Author Archives: Dean Machin

Is international student mobility socially regressive?

Campuses at universities in England are becoming increasingly cosmopolitan and students welcome this. But is there a cost and does the cost matter?

The problem

At any one time there is a fixed number of undergraduate places. If universities recruit more international (that is non-EU) students, this logically implies fewer domestic and EU students.

But why would any university recruit international over domestic students? Because they can be charged a lot more. At Bristol University international science undergraduates pay £18300pa. No domestic under-graduate can be charged more than £9000pa.

As most international students come from countries poorer than the UK we can infer that, on average, international students are among the wealthiest in their home countries.

There are exceptions – there are bursaries and some families impose severe sacrifices on themselves for their children’s benefit. But these are exceptions.

In addition (and on average) international students are wealthy by UK standards as well. How can we know this? First, the level of international student fees is much higher than would be deemed acceptable for domestic students. Second, while domestic students re-pay their tuition fees over a long period of time after graduation, international students pay up-front.

But what exactly is bad about all this?

International student mobility might merely give more opportunities to the already-advantaged at the expense of the less-advantaged. This would unfairly increase inequality.  

And this is not just a parochial concern for those who care only about students in England. You might think borders are irrelevant, that we are ‘global citizens’ and – to adapt a phrase of Thomas Rainborowe’s – that the most distant he has as much a life to live as the nearest he.

But if you are worried about fairness and equality globally then the focus of international student recruitment should be the poor(er) of India, China etc. But, as has been suggested above, poorer students are unlikely to be internationally mobile.

Things are not quite this simple

Two possible replies should be considered. First, over time the number of undergraduate places is not fixed. The income derived from more international students can be used to increase the number of places for domestic students. Second, there are other benefits to international student mobility that might compensate for it (where it is socially regressive). Let’s take the second point first.

Fairness and equality are not the only things of value. Economic growth matters – and you might thing that international student mobility leads to a more efficient allocation of labour. Equally, people’s freedoms matter – and you might think that freedom of movement is morally weightier than other values.

In short, lots of things can compensate for socially regressive international student mobility. It all depends on how values are ranked. But ranking values is complex – far too complex a topic for this blog. We will focus on the first point.

Boosting domestic student numbers

The income from international students can be used to increase places for domestic students. But is it? The mere possibility of something happening does not imply that it does happen.

And how many extra places for domestic students are necessary to justify more international students? If ten extra places were created and only one went to a domestic student we might infer that this extra student is a fig-leaf to cover a department’s material immodesty.

Policy implications

Here’s another option: if universities in England charge fees of over £6000pa to domestic students they are required to spend a proportion of that income on programmes that aim to increase university access to groups who, historically, have not benefitted from it. Why not have an international widening participation scheme?

Let’s say that, for every student a university recruits from India, 10% of the fee income is invested in a suitable education programme in India for the educationally disadvantaged. If international student mobility is socially regressive, this would go some way to off-set it.

Embracing this idea may even help universities recruit international students. (‘Come to University X and some of your fees will be ploughed back into your own country’s education system.’)

More pointedly, the degree to which universities embrace this idea would help us determine whether international student recruitment really is part of their educational mission or merely a cash cow.

Tax the bankers (but not for the reason you think)

Recently, the UK’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (SMCPC) published a report that suggests that elite firms apply a ‘poshness’ test in recruitment.

‘Poshness’ is a term with strong connotations in the UK but it broadly means the same as ‘well-bred’ or ‘privileged’.

It seems that elite law firms, City financiers etc. select for reasons of cultural fit, because candidates are polished or because they have travelled widely. Sometimes this is called the ‘cab test’. If a new recruit is put in a cab with a client will social disaster ensue?

It may be in the interests of elite firms to select this way – or, at least, they may lose nothing by doing so. But there is a problem.

Let’s take (polished) George and (unpolished) Mildred. Their results at all stages of education are the same. Indeed, we will assume that only polish, and international travel, separate the two. If the SMCPC report is correct, George is more likely to beat Mildred to a top job.

As an isolated case this is un-troubling. But, if the SMCPC report is correct, the Georges of this world have systematic advantages that are based on their social and economic background – not on their ability or effort.

A career in an elite firm gives individuals access to valuable financial and non-financial goods. A corporate lawyer earns more money than a call centre worker and exercises a greater range of his or her capacities. It is deeply regrettable that access to elite careers should be unfair in this way.

One response is that those who suffer from the unfairness benefit economically from the productivity of the polished. Possibly – although the economic benefits might be even greater if access to elite professions were fair. Sometimes less-talented Georges will be appointed over more-talented Mildreds and they may make worse decisions.

But I want to look at a different issue.

Can economic benefits (higher wages, more jobs) compensate for unfair equality of opportunity?

Here is a thought-experiment that suggests not.

Well-connected middle-class parents are required to make choices on behalf of their off-spring. They can use their networks, influence, hire private tutors etc. But if they do their off-spring will receive an income-contingent additional tax – a bit like a graduate tax. Alternatively, they can refrain from doing all of these things and their off-spring will receive a tax reduction.

The choice is a straight trade-off between opportunities and income. Most parents (I speculate) would opt to impose the tax on their off-spring. If this is correct they think that opportunities are more important than income.

