Monthly Archives: January 2014

Freedom of Belief

Society (in the UK and Australia at least) currently seems troubled by questions of religious freedom (or indeed freedom from religion).  Much of what I see written seems unconvincing to me, at best showing that some extreme positions are undesirable.  I haven’t seen anyone state an approach to religious freedom that I can support, so thought I’d do my best to write down my thoughts.  So, this is a post on how I would like to see society approaching people with different beliefs (and not just religious belief).

Firstly, I recognise the need for belief.  There is a lot that I don’t know about myself, those around me, and the world I live in.  My senses and perception are notoriously unreliable – I am a lot more likely to see what we expect to see, or want to see.  I’m not saying that I should ignore what I see around us, or not think.  After all, having better beliefs will generally a good thing (although not aways – there’s truth in the expression that a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing).  But I shouldn’t think that because what someone else thinks is wrong, that what I think is right.

Next, I think that I, and society, is improved by an improving in beliefs.  But it isn’t the single driving factor.  It is possible to do good things, and live a good life, despite having imperfect beliefs.  And it is possible to have more reasonable beliefs, but to still do the wrong thing.  This tension is difficult to grapple with.  I need to decide when to try harder to get the truth, and when should I do the best based on what I believe?  When should I work to improve the beliefs of others, and when should I let them live?  I don’t think there is an easy answer.

So, I favour a society that promotes and facilitates positive, respectful engagement between people and their beliefs.  An important note, when I used the word respectful, I don’t mean that I have to respect other people’s beliefs, or avoid challenging them.  It is more about being respectful of the person – and acknowledging that all of us (including me) are coming from different places and have beliefs that aren’t perfect.  And it requires me to listen to the other person, and learn from them.  The conclusion of this process isn’t that we all agree on the same beliefs – I don’t think that would be healthy – but at least having some common understanding.

We can’t force people to have any particular belief.  Once we move from beliefs, to resulting words and actions that impact other people, I believe it sometimes will be appropriate to restrict, in order to balance the rights of other affected people with those of the individual who wants to act.

How does this look in practice?  I’m going to work through a number of questions, not so much to give clear answers but to illustrate my thought process.:

  • Should you be allowed to kill people because your beliefs say it is appropriate?  Generally, I would say no, as the impact on the people killed is so extreme.  (I’m not painting this as an absolute no, as I could think of situations I’d accept where not killing the people causes other people to die.)
  • Should you be allowed to tell people what you believe?  I generally think yes, unless it is done in a harassing way.  (That said, people will form a view of you based on what you say – if you tell colleagues, even in a non-harassing way, they are going to hell, they might question your judgement more generally.)
  • Should people be allowed to wear clothes or accessories that highlight their beliefs?  My gut reaction is to say, “of course”, but it doesn’t take priority over an employer’s right to enforce a reasonable dress code (e.g. no jewellery).  In addition, I think historical context can also make some clothes so offensive to be justifiably prevented.
  • Should governments promote beliefs?  I’d say, sometimes yes, sometimes no.  I’d look at the degree to which the beliefs are opposed by others in society, and the degree of certainty of the beliefs.  So, I’d have problems with them promoting religious beliefs (based on some people reasonably disagreeing with these beliefs), but I’m more ok with them promoting belief in responsibility or respect for others.
  • Should parents be restricted from teaching their children whatever they like?  Children are impressionable, and society bears some responsibility for them (along with the parents). Once again, there is a balance to be had between the rights of the parents, the rights of the child to learn, and the rights of society not to have a child raised unable to learn or integrate into society.
  • Should schools be restricted from teaching whatever beliefs they like?  I believe that schools have a special responsibility to society, to produce members of society that are able to interact positively with all people and learn.  I therefore consider schools that are overly restrictive in membership (eg limited by religious group, class or nationality) to be undesirable.  I’d also be concerned if a school’s teaching was reducing its students ability to interact positively and function in society.  So yes, where the beliefs being taught limit the intake, or the students’ ability to learn and integrate, I feel they should be restricted.
  • Should institutions based on belief be restricted?  I generally support the right of people with like-minded beliefs to associate.  My main grounds for restricting such institutions was to prevent them limiting people’s interaction with different-minded individuals, and to prevent them gathering sufficient power that they end up using that power to limit alternative view points.

