A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Friday, 7 November 2014

Greed vs. Self-interest

A lot of people who attack mainstream economics will say it assumes that people are always greedy, and that this isn't the case, therefore it is based upon false premises. I feel like this is unfair - I wouldn't describe "economists believe everyone is always greedy" as a strawman, but it's an unfair way of putting it.

Economists tend to assume people are self-interested. I'm not certain how to cash out the difference between being "greedy" and being "self-interested", but I'm fairly certain there is one. For example, I would much rather eat a nice meal than be poked in the eye. Given a choice between the two, I would choose the meal. I don't think that makes me greedy, but it is definitely a self-interested choice.

Perhaps we might say that being "greedy" implies a certain lack of concern for others. There are people who I care about deeply, and I would say that their well-being contributes to my well-being. Hence, if I had to option to provide a benefit to my brother at minimal material or temporal cost to myself, I would be likely to provide this benefit. We can conceive of this as being self-interested, but it seems weird to describe it as greedy.

Alternatively, perhaps we think of greed as being overly concerned with material wealth, as compared to other valuable things. If someone were to pave over a beautiful garden in order to build houses, I can imagine them being described as a "greedy developer".

In any case, I don't think either of these words - at least as used in the most conventional sense - is really an appropriate way of describing the way economists conceive of self-interest. It's true that our models frequently exclude charitable spending and gifts to other agents, but if you want to call failing to give to charity greedy then (while I agree with you) you're going to have a hard time arguing that people aren't basically greedy, given the rather small size of charitable donations. (And also given that Effective Altruism is seen as radical and unusual. Since I heard of it, EA has always seemed rather obviously correct - at least, so long as one accepts moral realism - and yet, EA evangelism is not just a matter of explaining the basic ideas to people, you generally have to convince them over weeks and months. This strongly suggests to me that, when people donate to charity, the extent to which they help people is not generally at the forefront of their mind.)

Perhaps the best way of explaining the way most people understand the word "greedy" is that it should be viewed as relative to a socially agreed baseline. So it's "greedy" not to pay taxes, and moreover, "paying one's taxes" is defined relative to the intent rather than the letter of the law. (This "intent" can be very nebulous, of course - what is one person's "incentive to promote valuable business and job creation" is another person's "corporate loophole"). But since most people don't really give to charity, it's not greedy not to give - just so long as you do give when everyone is doing so (e.g. school non-uniform day, a leaving present for someone at the office, icebucket challenge).

This is not to say that the assumption that people act "rationally" in the economist's sense is entirely warranted: merely that to suggest it has too low a picture of humans is quite the wrong way to go about attacking it. A far better attack - one which, in my view, has a lot of truth to it - is that it overestimates people. People do not generally set out purposefully so as to best achieve their goals. Indeed, they make certain consistent and predictable errors. This is indeed something of a challenge to the axioms of neoclassical economics - although, with a better awareness of human psychology, it may well be possible to repair the faulty assumptions to make better predictions.

Rawls on Procedural Justice

From A Theory of Justice, page 76:
A distribution cannot be judged in isolation from the system of which it is the outcome or from what individuals have done in good faith in light of established expectations. If it is asked in the abstract whether one distribution of a given stock of things to definite individuals with known desires and preferences is better than another, then there is simply no answer.

In this passage, Rawls is actually talking about the importance of equality of opportunity, but it sounds a lot more like something out of Anarchy, State and Utopia. We frequently think of Rawls as "the minimax guy", and certainly that is the aspect of his principles of justice which has received the most attention, so it is quite interesting to see him giving so much weight to a conception of procedural justice - albeit a rather more demanding version of it than a Nozickian would advocate.

I remember, back when we were first studying Rawls, the lecturer would present us with two graphs like the ones below. He would ask us about which we thought was a better society. If I were to go back in time, I would be equipped with a pretty smart-arse response.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Step by step...

...gender equality progresses.
Kurdish defenders have victory in their sights. After exactly a month of fighting, they say they have driven Islamic State from most of the city.
But from a hilltop across the border in Turkey, it is clear there is still fighting going on, particularly in the north of the city. Small and heavy arms fire can be heard, as well as occasional explosions. There have also been several air strikes this afternoon by the US-led coalition.
One 32-year-old Kurdish militia commander, who leads the fighting in the east of the city, told me she hoped the city would be "fully liberated" very soon.
(from a BBC article on the war currently going on between ISIS and the Kurds).

Notice that little word in the final paragraph: "she". At almost any time before now, the idea of a woman leading an army (with certain rare and very charismatic exceptions) would either have been laughed at or would have called to the mind the Amazon stereotype. Instead, women of ability are able to lead armies, and to be taken seriously. Perhaps The Onion laughs at this kind of thing, but I view it as a genuine step towards genuine sexual equality.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Can Christians have compassion?

It has sometimes been pointed out that the desire of many on the left to blame high crime rates and other bad behaviour by poor people on the environment in which they grow up is rather at odds with a liberal conception of people as free and rational agents. It occurred to me today that this is an even greater problem for those who take the bible to be the word of God:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (Romans 1:20)

The Christian believes that, with two exceptions (and one of them was also a deity) every person who has ever lived has sinned, and grievously so. Despite this ridiculously strong evidence that living without sinning is basically impossible given the human condition, people are still taken to be morally responsible for having sinned.

I can see two ways in which a Christian might push back against this, but both seem to have very severe problems. The first is to argue that going to hell for one's sin does not necessarily imply a moral judgement against one for having sinned; merely, that one is not absolutely pure and therefore cannot be with God who is himself absolutely pure. This is perhaps the easier bullet to bite, but it still means that Divine Command theories of morality are rendered incoherent. This is a serious problem, not only because many Christians would like to identify morality with God's law but also because one of the most popular arguments for God's existence is that it gives us a grounding for objective morality.

The other counter-argument would be that while we cannot realistically go without sinning, we can generally sin less than we actually do. But this makes it difficult to resist the argument that especially virtuous people. who sin but do so at rates for lower than other humans, ought to be (in a sense) justified by their own efforts. "Yes, it's true that I sinned, but it would have been nigh-impossible for me to have sinned less considering that I am, ultimately, only human." This flat-out contradicts crucial Christian doctrine:

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6)

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Who Type Out Their Setlists

Last night, I saw Igudesman & Joo performing at Bridgwater Hall. Alexsey Igudesman and Richard Hyung-ki Joo are professional violin and piano soloists respectively, who do musical comedy skits on YouTube and various places.

The playing was top-notch; the orchestral balance and the comedy, less so. They introduced the first number, a mash-up of the Molto Allegro from Mozart's 40th Symphony with the James Bond Theme, with a dialogue which consisted of little more than them yelling "Mozart!" "No, Bond!" at each other.

This was followed by an unusual rendition of Mozart's Rondo Alla Turca, which was highly enjoyable but demonstrated two issues which were to plague much of the concert. The first was the use of blue humour: there was a fair bit of comedy which, if not performed by a man of east-Asian extraction, would have been viewed as a relic of the late 1800s, not to mention not-too-subtle references to certain parts of the male anatomy. The second was that the balance in the accompanying orchestra could be off so as to make it difficult to make out anything beyond the brass and percussion. This only seemed to be a problem when both of the soloists were playing, which suggests to me that they may have rehearsed without listeners. I understand the desire to avoid a "proper" conductor and the third on-stage personality this would almost inevitably require, but some sections were simply not up to scratch.

After a ridiculously overdramatic performance of All by Myself, they turned to a "new work" - a love ballad sung by a lonely farm boy to his favourite cow. It was credited to one "Joseph Frizell Kerr", which at first I suspected to be a joke about sexually deviant Austrians but turned out to refer to a person who only exists on Twitter.

The next few songs, during the course of which there was an interval, were mostly big-band types - Fistful of Dollars, Gonna Fly Now, etc. Towards the end they reached the second work of the evening which was at the standard it ought to be - a demonstration of the only way the average person can play Rachmaninoff's piano pieces. Sergei Rachmaninoff had famously massive hands, each of them able to span two octaves. (For comparison, I can comfortably play one-and-a-third octaves, squeezing to a semitone short of an octave-and-a-half if I flatten my hand in a way no pianist ever should). To play the gigantic chords required, Joo had a set of wooden planks with bits sticking out to play the chords, which Igudesman would juggle behind him in order to pass the right one at the time it was needed.

