Tuesday, July 25, 2017

XKCD comics for teaching

A couple of useful comics to link to.

One on voting methods, for my democratic theory class.

And one on identifying reliable sources, which should be useful for first years. On a related note, this looks a helpful source for many occasions.

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Friday, June 16, 2017

Grenfell and Politics

Over the last few days, many in the UK have been shocked by a large tower block fire in London. Though the latest confirmed death toll is 'only' 30, this number is bound to rise - though we may never know exactly how many were involved.

Just the other day, I was reading a book chapter that pointed out how the number and distribution of deaths resulting from disease, famine, etc is always in part the result of political decisions. While we may think of some things as 'natural disasters', political decisions determine who is affected and how badly. As the author put it, “politics plays a major role in determining the kinds and distribution of diseases in societies” (Adrian Leftwich, in his (edited) book What is Politics?, p. 82).

I'm pleased to see that, despite some criticism of 'politicising a tragedy', this point has been picked up by some commentators. It's been noted that the fire is political and that those who died were victims not only of fire but also bad government.

Though politics is sometimes seen as a peaceful alternative to war, it's a sad fact that it is still sometimes a matter of life and death.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Goal of the Season and the Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives

The principle of the Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives (IIA) says that the choice between A and B should not depend on whether or not other options, such as C, are on the menu. If you prefer A to B, then your preference should be unaffected by the presence or absence of C.

This seems pretty commonsensical. Imagine you're in a restaurant and you're offered the choice of apple crumble or ice cream for dessert and you choose apple crumble. Now suppose the server tells you that they have a chocolate cake too. You might happen to prefer the chocolate cake, in which case you'd change your order, and that would make sense. But if you were to say 'In that case, I'll have the ice cream' we'd think there something pretty odd about your choice.

Yet it seems that Alex Mccarthy, writing at Give Me Sport, is not a fan of IIA. He criticises the Goal of the Season shortlist for omitting Giroud's scorpion kick against Crystal Palace, on the grounds that it didn't win Goal of the Month (being pipped by Andy Carroll).

Well, if Carroll's goal was better than Giroud's - which was what was decided in January - then there's no chance of Giroud's winning Goal of the Season. The Goal of the Season shortlist is not necessarily the ten best goals of the season, as Giroud's could be better than many of the others that did win Goal of the Month. But there's no point shortlisting a goal that has, in effect, already been eliminated as a contender.

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Monday, May 22, 2017

Dementia Tax

Apparently the Tories have been buying Google adverts so that searches for (so-called) dementia tax are directed to their home page for 'the truth'.

I think it's important that links go here for another perspective on the dementia tax.

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Wednesday, September 07, 2016

New Publication on Mill's Harm Principle

I don't bother to mention every minor publication any more, but my latest piece on the interpretation of Mill's harm principle is now online and forthcoming in Mind (ranked 4th in Leiter's survey of philosophy journals).

The abstract should be freely available, but I also made this word cloud:

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Friday, August 19, 2016

Unusual Marriages 1: A Bridge

I'm teaching a module on the Ethics of Public Policy this semester which will cover, inter alia, marriage. Naturally the focus is likely to be on gay marriage, though we'll also discuss other things such as polygamy and arguments for the abolition of marriage. But one of the readings will be this piece by Ralph Wedgwood.

In this article, Wedgwood is concerned with the essential social meaning of marriage - a meaning which, he claims, does not restrict marriage to being between a man and a woman. However, he has to grapple with whether other, decidedly more unusual, cases of marriage might also be possible. In particular, he mentions examples of people marrying their dogs or their cars (p. 233) or one man marrying another man's left foot (p. 239). The problem, for a liberal view of marriage, is whether it can be permissive enough to allow gay marriage (and, perhaps, polygamy) while excluding such cases (assuming that we want to disallow them).

Wedgwood claims that, so far as he knows, no one actually wants to enter into these alternative forms of marriage (p. 239). It seems that this isn't entirely true, as the following example illustrates.

Artist Jodi Rose 'married' the Pont du Diable (Devil's Bridge) in France. Her account, in which she describes her and her bridge as "Officially *symbolically united" can be found here. The story was covered by the Metro and Huffington Post, both of whom make clear that the union is not legally recognised in France.

I think there are questions here as to whether there's any real (i.e. literal) sense in which this can be described as a woman marrying a bridge, as opposed to some fanciful make-believe. Further, before this could be a problem for Wedgwood's case, we'd need to consider whether or not she really wants this marriage to have the significance usually attached to other marriages. Perhaps, for instance, it was more of an excuse for a wedding party or a way to publicise her bridge singing party. Nonetheless, I think it's an interesting case to consider, especially when some people insist that marriage must - by definition - be between a man and a woman.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Thoughts on Brexit - and what next

As the dust settles after June’s referendum, it’s notable that the leaders of the Leave campaign (Johnson, Gove, Farage, Leadsom) have all vacated the main stage, leaving it to others to negotiate Britain’s exit from the EU. This is probably wise on their part, not only because the political divorce is likely to produce considerable short-term discomfort, but also because it seems that no one had any clear post-exit strategy.

