Thursday, 27 June 2013

What's Worse: Hate Crime or Road Rage?

Recently I enquired on Facebook:

Suppose you are called to answer the following two questions instinctively, based only on the details I've provided.  

Question 1: Which should the state treat more severely in a court of law?

A) Stabbing a man to death because you don't like that he was driving too slowly in front of you
B) Stabbing a man to death because you don't like that he is a Muslim
C) Both the same

Question 2: Which should the state treat more severely in a court of law?

A) A white man stabs a black man to death in a country in which the ratio of people amounts to 85% white and 15% black
B) A black man stabs a white man to death in a country in which the ratio of people amounts to 85% white and 15% black
C) Both the same

Unsurprisingly, almost everyone who answered chose C for both questions.  I then asked a further question to all those who responded by private message:

Question 3: Which should the state treat more severely in a court of law?

A} Stabbing a man to death because you found out he just raped and killed your friend's 2 young children
B} Stabbing a man to death because you don't like that he is a Muslim
C} Both the same

With question 3 the results were mixed; many stuck with C, and many more chose B this time, with nobody choosing A. 

So let's ask it this way; is targeting a specific individual more harmful to society than targeting a randomly chosen person from a large group (like Muslims)?  That’s a question often asked, but one that I think is rarely answered correctly.  The answer isn’t yes or no, it’s yes and no, as I hope you’ll see from my above questions.  Irrespective of how we would want the courts to judge these crimes, I fancy that most people would say no in the case of question 3.  After all, getting revenge may not be a good course of action generally speaking - but killing the man who raped and killed your friend's 2 young children seems to have slightly more mitigation attached to it than killing an innocent man who has done you no harm, but just happens to belong to a faith group you don't like. It seems obvious to me that we should see more mitigation in A.  If it isn’t obvious to you, consider an even more extreme case, where a father killed his own child's killer - that's even more mitigation still. That doesn't mean the courts should act on those mitigating circumstances (although they usually do) - but it does suggest most of us have a sympathetic disposition towards these responses, even if we're not glad when they occur. 

But the above model - that targeting a specific individual is not more harmful to society than targeting a randomly chosen person from a large group - doesn't always hold, because if you did a survey among any large number of people you'd find that people are willing to pay more than 1 thousand times as much to avoid guaranteed death than they will to avoid a 1 in a thousand chance of death. By that measure, targeting a specific individual like the man driving too slowly in front of you is more harmful to society than targeting a randomly chosen Muslim man. Moreover, if the randomly chosen person from a large group happened to be in the context of a road rage, and the targeting of a specific individual happened to be an attack of prejudice against a black person, we would answer yes.

Governments generally set their spending targets to grab the attention of the masses, not the minorities – so they largely target that group rather than specified individuals.  But conversely, it is sometimes thought in Governmental policy to be better to target an individual rather than randomly chosen people.  For example, the spending limit for a Government to put up a safety fence by a river where drunk people regularly congregate (saving unforeseen lives) is lower than the spending limit for a Government to rescue a specific man trapped in a mine.  Hence, it cuts both ways; the answer is yes and no, not just yes or no. 

When I asked the 3 questions on Facebook, just about everyone thought that questions 1 and 2 should be answered C, and more people thought that question 3 should be answered B rather than C.  That would suggest a broad brush example of popular opinion, but it is a fact that the State doesn't usually accede to public opinion on this one.  The State punishes what they call 'hate crimes' more severely.  Their position is that the death of an outrageously slow driver is marginally not as bad as the death of a randomly chosen Muslim. If you expand on this in the obvious way, it’s a position that justifies treating hate crimes more severely - which is interesting because 'level of hate' isn't really the issue at all.  The hate you'd have for the killer of your friend's children (or your own) probably exceeds the hate a Muslim hater has for all Muslims, as in the former case you've been one of the personal victims, whereas in the latter case you haven't.  

Unofficially.....and this is unofficial…..the State's metric for judging crimes of the above nature is based primarily on two things; on – and they won’t use these terms - a potential victim pool, and on recidivism probability (the probability of re-offence). That means if you are convicted of a crime against a Muslim 'because' the victim is a Muslim you have a much greater probability of a longer sentence than if your crime is against a bad driver 'because' he is a bad driver (note most people I surveyed felt that each crime should receive the same sentence). Using this kind of logic, then in question 2 it should be the case that B is worse than C, because when a black man stabs a white man to death in a country in which the ratio of people amounts to 85% white and 15% black, the potential victim pool is greater than when a white man stabs a black man to death in a country in which the ratio of people amounts to 85% white and 15% black (as is the recidivism level if there are potentially more people to kill).  But I don’t think we’d be happy with that kind of thinking.  Think of it like this. When you target a specific victim because he has annoyed you on the road, or played his music too loud, or made a pass at your girlfriend, you do a lot of damage to that one person, but not too much to everyone else.  When you target a specific victim because of his skin colour, you do a lot of damage to that one person, but potentially (and in many cases, actually) a whole lot of societal damage to everyone else with the same skin colour.  It seems to me that it is immediately obvious in which case you’ve done more total damage -  the micro evidence points to the second case, not the first.  I think the potential victim pool idea is nonsense; crimes against whites or blacks due to prejudice are equally as bad in either case, and the sentencing should reflect that. 

