Monday, December 27, 2010

Amazon Sale

Christmas is over - time for the Bozing Day sales. I just picked up Oceansize's Home & Minor EP/mini-album for a bargain £1.99!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Prisoners to Get the Vote

Following up on an earlier post, prisoners serving fewer than four years are to be granted a vote. I've been reading some stuff on felon disenfranchisement lately, so this is quite an interesting development.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Moral Philosophy in the News

I've mentioned my friend Toby Ord on this blog before, but he's in the news again for his charitable work. Kudos to Toby!

Comment: Mike from Bolton suggests that they could donate more money in the future by investing now. That may be true but, having heard Toby talking about this, I believe he thinks it's better to spend the money to alleviate suffering that's happening now. Indeed, I believe he thinks there's even a case of borrowing money in order that it can do good now and be repaid later.
This may involve the questionable assumption that it's better to save the life of a 20 year old today than that of a different 20 year old in 30 years' time, but I believe that's his view.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Who Wants to Live Forever?

Apparently, scientists have had some success not only in slowing but actually reversing ageing in mice. The story was noted by Colin Farrelly here. This same story also led to this point of view on the BBC, in which the author questions the wisdom of combating ageing.

Here's my comment:
The point of reversing ageing isn't simply to keep us barely alive in the way that the author suggests at the end, but to arrest both physical and mental decline. If you could be as healthy at 100 as you were at 50, there's no reason why you couldn't continue an active life - for instance working and babysitting your great grandchildren.
The author may say "most of us don't want to live forever" but I don't see what evidence she has for this. In my experience, most people still in possession of their faculties want (as she says) to live longer. If this applies equally at 500 as at 50, then I see no reason to suppose that most people will ever reach a point where they're bored of life.

Colin has more on the imperative to tackle ageing.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Man Can Live on Potatoes Alone

One of the many advantages of living with Eloise is her cooking, sporadically documented here. As you'll see, plenty of variety (over the weekend, we had bean chilli, curry, and vegetable roast, all supplemented with homemade mince pies and shortbread). I'm a simple soul though and quite like my basic carbs, usually in the form of bread (which Eloise also bakes herself), though potato is almost as good.

I wouldn't go as far as this American man, who set out to prove that the potato isn't as bad as many think, by eating an all-potato diet for two whole months. And he lost weight. So much for the Atkins diet!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Worth Measuring but not Funding?

There's been much controversy about recent moves in UK education funding, which in effect remove government teaching subsidies from most arts courses in order to prioritise the hard sciences and engineering, which (supposedly) produce greater economic returns. It's been said that the REF's measure of research 'impact' is too narrowly focused on economic results (such as development of new products).

I see that the Con-Dem government recognize that economic performance isn't all that matters and want to measure people's happiness, rather than wealth. I wonder if this is simply because they hope that the figures will look better, or whether it signals that they might change their minds over the narrow economics-driven focus of their education policy...

Monday, November 15, 2010

Nudges and Shoves

The idea that it's permissible to 'nudge' people in desirable directions has received much attention over the last few years. I've noted and commented on various incentive schemes before.

There is arguably a significant difference between offering an incentive to make one course of action more desirable and a threat or penalty to make another action less desirable. (This difference need not be one in freedom - I can agree with Steiner that threats don't reduce liberty, but they do render the agent worse off.)

It seems that some are considering a tax on junk food as a way of combating obesity. This, however, seems to me the wrong way to go about things. It ignores Mill's observation that “Every increase of cost is a prohibition, to those whose means do not come up to the augmented price; and to those who do, it is a penalty laid on them for gratifying a particular taste” (On Liberty, ch. 5: p.111 of my edition).

The BBC article draws an analogy with smoking, which it suggests is taxed because it is unhealthy. There is an important difference, however, in that smoking is often harmful to others - hence the ban on smoking in public places, which is not paternalistic and can probably be justified consistently with Mill's harm principle. Arguably a tax can also be regarded as preventing (or at least reducing) harm to others, rather than to the agent him- or herself.

To ban junk food would seem to be paternalistic and thus objectionable. To tax it seems to differ only in degree.

If those in power wish to encourage healthy lifestyles, I think they should employ the carrot rather than the stick - for instance subsidizing fresh fruit and vegetables or doing more to encourage cycling and other forms of exercise.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Where to Publish?

A familiar problem for those in the later stages of their PhDs or early career (i.e. in temporary jobs) is the trade off between the need to publish in good journals and the need to publish quickly, meaning you don't have time to wait a year for a rejection. There's an interesting-looking thread on the best (philosophy) journals for junior people to submit to over at the Philosophy Smoker...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Correlation vs Causation?

I never really did enough political science to get a proper understanding of maths and stats, but the one handy question I learned (which can be asked of a lot of presentations) is whether the findings show causation (i.e. A actually results in B) or merely correlation (i.e. the two merely happen to occur together, perhaps because both are results of C).

Unfortunately, I see no evidence that anyone asked that question before this scaremongering claim that texting leads to underage drinking and sex:
Parents have been warned to watch out for signs of excessive texting in their children, amid concerns it poses a new health risk.
Teenagers sending 120 text messages a day are more likely to drink, smoke and have sex, claims a US doctor.

That teenagers who text heavily are more likely to have done these things does not mean that texting causes them to engage in such activities. The causation could possibly run the other way round or, perhaps more plausibly, it could be that both behaviours are explained by some third factor, such as high disposable income or lack of parental supervision.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Re-Running Elections

Two high court judges have ordered the re-running of this year's General Election in Greater Manchester, after finding Phil Woolas guilty of making false claims about his rival. Not as bad as in the States though, where the recent elections saw FOUR deceased candidates win (via Thom Brooks). If we had an electoral system that produced a rank ordering over candidates, that was independent of irrelevant alternatives (as Arrow suggests), then this wouldn't be a problem. As it is, the system merely picks a 'top choice' and will need to be re-run...

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Want to be my colleague?

Of potential interest to anyone finishing a PhD in normative philosophy: my department are currently advertising for a one year lecturer (Feb 2011-Jan 2012) to teach courses primarily in moral theory and metaethics. Deadline 12 noon on 18/11/10.

Enfranchising Prisoners

My recent talk in St Andrews addressed the issue of immigrants, but one thing that came up in it was whether criminals ought to be enfranchised. It's interesting to read that the European Court of Human Rights has just ruled that a blanket ban on prisoners voting violates their human rights. Interestingly, it seems that this doesn't prevent some - perhaps even most - being disenfranchised, but a blanket ban is unlawful. Perhaps it would be enough to allow just a few to vote.

Monday, November 01, 2010

French Paternalism

In another recent news story that would have Mill spinning in his grave (following my earlier report of this), it seems that French coastguards want to ban swimming the channel on grounds that it's not safe.

There are suggestions that simmers might cause an accident, so if the worry is that it poses a danger to others, then perhaps Mill would allow a ban (though only if it violates an obligation to an assignable individual). Most likely, this is health and safety gone mad. Swimming the channel is likened, in the BBC report, to crossing the M25. Of course, all road-crossing is dangerous, and could cause an accident, so perhaps we should ban people from crossing the road too...

