Wednesday, 16 August 2017

What can Philosophy learn from Economic Psychology?

I've been coming across the work of Molly Crockett increasingly in various media in recent months. Molly is a psychologist who studies issues of morality and she does a very good of linking her research to real world issues.

For example, she has suggested the possible links between Brexit and the desire to punish those who treat us unfairly in a very good 247 podcast. The argument is that a majority of people think that elites have supported globalisation that benefits them more than it does regular people and that people are willing to punish themselves economically in order to punish the elites more. This seems plausible, though it is galling if true because probably a lot of wealthy people will do just fine out of Brexit, particularly if it develops the UK into even more of an Tax haven than it already is.

A guardian article reports that people generally prefer to earn money in a fair manner rather than through exploitation. This suggests that ideas of fairness are hard-wired into us, which might explain a lot about people's views about justice (including those of political philosophers).

It has occurred to me, for instance, that children tend to complain very loudly that things are not fair. We can all recall instances of significant indignation where one sibling seemingly gets a better deal than another. This is perhaps a further example of how some basic (untutored) notion of fairness is hard-wired into us.

There is of course controversy about the link between human psychology and ethics. Nietzschean Sceptics about morality might think that we have inherited the architecture from our ancestors who needed it to survive in a prior age and that by understanding it we may be able to transcend it. We could then move to a post-moral age.

A more traditionally philosophical alternative would also hold that we should transcend any natural moral inclinations. However, instead of moving to a post-moral age we should replace our natural notions with reasoned principles of morality that improve on these impulses.

I would certainly prefer the latter, but think it is worth acknowledging that we have the brains and society we have and our moral rules have to be compatible with these.

Psychological research therefore has potential not just to inform us about how people work but also for philosophers to challenge their own intuitions and take into account how untutored moral impulses will impact the development, dissemination and application of proposed ethical theories.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

The importance of Leisure-time

A recent psychology paper has shown that people gain more happiness if they used a windfall to purchase time-saving services (increasing their leisure time) rather than material goods, as reported in a BBC article.

This shows us that many people probably spend too long working to buy things when their leisure is more valuable. It also reminds us that the most important inventions and infrastructure are those which save us time: from permanent homes (rather than temporary camps) to electricity, from indoor plumbing to washing machines and from central heating to the automobile.

If the research finding is generalizable, it implies is that a society with substantial division of labour in which we all work for each other in ways that increase our leisure might be happier.

However, it also highlights the importance of the distribution of leisure in society. Some economically fortunate people may use their good fortune to effectively purchase more leisure time for themselves. Our regressive tax system which taxes work and consumption more than windfall income fails to mitigate this unfairness.

Political philosophers are starting to recognise the importance of the distribution of leisure, for example Julie Rose’s recent book Free Time. However, my own tax proposals also fit well with this issue.

Taking account of the number of hours people work would when calculating tax through my CLIPH-Rate Tax system would greatly improve the distribution of leisure-time in society without thereby discouraging people from working (as would other radical economic proposals).

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Should carers receive assistance and even compensation?

Should carers receive assistance and even compensation?

Most political philosophers would agree that carers should receive support and even compensation for their caring activities. However, there are many potential justifications for this. These may be competing or complementary, but they provide different answers to the above questions.

Compensation for bad luck

Perhaps the most straightforward justification for supporting carers is a luck egalitarian position. This is that it is a matter of bad luck that someone’s loved one needs care. If we accept that people should not be worse off due to brute bad luck then carers are owed compensation by their society to compensate them for their ill fortune.

This is an attractive position, but while it readily justifies support for carers for the disabled it is not as straightforward regarding children. Parents could be considered to be responsible for the creation of their children and that they do not therefore suffer from bad luck – they brought the children on themselves.

Another argument from compensating bad luck would be to focus on the bad luck of the cared-for person.[1] If someone is dependent upon a poorly supported carer then this could have a significant detriment upon their own well-being. This could justify compensation for carers where it will assist the cared-for, but it might not justify support in cases where the cared-for person will have a reasonable standard of living without government support. Essentially, this justifies support for less fortunate carers but not necessarily for better off carers.

Benefit to carer/society

An alternative basis for supporting carers is to focus on the advantage that the care provides either to the carer or society, which is attractive because it would readily include children. The advantage to the carer could be that care is an important part of the good life and caring should be encouraged, supported and socially recognised.[2] However, this view is not acceptable to anti-perfectionist political philosophers such as myself who do not believe that the state should endorse any view of the good life.[3]

The advantage to society approach is therefore more promising, particularly regarding care for children who represent a future generation of citizens and workers. The argument here is that children are a vitally important public good and those who provide this good should receive support.[4] This view runs into some problem for those who are sceptical that a) providing public goods entitles someone to support or b) that all children would qualify as a public good. Furthermore, this may not justify support for carers for those who no longer provide much obvious benefit to society (for example because they are in a permanent vegetative state).

