Monday, 26 November 2018

Peer Reviewers Should Be Paid

Academia is an extended set of conversations all going on at once. We academics score status points for making a contribution that other people find interesting because it helps them with their often rather specific problems (say, about a new interpretation of Galileo's conception of physical laws or a new method for identifying pancreatic cancer cells). The more that other academics value your contribution (by citing it in their own contributions), the more status points you get for it. (Google's PageRank is based on the same system.)

I said academia was conversational, but these are not normal conversations. First because the standard intervention is a 10,000 word long monologue. Second because journals curate what is good enough to be allowed into the conversation using peer-review. These journals are another layer in the academic status economy. They try to publish those monologues of most interest to most people and thus most likely to increase the status of their journal within those academic conversations. The higher the status of a journal the more able it is to bestow prestige upon those who publish in it, and so the more academics will send it their most exciting ideas. A virtuous circle of prestige appears around the journal, which translates into outsized profits for its multinational corporate owner  - since every university needs to subscribe to it or risk missing out on the most exciting part of the conversation.

If we were building it from scratch, I don't think we would set up a system like this in which publicly funded research is privatised and commoditised, resulting in enormous profits for a handful of companies while systematically excluding ordinary citizens, journalists, and poorer country universities from access. There are many attempts to change things, from protests against price-gouging behaviours, to boycotts of the most loathed company, Elsevier, to outright defiance (pirate sites like scihub and libgen), to the creation of free Open Access alternatives. I wish them well.* Here I want to open up a new front that is not about access but how the product gets made: the treatment of peer reviewers

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Can Corporations Be ‘Good Citizens’?

Source
The idea of ‘good corporate citizenship’ has become popular recently among business ethicists and corporate leaders. You may have noticed its appearance on corporate websites and CEO speeches. But what does it mean and does it matter? Is it any more than a new species of public relations flimflam to set beside terms like ‘corporate social responsibility’ and the ‘triple bottom line’? Is it just a metaphor?

The history of the term does not promise much. It does indeed seem to have evolved out of corporate speak – how corporations represent themselves rather than how they view themselves – selected, perhaps, for sounding reassuring but vague. Its popularity has far preceded its definition; ‘corporate citizenship’ is still evolving, looking for a place to settle.

But what it is about is important. For it represents a political turn to the old question, Who are corporations for and how is their power to be managed? Are corporations bound to serve society’s interest, or are they free to follow their own? Are they public institutions, part of the governance of our society and publicly accountable to us for their actions, or are they private associations accountable only to their managers and owners?

Monday, 8 October 2018

No One Actually Believes Fake News. So What's The Problem?

The statistics are shocking. A Russian troll farm created false anti-Clinton stories and distributed them on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. As many as 126 million Facebook users may have encountered at least one piece of Russian propaganda; Russian tweets received as many as 288 million views. The Russians, like Trump's campaign itself, leveraged the AdTech infrastructure developed by social media companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter to identify and target those most receptive to their lies and provocations.

What is going on? Is this something new? Does it matter?

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Invisible Hand Ethics

"[B]y directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention….By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good." (Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, IV.2.9)
Doing right by others is difficult and time-consuming. Hence the attraction of what I call Invisible Hand Ethics, in which we mind our own business and the ethics takes care of itself.

This is modelled on Adam Smith's famous account of how the overall outcome of lots of self-interested actions in the economic sphere can be good for society as a whole. Bakers just want to make a buck, but their self-interest produces the bread that feeds the people. Their competition for sales keeps prices down. The customers in turn just want the cheapest best bread, but wind up helping the best bakers make a good living. You get the idea. Smith argued that in the economic domain this could be a far more reliable mechanism for achieving good outcomes than good intentions.