Friday, October 29, 2010

Miller Conference

By the time this post is scheduled to go 'live' I should already be on my way to St Andrews for this colloquium on David Miller's National Responsibility and Global Justice (I'm giving a paper Saturday morning). It'll be nice to go for many reasons, one of course being a reunion with my former supervisor, but also because it will be my first visit to St Andrews - despite the fact that they operate a joint graduate programme (SASP) with Stirling, with I've been teaching on this semester. I hope my cold goes away though...

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Drugs Don't Pay

It seems that paying people to stay off drugs works. Not too surprising I'd have thought. A basic lesson of economics is that people respond to incentives (this is essentially the central theme of Freakonomics and the reasoning behind Nudge).

Of course, one aspect of such a scheme that may be controversial is it means paying people to do what's already in their interests. It seems that the government has recently decided that people ought to pay for what benefits them - at least when it comes to university education, though their policy may not be entirely consistent, as my friend Thom discusses here.

PHI9R4 Political Philosophy

We're still only halfway through the current semester, with most of my teaching (and all of my marking) still to come, but here's a teaser for the course that I'll be teaching next semester (the webpage having just been updated). Guess I'll need to get on with actually compiling a syllabus and reading list before long, not to mention writing the lectures...

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Pammy @ Oxford

I hardly used my Oxford Union membership while in Oxford. Funnily enough though, since leaving I still get bombarded with facebook invites to events. I missed this one though - Pamela Anderson. Actually, it seems that she was talking about vegetarianism, alongside someone from PETA, which may have been interesting. But I probably wouldn't have gone...

Monday, October 25, 2010

Banning Miniskirts

I was lecturing last week on Mill's harm principle and various applications, such as what he might say about mephedrone or cannibalism. Now it seems that there's another example: an Italian town that wants to ban miniskirts and low-slung jeans! Now, back in Mill's day, it would probably have been considered indecent to show off a bit of ankle, but arguably that's just the kind of society-regulating-morality that he was trying to resist (though there is a problematic passage about public decency). Maybe I need a new irregular series about Mill spinning in his grave...

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Reviewing Papers

I have a manuscript sat on my desk that I have to review for a journal. It's something I've done a good few times now, but it's surprising how little feedback one gets on the process. I only really get an idea of what's expected from the reports that I get on my own work, which vary a lot. Well, thankfully Thom Brooks is out to put that right. He's working on a piece of advice for refereeing papers (following his previous advice for publishing) and currently inviting suggestions here.

Friday, October 22, 2010

A Couple of Political Theory Bargains on Amazon

It's been suggested that we read some of Sen's The Idea of Justice in our political philosophy group here in Stirling. I have to say, I've not heard good reports about it, but I noticed that (at time of writing) it was available for only £7.65 on Amazon so thought I'd better buy it.

While looking, I also saw that they had Sandel's Justice for £2.29 (77% off RRP), which I somewhat more excited about (though I guess it will be a while until I can read it). I thought others might be interested in some bargains. (Disclaimer: Affiliate links contained above. If you purchase through these, it won't cost you anything extra, but I may earn a small commission.)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

More Football Lotteries

I've long been aware of European Cup matches featuring Liverpool and Celtic that were decided by the toss of a coin. In fact, I mention these cases in a piece I wrote about the difference between penalty shoot outs and lotteries in Soccer and Philosophy. It seems that this tie-breaking method was more widespread than I'd realised though. I was just reading a preview of Liverpool's Europa League clash with Napoli and find (about half-way down) that Napoli "have met English opposition twice in Europe, being eliminated on both occasions. In 1966-67 they were beaten by Burnley 3-0 on aggregate in the Fairs Cup and in the same competition two seasons later Leeds knocked them out on the toss of a coin. Strangely Liverpool suffered the same fate in the same campaign, losing to Athletic Bilbao."
One (or two) to look up I think...
(In other news, Liverpool are being flown out by Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden!)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Blood Bowl

Eloise and I have been working through things to do in the evenings since moving to Scotland. So far, that's included several films and the first series of Yes Minister on DVD. We also have a pile of old board games to get through though, including Blood Bowl - a Games Workshop game that's basically a more violent version of American football set in the Warhammer world. It must be well over ten years since I played and the first time for Eloise, but it was good fun.

For the record, I was orcs and she was humans. I was receiving the ball (and thus attacking) in the first half, but got so stuck into pummelling her team that I forgot to do anything with the ball until too late. The strategy paid dividends though as by half-time I'd ko-d three of her lineman. We'd both had a man sent off for fouls, but I was able to start the second period with a numerical advantage of 11 to 8, which gave me a greater chance to stop her scoring.

As it is, Eloise came pretty close to the opening touchdown, managing to run a catcher into my end zone and get a thrower with the ball dangerously close - only for him to fall over attempting to dodge by blitzer and open up a good scoring opportunity. At this point, one of my orcs was able to scoop up the ball, while I inflicted further damage by pushing two more of her players into the crowd (where they were also ko-d). By the end of the match, she only had four men left on the pitch - who were regularly getting knocked down - though it still required my lineman to 'go for it' (and use my final team re-roll in doing so) in order to score the game's only touchdown in the final turn. A fine example, I think, of the orc strategy (i.e. concentrate on roughing up the opponents first and then use numerical superiority to score a running touchdown).

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Want to be my boss?

From January, my department ceases to exist. In fact, all of Stirling's departments will, as they merge into schools. If you fancy being my new boss, we're currently advertising for head of school...

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Philosophy of Football Hits the BBC!

This BBC feature on the ethics of supporting footballers who are also convicted criminals (with focus on Marlon King) is quite interesting. There's been discussion of King's case before of course, such as this piece, but the BBC piece is notable because it actually quotes Prof Mike McNamee, editor of the British Philosophy of Sport Association journal, Sport, Ethics and Philosophy.

It's good to see philosophy getting more mainstream coverage - I hope it counts as impact! Don't forget, if you want to read more philosophy about football, Soccer and Philosophy (including a chapter by yours truly) is available now.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Olympic Ticket Lottery

Want to pay £50-£725 to watch a ten-second race? You may also have to win a lottery to do so! The BBC reports here: "From March, people can register interest in an event and, if it is over-subscribed, they will be entered into a ballot."

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Upcoming Talks

I'm going away for a couple of days, during which I'll be visiting Manchester to give this paper in the Mancept visiting speaker series.

It's the start of a busy period for me, as I take advantage of my light probationary teaching load. The next week I have a talk in Stirling's visiting speaker seminar (obviously not as a visitor, but a tradition for new staff apparently) and at the end of the month I'm giving a paper in a colloquium on David Miller's National Responsibility and Global Justice at the University of St Andrews.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Teaching Applied Ethics

I have a piece in the latest Journal of Medical Ethics (36:10) on teaching applied ethics. Abstract here, full text (subscription required) here.

