Thursday, March 29, 2007

Pretty Pieties

Whilst we're railing against contemporary idiocies, this. A particularly choice quote:

We need a new slavery – a slavery capable of adapting to the challenges of the global economy. A slavery fit for purpose in the fast changing 19th century. A slavery for the many, not the few.

Of All Plagues, Good Heaven, Thy Wrath Can Send, Save, Save, Oh Save Me From The Candid Friend!

Nick Cohen in the New Statesman on Julian Baggini's 'Welcome to Everytown: A Journey Into The English Mind' (via):

Baggini's background and philosophical training gave him the intellectual honesty to be as critical of the biases he and his friends shared as he was of the biases of others. Even before he went to Rotherham, he was wary of the thoughtless anti- patriotism that lay behind David Hare's cry that "most of us look with longing to the republican countries across the Channel. We associate Englishness with everything that is most backward in this country."

Baggini told me he had noticed that when his friends went overseas "they always found something to delight in. They would tell me how wonderful it was to share a glass of wine with the old boys in a rural French bar, and not realise that if those old boys were speaking English they would probably be saying, 'That Jean-Marie Le Pen, he's got the right idea.'"

Cohen seems to take this to justify precisely that attitude. He approvingly quotes Baggini saying that:

[t]he new Labour slogan "you can't have rights without responsibilities" was the view of the English mainstream... "It's an illiberal thought," he told me. "Liberals believe that you have rights on the basis of your membership of the human race. But most of the English aren't liberal. They believe that you only have rights if you are a fully paid-up member of this society. That's why they will be very illiberal about 'Muslim preachers of hate' and say, 'We don't care about their rights. What about ours?'"

Well, the New Labour interpretation of 'you can't have rights without responsibilities' is illiberal, but more properly, the claim makes not an illiberal, but a conceptual, point, since obviously, if has a right, then someone else must have a duty, which could easily be parsed as a responsibility, to uphold that right. A right no-one had a duty to uphold would not be a right. What the New Labour interpretation of the rights-responsibilities claim demands is that rights be constrained by some inchoate, rather conservative and authoritarian idea of the social good: you may have the right to wander the streets freely, but only so long as you don't loiter in such a way as to cause morally upstanding members of the community distress. Norms of public interaction are to be structured by those with access to traditional forms of authority, and so in such a way that is generally to the detriment of those who lack that access. There are two mistakes: first, assuming that a change in norms of social interaction is automatically a breakdown in such norms, and second, that no-one has a right to do wrong - think here of whether there is a right to adultery.

The apparent inability of a professional philosopher to make the relatively simple distinction what it would be preferable for people to do, and what they are required to do, aside, the point here is that it would be reasonable to paraphrase the attachment to the particularities of place as 'That Jean-Marie Le Pen, he's got the right idea.' It is the demand that others are not Other, that they conform, assimilate, and that is profoundly illiberal. Now, maybe there's something to be said for that position, but however satisfying it may be for Cohen and perhaps Baggini, an accusation of hypocrisy directed at those who dislike it some but not all of the time is at best an ad hominem attack on some of those who reject it some of the time and not a point in its favour. The inconsistency it apparently brings to our attention does not even force anyone to affirm the kinds of attitudes Cohen seems to be praising, since when it is shown that attitudes x and y are inconsistent, there are always two possible steps: to give up x, or to give up y. Personally, I think that the Boules-playing stereotypes invoked by Cohen describe people, in this respect, just as bad as the inhabitants of Rotherham, if in an otherwise far more pleasant setting, and any other members of the 'liberal intelligentsia' who find Englishness unpalatable can do the same.

Exactly what Cohen thinks he is up to here I'm not really sure. Presumably it is part of his 'look how everyone who doesn't think that Islamic fundamentalism now is analogous to Nazism in 1939 has betrayed the ideals of the left' shtick, but a) it fails to hit its target, for the reasons I've given, and b) invokes normative principles which are themselves in stark contrast to the internationalism of the left. If the others need to stop being Other in order to qualify for full moral status, why the hell would we treat them decently elsewhere? Why in particular, would we bother sacrificing our blood and treasure to bring them democracy? I suppose it is typical of the candid friend to be sneering and patronising, even when their candour is quite misplaced, and so we might forgive that, but when they saw at the branch on which they sit...?

