Monday, December 30, 2013

A Real Life Isle of Pines

One book that I clearly remember reading during my undergraduate days is Henry Neville's The Isle of Pines, a sort-of dystopian work about an island community all descended from one European male and his four female consorts. Something along these lines is clearly possible, as shown by the example of Palmerston, part of the Cook Islands. According to this BBC feature, 59 of its 62 inhabitants are descended from William Marsters, an Englishman who settled on the island in 1863. Sounds like a remarkable place, despite some inbreeding.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

I Blog on Scottish Independence at Democratic Audit

See here. (As noted at the end of the post, my piece is a summary of an article originally published in the journal Politics.) Since I submitted mine, they also published this piece on implications for Cornwall (which I would have cited, had it been published earlier).

Monday, November 11, 2013

Prisoner Voting

An interesting proposal here, from Chris Bennett and Daniel Viehoff, is that all prisoners should be allowed to vote in the final election before their release. I think it's one job for us academics to add to the options on the table for policymakers (as well as to then help choose between them) and I think this is an interesting suggestion, though I'm not sure of its practicality. As I put it in my comment: "An interesting proposal, but how do we identify the final general election before their release? Not only might their release date not be certain in advance, but also general elections (in the UK) are not held at fixed intervals but called by the government. If the next general election is in 2015, and we gave everyone due to be released by 2020 a vote in it, what would happen if there was another general election in 2017? Then some of those prisoners enfranchised in 2015 ought not to have been."

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Glasgow Games Lottery

Organisers of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games have defended random ticket allocation. The reaction seems to reflect a popular ambivalence towards lotteries. I think, where more people want tickets for an event than there are tickets, a lottery is fair as a tie-breaker. The controversy, however, concerns the fact that tickets for each event were allocated entirely independently, with the consequence that some people applied for several events and won nothing, while others won multiple times. It's not clear that this is fair, because it's not clear that someone who already has tickets for one event has an equal claim on tickets for another event as someone who does not already have tickets. This isn't to say that lotteries are inherently unfair, of course, but only that we need to be careful how they are administered.

Monday, September 30, 2013


I was on TV tonight. Admittedly, I was only in the audience, I didn't speak, and in fact you only catch a very brief glimpse of me as the camera pans across the audience (I was sat back left), but I was at the BBC studio in Glasgow for the filming of an episode of Newsnight Scotland focused on the arts. (I believe anyone in the UK can watch for the next week here.)

I was surprised how much waiting around there was. We were told to turn up around 5:45 and certainly by 6:15, for filming to start at 7:30. I assumed we'd get some extensive briefing or something but for the most part we did nothing until around 7 (though those who had been pre-selected to ask questions may have received some further advice).

Friday, September 06, 2013

Democracy Max

The Electoral Reform Society has recently released this video-clip of events in Scotland. I was at the People's Gathering in Edinburgh - though you can only just about see me at the back, towards the left, around 2:30. There's a much clearer shot of me at one of the public events in Stirling, at 4:35 (perhaps not the most flattering shot, but you can see that I'm talking).

There was a previous video of the Edinburgh People's Gathering, using much of the same footage, but in which I am more clearly visable - albeit behind a flipchart - around 1:40-2:00 and again, standing on the right, at the very end.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Are We Being Lied To?

Apparently - according to this BBC story - a good number of buttons on pedestrian crossings do nothing, as crossings are often automated, at least part of the time. This isn't simply in response to traffic. Some stops in North London are timed to avoid Jews having to operate them on the Sabbath!

The article focuses on whether we're being lied to when buttons don't actually do anything. I'm not sure I've ever been clearly told, by someone in charge of them, that the buttons do something; the authorities need only give the instruction 'press the button and wait for the green man' which is reasonable advice, even if the button may do nothing in some cases.

