Sunday, 25 July 2010

Who really owns cultural treasures?

Artistic and archaeological treasures are scattered throughout the world, often quite far from their places of origin. Is there something wrong with that? Who really owns such cultural treasures as the Elgin Marbles (sculptures from the Athens Parthenon) or Vermeer's paintings (17th century Dutch master, whose paintings are scattered through W. Europe and the USA)? Post-colonial nations in particular are quick to argue that such works were stolen from them (as indeed so much else certainly was), that their continued place in museums in New York, Paris or London is a continuation of colonial attitudes, and that they must be returned to their country of origin. But how are such claims justified? There seem to be 3 main ways of staking a claim on such works: national identity, law, and the "cultural heritage of all mankind"

Friday, 23 July 2010

Four Ideas of Sustainability

Sustainability concerns the relationship between humans and their natural environment over time. But there are various ethical understandings of that relationship with quite different implications. Two popular accounts actually repudiate human interdependence with nature by either making human interests completely subservient to a sacred nature, or by making nature completely subservient to human interests. Gro Brundtland's famous definition points in the right direction by focussing on the goal of meeting humanitarian needs in the present and the future, but her picture of human interests is too narrow and technocratic. What we need is a definition that is humanistic without necessarily being human-centred.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Martha Nussbaum lectures Europe on religious accommodation: The 2010 Unseld Lecture

Martha Nussbaum is an extremely American-liberal philosopher with a strong interest in US constitutional law and freedom of religion [previously]. She has recently been promoting the tradition of religious accommodation she finds in American legal and political history to Europe, including at the 2010 Unseld Lecture at the University of Tübingen that I attended and which this essay is a response to. Unfortunately Nussbaum's lecture was more an assertion of the universality of a particular American model of relations between state and religion than an argument for its relevance to a European audience, with our quite different legal traditions, politics, social make-up and history.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Wisdom is about How to work out Where to look to find out Who to ask about What you need to know

Our modern society has achieved an amazing degree of division of labour in knowledge and hence specialisation, particularly in science, but co-ordinating that expert knowledge to make it available to society in general is surprisingly difficult. Consider the problems faced by the non-expert in accessing and employing expert knowledge to address particular problems. The politician who wants to know if GM crops are safe; the fisherfolk trying to work out what's happening to all the fish; the parents trying to assess risks of particular vaccinations for their child; and so on.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Bullshit News: An anatomy

Mainstream news media are supposed to provide a vital public service for democracy. Particularly newspapers since they have all those words. They are supposed to provide we the people with the accurate and relevant facts and analysis about the world that we can use to come to informed decisions about climate change, health-care, foreign military adventures, etc. They also play a directly political role in successful democracy by making the operation of political power transparent and accountable. 

So, we are told, it's terribly important that states find some way to protect our newspapers from the current cruel winds of technology driven changes in their business environments. But when you take a look at most news media, including national and local newspapers, one frankly is not overwhelmed by the evidence of either a commitment to public service or the reporting breadth, depth, judgement and integrity that this role would seem to require. The news is just a business, not a sacred mission, and an enormous proportion of what gets published is best described as bullshit news. This can take various forms, but what it has in common is the short-termist private interests of journalists and media companies over and against the public interest.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Politics: Can't Someone Else Do It?

Politics is concerned with the legitimate exercise of power. Both the competition for power ('who governs?') and the exercise of power (governance) depend on the key concept of legitimacy, since in politics power is acquired by authority not force, by persuading people that you have the right to be in charge, not hitting each of them over the head until they give in.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Big Bad Sport

A formal definition of sport would be the voluntary pursuit of meaningless objectives by inefficient means involving some level of physical exertion. What's the point of it? Nothing, and that's why, in the normal sense, participating can be fun. It's vaguely healthy; sociable; the exercise produces some physiological pleasure; and one can derive some mental satisfaction from minor achievements within its self-imposed discipline. Plus everyone gets to enjoy those benefits since it doesn't matter much who wins or loses (the goals are deliberately silly).