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Some Thoughts On Coercion And The Scope Of The Basic Structure

Consider three cases. In case 1, the state requires that citizens shun anyone who is found to be engaging in activity x. Those who do not shun people who are found x-ing are themselves to be shunned. There are enough people who, for whatever reason, obey this requirement that it results in the reliable shunning of anyone who is found x-ing or who does not shun those who are found x-ing. In case 2, prominent members of the community who exercise a wide degree of authority over it require that citizens shun anyone who is found x-ing. Again, those who do not shun when required to do so are themelves shunned, and, also again, there are enough people who are prepaped, for whatever reason, to obey this command that those who x are shunned and those who do not shun those who x are themselves shunned. In case 3, everyone has decided, without being encouraged either by the state or other authority figures, to shun anyone who is found x-ing, and to shun anyone who does not shun those who x.

In all three cases, then, the effects on those who x and those who refuse to shun those who x are identical: whether or not the coercion in each case is the same, those who x and those who refuse to shun those who x are surely similarly and probably equally coerced. There is a plausible case that all three cases are matters of similar concern, if not necessarily similar remedial action, for theories of justice. If x were a particular religious or sexual practice, likely to be of non-neglible following and of some significance to its follwers, we could reasonably describe all three as falling within what Rawls calls the basic structure, and considers the proper subject of social justice: whether or not all three sets of practices would count as major institutions, all three "define [individual's] rights and duties and influence their life-prospects, what they can expect to be and how well they can expect to do".

What seems to place all three cases in the basic structure is that, when there is a significant interest in x-ing, the social practices that they all involve themselves involve quite serious punishment of those who x or 'collaborate' in x-ing. Indeed, the institutions which Rawls thought of as part of the basic structure all seem to have this feature, since he clearly intends the basic structure to capture a state's coercive legal structures qua sets of coercive rules within which a life has to be lived. Ignoring cases 2 and 3, despite them being identical in their effects to case 1, in a pluralistic society seems reasonable enough, since the chances of them ever happening, pace Mill and Tocqueville, are fairly minimal, as well as, I think, considerably more morally complicated.

Consider another case, though, raised by those who want to stretch or otherwise redefine the Rawlsian concern with the basic structure. Case 4 is more complicated. In case 4, it has been noticed that lots of people x-ing has effects which disadvantage other people, and so everyone is encouraged, through various formal and informal social institutions, to not x. Clearly, in case 4, the norm of not x-ing is part of the basic structure, assuming people have a significant interest in being able to x. Consider, further, though, yet another case. In case 5, although lots of people x-ing does disadvantage some other people, either this has not been noticed or, if it has, no decision to encourage people to avoid x-ing has been taken. The norm of it being acceptable to x in case 5 does not seem to be part of the basic structure. No-one who does not x suffers as a result of not x-ing in the way that someone who did not respect property rights or refused to sign any contracts in our society would suffer.

If that is the case, though, the egalitarian ethos that G.A. Cohen has argued for, which would require that people did not self-interest maximise in the economic marketplace - on the grounds that those who happen to have socially useful skills doing so reduces the take for those who happen not to have such skills, which, if you believe in economic equality and some kind of Pareto condition, is bad - cannot be required as a matter of justice, since its absence is not part of the basic structure. Case 5 is, after all, a case in which doing x, where large numbers of people doing x is disadvantageous to some other group, is permitted, and in case 5, the absence of such an ethos is not part of the basic structure as I have suggested it ought to be defined.

