Sunday, 26 November 2017

Ask The Philosophical Muser: On Washing Up and Cycle Helmets

Here's my latest Q&A column - if you have any questions for me, you can message me on Facebook, or email them here

Q) My husband and I both work full time, and take it in turns to cook the evening meal. He thinks it is better if the one who cooks also washes up, giving each of us one night off from the kitchen out of every two. I would prefer a system where one cooks and the other washes up. Who is right?

A) You both have points in your favour. Your case makes the best out of utility but the worst out of efficiency, whereas his does the opposite. After cooking dinner, the cook has diminishing utility which makes washing up harder for him or her than for the other, which is an argument in favouring of a system where one cooks and the other washes up. But preparing and cooking dinner involves externalities in the form of making mess, so a system whereby the cook also washes up incentivises him or her to make as little mess along the way as possible. In an ideal scenario, your system if preferable, as long as you both signal your care for the other one by making as little mess as possible along the way. Failing that, get a dishwasher!

Q) Dear Philosophical Muser, What is the overall effect of cycling helmets on accident and emergency units in the hospital?

A) Dear Reader, I've no idea, but I could hazard a guess. While cycle helmets greatly reduce what would otherwise be minor injuries, they also convert some accidents from fatal to near-fatal or serious injury - meaning, if that is the principal concern of your enquiry, they are likely to place an extra strain on the NHS. 

The other thing to consider is that even in absolute terms they may not benefit the cyclist, particularly if drivers are more likely to drive less cautiously around a cyclist with a helmet on. Equally, it may also be the case that people who ride with cycle helmets on are, on average, safer and more conscientious riders than those that do not. Or it may be true that cyclist with helmets on feel safer and therefore ride less safely. All these have to be factored in to the analysis.

EDIT TO ADD: There is a debate going on at the moment as the government is considering whether to make it mandatory for riders to wear a cycle helmet. Alas, both those for the proposal and those against it are basing all their arguments only on what they perceive is the least risky and statistically safer - they are giving almost no thought to the most important factor: the freedom of individuals to decide how they wish to ride - with or without a cycle helmet.

It is not the state's job to try to govern in loco parentis, whether that's on the matter of cycle helmets, alcohol, cigarettes, fatty foods, or whatever. There are costs and benefits to all things, and it is the job of the individual to decide how they weigh up those costs and benefits with regard to their own utility.

Some prefer to cycle without a helmet, saving on the cost of the helmet, increasing their awareness of what's going on around them, and knowing that they will cycle more cautiously without a helmet on, and drivers around them will likely to the same. Some, on the other hand, prefer to buy the helmet because the costs of having a helmet are less to them than the benefits. Both those decisions are absolutely fine, which is why the state should not a pass a law that makes wearing cycle helmets compulsory.