Saturday, 26 December 2020
Wednesday, 23 December 2020
Fantasy politics starts from the expectation that wishes should come true, that the best outcome imaginable is not just possible but overwhelmingly likely. Brexit, for example, is classic fantasy politics, premised on the delightful optimism that if the UK were only freed of its shackles it would easily be able to negotiate the best deals imaginable.
Tuesday, 22 December 2020
Two Failures Of Covid Science - And How To Do Better Next Time
While there have been obvious achievements by Covid science these should not obscure the very significant failures that have also occurred, such as around the politicisation of scientific advice and the delay in rolling out vaccine programmes. These failures may have allowed hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths, as well as extending and worsening the social and economic impact of the epidemic on billions of people. Nevertheless, the point of identifying such failures is not to allocate blame, but rather to plan for how to do things better in future.
Tuesday, 15 December 2020
Boris Johnson's Peculiar Game of Kamikaze Chicken is About to End
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pursued exactly one strategy in his EU trade negotiations: threatening to drive Britain into a no-deal wall unless he gets what he wants. In other words, Johnson has been approaching this extraordinarily important matter of national interest as a peculiar version of the game of chicken. This explains much of his bizarre behaviour over the last 18 months, such as his antagonistic attitude, stubbornness, time-wasting, and even (part of) his buffoonery. Nevertheless, to be explained is not to be justified. Not only will the strategy fail, as it did before when Johnson used it in the Withdrawal Agreement negotiations. It has also foreclosed any hope for a substantive trade deal that could have fulfilled the positive aspirations of Brexiteers.
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.
Wednesday, 28 October 2020
What Good are Nuclear Weapons to North Korea? Analysing Kim Jong-un
Tuesday, 25 August 2020
Challenging Lincoln's Greatness
Lincoln consistently scores top or at least top 3 in every ranking of US presidents (e.g.). This high standing has long puzzled me. After all, this is the leader who presided over a long brutal civil war that killed 620,000 of his own people. For context, as a percentage of the population, that is more American lives than all other presidents put together have managed to expend in all America's other wars. On the face of it, that is a massive failure of statesmanship, however competent Lincoln was at running the war itself. The usual response is that the war was a necessary sacrifice to end the supreme evil of slavery. I do not find this convincing.
Note that I do not claim that Lincoln was a terrible president (there have certainly been many worse presidents). I only question whether the case for his greatness survives rigorous scrutiny, especially when you push beyond the commonly repeated platitudes.
Monday, 20 July 2020
Diversity Has No Intrinsic Value: A World With Fewer Species or Languages Would Not Necessarily Be A Worse One
It is easy to agree that 'diversity' is valuable, but what kind of value is it exactly?
Take linguistic diversity, passionately defended by anthropologists and linguists who want to preserve all 6,500 thousand spoken languages from extinction. If you look carefully at their arguments, they are all about the usefulness of languages and not about the value of diversity per se. For example, it is claimed that minority languages contain useful local knowledge about plants, animals, ecosystems and so on which would be lost if those languages died out. Or that minority languages are important for individual self-esteem and community functioning among ethnic minorities, which in turn supports their flourishing and well-being.
However, if the value of diversity lies in what it does for us rather than what it is in itself, then whether and how far diversity is valuable (or even disvaluable) turns out to depend on the context. Diversity has no value in its own right; it is merely one tool among others that we may use to achieve things that do matter. For example, if we are worried that important botanical knowledge achieved over many generations may be lost as the last people to speak the language that encodes it die off, then it makes sense to send academic botanists to collect that knowledge and publish it in a universally accessible scientific database. But it makes little sense to try to preserve that knowledge by somehow getting more children to learn the language and then continue living in the same precarious relationship to the natural ecosystem in which that specific knowledge would be needed and communicated. That confuses the substrate with the information it contains. It would be like trying to preserve knowledge of Euclidean geometry by teaching everyone ancient Greek.
Saturday, 18 July 2020
All Deaths Matter: The Case for Extending Some Covid-19 Restrictions Indefinitely
Thursday, 16 July 2020
If The Louvre Was On Fire, Should We Rescue The Art First Or The People?
This is a thought experiment. Presumably the Louvre already has extensive fire suppression systems and separate evacuation plans for its visitors (including the less-abled) and for its most valuable art works. The point of this scenario is not to recreate the boring details of such plans, but to stimulate thinking about the fundamentals of value and hopefully break through some cliches.
Tuesday, 7 July 2020
The Feminist Case For Men’s Rights
Tuesday, 30 June 2020
The Statues Were Always A Grab For Power: It Is Good That They Are Coming Down
Thursday, 28 November 2019
Only Human Rights Are Worth Killing For
John Kerry challenged Congress about the Vietnam war in 1971. There in a nutshell is the standard test by which democratic republics assess their military adventures: Is this cause worth dying for?
The idea of such a test is a good one. War is a question of politics, indeed the oldest question of political power: ‘Who's in charge here?' Specifically, governments contest each other's sovereignty – their ability to get their own way – by employing or threatening the means of extraordinary violence. Since war is defined by its terrible means, it can only be justified by some extraordinary purpose. Ordinary political goals will not do. Hence the need to find some measure that will be immune from the merely personal or factional interests of politicians or their hubris.
Nevertheless, Kerry's test is not quite right. The most ethically significant thing about war is not that our soldiers are ordered to risk their lives to further the interests of our state – or perhaps just our politicians – but that they are ordered to kill for it. The real ethical test of a war is whether our cause is worth killing for. If that is not satisfied then our soldiers are mere murderers and we are the ones who made them so.
This test turns out to be much harder to meet.
Thursday, 8 August 2019
Mass Shootings Are A Poor Justification For Gun Control
Monday, 1 July 2019
The Political Philosophy of America's Guns
This essay argues that gun control in America is a philosophical as well as a policy debate. This explains the depth of acrimony it causes. It also explains why the technocratic public health argument favored by the gun control movement has been so unsuccessful in persuading opponents and motivating supporters. My analysis also yields some positive advice for advocates of gun control: take the political philosophy of the gun rights movement seriously and take up the challenge of showing that a society without guns is a better society, not merely a safer one.
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