Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Interpersonal comparability: the chasm

Interpersonal comparability of utility is a significant problem over several different domains. In welfare economics, for instance, there is a problem of getting to a social welfare function that respects each of our preferences, utilities, or goals. If we are to respect each of these, we must, to avoid Arrow's Impossibility Theorem, make discriminations of intensity between people's desires, preferences, and utilities. This is, at least, Amartya Sen's approach to Arrow's problem which may or may not get us out of that particular difficulty. Similarly, over the domain of politics, the same problem arises--how are we to judge between these preferences that respects the wishes of the voters? A simple voting system does not allow preference rankings over options--typically it is a binary choice between either 'yes' or 'no.' This greatly simplifies our social choice problem, but it fails to take account of just how strongly we may prefer 'yes,' to 'no,' and may result in an outcome were people who are mildly indifferent, but still choose 'no' may win over a group of people with an intense preference for 'yes.' Finally, over the domain of morality, if we are to assess what it is that is morally right to do with or to people, we should at least be sensitive to the preferences of those people. We may even need to make fine discriminations in cases where, and parents are put in this position all the time, we must determine whether we give the cake to our Betty or our Johnny. Our judgment about who would benefit most from this typically wins out, but it follows that we at least need to make some sort of comparison between Betty and Johnny and infer who would like it more, or would benefit from it more.

So we see that interpersonal comparisons of utility are greatly desired. Why is it seen as a problem? There are at least two reasons to suppose this to be a possibly insurmountable difficulty. The first is what philosophers have called the 'problem of other minds.' Just how do we access the minds of others? How can we come to understand the preferences, utilities, etc., that other people happen to have? Can we 'enter' the minds of others (so to speak)? Secondly, even supposing we could cross that hurdle, there is the problem of a single scale used for comparison. Are we comparing apples to apples, or are we comparing two states of mind, utility sets, preferences, that fall on different scales. To compare one set to the other requires a common denominator. If Betty benefits in terms of her health by my giving her the cake, and Johnny would benefit in terms of his spiritual preferences (Johnny being a follower of the cake religion), just how are we to square these two different scales of preferences?

Lionel Robbins, whose name dons the library I go to, reached the following pessimistic conclusion: "Every mind is inscrutable to every other mind, and no common denominator of feeling is possible." Strong words. What they imply is plain: interpersonal comparisons of utility fail to be possible not for lack of information, but in principle. The task is futile, no new information will get us anywhere. Forget about it.

I take it that this statement is far too strong. For one, we do make interpersonal comparisons of this sort, and I don't think we do so without justification. In fact, there are at least a few reasons to suspect that such comparisons, to paraphrase Friedman in a paper on the methodology of positive economics, can be and sometimes are possible.

Let's look at a few plausible candidates. I will rest on two pairs of shoulders to begin my argument: those of Amartya Sen and John Harsanyi. Eventually I will hop onto James Griffin's shoulders and see if the view gets any better from there.

For Harsanyi, interpersonal comparisons are possible. He points out that, in practice, we do make these sorts of comparisons all the time. Parents, as I've pointed out above, do so with children, for instance. They do it all the time and, I suspect, across all cultures. Are we doing so without any justifiability? Harsanyi suggests we do it on two grounds, the first is on the basis of revealed preference, and the second on the basis of expressed preference which implies either satisfaction or dissatisfaction. With revealed preference, we see the options others make, assume that those preferences remain constant when we witness it over and over, and infer that these preferences do certain things to us in terms of our satisfaction. Couple this with the expressions of satisfaction or dissatisfaction at the conclusion of some action, and we begin to create an informed account of the preference set of others.

Two objections arise, and Harsanyi deals with each in turn. The metaphysical objection is banal: "Well," says the philosopher, "we can never know whether what we choose is, in fact, a preference of ours, and neither can we be certain that people aren't telling us the truth about their preferences when we talk to them." Our preferences are buried deep inside of us, after all, so we might keep them hidden by choosing what we don't prefer, and expressing satisfaction with things that we don't like. The second objection is psychological: Can we ever know enough about people to figure out when they are making mistakes? People can, after all, be mistaken when they choose this or that, or when they express a preference for this or that. If we want to get at their preference scales, we would have to figure out when they are making mistakes, and when they are not.

Turning to the former, Harsanyi... to be continued (I have to look at other stuff just now...)

