Recently , UNICEF launched their Children’s Rights and Business Principles, the sixth of which says that businesses should ‘use marketing and advertising that respect and support children’s rights’. This is hard to deny, as is the claim that many companies are seeking unjustifiably to manipulate children and their parents for profit. Indeed there seems little reason to restrict only advertising inflicted on children. All of us are subject daily to ever more invasive and insidious targeted advertising, much of it online.
Some advertising – such as that outside my village for a Cub Scout jumble sale at the weekend – is not only harmless, but useful. It informs us of things we didn’t know and which we often find it helpful to know. But most advertising is not like this. It is what is often called ‘persuasive’ rather than informative, aiming at directing our choices in ways of which we’re often quite unaware. This is clearly true of ‘subliminal’ advertising, where the image in question is not registered by consciousness at all. But it is true also of a vast amount of persuasive advertising. We may be consiously aware of it, but it leads us without our realizing it to make purchasing decisions on the basis of considerations which we could not accept as relevant were they made transparent to us. There are various reasons for favouring one after-shave over another: aroma, price, healing properties. The fact that a link between the after-shave and excitement has been established in my mind through exposure to ads showing, alongside images of the product, someone surfing is not one of them.
Persuasive advertising, then, undermines our capacity for autonomy or rational self-government. It might seem remarkable that citizens of modern democratic societies allow businesses to do this to them. But it is not, since the very success of the practice depends on people’s not being fully aware of what is going on.
There are various possible defences of persuasive advertising. One is hedonistic. If I enjoy using the advertised after-shave more, because of the frisson I get when I splash it on, why does it matter what the source of my pleasure is? This response is likely not to persuade those who attach independent value to autonomy. But even hedonists might claim to take pleasure in the knowledge that they are able to make their own decisions rationally, knowledge which of course none of us can now have.
Another defence is economic. Advertising encourages consumption, and increased consumption is necessary for growth. This is a poor argument. Growth itself is undesirable, once an economy has reached a certain level (as all economies in the developed world have), since (see books such as Layard’s Happiness: Lessons from a New Science and Wilkinson & Pickett’s The Spirit Level) wealth above a certain threshold does not greatly benefit its possessors, and also causes harmful inequality. The argument is especially implausible in the context of global warming.
Advertising also supports many worthwhile ventures, such as newspapers or art exhibitions. And doubtless there are other things that can be said in favour of it (it can be amusing, or aesthetically valuable in itself, for example). But its subversion of our autonomy is so great that any goods it produces are insignificant in comparison, and there are of course other ways to learn about the world, be amused, or encounter aesthetic value. Fortunately, philosophical suggestions don’t have to be feasible. So I recommend a world-wide ban on persuasive advertising from now, for one year. Then we could see how much we missed it.
We’ve all had fun hating Goldman Sachs again after one of their own sold them out . Mr Smith says that ‘culture was the secret sauce that made [Goldman] great and allowed us to earn our clients’ trust for 143 years’ whereas now Goldman pursues its own interest rather than its clients’ due to a ‘decline in the firm’s moral fibre’…. Hold on. Yes, I know its hard not to burst out laughing.
The High Pay Commission today published a report denigrating the salaries of executives in the city. This isn’t unusual: it’s common to see the high pay of bankers and other city workers is reviled in the media. But there’s a flip side to bankers’ earnings, which often gets neglected. Wealth, of course, can be spent on champagne and yachts and private jets. But it can also be spent on helping people. In fact, there are reasons for thinking that, if you spend your money wisely, you can do much more good by taking a lucrative career such as banking than by pursuing a conventional ‘ethical’ career such as charity work.
First, as a banker, you could earn well over £6million. By donating 50% of those earnings, you could pay for several charity workers. So you’d do several times as much good than if you were a charity worker yourself.
Second, if you decide not to be a charity worker, someone else will take your place, and so the benefit you provide would have happened anyway. In contrast, if you take a lucrative career and donate your earnings, your donations provide a benefit which would not have happened anyway.
Third, as a philanthropic banker, you can put your money anywhere. So you can fund only the very best causes. In contrast, as a charity worker, you are much more limited in your choice of where to work. Some causes are thousands of times more cost-effective than others, so this can be a big deal.
Between these three arguments, it seems pretty compelling that one can do far more to help others by taking a lucrative career and donating a substantial proportion of the proceeds, than by pursuing a more conventional ethical career.