I found the brief comments on jaywalking more interesting, given that I've recently been thinking about paternalism and cases like Mill's bridge-crosser. Martin Low, transport commissioner for Westminster City Council, apparently thinks that we should allow individuals to judge for themselves whether it's safe to cross.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Targeted Compulsory Voting

It seems that a new (forthcoming?) report from the IPPR will recommend that young people be required to vote in the first election in which they are able. This is actually an idea that I proposed in Public Policy Research (the IPPR's own journal) three years ago.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Alcohol Minimum Pricing Shelved in Rest of UK

I recently published a piece arguing that the SNP's minimum pricing proposals ran counter to Millian liberalism, since the aim is protect drinkers from themselves (paternalism), rather than to prevent harm to others. At the time the Westminster coalition government were considering following the Scottish lead and introducing minimum pricing in England and Wales. It now seems, however, that this plan has been shelved. Too bad they didn't cite my article as a key driver of policy...

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Literacy Tests for Voters

J. S. Mill argued that voters should have to satisfy general literacy and numeracy tests before being allowed the franchise. The idea doesn't sound ridiculous in the abstract, but the danger lies in how the tests are administered.

This is apparently the kind of literacy test used to deprive blacks of the vote in the US South. It's full of trick questions (like 25) and others that are so ambiguous (20 and 27) as to, in effect, allow the sheriff arbitrary power to decide who has the answers right and wrong.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Special Issue on After-Birth Abortion

A Journal of Medical Ethics paper on 'after-birth abortion' caused quite a stir around a year (?) ago. While looking for something else, I just saw that the whole May 2013 issue seems to be devoted to a discussion of it and the issues that it raises (including not only abortion but also free speech). Sadly, I don't think my University library has an up to date subscription to JME, but a few pieces at least are Open Access. Worth a look I think.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Are Playoffs Lotteries?

Not content with penalty shootouts often, misleadingly, described as lotteries, the BBC now asks whether promotion playoffs - in which the teams finishing 3rd-6th compete in a mini knockout tournament for a third promotion spot - are also lotteries. The outcome, however, is decided by playing football, rather than drawing straws, so the obvious answer is no, not unless all football is a lottery. I wonder if this (lottery) is how BBC journalists decide what to write about...

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Nudge, Nudge

I discovered a 'new' (as in, new to me) weblog about nudging here, run by a group of geographers (mostly) from Aberystwyth. I've not thoroughly explored yet, but it looks interesting. Apparently, the term 'nudge' was suggested by the publisher. Perhaps this explains why Thaler and Sunstein (infamously) don't clearly define it...

This all came to my attention because one of the blog authors, Jessica Pykett, is speaking at Stirling next week.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Expatriate Voting

The UK disenfranchises expatriates who have lived abroad for 15 years or more. This policy has just been upheld by the ECHR. It seems reasonable to me.

To pick on some features cited in the story, as evidence of a close relationship with the UK, I don't see that having family in the UK or a UK bank account entitles one to a vote, or else many foreigners (who don't get to vote and probably shouldn't) would qualify for the franchise. Nor do I see why receipt of a British state pension should bring further entitlements, such as the franchise. Presumably the point is that this entitlement was accrued through years of contributions to Britain, but the veteran in question had the vote during those years of contribution. If he now no longer contributes to Britain, then still receiving a pension would seem more than enough - why should he get the vote as well?

Territory seems a pretty good basis for the franchise, since it is those within a territory who are primarily addressed and bound by the laws (though there are problems here with migration). If this is so, perhaps expatriates ought to be disenfranchised sooner. After all, if they're that close to the UK, why have they been living abroad for 15 years?

Friday, May 03, 2013

BSET 2013

Last year's British Society for Ethical Theory conference took place in Stirling and was very enjoyable. I don't expect to make this year's, since I'll have enough on my plate organising the Association for Legal and Social Philosophy conference (again in Stirling), but the BSET 2013 line-up has now been announced. It looks great!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

'Evidence' Based Policy

There's on going controversy regarding minimum pricing for alcohol, with reports that the drinks industry gave weak or distorted evidence to influence Scottish government legislation.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Housing by Lottery

Well, not quite, but with more than 600 people having applied to buy one of 35 run-down homes in Stoke, "Stoke-on-Trent City Council said the initial 35 homes would be randomly allocated to the successful candidates", albeit with priority for those living in the area.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The FA and Retrospective Punishment

Today it was announced that the FA would not take action against Callum McManaman for his tackle at the weekend. The BBC quotes the FA statement that "Where one of the officials has seen a coming together of players, no retrospective action should be taken, regardless of whether he or she witnessed the full or particular nature of the challenge. This is to avoid the re-refereeing of incidents".