Major objection: Supposing Harsanyi is right in saying that we need to look to psychological laws to find out in what ways people respond to certain things, we still have the problem of character. James Griffin makes this plain when he compares the preferences of a professor, to the preferences of a mountaineer, and the ability of each to sit in a position of empathy or sympathy--like an impartial observer--with the other. The professor obviously prefers her life to the mountaineers (by hypothesis, I say 'obviously' but that need not be. She may be doing it out of a sense of expectation by others). The mountaineer, in turn, has the same preference (the caveat applies here as well). The one may be able to get into a situation where she 'understands' the other's choices, but can she ever do so outside of her own character?

This objection leans on the exposition of instrumental rationality versus procedural rationality found in Heap. Contrasting the two views (whose particulars are not that important for these purposes), Heap makes plain that the one relies on our own abstract individual preferences, and that these are motivational, while the second relies on us following norms (which are motivational). Part of the appeal of the latter is the fact that, in some cases, it is difficult to see how we might make non-norm-based decisions, since these infuse our character. Put differently, we make decisions 'in character,' as dramatists like to say, not outside of it. That character is shaped by something, that external shaping infuses it with certain predispositions.

To apply this, can we ever step out of our 'Professor' character to truly empathize or sympathize with the life of a mountaineer? Harsanyi and Sen (and, to a lesser extent, Griffin) assume that this is possible. But character is what makes any of our choices and opinions sensible in the first place. No evaluation can be made outside of character, only within character that is, at best, shorn of auxiliary features. Some 'core' character constraints will necessarily impact our assessments when we try to look at things from another's perspective. A rich interpersonal comparison is, and I put this strongly, not possible.

Just how rich does it need to be? This is, as I see it, the way out for those who would like to continue making interpersonal comparisons of utility (people like me). Just as Sen says, with a wide enough margin of error, we can probably strip ourselves of everything but the core (which, by hypothesis, we cannot relieve ourselves of), and come awfully close to a comparison. In cases where our core is similar to the core of others (assume similar backgrounds, cultural influences, family life, and so on), those comparisons will have much less of a margin of error.... TIME.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Sliding scales

I was out with Peter Leeson and Gene Callahan at David Gladstone's (incredibly beautiful) home last night. I asked them what they thought of two separate moralities over two separate 'domains.' Gene said that he considered morality a 'mode,' but didn't get in to it all that much. I'm not sure what he means by morality being a 'mode,' so I'll make sure to ask him.

At any rate, he thought the question was a bad one, on account of this 'modal' distinction.

Leeson, on the other hand, cited a friend of his, Tyler Cowan, as having a similar sort of idea. In this case, however, Cowan constructs a probability function over several morality views. He supposes that they all have something important and 'right' to say about human behaviour, and how we ought to behave and ought to treat one another. So you could be a two-thirds utilitarian, with one-third natural right's tendencies. I'm not clear, exactly, on this view either, and how you would apply the theory to instances, but I'm told Cowan is working on a book where he points out something like that.

I'll look into it.

But not just now. Just now I'll look into, let's see here... Subjective Expected Utility theory. Or maybe models in economics, and unrealism of assumptions. I have a Phil of Econ exam in two days' time, and I don't yet feel entirely confident about it. Mostly because there is far too much overlap, and I'm nervous that, should I write on unreal assumptions, I'll forget to mention Pemberton's critique, or Cartwright's critique, or whatever, and the grader will consider it a hole.

...Arrow's Impossibility Theorem. That's what I'll look into.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

A short exposition on dual morality

Peter Thurley runs a nifty blog entitled "Dinner Table Donts" (for some reason, I always think of 'Donuts' in place of 'donts,' but I digress). Part of the interest I have in his blog is in the thoughtful exposition he gives to various thoughts of his. The blog is properly a philosophy blog, where Peter posts his running ruminations on this or that topic. Most recently (today, in fact), Peter asks utilitarians to answer some difficult questions. I gave him a response from a utilitarian position, although I'm not a utilitarian.

Except, it turns out, in one sort of important respect: at the level of absurd and extreme theory, I guess I cling to some sort of utilitarianism. More properly, it could be called antidisutilitarianism (I think I coined that word. At any rate, I've never read it anywhere else). Other than being terribly clunky, it does capture an interesting distinction between itself and utilitarianism. Namely, utilitarianism seeks something like the 'best for most,' and different versions will hang their hat on different accounts of 'best,' 'for,' and 'most.' For instance, will we take the sum absolute total? Or will we be taken with the average weighted sum? This is a positive account, in the sense that we are striving to get at something, to act in particular ways. Antidisutilitarianism isn't seeking to maximize something but, rather, to prevent disutility. So we don't do stuff to improve the lot of someone or a few someones, we try to prevent their losing utility.

