A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Global Warming: the ethics of government action

AN: I've recently been reading Michael Huemer's The Problem of Political Authority. This may be viewed as an attempt at channelling Huemer.

Global warming is frequently cited as a global problem requiring some type of global government as a solution. I attack the moral reasoning behind this kind of claim by providing a number of conditions, all of which must hold for government action to reduce global warming to be justified. I then demonstrate that, even with generous assumptions, a number of these conditions remain at best uncertain and most likely unmet.

1: Global warming is or appears to be likely to happen in the future.
2: The global warming set to happen will have negative consequences significantly outweighing any positive consequnces.
 3: The proposed action will actually reduce global warming.
4: The costs of the proposed action are less than the net cost of the global warming they would prevent.
5: There are no feasible alternative solutions which are preferable in moral and economic terms.
6: We should not expect to develop any new and economically/morally preferable solutions within the next few years.

For the sake of argument, we shall take condition #1 to be true. Personally I am somewhat sceptical of this, but it is controversial and I can demonstrate that government action is unjustified even if I accept it as a premise.

Condition #2 is highly debatable. Svante Arrhenius, the first person to propose that industrialisation would lead to higher CO2 emissions, which would in turn cause global warming, saw it as a good thing. There are vast amounts of land which are useless for farming, which would (if the world warmed up) become more useful. Existing farming areas would benefit from longer growing seasons. There would be fewer deaths from diseases which prosper in cold times. Moreover, there are problems which have nothing whatsoever to do with the science of it; for example, discount rates. The IPCC has estimated net global losses at 1-5% of global GDP with 4 degrees Celsius of global warming. Given that this is over a period of 50-100 years, during which time we might reasonably expect global GDP to increase between fourfold and tenfold (compound growth at a global mean of 3.5% implies a doubling of GDP roughly every twenty years), is the loss of 5% growth really worrying enough to justify coercive action?

Condition #3 obviously depends upon the specific legislation. When I first planned this post, I assumed that it would basically be true for all proposed measures, and not having enough relevant knowledge myself I will accept it for the sake of argument. However, I will point readers to this, which suggests that programs to reduce CO2 emissions are unlikely to greatly affect global warming much - the claim is that, even if all industrialised nations reduced their emissions by 100%, this would avert at most 0.352 degrees C of global warming by 2100 AD.

One of the last acts of the previous government of the UK was to pass a bill requiring that the UK cut its CO2 emissions to 10% of their level in 1990 (edit, 20/03/14: re-reading this, I decided to have a look at the bill and it seems I was confusing the Energy Act 2010 with the Climate Change Act 2008, which demands an 80% - not 90%, but in the same region - cut in various greenhouse gases, CO2 among them. I suppose the lesson is, "Always check your sources."). It seems highly implausible that this would not entail a significant reduction in the GDP of the UK. Given that the costs are unlikely to exceed 5% of GDP (see above) it seems at best highly uncertain that the benefits of such a policy will outweigh the costs. Given that coercion is being used to enforce these policies, it does not seem unreasonable to demand a high level of confidence that the benefits exceed the costs, and it does not seem that we have this. Of course, this is only one piece of legislation, but it is hardly unrepresentative of what is being advocated.

There are a number of reasons to believe that condition #5 is likely to be false. There may well be an Environmental Kuznets Curve; fracking allows us to meet energy needs without contributing to global warming; geoengineering could provide a (relatively) cheap and easy solution...

Finally, condition #6. Perhaps this merits a brief defence. Global warming is a long-run problem - most of its effects are unlikely to hit for decades. Given that, if there is a substantial chance that, within a reasonably short time period - say, the next ten to fifteen years - we will develop a far more efficient way of reducing global warming, it makes sense to leave off for now and enjoy the blessings of greater industrialisation, and then focus our efforts on using those technologies when they become available.

First, note that solar panels are becoming ever cheaper, and within a few years will be profitable even without subsidies (HT Noahpinion). Second, far be it from me to attempt predicting the future, but given how much is currently being spent upon measures to combat climate change one would expect some kind of innovation to be coming out of it. That is, assuming this is a genuine attempt to avert a genuine problem and not simply a massive scheme of political patronage.

To conclude, even if global warming is happening, due to the massive timescale and corresponding uncertainty, it is sensible to conclude that coercive action to prevent or reduce it is not justified.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

The National Gallery and Die Walkuere

The last 48 hours have been... interesting. The story starts on Saturday evening,when I observed that, with the Proms concerts this week being a full performance of Wagner's Ring cycle and of Tristan und Isolde, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, it should be assumed that I would be occupied during the evenings. To which my mother replied, "Why don't you go to see one of them?"

