Common preferences are possible

There are many situations in which two or more people who intend cooperate on some issue disagree on what to do. The standard approach to this is to conflate two different kinds of situations under the word “compromise”. Compromise is sometimes used to mean that both of the people involved in the disagreement end up adopting an idea they deem worse than their original preference, or an idea that has some features that are worse than the original preference. This is stupid for two reasons. First, it doesn’t solve problems that the people involved have with the new solution. Second, whatever solution they end up adopting is going to be awful on its own terms because it is not optimised to solve any particular problem.

The other kind of deal that people often call a compromise is the situation where the people involved change their preferences so that they agree about what to do and neither of them has any criticism of the new course of action. This does not have either of the problems of the first meaning of compromise given above, so it ought to be called something different. Since it is a preference the people involved have in common let’s call it a common preference (CP).

A criticism may be some explicit idea about something that is wrong with the proposed solution. In that case, you might come up with a new variant of the current idea that addresses the criticism. Or you might find that you have to throw the idea out and try to come up with something different in the light of the knowledge that your previous approach didn’t work.

A person may also criticise a solution by saying he has a feeling he doesn’t like. An emotion is the result of inexplicit traditional knowledge. It’s a bad idea to disregard this knowledge without replacing it. Ways to get past such a problem may include asking questions like “Why do I feel bad about this? Is there a way to modify my actions so you don’t feel bad about them? If I can’t think of a way to modify my actions so I feel good about them why is that the case?” For more see Elliot Temple’s essay about emotions.

The fact that two different people happened to be involved isn’t of any particular significance. A single person can have two priorities that he thinks are in conflict. So a common preference ought to be viewed as reconciling two or more sets of ideas about what to do rather than two people.

You might think this all sounds very grand but you’re a busy person, or you’re lazy or whatever. I can’t find a CP for every problem. But there is no particular reason to think that CPs are hard or impossible to find. If you don’t have to do something immediately you can carefully discuss options and try to come up with new options. If you run out of time you should pick among the uncriticised options in some way that everyone agrees with other than discussing all their merits or problems. For example, if you have two ideas left you might ask if people object to deciding between them by flipping a coin if nobody involved objects to deciding that way. The results may not be very good, but that’s what you should expect if you make decisions sloppily so it would be a bad idea to get upset about it. You can also exclude some options just because you don’t have time to implement them since the criterion for picking the action is that you want to try to implement it.

In 2002, David Deutsch wrote:

[T]he finding of a common preference does not entail finding the solution to any particular problem.
The economy does not require infinite creativity to grow. Particular enterprises fail all the time. Particular inefficiencies may remain unimproved for long periods. The economy as a whole may have brief hitches where mistakes have been made and have to be undone; but if it stagnates to the extent of failing to innovate, there is a reason. It’s not just ‘one of those things’. The reason has nothing to do with there being a glut of nautiluses on the market, but is invariably caused by someone (usually governments, but in primitive societies also parents) forcibly preventing people from responding to market forces. Stagnation is not a natural state in a capitalist economy; it has to be caused by force.
Science does not require infinite creativity to make new discoveries. Particular lines of research fail all the time but where science as a whole has ceased to innovate it is never because the whole scientific community has turned its attention to the nautilus but invariably because someone (governments and/or parents) has forcibly prevented people from behaving according to the canons of scientific rationality.
An individual personality does not require infinite creativity to grow. Particular a priori wants go unmet all the time, and large projects also fail and sometimes a person has a major life setback. But if they get stuck to the extent of failing to innovate it is not because they have spontaneously wandered into a state where their head resembles a nautilus but because someone has forcibly thwarted them once (or usually a thousand times) too often.

[P]roblems can be continually solved without infinite creativity, without perfect rationality, and without relying on any particular problem being solved by any particular time. And that is sufficient for — in fact it is what *constitutes* — economic growth, scientific progress, and human happiness.

