All posts filed under: Philosophy

The Google Memo: The Economist On Nothing

Most of the debate about James Damore’s memo has focused on its claims about gender, diversity, and affirmative action. Those themes were indeed central to the purpose of the memo. But also important were themes that often got overlooked: reason, open discussion, and classical liberalism. In a way, Damore got some of what he wanted—more discussion about the first set of themes—although he no doubt wished he could keep his job too. Now that there has been so much discussion of those themes, now that the dust has settled after “Googlegate,” it’s a good time to reason through the best arguments on each side of the controversy. Who was right? What can we learn? How can we do better next time there appears to be a clash between the competing values of equality, science, and freedom of speech? Many of the best arguments on Damore’s side can be found in his own memo. This may come as a surprise to those who developed their opinion about it, not by reading the memo itself but by …

Is it Wrong to Blame Islam?

Jihadi terrorists claim to act on the authority of Islam. Could they be right? Some very influential people seem to think that it is morally wrong even to consider this hypothesis. During his 2015 speech at a Boston mosque, U.S. President Barack Obama said: “And we can’t suggest that Islam itself is at the root of the problem. That betrays our values.” Unfortunately, our values don’t guarantee that major religions are necessarily free of destructive ideas any more than major political ideologies are. When a religious apologist argues that his religion is good, he concedes that religions can be evaluated. Most people, if they heard credible stories of Muslim converts cleaning up their lives, or reports that Muhammad was a tolerant man, would think that this was evidence that Islam is a force for good. If so, then the evidence could turn out to support the opposite claim. The Warrior-Prophet of Islam Muhammad, who was a warrior as well a prophet, declined to disguise his religious intolerance. In his “farewell sermon” in 632 C.E., he …

Does Female Genital Mutilation Have Health Benefits? The Problem with Medicalizing Morality

Four members of the Dawoodi Bohra sect of Islam living in Detroit, Michigan have recently been indicted on charges of female genital mutilation (FGM). This is the first time the US government has prosecuted an “FGM” case since a federal law was passed in 1996. The world is watching to see how the case turns out. A lot is at stake here. Multiculturalism, religious freedom, the limits of tolerance; the scope of children’s—and minority group—rights; the credibility of scientific research; even the very concept of “harm.” To see how these pieces fit together, I need to describe the alleged crime. *      *      * The term “FGM” is likely to bring to mind the most severe forms of female genital cutting, such as clitoridectomy or infibulation (partial sewing up of the vaginal opening). But the World Health Organization (WHO) actually recognizes four main categories of FGM, covering dozens of different procedures. One of the more “minor” forms is called a “ritual nick.” This practice, which I have argued elsewhere should not be performed on children, involves pricking the …

Why Philosophers Fail to Influence Public Debate—and How They Can Do Better

We all know that philosophers are expert thinkers but most philosophers, and especially moral philosophers, want to change the world as well. As Plato noted, once one has ascended to the pinnacle of wisdom, or at least successfully defended a PhD thesis, it is hard to resist the temptation to come back down again and help to spread the light to others. However, for most of us, the idea of actually succeeding at this is little more than a dream. Attempts to get heard often end up backfiring or simply proving a waste of time and energy. Even philosophers whose work is in areas of real public interest, such as applied ethics, can struggle to get a hearing above the noise of pundits, preachers and politicians whose views, though ill-considered and even inconsistent, are far easier on the ear and offer people a sense of certainty in a baffling world. At a recent workshop on Personal Identity and Public Policy held at Oxford, we considered what to do about this problem. Our shared interest was …

Immigration, Justice, and Prosperity

Some people argue that even if poverty in some places is mainly the result of poor institutions rather than exploitation, more prosperous nations owe it to less wealthy nations to open their borders. On this view, restrictive immigration policies among rich countries are unjust because they prevent relatively poor people from moving away from bad institutions and toward good ones. To some extent, this is true. Consider Michael Huemer’s case of “Starvin Marvin.”1 Suppose Marvin is starving, and is trying to reach a marketplace in order to access the food he needs to survive. If he could get there, someone would willingly sell him food that he values more than the cash in his pocket. Since immigration restrictions sometimes prevent these kinds of mutually beneficial gains – gains that may spell life or death for some – these restrictions seem to be unjust. Huemer recognizes that a thought experiment like this doesn’t settle the issue, but concludes that “unless there is some crucial disanalogy that I have overlooked…immigration restrictions are seriously wrong.”2 There are, in …

Some Countries Are Much Richer Than Others. Is That Unjust?

Look at the GDP per capita across different countries and you will see staggering differences. The U.S, Denmark and Singapore all have (nominal) per capita GDPs of between US$50,000 and US$60,000 per annum. On the other hand, Ethiopia, Chad, Nepal, Tajikistan, and Niger all fall below $1,000 per annum. The average resident of Denmark produces more than 50 times as much per year, measured in terms of nominal exchange rates, than the average resident of Ethiopia! When we look around the world and observe the massive wealth disparities between citizens in rich and poor countries, many of us are apt to conclude that the differences must have arisen because of colonialism, imperial warfare, or theft of raw materials like gold or oil. Of course, all of these things have happened at various points in time, and they can arguably explain some variation in the standard of living. Colonialism can be especially destructive of institutions that support peace and commerce. But a recent article by the philosopher Dan Moller casts doubt on the view that injustices …

Is Postmodernism Inherently Authoritarian?

College campuses are ostensibly venues for free and open discussion. All ideas should be given an open hearing, and be judged according to their individual merits. Are they supported by good evidence? Are they internally consistent? Will they produce desirable outcomes? That, in any case, is the ideal. More and more, it seems, there is breed of campus activist that disagrees with this view. At Berkeley, protesters rioted to shut down a speech by the right-wing provocateur, Milo Yiannopoulos. In Middlebury, they shouted down Charles Murray and later assaulted Professor Alison Stanger, who was hosting the talk. At Evergreen State College, they are championing the dismissal of a biology professor who expressed concern over the discriminatory nature of a campus event. Groups like Antifa (short for anti-fascist) adopt curiously jackbooted and signally authoritarian strategies to enforce their political will. They seem to be fighting fascism with something that looks conspicuously like fascism. Largely, the most raucous elements of far-left authoritarianism are part of fringe group. However, there is some cause for greater concern. According to …