Neil Levy

Does Moral Ignorance Excuse?

Written by Neil Levy

Everyone agrees that ignorance of fact can excuse. If I take your suitcase thinking it was mine, and my belief that it was mine was faultless (perhaps the coach driver handed it to me, saying “this is yours”, and it looked exactly like mine), I seem excused of blame for taking it. But philosophers and ordinary people have been reluctant to excuse people on the basis of their moral ignorance. Think, for example, about recent debates concerning memorials to people we now recognize as deeply racist. Of course, it’s perfectly possible to demand that such memorials be removed on the grounds that it’s inappropriate to laud bad people, but the demand is often combined with blame directed at the racist (conversely, those who defend the memorials often think it’s sufficient to deflect blame on the grounds that the person was “a man of his time”). Continue reading

The Weaponization of Bullshit

by Neil Levy

It’s not often that philosophers come to broader public attention, but Harry Frankfurt managed it with his 2005 book On Bullshit. The book made the best-seller lists and led to a Daily Show appearance. On Bullshit had a more recent resurgence with the advent of the Trump presidency, as people sought to understand the Trump phenomenon and make sense of his constant stream of garbage.

Trump seemed to embody Frankfurtian bullshit. According to Frankfurt, bullshit is distinguished from lying centrally by the intention of the bullshitter. The liar wants you to believe something that is false; the bullshitter doesn’t care about the truth either way. The bullshitter may not know whether what they’re saying is true or false, and sometimes it will in fact be true. It’s indifference to truth, not deceptiveness, that is characteristic of bullshit, according to Frankfurt. Continue reading

Google it, Mate.

Written by Neil Levy

There’s just been an election in Australia. In elections nowadays, politicians attempt to portray themselves as one of us, or at least as someone who is in touch with ‘us’ (whoever ‘we’ are). Hence the (apparently disastrous) pictures of Ed Miliband eating a bacon sandwich. Increasingly, journalists see testing politicians to see whether they’re really one of us as part of their jobs, even outside election campaigns. Hence Rishi Sunak being asked on TV about the cost of bread, or Dominic Raab claiming he’s not out of touch because he knows the cost of unleaded petrol.

In the early days of the Australian election, Anthony Albanese (then the opposition leader) stumbled several times, failing to recall the official interest rate and the unemployment rate and, later, details of one his own major policies.  Many commentators thought these ‘gaffes’ would harm him; it’s impossible to tell whether they did but they certainly didn’t wound him fatally: he’s now the prime minister. Despite the narrative around Miliband and the sandwich, it’s impossible to tell whether the electorate really cares about these errors and ‘gotcha’ moments. But when should we care? When is it appropriate to expect politicians to be able to answer detailed questions about policies and everyday life and when is it pointless theatre? Continue reading

The End Of The Egg?

written by Neil Levy

There are no more free range eggs in the UK. They’re a victim of the pandemic – not COVID, but avian flu. Avian flu is devastating to the poultry industry, most immediately because outbreaks lead to the culling of all the birds. Avian flu can infect humans and has caused multiple deaths over the years; prevention in domestic birds is therefore aimed not only at reducing the costs to producers but also at reducing the risks to human health. Keeping them indoors is aimed at preventing the virus spreading from wild birds to the poultry. Continue reading

Social Media and the Loss of Knowledge

written by Neil Levy

Here’s the common view of social media and its epistemic effects. Social media leads to people sequestering themselves in echo chambers, and echo chambers cause extreme and/or unjustified beliefs. When we don’t exchange opinions with a variety of people, we don’t have access to the full range of evidence and argument. Instead, because echo chambers form around already likeminded people, they lead to the entrenchment of initial views, no matter how good or bad they might have been to begin with. Continue reading

Writing Is Not That Easy: Grammarly As Affordance.

Written by Neil Levy

I recently received an email from someone about a grant application in which I’m involved.  In this email, the person coordinating the grant asked recipients to suggest revisions to the text, but noted that as it stood it had a score of 100% on Grammarly. He asked that any changes be made carefully, so that this score was retained.

Continue reading

Homelessness as a moral cost to the housed

Written by Neil Levy

Homelessness is, of course, above all a cost to the homeless:  it’s a dangerous, difficult, insecure way to live. There are therefore strong moral reasons to address it, for the sake of the homeless. There are also (non-moral) reasons to address it, centring on its costs to everyone, homeless and housed alike. It’s a financial cost to all of us, at least if it is true that it’s cheaper to give homeless people housing than to pay the costs associated with homelessness (policing, emergency care and shelters). Homelessness is an aesthetic cost and might bring with it associated litter, drunkenness (addiction is both a cause and a consequence of homelessness), and disorder. It decreases amenity for everyone. I want to suggest that homelessness is also a moral cost to the housed. Continue reading

Cancelling Books

Written by Neil Levy

One of the latest flare ups in the culture wars concerns book publishing. Recent books by Mike Pence, Woody Allen and by Milo Yiannopoulos have all been met with protests, many of them stemming from staff within the publishing houses. Sometimes, these protests have been successful, at least to the extent that the publisher has decided not to publish the book.

Conflict over these books has pitted younger staff at publishing houses against older. It’s also pitted advocates of (relatively) unconstrained free speech against those who support no-platforming certain speakers. Perhaps showing my age, I find myself on both sides of these debates. These are very different cases, and the case for no-platforming Yiannopoulos seems strong; in the other cases, I am less certain. Elsewhere, I have given an underappreciated reason why we might often want to no-platform (a strong reason; not necessarily a decisive reason). In this post, though, I want to rebut some common arguments against cancelling books. Continue reading

Making Universities (Even) More Unfair

Written by Neil Levy

Unsurprisingly, I’m a big believer in universities and higher education. I think research, of all kinds, is important for a whole range of reasons and that being educated is very often conducive to a good life. But we shouldn’t pretend that universities are institutions wholeheartedly devoted to genuine education and to research. They’re also businesses, and their business motivations often play a more important role in their decisions than any academic considerations. Beyond that, they play a role in society that’s independent of their role as educators, and that role explains some of their grubbier behavior. Continue reading

Thoughts about Final Thoughts

By Neil Levy

 

I’ve written a brief article for Aeon Magazine, on whether the regrets of the dying give us insight into what really matters. Here’s the first paragraph.

How do we find out what really matters in life? One way might be to ask those who are dying. They might occupy a perspective that allows them to see better what’s trivial and what’s truly significant. The prospect of imminent death might carry them above petty squabbles and the pursuit of money and status, and allow them a clear view of the goods that make our lives worthwhile.

If you’re interested, you can read it here.

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