I think there’s a little more to be said about this. People are not born knowing standards of rationality. And indeed there isn’t a closed list of such standards. New problems and ideas bring up new opportunities to fool yourself. But if the only problem was that people didn’t know the standards they could just invent and try stuff as they go along. So failures of rationality are a result of some knowledge that blocks the invention and testing of new ideas including standards of rationality.

Some of instances of such knowledge may be inexplicit. Parents coercing their children usually don’t have some explicit idea about why they’re doing it. They just think that little Jimmy should brush his teeth and that the way to get him to do that is to make him brush his teeth. This might prevent the child from finding better ways to deal with his teeth, or ways to enjoy tooth brushing or whatever.

Other instances of progress blocking knowledge are explicit. Witness the millions of words used by philosophers trying to explain how to justify ideas (show they are true, or probably true, or good). Trying to justify an idea can entrench it instead of allowing error correction. Also, since justification doesn’t work the argument that these philosophers give is not true as it is stated. So justificationism makes ideas less clear and harder to criticise since you have to try to reconstruct what the argument should be from what was written. And the justification may hide the absence of any substantive argument.

CPs are possible provided you don’t adopt ideas that prevent error correction.

Denying Moral Conflict and Responsibility Part 3: Examples

In part 1, I discussed the idea of denying moral conflict and moral responsibility. Morality is about how to make decisions. Moral conflict is where people want to enact moral ideas that are incompatible with one another. Moral responsibility meas that a person can and should exercise his judgement about what he will do and in particular about dumping bad ideas and developing better ideas. Denying moral conflict means denying that there is a moral disagreement in situations where such a disagreement exists. Denying moral responsibility means denying that you can and should change your bad ideas and actions. There are many institutions and ideologies in the West that seem dedicated to helping people to deny moral conflict and moral responsibility, as I shall now explain.

Theism and Atheism

Both theists and atheists often say that the existence of god is required for objective morality. In reality, the existence of god is incompatible with morality being objective and does nothing at all to explain right and wrong.

There are two possibilities, both of which are fatal to theistic explanations of morality. (1) God invented morality on a whim, in which case we might as well just say that shit happens and dispense with god. (2) God invented morality for some reason, e.g. – because acting in some ways is better for us medically than acting in other ways. (I am not advocating this standard, just using it as an illustration.) But then we might as well just say that we should act morally because of that reason, e.g. – we should act morally because doing so will be better for us medically than acting otherwise.

There is another weakness of the typical theistic explanation of morality. Morality has been laid down once and for all by god, so then how can it be the case that some people are getting it wrong? There can’t actually be dispute about what’s and what’s bad because god has told us what’s good and what’s bad. So there can be no moral conflicts since there cannot be any competing moral ideas. Likewise you’re not really responsible for anything bad you do because all your misdeeds are a result of god making some mistake in morality itself or in conveying morality to you.

Many atheists agree with theists that there can’t be objective morality without god and just think that morality isn’t objective. in this case, there are no moral conflicts nor any moral responsibility. You can’t have conflicts about how to harvest all the green cheese on the moon because there is no green cheese on the moon. Likewise, amoral atheists don’t think there can be substantive disagreement about morality. Nor can you be responsible for breaking moral standard when no such standards exist.

Many atheists who like to talk about morality have a moral theory that is identical in substance to the theistic moral theory. Instead of god dictating morality, evolution dictates it, or it is somehow derived from observation of what makes people happy. The important point is that morality is just a set of rules dictated by some authority which you are bound to follow no matter how painful or boring it makes your life. This pain and boredom is not a result of conflicting moral standards, nor could it be resolved by critical discussion. Rather, it is just a result of your pathetic primate brain failing to work properly or something like that. And since your pathetic primate brain is at fault, you are not responsible for the results.


One of the worst and one of the most pervasive ways to evade moral conflict and moral responsibility is psychiatry. Almost everybody seems to regard psychiatry and the idea of mental illness as benevolent. The idea of mental illness is to blame behaviour you don’t like on an illness instead of ideas. This means the person with the ideas isn’t reponsible for them and he doesn’t really disagree with you, he’s just ill. But the idea of mental illness is wrong.