Further, if the potential victim pool and recidivism are factors, then clearly this doesn't always go against people who target specific individuals - because if you're the sort of person who is only likely to kill in the event of a personally felt injustice (such as yours or your fiend's child being raped and killed) then your potential victim pool must be extremely unrepresentative of the population, and consequently your probability of recidivism extremely low too.

Why is there so much crime?
Lastly, now we’re on the subject of crime, have you ever stopped to ask yourself why we’re so soft (relatively speaking) on so much crime, when it is in our power to drastically reduce it?  There are so many crimes (some very serious, and some less serious), that we know it is well within the State’s power to virtually eradicate, yet they don’t.  For example, rape, sex trafficking and grievous bodily harm (to name but three) are horrible crimes that just about everyone wishes didn’t happen.  Suppose a new law was introduced tomorrow; if you are convicted of any of those crimes you have to spend the rest of your life in prison, with no chance of seeing daylight again.  I’m pretty sure that as a result crime levels for rape, sex trafficking and grievous bodily harm would drop significantly.  The lesser crimes, like graffiti and using your mobile phone whilst driving, are social nuisances that would be all but eradicated if lengthy prison sentences were imposed.  If the average youth knew that spraying a road sign or a statue with graffiti would get him ten years in prison, he would have a deterrent sufficient enough to see him throw away the spray can.  Does the State consider the spillover costs of such tough punitive measures as outweighing the benefits of having such a crime reduction?  Perhaps more importantly, does the general public feel the same?  I’m not so sure.  I’d guess that if pressed, the majority of people (those who are highly unlikely to commit serious crimes) could bring themselves to have less of a problem with a rapist getting life in prison, provided he was given ample capacity for rehabilitation and the lifetime opportunity to repent. 

Is this another case where the State’s protocols are unrepresentative of the popular opinion – or do we in fact embrace the opportunity for shorter sentences and second chances more than our first instincts tell us?  If we don’t, then I don’t know why the State doesn’t do more to bring about the near-eradication of crime.  Actually, I think I do know the answer, and I will present it in my next Blog post. What is clear thus far in our enquiry is that the notions of potential victim pools and recidivism probability are secondary to the urgency of tackling the nasty kinds of prejudice we see in society - the ones that are equally bad irrespective of ratios within a population.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

The 'Save The Planet' Paradox

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I care about the planet, but I care about people more.  Let me put it this way - if the choice was: preserve the Yorkshire moors and kill 1 million British people, or build factories on the moors and the 1 million people get to live, I'd choose the latter, and I'm pretty sure just about everyone else would too.  When people say we need to 'Save the planet' I think they usually mean we need to 'save people'.  I say this because everyone knows that the planet has been surviving long before we came along, and it would survive perfectly well if we all died out.  Some will argue that by 'save the planet' people mean preserve its beauty, lower our emissions and reduce our carbon footprint - but as my Yorkshire moors example shows, people don't generally value these things over the preservation of human life - so saving the planet (by which it is meant ‘the globe’) must always be a secondary aim behind saving the planet (by which it is meant ‘life on the planet’). 

Therefore, if preserving life is the primary goal, then part of that goal (the most urgent goal in my view) is to bring an end to global poverty and help the neediest people out of their plight of impoverishment.  This leaves the 'save the planet' folk with a problem, because the only way to bring an end to global poverty and help the neediest people out of their plight is to help those people attain economic freedom, and the ability to trade, be self-sufficient, and productive in the broader market economy.  The only realistic way to achieve this is to generate the kind of industry and globalised expansion of the market that will increase our emissions and our carbon footprint, which comes at the cost of not preserving the natural world as well as we’d like. 

The upshot is, in the short-term future, to end global poverty we're going to have to increase our environmental damage, not reduce it.  Of course, as third world countries increase their infrastructure and market potential, they are largely going to be using the most ecologically efficient technology, so there is every reason to continue to develop and pioneer more environmentally efficient methods of industry.  But realistically, the things that are the biggest ingredients in achieving this - free trade, healthy imports/exports, high employment, sensible and equitable Government spending, a good legal system, cultural plurality, immigration, global travel, welfare systems, human rights, property rights, family rights, and freer citizens – are going to have an environmental cost that is more than compensated for by the good it will do for the neediest people in the world.

So instead of just asking “How can we best reduce our carbon footprint?”, I think people should be asking a more urgent question; “How can we best cope with the fact that our increased technology and a wider market economy has environmental costs as well as all the benefits it confers?”  That’s a much better question.  Stirring up people to become too obsessed with reducing emissions often causes them to be less mindful of coping with the costs of our increased technology and a wider market economy, which then has the concomitant danger of causing them to be less mindful of the immeasurably more good that increased technology and a wider market economy does for the world’s neediest.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Something 99.9% Of People Are Probably Wrong About

Can you think of an opinion held that over 99% of the UK (or US) population think is right, but that you’re 99% certain is wrong?  I’ll bet there aren’t many – but I do have one.  In this Blog I explained why your vote in a general election probably won't matter, and in this Blog I introduced a radical shake up of the political system to incentivise politicians to be better candidates and stronger MPs.  Here is another radical measure to consider – one that almost everyone thinks is right, but hopefully by the end of this Blog you’ll think might be wrong.  Politicians are always telling us that the more people that come out to vote in a general election the better it is for democracy.  If you ask around I think most citizens would agree with this under the pretext that more voters means better democracy, and better democracy means a better chance of a good Government.  I think they are right about the least important thing – that more voters means better democracy – but I think they are completely wrong about the most important thing – that better democracy means a better chance of a good Government – because it seems quite clear from where I’m sitting that the best chance you have of getting a better Government is by drastically reducing the amount of people who can vote. 