This is my first publication under my University of Stirling affiliation, although they did get my email address wrong (that was partly my fault - I'd told them what I expected it to be, though I did then notify them that it wasn't as expected for some reason). I'm not sure whether I can legitimately count it as a 'research publication' or not though, since while it draws on discipline-specific expertise it's really a piece about teaching. Also it's published in their 'controversy' section, since it's a continuation of a debate between Rob Lawlor and David Benatar.

For those interested, the debate between Lawlor and Benatar focused on whether or not it was helpful to teach moral theories as part of applied ethics courses (particularly to medical students). The debate between them, as is often the case, seemed to reach an impasse, since both wanted to make weak claims while accusing the other of stronger ones (that is, Lawlor didn't say we should never teach moral theories).

My contribution is to suggest that, rather than focusing on whether - or how much - we teach moral theories (which may in any case be out of the instructor's control), we should focus on how we go about doing it. Specifically, I suggest that rather than starting with a theory-driven approach, we begin by examining particular issues and work from there towards theory-building.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Unfair or Unjust?

I have before wondered about the difference - if there is one - between what's (un)fair and what's (un)just. See, for example, p. 42, fn. 1 of my 'Fairness between Competing Claims' in Res Publica 16:1 earlier this year. I'm not convinced that there is any ordinary language distinction that native speakers recognize (like, say, that between mistakes and accidents).

Whilst reading about Liverpool's draw with Sunderland yesterday, however, I notice that Steve Bruce described the referee's decision to allow Liverpool's opener as "unjust, unfair and wrong". A statement from the Professional Game Match Officials (a body I'd never heard of either) argued that the decision was in fact correct, but I'm not here to debate either its substantive merits nor interesting questions about whether the referee's decision can be both unjust and the correct one for him to have made. Rather, I'm intrigued by Bruce's phrasing.

I guess it suggests that he thinks there is a difference between being unjust and unfair (and a further issue of being wrong). Presumably his distinction between what's unjust and merely unfair can't rest on an appeal to anything like the basic structure of society either, since this decision wouldn't violate Rawls' principles of justice. I wonder what he had in mind?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Challenging Degrees

A graduate from Belfast has taken his former university to court over his 2:2 degree, claiming that if he had better supervision he would have got a 2:1 (reported here). It's hard to know what to say. Firstly, I agree with the defence lawyer that court probably isn't the right place to settle such disputes. More importantly, though, I don't really see that he has a case even if his claim is true.

Let's assume that with sufficiently better supervision he could have got a 2.i. The question is whether he has any right to that level of supervision. Presumably the level (quality and quantity) of supervision is one factor in determining the degree result, but many other factors play a role, in particular the student's own level of effort. Obviously I don't know the student in question, but for most students it's true that they could also have done better had they worked harder.

No student has a right to as much supervision as they can possibly benefit from. The question is whether they get a sufficient amount, both in absolute terms (what they paid for) and relative terms (i.e. in comparison to their peers). If he got as much supervision as others, but failed to make sufficient use of it, then surely some responsibility lies with him...

Saturday, September 18, 2010

How Much Are You Worth?

The BBC reports here about the findings of a survey on pay. Predictably, it seems that the public think footballers and executives should be paid less than they are and carers, cashiers and call centre workers more. In other words, it generally looks like the public favour much greater equality in earnings.

Unfortunately, it's not entirely clear exactly what the public questioned were asked. The results are certainly reported as what people should earn rather than what they are in fact paid, but the mini-survey you can take on the site asks both and it's possible that some respondents failed to appreciate these subtleties.

Nonetheless, pretty interesting stuff. Too bad university lecturers weren't included...

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Vine: Go From Good to Great

Another in my infrequent series of reviews from Amazon Vine. Usually, I use them to draw attention to things I like, but this time a negative review.

How to Succeed with NLP: Go from Good to Great at Work

I've read a few self-help type books in the past, but was particularly attracted to this one because of the NLP angle (not that I'm a confirmed fan, just because I was curious). Unfortunately, I can't say that I'm really any the wiser about Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Of course, this isn't a psychology textbook - the author is upfront about the fact that this isn't an introduction to NLP but rather how to use it to 'go from good to great at work' and thus all you need to know about NLP is that it works (p. 2).

Nonetheless, I found this approach rather unsatisfying, since the reader doesn't get much insight into why particular techniques are supposed to be effective. Ultimately, the author simply reels off instruction after instruction, all justified simply because 'this is what NLP says to do.' Maybe NLP does give good advice, but all the reader gets here is some jargon, which isn't always explained. Moreover, without any insight into the fundamental principles, I have to say that I found the advice confusing at times. Sometimes, for example, you're told that it's not enough to do a great job, you must be seen to be doing so, so you should change your behaviour to stand out (e.g. p. 99), but at other times it seems to suggest that you try to fit in rather than stand out to built rapport with your team (e.g. p. 132).

Admittedly, it's difficult to give general advice in books like this, so there's always some tendency for authors to hedge their bets ('do X - a little, but not too much'), but I have to say that I didn't find the advice very useful. Often you're told what to do but not how to do it or told that you can achieve it through visualization techniques, which sound rather far-fetched to me (I didn't really try the exercises).

It's hard to give a verdict on whether the techniques work - no doubt they will for some people and not for others. The most damning indictment, in my view, though must be how badly written the book is, given the regular refrain about the importance of communication and clarity. The repetition I can forgive, since the reader is invited to pick and choose the chapters most relevant to them rather than working through the whole book, but the material didn't seem to have any coherent organization and chapters tended to jump around haphazardly.

Even at the micro-level, a number of sentences didn't clearly communicate what the author meant, for instance: "recognize what it is that you are not doing that could be holding you back" (p. 189) and, on the importance of being seen, "Picture how useful this will be when decisions are being made about redundancies, promotions, transfers and salary increases. If people don't know who you are, you will never be on the list" (p. 211).

I can't really comment on the merits of NLP, but there must be better books out there.

My review, first published here.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Another Potential Real-Life Trolley Problem

Last month I posted on this story of a runaway train on London Underground. Now it seems that something almost happened again, with one train being sent the wrong way into the path of another during rush hour yesterday. Maybe London Underground do need to employ a moral philosopher...

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Do School Lotteries Work?

I've been following the Brighton & Hove school lottery case for a while (see here) and, indeed, written about it in print (see here, subscription required).

It's interesting to see this BBC headline, suggesting that the lottery failed to achieve equal access for students from poorer backgrounds. On reading the accompanying piece, however, it seems that the basis for the story is as follows: "Research presented to the British Educational Research Association on Friday says the system does not give equal chances to all pupils because catchment areas are still the main determinants of access to particular schools."

In other words, the reason it failed is not because it's a lottery (though of course equal chances don't guarantee equal success) but because it wasn't a lottery. It's important to realize that restrictions on who can enter a lottery, for example, can go a long way to 'fixing' the outcomes and therefore cancel out the benefits.

