Alcohol and the “politics of vanity”

Some political causes don’t get as much open support as they deserve because people don’t feel comfortable being seen to support them. One such cause is opposition to minimum alcohol pricing (or minimum unit pricing, MUP). The people it will affect most are excessive drinkers and the poor. No one wants to look like an excessive drinker, and no one wants to look poor, so opposition to MUP tends to be muted — it prompts knowing smirks that say “aha, I think we can guess why this guy is getting worked up about it”. On the other side are powerful politicians and highly-paid health professionals who want to be seen to be doing something about the current moral panic of excessive alcohol use in Ireland. These people do their self-image no harm at all by openly supporting MUP, and some do so with an unbridled zeal.

Of Irish attitudes to alcohol, one of the most unhealthy is our tendency to see it as the “forbidden fruit”, so that all drinking is somehow illicit. (Traditionally, Catholic children were expected to “take the Pledge” — the majority who “busted out drinking” when they reached adulthood retained a sense of shame at having broken a promise.) This gives rise to a widespread sense that on one side we have moral crusaders doing their Good Works, while on the other side we have people who skulk around doing something they ought to be ashamed of. Self-image plays a crucial role for both sides here.

Burke used the phrase ‘politics of vanity’ for political decision-making guided by concern for “how it makes me look” — instead of taking account of circumstances and trying to anticipate consequences. He reserved the phrase for Rousseau, whom he detested both as a thinker and as a man. It seems to me that the politics of vanity is alive and well in Ireland, because all of the main political parties except Sinn Féin support MUP. If we put aside the politics of vanity, and instead take account of circumstances, trying to anticipate consequences, what can be said about MUP?

With MUP, if you drink 6 cans of Aldi’s own brand lager per week, you will pay €426.66 more in one year than you do already. But if you drink craft beer, say — even 60 bottles of craft beer every week — you won’t be affected financially at all. MUP is aimed at “the sort of people who drink Aldi lager” rather than “the sort of people who drink craft beer”. €426.66 is much larger than the water charge, which has people up in arms and protesting all around the country. Why are people not protesting about this outrageous attack on the poor?

MUP is a serious infringement of freedom, and selective one at that because it discriminates against the weakest sections of society. It is nakedly unfair. Wealthier people tend to gloss over this unfairness with the vague thought that “people on the dole shouldn’t be drinking at all, as it isn’t a necessity”. But that is an exceptionally mean-spirited thought. Each individual’s needs differ. Most people need a social life, and whether we like it or not, the reality in Ireland is that social occasions are usually accompanied by alcohol. It might be as modest a social occasion as watching “the match” on TV and sharing a six-pack with a friend — to make it practically impossible for an unemployed person to do even that once a week is just plain vicious. It would threaten their sanity. We are not entitled to perform this sort of “social experiment” on our fellow humans.

Some will object, as Rousseau might, that excessive drinking diminishes the freedom of the excessive drinker, and so preventing poor people doing what they want to do is actually doing them a favour. We are “forcing them to be free”, as Rousseau sinisterly put it. (Let us pass over the question whether this is monumental hypocrisy or Soviet-Style doublethink.) Well then, if charging the poor more for alcohol is doing them a favour, charging the rich more for alcohol would be doing them a favour too. And not doing them this “favour” is harmful and discriminatory in reverse. Perhaps we should raise duty on alcohol across the board, so that the rich pay proportionally more for their chosen brands. This is Sinn Féin’s policy on alcohol, and although I don’t agree with it, it is undeniably less unfair than MUP.

No one doubts that the more alcohol costs, the less of it tends to be consumed. Alcohol probably costs more in Iceland than anywhere else in the world, and it has a correspondingly lower rate of consumption, and a lower death rate from liver disease. But it has a serious problem with binge drinking — a more serious problem than Ireland’s. Like young people almost everywhere, young Icelanders want to get drunk and have fun from time to time.  So they save up their money during the week, and splash out at the weekend. Friday night in Reykjavik is mayhem — although it has to be said, generally good-natured mayhem. Shop windows get broken, but bones usually don’t.

Ireland has a low rate of violence, and a low rate of death from liver disease — lower than the rates in the US, UK, and the EU average. Of course some people do get sick and die from alcohol-related diseases. But we’re doing rather well compared to the rest of the world. Of course some drunks do show up in emergency rooms, causing harm to themselves and others. But Ireland’s problem isn’t all that bad, and health workers all over the world are trained to deal with drunks. Society must be prepared to absorb some harm caused by individuals living as they choose to live, and inevitably making some mistakes. Our emergency rooms expect casualties from road use, and although driving should be as safe as we can reasonably make it, we can never make it completely risk-free. The harm caused by drivers is less severe than the harm that would be caused by not allowing anyone to drive, or by only allowing rich people to drive because only they can afford bigger, safer cars. Our emergency rooms expect casualties from alcohol abuse too. Society must absorb some limited harm of this sort as well, for the greater good of human freedom.

