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...