Even if the universe has a purpose, we can’t assume that we matter to it

Unfortunately we can’t rule out that the possibility that the purpose of the universe is to be food for a space monster

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been reading Tim Mulgan’s most recent book, Purpose in the Universe: the Case for Ananthropocentric Purposivism, in which he makes a case for the proposition that the universe has a non-human-centred purpose. In Mulgan’s view, the world is religiously ambiguous, meaning that reason and evidence do not decisively favour one religious view over all others. Atheism and theism can both be reasonable responses to the available evidence. In this book, Mulgan aims to defend the reasonableness of AP as a third option in a religiously ambiguous world.

Mulgan’s background is in moral philosophy, not metaphysics or philosophy of religion. Accordingly, he lays the foundation of the book’s argument by setting out a number of first order moral commitments. Prominent among these is the claim that we have stringent obligations not to harm future generations. In Mulgan’s view, the only kind of moral theory capable of accounting for the truth of this conviction is objective list consequentialism (I have previously responded to Mulgan’s criticism of contractualism on this score here and here). In an objective list consequentialist theory, consequences are assessed according to objective criteria, in contrast to subjective consequentialist theories like hedonistic or preference utilitarianism which assess consequences solely by reference to agents’ mental states.

With a set of first order moral commitments in hand, Mulgan makes a brief foray into meta-ethics. Mulgan does not think non-cognitivist theories (according to which moral language expresses only sentiments or imperatives which are merely disguised as propositions) can provide credible accounts of moral talk and moral thought. Everyday moral experience is most consistent with moral cognitivism. Cognitivists about morality believe that positive moral claims are truth-apt, meaning that they can be either true or false. Some cognitivists are nihilists (also sometimes called error theorists). Nihilists believe that all positive moral claims are false. But most cognitivists are moral realists, meaning that they believe some positive moral claims (i.e. at least one) are true.

Following J. L. Mackie, nihilists often appeal to the supposed metaphysical “queerness” of moral facts. But Mulgan’s strategy of building his argument off a set of reasonably secure convictions about right and wrong puts nihilism on the back foot. We have supreme confidence in first order moral judgments like “it is wrong to boil a baby for fun” (to use one of my teachers’ favourite examples), whereas we are rarely so secure in our metaphysical judgments. If moral facts seem queer given our metaphysical beliefs, we are better off revising our metaphysical beliefs rather than our moral beliefs. If this seems hard to swallow, Mulgan points out, it is not clear how the argument from queerness can be restricted to only rule out moral facts considered as a subset of normative facts more generally. If accepting the claim that moral facts are intolerably queer commits us to the more extreme position of “global normative nihilism”, which entails that there are no true positive claims about mathematical or logical truth on account of intolerable queerness, we can be even more confident in rejecting Mackie’s argument for nihilism.

However, Mulgan does think that the argument from queerness is getting at something very important. In his view, moral facts do seem to be intolerably queer in the context of a strictly naturalistic ontology. It follows that the presumption of strict or global naturalism which dominates contemporary meta-ethics ought to be abandoned. Morality, and normativity more broadly, is most at home in an ontology that includes non-natural or supernatural facts (by non-natural facts, Mulgan seems to have in mind sui generis normative facts, while supernatural facts denote facts about the divine such as the attributes or commands of a perfect being).

Having established that non-naturalism or supernaturalism can (at the very least) be reasonable, Mulgan is off to the races. Much of what follows falls under a wide-ranging survey of arguments for both theism and atheism, including classical and contemporary versions of ontological, cosmological and teleological arguments for theism, and, on the atheist side, arguments from scale, religious diversity and (most importantly) evil. Mulgan argues that the theist arguments are only successful in establishing that there is a cosmic purpose, while atheist arguments can only succeed in establishing that human well-being is irrelevant to the cosmic purpose. Theists draw the further conclusion that there is a human-centred cosmic purpose, while atheists draw the further conclusion that there is no cosmic purpose at all. These further conclusions are not unreasonable, and they could very well be true. But the conclusions do not logically follow from the arguments deployed in their support. Taken together, the most compelling arguments for theism and atheism are at least as consistent with the thesis that there is a cosmic purpose to which human well-being is wholly irrelevant — in other words, ananthropocentric purposivism.

If we’re not relevant to the cosmic purpose, then what is? In theory, the possibilities are endless. Maybe we don’t matter, but some aliens do. Or perhaps the purpose of the universe is to realize some objective aesthetic value — the instantiation of the most beautiful physical theory, for example. When Leibniz proposed that this is the best of all possible worlds, the criterion of goodness he had in mind was nothing like what we would expect in a human centred morality; the best world according to God, Leibniz argued, is the world where the greatest diversity follows from the simplest laws.

In some respects, a non-human-centred morality makes a rather good fit with consequentialism. Consequentialism is often criticized for assessing consequences by means of aggregation of harm and well-being. Strict utilitarianism, for example, dictates that aggregate utility must always be increased, even when this would be better for no one — in fact, even when this would be worse for everyone. By indiscriminately summing utilities across distinct lives and taking only the sum of all utilities to have any direct moral importance, utilitarians are said to ignore the moral significance of the separateness of persons. AP helps support the consequentialist contention that persons simply do not have any moral significance to ignore. Consequences, impartially and impersonally assessed without any regard for the well-being of individual creatures, are all that matter according to the cosmic purpose.

At this point, however, I wonder if Mulgan begins to undermine the foundations of his own argument. His case for AP is cumulative, meaning that each step in the argument depends on the steps that have come before. The entire argument therefore depends on the reliability of the moral commitments he began with. These commitments are shaped by careful reflection about everyday human moral experience. But if AP is true, we should regard everyday human moral experience with extreme skepticism. There is no guarantee that there will be any points of contact between human moral experience and the real world of objective values; moral nihilism could very well be true with respect to humans! If we accept AP and consequently accept that a restricted moral nihilism may be true with respect to humans, then it’s not clear to me how we can have the degree of confidence in the existence of objective values that is necessary to make AP a reasonable proposition in the first place.

