Monday, 13 December 2010

Morality vs Ethics: the problem with trolleys

"Aha" says the Moral Philosopher triumphantly, polishing his monocle ferociously with a large handkerchief. "You have contradicted yourself! If you say yes to the first case you should say yes to the second, for you have already revealed your acceptance of the principle that one person should be sacrificed for the many."

Sunday, 5 December 2010

‘I bring good news about our bourgeois lives’: Why business is good for your soul

Deirdre McCloskey's Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce is a bold attempt to rehabilitate the much maligned bourgeoisie as the focus of a positive inter-twining of capitalism and ethics. Who are the bourgeoisie? People with middle-class values, temperament, and position.  People like us.  McCloskey argues, building on her extensive reading in economics, history, philosophy, religion and ethics, that we should recognise and embrace our bourgeois identity. For it is an ethical way of life that is not only instrumentally successful (showing up in our ever increasing wealth and freedom), but intrinsically valuable (showing up in the meaningfulness and richness of our middle-class lives).

Monday, 15 November 2010

A Critique of the Modern University part II: Research

I previously argued that universities fail at education, partly because academics are so committed to the life of a scholar: they want to learn, not teach (see part I). So perhaps the real contribution universities make to society comes from their research? On the one hand universities do produce a lot of it; on the other hand it is rarely useful to the rest of us. The struggle for real and important knowledge requires - surprise surprise - more than just setting up an academic bureaucracy and giving it money.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

A Critique of the Modern University part I: Education

Universities have become an increasingly significant part of the economy and modern life, affecting the lives of millions of people. But what do they really do for us? The most important arguments for the social value of the contemporary university system are its contributions to education and research (see part II). Unfortunately universities currently fail at both.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Why is Heterodox Economics a Joke?

Heterodox economics isn't taken seriously by anyone else, is unlikely to be taken seriously at any point in the future, and hardly seems to take itself seriously. Why would you? Heterodox economics has a massive inferiority complex and no self-discipline.

Monday, 4 October 2010

What has the EU done for You, lately?

As everyone knows, the EU has been tremendously successful in achieving its geopolitical goals 1) peacefully contain the dominant continental power, Germany, and 2) save Eastern Europe from the collapse of the USSR (just look at the former Soviet republics to see what would have happened otherwise). But these achievements have the drawback of being deeply dull, and even worse, about things that didn't even happen. What has the EU done for You, lately?

Saturday, 25 September 2010

What's the point of diversity?

Diversity is supposed to be massively important and in need of much protection, for example from the homogenising forces of globalisation: a Starbucks on every street, oh the horror! Diversity has associations with nice things like freedom (more choice), beauty (more variety, more forms), tolerance ('let a thousand flowers bloom'), and truth (more possibilities to explore mean more chance of hitting on the truth of the universe, etc). I suggest however that unless we are more specific about what what we mean by  "diversity", talk about its value is essentially gibberish.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Analytic Vs. Continental Philosophy

Analytic philosophy is rationalistic: rigorous, systematic, literal-minded, formal (logical), dry, and detached. It is modelled on physics and maths and is particularly popular in the Anglo-Saxon world. Continental philosophy is humanistic: reflexive, literary, essayistic, charismatic. It is modelled on literature and art and is particularly popular in France, Germany, and Latin America. These two traditions dominate contemporary philosophy, and they are largely mutually incomprehensible. This is unfortunate since their strengths and weaknesses are somewhat complementary.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

What's really new about Behavioural Economics?

Behavioural economics is the new kid on the economics block. It's young, brash, and pushing to take over from the ageing neoclassical orthodoxy. It has a new vision of how economics should work, but does it really see anything new?

Monday, 30 August 2010

Diagnosing and Refuting Conspiracy Thinking

The difficulty of conspiracy thinking is its pathological character; the problem of conspiracy thinking is the enormous danger of false positives. One way to identify and challenge conspiracy thinking is to evaluate its internal coherence: 'Do these claims even make sense in their own terms?'

Sunday, 1 August 2010

The philosopher Vs. management theory

Matthew Stewart has a PhD in philosophy but despite this managed to get, and keep, a job in management consultancy. His book The Management Myth provides an entertaining and insightful analysis of the theory, history, and practise of that mysterious but ubiquitous cult of the modern world:  "management".

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Who really owns cultural treasures?

