A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Sunday, 8 August 2021

Rights as Warning Lights

 It is sometimes suggested that utilitarianism is apt to inadequately value people as individuals. If we are aiming to maximise utility across all people, then the welfare of one individual can be sacrificed indefinitely so long as this produces greater benefits to others. In order to avoid this conclusion, people posit human rights which stand prior to the existence of society and the state.

This depends upon a view that rights are “trumps” – that when activated, they invalidate or outweigh other political considerations such as efficiency or equality. I think this is mistaken – rights are more like warning lights. The “warning lights” view of rights is not intrinsically tied to utilitarianism or consequentialism, but they go well together – my introduction to this way of thinking was a podcast in which Philip Pettit argued that itresolves some problems for consequentialist views.


Is it right to sacrifice the life of one person in order to save five? For example by turning a trolley? By pushing a man off a bridge? By killing a man and redistributing his organs? By triaging patients in a military hospital? The only honest answer to the original question is “it depends” – you can’t give a universal answer, you have to attend to the particular situation which you face. These are difficult questions, and abstract theory should not give us easy answers – but it should at least identify which are the hard cases and which are the easy ones. (See also - in the case of a pandemic, should we restrict the movement and association of millions of people in order to avert a certain number of deaths?)

Treating rights as trumps is frankly a very glib way of responding to these questions. “The one person has a right to life” is a simple answer, not a serious one. Ronald Dworkin might redefine his position to “the one person has a right to life, but only in those situations where the five people do not,” but that just becomes an outright evasion of the question.

What about the “warning lights” picture of rights? We say that the one has a right to life, and so we will want to deliberate carefully before we violate that – but in the end we may recognise that the situation merits overriding the right. Or we might decide that in this case, the one should not be sacrificed.


This hasn’t really discussed utilitarianism as such, so if you believe utilitarianism fails to adequately respect individuals then this shouldn’t persuade that it does. What I hope this does show is that if you hold that view, invoking rights is not the solution.

Friday, 30 October 2020

Miscellaneous mini-reviews of books I have read in 2020

(I have not read all of these cover-to-cover, to be clear - 

Aeneid, Virgil (translated by Rolfe Humphries)

I tried reading this couple of years back with a rather archaic translation - I think it was by Dryden - and found it utterly impenetrable. The Humphries translation (available on Gutenberg) is much more accessible and really exposes some of the most lovely passages in Virgil. For example, the description of Dido considering her feelings for Aeneas:

What woman
In love is helped by offerings or altars?
Soft fire consumes the marrow-bones, the silent
Wound grows, deep in the heart.
Unhappy Dido burns, and wanders, burning,
All up and down the city, the way a deer
With a hunter's careless arrow in her flank
Ranges the uplands, with the shaft still clinging
To the hurt side.

 The account of Priam's death is longer than I want to quote here, but very visceral and real. Or the description of the cyclopian shore near Mount Etna:

There is a harbor, safe enough from wind,
But Etna thunders near it, crashing and roaring,
Throwing black clouds up to the sky, and smoking
With swirling pitchy color, and white-hot ashes,{81}
With balls of flame puffed to the stars, and boulders,
The mountain’s guts, belched out, or molten rock
Boiling below the ground, roaring above it.

"The mountain's guts"! Love it.    

The Thirty-Nine Steps, John Buchan

I blasted through this last Saturday, at barely 100 pages you can easily get through it in one or two sessions. Fun enough, nothing profound but a perfectly good way to enjoy a couple of hours.

A Just Zionism: On the Morality of the Jewish State, Chaim Gans

This was recommended to me by Anonymous Mugwump as perhaps the best one-book defence of liberal nationalism for the twenty-first century. It is clear, careful, and thorough, and has helped me to clarify my own thoughts regarding liberal nationalism (i.e. that there is a place for it, but that place is considerably smaller than it was in decades and centuries gone by). The bits I've read so far have had surprisingly little on the actual history of Israel, so I am at present unable to recommend it as a single source on the key issue it is intended to be about; it is possible that the second half of the book rectifies this, unfortunately the e-book on Amazon is appallingly put together (no hyperlinked contents, no options to change the font, etc) so this is difficult to check.

