Sunday 23 December 2012

Relics and agency

For many years, I have made a point of visiting the graves of philosophers, writers, artists, composers, mathematicians and scientists. I have made substantial detours for major philosophers. But a short walk from home today gave me pause for thought.

The walk was to St Paul's Church, Covent Garden, which is particularly associated with actors. I went there in search of Samuel Butler (Hudibras), Samuel Butler (Erewhon), and Janet Webb (the lady who comes down at the end, from Morecambe and Wise). I found none of them. Tombstones were too worn, and smaller markers had disappeared or become hidden in undergrowth. But the church is full of fresh, clear memorial tablets to many well-known actors. The bones or ashes of most of them are, so far as I know, elsewhere. The tablets may remind those who knew those commemorated, but for the rest of us, they do not seem to count anywhere nearly as much as the graves themselves would count. Why is that? Bones and ashes are not people, and after a few decades in damp soil, nothing will be left, as was found when an attempt was made to dig up relics of John Henry Newman in 2008 (although there is controversy about exactly what happened there).

One explanation of the magic of a real grave would be the existence of direct material connections between the living person, the fresh body and whatever now remains. But there is an alternative. This would be to say that what is important is not that the remaining matter was once part of the person, placing the emphasis on mereology, but that it was once intimately bound up with the person's activity, placing the emphasis on agency.

Why should we consider this option? One reason is that a person matters to those of us who did not know him or her because of what he or she did, so if things matter, it should be because of their roles as instruments of agency. (I use "instruments" in a broad sense, so as to accommodate both the view that our limbs are outer tools of an inner agent, and the view that an action is performed by the body as a whole, with no part of it being a mere tool of some inner agent.)

Another reason is that it would allow us to merge an account of the magic of graves with an account of the magic of writers' notebooks, artists' palettes, and the other items that one often finds in museums. Those items were also instruments of their owners' agency. Indeed, if one were to follow the line of thinking of Andy Clark, they would be extensions of the person, rather than mere external tools (see, for example, his paper "Reasons, Robots and the Extended Mind", Mind and Language, volume 16, number 2, March 2001).

A third reason is that a focus on agency would allow us to limit the extension to items in museums, so that it stopped at a sensible place. Items that anyone might happen to own, such as walking sticks or items of clothing, would be excluded from being legitimate possessors of magic. We would not become like Chick in L’Écume des jours, who obsessively collected anything associated with Jean-Sol Partre.

It might, however, allow us to continue to find magic in a great person's home. Home is where creative work is done, influenced by the atmosphere, the surrounding streets or fields, and the view. There are some things that are not directly instruments of agency, but that are so bound up with what someone did, that an agency-based approach to relics could accommodate them.

Friday 30 November 2012

Liberty, not Leveson

Brian Leveson's report, "An inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press", published on 29 November, makes for depressing reading. It is reassuring that David Cameron has indicated that he is not minded to introduce a statute-backed regulatory body, but it would have been more reassuring if the other party leaders had said the same. The risk now is that Leveson's work will give respectability to the idea of new regulation, and that some future government will follow his recommendations. It is therefore worth setting out just how much is wrong with his ideas, although I shall not catalogue every criticism that could be made.

References in what follows are to the Executive Summary, with page numbers being those printed on the pages (that is, 1 less than the PDF file page numbers, on account of the front cover). I encourage people to read his own statement of his proposals. I shall quote some of his words here, and outline some of his points and proposals in my own words, but I shall not attempt to give my own overall summary. The Executive Summary, and the full report, are available on the enquiry site, here:

The first general point to make is that any regulatory system is much worse in its effects than would appear from a description of the system. The reason is that people self-censor in order to keep themselves out of trouble. So if Leveson's recommendations strike anyone as superficially reasonable, one should think of the real impact they would have. Under his system, would we have found out about MPs stealing our money under their expenses system? Or about the massive failure of police and social services in some parts of the country to prevent the sexual grooming of teenagers? Or about entertainers engaging in highly aggressive tax avoidance? Or about recently retired service chiefs offering to help weapons companies make their case to the Ministry of Defence?

The second general point is that it is one thing to say that some bad things have happened (which they have). It is quite another to say that there should be a new law, or a new regulatory system. Given the wide effects of new laws, or new regulatory systems, on people whose actions would not have been considered wrong in the first place, it may well be that on balance, it would be better to deal with problem cases using laws that only apply to the people who do wrong, and only on the occasions when they do wrong. Indeed, we have laws against telephone hacking, against harassment, and against libel, already. The problem has been a lack of enforcement, not a lack of law. One can argue about whether the laws in place are the right ones, but one cannot argue that the enforcers were rendered incapable of acting in the cases that have come to light. When Leveson draws attention to examples of hacking and harassment (paragraphs 30 to 35, pages 9 and 10), he does not make succeed in making any case for new laws. He tries to let the enforcers off the hook in paragraphs 47 and 48 (page 13), but his attempt to do so, and thereby to justify changes to the regulatory system, is unconvincing.

The third general point is that freedom matters, enormously. My own view is that we should have complete freedom of expression, to the strong standard of the First Amendment (with the "imminent lawless action" limit that was laid down in Brandenburg v Ohio in 1969), not to the weak standard of Article 10 of the European Convention, with all its ifs and buts. And our freedom to publish and to read should be seen as ours, automatically and unconditionally. We should never let it be seen as a generous gift from the state, that the authorities may legitimately restrict.

The fourth general point is that allowing newspapers freedom to print the stories they get, is not enough. A lot of hard journalistic work is needed to get the stories, and to gather enough evidence to defend oneself against lawyers who threaten injunctions and libel suits in order to stop us learning the truth about their clients. Newspapers need the freedom to use a decent range of methods. Telephone and e-mail hacking may be beyond the pale. But taking on a false identity, so long as it is done without intent to defraud of property or the like, and rummaging through dustbins, should be acceptable. The story about service chiefs relied on impersonation, as have stories about businesses that arrange fake marriages. (I would extend the same permission to citizen journalists, bloggers and the like. I don't think the established newspapers should have any special privileges.) The general point is that regulation of what journalists do, can be as oppressive just as much as regulation of what gets printed.

The final general point is that the horse has bolted. Blogs outside the jurisdiction can do what they like. They are unregulated, and there is nothing at all that the UK authorities can do about that, unless they go down the route of China and Saudi Arabia and build a national firewall, or achieve a similar result by pressuring Internet service providers to block whatever the courts say should be blocked. Not only would that place the UK firmly in the same box as the regimes just mentioned. It would also be circumventable, using proxy servers and encryption. I hope that it would also lead to mass civil disobedience on Twitter, using rhyming slang or the like to repeat what we were not allowed to read, just for the hell of it. As readers might guess, I regard this new impossibility of regulating communication as a very good thing.

I shall now pick out a few passages in Brian Leveson's report.

In paragraph 6 (page 4), we read: "As a result of this principle [of a free press] which operates as one of the cornerstones of our democracy, the press is given significant and special rights in this country which I recognise and have freely supported both as barrister and judge. With these rights, however, come responsibilities to the public interest: to respect the truth, to obey the law and to uphold the rights and liberties of individuals".

Leveson here falls into the language of the schoolroom, with the state as the teacher. Your rights are conditional. Behave, or they might be taken away, and it would be acceptable to take them away. The attitude is echoed in the second paragraph of Article 10 of the European Convention: "The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties ... ". We must reject this attitude, utterly and completely. Our right to express and publish what we want should be ours, unconditionally. If, in the exercise of that right, someone does harm to another, deal with that as an individual instance. But do not suggest that our right of expression and publication, in general, should be limited.

In paragraphs 32 to 37 (pages 10 and 11), Leveson expresses concern about the stories that the press choose to pursue, and then to print. Are these stories in the public interest? That is not a judgement the press should be asked to make. If newspapers are required to stop and think whether publication would be in the public interest, they will be greatly inhibited in their work. Moreover, it is not their job to worry about the public interest. They are private businesses, fully entitled to plough their own furrow, not public services.

Leveson proposes a body grounded in statute, but run independently of the Government and of Parliament. Membership would not be compulsory, but there would be incentives to join. (He says legislation would be essential in order to give those incentives - paragraph 70, page 17. That is, he attempts to justify the use of legislation on the basis of a minor feature of the system - not a good justification at all.) I shall turn to his specific recommendations in a moment, but first, we should note his claims about the status of what he proposes.

In paragraph 71 (page 17), we read: "It is worth being clear what this legislation would not do. The legislation would not establish a body to regulate the press: it would be up to the press to come forward with their own body that meets the criteria laid down". That strikes me as mere sophistry. If there is a law telling people to go and set up a system, that is not much different from a law that sets up a system but leaves the details to be worked out.

