Thursday, December 20, 2012

Referendum Cost

You may recall that one of the arguments used by the No2AV campaign against electoral reform was its cost. The costs were obviously misrepresented, since the supposed cost of the referendum was included as a cost of adopting AV, though it was a cost incurred whether or not AV was chosen. Today it emerges that the cost of the referendum was over-estimated in any case.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Gay Marriage

I saw this attack on gay marriage on Facebook. Since the comment I ended up writing (on FB, rather than the blog) was rather long, I thought I'd share it here too: I have to say I'm not at all convinced. First, marriage is not "the only relationship where children can be conceived and born within the life-long union of their own natural parents", since children can be born out of wedlock and their parents may still stay together. Second, even if this was distinctive to marriage, it would suggest that we need a word not for lifelong union of man and woman but rather lifelong union of man and woman raising their biological children, if that's what's so special. This isn't what marriage means, as the author concedes ("This doesn’t mean that a man and a woman are obliged to have children, or that they are always capable of having children.") These examples apparently don't dilute the meaning of marriage, since it's still the case that marriage 'ordinarily' means lifelong union of man and woman raising their biological children. But, if this is so, then I don't see why gay marriage is any threat, at least provided it's not so common as to change the 'ordinary' case. Then marriage ordinarily means lifelong union of man and woman raising their biological children, or relevantly similar cases, such as childless couples of either sex.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Alcohol Minimum Pricing

It looks as if England and Wales could follow the Scottish lead and introduce minimum pricing for alcohol. I have a paper, which should be published soon, that outlines a Millian perspective on the issue. (No link yet, but I'll probably post again when it becomes available.) In short, I argue that Mill would have opposed minimum pricing as a means to discourage drinking, though he would have been happy with a tax on alcohol for purposes of raising revenue.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Tied Elections Decided by Lottery (Again)

Apparently when US elections aren't decided by the Supreme Court - or the popular vote - they use various lottery mechanisms to break ties, as in this case of New Mexico state house. Thanks to Peter Stone for the link.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Plural Voting

Next week the Mill seminar that I've been running this semester reaches Considerations on Representative Government (included in Gray's On Liberty and Other Essays, which is the set text for my course). Anyone with passing familiarity with this work will know that one of Mill's most (in)famous recommendations is a system of plural voting, according to which the poor and uneducated (although not those living on welfare benefits or the illiterate) would get one vote, but other more educated citizens would get more than one vote.

This idea generally strikes students as repulsive - correctly so, perhaps - but one point I try to stress is that, at Mill's time, this was a progressive proposal. In other words, he was not advocating taking away anyone's vote (as a proposal with the same content would today), but extending the vote. He wanted to give the less educated some power, which seems a clear improvement on none. (Though I can see why someone firmly committed to political equality might think it better not to go down this road.)

This Wikipedia entry is remarkably interesting though. It was not until the 1948 Representation of the People Act (first applied in the 1950 general election) that the UK abolished plural voting. Belgium also practised plural voting, something like what Mill proposed, between 1894 and 1919, apparently to limit the impact of universal suffrage. In practice, universal unequal suffrage may be a stepping stone towards universal equal suffrage, rather than a step away from it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Expanding the Franchise

The BBC carries a couple of recent sort regarding extension of voting rights.

This one refers to European rulings to the effect that a blanket ban on human rights contravenes human rights. The idea of giving some people, serving minor sentences, the vote doesn't seem so terrible to me. Indeed, given that we only have General Elections every 4-5 years, one could say it's unfair that some people serving a two year sentence will get to vote while others won't, simply because of when the election happens to fall in relation to their sentence. Perhaps this consideration could guide a distinction between those that do and do not lose their voting rights - i.e. anyone serving four years or fewer should still get to vote. But this isn't something I've given much thought to.

This piece covers the debate around extending voting rights to those aged 16 or 17, as the SNP proposes for the Scottish Independence Referendum. It's interesting to hear (or read) arguments on both sides, but I think some deserve commenting on.

