Do We Really Care about the World Cup?

The World Cup is finally upon us! And despite being 32 years old, I can barely contain my child-like excitement. I have supported the country of my birth (Germany) since I was 6 when, alas, they faltered to Denmark in the final of Euro ’92. But one might sensibly wonder why I’m excited. After all, how Germany plays in the World Cup has no bearing on how things go in the rest of my life. And then the whole affair seems just so arbitrary: getting a football into a goal is an inherently meaningless exercise—doing so under stipulative restrictions (you can’t use your hands!) less meaningful still. If really pushed, many sports fans will concede that whether their team wins doesn’t matter, not really. When you think about it long enough, it starts making more sense to ask not why I or any of us cares about the World Cup, but how. How is it even possible to get so worked up about such an event?

Kendall Walton has an answer. But before we look at it, we need to take a quick and dirty tour of his theory of make-believe.

Walton’s theory is complicated and expansive, but there are two basic insights that matter here. The first is that engaging with works of representational art is in an important sense the same kind of activity as the make-believe games kids play. The second is that just as we can use toys and works of art to play these games, so we can use our mental states to do so. I’ll briefly explain each of these points and then return to sport.

Two children decide to play a game in which puddles are lava. One sees a puddle too late and tries desperately to avoid it. But she loses her balance and accidentally steps in it. ‘You fell in the lava, you’re dead’, the other says. The kids are engaged in a make-believe game in which it’s appropriate to imagine of a puddle that it’s lava, and appropriate to imagine when someone steps in a puddle that someone has fallen in the lava. The puddles are what Walton calls ‘props’: they are actual things that make certain propositions true in the fictional world of the game. They do this through what Walton calls a ‘principle of generation’. The principle tells you what is true in the make-believe given what is actually true. It’s not literally true that there is lava in front of the child, there’s just a puddle. But given a principle of generation that says where there’s an (actual) puddle there’s (make-believe) lava, the puddle makes it true in the game’s fiction—makes it fictional—that there’s lava. So props are actual things that, by way of a principle of generation, make propositions fictional and in so doing make it appropriate to imagine one way rather than another.

The same, claims Walton, is true of how we engage with representational artworks. Etiyé Dimma Poulsen’s sculpture Shuruba, for instance, depicts a vibrantly clothed woman with a classic Ethiopian shuruba hairstyle.

Etiyé Dimma Poulsen sculpture: 'Shuruba'.

The sculpture is a prop that makes it fictional that there is such a woman. Someone who points at the sculpture and says ‘There’s a person’ would be saying something literally false (since it’s just a sculpture) just as someone pointing at the puddle and saying ‘There is lava’ would. But in the game she plays with the sculpture, much as in the puddle game, it is true that there is a person, and so fictionally she speaks truly. What goes for sculpture goes also for paintings, feature films, novels, poems, etc. although each art form employs its own medium-specific principles of generation.

Walton’s second insight is that just as puddles, dolls, toy cars, and paintings, sculptures, or novels can be props in games, so can the mental states of the games’ participants. The child who desperately tries to avoid stepping in the puddle, for instance, may feel suspense-like sensations, especially if she is thoroughly into the game. Those sensations, Walton points out, are also props, making it fictional that the child feels suspense. In just the same way, if I feel fear-like sensations in response to watching a horror film, those sensations will make it fictional—in the game I play with the film, if not the film itself, since the film isn’t about me—that I am afraid.

Okay, so much for the theory. What does it have to do with sport? Walton’s contention is that, often, when we cheer because our team scores, or groan when they concede, we are engaged in the same kind of activity as when we cheer on a hero in a film, or cry when tragedy befalls her. That is, we’re engaged in a game of make-believe. Events that are actually not very important (putting a ball in a goal, images on a screen moving in certain ways) make it fictional that there are events that are very important, and so we imagine that scoring a goal and winning the game are important. The euphoric or disappointed sensations we feel make it fictional that we are overjoyed or devastated about the outcome.