Here’s a different case that might explain why. Robert Walpole (1676-1745) was possibly Britain’s first ‘prime minister’. He was not a principled man but ruled by bribery, flattery, and bullying. As many people hoped to be bribed, access to Walpole was highly sought.

Access was partly controlled by Walpole’s porter. The result: the porter ‘earn[ed] more in tips than the income many a country gentleman derived from this estates.’(p.98)

Portering for Walpole was probably very tedious, if well-paid. Would you hope that your off-spring might become a Walpolian porter? Possibly, but only if the alternatives were just as tedious and less well-paid.

Why? One’s work is not just a means to an income. It is a forum in which one can develop and exercise one’s intellectual and socio-emotional capacities. Developing these capacities can be more important than the instrumental benefits one can obtain from work.

If this is correct, equality of opportunity may be a more important component of the fair society than how income and wealth is distributed.

A privileged background tax

The SMCPC’s report suggests that people from some socio-economic backgrounds have unfair access to quite an important set of goods. Those who lose out should be compensated. We could impose an income contingent graduate-style tax on City lawyers, financiers, or consultants. We could call it a privileged background tax.


We are not taxing to ‘level down’ but to generate resources to compensate the Mildreds of this world who lose out from unfair access to elite professions.

Double charging? 

Some parents pay school fees to give their off-spring advantages then their off-spring are charged a privileged background tax. Is this unfair? No. School fees are a private investment that can have public effects. Some of these effects will be negative. If so, it is permissible to tax them.

There is an analogy with gas guzzling cars that attract an extra emissions tax. To complain that having paid £30000 for the car, it is invidious to be taxed more than other cars, misses the point entirely.


Let’s be frank, no political party will levy a privileged background tax but two points are important. First, I  would feel more comfortable sending my own off-spring to a fee paying school if I thought that their less fortunate contemporaries might obtain some compensation for this. There may be others like me.

Second, access to elite firms is unfair. If a privileged background tax is rejected, what are we to do? Perhaps the answer is ‘very little’. But, if so, this should be stated loud and clear. This is the very least to which the Mildreds of this world are entitled.

Should shorter people be allowed umbrellas?



This may sound an odd question (or possibly worse). But I live in rainy England and am above-average height. And, anyway, answering this question can help us think about different theories of justice.

Distributive justice: how to share out benefits and burdens?

Keeping dry in wet weather is a benefit. Having to take evasive action so you don’t experience an umbrella spike in the ear is a burden – as is an umbrella spike in the ear.

We must also remember that streets, walkways, and paths are shared public spaces. The abandon with which people wave their umbrellas in the confines of their own homes may be no-one else’s business. But in a public place how you use your umbrella can be my business.

The communitarian

Communitarians doubt that there are universal values that can help us settle questions like ours. We live in ‘thick’ moral relationships: if we abstract from these, we cannot properly understand the value of what we care about.

Married life is a good example. Most people care deeply about their own spouse. But if you abstract from the particular history of any couple – their joys, pains and shared experiences – it is hard to make sense of this caring. There is no universal reason why any couple should care about each other.

The same might apply in other contexts. It could be that in some wet country carrying an umbrella is so useful that only the destitute don’t. Not carrying an umbrella may denote inferior status and so constutiute a moral stigma.

In Adam’s Smith’s day, the inability to appear in public in a white linen shirt was one such moral stigma. The implication is this:

whatever damage shorter people might cause by wielding their umbrellas, limiting their umbrella rights would confer inferior status on them – much as banning prisoners from voting does. The difference is that being shorter is no crime.

But does umbrella-carrying carry such thick moral meaning? Not in the UK. But limits could come to imply inferior status. How?

On average, women are shorter than men and countries like the UK have a history of gender injustice. Any rule that picks out only shorter people would disproportionately pick out women.

On this basis we might rule out limiting shorter people’s umbrella rights because it risks perpetuating and exacerbating historic injustice. But this argument would not apply in countries who have a different history.

The utilitarian

Would a world in which shorter and taller people have the same umbrellas lead to greater overall happiness? I have no idea.

While utilitarianism is theoretically simple, the number of factors to be included in the utilitarian calculation can make it practically impossible.

The philosopher’s response is to look at the possible implications of utilitarianism. If utilitarianism can have odd implications, we infer that it is missing something morally important. And, by golly, can utilitarianism have odd implications.

Imagine the simple-minded shorter person who treats his umbrella as an expression of his personality – unfurling it makes him very happy indeed. His happiness might outweigh the pain of ten (a hundred?) stoics who receive his umbrella’s spikes in their faces.

We are describing a ‘utility monster’ and intuition tells us that such monsters should not be indulged. The general form of this objection is that utilitarianism ignores issues of distribution.

We should not sacrifice the interests of larger numbers of people even if doing so benefits a small number enormously.

The social contract approach

We are to imagine justice in terms of an agreement between suitably suited individuals. What would I agree to if I were fully rationalfully reasonablefully informed and unbiased etc.?

Or, in John Rawls’s ‘original position’, what would I agree to if I did not know who I was – whether I was rich or poor, talented or not, black or white etc?