Going to see the Proms is somewhat impractical for anyone who does not live in London. The primary reasons for this are the time and monetary costs of getting into London, as you would expect for one of the world's largest, richest cities, and the time involved in queuing for tickets if you are Day-Promming (I intend to discuss this in a future post). However, I currently have more time than I know what to do with, my mother had some coupons for free rail travel on a given date due to being inconvenienced by some set of major delays, and so this was an excellent opportunity.

I planned to see Die Walkuere: there wasn't really enough time to plan a day trip to see Das Rheingold, while the other three operas, being on a Friday (Siegfried), a Saturday (Tristan) and Sunday (Goetterdammerung) could be expected to be a lot busier. Not that Das Rheingold and Die Walkuere weren't busy, just that they were less busy so I had a better chance of getting in.

Given that I was travelling all the way to London and back in one day, it seemed a pity just to see an opera. Plus, unfamiliar with what the queues are like, I overestimated the time I would have available. My plan was to visit the National Gallery in the morning, head over to the Royal Albert Hall for 1:30-2pm (tickets were supposed to first go on sale at 2:30) and use any spare time in between buying a ticket and the concert beginning at 5pm to visit the Tate Modern. I have been trying to cultivate an interest in arts other than music and literature, so this felt like a good use of my time.

The journey down went smoothly. I finished reading the book of Jeramiah, continued my reading of Njal's Saga, and did a bit of thinking. A short hop down the Northern line to Charing Cross, and I was at Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery. The Gallery... I enjoyed it, but I spent a lot of time looking at paintings that I'm finding don't really interest me. I suppose that, ultimately, any art form faces the issue that a) if there are multiple styles, then most people will only be interested in some of those, and b) even if something is produced by a professional, that is no guarantee of genuine artistic merit. Just as for every Missa Papae Marcelli there are ten masses to send even the priest to sleep, for every Sistine Chapel ceiling there are ten uninspired depictions of biblical characters. The more modern areas were interesting - the Impressionists and post-Impressionists produced a great many enjoyable paintings. I tried to bear in mind Tyler Cowen's advice to his children: think "Which painting do I most want to steal and take home?" as a way of focusing your attention on the paintings you like and what you like about them.

Following this, I wandered around for a bit, had a brief look through the Covent Garden market and was bitterly disappointed - my dad recently had me watching some videos about transport and the like back in the 60s, and I enjoyed the aesthetic of large rooms filled with carts and pallets of fruit, vegetables, animal carcasses, fish, and many other things besides. Instead, the modern Covent Garden market seems little more than a collection of tourist traps. I suppose I'm not greatly surprised, but it was a disappointment nonetheless.

Victoria line from Leicester Square to Knightsbridge - the Royal Albert Hall is stupidly far from an Underground Station considering the density with which they pepper Oxford Road and the like - and a walk along the edge of Hyde Park, inspecting the (relatively) new One Hyde Park apartments from the outside along the way (they looked nice, although it must be pretty noisy living there) and I was at the Royal Albert Hall. A bit of asking around, and I found the back of the queue. Down the stairs, round the corner and about 30 metres along. Three and a half hours before the concert was set to begin.

Ah, well. I managed a fair bit more reading in the queue - I finished Eliezar Yudkowsky's Three Worlds Collide (highly recommended, by the way), and read a bit further through David D Friedman's The Machinery of Freedom (likely also recommendation-worthy, but I'm not far enough through reading it to assert that). Eventually, the queue started rolling forward, although by the time I was in all of the space near the front (this being standing-room, and therefore there being no precisely-defined property rights as there are with seats) had been taken, so I was left with a less good view than I would have liked, perhaps a less good view than I would have had from the Gallery. Still, the sound was incredible, very much worth going to see it.

When listening to opera, particularly if you are not fluent in the language in which it is sung, there are really two ways to enjoy it. The first is with a copy of the libretto and a translation to your native tongue - I had planned to download this to my Kindle, but forgot. The other is to forget about the words and plot and just lose yourself in the music. I attempted the first, reading over people's shoulders where possible (there had been copies of the libretto on sale, but they quickly ran out leaving a fair few people disappointed and in some cases rather annoyed) but by the third act I had given up on this. I won't attempt to describe the opera here; suffice to say that I greatly enjoyed it, the applause afterwards went on for upwards of ten minutes, and assuming it's still up there by the time you read it you should really go here to listen (the libretto, with translation, is here).

