Economies of consensus and information

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Sunday's Market Place

My name is Mike Reddin and I'll be a stall holder on Sunday afternoon .... encouraging shoppers to consider ways in which we should, and could "pay for things" I'll offer a choice of five or such questions to explore - set out as one paragraph stories with room to scribble answers in at the bottom. I'll start with a 'medical dilemma' - designed to find out what value we bring to situations of resource choice where we have little information. For instance ...

"It is a dark and stormy night, you're a doctor, you come across two very ill people - a tiny baby and an 80 year old woman ... you have one pill which has a a one-in-four chance of curing the baby but a one-in-two chance of curing the old woman. Who should have the pill?

I'll then encourage my 'audience' (whether of one or a milling throng) to ask for further pieces of information to assist them in their decision and/or I'll feed them with different items of background information. We'll try to elicit the common ground which people bring to such decision making - or see if we come to common decisions via very different routes. If this attracts interest I'll push the ideas a bit further using the old classic 'Denise's Dilemma' set of ethical questions

..."Denise has control of the points at a railway junction ... an express train is hurtling towards her ... if she switches the train to the left it will kill just one person who is trapped on the line, but if she switches to the right she will kill five people trapped on the line. Which way should she switch.

We compare notes on people's opinions and their rationale. Then we add information; the one person is a very fine conceptual artist, whereas the group of five are all drug addicts.

Next version, we learn that the conceptual artist is a paedophile with sadistic tendencies; the five are all black and had exceptionally difficult childhoods etc etc etc. At what point, and on what grounds, do we moderate our views about which way to switch the points; do we find that we're all in agreement and share a common sense?
I'm a thoughtful local planner, considering recreating a public library (the old one burned down last week); if you were in my shoes, would you build one ... and if so, who should pay for it? What would be your rules for use of the library?
I'm thinking of dramatically increasing the rate of Child Benefit for children under age 5 - what do you think would be the consequences of such an increase? Who should pay for it? How to pay for it? - income taxes on the elderly, lottery funds, a tax on conceptual artists, parking fines? And so on .....

Mike Reddin and many fun things to read at

Welcome to the Market. hope I get the chance to experience your stall. I have one comment, or question, (quite a flakey one as its late) in response to your post. I wonder if it might be possible to represent a collective dilemma that somehow plays to the wider European theme? e.g. What kind of line can be drawn between collective responsibility and competition, a la 'trade blocs' or simply communities. Maybe i'm off the mark. See you at the event--Trevor 23:49, 14 March 2008 (UTC)

Trevor - will certainly seek to be non parochial! How about this 'real life' dilemma ... The distribution of health professionals around the world rarely matches up to health care needs or demands. When England finds itself short of dentists it goes out to find them - currently favouring, Austria, Portugal and the new Eastern European territories (we've already nicked lots of Norwegians etc). Now if these these dentists were surplus to requirements at home there would be little problem ..... but what if the good folk of Austria/Portugal/Poland etc are now dentally denied? Across the Caribbean and across Southern Africa we (the UK) had systematically 'borrowed' their doctors, their nurses; but we're now seeking to restrain ourselves, declaring that we will no longer directly recruit from countries deemed to have needs greater than our own (a fair number). Thus, in a global health economy we are trying to develop 'responsible / self-denying' ordinances which will prohibit us from making our gains at your expense. We won't recruit, we may not even admit you to 'our' training programmes. And this exposes our (UK) rules to those of our competitors .... who may not feel so constrained. I see no way in which such questions could be judged 'off the mark'! They offer further (complex) examples of ways in which we can try - if limited - to develop sensitive allocative rules, internationally. Essential unless you really do think that this ought to be left to 'the market' Mike

I have a feeling that a similar ethical denial, or contradiction of the market, might apply just as well to carbon emissions (actual rather than traded) – more like a politically humbling gesture toward ill-gotten wealth, and to some degree an act of faith in 'competitors'. Maybe that's too game-like.--Trevor 23:31, 15 March 2008 (UTC)

Marsha Bradfield - had replied by email to my original posting ..."Your project sounds like collective/shared thought experiment. Fascinating! I look forward to seeing how the economies of consensus and information intersect. I'm especially interested in the following statement, which seems especially key: At what point, and on what grounds, do we moderate our views about which way to switch the points; do we find that we're all in agreement and share a common sense?" and I'd responded ...

Marsha - many thanks for the response. I confess that I'm mainly struggling with the fear of oblivion! i.e. - Who, on a Sunday afternoon, post lunch, is going to want to come and banter - let alone barter - with such fun ideas? My best hope is that I can be suffuciently engaging to a handful of people for perhaps 5 minutes, to explore this territory and I'll see how their responses compare with the responses I've had - over many years of using this material - from other students at other times. There a five pages in Dawkin's 'The God Delusion' (p222-226) which neatly summarise the theories and the reseach data - mainly the work of Hauser and Singer. You can do the same things with the core Rawlsian idea about social justice. "You have been asked to write the script and cast the parts for a world in which you are going to live for the rest of your mortal days: you will not determine the part into which you will be cast. Rawls' suggests that given such a task we would tend to write a rather 'equal' script, excluding extreme positions - e.g. very rich and very poor roles, unequal treatment by race or gender etc ... since we might find, when the curtain drew back, that we had been cast in the role of 'poor black woman'. We can simply ask people for their tentative scripts. The blood donor / organ donor tudies have similar potential ..... what are the boundaries of your willingness to engage in acts of giving and/or exchange ..... do they necessarily involve altruism and reciprocity? Are they good for one off, rare events or can they be utilised for a long-term basis of social and moral contracts? You can construct a much simpler version of this discussion based on 'buying a round in the pub' - what rules will be willing to tolerate for a one off purchase or an enduring night/week's drinking and how do the teetotallers cope within the alcholics in the group (and vice versa). Anyway, it keeps me awake at nights but who knows how folk will respond on a Sunday afternoon. See you there!

PS - there are two papers on my website Social Policy Papers section on Gifts and Exchanges - one on blood donor policy, the other on the notion of [Service Credits but most of my wirting - on social insurance, taxation, pensions etc is trying to work out 'Who pays for what ... and Who should be paying?'. I hesitate to say ..'Enjoy'

- to which Isobel Bowditch had added ... "Just one thing I was wondering about. Lets take Denise for example. Will we have any information about her? Is she white, black, a conceptual artist, drug addict, paedophile etc etc. How do we take into account (or do we) the demographic of the decision -makers? If she herself was a drug addict would it make her more, or less sympathetic to the 5? In a legal court, an attempt is made to ensure that the accused is 'represented' in the jury to some extent (with the exception that they will be law-abiders!). Just thinking aloud here and it seems the more you think about it the more amazing it is that any consensus can every be reached"

- and I'd replied ... "Yes .... if the audience bites I can happily fill the entire two hours worrying about Denise. In Hauser's study (mentioned now in my note replying to Marsha) the audience can ask to know more about Denise ... can ask whether she's related to the one person on the track ("Oh dear, I forget to mention that though a sadistic paedophile, he is her father") etc etc etc. She also knows that he chairs the admissions committee at Chelsea College." Mike

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