Saturday, 28 February 2015

Children are special, but not particularly important

A strange idea has taken over the social conscience so entirely that it is a taboo even to say what it is. Children have come to be seen as more valuable than adults not despite but because of their psychological immaturity, the quality that makes persons objectively valuable.

Consider the appearance of "baby on board" placards from the mid-1980s.
Nobody would have placed such a sign on a car if it were not already understood by society that the life of a human achieves its peak value at birth and declines thereafter. A toddler is almost as precious as a baby, but a teenager less so, and by the time that baby turns fifty, it seems that nobody cares much anymore if someone crashes into her car. You don't see a lot of vehicles with placards that read, "Middle-aged accountant on board." (Danielle and Astro Teller)
I'm afraid we have been the victims of a collective confusion. Fortunately philosophy can help.

I

Children are morally special in one particular - their extreme neediness. They have extensive often urgent needs that only suitably motivated adults can meet, and the younger they are, the greater their neediness. That makes children's care and protection a moral priority in any just society - there are lots of things that aren't as important and should rightly give way to meeting children's needs. As a result, children create multiple obligations upon their care-givers, as well second-order obligations on society in general, to ensure those needs are met.

Yet the fact that you should give way to an ambulance attending an emergency doesn't mean that the person in the ambulance is more important than you; only that her needs right now are more important than you getting to work on time. Likewise, the immanence of children's neediness should often determine how we rank the priorities of actions we want to do, such as interrupting a movie to attend to a baby's cries. But such an action ranking is not a guide to the relative worth of children and adults, or of babies and teenagers. There will surely be times when something even more urgent occurs - such as someone having a heart-attack in front of you - that requires a baby's cries be neglected for the moment.

II

As a psychological phenomenon it is not especially remarkable that the moral importance of attending to children's needs is routinely transformed into a general impression that children themselves are particularly important. But the mixing up of neediness with worth is only one source of our greater confusion. The other major source is rather more blameworthy: the valorisation of psychological immaturity.

For a peculiarity of the moral priority we grant to the neediness of children is that we do not apply it to equally needy adults, most obviously those whose mental and physical faculties decline in old age in a somewhat symmetrical way to the development of those faculties in children. If we only cared about neediness we would care more about, and take on more personal responsibility for, meeting the needs of the disabled in general without regard for their age.

Of course we don't do that. We seem to place a special value on children because of their blankness, the fact that they have not thought or done anything interesting or important yet and that their identity - their relationship to themselves and to others - is still unformed. (Some abortion activists make a great deal of the innocence of foetuses, the ultimate non-achievers.) As children grow up and become more like people, with a life of their own – with friends and favourite things and secrets and dreams and ideas that are genuinely theirs - they seem to become less valuable.

I can't explain this bizarre phenomenon.

Maybe it has to do with religious concepts of sin and the idea of innocence as remaining untouched by the corruption of the world. Although, if the world is really so bad, I don't know why parents would inflict it on others.

Maybe we are particularly affected by the discrepancy between potential and actual achievements - a baby could grow up to be anything at all, but with every step it takes more of those brilliant possibilities fall away. But life is for living - what do possibilities matter if you don't take them up? A blank canvas is perfectly free of mistakes, but also perfectly free of art.

Maybe we just have an evolved doodah in our brain that makes us think babies are irresistibly cute and really important, so that we wouldn't throw the annoying things out of the cave. But evolutionary histories aren't moral justifications.

Maybe it is because the deaths of children seem especially significant events because they are so unusual these days, thanks to our mastery of communicable diseases. When the deaths of children receive so much more attention than the deaths of adults we may just assume that their lives must count for more.

Maybe all of those and more. In any case the result is eminently absurd. We have it back to front. People's lives get more valuable as they 'grow up' because in growing up we gain more life to live.

III

The greatest part of the value of a human life, as opposed to that of a merely sentient animal like a mouse, relates to the development of personhood. Persons are what children are supposed to grow up to become. Persons are able to relate to themselves in a forward and backward looking fashion, to tell a story about where they have come from and where they are going, to determine how they should live, to relate to other persons as independent equals, to explain and justify themselves, to make and keep promises, and so on. Personhood in this sense normally develops over the course of a life, peaking generally around the mid 50s, the traditional prime of life, before beginning to decline again.

The trouble with our attitude to children is that the less like this idea of a person they are the more valuable children's lives are supposed to be. The younger and more inchoate their minds and the shallower their ability to relate to themselves, others, or the world the more significant their lives are held to be and, for example, the greater the tragedy if one should die.

Of course the death of a child is a tragedy for her parents. But the fact of their grief, and our readiness to sympathise with it, doesn't address the issue of relative significance. Is it really the case that the death of a baby is an objectively worse thing to happen in this world than the death of a toddler than the death of a teenager than the death of a middle-aged adult?

The death of an adult person is a tragedy because a sophisticated unique consciousness has been lost; a life in progress, of memories and plans and ideals and relationships with other persons, has been broken off. The death of a young child is also a tragedy, but it seems a comparatively one-sided one: the loss of an tremendously important part of her parents' lives.

What about fairness? Isn't it more unfair for a child to die than an adult, since the adult will have gotten to live so many more years? Not so. Unless one wants to accept the ultimate value of the life of the just fertilised egg. Death affects the child and the adult differently. The younger the child the less real her presence in the world, including to herself, and the more she resembles the generic outline or idea of a child. By contrast an adult has developed much further her life's project of constructing and refining a unique identity of her own and therefore she, and the world, has much more to lose by her death.

