Neil Levy’s Posts

The Urge to Destroy is Also a Creative Urge

Written by Neil Levy

Statues are the latest front in our ongoing culture wars.  Symbolism (as all sides agree) is not the be all and end all of politics, but it does matter. Those who want the statues to fall argue that they are harmful, because they commemorate racists (and worse) and thereby contribute to making these attitudes, and the exclusion they enable, acceptable. Those who want statues preserved argue that we should learn from history, not attempt to erase it. At most, they say, statues should be framed better, with explanatory plaques that note the misdeeds of the person commemorated and place them in context. Continue reading

The Coronavirus: Signs of Hope?

Written by Neil Levy

These are scary times. The death toll from Covid-19 raises hour by hour and in most countries the rate of new infections continues to grow. While most of us know that if we contract the virus the disease will likely be mild for us, we have friends and family who are at much higher risk. As society shuts down and our lives become more and more constrained, our anxiety rises along with it. Continue reading

Cross Post: Climate change: How do I cope with inevitable decline?

Written by Neil Levy

Originally published in The Conversation

I recently watched an interview with David Attenborough, in which he was asked whether there is hope that things can get better for our planet. He replied that we can only slow down the rate at which things get worse. It seems to me that this is the first time in history we have known things will get worse for the foreseeable future. How do you live in the shadow of such rapid and inevitable decline? And how can you cope with the guilt? Paul, 42, London.

I agree that we live in a unique moment in history. This isn’t like a war or an economic recession, where you know things will be bad for a few years but eventually improve. Never before have we known that the deterioration of not just our countries, but our entire planet, will continue for the foreseeable future – no matter what we do. As Attenborough says, we can (and should) fight to slow the rate at which things get worse, even though we can’t realistically hope for improvement.

Continue reading

Is ‘Dad Joke” Sexist?

Written by Neil Levy

A dad joke is a short joke, often turning on a pun or a play on words. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Did you hear about the restaurant on the moon? It’s got great food, but no atmosphere.
  • A sandwich walks into a bar and orders a beer. “Sorry,” says the bartender, “we don’t serve food here”.

They are called ‘dad jokes’ because they are stereotypically told by fathers. The term is a somewhat backhanded compliment. Like the words “daggy” (in Australian and New Zealand English) and “naff” (in British English) – all of which are words that could appropriately be used to describe jokes in the genre – calling something a dad joke at once conveys that is extremely uncool, but also indicates grudging affection for the target. Dad jokes are bad, in many people’s eyes (not mine, as it happens), but they’re so bad that they’re a kind of artform all of their own, and we convey an affection and grudging respect for those who tell them. Continue reading

Cross Post: Why No-Platforming is Sometimes a Justifiable Position

Written by Professor Neil Levy

Originally published in Aeon Magazine

The discussion over no-platforming is often presented as a debate between proponents of free speech, who think that the only appropriate response to bad speech is more speech, and those who think that speech can be harmful. I think this way of framing the debate is only half-right. Advocates of open speech emphasise evidence, but they overlook the ways in which the provision of a platform itself provides evidence.

No-platforming is when a person is prevented from contributing to a public debate, either through policy or protest, on the grounds that their beliefs are dangerous or unacceptable. Open-speech advocates highlight what we might call first-order evidence: evidence for and against the arguments that the speakers make. But they overlook higher-order evidence. Continue reading

Angela Smith’s Funny Tinge.

Written by Neil Levy

The irony was palpable: mere hours after a group of MPs resigned from the Labour Party in part over allegations of anti-Semitism in the party, one of the breakaway MPs found herself accused of racism. On a BBC politics program, she described people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds as having a “funny tinge”. Angela Smith’s remark was widely condemned. Of course, such talk is unacceptable. However, it’s a mistake to condemn her on its basis. Continue reading

Online Sales and Differential Pricing.

Written by Neil Levy

When it was revealed (more than a decade ago now) that Amazon was charging different consumers different prices, based on information that suggested either that they had higher incomes or a greater willingness to pay for a specific item, there was widespread outrage. Amazon quickly backed down and Jeff Bezos apologised. Today, Amazon says that it does not charge people different prices based on the personal data it collects about them. Many other online retailers make no such promises, and canny shoppers check prices using incognito mode on their browsers, using a VPN, and/or deleting cookies. Continue reading

I Feel Pretty – Your Practical Ethics Movie Review

By Neil Levy

Last week, I found myself seeing a film I hadn’t planned to. The film I wanted to see (The Death of Stalin) was sold out, so rather than miss my weekly fix, I picked the Amy Schumer comedy I Feel Pretty. I don’t mind a chick flick and I enjoyed Trainwreck, but the reviews of I Feel Pretty were pretty bad, so I was going to give it a miss. Actually, I Feel Pretty was a better film than the reviews suggested (it was in fact better than the much better reviewed film The Party, which I saw the previous week). It was quite funny, after a slow beginning, and that’s about all one can reasonably ask from these entertainments. From an ethical perspective, however, it is rather troubling. Continue reading

Cutting Costs?

Written by Neil Levy

We use taxation policy for a variety of ends. Obviously, the primary goal is revenue raising, in order to support government programs. But we also use taxation to send signals and to shape behavior. We tax tobacco and alcohol, for instance, to signal social disapproval of consumption (excessive consumption, in the second case), and to reduce it. There is currently a debate over whether we should implement a sugar tax for the same reasons and also to encourage manufacturers to change the recipes of foods to reduce the amount of sugar they contain. To my knowledge, though, there has been no discussion of taxation of cosmetic surgery (VAT is already charged on cosmetic surgery). Continue reading

New Year’s Reflection

written by Neil Levy

It’s the time of year at which many of us take stock of how our lives are going. It is more or less arbitrary where we mark the end of the year, but because the convention is shared, our lives have a rhythm that is marked by the calendar, and the length of the year makes it a good unit for assessing some aspects of our life. We might ask whether we stuck to the resolutions made 12 months earlier. We might ask more general questions about how our life is going: have we been good parents or partners? Have we pursued worthwhile goals? Have the steps we have taken toward those goals between well-designed?

The unexamined life is not worth living, Socrates is famously reputed to have said. More recently, Mill echoed Socrates, arguing that it was better to live a life of self-reflection and be unsatisfied than be a pig who did not reflect but was happy. The idea that we can and should reflect on our lives and their trajectories remains deeply attractive to us and finds expression in psychotherapy and self-help books, as well as the annual ritual of taking stock. Continue reading

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