Saturday, January 12, 2013

Agency in Animals

In philosophical lingo, "agency" refers to a creature's capacity to make conscious behavioral choices. Animals without agency are guided not by thought but by instinct.

Agency is one of the fundamental attributes thought to be necessary for the formation of moral behavior.  Others include sufficiently advanced cognitive capabilities, sociality, behavioral plasticity, and a rich emotional repertoire including empathy. Creatures without agency cannot make choices that could be regarded as moral or immoral.

Scientists and philosophers have long believed that among the animals only humans are sufficiently advanced to have the capacity for true moral behavior, but that notion seems to be changing. It turns out that scientists haven't actually looked closely, and when they do look they find many indications of moral behavior, and certainly its precursors, in all kinds of animals. Anybody with dogs who is half paying attention finds this unsurprising.

Animals with the requisite attributes for the development of morality include other primates (especially the great apes), other canids (particularly wolves), elephants, dolphins and whales, rats and mice. The list will surely not end there.

My present comments are not primarily about morality, however, but about agency.  Many (most?) scientists and philosophers have doubted whether any animals besides humans exhibit genuine agency.  They've believed that only humans can make considered behavioral choices from a variety of options considering multiple factors. The rest are guided by impulse and instinct. My own casual observation of dogs suggests otherwise.  Let me provide an example of what I mean.

Because we live at the corner of two streets with a fair amount of moderately fast traffic, we work hard at teaching our dogs that they're not allowed to leave their own yard. Going on the street for any reason results in an immediate reprimand, and sometimes confinement to one's pen. It takes some time for young dogs to learn the norms under which they're expected to conduct themselves, and even longer to develop sufficient self control, but over time they do learn. At their present level of development, our dogs will watch passing joggers and cyclists with keen interest, but will reliably refrain from chasing. A squirrel in the yard across the street is almost irresistible, but resist they do—albeit with some frustration.

Other dogs are the most irresistible of all. Especially maddening is one particular boxer who seems to accompany his owners everywhere in their car. They drive by our place multiple times per day, coming and going, with their dog hanging out the car's window and barking continuously. Our dogs hear their approach from some distance, and become highly aroused. As the car approaches they run toward the street. Sometimes they run along our property line beside the car, while remaining on our yard. Less frequently they run onto the street and up to the car as it pauses at the stop sign at our corner.

It seems clear that, in the heat of the moment, our dogs are conflicted about what to do: they have to make a choice.  They obviously know what's expected of them. Sometimes they will approach the car at a dead run and veer off at the last moment, remaining in the yard.  Other times they pause briefly and then proceed full bore, as if thinking, what the heck, I'm gonna do this even though I'm not supposed to, and even though I'll get in trouble. 

Their demeanor afterward indicates they understand when they've messed up. Sometimes it conveys an attitude of, sorry, I really wish I hadn't done that. Other times it's more an attitude of, I know I shouldn't have done that, but I really wanted to (and wow! it was fun), and now I'll accept the consequences.

Some will object that this example demonstrates not agency but mere conditioning.  I don't think it does, but where on the behavioral continuum do we draw the line?  Perhaps we should consider the possibility that we tend to over emphasize the role of conditioning in animal behavior, while under emphasizing its role in human behavior, in ways that may reflect a bias that's not consistent or justified. It seems that when we look closely, the privileged position we grant to human behavior may not be totally warranted.  That is to say that while conditioning is important for both animals and humans, so too, perhaps, is agency.

Almost all of what I know about the science of animal morality and agency comes from reading Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce. It's a fascinating, thought provoking, and thoroughly enjoyable book that I highly recommend. Bekoff and Pierce aren't responsible for anything I've gotten wrong here.  Somewhat related posts of mine include Very Briefly: God, Science, and Morality and Sorrow and Science.

Copyright (C) 2013 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Rivlin's Wrong

In a New York Times panel discussion on making changes to Social Security, budget expert Alice Rivlin makes a rookie mistake.  Given her long and distinguished service working, both inside and outside government, on matters pertaining to the national budget, she should certainly know better.

Here's what she said:

Social Security currently adds to debt, because it pays out more benefits than it receives in taxes. While it accumulated credits when the higher ratio of workers to retirees was bringing in excess funds, Treasury has to borrow to redeem these credits.

