Police discretion, law, and social norms

My girlfriend recently told me about an interesting difference between English and German. German has two words for ‘the same’ that differentiates between ‘the same category’ and ‘the same thing’. In English, the particular kind of ‘same’ being indicated can only be understood in context. For example, if I were to say ‘Doug and I own the same dog’ it is textually unclear whether we own the same type of dog, or whether we own a dog together. However, context will usually clarify the meaning. In the previous example, my relationship to Doug will usually indicate which is meant: if we are housemates or partners than I probably mean that we own a dog together, but if we’re just friends than I probably mean that we own the same type of dog. German speakers, interestingly, have essentially the opposite problem: the word is textually clear, but can be contextually confusing because people often use the wrong form. In other words, in English clarity depends on people’s ability to pick up on contextual clues, while in German clarity requires a mastery of the rules of the language.

I think that this provides an interesting anecdote to help explain another idea that I have been working on recently, namely, that making rules more specific often does not necessarily make them clearer. This is especially important at the convergence point between law, the police, and citizens. I want to propose roughly the following: first, societal practice is an interface of law and custom, and second, making laws more specific cannot overpower culture.

First point: societal practice is a synthesis of law and culture. Basically what I am proposing is that law cannot be so specific as to eliminate ambiguity. That is not to say that law is meaningless. Look again to the above example: in English ‘the same’ is ambiguous, but within very specific parameters. Laws outline the space to be interpreted. The remaining work to transition law to practice is achieved through contextual cultural understanding (e.g. if a law said ‘a couple must live in the same house to receive housing benefits’, context clarifies the ‘same’ that is being used).

There are other factors beyond the linguistic at play. For example, the police have limited resources, and they must make decisions as to how resources should be allocated. Theoretically resource allocation could be built into law, but in practice this would probably be unfeasible.

A final note on this point: society is comprised of many cultures (and even within a single ‘culture’ there can be significant disagreement over norms and meaning). The values and interpretations of the police are not universal. In the UK, most officers are white men, and this will inevitably have an impact on the way in which law is culturally interpreted. This has led some to argue for decreasing police discretion (e.g. police in the USA should be more heavily regulated in order to prevent them from disproportionately harming blacks and other minorities). This leads into my next point.

Second point: it is difficult for law to eliminate cultural features of police decision making. I could provide many reasons, but the one I want to focus on is the issue of complexity. As many philosophers have proven, precision does not necessarily improve comprehension. Indeed, the more precise language becomes, the more difficult it becomes to understand. That is not to say that we should not try to be precise. Whether in philosophy or nuclear physics, precision is often a very admirable. What I would say, though, is that precision is exclusionary: it requires study, training, and expertise. Furthermore, most of the activities I have listed are not time urgent. Police officers, however, are not law experts. They have a working knowledge of law, but they are not scholars or researchers. Furthermore, they must often make decisions quickly, and with increasingly low resources. Increasing the specificity of law is therefore very likely to increase both citizen and officer confusion as to what the law actually states. This can potentially have the paradoxical affect of increasing officer reliance on cultural norms, while decreasing agreement among officers on whether officers are acting appropriately (I speak very briefly here of ideas argued for by Pepinsky, read here).

As always, let me know what you think,


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The Problem of Consensus

I’ve recently been reading a lot about wicked problems. The word ‘wicked’ here does not designate immorality but rather complexity, malignancy, and general intractability. I will almost certainly be exploring the topic further in a future post. You can read more about wicked problems here). What I want to talk about today is a feature or aspect or type of wicked problems: the challenge of collaboration. Basically the idea that I have been reading is that for people to work together efficiently they need to have a common understanding of the problem they’re working on and on the goals of the project. Otherwise the different perspectives will clash and struggle against each other, vastly detracting from the efficiency of the project.

It is interesting, I do not recall reading any major philosophical work that has discussed the problem of building consensus or agreement. It makes sense, in a way. First, consensus usually pertains to concrete action, while philosophy usually does not. To philosophers, the conversation itself is usually the end, or an individual is trying to articulate their own particular set of beliefs. Further, the western philosophical tradition usually emphasizes a combative and confrontational approach.