The most straightforward version of the idea is that some behaviours are a result of some subtle injury or physiological problem in the brain. These illnesses are described in terms of behaviour and their diagnostic criteria specifically rule out any known change in the structure or chemistry of the brain as a cause.

The idea that some specific behaviour can be caused by a brain injury or physiological problem makes no sense. An injury just damages or destroys tissue, a physiological problem just makes the tissue function in a substandard way. To say that this causes particular behaviour suggests that brain injuries regularly fiddle about with the details of a person’s brain in such a way as to make it do unwelcome stuff. But no injury and no chemical contains knowledge about what people consider right and wrong or polite or impolite or welcome or unwelcome. So the idea that bad behaviour is caused by a brain injury is like saying your computer must be faulty because you don’t like one of the games installed on it.

Some psychiatrists seem to sense that this is a bit of a reach. So they vague their position up to evade criticism. The brain problem doesn’t cause bad behaviour, it just influences people to behave badly. This idea has the same problem as the idea that the brain problem simply causes unwelcome behaviour. How does the injury know about cultural standards? A brain problem might cause a problem in a person’s life that he interprets and tries to solve in a way other people don’t like. For example, he might lose the ability to speak as a result of a stroke. He might then interpret situations in which people don’t provide him with what he wants as a deliberate attempt to annoy him or harm him and get angry. But his bad behaviour is not caused by the brain injury. He engages in that behaviour because he acts on an idea about what other people are doing and how he should act toward them.

So then why do people believe in mental illness?

The behaviours that result in a person being diagnosed as mentally ill are invariably behaviours that somebody finds unpleasant or distressing or inconvenient in some other way. If a young woman tries to starve herself to death, this may distress her parents who call for psychiatrist who diagnoses her with anorexia nervosa. If a person does not socialise as his parents want him to, they may get him diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. If a person lives on the streets and finds that he no longer likes that lifestyle, he may draw the attention of the authorities by acting crazy, making threats to random people on the street or talking nonsense, say. He might then get diagnosed with schizophrenia. The authorities might hospitalise him for a while, in a building with lighting, heating and free food. This place may also have some bad features like forced drugging, but he might prefer forced drugging to being cold. Or they might give him benefits provided that he agrees to take particular drugs to control his “condition”.

In and of itself bad behaviour doesn’t explain the mental illness idea. If somebody steals a car we may not like his behaviour but few people would say he is mentally ill. We would just lock up a car thief or stop associating with him or something like that. But in the examples above the people who push for a mental illness diagnosis have a moral conflict. The parents of an anorexic teen don’t want her to starve but they also don’t want to end their association with her. They also don’t want to explicitly say that they want to punish her. Rather, they want to stop her behaviour although they don’t understand her reasons and don’t want to understand them. Psychiatrists help them to solve that problem. She’s mentally ill and so there is nothing to understand. The treatment consists of the patient being made to listen to advice and take drugs. This treatment can be imposed without her consent and so if she stubbornly refuses to acknowledge her illness then she will be punished by being forced into treatment.

A homeless person may pose a different problem. Namely, the welfare state is based on the idea that nobody should be allowed to fail, or to live in a way that a middle class person would dislike. So if a person who lives on the streets draws attention to himself then he may be able to get some housing for a while. But this person may have habits the state finds unwelcome in which case he must be made to give up those habits. The government doesn’t want to be seen to punish him and mental illness provides a handy excuse for imprisonment and/or forced drugging without calling it punishment.

The welfare state

The welfare state is another institution that obscures and denigrates moral conflict and moral responsibility.

The welfare state involves the government interfering in the lives of individuals to make sure they get what they supposedly need. Money is taken from taxpayers without asking for their consent and given to others to whom they may not want to give it. Welfare benefits may go to drug addicts, or people have made stupid choices like having five children before they are twenty. A person can get to be an adult without being able to persuade anybody to pay him for anything he is willing to tolerate doing and such a person may end up on welfare. Since tax money goes to any given welfare recipient regardless of whether any taxpayer would choose to pay that person, disagreements about who should be given money are not easily addressed.

