Thursday, 28 April 2011

Democracy ... or: My Quaker View on the Referendum

Here it is, the obligatory post on the rapidly-approaching referendum on electoral systems. On May 5th, the UK goes to the polls to decide whether to keep the current, first-past-the-post system, or adopt the really-minor-adjustment Alternative Vote system. Obvious comments include the fact that, given the spectrum of possible systems to choose, AV is a tiny change; the result of this referendum is likely to affect future potential for further reform (views differ on how); short-term effect on individual political parties will drive voting in many cases; and there's so much to say about the actual maths of the systems, and about the lies, misleading statements, and irrelevant arguments made by both campaigns.

I'm not going to do that. You'll know what I support, certainly, and some of the reasons why, but I don't feel the need to re-hash the arguments from democratic principles. I'm voting Yes, and I'll advise anyone who asks to vote Yes, and I think the argument is fine on democratic principles - I'd even vote Yes if I thought it would help the Conservatives and help no-one else, although I'd hate that outcome, because I feel the representation is better with AV. That isn't the point of this post, though. In this post, I'm explaining why I feel that Quaker values and teachings also point to voting Yes. I don't claim to represent Quaker views in general - there's probably no subject anyone could do that for - this is just my understanding, and an explanation of how my understandings support a Yes vote.

For those reading this who are themselves Quakers, or that know Quaker practices well, this might seem odd on first thought; I hope it doesn't, and doubt it will in most cases, but I recognise the possibility. This is because, within our own organisations, Meetings, and so forth, we don't vote. The explanations as to why are varied, but the general gist of it is that we don't think decisions should be made based on what people want - some would say we're seeking God's will, others would say we're looking for the 'best' or 'most right' decision, rather than the most popular, but the general common point, to me, is that popularity doesn't matter in itself. What matters is getting the right outcome. Now, I could write several long-ish posts on Quaker decision making, especially if I include details of what I think about it and why. That's not what we're going for here.

What is worth clarifying, for those who are confused by our non-voting, is that it is still democratic. It's also worth saying that Quakers, in general, vote in elections. I have no evidence, but I'd certainly guess that Quaker turnout is higher, proportionately, than the population in general. Some of you may be stuck on the idea of Quaker decision making being democratic without voting; maybe I'll write more about that another time, but for now let's just say "voting is neither necessary, nor sufficient, for the practice of democracy", accept that you may disagree, and push the point aside for now.

Quakers, in general, including myself, are very keen on democracy in the public realm; our own decision-making practices would be very hard to apply to a group the size of the population of the UK (without an intermediate layer of representation, at least), even if that whole population were familiar and comfortable with our practices. Thus, no-one is about to suggest that such practices are applicable. Voting is the way to do it, and there is no general objection to the traditional practice of representative democracy - as opposed to direct democracy, where everyone votes on every decision. It works, and is workable in large populations. There are problems, of course, and I don't imagine anyone claims any system is perfect.