In these examples, I haven’t given any clear-cut or easy answers: I think it will always be a matter of significant weighing-up of conflicting rights, and making judgement, doing the best we can.  But I’d rather recognise that, than hide the complexity with easy but flawed snap judgements.

Judging Others

One of the joys of writing a blog is the opportunity and challenge to think through, and gather my thoughts on topics that I care about.  You might think, from the fact I have a blog, that I have clear views I want to share – but in reality, what appears in my published version is often significantly different from what I thought I wanted to say.  The act of writing it down forces me to recognise unintended assumptions and weak logic, and hopefully come to a fairer conclusion.  For me it is definitely worth the time it takes to write each post.  

I’ve enjoyed writing about inequality for the past few posts, and I can guarantee I’ll be back onto it.  But in the meantime I had a few topics that needed some deep thought, so I thought they’d be the focus of my next few posts – I hope you’ll indulge me.  

It probably makes it even worse that I can’t remember what had angered me.  But I distinctly remember thinking: “I hate Neighbourhood Watch type people – they’re all so judgemental and hypocritical!”

To be fair to me, I realised within seconds the incredible hypocrisy in the statement.  But the fact is, I did think it.

The point of this confession is firstly, to highlight that I sometimes do, say or think things I later feel I shouldn’t have (a book I’m reading calls this the ‘Human Propensity to F*** Things Up’, which seems pretty appropriate).  And secondly, that despite spending so much of my time judging others, I don’t do it in a very rational (or fair) way.

We don’t know what other people are thinking when they say or do something.  So we usually just make an assumption.  That assumption will generally be more influenced by what we think of that person (including whether they are on ‘our side’) than on what they have said or done, or how likely any particular assumption is.

This contributes to and is in turn caused by political and social polarisation, in which those on the other side are malicious, inhumane, incompetent liars, while those on our side (including ourself) are demonstrating superhuman compassion and virtue whatever the outcome.  I only need to take a look at my Facebook feed to see this played out.

Isn’t it far more likely that we’re all just human, with far more in common than dividing us?  We all have failings: for example, procrastinating, not caring about things we should, avoiding difficult situations, lying to ourselves and others, or being aggressive or selfish at times.  We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t.  But, being human also makes us want to connect and care about others, to challenge ourselves and to want to improve ourselves and the world around us.

So, my challenge (to myself, and anyone else that feels the need) is to be more mindful when observing other people and fairer in judging – recognising they are human, with virtues and flaws in constant conflict, and that there’s an awful lot in any given instant that we shouldn’t assume about their intentions.

Minimum Wages

I was asked, in a comment in last week’s blog post, what I thought of the concept of a minimum wage. I briefly answered, with a disclaimer that I didn’t think there was an easy answer, so thought it could be the topic of this week’s post.

I want to take a step back from the specific question of minimum wages and ask a few questions:

  • Firstly, I ask the question: how much do we need people to be receiving to survive?.  I’m going to assume that most of my readers could not live with this number being too low, taking into account ethical, empathetic or even self-interested grounds (fear of crime, etc).  We need to recognise that if this isn’t coming from employers, it will have to be coming from the state.
  • Next I ask: what do we want people, particularly those unable to get higher paid work, to be doing?  Ideally I would want them to choose (autonomously) to contribute in whichever way they could best – either through a job or community, or perhaps through improving their future ability to contribute, say by studying.
  • Finally I ask, to what extent should people’s need for income be met by state or employers? The trivial answer is that as much as possible should be paid by employers, but even this isn’t trivial: increasing how much the employer pays for an individual may lead to more people being unemployed and fully paid for by the state. Or it might make the work they are given less likely to lead to better paid work in future.  To be honest, I’m more relaxed about this question – I care far more about the first two questions.

