Political Philosophy

Rationality and the Scottish referendum

One argument that has been put forward against voting for Scottish independence in the Scottish referendum is that it would be irrational for Scotland to break free of the rest of Great Britain. The grounds for this claim are that the Scottish economy would be significantly worse under independence. This is an empirical claim and for the sake of argument I am going to grant it. What I am interested in is whether, supposing that to be true, it would in fact be irrational. There are a number of things seriously wrong with this inference.

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Playing the game: a story for the pool-side sun-lounger

It’s still summery, and so here is a little story for the beach or the side of the pool

‘There are challenges, certainly’, said the Boss. ‘But we’re confident that we can meet them. Or at least’, he went on, looking over his glasses for signs of dissent, ‘for a critical mass of stakeholders’.

A graph appeared on the screen at his side. He traced its lines with a red laser dot.

‘Here’, he said, ‘we have the expected rise of temperature with time. And here’ (he stabbed with the dot, as if doing the killing himself), ‘we have the consequent reduction in human population – assuming’ (and he held up a schoolmasterly finger), ‘we don’t have any HR66.’

He sipped some water, and waited for this to sink in. It did.

‘But don’t worry’, he said. ‘There’s good news. We do have HR66. Not enough for everyone, sadly, but enough to ensure that the human baton is passed on. And enough, I’m glad to say, for everyone in this room.’

There was a ripple of relief.

‘And their families, of course’, the Boss continued. ‘Families are very important to us. But all this assumes that you want to have the HR66. No one will make you. But, frankly, what’s not to like? You take a single dose, and you survive. If you don’t take it, you don’t survive. It’s as simple as that. It even tastes of candy floss. It has only one side-effect, and that’s a wholly good thing. It increases – increases, mark you – your IQ. Very, very significantly. By about 100 points, in fact. Not only will you be alive; you’ll be a genius beside whom Einstein would have seemed a hopeless retard.’

One more press of the button, and up flashed the logo of the corporation that manufactured HR66. The Boss didn’t think it relevant to mention his shareholding.

‘Naturally’, said the Boss, ‘we have to vote for this in the usual way. Yes, humanity’s facing apocalypse, and there’s one, and only one way out. But we’ve still got to do things properly. But I expect that we can move to a vote now, can’t we?’

‘I’m sure we can’, agreed the Deputy. ‘You’ve all seen the motion. All those in favour….’

‘One moment’.

The Boss and the Deputy, up on the podium, stared. Everyone else turned. A little man in tweed lisped through a badger’s beard. ‘I’d like some clarification, please.’

‘But of course, Tom’, said the Boss, magnanimous and desperately alarmed. ‘Anything you like.’

No one really knew how Tom had got into the government, or why he wanted to be there. He had no strategically significant connections, no dress sense, no publications other than some monographs on moths and mediaeval fonts, no assets other than a dumpy wife, some anarchic, unwashed children and a small cottage on Dartmoor, and no entries in the Register of Members’ Interests apart from ‘Masturbation’. This entry had caused a terrible storm. He’d been accused of injuring the dignity of the House, but, after expensive legal advice had been taken, it had been ‘reluctantly concluded’ that there was no power to force him to remove it.

‘I’d like to know’, said Tom, ‘who’s going to get the drug. And why them rather than anyone else.’ Continue reading

On Canada’s Proposed Bill C-24: The So-called ‘Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act’

A new bill proposed by the Canadian government’s Citizenship and Immigration Minister, Chris Alexander, has been getting a lot of press recently. (You can find the bill here and the current Act here). Bill C-24, called by its proponents the ‘Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act,’ is meant to do just that: Strengthen Canadian Citizenship. The changes it proposes to the extant Canadian Citizenship Act are legion, and vary in their significance. Certainly, the changes are not all bad. It calls, for example, for modifications that would allow so-called ‘lost Canadians’ a chance to become citizens. People who, for one reason or another, never received citizenship when they should have. It also introduces more consistently gender-neutral language, rather than favouring the masculine pronoun, and acknowledges common-law partnerships, where the current act only recognizes marriage. These are good things. But, the press hasn’t focused on these gains. This is because a series of changes proposed by the bill will also make Canadian citizenship harder to get and easier to lose. Like others, I’m opposed to the latter set of changes being proposed. However, unlike others, my dissent isn’t based on the introduction of what is being called a distinction between first and second-class citizens. Instead, it is based on the assumption, implicit in proposed bill and explicit in the rhetoric of its defense, that citizenship is a privilege and not a right. Continue reading

