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Philosophy of the Social Sciences essay

This is an essay submitted for Philosophy of the Social Sciences, as part of my MSc in Philosophy of the Social Sciences.

According to some philosophers, mental states are holistic. When we rationalize action, inferring back from people’s actions to their beliefs and desires requires knowing more about further beliefs and desires. Donald Davidson captures the point in the following words: “When we attribute a belief, a desire, a goal, an intention or a meaning to an agent, we necessarily operate within a system of concepts in part determined by the structure of beliefs and desires of the agent himself. Short of changing the subject, we cannot escape this feature of the psychological; but this feature has not counterpart in the world of physics” (2001: 3). Why does Davidson think that the holism of the mental makes the prospect of understanding people scientifically – the prospect of a science of the social – so difficult? Discuss and critique.

 

 

  1. Introduction

The natural sciences have experienced considerable success in formulating laws that explain and predict the natural world.  The social sciences, in contrast, have struggled to formulate laws that explain and predict human behaviour. In this essay, I aim to consider an important source of difficulty facing the social sciences: what Donald Davidson has labelled “holism of the mental”.  This is the idea that mental states, such as beliefs and desires, with which we usually explain human behaviour, are not directly observable. They must instead be logically implied from actions, and this process depends on assumptions, for example other beliefs and desires that the individual holds.  This leaving the whole endeavour susceptible to error.

Davidson has not written specifically or extensively on holism of the mental, mentioning it within his essays Mental Events (1970) and Psychology as Philosophy (1974) as part of arguments on the impossibility of psychophysical laws; that is, laws in which mental states cause or entail physical states (Davidson, 2001).  Holism of the mental should also not be confused with the parallel idea of semantic holism: that the intended meaning of any term depends on the meanings of all other terms (Jackman, 2017).  As a result, I have focussed on what I understand to be the likely implications of holism of the mental, drawing in part from discussion of mental explanations in Rosenberg (2015). While I will accept that holism of the mental poses difficulties, I will offer some ways in which they may, to some extent, be overcome.  

The essay will be structured as follows: In section 2, I describe Davidson’s view of the role of mental explanations of behaviour, and indicate how the differ from physical explanations.  In section 3, I acknowledge the difficulties posed by holism of the mental. In section 4, I suggest some ways in which progress might nonetheless possible.

 

  1. Mental and physical explanations of behaviour

Davidson’s consideration of laws within the social sciences relies upon the distinction between two kinds of explanations of human behaviour: mental (psychological) and physical.  Mental explanations are the ones most often used, and I will first describe these and explain how Davidson understands these working. I will then describe physical explanations of human behaviour, highlighting how they differ to mental explanations.

Our usual way of explaining human behaviour is with mental or psychological explanations.  These are used intuitively by most people, hence are sometimes referred to as “folk psychology”.  Mental explanations are sets of beliefs and desires (or more generally any such propositional attitudes), that, combined with other beliefs and desires, rationally justify the observed behaviour.  For example, we say that a man carried an umbrella because he believed it might rain and desired not to get wet. Not all behaviour can be rationalised this way, for example mere (unintentional) behaviour, but we designate as action that behaviour we can explain by beliefs and desires.  Mental explanations are subjective (dependent on how we interpret the action) and implied rather than objectively observed.  

Physical explanations are of the type more typical in natural sciences, and involve identifying objectively observed initial conditions, and laws (perhaps but not necessarily physical mechanisms) that determine the resulting outcome.  In the case of human behaviour, we may expect it to result from an initial physiological state (including the state of the brain), via physiological mechanisms. Unfortunately, explanations of this type have been of limited use within social science, as behaviour depends greatly on variation in the state of the brain, and this cannot currently be known precisely enough to form accurate predictions.  

Davidson believes that mental explanations are the appropriate ones for human action (2001, p239); that psychology should take philosophy as its template instead of the natural sciences like neuroscience or even physics.  However, as Davidson recognised, mental explanations have limitations, which I will consider in the next section.

 

  1. Difficulties posed by mental explanations

In the previous section I described mental explanations, which Davidson believes are the appropriate ones for explaining human behaviour.  However, mental explanations, though widely used, have struggled to provide law-like generalisations of the sort that have contributed to the success of the natural sciences.  I argue that much of this difficulty is due to the holism of the mental: the fact that beliefs and desires do not operate individually, but collectively, as a whole. This section will discuss the difficulties that holism poses to mental explanations. Firstly, I describe how individual beliefs and desires depend on the other beliefs and desires for their significance.  Secondly, I describe how this allows indeterminism: multiple sets of beliefs and desires can rationalise observed actions, which makes it difficult to choose between them. Finally, I discuss how unconsidered factors, can undermine the logical relationship between beliefs and desires and behaviour.

According to Davidson’s understanding, mental explanations consist of beliefs and desires logically implied from an individual’s behaviour.  This logical process of implication requires us to assume many of their other beliefs and desires. For example, if we see someone choosing chicken from a menu, we would likely imply that they desire chicken, but this logic relies on them being able to read the menu and believing that the item was in fact chicken.  We may practically consider one belief or desire to be the primary reason for an action, but this is only because we have taken for granted other beliefs or desires, and the lack of further beliefs and desires. Holism of the mental means that no belief or desire can be deduced with certainty, each requires the assumption of others.  Furthermore, we can never rule out a belief or desire: we can always explain additional actions by supposing additional beliefs and desires.

Because actions are more correctly explained by an individual’s full set of beliefs and desires, we can often explain action in multiple ways, and our choice cannot be objective.  For example, on seeing a man picking up someone else’s umbrella, one viewer might explain it as him mistakenly thinking it is his own, while another might explain it as him intentionally stealing.  One could interpret this indeterminism as suggesting that no set of beliefs and desires can ever be considered the correct one. I dispute this point; there exist some beliefs and desires that we would maintain even if we had all possible evidence of the individual.  However, we must accept that more evidence may change our view of which alternative is most plausible, and the difficulty that this uncertainty adds to our being sure of our beliefs and desires.

Finally, other factors, beyond beliefs and desires, can have an influence on our behaviour, blurring the scope of mental explanation.   Davidson refers to this problem as that of the mental not being a closed system, as it is affected by non-mental factors (2001, p224). For example, I may believe that there is an apple on the table, and I may desire the apple, but if my belief is mistaken I will not take the apple.  Similarly, if someone else takes the apple before I can, then I will not take it. Sometimes the effect of these factors are captured by ceteris paribus conditions which recognise that people may act differently when circumstances change, however these are generally vague and in practice circumstances will never remain constant.  We cannot expect to have law-like generalisations if we accept that they are susceptible to these other factors.

This section highlighted a number of reasons why our efforts to develop mental explanations have largely failed to provide law-like generalisations necessary for a rigorous science of the social.  However, I do not believe the endeavour is totally hopeless, and in the next section I will suggest some ways in which these difficulties may be overcome, at least to some extent.

 

  1. Hope for improving the power of mental explanations

In this section I will suggest three ways in which the difficulties posed by holism of the mental may be tackled, in order to allow progress within social science.   Firstly, I argue that the holism described above is not complete, and in some cases clusters of beliefs may be isolated, or dependence on particularly uncertain beliefs may be reduced.  Secondly, I suggest that evidence for certain beliefs or desires may be found via physical means, allowing objective measurement. Finally, I suggest that we may extend the scope of mental explanation to cases where other factors undermine intentional action, reducing our need for vague ceteris paribus conditions.

