The Standing Invitation

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Functions of State

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What one thing would you change about the world?

Restricting ourselves to changing just one thing makes us into scientists. A scientist might express it in this way: in an experiment in which all other things are held constant, what variable would you alter in order to maximise the happiness of the world?

Even the most naïve scientist acknowledges that there are not many problems that can be solved by changing just one thing. But even that is an interesting observation. Let’s consider it in more detail – with graphs.

Here are three graphs with, as a y-axis, some imaginary scale of ‘aggregated societal happiness’ – a grotesque utilitarian caricature, but bear with me, I’m trying to make a point. What we vary lies along the horizontal axis. We change the value along the horizontal, and watch to see how happiness goes up or down.

Graph A shows a simple relationship where the more you have of X, the better off everyone is. X might be something like availability of food, ranging from 0% to 100% – if one more person can eat, the world is a little bit better off for it.

Graph B shows the opposite, where the more you have of X, the worse off everyone is. X here might be prevalence of smallpox; under no circumstance does more X mean more happiness.

In graph C, there is a certain value of X that ensures a maximum of happiness, and too little X or too much is actually a bad thing. X here might be freedom of expression. If you object to this, then I’m sure you won’t object to me hanging a Nazi poster in your bedroom. There’s only so much freedom of expression you can have before it starts to clash with other freedoms you enjoy, like your freedom of privacy.

But really interesting to me is a graph like this one.

Here we have two happiness maxima – two clearly different ways of organising a society, one, perhaps, happier than another – but separated by a chasm of misery for some levels of X.*

What are examples of X that would generate this curve? They are instances where everyone benefits from acting the same way, society suffers a little more for every person that deviates… until the deviants become the majority, in which case everyone is punished for those people who choose not to deviate. One good example for such an X is the tendency to drive on the left side of the road: it’s great if everyone does it, great if nobody does it, but chaos if exactly half the people do it.

But what if you want to change from driving on the left to driving on the right? To move between one maximum of utility and another? It has to be done in one step – overnight – to avoid the dangers of the middle ground. It can be done, and indeed has. But in some cases, a simple transition from one stable state to another is simply impossible; it is simply too costly. Other things will have to change to accommodate it.


The argument about freedom of expression as pertains to Nazi posters was stolen from Chomsky, Understanding Power. Can’t find the page number.

* It’s important to be clear that this is separate from the idea that you have to make things worse now in order to make them better later – which is itself an important concept, but not under discussion here. Happiness levels at a given X are taken to be instantaneous and without memory; they are functions of state, not functions of path.


Written by The S I

November 6, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Arrogance and Respect

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Is it always arrogant to tell people they are wrong?

Arrogance is a common accusation levied at scientists when they declare that, actually, x is the case, and anyone who believes otherwise is simply incorrect. And, yes, there is an arrogance associated with any kind of absolute certainty, since there is very little, if anything, of which anyone can be truly certain. This is something that scientists know (or should know) better than anyone. Scientists are generally very candid about what they do not know, where their areas of expertise are and what lies outside it, and their claims are always tempered by error bars, confidence levels, and the fact that correlation does not imply causation; and that’s before you get down to the real philosophy of science stuff with the problem of induction, unreliability of the evidence of senses and so on.

Nevertheless, there are some things about which scientists’ feelings come so close to certainty that there isn’t much reason calling it anything else – certainty in the existence of atoms, or that the Earth is an oblate spheroid orbiting a main-sequence star, or that humans and broccoli share a common ancestor. The evidence of these things is overwhelmingly good, and anyone who believes otherwise is wrong.

But is it arrogant to say so?

The concept of arrogance is bound inextricably to the idea of respect: to be arrogant is to not respect another person’s opinions.

Now I’m just going to come right out and say it: some people’s opinions are pretty dumb. The idea that the Earth is 6000 years old deserves no respect whatsoever. But then, neither does the idea that the Earth is 4.5 billions years old. No opinion deserves respect, or protection from criticism.

But is disrespecting an opinion the same as disrespecting the person who holds it? Sometimes, if it’s not done properly. And here lies the meaning of arrogance.

Respect, as applied to an intellectual, means that, if this person says something that is totally opposed to your own opinions, you still listen to hear what she has to say. It’s tempting to dismiss people who say that trial by jury should be abandoned; but when Richard Dawkins says it, I sit up and pay attention, because I know he’s thought hard about it. I respect the man, and so I listen.