If Walton’s account of our engagement with sport is right, then it helps explain a number of things, among them:

  • Our relatively quick recoveries from sporting tragedies. These would be no more puzzling than our quick recoveries from experiencing fictional tragedies.
  • The apparent incongruity between our wildly enthusiastic emotions during matches, on the one hand, and our calm assessments at other times on the other. Again, this appears analogous to the way we care whether Superman saves the day while reading the comic, but concede that it doesn’t matter at another time.
  • The apparently identical way we reassure those who’ve undergone sporting or fictional tragedies: that ‘it’s only game’.
  • Our ability to pick teams or players to support more or less on a whim.
  • The lack of indignation or disgust we (typically) feel towards others who don’t support our team.

However, there are worries that I think undermine the make-believe account of sports appreciation.

The first is that it’s not clear our caring during the spectacle, and relative indifference after, are particularly unique to sport. In fact, it’s quite commonplace in more mundane activities. Consider playing a practical joke; narrowly catching or missing a bus; losing a desirable parking spot; finishing War and Peace; having the radio cut out, or threaten to, halfway through a gripping story one happened upon; making a green (or yellow) traffic light; settling a petty argument; binge-watching a TV series; having the last word; looking up trivia once made curious; solving a puzzle; completing a flawless musical passage. The worry is that if we apply the make-believe analysis to sport then, unless there’s some relevant difference, we ought to apply it to these activities too. But a difference looks elusive and it seems unlikely that all of these activities ought to count as examples of make-believe caring.

Second, it’s not clear that our recoveries from sporting tragedies are especially quick relative to more serious instances of caring. Take the evening news. We frequently see lives destroyed by war, repression, and (un)natural disasters. This may move us deeply. Yet, often, we put down our smart phones, turn off our televisions or radios, and find our concern quickly lost in the dust of mundane activity.

Third, sports and traditional works of fiction differ in their representational content. The fictional world of a sports match would be entirely the same as the actual world, except that the outcome is more important in the fictional world. This coincidence of worlds isn’t itself a problem. Maaza Mengiste’s novel Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, for example, contains many historical events that actually occurred in Ethiopia, but it’s still an engaging work of fiction. The problem is, rather, that the near total coincidence leads to a new puzzle. In reading Superman, one might cheer Superman on and wish ill upon Lex Luthor. This is intelligible because Superman is a good guy trying to save the world and Lex Luthor is a vainglorious plutocrat. On the make-believe account, however, competitive games make no propositions fictional that could explain our attitudes toward the game’s outcome beyond those true at the actual world. How, then, does positing such a fictional world help explain our enthusiastic cheering and sobbing?

Fourth, it’s not clear what distinguishes the kind of make-believe Walton has in mind and the sort of make-believe that is clearly not the mark of someone appreciating sport properly. At times, when stuck in an airport, say, I might find myself watching a football match between two teams I barely know. If one is playing in black and white (Germany’s colours), I can amuse myself momentarily by pretending that Germany is playing, provoking a make-believe interest in the game. But sustaining this imaginative project is difficult and, in any case, never arouses the same passions that really watching Germany play affords; it’s just a different kind of activity. The possibility of this kind of make-believe game cannot confirm the make-believe account, since it’s the kind one could play with any event or object; in principle, anything can serve as a prop that combined with a principle of generation generates fictional truths. But if I’m merely imagining that the game is more important than it is, in something like the way I might imagine that one team must win to avert nuclear disaster, in what sense is this different from what I sometimes do when stuck in the airport?

Fifth, it is important in sport that players really try, which is unlike theatre or film, say. Where players feign effort, or play toward a prearranged outcome, spectator interest disappears or changes entirely. This may be why ‘sports’ whose outcomes are known to be predetermined must be heavily supplemented with other forms of entertainment to make them watchable. In pro wrestling, for instance, elaborate soap stories hold the various ‘fights’ together. The Harlem Globetrotters must incorporate freakish feats of skill, pranks, and non-regulation props such as trampolines to sustain interest. This supplementation is needed in the same way that a broader narrative is needed to sustain interest in more traditional fictional sporting encounters, such as the Rocky films.

I put it that the make-believe account faces a number of difficulties it has to overcome. If a more conservative theory is available that would also explain other kinds of incongruous caring, we should prefer it. So what does explain our incongruous attitudes to sport? This post is running a little long, and my alternative to the make-believe theory is a little elaborate, so I’ll keep it brief.