The Sellout, Paul Beatty

This is amusing in a politically incorrect way, but ultimately it feels like a fairly standard farce - if there's a deep message in there, it's well-obscured.

Fateless, Imre Kertesz

A semi-autobiographical account of a Jewish boy surviving the Holocaust, and perhaps the most famous work of Imre Kertesz - to date, the only Hungarian author to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It was surprisingly upbeat and optimistic - there are jokes of the kind that teenage boys make, #relatable stories of Jews in the camps feeling too socially awkward to disobey their imprisoners, tales of incredible naivety and incredible gumption, all leading to the quite incredible final paragraphs:

But one shouldn't exaggerate, as this is precisely the crux of it: I am here, and I am well aware that I shall accept any rationale as the price for being able to live. Yes, as I looked around this placid, twilit square, this street, weather-beaten yet full of a thousand promises, I was already feeling a growing and accumulating readiness to continue my uncontinuable life. My mother was waiting, and would no doubt greatly rejoice over me. I recollect that she had once conceived a plan that I should be an engineer, a doctor, or something like that. No doubt that is how it will be, just as she wished; there is nothing impossible that we do not live through naturally, and keeping a watch on me on my journey., like some inescapable trap, I already know there will be happiness. For even there, next to the chimneys, in the intervals between the torments, there was something that resembled happiness. Everyone asks only about the hardships and the "atrocities", whereas for me perhaps it is that experience which will remain the most memorable. Yes, the next time I am asked, I ought to speak about that, the happiness of the concentrations camps.

If indeed I am asked. And provided I myself don't forget.

Fateless is the first part of a trilogy; the third part, Kaddish for an Unborn Child, "explains why he cannot bear to bring a child into a world that could allow such atrocities to happen." I'll be interested to see how he squares this with the above.

The Machinery of Government: Public Administration and the Liberal State, Joseph Heath

I've reviewed this at greater length previously on the blog, and don't have a great deal to add except the chapter on paternalism was every bit as excellent as I expected it to be.

The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity, Toby Ord

There's a Slate Star Codex review which I agree with, and have little to add to; as someone who is already highly familiar with most effective altruist concepts, this shifted my priors a bit but isn't really all that memorable.

A Little History of Poetry, John Carey

A very fine guide to the history of poetry; some of it I was familiar with, much of it I wasn't, and it served as an introduction to some of my favourite discoveries of this year - particularly The Rape of the Lock (discussed below) and Sappho fragment 31. If you're looking for a guided tour of poetry which assumes minimal knowledge as a starting point, this is an excellent choice.

Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe, Norman Davies

This is one of the favourite books of some good friends of mine, so I really wanted to like it. I read the account of the Kingdom of Stratchclyde, and it was... OK? Nothing special?

The Trial, Franz Kafka

I got about 40% of the way through this. It's interesting, both in itself and as an account of the world in that period, but it didn't feel in any way like essential reading.

The Miller's Tale, Geoffrey Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales is one of the many classics which I have attempted and not got very far with. I remember the introduction being all full of long descriptions of the many virtues of the characters, and taking ages over this with nothing happening. Based on a recommendation in A Little History of Poetry (above) I jumped into this individual tale. It's not really all that funny.

Normal People, Sally Rooney

Like The Thirty-Nine Steps this is very readable and has little in the way of depth. I suppose a straussian reading would be that in a broadly meritocratic society, such as the one in which we live, intelligence is the highest form of privilege. It's striking how unsympathetic the characters are - not just Marianne and Connell, but literally everyone except Connell's mum and one of his minor girlfriends.

I watched the first episode of the TV series, too. It struck me how much the whole thing must have had to be written anew - while the broad plot is the same, the novel contains almost no dialogue.

