31 January 2008

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Should good things be imposed on others?

Photos + essay

Dear friends,

This Sunday we are discussing Should good things be imposed on others?
Maybe you would be able to come and tell us what you would want to
impose on others.

I have posted some photo form our various trips on the picasa website; I
hope to add more by Sunday. And Julian had uploaded his photos on a
separate picasa page. The links are below.


Philomadrid: http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo

Take care


The flat is in Usera near the underground , totally furnished and 60 m2,
3º floor.

**********HOLIDAY FLATS**********
Mayte; Almería (Villa de Níjar);


Paloma; Marbella (near Elviria);


+++++++++MEETING DETAILS+++++++++
SUNDAY 6.00pm – 8.30pm at Molly Malone's Pub, probably downstairs----
-Email: philomadrid@yahoo.co.uk
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-Old essays: www.geocities.com/philomadrid
- Blog: http://philomadrid.blogspot.com/
-Group photos: http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo
-My tel 606081813
-metro: Bilbao : buses: 21, 149, 147

Should good things be imposed on others?

The idea of "good" is an entrenched concept in philosophy and
practically in any other discipline. I am even inclined to agree with
those philosophers who believe that our idea of good is something we
inherit and evolves in living systems.

Nor is the idea of "imposing" on others the good or what is good a
strange one. Moreover, those who do want to impose good on others are
usually well intended, well meaning but in many cases they are also
misguided. Think of the missionaries of days gone by who believed that
all heathens should be converted to their religion and saved from the
devil; they still do and the devil is still in business.

However, this quest to impose good on others is not limited to big
ethical projects such as converting heathens, exporting democracy,
utopian equality, or being environment friends by being a mass consumer.

Let me start with a rather personal and insignificant story which I
experienced recently. I apologise in advance if you miss the point, but
if you have some background in photography it will help.

As with most mobile phones today my new mobile came with a camera and a
built in flash. To my horror I discovered that I could not set the flash
be turned off until I wanted to use it. I called technical services, and
to cut a long story short, the bottom line was: "•....but surely it is
good that the flash comes on automatically." I assured this person that
it wasn't. (If you are wondering, it is off putting, to say the least,
if the flash goes off every time you want to take a picture of a product
or the price of a product in a shop, or want to take a picture of a
notice or billboard, they'll be saturated with light, or a pictures near
a window, the light gets reflected back.)

What is important for us is that because something might be useful we
assume that it is also good. And in the case of the flash on my mobile
(and many other things in life) it is a very short walk to go from
useful to good to imposing it on others. Mind you, the issue is not a
technical one or of cost, all my past mobiles had this feature I wanted.
The issue is that someone somewhere took a decision on my behalf that it
is a good thing to disable this off/automatic switch.

But if you say that this flash issue is a very minor problem in the
scheme of things, then surely you have missed the point which has
nothing to do with flashes on mobile phones. The point is that someone
has made a choice for me and a few other people like me on the sole
belief that it is a good thing. One cannot even argue that this was a
strategy to get me to buy a more expensive mobile; I wanted a better
mobile any way but they did not have any within my price range.

Take a more serious example. If you buy a PC in one of the EU countries
the chances are that it will come with software in the language of that
country; thus if you bought a PC in Italy it would be in Italian, in
Spain in Spanish etc. These things usually follows the formula: country
+ buyer = language of country. At face value this sounds like a good
idea and in many cases there is legislation to back it up. However, as I
understand the spirit of the legislation, it says that goods (i.e. their
documents etc) should be made available in the language of the customer.
But this is usually interpreted to be the language of the country it is

Maybe people might not know much about flash features on cameras, but
they certainly know a lot more about the language they want to use.
There is no doubt that having a product with the language of choice is a
good thing, however it is not a good thing to make it difficult or
impossible to obtain a product with the language different from what the
supplier wants to give you. Technically it is not an issue, just
sticking with software, most software is already available in many
languages and a PC has no problems processing software in different

Having excluded technical problems, the issue of language must then be
one of choice at the very least and to be charitable maybe also coupled
with a misinterpretation of the spirit of the law. Relying on my recent
experience, I wanted to buy a software package from a company in Madrid
but was told that they cannot make it available in English. The original
product was of course developed by an American company in English. After
further investigation I discovered that I can obtain the same software
in English from the UK and the price difference (not including transport
and bank charges) was that the English version was €30 cheaper. I agree
that I was not shopping at the same type of outlet, one was a bricks and
mortar outfit and the other an on-line store. Never the less the
difference is noticeable. Some years back a client I worked for in Italy
wanted to buy a technical software package and the version from the US
in English cost the equivalent of 900 pounds sterling and the Italian
version was priced at the equivalent of 3,000 pounds sterling.

Again the point is not that one expects to pay more for a translated
version of a product (considering the economies of scale it is not that
much to translate documents), nor that it is a good thing that one
should be able to buy things with the language of choice (today it is
not even a minor issue since language versions can be downloaded from
the internet). The question I ask myself is this: is there a correlation
at the very least, or a causal relationship in the worst scenario, that
legislation backs up the idea that products should be sold in the
language of the country they are bought and the price difference between
the original version and local version? To put it in an other way, by
having a 30euro difference in price who is gaining the consumer or the
exchequer? (Tax authorities)

Excluding the notion of a conspiracy theory, I would say that at face
value there might be two principles operating in this more serious
example: good things are desirable and utilitarian principles apply when
imposing good things. Evolution and genetics establish the premise that
good things are desirable, and religions provide the argument for the
other preposition: the more one prays the better, the more converts the
better etc.

