A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

First Ceilidh of the new academic year

I've just got back from this aforementioned Ceilidh, and it was, as it always is, great fun. There were of course a whole load of beginners, and even the more experienced (well, slightly more experienced) among us were a bit out of practice, so there were more mistakes than usual, but who cares? By the end we were getting the hang of it, and in the final dance, the Mad Hatter's Threesome, myself and another guy who has been doing it for far longer than I terrified several third partners in turn. Great fun, I recommend Ceilidhs (that's not the correct plural, I don't know what is) (or folk-dancing in general) to anyone and everyone. Even the disabled, at IVFDF back in March I counted at least three people dancing in wheelchairs.

PS. By a weird coincidence, it turns out that one of the girls I know there (as in actually properly know and have met socially outside of the Ceilidhs, not just someone I happened to meet) is just living just two doors down from me this year. I know there have been far stranger coincidences, but it's still weird when it happens to you.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Fair-play theory is a crock of nonsense

Previously, I summarised the main theories as to my we ought to submit to a state. It is generally accepted amongst political philosophers that we do not actually consent to the state. Quite a few believe we would consent under certain conditions; I possibly agree, but do not think that this is relevant to the state as it is. Benefit Theory relies on circular logic. The idea of democratic fairness involves some rather heroic logical leaps: it seems to suggest that, by disregarding my friend's belief that I would be better off to donate £10 to the Labour Party than to keep the money myself, I treat him as an inferior. Consequentialism is ultimately a lawbreaker's charter, since there are many, many times when one can do better on utilitarian grounds than obey the state (e.g. one can evade taxes and this will likely help you and other more than it will hurt people by contributing to the national debt). The "Duty of rescue" argument is in my view the strongest one, but relies on a view of the state of nature with which I strongly disagree. Populism is very well dealt with my Michael Huemer in The Problem of Political Authority. Briefly, people have all sorts of biases which predispose them to obey people who apparently wield authority over them, whether or not it is really "legitimate".

But the view which most draws my incredulity is that of Fair-Play Theory. This is a view summarised by H. L. A. Hart: “when a number of persons conduct any joint enterprise according to rules and thus restrict their liberty, those who have submitted to these restrictions when required have a right to a similar submission from those who have benefited by their submission”.

This sounds very elegant and all that, but it is fundamentally pure assertion and, when you think about it, not a very convincing assertion. Suppose a group of workers join to create a firm making ingredients for spaghetti bolognese; the increased competition causes prices to fall and quality to rise; as a ravenous eater of spaghetti bolognese, I greatly benefit from this even if I do not actually buy their products. Clearly, this does not require me to join in their workers' co-operative; similarly, it is completely ridiculous to believe that a bunch of people agreeing to a common authority (as if this was even close to how government came about or continues in its existence) and so reducing the local rate of robbery and violence forces other in the region to also submit to this common authority.

In an attempt to move beyond this really rather ridiculous assertion, fair-play theorists typically introduce thought experiments; "people in a third-world village construct and maintain a well. Other people use this well; this does not harm the people who built the well, but still appears to incur a right of enforcement." This is easily dealt with by a basic appreciation of property rights. It is not okay for me to borrow someone's property without asking, even if they are not using it and it will not in any way be damaged or consumed, unless I cannot ask them and am pretty sure that if I did ask them then they would let me borrow it. Once this is understood, the argument collapses into simple consent theory and is easily dealt with.

George Klosko has an interesting account of why the state may justifiably force people to contribute to providing "presumptive goods". This essentially a modification of the economic definition of Public Goods (that is, non-rival and non-excludable, i.e. I cannot prevent you from consuming it and my enjoyment of it does not reduce your enjoyment of it; the classic example is a lighthouse) but with a couple of extra requirements. One of these is that "the benefits and burdens be fairly distributed". But what does Klosko mean by "fairness"? To my mind at least, it does not seem "fair" that anyone at all need contribute to the provision of public order: criminals ought simply to behave themselves, not mug or attack people, and that ought to be the end of it. It is "unfair" that I must put any effort at all into protecting myself or worry about being attacked. Or if it is necessary that public order be somehow provided, it hardly seems "fair" that I be forced to pay for a system of security which I regard as not only ineffective but also immoral.

There is a second way in which people approach fair-play theory, which is to argue that those who accept benefits from others without contributing to their production are "free-riding" and thus wronging those who provide the benefits. Perhaps they are free-riding, but it's not like they force you to provide the service. Go back to the spag-bol-ingredient-producing-workers' co-operative: I do not directly interact with them, but as a result of their actions I enjoy lower priced and higher quality spag bols. This increase in my welfare is worth (say) £50 a year. Would anyone seriously suggest that, since in its absence I would happily pay up to £50 for the firm to exist, I ought to actually pay money to this firm in return for the benefits with which it provides me?

A basic point about morality

I recently had a late-night discussion of sex, religion and ethics. Following this, I wish to point which I was arguing for and I think ought to be impossible to deny, but the people I was discussing seemed unwilling to accept:

It is impossible to be too morally good. It is possible to over-think morality and as a result act immorally, but this is a completely different thing. If you think it is possible to be too moral, then this simply means there is a difference between the morals you claim to believe in and the morals you actually believe in.

For example, suppose you believe that it is conceivable that by being too moral, you end up causing the destruction of human life. Actually, I reply, this does not mean that you were too moral; in fact, given that you regard the situation where you act "less morally" but human life is saved as being more valuable than the one in which you act "too morally", this simply means that, according to your view of morality, the action (or set of actions) which led to the destruction of human life were in fact immoral. Either that, or the destruction of human life was basically an acceptable thing given the existing circumstances.

PS. I haven't posted much recently. This was due to a) going on holiday, b) getting a new laptop and spending far too much time playing Civilization V after being unable to do so on my old laptop, c) writing a post about relationships and then removing it after deciding that there was too much detail that I did not think I ought to make public, and d) writing a post about money and altruism, then wondering if it was actually saying anything in the slightest bit original or non-obvious. The first reason no longer applies; I still play Civ V but the binging which occurred after ten months of deprivation is out of my system; and I do not regret removing posts which I do not feel actually have anything good to say. Basically, I apologise for my absence and hope to get back to a regular posting schedule.