In paragraph 72 (page 17), we read: "[The legislation] would enshrine, for the first time, a legal duty on the Government to protect the freedom of the press". That sounds very nice, but it is really just a little bonus to make us feel better about the legislation. And it is a fake bonus. We have that freedom anyway. The only legislation that would really make a difference would be a British version of the First Amendment - couched in the same terms, "Parliament shall make no law ...", rather than "Parliament decrees that ...", to avoid giving the impression that our rights are in the gift of Parliament. What is more, any legislation guaranteeing freedom of the press that was useful, could be enacted independently of the rest of Leveson's proposals.

In paragraph 73 (page 17), we read: "Despite what will be said about these recommendations by those who oppose them, this is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press". That is more sophistry, bordering on terminological inexactitude.

In paragraphs 74 to 76 (pages 17 and 18), we read: "In the light of all that has been said, I must recognise the possibility that the industry could fail to rise to this challenge and be unable or unwilling to establish a system of independent self-regulation that meets the criteria. I have made it clear that I firmly believe it to be in the best interest of the public and the industry that it should indeed accept the challenge. What is more, given the public entitlement to some accountability of the press, I do not think that either the victims or the public would accept the outcome if the industry did not grasp this opportunity. Neither do I think the public would find it acceptable if I were to overlook the consequences of the industry doing so. For the sake of completeness I have therefore set out in the Report the options that I believe would be open to the Government to pursue, and some views on the potential way forward, in that regrettable event. ... I would very much prefer that the focus of all concerned should be on attempting to deliver the effective self regulation that I have set out - organised by the industry to a standard  that the public can accept. In my judgement, this provides the least burdensome method of ensuring some form of adequate independent regulatory oversight of press standards for the future. ..."

In these paragraphs, Leveson takes us back to the schoolroom: "Now children, you really ought to comply. The public won't accept it if you don't. We have alternatives if you don't comply, and they would be more trouble for everyone". The only appropriate response to these unveiled threats is a raspberry.

Now we may turn to the recommendations. Leveson recommends the establishment of an independent board, with the power to require compliance with a code. It would also have the power to impose penalties of up to 1% of turnover with a maximum of £1m for serious or systematic breaches (recommendation 19, page 34). Newspapers would not have to join, so they would not have to expose themselves to these extra-judicial fines, but if they did not join, they could expect to be given a harder time than members in any civil legal proceedings, both in respect of damages (paragraph 68, page 16) and in respect of costs (recommendation 26, pages 35 to 36). That is, there would be a potential financial squeeze on newspapers, in one way if they joined and in another way if they did not. This is a new type of voluntary: you can choose to be boiled, or to be fried. I do not suggest that it should no longer be possible to take actions against newspapers, only that it is wrong to force a move away from the current position, even if one has a choice between making the penalties extra-judicial or making them higher than they are now.

Recommendation 38 (page 37) is: "In conjunction with Recommendation 11 above, consideration should also be given to Code amendments which, while fully protecting freedom of speech and the freedom of the press, would equip that body with the power to intervene in cases of allegedly discriminatory reporting, and in so doing reflect the spirit of equalities legislation".

This recommendation shows how far we have fallen away from the ideal of freedom. Leveson would like an element in a code of practice that would require newspapers to be politically correct. How could any friend of liberty possibly think that would be a good idea?

Monday 26 November 2012

The luck of ancestry

A letter by Maurice Winter in Cambridge Alumni Magazine, issue 67, Michaelmas 2012, commenting on an article in issue 66, includes the following: "Luck is of fundamental importance to all sportspeople. Take Usain Bolt. It is pure luck that his parents provided him with the genes that built him in the way they did".

One reading of that, which may very well be the reading that the author intended, makes it straightforwardly true. We have different genetic endowments, and the result is that many of us would never be able to keep up with the best in sports, however hard we trained. But there is another reading, and it is one that draws our attention to the question of what kind of luck may be said to be associated with ancestry.

The reading is that the future Usain Bolt was there, before conception, waiting to be assigned genes, and perhaps waiting to be assigned parents. On this reading, it was pure luck that the genes that made great sporting achievement possible fell to him, rather than to someone else, or to nobody.

It is certainly pure luck that this particular combination of genes came together in a human being at all. When two people have a child, with a particular genetic make-up, there are many other genetic make-ups that could have been embodied in a child of the same parents, but that were not so embodied.

But this does not mean that we should accept the picture of a future Usain Bolt, waiting to be given a genetic endowment. While the term "Usain Bolt" now has a referent, it does not have any referent in temporal slices of the world that come before his conception. There is a connection with Kripke's thoughts on a person's being essentially the person made from that particular sperm and egg. They could not be that person until the relevant sperm and egg had come together. It is the coming together that makes the operation of a Kripke-type criterion of identity possible. Quine's slogan, "No entity without identity", has a use at this point.

If we are not to accept the picture of a pre-conception Usain Bolt, it was not luck that Usain Bolt had his genetic endowment. It was luck that this genetic endowment was embodied, but not luck that he got it. And we should not be distracted by the (probable) fact that only his parents could have given precisely that endowment to a child. Again, it was not luck that he was conceived in that family, rather than in any other. He did not exist, in any sense, until conceived.

So much may look obvious, once it has been said. But it is worth thinking it through, in order to understand the nature of the luck that is involved in inheritance.

I would not draw any conclusions about what to do. These thoughts might make it illegitimate to say things like, "It is most unfortunate that X got saddled with those genes", in a sense that would imply that X could have had different genes. Someone with different genes would not have been X. But these thoughts would not make it illegitimate to say things like, "Someone with X's genes finds life tougher than the rest of us, so we should make special provision for X, offer changes to X's genes (when that becomes possible), and so on". That is, there is no ground here for a fatalistic conclusion that people should simply live with their genetic inheritances. Nor is there any ground for an anti-welfare-state conclusion that we should not care for people with genetically based difficulties because those difficulties are so bound up with what makes them who they are.

Now let us consider an area in which we are free to vary a basic mechanism that determines a significant consequence of parentage, in a way that we are not free to alter the mechanism of genetic inheritance. There are still some hereditary monarchies left around the world. The next monarch is whoever happens to have been born to the right couple, and in the right place in the order of their children. No-one from any other family has a chance. Let us assume for the sake of argument that it is appropriate to have a lifetime head of state, and let us confine ourselves to constitutional monarchies on the modern European model, to avoid having to discuss the evils of absolutism and of arbitrary rule. Is a hereditary system unfair? Would it be fairer to have an elected lifetime head of state, a modern-day Doge of Venice?

There is a sense in which it is not unfair to have a hereditary monarchy. No-one can say, "I was excluded from that position by the luck of my parentage", because no person could have had different parents from those that they actually had. Anyone with different parents would have been a different person.

On the other hand, it is not possible to say, "The hereditary principle is as good as any other, because we need to pick someone, and a lottery would be fair, and picking whoever has the right parents is equivalent to a lottery". One cannot say that, because it is not as if we were all there, pre-conception, waiting to be allocated our parents at random. That is, we were not participants in a lottery, so the analogy with a lottery would break down. Anyone who wanted to maintain that the hereditary principle was as good as any other, would have to find some other grounds for that claim.

Finally, the lack of a certain sense of unfairness about the hereditary principle would not prevent one from putting forward other arguments against its use.

Monday 29 October 2012

Turing's secret papers

This year, we mark the hundredth anniversary of Alan Turing's birth. One celebration, among the less publicised but also among the most fitting, has been the release into the public domain of two of his wartime papers on mathematical aspects of cryptography. The release was announced by GCHQ, here:

It seems that the papers were not released earlier, because their contents were still considered to be sensitive. It was thought to benefit the UK to have the information while others did not have it, and (presumably) while others did not even know that the UK had information of this precise nature.

This raises an interesting general question. If a country's authorities have scientific or technical information, and feel that the country can gain a significant advantage over other countries by keeping it secret, should the information be kept secret?

An argument for release of the information would be that if the information is useful to someone, it is likely to be useful to others too, and its release might well promote economic development. It is not hard to think of examples. Encryption systems help commerce, by facilitating financial transactions where there would otherwise be a risk of diversion of funds to criminals. Knowledge of the vulnerabilities of encryption systems helps developers to make the systems more secure. Algorithms for the management and distribution of military supplies could be useful in commercial logistics, allowing goods to be stored and distributed at the lowest possible cost. If the detailed technology of radar and of jet engines, both largely developed in the run-up to war and during wartime, had been kept as military secrets, long-distance travel would not have become as convenient as it did in the 1950s and 1960s. And so on.

It is tempting to say that decisions must be made on the facts of each case, and that general principles would be very difficult to find, and of far less importance than specific facts. But we should not give up quite so quickly.

