Opinions alter, manners change, creeds rise and fall, but the moral law is written on the tablets of eternity

facebook_1647205111583_6908878988336532371 A quote, from Lord Acton. And apparently an inspiring one, since (inevitably in this day and age) you can get it on a fridge magnet. If Lord Acton's Philosophy of History by Crane Brinton in The Harvard Theological Review can be believed, it is the basis for his judgements of history; for his theory of history. But, is it true? I think not: from my conclusion there: morals, law and politics are under-determined by the defensible theoretical foundations. And thus, different people / groups build conflicting superstructures; and fail to realise that the bits they disagree about are the optional bits.

That it isn't true is likely going to be a problem for Acton, I suspect; though I haven't quite ground through the Liberty Fund edition of some of his works; so the exact nature of the flaw it causes in his reasoning is yet to be revealed. Acton was a staunch Catholic2, so I suspect (somewhat like Doubty Descartes) he managed to convince himself that all morality must necessarily equate to his church's morality.

I note that history, and recent history, teaches us that most problems don't arise from this little matter, but through much coarser problems of poor governance or poor thinking.


* Paul Graham explains philosophy. Note the "confusion over words" recalling Popper.
* DB: quote of the day, discussing Hayek: Perhaps, as seems to have happened today (as it has in the past), the people begin to distrust all claims to expertise and seek simpler, more intuitive, solutions.
* Is accurate forecasting of economic systems possible? An editorial comment; by Irene Scher & Jonathan G. Koomey
* Said Marcus Garvey, in urging blacks to undercut union wages as a means to employment and combating union racism, “the only convenient friend the Negro worker or laborer has in America at the present time is the white capitalist.” - via CH.
Idol Words - ACX.


1. My picture is from The freethinkers' pictorial text-book: showing the absurdity and untruthfulness of the Church's claim to be a divine and beneficent institution and revealing the abuses of a union of church and state by Heston, Watson.

2. Staunch in the faith, but at the same time believing in liberty, and hence implacably opposed to papal infallibility.


Anteros said...

I liked the Paul Graham link on Philosophy. Probably because I agree with a goodly part of it. My first degree was in Philosophy which I embarked upon for the same mostly dishonest reasons that Graham did. It took me a bit longer than he did to realise it was almost entirely 'pouring from the empty to the void'. And the good bits (Hume for e.g.) had more negative consequences than most people liked.

And I think Hume would probably agree with you about the impossibility of absoluteness in morality.

William M. Connolley said...

Philosophy is a strange thing, not at all helped by it finding it so hard to learn or discard dross. What hadn't occurred to me was what PG said: that the better people just leave, in general. And yet, there is valuable material in there.

Anonymous said...


William M. Connolley said...

Um, yeees... your link is to an editorial, Are there limits to economic growth? It’s time to call time on a 50-year argument Researchers must try to resolve a dispute on the best way to use and care for Earth’s resources. But invoking LTG is fundamentally unhelpful, because LTG is fundamentally broken (see e.g. me, from 2017. This is true regardless of whether you think there *are* limits to growth or not; the point I'm making is the LTG's methodology is just broken.

This has amusing echoes of the debate about philosophy, and the contrast with science: how to discard dross. People won't discard LTG, because they like the answer so much.

Phil said...

Still have yet to hear how growth continues forever. Read the comments to your post from 2017.

G> "William: Decoupling is an illusion because it violates thermodynamics, by assuming that there is zero net entropy cost of the added economic activity. Perpetual motion by any other name."

There are limits to growth for the same exact reasons why perpetual motion machines can't work.

William M. Connolley said...

G's comment is obvious nonsense, which is why I didn't respond to it then. Growth - in the sense of economic value - has no hard connection to physical objects.

> There are limits to growth for the same exact reasons why perpetual motion machines can't work.

This too is wrong, but I think illustrates your confusion. Perp motion, or lack thereof, is physics. Economic growth isn't.

Gator said...

Even if one thinks there are physical limits to growth, what would make one think we are close to those limits? For example, if one ties economic activity to energy expenditure (at least this is a physical quantity that can be measured, not saying this is the actual limit) are we using 90% of the energy physically available to us? 1%? 0.0001%?

The definition of economic activity changes with technology. The pool of available resources changes with technology. And clearly tying economic activity 1:1 to some resource is loose at best.

Phil said...

Economics must be linked to physical objects, so economics and economic growth is limited by the laws of physics.

> Even if one thinks there are physical limits to growth, what would make one think we are close to those limits?

Limits to growth are technology dependent, as you point out. The limits to a heat engine's efficiency depends on the source and sink temperatures. If you can burn your coal so as to produce higher temperature steam, or cool your exhaust steam to lower temperatures, your steam engine can be more efficient. Yet your steam engine can't provide perpetual motion. The fraction of heat turned into useful work might be improved, but must still burn coal. There is only so much coal under the ground, and less than can practically be mined. Fossil fueled economy is already beyond the sustainable limit, has been for decades, perhaps a century.

Ah, but what about new technologies such as solar, fission and fusion?


So perhaps we might be using 0.1% of the potential solar. Still is a limit to growth. Fission and fusion have a waste heat limit slightly higher, but at a similar order of magnitude.

Note that energy isn't the only limit to an economy.

Tom said...

Elements of this discussion remind me of the gentleman who commenced digging a hole to China with a spoon. After five minutes of digging he began worrying about the consequences of successfully completing his task.

Yes, there are limits to resources. Yes, conventional economics does not work in a resource free vacuum.

