Neil Levy’s Posts

Nudges and Reasoning

Back in what now seems like a previous age, when David Cameron was prime minister, there was quite a lot of attention paid to his so-called ‘nudge unit’. Nudges, named after Thaler and Sunstein’s well-known book, are ways of getting people to make better choices by making these options more salient or less effortful for them. For example, you can (apparently) nudge people to save more for retirement by changing the default option for retirement plans: when the default is a higher proportion of income people save more than when it is lower. Similarly, you can increase the proportion of organ donors by making the system opt out rather than opt in, and you can nudge people to eat healthier by ensuring that fruit, and not crisps or chocolate, is at eye level in the queue for the register in the lunch room. Continue reading

Cross Post: Liberal or conservative? Most of our beliefs shift around

Written by Prof Neil Levy,

Senior Research Fellow, Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation

What? Okay, that sounds good. Justin Lane/EPA

One common reaction to the election of Donald Trump (and perhaps to a lesser extent, the Brexit vote) among liberals like me is an expression of dismay that some of our fellow citizens are more racist and more sexist than we had dreamed. It seems many were prepared, if not to support openly racist comments and sexist actions, then at least to overlook them. It looks as though battles we thought we had won, having to do with a recognition of a basic kind of equality, need to be fought all over again. Many have concluded that they were never won at all; people were just waiting for a favourable climate to express the racism and sexism they held hidden. Continue reading

Cross Post: Our political beliefs predict how we feel about climate change

Written by Prof Neil Levy

Originally published on The Conversation

The man who called global warming a fabrication invented by the Chinese to make US manufacturing less competitive is now president-elect of the US. His followers expect him to withdraw the US from the Paris climate change agreement and eliminate the environmental regulations introduced by his predecessor.

But recently, Donald Trump has shown a few signs that he might be open to being convinced that climate change is a real problem requiring action. In discussion with journalists at the New York Times, he expressed the view that there is “some connectivity” between human activity and climate change, adding that he’s keeping an open mind about it. Continue reading

Cross Post: What do sugar and climate change have in common? Misplaced scepticism of the science

Written by Professor Neil Levy, Senior Research Fellow, Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation

Erosion of the case against sugar. Shutterstock

Why do we think that climate sceptics are irrational? A major reason is that almost none of them have any genuine expertise in climate science (most have no scientific expertise at all), yet they’re confident that they know better than the scientists. Science is hard. Seeing patterns in noisy data requires statistical expertise, for instance. Climate data is very noisy: we shouldn’t rely on common sense to analyse it. We are instead forced to use the assessment of experts. Continue reading

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

Response to Fergus Peace

Author: Neil Levy, Leverhulme Visiting Professor

Podcasts of Prof Levy’s Leverhulme Lectures can be found here:


Fergus Peace’s responses to my lecturers are interesting and challenging. As he notes, in my lectures I focused on two questions:

(1) are we (those of us with egalitarian explicit beliefs but conflicting implicit attitudes) racist?

(2) When those attitudes cause actions which seem appropriately to be characterized as racist (sexist, homophobic…), are we morally responsible for these actions (more precisely, for the fact that they can be classified in these morally laden terms)?

He suggests that these questions simply are not important ones to ask. Getting clear on how we ought to respond to implicit biases (what steps we ought to take to mitigate their effects or to eliminate them) matters, but asking whether a certain label attaches to us does not. Nor does it matter whether we are morally responsible for the actions these attitudes cause.

The first challenge seems to me to be a good one. I will discuss that challenge after I have discussed the question concerning our moral responsibility. This challenge seems very much weaker.

Continue reading

Does the desire to punish have any place in modern justice?

Professor Neil Levy, visiting Leverhulme Lecturer, University of Oxford, has recently published a provocative essay at Aeon online magazine:

Human beings are a punitive species. Perhaps because we are social animals, and require the cooperation of others to achieve our goals, we are strongly disposed to punish those who take advantage of us. Those who ‘free-ride’, taking benefits to which they are not entitled, are subject to exclusion, the imposition of fines or harsher penalties. Wrongdoing arouses strong emotions in us, whether it is done to us, or to others. Our indignation and resentment have fuelled a dizzying variety of punitive practices – ostracism, branding, beheading, quartering, fining, and very many more. The details vary from place to place and time to culture but punishment has been a human universal, because it has been in our evolutionary interests. However, those evolutionary impulses are crude guides to how we should deal with offenders in contemporary society.

