Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Charity Begins At Home?

Simon Heffer is an odious man with unpleasant beliefs (pro-death penalty, pro-section 28, anti-abortion and divorce), the sort of person who drains me of hope for humanity in general and this society in particular. Yet in his controversial attack on the government’s decision to ringfence the aid budget, Heffer surpassed himself, managing to dispirit me twice in four words: “charity begins at home”. The obvious sentiment behind that statement, the parochial idea that British people come first, is depressing enough. The insidious notion that foreign aid is “charity” – that it is not fulfilment of a moral obligation, but an act of superegoratory benevolence, above and beyond the call of duty, compounds the effect.
The idea that charity begins at home is often alluded to, but rarely examined or defended. It is far from obvious what it means and why it should be the case. I can think of three interpretations and justifications of starting our charity at home. The simplest, and most compelling way to take the idea is as an exhortation to be consistent in our dealings with all people near or far. I imagine this as a rebuke to the absent-minded and insensitive philanthropist, who cares deeply for the plight of strangers, but who is unpleasant or cruel in their dealings with those around them: for instance, someone who gives lots of money to charity, but who bullies their family or colleagues. Telling them that charity begins at home is a way of reminding them that the people they see on a day-to-day basis are humans worthy of the same consideration as those that they seek to help.
A second reason why charity begins at home is because of our greater ability to help those we know best. Not only is it easier for me to help my brother than a stranger, I am more likely to be successful in helping him. There are a number of reasons for this, including opportunity (I see my brother more than I see most strangers) and specific knowledge (I know better what he wants, needs and likes). Indeed, the extension of this logic suggests that this sort of moral man-marking, with all looking out for those immediately around them is the solution to many ethical problems (see Frank Jackson for a statement of such reasoning).
Thirdly, some people think charity should begin at home because it is natural and desirable that we should give greater consideration to some people than others. We should be nicer, more generous and have stronger moral obligations to our family or our countrymen simply because they are our family or our countrymen. This is not an argument I have any sympathy for, but to go into further detail would draw us into a deep and strongly contested debate I do not wish to visit here. Suffice to say, I have yet to come across an argument to shake me from my presumption that all humans are morally equivalent.

It may seem as though I am ducking the issue: surely Heffer’s key point is that Britain ought to look after its own in these troubled times, and that is precisely the issue I am refusing to dispute. But even if we concede all three of these interpretations of the idea that charity begins at home, it still does not mean that Britain has no moral obligations to the rest of the world. For even if charity begins at home, there is no reason for it to end there.
The first version of charity begins at home is satisfied merely if we give all humans equal consideration: this clearly does not support the preferential treatment for Britons that Heffer seeks. The second version only supports Heffer if the British government can do more good in Britain than abroad. But the fact of the matter is that the most dire need and the most easily alleviated suffering on the planet is to be found far away from Britain. Heffer’s supposed concern for the vulnerability of the worst-off in British society at this trying time is laudable, but let’s get a sense of perspective: a person on jobseeker’s allowance is still within the richest 20% of humanity. (For a sense of perspective as humbling as the Total Perspective Vortex see this)
So much for the first two versions of the charity begins at home thesis, but what of the third, that it is legitimate to look out for our countrymen above others? Again, the principle needs clearing up. If it is taken to mean that we should care only for our countrymen and care nothing for foreigners, then Heffer is vindicated. Yet this appears to be too callous even for Heffer, who accepts that emergency aid for natural disasters is legitimate, and so betrays some concern for others.

This implies that the needs of Britons can be traded off against foreigners. I presume that Heffer believes that if natural disasters of equal magnitude hit Britain and, say, Kenya at the same time, it would be inappropriate to divert resources from the British relief effort to the Kenyan one. But presumably if the UK government had a choice between buying all its citizens Ferraris and aiding Kenyans, it should do the latter. This suggests there is a point, somewhere, where the good that can be done abroad is so much greater than the good that can be done domestically as to legitimate aid. Heffer clearly thinks Britain has not reached that point. I would disagree, and I find it hard to conceive how anyone that has seen the global income distribution can fail to disagree with Heffer.
Next to this, my objection to Heffer’s reference to charity might seem like a semantic quibble. However, it is indicative of a deeper problem regarding the framing of the question of foreign aid. I do not object to the concept of ‘charity’ – in its original sense, it is entirely positive, representing consideration and care towards others. However, in its modern sense, charity has come to represent supererogatory action: good but not required, ‘beyond the call of duty’. That this is Heffer’s meaning is clear from his branding of DFID as a “£7 billion luxury”.