Holism of the mental means that every belief or desire depends for its significance on the person’s total structure of beliefs and desires.  I argue against such a complete interdependence. I accept that some beliefs and desires are fundamental, and influence many other beliefs; for example, our belief that we should generally communicate honestly, or our desire to have the things we think will please us.  However, I argue that there are clusters of desires and beliefs that do not depend on those in other clusters, and some desires and beliefs on which no others rely. In addition, I argue that some beliefs are sufficiently specific that they will seldom, if ever affect the operation of other beliefs and desires.   As a result, if we incorrectly determine some of an individual’s beliefs and desires, it will not necessarily contaminate all other beliefs and desires, or all predictions.

While the beliefs and desires within mental explanations are usually derived logically, I believe that as neuroscience develops, we will have opportunities to objectively identify some.  Already, FMRI analysis is able to determine neural correlates of aspects of our decision-making: that is, measurable physical activity in the brain that differs in a consistent way with our mental states  (Rosenberg, 2015, p68, 117). As we better understand these correlates, we will be able to make physical observations to determine what certain mental beliefs and desires are likely to be. To give an analogy from the natural sciences, the recognition that mercury expands in a consistent function of experienced heat significantly increased chemistry’s ability to accurately measure temperature and therefore experiment (Rosenberg, 2015, p67).  I acknowledge that what we currently know about the way the brain works is vastly outweighed by what we don’t know, and we most likely will not ever have full knowledge. However, it would be surprising if neuroscience’s ability to understand the basis of mental states, remained constant over the next 50 years.

Finally, rather than settling for vague ceteris paribus conditions that make mental explanations untestable in practice, I believe that considering the factors that undermine intentional action will allow social science to develop.  If we can understand specifically when lack of willpower prevents us from acting rationally, or when environmental factors will outweigh or alter our behaviour, we will be able to make falsifiable predictions and develop them into useful law-like generalisations.  For example, rather than seeing wealth maximising behaviour as something that people do just sometimes, we will be able to define a restricted set of contexts when we can genuinely expect people to act that way.

 

  1. Conclusion

In this essay, I described Davidson’s model of distinct physical and mental explanations for human action.  I considered how the idea of holism of the mental presents difficulties for a science of human behaviour in contrast to the natural sciences.  Although I accept these difficulties, I argued that we should not be too pessimistic, and suggested a number of ways in which I believe mental explanations can become more objective, based more on empirical evidence rather than entirely on logic and assumption.  Holism of the mental makes the mind a bit like a crossword. The task seems daunting at first, before you are confident of any letters, but solving even a few clues does make further progress easier. Human behaviour may never be as predictable as the movement of the planets, but there is good reason to expect progress.

 

References

Davidson, Donald, 2001. “Essays on Actions and Events”, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Elster, Jon, 1985. “The Nature and Scope of Rational Choice Explanation”, reprinted in Readings in the Philosophy of Social Science (1994), edited by M. Martin and L.C. McIntyre, MIT Press, pp. 311-322.

Herstein, Gary, 2005,  “Davidson on the Impossibility of Psychophysical Laws”, Synthese, Vol. 145, No. 1 (May, 2005), pp. 45-63

Jackman, Henry, 2017. “Meaning Holism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/meaning-holism/>.

Latham, Noa, 1999.  “Davidson and Kim on Psychophysical Laws”, Synthese, Vol. 188, No. 2 (1999)

Lepore, Ernest and Kirk Ludwig (eds.), 2013, A Companion to Donald Davidson, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Malpas, Jeff, 1992, “Donald Davidson and the Mirror of Meaning”, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Malpas, Jeff, 2015.   “Donald Davidson”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2015/entries/davidson/>.

Pettit, P. (2002). “Three Aspects of Rational Explanation”, in Rules, Reasons, and Norms, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 177-191.

Rosenberg, Alexander, 2015. “Philosophy of Social Science (fifth edition) ”, Westview Press, Colorado

Philosophy of Economics Essay

This is an essay submitted for Philosophy of Economics, for my MSc in Philosophy of the Social Sciences.

In Haybron and Alexandrova’s “eminent domain” case, is it paternalistic to build the shopping centre? If yes, does this count against using cost-benefit analysis to guide public decision-making?

1 Introduction

In this essay, we are asked to consider a case study, proposed by Haybron and Alexandrova (H&A), in which a government makes use of “eminent domain” powers, that is, in which property owners are forced to sell their properties.  This is done in order to build a shopping centre that it believes (based on cost-benefit analysis) will benefit citizens enough to compensate the owners. H&A argue that the government’s decision, made on behalf of the people and then forced upon them, is potentially paternalistic and inappropriate.  I will consider this argument, and its wider implications on using cost-benefit analysis within public decision-making.

In section 2 I will consider paternalism in general, defining it and describing the harms that make it a concern.  I will argue that this definition is broader than sometimes thought, and includes cases with benefits that outweigh the harms, which I will argue are justified.  Sections 3 and 4 examine H&A’s case study, which I will argue displays paternalism in two ways: the decision to use eminent domain (section 3), and the way in which costs and benefits of the project are estimated (section 4). I will argue that both these aspects involve paternalism, and therefore inflict harms, but are nevertheless justified. In section 5 I will generalise these conclusions to provide guidance as to when cost-benefit analysis is appropriate and how it should be done.

 

  1. Paternalism

Throughout this essay, I will adopt Dworkin’s definition of paternalism[FN: H&A consider a definition of paternalism by Shiffrin (2000, p218), and propose their own (H&A, 2013, p163). However, the arguments in this essay do not depend on which of these accounts is adopted.], which suggests that a government acts paternalistically towards citizens when

  • It interferes with their liberty or autonomy
  • Without their consent
  • It believes this will improve their welfare or promote their interests (Dworkin, 2017)

Paternalism imposes harms. First, it undermines the liberty of the citizens – their freedom to make their own choices.  Second, it can damage their ongoing ability to make decisions and exercise their will. Third, the decision maker can, despite good intentions, be incorrect in their assessment of what will enhance the individual’s welfare.  Examples of paternalism are requiring cyclists to wear helmets, or requiring companies to reduce the sugar content of drinks[FN: I note that some of these laws do not represent pure paternalism, but also seek to reduce the cost incurred by the rest of society.].

While the harms of paternalism are real and should not be ignored, I argue that paternalistic action can have benefits which may outweigh those harms and make it justified.  It is certainly conceivable that a government has knowledge or capabilities that will genuinely and significantly improve its citizens’ welfare (however defined), compared with what they could do themselves.  

It might be challenged that this definition is broader than paternalism is usually envisaged, and in particular includes government decision-making done on behalf of citizens, that could not be decided individually.  For example, national defence policy could not left to each individual to decide. However, I believe the definition’s breadth is appropriate, for two reasons. First, it is difficult to draw a clear distinction as to what individuals could or couldn’t decide; some might argue that citizens indeed could defend themselves.  Second, government decision-making on behalf of citizens still inflicts the harms of paternalism, which should be recognised. However, the paternalism of much of legitimate government action does support the argument that paternalism is justifiable where the benefits outweigh the costs.

I argue that collective action problems are a case where paternalism is particularly likely to be justified.  Collective action problems are ones where individuals, acting rationally, are likely to reach a suboptimal outcome; that is, one where an alternative exists, which is preferred by each individual.  For example, each citizen may highly value a national defence, but would not individually choose to contribute; government is a way to ensure, albeit paternalistically, that the optimal outcome is achieved.

