Saturday, 10 July 2021

Privacy Is The Right To Be Mysterious. Democracy Depends On It

 

At the heart of liberalism is the idea of personal sovereignty. There is some domain of thought and feeling that is essentially private, for which we are not answerable to others because it is no one else’s proper business. Privacy is the meta-right that guarantees this right to think our way to our own decisions in our life, whether that be how to follow our god, or what to make of our sexual inclinations, or how to grieve for someone we have lost. It prevents others demanding justifications for our every thought and feeling by veiling them from their view. It is the right to be mysterious to others.

Monday, 14 June 2021

Vaccination Need Not Be Compulsory To Be Universal

Covid-19 vaccination take up has been disappointingly low in many countries, or parts of countries, such as in America. Given that vaccination offers significant private and public benefits, this is surprising. Is it permissible or even required for governments to compel or incentivise vaccination, and if so, how?

Monday, 31 May 2021

Don't Pity the People of the Future

Climate change is such a terrifying large problem that it is hard to think sensibly about. On the one hand this makes many people prefer denial. On the other hand it can exert a warping effect on the reasoning of even those who do take it seriously. In particular, many confuse the power we have over what the lives of future generations will be like - and the moral responsibility that follows from that - with the idea that we are better off than them. These people seem to have taken the idea of the world as finite and combined it with the idea that this generation is behaving selfishly to produce a picture of us as gluttons whose overconsumption will reduce future generations to penury. But this completely misrepresents the challenge of climate change.

Sunday, 11 April 2021

Effective Altruism Is Not Effective

Effective altruism is based on a very simple idea: we should do the most good we can. Obeying the usual rules about not stealing, cheating, hurting, and killing is not enough, or at least not enough for those of us who have the good fortune to live in material comfort, who can feed, house, and clothe ourselves and our families and still have money or time to spare. Living a minimally acceptable ethical life involves using a substantial part of our spare resources to make the world a better place. Living a fully ethical life involves doing the most good we can. (Peter Singer)

It is almost universally agreed that the persistence of extreme poverty in many parts of the world is a bad thing. It is less well-agreed, even among philosophers, what should be done about it and by who. An influential movement founded by the philosopher Peter Singer argues that we should each try to do the best we can by donating our surplus income to charities that help those in greatest need. This ‘effective altruism’ movement has two components: i) encouraging individuals in the rich world to donate more; and ii) encouraging us to donate more rationally, to the organisations most efficient at translating those donations into gains in human well-being.

Unfortunately both components of effective altruism focus on what makes giving good rather than on achieving valuable goals. Effective altruism therefore does not actually aim at the elimination of global poverty as is often supposed. Indeed, its distinctive commitment to the logic of individualist consumerism makes it constitutionally incapable of achieving such a large scale project. Effective altruism is designed to fail.

Friday, 26 March 2021

Why Are Moral Philosophers So Bad At Global Justice?

There is a dismaying intellectual sloppiness to how moral philosophers as an intellectual community approach issues of global justice. They are not only ignorant about basic, important, and easily checked empirical facts, but also complacent about their ignorance. For example, they disdain to acknowledge the expertise of those scientists (especially economists) whose conclusions or methods they find counterintuitive or disagreeable, and prefer to develop their own theories or seek out those self-professed experts who say things more in line with their preconceptions about how the world works. The result resembles the self-sustaining but fundamentally worthless epistemic communities organised around the rejection of vaccination or climate change. Philosophers are willing to write long articles and whole books explaining their views about how unfair the world is, and to read and respond to each others' complaints, but they have little to offer to the reality based community. 

This shit matters. Bad global justice theorising reinforces anti-intellectual and conspiratorial myths about how the world works that would keep whole countries and hundreds of millions of people mired in poverty. On the one hand - fortunately - few people in positions of influence take this drivel seriously. On the other hand this is still a missed opportunity to have engaged philosophers' supposedly superior reasoning skills and expertise on value questions about issues affecting billions of people. Moreover, it pollutes the political conversation by training our students and anyone else who will listen to be stupid about global justice and by giving intellectual cover to populist 'common sense' opposition to free trade and other sensible pro-poor policies.

Wednesday, 10 March 2021

The Abject Intellectual Failure of Libertarianism

Libertarianism does not make sense. It cannot keep its promises. It has nothing helpful to say on the questions of the day. As political philosophy it is an intellectual failure like Marxism or Flat-Eartherism - something that might once reasonably have seemed worth pursuing but whose persistence in public let alone academic conversation has become an embarrassment. The only mildly interesting thing about libertarianism anymore is why anyone still takes it seriously.

Monday, 18 January 2021

Ideas Are Too Exciting; Arguments Are Too Hard

It is very pleasant to entertain a new idea, a new notion or concept to think about and to look at the world with. Indeed, it can have the exciting and intoxicating feel of discovering hidden treasure. 

Unfortunately, most ideas are bad - wrong, misleading, dangerous, or of very limited use or relevance. Even more unfortunately, that doesn't prevent them from gaining our interest and enthusiasm. The problem is that getting an idea is just a matter of understanding it (or thinking that you do) and this is just as easy in the case of bad ideas as it is for good ones. In contrast, checking the quality of ideas by interrogating the arguments for them is laborious and distinctly unrewarding - and so avoided as much as possible. The result is that the world is drowning in bad ideas and their dreadful consequences, from conspiracy theories to religions to academic bloopers like critical race theory. 

Thursday, 14 January 2021

How Is It No One's Job To Defend Democracy?

Why did it take until now for a critical mass of key players to take a stand against Trump's assault on democracy? Why wasn't it already enough when he pointedly declined to promise to accept the results of the election if he lost, during the 2016 presidential debates?

Liberal democracy is like capitalism, a game designed to make its players compete against each other for points and prizes. Competition is the driving force behind the real benefits such systems achieve, but the logic of competition also imprisons its players to stay within their roles. It is no one's job to defend the system of rules governing that competition. As a result, democracies are surprisingly vulnerable to take over, as we have seen from the recent examples of Turkey, Hungary, and (ongoing) India.

Saturday, 9 January 2021

Politics Would Be Less Crazy If Voting Were Compulsory

Democracies around the world are suffering paroxysms of populist rage. Obviously this has many contributing causes and individuals, from rising inequality to social media to political entrepreneurs like Trump. But here is one policy that might go some way to restoring normal functioning: Make voting compulsory.

Before politicians can do anything else, they must win election by getting  more votes than their opponents. This is supposed to ensure that only those politicians whose ideas and values are most agreeable to the most people have the chance to rule. One might naively suppose that democratic competitions would therefore focus on clearly communicating those ideas and values so that the voters can tell which candidate they most prefer. In practise that is not what happens. This is because voters must choose not only which politician they prefer but also whether to formally register that preference by voting. The politicians' challenge is that  while forming a political opinion is effectively free, voting is a mildly inconvenient task that it is entirely rational for most people not to bother with.

Sunday, 3 January 2021

Racism Is Global and Local - But Not Especially American

The passionate global response to George Floyd's killing showed that the world is as connected as ever, despite the hard borders and economic nationalism induced by Covid. Yet it also showed that America is still the centre of world politics and the problems that come with that. 

Racism is a global phenomenon that one can find everywhere from South Africa to Brazil to India to Japan, but it takes different forms in different places. Americans are too quick to assume that their particular experience of the oppression of black people and their stop-start struggle for equal rights provides a universal diagnosis and treatment plan for racism. The rest of the world is too willing to copy and paste America's provincial self-understanding, however poorly it fits their situation.