Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun


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Inequality in the UK

I read some interesting facts about inequality in the UK today, including the alarming fact that the UK is the fourth most unequal country for income distribution in the OECD and most unequal in Europe (although, interestingly levels of wealth inequality are comparatively low). That’s pretty bad. However, when I looked at the list of countries with lower income inequality than the UK, I quickly realised that I’d rather be at the bottom of the UK income bracket than in many of the countries that do better than us.

Inequality is a good indicator of a problem, but it’s not necessarily what really matters. What matters more is well-being, and whilst inequality is certainly an important contributing factor for well-being, its not everything.

The UK is fourth worst in the OECD for income inequality and the worst in Europe, but it also ranks well for quality of life. The US rates worse than the UK for inequality, but better for quality of life. Russia ranks better than the UK for inequality, but much, much worse for well-being. As an alternative to the OECD’s Better Life Index, you can also check out the Social Progress Index (we rank pretty well in that too). The OECD also provide a really interesting tool for viewing regional well-being, that too casts a different light on the inequality figures.

Inequality isn’t bad for its own sake, it’s bad because it can indicate or contribute to other things which are bad: poverty, social stigma, ability to influence political community etc. So, whilst it’s bad that we have high levels of various types of inequality compared to other developed countries, the UK is actually good place to live and we ought to think carefully about whether the measures being used to support various arguments tell the whole story.


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Patriotic Purchasing: is there a duty to buy British?

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the calls politicians and other public figures often make; that we should “Buy British!”. I can think of circumstances where it might be a good thing to purchase on patriotic grounds: for example, it might have all sorts of good consequences (economic, environmental, community-forming etc), or it might express the virtue of loyalty. It’s in this vein that Boris Johnson and Nick Clegg made the statements below in 2012 and 2009 respectively.

“Imagine if we all bought English wine, as well as British beef and British milk. Imagine if every government-funded function were refreshed with English wine, rather than Chilean cabernet sauvignon. Think of the boost for jobs and growth in the wine sector in this country. Think of the difference to the balance of trade – now about as bad as it has been in our lifetimes. Think of the difference to this country’s prospects if – ceteris paribus – we bought British.”
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/9772246/This-new-year-raise-your-glass-to-a-Buy-British-campaign.html

“economic recovery starts at home. Consumers should be proud to Buy British – and buy local – particularly at a time of recession.”
http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/nick-clegg-buy-british-to-stimulate-371852#ixzz2rGK9jPtS

What I’ve been wondering however, is not whether it might be good to buy British, but whether we might be morally required to purchase patriotically.

Initially, I thought it pretty obvious that we can’t possibly have duties to buy stuff off our fellow citizens just because they are our fellows. In fact, the thought that we might ever have a duty to buy something full stop is intuitively implausible. Unless, of course, we’ve specifically made an agreement to do so by signing a contract or making a promise. None of us has made an agreement to buy British goods though.

However, I’m beginning to think that there are at least a few possible arguments that can be made. I’m not yet sure they are strong arguments, but they are at least a start and I won’t be sure of my position until I’ve found the strongest arguments for and against.

One thought is that purchasing from compatriots might be a way to fulfil an imperfect duty to them. If we have duties to protect and promote the well-being of others, then a way we could fulfil that duty is by buying from them. Perhaps my neighbour’s business is struggling, and I know that he’s invested everything in it – his shop is a central component of his conception of the good life. Richard Dagger has argued that we have a duty to protect and promote the ability of others to lead an autonomous life.1 Knowing that the success of his business is important to his being able to exercise his autonomy, I persuade my other neighbours to shop with him and in doing so his business survives and we all fulfil our duties.

I think this argument works, but what it doesn’t do is show that a) I have a duty to buy from businesses that are succeeding well, or b) that this is a duty which springs from my neighbour’s status as a compatriot rather than a general duty owed to everyone. Indeed, I might have a stronger duty to purchase goods from a distant stranger if I know their need is greater. Because of this, it can’t easily motivate a duty to “Buy British!”.

