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I live and vote in a constituency where the policies of Party A are better for the long-term success of my business, which determines the material conditions of my well-being and that of my family. Yet, I believe the policies of Party A damage the lives of many people in the rest of the country. Actually, I believe the policies of Party B are beneficial for the majority of the people, but they are prejudicial for my family's and my own material well-being.

According to philosophical theories, how should I vote?

NOTE: I am NOT interested in opinions. I can get those from my relatives and friends. What I cannot get from them are theoretical formalisations that explore this issue. That is the goal of my question and the purpose of my emphasis on theories. By the end I would like to have a basic framework so I can say, "according to Theory/Important Dude/School of Thought 1, I should do this because..."; "according to Theory/Important Dude/School of Thought 2, I should do that because...".

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    That depends on the theory. – rougon Sep 3 '16 at 19:06
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    Leaving aside all other things, Scott Adams recently wrote - ironically but wisely - that if you seriously think that you can conclusively know which policy is best for long term outcome of any kind in a complex chaotic system, you might be suffering from an excessive overconfidence in your own abilities :) – DVK Sep 4 '16 at 3:30
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    I don't think your question can be answered really. You don't provide any metric to decide on what is "best". It's essentially the driving over N people or sacrificing the people in the car thing. Some people would choose the one, other the others. If the metric is: save as many people as possible, then fine, kill the driver and save the people crossing. Self-preservation reflex would probably go against that. At best, and that's what the current answer tend to provide, you can ask what people tend to do in general. As such, I'm voting to close the answer until said problem have been fixed – bilbo_pingouin Sep 8 '16 at 6:48
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    Related discussion on Politics meta: meta.politics.stackexchange.com/q/2731/5741 – bilbo_pingouin Sep 8 '16 at 7:14
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    If you believe that policies that benefit your business harm the community, then it seems that you believe that your business harms the community, and so, before being in doubt about for which party to vote, you should put into question earning a living through a harmful business. Unless you believe that there are policies that may benefit your business and the community, and they just happen to not be upheld by a political party. In which case you should foster the creation of a third party that upholds them. – Luís Henrique Sep 9 '16 at 1:07
5

Contrary to Jobermark, I believe Kant provides a very straightforward answer to your dilemma. Kant's based his categorical imperative on one question "Is it universalizable?", and in your case the clear answer is vote for what you think is right for everybody (presumably in your case that is party B, since it would help more people than party A). Here's why:

  • Based on your reasoning on why to vote for party A, a white person, even though he is not personally racist or bigoted in any way whatsoever, is still justified in voting for a white supremacist party, since after all they would advance his own interests and those of his family at the expense of those of others. This reason for voting is not acceptable, and so per Kant, any voting for special interests at the expense of general interests should be avoided, since if it were universalized, the above described voting for white supremacists scenario would be acceptable.

But then, you might ask, what about situations where there is an inevitable conflict of interest between different interests in one society? In particular, what about situations where the interests of a small group are inherently in conflict of those of the majority. How does one take into account such situations, yet still allow for a universal ethics of voting?

An answer was provided by Harvard political philosopher John Rawls, with his concept of the veil of ignorance, also explained in his idea of the original position. As described in this blog:

Imagine that you have set for yourself the task of developing a totally new social contract for today's society. How could you do so fairly? Although you could never actually eliminate all of your personal biases and prejudices, you would need to take steps at least to minimize them. Rawls suggests that you imagine yourself in an original position behind a veil of ignorance . Behind this veil, you know nothing of yourself and your natural abilities, or your position in society. You know nothing of your sex, race, nationality, or individual tastes. Behind such a veil of ignorance all individuals are simply specified as rational, free, and morally equal beings. You do know that in the "real world", however, there will be a wide variety in the natural distribution of natural assets and abilities, and that there will be differences of sex, race, and culture that will distinguish groups of people from each other.

John Rawls, basically asks to vote as if we didn't know anything about our place in society, i.e to vote from behind a veil of ignorance, when deciding what the fairest political system or distribution of resources should be.