I have been reading a book recently called The Righteous Mind. The premise of the book is basically that our rationality serves our intuitions, not vice versa. That is to say, we tend to believe things intuitively first, and then we create reasons for our beliefs. One idea that the book emphasizes is that we cannot rationally engage with others when angry or upset. When our walls are up, we focus on rationalizing objections and defenses, rather than on actually engaging with the other person.

I wonder whether philosophy is harmed by this. On the one hand, it seems that the psychological state that generates an argument does not define the quality of the argument. Nietzsche is probably right that we can explain philosophies by pointing to environmental and social features in the lives of philosophers, but I think most of us resist the idea that this undermines the ideas themselves. On the other hand, conversation and dialogue is indispensable to philosophy, and I have to say based on my experience that I am defensive in a a great many of my philosophical conversations. Philosophy is an immensely fractured discipline, which is in many ways divided by culture and language as opposed to coherent philosophical disagreement.

I think its interesting to try to push the issue further, though. Should philosophy be aiming for consensus? Consensus, I think it should be noted, is different from compromise. Compromise means meeting in the middle, consensus means coming to a shared understanding. I think there is at least plausibility to the claim that philosophy should spend less time debating and more time consensus building: at the very least we might begin to dissolve some of the barriers that inhibit our current philosophical traditions.

Let me know what you think,


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What is Policing?

This post is long overdue. I started a new internship last month at a think tank called The Police Foundation, and I am still settling into my routine. I have also been struggling to decide what to write about. But I have finally mustered the motivation, and, given that I have been researching it for the past month, I have decided to write to write on the nature of policing. I know that policing is a contentious topic today, especially in the USA, and in this post I will highlight some of the factors that may contribute to the contentious nature of the profession. That being said, I am primarily familiar with policing in a UK context.

I entered into police research from a philosophical criminal justice background, and I have been surprised by the complexity and ambiguity of policing. Currently in the UK the police are facing dramatic challenges, having recently been put on an austerity budget and with changes to the prioritization model through the introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners. In this post I aim to explicate some of policing’s core features, and then provide two competing definitions of policing.

What do the police do? If you are like me when I started at the Police Foundation, the first answer that probably comes to mind is crime fighting. In both the UK and in the USA political dialogue over
the police certainly focuses on the police as crime fighters, and this is certainly the aspect of
policing that we are presented with on television and in literature. 

I was therefore surprised to learn that the police spend the majority of their time dealing with non-criminal matters. This is not just to say that they just spend a lot of time patrolling, or doing paperwork, though those are certainly important factors. More startlingly, the majority of 999 calls are not crime related. Depending on the police force, 999 calls that result in an arrest only make up 20-50% of calls to the police. The rest of the calls have wide ranging content, from proverbial cats in trees, arguments between neighbors, defusing crowds, and numerous other scenarios. My favorite police theorist, Egon Bittner, provided the following description of why people call the police: there is ‘something-that-oughtnot-be-to-happening-and-about-which- someone-had-better-dosomethingnow’. The police are also a 24/7 service, in contrast to some others such as social services. This means that the police are often asked to pick up work from other organizations (e.g. a social worker may ask the police to check in on a family). This is especially notable in the UK because in the past decade the police were granted substantial resources (and it is part of why the new austerity budget is so problematic for the police, because they now are supporting numerous essential services and can’t put any of them down).

The other thing that needs to be noted about the police is their authority to use force. Any attempt to understand policing requires noting their ability to use force. This use of force is, as I understand it, only somewhat under the authority of the justice system. According to the material that I have read, certain acts (primarily detaining suspects) can only be done in compliance with legal regulations. In other words, if the police wish for an individual to be prosecuted in the legal system, they must comply with certain restrictions. This does not limit the police’s use of force per se. The police also cannot use force towards illegal ends. There is more nuance to be teased out, but I think the sketch I present is roughly accurate, and the point I am trying to make is that the police have considerable discretion over the use of force, for good or ill. This discretionary freedom is of great practical importance, but also leaves open substantial space for abuse.

