Neil Levy

The Ethics of Humor

Clinton Cards recently apologized for a Christmas card listing “10 reasons why Santa Claus must live on a Council Estate” (sample reasons: “He only works once a year”; “He drinks alcohol during working hours”). Predictably, some people professed outrage over the card (which seems to me mildly offensive, but not enough to get worked up over) and equally predictably some people slammed the reaction as an excess of political correctness (whatever that means). Humor is very often at someone’s expense. In fact, some people have suggested that making the person who laughs feel superior to the butt of the joke is the essence of humor. That theory is rather implausible, but we certainly don’t want a blanket ban on jokes that target other people. When is it okay to tell jokes at the expense of others and when isn’t it? Continue reading

Pedophiles and homosexuals – apples and oranges?

Australian columnist and TV personality Mia Freedman has been caught in a social media storm after comparing pedophiles to gay people. Freedman’s gaffe didn’t warrant the furious response it got; the response seems mainly the product of people’s inability to understand how analogies and similes work. Freedman, arguing in favor of a public sex offender’s register, claimed that we ought to expect pedophiles to continue to be a danger to children, because they can’t change who they’re attracted to, just like gay people can’t change who they’re attracted to. Freedman’s point was that we used to think that gay people could be ‘cured’; we now accept that that’s a fantasy. So we should say the same thing about pedophiles.

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She was one in a million, so there’s five more just in New South Wales.

We’re not good at large numbers. Our brains are adapted to living in groups of perhaps 150 individuals. City living is a very recent innovation, and our psychological mechanisms struggle to cope with it. One way in which we may go astray is through the misapplication of heuristics that worked well for our ancestors, but which misfire in very large groups. Suppose you learn that there is a person in your group prone to violence without provocation. If you live in a group of 150 individuals, you need to be on high alert: your paths will cross. But if you live in a city of 5 million people, you really shouldn’t worry (unless you have some reason to think the violent individual lives in your street). In fact, on learning that there is such an individual you will probably feel more anxiety than you should – not as much as you would if you knew your paths would cross, but more than you rationally ought to. Continue reading

Would it be bad if humanity were to become extinct?

That’s (roughly) the topic of a panel held at Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas. It is a topical question, in this age of potentially catastrophic climate change. There is no realistic risk that climate change threatens life on this planet, after all,  but it could threaten human existence (not directly, but by triggering widespread conflicts over scarce resources). The Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, has dubbed this our final century, envisaging other means whereby human existence could end. So: would it matter? Continue reading

Forgotten Baby Syndrome

Defense lawyers are increasingly calling upon the services of neuroscientists to give evidence excusing, or mitigating the guilt of, their clients. A recent case illustrates some of the risks of doing so, as well (perhaps) of the potential benefits to lawyers and their clients.
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A shocking discovery about thinking?

You’ve probably already seen the story. Participants in an experiment were asked to sit and think. The only distraction available was the possibility of giving themselves a mild electric shock. One third of women and two thirds of men shocked themselves to pass the time. One man shocked himself 190 times. Continue reading

Reading in a connected age

There is no doubt that the internet has transformed our lives in multiple ways. Here I will focus on the ways in which it has transformed our cognitive environment. I’m writing these words in Australia; as soon as I press “publish” they will be available to readers all over the world. For an academic, the “tyranny of distance” is greatly reduced by the web: it doesn’t matter where I am or where the journal is; I can have immediate access and I can email the author queries as easily from Melbourne as from London. Notoriously, it has made information available in quantities many people report they find overwhelming. Continue reading

Was Marx Right?

In The German Ideology, Marx claimed that “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas”. The idea, roughly, is that the way the dominant class frame and view the world comes to be the ideology of the entire society. If the ruling class sees people as divided into castes, for instance, then most people – whether they belong to that class or not – will absorb this way of thinking and see the world in the same way. This explains why – according to Marxists – people may be complicit in their own subordination: it seems natural to them. Continue reading

Discrimination against the (historically) privileged

Most cases of discrimination involve someone who belongs to a historically subordinated group being unfairly treated, because they belong to that group. Must all cases of discrimination fit this mould? Here are two, involving people who claim that they are being discriminated against because they belong to a historically dominant group. The first has been in the news recently: a group of workers at university in Wales are claiming sex discrimination on the grounds that they are paid less than their female counterparts. The second has not been in the news, since the case is more than a decade old. It concerns a man rejected by a US police force because he scored too high on an IQ test (the force has a policy of rejecting those who score too high, on the grounds that applicants who are too intelligent might get bored with police work and move on, which would entail a waste of the time and resources devoted to their training). Continue reading

Cricket and mental illness

There is a lively debate in the philosophy of psychiatry over what makes a condition a disease. The debate is particularly heated with regard to addiction: it is a moral failing, a brain disease or something else altogether? People who hold that addiction is a brain disease often claim that their view is more humane, because it removes the stigma from a condition that is not the sufferer’s fault. Unfortunately matters are not so clear cut: there is some evidence that the disease model actually increases stigma, or at least makes mental illness seem more a fixed part of the person’s identity. Continue reading

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