What umbrella rights would I agree to if I did not know whether I was taller or shorter?

The key point is that no answer can refer solely to the benefits to shorter people of keeping dry. If I don’t know whether I am taller or shorter, a persuasive answer must include reasons that taller people can accept.

The general idea is that society is fair only if everyone has reasons to accept the rules whatever position they end up in – rich or poor, tall or short.

It should be noted that ‘having reasons to accept’ something is not the same as ‘personally benefiting’ from it. Someone may never personally benefit from their country’s university system but they do have reasons to think it worth having.


All the views canvassed could justify limiting umbrella rights. Any answer would partially depend on the facts – how common are umbrella-related injuries?

Perhaps we should ignore theories of justice and focus on practical solutions. But practical solutions are invariably based on what people are prepared to accept.

And what people are prepared to accept (also invariably) is based on what theory of distributive justice they (often unconsciously) hold.

Practical solutions to the distribution of society’s benefits and burdens, then, do appeal to the kinds of theories explained above. But, mostly, they do so in a haphazard fashion.

Our only choice is between explicitly weighing the relative merits of different theories of justice or of doing so implicitly.

This is why political philosophy is essential for anyone who is required to think about how to distribute benefits and burdens in the public realm. And in a democratic society, this is all of us – including those of above-average height living in rainy countries.

What’s bad about ambition?

Thomas Hobbes defined ambition as the ‘desire of office or precedence’[Leviathan, 1651].

The online OED elaborates ambition as the ‘ardent … desire to rise to high position, or to attain rank, [or] influence’ or a ‘strong or ardent desire of anything considered advantageous, honouring, or creditable’.

As few people would admit to ardently desiring anything just because it is ‘considered advantageous’ ambition has a bad smell about it. The ambitious person seems self-seeking and self-obsessed.

But we should distinguish between motives and effects. The surgeon whose only motive is to laud it over his friends may well save more lives than his colleague who aims only to treat whoever happens to be put in front of him.

If people’s ambitions can be aligned with general or social benefits we may not worry about the sort of person who might say that his ultimate ambition is for an obituary in The Economist (as is alleged to have been said in an interview at Goldman Sachs).

However, we might worry quite a lot about whether people’s ambitions are in fact well-aligned with social or general benefits. And on this the evidence is ambiguous. To illustrate: on May 21 2009 The Economist carried the obituary of Velupillai Prabhakaran a Tamil terrorist leader who trained women to ‘strap explosive belts underneath their dresses, a branch of warfare he had more or less invented.’

The fame analogy

People might want things that require fame. The actors who aspires to an Oscar must also be ‘box office’. This require that millions of people know who they are and so necessitates some level of fame. But only the very odd want fame for its own sake. As Ricky Gervais once said, if all you really want is fame, kill someone.

More specifically, if there is no independent reason for which you want to use fame, desiring fame is less than human. Fame has conditional value: its’ value is determined by the reason for which you seek it.

Ambition is similar. If there is no independent reason why you ‘desire to rise to high position, or to attain rank, [or] influence’ you might not care what you do to achieve it . You might manipulate, cause harm or do whatever it takes to advance and maintain your position.

Politicians are perhaps the best illustration of this. On Wednesday they insist that the contrary of what they sought on Monday is a vital national interest despite the world undergoing no change on Tuesday.

In 2012 the UK Prime Minister David Cameron was sceptical about the value of a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. By early 2013, after several members of his own party sat on him, a referendum became a vital national interest.

But politicians must wait for another day. Our focus is narrower: if you seek success, but think very little about why, you cannot know whether your life is worthwhile.

The life worth living

We all worry about this, and given the amount of time we spend at work, questions about the value of our professions inevitably arise. This is more obvious for arms traders but is relevant to us all.

A failure to reflect adequately on the value of your work can lead to psychological crises. The person in their late-40s at the top of their profession, aware of the personal costs this has required, can suddenly be overcome by the banality of 25 years devotion.

And imagine how you might react if a person honestly said ‘I have never wondered whether my profession is worthwhile’? Of course, your reaction would depend on the person’s circumstances.

If he is a first generation immigrant with five children, you may respect him for putting aside personal considerations for the sake of his family. But if he is well-educated, and could have chosen from a number of well-paid professions, you may conclude that there is a hole where his character should be.

Why does this matter?

If you seek advantageous things, but do not reflect on why you seek them, then, whether your life is worthwhile will be determined by things about which you are unaware.

You will rely heavily on the dominant social norms of your society to align the personally advantageous with the worthwhile.This is a big gamble.

Of course, like the surgeon, your life might turn out to be worthwhile – but only coincidentally. Is this enough?

Just give the young more votes

Young people seem to get a raw deal. But what should they expect? Only half of 18-24 year olds vote while 75% of those 65+ vote (2010 UK General Election figures).

One cannot really blame the politicians; they respond to incentives. As John Stuart Mill noted (in a slightly different context)

‘however honestly disposed [the ruling classes are], they are in general too fully occupied with things which they must attend to, to have much room in their thoughts for anything which they can with impunity disregard.’(105)

But there are solutions.

How raw is the deal?

In 2012, university tuition fees were tripled. Students benefit from university and repayment is income-contingent. Isn’t that fair?

