Saturday, May 16, 2020

Freedom from Parties

Speaking of freedom, as I was the other day, this local news piece is interesting. It's about police breaking up a large house party, but their intervention is not what's portrayed as restricting freedom. Rather, one anonymous local resident is quoted as saying:

"How disgusting it is for these scum to use that treasured day [VE Day] as an excuse to break many laws and impinge on the personal freedom of a quiet residential area. Welcome to the lawless Wild West of Southampton."

It seems odd to speak of the personal freedom of a quiet residential area, rather than of people, but perhaps this is simply shorthand for the residents of said area. But it also seems odd, to me, to phrase the complaint in terms of personal freedom at all. One certainly can - they were not free to sleep, because of the noise - but I don't know whether the language of freedom helps here.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Freedom and Liberty

If I'm teaching freedom again, then this piece - about 'liberate' protests against lockdown - looks like it could make for an interesting (though probably not by then so topical) discussion piece. As the author puts it:

"Liberty is a type of freedom defined and limited by civil society. It is not an unrestrained, unchecked license to do whatever one desires. Rather, liberty is a right constituted by the society — or, here, nation — one lives in."

This would pair nicely with Bernard Williams' essay 'From Freedom to Liberty', which makes a similar distinction between 'primitive freedom' and 'liberty as a political value' (though it's been a while since read this piece and I don't recall it being very accessible).

Friday, April 24, 2020

Publication: Against Detaching the Duty to Vote

I've not had much time for research lately, but a paper that's been in the works for a while has just appeared in print in the latest issue - 82(2) - of The Journal of Politics. (I'm afraid this is, as ever, restricted to subscribers.)

Here's a word cloud, indicating the content:
If you prefer the more traditional abstract, here it is:

Many people believe that citizens of a democracy have a duty to vote, yet this overlooks an important distinction between voting well and voting badly. Those who vote well may be doing what they ought to do, but it does not follow that those who vote badly are doing anything that they ought to do. While one cannot vote well unless one votes, a duty to vote as such cannot be detached from a more particular duty to vote well. Thus, even if there is an obligation to vote well, there may be no obligation to vote simpliciter.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Turnout thresholds violate monotonicity

I thought I'd share some number-crunching that I've just prepared for a lecture. Since this year's Democratic Theory students were disrupted by industrial action, even before lockdown, I figured that I'd use the strike ballots as a topical example.

By law, a strike ballot needs 50% turnout. Here are the results from October 2019 ballots. (If the link doesn't work, there's a redirect:

Let's focus on the LSE:

241/602 (40%)
206 (86%)
33 (14%)
361/602 (60%)
206 (57%)
153 (43%)

The actual result (top row) meant that the motion failed, owing to insufficient turnout, despite having 86% support from those who voted.

However, this means that had an extra 120 people voted against the motion - the possibility illustrated on the bottom line - it would have passed. (Actually, around 60 would have been enough to hit the 50% turnout threshold - and it could have been as many as 172 without changing the majority outcome.)

It's perverse that more people voting against something makes it happen. However, this isn't unique to strike ballots. A similar situation arose in a 2018 referendum in (the Former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonia (BBC; Wikipedia).

Saturday, April 04, 2020

A REAL postcode lottery

Long-time readers will probably remember my aversion to the phrase 'postcode lottery' (e.g. here, here, and here). This is usually wheeled out whenever people in one place are treated differently from those in another.

The trouble with this, of course, is that postcodes are not allocated by lottery. These inequalities are usually down to different local jurisdictions making different decisions. Whether that's justifiable or not, it shouldn't be conflated with a lottery, which can be an appropriate way to allocate a scarce resource.

Anyway, I've made this point enough times. The actual reason for this post is to advertise something that actually is a lottery, namely Pick My Postcode (formerly known as the Free Postcode Lottery).

The idea is simple: every day a number of postcodes are picked (there are several different draws). If you're registered, then all you have to do is visit each day to see whether you've been picked. If you have, then you could win tens, hundreds, or even thousands of pounds (depending on the draw and rollovers).

Chances of winning aren't that high and the prize amounts are mostly modest, but it's funded by site advertising so it's entirely free - the only cost is the time it takes to check each day.

If you'd like to join, the link above (and again here) is my affiliate/referral link, although I don't actually expect to receive any benefit - any commission is paid only as a 'bonus' that I won't receive unless I win the draw. Still, you never know. It my (letters and) numbers could come up some day...

Friday, March 20, 2020

Ethicists on the dilemma of who should get treated

A friend pointed me to this piece, which is noteworthy mostly for how bad it is. Its main message seems to be that different moral theories all agree on trying to save as many lives as possible. However, this is not necessarily the case.

First, utilitarianism:

Utilitarianism, for example, argues that morality is determined by the consequences of actions, and so we should strive to create the maximum good for the maximum number of people.