Basically it boils down to this: our motivational attitudes are subject to a certain amount of volatility. They can become amplified and diminished in certain kinds of contexts, like when watching sport, allowing us sometimes to get ‘carried away’. Additionally, because of the way the outcomes of sports are detached from most of our other practical interests, it is relatively easy to step back from them and see them as trivial. However, this is no different, I argue, to the way we might step back from any goal, event, or activity and adopt a ‘philosophical’ or ‘detached’ view. So in the end, whether or not it ought to be, our interest in the outcome of the World Cup is very much real.

This blogpost roughly summarizes the main points in ‘Sport, Make-believe, and Volatile Attitudes’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 5(3) (2017), pp. 275-288, where you can see these arguments in fuller detail, including my positive proposal. Those without access to the article can email me for a copy:



Are More Important Goals Better Goals?

In the 64th minute of yesterday’s Champions League final, Gareth Bale scored an outrageous bicycle kick to give eventual winners Real Madrid the lead over Liverpool. Here it is.

During the BBC’s Radio 5 Live coverage (at 1:25:33), commentators Mark Lawrenson and Chris Waddle debated whether it was a greater goal than Cristiano Ronaldo’s very similar effort in a quarter final of the same competition. Here’s that goal.

Lawrenson suggested that Bale’s goal was superior on the grounds that it was scored on a more important occasion—to take the lead in the final of the world’s most prestigious club tournament. Waddle disagreed, suggesting that the occasion was irrelevant: goals should be assessed, as it were, on their own intrinsic merits.

One can feel the tug of both intuitions. With Lawrenson, if I score a spectacular goal to win the World Cup final, this seems a better goal than an otherwise identical one scored during a friendly kickabout. Yet, with Waddle, if the goals are move-for-move and atom-for-atom identical, then it also seems strange to think one is better, since they are identical.

One could just call the question ambiguous. Lawrenson, one might claim, understands ‘better’ in the question ‘which goal is better?’ as including the occasion as a consideration. Waddle understands ‘better’ as excluding the occasion. If so, perhaps they’re not disagreeing, but just using the word ‘better’ differently and talking past each other.

But regardless whether this ambiguity is true of Lawrenson and Waddle’s dispute, we might still wonder which way to understand the term ‘better’ in this context is (no pun intended) better. After all, we might want to just figure out whether Bale’s goal is better than Ronaldo’s without the answer to that question following uninterestingly from what we’ve stipulated ‘better’ to mean in the question. I could, for instance, stipulate that ‘better’ means ‘scored by Nils Stear’ in which case all of my goals are ‘better’ than Ronaldo’s and Bale’s, but this is unhelpful and uninteresting.

Treating the question as serious and unambiguous, it is similar to a longstanding problem in aesthetics concerning the relevance of an artwork’s ethical properties to its aesthetic ones. Instead of asking whether an important occasion can make a goal better, aestheticians have been asking whether an artwork’s being moral (or immoral) can make it aesthetically better (or worse).

There is a difficult version of this question and an easy one. The difficult version asks whether an artwork’s immorality, say, can ever itself be an aesthetic property like gracefulness, garishness, or unity. The question is difficult because answering it requires determining which are and aren’t the aesthetic properties and identifying some satisfactory theory to make these metaphysical determinations. For similar reasons, if we were to ask whether the occasion on which someone scores a goal is as such among the good-goal-making considerations, this might be difficult.

The easy version of the question, however, simply asks whether an artwork’s immorality can make it aesthetically better or worse, regardless of whether the immorality is itself aesthetic. Why is this easier? Well, because now we don’t have to make any difficult determinations about the metaphysics of aesthetic and ethical values; we just have to figure out whether it’s ever the case that being immoral brings about aesthetic changes in an artwork. And it’s clear that it does. This is because just about any property of an artwork can affect its aesthetic properties (think about how altering a single note or colour can transform the mood of a song or painting).

For an unethical case, consider the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. One thing multiple writers agree upon is that the film’s aesthetic and ethical threads are tightly woven together. It’s not a just a film that celebrates fascism; it’s a film that celebrates fascism through its fascist aesthetic style—what Daniel Jacobson, echoing Susan Sontag, calls the ‘unity of the film’s political and aesthetic ideals’. Given this fact, if one were to remove the film’s immorality by purging its Nazism, one would be left with a morally superior, but arguably aesthetically inferior, film. At minimum, the altered version would be aesthetically different because less unified since, as Berys Gaut puts it, the film ‘is held together thematically by its offensive celebration of Nazism’.

