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

In the Netherlands and several other countries where shutdowns and social distancing restrictions have succeeded in bringing Covid-19 cases under control, excess mortality has turned negative: Significantly fewer people are dying each month than they would in an average year. Ultimately such countries may even achieve a net gain of lives saved despite a deadly global pandemic. This is due to reductions in more usual causes of death, such as other infectious diseases or air pollution. Ending the restrictions that are currently suppressing those causes of death would kill a lot of people.

Thursday, 16 July 2020

If The Louvre Was On Fire, Should We Rescue The Art First Or The People?

Firstly, of course we should rescue the art first. Secondly, of course we should not.

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

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.

Thursday, 28 November 2019

Only Human Rights Are Worth Killing For

“How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” 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.

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?

Coming for your job!
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?