Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Amartya Sen

As I mentioned yesterday, from Peter Singer to Amartya Sen...

Sadly I was sat right at the back of the Sheldonian and Sen's voice in particular didn't carry well (particularly when he went 'off script' to make jokes), so I found it a bit hard to follow in places. The topic was about theories of justice, and predictably plugged the capabilities approach and his general view that incompleteness need not be a problem. He argued that if the same conclusion can be justified by different theories, then we don't need to worry any more.

He did, however, present an interesting case involving three children claiming a flute - one on grounds only they can play it (possibly some kind of Walzer-ian style claim internal to the nature or social meaning of the thing, possibly merely a form of efficiency argument), one on grounds that they have no other toys to play with (a point based in welfare - equality or priority), and one on grounds she made it (a libertarian entitlement). Any of those claims, presented in itself, may seem a sufficient claim, but while they may coincide in this case that don't, and while each can accept the others' grounds, it isn't clear who should get the flute.

The more fundamental point of the lectures was to argue that a theory of justice should not only present an ideal but allow us to make comparative judgements about whether X is more just than Y and be impartial between all people (i.e. a form of global justice, rather than impartiality only between 'insiders' to a contract).

Colin Farrelly also has a report, here.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Peter Singer

Today I went to the first of Peter Singer's Uehiro lectures. I turned up at 4pm, to help arrange things and direct people around, and it was jsut as well because the place did begin filling up from then - there were still seats in the main theatre at the recommended arrival time (4:30), but late arrivals had to make do with a video link up from another room.

He didn't really say much new about global poverty to be honest - though I was shocked to learn the one billion people living on less than a dollar a day is measured by purchasing power parity. Other than that, this lecture was largely setting the scene, though he also argued - against libertarian claims that we don't owe the Third World anything since we didn't inflict harm on them - that we may have harmed the world's poorer countries through colonization, global trade practices (including buying natural resources off blatantly corrupt governments) and global warming.

A particularly pleasant surprise was finding my old (in two senses) tute partner Stuart and his wife in the audience. They were in Oxford for a few days, and took me out for dinner in the KA - in return for which I was able to tip them off about Sen's public lecture in the Sheldonian tomorrow. (UPDATE: report here)

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Adam's Visit

Today my old flatmate Adam was visiting Oxford. The rain put paid to some plans, most notably punting. We did take advantage of free Ben & Jerry's ice cream at the Union (still trying to get my money's worth). Then we browsed Blackwells for a bit - I bought books by Raz, Bertram and White, trying to take advantage of my college book grant - before going to formal hall. (It's been ages since I paid for formal. Thankfully the Quorn savoy turned out to be quite good - pieces of Quorn, in rice, peas, sweetcorn and a few other bits...) We finished the evening with a quiet drink in an otherwise deserted college bar.

Contemporary Political Philosophy

Having just been asked by a friend whether I had any old essays or notes for Jerry's Contemporary Political Philosophy course, I notice he's radically changed the schedule - the new programme (Ox only) covers much the same topics but includes some Arneson, Christiano's essay and Singer on famine.

Too bad that I missed the session on Christiano, but I would be tempted to go this week, except that (unless the time has already been changed for this very reason) the discussion of Singer on famine clashes with the man himself talking about it in the Uehiro lectures (I suppose if anyone's turned away, it may be worth popping over to All Souls).

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Summer VIIIs

Today I went to see my old flatmate Pavel row for the Vikings (picture here). They bumped today, cementing their place in a higher division, but missed blades. At least now they're not only in the same division as the mens seconds, but have a fixed place for next year.

Cricket and Bentham

Interesting to see discussion of utilitarianism come up during the test match coverage (see at 1404, 1421, and 1436) - even if it was quite an easy question.

Jobs Update

Yesterday I put in an application for the post of Junior Dean at Jesus. That aside, I haven't seen many new opportunities. My weekly email does feature these three, but all seem to expect a completed PhD.

Lecturer in Democracy and the Media, Leeds Met. Further particulars. Deadline 7th June.

Post-doctoral Teaching Fellow, Philosophy and Ethics, Liverpool Hope. Further particulars. Deadline 15th June.

One year Lectureship in Politics (and here), University of Reading. Further particulars. Deadline 1st June.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Nietzsche on Definition

This may be the first and last time I blog about Nietzsche, but... Yesterday Jo Wolff mentioned Nietzsche had said something along the lines of 'no concept with a history can be defined'. Some Googling has turned up this: "all concepts in which an entire process is semiotically concentrated defy definition; only something which has no history can be defined" (GM II 13), here (p.59).

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

AC Milan 2-1 Liverpool

Obviously, losing a Champions League final (or any final) is never good, but at the end of the day Milan only did to us what we did to them in 2005. I'm happy to have been there - something Chelsea or Man Utd would have loved. And I hope that we have a core of players who, with some squad re-building, can win us this trophy again...