Clement Attlee accurately summarised the problem of seeing redistribution of wealth as charity: “it tends to make the charitable think that he has done his duty by giving away some trifling sum, his conscience is put to sleep and he takes no trouble to consider the social problem any further”. The relationship between the global rich and the global poor is akin to that of the rich and poor in early twentieth century Britain. The rich feel precious little responsibility towards the poor, who expect, at best, handouts dependent on capricious goodwill.

The solution then was the Welfare state. I have no idea what the global equivalent is. However, there are a few key features of our domestic relationships that need to be carried over onto the global stage. The rich must begin to see aid to the poor as a moral imperative, not as an optional extra for ethical brownie points. The poor must be seen to have entitlements, which it is the responsibility of the rich to fulfil.

Unfortunately, that seems a long way off, and Heffer’s mode of thinking still dominates. But the only way to move forward is to challenge it at every turn.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Prodding Sportsmen's Consciences

I love ethics almost as much as I love sport, so events in the Tour de France this week have made an already compelling bike race all the more interesting. To summarise the facts: on Monday, race leader Andy Schleck lost his 30 second advantage over nearest competitor Alberto Contador when Contador capitalised on a broken chain to accelerate away from Schleck. Events on the road were fascinating enough, but it is the aftermath that is most notable. Contador was booed as he took to the podium to collect the leader’s yellow jersey; he was widely criticised in the media, and was shamefaced enough to offer a sheepish apology on youtube.

This is made all the more interesting in the context of Peter Singer’s criticism of Manuel Neuer during last month’s World Cup. While Neuer bore much of the blame from Singer, fans and the media were also castigated for their failure to condemn such blatant cheating. Unsurprisingly, Singer was accused of naivety – who could expect professional footballers, playing for the highest stakes in the game, to refrain from doing all they could get away with to win?

But such arguments merely perpetuate the notion that ethics has no place in sport, and in so doing reduce the incentive to act morally. Jeremy Bentham argued that humans are susceptible to four types of sanction which can motivate them to do right instead of wrong: legal (threat of punishment for contravening rules), religious (fear of divine vengeance), moral (conscience) and social (fear of criticism).

If the sporting public accept such unethical behaviour as inevitable, they relinquish the power of the social sanction. To put it another way, sportsmen will live up to our expectations of them: if we demand honest and fair conduct, they will be under more pressure to meet those standards; if we relax our demands, they will be less constrained by a need to (at least appear) ethical.

The line taken by cycling offers a clear counterpoint to the amorality of football. While Contador is likely to go on to win this year’s Tour de France, the opprobrium his actions have attracted may have tarnished his reputation forever. His 2010 victory will always have an ‘asterisk’ beside it. And the next time a cyclist is in a similar position, they will have to weigh the toll of public disgrace among the costs of unsportsmanlike behaviour. The next Neuer, by contrast, will be fairly secure in the knowledge that he will be answerable only to his conscience. I’m sure I’m not the only one not to lack complete faith in footballers’ consciences.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Will Hutton & the Quest for Fairness

So Will Hutton, on behalf of the government, wants the public to help him define 'fairness'. The Oxford Popular Dictionary defines it as "just, unbiased" (and then goes on to define 'justice' as "fairness to all concerned"). I don't suppose that's much help.

Fairness is difficult to define simply because its used so loosely and subjectively. In everyday speech, people regularly define it implicitly to serve whatever point they are making. Nevertheless, I can make out two distinct, though, related uses of the term (though I doubt these are exhaustive).

One version of fairness (fairness as impartiality?) has it that a process or outcome is fair the same rules and standards are applied to all. Fairness is observed if people are treated differently only on the basis of relevant considerations. So, for example, if people are barred from attending university because of their race or gender, it is unfair on this conception. If they are not admitted on the basis of their intellectual capabilities, their is no unfairness. Of course, this leaves open the question of what a 'relevant consideration' is.

The alternative idea of fairness (fairness as justice?) posits that fairness is satisfied only if people get what they deserve. Thus it is unfiar that spoilt Johnny down the road gets a bigger pile of presents from his parents than me even though he is no better behaved than I am. Notice that fairness as justice is a special version of fairness as impartiality, where the only 'relevant consideration' is desert. To state it more fully, the idea of fairness as justice is that fairness is observed if people are differentially treated only on the basis of desert.

