Owen Schaefer

Sinnott-Armstrong on Implicit Moral Attitudes

On October 30th, Professor Walter Sinnott-Armstrong of Duke University gave the 2014 Wellcome Lecture in Neuroethics.  His talk, “Implicit Moral Attitudes”, concerned the practical and theoretical implications of recent empirical research into unconscious or sub-conscious beliefs or associations.  Recordings of his talk will be made available soon Audio recording of the talk is available here: http://media.philosophy.ox.ac.uk/neuro/MT14_WLN_WSA.mp3For those interested that were unable to attend, I will summarise the main points of Sinnott-Armstrong’s talk and some of the discussion that occurred during the Q&A afterwards. Continue reading

Framing the Ebola epidemic

“CDC estimates Ebola epidemic could be over in Liberia and Sierra Leone by January!”

So ran the headline of exactly no news outlets.  Instead, a typical headline ran the following sort of dire prediction: “Ebola cases could reach 1.4 million within four months, CDC estimates.”  Only a few went with what is arguably the fairest sort of headline: “CDC offers sharply differing forecasts for Ebola epidemic.”  I would suggest that, while on its face the more dire headline is somewhat deceptive and driven by bad journalistic practices, it is all things considered preferable to the alternatives.   Continue reading

The Indignity of Imprisonment

            Do we need to radically rethink the practice of imprisonment of criminals – not in the direction of novel forms of punishment, but rather in the form of vastly reducing punitive imprisonment altogether?  While prisons are integral to modern criminal justice system, a report from the British Academy earlier this month puts serious pressure on the institution.  Their overall argument is that we should move away from current levels of incarceration and focus on alternative responses to criminality like fines, rehabilitation programs and restorative justice.  Part of the report rehashes familiar empirical, consequentialist arguments for prison reform: prisons are expensive, they have deleterious effects on society, they have unclear deterrent effects, and so on.   Those arguments are relevant and important, but in this post I’d like to focus on the more theoretical, non-consequentialist arguments for prison reform.  The British Academy report argues that, in essence, current imprisonment practices are incompatible with the values of liberal democracy.  This is roughly in line with a growing body of philosophical literature militating against mass incarceration and other forms of punishment.  Here, I’ll go through some of the report’s arguments (and one of its weaknesses), as well as introduce an alternative account I’m developing that links up the imprisonment debate with the torture debate and emphasizes a respect for dignity and humanity. Continue reading

Reporters Shouldn’t Embrace Bias

For a long time, objectivity and impartiality were perceived to be noble and uncontroversial goals for journalists.  Objectivity is straightforwardly appealing – we want information that is accurate and undistorted by reporters’ personal politics.  However, there is of late some pushback against that view (often called ‘The View from Nowhere’, which has apparently become such common parlance in the industry that the Wikipedia entry focuses on the term’s use in journalism rather than Nagel’s book whose title inspired the movement).  The idea, roughly, is that personal bias is unavoidable among journalists (and indeed the public in general).  It is hypocritical to claim to offer impartial reporting because that impartiality can never be achieved; instead, reporters should simply embrace their normative perspectives and be up front about it and its influence on their work.  But this move is a serious mistake, one that will subvert the central internal purpose of journalism and only serve to promote greater ignorance about the world.   Continue reading

The Terror of Ignorance

The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 along with its 239 passengers and crew has dominated recent news coverage.  Hope for their survival has dimmed, and my thoughts and prayers are with the relatives of those on board.  This incident is getting so much attention, though, not only because it involves a large commercial airplane and potential large loss of life, but additionally because of the mystery of what happened.  There is apparently no trace of the plane; an oil slick and debris in the sea were apparently not related, and there was no mayday or other indication from the pilots of something going wrong (at least, not that’s been reported).  Some sort of accident is possible, but the revelation that two passengers were traveling with stolen passports makes it quite plausible that this was a terrorist attack.  Given that likelihood, I would like to suggest that this would be a uniquely devious and disturbing form of terrorism due to our current ignorance concerning what happened, by whom and why. Continue reading

