Monday, November 28, 2011

100% Pie

PHD Comics - which I've previously described as Dilbert for graduate students - doesn't seem to get updated as often these days. Not that it's moribund, but rather than Jorge Cham is busy with various other projects, including a movie based on the comic and international appearances. Bit of a shame really.

Anyway there's a new strip yesterday, which I found deeply dissatisfying. It's not that I don't get the point, but I'm surprised that science PhD students would produce such inept pie charts. This information isn't at all appropriate for pie charts, because the categories aren't exclusive. A show on National Geographic might be debunking myths about dinosaurs, for instance. Even worse, I can't comprehend only 45% of programmes on The Science Channel being either about science or not about science. I'd fail an undergraduate who produced these graphs...

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Quoted on Amazon

I have, in my time, written a fair few reviews on Amazon, particularly of music and books. Today, however, I found that a review I wrote elsewhere is quoted on Amazon. Here's the book in question.

The Amazon product description quotes me as follows:
""....This book brings together ten very different contributions, each of which illuminates the essay’s continuing interest.... while several essays would be accessible and useful to undergraduate students, the collection as a whole is aimed primarily at researchers, or at least more advanced students.... for those with an adequate background, this collection forms a fine introduction to some central interpretive debates around On Liberty."
--Philosophy in Review, Ben Saunders, The University of Stirling

My original review can be found here (open access). I'm incorrectly credited as Benjamin Saunders in the journal contents, but thankfully not on Amazon!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Imported Notes

Judging by the comments I get, it seems that far more people view this blog via Facebook than actually visit the blog itself. Unfortunately, Facebook are withdrawing the facility that automatically imports blog posts as notes.

"You currently automatically import content from your website or blog into your Facebook notes. Starting November 22nd, this feature will no longer be available, although you'll still be able to write individual notes."

This policy seemed surprising at first, given that Facebook seems to want to take over one's whole internet experience. I did think that maybe it was because Blogspot was owned by Google, but as far as I know this policy applies to all blogs and not only Blogspot.

I may post blog posts manually to my Facebook wall, but we'll see how it goes...

Friday, November 18, 2011

Russia Bans Emos

Too bad my module on Mill is almost over (last lecture this afternoon), because I just came across this story - from 2008 - about Russia attempting to ban emo kids. It looks like a great example of unjustified state interference in individual freedom.

In fact, according to the report "The new bill describes "emos" as 12-16 year-olds with black and pink clothing, studded belts, painted fingernails, ear and eyebrow piercings, and black hair with fringes", which means adults are presumably free to dress as they wish. Since Mill's 'harm principle' only applies to those in the maturity of their faculties, and arguably not to those aged 12-16, this isn't technically contrary to his principle. But it's still a nice example. I wonder what became of this bill. Does anyone know?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Ps and Qs (Reposted)

I tried this before, but didn't get any comments - perhaps because I think there was some Facebook problem at the time (posts here are imported onto Facebook and I get most of my comments that way) - so I thought I'd try again...

Something I've just been thinking about and want a second opinion on. (It's not anything I'm working on, just a thought sparked by something I was reading.)

Suppose we have two propositions, P and Q. P is true. Q is a more extreme version of P. Does it follow that Q is false? Or that we have reason to believe P rather than Q?

I think much depends on the content of these propositions and the way in which Q is more extreme than P. For instance:

P: Abortion is usually wrong.
Q: Abortion is always wrong.

Here P allows (though does not logically imply) that some abortions are not wrong, which Q doesn't. If it's the case that some abortions are permissible, then Q is false and we have reason not to believe it.

But one problem is that P, while true, might be under inclusive. For instance:

P: Abortion is always wrong after 30 weeks.
Q: Abortion is always wrong after 28 weeks.

Stipulate that Q is true. Then it follows that P is true also, because P is weaker. That Q is more extreme than P does not make it false, because it is true (by stipulation), even though P is also true. Someone who believes P believes truly, but they also have reason to adopt the more extreme position Q. (Because P is true, but not the whole truth.)

I think this counter example works, but it depends of course on P not being the whole truth. I'm wondering if there are other counter examples. I suspect, perhaps, there may be some in which the way that Q is more extreme than P is practically irrelevant. These would seem, at least, cases where though Q is actually less correct, there is no harm in moving from the correct belief P to the not entirely correct belief Q, given that Q entails P.

Thoughts and comments welcome...

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Organ Donation in Wales

A touching story today in Scotland about a young boy's organs being donated after his death in a road accident. This story reminded me of recent debates around 'presumed consent' in Wales.

Judging by BBC reports, I'm not clear what's actually being proposed. Yesterday I read this piece, in which they report:
The Welsh government has told the BBC Wales Politics Show that it is planning a system of "soft" presumed consent where family members would still be consulted after a person's death.

But 'consultation' does not amount to a veto. In fact, from today's news it seems that the family will not have any right to veto donation, i.e. the proposal is actually 'hard' presumed consent:
Families would have no legal right to stop dead relatives' organs being used for transplant if the person has not opted out in advance, under a proposed Welsh law.

This is an issue I've written on before. See my previous article in the Journal of Medical Ethics and a forthcoming piece here.

I think it's important that the public debate move on from talking about 'presumed consent', which generates unnecessary and unhelpful controversy. An opt-out scheme can be justified on various other grounds, such as 'normative consent, 'tacit consent', or even by the claim that consent is not necessary at all. We'd be better able to debate the merits of the proposal if we weren't hung up on arguments about presumptions.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Eating English

It's not often the English diet can be held up as a healthy example, but compared to Scottish food it is... Interesting findings, but I'm not sure the 'fat tax' is a good idea personally, possibly because I've been reading a lot of Mill this semester.

Friday, November 04, 2011


It seems that the St Andrews/Stirling Program (SASP) has slipped to 3rd in the UK according to the latest Philosophical Gourmet Report preview. This is a bit of a shame, having been 2nd in the last two. No doubt it is in part due to some senior retirements in both departments, with new appointments at St Andrews not yet announced (at least at the time of the surveys).

Friday, October 28, 2011

Giving What We Might Be Able To

One Oxford undergraduate was so inspired by Toby Ord that he has apparently pledged to donate 10% of his future earnings to charity.

Given that he's assuming he'll be earning £40k/year, and the 10% is taken after student loans (not clear about other deductions), that should still leave him fairly well-off. Nonetheless, I think we have good reason to praise those doing more than most, even if we think they're doing less than perhaps they ought. The amount that this one person gives over the course of his life, assuming he keeps his pledge, will do a lot of good.

I wonder if that counts as research impact?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Incest in an Elevator

The other day one of my seminar groups spent a good half hour discussing whether a Millian state could prohibit incest. It's actually an example I've used myself in lectures (though not this year). For what it's worth, I think the answer is no: such interference would presumably be moralistic (or perhaps paternalistic) - it's unclear that it could count as harmful since, even if a deformed child is born as a result, that child would not have otherwise existed (and therefore cannot be harmed) and, in any case, no child need result, so at most the state should prohibit incestuous couples producing children, rather than incestuous relationships per se.

It seems that, while our state may be more liberal than in Mill's day, incest is still punished by both the courts and society, as this recent/local example shows.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Organs and Funerals

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has suggested that the NHS could pay for the funerals of those who donate their organs. (News reported here.)

I find it somewhat curious that they draw a sharp distinction between this move and payment for the organs. Presumably this incentive is only likely to increase donation rates insofar as it is regarded by donors as a payment. So either it's a payment and thus undermines altruism and raises worries of exploitation, or it's not a payment but it's questionable whether it will really increase donation.

(Personally, I'm not convinced that donation need be wholly altruistic and am therefore open to the possibility of incentives.)

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Dick and Philosophy

Yesterday one of my students asked whether Philip K. Dick and Philosophy was out yet. (I presented a draft version of my chapter to our student philosophy society last year.) It's not and, at the time, I had no idea when it's scheduled for release but, checking Amazon, I was pleased to see that it's out 24th November. My chapter, concerning appointing rulers by random mechanisms (as in Dick's Solar Lottery), is number ten.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Nirvana 20

For some unknown reason, I had some Nirvana songs stuck in my head on Friday, despite not having listened to my old Nirvana CDs in some time. It was quite a surprise then to walk in to Tesco on my way home and see them on the cover of Kerrang! It turns out that this Saturday was the 20th anniversary of Nevermind; a fact K! commemorated by means of a special tribute CD (which was much better than I expected actually). A more expensive souvenir is this 5-disc box set (£75!), though there's also a 2-disc remastered version of the album at a more reasonable price.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Ps and Qs (Bleg)

Something I've just been thinking about and want a second opinion on. (It's not anything I'm working on, just a thought sparked by something I was reading.)