For more on these issues, see the books by my friend Olly Dowlen and Conall Boyle's recent book specifically on school lotteries.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Oxford PPE

Sorry for the lack of recent posts - today is my first day in my new job, so I've been rather busy with moving house (and country!).

My only connection to the University of Oxford now is as an alumnus, but this BBC article on the many Oxford PPEists involved in government caught my eye. Too bad they didn't research things a bit better though: the two Ps stand for Philosophy and Politics in that order...

Monday, August 16, 2010

This Situation Calls For A Philosopher!

It's often said that moral philosophers are divorced from real ethical concerns, spending their time discussing pointless issues such as trolley problems (bibliography here). In fact, it seems that these cases aren't that far from real life... Last week a runaway train travelled four miles through London's underground network, causing passenger trains to be diverted. Thankfully no one was stuck on the track and, obviously, a fat man on a bridge was unlikely, given that the train was underground. Nonetheless, I hope someone had a philosopher's phone number in case.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

No Draws = Lotteries?

Long-time readers will no doubt be aware of my on-going interest in all forms of lotteries and (in connection) penalty shoot outs - though not because penalty shoot outs are lotteries as such. In fact, I wrote a chapter on the difference in Soccer & Philosophy, so won't go into that again here. Nonetheless, the gist of my argument was that penalties aren't lotteries - we could simply toss a coin to decide drawn matches, but at least penalties test some relevant skills - but either penalties or lotteries would be an appropriate way to settle a tied contest, the choice between them ultimately resting on what makes for the more entertaining spectacle.

It's interesting to see that Sepp Blatter is apparently considering doing away with draws in the World Cup group stages. Personally, I see no need to do away with draws; it seems a particularly American thing. His reasoning is that defensive teams are encouraged to play for a draw, but I'm unconvinced that introducing the 'lottery' of penalties to resolve the tie will make things any better. This way I'd have thought underdogs (with any confidence in their penalty-taking ability) will have an incentive to play for a draw knowing that they might actually win all of the points!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Who Needs Pupils?

Apparently this school is staying open despite having no pupils. I mentioned it before, but now the decision has been made. Not much more to add to what I said before really, but good to know that in a time of savage cuts to education this is something that won't be cut...

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Vine: Superfreakonomics

Another of my Amazon Vine reviews; this time Superfreakonomics:

I only did a year of economics at university, because I found it rather too mathematical. Levitt and Dubner, however, do a good job of applying the insights and assumption of microeconomics to explaining everyday (and some not so everyday) decision making. They show, for example, that the laws of supply and demand apply to prostitutes, with the prices rising around public holidays and more 'seasonal workers' temporarily entering the profession.

As you may gather, the focus isn't on behaviour typically regarded as economic – in many ways, this is more of a sociology text than an economics one. Nonetheless, if you're interested in learning more about people's behaviour it provides some interesting observations and anecdotes. I haven't read the earlier book, Freakonomics, but it's quite clear that this is more of the same. You can certainly read this without having read that one – indeed, you might find it rather too similar if you have already read the first.

The writing is more like newspaper journalism than an academic text, so fairly approachable for the lay person, while all the references are hidden away at the back, to suggest that they've done their research rather than making things up without being overly off-putting for the reader. It's accessible, but I must say I found the attempts to add in some personal background about some of the people in the book rather uninteresting and also that the chapters weren't as logically structured as they might have been: often the authors go on surprising tangents that have little to do with the main subject of a given discussion, which can detract somewhat from the overall flow and make it hard to remember where you read a particularly interesting fact.

Despite my minor quibbles, I certainly found this book eye-opening. It's not unputdownable – in fact, it took me quite a long time to get round to finishing it – but I do feel that I learned something from it and would go back to it for some of the surprising findings and anecdotes.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Revise and Resubmits

A new thread up on Leiter discussing whether journals should abolish 'revise and resubmit' decisions. It promises to be an interesting one...

Here's my comment:

I think I agree with Bill Rapaport, that the R&R system is not necessarily a bad one, it's just that it doesn't always work as well as it should. I certainly know that I've had plenty of papers improve substantially as a result of a R&R verdict, whether or not subsequently accepted.

On the other hand, journal editors need to exercise discretion. I think that there can be value in sending the revised paper to a totally new referee (ideally along with the original ones), to get a fresh look at it. Problems arise when there's a long time lag involved (though unavoidable at times), when the referees give conflicting recommendations/advice, and when some of their comments are idiosyncratic. A good editor should of course be willing to accept a paper even if the author doesn't do everything the referees suggest.

There is one other problem with the system, which probably affects me more as a referee than an author, and that is that I probably do tend to give to many R&R verdicts. It's a safe 'middle ground' for the many papers that show some promise but also have some flaws. Again, though, the editor's role is important here, since there's a difference between the verdict given by each of two or three referees and the overall verdict given by the journal. The editor needs to make the call when, say, an accept and an R&R verdict ought to be an acceptance (or conditional acceptance), rather than R&R.

That the defects aren't necessary to the system doesn't, however, mean that the system ought not to be abolished. It might be that the chances of having a well functioning R&R process are so slim that we would be better off abolishing it. But I don't think that's so. I think that - while there will occasionally be cases where things go wrong - most journals can manage the system reasonably well (and it is of course open for any given journal to decide how many R&Rs, if any, to give).

One possible improvement would be to have more distinction within R&Rs. Some journals/editors do seem to distinguish minor and major revisions, but it seems to me that R&R can sometimes basically be a conditional acceptance and other times is no more than a vague willingness to look at the paper again if you completely re-write it (rather than permanently rejecting it). Perhaps it would be useful if these were always clearly distinguished.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Not For Profit: Online Reading Group

The folks over at In Socrates' Wake are hosting an online reading group on Nussbaum's Not For Profit, starting 25th August. To be honest, I'm not that big a fan of online reading groups, though I have participated in one before.

The book sounded quite interesting, so I took a look this afternoon while in the Bod for something else. To be honest, most of it is fairly predictable stuff about how the humanities foster critical thinking which is necessary for democracy and that we shouldn't neglect them in favour of a focus on the sciences and economic growth. There's a rather critical review of it here. Some of it drew on her previous work on virtue ethics and capabilities though and it was on the whole quite interesting and well written. It might even come in use for the 'Philosophy and Life' lectures that I have to give next semester in Stirling, so I think I'll keep an eye on ISW for discussion.

Amazon (UK) link:

Saturday, July 31, 2010

News Spreads

I've mentioned my up-coming move to Stirling a couple of times here (e.g. one, two). Obviously, news is spreading, because my page (EDIT: now moved/updated to here) just got its first hit from someone searching for 'Ben Saunders Stirling'. Hopefully a few more posts like this will help it in the search rankings!

Anyone looking to contact me from 1st September (by email or snail mail) would be well-advised to check for my new address, as I'm not sure how long I'll be getting stuff forwarded from Oxford.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Critiqued in JME

I had a piece on organ donation, called 'Normative Consent and Opt-out Organ Donation,' appear in the Journal of Medical Ethics back in February.