So far, so good, but clearly this isn't a consistent line. Go back to September 2006 and Ben Thatcher's elbow on Pedro Mendes, as covered here. The BBC's own description of events ran "Manchester City defender Ben Thatcher has been suspended for eight games by the Football Association for elbowing Portsmouth midfield man Pedro Mendes.... Thatcher was only booked at the time by referee Dermot Gallagher".

Clearly, then, it's not unprecedented for the FA to take retrospective action, even when an official not only saw the incident but when punishment was meted out at the time. In fairness, the BBC story on the Thatcher case notes that because "of the severity of the incident, the FA circumvented its own rules to lodge a charge of "serious foul play" against Thatcher". Since that set a precedent, however, it's disingenuous of anyone to suggest that the FA could not have acted in the recent McManaman case, had they wanted to; the fact is that they chose not to.

(For the record, I've not seen the McManaman incident and am therefore agnostic as to whether it deserved retrospective punishment; my point is simply that the reasoning offered by the FA for not taking such action seems weak, given that they have done so before.)

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

MPs and Hypocrisy

There's a piece by the BBC on MPs' practice of abstaining by voting both for and against a bill, rather than not voting at all. It's a slightly odd practice, but it seems that some MPs at least think that it allows them to register views such as that they support a motion in principle but have reservations about the particular implementation before them. In fact, it's not clear that this abstention is any more articulate than silence, since it seems that sometimes the double vote can be due to a mistake.

I was struck by the following quotation, from Andrea Leadsom:
I find myself genuinely torn... I cannot vote against a measure that would mean so much to the minority of homosexual couples for whom marriage is the ultimate recognition for their genuine feelings for each other. Yet nor can I vote for a measure that risks centuries of faith based belief in marriage.

Remember, this is supposed to rationalise voting both for and against the gay marriage bill. First, she says that she cannot vote against it, though she did so. Then she says she cannot vote for it, though again she did so. True she might reasonably say she did not support the bill, nor oppose it, since by casting a vote either way her influence cancelled out. But she specifically says she could not vote either way, even though she did in fact vote both ways.

It's often said that to vote a particular way is to align oneself with it, which explains why people sometimes feel that they cannot vote a particular way with a clear conscience. Voting both ways isn't to align oneself unambiguously with either, but if voting sends any signal then she has to admit that she did vote for gay marriage (and against it). Perhaps, if she really felt that she couldn't vote either way, she shouldn't have voted at all.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Women in the NFL

Apparently, women are allowed to play in the NFL (American football). I'll have to remember this when teaching feminism later in the semester.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Co-Authorship in Philosophy

There's an interesting discussion of co-authorship over on Leiter's blog. (The discussion is primarily about what input counts as 'authorship' and how credit should be divided between authors, rather than how to go about it or whether it's a good idea.)

My own contribution was to suggest that perhaps we should think of the 'authors' credited in a paper as contributors, rather than authors in the traditional sense. This, I think, better captures some of the reasons for which we may think that someone deserves credit, even if they weren't actually involved in the writing of a paper.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Pistorius and Ordinary Language Philosophy

This story seems tragic for all concerned. I couldn't help but notice, however, that this BBC feature on reactions to the news says "Early media reports suggested that Mr Pistorius may have accidentally shot his girlfriend, believing her to be an intruder".

Anyone familiar with Austin's 'A Plea for Excuses' is likely to remember the famous footnote in which he distinguishes between mistakes and accidents. The details of the Pistorius case aren't fully clear, but it seems that he purposely shot the person in his house - it wasn't an accident, where the gun just went off in his hand. What occurred was a case of mistaken identity: what he thought was an intruder was actually his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. He didn't intend to shoot her, but that makes the case a mistake, rather than an accident. Accidents just happen (befall), whereas mistakes depend on wrong choices.

Austin's distinction sounds plausible to me, but it's interesting (in this and other cases) to consider whether it describes a distinction implicit - albeit imperfectly observed - in ordinary language, or is simply a philosopher's stipulation about terms that, ordinarily, are interchangeable. The BBC's original story, however, does respect the distinction: "Reports say he may have mistaken her for a burglar".

