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November 2011
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January 2012

Slightly Fewer Winter Greetings Than Usual

Stonehenge Solstice It’s time to wish a Happy Winter Festival to everyone, but sadly this time the Islamic calendar (which pivots on the lunar cycle) has nothing on offer. The Day of Ashura was back on December 5th, and Milad Un Nabi isn’t until February 4th – so sorry Muslims, no special shout for you this year. Similarly, the Hindu festival of Makara Sankranti isn’t until January 14th, the Bahá'í Faith have nothing between 28th November 2011 and 2nd March 2012, and as far as I can tell Theraveda Buddhism still doesn’t have a winter festival at all. As for the Sikhs, although there are several festival dates in December, I confess to not knowing how to send appropriate greetings for any of them. Suffice it to say that I wish all of you well, even though you don’t seem to have a Winter Festival on the table this year.

However, I can still wish Pagans a Happy Solstice, Zoroastrians a Happy Yalda, Jews a Happy Hannukah, Mahayana Buddhists a Happy New Year, Christians (both religious and cultural) a Merry Christmas, African-Americans a Happy Kwanzaa, and a very Merry Swik to everyone else! As for myself, I am turning forty on 1st January, so if I survive the festivities I'll see you all on the other side of this meaningless numeric milestone. Have fun!

Only a Game will return in January with yet more nonsense.

Stories and Games (3): Experiencing Fiction

Final part of the Stories and Games series is up on ihobo today. Here’s an extract:

Could games be the ultimate artworks? I've heard this view advanced on two distinct but related grounds. Firstly, there is the argument that because the player of game has the experience happen directly for them, games are superior works of art to other media like films and books where the experience is second hand. The trouble with this is that the reasons why we esteem art have very little to do with whether the relevant experiences happen to us directly or not – if this were not the case, Shakespeare could only truly be appreciated by actors performing his plays, not by the audience. It may well be the case that in assessing games as artworks our direct participation is vital – but this is an artefact of how games work as artworks, not an argument that games must be superior artworks.

You can read the whole of Stories and Games (3): Experiencing Fiction over on

Financial Games: The Ethics of Money

money and justice scales What possible moral justification could there be for billion dollar bailouts to failing financial institutions? Answering this question means charting the ethical dimensions of money, and this requires some consideration of the extent that this strange abstract representation of wealth has become central to politics.

Much of the usual furore over money goes to how much any individual entity can have, which entities are allowed to have it, and how much will be taken away from them under what circumstances. “They have too much money”, is a complaint oft heard from those who have very little of it. However, the current consensus on money is that wealth should be unlimited – indeed, against this the only ideal seriously offered is to abolish money (despite its obvious convenience for mediating otherwise complicated exchanges of goods and services). Money can be owned by individuals or groups of humans, and each is taxed by the government of their host nations according to schemes that vary somewhat around the world. Taxation, rather than limitation, is the universally implemented response to the accumulation of wealth – to the extent that any attempt to apply solid limits would be interpreted as a particularly draconian tax.

Money, therefore, flows between organisations and individuals, and out into governments (the only organisations permitted not only to tax, but to enforce taxation as mandatory). Small amounts cycle between individuals and the organisations that both employ and supply the necessities and luxuries of life. Large amounts are exchanged between organisations – indeed, the extremes of wealth are only to be found in proximity to the giant corporations – both the organisations and the individuals involved with them deal in scales of finance that are all but unimaginable to the person contriving to make ends meet from day to day. It is the very nature of the numeric value representation that money depends upon that it takes large quantities of money to generate further large quantities.

There is a sense in which there are actually two kinds of money in the world: the day-to-day money we are all familiar with that might be called cash for convenience, and the large sums of money required to create or control organisations capable of generating more money, which is called capital. The same abstraction is at the root of both, but the scales involved change the meaning of that money, much as a bacterial colony and a human are incomparable entities even though they are both at root collections of biologically similar cells. The vast majority of people deal only with cash, and never have any significant quantity of capital – although those who become cash-rich can afford to buy shares in organisations and thus tap into the profits of capital. A small minority of people deal only with capital, and thus never have to think about issues in terms of cash. The struggle of a typical family to feed, clothe and shelter themselves is an alien world to anyone whose feet are firmly planted in the world of capital.

