Archive for June, 2010

Justifying the state

June 30, 2010 3 comments

If I murder someone, I can be imprisoned by the government. However, it is only the government that is allowed to imprison me – if you do it, that is called false imprisonment and is itself a criminal offence. Why is it that governments are allowed to lock people up for the good of society and individual citizens aren’t?

Given that using overwhelming force to get people to do what you want them to do (e.g. remain in an 8×10 room for the next 20-25 years) is generally speaking not acceptable for individuals or corporations to do, one might think there should be a reason why governments are allowed to. Let’s review a few candidates:

1) You expressly consented to the government having such a right.

In terms of giving an argument for the legitimacy of actual states, this is a non-starter. No such consent has been given, except maybe by those who acquire citizenship by choice.

2) You tacitly consented to the government having such a right.

It isn’t necessary for consent to expressly say ‘I consent’. Sex is an obvious example; non-consensual sex is illegal, but there are (mercifully) a number of uncodified ways of signifying consent. Even if we assume that such tacit consent would legitimize government coercion, there do not exist the kind of uncodified ways of tacitly signalling consent to government coercion as in the case of sex. Proposed acts of tacit consent to such coercion – voting, not voluntarily leaving the territory – do not have the necessary link between the proposed act and the understanding on the part of the actor of what it is they are consenting to by performing that act in order for the analogy with express consent to go through.

3) The principle of fair play

Another non-starter. The principle of fair play essentially this: if a community engages in a mutually beneficial enterprise that requires co-operation, then if you benefit from the enterprise you shouldn’t be allowed to free-ride on the cost of producing that benefit. It is a non-starter because it fails to explain why the enterprise of government generates a strong enough claim to allow coercion when other co-operative enterprises do not. It may account for a moral obligation to co-operate, but simply demonstrating the existence of a moral obligation is insufficient for legitimizing coercion as an instrument of ensuring the fulfilment of that obligation.

4) Natural Duty of Justice

The gist of this line of thought is that we have an obligation to support just institutions. If the state is just, then we should do what it says. But again, this only speaks to a moral obligation – that I ought to obey the rules of a just state does not speak to the right of that state to coerce me into following those rules.

5) Hypothetical Consent

Medical procedures, in the ideal world, are consented to. However, sometimes we are not able to consent to things that we would – I cannot consent to surgery after being involved in a motorbike accident where I am left unconscious, but the doctors are quite permitted to perform the surgery because I would grant the permission if given the opportunity. The hypothetical consent tradition in political philosophy says it’s fine that people don’t actually consent to government coercion, it’s enough that they would if asked. Why would they do so? Because it is way better that we have a government than not. However, hypothetical consent (when it comes to government) proves far too much. If it legitimizes all government coercion where having such a coercive authority is better than having none, then if anarchy is really really bad – as those in the hypothetical consent tradition are inclined to think it is, cf Thomas Hobbes – then just plain ol’ bad tyrannical government passes the hypothetical consent test. Furthermore, it might be better to allow coercion by both the government AND (say) me. If having government is better than anarchy, then probably so is having government and a few select individuals locking people up in their basements.

We can generalize the considerations I have briefly and flippantly adduced by saying that any theory of why it is OK for the government and no one else to engage in certain coercive practices should meet two constraints: it should cover at least the vast majority of people who can be subjected to such coercion, and most crucially it should explain why we reserve this right exclusively to the government. The second constraint has (to my knowledge) been ignored by all the literature on the subject, despite its being such an obvious and important feature of the modern conception of the state.

Now, I am not by any means a political anarchist. Indeed, I think these considerations point somewhat in the other direction, politically speaking. For example, suppose you are a hard-line libertarian who thinks it is the job of the government to enforce contracts entered into by consenting, mentally capable adults and nothing else. The government in such a contract is, in effect, an unnamed third party who the contracting parties agree to have settle a dispute and execute that settlement – by force, if necessary. But why, on this hard-line libertarian position, can’t consenting adults name some other third party? Why can’t the parties say in the event of a dispute or breach of contract that Mr T be brought in to settle it*? Even the most extreme of libertarians are incapable of accounting for why only government is allowed to use coercive force.