The idea behind the welfare state also negates moral responsibility. The idea is that a person should not actually pay the price for any damn fool thing he does. And if you something that harms somebody else then the government may pay for it. So for a wide range of stupid things you do you’re not responsible for harming anybody.

The result of this is that once in a while the government does something it calls welfare reform. The politicians think people are sick of paying for those on welfare and so do something to clear some of them from the welfare rolls. Such people are often on the rolls as a result of a long series of mistakes and have never had any feedback from reality that might have prompted them to decide to change for the better.


What can we do about all of these bad ideas and institutions? Ultimately, all of these ideas or institutions should be discarded. I don’t know how to do this. Nor does anybody else or they wouldn’t exist. The first step towards a solution is to stop denying the problem and try to explain good philosophy to people. The second step is that the people involved have to do something about these problems for themselves. They have to come up with better ways of living that don’t involve sabotaging their ability to solve problems.

Moral Conflict and Responsibility 2: Problems and Solutions

I have explained that people sometimes want to pretend that moral conflicts and moral responsibility don’t exist. In Part 3 I will give a few examples of major institutions that are built on such denial. But before I do that I should explain why people like this denial and how their ideas need to change in order to solve it.

Morality vs Sacrifice

The standard view of morality is that it consists of grim commands that demand sacrifice. People don’t often explicitly say this, but it is the consequence of every occasion on which a parent says to a child: “Sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do.” This means that some problems can’t be solved so there is no point in trying. Moral conflicts will often lead to suffering and so ignoring them is the best policy, which is what people do in a lot of cases.

What is  the rational alternative? Suppose you are in a situation in which the known options seem grim. The solution to such a problem is to come up with new options that you want to do. The basic technique is to propose solutions to the problem and keep criticising them until there is only one left. There are many ways of doing this, so many that it is impossible to list them, not least because some of them haven’t been invented yet. The ultimate limits to your options are just that you can’t do anything that is forbidden by the laws of nature, i.e. physics, biology, epistemology and that sort of thing. And these laws don’t care about whether you like your life. They will not aid you in finding and doing stuff that interests you, but they won’t stop you either.

One way to solve the problem was suggested by Elliot Temple. You have some problem P and some set of requirements for a solution that seem to contradict one another. You ask “given that these ideas contradict one another what should I do?” There are two options. There may be some set of constraints on how to solve the problem such that the ideas don’t contradict one another given those constraints. For example, Newtonian gravity and general relativity contradict one another, but they both agree that if you are standing on Earth and you throw a stone so that it leaves your hand at a speed of one metre per second upward, it will hit the ground again. Every set of constraints makes the problem simpler until you either reach a solution or find that you can’t reconcile the requirements. At that point you throw one of them out and start again with the new smaller set of requirements.

A slightly more complicated way to deal with the problem is to think about whether you’re misunderstanding the situation in a way that prevents you from considering some viable options. If you have a boring job you might decide that you should acquire a new skill so you can do a more interesting job. For example, you might think about learning about Arduinos, which are very cheap and simple computers which come without a keyboard and monitor and so on. If you buy and Arduino and the appropriate accessories you can use it to make an infrared proximity sensor or you could use it to control motors and make a small robot. By doing such projects you could learn electronics and programming which could help you get a better job. And you might look at your current job in a new way by thinking about whether specific tasks could be automated with a suitable robot. My point isn’t that this specific suggestion will suit you, just there is a lot of stuff you don’t know about that you might find good.

Solving problems involves admitting there is a conflict about what you should do, and then taking steps to solve it yourself. Obscuring moral conflicts and denying personal responsibility is incompatible with doing much problem solving. If you don’t explicitly look for conflicts and try to resolve them then you will only do it very slowly and almost entirely by accident, which is a recipe for disaster.