To respect someone means to assume that his opinion is founded on careful thought that is worth taking on board; it also means to assume that he is amenable to rational argument, and is not so inflexible that he cannot be persuaded otherwise, if he is wrong. One should always make this assumption, and frame one’s arguments as though to someone who will listen to them; if nothing else, it is good exercise. To treat one’s opponent as unreachable by logical discourse is arrogant in the extreme.

So next time you see a conversation in which one debater calls the other arrogant, ask yourself this question: who is showing the least respect? The one who is hears a deeply-held belief and demands evidence for it? Or the one who’s deploying the A-word as a get-out-of-argument-free card and hoping to stop the debate in its tracks?


Actually, Dawkins makes good points about trial by jury. Worth reading.

Written by The S I

October 29, 2011 at 11:59 pm

The Good Book

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At the end of the film The Time Machine (the scene does not appear in H G Wells’ original novella), the Time Traveller leaves the present day to spend the rest of his life in the distant future, helping to rebuild the society he has helped to liberate. Before he goes, he takes with him three books from the library, and we are not told what they are. It is an open question directed at the film’s audience: what three books would you take with you?

I’d be tempted to say The Origin of Species. I’d like to get that one absolutely sorted out on day one.

Evolution is a fact. It really, really is. I can just about imagine someone who can look at the overwhelming evidence in its favour and come to some other conclusion; I wouldn’t mind meeting this person, we might talk about it over coffee and an apple danish, it’d be fun. But the existence of people who think that to acknowledge the truth of evolution is a political stance rather than an empirical one truly astonishes me.

And yet people like this do exist. There are countries when a candidate can lose an election for acknowledging that evolution is real, or that climate change is real. Fine, if the objections raised are grounded in facts – but they are not. They have become matters of personal identity, religious orthodoxy and party-political loyalty. To call attention to facts is seen as a personal attack on one’s values. And other people’s values are to be respected, however baseless they are.

What do I ask for, then, in a well-run society? That the veracity of evolution be constitutionally protected?

No. That kind of mindset would only make things worse in the long run.

And this is why, over and above The Origin of Species, I would choose another book. I would find space in my time machine for Mill’s On Liberty. Although Darwin’s book is invaluable for showing us, better than anything else, our true position in the universe, I would argue that On Liberty transcends even this in importance, because it tells us about how to react to theories like Darwin’s.

This book, written in the 1850s, is a brutal attack on anyone who wants to see an idea ­– any idea at all – as being above criticism. It says, beautifully, that the only way of arriving at the truth, or of preventing us forgetting the truths we’ve already uncovered, is by exposing it to constant criticism. Yes, feel free to have your opinions, but be prepared to fight for them. By calling on everyone to attack opinions they do not like – and to defend against attack the ones they hold dear – it casts suspicion on anyone who holds an opinion for any reason other than because they have evidence for it.

The power to criticise ideas – all ideas, held for whatever reason – and to see which ones stand and which ones fall based solely on what the arguments for and against are them are, is a necessary condition for a decent, well-constructed, compassionate society. It might even be a sufficient one.


On Liberty can be found here. Don’t be put off by this man’s egregiously long sentences; his stuff is gold.

Written by The S I

October 25, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Who You March Beside

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I joined my first political protest march in 2009; I confess that while I agreed broadly with its principles, I knew even at the time that I didn’t understand the issues well enough to commit myself fully to it. I was there mostly to see what it was like.

It was not something I enjoyed. I found myself holding a placard that only approximately expressed my views, alongside people I disagreed with politically, chanting slogans I would have phrased very differently. I left after an hour or so feeling not enlivened and proactive, but rather ashamed at having lent support to people and groups whom I dislike.

Any mass political demonstration involves, by definition, a large and probably rather diverse crowd of people. In joining it – joining any movement – one hopes to gain more impact for your cause through strength of numbers; in doing so, one sacrifices individuality. You become part of a crowd. You lend your voice to its demands, and become responsible, in part, for the actions, good or bad, of those you march beside.

This trade-off is inevitable; and now, before joining any protest, I try to get as clear a picture as possible of what I will have to sacrifice, and to whom. As in any exchange, there are instances when the price is worth paying; when the cause is so important that it largely doesn’t matter what nutjobs you have to associate with to get the job done. But there is plenty that a movement can do to make itself more attractive to me as a customer in the free market of political activism.

It is easy to see why protests are often perceived as vehicles of free expression of alternative lifestyles. After all, they are strikes against authority – what better way of showing how little control the Powers have over you than by having a street party? There are rare cases when this is acceptable, such as when the right being defended is exactly the right to have a party. But for the most part it annoys me. It is never good for a movement’s credibility than for it to be seen to be frivolous.

