Political Philosophy

In praise of ambivalence—“young” feminism, gender identity, and free speech

By Brian D. Earp (@briandavidearp)

* Note: this article was first published online at Quillette magazine.

Introduction

Alice Dreger, the historian of science, sex researcher, activist, and author of a much-discussed book of last year, has recently called attention to the loss of ambivalence as an acceptable attitude in contemporary politics and beyond. “Once upon a time,” she writes, “we were allowed to feel ambivalent about people. We were allowed to say, ‘I like what they did here, but that bit over there doesn’t thrill me so much.’ Those days are gone. Today the rule is that if someone—a scientist, a writer, a broadcaster, a politician—does one thing we don’t like, they’re dead to us.”

I’m going to suggest that this development leads to another kind of loss: the loss of our ability to work together, or better, learn from each other, despite intense disagreement over certain issues. Whether it’s because our opponent hails from a different political party, or voted differently on a key referendum, or thinks about economics or gun control or immigration or social values—or whatever—in a way we struggle to comprehend, our collective habit of shouting at each other with fingers stuffed in our ears has reached a breaking point.

It’s time to bring ambivalence back. Continue reading

Brexit: lessons from the law

37% of the UK electorate voted to leave the European Community – slightly more than voted to remain. There is evidence that some of them regret their votes. The former editor of the Sun, Kelvin Mackenzie, who voted ‘Leave’, has spoken publicly about his ‘buyer’s remorse’.  Others have indicated that they would not vote ‘leave’ again.

There are calls for a second referendum, generally based on assertions that the ‘Leave’ campaign made misrepresentations (for instance about how money saved by leaving the EU would be spent), or on the contention that an issue as constitutionally tectonic should not be decided on such a slender majority, or the observation that an overwhelming number of young voters (who will be affected by the decision for the longest) voted to remain. Continue reading

The Panama Papers: How much financial privacy should the super rich be allowed to enjoy?

The Panama Papers comprise a leak of 11.5 million files from Mossack Fonseca, the world’s fourth biggest offshore law firm. The leak has tainted the reputations of many celebrities, and some public officials have been forced to resign, including Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsoon, and Spanish Industry Minister José Manuel Soria.

Ramón Fonseca, Director of Mossack Fonseca, complained that his firm was the victim of “an international campaign against privacy.” At a time where privacy does seem to be under attack on all fronts, it is relevant to ask whether the super rich ought to be able to enjoy financial privacy with respect to their offshore accounts. Continue reading

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

A jobless world—dystopia or utopia?

There is no telling what machines might be able to do in the not very distant future. It is humbling to realise how wrong we have been in the past at predicting the limits of machine capabilities.

We once thought that it would never be possible for a computer to beat a world champion in chess, a game that was thought to be the expression of the quintessence of human intelligence. We were proven wrong in 1997, when Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov. Once we came to terms with the idea that computers might be able to beat us at any intellectual game (including Jeopardy!, and more recently, Go), we thought that surely they would be unable to engage in activities where we typically need to use common sense and coordination to physically respond to disordered conditions, as when we drive. Driverless cars are now a reality, with Google trying to commercialise them by 2020.

Machines assist doctors in exploring treatment options, they score tests, plant and pick crops, trade stocks, store and retrieve our documents, process information, and play a crucial role in the manufacturing of almost every product we buy.

As machines become more capable, there are more incentives to replace human workers with computers and robots. Computers do not ask for a decent wage, they do not need rest or sleep, they do not need health benefits, they do not complain about how their superiors treat them, and they do not steal or laze away.

Continue reading

Some thoughts on reparations

Consider the following case. Imagine you inherit a fortune from your parents. With that money, you buy a luxurious house and you pay to get a good education, which later allows you to find a job where you earn a decent salary. Many years later, you find out that your parents made their fortune through a very bad act—say, defrauding someone. You also find out that the scammed person and his family lived an underprivileged life from that moment on.

What do you think you would need to do to fulfill your moral obligations?

Continue reading

Guest Post: Why Don’t We Do More to Help the Global Poor?

Simon Keller, Victoria University of Wellington
Read more in the current issue of the Journal of Practical Ethics

There is good reason to believe that people living comfortable lives in affluent countries should do more to help impoverished people in other parts of the world. Billions of people lack the nutrition, medicines, shelter, and safety that the better-off take for granted, and there exist organizations that do a pretty good job of taking money donated by the relatively rich and directing it towards those who need it most. If I can address myself to others who count among the global rich: we could do more to help the global poor, but we don’t.

