A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Sunday, 27 March 2016


Last Easter Sunday, I was in Manchester because my family were on holiday and I needed to write my dissertation. Nevertheless, it was a fantastic time. After church we hosted a meal for no fewer than ten people (myself + two flatmates, one flatmate's girlfriend, another flatmate's sister, curate + wife + two children, and one person who none of us knew prior to that day but who would otherwise have been alone). The food and drink flowed generously. I played ball with the children. We played games for much of the afternoon. The next day I had a fantastically productive day in which I planned, did much of the research for, and wrote the first 2000 words of my dissertation, as well as almost single-handedly cleaning up from the Sunday. (I don't necessarily enjoy work per se, but having a productive day is enormously satisfying). All this was in addition to having a reasonable length run, and hitting a brick wall of exhaustion around 5pm. Those two days are one of the highlights of my life so far.

Compare this year. I woke up at 2pm (this is not at all normal, it should be said - even at weekends I'm usually up by 10am), didn't do much until about 8pm, and have been moderately productive since then (went for a swim, written the first half of a position paper). In the whole day I've spoken to a total of three people, one of whom was the lifeguard at the swimming pool.

Maybe tomorrow will be better. The point is that last year I was much happier, and this is an (admittedly extreme) example. In particular my social life was immeasurably better. Four factors contribute to this:

  1. Leaving the church.
  2. The fact that English is not the lingua franca. Not speaking Hungarian makes it difficult to get involved in things outside the university; and within the university residence centre, most people are happier speaking their native language (most commonly Cantonese, Serbo-Croatian, or Russian). This means that there are very few English-language social activities which are not organised either by the university or the students union.
  3. The absence of a common social space which I can naturally inhabit. The way to have a social life here is to be a smoker, because that forces you to go out to the terrace every evening, where you end up chatting with other smokers. I go to the terrace more often than almost any other non-smoker, but at a distance of six stories it's still a distinct inconvenience as compared to having a living room shared with friends.
  4. Fewer arranged social activities with friends from my course.
Back in the UK, (1) and (2) were never issues. The church meant that whatever else happened I would be interacting with other people twice a week or more, and I was also able to take part in a range of other things outside the university - kayaking, ceilidhs, etc - without any difficulty. (3) applied to some extent in my first year, since myself and two of my flatmates tended to congregate in our living room for at least two evenings per week. It applied to a lesser extent in my second year - I blame television - but there was still at least one evening each week when another friends would come round, the TV would be on showing trash, and I would probably be on my laptop and could join in any conversation which arose. Last year it applied massively - I was living with three other nerds (two of them even nerdier than myself) with regular (as in 3+ times a week) visits from the girlfriend mentioned above, who I was already good friends with before I moved in with her boyfriend. There was a comfortable living room, so I could be in a position to socialise with them simply by going down a short flight of stairs from my room.

I think there are several reasons for (4) being the case, to wit: (a) I'm on a smaller course, hence have fewer friends from it; (b) because most of us live together there's less of a feeling that we need to meet up; (c) people in general are less sociable than the friends I had in undergrad, being older and more academic; (d) in general we have less awareness of what the city offers in the way of nightlife.

So long as I am here, it will be important to make a conscious effort to have more of a social life. I've considered rejoining a church, although given that it takes 45 mins to get to an English-language church that's rather harder than ever been before. I've also wondered about trying to turn the nearest kitchen into a social space of some kind, although at the moment that's a non-starter since it is often occupied by a group of Chinese students playing a card game based upon the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. (The cards and conversation are in Chinese, hence joining them isn't an option). I'm planning a reasonably large celebration for my birthday next weekend, and will look to find ways of improving my social life in long-term ways.

If you have read this far, then thank you. In return, here's some advice: living abroad is highly overrated. I'm not certain that I regret moving here, but were it not for the case that I'm saving £6000 in tuition fees and about £16,000 over two years in living expenses, I most assuredly would. If you ever have an opportunity to move abroad for anything long than a mere visit, and especially if that is to somewhere where you don't speak the language - think twice.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

What's Happening?

