Monday, 5 December 2011

Democracy is not a truth machine

In a democracy people are free to express their opinions and question those of others. This is an important personal freedom, and also essential to the very idea of government by discussion. But it has also been held to be instrumentally important because in open public debate true ideas will conquer false ones by their merit, and the people will see the truth for themselves. In other words, democracy has an epistemic function as a kind of truth machine. From this it follows that in a democracy there should be no dogma: no knowledge protected from public challenge and debate. Yet this whole argument is founded on embarrassing misconceptions of  the nature of truth and of the working of democracy.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Criminal justice in the modern age

Liberal criminal justice systems try to analyse responsibility in terms of whether or not individuals deliberately cause bad events. That is fine for most crime - the kind that doesn't cause too much harm or lead to very severe punishment. But deep down it doesn't really fit with liberalism's thoughtfulness and fairness. Liberals take the responsibility of assigning responsibility seriously and once you do that it's obvious that this rough and ready legal approach doesn't rest on very firm foundations. Three such problems - fractional responsibility, corporate responsibility, and collective responsibility - make clear the compelling need for innovative new legal concepts, norms, and procedures.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

The cult of victimhood

Victims are everywhere these days, whining about one thing or another. Sometimes they are still complaining about things that happened decades ago (or even hundreds of years ago to other people with the same skin colour); sometimes they seem to be 'status-victims' who feel entitled to oppress others because of their special personal sense of oppression. Very few seem to be complaining justifiably, or even comprehensibly, about some genuinely significant injustice being done to them right now that others should address. This is not healthy. Much of the limited space for morality in politics is being taken over by the study and art of victimhood at the expense of proper moral reasoning. It has a deleterious effect on public discourse and behaviour, with people seeming to compete more about their degrees of victimhood than the rights and wrongs of their case.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Are children public goods?

You might think that the family would be safe from the cold logic of economists but, as Gary Becker long ago demonstrated with his models of the marriage market and children as durable goods, the economic approach knows no bounds! It can ask an economistic question about anything and get an economistic answer. (Whether that's helpful for anything except the publishing record of that economist is another matter.) I recently came across one such example of economics imperialism in the question: Are children public goods? Or else private goods? My answer: No and no. They're children.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

How religion became secular

Once upon a time religion was in the world and made the world. Religion made the messy chaotic world legible to human understanding and amenable to human purposes. It fixed things in place, like the stars in the sky and the differences between men and women. It ordered the flux of time and events into meaningful cycles of life, whether the turning of the sun, seasons, and harvests or birth and death. It explained and justified the social order: why one man is born to wealth and power and another to be a serf. It told us with all the force of a mighty and all-encompassing metaphysics what our lives really meant, and how we should act, think and feel. But no more. Religion has been brought low by its old foes, philosophy and politics. Religion persists and is even popular. But it is now in the mind, a matter of personal belief projected outwards ('faith'). In short, religion is now secular. 

Saturday, 8 October 2011

The art of business and the science of economics

Business and economics are tied up together in lots of people's minds. After all, they're both about money, aren't they? An awful lot of people seem to believe that economics is Big Business and business is small economics. (Even the generally reliable Economist magazine seems to use this definition in deciding what should go in its business or economics sections.) The failure to keep the two apart leads to some bizarre misconceptions in the popular understanding. For example the idea  that countries are businesses in competition with each other, or that business is about self-serving greed and economics is the soulless science of large scale greed. 

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Ethics and Global Climate Change

The global climate change debate has a lopsided empirical basis - in the economy of nature but not political economy - and this has contributed to a peculiar moralising trajectory. I have three main concerns with this: i) climate change has displaced other important concerns, for example of the 1 billion people living in unacceptable poverty; ii) a fixation on global CO2 levels alone distracts from what we can practically do, and even from caring about other aspects of the environment that we want to protect; iii) the debate has induced a kind of millenarian meltdown in which otherwise sensible people have lost all sense of proportion and hope.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Economics for ethics

Ethics and economics have a troubled relationship. The public is generally under the impression that ethics is about being nice or fair to other people, while economics is about the machinery of translating individual selfishness into general wealth. One should not ask what each can say to the other, but which one we should choose.

Strangely enough this is also approximately how most ethicists and economists think about the relation between their disciplines, as a result of a tacit agreement to perpetuate mutual ignorance and antipathy. Ethicists think economists are clumsy buffoons with an impoverished view of human nature and morality, obsessed with incentives and markets as the answer to everything. Economists think ethicists are obsessed with discovering mystical intrinsic values, at the expense of systematically thinking through their real world relevance. These are caricatures with some truth to them. But to the extent that they prevent ethicists and economists from taking each other seriously, they block the real scope for mutual learning.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

How rich do you feel?

