Monday, 1 July 2019

The Political Philosophy of America's Guns

Every time there is a mass killing in America - at a school, a church, an open air-concert - a familiar ritual plays out. Gun control and gun rights advocates spring to the airwaves to present their case, fail miserably to persuade anyone who didn’t already agree with them, and leave everybody on both sides fuming with even more indignation than before. It is a sad picture of democratic failure, especially when set beside successful national conversations - such as over civil rights or gay marriage - in which large majorities changed their minds because of the arguments they heard.

It is easy enough to connect this failure to America’s general turn to a partisan politics that is more about which political tribe you identify with than the exchange of ideas and arguments about the public good, or to cite the pernicious influence of the NRA’s election spending in Republican primaries. However, such explanations are both too easy and rather unhelpful. I think I have something better to offer – better both because it embodies a more idealistic view of democracy and because it is more likely to be politically successful.

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 the place of guns in America has to 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. America’s decades long national argument about guns is so pernicious and acrimonious because it is not just a policy debate about what the government should do to best fix some problem (like an opioid epidemic or a high level of car accident fatalities). It is also about what kind of politics to have: how citizens should relate to each other and the state. Politics with a capital P. This ideological dimension is explicit in the arguments of the gun rights movement but has been largely neglected by the other side.

Second, some positive advice for the advocates of gun control. Talk about civic values is not a squishy second best to the objective statistical facts of gun violence. It is an essential ingredient for building a committed political majority. Winning this debate requires showing that a society without guns is a better society, not merely that it is a safer one.

Saturday, 22 June 2019

The Duty To Forgive Murderers

Source: INC
There are people living among us who have done terrible things to other human beings – murder and rape, for example – yet who nonetheless deserve society’s forgiveness.

They have been convicted for their crimes and punished by the laws we collectively agreed such moral transgressions deserve. Now they deserve something other than punishment. They deserve to be treated with respect rather than resentment, contempt, and suspicion. They deserve a real chance to overcome their history and make something of their life.

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

For The Sake Of Science - Let The Anti-Vaxxers Have Their Way

The authority of scientific experts is in decline. More and more people think they can figure things out just fine by themselves and reject the intellectual division of labour laboriously built up over the last few hundred years. This is foolish since expertise is a civilisational super power on which our modern prosperity is founded. It is also dangerous since expert advice is essential to addressing existential threats like epidemics and climate change. The fewer people believe scientists’ pronouncements, the more danger we are all in.

Fortunately I think there is a solution for this problem. Unfortunately, it looks like some people are going to have to die.

Sunday, 28 April 2019

What Kind of Jobs Will the Robots Leave Us?

Machines powered by self-learning algorithms and internet connections are displacing humans from all kinds of jobs, from driving to legal discovery to acting in movies. Will there be any work left for us to do? Economics says yes. Will it be awful or will it be nice? That is up to us.

Friday, 11 January 2019

Academics Should Not Be Activists

In a civilised society, academic scientists are granted a special epistemic authority. They deserve to be listened to, their claims believed, and their recommendations considered seriously. This is because what they say about their subject of expertise is more likely to be true than what anyone else has to say about it.

Unfortunately, some academics believe they have a right - or even a duty - to exploit this privileged status as a resource for influencing society to do what they think best. They lead organisations and political movements to campaign systematically for specific laws, policies, and political candidates. They join governments. They tell their students who to vote for and help them organise protest marches. They launch lawsuits and organise boycotts of companies and countries they disapprove of. Here are some high profile academic activists you might have heard of Catharine MacKinnon, Richard Dawkins, Jordan Peterson, Cornell West, Peter Navarro.

My argument is that activism is something different from merely communicating what you know about a pressing topic to the public or even advocating for specific policies that follow from that expertise. Those are right and proper things for academics to do. Activism goes further and crosses a line that separates virtue from vice. It is not only unethical in itself, but is also antithetical to objective empirical research, public trust in academia, and even the functioning of activist organisations. Because academic activism short-circuits the usual quality control systems, even if it succeeds in achieving its aims it is a matter of luck whether or not society benefits. But because of how it works it certainly degrades democracy.