I expect that Mulgan will have anticipated and attempt to address this objection in the book’s final section, which he dedicates to constructing a moral theory consistent with AP. I’m really looking forward to tackling this section, but it’ll have to wait — my school library doesn’t have a copy of the book, and my inter-library loan period is up!

Related reading

Derek Parfit: “Why Anything? Why This?” Part 1 & Part 2
Tim Mulgan: “What if God is just not that into you?”
Tim Mulgan in conversation with Beverley Clack and Jonathan Cottingham. Moderated by Peter Dennis. (Audio)


Politics is not just a contest in domination

At Current Affairs, Nathan J. Robinson has responded to Jeet Heer’s complaint that a certain segment of the left is driven by “a vision of politics as a contest in domination”. Robinson’s response is more or less that politics is a contest in domination, so the complaint doesn’t stick. While I don’t want to defend Heer’s column, I do think Robinson’s response merits some pushback.

As Robinson notes, people in society hold conflicting values and interests, and it is not always possible or desirable to accommodate all values and interests. There is no compromise to be struck between racists and anti-racists, for example. For racists to win, anti-racists must lose, and vice versa. Politics, in Robinson’s view, is simply the struggle for dominance between fundamentally antagonistic values and interests. It makes no sense to complain about politics being conducted as a pure struggle for dominance, because pure struggle for dominance is what politics is. Rather than trying to twist politics into something that it’s not (and cannot be), we should focus on what’s really at stake, i.e. which values and interests should properly dominate.

Of course Robinson is right to say that some political values and interests ought to take priority over others and there’s nothing inherently aberrant about adversarial politics. I’m not sure this really constitutes a proper response to Heer, who seems to have been complaining about domination of and by people, not values, but never mind that. Still, Robinson overreaches with the suggestion that politics is merely the continuation of war by other means. In fact, viewing politics as a realm of pure conflict renders many perfectly ordinary political phenomena inexplicable.

Robinson anticipates the objection that his view cannot explain why there are such things as political coalitions. Not so, he says; coalitions are useful tools in the struggle. If participating in a coalition confers an advantage over the enemy, then one should participate in a coalition. This response is not satisfactory. Robinson’s view explains why it would be prudent to form or join a coalition. But how could coalitions possibly exist if politics is only about conflict?

I understand a coalition to be an alliance of groups with both shared and conflicting values, interests and priorities. Members commit to pursuing shared ends while compromising on points of disagreement. Such compromises may take a number of forms. One approach is simply for coalition partners to compete for power within the coalition’s internal structure; in some cases, as in certain political parties, this competition may be highly organized and include a system for official recognition of internal factions. Another is for the coalition to simply avoid taking positions on areas of disagreement between the coalition partners. In some cases, the coalition may try to strike a balance between each side’s preferred position. Or one faction or another might just give up on the issue entirely.

So if coalitions exist, then groups with opposing interests and values can and do interact in a mode other than that of unrestricted warfare. That means that if some group or other is criticized for treating politics as warfare, it will have to find some excuse other than the claim that all politics is warfare, because that claim is clearly false.

A couple of final remarks. First, it’s a little distracting that the term domination is deployed so heavily here, because in political theory, domination tends to be a morally loaded term implying subjection to arbitrary power. Robinson cannot be using domination in this sense, because he thinks correct values (which are by definition non-arbitrary) can dominate. What he has in mind is really power rather than domination, I think.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the view that politics is unrestricted warfare between incompatible values implies that a society ordered by the correct values would have no need for politics. At the root of the ostensibly hardheaded, no nonsense view of politics as warfare, it turns out, is a kind of prissy anti-politics that casts all political disagreement and conflict as a symptom of social disease. I do not find this characterization remotely plausible.

Contractualism, reciprocity and the invention of warp drive


In Purpose in the Universe, Tim Mulgan writes:

Reciprocity, sentiment, and mutual cooperation may provide good foundations for intra-generational ethics. But intergenerational contracts face two barriers: Parfit’s non-identity problem and the impossibility of reciprocal interaction between present people and distant future people. How can we begin to imagine contracts, bargains, or cooperative schemes involving future people whose existence and identity depend on what we decide and whose fate is entirely in our hands? (p. 24)

I discussed the threat that the non-identity problem supposedly poses to T. M. Scanlon’s contractualism in a previous post, which you can find here. I’m not very satisfied with that post, but I stand by the main idea. The key point is that Parfit’s non-identity problem depends on a criterion of identity that not even Parfit accepts. At worst, the non-identity problem only bars contractualists from accepting a certain criterion of identity. But because contractualism presupposes no particular theory of personal identity, this restriction poses little threat to contractualism as such.

Having dealt with the non-identity issue elsewhere, here I want to discuss the second barrier Mulgan thinks contractualists face in explaining obligations to future people: the impossibility of reciprocal interaction between present and (distant) future people. In his earlier book, Ethics for a Broken World, casts a very broad net, with the claim that all social contract theories require reciprocal interaction between rational self-interested parties. However, this is not true of Scanlon’s social contract ethics. The parties to Scanlon’s hypothetical contract are explicitly not defined by motives of rational self-interest, and they are not stipulated to be engaged in reciprocal interaction. They are reasonable persons motivated to find mutually justifiable principles of conduct. (What We Owe to Each Other, p. 191) The source of this motivation is the value of a relationship structured by such principles — a relationship of mutual recognition. (p. 162)

However, Scanlon’s contractualism is not an account of political justice, and if we acknowledge the moral urgency of future people’s interests, questions of intergenerational political justice are especially pressing (for just the same reasons that questions of political justice among contemporaries are especially pressing). A theory of justice generated from within Scanlon’s more general account of what we owe to each other may also turn out not to assume reciprocal interaction, but because such a theory does not yet exist, it cannot be cited in defence of contractualism’s ability to explain obligations of justice to future people. And existing contractualist theories of justice do tend to assume reciprocal interaction. So contractualists must show that there can be reciprocity between past and future.