One could, for example, adopt the reasonably general principle that when the usefulness of information to others would be purely military, there would be a strong presumption in favour of keeping it secret. It may be desirable to help the world's economy, but when it comes to potential military uses, a country could be argued to be fully entitled to put its own interests first. One difficulty in applying this principle would be that it is all too easy for the military, and the security services, to see only the military uses of information, and to be unaware of commercial possibilities.

Alternatively, one could adopt a utilitarianism that gave no special weight to one's own country. Then, if the consequences of secrecy and of disclosure could be computed (which they could not be), or plausibly estimated (which might be possible), the decision on whether to disclose each piece of information could be reached by a mechanical procedure.

One could row back a little bit from this generous principle, and adopt a utilitarianism under which the interests of the citizens of one's own country were weighted more highly than the interests of others. But it would be hard to make a case for a precise difference in weighting. There would only be a plausible range. Counting each of one's own citizens as twice as important than each non-citizen might be defensible, particularly when one's own citizens formed a small minority of the world's population, so that the total weight assigned to one's own citizens was still considerably less than the total weight assigned to all non-citizens. Counting each of one's own citizens as 100 times more important as each non-citizen would not be defensible, regardless of population. One would also have to balance the potentially incommensurable economic and security interests of one's own citizens (and of non-citizens, to the extent that their security would be affected by the release of the information). And one would have to bear in mind that a boost to the world economy from an invention that new information makes possible can lead to a boost to the economies of many nations, including those that do not directly exploit the invention.

It is never going to be easy to make the right decisions, even assuming that there are right decisions to be made. One reason why this is so is that the specific facts of each case are bound to have a substantial influence on the decision, and it is in the nature of the case that those facts must be kept secret unless the decision is to publish. Only general principles can be debated publicly, and those general principles can only take us so far.

Thursday 27 September 2012

Geographical sensitivities

At the start of the British Museum's temporary exhibition, Ritual and revelry: the art of drinking in Asia, there is a map of a large part of Asia. At the bottom of the map, there is the following statement: "The names and designations used on this map do not imply official endorsement or acceptance by the British Museum". The intention is presumably not to upset anyone who might think that the map implied territorial claims that they rejected, or who rejected certain place names because of their historical or political associations.

This strikes me as silly over-sensitivity. No boundary lines are drawn on the map. The only remotely contentious labels on the map are "Tibetan Plateau" (instead of "Tibet"), "Korea" (not distinguishing North from South), and "Burma" (instead of "Myanmar"). Taiwan is not labelled at all. I cannot see any reason why anyone could reasonably take offence at what is on the map. And if someone took offence at the absence of names for some countries, or at the absence of boundary lines, that would be equally unreasonable. It is not just Taiwan and Tibet that are not labelled. Several countries are not labelled, simply because there is no need for the map to show that much detail.

It is not, however, simply a matter of over-sensitivity to people's political and geographical sensibilities. There is a second-order issue. By adding the statement, the British Museum has conceded that it is reasonable for people to make a fuss about maps which are published by bodies that have nothing to do with any governments or aspiring governments, and where the bodies clearly do not have any intention to make political waves in the regions mapped.

I am concerned at a possible consequence of making that concession, a consequence that is by no means certain to ensue, but that would nonetheless be serious. It is this. Such a concession would put us on the road to allowing scholarship to be constrained by political, cultural and religious sensitivities: "Don't present that result, or that theory, it would upset such and such a group". Over the past few centuries, we have gradually shed such constraints, although we have not got rid of them completely. Their return would be an intellectual disaster.

Saturday 15 September 2012

Are satyrs human?

The star of the excellent exhibition of bronze sculptures that has just opened at the Royal Academy in London is the truly spectacular Dancing Satyr:

There are other, smaller, early modern satyrs and satyresses too. These reflect the merger of the ideas of the satyr and the faun, in that the legs are distinctively goat-like.

Now suppose that satyrs and satyresses with such distinctive goat-like features really existed. Would we regard them as human?

It is tempting to make the answer depend entirely on genetics. If they were a separate line, with any common ancestor with us being very remote, and if they did not interbreed with human beings, we would be inclined to say no. If, on the other hand, they were born of human beings by a strange mutation, that prevented interbreeding with non-mutated human beings and that was generally passed on to their offspring, we might well say they were human. We would be particularly likely to do so if a few children of satyrs and satyresses did not have the mutation and could merge back into the main line of human beings, interbreed with non-mutated human beings, and have children who did not have the mutation.

Even if we decided to rely solely on genetics, this would not answer every question. Suppose that some satyrs and satyresses had been born of human beings five thousand years ago, and no-one from their line had ever merged back into the main line of human beings. Would we still say that they were human beings? One thing that might hold us back from saying that they were not human, would be the possibility of their having children without the mutation, who could merge back into the main line of human beings.

If, however, that possibility would carry weight, how strong would the possibility need to be? If a remote possibility would carry weight, we might have to say that chimps were human because at some time in the future, they could evolve into alternative versions of homo sapiens sapiens who could merge into the human line. We would probably rule out attaching weight to that possibility in relation to chimps, on the ground that even if it might happen, it would certainly not happen for many thousands of years, whereas with the satyrs and satyresses, we envisage that it might happen at any moment. That is, remoteness in likelihood and undoubted remoteness in time can have different effects on our attitudes.

Alternatively, we could take a view that was not purely genetic. We could say that social interaction mattered too. The more we interacted with satyrs and satyresses, in the same ways that we interact with human beings, both at work and at play, the more likely we would be to regard them as human. But we could not let that become the only criterion. If it did, then those with whom we cannot interact, either because they are inhuman in their conduct or because of their restricted faculties, would not count as human, and that would be quite wrong.

I have repeatedly referred to satyrs and satyresses together. When we see them as male and female, as they are portrayed in some of the sculptures at the exhibition, and not just as male, that makes it much easier to see them as human beings. And so I would, were they to move in next door.

Monday 27 August 2012

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand's writings polarize opinion. There are those who think she has all the answers, and those who think she has none. Both attitudes are mistaken, but it is interesting to ask why the attitudes arise.

One reason that I shall leave to one side is that the support for Rand's views which she offers in the form of academic philosophy, is not adequate. But this does not prevent some of her economic and ethical claims from being true. And it should not lead us to discard all of her work, and only to seek those true claims elsewhere. The fact that her explicitly philosophical works do not stand up well to academic examination, does not mean that we cannot learn from her novels. (We can also extract some useful ideas from her explicitly philosophical works. There is, for example, something to be made of her analysis of perception.)

One reason why Atlas Shrugged invites polarized responses is that it contains some propositions that are very easy to accept as obviously true, and some that are very easy to reject as obviously false. People can easily pick on one set or the other, and then jump to opinions about the whole work.

One obvious truth is that planned economies, in which government agencies dictate who is to produce how much steel or what trains are to run, are uniformly disastrous. Likewise, crony capitalism, under which some businesses get favours because they have friends in high places, is disastrous. Moreover, Rand sets out, in exquisite detail, the mechanisms of perverse incentives, laziness, incompetence and corruption that lead planned economies and economies that run on cronyism to disaster.

One mechanism with contemporary relevance is set out when Hank Rearden is trapped by Floyd Ferris, because he has sold metal to a customer in breach of regulations (part 2, chapter 3; pages 433-434 of the 2007 Penguin edition). Ferris admits that this was the point of the regulations. Set up lots of rules, let people break them, and then you have a hold on them. It would not be difficult to see those who appoint our modern zero-tolerance authority figures, the street wardens who catch you drinking alcohol in a park where that is forbidden or who find that you have put your dustbin out on the wrong day, as thinking in the same way, albeit on a much more trivial scale.

Another obvious truth is that we must face facts and live by reason. It is both disastrous and pathetic to live by superstition, or to think that wishing will lead to the results that one desires. The specifically political dangers are set out in John Galt's speech (part 3, chapter 7, pages 1,009-1,069). The speech is not only an attack on totalitarianism that is just as strong as George Orwell's attacks, although a good deal less subtle. It is also a powerful attack on mysticism in all of its forms, not least the form in which it may by invoked by totalitarians who claim to embody a truth that all must accept (pages 1,042-1,046).

The leading obvious falsehood, and the one that repels those who believe in a welfare state, is the claim that we have to go to the opposite extreme, that a government has no business doing anything more than maintaining law and order. Income tax is deemed to be theft, when the pirate Ragnar Danneskjöld includes it in the sums that are to be restored to Hank Rearden (part 2, chapter 7, page 579).

It is true that a possible consequence of taxation is a "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" scheme, such as the one that ruined the Twentieth Century Motor Company (part 2, chapter 10, pages 660-670), but one could guard against that by having a firm limit to the ratio of public spending to GDP, ensuring that most resources were distributed in accordance with market forces. One third of GDP might, for example, be a sensible limit. One would also need to require an economically neutral tax system, not one that was riddled with special reliefs for particular activities, in order not to veer towards cronyism or central planning.