By contrast, the idea that you have to do stuff you don’t want to implies that some problems can’t be solved and some objections to ideas should be ignored. If you don’t want to do something that is an objection to doing it, the idea that you have to do it even if you don’t want to implies that the objection should be ignored. This is irrational because it involves ignoring flaws in ideas.


Some people might object that some stuff has to be done that nobody likes doing, like cleaning toilets. I think there are several things you can say in reply to this. Suppose that if you don’t particularly mind a toilet that somebody else thinks of as too dirty. Why should you have to clean a toilet when you don’t find it too dirty? If the other person wants the toilet cleaner why doesn’t he clean it?

Also, you can hire people to clean a toilet for you, so even if the toilet is too dirty it doesn’t follow that you have to clean it. But what about the people who are cleaning the toilet for you? Well, if they don’t mind cleaning toilets, in which case it’s all gravy. If they dislike cleaning toilets, then they ought not to offer toilet cleaning services and the fact that they do so isn’t your fault.

And there is no reason to think it would be impossible to invent a toilet cleaning robot. When such a robot becomes cheap nobody will ever have to clean a toilet again.

But what about disadvantaged group X? (Poor people, women, gays, gypsies, midgets, welfare recipients, people with debilitating diseases and so on.) There are a few things to say about this. First, if you want to help some group go offer your help to them. Second, if you don’t want to help them why should you? Is it necessary that you should do stuff you don’t want to because some other people have problems? If so then everybody should be held hostage to the least competent people. Also, what is the standard by which one person should be judged more disadvantaged than another? And why does that determine the order in which their problems should be solved? Shouldn’t you solve a problem when you come up with a solution? And how much help are you going to be to a person if you don’t understand his problems and you aren’t interested in them? Also, this whole “help group X” idea is collectivist, it treats every member of group X as if they are the same. Also, the best solution to some specific problem might be for a person to solve it himself without outside help so he can learn better problem-solving skills.

Next, some examples of conflict and responsibility denial.

Denying Moral Conflict and Responsibility Part 1: The Problem

People often deny the existence of moral conflicts and moral responsibility. If there are genuine moral conflicts and it matters what side you pick then you have a responsibility that you wouldn’t have if no such conflicts exist. Most people hate responsibility like poison and so hate the idea of moral conflicts too. This post is very different from standard positions on morality and moral conflicts so I will start by explaining what I’m writing about before giving examples.

Morality is about how to make decisions. Morality doesn’t dictate exactly what you should do: it restricts your options. So morality may not say that you should study physics, but it does say you shouldn’t commit murder.

People often use the term morality just for making some subset of decisions and say those are the only decisions for which there are restrictions on how you should make decisions. Some people seem to limit it to being about sex or relationship stuff. Others seem to limit it to how to deal with other people. This is a very bad idea. Suppose that we restrict morality to relationship stuff. Then we have a problem. Suppose you’re a scientist working late at night in a lab. You could start a new experiment or you could go home and have a romantic dinner with your girlfriend. If this decision is totally aribtary then really that means there are no objective rules for dealing with your girlfriend because you can always put off or change anything you planned to do to accomodate your research. I could do the same by just combining anything where a person there is objective morality with something else where he claims there are no restrictions on how you should make decisions. Either morality is objective on every issue, or it is not objective at all.

A moral conflict is where an attempt is made to enact two or more incompatible ideas about how to make decisions. These ideas might be enacted by different people, e.g. – before the American Civil War many people in the US wanted to enact slavery and some other wanted to stop them. But a person can also have an internal moral conflict, e.g. – some people prefer homosexual sex but think they ought to prefer heterosexual sex.