Yes, but who will pay unpaid student debt? Not universities, and not current taxpayers. Future taxpayers – that is current young people – will pay that as well.

There is also a proposal to make under-25s ineligible for housing benefit. A generation ago a politician told unemployed people to get on their bikes to look for work. Should under-25s leave home and find employment, they may have to sleep on their bikes as well.

The baby-boomers 

While many old people face significant financial hardship, as a generation, the baby-boomers do quite well. Many have retired with defined benefit pensions while insisting such schemes are too costly for the next generation.

All pensioners qualify for free bus travel; most for a winter fuel subsidy. In fact pensioners are the only age group to become better-off during the last few lean years.

None of this is intrinsically bad but it is odd. Two dominant themes of 21st century politics is that public money should be ‘invested’ on things that improve economic growth (e.g., education) and that people should be helped only if they cannot help themselves.

So, why spend so much money on those less likely to be economically active and more likely to be responsible for their poverty? This second point needs care. There are many pensioners who are in poverty through no fault of their own. Perhaps this is true of most.

But if you randomly selected one poor 20 year old and one poor 65 year old and had to bet on which was responsible for her poverty, where would your money go? (Hint: on the one who has been an adult for more than two years.)

Baby-boomers are not selfish but their moral concerns tend to favour their own. As David Willetts noted in The Pinch, baby-boomers have been ‘better parents than citizens’. But not everyone can rely on a previous generation.

What can be done? 

One – largely ineffective – solution is to implore the young to vote. They are young. It is hardly a surprise that more of them (though not all) don’t think long-term or have the settled lives that encourage long-term planning.

But we could give the young who do take an interest more political power. If the young lose out because fewer vote, and the interests of the young are similar, then we should increase the voting power of those people whose interests are most similar to the non-voting young, i.e., the voting young.

More voters for the young

Let’s assume that there are one hundred 18-24 year olds but only half vote. To ensure that the total political power of the young is realized we double the votes of those who do vote.

We can apply this idea to all age-groups. But as long as fewer young people vote their voting power will increase more (see below).

Age category A: Assumed number of eligible voters B: %-age who actually vote C: The increase in voting power of each voter (A * B =C, e.g., 100*0.518 = 1.93)
18-24 100 51.8% 1.93
55-64 100 69.8% 1.43
65+ 100 74.7% 1.34

 (NB: the voting percentages are taken from the 2010 UK general election.)

This proposal is a form of plural voting. Plural voting was made (in)famous by Mill.** Fearing the great unwashed Mill wanted to give more educated citizens more votes. My proposal is very different: it is based on shared interests not a better education or greater intelligence.

The proposal is also sensitive to the numbers of people who actually vote. As more people in each age group vote, the voting power of each vote declines. And the total voting power of 18-24 year olds can never be greater than the total number of 18-24 year olds.

There are moral objections. But none, in my view, are serious and all are too complex to address here. So, would giving the young more votes improve their lot?

Let’s test it

Researchers could stratify constituencies by age and see whether election results would be different if the young had more votes. Where results would change we can see whether the hypothetical winner has more young-friendly policies.

These results would not settle the question. In the longer term, politicians – knowing that the political voice of the young would be louder – would compete more for their votes. This might correct some distortions.


The democratic state must treat the interests of the rich and poor, old and young with equal seriousness. Where politicians compete for votes and where older people vote in larger numbers this does not happen.

In difficult times, more votes for the young is one way to correct for this. Let’s at least do the experiment and see what we learn.

**My proposal also owes a lot to Philippe Van Parijs’s magnificently entitled ‘Disenfranchising the Elderly’.

Greece and the EU – should we follow Kant or Aristotle?

In an article in the Observer Alan Posener argued that “Greece must honour the terms of its bailout.” Greece

“lied its way into the eurozone, refused to reform … can’t or won’t collect taxes properly, has been bailed out repeatedly and still doesn’t accept the rules.”

It is the failure to stick to the rules that, says Posener, is the problem. For Germans, rules “must never be broken, even if they are self-defeating”. He contrasts this Kantian way of thinking with utilitarian (or “Anglo-Saxon”) thinking.

Immanuel Kant and rules

For Kant, the goodness (or ‘moral worth’) of an action is independent of its consequences. This can seem plausible. Good intentions can lead to bad outcomes – as when a two year old tries to pick flowers for his mother. The flowers do not survive but we praise the intention (or, in Kant’s language, the manifestation of a good will).

But ignoring consequences can be self-defeating. The most extreme example of this comes from Kant himself. In  On a Supposed Right to Lie Kant argued that one cannot lie to a would-be murderer even if lying is the only way to prevent the murder.

This has led to accusations of rule-fetishism; and Posener’s Germans seem to be guilty of it. So here are some relevant questions.

Are the Greeks who caused Greece’s current plight the same Greeks who will suffer from it?

If not, then by pursing current policies Europe may merely make one group of people suffer for the sins of another group. And it seems to be innocent Greeks who will suffer most. Youth unemployment in Greece is currently over 50%. And youth unemployment can have disturbing life-time effects.