The logic of this is fairly straightforward (I’ll explain in a moment), but it does come with the correlative question of what is the most important thing for a society; to have a population where the majority of citizens are free to vote for what will probably be a worse Government (call it Option A), or a population where only the minority will be able to vote for what will probably be a much stronger Government (call it Option B).  I have a feeling that if I asked around I’d find most people would value Option A more highly, because they would believe that a fundamental right to vote is primary over the eventual quality of the MPs representing them. 

Here’s why I think they’re wrong.  The whole purpose of Government is to have representatives who are honest, hard-working, skilful, ethical, pro-active and dynamic in running the country and in constructing the most efficient policies with which to achieve these aims.  I’ll bet if you asked everyone in this country if those things are the foundation of our having a democratic system of election, you’d find unanimity in concurrence.  Therefore, consequently, if your primary goal is to attain this, then the number of voters leading up to this ought to be much less relevant than the importance of actually attaining this.  Anyone who disagrees with this is saying that they are more concerned about everyone’s right to vote than they are about the quality of the end result of that voting.  Is this rational?  In terms of economic analysis, I’d say definitely not.

Let me give an analogy to show how absurd I think this is.  Suppose there is an island with a King and 50 citizens.  The King employs the 50 citizens to build a 4 metre wall around the entire circumference of the island.  If they can build it in two years he will give them each £1 million.  If they fail then they only get £50,000 each when the job is complete.  Naturally some of the citizens – let’s say the fastest 10% - are much faster bricklayers than others; but it is worked out that if everyone works to their full capacity then the wall will be complete just before two years has passed.  But now imagine that the majority 90% complain and insist on introducing some kind of ‘Fair Bricklaying Policy’, meaning that the fastest 10% must slow down and lay bricks at the same pace as the majority to give all citizens equality of bricklaying.  Not only would we chastise the 90% for ensuring that the wall won’t be complete in two years, we’d also chide them for the absurdity of caring more about the ‘Fair Bricklaying Policy’ than they do about the overall goal of completing the wall within two years.

In real life terms, the completion of the wall and the successful payment is equivalent to having a selection of representatives in Parliament who are honest, hard-working, skilful, ethical, pro-active and dynamic in running the country, and the insistence on everyone’s need to vote is equivalent to the ‘Fair Bricklaying Policy’.  The ‘Fair Bricklaying Policy’ is a handicap to the minority that can be most influential in reaching the two year wall completion target, and the ‘everyone’s need to vote’ ethos is a handicap to the target of having a good selection of representatives in Parliament, because the best way to get a bunch of strong MPs is to have fewer people voting.

The sad fact is that everyone who votes knows that their vote is almost certainly going to make no difference to the outcome of any constituency election (even the tight seats are won by margins of hundreds, or at the very least, tens).  Every prospective MP knows this too, so their incentive to be honest, hard-working, skilful, ethical, pro-active and dynamic is much less than it should be, and hence, voters’ research and analysis concerning the best candidates is also much less diligent than it should be.  Of course, you may object that there are already decent, hard-working MPs in the country – but that’s not the point – the point is we are not maximising the probability of having even better MPs (and right across the board too).  To use that objection is a bit like arguing that putting up with a toothache is no bad thing because at least it saves us a trip to the dentist. 

To see why the incentive isn’t currently maximised for the prospective MP or for the voter, consider a job interview scenario.  You and one other colleague are going to read the applications and then interview eight candidates for a job, and then appoint one of them after some rigorous background checks.  But suppose that before you even got the first application you were told that the decision will no longer be made by just the two of you, but by the two of you and another ninety eight people who work for your firm.  With 100 people now making the decision, the importance of your own personal involvement is now greatly diminished, as well as the chances that your diligent research and analysis will impact the overall outcome.  In short, you have much less reason to put in the concentration and effort that you would if there were just two of you making the final decision.

This is very much what it is like in the voting world – most people know nothing or virtually nothing about the candidates in their constituency, and so they vote without much research and analysis, and give no incentive for the political parties to field high calibre candidates, nor for the candidates to work hard to impress the electorate.  As a voter, if you know all this, you have much less incentive to conduct a rigorous study of economics, political policies, jurisprudence, home affairs, international affairs, or an in-depth study of personal abilities of those hoping to represent you.  In fact, not only are most people relatively ignorant of these things – it is actually the case that having ignorant voters is even worse than if you selected candidates through an entirely random process, because ignorant voters tend to be swayed by biases that one would not see in a random selection process.  For example, they tend to underestimate the benefits of free market economics, they tend to undervalue immigration, they tend to overvalue national interests, they have scantier regard for those in third world countries, and they are more likely to believe that prices of goods and labour market salaries are determined by corporate venality rather than supply and demand (to take a few of many more examples). 