Grant Costello argues that we allow 16 year olds to make important decisions, such as getting married. This is true, but doesn't necessarily mean we should allow them to vote: we might think they should be allowed to make (potentially bad) decisions over their own lives, but aren't fit to be trusted with power over others. (He does mention starting families, but aside from non-identity type reasons to deny that this harms the child, we can presumably trust to natural parental inclinations here.)

Philip Cowley argues that those aged 16 or 17 can often only exercise rights, such as to get married, with parental permission. This is interesting, but not necessarily enough to support his position. We could say that these teenagers should be able to vote with parental permission then (and, without permission, from age 18). Or we could argue that electoral outcomes will depend on 16 and 17 year olds in conjunction with their elders.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Electoral Reform

A while back - over the summer in fact - I attended a People's Gathering in Edinburgh organised by the Electoral Reform Society. I found it a pretty eye-opening day. True those involved, being self-selected, weren't truly representative of the general population, but I was surprised to find so many people on the same page regarding various political matters. A report on the day has finally emerged here. (For the record, I was definitely one of those calling for a decline in political parties.)

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Alcohol Policy

I've been meaning to blog about this for a while. Apparently researchers have predicted that minimum pricing for alcohol could save lives. (Interestingly, one consequence of my delay is that I see the estimated figure was reduced from 50,000 to 11,500 on 28th September!)

These calculations are fraught with difficulty and I'm no social scientist, so I'm just going to accept these claims. What I find noticeable, however, is the seemingly implicit assumption that this would be a reason to introduce minimum pricing throughout the UK. It's not clear that this follows, even if the empirical predictions are correct.

I don't think the state should ban alcohol, even though it leads to deaths, so it's not clear that it should so restrict it either. (Certain restrictions, particularly regarding age, are, of course, appropriate.) For those interested, there's a forthcoming special issue of Contemporary Social Science on Alcohol, Public Policy and Social Science (see the call for papers here), in which I have a paper developing a Millian liberal view of minimum pricing. (I argue that Mill would be against it.)

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Surprising Political Facts

1) Scotland operates five different electoral systems. Details here.

2) The Prince of Wales can veto Westminster legislation, according to this article (which is chiefly concerned with his revenue).

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Disenfranchising Non-Taxpayers

It seems that the idea of disenfranchising those who don't pay tax has reared its head again. Of course, I should have lots to say about such a proposal, but (aside from anything else) I'm busy right now preparing for a PhD viva on Friday, so I'll confine myself to observing that Hayek was not the first nor, in my estimation, the most famous philosopher to propose something along these lines. As I mention in my comment on the afore-linked blog, J. S. Mill made similar proposals in his Considerations on Representative Government.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Facebook on Organ Donation

Activity here has been sparse due to the double whammy of the start of semester and travel (York and St Andrews), but here's a quick post to note that I was quoted (albeit not really saying anything significant) in this feature on the Canadian blog Science-ish, on Facebook's attempts to increase organ donation.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

New Blog / Page 3

It's been a while since I updated my Blogroll - in fact, I still haven't - but I'd like to call attention to the new blog, Slave of the Passions, by my friend Becca. The first two posts have been really interesting. In particular, this one on Page 3, provoked such a lengthy comment from me that I thought it worth posting over here as a comment in its own right:

Point 1 [the harm complained of is not any to the models, who partake voluntarily, but to other women] is pretty obvious, especially to anyone familiar with the harm principle (though apparently not to defenders of Page 3, hence the need to state it). I might add, in the spirit of Mill, that institutions such as Page 3 may be harmful to men as well as women. I don’t choose to live in a world with Page 3 either, and it distorts people’s perceptions (perhaps even mine) of women *and* men (am I not masculine if I don’t want to ogle over Page 3?).

On the other hand, I have a worry that this line of argument can be a threat to liberty. For practically anything, someone can complain ‘I don’t choose to live in a society where that kind of thing goes on, and alters people’s attitudes’. Anti-gay religious types, for instance, may claim that their marriages are harmed by homosexuals, because homosexuality changes the meaning of marriage in ways that they do not endorse. Can we find a principled reason why the dispersed harm to women in general seems like a reason for interference, while harm to religious conservatives does not?

