Saturday, 20 September 2014

Scottish independence would have been good for Britain too

Like many English people I observed the progress of the Scottish independence referendum campaign in a rather detached way. Since only the Scots got to vote, it was easy to suppose that it only really concerned the fate of Scotland - their business not mine. Only towards the end when the Yes campaign surged in the polls did it begin to feel real and exciting. And only then did I start to appreciate its significance to the rest of Britain. What if the Scots decided to leave? What kind of political crisis would that create? And what kind of opportunity to reinvent RumpUK as something new and better?

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

If you're so rich, why aren't you happier?

Not what we have but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance.
Epicurus

People in the west are richer than ever. That means we can satisfy more of our desires for the good things in life than humans have ever been able to. Yet we don't seem to be getting any happier. Consciously or not we have come to depend on a particular economic theory of welfare as mere preference satisfaction. But if all that we can already have isn't enough to satisfy us, then perhaps we should reconsider whether having even more would make us happier. The good life requires wisdom not just purchasing power. As the classical Greek philosophers taught, we should look to the content of our desires rather than merely whether we can afford them.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Does Peter Singer's 'Utilitarian' Argument for Vegetarianism Add Up?

500,000 copies sold
The contemporary animal rights movement owes a great intellectual debt to Peter Singer's pathbreaking book Animal Liberation. In that book, Singer made a break with the dominant but limited Kantian argument that mistreating animals is a bad - inhumane - thing for humans to do. In its place, Singer advanced a utilitarian case against harming animals - such as by using them for food or experiments - in terms of respecting their right to have their suffering counted equally with that of humans.

Singer's book has had an enormous influence, directly and indirectly, on how many people see the moral status of animals. I include myself among them. Nevertheless I am not sure it is a good book. Despite its rhetorical effectiveness and despite going through multiple revised editions, Singer's official utilitarian argument is far from compelling.

This is a problem for the animal rights movement. For if Singer's case depends on a rhetorical bait and switch rather than philosophical rigour, then the intellectual respectability it has granted the animal rights movement is a sham. Singer's utilitarianism can't do the job it is supposed to do - it can neither justify the book's normative conclusions nor meet the minimalist standard of internal coherence.

Furthermore, the domination of Singer's flawed argument in the intellectual self-understanding of the animal rights movement may be crowding out other more relevant ethical accounts, most obviously those that directly engage with sentimentalism rather than being embarrassed by it.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Michael Sandel on the commercialisation of private and civic life

Michael Sandel's What Money Can't Buy purports to demonstrate that markets corrupt - degrade - the goods they are used to allocate. Therefore we as a society should deliberate together about the proper meaning and purpose of various goods, relationships, and activities (such as baseball) and how they should be valued. I don't think Sandel's critique of markets quite holds together. Nor do I find his communitarian political solution attractive. But the book does succeed as a provocation: it evokes a healthy attitude of critical resistance to what may be called rapacious capitalism

Monday, 30 June 2014

Free will in politics

Let's look at politics in a different way. Strip away the policy disputes of the day, the silly thing Rick Perry said yesterday, the electoral strategising, the punditry, and political philosophy too. What do we have left? Beneath the appearances the fundamental difference between the left and the right in politics is both grander and simpler than you might expect. It's about free will.

Welcome to social metaphysics.

Friday, 30 May 2014

The Robot Economy and the Crisis of Capitalism: Why We Need Universal Basic Income

The material prosperity that capitalism has wrought is the product of technology as well as markets (and social norms and state institutions). Markets enhance the efficiency of allocation of resources, such as human labour, between competing projects, while technological innovations enhance the productivity of our use of those resources, the ability to produce more with less. As Keynes prophesised in his famous essay, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (1930), the seemingly relentless trend of rising productivity promises to finally end the ‘economic problem': the struggle to overcome scarcity that has characterised the human condition since our beginning. Finally, we can turn as a society to considering what our enormous wealth can do for us, rather than what we must do to get it.