Thanks to following JME on, I saw last night that my article has now been subject to a published critique (in the latest, August 2010, issue). They even call my proposals a 'recipe for totalitarianism' (and cite my colleague, C. C. W. Taylor, in doing so).

I'm already working on a response, so watch this space...

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Vine: Meanwhile

I've mentioned before being involved in Amazon's Vine program. I recently noticed that their terms and conditions actually encourage Vine Voices to post their reviews elsewhere online, provided that the places in question don't themselves sell the products. So I thought I'd give it a go here.

Here's the first in what I hope will be a series of such posts, my review of Jason Shiga's choose-your-own-route graphic novel, Meanwhile.

This rather novel book combines are comic with a 'choose your own adventure' story. You follow the events in the life of young Jimmy, after he eats an ice cream and then stumbles upon a professor with a lab full of ingenious inventions. The story progresses from one panel to the next following little arrows and, periodically, you the reader get to choose between one of two different paths, which lead down different routes and ultimately to different endings.

Unlike the traditional choose your own adventure series that I remember as a child, this is picture rather than text based. Nonetheless, I wouldn't say that it's for young children: there's still a reasonable amount of dialogue to read, a fair amount of patience needed, and some slightly complicated instructions. Following the arrows isn't too difficult, once you get what to do, but it's not always so obvious what your choices are in some cases (and I still don't think I've really got the hang of how the access code is supposed to work either).

It doesn't seem to involve that many choices and, because the story includes a certain amount of looping around, it can get quite repetitive after a read or two. I wouldn't say that it's likely to keep anyone amused for a long stretch of continuous time - though maybe that's my short attention span and others will enjoy revisiting the same nodes and trying the various permutations in succession.

For me, this is a book that I think I could come back to again and again (there are apparently 3,856 story possibilities), but not spend too long with in any given visit. Jason Shiga definitely is some kind of genius to have come up with this though, even if it took a computer program to help organize it into book form.

Available to buy from Amazon. Disclaimer: I'm a member of Amazon's affiliate scheme, so purchasing through those links may earn me money, though it won't cost you any more. (The fact that I could earn commission won't bias my reviews - though I expect that I'll only be bringing the good stuff to the attention of my readers here.)

Monday, July 26, 2010

Mitchell Channels Mill

I'll be lecturing on J. S. Mill's On Liberty in the coming semester. It turns out that I might not need to though, since this piece by David Mitchell (on whether burqas should be banned) seems to channel his spirit rather well. As he puts it:
"In a free society, people should be allowed to do what they want wherever possible. The loss of liberty incurred by any alternative principle is too high a price to pay to stop people making dicks of themselves. But, if people are using their freedoms to make dicks of themselves, other people should be able to say so."

Sunday, July 25, 2010


I've got my name in Ethics - one of the top journals in my field. The latest issue (120:4), p. 881 (the list of manuscript reviewers for 2009).

Saturday, July 24, 2010


As I've mentioned here, I'm moving to Scotland in just over a month. The hassles may make blogging slightly more sporadic - as indeed may the fact that we'll probably be on pay as you go internet once we get there, due to the cost of reconnecting the phoneline.

In any case, I'll be documenting the process here, for anyone keen to keep in touch. My girlfriend, Eloise, will be moving up (and in) with me, so I just wanted to insert a plug for her new blog, A Duck on the Move, which seems dedicated to our migration (or should that be emigration, what with it being a new country and all?)

Of course, we're not the first to have this idea - one of my colleagues to be has a (now seemingly moribund) blog based on her new life in Scotland.

Friday, July 23, 2010

USS Pension Changes

It seems that changes in the USS pension scheme (which covers UK academics) are close to be agreed. It looks like pensions for new entrants will be based on career average earnings, rather than final salaries, which seems like quite a blow given that most don't start paying until their late 20s and often have to go the first few years post-PhD in low-paid under-employment.

To be honest, my pension is so far off that it's rather hard to predict what effects this will have on me, other than that I'll be worse off (effective immediately, as employees' contributions rise to 7.5% of salary). I think I'm glad I joined when I did though, assuming I can at some point reach a respectable 'final salary'...

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Amazon Speculating

If you leave items hanging around in your Amazon shopping basket, you'll occasionally find notifications that they've changed price (particularly if on sale). This in itself isn't too surprising, though I do find it odd that sometimes things change by just a few pence and wonder whether it's really that important. I assume some of the fluctuations are linked to exchange rates, though that probably isn't all.

Anyway, this can make it rather hard to know when - or even whether - to purchase. I've recently noticed several items in my basket gradually edging downwards, but periodically one will shoot up drastically. This means that, on the one hand, there's an incentive to wait hoping for further falls, but also an incentive to buy once you're happy that the price is low enough in case it rises.

A month or so ago I bought this for £4.09 only to find it's now fallen to £1.86. On the other hand, just today I received this, which I'd caught at it's lowest price (£1.76) days before it shot up to £12.99. It seems that prices, like those of shares, can go either up or down. I'm curious whether there's any pattern to it though - and would welcome insight from anyone with knowledge, or even a hypothesis.

I've heard that Amazon may be deliberately trying to gauge customers' price sensitivity. I wouldn't have thought it would be particularly worth their while, but it occurs to me that I have no way of knowing whether price discrimination is occurring (Do I get offered what's in my basket at a different price than others? It would be possible to check, by logging out, but I've never tried...)

In any case, there's something curiously satisfying about the feeling that you got a bargain, whether by skill or luck - but caveat emptor.

UPDATE (23/7): Scored a pretty decent success today. Just found four albums before dinner that looked interesting and decided to take a punt at £7.28 the lot. By the time I got back from dinner, three of them had gone back up to normal, full price (between £10.49 and £14.49) so the same four would have cost over £40. Bargain!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Elective on Plato

I don't yet have my own staff webpage at Stirling, but I do now have a page advertising a course that I'll be running in the Spring Semester: a directed independent study 'elective' on Plato's Republic.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Sorry that posts here have been sparse lately. I've been busy with conferences (SAP and BSET) and am currently staying in Nottingham before heading up to Stirling for a quick visit tomorrow. Normal service should be resumed shortly.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Singer on Cheating in Football

Good to see that big name moral philosophers are tackling the important ethical questions of the day, such as whether German goalkeeper Neuer should have admitted that the ball crossed the line. (Hat tip: Dominic Roser.)

It's an interesting read, though the Fowler anecdote isn't as I remember it: I seem to recall him once being booked for disputing the award of a penalty and then scoring it (but maybe I'm wrong or perhaps that was a different incident). There are, however, other cases that are rather like a batsman 'walking' - such as when a player does after a professional foul or red card.

I have to say though that I thought Singer's article was a little simplistic. It assumes that some standard set of moral rules applies universally, to footballers both qua human beings and qua football players. Maybe matters are more complicated. Perhaps - despite their gloves - goalkeepers, like politicians, cannot avoid dirty hands.

Moreover, one of the rules of football is that the referee's decision is final. Had the referee awarded a goal when the ball didn't cross the line, then it would have stood. Can the Germans really be blamed for taking advantage of the fact that he ruled this ball not to have done so? Maybe it's unreasonable to expect that, unless we're sure what we'd have done had the situation been reversed.