Note that John Rawls is not a defender of income redistribution or total equality in a given society. Rawls finds inequality in a society perfectly acceptable, as long as it benefits everyone, including those least advantaged. See Rawls's second principle of justice as fairness. For example, it is acceptable, and maybe even preferable for doctors to be paid more money than most other professions, since this would guarantee that talented people would choose to be doctors, therefore increasing the well being and health of society as whole.


In response to the comment on utilitarianism

The standard text book definition of Utilitarianism is typically given as maximizing the happiness or the good over all people. For example John Stuart Mill states in his book Utilitarianism:

The only proof capable of being given that an object is visible, is that people actually see it. The only proof that a sound is audible, is that people hear it... In like manner, I apprehend, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it… No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except that each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness… we have not only all the proof which the case admits of, but all which it is possible to require, that happiness is a good: that each person's happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons.

So it is pretty straightforward for a utilitarian as well, that you should vote for the greater good, not the special good. I don't know enough about utilitarianism to see how to it develop further or how to put it in to practice (How to measure the good? What about inherent conflicts? etc...).

In response to the comment about Marx:

Marx wouldn't have much to say about this dilemma, as his thought concerns economy more so than political theory qua politics (although there is inevitable overlap). To put it another way, Marx's ideas would be the end result of the voting process, not guidelines on how to vote.

  • This looks much more like an answer. Any other perspective on the issue? Utilitarism? Marx? It is fine if the answers on each are not depth, as long as references are given. A taxonomy of approaches would be ideal. Added bounty to motivate this further. – luchonacho Sep 26 '16 at 8:38
  • The clear answer to an either/or question cannot be 'no'. It is not an answer. And I got to this point in the middle of my argument and pointed out how the question needed alteration. Rawls, like Utilitarianism, is impossible to use in any given scenario unless you are very intelligent, which makes it hypocritical. Most of us just aren't very intelligent. Behind the veil of ignorance, he has omitted the notion you might be too stupid to understand what you are expected to do. – jobermark Sep 26 '16 at 14:11
  • @luchonacho see edits to my answer. – Alexander S King Sep 26 '16 at 17:23
  • @jobermark I stand corrected. I still think Rawls is relevant, since the OP is asking for explicit references. – Alexander S King Sep 26 '16 at 17:29
  • Were I more idealistic as a Quaker, I might say Rawls asks you not to vote (as the whole General Meeting of Mexico has decided.) Voting itself creates an adversarial stance, requiring inequality, promoting manipulation, that is bad for a lot of people, with many of the least advantaged among them. His framing does not help individual situations very much, only policy development. – jobermark Sep 26 '16 at 19:32
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The book Analyzing Congress (by MIT Professor Charles Stewart) has an excellent section on the "equivalency" of different policies and the effect on voting.

I would summarize it as: If we're only talking about a one-dimensional policy (say, tax-rate between 0% and 100%), then there is a single, optimal solution that the electorate can reach consensus on.

But Policy is more complex than that. If its a two-dimensional (or greater) problem (such as:" What should the Tax rate be? and also what percentage of Government should be spent on Education?) then there are a whole set of optimal outcomes. A voting member may consider multiple answers to be equally acceptable, and support any of those answers. That set of answers establishes his view of equivalent policies. (eg: "I would accept higher taxes, if significantly more is spent on education.")

The implication is that, if you're considering the policies of Parties A vs. B in a single dimensional way, then there is a single best answer for you.

If Parties A vs. B are actually a collection of policies, then you should consider the total effect of their policies, both positive and negative. (Would you accept higher taxes on yourself for more spending on Education in general?)

It is not so simply about, "Should I vote my own self-interest or not?" as much as it is "Is the sum total of the good parts and bad parts of Party A greater than the sum total of the good & bad parts of Party B?"

Obviously, the good parts of a policy matter more if they benefit you directly and immediately. But there is a trade-off point: How much personal benefit is offset by general societal harm? How much general societal good can be offset by personal sacrifice?

  • Tend to agree that politics is more complex than two options but to answer the question: according to the idea developed, people tend to vote more individually or in community or what is a standar behavior? – nelruk Sep 8 '16 at 16:34
  • How do I sum good and bad parts? Is my sum likely to differ from the sum of others? Naturally, I am thinking on parties manifestos as a collection of policies. – luchonacho Sep 9 '16 at 9:11
  • I would suggest that this summation, like all other globalizing approaches, presents everyone with math that no one can do. – jobermark Sep 26 '16 at 19:18
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The simplest ethical framework is Kant's. From that point of view, which of these two agendas could one always imagine everyone followed, which would not ultimately cause you problems. The problem with asking a question in Kantian terms is that it is very important how the question is phrased, and yours is not clear enough.