The lesson I take from this is that politics, like ethics more broadly speaking, involves us trading off against each other all sorts of things we find valuable. For example, there is a long and tedious debate amongst political philosophers as to what ‘freedom’ means. Does being free mean not having people interfere with what you want to do, or having the ability to do the things you want to do? The answer is: both matter, and both taken to the extreme lead to highly undesirable outcomes. If we want to feed everybody, then we may have to take stuff from one person and give it to another – stuff they might not give up otherwise (this is also known as ‘taxation’). That a homeless person might be ‘free’ to eat but unable is a simple demonstration that many things other than freedom from coercion are valuable. Deciding what a government or anyone should and should not be allowed to  do is essentially trading off the value of not being coerced against whatever it is that can be achieved by the coercion.

* I pity the fool who would agree to such an arrangement


Should Emile Heskey be playing for England?

June 18, 2010 3 comments

Warning: This is an attempt to apply back-of-the-envelope calculations to answer one of the more controversial questions in English football – why does a striker who rarely scores goals start for England? It features the use of extremely dodgy guessing and dubious statistical techniques. You have been warned.

My understanding is that the main reason Heskey starts alongside Wayne Rooney is that he helps other players score goals. Indeed, given that Heskey himself scores less than one goal for every eight appearances, I can’t think of any other reason for him to even be in the squad (let alone the first choice team). So, the question is: does Heskey’s ability to hold up the ball, occupy defenders and release other players make up for the fact that he himself is not a goalscorer?

We can at least get a crude idea as to whether this is even likely to be true. Let’s say the players that are most likely to benefit from having Heskey in the team are Rooney, Lampard and Gerrard. We know Rooney likes playing with Heskey, and Lampard and Gerrard (as evidenced by the USA goal) are known to make runs from midfield. Rooney’s scores about .4 goals per appearances, Lampard .25 and Gerrard .21 (this is simply based on goals divided by caps). Let’s assume that Heskey increases their chances of scoring by 50%, which I suspect is extremely generous. Now, if we simply add these three players scoring rates together we get .86 – 50% of which is .43.

Heskey scores approximately .12 goals per cap. So, if we add Heskey’s goal scoring to the extra goals he creates for other players, we get .55. Incidentally, that is almost exactly the number of goals Peter Crouch scores per game (.54). So, even if we assume Heskey increases the chance that Rooney, Lampard and Gerrard score by 50% – which is an extremely large increase – he isn’t obviously increasing the total number of goals scored by the team when we compare putting Crouch in his place.

Now, in order to be a better candidate than Jermaine Defoe, many of whose appearances are as a late substitute, then the Heskey effect needs to be at least 20% – which when you remember is 20% over and above Defoe’s ability to create chances or others is still a massive difference. This kind of back-of-the-envelope thinking suggests to me that any ability Heskey has to create goals for others is unlikely to make up for his low goalscoring.

Obviously, this is no way to go about picking a football team, otherwise Crouch starts looking like one of the best international strikers in the world. Furthermore, I have not separated the ‘ Heskey effect’ from the past stats, which I could have a stab at if I bothered to make a few assumptions, and maybe at some point I will. Everything I have said needs to be taken with a huge grain of salt (or is it many grains of salt? I’m not sure). All I am suggesting is that Heskey needs to be very significantly better than either Defoe or Crouch at helping create chances for other players in order to make up for his own lack of goalscoring. Furthermore, one way that Heskey might create chances for other players is by neglecting to take one that any other striker would, hence not affecting the total number of goalscoring opportunities anyway. I therefore remain as unconvinced as everyone else in the country that Heskey should be starting, but at least I have some questionable maths to back it up…

Categories: Idle Speculation

One strand in the consequence argument for incompatibilism

June 12, 2010 8 comments

Suppose that determinism is true, and that I just put my hand down on my desk. As a compatibilist, I claim that this is a free but determined act. I was able to act otherwise, for instance to raise my hand. But there is a true historical proposition H about the intrinsic state of the world long ago, and a true proposition L specifying the laws of nature, such that H and L jointly determine what I did, and jointly contradict the proposition that I raised my hand. If I had raised my hand, then at least one of three things would have been true: contradictions would have been true, H would not have been true, or L would not have been true. So if I claim that I am able to raise my hand, I am committed to the claim that I have one of three incredible abilities: the ability to make contradictions true, the ability to change the past, or the ability to break (or change) the laws. It’s absurd to suppose that I have any of these abilities. Therefore, by reductio, I could not have raised my hand. – David Lewis