We can apply this same idea to Bale’s goal. We might be unsure whether the occasion on which someone scores is as such a good-goal-making consideration. Yet we know that an important occasion makes performing well more difficult. Just as the immorality of Triumph of the Will affects the work’s unity, then, the fact that Bale scored his goal in the Champions League final affects the goal’s difficulty. And if anything is a good-goal-making consideration, it’s difficulty—the trickier the better.

Which goal is better then, Bale’s or Ronaldo’s? Well, though they’re similar, they’re not identical. Bale’s goal seems to me better on occasion-independent grounds. He strikes the ball more crisply than Ronaldo. And whereas Ronaldo sends a moderately paced ball into the opposite side of the goal, Bale pings a gracefully curved ball over the keeper and into the top corner. But putting those differences aside, our discussion shows that, all else equal, Bale’s is the superior goal for the occasion on which he scored it. And this is because of the difficulty this posed, whether or not the occasion matters as such.


Guest Post: Imaginative Resistance and the Woody Allen Problem – Kathleen Stock

This post was originally posted at the Thinking About Fiction blog, here.

I have a problem. I love mid-period Woody Allen films. In no particular order, I love: the jokes, the affection, the humanity, the characterisation, the depiction of family life, the locations, the performances, the references to other films, books and poetry, the clothes, the music, the titles.. and most of all I love the character of the neurotic narcissist and unashamed enthusiast that Allen plays in all of them. Yet, given the well-publicised accusations about Allen and paedophilia, it’s becoming less and less acceptable to say this in polite society (by which I mean impolite society; by which I mean Twitter, obviously). I’m not alone in my problem: if you have formerly loved Louis C.K., you’re very probably now also in the club, for different reasons.

A stubborn part of me refuses to give up my love for Allen films. Isn’t it traditional for great artists and thinkers to be arseholes? Another of my great loves, Evelyn Waugh, was a bigoted, reactionary snob. And didn’t Gauguin infect half the teenage population of Tahiti with syphilis? Didn’t Schopenhauer push his landlady down the stairs? Haven’t we all had a bad day? The prospect of a glorious future where, on pain of social death, we have to make our cultural enthusiasms match up with our morals (by which I mean, what Twitter tells us to feel) fills me with horror. Next thing you know, we’ll all be reading Rupi Kaur poems to each other and listening to Joanna Newsom whilst eating vegan food and knitting. I dunno about you, but that’s my idea of Guantanamo, right there.  (For that reason, I completely relish this interview with radical feminist Julie Bindel about her love of Snoop Dogg).

Being a philosopher, however, I don’t just have stubbornness on my side; I have reason. In other words, having thought about it, I think there is a way I can continue to unashamedly and justifiably like most Woody Allen films whilst acknowledging that the man may well be a total pervert.

The solution to the problem is, to my mind, connected to an issue that philosophers of fiction often discuss: “the puzzle of imaginative resistance”. This is the question of why, in response to certain fictional passages, readers tend to report “resistance” or “blockage” in imagining what they are asked to. Most obvious cases involve fictional passages which ask readers to imagine that certain moral evaluations obtain: for instance, in the example of Kendall Walton “In killing her baby, Giselda did the right thing; after all it was a girl”. But you can get arguably non-moral cases too: for instance “Ian patiently explained to Claire that there was no such thing as global warning”; or even “Jonathan wears pink trousers. He’s gay”. Assuming that the former is presented in a fiction non-ironically and with the implicit support of the author, and that the latter implies a generalised causal relation between the two sentences, then many readers will report resistance in encountering each of these.

