All posts filed under: Philosophy

In Defense of Compatibilism: A Response to Edwards and Coyne

I was excited to read William Edwards’s article “The Academic Quarrel Over Determinism.” As a philosophy professor, I teach my students about that quarrel every semester. As I read the article, however, I was disturbed by what was missing from Edwards’s account. Jerry Coyne’s rejoinder “Why We Shouldn’t Bet on Having Fee Will” only deepened my frustration. Edwards vs. Coyne William Edwards frames the quarrel as an argument between thinkers who believe in free will and those who believe we live in an entirely deterministic universe. He argues that it feels like we’re in control of our actions in a way that makes us morally responsible for those actions but that this feeling is “dismissed as an illusion by serious, contemporary neuroscientists.” Rather than bowing to the verdict of the neuroscientists, though, Edwards recommends that we see the question of whether free will exists as “the Pascal’s Wager of the twenty-first century.” There’s “too much about the universe that we don’t understand” for us to be confident that the neuroscientists are right, so it’s appropriate …

Why isn’t Jordan Peterson on This List of the World’s Top Fifty Intellectuals?

Prospect magazine was founded in 1995 by David Goodhart. From the beginning the focus was predominantly on politics and social issues, though Goodhart also ensured a high standard of reporting on literature, the arts, popular culture and science. For many years the magazine was essential reading among London intellectuals. Its point of view was center-left, and broadly liberal, like that of most Establishment British journalists and academics. Readers were assumed to be cosmopolitan, internationalist and more or less progressive. Still, they were respectful of institutions, friendly to capitalism and basically tolerant of religion. Prospect stood out from other major English intellectual journals and general magazines in its familiarity with the social sciences, particularly sociology and economics. The editorial position was never partisan. For the first decade and a half of its existence Prospect was often wrongly thought of as a ‘New Labour’ house organ. True, Gordon Brown wrote for it in 2009 when he was still Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. But contributors included the conservative philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, the Conservative Party MP …

The Role of Politics in Academic Philosophy

Recently Quillette published an exchange about the low proportion of conservatives in academic philosophy departments, consisting of an article by Tristan Rogers and a response by Shelby Hanna. This interesting exchange largely concerns the status of conservative political philosophy within the discipline and the interpretation of the PhilPapers survey results regarding philosophers’ stances on political philosophy. But this is a very limited way to understand the role of politics in academic philosophy. In fact, political philosophy is perhaps one of the least political places in philosophy at the moment, precisely because it is in political philosophy that conservative ideas must be, as a matter of intellectual integrity, taken seriously. Activist philosophers, and philosophical activists, increasingly find themselves publishing work on topics in metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of language, philosophy of science, and so on. The problem here is precisely the opposite of what Hanna seems to be thinking about: It’s not that there is little conservatism within political philosophy but that there is little political philosophy within the politicized work of philosophers in other subfields. Activist …

How the Left Turned Words Into ‘Violence,’ and Violence Into ‘Justice’

Responding to news that journalist Andy Ngo had been beaten by antifa protestors in Portland last month, a woman named Charlotte Clymer tweeted that “Ngo intentionally provokes people on the left to drive his content. Being attacked today on video taken by an actual journalist (because Ngo is definitely not) is the greatest thing that could have happened to his career. You know it. I know it. He knows it. We all know it. Violence is completely wrong, and I find it sad and weak to allow a sniveling weasel like Andy Ngo to get under one’s skin like this, but I’m also not going to pretend this wasn’t Ngo’s goal from the start. I mean, let’s cut the shit here. This is what they do.” Who is Charlotte Clymer? She is an activist who works at the Human Rights Campaign, America’s “largest LGBTQ civil rights organization,” which supposedly “envision[s] a world where LGBTQ people are ensured equality at home, at work [and] in every community.” Andy Ngo, who has written for Quillette, the Wall …

Why We Shouldn’t Bet on Having Free Will—A Reply to William Edwards

It’s hard to discern the main point of William Edwards’s article The Academic Quarrel over Determinism, as his argument is discursive, confusing, contradictory, and sometimes misleading. In a first reading you may dimly perceive that he has a problem with determinism, and sees the negation of determinism as evidence for free will. But what does he mean by “free will”? He’s not explicit about it. Since he contrasts it with determinism, it appears that for Edwards free will means our physically uncaused ability to change our decisions so that, at a given moment, we could have done something other than what we did. And what does Edwards mean by “determinism”? He seems fixated on biological determinism—the view that all our actions are coded in our genes, a “DNA-driven view of the social world,” as well as a vision that “our future…is written in our DNA.” Edwards sees little or no influence of the environment on our actions: “Our trials and triumphs…are encoded in our DNA sequence.” But no biologist is a determinist in this sense, …