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

EDL Link

I don't know how search algorithms work, but any little link helps I believe. The EDL I'm after is English Disco Lovers.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

What Is 'A Song'?

It seems that BBC 6 Music recently produced a listener-voted poll of the Top 100 songs of the last ten years (the time the station has been in air). I'm not going to dispute the choices (de gustibus non est disputandum), but it did seem odd to me that the Top Ten included at least one cover version, specifically Johnny Cash's version of 'Hurt' (originally by Nine Inch Nails).

I don't know what the identity conditions, or ontological status, of a song are. But ordinarily I'd describe Cash's 'Hurt' as a new version of the same song, not as a new song. And, if it is the same song as the one NIN released in 1994, then it doesn't seem that it should be eligible.

Perhaps this is over-restrictive. Perhaps new (re)interpretations should be counted as new songs, rather than variations on old ones (though I don't think it's how we ordinarily speak). But, if this is so, I wonder how much has to change for the song to become a new one.

Nine Inch Nail's And All That Could Have Been live album was apparently released in March 2002, so also too long ago, but had that been a year later would that have counted as a new song of the last ten years? Taken to the extreme, is every new performance a new song? If so, I'd suggest that there are some real classics missing from this list of songs...

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Sugar Tax

I read an interesting (unpublished) paper taking a Millian approach towards the taxing of unhealthy foods the other day. Turns out to be rather topical, since the BBC reports calls to raise tax on sugary drinks. I'm curious to know whether this would include orange juice, as well as cola, and why it shouldn't also include alcohol, on a calorific basis.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Revising Medal Tables

I mentioned in an earlier post that the London 2012 Olympic medal tables aren't finally final until 2020, since drug cheats can still be punished later. I see today that Lance Armstrong has just been stripped of a medal from Sydney 2000. This is actually even longer after the event than I thought possible.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Horse Burgers

It seems that scandal has erupted over the presence of horse meat in beefburgers. Apparently burgers sold as beef in fact contained both horse and pig meat. This is mentioned in the BBC report, but what I find strange is that the main focus seems to be given to the horse element.

I'd have thought it far worse that these burgers contain pig, given that many people have moral/religious objections to eating pork. No one, so far as I know, has any particular moral objection to eating horse (ethical vegetarians do of course object to eating horse but not horse in particular - they wouldn't eat beef either for the same reasons).

Of course it's true that horses aren't usually considered food in the UK, but there's no particular reason for this - I understand that the French happily eat horse meat. I think this highlights the somewhat arbitrary nature of what is and is not considered food, particularly when it comes to animals. (A further BBC feature follows this up, here.) But it's also surprising to see more focus here on what I take to be an aesthetic matter than a religious/moral one, given that most people usually hold the latter to be more important.

(Of course I don't mean to deny that there's a general objection here that consumers were misled about the content of what they were eating, which may be the most serious issue of all - but this doesn't explain the focus on horse meat.)

Saturday, January 12, 2013

New Blog

I realised that I've been blogging here for over seven years. I never knew it would last so long when I first set out. Up until now, my blogging has been done exclusively here, barring the odd guest post (and Twitter, if that counts as blogging).

Recently I've created a new blog here. This new one isn't to replace this one. Whereas Praesidium is a personal blog with a fairly wide-remit, the new blog - as the name implies - is focused on organ policy. It's to tie-in with a grant I was recently awarded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh for a series of workshops on organ policy. If that's an area that interests you, then be sure to follow the Organ Policy blog for updates.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Incentives to Lose Weight

I hope that everyone had an enjoyable Christmas/New Year. Around now many people are probably starting new year diets in an effort to shift the extra holiday pounds. Apparently, however, Westminster Council are threatening to cut benefits for obese or unhealthy people who refuse to exercise (or lose weight?).

Long-time readers will no doubt be aware of my interest in incentives (click on the tag for more). This is a slightly unusual case. There seems, intuitively, to be a difference between cutting benefits and offering extra benefits. On the other hand, this also seems to be two ways of describing the same thing, so it may merely be a framing effect.