Political Philosophy

We’re All Vitalists Now

By Charles Foster

It has been a terrible few months for moral philosophers – and for utilitarians in particular. Their relevance to public discourse has never been greater, but never have their analyses been so humiliatingly sidelined by policy makers across the world. The world’s governments are all, it seems, ruled by a rather crude vitalism. Livelihoods and freedoms give way easily to a statistically small risk of individual death.

That might or might not be the morally right result. I’m not considering here the appropriateness of any government measures, and simply note that whatever one says about the UK Government’s response, it has been supremely successful in generating fear. Presumably that was its intention. The fear in the eyes above the masks is mainly an atavistic terror of personal extinction – a fear unmitigated by rational risk assessment. There is also a genuine fear for others (and the crisis has shown humans at their most splendidly altruistic and communitarian as well). But we really don’t have much ballast.

The fear is likely to endure long after the virus itself has receded. Even if we eventually pluck up the courage to hug our friends or go to the theatre, the fear has shown us what we’re really like, and the unflattering picture will be hard to forget.

I wonder what this new view of ourselves will mean for some of the big debates in ethics and law? The obvious examples are euthanasia and assisted suicide. Continue reading

Climate Ought to Change Politics

Written by Stephen Rainey

In the midst of global climate change set to devastate entire ways of life, and ultimately on track to render the biosphere uninhabitable for all but the most adaptable organisms, it seems timely to question how political legitimacy relates to matters of scientific fact. While it seems mostly desirable that groups of people ought to be self-determining in terms of how they get along with the business of living, there appears to be a limit wherein this principle renders mutual self-determination among groups impossible.

Self-determination among different groups in some sense generates contradictory demands. Especially where limited resources are a factor, not everyone can successfully pursue their own ends, which generates tensions between groups. Among the limits that prompt such mutually challenging ways of life are the kinds of facts discovered in scientific research. We know from trends observable by climate scientists that patterns of living currently enjoyed by many are unsustainable and are causing damage to the possibility of continued living on Earth. Yet this is known in a rather strange way. Continue reading

Pub Bores and Politics

Written by Stephen Rainey

Pub bet: I bet you can’t button your coat up. You smell a rat, but go along with it, fastening you coat to see what’s up. I claim a victorious pint of plum porter because you close your coat starting with the top button and moving down. You didn’t button your coat up but down.

A pub bet works, to the extent that it does, by subverting a conventional meaning of some phrase or word. We know buttoning up has nothing to do with direction, but there is a direction word in the phrasal verb. Cheeky subversion leads to endless mirth. 

There’s clearly no ethical problem in the minor subversion and misleading that characterises a pub bet. For bigger, or for real bets, we’d be concerned if subversion like this went on. The genie that granted wishes on a tight, close, literal meaning of words used, rather than on the basis of what the wisher probably wanted, would be a scary being. 

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Bad Ads And Stereotypes

Written by Rebecca Brown

In June this year, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) brought into effect a ban on harmful gender stereotypes in advertising. In response to public outcry about adverts such as the 2015 ‘Are you beach body ready?’ campaign by Protein World, and growing discomfort with outdated depictions of gender roles in the media, the ASA undertook a project to consider whether existing regulation is fit for purpose. They concluded that “evidence suggests that a tougher line needs to be taken on ads that feature stereotypical gender roles and characteristics, which through their content and context may be potentially harmful to people.” (ASA, 2017: 3)

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Mr Broccoli Versus Piers Morgan: Hypocrisy and Environmental Action

Written by Doug McConnell

Everywhere we look environmentalists are being exposed as hypocrites. But is this relevant to the arguments these environmentalists are making and, if not, how can we improve the quality of public debate on environmental issues? Continue reading

Elizabeth Anderson’s Uehiro Lectures: Lecture 3 – Communicating Moral Concern Beyond Blaming and Shaming

In Elizabeth Anderson’s final Uehiro lecture, she tackles what she takes to be the hardest problem facing our current political discourse – How can we overcome obstacles to communicating moral concerns in order to orient policy to important values (such as public health and justice)? This is a particularly difficult and intractable problem because it concerns our moral values; in overcoming this obstacle, there is thus a considerable degree of scope for disagreement, and judgments of the moral character of others based on their moral opinions. Over the course of the lecture, Anderson refines the diagnosis of this problem, and once again expresses optimism about overcoming the obstacles she highlights. This time she outlines how we might disarm the fear, resentment, pride, and contempt that is currently derailing our political discourse, and the virtues that we must develop to do so. You can find a recording of the lecture here.

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Prof. Elizabeth Anderson’s Uehiro Lectures: Lecture 2 Summary – “Improving Political Discourse (1): Re-learning how to talk about facts across group identities”

Prof. Elizabeth Anderson’s second Uehiro lecture focuses on how we can overcome obstacles to fact-based political discourse. In particular, the lecture concerns how we might prevent identity-expressive discourse (a term introduced in the first lecture; see summary of lecture 1 below) from displacing the discussion of facts and evidence in public discourse, and how we might overcome the shameless lying and disinformation campaigns of populist populations. Over the course of the lecture, Anderson illustrates her analysis with illuminating cases studies, and finishes by providing her own solutions to the problem at hand, drawing on Cultural Cognition theory, John Dewey’s cultural conception of democracy, and emerging data from deliberative polling studies. You can find a recording of the lecture here

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Elizabeth Anderson’s Uehiro Lecture Summary: “Can We Talk – Communicating Moral Concern In An Era of Polarized Politics” – Lecture 1: What Has Gone Wrong?

It is something of an understatement to suggest that we are living through turbulent times. Society today is characterised not just by deep divisions about how to address key social challenges of our time, but also on the emphasis that should be placed on evidence-based discussion of these issues, and the moral values that should guide national policies.

In this context, Elizabeth Anderson’s Uehiro lecture series, entitled ““Can We Talk – Communicating Moral Concern In An Era of Polarized Politics” could not be more timely. In the first of this three lecture series, Anderson offers a diagnosis of the problems that currently bedevil political discourse across the world. This first lecture sets the stage for the following two lectures in which she shall offer her own proposed solutions to the problems that she so vividly describes and analyses in this fascinating initial lecture. The remainder of this post shall briefly summarise the key points of the lecture – You can find a recording of the lecture here

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What the People Really Want: Narrow Mandates in Politics

Written by Ben Davies

Last week’s by-election in the Welsh constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire saw a reduction of Boris Johnson’s government majority to just one, as Liberal Democrat Jane Dodds won the seat. The result was an interesting one: more voters went for No Deal-friendly parties (mainly Johnson’s Conservatives and the Brexit Party) than for the out-and-out Remainer Lib Dems. Dodds won not because a majority of voters supported her, but arguably because the pro-Brexit vote was split, and the Lib Dem vote was boosted by Plaid Cymru and the Greens declining to field candidates (it can’t have helped that the Conservatives also simply reselected their candidate whose unseating for expenses fraud triggered the election).

The result generated two sets of comments by Conservative Chair James Cleverly. Cleverly’s first claim was that the Liberal Democrats had engineered a “back room deal” with other Remain-friendly parties – Plaid and the Greens – in a way that was, he implied, undemocratic. Continue reading

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