Suppose we have two propositions, P and Q. P is true. Q is a more extreme version of P. Does it follow that Q is false? Or that we have reason to believe P rather than Q?

I think much depends on the content of these propositions and the way in which Q is more extreme than P. For instance:

P: Abortion is usually wrong.
Q: Abortion is always wrong.

Here P allows (though does not logically imply) that some abortions are not wrong, which Q doesn't. If it's the case that some abortions are permissible, then Q is false and we have reason not to believe it.

But one problem is that P, while true, might be under inclusive. For instance:

P: Abortion is always wrong after 30 weeks.
Q: Abortion is always wrong after 28 weeks.

Stipulate that Q is true. Then it follows that P is true also, because P is weaker. That Q is more extreme than P does not make it false, because it is true (by stipulation), even though P is also true. Someone who believes P believes truly, but they also have reason to adopt the more extreme position Q. (Because P is true, but not the whole truth.)

I think this counter example works, but it depends of course on P not being the whole truth. I'm wondering if there are other counter examples. I suspect, perhaps, there may be some in which the way that Q is more extreme than P is practically irrelevant. These would seem, at least, cases where though Q is actually less correct, there is no harm in moving from the correct belief P to the not entirely correct belief Q, given that Q entails P.

Thoughts and comments welcome...

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Who Needs Males?

It's almost like something out of Jurassic Park: female guppies don't need males to reproduce.

Actually, it's not quite as exciting as sex changing. Apparently the female guppies are able to store male sperm for months after mating, before producing offspring. So males are needed somewhere along the line; the point is merely that releasing a lone female could ultimately end up resulting in a whole new colony of fish.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

GRAD CONF: Political Realism (York, UK)

2011 York Graduate Conference in Political Philosophy

Theme: "Realism in Political Thought"


On Wednesday 16th November 2011, the postgraduates of the Political Philosophy Group at the University of York and the White Rose Association for Political Philosophy will host a one-day student-led conference on realism in political philosophy and intellectual history.

The aim of the conference is to address both the ‘realist’ turn in recent political philosophy and to offer graduate students an opportunity to present papers, receive helpful feedback in a friendly atmosphere, and exchange ideas with peers and working academics in the discipline of political theory. The conference will be student-led with support from working political theorists.

Graduate students interested in presenting papers should send their contributions (maximum 3000/3500 words in English) accompanied by an abstract (maximum 300 words in English) and a short CV, by no later than 20th October 2011.

Papers may focus on any aspect of political realism broadly understood; including (not exhaustively) realist theories of political legitimacy, non-ideal theory, and political action. Presentations should last no longer than 30 minutes, with another 30 minutes for discussion. Please note 20th October 2011 is also the deadline for registration for any person wishing to attend the conference without presenting a paper.

Conference registration will cost £15. Any who wish to attend the conference without presenting a paper can write to check availability.

To submit a paper and/or register, please send an email to Mr James Hodgson ( with ‘Registration’ in the subject line. In the body of
the text, please ensure you include: the name you wish to go on the list of attendees; your institutional affiliation; and any dietary requirements. Please address all correspondence (including paper submission and additional inquiries) to Mr James Hodgson (

Saturday, September 10, 2011


The start of a new semester means new modules to teach. It's university policy here that all students essays get submitted to TurnItIn. I don't think this amounts to an assumption that they're guilty of plagiarism, but there's a discussion here on the Philosophy Smoker. (My comment here.)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

First Book?

This advice thread on Leiter might be a useful resource for young academics thinking of writing their first book.

Friday, August 26, 2011

If A Tree Falls On The Road And No One's Around To Hear It...

On my way into work, at about 2:30 this afternoon, the main road between Stirling and campus (Airthrey Road) was being blocked by police because a large tree had been struck by lightning and there were concerns that it might fall. The policeman let me go past on the footpath the other side of the road (surely strange: if there's a risk of a tree falling presumably it'd be safer for my to cycle past as quickly as possible). Before I'd got very far at all, they then allowed traffic towards the university again and, shortly after, that going in to town as well, the road now re-opened in both directions.

Obviously at some point later in the afternoon they changed their mind about the safety of the situation. An all staff email round the university advised us that Airthrey Road was again closed and that we should take alternative routes home. When I left campus, I found that not only was the road cordoned off, but also the footpath, so I couldn't even get through by bike.

Now admittedly I don't know how much danger this tree poses, but the fact that they were letting traffic through previously, combined with the fact that it hadn't fallen all afternoon and there was no particular reason for it to do so in the brief time that I would be passing, led to me assume it wasn't that dangerous. In fact, I'm well aware every time that I cycle along this fairly busy stretch of road that I could get hit by a bus. It's quite possible that I'd actually be at less risk from the tree than I ordinarily am from buses (a risk removed by the closure of the road). As I say, I can't judge for sure how risky it was, but then nor could I put a figure on how likely I am to get hit by a bus.

Preventing me (or anyone else) from taking the risk is an example of paternalism - that is, the authorities pre-empt my own judgement and seek to decide for me what is good for me as if I am a child, incapable of coming to my own decisions. Many philosophers, J. S. Mill among them, think that paternalism is wrong (at least in most cases). It's true that it may sometimes be justifiable. Perhaps the fact that I didn't know the true risk, for example, means that my decision to take the risk would not really be autonomous. But, even if one agrees with that, the obvious solution is to inform people of the risk, rather than to prohibit them from taking it.

As it happened, I turned back on to campus and took another route. Not only did this take me out of my way, but it involved going up and down a hill, along a poorly-surfaced path I didn't really know, in diminishing daylight, and coming off my bike when I hit a (not very low) drop-curb. When I came out the other side, the tree hadn't fallen, so perhaps I really would have been safer taking the usual road after all...

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Correlation is not Causation

The BBC reports here on a study into cycling. I'm all for cycling and pedal my way to work as often as I can, though that's markedly less often in the winter. The article mentions the contribution that cycling makes to the economy, which I'd imagine to be absolutely negligible compared to cars. Then, when it turns to the more important health benefits, it says this:

"And [the report] says a 20% increase in cycling levels by 2015 could save millions of pounds in reduced congestion, pollution levels and NHS costs.
The report says that regular cyclists take 7.4 sick days per year, compared with 8.7 sick days for non-cyclists, saving around £128m through reduced absenteeism, with projected savings of £2bn over the next 10 years.

Now it's true that cycling is exercise and exercise helps keep you fit and healthy, but it doesn't follow that cyclists take fewer sick days because they cycle. It's quite likely that those who choose to cycle are already relatively young and fit, compared to those who don't, so we'd expect them to take fewer sick days. In other words, the correlation here may simply be a case of selection bias.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Dangers of Gunfire

This BBC piece highlights the dangers of celebratory gunfire, where bullets shot into the air can fall on and kill bystanders. This was the bit that struck me though: "a number of US states including California, Texas, Arizona and Ohio outlaw firing a gun into the air. In Minnesota, it is specifically forbidden in cemeteries." Why cemeteries?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

National Student Survey

Stirling comes joint third among Scottish universities (behind St Andrews and Glasgow but ahead of Edinburgh), with 88% of respondents declaring themselves satisfied overall with their course. In Philosophy, the news is even better, with 97% overall satisfaction, though this is still a fall from last year's 100%.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Sunday Drinking Bans

I like collecting little examples of things that have been banned to use when teaching Mill's On Liberty. Most of my students, I hope, don't think that homosexuality should be banned, but here's a good one: between 1881 and 1961 it was illegal for Welsh pubs to serve alcohol on Sundays.

A UK Bill of Rights?

Apparently there's a Commission on a UK Bill of Rights, seeking written responses to its discussion paper until November. This could be a chance for some impact, particularly given that I'm organizing a conference on Democracy and Rights in September.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Paying for Organs

More controversy about organ supplies in the news: a Dundee academic has suggested that we should consider payments to donors. This came in the BMJ (unfortunately I can't access this, at present at least), but has been widely reported, for instance by the BBC. The BBC report only mentions students and, coincidentally, the £28,000 suggested for a kidney covers three years' tuition fees (at £9,000/year) with a little beer money left over...

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Organ Nudge

It seems that manadated choice concerning organ donation is a step closer, with proposals that those applying for a driving licence will have to say yes or no. (The BBC article gives the impression that this change has, or at least will, be implemented, but in fact it seems that it is simply a proposal at the moment.)