 

  1. The decision to use eminent domain

In the previous section, I defined paternalism, and argued that while harmful, it could nonetheless be justified, where the benefits outweigh the costs.  I suggested collective action problems are an example where paternalism provides benefits that may outweigh its harms. In this section I wish to argue that government decision to use eminent domain, such as in the H&A case study (described in the introduction), addresses a collective action problem: individual property owners have an incentive to not sell unless they are paid above their fair value.  I will argue that in this case paternalism is likely to be justified. I will also suggest ways in which the harms of paternalism can be reduced.

The use of eminent domain is paternalistic, according to Dworkin’s definition; it interferes on property owner’s freedom, they have not consented, and it is being done because the government believes it will maximise the welfare of all citizens.  I also argue that it inflicts the harms of paternalism described in the previous section. For example, the government may incorrectly assess how people feel about property owners being forced to sell. In the case study, H&A suggest that citizens “would be appalled” to see other people forcibly removed from their homes (p8), however, no evidence is given for this.  It is possible that only a vocal minority of citizens are concerned, or that they are merely expressing outrage despite actually preferring the shopping centre to be built.

However, the use of eminent domain also has benefits, which may well justify its paternalism.  It addresses a collective action problem, in which property owners have a good reason to resist selling, hoping to get compensation beyond how they value it.  Disallowing eminent domain can stop much-valued (or even essential) projects, and allow some to profit by strategically buying property that the government needs.  Cost benefit analysis, which will be considered in the next section, can be used to estimate the benefits.

In order to ensure the use of eminent domain is justified and to reduce the harm, I would suggest a process of public deliberation to gain a clearer consensus on what arrangements citizens felt were preferred.  This would consider an acceptable method of determining compensation; for example, people may wish non-market considerations to be taken into account, or a premium to be paid. Similarly, people may have views as to how essential and/or valuable the project should be to society before it is able to justify use of eminent domain.  These steps would increase individual liberty and improve the government’s understanding of what people value.

In this section, I have argued that although paternalistic, use of eminent domain may be justified, where it offers sufficient benefit to outweigh its harms.  I have noted that cost benefit analysis can be used to estimate the benefits of its use. However, cost benefit analysis introduces a further source of paternalism, which I will discuss in the next section.

 

  1. Estimation of costs and benefits

In the previous section, I argued that eminent domain is paternalistic, though justified if it allows a project with sufficient benefit to outweigh its harms.  I noted that these benefits will often be estimated using cost-benefit analysis. In this section, I will consider how we should conduct this cost-benefit analysis.  I will argue that using much of the data we have available is paternalistic. However, I will argue that using this data has significant benefits that make it justified.  I will argue that rather than attempting to minimise paternalism, we should seek to maximise accuracy, taking into account any data that helps us do this.

When a government performs cost-benefit analysis in order to justify a project in which eminent domain has been used, it can use a variety of methods to estimate the loss of value by those who lose their existing property (similar considerations apply to estimating the value to those benefiting from the project).  Firstly, it can use revealed or stated preference, seeing how much the owner has recently sold property for (though they are unlikely to have sold a similar property under similar circumstances), or asking the property owners what they are willing to sell for. Secondly, it can use other market information, seeing how much others are or were willing to buy or sell for.  Thirdly, a number of economists are now recommending the use psychological research into how people’s wellbeing is affected by experiences (this is often referred to as happiness-driven economics – see H&A, 2013 ). For example, research might indicate that people tend to overestimate how upsetting they would find moving.

There is an argument that it is paternalistic to rely on anything other than revealed or stated preferences of the individuals affected.  I find this argument convincing; without ensuring that individuals have consented to having their own views ‘downplayed’, this is likely to result in the harms of paternalism described in section 2.  For example, economists adjusting for psychological evidence are liable to introduce their own biases.

However, I argue that we shouldn’t only pay attention to revealed or stated preferences, ignoring all other evidence.  First, applying stated preferences does not prevent paternalism; for example, a restaurant is not justified in forcing patrons to eat the food, just because they ordered it.  Second, I don’t believe that these people can reliably predict how losing the property will affect their welfare. Nor can we imply this from their past actions. Third, especially when the figures used for cost-benefit analysis are also being used to guide compensation, individuals have a strong incentive to overvalue the property in order to increase the compensation they receive, thus revealing an untrue preference (that they would prefer not to sell at a price above their true valuation).  

I believe that planners should take into account all data they have available, and attempt to generate an accurate cost-benefit analysis.  This should include elements that are subjective, such as psychological evidence. Planners should recognise the uncertainty in their own theories and models, and the fact that these may not reflect how the individuals affected will experience the project.  The existence of this uncertainty is part of the reason only projects that are sufficiently valuable should be justified by cost-benefit analysis, as noted in the previous section. However, planners should not be afraid to downplay revealed preference data, particularly when there is evidence it is unreliable.  

 

  1. Conclusion

In this essay, I have argued that the use of eminent domain and cost-benefit analysis will generally be paternalistic, as citizens will seldom unanimously consented to their use.  However, I do not believe we have a duty to minimise paternalism at all costs. I have highlighted collective action problems as being a particular case where paternalism can potentially make individuals significantly better off, for whatever definition of welfare we choose to apply.  In these cases, individuals have an incentive to reveal untrue preferences, and planners are justified in downplaying these preferences, and enriching their decisions with other information, including psychological and happiness research that people may not take into account sufficiently when forming their own preferences.

This is not to argue that paternalism is harmless.  I have argued for greater public deliberation; scepticism does not mean ignoring the views of people.  We should seek to understand the conditions under which people believe coercion, such as eminent domain, is justified.  We should seek to genuinely understand how people experience the loss of their property. Finally, we should seek to transparently report how we reached the decision to apply cost-benefit analysis, and how we estimated the costs and benefits of the project.  Steps like these would reduce the risk of incorrect decisions and somewhat restore people’s sense of autonomy, while still allowing projects that significantly improve total welfare.

  

References

Adler, M. and Posner, E, 2006. “New Foundations of Cost–Benefit Analysis”, Harvard University Press

Dworkin, G., 2017. “Paternalism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2017/entries/paternalism/>.

H&A (Haybron, D & Alexandrova, A),  2013, “Paternalism in Economics”, In Paternalism: Theory and Practice. Cambridge University Press. pp. 157-177

Schmidtz, D,  2001, “A Place for Cost–Benefit Analysis,” Noûs, October 2001, Vol.35, pp.148-171

Shiffrin, S., 2000. “Paternalism, Unconscionability Doctrine, and Accommodation”, in Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Summer, 2000), pp. 205-250

Sunstein, C., 1999,  “Cognition and Cost-Benefit Analysis” ( John M. Olin Program in Law and Economics Working Paper No. 85, 1999).

 

Business and Organisational Ethics Essay

This is an essay submitted for Business and Organisational Ethics, for my MSc in Philosophy of the Social Sciences.

 

Adam Waytz argues that offering monetary rewards to whistleblowers is potentially problematic. He suggests that for one thing, “the mere mention of a whistleblower receiving money [might alter] public perceptions of them from heroes to gold-diggers” (Waytz, 2016, p. 3). Should whistleblowing be encouraged through financial rewards? How else might whistleblowing be appropriately encouraged? Discuss this question by employing at least one moral framework that was introduced in the context of this course.

  1. Introduction

In their course of employment, individuals may discover wrongs performed by their company, and will be forced to consider whether to whistleblow, that is, to announce their discovery to the public or government officials.  In this essay, I will consider how whistleblowing should most appropriately be encouraged, and in particular, whether financial rewards should be used. I believe that to answer this question, we must first consider the circumstances under which whistleblowing is ethically appropriate.