Artistic and archaeological treasures are scattered throughout the world, often quite far from their places of origin. Is there something wrong with that? Who really owns such cultural treasures as the Elgin Marbles (sculptures from the Athens Parthenon) or Vermeer's paintings (17th century Dutch master, whose paintings are scattered through W. Europe and the USA)? Post-colonial nations in particular are quick to argue that such works were stolen from them (as indeed so much else certainly was), that their continued place in museums in New York, Paris or London is a continuation of colonial attitudes, and that they must be returned to their country of origin. But how are such claims justified? There seem to be 3 main ways of staking a claim on such works: national identity, law, and the "cultural heritage of all mankind"

Friday, 23 July 2010

Four kinds of sustainability

'Sustainability' concerns the relationship between humans and their natural environment over time. But there are various ethical understandings of that relationship with quite different implications. Two popular definitions actually repudiate human interdependence with nature by either making human interests completely subservient to a sacred nature, or by making nature completely subservient to human interests. Gro Brundtland's famous definition points in the right direction by focussing on the goal of sustainably meeting humanitarian needs, but her picture of human interests seems too narrow and technocratic. What we need is a definition that is humanistic without necessarily being human-centred.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Martha Nussbaum lectures Europe on religious accommodation: The 2010 Unseld Lecture

Martha Nussbaum is an extremely American-liberal philosopher with a strong interest in US constitutional law and freedom of religion [previously]. She has recently been promoting the tradition of religious accommodation she finds in American legal and political history to Europe, including at the 2010 Unseld Lecture at the University of Tübingen that I attended and which this essay is a response to. Unfortunately Nussbaum's lecture was more an assertion of the universality of a particular American model of relations between state and religion than an argument for its relevance to a European audience, with our quite different legal traditions, politics, social make-up and history.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Wisdom is about How to work out Where to look to find out Who to ask about What you need to know

Our modern society has achieved an amazing degree of division of labour in knowledge and hence specialisation, particularly in science, but co-ordinating that expert knowledge to make it available to society in general is surprisingly difficult. Consider the problems faced by the non-expert in accessing and employing expert knowledge to address particular problems. The politician who wants to know if GM crops are safe; the fisherfolk trying to work out what's happening to all the fish; the parents trying to assess risks of particular vaccinations for their child; and so on.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Bullshit News: An anatomy

Mainstream news media are supposed to provide a vital public service for democracy. Particularly newspapers since they have all those words. They are supposed to provide we the people with the accurate and relevant facts and analysis about the world that we can use to come to informed decisions about climate change, health-care, foreign military adventures, etc. They also play a directly political role in successful democracy by making the operation of political power transparent and accountable. 

So, we are told, it's terribly important that states find some way to protect our newspapers from the current cruel winds of technology driven changes in their business environments. But when you take a look at most news media, including national and local newspapers, one frankly is not overwhelmed by the evidence of either a commitment to public service or the reporting breadth, depth, judgement and integrity that this role would seem to require. The news is just a business, not a sacred mission, and an enormous proportion of what gets published is best described as bullshit news. This can take various forms, but what it has in common is the short-termist private interests of journalists and media companies over and against the public interest.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Politics: Can't Someone Else Do It?

Politics is concerned with the legitimate exercise of power. Both the competition for power ('who governs?') and the exercise of power (governance) depend on the key concept of legitimacy, since in politics power is acquired by authority not force, by persuading people that you have the right to be in charge, not hitting each of them over the head until they give in.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Big Bad Sport

A formal definition of sport would be the voluntary pursuit of meaningless objectives by inefficient means involving some level of physical exertion. What's the point of it? Nothing, and that's why, in the normal sense, participating can be fun. It's vaguely healthy; sociable; the exercise produces some physiological pleasure; and one can derive some mental satisfaction from minor achievements within its self-imposed discipline. Plus everyone gets to enjoy those benefits since it doesn't matter much who wins or loses (the goals are deliberately silly).

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

What is Philosophy?

Philosophy is concerned with the pursuit of wisdom:  not only with what we think we know, but how? why? and what is it really worth? In line with this spirit of questioning philosophy can be defined as the discipline of critical scrutiny, though its specific methods are informed by a variety of philosophical styles, claims, histories, and concerns from Plato to Kant to Foucault, which constitute often quite divergent schools. Philosophers from different traditions see philosophy differently (check out the anthology of answers by contemporary philosophers to the what is philosophy question  over at the excellent Philosophy Bites). But here's my take on it.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

The Decline of Common Sense and the Rise of Conspiracy and Foolishness

As Frank Furedi's excellent analysis  argues, conspiracy thinking - "attributing the problems and misfortunes faced by individuals to some intentional malevolent behaviour" is on the rise. As many have noted (e.g. electorates are becoming ever more delusional ("give me public services, but not government or taxes"). Both kinds of foolishness are connected to a decline in an authoritative and widely shared 'common sense' about the-Way the World Works: history, science, politics, ethics. etc.