I'm not sure how much I follow that, or if I would consider myself that just yet. I had the thought recently, and am just now considering the consequences. I doubt I'll cling to this view, although I might write about what it might end up meaning, and what impact it might have.

At any rate, there is at least one sense in which I follow a version of utilitarianism, or antidisutilitarianism--at extreme ends of moral questions. I've never been comfortable with examples like the following: Suppose you are a non-consequentialist about morality (take a deontological, natural rights sort of libertarian--which I'm not). Now suppose you have the option of violating what you see as a right in this one instance, but saving the rest of the world. Suppose you were asked to torture this guy here and, as a consequence, the rest of the world will be spared and, oh, this guy here too (who will be scarred, but will live). Exactly what are you to make of strict rights-talk in cases like this? It seems like patent nonsense to respond that in cases that are sufficiently dire you wouldn't agree that you are justified in violating a right, or something like that. In cases like this, I think I prefer to side with the utilitarians.

In other cases, however--the regular, every day sort of cases, and anything that can plausibly be expected and anticipate in our real world--I fall into a sort of contractarian/conventionalist view of morality. Forget the long exposition or explanation of these views, that isn't what interests me here. What does, however, is whether or not it is possible to hold two separate moralities over two separate domains. Over the domain of regular, every day sorts of things, I'm a conventionalist/contractarian. Over the domain of extreme cases, I'm a utilitarian (or antidisutilitarian, since I don't think it's justifiable to torture this one guy here to make everyone else blissfully happy, while believing that it is all right to torture this guy here to prevent some terrible calamity).

Is there something wrong with this? What is it, exactly, that requires me to hold just one view of morality over all possible domains? Can't there by special cases where we apply a different moral criteria? Consider, by way of analogy, the Newtonian physics/Quantum physics distinction. Newtonian physics appears to apply perfectly well for medium-sized, every day sorts of objects, but breaks down at a quantum level (incidentally, this is about all I know about this. So don't get caught up on the example. Quantum physics is esperonto to me, and I don't speak esporonto). Can't we say the same of morality?

Friday, May 27, 2005

Leeson, Lester, Callahan and betting

Last night (to early this morning) I spent some time with Jan Lester, Gene Callahan, and Peter Leeson, the new Hayek Fellow at the London School of Economics. Before our congregation devolved into hoisting one another, and two at once (Lester hoisted both Gene and I on his shoulders), we had an interesting conversation about betting in Britain.

If you don't know, all sorts of betting is legal in England. You can bet on just about anything, including politics in obscure countries like, uhm, Canada, say. A website, betfair.com, is the most interesting case of this: It is basically just a shell, allowing for each of us to offer odds, take them, sell them, and so on. Not always does the market end up at 100%, and you can follow the ups and downs as often as you like.

Meanwhile, for your arbitraging benefit, you can take a look at oddschecker.com and use their calculator to find opportunities in differences between odds at various bookmakers and online betting markets.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

IHT coverage

The International Herald Tribune picks up the NY Times story today.

Shotgun post here. I encourage you to post a comment to that one, if you'd be so kind.

Chaoulli update

I asked Dr. Chaoulli what he would like people to get out of the NY Times article, and he writes the following:
The story is very good.

What I would like people reading it to get out of it :

1. It has been unfortunate that Canadian law schools have been
teaching for so long, wrongly in my view, that the Canadian
Charter of Rights and Freedoms
doesn't protect the freedom to
contract, because a society without such a freedom is a Marxist

2. It has been unfortunate that Canadian lawyers didn't challenge
that teaching mentioned above, since they were scared to touch
the taboo being the strong influence of the Marxist-driven labour
unions in Canadian social policies, wrongly put into equation with
the so-called "Canadian national identity."

3. We need in Canada a parallel university system with private law
schools whose teaching would not be driven by socialists
professors of law.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Chaoulli in the NY Times

Dr. Jacques Chaoulli explains his approach to the Supreme Court trial to Osgoode Hall law student Debi Chakrabarty at the 2004 Liberty Summer Seminar.

Today, the New York Times indirectly references my Western Standard cover story from last October (entitled "Freedom Fighter") on Dr. Jacques Chaoulli's case before the Supreme Court. They write:
"A diminutive man who has trouble keeping his wire-rim glasses on straight, Dr. Chaoulli, 53, hardly looks like the "freedom fighter" that Canada's conservative news media have called him. But if he wins his case he will tear up the third rail of the nation's politics and raze what many Canadians consider to be the bedrock of their national identity."
Of course, by "Canada's conservative news media," the New York Times means the Western Standard. Where was the rest of Canada's news media on this story? If they covered it at all (which not all of them did), they buried the lede in A3. Now I'm not saying that the NY Times is a good indicator of what's important to Canadians. Clearly not. All I'm saying is that if you don't have a subscription to the Western Standard, you will miss the stories the Reader's Digest and NY Times will cover three to six months later.