The "credits" Rivlin refers to are otherwise known as "bonds".  The Social Security Trust Fund has been, by design, running a surplus for decades.  That is now changing, exactly as anticipated. Because the Trust Fund's surplus was loaned to the government, the Trust Fund's assets consist of special issue, interest bearing, government bonds. These bonds are officially and openly part of the national debt (around $2.7 trillion of the approximately $16 trillion national debt consists of debt held by the Social Security Trust Fund), alongside Treasury bonds held by the public that are bought and sold in huge quantities on the financial markets every day.

Yes, the Trust Fund's bonds must be redeemed to pay Social Security benefits.  And yes, when the Trust Fund cashes in its bonds, the Treasury needs to come up with dollars to cover the redemption.  And yes, the Treasury needs to issue new debt (new Treasury bonds) to raise those dollars.

But none of this changes the overall level of national debt!

The only difference after this maneuver is that the Treasury has exchanged debt owed to the Trust Fund for debt owed to the public.

How can it be that issuing additional debt to cover Trust Fund redemptions doesn't, on balance, increase the national debt? Simple: With respect to the overall national debt, Trust Fund redemption conceptually does little more than move around a couple of offsetting numbers on a ledger. On the one hand, issuing new Treasury bonds increases government debt.  But the redemption of Trust Fund bonds decreases debt (because after the redemption the Trust Fund holds less government bonds), and in an exactly offsetting amount. Again, debt held by the Trust Fund is exchanged for debt held by the public. The Treasury ends up owing more to the public, but less to the Trust Fund. It's a wash. (Or, as a commenter in another forum put it more succinctly and eloquently than I, "one obligation is extinguished when the new one is created.")

Alice Rivlin surely understands this. How could she not? So why on earth would she confuse the matter by making such a statement?

I don't know what motives were behind Rivlin's claim, but I do know that almost everything the public hears about Social Security is wrong or misleading.  The perpetual stream of misinformation that has been flowing from officials and politicians over several decades is toxic because the public has become convinced that Social Security has big problems and needs to be "fixed".  We've been systematically softened up to where we may consent, out of ignorance, to unnecessary and unjust benefit cuts. It's especially shameful when this "fixing" of Social Security is sold as a necessary part of fiscal responsibility, because Social Security, which is self-funded, has nothing at all to do with any real or imagined debt problems the government may have.

I've written previously on this topic. See: Why Social Security Is Not The Problem, Trust Fund Redux: A Parable, Newt on the Trust Fund, Durbin Agrees With Me On Social Security, Stating The Obvious, and Trusting the Fund: Can we rely on the government's Social Security nest egg?

Update March 11, 2013 - All New! -  More clearly and in more detail than past posts, this post explains why Social Security doesn't add to the debt, and why the Trust Fund is solvent.

Copyright (C) 2013 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Loose Ends: Studies in Mendacity, Part II

As I suggested in the first part of this series, some lies are just too big to forget.  The presidential election of 2012 was remarkably dishonest, with the most egregious mendacity emanating from the right. One big problem is that because the political right substantially operates in its own information cocoon—an unfortunate form of alternate reality—all kinds of dishonesty can flourish with little impediment or check.  It isn't just that persons on the right aren't exposed to quality sources of information; the information sources they do choose are in fact active promoters of the propaganda, and thus participate in the dishonesty.

How, then, would your average Republican know he was being subjected to, say, dishonest editing of a presidential speech—so dishonest that the edited audio actually truncates part of one sentence and concatenates it with part of another, while leaving out a big and important chunk in between?  He'd very likely have no idea. Which brings us to the "you didn't build that" meme.  Watch the first part of the These Hands video, which was prepared for the Republican national convention. Pay particular attention to the sentence, "Let me tell you something: If you've got a business, you didn't build that."  While you're listening to the audio, it's helpful to read along with the text (below) showing what the President actually said.


Here's what the President actually said. The italicized parts were edited out of the Republican video.  Changes the meaning a bit, doesn't it?  From Obama's speech [my transcription]:

If you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own. You didn't get there on your own. I'm always struck by people who think, wow, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something: there are a whole bunch of hard working people out there. If you were successful somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.  Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges; if you've got a business, that, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own; government research created the Internet, so then all the companies could make money off the Internet. The point is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.

Watch it for yourself:


Incidentally, Obama was actually riffing on a theme first (and better) articulated by Elizabeth Warren:


You can watch the entire These Hands video here.  You can watch a larger portion of the President's speech here.

Copyright (C) 2013 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved