A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Links, December 2014

Earlier in the year I started doing links posts. Then there was a month when I didn't have enough new links. Then I had far, far too many, and didn't feel like sorting through them for a considerable while, during which time the list grew longer and longer. So, after a long absence, here is a bunch of links.

Vox: 7 things the most-highlighted passages tell us about American readers.

A true story of Turkish politics. It tells the strange tale of a coup, launched by democratically-elected politicians, against the military leaders.

Yet another reason to protest against the Chinese government: it gets you lavish, all-expenses paid holidays.

I wonder what became of this: an attempt to crowd-fund a drone for the defence of Ukraine.

Why is Barcelona FC so strong: Tiki-Taka or Lionel Messi?

We're nearing Christmas, so why not celebrate in the traditional way? That is, to have a man on hand to perform "one whistle, one jump and one fart." That man went down in history as Roland the Farter.

A rather more modern entertainment: rap mash-ups, to the Thomas the Tank Engine theme tune.

Theological Engineering Exam. "For all questions, assume a perfectly spherical Jesus of constant density D... 25 grams of wafers and 20 ml of cheap wine undergo transubstantiation and become the flesh and blood of our Lord. How many Joules of heat are released by the transformation?"

An artist's impression of what various Pokemon would look like if they were real. Some of them look fine (e.g. Eevee), some look different but alright (e.g. Pikachu), and Togepi looks disgusting.

Philosophers have argued for many years on the possibility of zombies which lack concious experience. The answer to this question has an important implication: whether zombies should be regarded as capital or as labour.

Speaking of philosophers: the views of major political philosophers, explained with reference to the question "Should Batman kill The Joker?"

The story of Isabel Moctezuma, daughter of the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II. By the age of 18 she was a widow four times over, and had been impregnated by Hernan Cortes. She is presumably an outlier, but still it causes one to wonder: if this was how bad it was for women in the royalty, how terrible must life have been for the average woman in those times.

While I'm in a feminist mood, I'll link to this fascinating review of the Hermione Granger series of books and this picture of the wrong way to stare at a girl:

I first saw the picture below on Twitter, but it went around Facebook too:

Also, yet another reason not to trust the state to handle this kind of thing: a man spends six months on bail for receiving, not making, a video in which a woman was believed to be having sex with a tiger. What happened after six months? The police finally realised that the tiger was talking, and that it was a man in a tiger suit.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Response to Kane on luck, indeterminism and free will

"It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are far more than our abilities."
      - Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

In this article I shall provide a summary of Robert Kane's paper Responsibility, Luck and Chance: Reflections on Free Will and determinism (Journal of Philosophy 96 (5), pp217-240; 1999). I shall then present two challenges to the view he elucidates.

Before I get into the serious meat of the paper, allow me to quote its opening words:
Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that "to solve the problems of philosophers, you have to think even more crazily than they do". This task (which became even more difficult after Wittgenstein that it was before him)...
Oooh! Burn!


Kane is responding to the arguments of Daniel Dennett. Dennett is a compatibilist of sorts - he argues that we have moral responsibility, and this is frequently taken to entail possession of free will but to me it feels more like a denial that moral responsibiliity requires one to act freely. (Dennett's position is actually very similar to one I very briefly wondered about back when I was a naive fresher who hadn't read much philosophy - see the section titled Moral Identity here.) Furthermore, Dennett argues that libertarian free will is in fact rather unsatisfying: it seems to involve people doing things for no very good reason, as opposed to his conception in which people perform actions in accordance with their character and may be judged for an action in terms of how representative the action is of their character. If  under similar but non-identical circumstances the agent would have acted differently, then the action may be seen as an aberration for which the agent should not be held responsible. If large changes to the situation would have been required to change the action, then an action is representative of a wider trait of the agent and is therefore something for which the agent ought to be held responsible.

Kane's aim is to present a view of libertarianism which actually seems worthwhile. He argues that rather than having a character which determines our actions, we form our character through the actions we take. He labels the key decisions we make which determine we shall become "Self-forming actions", and argues contra Dennett that there are good reasons for making these choices, but they are not all immediately visible - indeed, many of them lie in the future.

A particular challenge that Kane aims to deal with is as follows: suppose a man has the choice of going on holiday to either Hawaii or Alaska. He deliberates over this decision, and finds several good reasons for going to Hawaii - it is more pleasant, cheaper, etc - and none for Alaska. At this point, what kind of freedom is it which allows the man to still choose Alaska? This is surely less a case of meaningful choice than of perverse randomness.

Kane's response it that we do not possess free will in that kind of case - it would indeed be perverse to choose Alaska. Instead, we possess free will pretty much entirely in our SFAs, but the preferences which dictate our many other choices stem from SFAs. The man's choosing to go to Hawaii would not be an SFA, and would not of itself be a meaningful choice; however, his preference for hot over cold might stem authentically from his past enjoyment of summers, and so the choice may still be indirectly meaningful.

He also responds to the problem of "moral luck". Suppose a woman is walking to an important interview, when she sees a person being mugged in an alley. She has pepper spray in her handbag, and so could save the person who is being mugged, but this would cause her to be late for her interview. If it is truly indeterminate as to whether or not she does the moral thing by stopping the mugging, then what is there to distinguish it from luck as to whether she saves the person? How, then, can she be either praiseworthy or blameworthy for her action?

Kane responds that, since the businesswoman has good reasons for multiple courses of action, and these courses of action conflict with each other, she is at an SFA. She may be viewed as simultaneously attempting both courses of action - stepping in to stop the mugging, and hurrying along to her interview - and succeeding at one, failing at the other. Suppose that, in the event, she keeps out of the mugging and just rushes along to her interview. Kane would say that she could not control whether or not she succeeded at stepping in, nor could she control whether or not she succeeded at moving along; nevertheless, she could control which one of the two it was that she succeeded at. Hence she is responsible for her decision to move on.

So much for what I intended to be a quick summary. I find his account very appealing, and would very much like to believe it. Unfortunately, I have two key issues with it.

Multiplicity of potential SFAs

Brian is addicted to smoking. He knows it is bad for him, and every single day he swears to himself that he will quit. Yet, every day without fail, he will give in and sooner or later he will pick up the first cigarette of the day.

It seems in this case that each and every one of Brian's attempts to quit smoking has the potential to be an SFA. If he were to succeed, it would be a classic example of an SFA. It also seems strange to claim that certain decisions can be SFAs only if they go in a particular direction. Yet this seems to commit us to the idea that Brian is making an SFA every single morning, in spite of the fact that each and every one of these SFAs is the exact same decision.

If it does not seem strange to classify a decision as an SFA only when it goes a particular way, consider Brian's brother Steve. Steve also smokes, and has been thinking about giving up. However, he decided once and for all that he is approaching retirement and has earned a vice or two to keep him going in his old age. This seems like a very good candidate for an SFA, and does not seem importantly different from the decision made every day by Brian.

Lack of responsibility for failure to act

Let us go back to the case of the businesswoman. She did the presumably immoral thing of moving on and abandoning the mugging victim. This is something for which we want to be able to hold her morally responsible. Unfortunately, according to Kane it seems that we cannot.

Remember, according to Kane the businesswoman was simultaneously trying both to help the person and to move on. She failed at the first and succeeded at the second. According to Kane, then, she was trying to move on and therefore is responsible for doing so; however, she was also trying to help the person, and it was not in her power to succeed at this. Suppose then that we ask her; "Why didn't you help the mugging victim?" She can then honestly respond: "It's not my fault! I was trying to, it's just that I failed at doing so!" I see no reason why this should not generalise across all actions where we wish to hold someone responsible for failing to do something. "I was trying to give money to the poor! I just failed, because I was prevented by buying this shiny new iPhone!" "I was trying to fulfil the terms of the contract! I just failed, because I was prevented by my desire to save money and effort!" "I was trying to resist my urge to do unspeakable things to this person! I just failed, because of my desire to forcibly have sex with them!"


While I would very much like to endorse Kane's account of free will, it has severe problems which seem to vastly exaggerate the importance of certain small decisions, and which prevent us from holding people responsible for failing to act in certain ways.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Externalities and Rights Infringements

This post is laying out the framework for a couple of future posts. If you have even a basic familiarity with economics, then outside of the final paragraph this should be nothing new to you, and even the final paragraph is pretty trivial.

It is often the case that one person's action affects the wellbeing of another person, despite no intent to do so on the part of the first person. Economists call this effect an externality, and divide them into positive externalities, which benefit the affected party, and negative externalities, which harm the affected party. Goods which produce positive externalities are called merit goods; goods which harm the affected party are called demerit goods. Examples of merit goods include vaccinations (due to the reduced risk of passing diseases onto other people), foods which produce pleasant aromas, and attractively painted houses. Examples of demerit goods include any industrial processes which produce pollution, late night music practices, and driving during rush-hour (which contributes to congestion).

A related concept is the rights infringement (or rights violation; there is a subtle difference, but that shouldn't be important here). This constitutes one person breaching a certain protected sphere around another person; example would include assaulting someone, stealing from them, and damaging their property.

The first point I want to make is a simple one: that negative externalities and rights infringements are different things. Painting your house purple with the effect of reducing the value of your neighbour's house is not usually a rights violation (though it would be if you had signed a contract not to do such a thing) but it is a clear case of a negative externality. Trespassing may often be a rights violation without actually producing an externality to the landowner.

My second point is also simple, even obvious: in general, it is morally wrong to inflict a negative externality upon someone even if you are not actually violating their rights. There are exceptions to this, and it's not deontologically wrong in the way that a rights violation might be, but if you make a habit of inflicting negative externalities then basically you're kind of a dick.

Is Not Voting a libertarian issue?

From H.L. Mencken’s proclamation that “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard,” to Jason Brennan’s near-constant stream of papers lambasting democracy, there is a long tradition of libertarians being at best sceptical and often hostile to democracy. My aim in this article is not to comment on whether they are correct, but to discuss whether this ought to be part of the libertarian movement.
The basic argument against giving scepticism about democracy a prominent place in the libertarian movement runs roughly as follows:
(1)    Many people have a deep, almost religious attachment to democracy.
(2)    By attacking people’s most deeply-held beliefs, libertarians risk alienating people who might otherwise be interested in libertarian ideas.
(3)    By attacking democracy, libertarians risk alienating people who might otherwise by interested in libertarian ideas. (from 1 and 2)
(4)   Scepticism about democracy is not important to libertarianism.
(5)   If something is not important to libertarianism and it risks alienating people, it should be kept separate from libertarianism.
(6)   Scepticism about democracy should be kept separate from libertarianism. (from 3, 4, 5)

The evidence for (1) is all around us. See the constant exhortations that “If you don’t vote then you can’t complain!”, the haranguing received by Jon Stewart over a mere joke that he had not voted, the ongoing debate over whether voting should be compulsory, and a million and one other examples which would only cut into my word allowance for this article.
I’m not going to argue for (2) here, but I don’t think it should be especially controversial.
(4) seems, to my mind, the weakest of the premises. Libertarianism does not require scepticism about democracy – one could well be a libertarian and yet think that democracy is overall a good system. But perhaps this scepticism might be considered part of a “thick libertarianism”; in particular, it might be part of a “strategically thick” libertarianism. “Strategic thickness” refers to those practices and ideas which tend to undermine the implementation of libertarian institutions, even if they do not necessarily contradict the non-aggression principle (or whatever else one regards as the fundamental moral grounding of libertarianism).
I can think of two ways one might argue for this. The first is that, so long as people remain wedded to the ideal of democracy, they will remain sympathetic to a form of collectivism, which will generally lead to bigger governments. The second would be that there are specific ways in which democracies tend to fail, ways which are particularly harmful to liberty. One example might be immigration, where anti-foreign bias systematically leads to people being more likely to oppose anything involving foreigners. (Incidentally, philosopher Arash Abizadeh – not, so far as I am aware, a libertarian – has argued that there are no reasons why voting should be limited only to present citizens of a nation, and therefore that there is no way in which democracy could actually justify immigration restrictions).
There are two problems here. One is that, by focusing on areas where democracy has a tendency towards failure, we almost by definition focus on areas where people will tend to be irrational and will want to ignore our arguments. The second is that proposing to abolish democracy means replacing it with something else, and although we might have in mind simply to abolish government involvement in the issue being discussed, this is neither what people are likely to take us as saying nor what is actually likely to happen. Many people, including (perhaps especially!) libertarians, are heavily opposed to technocratic rule. Libertarian scepticism of technocracy is an honourable a tradition as scepticism about democracy, as famously expressed by Friedrich Hayek in The Fatal Conceit: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”
(5) also seems potentially vulnerable – one might perhaps suggest that we should be honest and forthright about every aspect of what we advocate, regardless of whether this is the most convenient thing for us. However, the strength of this objection will turn upon how strongly we use the word “forthright”. I certainly don’t think that libertarians who also happen to be sceptical about democracy should lie or even mislead in order to hide their scepticism, but there is a difference between concealing unpopular views and making them important planks in a platform. In an academic setting, where the entire goal of discourse is to arrive at truth on every individual issue, it is reasonable – even virtuous – to loudly advocate for unpopular views which one seriously believes, even if this is liable to reduce people’s trust in you regarding other issues. In politics, we must be more pragmatic.
“Scepticism about democracy ought to be kept separate from libertarianism”.
I do not mean to insist that this conclusion is either true or false, but I think that it is a question that libertarians ought to think about when lambasting the failures of democracy in a popular setting. The way we go about libertarian advocacy has consequences for people’s freedom, including our own, so we should be cautious when attacking people’s deeply held beliefs – even when those beliefs are strange and irrational. I don’t wish to suggest for a second that we should compromise on our basic principles in order to be more presentable, but there is often far less need to push people’s buttons than we might think.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Morality and Medical Malpractice

One of the traditional thought experiments leveraged against utilitarianism goes as follows:
A surgeon has five patients, each with a different organ which has stopped working. Each is in need of having a working organ transplanted into them, and will die if they do not receive this. At this point, a person with a fully working body happens to enter the surgery. The surgeon could kill this person quickly and painlessly, and give each of the patients a working organ from this person's body. Thus, they would give up one life but would save five lives; utilitarianism implies that the surgeon must surely do this. But this course of action would be monstrous. Hence, utilitarianism is false.
Most utilitarians are not too keen to bite the bullet by admitting that this would be the moral course of action, and tend to argue that there are advantages to a system where you can see a doctor without risk of being murdered. Non-utilitarians would respond by stipulating that absolutely no-one finds out about the murder, so that this system of cooperation is not disturbed. I don't know the utilitarian response to that, but basically it all gets very messy and unclear.

I have a better response to this thought experiment.

Killing the healthy person is stupid! What you need to do is kill one of the people who is already dying, and give their organs to the other people who are dying. Select this person at random, so there's no disincentive to go into the surgery - it's a choice between going in and facing a one-in-five chance of dying, and staying out and being sure to die. Five people survive, one person dies, and no-one can complain that their rights are being ignored. Just tell the patients: "You're all going to die if you don't take part in this raffle, because your organ will give out completely and you won't get a transplant. If you take part, then you may end up being killed right now but providing someone else loses, you will get one of their organs and you will live." Far cleaner, with no need to unilaterally violate the rights of an innocent.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Review: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)

Perhaps the people who made this film had something of an intention to make an adaptation of the book, but it felt far more like a poorly-scripted Dungeons and Dragons campaign. A full list of things I dislike about this film would be long, impractical, and would arguably require me to watch the whole film rather than just the first hour and the last few minutes. However, here are some lowlights:

  • As happened in the book, Lucy becomes desirous to use a spell which will give her the beauty of her sister Susan. As in the book, Aslan chides her for this. But whereas in the book the problem was with her jealousy, in the film this is somehow represented as a mere lack of self-confidence. But she still feels the need to apologise to Aslan over it.
  • The changes to the relationship between Coriakin and the Dufflepuds. In the book, the Dufflepuds turned themselves (and, as an unintended consequence, Coriakin) invisible because they believed themselves to be ugly. In the film he unilaterally turns them invisible - and sure, it's for their own protection, but would it have been so difficult to explain what he was doing? - and is presented as being unquestionably justified.
  • On a related note, Coriakin is, above all else, what leads me to compare the film to a D&D campaign. He is quite literally a Mr Exposition, launching with next to no explanation into a description of exactly must the main characters must do.
With my dislike of the film sated, I'll just note two things which amazed/shocked me. First, look at these pictures of Eustace Scrubb:

After you've finished being creeped out by how much a boy can look like a lizard, would you guess that the actor playing him was 16 at the time of filming?

Second, note the girl on the right. That's Lucy Pevensie, as portrayed by Georgie Henley. This is a picture of her looking incredibly cute upon first encountering Narnia:
This is a picture of her looking incredibly cute while talking to Mr Tumnus after her coronation:
And this is the picture which appears at the top of her page on TV Tropes;

My philosophical views

Having an hour to spare and nothing better to do, I've decided to write down my current answers to the questions on the PhilPapers survey of philosophers' views. First, a couple of notes and caveats:

  • At first, I wasn't going to look at any (potentially new-to-me) arguments for the positions while doing this. However, upon reflection it seems strange to reject a chance to be motivated to learn.
  • One of the options on the original survey was "insufficiently familiar with the area." This really ought to be my default answer - I am, after all, a mere undergraduate student - but where would be the fun in that. Instead, for any given issue you should assume that I am probably not as familiar with the issue as I ought to be.
A Priori knowledge: yes or no?
Umm... lean no, maybe? I lean towards the view that logic, maths etc are constructed rather than discovered, and given that they are supposed to be the paradigm cases of a priori knowledge, I guess that places me in the No category.

Abstract objects: Platonism or nominalism?
Is this asking whether I believe that there are no abstract objects, or which of these positions I lean towards on a greater number of subjects? I'm not willing to completely rule out abstract objects (fictional objects in particular strike me as things which might exist but be abstract) but I don't believe in the existence of numbers, of propositions, or of many of the other abstract objects which have been postulated to exist. Put me down as leaning towards nominalism.

Aesthetic value: objective or subjective?
I have actually put serious effort into trying to work out why anyone might think that aesthetic value is objective, and the closest I've seen to an argument is SEP's mention of the fact that "people tend to agree about which things are beautiful." Sigh. Accept subjective.

Analytic-synthetic distinction: yes or no?
I don't believe in it, the only question is whether I go down as Lean No or Accept No. Quine was very convincing... go on, put me down as Accept No.

Epistemic justification: Internalism or Externalism?
I can never remember which is which. Assuming I correctly understand the issue, one of them is the view that knowledge-seeking has intrinsic value, the other is that we should seek knowledge because it is useful to us. Yudkowsky put this very nicely in the Sequences, saying that seeking knowledge out of curiosity has a certain purity to it, but the advantage of seeking knowledge because it is useful is that it creates an external criterion by which to measure our success. Accept whichever one it is which says we should seek knowledge because it is useful.

External world: idealism, skepticism, or non-sceptical realism?
Accept non-sceptical realism. You can't achieve absolute certainty that you aren't being deceived by a demon, but (a) there is no reason to believe you are either and (b) in any case, suppose you were. You don't know anything about what the demon wants, so there's no particular reason to change the way you act.

Free-will: compatabilism, libertarianism, or no free will?
I'm fairly well convinced that if determinism is true, then (a) people cannot act differently than they do but (b) they are still morally responsible for their actions. I believe this makes me a compatibilist, although it strikes me as a bit weird that this is counted as believing in free will rather than denying that free will is necessary for moral responsibility.

God: theism or atheism?
Damn, no option for deism. Lean deism if that's acceptable, otherwise I place higher probability mass in atheism than in any of the "revealed religions".

Knowledge: empiricism or rationalism?
Given that I deny a priori knowledge, it would be rather odd if I were to say rationalism. (At least, it appears that way; perhaps this is one of the many things on which I shall come to be corrected.) Accept empiricism.

Knowledge claims: contextualism, relativism, or invariantism?
No familiarity with the subject area.

Laws of nature: Humean or non-Humean?
Accept Humean.

Logic: classical or non-classical?
This is an interesting one. As said above, I lean towards the view that logics are constructed rather than discovered, and that different logics may be appropriate for different purposes. The philosophical justification for intuitionistic logic is something I find very appealing, so let's say Lean non-classical.

Mental content: internalism or externalism?
No familiarity with the subject area.

Meta-ethics: moral realism or moral anti-realism?
I lean towards constructivism. I believe this makes me a moral realist, although that's a bit weird since I started working out my metaethics by explicitly assuming there were no genuine moral facts floating around.

Metaphilosophy: naturalism or non-naturalism?
Is the question "Which is it more fruitful for us to assume as a default?" or "Which do I beliee is actually true?" Accept naturalism on the first, lean non-naturalism on the second.

Mind: physicalism or non-physicalism?
Next to no familiarity with the subject area.

Moral judgement: cognitivism or non-cognitivism?
I looked at this at some point, but I can't remember much of what it was about.

Moral motivation: internalism or externalism?
Is this related to the amoralist's challenge? I've been thinking about that for ages, and still don't have a satisfactory answer despite reformulating my metaethics at least partially in an attempt to produce an answer to this question.

Newcomb's problem: one box or two boxes?
Accept one box. Although even if I were the type of person who would two-box, would I go around telling people that?

Normative ethics: deontology, consequentialism, or virtue ethics?
Virtue ethics, subject to deontological constraints, and with the choice of virtues justified on pluralist-consequentialist grounds. Yes, really.

Perceptual experience: disjunctivism, qualia theory, representationalism, or sense-datum theory?
When I studied this in first year, it seemed like a slam-dunk for sense-datum theory. However, given that (a) that was before I had read The Sequences, (b) I can't even remember what the first two of these were or if they were even mentioned, and (c) I have rejected almost every other view I picked up on that course (belief in the a priori, epistemological foundationalism, free-will libertarianism, near-universal scepticism... I must just about hold to a sensitivity condition regarding knowledge, so not quite everything), I'm inclined to take that past belief with rather a lot of salt.

Personal identity: biological view, psychological view, or further-fact view?
I don't hold to a biological view, but I' not greatly satisfied by the leading psychological accounts (though if I had to choose one, I would go with Schechtman's). I don't even know what the further-fact view is, and looking at the relevant SEP and Wikipedia articles suggests that either I'm misunderstanding the question, or that there is something odd about it. I was reading section 3 of Reasons and Persons, but my Kindle has gone missing.

Politics: communitarianism, egalitarianism, or libertarianism?
Accept libertarianism. Have you read my blog?

Proper names: Fregean, or Millian?
I prefer the Millian view, and I believe that Nathan Salmon's discussion of "guises" solves most of the problems for it; that said, I need to do more reading, so put me down as merely leaning Millian.

Science: scientific realism or scientific anti-realism?
Scientific realism. Because, you know. Duh.

Teletransporter (new material): survival or death?
Can I suggest the answer is somewhat subjective? Personally I would regard it as survival, but I'm very open towards difference of intuitions and I think that the disagreement is more to do with people having different values than to do with some (or all) people being wrong about an actual fact in the world.

Time: A-theory or B-theory?
B-theory is the one which holds all times to be equally real, and suggests that we move through time rather than time itself moving, right? Accept that one.

Trolley problem (five straight ahead, one on side track, turn requires switching, what ought one do?) 
switch or don't switch?
I would lean towards switching. I'm not entirely comfortable with it, but David Friedman's variation on Fat Man (in which both the Fat Man and yourself are required to does a fair job of convincing me that we should probably be willing not only to turn the trolley, but to push the fat man in its way.

Truth: correspondence, deflationary, or epistemic?
I read The Simple Truth and it sounded sensible. Then again, I haven't done a great deal of engagement with the views other than correspondence - certainly I could not explain what they are - so I'll have to just say I have insufficient engagement with the subject area.

Zombies: inconceivable, conceivable but not metaphysically possible, or metaphysically possible?
Again, especially insufficiently familiar, but leaning towards one of the not-metaphysically-possible positions.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Greed vs. Self-interest

A lot of people who attack mainstream economics will say it assumes that people are always greedy, and that this isn't the case, therefore it is based upon false premises. I feel like this is unfair - I wouldn't describe "economists believe everyone is always greedy" as a strawman, but it's an unfair way of putting it.

Economists tend to assume people are self-interested. I'm not certain how to cash out the difference between being "greedy" and being "self-interested", but I'm fairly certain there is one. For example, I would much rather eat a nice meal than be poked in the eye. Given a choice between the two, I would choose the meal. I don't think that makes me greedy, but it is definitely a self-interested choice.

Perhaps we might say that being "greedy" implies a certain lack of concern for others. There are people who I care about deeply, and I would say that their well-being contributes to my well-being. Hence, if I had to option to provide a benefit to my brother at minimal material or temporal cost to myself, I would be likely to provide this benefit. We can conceive of this as being self-interested, but it seems weird to describe it as greedy.

Alternatively, perhaps we think of greed as being overly concerned with material wealth, as compared to other valuable things. If someone were to pave over a beautiful garden in order to build houses, I can imagine them being described as a "greedy developer".

In any case, I don't think either of these words - at least as used in the most conventional sense - is really an appropriate way of describing the way economists conceive of self-interest. It's true that our models frequently exclude charitable spending and gifts to other agents, but if you want to call failing to give to charity greedy then (while I agree with you) you're going to have a hard time arguing that people aren't basically greedy, given the rather small size of charitable donations. (And also given that Effective Altruism is seen as radical and unusual. Since I heard of it, EA has always seemed rather obviously correct - at least, so long as one accepts moral realism - and yet, EA evangelism is not just a matter of explaining the basic ideas to people, you generally have to convince them over weeks and months. This strongly suggests to me that, when people donate to charity, the extent to which they help people is not generally at the forefront of their mind.)

Perhaps the best way of explaining the way most people understand the word "greedy" is that it should be viewed as relative to a socially agreed baseline. So it's "greedy" not to pay taxes, and moreover, "paying one's taxes" is defined relative to the intent rather than the letter of the law. (This "intent" can be very nebulous, of course - what is one person's "incentive to promote valuable business and job creation" is another person's "corporate loophole"). But since most people don't really give to charity, it's not greedy not to give - just so long as you do give when everyone is doing so (e.g. school non-uniform day, a leaving present for someone at the office, icebucket challenge).

This is not to say that the assumption that people act "rationally" in the economist's sense is entirely warranted: merely that to suggest it has too low a picture of humans is quite the wrong way to go about attacking it. A far better attack - one which, in my view, has a lot of truth to it - is that it overestimates people. People do not generally set out purposefully so as to best achieve their goals. Indeed, they make certain consistent and predictable errors. This is indeed something of a challenge to the axioms of neoclassical economics - although, with a better awareness of human psychology, it may well be possible to repair the faulty assumptions to make better predictions.

Rawls on Procedural Justice

From A Theory of Justice, page 76:
A distribution cannot be judged in isolation from the system of which it is the outcome or from what individuals have done in good faith in light of established expectations. If it is asked in the abstract whether one distribution of a given stock of things to definite individuals with known desires and preferences is better than another, then there is simply no answer.

In this passage, Rawls is actually talking about the importance of equality of opportunity, but it sounds a lot more like something out of Anarchy, State and Utopia. We frequently think of Rawls as "the minimax guy", and certainly that is the aspect of his principles of justice which has received the most attention, so it is quite interesting to see him giving so much weight to a conception of procedural justice - albeit a rather more demanding version of it than a Nozickian would advocate.

I remember, back when we were first studying Rawls, the lecturer would present us with two graphs like the ones below. He would ask us about which we thought was a better society. If I were to go back in time, I would be equipped with a pretty smart-arse response.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Step by step...

...gender equality progresses.
Kurdish defenders have victory in their sights. After exactly a month of fighting, they say they have driven Islamic State from most of the city.
But from a hilltop across the border in Turkey, it is clear there is still fighting going on, particularly in the north of the city. Small and heavy arms fire can be heard, as well as occasional explosions. There have also been several air strikes this afternoon by the US-led coalition.
One 32-year-old Kurdish militia commander, who leads the fighting in the east of the city, told me she hoped the city would be "fully liberated" very soon.
(from a BBC article on the war currently going on between ISIS and the Kurds).

Notice that little word in the final paragraph: "she". At almost any time before now, the idea of a woman leading an army (with certain rare and very charismatic exceptions) would either have been laughed at or would have called to the mind the Amazon stereotype. Instead, women of ability are able to lead armies, and to be taken seriously. Perhaps The Onion laughs at this kind of thing, but I view it as a genuine step towards genuine sexual equality.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Can Christians have compassion?

It has sometimes been pointed out that the desire of many on the left to blame high crime rates and other bad behaviour by poor people on the environment in which they grow up is rather at odds with a liberal conception of people as free and rational agents. It occurred to me today that this is an even greater problem for those who take the bible to be the word of God:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (Romans 1:20)

The Christian believes that, with two exceptions (and one of them was also a deity) every person who has ever lived has sinned, and grievously so. Despite this ridiculously strong evidence that living without sinning is basically impossible given the human condition, people are still taken to be morally responsible for having sinned.