It is not just that we do not do much to help the global poor; it is also that our patterns of helping do not respond to the most morally significant aspects of global poverty. We will give more in response to a disaster, like a hurricane or a tsunami, than to ongoing systemic poverty. We are more likely to give when confronted with a photograph of a starving family, or when we take ourselves to be sponsoring a particular child, than when faced with truths about how many people are suffering and how much they need our help.

In a recent article in Journal of Practical Ethics, I try to say something about what explains our patterns of helping behavior, as directed towards the global poor. Part of the explanation, of course, is our selfishness, laziness, and willful ignorance; and part of it is the power of personal stories and photographs to engage our emotions while statistics and geopolitical truths leave us numb. But a further part of the explanation, I think, is that while we know we have good reasons to help the global poor, we do not know what those reasons are.

Continue reading

Guest Post: An Open Response to Roache’s Anti-Conservatism

Authors: Calum Miller, Final year medical student, University of Oxford; C’Zar Bernstein, BPhil graduate philosophy student, University of Oxford; Joao Fabiano, DPhil philosophy student, University of Oxford; Mahmood Naji, Final year medical student, University of Oxford

One of the first things we did after seeing the election news on the morning after the election was to post a Facebook status including the following: “austerity, despite its necessity, creates difficulty. I hope my fellow Conservatives won’t be blind to the difficulties people go through as a consequence of this result and will step up to do their part combating those hardships”. Other statuses around the same time lauded the Liberal Democrats and expressed regret at Vince Cable and Simon Hughes’ departure from Parliament.

According to Rebecca Roache, these are the words of people who are immune to reason, brainwashed by Murdoch, and whose views are as objectionable as racist and sexist views. We maintain the contrary – not only that this is manifestly false, but that Roache’s own position is far more consonant with the bigoted attitudes against which she protests. It would be easy to respond in kind, simply preaching to our own choir about how awful liberals are and how we should make their views socially unacceptable. This would only serve to deepen political division, however, and is unlikely to move us forward as citizens, rational agents or friends.

Continue reading

Should we punish crimes from the distant past?

Former Auschwitz SS officer Oskar Gröning is currently being tried as an accessory to murder for his role as an administrator in the extermination camp, and the trial has stirred up a lot of debate. One strand of the debate addresses the question whether Gröning was complicit in the extermination of prisoners, and whether he was culpable for this complicity. (Roger Crisp wrote a fascinating post on this a couple of weeks back.) But another strand – and the strand that I want to look at here – has addressed the question whether former Nazi war criminals should be tried and punished for deeds in their distant past. Eva Mozes Kor, an Auschwitz survivor and witness in Gröning’s trial has claimed that he shouldn’t be tried, though he should use his knowledge to help fight holocaust denial.

Let’s suppose that Gröning was indeed a culpable accomplice to murder. Should he then be punished? More generally, should serious crimes from decades go be punished? My intuition is that they should, but reflecting on why I have found it is not straightforward to defend this view. Continue reading

Who Should be Allowed to Vote?

Let us suppose that a jury has just reached a verdict on any case you can imagine (however trivial). Let us suppose that we discover one of the following three facts:

  1. The Ignorant Jury. The jury paid no attention to the trial; when asked how each of them found the defendant, they arbitrarily decided on guilty.
  2. The Irrational Jury. The jury paid some attention to the trial, however decided their judgement on reasons not related to the trail, such as wishful thinking or bizarre conspiracy theories.
  3. The Morally Unreasonable Jury. The jury found the defendant guilty because of pre-existing prejudices, i.e. she is Romanian.

In each of these cases the jury would lack authority and legitimacy (there would most likely be a retrial). A jury’s decision can significantly affect people’s lives—not simply the defendants—by depriving them of property, liberty and even life. Here’s a principle that the three juries could be said to violate:

The Competence Principle: It is unjust to deprive citizens of life, liberty and property, or to alter their life prospects significantly, by force and threats of force as a result of decisions made by an incompetent or morally unreasonable deliberative body, or as a result of decisions made in an incompetent and morally unreasonable way (Brennan 2011, 704). Continue reading

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