Oh, The Irony

So, I've been tagged as a 'thogger' - a neologism which adds insult to injury by being the brutal neologising of a not even initially particularly attractive neologism; it apparently means a blogger who makes you think, for those not in the know - both here and here. The appropriate thing to do here, after having thanked those who bestowed such a title - thanks, Russell and Brian: it's always pleasing to find that the people you think are interesting reciprocate - would presumably be to name my own five 'thoggers' (suppresses shudder) and offer some thoughts on what it is to be thought-provoking in this day and age. Given the way in which blogging memes quickly come to resemble pyramid schemes, with everyone desperately rushing round to find someone they can somehow milk their share from, and that I already have a blogroll, I am not going to do the former. If you're on my blogroll and haven't been tagged, consider yourself tagged; I read your blog, which must mean I find it interesting.

The latter is slightly more complicated. Let me offer a brief account of a recent experience as explanation. Yesterday morning, whilst eating my breakfast, I saw a programme on some freeview digital channel or other in which archaeologists from the Smithsonian claimed that some of the first human inhabitants of the American continent were from Europe mostly on the basis that flint tools constructed in a similar to some found in America had been found in southwestern France. I think archaeologists are mostly a total bloody joke anyway, mostly running around digging fragments of pottery and ancient fecal matter up that any half-decent historian could have guessed was there without the use of expensive argicultural machinery, and provides no real new information about any period of the past regardless, but this was ridiculous.

So far as the programme was concerned, it was inconceivable that anyone could have independently arrived at similar techniques for the maunfacture of flint tools, or that such techniques could have passed between various neolithic groups. To be fair to the archaeologists, they had some DNA evidence as well, but this was presented as confirmation of the evidence provided by similar tool manufacture techniques. There was also a whole racist undertone about how the fact that Europeans managed to get America was presented as a triumph of the human spirit, as if slogging across Siberia and Alaska during an ice age were some kind of gentle stroll, and at no point was the possibility of Americans having gone to Europe addressed, despite the fact that it was on the basis of existing Inuit technology that it was claimed that the Europeans could have got across the partially frozen north Atlantic.

Now, I'd guess it's entirely possible the archaeologists were racists, but they must - surely they must, or else archaeologists are even worse than I thought - have realised that there was an enormous hole in their argument, that it is possible for the same technique to be discovered independently in two different places. However, that's not how their ideas were presented.
We could add Adam Curtis' 'The Trap', which must have had game theorists tearing their hair out, and I live with scientists who find the presentation of their subjects in public debate totally laughable. Of course you can't expect people in general to follow the details of complicated and increasingly jargon-filled academic debate, even when they want to, which, most of the time, they won't. However, however... You wonder what the point is if the information presented is so bowdlerised, so emptied of genuine content. This thinking in the public realm, t'aint easy.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Liberty As A System Of Arbitrary Interference

There's a rather good piece on Hugh Brogan's new book on Tocqueville in the most recent LRB. As you can probably guess, I'm reading Tocqueville - for teaching purposes - at the moment. It's a while since I last looked at Democracy in America, when, at least as I remember, I had a quite favourable impression of it, certainly at least preferring it to Mill, whom I thought of as uninterested in the sociological conditions necessary to sustain liberty. Reading it now though, Tocqueville comes across as a pretty much unreconstructed apologist for aristocracy, characterising the regime into which he was and benefited from as a instantiation of liberty as against democracy's instantiation of equality. This strikes me as rather like those on the right defending laissez-faire capitalism on the grounds that it is a system of economic freedom, apparently unaware that if private property is the touchstone of liberty, some people's lack of it - or at least very much of it - ought to be pretty troubling. Likewise, serfs never struck me as being particularly free.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Tocqueville on Lawyers

"[T]he English or American lawyer resembles the hierophants of Egypt, for like them he is the sole interpreter of an occult science."

Never again will I think of the requirement to have your will witnessed by a solicitor in the same way: 'and so, Mr Jubb, you want any surviving issue to get the dresser that your maiden aunt had, and your embalmed liver, but you want your brain to go to the cat?'