The only way to vastly improve the quality of our MPs is to improve the quality of the voters – and the only way to improve the quality of the voters is to drastically reduce the number of them, and then give those that are selected randomly the time and resources to rigorously research and analyse the candidates before them.  Here’s what I’d suggest.  Reduce the number of voters in each constituency to 200 people chosen at random (to ensure a proportional representation of sexes, ages, ethnic backgrounds, income groups, religious beliefs, political views, education, and so forth) and have each of them accompany the political candidates to a location in which they stay for a week, ensuring the time, resources and intellectual and emotional capacity to question the MPs, give and solicit feedback, and test the candidates’ political calibre before casting their votes at the end of the week (the benefits of the outcome would more than pay for the financial costs of this, and some of the offsetting savings will occur by not having to employ polling clerks throughout the country on election day).

You may worry that this will disenfranchise most of the other citizens that don’t get to vote – but there’s no reason to think this.  At the start of play, everyone has exactly the same chance of being selected, and everyone in the country (both those selected and those not) will be secure in the knowledge that the people who are going to represent them in Parliament will have been chosen with the utmost rigour and analytical scrutiny by the most conscientious citizens in the country.  That cannot be as disenfranchising as the current system in which every single person that votes knows that that vote will have the same use as if they’d stayed at home. 

All that said, the bottom line is, even if the system I proposed is a superior system for improving the calibre of our MPs (which seems logically unimpeachable to me), it might still instinctively be the case that our present less effective voting system is a pearl of great electoral price from which it is too emotionally and psychologically costly to depart (even if it is the least economically rational).  It might be, in fact, that the instincts of the 99.9% are wrong on this one.  It wouldn’t be the first time that we human beings have assented to a less-rational view in order to placate ourselves emotionally and psychologically.  Or perhaps placating ourselves emotionally and psychologically ‘is’ sometimes our most rational recourse.  I’ll leave you to decide on that one.  Finally, at the very least I hope to have given exhibition to one of the many Knight-isms by which I try to live my life – this one being:

Do not fear to formulate and express a view that departs from the security of consensus - for every view held consensually was once held by no one, and may one day be held by no one again.

* Picture courtesy of

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Off Your Trolley: Re-Examining A Famous Ethical Dilemma

In my last Blog we talked about John Harsanyi’s brilliant ‘amnesia' principle, and how we can use it as a short cut to tackling ethical issues.  Perhaps the most famous of all the ethical dilemmas in circulation is the trolley problem:

"A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are five people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you could flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch or do nothing?"

I must admit that when I first saw the trolley problem and subjected it to an economic analysis I was surprised that it had been given such a high regard, as it hardly seemed to me to be much of an ethical dilemma at all.  Using the ‘veil of ignorance’ principle we get a much clearer reason why – you don’t know any other details from behind the veil, only that you have a 50% chance of one person dying and a 50% chance of five people dying.  But it's much easier than that, because the trolley problem isn’t asserting that you have a 50-50 coin tossing situation and that you’ve got to hope the coin lands on the one person and not the five; it is saying that you can choose the outcome, which, to me, makes it a no-brainer.  It seems fairly obvious to me that in a straight choice between five people dying and one person dying we should choose the one.  Under Harsanyi’s principle we should choose the one to die because if you have amnesia and cannot remember whether you are the one or one of the five, probability favours your being one of the five. 

The next variation on the trolley problem is, instead of flicking a switch you have to push a heavy bystander on the track to stop the trolley, killing him and saving the five into which the trolley is heading.  Surprisingly, some people who were happy to flick the switch are less happy to push the heavy bystander onto the track.  On economic grounds there really should be no difference - if the only way to stop the trolley and save the five is to push one bystander on the bridge in front of the trolley we should do it, because, again, if you have amnesia and cannot remember whether you are the one on the bridge or one of the five on the track, probability favours your being one of the five. 

I said in the last Blog that duty and good intentions are high on our list of strivings, but there are also cases that bring us into direct contact with something potentially conflicting.  The philosopher Frances Kamm called this 'The Principle of Permissible Harm', which is the notion that one may endorse some forms of harm occurring but only if such harm is an effect or an aspect of the greater good itself. Some people claim that proponents of deontology do not have this option available to them, but this isn’t strictly true.  In the trolley situation the deontologist knows that some harm will come to someone (either one person or five people), so the option of ‘no harm’ isn’t available to him.  Not only does Harsanyi’s principle endorse flicking the switch to kill the one and save the five, Kamm’s ‘Principle of Permissible Harm’ says the same thing, because in Kammian terms of harm, you should push the bystander onto the track because if the five are killed this would be 5 contraventions of the Kamm’s Principle of Permissible Harm edict, whereas flicking the switch or throwing one innocent bystander in front of the trolley would only be 1 violation. 

You may object that there is a touch of self-interest in proposing the decision to kill one, but while that’s true, it doesn’t matter because, as we saw in the last Blog, probability favours self-interest and the collective good.  Here’s why it applies to the trolley problem.  If we consider Harsanyi’s principle again, not knowing which person (out of 6) you’d be in the situation, you are naturally hoping for the optimum outcome (as are the other 5).  You know you are one of the 6, so with the amnesia principle you know you are five times more likely to survive if you flick the switch or push the bystander.  It is ironic that most people’s protestations appear to be against the factor of self-interest, because here’s what they’re missing – the self-interest is not just self-interest for one, it is self-interest for all involved because when the probability is maximised for one it is maximised for everyone in the scenario.