In section 2 I will outline an ethical framework and use it to define a corporate wrong.  I will then argue that whistleblowing is necessary when, and only permissible when, an individual is aware of a wrongdoing and does not believe the company will voluntarily stop and remedy the wrong.  In section 3 I will argue that proposals to offer financial rewards to whistleblowers are inappropriate, as they lead whistleblowing to be viewed as a choice rather than a duty. In section 4 I will suggest other policies that will more appropriately encourage whistleblowing when it is required.

  1. The ethics of whistleblowing

In this section I will begin by providing an ethical framework, which allows us to evaluate company and individual action.  I will then use this framework to define the concept of a corporate wrong, which we will depend on throughout this essay. I will then consider employees’ competing duties: to loyalty and confidentiality on one hand, and to not facilitating corporate wrongdoing on the other hand.  Based on these, I will argue that employees have a duty to prevent wrongdoing and ensure remedy, if necessary, by whistleblowing.

The ethical framework I am proposing is deontological, that is, based on rules or obligations, in which individuals and companies are constrained by laws and ethical custom, but otherwise free to act as they please.  This framework draws support from Mill’s On Liberty (1859), and in a business context, Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom (1982).  I believe that many people would intuitively support such a framework, though there would be likely disagreement on the scope of law and ethical customs that should constrain individuals and companies, for example, how small their environmental footprint must be.  Democratically legitimate laws may be a useful benchmark, but most people would agree that even some actions that are legal would still be unacceptable based on ethical custom. I refer to corporate activities that are illegal or clearly outside most people’s ethical custom, with the term ‘wrongdoings’.  

Throughout this essay I am focussing on cases that are clearly illegal or outside most people’s ethical custom.  In practice, I know that there will often be uncertainty. Employees may not be fully aware of what the company has done, or how it has affected others.  Likewise, employees may not know whether the activity would be illegal or clearly unacceptable to most people. Some things that do not reach the threshold of a ‘wrong’ according to this definition may still be undesirable, for example wasting a bit of paper or a manager losing their temper.  The question of how employees should act in these more uncertain situations is important and difficult, but has intentionally been excluded from the scope of this essay: I am focussing on the question of employee duty in the case of clear wrongdoing.

Employees are subject to two potentially conflicting obligations.  Firstly, they are often bound to confidentiality by a legally enforceable contract.  Even where not bound by contract, ethical custom dictates a duty of confidentiality and loyalty to their employer.  Secondly, employees are prevented by ethical custom, and potentially by law, from engaging in or facilitating wrongdoing.  Importantly, in many cases being aware and not reporting wrongdoing would be considered facilitation, and also wrong. One might argue against this view, that it is unfair to blame a single individual for not reporting a wrongdoing, at significant cost to themself, when others were also aware of it.  While I agree that it is unfair to blame one and not the others, I argue that society is better served by giving all a duty to speak up, especially for more significant wrongdoing, and this is reflected in the existence of laws and professional ethical standards that require reporting any known wrongdoing.        

In order to balance these two obligations, I would suggest that the employee first consider whether the company is likely to prevent the wrong and remedy past wrongs without external pressure.  For example, the employee may believe the wrong to be an honest mistake. If so, the employee should first raise the issue internally. Where this is not likely, or the employee has already tried, I believe that they have a duty to report the wrong externally, either to the public or a regulator.  While I recognise that this will involve breaching confidentiality and loyalty to the company, I believe that this is permissible, as the company is acting outside its legitimate powers and cannot expect to have this its rights enforced. Indeed, some jurisdictions already recognise that requirements for confidentiality should not overrule the duty to report wrongdoing [FN, For example, the UK Government’s website advises that “A confidentiality clause or ‘gagging clause’ in a settlement agreement isn’t valid if you’re a whistleblower” (GOV.UK, 2018)]  

In this section I have established the concept of corporate wrongdoing, and argued that where an employee cannot stop and the wrong and ensure it is remedied internally, they have a duty to whistleblow.  Having now established the duty to whistleblow, in the next two sections I will consider appropriate policies to encourage whistleblowing where necessary.

  1. The inappropriateness of financial rewards to encourage whistleblowing

In the US, bodies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) offer financial rewards to whistleblowers (FCA, 2014).  These rewards aim to provide a positive incentive to potential whistleblowers, and pay between 10% and 30% of financial sanctions imposed on wrongdoing companies (Gaafar, 2016).  By basing the reward on the financial sanctions imposed, I believe these rewards are not merely compensating the whistleblower for their costs incurred. The UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has considered introducing such awards but decided against it (FCA, 2014) and Australia’s parliament has recently proposed introducing financial rewards for whistleblowers (Khadem and Ferguson, 2017).

I believe that offering rewards for whistleblowers is inappropriate, as it changes the nature of the decision to whistleblow to one where the employee is permitted (by society) to decide what to do.  This stands against the argument in the previous section, that an employee has a duty to stop the wrongdoing, where possible without breaching confidentiality, and where not, by whistleblowing. By giving the employee a new (and likely powerful) reason to whistleblow, it distorts the employees motives, as well as public perception of the whistleblower as a “golddigger” (Waytz, 2016).  The employee may feel entitled, or even virtuous, for not whistleblowing, despite what I have argued may be a duty.

Some would argue that financial rewards are nonetheless justified if they lead to increased whistleblowing and therefore greater social good.  For example, one might believe that the employees that work for companies that are most likely to be committing serious wrongdoings are more likely to be incentivised by financial rewards than a sense of duty.  I would caution against this conclusion. I believe there are fairer ways to prevent wrongdoing by such companies than by rewarding employees who work in these companies. Whistleblowers motivated by rewards may also bring more opportunistic and unnecessary whistleblowing, in cases that would have been better dealt with internally (FCA, 2014, p3).  

I therefore would argue that financial rewards are an inappropriate way to encourage employees to carry out their duty to whistleblow where necessary.  In the next section I will propose a number of more appropriate policies to encourage whistleblowing.

 

  1. Appropriate policies to encourage whistleblowing

The FCA argue that we should “create a culture … where speaking up becomes normal business practice and people are more prepared to report concerns, which will help to improve behaviour in firms and ultimately improve outcomes“ (FCA, 2014, p2).  This supports my argument from section 2 that whistleblowing is a duty, in cases that internal reporting is unlikely to lead to the wrongdoing being stopped and remedied. In this section I will propose a number of policies that I believe are appropriate, individually and as a group, for building this culture and encouraging whistleblowing where necessary.

In the previous section I argued that financial rewards are not appropriate for encouraging whistleblowing, however I do believe society should aim to minimise the harmful consequences of employees carrying out their duty to whistleblow.  This can be done through a mix of legal protections against retaliation by their employer, and payments to the employee that are directly linked to their economic costs incurred. By ensuring that any payments are purely compensatory, they cannot be the reason for the whistleblowing, but we can reduce the disincentive and personal cost.

Improving the processes around reporting potential wrongdoing will help reduce the unintended harm that can result from public disclosure.  For example, public whistleblowing may lead to employees losing jobs or shareholders losing share value, where the wrongdoing is an honest mistake or perhaps merely a misunderstanding.  Where companies have procedures that allow individuals to report wrongdoing internally, and see that it is resolved satisfactorily, including with appropriate reporting and remedy, employees will have less need to whistleblow.  Similarly, ensuring regulators are trusted and have sufficient power to act will reduce the need for whistleblowing in more public forums where the harm may be greater.