If everyone follows the agenda that they favor their own benefit, there will be times when you are vastly outnumbered, and the results will be quite bad for you.

If everyone follows the agenda that they vote opposite to their own benefit, there will be times when you are in a vast majority, and the result would be even worse even more often, as more people will be equally badly hurt.

But since neither option can be made universal, this is probably the wrong way to look at what is actually going on.

What is another way to look at this distinction? Instead of being self-centered and voting for or against your own interest, you could think in terms of voting your own interest, or choosing someone at random who differs from you in some important aspect, in whose interest to vote. I think we could generalize that solution.

If the person in whose interest we should try to be motivated is randomly chosen, this does maintain a bias toward benefitting majorities. But overall, people feel OK with the idea that what is good for more people should happen more often, as long as this cannot become a form of systematic oppression.

Since the population differs a great deal in many dimensions, choosing someone else based on different criteria each time, does not create a systematic bias against the overall majority, and it breaks down correlations between advantages that traditionally lead to a single group benefitting over and over again.

In addition, it would lead to something else that could, over time, become quite positive. In order to understand when you are voting in the interest of some other randomly chosen person, you would have to actually actively empathize with that person, and discern the effects on them. Understanding how different people, about whom you would not ordinarily think, might be affected, would improve your ability to see how benefits to given groups function, and to better make correct determinations about how things might affect your target beneficiary.

This is a bizarre and rigid way to make decisions, but it offers a perspective on what is really required. What we need in a voting system, from a Kantian view, is empathy across divisions. Taking the weirdness out of the formula, we should consider a number of others, very different from ourselves in different ways, as randomly as we are really able, and do what benefits that group, instead of choosing to vote for or against ourselves.

  • You dismiss Rawls, but aren't just proposing the Monte-Carlo simulation version of the veil of ignorance? – Alexander S King Sep 26 '16 at 17:35
  • In particular this "Understanding how different people, about whom you would not ordinarily think, might be affected, would improve your ability to see how benefits to given groups function, and to better make correct determinations about how things might affect your target beneficiary." requires as much intelligence and intellectual engagement as Rawls. – Alexander S King Sep 26 '16 at 17:36
  • @AlexanderSKing Yep, each individual is only asked to do what he is able, and is never incorrect for not doing better. There is no fixed goal to be attained and no yardstick to compare yourself to. Better ability might pay off, but the payoff is not part of the correctness of the base solution. So the requirement is totally not there. Kant is not hypocritical about the value of intelligence or emotional maturity. And though the arguments themselves require creativity, the actual resulting maxim should be easy to explain to anyone, since it cannot contain complex details. – jobermark Sep 26 '16 at 18:51
  • @AlexanderSKing I am proposing an actionable version of the veil of ignorance. As opposed to an unattainable abstract goal. Rawls is not wrong. If you can follow the extra rules, everything is better. But he is somewhat demanding abstract thinking with a high level of empathy, on the basis of a thought-experiment that would not necessarily let the person of whom he is asking this have those qualities. – jobermark Sep 26 '16 at 18:56
2

One theoretical framework which may dissolve your question into something that is easier to answer is the idea that, for an individual, it is irrational to vote with the expectation that one can change the outcome. Suppose, for the time being that you do somehow know that the policies of Party A are better for your business. Your chances of actually brining about the election of Party A by your vote are astronomically small (see this paper http://www.nber.org/papers/w15220 ). It could therefore be considered not rational to view your moral obligation during an election in terms of which party your vote will cause the election of. It may be more rational to consider which party you wish, at a personal level, to be associated with (see for example Loren Lomasky) as the net benefits from that psychologically are far more certain to occur than the benefit from the election of the Party whose policies you deem to be in your best interests.