So goes the classic ‘consequence argument’ for incompatibilism, the thesis that free will is inconsistent with a deterministic universe. Against the consequence argument, Lewis goes on to point out that there are two different kinds of counterfactuals concerning the possibility of my raising my hand:

A: If I had raised my hand, either the state of the past or the laws of nature would have been different

B: If I had raised my hand, my act would have caused the past or the laws of nature to change

B is plainly absurd; one could not say that I ‘could’ raise by hand on the basis of B, and compatibilists do not say so. A, however, is perfectly all right on the determinist thesis, and incompatibilist ought to readily admit so. Now, with A there comes also an ability which I can be said to have, which I shall call A1:

A1: I am able to do something, such that if I did it, the state of the past or the laws of nature would have been different

I agree with the compatibilist that this represents a genuine ability I have. There is nothing contradictory in claiming anyone has such an ability, so I see no reason to think that it doesn’t represent a genuine property. The compatibilist claims that this argument for incompatibilism fails because it equivocates between the ability A1 which I do have, and the corresponding ability B1:

B1: I am able to do something, such that if I did it, the state of the past or the laws of nature would have been caused by my doing it

Against ability B1, the argument goes through*. But that, so says the compatibilist, is not what is at issue for we have abilities of the A1-type and those are good enough for making us free. Those who know me more than a little will be aware of my general disdain for arguing over definitions – if you want to call compatibilist freedom ‘free will’, then you are very welcome to make that stipulation. But the incompatibilist has available what I believe to be a very strong response, which is to say that the abilities such as A1 are morally irrelevant. For example, I have an A1-type ability to flap my arms and fly. I am able to flap my arms and fly, such that if I did it, the state of the past or the laws of nature would have been different. But it would be ridiculous to be accused of failing to act if I neglect to save someone from falling out of a building on the grounds that I ‘could’ have flapped my arms and flown to save them. So if we then extend this point to classic cases of, say, a child drowning in a pond who I fail to jump in and save because I didn’t want to get my clothes wet, the incompatibilist will make the analogous point which is my A1-type ability to jump in the pond and save the child is not a morally relevant one. It is of exactly the same kind as my ‘ability’ to flap my arms and fly, and I fail to see the morally relevant different between them except that in the save-the-child case we very much believe that I am morally responsible and so we just work backwards to get the right answer. But this is no way to do philosophy, for surely the onus is on the compatibilist to show why we should make a distinction.

I therefore conclude that while the consequence argument doesn’t necessarily succeed against it’s intended target – free will – it does make a powerful case for the incompatibility of moral responsibility with a deterministic universe. Indeed, I have often wondered whether it would be a big step forward in the debate over free will if we realized that what we are really arguing about is moral responsibility.

In philosophy, when we are trying to understand a concept or figuring out whether it actually applies as much as we initially believe it does, we can often get confused by two different ways of proceeding. One way is to look at the ordinary cases of the things we call ‘freedom’, ‘knowledge’ etc. and then see what is in common with those cases. Another way is to look at the kinds of reasons we give for or against the concept applying to a particular case. The problem is, these two ways of looking at it tend to come into conflict. In the case of freedom/moral responsibility – and, I would argue, in the case of knowledge – we have a conflict between our ordinary applications of the concept and the kinds of reasons we have for giving and (especially) denying that the concept applies. Sceptics about knowledge and moral responsibility say that if we consistently applied the kinds of reasons we give for denying that someone has knowledge (e.g. they haven’t ruled out all the possibilities) or is morally responsible (e.g. I can’t change my genes, so whatever my genes cause is something I am not responsible for) then we will end up denying that the anyone knows or is responsible for very much at all. It seems as if we either have to give up a whole lot of common sense thinking about who knows or is responsible for what, or we have to arbitrarily limit our application of the reasons we give for the concept not applying.

It strikes me that philosophy cannot tell you how to decide between those two, only that we must if we want to be consistent in our thinking.

*This very brief exposition of the consequence argument is indebted to Kadri Vihvelin’s excellent “Arguments for Incompatibilism” entry at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy