin the next day. In order to collect, you have to genuinely intend to do something that you know you will have no reason to do when the time comes around. That makes it rational to intend to do something that it would be completely irrational for you to do. And Kavka thinks this is something we’re incapable of doing. He concludes:

One cannot intend whatever one wants to intend any more than one can believe whatever one wants to believe. As our beliefs are constrained by our evidence, so our intentions are constrained by our reasons for action.

I love this paper and I find the conclusion pretty compelling. I wonder if there’s a less far-fetched but equally vivid parallel case, though. It seems to me that Kavka’s toxin puzzle is routinely played out by mercenaries and private sector bodyguards. A mercenary or bodyguard ought to be able to command a higher fee by intending to die for his or her employer if necessary for the sake or the employer’s interests, so the bodyguard or mercenary has good reason to intend to die for his or her employer if that does turn out to be necessary. At the same time, it is clear in advance that there would be no good reason to actually take a bullet for his or her employer if the necessity arose.

Kavka’s hypothetical scenario makes for a beautiful armchair argument that the manifest irrationality of the intended action (in his case, drinking the toxin) precludes the formation of the rationally justified intention (the intention to drink the toxin). But if the case of bodyguards and mercenaries is close enough to the hypothetical case of the toxin puzzle (and I think it is), this seems like an issue that could also be studied empirically. I’d be curious to know if it has been.

Is the proposal to block Trump in the Electoral College a test of good faith?

NY Electoral College

At the LSE’s US politics blog, Jeffrey Tulis has summarized a plan to convince enough members of the Electoral College to disregard their instructions to put the election in the hands of House of Representatives. He concludes:

We offer the proposal in a genuine attempt to stave off what we argue is an existential threat to the American Republic.  But even if the proposal goes nowhere, as is likely, it serves the purpose of a kind of test of true opinion of Americans who consider it.  If one really believes, as so many Americans have claimed to believe, that Trump will be an autocrat (indeed, for many commentators he is an American version of a fascist), then can one seriously claim that the threat posed by this proposal to alter settled norms is greater than the threat posed by Trump?  Or, does one really not believe that demagoguery is a serious problem, or that Trump has a tyrannical soul?

Some states do have legal penalties for faithless electors, but as Tulis points out, these penalties are little more than a nuisance. Convention, not law, is what truly binds electors to vote as they have been instructed and strips the electoral college of its deliberative role. It is only in virtue of this convention that the American system of government qualifies as democratic in a contemporary sense, just as it is only in virtue of the conventions of responsible government that Canada qualifies as democratic in a contemporary sense. This is why the campaign to convince electors to break ranks and block Trump’s election is not, as Tulis claims, a good test of true opinion regarding the prospect of a Trump presidency.

If American democracy depends on the integrity of the convention against faithless electors, and Americans who oppose Trump hope to use democratic means to eventually replace him in office, then it’s reasonable for those Americans not to support the call for electors to block Trump’s election. This is true even if Trump is an autocrat or a fascist; a strategy that requires undermining democracy in America might defeat Trump, but it would entrench conditions that are highly favourable to autocratic or fascist government.

Certainly a Trump presidency will be disastrous; many people will die who would otherwise have lived, and many people will be immiserated who would otherwise have flourished. Because of the seriousness of the threat at hand, many Americans are surely contemplating means of resistance beyond what they would normally accept. But to be justifiable, these means must at the very least satisfy the condition of having a reasonable prospect of success. If lobbying the Electoral College to ignore their mandates would, as I’ve suggested, actually be counterproductive, then this means of resistance should still be considered beyond the pale, and the sincerity of Americans who profess the belief that a Trump presidency poses a grave threat but balk at Tulis’s proposal should not be doubted.

What are non-voters really like?


Voter turnout in last Tuesday’s election was low. The precise figure varies depending the population of interest; among voting-age Americans turnout was approximately 53.6 percent, but when the population is defined as those eligible to vote the figure rises to about 58.1 percent. Although the election aroused intense feelings among those who took an interest in the outcome, it appears as though millions of Americans didn’t really care one way or another. But appearances can be deceiving. Today the Washington Post reported on a poll showing deep and widespread dissatisfaction with the election result among nonvoters, and yesterday a local news station in Portland, Oregon raised eyebrows with a report that a majority of anti-Trump demonstrators arrested over the weekend had not voted in Oregon and in fact may not have voted at all. It turns out that nonvoters may have been just as invested in the outcome as anyone.