In his 2012 Tanner Lectures on Death and the Afterlife, Samuel Scheffler explores the significance of what he (somewhat cheekily) calls “the afterlife”: the fact that other people will continue to live value-laden lives after we ourselves have perished. Scheffler argues that our horror at scenarios like that of Children of Men, in which human reproduction has (non-voluntarily) ended and the species will therefore soon become extinct, is best explained by a relationship of dependency between the value of our lives and the value of future lives. Apart from purely hedonistic pursuits, almost all our activities and projects would seem largely pointless if we knew we were among the last generations. But our own deaths do not similarly threaten the value of our lives (indeed, in the third lecture included in the volume, Scheffler argues that our deaths are a necessary condition for the value of our lives). We have self-interested reasons, Scheffler argues, to be more concerned about the survival of complete strangers in the distant future than about our own personal survival!

A vivid example of how this works can be seen in the film Star Trek: First Contact, in which the crew of the Enterprise travel back in time to 2063, shortly before the invention of the warp drive that made possible the thriving interstellar civilization of the future. In their own time, the warp drive’s inventor, Zefram Cochrane, is revered as one of humanity’s greatest heroes, and there are schools, statues and starships named after the man. But the crew is dismayed to find that the Zefram Cochrane of 2063 is a selfish, uncouth boozehound, not the visionary scientist found in their history books:

You wanna know what my vision is? Dollar signs, money! I didn’t build this ship to usher in a new era for humanity. You think I wanna see the stars? I don’t even like to fly! I take trains! I built this ship so I could retire to some tropical island filled with naked women.

A jaded survivor of Earth’s catastrophic final world war, Cochrane seems to see nothing potentially valuable in his life and works aside from opportunity for individual hedonistic pursuits. But meeting the crew of the Enterprise helps change his perspective. Cochrane will not live to see the founding of the great multi-species federation on whose behalf the Enterprise goes voyaging. But thanks to the visitors from the future, he does get a glimpse of the world that lies ahead for humanity, and it seems to change his perspective on his own life. The turning point is not finding out that he is honoured as a great man in the distant future (in fact, this causes him some distress), but rather finding out what that future is like.

I don’t think you need to be the inventor of the warp drive for this change in perspective to be reasonable. If there is no future — or at least no meaningful future — for humanity, there is very little to care about in the here and now; only if there is a meaningful future can we reasonably value much of what we actually do value. The value of our lives depends on the lives and labours of people in our distant future, just as the value of Zefram Cochrane’s life so clearly depended on the lives and labours of people in his distant future.

By itself, Scheffler’s argument reveals only prudential reasons for us to be concerned about the future long after our deaths. But this prudential concern for the distant future gives the people of distant future a measure of control over how our lives go. If future people make a very bad mess of things, that is very bad for present people. If future people do a very good job, that is very good for present people. Reciprocal interaction is possible after all. So the reciprocity condition is satisfied; our prudential reasons for caring about the people of the distant future can ground further, moral or justice-based reasons for caring about the distant future, via a social contract.

Why a fair economy must be more equal: a response to Sean Speer

takemeout_242.jpgA man stands alone at the plate. This is the time for what? For individual achievement. There he stands alone. But in the field, what? Part of a team. Teamwork…. Looks, throws, catches, hustles – part of one big team. Bats himself the live-long day, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and so on. If his team don’t field… what is he? You follow me? No one! Sunny day, the stands are full of fans. What does he have to say? “I’m goin’ out there for myself. But… I get nowhere unless the team wins.”

A couple of weeks ago, the Toronto Sun ran an op-ed proclaiming the end of the debate of on income inequality, and although I normally wouldn’t bother with the Sun, this column was written by Sean Speer, a Munk senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Speer’s credentials and affiliations lend him more credibility than most Sun columnists, so I think it’s worth taking the time to go over some grave defects of this piece.

Speer bases his column on a recent literature review by Yale psychologists Christina Starmans, Mark Sheskin and Paul Bloom, which found that people do not find economic inequality intrinsically objectionable. Inequality is objectionable only when it is unfair, and inequality is not always unfair. As the authors acknowledge, there is a large body of research supporting the claim that people do object to inequality as such. The problem with previous studies, they argue, is that test subjects lack the kind of information about each other that could justify unequal shares — information such as relative need, desert, merit, or bargaining power. So these studies only show a weak presumption in favour of equality; departures from strict equality will be objectionable if they are arbitrary, but not all such departures are arbitrary. When subjects have access to information that could justify unequal shares, they are happy to accept certain inequalities as fair. So it seems that fairness, not equality, is what people fundamentally care about.

From this finding, Speer draws the conclusion that people do not find economic inequality objectionable, and the further conclusion that economic inequality is not objectionable. Redistributive policies are misguided; instead, governments should seek only to equalize opportunities. All parties can share the goal of promoting social mobility, and each one has different ideas for how to promote it. Economic inequality, on the other hand, is truly polarizing; the left and the right do not even agree that there is a problem that needs solving. So the focus on economic inequality locks us into an unproductive partisan standoff, while shifting the focus to social mobility allows for a more promising policy-oriented debate around shared priorities.

