Monday, March 27, 2017

Mohist Trolley `Problem'

Usually it's pretty light fare here, but I'm delighted to be able to announce that I recently rediscovered and translated a new ancient Mohist text! Read on, comrades, for some exiting new-old philosophy!

Master Mo Zi spoke, saying ``In ancient times, kings, dukes, and great men, if they genuinely desired success, designed roads and transportation systems, that the alters of grain and soil may be well tended to. One day, travelling down one of these roads, came a man with a heavy cart pulled by many tempestuous white horses. This man had failed to appease his ancestors' ghosts, and so when approaching a fork in the road his horses suddenly bolted, and would not slow down no matter what he said. If he failed to steer his horses they would surely bolt down the East road, but if he exerted great effort and pulled a special lever on his cart, he could direct his horses down the West road, for he could steer even as he could not halt the horses.

Mo Zi -- ``Liam once described me as a
`pedantic proto-fascist who just wanted us
all to love each other''. Have to say, this
picture probably helps his case.''
Now, as it happened there were workers on both paths -- five workers on the East, and one worker on the West road. Unfortunately, at the time this happened a wicked local prince was having music played at great volume in his nearby palace, so the workers would not hear his horses approach, nor would they heed his pleas for them to clear his path. Whatever he did, therefore, this man was to strike and surely kill some workers. The people of this age wonder, should the cart driver remain on the East road, or pull the lever and go down the West road?

Now, the way in which a benevolent man conducts affairs must be to promote the world's benefit and eliminate the world's harms. It is in this way he conducts affairs. How does he do this? I say it is by the following means. If the people of the world are poor, he works to make them rich; if the people of the world are few, he works to make them many; if the people of the world are in disorder, he works to bring them to order. Never has there been, from the ancient times to the present, someone who failed to bring order to the people and to the world by means of promoting the world's benefit and eliminating its harm, so this is what a benevolent man would surely do.

Yet, the people of this age are divided, and some say the cart driver should go East, others say he must pull the lever and go West, and each say of themselves `We are upholding and abiding by the Way of Yao, Shun, Yu, Tang, Wen, and Wu'. Nevertheless, their words are mutually contradictory and their actions are mutually opposed. And because of this, the gentlemen of our generation are all in doubt and confusion regarding the two positions.

In evaluating the cart driver's choice, therefore, let us see how they accord with the three benefits. Could a benevolent man hope to increase the world's riches by ensuring the cart driver remains on the East path? Surely it is not so! If the cart driver kills five workers rather than just one there will be less artisans to carry out the hundred tasks, which means the sage king's roads and transportation systems will be worse for wear, which means the alters of soil and grain will not be tended to by the farmers. To enrich the people in this way would be like preventing ploughing but seeking to reap! Therefore Mo Zi says: you must pull the lever!

If the wish is to increase the number of people, is this perhaps possible on the East road? Surely it is not so! If the cart driver kills five workers rather than just one there will be less workers by means of this very action! What is more, these five workers will not themselves go on to child more workers, who themselves will not go on to child more workers, and so on. When one considers the thousand generations, the losses will be as if one has declared offensive war on one's own people. Therefore Mo Zi says: you must pull the lever!
Philippa Foot -- ``I regret everything.''

Perhaps the benevolent man wishes to bring order to the world, could this be done on the East road? Surely it is not so! When one person dies, we all know it brings disorder into the lives of the families affected. But if the death of one person is the cause of great disorder, could the death of five people bring less disorder? This would be to pile weight on to the scales and yet find the balance grows lighter! Surely, five workers dead would be the source of great disorder in the world, much more so than one worker. Therefore Mo Zi says: you must pull the lever!

Plus, now we're getting closer and judging from his cap,  that `worker' on the West path might actually be some fucking Confucian. Pull the lever!''

Friday, March 24, 2017

Keep Calm and Carry On

Here's a thought I have been mulling in the wake of the terrorist murders in London the other day. I think the following is true: one should never change one's voting habits in light of terrorism. And, in the present context, I think that means: despite the fact that they often seem to gain electorally from terrorism, one should not in fact reward the far right with votes or support in other forms in light of terrorism. Here's my thinking.

Let's assume that politicians are largely short sighted and self interested. That is to say, they want power, and they want it now, and it is the striving of (immediate) power after power that governs their actions. In a broadly democratic system how does one get this power? Well, by convincing the population to vote for you or support you in other means. Suppose, then, it becomes apparent that the way for you to gain support is for people to be constantly afraid of terrorist attacks, for there to be the odd random murder, or even mass murder -- will a politician whose route to power is via such things be well incentivised to actually stop them occurring should they gain power?

