Wednesday, September 07, 2016

New Publication on Mill's Harm Principle

I don't bother to mention every minor publication any more, but my latest piece on the interpretation of Mill's harm principle is now online and forthcoming in Mind (ranked 4th in Leiter's survey of philosophy journals).

The abstract should be freely available, but I also made this word cloud:

Friday, August 19, 2016

Unusual Marriages 1: A Bridge

I'm teaching a module on the Ethics of Public Policy this semester which will cover, inter alia, marriage. Naturally the focus is likely to be on gay marriage, though we'll also discuss other things such as polygamy and arguments for the abolition of marriage. But one of the readings will be this piece by Ralph Wedgwood.

In this article, Wedgwood is concerned with the essential social meaning of marriage - a meaning which, he claims, does not restrict marriage to being between a man and a woman. However, he has to grapple with whether other, decidedly more unusual, cases of marriage might also be possible. In particular, he mentions examples of people marrying their dogs or their cars (p. 233) or one man marrying another man's left foot (p. 239). The problem, for a liberal view of marriage, is whether it can be permissive enough to allow gay marriage (and, perhaps, polygamy) while excluding such cases (assuming that we want to disallow them).

Wedgwood claims that, so far as he knows, no one actually wants to enter into these alternative forms of marriage (p. 239). It seems that this isn't entirely true, as the following example illustrates.

Artist Jodi Rose 'married' the Pont du Diable (Devil's Bridge) in France. Her account, in which she describes her and her bridge as "Officially *symbolically united" can be found here. The story was covered by the Metro and Huffington Post, both of whom make clear that the union is not legally recognised in France.

I think there are questions here as to whether there's any real (i.e. literal) sense in which this can be described as a woman marrying a bridge, as opposed to some fanciful make-believe. Further, before this could be a problem for Wedgwood's case, we'd need to consider whether or not she really wants this marriage to have the significance usually attached to other marriages. Perhaps, for instance, it was more of an excuse for a wedding party or a way to publicise her bridge singing party. Nonetheless, I think it's an interesting case to consider, especially when some people insist that marriage must - by definition - be between a man and a woman.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Thoughts on Brexit - and what next

As the dust settles after June’s referendum, it’s notable that the leaders of the Leave campaign (Johnson, Gove, Farage, Leadsom) have all vacated the main stage, leaving it to others to negotiate Britain’s exit from the EU. This is probably wise on their part, not only because the political divorce is likely to produce considerable short-term discomfort, but also because it seems that no one had any clear post-exit strategy.

We’re told that the British people have spoken and their will must be respected. But, even setting aside reports of widespread protest voting and regretful Leavers, it’s not clear what ‘the people’ (or 52% of them) voted for, beyond the obvious (leaving the EU). Leaving the EU doesn’t itself specify what alternative arrangements should be put in place.

Some want to withdraw as completely as possible from the European project – in particular, in order to control migration. Call this Total Exit, or TE for short. But not everyone in the Leave campaign favours TE. Others made quite clear that they welcome trade and cooperation with our European neighbours, they merely oppose the EU organisation and the threat of a federal European state. These people would be happy for the UK to adopt a position like Norway or Switzerland, not an EU member but not so different in practice. For want of a better label, call this Weak Exit or WE. (For simplicity, I’ll only consider two alternatives, though there are many possibilities.)

Obviously, these alternatives are incompatible. If the UK opts for WE, then we will have no more control over migration or over laws and regulations that continue to bind us. The referendum result will, officially, be respected – we’ll be out of the EU – but many of the 52% won’t be satisfied. But, on the other hand, if we got for TE then, though we’ll have control over these things, we won’t have the strong relations with Europe that were promised and, further, this is more likely to cause great economic disruption than WE. Again, a significant number of the 52% are likely to be dissatisfied – while they may have wanted out of the EU, they didn’t necessarily want TE.

It might be that the 52% are so strongly committed to leaving the EU that they would prefer either TE or WE to continued membership, but I doubt all of them feel this way. Someone who dislikes loss of sovereignty, but is also concerned about the possible economic effects of Brexit, might reasonably prefer WE to Remain, but also prefer Remain to TE. That is, their preferences might be WE > R > TE (with ‘R’ standing for ‘Remain). If they were moderately optimistic about what ‘Leave’ meant (i.e. WE), they would vote for Leave, but they would prefer Remain if the alternative were TE.

Conversely, someone whose chief concern was migration, while ideally wanting TE, might prefer Remain to WE. The Leave campaign emphasized the threat of Turkey joining the EU but, as a member, the UK would have a veto over this. If the UK ends up like Norway, having to accept free movement but without that veto, then the UK would actually have less control over migration than before. So it could be perfectly consistent for someone to prefer Remain over WE, even if their first choice would be TE. That is, TE > R > WE.