I don't mean to suggest that the only way to value a life is in death. Think of it this way. An acorn has what Aristotle called a telos, its ‘life's ambition' is to grow up into a mighty oak tree. But it would be odd to claim that an acorn was therefore worth more than an already existing oak tree. Likewise, the telos of a child is to grow up into an adult, a full person. Childhood is an intermediate state that is meant to be overcome by something better. It would be odd to claim that the thing which is better is worth less. To do so suggests that we want to deny the child's telos - we don't want her to grow up.

IV

What follows from such an analysis? Not, I suggest, that we should care any less for children but that we should care more for adults.

First, we should attend equally to the urgent needs of any living human being, including the need to be loved, no matter whether they are very young or very old.

Second, we should do more to recognise the particular value of the lives of the middle-aged. On the principle that a good idea realised is better than a good idea merely, we should acknowledge that oak trees are more valuable than acorns. Adults live fuller, deeper, and more real lives than those who have yet to grow up.


Notes
This essay was published in The Critique. An earlier version appeared on 3 Quarks Daily.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Bullshit vs Truthiness

In 2005 Harry Frankfurt re-published a wonderful philosophical essay, 'On Bullshit', which became a bestseller. Also in 2005 Stephen Colbert introduced a new word, 'Truthiness' -  "the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true" - which became Merriam Webster's word of the year.

Both these terms are motivated by concern about the decline of public discourse in America, and their popularity suggests that many people share that concern. Yet they also differ in their specific diagnoses of the problem. Bullshit is a form of artful deception of audiences by speakers; truthiness is a collaborative exercise in self-deception in which the audience is a willing participant. Bullshit denotes an abuse of expert authority, such as by TV pseudo-scientists or politicians; truthiness is a radically democratic view of truth as a matter of personal opinion - whatever one finds it agreeable to believe. Bullshit is what leftists think rightist politicians do to win votes; truthiness is how they actually succeed.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo: Assholes can't be Heroes

Source
Articles in defence of free speech are pouring out of all the usual places. They are eminently unnecessary. We don't need a theory of free speech or a defence of enlightenment liberalism to condemn sadistic murder, or to go through the rigmarole of weighing up the justice of fanatics' pretended motivations.

Liberal principles are at stake here, but they are those principles that constrain democracies from intemperate reactions, the ones that went missing in America after the World Trade Center attacks. Indeed many of the supposed defenders of our liberal values are enthusiastically carrying out the murderers' plan by promoting an us vs them tribalism. The same newspapers who routinely call for banning speech that offends their editors' sense of popular prejudices now pretend to defend the right to be offensive, but only, of course, to those 'who hate our freedoms', the evil muslim threat to civilisation.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Should governments be involved in the construction of our preferences?

‘Libertarian paternalism' is Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's big idea for improving individual choice-making while respecting our autonomy. It has inspired fierce and sustained academic criticism from philosophers and economists from both the left and the right - as well as from less distinguished commentators like Glen Beck. Ultimately though most of these critiques seem to be complaining more about the depressing findings of behavioural economics research than Thaler and Sunstein's positive proposals to nudge us to choose better.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Why Prison is Unfit for Civilised Society

Prison time is a very severe punishment. JS Mill likened it to being consigned to a living tomb. Any society that employs it should do so with care and restraint. Yet we do not. Partly because we think that prison is a humane punishment, it is drastically over-used in many countries, to the point of cruelty. Aside from failing in humanity, prison does not even perform well at the specific functions generally asked of a criminal justice system, namely, deterrence, retribution, security, and rehabilitation. We need to reconsider our over-reliance on prison, and whether other types of punishment - even corporal and capital punishment - may sometimes be more effective and humane.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The Case for Subsidising Art (and Taxing Junk Entertainment)

High art – i.e. real art - like Booker prize winning novels and Beethoven is objectively superior to junk entertainment like Candy Crush and most reality TV. Some egalitarians of taste dispute the existence of any objective distinction in quality between pushpin and Pushkin and say that the value of anything is merely the subjective value people put on it. I will humour them. The case for the objective superiority of art can be made entirely within a narrowly utilitarian -‘economistic' - account of subjective value, because in the long run consuming junk entertainment is less pleasurable than consuming art. Art is indeed the most efficient use of your time.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Reparations for Women

Source
Even in supposedly liberal societies women remain systematically disadvantaged in what is expected of them, how their contributions are evaluated, and what they are taken to deserve. One of the more obvious signs and consequences of this injustice is the gender income gap - that men tend to earn much more over their lives than women do. We should stop dithering and just end this.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Is parenthood morally respectable?

Becoming a parent is a private choice, but it has public costs. Society is presented with extensive and expensive obligations to ensure your children a decent quality of life and their development into successful adults and citizens, and that means massive tax-subsidies for their health, education, household income, and so on. In addition, children have a demographic impact on public goods like the environment which creates additional costs for existing members of society, and perhaps for humanity as a whole.

Does that make parenthood an irresponsible and selfish lifestyle choice?

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 (1975), also known as ‘the Bible of the Animal Liberation Movement’. 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 case against harming animals, such as by using them for food or experiments, based on their equal moral status, their right to have their suffering counted equally with that of humans.

Singer's book has influenced many people,including myself. Yet, reading and rereading it, I have come to wonder whether it is really good philosophy. Its rhetorical effectiveness relies on pathos - an appeal to the sentiments of the audience. Despite multiple revised editions, Singer's official argument, his logos, is far from clear or compelling.

It is disappointing that the revered urtext of the animal rights movement lacks the intellectual rigorousness it claims. Worse, the flawed utilitarian case pressed by Singer is intended to foreclose the consideration of 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 capability to produce more with less. As Keynes prophesied 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.