It's not much of a nudge, since it doesn't direct people towards answering yes, as some have proposed. Nonetheless, simply requiring people to confront the issue is likely I'd have thought to lead to more opting in, rather than simply passing over the issue. Even this, though, seems to have roused a lot of opposition, judging by the comments on the BBC story.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Legal Territorial Jurisdiction

I have a paper - hopefully forthcoming, details to follow - in which I claim that the law subjects everyone globally to coercion, because (for instance) a law requiring that people drive on the left in the UK applies equally to all persons driving in the UK. I think an awful lot of political philosophy/theory gets things wrong by focusing on people, rather than territory, though I understand that there have been recent moves to redress this (for instance Chris Bertram's Territory and Justice network).

Anyway, I was struck by this case, reported on the BBC. The case centres on George 'Star Wars' Lucas suing the man who originally made Storm Trooper helmets (Mr Ainsworth) for selling them, on the grounds that he (Ainsworth) no longer owned the copyright. As the BBC reports:

"Lucasfilm sued for $20m in 2004, arguing Mr Ainsworth did not hold the intellectual property rights and had no right to sell them - a point upheld by a US court.
But the judgement could not be enforced because the designer held no assets in the US, so the battle moved to the UK.

The interesting point, made explicit in an earlier version of the story, but not as clear now, is that the UK court upheld the US decision that Ainsworth could not sell the helmets in the US. This, I think, raises interesting issues, though I'm insufficiently clear on either the details of the case or the necessary legal theory. It looks to me though as if the UK court's decision binds a British citizen not to do something in US territory...

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Monday, July 25, 2011

Shawcross on Expansion Consistency

One commonly accepted axiom of choice theory is what's often called 'expansion consistency', the idea of which is that if P is chosen from the set of P, Q, and R then adding S to the set shouldn't lead to P losing to either Q or R. (This is closely related to Arrow's Indepence condition.) To give a trivial example, suppose that you have the option of vanilla or chocolate ice cream and choose vanilla. Then you're told that strawberry is also available. To say 'oh, well in that case I'll have chocolate' would seem odd, since chocolate was available before.

Note, however, that one isn't required to stick with one's original choice when the expanded set of options includes more attractive alternatives: it would be quite understandable for you to switch to strawberry ice cream if that is your favourite. This point seems lost of Stoke's Ryan Shawcross, who apparently decided to commit his footballing allegiance to England before having the option of choosing Wales. Here's what he says:

"I made my decision a long time ago when the current rule wasn't in place that I could play for Wales.... My decision might have been different if the current rule was in place at the time but these things happen."

A FIFA rule change in 2009 means that, though Shawcross wasn't previously eligible for Wales, he now is. But it seems that he's unwilling to consider switching allegiance, having decided to commit to England (when Wales wasn't an option). This is rather odd.

In effect, he's saying that he chose X when only X was available, and now that he has the choice of X or Y he's unwilling to consider Y, because of that prior decision. Of course, I'm not criticizing him for choosing England over Wales, but he admits that he might now have chosen differently. To regard himself as bound by a past decision, which was hardly really a choice, now that he has a wider range of options seems irrational.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Qualifications Gap

Apparently 35% of adults in Glasgow North East have no educational qualifications whatsoever.

It's hard to know what to make of this study, however. The fact that more educated people tend to be in the south east and the less educated in the west midlands and north doesn't necessarily show that those in the north have less educational opportunities. It could be that all have the same opportunities, but the more educated move to London for work, leaving their less educated peers behind.

Another problem is that the 'adult population' is rather varied including, for instance, immigrants and those who left school 50+ years ago, not needing any qualifications. It's not clear, then, what these statistics mean for the opportunities facing today's youngsters. I'd think practically anyone is capable of getting at least a GCSE - it's not that hard - so it would be rather scary if that many youngsters today were failing to get any qualifications.

This highlights a further, more significant, feature: there's an awful lot of variation between those with 'some qualifications', between for instance a solitary GCSE and an undergraduate (or postgraduate) degree. Again, something not clear from this, rather simplistic, survey...

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Picking Journal Referees

I'm meaning to write something on refereeing sometime soon (when I get chance), but in the meantime this post at Leiter looks as if it could generate interesting discussion as to how editors go about approaching referees. I'm always curious how and why I get approached.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011


I've seen a few things of interest in the news lately, but I've still been unable to add links here on my home internet connection. Here are a few:

Doctors want to change clocks.

BMA maintains support for opt-out organ donation.

MPs to pay more for pensions.

Hopefully normal service will be resumed soon - but, in the meantime, marking is just over and now conference season begins...

Friday, June 03, 2011

Career Reflections

In the opening of Plato's Republic, Socrates remarks that he enjoys conversing with older companions - such as Cephalus - because they have wisdom about the life ahead of him. Perhaps the modern world is such that my impending 30s will be very different from those of my much older colleagues, but it's still helpful I think to look to those not so far ahead of me in charting where I want to go and how I'm going to get there.

Colin Farrelly reflects here on his journey to becoming full professor. Not so much explicit advice, but interesting reading for those of us following in his footsteps. Not much over a year ago, I didn't know I'd be in Stirling now. I wonder where I'll be in ten years' time...

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Roundtable of Journal Editors

This discussion of how journals work in Theoria is quite interesting, especially I assume for those without much insight. I'm somewhat surprised how difficult it seems to be to find referees, though perhaps this explains why I've sometimes been asked to review some stuff that hardly falls in my area of expertise (narrowly defined). As suggested, it's doubtless because of increasing pressures to publish, and a significant influx of submissions from graduate students.

I'm not sure about the suggestion that quality should outweigh quantity in assessing scholars by their publications though. It seems to me that, other things equal, someone producing more good scholarship ought to be preferred to someone producing less scholarship of an equal - or maybe even slightly higher - standard. (This is all the more true, I think, given that quality is difficult to measure - though I'm unsure whether quantity should be measured in articles or words.) Of course, we should factor in considerations about people's circumstances: a post-doc gets more research time than a lecturer and thus ought to produce either more or better publications.

It's also interesting to get insight as to how Ethics works from Henry Richardson. Apparently they now receive around 400 manuscripts a year and only a quarter even make it to review. Hence I was pretty pleased with my paper!

Sunday, May 29, 2011


Having just enjoyed a very successful Law and Philosophy Graduate Conference here in Stirling, it's time already to look forward to another conference...




University of Stirling, UK

Mon 9th - Wed 11th July 2012

Keynote Speakers:

Sarah Broadie (St Andrews)
Frances Kamm (Harvard)

Papers are invited for the 2012 annual conference of the British Society for
Ethical Theory, to be held at the University of Stirling, following directly on from the Joint Session.
The subject area is open within metaethics and normative ethics. Papers on topics in
applied ethics, moral psychology or the history of ethics may also be considered provided
they are also of wider theoretical interest.

Papers, which should be unpublished at the time of submission, should be
in English, no longer than 6500 words, readable in 45 minutes and prepared for blind review.

BSET is keen that all selected papers will be communicated clearly to its conference audience.
Please bear in mind that all sessions are plenary, so the venue will be more like a lecture hall than a
seminar room.

Please send your anonymous submission electronically, and include an abstract.
In a separate document list your full name, address and academic affiliation. Those who submitted
papers for our previous conferences - successfully or otherwise - are welcome to submit again, although not the same papers.

BSET operates a system whereby the papers will have all identifications removed BEFORE being
sent to our Chief Referee, who contacts other referees and finalizes the program. The one exception to this is the identification of postgraduate status. Please tell us if you are a postgraduate student as submissions from
postgraduates are encouraged; we aim to have at least one graduate speak at the conference.

Selected conference papers will be considered for publication in the journal Ethical
Theory and Moral Practice. Please make clear in any covering email
whether you intend your paper to be considered for publication here as well as
for the conference programme, although final decision on this matter need not be made by the author
until the time of the conference itself.

The deadline for submissions is Friday 9th December 2010.

Papers and accompanying particulars should be emailed to the contact email on the following page: [under construction]

Note that ONLY electronic submissions will be accepted.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

School Skirts

I happen to have seen two interesting pieces relating to school skirts on the BBC lately, so thought I'd pass comment.

Firstly, a boy from Cambridge who found that, though his school doesn't allow shorts, it does allow boys to wear skirts. I've always thought that, while a uniform policy requiring boys to wear trousers and girls to wear skirts might pass as 'separate but equal, a uniform policy giving girls but not boys the choice is unequal. In this case, though, it seems he was only wearing a skirt as part of a peaceful protest, in an attempt presumably to be allowed shorts.

Secondly, it seems that schools it South Korea are making adjustments to desks to help girls with short skirts sit 'more comfortably.' This one strikes me as strange. I'd have thought that if the girls weren't comfortable sitting in short skirts then they wouldn't wear them. Obviously there are some concerns about peer pressure and collective action here, but nonetheless no one's really forced to wear a shorter skirt than they want to. Perhaps the real justification is to make teachers more comfortable...