The question would then be two seperate, and perhaps easier to answer ones. Firstly, whose policies would be best for me/society? A question which could be answered in a Utilitarian framework (possibly a decision best left to experts as people like Mill would argue). Secondly, which party do I feel most comfortable being associated with? A personal choice which, thanks to the secrecy of voting, one can simply experiment with.

2

An idea from ethics, called the veil of ignorance, is that you should suspend your knowledge of your own situation and consider that you may be any random person in your society. What society would you prefer then?

Then, if you are to be an ethical person, you should want the same even while remembering your own situation. You can see especially clearly how this argument works if you consider slavery, sexism, or racism. Also the farther you look into the future, the more realistic this argument becomes: who knows what the situation will be of your grand-children's children.

  • But this assumes a great deal of knowledge about what people's status and welfare is in society. Moreover, national policies many times have international consequences (Trump...). In my question, the knowledge required is more about the relative effect of a party on people's welfare. In your answer, is more about the absolute level of welfare. I'm sure this is one of Rawls' theory criticisms (it seems you are referring to his theory). – luchonacho Sep 12 '16 at 9:02
  • I am actually not sure who came up with this idea. I would say that to judge a relative change, you would need to know the absolute level and the desired absolute level, and if you want to judge effects on other people you will need knowledge of their situation. In the absence of knowledge, you will need to estimate and even guess. Consider my answer the ideal to strive for (which I thought your question was about) and your practical implementation necessarily severly limited by lack of knowledge. – hkBst Sep 12 '16 at 9:19
  • @luchonacho is right. This is Rawls' en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veil_of_ignorance. You might want to include the reference. It is a good motivation for abstract planning, but very hard to use in a specific instance. We can imagine several individuals, even future ones, but we are not Hari Seldon... – jobermark Sep 26 '16 at 14:08
  • @jobermark, thanks for the reference, I was indeed referring to the veil of ignorance, and I've now edited my answer to include that name. – hkBst Sep 27 '16 at 11:36
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People in democracy choose their preference according to the emotional link they have with a candidate/proposal. That is why candidates spend a high amount of time and resources to appear on TV, Social Media and other places trying to give you an idea of what can we accomplish as community. The problem starts when you should choose between your wealth and the community's wealth (PLAN A is for you but PLAN B is the favorite one in the community). You know what's good for everyone else but you will always choose your interests.

Take into consideration the Brexit vote

Why did they vote to leave knowing that is dangerous in long terms? The main idea of the Brexit was the immigrants situations: they're stealing jobs, opening the gates to receive terrorist among others ideas that hypothetically is affecting every british, even if the ideas are not true. Most people knew these ideas are false but either way way they vote to leave, just to be sure. The modus operandi recently described is what Bryan Caplan defined as anti-foreign bias in his book the Myth of the Rational Voter, people that are conscious in a certain way that free trade and free borders are necessary to expand the international commerce; in order to maintain their modus vivendi however, they don't want any foreign intervention.

What about experts? Can they mark a tendency to vote in a certain way (for the community)? They're actually trying, when one of them appears on TV saying that PLAN A is necessary to the country's growth. Keeping the example of the Brexit case, this is what actually most economists did during the electoral campaign, told people how bad idea to leave the UK; most people didn't buy the argument (most of them were pro-Brexit) but not because the lack of (academic) authority or something like that; it is because in the past (specifically in 2008), they were wrong about the crisis and people started to doubt about their credentials to form opinions, so they basically listened their personal interest filling a second element called the pessimistic bias, also described in Caplan's book: people are pessimistic and wishes old good days where everything was better.

tl;dr Conclusion: According to some political theories, people vote for their own interest and not for the community. Authors tend to say this theory is part of the liberalism idea and some Austrian libertarians says the ideas developed by Caplan are purely liberal.

  • 1
    which political theories are those? what about other therories? or there is no theory arguing that we are not just/always selfish? – luchonacho Sep 8 '16 at 6:57
  • These theories are developed by Bryan Caplan (mentioned in the answer) in his book The Myth of Rational Voter, I can tell his work was really critized by other authors (academically speaking). In theory, this is correct but in practice is always more complex than the previous explanation. As I said, some people say this is a liberal point of view, I tend to say this is neoclassical point of view of the democracy. – nelruk Sep 8 '16 at 16:28
  • Brexit was not solely about immigration. There are some legitimate concerns about immigration, e.g. - lack of assimilation to Western values by many immigrants. But brexit was in large part a result of lack of accountability of the EU which leads to bad policies including dumb immigration policies. – alanf Sep 9 '16 at 9:11
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Weirdly, the most popular ethics is absent from the suggestions, so, although I personally dislike it, I think one of the early entries should represent Utilitarianism of some sort.

