Almost 40% of Canadians abstained in the election. Philosopher Jason Brennan’s book The Ethics of Voting (summarized in this paper) applauds their decision.
His argument is that although everyone has a political right to vote, they have a moral obligation not to vote badly. A bad vote is one that is not rationally justified. Votes based on emotion (eg: fear), immoral beliefs (eg: racism) and random selection are bad. Because bad votes cancel out good votes, they are harmful to society.
Brennan puts forward a number of metaphors:
- Voting is like surgery: surgeons have a moral obligation to be well-trained and to do their best, but we don’t hold it against them when they make honest mistakes.
- Bad voting is like pollution: although a single car does not have a big impact, we have an obligation to reduce emissions because of their collective harm.
- Voting is like friends choosing a restaurant: if one of them knows more about local restaurants, the others should abstain from offering unfounded opinions.
So if you’re in favour of universal voting, it is not enough to argue that people have a moral obligation to vote, they must also have a moral obligation to be rational and informed, which has a much higher opportunity cost: “there are myriad worthwhile life goals, which, due to time scarcity, are incompatible with becoming a levelheaded amateur social scientist”.
Brennan argues, “what contemporary democracies need most to preserve equality and liberty is not full, informed participation, but an electorate that retains a constitutional culture and remains vigilant enough that it will rise against any leader that tries to abuse their liberties.” The rest of the time, you should leave voting to the experts. Those 40% of voters said “I don’t see the difference between these parties, so I’ll let the rest of you decide on nuance”.
When I write about national government policy, I usually ignore the weird exceptions going on in Quebec. But in response to my analysis of Canadian Blood Services (CBS), Brynn pointed out that Héma-Québec would like to accept donations from men who have had sex with men (MSM) but are prevented from doing so.
I didn’t actually read the CBS court case, I just made the assumption that the point of having an independent board of directors was to set transfusion standards. It turns out that transfusion standards are set by the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) in a document called Z902-04, which I don’t have access to. Apparently Z902-04 specifies the standard that blood donations must be refused from MSM.
The CSA is an independent organization, except that they are accredited by a crown corporation, the Standards Council of Canada. I would assume that the Standards Council certifies that the CSA’s transfusion standard is the only standard used in Canada (or else what would the point of a standard be?). Héma-Québec implies that Health Canada requires them to follow Z902-04, whereas the court ruling states that CBS uses Z902-04 as a guideline and does not meet the standard. On the other hand, the ruling says that Health Canada must approve changes to CBS’s Donor Selection Criteria.
It seems we cannot say that the government has actively chosen the policy of discrimination, but non-governmental discrimination is locked in by the government. This could be a case where the Charter, reflecting its Judeo-Christian roots, covers sins of commission but not omission. Does the government have an obligation not only to not infringe rights but also to promote freedom in its dealings?
The pre-apocalypse world of Oryx and Crake is a dystopian corporatocracy. We know it’s really bad because art is undervalued. In these flashbacks, the teenaged Crake repeats a few cliches about the unsustainability of humans. The obvious implication is that this world will destroy itself.
Revolutionaries and corporations are creating biological weapons that they try to deploy against the gated communities of the rich. The pharmaceutical corporation HelthWyzer is genetically engineering new diseases because all the naturally-occurring ones have been cured. The foreshadowing is that these small-scale projects get out of hand and cause the apocalypse.
But it turns out that the apocalypse was intentionally created by a single “evil” genius, Crake. Crake was raised in the same circumstances as the fallible-but-redeemable (and, most importantly, art-loving) protagonist, Jimmy/Snowman, so we know he is not a symptom of his society. Jimmy frequently discusses how Crake exists outside regular society.
If civilization is evil and Crake destroys civilization, is Crake then good? Ursula K Le Guin has identified Oryx and Crake as a morality play, but does Crake represent God or the Devil? Jimmy/Snowman has grey morality (mmm, kiddie porn), so I’m tempted to say that Atwood intended Crake to be similarly grey. I believe most readers have interpreted Oryx and Crake to be a warning against biotechnology and capitalism, not a warning about leaving powerful technology lying around where random sociopaths can get it. I’ll give Atwood the final word with my own emphasis:
The what if of Oryx and Crake is simply: What if we continue down the road we’re already on? How slippery is the slope? What are our saving graces? Who’s got the will to stop us?
Say you did want to correct the environmental and social problems of the agricultural industry. Rather than consuming for great justice, you might try some good old fashioned political action. But what exactly should you action for?
There is a lot of waste at every stage of the food chain from the farm to your house. Fixing this is a big campaign in Britain right now. Start an education campaign or get into some civil-disobedient dumpster diving.
Buying local or organic is a lazy proxy for low carbon. European grocery stores have proper carbon labelling, which reveals the two biggest problems in agriculture: beef and air-freight. Nudge argues that mandatory labeling is a reasonable government intervention; mail your MP.
The last mile
Getting food from the grocery store to households is incredibly inefficient. Talk to your city council about zoning and property tax incentives to get a grocery store within 400 metres of every household. You can improve your own consumption by ordering online.
Pesticide and fertilizer
These are serious problems but organic isn’t a sustainable solution, genetic modification is. Lobby your MP for chemical labeling; organic certification is too broad of a brush.
Buying food from the under-developed world only helps them if the money doesn’t end up in the pockets of shareholders in the developed world. Why are so few products Fair Trade certified? Is Fair Trade the best solution? I’m not sure what the political action is in this case.