The Leave campaign was actually a coalition of people wanting inconsistent things. Some were voting for TE and some for WE. Since we can’t have both of these, it’s likely that a considerable number of Leave voters will end up disappointed, whatever the eventual outcome – and some of them might even have preferred to remain in the EU to the eventual outcome.

Given the closeness of the result, it might seem reasonably likely that, given a choice between ‘Remain or TE’ a majority of the population would have voted to Remain and, likewise, that given a choice between ‘Remain or WE’ a majority of the population would have voted to Remain. However, this isn’t necessarily the case. So far, I’ve only highlighted divisions amongst the Leavers, but the Remain voters might also have been influenced by lack of clarity over the options.

No doubt many amongst the 48% who voted to Remain prefer that to either TE or WE. However, it could be that some were simply pessimists about the likely consequences of Brexit. Suppose, for example, that someone would really prefer WE to Remain and Remain to TE (i.e. WE > R > TE). Such a person might nonetheless have voted to Remain if they (pessimistically) thought that Brexit was more likely to result in TE than WE. Had the ballot in fact given the choice between ‘Remain or WE’ then they would have switched their vote from Remain to WE. Likewise, someone whose preferences were TE > R > WE might have voted Remain had they feared that Leave would result in WE.

So, even if some Leavers would have voted Remain, given this choice, it’s also the case that some who actually voted to Remain might have voted to Leave, given a more concrete proposal. For all the talk about ‘respecting the will of the people’ the problem is that there are more than two options. The referendum didn’t really present a choice between two clear options, but rather a choice between the status quo and a mystery box. Now we’ve chosen to open the box, what’s inside is still unclear.

Though the referendum was not legally binding, I think it would be politically impossible for the government to ignore the result. The problem, however, with respecting the will of the people is identifying what it is that the people want. Given that the only really clear outcome of the referendum is that the people are deeply divided, and that both the Conservative Party and Labour Party have been plunged into leadership contests, probably the only certainty is that the political landscape will be unsettled for some time.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

One Person, One Vote?

Today the UK held a referendum on whether to remain in the EU or leave. There's an awful lot that could be said and written about this issue and the referendum campaigns, though I haven't felt the need to comment because of so many others already doing so.

As I tune in to follow the results, however, I was struck by this explanation on the BBC:

"Although the results are declared by local authority area, a referendum is different to a general election in that every individual vote across the UK counts equally towards the final result."

This does acknowledge, in passing, that this is not true in General Elections - so much, perhaps, for the argument that a vote to leave is a vote for democracy...

Saturday, June 18, 2016

MPs as Trustees

One topic covered in my u/g Democratic Theory module is the nature of representation, starting with the delegate vs. trustee argument. At least since Burke, it's been argued that MPs should exercise their own judgement, rather than simply being a voice for whatever their constituents want. But delegates are also representatives. A point seemingly missed here, when it says: "Members of Parliament are representatives, not delegates, the difference being they are there to decide what in their judgment is good for us and the country, not  simply to do what we say."

Friday, April 15, 2016

University Rankings

Top universities, as rated by their students at, here. A few select highlights:

1. Harper Adams University.
2. Loughborough.
13. Falmouth
22. University Campus Suffolk
34. York
35. St Andrews
36. Birmingham
37. Aston
38. Edinburgh
39. Royal Agricultural University (Cirencester)
40. Southampton
41. Liverpool
42. Essex
43. Cardiff
46. Cambridge
49. Warwick
50. Oxford
61. LSE
77. Bristol
78. Stirling
81. UCL
82. Queen Mary
83. KCL

On the one hand, it's nice to see Southampton ranked ahead of Oxbridge and most London rivals but, on the other, one can't help thinking that the whole list looks very random. Maybe it's, in part, down to the way that this 'overall table' covers a wide variety of factors ("accommodation, city life, clubs and societies, courses and lecturers, job prospects, student union, facilities, support services and an overall rating"), but perhaps it also demonstrates the folly of ranking universities based on the reviews of students who a) arguably have some vested interest and b) generally know nothing of what other universities are like to compare.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Pensions Crisis?

A friend posted this Telegraph piece on Facebook and I felt the urge to comment. According to the article, George Osborne is at least considering replacing current tax relief on pensions contributions and replacing it with a flat rate for all. The Telegraph takes a scaremongering tone, arguing that this will discourage the middle classes from saving, when many already face a pensions shortfall.

