Sunday, March 27, 2011


It’s seldom comfortable siding with the ex-mistress of a knight of the Garter, but a couple of days ago I was listening to Nicky Campbell’s radio show and that’s what happened to me. A man called Delroy Grant had just been convicted of some serious crimes and Campbell had taken this as a cue to have a nature/nurture debate. I’m currently reading and very much enjoying Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which is about the genetic contribution to human psychology, so naturally I was interested.

Edwina Currie was on the show and thought that some people were born bad, and a psychologist called Martin had called in saying she was wrong and that people’s psychology resulted mostly from childhood experiences. Here’s some of what they said:

Martin: ‘Our states of mind aren’t born in us; obviously our brains are very ready to take on eighteen years of experience but... our brains are learning machines.’
Nicky tries to say something
Edwina: ‘No, Nicky, no, Nicky, we readily accept these days that we have blue eyes or brown eyes because we’ve inherited them...’
Martin (talking over her): ‘But that is genetic... there’s no evidence...’
Edwina: ‘...our hair colour, our height... yeah but how can it be so obvious that our physical characteristics are one way and then say the genes that control our mood, our attitudes...’
Martin (talking over her): ‘Genes don’t control our psychological characteristics.’
Edwina: ‘...oh but they do! My goodness of course they do!’
Martin: ‘You’re not an expert in this area; you’re a politician!’

They carried on for a while, and UK readers can listen to it here if they’re quick. (Edwina comes in at about 43:50.) Now I’m not taking sides here in the debate about whether violence begets violence or whether people with a genetic tendency to be violent beget people with a genetic tendency to be violent. What I didn’t like was that Martin seemed to be using his position as an expert to dismiss the other side of a genuine controversy. (I don't want to misrepresent Martin, and he did go on to admit that genetics did affect psychology in some cases, but this is how it came over at the time.) He asked Edwina for some evidence, but he’ll already know about the evidence from studying twins and adopted children and what have you, and what’s more he’ll know why he doesn’t think it shows that genes control psychological characteristics and why some of his colleagues do.

Now if I was calling in to Nicky Campbell’s show to talk about philosophy I wouldn’t dream of representing it as the expert view that moral statements attempt to state facts, that conceivability doesn’t even nearly entail possibility or that there's nothing more to the meaning of a proper name than its syntax and its referent, even though I think all these things. If Edwina said that it was obvious that ‘Clark Kent’ and ‘Superman’ weren’t synonymous I wouldn’t dismiss her as a mere politician. I’d know full well that plenty of experts disagree with me and agree with her.

The point of listening to experts is that they know what the state of the debate is. They know what’s controversial among people who know and what isn’t. They know what's a sensible way of approaching a question relevant to their field. If someone exploits the fact there aren’t any other experts around to push a controversial line then they’re misrepresenting their expertise and abusing our trust. If that’s how they behave then people won’t trust them, and if we can’t trust experts then we’ll benefit a lot less from having them around. Nobody wants public debate to be conducted exclusively by ill-informed laypeople trading ill-informed opinions, but if experts aren’t careful not to misrepresent things then that’s what we’ll be left with.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

An embarrassment of riches

I don’t much like the Wanted. I don’t think I’m missing out there, because they’re not much good. I’ve never been able to enjoy Chopin much either, but my understanding is that there I am missing out, because Chopin is good. Everyone knows that, even people like me who don’t like listening to him. Maybe there are people who are informed enough about this sort of thing to hold the maverick opinion that Chopin sucks, but the consensus among those who know is, unless I’m very much mistaken, that Chopin’s good. I don’t think this gives me a categorical reason to listen to Chopin, but it does mean that if I make the effort to educate myself then there’s enjoyment to be had, and maybe some edification, elevation and long-lasting happiness too. That’s not true of the Wanted, and that means they suck. I think looking at it this way makes me an aesthetic objectivist, and I don’t think it commits me to anything weird. So I guess I must disagree with Mackie about how far his queerness argument against objective values generalises.

Now, one thing that worries me about looking at beauty this way is that too many things are going to end up beautiful. There’s a fine line between dismissing the Wanted as cynical flummery and dismissing gamelans en masse as an ugly racket. That’s the line I’d like to tread. I think the way to dismiss the Wanted is to admit it’s at least possible that some cultures’ music is just a bit rubbish. The Wanted are a midrange example of music from a recognisable subculture, but no matter how much I learn to appreciate even Take That or the Spice Girls they’re never going to enrich my life the way Mozart enriches the lives of people who really get him. And even if they did, that would be a peculiarity on my part, whereas Mozart’s music is something that pretty much anyone should be able to learn to enjoy. We’ve all seen the Shawshank Redemption.