One reply to this could be to slot in an argument for preferring compatriots to non-compatriots. I shan’t outline such an argument here, but there are a few routes for claiming that we should give extra weight to the interests of compatriots. Doing this might at least provide a reply to point b) above. And, one could respond to a) by saying that the duty to purchase patriotically only obtains when the economy is in trouble. In fact, it seems like calls to “Buy British!” are usually made in hard times, so this reply has the virtue of making the analysis relevant to practice.

However, neither of these responses can escape the fact that if purchasing patriotically is merely a means of fulfilling an imperfect duty then if I can fulfil my duty to my neighbour in some other way I am permitted to do so. Perhaps we could make an argument that purchasing from compatriots is the only way to fulfil duties, or that we have an overriding reason to choose it as a means of fulfilling duties. Those seems like unlikely scenarios, but I’ll concede that they are at least possible. Another possible circumstance where we might have a duty to buy from compatriots is if we have good independent reasons for boycotting all alternative products. Again, this is unlikely but possible, and it only applies to goods we can’t live without (since we still have the option of not buying other goods and doing without).

All in all, it looks like that although we might have reasons ceteris paribus for favouring our compatriots in our purchasing decisions, the circumstances where we could have duties to do so are very narrow. When it comes to it though, other things are rarely equal – a very great number of the products we buy could benefit distant strangers in far greater need than our nearby compatriots. Unless the arguments for preferring compatriots are strong, then calls to purchase on patriotic grounds will have little moral force.

1. Richard Dagger, “Rights, Boundaries, and the Bonds of Community: A Qualified Defense of Moral Parochialism,” The American Political Science Review 79, no. 2 (June 1, 1985): 437.


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Compensating for historic wrongs: intergenerational justice and rectification

I’ve been reading a very interesting paper on environmental groups whilst on the train down to Cornwall. Part of the paper is devoted to a discussion of the Environmental Direct Action Group (EDAG), whose political statement argues that the north should repay its ‘ecological debt’ to the south. [Edit: a chat with the author of the paper in question has revealed why I didn't recognise the name EDAG - it's a pseudonym].

The idea that current generations should repay debts owed by their forefathers is a common one; it occurs in environmental discourses, in discourses around colonialism, and, of course, in political theory literature. Nozick, for example, includes a principle of rectification for past unjust acquisition of property, and this principle stretches back through the generations. Nozick doesn’t really specify how best to resolve who owes whom what, and he admits that that’s something of a gap in his theory. I dislike those sorts of gaps, so when the paper I’ve been reading made passing reference to this principle of intergenerational restitution I stopped for a moment to consider.

Imagine your great grandfather stole some land from my great grandfather. Later he gave it to his son – your grandfather. Later, your grandfather planted some apple trees on the land, and cared for them for many years. When your grandfather grew old, he gifted the orchard he’d created to his son. Your father took the apples from the by-now flourishing orchard and sold them at a local market. He became a successful apple seller. Later, your father sold his stall at the market, and gave the profits, together with the orchard and his accumulated savings, to you.

Now, recall that the land was initially unjustly acquired from my great-grandfather. If the rectification principle holds then what do you owe me? At the very least we might think that you owe me the plot of land. Given that land ownership typically also comes with usufructory rights – rights to enjoy its fruits – we’d probably also want to say that so you should pay also pay me the value of the trees and apples grown on it while your family possessed it. But, it doesn’t seem right for you to also pay me the value of the labour that your forefathers put into growing those fruits; their labour was not itself unjustly acquired, even if the object of it was. Thus, compensation owed to me is the value of the initially unjustly acquired land, plus the value of what it produced, minus the value of the labour that went into that production: land + fruit – labour.

That all looks fairly straightforward, but sadly I think things are a good deal more complicated. Why should I think that you owe me anything because of the actions of your grandfather? After all, he was responsible not you. We don’t think people are responsible for the actions of people they have even met! And, surely any compensation is owed to the initially wronged party, not to his descendants. You’ve not wronged me, so why do you owe me? How can you owe me for a wrong done to my great grandfather by your great grandfather?