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Quiet Time

Apologies for the lack of posts lately. It owes in some part to being busy at work, though the main reason is that I haven't been able to post links to Blogger from home. It works fine when I'm at work but, for some strange reason, seems to have stopped functioning properly at home. So now I only have time to write here if I can find it while in my office...

Saturday, April 30, 2011

FPTP Double Counts Some Votes

In my last piece, I argued that what matters when we’re thinking about a fair and democratic electoral system is not how many votes each person casts, but how many votes they have counted. I argued that, on this understanding, AV respects the maxim ‘one person, one vote.’ I didn’t criticize FPTP as such, allowing that it also satisfied this requirement. In this post, however, I want to show that FPTP actually double counts some votes and is therefore unfair.

For simplicity, I’m going to focus on an example where we have only three candidates, who I will call A, B, and C, and twelve voters. Let’s assume that (first preference) votes are allocated as follows:

A: 5 votes
B: 4 votes
C: 3 votes

Under FPTP, A is declared the winner, because A has more votes than anyone else. But what does this mean? Does it mean that A has a majority? The answer, evidently, is not in the strict sense, since a majority means ‘more than half’ and A only has five of the twelve votes, which is less than half.

It is sometimes said that A has a ‘relative majority.’ That is, A has a majority over B (five to four) and also a majority over C (five to three). Note, however, that when we compare A only with B, we ignore those who voted for C. In saying A has a majority of five to four (over B), we are only counting nine votes. Those three votes for C are excluded here (though, of course, they come into play when A’s votes are compared to C’s – there it is B’s votes that are ignored).

Saying that A has a majority – in this sense – over each of B and C taken separately does not show that A has a majority over the two of them together. It might be that all those who voted B would also prefer C to A (i.e. their full preferences were B > C > A) and similarly those who voted C prefer B to A (i.e. C > B > A). In this case, a majority (seven people) prefer B to A and a majority (seven people) prefer C to A.

How then does FPTP declare A the winner? The problem, it seems, is that FPTP either ignores some people’s votes – as votes for C are ignored when simply comparing A and B – or it double counts some. Think again of the comparison between A and B. We might imagine the votes ‘cancelling out’ until, after four votes on each side have been cancelled, A wins because there is still a remainder (one) in favour of A. To think that A also defeats C, however, we have to allow that each vote for A can cancel not only one of B’s votes but also one of C’s.

Someone who voted B doesn’t, I think, have good reason to accept defeat when only first preferences are known. They might acknowledge that B trails A by five to four at this stage, but they can rightly reply that they are not yet shown to be in a minority when we do not know how the other three (C voters) would rank A and B.

Now, it might be that C voters would prefer A to B. If this is the case, then AV would declare A to be the winner. This is a case, however, where AV and FPTP would agree. Most cases would probably be like this, so there’s little need to argue between them. If A is picked by both FPTP and AV then, uncontroversially, A should be the winner. (Remember, what we’re concerned with is who should win.)

To bring out the difference between FPTP and AV, we need a case where they come apart. Therefore let us assume that all C voters prefer B to A. In this case, B can reasonably complain about any electoral rule (such as FPTP) that awards the election to A. Here B is preferred to A by a majority of the electorate (seven of twelve), so surely the idea of equal votes and majority rule tells us that B should win.

The only way we can say that A ought to win is if we illegitimately infer that because A has a majority over each of B and C taken separately (five to four and five to three, respectively) then A also has a majority over the two of them together – but this is not so, since in this example we have assumed that a majority would actually prefer either B or C to A in a two-horse race (seven to five in either case). A only wins if votes for A are counted twice, first as defeating votes for B and then again as defeating votes for C.

As I argued last time, there’s nothing unfair about counting second preferences. Under AV, each person has only one vote counted (the three C supporters have their second preference for B counted instead of a vote for C, only once C has been eliminated). This is in stark contrast to FPTP, where as I’ve just argued A only has a majority if either some votes (those for B or C) are ignored or if those for A are counted twice.

Democracy is about responding to the people’s preferences, so surely it’s more democratic to have full information about people’s preferences. Imagine that A and B had tied in the first round (say, four against four, with three for C and one abstention). How could this be resolved?

One possibility would be some random device – such as the drawing of straws or flip of a coin. That procedure is actually deployed in the case of at least some tied elections. An alternative, however, is to break the tie by appealing to voters’ preferences – we already know those of the eight people who voted for either A or B, but we could ask either the one abstainer and/or the three who had voted for C which, out of A and B, they would have voted for had they had to. This is what AV does and surely, since it responds to people’s preferences, that is a more democratic way to break the tie between A and B.

But, if the second preferences of C voters (between A and B) are the most democratic way to break a tie between A and B, why shouldn’t they also come into a close contest? Once again, supporters of B have no reason to accept five to four as a defeat, if three people’s preferences between A and B have not yet been considered.

If C voters prefer A then, fair enough, B is in the minority (eight to four). But that is never shown under FPTP. AV will establish, once and for all, whether it is A or B that has a majority. If A, then it agrees with FPTP. But if B is preferred to A by seven of the twelve voters, then surely it’s more in keeping with democracy, majority rule, and equal votes to declare B the winner.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

AV and 'Multiple Votes'

Continuing my series (1, 2) in the run-up to the electoral reform referendum on May 5th, this time I want to look at another claim on the No2AV leaflet I have in front of me: “One person should have one vote. That’s fair.” (See also here.) Again, I find this flawed on several counts.

Firstly, one natural reading of this is simply that everyone should have at least one vote, and there is obviously no conflict between that and AV. Presumably, however, their intended meaning is that everyone should have exactly (or perhaps at most) one vote. They claim that “The AV system will mean the end to equal votes,” presumably meaning that expressing a second or third preference amounts to having two or three votes.

‘One person, one vote’ is certainly a rhetorically effective slogan, but again it needs to be analysed more carefully if we are to understand its meaning and implications. The appeal of the slogan is that it expresses political equality, but there’s no particular reason why it should be ‘one person, one vote’ rather than, say, ‘one person, five votes.’

Indeed, in the Scottish elections (to be held on the same day as the referendum) each person will cast TWO votes. I don’t mean a vote for their MSP and a vote in the referendum. Rather, the Scottish parliament consists of one lot of MSPs elected on a constituency basis with a second lot elected by PR, so each voter will get two ballot papers and cast one vote on each. I don’t hear anyone protesting that this is undemocratic.

Of course, the No2AV campaigner could say that there’s a difference between having two votes on two different ballot papers and having two votes on a single ballot paper. This merely highlights another ambiguity in the slogan though. We don’t think that each person should only have one vote in their lifetime. We wouldn’t disenfranchise someone now because they already voted five years ago. Hence we don’t literally enforce only one vote, but ‘one vote per ____’ where that blank needs to be filled in to specify how often each person should get their one vote.

The No2AV campaigners would have us believe that this blank should be filled in with per election, but I haven’t heard any good argument as to why we should favour that over per *round* of vote counting, as happens under AV.

As I hope I made clear in my original explanation of AV, no one exerts more influence than anyone else. The point of people expressing second and third preferences is that these ‘alternative votes’ are counted instead of their original (first preference) vote, if their first preference is eliminated. The principle is essentially the same as in a Single Transferable Vote (STV) system which, as the name implies, gives each person only one vote – the difference being that they are allowed to transfer it. (AV is in fact STV when electing only a single person per constituency.)

We could, in fact, replicate these results by having multiple elections. That is, if no one of five candidates standing wins an overall majority, we might eliminate the fifth placed candidate and hold another election with only four candidates standing, and so on until one wins a majority. Then it would be quite clear, I take it, that each person only has one vote per election. The point of AV though is that it saves the need for multiple rounds of elections, by having voters specify all of their preferences to begin with, so we can calculate what would have happened had there been a four-way election instead of a five-way one. (This also of course means that turnout is held constant and prevents tactical vote-switching between rounds.)

‘One person, one vote’ doesn’t tell us whether people should have one vote per election or one vote per round of counting. That’s the problem with slogans – since they’re not arguments, they can’t guide us in cases of ambiguity.

Here’s another example of ambiguity where simply asserting ‘one person, one vote’ doesn’t help. It might be objected that our current system fails to respect ‘one person, one vote’ because children are persons but aren’t given the vote. We might propose to remedy this by giving parents votes to cast on behalf of their children. Is this in keeping with the requirements of ‘one person, one vote’ because it gives children votes or contrary to it because it gives parents more than one vote? Either interpretation is possible, so the slogan alone is no help here. We need to get beyond the simple slogan and explore the reasons behind it, which might help to adjudicate between these two possibilities.