Moreover, while deploring central planning in general, we may recognize the need for some economic regulation, or some taxation of specific activities, for example to control externalities. That would merely amount to correcting for costs which the market fails to price into activities. We may also recognize that the market tends to under-provide public goods (in the economists' sense of non-excludable and non-rivalrous goods).

Another reason why Atlas Shrugged invites polarized responses is that the arguments are put in dramatic form, in which it is easy to be carried along by the story. This encourages those who think that the novel has all the answers not to look too critically. It also gives those who doubt the merits of the arguments an opportunity to slow down, to examine the dramas, to note that the characters on the wrong sides of the arguments make implausibly weak cases for their points of view, and then to suspect the quality of all of the arguments in the book. We can see this by looking at comments made by Wesley Mouch and by those around him to justify central control, and at the pleas by members of Hank Rearden's family for his financial support.

While the cases made by some of the characters may be implausibly weak, the portraits of some of the professional politicians, who have done nothing but climb the greasy pole, are delightful, and worth pasting up on the mirrors of some of our own ministers and mandarins. Another character whom we may spot in real life is the philosopher Simon Pritchett, who denies not only the significance of human life, but the power of reason, the validity of our concepts and our ability to know things (part 1, chapter 6, pages 131-133). Some of those who waffle under the banners of postmodernism and deconstruction are just as bad.

A third reason why Atlas Shrugged invites polarized responses is that it is easy to concentrate on one aspect or another of Rand's ethic itself, and to feel exalted or repelled, depending on the focus of one's attention.

To start with the exaltation, the ethic of setting yourself challenging and productive goals, and then striving with all your might to achieve them, only relying on support from others if they freely choose to co-operate with you, and never coercing nor allowing yourself to be coerced, is undoubtedly a noble one. Likewise, the call to live by fact and reason, not by superstition, is noble.

On the other hand, it is easy to be repelled by the lack of any requirement to help others: "You have no duty to anyone but yourself" (part 3, chapter 2, page 802). We need to look at what lies behind this view.

In his speech, John Galt says that we should not help people who claim our help as a right or as a moral duty that we owe them, but that it is fine to help someone on account of his virtues. The latter would be a trade, and the virtue of the person helped would be your reward. But helping those without virtue, even at no cost to yourself, would be "treason to life" (part 3, chapter 7, page 1,060). The ground for this last claim seems to be that helping those without virtue would corrode the foundations of society. We must insist that others live with the consequences of their own lack of virtue, otherwise people in general will sink into vice.

In the same speech, John Galt says, "A morality that dares to tell you to find happiness in the renunciation of your happiness - to value the failure of your values - is an insolent negation of morality" (page 1,014). In these words, he appears to expose an outright contradiction at the heart of the traditional morality of personal sacrifice that he attacks, in both its religious and its socialist forms. And he does indeed expose a contradiction, if and only if the first reference to happiness is, like the second one, a reference to one's own happiness. But that is a large point at issue. Should one's goal be one's own happiness, or the happiness of a wider class of people?

Rand could support the former option, by reference to her ethic of life. Random altruism would clash directly with that ethic. But we might not find her arguments for that ethic, in the form that it would need to take in order to yield opposition to altruism, satisfactory. And we should not fear that altruism would rob us of the admirable implications of that ethic, in particular the implications that we should strive, should achieve and should live by fact and reason. Those implications could be supported by other means.

It is rather disturbing that in the Valley, people do not simply give of their time and skill, even though the inhabitants are virtuous, and know one another to be virtuous. There is, for example, a charge for attendance at lectures and concerts, offered by some members of the community to others (part 3, chapter 2, pages 773-774). It is a point of principle not to give. One can see the sense of one's not being required to give, but a policy of not giving is decidedly odd. If it is based on anything, it seems to be on the attitude expressed by John Galt "that the unearned cannot be had, that the undeserved cannot be given" (part 3, chapter 2, page 798). If this were a claim that nothing could be consumed that had not been produced, it would be correct. But if it is meant as a claim about relationships between people, and not merely about the unforgiving relationship that nature has with humanity, then it is false.

Finally, even those who do not concentrate on selected aspects of Ayn Rand's philosophy, but who take all elements into account, may still be encouraged to take up an extreme position on its merits. The reason is that her philosophy is presented and perceived as a package. It is easy to think that one must accept it all, or reject it all. But that is not so. We are free to accept some propositions within her philosophy and reject others, so long as we find support for the accepted propositions other than the supports that are so bound up with the package that their use would commit us to accepting the whole package.

Monday 30 July 2012

Computer-generated characters in films

The film Ted, which will appeal to all arctophiles, is about to be released in the UK. The star, a talking and beer-swilling teddy bear, is a piece of computer-generated animation. The human actors had to act as if he were there, then he was inserted after the human actors had been filmed.

Now suppose that human actors will be replaced in the same way, and that we will watch films with wholly realistic animated characters, such that human perceptual apparatus cannot tell the difference between them and human actors. That would take a lot of computing power, and some sophisticated programming, but it is perfectly possible that we shall see this development within the next 50 years, and perhaps sooner.

Philosophers of perception might find this an interesting new source of problems. It seems that there ought to be some difference in how we should describe the perception of the viewer, but it is not obvious how to characterize the difference. Disjunctivists, for example, could not capture the difference merely in terms of seeing human actors versus having an impression that was qualitatively indistinguishable from seeing them, because the stage of generating a mere impression that would be at issue would take place outside the perceiver's head. The fork that reflected the disjunction would have to be placed outside any specific perceiver, at the point of creation of the film, with one prong running back to real actors and the other to a computer that generated images. One might prevent this from being a problem for the philosophy of perception by regarding viewing a film as a species of seeing the objects filmed, but that would be a challenging course to take. However, it does not seem that this sort of problem would be specific to the portrayal of human beings, as distinct from the portrayal of other entities, such as mountains,  by computer-generated images.

Another question would arise in connection with the paradox of fiction. We get emotionally involved in films, even though we know that the characters are not real. If we knew that the characters were not even portrayed by real actors, would that affect our degree of emotional involvement? If the theory that we suspend our disbelief is straightforwardly correct, our degree of emotional involvement should be unaffected. If we suspend disbelief, we do not see the characters as portrayed by actors: we see them as real. Then the fact that actors had been replaced by animations should not matter. We might learn something from the extent of our capacity to get emotionally involved in cartoons that are obviously cartoons. The greater that capacity, the more likely it is that we would get fully involved in films where the characters seemed to be played by real actors, but were in fact computer-generated.

Finally, what would such developments do to the film industry? There would be many more films. They would be cheaper to make, and cheaper to amend after release in order to make small improvements, or to correct continuity errors. Films might be more finely honed to the preferences of audiences, because it would be cheaper to make extracts that could be tried on sample audiences before the final content of the film was determined. Such developments would be disruptive, but I think that on balance, they would be welcome, just as the word processor and electronic publishing have been disruptive, but have also brought great benefits.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Tax avoidance and the problem of establishing purposes

Tax avoidance is the reduction of tax liabilities by the use of contrived schemes, which are such that when the law is applied to them, the resulting tax liabilities are less than one might have expected. It differs from tax evasion, which is the reduction of tax liabilities by not disclosing the full facts, or by misrepresenting the facts.

The tax code of the UK is likely to have a general anti-avoidance rule, alternatively known as a general anti-abuse rule, or a GAAR, in the near future. The Government proposes to introduce one in 2013. Its consultation document on the proposal, published on 12 June 2012, and related documents, are available here:

(The link to the June 2012 document is about half way down the page, following the heading "GAAR consultation".)

The purpose of a GAAR is to remove the tax advantages that would be obtained by the use of contrived tax avoidance schemes,when the schemes are not defeated by specific provisions (for example, a specific provision that says that when an asset is sold between connected parties for less than its market value, the transaction is to be treated as taking place at market value). Governments are interested in GAARs because the counteraction of avoidance by specific provisions is an endless game of cat and mouse. Each year, new provisions are introduced to defeat known schemes. And each year, new schemes are devised to get round the existing specific provisions.

I shall not discuss the merits of GAARs here. Instead, I shall set out how some problems concerning the identification of the purposes of arrangements that have been devised by human beings arise in the context of GAARs.

It is common for anti-avoidance legislation to include a purpose test of some sort. The legislation may, for example, only take effect if a reduction in tax is one of the main purposes of the arrangements that the taxpayer has chosen. "One of the main purposes" is likely to be the phrase, rather than "the main purpose", so as to catch schemes in which tax avoidance is a significant purpose, but there is some greater commercial purpose that has nothing to do with reducing tax liabilities. For example, clause 2(1) of the proposed GAAR, discussed on page 13 of the June 2012 document, reads:

'Arrangements are "tax arrangements" if, having regard to all the circumstances, it would be reasonable to conclude that the obtaining of a tax advantage was the main purpose, or one of the main purposes, of the arrangements.'

