Three ways to resist Mulgan’s pre-existence argument

Brother Edward, condemned to seek redemption for the crimes of another life

Last time, I explained Mulgan’s argument that benevolent theism implies that persons exist (and exercise moral agency) before they are born, and why the success of this argument would have dire consequences for benevolent theism. In this post, I’ll take a brief look at three strategies for resisting the pre-existence argument that are available to benevolent theists.

1. The pre-existence argument depends on accounts of personal identity and moral responsibility that are false.

On Mulgan’s view, pre-existence (and only pre-existence) can explain away the appearance of gross unfairness in the distribution of evils (roughly, the fact that bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people). For pre-existence to provide the necessary explanation, we must be entities that existed and exercised moral agency before birth, and, from birth to death, continue to bear full moral responsibility for our choices before birth. Neither psychological nor physical or hybrid views of personal identity could ground the claims of identity and responsibility that pre-existence requires. We can have no psychological or physical relation to our hypothetical pre-existing selves. Only a brute relation could make me identical to and responsible for the choices of a pre-existing self. But positing brute facts should be a last resort when all other explanations run out. And given the availability of promising alternative accounts of identity and responsibility, there is no need to resort to brute explanation. If a brute relation is needed to explain how we could be responsible for choices we made before birth, but there is in fact no such relation, then we cannot be responsible for choices we made before birth. This means that pre-existence cannot increase the proportion of deserved evils in the world and is therefore superfluous.

2. A world that is made better by desert is made worse by sin.

Mulgan argues that if moral desert has any value at all, a world in which all evils are deserved is better than a world with undeserved evils. Given the choice between creating worlds with and without undeserved evils, God must select the latter. But only sin (which I use here to mean wrongful action) can make agents deserve to have evils visited upon them. This means that world in which all evils are deserved will contain far more sin than a world in which some evils are undeserved. If moral desert has some value, it seems plausible that sin has disvalue. Thus, any increase in the proportion of deserved evils will always be offset by a corresponding increase in the amount of sin and therefore could not possibly make the world better overall. At the very least, then, if it is permissible for God to create a world with any evils in it at all, it is permissible for God to create a world in which any number of evils are undeserved. This makes pre-existence entirely unnecessary.

3. The claim that all evils are deserved generates a paradox.

One could only deserve evils in virtue of having committed sin. One can only commit sin by visiting undeserved evils on another. But Mulgan’s account of pre-existence requires that all evils are deserved; the point of pre-existence is to show how this could be the case. If evil is always deserved, then there can be no sins, and if there are no sins, no one can deserve to have evils visited upon them. But plainly there are evils in the world, and if there are evils in the world and no one deserves to have evils visited upon them, then there are undeserved evils in the world. So the claim that all evils are deserved generates a paradox, and is therefore necessarily false.

Does benevolent theism imply pre-existence?


In Purpose in the Universe (previously discussed here and here), Tim Mulgan argues that benevolent theists’ attempts to resolve the problem of evil by invoking postmortem existence (i.e. an afterlife) are only successful if humans also enjoy some kind of pre-existence (or reincarnation). This additional metaphysical baggage gives ananthropocentric purposivism (AP) — whether in theistic or non-theistic form — an edge over benevolent theism. Although it is not decisive, it does strengthen the argument that, all things considered, AP is more likely to be true than benevolent theism.

Here’s how the argument works. Benevolent theists may respond to the problem of evil by pointing out that a benevolent god could ensure that everyone enjoys a postmortem existence that is sufficient in duration and quality to greatly outweigh any evils befallen during one’s life. The benevolent theist can accept that there are evils in this world, while denying that there are any unredeemed evils.

Mulgan responds that a problem of evil remains, however, even if postmortem existence is of the highest quality and infinite duration. Every life could still be improved by preventing any evils from occurring in the first place. Even if we can’t assume that a benevolent god would follow a principle that commits to maximizing the quality of each life, or the quality of some state of affairs, it does seem safe to assume that a benevolent god would avoid gratuitous satisficing. Satisficing occurs when there is a threshold above which any outcome is acceptable; gratuitous satisficing occurs when such a threshold is observed even though one could achieve an optimal outcome at no additional cost. For an omnipotent being, it appears that satisficing is always gratuitous. For God, “good enough” doesn’t cut it. If divine benevolence rules out gratuitous satisficing, no postmortem paradise is sufficient to provide a solution to the problem of evil.