No, it should not be a serious element in our conversations.

Phil said...

Compare orders of magnitude.

> digging a hole to China with a spoon


Current energy use vs solar input to the Earth. Even if we blocked/captured all the energy from the Sun before it reached the Earth, we could only use about this amount of energy on the Earth's surface before overheating the Earth.

If nothing else, you need a better analogy.

(Yes, I'm ignoring FTL travel and various other SF topics)

Windchasers said...

> So perhaps we might be using 0.1% of the potential solar. Still is a limit to growth. Fission and fusion have a waste heat limit slightly higher, but at a similar order of magnitude.

Ok, it may be "still a limit to growth", but if our energy use grows at 3%/year, it'll take us 150 years to just get up to using 10% of the solar energy hitting the Earth's surface. And we're talking about an increase of 100x from where we are now.

It may be "still a limit to growth", but that limit is so far off in the future as to be essentially meaningless, in terms of how it should shape current behavior. And that's assuming that economic growth is a linear function of energy use, when there's no reason to make that assumption. We can pretty easily go awry assuming what economic/resource trends will be like in 50, 80, 100 years. It's simply a bad set of assumptions.

Why not focus on the problems that are on the horizon? The resources that are already scarce, or the environmental damage that we can already see or foresee.

Phil said...

Optimistic assumption: energy is the only limit to growth. Are only optimistic assumptions allowed?

Humans have a built in bias to focus on the short term problems. So sure, let me move the time focus to the next two decades. Short enough? Yes, doesn't help Ukraine today. And limit discussion to energy, an optimistic assumption.

Solar has a time pattern. On during the day, off at night, and the daily on depends on both weather and season of year.

Solar is growing at rapid rate, and making only slight optimistic assumptions might well be the majority source of energy for the world by 2040 or so.

So could solar alone provide all the energy for today's or 2040's usage with current technology at a realistic cost?


Lithium batteries can solve the daily cycle issue. With one cycle per day, the cost per cycle is reasonable. Sure, is a huge amount of batteries. Probably feasible to produce, but perhaps will take longer than two decades. Getting almost all of the cars in the world to electric will take that long. Lithium batteries can't solve the seasonal cycle or the weather variability issue, at one cycle per year the cost is far too high. Weather variability might require even slower cycles.

There are lots of possible technologies for longer term storage. But they are either speculative and/or never tried at scale and/or have been tried and are too expensive, unless we can find ways to drastically lower the cost. Seems unlikely that any are going to come into major use in the next two decades.

Or we could add in the only other current technology that could power a civilization the size of ours for millions of years, fission. I suspect that this is our best alternative. Rely on solar most of the time, but full in the gaps with nuclear power. Perhaps not politically possible, however. Germany's decision to shutdown nuclear plants looks fairly bad now, doesn't it?

Or we could keep burning fossil fuels. This is probably the cheapest alternative today, as long as you don't count the non-economic costs. There is likely enough fossil fuels for hundreds of years, even at a 3% growth rate, even without most energy coming from solar. Yet this will run into climate issues as well as an increasing extraction cost with time.

Nothing wrong with research into fusion as well, probably should be doing more than we are.

This is still taking the optimistic assumption that we know what the only limit to growth is, and that the only limit to growth is energy. What if that assumption is wrong, and there really are limits to growth?

Note again that I'm mostly arguing against the perpetual motion machine of perpetual growth. Economics is limited by physics.

Tom said...

I would (somewhat wearily) repeat my proposal for adapting our energy portfolio to better meet our needs for a cleaner environment and drastic reduction of emissions of greenhouse gases:

1. We will require a portfolio of solutions--wind, solar, hydro-electric, nuclear, natural gas and potentially biofuels.

2. Treating wind and solar as a deus ex machina is not wise. They should be considered 'patchable' providers rather than dispatchable.

3. X Prizes should be offered for energy storage solutions. The prizes should be large.

4. WtE and CHP should be encouraged by subsidy.

5. Modular nuclear reactors should be employed at scale.

6. Natural gas should be used to help reduce consumption of coal and oil.

7. More X Prizes should be offered for breakthroughs in bio-tech and environmentally friendlier use of hydro-electric power. The prizes should be large.

8. Yet another campaign to revitalize energy efficiency should be instituted.

9. A global tax on carbon dioxide (EU and US to institute and tariffs on imports to encourager les autres) should be instituted at a low level and re-evaluated decenially.

10. More X-Prizes! Continue the excellent work underway for innovations in production of cement, fuel efficiency (and/or conversion) for air and sea traffic. The prizes should be large.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

I don't know if you have read Jonathan Haidt's "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion," but he argues that there a few (he finds six) essentially universal moral instincts, with their implementation colored by culture and individual relative prioritization. To me this suggests that Acton's principle is what Niels Bohr called a "great truth." Unlike ordinary truths, whose negation is simply false, great truths are distinguished by their opposites also being great truths.

William M. Connolley said...

I've not only read it I've reviewed it (and you commented...) and linked it above. So indeed it depends on quite how much you consider your morals to cover. Given Lord A's stauch catholicity, I suspect more than you or I would sign up to.

William M. Connolley said...

Related to GDP growth: Value is nothing inherent in goods, no property of them, nor an independent thing existing by itself. It is a judgment economizing men make about the importance of goods at their disposal for the maintenance of their lives and well-being. Hence value does not exist outside the consciousness of men. Carl Menger on Value" via Econlib.