The global climate change debate has a lopsided empirical basis - in the economy of nature but not political economy - and this has contributed to a peculiar moralising trajectory. I have three main concerns with this: i) climate change has displaced other important concerns, for example of the 1 billion people living in unacceptable poverty; ii) a fixation on global CO2 levels alone distracts from what we can practically do, and even from caring about other aspects of the environment that we want to protect; iii) the debate has induced a kind of millenarian meltdown in which otherwise sensible people have lost all sense of proportion and hope.
Tuesday, 27 September 2011
Friday, 16 September 2011
Ethics and economics have a troubled relationship. The public is generally under the impression that ethics is about being nice or fair to other people, while economics is about the machinery of translating individual selfishness into general wealth. One should not ask what each can say to the other, but which one we should choose.
Strangely enough this is also approximately how most ethicists and economists think about the relation between their disciplines, as a result of a tacit agreement to perpetuate mutual ignorance and antipathy. Ethicists think economists are clumsy buffoons with an impoverished view of human nature and morality, obsessed with incentives and markets as the answer to everything. Economists think ethicists are obsessed with discovering mystical intrinsic values, at the expense of systematically thinking through their real world relevance. These are caricatures with some truth to them. But to the extent that they prevent ethicists and economists from taking each other seriously, they block the real scope for mutual learning.
Thursday, 25 August 2011
Wednesday, 24 August 2011
The 'Africa analyst' Michelle Sieff has recently argued in The African Lions: An Authoritarian Challenge to Development Theory* that democracy is not necessary for development. She identifies three 'African Lions' - Uganda, Rwanda, and Ethiopia - that are not democracies but are achieving good development results. Therefore Development Theory must be overthrown? I think not.
Monday, 22 August 2011
Immigration controls by rich countries are mean. They close out the poor and vulnerable who only want the chance to make a better life. They are characterised by arbitrary rules whose effects can be inhumane - breaking up families, locking up children, deporting good people to uncertain futures in godforsaken countries, etc. So the left is quite comfortable blaming conservatives for the whole idea. But in reality, social democrats need immigration controls for their cherished welfare state to function. They're just happy to let the conservatives take the rap.
Tuesday, 2 August 2011
The clerisy are the 'intellectual' department of the bourgeoisie. We're the people who went to university and now work in non-manual jobs as corporate or government functionaries, subscribe to the New Yorker (or local equivalent) and read proper books (or at least book reviews). We tend to have intellectual pretensions and liberal political inclinations. We tend also to have strong enlightenment values, in particular a respect for truth and a demand for rationality. Despite, or perhaps because of, our intellectual pride we are continually astonished to discover that the rest of the world doesn't think like us. Consider the tabloid press.
Wednesday, 27 July 2011
Tuesday, 21 June 2011
Competition is all the rage. When properly set up it is supposed to channel the passions of self-interest via the mechanism of rivalry into increased performance that benefits everyone. The model was developed in sports and then applied to business (it is the essence of Adam Smith's invisible hand) and has now well and truly arrived in academia. Competition is usually evaluated in terms of efficiency or, if you're lucky, justice, but here I want to focus on the harms that intense competition may do to the ethical character of individuals. In particular, how do the characteristic academic virtues of industriousness, honesty, and curiosity fare under competition?
Thursday, 21 April 2011
Democratic elections are generally characterised as a competition between political parties for votes, and hence power. Supposedly 'the people' are presented with a menu of options by the politicos and make a single choice from that menu depending on what they prefer on election day. Social choice theory is the academic discipline most concerned with elections and it focuses on analysing the advantages and disadvantages of different ways of counting votes in terms of fairness. But something is missing from its analysis: elections are about more than counting up votes. Elections are also an extended strategic engagement between the voters and the politicos to decide what goes onto the menu of the ballot card.
Sunday, 10 April 2011
Taken all together how satisfied or dissatisfied are you with your life as a whole these days on a scale of 1-10?Me: I literally have no idea what that question means.Sociologist: Yes, we find that philosophers say that quite a lot. But ordinary people seem quite capable of understanding it and giving a sensible answer.
Wednesday, 2 March 2011
Aspects of human nature - like our capacity for language, reasoning or emotions - are amenable to scientific analysis that looks at where they come from and how they work, using tools like evolutionary biology, genetics, or neuroscience. But not everything about us that is important is innate. Many deeply entrenched features and characteristics of human life are contingent not essential. They come from our human history, not our human biology. Such aspects of the human condition - like marriage, sports, and war - resist scientific analysis and must be studied in a more humanistic way.
Monday, 21 February 2011
Sometimes it's hard to see your own society objectively when you're living inside it. So, America, this post is about how you look like from outside, at least from Europe. It's an unflattering picture of the achievements and direction of your country on three important dimensions of civilisation: democratic government, criminal justice, and social mobility. I suggest that you are not only falling behind the rest of the civilised world, but also falling short of your own standards.
Thursday, 27 January 2011
It is often said that criminals lack a sense of morality. If this is taken to mean that criminals don't understand the difference between right and wrong this is demonstrably false. In fact a great deal of successful criminality – I mean the profitable kind rather than say drunken violence on a Saturday night – depends on a nuanced appreciation of moral norms that is often much more sophisticated and thorough than their targets, together with a willingness to ruthlessly exploit them. They are accomplished moral anthropologists and parasites upon morality. Consider the con-artist and the extortionist.
Monday, 13 December 2010
"Aha" says the Moral Philosopher triumphantly, polishing his monocle ferociously with a large handkerchief. "You have contradicted yourself! If you say yes to the first case you should say yes to the second, for you have already revealed your acceptance of the principle that one person should be sacrificed for the many."
Sunday, 5 December 2010
Deirdre McCloskey's Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce is a bold attempt to rehabilitate the much maligned bourgeoisie as the focus of a positive inter-twining of capitalism and ethics. Who are the bourgeoisie? People with middle-class values, temperament, and position. People like us. McCloskey argues, building on her extensive reading in economics, history, philosophy, religion and ethics, that we should recognise and embrace our bourgeois identity. For it is an ethical way of life that is not only instrumentally successful (showing up in our ever increasing wealth and freedom), but intrinsically valuable (showing up in the meaningfulness and richness of our middle-class lives).