The same is true when it comes to AV or FPTP. Each system reflects a different understanding of ‘one person, one vote.’ FPTP focuses on how many votes one casts, whereas AV focuses on how many votes one has counted. The essence of AV is that everyone’s vote is counted once in each round of voting. Expressing a second preference does not give one more influence overall, it merely means that one can still have influence once one’s first choice has been eliminated. That second preference is counted (if at all) instead of one’s first preference, not as well.

Now when I’ve pointed this out to No campaigners, some have acknowledged that each person only has one vote counted, but still held that it’s objectionable for people to cast more than one vote, even if only one is counted. But this doesn’t seem plausible to me. What’s important is surely how many votes you have counted, not how many you cast.

Suppose we allow everyone to cast one vote, but then a significant section of those votes (either selected at random or perhaps those of some particular group) are simply discarded without being counted. Surely that wouldn’t be democratic. The ability to write marks on bits of paper isn’t what’s at issue here; it’s influencing the political process that matters. Thus, it matters that your vote is counted, not merely that it is cast.

Someone might say that’s unfair of me. We needn’t assume that it’s either voting once or counting once. It might be that both of these matter. Thus they could say that everyone has to count once (and only once) but also that people should only cast one vote. AV respects the first requirement, but not the second.

But I don’t see why we should think that each person casting one vote ought to matter, independently of each person counting once. Suppose we had a reform that allowed each person to cast as many votes as they liked, though only their first would be counted. (Leave aside questions about how this might be enforced.) I wouldn’t see anything wrong with that. You could go down to the polling station and mark as many ballots as you like, but it wouldn’t give you any more influence than me. In other words, it doesn’t seem to matter how many votes you cast, provided only one is counted.

For the sake of completeness, we can also imagine another example, in which everyone casts one vote but some people’s votes are counted twice. That, I take it, would be objectionable and undemocratic. So everyone casting one (and only one) vote doesn’t ensure equality; we have to make sure that each person is only counted once.

Let’s recap. Each person casting one vote isn’t sufficient for equality, if some of those votes are counted twice or not counted at all. Nor is it necessary, since we could allow people to vote more often, but only count their first vote. Thus, it seems that what matters is that each person’s vote is counted once and not more. It does not matter whether people cast more than one vote, provided each person only has one vote counted.

So, even if we interpret AV as people casting more than one vote, albeit only conditionally, it doesn’t violate the supposedly democratic requirement of ‘one person, one vote.’ One person should have one vote *counted*. That’s perfectly consistent with AV.

Note I’m not saying that ‘one person, one vote’ is inconsistent with FPTP. We might have an argument as to whether ‘wasted votes’ for minority candidates are really counted. But my aim here is merely to counter an argument against AV, not to offer positive argument for it. My claim is merely that ‘one person, one vote’ – when properly interpreted – gives us no reason to favour either system over the other.

Moreover, as I pointed out at the outset, this slogan isn’t actually particularly compelling to begin with; the Scottish elections illustrating that one person might have more than one vote in both senses.

The aim of AV is to ensure that the candidate elected is preferred to his or her rivals by a majority of voters. What’s undemocratic about that?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Under FPTP The Loser Wins!

I’ve already written one piece in which I set out my position on the coming AV referendum, but I’m so annoyed with some of the bad arguments that I hear coming from the No2AV side that I felt the need to tackle them individually. I’ll get to ‘one person, one vote’ later but, for now, I’ll focus on the claim that ‘under AV the loser can win.’ This is often presented through the medium of sports analogy, for instance the leaflet I have in front of me shows four runners crossing the finishing line of a race – one clearly in front, but with another marked as ‘the winner under AV.’ This isn’t really an argument as such, but rhetorically I think it’s very effective, so it’s worth showing what is wrong with this.

Firstly, AV will never elect the one who comes last on first preferences, because they will be first eliminated. In a two horse race, FPTP and AV are equivalent, so campaign posters that focus on such cases, such as a boxing match, are misleading. Nor can the one who comes ‘last’ in a race win.

Secondly, the sporting analogy is somewhat flawed. In many sports, the winner is determined not in a single contest, but over a series of contests. The Olympic gold medallist, for instance, is the person fastest in the final, with the qualifying rounds deemed irrelevant. Like in AV, it is not the initial results that matter, but the final standing.

As I pointed out in my earlier post, the name First Past The Post is actually importantly misleading, because (unlike in a race) there is no fixed winning post. Therefore showing runners crossing a fixed finishing line is disingenuous. AV does have a clearly defined winning line, namely getting a majority of votes remaining at any round of counting. Consequently, from the perspective of AV the winner is indeed the first to cross that line and the problem with FPTP is that it takes a snapshot of the race at some arbitrary point, such as after the first lap, and concludes that whoever is leading then is the winner, though they have not yet reached any previously specified finishing line.

The more general problem is that the slogan ‘the loser wins,’ common in the No2AV campaign, presupposes that who is the loser and who is the winner has already been determined. The supporters of FPTP are implicitly appealing to FPTP criteria (who gets the most first preference votes) to determine a winner and loser and then asserting that AV picks the wrong winner because AV doesn’t agree with FPTP. But this is circular reasoning that assumes precisely what is at issue.

FPTP and AV sometimes disagree, that’s the point of electoral change. Supporters of AV could similarly argue that under FPTP, the loser, according to AV standards, sometimes wins. That’s what shows they are different systems. The disagreement is not about who wins, but who should win. Proponents of AV think that, where the two systems disagree, the candidate picked out by AV is the one with the better claim to win.

Again, a sporting analogy is useful, provided that it is properly handled. There isn’t usually much disagreement about who wins a football match – the team that scores more goals than the other. There is, however, course some debate about how best to settle ties – e.g. whether to play extra time, replays, penalties, etc. This is more analogous to the voting referendum. It may be that the team that wins after extra time would not have won had the match gone straight to penalties. We cannot, however, reject either of these methods of determining a winner simply on grounds that they disagree – or we would, on grounds of consistency, be forced to reject both.

One problem of course is that we do not know who would have won penalties if they did not in fact take place. (Similarly, we do not know who would have won under AV if voters were never asked for their second preferences.) Nonetheless, football league tables can also serve as a useful illustration. Some leagues use two points for a win and others three points for a win, though these can produce different results.

Let’s look at the current English Premier League. At the moment (26/04/11), Manchester United would lead Chelsea, whether two or three points for a win. But that need not be the case. Imagine that, at the end of the season, we see the following results:

1sth: Manchester United (W 24; D 6; L 8) – 80 points
2nd: Chelsea (W 22; D 13; L 3) – 79 points

Interestingly, United win the league in this (hypothetical) example, despite losing more games than Chelsea. Why? Because they’ve also won more, having fewer draws. With three points for a win, it’s better to have a win and a loss than two draws. What if we used two points for a win? Then Chelsea would come out in front:

1st: Chelsea (22 x 2 + 13) = 57 points
2nd: Manchester United (24 x 2 + 6) = 54 points

(For a real world example, see here.)

If we calculate the table one way, then one team wins, but calculate it the other way and the results are different. That’s because we’re using a different means to determine the results. It’s no good simply asserting that ‘the loser (according to one method) wins (when a different method is followed)’ – again, that’s the whole point of a different method.

The debate we need to have is over who should win. In the football case, we need to decide whether a win and a defeat should count for more, less, or the same as two draws. In the political case, we need to consider whether it’s better to be first choice of a large minority of the voters (though perhaps widely detested beyond those) or to have widespread support of second or third votes, even if perhaps fewer people’s first preference.

We shouldn’t take the sports analogy too far. I’m not saying that if you think teams should get three points for a win that you ought to support FPTP (or vice versa). My point is that the debate is over who should win, so it’s no good for either side to pretend that that is already settled.

Don’t forget, under FPTP the loser (according to AV) can win...

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Leaning Towards AV (Though it Wouldn't be my First Preference)

In about two weeks’ time, voters in the UK will be given an historic opportunity to change the electoral system. The referendum motion asks whether the existing First Past The Post (FPTP) system should be replaced with the alternative known, conveniently enough, as the Alternative Vote (AV) system.

Unfortunately, while this is a potentially monumental issue, much of the media coverage that I’ve seen has been frankly very poor, with a lot of bad arguments and negative campaigning on offer from both sides. I thought I’d put my PhD in politics to use, by trying to offer something more sensible – though I hope that the following review won’t be too long or technical.