We should also distinguish between morality (or individuals’ conduct and politics (or groups’ conduct). Perhaps person A should be held responsible for her actions. But it does not follow that everyone in group B should be made to suffer the effects of actions and practices of some sub-group of B. Let’s call the relevant sub-group the ‘oligarchs’:

“Greece has failed to address …[its] problems because the country’s elites have a vested interest in keeping things as they are. Since the early 1990s, a handful of wealthy families — an oligarchy in all but name — has dominated Greek politics. These elites have preserved their positions through control of the media and through old-fashioned favoritism, sharing the spoils of power with the country’s politicians. Greek legislators, in turn, have held on to power by rewarding a small number of professional associations and public-sector unions that support the status quo.”(Eleftheriadis)

If this diagnosis is correct, then it may be inter-generationally unjust to hold all Greeks liable for Greece’s plight.

When following the rules is self-defeating, on what principled basis should we make exceptions?

This second question is more general. The worry here is that rules do have exceptions but without some sound principle about how to identify them we might delude ourselves and make self-indulgent exceptions when we shouldn’t.

The utilitarian can offer a good answer to this question. Kant struggles. If, like Jeremy Bentham, you think that rules or acts are good or bad to the degree to which they bring about good or bad consequences, and you discover that following the rules will have disastrous consequences, you can – without hypocrisy – ignore the rules.

The reason to depart from the rules is the same reason that justifies following them.

If, like Kant, you think things are good or bad independently of their consequences, then disastrous consequences alone cannot justify exceptions. We can end up feeling compelled to tell the truth to the would-be murderer with full knowledge of what will happen next.

Aristotelian virtue ethics

But there is another view and – given our problem – the approach to ethics of one of Greece’s most famous sons (although he wasn’t actually a citizen) may be apt.

Aristotle thought that there are no universally-applicable moral rules. The world is just too complex. Moral rules are true only ‘for the most part’. Exceptions exist and Greece’s current plight might just be one of them.

For Aristotle, the wise person – the person of good character and judgement – can differentiate correctly between legitimate exceptions to rules and the cases in which the rules must be followed despite unpalatable consequences.

But it is not possible to reduce this wisdom to a set of rules that can be followed by the not-so-wise.

What would the wise person recommend?

I speculate but I sense that she might look forward 20 years and ask what kind of Greece and Europe will there be if youth unemployment runs at 50% for any length of time (youth unemployment is at a similar level in Spain)? How many lives might be ruined? How much will it cost to keep such societies tolerably stable?

What else? Political reform to reduce the wealthy’s domination of Greek politics is probably necessary. Attempts to reduce oligarchs’ economic clout without first reducing their political power will almost certainly fail anyway.

But whatever the solutions, making Greece stick to its agreements because the rules must be followed, and because the Greeks have failed to reform, punishes the wrong people and may be self-defeating.

In other words, the way forward for Greece may be a little more Aristotle and a little less Kant.

Justice and priorities

We disagree about justice but we agree about this: if knowing someone’s race, gender or social background enables you to predict how their life will go, something is seriously wrong.

But we cannot change everything at once. Or, to adapt a phrase of Aneurin Bevan’s, if the language of priorities is the religion of social justice,** we should find out which of gender, class or race is a greater disadvantage.

At the level of political philosophy there is no answer to this question. But political philosophy can help to identify the key issues.

A simple approach

We are going to aggregate sources of disadvantage. Let’s assume that gender, class, and race are independent sources of unfair treatment and that each is equally disadvantageous. To keep things simple we will stick with a binary set of attributes, i.e.,

1. Male or female;
2. White or non-white;
3. Middle-class socio-economic status (SES) or working-class SES;
4. Privately or state educated;

(Why 1-4? Because no one has any control over whether 1-4 is true of them.)

If you fall on the right side of any disjunction (the ‘or’) you are disadvantaged and you get -5. If you fall on the left hand-side you are ‘advantaged’ and get 0.

Simple enough. We then aggregate scores. The lower the score the less disadvantage you face.

Below is a ranking of some individuals by their score. (Each measure of disadvantage is emboldened. Anyone interested in the complete ranking should email me.)

Unsurprisingly (this is England) being a white privately-educated middle-class male puts you top of the class. Equally, unsurprisingly, being a non-white, state-educated, working class female is not good for you.

1      White, Male, Middle-Class, Privately-educated:                 Disadvantage score: 0
2      White, Male, Middle-Class, State-educated:                                                     -5
2      White, Female, Middle-Class, Privately-educated                                              -5
3     White, Female, Middle-Class, State-educated:                                                 -10
3     Non-white, Male, Working-Class, Privately-educated:                                      -10
4     White, Female, Working-Class, State-educated:                                             -15
4     Non-white, Male, Working-Class, State-educated:                                         -15
5     Non-white, Female, Working-Class, State-educated:                                    -20

What does this tell us?

This exercise is no more than suggestive but it does enable us to pose several important questions and draw a couple of conclusions. Questions first.

1. Is it correct that each measure is equally disadvantageous?

Perhaps being female should get -7 while being working class -5.

2. Are the measures independent? Is there dynamic interplay between them? Are disadvantages (what the sociologists call) ‘intersectional‘?

