Sunday, 11 April 2021

Effective Altruism Is Not Effective

Effective altruism is based on a very simple idea: we should do the most good we can. Obeying the usual rules about not stealing, cheating, hurting, and killing is not enough, or at least not enough for those of us who have the good fortune to live in material comfort, who can feed, house, and clothe ourselves and our families and still have money or time to spare. Living a minimally acceptable ethical life involves using a substantial part of our spare resources to make the world a better place. Living a fully ethical life involves doing the most good we can. (Peter Singer)

It is almost universally agreed that the persistence of extreme poverty in many parts of the world is a bad thing. It is less well-agreed, even among philosophers, what should be done about it and by who. An influential movement founded by the philosopher Peter Singer argues that we should each try to do the best we can by donating our surplus income to charities that help those in greatest need. This ‘effective altruism’ movement has two components: i) encouraging individuals in the rich world to donate more; and ii) encouraging us to donate more rationally, to the organisations most efficient at translating those donations into gains in human well-being.

Unfortunately both components of effective altruism focus on what makes giving good rather than on achieving valuable goals. Effective altruism therefore does not actually aim at the elimination of global poverty as is often supposed. Indeed, its distinctive commitment to the logic of individualist consumerism makes it constitutionally incapable of achieving such a large scale project. Effective altruism is designed to fail.

Friday, 26 March 2021

Why Are Moral Philosophers So Bad At Global Justice?

There is a dismaying intellectual sloppiness to how moral philosophers as an intellectual community approach issues of global justice. They are not only ignorant about basic, important, and easily checked empirical facts, but also complacent about their ignorance. For example, they disdain to acknowledge the expertise of those scientists (especially economists) whose conclusions or methods they find counterintuitive or disagreeable, and prefer to develop their own theories or seek out those self-professed experts who say things more in line with their beliefs about how the world works. The result resembles the self-sustaining but fundamentally worthless anti-vax or anti-climate change epistemic communities. Philosophers are willing to write long articles and whole books explaining their views about how unfair the world is, and to read and respond to each others' complaints, but they have little to offer to those outside their bubble. 

This shit matters. Bad global justice theorising reinforces anti-intellectual and conspiratorial myths about how the world works that would keep whole countries and hundreds of millions of people mired in poverty. On the one hand - fortunately - few people in positions of influence take this drivel seriously. On the other hand this is still a missed opportunity to have engaged philosophers' supposedly superior reasoning skills and expertise on value questions about issues affecting billions of people. Moreover, it still pollutes the well by training our students and anyone else who will listen to be stupid about global justice, for example reinforcing the apparent intellectual legitimacy of populist 'common sense' opposition to free trade and other sensible policies.

Wednesday, 10 March 2021

The Abject Intellectual Failure of Libertarianism

Libertarianism does not make sense. It cannot keep its promises. It has nothing helpful to say on the questions of the day. As political philosophy it is an intellectual failure like Marxism or Flat-Eartherism - something that might once reasonably have seemed worth pursuing but whose persistence in public let alone academic conversation has become an embarrassment. The only mildly interesting thing about libertarianism anymore is why anyone still takes it seriously.

Monday, 18 January 2021

Ideas Are Too Exciting; Arguments Are Too Hard

It is very pleasant to entertain a new idea, a new notion or concept to think about and to look at the world with. Indeed, it can have the exciting and intoxicating feel of discovering hidden treasure. 

Unfortunately, most ideas are bad - wrong, misleading, dangerous, or of very limited use or relevance. Even more unfortunately, that doesn't prevent them from gaining our interest and enthusiasm. The problem is that getting an idea is just a matter of understanding it (or thinking that you do) and this is just as easy in the case of bad ideas as it is for good ones. In contrast, checking the quality of ideas by interrogating the arguments for them is laborious and distinctly unrewarding - and so avoided as much as possible. The result is that the world is drowning in bad ideas and their dreadful consequences, from conspiracy theories to religions to academic bloopers like critical race theory. 

