What Makes Me Special

April 21, 2011

Reading a post over at Aidwatchers, “An Ignorant Perspective on Libya“, it occurred to me what it is that unites my positions on most everything.

So I was thinking, what are the people and things that I am most interested in or convinced by? F.A. Hayek. Adam Smith. Immanuel Kant. The Supreme Court. Religion. Libertarianism. What all of these have in common is the idea of following strict rules.

People always try to stymie Kant’s ethics by asking, “Well, what if the Nazis showed up at the door, and they asked ‘Where are you hiding the Jews?'” Kant says you should never lie, so presumably the idea that you have to tell the truth here is pretty devastating.

It can be devastating, I myself won’t lie about that. You probably should lie to the Nazis. But my question is, if you adopt a rule that says, “I am never going to lie, except when I judge that I am able to avoid something really bad by lying,” how often are you going to end up lying to protect Jews from Nazis, and how often are you going to lie just because it’s convenient for you?

I’m talking about Type I and Type II errors, which I always forget which is which but I looked it up on Wikipedia again just now. Type I errors are false positives, in this case thinking it is a good idea to break a rule when it really isn’t, while Type II errors are false negatives, failing to break a rule when it would have been a good idea to break it.

So basically, what makes me special is that I’m willing to tolerate a lot of Type II error to avoid Type I error, and that I make most of my case for what rules we should have on the basis of epistemic problems. We can never know very much, and if we try to say we’ll just do the best we can with what we know at any given time, my perspective is that this will lead to a lot of bad decisions.

If I were a very skilled writer, I would make it more clear that the title of this post is ironic. The idea of the post is that when trying to construct a system that deals with what we should do, we can’t assume that we are special and thus the rules don’t apply to us. Because it’s not true.


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