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

What is Philosophy?

Philosophy is concerned with the pursuit of wisdom:  not only with what we think we know, but how? why? and what is it really worth? In line with this spirit of questioning philosophy can be defined as the discipline of critical scrutiny, though its specific methods are informed by a variety of philosophical styles, claims, histories, and concerns from Plato to Kant to Foucault, which constitute often quite divergent schools. Philosophers from different traditions see philosophy differently (check out the anthology of answers by contemporary philosophers to the what is philosophy question  over at the excellent Philosophy Bites). But here's my take on it.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

The Decline of Common Sense and the Rise of Conspiracy and Foolishness

As Frank Furedi's excellent analysis  argues, conspiracy thinking - "attributing the problems and misfortunes faced by individuals to some intentional malevolent behaviour" is on the rise. As many have noted (e.g. electorates are becoming ever more delusional ("give me public services, but not government or taxes"). Both kinds of foolishness are connected to a decline in an authoritative and widely shared 'common sense' about the-Way the World Works: history, science, politics, ethics. etc.

Monday, 16 November 2009

It's the Equality, Stupid!

Richard Wilkinson's and Kate Pickett's The Spirit Level is an excellent contribution to 'evidence based politics' (something that they note is more prevalent in more equal societies). Their main contribution is to bring existing evidence of statistical correlations and plausible causal mechanisms systematically together, and their inescapable conclusions seem almost commonsensical to the reader as a result. Yes, we did all sort of know all this, but we hadn't put it all together so forcefully.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Against religion's freedom from criticism

What's so special about religion that it needs special protection either in law or in ethics? How is it that some people are allowed to make stupid, crazy, or repugnant claims that are immune from criticism merely because they preface it with 'I believe' or 'God says'? Does no-one else find this state of affairs ridiculous? Here I want to focus on 3 mythical foundations for religion's special exemption: that religion is 1) individual; 2) ethical not metaphysical; and 3) concerned with beauty rather than truth.

Monday, 28 September 2009

What's Wrong With Meritocracy?

Meritocracy means that those who deserve to, succeed, and those who succeed are those who deserve to. What could possibly be fairer than that?

Meritocracy is an ideal conception of distributive justice. The problem with utopias is not only that they are not only impossible to reach, but that the harder one tries to get there the more dystopian your actual society becomes.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

The humanities vs. mathandscience

The humanities feel embattled, the world they were designed for swept away while other subjects - especially 'mathandscience' - expand at a phenomenal rate. They resemble a little 19th century house on a 21st century street with immense skyscrapers looming ever higher around and over them. Broadly speaking they have responded by turning outwards or retreating inwards.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Debating Aid: Beyond Armchair Theorising

Far too often debates over development aid follow the contours of ideology - either (global) capitalism is evil and must be stopped, or the poor are just welfare scroungers who have to be saved from aid by free-markets. As a result we get an unhelpful myopia - arguments are ideologically driven and make only partial contact with the evidence, and divisive rhetoric - the real enemy is not poverty, but one's ideological opponents. Think William Easterly's 'White Man's Burden' or Naomi Klein's 'No Logo'.


So do philosophers do any better?

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Is Martha Nussbaum a liberal elitist?

Martha Nussbaum is a great philosopher. She has great ideas; writes beautifully, cogently, and persuasively; and offers deep and perceptive reading of others' work (this is not as usual as you might expect). Furthermore you couldn't describe her as an elitist in the usual academic sense of living in an ivory tower making obscure or irrelevant pronouncements on the state of human nature. Indeed she has been involved for decades in development work (most especially with Amartya Sen's Capability Approach) focussing particularly on the awful and coercive social arrangements many women around the world are forced to live under. She once wrote a scathing and influential essay, which I admire very much, condemning American academic feminism for its narcissistic focus on the personal and the West, rather than the political and the rest.

So not an academic ivory tower elitist. But there is still something odd about how Nussbaum works.