The trouble with this is that the greatest good need not coincide with the most lives saved. We might instead think of life years saved. Suppose, for instance, we have the choice between saving two 70 year olds, each of whom will live another ten years, or one 40 year old, who will live another forty years. It's certainly plausible that the latter does more good.

Incidentally, the same paragraph quotes Lydia Dugdale*, saying "It’s not fair to distribute scarce resources in a way that minimizes lives saved". I guess not, but it's not clear what relevance this has here. Is anyone arguing that we ought to minimize the number of lives saved? I rather doubt it. The question is whether we ought to maximize the number of lives saved. Denying that is not the same as saying that we ought to minimize lives saved. (Also, it's questionable what role the notion of fairness is playing here.)

Next, they turn to social contract theory, here quoting Joshua Parker* who - they say - has an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics (in fact, so far as I can see, it's only a blog post) and Alex John London*. After briefly explaining Rawls's veil of ignorance, they say:

Such agents [behind a veil] might agree that in a pandemic, when not everyone can be saved, health care systems should use their resources to save as many lives as possible—because that is the strategy that allows each person a fair chance of being able to pursue their life plan.

Again though, this is contentious. Does this really give everyone a fair chance? Not obviously, when compared to something like a lottery or, perhaps, priority to the young. Harsanyi's version of the original position would result in this utilitarian-style reasoning, but Rawls's social contract isn't really designed to be applied to plicy decisions like this in the first place and, if it were, they might prefer a lottery to gambling on a policy of 'saving as many lives as possible' which appears to ignore the separateness of persons (this was Rawls's famous critique of utilitarianism).

Despite this, they go on to suggest that "“even the most die-hard deontologist will usually agree” that it’s wrong to treat people who are unlikely to benefit while others are in need" - the quotation is attributed to Brian D. Earp*, though it's not clear whether this accurately represents whatever he told them, given that they've re-worded whatever it is that the deontologist is supposed to agree with.

Anyway, supposing this is accurate, all it says is that it's wrong to engage in futile treatment. But this doesn't mean that we must save as many lives as possible either. Suppose we can try to treat Person A or Persons B and C, each of whom would receive a (likely) benefit from treatment. It's consistent with what Earp says to treat A. Even though this may lead to more deaths overall, A is not someone 'unlikely to benefit'.

(Incidentally, this recalls John Taurek's famous discussion of whether it's better to save one person, whom he calls David, or five others. Taurek suggests that he would toss a coin in such a case, since each person has their own life to live or lose.)

Quoting Dugdale again, they do mention some alternatives: first-come first-serve, lottery, physician clinical judgment, and prioritizing certain patients such as health care workers were explored but found to be either too subjective or failed to save the most lives. (A point that gets reiterated a few paragraphs later.)

But pointing out that these measures fail to save the most lives is question begging (in the proper sense of that term), because what's being discussed here is whether or not that should be our objective in the first place. Someone advocating a lottery, on the ground that it gives each (prospective) patient an equal chance to receive treatment, is unlikely to be moved by the fact that it 'fails' to save the most lives. It doesn't do this, but that isn't really a failure when it was never the objective in the first place. They might as well reply that a policy of saving as many as possible fails to give everyone an equal chance.

I've not commented on everything, but there's a lot of bad philosophy in this short piece.

*I've named various ethicists quoted in the article but, just to be clear, I don't mean to attribute any errors to them. It's entirely possible that their words are taken out of context or misunderstood by journalists.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

A vaccine/pandemic reading list

A few years back, I spent a week of my ethics of public policy (PAIR6040) module on vaccines. I'd originally planned to focus on compulsory vaccination, but wasn't able to find much written on that at the time, so I ended up covering how to allocate vaccines in case a pandemic led to scarcity. I've since dropped the topic from the module entirely, but it might be worth reintroducing it next year.

In any case, here's a copy of the reading list:

Marcel Verweij (2009) ‘Moral Principles for Allocating Scarce Medical Resources in an Influenza Pandemic’ Journal of Bioethical Inquiry 6: 159—169.

Ezekial J. Emanuel and Alan Wertheimer (2006) ‘Who Should Get Influenza Vaccine When Not All Can?’ Science 312: 854—855.

Hugh V. McLachlan (2012) ‘A Proposed Non-consequentialist Policy for the Ethical Distribution of Scarce Vaccination in the face of an Influenza Pandemic’ Journal of Medical Ethics 38: 317—318.

Alasdair Wardrope (2012) ‘Scarce Vaccine Supplies in an Influenza Pandemic should Not be Distributed Randomly: Reply to McLachlan’ Journal of Medical Ethics 38(12): 765—767.

Kristy Buccieri and Stephen Gaetz (2013) ‘Ethical Vaccine Distribution Planning for Pandemic Influenza: Prioritizing Homeless and Hard-to-Reach Populations’ Public Health Ethics 6(2): 185—196.

