What does it mean to have a right to a particular piece of property? This is a useful question. Understanding the way in which you conceptualise property rights can be an instructive way of gaining a fuller understanding of your own political intuitions. For example, in my pocket there is a pen, which I own. To me, this means that if society consisted of only you and I, then saying I own something is tantamount to saying you and I have agreed that the pen should be mine. If we expand this into real world, to say I have the property right associated with that object effectively means that we have all agreed that I should own the pen. Of course, going through an adjudication process for every single object in the world would be time consuming, and so we have devised a set of principles from which you can derive the ownership of any given object. We call these ‘laws’.

Other political philosophies have a very different understanding of property rights. Rather than being the subject of mutual agreement, they are instead moral rights ultimately derived from the self. They can be understood as a relation between a person P and an object X such that P has the exclusive right to determine a range of X’s parameters, and countermanding this is wrong.

On this model, property rights are ultimately derived from the self; you own yourself, and any wealth you create is yours as a result of being derived from that fundamental ownership. My pen is mine because I exchanged money I earned through my labour for it in a free and fair exchange.

However, this way of thinking about property rights is fundamentally weird. As given above, property rights are a relationship between the possessed and the possessor. ‘Self-ownership’ can only fit into this model in an odd way. Either the self has at least two parts, one of which owns the other, or the relationship is somehow reflexive.

On the former description, self-ownership is tantamount to the mind owning the body, and the two being distinct things in order to allow this relationship to work. This is quite a claim, and going down this path commits adherents to a rather strong form of dualism, with all the problems that implies. It also has an extra problem: to make it work, adherents would need to find a way of demonstrating that the controlling relationship between the mind and the body is different to other forms of possession inasmuch as it is necessary; i.e. the mind necessarily owns the body and is inextricable from that relationship. Without this being the case, the adherent is trapped in a regressive argument – ownership is derived from the mind, but the mind does not own itself, so there must be at least two distinct entitities within it and so on, ad infinitum. To avoid this, a person advocating a dualist form of self-ownership must find a way of avoiding Cartesian doubt to demonstrate the necessity of that self-ownership. Needless to say, that is quite a challenge.

The latter description, that of a reflexive relationship in which the self owns the self, is perhaps even more puzzling. I fully understand what it means for me to own a pen. I can write with it, place it in a pen jar for safe-keeping, balance it on my top lip when bored of writing, and even destroy it if I choose. All these things are a clear relationship between myself and an object; when this relationship does not exist, what comprises ownership?

Perhaps if we are to understand the reflexive self-ownership model more sympathetically, we should think of it less as a relationship and more of a question of determination. I determine the parameters of my pen; what it writes, when writes, and where it is kept. Similarly, I determine the parameters of myself; when I eat, when I sleep, and what I say. If we adjust the language we use here slightly so we avoid even implicit reference to dualism, we can say that these parameters determine themselves. Self-determining parameters are therefore what is required to make this reflexive model work.

We can therefore see this as a ‘tree’ of parameters: these self-determining parameters also determine these other parameters (the pen). We could then say that this relationship of determination adequately captures what we mean when we say self-ownership, and hence property rights. However, it does not seem to do so satisfactorily: we have not defined a relationship of work, the moral intuition which this form of property rights appeals to, but rather a causal relationship between the self and the world that requires other moral clauses laid on top of it to get property rights out. If a collection of self-determining parameters hits another collection of self-determining parameters and takes a parameter-bearing object from them, then, causally, that object is now theirs. This is not what we normally consider to be property rights.

This reveals, perhaps, the greatest flaw in self-ownership models of property rights: despite claiming that property rights are derived from self-ownership, they in fact require additional moral suppositions in order to work. Given that each of these suppositions are open to question in turn, this model would appear to rest on very precarious foundations indeed. On balance, I would prefer to stick to convincing other people that I should be allowed pens.

Everyday Arete

August 22, 2012

Did you see the Great British Bake-Off last night? Well, one of the twenty-something lads won, but the bad-teeth fella got kicked out after he got his plaits wrong. I spent much of the episode lusting hungrily after the various bready products portrayed on screen, and largely in incomprehension proportionate to my terrible cooking skills.

