Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Abolish the Age of Consent?

In case you don't know, the Irish Supreme Court has recently struck down the law on statutory rape as unconstitutional (the ruling is here) on the grounds that it doesn't permit someone to enter a defence of ignorance as to the other person's age. In Supreme Court-ese: "the exclusion of the defence of mistake as to age is repugnant to the Constitution." Michael McDowell, the Justice Minister is going to propose new legislation to replace the unconstitutional law. The law will equalise ages of consent between genders and will allow for teenagers to have sex with people below the new age of consent (16) provided they are within two years of age of the person who they have sex with.

I wonder though. It'll be difficult to formulate a law that can adhere to the Supreme Court's ruling - allow for ignorance of age as a defence. My feeling is that the age of consent is part of the problem. Unfortunate that the situation is (especially given this sort of opportunistic response to the situation), I wonder if it presents an opportunity of sorts. Why not get rid of the age of consent altogether, instead of adopting the proposed half-measure?

Couldn't it be left to the courts to decide whether, in a specific situation, consent had been given and that the younger/more vulnerable party was capable of giving consent? Obviously, where children are below a certain age, or where an age gap is more than x years, or where one party is obviously vulnerable, it's difficult to think of someone legitimately claiming that consent had been given, even if explicit force was not present. On the other hand, abolishing an age of consent would rid us of strange anomalies where 17 year olds end up on the sex-offenders register having slept with 15 year olds, or indeed where older people predate on vulnerable young people who simply happen to be over the age of consent.

I suppose this comes down to the incoherence of the idea of statutory rape: rape is rape and ought to be punished. But age is simply not a good marker of consent.

Update: I knew I was sticking my neck out with this one: Frank McGahon provides a convincing counter-argument in the comments.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Layd Off

Well, I was wrong: I didn't expect it, but as a jury has found Kenneth Lay and Jeff Skilling guilty on charges arising from Enron's collapse. I'm still not convinced that the prosecution actually pinned anything specific on these two (which is different from saying that I believe they're innocent). I suspect that the prosecution's success has more to do with creating the whiff of bad apples (as Senator Paul Sarbanes put it around them.

Getting a handle on this is my job at the moment, and I'm just finishing a working paper on corporate intentionality and responsibility regarding Enron. My line is that it's very hard to think of individuals in corporate contexts as being the authors for corporate actions in any absolute sense and, once you recognise that their authorship is diluted, it's hard to think of them as being entirely responsible.

Anyway, that's to come (next week I hope). In the meanwhile, I'll be curious to know whether the 'wilful ignorance is guilt' ruling, where the judge told the jury that "you may find that a defendant had knowledge of a fact if you find that the defendant deliberately closed his eyes to what would otherwise have been been obvious to him," played a role in Lay's and Skilling's downfall.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Belfast Sunset

There was a stunning sunset over Belfast last night.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Download a Camera (Seriously!)

If one thing is guaranteed to appeal to my nerdish nerditude, it's a pdf camera. How great is that! Saves on seeking out Holgas, that's for sure! Lifehacker suggests a link to a flash animation for assembling the pdf camera. I get a 403 error on the link they provide but you might have more luck.

Antarctica is Not a Foreign Country!

Missed it at the time, but (via the Swedish Law Blog, itself via Opinio Juris), it seems that, for the purposes of American tax collection, Antarctica doesn't count as a foreign country.

Update: Apart from correcting my shoddy spelling (still visible in the permalink), spoilsport Frank McGahon clarifies the issue quite plausibly both on his blog and in my comments.

Update 2: Though he's not entirely accurate, as I set out on his comments.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Suck the Wasters?

I'm entirely undecided as to whether Enda Kenny is 60% Equalizer and 40% Daniel O'Donnell or whether the proportions are the other way around. I don't know who is running FG's new strategy, but I'm certain they have a sense of humour.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Channelling the Professional Spirits

I've just finished reading 'Channellers, Cowries and Conversations with the Gods: Explaining Multiple Divination Methods in an Afro-Brazilian Religious Tradition,' a book chapter/working paper by Emma Cohen, at the Institute of Cognition and Culture here at Queen's. It's a fascinating piece whose basic question is 'why do people who can access information from the spirit world directly (through possessed mediums) also seek information from other forms of divination (like reading signs in shells etc)?'