Perhaps, however, this point is unnecessary, given your point 3 [the petition is not calling for a ban, but for the Sun Editor to voluntarily stop publishing Page 3, hence it is not illiberal censorship]. If there was a harm, then it could justify censorship. But, if this isn’t censorship, then harm isn’t necessary.

This brings me to point 3, which is really interesting, but I’m not sure it’s quite adequate as stated. A Millian liberal recognises that freedom can be restricted by both state and society. If the Sun editor is cowed into not publishing Page 3 by social pressure, then that could be considered civil society censorship, even if no law is involved. I think we need to distinguish between the campaign successfully persuading him of the error of his ways and it failing to change his attitudes but nonetheless leading him to stop publishing because of social pressure. The latter could, I think, be considered censorship. I take it that your real aim is the former, which I agree is morally unproblematic, but it’s important to distinguish the two.

Monday, September 10, 2012

CFP: ALSP conference 2013 (Stirling)

Association for Legal and Social Philosophy
2013 Annual Conference: 24th-25th June

Division of Law and Philosophy, School of Arts and Humanities, University of Stirling, Scotland
Local organisers: Ben Saunders and Rowan Cruft

Keynote plenary speakers:
Bob Goodin (ANU/Essex)
Serena Olsaretti (ICREA-Pompeu Fabra/Cambridge)

Theme: Combining Theory and Practice
Papers are welcome in any substantive area of legal, social, or political philosophy (justice, democracy, rights, liberalism, communitarianism, punishment, etc) and from any philosophical methodological approach, but we particularly welcome those addressing the conference theme. These may be primarily either theoretical or practical in nature, but should seek to connect or combine the theoretical and the practical realms. They might, for instance, demonstrate how theoretical contributions can inform practice or illustrate how practice (and empirical study of practice) has implications for theory.
Both individual papers and proposals for panels on related topics are welcome.

Please send paper/panel proposals to by 14th January 2013. Submissions should consist of a title and 400-500 word abstract (for each paper, in the case of panels). These may be sent in the body of the email or as an attachment (.doc, .docx, .pdf), but please ensure that they are prepared for blind review (i.e. author’s name and affiliation should appear in your email but not with the abstract).

Any queries can be directed to Ben Saunders (ben.saunders) and/or Rowan Cruft (rowan.cruft), followed by .

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Representation: Local or National?

There's an interesting piece on the BBC website (here) asking whether MPs should resign their constituency representation when appointed ministers. The suggestion is that the functions of government might conflict with representing a local constituency.

I think that this is a really interesting topic, but the 'solution' proposed by the BBC doesn't seem - to me - to go far enough. I think the problem is not confined to government ministers; rather the problem is the system of local representation as a whole.

Burke famously argued that MPs were to represent the nation as a whole, rather than their electors. John Stuart Mill agreed, endorsing a proposal for proportional representation (devised by Thomas Hare) that would effectively abolish local constituencies, arguing that what mattered was representing people, rather than places.

Much more recently, Andrew Rehfeld analysed the same problem (in his book, The Concept of Constituency), pointing out that representatives are typically torn between pursing the national interest (as they should, as legislators) and local, partisan interests, resulting in 'pork barrel' politics. His proposed solution was to make representatives accountable to the national interest, by abolishing geographically-defined constituencies and having each representative elected by a random cross-section of the population, the interest of which should coincide with that of the whole.

Rehfeld's proposal has merit, if you want each elector to be able to point to a particular representative and say 's/he is my representative'. Personally, I'm not sure that's necessary. I'd be happy for the whole country to be treated as a single constituency (as in Israel). I don't see why localities need to be represented as such. After all, other interest groups - such as occupations - don't generally get this special treatment (though some groups do or have had it).

I'm not saying that local government should be abolished. In fact, I'm all in favour of it. My point is that particularly local issues should be left to local government. The role of representatives in parliament ought to be to consider the national interest and this isn't obviously served by having them drawn from localities (not least because of the disproportionality that tends to result from elections in single-member constituencies).