We can also improve our narrative around whistleblowing.  I believe that at present, the media too often emphasise the whistleblowers as angry or greedy, rather than merely wanting to do the right thing.  Rather than second-guessing how the whistleblower should have handled things differently, we could take a more charitable interpretation of their actions.  Emphasising the extraordinary heroism of a whistleblower is better than criticism, but we should be working to portray whistleblowing as the right and normal thing to do.  The FCA are working towards this, with an annual report on all cases of whistleblowing, aiming to portray it as a relatively common activity that often leads to socially beneficial resolution (FCA, 2014, p2).  This has the added benefit of discouraging wrongdoing by companies.

Finally, if we want to promote whistleblowing as an obligation rather than a choice, I would argue that we should seek increased penalties against employees that do not prevent corporate wrongdoing where they have the chance.  This can be done through professional bodies and legal proceedings. Care must be given to recognise that employees face uncertainty in understanding whether wrongdoing has occurred and whether whistleblowing is necessary to prevent it.  Justice also requires care to ensure individuals are not scapegoated, particularly where other employees also knew about the wrongdoing. However, I do believe an appropriate part of ensuring that employees fulfil their obligations is to ensure that they will incur consequences if they do not.    

 

  1. Conclusion

In this essay I have argued that some actions by a company are illegal or clearly outside ethical custom: I refer to these as wrongdoing.  When employees are aware of corporate wrongdoing, I have argued they have a duty to prevent it, where necessary, by whistleblowing. I have argued that providing financial rewards to whistleblowers is inappropriate, as it promotes the idea that whistleblowing is a choice rather than a duty.  I have instead proposed a number of alternative policies that are consistent with promoting whistleblowing as a duty: minimising economic harm to the whistleblower, improving reporting processes, reframing the public narrative around whistleblowing and penalising employees that do not observe their duty to whistleblow.

 

References

Friedman, Milton, 2002. “Capitalism and Freedom”, University of Chicago Press, Chicago

McConnell, Terrance, 2003, “Whistle-blowing”, in R.G. Frey and Christopher Heath Wellman., (2003) Companion to Applied Ethics, Cambridge, UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Mill, John Stuart, 2003. “On Liberty”, Yale University Press

Waytz, Adam, 2016.  “Whistleblowers are Motivated by Moral Reasons Above Monetary Ones”, [online] ProMarket, The blog of the Stigler Center at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Available at: https://promarket.org/whistleblowers-motivated-moral-reasons-monetary-ones/, [Accessed 22 April 2018]

Gaafar, Leila, 2016.  “Money talks: should the UK introduce financial incentives for whistleblowers?” [online] WilmerHale, Available at: https://www.wilmerhale.com/blog/wireuk/post/?id=17179883237 [Accessed 22 Apr 2018]

Khadem, N. and Ferguson, A. 2017. “Bring in bounty rewards for whistleblowers, federal inquiry says”, [online] Sydney Morning Herald, Available at: https://www.smh.com.au/business/the-economy/bring-in-bounty-rewards-for-whistleblowers-federal-inquiry-says-20170913-gygmmg.html [Accessed 22 April 2018]

FCA, 2014.  “Financial Incentives for Whistleblowers”, [online] prepared by Bank of England / Financial Conduct Authority, Available at: https://www.fca.org.uk/publication/financial-incentives-for-whistleblowers.pdf [Accessed 22 April 2018]

GOV.UK, (2018), “Whistleblowing for employees”, [online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/whistleblowing [Accessed 22 April 2018]

 

Book Review: Rebel

With a goal of better understanding the appeal of Brexit, I recently read UKIP politician Douglas Carswell’s latest book: Rebel: How to Overthrow the Emerging Oligarchy.  

I enjoyed the book and found it a lot less controversial than I expected; it had a lot more in common with ideas of Bernie Sanders than anything I’d expect from Trump or Farage.  The most enlightening and enjoyable part of the book for me was his historical illustrations of his points, using examples of successful periods and failures from Ancient Greece and Rome, Venice, Holland, Germany, France, Britain, America and China, and discussion of the influence of different philosophers.

Carswell’s primary argument is that societies can only thrive when they maintain both independence and connectivity (internally and with other societies) and are able to prevent parasitic behaviour by members and outsiders.  I’m very much inclined to agree with his argument, though I’m not sure how helpful it is: just about any political action could claim to be improving either independence or connectivity.  Similarly, while we all do seem to think parasitic behaviour has become more widespread, it seems impossible to agree on whether particular policies will prevent or rather increase it.

He makes a classically conservative argument against excessive faith in ‘facts’, ‘evidence’ and ‘experts’.  I acknowledge that this faith may be misplaced, or exploited by those that wish to seize power, and scepticism is sometimes appropriate.  But I felt he was wrong to ignore how often a refusal to accept scientific evidence is itself parasitic behaviour, for example where people refuse vaccinations or refuse to reduce their carbon footprint, expecting others to wear the cost.

I’m more sympathetic to Carswell’s criticism of unsustainable debt-issuance by governments, which he likens to debasement of currency.  I agree that we can’t keep borrowing increasing amounts and forcing future generations to pay for it.  But the costs of making our our existence sustainable have to be shared fairly, which is why I don’t support austerity as it is typically practiced.  

Carswell had a lot to criticise about the UK’s political system (what he refers to as the Oligarchy) – where political parties, the media and the establishment conspire to maintain power and keep things from changing.  He also warned against excessive faith in overly populist leaders on the left and the right, who would inevitably lead to chaos and disappointment and a rush back to the parasitic establishment.  As with so much of this book, it was a worthwhile point, but unhelpful as a prescription.

I wouldn’t recommend the book if you’re looking to understand Brexit: Carswell had virtually nothing to say about how Brexit would actually put the UK in a better position, and seemed almost as critical of Westminster as he was of Brussels.  

But all in all, and despite those criticisms, I did enjoy this book as a general political and philosophical commentary.

What’s wrong with our job markets?

Worry about the lack of ‘good jobs’ is growing, with a widely held perception that our job markets aren’t working.

While I agree the job markets have problems, I disagree with some of the diagnosis, or proposed solutions.  I am concerned that expecting the government to take action to ensure good jobs risks taking us away from what the job market should be doing: incentivizing people to make and do the things people want made and done.

In what follows, I will outline what I think is wrong with our job markets, and what could be done better.   In particular, I see four fundamental problems:

  • Ignorance: people don’t know what their choices are
  • Externalities: people don’t experience all the repercussions their actions
  • Lack of Capacity: some people don’t have the ability to engage in free markets
  • Injustice: free markets lead to an outcome we consider unjust

I believe there is a lot that can be done to address each of these, strengthening the power of job markets to deliver the work that should done.

Ignorance

I acknowledge ignorance is a problem, particularly in an interconnected and fast-changing world.  We will all, on occasion, display preferences and make decisions that we probably shouldn’t.

The challenge of working out what we want, can tempt us to make simplifying assumptions that we only care about ourselves and our own wealth (economic models frequently do this).  While I’m not going to claim that everyone is perfectly altruistic, the vast majority of us do genuinely care about others and about things other than wealth, and it seems genuinely irrational to ignore that when deciding what work we want to do.

Another unhelpful simplifying assumption is that only paid work done for an employer, is justified as work and valuable.  I would argue that any activity that creates value for others, that improves people’s lives and improves the world, should be considered a worthwhile activity – for example caring for others or enriching our culture.

We will never have certainty, but I do believe that both education and reflection can help us improve our knowledge of the likely outcomes of our various choices.  In particular, I’d argue that the temptation to believe that some group or institution knows better than us what is in our best interest.  I’d argue that this rarely goes well.

Externalities

Our actions have consequences for others, good and bad, that we ignore when making decisions as they don’t affect us.