The preceding account of police activity and power has generated two primary competing definitions of policing. The first, and most popular, definition is that the police are crime fighters. Other activities are auxiliary or tangential. The other definition seems to come out of a cluster of academics, and has been articulated in several ways. The definition that has most influenced my thinking is that of Egon Bittner, who proposes that police should be understood as professionals who are experts in applying proportional force when necessary in order to maintain peace and order. This definition places responsibility for crime fighting primarily on the police, but does not make it their only or even primary purpose.

I’ll be writing more on this topic. Let me know what you think!

Thank you,


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What is Philosophy, and why is it valuable?

I recently had a debate with a friend about why philosophy is valuable. More specifically, we were debating the way in which philosophy is valuable to an audience which does not specifically desire to study philosophy in an academic setting. I proposed that the initial value of philosophy is that it teaches us how to think: a bit of philosophy goes a long way in making us more critical of others and ourselves (or at least, that is what I think it should do). My friend felt that this was selling the public quite short, arguing that you don’t need an academic background in philosophy in order to critically engage with problems. In the end, I persuaded her with an analogy to cooking: cooking is important because we all need to eat, almost all of us pick up at least a little skill in the area and some of us can become very skilled, but almost all of us could probably benefit from a little formal training (though, to push the analogy further, many of the skills we will learn will pertain to the contingencies of the profession as it has developed in society). However, I’ve decided I want to explore the question further.

Even after a bachelors and a masters degree primarily focused on philosophy, I still struggle in actually defining what philosophy is. Perhaps my central problem is that my inclination is to be very greedy with my definition: I want to pull all reasoning and discourse into philosophy. But if philosophy is just reasoning1, then why does it need its own profession? Would not all other kinds of activity just become specializations of reasoning, leaving philosophy simply a synonym with rational activity? Further, what does that make a professional philosopher, because they certainly are not experts in everything. There are, however, philosophies of near everything (philosophy of science, history, econ, etc.). I think this point is key for entry into the nature (and value) of philosophy: somehow philosophy is not all rational activity, but philosophy is interested or involved in all rational activity.

My rough notion is this: philosophy is the creation and investigation of structures within which we can rationally operate. Philosophy of other disciplines, such as philosophy of science, investigates the framework within which the discipline operates. It is the difference between defining and doing: a scientist does science, while a philosopher of science seeks to understand what the scientist is doing.

Once other disciplines have been exhausted, what is left over? We are left with specializations such as ethics, metaphysics, epistemology. It seems to me that these are all structural elements of life. In other words, using the same structure as I utilized with science, we ‘do’ life, while philosophers seek to understand what we are doing. This post is meta-philosophy (philosophy of philosophy), because it is a reflection on what philosophers are doing. This account also explains why some rational traditions such as ethics are philosophy at their foundation and throughout (i.e both ethics and meta-ethics belong to philosophy, compared to, say, science, where only philosophy of science belongs to philosophy). Ethics is already a step removed from acting: we all struggle with ‘choice’, ‘freedom’, ‘right and wrong’, and ethics tries to understand this activity.

What does this account mean for the value of philosophy? First, philosophy seems pragmatically useful because it is the step back from doing: it encompasses deliberation about whether a goal is desirable, or a method effective. But it also seems valuable because it is a kind of freedom: through philosophy we, in a sense, transcend life.

Let me know what you think, and thank you for reading.


1. I use the word ‘rational’ here very loosely in an attempt to encompass all thinking activities.

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The Good, the Bad, and Self-Knowledge

There’s a podcast series that I listen to called The Partially Examined Life (link). I highly recommend the series, it is an excellent way to learn about philosophy in an accessible and relaxed format. I recently listened to an episode on Hanna Arendt, and there was one idea the podcast explored that really struck me. According to the episode, Arendt was very critical about aiming to ‘be good’ because there is a way in which someone who aims to be good must hide from themselves, because otherwise the act is not for the sake of goodness but rather for self-edification. Therefore the ‘good’ person must be a mystery to themselves in a perverse and anti-intellectual self-deceptive dance. The above is not Arendt verbatim, I should probably note, but rather my interpretation of the podcasters interpretation. My interpretation really struck a chord with me, however, because I can easily recollect times I’ve thought in the exact way that I’ve described. There are multiple instances I remember where I’ve contemplated doing some kind of good act (giving someone a spontaneous present, saying a kind word, arranging a party for someone), and a contributing factor to me not acting has been my concern that the act is somehow for my own edification. Indeed, I have historically reflected that there may be a spontaneously good character that cannot be cultivated but only unknowingly possessed. And now that I think about it, that thought is horrible. How could I, a believer in the pursuit of knowledge and of the good, fall prey to such an anti-intellectual naturalism? Why would I allow myself to be so turned against myself?