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Lotteries, Equal Consideration and Unequal Outcomes

Here's something I've been writing recently, drawing largely on discussion with Jerry Cohen after his last two lectures:

Amartya Sen’s seminal essay ‘Equality of What?’ distinguishes between utilitarian equal consideration of equal utilities and views that aim at equality of some outcome, whether equal total utility, resources or his proposal capabilities. If we believe, as almost all now do, in the equality of all people, then that grounds something like equal concern. This seems to be the form of equality common to utilitarianism, Dworkin’s ‘equal concern and respect’ and Rawls’ original position – none of which end up endorsing any equality of outcome, except coincidentally. Indeed, I fail to see how equality of outcome necessarily follows. There may be some goods where equality of outcome is a necessary consequence of equal consideration, for example votes – ‘one person, one vote’ is so appealing because if you have two votes then my vote is worth less. There may be a similar danger with great inequalities of money – if you have a great fortune, it may increase prices such that I can buy less with what I have. In general, however, this is not the case when it comes to distributing things – even if you have three cars, it doesn’t make my car any less useful to me. As such, I see no objection to inequality where it reflects equal concern for each person.

We are concerned not simply with formal equality. Arguably the Nazis showed equal concern for each of the Jews they gassed – the problem was, it wasn’t enough concern – and John Broome notes that, where we can save only one of two people, equality is satisfied by saving neither. What we must do is show positive – indeed, I would argue, maximal – concern for each. So, suppose we have eight units of good to distribute between two persons. It would be wrong, I claim, though equal, to give them two units each and destroy the other four. We care about the distribution of this stuff because it is a good, each person would prefer more of it, and so that is a reason for us to prefer greater totals.

If we care about the amount of good each person gets, this can lead us away from equality. Suppose we can bring it about that person A has up to four units of good, and that person B has up to eight units – but what each has is independent of what the other gets (we cannot redistribute between them). In this case, we should show each maximal concern by fulfilling their potential – that is, giving A four and B eight, or, as I shall write, (4,8). This departs from equality, but (4,4) would be little better than (3,3) – it fails to show B maximal concern, because it gives her less than she could have, though it does no benefit to A. But, since we have shown maximum concern for A, by giving him as much as possible too, there is no reason for this Pareto suboptimal levelling down.

Now suppose that we are dealing with ‘lumpy’ – or not continuously divisible – goods, such that the only possible distributions are (4,8) and (8,4). In this case, equal concern for each party is reflected by tossing a coin. If we can do this, we may still regret that goods weren’t perfectly divisible, but there is no reason to prefer (4,4) to randomly allocating the extra four units to either of the parties. To choose the lower total, when either of them could have had extra good, would not be to show either of them maximum concern. (Remember that I am talking about goods where A’s larger holding doesn’t diminish the value of B’s).

It may be objected that, if we aim to maximize, we will collapse back into some form of consequentialism. That is, suppose our maximum feasible distributions are (5,4) or (4,7) – with the highest possible equality (4,4) – in this case, it follows from my argument that we should reject the Pareto inferior equality. Does it follow that we have to prefer (4,7)? No, for this would be to accept impersonal maximization that ignores the ‘separateness of persons’. Rawls is right to point out that B’s gain is no benefit or compensation to A. If our only options were (4,4) or (4,7) then choosing the latter would be to benefit B without in any way harming A. If we choose (4,7) over the available alternative of (5,4), however, we deny A some potential benefit, simply to bestow a greater benefit on B.

Here, as in a choice between (5,4) and (4,5), I believe we should toss a coin. This gives each of A and B an equal chance of their maximal satisfaction. Fairness does not require us to maximize aggregate good – simply because B could have even more is not always reason for A to accept less than he could have. This approach has the advantage of restricting the need for interpersonal comparison – there is no need for one to be able to measure whether B’s potential is actually slightly higher than A’s for, provided they are on a par, it is fair to randomize between them. Thus, we can have most of the information we need to choose between social states, simply by looking at ordinal individual preferences: we only need to know that state 1 is better for A and state 2 better for B, without having to say how much so.

I do not think, however, that we should reject all interpersonal comparisons and consign ourselves only to making Pareto improvements. Suppose the case were one better represented as a choice between (5,4) and (4,100) – i.e. a case where we could make A slightly better off or B vastly better off. In this case, I do not think we should toss a coin – but I think A should recognize that B has a greater claim. Interpersonal comparisons may be vague or fuzzy, but sometimes a pairwise comparison will be clear, and in these cases one person’s greater claim can trump another’s.

Lotteries Against Equality of Outcome

I have said there is no reason to prefer (4,4) to a lottery over the possibilities (5,4) and (4,5). Those who insist on some value to people sharing the same fate will resist even this, but insofar as we are maximally concerned for each person I see no justification for settling for less good, especially when we can give each an equal chance to receive the extra (presumably, both parties would agree to the lottery).