Speer makes a number of surprising leaps here, but I’d like to focus on just two. The first is the claim that existing material inequalities are acceptable as long as they are fair, and they will be fair just as long as there is equal opportunity. In fact, Starmans, Sheskin and Bloom acknowledge grounds beyond fairness for objecting to existing inequalities, such as concern about poverty. Even if the current level of inequality is fair, concern about poverty gives us a good reason to make people’s economic status more equal. As long as this more equal distribution would also be fair, we have decisive reasons to prefer greater equality.

So, would the more equal distribution be fair? Speer provides only a single criterion of fairness: equality of opportunity. It follows that any distribution consistent with equality of opportunity — including a strictly equal distribution of income and wealth — is potentially a fair distribution. That means selecting equal opportunity as the sole criterion of fairness doesn’t close the debate on income inequality at all; if anything, it blows the topic wide open.

But is equal opportunity really all there is to fairness? This is hard to believe. A coin toss would give a prosecutor and an accused criminal equal opportunity to achieve their preferred outcome, but a defendant whose fate was determined by a coin toss could hardly be said to have received a fair trial. Fairness demands the impartial assessment of relevant reasons for choosing some outcome. A coin flip is, in this context, impartial but arbitrary rather than fair because it fails to take any of the relevant reasons into account. A fair procedure for determining guilt and punishment must be shaped by the need to establish a decisive connection between the strength of the available evidence and the conviction of the accused. Likewise, any number of economic arrangements that would satisfy equality of opportunity may yet be criticized on grounds of fairness because they fail to take relevant reasons into account, or give undue weight to some (nevertheless relevant) reasons over others. In fact, this is one of the key findings of Starmans, Sheskin and Bloom’s paper. If equal opportunity were all that fairness required, strictly equal distributions could not have been rejected on grounds of fairness.

Under the assumption that fairness requires only equal opportunity, Speer concludes that fairness does not require redistribution. However, he soon contradicts himself, citing the relatively egalitarian Nordic states as models for Canada to follow in pursuit of greater social mobility. Moreover, one of his favoured social mobility-enhancing policies turns out to be redistribution via the child benefit system. Equality of opportunity depends on more equality of outcome and thus more redistribution after all. But as we’ve seen, there is more to fairness than equal opportunity. So does fairness require even more redistribution than equal opportunity? If so, why?

Recall that the authors find a common thread between studies that find support for a presumption of equality in that “recipients are indistinguishable with regard to considerations such as need and merit.” In many cases where we must decide on the distribution of some good, recipients are distinguishable on these bases. It’s not so hard to pick which employees should get a raise or which runners should get a medal, for example. But economic justice concerns the distribution of goods on the scale of an entire society. And at this level, recipients are indistinguishable from one another. Even if a free society could come to an agreement on criteria of need and merit in this context, it could not hope to reliably track each person’s need and merit and remunerate them accordingly — at least not without abolishing the market economy and instituting a totalitarian surveillance state. So fairness does justify a presumption of strict economic equality after all.

However, this presumption only establishes an egalitarian baseline. Departures from the egalitarian baseline cannot be justified on grounds of individual desert, but they can be justified on other grounds. Market economies are more productive, efficient and innovative than the alternatives, and these virtues depend on the signalling and incentive effects of an inequality-generating price system. As long as everyone is made better off by departure from equality, everyone has reason to endorse such departures. Fair inequalities in the overall distribution of income and wealth in society, then, will be those that conform to something like John Rawls’s difference principle, which requires that economic inequalities maximally benefit the least-advantaged group in society. Unless the least-advantaged group in our society is already as well off as it can be — which strikes me as extremely implausible — a good deal more redistribution is certainly needed to bring about a fair economy.

Speer’s frustration with the “tired” debate on income inequality is understandable, given how little progress on the issue there has been in recent years. But the findings he cites tend to support rather than undermine the issue’s importance by showing that concern about inequality is derivative of a more fundamental concern for fairness. This explains the importance of equality; it does not show that equality is unimportant. Because a focus on equal opportunity alone fails to fully respond to the value of fairness, and cannot in any case be achieved without a greater degree of economic equality, Speer’s call to abandon redistribution and pursue social mobility is deeply misguided.

More terrible reasons for burying electoral reform

In remarks to the media after the House of Commons rose for the summer, Justin Trudeau argued that the opposition parties are to blame for the end of the government’s effort to replace Canada’s single member plurality (or “first past the post”) electoral system. The Liberals had campaigned on a clear promise to make 2015 the last election under FPTP, without specifying an alternative. After the election, various alternatives were explored by a parliamentary committee and a series of public consultations led by the democratic reform minister, Maryam Monsef. In the end, Trudeau says, the Liberals decided that a ranked ballot system with single member districts would be a good way forward. However, the NDP maintained its commitment to proportional representation, and the Conservatives continued to oppose any change from the status quo. In Trudeau’s view, the other parties were unwilling to compromise, and he was unwilling to proceed without all parties’ support. He therefore chose to abandon the reform project altogether.

There are a number of problems with Trudeau’s latest attempt at a justification for his broken promise on electoral reform. One problem is that it is not at all clear how a single member ranked ballot system represents a compromise between FPTP and proportional representation. In any event, Trudeau’s preference for this system predates the election, and this changes the picture entirely. Instead of two stonewalling opposition parties on one side and a consensus-seeking governing party on the other, we get a picture of three parties with clearly distinct, non-negotiable positions on an important political issue. And that’s fine — we have different parties for a reason! — except it means Trudeau can’t get away with blaming the other parties for the failure of the reform project. Moreover, this kind of rhetoric is bizarrely anti-political; it tries to delegitimize the opposition’s responsibility to offer alternatives to the government, and it delegitimizes the governing party’s responsibility to decide on policy and be held accountable for it.