Much has been said, by very learned figures, about the abstract characteristics of a perfect system for electing such representatives - it should represent views accurately, for instance, and appoint representatives in proportion to the voters supporting their policies (as represented via political parties), it should allow people to be elected without party affiliation, and it should deliver quick, clear results, and so on. No system has anywhere near all of those characteristics, and if there's a relevance in there to Quaker teachings, it's too deep for me to dredge today. So, on to the Quaker principles that are relevant, and how:
  • Equality. Everyone's voice should be heard, and the same fundamental weight attached to it. Now, there's no realistic way to achieve that when electing representatives. Even full list-based proportional representation doesn't quite manage it. However, AV manages it better than FPTP - simply expressing a clear preference for a party who have no hope of winning in your constituency does not render you voiceless in the decision on who will be MP under AV, while it does so under FPTP. Of course the voice is still heard - the number of votes is reported - but it is not given weight. Under AV, every (non-exhausted) vote that isn't for a given candidate acts to prevent that candidate from winning, even if it is for a candidate trailing in a distant fifth place. If the leading candidate is short of majority by 50, and there are over 100 votes for the last-place party, then those votes are preventing that candidate from winning, under AV - if they had not voted, the majority mark would be over 50 votes lower, and that leading candidate would slide past it. Such votes under FPTP do nothing to affect the result.
  • Truth. This is possibly the oldest of Quaker principles - a favourite quote of early Quakers was, if I recall correctly, "let your Aye be Aye and your Nay be Nay". No-one's claiming that Quakers never lie, but the goal is to be open and honest, especially about things that matter. Consider, then, the implicit question on the FPTP general election ballot paper: "Who do you want to be the next MP?" Okay, so it could be read as "Who do you think should be the next MP" - that's up to individual conscience. The distinction isn't important to my point here. The point is that people often have to choose between answering honestly (choosing their honest first choice) and actually affecting the outcome (as per my point on equality above).
Some readers may notice that I've tied these to two of the four traditional Quaker testimonies. For those who don't know what I'm talking about, I'll cover that in more detail another time. The other two are Peace and Simplicity. Peace is difficult to tie in, but Simplicity is an interesting one. AV is certainly less 'simple' than FPTP, but Simplicity is possibly the most subtle of the testimonies, open to interpretation and debate. I would argue that, in pursuing simplicity, one must always have regard for the purposes of things, and lean towards the simpler solutions - no unnecessary complexity. FPTP is sufficiently poor at fulfilling democratic purpose that additional complexity is warranted.

What about going beyond the testimonies? Is there anything else Quaker teachings can tell us about the pros and cons of different electoral systems? Well, there are several widespread Quaker concerns, often with links to the testimonies, that may be relevant:
  • Social justice
  • Environmental concern and awareness
  • Conflict resolution
I can't say that AV has immediate relevance to any or all of these. Arguments can be made based on the current electoral landscape, certainly, that social justice is served by a change to the voting system ;many view the Conservatives as the major party with least regard to social justice, and they would be the biggest losers under most models of voting under AV. This largely depends on opinion and models, however, and is not (as far as I have seen) an inherent benefit of the Alternative Vote system.

There is a link to the concept of conflict resolution, however. Where a majority of parties don't agree on a preferred outcome, sometimes you can find an outcome which is at least acceptable to all; in an election, that is unlikely, but you will usually find that there's a compromise that most will agree on. Consider 10 friends going out for a meal. 3 would like curry, 2 each would like Italian, Chinese and Thai, and one wants to go to a kebab shop. It may be that all 7 who did not prefer Curry would really rather not have curry, and would end up ordering steak and chips even though they are in a curry house. Now, it might be that all of them would agree on going to somewhere like Wetherspoons, where there's a wide range of styles of food; AV doesn't give that sort of option. However, suppose the kebab fan would choose Thai as a second preference. You now have 3 each for curry and Thai, and 2 each for Italian and Chinese. Under the proposed implementation of AV, you'd pick one of Italian and Chinese randomly, and eliminate it. The two who like Chine both like Thai as a second option; this would leave 5 for Thai, 3 for curry, and 2 for Italian. A clear lead for Thai, but it's still not a majority - you need 6 out of 10 for that, as a majority must be more than 50%. So, the Italian fans are definitely out of luck. Now, if both prefer curry over Thai, we have a dead heat, and the system would select randomly. It's important to note that, with the numbers involved in public elections, ties are very unlikely in that instance. However, suppose one has no preference between Thai and curry; whether the remaining Italian fan prefers Thai or curry, Thai now has a majority of those who express a preference between the remaining options, so Thai wins. If the remaining vote went to Thai, it's 6 for Thai, 3 for curry, out of 9 votes; if they went to curry, it's 6-4 out of 10, and Thai still has a majority. That's a better resolution to the conflict than forcing all to have curry just because the plurality chose it.