** Preamble **

Cards on the table time: I’m inclined to vote for the switch to AV. I say that at the start, to make clear that this won’t be an entirely neutral and dispassionate piece. Nonetheless, I’m not strongly in favour of AV, so I’ll try to resist advocacy. I think there are good arguments on each side, so if someone finds the arguments for FPTP more convincing that’s fine. My concern is that people vote based on good, informed argument, rather than on the basis of some of the bad arguments that I’ve heard thrown around.

Why the hesitancy? Well, I think it’s worth noting that NO voting system is perfect. Thankfully, our choice is this referendum is made simpler by the fact that we need not consider all of the many voting systems that have been devised. Our choice is simply between two: FPTP and AV. Hence, there’s no need to consider, for example, Proportional Representation (PR). I’ll define FPTP and AV in a moment, but first one further point is in order.

The referendum question is actually about which system we should use. In deciding how to vote in the referendum, I know some people who are swayed by other considerations, such as giving Nick Clegg a bloody nose or which option they think will favour future reform (some think AV might lead towards PR in future, while others think that this change will stifle further reform). I’m also going to set these considerations aside and focus, so far as I can, simply on the intrinsic merits of FPTP and AV.

** Defining the Alternatives: FPTP **

First Past The Post (FPTP) is probably the simplest option to understand, perhaps in part because it’s the system currently used in UK elections so already familiar to most of us. It works like this: each voter places a vote next to one candidate of their choice. After all votes are cast, they are counted. The candidate who gets the most votes is declared the winner.

It should be noted that the name – First Past The Post – is slightly misleading. There is no fixed winning post that candidates must cross. It would be possible in theory for someone to win with a very small share of the vote – just 10% for instance. Suppose we had eleven candidates competing in the election. If they are very close in support, it might be that one wins 10% of the vote and the other ten each win 9% of the vote. In this case, the former is declared the winner. This is true even though only one tenth of the electorate voted for them.

There are two points that we should notice, in particular. Firstly, the winner need not have (and in fact in UK elections rarely does have) the support of a majority (i.e. over half) of the voters. Secondly, the person with the most votes wins, even if deeply unpopular with everyone else. I’ll return to that point in a moment, but first it’s time to present the alternative.

** Defining the Alternatives: AV **

The alternative vote system allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. Voters may, if they wish, rank only one. If everyone did that, then the system would in effect work just the same as FPTP. It also allows voters to indicate a second choice, third choice, and so on. These are their ‘alternative votes.’ In effect, it allows someone to say ‘ideally, I want X, but if not X, then I want Y’ and so on – until, if they wish, they have ranked all candidates.

Once voters have expressed their preferences, the first round of counting begins by looking only at people’s first preferences. If any candidate has a majority of votes (over half), then that candidate is duly elected. If no one has a majority, then counting proceeds to a second round. In this case, the candidate with the smallest share of first preference votes is eliminated from the running. Votes for that candidate are then redistributed – any that did not express a second preference are eliminated, while those that did are now transferred to that second preference candidate. These votes are counted equally along with first preference. In effect, the voters concerned, having had their first choice candidate eliminated, are asked for their alternative choice out of those remaining.

(In French presidential elections, there are actually two separate votes. First, everyone gets to vote for whoever they like. Then a second vote is held between the two candidates who come first and second, to see which of these has majority support. This involves only two stages, but requires a second election. The aim of AV is to allow voters to express their alternatives on a single ballot paper, avoiding the need for multiple rounds of voting.)

This process is continued, with the least popular candidate eliminated in each round, until one candidate has over half of the votes remaining active in that round. Since this may ultimately result in only two candidates left in the running, it is almost certain that one will have a majority. (The only exception is if the final two end up exactly tied, 50% each – but ties are also possible under FPTP.)

** An Illustration **

These definitions may be clearer if accompanied by an illustration of the two systems in practice. I’ll use a simplified, non-political example. Suppose we have a club with 100 members trying to decide where to go on a day out. Let’s assume that there are four options: beach (B), football (F), museum (M) and shopping (S).

1) Ten people rank the options as follows:
B > F > M > S
That is, they prefer the Beach to anything else. They like going to the Football less than the Beach, but more than either a Museum or Shopping. And, finally, they prefer the Museum to Shopping.

2) Nine more rank:
B > M
These people also prefer Beach to anything else. They express no preference, however, between the Football and Shopping (though it is assumed, since their second preference is for the Museum, that they prefer Museum to either of these; they are simply indifferent between the other two).

3) Twenty-one people rank:
F > B > M > S

4) Twenty-five people rank:
M > F > B > S

5) Thirty-five people rank:
S > M > F > B

Under FPTP, these people can only vote for their first or most preferred option. That is, the people will vote for B, B, F, M, and S respectively. These are then totalled up, to show how many people support each option. The results are as follows:

Beach: 19
Football: 21
Museum: 25
Shopping: 35

Hence it is decided that the group will go shopping, because this option has more votes than any of the other options.

Note, however, that while Shopping was the most preferred option of 35 people (just over a third of the group), it was the *least* preferred option (solely or jointly) for all of the others. These people, presumably, would be very dissatisfied with this outcome.

Thankfully, there is a remedy at hand. Suppose the twenty-one people in the third group (those who rank F > B > M > S) realise what is likely to happen. They know that the Football is not that popular, so votes for Football are likely to be ‘wasted.’ (This is analogous to those who prefer a third or fourth party, but know that either Labour or Conservatives are likely to win.) Since these people still prefer Museum to Shopping, they may decide to vote tactically. That is, they could vote for Museum, rather than the Beach, even though this is not their real first preference. Then Museum would have 46 votes (to 35 for Shopping) and so win.

AV is, in effect, a way of avoiding the need for such tactical voting. It allows people to still express their real first preference – for Football – yet also to have a say when the choice comes down to Museum or Shopping. Because of this, however, the counting of votes will be slightly more complicated. In the first round, counters will look only at first preferences, so the first round will look like this:

Beach: 19
Football: 21
Museum: 25
Shopping: 35

The same as before. No option has a majority (over half) of the votes, so counting will now go to a second round. The Beach – as the least popular option – will be eliminated. Rather than effectively disenfranchising those who had voted for the Beach, though, the AV system says that we should ask how they would have voted from the remaining alternatives. (This is done without the need for a second, three-way vote, because we asked voters for their second preferences in the initial round of voting.)

Ten of those who voted for Beach would have voted for Football (their second preference) had the Beach not been an option, while the other nine would have voted for the Museum. Thus these voters are reallocated, according to these second preferences. This gives us:

Football: 31
Museum: 34
Shopping: 35

As we see, things are now very close. Had the Beach not been an available option, Shopping would still have won under a FPTP, but only by a single vote. Still, however, no option has majority support. It looks to be between Shopping and Museum, which are one and two in the votes, so Football is eliminated as now being least popular. But again to declare Shopping the winner would ignore the fact that it is the least popular option of almost everyone else. Almost two-thirds of people, in this example, would prefer either Football or the Museum to Shopping. This is confirmed when voting goes to a third stage.

Here, Football is eliminated and those whose votes are currently counted as for Football are transferred to their next preference, to see how they would vote between Museum and Shopping. As it happens, these are voters from the first and third groups above, all of whom prefer Museum to Shopping. (For some of these, Museum is their second preference and for some their third.) Thus, when these votes are reallocated, we get the following result:

Museum: 65
Shopping: 35

So Museum wins!

Sorry for the slightly lengthy explanation, but I think it goes a long way not only to explaining the difference between FPTP and AV but also the relative merits of the two. FPTP only looks at people’s first vote. Consequently, those in a minority are either effectively ignored or forced to misrepresent their true preferences by voting strategically. AV, on the other hand, looks at all of a person’s preferences. This means that an option, such as going to the Museum, can win in virtue of being a widely popular second choice, though it was not the most popular first choice. Political parties would, therefore, have incentives to appeal widely to as many voters as possible, even if they were unlikely to be first choice amongst those voters. Picking up second or third votes might still be enough to allow them to win.

Now let’s look at some of the arguments in more detail…

** Arguments Against AV, Considered and Rebutted **

One argument offered for FPTP is that it’s simpler. Voters only need to vote for one party, rather than ranking their whole preference ordering. I don’t think this shows much faith in voters. The added complexity of AV lies largely in vote counting, not in the act of voting. All voters need to be able to do is order their preferences. If you can count to three, then the chances are that you can rank three alternatives, for instance Conservative > Lib Dem > Labour. It should be added that voters are not *required* to rank all of the alternatives on offer. It’s fine to express preferences between your top three candidates, but then no further, in effect abstaining if the choices were to come down, say, to UKIP or BNP. If this is too difficult for most voters, then we probably ought to reconsider whether we want political decisions made by such idiots!

