All posts filed under: Philosophy

In-Groups, Out-Groups, and the IDW

Over the past year or so, Sam Harris and Ezra Klein spent several tweets, a dozen emails, and a two-hour podcast vehemently disagreeing with one another. The ostensible cause of this disagreement was a dispute about whether or not there’s a genetic component to the black-white IQ gap in the US. However, neither was willing to commit to a concrete position on the issue. Both danced around the actual claim while deferring to various experts who may or may not suggest that a genetic component is more or less probable. Did they disagree about Charles Murray? In the podcast, Klein says that he opposes Murray’s social policies but allows that Murray is “a lovely guy interpersonally” who should not be silenced. Sam Harris agrees that Murray is a good guy who shouldn’t be silenced but caveats that “his social policies are not social policies I’m advocating.” So, what are these men actually disagreeing about? In a thorough analysis of the Harris-Klein controversy, John Nerst suggests that what is actually at issue is whether the discussion …

The Emergence and Rise of Postmodern Conservatism

Few things agitate today’s intellectually informed conservatives and classical liberals like postmodern theory and its concretization in identity politics. In an article for the National Review back in 2014, Victor Hanson of the Hoover Institute compared postmodernism to “poison,” and decried falling standards of “truth and falsity.” Jordan Peterson has characterized postmodernism as dangerous, and identity politics as a kind of self-pitying victimization. In my home country of Canada, Rex Murphy of the right leaning National Post has characterized movements oriented around identity politics as “intolerant” and their participants as a “mob.” In Britain, Roger Scruton accused postmodern intellectuals of destroying “high culture” be effacing aesthetic standards. And so the litany goes on. It would be impossible to itemize the details of all these varied criticisms here. Instead, I will summarize them before moving on to the main topic of this essay: the emergence of postmodern conservatism and identity politics. The locus of many conservative criticisms of postmodernism seems to be twofold. Firstly, conservatives are concerned with the theoretical consequences of postmodern theory. In less sophisticated critiques, …

Can Liberalism Survive?

The political situation throughout Europe and North America has become increasingly volatile. For decades, a pro-business centre-right and a pro-labour centre-left have combined to dominate politics in most Western countries, allowing for a steady political situation with only modest changes between election cycles. Yet in recent years, this stability has come under pressure. Deutsche Bank’s Populism Index, updated after the recent Italian election, indicates that voter support for populist parties across key European countries is at its highest level since World War II, at over 30%. The Timbro Authoritarian Populism Index is more modest, measuring populist support last year at around 20%, having doubled since 1980. These figures might even underestimate dissatisfaction with the status quo. During the 2016 U.S. election, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders ran distinctively anti-establishment campaigns from within the established parties, meaning that voters didn’t need to shift parties to express their dissatisfaction. Trump has continued much of his anti-establishment rhetoric even after becoming president, and the Democratic Party has seen a surge in more left-leaning candidates who are convinced …

Two Arguments for Inequality

Social inequality is amongst the most contentious and prominent social issues in the twenty-first century. After declining significantly in the mid-twentieth century, inequality has now reached stark levels. A recent Credit Suisse report indicated that the globe’s richest 1 percent are on track to own half of the world’s wealth. In November 2017, Forbes reported that the three wealthiest Americans now own more wealth than the bottom 160 million. The disparity between those who have a great deal, and those with much less, has grown so stark that in his bestselling book Capital in the Twenty-First Century economist Thomas Piketty warned that we might be entering a new “Gilded Age.” It would be driven by a global class of individuals who enjoy vast inherited wealth, demonstrate little allegiance to the nation state and its tax laws, and commit themselves to further entrenching their social power. These prompts raise the question of what can possibly justify such stark inequities; especially in a global context where the World Bank estimates that in 2013 roughly 767 million individuals lived on …

Liberalism, Classical and Egalitarian

Few reactions against postmodernism and identity politics have been as noticeable as the surging interest in classical liberalism. Against a hyper-egalitarianism concerned with safe spaces and achieving equality of outcome for all, modern classical liberals emphasize the importance of freedom of speech and meritocracy. Perhaps the most famous representative of this trend is Jordan Peterson. A self-described classical liberal, Peterson has offered scathing critiques of postmodern intersectionality and its concern with achieving equality of outcome for all people regardless of their inclinations and natural talents. He enjoys a lot of company these days. In a recent article for Quillette, Andrew Kelman condemns the influence of post-modern philosophy on the law via critical legal studies, and calls for a return to classical liberal principles in legal analysis. Recently fired Atlantic author Kevin Williamson has bemoaned the turn to radicalism on the Right and Left, lamenting that there is “no political home for classical liberalism at all” in contemporary society. Patrick Deneen of the University of Notre Dame has written a dour book entitled Why Liberalism Failed …