As societies have grown in size and interconnectedness, our action are more likely to affect others.  Examples come to mind easily, for example someone else polluting near us, or painting their house which improves my neighbourhood.  We should also bear relative position in mind – for example, someone else cannot gain status without us losing it.

I would argue that we need to increase awareness of externalities, and understanding of how each person’s actions affect others in the world (and the planet itself).

While we can punish those that hurt others, or reward those that help others, there is a cost to this monitoring.  (Indeed, bearing this cost is often itself an externality, something done by an individual to help the group.)  I accept that as society has grown and become more open, it has become less good at performing this function, but I’m certain there was never an age of complete justice.

The goal here is to design better incentives to reflect externalities.  This involves challenging trade-offs, between the cost of monitoring and punishing, our value of compassion, and how completely externalities are reflected in individual incentives.  I believe we can do it better than we do now.  

For example, charitable foundations could play a larger role in recognising and rewarding individuals and groups that promote the wider good.  And, though there are definite dangers in public-minded vigilantism, public media does a lot of good in raising awareness of those that benefit at the expense of others.

Lack of Capacity

At present, financial insecurity limits the capacity of a small but growing population to freely engage in labour markets (described by Guy Standing’s book The Precariat).  When you are desperate, it is difficult to make sensible decisions.

Social welfare programmes should work to address this, however our current system makes the problem worse, reducing individual agency and creating perverse and distortive incentives (for example, low or even negative marginal return from working).  

I believe a universal basic income would go a long way to improving such people’s capacity to engage in a free market.

Injustice

Economics suggests that free markets will lead to ‘pareto optimal’ outcomes (those in which no one can be made better off without others being worse off).  Contrary to what some people believe, it makes no claim that these will be outcomes that we’d necessarily consider just or desirable.  For example, we may consider it unjust that someone benefits from a large inheritance; a free market will not correct for that.

People sometime highlight the post-war period as one when labour got its fair share of the profit (in contrast to 2000-2015).  I would argue that while it is good when markets do lead to fair outcomes, we shouldn’t count on this in general.  Rather than blaming markets for this, I believe we should accept this limitation of markets, and use other tools for achieving justice, for example redistribution or social care.

Why I support Corbyn

Friends of mine are often surprised that I could support Jeremy Corbyn, given socialism’s track record.  

It is a difficult question to respond to, for several reasons:

  • Socialism as a label is ill-defined: critics can invoke Stalin and Pol Pot, while apologists describe it as mere concern for others.  
  • It is impossible to know what Corbyn and his party would do, if in power.  I can easily imagine dreadful decisions, but also decisions that are brave and much-needed.  Also, no one knows how some of his policies would turn out in practice.  If I’m honest, I have to recognise that outcomes from decisions will differ from my expectations, for better and for worse.
  • It is also impossible to know how the future will pan out in a world if we stick with the status quo.  It may lead to major social and environmental disaster, but it may not: small changes may lead to a better, or at least tolerable outcomes.

So, despite those caveats, what do I think?

Am I a socialist?

Firstly, I wouldn’t define myself as a socialist, but mainly because I feel it suggests too many ideas that I don’t support.  In particular, I don’t believe that states, institutions, principles and abstract concepts (like class or nation) should ever be given priority over individual people.  

Having said that, I don’t believe that genuine individual well-being can or should be optimised as individuals; we clearly derive happiness and meaning from our relationships and our communities, and also benefit from markets. Individuals would be very much worse off without any government with powers of enforcement, but is easy to see how some actions of such a government could hurt individual well-being.  As a result I accept tradeoffs, but believe they should be made in such a way that promotes sustainable individual well-being.

When it comes to individual ownership of property, I do feel that allowing property rights enhances overall well-being.  But I don’t see how these property rights can be absolute; after all, they depends on others to recognise and enforce them.  In practice, this means I support property rights, but also laws that ensure those property rights remain in the general public interest.

From this mix of views, I don’t think I fit neatly into any other political label either, but I can live with that.

Do we need political change?

Firstly, I believe the status quo is unsustainable, both from an environmental and a social perspective.  I believe that the majority have their heads in their sand, choosing not to recognise just how much our well-being is vulnerable to the Earth’s whims and to the actions of its populations.  

In many ways, our current political system, being fundamentally driven by markets and democracy, is compatible with a greater awareness of the factors that drive genuine individual well-being, and the need to ensure environmental and social sustainability. Indeed, many people are already doing this, individually and within their communities.  I do believe that this will increasingly occur, even without major political change.

However, I do worry that it may not happen fast enough.  Political and environmental changes, both negative ones and positive efforts to mitigate, take time, and are impossible to model accurately.  By the time the problem is sufficiently serious that enough people are convinced to act, it may be too late.

It also seems unfair to reward those who happen not to recognise the risks, letting them reap the last remaining benefits of an unsustainable system, while others incur the costs.

As a result, I do support political changes to move us to a more sustainable future in a faster and fairer way that would occur if left entirely to individual choice.

Do I believe Corbyn and his policies are the answer?

To be honest, I don’t know.   

I support the thrust of most of the policies as stated in Labour 2017 Manifesto.  

An obvious point I disagree with his support of Brexit, but this hardly seems a reason to support the Conservatives instead!

I’m ambivalent about its approach to workplace rights. I would prefer an approach that involved creating more freedom and genuine flexibility (say with a basic income), rather than more rules. But I do accept that something has to be done.

The most socialist component of his policies is that of nationalisation.  While I do believe that private property make people generally better off, I am less convinced when it comes to  ‘utility’ industries like rail and energy.  As a result, I am supportive of these returning to public ownership, though this shouldn’t be seen as a guaranteed solution; governments are also capable of running organisations contrary to the public interest.  Also, I’d note that nationalisation doesn’t have to mean centralisation – there have been some great programmes involving local groups running utilities and transport.

I would worry if I thought Corbyn intended to bring all industry within government control, but I don’t get that sense.  Likewise, I don’t think he believes that a government has all the answers or can solve all problems.   Instead, he seems to show an awareness that there’s a tradeoff between freedom and rules that allow individual well-being, and I’m not convinced his position is a million miles away from my own.

There’s a temptation for the left to paint politics as class war, where the goal is to destroy those that are successful.  I prefer a more inclusive approach, where all are given opportunities, and all who support the public interest are welcomed.  Others may disagree, but I found Corbyn’s campaign pleasingly inclusive.

That said, I do have other concerns.  Firstly, understandable as it is (given how many people have been ignored by our political system), I am worried by the tendency of a small minority in the party towards change by undemocratic means.

But more critically, I’m not convinced Corbyn will be able to work with other parties and convince sceptics to deliver his policies (I don’t believe major political changes should occur without widespread support – say over 60%).  Logically, this isn’t a reason to not support him, or to prefer another five years of the same.  But I do worry that he won’t deliver, and then people might use this as proof that progressive, sustainable policies don’t work in politics.

 

Overall, though, given my conviction that we do need changes like these, I feel justified in supporting Corbyn and his policies.  And I’m not worried about him wanting to bring about a totalitarian state.

Six months of reading

The last six months has been a particularly enjoyable and productive time in terms of reading, though I think my ‘to read’ list has still grown rather than shrunk.  A lot of the books are aimed towards getting me ready to go back to University in September, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend all of these to everyone I know, but I still thought some people might be interested in what I’ve read so far this year (in chronological order).

 

Leaving Alexandria, by Richard Holloway (UK) (US)

I enjoyed this thought-provoking memoir by the former Bishop of Edinburgh – it didn’t shy away from difficult questions of imperfect faith in an imperfect world.  

