Author Archives: thebigqs

What’s the most difficult decision that we all have to take?

Philosophy could very well be the oldest subject known to mankind. It is in our nature to question, and seek understanding. Socrates summed this up well when he said “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Given this inclination to philosophize, philosophy itself is a broad subject. Today, we often divide the subject between practical and theoretical philosophy, and the former, practical philosophy, seems to be growing in popularity lately. But what’s it all about?

Practical philosophy can be sub-divided into hundreds of different fields, including ethics, decision theories, legal philosophy, theology, aesthetics, feminist philosophy, value theories, reflective practice and philosophical counselling. It seeks to answer questions such as:

  • What is the nature of wisdom?
  • Who am I?
  • What is our state of awareness?
  • How can I be more mindful (present / on the ball)?
  • What does it mean to live justly?
  • How should I best use my energy and time?
  • How can reason enrich my life?
  • What is beauty?
  • How can understanding, and cohesion, be found amongst the diversity of life?
  • How can I find truth?

What’s significant about all these questions is that they are tools. Unlike theoretical philosophy, the focus is less on the learning itself, and more on how we can make use of philosophy in our day to day lives. decisionIn other words, how should philosophy inform and affect our decisions? Whether you treat decision making as computation, intuition, calculation, coherence, reasoned analysis, philosophy has a great deal to say about what decisions we should take. However, all too often there is an assumption made in these philosophies that the tough decisions are already known. Papers frequently begin with assumptions about the most difficult questions, like “whether you decide to get married, have children, get a job, go to university” blah blah blah. Are these the biggest, and most difficult decisions that we all have to make?

It is my opinion that the most difficult, and encompassing decision that we all have to make is one of how to achieve balance. The ancient Greeks understood that we all needed to strive towards a harmonious, balanced life. They had several words that sought to describe such a state: sophrosyne, isoropia, and others too. Today we often forget the need for such a balance, instead believing that we need to specialise as much as possible in order to “make our mark”. But nevertheless we do all strive for balance. balanceTake the marriage example for instance. Should a hypothetical person have been proposed to at the age of 18, he/she would be naturally inclined to wonder if marriage would stop him/her from pursuing things in other areas of his/her life e.g. a desire to travel the world, or to socialise every night while young. Deciding upon what the most desirable balance should be, is constantly at the back of everyone’s mind when taking decisions, and right from when we are young to when we are old.

Do you agree? What do you think is the most difficult decision that everyone has to make?

The Tax Debate

Taxes are one of the hottest topics in politics today. But where is the debate today, and is it in the right place? To those on the right, inefficiencies are costing us money, and we should adopt a more regressive system of taxes i.e. flat rates. To those on the left, states seem to be in a ‘race to the bottom’ in lowering their Corporate Income Tax rates as a means to attract investment, while at the same time benefits to the poor are being slashed; in other words the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer. Indeed, if you google the phrase ‘tax debate’ you will find:

  1. A debate in the US over whether they should lower their official Corporate Tax Income rate of just under 40%
  2. A debate in the UK about whether it is fair to increase taxes based on the number of bedrooms in your house
  3. A debate in France about the effectiveness/efficiency of the 75% upper limit of tax on income over EUR 1m, combined with govt spending of 56% of GDP

Each of these debates is a pretty traditional debate, based on the values laden division between right and left, and what they teach you in a university about tax policy making. For instance in the UK the left say that the ‘bedroom tax’ is unfair because it targets the poor, and of the 660,000 people affected only a minority are able to move to smaller accomodation. Whereas the right say that this is efficient, because in de facto terms this removes a ‘spare room subsidy’, which ultimately saves the tax payer around GBP 500m.

Tax JusticeBut to what extent are these debates really in touch with public concerns? They attract interest of course. Yet to the vast majority of people reading newspapers, it is neither fair, nor efficient that firms with greater market power have a lot more room for manouver in negotiating their rates. To think that one of the largest, most widespread protests in human history was the international Occupy Movement, and that this movement is still going on today, it seems odd that the debates today are national. Indeed where the debates are international it is simply in comparitive terms. Right wing tax reformers in the US for instance, like to highlight the fact that the average Corporate Tax Income Rate in the OECD is only 25%, compared to their 40%. But is this the debate that moves public interest? In practice, the 40% rarely applies. And it is not just in tax journals and legal documents that this is realised. The public is well aware.