However, the idea that the government should not be giving an effectively larger subsidy to higher earners actually strikes me as one of the more reasonable things to come from this government. Here is where the article actually sets out, in concrete terms, the implications of the change:

"At present basic-rate taxpayers receive a £20 top-up from the Government for every £80 they pay into a pension.

Higher rate taxpayers, classed as those earning more than £42,385, receive £40 for every £60, while top-rate taxpayers receive £45 for every £55.
Under plans being considered by Mr Osborne for a flat rate relief of 20 per cent for all, savers will receive £25 for every £75 they contribute."

Since tax relief is worth more to those who pay more tax, higher earners currently enjoy a bigger rebate on their pension savings. Proposing a flat rate for all is actually a progressive measure - though one might even argue that lower earners should get a bigger rebate.

The Telegraph suggests that it would be the poor middle classes getting hit:

"It found that 69 per cent of those paying the 40p rate of tax are unlikely to have enough income when they retire. Basic rate taxpayers are also struggling to save enough for their retirement, with 62 per cent failing to put enough aside."

Those figures make it sound as if higher rate tax payers are less likely to have enough savings than basic rate tax payers. That's surprising. It turns out, however, that the goalpost (of adequate savings) is a moving one:

"Under official measures, the majority of higher rate taxpayers are considered to have an "inadequate" level of savings if their income in their retirement is less than half the salary they enjoyed when they were working."

In other words, higher rate tax payers are only more likely to have inadequate pension savings than basic rate tax payers because what counts as 'adequate' for them is higher. Someone currently earning £60k/yr is deemed to have inadequate savings if they will only have a £25k/yr pension. But someone earning £25k/yr has adequate savings if they will have a £13k/yr pension.

I'm no tax expert, but these proposals sound surprisingly progressive to me.

Disclaimer: I'm a higher rate tax payer.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Sortition and the House of Lords

I know that the idea of using random selection to reform/replace the House of Lords is not exactly new - see, for instance, this book - but there was a recent-ish column on the BBC website, which proposes a hybrid chamber one-third of which made up of ordinary citizens chosen at random (the other thirds being party representatives based on proportional representation and independents chosen for their expertise). Nice to see such ideas getting more public exposure.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

More Liberal Alcohol Guidelines

Following my recent comments on the government's new alcohol guidelines, I have a blog post on The Conversation in which I consider them from a Millian liberal perspective.

In short, I argue that there's nothing objectionable about warning people of the dangers of alcohol, but that the guidelines would better respect individual autonomy if they simply presented the risks of different levels of consumption, allowing people to decide for themselves how much risk to accept. In other words, I think it's somewhat objectionable for the government to take it upon themselves to decide for everyone that 14 units per week is the right trade off between benefits and risk, even though the guidelines aren't actually coercive.

There's a slightly longer version of much the same argument, but with a bit more Mill in it, over on my department's blog.

Friday, January 08, 2016

Alcohol Guidelines (Again)

I already mentioned the new government guidelines last week (here), but now that they're out some further comment...

Recommended limits are indeed reduced to 14 units per week. One thing that I found interesting is that, aside from the reduction in the limit, the way that it is communicated has also changed.

At one point, the recommendation was 21 units per week for men. There was a worry that people would 'save this up' and consume all 21 units on a Friday night. Consequently, the advice was changed to 3-4 units per day, to underline that it couldn't be 'saved up'. Now, however, the worry is that people are drinking every day and not allowing their body 'recovery days' and so we're back to weekly guidelines (with an explicit recommendation not to drink every day).

I guess this is just another case that highlights the difficulty of imparting nuanced advice - based on scientific findings - in simple guidelines. That said, an older piece from Lee Jones - here - questions to the extent to which the policy really is evidence-based. He suggests that politicians have a moralistic agenda and cherry-pick evidence (and ignore counter evidence) in order to serve their purposes.

Clearly not all politicians take this view though. I wouldn't normally approve of Nigel Farage's pronouncements, but he's suggested that we all have a glass of something to protest against this state nannying.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Alcohol Guidelines

Long-term readers will possibly recall my interest in alcohol policy, chiefly minimum pricing.

It seems that new UK guidelines could reduce the recommended maximum for men, as well as recommending two 'dry' days per week and stressing that there is no 'safe' level of drinking. I don't have a problem with any of these measures; people need to be given the information necessary to make responsible decisions for themselves. It's only when the government starts to coerce competent adults for their own good that I think we ought to worry.

It was also pretty decent of them to delay these guidelines until after the Christmas/new year period too ;)

Another recommendation is to include calorie information on alcoholic drinks. Aside from helping to combat obesity, by helping people to policy their calorie intake, I've long suspected that this might do more to encourage some people to drink less than the existing warnings about the health effects of alcohol...