Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Case for Ethical Warning Labels on Animal Products

Like cigarettes, meat and dairy packaging should include no nonsense factual warnings about the negative consequences of one's consumption choices. Just as with cigarettes, exercising our sovereign right to free choice requires that we be adequately informed about the significant negative implications of our choices by someone other than the manufacturer that wants us to buy their product. In this case the significant consequences relate to living up to one's ethical values rather than safe-guarding one's prudential interests in long-term health. But the principle is the same.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Love's Labours Lost: How Robots Will Transform Human Intimacy

An elderly nursing home resident with a Paro robot companion 
The robots are coming.

Even though they won't actually think, they will behave enough like they do to take over most of the cognitive labour humans do, just as fossil-fuel powered machines displaced human muscle power in the 19th and 20th centuries. I've written elsewhere about the kind of changes this new industrial revolution implies for our political and moral economies if we are to master its utopian possibilities and head off its dystopian threats. But robots won't merely be set to work out in the world. They will also move into our homes, with consequences for human intimacy as we now know it. Robots will not only be able to do our household chores but also care work, performing the labours of love without ever loving. 

I see two distinct tendencies at work. First, because robots will allow us to economise on love, inter-human intimacy may become attenuated as we have less need of each other. Second, because robots will perform care better than we can, robots may become objectively more attractive than humans as intimate companions. 

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Truth vs Justice at the International Criminal Court

The International Criminal Court, and the one-off tribunals it is intended to replace, face a tension if not a conflict between the aims of truth and justice. Bringing the perpetrators of awful crimes against humanity to justice is of course the official reason for these courts, but bringing out the truth of what happened is also usually cited. However I have the distinct impression that the Courts themselves have little faith in their ability to provide justice and see their service to truth as their greatest contribution.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Britain's Sudden and Bizarre Resentment of Migration

Source
All three of Britain's major political parties are competing to sound tough on migrants. I can't really condemn them for that, however, since they seem to be reluctantly acceding to the popular demand reflected in the opinion polls and the rise of 'nativist' political parties like UKIP. The successful diffusion of anti-racist social norms in recent decades has constrained the most natural expressions of anti-migrant prejudices. But the bizarre arguments now being trotted out about the harm foreigners do to British prosperity, rights, and culture remain an expression of xenophobia rather than reason.

Friday, 22 November 2013

The myth that rights come with duties

Governments and tabloid newspapers constantly bemoan the unbalanced character of civil and human rights. "Don't they realise that society will collapse if rights are not balanced by duties?" they cry. The superficial attractiveness of this reactionary rhetoric has done much to undermine public support for the concept of rights. It must be challenged.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Moral philosophy about global warming

What contribution can moral philosophers make to public reasoning about global warming?

I make two recommendations, concerning style and substance. First, moral philosophers should be oriented to investigating rather than moralising. Our contributions to public reasoning about global warming must do more than select and promulgate an existing moral account in the usual style of normative ethics. Our work should engage with the moral complexity of the issue rather than exhort the public to follow some simplified view. Second, moral philosophers should make particular efforts to engage collaboratively rather than adversarially with social scientists working in this area. The natural sciences alone are an insufficient basis for analysing the causes of global warming and its meaning for us. Economics in particular can be seen as a branch of applied moral philosophy, and is rich in concepts and techniques highly relevant to the moral understanding of global warming.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Why I do not wear a poppy

It is that time of the year again. Volunteers at train stations and shopping centres, often wearing military uniforms, are selling little red paper and plastic poppies to remember the service of British veterans. These little paper poppies have long taken over the official remembrance day and converted it into a month long ritual from which one cannot opt out without having to take a position. Well, here is my position.

I reject the coerciveness of the poppy ritual, the way it tries to bring everyone together around a single shared narrative of remembrance, with its compulsory yet glib emotions of gratitude and sorrow. I reject the unquestioning acceptance of the value of that military service and the implied necessity and meaningfulness of war in general. And I reject the government's intimate involvement. What should be an occasion for remembering the political failures that lead to wars has been neatly converted into a propaganda exercise that forecloses reasoned public scrutiny of our government's past, present and future militarism.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

The real Adam Smith problem: How to 'live well' in commercial society

Adam, Adam, Adam Smith
Listen what I charge you with!
Didn’t you say
In the class one day
That selfishness was bound to pay?
Of all doctrines that was the Pith,
Wasn’t it, wasn’t it, wasn’t it, Smith?
(Stephen Leacock, Hellements of Hickonomics, 1936)

Friday, 23 August 2013

Holding tyrants personally accountable

The newspapers today are full of pictures of Syrian children gassed in their sleep. An atrocity that, like those which preceded it, the world seems powerless to prevent or punish. Our inter-national institutions are manifestly unable to secure peace and justice. Their tools - diplomatic, economic, and military sanctions - are limited in effectiveness even when they can be used at all. Yet perhaps there is something that we can do about such moral outrages. It was long believed to be a duty of all good men to kill a tyrant. My suggestion is that we revive the tradition of tyrannicide, but make it even more effective by finding a way to give bad men a good reason to kill a tyrant.