Anyhow, the article, entitled "A Doctor-Lawyer-Gadfly v. Canada's Medical System," is a good account of Chaoulli's struggles and battles with Canada's health care system. That struggle has been temporarily been put on hold, since the Court has not yet issued a ruling in the case. Chaoulli finished his arguments almost a year ago... In my article, scholars that I spoke to expected the decision to come down before the end of last year. Why the delay? Dr. Chaoulli explained to me that he thought the delay is "a good sign."

I suppose he must have told the New York Times the same thing, since they write:
"It has been a year since the Canadian Supreme Court heard the case, a rare delay that is raising eyebrows in legal circles. Scholars studying Dr. Chaoulli's challenge say the court is either badly divided or waiting for the appropriate political moment to release a bombshell..."
A bombshell. Now that would be great news for our health care system.

I've sent Jacques an email asking him to comment on the NY Times story. I'll update this entry with his response.

Meanwhile, last August, if you had attended the Liberty Summer Seminar, you would have had a chance to meet the 'freedom fighter' in person. He explained his travails before the Court, and gave a speech on political parties.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Those polls

I've been following the polling data in Canada with some interest. I'm always curious to see just how the various parties are doing, and trying to correlate that with the behaviour of the various members in the recent past. Call it backwards induction for the purposes of public choice analysis.

At any rate, recent polls have been absurd and unreadable. Consider just two, released today (but you can probably pick any random batch). The Ekos poll (which polled people before Belinda crossed the floor, but still audaciously dubbed their poll "Belinda Bounce?" Words escape me...)--where was I? ah--showed the Grits at 34.7% and the Tories at 28.3%. Compare that to the Compas poll (taken after Belinda's departure) which puts the Tories ahead at 38% (that's heading into majority territory) and the Grits sagging at 29%. (Compas, though, only polled 500 Canadians. That's useless.)

Just in the last election, I covered the pollsters following the minority win of the Grits. They were all over the place too. You can read that piece, entitled "Public opinion says the pollsters blew it" in PDF format.

Elephant & Castle shops ban hoodies

That's right. You can't wear a hoody--those sweatshirt things with, uhm, a hood--if you want to buy some shoes at the Clark's Outlet. Do you suppose it has something to do with the hundreds of CCTV's they've got over there? If Big Brother can't see you, he'll pass a law to make you visible.

More Galloway

I can't get enough of this guy. Every time he speaks, sparks fly. He's a crazy, left-wing nut bag (I agree, I agree) but the circus he spawns is worth watching.

You can watch him on Hardball here. Another good show.

UPDATE: Senate whitewashes Galloway speech: Offers no PDF transcript of Senate confrontation (scroll down).
Galloway says he'll be "enemy within."
Media response
to Galloway talk.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Ha Ha Ha. Oh man. My friend, Ray Gillis (a.k.a. "Scotia") fiddled with the picture. To good effect, I think! (To see the original, scroll down, or click here).

Galloway Update

BBC coverage here (watch the video) and here (full testimony video under picture).
CNN coverage here.
Fox News coverage here (watch the video).

CNN made it headline news. As of just a few minutes ago, Pierre Bourque (of bourque.com) posted the story after I tipped him off about it ("Peter, thanks, will check it out! - p.") . Brian Neale (of Nealenews.com) responded to my email, but didn't post the story. Here's why:
"Hi Peter / Galloway is a left-wing nut bag and a bald-faced liar. I watched him on CNN and he's best ignored. / Brian".

Well, a left-wing nut bag Galloway definitely is. His party's website makes that plain. But it's still news, isn't it?

Here you are then...

Belinda defects

Belinda Stronach (whose website no longer has any reference to the Conservative Party) joined the Liberals today. She crossed the floor. And became an immediate member of Cabinet as Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development.

This, of course, puts in even greater doubt the prospect of a budget vote going the Tories' way this Thursday.

When news hit, the Shotgun exploded with both barrels. As did Andrew Coyne's site. Warren Kinsella has a great post about the things Stronach probably no longer believes in. And the Conservative Party website has a very awkward space between Chuck Strahl and Greg Thompson where Belinda used to be (scroll down). Meanwhile, my friend Aaron feels, uhm, a touch peeved. He worked on her campaign, after all...