Friday, 27 July 2018

Tyrants Aren’t Smarter Than Democrats. Just More Evil

Tyrants like Vladamir Putin and Kim Jong Un seem to win a lot of their geopolitical contests against democratic governments. How do they do it?
A common explanation is that these tyrants are better at playing the game. They are strategic geniuses leading governments with decades of experience in foreign affairs and characterised by single-mindedness and a long-term horizon. Of course they are going to make better geopolitical moves than democratic governments riven by political factionalism and only able to think as far ahead as the next election.
This explanation is wrong. Tyrants don’t succeed because they are especially skilled at the game of geopolitics, but because they are baddies. Tyrants make bold moves because they are willing to subject their country (and the whole world) to more risk. They can do that because they care less than democrats, and hence worry less, about bringing harms to their people. Like a hedge fund manager, they can afford to take big risks because they are not playing with their own money. When tyrants win it is because of luck, not brilliance. This is easier to see when tyrants lose – as they nearly all do in the end, when their luck runs out.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Can Free Speech Survive the Internet?

The internet has made it easier than ever to speak to others. It has empowered individuals to publish our opinions without first convincing a media company of their commercial value; to find and share others' views without the fuss of photocopying and mailing newspaper clippings; and to respond to those views without the limitations of a newspaper letter page. In this sense the internet has been a great boon to the freedom of speech. 

Yet that very ease of communication creates new limits to the freedom part of free speech: the ability to speak our mind to those we wish without fear of reprisal.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Productivity is the Wrong Argument for Diversity

If you look around your workplace and everyone, or least all the managers, look the same - same sex, skin colour, social class, age - then your company has a diversity problem. But why is it a problem?

Because the most obvious explanation is a failure of meritocracy. Such features as the colour of one's skin or sex are arbitrary and irrelevant to people's ability to do a job. Therefore the fact that people of certain skin colours or sex are missing from your workplace relative to the wider society presents a prima facie challenge to the fairness of your company's criteria for employment and promotion. To assume otherwise - for example that people of certain colours, sex, class, age, happen to have different (inferior) career preferences or different (inferior) talents has no credibility. It is to assume the exact set of facts most convenient to make a problem someone else's, rather than to take responsibility for investigating and fixing it.

Call this the negative argument for diversity: If you don't have internal diversity in line with the wider society then you are probably treating people unfairly and you need to investigate and try to fix it. For example by identifying and mitigating biases in how job applicants are evaluated and structural impediments to their career progress. It leaves a lot of details still to be argued out, but I think it is the right way to go.

But there is another kind of argument that is now much more common, the positive argument that organisations should promote diversity because it pays off. This is the argument I want to criticise, on the grounds that it jeopardises the negative argument from fairness; reduces individuals to stereotypes about groups; and perpetuates unjust stereotypes and social relations.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Crime Hurts. Justice Should Heal

Judicial punishment is the curious idea that individuals deserve to be punished by the state for breaking its laws. Intellectually this is rather counter-intuitive. If crime is so bad because of the social trauma it causes then setting out to hurt more people would seems a strange way to make things better. There are intellectual arguments for retributive punishment of course, many of them rather ingenious. But they have the look of post hoc rationalisations for a brute social fact: it just so happens that we like making wrongdoers suffer.

The modern criminal justice system – bloated and terroristic – is the product of government expansionism combined with this societal vindictiveness.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

The Revolt Against Liberalism: Diagnosing and Defeating Populism

Experience suggests that if men cannot struggle on behalf of a just cause because that just cause was victorious in an earlier generation, then they will struggle against the just cause. They will struggle for the sake of struggle. They will struggle, in other words, out of a certain boredom: for they cannot imagine living in a world without struggle. And if the greater part of the world in which they live is characterized by peaceful and prosperous liberal democracy, then they will struggle against that peace and prosperity, and against democracy. (Francis Fukuyama, The End of History, p.330)
Liberal democracy won the Cold War but a generation later it is losing the peace. In country after country across the comfortable, safe, prosperous western world populist parties and movements dedicated to its overthrow are advancing steadily towards power. Why is this happening? A righteous indignation enabled by complacency. What can be done? Radical liberalism

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Welcome to Philosophy! Make the most of your time here



[Adapted from introductory remarks to my first year Ethics course at Tilburg University]

If I have calculated correctly, mine is the very first class in your new academic careers in philosophy. This is a great privilege for me, but also a great responsibility. It is also an opportunity for me to say some very general things about academic philosophy, about what to expect in the next few years and how to make the most of your studies.

