Thursday, April 04, 2019

David Davis on Referendums

Back in 2002:

"Referendums should be held when the electorate are in the best possible position to make a judgment. They should be held when people can view all the arguments for and against and when those arguments have been rigorously tested. In short, referendums should be held when people know exactly what they are getting. So legislation should be debated by Members of Parliament on the Floor of the House, and then put to the electorate for the voters to judge.
We should not ask people to vote on a blank sheet of paper and tell them to trust us to fill in the details afterwards. For referendums to be fair and compatible with our parliamentary process, we need the electors to be as well informed as possible and to know exactly what they are voting for. Referendums need to be treated as an addition to the parliamentary process, not as a substitute for it."


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Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Which 'constituency' should MPs be responsive to?

According to Edmund Burke, MPs should exercise their own judgement, rather than being beholden to what 'the people' want. Many disagree. But even if we accept that MPs should do what 'the people' tell them, it is still an open question which people they should listen to.

I'm getting to Burke in my lectures in a couple of weeks, but this is such a good example that I may have to save it for then...

Gerard McMullan says: "The DUP are representing their constituents, their constituents told them, 'We want to Remain.' The DUP don't represent the UK, they represent Northern Ireland. And Northern Ireland say they want to stay."
Adam Petticrew says: "People voted to leave so we have to leave.... I think it's a joke that the DUP get to decide [what's going to happen] because the people decided already what's to happen. The DUP should be doing what the people said - they want to leave. Northern Ireland is part of the UK and on the whole the UK wanted to leave."
This touches on another point, namely whether MPs should pursue the national interest or the interests of their constituents. Burke thought that MPs should pursue what they think is in the national interest, but one might disagree on both points or only on one of them. This gives at least four options:
A. MPs should make their own independent judgement of the national interest.
B. MPs should make their own independent judgement of their constituents' interests.
C. MPs should accept the people's view of the national interest.
D. MPs should accept their constituents' view of their local interests.
(Obviously, this could be further complicated. I assume that if MPs are to promote the national interest, but not exercise their own judgement, then they should respond to the national vote. But, in principle, they could do what their constituents think is in the national interest.)

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Friday, November 16, 2018

Liam Fox channels Edmund Burke

I'll be teaching the trustee-delegate debate as part of my democratic theory module next semester, so here's a convenient example: Liam Fox saying "We are not elected to do what we want to do, but to do what is in the national interest".

Of course, no one defends the view that representatives should do whatever they want. The crucial question is whether they should exercise their own judgement as to what's in the national interest or accept the people's verdict.

Fox seems to agree with Burke, in suggesting that they focus on the national interest (rather than particular interests, such as their constituency), but perhaps to disagree on whether they ought to exercise independent judgement. Burke famously argued that MPs should make their own minds up about what is in the national interest.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Publication: Altruism and Organ Donation

My latest paper just appeared in print here (subscription required). Here's a word cloud illustrating the content:

And, for those interested, here is the abstract:

It has traditionally been assumed that organ donation must be altruistic, though the necessity of altruistic motivations has recently been questioned. Few, however, have questioned whether altruism is always a good motive. This paper considers the possibility that excessive altruism, or self-abnegation, may be intrinsically bad. How this may be so is illustrated with reference to Tom Hurka’s account of the value of attitudes, which suggests that disproportionate love of one’s own good – either excessive or deficient – is intrinsically bad. Whether or not we accept the details of this account, recognising that altruistic motivations may be intrinsically bad has important implications for organ procurement. One possible response is to say that we should take further measures to ensure that donors have good motives – that they are altruistic is no longer enough. An alternative is to say that, since altruistic donation need not be intrinsically good, we have less reason to object to other motivations.

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Thursday, September 13, 2018

Cats and Dogs

I commented recently on proposals to ban the consumption of dog meat in the UK. I don't know whether this is really going anyway - I suspect our political class have greater concerns right now. However, it seems that the US House has just passed a bill penalizing consumption of dogs or cats (with exemptions for native religious customs).

Again, the logic seems to be that these animals ought not to be slaughtered because of how beloved they are by people. It doesn't seem to be based on anything like intelligence, since pigs seem to be as smart as dogs (see here and here).

According to what moral system does an animal's right not to be slaughtered depend on its popularity?

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Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Food Choices and Voluntariness

While making some updates and changes to my Ethics of Public Policy module, I decided to change one of the core readings on the food topic. I use a piece by Sarah Conly arguing for paternalistic interventions, but wanted to pair it with something defending a more traditional liberal approach.

I found this piece by Alex Rajczi, which outlines some fairly standard liberal positions, for instance denying that voluntary self-harm is a reason for government interference. There are, however, two arguments that he does give some credence to, both suggesting that people's unhealthy choices are not substantially voluntary.

First, he suggests that people may lack the necessary information to make good choices (by their own lights). For instance, calorie information is not always easy to find or may be difficult to interpret. Rajczi argues that this is not itself reason to ban unhealthy food, since there are less intrusive measures available, such as better food labelling.

This is topical, since it seems there's currently disagreement between the Department for Health and the Treasury over proposals to require restaurants to provide calorie information. (See BBC report here.) The main argument against this proposal seems to be economic - the cost to small businesses in particular - though the article also raises the interesting point that calorie labelling can exacerbate eating disorders. I'd like to see the evidence mentioned, but not specifically referenced, in the article. It does raise an interesting health vs. health conflict though.

The second argument that Rajczi gives some credence to says that people's food choices are non-voluntary because they cannot afford to eat more healthily. As it happens, this is also in the news at the moment. According to this story, 3.7 million children live in homes struggling to afford a decent, healthy diet.

Rajczi considers that some of us may live in an unjust nutritional environment. This is not immediately obvious, since it depends on what theory of justice one subscribes to. On some, such as libertarianism or luck egalitarianism, the inability to afford healthy food is not itself sufficient to establish injustice. However, one need only accept some kind of sufficientarian minimal safety net - and not full-blown egalitarianism - in order to think that this is unjust.

Again, Rajczi argues that the appropriate response to this problem is not to ban unhealthy foods, or even to tax them (which, by increasing the cost, exacerbates problems for the poor), but rather addresses the affordability of healthy food. Rajczi proposes either income/wealth redistribution or subsidies for healthy foods.*

*There's an unfortunate typo in the last sentence before the concluding section, which actually says subsidies for unhealthy foods. In context, this is obviously a mistake, though I took the trouble to confirm that with him.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2018

For the Dogs

It seems that there's sufficient concern around dog meat that some people want the UK to ban its consumption.

I'm unclear what could justify singling out dogs in particular. If the UK really is a nation of animal lovers, then I'd have thought more people would be vegetarian - but, even then, I'm not sure it would be legitimate for the state to ban the consumption of meat.

But to argue for a ban on dog meat, while happily eating pigs, cows, etc, seems hypocritical.

J. S. Mill argued that, if Muslims were a majority, they would have no right to ban the eating of pork, simply because they find it abhorrent. The same seems to apply, mutatis mutandis, to dog meat.

Edit: see also this later post on US measures.

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