Friday, September 07, 2012

Stylish Academic Writing?

I've noticed that Helen Sword's recent book, Stylish Academic Writing, seems to have caused something of a stir - as evidenced by this advert-masquerading-as-news in Times Higher Education. While I don't think it's without merit, I think the praise is somewhat over the top. A longer review is, hopefully, coming soon (not in an academic venue), but in the meantime you can find my thoughts in my review on Amazon.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Solidarity in Bioethics

I have a piece published in the current (Sept 2012) issue of Bioethics, a special issue devoted to 'Solidarity in Bioethics'. The good news is that the whole issue is currently freely available without subscription here. I'm told that this will last throughout September. Here's the abstract for my piece:


Proposals for increasing organ donation are often rejected as incompatible with altruistic motivation on the part of donors. This paper questions, on conceptual grounds, whether most organ donors really are altruistic. If we distinguish between altruism and solidarity – a more restricted form of other-concern, limited to members of a particular group – then most organ donors exhibit solidarity, rather than altruism. If organ donation really must be altruistic, then we have reasons to worry about the motives of existing donors. However, I argue that altruism is not necessary, because organ donation supplies important goods, whatever the motivation, and we can reject certain dubious motivations, such as financial profit, without insisting on altruism.

Once solidaristic donation is accepted, certain reforms for increasing donation rates seem permissible. This paper considers two proposals. Firstly, it has been suggested that registered donors should receive priority for transplants. While this proposal appears based on a solidaristic norm of reciprocity, it is argued that such a scheme would be undesirable, since non-donors may contribute to society in other ways. The second proposal is that donors should be able to direct their organs towards recipients that they feel solidarity with. This is often held to be inconsistent with altruistic motivation, but most donation is not entirely undirected in the first place (for instance, donor organs usually go to co-nationals). While allowing directed donation would create a number of practical problems, such as preventing discrimination, there appears to be no reason in principle to reject it.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Is Fairness Hard-Wired?

A couple of recent papers in PLOS One - available here and here - find evidence of fairness-based behaviour in young children. Thanks to Chris Bertram for pointing me towards the BBC story.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Chimpanzee Lotteries

As we know by now, anything that varies depending upon where you live is a 'postcode lottery'. The term is generally used to condemn regional differences in healthcare provision or other services. I think that this is unfortunate as it tends to give lotteries a bad name.

One problem is that there is no real lottery here, or at least not one between already existing people. This relates to a second problem, that those who criticise these inequalities do not usually go on to notice that simply be born in the UK with a National Health Service, rather than in, say, Ethiopia is also morally arbitrary.

Anyway, I didn't want to embark on another lottery rant; my reason for posting is to note that chimpanzees are now subject to postcode lotteries, even though they don't even have postcode...

Monday, August 13, 2012

Olympic Medals and Lexical Ordering

Those familiar with Rawls's political philosophy will no doubt be familiar with the notion of lexical (or lexographical) ordering, the standard example of which is dictionary alphabetisation. Football league tables offer another example, usually with points scored lexically prior to goal difference, which is in turn lexically prior to goals scored.

I thought it worth noting that the Olympic medals table offers another fine example. For some particularly clear examples:
South Korea (13/8/7) comes 5th, ahead of Germany (11/19/14).
Kazakhstan (7/1/5) comes 12th, ahead of Netherlands (6/6/8).
North Korea (4/0/2) comes 20th, ahead of Spain (3/10/4).
Norway (2/1/1) comes 35th, ahead of Canada (1/5/12).
And, just to show that silver medals carry some weight, Australia (7/16/12) comes 10th, ahead of Japan (7/14/17).

It's a further question, of course, whether this lexical ordering is justified. Does one gold medal really outweigh any number of silvers?

I'm told by Canadian friends that Canadian reporting switched from using the lexical ordering to reporting the total number of medals, a measure on which Canada (36th) came ahead of Hungary (9th, with 8/4/5). This doesn't seem right either, since it counts a gold as being as good as (but no better than) a bronze.