The distinction between the two conceptions of fairness is clear if we consider a case where someone misses out on something they deserve without suffering any procedural disadvantage. For instance, if I work really hard and consistently produce work of an 'A' standard, but then for some reason miss out on an 'A' in the exam (the topics I had revised best didn't come up) this is unfair in the second sense (justice) but not the first (impartiality). If, though, I miss out on the grade because I was formally disadvantaged - for example, if I got less time than everyone else - then this is unfair on both counts.

There are a couple of reasons why I think it is fairness as justice that Hutton is interested in. Fairness as impartiality merely suggests that fairness is satisfied when everybody is treated 'according to the rules'. But since Hutton is charged with making the rules, and in particular with making a fair set of rules, I don't think he can take much from fairness as impartiality. Moreover, fairness as impartiality seems to act in most cases as a proxy for fairness as justice. In other words, the reason we have the rules we do is to ensure that justice is served. So, for example, the reason we adhere so closely to exam regulations is because we believe that this is the best way of ensuring the most deserving candidates are the most successful. The only reason we retain the idea of fairness as impartiality is because often determining desert is a subjective and contriversial matter: ensuring independent and acceptable standards forestalls disagreement.

If something is fair if people get what they deserve, this still leaves the tricky question of determining what constitutes desert. I would suggest that a reasonable first principle is that people cannot deserve something because of factors beyond their control. To deserve something, in its ordinary sense, I would suggest that you have to do something. Desert, I propose, has to be earned. This is why injustices such as feudalism and the caste system anger people so much - because people are exalted to a higher status without having done anything to achieve it, simply by having the good fortune of being born to the right parents.

If we accept this link between desert and responsibility, then determinism rears its head again. If we can only earn the right to deserve something by virtue of the things we are responsible for then the determinist's claim that we are responsible for nothing undermines the idea of desert (and so, fairness).

There are a number of links in this chain, and I'm not certain about any of them - this is not meant to be conclusive, by any stretch of the imagination. Firstly, it is not clear that the two versions of fairness I have described cover the entirety of the concept. There could be simpler and better ways of analysing it. Second, fairness as impartiality might not be so easily reducible to fairness as justice. Third, some might not accept the identification of justice with desert. Fourthly, desert might be separable from responsibility. My tentative conclusion is that the idea of fairness is too contradictory and ad hoc to be worth pursuing. It seems at best a proxy for other values. If, like Hutton, your job is to define fairness, it appears your best strategy is to examine closely the principles underwriting it.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Raoul Moat and Moral Responsibility

Public opinion regarding the Raoul Moat case has reached a familiar fork in the road. On the one hand, those sympathetic to Moat try to portray him as a person with mental health issues, let down by the authorities and society. On the other, some, like the Prime Minister, see him as “a callous murderer, full stop, end of story”. It is a debate that seems to emerge every time there is a high profile crime like this (see, for instance, the apologists for Joseph Fritzl, on the grounds that he was abused as a child).

Yet the disagreement is deeper and more significant than it appears on the surface. It is not simply the usual face-off between bleeding-heart liberals and uncaring conservatives. Rather, the difficulty that most people have in digesting such events has its roots in age-old philosophical tension between determinism and moral responsibility.

Determinism is the idea that all events are inevitable, the result of an inescapable chain of causation that began in the big bang. At its root is the belief that everything can be explained causally. Just as physical phenomena like the tides and the seasons can be understood and accounted for, the same is true for human characteristics and behaviour. The nature-nurture debate exemplifies this idea, seeking to understand how genetic and environmental factors make us the way we are.

The problem with determinism is that it appears to be inconsistent with free will and moral responsibility. If all my thoughts and actions can be explained causally, then it is unjustified to hold me accountable for my actions. I could not have acted in any way other than I did, so why should I be praised or blamed?

The relevance of these ideas to Raoul Moat should be clear. The thoroughgoing determinist will insist that Moat cannot be held responsible for the unfortunate murders that occurred: they were just the result of a toxic mix of circumstance and character that ended tragically. They will claim that you simply cannot put a person like Raoul Moat in a desperate situation like the one he was in, and not expect him to go on a murderous rampage. And Raoul Moat surely did not choose to be the sort of person prone to murderous outbursts, so it would be unfair to blame him for his actions.