Galloway testifies

George Galloway was elected as Member of Parliament for the riding of Bethnal Green. The man, widely considered a demagogue and a vituperative and powerful speaker, was accused in a recent Senate committee hearing of having been the beneficiary of oil money from Hussein's regime.

He's denied it. And he called on the Senators to allow him to testify in his own defence.

They did. And fireworks flew (watch the video in the top right-hand corner). I'll try to post coverage of the testimony--which had me riveted--when it comes out. In the meantime, you can watch a large chunk of Galloway's testimony here.

At any rate, you can research Galloway on the BBC, and definitely watch two things: His victory speech (where he accuses Blair and Bush of having the blood of tens of thousands of Iraqis on their hands. And then calls on the returning officer to resign), and then his interview with Jeremy Paxman.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Did I vote?

Yes, yes I did.

On my way to the polling station, I decided to go back to my flat and pick up my passport. I thought, 'surely, they'll want to see some identification, and if I show them my Canadian driver's license, they might not think it's good enough.'

But it didn't matter. Not only did they not ask for my passport, they didn't ask for any identification at all. Not a student card, not some affirmation that I am, indeed, Peter Jaworski and not somebody else, not anything.

It turns out the entire election was rife with all sorts of tales of electoral nonsense. Take, for instance, the odd fact that only 68 per cent of those who requested a postal ballot got one. Or the story, prominently featured in the Guardian, that an three-and-a-half-year-old toddler got a polling card. Ghost voters appeared on the rolls, and those who didn't register--like me--got polling cards too.

In my case, however, it was fully legitimate to vote. Like I said earlier, Canadians and other commonwealth citizens, get to vote in British elections if they meet a few criteria. I double-checked it, on the off-chance that some legal reprecussions might follow. They don't.

In my apartment complex, many citizens of other countries got a polling card. That includes my American friends who got the card and could have voted. Of course, Americans are not allowed to vote in Britain. They would have to become British subjects before they could do that. A pair of Greeks got polling cards too, and, they tell me, they went ahead and voted, prepared to plead ignorance should the polling clerk call them out on it (and no one did).

It's quite a story. The new Member of Parliament from Bethnel Green--George Galloway--gave a hellfire and brimstone speech when he was elected. He charged Blair with having the deaths of a hundred thousand people on his hands. Told Labour members that the best thing they could do is sack Tony when they got back to "work." Then called the returning officer out on the carpet and, while thanking the people who worked the polls, collected the ballots, and so on, demanded that she tender her resignation the next day. "This vote is a shambles," he said, "it is less than what could be expected in a Banana Republic." Damn.

At any rate, the surprise that I registered when I found out I got a vote was matched by other Canadians with whom I've spoken with since. They think it an odd quirk. Some like it, others think it's nonsense that they get a say.

Nevertheless, there it is. I voted. And I'm convinced that, however bad the American elections may have been, this British system is worse still.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

(A) vote for me

Two days ago I received an interesting piece of paper in my mailbox. By all appearances, it was a polling card explaining to me where I should go to vote in the May 5th British election. This would be of little interest were it not for the small fact that I'm neither a resident, nor a citizen of the United Kingdom.

It turns out that the wheels in the British Empire kept spinning even after all the colonies, uhm, got their own governments and stuff.

So why my ability to vote? Well, I'm a citizen of a country that still puts British Kings and Queens on its coins, and, in some cases, includes the union jack on its flags. Citizens of commonwealth countries can vote in British elections if they live there for a while.

I know all the reasons why voting is irrational. But I also know that it's irrational only if your intention is to actually affect the outcome of the election. It isn't irrational if the value of, say, scribbling down your own name, marking an X next to that, and being able to forever say that you received a vote for Prime Minister of Great Britain, is greater than the expenditure of time and effort required by it.

Now I need to find out if Britain allows write-in candidates and, if not, what other sort of chicanery I can come up with for a good Crash Landing story. If you have an idea, send it my way.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The Third Way

The government of Alberta is in the midst of a three-day conference on health care. Premier Ralph Klein has suggested that he would like Alberta to pursue a "third way" for health care in his province. This may mean violating the Canada Health Act (like Quebec and other provinces do now).

What's interesting about this conference is that it is webcast live each day. I'm listening to it right now, and it's worth putting on in the background.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Shoe on a wire

What accounts for shoes on wires? I took this photo in Kingston, Ontario when I went to visit a friend. Last Summer, when I was working in Calgary, I saw shoes on wires everywhere. And now here, in London England, I'm searching for them as well, and am told that they are out there.