A second argument I’ve heard is that AV means giving some people more votes than others. This isn’t really true. Each person only has one vote counted at any given stage. The point is that people can also express a second preference, which might be counted *instead of their first* should their first be eliminated. These people aren’t given any more influence though, because those whose first preference is still in the running are still having their first preference counted. It seems ludicrous to suggest that someone who gets their second preference has more power or influence than someone who gets their first preference!

In fact, I think it could be argued that AV better ensures equality between voters, since it allows all voters (if they wish) to have their preference counted between whatever candidates are in the running. FPTP, as already explained, provides incentives for strategic voting. That is, savvy voters may realise that they can better serve their preferences by voting for a candidate who is not their genuine first preference. This behaviour is sometimes criticized as dishonest, though I am not sure I would go that far – why shouldn’t voters be able to use their vote as they wish? The problem, however, is that it means those who know how to ‘play’ the system can get more out of it than those who do not. The na├»ve bumpkin who simply votes for her genuine first preference may effectively waste her vote, when she could have been better served by voting for her second preference, to ensure that the candidate she detested did not win. This seems more inegalitarian to me. AV removes the advantage is strategic voting, so all people can express their genuine preferences and have them counted equally.

A third argument worries not simply about the fact that some people get their second preference counted, but about who these people are – namely, fringe minorities. Suppose, for instance, we had the following scenario:
49% vote Labour
48% vote Conservative
3% vote BNP, with second preference for the Conservatives
In this case, Labour would win under the FPTP rule, but under AV the 3% BNP voters would be reallocated to the Conservatives and they would win. It is worried that this makes fringe minorities potentially pivotal.

I think there is some merit to this concern, but it seems to be overstated. The electoral result doesn’t depend simply on the 3% BNP ‘fringe.’ The Conservatives only win, in this example, with those votes, but they also have 48% support in their own right. Moreover, it should be remembered that FPTP simply encourages tactical voting. The BNP supporters might simply have voted Conservative to begin with and we’d never have known. At least AV allows voters to express their true preferences and to have influence on the final choice.

Also it should be noted that a few fringe voters are unlikely in practice to make a pivotal difference. Where we have three (or four) major parties, it is likely to take the elimination of one of these before a winner is decided. Consider:
35% vote Labour
35% vote Conservative
30% vote Lib Dem
5% vote BNP, with second preference for the Conservatives
In this case, I have assumed more BNP support (5% rather than 3%). Even so, the elimination of the BNP leaves us with 40% Conservative, 35% Labour, and 30% Lib Dem, so still no overall winner. Who wins will depend on the second preference of (in this case) Lib Dem voters, not (only) the BNP voters.

These are some of the arguments that I’ve heard most commonly presented in the media. As should be obvious, I think that they’re all bad. AV isn’t too complicated (in fact it’s often used in many elections, including in student societies), doesn’t mean that some voters count for more, and doesn’t mean that electoral results will be determined by fringe minorities. There are, however, some better arguments against it. For reasons of balance, let me consider one of the more serious.

AV asks voters to rank their preferences in order, but an ordering gives us no information about how strong someone’s preference is. One voter might be almost indifferent between the candidates she has numbered 1 and 2, while another may have a very strong preference for his number 1 and consider his number 2 merely the best of a bad bunch. Consider this case:
Forty people rank A > B > C and much prefer A to either B or C, both of which they detest.
Thirty-one people rank B > A > C, but are almost indifferent between B and A.
Twenty-nine people rank C > B > A, but are almost indifferent between B and A.

Under AV, C would be eliminated and then B would win, 60 votes to 40. This is so, even though no one has a strong preference for B over A, but 40 people have a strong preference for A over B. We should be wary, this reasoning suggests, of reading too much into second preferences. This is true, but it should be noted that it is hardly a glowing endorsement of FPTP either. People may not be equally satisfied, under an FPTP system, with the alternatives on offer and, as we have seen, many may in fact vote strategically in any case. As I said at the outset, AV isn’t perfect – no system is. While this seems like a potential problem with AV, it doesn’t show that FPTP is any better. Where our choice is between the two, I’m still inclined towards AV.

** Conclusion **

As I said at the outset, I’m not totally confident in my preference for AV, because there are problems with it, but I don’t think these should blind us to the (possibly greater) problems with FPTP just because we’re more accustomed to them.

I’m uncertain about the referendum because, given the many factors that we might consider, I’m open to saying that one’s vote in the referendum *shouldn’t* be determined simply by which, of FPTP and AV, is the better system. (For instance, perhaps one should think about which will better serve the cause of future reform.) Nonetheless, if the question were simply which is better out of the two, then I’m much more confident that AV is preferable to FPTP and that’s the way I’m inclined to vote in the referendum.

My aim isn’t to convince others, but to encourage more constructive debate. Vote how you like, provided that you’ve thought seriously about the issue and have genuine reasons, rather than bad arguments, for your choice. I’d welcome constructive disagreement in comments!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Does a Dog Know More English than Capello?

Yesterday, Fabio Capello claimed he only needed to know 100 words of English to do his job. (To be fair, it was a flippant remark, but I'm running with it.)

This BBC piece lists the 100 most common words in the English language and notes that you wouldn't be able to do much with them - it's about the vocabulary of a two year old. (Presumably Capello's vocabulary is actually larger than 100 words anyway and certainly not confined to these; you'd expect him to know some football-related terms.)

More interesting, however, is this feature, on a dog that reportedly understands over 1000 words. Granted, the dog's vocabulary is passive, rather than active (i.e. it wouldn't use the terms itself), but that suggests that Capello really ought to be able to master more than 100. For his sake, I hope he can...

EDIT: Some Blogger bug seems to be preventing me from linking, so for now just copy and paste the URLs.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Teaching in a New Environment

Moving from Oxford to Stirling has involved quite a change in teaching styles. One observation made in our Learning and Teaching Review last week is that students here are never required to submit work solely for formative assessment. Every essay that submit could count towards their degree. ('Could' because for most modules there's an optional second essay, which counts only if a higher grade than the first.)

I'm still coming to terms with the change, but there's a thread here on The Philosophy Smoker about the shift from the UK - where most universities seem, like Stirling, to go for something like two lectures and one seminar a week - to US style classes.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Journal Rankings Compiled

I'm often looking up reports on journals in deciding where to submit papers, particularly when I stray from specialist political philosophy journals into more general venues. With that in mind, I thought it would be helpful - to me at least, but hopefully to others too - to compile some useful resources.

Brian Leiter had a survey of the journals, including general ones, publishing the best work in moral and political philosophy. Results here:
1 Ethics
2 Philosophy & Public Affairs
3 Phil. Review
4 J. Phil.
5 Journal of Political Philosophy
6 Nous
7 Philosophy & Phenomenological Research
8 Utilitas
9 Mind
10 Phil. Studies
(Pleased to see I've already published in two of those!)

A survey on Thom Brooks' blog - which I reported on here - produced the following ranking (I think it should be noted that 'general' journals appeared to systematically outperform 'specialist' ones):
1 J. Phil.
2 Phil. Review
3= Philosophy & Phenomenological Research
3= Nous
5 Mind
6 Ethics
7 Phil. Studies
8= Philosophy & Public Affairs
8= Synthese
10 Analysis

Finally, but by no means least, Brian Weatherson reports the results of a survey here. He doesn't provide a ranking, partly because a range of different measures are given, but going by the mean (avg) ranking here's how some of the above perform:
1 Phil. Review - 8.9
2 Mind - 8.7
3= J. Phil. - 8.6
3= Nous - 8.6
5 Ethics - 8.5
6 Philosophy & Public Affairs - 8.3
7 Philosophy & Phenomenological Research - 8.2
8 Phil. Studies - 7.3
9 Journal of Political Philosophy - 6.2
10 Utilitas - 5.8

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Banning Migrant Chefs?

This BBC article opens with the claim that:
"Migrants from outside the European Economic Area will no longer be allowed to work in the UK as chefs in takeaway restaurants, the government has said."

It's hard to be sure exactly what is the case, when one has one's reasons to doubt one's only source, but it seems like this is a misleading claim to me. It seems that the government are tightening up what's necessary for non-EEA immigrants to enter the country. Thus, those from outside the EEA won't be able to immigrate in order to work as chefs in takeaways (at least, unless they're well-paid graduates: the scheme seems to allow top chefs). There's no implication that those already in the country will be prohibited from working in takeaways - it's either alarmism or shoddy journalism to suggest that would be the case...

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Meanings of Frankenstein

Just a quick link to an interesting BBC feature on Frankenstein, suggesting ten readings/interpretations of Shelley's novel, not all of which had previously occurred to me. I found it quite informative.