But still, it got me thinking: cooking is a skill, and a skill in which a great many people take pleasure. It is simultaneously a chore and an arete; a pain and an excellence. Clearly it is an excellence which our culture celebrates, judging by the number of cooking programmes and celebrity chefs our culture produces. It stands alongside singing and dancing and DIY as an arete which is simultaneously accessible to all and the subject of media offerings which have mass appeal. There is clearly a market in providing the public with examples and illustrations of excellence in a given skill, just so long as that skill is open to everyone to try.

Now hold on, you might say, I’m a keen wood-whittler and there’s no prime-time show showing how best to carve your own oaken squirrel. The only thing you need to whittle wood is some kind of knife and a bit of wood. This is true, but the barrier to involvement in wood-whittling is not its accessibility but the difficulty associated with achieving excellence in it. It is much easier to paint a room well with the minimum of practice than it is to carve a gargoyle made of chestnut. The learning curve is, in this instance, a clear barrier to The Great British Whittle Off being a thing.

Why is this important? There’s a strange inclination in the philosophical world to describe ‘excellences’ and ‘virtues’ as things that pertain to ‘higher’ pursuits; MacIntyre uses the example of chess to illustrate his theory, and of course classical Aristotelian virtues mainly relate to aspects of interpersonal relations and personal conduct. However, in doing so we miss out on a whole set of arete that actually matter to people, and in doing miss out on some important insights into the nature of virtue.

For example, MacIntyre claims that ‘real’ virtues can only exist in a small community or polis, that in a vast and alienated capitalist society the only ethical theory possible is a bleak emotivism. Cooking demonstrates that this is untrue. The reason The Great British Bake-Off exists is that there is an appetite for the celebration of excellence amongst a public MacIntyre and his followers believe to be only expressing emotive preferences. If the arete identified through the judging process were unpalatable to the viewers, they would switch off, and if arete identification was a mere emotive process in our society there is no reason why one baking practice should be favoured over another. But, given we are now on the third series of this show, this seems unlikely. What it shows is that the great meta-community of baking fans, brought together through this shared experience, is capable of identifying and celebrating virtue through an aggregate of individual preferences. While the show has gurus, they only receive their status as gurus through their excellence being agreed by the community, rather than by the rules and traditions of a Baking Brotherhood. The internal excellences wrought by the practice of baking are ones determined by all participants, no matter their skill. The preference of each participating individual determines the community, not inner rules of the community itself. Virtues are emergent, not wholly defined by a historical context to which a novice must adhere.

Therefore, we can coherently talk about arete in a market economy. Virtue can exist in a capitalist system; we do not need the polis when we have tele-vision.

UPDATE: It appears that the post I originally referred to here has been taken down. The Wayback Machine does not have anything on it, regrettably, so you’ll have to rely on my quotes as representative. The author has put up another post about the coverage the original post received from the local media here.

Handily summarised for you in blog post form by an Ipswich councillor. This is not a parody. This is really someone who writes a blog post entitled ‘Why I don’t listen to experts (or facts and figures)’ and means it.

I know what you’re thinking. No-one could possibly be that arrogant as to assume they know absolutely everything. You’d be wrong.

“I have long been a believer that we need only use our gut instinct to make any decision and to form a pretty intelligent opinion. I didn’t need anyone to show me how to look after a baby (surely one of the most difficult jobs in the world and full of danger) and in fact was quite indignant with anyone who tried to show me. […]I have not needed anyone to tell me that global warming is a sham. I knew that years ago. The same as my gut instinct told me that the so called Ice Age, in the 70’s was a load of old rubbish.The same as I knew that this country was in great financial danger, probably just before Vince Cable and I was warning lots of people to cut down their credit card bills. I just sensed it. I also knew Clegg was a salesman (Radio 2 quoted me the day after the so called TV interviews) and I knew that David Davis would be better accepted than Cameron.   I also dreamt that my roof would blow off in a hurricane the night before it actually did in October 1987, In fact my dream was so accurate, my then boyfriend called me a witch.”

Apparently, your ‘gut instinct’ can tell you how to look after a child, assess the state of the global climate, comprehensively assess the state of the economy, fail to predict the next Conservative leader, and predict when your roof will fly off. But it can’t tell you that the so-called ‘TV interviews’ were actually called ‘debates’.