Ethics is concerned with the clash of ideals, and the conflicting moral concepts in the context of money are equality and freedom. On the one hand, the fiscal conservative ethic demands the freedom to make and own as much as is humanly possible. Against this, the egalitarian liberal ethic demands a standard of equality in respect of wealth, a position that suffers from an ill-defined concept of fairness. It is not that no viable definition of what is fair can be derived, but rather that there are so many possible approaches and it is not clear how we can adjudicate such a cacophony of ideals. In respect to these two ideals, it should not be thought that the cash class all ascribe to the ideal of equality since a great many prefer the ideal of freedom, not least because it better defends against unfair taxation: this is the sometimes unnoticed reason so many in the cash-class vote Republican in the United States.

Despite it being primarily a concern for advocates of the equality ideal, the sense that the distribution of wealth is inequitable is widespread, although the intensity of outrage is extremely variable. However, there is no consensus about what should be done about this situation, and even if there were it would be difficult to drive political processes that aimed to affect the rich supply of money that flows from corporations to both governments (as tax) and politicians (as campaign contributions). Raising corporation taxes in any given nation means little when there are so many alternative bases of operations the organisation might relocate to, and no politician is keen to back plans to stab their biggest contributors with a tax knife.

Marx felt intensely the injustice of wealth inequality, and believed (it seems incorrectly) that a strong identification with the ideals of fairness among the poorest workers would drive a revolution leading inevitably to a future fair world. This was misguided. The anger of the poor in the face of the rich certainly drove violent uprisings in many nations, but it led only to a consolidation of capital by the state that allowed for particularly vicious totalitarian regimes. The consequence of spreading all money out equally across the world would be to create very rich citizens of poor nations and very poor citizens of rich nations; it’s not at all clear this leads to a better world. While other ideals of fairness may prove viable in respect of money, the Marxist ideal is largely judged to have failed.

The political philosopher John Rawls had an alternative ideal for equality of money, whereby individual nations would exchange sums of money between their citizens in schemes resembling national taxation, but with all funds exchanged solely between private citizens. In response to this proposal, Robert Nozick developed philosophical arguments that demonstrated the implausibility of maintaining this kind of wealth exchange. Using an example involving the basketball player Wilt Chamberlain, Nozick argued that if we start from a fair distribution of wealth, someone like Chamberlain that many people are willing to pay to watch will immediately acquire large sums of money. To say that this new situation is unjust is problematic: people freely paid money to Chamberlain, are they not allowed to decide how their money is spent? Nozick argues that patterned distributions of wealth are problematic since “liberty upsets patterns” and similarly patterns destroy liberty. The argument between these two philosophers serves to illustrate my key point that the ethics of money concerns a clash between the ideals of equality (Rawls) and the ideals of freedom (Nozick).

Accepting Nozick’s arguments and rejecting Rawls’, we are faced with an inevitable variation in the wealth of individuals, but this does not mean that there are not alternative approaches to the equality problem that might be applied. The extent of the gulf between the world of capital and the world of cash happens because the capital class make money from their holdings and investments while the cash class must labour to earn cash. One long-term solution to this inequity could be having labour earn not only cash but also shares in equity. If the worker employed by a corporation automatically earns (small) shares in the capital its employer embodies, the disparity between the cash and capital classes can be gradually eroded over generations, although admittedly there is still some element of lottery since companies do fail and disappear, in which case everybody with shares loses out whether they are investors or employees.

Under a system such as this, investors must accept a dilution of their returns – proponents of financial freedom will likely object. But the potential narrowing of the wealth disparity could be highly appealing to proponents of financial equality, and might be worth fighting for. The real benefit of this system, however, is that it gives workers influence over the management of the company that employs them, thus disrupting the feudal pattern that modern capitalism still embodies (the randomly noble-born having been replaced with the randomly wealthy-born at the top of the pile). Although the workers might collectively own only a few percent of the company stock, it could be a decisive margin in boardroom voting, and at the very least puts the voice of the employed into a process where it is usually excluded. Expanding this scheme to its logical limits, this would also mean that banks might function like building societies or other mutual financial organisations – the money people have saved in a bank would entitle them to a share of that bank, and a voice in its activities.