Think Like a Freak: Secrets of the Rogue Economist, by Levitt and Dubner (UK) (US)

An easy read which gave me a few interesting insights, though I’ve possibly read enough of these kinds of books that I’ve started to find this kind of thinking normal rather than freakish.

The Unseen World, by Liz Moore (UK) (US)

A surprisingly emotional novel about a girl, Ada Sibelius, struggling to understand the world and how she fits into it.  

Doing Good Better, by William MacAskill (UK) (US)

This was a great book on effective altruism and how best to make good decisions in your career and in life.  I blogged about it here.

The Rage against God, by Peter Hitchins (UK) (US)

Journalist Peter Hitchins, brother (and opponent) of atheist Christopher Hitchins, writes of the harm that arises when humans attempt to destroy God, with particular reference to the Soviet example.

Algorithms to Live By, by Brian Christian (UK) (US)

This book, subtitled The Computer Science of Human Decisions, highlights the parallels between the decisions computers make and those that we make.  

100% Christianity, by Jago Wynne (UK) (US)

This is aimed at Christians, particularly those who may be struggling to see why Christianity matters and how it can change our lives today, even in a city like London.  

The Econocracy, by Joe Earle and Cahal Moran (UK) (US)

I really enjoyed this analysis of how economics has become the preserve of experts, taught to unquestionably accept assumptions that are wrong, and how we might make economics better reflect our values.  I blogged about it here.

Building the New American Economy, Jeffrey Sachs (UK) (US)

I read this after attending a talk by the author and found it good, if a bit light on detail – it talks about the potential to make the US economy smarter, fairer and more sustainable.  

Honesty, by Seth King (UK) (US)

Although quite depressing, I enjoyed this novel of two young men coming to terms with themselves and first love in the southern states of America.

Gay, Straight and the Reason Why, by Simon LeVay (UK) (US)

Many people (both conservative and progressive) hold their views on sexual orientation (and gender) as a matter of faith, but in reality it is something that science is learning more and more about, and I was keen to learn what we actually know and what we’re still finding out.

Different Eyes: The Art of Living Beautifully, by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann (UK) (US)

A short book on Christian ethics, but I ultimately found it a bit forgettable.

The Boy made of Blocks, by Keith Stuart (UK) (US)

A beautiful story from the point of view of a father, struggling to cope with a son with autism.

Dear Lupin, by Roger Mortimer (UK) (US)

For several years I had been meaning to read this collection of letters from a father to his son, but I found it quite disappointing – hard to relate to either the father or the son.

Rethinking the Economics of Housing and Land, by Ryan Collins, Lloyd and MacFarlane (UK) (US)

An excellent book on one of the biggest challenges to society – why standard economic approaches fail to lead to good outcomes.  I blogged about it here.

The Philosopher’s Toolkit, by Julian Baggini (UK) (US)

This book from my pre-course reading list was good for learning some of the terms and approaches used in philosophy.

A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith, by John Rawls (UK) (US)

20th century philosopher John Rawls is most famous for his Theory of Justice, which I confess I haven’t yet read, but I found his final undergraduate dissertation thought-provoking, particularly his contrast between the natural/objective and the personal perspectives on relationships.  I disagreed with some of the logic and conclusions (as subsequently did Rawls), but it has shaped my thinking.

From Bacteria to Bach and Back, by Daniel Dennett (UK) (US)

This is a very recent book which gave me a good overview of biological, cultural and technological evolution, and the helps inoculate the reader against the overly simplistic perspectives that can easily entice thinkers in this field.

Free Will, by Sam Harris (UK) (US)

This is a very short book, and ultimately quite disappointing – much more focussed on criticising other viewpoints than providing a clear alternative.

Doughnut Economics, by Kate Raworth (UK) (US)

The best book of the list – it considers how many assumptions of standard economic are increasingly harmful, and how we could do better in the 21st century. I blogged about it here.

Conversations on Ethics, by Alex Voorhoeve (UK) (US)

This was another book of my university pre-reading list.  It is presented as a set of conservations with quite a broad range of contemporary philosophers.  Some I had read of, some were new to me, but I enjoyed seeing the range of perspectives.

The Zero Marginal Cost Society, by Jeremy Rifkin (UK) (US)

This book optimistically describes how technology and collaboration will lead to a transformation of capitalism.  The start was a bit of a struggle, but it got much better.

Natural Justice, by Kenneth Binmore (UK) (US)

I was introduced to Binmore by Conversations on Ethics, and he is definitely my kind of philosopher – pragmatic, rational and aware of the limitations of any model.  In this book he proposes that much of what we consider ethics arises from societal coordination problems, allowing us to analyse it using game-theory approaches.  I blogged about this book here.

Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination, by Corvino, Anderson and Girgis (UK) (US)

The news these days is full of stories highlighting the tension between maximising liberty and minimising harm to individuals, particularly with respect to free speech and discrimination.  I found this book helpful in directing my thinking, though ultimately I have come to quite different conclusions than either the position proposed by Corvino, or that proposed by Anderson and Girgis.

The Precariat, by Guy Standing (UK) (US)

If The Zero Marginal Cost Society was a touch optimistic, the Precariat makes much more depressing reading; it describes a world in which a majority lack hope and genuine opportunity, for too many reasons to hope for a simple solution.  

I Was told to Come Alone, by Souad Mekhennet (UK) (US)

This got a good review in The Economist, and I wasn’t disappointed – German-born journalist Mekhennet describes her life experiences and efforts to understand the rise of Jihadism in the Middle East and in Europe.  

The Retreat of Western Liberalism, by Edward Luce (UK) (US)

Also picked up based on a review in The Economist, this consideration of the challenges the world is going through (eg Brexit, Trump, fake news) had some interesting thoughts, but I struggled to get a clear message from it.

Natural Justice

I finished a book a couple of weeks ago that I suspect is going to be very significant in my thinking over the coming years: Binmore’s Natural Justice.  Kenneth Binmore is my kind of thinker (Keynes is another) – a mathematician turned economist, equally at home with philosophy and the real world (Binmore’s team designed the UK’s 3G spectrum auctions which raised £22bn).  

Natural Justice uses technical game theory to explore the way in which our need to coordinate within groups leads (through biological and cultural evolution) to our tendency towards justice and morality.  (Please don’t interpret this as suggesting that morality isn’t real or important in its own right.)  

At the heart of any coordination problem is the Nash equilibrium.  John Nash (portrayed by Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind) proposed this idea of any situation where no agent had any incentive to unilaterally change their behaviour.

The most famous example of a Nash equilibrium is the prisoner’s dilemma, but a more practical example is driving: if all drivers drive on the left of the road, it generally makes sense to drive on the left.

This example points to the insight that there may be multiple Nash equilibria, and not all equally good or stable.  Everyone driving on the right is also a stable equilibrium.  Everyone choosing randomly is also an equilibrium, although a clearly inferior one and unstable (any bias will tend to reinforce itself, leading to a new equilibrium).  Another insight from is that societies can be guided towards equilibria, for example, with traffic laws.

Binmore will appeal to many conservatives/economists when he claims that societies should not aim for coordination utopias that are not Nash equilibriums – these are unstable and unlikely to persist.  However, in a challenge to many conservatives/economists, he reminds readers that there is no good reason to assume that we are in nash equilibrium at any time, or that the equilibrium we are closest to is the only or best one.  Far from suggesting we should be laissez-faire, he endorses a big role for thinkers to help us discern the best Nash equilibria, and ways to achieve them.