Suppose, however, that some other defence against the problem of evil seems promising — a free will theodicy that posits contra-divine freedom (i.e. the freedom to act contrary to God’s will), for example. A CDF-based theodicy may explain why there are evils in a world created by a benevolent god. But it struggles to account for the manifest unfairness in the distribution of evils. Bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. CDF does not explain this.

If evil exists because of CDF, and we have CDF because CDF is valuable, God has good reason not to create a world without evil. But does God have good reason to create a world with an unfair distribution of evils? Mulgan thinks not. God could create a world that is just like ours, except that people in this world enjoy pre-existence. The details of how and where pre-existing people exist can be set aside. We need only specify two salient characteristics of pre-existing people. First, they exercise robust moral agency before birth. Second, they are morally responsible for the exercise of that agency at all times, including after birth. If God could create a world with pre-existing people of this kind, then he could create a world in which there is no unfairness in the distribution of evils because there are no undeserved evils. Evils would be deserved in virtue of one’s conduct during pre-existence. If moral desert has any value, then a world where people get what they deserve is better than a world where people don’t get what they deserve. And even if there is only a marginal difference in quality between these two worlds, the prohibition on gratuitous satisficing requires God to create the world with pre-existing people. Therefore, Mulgan argues, benevolent theism implies pre-existence as well as postmortem existence.

If Mulgan’s argument is successful, benevolent theism is in trouble. In fact, I would go further than Mulgan does; if benevolent theism really does imply pre-existence for these reasons, then benevolent theism is almost certainly false. Many will balk at the apparent metaphysical extravagance of pre-existence. The relation between pre-existence and worldly evil Mulgan describes also depends on highly controversial assumptions about personal identity and the grounds of moral responsibility. But more importantly, I cannot accept the moral attitude towards victims of the most profound abuse, oppression and misfortune that this view encourages. Like Mulgan, I’m generally more confident in my considered moral judgments than my metaphysical judgments. If a metaphysical view implies that the victims of the Holocaust deserved everything they got, I am warranted in rejecting that metaphysical view. If benevolent theism is to continue as a live option in a religiously ambiguous universe, Mulgan’s pre-existence argument must be confronted.

Referendums vs. democracy: tax policy edition

Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 7.32.48 PM

The August 4 episode of PolitiCoast has an excellent interview with Professor Lindsay Tedds, a tax economist at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Administration (and a blogger at Dead for Tax Reasons). The interview takes up almost the entire running time and covers a wide range of topics that will interest regular readers of this blog, including basic income, the minimum wage, the NDP leadership contest, and some sharp but fair criticism of the new provincial government’s tax policies. It’s well worth a listen!

Here I want to focus on Tedds’s comments around the 29 minute mark, where she argues forcefully for replacing the outmoded Provincial Sales Tax with a value-added tax — effectively reintroducing the Harmonized Sales Tax. There is already a political consensus that the PST is seriously flawed and in need of reform. And as Tedds points out, two independent reviews of BC’s tax system have recommended replacing the PST with a new VAT. This recommendation is consistent with conventional wisdom on tax policy that cuts across the political spectrum. During the politically charged debate over the BC HST, progressive economists like SFU’s Krishna Pendakur and the CCPA’s Iglika Ivanonva both expressed support for the principle of value-added taxation. And as I have noted previously on this blog, all of the Nordic social democracies fuel their comprehensive welfare states with value-added taxes at far higher rates than the short-lived HST.

Regardless of VAT’s merits, it is generally assumed that this option is political poison. Tedds’s frustration at this fact is evident:

I really hate that we can’t go back to this simply because — what was his name? — Gordon Campbell screwed up the implementation of that. The PST is a terribly inefficient tax to have; we would do much better with a GST/HST and we could implement it such that it was [progressive].

Campbell’s disastrous implementation of the HST is an important part of the story. But the main problem, I think, is the fact that the HST was repealed in a referendum, and referendums are perceived as uniquely authoritative democratic instruments. This perception is, however, deeply misguided.