The bastion of the capital class, investment companies, would largely escape this kind of process – but there is at least one situation in which the ideal of equality might infiltrate these capital funds: the bailout. When governments step in to rescue ailing financial institutions, it should not be on empty rhetorical grounds such as the company being “too big to fail” but as a purchase of equity. A billion dollar bailout should purchase billion dollar equity, and if the company is not willing to grant this stake it should be allowed to die. As economist Alan Greenspan has charged: “If they’re too big to fail, they’re too big.”

We live at a time when moral outrage towards the capital class is greater than ever. This is not simply envious anger at the rich, since for the most part the superstars of movies, music and sports are not the target of this ire. It is bankers and investment executives who earn vast sums of money even when their companies fail who are the subject of this contemporary righteous rage. The ideals of freedom cannot adequately defend against the ideals of equality in such cases, and indeed may even by aligned in some cases. It is thus more important than ever before that citizens hold their representatives accountable for decisions made in respect of the capital class. This is not easy – especially when all political parties necessarily pander to the ultra-rich. But the state is the only weapon the cash class have against the capital class, and popular opinion can lead political change when it is sufficiently strong. ‘No taxation without representation’, the saying goes. Perhaps we should now add ‘No bailout without equity’ to the chants of the discontented.

For Michael Mouse, who suggested this topic three years ago.

Stories and Games (2): The Emotions of Play

Part two of the Stories and Games series is on ihobo today. Here’s an extract:

Why are games fun, and are they fun in different ways to films and books? This can be a tricky question to explore since a great many of the games that get the most attention are actually part film and part game – they switch between interactive sections of gameplay and non-interactive movies. As I argued last week, those movies are still a kind of game, but they are a different kind of game and a different kind of art.

You can read the whole of Stories and Games (2): The Emotions of Play over on

Are Smokers Rational?

Smoking We are bombarded with research concerning the health risks of smoking, yet tobacco remains popular. Are those who continue to smoke rational? According to a line of argument offered by philosopher Derek Parfit, the best answer is 'yes' – when they smoke, most smokers are acting rationally.

I recently began my ascent of the mountain that is Parfit’s 1,400 page monster On What Matters, which commences with a long and detailed discussion of why subjective accounts of reasons are wrong, and why objective accounts of reasons are right. In essence, Parfit says that to have a reason to do something is to have circumstances in which anyone who was rational would act in that way. Therefore that you like chocolate is not a reason to eat chocolate (according to Parfit), but that we desire pleasant experiences is a reason – indeed, the reason – to eat chocolate, assuming you like it. 

While developing his arguments, Parfit gives a great example of how one can behave rationally and yet still fail catastrophically:

Suppose that, while walking in some desert, you have disturbed and angered a poisonous snake. You believe that, to save your life, you must run away. In fact you must stand still, since this snake will attack only moving targets. Given your false belief, it would be irrational for you to stand still. You ought rationally to run away.

He notes that this is not what we ought to do in the “decisive-reason-implying sense” yet it is still rational to run away in this scenario. This discrepancy – between the rational behaviour of the individual and the objective reasons that apply – is interesting to me even though I don’t make use of either true or false beliefs in my own philosophy. For me, true and false are artefacts of the system we call logic, and connecting real world situations to logic always involves passing through fiction. The failure to recognise this can occasionally lead to some serious philosophical errors, and although Parfit’s mind is razor sharp, his faith in objectivity sometimes blinds him to this important disconnect between theory and experience.

As an example, consider Parfit’s stated attitude towards smoking:

…suppose that, unless I stop smoking, I shall die much younger, losing many years of happy life. According to all plausible objective theories, this fact gives me a decisive reason to want to try to stop smoking.