Overall, we Irish are drinking less than we did before, despite falling alcohol prices (in real terms). There is an exception to this general trend: women. As Irish men and women’s roles have converged in the workplace and in the home, more Irish women have adopted the heavier-drinking lifestyle of traditional office workers. Liver and other alcohol-related diseases are on the rise among Irish women, and it is well-known that alcohol is more toxic to women’s metabolism. Of course I wouldn’t be so crass as to suggest that women be asked to pay more than men for alcohol. That would be unfair.

Why we can’t model climate

There’s an interesting (to me) discussion on physics and philosophy taking place at the Daily Nous blog. True to form, I’ve probably been adding too many comments, and all of them overlong. My last comment concerns what I regard as an insuperable difficulty in modelling the climate. For the record, here is that comment on my own blog:

Hypotheses represent their subject matter by being true or false of that subject matter. Like most sorts of representation, this does not involve resemblance. But models are different: they do represent their subject matter by resembling it in some relevant way. For example, a model airplane might resemble a real airplane by having similar shape and colours, even though their sizes are different. Or it might mimic the real airplane’s flying behaviour.

To keep things simple, I’ll talk about respective “behaviours” (of model and subject matter) over time, but bear it in mind that this mimicry can be along any dimension: for example, a Fourier series might model a function along the x-axis rather than over time. Here’s the important point: I think the behaviour of both model and whatever it represents must be “lawlike” in the roughly the same way. (I include statistical laws here, by the way.) In respect of the relevant resemblance between them, it’s essential that “nature continues uniformly the same”.

I’ve used words associated with “Hume’s problem of induction”. Popper famously rejected all (enumerative) induction as problematic. I think that went far too far. As far as I’m concerned, induction is often fine, we just need to reflect in a piecemeal way on circumstances in which induction is reliable, and circumstances in which it isn’t. It’s reliable when it traces law-like connections in the real world (such as “these emeralds are green, so all emeralds are green”). It isn’t reliable when it doesn’t.

It seems to me that we have good reasons for thinking the climate doesn’t behave in a lawlike way, or at least not in any way useful for modelling in climate science. It may be deterministic, but that’s not the same as being predictable or capable of being modelled. Over time, or in response to various changes in initial conditions, the climate is very complicated and multiply chaotic. It seems to me that additional computing power will bring diminishing returns, so that attempts to model the climate will meet a “ceiling” like that of weather forecasting. We may get a bit better, but we probably can’t get all that much better. To put it bluntly, I think it’s a waste of time, brains and money.

Sentience and preference utilitarianism

There was a brief discussion on Twitter yesterday about whether we should grant “human rights” to non-sentient robots. My reaction: “Why give a damn about non-sentient agents? They can’t feel anything, so who cares if harm should befall them?”

This idea that “morally, the only thing that matters is sentience” was famously expressed by Jeremy Bentham:

a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

Despite my confidence that non-sentient agents do not matter morally, I admit that sentience might seem to pose a special problem for me as a preference utilitarian. The dissolution of this problem adds detail to my moral theory, and explains why we call it ‘preference’ rather than ‘desire’ utilitarianism.

A preference utilitarian differs from the traditional hedonistic type of utilitarian (such as Bentham) in that his basic good is not a particular sort of experience such as pleasure or relief from pain, or happiness understood as a feeling, but the satisfaction of desires. His “greatest good” is not the “greatest happiness of the greatest number” but the maximisation of the satisfaction of desires.

Now it’s important to see that the satisfaction of desires here is not the having of a “satisfying experience”, but the satisfying of objective conditions — and the agent might be wholly unaware that those conditions have in fact been satisfied. A desire is satisfied when the desired state of affairs is actually realised, whether or not the agent has any idea that the state of affairs is realised. Like a man becoming an uncle by virtue of a birth he knows nothing about, or a belief being true, a desire’s being satisfied is a matter of the world’s being arranged in the right way — something typically external to the mind of the agent.

For example, most people want their spouses to be faithful. They don’t want the mere experience of their spouse being faithful, but the actual objective fact of their spouse being faithful. This desire is not for the spouse to “keep up appearances” by telling convincing lies about their infidelities — there mustn’t be any infidelities to tell lies about.

Here’s why sentience might seem like a problem for preference utilitarianism: unless a desire is a desire to have a particular sort of experience, which it typically isn’t, the experience of a desire being satisfied is like a by-product of its actually being satisfied. So a “robotic” agent who doesn’t have any conscious experiences at all — but still has desires which can be satisfied or thwarted — would seem to make moral demands on preference utilitarians like myself. That conflicts with the intuition expressed above that only sentient agents matter morally.

The problem is dissolved, I think, when we remind ourselves that genuine desires (and beliefs, for that matter) only exist where pluralities of them together form a “system”. In moral deliberation, the utilitarian weighs desires thwarted against desires satisfied in an imaginary balance. Obviously, strong desires count for more than weak desires. When desires come into conflict with one another in the mind of a single agent, the strongest desire is the agent’s preference. Only desires in a system of several desires competing for the agent’s “attention through action” can count as preferences.