Thursday, 14 January 2021

How Is It No One's Job To Defend Democracy?

Why did it take until now for a critical mass of key players to take a stand against Trump's assault on democracy? Why wasn't it already enough when he pointedly declined to promise to accept the results of the election if he lost, during the 2016 presidential debates?

Liberal democracy is like capitalism, a game designed to make its players compete against each other for points and prizes. Competition is the driving force behind the real benefits such systems achieve, but the logic of competition also imprisons its players to stay within their roles. It is no one's job to defend the system of rules governing that competition. As a result, democracies are surprisingly vulnerable to take over, as we have seen from the recent examples of Turkey, Hungary, and (ongoing) India.

Saturday, 9 January 2021

Politics Would Be Less Crazy If Voting Were Compulsory

Democracies around the world are suffering paroxysms of populist rage. Obviously this has many contributing causes and individuals, from rising inequality to social media to political entrepreneurs like Trump. But here is one policy that might go some way to restoring normal functioning: Make voting compulsory.

Before politicians can do anything else, they must win election by getting  more votes than their opponents. This is supposed to ensure that only those politicians whose ideas and values are most agreeable to the most people have the chance to rule. One might naively suppose that democratic competitions would therefore focus on clearly communicating those ideas and values so that the voters can tell which candidate they most prefer. In practise that is not what happens. This is because voters must choose not only which politician they prefer but also whether to formally register that preference by voting. The politicians' challenge is that  while forming a political opinion is effectively free, voting is a mildly inconvenient task that it is entirely rational for most people not to bother with.

Sunday, 3 January 2021

Racism Is Global and Local - But Not Especially American

The passionate global response to George Floyd's killing showed that the world is as connected as ever, despite the hard borders and economic nationalism induced by Covid. Yet it also showed that America is still the centre of world politics and the problems that come with that. 

Racism is a global phenomenon that one can find everywhere from South Africa to Brazil to India to Japan, but it takes different forms in different places. Americans are too quick to assume that their particular experience of the oppression of black people and their stop-start struggle for equal rights provides a universal diagnosis and treatment plan for racism. The rest of the world is too willing to copy and paste America's provincial self-understanding, however poorly it fits their situation.

Saturday, 26 December 2020

Transform Selfishness into a Public Benefit: Sell Some of the Covid Vaccine to the Highest Bidders

Of the Corona vaccine doses available each week, 1% should be auctioned off to the highest bidders and the money given to to humanitarian charities like the Red Cross and Salvation Army. This will ensure that the limited amount of vaccine we now have will achieve the most good. Perhaps more surprisingly, it will also be fairer.

Wednesday, 23 December 2020

Fantasy Politics

Fantasy politics starts from the expectation that wishes should come true, that the best outcome imaginable is not just possible but overwhelmingly likely. Brexit, for example, is classic fantasy politics, premised on the delightful optimism that if the UK were only freed of its shackles it would easily be able to negotiate the best deals imaginable.

Tuesday, 22 December 2020

Two Failures Of Covid Science - And How To Do Better Next Time

While there have been obvious achievements by Covid science these should not obscure the very significant failures that have also occurred, such as around the politicisation of scientific advice and the delay in rolling out vaccine programmes. These failures may have allowed hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths, as well as extending and worsening the social and economic impact of the epidemic on billions of people. Nevertheless, the point of identifying such failures is not to allocate blame, but rather to plan for how to do things better in future. 

Tuesday, 15 December 2020

Boris Johnson's Peculiar Game of Kamikaze Chicken is About to End

Rumple Johnson negotiates (credit: Andrew Parsons)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pursued exactly one strategy in his EU trade negotiations: threatening to drive Britain into a no-deal wall unless he gets what he wants. In other words, Johnson has been approaching this extraordinarily important matter of national interest as a peculiar version of the game of chicken. This explains much of his bizarre behaviour over the last 18 months, such as his antagonistic attitude, stubbornness, time-wasting, and even (part of) his buffoonery. Nevertheless, to be explained is not to be justified. Not only will the strategy fail, as it did before when Johnson used it in the Withdrawal Agreement negotiations. It has also foreclosed any hope for a substantive trade deal that could have fulfilled the positive aspirations of Brexiteers.