I can see two ways in which a Christian might push back against this, but both seem to have very severe problems. The first is to argue that going to hell for one's sin does not necessarily imply a moral judgement against one for having sinned; merely, that one is not absolutely pure and therefore cannot be with God who is himself absolutely pure. This is perhaps the easier bullet to bite, but it still means that Divine Command theories of morality are rendered incoherent. This is a serious problem, not only because many Christians would like to identify morality with God's law but also because one of the most popular arguments for God's existence is that it gives us a grounding for objective morality.

The other counter-argument would be that while we cannot realistically go without sinning, we can generally sin less than we actually do. But this makes it difficult to resist the argument that especially virtuous people. who sin but do so at rates for lower than other humans, ought to be (in a sense) justified by their own efforts. "Yes, it's true that I sinned, but it would have been nigh-impossible for me to have sinned less considering that I am, ultimately, only human." This flat-out contradicts crucial Christian doctrine:

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6)

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Who Type Out Their Setlists

Last night, I saw Igudesman & Joo performing at Bridgwater Hall. Alexsey Igudesman and Richard Hyung-ki Joo are professional violin and piano soloists respectively, who do musical comedy skits on YouTube and various places.

The playing was top-notch; the orchestral balance and the comedy, less so. They introduced the first number, a mash-up of the Molto Allegro from Mozart's 40th Symphony with the James Bond Theme, with a dialogue which consisted of little more than them yelling "Mozart!" "No, Bond!" at each other.

This was followed by an unusual rendition of Mozart's Rondo Alla Turca, which was highly enjoyable but demonstrated two issues which were to plague much of the concert. The first was the use of blue humour: there was a fair bit of comedy which, if not performed by a man of east-Asian extraction, would have been viewed as a relic of the late 1800s, not to mention not-too-subtle references to certain parts of the male anatomy. The second was that the balance in the accompanying orchestra could be off so as to make it difficult to make out anything beyond the brass and percussion. This only seemed to be a problem when both of the soloists were playing, which suggests to me that they may have rehearsed without listeners. I understand the desire to avoid a "proper" conductor and the third on-stage personality this would almost inevitably require, but some sections were simply not up to scratch.

After a ridiculously overdramatic performance of All by Myself, they turned to a "new work" - a love ballad sung by a lonely farm boy to his favourite cow. It was credited to one "Joseph Frizell Kerr", which at first I suspected to be a joke about sexually deviant Austrians but turned out to refer to a person who only exists on Twitter.

The next few songs, during the course of which there was an interval, were mostly big-band types - Fistful of Dollars, Gonna Fly Now, etc. Towards the end they reached the second work of the evening which was at the standard it ought to be - a demonstration of the only way the average person can play Rachmaninoff's piano pieces. Sergei Rachmaninoff had famously massive hands, each of them able to span two octaves. (For comparison, I can comfortably play one-and-a-third octaves, squeezing to a semitone short of an octave-and-a-half if I flatten my hand in a way no pianist ever should). To play the gigantic chords required, Joo had a set of wooden planks with bits sticking out to play the chords, which Igudesman would juggle behind him in order to pass the right one at the time it was needed.

After an orchestral version of Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive and a couple of encores, the evening finished. I didn't regret going, but it would be fair to describe it is one of the worse concerts that I have been to.

As a final point, I would like to ask: how is this commercially viable? There were perhaps 1200 people in the audience (the total capacity of Bridgewater Hall is 2,400, but the upper levels weren't in use) at a ticket price of £15 (£8 for students). That implies total takings will be approaching £18,000, and at least a third of that will have gone on hiring the venue. Include pay and accommodation for the orchestra - a couple of days' labour at semi-skilled or higher wages for 40 or more people, plus the costs of transport and accommodation, will probably at the very least in the region of £8000. That doesn't leave a great deal spare, especially after administration, insurance, and the myriad other costs which are difficult to remember but cause hell for small businesses.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

What are the rights of Children? Part Two

I previously discussed my opinions of some papers working towards answering this question; in this post, I intend to discuss a theory I have been developing, and discuss the very serious problems with its current state.

I start with the assumption that it is wrong for a child to be brought into life if they can be expected to have a life not worth living. Furthermore, this is not merely wrong but it is a violation of the child's rights. I integrate this assumption into a kind-of-Nozickian position and emerge that children should be treated in a way they would consent to in the hypothetical situation where they - or a rational agent representing them - and their parents signed a contract regarding how the child should be brought up.

As it stands at this, without working out what it implies, there are already several serious issues with the theory.


Some rights theorists have argued that having rights requires the ability to enforce them. I don't think I would necessarily go that far, but it is certainly fair to say that rights suffer in the absence of an enforcement mechanism. And, practically speaking, it is difficult to see how this theory would be enforced.

The starting point would be that, if a child's upbringing fails to meet whatever is decided to be just, then the child would have a right to sue their parents. There are problems with this, at least one of which I see no way of resolving.

Suppose the child is so badly mistreated that they die before reaching the age of emancipation. Then, presumably the right to sue the parents would return to the commons, and could be homesteaded by someone who prosecuted the parents. (This would not be much comfort to the child, but since no theory can raise the dead this is hardly a problem unique to my theory). But what if the homesteader of this right is a confederate of the parents, who does a deliberately bad job of prosecution? Even supposing this is solved, then suppose there is a competitive market of lawyers who will take up such cases. Suppose also that there is an inverse relationship T (between the time spent accumulating evidence before taking a case to court) and P (the probability of a successful prosecution, and hence a profit). If the right to take the case to court can only be homesteaded once, then clearly the market equilibrium is for cases to be homesteaded as soon as they appear and have a positive P.

This might be resolved by having an organisation which is automatically assumed to gain the right to prosecute a case, which might either prosecute cases itself or sell the rights on to lawyers for a fee. This might fund (for example) an orphanage. Such a system would be far from perfect, but does not seem completely unworkable.

The problem is actually greater when the child is still alive. Most people would be unwilling to sue their parents; even if the right to sue the parents were somehow homesteaded by one of our crusading lawyers, the case would be unlikely to succeed without the co-operation of the key witness. So parents would be able to get away with many abuses.

What does it even mean to "hypothetically consent"?

It is in many ways strange that one can be morally bound by a promise that one has not made. How does the fact that in a particular hypothetical scenario I would have agreed to take on a certain obligation bind me to it in the real world where I have not?

The best answer, so far as I can tell, is that it doesn't; rather, it is in one's best interests to act as though it is. Suppose that I would like to see a certain band live in concert, but am unwilling to pay the £50 it costs to buy a ticket - the most I would be willing to pay is £40. In order to prevent ticket touting, all tickets to see the band have the name of their owner printed on them and require proof of ID. An acquaintance of mine, B, has an opportunity to buy a ticket to see the band for £20, and so buys the ticket in my name. (B has no interest in seeing the band herself). While I would receive the ticket from B whether or not I paid her for it, if I wish B and other people I know to do similar things for me in the future then I would be well-advised to pay B at least the £20 it cost her to buy the ticket.

But this fails to solve the issue of exactly how much I should pay - it should be at least £20 and no more than £40, but could be anywhere in-between. In the scenario above we might well say £20 and call it quits (or alternatively £20 and either a box of chocolates, a bouquet of flowers or a bottle of wine) but suppose that rather than as a friendly gesture, B bought the ticket because this is how she made her living. Quite clearly, then, I would pay more than £20.