I think it likely that this perverse notion of good as necessitating self-ignorance is unfortunately widespread in western culture, and I’m inclined to trace its origins to Christian morality. Admittedly, this is just an intuition based on superficial observations and the words and reflections of other philosophers and thinkers that I’ve read. Through my philosophical development I believe I have become more intrigued and accepting of the notion that notions of god have a place in our intellectual and moral lives, but I see Christian notions of sin and purity as having had an overall harmful influence on western moral and mental health. For an easy interpretation at hand is to discover ourselves as drenched in sin: our impulses against Christian doctrine are evil, our impulses towards doctrine are prideful, and all that is left is absolution. I do not claim that this is what is preached, just that it seems to me that this is an unfortunate way that Christian morality can play out in practice.

This self-against-self arguably persists in western philosophy even when God is dropped from the picture. One highly influential model or concept of will and personhood comes from Frankfurt’s ‘Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person‘. The essence of Frankfurt’s proposal is that we have desires, and that we also have desires about how we should desire. For example, I may desire to eat a piece of cake, and I may also desire to be fit, and I may have a second order desire that my desire for fitness defeats my desire for cake. From this picture the perversity I have set out to describe should be clear: once again the self is turned against self. And also again emerges a structure where good seems contradictory to self-awareness: for if I am moved by a second order desire to be, I again cannot tell whether I am good, or whether I merely wish to be.

My current intuition, still in development, is that this sinful morality should be replaced with a developmental morality: our aim should be self-cultivation, and events and experience should be taken as lessons for the next act, rather than successes or failures.

Let me know what you think,


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Consumption and Satiation in Llamas with Hats

Internet fame is a fleeting thing, so I am not sure who will be familiar with the Llamas with Hats series of videos. I reckon a few of you are. The original (link) has over 35 million views, for what that’s worth. The initial premise of the videos was that there are two llamas wearing hats. One, Carl, is extremely violent, while the other, Paul, whines about how violent the first one is. Spoilers follow, so if you want the undiluted llamas with hats experience, go watch it now. The first 4 episodes focus on this central theme, gradually ramping up the violent acts that Carl preforms, concluding with the detonation of a nuke and faces tied to balloons. After that, however, the series took a strange turn. In the fifth episode, Carl does something shockingly violent and… Paul is not surprised. Paul’s response is ‘I think I was expecting worse.’ In Episode 6, Paul leaves, splitting the comedy duo. Episodes 7-12 then depict Carl’s descent into madness.

This melancholy turn surprised the videos fans, including myself when I discovered a few days ago that the series had suddenly gained 8 more episodes. I was immediately curious what other people had said about the videos, and so I did a little bit of research (i.e. I asked google). I found several explanations, including the series creator’s own explanation (link) and this video (link). The central reason for the odd twist is essentially this: the series wasn’t fresh any more. Paul, like the audience, could no longer found Carl’s horrible acts outlandish or edgy. The initial core concept of a violent llama and his horrified friend only lasts so long. Yet, my understanding is, there were many people who continued to want more Llamas with Hats of the original vein: they wanted to keep nostalgically consuming new content following the script of the original series.

I think that this kind of desire to consume more of something is a common occurrence in human existence. It is difficult to be satisfied with something in moderation. Whether its food, literature, success, or sex, we as a species have a tendency to over-indulge. I don’t mean for this to sound like a judgement of sin, or something of that nature. Instead, I mean that we have a tendency to overindulge from a satisfaction standpoint: we consume until our consumption makes us sick, or until we have rendered a previously satisfying experience mundane and unexciting. Part of satisfactory consumption seems to necessarily be the ability to consume in moderation.