Real hard-core Utilitarianism would instruct you to consider the effects on everyone, how much they care about those effects, and how this will play out in the future. But that is impossible, and trying too hard is a bad idea. We witness the instability of realistic systems and the Law of Unintended Consequences http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/UnintendedConsequences.html.

So a lighter-weight, less invested form of Utilitarianism is in order. I would suggest that the one that makes the most sense is probabilistic, prima facie, rule-Utilitarianism. Since paths in the future can almost always be reversed in political contexts, the way to consider Utility best is to look at the most probable immediate outcome of the kind of decision undertaken, to leave it at least partially subjective, and not to drill into the complexities of the future.

On that basis, if you are in the majority, the odds are that the benefit going to you is likely to make more people happy, and likewise if you are in a minority the benefit going to the opposition will. This is most likely to add up to the overall good, unless some people will be very drastically impacted for the worse.

Marginal utility works in a way that benefits increase happiness less than losses undermine it, (an aspect of the first of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gossen%27s_laws) and that changes to the status of those who are already happy have less effect than changes to those who are already struggling. So there needs to be a special consideration given to negative effects. If there are significant negative effects among those already unhappy with the system overall, you should ignore your own state and favor limiting their loss. This also works to resist hegemony and manipulative oppression.

It is important that the rule itself not be complex and cause agonizing uncertainty, or we would be making our Utilitarian decisions in a counter-Utilitarian manner. Hypocrisy really does bother people. Therefore, it is unwise to adopt any more specific rule. The simple two-factor analysis limits your potential guilt, and the worry you are wrong. It also acknowledges human psychology to a limited degree, in that we are not really self-serving individuals, psychologically. We have a certain innate value for fairness. It may not be our primary concern, but we should consider it when it becomes one.

Choosing the actual balance point where the minor factor overwhelms the major one is best left up to subjective judgment, presuming the distribution of the factors in the population will be reflected in the individual balance-points chosen by individuals. (Averages of averages are averages, and the aggregate of psychological responses represent social values.)

  • "Since paths in the future can always be changed" — I doubt that. As an extreme example, if I commit suicide, then for all we know I'll not be able to revert that later. – celtschk Sep 27 '16 at 7:11
  • @celtschk The statement is not universally true, but it is true for cases realted to the context. If you commit suicide, the rest of us can still choose party A over party B. If party A gets us in too deep, we can have a revolution. I have edited in the relevance of the context for those who missed it. – jobermark Sep 27 '16 at 13:13
  • If party A presses the big red button, you may not have a chance to revolt, as everyone is dead. – celtschk Sep 27 '16 at 15:07
  • @celtschk Don't be right at the expense of making sense. If that is the first action they take, then the premise in the question is wrong, (that they are good for his long-term earnings.) Isn't it? So, this does not make sense. – jobermark Sep 28 '16 at 17:08
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I'm confused - you say you're not interested in opinions, but doesn't what you have asked for amount to a summary of opinions? Fortunately inasmuch as wisdom obtains knowledge, respect for obtaining knowledge (read: philosophy) can help you do your own thinking about such dilemmas, no?

It would - for logistical considerations - be useful to know what kind of a system of governance your votes is being cast in. It would also be useful to know the lay of the land and the cast of characters involved. Short of that, you seem to be looking for someone to tell you how others have thought about how to think about political decisions. Note that 1) the history of philosophy is not philosophy, and 2) political outcomes are not tactical, they are logistical considerations.

That said, you could juggle the fallacies of Kant's Categorical Imperatives, you could hang your hat upon Hume's Guillotine, you could opt for the greater good of the golden rule, the silver rule or the iron rule, the means of Aristotle's "Golden Mean", or even don Rawls' veil of ignorance as you reason through your options towards a conclusion. The problem is that philosophy is amoral, non-systematic and unless you've already pledged your vote, even deontic considerations will just land you in a muddle only you can wade your way through.

