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

America's decades long national argument about guns 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.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Liberalism Insists on the Freedom to Insult Religion

Should insulting religion be banned? The reason the idea is still debated in the 21st century is that it has been reframed as a debate within liberalism rather than against it. The arguments set forward by groups such as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (eg) nowadays have a liberal sound to them: Freedom from Harm; Anti-discrimination; State Neutrality; and Tolerance. But in fact they are not liberal at all. They do not respect individuals, nor are they compatible with a free society.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

What Terrorists Want - and How to Stop Them Getting It

Source
In order to talk sensibly about terrorism we have to acknowledge its rationality. Set aside the armchair psychologising and Muslim blaming that goes on after every atrocity or ISIS video. That low grade psychobabble turns tragic events into compelling TV narratives and gets political opportunists mainstream attention. But even if it made better sense it would still be irrelevant. If we want to know why people commit terrorist acts we must ask what they are supposed to achieve. The reasons why particular individuals are recruited to terrorist groups and causes are distinct from the strategic logic of terrorism itself, the choice of technique. Terrorism is neither a psychological illness nor a goal in itself. Terrorism is the kind of warfare that the weak wage against the strong.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

The Concept of White Privilege Does More Harm Than Good

'White privilege' and its cousins have achieved enormous prominence on the American left, from which it now seems to be spreading around the Western world. As a slogan it has an undeniable rhetorical power. But from a moral perspective it is flawed: at best mistaken about the core problem of racial injustice and at worst racist in its own right. At the political level it is divisive - arguably deliberately so - and thus incapable of supporting the consensus needed to build a just society.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Saving The Planet: Why Cap-and-Trade Is Not Fit For Purpose

Guest post by Tadhg Ó Laoghaire 

"It's not easy being green"
                                                                       -Kermit the Frog

A consensus is finally shaping up among international policy-makers. Market-based emissions trading has become the modern world's primary pollution control mechanism, forming a key part of various national and international bodies' commitment to climate change mitigation. The largest such market is the European Union's Emissions Trading System, which accounts for over 90% of the world's carbon market volume, but market trading systems are also a key part of the Kyoto protocol under the Clean Development Mechanism, and looks set to be adopted in China in the near future. Unfortunately cap-and-trade emissions systems are structurally incapable of delivering us from climate change.

Monday, 4 January 2016

The Brain Gain: Why Smart People Should be Encouraged to Leave Developing Countries

Guest post by Denise Coenegracht


Skilled workers emigrating from developing countries are good for us, but bad for the developing countries At least, according to the received wisdom. When considering the facts, a different picture emerges. One with many economic upsides for the migrant's home country. Meet the brain gain.

Monday, 14 December 2015

This Christmas, give the gift of a blameless life to someone you love

Do you want to be a good person but find yourself always falling short?

It may not be your fault. These days it is difficult to feel like a good person. In fact the harder you try, the more you may feel like a failure.

The calls on our moral attention are multiplying at an extraordinary rate. We are living through a perfect storm of social justice movements, activist NGOs, an unusually plausible pope, and a flood of academic moral philosophers trying to write for the public. Globalisation means that we have to take account of the furthest implications of our actions. The internet and social media spread the news of our ever increasing obligations and strike down those who sin without mercy.

Friday, 11 December 2015

Is Home Schooling Morally Defensible?

Let me start with the obvious. Home schooling is an objectively deficient form of education. It inhibits the development of life skills, such as for negotiating social institutions and employability. It undermines political community, such as by preventing children from learning society's common sense and dividing them from citizens of different homes. It provides a lower general quality of education since its 'teachers' know nothing more of what or how to teach than their textbooks tell them.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Rich countries are not to blame for global warming but they should still pay more to stop it

An unfortunate side effect of the moralisation of global warming is the blame game. A large number of people seem to think it makes sense to address the enormous problem of global warming by putting various rich countries on trial for their crimes against the atmosphere over the past 200 years. This project is a foolish one, a backwards looking side-show that - perhaps conveniently - distracts political attention from the pragmatic policy debates we need for actually addressing the problem (previously). But even if we were to take it seriously it wouldn't give the answers one might expect.