A minimal proceduralist argument against Crimean independence

As the Ukrainian crisis continues to unfold, attention has shifted from the deposed president Viktor Yanukovych to the Crimea peninsula.  Crimea has an ethnic Russian majority and as such are much less sympathetic to the pro-Western uprising that toppled Yanukovych (see the very useful maps posted here).  Now the Russian military has occupied the region, and there is some movement towards either independence or annexation into Russia.  Western powers are unsurprisingly outraged at this military intervention, with UK Prime Minister David Cameron saying there is “no excuse” for Russian occupation.  I would like to suggest that the case against Russia’s use of force is not as clear cut as it first appears, as it could potentially be justified on the grounds of promoting Crimea’s right to self-determination.  Still, careful attention to how recent events unfolded do indicate that both the occupation and recent (quite quick) moves for separation from Ukraine are illegitimate on relatively minimal procedural grounds. Continue reading

Compromising with Racism

Over at Slate, Tanner Colby has a critique of liberal US school busing policies that’s well worth reading.  Some historical context: in the wake of Brown v. Board’s 1954 mandate to integrate school districts, a pattern of ‘white flight’ emerged – white parents moving from city centers to the suburbs to avoid having to send their children to racially integrated schools.  School busing was a court-enforced reaction to this movement, designed to force the children of those who had fled to the suburbs to integrate by busing students in the whiter suburbs to more minority-dominated schools and vice-versa.  Busing has more recently been rolled back by various courts and local governments, much to the chagrin of liberals – but Colby argues the policy was actually a massive failure to begin with.  He makes some important points concerning a central goal of integration (to get students of different races to truly socialize and interact, not merely sit in the same classrooms and cafeterias) that busing did not achieve, and towards the end offers a glimpse of an alternative Colby thinks is superior.  This alternative essentially involves compromising with racism by having blacks be bused to predominantly white schools, but (acceding to the racially-motivated demands of white parents) not vice-versa.  Yet despite the allegedly good consequences of the compromise, there are inherent problems with it.  These problems, I submit, give us strong reason to reject compromising with racism in this instance. Continue reading

The incoherence of Obama’s position on marijuana

           U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent interview in the New Yorker was surprisingly interesting.  While some have noted his disapproval towards a (hypothetical) son playing pro football out of concussion concerns, the more remarkable comments concern marijuana:  he says it’s “not very different from…cigarettes” and “I don’t think it’s more dangerous than alcohol.”  He did not come out in favour of legalisation, however, and this makes his views (and, to a certain extent, the position of the executive branch charged with carrying out federal law) incoherent – by which I mean, his various positions taken together are inconsistent.  Obama may well ‘evolve’ further as he did with gay marriage, but any such evolution will likely come too late in his term to lead to an effective, permanent change in policy. Continue reading

Things look really good…if all you care about is money

Are things really getting better? Well, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’ if you’re a monetary consequentialist (i.e., think all that matters is maximizing the amount of monetary resources in the world).  A group of 21 economists plus one Bjørn Lomborg have a new book coming out soon that will survey 10 pressing global problems such as health, air pollution and gender equality in the world from 1900 to 2050.  According to Lomborg’s précis, they have found that on most of the dimensions, things are improving (only biodiversity is identified as having gotten worse), and the positive trends are expected to largely continue.  This will come as some relief to those bemoaning recent political, environmental and humanitarian crises.  But don’t break out the champagne just yet – their analysis evidently relies on a crude GDP-centric measurement tool that obscures a number of crucial issues.  Continue reading

A death on the border

Several days ago, a middle-aged man named Nam Young-ho was shot to death while crossing the Imjin River, which divides North and South Korea.  Such stories are sadly not uncommon, but the particular facts make this case quite unusual: Nam was a South Korean trying to enter the North, and was shot by South Korean soldiers.  This killing received relatively little attention in the news (perhaps in part because it occurred on the same day as a larger tragedy in the US), but it’s hard to view it as anything other than a terrible injustice.  I’ve been racking my brains, and I can’t figure out a plausible justification.  From news reports, it sounds like the South Korean military is standing by the soldiers’ actions and no prosecution is forthcoming.  This makes the killing all the more disturbing – it was not the result of poor training or accident, but a deliberate and pernicious policy to use lethal force on anyone attempting to cross into the North. Continue reading

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