Cohen spent some time in a Brazillian terreiro, a 'cult house,' where people can, for a fee, receive guidance from spirits. A spirit would possess the local head honcho and pass on priivleged information about the future, or about a person's love life or the like. What puzzled Cohen was that the house leader's 'customers' also sought information from the specialised use of various runes. Why wouldn't they just go for the possession stuff, since this would give them direct, and presumably more reliable, access to the spirit world?

The theory that Cohen formulates is that, though people patently believed that the 'pai-de-santo' was possessed, they were held back by simple cognitive barriers. The manner in which the brain processess information about familiar faces means that it is very difficult to make the cognitive leap to entirely accepting that the same body can, through possession, become the vessel of another person. Our brains are hardwired, when we see a familiar face, to retrieve all sorts of information about that person, enabling us to predict their attitudes, read their expressions etc. We may, at some level, believe that possession turns them into someone else with an entirely distinct identity, but that belief can never be total. I can never fully believe what I believe I believe, to put in nice and simply (Cohen explains it so much better in her paper)... So I often opt for runes of various sorts because seeing a medium 'read' the runes is more cognitively comfortable than seeing them possessed.

OK - enough description. The dodgy bit is next...

One of the many problems with us boffins is that there is literally no piece of academic work on the planet that we can't be made to believe is really about what we're doing. So here goes... For some reason (waking up at 4 this morning maybe) Cohen's work - very obliquely - touches on stuff I am doing at the moment on professional ethics. I'm just finishing a piece that at root acknowledges the dilution of responsibility within professional roles. In Ethics of an Artificial Person, Elizabeth Wolgast talks of 'role moralities,' where people, in their professional lives, behave in a way that they themselves would find morally repugnant if they did the same thing outside of their roles.

One striking example of this involved some asbestos cases, where lawyers for liable companies put barrier after barrier in the way of class action suits coming to court, up to and including harrassing people on their deathbeds, because, knowing they would lose the case once it got to court, they figured they could save a few bob for their clients if the case was delayed long enough that many plaintiffs would die.

It strikes me - and here's where I come back to Cohen's point - that there is some small resemblance between possession rituals, where we believe that possession entails one person disappearing and another manifesting himself, and professional life, where we believe that many aspects of a person's identity - primarily the sense of virtue they generally profess - must disappear and a professional identity takes over. Though it may not be to the same extent, they become another person.

So, why don't we judge the asbestos lawyer more harshly? Why do we think that his or her playing a role makes their actions excusable? Why does the role act provide moral distance to the general person? Cognitively, if Cohen is right, we ought not to be able to separate different sets of behaviour out in response to formal changes in role.

One reason might be that moral narratives have profound unifying force. The asbestos lawyer, in acknowledging the problematic nature of their strategy, can plausibly appeal to a higher moral priniciple. It is a basic precept of our legal system - highly valuable in itself - that a lawyer ought to attend as closely as possible to the interests of his or her client. The doing of some repugnant things must be forgiven since the role serves a higher ideal.

On the face of it, this ought to be implausible. The virtues of the legal system might explain the lawyer's dirty hands, but that needn't render the lawyer's actions forgivable. Moral tragedy cannot simply be collapsed into moral equivocation.

Cohen's thesis isn't designed to address these questions but, stretching them a bit, it might be possible to argue that the imperative is not to begin with the moral axioms and wonder at the cognitive/moral dissonance that - given those axioms - must be involved. Instead, one begins with the concrete person and then seeks an explanation as to how that unified being can make all the decisions in their lives. The 'higher principle principle' does that work quite well. Personal identity maintains its single moral narrative.

It does so, however, by disregarding the role morality per se, instead relying on a general ends-based moral system. If this is true, moral theorists might be just as well accompanying their study of role moralities with an awareness of the strong motivations presented by narratives of personhood. You protect the unity of the self not by pigeon-holing behaviour in a formal role but by explaining the role through some story about the self.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Last Week for the Enron Trial

So, the Enron trial has entered its last week. I'm unsure as to what the outcome will be, though I suspect that Lay and Skilling may meet different ends.

