Monday, 14 July 2014

Does the Utilitarian Argument for Vegetarianism Add Up?

The contemporary animal rights movement owes a great intellectual debt to Peter Singer's pathbreaking book Animal Liberation (1975). 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. And 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 the intellectual respectability it has granted the animal rights movement is undermined. Singer's utilitarianism can't do the job it is supposed to do – it can neither justify the normative conclusions of the book 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 arguments 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 Labour's 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.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Britain's sudden and bizarre resentment of migration

Source
All three of Britain's major political parties are competing to sound tough on migrants. I can't really condemn them for that, however, since they seem to be reluctantly acceding to the popular demand reflected in the opinion polls and the rise of 'nativist' political parties like UKIP. The successful diffusion of anti-racist social norms in recent decades has constrained the most natural expressions of anti-migrant prejudices. But the bizarre arguments now being trotted out about the harm foreigners do to British prosperity, rights, and culture remain an expression of xenophobia rather than reason.

Friday, 22 November 2013

The myth that rights come with duties

Governments and tabloid newspapers constantly bemoan the unbalanced character of civil and human rights. "Don't they realise that society will collapse if rights are not balanced by duties?" they cry. The superficial attractiveness of this reactionary rhetoric has done much to undermine public support for the concept of rights. It must be challenged.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Moral philosophy about global warming

What contribution can moral philosophers make to public reasoning about global warming?

I make two recommendations, concerning style and substance. First, moral philosophers should be oriented to investigating rather than moralising. Our contributions to public reasoning about global warming must do more than select and promulgate an existing moral account in the usual style of normative ethics. Our work should engage with the moral complexity of the issue rather than exhort the public to follow some simplified view. Second, moral philosophers should make particular efforts to engage collaboratively rather than adversarially with social scientists working in this area. The natural sciences alone are an insufficient basis for analysing the causes of global warming and its meaning for us. Economics in particular can be seen as a branch of applied moral philosophy, and is rich in concepts and techniques highly relevant to the moral understanding of global warming.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Why I do not wear a poppy

It is that time of the year again. Volunteers at train stations and shopping centres, often wearing military uniforms, are selling little red paper and plastic poppies to remember the service of British veterans. These little paper poppies have long taken over the official remembrance day and converted it into a month long ritual from which one cannot opt out without having to take a position. Well, here is my position.

I reject the coerciveness of the poppy ritual, the way it tries to bring everyone together around a single shared narrative of remembrance, with its compulsory yet glib emotions of gratitude and sorrow. I reject the unquestioning acceptance of the value of that military service and the implied necessity and meaningfulness of war in general. And I reject the government's intimate involvement. What should be an occasion for remembering the political failures that lead to wars has been neatly converted into a propaganda exercise that forecloses reasoned public scrutiny of our government's past, present and future militarism.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Will we be able to justify the international birthright lottery to our grandchildren?

The recent drowning of several hundred illegal migrants off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa has caused a stir, as spectaculars tend to. But, really, this is no more than freak news. Like mass shootings in America or child abductions by strangers, it is a statistically insignificant event attached to an emotive story. Freak news events don't actually mean anything, but they look like they should.  They are a poor basis for political conversation and government policy because they tend to misdirect our attention from what is really important, for example by confusing our sense of vulnerability with objective risk.

Yet the stir around Lampedusa is itself worth looking into. The pope said such tragedies are shameful, but I would describe Europe's emotional state as one of embarrassment. The embarrassment relates to our reluctance to confront the hypocrisy embedded in how we think about immigrants from the poor and broken parts of the world. On the one hand, we have high moral standards about our duty of care to refugees fleeing lives of squalor, fear, and oppression and these are embedded in various international treaties and national laws. On the other hand, if we applied those standards generally, we would have to accept that over a billion people have some legitimate claim to refugee status.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