Perhaps a better ordering would be one giving differential weight to different medals, but this (unlike either lexical ordering or equality) requires us to specify how much better gold is than bronze. If we were to say gold = 3 points, silver = 2 points, bronze = 1 point then we would get one result; but we'd get a quite different table if we said gold = 5 points, silver = 3 points, bronze = 1 point. (If that's not clear, compare two countries with the profiles (1/0/0) and (0/2/0) under each of these schemes.)

p.s. This is based on the table after the immediate conclusion of the games. Apparently the medal standings won't be absolutely final until 2020! (Maybe even longer: see update here.)

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Exam Results and University Entry

Two Scottish universities (St Andrews and Robert Gordon) have apparently been guilty of leaking exam results to some of their incoming students ahead of their official publication. (These are presumably Scottish Highers, but the same principles apply to A-Levels.)

What stands out to me is the fact that universities have these results so far ahead of the candidates themselves. I see that there's need for universities to be able to process offers before clearing, but I don't see why candidates should be kept in the dark.

What we have at the moment amounts to this (random dates):
4th - universities get results
11th - candidates get results
11th - clearing begins
I would have thought a much better system would be like this:
4th - universities get results
4th - candidates get results
11th - clearing begins

In other words, universities can still have the same amount of time to process grades, finalize offers, and work out how many clearing places they have, but candidates should know where they stand during this period. Those who've missed their grades will have an agonising wait for clearing to begin, but at least they'll know their grades and have time to think over and consider options, rather than having to make important decisions immediately after receiving disappointing exam results.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Measuring - and Reporting - Happiness

While I'm doubtful that the government can directly boost people's happiness, and wary of any attempts at its trying to do so, I do welcome recent moves towards policies aimed at improving well-being, rather than economic growth. As I argued in my last post, money is only means to an end, not an end in itself. I'd rather be poor and happy than rich and miserable.

It seems that the Office for National Statistics has recently published figures showing how happy we are. Sadly, even the BBC's coverage leaves a lot to be desired. First, I read this story, which says: "When broken down, Northern Ireland had the lowest life satisfaction rating - 21.9% - compared with 24.3% for England, 25.3% for Wales and 22.6% for Scotland."

It's not clear exactly what those figures mean, but on reading this other story it seems that they are completely misleading, since the latter article says: "People in Wales and England are less satisfied with their lives than people in Scotland and Northern Ireland ... England and Wales had similar proportion of adults giving a low rating for "life satisfaction" - 24.3% and 25.3% respectively. There were fewer people with low life satisfaction in Scotland (22.6%) and Northern Ireland (21.6%)"

In other words, the two articles give directly contradictory information using the same statistics: a fine example of innumerate journalism...

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Seeing Beyond the Economic?

A lot has been made of the (potential) economic benefits that the Olympics are set to bring, not only to London but the whole of the UK. Even Scotland, it is claimed, will receive a sizeable economic boost. Moreover, it was recently announced that Sunday trading laws would be temporarily suspended in England and Wales, to allow shops to benefit from increased custom during the games.

It's difficult of course to quantify the economic benefits that may result from the Olympics, since it won't be clear whether particular contracts are due to the games or not or how the economy would have fared had the games not taken place. This has led some to question whether the benefits will be as significant as some (such as the government) claim - or, in other words, whether the money spent on the Olympics is really a worthwhile investment. Even if the Olympics do turn a profit, could that money have been better invested, say in infrastructure improvements?

Unfortunately I can't find a link to this, but it was somewhat gratifying this afternoon to hear a spokeperson on the radio saying, in effect, that even if the economic benefits of the games are negligible, they may be a good way of spending public money if people enjoy them. While I'm not sure myself that they are the best way to spend public money, it's pleasing to hear someone take a non-instrumentalist viewpoint.

Not everything we do ought to be driven towards making more and more money. Money ought to be a means to an end, not an end in itself. Indeed, if the only point of making money was to make more money then it would be arguably without a point - the point is that we can spend it to acquire other things that we value. Thus we ought to recognize that there are things that are worth spending money on, whether or not they produce an economic return.