So system is required for one desire to take precedence over another, as it must if it’s a preference. And a preference to pursue one goal rather than another involves the weighing up of the relative merits of competing goals, the level of time-management needed to defer the less urgent goal, and so on… In short, it requires reflection and choice. This is “second-level representation” — i.e. meta-level representation of primary representational states — of the very sort that makes for consciousness. We need reflection to decide between competing desires (and for that matter, we need epistemic beliefs to guide our choices of first-level beliefs about the world — in other words, a sense of which among rival hypotheses is the more plausible). Second-level representations like these amounts to awareness of our own states, including awareness of such states as physical injury. In other words, the experience of pain. It’s a matter of degree, but the richer the awareness, the greater the sentience. So genuine desire and sentience are linked in a crucial way, even though any particular desire and the conscious experience of its satisfaction might not be.

To better understand why “genuine” desires are part of a system, we might contrast them with more rudimentary goal-directed states of ultra-simple agents such as a thermostats, or slightly more sophisticated but still “robotic” agents such as cruise missiles.

Thermostats and cruise missiles each have a rudimentary desire-like state, because their behaviour is consistently directed towards a single recognisable goal. And they have rudimentary belief-like states because they co-vary in a reliable way with their surroundings, co-variation which helps them achieve their goal. In both cases, they might be said to “bear information” (non-semantic information, reliable co-variation) about the world. A clever physicist (a “bi-metallurgist”?) would be able to work out what temperature a thermostat “wants” the room to stay at, and what temperature it “thinks” the room is currently at. A clever computer scientist would be able to reverse-engineer a cruise missile to reveal what its target is, the character of the terrain it is designed to fly over, its assumed current location, and so on. We could go further and adopt the intentional stance, assigning mental content to these agents. In effect, that would be to drop the cautionary quotation-marks around the words ‘wants’ and ‘thinks’. We might regard ourselves as referring literally to its desires and beliefs. But we would not be able to take the next step and talk about preferences. For preferences, we need various gaols of varying strengths, and we need something like consciousness to make decisions between them. In other words, we need sentience, at least to some degree.

Does Biology Have Laws?

[This blog post was prompted by this Scitable discussion. Unfortunately comments were closed before I could contribute.]

Laws are bits of language that describe regularities in nature. If the laws are true, the regularities are real. Laws are general claims, but they are more than accidental generalisations such as “everyone in this room is over five feet tall”. Laws are more like hyper-generalisations in that they don’t just describe what has actually been the case so far — they describe what would be the case, even if the states of affairs that would make them true have not yet come to pass.

There aren’t any laws about the heights of people who happen to be in a room together, but we’d be moving in that direction if we arranged some sort of screening mechanism that only allowed admittance to that room on the basis of height. Genuinely scientific laws rely on such mechanisms when they describe such things as the electric charge of fermions in an atomic nucleus.

Many fundamental laws of physics like Pauli’s Exclusion Principle do not admit of exceptions. Exceptionless laws like that are quite common in physics and chemistry. What about biology?

The question whether there are laws in biology is too often understood as asking whether there are exceptionless laws in biology. I’d guess there probably aren’t any such laws, because the categories of biology (species, etc.) are not like the categories of physics.

But it does not follow that biology has no laws. The salient feature of laws is not that they admit of no exceptions but that the links they express (between categories, concepts, etc.) are non-accidental.

Examples: animals with high male parental investment tend to be monogamous; mammalian mothers tend to be protective of their young. The biological functions of parental investment and pair-bonding are linked; and so are the functions of producing milk and caring for young.

Those links entitle us to draw inferences: if we hear that animals of species X exhibit high male parental investment, we can guess that they are monogamous, although there is always the possibility that we are dealing with an exception. If we hear that Y is a female mammal, we can guess that she is protective of her young, even though there is always the possibility that this particular individual’s behaviour is “aberrant”.

I hope it’s clear that biology does critically rely on and describe non-accidental links between categories — links that entitle us to make inferences between claims containing the corresponding concepts. It is that warrant to infer that makes for genuine scientific laws, not their exceptionlessness.

Biological laws have exceptions because many biological categories are “functional” (as exemplified above). In describing, explaining, predicting (etc.) things biologically, we adopt what Dennett calls the “design stance”. We assume that things have functions (purposes, goals, tasks, etc.) and that they perform those functions more or less well “as they were designed” to. “Working properly” shades into “less-than-optimal performance”, which in turn shades into out-and-out “malfunction”. Thus biological categories have fuzzy edges, in other words, these categories have grey areas where there are exceptions.

(Warning: of course nothing in biology is literally designed by a designer. The main point of evolutionary theory is to show how no such design is required. Talk of design, purposes, goals etc. in biology is just shorthand for past contribution to survival and reproduction.)