Politics

Oxford Martin School Seminar: Robert Rogers and Paul Van Lange on Social Dilemmas

In a joint event on November 15th, Prof Robert Rogers and Prof Paul van Lange presented their scientific work related to social dilemmas.

Social dilemmas are situations in which private interests conflict with collective interests. This means that people facing a social dilemma have to decide whether to prioritise either their own short-term interests or the long-term interests of a group. Many real-life situations are social dilemmas. For example, as individuals we would (economically) benefit from using public motorways without paying taxes to maintain them, but if all acted according to their self-interest, no motorways would be built and the whole society would be worse off. In the academic literature, the three types of social dilemmas that are discussed most prominently are the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the Public Goods Dilemma, and the Tragedy of the Commons. All three types have been modelled as experimental games, and research from different fields like psychology, neuroscience, and behavioural economics uses these games to tackle the question of under which conditions people are willing to cooperate with one another in social dilemmas, instead of maximising their self-interest. The ultimate goal of such research is to be able to give recommendations about how to solve social dilemmas in society.

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Get your nasty Platonic hands off my kids, Mr. Gove

My book of the year, by a very wide margin, is Jay Griffiths’ splendid ‘Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape’ (Hamish Hamilton, 2013). Amongst her many virtues is a loathing of Plato’s Republic. Here she is, in typically swashbuckling style:

Excessive laughter is banned and so is the liquid superfluity of metaphor. Plato would rid his ideal state of anything that could arouse emotion, mischief, wildness or fun….so ghastly is his Republic that it could be interpreted as satire. But, generally, its ambition has been taken with deadly seriousness as a founding text on the education of boys. The purpose of The Republic is to school its youth to be good soldiers engaged in unending war to take the resources of neighbouring lands. It is a handbook for the education of imperialists.

Brick by brick, Plato builds the walls of his citadel of control, hierarchy and obedience. His ideal republic is obsessed with rule – not only the rule of command, but the rule of measurement… the heart of his vision [is] that Apollo, god of measure, metre, civilisation and, surely, god of metronomes, should keep Dionysus, god of the Romantic movement, god of wildness and nature, firmly under his thumb.’ 1

Familiar? It should be – at least to UK readers. It’s the policy of Michael Gove and his rightly vilified Department. They want to produce a generation of nerdish measurers – people who wield rulers rather than wands, and who write in Excel rather than blank verse.

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In praise of insult

You have no right to be free from insult. Indeed, sometimes you may deserve to be insulted. Let us take a case that brings this into sharp focus: the Tory chief whip who lost his job because… well, we still don’t know exactly why because it now turns out that what the police claimed at the time wasn’t true. And maybe he should have lost his job: I don’t know. But one of the underlying assumptions throughout seems to have been that nobody should ever be sworn at. And that is flatly false. Sometimes people deserve to be sworn at. People in power deserve it when they stupidly, arrogantly or indifferently muck up our lives, something they do routinely. They deserve it most especially when they misuse their authority, such as when they do so to display their power by make someone’s life worse or for the purpose of getting  their own back on someone who resists their misuse of power. Continue reading

What Fuels the Fighting: Disagreement over Facts or Values?

In a particularly eye-catching pull quote in the November issue of The Atlantic, journalist and scholar Robert Wright claims, “The world’s gravest conflicts are not over ethical principles or disputed values but over disputed facts.”[1]

The essay, called “Why We Fight – And Can We Stop?” in the print version and “Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? The Uncertain Biological Basis of Morality” in the online version, reviews new research by psychologists Joshua Greene and Paul Bloom on the biological foundations of our moral impulses. Focusing mainly on Greene’s newest book, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, Wright details Greene’s proposed solution to the rampant group conflict we see both domestically and internationally. Suggesting that we are evolutionarily wired to cooperate or ‘get along’ with members of groups to which we belong, Greene identifies the key cause of fighting as different groups’ “incompatible visions of what a moral society should be.”[2] And his answer is to strive for a ‘metamorality’ – a universally shared moral perspective (he suggests utilitarianism) that would create a global in-group thus facilitating cooperation.

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How to get positive surveillance – a few ideas

I recently published an article on the possible upsides of mass surveillance (somewhat in the vein of David Brin’s “transparent society”). To nobody’s great astonishment, it has attracted criticism! Some of them accuse me of not knowing the negative aspects of surveillance. But that was not the article’s point; there is already a lot written on the negative aspects (Bruce Schneier and Cory Doctorow, for instance, have covered this extremely well). Others make the point that though these benefits may be conceivable in principle, I haven’t shown how they could be obtained in practice.