Predictably, these stories are so far mainly providing fodder for lazy moralizing on both sides, a sort of political version of the fable of the ant and the grasshopper for our times. If your memory needs refreshing, that’s the one where the ant works all through the summer gathering supplies for the winter, while the grasshopper wastes his time singing songs. But to make the analogy work, you’ve got to make some changes to the fable, so instead of one ant and one grasshopper, it’s a whole bunch of ants and grasshoppers. And instead of the ants reaping the rewards of their industriousness, more than half of them end up starving, while almost half of the layabout grasshoppers end up pulling through. Making the necessary adaptations to the fable turns the moral of the story on its head. It turns out the grasshoppers had the right idea; they were just as likely to survive the winter as the ants, and unlike the ants they had an absolute blast over the summer. Similarly, the finding that the non-voters were about as likely as Clinton voters to be dissatisfied with the result and about as likely as Trump supporters to be satisfied with the result implies that it’s the voters who are in some sense the real suckers. If voters are intrinsically motivated to vote, this implication can be avoided, but then the voters are merely no worse off than the non-voters. To incorporate intrinsic motivation, the fable has to be modified again so that working is as good for the ants as partying is for the grasshoppers. And now it doesn’t look like the fable has much of a moral at all.

So, non-voters apparently care about politics. Some of them are even engaged in riskier, more demanding forms of political activity than voting, such as street protests. Considered as a group, they also appear to reach similar conclusions about who and what is good and bad for the country compared to voters. And their behaviour conforms to a minimum standard of rationality — it is not irrational given their motivational set.

Perhaps there’s even more that can be said in non-voters’ favour, however. Low voter turnout is often regarded as a problem — a sign that people are losing confidence in democratic processes or institutions, say, or a lack of commitment to the obligations of democratic citizenship. Radical critics of actually existing democracy also sometimes speak as though failure to vote is itself a vote of no confidence in the status quo. But maybe a person doesn’t vote because they trust that the people who do vote will end up making the right decision. As it turns out, this trust is (from the perspective of the non-voters) normally justified. So given the momentousness of the choices available in many elections, the decision not to vote can just as easily be taken as a vote of considerable confidence in one’s fellow citizens, the quality of the candidates nominated for election, and the ability of the country’s political institutions to compensate for error.

To summarize, one can make a case that contrary to their popular image, non-voters are politically engaged rational optimists, and a high proportion of non-voters in the population should be taken as a sign of robust democratic health. Of course the evidence is nowhere near strong enough to justify outright acceptance of this characterization. But it is stronger than the evidence typically mustered in support of the stereotype of the non-voter as an apathetic, stupid, irrational cynic whose appearance heralds the unravelling of the polity. Anyone who shares the belief that voting is an important form of democratic participation and a matter of political obligation and not mere instrumental rationality should find this conclusion reassuring; it suggests that non-voters are not only open to being persuaded to vote, but that they’re the kind of people we would actually want to vote.

Stay frosty


Ken Knabb, an American writer best known for his translations of the French situationists, has a good post-election message up on his website. There are parts I disagree with; for example, I don’t think we can be so sure that Sanders would have beaten Trump, let alone by a landslide, and I think this is a great time for progressives to get involved in partisan activity. But I appreciate the determined clarity and optimism of the message, and this is some good advice for fellow social media fiends and news junkies:

New movements of protest and resistance will develop during the coming weeks and months, responding to this bizarre and still very unpredictable new situation. At this point it’s hard to say what forms such movements will take, except to note that just about everyone seems to recognize that our number-one priority will be defending blacks, Latinos, Muslims, LGBTQs, and others most directly threatened by the new regime.

But we will also need to defend ourselves. The first step in resisting this regime is to avoid getting too caught up with it — obsessively following the latest news about it and impulsively reacting to each new outrage. That kind of compulsive media consumption was part of what led to this situation in the first place. Let’s treat this clown show with the contempt it deserves and not forget the fundamental things that still apply — picking our battles, but also continuing to nourish the personal relations and creative activities that make life worthwhile in the first place. Otherwise, what will we be defending?