Dan Lynch et al (Product Market Power and Tax Avoidance: Market Leaders, Mimicking Strategies, and Stock Returns, 2013) found that between 1993 and 2010 there was a positive correlation between product market power and tax avoidance. Furthermore, they found that the effects trickle down to smaller companies, and even to the individual shareholder. Less influential companies seek to emulate the practices of the market leaders. And investors gain a greater return from firms that engage in more aggressive cash tax avoidance. The entire system seems set up to encourage more than discourage, tax avoidance. In fact I spoke with an investment adviser earlier this year. He said to me “some people only want ethical investments in their portfolio, and that’s ok; but it really does hold us back”. He was encouraging us to give him complete autonomy over our investment decisions, and quite explicitly admitting that if we did so then he would have been investing in areas that might be deemed less than ethical…

It seems odd therefore, that in the media and in political literature the stress is on the average rates applied at the national level, together with the right-left debate over efficiency versus fairness; whereas in business, law, and popular culture, the stress is instead on the exceptions, and the application of law. Why for instance, don’t we hear more about the fact that OECD recently released a progress report on tax transparency? In this report, not only countries such as Luxembourg, the Seychelles and the British Virgin Islands, but also countries such as the UK and US were found not to be fully compliant with the OECD’s tax transparency rules. Why don’t we hear more about the US Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) or the OECD’s Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) initiative? Why don’t we hear more about the growing popularity of the Financial Transaction Taxes? And what about the Double Tax Conventions? Or the conflicts between different tax laws e.g. EU law on the one hand, and Double Tax Conventions on the other? There really are so many issues that are current, and huge in significance. And yet the major political debates still rage over the classical right-left dispute.

What do you think today’s major tax debate(s) should be? And why?

Does evil come from within, or without?

Adam Smith’s philosophy taught that those who always blame others, and are never able to accept moral responsibility, are morally deficient. In other words morality for Smith comes from an internal moral compass. To some extent the truth of this can be seen in primates. Although primates have no human moral conditioning, they do develop a sense of fairness, of right and wrong, of reward, and even of reciprocity. If morality (along with the concepts of right and wrong) was solely the product of nurture as opposed to nature i.e. if it came from culture and society, then how would it also exist outside of human culture and society?

Yet what Smith was saying wasn’t far from what had been taught in his Western Christian society for hundreds of years:

“For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.”

St. Mark 7:21-23

good and evilMedieval Christendom was built not primarily on the philosophies of Jesus, but more on those of Augustine. And it was Augustine from whom we get the concepts: of original sin as inherited guilt, of hell as endless punishment, of divine grace as the necessary remedy for original sin, of the moral necessity of human free will, and of individual election to salvation by eternal predestination (some would say the latter is a contradiction of course; Calvin argued that if God had pre-destined eternity then so too must He have determined who receives eternal damnation and who receives eternal salvation). In other words Adam Smith’s teachings on morality are built onto the Augustinian premise that evil comes from within.

This thought was a huge one in the history of thought. It was one of the primary drivers behind the development of Western philosophy in the last thousand years. The question of whether or not human nature is evil started off the works of Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke. Kant wrote that evil lies in “the wickedness of human nature or of the human heart”. And even modern day philosophers still base their work on the same assumptions. Maria Pia Lara for instance (author of Narrating Evil), who is dubbed a post-metaphysical theorist, agrees whole-heartedly with Kant’s above quote.

Yet what is evil? And would you say that Smith is still right today? If we go back to Socrates, he taught that no one acts with evil intentions. Aristotle took this further to suggest that in fact moral virtue was a guiding force for a great deal of human action. Therefore to Aristotle, ignorance was the guiding force behind evil. There was an extent to which Augustine’s thought was based on Aristotle’s however. Indeed I would perhaps go further and say that if Medieval Christendom was built on Augustinian thought, then Augustinian thought must have been built on Aristotelian thought; for Aristotle’s teachings are one of the pillars of Christendom. Aristotle assumed that evil people are driven by desires for domination and luxury, and although they are single-minded in their pursuit of these goals, they are also deeply divided. Their greed leaves them always dissatisfied, and ultimately Aristotle reasoned that the person who performed the evil deed would in time come to regret it, because it never fulfils their goals.