The treatment of all authority as being some monolithic capitalised Authority is always a bad thing. I recently saw, at Occupy London Stock Exchange, a poster about compulsory vaccination causing autism. (It cheered me enormously that it had been vandalised by people signing their names alongside their qualifications in clinical psychology.) The two causes are unrelated; affiliation with one should never entail support of another.

A third thing is the presence of a manifesto. It doesn’t matter if it’s written on soggy cardboard, as long as it’s clearly stated. This goes a long way to mitigating the loss of individuality, because a statement of purpose lets people know exactly what they have signed up for.

It will always be in the interests of the authority protested against to portray the protesters as diffuse, disorganised, violent, unintelligent, and more interested in fun than in change. It is the responsibility of activists to make a pre-emptive strike, and make their motivations clear as a laser, and as serious as politics.

Written by The S I

October 23, 2011 at 11:59 pm


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For this other (regrettably) quick post, I want to introduce you to Mana Neyestani, a magnificent political cartoonist from Iran. His black and white images of democracy and violence combine a deliciously black humour with a fiery rage against the brutality of the government. The colour green is for the movement for democracy in Iran; a grinning Pinocchio is the lying President. But the images of brutality and oppression are timeless and understandable even without translation. Enjoy.

Facebook users can find extensive collections here and here; others will have to make do with the google image search for his stuff, though the viewing is less good.

Written by The S I

October 21, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Posted in Politics

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Fun with Friedman

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This will have to be another brief one because I’m away in parts foreign. For my travel literature I will be reading Mill’s Utilitarianism and probably getting some funny looks for it.

Someone else who I’m sure was a big fan of Mill was Milton Friedman. I’ve been watching a lot of videos of Friedman lately, trying to figure out exactly how I feel about him (I certainly hadn’t expected him to have a sense of humour). Here are some of the good ones on responsibility to the poor, on greed, on corporate responsibility (or lack thereof) and drug legalisation.

Have fun.

Written by The S I

October 19, 2011 at 11:59 pm

An Anatomy of Incompetence

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The Oxford Companion to the Mind – always worth dipping into on a rainy day – contains a thought-provoking entry on something I had never thought of as a mental illness: military incompetence.

There are scores of battles that have gone horribly wrong throughout history – and even some where the battle itself was a mere detail in the horror, as in the ‘imbecilic’ Walcheren campaign of 1809. Here, inadequate medical supplies meant a 39,000-strong army was forced to withdraw just five months after arriving because 4,000 had died from easily preventable disease; the death toll from actual combat was 106. The article lists a number of other hideous mistakes from the Crimean to Vietnam, and asks what caused them. What caused the generals leading these campaigns to act in a way that resulted in such spectacular wastes of human life?

It’s easy to say incompetence. But what exactly does that mean? Certainly not stupidity – that would predict failures coming from all directions, at random, with no pattern linking them. According to studies of some of history’s most pointless massacres, there are common themes running through them.

The inability to use new technology or recognise old technology as obsolete. The tendency to prefer big battles and full-frontal attacks. The habit of ignoring bad news. The belief in following instinct rather than reconnaissance. All these things crop up over and over again.

When a number of symptoms appear together, they might be identified as a syndrome. And this leads us to wonder whether or not there might be some underlying cause.

An army is not like society. Society has evolved over thousand years basically to prevent violence from being the normal state of things. In order make a solder capable of using the violent forces that every other aspect of society does its best to suppress, the military has created a system of punishments and rewards that might have unexpected effects on the people it trains. The rigid discipline that benefits a soldier in the field might be a handicap to a general who needs to adapt his tactics.

The unnerving question is whether there is something about the kind of mind that rises through the ranks in the military that reproducibly leads them to make the same kind of mistakes over and over.

In his book on the art of war, General Rupert Smith urges us to be flexible. Of all the equipment he has used, nothing except the most basic – the hand grenade, the rifle – have been used exactly as they were intended. Indeed, he argues, the whole nature of armed conflict is changing, to the extent that ‘war’ as most people understand it has ceased to exist altogether. If the military lifestyle generates people who are unable to adapt to these developments, disasters resulting in appalling loss of live will never be eradicated.

It’s all depressingly reminiscent of the Peter principle: people who are promoted for demonstrating competence tend to accumulate at the level at which they are incompetent.


The Oxford Companion the the Mind (1987)

Rupert Smith – The Utility of Force

Written by The S I

October 17, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Posted in Politics

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