All posts filed under: Philosophy

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 …

Skepticism About White Privilege

Privilege, and race-based privilege in particular, occupies a key niche in the rich ecosystem of error that is campus leftism. White privilege is a central theme of the protests at Evergreen State College, University of Missouri, Yale University, and so on. Detecting and eliminating it is the aim of a new method of pedagogy that effectively renders education the handmaiden of activism. Unfortunately the question “what is to be done?” has here, as in other domains, prematurely eclipsed “what is to be thought?” A close look at the notion of white privilege casts doubt on whether the racial disparities that currently exist within the U.S. constitute any such thing. White Privilege as “Invisible Knapsack” Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 paper, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See” is a seminal work on white privilege. McIntosh observes that many men who recognize that women are disadvantaged are reluctant to admit that they are over-privileged. She extends this observation to race, lamenting that “My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an …

What Philosophers Must Learn from the Transracialism Meltdown

“Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all” ― Theon, father of Hypatia of Alexandria (Quoted in Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Teachers by Elbert Hubbard)   For years we have been hearing that political correctness is cresting, that this-or-that campus outrage represents the last straw, the turning point. Each time, however, political correctness not only does not decline, but actually gains ground. Again and again, those who prophesy the imminent decline of political correctness are exposed as false prophets. Now we hear that the Hypatia kerfuffle will be remembered as the moment at which academic philosophers finally turned against the excesses of identity politics. Whether or not this is so depends upon whether philosophers seize the opportunity to challenge the dogmas that made it possible. The Hypatia Affair In its most recent issue (Spring 2017), the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia published an article by Rebecca Tuvel entitled “In Defense of Transracialism.” Tuvel, an untenured philosopher at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, argues …

Inverted Nationalism and Orwellian Patriotism

National loyalty is a bit like iodine: poisonous in large quantities yet salubrious in limited amounts. Dangerous nationalism, defined as morally unbalanced national loyalty, is obvious to Western intellectuals. But educated people, keen to give chauvinism the widest possible clearance, may adopt attitudes of indifference, or even contempt, toward their own societies. This goes hand-in-hand with an impulse to glorify foreign cultures. Roger Scruton coined the word “oikophobia” (Greek for “fear of home”) to describe this unhealthy state of mind. I shall call it “inverted nationalism.” In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argued that virtue is a mean between extremes. Courage, for example, is supposed to be the mean between cowardliness and rashness. One upshot is that moral improvement can itself be a morally perilous enterprise. When groups of people attempt to improve themselves and society, the propensity toward groupthink exacerbates the danger of over-compensation. Hence university students, eager to reject the easily perceived evils of racism and sexism, leave the golden mean in the dust as they stampede toward zealotry and sanctimony. The same purity-seeking mentality …