Over 40 people, including many here at Oxford, have been convinced by these arguments and have formed a community called 80,000 Hours. Members of this community support each other in their pursuit of a high-impact ethical career, trying to use the 80,000 hours of their working life to help other people as much as they can. Members pursue careers in what we call ‘professional philanthropy’, careers in which they’ll have a big influence, and careers in which they can research highly important but neglected areas. Each member of 80,000 hours can expect to save over 10 000 lives in the course of their career.
We have a finite time on earth, but, if we’re willing to think hard about how to best use the hours of our working life, we have a tremendous ability to do good in the world.
For more information, my research is discussed today in a BBC news article (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-15820786) and I was today was interviewed for the Today program (http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/radio/bbc_radio_four/20111122, 10 minutes from the end).
For more info on the organization, you can check out 80,000 Hours at: www.80000hours.org
Gordon Brown has just said that he made a big mistake about financial regulation. His remarks are in line with many politicians on the financial crisis: regulation failed therefore we need more regulation. But do we?
Frideswide Square is a notorious traffic junction in Oxford, and it’s a nightmare. It has about 20 sets of traffic lights and small problems here lead to long tailbacks in many directions, tripling journey times for many otherwise short trips. So you can imagine how awful it was when the traffic lights all broke down recently.
Except it wasn’t. Continue reading
The Icecreamists, an ice cream parlour in Covent Garden began selling a human breast-milk based ice cream last month, only to have it confiscated recently by Westminster Council in order to check that it was “fit for human consumption”. New York chef Daniel Angerer was reported as served human cheese (he didn’t, but see his blog for the recipe). He was advised by the New York Health Department to stop, since although there were no departmental codes forbidding it they claimed “cheese made from breast milk is not for public consumption, whether sold or given away”. What is it exactly that is disturbing with a human milk ice cream or cheese? And are there any good reasons to hinder selling it?
When is a little dioxin too much dioxin?
Dioxin is a persistent organic pollutant (POP) that accumulates in the food chain and is highly toxic to living systems. The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants commits signatories to ‘reduce or where feasible, eliminate the production and environmental release’ of dioxin.
So we know that dioxin is not a good thing to be releasing into the environment. And we also know that particular human activities, such as the smelting process that produces certain metals and chlorine bleaching of wood pulp in the paper industry produce dioxin. The question is when is it ‘feasible’ to eliminate the production and environmental release of dioxin? Continue reading
Earlier this month German authorities closed around 4,700 farms following the discovery that pigs and poultry had been given feed contaminated with dioxins, which are thought to be among the most carcinogenic environmental pollutants. Yesterday Russia banned the import of untested pork products produced in Germany after 1 November 2010. This follows earlier import bans on some German food products in Slovakia, China, Belarus and South Korea.
Evidently the North German firm Harles und Jentzsch added a contaminated oil, possibly intended for industrial paper production, to an ingredient for animal feed that was then sold to 25 different feed manufacturers. Tests showed that the oil contained dioxin at 77 times the permitted level. Around 150,000 tons of feed incorporating this oil was reportedly fed to poultry and pigs across Germany, and affected eggs were sold in Germany, The Netherlands and the UK.
Internal tests at the Harles und Jentzsch plant revealed elevated dioxin levels in feed ingredients as early as March last year, suggesting the possibility that the human food supply may have been contaminated for months. And of course, this is nothing new. There were similar dioxin scandals in Ireland and Italy in 2008, Belgium in 1999 and 2006, and Germany in 2003.
How can such practices go unnoticed so often and for so long?
by Anders Sandberg
Is mathematics the Christmas present of the year? TheoryMine is a company that uses automatic theorem discovery and proof to generate new theorems via computer, which customers can then buy the naming rights for (for a paper describing the method, see The Theory behind TheoryMine). Is this a scam? Or does it devalue pure mathematics? Or is this a great new way of acknowledging its beauty?
A new company, Internet Eyes, promises to crowdsource monitoring of surveillance cameras by using online users to watch footage and report suspicious activity. They would get rewarded 'up to £1,000' if they press the alarm button to report something useful. Not unexpectedly the anti-CCTV groups really dislike the idea. The Information Commissioner is somewhat sceptical but allowed a beta test to go ahead, as long as users had to pay for using it – this would allow their details to be checked and would reduce risks for misuse. However, at least one subscribe "thought it was his civic duty to sign up". Civic duty or profit-making voyerism?