Suffer A Witch

In 1937, anthropologist Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard (father of the less awkwardly named contemporary journalist Ambrose Evans-Pritchard) published his famous monograph Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande, in which he claimed that the beliefs of the Azande (a tribe of north central Africa) concerning witchcraft were logically contradictory. Given the Azande’s beliefs about how witchcraft is inherited, together with their beliefs about which members of the tribe actually are witches, it logically follows, Evans-Pritchard assures us, that every member of the tribe is a witch. Yet the Azande do not draw this conclusion, even when it is pointed out to them: “Azande see the sense of the argument but they do not accept its conclusions, and it would involve the whole notion of witchcraft in contradiction were they to do so. … They saw the objection when I raised it but they were not incommoded by it.”

I'm melting under the force of your incisive logic! In the years since, philosophers and social scientists have debated ad nauseam how to interpret these facts (assuming they are facts – one would hope that further anthropological studies have been done to confirm or disconfirm Evans-Pritchard’s claims, but if so I haven’t heard about them). Are the Azande incompetent practitioners of logical inference? Or are they, perhaps, competent practitioners of some alternative logic, perhaps a three-valued logic? Or are their pronouncements about witchcraft best understood as something other than straightforward declarative statements about a language-independent reality, making the application of logic somehow irrelevant? (See Mark Risjord’s Woodcutters and Witchcraft: Rationality and Interpretive Change in the Social Sciences for discussion of the options.)

What I find puzzling about this debate is that it proceeds on the assumption that in (purportedly) manifesting this inconsistency in belief, the Azande are showing themselves to be importantly different from us in some way that requires special explanation. But in fact nothing is more common than for people to see the force of an argument and yet reject the conclusion, on the grounds that the conclusion is so contrary to their basic worldview that they assume there must be something wrong with the argument even if they can’t see what.

Consider how people – especially non-philosophers – react to philosophical paradoxes like the Liar, or the Sorites, or one of Zeno’s paradoxes of motion. Or consider how atheists react when confronted with the ontological argument, or how theists react when confronted with the argument from evil. Or, again, how statists react when confronted with the contradictions in statist morality (e.g., taking property without the owner’s permission is wrong, taxation involves taking property without the owner’s permission, yet taxation is not wrong), or as slaveholders formerly reacted when confronted with the analogous contradictions in slaveholding morality, or as Socrates’ interlocutors reacted when he exposed their inconsistent triads. In all these cases, there’s a tendency to assume that the argument is a sophism, that given its unacceptable conclusion it must have some flaw justifying its dismissal, even if this flaw can’t easily be identified or articulated. In Pericles’ words: “At your age we were clever hands at such quibbles ourselves.”

As these examples suggest, this reaction is sometimes justified and sometimes not. In the case of philosophical paradoxes, I agree with Moore’s argument that we are perfectly justified in rejecting the case for a crazy conclusion even when we can’t pinpoint where it goes wrong. We don’t, e.g., have to solve the Liar Paradox before we’re entitled to keep on using the concepts of truth and falsity. (Though I do think lack of curiosity about what’s wrong with the argument is an intellectual vice.) But there are other cases, like the slavery and statism ones, where the reaction was not justified. And that raises the question of how to distinguish propositions that really are fundamental data of common sense from those that merely strike us as fundamental data of common sense.

That’s a thorny philosophical question which I don’t intend to tackle in this post. My present target is smaller game: I merely wish to suggest that if the Azande did in fact a) hold the beliefs Evans-Pritchard describes, b) understand his argument, and c) reject his conclusion, we needn’t ascribe to them anything bizarre or unusual to explain this. Why not instead assume that they, just like us, tend (whether justifiably or unjustifiably) to dismiss, as probably flawed in some yet-to-be-identified way, arguments for conclusions that run against their basic worldview.

As Mises wrote:

Explorers and missionaries report that in Africa and Polynesia primitive man stops short at his earliest perception of things and never reasons if he can in any way avoid it. European and American educators sometimes report the same of their students. With regard to the Mossi on the Niger Levy-Bruhl quotes a missionary’s observation: “Conversation with them turns only upon women, food, and (in the rainy season) the crops.” What other subjects did many contemporaries and neighbors of Newton, Kant, and Levy-Bruhl prefer? … No facts provided by ethnology or history contradict the assertion that the logical structure of mind is uniform with all men of all races, ages, and countries.

By His Command

I was ruminating as to why the Fifth Cylon didn’t show up at the same time as the other four. Possible answer: because he or she wasn’t on Galactica at the time.

