Showing posts with label society. Show all posts
Showing posts with label society. Show all posts

Monday, 22 November 2021

Moral Status Should Not Depend On Social Status

“The poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he” (Thomas Rainsborough, spokesman for the Levellers at the Putnam Debates)

What does it mean to say that everyone is equal? It does not mean that everyone has (or should have) the same amount of nice things, money, or happiness. Nor does it mean that everyone’s abilities or opinions are equally valuable. Rather, it means that everyone has the same – equal – moral status as everyone else. It means, for example, that the happiness of any one of us is just as important as the happiness of anyone else; that a promise made to one person is as important as that made to anyone else; that a rule should count the same for all. No one deserves more than others – more chances, more trust, more empathy, more rewards – merely because of who or what they are.

Monday, 14 June 2021

Vaccination Need Not Be Compulsory To Be Universal

Covid-19 vaccination take up has been disappointingly low in many countries, or parts of countries, such as in America. Given that vaccination offers significant private and public benefits, this is surprising. Is it permissible or even required for governments to compel or incentivise vaccination, and if so, how?

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. 

Monday, 2 November 2020

The Political Economy Of Risk: Covid Edition

Covid-19 reminds us once again that we can’t do without politics, or, to put it another way, we can’t do well without doing politics well.

‘Science’ can’t decide the right thing to do about Covid, however appealing it might be to imagine we could dump this whole mess on a bunch of epidemiologists in some ivory tower safely beyond the reach of grubby political bickering. This is not because scientists don’t know enough. The scientific understanding of Covid is a work in progress and hence uncertain and incomplete, but such imperfect knowledge can still be helpful. The reason is that since Covid became an epidemic it is no longer a merely scientific problem. Dealing with it requires balancing conflicting values and the interests of multitudes of people and organisations. This is an essentially political challenge that scientists lack the conceptual apparatus or legitimacy to address.

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

The Feminist Case For Men’s Rights

The case for men’s rights follows straightforwardly from the feminist critique of the structural injustice of gender rules and roles. Yes, those rules are wrong because they oppress women. But they are also wrong because they oppress men, whether by causing physical, emotional and moral suffering or callously neglecting their needs and interests. While it is bad luck to be born a woman in our society, it is also bad luck to be born a man, in ways that relate directly and indirectly to gender roles and norms. Unfortunately the feminist movement has tended to neglect this, assuming that if women are the losers from a patriarchal social order, then men must be the winners.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

The Statues Were Always A Grab For Power: It Is Good That They Are Coming Down

Some people claim that the prominent display of statues to controversial events or people, such as confederate generals in the southern United States, merely memorialises historical facts that unfortunately make some people uncomfortable. This is false. Firstly, such statues have nothing to do with history or facts and everything to do with projecting an illiberal political domination into the future. Secondly, upsetting a certain group of people is not an accident but exactly what they are supposed to do.

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.  

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Can Free Speech Survive the Internet?

The internet has made it easier than ever to speak to others. It has empowered individuals to publish our opinions without first convincing a media company of their commercial value; to find and share others' views without the fuss of photocopying and mailing newspaper clippings; and to respond to those views without the limitations of a newspaper letter page. In this sense the internet has been a great boon to the freedom of speech. 

Yet that very ease of communication creates new limits to the freedom part of free speech: the ability to speak our mind to those we wish without fear of reprisal.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Productivity is the Wrong Argument for Diversity

If you look around your workplace and everyone, or least all the managers, look the same - same sex, skin colour, social class, age - then your company has a diversity problem. But why is it a problem?

Because the most obvious explanation is a failure of meritocracy. Such features as the colour of one's skin or sex are arbitrary and irrelevant to people's ability to do a job. Therefore the fact that people of certain skin colours or sex are missing from your workplace relative to the wider society presents a prima facie challenge to the fairness of your company's criteria for employment and promotion. To assume otherwise - for example that people of certain colours, sex, class, age, happen to have different (inferior) career preferences or different (inferior) talents has no credibility. It is to assume the exact set of facts most convenient to make a problem someone else's, rather than to take responsibility for investigating and fixing it.

Call this the negative argument for diversity: If you don't have internal diversity in line with the wider society then you are probably treating people unfairly and you need to investigate and try to fix it. For example by identifying and mitigating biases in how job applicants are evaluated and structural impediments to their career progress. It leaves a lot of details still to be argued out, but I think it is the right way to go.

But there is another kind of argument that is now much more common, the positive argument that organisations should promote diversity because it pays off. This is the argument I want to criticise, on the grounds that it jeopardises the negative argument from fairness; reduces individuals to stereotypes about groups; and perpetuates unjust stereotypes and social relations.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Crime Hurts. Justice Should Heal

Judicial punishment is the curious idea that individuals deserve to be punished by the state for breaking its laws. Intellectually this is rather counter-intuitive. If crime is so bad because of the social trauma it causes then setting out to hurt more people would seems a strange way to make things better. There are intellectual arguments for retributive punishment of course, many of them rather ingenious. But they have the look of post hoc rationalisations for a brute social fact: it just so happens that we like making wrongdoers suffer.