The real Adam Smith problem: How to 'live well' in commercial society

Adam, Adam, Adam Smith
Listen what I charge you with!
Didn’t you say
In the class one day
That selfishness was bound to pay?
Of all doctrines that was the Pith,
Wasn’t it, wasn’t it, wasn’t it, Smith?
(Stephen Leacock, Hellements of Hickonomics, 1936)

Friday, 23 August 2013

Holding tyrants personally accountable

The newspapers today are full of pictures of Syrian children gassed in their sleep. An atrocity that, like those which preceded it, the world seems powerless to prevent or punish. Our inter-national institutions are manifestly unable to secure peace and justice. Their tools - diplomatic, economic, and military sanctions - are limited in effectiveness and difficult to use in the first place. Yet perhaps there is something that we can do about such moral outrages. It was long believed to be a duty of all good men to kill a tyrant. My suggestion is that we revive the tradition of tyrannicide, but make it even more effective by finding a way to give bad men a good reason to kill a tyrant.

Friday, 31 May 2013

Seizing the Utopian Possibilities of our Robot Future


Baxter is coming for your job
According to increasingly credible accounts (egeg, eg), the robot economy is on its way. Perhaps by as early as 2040 robots will be smart and dexterous enough to do pretty much everything humans call work as well as or better than us, and at a lower cost. If this scenario comes about, human societies and indeed the human condition will be radically changed. But will this future be utopian or dystopian? At least two dystopian threats must be actively addressed: inequality and meaninglessness.

Friday, 10 May 2013

How to justify a ban on the burqa (or anything else)

Bans on wearing the burqa and other face-covering religious garb (such as are under consideration or recently passed in several European countries) fall under a class of restrictions by government on the free choice of individuals over private matters. They thus have the appearance of being illiberal, of disrespecting people's natural rights to manage their own affairs in general, and to follow their own plan of life in particular. In fact, it is possible to justify such a ban in liberal terms. But not just any kind of ban will do.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Freedom of the press is not the same as freedom of speech

Freedom of the press is often conflated with freedom of speech, a conceptual error that leads to excessive deference to media corporations. Properly understood, the freedom of the press requires that mass-media corporations be free from government control, but not that they be free from regulation in the public interest. Whether or not the press supports rather than impedes individuals' freedom of expression, public reasoning, and the accountability of politicians depends on how  the media market is set up and policed. 

Friday, 7 December 2012

Human rights, the rule of law, and British parliamentary sovereignty: Prisoners' right to vote

7 years ago the UK was found in breach of its legal obligations to uphold the European Convention on Human Rights for its blanket ban on prisoners voting (Ruling of the European Court of Human Rights).Yet the British parliament has still not managed to pass legislation to address the fundamentally arbitrary and discriminatory character of this ban, by providing a justification of disenfranchisement that relates to the nature of particular crimes and making it an explicit part of sentencing. Rather, parliament is now in open revolt against the very principle of a supra national court telling it what to do.

Friday, 21 September 2012

The concept of 'Religious Defamation' has no foundation in liberal principle. Only liberal fear

The recent furore over the internet video, The Innocence of Muslims, has raised familiar concerns about the limits of free speech with respect to religion. A number of the arguments appealed to in support of a ban on insulting religion have the deceptive appearance of being founded on universal liberal principles, such as freedom from harm, anti-discrimination, state neutrality, and tolerance. This is certainly the case for the decade long effort by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to create an international norm against the 'defamation of religion' - i.e. blasphemy - for example by passing annual resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council (eg).

Perhaps liberals should be flattered that even our opponents in this debate are casting their arguments in terms of liberal principles. Yet since the very governments and other organisations deploying them are themselves guilty of heinous crimes against the rights and freedoms (including the religious freedoms) of those under their power, it is clearly merely rhetorical. Indeed, the main function of such liberal rhetoric may have little to do with trying to rationally convince liberal polities of the strength of the principled arguments for censorship. Rather, what it provides is a figleaf of respectability to rationalise away the shame liberals should feel as we back down from our moral principles out of simple fear of physical violence.