The Standing Invitation

Posts Tagged ‘Society

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

Thank Goodness!

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I’m away from the computer just now, so here’s an excellent essay by Daniel C Dennett describing how his life was saved by a heart operation – and what it really means when an atheist says “Thank goodness!

I have created a Facebook page for this blog, which those of you who are so inclined may wish to like.

Also, on yet another note, for times like this when I physically cannot get to a computer to update this place, I am thinking of recruiting some guest contributors so I have something to fall back on. If you’re interested in writing a post here on practically any topic, for a general audience and in under 500 words, drop me a comment and we’ll see what we can work out.

Written by The S I

October 11, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Equality and Equivalence

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We are all born free. That is one of the central tenets of liberalism: that, in the natural order of things, our default setting is absolute freedom to do whatever we want to do and to be whatever we want to be. It is essential that we make this assumption, even if it is only a theoretical ideal, because it lets us do something extraordinary: it lets us look at one person having power over another person and ask: why should that be the case?

It is the presumption of liberty that makes authority look unnatural. Authority, not freedom, is the phenomenon that needs to explain itself, justify itself. It is the corollary to being innocent until proven guilty: the burden of proof is placed firmly on the shoulders of those who would tell you what you can and cannot do.

Those thinkers who accept this presumption of liberty are called ‘liberals’ in the technical sense, but many of them are far from what I would call liberal. Hobbes, for example, recognises that freedom is natural, but that it is also dangerous; and that the best form of government is a repressive tyranny that will keep us in line. For a liberal, this is not very liberal.

A liberal liberal knows that no authority, however noble its intentions, is wise enough to govern with absolute power; and so one of the tasks of liberal philosophy is to try to find the absolute minimum standards of coercion needed to make a society function.

Take the entire spectrum of human societies that exist now or have ever existed and arrange them in a row ­– a cultural police line-up. There will be a lot of variation: there will be monarchies, democracies, theocracies, there will be oppressed minorities, there will be enslaved masses. It will be a mixed bunch, and much that we see will appal us. But we know that nobody, least of all us, knows the right way to run a country. Recognising our own fallibility, we must respect their right to develop however they choose, as long as our minimum standards are met.

What should these standards be? It is an important and immensely difficult question.

How should we feel about societies in which certain groups are excluded from certain professions ­– say, women are barred from engineering, or men barred from childcare? I personally find this a barbaric arrangement. But I do not think it is necessarily below the minimum standard. There may be some ways of setting up a society in which all participants are better off if there is some regimentation of roles.

The measure of its worth would be in the equivalence of opportunity, not in the equality. If people in dramatically unequal roles can all find an equivalent happiness within those roles, then this society cannot be objected to on liberal grounds. To presume that absolute equality is the only way of ensuring equal happiness is to claim a degree of infallibility that no liberal should feel comfortable with.

Written by The S I

September 30, 2011 at 11:59 pm