For instance, if you are female, does being non-white disproportionately exacerbate the problems you face? If so, we should not aggregate disadvantage. We might need to multiply it.

3. Is the opposite true for some measures? Can disadvantages cancel each other out or partially mitigate each other?

It has been put to me that, while being a white male is more advantageous than being a white female, being a non-white female is more advantageous than being a non-white male.

4. What other disadvantages are important?

One obvious candidate is physical disability. If you are unable to walk then many places – including University College London’s Philosophy Department – are inaccessible.

I don’t know the answers to questions 1-4 but they are important. To be more precise, anyone desigining policies to reduce disadvantage should have some answers to 1-4.


Finally, assuming that the analysis here is accurate, one point can be made: it might be wrong to prioritize gender as a source of social injustice.

For example, if the analysis is accurate, Alan Johnson (a white, working-class, state-educated, male and former UK cabinet minister) faced more difficulties in rising than did Harriet Harman (a white, middle-class, privately-educated, female and former UK cabinet minister).

The significance of this is that FTSE 100 companies, universities etc. currently seek to appoint more women to senior posts. But if gender is the only measure on which they focus, they may simply be helping white, middle-class, privately-educated females get level with their male equivalents.

Clearly this an improvement but, for those interested in social justice, is it a priority? There are two ways in which it might be.

The first is that giving the relevant females the same chances as their male equivalents is intrinsically valuable irrespective of any effects on other groups in society. The problem with this claim is that helping any disadvantaged group has intrinsic value so the priority question remains.

Second, is a kind of two-for-one argument. It might be that helping one group of females has beneficial consequences for other disadvantaged groups. Breaking down some social barriers might lead to others falling too.

But it is not obvious that it will. Advancing the interests of white, middle-class, privately-educated males does not seem to have helped non-white males very much. Why should helping white, middle-class, privately-educated females have different effects?

One reason might be that gender disadvantage is more severe than class or racial disadvantage.  If so, reducing gender inequality will knock down a higher social barrier. This point connects to question 1 above and illustrates how important the question is.

More generally,  if the language of priorities is the religion of social justice,** we need to address questions 1-4 before we have much of an idea about social justice priorities, including the relative importance of appointing more women to senior posts.

**The actual quote is ‘the language of priorities is the religion of socialism’.

Why not philosopher-kings?

One can be forgiven for thinking that some politicians don’t care which laws are passed as long as they get to make speeches and attract headlines.

This should not surprise us. To a large degree democratic politics just is a popularity contest. We should expect it to attract the vain and the ambitious.

But governing well – making good laws, and working out which social problems are pressing and what solutions might work – is not easy. It is an open question whether those attracted to politics can do this well.

Why should philosophers rule?

Plato thought that philosophers – or lovers of wisdom – should rule. Like most philosophers, he also thought that while opinion is common, knowledge is rare. Things are complex and coming to know anything is a laborious process.

Underpinning this is a distinction between appearance and reality. Is the world really as it appears to us? Does common sense reliably identify real political problems or just imaginary ones (like Reds under the bed or the EU as the source of all our troubles)?

Plato was also sceptical that the desire for worldly success is a reliable guide to knowledge. One of his major criticisms of  the Sophists – a group of peripatetic educators in ancient Greece – was precisely that their teaching focused on the skills that brought worldly success. What a caddish bunch!

Still, Plato was on to something. The desire for worldly success can bias us in favour of conclusions that please those who have rewards to dispense.

Like most philosophers, Plato also employed a sharp distinction between rhetoric and good argument. A good argument withstands patient and fair-minded criticism over time.

Rhetoric is windy verbiage with no depth that is designed to influence the barely-listening or simple-minded. (This might be a tendentious definition.)

On the other hand, good arguments can be tedious to work through and can take forever to understand. Rhetoric is much more pleasing to the ear and can be enjoyed over a glass of wine.

Why philosophers shouldn’t rule

A love of wisdom, of rigorous argument and complexity are not sufficient qualifications for ruling. Perhaps they are dis-qualifications. Jonathan Wolff has noted that, while acting as a jury member, others ‘seemed much better at judging people, and whether they were telling the truth’ than he – a professional philosopher – was.

Lovers of wisdom have no need to be good at this; they do not take others’ word for things. They check them for themselves. But this is not feasible for politicians. They are simply too busy.

The philosopher’s commitment to complexity also makes for an unhappy marriage with democratic politics. Democracies give ultimate political authority to the people. Happily, most of ‘the people’ have day jobs and cannot spend much time establishing whether immigration really is a significant problem. They rely on common sense and trusted sources.

Things get worse. The contemporary lover of wisdom – the academic – is a specialist in only one field. If offering policy advice involves going beyond their specialism, contemporary lovers of wisdom often refuse: it’s not their ‘area’. But politics does not respect academic divisions so, reasonably enough, politicians find this reticence annoying.

Finally, politics is about exercising power. One needs to know when to negotiate, when to be bold, and when to retreat. Lovers of wisdom have no expertise in this at all.

Let’s face it, the philosopher-king is a bad idea. But kings who are more like philosophers is an awfully good idea.

The case for philosophical-kings

The advanced democracies have solved most easy problems. Generally, people don’t starve or die of easily curable illnesses. The complex problems remain.