That might mean the Fifth Cylon is elsewhere in the fleet. Or it might mean it’s someone we’ve never met. But the third possibility is that it’s someone who was previously on the ship but died – only to be resurrected in some Fiver tank somewhere.

And in that case it really needs to be Billy Keikeya.

Billy Keikeya

And he really needs to be the Imperious frakkin’ Leader.


Okay, I can’t believe I’m actually blogging about the Anna Nicole Smith case, but I do want to make one point.

Larry Birkhead There seems to be a universal presumption that whichever guy turns out to be the biological father of her baby (FWIW, the DNA experts now say it’s Larry Birkhead) is rightfully entitled to custody.

Why? Inasmuch as the child comes into existence inside the mother, sole custody must initially belong to the mother. She can decide to share custody once the child is born, but – assuming the inalienability of self-ownership – she can’t surrender any part of her custody prior to the child’s birth, for the same reason that you can’t sell your blood while it’s still in your veins: so long as control over X is inextricably associated with control over Y, one can’t give up the former if the latter is inalienable. The biological father thus has no enforceable rights beyond what the mother chooses to grant him. (He may have various moral claims, depending on circumstances, but that’s another matter.) He surrendered all claim to his sperm and its issue when he deposited it in someone else’s body. (What about implicit contracts? I don’t rule those out – but such contracts can only involve the transfer of alienable rights. So at most an implicit contract could require the mother to compensate the father financially if she denies him shared custody. Or so it seems to me.)

Thus the medical determination of the child’s paternity is not the decisive issue. What would be much more relevant would be to know which man Smith would have preferred to receive custody. Now I gather that there’s some controversy about the answer to that question too; still, that seems to me the more important question to ask.

Herbert Spencer, Labortarian

Non-leftist libertarians tend to have a negative view of labour unions and workers’ cooperatives. Non-libertarian leftists tend to have a negative view of Herbert Spencer. As a possible corrective to both attitudes, I thought I’d reproduce some especially interesting passages from Spencer. I don’t claim that either group should necessarily be satisfied with everything Spencer says here; no doubt his assessment of the possibilities of labour organisation will seem too pessimistic to some and too optimistic to others (or perhaps some of each). But in any case it’s food for thought.

Book VIII, Chapter 20, of Herbert Spencer’s Principles of Sociology (1896) is devoted to the subject of “Trade-Unionism.” Spencer begins by taking the standard right-libertarian line that labour unions can never really raise wages for the working class as a whole – that any gains made for the union’s members must come at the expense of everybody else. But then he goes on to add a left-libertarian qualification:

What then are we to say of trade-unions? Under their original form as friendly societies – organizations for rendering mutual aid – they were of course extremely beneficial; and in so far as they subserve this purpose down to the present time, they can scarcely be too much lauded. Here, however, we are concerned not with the relations of their members to one another, but with their corporate relations to employers and to the public. Must we say that though one set of artisans may succeed for a time in getting more pay for the same work, yet this advantage is eventually at the expense of the public (including the mass of wage-earners), and that when all other groups of artisans, following the example, have raised their wages, the result is a mutual cancelling of benefits? Must we say that while ultimately failing in their proposed ends, trade-unions do nothing else than inflict grave mischiefs in trying to achieve them?

Herbert Spencer This is too sweeping a conclusion. They seem natural to the passing phase of social evolution, and may have beneficial functions under existing conditions. Everywhere aggression begets resistance and counter-aggression; and in our present transitional state, semi-militant and semi-industrial, trespasses have to be kept in check by the fear of retaliatory trespasses.

Judging from their harsh and cruel conduct in the past, it is tolerably certain that employers are now prevented from doing unfair things which they would else do. Conscious that trade-unions are ever ready to act, they are more prompt to raise wages when trade is flourishing than they would otherwise be; and when there come times of depression, they lower wages only when they cannot otherwise carry on their businesses.

Knowing the power which unions can exert, masters are led to treat the individual members of them with more respect than they would otherwise do: the status of the workman is almost necessarily raised. Moreover, having a strong motive for keeping on good terms with the union, a master is more likely than he would else be to study the general convenience of his men, and to carry on his works in ways conducive to their health. There is an ultimate gain in moral and physical treatment if there is no ultimate gain in wages.

Then in the third place must be named the discipline given by trade-union organization and action. Considered under its chief aspect, the progress of social life at large is a progress in fitness for living and working together; and all minor societies of men formed within a major society – a nation – subject their members to sets of incentives and restraints which increase their fitness. The induced habits of feeling and thought tend to make men more available than they would else be, for such higher forms of social organization as will probably hereafter arise.