I don't think, though, that anyone has directly produced evidence of either man - nasty though many of their actions were - actively seeking to break the law. Lying to analysts about the health of your company is, I imagine, par for the course. Prosecuters would ordinarily need to do better than that in order to get a result. I suspect, though, that they're trying to push for conviction by simply presenting Lay and Skilling as all-round bad eggs. They are, but being a greed is good shit is hardly illegal.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Lonely in Dublin?

If you are, and if it's any comfort, you're not alone.

That is, according to the eminent Google Trend Labs (hat tip the Register).

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Animal Rights Argument Was Lost When it Should Have Been Won

The last few months have seen a major backlash against the animal rights movement. It's not the first backlash, but it's the most damaging and the movement has brought it on itself.

The interests of animals ought to weigh in our thoughts about how we should act. That’s not to say that I regard animals as having rights – inalienable interests that cannot be trumped by the interests of others. Nevertheless, I believe that some animals, great apes for instance, have interests that are so morally weighty – given evidence we have about their self-awareness and about their capacity for suffering – that it’s hard to conceive of anything that can override them. Other animals, say rats, may have less weighty interests, in line with their capacities.

Given this, animal testing is, on the face of it, an incredibly dubious practice. It is difficult to imagine justifying actively causing the suffering of one being as an object for the benefit of the other. Everything from simple exposure to the 50% test – increasing dosages of chemicals until half the animals have died – cannot be reconciled with any obligations we have towards animals.

Of course, things rarely exist in a state of moral simplicity. As I said, first, it doesn’t seem logical to treat all animals alike. To put it crudely, harming a spider seems different to harming a cat which itself seems different to harming a chimpanzee. Second, the manner in which animals are cared for seems important. Captivity has different forms. Third, and this is most important because it has totally been lost in the recent debates about animal testing, testing is done for different reasons. The differences between those reasons matter.

I can think of three motives for animal testing: scientific research, cosmetics testing and medical research.

Scientific research seems too case specific for a discussion of general principles. Electrocuting dogs for the benefit of psychology undergraduates can hardly be justified. Groundbreaking research involving animal testing – say something that has no direct imaginable benefit but adds to a somehow important body of knowledge – might in certain circumstances be justifiable.

I can’t think of any circumstance that merits cosmetics testing. I think the law has changed on this in the UK, but it’s worth saying. Performing the 50% test on 1000 dogs in order to develop a new lipstick seems pretty repugnant.

Medical research is a strange one. I think that genuine medical research – where new drugs are developed – seems in any circumstance I can imagine to be justifiable, although the comfort of animals ought to be accounted for and their interests in not suffering ought to be kept in mind, at least in concentrating minds on not crossing the line to gratuitous suffering.

Much medical research, however, does not involve attempts at the development of new drugs. Rather, it’s focused on creating value-added products through which one set of pharmaceutical companies compete with others. If, say, I add a lemon flavour to a headache pill (when generic paracetamol works better anyway) and, in doing that, I have to perform the 50% test on animals, I just can’t be regarded as doing something defensible. Or if I am developing drugs that might intervene in, say, the heart disease market, when my drug won’t actually improve anybody’s life prospects, again, it’s hard to see how I can justify animal testing.

In other words, animal testing for human well-being might be justifiable, though to a varying extent for different animals. It is not justifiable when it is rooted in simple profits.

Saying this, of course, means that I don’t have much time for political and scientific opinion on the matter. The elision of these various categories and practices on the part of Britain’s scientific, political and testing business communities suggests a certain degree of moral laziness, at least on the part of those people who are genuinely interested in moral argument. I've gone totally (perhaps unfairly) cynical, but I can't help but think that Blair’sargument’ that Britain’s place in the scientific world is a reason for animal testing is more rooted in his wanting to construct a moral panic that doesn’t involve him than in a moral attachment to the virtues (in terms of human knowledge) of testing.