Taking this to the case of childrens' rights, it seems that children should have positive rights going beyond "a life worth living"; however, we have no idea how extensive these rights should be, except that they should not cause it to cease to be worthwhile to have children.

Parental influence on the child's values

As good liberal neutrals, we should not wish to assume that there is a particular, uniquely and universally justified measure for how well a child was raised. Rather, we should allow a different metric in every case, dependent largely upon what the child ends up developing as their conception of the good.

The problem here is that parents have a fantastic opportunity to essentially brainwash their children. A child could be brought up in a cult, and so long as the child continues to believe that the cult is virtuous and that being part of it is beneficial, it is hard to see how we can object.


A basic theory of children's rights based upon hypothetical consent runs into several problems, which all tend in the direction of allowing parents far too much license in the way they raise their children.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

What are the rights of Children? Part One

This is (hopefully) the first in a series of posts discussing the raising of children from the perspective of political philosophy.

A topic in political theory which is particularly close to my heart is how children can and should be raised, and what claims they have on parents and on other agents. I recently attended my first academic conference, and while there I encountered three papers within this area.

The first paper, Is obligatory child support possible in a private law society? A contractual approach, by Lukasz Nicolaus Dominiak, was presented as part of a workshop on The Current State of Libertarian Political Philosophy. He was responding to the position set forth by Herman Hans Hoppe and by Murray Rothbard, which states that parents have no natural positive obligations towards their children any more than they do for any random person in the street, and therefore that mandatory child support represents unjust aggression towards the parent compelled to pay it. Lukasz argued that in a stateless, common-law society couples would sign contracts and that these contracts would specify child support to be paid in the event of a separation. He had what seems to me to be rather a confused argument that child support would be lower in such a society than it is in ours (the argument being that the current system of courts turns the parent with children into a monopoly. What, I wonder, does he see as the "product" being sold by this monopoly?) and some sound economic analysis to demonstrate various ways in which child support would vary from couple to couple.

My opinion, and I think that of everyone there (including Lukasz) was that, regardless of how accurate this was in a predictive sense, it relied on a set of moral premises one of which is completely unacceptable: Rothbard's account is far too permissive towards bad parents. According to Rothbard, if a child is left by its parents to starve, this is no violation of its rights; moreover, it would be impermissible for an outsider to violate the parents' property rights in order to rescue the child. Lukasz, I believe, thought that such behaviour by the parents (apart from being despicable, or course) would represent the abandonment of guardianship rights over the child, leaving another person free to homestead that right by taking the child in. My own preference would be to construct some account of how the child acquires positive rights against the parents, but this is proving problematic, as I will explain in my second post of this series.

I'm not certain I understood the main message of the second paper, Injustice and the Child's Perspective by Christina Schuees. It had references to Plato (bad) and to Miranda Fricker (good), and the most I got from it was the idea that children are the victims of various kind of injustice and are not in a position to do anything about it.

Finally, Gunter Graf and Gottfried Schweiger presented their work-in-progress Securing Justice for Children. Who is responsible for what? I liked this paper. It was clearly set out, which made it easy to tell where they were making howlers. There was at least one point in the conference when I felt like saying "OK, I understand your conclusion. Please could you provide an argument for it?" This was not one of them, for the simple reason that they were clear about this being a work in progress and the arguments not being fully worked out. One of the howlers was that, in the absence of arguments, they still had a conclusion (and one which sounded awfully like "We need world socialism!"); that said, it was an excellent demonstration of why all philosophy should be analytic philosophy and for that I thank them. I intend to refer to this paper in the third post in this sequence.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The Salmon

While on the Rocky Mountaineer train I took part in and won an on-board poetry competition. My poem concerned the life cycle of the millions of salmon who spawn in a lake which the train passed. Beyond the fact that it rhymes and has for the most part a consistent rhythm this poem has little if any merit, and is in my own opinion ridiculously pretentious; nevertheless, the rest of the carriage lapped it up so I'm posting it here.

The Salmon
by Andrew Pearson

The lake, the ancient spawning ground
is tinged with pink the whole way round:
The salmon, having come upstream
have laid their eggs and gone to dream.

In weeks to come the eggs will hatch
Their awesome numbers set to match
the stars above; and yet net one
in a hundred will ever come back home.

They swim downstream for a year and a day
They swim downstream, let come what may
While most will face a death horrific
The fittest few will reach the Pacific.

They spread their fins with wordless glee
To far-flung corners of the sea.
As each fish travels where he likes
At once their natural instinct strikes!

All guided by the magnetic earth
To the great lake of their birth,
The salmon swim, but do not eat
Growing weaker each day of the feat.

Until, at last! The destination!
The last rest of a generation.
With final breaths the salmon mate,
And then commit themselves to fate.

The prize on the right, the prize idiot responsible for this poem on the left.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Notes on Canada

1. It's big. But then we knew that.

2. Instead of using the space to build outwards at low cost, the Canadians take a perverse delight in their skyscrapers. The picture on the right was taken from somewhere up the CN tower, and demonstrates the sheer density of skyscrapers, most of which would be the tallest building around had they been built in any British city (with the exception of London).

Calgary provides another example. When the Calgary Tower was built in the late 60s it had a commanding view all around; nowadays that view is blocked by all the other buildings around it.

3. The CN Tower, by the way, was well worth going up. That said, at $100+ for three of us to go up I'd have been significantly more reluctant had it been my own money being spent.

4. The St. Lawrence Market is also well worth a visit, and has the important virtue of being free to enter. That said, my guess is that the experience is significantly better if you (a) eat meat and (b) have cooking facilities.

5. The Art Gallery of Ontario was very enjoyable. Unfortunately, it does not seem to have an online guide to its paintings. I did find an online picture of an artwork which was only there temporarily: Thunderbird, by Wally Dion (above). From a distance it appears to be a crude, almost cave-painting-like picture of the legendary Native American Thunderbird; close up, you realise that the entire thing is a collage made of computer chip breadboards.

6. Speaking of Native American stuff, that's something they really play up. Tourist shops are full of inuksuks and totem poles, one of Banff's most notable tourist traps is the "Old Indian Trading Post"... I saw far more Inuit tat than Mounty tat, despite the fact that I was never within a thousand miles of where the Inuit have historically lived. (That said, I did meet a couple of guys who I presume were Inuit - we got talking in the sauna at the hotel in Toronto, and they mentioned living about 8 hours north of there and having come down in order to be checked over by a doctor. They also had a remarkably low tolerance for the sauna, finding the heat to be too much after barely five minutes).

6. Niagara Falls is another place well worth a visit, especially if you're on the Canadian side of the border.

7. Banff has some pretty scenery, but I would suggest that it is for the most part overrated. The lakes are pretty, but the glacier is all in all a bit dull, and the mountains aren't especially different to anything you could see in north Wales or the Scottish highlands. Sure, the Rockies are taller, but how many people can really tell the difference between a 3000-footer and a 6000-9000 footer when they aren't next to each other? Wales is also generally less commercialised.

8. That said, among the various tourist shops was a genuinely good art gallery/shop. My favourite painting there, with a price of approximately 5 dead Africans, was Shimmering Light by Rod Charlesworth.

9. Spending two days on a train is about as dull as you would expect.

10. One of the things which surprised me about Canada was how American it was. I have a vision of America, derived from films and TV, and I always assumed that Canada would be something of a half-way between that and what we might label "European culture". I was wrong, it's far closer to the American end of that.