The sheer amount of arrogance lying in the presumption that anyone can know all of things absolutely is astonishing. This is a classic case of confirmation bias, one made all the more amusing by this statement:

“For if you think the world and it’s people is an awful place filled with terrible ‘types’ of communities, then you will find it so, wherever you go. But if like me you believe that everyone is basically good and doing their best in a life that still has a lot of answers to give up, then you will find it so, wherever you go.”

Apparently, confirmation bias is a good thing. Not analysing your own assumptions because they make you happy is a good thing. Anything that makes you unhappy you don’t have to believe, because your gut instinct tells you it’s wrong.

It’s fine to trust your gut instinct, because experts you agree with tell you you can:

“There is a book called Blink written by Malcolm Gladwell that talks about ‘The power of thinking without thinking’ and how we all have this instinct of just ‘knowing’. A recommended read to fully understand where I am going with this. […] Our subconscious literally has millions of pieces of information going into it and so apparently 95% goes into our subconscious leaving the 5% for our conscious to reasonably manage. The information in our subconscious can be tapped into easily if we listen without our ears and look without our eyes. Its all there, everything we need for survival, success and knowledge, and I trust mine 99.99%,”

Let’s be charitable and assume that you can acquire knowledge through photosynthesis. These are the things that would need to be true for the claims above to hold true:

  1. You intuitively know how to be a parent, which is why everyone is great at looking after children and no-one is ever messed up by bad parenting.
  2. It is possible to adequately assess the global climate using observations taken only from Ipswich.
  3. The credit risk associated with several people you know who have credit cards is directly correlated with the state of the global banking system.
  4. You know that opposition politicians sometimes try to put their case across in an underhand way.
  5. You don’t understand why citing someone who lost an election as ‘more approachable’ does not bolster your argument.
  6. It is possible to assess the exact direction and strength of a gust of wind twenty four hours before it happens. Actually, I wish this were true, as it’d be very handy for operating the electricity grid.

But confirmation bias and random selecting of preferred experts in line with your prejudices is one thing. Quite another is rejecting expert advice entirely:

“For every expert that tells you Yin, there will be someone that tells you Yang. For every fact and figure that tells you this is happening, there will be charts that says it isn’t.”

Because there is debate in elite discourse, we should reject it. Because often a matter is not settled, we should reject disputation and scholarship as routes to the truth.

“I have had enough over the years of being told ‘the truth’ by experts only for it to be retracted by differnt experts years later so now I listen to all sides and just use by gut feel to come to a decision without going into the nitty gritty detail, reexamining, looking at all the stats (which are usually lies anyway) I take a big picture view and then act upon it, in all areas of my life.”

Because expert opinion differs, it cannot be relied on. Statistics lie, and the only way of accessing the truth is through one’s own intuition.

No. We should listen to experts precisely because they disagree, because they are engaged in an iterative process of trying to get at the truth. We should listen more to experts who change their view when new evidence comes to light, because fundamentally knowledge is about what is real, rather than what we’d prefer to be real.

It is this: the valuing of a preferred reality, enabled by a media that aims to serve palatable news product and tame ‘experts’ who never deviate from a single ideological position, which is what is wrong with Britain today. We did not become a great country by wallowing in a reality we constructed to please us, and we will not remain a great country if the kind of hopelessly arrogant thinking outlined above is not challenged.

And it’s the job of this man:

In all the debate about what the Tories might offer the Lib Dems to get their precious boundary changes, there’s a fundamental truth that seems to be being avoided. While both Lords Reform and changes to constituency boundaries are ostensibly constitutional issues, they don’t lie at the heart of the reason the Coalition was formed. The real electoral dividends are to be reaped from a strong performance on the economy, and this is why Osborne needs to go.

The deficit reduction strategy formed a key part of the Coalition Agreement, and relied on growth picking up in short order. This has not happened. The ostensibly independent Office for Budgetary Responsibility, which Osborne set up, has managed to get every single one of its growth predictions incorrect. If it were managing a fund based on its predictions, it’d already be out of business. We are now back in recession, and Osborne’s response to this is to attempt to restrain one of the few remaining growth sectors we have in order to take an economy-wide punt on gas prices going down – right when the market expects them to rise. Take a look at the price of gas in Winter 2014-15 on the futures market for an indication of the kind of stories we can expect to see at the beginning of the next General Election campaign.

