Political Philosophy

Hang Onto Your Soul

By Charles Foster

Image: https://the-conscious-mind.com

I can’t avoid Steven Pinker at the moment. He seems to be on every page I read. I hear him all the time, insisting that I’m cosmically insignificant; that my delusional thoughts, my loves, my aspirations, and the B Minor Mass’s effect on me are merely chemical events. I used to have stuck up above my desk (on the principle that you should know your enemy), his declaration (as stridently irrational as the sermon of a Kentucky Young Earth Creationist): ‘A major breakthrough of the Scientific Revolution – perhaps its greatest breakthrough – was to refute the intuition that the Universe is saturated with purpose.’ 1

He tells me that everything is getting better. Has been getting better since the first eruption of humans into the world.2 That there’s demonstrable progress (towards what, one might ask, if the universe has no purpose? – but I’ll leave that for the moment). That there’s less violence; there are fewer mutilated bodies per capita. He celebrates his enlightenment by mocking my atavism: he notes that the Enlightenment came after the Upper Palaeolithic, and (for the law of progress admits no exceptions) concludes that that means that our Enlightenment age is better than what went before. Continue reading

AI and the Transition Paradox

by Aksel Braanen Sterri

The most important development in human history will take place not too far in the future. Artificial intelligence, or AI for short, will become better (and cheaper) than humans at most tasks. This will generate enormous wealth that can be used to fill human needs.

However, since most humans will not be able to compete with AI, there will be little demand for ordinary people’s labour-power. The immediate effect of a world without work is that people will lose their primary source of income and whatever meaning, mastery, sense of belonging and status they get from their work. Our collective challenge is to find meaning and other ways to reliably get what we need in this new world.

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Are Electoral Pacts Undemocratic?

By Ben Davies

In the early hours of Friday morning last week, the long-Conservative UK constituency of North Shropshire caused some political upset (and no little political joy) by electing a Liberal Democrat, Helen Morgan.

It is hard to exaggerate quite how significant a swing this was: the previous Conservative MP, Owen Paterson, whose resignation around accusations of corruption promoted the by-election, had a majority of nearly 23,000 when he was re-elected in 2019. Morgan beat the new Conservative candidate by nearly 6,000.

How was all this possible? One factor will likely have been Conservative voters staying at home, and a few switched to other right-wing parties. But at her acceptance speech, Morgan acknowledged that it was highly likely that voters who would have preferred a Labour MP (the party saw a collapse in its vote share) or a Green MP, lent her their support in order to have the best chance of avoiding a Conservative win. This will lead some to call again for a more formal electoral pact at the country’s next General Election, whereby Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens agree to stand down candidates in seats currently occupied by a Conservative, and where there is a reasonable chance of one of these three parties winning if their anti-Tory rivals stand aside.

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How we got into this mess, and the way out

By Charles Foster

This week I went to the launch of the latest book by Iain McGilchrist, currently best known for his account of the cultural effects of brain lateralisation, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western WorldThe new book, The Matter with Things: Our brains, our delusions, and the unmaking of the world is, whatever, you think of the argument, an extraordinary phenomenon. It is enormously long – over 600,000 words packed into two substantial volumes. To publish such a thing denotes colossal confidence: to write it denotes great ambition.

It was commissioned by mainstream publishers who took fright when they saw its size. There is eloquent irony in the rejection on the ground of its length and depth of a book whose main thesis is that reductionism is killing us. It was picked up by Perspectiva press. That was brave. But I’m predicting that Perspectiva’s nerve will be vindicated. It was suggested at the launch that the book might rival or outshine Kant or Hegel. That sounds hysterical. It is a huge claim, but this is a huge book, and the claim might just be right.

Nobody can doubt that we’re in a terrible mess. The planet is on fire; we’re racked with neuroses and governed by charlatans, and we have no idea what sort of creatures we are. We tend to intuit that we are significant animals, but have no language in which to articulate that significance, and the main output of the Academy is to scoff at the intuition. Continue reading

Who Cares?

By Stephen Rainey & Yasemin J. Erden

How much of a role should the state play in taking care of us, as opposed to, say, our family members? According to some, care should “start at home” and should, moreover, be selfless. Statements like “Parents and other caregivers look after their children with little thought of return” from a recent New Statesman article sound nice, and elicit nods of approval – of course no returns are sought!

But are they true? Continue reading

Lockdown Erodes Agency

By Charles Foster

A couple of lockdown conversations:

  1. The other day I met a friend in the street. We hadn’t seen one another for over a year. We mimed the hugs that we would have given in a saner age, and started to talk. ‘There’s nothing to tell you’, she said. ‘Nothing’s happened since we last saw you. And that’s just as well, because, as you’ll find, I’ve forgotten how to talk, how to relate, and how to read ordinary cues. We’ve not been out. We’ve not changed anything. I wonder if we’ve been changed?’
  1. Another friend. ‘Zoom’s great, isn’t it? You switch off your camera and your microphone, and the meeting just goes on perfectly happily without you. Everyone thinks you’re there. Your name’s up on their screen. But you are just getting on with your own business.’

And a lockdown fact: Lockdown has been great for book sales. 2020 saw an estimated rise of 5.2% in volume sales of print books in the UK compared with 2019 sales. This was the biggest annual rise since 2007: Continue reading

Legacies

By Stephen Rainey

Joe Biden won the recent US election. As yet, the normal concession speech from the losing candidate has not been forthcoming. Donald Trump’s actions since losing the presidency have been, well, Trumpian, prompting Biden to label them an ‘embarrassment.’ He also suggested that The Donald was endangering his legacy in not reacting more gracefully. But what use is talk of ‘legacy’? What matters most about it?

It would be easy to ‘Goldwater’ Trump, that is, diagnose some mental incapacity from afar. One could suggest he was ill-equipped to absorb his defeat. He has behaved in ways that could be seen as pathological. Maybe, we might continue, he really doesn’t believe this is the end. If that were the case, there would be no need to consider legacy. It would also be easy to have suspected that, far from sticking around, 45 would flounce out of the White House, his pride wounded. Legacy wouldn’t matter in that case, because the electorate, the people, would have shown themselves to be unworthy, having voted the wrong way. Sad. Continue reading

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

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