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Time Wasted Is Not Wasted Time

Having decided I couldn't be bothered to go into the Department this morning, and would do a few chores that needed doing instead, I walked up to the top of South Parks, which overlooks central Oxford from the East, providing rather lovely views, and saw what I assume was a red kite, effortlessly cock-screwing up on the thermals over towards Headington. It might not have been, but I thought I caught a glimpse of that deep, rusty red on a couple of the languid, sweeping upward curves, and I'm not sure what else it might have been. I've seen them from the bus between Oxford and London - indeed, it's one of the pleasures of that trip: I look for them as the bus goes through the cutting that takes the motorway through the downs, idly soaring over the hillsides, often in pairs, the russet flash of the wings and the distinctive tail, broad and shaped like an inverted fan - but I'd never seen one in Oxford before. I tried to take photos, but it was too far away. Still, whatever else happens today, just that glimpse... I also saw a crow land, holding its thick-fingered wings above and away from itself, then awkwardly fold them back into the black mass of its body, a bit like someone struggling into their jacket, which amused me, but with birds of prey my anthropomorphism knows no bounds: the grace and ease of their flight, like something just done for the pleasure of it, wonderfully, innocently superfluous.

Monday, March 12, 2007

A Saucer Of Milk, Please

Here, the claim that

Science is of far greater use than philosophy, unless of course you’re looking to party through 4 years of college - only then does philosophy have a legitimate purpose.

Of course, if one were to engage in ad hominem reasoning, one might wonder what arcane knowledge it is that philosophers acquire that leads them, in the writer's opinion, to gain a reputation for partying, whereas computer scientists, more or less universally, have a reputation for generally being amongst the dullest people in the world. Relatedly, although more to the point, we might ask to what end science and philosophy, respectively, might be useful, and how we might judge the character of that end, as well as their efficacy at achieving it.

Further, even if we were to establish that philosophy is less useful than science, we might wonder how that would legitimate the judgment that it is of no use, unless you want to 'party through 4 years of college'. However, one might have to know that the conclusion 'x is of no use, unless you want to party through 4 years of college' does not follow from the premise 'y is of greater use than x' in order to wonder that, and that might require exposure to philosophy, which, ex hypothesi, is of no use at all, unless, of course, you want to party through 4 years of college. We might also want to note that the claim(s) that this claim is offered in support of is a distinctively philosophical claim, that

There is a clear line of demarcation between machine learning and artificial intelligence...
[t]he question of whether a computer can think is no more interesting than the question of whether a submarine can swim...

Conceptual distinctions between learning and the property of having a mind? Claims about what it is interesting, presumably in a prescriptive sense, to study? The normative questions are, it would seem, inescapable, but if you haven't partied your way through four years, or in my case, a third of three years and then most of another two, of college, I guess that just wouldn't occur to you. Finally, note that those years of partying seem to have given me a sense of propriety - I wouldn't dream of saying that struggling and failing to teach computers to be able to sort text by crude semantic content was a worthless enterprise.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

You Know, If Egoism Means I Do What I Prefer To Do, It's Vacuously True

Repeat slowly after me: game theory does not have to come with a set of claims about human nature attached, since it calculates strategies for interacting with other players once preferences and outcomes are held fixed, which means that you have to have some other claims about the preferences people have, the structure of institutions the players are interacting in and the pay-offs attached to the relevant outcomes within those institutions. Therefore, game theory cannot, by itself, show anything about the world: it depends on judgments about people's preferences, the institutions they are working within and the pay-offs that those institutions assign to outcomes - as well as, of course, the claim that people will or ought to rationally utility maximize - in order to have any predictive or normative power. Therefore, if Adam Curtis thinks that game theory by itself could legitimise the view that social systems are best organised by self-interest's invisible hand, he is mistaken, since what's doing the work there is the view that humans have self-interested preferences and that our interactions are such that they go better when we act self-interestedly, none of which bears any relationship to the claim that we can model strategies for interaction within institutions once we know people's preferences and the pay-off structure they face. I stopped watching after about twenty minutes of talking over the television.

Sporting Success!

Not only do England rediscover the ability to do the basics of the game of rugby properly, and thereby manage to beat a distinctly unimpressive French side, but Wolves beat Albion, after having been thumped by them twice already this season. This sort of thing could almost make me think the DPhil'd write itself...