Returning to literature and story and Llamas with Hats. A phenomenon that seems common to me is that young people (by which I mean those younger then 15) often seem to want to read the same stories over and over again. I know that there was a series of books that I read three or four times, and I believe I know several people who have read the Harry Potter series upwards of ten times for each book. Now, I do not think this behavior is ‘wrong’ in any sense, but I do thing that it displays a kind of hunger for the initial pleasure that the series brought – a nostalgic repetition.

What is the solution to this nostalgic repetition? One answer might be that we should consume each thing in moderation, take what satisfaction that we can and then move on. To many this answer is deeply unsatisfying because it is improper to really call it a solution. Indeed, there is a way that this restless consumption mirrors the initial problem: instead of consuming a single thing to excess we endlessly consume the novel. Many philosophical schools have explored solutions to this problem, including Buddhist and existentialist philosophies. I shall explore these at another time.

Let me know what you think,


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Thinking and the unthinkable – The edges of reality

A friend and I are currently working on writing a philosophy paper on epistemology together. Both of us are dissatisfied with epistemology’s current obsession with Gettier problems*. Both of us more or less agree that Gettier problems get something wrong about the nature of knowledge, or that the knowledge that Gettier problem’s interfere with was already unobtainable anyway. To paraphrase my friend, we always only believe the truth by chance.

Having reached this consensus, however, our positions immediately diverged as to the nature of the human condition in relation to truth. For, she maintained, the problem facing human knowers is that we can never eliminate the possibility of unknowable truth, and so we should consider ourselves to be dealing merely with appearances**. I, in contrast, maintained that what she was trying to say was impossible to think or mean. To phrase the issue in a way that favors my side of the argument, our debate is on the thought that we should give to the unthinkable: Emily’s position is that we should leave space for its possibility, and mine is that such space cannot be left because whatever we think of, by definition, cannot actually lie beyond the scope of thought.

Since our conversation I’ve been doing some research, and, unsurprisingly, this debate is not a new one. Indeed, we each seem to have settled into the role of our respective favorite philosophers. Emily, speaking as Kant, argues that all we know is the apparent world, and that we cannot get at the reality underneath. I, echoing Hegel’s famous response, argue that we can do away with the idea of the real and the apparent: there is simply the indivisible world, for we can never encounter the beyond.

I was greatly aided in my interpretation of our conversation by Lee Braver’s article ‘Thoughts on the Unthinkable‘. For the first half of the article he follows the historical conversation on the unthinkable, starting with Parmenides forbidding us from thinking about the unthinkable to the Hegelian position I have already described. If that were the end of the story then I would feel well vindicated in my position. However, Braver continues on to argue that what is absent in the Hegelian story is humility: for by Hegel’s philosophical system our rationality is rendered into the entirety of existence, and all of our investigations become only investigation of ourselves.

When put in terms of humility, I become somewhat uncomfortable with my own position previously described. I did write my undergraduate thesis arguing the ultimate path to knowledge was through humility, and it is certainly an arrogant kind of claim to say that all that exists is that which is within the realm of mind. However, Braver acknowledges that it is difficult to make room for this other in any sensible way. His proposal is essentially this: the other, the unthinkable, can only be encountered in that which we do not understand. We encounter the unthinkable when our expectations are violated and we are thrown into confusion and fear. He here draws a distinction between relative unthinkables and absolute unthinkables. Relative unthinkables are those things which are initially incomprehensible, but which, upon reflection, can be drawn into the fold of human understanding. Absolute unthinkables, however, are those things that defy all attempts at understanding or comprehension.

I find this account both appealing and confusing. It is unclear to me whether or not this is just a re-description of Hegel, or whether it is a significant departure. More problematically, for me, is that Braver does not seem to provide an example of absolute unthinkability.

Let me know what you think,


*A Gettier problem is basically a situation where someone has justified
true belief but is still right only by chance: for the uninitiated, read
some of these.
** Apologies, Emily, for any disservices I do to your position.

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