All posts filed under: Philosophy

In Praise of Ignorance

I recently had a discussion with a very intelligent woman, a Ph.D fresh from an Ivy League university. We met after the third Clinton-Trump debate, so the conversation naturally turned to race in America, a topic about which my interlocutor felt strongly. She explained that the United States’ criminal justice system is an oppressive apparatus of state racism. Mass incarceration, she told me, is in large measure the product of a war on drugs that unfairly targets African Americans. She painted a picture of prisons overfilled with African American men locked away for nonviolent drug offenses. She was convinced that the US criminal justice system requires dramatic reform or complete dismantling. My question for her was simple: approximately what fraction of US prisoners are incarcerated for possession — as opposed to pushing or smuggling? She did not know. It is worth pausing to reflect on this. There is hardly a fact about the war on drugs that could be more basic. But my interlocutor did not know the answer to this simple question, despite her …

Review: Doing Good Better — William MacAskill

A review of  Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Help Others, Do Work that Matters, and Make Smarter Choices about Giving Back, by William MacAskill. Avery; Reprint edition (August 2, 2016), 272 pages. Imagine you’re walking down the street when you see an out of control stroller speeding past. A mother screams out in horror as her child rockets towards traffic. You burst into action, sprint onto the road, and divert the baby from an oncoming truck. You’ve saved a life. You’re a hero. Now, imagine doing that several times. You rescue one person drowning at the beach, drag another from a burning building, foil an attempted murder… as the saviour of several lives – you’re rapidly approaching superhero status. But, according to William MacAskill’s book Doing Good Better, we can do more than that. ‘Far more than that’. MacAskill seeks to convince that not only are we in the developed world in a position to do a tremendous amount of good, but that our approach to doing good is itself tremendously …

The Virtues of Inwardness: Reclaiming the Life of the Mind in a Politicized World

Prior to his seminal work on consciousness which would make him one of the eminent philosophers of the late 20th century, John R. Searle had served as an activist, first as a student, then later as a young professor, during the period of social upheaval to which our current era is often compared — the 1960s. Three decades later, Searle, who had the venerable distinction of participating in student efforts against the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy and would later take part in the nascent Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, would make a statement that might ring bizarre to our ears in the year 2016. When asked about his role in the Free Speech Movement, Searle informed his interviewer that, “Given a choice between intellectual life and political life, I’d take intellectual life any time. It’s more fun. In the long run it’s more satisfying.” To many, Searle’s answer no doubt appears to assert a false dichotomy — isn’t the role of the intellectual, particularly the so-called “public intellectual,” to insert herself into the political discourse, applying her …

What Experts Do and Don’t Know

Some recent political events, from the result of the Brexit referendum to the nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate in the US election, have been described in terms of clashes between the views of two tribes of people, often described as experts or elites and those who trust them on one side, and ordinary people on the other. While one may argue for one side or another on these specific issues, or have a preference for the views of experts or ordinary people in general, reflexively taking sides on this basis is neither principled nor likely to lead to correct judgments. Personally, I have a Bachelor’s degree in physics and applied mathematics, a PhD in astrophysics, and an academic career in statistics. I know what it’s like to be an expert in a couple of small areas, and how easy it is to imagine myself as one in other areas. Many of my friends are smart academics, and usually fall on the expert side of the discourse. I understand their frustration and anger …

Remain vs Leave: Elite Technocracy vs Liberal Democracy

The debate between “Remainers” and “Leavers” over the United Kingdom’s referendum on 23 June 2016 about European Union membership focused on several themes. I list what I think are the four most important: the first being democracy and sovereignty; the second being alleged good or bad economic consequences; immigration; and finally, cultural ties and cosmopolitanism. Here I argue that this referendum illustrates a central debate in political philosophy about the relation of the individual to the state. In the referendum itself, a slim majority, 52% to 48%, voted for the UK to leave the EU, the so-called “Brexit”. It’s worth adding that the EU and its constituent parts should be distinguished from a number of other European supranational bodies, such as the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. I was undecided about the vote. In the end, I did not vote, although I leaned slightly towards Remain, thinking the potential economic downside of Brexit outweighed the democratic and accountability deficit of the UK’s remaining in the EU. There are …