Moral responsibility means that you can and should develop a position in any moral conflict in which you are involved. Some people want to spank their children, others do not. (Just to be clear, I think spanking is evil. Below I reproduce some excuses a parent might give for hitting a person who is half her size and totally dependent on her for his survival. I consider these arguments pathetic excuses for barbarism.) If you hang around people who smack their children and you don’t oppose what they are doing they and their child may assume that you approve. The child doesn’t want to be spanked, the parent wants to spank him so there is a moral conflict. You have chosen to get involved in the lives of such people, so you put yourself in the position of participating in that moral conflict. Nobody else can make the decision for you of whether you will approve of spanking or not. And whether you show signs of approval or disapproval may matter. A child might be encouraged to think that the smacking is wrong if you stand up against it. Or a parent may begin to doubt that smacking is a good idea if you explain why you oppose it. You might say that the whole point of spanking is to deliberately inflict pain on the child. This can’t help the child learn because the pain will not give him any way to enact whatever the parent is proposing. And in any case, the parent doesn’t have any way to guarantee that he is right or probably right, so the parent might be preventing the child from enacting a position that is better than the parent’s position.

And if you favour the use of physical violence as a means of dealing with children (i.e. spanking), that, too, is important. Whatever reason you give will have implications beyond those that you want it to have. For example, if you say smacking is necessary because children don’t know a lot then it is legitimate to use assault against any ignorant adult too. If you say it is necessary because children have less well developed brains than adults and can’t learn certain things then you have another problem. For a start, the spanking policy makes absolutely no sense if the child can’t learn because nothing you do to the child will make him change his behaviour. So then you are committed to defending an inconsistent position, i.e. – you are committed to a policy of ignoring criticism and have severely damaged your ability to learn.

Many people do take inconsistent positions and such a position can only be maintained by having a way to disable criticism of that position.

One way of doing this is to deny the existence of moral conflicts. So in the spanking example above, the apologist for spanking might say that there is no moral disagreement involved. the child doesn’t really disagree with the spanking policy, he just seems to be disagreeing. The pro-spanker might say that the child will thank the parent for spanking him later and so really the parent and child agree. This makes no sense since even if the child comes to think later that the spanking was good at the time he didn’t agree and said so. And indeed the whole point of giving the spanking is precisely the child disagrees with it and finds it unpleasant. The idea that he actually agrees later is also dubious. If the child states that he doesn’t agree with the spanking after it is given the parent might spank him again, so the child might just be agreeing to avoid being spanked.

Another way to try to disable criticism is to deny that you are responsible for something you do or say. You might say that you have to hang around with spankers because they are your family, say. And since you have to get along with them you can’t say that you think spanking is bad. But in reality, there is nobody with a gun to your head making you hang around with your family or express approval for spanking. You could decide not to deal with your family, or you could decide to tell them you don’t approve of spanking. If you don’t do either of those things, you are reponsible.

You might hope that this is limited to a few minor faults in some people. But this idea is an evasion in and of itself. An idea or action is either problematic or unproblematic. If it is problematic you should replace it with a better set of ideas or actions.

Part 2 is about why people deny moral conflicts and responsibility and how to solve them. Part 3 is about some common examples of denying moral conflicts and responsibility.

Freedom is not confusing

Somebody wrote, in the critical rationalism Facebook group, in the context of a discussion about Taking Children Seriously (TCS):

Boundary rules are liberating for children, there are few things more confusing than being left as a free agent.

Bullshit. If you’re free then you can just act on the ideas you understand and decline to act in other situations. So then you’re not confused about what to do. You either do stuff or learn more about what to do before acting.

What is confusing is being dumped in a situation where you are expected to act despite your lack of understanding. This is inevitable in coercive education because the people “educating” you don’t allow you to refuse to do stuff. So you will end up acting in situations where you are confused.

An illustration:

I had some slight experience with this when I worked for some eight years with autistic children and adults. We found behaviour modification techniques were appropriate for helping them gain a grip on their dangerous and confusing umwelts. Freedom has a dark side.

The autistic person behaves in some way other people dislike and they want to force them to learn to behave differently. This person may feel confused, but that’s because somebody is forcing him to do stuff he doesn’t want to do. The rational way to address this would be to tackle their moral disagreement explicitly instead of coming up with some pseudo-medical label for the undesired behaviour. But the people who so label him don’t see any possibility that he might be in the right. They cling, instead, to the idea that some behaviour is so obviously right that those who don’t enact it must be unable to think properly. This is not consistent with the critical open society attitude that sees all institutions and behaviour as conventions that we can reject if they turn out to be flawed, see Chapter 5 of OSE.