How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World's Most Dynamic Region, Joe Studwell

I was astonished at the confidence with which Studwell proclaimed his conclusions, given that he was essentially working with an n of around 6. I think he makes a reasonable case for these conclusions - that the rapid development of Japan, Taiwan and South Korea in the second half of the twentieth century depended upon a combination of land reform, industrial policy focused on increasing industrial exports, and limiting the use of financial capital to "productive" investments - but there are, besides the small number of cases, a number of weak points:

  • He can write at length on a topic without being particularly clear about what he sees as the main point. For example, on land reform I think the fundamental problem in his view is that tenant farming means that tenants cannot benefit from investments which would increase agricultural productivity (I believe this is Pseudoerasmus' reading of Studwell too, but can't find the tweets) now.
  • He fails to consider some fairly obvious alternatives to the policies he advocates. In the example above, he believes that land reform - i.e. redistributing land so that farms are owned by the people working them - incentivises the investments. But one could equally argue that what is needed is centralisation of land ownership to allow landlords to make these investments - as arguably happened in the English agricultural revolution. (He also fails to consider the question of why landlords themselves did not make these investments and thereby enable the charging of higher rents. I think there are several possible answers which would be perfectly good - maybe the value of these investments is hard to prove to someone not directly involved in making them, or maybe the key issue is simplification of land ownership out of the kind of convoluted systems described by James C. Scott, so the key issue is not tenant ownership so much as unclear and shared ownership. I'm not saying he's wrong on this point, merely that he lacks rigour.)
  • In general he seems to advocate an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach: it is not enough to directly subsidise exports, you must also indirectly subsidise them through cheaper credit, must threaten to lock up manufacturers who don't export enough, etc... This all seems incredibly wasteful, surely there will be one or two most efficient ways of incentivising a behaviour and all others are going to create weird distortions and inefficiencies.

In sum - I can believe the broad strokes of his view, but on the details I am thoroughly unconvinced.

Percy Jackson and the Titan's Curse, Percy Jackson and the Battle of the Labyrinth, Percy Jackson and the Last Olympian, Rick Riordan

I blasted through these for light relief over four evenings in January. As a teenager I loved these, they're less fun as a re-read but still good enough. Obviously highly recommended as a way to help your children gain a proper understanding of the crucial topic of Greek mythology.

The School for Wives and The Hypochondriac, Moliere

Marvellous fun! The School for Wives is the play which BBC sitcom episodes wish they were - a bit right-on for my tastes (I'm not in favour of compelling woman to marry their guardians, obviously, but why did the antihero on this metric have to turn out to be awful in almost every other way too?) but otherwise tremendously funny, and surprisingly relatable. For my money if there's one writer who captured the spirit of Online Drama, it's Moliere. I highly recommend The School for Wives and one out of The Hypochondriac or Tartuffe (which I have not read but saw the RSC version of a couple of years ago).

Science Fictions: Exposing Fraud, Bias, Negligence and Hype in Science, Stuart Ritchie

Arts and Minds, Anton Howes

I'm not going to go into detail on these, since the authors are my friends and I don't want to offend them. (More seriously: I may write reviews, but will want to cover them properly rather than just dashed-off thoughts at half-past midnight.)

Weird IR, David Bell Mislan and Philip Streich

This is mostly just a set of stories, most of them not with any particular purpose. Maybe they'd be useful for an intelligent International Relations undergrad in thinking about the limits of their theories, although then again many of the stories don't really challenge any particular theory. For example, chapter nine covers some odd cases of international trade which are probably useful to understand for people without any background in economics or international trade law; given my not-especially-advanced background in both, I felt there was nothing particularly substantive in this for me.

The Story of Maps, Lloyd A. Brown

Comparable to the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe: it's impressive how boring they made such an interesting topic.

Dog Fight: Aerial Tactics of the Aces of the First World War, Norman Franks

Tells a good story of the pioneering days of early dogfights, and makes it clear how completely the nature of the air war changed over the course of the First World War. I need to read further into it, but a potential recommendation not just for military history but also for Progress Studies.

The Swamp Dwellers, Wole Soyinka

One of Soyinka's shorter, more accessible, and frankly less deep plays. I enjoyed it enough for it to be worth reading, and love to imagine the drama onstage as Igwezu - whose crop has failed, and whose wife has left him for his brother - holds a shaving knife to the throat of the priest who blessed both the planting and the marriage. I suppose you can read an anti-anti-colonial message into this, as with much of Soyinka's ouvre - Igwezu has been grievously wronged, not by any foreigner or stranger but by those who were closest to him. If you were going to read one Soyinka play, though, then it definitely has to be Death and the King's Horseman.