After we had finally finished applauding, I walked to Knightsbridge station, caught the necessary trains along the Underground to get back to Euston, and discovered that the last London Midland train to Birmingham had already left. I could have sworn that there was supposed to be one leaving at 11:30 pm (this was at about ten to eleven) but for some reason that was being operated by Virgin, which rendered my ticket invalid. In an attempt to get as far back as possible, I caught the London Midland train terminating at Northampton. Thus followed four long, cold and boring hours. I had my Kindle and first read through Lamentations, before starting on Ezekiel, but found myself getting tired and, since I didn't want to fall asleep on a strange platform, unguarded, with my Kindle and mobile potentially vulnerable, stopped reading. (I drifted off a couple of times anyway, but fortunately was fine). Finally, I caught the 5:15 to Birmingham New Street, a train from there to my local station, and collapsed.

All in all? I greatly enjoyed the trip, but have decided a) never to day prom again, b) to take a coat with me if there's any risk of being stranded overnight, regardless of the weather, and c) to give up on trying to find interest in paintings from before about 1700.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Ethics without free will?

Suppose an atheist advanced the following line of thought:

"The Universe must have a cause for its existence. The only thing capable of causing the Universe to exist is a deity of some kind. However, it is impossible to disprove the proposition that a deity of some kind exists. Hence, it is not a scientific theory and so I need not worry about it."

We would clearly see this as a silly way of thinking. (I do not intend this reasoning as a defence of the causal argument for God's existence, but rather as an illustration). And yet my own "thought" regarding determinism has been rather similar for a while. Something like:

"Assuming we accept that events cause other events, it seems obvious that pretty much any event can be traced backwards through time as the natural consequence of the previous state of the world. That is to say, given the exact positions and velocities of all particles in the universe at one point in time, you could in principle predict the exact future of the universe. Thus, everything that happens, has happened, and is yet to happen, was set in stone from the very beginning of the universe. However, it is impossible to disprove this, since one can always say of any experimental data 'Oh, that's how it must have been set to happen given the prior state of the universe,' regardless of the results. Thus determinism is not a scientific theory, which I may therefore avoid worrying about."

To be fair to myself, I don't think I was ever particularly happy with this. It entails a blatant ignorance of the difference between epistemological methods and metaphysical truth. I would happily admit that this "thinking" was motivated by a desire to believe in free will and therefore to preserve a notion of ethics, combined with an honest rejection of compatabilist views of determinism and free will. Indeed, it would be dishonest to pretend that I will believe pretty much anything if it allows me to preserve ethics. However, I'm moving towards the idea that perhaps ethics is possible without free will. I see two ways in which this might be true. There may well be more, which I have missed; indeed, neither truly satisfies me.

1: Moral identity
When put in identical situations, different people will make different choices. This is because they are different people. When we pass moral judgement, we judge not the action but the person doing the action; the action is simply evidence towards the moral nature of the agent.

2: "Non-judgemental Consequentialism"
The morality of an action may be judged entirely by its consequences. Since the sets of consequences may be ordered in terms of their preferability, so may the actions themselves. Note, however, that since the agent's actions were pre-determined, they cannot actually be judged for their actions; this is therefore a somewhat narrower theory than standard consequentialism.

What implications might these theories have? Moral identity as a system is heavily at odds with my Christian belief - after all, one of the most fundamental tenets of Christianity is that we are not and cannot be saved by our own works or goodness, but are entirely reliant upon Christ and his death for us. The phrase "love the sinner, hate the sin" comes to mind as a principle in pretty much exact opposition to this theory. However, this may salvage a way of constructing ethics for those of a different background. One potential problem for the theory would be how to judge people doing wrong who genuinely believe themselves to be doing right. Let us assume that, in carrying out the Holocaust, Hitler genuinely believed himself to be doing what was morally good. Under a standard view of morality, we could say, "Yes, he believed himself to be doing right, but he was disastrously mistaken, and was in fact doing wrong." Under this "Moral Identity" theory, it becomes a lot harder to reconcile actions which seem obviously wrong with someone who genuinely believes themselves to be doing good.

What then of "non-judgemental consequentialism"? Well, this faces all the usual problems of consequentialist and utilitarian views of morality. But also, the idea of a world where actions are objectively good and bad, yet you cannot be praised for doing good nor criticised for doing bad seems completely alien. It would be like an action film in which the hero saved the entire world, everyone knew that he had done this (at great personal cost, no less!) and yet when he returned home, he did not receive the slightest bit of congratulations or thanks. This is not to say that it is wrong, merely that it would only make sense from a distinctly non-human perspective. Coming from a Christian background, the fact that the logic behind it is deeply counter-intuitive and requires a non-human set of intuitions seems like it should be evidence in its favour. The lack of moral judgement doesn't necessarily contradict Christian theology - after all, it is not our own morality which gets us into heaven. The key problem from a Christian perspective seems to be that the removal of any notion of moral judgement also seems to make thankfulness irrelevant, yet God is thanked many times, not only by fallible humans but by heavenly creatures and, of course, by Jesus himself.