Yet this is not a time for complacency. Unless we intervene, the same economic system that has produced this astonishing prosperity will return us to the Dickensian world of winners and losers that characterised the beginning of capitalism, or worse. The problem is this, how will ordinary people earn a claim on the material prosperity of the capitalist economy if that economy doesn't need our labour anymore?

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Why I am not an atheist

The New Atheist movement that has developed from the mid-2000s around the 'four horsemen of the apocalypse' - Hitchens, Dennett, Harris, Dawkins, and various other pundits, has had a tremendous public impact. Godlessness has never had a higher public profile. How wonderful for unbelievers like me? Hardly. I am as embarrassed by the New Atheists as many Christians are embarrassed by the evangelical fundamentalists who appoint themselves the representatives of Christianity.

It has often been noted that the New Atheist movement has contributed no original arguments or ideas to the debate about religion. But the situation is worse than this. The main achievement of New Atheism - what defines it as a more or less coherent movement - is its promulgation of a particular version of atheism that is quasi-religious, scientistic, and sectarian. Atheism has been redefined and rebranded into an identity I must reject. My unbelief is apathetic and simply follows from my materialism - I don't see why I should care about the non-existence of gods. What the New Atheists call 'rationality' is an impoverished way of understanding the world that excludes meanings and values. At the political level, the struggle for secularism requires more liberalism, not more atheism.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Internationalise History!

History too important to be left to national politicians as a social engineering project for their ideological or ethnic visions of national identity.

First, the principle. The idea of ‘national histories' should be replaced with the unitary ideal of international history, that all official histories should be compatible with each other as literal facts must be. History is about matters of fact and their true explanation just as science is. Yet, while more or less the same science is taught in schools all over the world (with the exception of a few theocracies), national histories are very often self-serving opinion taught as fact, i.e. propaganda. The result is the dangerous cultivation by governments of the ignorance and resentment of their citizens.

Second, there should be a grievance mechanism that reflects the moral fact that the way history is taught is a matter not only for national governments - democratic or otherwise - but of human rights below and international relations above. I like the model of the European Court of Human Rights, to which both individuals and other member states can bring cases about the misbehaviour of national governments. But instead of legal judges we would have a panel of internationally respected academic historians. False, substantially misleading, or unjust official histories and school curricula would lead to binding legal rulings against propagandist governments, including punitive fines and reform requirements.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Marriage Equality Is Not Enough

The success of the campaign to legalise gay marriage across many western countries is quite astonishing. Political and popular opposition has crumbled in the face of the reasonable demand for a public justification for banning it. The feeble excuses for arguments trotted out by its opponents - including religious institutions, talking heads, politicians and lawyers in court - are increasingly perceived as mere rationalisations for bigotry. This is democracy as public reasoning at its best (and has been cited as such by political philosophers - e.g.).

Yet I see something to regret in the line of reasoning behind the 'marriage equality' movement. Proponents have overwhelmingly argued that it is unfair to treat homosexual relationships differently from heterosexual ones because they are in every significant respect the same. As a rhetorical strategy to advance marriage rights and the acceptance of homosexuals in general this argument may be justified by its political success. But as a contribution to public reasoning such a justification is disappointing. It does not really advance the idea of equality of deep freedom because it is a demand to have one's conformity recognised rather than to have one's difference respected.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Liberalism in spite of Christianity

The idea that 'Western' ethical values and beliefs draw from and continue to depend upon a shared Christian heritage is widely held, and has even been seriously advanced by such notable non-religious philosophers as Richard Rorty and Jürgen Habermas. Certainly Christian moral theology has left us some valuable ideas and intuitions (and some bad ones) but the Christian origins thesis neglects an essential part of the history: liberalism's birth in the Enlightenment required overcoming the core moral, epistemological and political axioms of Christianity.