Friday, 31 May 2013

Seizing the Utopian Possibilities of our Robot Future


Baxter is coming for your job
According to increasingly credible accounts (egeg, eg), the robot economy is on its way. Perhaps by as early as 2040 robots will be smart and dexterous enough to do pretty much everything humans call work as well as or better than us, and at a lower cost. If this scenario comes about, human societies and indeed the human condition will be radically changed. But will this future be utopian or dystopian? At least two dystopian threats must be actively addressed: inequality and meaninglessness.

Friday, 10 May 2013

How to justify a ban on the burqa (or anything else)

Bans on wearing the burqa and other face-covering religious garb (such as are under consideration or recently passed in several European countries) fall under a class of restrictions by government on the free choice of individuals over private matters. They thus have the appearance of being illiberal, of disrespecting people's natural rights to manage their own affairs in general, and to follow their own plan of life in particular. In fact, it is possible to justify such a ban in liberal terms. But not just any kind of ban will do.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Freedom of the press is not the same as freedom of speech

Freedom of the press is often conflated with freedom of speech, a conceptual error that leads to excessive deference to media corporations. Properly understood, the freedom of the press requires that mass-media corporations be free from government control, but not that they be free from regulation in the public interest. Whether or not the press supports rather than impedes individuals' freedom of expression, public reasoning, and the accountability of politicians depends on how  the media market is set up and policed. 

Friday, 7 December 2012

Human rights, the rule of law, and British parliamentary sovereignty: Prisoners' right to vote

7 years ago the UK was found in breach of its legal obligations to uphold the European Convention on Human Rights for its blanket ban on prisoners voting (Ruling of the European Court of Human Rights).Yet the British parliament has still not managed to pass legislation to address the fundamentally arbitrary and discriminatory character of this ban, by providing a justification of disenfranchisement that relates to the nature of particular crimes and making it an explicit part of sentencing. Rather, parliament is now in open revolt against the very principle of a supra national court telling it what to do.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Debating climate change: The need for economic reasoning

The global climate change debate has gone badly wrong. Many mainstream environmentalists are arguing for the wrong actions and for the wrong reasons, and so long as they continue to do so they put all our futures in jeopardy.

My diagnosis is a twofold ethical failure: of pragmatism and perspective (or, more eloquently, of ‘sense and sensibility’). Many environmentalists argue that climate change is fundamentally a values problem. And yet their interpretation of this has taken a narrow moralising form that systematically excludes consideration of such important ethical values as improving the lives of the 1 billion people presently living in unacceptable poverty or even protecting other aspects of the environment (such as wilderness areas). That narrowness also leads to self-defeating policy proposals founded almost entirely in the economy of nature rather than political economy. The result is a fixation on global CO2 levels alone as the problem and solution, at the cost of systematic and broad evaluation of the feasible policy space.

These foundational errors have induced a kind of millenarian meltdown in many otherwise sensible people, to the extent that to be an environmentalist these days is to fear the oncoming storm and know that all hope is lost. To put it mildly, people in this state of mind are not well placed to contribute helpfully to the political debate about what we should do about the fact of climate change. In their reconciliation with despair environmentalists are not only mistaken, but display a disturbing symmetry with those opponents of action who are mistakenly complacent about the status quo. My recommended treatment, to reinvigorate their confidence as well as their ethics, is a dose of economic reasoning.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Politics Vs. Economics?

A modern polity is made up of several autonomous but overlapping components. Two of the most significant are the political and the economic (culture and society are the others). The greatness of democratic politics is its relationship to the general will; its failure is the institutionalisation of hypocrisy. The efficiency of free market economics is in revealing and achieving the will of all, the satisfaction of the most needs of the most individuals possible; its dismal side is the mass production and consumption of the trivial. The challenge is to find a way to reconcile the best of both in an equal partnership.