Age of Amnesia

We live, as the Indian essayist Saeed Akhter Mirza has put it, in “an age of amnesia.” Across the world, most notably in the West, we are discarding the knowledge and insights passed down over millennia and replacing it with politically correct bromides cooked up in the media and the academy. In some ways, this process recalls, albeit in digital form, the Middle Ages. Conscious shaping of thought—and the manipulation of the past to serve political purposes—is becoming commonplace and pervasive. Google’s manipulation of algorithms, recently discussed in American Affairs, favors both their commercial interests and also their ideological predilections. Similarly, we see the systematic “de-platforming” of conservative and other groups who offend the mores of tech oligarchs and their media fellow travellers. Major companies are now distancing themselves from “offensive” reminders of American history, such as the Nike’s recent decision to withdraw a sneaker line featuring the Betsy Ross flag. In authoritarian societies, the situation is already far worse. State efforts to control the past in China are enhanced by America’s tech firms, who are …

Human Dignity and Human Rights

My forthcoming monograph for the University of Wales Press, Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law: A Critical Legal Argument, discusses a number of topics, ranging from the state of critical legal scholarship to international relations. However, much of what I might have written even a year earlier was profoundly altered by the rise to power of postmodern conservatives. Frequently agitating for a nationalist agenda, and opposed to universal human rights, this development lent my book a more cynical edge. Nevertheless, I still consider it an optimistic text—one that defends an emancipatory conception of human dignity and the steps we might take to realize it. Dignity’s Unusual History Conceptions of human dignity go back a very long way. Many of the great religions of the world—including the monotheistic faiths of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—offer human dignity as something bestowed by God. Buddhists argue that the locus of human dignity lies in our capacity to pursue self-perfection. The term itself arose in the thirteenth century from the Latin dignitas, which referred to the “worthiness” of …

Conservatives in Philosophy: A Brief Rejoinder to Tristan Rogers

In April, Tristan Rogers wrote an article for Quillette about “The Dearth of Conservatives in Academic Philosophy,” presenting data exploring the titular phenomenon and arguing that philosophers should seek out conservatives. I do not doubt that the proportion of politically conservative academic philosophers is lower than the proportion of the general population, but we should not therefore conclude that the situation is as dire as Rogers presents. The Ideological Landscape of Philosophy There is not much data concerning the state of conservatism in philosophy. The evidence Rogers does have paints a bleak picture for conservatives in the field at first glance. However, it deserves closer scrutiny. A PhilPapers survey from 2009 asked one question about politics: “Politics: communitarianism, egalitarianism, or libertarianism?” Rogers finds it notable that “conservatism” is not listed as an option, but this is not actually noteworthy. The three options pick out approaches to political philosophy and motivating values, not political ideology. Egalitarians are concerned with equality. Libertarians are concerned with liberty. Communitarians stress the value of the community to human flourishing. There …

In Defense of Decency

Contemporary political discourse seems to be largely consumed, if not deranged, by our endless culture war. Many of us recoil at the daily skirmishes, even as we hunt for our next fix of outrage. Through our dismay, we might yearn for a distant future in which disagreements are more civilized and decent people of all stripes can work together to solve society’s challenges. It’s tempting to imagine that only zealots could disagree with such anodyne ideals. And indeed, nearly 80 percent of Americans are disturbed by the lack of civility in politics. But a glance at Twitter paints a more dispiriting picture. Within this bizarre simulacrum of society, hostility towards high-minded ideals like civility is not limited to the fringe—at least not the fringe as we tend to conceive of it. Instead, for some mainstream journalists and activists, a politician’s history of civility with adversaries can amount to a stain on his record. This mindset seems to be informed by a fear that engaging the “enemy” with decency betrays weakness or disloyalty to the cause. Such failures are …

Fully Automated Luxury Communism—A Review

A review of Fully Automated Luxury Communism by Aaron Bastani, Verso, 288 pages (June, 2019) In one of the opening chapters of Fully Automated Luxury Communism, Aaron Bastani cites a famous passage from the Communist Manifesto: The bourgeoisie […] has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian Pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades. This quote conveys a sense of Karl Marx’s ambivalent attitude towards capitalism. Disgusted as he most famously was by capitalism’s excesses, he was clearly also impressed by its immense productive potential. He reconciled these conflicting impulses by dreaming up a theory of history in which capitalism represented a necessary but transient stage in the story of human progress. Marx believed that capitalism was a powerful engine of economic development up to a point. But beyond that point, it would increasingly become a hindrance. Understood in this way, there is no contradiction between acknowledging—or even marvelling at—the …