In an ideal situation, to resolve a conflict, you'd try to find something most acceptable to all - this has been represented in democratic theory using something called the Condorcet Criterion. This states that the winner must be a candidate who would beat all others in a one-on-one vote. AV doesn't do that, but there aren't many systems that do, and all are more complex. However, AV will not elect a Condorcet loser, a candidate who would lose in a one-to-one vote with each and every other candidate, while it's not even an outlandish possibility under FPTP. That's because of vote splitting, which AV reduces (or, ideally, eliminates); to give a concrete example, consider a vote between Liberal Democrats, Labour, and Conservatives. At least before the current coalition, both Liberal Democrats and Labour are seen as left-wing parties, supporting and promoting at least some left-wing ideals; Conservative are right-wing. The left-wing vote would be split between Labour and the Liberal democrats, leaving the Conservatives only needing to get more votes than one of them. Under AV, one might expect most Liberal Democrat voters to choose Labour as their second preference, and vice-versa, leading to whichever of the two had the most first preferences as a likely winner, in the situation where Conservatives get a plurality, but not a majority, of first-preferences. In such a circumstance, the Conservative candidate would most likely be a Condorcet loser, but would win happily under FPTP, but not under AV. The Condorcet loser is obviously a bad outcome under most ideals of conflict resolution, and thus AV has advantages over FPTP under those ideals.

There's likely lots more that could be said, but I hope I've given a good outline as to how Quaker ideals and teachings point to supporting AV over FPTP. These arguments will mean the most to Quakers, of course, but hopefully others can see the value of the Quaker principles I've discussed, and can see their value as arguments in the referendum debate even when considered on entirely secular grounds.

    Wednesday, 6 April 2011

    Equality, Disability, and Welfare Reform

    One of the four traditional Testimonies of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) is Equality. The basic idea of equality is probably agreed upon by pretty much everyone - no-one is inherently 'less' than anyone else. The fine details are a matter of variable opinion - should opportunity be equal, or outcome? Should everyone be entitled to the same standard of living, or should those who have worked hard and succeeded be rewarded for it? What about those who have worked hard, but not succeeded? Does the reason for their failure matter? I can't speak for all Quakers, but I can speak for myself, as a Quaker.

    First, an element of full disclosure - I am disabled. I receive Disability Living Allowance, and I get 'passported' to various other things because of it, such as increased rates of Working Tax Credits, a higher disregard in Housing Benefit, and minor recognitions of difficulty like a Disabled Person's Railcard. I'm happy to share the nature of my impairments, but that would make this post too long.

    As I started composing this, Latentexistence posted about 'worth', and that may have steered me somewhere other than I might have gone... and I think it's an improvement, so thanks there.

    The Quaker ideal of equality is strongly associated with our belief in "that of God in everyone"; this comes from the Society's Christian roots, which I do not share. My best version of it is "that of the divine in everyone", and it'd take a while to explain my concept of 'the divine', but suffice to say it has nothing to do with any deity, rather an inherent quality that encompasses whatever it means to be 'good'. I believe that everyone has some divinity to them, and this means that everyone should be treated with respect; no-one should be distrusted without good cause; stereotypes shouldn't be bought into, and appearances shouldn't lead to assumptions. You get the idea. I wouldn't claim this means that everyone is equally deserving of any particular quality of life, but I would say that it means that one can't presume that those who have 'succeeded' are more deserving, nor that those who have 'failed' are less so. Who are any of us to judge?

    So, then we come to disability; I include in this chronic ill health where it leads to difficulties in normal life - the gist of the Disability Discrimination Act definition is quite good, to my mind. Disabled people in this country are far more likely to be in poverty. We have lower average family incomes, lower rates of employment, and we suffer from social stigma - not helped by recent media campaigns seemingly supported by the government. Can you judge our 'worth'? Are we worth helping? For me, the presumption has to be that someone presenting prima facie evidence of disability should be taken at their word until there's reason to doubt them. To demonise us as a class, because some pretend or exaggerate, is not on. To drag us through adversarial assessments by people with minimal train, and with the goal of removing benefits with any slight justification, is not on either. To distort the social model of disability as an excuse to remove support isn't on either, but let's not go into that now.

    But I'd like to go beyond the way the state treats us as regards financial support. After all, the government gets frustratingly close to being right with the way they talk about work being good for the disabled (when they're not paraphrasing the Auschwitz sign). Anyone can believe that "that of God in everyone" imbues them with inherent worth, but even those of us who believe that ourselves have trouble applying it to ourselves. The fact that we contribute less to society than we could, if we were well or miraculously cured, makes us doubt our worth. We want to have worth, and we want to feel that worth. So maybe the government could support us in that.