Most of you will have encountered philosophy before in some form. Perhaps you took a high school class. Perhaps, you've done some reading in your spare time or watched a lecture online by a famous philosopher like Slavoj Žižek or you hang out on the philosophy reddit. Whatever your experience, doing a whole degree in philosophy is going to be much bigger and stranger and harder. For example, right from the beginning you will be reading classic works written by expert philosophers for each other, and trying to make sense of their intricately argued claims about topics - such as the computational theory of mind - that you have never heard of before. And then reading equally clever counter-arguments by other philosophers.

Studying philosophy is exhilarating, but it can also seem overwhelming. So think of this as a kind of map to help you find your way, but also as a treasure map to motivate you to keep going when things get tough. 

Friday, 6 October 2017

The Political Philosophy of America's Guns

After every mass killing a familiar ritual plays out. Gun control and gun rights advocates flood the airwaves to present their case, fail miserably to persuade anyone who didn't already agree with them, and leave everybody on both sides even angrier than before. America's national conversation about guns is a toxic stalemate, an abject failure of the ideal of democracy as government by discussion.

The trouble is that America's decades-long national argument about guns is deeper than it looks. It is not a normal political debate about addressing policy to problems, but about what kind of politics to have. It is fundamentally about how citizens should relate to each other and the state, and that makes it a matter of political philosophy, Politics with a capital P. That in turn explains why the debate seems to go round and round in circles, and the division and frustration it inspires.

Of course it is up to Americans to decide what kind of society they should have, not philosophers, and certainly not foreign ones like me. Indeed, part of my argument is that even this most fundamental question must be decided politically, by the people, and not by appeal to the special authority of sacred constitutional principles or social science or even philosophy. Philosophers' pronouncements of truth and rightness have no special authority over politics, nor should they. What philosophical analysis can do is offer new perspective and argumentative resources by which a political debate such as this one might be improved from its toxic stalemate.

So what does my philosophical perspective come down to? First a diagnosis. Both sides of the gun control debate know they are right. But only one side recognises it as a fundamentally philosophical dispute. The other has systematically evaded the real debate about values in favour of the faux objectivity of a statistical public health argument. Second some positive advice. The advocates of gun control need to take the political philosophy of the gun rights movement seriously and show that a society without guns is a better society; not that it is a safer one.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Almost No Disasters Are Natural

A natural disaster is a disaster because it involves a lot of human suffering, not because the event itself is especially big or spectacular. The destruction of an uninhabited island by a volcano is not a natural disaster, because it doesn't really matter to humans. A landslide doesn't matter, however enormous, unless there is a town at the bottom of the hill.

So what does the word ‘natural' add? We use it to demarcate the edges of responsibility. We don't use it very well.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

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 Piano Tiles and most reality TV. Some egalitarians of taste dispute the existence of any objective distinction in quality between pushpin and Pushkin because, they claim, 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 the most efficient use of your time.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

A Team Approach to Intergenerational Justice

We have difficulty living up to our obligations to future generations. To be precise, our problem is not not that we don’t care about what happens to the world after we're gone. It is that we can’t explain why we should care, and therefore cannot systematically think through and institutionalise the responsibilities implied. That might not matter so much - it hasn't mattered too much before in human history - except that we face at least one big intergenerational problem that just can't be muddled through: Climate Change.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Too Much Competition is Ruining Sport

Competition is amazing! It is the disruptive engine at the heart of the three key institutional innovations of modernity: market economies, democracy, and science. But despite its glamorous power, competition is not enough. Indeed it can be dangerous if it escapes from its box. In democracies, for example, the competition for power can so dominate politics that little actual governance gets done, as presently in America where elected politicians are forced to spend most of their time and energy raising money and running for their next election. In market economies, competition turns corporations into psychopaths concerned only to externalise costs and privatise benefits. The resulting race to the bottom, such as in Chinese food safety, can destroy lives and also entire industries. 

So far so obvious. But this is the season of the Olympics so this post will focus on a different problem of competition, the threat it poses to sport by emptying out the meaning from what has become an important part of our global - our human - culture.