If we have been part of a Government that has failed to deliver growth and plunged hundreds of thousands of people into fuel poverty, we can expect to be decimated by the electorate, even without changes to constituency boundaries. Therefore, Osborne has to go, to be replaced by one of our own. Hell, even William Hague would be better.

The Virtuous Citizen

August 1, 2012

Today, returning to blogging after a brief interval while I settle into my new job, I’d like to be a bit naughty and compare Chris’s two most recent posts, on Corporate Crime and the Rightness of Romney. The first concerns the role of incentives in law-breaking amongst our corporate friends, making the clear point that for any given legal enforcement framework there is a level of law-breaking for which the returns are greater than the costs (i.e. fines/imprisonment). We should therefore expect that level of law-breaking to obtain. Furthermore, this lesson applies to the whole of society too: criminals, like everyone else, take a rational approach to their law-breaking based on the costs and benefits of doing so. The Daily Mail assumption that criminals are simply evil is not particularly useful in understanding actual criminal behaviour.

The second covers the relationship between culture and economics, and briefly reviews a number of studies and arguments which link social virtues and cultural differences to economic growth. Certain norms, such as trust, individualism and wealth being seen as a good in itself appear to have a positive effect on long-term economic development. Culture is not simply the domain of politics, but flows from a variety of sources, including religion. This presents an interesting challenge to policy-makers, because as Chris says:

“On the one hand there are the (dwindling) number of economists who think that long-run growth is a matter of technocratic fixes, of establishing the right policies and institutions. On the other hand, there are politicians who think that culture can be changed by talk and wishful thinking. The truth is more interesting than either group realizes.”

Policy by itself has only limited impacts on culture, with other actors – and history itself – having a much stronger influence. This is interesting, because the implications of the findings mentioned above is that there is likely an ideal set or family of virtues that are conducive to economic growth if they are held as social norms; certainly, Chris refers to the claim that bourgeois values are conducive to growth.

For policy-makers or other actors looking to magnify growth, therefore, the promotion of this set of virtues would be helpful. Now, the constant advocacy of supply-side solutions to our current economic difficulties by a certain section of the debate – including those currently giving succour to Naomi Klein-esque conspiracy theories – would point to the peculiar bundle of virtues bound up with Ayn Rand-style libertarianism as being conducive to growth. In a world with little regulation beyond contracts between individuals, virtues which demand that one be proud of one’s own efforts and not engage in force or fraud to secure those of anyone else are most useful under such an understanding of economics; if markets are always the best way of delivering growth* then virtues most likely to lead to totally unfettered markets will help.

In contrast, virtues that include caring for others when one judges them to be incapable for caring for themselves will encourage the public advocacy of regulation on certain economic matters, as well as the setting aside of a portion of the wealth of individuals to non-productive uses, including, say, looking after the elderly. This will be less conducive to growth on this economic model.

However, what’s left out of this picture – and the reason I draw the contrast between Chris’s two posts – is that economic circumstances influence culture in turn. For example, for certain demographics file-sharing and piracy could be considered to be a norm. This is, effectively, the incorporation of crime into cultural mores because the benefits (free consumer goods) are much less than the cost (risk of being caught stealing). And so, you have a section of society actively agitating for their cultural norm to become legally recognised too.

Under Rand-style libertarianism, the ordinary worker is supposed to be content to be allowed to purchase goods and services from those with a greater capacity for production, to be content with a lowly lot in life and to be entirely dependent on their capacity to produce. In a hypothetical society in which everyone signed up to those norms, it is difficult to see how long those norms would last in the face of the overwhelmingly disadvantaged in that society agitating for a greater share of the wealth. Such agitation, even if illegal, would be rational: the benefits that may accrue would be far higher than the cost. Any libertarian society – or libertarian culture – would be fundamentally unstable as a result. Given the shift in attitudes towards the rich over the relatively small economic differences caused by the recession, it is difficult to see how anyone could claim otherwise.

Cultural norms both influence and are influenced by economic circumstances, and politics is influenced by and influences both. All three are deeply intertwined, and any useful understanding of society must consider them all.

*Tim does not claim this, but some of his fellow travellers certainly do.