Thus where for Augustine and Smith, morality is internal, for Aristotle the morality of deed and person were in fact, to some extent, divorced from one another. And many philosophers have gone further than this. For example many Sophists argued that social custom was the chief source of moral values. And Protagoras, known as a moral sceptic, argued that: there is no universal moral truth; our individual moral views are equally true; the practical benefit of our moral values is more important than their truth; and that the practical benefit of moral values is a function of social custom rather than nature.

Adam SmithGoing back to the times of Smith, Thomas Reid criticised David Hume’s argument that:

“Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

Both Hume and Smith argued that because emotions drive us, and develop the preferences and goals for our reason, then morality must be said to come from within. But whereas with Hume the central component of moral judgement/assessment involves the feelings of the moral spectator, for Reid true moral assessment is a rational judgment; our emotional reaction is almost like an afterthought.

What do you think? If evil exists, then does it come from within, or without?

To what extent is innovation collective?

Let’s not re-create the wheel they say, as if the wheel were one individual innovation, thought by a single great thinker from our ancestry: the genius cave man!

Genius cavemanMost of human history in fact seems to have been analysed this way (with a focus on great individuals) until relatively recently. Take the study of leadership as an example. Its first spot in the limelight as a subject of its own was with the Great Man theories of the 1840s. Subsequently, the subject’s theories have shifted through traits theories, behavioural theories, contingency based theories, charismatic based theories, and now only recently to more collective forms of leadership which, for example, take the followers into account as well.

None of these theories were ‘stupid’, and in fact despite the reduced popularity of the great man theories in the field of leadership, they have permeated a great deal of our culture. Think about the big events that you learnt in school history lessons; there were probably a few significant individuals at the heart of each study. Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Alexander the Great, Nelson Mandela, Julius Caesar; the list goes on and on. Indeed we seem obsessed with individuals across all subjects. Think about English, and Shakespeare probably pops into mind. Music; Beethoven and Mozart. Science; Galileo, Newton and Einstein. Maths; Pythagoras. Etc. It makes sense for us to link significant ideas with their proponents. And so you can see how the Great Man theories of the 1840s became popular. However the growing force of pragmatism is forcing these emphases into the history books as well. For what use is it to memorise a list of great names? Just as in leadership, so too in other studies, we are becoming much less interested in who did what years ago, and much more in how we can do those things ourselves.

However, it may also be that this move is more logical and truthful than simply pragmatic. Einstein, for instance, wrote the general and special laws of relativity. But could he have done this without the help of Max Telmud (a student who introduced him to several difficult topics), his teachers at Zurich university, the authors of those books that he read (and he read a lot), and indeed the entire advancement of science up until that point in history?! I could have extended this list, but hopefully you get the point. To give an other example; shortly into this century a broadsheet newspaper concluded that Marx was the most significant political thinker of all times. Whether or not you agree with this, it would be impossible to deny that a significant amount of what he said, was widely known and talked about when he was writing. Neither did Marx even try to deny it. For instance he started his academic career as a Hegelian, and this is where his concept of alienation came from. When he later wrote more about alienation he said not that he was adding to Hegel’s work, but rather that he was taking it, and “turning it on its head”.

When we come to innovation, many ideas seem to be echoed in nature. And so it is easy to infer that prior to the invention of the wheel someone might have seen a log rolling down a hill. Perhaps this log injured or killed several people, and started a lot of gossip. It’s quite possible that events such as this could have been talked about for generations before one creative individual, or perhaps team of individuals, decided to ‘take’ (not make) this idea, and use it for something else. How else can one realistically suppose that the wheel’s invention came about? Inventors/creators don’t just sit around and invent/create out of nothing. They learn from others all the time, amalgamate different ideas heard in different places, and build upon what other people have said.

invention of the wheelAlthough we don’t know exactly who created the wheel or when, we have in fact made numerous educated guesses. For instance the earliest wheels found come from Sumer, (around 3500BC – this empire was formed along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in the Middle East) the empire which is also credited with the invention of writing. And the process of their invention is believed to have been a six stage progression, from placing rollers beneath heavy objects, to placing sledge like runners beneath them, through various combinations of the two led eventually to what we now call the wheel.

If the Sumerian invention of the wheel is correct, then this invention was indeed a huge one, over a huge period of time. But my contention is that all creativity is collective and social. After all, if you put someone in a room at birth, and kept them alive, but with no form of social interaction; do you really think that that person would ever invent anything new?