I haven't given a great deal of thought to these topics, but readers looking for more philosophical reflection on football are reminded of the recent Open Court title Soccer & Philosophy.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Reclining is Good for You

Personally, I tend to feel more comfortable leaning backwards in a chair, even if I sometimes worry that it suggests that I'm rather too relaxed and not paying enough attention (in a tutorial, for example). The good news is that it looks like I can now justify my preference on the grounds that it has been shown to be a better posture for your back (which is, I guess, why I feel more comfortable that way in the first place...).

Thursday, June 24, 2010


This is something that I've already told many of those who know me, but now it's on the department website I may as well make it completely public. I'll be moving to Scotland over the summer to take up a lectureship at the University of Stirling. Finally, I also get to see my name on Leiter's list of job hires! The move may make blogging sporadic over the summer, but I hope to keep updating everyone with developments.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

It Could Take A Lottery To Get Us Through...

I've been keenly following the World Cup, mostly because it's football on TV and just because I can now that I'm almost finished with marking. But, while the group stages have contained some memorable matches, it's the knockout stages that I'm really looking forward to. In particular, they raise the possibility of the dreaded penalty shootout - often derided as a lottery.

Regular readers will know about my interest in lotteries, and I've already had my say on penalty shootouts in Soccer and Philosophy (currently 25% off at Amazon UK).

I'm happy to see that there's actually a role for lotteries - genuine lotteries - in the group stages too. Reading the BBC's build up to the match I see: "England must win to potentially top the group, but if both they and the US - who face Algeria - draw their matches, Capello's side need to score two goals more than the Americans to stand a chance of qualification through the drawing of lots."

This page further explains the possible permutations: "In this scenario [i.e. England and USA both drawing], England need a high scoring draw on Wednesday. Slovenia would go through as group winners, with England and USA finishing level on three points. Goals scored would decide who progresses. There is the possibility for drama even greater than that of a penalty shoot-out - if both sides are totally even then lots will be drawn to decide who goes through and who is out." Basically, the two teams will be level on head to head results, goal difference, and goals scored - so what fairer way to break the tie than a lottery?

It's not the first time lotteries have been used to decide the outcome of a football match - it's happened to both Liverpool and Celtic in the European Cup - but I wonder if they'll become more popular should England progress?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Milibands on Corpus Rents

Could disputes about 9% rent rises in Corpus Christi next year affect the Labour leadership contest? Probably not in fairness, but both Milibands (being alumni of the college) have a say here, which was picked up in the Guardian.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

OUP Sale

I'm now starting my second batch of marking, and have the distractions of the World Cup and end of term when not doing it, so little time to post right now. In lieu of anything more interesting, I thought I'd draw readers' attention to the OUP summer sale (until 16th July). Up to 75% off titles including the Oxford Handbook of Political Theory and the selected papers of my colleague C. C. W. Taylor.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Voting is Compulsory in Australia

I've just dug out this reference, since it came up in a seminar today, so I thought that I may as well post it here for future reference.

It's commonly known that Australia is one of several countries where voting is compulsory. It's also commonly said that compulsory voting is a misnomer, since all that's usually required is turnout (i.e. people can come to the polling station and cross their names off without even taking a ballot paper).

Well, I can't speak for other countries, but it seems that in Australia it's actually voting that's required to fill your legal duty, even though (for obvious reasons to do with the secret ballot) no more than turnout is enforced. This position is stated by the Australian Electoral Commission here (page 4):

"The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, under section 245(1), states:
"It shall be the duty of every elector to vote at each election".
• Under the Electoral Act, the actual duty of the elector is to attend a polling place, have their name marked off the certified list, receive a ballot paper and take it to an individual voting booth, mark it, fold the ballot paper and place it in the ballot box.
• It is not the case, as some people have claimed, that it is only compulsory to attend the polling place and have your name marked off, and this has been upheld by a number of legal decisions:
• High Court 1926 – Judd v McKeon (1926) 38 CLR 380
• Supreme Court of Victoria 1970 – Lubcke v Little [1970] VR 807
• High Court 1971 – Faderson v Bridger (1971) 126 CLR 271
• Supreme Court of Queensland 1974 – Krosch v Springbell; ex parte Krosch [1974] QdR 107
• ACT Supreme Court 1981 – O’Brien v Warden (1981) 37 ACTR 13"

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Earthtone 9: Free Download

I completed my collection of the Earthtone 9 back catalogue about a year ago now. A nice nostalgia trip back to circa-2000 British metal. For anyone that missed out first time round though, they've released a best of collection that's available for free download here. Particularly recommended 'Tat Twam Asi' and 'Amnesia' (yes, I much preferred the later more melodic stuff).

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

School Without Pupils

There's a classic episode of Yes Minister that centres around a hospital without any patients. Reading about this school without pupils reminded me of it. In fairness, the debate here is between temporary and permanent closure: no one seems to be suggesting it remains open without pupils. Sometimes, however, I think that would be quite an attractive way to run a research university...

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

On What Matters

I notice on Amazon that Parfit's long-awaited On What Matters now has a release date. Strangely, if their current dates are to be believed, volume 2 is due July 2010, but we need to wait until January 2011 for volume 1. Most likely, I suspect that the former should be 2011 too. Each volume is a mere £19.99, but there's also a two volume set for £30 (with price guarantee for pre-orders). The two together amount to almost one thousand pages...

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Few Bits on Football...

I've just got home from my weekly philosophy football match and am feeling pretty good about it. I definitely feel fitter than I did at the start of term and even showed a few pieces of skill: a save at the striker's feet (though admittedly when the ball was behind him) and a couple of assists: including pulling the ball back from the by-line to the edge of the area for my colleague Gonzalo (also on Wikipedia) to stab into the net with the last kick of the game.

That's pretty notable in itself, but even more surprising was seeing Martin Keown turn up to play with the group of guys after us. I think I do recall reading something about him training the blues, but don't know if this was anything to do with that.

In other football-related bits, tomorrow sees a parade celebrating the return of Oxford United to league football (I don't think that I'm quite ready for that myself...)

Also, I received my copies of Soccer & Philosophy today - available in all good bookshops in time for the World Cup...

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Overtime Increases Heart Risk

A study has (probably unsurprisingly) shown a link between working much overtime and risk of heart disease. It may be no more than a correlation, but it's unclear how risk of heart disease might lead to working longer hours, so it's fairly clear that there must be some causal influence working in the other direction, even if the exact mechanism is unclear and it may in fact be that one underlying condition (e.g. a driven personality) conduces to both working overtime and risk of heart disease.

Either way, this should be a warning for academics, most of whom (anecdotally) work around 50 hours a week. If the trend in academia is towards the erosion of the traditional non-monetary rewards (such as freedom of research) and towards increasing accountability, then someone might have to start paying us properly for this one day...