And aside from self-interest we have beneficence too; for as long as we are behind the veil of ignorance we have the ideal balance of self interest (I want my own chances of death to be minimised) and beneficence (as long as I am choosing optimally, I am guaranteeing the best interests of the sum of people). For that reason I find it peculiar that the majority of people say they would flick the switch in the first example yet not push the bystander off the edge in the second.  In case anyone's still unsure, let me give a recap to show why an economic analysis doesn't support that view.  In Harsanyi's principle the scenario consists of the person standing on the edge, and five others at the end of the track about to die.  You don't know where you'll be in this model, which is why you should opt for the person standing on the edge to be pushed because, before you know where you'll fit, each of you has a 5/6 chance of being safe from death and a 1/6 chance of dying.  So before any information has been revealed, even the one who will end up being pushed still should have been in favour of one of the six being pushed because it gives him a 5/6 chance of being one of the safe members in the scenario (that’s why self-interest for you is simultaneously self-interest for everyone else in the scenario).  In opting for the best decision for himself he also opts for the best decision for the group, and in opting for the best decision for the group he also opts for the best decision for himself.

Now interestingly, I have a feeling that if we bring in a more emotive consideration things will change again.  I think this will give you pause for thought.  Suppose that instead of pushing the heavy bystander on his own, it emerges that his weight will only stop the trolley if your weight is combined too.  In other words, to save the five people you have to push him off and jump with him.  I have a feeling that more people will approve of that scenario than if the heavy bystander was pushed by himself.  The reason being, to jump with the heavy bystander suggests an instance of self-sacrifice on your part - a sacrifice that evidently must appear to have the best interests of the majority (the five at the end of the track) at heart, because it is still a 5/2 ratio of surviving members as opposed to the much worse 2/5 ratio. 

But this is where I think things become peculiar, because to me it seems clear that anyone who prefers you and the heavy bystander landing on the track over just the heavy bystander landing on the track probably does not have a very good grasp of moral dilemmas and is definitely not a very good economist.  Everyone should want to live in a world in which a 5/1 or 5/2 ratio of surviving members is chosen from behind the veil over a 1/5 or 2/5 ratio of surviving members.

Sometimes the moral philosopher pushes the situation further by asking if we’d willingly take the organs of the one man (killing the one) in order to save five other who needed his organs (enabling the five to survive).  Most people who think flicking the switch and pushing the fat man are ok draw the line at this third proposal, claiming the act of dismembering to be a little too extreme.  They have reached the right conclusion (I wouldn’t favour dismembering the one person either) but I suspect for the wrong reasons.  Maybe it takes an economist to conclude what a philosopher is less likely to conclude.  It isn’t because it is ‘too extreme’ that we should resist doing it - it is because the overall societal costs would outweigh the benefits.  Under Harsanyi’s principle nothing has changed with regards the probability – in economic terms you should still choose to kill the one, because from behind the veil of ignorance you and everyone else in the scenario are five times more likely to survive if you dismember the one man and use his organs to save the five.  But here’s why we should want to live in a world in which resisting dismemberment is chosen from behind the veil and not dismemberment.  Remember that from behind the veil of ignorance we are looking to choose a society that is optimal, not knowing where we’d fit into that society.  The reason we should resist is because we certainly would not wish to create a society in which people used our organs against our will to save others, because that would amount to a terribly unhealthy population full of individuals that didn’t pay much regard to looking after their body, and had much less incentive to do so.  If I know that any time soon I could be dismembered against my will to save the lives of others I’d have no qualms about living an excessive and unhealthy lifestyle - and the same would go for the rest of the population.

In actual fact, that is a good general rule of thumb regarding why utilitarianism by itself isn’t a strong enough foundation for an optimally healthy society.  Those who are opting for the utilitarian choice usually decide that it’s better to save the most and kill the fewest in any given scenario.  That’s why to a strict utilitarian saving the lives of five patients in a hospital by taking the organs of an unwilling sixth member and causing his death appears to be justified on utilitarian grounds, because it seems to maximise utility by sacrificing one person to save five.  The difficulty is, most people find the idea of using people as means to the end of promoting utility abominable if there is no recourse to moral duty.  I find I agree with them – it is questionable because on this instance it draws attention to the wider societal harms caused by actions such as this.  Strict utilitarianism fails because it would be horrible living in a land in which one might, at any moment, be sacrificed or compromised for the greater good.  Those who lived under such a regime could not be happy very easily, because they would more likely be neurotic, forever afraid of that knock on the door from the utilitarian Government’s officers. As such, actions which flout the rights of individuals (such as the transplant case) lead to a decrease in utility.

Regarding the different scenarios in the trolley problem, as far as psychology goes, it is perfectly reasonable to treat each case with different levels of revulsion.  I would always feel less uncomfortable flicking a switch than I would pushing a heavy bystander off a bridge.  I would always feel less uncomfortable pushing a heavy bystander off a bridge than I would harvesting the organs of an innocent man.  I almost certainly would feel inclined to kill the five and save the one if the one was my beloved, my child or a parent.  These feelings are perfectly natural – we have evolved to value those close to us more than strangers, and we have evolved to be repulsed at murder irrespective of whether there are five to one survival ratios that would favour such an act.

I’m not 100% sure what it says about human minds that so many people would flick a switch to save five and kill one but not push a heavy bystander off the edge to do the same, and that a situation with a 2/5 death ratio where the pusher self-sacrifices along with the man pushed is often preferred to a 1/5 death ratio where the man pushed is the only one that dies.  Maybe it just shows that these kinds of human moral instincts are misleading us.  Or maybe it shows that becoming too personally involved distorts our consequentialist analysis.  For example, if instead of physically getting up close and pushing the heavy bystander we had to flick a switch that dropped him in front of the trolley saving the five, and the switch was in a room one mile away next to a live videocam of the five people at the end of the track, we might well feel differently.

