Thursday, 8 August 2019

Mass Shootings Are A Poor Justification For Gun Control

Mass shootings get more attention from America's gun control movement than they objectively deserve, and this distracts from the kind of regulations that would significantly reduce gun murders.

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.


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

Source
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.  

Monday, 26 November 2018

Peer Reviewers Should Be Paid

Academia is an extended set of conversations all going on at once. We academics score status points for making a contribution that other people find interesting because it helps them with their often rather specific problems (say, about a new interpretation of Galileo's conception of physical laws or a new method for identifying pancreatic cancer cells). The more that other academics value your contribution (by citing it in their own contributions), the more status points you get for it. (Google's PageRank is based on the same system.)

I said academia was conversational, but these are not normal conversations. First because the standard intervention is a 10,000 word long monologue. Second because journals curate what is good enough to be allowed into the conversation using peer-review. These journals are another layer in the academic status economy. They try to publish those monologues of most interest to most people and thus most likely to increase the status of their journal within those academic conversations. The higher the status of a journal the more able it is to bestow prestige upon those who publish in it, and so the more academics will send it their most exciting ideas. A virtuous circle of prestige appears around the journal, which translates into outsized profits for its multinational corporate owner  - since every university needs to subscribe to it or risk missing out on the most exciting part of the conversation.

If we were building it from scratch, I don't think we would set up a system like this in which publicly funded research is privatised and commoditised, resulting in enormous profits for a handful of companies while systematically excluding ordinary citizens, journalists, and poorer country universities from access. There are many attempts to change things, from protests against price-gouging behaviours, to boycotts of the most loathed company, Elsevier, to outright defiance (pirate sites like scihub and libgen), to the creation of free Open Access alternatives. I wish them well.* Here I want to open up a new front that is not about access but how the product gets made: the treatment of peer reviewers

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Can Corporations Be ‘Good Citizens’?

Source
The idea of ‘good corporate citizenship’ has become popular recently among business ethicists and corporate leaders. You may have noticed its appearance on corporate websites and CEO speeches. But what does it mean and does it matter? Is it any more than a new species of public relations flimflam to set beside terms like ‘corporate social responsibility’ and the ‘triple bottom line’? Is it just a metaphor?

The history of the term does not promise much. It does indeed seem to have evolved out of corporate speak – how corporations represent themselves rather than how they view themselves – selected, perhaps, for sounding reassuring but vague. Its popularity has far preceded its definition; ‘corporate citizenship’ is still evolving, looking for a place to settle.

But what it is about is important. For it represents a political turn to the old question, Who are corporations for and how is their power to be managed? Are corporations bound to serve society’s interest, or are they free to follow their own? Are they public institutions, part of the governance of our society and publicly accountable to us for their actions, or are they private associations accountable only to their managers and owners?

Monday, 8 October 2018

No One Actually Believes Fake News. So What's The Problem?

The statistics are shocking. A Russian troll farm created false anti-Clinton stories and distributed them on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. As many as 126 million Facebook users may have encountered at least one piece of Russian propaganda; Russian tweets received as many as 288 million views. The Russians, like Trump's campaign itself, leveraged the AdTech infrastructure developed by social media companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter to identify and target those most receptive to their lies and provocations.

What is going on? Is this something new? Does it matter?

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Invisible Hand Ethics

"[B]y directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention….By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good." (Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, IV.2.9)
Doing right by others is difficult and time-consuming. Hence the attraction of what I call Invisible Hand Ethics, in which we mind our own business and the ethics takes care of itself.

This is modelled on Adam Smith's famous account of how the overall outcome of lots of self-interested actions in the economic sphere can be good for society as a whole. Bakers just want to make a buck, but their self-interest produces the bread that feeds the people. Their competition for sales keeps prices down. The customers in turn just want the cheapest best bread, but wind up helping the best bakers make a good living. You get the idea. Smith argued that in the economic domain this could be a far more reliable mechanism for achieving good outcomes than good intentions.

Friday, 27 July 2018

Tyrants Aren’t Smarter Than Democrats. Just More Evil

Tyrants like Vladamir Putin and Kim Jong Un seem to win a lot of their geopolitical contests against democratic governments. How do they do it?
A common explanation is that these tyrants are better at playing the game. They are strategic geniuses leading governments with decades of experience in foreign affairs and characterised by single-mindedness and a long-term horizon. Of course they are going to make better geopolitical moves than democratic governments riven by political factionalism and only able to think as far ahead as the next election.
This explanation is wrong. Tyrants don’t succeed because they are especially skilled at the game of geopolitics, but because they are baddies. Tyrants make bold moves because they are willing to subject their country (and the whole world) to more risk. They can do that because they care less than democrats, and hence worry less, about bringing harms to their people. Like a hedge fund manager, they can afford to take big risks because they are not playing with their own money. When tyrants win it is because of luck, not brilliance. This is easier to see when tyrants lose – as they nearly all do in the end, when their luck runs out.

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, 29 November 2017

The Revolt Against Liberalism: Diagnosing and Defeating Populism

Experience suggests that if men cannot struggle on behalf of a just cause because that just cause was victorious in an earlier generation, then they will struggle against the just cause. They will struggle for the sake of struggle. They will struggle, in other words, out of a certain boredom: for they cannot imagine living in a world without struggle. And if the greater part of the world in which they live is characterized by peaceful and prosperous liberal democracy, then they will struggle against that peace and prosperity, and against democracy. (Francis Fukuyama, The End of History, p.330)
Liberal democracy won the Cold War but a generation later it is losing the peace. In country after country across the comfortable, safe, prosperous western world populist parties and movements dedicated to its overthrow are advancing steadily towards power. Why is this happening? A righteous indignation enabled by complacency. What can be done? Radical liberalism