One in favour of equality may, however, ask why I only employ the lottery to distribute the odd extra benefit. Why randomize between (5,4) and (4,5) rather than the possibilities (9,0) and (0,9) or tossing a coin for each unit of good individually? If I prefer to randomly allocate only the ninth, odd unit, doesn’t the initial presumption in favour of distributing the first eight units (4,4) display some concern for strict equality of outcome? My answer is no.

Firstly, I do not think we should always favour randomizing (5,4) as opposed to (9,0). Sometimes it may be that a certain threshold is crossed in between five and nine, such that both parties would rather have a 50% chance of nine – even if the alternative was zero – rather than the guaranteed minimum of four. Suppose, for example, that the two parties are explorers lost in a mountainous wilderness, and the nine units represent their nine days’ worth of food. If they know rescue is a week away, then distributing their food (5,4) or (4,5) will result in both of them starving. Maybe their bond of solidarity is such that there is something to be said for this, but surely it would not be irrational or unjust for them to agree to toss a coin and let the winner survive. Suppose, in fact, they hold important military secrets, and it is vital one of them lives to pass these on to their rescuers. Now, it seems that at least one of them should get at least seven days’ food. Perhaps they could still randomize (7,2) rather than (9,0), but two days’ worth of food is of little benefit to one who will starve anyway, whereas it might help the designated survivor (e.g. if aid ends up taking longer than expected). In deciding how to distribute our good, we need to look at what benefit it does and what the parties concerned want.

But imagine a less extreme case. Suppose our Pareto optimal possibilities are (3,5), (4,4) and (5,3) – is there any reason to favour the equality rather than tossing a coin between the two inequalities? Well, either of these options seems to show equal and maximal concern for each party, so in that respect I would argue both are fair. Our reason for preferring (4,4), if we do, is I think the suspicion that it is a better outcome – if, for example, the good exhibits diminishing marginal utility (in the case of resources) or diminishing marginal moral importance (in the case of utility). Of course, this cannot always justify a preference for equality – indeed, if we have reason to suspect increasing marginal importance, then we will have reason to prefer inequality, but this is precisely what I argued in my previous paragraph.

Can a more general reason be given why we are only inclined to randomize the odd unit of good, and not each unit individually? Well, in some circumstances it may simply be that it is quicker and easier to anticipate the expected outcome than to keep tossing coins, but again this defence seems too contingent. However, I want to suggest, the reason that we prefer equality is because we only toss a coin to decide between equal claimants. Suppose someone suggested that we begin by tossing a coin simply for the first unit of the good, and it goes to A. Now, when it comes to allocating the second unit of good, we are no longer faced with equal claimants – rather, A already has one unit and B has none. As I have already suggested, how we respond to this difference depends on the good in question. If we have reason to favour an unequal distribution – as in the starvation case described above – then A’s winning the first unit may be reason to give him the rest. That is, the randomization of the first unit effectively becomes the allocation of it all, as we take possession of this as reason to give him the rest too.

Alternatively, in the kind of cases where we prefer equality, the fact that A got the first unit can be reason to simply give B the second. This does not show any presumption towards equality of outcome, but simply results from showing equal concern for equal claims. If the two parties have equal claims, consistency requires them to be equally satisfied. When neither party has anything, they have equal claims to the first unit – which is why we toss a coin – but once A has that, B may now have a stronger claim to the second unit, since her claim is still unmet whereas A’s has been partly satisfied. Thus the distribution of our nine units may proceed as follows: the first is randomly given to A, the second is directly given to B, the third is randomly given to A, the fourth directly to B, the fifth randomly to B, the sixth directly to A, the seventh randomly to A, the eighth directly to B (thus achieving (4,4) so far), and finally the odd unit gets randomly distributed to A – and, if there was a tenth unit, we would give it to B next. While we are distributing units that come in pairs, there is no reason to actually randomize, since we know whoever gets the first, the other person will get the second. Thus, in practice, we only need to randomize the odd unit.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Penblwydd Hapus i Glynsky!

In honour of our former flatmate's birthday today, Pavel and I recorded him this very special message/tribute.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Liverpool 2-2 Charlton

Well, I was quite worried about this game because, even with a stronger team, it's amazing how often relegated teams start winning as soon as the pressure's off. That Italian u-21 goalkeeper Padelli conceded less than two minutes into his debut probably didn't help either. I hope Reina and Dudek are fit again for the CL final... (I'm not sure, but we may have Carson available again)

Although we did have to come back twice, Benitez' substitutions played a key part - with Kewell's cross nodded on by Kuyt for Alonso to score the first equalizer within about a minute of coming on. Too bad that he took Fowler off for a standing ovation minutes before we won a penalty - a goal in his final game would have been nice, but the substitution better than remembering him for a missed penalty I guess, and at least it gave Kewell a chance to score.