The normative core of democracy is not government by ballot, but government by discussion. In representative democracy, even when even when it is said that “the people have spoken” in determining the outcome of a general election, the verdict is always provisional and in any case concerns only the composition of a body selected for the purpose of carrying on discussion. But all too frequently, the purpose and function of referendums is to end discussion by means of the ballot. In a referendum, the conceit is that “the people” speak rather than discuss, and that having spoken, further discussion is superfluous at best, and an affront to popular sovereignty at worst.

The idea that referendums represent a purer form of democracy, then, could not be further from the truth. Democratic government depends on mutual recognition that our judgments are fallible and thus subject to revision. Certainly there are some key features of a democratic regime that are, as Rawls put it, “not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests.” But these are rare exceptions, and I find it hard to believe that certain technicalities of the tax system are among them. When prominent political actors treat the public as though we are incapable of conscientiously revising political judgments after further consideration or in light of new information, they treat the public as though we are incapable — or unworthy — of democratic government. It is up to us to determine whether this treatment is warranted.

Why I’m supporting Jagmeet Singh for leader of the NDP


The deadline to join the NDP in time to vote in the upcoming leadership election is August 17. Before the window closes on this crucial phase of the campaign, I want to let my friends and family know who I’m supporting and why, and to invite everyone who is eligible to sign up for the party and join me in supporting that candidate too. Just to cut the suspense, I’m supporting Jagmeet Singh. But before I explain why, I’m going to take stock of the other candidates, all of whom have considerable merit.

During this campaign, Niki Ashton has powerfully articulated the message that the NDP must preserve and strengthen its identity as a party of the left, embracing traditional social democratic policies such as expansion of the universal welfare state and a major role for socially owned enterprise in economic development. Beyond the specific policies it contains, her platform also demonstrates keen insight into the scale and diversity of the injustices and other problems facing Canada today. And as a campaigner, Ashton has clearly come a long way since the previous leadership contest.

Nevertheless, it’s hard for me to shake the feeling that Ashton is in some sense fighting the 2012 leadership campaign all over again. In that election, Ashton was the only one to depart significantly from the moderate policy consensus among the other candidates and offer an openly socialist platform that made few concessions to conventional wisdom about the requirements of electability. But this time around, Ashton’s view that the NDP must provide a strong left-wing alternative does not distinguish her from the other candidates, all of whom have assembled impressive packages of progressive policy. This has not stopped her campaign from leaning heavily on the message that Ashton has a special claim to represent a progressive direction for the party. The effect is bewildering; it’s as though Ashton is paying no attention to the circumstances of the contest or the content of the other candidate’s campaigns. This does not bode well for Ashton’s prospects as leader of a campaign in a general election.

Ashton’s ability to lead effectively is also called into question by her failure to attract significant support from the party’s elected officeholders, despite having been an MP for nine years. Members of the federal caucus must work closely with and under the direction of the party leader, and their prospects for re-election depend on the leader’s ability more than any other single factor. This gives members of caucus a greater stake in the outcome of the race than almost anyone else, and their familiarity with the requirements of the job gives them unique insight into relative merits of the various candidates. While support from caucus is not a decisive factor, her shortcomings in this respect do contribute to my reluctance to support Ashton’s candidacy.

Finally, I am skeptical of Ashton’s interest in growing the party. Thus far, her appeal has been directed narrowly at people who identify strongly with the political left and are predisposed to support her platform. Identifying and mobilizing current supporters is an important part of a winning electoral strategy. But it cannot be the whole of a winning electoral strategy. People who do not thrill to the mention of socialism and are skeptical of certain policies must be brought on board. Ashton’s failure to reach out and broaden her message is the single most worrisome aspect of her campaign thus far. Taking all of these issues into consideration, I cannot support Ashton’s bid for leadership.

Of the four candidates still in the race, Charlie Angus is the longest-serving MP, having first been elected to office in 2004. His record in parliamentary politics reflects deep convictions nurtured by his roots in the Catholic Worker movement; his tenure has been especially noteworthy for his tireless advocacy for First Nations. Angus has a reputation as an excellent constituency MP, but he does not hide from the responsibility to exercise his own judgment in deciding how to cast his vote in the House. Among people who were members of the party before the start of the campaign, Angus is believed to have the highest level of support, and not without reason; he’s has been around for a long time, and he’s earned a lot of trust.