The difficulty that society and the media face is their inability to reconcile two inconsistent propositions – that our actions are greatly conditioned by outside forces, and that we are morally responsible for what we do. The result is that certain forms of conditioning – mental disorder, childhood disadvantage – are seen as genuine mitigation, whereas others are not.

The determinist will insist that the question of whether Moat had a ‘genuine excuse’ for his actions as irrelevant. It is a matter of degree, and the threshold for sympathy, the point at which we characterise a person’s actions as involuntary, is arbitrary. To draw an analogy, what is the difference between a kleptomaniac and a person who simply finds the urge to steal harder than most to resist? We all have different inclinations, good and evil, of different strengths and we vary in our capacity to fight them. These are facts about ourselves that we do not choose.

The pertinent question in the aftermath of an incident like this has nothing to do with the character of the protagonists. If we dig deep enough for excuses, we will always find them, because Moat’s actions, like all of ours, were shaped by forces beyond his ken or control. Whether Raoul Moat was a good or a bad man is neither here nor there. The point is that something clearly undesirable (the shootings) has occurred, and the question is how we can avoid things like this happening again.

Ironically, this question feeds right back into the existing discussion. When the Moat sympathisers criticise the authorities for their inability to help him and neutralise the threat that he posed, they are trying to ensure that there is not another Raoul Moat. If social services or the police force act differently, they may prevent people like Raoul Moat being in positions like the one he found himself in.

Those that condemn Raoul Moat, on the other hand, focus excessively on pinning the blame on him, on holding him accountable for his actions. Nevertheless, it is possible that they are unconsciously working towards the same goal as the sympathisers. It is important to understand that while the literal truth of moral responsibility may be redundant, there is still good reason to keep up the pretence that we are morally responsible. A world where those who did wrong were not criticised or punished, by conscience, society or law, would be a world with much more wrongdoing. Therefore, even though it is not fair to blame Moat for his actions, it is necessary to denounce him to show would-be Raoul Moats the cost of behaving in such a manner.

There is a debate to be had, now that Raoul Moat is dead. But it has nothing to do with the man’s legacy. It is rather the question of how best to prevent such events from occurring again.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

What's Wrong With Progressive Taxation?

Given that ‘progressive’ seems to be the buzzword of the coalition, and that its critics have slammed the rise in VAT as ‘regressive’, it is strange that both supporters and opponents of the government seem to have forgotten about progressive taxation. Progressive taxes are those which fall heavier upon the rich, proportionate to their income. Income tax is the most prominent example – those on higher incomes have to pay a higher rate.

Much of the debate around the government’s response to the budget deficit has focused on its inequity. Cuts to public services and benefits affect the poor more than the rich. Public sector job cuts harm the most vulnerable. The regressive nature of VAT means it is a tax with a disproportionate effect on the budgets of poorer households. Yet few have dared to mention the alternative: raising taxes on the rich.

There are notable exceptions: the political philosopher Martin O’Neill has written in defence of redistributive taxation in the Guardian. Similarly, the IPPR has argued that the excessive focus on government spending and the relative neglect of taxation is “arbitrary”. However, George Osborne maintains that “The country has overspent; it has not been under-taxed”.

This sounds like dogma. The tax burden in the UK today is relatively low, both by international and historical standards. British taxpayers pay considerably less than the OECD average. Similarly, for most of the period under the Thatcher government, the basic rate of income tax was 30%, and the top rate 60%. Today, the basic rate is 20% and the top rate 40% (though this has been temporarily raised to 50%).

However, the left needs to be careful. The right has been criticised for putting ideology before economics in their apparent zeal to dismantle the state. The left (wherever it is) needs to be careful that it is not similarly doctrinaire about taxing the rich. We might hate inequality, and see taxation as an important means of fighting it, but we must be careful not to be vindictive and counterproductive. The potential flaw in O’Neill’s argument is that he assumes that taxing the rich is an effective substitute for cutting spending. But the right may well protest that it is not. Indeed, Osborne believes that economic sense is on his side: “Our approach is supported by the international evidence, compiled by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the International Monetary Fund and others, which found that consolidations delivered through lower spending are more effective at correcting deficits and boosting growth than consolidations delivered through tax increases”

There is some truth to this: the economic evidence does support Osborne's claim that spending cuts are more efficient than raising taxes when tackling a budget deficit. Yet the Conservatives are misleading us if they intend us to think that raising taxes is not a practical or feasible alternative. Indeed, in two-thirds of previous efforts at budget consolidation, revenue raising has been more significant than cuts. Indeed, Stephanie Guichard, author of one of the OECD reports to which Osborne alludes, has admitted “in-depth reforms of public expenditure are supposed to produce stronger consolidations, but in practice it can be easier to increase taxes if you want to get quick results”.