Finally, despite economic analysis to the contrary, I’m also unsure why it feels better and more honourable to grab the heavy bystander’s hand and jump with him rather than create a situation in which he falls by himself (and in doing so halves the death ratio). This is particularly strange, given that from behind a veil of ignorance all parties concerned would opt for the latter scenario.  Perhaps it shows that once we strip away all the things that pervert or confound us, we have much more of a subliminal likeness for self-sacrifice, love, grace, kindness and togetherness than we are often willing to admit.

* Photo courtesy of

Sunday, 9 June 2013

A Shortcutting Method For Sorting Out Ethical Problems

A few scientists and philosophers have tried to reduce morality to a scientific discipline - mostly with minimal success rate.   Here’s why.  The underlying quality of science is that it pays no regard to our wants or wishes - its concern is strictly about what can be said to be factual in the natural world.  It doesn't matter whether we like Newton's laws, or electromagnetism, or evolution, or the age of the earth - the scientific edifice is no respecter of what we want to be factual, it only concerns itself with what is factual.  Ethical consideration, on the other hand, despite being imperfect, is a respecter of our wants and wishes.  We base our ethical rules and ideas on what we want the world to be like – and we do this primarily by constructing laws of the land to prohibit the behaviours and practices we don't want to see in society.  Those laws don't permit us to murder, act violently, steal or drive while drunk - but we’re generally glad to refrain from those acts, because we want to live in a society in which people are reluctant to murder, act violently, steal or drive while drunk. 

Even though ethical rules and ideas are based on what we think is good for society, we are pretty free to draw our own conclusions when it comes to our own morality, with only our conscience to wrestle us to the ground.  Unlike in science with the laws of nature dictating what is true of the natural world, there is no absolute law of morality dictating our view on, say, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, abortion or fair taxation, so outwardly we can (if we choose) adopt views that best suit our own ability to adhere to those views, which, at an individual level, is what many people find easiest to do.  But inwardly, of course, we don’t choose our moral feelings – they come upon us uncontrollably, based on the power of the conscience, on experience and on what others have culturally imprinted on us. 

My experiences have shown me that most people don’t have an established set of moral views that they could jot down off by heart. Rather, I think people have broad-brush generalised notions that they apply to more specific cases on a post hoc basis - taking things more case by case, rather than doctrinally or with a rigid pre-established set of rules.  

While personal journeys of moral growth are about self-commitment to betterment – it is also true that constructing a short-cut to solve all our ethical queries can only be done by establishing a foundation from which to begin.  In science the universe is a bit like a supercomputer, into which we can plug all our empirical queries and return the output of evidence-based conclusions.  Wouldn’t it be great if we had a supercomputer into which we could plug all our ethical queries and return the output of optimum conclusions?  Thanks to John Harsanyi, we do have something like that.  In this blog post I introduced you to a theory which closely resembles the very thing we are looking for – Harsanyi’s ‘amnesia principle’.  This is about as close as we can get to treating morality scientifically, where we arrive at the conclusions to any ethical issue irrespective of whether we like them or not. Harsanyi’s principle also pays no regard to whether we’ll find them easy or hard. Here’s a quick recap:

John Harsanyi’s principle states that ‘better’ means what is morally preferred when all self-interest is stripped away.  This means constructing moral principles based on a diverse society of people without your knowing how those principles will affect you because you are behind a veil.  There may be a moral imperative to choose X over Y or Y over X, but the most lucid moral cogency comes from those who cannot remember whether they personally would benefit from X or Y.  What Harsanyi’s notion means in terms of ‘amnesia’ is that moral optimisation is defined as the world you would hope to be born into without being able to remember which particular set of circumstances apply to you from behind that veil. 

In other words, your basis for morality is constructed from conditions under which you have forgotten who you are in this society.  For example, under Harsanyi’s principle you would construct a fair immigration code without knowing whether you were an indigenous man or an immigrant; you would construct a fair 'euthanasia' maxim without knowing if you were a member of the public concerned about assisted suicide or a suffering person desperate to have your life ended to end the pain and misery; and you would construct a fair tax rate without knowing if you were a high, medium or low earner. 

Let’s try to use Harsanyi’s principle to solve many of the big ethical issues, by basing the conclusion on the premise that a moral precept or ethical rule about any situation has to be made with it bore in mind that those making the decisions could be affected by them negatively or positively once they find out where they fit into that society.  Not knowing where we’ll fit into that society we are compelled to construct an honest conclusion to each ethical issue one by one.  Obviously as you’ll see, the issues covered here are the contentious ones that usually require lots of debate and consideration.  I don’t think anyone reasonably doubts that our society would be better if things like murder, rape, theft, assault, bigotry, vandalism, infidelity, arson and fraud were removed from the picture. 