On the face of it, there’s something strange about imaginative resistance: after all, if we can imagine that people are wizards, do magic, fly, shape-shift, and time-travel, why can’t we imagine that infanticide on the grounds of gender is right? Loads of different explanations have been offered. I don’t need to tell you about those, though; only about the right one. On this explanation, we resist certain fictional passages when we are led to think, via accompanying pragmatic markers in the text or their assumed presence, that those passages are asking us to engage in a specific kind of imagining (or if you’d rather: imagining with a particular function). This is counterfactual imagining. Counterfactual imagining is imagining in the service of believing what would or could or might be the case, were some given imagined scenario also the case. As such, counterfactual imagining is directed towards the having of certain beliefs. Some fictions are intentionally directed towards this sort of imagining, and moreover they intentionally steer us towards certain counterfactual conclusions, intended by the author to be believed by readers. We tend to read Walton’s example as steering us towards the belief that, generally, were someone such as Giselda to exist, and who killed her baby because it was a girl, this would be the right thing for her to do. We tend to read my last example as steering readers towards the belief that generally, if someone wears pink trousers, that means they are gay. It is when the examples are pragmatically read this way, as being accompanied by these intentions on the part of an author (admittedly, not the real author in either of these invented examples), that readers tend to resist imagining them. If you can’t believe  (because you haven’t been presented with any good evidence to think) that infanticide on the grounds of gender is right, or that wearing a certain colour of trouser makes you gay, you will experience resistance in relation to these passages.

However, had these passages been placed in a different wider fictional context, where the intention that readers counterfactually imagine not been detectable or ascribable to an author, then, on my view, resistance would not have occurred. If it is clear from surrounding context that the character Giselda lives in a fantastic world where the moral norms are different to ours, so that there is no implication about what readers should believe about their own situation, then resistance falls away. If it’s clear from context that Jonathan lives in a repressive society unlike ours, where gay people are forced to wear pink trousers, here too resistance will be absent. And so on.

What’s this got to do with Allen? Well, arguably (with the possible exception of Manhattan, which I avoid discussing for the sake of not ruining my argument), there is no serious implication in any of his films, intended to be believed by the viewer, that paedophilia is acceptable or in any way permissible. There is nothing about paedophilia whatsoever, in fact. Hence there is no genuine possibility of interpreting those films as inviting, via imagining, some endorsement of a counterfactual about it. Of course, the films might well indirectly endorse some other conclusions, intended to be believed, which the viewer might vigorously reject (about the desirability of a certain liberal, middle-class, white perspective, for instance. Just don’t tell me about it because I’m not listening right now, I’m reading e.e. cummings and listening to Bach).

Incidentally, the situation might not be as clear cut with Louis C.K., whose comedy material arguably can now retrospectively be seen as some kind of  a positive defence of his tendency to masturbate in front of people who “admire” him. An additional complicating factor here is that the persona of a stand-up comic tends to be much closer to that of the real person playing him/her, with knock-on effects for our ability to distinguish the statements of one from the other, or assess their epistemic weight. (Yes, I know Woody used to be a stand-up. I KNOW).

If this is right, then what we are left with is an ability to distinguish, in a lot of cases,  the content of the work from the content of the author’s values. As long as those values aren’t being intentionally promoted in the work as things to be believed by readers and viewers, then we can feel less compromised in liking the work. (This leaves out what we say about cases where the values are being unintentionally promoted, which I can’t tackle here).

Of course, there will be people who think we should cast aside certain works simply in virtue of their being produced by morally deviant artists, irrespective of whether that deviance is advocated for or presented as permissible in the works in question. This might be to do with a reluctance to send royalties to these people; or just a fear of contamination by association. The former worry is legitimate, perhaps (piracy, anyone?); but the latter is ill-founded, as long as we can agree that people can be complex, have differing and even contrastive personality characteristics, and that even people with very bad characteristics can sometimes make and produce enjoyable, pleasant, good, true, or otherwise life-enhancing things.

Kathleen Stock is a Reader in the philosophy department at the University of Sussex. Some of her thoughts on the imagination, fiction, and related issues can be found at her blog, Thinking About Imagination.

Saudi Reform and the Assault on Yemen

There’s been a flurry of recent news coverage tentatively hailing a possible new era of a liberally reformed Saudi Arabia. The tentativity is appropriate; puff pieces casting various Saudi Royals as the next great reformers have featured in anglophone press outlets for years (David Ignatius, anyone?).

The coverage includes a segment on the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme, Newsnight. In the introductory segment, presenter Evan Davis remarked that “the vicious war in Yemen might be seen as just one sign that the country is not close to a humane presence in the region”, a “humane presence” being shorthand for the kinds of liberal reforms under discussion. And Davis later posed the following question to one of his guests, Abeer Mishkhas: “Yemen is a blot on the Saudi copy-book of a serious, serious kind. Should we trust the guy who is, kind of, behind that to be the reformer?”