The Philosophical Case Against Scientism

Scientism is the claim that science is the only source of knowledge. This claim has been the subject of intense controversy for years, and it has recently re-emerged in public debate following the publication of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Admittedly, Pinker does not make this claim himself, but those who do are (mis)using his work in support of their claims, and the renewed controversy over the term provides us with an opportunity to revisit its validity. Representatives of the humanities, in particular, have had their feathers ruffled by the notion that empirical observation and hypothesis testing have a monopoly on rational inquiry as tight as that enjoyed by Andrew Carnegie on the steel industry in the 19th century; liberal arts need not apply. Much of the criticism of scientism has focused on the aesthetic poverty of abandoning the contemplation of Shakespeare for the study of synapses in humanity’s quest for knowledge of the world and of ourselves. These criticisms have some merit, but a stronger case against …

The Strange Truth About Alternative Facts

Facts are overrated in political and moral debates. They’re fragile and impotent. They don’t do the work expected of them. What follows is an explanation of why no one should be persuaded by most facts. This is not a rehashing of the well known inability of facts to persuade emotional beings. Nor is it a postmodern denial of truth. My point is that facts which are absolutely true can be absolutely irrelevant in overlooked ways. It’s obvious that facts can be irrelevant; everyone knows that. But some facts which seem relevant are not. For example, let’s say you ask me whether or not women face gender bias in grad school admissions and I tell you that hummingbirds can fly backwards. This is an obviously irrelevant fact. But if I told you that data shows female applicants were significantly less likely than male applicants to be accepted to grad school, that would also be irrelevant. How could that fact possibly be irrelevant? It seems like exactly the kind of fact that could help answer the question. But …

The Problem of Credulity

What is credulity, and what – if anything – is wrong with it? And if credulity is a fault, might it be a fault not only of judgment but also of character? These questions strike me as important, in the light of certain recent events, but they are also surprisingly hard to answer. We know roughly what credulity is: a tendency to give too much credence to certain claims or appearances; to be too ready to believe things we should not believe. Hence, someone who is habitually taken in by con-artists is prone to believe the stories used to part him from his money. Someone who tends to believe insincere apologies is too ready to believe that those apologising are sorry for what they have done. We could come up with any number of examples. But is there any more to be said, other than that it is a disposition to be irrational? If we want to be pedantic, we could say that these examples also illustrate incredulity. Being too ready to believe that the …

The Tyranny of the Subjective

We are living in socially and politically bewildering times. One of the reasons for this is the sheer number of other people’s lives we are touched by on account of exponential developments in communications. The early 21st Century – perhaps specifically the second decade of it – will, I suspect, be remembered for the centrality of the subjective narrative, or what has become known as the ‘lived experience.’ There is nothing wrong with a flourishing of narratives, per se. We all have our stories to tell and, now more than ever, the means with which to tell them. We must, however, remain vigilant. The proliferation of this aspect of the social ecosystem impacts other areas, and granting the subjective narrative sacred status diminishes the power of other important ways of understanding the world. In a recent post for Arc Digital, Ryan Huber argued that the emphasis placed on personal experience in political activism, such as the role high school students are playing as commentators in the gun control debate, comes at the expense of an emphasis …

The Wizard and the Prophet: On Steven Pinker and Yuval Noah Harari

In The Wizard and the Prophet (2018), Charles C. Mann maintains that intellectual life in the 21st century is defined by a civil war between Wizards, who believe that technology will save us, and Prophets, who see various kinds of disaster on the horizon: “Prophets look at the world as finite, and people as constrained by their environment. Wizards see possibilities as inexhaustible, and humans as wily managers of the planet. One views growth and development as the lot and blessing of our species; others regard stability and preservation as our future and our goal. Wizards regard Earth as a toolbox, its contents freely available for use; Prophets think of the natural world as embodying an overarching order that should not casually be disturbed.” Steven Pinker, the author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018), is a Wizard. Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2015), is a Prophet. At its best, Enlightenment Now reads like one of those gratitude journals self-help authors tell us to keep: “Today I am thankful for . …