Some thought experiments to back this up: does anybody suppose that it would be bad for Trump if there were to be a high profile attack from Islamist terrorists? It would surely be great for him, and he knows it. In light of that, do we really trust him to do things that will make terrorism less rather than more likely? Or, at least, if ever there is a choice between looking tough and making Islamic terrorism less likely -- does anybody suppose even for a moment that he would choose to make Islamic terrorism less likely at the expense of looking tough? It's scarce worth even considering, so obvious is it where his incentives lie. Likewise, a more fantastical thought experiment: suppose there were a button that Marine Le Pen could press that would make terrorism stop tomorrow, and would render the public at ease and confident in this regard; if her choice were to remain secret, who seriously thinks she would press that button? It would be a disaster for her! And here's one from real life -- right wing factions in the Israeli government tried to have calls to prayer silenced; I think it is just obvious that this is because i ) doing so would provoke a violent reaction, and ii ) the right stands to gain where there is violence and tension.

It thus strikes me as important that we do not empower people on the basis of terrorism. If we do that, we just give our leaders every reason to look the other way in the face of terrorist threats as far as they can, or even provoke such threats where possible. Such is their route to power -- and, as noted, I work with the assumption that politicians want power. We have to, as the folk saying from my homeland goes, keep calm and carry on.

One might say: does this not prove too much? Isn't this effectively an argument never to change your vote in response to social problems because then it empowers people incentivised to perpetuate the problem? To which I have two replies. First, I don't think that is proving too much! We should think seriously about the real incentives of the government, and we should take seriously the very real problems with representative democracy. We ought consider more direct forms of democracy. Second, I think terrorism might be different from other social problems. The nature of the threat is that a lot of what must be done to deal with it is subtle or secretive -- spies infiltrating cells, long term outreach and development in relevant communities, subtle social social changes in what kind of things are considered appropriate, etc. It will generally be especially hard for us to keep track of whether or not the government is even trying to do these things, let alone whether or not they are doing it effectively.  We're peculiarly vulnerable to being manipulated here.

London has faced down threats far worse than this in the past. The city has seen invaders come and go, has been burnt to the ground and rebuilt, has had plagues decimate its population. It goes on.  We weren't cowed by the IRA, the full might of the Luftwaffe didn't break us. We go on. I am confident that the city, the people, of London will do what must be done, and the delusional fascists of Islamic terrorism are bound to lose.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Akan Epistemic Democracy

A colleague made a literature request of me, so I reacquainted myself with work on Asante political structures in order to be able to give him better advice. Just a very quick note on what I am finding.

I am struck by two features of the (I think largely 19th C.) Asanteman political order -- 1 ) the actual ideas behind it seem pretty good, as despotisms go. The author I am reading has somewhat different focuses than I do, so I'll redescribe what they said (or so it seems to me!) to try and make salient social epistemic features of this system. It seems that in the ideal case social decisions in Asanteman were made after a period of lengthy consultation that went as follows. Village elders host consultations with community members about the matter at hand, each elder taking testimony from their own clan. The elders then meet, discuss the matter until they reach a consensus to their own satisfaction, and either make a decision themselves if the issue only affects their village, or transmit their reasonings and decision upwards to a higher council if it is a broader regional issue. Information is meant to flow up a nested chain of deliberation councils, until some point in the chain sufficiently high up such that joint action is needed. At  the lowest level possible, one further deliberation takes place until a decision is made. Each of these deliberation councils will have a chief (or somebody playing a similar role) attached, the decision is officially made by this person -- but they are bound by oath to follow consensus, and only act as a tie breaker should consensus not be possible.

 Thus, in theory at least, by means of the nested chains of deliberation councils, the final decision maker is acting on the basis of pooled information from the entire affected population, with separate regions holding largely independent pools. Just rereading this I think it sounds interesting to model, and I would want a model before pronouncing confidently, but my informed-intuition as a social epistemologist makes me think that this is a system lots of attractive features.

2 ) I was roughly aware of the points in (1), even if when I first read this stuff I hadn't yet refined my intuitions with training in social epistemology. But, what struck me the first time was how very very unrobust this system is to bad decision makers. In theory the above is how it works out, but there is basically no guarantee that the people charged with transmitting the information upwards or making the final decision actually listen to the counsel they got from the level below. It is always constitutionally possible for somebody at some stage to just make a judgement call, for whatever reason, that ignores what they have been told, and either transmit up their idiosyncratic opinion or make an idiosyncratic final judgement call as chief. Finally, there is nothing to stop chiefs making `snap decisions' and simply mandating something without first going through the consultation process. (It is of course necessary that this be possible, because the above process is by its nature very slow, and in cases of national emergency it is not applicable.) The literature I am reading is keen to stress that historically chiefs who pulled these shenanigans too often wound up dead or deposed, but still. I should like bad agents to be removable by some means short of coup d'etat. Checks and balances are a fundamentally good feature of government, and Asanteman's constitution was severely lacking in this regard. 