The challenge is then to come up with policies and actions that support our goals and manage the conflict between them.  For example, forcing people in particular jobs will tend to increase the amount of money paid by employers in the short term (it is less clear in the longer term), but at the cost of autonomy and the desirability of the work they’re doing (for the individual or society).  Similarly, job creation schemes have costs (in other words, more money is being spent by the state), but I definitely believe the best schemes do provide excellent value in what employers will pay over the long term.

Minimum wage regulations are another example of such a policy that affects our goals.  It will increase the amount paid by employers for those individuals that have jobs, but reduce the number that are employed.  It is incredibly difficult to predict, for different increases in minimum wage, how much the number employed will go down, as it has short term and long term effects, and will depend on the skills of people, the demands for these skills by employers, and also the range of other policies influencing the unemployed and low income earners.  So I’d caution against trusting predictions of the impact of a given change in minimum wage, and note that most of the people speaking out have a vested interest in lowering or increasing the minimum wage.

So, as for my view, I’m certainly prepared to accept a small reduction in employment if it leads to employers paying a higher portion of people’s need for income, particularly if it improves the quality of the work that the people are doing and their sense that it is worthwhile, but there’d be a level of reduction that I’d consider no longer justified.  I really couldn’t tell you which case we’re in right now.

And I’d stress that a minimum wage is only one of a range of policies aimed at increasing the value of the whole population’s contribution, and may not be the best policy:  I still prefer a guaranteed basic income as a more effective way to deal with the increasing proportion of the population forced into low income employment or unemployment.

How Basic Income might change things

I mentioned in my last post that I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of a guaranteed basic income (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basic_income) as a way to address a number of challenges that western societies are increasingly facing.

In short, the idea proposes that a guaranteed basic income would be paid to each citizen, irrespective of work status, replacing benefits that are costly to administer and alienate a growing proportion of the population.

In this post, I’d like to ponder how people’s lives might be different if we all received such a basic income, set at around the level of what is commonly called a living wage (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Living_wage).   I would ask that readers read it as one person’s sincere thoughts, rather than a rigorous or conclusive argument.

I haven’t come across a better system than the market for determining what work people do.  But markets only work when both sides have some bargaining power.  Society’s natural response to the lack of bargaining power is to introduce regulation, and I do believe we’re in an overall better state than we’d be in if we had no regulations.  But regulations have a cost.  I get nervous when governments assigning work to people, or forcing companies to hire people or pay them particular salaries, as I don’t think they can properly take into account individual cases, and changing times.  I believe that by improving the bargaining power of individuals, a guaranteed basic income would improve the effectiveness of the market, with less need for regulations.

A common argument against a guaranteed basic income is that people would then have no reason to work. I don’t see this. Productive work is rarely the result of desperation. Instead, I would expect people who could survive without jobs to still be motivated to contribute, based on the natural human desire for significance.  This can be seen in that most people who know their parents wouldn’t let them starve still want to work.

The way in which people contribute would change, but I believe for the better. No one would be forced into any job, rather they would decide based on the income to be earned and satisfaction to be gained, versus the time and hardship endured.  I would expect to see more people choosing pastimes that they found intrinsically fulfilling as well as financially rewarding.  I’d expect to see less craving for the security of a traditional job in a big company, and more creativity and innovation.

I am sometimes asked, “What about garbage collectors and call centre workers?”.  I recognise that there are jobs out there that depend on desperation for many applicants (though would caution against generalising all such employees as desperate).  My expectation is that a basic income would lead to several simultaneous effects: employers would need to improve pay and the conditions of these jobs, making them more worth having, technology would reduce the need for these workers (and make them more productive), so we’d end up with a new equilibrium, which I’d deem better.

Finally, I worry about resentment in society.  Those that receive benefits may resent the obligations that come with it, not to mention the social stigma.  And those who don’t receive benefits may resent those that don’t.  This divides the community, and perceived unfairness reduces the tendency to work together for everyone’s benefit.  I would hope that a guaranteed basic income would go some way to reducing the resentment and feeling of unfairness.