If unions represent a necessary transitional stage, what is the higher form toward which they represent a transition? Interestingly, in the chapter that follows, titled “Cooperation,” Spencer suggests that workers’ cooperatives may be the answer. He begins by raising some problems for these also, but ends by defending workers’ cooperatives fairly enthusiastically:

In cooperative workshops the members receive weekly wages at trade-union rates, and are ranked as higher or lower by the foreman. Officials are paid at better rates according to their values and responsibilities, and these rates are fixed by the committee. When the profits have been ascertained, they are divided among all in proportion to those amounts they have earned in wages or salaries. Causes of dissension are obvious. One who receives the lowest wages is dissatisfied – holds that he is as goods a worker as one who gets higher wages, and resents the decision of the foreman: probably ascribing it to favouritism. Officials, too, are apt to disagree with each other, alike in respect of power and remuneration. Then among the hand-workers in general there is pretty certain to be jealousy of the brain-workers, whose values they under-estimate; and with their jealousies go reflections on the committee as unfair or as unwise. In these various ways the equilibrium of the body is frequently disturbed, and in course of time is very likely to be destroyed. …

Must we say then that self-governing combinations of workers will never answer? The reply is that one class of the difficulties above set forth must ever continue to be great, though perhaps not insuperable, but that the other and more serious class may probably be evaded.

These members of industrial copartnerships, paying themselves trade-union wages, are mostly imbued with trade-union ideas and feelings. Among these is a prejudice against piece-work, quite naturally resulting from experience. Finding what a given piece of work ordinarily costs in day-wages, the employer offers to pay the workman for it at a certain lower rate; leaving him to get, by extra diligence, more work done and a larger payment. Immediately, the quantity executed is greatly increased, and the workman receives considerably more than he did in wages – so much more that the employer becomes dissatisfied, thinks he is giving too large a sum by the piece, and cuts down the rate. Action and reaction go un until, very generally, there is an approximation to the earnings by day-wages: the tendency, meanwhile, having been so to raise the employer’s standard, that he expects to get more work out of the workman for the same sum.

But now, has not the resulting aversion to piece-work been unawares carried into another sphere, in which its effects must be quite different? Evils like those arising from antagonistic interests, cannot arise where there are no antagonistic interests. Each cooperator exists in a double capacity. He is a unit in an incorporated body standing in the place of employer; and he is a worker employed by the incorporated body. Manifestly, when, instead of an employing master, alien to the workers, there is an employing master compounded of the workers, the mischiefs ordinarily caused by piece-work can no longer be caused. Consider how the arrangement will work.

The incorporated body, acting through its deputed committee, gives to the individual members work at a settled rate for an assigned quantity – such rate being somewhat lower than that which, at the ordinary speed of production, would yield the ordinary wages. The individual members, severally put into their work such ability as they can and such energy as they please; and there comes from them an output, here of twenty, there of twenty-five, and occasionally of thirty per cent. greater than before. What are the pecuniary results? Each earns in a given time a greater sum, while the many-headed master has a larger quantity of goods to dispose of, which can be offered to buyers at somewhat lower prices than before; with the effect of obtaining a ready sale and increased returns. Presently comes one of the recurring occasions for division of profits. Through the managing body, the many-headed master gives to every worker a share which, while larger all round, is proportionate in each case to the sum earned. What now will happen in respect of the rate paid for piece-work? The composite master has no motive to cut down this rate: the interests of the incorporated members being identical with the interests of the members individually taken. But should there arise any reason for lowering the piece-work price, the result must be that what is lost to each in payment for labour, is regained by him in the shape of additional profit. Thus while each obtains exactly the remuneration due for his work, minus only the cost of administration, the productive power of the concern is greatly increased, with proportionate increase of returns to all: there is an equitable division of a larger sum.

Happy Maoist workers Consider now the moral effects. Jealousies among the workers disappear. A cannot think his remuneration too low as compared with that of B, since each is now paid just as much as his work brings. Resentment against a foreman, who ranks some above others, no longer finds any place. Overlooking to check idleness becomes superfluous: the idling almost disappears, and another causes of dissension ceases. Not only do the irritations which superintendence excites decrease, but the cost of it decreases also; and the official element in the concern bears a reduced ratio to the other elements. The governing functions of the committee, too, and the relations of the workers to it, become fewer; thus removing other sources of internal discord: the chief remaining source being the inspection of work by the manufacturing committee, and refusal to pass that which is bad.