So what then are my options?
1) Find a good reason to reject determinism, which leaves open the possibility of objective ethical judgement
2) Give up on objective ethical judgement
3) Adopt an extreme version of utilitarianism which precludes judgement of people
4) Find a new way in which determinism could be consistent with objective ethical judgement

The search for my chosen moral system continues...

The Endowment Effect, PAYE and Indirect Taxation

A brief introduction to the UK tax system for foreign readers: income tax is paid upon all income above £9500 per annum, at a rate between 20% and 45%; National Insurance is essentially another income tax, levied at a rate of 2% on the employee and up to (IIRC) 12.8% on the employer, and if you're paying it at that rate then there's no NI-free allowance; Corporation tax is 22% for small companies and 28% for large ones; VAT is essentially a sales tax of 20%, though with exemptions for certain basic goods. There are heavy duties on fuel, alcohol, cigarettes etc. Inheritance tax is 40% beyond a certain threshold. Council Tax is charged upon an outdated estimate of the value of your house. Businesses have to pay Rates based upon the value of the land they occupy.

Reading a post by Bryan Caplan and watching a lecture by David Friedman, I started thinking about the endowment effect and loss aversion in relation to the State. The remarkable thing about modern tax collection is how little of it is collected directly from the taxpayer: income tax is paid automatically when he receives his wage; National Insurance and Corporation Tax are both supposedly paid by the employer, even though it is well established that the burden falls upon the worker; VAT is paid by the seller, although everyone knows that the burden falls upon the buyer; indeed, a key driver of inflation a year or two back was a rise in VAT from 17.5% to 20%. This goes for the various taxes on individual goods - alcohol, cigarettes, petrol etc. As such, the public faces higher prices but does not think of it as taxes.

If tax is inevitably going to be paid, then perhaps these are not bad things. It's certainly more efficient for a boss to send one cheque for all his employee's taxes than for them each do so individually. (It also reduces the ability of individuals to evade taxation, though I'm not exactly thrilled by that). But this is going to have a sizable effect upon public perception of taxation. Imagine that instead of receiving pay of £22,000 a year and paying current prices, you received £30,000 a year, prices were about 17% cheaper, and every year you had to send the government a cheque for £15,000. I can't help but think you'd be considerably more reluctant to do so.

To what extent might this be a factor leading to larger government? Well, not necessarily much of one. My understanding of the evidence is that reducing taxation does not cause governments to cut spending by much, if at all. But it almost certainly has some effect, and it can serve an example of how subtle the State's influence can feel.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Judging Book Covers, Part One

Is the picture above the perfect book cover? Simple, attractive, and pointing towards the book's role as a work of combat, primarily against religion (but with a few jabs at what Voltaire viewed as some of the less important areas of philosophy). Certainly far better than the stodgy hardbacks which fill up every shelf of academic libraries. Far better than any of my textbooks, past and present, whose pictures seem to compete for which can be least relevant to the actual topic.

One of the jabs Voltaire makes is at the study of Aesthetics. His view can roughly be summarised as, "Of course beauty is subjective, morons!" Quoting from the article entitled "Beau, Beauté" (translation by John Fletcher, from the edition linked to above):

I was at the theatre one day with a philosopher: 'How beautiful this tragedy is!' he said. 'What's so beautiful about it?' I asked. 'It's that the dramatist has achieved his aim,' he replied. The next day he took some medicine that did him good. 'It achieved its aim,' I said, 'what beautiful medicine!' He realised that a remedy cannot be said to be beautiful, and that to apply the word 'beauty' to something, it must arouse our admiration and give us pleasure. He agreed that this tragedy had inspired both feelings in him, and that was to kalon, the beautiful.

I would suggest that Voltaire's companion's idea of beauty as "achieving its aim" is in fact more valuable than either of them realise. The picture of Voltaire wielding his quill in a duelling position achieves the aim of indicating what the book is about. Another cover which achieves this aim is that of my copy of Ernest Gellner's Nations and Nationalism. I picked it up in a second-hand-book shop and cannot find an exact replica, nor any copy of the painting adorning it, but it is quite similar to this:
A cart of aristocrats rides through a torchlit public square, surrounded by cheering crowds. Flags - I presume Italian, though possibly French - are festooned everywhere. It is less simple than the Pocket Philosophical Dictionary cover, but is equally attractive and is so nationalist that can almost hear the trumpets just by looking at it. Sometimes using a classical painting might be interpreted as rather pretentious but this is a sufficiently weighty topic to merit it. Compare it to a more recent cover of the same book:
This is plain ugly. Admittedly nationalism is pretty ugly too, but given that Gellner seems to be advocating it this cover seems rather out of place. Moreover, what is inherently nationalist about building projects? Perhaps this aims to show the role of industrialisation in promoting nationalism, but there are more obvious ways of doing this.

