As the great man's guest must produce his good stories or songs at the evening banquet, as the platform orator exhibits his telling facts at mid-day, so the journalist lies under the stern obligation of extemporizing his lucid views, leading ideas, and nutshell truths for the breakfast table.
Cardinal J. H. Newman, Preface to The Idea of a University, 1852

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Armed forces day

Yesterday was armed forces day. I was wondering why we should have a day for the armed forces but not, say, social workers*, medical workers, police, or whatever.

Maybe it is because the armed forces risk their lives for their country? But so do others - albeit to a lesser extent. Police certainly do at times, and don't underestimate the risk faced by medical staff or even social workers.

And of course we already have a day to remember all people killed in armed conflict - remembrance day.

The unique thing about the armed forces is that we ask them to kill for their country. That's a pretty big thing to ask of someone, so maybe it is right that we have special day for it. But maybe we need to be clear that that's what this day is about.

* I mention social workers especially because I happen to think they do a particularly thankless task. They are poorly paid, they get all the flack when something goes wrong and precious little appreciation for the good they achieve.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Humans prefer cockiness to expertise

From the New Scientist:

Humans prefer cockiness to expertise
EVER wondered why the pundits who failed to predict the current economic crisis are still being paid for their opinions? It's a consequence of the way human psychology works in a free market, according to a study of how people's self-confidence affects the way others respond to their advice.
This is one of those things that rings true. There are a few people I could point to...

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Peter Singer

About Peter Singer in the Guardian 23/5/09:
Singer's argument, as first laid out in an essay in 1971, isn't hard to follow. "If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it ... If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing." As he added, however, the "uncontroversial appearance" of this argument is deceptive. Considerations of distance, or of how many potential rescuers there might be, are irrelevant to Singer: the child you see dying of malnutrition or a preventable disease on the foreign news has as much of a claim on you as the child in the pond. Spending your surplus income on consumer treats rather than efforts to end extreme poverty, he concludes, isn't greatly different morally from leaving the toddler to drown.


Needless to say, this is a challenging position - "almost impossible to argue with", as the political theorist David Runciman once wrote, "but also very difficult to accept."


Singer's own approach to ethics, a version of utilitarianism, has deep roots in the English-language tradition, but it's scarcely uncontroversial. One famous criticism, associated with Williams, is that it's implausibly demanding, making people as responsible for the things they fail to do as the things they bring about. Williams's ultimate point was highly technical; Singer, in discussing it, soon brings the argument back to practical outcomes. "I think we can set standards that limit our responsibilities to help people. But I wouldn't want to say, therefore we're only responsible for our acts and not for our omissions.
If we want to be moral, I can't see any way out of this other than, for me, Christian forgiveness. It's another reason why I remain in the church while not, in any straightforward sense anyway, 'believing in God'. Things they fail to do has strong echos for those of us brought up in the C of E:
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done,
And we have done those things which we ought not to have done,
And there is no health in us:
But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders
Book of Common Prayer

I don't know you'd find much support for that expression ('miserable offenders') nowadays - within the church or without - but, there you go, the money I spend on, say, going to watch the MK Dons, could have saved lives. How can that make me anything other than a miserable offender?

But, back to Singer in the Guardian, on why you have to include 'things undone':
If you draw a hard line there, you end up saying that really quite trivial things are wrong because they're violations of my positive responsibility not to cheat or whatever ..." He casts about for an example. "Well, we have it all over the tabloids, don't we: I charged the government £5 for watching porn movies, right? I had the opportunity to save a child's life, either by ruining my shoes in the pond or by giving some spare money I had to Oxfam, but somehow that's not as important to assessing whether I'm a decent person or not as whether I cheated the government out of £5 to watch a porn movie. And I think that's the wrong set of priorities, that sends the wrong sort of message."
This leads into issues of moral equivalence (I don't think that's quite the right term, but it'll do for the moment), and I'd like to explore, for example, fiddling expense against the death of hundreds of thousands. Shame Hazel Blears is implicated in both! But thats for another time.

MP's expenses

Everyone has a view on it. We can easily agree, no-one is going to defend the ducks island. But, I'm wondering if its Parkinson's Law of Triviality (more time spent on discussing the colour of the bike shed than decisions on a nuclear power plant because everyone can understand the bike shed).

I'm not defending the duck's island either, or the fiddling around with the second homes and the like. But, maybe the hours spent on it - dominating the news for weeks - is out of proportion? Maybe, I don't know, global warming, poverty, injustice, maybe some of these are more important?

It'd be intesting to explore whether there is any correlation between the behaviour of MPs over expenses and how they vote. I was pleased to hear that Hilary Benn was clean over expenses - claimed a total of £140 last year, if I remember correctly. That sort of fits with my simple view of the goodies and baddies. Tony Benn is a goodie, and so to, it seems, is his son.