Thursday, 25 December 2014

Should governments be involved in the construction of our preferences?

‘Libertarian paternalism' is Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's big idea for improving individual choice-making while respecting our autonomy. It has inspired fierce and sustained academic criticism from philosophers and economists from both the left and the right - as well as from less distinguished commentators like Glen Beck. Ultimately though most of these critiques seem to be complaining more about the depressing findings of behavioural economics research than Thaler and Sunstein's positive proposals to nudge us to choose better.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Why Prison is Unfit for Civilised Society

Prison time is a very severe punishment. JS Mill likened it to being consigned to a living tomb. Any society that employs it should do so with care and restraint. Yet we do not. Partly because we think that prison is a humane punishment, it is drastically over-used in many countries, to the point of cruelty. Aside from failing in humanity, prison does not even perform well at the specific functions generally asked of a criminal justice system, namely, deterrence, retribution, security, and rehabilitation. We need to reconsider our over-reliance on prison, and whether other types of punishment - even corporal and capital punishment - may sometimes be more effective and humane.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Reparations for Women

Even in supposedly liberal societies women remain systematically disadvantaged in what is expected of them, how their contributions are evaluated, and what they are taken to deserve. One of the more obvious signs and consequences of this injustice is the gender income gap - that men tend to earn much more over their lives than women do. We should stop dithering and just end this.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Is Parenthood Morally Respectable?

Becoming a parent is a private choice, but it has public costs. Society is presented with extensive and expensive obligations to ensure your children a decent quality of life and their development into successful adults and citizens, and that means massive tax-subsidies for their health, education, household income, and so on. In addition, children have a demographic impact on public goods like the environment which creates additional costs for existing members of society, and perhaps for humanity as a whole.

Does that make parenthood an irresponsible and selfish lifestyle choice?

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Scottish independence would have been good for Britain too

Like many English people I observed the progress of the Scottish independence referendum campaign in a rather detached way. Since only the Scots got to vote, it was easy to suppose that it only really concerned the fate of Scotland - their business not mine. Only towards the end when the Yes campaign surged in the polls did it begin to feel real and exciting. And only then did I start to appreciate its significance to the rest of Britain. What if the Scots decided to leave? What kind of political crisis would that create? And what kind of opportunity to reinvent RumpUK as something new and better?

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

If you're so rich, why aren't you happier?

Not what we have but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance.

People in the west are richer than ever. That means we can satisfy more of our desires for the good things in life than humans have ever been able to. Yet we don't seem to be getting any happier. Consciously or not we have come to depend on a particular economic theory of welfare as mere preference satisfaction. But if all that we can already have isn't enough to satisfy us, then perhaps we should reconsider whether having even more would make us happier. The good life requires wisdom not just purchasing power. As the classical Greek philosophers taught, we should look to the content of our desires rather than merely whether we can afford them.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Does Peter Singer's 'Utilitarian' Argument for Vegetarianism Add Up?

500,000 copies sold
The contemporary animal rights movement owes a great intellectual debt to Peter Singer's pathbreaking book Animal Liberation (1975), also known as ‘the Bible of the Animal Liberation Movement’. 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 case against harming animals, such as by using them for food or experiments, based on their equal moral status, their right to have their suffering counted equally with that of humans.

Singer's book has influenced many people,including myself. Yet, reading and rereading it, I have come to wonder whether it is really good philosophy. Its rhetorical effectiveness relies on pathos - an appeal to the sentiments of the audience. Despite multiple revised editions, Singer's official argument, his logos, is far from clear or compelling.

It is disappointing that the revered urtext of the animal rights movement lacks the intellectual rigorousness it claims. Worse, the flawed utilitarian case pressed by Singer is intended to foreclose the consideration of 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 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 capability to produce more with less. As Keynes prophesied 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. The model might be 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.

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.