11. Nowhere was this more obvious than in Kamloops, British Columbia, which held an unmistakable area of "Hicktown, USA".

12. Another thing which was evident in most places but most obvious in Kamloops: Canadian girls are - on average - prettier than British girls.

13. I didn't see all that much on Vancouver, but what I saw I liked. I was rather amused by a church which advertised "Jazz Vespers".

14. The forests of British Columbia are pretty. The non-forested bits are a mixture of alright-to-look-at mountains and ugly barren wasteland. One town by the name of Pemberton deliberately played up the Wild West feel with an authentic-looking (at least from a distance) General Store. It also had a pretty neat store called Odd Potatoes where we picked up for remarkably cheap prices a nice sharp knife and a slotted spoon which for some reason were not included with the motorhome we were hiring.

15. More on the everything-is-big-in-America theme: the trains! I don't think I saw any that were longer than about 180 trucks, but I didn't see many which had fewer than 120.

16. Canadians have a weird food culture. They seem far more concerned about their food being "organic" than Britons do, but lack anything of a vegetarian scene. I'm told Toronto has an excellent scene for ethnic food, but didn't see any of this due to my parents disliking any foreign food which isn't Chinese and my brother not even liking that; in other places they have many excellent steakhouses.

17. Before going there, I sort-of expected the grid system of roads to be more efficient than the ring-road system which dominates British cities. I was wrong: what it means is that you have to stop at a set of traffic lights every 50-100 metres, which really slows everything down.

I don't plan to return to Canada any time soon, and if I did then I would probably skip over large parts of it. That said, I enjoyed the trip and don't regret going.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The Liberal Defence of Thought Police

Today while cooking I was listening to a Libertarianism.org podcast on the relationship between Christianity and Libertarianism. Doug Bandow was being interviewed on this topic, and he suggested that Christianity does not directly imply any particular political position, but that it does imply a certain set of values. He, of course, believes that libertarian policies would best promote these values. His argument was that there is very little in the Bible about politics*, and that rather than imposing Christian morality** upon others we are called to live our lives according to it and show its superiority to other lifestyles. He noted that salvation operates on an individual level, rather than at the level of the nation. He was highly sceptical of any attempt to force others to accept our views or morality.

Later on, I met with various other of the student-age members of my home church. We chatted for a while over tea and coffee, and then listened to a recording of a talk by the famously evangelical preacher Rico Tice. Tice is kind of like a public schoolboy evangelical Christian version of Peter Singer. One tidbit from the talk which particularly struck me was his interpretation of Romans 1:18-19 : "18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them." I had always assumed that this was aimed at unbelievers, being part of the "Christianity is obvious" schtick which I find deeply implausible; instead, Tice levelled this at Christians, charging that by failing to evangelise at every opportunity they are removing chances for people to repent and so avoid eternal hellfire. The structure of this is, providing you take the Bible to be true, remarkably similar to the drowning child analogy: replace "starving person in the third world" with "person who does not believe and trust in salvation through Jesus Christ and is therefore headed for eternal torment in hell", "giving up £200" with "facing intense social awkwardness", and you're basically there. Given that a Christian theocracy is unlikely to be achieved in the UK any time soon but that open atheists are increasingly politically prominent, Tice might perhaps agree with Bandow on prudential grounds that allowing the government to legislate religion is a bad idea in modern Britain; however, were that theocracy a real possibility, I doubt Tice would object to it. If more souls are being saved, he might argue, that outweighs any earthly considerations.

This leads me to wonder: suppose Christianity is true. Should liberals then object to people being compelled to believe it or act according to it? My suspicion is that while there would be a principled objection to compelling people to behave in a Christian fashion, this would not be the case for belief. Let me explain.

The basic message of Christianity, to be clear, is as follows:
God created the world and the people in it. These people sinned (that is, went against God's will). God cannot abide by this (as in, literally cannot - it is not just that He is unwilling) and so the punishment is to be cut off from God for all eternity after we die. But Jesus, the only son of God, came to this earth to teach God's word but more importantly to die as a sacrifice to bear the weight of the sin of all who believe. He died and was cut off from God - hence his final words, "Father, father, why have you forsaken me?" but returned after three days (I'm not entirely certain how the whole bearing-an-eternity-of-suffering-in-three-days thing works, but given that God is supposed to be timeless this is not something I see as a serious problem for Christianity) and went to heaven, and all who acknowledge that (a) they have sinned and (b) they can receive forgiveness through Christ, will indeed be forgiven and go to heaven - although not before an epic sky battle involving many-headed beasts and a star crashing into the earth and somehow only destroying a third of it. In heaven, the followers of Christ will experience eternal joy and perfect obedience to the word of God. There is also the Holy Spirit, a third part of God who will enter Christians while they are still on earth and will guide and strengthen them to be more like Jesus.

The key part of this is that salvation is completely binary. There is no "you almost made it into heaven, but you weren't quite good enough", there is only the simple question of whether you believed in Jesus and accepted him as your Lord. That alone determines your salvation.

This, then, gives no reason why people may (from a liberal perspective) be compelled to act in a Christian fashion. However, suppose it were possible to compel a person to genuinely believe. If this were done, then they would be saved eternal torment. And while liberalism is opposed to paternalism - in the words of John Stuart Mill, "The only purpose for which power can rightfully be exercised over a member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others," - this is less like paternalism and more like Mill's Bridge case:

If either a public officer or any one else saw a person attempting to cross a bridge which had been ascertained to be unsafe, and there were no time to warn him of his danger, they might seize him and turn him back, without any real infringement of his liberty; for liberty consists in doing what one desires, and he does not desire to fall into the river. (On Liberty, chapter 5)

If a person believed that the Bible was basically true and decided to oppose this God for whatever reason, then a liberal would indeed be compelled to let them continue with this. But when the issue is one of having false beliefs which lead one to hell, liberals would not generally regard this as any kind of coercion - it would, in fact, be a rescue of sorts.

This does not mean, necessarily, that in the actual world Christians should be willing to brainwash people into believing. Quite apart from the potential for this to drive non-brainwashed people out of the church, in real life Christians should account for the possibility that they are wrong. But it ought perhaps to affect the way we think about freedom of religion. If we are truly confident, due to epistemologically rational processes, in the truth of a particular religion (for the record, I'm not and I suspect that 99%+ of people who think they are, aren't), then it is far from clear that we should shy away from attempting to convince people by any means necessary. The most obvious ways of doing this would be through control of schools and through censorship of alternative viewpoints.

(For that matter, is this strictly relevant only to religious beliefs? One could by this doctrine defend forcible medical operations upon people with silly opinions about medicine, forcible taxation of people who mistakenly advocate political anarchism, attaching chastity belts to teenagers who are being pressured to have sex by their peers and boyfriends/girlfriends.)

* I don't know that I agree, by the way. There are many passages with obvious political implications - not only the obvious ones like "Render unto Caesar" but also the origin of the Israeli monarchy, which was directly contrary to God's will; various passages in Proverbs (10:4 : "Being lazy will make you poor, but hard work will make you rich"; 10:22 : "It is the Lord's blessing that makes you wealthy. Hard work can make you no richer" ; 16:12 : "Kings cannot tolerate evil, because justice is what makes a government strong."); the behaviour of Daniel and his companions while in the service of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon is a clear example of civil disobedience; and the entire book of Nehemiah, which was written by the governor of the Jews while under Persian occupation and discusses his travails in getting the city of Jerusalem rebuilt.