An alternative?

These positions can justify comprehensive support for parent carers. This can be done by combining some of the positions together, or by supplementing one position with some further empirical or normative premises to justify universal provision[5]. However, I wonder if it is possible to present a more attractive position.

I am interested in the idea that carers should be compensated on the basis that they are providing a service for the needy that the state would otherwise have to provide. Essentially, this combines elements of the benefit to society and benefit to cared-for positions but which would avoid some of the gaps or controversies that accompany those positions.

Does anyone know of any arguments in the literature that run along these lines? (Or a reason why it isn't worth pursuing such a line of thought!)

Dworkin, Ronald. Sovereign Virtue. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2000.
Engster, Daniel. The Heart of Justice Care Ethics and Political Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Olsaretti, Serena. "Children as Public Goods?". Philosophy & Public Affairs 41, no. 3 (2013): 226-58.
Quong, Jonathan. Liberalism without Perfection Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Rawls, John. Political Liberalism New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

[1] For example in Ronald Dworkin, Sovereign Virtue (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2000).
[2] For example in Daniel Engster, The Heart of Justice Care Ethics and Political Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
[3] John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996); Jonathan Quong, Liberalism without Perfection (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
[4] Serena Olsaretti, "Children as Public Goods?," Philosophy & Public Affairs 41, no. 3 (2013).
[5] Such as that administrative savings from universal provision would make it cheaper than means-testing or that it is wrong to discriminate between carers based on their wealth or income when they are performing the same task.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Zero Hours Contracts and the Labour Party

During the build up to the election I wrote a blog for Manchester policy expressing my scepticism about the need to ban zero-hours contracts.

Unfortunately I was a bit late getting it to them and so it was published when I was out of the country and unable to publicise it.

As things stand, though it is quite possible that Labour will be fighting another election again soon with a similar manifesto. It is still worth mentioning, therefore, though who knows what will happen in the disaster that is British politics since the vote for Brexit.

In the blog I argue that measures short of a ban should be considered, such as setting a higher minimum wage for zero-hours contracts.

I take this one example of where the Corbyn team currently leading the Labour party are a little out of touch with the economy. Unfortunately the favourable employment conditions found in the more economically developed world from the mid twentieth century no longer apply and are highly unlikely to return.

The immediate levers to which the Corbyn team turn are, to my mind, and their plans to borrow huge amounts would have economic consequences that could affect ordinary people as well as the hated 'fat cats.'

That said, I would of course prefer a Corbyn government to a Tory one, and the progressive tax proposals in the Labour manifesto represent a move in the right direction. I would just disagree on how they should be spent.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Free view of my book review - limited time only

In my previous blog I mentioned that my review of Julie Rose's book Free Time (Princeton University Press, 2016) has been accepted for publication in the journal Res Publica.

Well, it is now available online and the publisher has provided a link to get a free view of it.

I'm not sure how long the above link will work for, but the publication page (which will probably require you to pay or use an institutional login to view the review) can be found here.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Julie Rose's book Free Time

I'm pleased to report that my review of Julie Rose's book Free Time (Princeton University Press, 2016) has been accepted for publication in the journal Res Publica.

Here is a photo of me with the book (which has a very attractive cover).

Julie prefers the term Free Time to leisure because it captures the idea that what matters is that we have time where we do not have any binding commitments.

Those with a lot of wealth or high hourly incomes can not only buy themselves goods and services, but also in many cases enjoy more free time than the rest of their society.

In my own work on taxation and benefits I have emphasised that this is not captured very accurately in our current tax and benefit system, and that doing so would be fairer and more economically efficient. My CLIPH-rate tax proposals are designed with these generally overlooked issues in mind.

I think the book is very good and while I disagree on certain points it does an excellent job of showing how important yet underappreciated free time by liberal philosophers of distributive justice.

I hope that Julie, myself and others will continue to develop theories which emphasise the importance of leisure/free time.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Oxford University Press festival of philosophy

For the next week there will be a series of philosophy events taking place in Oxford. 

These have been organised by Oxford University Press along with the Oxford University Department for Continuing Education and Blackwell’s bookshop.

Next Saturday at 10.30 I will be on a panel discussing equality at Blackwell’s bookshop on Broad Street Oxford.

I’ve just been told it is fully booked but it might be worth contacting the organisers anyway or showing up on the day if you are particularly interested.

There are lots of other interesting events taking place as well.