In England there is a ‘long-tail of under-achievement‘ in schools. Since about 1945, between 15-20% of school-leavers have suffered from functional illiteracy or innumeracy. This problem has survived many policy changes.

Windy rhetoric aside (see here or here), we really don’t know what causes this problem, and even less what we might do to address it.

If many social problems are similar, some philosophical virtues may help. But what might we do? There are at least two different approaches. One focuses on improving the intellectual virtues of politicians and policy-makers. We will put this option aside.

A second focuses on creating institutions that can change behaviour. An example is the UK Statistics Authority which is licensed to publicly correct politicians when they make mis-leading statistical statements. Over time, this should alter politicians’ behaviour.

With a little fancy we might imagine a ‘Good Argument Authority’ that is licensed to publicly correct politicians’ non-sequiturs, contradictory claims, or point out the irrelevant arguments sometimes invoked to make the case for policies.

One example is the common appeals to recent findings of science – often neuro-science – to support education policies. Such appeals can be effective, not to say seductive. But, mostly, they are irrelevant.

There is a large gap between scientific findings and their policy implications. If there weren’t, the same policies would work everywhere.

More institutions like the Statistics Authority may not solve social problems any quicker. But they may nip some of the sillier ideas in the bud. This will save time and money.

Plato was wrong about philosopher-kings. But attempts to solve complex social problems without the help of lovers of wisdom will almost certainly be wasteful and may well makes things worse.

Fat, freedom and less advantaged citizens

If freedom is to be understood ‘negatively’ as the absence of external interference, we can think about distributive or social justice in terms of answering the following question: in which  circumstances is it permissible to limit some people’s freedom for others’ benefit?

Does justice require that we tax people to provide education for those who, otherwise, would go un-schooled? Is justice compatible with limiting people’s sexual freedoms because others think their practices intrinsically bad?

The answers to these questions are (in turn) yes and no. But where is the dividing line? Let’s start by looking at ‘lifestyle’ health problems caused by alcohol, food, and tobacco.

In the attempt to reduce costs and prioritize spending, lifestyle illnesses attract obvious attention; they seem avoidable and are expensive. For instance, under new UK NHS guidelines if all those eligible opted for weight-loss surgery, the cost would be £12billion. Alcohol use is ranked as the 6th highest disease risk factor.

One possible remedy is to refuse free treatment for lifestyle illnesses. But, while this would reduce costs, it may not affect the numbers. We are not fully-rational and we can be weak-willed or, as Aristotle put it, ‘incontinent‘. How many glasses of wine did you have over Christmas and how many do you wish you’d had?

Another solution is to ban the offending items. Some think this is the best approach to tobacco and others recommend it for fatty foods. But bans limit people’s freedom.

One response might be that bans don’t work anyway – witness prohibition. But this is too quick. Some bans do work – smoking bans in public places work. We should also differentiate between two separate questions.

‘Would a ban be morally permissible or desirable?’ is the philosophically interesting question. ‘If a ban were morally permissible or desirable, would it work?’ is a wholly different question.

You might think that if we know that a ban would not work we can ignore the philosophical question. But, as noted, some bans do work. Equally, if any ban were morally impermissible whether it would work or not is irrelevant. If we want to save effort, it may be best to focus on the philosophical question.

In which circumstances it is permissible to limit people’s freedom?

Here are two general claims which apply to lifestyle problems:

Greater freedom claim: greater freedom of choice only benefits individuals whose capacities are sufficiently developed so that they use those choices sufficiently wisely, i.e., without harming themselves. Examples of harm include addiction, ill health, gambling debts etc.

Crooked timber claim*: Modern societies will always include a non-trivial number of weak-willed people (possibly a large minority).

You might think that the greater freedom and crooked timber claims are false. But we will stipulate that they are true and see what follows.

If the two claims are true then, whenever we expand the range of people’s choices, we can predict that some people will develop addictions, have poorer health etc., who otherwise would not. These problems may be expensive to treat and will reduce the sufferers’ well-being.

You might think that free choice is so important that we cannot justify limiting it. Your freedoms are rights, and as Ronald Dworkin states, rights ‘trump‘ other goods. But is this correct? If freedom is the absence of external interference, it is clearly not the only valuable thing. Only hermits prioritize being left alone over everything else.

More generally, for any liberal who thinks that social justice requires that the interests of poorer or less able citizens should receive some kind of priority, the greater freedom and crooked timber claims are worrying.

One common response is that we should adopt policies that make the crooked timber claim false. We should educate people so that their wills are not weak and so that they make choices that don’t have damaging and expensive effects.

The philosophical response here is to stipulate some more. Let’s imagine that we know of no effective way of making the crooked timber claim false.

Alternatively, the practically-minded person might appeal to some evidence. In the UK a lot of money has been spent on education for a decently long period of time. But lifestyle problems seem to be getting worse. Death rates from liver disease have increased 400% since 1970.

What if we cannot stiffen people’s wills through education?

If the interests of poorer or less able citizens should receive some kind of priority, we may have to countenance limiting everyone’s freedom. The loss of freedom to able or ‘continent’ citizens (Aristotle again) might be off-set by the benefits to less able citizens.