Trade in the Ancient Mediterranean, Taco Terpstra

Certainly far better than I expected given the author's background in classics and history - this is a deeply learned work engaging in depth with archaeology and with institutional economics. The introduction gives a guide to the long history of ancient Med trade and sets out his key theses that "First, state formation and consolidation had an aggregate positive effect on the economy of the ancient Mediterranean, starting in the Late Iron Age and peaking sometime in the Roman imperial period. Second, we should not ascribe that effect to ancient states acting as third-party enforces of private property rights." This is obviously a provocative pair of theses for a libertarian-sympathiser like myself, and Terpstra makes an excellent case for the importance of ideology and religion in promoting cooperation at a distance.

Patchwork Leviathan: Pockets of Bureaucratic Effectiveness in Developing States, Erin Metx McDonnell

A study of some relatively-effective agencies within generally-ineffective governments. I come at this from the perspective of a member of what is, according to the official statistics (whatever they may be worth) a high-performing division in a department of the world's most effective civil service, so perhaps I'm inclined to be cynical here - but one of the most striking facts was that "highest-performing pockets" in the less effective civil services are broadly on a par with the average in more effective civil services. The ways of working which enabled them to be so effective were things like "working longer hours", which can obviously help in a pinch but which we would regard as fundamentally a short-term measure which, if required on a regular basis, would indicate poor prioritisation.

That said, I enjoyed many of the stories (especially the Sino-Foreign Salt Inspectorate, which went from a minor office to providing funding for half the Chinese government, all the while expanding the Chinese domestic salt industry) and it is sociologically interesting to see how these pockets avoid being dragged to the levels around them - including intense control of recruitment to take on good people when they appear rather than fixed numbers, modelling of good practice by leaders, clear and distinct identities, and - of course - a certain insulation from politics. It would be interesting to see this compared with high-performing areas of more advanced civil services.

The Power Broker, Robert Caro

What I can say can hardly add to what has been written about this. It did, however, strike me as much more ideological and willing to make unsupported speculation about Robert Moses' motives than is generally recognised.

Uncle Vanya, Anton Chekhov

The last play I saw before Covid hit, back when it was a distant rumbling in China. The title character is fascinating - coming across as a bit of a creep, but fundamentally a man who has voluntarily undertaken a bit of a hard life in order to serve something higher, and seen this thrown right back in his face.

In the opening scene Ilya Ilych Telegin describes how his wife cuckolded and deserted him, and made a fool of him in every way, "yet I kept my dignity - and is not that what matters?" It comes across as ironic or as a coping mechanism and he as a figure of fun, yet ultimately the rest of the play could almost be seen as a defence of this statement, that it is better to suffer evil than to do it.

Collective Choice and Social Welfare, Amartya Sen

Far more boring than I remembered from covering the topic in undergrad.

It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet, James Herriot

Various nostalgic stories of being a vet in Yorkshire, back when vets were primarily there to serve farmers rather than pet-owners. Good for light relief; the main thing I took away was how much drink-driving there was. If you've seen how blokes drive in the Yorkshire Dales, you'll understand how crazy that is.

The Plague, Albert Camus

I picked this up in a Berkhamsted charity shop on the recommendation of Ben Sixsmith, and started reading this because in the early days of lockdown everyone had to. I didn't get very far, but intend to pick it back up again.

How Fiction Works, James Wood

A truly excellent book, which inspires in one a strong desire both to read the books it covers and to try some fiction-writing oneself to try out the techniques which Wood analyses. I will be asking for Wood's new book  for Christmas, and frequently dip back into this. Perhaps my favourite book written in the twenty-first century.

Freedom and its Betrayal, Isaiah Berlin

Interesting enough, although the fact of my reading it apparently caused my grandmother to suspect I was going communist.

Collected Poems, Enoch Powell

I spotted this in a Cotswolds bookshop and bought it on the behalf of a notorious mutual on Twitter, who had a desire to read Powell's "tortured homosexual" poems, and in the couple of days between getting home and posting it off I blasted through the poems. The influence of Housman is very clear, as is that of Wagner. They are in many cases genuinely good poems; short and concise, expressing witty and inventive ideas.

(Powell, incidentally, was a local boy to me, having grown up five minutes' walk away on Woodlands Park Road; the other notable politician to have lived in this neck of the woods is Neville Chamberlain.)