The Relevance of Philosophy

Just a plug for two interesting threads over at Leiter Reports:

First, famous people with philosophy degrees. (See also the list compiled here - h/t Rachele.) Maybe not wholly reliable, but a useful resource now I'm Careers Liaison Officer for Philosophy in Stirling.

Second, this discussion of the importance of the history of philosophy, which looks like it will generate an interesting debate.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Housing Dementia Patients

The second time I've seen Stirling University in the news in just a few days: scientists have been working out how best to design living spaces for dementia patients. Details include colour-coding, lighting, and glass-fronted cupboards. They even sought to include easy internet access, on the basis that the elderly of tomorrow will be computer literate.

Of course, perhaps more worthwhile would be developing ways of combating dementia and ageing more generally - a common theme for Colin Farrelly.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Limits on Ownership

The BBC has a feature on games consoles here, noting that one's ownership is not unlimited but subject to various terms and restrictions. In fact, this is quite a common phenomenon. Books often have a condition that they cannot be lent or re-sold with an alternative cover or binding, while videos/DVDs are often not for hire or public showing.

Perhaps we don't really enjoy full ownership rights over much of what we possess. After all, the government reserves the right to regulate and tax our property. Libertarians might object to such interference but, as my friend Karl Widerquist has argued, no one buys the rights to a house (say) free from government taxation. The prices we pay for goods reflect the restrictions on them.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Me on the BBC!

Well, it's only local radio, but everyone has to start somewhere! Yesterday a brief interview with yours truly on the subject of democracy and protest was aired on 'The Other One Show' on BBC Three Counties Radio around 13:50. For those in the UK, this is available from the BBC's listen again service (for one week from original broadcast): go here to access the program, then skip through to about 45-7 minutes in to get to the bit with me in it (it's all over by 52 minutes).

Friday, February 11, 2011

Drunk Patients

Apparently a Scottish patients' group has suggested that people admitted to A&E while drunk ought to pay for their hospital treatment. It's not really clear from the BBC story what the justification for this is. It could be either a) that they may be at fault for the injury causing their admission and/or b) that they are more likely to be abusive towards staff while there. In either case, however, I'd worry that targetting all drunk people is both over- and under-inclusive.

That someone is drunk does not mean that they are responsible for an injury that they have suffered or that they will abuse hospital staff. Moreover, other people may be responsible for their injuries or be abusive towards hospital staff, though not drunk. If our concern is to charge those who are responsible for their injuries and/or abusive towards hospital staff, then we ought to focus directly on those criteria, rather than taking drunkenness as an imperfect proxy.

For the record, though, I think I'd be opposed to such measures. It's rather hard to go around assigning responsibility or fault for injury and, while I wouldn't be so tolerant of those who abuse the staff caring for them, there is a rather grey area as to what counts as abuse - it runs the risks that those who feel offended could claim to have been abused. There are good reasons, I think, to avoid delving into issues of responsibility (or means testing, etc) and to keep the NHS free at point of access. (This wouldn't prohibit taking other measures against seriously abusive patients.)

For what it's worth, Aristotle thought that penalties could be increased for those who committed crimes while drunk (para. 3 of NE III.5), and J. S. Mill thought that drunkenness - in some cases - could be fit subject for social interference, despite his celebrated 'harm principle.'

Sunday, February 06, 2011

De Botton on the Nanny State

This point of view column had the potential to be rather interesting but, sadly, I found it a rather infuriating read. It seems that de Botton conflates all liberals into 'libertarians' and, for some reason, assumes that a free society/neutral state requires there to be no advertising to influence consumers. That certainly isn't the libertarian idea of the free market that I'm familiar with...

Friday, February 04, 2011

A Ban on Farting?

Apparently judicial officials in Malawi disagree as to whether a legal prohibition on 'fouling the air' makes it an offence to fart in public. One argues that it is, citing public decency, which makes it look like the law - if interpreted in this way - violates Mill's harm principle (though Mill himself had some rather incongruous things to say about public decency). It's hard to say that farting (unlike air pollution) really harms others - and, even if it does, that need not justify a ban.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Oxbridge Elites

The BBC has recently featured articles on the narrow social elite dominating British politics and music. The former particularly annoyed me, because it started out noting the trend for posh public school boys to dominate the top jobs - even noting Howard Wilson (grammar school boy and alumnus of Jesus College, Oxford) had seemed like an end to such public school domination. Around half way through, however, it suddenly switches its attention to Oxbridge.

While it's true that Oxbridge has a disproportionate number of public school students, that's largely attributable to application and qualification rates. Oxbridge entry is by academic merit - as this BBC piece highlights - and, in my experience, there's certainly no bias in favour of those from posh backgrounds. You can't simply buy your way in to Oxbridge and it doesn't (currently at least) cost more than most other universities. Thus, Oxbridge is more analogous to grammar schools than public schools.

It seems that the original BBC article misleading conflates a social (class) elite with meritocratic intellectual elite. I'd certainly hope that the politicians running the country are some of the smartest people around and, as such, it doesn't surprise me if many of them went to Oxbridge (any more than that a presumably disproportionate number are graduates). I'd be far less welcoming to rule by a narrow social elite, both because of worries about class-biased legislation and the likely implication than some of our smartest potential politicians were being denied the potential to contribute because of the accident of their lowly birth.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Burns Night

I've never been to a Burns Night celebration before. Apparently quite a few colleges in Oxford mark the occasion, but Jesus celebrates St David's Day instead and for some reason I missed out in my two years at Corpus. Nonetheless, now I'm in Scotland it seems that the occasion couldn't pass unmarked, so Eloise just made a very tasty vegetarian haggis that we had for lunch.

The BBC feature here tells us how it should be done. (H/t Alice Walla.) I can just imagine it in a hall like in Oxford. My favourite part, however, was the line that "At a more egalitarian gathering - with no high table - the chair can simply bang on the table to draw attention to the start of the evening's proceedings." I guess more is after all comparative...

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Spanish Republicanism

How's this for research impact? Philip Pettit's republicanism seems to have taken off in Spain. If only everyone recognized the potential of 'philosopher kings'...

h/t Matthew Kramer, who points out the blatant falsehood of his claim that liberals cannot care about domination. They may not see it as itself diminishing freedom, but it certainly suggests a threat to freedom. A good classical utilitarian response, arguing that the problem is seen as one of security rather than liberty, can be found in the Journal of Political Ideologies here.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Initial Results of Thom Brooks' Journal Survey

Thom Brooks reports the initial results of his journal survey here (see his post for an explanation of the methodology, and try the survey yourself here). Here's a quick summary of some of those most relevant to me (i.e. political philosophy):

1. Journal of Philosophy 87
2. Philosophical Review 84
3. Philosophy & Phenomenological Research 83
3. Nous 83
5. Mind 82
6. Ethics 80
7. Philosophical Studies 79
8. Philosophy & Public Affairs 77
10. Analysis 76
10. Philosophical Quarterly 76
10. American Philosophical Quarterly 76
10. Philosophers' Imprint 76
10. Monist 76
10. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 76
16. Journal of the History of Philosophy 75
16. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 75
20. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 74
25. Philosophy 70
25. Ratio 70
28. Journal of Moral Philosophy 69
33. Journal of Ethics 66
42. Journal of Political Philosophy 62
49. Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy 60
53. Ethical Theory & Moral Practice 57
56. Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 56
57. Political Theory 55
57. Social Theory & Practice 55
57. Economics & Philosophy 55
62. Law & Philosophy 54
66. Journal of Applied Philosophy 53
70. Political Studies 51
71. Journal of Value Inquiry 51
76. Bioethics 48
78. Politics, Philosophy, Economics 47
90. Ratio Juris 38
97. Res Publica 35
109. Review Journal of Political Philosophy 30
114. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 28

As Thom notes in his own analysis, specialist journals (and a fortiori those that aren't really philosophy journals at all, even if they may publish philosophical work, e.g. Political Studies) seem to fare worse than might be expected. I speculate as to why this might be so in my comment:

I had a few goes at this and have one observation that might explain the poorer than expected showing for Political Studies - namely, we were asked to compare two journals *as philosophy journals*.

Had I been asked to compare Political Studies to, say, The Journal of Value Inquiry (which tied in your poll), I probably would have said that the latter is better qua philosophy journal, even if I regard the former as a better journal simpliciter.

Maybe the poll would have produced less surprising results if we'd been asked not to rank the journals as a whole but asked how we'd rank an average philosophical paper in each journal. (Though then I guess someone might complain that there are no philosophical papers in some.)

Also, I'm inclined to think that, when being asked to rank how good some journal is, qua philosophy journal, it's not unreasonable to favour a more general journal, because it will be of interest to a wider range of philosophers.