Our moral emotions fuel our impulses toward retribution. Retributivists believe that people should be punished because that’s what they deserve. Retributivism is not the only justification for punishment, of course. We also punish to deter others, to prevent the person offending again, and perhaps to rehabilitate the offender. But these consequentialist grounds alone cannot justify our current system of criminal justice. We want punishments to ‘fit the crime’ – the worse the crime, the worse the punishment – without regard for the evidence of whether it ‘works’, that is, without thinking about punishment in consequentialist terms.

See here for the full article, and to join in the conversation.

Professor Levy has also written on this topic in the Journal of Practical Ethics; Less Blame, Less Crime? The Practical Implications of Moral Responsibility Skepticism.

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

Living With Other Hominids

Written by Professor Neil Levy

The recent discovery of what is claimed to be a distinct species of the genus Homo, our genus, raises to three the number of species that may have co-existed with Homo Sapiens. Homo naledi is yet to be dated, but it may be only tens of thousands of years old; if so, it coexisted with modern humans. Homo floresiensis, the so-called ‘hobbit’, seems to have been extant well after sapiens evolved, and there is strong evidence that the Neanderthals coexisted with, probably interbred with, and may have been killed by, our ancestors.

If any of these species had survived into contemporary times, we would be faced with an ethical question which is novel: negotiating our stance toward a species that is not quite human, but too close to be regarded as simply animal (using that word in its common meaning, to refer to non-human animals). More specifically, we would face the problem of how to respond to another deeply cultural being. Naledi seems to have had a culture – so the researchers conclude from the placement of the bones, which they think indicates burial. Perhaps it was language using (floresiensis seems a very good candidate for language using). Yet they might not have been intellectual equals of modern humans (perhaps they were – genetic difference certainly doesn’t entail inferiority – but for the purposes of this post I will assume they weren’t). If they were our contemporaries, would we be obliged to allow them to vote? To have affirmative action for them in universities and in jobs (assuming that some of them, perhaps rare geniuses, could function at a high enough level to take advantage of these opportunities)? Should we treat them as permanent children, appointing guardians for them?

Some philosophers would say that the answer to these questions is quite easy: we should give them equal consideration. Equality of consideration is the kind of equality which philosophers like Peter Singer argue should be extended to chickens and chimps, just as much as human beings. Treating chickens equally in that sense doesn’t entail affirmative action or voting rights for chickens, because chickens don’t have an interest in either. It just requires taking their interests equally into account.

While there are strong reasons for thinking we ought to extend equality of consideration to homo naledi, floresiensis and Neanderthals, that doesn’t tell us the answer to the concrete questions. Insofar as they are self-aware, these people (let’s call them that) have an interest in self-government, and therefore in voting. But (let’s assume) they have a limited capacity to understand the issues on which we vote. As self-aware beings, they might be harmed by being treated as inferior. But there may be good grounds for thinking that they are inferior.

We might offer them limited rights: rights to vote in elections for people who have the special role of looking after their interests. That would entail that they are not as self-governed as we are, since they would be living in a broader society (or in a world, at any rate) in which decisions are taken over which they have less say than we do.

I don’t think there are good answers to these questions. That is, while I am sure there are better and worse answers, I think this would be a true moral dilemma: the best possible response would have big moral costs. There seems to be no way to act that would involve some harms to a properly cultural being that couldn’t be fully autonomous: harms that would arise from its awareness that it was less autonomous and less able to govern its own life than others.

Julian Baggini sees in the discovery of naledi good news for humanity; it shows that in some sense we are not alone. Perhaps, but had they survived, we would face a tragic dilemma. To that extent, we are lucky that they didn’t. Genetic diversity among modern human beings is tiny, with genetic differences between groups swamped by those within them. That ensures that the questions we face about how to treat members of other groups are in one central way easier: they are in every important respect our equals. Our ethics would struggle to settle how to treat a deeply cultural group distinct from us which is in some respects not our equals.


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