16 July 2018

Taxation and slavery

In the following extract* from a paper, philosopher Thomas Nagel expresses a libertarian attitude to taxation.

Some would describe taxation as a form of theft, and conscription as a form of slavery — in fact some would prefer to describe taxation as slavery too, or at least as forced labour.

It appears Nagel himself disagreed with this position. Nevertheless, the idea that taxation involves the involuntary removal of an individual’s property, and hence is comparable to theft, is a valid one.

Where tax paid amounts to half of a person’s income, that person effectively has to work, involuntarily, as much for the government as for himself. Applying the concept of slavery to this scenario seems reasonable.

* 'Ruthlessness in public life', reprinted in Thomas Nagel, Mortal Questions, Cambridge University Press, 1979.

28 June 2018

Patients starved to death

A version of this post was first published in 2007. It has been republished in the light of the Gosport hospital case.

In 1989, there was another life crisis when Marjorie’s mother, then in her 70s, had a series of increasingly severe strokes.
‘The hospital withdrew food and water and I watched her starve to death. My sister felt it was the kindest thing to do but my mother spent a week in agony. I felt utter grief and still haven’t dealt with it.’
(Daily Mail, 17 April 2007)

It is legal for an incapacitated patient to be denied artificial hydration and nutrition ... if doctors consider death to be in their best interest.
(Daily Mail, 19 April 2007)

It is legal, but it is still immoral (it is a strong violation of the basic moral principle*), for members of the medical Mafia to kill people by starving them to death. The assertion that it is legal is only making explicit the immorality which is already inherent in the medical profession, operating on the terms it does.

If an individual, or a relative or other person appointed by him, loses the right to decide for himself what is in his interests as he perceives them, the harm that may be inflicted upon him by the decisions made by the doctor to whom he has lost his autonomy, whether by accident or design, may clearly extend to extreme suffering or death.

* * * * *

Mr Cameron highlighted figures showing assaults on NHS staff running at 60,000 a year [...]
(from ‘Rudeness is just as bad as racism, says Cameron’, Daily Mail, 24 April 2007)

We are unfortunate enough to live in an age of legalised crime. State education and state medicine should be regarded as criminal.

Agents of the collective, such as teachers and doctors, are at risk from the resentment of their victims, who do not realise how thoroughly justified their resentment is.

In fact the victims should be opposing the principles of social oppression, not indulging in violence, which is seen as an excuse for even more oppressive incursions on individual liberty.

But the victims have been trained to believe that they would be losing free goodies described as ‘education’ and ‘health care’ (which have been paid for with money taken away from other people), so that they are ‘better off’ hanging on to these ostensible handouts, even with the great penalties which are attached to them.

* Basic moral principle: It is immoral to impose your interpretations and evaluations on anyone else.

13 April 2018

The statue of King Alfred and the aristocratic sculptor

Statue of King Alfred
by Count Gleichen (1833 – 1891)

The statue of Alfred The Great (shown above) located in Wantage, Oxfordshire was sculpted by an aristocrat, Count Gleichen.

Born in Langenburg, Germany, Count Gleichen joined the Royal Navy and became resident in Britain. He was related to Queen Victoria, being the son of her half-sister, Princess Feodora.

​In Germany he was known as Prinz Viktor zu Hohenlohe-Langenburg.

Photograph © Charles McCreery 2012

31 January 2018

Frustration by society

One of the strongest taboos is that on the concept of being frustrated by society. It is absolutely impossible, according to the ideology, for anyone to be suffering because they are given no chance to use their abilities.

One may ask oneself: what exactly would people like one to feel? They do not seem to be exactly keen on one expressing one’s state of frustration. They talk as if they expect one to be identified with the tiny scale of operation which is possible to one.

I think it is clear that what they mostly wish one to feel is humiliation. You are supposed to feel that not being given a chance to do things corresponds to a judgment which has been passed upon you. And that the judgment is right; that you are the sort of person who deserves no better than to live in a straitjacket.

You are supposed to identify yourself with this judgment to such an extent that you are interested in receiving congratulations on your small activities. This, presumably, is to encourage you to do more of them, as it is well understood that you can achieve nothing effective by doing so.

(from the forthcoming book The Corpse and the Kingdom)

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09 December 2017

Somerset Maugham on risk

W. Somerset Maugham
(1874 - 1965)
W. Somerset Maugham was one of Britain’s most popular fiction writers during the 1930s. He is somewhat neglected now, although his novels are still occasionally turned into films. His short stories often express the precariousness of life.