After an orchestral version of Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive and a couple of encores, the evening finished. I didn't regret going, but it would be fair to describe it is one of the worse concerts that I have been to.

As a final point, I would like to ask: how is this commercially viable? There were perhaps 1200 people in the audience (the total capacity of Bridgewater Hall is 2,400, but the upper levels weren't in use) at a ticket price of £15 (£8 for students). That implies total takings will be approaching £18,000, and at least a third of that will have gone on hiring the venue. Include pay and accommodation for the orchestra - a couple of days' labour at semi-skilled or higher wages for 40 or more people, plus the costs of transport and accommodation, will probably at the very least in the region of £8000. That doesn't leave a great deal spare, especially after administration, insurance, and the myriad other costs which are difficult to remember but cause hell for small businesses.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

What are the rights of Children? Part Two

I previously discussed my opinions of some papers working towards answering this question; in this post, I intend to discuss a theory I have been developing, and discuss the very serious problems with its current state.

I start with the assumption that it is wrong for a child to be brought into life if they can be expected to have a life not worth living. Furthermore, this is not merely wrong but it is a violation of the child's rights. I integrate this assumption into a kind-of-Nozickian position and emerge that children should be treated in a way they would consent to in the hypothetical situation where they - or a rational agent representing them - and their parents signed a contract regarding how the child should be brought up.

As it stands at this, without working out what it implies, there are already several serious issues with the theory.


Some rights theorists have argued that having rights requires the ability to enforce them. I don't think I would necessarily go that far, but it is certainly fair to say that rights suffer in the absence of an enforcement mechanism. And, practically speaking, it is difficult to see how this theory would be enforced.

The starting point would be that, if a child's upbringing fails to meet whatever is decided to be just, then the child would have a right to sue their parents. There are problems with this, at least one of which I see no way of resolving.

Suppose the child is so badly mistreated that they die before reaching the age of emancipation. Then, presumably the right to sue the parents would return to the commons, and could be homesteaded by someone who prosecuted the parents. (This would not be much comfort to the child, but since no theory can raise the dead this is hardly a problem unique to my theory). But what if the homesteader of this right is a confederate of the parents, who does a deliberately bad job of prosecution? Even supposing this is solved, then suppose there is a competitive market of lawyers who will take up such cases. Suppose also that there is an inverse relationship T (between the time spent accumulating evidence before taking a case to court) and P (the probability of a successful prosecution, and hence a profit). If the right to take the case to court can only be homesteaded once, then clearly the market equilibrium is for cases to be homesteaded as soon as they appear and have a positive P.

This might be resolved by having an organisation which is automatically assumed to gain the right to prosecute a case, which might either prosecute cases itself or sell the rights on to lawyers for a fee. This might fund (for example) an orphanage. Such a system would be far from perfect, but does not seem completely unworkable.

The problem is actually greater when the child is still alive. Most people would be unwilling to sue their parents; even if the right to sue the parents were somehow homesteaded by one of our crusading lawyers, the case would be unlikely to succeed without the co-operation of the key witness. So parents would be able to get away with many abuses.

What does it even mean to "hypothetically consent"?

It is in many ways strange that one can be morally bound by a promise that one has not made. How does the fact that in a particular hypothetical scenario I would have agreed to take on a certain obligation bind me to it in the real world where I have not?

The best answer, so far as I can tell, is that it doesn't; rather, it is in one's best interests to act as though it is. Suppose that I would like to see a certain band live in concert, but am unwilling to pay the £50 it costs to buy a ticket - the most I would be willing to pay is £40. In order to prevent ticket touting, all tickets to see the band have the name of their owner printed on them and require proof of ID. An acquaintance of mine, B, has an opportunity to buy a ticket to see the band for £20, and so buys the ticket in my name. (B has no interest in seeing the band herself). While I would receive the ticket from B whether or not I paid her for it, if I wish B and other people I know to do similar things for me in the future then I would be well-advised to pay B at least the £20 it cost her to buy the ticket.