On the subject of dismissing some cultures as not very good at music, I don’t think it makes me a chauvinist. Take all the beautiful music my culture (if you'll pardon the idealisation - nothing I'm saying needs the world to divide nicely into cultures) has ever produced and erase it from history. Would some of the dross have become beautiful to replace it, in a metaphysical seizure of political correctness? I don’t think it’s chauvinistic to say that it wouldn’t have. Our culture would have been impoverished, just as it was to a lesser extent impoverished before the Renaissance, or before the Beatles, or before The Art of Coarse Golf. Even now people freely admit that France outpaints Britain, and that person for person Ireland outwrites almost everywhere.

Having dismissed the Wanted, how do we save the gamelan? Well, I think the solution to the first problem solves the other. If I’d been a relativist of some kind and said that aesthetic judgement was indexed to a standard of taste, I’d have had a job completely dismissing the Wanted. But I didn’t do that: I said there’s nothing to stop a culture producing only rubbish. A nation of Philistines (maybe the Philistines?) might all love bad music, but nobody is missing out by not listening to it, and when their children first hear the Beatles they’ll rightly dismiss their parents’ musical tastes as benighted, and their cultural lives will be enriched as a result. But if the Philistines’ music can’t be described as beautiful just because they like it, then the gamelan can’t be dismissed just because I don’t. Not indexing our aesthetic judgement to a standard of taste means there’s an awful lot of beauty out there if you’re willing to learn to appreciate it. But that’s true, isn’t it?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Getting rich quick

It’s not that I’m lazy, but there’s definitely a kind of freedom you can get by having enough money that you never have to work again. Expensive things apart, you can do whatever you like. That appeals to me. I suppose it appeals to most people. Another reason I'd like to get rich quick is that since it’s possible to get rich in less time than it’s possible to do as much work as most people end up doing, it seems like not getting rich quick doesn’t make sense. Working all your life would be foolish if working a bit and then doing whatever you liked was a viable option. It’d be like working a five-day week when you could get away with just three. Now I suppose that in some ways I am a bit foolish, but I’d rather not be, and unless my reasoning’s gone wrong somewhere, that means getting rich quick.

Notice that it's the 'quick' bit that appeals, not the 'rich' bit. I don't want any more money than anyone else wants. I just don't want to do a lot of work for it unless I have to. Most people don't. That's why you need to pay people to work. In fact this isn't quite true in my case: I'd like to be an academic philosopher, at least until all the cuts and admin and politicking depress me enough that it stops seeming worth the trouble. I do like philosophy very much. But assuming that doesn't work out (and for most people it doesn't), I think I'd rather make my money quickly than slowly. I'd want to give a bit away too I suppose, and if I accidentally made more than I want then I hope I'd give away the surplus. That's always been the plan for if I find myself with a lot of money. So the desire to get rich quick isn't driven by greed.

Of course, umpteen sitcom storylines have been written around foolish men (they’re usually men) who lose what little money they have, or if they have no money then what dignity they have, trying to get rich quick. Fun as it can be to imitate fiction from time to time, I don’t think I’d like to waste money and/or dignity on foolish get-rich-quick schemes. So that narrows my options to schemes with little outlay in terms of money or dignity. But there are still some options open.

One idea I’ve had before is to write romantic fiction. In fact, cracking into the romantic fiction market is the closest thing to a get-rich-quick scheme I’ve embarked on. It was about five years ago. My understanding was that the way it works is you start off by writing short stories in magazines marketed at women. These stories pay about £300 a pop, and look like very little work to write once you’ve got it down. So I could divide the gross yearly income I wanted by £300, and write that many stories a year. It wouldn’t be many, because my wants are fairly few. Then after a while on the stories, you get offered work writing the novels, and that’s where the bigger money is. That wouldn’t get me rich exactly, and isn’t terribly quick, but it seemed like money for old rope nonetheless. And if people are buying old rope then the new rope business is a mug’s game.

So I had a look at the websites of some magazines that carry short romantic stories, and saw if any took unsolicited manuscripts, since I wasn't serious enough about it to talk to agents if I didn't have to. Woman’s Weekly did, so I bought a copy of their fiction special and read all the stories to get an idea of what they were like, and then I wrote one just like them. I sent it off, but they didn’t like it. I don’t know why, but if you want to find out, here it is. It seemed like exactly the sort of thing that they went for. I gave up after that. But it only cost me about 60p for the magazine and 30p for a stamp, and my dignity recovered pretty fast.