How Should I Vote?

Yesterday’s elections in the UK raised again an old question, which receives surprisingly little public discussion. Should I vote on the basis of my own self-interest (or the interest of my family), or should I vote on moral, or ‘other-regarding’, considerations? Continue reading

Does it matter that there’s cocaine in our water supply?

Scientists from the Drinking Water Inspectorate have recently discovered benzoylecgonine in water samples at four test sites, a finding that is thought to be a result of high levels of domestic cocaine consumption. Benzoylecgonine is the metabolised form of cocaine that appears once it has passed through the body, and is the same compound that is tested for in urine-based drug tests for cocaine. It is also an ingredient in a popular muscle-rub, however, so the origins of the compound in our water are somewhat uncertain. Steve Rolles from the drug policy think tank Transform has suggested that the findings are an indication of the scale of the use of cocaine in Britain todayAccording to a 2010 UN report, the United Kingdom is the single largest cocaine market within Europe, followed by Spain.  In contrast to the shrinking cocaine market in North America, the number of cocaine users in European countries has doubled over the last decade, from 2 million in 1998 to 4.1 million in 2007/8. Although the annual cocaine prevalence rate in Europe (1.2%) is lower than North America (2.1%), the UK prevalence rate (3.7% in Scotland and 3.0% in England and Wales) is actually higher than the US (2.6% in 2008). According to the charity DrugScope, cocaine is the second most used illegal substance in the UK after cannabis: there are around 180,000 dependent users of crack cocaine in England, and nearly 700,000 people aged 16-59 are estimated to take cocaine every year. Further, according to the government statistics, in the years 2012-13, cocaine was the only drug to show an increase in use among adults between 16-59. All this does appear to suggest a possible link between the benzoylecgonine found in the water supply and high levels of cocaine use in the UK.

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Revenge – an unjust necessity?

Recently, I have come to seemingly hap hazardously stumble over a series of texts and events that all circulate around what I always considered base and somewhat repulsive desires to hurt fellow human beings on what is considered good grounds. Some months ago, I wrote a post here about so-called shaming sites that expose in particular sex criminals, where law-abiding citizens are given the opportunity to add to the suffering of sex offenders by spreading information about them, and making sure that whatever the legal punishment has been, they shall not get away that easily with the appalling crimes they have committed. Since then, New York Times has published an article about the merit of spite, and an opinion piece by Norwegian crime novel author Jo Nesbo entitled ‘Revenge, My Lovely’ on the value of revenge. Here in Oxford, Martha Nussbaum has given the first of a series of lectures on ‘Anger and Forgiveness’ where she addresses the same desire to hurt wrongdoers. Interest for this phenomenon is à la mode, and I will suggest that this might be because it reveals a tension in our society that is very difficult to deal with. Continue reading

Political speech crime

In an article at The conversation  Professor Torcello has proposed that ‘an organised campaign funding misinformation ought to be considered criminally negligent’. I am wholly in agreement with him. I cannot think of a political party whose campaign can be characterised as anything other than an organized campaign funding misinformation and I would be delighted if we could bang them all up in chokey for it and be rid of them. Sorry, what’s that? He wasn’t talking about politicians? Well who was he talking about then? Continue reading