Considering Angus’s relatively long career in Parliament, however, it strikes me as worrisome that he has been able to attract so little support from his colleagues; Angus has the endorsement of only one current MP. Moreover, his platform has not left much of an impression. Angus would be my third choice for leader, more because his campaign has not given me any reason to rank him higher than because of any glaring defects.

Guy Caron has been the breakout star of this campaign. Like many people, I suppose, I was completely unaware of Caron before he declared that he was entering the race with introduction of a universal basic income as his flagship policy. He immediately made an impression on me as a charming, compassionate and intelligent person with an exciting policy agenda, which was lent extra credibility by his background in economics. Caron’s early entry into the contest helped set a high standard that other candidates’ policies would be expected to meet. But as the campaign has proceeded, Caron has shown that he’s not just a wonk; he has thrown himself into the work of organizing and carrying his message to people across the country, with special attention to neglected rural communities.

Considering his relatively low profile prior to launching his leadership bid, Caron’s difficulty in attracting support from politicians at other levels of government is not surprising, and it makes what success he has achieved in this regard (comparable to Ashton’s) all the more impressive. Despite some minor misgivings (particularly regarding his criticism of Jagmeet’s Singh’s proposed reforms to OAS), I would be happy to see Caron win, and if he doesn’t, I hope to see much more of him in national politics in the years ahead. Overall, Caron would be my second choice.

My first choice for leader is Jagmeet Singh. Singh was hyped as a possible candidate long before he entered the race, but I was skeptical that he’d step forward. Ontario will have a general election in the not too distant future; if the NDP won, Singh would be a shoo-in for a senior cabinet post, and if the NDP lost, Singh would be a shoo-in to replace Andrea Horwath. Staying put in provincial politics seemed like a better bet. Obviously, however, Singh did enter the race, and despite a shaky start, I think he’s more than lived up to expectations.

On the policy front, Singh has impressed me most with his commitment to building on proven antipoverty programs, including expansion of the Working Income Tax Benefit and increased benefits for low- and middle-income seniors and persons with disabilities. Transfers are the single most effective tool for cutting poverty and inequality, but with the exception of Caron, the other candidates have mostly neglected this option. Singh’s transfer programs have the edge over Caron’s, in my view, because they are phased out more gently. Caron’s basic income is only available to persons whose income falls below the Low Income Cut-off (LICO, a regional poverty measure defined by Statistics Canada). For every dollar earned above the LICO, the basic income payment is reduced by a dollar. In other words, people who fall below the LICO face a marginal tax rate of 100% on all employment income. A policy that imposes the highest taxes on those with the lowest incomes in the name of fighting poverty is perverse. It is also likely to discourage people from seeking paid employment. Singh’s transfer programs, on the other hand, are designed to be phased out gently. Under the new Working Canadian Guarantee, for example, full-time minimum wage earners will still have their incomes topped up.

Aside from paying for transfer programs, taxes can also help fight poverty and inequality directly. Singh has committed to a more progressive income tax system, higher taxes on capital gains, a new estate tax, an end to tax exemptions for expensive perks, and a new Royal Commission on tax fairness to recommend further reforms. These policies would reduce inequality by “levelling down” the top end of the distribution. But as Emmanuel Saez has argued, higher taxes on top earners weaken their bargaining power relative to lower earners and shareholders, encouraging downward redistribution and investment. The same measures that “level down” those at the top can also “level up” those at the bottom. There’s more to Singh’s platform than taxes and transfers, of course. But I think his policies in this area are representative of the thoughtfulness that pervades his entire agenda.

As noted above, it takes more than good policy to make a good leader. You also need the confidence of your colleagues. And Singh has this in spades. Compared to the other candidates, he has attracted the most support by far from New Democrats in provincial legislatures and the House of Commons.

A prospective leader should also be capable of growing the party in terms of both membership and electoral support. It goes without saying that the NDP cannot form government without dramatically increasing its share of the vote, and it can’t achieve this without the support of a huge number of volunteers. Generating enthusiasm among current members is important, but it’s not enough; we need to attract new members too. The historic winning coalition Singh built in Brampton — and his re-election with an increased plurality — speaks to his ability to draw support from beyond the ranks of party diehards. As Tom Parkin’s account of Singh’s advocacy for the reformed Ontario sex education curriculum demonstrates, Singh is ready and willing to step out of his comfort zone and make a sincere appeal even to an unfriendly audience. This is an indispensable quality for the next leader of the NDP.

