Recently, I was asked a question I have been asked on a few occasions: ‘what books should I recommend to a friend who has never read any political philosophy or ethics, but is interested in taking a look at the subject?’ I reply to this question with assorted recommendations, but what I recommend almost certainly varies depending on my mood, what I am currently researching/teaching, and, most significantly, how my memory is functioning in that moment. My recommendations are also limited to the list of books that I have read. To rectify these deficiencies, I write this post with two aims in mind: first, to identify some of the books I often recommend and garner suggestions from others about suitable books; and, second, thereby, to provide a list of texts to refer people when they ask the question above.
Author: Andrew Walton
Andrew Walton is Senior Lecturer in Political Philosophy in the Politics Department at Newcastle University. His research centres on questions of economic ethics and justice in housing policy.
There are many policies and courses of action that reflect good ideas, but are imperfectly or poorly implemented. On my wedding day, I was trying to make efficient use of time making final arrangements before the ceremony by talking to a friend about one task whilst walking backwards in the direction of my next task. As I finished the conversation, I turned forwards whilst maintaining my momentum and promptly walked into a door that I had not realised was behind me, leaving a clearly obvious cut down my forehead for day (see right). Alongside finding it hilarious, my partner did ask why I had not thought more carefully about where I was walking. While I accepted the criticism of that question, I retained that my attempts to work efficiently on that morning were to be commended. We continue to disagree on whether the merit of my aim outweighs the demerit of my execution.
The same tension arises elsewhere. In the current UK university climate, departments are assessed, amongst other things, on the extent to which their research has influence beyond the academic community. A few weeks ago David argued that there are good reasons for academics to think about how their work has political influence and I think these reasons offer some support for assessing research ‘impact’. However, many people criticise how this assessment is implemented. Questions have been raised whether it places too much weight on easily observable, short-term impact. Such criteria would be problematic if, for example, they would not identify, and would, thereby, discourage, the immense and sustained impact of Pythagoras Theorem because many of its impacts have developed from other disciplines using it in applied research many years later. If such criticisms have merit, we, again, face the question: how should we balance valuing a policy’s basic form against valuing (or disvaluing) some of its substance?
|Magna Carta Memorial, by Karnaphuli / CC BY-NC 2.0|
Why should these actors pay for others to learn? To the extent that what is provided is a public good, I see no problem with it being government subsidised. Revenue from students is more difficult, but (a) students would continue to receive distinctive returns for their payment (such as library access and tutorials) and (b) the issue, anyway, casts as much question on whether university education should be student or government financed as on the proposal above.
Are not the courses the intellectual property of the lecturers and, thus, within their right to disseminate as they choose (including, if they wish, only for a fee)? I have some doubts about whether university courses, especially those publically funded, can be deemed individual intellectual property, but, even if so, lecturers would not need to exercise this right and the case here would imply that they should not do so.
Would it impact badly on student attendance? Might it even, as some lecturers have worried, undermine the viability of some universities and cost jobs if students can study by watching online lectures posted by other institutions? I doubt either of these effects: evidence shows access to online material typically does not decrease attendance and, as noted above, universities will continue to attract numbers and attendance based on the other, more site-specific components of their teaching profile.
Much has been written against the privatisation of Royal Mail. Often objections focus on one of two issues. First, majorities of both workers of Royal Mail and the British public were against it. Second, there are worries it will undermine the service it provides, with increased prices and decreased access in remote areas only two of the problems already cited. I sympathise with both worries, but my sense is that there is also a further difficulty, something that bothers me beyond concerns for popular sanction and proper provision.
There is clearly something problematic about sub-contracting certain actions. I should not, I think, appoint someone else, even someone who might do a better job, to write the message in my partner’s anniversary card. Such qualms can also arise in group actions. For example, if I am a member of a neighbourhood watch group, it does not seem appropriate for me to have a third party fulfil my duties. Some worry here regards proper provision; perhaps a third party would not have the same interests in doing the job aptly. But even aside from this worry, even if the third party was more reliable and more vigilant, I think the group could object to me outsourcing the task. “We did not agree merely that the job is done”, they might say, “we agreed that you would do it”. Unless I had good reasons for delegating the duty – that I was incapacitated by illness, for example – I think I owe them an apology. I seem to have violated some constraint assumed in our commitment.
Similar cases can arise in the citizen-government relation. It can be thought that government is justified, in part, by its contribution to realising collective goods. There are goals individuals cannot achieve alone, so they collectively empower an agent to coordinate these activities. Obvious examples include national defence and law and order. When a government assumes these roles, it provides a commitment to undertake these tasks on behalf of a population, and, again, there seem cases where sub-contracting this commitment is inappropriate. I suspect that it is something like this concern which explains the high numbers uncomfortable with privatising prisons. This function seems like a collective end handed to a collective agent that, through privatisation, it is not performing. Even if it is done effectively by the sub-contracted, I think we can say: “but we asked you to do it”.
Does this argument apply to the postal service? I guess it is most plausible to suggest that the relevant collective good asked of the government here would be ‘to provide a coordinated means of communication between dispersed individuals’. Mediums other than postage could meet this requirement. However, my sense is that when the government does not provide an alternative medium – whilst it does not, itself, provide, say, phone or internet connection to all – a case can be made that it should provide one means of communication for its population, a default option of sorts. We collectively empowered an agent to facilitate nationwide contact and when they sub-contract or privatise that role completely, I think we can say: “but you committedto providing at least some form of communications network for us”.
There are cases where a government would be excused this responsibility: 1) if the population agreed to sub-contracting; 2) if the government were unable or found it too costly to provide the service. 1 does not apply here since the population did not have a say, and, as noted above, were against privatisation. 2 does not apply to a business making profit. In the case at hand, I contend that privatising Royal Mail involves objectionably sub-contracting a commitment, and that there is some (additional) reason for the government to reverse that decision or provide an alternative default option for societal communication.
My answer to the question posed in the thread title is a ncaa tentative ‘no’. My answer is tentative partly because I usually bestow considerable value on democratic choice and partly because I remain worried that my natural negative reaction to all Tory policy might cloud my judgement. But, to the best I can exempt myself from this partiality, I do think that the ‘no’ answer is correct. Here is my reasoning.