Even if Trudeau’s position during the reform debate could be characterized by a willingness to compromise, the position he reached by the end of the debate cannot. According to Trudeau’s account, the NDP refused anything but proportional representation, and the Conservatives refused anything but the status quo, so in the end, the Liberals decided to maintain the status quo. In other words, rather than enacting a reform that they ostensibly regarded as a compromise between the Conservative and NDP positions, the Liberals just adopted the Conservative position. But they could just as easily have adopted the NDP’s position and enacted proportional representation. Ordinarily, of course, the process of policymaking legitimately privileges the status quo — if you can’t decide on a new policy, you don’t just put all policies in a hat and draw one at random. But given the context here (a clear promise to enact a new electoral system, which the Liberals were and are fully capable of fulfilling), failure to reach consensus on how to proceed does not provide a sufficient reason to adopt the Conservative position rather than the NDP’s (or the Liberals’ supposed “compromise”).

Trudeau does hint at a justification for privileging the status quo, but I don’t think it’s compelling. He says he was unwilling to use his majority “just to tick off a box on an election platform,” and that’s fair enough; if an election promise turns out to be misguided, then a prime minister should be prepared to break it. But did the promise to adopt a new electoral system really turn out to be misguided? Perhaps Trudeau’s thought is that the promise to enact electoral reform would only have been a promise worth keeping if an all-party consensus could be reached. But this would amount to making an election promise on behalf of the Liberals’ electoral competitors, which is absurd.

Why Andrew Weaver (and everyone else) should support card check certification


Last week, BC Green Party leader Andrew Weaver stated his unequivocal opposition to the NDP’s proposal to reinstate the old card check system for union recognition. Instead, Weaver prefers the current system of secret ballots. Weaver’s position is not terribly unusual in BC, but I believe it is badly mistaken. Fortunately, I don’t think the proposal to reinstate card check is dead quite yet; it may very well be possible for the NDP to rustle up support from among the Liberals (consider that even federal Conservatives have occasionally cast pro-labour votes) and the other members of the Green caucus. In this post, I will summarize both systems and make a case for card check against some common criticisms. If you find it persuasive, please pass it along to your MLA or communicate your support for the change in your own words.

Under the current system, instituted by the Liberals shortly after they came to power in 2001, 45 percent of workers in a proposed bargaining unit must sign membership application cards that explicitly authorize the union to apply for certification as the exclusive bargaining agent for the workplace. Once this threshold has been met, the cards are submitted to the Labour Relations Board as part of the union’s application for certification. If the LRB verifies that the cards are authentic and that the proposed bargaining unit is viable, a secret ballot election must be held within 10 days. If a simple majority of workers voting in the election cast their ballots in favour, the union will be certified and must be recognized by the employer.

The card check system raises the threshold of authorization cards required for certification, but forgoes the balloting stage. A union need only prove that more than 50 percent of workers in the proposed bargaining unit have signed authorization cards. If the rest of the application checks out, the union is automatically certified. The employer may even be unaware that a union drive is taking place until the threshold is met and the application is submitted. Proponents of card check argue that this system provides vital protection against illicit means of preventing employees from unionizing, including threats and intimidation by employers and managers.

Because of the federal division of powers in Canada, rules for certification may vary across the country. Workers in provincially regulated industries are subject to provincial labour law, while workers in federally regulated industries are subject to federal labour law. Up until 1977, all jurisdictions in Canada used the card check system. But currently, Alberta, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Saskatchewan use some version of the balloting system (although Alberta may soon transition to a hybrid model where a supermajority of workers signing authorization cards allows the union to bypass the balloting stage). At the federal level, in the three territories, and in the provinces of Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec, the card check system is in use.

There is no clear national trend favouring one set of rules rather than another. Under Social Credit, BC adopted mandatory voting for a time before reverting to the card check system when the NDP came to power in 1993, and then implementing mandatory voting once again in 2001 after the Liberals formed government. Federal workers were briefly brought under mandatory voting rules in the dying days of the Harper government before card check was restored by Justin Trudeau’s Liberal majority. In Ontario, the governing Liberals’ recent left turn has emboldened the provincial labour federation’s push to restore card check in the province, while in Manitoba, the Progressive Conservatives’ return to power is expected to lead to the adoption of mandatory voting.

Although it is impossible to say whether there is a national trend towards card check or towards mandatory voting, the forgoing should make it apparent that there is a clear partisan divide on the issue. Centre-left governments support card check and oppose mandatory voting; centre-right governments support mandatory voting and oppose card check. There is an equally clear divide between workers’ and employers’ organizations: employers’ organizations favour mandatory voting, while workers’ organizations favour card check.

The usual criticism of the card check system is that it provides inadequate protection for workers’ freedom of association. The divisions noted above warrant some skepticism about critics’ actual motives, but in what follows I will mostly assume that both sides share genuine concern for the right to freedom of association, and differ mainly on how this right is best promoted and protected. Many critics of card check are sincere in their motives; as I will show, however, their criticisms are without merit.

One objection to card check which features prominently in the debate on the issue is that secret ballots are a fundamental requirement of democracy. Because card check forgoes secret ballots, then, it follows that the certification process is undemocratic. This may sound compelling at first, but with a moment’s consideration it should be clear that secret ballots are an exception in the democratic process, not the rule. Only a small proportion of all votes are conducted by secret ballot, in special circumstances where secrecy is of the utmost importance in ensuring an accurate accounting of voters’ true preferences. Secrecy is sometimes instrumentally useful in the democratic process; there is no intrinsic value to secret ballots. Thus, whether the secret ballot system is preferable in this case will depend entirely on the instrumental considerations to which I now turn.