But while philosophers were contemplating what is good in the 18, 19 and
20th centuries, mathematicians, statisticians and social scientists were
busy creating and establishing the mechanism which today would decide
what is good. I am thinking of course, of the bell curve also known as
the Gaussian distribution, the standard normal distribution or normal
distribution. I won't go into the details about the bell curve (see
Wikipedia: normal distribution or Critical Mass by Philip Ball, Arrow
Publishers, for a historical perspective). As you know the bell curve is
a statistical picture of the distribution of a set of data give two
variable. This also reflects the probably value of some phenomena taking
place given these variables (it is more complex than this description).

What is important for us is that managers and politicians have in theory
a tool to decide what is good in the real world away from the smoke
castles of metaphysics. But more important than being a tool to tell us
what is good, the bell curve can also be used as a predictive tool. We
now have a tool to ascribe a probability to a future event; I will not
go into the merits of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's arguments against the bell
curve, google the name. Hence, what is the probability of a customer
wanting full control of the flash on their camera, what is the
probability that someone wants a version of a product in English on
mainland Europe, what is the probability that a heathen in darkest
Africa can come up with a convincing argument against god or a maxims
machine gun? Thus today when good is imposed it is either because the
negative effects only apply to a few people or to defenceless people. So
next time you want to buy a shirt or a blouse with blue and pink spots
and cannot find one you know why. You don't fit on someone's bell curve
and hence you're shopping on the wrong bell curve. In the brave new
world, what the majority on a bell curve decide becomes the de facto
standard which is immediately misinterpreted to mean good.

These examples, or rather the type of good that I have been concerned
with have another feature in common. Those who are imposing the good
know in advance the consequences of their actions. Or at least a
reasonable person can find out in advance the kind of consequences their
actions will imply.

Those who decided not give full control of the features of the flash
knew in advance that there will be some people who would want to use
such options. Those who pass legislation about language for products
know in advance that these products might incur an additional cost or
that these products will be sold for a premium compared with the
original standard product. Those who legislate about abortion or birth
control know in advance that the lives of some people will be affected
negatively (see for example S Levitt and S Dubner, Freakonomics
(Penguin), for a discussion on this point).

Of course as philosophers we are not concerned about second guessing the
decisions of a manager or a politician. Our task is to consider the
actions we find ourselves with, actions by politicians or managers, what
are the philosophical implications and what are the ethical
consequences? And why should this be relevant anyway?

We are also concerned with the fact that the actor of a strategy has
enough information to give a predictive value to the consequences of
their action. In which case I would argue that given these predictive
values (even if they are probabilistic) it makes these actions value
judgments and not scientific decisions.

I might have given the impression that I am only concerned with the
negative effects of imposing good on others or maybe questionable
candidates of what is good. There are many good things that have been
imposed and had positive benefits: employment laws, certain health
policies, good defence systems and so on. However, negative instances
can be very serious to the individual. The question is whether we are
prepared to discriminate against a minority. Take for example using
taxes to stop people from smoking. One can validly argue that such
policies discriminate against rich people since they will always be able
to afford cigarettes. And hence not benefitting from the government's
policy on smoking. You might say that maybe rich people ought to look
after themselves, yes, but that's a value judgement and misses the whole
point altogether. The point being, are you prepared to discriminate
against a minority?

There is a second class of actions (imposing good on others) that have
unforeseen consequences. In an article in the New York Times (January
20, 2008; www.nytimes.com) Dubner and Levitt published an article under
the heading "Unintended Consequences."

We are all familiar with this class of actions, but I will refer to an
example given in the article. The authors refer to the Americans with
Disabilities Act (AWDA), which gives disables people a wide range of
well meaning rights. The authors refer to a patient with hearing
difficulties and therefore has the right to have a sign-language
interpreter present when they visit a doctor. However, the medical
insurance nor the state pay for this service and has to come out from
the pocket of the doctor. In the case they give the doctor would have
had to pay more to the interpreter than what he would have charged for
the therapy; as it turned out the physiotherapist was landed with the
bill. The consequence are straightforward. Some disabled people do not
receive the health service they deserve. (see Wikipedia or google under
unintended consequences).

The authors call this the law of unintended consequences. Commenting on
the article, Andre Gelman
writes in his blog: what kind of law is this? It is neither a law like
the law of gravity nor a fun law like Murphey's law. I would say it is
more like Parkinson's Law (work expands to fill the time available to do
it in). We know it is true and we can rely on it but we do not have a
good mathematical model to describe it.

For me, the more serious issue is Gelman's second comment of belief:
unintended consequences are often intended consequences. However, Gelman
concedes that the authors give some valid examples that prove the law of
unintended consequences. But if these consequences are intended surely
they ought to be classified as value judgments as I argued above.

One important difference between value judgments and the law of
unintended consequences is that the actor of a value judgements has
enough information about the nature of the consequences; or at least
they ought to have. Thus those wish to legislate against abortion or
contraceptives ought to know that some people will be born who will have
a hard life to say the least. This would be a case of value judgment.
However, Levitt and Donohue (2001 see Freakonomics) have shown a link
between Roe vs Wade (approving abortion in the US) and a reduction in
crime in the early 1990s (mothers with an unstable background were not
giving birth to children who might be brought up in an environment that
leads to crime). This is surely the law of unintended consequences at play.

The issues of this discussion are quite important even if at the
practical level they seem insurmountable. But at least at the
philosophical level we can identify the questions we have to ask
ourselves. For example, what is our definition of good we use for our
actions? (Kant's or the bell curve) What kind of instruments do we use
to impose good? (AWDA or Settings Options) Do we have enough predictive
information about our proposed action. (Abortion: unwanted children vs
loved children)

But there are two more basic questions we have to ask ourselves more
than anything else: do we care about the consequences our actions have
on others? And, can we be bothered to find out what those consequences
are and then mitigate them?

Take care


from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Should good things
be imposed on others?

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