I give credit to Davis’ frank, if brief, description of the moral catastrophe that is the Saudi-coalition’s assault on Yemen. To give only the broadest sense of its severity, their intense bombing, one third of which has struck civilian targets, including an attack on a funeral that killed 140 people; blocking and destruction of civilian infrastructure, including 49 hospitals and schools by 2015 alone; and blocking of fuel to UN humanitarian flights, have left some 17 million Yemenis food insecure, 6.8 million acutely so, and created 2 million internally displaced Yemenis as of March this year; exacerbated a cholera epidemic that has now affected over 820,000 people; and led to around 10,000 deaths by preventing Yemenis from getting necessary medical treatment abroad.

Whether Saudi Arabia’s assault on Yemen is reason to doubt the latest imminent reform PR struck me as a strange line of questioning. The kinds of largely economic reforms the programme considered—”liberat[ing] the economic power of Saudi Arabia”, as another panelist put it—are clearly compatible with the unconscionable attack on Yemen. After all, as is widely known, the US and UK are supplying vast amounts of weaponry with which it is being carried out. Less known, they are also helping in the day to day operations of bombing Yemen. The US had a large staff tasked with assisting the Saudi bombing campaign, including sitting in the command and control centres from which the war is conducted. This was reduced to only five personnel in 2016, not because of accusations of Saudi war crimes, but because Saudi Arabia hadn’t requested more assistance. Similarly, the UK has  deployed military personnel to Saudi control rooms, providing training and assistance to those running bombing raids. The US is refuelling the very planes with which many of the bombing raids are being conducted, ramping this assistance up in 2017 and has contributed some of the bombing directly.  The US is also conducting interrogations at facilities in Yemen run by the United Arab Emirates (also allies in the Saudi-led war) where prisoners are tortured by UAE-directed personnel. To top it all, the UK has followed Saudi Arabia’s lead in impeding attempts to investigate the extent to which war crimes have been committed in Yemen.

Assuming the US and UK embody the kinds of liberal economic and social policies that the Newsnight panellists wish for Saudi Arabia, then evidently, prosecuting the horrendous war in Yemen is no obstacle to Saudi reform at all. After all, we in the US and UK are prosecuting it too. The temptation to think otherwise is, I suggest, rooted in the widely held and historically inaccurate assumption that broadly liberal societies don’t commit atrocities, at home or abroad.

Immigration, Population, and Public Services

In yesterday’s BBC leaders’ debate for the upcoming UK general election, in response to a question about immigration, the UK Independence Party’s (UKIP) leader Paul Nuttall raised the well-known concerns of his party.

Last week it was announced that a city the size of Hull came to this country, net. […] That’s going to be a Birmingham over a five year period. It’s unsustainable. What we need to do is we need to reduce immigration, and we do it by having an Australian points-based system, so if you’ve got the skills that this country needs: yes, please come here and work. But beyond that, beyond that, we have to get the population under control because if we carry on on the road we’re on, we’ll have a population of 80 million by the middle of this century. Now you just think what’ll happen. There’ll have to be a huge school building programme; there’ll have to be new hospitals, new motorways, a new rail network, new houses–we’re already having to build a house every seven minutes just to keep up with the numbers of people coming into this country.

According to Nuttall’s claims, UKIP are concerned about the contribution immigration makes to population growth and the strain this allegedly places on public infrastructure and other resources, and therefore wish to further curb it. Other parties, including the UK’s Conservative party, have made the same arguments.

These parties like to invoke worries about strained public services, as well as gluts in the labour market, as a way of addressing immigration. Doing so helps them avoid the appearance of relying on any xenophobic premise. Resource concerns provide a rhetorically powerful veneer, for those wishing to shed a xenophobic image, of an ideological neutrality acceptable to many voters uneasy with other forms of anti-immigrant discourse.

Luckily, there seems to be a way to test whether this discourse truly reflects an abandonment of xenophobic premises, or merely provides cover for them. You can do so by comparing the attention given to immigration and any similar phenomenon that would place public resources under comparable strain (granting, for the sake of argument, that immigration places any strain on public services in the first place).

