A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

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.

Enforcement

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.


Conclusion

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.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The Salmon

While on the Rocky Mountaineer train I took part in and won an on-board poetry competition. My poem concerned the life cycle of the millions of salmon who spawn in a lake which the train passed. Beyond the fact that it rhymes and has for the most part a consistent rhythm this poem has little if any merit, and is in my own opinion ridiculously pretentious; nevertheless, the rest of the carriage lapped it up so I'm posting it here.


The Salmon
by Andrew Pearson

The lake, the ancient spawning ground
is tinged with pink the whole way round:
The salmon, having come upstream
have laid their eggs and gone to dream.

In weeks to come the eggs will hatch
Their awesome numbers set to match
the stars above; and yet net one
in a hundred will ever come back home.

They swim downstream for a year and a day
They swim downstream, let come what may
While most will face a death horrific
The fittest few will reach the Pacific.

They spread their fins with wordless glee
To far-flung corners of the sea.
As each fish travels where he likes
At once their natural instinct strikes!

All guided by the magnetic earth
To the great lake of their birth,
The salmon swim, but do not eat
Growing weaker each day of the feat.

Until, at last! The destination!
The last rest of a generation.
With final breaths the salmon mate,
And then commit themselves to fate.

The prize on the right, the prize idiot responsible for this poem on the left.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Notes on Canada

1. It's big. But then we knew that.

2. Instead of using the space to build outwards at low cost, the Canadians take a perverse delight in their skyscrapers. The picture on the right was taken from somewhere up the CN tower, and demonstrates the sheer density of skyscrapers, most of which would be the tallest building around had they been built in any British city (with the exception of London).

Calgary provides another example. When the Calgary Tower was built in the late 60s it had a commanding view all around; nowadays that view is blocked by all the other buildings around it.

3. The CN Tower, by the way, was well worth going up. That said, at $100+ for three of us to go up I'd have been significantly more reluctant had it been my own money being spent.

4. The St. Lawrence Market is also well worth a visit, and has the important virtue of being free to enter. That said, my guess is that the experience is significantly better if you (a) eat meat and (b) have cooking facilities.

5. The Art Gallery of Ontario was very enjoyable. Unfortunately, it does not seem to have an online guide to its paintings. I did find an online picture of an artwork which was only there temporarily: Thunderbird, by Wally Dion (above). From a distance it appears to be a crude, almost cave-painting-like picture of the legendary Native American Thunderbird; close up, you realise that the entire thing is a collage made of computer chip breadboards.

6. Speaking of Native American stuff, that's something they really play up. Tourist shops are full of inuksuks and totem poles, one of Banff's most notable tourist traps is the "Old Indian Trading Post"... I saw far more Inuit tat than Mounty tat, despite the fact that I was never within a thousand miles of where the Inuit have historically lived. (That said, I did meet a couple of guys who I presume were Inuit - we got talking in the sauna at the hotel in Toronto, and they mentioned living about 8 hours north of there and having come down in order to be checked over by a doctor. They also had a remarkably low tolerance for the sauna, finding the heat to be too much after barely five minutes).

6. Niagara Falls is another place well worth a visit, especially if you're on the Canadian side of the border.

7. Banff has some pretty scenery, but I would suggest that it is for the most part overrated. The lakes are pretty, but the glacier is all in all a bit dull, and the mountains aren't especially different to anything you could see in north Wales or the Scottish highlands. Sure, the Rockies are taller, but how many people can really tell the difference between a 3000-footer and a 6000-9000 footer when they aren't next to each other? Wales is also generally less commercialised.

8. That said, among the various tourist shops was a genuinely good art gallery/shop. My favourite painting there, with a price of approximately 5 dead Africans, was Shimmering Light by Rod Charlesworth.


9. Spending two days on a train is about as dull as you would expect.

10. One of the things which surprised me about Canada was how American it was. I have a vision of America, derived from films and TV, and I always assumed that Canada would be something of a half-way between that and what we might label "European culture". I was wrong, it's far closer to the American end of that.

11. Nowhere was this more obvious than in Kamloops, British Columbia, which held an unmistakable area of "Hicktown, USA".

12. Another thing which was evident in most places but most obvious in Kamloops: Canadian girls are - on average - prettier than British girls.

13. I didn't see all that much on Vancouver, but what I saw I liked. I was rather amused by a church which advertised "Jazz Vespers".

14. The forests of British Columbia are pretty. The non-forested bits are a mixture of alright-to-look-at mountains and ugly barren wasteland. One town by the name of Pemberton deliberately played up the Wild West feel with an authentic-looking (at least from a distance) General Store. It also had a pretty neat store called Odd Potatoes where we picked up for remarkably cheap prices a nice sharp knife and a slotted spoon which for some reason were not included with the motorhome we were hiring.



15. More on the everything-is-big-in-America theme: the trains! I don't think I saw any that were longer than about 180 trucks, but I didn't see many which had fewer than 120.

16. Canadians have a weird food culture. They seem far more concerned about their food being "organic" than Britons do, but lack anything of a vegetarian scene. I'm told Toronto has an excellent scene for ethnic food, but didn't see any of this due to my parents disliking any foreign food which isn't Chinese and my brother not even liking that; in other places they have many excellent steakhouses.

17. Before going there, I sort-of expected the grid system of roads to be more efficient than the ring-road system which dominates British cities. I was wrong: what it means is that you have to stop at a set of traffic lights every 50-100 metres, which really slows everything down.

I don't plan to return to Canada any time soon, and if I did then I would probably skip over large parts of it. That said, I enjoyed the trip and don't regret going.