Monday, 2 November 2020

The Political Economy Of Risk: Covid Edition

Covid-19 reminds us once again that we can’t do without politics, or, to put it another way, we can’t do well without doing politics well.

‘Science’ can’t decide the right thing to do about Covid, however appealing it might be to imagine we could dump this whole mess on a bunch of epidemiologists in some ivory tower safely beyond the reach of grubby political bickering. This is not because scientists don’t know enough. The scientific understanding of Covid is a work in progress and hence uncertain and incomplete, but such imperfect knowledge can still be helpful. The reason is that since Covid became an epidemic it is no longer a merely scientific problem. Dealing with it requires balancing conflicting values and the interests of multitudes of people and organisations. This is an essentially political challenge that scientists lack the conceptual apparatus or legitimacy to address.

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

What Good are Nuclear Weapons to North Korea? Analysing Kim Jong-un

North Korea's development of fission bombs and ICBMs is very worrying. Unfortunately the analysis of it in the news media is woeful. Some commentators assume that North Korea works like a normal country (like their country); some clearly don't understand how war works; some believe the regime's propaganda; some seem unable to think in a straight line at all. Some manage to make all those mistakes at the same time and more. One can only hope that the US, South Korean, and Japanese war ministries have better experts. In the meantime, at least we can throw out the worst nonsense.

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Challenging Lincoln's Greatness

Lincoln consistently scores top or at least top 3 in every ranking of US presidents (e.g.). This high standing has long puzzled me. After all, this is the leader who presided over a long brutal civil war that killed 620,000 of his own people. For context, as a percentage of the population, that is more American lives than all other presidents put together have managed to expend in all America's other wars. On the face of it, that is a massive failure of statesmanship, however competent Lincoln was at running the war itself. The usual response is that the war was a necessary sacrifice to end the supreme evil of slavery. I do not find this convincing. 

Note that I do not claim that Lincoln was a terrible president (there have certainly been many worse presidents). I only question whether the case for his greatness survives rigorous scrutiny, especially when you push beyond the commonly repeated platitudes.

Monday, 20 July 2020

Diversity Has No Intrinsic Value: A World With Fewer Species or Languages Would Not Necessarily Be A Worse One

It is easy to agree that 'diversity' is valuable, but what kind of value is it exactly? 

Take linguistic diversity,  passionately defended by anthropologists and linguists who want to preserve all 6,500 thousand spoken languages from extinction. If you look carefully at their arguments, they are all about the usefulness of languages and not about the value of diversity per se. For example, it is claimed that minority languages contain useful local knowledge about plants, animals, ecosystems and so on which would be lost if those languages died out. Or that minority languages are important for individual self-esteem and community functioning among ethnic minorities, which in turn supports their flourishing and well-being. 

However, if the value of diversity lies in what it does for us rather than what it is in itself, then whether and how far diversity is valuable (or even disvaluable) turns out to depend on the context. Diversity has no value in its own right; it is merely one tool among others that we may use to achieve things that do matter. For example, if we are worried that important botanical knowledge achieved over many generations may be lost as the last people to speak the language that encodes it die off, then it makes sense to send academic botanists to collect that knowledge and publish it in a universally accessible scientific database.  But it makes little sense to try to preserve that knowledge by somehow getting more children to learn the language and then continue living in the same precarious relationship to the natural ecosystem in which that specific knowledge would be needed and communicated. That confuses the substrate with the information it contains. It would be like trying to preserve knowledge of Euclidean geometry by teaching everyone ancient Greek.