The problem is this: how should we determine whether obtaining a tax advantage was a main purpose of some given arrangements?

The first point to make is that the challenge is not to find a way to look inside the actual taxpayer's head, and establish his or her subjective motives. The question is, "What is the point of these arrangements?", not "What was this taxpayer trying to achieve?". Some of the points that follow would have parallels in a discussion of the problem of establishing motives, but that is not the topic here.

Having said that, we cannot ignore the human element. Purposes are purposes of creatures that have goals. We can reconcile this point with the irrelevance of the motives of the particular taxpayer who in fact entered into the arrangements, by regarding the purposes in question as those of a hypothetical rational taxpayer who entered into the arrangements. Abstracting from the actual taxpayer's psychology, what would we say was going on, if all we knew was that some taxpayer had entered into the arrangements, and we were told nothing more about the taxpayer apart from his or her income, assets, and existing family or financial links to other people who were affected financially, along with any other facts that we would need to know in order to understand his or her tax affairs?

It is not enough for arrangements to be such that tax liabilities are lower than one would expect, for example when a profit is made, but no tax arises on it, nor will arise in the future. That is not enough because the lack of tax might be a pure accident. While the motives of the actual taxpayer may be irrelevant, the achievement of accidental consequences could not be seen as a purpose at all, not even a purpose of a hypothetical taxpayer, about whom nothing psychological was known. It is, however, most unlikely that such accidents would occur. Their occurrence would indicate that the tax system had been very badly designed.

It seems that we must look for indications that tax-saving features were included in the arrangements by design. One sign would be that a feature took some work to include, but that the other likely purposes of the arrangements (such as the transfer of an asset from grandparent to grandchild, or the purchase of some land followed by its sale at a profit) would have been achieved just as well without the feature, and without its replacement by another feature that would have taken a comparable amount of work to include.

This does seem to be the appropriate sort of way to proceed, if we are to abstract from the psychology of the actual taxpayer. We should compare what happened with other things that might have happened. The basis on which we would establish purposes could then be a principle of sufficient reason, something like this, where B is what the taxpayer actually did:

'If some commercial result was achieved by doing B rather than C or D, where all of B, C and D were possible, take it that the purposes of the agent must include enough purposes to explain the preference for B over C, and the preference for B over D, and identify enough purposes accordingly.'

Three problems with this principle as it stands are immediately apparent.

First, the purposes that would explain the preference for B over C might be incompatible with the purposes that would explain the preference for B over D. That would not, however, affect the workability of a GAAR, so long as the purpose of achieving a reduction in tax featured in both sets of purposes. We can imagine one hypothetical taxpayer preferring B to C, and another one preferring B to D.

Second, there might be some differences between B and C, or between B and D, about which the hypothetical taxpayer would be indifferent, making it inappropriate to seek explanatory purposes. If there were other differences which meant that the preference for B could only reasonably be explained by a purpose of achieving a reduction in tax, that would not affect the workability of a GAAR. But if all of the differences were ones about which the hypothetical taxpayer would be indifferent, while B was nonetheless the choice that happened to reduce tax, legislation which ensured that a GAAR still applied would have the same effect as legislation that required people deliberately to arrange their affairs so as not to make tax savings. Such legislation could reasonably be argued to be excessive.

Third, the principle would not always be enough to allow us to work out whether a GAAR should apply to take away a particular tax advantage. There might be a range of possible sets of purposes to impute to our hypothetical taxpayer. Each set would be sufficient to explain his or her preference for B, but some sets would include a purpose of achieving a reduction in tax, and others would not include such a purpose. This problem would become more acute if we were required to determine, not only what the hypothetical taxpayer's purposes were, but which ones were main purposes.

These difficulties may not be insuperable. But if they are not addressed explicitly in the guidance that we are promised will accompany the UK's forthcoming GAAR, it may not be easy to discern a consistent line of thought behind the decisions that judges will make, once cases start to be litigated.

Sunday 24 June 2012

What is conscious?

Philosophers have thought up examples of entities that behave like thinking human beings, but that leave us wondering whether they are conscious. The China brain has been debated for many years. In recent months, Eric Schwitzgebel has discussed other entities, including the United States, on his blog (see posts dated 31 October 2011, 4 May 2012 and 19 June 2012):

The more I think about examples like these, the more I think that we should not say there is always a fact of the matter, out there, as to whether a given entity is conscious. Rather, we should ask whether it makes sense for us (or whichever rational beings happen to be having the discussion) to regard the entity as conscious. Whether it makes sense will depend on the nature of our social interactions with the entity, our views on moral obligation to the entity, whether we see the entity as made up of smaller entities that we see as individually conscious, and lots of other things.

We must regard other human beings, and a fair number of animals high up the evolutionary scale, as conscious. But human beings can disagree as to how far down the scale to go. Martians can also disagree with human beings about the consciousness of at least some of the entities that human beings must regard as conscious, and we can disagree with Martians about the consciousness of at least some of the entities that they must regard as conscious.

(This assumes that Martians have a concept that corresponds to our concept of consciousness. They may not have. If my general approach is right, a possible reason for them not to have would be that they might well not have concepts that corresponded to our concepts of social interaction or of moral responsibility.)

Then a dispute about whether the China brain is conscious, or whether the United States is conscious, can be seen as a dispute about the relative significance of the members of two groups of indicators of consciousness. The first group, on which such entities score highly, includes the sophistication of processing and the existence of a generally consistent, yet gently mutable, character of conduct, that differs, but does not differ radically, from the characters exhibited by other, comparable, entities. The second group, on which such entities score badly, includes the personal nature of our interaction with the entities, the existence of feelings of moral responsibility towards them that are very similar to our feelings towards other human beings, and a sense that the entities have qualia of experience. (I do not mean to claim that qualia are real, only that most of us, in our everyday lives, think that they are real.)

The example that Eric Schwitzgebel cites in his post on 19 June 2012 presents a new challenge. There is an artificial body, which looks to us like a person, and behaves appropriately. But there is a China brain arrangement in the background, feeding instructions to the body, rather than a normal brain in the body. We are presented with a single body, with which we can interact as we would with a person. So this example scores highly on personal interaction, and might easily come to score highly on being regarded as an object of moral responsibility. The one thing about which we would still worry would be the qualia (or whatever our views on the human mind allowed along the lines of qualia).

Another interesting example is the David character in the film A.I. This is an artificial child, the capacity of which to display love towards the human being who acts as its mother can be switched on, but cannot then be switched off. Once this capacity had been switched on, and the "love" had developed, could the mother argue that the creature was just a machine, to which she had no moral responsibility? I rather think that it would depend on how the programming was done. If the intelligent processing of data from the child's environment went on deep inside, but it was only near the surface, in a separate module, that appropriate behaviour was generated, then the mother would have less of a moral obligation than if the intelligent processing and the generation of behaviour were fully integrated. I have not worked this out properly, but if there is something in this idea, and if considerations of moral responsibility are relevant to the attribution of consciousness, then the details of implementation of processing could matter to the attribution of consciousness.

I have cross-posted these thoughts, with minor amendments to allow for the context as a comment on Eric Schwitzgebel's post of 19 June 2012, on his blog at:

Saturday 23 June 2012

Cash and transparency

This week, a study of the extent to which different think tanks disclose their donors was published. It is available at:

Those that got high ratings were no doubt pleased. At least one that got a low rating did not accept the presumption that transparency was a virtue, and argued that donors had a perfect right to privacy, as can be seen here:

Meanwhile, in the United States, there has been considerable concern about the use of supposedly independent Political Action Committees, or PACs, to circumvent limits on politicians' campaign spending. And some of the big corporate donors to political campaigns don't even want to have their names disclosed:

So what would be a sensible position, given the tension between:

(a) the prima facie right of each person to decide whether or not to disclose his or her spending (on anything, not just on politics) and whether or not to disclose his or her political views; and

(b) the need to do what we can to prevent the corruption of the political process by those of the rich and powerful - I hope a fairly small proportion - who try to corrupt it?

The kind of corruption I have in mind is the twisting of legislation and government administration to suit the private interests of those who spend money to get certain politicians elected, or to lobby the politicians who get into power. It amounts to corruption because legislation and government administration are imposed on all of us, without the freedom to opt in or out: they should therefore be in the interests of all of us, not in the interests of a few. The spending of lots of money in the marketplace, promoting the production of the goods and services that the rich happen to like, does not amount to corruption, because we are free to participate, or not to participate, in any given market, and because the production of some goods and services, at high prices, does not prevent the production of others, at lower prices.

I think that the answer depends on the current state of the polity.

