Thursday, 15 June 2023

The Problem With Stories

Human minds run on stories, in which things happen for human meaningful reasons. But the actual world is not human centred. It runs on causal processes that are largely indifferent to humans’ feelings about them. 

The great breakthrough in human enlightenment was to develop techniques – empirical science – to allow us to grasp the real complexity of the world and to understand it in terms of the interaction of mindless (or at least unintentional) processes rather than humanly meaningful stories of, say, good vs evil. Hence, for example, the objectively superior neo-Darwinian account of adaptation by natural selection that has officially displaced premodern stories about human-like but bigger (‘God’) agents creating the world for reasons we can make sense of. 

Science flourishes still, demonstrating the possibility for human minds to escape the fairy tale epistemology that we have inhabited for tens of thousands of years and to inquire systematically into the world, or at least to benefit from the work of those who do. Yet - as the evolution example illustrates - stories continue to exert a powerful psychological hold over human minds. The US is one of the most educated societies in the world, but only around a third of adults accept the scientific account of evolution. Despite their deficiencies stories continue to dominate our minds, and hence the world that we build together with our minds via politics. From our thinking on the economy to identity politics to Covid to Climate Change to Climate Change activism, stories continue to blind us to reality and to generate mass conflict and stupidity.

Monday, 3 April 2023

Governments Don't Actually Prioritise Economic Growth - But They Should

Environmentalists are always complaining that governments are obsessed with GDP and economic growth, and that this is a bad thing because economic growth is bad for the environment. They are partly right but mostly wrong. First, while governments talk about GDP a lot, that does not mean that they actually prioritise economic growth. Second - properly understood - economic growth is a great and wonderful thing that we should want more of.

Monday, 13 February 2023

Strongman Leaders And The Infallibility Trap

It is easy to become exasperated with liberal democracy. Various factions bicker and manoeuvre against each other in an endless grubby contest for power, hypocritically appealing to a shared public interest while continuously generating and sustaining social divisions. Things that are necessary – like addressing climate change – do not get done, lost amidst the endless dithering, quibbling, and bargaining for advantage. Things that should not be done – like deporting UK asylum applicants to Rwanda – become official policy against all common sense and multiple laws, seemingly mainly as a way of trolling the opposition and civil society.

So it is disappointing but perhaps not surprising that people around the world are increasingly likely to endorse the strongman theory of government, that “a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and election is a good way to run the country”.

Strongman government has two major attractions compared to liberal democracy. First, it promises wise and benevolent rule: undistracted by factions motivated by political interests the strong leader will be freed to make wiser, better decisions in the national interest. Second, it promises decisiveness: without the endless bickering and second guessing, strong leaders can get on and do what needs to be done.

In what follows I want to challenge these apparent advantages and show that the very failings of liberal democracy are actually the solution to the problems that strongman governments run into.

Monday, 12 December 2022

Public Protest Is Not A Democratic Thing To Do

When people take to the street to protest this is often supposed to be a sign of democracy in action. People who believe that their concerns about the climate change, Covid lockdowns, racism and so on are not being adequately addressed by the political system make a public display of how many of them care a lot about it so that we are all forced to hear about their complaint and the government is put under pressure to address it.

Sunday, 23 October 2022

How Many Children's Lives Is That Worth?

According to the meta-charity GiveWell, the most effective charities can save a child’s life for between 3 and 5,000 US dollars. One way of understanding this figure is that whenever you consider spending that amount of money, one of the things you would be choosing not to spend it on is saving a child’s life.

Take the median of the GiveWell figures: $4,000. I propose that prices for all goods and services should be listed in the universal alternative currency of percentage of a Child’s Life Not Saved (%CLNS), as well as their regular prices in Euros, dollars, or whatever. For example, a Starbucks Frappucino might be priced at 5$ /0.13%CLNS. A Caribbean holiday cruise might be priced at $8,000/ 200%CLNS (perhaps written as emojis­č¬Ž­č¬Ž)

Sunday, 28 August 2022

On The Incoherence Of The Claim That 'Taxation Is Theft'

The idea that 'taxation is theft' is one of those thrilling, paradigm shifting recognitions that are continually being rediscovered and shared. It is a classic case of pseudo-intellectuality, in which the excitement around an idea determines its popularity, rather than its quality (previously).