The modern criminal justice system – bloated and terroristic – is the product of government expansionism combined with this societal vindictiveness.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Liberalism Insists on the Freedom to Insult Religion

Should insulting religion be banned? The reason the idea is still debated in the 21st century is that it has been reframed as a debate within liberalism rather than against it. The arguments set forward by groups such as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (eg) nowadays have a liberal sound to them: Freedom from Harm; Anti-discrimination; State Neutrality; and Tolerance. But in fact they are not liberal at all. They do not respect individuals, nor are they compatible with a free society.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

What Terrorists Want - and How to Stop Them Getting It

After every new atrocity or catchy ISIS video the armchair psychologists and amateur Islamic theologians take to the air. Their low grade psychobabble turns tragic events into compelling TV narrative and brings mainstream attention to political opportunists. But even if it made better sense it would still be irrelevant. All these pundits are focused on the wrong thing: how particular individuals are recruited to terrorist groups and causes.

Terrorism is not a personality type, a psychological illness, a theology, or a goal in itself. Terrorism is a technique, a particular form of warfare that the weak wage against the strong.

If we want to stop terrorism we have to first understand it. That means acknowledging its rationality as a means to an end. The question we should be asking is, what are terrorist acts supposed to achieve and how?

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

The Joy of Reading

Every week or so a literature professor publishes an eloquent essay about what literature is good for. Here's a nice example. The backdrop is the decline of literature degree programmes in the Anglophone world. This is why you need us!, they argue, somewhat plaintively.

These essays tend to circle around the same handful of arguments. An especially prominent theme, most frequently associated with Martha Nussbaum's defence of the humanities, is that literature is good for us because it promotes empathy, and the practice of empathy is the heart of liberal ethics and the functioning of civilised society.

Unfortunately, defending literature in this way multiplies rather than reduces philistinism. By mistaking means and ends it excludes the very heart of the matter from consideration. The joy of literature is transmuted into duty. This is in line with how professional academics understand literature - as their daily work, albeit work that they love. But if this is how the people who claim to love literature talk about it, no wonder reading is in decline.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Why Not Polygamy Too?

The argument that made gay marriage law in America was about marriage equality: not special rights for gay people but the right to the same treatment. There may be something to regret in the smallness of this ambition (previously), but the argument is sound. 

Denying people the right to marry requires a public justification -one that would be in principle convincing to all concerned - and this demands more than the expression of the private moral beliefs of a politically dominant group like fundamentalist Christians. What this comes down to is the moral and political significance of the challenge Why not? for public reasoning in a liberal society, for identifying and overturning unjust laws and policies. 

In the wake of the US Supreme Court's decision it is therefore rather disconcerting to find various gay marriage advocates, most notably, Jonathan Rauch, arguing so badly - basically sneering - against polygamy. One has the impression of a drawbridge being raised up. As far as I can tell, polygamy presents as good a case as gay marriage for legal recognition and regulation by the state, as Justice Roberts' Supreme Court dissent pointed out.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Marriage Equality Is Not Enough

The campaign to legalise gay marriage in Western countries has been wildly successful. Political and popular opposition has crumbled in the face of the reasonable demand for a public justification for banning it. The feeble excuses for arguments trotted out by its opponents - including religious institutions, talking heads, politicians and lawyers in court - are increasingly perceived as mere rationalisations for bigotry. This is democracy as public reasoning at its best (and has been cited as such by political philosophers - e.g.).

As a liberal I find much to celebrate about this victory. Yet, at the risk of offending the righteousness of the left, I also see something to regret. The line of reasoning behind the marriage equality movement is disappointing in the smallness of its ambition. It holds up a mirror to the wider renunciation of radical idealism by what passes for the left these days.

Proponents of marriage equality have overwhelmingly argued that it is unfair to treat homosexual relationships differently from heterosexual ones because they are in every significant respect the same. As a rhetorical strategy to advance marriage rights and the acceptance of homosexuals in general this argument may be justified by its political success. But as public reasoning such a justification is disappointing. It does not really advance the idea of equality of deep freedom: it is a demand to have one's conformity accepted rather than to have one's difference respected.

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, 25 December 2014

The Rights and Wrongs of Libertarian Paternalism

‘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

What comparison can there really be, in point of severity, between consigning a man to the short pang of a rapid death, and immuring him in a living tomb, there to linger out what may be a long life in the hardest and most monotonous toil, without any of its alleviations or rewards—debarred from all pleasant sights and sounds, and cut off from all earthly hope, except a slight mitigation of bodily restraint, or a small improvement of diet? (John Stuart Mill, 1868 Speech to Parliament on Capital Punishment)

Prison time is a very severe punishment. Any society that employs it should do so with care and restraint. Yet we do not. 

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 more humane.

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?

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