Thoughts will now turn to May 23rd. Personally, I'd be tempted to start Kewell, even though he hasn't yet played 90 mins since his return. The danger of having him on the bench is that he could come on after an hour only to break down or tire. At least if he starts, we can get as much as possible out of him, even if we have to take him off at half time...

My team: Reina; Finnan, Carra, Agger, Riise; Gerrard, Alonso, Masch/Sissoko, Kewell; Kuyt, Crouch. Subs: Carson/Dudek, Arbeloa/Hyypia, Pennant, Sissoko/Masch, Zenden, Bellamy, Fowler.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Sen Lecture in Oxford

There's no Political Theory Research Seminar in 6th week because of this, so some people probably already know, but for the benefit of anyone else I've managed to find the following details:

PROFESSOR AMARTYA SEN will lecture at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, 30 May, in the Sheldonian Theatre. The lecture will be open to the public, and admission is free.
Subject: 'What theory of justice?'

(This is on the special lecture list)

Congratulations to Stuart White

My college advisor has just been awarded a Leverhulme Research Fellowship (beginning April 2008) for a new project on religious exemptionism. This follows his recent book on equality.

Rainy Days

Can anyone tell me why, with spring supposedly getting earlier due to global warming, we've had a dry April followed by the traditional heavy showers in May? Sadly the department sports day organized by John Williams for this afternoon looks like it's fallen through - but at least that gives me chance to mark the bunch of undergraduate collections I received yesterday...

Jobs to Apply For 2

Temporary Lectureship in Philosophy (2 years) at Cambridge. Any AOS, but ability to teach Ancient Philosophy and advantage. Further particulars. Application form. Deadline 25th May.

Lecturer in Political Theory, especially security, development and democracy, though this one does say "you will have a PhD" (it is a permanent post), University of Leeds, POLIS. Deadline 31st May.

Lectureship in Philosophy, "specialising in the areas of embodied/ extended philosophy of mind and ethics (broadly construed)", University of Hertfordshire. Deadline 8th June.

One year, part-time (60%) teaching fellow in Political Theory at UCL. Further particulars. Deadline 8th June.

Possibly this one year stipendiary lectureship at St John's, Oxford, though they want gen phil, logic and history of philosophy. Deadline 6th June. I need to check whether the maternity cover is for Alison Hills...

Friday, May 11, 2007


I was fairly happy with how yesterday's presentation went. Being told it was crazy made me think it was potentially interesting if I could justify my proposal. I was worried that I didn't really have much interesting to say - largely defending myself with 'this is an ad hominem attack, and the same criticisms apply to compulsory voting'.

I've been persuaded that I do need to consider reasons why we might want compulsory/increased turnout - after all, it is possible we may want (nearly) universal turnout and not care about the reasons why people turnout. I also need to make clear that the justification I had in mind for reducing costs was based on forward-looking incentives, rather than backward-looking compensation. It will probably be a while until I get round to making revisions, since it's back to the thesis first, but these points are particularly useful.

The other thing that pleased me was the fact that, after the seminar, we did in fact use lottery-voting - with Sarah's hat - to decide between the King's Arms and University Club. (I lost, so it was back to KA - according to Julia's vote).

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Making Voting Pay

This is the presentation I'm giving later this afternoon:

Some countries, such as Belgium and Australia, already have compulsory voting. Such proposals have been suggested in Britain by the IPPR. In this paper, which has a ‘practical’ rather than ‘philosophical’ focus, I do not dispute the legitimacy of action to increase turnout as such – though some have argued the freedom not to vote is important and turnout provides an important indicator of voter engagement. Rather, I assume that some form of encouraging voting is legitimate, but dispute the claim that the best way to do this is to make it compulsory – instead, I argue, we should incentivize voting.

1) The Alternatives Described
Some countries have compulsory voting laws, but do nothing to enforce them – they can be seen as nothing more than collective endorsement of a citizen’s obligation to vote, although whether they themselves ground a moral duty depends on one’s views on political obligation. My concern is with countries where compulsory voting is enforced. I hold that this coercion is, roughly, a denial of freedom. I will argue that instead of fining non-voters, we should pay people that do vote. Aristotle argued that democracies should pay people for participation, but to my knowledge the suggestion has not been made with regard to contemporary voting.

I do not here specify a figure, but I have in mind a relatively nominal sum – as compensation for the time and effort involved – probably less than fines imposed for non-voting where it is compulsory. While RCT is notoriously bad at predicting voting turnout, it does seem that Probability, Benefit and Cost do play a part in voting decisions, and this compensation should offset the cost, thereby increasing voting without coercion. If the figure seems too low, we could offer people lottery tickets, so each voter stands a chance of winning a more sizeable sum.

2) The Freedom Argument
The defender of compulsory voting can claim that, in fact, all laws interfere with our actions, but in fact we are still as free as before – because we can choose whether or not to vote, we will simply be fined if we do not (this is the claim that threats merely change payoffs, but do not diminish liberty any more than offers). I accept that there is still in fact a free choice – it would, after all, be odd to say someone does votes unfreely given that they could actually have not voted. However, I do not think it is legitimate to impose certain choices on people. The difference between a threat and an offer is that the former wrongs you by making your option set worse.