To what extent do you agree? Is innovation always collective? Or is it sometimes, or even more than sometimes, individual?

To what extent does thought equate to action?

If you have a stable relationship, and a high libido, you might think that it causes no harm to imagine taking someone home and, ahem, realizing your desires. But is this really true?

ULI_071-300x300Every time you experience a certain feeling the hyper thalamus in your brain is releasing the associated peptides, which react with cell receptors throughout your body, affecting even single celled organisms. Moreover, if you regularly feel certain emotions then when cells duplicate they will create new cells with more receptors for that feeling, and less receptors for the vitamins and minerals that our body actually needs (this is basically what aging is by the way). And if you associate these feelings with certain people, things or events, then regular use of these feelings creates a long term relationship between certain neurons in your brain. What this means is a series of cognitive biases. You come to interpret information in order to support this relationship, and reject that which challenges it. So even if thought and imagination doesn’t harm your partner, it may well have a big impact on you.

Emoto’s theory about the impact of thought on water provides an interesting example. His theory was that human thought physically affects water, in an almost telepathic way. The idea has of course gained a lot of criticism. But it has also gained a lot of support. And Emoto was even able to show photographic proof of music being used to affect the physical shape of water molecules. If Emoto’s theory is indeed correct, and given that we’re made up of between 50-60% water, think what kind of impact thoughts have on who we are, not only in terms of thought, but also in terms of physical change.

Another experiment for you; this time from Stanford. People had their brains scanned when given indulgent food. Those who felt guilty actually weakened their immunity to the effects of said indulgence, whereas those who just enjoyed it saw a positive relationship.

So let’s say you want to imagine something that would if acted, make you feel very guilty. Is it ok to imagine it? Or not?

Is Materialism the main intellectual opponent of religion?

Almost every religion has an anti-materialistic message.

imagesCAXOHYAEIn Christianity: When the rich man came to Jesus asking what he could do to improve his chances of getting into heaven, Jesus told him to give up all his wealth. The rich man walked away, and Jesus told the growing crowd that it was harder for a rich man to get into heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

In Sikhism: When Guru Nanak met Duni Chand, and was invited to his mansion, Duni Chand proudly displayed his wealth to the Guru. But later he told the Guru that he was unhappy, and wished to be the richest man in the city. The Guru replied by giving Duni Chand a needle, and asking him to return it to the Guru in the next life. At first Duni Chand took this seriously, but when he told his wife she laughed. “Are you mad?” she asked. “How can a needle go to the next world?” It was only then that Duni Chand realised the folly of his ways, and rejected materialism.

But if materialism really is the main intellectual opponent of religion, then why is agnosticism and atheism growing in popularity? The picture below shows the proportion of atheists and agnostics around the world today – an image that would have been unthinkable fifty years ago.

Stephen Barr, professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Delaware, argues that quantum science makes believing in God easier, because it provides a strong argument against materialism. Incidentally, if you’re thinking about materialism only as money, this is the definition used by Barr: “an atheistic philosophy that says that all of reality is reducible to matter and its interactions.” As I’ve argued in previous posts, quantum mechanics makes a strong counter-argument. In fact the quantum sciences accord much more strongly with the Aristotelian view of reality than modern materialism, since they recognise the importance of potential as opposed to the more materialistic view of things which are already determined. So where a materialist would say that if you had complete knowledge of the universe then you would know exactly what was going to happen and when, a quantum mechanic would say that such knowledge would only afford you foresight into what the probabilities were. Furthermore, the mathematics which describes all physical processes (the Schrodinger equation) does not accurately describe the fluctuations in probability that actually occur in reality. And on top of that, knowledge of events themselves can actually change what occurs (watch ‘What the Bleep do we know?’ if you doubt me:

Barr questions whether if the human mind can transcend matter and its laws, a more powerful mind might not exist, which transcends the physical universe altogether. In other words he pits materialism against God, as His main intellectual rival, and infers that God might be fighting back with quantum science. But after all, religion has grown during a very materialistic phase in our history. So is materialism really the main intellectual rival of religion? Will growing knowledge about quantum science see people returning to religion once more?

Should we boycott zoos?

Have you visited a zoo recently? Did you spare a thought about all those animals kept in enclosures smaller, or simply different, than their natural habitats? There are clear signs of boredom that you can see in squirrels, horses, elephants, and many other animals too. And on top of that there are hundreds of zoos in many countries, each with the primary aim of maximizing the number of entrance fees paid. On top of the ‘efficiently’ sized enclosures this also means pulling in many animals that experts deem completely unsuitable for captivity e.g. Polar bears.