Note to self: Don’t be a Hudson.

Be a Hicks.



Third party votes and ballot measures


Just a couple of quick notes on the aftermath of election day.

1. Minutes after I woke up from a nap and before I tuned in to the election coverage last night, my brother messaged me and asked if I could let him know when Florida was called. I hadn’t planned on staying glued to the news, but I agreed and just searched for everything tagged Florida on Twitter, and from that point on I was transfixed. One thing I noticed was the number of tweets from disappointed Democrats to the effect that if Trump wins the state, that shows that all the third party votes were wasted. But people who voted third party can make the same (not very good!) point about everyone who wanted to vote third party but settled for Clinton instead. The idea that third party votes were somehow more wasteful than votes for Clinton only makes sense if voting for Clinton was more worthwhile independently of her likelihood of winning. But that’s exactly what third party supporters deny. So this particular argument for voting Democrat is either invalid or question-begging; it doesn’t work unless the claim that the balance of reasons favours voting Democrat is included as a premise. Whether or not that claim is true, third party supporters are right to reject the argument.

2. While the result in the national general election was about as bad as possible, workers did pretty well with state ballot measures. Five minimum wage related measures were on state ballots. In Arizona, Colorado, Maine and Washington, voters approved substantial increases in the minimum wage. In Arizona, the new minimum wage law also establishes a right to paid sick leave. In South Dakota, voters overwhelmingly defeated a decrease in the minimum wage for workers under the age of 18. In Virginia, voters blocked an attempt to entrench the state’s anti-union “right to work” law in the state constitution.

One weird trick to banish the election blues


Here’s a little suggestion for a neat post-election mood hack! A theme that often comes up in conversations about the result is that the outcome is bad not just because Trump won, but also because of what Trump’s victory reveals about Americans. But suppose the results were flipped around. You’d probably be pretty happy or at least relieved that Clinton won, right? And you’d probably also be thinking something like, “Well, America sure has got some big problems to sort out, but things are going in the right direction and today I’m mostly going to think about how awesome it is that many millions of people made the right choice.” But given how things actually turned out, maybe you’re thinking something more like “Holy fuck, America is one sick country. Sure, a lot of people turned out to reject Trump, but today I’m mostly going to think about how awful it is that many millions of people embraced a bigot and a bully and made an absolutely terrible choice.” But the difference in outcomes was made by just a few hundred thousand votes, a tiny fraction of the total number of votes cast. Such a small difference in the number of votes cannot justify a sweeping reassessment of the country one way or another. So if it’s appropriate for you to feel overwhelmed by horror, shock, despair etc. at the actual result, then it would still be appropriate to have those feelings if Clinton had got a handful more votes and won the election. Equally, if it would have been more appropriate for you to feel an overwhelming sense of relief, optimism or elation after a narrow victory by Clinton, it’s appropriate for you to have those feelings now. But relief, optimism and elation are not appropriate under the actual circumstances, and horror, shock, and despair would not be appropriate in the event of a Clinton victory. It follows that neither of these are appropriate responses to the actual circumstances. A more balanced response is called for.

Back to work


After an unplanned hiatus due to other commitments, I’m back to writing for this blog and I’ll have some new stuff up soon. Expect more short posts in addition to some longer pieces.

Early in the week I hope to finish a fairly lengthy followup to my earlier post on the ethics of voting. Having identified a few problems with consequentialist and deontological explanations of why it would be wrong to vote for a bad candidate, I’d promised that the next post in the series would look at how contractualist and virtue ethical approaches might be applied to the issue. This turned out to be a bigger can of worms than I expected, so I decided to devote a whole post just to contractualist approaches, including a bit of a primer on contractualism. A future post will be dedicated to virtue ethical and virtue theoretic approaches.

Before the hiatus began, I’d also written a followup to my post on the misguided constitutional reform proposed by Citizens for a Canadian Republic, which I intend to brush up a bit and post towards the end of the week. I argue that republicans would do better to pursue more moderate constitutional reforms that are desirable from a republican perspective and would be required if Canada were to become a republic, but do not actually require Canada to become a republic.