What I will do is plug seven commonly discussed ethical issues into Harsanyi’s model and se what I think the model tells us about the maximally efficient outcome for all concerned from behind the veil, not knowing where they will fit into that society. To make the cases more compelling, I will consider each in terms of our having a 50% chance of being in one situation or the other, because this better illustrates what is being argued.  Here are the seven - what would Harsanyi’s principle tell us about them:

Same-sex marriage
Many people are against same-sex marriage, usually on religious grounds. Those in support of same-sex marriage simply argue that everyone should have the same basic rights, and that it is wrong to discriminate based on sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, skin colour and so forth.  Who is right?  With Harsanyi’s principle and the above 50% rate, you are either going to be a person who is opposed to same-sex rights, or you are going to be a homosexual who wants the same basic rights as heterosexuals.  The costs and benefits in this 50-50 situation are as follows; if we choose a society that supports basic equal rights for homosexuals, the best thing that happens is that a lot of homosexuals are no longer discriminated against, and the worst thing that happens for the opponents is that they have to live in a society in which some people who they think shouldn’t be married are married.  To me it’s a no-brainer; given that other people’s relationships are none of their business, it’s a tiny price to pay for those against homosexuals.  Conversely, if we choose a society that denies basic equal rights for homosexuals, then the best thing that happens is those who are against homosexuals get their way on an issue that’s none of their business, but the worst thing that happens is that homosexuals have their lives ruined (or partially ruined) by feeling abnormal, marginalised and discriminated against.  The conclusion is that you should construct a society that supports same-sex rights, because once Harsanyi’s amnesia is lifted you might find yourself in a society in which you’re a homosexual feeling marginalised and discriminated against as you have your basic equality rights perverted, compared with the much less onerous outcome of finding yourself living in a society in which some people who you don’t approve of are married.

Can Harsanyi’s principle tell us whether euthanasia should be preferred to denial of assisting your suffering loved one in suicide?  In Harsanyi’s model you have a 50% chance of being someone who is opposed to euthanasia, but you also have a 50% chance of being a person paralysed from the neck down, desperate to be put out of your misery.  Again, just like the same-sex marriage issue, we probably should allow euthanasia, because the person who wants to die has a lot more at stake than the person being merely opposed to desperately suffering people dying wilfully.  Those who oppose only have to endure the small price of living in a country where a few people are assisted to suicide to relieve themselves from suffering - whereas if those who oppose get their way the sufferer has to live in a country in which he or she is forced to stay alive against his wishes merely to satisfies those opposed to it, of whom it is none of their business anyway.  That’s why the model says we should support euthanasia.  One proviso though, all cases would have to be handled through a professional regulated health authority.

Although we could construct a fair 'abortion' maxim without knowing whether we are a pregnant woman or a member of the anti-abortion group, if we follow the euthanasia model, then you could be a pregnant woman, but you could also be the unborn foetus in this 50-50 equation.  If the consideration is between a pregnant woman’s right to decide or the desires of someone in anti-abortion group, I’d choose a pregnant woman’s right to decide.  But I find it trickier if the consideration is between a pregnant woman’s right to decide and an unborn foetus’s right to life, for the simple reason that in Harsanyi’s principle I have a 50% chance of being a pregnant woman and a 50% chance of being the unborn foetus that might never make it to birth.  Consistent with the above deliberations, the cost seems greater if I’m an unborn foetus about to be aborted than it is if I’m a woman who has to give birth and decide whether to send her baby for adoption or keep it.  We have to be careful here, though, because I am fully seized of the difficulties that arise with unwanted pregnancies, and I would be sympathetic and supportive of any woman who felt that a termination was the most viable option.  Clearly most women that choose an abortion do realise it is not the ideal solution, but rather the most preferable (or perhaps the least unbearable) amongst a set of difficult alternatives – so my aim here has only been to show that under Harsanyi’s principle abortion should not be thought of in the same way that a women would think of the morning after pill, or as a useful form of contraception. 

Taxation, welfare and benefits
In the situation of taxation, welfare and benefits you don't know if you're a high or low earner, so you need to create a fair system for tax, welfare and benefits to which all would be attracted irrespective of where they’d be in that society.  As I've explained before in a previous Blog, the idea of assuming we should tax richer people more heavily is flawed - but equally, it is good to live in a society in which those less well off get a leg up from those who are most well off.  Through compulsory taxation the Government takes a portion of what ideally, in a perfect world, we’d all give according to others’ needs.

Military intervention in foreign countries
Can Harsanyi’s principle tell us whether we should we intervene in fractious foreign countries like Syria, Mali, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan?  This one’s much more complex, and I will have to Blog about it at a later date.  But for now, I can offer the following analysis.  It can be said that if using Harsanyi’s principle you have a 50% chance of being a citizen from a highly developed country with a strong army, and a 50% chance of being an oppressed citizen in a country with a cruel regime, you almost certainly would choose intervention and emancipation, for fairly obvious reasons.  That, of course, only gets us far as saying that generally in times of oppression intervention is the right thing to do – it doesn’t tell us whether specific military mobilisations are prudent.

While most people support a limit on immigration (they just disagree on what the limit should be), the ethical issue is that migrants from poorer parts of the world are looking to work in more prosperous countries to bolster their earnings, and in many cases support their impoverished families. Under Harsanyi’s principle there really is no justification for unfairly discriminating against someone based on nationality, just as there is no justification for unfairly discriminating against someone based on skin colour, gender or ethnicity.  In the amnesia model you have a 50% chance of being a person from a poorer part of the world desperate to bolster your earnings and support your impoverished family, and you have a 50% chance of being an anti-immigration person objecting from your relatively well off position of prosperity – which means I’m pretty certain you’d choose the least prejudicial of the two.  Given that the needs of the poorest outweigh the needs of the prosperous, Harsanyi’s model supports the notion that we should enable and encourage immigrants to benefit from what we have to offer.