Somerset Maugham’s attitude to risk may be gleaned from his story ‘The Portrait of a Gentleman’, which describes a (presumably fictitious) book about poker. The author of this book is said to have
no patience with the persons who condemn the most agreeable pastime that has been invented, namely gambling, because risk is attached to it. Every transaction in life is a risk, he truly observes, and involves the question of loss and gain. ‘To retire to rest at night is a practice that is fortified by countless precedents, and it is generally regarded as prudent and necessary. Yet it is surrounded by risks of every kind.’ [1]

This attitude to uncertainty, and taking chances, may be compared with Nietzsche’s approach to risk-taking, as expressed in The Gay Science:
the secret of realising the largest productivity and the greatest enjoyment of existence is to live in danger! Build your cities on the slope of Vesuvius! Send your ships into unexplored seas! [2]

1. W. Somerset Maugham, 65 Short Stories, William Heinemann, 1976.
2. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, section 283.

15 October 2017

The symbolism of the pearl

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls:
Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.

Matthew 13:45-46
This saying is usually interpreted as illustrating the great value of the Kingdom of Heaven, and the need to sacrifice everything in order to enter it. However, nowadays readers do not necessarily appreciate the dramatically high value that a pearl represented at the time of Jesus.

Before the invention of diving equipment, pearl fishing was extremely laborious and dangerous. Often slaves or prisoners would be forced to do the work. To obtain a few pearls required harvesting thousands of oysters, from depths of up to 100 feet. Burst ear drums were common, and many divers were killed by sharks or by drowning.

First century geographer Isidore of Parthax wrote that “pearl divers run into danger when they thrust their hands straight into the open oyster, for it closes up and their fingers are often cut off, and sometimes they perish on the spot”.*

According to Pliny’s Natural History, Cleopatra once boasted that “on a single entertainment she would expend ten millions of sesterces” and that “she herself would swallow the ten millions”. She proceeded to make good her boast by drinking one of the pearls from her earrings, dissolved in a glass of vinegar.** The value of a sestertius in today’s money has been estimated to be around one pound, which suggests that the value of that one pearl was about £10 million.

The image of a pearl probably no longer conveys the order of magnitude of value intended by the originator of the saying.

In the Hymn of the Pearl, a classic Gnostic myth, the Pearl is an important symbol. A prince, the hero of the story, is sent down into Egypt (representing the physical world) to retrieve the Pearl, which is guarded by a serpent. He charms the serpent so that it becomes unthreatening, and takes the Pearl back to his royal parents. Here the Pearl symbolises something of tremendous value which has been locked up in the physical world and needs to be released.

* Isidore of Parthax, The Parthian Stations, quoted in Athenaeus’s Deipnosophistae.
** Natural History, Book 9, chapter 58. If the story is true, Cleopatra would probably have had to crush the pearl first in order for it to dissolve with sufficient speed.

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15 September 2017

Does the idea of ‘social justice’ lead to atrocities?

A couple of years ago there was a programme on BBC Radio 4 entitled ‘Intelligence — born smart, born equal, born different’.

According to the Radio Times review of the programme,
The analysis of inherited intelligence is something of a moral maze ... [Does research on this topic] really threaten all our utopian ideas of equality?
Francis Galton
(1822 - 1911)
In 1869 Francis Galton published his book Hereditary Genius, exploring the possible genetic basis of high ability. The idea of hereditary ability had already been of long standing when Galton’s book appeared.

The concept of an ‘intelligence quotient’ (IQ) as a measurable predictor of academic success only started to become of serious interest with the rise in state education and the desire to grade people on a nationwide basis. However, IQ soon became unfashionable again, perhaps because some studies suggested there was a significant inherited component to it, which did not fit with the politics of the time. And so research on IQ was gradually expunged from academic awareness.

IQ began to be referred to as ‘the false hypothesis’, as if it had been intrinsically bound up with the assertion of hereditary ability, whereas in fact the heredity idea had been around since well before the nineteenth century. Dismissing the concept of IQ as dubious also made the idea of heredity per se taboo in academic circles, and it now appears to have become something that is not even ‘talked about in polite society’.

According to a review of the programme in the Daily Mail, Galton’s ideas
were taken up with lethal enthusiasm in many countries in the early 20th century, leading to the theory of eugenics, sterilisation of the ‘unfit’ and, ultimately, Nazi genocide.
This of course is the standard way in which the concepts of heritability and innate intelligence are nowadays made to seem controversial, to the point that it supposedly becomes reasonable to suppress discussion of them. The argument is that they are somehow responsible for the Holocaust, as well as other atrocities.

An alternative argument, which seems no less plausible, is that what made the Holocaust, the Gulags, and various other genocides and human rights abuses possible was support for the tenet that

the collective has a right to interfere with individuals, provided it is done for the benefit of society.

If it were true that commitment to this tenet makes atrocities more likely, and one applied the same line of reasoning as is used to justify suppression of the discussion of IQ, it would follow that concepts such as ‘the interests of society’, the ‘right of the majority’, ‘social justice’ or ‘state planning’ should be regarded as ethically dubious, since their use tends to provide support for the tenet. This would point towards such concepts being avoided in discussion.

However, in practice this line of reasoning is never applied, or even considered.

A version of this post was published in 2014.

02 August 2017

Are schools bad for people?

Winston Churchill
c. 1898
How I hated this school, and what a life of anxiety I lived there for more than two years. [...] I counted the days and the hours to the end of every term, when I should return home from this hateful servitude [...] (Winston Churchill, My Early Life)
‘Education’ is nowadays universally assumed to be a good thing. At the same time there is a sense in which it is accepted that most children would prefer not to go to school, and that many of them strongly dislike having to do so. Yet it is rarely concluded that school might be bad for people.

Until education became compulsory, there may have been schools, formal or informal, but young people could stay away from them if they did not feel like going. In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, for example, only one of a family of four girls goes to school, and that is only temporary, since her mother takes her away when she is badly treated.

These days many people would like to think that education can eliminate differences between individuals arising from genetic factors or early upbringing. Therefore schools cannot be regarded as intrinsically a bad thing, since they are supposed to bring about a desirable situation — equality of outcome.

If someone had a bad time at school, such a person may say that it was the wrong kind of school. Someone who had a bad time at a fee-paying school may say he or she would have done better at a state school, and vice versa.

Plato said that knowledge that is acquired by compulsion obtains no hold on the mind. *

There are people who tell you that they got nothing out of some book or author which they read at school, but long after, maybe twenty years or more later, they thought of trying it again and found they liked it and got a great deal out of it.

I know someone who used to ask herself while walking to school, why she was doing this. Her answer was, in order to keep her parents out of trouble.

* The Republic, Book VII.

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11 July 2017

Skiing in the age of climate change

I have been told by somebody – a fellow academic – that climate change is damaging ski resorts, especially at the lower levels, where it is less cold. Skiing is difficult if there is no snow, so some resorts have invested in snow-making machines.

Personally, I do not think this is likely to be a temporary development. I should think that climate changes will go on getting worse, and snow-making machines will become even more necessary.

This seems to imply that skiing will become more expensive, perhaps finally only a sport for the super-rich. The planet is being messed up because various ideological considerations are regarded as being of overriding importance. (See my post about Fukushima as an example of this.)

But perhaps something quite different will happen. Pensioners are given free bus passes, so perhaps ‘the poor’ might be given free plane passes and free ski resort passes.

12 May 2017

Age quod agis

St Ignatius of Loyola
(1491 - 1556)
The Ursuline convent school to which I went had a school motto, Age Quod Agis (Do What You Do). We were told that this meant one should do everything as well as possible. For example, the inscriptions in books for the prize-giving were written by the art mistress with a special pen for doing italic writing. At a state school, by contrast, I saw some prize books with the recipient’s name simply scribbled in.

At the same state school I saw some exam papers which had been used in end-of-term exams. They were carelessly photocopied, skew on the page with some of the material cut off, and not all of what was on the page was legible. There were some scribbled corrections to make up for the deficits in the photocopying.

At this state school, when you needed a textbook, the teacher took you to a small room where there were shelves full of dilapidated books, and fished around to find some of the least dilapidated for you to use.

At the convent school, all the books in the school were kept in prime condition. Girls would stay behind after school to spend time repairing books.

At the same state school it once happened that a teacher had wrongly marked the work of one of the girls. When it was pointed out to her by the girl in question, the teacher said cheerfully, ‘Nobody will mind about it in a hundred years’ time’.

This attitude, that it did not matter at all whether your marks were good or bad, or whether teachers marked correctly, was very different from the attitude at the Ursuline convent school. Here, there were what they called ‘degree ceremonies’ every few weeks, and the girls lined up in front of the Reverend Mother to have their marks and positions in the form read out.

The ceremonies took place in the school hall and were preceded by rehearsals. Each class was shown where to sit along the sides of the hall. The girls were then called out, class by class, to be shown where to stand in front of the Reverend Mother. Then the positions of the girls in the line were adjusted by one of the nuns, so that the tallest was in the middle and the other girls fell away from her on either side, decreasing in height.

* The first use of the injunction age quod agis is attributed to St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits.

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