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Idrizaj RIP

I was shocked to learn that former Liverpool reserve and current Swansea footballer Besian Idrizaj died last night of a suspected heart attack (source: BBC, LFC). Condolences to his family.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Close Election Indeed (And How to Resolve Ties by Lottery)

I missed this last week, so thanks to my old house mate Pavel for the pointer. While headlines were dominated by the fact that the general election produced a hung parliament, a pack of cards had to be used to decide between two candidates for a local council in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, after each received 1,034 votes.

This isn't a first. Similar examples can be found here and here.

Monday, May 10, 2010


I've seen a heron in the river out the back of the castle several times now on my way to work. It seems that it's been captured by keen Oxford photographer Percy here.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Student Loans

My dad forwarded me an email from MoneySavingExpert about student loans. They're suggesting that those of us with such loans may be facing a hike from 0% to 4.4% interest in the coming year and, therefore, that it might be beneficial for those with savings to make extra repayments.

I'm not a financial adviser, but this seems like scaremongering to me. Interest should be either 4.4% (based on price inflation back in March) or 1% above the Bank of England interest rate - which sets a cap at 1.5% (as they acknowledge).

It's true that it hasn't yet been confirmed what the interest will be, but I don't see why that should be taken as a sign that there will be a departure from previous arrangements. Given that a new election seems likely sooner rather than later, I doubt whatever parties form a government would want to risk a backlash from recent students by raising the interest on their debt.

Moreover, even if they are right that interest on student loans is set to rise, it's not obvious that repaying is the best option. Interest on any other loans, including mortgages, is likely to be higher, so those with other debts are better off paying those first, assuming no penalties for doing so. (That's something noted on MSE.) But also, once the student loan is repaid, we'll never be able to borrow again at such a favourable rate of interest. It may well be worth taking a loss over the coming year on the expectation of being able to profit in future.

Oxford Crimespot

A fatal stabbing occurred within a five minute walk of my house (and even closer to my office). Thankfully, I don't normally hang out around Que Pasa at 3am...

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Philosophers Football

Some of you may be aware that tomorrow sees a group of philosophers and celebrities re-creating the famous Monty Python philosophers football sketch in London.

Fans of both football and philosophy may also be interested to know of the new Open Court popular culture and philosophy title Soccer and Philosophy - to which I contributed a chapter on penalties and lotteries - which should hit the shelves in time for the World Cup.

You can pre-order it (at a 10% discount) from Amazon now:

Friday, May 07, 2010

Election (1) 2010

I was away overnight so not able to follow all the events of the election, but as expected it seems that we've got a hung parliament. (Cue jokes about hanging politicians...)

Here are some notable comments:
Thom Brooks on the moral right to govern.
Chris Brooke on the situation in Oxford (where the Labour incumbent in Oxford East increased his majority while the Lib Dems lost Oxford West & Abingdon to the Tories).
Thom Brooks on likely effects for higher education. As I comment there, this time parties were able to dodge the fees issue - next time, they'll have to be open about their policies.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Incentives for Organ Donors

I haven't had time to read the public consultation document from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics yet but, since it relates to several matters that are of interest to me - and have appeared on this blog - I thought I'd mention that they're seeking public views on incentives for donors.

UPDATE: Public Ethics Radio features Anne Phillips on ownership of the body here.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Common People

For anyone who hasn't yet seen these Cameron/Pulp videos... This one is the best I've seen so far, though this one (with pictures of vandalized billboards) is quite good too.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Mothers to do More Housework in the Future

This report on the BBC suggests that parents spent more quality time with their children in 2000 than in 1975.

However, what I assume is a reporter gaffe, makes it sound like a chilling warning for anyone planning to be a mother in 2025: "Mothers spent between two hours to 151 minutes a day on household chores in 2000 and this rose to between 166 to 191 minutes 25 years later."

Screen grab provided in case they fix it.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Who's Responsible for the Volcano then?

I haven't had any personal travel plans directly affected by the Europe-wide flight restrictions that have resulted from the Iceland volcano. Nonetheless, it's certainly had a disruptive effects in various ways, ranging from students late back to Liverpool's long trip to Madrid.

Apparently, in other news, an Iranian cleric has blamed women dressing immodestly for earthquakes in Iran. I wonder who's responsible for the volcano?

Free MP3s

I recently touted Amazon's spring bargains, but it gets even better. I noticed a while ago that they were recommending me some free MP3s. It seems that they have a small, but rotating, selection of free MP3s.

I've yet to have anything particularly exciting from them, but (along with iTunes' free single of the week) it's a good way of getting exposed to some new artists. Particularly notable at the moment though is this somewhat random 7-song sampler, featuring Holly Golightly, New York Dolls and Rocket From The Crypt.

(Disclaimer: I've recently joined Amazon's associate scheme, in the hope of earning a few pennies from this blog, but I won't get paid any commission for you downloading free music!)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Votes for Paedophiles?

I've been keeping an eye on the BBC's live election coverage, which has produced a few interesting stories already. Apparently, one Muslim group has declared in 'haram' (forbidden) for Muslims to vote in the UK. That's an interesting case for advocates of compulsory voting, since it could lead to claims for conscientious objection or cultural exemptions, though no doubt many would argue that the possibility of abstaining is sufficient protection.

Another interesting piece concerns a Labour candidate using the Lib Dems' commitment to consider votes for criminals as part of a negative campaigning strategy. Whether or not denying criminals the vote violates their human rights, it does seem less democratic to deny them the vote - but I doubt that allowing criminals the vote would be a popular vote-winner amongst the wider population.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Libertarianism and Feudalism

There's a rather interesting post over at Crooked Timber about libertarianism and feudalism. It's a well known problem that there's a tension between two standard libertarian principles, viz. that you own yourself and that you own the products of your labour - why then don't parents own their children? John Holbo argues that this system would amount to a form of feudalism. Libertarians need not accept this but, if they argue that they subscribe to their principles in order to promote freedom, they need to explain why their particular principles better promote or respect freedom than any other alternatives, such as redistribution to give the poor more freedom. There's more to it than that, but I don't have time to read the literally hundreds of comments...

Friday, April 16, 2010


Today I went to the (state) wedding of my old flatmate Pavel and his new wife Eleni (pictured right).

Then we went to the Randolph, Raoul's (where the manager allowed Pavel to buy the cocktail glass he and his wife had just shared) and then Brown's to celebrate.

Since I was witness, hopefully this post will help me remember anniversaries. Here's to many more happy years ahead for the both of them!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Campaign Posters

I've linked before to examples of Tory campaign poster spoofs. It seems that the fun isn't restricted to those with fancy computer software. Percy's blog has examples of graffiti on campaign posters.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Amazon Clearance

No, this post isn't about deforestation but rather the popular online retailer. Last week I noticed - quite by chance - some quite fantastic clearance items in their music bargain section.

With the demise of Virgin and Borders, it's been a while since I've come across anything similar on the High Street, but I've acquired several pretty good albums as a result of taking a chance on something that I didn't know because it looked promising and was only a couple of quid. The danger of having all these bargains online - along with the possibility of checking out online reviews, YouTube, Spotify and - was that I ended up buying quite a few albums, but mostly for under a pound. I figure that makes it hard to go too far wrong...