One response might be to claim that I’ve been deprived of a good I otherwise would have had. Whilst you are not to blame for the initial theft, by nevertheless holding on to what isn’t really rightfully yours (since your great grandfather was never entitled to it), you still wrong me. If a thief steals a my car, and gives it to a stranger, that stranger should return it to me – they have no right to keep it, it’s mine. All of that looks plausible. However, there’s a big problem lurking because  a presently existing thief stealing my car is not like a thief in the past stealing my grandfather’s car.

The problem lies in thinking that I own what was stolen from my great grandfather: that I would otherwise have come to own the land had it not been for the theft. The difficulty becomes apparent when we consider what’s known as ‘The Non-Identity Problem’ (from Derek Parfit). The Non-Identity Problem draws our attention to the fact that very small variations around the time of a conception result in the baby conceived growing up to be a different person than they otherwise would have. Anyone who has watched Back to the Future or Quantum Leap (I’m revealing my age here) knows the risks associated with altering the timeline even slightly! What this means for the problem above is that your great grandfather’s act of theft could have changed the circumstances of my grandfather’s conception. As a result of your great grandfather’s theft the ‘I’ who would have otherwise benefited from a good is not the same as the ‘I’ that presently exists. In fact, it rather seems that I owe my existence in part to your grandfather’s theft and so I should perhaps be grateful to him. On top of this are a series of built-in assumptions that my great grandfather would have otherwise gifted the land to his son, and he to his, and he to me, and that they each would have profited from it, that they would not have sold it, gambled it away, ruined it, or given it to someone else. Those are a lot of assumptions to make. All in all, it doesn’t look promising for the principle of intergenerational rectification.

I started thinking about this problem with the opinion that presently existing people ought to make recompense for the wrongs of their forefathers. Now it seems that whilst the north has no just entitlement to the benefits gained at the historical expense of the south, neither does it owe the presently existing south anything by way of compensation for those benefits. I’m still tempted to think that it would be good for the north to compensate the south, but I’m minded to think this is out of a sense of benevolence rather than because anything is actually owed as a matter of justice. This is quite an unsatisfactory and unexpected conclusion, and goes against my intuitions rather, so perhaps someone out there can provide a better one in response?


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Bio-plastic, meat consumption, & global warming

If you listened to Costing the Earth on Radio 4 this afternoon, you will have caught an interesting program about the environmental problem of plastics, together with some creative solutions to those problems. Right at the end of the programme, there was a discussion about whether plastics and fuels produced from plants are a viable alternative to ones produced from fossil oil. The conclusion was that they are not.

Plastic production is one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. What’s more, plastics themselves make up a huge amount of our waste and hang around taking-up masses of space in landfill for a very, very long time indeed. So, there’s a pressing need to use less plastic created from fossil fuels.

Why then did the academic interviewed at the end of the programme claim that plant-based biodegradable plastics are not a viable alternative to fossil-fuel-based plastics? The reason he gave is that the amount of meat in diets is increasing, which in turn requires more land to grow food crops for the animals we are eating. Because of this, he argued, we can’t afford to give up agricultural land to grow plants for plastic production or bio-fuels.

It’s true that the amount of land required to sustain diets including meat is much greater than what’s required for a vegetarian/vegan diet (and much more environmentally damaging). But the alternative solution he proposed to the plastic problem shocked me because of the lack of how badly he’d failed to think about the issue critically.

His argument was that rather than grow crops for plastic and fuel production, which is we can’t do because we are using the land for meat production, we should use less plastic.

Well, of course we should use less plastic! But one wonders how he didn’t also conclude that we should also eat less meat? In fact, it looks likely that it’s more efficient to eat less meat than use less plastic! If we ate less meat we would have lots more land available for growing biofuels and creating biodegradable plant-plastics. What’s more, the pressure on land would be less, so the chance of sustainable biofuels being grown would be higher (biofuels are often currently being produced in environmentally damaging ways because of the pressure on land use).

It’s quite sad that the (ab)use of animals is so embedded in our culture that clever, educated people cannot even contemplate not eating meat, even when doing so is a really obvious solution to an incredibly serious threat to us all.


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Is biodiversity valuable?