If we have a healthy, free, democratic polity, or one that has only wandered a little way from that ideal, then disclosure will help to keep it healthy. I would therefore favour full disclosure in the UK, whether or not the donees are political parties. Some think tanks say that they are not party political. Such claims are often true. But they still seek to change legislation, and if they may be promoting the interests of their funders, whether because the funders ask them to or because they decide their policies first and then naturally attract the funders who agree with them, that should be disclosed. When changes to legislation or to government administration are being advocated, we need to be aware of possible selfish motives, so that we can appraise the arguments being put forward with an appropriate degree of scepticism.

An important counterpart to this is total transparency on the side of government. All papers related to the conduct of government should be freely available, except when national security would be put at risk. That should help to prevent corruption in the reverse direction, for example when a local council might refuse planning permission for new business premises because the proprietor was known to support political views that were at variance with those of councillors.

Given those conditions, I do not see the right to privacy as carrying much weight. It is not even clear to me that we do have a right to privacy against anyone except an intrusive government. (I find Article 8 of the European Convention acceptable only as a right against the state: if it is a right against the press, we can say farewell to a free press. But that is another argument.)

If, on the other hand, there is a repressive government, secrecy may be essential in order to have a chance against the authorities. But in that position, opposition movements would probably be breaking the state's (unjust) laws anyway, and the state would inspect bank accounts, whether or not it was authorised to do so. Laws on privacy of funding would then be neither here nor there.

Thursday 7 June 2012

On keeping one's distance from those who lack epistemic virtues

Suppose that X works with Y in some business in which knowledge is important, and in which people need to draw sensible conclusions from evidence, and to recognize and suppress wishful thinking when the conclusions are not what they might expect or like. X reckons that Y exhibits the appropriate epistemic virtues, and is therefore a good colleague to have.

Now suppose that X finds that in some unrelated area of life, Y holds a belief that X thinks no reasonable person could hold, if that person were confronted with evidence that is plainly available to Y, and that Y could plainly grasp and understand how to use.

Should X be less happy about working with Y? I think not. Y's performance at work would be evidence that what X saw as Y's lack of epistemic virtue in the unrelated field had not infected Y's work. And while it would be a bit much to ask X to acknowledge that he or she might be wrong about the unrelated matter, it would not be unreasonable to ask X to acknowledge that his or her perception of Y's lack of epistemic virtue might be mistaken. Y's reasoning processes would not be likely to be fully transparent to X.

X could respond to this point by saying that the reasoning processes did not matter. Y's belief was so manifestly absurd that Y should have said, "I must be wrong here, now I should try to find the error in my reasoning". On that basis, Y would be guilty of one specific epistemic vice, a failure to recognize manifest absurdity. But even then, could X be sure that Y suffered from that vice? Perhaps the process of reasoning had itself led Y to change his or her view of what was absurd.

Now let us change the example. X is considering whether to work with a think tank, T, on some project. X is impressed with T's work in the relevant field. But X also knows that T's official views, in unrelated fields, are quite as bad as Y's conclusions in an unrelated field. They are not just mistaken. X cannot see how any rational person, confronted with the widely available and easily understood evidence, could reach those conclusions.

Should this deter X from working with T? There might be a risk to X's reputation, if he or she were seen to be working with an organization that X's peers might well regard as crazy, but we shall set that to one side, and concentrate on the question that arose as between X and Y. Would it be appropriate for X to think there was a serious risk that what X perceived as T's lack of epistemic virtue would infect work in the area of the proposed joint project? (There is a side issue as to whether institutions, as opposed to individuals, can have or lack epistemic virtues.)

It would not be hard to say yes, the risk should be taken more seriously in the case of X and T than in the case of X and Y. If an institution adopted crazy views, that would be likely to reflect the views of more than one person. There might be only one person formulating views on the topics in question, but he or she would be answerable to the institution's management. The management would therefore have a general outlook that allowed the views to be published, whether an outlook that staff should not be controlled, or an outlook that included sharing the crazy views. And that management outlook might very well infect the recruitment and the management of those who would work on the proposed joint project. People who lack epistemic virtues may well associate with, recruit, and encourage other people who also lack those virtues.

Such a conclusion would have an interesting implication. The conclusion would suggest that epistemic vice could spread more easily from one area of thought to another in a group of people than within a single person, despite the fact that a single person seems to be much more closely integrated than a group of people. That is not, however, absurd. In a group of people, propositions are expressed by some and are consciously considered by others. That stage of conscious consideration may given the propositions more power to influence behaviour than if they were merely present in a single cortex, encoded in a form that did not even look particularly propositional, and were occasionally and dreamily considered by the subject.

Saturday 19 May 2012

Examinations, earthquakes and the Euro

There is a well-known paradox of the surprise examination. A teacher tells some students that there will be an examination one morning next week (Monday to Friday), but that they will not know until the morning of the examination that it is on that day.

The students reason that it cannot be on Friday, because then they could work out the day by Thursday evening. But if they know it cannot be on Friday, it cannot be on Thursday either, because they would be able to work out the day by Wednesday evening. They continue to reason on these lines, and conclude that the examination cannot be held at all, under the conditions stated by the teacher.

It is important that the timespan over which the students would be at risk has an end-point, Friday, backwards from which the students can reason. If the days at risk went on for ever, they could not reason as they do. (It is an interesting question, whether the end-point needs to be a determinate one, up to which they are at risk. I think that is not necessary. That is, it would suffice for them to be able to identify a specific date, a finite time in the future, beyond which the period of risk had definitely ended. It would not matter whether they were definitely at risk up to that date.)

It is also important that the examination would definitely be held within the finite timespan. If the teacher only said that there might be an examination next week, and that if there were, it would be held on a day that the students could not predict before that day, the students could come to school each day, unsure of whether there would be an examination that day.

It is also important that the students would definitely be unable to identify the day of the examination before that day. If they were told only that they might not be able to identify the day in advance, then Friday would be a possible day. Then it could not be eliminated, and the other days would also be possible days.

We may note that there is no requirement for the teacher to have decided, at the time of the announcement to the students, the day of the examination. The paradox would arise if the teacher planned to pick a day on impulse, as the week wore on. The teacher, wanting to meet the conditions, would know that he or she could not leave the examination until Friday, and would also know that the students knew this. The teacher would therefore know that he or she could not leave the examination until Thursday, and would also know that the students knew this. This chain of reasoning in the teacher's mind would lead the teacher to the same conclusion as the students. The examination could not be held at all, under the stated conditions, even though the teacher's initial proposal of a surprise examination looked perfectly reasonable.

We can also see that human intention only matters to make the story plausible, not to generate the paradox once we have the story, by considering a predicted earthquake.

Having studied the ways in which stresses have built up, we may conclude that there will be an earthquake at a given location on some day between now and the end of 31 December 2100, that it will be the only earthquake there before 2500 (because stresses will be relieved by the earthquake and will take a while to build up again), and that we will not know, until the day of the earthquake, that it is on that day.

Just to make the problem as similar as possible as that of the examination, let us assume that our methods give us no way of telling when the probability of an earthquake within the next year, or the next month, or any other future time period shorter than the time to 31 December 2100, is rising (apart from the rise due to the fact that as time passes, there are fewer days left to go). We cannot see it coming, and each remaining day in the given time period will always seem to us as likely as any other remaining day.

The lack of human agency makes the story implausible. There is no-one out to keep us in ignorance. But if we can overlook that, we can see that given the conditions, the earthquake could not be on the last day, because we would know by the end of 30 December 2100 that it would be on that day. Therefore it could not be on the penultimate day, and the paradox would arise all over again.

One approach would be to say that while the students, or the potential victims of the earthquake, could not say that they were in some unidentified member or other of a set of possible worlds (the examination-set being the world in which the examination is on Monday, the world in which it is on Tuesday, and so on to Friday), they could say that they were in some superposition of worlds, and that this superposition would be collapsed into a particular world by the teacher's announcement, or by the first movement of the tectonic plates. Analogies with quantum mechanics may be fun, but I fear that they can also degenerate into mere hand-waving. I shall not pursue this approach here.

Instead, we can improve our understanding by looking at a feature of the mathematical structure of the problem. Not only is there a finite timespan of risk. That timespan contains a finite number of risk-points, the individual days. For each such risk-point, there is an immediately preceding risk-point, the day before. That allows the paradox to be generated. To take the example of the examination, there is a last risk-point, Friday. The examination cannot be held on that day. Therefore, the immediately preceding risk-point, Thursday, effectively becomes the last risk-point. But the examination cannot be held at the last risk-point, so Thursday is eliminated, Wednesday effectively becomes the last risk-point, and the reasoning is repeated.

Suppose instead that the teacher had said that an examination of two hours would start at some unexpected moment within school hours, say 0900 to 1700, on some day within the next week. The examination would have to start by 1500, but there would still be an infinite number of moments in each day at which it could start. (We shall assume that time is infinitely divisible.) Then the students' reasoning would be blocked.