If Christianity seems relatively friendly to liberal values nowadays, particularly in juxtaposition with Islam, that is the result not of a deep underlying affinity but of Christianity's intellectual defeat by Enlightenment philosophers followed by its political taming by pragmatic statesmen [previously]. In light of this we should be sceptical of Western chauvinism about liberalism, for example in the Muslim world, for the history of liberalism shows not that only Christian cultures can adopt liberal values, but that even Christian cultures can.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Just Give Money to the Poor: The case for a Global Basic Income

Poverty used to be a reflection of scarcity. Now it is a problem of identification, targeting and distribution. And that is a problem that can be solved. (The Economist's briefing on poverty)
Poverty may be the natural condition of human beings, but it is not inevitable. Extreme scarcity, like the ancient scourges of cholera or polio, has been eliminated by our own efforts from most of the world. We could eliminate it entirely if we chose. The world as a whole is now so rich that we could easily afford to simply give every destitute person an unearned claim on our collective economic wealth sufficient to lift them out of extreme scarcity.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Debating MOOCs

The debate about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is becoming increasingly polarised, as tends to happen with debates about educational reform. Education systems embody numerous and often contradictory goals and values - like equality and meritocracy, employability and virtuous citizenship. They also have millions of stake-holders and hundreds of organised interest groups, with different perspectives, material interests and beliefs. This is why education is so intensely political. The status quo represents a tenuous equilibrium - or grudging stalemate - between these competing values, groups, and interests. Certainly this is not an optimal equilibrium, but it is one that cannot be moved away from without harming values and interests that some people hold dear. No matter what kind of educational reform one proposes, at least some stake-holders will object vociferously.

In the case of MOOCs, the polarisation seems to be particularly between tech optimists (all the tech intellectuals seem to be optimists) and pessimistic academics, particularly in the humanities (e.g. this open letter to Michael Sandel). I appreciate that the glib rhetoric of the TED Talk Mafia about our shiny egalitarian digital future displays a singular shallowness of vision that is in need of critique. Yet so far I haven't seen much of that from the academics who are fighting back against this massively disruptive trend in higher education. Many of their complaints look like a rationalisation of their own unenlightened self-interest rather than following from any real consideration of the interests of students.

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Case for Ethical Warning Labels on Animal Products

Like cigarettes, meat and dairy packaging should include no nonsense factual warnings about the negative consequences of one's consumption choices. Just as with cigarettes, exercising our sovereign right to free choice requires that we be adequately informed about the significant negative implications of our choices by someone other than the manufacturer that wants us to buy their product. In this case the significant consequences relate to living up to one's ethical values rather than safe-guarding one's prudential interests in long-term health. But the principle is the same.

Thanks to whoever made this mock-up. Via the Vegan Mothership

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Love's Labours Lost: How Robots Will Transform Human Intimacy

An elderly nursing home resident with a Paro robot companion
Source
The robots are coming. Even if they don't actually think, they will behave enough like they do to take over most of the cognitive labour humans do, just as fossil-fuel powered machines displaced human muscle power in the 19th and 20th centuries. I've written elsewhere about the kind of changes this new industrial revolution implies for our political and moral economies if we are to master its utopian possibilities and head off its dystopian threats. But robots won't merely be set to work out in the world. They will also move into our homes, with consequences for human intimacy as we now know it. Robots will not only be able to do our household chores, but care work, performing the labours of love without ever loving. I see two distinct tendencies at work. First, because robots will allow us to economise on love, inter-human intimacy may become attenuated as we have less need of each other. Second, because robots will perform care better than we can, robots may become objectively more attractive than humans as intimate companions. 

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Truth vs Justice at the International Criminal Court

The International Criminal Court, and the one-off tribunals it is intended to replace, face a tension if not a conflict between the aims of truth and justice. Bringing the perpetrators of awful crimes against humanity to justice is of course the official reason for these courts, but bringing out the truth of what happened is also usually cited. However I have the distinct impression that the Courts themselves have little faith in their ability to provide justice and see their service to truth as their greatest contribution.