The Logic of Chilcot

7 Jul

Chilcot said (paraphrase) ‘I think a leader should be straight with the country AND should take the country with them; Blair didn’t do this’. The negation of a conjunction doesn’t imply the negation of both conjuncts. Therefore, Chilcot didn’t say Blair wasn’t straight with the country.

(N.B. I think the bastard lied. I’m just making a logical point.)


Is the Teddy Bears’ Picnic Logically Consistent?

22 Jun

Having recently reproduced, I have found myself singing a lot of children’s songs. I was distressed recently to notice what seems to be a logical contradiction in the ‘Teddy Bears’ Picnic’ song. I don’t have many expectations for my daughter, but I couldn’t bear the idea that she would grow up failing to respect norms of rationality. Therefore, I won’t be singing that song to her again.

I happened to post this finding on Facebook, expecting, perhaps, that my mum would like it (she’s a big fan of the law of non-contradiction). To my surprise, there was great interest, and some of the greatest philosophical minds on the planet took it upon themselves to solve this paradox and rescue the teddy bear’s picnic from the philosophical dustbin. It’s possible that I’ve happened upon a whole new branch of philosophy, and so I’ve embedded this high-level discussion in this post. (I was intending to compile a taxonomy of the various proposals, but then I realised I can’t be bothered).

Russellian Monism Conference

20 Jun

In the past few years, many philosophers have been getting excited about a new (or rather rediscovered) theory of consciousness that has become known as ‘Russellian monism’ (I have a video on this a couple of posts ago). I’m co-organising this amazing conference on the topic. More details here: russellianmonismposter_1

Would Labour Tax Too Much?

8 Jun

One way to interpret this question is in economic terms: Would Labour’s tax plan have a negative effect on the economy? But as I am a philosopher rather than an economist, I will focus on the moral interpretation of the question: Are Labour planning to take too much from the individuals (all in the top 5%) from whom they plan to raise taxes?

Most people agree that inequality is a bad thing, especially the gross levels of inequality that have arisen since the Thatcher/Reagan revolution of the 80s. However, many people think the moral imperative to reduce inequality needs to be balanced against the moral imperative to let people keep a reasonable amount of ‘their money.’ This argument, for example, was made many times by David Cameron as Prime Minister. The thought is this: Yes, inequality is bad, but on the other hand people have a right to the money they’ve earned, and it’s unfair to take it from them above a certain level, even if this helps to reduce inequality. I have heard Michael Portillo argue on BBC Radio Four’s ‘Moral Maze’ (a very frustrating show to listen to if you’ve had any philosophical training) that the state should never take more than half of an individual’s income.

Although very common, this line of reasoning is utterly confused. Your gross (or pre-tax) income is just the money the market delivers to you. So if you have some special moral claim on your gross income, this must be because there is some special moral significance to market outcomes. But only the most extreme political philosophies are able to make coherent sense of this idea, and these political philosophies are inconsistent with the idea that inequality has any moral significance.

One the one hand we have the philosophical position known as ‘libertarianism’, according to which market outcome are always perfectly just as they are the result of voluntary transactions between free individuals. If you have this view, then there’s nothing wrong with inequality, so long as it results from the free market. For the libertarian, if the market dictates that a banker receives a hundred times than a care worker, then that is how things ought to be.*

Crucially, libertarianism is the only theory ever proposed in the history of political philosophy according to which market transactions have any intrinsic moral significance. And it’s not a theory you can compromise on. If the state interferes in the market by redistributing wealth or taxing to fund public services or education – even a little – then the resulting distribution no longer reflects the voluntary transactions of free individuals, and hence no longer has the moral significance libertarians impute to it. If libertarianism is true, then market outcomes are just, but only if the market is completely free, and hence only if there is no redistribution of wealth whatsoever.

On the other hand, if libertarianism is false, then market transactions have no intrinsic moral significance. There may be economic reasons for giving some respect to market outcomes – a questions I am not primarily addressing here – but that is another matter. And if market transactions have no intrinsic moral significance, then we cannot make sense of the idea that individuals have a special moral claim on their gross income, a claim that should temper the moral need to address inequality.