It would be blocked because moments of time are densely ordered. That is, between any two moments in order of time, there is another moment. Between 0901 and 0902, there is 0901 + 30 seconds. Between 0901 and 0901 + 30 seconds, there is 0901 + 15 seconds. However finely we chop up time, even into microseconds, there will always be more moments in between the ones that we have already identified. And each moment would be a risk-point, if the teacher had announced that the examination would start at some unexpected moment.

The dense ordering would be enough to block the students' reasoning. Their reasoning relied on deleting the last risk-point, and moving back to the immediately preceding risk-point. But if the risk-points were densely ordered, there would be no immediately preceding risk-point, to which they could move. Any preceding risk-point they identified would not be the immediate predecessor of the point they had deleted, because there would be another risk-point, later than that one but earlier than the point they had deleted.

Thus a densely ordered stretch of risk-points blocks the chain of reasoning. It is not even necessary for the whole stretch of risk-points to be densely ordered. (Indeed, it is not densely ordered in the case of the examination. There is, for example, no risk-point between the one at 1500 on Monday and the one at 0900 on Tuesday.) All that is necessary is for there to be some densely ordered stretch of risk-points before the last risk-point. If there is a stretch reaching back from that last point that is not densely ordered, the reasoning of the paradox can be used to eliminate all of the risk-points in that stretch, but once we have eliminated the risk-point at the end of the last densely ordered stretch, the reasoning is blocked.

(The last densely ordered stretch might be open at its end, that is, it might not include its end point. It might, for example, be all moments from 0900 on Thursday up to, but not including, 1200 on Thursday. In that case, there would be no final risk-point of the stretch to be eliminated. One could only work back as far as eliminating the risk-point that came first in order of time after the last densely ordered stretch.)

Another feature of the arrangement, which would arise outside densely ordered stretches of risk-points, but which would not arise within any densely ordered stretch, is that there would be an interval between each risk-point (other than the final one) and a risk-point that came later, which was itself empty of risk-points, and within which the students could come to appreciate that only the later risk-points were still possibilities. This matters because such appreciation would be the mechanism, by virtue of which it would be impossible for the students to have the promised ignorance of which risk-point was the one at which the examination would occur. In the interval between the penultimate and the final risk-points, satisfaction of the condition of ignorance would rule out the final risk-point.

My thoughts turned to the paradox because of Greece's likely exit from the Euro. It is essential for currency reforms to be kept secret until they take effect. Otherwise the withdrawal of funds, and speculation, will lead to a bigger crisis than the one that the reform is intended to resolve. Witness, for example, the highly secretive preparations for the introduction of the Deutsche Mark in 1948, first the Konklave von Rothwesten, at which the reform was worked out, and then the delivery of banknotes, in advance of the announcement, in Operation Bird Dog. Moreover, currency reforms take place on specific days, not at specific moments (except, possibly, midnight at the start of some day.) So is there scope for a paradox of the surprise currency reform?

There is one fact that prevents such a paradox from arising, and it is a fact that politicians happily exploit, although perhaps not out of a conscious desire to avoid the trap of this paradox. The relevant fact is that there is no known end-point to the period of risk. Even if one is certain that Greece will leave the Euro, and however bad things get, there is always the possibility that some new fix will tide Greece over for a little bit longer.

Alternatively, people might become certain that the fixes would run out, and that Greece would leave the Euro within a period with an end-point that was already known. But once people became certain of that, the markets would not sit around like students, worrying whether the examination would be today, tomorrow or the next day. They would respond immediately, as if the examination had just started, with only a very limited softening of their reaction in recognition of the fact that the exit might still be delayed by a few months.

Sunday 29 April 2012

The accreditation of qualifications

The market in qualifications is growing, and getting more open. I wonder whether modern trends will have only the expected and desired results, or some unexpected or undesired ones too.

For a long time, we have had universities, school examination boards, and professional institutes. Some of these entities are given special powers by the state, for example the exclusive right to award qualifications that are called degrees, or to confer qualifications that entitle people to represent others in court.

Now, we see a profusion of new bodies that offer qualifications, some for areas of work that did not exist a few decades ago, such as information technology, and some for long-standing trades. More interestingly, there are now some businesses that are detached from those subject-specific bodies, but that offer accreditation services. Googling on the phrase "accreditation services" will turn up several examples.

One expected and desired result of this proliferation of qualifications is that there are now plenty of focused and assessed courses available. This should increase the level of skills of the population, and indeed the general educational level of the population, more effectively than a less-focused exhortation to read books. It is also good if people seek out focused courses in in the humanities, and in the natural and social sciences considered in their own right (rather than in relation to their practical application). And plenty of courses like that are now available, some of them provided free of charge by universities. But the push to undertake such courses is not going to come from people's employment.

Another result is that there is no longer a single clear significance of accreditation. There is no single framework of standards, within which the endorsers of qualifications work. To some extent, it was ever thus. Universities and professional bodies worked separately. But when there are commercial providers of accreditation, we must ask whether they are as strict as they should be, or whether their commercial interests affect their work. Strictness requires more than consistency. One could be consistently generous in granting accreditation, but that would make accreditation valueless.

Many of the accreditors are at pains to assure us of their ethical stances and independence. But self-certification of that nature should carry no weight. Even non-profit bodies cannot be assumed to be immune to untoward influences. There may be no shareholders to seek profits, but there are still employees who seek their continued employment. That requires keeping existing customers and, just to be on the safe side, acquiring new ones.

So where there is a free market in accreditation, the mere fact that a qualification has been accredited proves little or nothing. Anyone who sought to establish the worth of a given accreditation would have to find out which body had conferred it, how that body worked, and in particular, how many qualifications that body refused to accredit. No prestige would automatically attach to qualifications that were accredited in the free market. Having said that, the process of accreditation could still be useful to those who ran qualifications, because it would give them some external comment on their work.

Is this result desirable? The choice is between the following.

1. A single framework of standards. I do not favour this option. It would be cumbersome to ensure compliance across the full range of accreditations of qualifications. Mindless bureaucrats and users of management-speak would devise forms that would be tedious and the completion of which would prove little. And the standards would probably be inappropriate to some accreditations.

2. A free market in accreditation. This is the option we have accidentally chosen, and I think it is better than option 1., although it has disadvantages, as already noted.

3. No accreditation for the great majority of qualifications. I suspect this would be just as good as option 2. It is not clear to me that either the people who take courses, or the people who offer jobs to those who may hold certain qualifications or who send their employees on courses, gain much useful information from accreditation in the free market. It must be up to individual students and employers to decide whether they wish to choose accredited qualifications, when there are non-accredited (and quite possibly cheaper) alternatives. But they should not think that non-accredited qualifications would necessarily be worth any less than accredited alternatives.

Friday 30 March 2012

Privacy and injunctions

On 27 March 2012, the House of Lords and House of Commons Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions published a report, "Privacy and injunctions". The report and the published evidence (published on 16 March 2012) are available from this page:

(My comments here are very critical of the report, so it is worth noting that not every member of the Committee agreed to everything in the report. Some were greater friends of freedom than others. A record of voting on particular parts of the text is given on pages 88 to 103 of the report.)

The Committee really does not understand the importance of free expression. There are warm words about its importance, but the Committee regards a right to privacy as being of equal importance. On page 5, we find:

"The fundamental right to freedom of expression lies at the heart of this debate. The right to privacy is equally important. It is universal and can only be breached if there is a public interest in doing so."

Equality of importance of these rights simply cannot work, if the latter means a right of privacy as against publication in the media, rather than a right to keep one's affairs private from the state (and a right not to be the object of state snooping is arguably that right that Article 8 of the European Convention really confers). Free expression, and privacy as against media publication, are bound to come into conflict, all the time. And free expression must be accorded the higher status, if we are not to become an utterly oppressed people.

One reason to accord the right to privacy the lower status is that if someone does something shameful and it appears in the newspapers, he or she has only himself or herself to blame. Another reason is that those who are most likely to take advantage of a right to privacy are those who already exercise significant influence through their wealth, fame or political position. The reality of such people's personalities and actions jolly well should be open to scrutiny.

The Committee's attitude to Twitter is ambiguous. There are warm words about its role in the Arab Spring in paragraph 92, but then a certain pleasure is taken in the fact that Twitter users can be identified and action can then be taken against them (paragraph 100). The Committee hesitates over the use of country-specific blocking of tweets (paragraph 108), but seems to think that disclosure of the fact of blocking would make blocking acceptable.

The degree of oppression that the Committee calmly contemplates can be seen in a couple of further passages, in paragraphs 109 and 115.