Hegel: A Very Short Introduction, Peter Singer

I didn't get far enough into this to get into the properly heavy-duty Hegel; my experience of reading Hegel during my MA was that I would by dint of close reading and careful study make my way through a page of Hegel, and there would be meaning there, but it would be something quite banal which could have been expressed in one single sentence. The discussion of Hegel's Philosophy of History here was, however, quite clear.

Holy Sonnets, John Donne

My introduction to these was not the poetry collection above - though it does mention them - but John Adam's famous setting of the sixteenth sonnet Batter my heart for his opera Doctor Atomic. The sonnets are not easy-going, they typically require more than one reading to properly get the meaning of - but I think they're worth it. Sonnet Four, O, my black soul, was probably my favourite.

Benjamin Britten also set these to music; they are strange pieces, and not particularly pleasant to listen to.

Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Some Early Thoughts on The Machinery of Government

I'm enjoying Joseph Heath's latest book, The Machinery of Government. It has particular relevance to me at present, as a UK civil servant currently working on implementation of the NI Protocol, where the UK Government is currently taking what we might describe as a "high legal risk" approach.

At present I've read the first three chapters ("Taking Public administration Seriously", "A General Framework for the Ethics of Public Administration", "Liberalism: From Classical to Modern"), skipped the fourth and fifth on the welfare state and cost-benefit analysis, and am half-way through the sixth on administrative discretion. I assume that chapters four and five are more developed versions of his previous papers on these topics, but may have missed things which would rebut my criticisms below.

Some things I've enjoyed:

  • Heath makes a convincing case that the topic is under-studied: state officials wield vast vast power which really doesn't have a good democratic justification. He also, I think, provides a solid explanation of where this justification does come from.
  • I have serious disagreements with his interpretation of liberalism, but it's a very clear statement of why he believes it.
  • It's also by far the best defence I've read of the Communitarian/Habermasian idea that moral philosophy is about uncovering the principles implicit in our practices, rather than trying to divine an eternal moral law. He compares it to his business ethics, collected in the earlier volume Morality, Competition, and the Firm: "One of the major problems with traditional business ethics is that it treats morality as something entirely external to the practice of business. As a result, the pronouncements of ethicists tend to arrive like an alien imposition, which in turn gives businesspeople license to ignore them, on the grounds that the expectations are simply incompatible with the demands of running a successful business. My approach, therefore, has been to focus on the moral obligations that are already implicit in market relations, and that are advanced through commercial and competition law, as well as regulation." (page x)
  • To this end, he talks largely about an existing ethos, various written and unwritten norms which exist around civil service practice. I have been thoroughly convinced that this is the correct approach, as opposed to attempting to derive morality separately and then apply it in this case - despite my utilitarian inclinations.

Some things I've thought less of:

  • Every one of Heath's books contains a long history of the topic at hand. His defence of this is that, as a student of Habermas, he believes you can only understand our moral practices through understanding the journey by which we arrived at them. Fair enough - but do you really need 60 pages to do this in a 400 page book?
  • Moreover - it's striking that for all that he talks about the history of liberalism, he does not any attempt to give the history of Westminster-style civil services, despite the obvious relevance of this. If one is aiming to defend a particular view of the principles inherent in civil service, it's fair enough to think that John Locke is more important than the Northcote-Trevelyan Reforms, but I'd expect you to at least make the case. For example, I am not aware of any mention of the latter in The Machinery of Government. Nor is there analysis of actually-existing civil service codes beyond the (admittedly, in my experience accurate) statements that they are often vague and give little to no guidance on how to weigh different values like objectivity, neutrality, etc.
  • Going deep into history inevitably involves a great deal of historical interpretation. There are some glaringly "controversial" examples - to take one which clearly doesn't affect the main thesis, his claim that "Napoleon was able to conquer most of Europe, not because of any technological or tactical superiority, but rather because of the superior organisation capacity of the French state, not least its power to impose universal male conscription upon the population, which made it possible for Napoleon to field massive armies." (p120). He attributes this to liberalism. Conscription was clearly a boon but:
    • (a) logistical innovations which allowed French armies to travel faster, enabling things like the Ulm Maneuvre, were clearly much more important;
    • (b) Napoleon didn't exactly outnumber the Russian and Austrian armies he faced, conscription was at most an equalising force;
    • (c) this really needs a comparison to the Revolutionary Government which preceded Napoleon;
    • (d) why would you use this as your example of liberalism boosting military capacity rather than the well-known example of the UK being able to borrow at lower rates of interest?
  • That example merely raises questions of attention to detail. One which I'll admit to not exactly being expert in, but which frankly seems fatal to his thesis if my understanding is correct - the Wars of Religion were ended not by agreement for states to stay out of religion - to follow liberal neutrality - but agreeing, at the Peace of Westphalia, that each ruler would control religion in his own land, and they would not try to force religion on each others' lands. This did not prevent wars, of course, but it prevented the religious wars which Heath claims liberalism arrived to prevent.
  • His advocacy of a purely political liberalism is fine so far as it goes, but does rather take a lot of the force out of his claims that we don't recognise liberalism for the same reason fish don't recognise water.