Monday, 15 July 2013

In Defence of Power

This post is intended to discuss Lord Acton's famous aphorism that "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." More precisely, I argue that it is overstated, and that this applies at most to certain well-defined types of power.

What is power? The standard definition used in political science discussions is "the ability to achieve desired ends." An objection to consider is that this is too broad a definition, and we refer to the power to get what we want out of other people. However, I reject this: it seems perfectly reasonable to refer to someone with the ability to summon lightning from their fingertips as "powerful", whether they use that power to threaten others into doing their bidding or to power an electric car.

Given this definition, what ways are there to cause one's own ends to be achieved? The ways in which one can cause something to be done can be divided into two broad categories: those which require outside agency, and those which do not. These may be categorised as "doing it yourself" and "getting someone else to do it".

Due to comparative advantage, it seems clear that one will never maximise one's power by doing everything oneself: one can increase the extent to which one's ends are satisfied by focusing one's effort upon whatever one is most efficient at relative to other people, and then trading.

The ways in which one causes others to fulfil one's ends may be divided into three categories, which I take from David D. Friedman's The Machinery of Freedom. These categories are Trade, Coercion and Love. Trade is characterised by receipt of goods or services from another agent in return for providing a good or service which that agent values. Coercion involves violence or the threat thereof to compel another agent to perform the desired action. Love involves causing another agents goals to become the same as your own (the name coming from the notion, that, if someone loves me, then they wish me to be happy and take action to achieve that goal, thus achieving my goal of increasing my own utility).

There does not seem to be any inherent reason why trade need cause corruption - indeed, if trade is to be repeated, then due to the discipline of constant dealings, it seems likely to reduce corruption: one cannot cheat a trade partner and expect to keep on trading in the future. However, it is possible that trade in certain circumstances may lead to corruption. I shall consider two views of this idea.

First, the Aristotelian sense of goods having a right and proper function, with their usage outside of this being corrupt. Quoting from Anthony Kenny's A New History of Western Philosophy, p.72: "Our possessions, [Aristotle] says, have two uses, proper and improper. The proper use of a shoe, for instance, is to wear it: to exchange it for other goods or for money is an improper use. There is nothing wrong with basic barter for necessities, but there is nothing natural about trade in luxuries, as there is in farming." The original passage may be found here.

I am not any kind of expert on Aristotle, so I remain open to the possibility that I have misunderstood him; however, his views on commerce do seem incompatible with the basic thrust of his moral outlook, that we should aim to increase eudaimonia, or human flourishing. The point of trade is that it increases the well-being of both parties, and so if Aristotle has an objection then surely his objection must be to the whole process of "unnatural" enrichment, rather than its achievement specifically through trade. In this case, power in itself is not corrupting: rather, it is the aims which one holds, the aims for the achievement of which one uses one's power.

One could of course argue that enrichment does in fact lead to corruption, or that it is itself a form of corruption. My question then is, at what point does this start? I refuse to countenance any moral system which views the move from subsistence farming to a typical modern standard of living as a worsening of the world. It seems implausible that enrichment of society starts as a good thing, and becomes bad at a certain level of technology.

A second way in which trade may be regarded as corrupting is when it is conducted with those incapable of securing for themselves a fair deal - young children, the mentally handicapped and so on. I would suggest that this situation, when a mentally incompetent person is being taken advantage of, represents power over another person, and will happily agree that this type of power has a tendency towards corruption. However, this represents a very small portion of trade, if it may indeed even be properly classed as trade.

Similarly, coercion, as a form of power over other people, does appear that it would tend to corrupt people.

What, then, of "love" as a means of achieving goals? If one is knowingly manipulating others to carry out one's own desires, it is easy to see not only how this may be corrupting, but how similar it is to "trade" with one incapable of rational dealing. But if one is not choosing to achieve one's goals this way? Well then, one is not capable of controlling the achievement of one's objectives, so this does not seem to truly represent power.

I thus conclude that power is only corrupting when it is exercised over other people. Absolute power, since it seems to include power over others by definition, would therefore seem to be corrupting. However, power is not inherently wrong and in many circumstances may in fact be virtuous.