The other idea I’ve got is to write a bestselling self-help book, but I’ve no reason to think I’d be any good at that. I need some kind of backup plan though in case philosophy doesn’t work out. I read once that most of a mushroom farmer's time is their own, so perhaps I should look into that.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Some analytic philosophy

I’m one of those throwbacks who think the analytic-synthetic distinction is probably bunk. (Analytic statements are ones where you can tell they’re true just by understanding them and reasoning; synthetic statements are the other ones.) Quine came up with some arguments against the distinction, and the following sixty years of posterity seem to have judged it more interesting than the other thing he identified as a dogma of empiricism. I think Quine was more or less on the money, but I have a job convincing people that things like ‘vixens are female foxes’ aren’t analytic, even if they agree that Quine showed the distinction not to be quite the big deal that his more dogmatic empiricist predecessors had thought it was. Bad as I am at persuading people of it, I thought I’d have a go here. I doubt this is new, but it’s the sort of thing I worry about when I’m worrying about the distinction.

Here are a few sentences which you might have a view on:
1.      ‘The vixens are all and only the female foxes’ (analytic)
2.      ‘Superman is Superman’ (analytic)
3.      ‘Clark Kent is Superman’ (not analytic)
4.      ‘Water is H2O’ (not analytic)
5.      ‘Gorse is furze’ (?)
6.      ‘The women are all and only the female adult humans’ (analytic)
7.      ‘The ladies are all and only the female adult humans’ (analytic)
8.      ‘Women are ladies’ (?)

(1) is meant to be a paradigm case, and (6) and (7) aren’t relevantly different from it. The difference between (2) and (3) is meant to bring out the difference between informative and uninformative identities which Frege and I have spent time fretting about. (4) is meant to be like (3) but with a natural kind instead of a superhero. (5) is meant to demand the same verdict as (4) but be more similar to (8). (If you’re not persuaded that (5) isn’t analytic but you like Putnam, then consider what he said about beeches and elms.) But if (6) and (7) entail (8), (8) should be analytic too.

What’s happened? Obviously I think that what’s happened is the distinction’s bunk. I’m not sure what the proper response for my opponents is. I think one thing they’ll say is that the concepts woman and lady are both parasitic on the same concept human. But if that’s true, then I don’t see that there are two distinct concepts in the gorse/furze case either: just one concept that you could acquire twice without realising it. So we’ll have to say that ‘gorse is furze’ is analytic, but if we say that, we can’t use analyticity to explain why it’s informative and ‘gorse is gorse’ isn’t. While you’re here, try these:
9.      ‘The women are all and only the female adult homo sapiens’ (?)
10.  ‘Female adult humans are female adult homo sapiens’ (?)
11.  ‘Humans are in the genus homo’ (not analytic)
12.  Homo sapiens are in the genus homo’ (analytic)

(10) follows from (6) and (9). I’d have thought (9) looked pretty analytic, but (10) shouldn’t be analytic if my verdicts on (11) and (12) are right. I’m not sure how persuasive any of this should be. I expect the thing to do is accuse me of equivocation here and there, but I don’t know how much mileage there would be in that, and in any case if 'H2O' and 'homo sapiens' are ambiguous then that's interesting in itself. If I've done something straightforwardly foolish I've also got a thought-experiment about an invasion of bachelors, but I won't get into that here.

Essentially I’m trying to drive a wedge between saying that true identity statements with rigid designators on both sides are ever synthetic, and saying paradigms like ‘vixens are female foxes’ are analytic. If you deny the paradigms you’ve conceded a lot, and if you deny synthetic identities you can’t use analyticity to explain why some identities are informative and some aren’t. If you’re not careful, analyticity won’t be able to explain why anything is a priori. A concept of analyticity as weak as that might be one I could get on board with.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Vote for the dirty little compromise

On May 5, people in the UK who are allowed to vote are going to be deciding whether or not to introduce AV, which is a voting system. It’s not as radical a change as this would be, but I’d prefer it to the system we have at the moment. I might argue for it nearer the time, but in this post I want to talk about something else.

