Showing posts with label philosophy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label philosophy. Show all posts

Wednesday, 13 July 2022

Taking Decolonization Seriously Means Recognising the Moral Agency of Non-Western Political Actors

In the context of the current decolonisation movement it is rather strange that whenever bad things happen in a non-Western country they are still routinely analysed as the moral responsibility of actors in the West - (former) governments, companies, ideologues, consumers, etc.  For example,

  1. War: If a Western country is involved in a war (or an ally - as in the case of Saudi Arabia in Yemen) then they are routinely assigned the entire responsibility for that war, including for all the terrible things done by those they are fighting.
  2. Illiberalism: Government oppression of religious and sexual minorities, political opposition, free press, and so on is routinely attributed to 'colonial era laws' or continuing Western ideological influence. 
  3. Misgovernance: Government dysfunction and corruption are routinely blamed on Western consumers/companies' demand for natural resources; terrible environmental and labour regulations (or enforcement) are likewise blamed on Western demand for cheaper products 
This way of looking at the world is unfounded, patronising and unhelpful. It betrays a pernicious asymmetry in the recognition of moral agency between Western and non-Western actors. Western actors are assumed to have the power to make decisions that matter and to bear moral responsibility for their choices. Non-western actors are not. Although many of those who are so ready to blame Western actors may think they are opposing 'colonisation', this asymmetry actually continues rather than repudiates the patronising moral hierarchy that characterised the West's unfortunate colonial history.

In reality non-Western political actors make important decisions all the time that affect many people's lives, and these are not merely overdetermined reactions to external forces but actions initiated by them for their own reasons. There is no good reason why they should not be held as morally accountable for their choices as they would be if they were making such decisions in a Western country. 

Sunday, 5 June 2022

Philosophy Belongs in the Sciences, Not the Humanities: A Rant

Philosophy has traditionally been considered and considered itself a part of the humanities, with a continuity in skills and attitudes, such as an emphasis on scholarship. In many universities philosophy departments are part of larger humanities faculties and thus fall under governance institutions designed for traditional humanities disciplines like literature, history, law, and religion. This association is bad for philosophy. Philosophy is a science of intellectual inquiry and it needs institutions, methods and attitudes suited to that task.

Friday, 26 March 2021

Why Are Moral Philosophers So Bad At Global Justice?

There is a dismaying intellectual sloppiness to how moral philosophers as an intellectual community approach issues of global justice. They are not only ignorant about basic, important, and easily checked empirical facts, but also complacent about their ignorance. For example, they disdain to acknowledge the expertise of those scientists (especially economists) whose conclusions or methods they find counterintuitive or disagreeable, and prefer to develop their own theories or seek out those self-professed experts who say things more in line with their preconceptions about how the world works. The result resembles the self-sustaining but fundamentally worthless epistemic communities organised around the rejection of vaccination or climate change. Philosophers are willing to write long articles and whole books explaining their views about how unfair the world is, and to read and respond to each others' complaints, but they have little to offer to the reality based community. 

This shit matters. Bad global justice theorising reinforces anti-intellectual and conspiratorial myths about how the world works that would keep whole countries and hundreds of millions of people mired in poverty. On the one hand - fortunately - few people in positions of influence take this drivel seriously. On the other hand this is still a missed opportunity to have engaged philosophers' supposedly superior reasoning skills and expertise on value questions about issues affecting billions of people. Moreover, it pollutes the political conversation by training our students and anyone else who will listen to be stupid about global justice and by giving intellectual cover to populist 'common sense' opposition to free trade and other sensible pro-poor policies.

Monday, 18 January 2021

Ideas Are Too Exciting; Arguments Are Too Hard

It is very pleasant to entertain a new idea, a new notion or concept to think about and to look at the world with. Indeed, it can have the exciting and intoxicating feel of discovering hidden treasure. 

Unfortunately, most ideas are bad - wrong, misleading, dangerous, or of very limited use or relevance. Even more unfortunately, that doesn't prevent them from gaining our interest and enthusiasm. The problem is that getting an idea is just a matter of understanding it (or thinking that you do) and this is just as easy in the case of bad ideas as it is for good ones. In contrast, checking the quality of ideas by interrogating the arguments for them is laborious and distinctly unrewarding - and so avoided as much as possible. The result is that the world is drowning in bad ideas and their dreadful consequences, from conspiracy theories to religions to academic bloopers like critical race theory. 

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. 

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Children are special, but not particularly important

A strange idea has taken over the social conscience so entirely that it is a taboo even to say what it is. Children have come to be seen as more valuable than adults not despite but because they lack the psychological maturity that makes persons objectively valuable.

Consider the appearance of "baby on board" placards from the mid-1980s onwards.

Nobody would have placed such a sign on a car if it were not already understood by society that the life of a human achieves its peak value at birth and declines thereafter. A toddler is almost as precious as a baby, but a teenager less so, and by the time that baby turns fifty, it seems that nobody cares much anymore if someone crashes into her car. You don't see a lot of vehicles with placards that read, "Middle-aged accountant on board." (Danielle and Astro Teller)
Something has gone very wrong in the way we think of the ageing process! Fortunately philosophy can help.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Moral philosophy about global warming

What contribution can moral philosophers make to public reasoning about global warming?

I make two recommendations, concerning style and substance. First, moral philosophers should be oriented to investigating rather than moralising. Our contributions to public reasoning about global warming must do more than select and promulgate an existing moral account in the usual style of normative ethics. Our work should engage with the moral complexity of the issue rather than exhort the public to follow some simplified view. Second, moral philosophers should make particular efforts to engage collaboratively rather than adversarially with social scientists working in this area. The natural sciences alone are an insufficient basis for analysing the causes of global warming and its meaning for us. Economics in particular can be seen as a branch of applied moral philosophy, and is rich in concepts and techniques highly relevant to the moral understanding of global warming.

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.

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.