UPDATE: I want to explain more about my interpretation of the second passage I quoted. “Behaviour modification techniques” for dealing with children whose behaviour has been labelled autistic basically amount to rewarding children for behaviour you like and imposing “consequences” for behaviour you don’t like.

The consequences are not really consequences they are problems that fall into one of two categories. Either something the child does will have some unpleasant that the adult knows about in advance but the adult doesn’t tell the child about it, or illustrate it or take any measures to prevent it. The adult should not be doing this. His role is to help the child to understand and solve problems not to impose them. Imposing a problem is deliberately making a situation worse not better and so it is irrational.

The rewards aren’t really any better. If the child likes doing something the adult should be helping him to find ways to do more of it, not restricting his ability to do it by imposing deliberate restrictions on such help.

Now, if the adult in question is not the child’s parent and he is aware that the child doesn’t want to participate in the activity he is organising then he shouldn’t be making the child participate. Whether he should do anything else is situation dependent, but the minimal standard of behaviour is not to get the child to do something the child doesn’t want to do. If an adult agrees to participate in behaviour modification then he is breaching this standard.

There is a further notable issue. “Behaviour modification” implicitly treats the child as a machine for producing approved behaviour rather than treating him as a person. The alternative to doing this is when a person does something you dislike is to offer him something you think he will prefer, be willing to explain why you dislike his behaviour and be willing to consider that you might be wrong.

Extreme behaviour is sometimes used as a reason for this kind of treatment. In all cases where a child does something extremely dangerous or bad I consider that you should look at their parents. Most parents want to control their children to an extent that no adult would ever tolerate unless they were in prison and probably not even then. Children can be punished for not washing when the parent tells him to, for having the wrong facial expression, the wrong tone of voice, for not eating food his dislikes, for sleeping or not sleeping at the wrong time, for not being interested in what a parent or teacher wants him to be interested in at a particular time (thought crime) and a whole load of other stuff. If some children act in strange ways when they are treated in this way we should be surprised that it doesn’t happen more often.


George Osborne has decided to increase the state pension age. Unfortunately he hasn’t increased it to infinity yet. Anyway, somebody I know on Facebook said this was bad. He stated that since old people wouldn’t retire there would be no jobs for young people. Also, he claimed we won’t be getting pensions until we’re dead. My reply to is below.

I think this is probably one of the more sensible things Osborne had done, although I am not a fan of the conservatives for various reasons. Your arguments against it don’t make sense.

First, it makes no sense to say that school leavers won’t be able to get jobs because there is not a fixed amount of stuff to do. We are never going to run out of problems that need solving, i.e. – ways in which our lives are less satisfactory than they could be. So to have work to do, what you have to do is pick one of those problems and pick a way to solve it that people will voluntarily support with their time, money and resources.

Second, the world does not owe you money. If you want to spend thirty odd years lounging about at the end of your life, then save for it. I can see no reason why future taxpayers should pay you to do nothing. Are they your slaves?

Third, I’m am a bit puzzled by why you would want your leisure time to be dependent on bureaucrats who have little or nothing to lose from shafting you.

Fourth, average lifespan has been increasing and unless the growth of medical knowledge stops, it will continue to increase, which means the proportion of the population over some fixed retirement age will increase. Even leaving aside the moral bankruptcy of expecting other people to pay for your leisure time, that will at some point lead to financial bankruptcy. Keeping the pension age fixed is a bad idea. It would be more sensible to try to change the world so that people can earn their keep by doing stuff they like doing, by changing the way jobs work or by changing attitudes people have to work or both.