Suppose I face a choice between X and Y, and I prefer X – that is because X makes me, in some sense, better off. If you threaten to fine me £50 for choosing X, then I may prefer Y, because I prefer Y to X-£50, but I am worse off than I would have been given an uninterfered with choice. On the other hand, if you pay me £20, that may make Y better for me than X. It is not, strictly, that my choice is any more free, but I have been made better off by being presented with a more attractive option.

3) The Equivalence Objection
It will be objected that there is not really any difference between threatening a negative fine and offering a positive inducement, since money cannot come from nowhere – fines could be used to swell the public coffers, reducing the general tax burden, whereas incentive payments would have to be funded by taxing all more heavily. At this point, I should admit I do not find taxation so normatively problematic as some – I think much of our wealth consists in natural resources or inheritance that is relevantly ‘gift-like’ that it can be taxed without threatening people’s rights, and even Nozick objects only to labour taxes, not the poll tax that would presumably be necessary to fund even his minimal state.

Still, it may be held that fines and inducements will have the same net result: e.g. if we have ten people, six of whom vote, then we could pay each of those six £12 for doing so, but would have to tax all ten £7.20 each to pay for this – when the alternative would be to fine the four non-voters £12 and use that money to reduce everyone’s tax burden by £4.80 each. In this case, what’s the difference? Well, firstly, I would argue that framing effects matter. People generally feel their freedom is diminished by a threat or legal requirement to act in a certain way, whereas they are not so threatened by an incentive payment and are unlikely to notice a marginal increase in their taxes. Secondly, I would argue that the incentive system would likely be easier and cheaper to administer – there would be no need to track down non-voters, but it would be easy to give people a cheque as they turned up at the polling station.

4) Is it Wrong to Pay People to Vote?
Most people feel it is obviously wrong to pay people to vote a certain way, because this gives money undue influence in politics. Some would go as far as to say it is wrong to pay people to vote at all. It seems there are two possible reasons for this – one that people should not being paid for doing their duty, the other that for the state to do it violates some sort of principle of neutrality.

4a) The Duty to Vote
Turnout may be seen as an example of the ‘Titmuss trilemma’. We want:
1) No payment for voting.
2) A sufficiently high turnout.
3) Freedom of choice.
These three may be consistent if we postulate that people freely accept an act on a moral duty to vote. However, this doesn’t seem to be the current practice. At the moment, arguably condition 2 is violated – people are left free and the result is low turnout. Those who advocate compulsory voting address turnout by denying freedom (condition 3); I call into question condition 1, suggesting that – just as the US encourages blood donation by paying donors – we could encourage people to give up their time to vote by compensating them for doing so.

The claim that it is wrong to pay people to vote because it is their duty presupposes that people do in fact have a duty to vote, but this is not obvious – certainly an act-utilitarian is unlikely to accept that their voting is likely to maximize expected benefit, while a Kantian need not be able to universalize such a duty – and even if there is a moral reason to vote it need not outweigh competing considerations. In any case, I think it is wrong to say that people should not be paid for doing their duty. Maybe they should not profit from it, but to clarify what I am advocating is mere compensation. Now, perhaps there are some duties that are not really done if one doesn’t pay the cost – e.g. charity – but there are plenty of others where it does not seem the individual has to bear the burden – so, for instance, people are paid while on jury duty, for military service, etc.

It may be argued that if people only vote because they are paid to do so then the benefits, such as personal moral development, will be undermined. Psychological studies have shown that even if people are paid for things they would do anyway, they may come to regard that activity as ‘work’, and refuse to do it if not paid. This suggests people may come to take the ‘wrong’ attitude to voting. However, this is not an objection that can be voiced by those who would otherwise advocate compulsory voting, for surely forcing people to vote does not make them do it for the right reason. Moreover, I am assuming we are concerned merely with increasing turnout to support democracy; judgements as to reasons why people should vote seem to impose non-neutral conceptions of the good on them.

4b) Non-Neutrality
It may be argued there is something particularly wrong about the state paying people to influence their behaviour. Parents may make pocket money conditional on their children’s behaviour, but paternalism is justified when it comes to children – we do not need to respect someone’s autonomy until they have it. Many liberals hold that the state should be neutral about the good life, and not try to promote some particular forms of behaviour at the expense of others (e.g. not promote church-going).

However, this is again not an objection that can be put by those who favour compulsory voting, since if incentivizing people to vote is non-neutral then forcing them to is even more objectionable. In any case, it misunderstands our motivation. I do not claim that people should be encouraged to vote because it is good for them, but to uphold democracy, which I take to be a neutral value. State encouragement is therefore more like enforcing the rules of the road than promoting religiosity. Even if the state’s role is to be restricted to matters of justice, insofar as democracy (equal involvement of all in making the laws all will be bound by) is a requirement of justice, then actions directed at preserving and promoting democracy will be legitimate. Currently the British government spends considerable money on advertising to inform and encourage voters, but maybe some of that would be more effective if simply spent on paying people to vote.