I’m going to sketch a model of what is currently going on in European and Anglosphere politics. It probably has some explanatory power; at the same time, there are weaknesses that I will mention. Very little of what is in here is original to me, so I should thank various people (mostly on Twitter) for the discussions leading to these ideas. As most people with internet access know, the left-right spectrum is a poor measure of political positions. You can make it a bit more sophisticated by including two dimensions - one mapping the traditional left-right divide in economic terms, and one mapping social liberalism versus (for want of a better word) authoritarianism.
Due to the pressures of electoral politics - and especially the First Past The Post system - these two dimensions have tended to be bundled together in the form of an economically left-wing, socially liberal party (Labour, Democrats) and a pro-capitalist, authoritarian party (Tories, Republicans). This left people who are leftist plus authoritarian (call them “populists”) and who are right-wing plus liberal (“neoliberals” will do) without a clear party, and so they have tended to split between left and right largely according to personal preference.
Since the fall of Communism, though, the economic dimension has been becoming less important. It’s true that parties talk about increasing or decreasing regulation and redistribution, but fundamentally there has been an acceptance - especially among élites - that capitalism is here to stay. Meanwhile, the social dimension has been growing in importance, in particular due to the continuing influence of feminism and identity politics. One measure of this is that in the 1970s a book called A Theory of Justice could be primarily about the optimal amount of redistribution, whereas nowadays the phrase “social justice” is synonymous with LGBTQ+ advocacy. (Immigration may also have something to do with this: I suspect that it used to be viewed primarily as a social issue, i.e. “They’re criminals” vs. “That’s racist”, and is now seen primarily as an economic one: “They’re taking our jobs” vs. “But they’re also spending their paychecks and hence creating jobs”.) This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t model Blairites and Labour moderates as economically left-wing; however, it does mean that as compared to fifty years ago the distance between an élite leftie and an élite rightist is much smaller. What this means is that you see increasing tension pushing for populist and neoliberal parties. In the UK the Labour Party is being taken over by dinosaurs who want to bring back genuine socialism but are at best unconcerned and at worst deeply regressive on social issues. The SNP are authoritarian in the truest sense of the word, and are to the left of the pre-Corbyn Labour party. In the US you have people like Donald Trump (a populist if ever there was one) and Bernie Sanders (who admittedly isn’t a proper socialist, but is still willing to describe himself as one). Tony Blair and his heir David Cameron are UK representatives of neoliberalism; Bill and Hilary play this role in the US. The implication of this is that we are somehow likely to see a move over time towards having populist parties pitted against neoliberal parties. At this point I’ll note two caveats: (1) this is very vague and doesn’t offer anything like a timescale for predictions, and (2) it is likely to rely upon a corrupted meaning of “social liberalism”: are safe spaces illiberal censorship or just a way to respect oppressed minorities? If some Islamic communities force their females members to wear the hijab, practice gender segregation in public, and encourage homophobia, what is the socially liberal response? Another thing to note is that in general, élites are fairly neoliberal. For the last thirty-five years or so we’ve had considerable success through left-wing governments tinkering with economy but massively reforming social institutions (e.g. Tony Blair) while right-wing governments have either been much the same (e.g. David Cameron) or have focused upon economic reforms (e.g. Margerate Thatcher). In some cases we’ve even had ostensibly left-wing parties delivering market reforms. But what happens if, through a change in the political system, all of the neoliberal élites end up in one party and that party isn’t in government? What if a Trump or a Livingstone actually gets into power? How well can democracy be restrained in such a case? Some more problems which didn’t really fit in earlier: (1) How much of what I’m claiming to explain is just straightforward political polarisation, e.g. for reasons given by Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind ? (2) Any account of UK politics should mention the EU. This one doesn’t, and what’s more this issue doesn’t fit the two-dimensional political map at all neatly. My impression is that orthodox leftists tend to be fairly pro-EU, but all three other groups are divided. (3) Even two dimensions isn’t that many. We could also include foreign policy, divide economic stuff into a regulation spectrum and a redistribution spectrum, etc.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Has Rawls Shown that Rewards for Natural Talents are Arbitrary?

A common (mis)understanding of John Rawls is that he thinks it is entirely arbitrary who is born with which talents. We do not in any sense "deserve" our natural intelligence, charm, or good looks, and so there is no particular moral reason why these traits ought to be rewarded.

My reaction to this line of argument is to complain that this threatens to entirely strip away our moral agency. No-one "deserves" their moral character; does this mean we should abandon anything beyond the most unambitious conceptions of free will and moral responsibility? If so, then what is the point of doing moral theory at all?

But in fact Rawls' critique is more subtle than that. The idea is not that our talents are arbitrary, but rather the value which society places on those talents is arbitrary. It may be a necessary fact about me that I have an aptitude for political philosophy; it surely isn't a necessary fact about me, about Hungary, or about anything else that as a result of that talent there is a university willing to provide me with free education and accommodation.

The question, then, is what would render non-arbitrary the value placed by society upon a particular ability? If every society in existence values something, is that sufficient to show that the value is non-arbitrary? If societies which value a particular trait tend to provide better lives for their members, is that sufficient to show that the value is non-arbitrary?

If either of these cases is met, then we can empirically rebut Rawls. Intelligence - which is admittedly more a suite of skills than a single skill, but they're all strongly correlated - is useful across a very wide variety of contexts. (Fluid intelligence even predicts people's reaction times, so being intelligent would even be useful in a warrior society with status determined by fighting ability). Maybe it's arbitrary that I get paid to do Philosophy rather than Physics, Poetry or Philology, but thanks to the magic of the g-factor we know that someone who is much-better-than-average at one of these will probably also be better than average at the best.

What about looks? Surely the social preference for good-looking people is arbitrary? Well, I think that's a poor framing. Is it arbitrary that societies particularly benefit men if they are tall with highly symmetrical faces? Is it arbitrary that societies particularly benefit women if they have long hair, symmetrical faces, large breasts, a thin waist and wide hips? Those would describe people considered good-looking in every society we have encountered, with good evolutionary reasons - typically these features indicate good health and nutrition over an extended period of time, combined with low mutational load. What's more, our undue propensity to benefit these people is caused primarily by unconscious biases. You could have a society which was not unequal in these people's favour, but the inhabitants of such a society would not be human.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

The Non-Problems of Philosophy

A lot of the supposed questions of philosophy appear because we have weird ways of speaking. In other languages these problems disappear entirely. As an example, there is a long-standing debate in the philosophy of language over "what words mean", which exists entirely because the English language confuses the notions of the speaker's intention (what Germans call Meinung) and the thing that words are ordinarily understood to mean by the listener or reader (correspondingly the Bedeutung).

This all looks very silly from the outside. For example, here is a short excerpt from Heidegger's What is Metaphysics?:
In anxiety, we say, "one feels ill at ease." What is "it" that makes "one" feel ill at ease?
Heidegger uses this as part of a long spiel about how humans are greatly affected by a curious entity called "nothing". To those of us who are accustomed to thinking in English, however, his question makes no sense.

The issue is that Germans do not literally say "I am ill at ease"; rather they say "it is unsettling to me" (Es ist mir einem unheimlich). So there is a hanging "it" which is taken by a naive reading of German to be an actual thing.

Apologies if this is a poor attempt at exposition of Heidegger. In my defence, Heidegger's own exposition is even worse.