A minimal proceduralist argument against Crimean independence

As the Ukrainian crisis continues to unfold, attention has shifted from the deposed president Viktor Yanukovych to the Crimea peninsula.  Crimea has an ethnic Russian majority and as such are much less sympathetic to the pro-Western uprising that toppled Yanukovych (see the very useful maps posted here).  Now the Russian military has occupied the region, and there is some movement towards either independence or annexation into Russia.  Western powers are unsurprisingly outraged at this military intervention, with UK Prime Minister David Cameron saying there is “no excuse” for Russian occupation.  I would like to suggest that the case against Russia’s use of force is not as clear cut as it first appears, as it could potentially be justified on the grounds of promoting Crimea’s right to self-determination.  Still, careful attention to how recent events unfolded do indicate that both the occupation and recent (quite quick) moves for separation from Ukraine are illegitimate on relatively minimal procedural grounds. Continue reading

Compromising with Racism

Over at Slate, Tanner Colby has a critique of liberal US school busing policies that’s well worth reading.  Some historical context: in the wake of Brown v. Board’s 1954 mandate to integrate school districts, a pattern of ‘white flight’ emerged – white parents moving from city centers to the suburbs to avoid having to send their children to racially integrated schools.  School busing was a court-enforced reaction to this movement, designed to force the children of those who had fled to the suburbs to integrate by busing students in the whiter suburbs to more minority-dominated schools and vice-versa.  Busing has more recently been rolled back by various courts and local governments, much to the chagrin of liberals – but Colby argues the policy was actually a massive failure to begin with.  He makes some important points concerning a central goal of integration (to get students of different races to truly socialize and interact, not merely sit in the same classrooms and cafeterias) that busing did not achieve, and towards the end offers a glimpse of an alternative Colby thinks is superior.  This alternative essentially involves compromising with racism by having blacks be bused to predominantly white schools, but (acceding to the racially-motivated demands of white parents) not vice-versa.  Yet despite the allegedly good consequences of the compromise, there are inherent problems with it.  These problems, I submit, give us strong reason to reject compromising with racism in this instance. Continue reading

Professor Tim Scanlon: When Does Equality Matter?

2013 Uehiro Lectures by Professor Tim Scanlon (Department of Philosophy, Harvard University)

We are very grateful to Professor Tim Scanlon (Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity, Harvard University) for delivering the 10th Annual Uehiro Lectures in December 2013, entitled “When Does Equality Matter?”

Lecture 1: “Equal Treatment”  AUDIO 

Lecture 2:”Equal Status”  AUDIO 

Lecture 3: “Equal Opportunity”  AUDIO  (includes discussion with Professors John Broome, Janet Radcliffe Richards and David Miller).

Video files will shortly be available here.

Uehiro Lectures and Book Series: The annual public Uehiro Lecture Series captures the ethos of the Uehiro Centre, which is to bring the best scholarship in analytic philosophy to bear on the most significant problems of our time, and to make progress in the analysis and resolution of these issues to the highest academic standard, in a manner that is also accessible to the general public. Philosophy should not only create knowledge, it should make people’s lives better. In keeping with this, the Annual Uehiro Lectures are published as a book series by Oxford University Press.  See Uehiro Series in Practical Ethics on the OUP website for further details

Speaker bio: Professor Scanlon received his B.A. from Princeton and his Ph.D. from Harvard. In between, he studied for a year at Oxford as a Fulbright Fellow. He taught for many years at Princeton before taking up a position at Harvard in 1984. His dissertation and some of his first papers were in mathematical logic, where his main concern was in proof theory, but he soon made his name in ethics and political philosophy, where he developed a version of contractualism in the line of John Rawls, Immanuel Kant, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Professor Scanlon has also published important work on freedom of speech, equality, tolerance, foundations of contract law, human rights, conceptions of welfare, theories of justice, as well as on foundational questions in moral theory. His books include What We Owe to Each Other (Harvard University Press, 1998) and The Difficulty of Tolerance (Cambridge University Press, 2003). Other recent publications include Moral Dimensions: Permissibility, Meaning, Blame, published by Harvard University Press in September 2008

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