This article from the Fraser Institute provides a representative example of free association-based instrumental arguments against card check. The authors, Niels Veldhuis and Keith Godin, argue that card check exposes workers to intimidation and harassment by pro-union employees. If workers can be pressured into signing membership cards, there is a significant risk that the majority threshold can be met without a majority of workers having made a truly free choice to support the application. Moreover, because an application may be made before an employer learns that employees are considering forming a union, the employer has no chance to present a case against unionization. This means that even in the absence of intimidation and harassment, workers will be unable to make a truly informed choice. Velhuis and Godin dismiss the argument that employers may exploit the opportunity to campaign against the union by threatening, intimidating or harassing workers themselves, noting that such practices are not permitted under BC’s Labour Relations Code. Under the mandatory voting system, even if workers can be bullied into signing authorization cards, they still have the opportunity to freely express their true, informed preferences in a secret ballot. The mandatory voting system is therefore far more conducive to workers’ freedom of association.

Oddly, however, Veldhuis and Godin cite studies showing that a higher proportion of union drives fail in jurisdictions using the mandatory voting system, as though this offers further support for their case against card check. In fact, proponents of card check often cite similar findings. They differ with Veldhuis and Godin only on the significance of the data. Veldhuis and Godin see the data as supporting the claim that workers aren’t as fond of collective bargaining as unions would have us believe. But this reasoning is viciously circular. The inference depends on acceptance of their conclusion that secret ballots are better at reflecting the true preferences of workers. And if the inference depends on that conclusion, then it cannot be cited in support of that conclusion.

Another problem with Veldhuis and Godin’s argument is that it assumes employers’ compliance with the Labour Code at a level sufficient to defeat concerns about employer threats and intimidation, while failing to extend the same assumption to unions’ and pro-union employees’ compliance with the Labour Code or the Criminal Code. If the mere existence of certain provisions of the Labour Code are sufficient to allay concerns about employer threats and intimidation, why are they — and the far more severe penalties doled out for criminal harassment — not sufficient to defeat concerns about threats and intimidation from the union side?

In any case, I think we should also ask why the authors would rely on assumptions of compliance by either side. As noted above, certification rules in Canada have varied from place to place and time to time, and these variations provide ample empirical evidence on the actual relative risk of intimidation and harassment from employers and employees. In the debate on Bill C-4, which reinstated card check at the federal level, Rodger Cuzner noted that in four thousand decisions by the Canada Industrial Relations Board in the ten years prior to the adoption of mandatory voting at the federal level, there were only two findings of union misconduct during certification drives; in fact the CIRB found more instances of employer misconduct during this period. Comparative studies at the provincial level provide further support for the hypothesis attributing the decline in union density under mandatory voting regimes to employer intimidation rather than increased freedom for workers to express their true preferences.

What about Veldhuis and Godin’s complaint that card check deprives workers of the opportunity to consult sources of information about the costs and benefits of unionization? This claim depends on the assumption that workers have only two sources of information available to them — the union and the employer — and this assumption is obviously false. Workers have many sources of information available to them, including their coworkers, their social networks, libraries, employers’ organizations, and even think tanks like the Fraser Institute. Moreover, if an employer has some kind of privileged information that could have bearing on workers’ decision to unionize, they may freely share such information whenever they so choose. And if the complaint is really that the employer doesn’t get a chance to make their own case against a union — not for the workers’ benefit, but for their own — then it’s fair to ask why we should assume that employers have any such entitlement which the card check system fails to respect.

As I’ve shown, then, critics have failed to make the case that the secret ballot system better protects and promotes workers’ freedom of association than card check. But because secret ballots are not intrinsically superior from a democracy perspective, concern for freedom of association is the only basis on which secret ballots could be required. Since concern for freedom of association does not in fact justify mandatory secret ballots for certification, card check should be preferred by all who cherish the right to freedom of association.

Criteria of identity and the nonidentity problem

If you think the non-identity problem is tough for humans, thank your lucky stars you’re not a Time Lord. Art by Matt Ferguson

In a previous post, I addressed a particular challenge that the non-identity problem allegedly poses for T. M. Scanlon’s contractualist ethics. I argued that the non-identity problem only seems to threaten contractualism if one conflates the subject matter of contractualist ethics (i.e. what we owe to each other) with the hypothetical standpoints we take up in reasonable deliberation about moral principles. The identities of actual persons can depend on our actions, but the identities of these evaluative standpoints do not. These standpoints can therefore serve as fixed positions from which alternative principles for treating actual persons can be assessed.

I’m fairly comfortable with this strategy for avoiding the non-identity problem, but I’m increasingly troubled by the metaphysics of personhood implicit in the non-identity problem as it is usually formulated. This unease was recently triggered by reading a recent article by Dominic Wilkinson and Keyur Doolabh at Aeon, which features a number of statements like this:

If Kate had delayed her pregnancy until, say, age 20 [instead of age 14], her child would have been conceived from a different egg and sperm. Because of this, Kate would have a genetically different child, and Annabel would not have existed.

The issue here, according to the non-identity problem, is that Annabel is no worse off for having been born, but intuitively Kate has reason to delay having a baby until she is 20. But Kate’s reasons to delay pregnancy can’t possibly stem from concern for the welfare of her child if the identity of her child depends on the timing of her pregnancy. Assuming having a child at 14 or 20 will be no better or worse for Kate herself, her reasons must be essentially impersonal — concerned with the quality of some state of affairs, rather than the welfare of any particular person.

As an example of the non-identity problem, this is perfectly fine. But I was struck by the weakness of the key assumption that the identity of Kate’s child depends on the timing of her conception. The non-identity between Annabel and the unnamed future child (let’s give her a name: Bananabel) is explained as a function of their genetic differences. Certainly this explains the non-identity of Annabel and Bananabel considered as mere organisms. But in the non-identity problem, we’re not concerned with mere organisms as such, we’re concerned with persons. Personhood is a moral concept, not a biological concept. Showing that Annabel and Bananabel are not identical organisms, then, does not yet establish that they are not identical persons.