In summary: If libertarianism is true, then there’s nothing wrong with inequality; but if libertarianism is false, then the argument that taxing people above a certain level takes too much of ‘their money’ makes no sense.

What is the moral of the story? If you would like to see zero redistribution and no public services and publicly funded health care/education whatsoever, then you don’t need me to tell you that you probably shouldn’t vote Labour. But if you don’t sign up to such extreme ideologies, then worries about the moral rights of people on 3 times the average wage to keep more of ‘their money’ make no sense.

The only remaining question is whether Labour’s choice to focus income tax rises on the top 5%, as opposed to the population more generally, will crash the economy. I’m not an economist so I won’t offer an opinion on this matter, other than to point out the obvious fact that the top 5% (who of course dominate the media) have a huge incentive to persuade the population that it will.


*I’m ignoring left libertarianism for the sake of simplicity, something I explore in a lengthier piece on these issues I’m currently working on.




Video: Russellian Monism

21 Apr

Last week I posted a video outlined one way of understanding the problem of consciousness. Now here’s the solution.

Video: The Zombie Argument Against Physicalism

12 Apr

Here is a 20 minute lecture, in which I outline a classic challenge to physicalism.

Why Taxation Still isn’t Theft

3 Apr

An episode of the Tom Woods Show (a libertarian podcast series) recently discussed a piece I wrote a few years ago for Tax Justice Network on the ethics of taxation. I thought this was a pretty interesting and intelligent discussion and well worth listening to.

The setup, however, was a little disingenuous. One gets the impression listening to the show that libertarianism is entirely free of evaluative assumptions and that in contrast the opponents of libertarianism are hopelessly mired in contentious assumptions about what is or isn’t valuable. They continually point out, for example, that in my piece I didn’t argue for a specific view about how wealth ought to be distributed (a little much to expect in a 1,000 word article!).

The truth is that libertarianism is itself knee-deep in highly contentious evaluative assumptions. It’s easy to overlook this when we imagine that libertarianism is all about free exchange between consenting adults. But the whole system doesn’t get off the ground unless we make two assumptions about natural rights:

Assumption A: Each human has a natural and morally fundamental right of ownership over her or his own body.
Assumption B: Humans can acquire natural and morally fundamental rights of ownership over land and material objects in the external world.

Assumption A is pretty plausible (although not entirely uncontroversial: a utilitarian would claim that our rights over our own bodies are grounded in facts about the promotion of well-being). But Assumption B is incredibly contentious, and indeed it is defended by only a small minority of moral and political philosophers (even smaller if we set aside the ‘left libertarians’ who argue that assumption B is compatible with egalitarianism).

This is not to say that there is no such thing as property. But it is generally assumed that property rights are social constructions rather than natural rights, which we can shape as we choose according to what we take to be valuable. On the one hand, many think it important for human flourishing that a person has some things over which they can express their autonomy; hence there is a need for legally protected property rights. On the other hand, many judge it morally important to ensure that each person has enough for a decent standard of living and that the gap between the haves and the have-nots does not become too wide; hence the need to make the right to property conditional on the payment of taxes to facilitate redistribution of the wealth.

What are we to do if human judgements about what is valuable conflict (a point continuously returned to in this podcast)? I’ve got a simple, old-fashioned answer: political parties represent the options and the people vote. Libertarians can argue for their conception of economic conception of economic justice, egalitarians and sufficientarians* can argue for theirs, and we can let the voters decide.**

What are the arguments for Assumption B? None is offered in this podcast. I can understand why ducking the issue is an effective PR strategy for the libertarian. Libertarianism is far more attractive when its moral assumptions (particularly Assumption B) are kept covert, when it presents itself as a simple rallying call for ‘freedom.’ But the fundamental concern of the libertarian is not freedom but the protection of ‘natural’ property rights. The problem is that it’s far from obvious that such things exist.


*Sufficientarians argue that justice requires that everyone enjoys conditions of life that place them above the threshold that marks the minimum required for a decent (good enough) quality of life
**I’m not saying there isn’t a fact of the matter as to which theory of justice is correct, but while controversy about the ethical truth persists we should decide by democracy which conception of justice to aim at.