5) Effects of Paying People to Vote
Those who do vote are compensated for their time, and this can be important if, e.g., they must take an hour off work or away from caring for (elderly or young) relatives. Even if voting is a duty, I argued above there is no reason it must make people worse off, and all the less if it is something optional but that we wish to encourage. There will be a redistribution from non-voting taxpayers to voters, but this is justified if we assume a certain amount of participation is necessary for meaningful democracy and – this being a presumptive good – that the non-voters are actually free-riding on those that do vote and thereby support democracy. As such, it does not seem they have much objection – particularly because the tax burden is one they could themselves offset by choosing to vote themselves (and if they have something they’d rather do, so be it). The scheme can be seen as the kind of ‘selective incentive’ for participation that Mancur Olson argued was necessary when free riding is possible. It can also be seen as their fulfilling their duty of ‘fair play’ – in cash, rather than kind – to support the just institution of democracy, from which they benefit.

6) Conclusion: What I Have and Have Not Done
I have not argued that we should do anything to encourage voting. Perhaps our current practice – uninterfered with voter choice – really is best, despite low turnout. Many democrats are, however, concerned – not only that turnout is low generally, but that it is particularly low among low income groups, whom one might think will be more responsive to even relatively modest financial inducements. It is such concerns that have motivated some calls for compulsory voting, which is one way out (as illustrated by the above ‘Titmuss trilemma’) – I call such proposals into question, by pointing to another neglected solution.

Nor have I addressed the forms voting should take. I think one considerable problem is the electoral system: even ‘marginal’ seats are rarely decided by a single vote, while votes in many safe seats are effectively meaningless. It is no wonder that, in such conditions, turnout is low, and maybe more could be done to address the problem by electoral reform or other ways of making politicians more responsive to the concerns of ordinary voters.

What I have offered is an ad hominem argument against proponents of compulsory voting: I am therefore entitled to assume it is legitimate for the state to encourage voting. I have merely argued that the carrot is better than the stick – it is both less objectionable and probably more efficient to offer incentives than to threaten penalties. Maybe my empirical claims can be disputed, but we should at least consider the possibility of paying people to vote.

At Last

Liverpool win the league. (Ladies).

Monday, May 07, 2007

Job Applications and CVs

I'm currently battling my ways through job applications. Well, only two so far, but I already have an idea how much work this would be. Why can't all employers use standard forms, or simply CVs? And what are they looking for in personal statements anyway? (Thanks to Dan and, especially, Chris for feedback on mine, incidentally).

I'm also thinking about my CV. A fairly recent teaching one is on the department's teaching register, here. (These may all be Oxford only - unless I by-passed that by linking straight to them). I've been comparing it to some others, particularly those who are more experienced - e.g. Steve, Keith and John. Maybe it's about time mine had a fairly thorough overhaul...

Sunday, May 06, 2007


Plato's Republic:

Very squashed version:
Socrates: What is Justice?
Polemarchus: It's giving everyone the good or evil they deserve, helping friends and harming enemies.
Thrasymachus: It's following the law, doing what the people in power say.
Socrates: Rulers aren't always right, and they're never happy. Let's try to design a perfectly just society. It'll have people sticking to the skill they're best at, supplying each other's needs. It'll have three classes, golden ruler-guardians, silver auxiliaries and iron and bronze artisans. We'll have no families, but bring up the best people, women as well as men, to be rulers. They'll avoid poetry, do physical training and study philosophy. We'll have justice because everyone sticks to their own job. We'll have the three classes in harmony, just like the mind has three parts: desire, reason and spirit.
Glaucon: So what's philosophy, then?
Socrates: It's pursuing wisdom. Trying to find the immutable, the perfect, the true form of reality. It's not like foolish sailors squabbling over who's to take the helm. It's not like taming a wild beast. Imagine a cave where prisoners have been held since birth, they'd believe that the shadows they see are reality. The true philosopher is like someone who escapes from that cave and sees real things, when he gets back, no-one believes him. We'll get this by careful education up to the age of fifty.
Glaucon: What about the perfect State?
Socrates: It isn't a timarchy built on ambition, nor money-based oligarchy, nor squabbling democracy or gangster-ish tyranny. Our perfect society of philosopher-kings may never exist on earth, but we can hope.

And a longer, but still squashed (15,000 words, rather than c130,000), version here.

And a Quentin Tarantino-inspired Republic Dogs here.

Thanks to links in the comments on CT, here.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Fulham 1-0 Liverpool

Even with very much a reserve side:
Liverpool: Reina, Arbeloa, Paletta, Hyypia, Insua (Finnan 75), Pennant (El Zhar 65), Alonso, Sissoko, Gonzalez (Kewell 77), Fowler, Bellamy. Subs Not Used: Padelli, Hobbs.