David Nutt and drugs

In 2009, Professor David Nutt was sacked from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs after claiming that ecstasy and LSD are less dangerous than alcohol. The government couldn’t have thought much of Nutt if they sacked him. Some people seem to think he is the best thing since sliced bread. He has written a paper on drugs that explains his position. I think the war on drugs is a moral catastrophe in terms of the persecution of drug users and those who sell to them. It is also intellectually bankrupt, and David Nutt has swallowed many of its worst ideas hook, line and sinker. If he ends up making any improvements to drug policy, it will be a matter of pure luck.

Nutt claims that experts can decide how drugs ought to be classified in a “rational” and “scientific” manner by looking at their effects. He divides these effects into three categories. Physical effects: if you drink too much alcohol your liver is damaged, heroin can lead to respiratory arrest and so on. Dependence: some drugs produce withdrawal symptoms and so it can be difficult to stop taking them. Social effects: drugs can break up families and cost the taxpayer money for healthcare of people who are ill as a result of taking drugs. The idea is that you can look at medical evidence and statistics and stuff like that and use them to decide government policy.

However, all of the categories above raise moral issues and he doesn’t address any of those issues. For example, taking heroin, say, may make it more likely that you will die and many people will think this is bad. But some people might want to die and so might value heroin specifically because it will kill them. At present, it is basically illegal to commit suicide. If you’re caught trying to do it you will be locked up. Thomas Szasz argued that this is one of the roots of drug prohibition: the government wants to make it difficult for a person to kill himself. The government is at least more or less explicit about this. Does Nutt favour the persecution of people who want to commit suicide or not? I can’t tell from the paper.

What about dependence? Many people seem to like dependence. Most people prefer to be dependent on a person rather than a chemical. Many people commit suicide after the end of a personal relationship such as a marriage. This is well-known and yet many people choose to get married: many people value being dependent on another person over their life. Now, admittedly this dependence involves a person and not a drug, but is there any relevant difference? I’m not saying there is no relevant difference, just that Nutt hasn’t bothered to address the issue. Should we ban marriage as well as heroin or alcohol or whatever? I think both marriage and heroin are bad ideas. However, the people involved in both marriage and taking heroin want to do those things and the people involved could walk away if they thought they had a better option. I don’t know how to provide people with better options and none of the people involved want anything better so I can’t see that it makes sense to force them to do something else.

What about the social effects? It costs the taxpayer money to look after people who have destroyed their health with drugs. But there is a problem. Most people seem to think that healthcare should be provided for by taxation, not by voluntary subscription. The reason given for this policy is that people who are ill shouldn’t have to pay for healthcare. So if this is a cost that people want to pay, why is anybody bitching about the cost of medical treatment for drug users? After all, the whole reason for the policy is to prevent ill people from having to consider the cost of treatment. There is a deep issue here. The problem goes like this: healthcare is a complex technological and personal service. It’s not like saying that you have a right not to punched in the face because it is easy to refrain from punching people in the face: it requires effort to punch somebody in the face. Curing diseases requires thought and deliberate action. If you deem that people have a right to healthcare, then there is no way to draw a principled line to demarcate what care they can’t have. Are you going to say that some people don’t deserve healthcare because they made a self-destructive choice to take drugs? But then why not say that you can deny this ‘right’ to everybody who makes the self destructive choice not to save or get insurance to cover medical expenses? If you admit one you’ve undermined the rationale for the other.

I can’t see any sign in the paper that Nutt differs from the government on any substantive moral issue. As such, any improvements he make will be tinkering around the edges. More substantial changes in how people think about this issue are needed. First, we should openly admit that this is a moral issue. Taking drugs is behaviour, not disease. Disliking that behaviour for whatever reason, is a moral position about how people ought to behave, not a medical position. Second, people should become much more reluctant to drag the use of force into disputes. If somebody isn’t using violence or fraud against you but you don’t like what they’re doing, then leave. Third, if a drug user fails to hold down a job or whatever that’s his problem and the government should not be using tax money, which is not contributed voluntarily, to support their bad habits, as it does now. And of course this policy should apply to anybody else who fails. It’s very difficult for people to learn competence if they are not allowed to fail.