A week or so ago I watched David Cameron’s speech arguing that we should vote against the change. I'm a sensitive guy, and watching it gave me the creeps in a way not many things have before. The other occasion it happened that sticks in my mind the most was when I saw Norman Tebbit doing a speech in Oxford. I didn’t like David Cameron before, but now I’ve got a kind of visceral revulsion of him that it’d be hard to get over even if he started doing things I agree with. But that’s just a feeling, and it doesn’t bear on the relative merits of AV and the current system.

I think the nastiest aspect of the debate is that the conservatives wouldn’t allow a referendum on changing to a system of the Lib Dems’ choice. We're not choosing between the system the No campaign wants and the one the Yes campaign wants; we're choosing between the system the conservatives want and a system the they think they can beat and wouldn't mind all that much if they didn't. The Lib Dems would like a more radical change to something like proportional representation, but the conservatives wouldn’t allow that because it’s so far from being in their party political interests. Since when the coalition was being formed the conservatives were holding most of the cards, the Lib Dems compromised and decided a referendum on AV was better than nothing. So now the conservatives are campaigning against the change on the grounds that AV has various shortcomings, but the fact we’re not allowed to vote for a system which doesn’t have these shortcomings is entirely the conservatives’ fault. Nick Clegg is getting quoted as calling AV a ‘dirty little compromise’, but this shouldn’t be held against him. It is a dirty little compromise, but it’s the best Cameron’s lot would let him have. If AV isn’t the best alternative to the current system, then why didn’t they let us vote for the best alternative? Because the conservatives made the decision and it wasn’t in their interests, of course. The No campaign should be pointing this out. I don’t know if they have been. Clegg certainly didn’t when he kicked the campaign off. Maybe he hasn’t given the matter much thought. But whether Clegg realises it or not, Cameron’s trying to bamboozle us, and we mustn’t let him get away with it.

Correction (19/6/13): In the fifth sentence from the end, it should of course say 'The Yes campaign should be pointing this out'.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Please exit via the lobby

Like most sensible people who haven’t thought about it much, I would like cannabis to be legalized for both medicinal and recreational purposes. One of the arguments against legalization is that if cannabis were legal then lobbying on behalf of the cannabis industry would also be legal. If the cannabis lobby was as powerful as the tobacco lobby is, then presumably governments would do all kinds of pro-cannabis things which would put children at risk and turn a lot of us into whatever habitual cannabis users turn into. I don’t know whether this should change anyone's mind about legalization, but that’s how the argument goes.

One of the reasons this argument sounds peculiar is that governments ought to be able to ignore a lobby if it’s telling them to do things to which they’re ideologically opposed. It’s as if the governments are saying “we think X is fine and Y isn’t, but we can’t legalize X because then there would be more attempts to persuade us to allow Y, and these attempts might succeed”. Now although this sounds peculiar, I don’t think the reasoning is especially faulty. The straightforward reason is that the people getting lobbied will not always be the same people who made the decision to legalize the lobbying. Even if the government can guarantee its own obstinacy, it can’t guarantee that of its successors. The less straightforward reason is that there’s no reason to think that the government can guarantee even its own obstinacy. Lobbying works. Governments think one thing, lobbying happens, and governments change their minds. If it didn’t work, it wouldn’t be such big business. What I want to know is this: how does it work?

I can think of three ways it might work. One is simply that the lobbyists think up all the arguments in favour of whatever they’re lobbying for, and use the ordinary democratic channels to present these arguments to the government. Sometimes governments are persuaded by these arguments. I can’t imagine this is very effective. Governments know that lobbyists will present one-sided arguments, and would be fools to be persuaded by them. Of course, sometimes we elect fools. But it’s hard to believe lobbying would be very effective if that’s all they were doing.

Another thing lobbyists could do is devise strategies whereby their paymasters can use what clout they have to change the facts, and then present these new facts to the government. Maybe a government would be nicer to an industry which would otherwise go out on strike, so the lobbyist can come up with a plan to strike and then present this to the government. If not striking, then nasty ad campaigns or whatever else the government doesn’t like. It’s hard to believe this would work very well either, though. What exactly is it that the tobacco industry threatens to do? (Or oil, or motoring, or arms, or any of the other lobbies.)

So I suppose what lobbyists must spend most of their time doing is corrupting politicians. Perhaps they bribe them with political contributions, swanky dinners and holidays, jobs for the boys or good old-fashioned brown envelopes. Perhaps they find things to blackmail them with. But corrupting politicians is illegal, and my understanding is that what lobbyists do isn’t. If what they do is illegal then the police should be informed. And if it isn’t, then how exactly does it work? Lobbyists must know. Politicians must know. But I don’t know, and I’d like to be told.