    Some people who qualify for ESA, even in the Support Group (those not expected to do anything work-related or to prepare for a hypothetical return to work), are able to do a lot of good work by fitting it in when they feel up to it. No employer would put up with that, but charities would. However, if a person on ESA (or Jobseekers) does 16 hours of charitable work in a week, they lose their entitlement. So, how about we stop discouraging people in that way?

    Moving on from that, how about we encourage it? Facilitate it? Maybe even do something to recognise it? A modest bonus to benefits wouldn't need to cost too much, and would be a straightforward way of doing that; I'm sure there are other methods, but they'd probably end up costing a similar amount, and would be less effective emotionally. Not only that, but doing charitable work (which we can often do from our own homes at times that suit us) even helps people with an eventual return to work, by offsetting the huge gaps in our CVs.

    So come on, Maria Miller, support us for once. Stop persecuting us, and instead help us feel our worth, and show that worth to the rest of the country.

    What do I mean by 'Godless Faith', anyway?

    Let's try and look at a really fundamental point about what I'm trying to communicate about, and as, in this blog. The phrase is right up there in the title - Godless Faith. I even clarify it in the text 'about me', by saying I'm a non-theist Quaker. I do realise that the meaning of this isn't apparent, and nor is why anyone should care... this rather rambling post might help with the meaning - as for interest, I wouldn't like to say.

    Well, firstly, I don't believe in any god or gods. That's what I mean by both 'Godless' and 'non-theist'. The immediate question that comes to mind is "why don't you say atheist?". The answer is a little subtle and a little weird, but it's partly to do with the loaded meanings that come with that term. Atheists don't believe in any god or gods, and that is the major defining characteristic; in fact, they specifically state that they believe there are no such things, or at least that there's no evidence for them (yeah, some believe it on grounds no more clearly reasoned than most religious people, too). I can get on board with that. However, on the same evidence-based grounds, they generally deny anything 'parapsychic' or 'supernatural' as well - nothing wrong with that, I'm just not so comfortable doing so. Many assert, and I believe them, that they would happily change their opinion in the face of evidence. I'd agree with that as well.

    My difference comes in on the question of what constitutes evidence. When it affects what I believe, but not what I tell others they should believe (which I tend to avoid), then surely subjective evidence counts. It certainly counts for me. The essential summary is that I feel the evidence of my own experience suggests that there are many things beyond the current understanding, or even measurement, of science. I don't think that should satisfy anyone but me, and I expect science will get along there at some point. Most importantly, if there's evidence that contradicts what I think, I'll happily consider it and alter my view. Ultimately, the outlook isn't too different.

    Many people, however, take atheist to mean "there's nothing uncanny/non-physical/whatever", and I don't like avoidable misunderstandings, so I take the alternative non-theist. I don't believe in theistic gods, as the constant interference of such beings would be noticeable. I think deistic gods aren't worth talking about, as they (by definition) wouldn't impact our lives. I think talking about life-after-death is largely pointless, as there's no way to actually gather any evidence, even subjective, about it - until such time as we have people verifiably coming back from the dead and explaining it to us. However, I think there's more to life and existence than obvious physical reality. As to exactly what that is, well, that would take a lot more space...

    So that's the godless/non-theist bit taken care of. If you want to understand Quaker, then stay tuned and you'll pick up a lot of bits and bobs, but you can get more right now by going and reading about it. Lots of sources are available, Google and see what you find. Just take care of American sources - most European Quakers are what would be called 'Liberal Quakers' in North American parlance. Given what I've said above, especially my feelings regarding evidence, it seems an apt question to ask what I mean by faith.

    That's where the conclusions I've tentatively reached come in, and I cover a bit of the details...