Coral reefThe other day a friend shared a link to a story on the importance or preserving biodiversity. I can’t find that link now, but what struck me at the time was that the value of biodiversity was simply assumed and undefended. This isn’t surprising of course, popular discourses around conservation and environmental protection continually repeat this message such that it’s hard not to just take it as read that biodiversity is important and should be preserved. But, why is biodiversity important and in what ways?

The other day a friend shared a link to a story on the importance or preserving biodiversity. I can’t find that link now, but what struck me at the time was that the value of biodiversity was simply assumed and undefended. This isn’t surprising of course, popular discourses around conservation and environmental protection continually repeat this message such that it’s hard not to just take it as read that biodiversity is important and should be preserved. But, why is biodiversity important and in what ways?

Biodiversity refers to the variety and variability of living things. But, what is it about variety and variability that is valuable?

First, it seems strange, at least to me, to think that we can create or increase value by making things less alike and/or producing more of them. Conversely, similarity and rarity don’t seem intuitively disvaluable (indeed, rarity can increase the value of many things).

Second, claiming that biodiversity is valuable leads to difficult questions. For example: do types of species matter: are a few more complex species (in terms of genetic material) more valuable in their contribution to biodiversity than a great variety and number of simple organisms? These sorts of problems cause me to question that biodiversity is valuable for its own sake.

Imagine a modern-day Dr. Moreau destroys all living creatures on an island, places a dome over the island and populates it with a new ecology of his own fiendish bioengineered creation. Imagine further that the variety and variability of the organisms that Dr. Moreau’s clone creates is greater than what had been there before. To say that the crazed doctor’s creation is potentially more valuable than the lifeforms it replaced is rather counter-intuitive (although a utilitarian would likely simply reject this intuition). But, why would whether organisms were created by man matter for the value of variety or variability?

It’s more plausible to think that biodiversity is valuable in terms of the benefits it brings for the organisms that comprise it: it instrumental value. However, there are a huge mass of complex problems that accompany this thought too. Members of ecosystems interact dynamically; they prey upon one another, compete for resources, may have varying moral value of their own and so forth. This means that the value of biodiversity will be different depending upon whether you are the one being eaten by another organism or the one doing the eating, and it will be constantly changing. Thus, is seems impossible to place a value on biodiversity that is not qualified in some way with details of the point of time it is valuable and the entity for which it is valuable. This doesn’t seem all that controversial, but it doesn’t appear to map to the ordinary way in which we talk of the importance of biodiversity. We don’t think ‘today biodiversity is valuable for clams, lions, and humans, tomorrow it may be valuable for thrushes, the flu virus, and banana trees.’ Nor does that description of the value of biodiversity appear all that interesting.

What’s more, returning to our Dr. Moreau clone above: what if not all of functions of the engineered ecosystem were fulfilled by living things? Perhaps our doctor has replaced many of the trees with carbon absorbing fakes? It would seem here that reducing the variety of living things reduces the number of potential conflicts whist preserving the instrumental value of the ecosystem to those remaining organisms. Why would that be a worse state of affairs than a greater variety of living things engaged in more competition?

The sorts of reasons given above cause me to question whether biodiversity is valuable either intrinsically (for its own sake) or instrumentally. Two ways to solve these problems would be either to adopt a speciesist ethic and value biodiversity solely in terms of its values to humans, or to deny the value of individual organisms and adopt something like Leopold’s land ethic. Neither of those two options is terribly appealing to me, so I’m initially minded to just reject the claim that biodiversity is valuable entirely. It’s certainly an interesting topic to return to.


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Reducing energy bills: why cutting green taxes & freezing energy bills are bad ideas

WindmillConservative and Labour policies on reducing energy bills are short-sighted and self-defeating.

Green taxes make up roughly 9% of the cost of energy bills. Wholesale prices that the energy suppliers pay for gas and electricity comprise 47%. A large part of the price rises we’ve seen in our bills has been because the UK is running out of its own gas and has increasingly had to import it. As a result, gas prices have risen 240% over the last 10 years. 20% of our energy bills also comes from network costs – the cost of upgrading, maintaining, and supplying our energy, partly to cope with diversified energy supplies.