Reflections on the Role of Battle in Warfare

Context: I intend to listen to an interview with the author of The Allure of Battle, and want to set my own views down first to note where I agree and disagree

What is the contribution a won battle makes towards victory in war? The answer may seem obvious: you kill a load of them, so there's less of them left to fight back. Actually, I don't think it's so clear.

  • change over time in what we mean by a battle - in particular, as war has turned into a process rather than a series of events
  • most battles, even decisive ones, involve relatively small casualty ratios - and frequently not all that lop-sided. 10% on each side would not be atypical
  • armies being wiped out often historically led to surrender, even when the population at large had changed little. Kill 20,000 Austrians - so what? There are millions more! Why should that lead to surrender if war is about destroying enemy strength?

  • at very small level, a fight is determined by what we may call "strength". Most obvious at the level of 1v1. Look at lion coalitions, where power is largely about how many male lions can bear to live alongside each other.
  • as fights get larger, it becomes less about overall strength and the ability to coordinate and concentrate it in one location
  • given an absence of opposition, it doesn't take all that much force to control an area and its people. See the el-Amarna letters, in which 50 men is sufficient to pacify Canaan
  • battles, then, are as much about disrupting the enemy ability to coordinate as about killing them. This can happen by scattering them, by capturing/killing their leaders
  • This is a primary reason why cavalry were important - not for fighting (horses are easily scared!) but for pursuit (and also scouting, which was key to success in battle - although my topic here is why battles were important, not how to win them)
  • total war, and war becoming a process, are fundamentally a result of state capacity - the ability to lose one army and build another, Diplomacy-style.
  • Also arguably due to the fact of generals being behind the line - meaning that defeat is less likely to mean disruption to the command structure

Thursday, 30 July 2020

Social Foundationalism in Epistemology

There is an ancient problem in philosophy known as Agrippa's Trilemma, which many parents will have encountered with inquisitive children. Ordinarily if one is asked how we can know something, we will appeal to underlying beliefs which support it. But this raises the question of why we should believe these underlying beliefs - and if there are even deeper underlying beliefs, why we should believe those. There are three responses which can be taken to this:

  • Infinitism: the idea that is possible for human knowledge to be founded upon an infinite regress of reasons, in much the same way that the earth is stacked upon an infinite column of tortoises.
  • Foundationalism: the idea that there are some beliefs which you just have to accept, and these form the foundation for other beliefs.
  • Coherentism: the idea that we operate on a "web of belief", and it doesn't matter if there is no ultimate ground to it if the beliefs are mutually supporting.
I am myself a determined coherentist: it's not that there are no beliefs which don't require further support, it's that once you've gone "I think, therefore I am" it's rather difficult to spin that up into much more. But the debate between foundationalists and coherentists continues, with the occasional "foundherentist" peacemaker like Susan Haack and the occasional infinist troll.