So far, this race has made me feel excited and optimistic about the future of the party. No doubt this is partly because as long as the leadership contest is going on, the media and the public are paying an unusual amount of attention to the left-wing alternative. But this won’t last. The balloting will end, a winner will be named, and the left will no longer be able to count on the public’s attention. We need a leader who will make people take notice when we can’t just assume that people will take notice. We need a leader who can win the confidence of the country, not just the party. Jagmeet Singh is that leader.

Please join and vote:


Nuclear weapons in philosophy and film

bscap0008ld2From Missile by Frederick Wiseman

I’ve been interested in nuclear weapons and warfare since I was very young. The first novel I remember reading was Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien (better known for the wonderful Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH); I read it over and over, and even made a paper doll of the radiation-proof “safe-suit” from the book for show and tell. With nuclear war is back in the news (just in time for the anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing) I figure I should say something about it, but I struggle to articulate anything meaningful on the subject.

One thing I want to get across, though, is that there is a serious risk of nuclear war any time nuclear weapons exist in any quantity on this planet, not just when nuclear war is in the news. Effective mutual deterrence depends on the rationality of nuclear-armed states; if states are guaranteed to behave rationally, then they are guaranteed not to enter into a nuclear conflict with one another. A corollary of this is that nuclear war is only possible if states behave irrationally. If states behave irrationally, they behave unpredictably. So the circumstances most likely to lead to nuclear war are inherently unpredictable (except insofar as some circumstances make irrational behaviour more likely). It follows, I think, that we should feel no more secure when nuclear war is off the front page than we do when nuclear war is on the front page. We should feel secure only when significant progress has been made towards total nuclear disarmament.

That said, here are some of the things which have influenced my view of nuclear weapons and warfare, and which I would want to influence others.

50 Years After Hiroshima by John Rawls

Rawls was the most important political philosopher of the 20th century. But before that, he was an infantryman in the Pacific theatre during the World War Two, and witnessed the devastation in Hiroshima first hand shortly after the end of the war. His wartime experiences led him to abandon his plans to enter the Episcopalian priesthood, turn down an officer’s commission in the Army, and devote himself to the study of philosophy. This short essay on the ethics of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, just war doctrine and the nature of statesmanship is the only thing he ever wrote for a popular audience.

Some Paradoxes of Deterrence and The Toxin Puzzle by Gregory Kavka

In the first of these short and accessible papers, Kavka argues that nuclear deterrence raises a number of moral paradoxes. Strict utilitarians and uncompromising Kantians can avoid these paradoxes, but only at great cost to the plausibility of those doctrines, and it is unclear how they can be so revised as to provide a satisfactory solution. If our moral thought breaks down when trying to deal with the ethics of deterrence, maybe we should try to escape from reliance on deterrence as a means of securing peace. In the second (very short!) paper, Kavka casts doubt on a central assumption of nuclear deterrence: that we can rationally intend to perform an irrational act.

The War Game by Peter Watkins (writer & director)

Watkins’s first film was made for BBC television in the mid-Sixties, but it was not broadcast for another twenty years because it was judged to be “too horrifying for the medium”. Here Watkins uses his signature documentary style to chronicle a fictitious nuclear attack on Britain at the human scale. The result is extraordinary. It is tempting to agree with the sentiment behind the BBC’s judgment, if not the impulse to censor.

Threads by Barry Hines (writer) and Mick Jackson (director)

A feature-length cautionary dramatization of full-scale nuclear war (before, during and after) as seen from Sheffield.

“There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury (story) and Nazim Tulyakhodzayev (director)

An animated adaptation of Bradbury’s story about an automated house going about its business after the end of the world. The story had previously been adapted for the American radio programs Dimension X and X Minus One.

Missile by Frederick Wiseman (director)

Sadly, this film is not easy to find online, but you might have some luck through the library. In this film, the prolific documentarian’s subject is the 4315th Training Squadron, where US Air Force officers are trained to operate the Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile. Wiseman’s signature style eschews narration, talking heads, title cards, and music, yet he still manages to convey a critical, nuanced and sometimes darkly humorous perspective on this institution and the context in which it operates. A review can be found here.