Friday, October 26, 2007

Should there be a crime of "outraging public decency"?

Outraging public decency

Should there be a crime of "outraging public decency"? Let me begin with a recent case. Today, the BBC has reported that Anthony Anderson (left) has been found guilty of this crime. The details are chilling. Anderson, 27, came across Christine Lakinski, 50, who was dying in a Hartlepool street. Lakinski had suffered from several medical conditions and was trying to carry laminate flooring to her home. She was very clearly in need of immediate medical attention. Anderson saw Lakinski after he had been smoking cannabis and drinking with friends. First, he threw a bucket of water on Lakinski. He then urinated on her --- as a small crowd gathered around laughing, cheering, and recording the incident on a mobile phone --- before covering her in foam. Anderson was pronounced dead at the scene from pancreatic failure. Judge Peter Fox told Anderson: "You violated this woman in an incredible way, and the shocking nature of your acts over a prolonged period of time must mean that a prison sentence of greater length is appropriate in this case." Anderson has been sentenced to three years in prison.

I do not doubt that for many --- perhaps all --- readers this will look like a clear case of what constitutes "outraging public decency." Instead, I want to argue something else: (a) what is wrong about Anderson's actions is not that he offended public decency, but that he both harmed a dying woman and purposefully failed to assist and (b) there is a real epistemological worry about our ability to know "public" "decency" as well.

What should be the object of criminalization?

It seems intuitive to think that what Anderson was not merely wrong, but wrong in a way that should involve the administration of justice. It is clear that what took place was of a criminal nature. But why?

Before moving to worries about how we can know when public decency is offended, let us presume we can know when public decency is offended (or "outraged"). Let us further presuppose that the Anderson case is a clear instance of outraged public decency. Is this why the action should be criminalized?

I am unable to see why Anderson's wrong was criminal because it was a violation of public decency. I completely agree that what Anderson did was criminal, but on different grounds. At little effort or cost to himself, Anderson could have helped Lakinski off the street. He failed to do this. In addition, Anderson could easily have alerted emergency services to aid Lakinski. I take it that we have at least a moral duty of care to our fellow citizens to at least alert emergency services. Am I saying that Anderson shares responsibility for Lakinski's death? I would not have the relevant information to make such a judgement. Instead, what I am saying is that Anderson is at least failing in a general duty of care. This may not be criminal --- in terms of imprisonment --- but may be an object of concern for the justice system.

This wrongful act was coupled with others, including urinating on Lakinski and then covering her with foam. These other wrongful acts are wrongful --- and criminal --- because they were performed with a view to harming Lakinski's dignity. At a minimum, the performance of acts whose purpose is to unjustifiably harm others form a proper object for criminalization.

We can then offer grounds for criminalizing Anderson's behaviour without making any appeal to standards of conventional morality.

Where to find "public" "decency"?

The question then becomes why we would want to offer any such appeal. One reason is that law and morality are not the same. For example, not all immoral acts --- telling a white lie or adultery --- are criminal acts. A second reason is that the moral norm of "public decency" seems too difficult to be of much use. A community is not monolithic: it is a place of difference, even in non-multicultural societies. We should not demand of any society that it have a given "morality" that governs all as no such monolithic view of morality can be found. It is desirable to avoid criminalizing immoral behaviour because we lack a safe yardstick by which to adjudicate the "moral" from the "immoral." Moreover, it seems clear that those acts that might offend public decency can be dealt with in better ways on alternative grounds. I've given just one example here.

For these reasons, I share in the view that Anderson's actions were criminal. However, I do not believe they are criminal (and punishable) because some picture of morality was offended as such, but rather because Anderson clearly acted to harm his victim. The prevention of harm is a better guide to criminalization than honouring conventional morality. (Whatever that is.)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Greater funding for higher education in the UK

For all UK citizens and residents, a brief reminder of the online e-petition here. The petition reads:

"We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to increase the provision for teaching and research in all British universities to best secure their international competitiveness.

It is important that the Government not only reaffirm its commitment to higher education, but substantively support this commitment through greater investment. Increased investment beyond current plans should be adopted to support excellence in teaching and research, as well as best secure the international competitiveness of the sector."

Again, the link to this e-petition is here. I strongly encourage readers to support this important petition.