We’re told that the British people have spoken and their will must be respected. But, even setting aside reports of widespread protest voting and regretful Leavers, it’s not clear what ‘the people’ (or 52% of them) voted for, beyond the obvious (leaving the EU). Leaving the EU doesn’t itself specify what alternative arrangements should be put in place.

Some want to withdraw as completely as possible from the European project – in particular, in order to control migration. Call this Total Exit, or TE for short. But not everyone in the Leave campaign favours TE. Others made quite clear that they welcome trade and cooperation with our European neighbours, they merely oppose the EU organisation and the threat of a federal European state. These people would be happy for the UK to adopt a position like Norway or Switzerland, not an EU member but not so different in practice. For want of a better label, call this Weak Exit or WE. (For simplicity, I’ll only consider two alternatives, though there are many possibilities.)

Obviously, these alternatives are incompatible. If the UK opts for WE, then we will have no more control over migration or over laws and regulations that continue to bind us. The referendum result will, officially, be respected – we’ll be out of the EU – but many of the 52% won’t be satisfied. But, on the other hand, if we got for TE then, though we’ll have control over these things, we won’t have the strong relations with Europe that were promised and, further, this is more likely to cause great economic disruption than WE. Again, a significant number of the 52% are likely to be dissatisfied – while they may have wanted out of the EU, they didn’t necessarily want TE.

It might be that the 52% are so strongly committed to leaving the EU that they would prefer either TE or WE to continued membership, but I doubt all of them feel this way. Someone who dislikes loss of sovereignty, but is also concerned about the possible economic effects of Brexit, might reasonably prefer WE to Remain, but also prefer Remain to TE. That is, their preferences might be WE > R > TE (with ‘R’ standing for ‘Remain). If they were moderately optimistic about what ‘Leave’ meant (i.e. WE), they would vote for Leave, but they would prefer Remain if the alternative were TE.

Conversely, someone whose chief concern was migration, while ideally wanting TE, might prefer Remain to WE. The Leave campaign emphasized the threat of Turkey joining the EU but, as a member, the UK would have a veto over this. If the UK ends up like Norway, having to accept free movement but without that veto, then the UK would actually have less control over migration than before. So it could be perfectly consistent for someone to prefer Remain over WE, even if their first choice would be TE. That is, TE > R > WE.

The Leave campaign was actually a coalition of people wanting inconsistent things. Some were voting for TE and some for WE. Since we can’t have both of these, it’s likely that a considerable number of Leave voters will end up disappointed, whatever the eventual outcome – and some of them might even have preferred to remain in the EU to the eventual outcome.

Given the closeness of the result, it might seem reasonably likely that, given a choice between ‘Remain or TE’ a majority of the population would have voted to Remain and, likewise, that given a choice between ‘Remain or WE’ a majority of the population would have voted to Remain. However, this isn’t necessarily the case. So far, I’ve only highlighted divisions amongst the Leavers, but the Remain voters might also have been influenced by lack of clarity over the options.

No doubt many amongst the 48% who voted to Remain prefer that to either TE or WE. However, it could be that some were simply pessimists about the likely consequences of Brexit. Suppose, for example, that someone would really prefer WE to Remain and Remain to TE (i.e. WE > R > TE). Such a person might nonetheless have voted to Remain if they (pessimistically) thought that Brexit was more likely to result in TE than WE. Had the ballot in fact given the choice between ‘Remain or WE’ then they would have switched their vote from Remain to WE. Likewise, someone whose preferences were TE > R > WE might have voted Remain had they feared that Leave would result in WE.

So, even if some Leavers would have voted Remain, given this choice, it’s also the case that some who actually voted to Remain might have voted to Leave, given a more concrete proposal. For all the talk about ‘respecting the will of the people’ the problem is that there are more than two options. The referendum didn’t really present a choice between two clear options, but rather a choice between the status quo and a mystery box. Now we’ve chosen to open the box, what’s inside is still unclear.

Though the referendum was not legally binding, I think it would be politically impossible for the government to ignore the result. The problem, however, with respecting the will of the people is identifying what it is that the people want. Given that the only really clear outcome of the referendum is that the people are deeply divided, and that both the Conservative Party and Labour Party have been plunged into leadership contests, probably the only certainty is that the political landscape will be unsettled for some time.

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