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.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Rights Inflation?

Critics of Human Rights often argue that many supposed rights - like that to paid holidays - are really aspirations, rather than fundamental rights. Well, now it seems that many people regard internet access as a fundamental right.

Admittedly, though, this BBC article isn't the clearest. It seems that the question asked was not 'is internet access a right?' but 'should the internet be a fundamental right?' Moreover, the report states that "Countries such as Finland and Estonia have already ruled that access is a human right for their citizens" - I do think that human rights are fundamentally legal creations rather than moral, because I doubt morality tracks something as arbitrary as species membership, but I'm not sure how a human right can belong only to citizens of certain countries.

Maybe there really is a lot of rights confusion out there...

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Animal Representation

Robert Goodin argues that democracy requires all affected interests to be considered, and that mute interests ought to be represented by each voter engaging in a process he describes as 'democratic deliberation within.'

This case actually concerns representation in court, rather than democratic representation, but nonetheless it's interesting that the Swiss have rejected plans to have lawyers represent animals' rights/interests.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010


I can't remember off hand the last time that I either went to a gig or got some use out of my Union membership, so when I saw that Brandon Boyd and Mike Einziger of American rock band Incubus were speaking tonight, I thought I'd go along. I do own several of their earlier albums - Fungus Amongus, SCIENCE, and Make Yourself - though I haven't really followed their career too closely since and wouldn't say that they were one of my favourite bands.

Unfortunately, not all of what they said was very audible from the back of the debating chamber and some of their comments seemed to be rather banal platitudes about music being a universal means of communication, etc. They did, however, shed a little light on their personal lives - Brandon telling of his first kiss, age 12, on Hallowe'en to The Cure's Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me and Mike of how music helped him through a serious car accident, much as others may turn to religion. In response to a mixed bag of questions, Brandon revealed that he's happy for people to hear their music any way (though it's better if they buy it) and they also spoke highly of Lollapalooza (both seeing Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Ministry in 1992 and performing in 2003).

The real treat of the evening was a disappointingly short two person set, in which they played a new song called (I think) 'Tomorrow's Food' and 'Drive' - I'd forgotten just how good that song is...