When I argue that local/organic food is inethical, I am arguing against the status quo. Most people say that consuming these foods is an ethical act and that people who consume them are more good than people who do not.
According to psychologists, humans have a moral credential system. When you do something good, it changes the way you think so that you’re less likely to do good in the future. There are two possible explanations:
- you gain a bias in evaluating your own behaviour (“I do good things. I did x. Therefore x is good.”)
- you have a mental moral account: if the account has a surplus, you’re going to make withdrawals
A study at UofT found that people who were forced to purchase green products then went on to share less, lie more and steal more than those forced to purchase non-green products. (Here’s the short paper, but you’re better off reading the Slate commentary.)
If you believe that buying local/organic food is good and you incorporate buying such food into your identity (and I believe it’s impossible not to), then you’re going to put less effort into doing other good works. By analogy, watch a grocery store parking lot as people load reusable bags into SUVs. Local/organic food is a positional good, so people fixate on consuming it to make themselves cool while ignoring all the less glamorous good things they could be doing.
The under-developed countries are currently in Copenhagen, begging the developed countries not to destroy the planet and retreat into domed cities. The under-developed countries are worried that their lot is going to get worse.
Not that long ago, the under-developed countries were most worried about agricultural subsidies. This was the chief topic of the World Trade Organization’s Doha Development Round that started in 2001. The hope was that a fair market for food would drag the under-developed world out of poverty. The under-developed world has the land and manpower to compete on agriculture; they don’t have the skills or capital to compete on anything else.
The Buy Local movement is another form of market failure just like agricultural subsidies. Every time you buy from a local farmer, you’re not buying from a farmer in an under-developed country.
Local farmers don’t need the money. Canada offers plenty of other careers. Many of the farms within 100 miles of my location aren’t even profitable enough to be a sole source of income: the gentlemen farmers dabble in argiculture in order to get property tax breaks on their estates (an agricultural subsidy). Only small organic farms are economically sustainable, which is another market failure.
The just thing to do is to buy from the poorest farmer. You might buy local because it gives you pleasure (never mind making you cool), but don’t pretend it’s a righteous thing to do.
Andrew Potter gives a scathing criticism of both eating organic and eating local in Macleans. It turns out that the nutritional benefits of organic do not appear in laboratory tests. The economies of scale from industrialized farming make it better for the environment than either niche food (remember: your intuitions about environmental cost are wrong).
This makes it clear that the underlying reason people consume niche food is to be cool. And that doing so harms other people.
The only touted advantage he doesn’t address is “food security”. I’ve always taken it to be a kind of joke to refer to growing vegetables at city hall by the same term that serious people use to refer to anti-starvation measures. But if it’s the only area open for debate I guess I need to take another look at it…
I haven’t read In Defense of Food, which I’m told has excellent arguments against organic.
The rich looked inside their food and didn’t like it, so they voted with their wallets to set up a parallel agriculture system: organic food. They could have lobbied the government to restrict pesticide use. Instead they said, “let the poor eat pesticide-contaminated, low-nutrition cake”.
The decision to check out of organic food is to choose consumption over collective action. Partially it’s just easier to set up another agriculture; partially it’s fun that buying expensive food can define your identity (literally, you are what you eat). It’s not just in a Rawlsian sense: it doesn’t make the poor better off.
If you had two companies selling food, they’d attempt to differentiate themselves in the market. One might start making higher quality food and the other might make lower cost food. That is precisely what has happened to the two whole markets in this case: 100-mile heritage biodynamic fair-trade vegetables vs This is Why You’re Fat. Buying organic food might actually cause non-organic food to get worse.
It’s also not just in a Kantian sense: The categorical imperative says that you should act as you wish everyone acted. If everyone tried to live off organic food, 2 billion people would die. (Kyla shared that article, which I’ve used twice, with me on Earth Day – yay!)
Lawrie McFarlane argues that there is no reason why we should not give the death penalty, but he doesn’t give any reason why we should. Since capital punishment is not a deterrent, we are never given an option between the life of a child and the opportunity for corrective justice. Some offenders may be pure sadists (let’s leave to one side the difficulties involved in actually proving that), but why respond to sadism with execution rather than life imprisonment? If society atones for creating Tori Stafford’s killers, will her mother miss her any less?
Neo-classical economists famously claim that voting is irrational. The argument goes: What is the probability that the election will be won by one seat (BC has 85 seats), that one seat is won by a single vote (the average seat has 50,000 eligible voters) and you happen to be that voter? The benefit to the deciding voter multiplied by the probability of being that voter is lower than the cost of voting.
But the only reason that an election would come down to one vote is that everyone else voted in perfect balance. In a perfectly efficient world, voters who opposed each other would pair off to stay home so the only person that needed to vote was a representative deciding voter (this is done in legislative assemblies). The pairing could be done using technology but somehow the no-voting contract would either have to be enforceable or there’d have to be enough trust to solve this Prisoner’s Dilemma. Since we don’t have either, we go mark a ballot and they are paired in counting.
The other problem is that neo-classical economists like to pretend that everyone makes all their choices based on economics. But if voting is a moral decision, then there could be all sorts of other justifications. One is Kant’s categorical imperative, which says you should act the same way you want everyone else to act. So you should vote because you prefer a world where everyone votes to a world where no one votes.