Now most zoos shift focus from the Victorian emphasis on entertainment to the modern emphases on species conservation and entertainment. But not everyone agrees that this excuses their loss of liberty. Take wolves for example. There are several breeds that we have deliberately driven to extinction, and keep alive in zoos with no intention of re-introducing them to the wild. What difference exists between this, and an inter-species war with the winning side keeping the opposing survivors alive in cages for their amusement?

What are your views on the ethics of zoos? Do they teach empathy and conservation as claimed by zoos? Or do they abuse the rights of animals, and enforce an unfounded presumption about humanity’s superiority?

Now I’m not opposed to zoos. But just as food for thought we visited a zoo recently in Kent. We passed an enclosure housing the red squirrel, an animal native to the UK. It was pacing back and forth in front of the bars, seemingly in distress. My wife said “I feel sorry for it. He’s obviously bored.” but a child from the group behind us said “look mummy it’s dancing for us.” Both reactions seem natural. But one shows empathy. The other presumes that animals are there solely to entertain. What are zoos for in your opinion? Are they ethical? Can we justify going? Or should we boycott them?

The End of our Arrogance?

What did it mean to be human before Copernicus? We lived at the centre of the universe, ruled over other species and were made in God’s own image.

What does it mean to be human today, after Copernicus, Darwin, Freud and Derrida? We’re no longer the centre of the universe, or even our own solar system. We’re no longer a unique species created in God’s image. We’re no longer even the master of our own house, since there are many influences on our actions besides what our conscious thoughts dictate. And we no longer believe in the teleological end of man (they believed human history shows that we progress in stages towards our ultimate goal) in the way that thinkers like Marx and Hegel did.

So what does this all mean about us today? Are we now a humble species? Or are we simply confused and floundering for some new way to prove our superiority?

Is there a difference between Management and Leadership?

The concept of leadership has been analyzed as a concept distinct from management for centuries. Indeed a great deal of the debate dates back to Weber (and even a hundred years before too), who’s well known for distinguishing between transactional (bureaucratic), transformative (charismatic) and feudal (traditional) models of leadership. And the philosophical debate has been continued in today’s era by the likes of Burns and Bass. Bass said
“Leaders manage and managers lead, but the two activities are not synonymous. Management functions can potentially provide leadership; leadership activities can contribute to managing. Nevertheless, some managers do not lead, and some leaders do not manage”.

Far from being distinct, the above quote seems to reflect the consensus view. Leadership is commonly thought of as relating to inspiration, charisma and particularly crisis situations where direction, and “grabbing the bull by the horns” are important. Management however, is often thought of as being more operational, administrative, reactive and sometimes technical. One results in change, the other results in maintenance.

But what’s the truth? And is there any merit in the separation of these two concepts? Professor Tony de Luca of Sacred Heart University believes that not only is the debate without merit, but it also proves very little in the way of a real difference. For example a leader who isn’t a manager would make nice speeches but never deliver on anything. They would be ” all smoke and no sizzle” i.e. no beef. So in reality there’s no point in separating the two concepts because either job needs both skill sets.

What are your thoughts?

The Entropy of Power & Human Relations

During the Second World War the Imperial Japanese believed that it was natural for them to conquer other surrounding countries, since the highest concentration of power was in Japan. Thus via a kind of osmosis in human relations this power naturally spreads out, or so the theory goes. Ian Kershaw explains Japan’s reasoning in a fantastically simple way in ‘Fateful Choices’. But Huntington’s clash of civilizations is based on exactly the same premise: that when power is consolidated in one single area it is inevitable that it seeks to exercise that power on/in the surrounding areas. And this has a vast following today (the ‘War on Terror’ follows this logic, even though it claims it doesn’t). Darwinian logic also says similar things, particularly social Darwinism. And furthermore if you trace human thought back long enough you can even find these ideas in the works of early thinkers like Thucydides.

But why entropy i hear you say? The reason why entropy is included in the title is that entropy basically involves the transition from order to disorder. What is consolidated at point one gradually spreads out into the surrounding dis-entropy. And this is very close to the above argument. Yet you very rarely get scientific explanations of human relations. Why not? Do human relations mimic science or not?

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