If this thinking were to receive more recognition, then politicians might come to apply similar reasoning to education. Presently they almost invariably focus on providing the skills necessary for the economy, but education ought to do more than that: it ought to be something that is worth spending money on, rather than simply a means to making money.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Cruft on Leveson

As I write, my colleague Rowan Cruft is being interviewed by the Leveson inquiry - live streaming here. (This should, I understand, continue to be available later.)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Biased Coins

I've come to quite like Richard Wiseman's Friday puzzles - though sometimes the answer's obvious and sometimes it's a rather infuriating trick question. This recent one, on how to choose randomly with a biased coin, is of course right up my street. Richard's answer was posted here. Clever, but I (and others) think that this was cleverer than needed, given the set up of the question. I explain why in my comment here. I think epistemic randomness is sufficient here, so only one toss is needed.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Don't Panic

Afraid posting's been slow because, between work and watching football/tennis, I've been rather busy of late, but I thought I'd just put in a quick plug for Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Philosophy, in which I co-authored a chapter. Note that this is published by Palgrave-Macmillan, rather than one of the usual popular philosophy publishers (like Open Court), but it is of much the same ilk - a lighthearted introduction to some philosophical issues raised in/by/through Douglas Adams' HHGTTG.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Liberal Decalogue

I just saw Bertrand Russell's ten commandments of teaching, which strike me as the kind of thing that ought to be promulgated more widely.

I was particularly struck by number four: "When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory." Given that this list was first published in 1951, it surprised me that it seems to be addressed to women.

Monday, June 04, 2012

What Money Can't Buy

I've just posted a short (400 word) review of Michael Sandel's What Money Can't Buy over on Amazon.

I should say that the review is written for the book's popular audience, rather than professional philosophers. If I were reviewing it for an academic journal (and I do intend to write a longer, if not more academic, review at some point), then I would probably be a bit harsher about the lack of real argumentation.

Sandel's message is simply that we need to think about the appropriate limits of markets, but he doesn't explicitly put forward his own recommendations, preferring to fall back on the idea that they are a matter for public debate. Nor does he demonstrate that markets do corrupt other practices in a way that would convince someone who does not accept this. The appeal to social understandings - as with Walzer's Spheres of Justice - is essentially an appeal to intuitions that may be contested.

Nonetheless, as popular philosophy I think the book works well. While one can detect continuities with Sandel's other works, and implicit criticisms of Rawls-style universalist liberalism (particularly in Sandel's emphasis that public debate should draw upon moral visions of the good life), none of this is necessary. It's accessibly written and something that I hope gets widely read. To say that anything that brings political philosophy to a wider audience would be an exaggeration (in case, for instance, it was really bad), but this I think is an admirable popularisation of ideas developed elsewhere (for instance by Walzer and Satz).

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Pots and Kettles

Last week I (at least implicitly) criticized the SNP, for condemning a Labour-Conservative coalition in Stirling. In the interests of party balance then, I should mention that today I saw this piece on the BBC, which reveals that Labour were the largest single party in Dumfries and Galloway (15 seats) but have been ousted by an SNP-Conservative coalition (10 and 14 seats respectively). The interesting point is that Labour group leader Ronnie Nicholson is quoted as saying "The Tories lost the election, and the people of Dumfries and Galloway voted to kick them out. But the dead hand of Tory rule has been given the kiss of life by the SNP." The irony is that these words - such as the dead hand reference - echo what the SNP said about the Labour coalition in Stirling.

So, if there is any merit to this claim, then the Labour group from Dumfries and Galloway are implicitly criticizing the Stirling Labour Party, while the SNP from Stirling are criticizing the SNP from Dumfries and Galloway...

Friday, May 11, 2012

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Logic of Proportional Representation

I commented last week on the Scottish local council elections. As it turns out, the results in Stirling were rather interesting: SNP: 9, Labour: 8, Conservative: 4, Green: 1.