Ok, mostly they were things I've never heard of, but there were a couple of exceptions. Albums by HIM (this one seems not to show up in searches and to have come down further since I ordered it), Travis and Natalie Imbruglia for under £2.50. Some that I ordered seem to have reverted to their original price (like this one) or gone out of stock (like this one), so I'm glad that I got in when I did.

A few others worth mentioning which - at time of writing - are still available at great prices (around £1 each) include the Electric Soft Parade's The American Adventure and Eighteen Visions' self-titled. If you're that way inclined, a 2CD dance/rock compilation from Cream - featuring artists such as Goldfrapp, The Egg, Depeche Mode and Bloc Party - for just 88 pence (though, to be honest, I found this a bit disappointing). For those whose tastes differ from mine, Busted or Desperate Housewives soundtrack, and loads more obscure stuff, such as this Cambridge-based compilation.

One warning to anyone browsing through is that some of the titles listed are actually singles, and thus not always so much of a bargain. Further disclaimer: I've recently joined Amazon Associates. I was planning on mentioning this sale anyway - as I have done before (e.g. one, two) - but using the links above to purchase may earn me money.

Random Justice

Barbara Goodwin reviews Neil Duxbury's Random Justice in the Times Higher Education here.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

ALSP Conference

I'm off today for the Association for Legal and Social Philosophy annual conference in Southampton. There will be fewer people I know there than last summer in Edinburgh, but I hope that it will be just as interesting. The fact that the theme of the whole conference is the future(s) of democratic citizenship bodes well!

My paper is in the first session, straight after lunch today, and I'll be reunited with my old co-panellist (from Warwick/Brave New World) Dean Machin.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Lecture Lists

Next term's lecture lists are already available. Interestingly - and it's the first time that I've seen this - there's also a PPE lecture list.

I'm organizing another graduate class of my own, following on from its success last year. Provisional details:

Issues in Democratic Theory
Wednesday, 11-12:30, weeks 1-4.
Corpus Christi College seminar room.

These are research seminars for those interested in contemporary democratic theory. They are primarily intended for graduate students in philosophy, e.g. those taking the B.Phil political and legal philosophy option, but graduate students in other areas (e.g. M.Phil/D.Phil in politics or law) are equally welcome. Undergraduates should seek permission from the lecturer (ben . saunders [at] ccc . ox . ac . uk) first, in order to keep a cap on numbers (this should be forthcoming).

Each week’s session will begin with the presentation of a work-in-progress paper in the field of democratic theory. I will begin, with a paper on the problem of defining democracy, and will probably present in later weeks too, but there will also be opportunities for interested graduate students to present. Volunteers are encouraged to email me before the first session.

My papers at least will be posted on WebLearn beforehand, at though reading them before the seminar is not required. This site will also include an updated schedule and a couple of relevant background readings for those interested.

Week 1: Ben Saunders – A Relativized Definition of Democracy
Weeks 2-4: t.b.c.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Magnet Moralia

I seem to remember reading - I forget where, sorry - that people with certain forms of brain damage were more likely to reason like consequentialists. Now it seems that our moral reasoning can even be affected by magnets.

Of course, this raises a host of interesting questions, some of which have already been picked up on over at Crooked Timber. It's not obvious what this shows about the correctness of our moral reasoning, if you believe in such a thing. I think that, like Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman's famous work on framing effects, it should encourage us to be wary about accepting our ordinary intuitions, knowing that they could vary on the basis of seemingly irrelevant factors. (Another example I heard in a recent talk was that experimental subjects made harsher moral judgements when disgusted by their surroundings - e.g. when there was half-eaten pizza left on the table.)

Monday, March 29, 2010


I heard something on the news about this a week or two ago, but was away travelling so didn't get round to posting. It seems that the government are banning currently legal drugs such as Mephedrone.

I heard people saying that, because they're dangerous, they ought to be banned. Lots of things are dangerous but not banned, like extreme sports or an unhealthy lifestyle. No doubt John Stuart Mill would be turning in his grave. His famous 'harm principle' insists that we should only interfere with someone's liberty in order to prevent harm to others, not for their own good.

If a drug is dangerous, then the appropriate thing to do (as we do with tobacco, for example) is to warn people, and maybe regulate it (obviously we need to be sure that it doesn't end up in the hands of children, etc). To ban something just because we think that people would be better off not doing it risks the state imposing too far on individuality. Next we know the state may be banning a whole range of activities on the grounds that they're bad for those who indulge in them...

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Fabre to Oxford

This isn't news to me, but since it's now confirmed on Leiter I guess that it can be made public: Cecile Fabre is on her way to Oxford.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Academia as a Vocation

Here are some interesting pieces from the Chronicle. To many in the academic world, it seems that leaving academia - even for an otherwise desirable job - is automatically considered failure. Given the bleak job prospects, however, perhaps we should think of grad school less like professional training (e.g. law school) and more like moving to the big city to be a struggling artist. So, at least, say these authors. (References via comments at the Smoker.)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Elected Lords

It seems that we may soon be heading towards an elected second chamber (replacing the current House of Lords). The problem with an elected chamber is, of course, that it potentially threatens the mandate of the Commons if there is a conflict between the two.

One way round this is to have the two elected on a different basis - for instance, in the US the Senate is elected on the basis of two senators per state, rather than being proportioned to population as the House of Representatives (their lower chamber) is. This provides some protection for the rights of small states, but also ensures it doesn't present a serious rival to the lower house's claim to represent the people. In the UK, it seems that the second chamber could be elected on longer terms and by proportional representation (though I think that may be dangerous if it led to them being seen as more legitimate).

In any case, there is another alternative - we could use sortition (random selection) to achieve a representative sample of 'people's peers'. Proposals along these lines are outlined here and here. I'm not sure whether I'm in favour of this all things considered, but I think it's certainly a shame that it seems to have been neglected in public debate. In light of such possibilities, Lord Adonis' claim that election is "the only way that a legislative assembly can be legitimate in the modern world" seems far from obvious.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Lottery Balls

Schools are allowed to use lotteries for places to make the allocation fairer and avoid discrimination. It's a topic that's been discussed here before - and in my papers in Philosophy and JAP. It seems, however, that Ed Balls is in the news again, complaining about the 'destabilising' effects that lotteries have.

I'd like to see some support for his claim that this is bad for the welfare of the students involved. As someone who went to the same secondary schools as only three of my 63 primary school peers, I didn't find the process too destabilising. Moreover, even if there's an acknowledged cost on this point, it would have to be set against improvements achieved in social justice and exposing students to diversity (no longer are middle class and working class children de facto segregated), which could outweigh any losses by making greater positive contributions.

I can't, of course, say that this is the case any more than Ed Balls can - but simply making assertions or conjectures about the effects of a lottery isn't a helpful basis for informed public policy. We need both more empirical research and a sensible public debate.