Martin Peterson (2008) ‘The Moral Importance of Selecting People Randomly’ Bioethics 22(6): 321-327.

Matthew K. Wynia (2006) ‘Ethics and Public Health Emergencies: Rationing Vaccines’ American Journal of Bioethics 6(6): 4-7.

Jeroen Luyten, Antoon Vendevelde, Pierre Van Damme, and Philippe Beutels (2011) ‘Vaccination Policy and Ethical Challenges Posed by Herd Immunity, Suboptimal Uptake and Subgroup Targeting’ Public Health Ethics 4(3): 280—291.

Unfortunately, most if not all of this will be 'quarantined' behind journal paywalls, unless any of them are being particularly good at opening this research to the public (as some journals are doing with Covid19 work).

There's a crowd-sourced, interdisciplinary reading list here.

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

New look

Amazingly, this blog is approaching 15 years old. I don't update as actively as I used to, but I still plan to keep it, if only as a repository of useful links for my own benefit. Anyway, I thought the layout and design was starting to show its age - and often rather cluttered.

I've selected a new theme, which to my mind looks a lot cleaner. It seems to have come at the loss of my 'blogroll' but many of those links were dead anyway. If there are actually any readers out there, then any comments on the new look at welcome. Especially any relating to navigation on other devices. (I assume the standard templates should be fine, but I haven't been able to test this myself.)

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Review: The Case for Community Wealth Building

I'm cross-posting a review that I originally wrote on Amazon:

The Enlightenment philosopher David Hume famously remarked that his Treatise on Human Nature “fell dead-born from the [printing] press”. I’m afraid that, given recent political developments, this short book may suffer the similar fate of being dead on arrival.

The back cover carries endorsements from Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. Hardly surprising, given that much of the book is devoted to outlining and defending Corbyn’s economic model. However, whatever one thinks of this vision, it seems that its time has already passed.

The book carries a copyright date of 2020, but I could see no clear indication of when the text was actually written. Nonetheless, when the authors write (on p. 107) of the opportunity “in the unknown amount of time between now and the next UK general election” I assume this must have been before the 2019 election was called. Thus, the election referred to has already happened. With Labour losing that election (heavily), and Corbyn soon to be replaced as leader, it is hard to avoid concluding that whatever opportunity there was for this radical new economic model – at least on a national level – has gone.

Much, if not all, of this book is written as a call from those on the left of the political spectrum to others on the left, encouraging them to seize the opportunity created by recent crises to implement a new economic settlement. Pitched in such a manner, it’s probably unlikely to find much favour outside of Corbynistic circles. That’s probably a shame though, since – at least if the authors are right – the idea of community wealth building has much to recommend it across the political spectrum. However, the chances of anyone taking up these ideas now seem slim.

The book consists of three main chapters, which in turn address the history, justification, and potential of community wealth building. I have to say that it assumes a certain familiarity with politics and economics, for instance what is meant by Keynesianism or the neoliberal economic paradigm. Even though I consider myself more than averagely informed, I was still a little unclear on what exactly community wealth building means after the first chapter. There’s a list of principles, on p. 84, that might have been more useful in the first chapter. (Incidentally, the text introduces “eight principles” of the Democracy Collaborative, but the list that follows includes only seven.)

The second chapter was probably the most interesting, at least in my view. Here, the authors seek to defend community wealth building arguing that, even if it is less economically efficient than unregulated markets (a point that they dispute), it is a means for ordinary citizens to ‘take back control’ over their lives. Existing democratic structures seem relatively powerless in the face of global economic forces. Democratising the economy, however, offers ordinary workers the chance to have a say over decisions that affect their lives. Again, I would expect much of this to appeal not only to the radical left but also to at least some in the centre and even on the right, at least to the extent that a remodelled economy of the sort proposed here should then involve less state interference.

Unfortunately, as I remarked at the outset, the chapter on the prospects for community wealth building seems to hang its hopes on the opportunity for a Corbyn-led Labour government. While it does note that some progress can be made at local levels, without a change of national government (p. 112), even this seems to assume that Labour will be the party of change. Thus, while this book was intended as an optimistic manifesto for radical change, it now reads like an account of what might have been. An opportunity missed, perhaps – we may never know.

While this review is not entirely positive, if you still want to buy the book then you can do so from Amazon (affiliate link).

Disclaimer: I do know one of the authors.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

CoE position on sex and marriage

The Church of England holds the view that sex is only for married heterosexuals. Even opposite-sex civil partnerships don't qualify in the eyes of God it seems. This will be relevant when teaching both sex and marriage in future years.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Taking Back Control

Labour leadership contender (possibly) Clive Lewis has called for a referendum on the future of the monarchy, abolition of the House of Lords, and the introduction of proportional representation.

I'll be teaching democratic theory again next semester (starting in a few weeks), so this is topical...