The Conservatives are making lots of noise about lowering energy bills by scrapping green taxes. A consequence of this policy is that the development of alternatives to fossil fuels (you know, the very thing that’s responsible for 47% of our bills) will be slowed. Wouldn’t it make more sense to work on reducing the cost of energy supply? Wouldn’t the best the way to do that be to reduce our reliance upon diminishing supplies of a finite resource that we are forced to import? The Tory plan leaves us more reliant upon fossil fuels and so sees our bills rise in the long term. Also, our planet gets screwed in the process.

Meanwhile, Labour’s policy is to freeze energy bills for 20 months in 2015 also looks like a terrible idea. The big six energy companies are currently making around 7% profit. Labour’s policy will see energy companies hiking their prices up just before a price freeze, and again straight away after it. Meanwhile, because wholesale costs will continue to rise in the freeze period, energy companies will find their margins narrowing. The big six companies will likely be able to ride out those cost increases, but smaller companies will struggle. The likely outcome is that improvements to our networks will be stalled and that the big companies will come out with a bigger monopoly on supply. That means green energy production is stalled and there’s less competition in the market. Once again, the consumer and planet get screwed.

The solution to rising energy bills is to reduce consumption and reduce reliance upon fossil fuels. It is not to scrap green taxes and freeze energy bills. Each of these solutions is self-defeating and merely shifts problems onto the following government (perhaps this is why the two big parties are keen on them).


For the figures used in this post see:

http://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/1672_CCC_Energy-Bills_bookmarked.pdf

http://www.carbonbrief.org/blog/2013/10/wholesale-energy-and-the-network-grid-the-parts-of-our-energy-bill-politicians-cant-control/

http://fullfact.org/factchecks/energy_generation_profits-29248


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The language of animal oppression

I’m finally getting some rest and relaxation (and by ‘rest and relaxation’, I mean ‘job hunting’) after three days of the MANCEPT Workshops in Political Theory conference. I co-convened a workshop at the conference, on ‘The Political Turn in Animal Rights’ – 12 really good papers from some top academics and brilliant students. Two things really struck me during the conference.

The first was the huge influence Donaldson and Kymlicka’s book, Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights has had on the field. Although many academics were doing political theory and animal rights for many years before the book, it’s really provoked a lot of research and wider engagement.

The second came as a result of a paper by Les Mitchell from Fort Hare, SA. Les drew our attention to the way in which language contributes to injustice towards non-human animals by directing our thought and expression. Two particular modes of expression were telling: the way we refer to animals by adjectives that refer to their purpose, and the use of mass nouns to remove individuality and identity from an animal. For example, we refer to chickens as ‘broiler hens’ or ‘layers’, to cows as ‘beef cattle,’ ‘dairy cows,’ ‘veal calves’. By using these adjectives we reinforce assumptions and cultural practices with an implication that the purpose or telos of a non-human animal is to be used by us. Additionally, mass nouns, nouns that do not permit counting as individual units,: beef, lamb, meat, pork etc., all divorce the product of the farming/meat industry from the individual life that was taken to provide it. When speak of chicken wing, beef rib, leg of lamb rather than ‘the wing of a chicken,’ ‘lamb’s leg,’ ‘cow’s rib’ it may make it easier to divorce the contents of our dinner from the individual that suffered and died to provide us with our gustatory pleasure.

One example Les gave really struck me; it concerned the expressions we use to discuss pets. There’s been a trend in animal rights literature and animal activism to refer to pets as ‘companion animals’. A pet is property, it exists as an instrument to provide its owner with benefits, but a companion animal is something different, something more. However, Les pointed out that even this way of referring to an animal makes us think that its existence is directed towards the purpose of being our companion. If we speak of ‘animal companions’ rather than ‘companion animals’ we are describing a friend rather than an object.

Of course you might be forgiven, reading this post, for being lulled into making the common mental distinction between humans and animals, forgetting for a moment that there is no such distinction (which is why scholars in my field try to refer to non-human animals or to ‘humans and other animals’).

Les’ challenge to our use of language in order to create a shift in perspective got me thinking, I thought it worth sharing.

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