It appears, therefore, that there is some economic justification for the coalition’s strategy to cut the deficit. Yet there are at least three grounds for dissent. Firstly, it is not clear that the evidence justifies such an overwhelming bias towards cuts: most adjustments seek a 50:50 ratio between cuts and tax rises; Osborne’s aim is 80:20.

Second, where taxes are being raised, it is unclear that they are the right ones. VAT is rightly condemned as a regressive tax. In a time of stagnant demand, a VAT rise is hardly beneficial for growth. Given how Labour were pilloried for their ‘jobs tax’ (a rise in national insurance), it is odd that so few have picked up on the potential consequences of a rise in sales tax – a tax on economic activity. Of course, progressive taxes such as income tax can have a negative influence on growth too, but this largely depends on the strength of the link between taxes and work incentives, which is far from clear.

Most crucially, though, efficiency is not the only concern. There is nothing stupid or irrational about a society choosing a less economically efficient course if they believe that it is fairer. If it comes to it, many would sacrifice a smaller burden on the poor for a greater burden on the rich.

It is still far from self-evident that this discredits the existing government policy. But it is clear that there is a viable alternative to heavy cuts. What we need is more of a debate about the merits of the alternative.

The Vocation of Politics

With apologies to Max Weber, I believe there is a useful distinction between the two motives for participating in politics. For some, politics is a career; for others, it is a vocation. Political action brings the prospect of a job, of money, of fame and respect. Yet there are many who would remain equally passionate about their activities in the absence of all these inducements. For sure, the dichotomy is far from clear-cut: in almost every political participant there is a mix of the two motives. It seems unlikely that many careerist politicians have no deep-rooted political interests or inclinations, and even the most ardent of activists needs to make a living. Nevertheless, within each person, I believe we can distinguish these two motivational forces.

It is the idea of politics as a vocation, akin to the fervour that moves priests, that is the more interesting. Why do some feel as though politics has chosen them, rather than them consciously choosing politics? I believe that the most powerful spurs to political action are anger and outrage. People are driven to political participation by their frustration and dissent at the immorality, irrationality and stupidity that they perceive in others. Reformers and revolutionaries are inspired to action by their anger at the status quo and at received modes of thinking, conservatives by their opposition to proposals for change. I believe there is a threshold of outrage beyond which people cannot help themselves but act, and that this threshold is different for different people. Thus in times of great contention and mutual antagonism, a great number of people are motivated to act – in civil wars, independence and suffrage movements. Yet for the most part, the vast majority of people are content with the way things are, and too little provoked to feel the need for action.

Yet there is almost always a dissatisfied minority, and it seems I am among them. Despite growing up in an era of apathy, complacence and consensus, I find myself upset and angered by the most everyday of beliefs and activities. I feel the vast majority of the world acts callously and unethically, and yet feels no remorse or shame about it. Most people around me carry on as if their behaviour is justified and fail to even consider the possibility they may be in the wrong. Indeed, the way most people are set up to think makes it difficult for them to even conceive of how they are doing wrong.

Of course, when faced by such an overwhelming majority, it is necessary to consider the possibility, indeed the likelihood, that everyone else is right, and that you are a lone crackpot. Yet lone crackpots have often been ignored voices of reason, and the majority have regularly been proved by posterity to be wrong. In fact, I claim very few of my opinions to be original, and there is some comfort in knowing that you are not alone. But the comfort is scant as compared to the crushing dismay I feel at the lives and opinions of the society I live in.

The Point of this blog (Insofar as there is one)

This is just meant to be a dumping ground for random musings, thoughts and ideas, mostly of a political nature. They will not all be rigorously argued, well researched or always coherent. Hopefully there will be some insight buried in here somewhere. However, the main point of all this is to keep up the practice of formulating and articulating my thoughts. Treat these with the generosity you would give to someone wondering aloud (in other words, be gentle with me).