This was a rather disappointing showing. Never mind for now, we have bigger games to play; but I feel our squad needs considerable strengthening in the summer.

Jobs to Apply For

ESPS Fixed Term Teaching-Fellowship in Political Philosophy, UCL. Deadline 15th May.

UCD Equality Studies (further particulars). Deadline 17th May.

One-year LSE Fellowship in Philosophy, specializing in moral and political philosophy ( (further particulars, how to apply). Deadline 1st June.

Unfortunately, the very attractive Career Development Fellowship at St Hugh's is only for people who have completed doctorates or will have done so by October 2007 (further particulars). also has useful advice on preparing CVs/applications and for interview.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Teaching Experience

This term, my main teaching load is something I taught last term, and I think I'm noticeably more competent. Maybe it's down to more preparation time, or a better idea of the issues likely to come up - it's hard to say what exactly. Previously, most of what I taught I was teaching for the first time, and screwing up always worried me - I can point to things in the past that didn't go too well, and still now to things that could be improved.

I'm relieved to find this isn't in fact unusual - even experienced professors can be below par the first time they teach a course (see the comments on this CT post particularly here, here and here). The difference is, of course, that if they're giving the lectures, presumably no one in the cohort is relatively disadvantaged, when it comes to exams. But then, differences between tutors are such Oxford isn't a level playing field for all students anyway...

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Choosing Pubs

At tonight's Political Theory Graduate Student Research Workshop, Dan expressed concern about the fact we always end up going to the KA (which I suppose is particularly justified given that we also go there on Wednesdays now). Here is the section of my thesis dealing with this problem:

A political theory graduate students’ reading group meets each week in a different pub around Oxford[1]. Obviously the choice of pub depends on various factors – somewhere quiet, in terms of clientele and music, is appreciated, with the range and price of drinks also an important consideration – which not all agree on. Perhaps the most important, or at least contentious, issue though is location. With few suitable central venues, the group often meets in places like The Old School (west), The Old Tom or Head Of The River (south), Royal Oak (north), or Angel And Greyhound or The Half Moon (east), yet obviously moving too far in any direction imposes costs on those living further away.

The group has no formal decision mechanism – usually the decision where to meet next is reached at the end of the night. Typically, one person suggests somewhere and that is either settled on or rejected. If there are serious objections (e.g. ‘that’s too noisy/crowded/far/etc’) then there is often a counter-proposal and some informal discussion, often leading to consensus or compromise. This system works reasonably well; although it does sometimes involve relatively high decision costs everyone gets some influence. Suppose, however, it was agreed to adopt a more formal procedure. One option might be for everyone to take turns choosing a pub, so that everyone got his or her choice every six weeks or so, for example. The problem with such is that group membership is not perfectly stable – while some people come (nearly) every week, there are others who participate as the timing, location, reading or inclination suits them. In this case, it is not clear whether those not present on a given night should take a turn, or whether the choice should go to the person present whose turn is next. In the latter case, attendance will likely be affected by whose turn is next – i.e. people will be more likely to come if they think they are next in line to choose the venue – but it will likely become very hard to keep track of whose turn it is, if everyone who has or might come needs a place in the rota, but many of those are skipped through absence.

Instead of rotating around people, another option is to rotate around venues – to regularly move in a north, east, south, west pattern, for example. This would mean that everyone should be equally satisfied – for example, those living in the east will find the venue near them a quarter of the time. However, this does not solve all the problems – one still has to define the relevant areas (Why settle for four compass points? Why not treat St Clements, Cowley Road and Iffley Road as separate ‘options’, for example?) and choose a pub within them, which could be more or less central (e.g. The Angel And Greyhound or Port Mahon). The biggest problem, however, is that such a procedure seems undemocratic. Why should the group spend a quarter of their time in north Oxford if no one lives in north Oxford? If half of the regular attendees live in east Oxford, isn’t it fairer (based on a principle of proportionality) to meet there more often? These difficulties mirror those of giving equal chances for each group – discussed in chapter 3.9, above – and, thus, the same solution suggests itself.

Instead of rotating round individuals present, if we want each to have an equal say, we can give each person present an equal chance of determining the venue for the next meeting by implementing a lottery (‘random dictator’). This will produce a form of proportionality: for instance, if half the group live down Cowley (east Oxford), and therefore favour meetings in that direction, then the group will tend to meet there around half the time. There is, however, a serious danger of extremism. If the decision simply represents the will of one person, there is no need or incentive for them to moderate their demand – to give an example, why stop at The Angel And Greyhound if Port Mahon is closer to home? There is a danger that one person getting all of what they want can impose greater costs on others. Moreover, the group may become in a sense self-selecting – if the group meets far enough out, then it is likely that only those from east Oxford will attend, and in that case they will be the ones who decide where to meet next and it will be east Oxford again – the group has been ‘captured’.