First, unlike theft, taxation is legal - and this turns out to be a more significant difference than it first seems since we rely on laws to determine who owns what. Second, taxation is a device for solving collective action problems and thus allowing us (by coercing us) to meet our moral obligations to ourselves and each other - including our obligations to respect each others' property rights. One can't coherently be in favour of enforcing property rights, e.g. by having a police force and judges to catch and punish thieves, without also being in favour of a sustainable system for funding that enforcement.

Wednesday, 13 July 2022

Taking Decolonization Seriously Means Recognising the Moral Agency of Non-Western Political Actors

In the context of the current decolonisation movement it is rather strange that whenever bad things happen in a non-Western country they are still routinely analysed as the moral responsibility of actors in the West - (former) governments, companies, ideologues, consumers, etc.  For example,

  1. War: If a Western country is involved in a war (or an ally - as in the case of Saudi Arabia in Yemen) then they are routinely assigned the entire responsibility for that war, including for all the terrible things done by those they are fighting.
  2. Illiberalism: Government oppression of religious and sexual minorities, political opposition, free press, and so on is routinely attributed to 'colonial era laws' or continuing Western ideological influence. 
  3. Misgovernance: Government dysfunction and corruption are routinely blamed on Western consumers/companies' demand for natural resources; terrible environmental and labour regulations (or enforcement) are likewise blamed on Western demand for cheaper products 
This way of looking at the world is unfounded, patronising and unhelpful. It betrays a pernicious asymmetry in the recognition of moral agency between Western and non-Western actors. Western actors are assumed to have the power to make decisions that matter and to bear moral responsibility for their choices. Non-western actors are not. Although many of those who are so ready to blame Western actors may think they are opposing 'colonisation', this asymmetry actually continues rather than repudiates the patronising moral hierarchy that characterised the West's unfortunate colonial history.

In reality non-Western political actors make important decisions all the time that affect many people's lives, and these are not merely overdetermined reactions to external forces but actions initiated by them for their own reasons. There is no good reason why they should not be held as morally accountable for their choices as they would be if they were making such decisions in a Western country. 

Sunday, 3 July 2022

To Solve The Global Food Crisis We Must First Stop Fixating On Putin

There appears to be a moral panic going around that Putin is engineering a global famine to extort a more favourable outcome to his failed Ukraine invasion. 

This is a delusion with 2 pernicious consequences. First, it grants too much power to a warlord, and thus too much weight to his interests. Second, it distracts us from our own shared global responsibility to prevent food supply disruptions from causing a global tragedy.

Saturday, 2 July 2022

We Should Fix Climate Change, But We Should Not Regret It

Climate change is a huge and urgent problem. It is natural to suppose that it is therefore a terrible mistake, an unforced error that we should regret and try to prevent ever happening again.

I disagree. Climate change is the unfortunate outcome of the economic growth that has transformed human civilisation for the better. We cannot regret climate change without regretting the vastly better world for most people that the fossil-fuel powered technological revolutions of the last 250 years have achieved. Nor should we draw the anti-technology lesson that solutions are always worse than the original problems, that humans should retreat to living within the bounds of nature rather than attempting to escape them.

Sunday, 26 June 2022

Abortion Bans as Conscription

Recent developments in the US have brought renewed interest to the ethics of abortion. I will skip over most of that rather parochial and politically tribalised debate and instead consider the ethical implications of prioritising the right to life of a foetus over its mother's right to autonomy. I will suggest that banning abortion for this reason could be justified in a liberal state, but this 'conscription' model would look quite different from the straightforward bans on abortion as wrongful killing that we are familiar with.

Saturday, 25 June 2022

Putting Women In Charge Is Not The Way To Make The World Better

It is common to see claims that if only women were in charge things would be much better and nicer, for example that people would be much happier at work, inequality would fall, climate change would be solved. 