The claim that Annabel and Bananabel are different persons because they are genetically different organisms seems to depend on a biological view of personal identity. On this view, Annabel and Bananabel are the same person only if they are the same (numerically identical) organism, and they are the same organism only if they are genetically identical. We can leave the merits of this view aside for now; I will only note that this view of personal identity is extremely unpopular among philosophers working in ethics-related fields. That doesn’t mean biological views are wrong. But it does suggest that for the vast majority of philosophers (including the majority of philosophers working on the non-identity problem!), the non-identity problem should never arise.

Without the biological view, it’s not clear how we can assert the non-identity of Annabel and Bananabel. The most popular alternative is the psychological view, according to which Annabel and Bananabel are the same person only if they share certain psychological characteristics (e.g. dispositions, memories, plans and intentions), perhaps with the condition that these characteristics have sufficiently similar causal histories. But I think most people will want to say that Annabel and Bananabel would both begin to exist as persons before they have any psychological characteristics that could differentiate them. So I’m not sure the psychological view can shed much light on the identity of merely possible persons.

What kind of view of identity helps make sense of the scenarios discussed in non-identity problems, then? In the first paragraph, I distinguished between actual persons and evaluative standpoints. But it occurs to me now that in the cases like that of Annabel and Bananabel, a person just is an evaluative standpoint. Annabel and Bananabel, considered as persons, are identical by virtue of occupying the same evaluative standpoint, and lacking any characteristics that could otherwise distinguish them. From this standpoint, a principle permitting Kate not to delay her pregnancy could be reasonably rejected.

Panpsychism and vitalism about stellar objects: a response to Matloff

That’s Mr. Golden Sun to you

According to an influential argument for mind-body dualism, it is conceivable that there could be creatures that are structurally identical to us and behave identically to us, but entirely lack consciousness (inner experience, or qualia). In the philosophical vernacular, these creatures are known as philosophical zombies, or p-zombies. From the mere possibility that there could be such creatures, it follows that consciousness must be distinct from the physical structures with which it seems to be so strongly linked (including, at the very least, the physical structures of the brain). Irreducibly mental properties or substances are necessary to explain consciousness, even if these properties or substances are invariably connected at a very deep level with physical properties or substances.

According to most dualists, such connections are extremely rare. Descartes, for example, argued that only human brains are linked with mental substance. Other dualists grant the possibility that animals and sufficiently complex computers might also have mental properties. But some dualists take the extreme view that wherever there is matter, there is bound to be mind, if only in an extremely rudimentary form. This is panpsychism (which I’ve discussed in a number of previous entries, including here, here and here).

In an article at NBC, Corey S. Powell reports that a physicist, Gregory Matloff, has published a paper arguing that the behaviour of cooler (and therefore more structurally complex) stars can be explained by attribution of rudimentary consciousness. Cooler stars’ galactic orbits are faster than those of hotter stars; Matloff’s hypothesis is that this is explained by cooler stars’ deliberate choice to orbit the galaxy at a quicker pace, perhaps by means of emitting a unidirectional particle jet of a kind observed in young stars. Matloff calls this the volitional star hypothesis. If the volitional star hypothesis finds further support, he argues, panpsychism could emerge from philosophy to become a part of the natural sciences, like astrophysics.

One problem with this approach is that it contradicts the conceivability argument. Matloff’s hypothesis requires that some stellar behaviour cannot be explained by physical structure alone. It follows from this that there could be no stellar p-zombies — stars that are structurally and behaviourally identical to normal stars, but lacking even rudimentary consciousness. If one believes that physical structure alone cannot account for even the simple behaviour of stellar objects, then it would be unreasonable to believe that physical structure alone could account for the far more complex behaviour of human beings. Matloff’s reasoning commits him to a kind of non-physicalism, but it is a kind that is significantly less popular these days than any variety of mind-body dualism.

It seems clear to me that Matloff’s hypothesis is not dualist in the ordinary sense of the term. The puzzle dualists are concerned with is consciousness, not behaviour. But the puzzle Matloff’s hypothesis addresses is a puzzle about stellar behaviour, and consciousness itself seems to play no role in the proffered explanation. The volitional star hypothesis is better understood as a kind of vitalism rather than dualism, I think. Unlike dualists, vitalists think that a non-physical explanation is needed for certain physical behaviour, namely biological phenomena. Matloff may not be a vitalist about biological phenomena, but he does seem to be a vitalist about astrophysical phenomena.

I find it unlikely that there is any more merit in vitalism about stars than there was in vitalism about plants and animals. Explaining the behaviour of cooler stars may require some new physics, but I can’t see why no physics (no matter how radically revised) could explain this behaviour. A stellar élan vital is, at best, nothing more than a placeholder for whatever future physics fully explains stellar behaviour (and at worst, pure pseudoscience); assuming that physics remains a realm of fully impersonal facts, we should assume that this placeholder is also fully impersonal.

This is not to say that Matloff is wrong to ascribe some rudimentary consciousness to stars. Panpsychism is, in my view, far more plausible than any alternative explanation of consciousness in humans, and it may well imply that some stellar objects have some limited kind of consciousness. The point is simply that in the search for an explanation of stellar behaviour, ascribing consciousness to stars is neither necessary nor helpful, and in the search for an explanation of consciousness, observations of stellar behaviour have nothing to contribute.