If there is one thing the public school system should be able to achieve, it is to produce adults capable of simple arithmetic. So why are so many of us, including so many with professional degrees and 6 digit salaries, awash with debt? We know how to add up - the costs of our consumption - and we know how to subtract that total from our income and see whether the result is positive or negative. But we just don't do it. Rather we spend according to how rich we feel.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Against lazy claims against democracy in development

The 'Africa analyst' Michelle Sieff  has recently argued in The African Lions: An Authoritarian Challenge to Development Theory* that democracy is not necessary for development. She identifies  three 'African Lions' - Uganda, Rwanda, and Ethiopia - that are not democracies but are achieving good development results. Therefore Development Theory must be overthrown? I think not.

Monday, 22 August 2011

The welfare state requires immigration controls

Immigration controls by rich countries are mean. They close out the poor and vulnerable who only want the chance to make a better life. They are characterised by arbitrary rules whose effects can be inhumane - breaking up families, locking up children, deporting good people to uncertain futures in godforsaken countries, etc. So the left is quite comfortable blaming conservatives for the whole idea. But in reality, liberals need immigration controls for their cherished welfare state to function. They're just happy to let the conservatives take the rap.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Truth in the news

The clerisy are the 'intellectual' department of the bourgeoisie. We're the people who went to university and now work in non-manual jobs as corporate or government functionaries, subscribe to the New Yorker (or local equivalent) and read proper books (or at least book reviews). We tend to have intellectual pretensions and liberal political inclinations. We tend also to have strong enlightenment values, in particular a respect for  truth and a demand for rationality. Despite, or perhaps because of, our intellectual pride we are continually astonished to discover that the rest of the world doesn't think like us. Consider the tabloid press.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Free markets, economic development and the abuse of history

Ha-Joon Chang argues that there is a paradox at the heart of free trade economics: if it's so great why didn't the countries who are now rich do it when they were developing? My answer: because governments have always been willing to listen to protectionists like Chang who flatter their vanity and give intellectual cover to their venality.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Academic ethics under competition

Competition is all the rage. When properly set up it is supposed to channel the passions of self-interest via the mechanism of rivalry into increased performance that benefits everyone. The model was developed in sports and then applied to business (it is the essence of Adam Smith's invisible hand) and has now well and truly arrived in academia. Competition is usually evaluated in terms of  efficiency or, if you're lucky, justice, but here I want to focus on the harms that intense competition may do to the ethical character of individuals. In particular, how do the characteristic academic virtues of industriousness, honesty, and curiosity fare under competition?

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Elections are about more than counting votes

Democratic elections are generally characterised as a competition between political parties for votes, and hence power. Supposedly 'the people' are presented with a menu of options by the politicos and make a single choice from that menu depending on what they prefer on election day. Social choice theory is the academic discipline most concerned with elections and it focuses on analysing the advantages and disadvantages of different ways of counting votes in terms of fairness. But something is missing from its analysis: elections are about more than counting up votes. Elections are also an extended strategic engagement between the voters and the politicos to decide what goes onto the menu of the ballot card.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Philosophy and happiness?

Taken all together how satisfied or dissatisfied are you with your life as a whole these days on a scale of 1-10?

Me: I literally have no idea what that question means.

Sociologist: Yes, we find that philosophers say that quite a lot. But ordinary people seem quite capable of understanding it and giving a sensible answer.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Human nature and the human condition

Aspects of human nature - like our capacity for language, reasoning or emotions - are amenable to scientific analysis that looks at where they come from and how they work, using tools like evolutionary biology, genetics, or neuroscience. But not everything about us that is important is innate. Many deeply entrenched features and characteristics of human life are contingent not essential. They come from our human history, not our human biology. Such aspects of the human condition - like marriage, sports, and war - resist scientific analysis and must be studied in a more humanistic way.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Is America a civilised country? A view from Europe

Sometimes it's hard to see your own society objectively when you're living inside it. So, America, this post is about how you look like from outside, at least from Europe. It's an unflattering picture of the achievements and direction of your country on three important dimensions of civilisation: democratic government, criminal justice, and social mobility. I suggest that you are not only falling behind the rest of the civilised world, but also falling short of your own standards.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Criminals are Masters of Moral Anthropology

It is often said that criminals lack a sense of morality. If this is taken to mean that criminals don't understand the difference between right and wrong this is demonstrably false. In fact a great deal of successful criminality – I mean the profitable kind rather than say drunken violence on a Saturday night – depends on a nuanced appreciation of moral norms that is often much more sophisticated and thorough than their targets, together with a willingness to ruthlessly exploit them. They are accomplished moral anthropologists and parasites upon morality. Consider the con-artist and the extortionist.