UPDATE: I also strongly recommend UK-based readers to endorse the following petition here which states "We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to reinstate support funding given to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) for universities offering courses to students taking equal or lower qualifications than they currently hold. We believe to remove all such funding will remove a vital source of retraining where the skills base has changed over the years and mean only the personally better funded students will have a chance to retrain. We also believe that this sudden funding change will be harmful to universities which are based around the ethos of retraining or continuing skill updates and should be reviewed under the premise of Life Long Learning."

The Journal of Moral Philosophy Group on Facebook

The power of Facebook. Not even one year ago I thought that anyone who was on MySpace was well ahead of the curve. That was until I heard about Facebook and its amazing popularity. Of course, I had to join asap. After joining, I noticed that several journals have Facebook sites. Well, the Journal of Moral Philosophy site on Facebook can be found here. I will be posting information on recent and forthcoming issues on the site, as well as announcements.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Degree classifications

There has been much debate over standards at UK universities. The worry is that now 60% achieve the two highest degree classifications: a first and a "2:1" degree. This has led to accusations that universities must be "dumbing down" because more students achiveve higher marks. In response, university leaders investigated the situation and claimed that we should stick with what we have because there is no clear superior degree classification system.

I am surprised the report does not endorse switching to a system like that found in the United States. In the US, students earn marks such as A, B, C, D, F with additional distinctions made within each mark (such as B+, B, and B-) and where each specific mark is worth x grade points (e.g., A = 4.0, B = 3.0). The scale for marks is commonly:

A = 94-100%
A- = 90-93%
B+ = 87-89%
B = 84-86%
B- = 80-81%
C+ = 77-79%
C = 74-76%
C- = 70-71%
D = 65-69%
F = 1-64%

Contrast this with the UK. Marks are as follows:

1st class honours (1st) = 70-100%
2nd class honours, upper division (2:1) = 60-69%
2nd class honours, lower division (2:2) = 50-59%
3rd class honours (3rd) = 40-49%
Fail = 0-39%

Note the wide differences between marks, for example that 1st class honours contains a range of 30 percentage points while others are ten points. Next note that a 2:1 is not as discriminating amongst the full range of marks as a B- or B+. (For this reason, many British employers ask for final averages and particular exam results.)

Finally, note that different subjects use different ranges. This is the major problem. In the sciences, it is not uncommon for students to earn 88% or higher. In all other subjects, marks above 75% are a rarity and virtually no marks are given above 80%. This means that there is non-standardization across subjects with regards to the full range of marks (e.g., as a medical student has the full range of 70-100% available for a first class degree and the philosophy student only about 70-75 or 70-80%).

One solution to this problem is to mark all students on a 0-100% scale as in the United States. The argument against is that non-science subjects are "inexact" subjects where such precision is impossible. I do not accept this. First, a 100 point scale is used in the US, Canada, and elsewhere for such subjects without problems. Second, is inexactness a worry when discriminating whether to award a mark of 72 or 73% that does not exist between a 93 and 94%? The inexactness worry suggests a difference which does not exist. Finally, if "exact" subjects (i.e., the sciences) we can achieve greater precision, then why not change the full scale for these subjects? A science exam can be 28% incorrect and be awarded a first class for its exactly correct 72%. However, a philosophy or music examination that was more than a quarter wrong would earn no more than (80 - 20 = 60) 60%, bordering on a 2:2. Why should there be such disparity?

The solution to degree classification worries is to introduce a system that is standardized across all subjects and that properly discriminates between similarly situated results. The A, A-, B+, etc. grade point system used in the US and Canada does this job far better than the UK degree classification system. If we want a better system, then we should seriously consider adopting this system.

This is not to say that I am against the current UK degree classification system. Rather, I am simply trying to present a case for moving to an alternative that might be an improvement over what is in place at present and contra the report noted above.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Newcastle Ethics, Legal, and Political Philosophy Group --- Autumn Seminar Series

Since 2004, Peter Jones and I have organized the Newcastle Political Philosophy Group's seminar series. Speakers include an equal mix of external guests and Newcastle staff and students. In addition, the NPPG has held several major conferences.

The Group has always been very popular, now attracting staff and graduate students from all three faculties at Newcastle, including the subjects of Classics, Geography, German, History, Law, Medicine, Philosophical Studies, Politics, Sociology, and several others --- including Town Planning(!). To better reflect the wide variety of philosophical interests of the Group, there has been a re-branding. From Autumn 2007, it is now the Newcastle Ethics, Legal, and Political Philosophy Group. I co-organize the group with my colleague Ian o'Flynn.