What strikes me, however, is how completely dominant coherentism is in the field of ethics. Under the name of "the method of reflective equilibrium" it is basically the method for trying to establish truth. We combine judgements from a range of levels - from practical judgements like "if a child is drowning in water next to them, you are morally obliged to rescue the child" to highly abstract judgements like "if states of the world A, B, and C are such that A is morally better than B, and B morally better than C, A is necessarily better than C" - to create general theories which aim to explain as much of the moral universe as possible. A couple of possibilities as to why this difference exists between fields:

  • Taking a foundationalist approach feels more respectable, and probably more likely to be successful, when the foundational judgements are highly general and widely applicable. Foundationalist epistemology, for example, would take mathematics to be foundational; whereas the most widely agreed judgements which we aim to expand from in ethics tend to be very practical and narrow in nature, e.g. "it is wrong to torture innocent children for one's own pleasure."
  • Ethics is generally accepted to be a social enterprise - it's about how we should behave, less about how I as an individual should behave. In particular, the existence of other moral agents is not generally taken to be in doubt. By comparison, epistemology is much more easily framed not as "what are the reasons for believing/doing X?" but "why should I believe X?"

I don't know that I particularly believe either of these. Maybe my initial observation is off, for that matter. If the second explanation is true, however, then given the rise in popularity of social epistemology in the last couple of decades, there's probably some mileage for a new defence of foundationalism - not that individuals should take certain beliefs as basic and unquestionable, but that societies should.

Sunday, 12 July 2020

The Rise, Fall, and Rise of Carthage

Carthage. Carthage! It was a major trading post in the ancient world, founded in the location now known as Tunis by Phoenician(1) merchants, which rose to eclipse Tyre as a major port of the Mediterranean and indeed the primary Phoenician city. At its zenith it controlled Sicily, Spain, much of North Africa, large parts of the south of the Italian peninsula, and the Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca roamed northern Italy with his army - famously with a contingent of elephants - and utterly destroyed two major Roman armies at Trasimene and Cannae. But he was unable to bring Rome itself under siege, and was forced to return to Africa to defend Carthage from invasion by the Roman general Scipio - who defeated him at Zama, forever breaking the back of Carthage as a power. In the Third Punic War, some fifty years later, Carthage was razed to the ground, and famously the Romans salted the earth there, that nothing might grow back.
The Decline of the Carthagian Empire, JMW Turner; Tate Britain

...Except that it did grow back. Not immediately of course, and only because the Romans allowed it to. The New Carthage was founded by Julius Caesar in the years before his demise. But Utica, the Roman ally which was appointed the new capital of Roman North Africa, was soon overshadowed, and the new Carthage soon became once again the greatest city in North Africa - indeed one of the greatest cities of the Western Roman Empire. What was it about this location which made it such a natural site for great cities?

The answer, I believe, comes from two things: first, a look at a map of the Mediterranean, and second, some facts about ships of the ancient world.

Carthage, as mentioned, was in what is now Tunisia - notably, near the narrowest crossing of the Mediterranean (though still a solid 100 miles across the sea from Sicily). This was in an era when sailing ships might achieve 50-60 miles on a good day of sailing. Crucially, ships of the day had to take to land every evening in order to dry out the wood. This had a number of consequences: for example, ships would not carry more than a day or two's supply of food with them, but would instead land in ports and acquire food (2).

Consider what this means for journey times and possibilities. Journeys from the north of the Med to the south are obviously greatly shortened in many cases. But this also gives opportunities to sacrifice directness for security. Someone sailing from Algeria to Egypt has the option to avoid the less-populated, less secure Libyan coast, and instead to coast around the north of the Med through well-known trading waters.

(1) This could be an interesting debate in itself. In the recent Princeton University Press sale I eventually did end up buying Josephine Quinn's In Search of the Phoenicians, which argues - as best I can tell - that the Phoenicians did not exist as such, but rather that there were various seafaring people who were all given the same label. This would be a very plausible hypothesis, and deeply appealing to me as someone who wishes to emphasise the vast diversity of past societies which has been flattened out by modernity in general and capitalism, mass media, and nationalism in particular, were it not for a book I did get: Taco Terpstra's Trade in the Ancient Mediterranean, whose second chapter argues that long-distance trade in the Ancient Med was facilitated largely by the existence of Phoenician minority communities in cities around the Med. Trade relies upon trust, which would have been very difficult to achieve in the absence of enforcement mechanisms - except that local ethic Phoenicians were able to send messages back to Tyre and to other Phoenician colonies and obtain justice - and were obviously subject to the justice and tolerance of the local majorities.