Foreign aid and charity 
Similar to the last point on immigration, regarding foreign aid and charity for the poorer people, the issue of whether we should be mindful of those in countries less fortunate than ourselves seems pretty clear anyway, but even more so when we plug it into Harsanyi's 50-50 model.  In this situation you have a 50% chance of being a relatively well off person in a relatively prosperous country with money to spare for the needy, and a 50% chance of being one of the needy people in the world desperate for some financial help in order to get enough food and drink to survive.  Again, it really is a no-brainer – if you weren’t sure which of the situations you’d be in, in a 50-50 you’d opt for a society in which the relatively prosperous help the world’s neediest.

Those seven examples give us a good template for applying Harsanyi’s model to just about any ethical issue or moral dilemma.  If you use it henceforward in application to any ethical dilemma or societal issue you wish to consider, you’ll find that Harsanyi’s amnesia principle will give you an efficient, reliable and candid outcome.  Before closing, though, we should consider one more thing – spillover effects.

What about spillovers?
It is important to note that there are spillover effects to these considerations too, whereby if something became a policy or more widely endorsed then its abundance can end up spilling over to negatively impact society.  For example, we might conclude that it is good to allow immigrants to come into our society and work, but if we became so enamoured with the process that the country couldn’t cope with the resultant overpopulation then that would be a negative spillover for both the indigenous folk and the immigrants.  But that said, I don’t think something’s merit can be compromised merely on grounds that too much of it could be a bad thing, because there are likely to be other complex factors at work that skew our analysis of the full extent of causalities.  Some things are good because we have lots of them, and more would be better, but equally, some things are good because we don’t have them in excess.  To suggest that just because something is good then more of it would be better is irrational, as the thing that’s good might well be good because we have the right amount of it and not too much (that in itself is worthy of a future Blog post). 

Moreover, sometimes the spillover effects have a different dynamic.  If one man decided he would no longer wear a seatbelt in his car whilst driving, would that have an overall positive or negative spillover effect?  What about if a third of the drivers in the country stopped wearing seatbelts, or two thirds, or all drivers – what would be the spillover effect then?  One single man not wearing a seatbelt while driving is actually an action that more than likely benefits everyone else on the road (including his passengers), because if you drive without a seatbelt you are much more likely to drive more carefully and safely.  That’s just another way of saying that drivers feel safer with seatbelts (and airbags), so will naturally drive less cautiously than if they were without them.  Seatbelts actually had the counterintuitive effect of increasing road accidents, just like contraception had the effect of increasing unwanted pregnancies, stronger filtered cigarettes increased the incidence of lung cancer, and lower percentage alcohol probably results in more drunkenness.

That doesn't mean seatbelts, contraception, stronger filtered cigarettes and lower percentage alcohol are bad things, as there are positive spillover effects that have to be considered alongside the negative externalities – but it does go to show that there is more to spillovers than meets the eye.  Just as an abundance of something in the single instance can end up spilling over to negatively impact society, there are other times when abundance of something in the single instance ends up positively impacting society, which is why we are best to treat each of the singular cases on their own merits. 

Final thought
Harsanyi’s model is so ingenious that you can try it yourselves any time you like. All you have to do is pick any issue, consider yourself having a 50% chance of being in either position in that scenario, and then choose the outcome you would want to be applied in the widest sense if you were choosing without the knowledge of how that choice would affect you personally.  In doing this you’ll find that the most efficient choice is the one that is strongest ethically, irrespective of your own personal wants and situations.  To that end, I think that’s the closet thing we get to a scientific resemblance in morality. 

* Photo courtesy of

Saturday, 1 June 2013

How to Choose a Movie or Find a Hotel

You and your beloved are struggling to decide from a number of options which restaurant to eat in on Friday night or what the Saturday night DVD is going to be.  Here's my neat little trick to help in the decision process.  Actually, I can't claim it entirely as my own - I have borrowed from one or two social experimenters (in particular, Herbert Simon) and tweaked them into what I think is an improved solution. 

The first I've called '4231 option shaving', which is most useful when you are choosing between numerous options with easy accessibility. Here's what you and your beloved should do when you can't decide on a number of options for, say, a restaurant or movie.  One of you picks 4 options, the other shaves off one option, leaving 3; then the first person shaves off another option, leaving 2; and the other then picks 1 of the 2 remaining options. Next time the other person goes first. With this method you'll find expedience, but also a compromise that is inclusive of the wants of both you and your beloved. 
The second involves deciding on what I've called 'primary criteria', which is a most useful when you are choosing between options with more difficult accessibility, like, say, which hotel to stay in on a trip around the peak district.  Ideally you always want to choose the optimum hotel, but naturally this is difficult as you don't have enough information to know which is the best, and you don't want to waste too much time travelling to find out or too much time browsing on the internet. So the best thing to do is decide on your primary criteria - "Under £60", "Serves breakfast", "Nice view of the peaks", perhaps - and choose the first place that matches those criteria.

Hopefully, that should make things easier.  Do try it yourselves - I think you'll be pleasantly surprised how good it is - and you may even have a few laughs too. If this advice does ending up saving any marriages or relationships, do let me know. :-)