Again, that wasn’t the point of the article. But it’s a fair criticism – what can we do today to make a better surveillance outcomes more likely? Since I didn’t have space to go through that in my article, here are a few suggestions: Continue reading

US Congress shutsdown CDC, also other unimportant agencies

So the US government is likely being shutdown, which will suspend the work of many government agencies, including the Center for Disease Control (CDC). But, fair citizens, I reassure you – in its wisdom, the US Congress has decided that the military’s salaries will be excluded from the shutdown.

With all due respect to military personnel, this is ludicrous. The US military is by far the world’s largest, there is little likelihood of any major war (the last great power war was in 1953), and no sign of minor wars starting, either. Suspended salaries may be bad for morale and long term retention, but they aren’t going to compromise US military power.

Contrast with the CDC’s work. The world’s deadliest war was the second world war, with 60 million dead, over a period of years (other wars get nowhere close to this). The Spanish flu killed 50-100 million on its own, in a single year. Smallpox couldn’t match that yearly rate, but did polish off 300-500 million of us during the 20th century. Bog standard flu kills between a quarter and a half million every year, and if we wanted to go back further, the Black Death wiped out at least a third of the population of Europe. And let’s not forget HIV with its 30 million deaths to date.

No need to belabour the point… Actually there is: infectious diseases are the greatest killers in human history, bar none. If any point needs belabouring, that’s one. And a shutdown would have an immediate negative impact on public health: for instance, the CDC would halt its influenza monitoring program. Now, of course, this year’s flu may not turn out to be pandemic – we can but hope, because that’s all we can do now! And if we have another SARS starting somewhere in the United States, it will be a real disaster.

We’re closing our eyes and hoping that the greatest killer in human history will be considerate enough to not strike while we sort out our politics.

Google and the G20

The furore over Syria at the G20 meeting has distracted attention from the potentially highly significant agreement by the leaders of the world’s largest economies to support an ‘ambitious and comprehensive’ plan to address the massive global problem of multinational corporations’ failure to pay tax where they earn it, using transfer pricing and other methods to pay lower tax elsewhere or none at all. Continue reading

Teenage annihilation on an Aegean boat

An Old Bore writes:

Last week I got the boat from Athens to Hydra. It takes about 2 ½ hours, and takes you along the coast of the Argolid.

The sun shone, the dolphins leapt, the retsina flowed, the bouzoukis trembled, and we watched the sun rise over the Peloponnese. It was wonderful. At least it was for me.

Basking on the upper deck, playing Russian roulette with malignant melanoma, were four girls, all aged around 15. They saw nothing. They stretched out on bean bags, their eyes shut throughout the voyage. They heard nothing other than what was being pumped into their ears from their IPods. They would no doubt describe themselves as friends, but they didn’t utter a word to each other. They shared nothing at all apart from their fashion sense and, no doubt, some of the music. The dolphins leapt unremarked upon. We might, so far as the girls were concerned, have been cruising past Manchester rather than Mycenae. Continue reading

In defense of the double standard for chemical weapons

As the US and other nations gear up for war in Syria, the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime against civilians has received great, perhaps inordinate attention.  A little over a year ago, US President Barack Obama called the use of chemical weapons a “red line”, though was vague about what would happen if that line were crossed.  And while there were previous allegations of chemical weapons attacks, the most recent accusations concerning an attack in a Damascus suburb that killed hundreds seem to have been taken more seriously and will likely be used as a Causus Belli for air strikes against Assad’s forces in Syria.  Yet, some have argued that this focus on chemical weapons use is rather inconsistent.  Dominic Tierney at the Atlantic sarcastically comments, “Blowing your people up with high explosives is allowable, as is shooting them, or torturing them. But woe betide the Syrian regime if it even thinks about using chemical weapons!”  And Paul Whitefield at the LA Times inquires, “Why is it worse for children to be killed by a chemical weapon than blown apart by an artillery shell?”  These writers have a point.  But, while it may not be entirely consistent, I will argue that the greater concern over the use of chemical weapons compared with conventional weapons is justified.  Continue reading

Political Change and the Olympic Games

by Luke Davies

The upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi has been in the news a lot recently. The controversy, as you will already know, is a result the introduction of another law discriminating against the LGBT community in Russia—Article 6.21 of the Code of the Russian Federation, the so-called “gay propaganda” law. [1] This law will allow the government to fine anyone who spreads propaganda about “non-traditional sexual relations” to minors. (The meaning of “propaganda” and “nontraditional sexual relations” is left quite ambiguous.) Given the insistence of Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko that competing athletes and visiting spectators must obey the laws of the country, there has been some disagreement about what to do. There are different levels of concern being given priority in the media, some more pertinent from an ethical perspective than others.

Here’s a spoiler: The trivial concerns have to do with the politics of the Olympic Games themselves; the real concern is with the harm to people’s lives in Russia. Continue reading

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