There is no good evidence for these claims. They seem to rely on the question begging assumption that the best explanation for why people in charge of things seem so often seem incompetent, mean, self-serving, unresponsive to their constituents' needs, and so on is that they are men. This framing is then used to cherry pick anecdotes about female prime ministers/CEOs that support the possibility, but not the probability that women would do things better. 

As a general rule, we should reject claims supported by inadequate evidence. We should also be careful to distinguish moral claims about fairness in the competition for power from claims about how that power would be exercised. The first moral problem of power is whether it is used rightly and for the good. The moral problem of fair opportunity to gain power is a secondary and far less significant moral problem. To put it another way, we should care less about the gender of the super competitive alphas who get the top jobs in our society, and more about the poor saps who will be ruled by them.

Assuming that power is misused because it is held by men leaves us unprepared for the very probable discovery that things will be just as bad when most things are run by women (which in some countries is only a couple of decades away). This is because it is institutions rather than gender that select, train, and constrain those who wield power, and it is highly questionable whether and how far those institutions would be changed merely by changing the gender of those in charge. Instead of trying to control how power is exercised by changing the gender of those in charge, we should focus directly on restructuring the institutions of power, for example by making political leaders more legally accountable and empowering employees with workplace democracy. The aim should be to ensure that whether the people in charge are men or women, they are no longer able to behave like bullies or tyrants. 

Saturday, 11 June 2022

No, Poor Countries Shouldn't Try To Make Their Own Covid Vaccines

Source: UNDP
One of the impressive features of humanity's response to Covid was the development of successful vaccines within only 10 months, and the production and distribution of 12 billion doses around the world. One of the worst features was the inequality in the distribution of those vaccine doses.

As of June 2022, only 18% of people in low income countries have received at least one dose compared to a global average of 66% and an average of 72% in high income countries (Our World in Data/UNDP). 

Obviously this contrast looks very unjust. Many people in rich countries have now received a full course of vaccination and multiple booster shots, even if they aren't particularly vulnerable. They also benefit from access to large well-resourced medical systems and thus high survival rates even if they are unlucky enough to be infected. Covid vaccines are clearly not being distributed to where they would do the most good.

One response to this injustice has been to argue that Low Income countries should be enabled to manufacture their own vaccines. Unfortunately, this is one of those ideas that sound nice but don't stand up well to systematic scrutiny (see previously: ideas vs arguments).

Sunday, 5 June 2022

Philosophy Belongs in the Sciences, Not the Humanities: A Rant

Philosophy has traditionally been considered and considered itself a part of the humanities, with a continuity in skills and attitudes, such as an emphasis on scholarship. In many universities philosophy departments are part of larger humanities faculties and thus fall under governance institutions designed for traditional humanities disciplines like literature, history, law, and religion. This association is bad for philosophy. Philosophy is a science of intellectual inquiry and it needs institutions, methods and attitudes suited to that task.

Saturday, 28 May 2022

Four Reasons Not To 'Trust The Experts'

A standard reaction to the disastrous democratic discourse and political mismanagement of public interest issues from the economy to public health to gun control has been to demand more respect for experts. I am sympathetic to the idea that when it comes to facts it is better to look them up than to try to work them out for ourselves, and that the way to do that is ask the experts: people in good standing in the relevant epistemic community (previously: Democracy is Not a Truth Machine). 

Nevertheless, there are problems with the 'trust the experts' mantra that should be acknowledged if we are not to fall into an epistemic trap of misplaced faith. Here are four that I try to keep in mind.

Monday, 2 May 2022

Just End Poverty Now: The Case for a Global Basic Income

According to the World Bank’s latest figures, around 700 million people live in utter destitution, on less than $1.90 per day, poorer than the average pet cat in the rich world. It is easy to agree that this is a terrible thing. It has so far been much harder – even for philosophers – to agree on what should be done about it. Peter Singer, for example, argues that rich people should donate more to effective charities. Thomas Pogge argues that rich world citizens should stop their governments from supporting less than ideally just global institutions. Yet this intellectual debate is an unnecessary distraction. We already have all the moral agreement we need to act. Ending extreme poverty is not an intellectual problem but a practical one, and not even a particularly difficult one. We just need to find the people who are poor and give them enough money so that they aren’t poor anymore.