    I quickly reached the view, much as the American Founding Fathers' 'self-evident truths', that people are basically equal. That doesn't mean the same, but equal in some horribly-difficult-to-describe way. I'll put effort into that in other posts. I also reached the conclusion that violence is inherently 'wrong' (whatever that means), although it can be the 'least wrong' course in some situations. One of the most difficult things I concluded was that honesty and openness are good things; I concluded this from the basis of the merits of extending knowledge. Ultimately, people can only make choices and understand the choices they make if they know everything they could reasonably know. As with everything else, there are exceptions, but the base should be honesty and openness. My 'faith', and that word isn't ideal, but it suits the attitudes of society, is in those principles.

    Really, they are axioms - there is no way they can ever be proved. Perhaps they can be disproved, and new axioms will be needed, but for now those are my axioms. Where a scientist uses axioms to perform reasoning, they are showing faith in those axioms, because otherwise they could have no expectation of the correctness or applicability of their work. Any time that anyone reasons anything, there are axioms - there must always be a starting point for the reasoning. Axioms are always present, and there's nothing wrong with that; it is simply one of the characteristics of science and rationality to be prepared to adjust the axioms of they are shown to be false. One should also distrust axioms that cannot possibly be shown to be false, but that's a whole other kettle of fish. Read some Popper :)

    Sunday, 3 April 2011

    Finding Quakers

    By way of a lead-in to more diverse aspects of my journey, I'd like to talk about how I first learned about Quakers, and came to consider myself one.

    I actually wasn't consciously aware of having heard of Quaker or the Religious Society of Friends until my first year of university, although I was aware of the cereal brand (which is not a good thing to mention when you meet someone and find out they're a Quaker... maybe I'll explain that at some point). While helping with a particularly bizarre campus protest, some existing friends and myself met another first year that I hadn't been familiar with, and, as people do at university, we all made friends. Quite quickly in the conversations, the young woman mentioned that she was a Quaker - I have absolutely no memory of the context of this, just that it happened. There was some very vague explanation of this, but I think the aspects she chose to explain were mostly chosen for the degree to which they might seem strange to 'normal' people; things like not voting, for instance, though I think she did work in the fact that Christianity is optional and the Bible isn't particularly important. After that, I did understand slightly more when Quakers were mentioned in the media, but I didn't give it terribly much thought for some time - it never seemed to be an apt topic of conversation, although I was curious.

    Fast forward two-and-a-half year, to early in fourth year, and I meet another young woman who was a Quaker. I had had some conversations with her in the context of some student societies we were both involved in, but religion had never come up. I should explain that I have always been curious about religions and love to learn about them, and had done various things towards that over the intervening years. At the Writers' Guild Christmas meal, I was sat across from the woman in question, when conversation turned to religion (I assume - my memory of it isn't hugely clear), and she mentioned that she was a Quaker. I expressed interest, and over the conversation and a few others we talked about it more. By the end of the year, I was going out with her, and then learned a lot more, going to my first Quaker event that summer - a Summer Gathering/Work Camp at the Young Friends Centre at Pardshaw, near Cockermouth (the latter being in the Lake District), and learned some more there. I still considered myself just curious, although I had realised that my own personal beliefs were compatible with Quaker teachings.

    A month or two later, I went with my girlfriend to a wedding of an old school-friend of hers -- a Quaker wedding. I talked to various old friends of hers there, including one who was interested in the fact that I wasn't a Quaker, but was curious. On explaining my own personal views, she pronounced that I was a Quaker, I just didn't know it yet. Perhaps she was right.

    From then on it's quite run-of-the-mill - I went to Young Friends' General Meeting as an Enquirer the following February. I should note that every February, YFGM holds an Enquirer's Gathering alongside the main meeting, the term Enquirer used among Quakers to refer to those who are interested in learning about Quaker teachings, traditions, practices and so on, particularly those who are willing to learn by doing. by later that year, I considered myself a Quaker. For those who know (and care) about these things, I have not yet sought Membership; this was originally because I wasn't confident about remaining in one area, and Membership is held by Area Meeting. Now it's because I don't have time to be involved in local matters as well as national Young Friends stuff, and as Membership is held by Area Meetings, it's meant to imply a willingness to take on some of the work of the Meeting.

    Oh, and the Quaker I talked to at the Christmas meal, and then started dating? I'm still with her, and we intend to marry when we get around to it.