Not drawing the distinction between various sorts of animals and sorts of tests allows plainly immoral testing to continue. It allows the profit motive for some tests to remain hidden in the background, parasitic on the good arguments for other tests. Lumping the whole industry together to defend it may be easier, but it also taints those who argue in favour of testing with its seamier side.

I also set myself apart from many people who have interests in animal rights, however. Human interests, for them, do not justify animal suffering. I simply don’t agree with them. Testing can be justified, but it has to be explicitly justified. Human interests can trump animal interests, in very specific circumstances where genuine and serious interests are at stake.

The animal rights movement has three primary problems. One is its political naivety. The other is the friends it keeps.

Most of the animal rights people I’ve met are profoundly pacifistic and moderate. They really wouldn’t hurt a fly. At their worst moments they can be a bit like the eponymous (and on this issue, self-aware) hero of Coetzee’s fascinating Elizabeth Costello: fervent, alienating and intense, and upset, frustrated at how they can't change the world. They are certainly neither violent or threatening.

Perhaps because of this, in my experience, the loudest voices in the movement have tended to be those of people who are most sympathetic to justifying whatever means are necessary to – they imagine – achieve their ends. Apart from the obvious immorality, these people are profoundly, childishly stupid. They simply serve to provide their enemies with the means to deny the movement the voice it ought to have.

Combined with this is total political naivety. The animal rights movement (I’m thinking specifically of SHAC and other groups) has never really adopted a tone that would have brought action. They tend to prefer the rhetoric of Greenham Common or Twyford Down when sticking a suit on and getting a haircut would, in this case, be more likely to work. In other words, they’ve never really taken the steps to put themselves in a position where they could persuade.

Combined with this has been the lack of any tactical attempt to decide on what the movement can actually achieve.

All-or-nothing campaigns often end up with, well, nothing.

The movement ought to have attacked the far more invidious testing-for-profit, which is the spectacularly unspoken Achilles' heel of the testing industry. They ought to have specifically said that, while all animal testing is regretful, some might be necessary (perhaps, though I’m personally sceptical of this line of argument, until computer modelling is up and running). That way, they might have kept the public onside, presented the pro-testing lobby with a difficult position to defend and got some of what they want.

Anyway, as I’ve set it out, I think that that line is not only politically sensible, but (even if it wasn’t) is the most morally defensible. Animals may not have inalienable rights, but they do have interests. The pro-testing lobby is so simplistic that it implicitly – and unintentionally I’m certain – denies that there are any circumstances in which those interests can trump human wishes. But those circumstances do exist.

The animal rights movement’s morally dubious higher bar for the status of animals has lost it the argument. It has alienated the movement from the society it must persuade. It has undeservedly gifted the moral high ground to pro-testers by allowing them to – as the antis do – treat all testing as being on a moral par. And it has allowed silly extremists to destroy any chance that the movement has for the foreseeable future.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Sunset in Hyde Park

Another of the crop of photos from London.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Testing Testing

Just testing a new blogger-to-deli.cio.us tagging system for Firefox and Greasemonkey. I hope it works! Also, I'm looking for a hack that totally rejigs my blogroll. I'm sick of having tonnes of blogs listed alphabetically. What I would like is for them to be listed in the order in which I last read them (or in a 'most-read' order) I'll be looking around over the next while, but if anyone has any suggestions I'd be most grateful!

Update Oh well. That wasn't compatible with other scripts in my template. So now to try del.icio.us2blogger

Update2 Well, that works well on Firefox, but not so well on IE. I can't imagine why.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Enron Trial

I've been following the Enron Trial over the last while: fascinating stuff. I'm not convinced that it will see anyone going to prison, though this bit of news makes it more likely. Trial transcripts are towards the bottom of this page (hat-tip the Law Librarian Blog).

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


There's a highly enjoyable, even thrilling, trolling orgy over on John & Belle have a Blog (as John Holbo says "Keep scrolling. Further. Further. Ah, there") that descends to the sort of linguistic flights that are generally only found in Finnegan's Wake. Try this for size:
Phuck yr little J-Edgar spam-game, too, bozostein. Yr a human reject, a ham-fisted, talentless, ineloquent, literal-minded male-shrew: as you prove more convincingly with each yip and yap. Scottie the LIT. Poodle! Roll over n play MORT, Scottie the LIT. Poodle!
Almost beautiful in its trollilicious perfection and that's before the real madness sets in.