But this fails to solve the issue of exactly how much I should pay - it should be at least £20 and no more than £40, but could be anywhere in-between. In the scenario above we might well say £20 and call it quits (or alternatively £20 and either a box of chocolates, a bouquet of flowers or a bottle of wine) but suppose that rather than as a friendly gesture, B bought the ticket because this is how she made her living. Quite clearly, then, I would pay more than £20.

Taking this to the case of childrens' rights, it seems that children should have positive rights going beyond "a life worth living"; however, we have no idea how extensive these rights should be, except that they should not cause it to cease to be worthwhile to have children.

Parental influence on the child's values

As good liberal neutrals, we should not wish to assume that there is a particular, uniquely and universally justified measure for how well a child was raised. Rather, we should allow a different metric in every case, dependent largely upon what the child ends up developing as their conception of the good.

The problem here is that parents have a fantastic opportunity to essentially brainwash their children. A child could be brought up in a cult, and so long as the child continues to believe that the cult is virtuous and that being part of it is beneficial, it is hard to see how we can object.


A basic theory of children's rights based upon hypothetical consent runs into several problems, which all tend in the direction of allowing parents far too much license in the way they raise their children.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

What are the rights of Children? Part One

This is (hopefully) the first in a series of posts discussing the raising of children from the perspective of political philosophy.

A topic in political theory which is particularly close to my heart is how children can and should be raised, and what claims they have on parents and on other agents. I recently attended my first academic conference, and while there I encountered three papers within this area.

The first paper, Is obligatory child support possible in a private law society? A contractual approach, by Lukasz Nicolaus Dominiak, was presented as part of a workshop on The Current State of Libertarian Political Philosophy. He was responding to the position set forth by Herman Hans Hoppe and by Murray Rothbard, which states that parents have no natural positive obligations towards their children any more than they do for any random person in the street, and therefore that mandatory child support represents unjust aggression towards the parent compelled to pay it. Lukasz argued that in a stateless, common-law society couples would sign contracts and that these contracts would specify child support to be paid in the event of a separation. He had what seems to me to be rather a confused argument that child support would be lower in such a society than it is in ours (the argument being that the current system of courts turns the parent with children into a monopoly. What, I wonder, does he see as the "product" being sold by this monopoly?) and some sound economic analysis to demonstrate various ways in which child support would vary from couple to couple.

My opinion, and I think that of everyone there (including Lukasz) was that, regardless of how accurate this was in a predictive sense, it relied on a set of moral premises one of which is completely unacceptable: Rothbard's account is far too permissive towards bad parents. According to Rothbard, if a child is left by its parents to starve, this is no violation of its rights; moreover, it would be impermissible for an outsider to violate the parents' property rights in order to rescue the child. Lukasz, I believe, thought that such behaviour by the parents (apart from being despicable, or course) would represent the abandonment of guardianship rights over the child, leaving another person free to homestead that right by taking the child in. My own preference would be to construct some account of how the child acquires positive rights against the parents, but this is proving problematic, as I will explain in my second post of this series.

I'm not certain I understood the main message of the second paper, Injustice and the Child's Perspective by Christina Schuees. It had references to Plato (bad) and to Miranda Fricker (good), and the most I got from it was the idea that children are the victims of various kind of injustice and are not in a position to do anything about it.

Finally, Gunter Graf and Gottfried Schweiger presented their work-in-progress Securing Justice for Children. Who is responsible for what? I liked this paper. It was clearly set out, which made it easy to tell where they were making howlers. There was at least one point in the conference when I felt like saying "OK, I understand your conclusion. Please could you provide an argument for it?" This was not one of them, for the simple reason that they were clear about this being a work in progress and the arguments not being fully worked out. One of the howlers was that, in the absence of arguments, they still had a conclusion (and one which sounded awfully like "We need world socialism!"); that said, it was an excellent demonstration of why all philosophy should be analytic philosophy and for that I thank them. I intend to refer to this paper in the third post in this sequence.