Putting your question in this form: "Why should I vote for party A (or B)"?

...consider that there are only ever three answers to every question, "why?"

1) "Why not?"
2) Because...
and
3) You have to figure that out for yourself, silly!

A note on answer #2: "because" is an ambiguous term, e.g. the answer "because I am cold" is satisfactory to either:

2a) "Why are you putting on your sweater?"
2b) "Why are you shivering?"

...where the answer to the former cites logic and the latter, cause.

Towards answer #3 - what more can be suggested by philosophy except, "know thyself"? When discerning "what is best" it is enough to point out the distinction between what is true and what is "true to you". What is "best" falls into the latter, and this whether "best for you" or "best for all".

To be clear, I am not suggesting that you dilemma is a variation of Foot's "Trolley Problem" where it is either let five die on the tracks or pull the switch lever and have the train kill you. Nor am I suggesting utilitarianism as the best means of resolving this choice.

I will otherwise point you in the direction of Searle's philosophy of society to consider power and how to derive an ought from an is.

Lastly, consider that your vote counts if only because it is counted along with all the other votes.

-1

I live and vote in a constituency where the policies of Party A are better for the long-term success of my business, which determines the material conditions of my well-being and that of my family. Yet, I believe the policies of Party A damage the lives of many people in the rest of the country. Assume there is also Party B, whose policies have the exact opposite consequences.

This doesn't make a lot of sense. You are imagining a situation in which there are two groups with irreconcilable interests. But you and the people whose interests supposedly oppose yours are governed by the same laws of physics, epistemology, biology, morality etc. So if the world is comprehensible you can come to agree on the consequences of policies and what policies should be followed.

If the right policy would sink your business then you should either change your business or ditch it and do something else. There are cases in which businesses are based on winning contracts from the government to do bad stuff. Such businesses should be ditched.

It is common for people to think that good government policy involves the government giving away lots of money to the poor. This policy is bad for moral, political and economic reasons. It amounts to sponsoring and lauding incompetence and laziness and punishing and degrading competence and industry. It gives bad people a moral blank cheque to extort good people. See "Capitalism" by George Reisman and "Atlas Shurgged" by Ayn Rand for more explanation. You should vote your rational self interest: you should vote for more freedom and less government.

  • Your first axiom about agreeing on consequences is contradicted by pretty much every political landscape ever, since the creation of politics. This includes being contradicted by yourself -- there seems to be a very clear disagreement between people in your last paragraph. – Cort Ammon Sep 9 '16 at 15:56
  • @CortAmmon - This was a common belief in classical political theory (the ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as Christian theory). They posited a world where there was an objective truth knowable by pure reason (or faith). In that realm of theory yes, every good voter would agree on the same outcomes. The mistaken ones can be taught their error. And of course both theories tended to restrict authority to those with sufficient reason (philosopher-kings) or faith (divine leaders). – indigochild Sep 9 '16 at 20:39
  • @CurtAmmon The fact that people often have disagreed about politics is irrelevant. Rational discussion requires looking for mistakes and taking steps that have some prospect of correcting them. This is very rare in politics. You can't blame an activity people have refused to engage in for their mistakes. – alanf Sep 10 '16 at 18:47
  • @alanf He won't see this unless you spell his name right. And I agree that negotiating consensus is almost always better than voting. But binary voting presumes an adversarial stance and a forced dichotomy. No one is allowed to vote 70% one way and 30% the other, so there is no balance of consensus to seek. You can't waffle, you can only abstain. The OP asks about a vote, with a specific context, that is often a reality. So you are dismissing premises that are actually relevant. – jobermark Sep 26 '16 at 19:04
  • @jobermark The poster assumes that he has to vote for people who have policies that favour group X over group Y. In practice, this means that force or the threat thereof is used to get money or other goods from X and give them to Y. This is bad for X and for Y. This is true when X is a bank and Y an ordinary working stiff, and vice versa. As for lack of concensus, if somebody wants to be subsidised by tax, he has already destroyed any prospect of testing whether consensus exists. If I didn't want to support him, it doesn't matter because my preferences have no bearing on what happens. – alanf Sep 27 '16 at 7:35

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