Albert Memorial

Another glorious day in Belfast. Though this picture was taken at the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park on an even more glorious day!

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Spot the Ball

I was in London at the end of last week and (after work) headed for Greenwich to sit in the heat. World Cup fever abounds.

Lazy Journalism, Lazy Blogging

United Irelander has been making hay (and here) recently over this article in the Irish Examiner. According to a sentence at the bottom of the article,
Since French and Dutch rejection of the Treaty, support [in Ireland] has collapsed to just 15% - it once stood at 78% with Irish voters.
Or, as UI has it,
The figures contained in the latest Eurobaromoter survey show that support for the EU Constitution now stands at just 15% - it once stood at 78% with Irish voters.
I've been a bit confused by this: such huge drops don't tend to happen. So, instead of doing what UI did - ie taking the report at face value - I went to look at the stats to try and find out what the Examiner is on about.

First, I looked in the latest Eurobarometer report (pdf), which was published late last year. Well, the news there is rather positive for supporters of a European Constitution. Strangely enough, in fieldwork last October and November, 60% of Irish respondents expressed support for the idea of a constitution for the EU with only 19% expressing opposition (p. 25). Which is not to say that they support the constitutions as it stands. 22% of European citizens surveyed expressed the opinion that the constitution ought to be re-negotiated with only 13% saying that it ought to be totally dropped (I can't open the Irish country survey for some reason so can't say what it was for the Irish survey).

The Examiner got its line from a more recent (May 2006) and smaller survey (pdf) on 'The Future of Europe,' where the fieldwork was carried out earlier this year. And here's where the Examiner's (and UI's) mistake lies. The 15% figure doesn't refer to support for the constitution. In fact, there's no way that the figure could even be construed as denoting support for the constitution.

The question (p. 154) asked in the survey is 'which two of the following would you consider to be most helpful if anything, for the future of Europe?' Respondents were given six specific options (a common language, well defined external borders for the EU, the introduction of the Euro in all EU countries, comparable living standards, a common army, a common constitution) with the choice of putting in one's own answer, saying nothing would help the future of Europe, or saying that one doesn't know.

Apparently 15% of Irish respondents (according to the discussion from p. 37-9) named a European constitution either as their first or second choice. They were more likely - get this UI - to name the introduction of the Euro across the Union as the thing that would be most helpful.

So there you go, a total mangling of the statistics by the Examiner and United Irelander. For the Examiner it reads just like a piece of lazy misreading. I suppose UI can claim to be the innocent victim of the Examiner's report, but he should recognise that there is, as always, nothing like reading something for yourself.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Trolleys and Roadmaps

Via Crooked Timber, I see that the BBC has posed a number of 'philosophy 101' thought experiments, where you can vote on what you would do when faced with a moral dilemma (presumably they've been reading this book).

One of the more controversial thought experiments is contained in Judith Thompson's 1971 essay 'A Defense of Abortion,' where she introduces the following thought experiment:
You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, "Look, we're sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you—we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it's only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you." Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation?
Essentially, Thompson argues that, though you would be very nice to accede to the situation, you're under no obligation to do so. By analogy, if you find yourself pregnant you're under no obligation to maintain the pregnancy to term.

This argument has had a number of detractors in the academy, but her important contribution to the debate is that she separates rights from interests (ie., you may have profound interests but that might not translate into a right) and the abortion debate from the 'what constitutes a person' debate.

Anyway, the BBC's essay is fun, but - as I said before - I have a problem with the idea of philosophy being approached like this.

Voting on these issues - forcing the binary yes/no decision - detracts from the really interesting thing about imaginary dilemmas. Simply opting for one conclusion or other is not the point of these hypotheticals. Why the answer is difficult and what that says about our moral thoughts is the important thing. That you arrived at your destination is far less intersting than the map you used.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Hey Wayne

I don't know much about football, but seeing this, followed by this, I'm left feeling, um...