Neil Levy

Won’t Someone Think of the Children?

Andrea Leadsom’s suggestion that being a mother made her a better candidate for being a leader than Theresa May, because it gave her a stake in the future that May lacked, seems to have sunk her leadership bid. The horrified responses to her remarks were motivated in important part by the observation that Leadsom was trading on the common sexist belief that it is somehow unnatural or perverse for women (but not men) to be childless. But might Leadsom have had a point? What do we actually know about how having children affects parents’ political engagement and orientation? Continue reading

Affirmative Action for Women in Mathematics: Fighting Discrimination with Discrimination?

The University of Melbourne (the most prestigious university in my hometown) has advertised three senior positions in mathematics. Like some (but not all) other STEM subjects, mathematics has a low proportion of female academics. In part, this is a pipeline problem: women are significantly less likely to do mathematics degrees than men (28% of maths students at Melbourne are female). The head of the school of mathematics and statistics at the university hopes that the appointments might help by fixing the leaking pipeline: the three appointments will provide role models and mentors for female students and might encourage more of them to enrol, finish and go on to higher degrees. Continue reading

The Allure of Donald Trump

The primary season is now well underway, and the Trump bandwagon continues to gather pace. Like most observers, I thought it would run out of steam well before this stage. Trump delights in the kinds of vicious attacks and stupidities that would derail any other candidate. His lack of shame and indifference to truth give him a kind of imperviousness to criticism. His candidacy no longer seems funny: it now arouses more horror than humor for many observers. Given that Trump is so awful – so bereft of genuine ideas, of intelligence, and obviously of decency – what explains his poll numbers?  Continue reading

The Virtuous Homophobe

A few days ago, Kim Davis was released from jail, where she had spent the past few days. Davis, as you probably recall, is the Kentucky county clerk who was jailed for her refusal to issue marriage licenses to gay couples (more technically, for contempt for refusing to obey an order to grant such licenses). Davis says that doing so is inconsistent with her Christian beliefs. Let’s assume (rightly, I am very confident) that Davis’s belief that single sex marriage is morally objectionable is wrong. Is there nevertheless something admirable about her behaviour?[1]

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Facebook and political polarization.

There has been a lot of concern expressed about the role that social media might play in political polarization. The worry is that social media users might only expose themselves to news stories with which they agree and have friends that reinforce their own views, and thereby become more extreme in their views and less understanding or tolerant of those who disagree with them. A recent paper seems to show that the phenomenon is real, but less extreme than we might have thought; at least among those people who identify their political orientation. This group is likely to be more politically aware than other users and may be thought to be more extreme in their exposure to self-reinforcing stories. On average, this group had about 23% of friends with an opposing political viewpoint, and about 29% of the stories they read presented views that were opposed to theirs. Continue reading

Left, Right, and Belief Formation.

A recent article by Jeff Sparrow on the Australian writer Helen Dale/Darville/Demidenko has left me pondering the way that we form beliefs. Under the penname ‘Helen Demidenko’, Dale published a novel that told the story of a Ukrainian family, members of whom were perpetrators of crimes against Jews during the Holocaust. The novel was instantly successful, winning major awards, and equally controversial. It was described as anti-Semitic in its sympathetic depiction of ordinary Ukranians and its (alleged) caricatures of Jews. The book gained an aura of authenticity from the author’s claims that she based much of it on interviews with members of her own family, who had lived through the events depicted. Demidenko’s bubble burst when it was revealed she was born Helen Darville, and had no Ukrainian relatives to recount these tales. Continue reading

Pandas, Humans, and Evolution: What is the state of nature?

Pandas are notoriously picky eaters: they only eat bamboo. But a recent study has found that pandas are actually poorly adapted for their diet. Pandas apparently evolved from omnivorous bears. Whether as a consequence of a decrease in the availability of prey or an increase in bamboo, however, they shifted to an exclusively vegetarian diet about two million years ago. But they did not evolve the kind of digestive apparatus usually seen in herbivores. They have a carnivore’s digestive system, and they lack the gut flora required for extracting the maximum amount of energy from plant-based sources. Hence, perhaps, the fact that they spend so much of their time eating. Continue reading

The Pink Princess

So we (whether ‘we’ are British, or Australians, apparently) have a new princess. Only the most curmudgeonly among us can resist a small smile at the news, right? A small minority holds themselves aloof, dismissing the whole circus as an anachronism, but no one actually thinks there is a downside. Well, I do. I think in a small way (through no fault of her own, obviously) baby Charlotte will contribute to making the world a little worse. Continue reading

What’s wrong with paid comment?

Last week, the Guardian ran an article about “Russia’s Troll Army”. “Troll” is something of a misnomer here: the people in question are not out to provoke a reaction. Rather they are paid to promote the government’s line on political and social issue. They maintain blogs and social media profiles under pseudonyms, where they post made up incidents from fabricated lives, interspersed with political posts they are instructed to write, lauding Russia’s intervention in the Ukraine (for example). And of course they post comments on news stories, on Russian and foreign websites (for reasons unknown, they don’t seem to target Practical Ethics). Continue reading

Self-control and Public Policy.

I have just finished a series of lectures at the University of Oxford on the topic of self-control, the culmination of my first stint in Oxford as a Leverhulme visiting professor (for which I am very grateful to the Leverhulme Trust). My theme has been self-control as a problem of self-management; taking ‘management’ seriously. The idea is that we need to think strategically about ourselves: rather than deciding how to act as temptations arise, we ought to plan for those occasions, or avoid them. That, I’ve argued, is how people who are successful at avoiding temptations when they conflict with their longer-term goals actually do it. Continue reading

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