(2) Thus, towards the end of the Peloponesian War, the Athenian fleet happened to be caught on the defensive near the home-in-exile of their former general, Alcibiades, perhaps the chadliest man in all of Classical Greece. Alcibiades advised the Athenians to move their pitch closer to the town, on the grounds that their sailors would then spend less time away from the ships buying food and other supplies; this advice was ignored, and the fleet was soon lost, definitely knocking Athens out of the war.

Some Thoughts on Politicisation of the Civil Service

Trying to get back into the habit of blogging, mostly so that I'm writing more frequently. I'm not starting to write with well-formed views, or even nascent thoughts which I hope to clarify through the act of writing, so don't expect too much from this post.

One recent piece of news: the resignation of Sir Mark Sedwill, who until recently held the posts of the UK Cabinet Secretary and National Security Advisor. Significantly, his replacement as NSA will be David Frost, presently the UK Lead Negotiator in the negotiations with the EU.

For people not from the UK: the higher posts in our civil service are considered non-political: while there is ministerial involvement in the recruitment of Permanent Secretaries (the civil servants who run government departments) and Director-Generals (the next rung down, and incidentally the highest rung I've had personal contact with in my own work as a fairly junior civil servant), but this is usually more limited than the extent of involvement which is suspected here.

I'm not going to comment too much upon the circumstances of Sedwill's departure. I know very little about him - when he started as Cabinet Secretary I began but did not complete a rather tongue-in-cheek post pretending that his "Fusion Doctrine" was the latest and most damning sign yet of the authoritarian nature of the government, but besides the minimal research involved in that I know nothing of him. The suggestion I've seen was that the UK's appalling response to Coronavirus was a proximate cause, since one would expect the NSA to be on top of the UK's pandemic response. Perhaps this is true, it seems plausible, but really very few people know enough to say with great confidence and I am certainly not one of them.

I'm not going to to comment much, either, on the appointment of David Frost as the new NSA - or at least, not on him personally. He previously served as the UK Ambassador to Denmark, and has held two Director-level posts previously, so I don't think objections to his appointment should focus upon questions of competence.

The move to making the position openly political is itself interesting, however. To comment effectively on this, one requires a conception of under what circumstances a decision should be considered "political" as opposed to "operational". The standard self-conception of the civil service would be that our political ministers tell us what to do - or we distil an understanding of what they want from their public statements. We then do what they want, providing updates on what we're doing, giving options and recommendations but giving them the decision where it's not clear what they want, alerting them to risks of the proposed approach - but there are a lot of details which one simply does not need to check with ministers. Political decisions, then, are those which involve (a) a weighting of interests: as a country would we rather seek to achieve X or Y, noting that X is better for some people but worse for others, or that it carries a certain risk, or will take longer to put into place; or (b), a decision about what it is, at the more fundamental levels, that the UK government is aiming to achieve.

What are the kinds of decisions of that sort which will arise in the post of NSA? One can think of a few - e.g. what are the criteria we prioritise when deciding how significant a risk is (loss of life? loss of effective national sovereignty? do we value lives differently based on the ages of the people dying?). Where risks are brought into being or exacerbated by the actions of other governments, particularly our allies, how do we respond to that? Certainly it feels as though, given the politically neutral basis of the UK civil service, there should be some political oversight - when the NSA reports to Cabinet on risks to the UK, they are not simply "reporting the facts" - they are passing on a mixture of fact and opinion, filtered by opinions regarding what is significant enough to be worth reporting on.

Is security different to other areas, in a way that justifies a political role which we do not apply across the board? I don't know. The argument which comes to mind is that a major advantage of political appointments - and in particular of ministers appointing their friends - is that it promotes greater trust between political and operational officials, and may give operational officials more leeway to tell unpleasant or unpalatable truths. There are of course risks to this approach, so I can see an argument that it's not an approach you'd want to take generally (and in any case, there's probably only so many people who have the requisite level of trust with any given Prime Minister, so it's not something you could do across the government) but in the field of security, where such truths are more likely to abound, it's worthwhile.

I have doubts about the merits of that with regard to this particular government; going into detail on that would possibly go beyond the civil service neutrality which I would prefer to uphold whenever writing publicly. In any case, these doubts are similar to those which Stian Westlake has written about with regard to the government's strategy around procurement and the need for freedom from state aid rules.