These limits would never go as far as limiting anyone’s sexual freedoms but they may be very annoying. One of my favourite examples is the degree to which cash machines can make life harder for people who struggle with their finances.

When you could only access cash by speaking to a bank-cashier, over-spending required returning to the bank and asking a real person – who might know you and your finances well – for more money. Now it can be done without any human interaction.

Should we only allow people to withdraw money from a cash machine once a week? (If anyone needs more money they can speak to a cashier.) Inevitably, this would be tiresome for many people. But, if it helps the weak-willed, would limiting people’s freedom in this way be unjust? To put it another way, is this a case in which it is permissible to limit some people’s freedom for others’ benefit?

Frankly, I don’t know. But if the choice were between no help for the weak-willed and banning everyone from, say, crisps, over-use of cash machines, or fizzy drinks, there is a case for a ban. Whether, on any particular occasion, a ban would work is a question for another day.

* This is a translation of part a quote from Immanuel Kant. See.

To level down or not to level down – that is … actually quite a difficult question

Levelling down – making some people worse-off and no-one else better-off – is not looked upon favourably. And how could you prefer others being worse-off if you remain exactly as you were before? Let me try to persuade you that things are more complex than they appear.

You might think that it is intrinsically important that we have similar kinds of lives such that if one person experiences a set-back so should others. We will call this the Musketeers’ Principle (‘one for all, and all for one’). Here is an example: 

The game: your children are squabbling about who is to go first at some game. You have no coins etc. so you have to choose one of your children or abandon the game. As you can think of no fair way to do this, you abandon the game.

If the children would rather to play the game – even those who don’t go first – you have made them all worse-off rather than make one of them feel they are your favourite. You are levelling down.

Thick moral relationships

The game involves a family. Idealizing a little, the family involves a set of long-term and very meaningful (or ‘thick’) moral relationships that are justified in terms of the interests of the children and parents. Within this context, fair treatment is very important so levelling down can be acceptable.

But should we concede that the Musketeers’ Principle applies within the family but deny that it is relevant to our politics (which, after all, is where levelling down is most controversial).

Is politics about thick moral relationships? 

Let’s imagine two extremes: at one end is an idealized family – the Waltons perhaps. At the other is a group of self-sufficient hermits who interact only when it is unavoidable. At which point between these two extremes should we locate a modern political society?

Your answer here will affect when (if ever) you think levelling down is desirable. Your answer will be informed by your other political and moral commitments. The more important you think shared ‘social glue’ is, the more prepared you will be to countenance levelling down. If you think social glue is irrelevant, or harmful, you will take a different view.

Political disagreement is the norm in modern societies so we should not expect any consensus here. But from this we should not infer that anyone who favours levelling down must be an envious reprobate. We should expect some people to recommend levelling down when we think it is inappropriate.

Things that look like levelling down but aren’t

Apart from what might be a small class of cases in which levelling down is acceptable, there are situations that look a lot like levelling down but are not. Remember, for something to count as levelling down some people must end up worse off and no-one else better-off.

Table 1 lists five alternative situations for three different people (John, Mary and Joseph). We will start by focusing on S1-S3 (we bring in S1* and S3* below). Which of S1-S3 is better or worse? This might help us decide:

BadEffects: Over-time the significant inequality in S3 causes Joseph to come to see John as somehow inferior. John is talentless, or feckless; or just insufficiently like Joseph to warrant the same kind of respect. This becomes public knowledge and John loses friends and becomes socially isolated; his well-being falls.

TABLE 1 John Mary Joseph
Situation 1 (S1) 8 8 8
Situation 2 (S2) 8 12 16
Situation 3 (S3) 8 12 50
Situation 3* (S3*) 6 12 52
Situation 1* (S1*) 13 13 13

If we should not choose S3 because of BadEffects this is because S3 will lead to something like S3*. In S3* the worst-off person (John) is worse-off than in any of S1 to S3.

You may reject S3 for this reason but levelling down has nothing to do with it. You might just think that the worst-off get some kind of priority. They should not be made worse-off. But if S3 leads to S3* then in choosing S3 you are making John worse-off.

We are left with S2 and S1. You might choose S2. But you can choose S1 and find levelling down repugnant. You may think GoodEffects is true:

GoodEffects: where everyone is equally well-off a positive ethos is created. Over-time, this increases the psychic well-being, and so welfare, of everyone.

If GoodEffects is true you may choose S1 over S2 because S1 leads to S1*. This is not levelling down either: in S1* someone (Joseph) is worse-off (compared to S2-S4) but both Mary and John are better-off than in all other situations.

Some people may still opt for S3. They may think BadEffects or GoodEffects won’t happen. But – and this is the key point – their views on the acceptability of levelling down are neither here nor there.

Is it ever acceptable for politicians to level down?

As Bad and GoodEffects show, politicians may recommend something that looks like levelling down but is in fact something else. They may think that equality will increase everyone’s well-being (or just some people’s). They may be wrong about this but they are not levelling down.

At other times, politicians may think society’s thick moral relationships – its social glue – requires the application of the Musketeers’ Principle. They might be wrong here too but they are not obviously wrong. It’s time to give levelling down a fair hearing.