No party had a majority (over half of the 22 seats). But in today's news I see that the Labour and Conservative Parties (12 seats between them) have agreed to enter a coalition. (This makes a change from the SNP minority council that's been in charge from 2008 until now.)

I was struck by the reported reaction of the SNP:
"Graham Houston of the SNP ... said: "The people of Stirling will be shocked that the Tories and Labour will get together to form an administration on Stirling Council, despite neither party being the biggest party after Thursday's election ... The real losers will be the people of the Stirling Council area, who after rejecting Labour at the ballot box will nonetheless see Labour entrenched at the helm of Stirling Council ... The people of Stirling will rightly feel betrayed by this treacherous Labour/Tory alliance.""

It seems that this statement is either downright misleading or portrays a lack of understanding of the electoral system. The elections were held under STV, a form of proportional representation. The simple idea is that the party or parties with a majority of seats thereby represent the majority of voters.

Ok, it's true that no one voted for a Labour-Conservative coalition, but the Labour and Conservative councillors between them represent more people than the SNP alone. It's not clear in what sense he can say that the people of Stirling rejected Labour, except in so far as Labour failed to win a majority, but that is true also of the SNP.

Simply being the largest single party does not give one the right to govern. Suppose we had one centre-right party with 40% support and two centre-left parties each with 30% support. Here we should expect the latter two to form a coalition government and, in doing so, they would be representing the majority of the people.

Disclaimer: I don't know the exact breakdown of the vote in Stirling, nor how the redistribution of preferences went to arrive at the final outcome, but the difference between SNP (9 seats) and Labour (8 seats) could be negligible. Even if it's not, the above points still stand. Proportional representation is intended to realize majority rule, whereas non-proportional systems of representation allow sizable minorities to wield disproportionate power.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Paid to Quit

Apparently a study in Dundee found that people who were paid incentives to stop smoking were more likely to succeed in giving up. Since the incentive was not the only help provided, it's not necessarily the case that it was the effective element, but it does seem to do some good. Interesting, I suppose, given that it requires some capacity for delayed gratification.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Electoral System Watch

I've just finished teaching my module on Democratic Theory. When discussing the plurality run-off method, I used French presidential elections as my example, though there voting takes place in two distinct stages. It seems, however, that the London mayoral elections use the plurality run-off method, as the BBC report here:

"With no candidate set to get 50% of votes, the top two go into a second round, where the second choices of those who voted for the five eliminated candidates are reallocated."

In related news, local elections were also held in Scotland, using the STV method (see the end of this report on results or this Q&A).

Readers may remember that I backed the 'Yes to AV' campaign in our recent referendum on electoral reform. Though there are some problems with AV, I think the three main arguments that swung the referendum were: i) under AV the 'loser' wins; ii) under AV some people get more votes; and iii) AV is too complicated/expensive. I don't think any of those arguments are good ones, and the links given will take you to my rebuttals of the first two. But the interesting point is that all of those arguments apply at least as well to STV, but I don't hear anyone round here complaining about it...

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Stirling Research in the News

We've been thinking lately about REF submissions and impact statements. It's nice to report that I've seen research from the University of Stirling featured in two recent BBC stories: First, research on the Curriculum for Excellence in schools. Second, news that even mild exercise, such as a brisk walk, can help combat depression. Now we just need to encourage the BBC to report more on research in philosophy...

Friday, April 13, 2012

Leiter Philosophy Journals Poll

I've reported before on various journal rankings, so I thought it worth noting that Brian Leiter is running a new poll via his blog (voting form here) seeking to identify the best 'general' philosophy journals. I've been thinking that I should probably send some of my work to such general journals, rather than the specialist political philosophy journals, so I'll certainly be keeping an eye out for the results.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Fish in Trees

I assume many people have seen the Einstein quote about fish climbing trees meme. Well, here's an amusing little feature from The Onion that reminded me of it. According to the (hoax) story, scientists have found that dolphins perform less well in a variety of intelligence tests on land and in fact even exhibit a negative learning curve! Yes, I know dolphins aren't actually fish. Still, in conjunction perhaps these two pieces remind us that a lot of what we consider 'intelligence' is really contextual and that someone who performs well in one set of conditions may not do so well had certain features of their environment been different. The kind of lesson situationist psychology has been teaching, to say nothing of quasi-Rawlsian scepticism about talent and desert.