** I suspect this phrase, "Christian morality", to be at best a flawed way of describing what we mean, for reasons which should be explained in an upcoming post, but it will do well enough for now as a way of communicating the idea of living according to the precepts laid down in the Bible.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Tax Incidence

I've been enthusiastically linking to Vox since it started up, it's time for some criticism. Specifically, of this tweet:

As anyone with a basic understanding of economics could tell you, it's not about who has to pay the tax, it's about who bears the burden of the tax incidence. For example, if you require employers to pay a tax on all wages paid to employees, they will be less willing to employ people and so employees will be be forced to suffer lower wages. Similarly, if you require employees to pay a tax on their incomes then they will demand higher wages to compensate and so some of the burden will be borne by employers.

The point of this, then, is that measuring who pays taxes is pretty useless as a measure of who is actually being taxed. You can work out who actually bears the burden by measuring elasticities of the supply and demand for labour, but I've spent most of today drinking networking and hence am in no fit state to explain how this is done to the layman. In any case, this is hardly necessary, what I wish to say is that Vox is attempting to make a political point with figures which don't really show anything at all. (As it happens, somewhere in the region of 40-60% of the burden falls on workers in the form of higher wages and the rest falls on capital owners; neither of these is a desirable outcome, and taxes on capital are considerably worse than they sound).

There is another thing I wish to say about this. About a year back, there were adverts on the sides of buses in the UK - or at least, in Birmingham, I don't know about there rest of the country - put there by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, advocating National Insurance a workplace pensions scheme (thanks to Sam for correcting me) at least partially on the grounds that "you pay in, your boss pays in" and accompanied by the face of Theo Paphitus of Dragons' Den fame. While there may well have been solid grounds for supporting the scheme, this hardly seems like one of them. The incidence of the pension contribution will not change, any more than if employers were required to buy employees' groceries.

The move towards the scheme being opt-in makes some sense, as does the tax relief. However, requiring both the employer and the employee to contribute achieves... what, precisely? Increased paperwork? The most charitable explanation I can think of is that this kind of "everyone contributes" is modelled on National Insurance, which was designed in a time before politicians were likely to be criticised for poor economics. (This was a time when free trade, despite having being considered a no-brainer by actual economists for more than seventy years, was still a controversial issue, so it is harder to blame David Lloyd George for the poor design of National Insurance.)

Saturday, 19 July 2014

The Idiot's Guide to Dark Magic

Book names, from top: Practical Meditation, Face to Face with God, How to Meet & Work With Spirit Guides, Practical Candleburning Rituals, Book of Spells, Psychic Development for Beginners, Pendulum Magic for Beginners, Life After Death (by Deepak Chopra), Cosmic Ordering Guide, The Chakras, Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, Personal Development with the Tarot, Becoming Clairvoyant, Homeopathy, Angels: Guardians of the Light, Magic Eye(?)

This is a pile of books which has accumulated over the last couple of weeks in the charity shop where I am currently volunteering. During my less busy periods on the till I have glanced over some of these books, and I intend to present some of it in a hopefully entertaining fashion.

Face to Face with God
As the name might suggest, this is an (ostensibly) Christian book. However, it presents a view of our relationship with God which pretty much every Christian I know would consider to be heretical. Instead of encouraging you to just pray like a normal Christian, it provides advice on how to "ambush" God, and presents the process of getting to speak to Him as an arduous journey. The rhetoric of the book reminds me of the writer in one of Adrian Plass' diaries who contends that the idea of moving mountains with one's faith is intended to be taken entirely literally.

Practical Candleburning Rituals
Surprisingly, this book is also an ostensibly Christian one. See this page, taken from the contents section:

As an example of what is meant by "Christian rituals", take this ritual designed to "win the love of a man or woman":


Essentially, these are standard pagan rituals - legitimated by the inclusion of biblical readings, in this case from Song of Songs. Given that followers of organised religions tend to be less superstitious than the average citizen of developed societies*, I also wonder what the target audience of this book is.

Book of Spells
My manager was interested to know whether there were any spells which would cause every customer to spend £50 in the shop, so I looked up the section on "prosperity". Unfortunately the best day to perform such spells is Sunday - i.e, the one day when the shop is closed - and the best time to perform them is 5AM - i.e. well before the shop opens. I guess the shop will have to work without the undoubtedly awesome power of magic.

Psychic Development for Beginners
Well, this at least contains some solid practical advice. For example, see this guide to moving cars out of your way when they're driving too slow for your tastes:

Have you ever been driving on the Interstate highway system and become annoyed because someone driving slowly in the fast lane was holing you up? Well, I have and here is how I handled it...
 I altered my basic state of conciousness to my basic psychic level (eyes open, of course) and addressed the driver something like this: "Sir, I would be very grateful if you would pull into the right lane and let me pass because we have an urgent need to get where we are going. Thank you." He immediately pulled into the right lane. I mentally thanked him again and passed him.

Or alternatively, the author's instructions on how to remotely reserve yourself a convenient parking space: 
Before I would leave home I would alter my basic state of conciousness to my basic psychic level and visualise the parking space nearest to the building to which I was going (supermarket, work, etc).
I would visualise the space as being empty, with a sign on it that read, "Reserved for Bill Hewitt."
Guess what! It worked one hundred percent of the time!

This provided an interesting introduction to the history and the theory behind homeopathic "medicine". Homeopathy was first practised in the 1790s by Samuel Hahnemann, a trained doctor who was dissatisfied with the state of formal medicine ("alleopathy") at the time - and to be fair, this was at a time when bloodletting (that is, having a patients' blood sucked out by leeches) was still being proscribed as a treatment. He devised a theory that the body has certain "natural healing powers", and that therefore rather than seeking to treat a disease we should encourage the body to heal itself. He recognised that many symptoms of disease are in fact side effects of the body fighting disease (whether this was actual medical knowledge or merely a lucky guess, I don't know) and for this reason recommended that a disease be treated by consuming substances which produced bodily reactions similar to those of the disease to be treated.

As for the whole "the more dilute the active substance, the more effective it is" thing? Apparently that hypothesis was the result of genuine experimentation, when Hahnemann found that the more he watered down his cures, the better his patients ended up doing.

Having started reading from a pretty sceptical standpoint, I came away with the tentative conclusion that homeopathy was probably more scientifically grounded and less harmful than the official medicine of Hahnemann's time - after all, this was more than half a century before Ignaz Semmelweiss would come along to persuade surgeons to perform the basic task of washing their hands between operations - but does not seem to have really advanced since then, whereas modern medicine has of course improved immensely since then. It's as if the conventional wisdom of 1794 was "We must burn half of everything we produce, so that evil spirits will leave us alone!", Hahnemann came along to say "No, that's silly. We should only burn 20% of everything we produce, my experiments show that we end up better off this way," and then 220 years later conventional wisdom has moved on to "Burning our things is stupid. Boy are we glad we don't do that any more!" while Hahnemann's followers are still yelling "No! We must burn 20% of all we have, lest we be assailed by evil spirits! You madmen!"

*I can't remember where I read this, but it was the finding of a genuine study, honest! If there are any anti-religion people reading this, then please remember that this would be perfectly well explained by the brain having a certain level of superstition it tolerates/demands and religion satisfying this, so this is hardly a strike in favour of religious people being more rational than unbelievers.