Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Is self-isolation a political obligation?

Political obligation has often been characterised as an obligation to obey the laws of the state, but this understanding has been challenged by a number of theorists who have argued that it ought instead to be conceived of as something like an obligation to promote the common good of one's community - something that may, ordinarily, require obedience to the law but that might also require other things and even, in some cases, perhaps breaking the law.

I was just reading a BBC article about the 'pingdemic' - that is, the rising number of people being told to self-isolate. Like a number of other government 'guidelines', it seems that this is not a legal obligation:

So, according to the traditional understanding of political obligation - which focuses only on obeying the laws - complying with this instruction or request would have nothing to do with our political obligations.


However, I suspect that many people think that there would be reasons (not necessarily overriding ones) to isolate and that these would in some sense be political. Certainly, they could be justified by a number of traditional arguments for political obligations, such as a duty of fair play, associative obligations, or Samaritan duties.


Indeed, in this other piece, Mr Scully elaborates:

This looks like a political, if not a legal, obligation - and a useful example for my first-year module later in the year.

Monday, July 19, 2021

And freedom for all...?

Today, 19th July 2021, most of the pandemic-related legal restrictions in England are lifted. That is, we're finally out of lockdown, with work and shops returning to normal(ish) and masks a matter of 'personal responsibility' rather than government mandate. This has already come to be known as 'freedom day' - although even this terminology is another piece of propaganda


There are different views on whether or not it's wise to relax restrictions at this point, given rising numbers of cases. And Frances Ryan has pointed out, in the Guardian, that freedom for the majority may come at the expense of vulnerable groups. What particularly caught my eye though is this piece pointing out that allowing one person the freedom NOT to social distance can conflict with someone else's desire TO maintain social distance.


This, of course, is just a new example of conflicting rights. For instance, if I want to meditate quietly in my room, but my neighbour wants to practice drumming in hers, then we can't both get what we want. If she's allowed to play her drums, then my ability to meditate is frustrated. On the other hand, if I can somehow enforce silence, then her desires are frustrated.

I know that there are various treatments of this out there in the literature - I think Sen discusses such cases somewhere - though I don't know of any simple answers. 


The authors of the above piece claim that "We cannot be free to restrict the freedom of others" but, as my last example shows, this may be impossible. Given the conflicting preference, any law that we adopt will involve frustrating or restricting one of the individuals. This applies to the social distancing case, as well as the drumming one.

It seems that we cannot avoid some choice as to whose freedom should have priority. The authors suggest that we should protect the freedom to social distance, ending with the remark that "We should all hold dominion over our own bodies and our own health: no-one should have the power to choose what we are happy to subject our own bodies to or the risks we are willing to take with our own health."


Perhaps this is the right answer, but it doesn't seem to be the right reason. How close I am to you, or you are to me (the other side of the same coin), is not simply a choice over my own body. There's no obvious reason why I should be the one to make that choice, any more than you. 


Nor, of course, can we say that the choice should be whichever of us wants the most distance, since one of us may have an unreasonable aversion to social contact. Suppose I want you not to come within 100m of me. Absent some particular circumstances (for instance, justifying a restraining order) this would be too much of an imposition on your freedom.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Joint Sessions talks

The annual Joint Sessions conference is taking place this weekend. It's online, unsurprisingly, but also much of it - all the open sessions - is actually asynchronous, with talks pre-recorded and available for viewing and commenting at any time. No need to worry about parallel panels clashing but, on the other hand, I doubt that most will receive many comments in this format.

Still, my talk - on a democratic version of voter licensing - is on Youtube. I've tried embedding it below, but it looks weirdly cropped so it may not work. If it doesn't, follow this link to view the original.

This is a shorter version of the paper that I gave at Brave New World, but was actually recorded back at the end of May. I already have some idea of ways that I would like to change it, but I'm holding off on a re-write for now in case I get more comments or ideas.

I've been trying to watch several other people's videos and found some pretty interesting.

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Coin tosses and penalties: Italy in Euro 1968

I was aware of some cases of club football matches being decided (pre-penalty shootouts) by coin tosses. I've blogged about some of these before (e.g. here and here).

Thanks to the BBC, I've just learned (I think this is new to me, unless I knew it and forgot) that Italy reached the final of Euro 1968 after beating the Soviet Union by coin toss.

Another example of a match being settled by a genuine lottery.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Accents and pronunciation

I meant to write a post a couple of weeks ago on this story about accent bias. It reports that Essex accents were judged 'less intelligent' than others in a survey - though it seems the study only looked at London and home counties accents and didn't include other accents, such as Brummie or various northern accents.

Accent bias can not only unfairly affect an individual's job prospects, but even democratic politics.

I didn't get round to a post at the time, largely because much of my time has been spent on marking lately, but I was reminded of that study by this column on mispronunciation. The author is professor of phonetics and has lots of interesting things to say about why certain mistakes come about (e.g. 'expresso' instead of 'espresso').

However, the last section of the column moves from how language changes to making normative claims about prejudice and discrimination. "Correcting pronunciation can actually be an act of linguistic prejudice." I suppose it could be, but it isn't clear that it has to be or even that this is the normal case. Though she acknowledges that correcting a language-learner may be different, it seems that how and why someone corrects someone else makes a big difference here.

She ends by remarking on 'accent prejudice' which is indeed alive and well, as demonstrated by the BBC story I mentioned earlier, but it's something of a non-sequitor. There's a difference between who someone pronounces a word differently, because of their accent (which they will share with a wider group), and idiosyncratic mispronunciations. You might think that there's something objectionably elitist about correcting even the latter, but that doesn't follow from the fact that it's wrong to correct the former. 

(For the record, I was born and raised in Essex, but I'm not sure I really have an Essex accent any more. On the other hand, I'm regularly unsure how to pronounce words that I'm more used to seeing in print.)

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Regulating women's behaviour

 The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recently published a first draft 'global action plan' on alcohol. (The preceding link is to something like an online press release; the actual draft plan can currently be found here.)

One thing that has caused particular controversy - such as this report - is the following sentence from p. 17 (emphasis added):

"Appropriate attention should be given to prevention of the initiation of drinking among children and adolescents, prevention of drinking among pregnant women and women of childbearing age, and protection of people from pressures to drink, especially in societies with high levels of alcohol consumption where heavy drinkers are encouraged to drink even more."

Now, it isn't clear (at least on a brief look) exactly what this is supposed to mean. It certainly doesn't seem to propose anything like banning women of childbearing age from consuming alcohol. But, all the same, this is a sweeping statement, suggesting that most women shouldn't consume alcohol, even if they haven't had sex and therefore are not pregnant.

The Metro coverage quotes Matt Lambert (a remark apparently from the Telegraph, but behind a paywall) describing this as "being sexist and paternalistic, and potentially restricting the freedoms of most women".

I wouldn't agree that it's paternalistic, since paternalism usually refers (roughly) to preventing an agent from harming herself. In this case, the guideline isn't to protect the women themselves, but their children. That isn't really paternalism, even if it is unjustified.

Sunday, May 30, 2021


I haven't been up to much of interest this month, largely due to a pile of marking and the fact that I'm still waiting for a vaccine appointment, but I did start painting the first bits of my Stargrave Nickstarter and some odd bits of loot and scenery, including this mysterious alien portal:

I was quite pleased with the composition here, though I had to borrow my partner's phone to take the photo as there's a problem with my camera and/or its memory card, so expect fewer pictures until I have that resolved.