Now more than ever, I was right all along


A couple of days ago, I read a column by Matt Taibbi in which he asserts that dissatisfaction with the status quo means there is no future for the political centre. Today, I read a column by Geoff Plant in which he asserts that dissatisfaction with the status quo means that the political centre is the future. Both columns, I would argue, are clear instances of a phenomenon sometimes called “now-more-than-ever-ism” (a coinage attributed to Lawrence Summers). David Autor (cited here by Joseph Heath) summarizes it like this:

  1. You have a set of policies that you favor at all times and under all circumstances, e.g., cut taxes, remove regulations, drill-baby-drill, etc.
  2. You see a problem that needs fixing (e.g., the economy stinks).
  3. You say, ‘We need to enact my favored policies now more than ever.’

This kind of reasoning seems to straddle the line between unconscious confirmation bias and deliberate rhetorical technique. New developments are interpreted and presented as bolstering the case for a position the writer already holds, when in fact the validity of that interpretation depends on the truth of the position in question. Now-more-than-ever-ism purports to give political opponents or neutral parties reasons to adopt the writer’s position, but the reasoning is circular: unless one reads the conclusion into the supporting premises, the argument is logically invalid.

This is precisely the problem with Taibbi’s argument: centrism is a failure because there is widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo, caused by the failure of centrism. Suppose you’re reading this as a card-carrying political centrist. Because the conclusion that centrism is a failure is unsupported without the premise that centrism is a failure, Taibbi’s argument won’t have given you the slightest reason to change your political views.

Interestingly, appeals to dissatisfaction with the status quo have been a persistent theme in successful campaigns by centrist politicians over the last twenty years. Rhetoric and slogans about breaking with the past figured prominently in the campaigns of Blair, Obama, Cameron, Trudeau and Macron: “a new dawn”, “hope”, “change we can believe in”, “forward”, “real change”, a “democratic revolution”. Even if centrist policies are a cause of problems with the status quo, centrists have been more successful than most at capitalizing on dissatisfaction with the status quo to acquire political power.

Unsurprisingly, then, centrists tend to see things differently than Taibbi, which brings me to Geoff Plant. Plant’s diagnosis is the exact opposite of Taibbi’s. The objectionable features of the status quo, in his view, are a product of political polarization — parties abandoning the centre in favour of the left and right. But although the diagnosis is different, the reasoning is the same: polarized politics is a failure because there is widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo, caused by the failure of polarized politics. The right kind of politics is centrist politics, because centrist politics is the right kind of politics.

I think now-more-than-ever-ism is politically toxic, for two closely related reasons. First, it is the worst kind of preaching to the choir. Preaching to the choir — producing, consuming and discussing ideologically informed commentary, theory, history and art — is often a positive thing, to be sure; every great political ideology develops its own intellectual culture, and tends to thrive when that intellectual culture thrives. Now-more-than-ever-ism is the exception, containing nothing but empty affirmations masquerading as insight. There is an opportunity cost here; any time spent on this kind of thing would be better put to almost any other use.

But in addition to the deleterious effect on a political movement’s internal culture, I think there is a credible risk of harm to the broader political culture in which these movements are embedded. Arguments such as Taibbi’s and Plant’s purport to appeal to reasonable people who do not necessarily share their ideologically commitments to begin with. But partisans who deploy these arguments in political debate will be disappointed to find that people who do not already share their views are totally unpersuaded. Because partisans would only try to use these arguments if they failed to notice the circular reasoning, they may conclude that those who are unpersuaded are not reasonable. To the extent that democratic politics is about reasoning together (and surely this is partly what democratic politics is about, even if it is not the whole story), it is plausible that encouraging the impression that other people are unreasonable could negatively affect the health of a democracy.

Clarifying the confidence convention in fixed-term parliaments


As I discussed in my last post, Britain’s Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 means that early elections can only be called if a number of MPs equal to two thirds the number of seats in the House of Commons pass a motion calling for parliament to be dissolved, or if the House of Commons passes a motion of no confidence in the government and, within the next fourteen days, does not pass a motion expressing confidence in the government.

In a column at the New Statesman, Stephen Bush argues that the changes the FTPA brought about will give the Democratic Unionist Party unprecedented leverage over the governing Conservatives. The DUP has agreed to support the Conservatives on matters of confidence and supply. But in Bush’s interpretation, the FTPA means that defeat on the Queen’s Speech, supply bills, and bills otherwise designated as matters of confidence are no longer sufficient to bring down the government. If the DUP is only obligated to support the government on the budget and any explicit motions of no confidence moved by the opposition, they are free to oppose everything else in the government’s legislative program. By sustaining the government in office but threatening to block every attempt to pass legislation, the DUP is in an excellent position to extract major concessions from the Conservatives.

Bush may be correct to claim that the DUP will enjoy unprecedented influence in this parliament, but I think he is badly mistaken in his interpretation of the FTPA’s consequences for the confidence convention. The source of the error is common enough. The reasoning seems to go something like this.

  1. If the House of Commons passes a motion of the following form, then government has lost the confidence of the House: “That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s government.”
  2. Losing a vote on the Queen’s Speech or a supply bill does not involve the House passing a resolution of this form.
  3. Therefore, if the government loses a vote on the Queen’s speech or a supply, the government has not lost the confidence of the House.

The reasoning here is logically invalid; it commits the formal fallacy of denying the antecedent (“if P then Q; not P; therefore, not Q”). The FPTA limits the circumstances under which loss of confidence may trigger an election, but it does not limit the circumstances under which the government ought to be regarded as having lost the confidence of the House. The claim that loss of confidence can only be expressed by a motion of the type set out in the FTPA is not supported by the text of the act, the accompanying explanatory notes, the relevant portion of the Cabinet Manual (paragraph 2.19), or the scholarly literature on the subject. If the government is defeated on the Queen’s Speech, a supply bill, an issue otherwise designated as a matter of confidence, or a government-initiated confidence motion, the prime minister must resign and make way for an alternative government or, if none is available, seek dissolution by means of a motion calling for an early election.