But I have to say, rereading this literature, I am now struck by how far the decentralisation does protect against the worst of this. Decisions are settled at the lowest possible level; if only for practical reasons one rarely transmits all the way up to the Asantehene before decisions get made. This means that one is in effect i ) protected from bad decision makers causing too much trouble, and ii ) can achieve something like the ideal of small scale social experiment, as different regions can make a go at different policy, and observe the consequences therefrom. I do not know if this opportunity was really explored (I am not familiar enough with the history, but from what I do know the tastes of the region ran conservative, making experimentation, or adoption of experiments even where successful, somewhat unlikely). But it is inherent in the system that it is at least possible.


Kwame Gyekye -- ``Liam is largely, but not entirely,
drawing from my research for the content of this post.''
In unfortunate circumstances, I have seen the remnants of this system in action. My uncle passed away, and my aunts went to Ghana for the funeral. While there they witnessed and filmed deliberation taking place regarding how my orphaned cousin was to be cared for. I watched the video, and the system worked as described above. Testimony was heard from various parties. After everyone said their piece, town elders deliberated among themselves and came to a consensus decision. (Being a local decision, no upwards transmission necessary.) It was by all accounts a successful resolution of a somewhat complicated case, and my family were impressed. At the time I did worry that this system seemed unrobust to bad decision makers. But now I read about how this was meant to work in its broader context, I can see that Asanteman's constitutional order actually had more virtue than I gave it credit for. Not to be doughy eyed! It is still a despotism; the tie-breaking agenda-setting chiefs can only be selected from within aristocratic families, and were limited to being men (though women were not excluded from the broader deliberative process). Still, as Gyekye points out -- the system was evolving over time, and if it hadn't have been stamped out by British colonialism who knows what it could have achieved.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Memories and their Meaning

In which I am uncomfortably emotional (for a British person). I have recently accepted a (deferred) position at the London School of Economics -- I will be a professor there starting in August of 2018. This is the kind of thing that gives people moment to reflect on Where They Are, and, millennial that I am, I have decided to do at least some of that publicly on the interwebosphere.

Two things primarily come to mind. First, I miss my mother. Very cliché! But true for that. From a working class immigrant family, she is the first person in my family (well I only know with any degree of confidence: that I am descended from) to go to university; at Oxford no less, where she studied English literature. She died when I was 14, before I was really the person I am now. If all goes to plan, I will be the first person in my family to get a PhD, also in a humanities field, and with this job offer also the first to work as a professional-intellectual. I think I have grown into someone who has more in common with her than I did when she was alive. I cannot regret not being this person back then -- I was young and immature and could only have been so; I needed to go through what I did to become who I am. But, if not regret, as I reflect on my life now I find that there is still a feeling in the region that I am struggling to capture. One day, one hopes and is taught by faith, we will be reunited, in some sense, in some way. In the mean time, though, I shall carry this with me, and hope that I at least will honour her memory.

Second, I am thinking about the life I have chosen. I said above that I shall be the first professional-intellectual in my family; but what an odd thing to be! A ``professional-intellectual''; it even sounds ridiculous, though I think it is quite accurate as a description of my future role as a professor of philosophy. Why have I made this odd decision to be something I think absurd when said out loud?

I have recently been watching the films of Makoto Shinkai. He tells and retells the same story, stated at the right level of abstraction. The story is of two people who share an intensely emotional experience together, the natural fulfillment or culmination of what they shared would be a romantic relationship -- but circumstances intervene, they are unable to develop that relationship, and instead they must find some other way to live a life in fidelity to that experience and what it meant. (This is not spoilers; it is usually very obvious from the get-go that this this is what is happening, and in any case by this point he is a big enough name in the market he is aiming at that he writes films with the expectation that his audience will know this is the deal before they go in.) I think that what draws me to these films at this moment, in addition to their beautiful animation and touching portrayals of every day lives, is that at one more level of abstraction I can really identify with that story, at this point in my life.

When I was younger, in the period after my mother died (probably not coincidentally!) I was sure I was going to be a priest in the Catholic Church. Especially vivid, I recall when I was 16 going on a pilgrimage to the monastery at Assisi. Looking out over the mountains on a clear summer's day, inwardly I was so sure, my life path was affirmed, I knew who I was and what I wanted to be. Circumstances intervened. That is not the path I am on now. Maybe it is not even related to what I am doing now: the fact, that this experience has been so much on my mind may be more related, in none-too-flattering a manner, to the recent debate in the philosophy blogosphere about self-importantly taking our work as The Work -- see here, and follow links backwards. Perhaps so. But, for all that, I do hope that, in some ways, I am none the less still remaining faithful to that experience, and what it meant to me, and the aspirations and ideals I held and still hold.