Paragraph 109: "We recommend that, when granting an injunction, courts should be proactive in directing the claimant to serve notice on internet content platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook. Beyond that, claimants in privacy cases should make full use of notice and take-down procedures operated by responsible internet service and social media providers, who should also seek to disseminate best practice and discourage illegality amongst users and other providers."

Extract from paragraph 115: "Google and other search engines should take steps to ensure that their websites are not used as vehicles to breach the law and should actively develop and use such technology. We recommend that if legislation is necessary to require them to do so it should be introduced."

The message of paragraph 109 is that it is responsible to kowtow to the judges who dictate what we can write, and what we can read, and whose reasons we cannot inspect because, by the nature of the case, they have to act in secret. And it would be quite wrong for anyone to stand up and say "It is a very great evil for any arm of the state secretly to regulate expression, so I reject that regulation".

The Committee's belief that we should kowtow is set out on page 5: "The rule of law in protecting the right to privacy should be upheld by all. If a judge has made a decision, based on hearing the full evidence in a case, that decision should be respected by those who have not heard all the evidence". The judge might be better informed than the rest of us about the circumstances of the particular case, and about the relevant precedents. There would be no reason to think that the judge had an ethically respectable position on freedom.

It might be different if the proceedings were public. Then it would be reasonable to say "I disagree, but I can see that the decision is one that one could reasonably reach, and that, plus my respect for the rule of law, is enough to lead me to respect the decision". But it would be an abnegation of one's own rationality meekly to accept a judge's deicision, when one had no idea what the grounds for the decision were. The fact that privacy is the point of the proceedings, so that they have to be secret, makes no difference to this point. If the only way to enforce a right is to ask us to take secret justice on trust, the right should not be enforced.

Paragraph 115 says that search engines, in whatever country they are based, should apply British law to hide information from British users. I hope they ignore this request, even if legislation to put it into effect is enacted. In particular, American search engines have the noble First Amendment to uphold. There is no reason why people or companies in nations with greater freedom of expression should respect the laws which govern that freedom of nations with lesser freedom of expression, even if the freedom is only a little bit less.

Finally, in chapter 5, the Committee proposes a press regulator, the jurisdiction of which would extend to all major publishers of newspapers, whether they liked it or not. That would amount to the requirement to obtain a licence to publish, however it was dressed up as non-statutory or semi-statutory. It is, like much else in the report, an oppressive proposal.

My overall conclusion is that a right to privacy (as against media publication, rather than as against state snooping) can no longer be enforced, save by oppressive means. That means we must give up trying to enforce the right, and rejoice in our right to free expression instead.

Saturday 24 March 2012

Summer time and referenda

It is time for our regular twice-yearly debate over what the UK's time zone (or zones) should be, and over whether the clocks should be changed twice a year.

A piece on NDR Radio this morning explained what has been going on in Russia. Since the move to summer time in March 2011, the clocks have not been changed in Russia, on the orders of President Medvedev. Summer time lasts all year. He was reported as thinking that repeated change disturbed the biorhythms of people and animals, particularly milking cows. (The claim should clearly be restricted to animals that have some interaction with people. Bears deep in the taiga are unlikely to read or hear that the clocks have changed. But many animals could be affected, including wild animals that get used to crossing roads by a certain light, and suddenly find that at the appropriate time by the Sun, the roads are busy with rush-hour commuters instead of empty.) It seems that some political parties want to go back to a twice-yearly change, and that Vladimir Putin is likely to implement this.

The claim that biorhythms are disturbed by a twice-yearly change smacks of pseudo-science, although I acknowledge that the alignment of the light with the clock does strike me as odd for a couple of days after each change. If there is to be sensible argument about this question, it is likely to be about such things as energy consumption, accident rates, the moods of people when their hours of work limit their enjoyment of sunshine, and the needs of businesses to have time zones as closely aligned as possible with those of their trading partners. The latter point came up in connection with Russia. Businesses in Moscow find it awkward to be three hours ahead of Germany, rather than two, in the winter.

A noteworthy feature of debates over time zones and whether to change the clocks twice a year is that the factors to consider are both numerous and disparate. There is no obvious way to weigh them all in a single balance. Only the most convinced utilitarian could think that there was.

Another feature is that one of the factors is how people feel. Psychologists can advise us on how access to daylight influences our moods, but the relevant notion of how people feel is broader than that. It involves sentimental attachment to traditions and to habits of life, and the special joy that some feel at witnessing the dawn and others at witnessing the dusk.

A third feature is that how people feel is central to the process of weighing the factors. Some people think that accident rates are the most important thing, others that energy-saving matters most, and others that business efficiency is of the first importance.

All of this leads me to conclude that the question of how we should set our clocks would be an ideal question to put to a referendum. The relevant features of the question are these.

1. We need a single answer. We do not need to agree on hours of work. Different people can work at different times. But we do need to be able to say "meet me at noon", or "the train leaves at 1832", and all mean the same thing.

2. While there are experts on different aspects of the question, there is no expert on how to combine the conclusions on specific aspects to arrive at an overall answer.

3. If we were to hold a referendum, we could draw on the wisdom of crowds. Lots of non-experts, voting independently, can produce just as good an answer as a committee of experts, and sometimes a better answer. The difficulty would be to get people to vote independently. Clever propaganda, crafted be special interest groups and disseminated through the media, would persuade people to try to sway their friends.

There would be a challenging question of how to divide the territory into areas, the inhabitants of each of which would vote for conclusions that would apply within their areas. For example, should Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland hold separate votes?

On the one hand, it would seem right to divide the territory into the smallest areas that could sensibly have their own time zones, so that local circumstances could be reflected in decisions. On the other hand, one of the considerations that may influence people is the desire to have the same time zone as prevails in neighbouring areas. Someone, every 15 degrees of longitude or so (or 30 degrees with two-hour jumps), must live near a time zone boundary, but each of us would rather it was someone else. That desire would lead people not to take so much account of local circumstances. Differences of latitude can give rise to the same problem. One of the objections to the UK's aligning its time zone with France and Germany (UTC + 1 in the winter and UTC + 2 in the summer) is that the Sun would not rise until very late in Scotland in winter. One solution would be for Scotland to have its own time zone, but life around the border would then get more complicated.

Perhaps the answer is to have two or three rounds of voting. After the first round, people could see how much tendency to difference there was, and could change their votes accordingly in the second round if differences mattered enough to them, and if they saw that the only likely way to remove the difference was for them to change. Just for once, tactical voting could be a good thing.

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Religion and public policy

A survey by Ipsos MORI for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science has attracted attention. It has shown that many of those in the UK who say they are Christian do not have the beliefs, views or practices that one might traditionally associate with being Christian.

Two press releases, both dated 14 February 2012, are available here:

Survey data are available here:

This raises the question of whether public policy should be significantly influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition (a vague notion, but not a hopelessly vague one).

I can only think of two grounds for giving any special role to the Judeo-Christian tradition in the formation of public policy.

The first ground would be that the relevant religions were widely believed, so that policy in tune with them would be in accordance with the wishes of the population.

The survey provides a strong reason to reject this ground. If the fact that a substantial proportion of the population claims to be Christian only indicates that a substantial proportion of the population has some belief in God, which tends to get labelled as Christian because of cultural background, then the size of that proportion will not in itself justify a claim that our society is deeply attached to a Judeo-Christian heritage, of which we should take special account in making public policy.

For example, if the people who say they are Christian do not generally subscribe to the traditional doctrines of the Church from which moral prescriptions are derived, then the size of the proportion would not count against policies that Christian churches might be expected to oppose by virtue of their doctrines (abortion, gay marriage, etc).

The second ground would be that it could be demonstrated, to the satisfaction of people at large, that there was indeed a God. This cannot be done. The purported demonstrations that have been offered over the centuries are no good at all.

It is worth noting the importance of demonstration to the satisfaction of people at large. Suppose that someone with political power was, himself or herself, entirely and sincerely convinced of the truth of some religion. That would justify his or her acting accordingly in his or her private life. We are all entitled to act on propositions that others doubt or deny, when we are the only ones affected.

But when someone's actions will affect others, and they have not individually volunteered to submit themselves to the agent's will (as many of us have not, because following each election, many will not have voted for the winning government), the agent has a responsibility to take account of the fact that others may regard his or her principles of action as mistaken. In the case of the religious politician, there would be no non-circular grounds for denying the status of epistemic peer to those who did regard the principles as mistaken. (There would be a circular ground: "Those who do not share my religion are wrong, so they should be disregarded".)

Given that, the religious politician should not be steered by his or her religion when making public policy. An analogy would be a captain who navigated a ship between submerged rocks on the basis that irregularities in waves would indicate where the rocks were. If others on the bridge told the captain that this was in their view an unsafe method, because a rock at a dangerous depth might still be too far below the surface to create any noticeable irregularities, the captain would be morally obliged to take note and use a more generally accepted method, despite outranking the others.