Forget de Botton’s Advice — Why Lower Expectations Won’t Help Your Marriage

The philosopher Alain de Botton recently published a provocative article in the NYT titled, Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person, in which he argues that current marriages are ailing under the burden of unrealistic expectations. According to de Botton the historical “marriage of reason,” motivated by pragmatic concerns such as tribal alliances, asset protection and the like, was generally miserable, which is why our current “marriage of feeling” system has been so readily and uncritically embraced. The marriage of feeling, in de Botton’s view, comprises our effort to “recreate, within our adult relationships, the feelings we knew so well in childhood.” Unfortunately our early love objects — our parents — were often hurtful, insensitive, or distracted. Thus as grown-ups we often pick troubled partners who match our early templates. Lacking self-awareness, we nonetheless delude ourselves that we know who we are and what we need to be happy, and that a perfect partner is out there for us. Intoxicated by the euphoria of new love, we blithely neglect to investigate our partners thoroughly, preferring …

Regaining Culture In Post-Society America

As a French-American philosopher, I’m increasingly struck by how much the American scene has come to reify the cold Thatcheresque vision of a post-society society. Where all that actually exists is a collection of swashbuckling individuals duking it out on the open market of self-interest. As anyone who has lived in this country for any length of time will attest, Americans see themselves first and foremost as consumers. Their status as citizens is decidedly second place. Still, they share a considerable degree of nationalist sentiment. Americans love to see the stars and stripes at virtually any place and time, be it at athletic events, draped over businesses, stitched into their clothing, or flying proudly above their homes. Interestingly, these sorts of things don’t happen nearly as much in other developed countries. That’s perhaps because unlike them, many Americans see their country as a city on a hill — a nation that answers a higher call to let the human spirit achieve all that it may. Setting aside the fact that this is also pretty much …

Should Governments Outlaw Bad Child Names?

When our first daughter was born, we gave her the name Lena. We’re Bosnians, yet this is not a typical Bosnian name. Wikipedia says it is seen in Hindi, Hebrew and Swedish. But, we’re not typical Bosnians, either. We live in New York City and feel more cosmopolitan than ethnic. Still, when choosing the name, my wife and I took special care not to come up with one that will be strikingly different from the Bosnian baby-naming standard. After all, we didn’t want Lena’s grandparents and family back in Bosnia break their tongues pronouncing their granddaughter’s name. I liked “Hypatia”, for example, but my wife vetoed it before I even managed to mention the famed beauty and wit of the Alexandrian philosopher whom I admired so much. I can only imagine how my mother would pronounce it while speaking to her over Skype. But, we also didn’t want to give her a traditional Bosnian name that her future classmates in America will have trouble pronouncing, or use as a regular poking tool. Although we both …

In Their Rush To Blame Religion, New Atheists Overlook Evil

Two schools of thought exist on the question of how best to criticize religion if you’re a nontheist. The first belongs to rationalists who believe in the value of strongly criticizing religion, even if that means upsetting or offending religious believers. By being open and honest about the severity of the problems that religion faces, rationalists aim to jar believers free from its grip. This doesn’t tend to make rationalists very popular with believers, of course, but rationalists see virtue in accepting the truth even when it is unpleasant or ugly. To paraphrase Bertrand Russell, it is better to throw open the shutters to the cold light of day, even if the fresh air makes us shiver at first, than to dwell in the warm but false confines of humanizing mythologies. Pragmatists differ from rationalists by viewing unfiltered criticism of religion as a painfully counterproductive way to proceed. As they may note, people do not merely believe in religions — they are personally invested in their truth and anchor large parts of their identities around …