This illustrates a danger with lottery-voting. While one problem with compromise is that it may satisfy no one (see 3.12 above), allowing a ‘random dictator’ to have their way may result in a decision that almost everyone else finds greatly unsatisfactory. I will return to some ways of dealing with this, including constitutions and thresholds, in chapter 7, where I discuss the practical logistics of lottery-voting. For now, one thing to say is that such a proposal may require some restraint on behalf of the voting demos. That one could have all one’s own way does not mean it is reasonable to totally exclude others. In particular, since no one is guaranteed victory, each may be more inclined to consider others – that is, those in east Oxford may not propose anywhere too far out because they know that then those from other directions will not only be able to say ‘how would you like it?’ but actually be able to retaliate by doing likewise when they get chance to decide. Obviously, this self-restraint may only be effective in solidaristic groups, but that is not unrealistic when I am talking about small groups who meet face-to-face. Perhaps the successfulness of democracy depends on each side having some sympathy with their opponents, and thus limiting what they demand when they win, to ensure they can bear the costs when they lose[2]. If each side is willing to press its demands to the fullest, then it will be no surprise if the group breaks up – the result, in the case I am describing, might be two separate groups, meeting in north and east Oxford – the small-scale parallel to secession. This would be unlikely in this case, not only because each individual limits their demands out of a sense of reasonableness, but also because the success of the group depends on participation. If each person wants both to visit a variety of venues and enjoy discussion with many other people, then they are forced to compromise their own preferences as to the location to realize these other goods.

Note that, while I do appeal to compromise to produce better outcomes, it is left to each individual to make the compromise. There is no mechanical way in which compromise can be struck between two different people (for example, if one proposes Gardener’s Arms and another Port Mahon, we cannot simply look for somewhere equidistant between the two – even if there is a ‘middle ground’ it may be a pub that, for other reasons, pleases no one). What we can do is rely on each individual to make compromises themselves, and demand only what is reasonable – for instance, moderating their respective demands to the more central Royal Oak and Angel And Greyhound. Thus, rather than each demanding the ‘whole cake’, we rely on each to propose something they think a fair division. Because each compromise is made by a single individual, we can assume it to be consistent and to satisfy at least that one person – it is what they want, given the demands to consider what others want. We recognize, however, that they are unlikely to agree unanimously on some ideal that will please everyone. While each is willing to move to a more central venue, out of consideration for others, there is still a divide between those who favour somewhere north-central and those who favour somewhere east-central[3].
In this situation, I think the ‘random dictator’ method would be a democratic way for the group to decide where to meet on an equal basis. Of course, this does not mean it is necessarily the best decision-method all-things-considered: I have also pointed to some dangers of such a method, which show that democracy is not the only value when it comes to group decision-making. If we want to encourage independently just or ‘middle ground’ positions, that is another matter, which may not be best achieved through a democratic machinery. Nonetheless, lottery-voting respects the equality of all in that each person will have an equal chance, on each occasion, to be the one who decides where to go next time. This does not give each person an equal chance of satisfaction – if there are more people from east Oxford, then there will be more chance of them all being satisfied – but this is for the reasons given earlier (chapter 3.9) to favour proportional rather than equal chances. Moreover, this practice will ensure no one is excluded – it is not like majority rule (which might lead the group to always be in east Oxford), or turn-taking (which distorts incentives to participate) – even if the decision has not gone one’s way, there is always an incentive for each person to turn up, because they know they might be the decisive person next time.

[1] Again, this is loosely based on personal experience, though at present the group has no formal decision procedure.
[2] Sartori (1987) p.32 and Vernon (2001) p.75-90 both emphasize the importance of looking at losers rather than winners.
[3] I think the ideal of some deliberative democrats – that unanimous consent be reached – is unrealistic because, even if all are sincerely motivated to search for such there may be multiple possibilities that are equal or incomparable with respect to justice and reasonability. Moreover, aside from the fundamental point that there may not be ‘one right answer out there’, people’s conception of what is just may be affected by cognitive biases about which they can do nothing.

Youth of Today

Last night down the bar, my friend Rhiannon paid for the last two songs on the jukebox, and let me choose one. Hers - Scissor Sisters' 'I Don't Feel Like Dancing' - was greeted by Rachel with a delighted "oooh this is a classic", despite being around a year old. When mine - Led Zep's 'Rock & Roll' - came on, Rachel looked blankly before saying "I don't know this one". Maybe this is just about musical taste, but I always thought that was one of the first signs of getting old, and it worries me that many of our first year graduates are actually closer in age to fresher undergrads than to me (21, 18 and 25, respectively).

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

May Day

Happy birthday dad!

I didn't partake in any May Day celebration this year - I decided the time would be better spent in bed, particularly as it's Commemoration of Benefactors dinner tonight, not to mention a crucial Champions League semi-final, and I'm fighting off a bit of a cold.