Friday, April 06, 2012

University Competition

The point of allowing a (limited) market in the higher education sector, I thought, was that competition would drive up academic standards. As those familiar with the US would attest, however, the problem with this is that the consumers in question (students) don't necessarily respond to academic standards in their spending decisions: rather, their money goes to the universities offering the best 'student experience'. Thus, we see universities competing to offer the best accommodation, sports teams, or even nightlife, rather than well-stocked libraries or knowledgeable teachers (things that, even if would-be students were interested in, they would not be in a position to assess). This point is not original to me, but I notice that it seems that these predictions are being borne out as universities seek to build plush campus hotels, at the same time as making cuts to academic budgets and offering staff another below-inflation pay 'rise'...

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Joint Sessions

The 2012 Joint Sessions (of the Mind Association and Aristotelian Society) will be held in Stirling this July. This is the UK's biggest professional philosophy conference. The website has just gone live and registration will soon be open (from 1st April). On that note: (fairly hefty) late registration fee will apply after the end of May. I should also encourage delegates to pay by debit, rather than credit, cards where possible: although the cost to the delegate is the same, credit cards incur a processing fee which means we lose money that would otherwise have gone to a registered charity (i.e. University of Stirling - and through us also to the Mind Association and Aristotelian Society).

Thursday, March 15, 2012


Eek, it's been over a month since my last post. I've not been abducted by aliens, or given up blogging, but I have in that intervening time bought a house (and moved in to it). Normal service should be resumed shortly...

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Lotteries Are Gambling

I happened to glance through the Metro today, whilst waiting for an appointment, and noticed a feature on lotteries. It actually draws on Prof Mark Griffiths, from Nottingham Trent University, to deliver this shocking statement "Prof Griffiths believes lotteries are a form of gambling". I wonder if that counts as impact?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Downsizing Lottery

A US Court once judged that, where there were too many people at sea for lifeboats, places should be allocated randomly (United States v Holmes, reported in this paper by John Broome). No, this post isn't about the recent Costa Concordia disaster - where the captain apparently tripped and fell into a lifeboat, without a lottery - but rather about the recent news that street cleaners in Edinburgh were downsized by lottery. This has, it seems, proven controversial and the workers in question have apparently been reinstated until a more acceptable basis can be found to determine who to lay off. Odd, I think, that a lottery should be a fair way to make life-or-death decisions, but not to decide who suffers the fate of unemployment...

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Football B Teams

So Andrea Villas-Boas has apparently suggested that Premier League teams be allowed to field reserve/B teams in the lower leagues. And it seems that David Moyes even tried to register an Everton reserve side in the Conference. Didn't Benitez suggest this kind of thing years ago (to some criticism, even ridicule)? Of course, that several people share an idea doesn't mean it's necessarily a good one, but it seems to work on Spain. Perhaps it's worth some debate...

Friday, January 20, 2012

Selling Votes

John Holbo has an interesting post on buying and selling votes over on Crooked Timber. Not many comments yet, but hopefully it will provoke a debate that's worth following...

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Peer Review

I've just been updating my CV and, in the process, took a tally of the number of articles I'd reviewed each year. I didn't keep careful records but, by my reckoning, in 2008 (the year I completed my doctorate) I reviewed one article, in 2009 I reviewed four articles, in 2010 I reviewed 8 articles, and last year (2011) I reviewed 15 articles and a book manuscript. So far this year, I've already reviewed one article and committed to two more. Is this going to be an exponentially growing demand upon my time I wonder?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Conversation on Philosophy

The blog's been awfully quiet lately, with me being busy with marking and then away for Christmas and New Year (though the fact that it no longer reaches readers via Facebook is also a downside), but here's an interesting report of a conversation about the nature and value of philosophy, pitched towards a 'layperson'.