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.