We have two workshops lined up. The first will take place in February on the theme 'political participation'. Speakers will include William Maloney, John Parkinson, and Jurg Steiner. The second workshop will be on 'deliberative democracy' and take place in April, with Ian O'Flynn, Robert B. Talisse, and myself.

Our fortnightly speaker series also continues. The autumn schedule is as follows:

3rd October -Dr Adam Swift (Oxford), Legitimate Parental Partiality
24th October - Professor Peter Jones (Newcastle), Group Rights, Public Goods, and Participatory Goods
21st November - Professor Anne Phillips (LSE), Autonomy, Coercion, and Constraint
5th December - Dr Derek Bell (Newcastle), Who should pay the cost of climate change?

All meetings will take place in Politics Building room G6 at the University of Newcastle from 4.00-6.00pm. Meetings are free and open to the public. For more information, then simply contact me at t.brooks at

I will make an announcement on our spring seminar series and workshops in due course.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Brown's big gamble

As expected, Prime Minister Gordon Brown has made a new announcement on whether to call a general election in the UK. His decision was surprising: there will not be an election for at least one year. Brown claims he was simply waiting for the political party conference season ended before making any accouncement. (Sure...)

This decision was surprising for several reasons. First, persons close to the Prime Minister were hinting that an election may be called. Secondly, the Prime Minister said nothing to quell rumours an election would be called. Thirdly, Brown seemed up for it: he travelled to Iraq to make an announcement on a further reduction of British troops during the Conservative Party conference. (This was a particular no-no as Brown promised to make no such announcements without consulting Parliament, which he never, in fact, did. Of course, Parliament meets again today...rather shocking that he could not wait an extra few days to make the announcement, acting akin to Blair in the attempt to steal headlines, use the military as a political football, and spin positive headlines in his direction.) Fourth, the Labour Party were clearly consulting polls over the weekend, allegedly also using illegal robocalls to assess the likely outcome of an election next month.

There are reasons not to go to the polls quite yet. First, Brown has been Prime Minister only a shortwhile --- it might be helpful for him to take more time defining his term in office (and distancing himself from Tony Blair). Secondly, daylight hours are fewer in winter: this tends to keep turn-out results low (which always help the rightwing, who are more willing to brave rain, dark, etc.). Thirdly, there is no immediate need for an election as such: he can sit tight for quite a while with a decent majority.

However, in my view, his waiting is a big gamble (and probably a mistake). First, when the country voted in the last general election, it was not for Brown to become Prime Minister. His mandate to rule is in at least some sense incomplete. A successful election would solve this worry. Secondly, the country is clearly entering into worse economic times. Bad economic times = poor election results for the incumbent. Thirdly, given the way that constituencies are drawn up, it is not enough for the Conservatives to win an equal total percentage of votes: in fact, they must do at least six percent better (or more). The Conservatives are doing much, much better, but it is very doubtful that they would win an election even if they won a majority of the national vote.

The gamble is that in a year or so we will not think of Brown as a wimp afraid to test his political metal and we will see a decent, not dithering, economy with no more bad news from Iraq and a Conservative Party unable to further capitalize on any gains. All of this seems wildly unlikely. The Conservatives smell blood and can claim a victory in effectively scaring Brown off from calling an election. There is increasing tension between the US and many states in the world with Iran (all very highly worrying), along with an alleged import of nuclear weapon-related materials found by the Israelis in Syria. The repercussions of the Iraq War continue to be felt and things may get worse still than better --- none of this helping Brown.

Brown seems to think this gamble makes sense. World affairs may not reach crises proportions. The housing market may not crash. The domestic economy remains strong, even if weaker than expected. His worry must be (a) inevitable comparisons with Blair and negatively so if Brown was unable to gain as large a majority as Blair had been able to [currently, very likely] and (b) the greater difficulties of making political changes (and define his term in office) with a very small minority or hung Parliament.

I am not a betting man. I would have gone to the polls and won a fairly certain victory now rather than leave things to chance: a week can seem like a year in Politics and one year in the real world is, well, a major gamble. I doubt the gamble will pay off. It will be interesting to watch what happens.