Assuming (on the basis of his comments elsewhere) Parfit really believes that it is a fact that smokers “die younger losing many years of happy life” then it is only a reason to stop smoking if the many years of happy life are more important to the smoker than smoking itself. I don’t think Parfit really considers whether there might be reasons for smoking other than it being an ongoing addictive habit. (No smoker starts smoking because it is addictive – they have other reasons – in the conventional sense – for doing so).

In his earlier Reasons and Persons, Parfit advances a fascinating perspective based on Thomas Nagel’s idea of a serial person. Who you are in different parts of your life is a different serial person – so, for instance, Chris Bateman before he read Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (the first book of philosophy he read) was a different serial person to Chris Bateman afterwards, or Chris Bateman after he had his first philosophy book published. This account of serial persons is one of the many interesting perspectives offered in Reasons and Persons.

Parfit argues that we might have duties to our future serial persons, and that the responsibility of later serial persons to the actions of their earlier selves might be obviated. Different people will have different responses to these two different-but-related claims. Personally, I think it is problematic to suggest, as Parfit apparently would, that we should not smoke because we have a duty to our future serial person selves. (Although my wife, who is a nurse, thinks this is an interesting way to argue for better health choices). I would suggest that it is part of the quintessential nature of youth to be stupid and reckless, and part of the nature of later life to come to terms with the consequences of this carelessness. The freedom of youth is not worth sacrificing for extended life expectancy. For non-hypothetical people, quality of life is more important than quantity.

Parfit’s reasons are disembodied from real life in a way that I find troublesome. It is true that on average smokers die younger. Statistics vary, but it’s not atypical to claim smokers die between 60-70 years of age, while non-smokers life to 70-95 years of age. That’s a big discrepancy – if your interest is how many years of life expectancy you rack up. It might give you Parfitian-style objective reasons to not smoke, but that doesn’t mean it gives you reasons to not smoke. As Bill Hicks joked in 1991: “They proved that if you quit smoking, it will prolong your life. What they haven't proved is that a prolonged life is a good thing. I haven't seen the stats on that yet!”

If we compare the angry snake thought experiment to the situation of a typical young smoker, we get something particularly interesting. The young smoker knows cigarettes are bad for their health (that’s precisely what makes them cool for some people, and why ‘Death’ brand cigarettes enjoyed a market) but they believe that smoking at the current time – to be cool, to enjoy the relaxing hit of nicotine, to fit-in etc – is worth the cost to their future selves. This might well be a false belief. But in parallel to the angry snake example, it is still rational for these people to smoke provided they have a justification for doing so that they believe outweighs the negative health effects.

Parfit is explicit about this. Using an example concerning a hypothetical person who believes that smoking will extend their life because they know someone who smoked until they were aged 100, he observes:

I want to smoke only because I enjoy living, and I believe that smoking will prolong my life. Does the irrationality of my believe make my desire to smoke irrational? It is best, I suggest, to answer No. ... Given my belief that smoking will protect my health, my desire to smoke is rational. I am wanting what, if my belief were true, I would have strong reasons to want.

Thus, on Parfit's account of rationality, smokers with justifications for their habit are rational, whatever the nature of that justification. The only exceptions would be justifications that were, in themselves, contradictory e.g. wanting to smoke because you believed smoking would damage your health when you had no reason to want worse health. (Parfit still says that we should still claim that smokers are "being irrational" but suggests it is the smokers' beliefs that are irrational, not their desire to smoke, nor their actions in smoking).

My goal in sharing this account is not to give smokers or young people a green card to behave recklessly (ha! as if they needed my blessing in the first place!), but merely to point out that life is a precious gift and you spoil any present by offering it with strings attached. Possible future consequences are worth considering, but (contra Parfit) they do not necessarily provide decisive reasons for acting one way or another. Many people who don’t smoke live long and happy lives; many people who don’t smoke live long and miserable lives. Smoking shortens both scenarios – but this is only a bad thing for the people in the first case, and no-one can know the circumstances of their future until they get there. Parfit may believe there are decisive reasons not to smoke, but on his own account smokers who can justify their habit are at least acting rationally. This is perhaps more than they can hope to hear from most philosophers.