Nuttall is correct that net immigration to the UK per year is equivalent to about the population of Hull—248,000 people in 2016. Interestingly, when you compare domestic, non-immigrant population growth—by subtracting deaths from live births in the UK (for the last year for which I could find UK-wide data, 2008)—you get a similar figure: 214,703. A Portsmouth rather than a Hull. Yet, one does not hear Nuttall or UKIP demanding action on domestic population control. This appears to reveal an inconsistency suggesting something other than a concern for public services underlies the desire to further curb immigration to the UK.

Of course, the cases are different. One question concerns the rights of foreigners to settle in the UK; the other concerns the rights of citizens to reproduce and pass that right onto their offspring. And granting (though I take no position on this issue here), that nation states have a right to grant citizens rights that they deny to foreigners on grounds of sovereignty, it may seem simply obvious why laws prohibiting foreigners’ freedom of settlement are more acceptable than laws restricting citizens’ reproductive rights.

However, this reply is only a temporary fix.  First, granting the legitimacy of distributing rights differently to foreigners and citizens, this differential distribution must obey some ethical constraints, however loose. It might be okay to require foreigners but not citizens to apply for a visa; but it’s not okay, for instance, to permit the torture of foreigners entering the country, while forbidding the torture of citizens. In short, foreigners cannot have all rights afforded to citizens forfeited simply for being foreign. So, for any given case, there is a live question as to whether denying entry to the foreigner in question is acceptable or not given these constraints—i.e. it doesn’t simply follow from national sovereignty that the receiving country can do as it pleases with foreigners.

Second, relatedly, denying the very fundamental freedom to any foreigner to settle where she pleases requires justification—the burden is on whoever wishes to restrict the freedom, not on whoever wishes to exercise it. This justification may be forthcoming on the grounds, for instance, of strained public services. But if so, part of this justification for denying the foreigner her liberty must include the fact that strained public services cannot be avoided in less draconian ways. For instance, to take a fanciful example, if the UK denied settlement to Germans on the grounds that the UK’s data entry systems couldn’t handle the umlauts in German names, then the obvious fix would be to either change the data entry system or ignore the bureaucratic requirement for exact spelling. Denying Germans the liberty to settle in the UK on such grounds would be unjustified. So, any claim that denying freedom of settlement to foreigners is less severe a denial of freedom than denying the freedom of citizens to reproduce, or reproduce as much, requires support, even if it’s easy to come by (the same applies if we consider the choice as between granting settlement to foreigners and granting it to citizens’ unborn children). Again, favouring the citizens’ freedoms over foreigners’ doesn’t simply follow once we grant national sovereignty.

But third, and most crucially, these worries only apply to the severe case of introducing legal prohibitions, whether on settlement of a foreigner, or on the reproductive rights of a citizen. But, of course, acting to control the UK’s domestic population need not take the form of legal prohibitions; it might take the form of informal measures such as more comprehensive reproductive health education, publically funded advocacy for living with no or fewer children, an easier adoption process, expanded access to contraceptives or abortions, or reduced prices for such, etc. Indeed, given the difficulty the UK government has had with its repeated attempts to reduce immigration, even with the severe instruments of legal prohibition at its disposal, I’m far more confident in the potential of informal measures to reduce the ratio of domestic live births to deaths in a way that preserves rights and freedoms than I am in their potential to similarly reduce immigration.

Assuming this is right, the large amount of attention given to immigration as a source of alleged strain on public services, and the total lack of attention given to domestic population control, calls out for explanation. Here’s my preferred explanation: UKIP, the Conservatives, etc. don’t really care about the number of people in the country; they care about the number of foreign people in the country (I submit as further evidence this highly xenophobically framed article on the same topic by former UKIP leader, Nigel Farage). Or, more cynically, they care about neither but recognize on pragmatic grounds that they must appear to care about them.

So, former UK Labour Party leader Ed Miliband may have been right to claim that it’s not prejudiced to be concerned about immigration. But, if I’m right, as long as your concern is framed in terms of population pressures, it probably is prejudiced to be concerned about immigration while remaining unconcerned about domestic rates of reproduction.