A further development may be named. Where the things produced are easily divisible and tolerably uniform in kind, work by the piece may be taken by single individuals; but where the things are so large, and perhaps complex (as in machinery), that an unaided man becomes incapable, work by the piece may be taken by groups of members. In such cases, too, in which the proper rate is difficult to assign, the price may be settled by an inverted Dutch auction, pursuing a method allied to that of the Cornish miners. Among them –

An undertaking “is marked out, and examined by the workmen during some days, thus affording them an opportunity of judging as to its difficulty. Then it is put up to auction and bid for by different gangs of men, who undertake the work as co-operative piece-work, at so much per fathom:” the lot being subsequently again bid for as a whole.

In the case now supposed, sundry pieces of work, after similar inspection, would be bid for on one of the recurring occasions appointed. Offering each in turn at some very low price, and meeting with no response, the manager would, step by step, raise the price, until presently one of the groups would accept. The pieces of work thus put up to auction, would be so arranged in number that towards the close, bidding would be stimulated by the thought of having no piece of work to undertake: the penalty being employment by one or other of the groups at day-wags. No good bargains and no bad bargains, made by each group, would average one another; but always the good or bad bargain of any group would be a bad or good bargain for the entire body.

What would be the character of these arrangements considered as stages in industrial evolution? We have seen that, in common with political regulation and ecclesiastical regulation, the regulation of labour becomes less coercive as society assumes a higher type. Here we reach a form in which the coerciveness has diminished to the smallest degree consistent with combined action. Each member is his own master in respect of the work he does; and is subject only to such rules, established by majority of the members, as are needful for maintaining order. The transition from the compulsory cooperation of militancy to the voluntary cooperation of industrialism is completed. Under present arrangements it is incomplete. A wage-earner, while he voluntarily agrees to give so many hours work for so much pay, does not, during performance of his work, act in a purely voluntary way: he is coerced by the consciousness that discharge will follow if he idles, and is sometimes more manifestly coerced by an overlooker. But under the arrangement described, his activity becomes entirely voluntary.

Whistle while you work Otherwise presenting the facts, and using Sir Henry Maine’s terms, we see that the transition from status to contract reaches its limit. So long as the worker remains a wage-earner, the marks of status do not wholly disappear. For so many hours daily he makes over his faculties to a master, or to a cooperative group, and is for the time owned by him or it. He is temporarily in the position of a slave, and his overlooker stands in the position of a slave-driver. Further, a remnant of the régime of status is seen in the fact that he and other workers are placed in ranks, receiving different rates of pay. But under such a mode of cooperation as that above contemplated, the system of contract becomes unqualified. Each member agrees with the body of members to perform certain work for a certain sum, and is free from dictation and authoritative classing. The entire organization is based on contract, and each transaction is based on contract.

One more aspect of the arrangement must be named. It conforms to the general law of species-life, and the law implied in our conception of justice – the law that reward shall be proportionate to merit. Far more than by the primitive slave-system of coerced labour and assigned sustenance – far more than by the later system under which the serf received a certain share of produce – more even than by the wage-earning system under which payment, though partially proportioned to work, is but imperfectly proportioned, would the system above described bring merit and reward into adjustment. Excluding all arbitrariness it would enable reward and merit to adjust themselves.

But now, while contending that cooperation carried on by piece-work, would achieve the desideratum that the manual worker shall have for his product all which remains after due remuneration of the brain-worker, it must be admitted that the practicability of such a system depends on character. Throughout this volume it has been variously shown that higher types of society are made possible only by higher types of nature; and the implication is that the best industrial institutions are possible only with the best men. Judging from that temporary success which has been reached under the ordinary form of cooperative production, it is inferable that permanent success might be reached were one set of the difficulties removed; leaving only the difficulty of obtaining honest and skilful management. Not in many cases, however, at present. The requisite “sweet reasonableness,” to use Matthew Arnold’s phrase, is not yet sufficiently prevalent. But such few cooperative bodies of the kind described as survived, might be the germs of a spreading organization. Admission into them would be the goal of working-class ambition. They would tend continually to absorb the superior, leaving outside the inferior to work as wage-earners; and the first would slowly grow at the expense of the last. Obviously, too, the growth would become increasingly rapid; since the master-and-workmen type of industrial organization could not withstand competition with this cooperative type, so much more productive and costing so much less in superintendence.

War and Back Again

Airship over futuristic city I just finished reading H. G. Wells’s 1908 novel The War in the Air, a grimly prophetic tale of high-tech war and aerial bombardment, and I find myself wondering whether Tolkien ever read it.

Because not only is the main character, Bert Smallways, remarkably hobbity (as is his character arc), but Bert’s return home at the end of the novel is strikingly similar to “The Scouring of the Shire.”

I’ve previously speculated as to whether Tolkien might have been influenced by another early sf pioneer, Jules Verne. But I don’t know enough about Tolkien’s reading habits ….

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