This compromise appealed resonated with how I think.  While I recognise that a huge amount of good in the world is done out of altruism, I never want my society to be reliant on it, or to be able to be gamed.  And I’m far more interested in helping people see what is in their interest, than by trying to convince them to act against their interest.  

Many treatments of game theory ignore questions of enforcement; Natural Justice argues availability of enforcement is pivotal to which situations are equilibria.  For example, me working for payment on completion only makes sense if I believe the outcome can be enforced.  Trust or social norms may be a replacement for enforcement in the short term, but they are likely to be insufficient in the long run.  

The book ties this distinction into the argument between utilitarianism (that things should arranged to maximise overall utility) vs egalitarianism (that things should be arranged to improve the position of the person with least utility).  Binmore suggests that with the ability to enforce contracts, we will end up with utilitarianism, but without it we will end up with egalitarianism.

Another significant contribution of the book is its consideration of what economists call Interpersonal Comparison of Utility.  I clearly value outcomes for myself, though I don’t ignore the value of outcomes to others.  Some economists argue that we cannot objectively compare other people’s utility to our own.  The book argues, more pragmatically, not only that we do take others’ utility into account, but that this is a useful evolved mechanism.  I’m sure my understanding of this idea would benefit from a second reading of the book.

I’ve got a couple of other books on social contract and game theory to get through, so I am certain that my thinking will evolve, but I felt this introduction was a good start.

Some Thoughts on the Election

I am convinced that the path we’re currently on isn’t socially or environmentally sustainable.  My primary objective in taking an interest in politics, is the hope that my vote and my interest can help get us onto a more sustainable path, one that maximises people’s chances to flourish, both now and in future generations.  

Many of you will be thinking that this wish directly implies that I should vote for Labour or the Greens.  I’m much less convinced.  Though many Green and Labour policies naturally appeal to me, I believe that all parties are capable of recognising the benefits of making the system more sustainable.  Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the changes I’d like to see are ultimately made by the Conservatives.

In this respect, I was pleased that both the Labour and Conservative manifestos went further towards recognising the social sustainability challenges that we face than they had before.  The Conservatives didn’t go far enough, and quite a few policies in both manifestos could have done with some more thought and discussion. Both had some proposals that I disagree with.  The environment was largely ignored.  But I do praise them for trying, and I do believe that these views are genuine.

My hopes were raised, and then came the response from their opponents and the media – highlighting the ‘losers’ from any change, ignoring any benefits.  Yes, I get that this is politics, and I get that is what gets readers engaged.  But when I’m looking at who I want to be governing, and who I want to be representing me in Parliament, particularly with such big challenges ahead, I want it to be a party that shows a willingness to listen and to talk honestly to the whole country.  And no party is filling me with overwhelming confidence.

I get why Theresa May is promoting ‘strong and stable’ leadership – I don’t like chaos any more than anyone else.  But in a complex world, it is often difficult to tell the difference between ‘strong’ and ‘brittle’.  I have moments when I’m convinced that May could be a good strong leader if she gets a decent majority, and other moments when it fills me with dread.  But I am similarly unsure how strong or good a leader Corbyn would be.

The Conservatives, Lib Dems and SNP wanted to make this election all about Brexit, but Labour seem to have ensured attention was on everything except Brexit.  I wish that by voting a certain way I could undo last year’s referendum, but can’t.  The only way I can see of avoiding Brexit is the government negotiate a truly dreadful deal, and I’m not prepared to hope for that. Intriguingly, the financial markets (ie the pound) seem to have decided that the best bet for the closest relationship with Europe is a comfortable Conservative majority (eg https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/may/26/ftse-reaches-record-high-as-uk-opinion-poll-spooks-sterling ).

Probably the one area where I do have strongly partisan views is on austerity and social spending.  I am not alone in thinking that the austerity of the past 7 years has been a failure.  I believe the bulk of the cuts will have far bigger long term costs than they’ve saved us.  in the Health portfolio, I realise that there are difficult decisions to be made, but I don’t recall ever seeing such mismanagement as we’ve seen over the past 2 years.  My take on it is that it is ideological – a desire to cut costs without considering evidence or consequences, and without recognising that the system cannot work without the goodwill of doctors and nurses.  I’m not totally convinced that Labour would have run things wonderfully or efficiently, but I can’t believe they could have done a worse job than the current government.  

Obviously it is much easier to argue for more spending than to say where it should come from.  We need to make our government sustainable over the longer term.  But at the moment most people (including those at the top) feel the tax system is unfair.  We’re going to need to do more talking about how tax and redistribution should work.  Blindly raising taxes on those that already feel things are unfair will just create resentment and them to feel justified in restructuring their affairs.  We need to ensure we’re doing it in a way that the majority of people feel that their contributions are necessary to ensure a country that they want to live in.  

In these uncertain times, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of having good people in parliament, and I think it is even more important than which party they’re in.  Assuming that all members of a party are as bad as each other doesn’t make sense, and over the past year some of the most effective opposition to the government’s worst policies has come from Conservative MPs.  So if you’ve got a good candidate, I’d encourage you to consider supporting them irrespective of their party.

Finally, I’d like to make a comment on how we talk about our politicians.  After the tragic shooting of MP Jo Cox last year, there was a bit of a move towards treating politicians with a bit more respect and understanding (eg http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/17/jo-cox-was-brave-so-are-most-mps-lets-show-them-more-respect/) .  Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have lasted.  I shouldn’t have to point out that politicians are people, not perfect or altruistic, but mostly hard-working people who want the best for their constituents, and indeed for the whole country.  I wish we could stop demonising and abusing them (in particular, sexist or racist abuse towards politicians is still unacceptable), and be more thoughtful in our criticisms – otherwise we shouldn’t be surprised if we get the politicians we deserve.

Doughnut Economics

I came across Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics – 7 ways to think like a 21st century economist (UK) (US) in a Guardian review last month, and have now finished it.

I’d recommend it to just about anyone as a very readable overview of the economic challenges facing the world, why economics has struggled and will increasingly struggle with these challenges, and how our thinking can adapt to tackle these challenges.

The book’s central idea is that economic activity should neither be minimised or maximised – there is a sweet territory (the doughnut) below which society will not sustain and above which the planet will not sustain.  At present we suffer risks on both sides.

2360

(Source: Kate Raworth and Christian Guthier/The Lancet Planetary Health via the Guardian)

The seven changes in thinking that the book proposes are:

  1. Change the goal – from GDP to the Doughnut (genuine sustainability)
  2. See the big picture – from a stand-alone market to an embedded economy
  3. Nurture human nature – from rational economic man to socially adaptable humans
  4. Get savvy with systems – from mechanical equilibrium to dynamic complexity
  5. Design to distribute – from ‘growth will even it up again’ to distributive by design
  6. Create to regenerate – from ‘growth will clean it up again’ to regenerative by design
  7. Be agnostic about growth – from growth addicted to the right level and kind of growth

Obviously none of these are crazy, and most people would fundamentally agree with them, but Raworth does a great job of talking through the implications of these assumptions.

The book was full of interesting history of how economics came to be the way it is, how many of the standard assumptions have been acknowledged as questionable even by their original authors, and why they’ve continued to be held – this is helpful to understand if we want to change our thinking.

Overall I really enjoyed the book, and found it very reasonable, acknowledging the many uncertainties and willing to criticise views on the left as well as the right.  I can see it appealing to many of my friends with more conservative as well as those with more progressive views, so highly recommended.

Doughnut Economics – 7 ways to think like a 21st century economist can be found on Amazon (UK) (US) and no doubt many other bookshops.