Terrorism and Responsibility

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has been accused of blaming the recent terrorist attack in Manchester and attacks like it on the U.K.’s foreign policy. The Telegraph ran the headline ‘Jeremy Corbyn Suggests Britain’s Wars to Blame for Manchester Suicide Bombing’; the normally more sympathetic Independent went with ‘Jeremy Corbyn Blames Terrorist Attacks such as Manchester Bombing on UK Foreign Policy’. Less subtly, Prime Minister, and Conservative Party rival, Theresa May claimed that “Jeremy Corbyn has said that terror attacks in Britain are our own fault“.

To those who listened to or read Corbyn’s speech, these claims will have appeared at best uncharitable, at worst, dishonest. What exactly did Corbyn say on this topic? He said:

Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home.

That assessment in no way reduces the guilt of those who attack our children. Those terrorists will forever be reviled and implacably held to account for their actions.

But an informed understanding of the causes of terrorism is an essential part of an effective response that will protect the security of our people, that fights rather than fuels terrorism.

Protecting this country requires us to be both strong against terrorism and strong against the causes of terrorism. The blame is with the terrorists, but if we are to protect our people we must be honest about what threatens our security.

Those causes certainly cannot be reduced to foreign policy decisions alone. Over the past fifteen years or so, a sub-culture of often suicidal violence has developed amongst a tiny minority of, mainly young, men, falsely drawing authority from Islamic beliefs and often nurtured in a prison system in urgent need of resources and reform. And no rationale based on the actions of any government can remotely excuse, or even adequately explain, outrages like this week’s massacre. But we must be brave enough to admit the war on terror is simply not working. We need a smarter way to reduce the threat from countries that nurture terrorists and generate terrorism.

Corbyn is quite clear: among the causes of terrorism is the U.K.’s foreign policy. However, he is equally eager to stress that this fact “in no way reduces the guilt” of the perpetrators of terrorism and that the “the blame is with the terrorists”, sentiments he repeated when pressed in a BBC interview after the speech (alternative link here).

But if foreign policy decisions cause terrorism, are they not to blame for terrorism? The question is a little tricky because being ‘to blame’ is ambiguous between a causal and a moral reading. Dissecting this ambiguity is the best way to understand Corbyn’s claim. Though he doesn’t put it this way, I think Corbyn’s claim is that U.K. foreign policy is (partly) causally but not morally responsible for an increased risk of terrorism in the U.K.

On the morning of the 19th September, 1985, a massive earthquake struck off the coast of Michoacán, Mexico, killing over 5,000 people in Mexico City. The earthquake was causally responsible for those deaths. But it was obviously not morally responsible for them—earthquakes aren’t capable of moral agency.

Consider another horrible case. Suppose we are having a water fight. Unbeknownst to you, I replace the water in your gun with lethal chemicals. You fire at a friend, killing her unwittingly. You are causally responsible for her death. But, to the extent that your firing the chemicals at her wasn’t the result of negligence, culpable ignorance, or malicious motives, you are clearly not morally responsible for her death.

In much the same way, if U.K foreign policy (relevant aspects of it, anyway) does on the whole raise the probability of terrorist attacks (a claim for which there is considerable evidence; see e.g. here, here, and here), then this fact alone does not mean that the U.K. is morally responsible for such an increased risk, even if it is (partly) causally responsible for it.

It’s worth noting in closing that just because someone’s actions are (partly) causally responsible for an awful outcome, this need not provide sufficient, or indeed any, grounds to refrain from those actions. Someone may be more likely to be mugged in virtue of leaving the house, for instance. We might even list leaving the house as among the mugging’s causes. But given that such a person should not have to alter this perfectly acceptable behaviour to avoid such an horrific outcome, we may deny that such a risk gives the person any reason to not leave the house, except perhaps a merely pragmatic one. Indeed, it may give her a reason to leave the house—as an act of defiance, say (those who have thought about victim blaming in other contexts will see connections here).

Similarly, that a foreign policy causes the harm of increased domestic terrorism may not by itself provide a compelling reason to conduct that foreign policy in a different way. If the foreign policy is just and the response it triggers wholly unreasonable, then the all-things-considered thing to do may, like the person leaving her house, be to continue in the same vein, especially if there are no equally just, risk-decreasing alternatives. So any demand that the U.K. change its foreign policy can’t merely hang on the increased risk of terrorism; it also needs to consider whether that policy is just, and the other kinds of outcomes it causes. Luckily for Corbyn, criticisms addressing these other considerations aren’t hard to come by.